"I have no relish for the country; it is a kind of healthy grave."
-- Sydney Smith
Dave Starsky spotted sunlit strands of golden hair blowing slightly above the first passengers disembarking from the Minneapolis plane. The blockage dispersed, revealing his partner, who smiled and walked toward him with a decidedly jaunty air. A sudden alarm sounded in his subconscious. Hutch did not look like a man coming for a funeral... and definitely not from the funeral of his favorite grandfather. Something was up.
Answering his partner's infectious grin, Starsky wrapped his arms around his friend in the familiar bear hug. "I thought I'd have to cheer you up. I was worried about ya... but you look great!"
"I feel great! I forgot how much I missed the fresh air, the sunshine, the good food. I feel like a new man!"
Starsky looked at the sunburned face and shining eyes... and knew he was being set up for something Hutch was hiding. No one else would have seen the subtle hint of furtiveness in the pale blue eyes, but Starsky had known this man too long not to be aware of it. "Let's go get your luggage and you can tell me how it went."
The grin on Hutch's face died as they started walking along the concourse. Starsky saw him glance his way, obviously burdened by how he was going to break the bad news. By now, Starsky was convinced that it was definitely bad news. He braced himself and waited.
"I... I inherited the farm."
Starsky stared at him in surprise. That didn't sound like bad news. So why did he still hear that subconscious alarm? "That's terrific, but what about your folks?"
"Oh, Mother and Aunt Edith got the balance of the estate, but Grandpa always knew how much I love the land. Since he never had a son, he said his grandson should carry on the family tradition."
The inner alarm bells were clanging louder now. Starsky watched his dreamy-eyed companion and waited.
"Mother always loved visiting the farm every summer, but she and Dad have been established in the city a long time. It was Aunt Edith and Uncle Paul who've been living there, taking care of everything for Grandpa all these years, but they're tired of it now. They want to move out here to sunny California."
Trying to hold back the inevitable, Starsky suggested, "So, you're going to sell the place then?" His heart sank in defeat as Hutch turned horrified eyes on him.
"Sell it?!? Of course not! It's been in the family over a hundred years!" Starsky saw the hesitation in Hutch's eyes before he blurted out the dreaded news. "I'm going to live on it!"
"At least just start with a leave of absence." Captain Dobey looked more harried than usual as he appraised the stubborn set of Hutch's jaw. "You can always quit later if you still want to, but don't blow your seniority until you're really sure you want to live that way."
Dolbey considered the starry-eyed gaze of one of his best detectives and knew better than to try reasoning him out of this farce. His White Knight's sentimental soul was totally enraptured with the romance of rural living. How could a realistic police captain cope with compulsive idealism? He couldn't. In a quiet voice he brought up the subject so conspicuously absent thus far from their discussion. "What about Starsky? You boys have been partners a long time."
A strange look flashed across Hutch's face. Guilt? Disappointment? "He doesn't want to go. He hates the country." Hutch looked thoughtfully out the window.
Dobey could imagine the heated conversation that must have passed between the two the night before. His sympathy lay with Starsky, the more practical partner, who still loved police work with a passion that seldom survived years of disillusioning experience. How could Hutch ask him to give that up? But he knew the answer to that. Hutch had been worn down by the horrors of this job. He was a good detective, but it was Starsky who made the depressing work bearable.
Hutch continued staring out the window. "We're grown men, you know, not boys. We should be able to get along by ourselves." Dobey wondered whom he was trying to convince. "Give him a new partner." He turned to his captain. "A good one. Don't let someone's stupid mistake get him... hurt."
Dobey noticed the naked fear in Hutch's eyes. Then stay here and take care of him yourself instead of traipsing off after some half-baked dream. Aloud he said. "I'll find one... if you'll agree to a leave instead of resigning." I'd do it anyway, you idealistic idot.
"Yeah, yeah, okay."
Relief replaced the worry in Hutch's eyes. Over the promised partner? Or because a leave wasn't so final? Dobey hoped it was the latter. If Hutch still had any doubts, perhaps the department wouldn't lose its two best detectives... for he was convinced that as much as Starsky loved the department, he wouldn't be able to let Hutch walk out of his life.
The shift had been uneventful, but drastically different from the quiet shifts spent in comfortable companionship. Hutch noticed that his normally effervescent friend hadn't spoken an unnecessary word all day. It wasn't anger he felt between them, but there was a sort of barrier being built by them both -- a kind of defensive preparation for the parting. He knew Starsky disagreed with his decision, but accepted and understood it. There just didn't seem to be anything new to say.
"I have to go, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
"I think I've wanted this all my life... since I was a little kid."
"The happiest memories of my life happened on that farm."
"All of them?"
It sounded plaintive. Hutch looked up guiltily at his partner, but Starsky's eyes revealed no pain. "Of course not," Hutch said quickly. "We've had some good times together."
"Will you come visit me?"
"Sure... how about Christmas?"
Hutch grinned. Starsky's adopted holiday had long been a bone of contention between them, as Hutch despised crass commercialism, and Starsky loved the social spirit -- and presents! "Christmas is fine, buddy, but come sooner if you can."
The Torino pulled up in front of the Pits, disgorging the now off-duty detectives into its familiar, comforting atmosphere. Huggy looked up and grinned his greeting. "Welcome back to the Golden West, compadre." His grin faded as his words elicited a pair of glum looks. "I said something I shouldn't?"
"Hutch isn't staying," Starsky explained. "He's moving to Minnesota."
Huggy's eyes narrowed as he watched Starsky glance at Hutch, who was busily studying his fingernails. "Singular... meaning without you?" He eyed Hutch speculatively. "What's in Minnesota?"
"The farm is mine now. I'm going to run it. I'm going to be a farmer."
Huggy heard the Utopian hymn in Hutch's voice and struggled to keep a straight face. Failing miserably, he flung back his head and laughed at the mental image of Hutch milking a cow in the neatly pressed slacks and stylish leather jacket he was now wearing.
Hutch looked miffed by the outburst and Starsky's concerned, "Hey, it means a lot to him," sobered Huggy momentarily.
"I'm sorry, man. I just can't picture you -- as a farmer." He felt the giggles starting again. "The man with the hoe." Giggle. "I'm afraid you're more likely to trip over it." He tried to stop laughing. "Let him go, Starsky. The first time he has to plot through the pigpen he'll be ready to come back!"
