GOING HOME
By AEIU

Mark McCormick bit back the bitter taste of bile from the back of his throat as the deputy's fist buried itself deep into his stomach.

"If I were you, wise guy," sneered Deputy Steve Bellows, "I'd remember where I put those bids."

McCormick's mind raced. "How do I handle this?" he wondered. It looks like Deputy Barney Fife is one of the killers."

He had been lucky that he had been able to get out of the court house and ditch the sealed bids which would prove who had a motive to kill Judge Stuber, and Bucky Miller. But he had been unlucky in that the sheriff's eavesdropping had prevented him from telling Hardcastle where to find the evidence along with his special 'tool kit'. So the bad guys didn't have what they wanted but they did have him.

"Time to improvises," thought McCormick.

"I might do that," Mark sneered back, "but it'll cost you and your friends some money."

Bellows jerked McCormick close to him then shoved him hard into the wall. "What did you say?"

"Clean your ears out! I said if you lost something, you got to expect to pay a finder's fee to get it back and I think evidence of murder is worth a lot of money."

"Why you…" Bellows struck McCormick hard in his chest and pulled back his fist to deliver another blow.

"Whoa, deputy!" Sherriff John "Stretch" Carter said as he entered the room. "What's going on here?"

"This lousy con," Bellows spat with venom in his voice, "is making some pretty nasty accusations."

"It's okay Steve," Carter said as he patted the deputy on the back. "I'll handle this. Why don't you go get a cup of coffee and cool down?"

Bellows gave McCormick a small shove as he let him go. "Remember when the cell door closes, you belong to me," he threatened.

"Why Stevie," McCormick said coyly, "are you asking me for a date?"

Bellows shot back one last hate-filled glare as he stormed out of the room.

Despite the pain in his stomach and chest, McCormick grinned knowingly at Sherriff Carter. He hadn't had a chance to examine the bids but he remembered the sheriff had refused to listen to his suspicions that the death of Miller had not been an accident and he had been unhelpful when Miller's daughter, Christy, had complained that she had received threats.

Further Mark recognized the look of desperation in the man's eyes. It was the same look that he had seen in his fellow prisoners of San Quentin. It was the look of someone who had been pushed over the edge coupled with a hardness which warned him that this was a dangerous man. McCormick guessed that if Sherriff Carter was not actively involved in the murders then he was the minion of someone who was.

"What was that all about?" Carter asked.

"It seems," McCormick said mockingly, "there are some papers missing from your court house. Your deputy and some of his friends are worried about them getting misplaced or falling into the wrong hands. I told him that I'm pretty good at finding and retrieving things. We were just getting ready to discuss my fees."

Carter's smile became nasty. "It seems to me that you were caught coming out of a public building after hours. You didn't have time to hide anything that well. It shouldn't be too hard for interested parties to find anything that might have been misplaced and that leaves you, all alone, with nothing to bargain with."

"If I broke into the court house by myself, I wouldn't have had any time to get away with anything. But if I had a partner, he would have."

"Hardcastle," Carter scoffed. "You expect me to believe Judge Hardcastle is involved in any petty blackmail scheme."

"Hardcastle?" McCormick smirked. "That donkey believes his old childhood friends are saints and I'm reformed. But he doesn't know us very well."

McCormick thought back to an overheard police report which had been called in while he was being transported to the jail. "For helping some of Clarence's eminent citizen, Geisel and I expect to be well paid."

Sherriff Carter thought back. He remembered a police call from earlier in the evening. The Arkansas State Police had called in for a name check on a man named Geisel who had been stopped for speeding shortly after he had placed McCormick into custody. He didn't remember much about it except that Geisel had been ticketed and released.

Carter unhooked the snap on his holster. "What would Geisel say if his partner had an accident while trying to escape custody?"

McCormick didn't blink. "I guess he had to ask for double our normal finding fees to make up for his loss. Not to mention, the cost of covering up a third murder."

Carter grabbed McCormick's shirt and pulled him close. "You don't seem to understand your position. You're a con with a police record that was caught breaking into a building and now you're in jail with two men that don't like you very much."

"You don't understand. You ain't got squat. All you got is a man who was standing in a public parking lot in the middle of the night. You ain't got any witnesses, burglar tools, or a report of any stolen property. What you do have is a business man with a nervous partner who wants to make a small profit and a boy scout of a lawyer who's going to be here any minute. I think twenty-five thousand sounds reasonable. Of course, it's going to go up an extra five thousand for every ten minutes that you keep me in here after Hardcastle gets here."

They both heard the door open in the other room.

"Stretch! McCormick!" Hardcastle shouted as he looked around the sheriff's office. "Is anybody here?"

"That's my lawyer," McCormick smiled. "What's it going to be?"

Carter sighed bitterly. He didn't see that he had much choice and he didn't have time to think. "We'll play it your way, for now," he said as he let go of McCormick's shirt.

Mark prepared to call for the judge, and Carter struck two savage blows into the young man's already abused midsection. McCormick gasped as he fell to his knees.

"But remember," Carter warned as he looked down at the crumbled man at his feet, "cross me and you'll wish you were dead. Now get up, your lawyer is here."

"Someone's been working out," McCormick thought. He pulled himself to his feet and composed himself as he prepared for the second act of his con.

As he entered the jail room, ex-judge Milton C. Hardcastle looked over his charge. The young parolee stood in an open and non-aggressive manner. His eyes were clear and contained the right mixture of guile, confused fear, and joyous expectation at the arrival of his rescuer. He was the epitome of a wrongly accused innocent man who was having his first experience with the criminal justice system.

"Who are you trying to fool, kid?" Hardcastle thought to himself. All he knew was about an hour earlier; McCormick had called and told him that he had been arrested for breaking and entering into the court house. He had tried to get the kid to tell him more but McCormick indicated that he wasn't alone and he wasn't guilty of the charge.

Hardcastle doubted the kid's claim of innocence given his insistence that there was something suspicious about the death of Miller, their inability to get access to the sealed bids following the death of Judge Stuber, McCormick's preference to bypass legal means when he thought it worked too slow, and the kid's missing special 'tool kit' from the trunk of the car.

"Gosh, judge," McCormick gushed as Hardcastle walked toward him, "thanks goodness you're here. This has been one big misunderstanding."

Hardcastle suppressed the urge to laugh at the scared subservient persona that stood before him. He knew it wasn't put on for his benefit. He wondered what type of game McCormick was playing. He decided to play along.

"Slow down, kiddio and tell me what happened."

McCormick looked down at his shoes as he bit his lip. He raised his head, looked the judge straight in the eye and spoke in an unwavering voice that reflected nothing but truth and honesty. "I swear, judge, I had nothing to do with a break-in at the courthouse. I was worried that something might happen to those bids we wanted to see so I decided to stake it out. The next thing I knew the alarms were going off and I was arrested. Someone must have broken in and stolen the bids. That proves they're important. Important enough that someone might have killed to prevent them from being found. Doesn't it, sheriff?"

Hardcastle watched as McCormick ended his rambling with a quick predatory smile towards Carter and the sheriff answered back with a murderous glare.

