By Aeiu

"I'm sorry I brought you to this, kid," Hardcastle thought as he watched McCormick dash around the room of the wooden cabin. "I shouldn't have blamed you for leading the posse here. You're right; you know concrete and sneakers, not grass and blood hounds."

Hardcastle's mind continued to try to grasp all that had happened. A short time ago, he had been happy to return to his hometown for a class reunion and to show McCormick what small town living was all about. But after they arrived, they discovered that the mayor, sheriff, and others were involved in a shady land deal and when the deal was threatened they had resorted to vandalism and murder. When he had confronted them with the evidence, they had tried to kill him and thought they had succeeded. Now they had framed McCormick as one of the masterminds behind the murders, labeled the kid a kidnapper, and were hunting him down with the help of duped but trigger-happy posse of town folks.

It was all eerily reminiscent of a Western movie he and McCormick had recently watched. In it a young drifter had been framed for a crime he didn't commit. He and young school teacher ended up trapped in a cabin with a blood thirsty posse nipping at their heels. The drifter had been captured and was about to be lynched only to be saved, at the last minute, by the sheriff. But in this case, the sheriff was leading the posse and they were all after one curly-haired stranger.

"Man," thought McCormick as he stared out the window and watched the armed men get in position to begin their assault against the cabin. "I can't believe I led them here. Who uses blood hounds, anyway! We're all going to die and it's my fault!"

McCormick snuck a glance at the people whose lives he had endangered through his carelessness. Christy Miller was so young and so scared. Her only sin was that her father had stood up to some of the local town leaders and had refused to sell his home. They had killed her father. She had had turned to Hardcastle and him for help. But she was the one who had to help him; help him escape from jail and help him try to rescue the judge. She had been forced to go on the run with him to escape the bullets from the sheriff's rifle. Now she was branded a kidnap victim but he knew she was slotted to be killed in the cross-fire when the town folks tried to rescue her.

The judge had escaped a watery murder attempt engineered by his boyhood friends. McCormick knew the judge's first thoughts after leaving the river had been to help him. But because of his ill-chosen hiding spot and unsuccessful attempt to hide his trail, he had led the judge to a death-trap. He didn't think the judge would survive a second time. It hurt to think he had brought this to someone who had given him so much.

Then there was Albie Meadows, one of Hardcastle's true friends from the past who the judge had been able to turn to for assistance. Albie didn't even know him. Albie had a family waiting for him at home. No one even knew Albie was in the cabin. But that wouldn't help when the shooting started.

"No one knows Albie is here," McCormick thought as a sudden calm engulfed him. "No one knows Hardcastle is alive. Most of them think Christy had been kidnapped and I'm holding her hostage. I'm the only one they're gunning for."

A plan quickly formed in his mind. If he could lead the posse away from the cabin then the others had a chance. No one suspected that Hardcastle and Albie were there. After he was gone, they could hide in the cabin. There wouldn't be any cross-fire to endanger Christy. The town folk would be glad they had rescued her from the ex-con they thought had killed her father. They'd quickly take her back to town. With him gone, there wouldn't be a reason to search the cabin, so the judge and Albie would be safe. The sheriff and the others wouldn't be able to explain Christy's death while in their care so she'd be safe. Later Hardcastle and Meadows would be able to rescue her and find the proof to bring the killers to justice. Eventually they'd be punished for the murders they committed, even his.

He looked out the front window and was thankfully that the posse had failed to set up any men to guard the back of the cabin. With any luck, he could slip out a window and get about three hundred to four hundred yards away before; well before. That would give Albie and the judge an opportunity to hide and Christy a chance to re-invent herself as a grateful rescued hostage. He'd do it quickly, only pausing to shout out directions before jumping out. He hoped they'd realize that he hadn't been trying to abandon them to their fate but was trying to do the best thing for everyone. He was the only one with nothing to lose and the only one that no one would mourn for. He took a deep breath and moved closer to the back window when he felt a heavy hand grab him by the shoulder.

"Don't!" said Hardcastle in a harsh whisper as he fixed his young friend with a steely glare. "I know what you're thinking and you're not going to do it."

"But judge…"

"I said no. We go out together or not at all. How far do you think you'd get? Then they're going to come barreling in here where they'll find Albie and me. They'll throw us in jail on some trumped up charges and where will that leave Christy?"

"What do you think we should do?


"How does that end any different from my plan?"

Hardcastle looked up to ensure Christy and Albie hadn't overheard anything. He pointed his finger in McCormick's face. "Because you won't be lying face down in the dirt waiting for the buzzards."

"Not right away but that's what Stinky and the others got planned for me. This is only way," McCormick protested.

"It's not happening. End of discussion," said Hardcastle as he turned away. "We'll think of something else."

McCormick felt tears of frustration prickle the corners of his eyes. It wasn't fair for things to end like this. The judge and the others deserved better. He viciously struck out at the wall in frustration.

"Cheap wood," McCormick thought as he felt is tremble under his fist.

"Cheap wood," he said out loud as a smile broke out on his face and he realized there was still a chance.

"Albie," he called to the man behind him, "how far away is your truck?"

"About one hundred yards," Albie answered. Why?"

"McCormick…" Hardcastle said with a warning in his voice.

"Judge," McCormick with a confident smile, "it's one hundred yards. That's nothing. Where are the keys?"