Starsky started to smile. He was obviously beginning to feel a lot better. "Sure. Wait 'til he has to clean out the cowbarn a few times!"
"I've done it before," Hutch said indignantly. But he didn't looked terribly enthusiastic about it.
Huggy tried to get serious. "What about your apartment?"
"My aunt and uncle are moving out here to take it. It saves shipping furniture."
"Yeah, well, I guess you've thought of everything, all right." Huggy glanced significantly at Starsky.
Hutch looked defensive. "I asked him to come..." His voice trailed off.
"You asked him to throw away years of seniority in a good-paying job with a pension to go much out stables with you? I can't imagine why he don't jump at the chance." Huggy sighed inwardly. If Hutch was serious about this, Starsky probably would go.
True to his word, Captain Dobey soon found a trustworthy partner for Starsky that was satisfactory to them all. They had worked together previously when Hutch had been hurt, and proved to be a compatible match. Even when Hutch had recuperated from his gunshot wound he had almost been worried that Starsky would want to continue working with the capable young policewoman.
A similar twinge of jealousy hit Hutch now, as he listened to "his" partner extolling Detective Meredith's virtues. He sounded completely content with the new circumstances. Well, that's what you wanted, wasn't it? For Starsky to be happy? He sighed and folded another shirt. "That's terrific, Starsk. I'm glad she's working out for you."
"We've got tickets to the Village People concert next Friday night, after..." he hesitated.
After I'm gone, Hutch finished for him. He snapped the suitcase shut and looked around the tidy apartment, now devoid of his personal effects. It looked a little lonely. Appropriate. He set his guitar case on top of the luggage. "I guess that's it. I'll load up tomorrow, before my aunt and uncle arrive, so they can move right in. Then I'll have to leave. The neighbors can't be expected to take care of the farm animals very long."
"Oh. Well, come on now. Let's get over to Huggy's for a goodbye beer." Starsky headed out the door. Hutch gave another look around, sighed, and followed him.
The trip over gave Starsky time to tell Hutch about how well Meredith had handled herself when the pusher they were busting suddenly pulled a gun on him. "She had him disarmed and down before I even realized I was in trouble. She's good, Hutch."
Starsky was still talking as they walked into The Pits, so it wasn't until Huggy clapped a straw hat on Hutch's head and yelled, "Hiya, Hayseed!" that he realized the place was full of familiar faces standing under a huge "Good luck, Hutch" sign. He was stunned. Some detective I am! Starsky's crooked grin was wrapped around his face and Huggy was shoving a beer into one hand while Captain Dobey was shaking the other. It seemed as if half the department was jammed into the little joint. Hutch felt himself clouding up and fought furiously to prevent raining all over the place.
"Damn," he whispered. "I didn't expect..." He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and looked through a film of liquid into a pair of deep blue eyes topping a lopsided grin. He grinned back. "You bastard," he muttered, throwing his arm around his friend and squeezing back. "I'm gonna miss you."
"Yeah." The grin disappeared. "You're determined to go, aren't you."
Hutch looked at him and nodded. "I'm sorry, Starsk. It's just something I have to do."
"I know. Drink your beer and make the rounds. They all want to say goodbye."
As Hutch circulated through the crowd, only half hearing the hearty good wishes being bestowed on him, he remained acutely aware of the solitary figure apparently deep in thought and seemingly indifferent to the people around him. Hutch had just returned to Captain Dobey when he noticed Starsky threading his way thoughtfully toward them. As he approached, his face settled into the familiar, stubborn look that meant trouble if anyone dared disagree with the forthcoming decision.
"I want to take some leave time and go with Hutch... just to get him settled up there."
Hutch spilled his beer. "Starsk, you don't have to--"
"Hutch, that clunker of yours can't make a trip like that. Sell it here and buy another one up there. I'll drive you up."
Hutch began to feel terrific. "That's a great idea, Starsk! I'll sell it to Merle. He's always wanted to get his hands on it."
Captain Dobey forced a word in. "Now listen, you two. Who said I could afford to lose both of you at the same time? I'm short-handed as it is."
Starsky's chin jutted forward belligerently, but before he could say something he'd regret Hutch hurriedly spoke. "Please, Captain. He must have earned enough leave. You can spare him a couple of weeks."
"All right," Dobey said.
"He shouldn't go up alone," Starsky continued.
Hutch grabbed his friend's arm. "He said, 'all right', Starsk."
"Huh? Yeah? Great! Thanks, Cap." The grin was back. "How soon can we process the papers? Hutch has to leave tomorrow."
"How about now?"
"The neighbors can't be expected to take care of the animals -- Huh?" Starsky stared as Captain Dobey pulled papers from his inside coat pocket.
"They're all ready. They only need your signature." Dobey grinned as the two gaping mouths in front of him. "Now there's a rare sight," he said happily. "Come on and sign these so you can get home and pack."
A stunned Starsky signed the papers as Huggy spoke up. "You're already packed, Starsky. Meredith and I did it while you were at Hutch's. Oh, and we'll keep an eye on your place for you while you're gone, too."
Starsky and Hutch stared around the room at the knowing faces. Hutch finally found his voice. "Did everyone know about this but us?"
He was answered by a roomful of grins and Dobey. "We were just waiting for Starsky to ask. By the way, who won the pool?" he called out.
"I did," someone yelled as Dobey continued.
"You'll notice there's a maximum time limit on your leave, like Hutch's." He grew serious. "I don't want to lose either of you, but a miserable cop isn't much good to me."
Hutch looked sharply at Starsky. "What do you mean, Cap? I thought Meredith was a great partner. That's all he's talked about all week."
"She is, Hutch," Dobey began, just as the policewoman herself spoke up. "We could work well together, Hutch, if he'd ever stop talking about you! Say, Huggy, want to go with me to the Village People concert next Friday night?"
"Sure! Hey, what's everybody standing around for? Let's have ourselves a party!"
"Look at that, Starsk!"
Hutch's voice, filled with rapture, roused his sleeping partner, who sat up and looked around at the flat prairie fields stretching endlessly toward the horizon in all directions from the moving car. It looked exactly as it had before he fell asleep.