"Don't be jumping the gun, son," Carter said. "We're still trying to sort everything out.

"What happened tonight, Stretch?" Hardcastle asked. "Why is McCormick under arrest?"

"Tick, tock, tick tock," McCormick mumbled loudly under his breath as he continued to stare at the sheriff.

Carter swallowed the string of cuss words that formed in his brain. "This damn con has me over a barrel and he knows it," thought the sheriff. "I can't do anything until I get those papers and find out about his partner. I've got to play along."

"The alarm went off at the courthouse," Carter explained. "It's not the first time; it's an old system and we get a lot of false alarms but we got to check them out. When we went over tonight, we found Mr. McCormick in the parking lot. When we ran his name, we found out about his criminal past and I decided to detain him until we could check everything out."

"And," prompted Hardcastle.

Carter shrugged. "There's no evidence that anyone entered the building much less that anything's been stolen. I was just getting ready to release Mr. McCormick when you got here."

"With minutes to spare," McCormick said mockingly, and then grinned at the angry look he received from both the sheriff and the judge.

"So he's free to go?" asked Hardcastle.

"Yeah," said Carter hesitantly, "but we're still investigating so I'd prefer that you keep him in town. I'm sure me and the deputy are going to want to talk with him later."

"I can't wait," answered McCormick.

Hardcastle fumed as he watched the interplay between McCormick and Carter. He knew more had happened during the evening that either of his friends had admitted. As sure he was that the sun rose in the east, he knew McCormick had broken into the courthouse, but had he been able to get ahold of the bids or had they already been removed by unknown persons. And there was a dangerous tension between the kid and Stretch. It was as if McCormick was deliberately baiting a particularly vicious junkyard dog that was waiting for the right moment to strike. He felt an overwhelming need to hustle McCormick out of there before the dog decided to go in for the kill.

"Not to worry, Stretch," Hardcastle assured his old friend. "McCormick and I are planning to stick around until we can finish our inquiries into Miller's death."

"I already told you, Hooker," Carter said with a false smile and a hint of a threat in his voice, "Miller's death was an accident, pure and simple."

"And Judge Stuber's death was just a big coincidence," McCormick added. "At least I'm sure someone hopes it was, because there's an extra penalty for killing a judge to prevent him from doing his duty. Might even be the death by old Sparky."

"You shut up," Hardcastle ordered the unrepentant McCormick as he snagged his arm and began to walk him to the door. "We'll be around if you need us, Stretch."

Sheriff Carter watched the two men leave. He would have liked nothing better than to keep the smart mouthed punk locked in the cell and teach him the meaning of respect for the badge as persuaded him to turn over the sealed bids.

Everything was going to hell in a hand basket. It had started out so easy, a little inside information and they were able to buy up land cheaply which would be sold at a high profit when the freeway went through. Then Miller got all sentimental and refused to sell his land. Their friendly persuasion hadn't changed his mind. When Miller brought Hardcastle and his insolent friend into the picture, he had signed his own death warrant. Hardcastle, the perpetual Boy Scout, wouldn't let sleeping dogs lie. Prodded by the punk, he had petitioned Judge Stuber to open the bids thus making the killing of another old friend a necessity. He wasn't sure when all the killing would end but he knew he would do what had to be done.

"Definitely, McCormick and his partner," thought Carter as he watched the two men in the parking lot. "Maybe Miller's daughter, Christy, though she might be convinced to leave with a little physical violence. And maybe another old childhood friend. I wonder how much he knows about what that pet con of his is up to."

Hardcastle scowled at McCormick's back as he watched him strut through the parking lot like a cheap pimp. All of the kid's swaggering and lip screamed that it was all part of an act but he still found it annoying, particularly when he didn't know the reason. He didn't know what McCormick's game was but he wanted it to stop now.

Almost as if he had read the judge's mind, McCormick stopped and turned to face him. His eyes briefly flickered to the window of the jail house as he assured himself that they still had their audience's attention, if not their ear.

"He's watching, judge," McCormick whispered. "Now would be a good time for the lecture."

"Lecture?" Hardcastle asked confused.

"You must have a least one lecture about all of this," McCormick said with a smile.

That cocky grin opened the floodgate.

"Okay," Hardcastle said as he released the anger inside him. What's with you and breaking and entering? I invite you to accompany to my hometown where they're honoring my accomplishments and I find out you brought your burglar tools. What do I have to do? Frisk you before you go to the toilet."

The cockiness faded from McCormick's face as he looked down contritely at his shoes. "Gee, judge."

The move was so patently false that it only fueled Hardcastle's anger. He moved towards McCormick as his hands took on a life of their own and he used them to emphasize his words.

"And did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, we have laws for a reason. That it might not be the best idea for everyone who thinks things aren't moving fast enough to take the law into their own hands and commit criminal acts in the name of justice."

"Louder," McCormick whispered.

"You're still on parole, for Christ's sake," Hardcastle said as his voice continued to rise. "Even the hint of the commission of a criminal act is enough to get you sent back. And this time they might just decide to throw the key away. Next time you get any bright ideas to try to help things along; I want you to forget them. And if you think for one second that I'm going to let you out of my sight so you can pull another stunt like this, you can…"

"Is everything alright, Hooker?" Sheriff Carter asked. He had watched from the window as Hardcastle had yelled at a subdued McCormick.

"It's none of your business!" Mark snarled at the lawman.

Taking aback by the reaction, Hardcastle glared at McCormick. "Apologize," he demanded. "The sheriff is just doing his job."

McCormick looked defiantly at the judge for a heartbeat. The insolence left his eyes but not the anger. "I apologize, sheriff. I realize that you're doing your best for all the citizens in this town."

Hardcastle grunted. It wasn't the apology he had wanted but he realized it was the best they were going to get.

Sheriff Carter looked the ex-con in the eye. "You haven't got Hooker as much under your thumb as you think, punk," Carter thought. "I can use this."

"Sorry, Stretch. He gets cranky when he doesn't get his nap," Hardcastle explained as McCormick threw him an annoyed glare.

"That's okay," Carter said. "I understand that his type is tough to housebreak. Hey, why don't you call me tomorrow and we can talk about the Miller case."

"I'll do that," answered Hardcastle.

McCormick breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the lawman depart. He could feel the adrenaline seep from his body as it, not so subtly, reminded him of the recent abuse it had received. He meekly followed behind the judge to the waiting car. He sucked in a groan of pain as he squeezed into the passenger seat.

"Are you okay?" Hardcastle asked with concern.

"I'm fine. Just tired. It's been a long day."

Hardcastle grunted his agreement to the understatement.

McCormick stared questioningly at the judge. "You weren't serious about all of that back there, were you?"

Hardcastle took a deep breath and counted to ten. A calming exercise he had been forced to use many times since he had inflicted McCormick into his life. But now wasn't the time to get into his questionable methods of evidence retrieval. Now was the time to get into his questionable off-the-cuff schemes.

"What happened tonight?" the judge asked.

McCormick sank back into the car seat and told the whole story, minus a few pain-filled details.