"Right here, "Albie said as he held them out.

"McCormick's smile got bigger as he grabbed the keys. "This will make it even easier."

"Whatcha you going to do?" asked Albie.

"I want you guys to go to the sides of the cabin," McCormick instructed. "When you hear me honk the horn get real close to the walls and get ready to jump in the truck."

"Mark," Christy asked worriedly, "how are you going to get to the truck?"

"It'll be easy," McCormick said self-assuredly. They're still getting set up out there and no one is watching the back of the cabin. I'll be out the window and back before you know it."

"Boy," Albie said, "they got guns. They're going to be shooting at you."

McCormick shrugged it off. "We got the element of surprise. I'll bet none of them have ever tried to shoot at someone running fast. This will work."

"Judge," Christy said as tears started to form her eyes, "tell him he can't do this. They'll kill him."

"McCormick…" Hardcastle started.

"Judge, it's our best chance," McCormick said calmly. "They don't know you're here, they won't expect me to run out of the cabin, and they won't expect me to drive toward the cabin. They're not going to let us get out of this alive."

Hardcastle shut his mouth as he looked at the determined glint in his friend's eyes. He knew the kid was right. It was a long shot but it was a chance for all of them to survive.

"Do you swear you're going to run to the truck?" Hardcastle demanded.

"Where else would he run?" asked Albie.

"Do you swear?" repeated Hardcastle.

"I swear, judge," promised Mark. "There and back."

McCormick," Hardcastle paused as he tried to sum up all the things he wanted to say in a few words.

"Yes, judge."

"Don't trip," Hardcastle said as he turned to the back window to see for himself that the way was clear.

"I won't, judge" McCormick said with a laugh as he heard everything Hardcastle had not been able to say aloud.

He turned to Christy and gently took her in his arms. He wiped away the silent tears which ran down her checks and softly kissed her. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."

"McCormick!" yelled the booming voice of Sheriff Carter from his position outside the cabin. "You got one minute to surrender or we're coming in after you."

"Don't shoot," answered McCormick as he ran to the back window on the other side of the cabin. "I'm coming out."

Hardcastle flinched as he heard McCormick crash through the window. As they had expected, the surprise move caused a momentary lull as the members of the posse froze in disbelief. Hardcastle watched as McCormick scrambled to his feet and ran toward the truck. So near and, yet, so far away.

Hardcastle swore out loud as he heard the first shot and watched, helplessly, as the dirt around McCormick's feet exploded as the bullet cut through the ground. The first shot was followed by another and then another.

As if at a great distance, he heard Christy sob as Albie tried to comfort her. Part of him thought he should be doing something to calm the distraught woman's fears but he couldn't turn his eyes away from the running man, his friend, who was making a desperate attempt to save their lives. He counted the long strides as he watched McCormick push his body to the limits. He felt as though his lungs would burst as his breathing fell in synch with his friend's, gulping and expelling vast amounts of air.

Hardcastle sagged against the wall as McCormick took a turn and vanished from his sight. He still heard the shots and the shouts from Sheriff Carter and the posse as they took up the chase while others cautiously approached the cabin. Long second after long second passed with little sound except Christy's soft cries.

"Need to move to Plan B," thought Hardcastle as grief seized his heart. He wanted nothing more than to mourn his brave friend and take out as many of his murders as he could but he knew he owed a responsibility to those still in the cabin. The ones McCormick had made the ultimate sacrifice to save.

"Christy," Hardcastle said as he forced all feelings from his voice. "Albie and I are going to hide in the back. When they get in here, you need to stick with the hostage story and don't let the sheriff or the others get you alone. We'll…"

"Beep, beep," came the sound from outside the cabin.

"That's my truck," Albie exclaimed with tears of joy.

"Get to the wall," Hardcastle ordered as he threw himself to the side as the walls of the cabin buckled and fell from the force of the on-coming vehicle.

"Get in! Get in!" McCormick yelled from the truck as he threw open the passenger door and helped Christy climb in.

"What took you so long?" Hardcastle griped as he and Albie crawled into the back of the truck.

"What do you think, I stopped for coffee," yelled McCormick. "Now get down."

"My grandmother could have run faster than you," Hardcastle said as he hid himself from the view of the posse. All the emotions he had refused to allow himself to feel came back in force as he realized the kid was alright and they still had a chance to stop the killers from reaping the rewards from their crimes.

"Donkey," McCormick murmured as he hit the accelerator and the truck sprung back to life. It crashed through another wall of the cabin and into the midst of the approaching mass of men. The posse scattered from the oncoming vehicle and ineffectually fired at it as it drove away.

Sheriff Carter openly cussed at the fleeing truck. Despite his best efforts, McCormick and the girl had escaped. But the chase wasn't over. As his hands tightened on his rifle, he swore he'd have both of them in his jail before night fall and that would be their last night on this earth.

A short time later, McCormick pulled over to the side and helped Christy from the truck. He was grateful that none of them had been injured from the posse's bullets.

"Now what?" McCormick asked.

"I got an idea," said Hardcastle, "but I need a disguise."

McCormick looked around and saw an older woman in the distance. She was hanging her laundry up to dry in the early morning sun.

"I got an idea," McCormick said with a grin, "but I don't think you're going to like it."

"But I will," he thought.