"I give. What am I supposed to be seeing, Hutch?"
"All this... this... nothing!" Hutch gestured expansively at the limitless landscape.
Starsky stared in disbelief. "You woke me up to look at... Nothing?!"
"Look! No buildings. No telephone poles. No billboards. Just Nature... all around us. Have you ever seen such unspoiled beauty before?"
"Yes. Today, yesterday, the day before... Are you sure we're getting anywhere? It all looks the same. There just can't be this much nothingness!"
"See? I knew you'd appreciate the vastness of it all!"
Starsky gave his partner a withering look and settled down to stare out the window as the monotonous miles unfolded. "Are we almost there?"
"We're only in Kansas!"
"Kansas! I hope it's not tornado season!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Hutch, don't you remember the Wizard of Oz?" He burst into song. "Somewhere... over the rainbow!" He pointed out the window. "Oh, Toto. There's no place like home. There's no place like home."
"Cut it out, Starsk!"
Starsky turned back to the window. Suddenly his nose wrinkled in distaste. He checked the bottoms of his shoes, glanced over at Hutch's, then started looking suspiciously at Hutch, who laughed.
"That's not us. It's the fertilizers and manure on the fields. It makes things grow better."
Relieved, Starsky watched a jackrabbit dart away from the road into the grass. "Your aunt really liked your plants, Hutch."
"Yeah. She's good with growing things. Wait 'til you see her garden. She's got everything! Some of it should be nearly ready to eat, like the strawberries." His dreamy look indicated fond memories of shortcake and homemade jam.
"Hutch, you're no farmer. How will you know what to do?"
"Grandpa kept a journal. All I have to do is follow last year's. Besides, Aunt Edith said the neighbor offered to help if I needed it. She's the one taking care of the animals."
Starsky looked uncomfortable. "What kinds of animals are there, Hutch?"
"Oh, cows, chickens, pigs, the usual."
Hutch eyed his city friend and answered in a thick drawl, "No, pardner, but the filly down the road has some if you're a hankering to ride off into the sunset!"
Starsky's scornful glance was lost on Hutch, who continued, "They had a plowhorse until I was about five. I used to ride on the hay rake with Grandpa while Dolly pulled it. I never quite forgave them for selling her and buying a tractor." He pulled himself out of his reverie. "Uncle Paul left us the pickup truck to use. I gave him my car."
"That's hardly a fair trade -- especially since Merle wouldn't touch it!"
Hutch hunched over the steering wheel and concentrated on the road. "Go back to sleep, Starsk."
Starsky shifted his grip on the wheel and stretched a little. As he drove on, he watched the first rays of sunshine spreading across the Iowa prairie, silhouetting the low hills against a sky brightening with shades of rose-streaked purple. He had to admit it was beautiful. Thinking of the many sunrises they had seen on stakeouts, he recalled Hutch quoting something about a rosy-fingered dawn. Yes, he could appreciate that out here in the quiet countryside, uncluttered by evidence of mankind. Jesus! I'm beginning to sound like Hutch!
He glanced down at his comrade, curled up where he had fallen asleep before he could crawl into the back. He looked uncomfortable. Starsky tried to ease the awkward angle of his partner's head, but only succeeded in waking him... grumbling.
"What the hell--? Oooh, my neck... what time is it?"
"It's morning, Sunshine. Now that you're awake do you think you can move your butt off my lap?"
Hutch struggled to sit up, rubbing his neck. "We wouldn't have to be driving all night if we hadn't stopped off at Las Vegas, buddy boy."
"True, pal, but I didn't see you hurrying to leave that showgirl who latched onto you. Besides, I thought you should have one more fling before you bury yourself on a farm with nothing to do but watch the corn grow."
"It's not like that, Starsk. I had great summers there... fishing, swimming, milking cows, picking blueberries by the pond, camping out in the woods, riding... vacations were never long enough. And the food! You don't know how good it tastes... vegetables fresh from the garden, fish right out of the pond. Did I ever tell you about the first fish I ever caught?"
Starsky sighed. "At least a dozen times. Why don't you tell me about the filly down the road with the horses instead?"
"Oh, Jo? I thought I told you about her. I saw her again at the funeral. Seems funny to see her grown up -- we were buddies. You know she's the one who taught me to shoot? She's a great rider... trick riding and everything. She can do anything -- even tanned a cowhide once and used it for a cover on her bed. You know that old carved leather belt of mine? Well, She's the one who helped me carve it. We sweated over that thing for weeks getting it just right. She made me a pair of moccasins once... with beads and fringe..."
Hutch's voice droned on and on, blending in with the hum of the tires as the car pushed northward toward the Minnesota border. Starsky tried to listen. He really did want to know just what the magical power was that held Hutch spellbound all these years. Lord knew he had tried often enough to share his interest in the great outdoors. Anything Hutch loved that much must have some merit. He remembered how pleasant fishing at Pine Lake had been that time... if Hutch just hadn't mentioned grizzly bears. And he had to admit he liked Hutch's semi-country style of singing with his guitar. It fit well with his own moody technique, though they rarely got the chance to relax and play together. Maybe now... hazily he became aware that Hutch was looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer to some question he hadn't heard.
"Well? Do you mind letting me drive now that we're getting close? I know the roads from here."
"Oh. Sure. I've got to stop anyhow... and we need some gas, too."
Back on the road, Hutch drove with an air of anticipation that increased with each mile, happily pointing out each well-remembered landmark, or remarking on the change or demise of some water tower or windmill etched in the kaleidoscopic memories of his childhood. "Mother and Aunt Edith went to school there. It only had two teachers for six grades... there's the town square. The Fourth of July Parade always ends there for speeches... Snyders Drugstore -- that used to be McCloskey's... The town used to end here. Look at all the new houses! There used to be fields... look at the size of the new barn at Jensen's... Oh, there's the reservoir. You're not supposed to swim in it, but we always did. Jo and I even went skinnydipping there."
That woke Starsky up. Somehow he couldn't picture the all-American boy skinnydipping with a girl back then -- not the original blushing blond! He was about to ask Hutch if they had also played "doctor" when the Torino made a sharp turn down a tree-lined blacktop road banked by fields of young plants growing in neat rows. With his trained eyes Starsky unconsciously catalogued everything -- fields, animals, hedgerows, occasional farm houses with outbuildings, and groves of trees. They were just passing a large, placed pond when Hutch pulled off the road onto a gravel driveway, past an old but freshly-pained house, and came to a stop near a well-kept barn. He turned off the motor, leaned back with a look of profound peace, and sighed happily.