Sheriff Carter openly cursed McCormick and himself. It had taken a short five minutes to get the rundown on the so-called partner of Hardcastle's pet con. Geisel was a 62 year old Baptist minister from Tennessee whose name had been run after McCormick had been placed into the police car. Carter realized had been snookered by a two-time loser who had no partner.

He called Bellows on the police radio and ordered him to return to the office. They would scour the area around the courthouse in search of the missing bids. If they found them, he would take care of McCormick with a little bit of planted drugs. Once he had him in the jail, there was no way he was leaving it alive. If they couldn't find the bids, he might have to deal with the hood for a little while but, sooner or later, he'd make the man pay for humiliating him.

Christy Miller felt she had spent a lifetime looking out the window of her family home. She didn't know everything that had happened, only that her father's childhood friend had gotten a telephone call that Mark was in jail for breaking into the courthouse. She knew Mark had done it to find evidence that her father had been murdered but she, also, knew that it would not be a defense in a court of justice. The judge had told her not to worry but she could see the fear in his eyes, he was scared for his friend.

She saw as the headlights of the car as it approached the house and held her breath until she was able to make out the two figures in the vehicle. The tires stopped with a screech as the passengers bounded out of the car.

"What was I supposed to do?" McCormick demanded angrily. "Wait for them to hide the evidence."

"You weren't supposed to sneak out of here without telling me, you weren't supposed to break the law, and you weren't supposed to put a target on your back that says shoot me," Hardcastle yelled back in frustration.

"Oh, and how would have you handled it; walk right up to them with the only evidence in your hand and demand they turn themselves in? I'd be left trying to guess where they hid your body."

"I'm not that dumb and you don't even have the evidence."

"I will."

"How, hotshot? If you're right, and I'm not saying you are, and Stretch and his deputy are part of this; they'll be going over the courthouse with a fine-tune comb. We'll never be able to retrieve it without them seeing."

"I'm having it delivered," McCormick said smugly. "When I realized an alarm had been triggered, I dropped all of it into an envelope and down the postal chute. We should get it later today because I put on a return address but no stamps."

"Mark!" Christy exclaimed as she threw herself into his arms and gave him a big hug. "Thank goodness you're safe."

Surprised by the welcome, McCormick was unable to halt the flinch and the hiss of pain which escaped his lips. He returned the hug, and gently pushed her away from his tender midsection.

"It's okay. I'm alright," he said as he tried to comfort her.

"When the judge said they had taken you to jail, I was scared you'd be hurt or worse. I don't want anyone hurt because of me," Christy babbled as the words poured from her lips.

Mark reached out his hand and softly caressed her cheek as he drew her eyes to his. "It's not just for you or even for your father. Something bad is going on in this town and it has to be stopped before too many other people are hurt."

Hardcastle watched the scene with a watchful eye. He has heard the strain in the kid's voice and seen his reaction to the hug; McCormick was hurt and trying to hide it.

"Christy, honey," Hardcastle said softly to the distraught woman, "it's been a long night. Why don't you make us some coffee so we can plan our next step?"

"It will be ready in a few minutes," Christy said grateful for some productive to do.

McCormick dutifully followed after Christy. All he wanted was to lie down for a couple of hours and allow his body a chance to rest. But he had started this and he owed it to Hardcastle and Christy to turn his improvised act into a workable plan before it put them at risk. As he entered the house, he felt the judge gently grab his arm and steer him toward the bedroom.

"I seem to led around a lot today," McCormick thought ruefully.

"Take it off, McCormick," Hardcastle said as he gestured toward the young man's shirt. "Let's see the damage."

"I don't know what you're talking about," McCormick answered as he protectively grabbed the top of his shirt. "I'm fine."

"You can take it off or I can pull it off; but it's coming off. You get to decide how."

McCormick knew there was no choice. He reluctantly removed his shirt. He felt vulnerable and embarrassed as he stared up at the ceiling so he wouldn't have to see the judge's reaction.

"Son of a …" Hardcastle exclaimed as he viewed the large purple bruises which had formed on his friend's midsection. "Who did this to you?" he demanded.

"Carter and Bellows. They want those bids back."

Hardcastle cursed under his breath. He had hoped that Stretch's reluctance to believe Miller had been murdered had been based on his inability to imagine such a thing could happen in his town rather than his own involvement in the crime. But this physical evidence combined with McCormick's testimony forced him to admit the truth; not only the truth about his old friends but to the danger faced by McCormick at their hands.

"I want you on the first bus back to California, McCormick," Hardcastle said.

Mark sighed tiredly as he sat down on the bed and put his shirt back on. "Not going to happen, judge. You need me here so we can prove what happened to Miller and Judge Stuber."

"Once we get those bids, we'll have what we need."

"They're only going to prove a possible motive. If we play this right we can get them to confess."

"How do you see that happening?"

"Carter wants to meet with you. By then, he'll probably have figured out that I don't have an out-of-town partner. He'll want to find out how much you know and if you'll support him if he makes a move against me."

"How far up do you think it goes?"

"Definitely Carter and Bellows, but I'm thinking Mayor Broadmore's involved in this too."

"You mean Stinky?"

"Well, something smells bad about this whole set-up."

Hardcastle chuckled inwardly as McComrick's typical gallows humor. The kid had a basic workable plan in place. With some fine tuning, he believed they could make it work but only by putting McCormick at risk. He didn't like it but it looked like he didn't have much choice.

"Do you need to see a doctor?"

"Nah, it's just aches a little. I'll be fine by tomorrow."

"I'm going to get you some aspirin and some horse liniment."

"I think you're getting Tonto and Silver mixed up there, Lone Ranger," McCormick said with a grin.

"It's for aches, wise guy. Then I want you to get some rest and we'll go over the plan tomorrow. But you will not," Hardcastle stressed as he pointed his finger at his friend, "leave this house or go anywhere without clearing it with me first or I'll handcuff you to the bed."

"Getting kinky in your old age, judge,"

"Shut up and get some rest."

Hardcastle left the room and walked to the kitchen. He decided to downplay the kid's injuries so he wouldn't upset Christy any more than she was. He gave the distraught young woman an abbreviated report of what had happened while McCormick had been held at the jail and assured her that McCormick was just tired and a little sore.

After he helped get McCormick settled into bed, he returned to the kitchen and grasped the hot cup of coffee. He reviewed all that McCormick had reported and what he knew about his old friends until he came up with a workable plan to bring everyone involved in the murders to justice without much risk the kid's safety or freedom. But he knew everything hinged on how the bad guys would react to McCormick's demand for money.

The next morning Sheriff Carter clutched his cup of coffee as he waited for Hardcastle at the local diner. It had been a long night and a longer morning. He had Bellows had searched very inch of the courthouse and the surrounding grounds without finding anything.

In the morning he had been forced to tell Mayor Broadmore and Paxton about the missing bids and McCormick's threats of blackmail. As he expected they were no help. They hemmed and hawed and demanded that he do something lest their reputations be damaged. They wanted to blame him for what he had been forced to do by circumstances. They had hinted that he had the most to lose if McCormick decided to turn over what he had to the authorities. He had quickly dissuaded them by reminding them that they had all profited by the unfortunate incidents which surrounded the purposed freeway and if McCormick carried through on his threats, they would hang together. The Clarence Cabal had wisely decided to give him a free hand in with this new threat to their security.