Starsky noticed a saddled horse by the fence just as the barn door opened. He sized up the slight figure striding toward them, from her booted feet, tightly jeaned legs, and shapely western-styled shirt to her bright eyes, sunny smile, and straw-colored hair. Is everyone from Minnesota blond? he wondered as a grinning Hutch practically leaped from the car into her arms. Starsky got out of the car as the girl stepped back, looked up at Hutch and said, "Welcome home, Sonny."
Hutch kissed her cheek. "Home. That sounds good, Jo."
Starsky was feeling a little left out. He moved closer and was rewarded as a pair of eyes as blue as Hutch's turned his way, enveloping him with a warm, appreciative look.
"Who's your handsome friend, Sonny?"
"My partner, Dave Starsky -- Joan Stanton."
"Hi," Starsky managed.
Her eyes never left his as she spoke. "Listen, Sonny. Why don't you and Dave come over for pot luck dinner after you get settled, and I'll fill you in on the farm."
"That'll be great, Jo. Thanks." He gave her another hug, then they watched her swing lightly into the saddle and ride off.
Starsky sprang into action, opening the trunk and hauling out his suitcase. "Show me where the shower is, 'Sonny'. I'm hungry!"
Hutch grimaced. "Sure you are, Dirtball." But he grinned as he followed his suddenly enthusiastic friend into the farmhouse.
Hutch pushed open the back screen door and carefully eased through with the brimming pail of fresh milk. He set it on the counter with a touch of pride. It hadn't taken him nearly as long to milk Cleo this morning as it had most of the week and the cow seemed more at ease with him, too. He remembered that first miserable day when Cleo wouldn't stand still for his inexperienced hands, kicking over the bucket twice, then stepping in it. Next time he dug out the milking machine Uncle Paul used when they had more cows, but the fuss and bother of cleaning the thing before and after was worse than handmilking.
Hutch carefully strained the milk into the last two clean containers, opened the refrigerator, and hunted for a space not already occupied by jar after jar of not-so-fresh milk. He frowned. What the hell am I supposed to do with it? I can't drink it all and Starsky isn't used to the taste. I've made enough yogurt for a month. I wish I could turn off the cow.
He opened the oldest jar. It was starting to sour. I wonder how you make buttermilk. Maybe Jo will know. His eyes lit up at a sudden thought. And cheese and sour cream for chip dip. And ice cream. Starsk would eat those!
As if answering a summons, a sleepy voice spoke from the doorway. "Did I miss the milking?"
"It's okay, Starsk. You can gather the eggs while I feed the pigs. Then we'll eat."
Starsky frowned. "I'll trade you jobs, okay? Those hens don't like me."
As they headed out the door, Hutch grinned and handed Starsky the swill pail. The hens didn't like Starsky. They had pecked his hands when he tried hesitantly to reach under them, and squawked fiercely even after Hutch had taught him to be more forceful. Starsky and animals, Hutch thought with amusement. He doesn't belong on a farm. That unbidden thought sobered him and he quickly pushed it aside as he entered the henhouse to feed them and collect the eggs for a good breakfast. That was another thing Hutch felt proud about. Starsky had been eating proper breakfasts, not root beer, candy, or leftovers.
Carrying the eggs back to the house, Hutch noticed Starsky petting the bull-calf through the fence. It was the one farm animal he seemed to enjoy. The cats were practically wild and stayed in the barn, and there hadn't been a dog since Old Wags had died. Hutch heard him call out, "See you later, Ferdinand," as his footsteps came hurrying up the path.
After a hearty country breakfast, Starsky was busy slathering homemade strawberry jam onto his toast when Hutch remembered, "That reminds me. If we want any more of that jam, we'll have to make it ourselves. Besides, there's no more room in the freezer, and not only are there more strawberries ripe, but the blueberries are starting, too. According to Grandpa's journal, it's canning time."
"Do you know how to can?" Starsky asked suspiciously.
"No, but I'm sure the cookbook will explain it." He cleared the dishes from the table, rinsed them, and put them into the dishwasher, blessing his aunt's foresight in having had the kitchen modernized. He could still remember the old woodburning stove, kerosene lamps, and black iron sink his grandmother had used. When they had wired the historic farmhouse for electricity, he had been the only one small enough to fit into spaces not designed for crawling electricians. It had been a proud job, but scary as hell to a little kid.
Now where does Aunt Edith keep the canning stuff?
A couple of hours and dozens of jars later the kitchen looked like a battlefield, with strawberry blood spattered on every counter and the stove. A dejected Hutch sat in the middle of it, poring over a cookbook, trying to figure out what he'd done wrong. He didn't notice when his strawberry-coated partner slipped into the other room to place a distress call. His concentration broke only when a laughing voice said, "It looks like a MASH operating room. Are you Hawkeye Pierce?"
"Jo!" Hutch said with relief.
Joan scooped up a spoonful of goo and tentatively tasted it. "Flavor's fine. How much gel did you use?"
In a matter of minutes she had discovered his error, which was fortunately easy to remedy, and they cleaned up the mess to the accompanying "pop-pop" of the vacuum sealing jars.
"Dave, if you can scrape some of those strawberries off your jeans I'd be glad to give you that riding lesson you wanted."
"Good idea. It'll be a change from slaving over a hot stove all morning."
Hutch glared at him and was about to retort when he remembered how willingly Starsk had tried to help. "Come on, Cowboy. Let's go change."
After holding her horse still so Starsky could climb aboard, Jo mounted the corral fence and sat on the top rail beside Hutch. "Just walk him gently until you get used to it," she called. "Grip with your knees and relax. Pretend he's a motorcycle."
She watched Starsky nervously nudge the horse into a walk. When he didn't fall off, his tension visibly eased and he moved rhythmically on the horse with surprising smoothness. Starting his second circuit of the corral, he bravely urged the animal into a trot.
Jo watched admiringly. "Has he ever ridden before?"
"Not that I know of."
"He's got a nice seat." A devilish gleam came into her eye. "And he sits the horse well, too."
"Jo!" Hutch was genuinely shocked. He had never thought that Joan, the companion, the buddy-pal-chum, would think such lascivious thoughts.
She just laughed at his discomfigure and said softly, "We're not kids anymore, Sonny, and he is cute."
"Yeah," he muttered. "Cute as a teddy bear, I know."
She laughed again. "Inside joke?" He nodded. "You're pretty cute yourself, Sonny, but... well, to think of you in that way sort of smacks of... incest or something." She have him an affectionate hug.
He grinned down at her. "Yeah. I guess you're right."
Starsky rode up by them, his eyes shining with pride at his newfound skill. "Hey, this is great! I really like it!"
Jo stood up on the fencerail and eased a leg over the horse, settling onto its rump behind Starsky. As she slipped her arms around his waist she whispered, "Ride with me back to my place, Dave, and I'll teach you some more great stuff."
Starsky actually blushed.
Hutch laughed and opened the gate for them, watching wistfully as they cantered down the driveway. Then he headed for the garden and half-heartedly started weeding the tomatoes.
The days were sunlit and filled with the warmth of discovery for Starsky. He was beginning to understand why this place had held Hutch for so long. He only wished Hutch had more free time to share these newfound wonders with him. Right now his partner was mowing, trying to stay ahead of the wild grasses that threatened to take over the lush lawns stretching around the house and out to the road. Since there was only one tractor, Starsky had taken the berry buckets down by the pond to pick abundant ripening blueberries. He picked his way from bush to bush, back through the brush to the edge of the woods, his buckets filling steadily in spite of the telltale blue stains on his lips. He slipped between a couple of saplings and found himself in the coolness of the woods. His eyes adjusted themselves to the semi-darkness of leaf-blocked sunlight, and he decided to take a break. He leaned back against a tree, wishing he had his guitar with him.
A slight rustling startled him. He turned his eyes nervously toward the sound, hoping it wasn't a snake. It wasn't. A ball of fluff was busy snuffling the berries in one of the buckets.
Starsky grinned. "Well, hello there. What's a cute pup like you doing so far from him? Are you lost?"
The puppy looked up at him suspiciously, its husky-like face tilted to one side, studying Starsky. It apparently approved of the sight, as it padded playfully over to sniff at his outstretched hand, and didn't object when he picked it up.
"Oh ho. We have a baby boy. I hope you're housebroken!" the puppy wriggled with delight and tried to lick his face. "Hey, cut that out, buster."
He stood up, gathered the berry buckets, and stepped out into the sunlight. The puppy blinked at the sudden brightness. "I'll take you home. Maybe Jo will know where you live." He strolled happily back to the house, berry buckets dangling from his elbows while he petted and tickled his playful companion.
The tractor was parked by the house, and something smelled delicious as Starsky opened the kitchen door and headed toward the sink with the berries. Hutch wandered in from the other room.
"Hi, you're just in time for lunch." He stared. "What's that?!"
"Oh, the puppy? I found him at the edge of the woods. He must be lost."
Hutch threw the pup a vaguely uneasy look, as if there were something he was trying to remember. "Well, let's eat, then we'll figure out what to do with him."
The puppy frolicked on the floor while they set about the business of eating lunch. Starsky held down bits of meat and the puppy nipped them from his fingers. "Ouch! Hey, take it easy. That's me!"
Starsky was lifting a forkful of food to his mouth when he froze as an eerie wail split the air.
Hutch sat up straight, all memories now firmly in place. He ran to the back door and came face to face with a snarling set of fangs and the angry eyes of a she-wolf with only a screen door between them. He slammed the inner door and yelled, "Starsk, throw the puppy out the window!"
"Throw the puppy out the window??"
Comprehension dawned. "Throw the puppy out the window!" he agreed. Rushing to the window he leaned out and gently dropped the puppy to the ground just as a grey flash of fur appeared around the corner of the house. He pulled his head in fast, slammed the window, and, with pounding heart, watched the reunion of mother and son. He felt Hutch slip an arm across his shoulder in reassurance, and looked up with a shaky grin. "You didn't tell me farm life was so dangerous."
Hutch watched the wolves thread their way across the meadow toward the tall trees. "I forgot. Minnesota is famous for wolves, but they aren't much bother usually."
"Only when some dumb city boy kidnaps one of her kids, huh," Starsky muttered ruefully.
Hutch gave his shoulder a squeeze. "For what it's worth, I didn't recognize it as a wolf either, until Mama spoke."
Starsky was pensive. "Hey, Hutch, don't tell Jo, okay? She already thinks I'm a dunce."
Hutch looked at him in surprise. "Jo? Where'd you get that idea, Starsk? She never put anybody down in her life!"
Uncomfortably, Starsky said, "Yeah, well, there are times and places where I wish she weren't so damned sure of herself."
June had finished "busting out all over," and, accordant to Jo, the whole town was getting ready for a fantastic Fourth of July celebration. She had talked about it all through the delicious dinner Hutch had prepared as one of the turnabout meals they enjoyed with each other. Now, as the three were relaxing on the porch, she and Hutch reminisced over past celebrations and county fairs.
During a lull in their conversation Starsky commented, "The crickets sure are noisy tonight."
Jo glanced quickly at Hutch who, with a conspiratorial wink, said, "Count them."
Starsky looked confused. "Count what?"
"The cricket chirps."
Hutch grew serious. "Well, first you count the number of times a cricket chirps in a minute..."
Jo was equally serious. "Then subtract 40."
"Divide by four."
"And add 50."
Starsky looked from one to the other skeptically. "Then what?"
"Then you get the temperature," Hutch announced.
"Fahrenheit," Jo added.
Starsky stared at them until they both burst into laughter. He shook his head in mock disgust. "I think I'll go down by the pond and watch the sunset."
Hutch gained control and called to his retreating partner, "It's true, Starsk. Really!"
Starsky just kept walking.
Jo openly admired his movements as he sauntered down the path, but her appreciative smile faded to pensiveness. After a few thoughtful moments she spoke. "You know, Sonny, you're the only guy I've ever known who accepts me as I am and doesn't resent the things I do well." She looked at him and grinned. "And I can only think of you as a brother."
Hutch looked at her questioningly. "Starsky?"