"Hey, Hooker. Over here," Carter called out as he watched Hardcastle enter the diner and he signaled the waitress to bring a second cup of coffee.

"Morning, Stretch," Hardcastle said as he sat at the table. He briefly stared into the eyes of the man he had known in his youth and tried to reconcile it with the image of the man who had assaulted McCormick the night before.

"I told you that I did a background check on your 'friend', Hooker. I got to say I'm surprised that you'd bring that kind of man to this town."

"Now hold on there, Stretch," Hardcastle cautioned. "I'll admit he's got a smart mouth and he tends to be overly suspicious of things but he's an okay kid and he's right about things more than he's wrong."

"He's a felon, Hooker."

He's an ex-felon who's working for me now."

"He's a thief."

"He has a couple of convictions for car theft and those had some extenuating circumstances. What he doesn't have is a history of breaking and entering much less safe cracking."

"How much do you really know about him?"

"Enough to trust him."

"It's pretty suspicious for him to be at the courthouse when the alarm went off."

"Was there any signs of forced entry? Anything missing?"

"We're still making inquiries."

"If you find anything, I'll bring him in myself. But I don't know why he'd risk going back to jail to see those bids. He doesn't have a stake in anything. He didn't even know Miller."

"If you only knew," Carter thought.

"Except maybe where Christy is concerned," Hardcastle added.

Carter paused in mid-thought. "Christy Miller? What about her?"

"She's upset since the death of her father. McCormick's been comforting her."

"A lady's man?"

"He likes to think so," Hardcastle sniggered. "They're about the same age and she seems to like him. He's the one who told her to hold off selling the land until we're done looking into things."

"Oh." Carter began to grind his teeth, his fury raised as he realized the trouble the curly-haired con had caused him and his partners.

"Yeah. What have you found out on that?"

"There's no doubt Miller was being harassed. Some people are real anxious to have the freeway go through. It was probably kids."

"That was no kid that Christy said she saw."

"Well, you know women. What with it being dark and her being spooked, whoever she saw probably looked to be a lot bigger and older than they really were."

"But blowing up his barn and killing him."

"Don't be so quick to tie all of them together. It does look like someone set a fire by his barn. There was a lot of dry hay around and it looks like it spread to the barn. Miller always kept a lot of gasoline in there. Whoever set the fire might not have known. "

"And Miller's death?"

"From what we saw at the scene, it looked like an accident. Miller fell asleep at the wheel and drove the truck off the ravine. There weren't any signs of another car in the area or skid marks that showed he tried to stop."

"What about his truck? Can I see that? There might be signs that someone forced him off the road."

"I'm afraid that's already been taken to the junkyard. It's probably a metal square by now or pulled apart for pieces."

"So you haven't got any evidence I can look at."

"You got my word as sheriff of this town," Carter said indignantly.

"I'm not saying there's anything wrong, but McCormick says he's got a feeling that something isn't right and like I said he's right more often than he's wrong. I'll feel better when we get a chance to look at those bids. They might answer a few questions."

"Wish I could help you but you know the law. The bids are sealed and we'd need an order from the judge to look at them."

"That's another thing. What about Judge Stuber's death?"

"I admit that it's a bit of a coincidence but it looks like it was his heart."

"What's the autopsy say?"

"Haven't got the results back," Carter said. "And I'm not expecting anything back since there wasn't any autopsy," he thought.

"We're doing everything we can and I'll personally investigate this until we have all of the answers. There's no need for you to butt in. The law still rules in Clarence," Carter assured his friend.

"I'm not looking to step on anyone's toes," Hardcastle said, "but I'm not going to leave Christy by herself and she agrees with McCormick not to sell until she's sure her father wasn't murdered."

"Well, maybe your Mr. McCormick will change his mind."

"Not likely," Hardcastle scoffed. "Once he's got his brain wrapped around something, he doesn't let it go."

"Unless someone pays him off," thought Carter. "Money gets rid of McCormick, gets rid of Christy and gets rid of Stretch." It looked like an easy solution but it galled him to have to give the punk one red cent.

"Thanks for the coffee," Hardcastle said as he finished his cup. "I'm going to find McCormick and we're going to ask a few people a few things and see if we can find anything out. I'll be in touch and you call me if you find out anything."

"Sure thing, Hooker," Carter nodded in agreement as he watched the judge leave. As he finished his coffee, his mind turned to dark thoughts. He cursed Miller for his stupid sentimentality which had left them with little choice but to kill him and that now forced him to have to work with a piece of dirt like McCormick.

Sheriff Carter was deep in thought as he made his way back to his office. He grimaced as he approached the building; the bane on all of his plans sat on a bench near the front entrance.

He hated McCormick's casual manner; the way he had sprawled himself on the bench, both arms stretched along the top of the upper edge, his legs stuck straight out, and the large too friendly grin plastered on his face. Carter decided he looked like a man who had been dealt four aces when he knew the other players have already bet their rent money. He longed to smack the smile from the arrogant man's face.

"My ears are burning, sheriff," McCormick said casually. "I figure it means someone's been talking about me."

"You'd guess right on that one," Carter answered. "Have you talked to your partner lately?"

"Did I say I had a partner? You must have heard me wrong. Or maybe I do. I think at this point of our relationship we should have a little mystery. It makes things more fun. But enough about me, let's talk about your missing bids."

"Not so loud," Carter cautioned. "Let's go inside so we can get some privacy."

McCormick smiled apologetically. "No thanks, I already got a chance to enjoy all the amenities of your facilities. Let's take a walk."

Despite the aching bruises from the night before, McCormick rose effortlessly from the bench and began to walk towards the park. Carter bit the inside of his mouth to keep from shouting at the retreating figure; with little choice, he followed behind him.

"So did Hardcase tell you about my many virtues?" McCormick asked as the sheriff caught up with him.

"He said you're a two-bit thug with one foot back in the prison. He's just waiting for an excuse to send you back."

McCormick donned a hurt face. "You wound me," he said mockingly, "and here I thought Hardcase and I were the best of friends. Oh well, now I won't have to feel bad about not sharing my profit with him."

"You've got too much to lose to be trying to play games, like this."

"You're right," McCormick agreed. "Maybe I should just come clean to the judge and take those bids I found to the State Attorney's office. That'll give Christy a good reason to refuse to sell her father's land. Plus it'll give you, Stinky, Binky, and all the other dwarves something to talk about while you're looking for a good lawyer and trying to cut a deal so you don't have to spend the rest of your lives in jail."

McCormick smiled inwardly. It had been a calculated risk to accuse Mayor Broadmore of being in on the crime but he had a hunch and Carter's reaction told him that he had struck a bull's eye.

"There isn't any reason to start making threats," Carter hissed. "But you've got to understand that all of those bids are worthless to us unless Christy sells that land."

"Despite all the sacrifices you've made so far," tsked McCormick. "That's why today is your lucky day. I'm sure she'll sell particularly when I convince her there's no evidence that her father was murdered and you sweeten your bid by ten thousand dollars."