"I said the only guy, Sonny." She looked down toward the relaxed figure flipping pebbles into the pond. "He may be a sophisticated city boy, but he still has some old-fashioned ideas about girls." She sighed. "You know, I can be very good in bed, but most men I've met feel threatened unless they're running the show."
Hutch studied her in the waning light, trying to update his memories to include this full-grown woman. "We were always buddies, Jo. I forgot you were a girl."
"Yeah, maybe more people should think like that, instead of expecting boys to be one thing and girls something else."
Hutch looked at her soberly. "You're a terrific girl. How come you didn't get married?"
She returned the look. "You're a terrific guy. How come you didn't stay married?"
He nodded. "Yeah. I guess we're both too independent. It's even hard living with Starsky, here, but at least he's used to me."
"I've thought about marriage. I couldn't help it with Mother constantly reminding me, even from Florida, but I never found a man worth all the compromise. I can't pretend I'm dumb, and I'd rather live alone than be somebody's pet." She was quiet for a moment and Hutch watched her sort it out in her mind, before she spoke again. "I guess I see myself as the Barbara Stanwyck type -- always in command of my own life. You never seemed to mind that, but it turns some guys off." She looked up and caught Hutch's expression. "Hey, I said I was alone, Sonny, not lonely. There are plenty of people around and I enjoy their company. I just don't want to have to live with any of them."
Hutch looked out across the field, wondering idly if there was anything he was supposed to be doing about those soybeans. "You sound like you've really got it together, Jo."
"I didn't always, if you recall."
Hutch recalled. He remembered nights when she'd arrive at the farm in tears after a heated argument with her parents over the college prep courses they insisted on, instead of the agriculture courses she preferred.
Jo chuckled. "Boy, were they mad when I took off on my motorcycle for my ag college in Utah. They had me all signed up at State Teacher's!" She stopped laughing. "It's funny how my father felt. He thought if you were too dumb to be anything else, you were a farmer."
Hutch looked at her. "Some fathers feel that way about cops, remember."
"Yeah, I remember. You left school to save the world from the Viet Cong, then you went to California to save the people from the crooks. What the hell are you doing here? There aren't even any windmills left, Don Quixote."
He sighed heavily. "I got tired, Jo."
"So you figured you'd come back and be a dumb farmer like me."
"Hell, Jo, I was always happiest here. You know that."
"Yeah. When we were kids," she said pointedly.
He caught the inflection. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that for adults, farming is a business, not a vacation. Like any other job, there's hard work in it."
Hutch looked at the blisters on his hands. "So I've noticed."
"To me it's challenging, and I enjoy being my own boss. I always hated working for anyone else, even my folks."
"I remember one weird job you used to have. It was that summer we turned Jacobsen's barn into a theater."
"Oh, you mean driving livestock trucks for Mr. Channing at the stockyards?"
"Yeah, Remember that night you came to rehearsal straight from work? You smelled so bad the whole crew threw you under the shower, clothes and all."
"At least you remembered to take off my watch!" She laughed. "Yeah, I remember. You know, I still help out at the theater once in a while. Maybe you'd like it, too... unless it would be too amateurish for someone who's actually been in a real movie!"
Hutch glanced at her quickly, but couldn't tell if she was teasing or not.
A third voice joined theirs. "Is this a private conversation, or can a hungry guy remind you two of that ice cream I wore my arm out making?" Starsky settled down on the porch swing and picked up his guitar.
"That sounds like an exit cue if I ever heard one," Hutch said, grinning. "I'll get the dessert."
The Fourth of July was glorious. For Hutch it was a reawakening of an earlier carefree time. His folks even drove in from Duluth to spend the day. For Starsky it was a totally new experience, different from the block parties in New York or fiestas in Tijuana, but flavored with the same high spirits and sense of excitement, with a little Disneyland thrown in. After the traditional parade and speeches, everyone headed for the local fairground, where a miniature midway was in full swing with rides, concession stands, and try-your-skill booths. A local belle was perched over a pool of water and a group of hopeful pitchers lined up waiting for a chance to dunk her.
I wonder if that's how Hutch learned to pitch, Starsky thought, then walked on and stopped by a booth labeled The Tack Shop. Handtooled belts and leather vests adorned the walls, and an array of brass belt buckles and fancy rings covered the counter. Starsky decided a good souvenier of the day would be a ring formed from a horseshoe nail and bought it, dreaming up the story he'd tell Huggy Bear about it when he got home. The thought sobered him. He hadn't thought about home, but he knew he'd have to soon. He'd hate leaving Hutch, but this life was fantasy, and he had always been a realist.
Later for that. He moved on to another booth displaying honey and a glass-walled hive of bees actually making the stuff. He was still engrossed in watching them when the loudspeakers announced the beginning of the horse races. That was where Hutch and Jo were, so he headed over to the arena to join them. Jo was entered in a couple of events, and he arrived in time to see the start of one of them, something called "pole-bending" races. He found Hutch along the rail and they watched the pairs of riders threading their ways in and out of the vertical poles lined up in two rows.
Jo won her heat and had to run a semi-final, then a final race, but was beaten in the tie-breaker by a 16-year-old girl on a lightening-fast Appaloosa. They found Jo out back afterwards, cooling off her lathered horse. "That kid is really good," she admitted with a rueful nod in the youngster's direction.
"She reminds me of you at that age," Hutch said softly.
"Thanks, Sonny." She looked up at him and smiled gratefully. "Still the same old Hutchinson soft soap, huh?"
"We aim to please."
Starsky spoke up. "When your horse is all right let's go hit the midway and see if we can win a teddy bear or something." He missed the stifled giggle from Jo because he spotted Hutch's parents approaching from behind their only son. Hutch obviously got his height from his still-muscular father and his coloring from his mother, whose sunny hair was now nearly white. "Your father's challenged me to a match at the rifle shoot."
"Watch out," Hutch warned. "He's good at skeet shooting."
"Runs in the family, huh?" He realized Hutch didn't know his folks were behind him yet. "Is he as good as you?"
Mr. Hutchinson stopped his wife from speaking as he waited to hear Hutch's answer.
"No, I taught him everything he knows, but he'll never match up to the master."
"Smile when you say that, son."