"Ten thousand dollars!"

"That's five thousand for her and five thousand for my broker fees. But we can keep that between ourselves."

"Now you only want five thousand dollars?"

"Like I said, that's my broker fees. My fee for finding lost papers is a bit more expensive. Say that twenty-five thousand we were talking about last night."

"Where do you think I'm going to get that kind of money?"

"It won't be that much when divided between you and the other fine men of this community. Besides it has to be better than losing everything you've already sunk into the deal, having to resign in disgrace and waiting to go to jail."

"It's still not easy to raise that kind of money on short notice. I told you that we won't start making anything until the start on the freeway."

"Not my problem. Besides it shouldn't be too hard, I'm sure this town has all kinds of funds that you and your buddies can lay your hands on." McCormick smirked when he saw another hunch had paid off as Carter paled.

"How did you…" Carter stopped himself before he confessed too much.

"How about I give you twenty-four hours to talk it over with your partners and convince them this it's better to play ball with me then try to explain things to the State Attorney. That'll give you a chance to finish up your report that Miller and Stuber's deaths were accidents then another forty-eight hours to hand over the money. After that Christy, Hardcase, and I will just be bad memories."

"I'm not making any promises but I'll talk to them."

"Don't take too long. This is a limited time offer. I can't spend forever in this hick town."

McCormick picked up his pace but was halted when Carter grasped his shoulder roughly.

"If you try anything funny, McCormick, I'll make you wish you'd never been born," Carter hissed.

"I'm shaking in my sneakers," McCormick sneered. "And my finder's fee just went up another five thousand dollars."

Sheriff Carter let go of McCormick's shoulder and watched impotently as the young man disappeared over the hill. He was furious but needed time to think. A simple plan had gone too wrong too fast. He decided that he would meet with the others and explain the circumstances. There had to be a way to get rid of all of their problems without enriching a blackmailer who, probably, intended on milking them dry for the rest of their lives.

McCormick walked aimlessly through the park for ten minutes until he was sure he had not been followed. He backtracked to a small clearing and climbed into the passenger side of the vehicle where the judge waited.

"So did you get a good view," he asked.

Hardcastle put down the binoculars. "The view was fine but I wish we had enough time to get a wire hooked up on you."

"There wasn't time," McCormick shrugged. "We needed to hit while the iron was hot. Christy should be back with the stuff we borrowed from your friend. We can use it next time."

"You and Carter seemed pretty intense back there."

"I was just explaining the finer parts of the deal and he didn't like them. I still don't like bring Christy into this."

"Christy was already in this. If they think you can get Christy to sell and convince me to leave town, there's a better chance they'll decide not to just get rid of you."

"I like that part of the plan."

"I thought it'd appeal to you."

"What's next?"

"Wait. We wait for Christy to get back with the listening device and recorder, we wait for the mail to bring those bids to the house, and we wait for them to make the next move."

"While we're waiting, do you think we can find some time for lunch? I'm hungry."

"How can you be thinking about food at a time like this?" Hardcastle groused, only be interrupted be his growling stomach."

McCormick's eyebrow arched as the judge's stomach growled again.

"Well, I guess it has been a long time since breakfast," Hardcastle conceded. "There's a café in Haitville about thirty minutes from here."

"Sounds good. You buying?"

"Me? You're the guy who getting thirty thousand dollars."

"It's up to thirty-five thousand now," McCormick grinned as he leaned back into the car seat. "How about you lend me the money and I'll pay you back as soon as the sheriff pays me."

"You mean never."

"Judge," McCormick whined. "You know how hungry I get after being threatened by sheriffs."

"Okay, lunch is on me but next time you get threatened, you pay," Hardcastle chuckled.

"Deal."

At about two o'clock, Sheriff Carter had rounded up the members of the conspiracy and explained the situation.

"…and somehow he's figured out that we raided the town's treasury to buy up the land. He says he wants thirty-five thousand dollars to keep quiet and an extra five thousand to go to Christy Miller. But I think it just the beginning of his demands for money."

"Damn!" shouted Bill Paxton as he got up and paced the length of the room. "It was all supposed to be so simple. Now we've got two murders and a blackmailer on our backs. What are we going to do?"

"What do you suggest, sheriff?" asked Mayor Broadmore.

"A clean sweep," explained Carter as Bellows nodded in agreement. "We get rid of McCormick, Hardcastle, and Christy at the same time."

"Three more murders!" exclaimed Paxton. "And you said yourself that you don't think Hardcastle and Christy know anything."

"We got into this mess," said Carter, "because we didn't act fast and hard enough."

"But won't people get suspicious by three more deaths?" asked Mayor Broadmore.

"The only people who think Miller and Stuber's deaths are suspicious are those three. Plus they're the only one asking questions about the bids. We can't let McCormick blackmail us for the rest of our lives and when we take him out Hooker and Christy will want answers. It's best to get it over with quick and tie up all the loose ends."

"I don't like it," stated Paxton.

"Bill," Mayor Broadmore said softly, "now's not the time to be having second thoughts. We're all in this up to our necks. I don't like it any more than you but sometimes you got to do things that you don't like."

"How do you purpose we do this?" Mayor Broadmore asked as he turned his attention towards Carter.

"Bellows and I have been thinking about that. McCormick is a city boy and a felon so he's probably got a history of using drugs. He's going to kill Hardcastle and the girl while under the influence of PCP and be killed while resisting arrest."

"Maybe we can set it up to look like Hooker interrupted him while he was trying to rape Christy," Bellows suggested. "Hooker tried to stop him and got killed then McCormick killed Christy because she witnessed the murder."

"Are you listening to yourself?" Paxton asked horrified. "We've known Christy since the day she was born."

"Carter ignored Paxton as he considered what Bellows had said. "Too hard and too much work. There'd have to be a rape kit done and sample collection could be tricky. It'll be easier to say he killed them while high that way we only have to get the drugs into him before we kill him."

"When do you want to do this?" asked Broadmore.

"As soon as possible. We can be looking for the bids at the same time. I'm betting he's got them somewhere close at hand."

"And if he doesn't?" asked Paxton.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Carter said.

"Besides," Bellows added, "I know his type. But a little pressure on him and he'll be begging us to let him tell us what we want to know."

"I just don't know," said Paxton.

"Bill," Mayor Broadmore said, "I know none of us planned to have things turn out this way but it did. Steve and John are offering us the best way we can get out of it and not be totally ruined or sent to jail. So you're either with us or against us."

"Which is it?" Carter asked pointedly.

Paxton looked into the hard eyes of the men he had called his friends for his entire life. He wondered if he said no, if they would let him leave the room alive.

"I'm in," he said reluctantly. "It's the only way."

"Good," said Mayor Broadmore. "So we're all friends, right."

"Right," said Carter and Bellows reluctantly. Each lawman wondered if there might not be one more loose end which would need to be trimmed off.

The sun had started sinking on the horizon as McCormick and Christy Miller drove her father's old truck back through the woods towards her home.

"Mark," Christy said softly as she watched the shadows lengthen on the ground. "I really appreciate everything that you and the judge are doing for me but is it safe?"

"It's safe enough," McCormick shrugged. The judge and I have everything set up. We got the wire and recording devices all ready to use. We got the sealed bids so we know who's all involved. All we're waiting for is for one of them to set up a meeting. Then I'll go and meet with them and record the whole thing. We figure if we can get one of them confessing on tape, he'll turn over on the others."

"But will you be alright?"

"Don't worry, Christy," McCormick said as he flashed a reassuring smile. "I've done this before. I'll meet with them, take the pay off, get them to say something incriminating, and get out of there."

"But what if something goes wrong. What if they try to kill you? My dad loved his land but he wouldn't want someone to die for it."

"There's no reason for them to try and kill me. They need me to get you to sell your dad's land. I'm worth a lot more to them alive than dead. They know it will just lead to more questions if something happens to me."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. We've got everything under control."

As McCormick comforted Christy, he noticed the police car in the review mirror. It was far behind him but he noted it started to close the distance between them. A cold stone of fear began to form in the pit of his stomach.

"Christy," McCormick said casually, "It looks like we're going to be getting some company."

She turned her head and paled as she saw the police car approach.

"What do you think they want?" she asked.

"I don't know, but I want you to climb into the back of the cab and put the blanket over you. I'm going to leave the keys in the ignition and try to lead them away from the truck. If things get hairy or they take me away; I want you to drive straight to your house and get the judge. Don't stop for anything. Okay?"

What about you?" Christy asked nervously as she carefully climbed into the back so as not to be seen be the approaching vehicle.

"I'll be okay," Mark promised her as the police vehicle put on its lights and signaled for him to stop.

Once he was assured Christy was as well hidden as she could be, he pulled the truck over to the side and adopted his cocky criminal personae.

Bellows smiled grimly as he filled the syringe with the clear solution. They had decided it would be best to ensure McCormick was out of the picture before going after Christy and Hooker. He slipped the covered syringe into his pocket and followed Carter to the truck.

"If you wanted to talk to me, you could have called," McCormick said self-assuredly through the open window of the vehicle.

"Get out of the truck," Carter ordered.

"Now sheriff," McCormick said, "you're already going to pay me thirty-five thousand. If you make me get out of this truck, it's going to cost you an extra five thousand."

Carter pulled his gun from its holster and pointed at Mark's head. "I said get out of the truck and put your hands up!"

"Okay, okay," McCormick said as his eyes flittered to ensure the keys were in the ignition. He opened the door, raised his hands above his head, and climbed out of the truck. "There's no reason for our negotiations to get unfriendly."

"Our negotiations are over, con. I'm calling the shots now," Carter said smugly.

"I wouldn't be calling anyone names, sheriff," McCormick retorted. "I might be a con but I never killed anyone. You and your friends can't say the same thing."

"Miller made me have to do it because he didn't have enough sense to play ball and you made us have to take care of Stuber by being too nosy," Carter accused.

"They made me do it; you sound more like a criminal every day, sheriff."

Bellows kept McCormick covered as Carter stalked over to their prisoner and struck Mark across the face. McCormick rolled with the blow. He fell to the ground and slowly climbed to his feet, all the time he inched to the left. He hoped that he could keep their attention focused on him as he moved far enough to take the truck out of their field of vision.

"Not so smug now, are you punk?" Carter chortled as he saw the trickle of blood that leaked from the corner of McCormick's mouth.

"It ain't over till it's over," McCormick retorted.

"It's over for you and it's over for Christy and Hooker. You've seen to that."

"If you think I'm hard to kill; wait until you try Hardcase."

"I'm not going to be the one that kills him," Carter explained as he gave a nod to Bellows who pulled out the syringe. "You killed him while you were doped up. Christy got a call to us but you killed her before we arrived. You got killed while resisting arrest."

"What's in the needle?" McCormick asked uneasily as he continued to back up and move to the left.

"Just a little something for you," Bellows explained. "If you're a good boy and don't put up a fight; this shouldn't hurt too badly."

"Somehow I doubt that," McCormick said. He had backed up until he was on the edge of the embankment. He faced Miller's truck and saw that Christy had silently climbed into the driver's seat. She looked worriedly at him as she tried to decide what to do.

"Go, Christy, go!" McCormick shouted as he pulled Bellows close to him then shoved him towards Carter. The movement caused him to fall over backwards down the embankment. As he fell he heard the echo of a gun firing and felt a hot burn against his side. The pain was so startling that he failed to feel the needle as it broke off in his arm.

Carter angrily pushed Bellows out of his way and ran to the edge of the steep embankment. He tried to center his weapon onto his target but McCormick had already scrambled to his feet and disappeared into the surrounding woods.

He turned quickly as the truck behind him sprung to life. He briefly saw Christy's shocked face as she slammed the door on the moving vehicle. He watched helplessly as the vehicle sped from the scene. In frustration he fired a shot a t the fleeing truck but he doubted that he had hit anything.

"I'm going after the girl," Carter yelled as he ran to the police car. "You go after McCormick. I don't care how you do it but make sure he doesn't leave here alive."

Bellows reveled as he felt the cold steel of his gun as he pulled it from its holster. He promised himself that he'd track the convict down and make him pay for all the trouble he had brought to the town.

"How could you do it, Bill?" Hardcastle asked as he stared at his crying friend cuffed in the chair in front of him. He had already recorded Paxton's confession and called a lieutenant he knew in the Arkansas State Police. "They were your friends."

"I know," Paxton sobbed as he thought about all he had given up in his race for riches. "It wasn't supposed to go like this. I knew they were leaning on Miller to get him to sell his land but I never dreamed it would lead to murder. Even when we talked about it, I never thought they were serious."

"And Stuber?"

"We were in too deep after Miller's death. They said we had to kill him to stop anyone from finding out about Miller. They said it'd be the last one but they just won't stop. You've got to get Christy and get her out of here. I was her godfather. I don't want her blood on my hands."

"What about McCormick?"

Paxton shook his head. "You were never good at picking your friends, Hooker. He's as bad as the others. He's stole those bids from the courthouse and he's trying to blackmail us. He's the reason; Carter and the others are coming to kill you and Christy."

"What are they going to do"? Hardcastle asked forcibly.

"I don't know. They're going to kill you and Christy and make it look like McCormick did it then kill him. I didn't want any part of it but they said they'd kill me. They brought me into this and they won't let me leave."

Hardcastle's response froze on his lips as he heard the screeching tires and the blaring of the truck horn.

"I'll be right back," he said to Paxton as he grabbed his shotgun and ran for the door.

Christy tried to wipe away the tears as she brought the truck to a noisy stop. She couldn't get the memory out of her mind; the sound of the gun being fired and Mark falling backwards over the embankment. She knew she had done the only thing she could, but she felt as if she had abandoned someone whose only crime was he had tried to find justice for her and her father.

As she put the truck into park, she grabbed the recorder that she had used to tape Mark's conversation with the sheriff and ran towards her home.

Sheriff Carter brought the police car to a stop right behind the truck. Circumstances were against him and his simple plan lay in ruins. He didn't know how he would fix everything but he knew the first steps would have to be to ensure the deaths of Hooker, Christy and McCormick.