Hutch whirled. "Dad! I didn't know -- I didn't mean -- I was just kidding..." He broke off helplessly when he realized everyone else was laughing, and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Dad. I hope you beat the pants off my partner for setting me up like that."
The day was beautiful. Starsky stayed and entertained the Hutchinsons while Hutch and Jo went home at milking time to take care of their respective animals.
"David," Marian Hutchinson asked as they strolled along the midway, "is Ken really happy here on the farm?"
"I guess so, Mrs. H. He has to work pretty hard to keep up, but maybe with experience it'll get easier."
Hutch's father shook his head. "I'm afraid when it gets easier for him it will also get boring." He wandered away to a nearby booth.
Starsky considered that. "Hutch is stubborn. He's wanted this for a long time. It would take a lot to convince him it's a mistake."
"Do you think it's a mistake, David?"
"I thought so at the beginning, but I've learned a lot since I got here. The peace and quiet are sure different from our line of work." He considered a moment. "Of course, you do have wolves, but I'm beginning to see why he keeps yapping about this kind of life."
Mrs. Hutchinson gently laid her hand on Starsky's arm. "David, my son is a dreamer, and reality never quite matches his ideals."
Starsky nodded. "Yeah, and then he gets depressed. What's he gonna do without me around to cheer him up again?"
"Please stay a little longer. He still needs you."
Starsky saw how serious she was. "Sure. I don't have to go yet."
"Good." She still held his arm. "I got a letter from my sister Edith."
"Yeah? How does she like California?"
"She says it's wonderful. There's a supermarket only a block away. Ken's plants are beautiful. Paul likes it so well he's taking a job. There are people everywhere, movies, stores, and all kinds of things to do. Everything is wonderful." She looked straight into Starsky's eyes. "I don't believe a word of it."
Starsky was startled. "Why not?"
"Dreaming runs in the family. Some people can't be told anything; they have to find out for themselves. Then they hate to admit -- to themselves -- that they were wrong. David, people like that need people like us to smooth the way a little, make it easier."
Starsky looked over at Hutch's father watching the mouse decide whose quarter would win the plush panda. "I thought you two wanted Hutch to quit the force -- come home."
"We want him safe, David. We can't help being parents." She looked at her husband. "But if he's not happy..." She sighed. "Everybody needs to feel worthwhile; needed." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You're good for him, dear, and that makes you special to us."
That evening, as the five of them sat together enjoying the fireworks display, the lights in the sky barely matched the brightness Starsky was feeling at the knowledge that he still belonged.
Starsky's pleasure wasn't lost on Hutch. His mother had let him read Aunt Edith's letter without commenting on it. It seemed like everything was working out just as he had hoped it would. Everybody was happy. Everybody but the guy who'd set this all up. Hutch looked at his calloused hands, then at the guitar he never seemed to have the time or energy to play, and remembered that the tractor needed to be fixed. He thought of fishing lazily by the pond, but then on his grandfather's old roll-top desk he spotted the journal lying open accusingly to the page marked, "pick and can early beans." He dreamed of the days he used to hide through the woods identifying thrush calls and warblers, then looked out at the garden knee-deep in weeds -- again. He longed to take off for even a day to go sailing in the lake region, but remembered the cow that needed regular milking and the animals to be fed. It wasn't supposed to be like this. His memories had been so beautiful, but it was just hard work, and he didn't see the challenge Jo talked about -- not like ferreting out pushers who destroyed kids' lives with their junk, or breaking down step by step the empire of a man who thought he was above the law. Now that was a challenge!
But Aunt Edith and Uncle Paul were happy in his apartment, and Starsky was happy over at Jo's. He sighed, and trudged wearily out to the garden with a basket for picking beans.
Starsky was happy over at Jo's. She was feeding him homemade bread with fresh butter, and they were planning the evening meal she had invited them for.
"Would you like chicken for dinner?"
Jo led the way through the enclosed back porch, across the lawn, and over to the henyard. "That section holds the egg-layers, and this group is for eating." She walked in amongst the milling fowl, grabbed one by the legs, and carried the squawking, flapping creature across the yard to a well-used woodblock. Before Starsky realized what was happening she picked up a hatchet, flopped the bird across the block, and, with one quick, stroke, cut off the head.
Starsky wasn't prepared for the sudden spurt of blood gushing from the spasmodically flopping body. His stomach turned over and he had to fight to keep from vomiting. Fortunately Jo was too busy draining the carcass to notice, and by the time she turned around he had his revulsion under control.
"Here," she said, handing him the now-still bird. "Let it drain some more while I get the kettle boiling to loosen the feathers." Starsky heard the screen door creak open as she crossed the porch into the kitchen, leaving him gingerly holding the chicken's feet and starting at the gory neck. Several minutes crawled by.
"Jo." His voice came out in a croak. He tried again. "Jo."
She came out the door. "Yeah?"
"Can you take this now?" He held out the chicken, still staring helplessly at its neck. "I -- I've got to get home and -- uh -- tell Hutch what time to come over for dinner."
She looked at him closely, then reached out for the dead bird. "Okay, Dave. I'll see you this evening for dinner."
"Uh, yeah, sure... six." He turned and started walking fast toward Hutch's place, breaking into a jogging run that had nothing to do with physical fitness.
Jo stood in the doorway staring thoughtfully at the dead chicken.
"--and she just chopped off it's head -- like she was cutting a carrot or something." Starsky was still having trouble controlling his stomach.
Hutch reached over and quieted his partner's fidgeting hand. "Starsk, you've been eating chicken for years. How did you think they got to be Kentucky Fried?"
"I don't know. I guess I just never thought about it." He looked miserable.
Hutch decided to get it all over with at once. "Starsk, you've been feeding the pigs and calf for weeks now. They aren't being raised for pets, you know."
Starsky's eyes widened. "You mean Ferdinand..." He couldn't voice the thought.
Hutch nodded. "He'll provide steak and hamburger for a whole year. That's his purpose, just like the pigs get turned into bacon, ham, and sausage, and they both make that salami you used to eat for breakfast."
Starsky looked sick, really sick. Hutch felt terrible. He tried not to blame himself -- how could a man live for more than 30 years and close his mind to where his meat came from?
It didn't help. He still felt guilty about his partner's misery. "Look, why don't you go watch TV or play some music or something. I'll be in in a minute, okay?"