"Stop right there, Missy," Carter ordered as he pulled his gun and aimed it at the back of the fleeing woman.

Christy threw herself against the door of her home but discovered that it was locked. She banged against the door and pleaded to be let inside. She froze as she sensed the sheriff approach her.

"Drop the recorder," Carter said. He hoped she would not turn around as it would be easier to shoot her in the back then to look into her eyes.

Christy dropped the recorder and turned to face the sheriff, determined to look straight into the eyes of her killer and let him see the loathing and contempt she felt for him.

"I'm sorry about this, Christy," Carter apologized as he brought the gun up towards her head, "but you and your friends haven't left me with any other choices."

"You're going to want to drop that," Hardcastle demanded as he came around the corner of the house with a shotgun aimed straight at Carter's chest.

"'I'll kill her," Carter threatened.

"She'll die quick, but you won't," Hardcastle said as he lowered the gun so it pointed at Carter's stomach.

Carter looked at the cold stare in Hardcastle's eyes and believed he meant what he said. He dropped his gun and raised his hands.

"Okay, with your left hand take out your keys and throw them over to Christy," Hardcastle ordered.

Carter complied with silent hate filled eyes.

"Judge, they…" Christy started to say until Hardcastle held up his hand and indicted for her to be silent.

"We need to secure him, first," Hardcastle explained. "Now John, I want you to walk over to the flag pole and take out your cuffs. Do it slow and easy."

Carter's eyes betrayed his thoughts as he considered making a run for it but his dreams of escape ceased as Hardcastle tightened his grip on the shotgun.

"I need to get out of here and find McCormick so don't press me."

"He's already dead," Carter said.

"You'd better pray that's not true or there won't be a place you can hide from me. Now get over to that flag pole and cuff yourself to it."

Carter sensed he was beat and complied with Hardcastle's orders. The judge handed the weapon to Christy and verified Carter was secured to the flag post.

"He's good," said Hardcastle as he turned toward Christy. "Now what happened with McCormick?"

"Your pet felon is as high as a kite and paying for all the trouble he's caused us," Carter sneered.

If you say one more word," Hardcastle cautioned, "I'm going to find a dirty rag and stuff it down your throat. Now Christy, what happened?"

"I don't know," cried Christy. "They were going to give him a shot of something, some sort of drug. He told me to make a run for it and attacked them. I heard a shot and saw him go over the edge."

"Did Carter leave him there?"

"Carter followed me. Bellows went after Mark."

"So he might still be alive?"

"I don't know. I didn't want to leave but Mark told me to. I got the whole thing on tape," Christy said as she retrieved the recorder.

""Where did this happen?"

"About five miles back, near the Cumberland Intersection."

"I've got Paxton secured in the dining room. He's made a full confession and the State Police are on their way here. When they get here, I want you to tell them everything. If either of these two tries anything, I want you to shoot them."

Christy nodded her head in understanding.

"And if the mayor tries anything, remember that he's in on it so don't trust him," Hardcastle added. "Are you going to be okay?"

"I will," Christy said. "Now you need to go find Mark."

Hardcastle took a moment to recheck the bonds that held Carter and Paxton in place. Satisfied that they would hold, he went to his vehicle and pulled his handgun and flashlight from the glove compartment. He drove off in the dark and hoped that he wouldn't be too late for his friend.

Bellows openly cursed as he searched the ground where McCormick had fallen for a clue to where the young man had run. He had felt a portion of the sedative splash out on his hand when the needle broke in McCormick's arm. They had planned to use the sedative to make their prisoner more cooperative when they questioned him about the location of the missing bids and to set him up for the murder of Hardcastle and Christy Miller. Now he was a loose cannon with an unknown amount of tranquilizer in his system running free in a darkened landscape.

"Looks like my job just got easier," Bellows thought as his flashlight picked up a bloody smear on the grass. "John's bullet must have got him."

McCormick stumbled for the umpteenth time in an unknown amount of minutes. Adrenaline had taken him far into the woods but its effects had waned from its initial burst following the fall down the embankment.

McCormick shook his head to clear the cobwebs which had sprung up in his mind as his run slowed to a walk. He closed his eyes and rubbed them with his hand. He opened his eyes, and focused on his surroundings.

"Trees?" wondered McCormick. "Why am I surrounded by trees?"

He felt dazed and confused. He tried to remember what had happened. He remembered driving in a truck and talking to someone. He remembered yelling, running, and a hazy sense that he had fallen. He didn't know where he was, where he was going to but he felt he was trying to get away from someone and he had been thinking about hiding. He sensed his body slowing its pace until he stood still near a broken tree.

He looked around and saw a large bush. It looked like the perfect place to rest until he could figure out where he was and what he had been trying to do. As he sank into a sitting position, he felt a vague pull along his side. He hesitantly reached down his hand and gently prodded area. It felt numb like the rest of his body.

He lifted the fingers towards his face and forced his eyes to focus. The fingers appeared to be wet with an unknown material which he guessed to be blood.

"Can't be blood," McCormick decided. "If it was blood then it would hurt more."

Unable to make sense of all the strange things that had happened; he tried to make himself comfortable amidst all of the broken branches of the bush. He looked and he listened into the darkness. He didn't know for what but he suspected someone or something was coming for him.

A distance away, Hardcastle brought his vehicle to a stop and quickly climbed out. As he looked down the embankment, he could see the shaky ray of light from a flashlight being hurriedly carried through the woods.

"Must be Bellows," Hardcastle guessed, "and it doesn't look like he's found McCormick yet."

He realized it would be helpful to have surprise on his side, so he did not turn on his flashlight. As he climbed down the embankment, he accidently stepped into the smear of his friend's blood which had soaked into the ground.

"McCormick!" Bellows yelled into the night. "I'm giving you one chance to make it easier on yourself. The harder you make me work, the worse it's going to be for you when I find you. Now turn yourself in."

Bellows listened in vain for a response as he imagined the revenge he would take on the man who had caused him and his friends so much difficulty. It had been different with Miller and Stuber. Judge Stuber had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death had prevented McCormick and the others from getting their hands on the bids. A special powder in the man's drink and he had peacefully fallen asleep, never to waken.

Miller had been a different matter. He had caused all of the trouble in the first place by refusing their generous offer to buy his land. He and Carter had been forced to run Miller off of the road. He guessed Miller had suffered some when the truck had crashed into the ground. But it had been his own fault for not wanting to cooperate and running his mouth off. The death lacked the hands on element which could make him feel responsible. Plus, until the issue with the land, he had always liked Miller. It hadn't been anything personal, just business.

McCormick was a whole other ball of wax; a city boy with a felony record who had rubbed him the wrong way the first time he had opened his mouth and questioned the circumstances of Miller's death. Bellows knew he wouldn't feel one iota of remorse for what he was going to do when he found the trouble maker. In fact he planned to enjoy it.

From his hiding place, McCormick watched the man pass with detached interest. He maintained his standing rule not to be too cooperative with law enforcement types until he knew what they wanted. He remembered his past bad experiences with cops, including one where he had actually saved the officer's life only to have the same ungrateful cop throw him in jail the next day. McCormick silently fumed over the unfairness of that event as he watched the deputy fade back into the darkness.

"Don't trust cops," McCormick repeated to himself. "But I do trust some cops, don't' I?" There seemed to be some faint memories nibbling at the edge of his mind. But he decided that it was too difficult to think about. He allowed his mind to clear the troublesome thoughts away as he continued to hide and wait.

Bored he looked down and noticed the stain on his shirt appeared to have grown over the indefinite number of minutes he had spent on the ground. He wondered if it was important. He prodded it again to see if it would hurt.

Bellows froze in his tracks as he heard the faint moan.

"Success," he thought as his hand tightened on his gun.

"McCormick, is that you?" he shouted. "I promise I won't hurt you."

He was rewarded with the sound of another groan. He cautiously inched his way into the darkness as his eyes darted across the leafy ground looking for the fallen felon.

He stopped; confused as his eyes met with a pair of old sneakers standing on the ground in front of him. His eyes went up the pant leg and finally settled on the large black handgun being held in Judge Hardcastle's hand.

"Drop it, Bellows!" Hardcastle ordered.

Deputy Bellows hesitated until he heard the click of the weapon in the judge's hand. He lowered the gun in his hand.

"Where's McCormick?" Hardcastle asked.

Bellows lifted his head defiantly. "I don't know what you're talking about, Hooker? We got a report of someone asked strangely out here. He scared a couple of kids who thought he might be high on something. He matches the description of your friend. If it is, I'm going to have to arrest him and I don't want you to interfere."

"Drop the gun," Hardcastle repeated. "Paxton already confessed and the State Police have Carter. They'll be here soon."

Bellow considered using the gun and making a run for it. But the look in Hardcastle's eyes told him that he wouldn't make it far. He dropped the gun to the ground and raised his hands in defeat.

"McCormick!" Hardcastle yelled into the dark of the woods. He frowned when he failed to hear a response. He didn't know what shape the kid was in but he knew he had to secure Bellows before he could continue his search.

"Get moving and don't try anything funny," Hardcastle ordered as he gestured back toward the road.

Bellows tried to walk slowly back to the road as he hoped for a chance to escape but a hard shove convinced him that Hardcastle was not in the mood for games. Despite the judge's best efforts, it still took way too long to drag Bellows back to the car and cuff him to the vehicle's door.

Once Bellows was secured, Hardcastle quickly returned to the woods. He shouted McCormick's name but was, once again, only rewarded by the silence of the woods. He turned on his flashlight and tried to find any signs of the missing man.

He hurried through the woods, haunted by the feeling that he might be running out of time. He failed to see the large branch lying in his path until he tripped and fell to the ground with a heavy thud. He cursed loudly and started to push himself to his feet. As he raised his head, he was surprised to see the amused smile of his missing partner who sat hidden in a large bush.

"What are you doing there?" he demanded. He had known of the plan to inject McCormick with a drug. He hadn't known what to expect but it wasn't the too calm countenance in front of him.

McCormick paused as he considered the question. "Hiding," he whispered.

"Well, come on," Hardcastle said as he reached for the young man. "Let's get you out of there."

McCormick pulled away from Hardcastle's hand. "Wait," he whispered in a confused voice. "Am I hiding from you?"

"Why would you be hiding from me?"

McCormick thought for a moment. "You were yelling at me."

"I was not yelling at you," Hardcastle denied. "I never yell. I might have been talking loud but I never yell."

McCormick looked at him suspiciously. "Are you mad at me?"

"No," Hardcastle said as he forced his voice to remain calm. "Now tell me what happened."

McCormick paused again. "I don't know," he confessed. "I just found myself wandering in the woods. I don't like the woods."

"Come on; let's get you out of here." Hardcastle got to his feet and slowly helped McCormick up. He noticed that his friend listed to one side. As he bent down to take a closer look with his flashlight, he saw the red stain which was spread across the lower section of his shirt.

"You were shot?" Hardcastle exclaimed.

"Don't be silly," McCormick answered. "If I was shot, it'd hurt,"

"Can you walk?"

"Of course," McCormick assured his friend but as he took his first step, his leg buckled under him and he fell into the judge's arms. "I might be having a little trouble," McCormick reluctantly admitted.

"Let's get you up to the car," Hardcastle said as he put one arm under McCormick's shoulder and they began their slow trek back to the waiting vehicle.

They had traveled a few minutes when they both heard the sound of someone hurrying through the woods. Hardcastle halted their journey as he felt McCormick stiffen in his arm. A moment later, two State Police Officers burst in to the clearing with the flashlights blazing and their guns drawn.

"Judge Hardcastle," one asked as he approached the two men.

McCormick pushed away from the judge as he turned to face him with angry eyes. "You said you weren't mad!"

As Hardcastle reached out to take hold of his friend, he saw McCormick's eyes rollback and watched helplessly as the young man dropped boneless to the ground.

"What's happened here?" asked the State Police Officer.

"He's hurt," exclaimed Hardcastle. "Call for an ambulance and help me get him to the road."

The grunts and whimpers of pain assured Hardcastle that his young friend was still alive as they continued laborious trip back up the embankment but each one cut a path straight to his heart.

Due to the distance, the State Patrol Officers decided it would be quicker to transport McCormick in their car. Hardcastle sat in the back of the vehicle with McCormick's head lying on his lap as he held the young man's hands and tried to offer his some semblance of comfort.

At one point on the trip, McCormick shuddered as his eyes opened. He scanned the interior of the police car and looked up to see the judge's face.

"You're arresting me?" McCormick asked in a small voice which reflected all the betrayal he felt in his heart.

"I'm not arresting you," Hardcastle said but it was too late as McCormick closed his eyes and slipped back into unconsciousness. "I'm not arresting you," he repeated as he squeezed his friend's hand. "I'd never do that."

Several hours later, McCormick stretched out on the bed as he forced his eyes open. He didn't know why but he was mildly surprised not to find himself cuffed to the bed with a grim faced police officer standing guard. He turned to see Hardcastle's concerned eyes looking down at him

"I had the weirdest dream," McCormick said with a rough voice. "I dreamt you had me arrested and were going to throw me back into jail."

"You keep pulling stupid stunts like this and I'll have to do it for your own safety."

McCormick arched his eyebrow. "You're kidding, right?" A firm squeeze on his hand was the only answer he received but it was enough.

"Is Christy okay?" he asked.

"She's fine," Hardcastle assured his friend. "She'll be back in a little bit to thank you for your help."

"Carter and the others?"

"The State Police have them under arrest."

"Are we done here?"

"We're done."

"Can we go home?" McCormick asked tiredly as his eyes began to droop.

"Yeah."

Hardcastle watched his friend's breaths evened out as he fell back into sleep. The trip back to his hometown had been bittersweet. He had met up with many of the people that he had known in his youth. Some had remained the same but more had changed; some for the better and others for the worse. It was no longer the place that he had remembered, maybe it never had been. It was part of his past.

He realized that his and McCormick's lives didn't belong in their past. The young man had a future ahead of him and he was going to see that the kid had a chance to make it a good one. They were going home, together. It was where they belonged.

THE END

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