Trancelike, Starsky walked into the other room and Hutch made a quick phone call.
"Jo? I don't think you'd better count on us for dinner tonight. Starsky's suffering from an acute case of cannibalism."
"I was afraid of that. I've seen that look before. As a matter of fact, I can remember the first time you saw a slaughter."
"Yeah. It takes some getting used to."
"Sonny, I don't enjoy killing things, but it has to be done."
"I know, Jo. He'll understand eventually."
"Damn. He makes me feel like a murderer."
"Yeah, but don't forget, he's seen a lot of killing and most of it was murder. It's the eating part that gets him. He's had to kill, but not for food. Fishing was the closest he ever got -- and I cleaned the fish."
"And I was going to ask you guys to go hunting with me, like we used to."
"I guess that's out."
"Yeah." There was a pause before she spoke again. "Tell him I'm sorry, Sonny."
"Don't be, Jo. It's okay, but I'll tell him."
After he hung up Hutch stood still for a few minutes, trying to remember what had helped him through the same experience years ago. He decided that what Starsk needed most was time; time and hunger. I guess we'll be eating a lot of macaroni and cheese or eggs for the next few days.
With a sigh Hutch checked their supply of eggs, then walked into the next room.
Jo cantered out of Hutch's driveway after a brief visit, then slowed her horse to a walk. She had taken a long hard ride, trying to work out a solution to the "Cannibal Problem," and Stewball was lathered. He needed some tender loving care. I could use some myself, she decided, thinking of the change in Starsky's attitude toward her in the past couple of days. All the bounce, the cocky repartee, was gone. Oh, he was polite enough, and had accepted her careful invitation for them to come by later -- after dinner -- for some ice cream and cake. Sonny had even tried to cheer her up with a surreptitious thumbs-up sign, but she still felt lousy.
Well, no time to think of herself now. The cows needed milking as soon as she cooled off her horse, and it was feeding time for everyone, a time she looked forward to, and never thought of it as 'chores'. She always felt especially close to her charges when she could tend to their needs and talk to them as they nuzzled about for their handouts.
Still walking the horse slowly, Jo turned in at her driveway, enjoying the cool shadows of the thick row of pines stretching to the barn. She dismounted by the house, dropping the reins so the horse would stay put. She walked past the corner bushes to get the curry brushes -- and was jerked roughly against a large man, who brought the chicken hatchet up to her throat. She suppressed a scream and tried to think.
"What--?" She croaked, but the man interrupted.
"Okay, Miss Stanton. Just stay cool."
At the sound of her name she tried to twist around and see his face, but the hatchet was sharp on her neck and she felt a warm trickle of blood.
"Just walk into the house... slowly."
She staggered awkwardly in his grip, but somehow they made it up the steps, across the porch, and into the kitchen. He pushed her down onto a chair and, holding the hatchet threateningly close with one hand, looped what she recognized as the long halter rope from the yard around her body and the chair back. Then he lashed her wrists together before he laid the hatchet down and tied the knots securely.
She tried to control her fear. "What do you want from me?"
"Look, Miss Stanton, I don't want to hurt you, but I have to get away before the dogs come. You just came home too soon."
"Should I know you?"
"I worked here one harvest. Hey, I need money, clothes. You got a car?"
She didn't answer.
"Don't push me, lady. They're after me. I need a car."
"I don't have one."
"Come off it. You must have something. Anything. I gotta get away."
She watched his hands tremble. "My pickup is in the shop."
"There's a tractor."
He glared at her.
"And my horse."
He turned away from her, and started pacing the kitchen furiously. He stopped by her chair. "I need clothes."
She glanced at his disheveled gray prison garb. "Try the back porch. Maybe something will fit."
He went out the kitchen door and she heard him rummaging among the work clothes hanging on the hooks out back. She strained futilely against the rope as the minutes passed.
"The reformatory's miles away," she called. "How'd you get here?"
"Followed the creek."
She heard him behind her now, looking through the office room, and heard papers rustling and objects falling as he foraged. Finally he came into the kitchen wearing a pair of coveralls, and her heart sank when he placed both her shotgun and her hunting rifle on the kitchen table, pulled ammo from his hastily stuffed pockets, and loaded them both while he answered the question she had already forgotten.
"Recognized the place, so I left the creek. Can't fool the dogs forever." He picked up the shotgun, leveled it at her head, and pulled a picture out of one pocket. He held it up and she recognized it as one from her desk. It was of herself, smiling -- and seated proudly on her Harley Davidson.
"No more fooling around, lady. Is that motorcycle here?"
"It hasn't been used in years."
His voice rose. "Where?"
"In the barn."
He lowered the shotgun. "That's better. I'm going to check." He went out the door, but was back in moments, plunking her roll of heavy twine onto the table. "I don't want you moving around." He cut lengths and tied her ankles to the chair legs. "What's the matter with your damned animals? They're all making noise."
"It's past milking and feeding time."
He grabbed the shotgun and went out. She heard him cross the porch and open the squeaking screen, then his footsteps crunched the gravel of the driveway and faded out. She bounced and wriggled, moving the chair little by little in the direction of the phone, but had gone less than halfway when she heard the footsteps returning. The screen door creaked and he walked in.
"Damn you!" He grabbed her chair and dragged her back to the table. "You damned liar. Hasn't been used in years? It sparkles! And it's full of gas." His eyes hardened. "Where's the key?"
"In the office desk."
"It better be." He glared at her. "I supposed you'd lie again if I asked where you hide your money, but I intend to find out... one way or another." He left the room and began to search, the shotgun never leaving his side.
Hutch had decided they'd walk to Jo's. Starsky needed the diversion, and maybe time to think. As they got closer, he heard the mournful mooing and a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction coming from the barn. As they turned into the drive he spotted Stewball standing, reins down, with dried white foam visible on his flanks even from a distance. Without realizing it, Hutch slipped into a wary, crouching gait, and Starsky followed suit. They moved quickly over to the house, staying below any windows, and Hutch whispered, nearly inaudibly, "Jo would never leave her horse like that, and listen to the animals. I don't think they've been fed."
Hutch worked his way around the bushes and risked a careful peek into the kitchen. He saw Jo tied to a chair, looking into the other room. There was blood on her neck. He noted the hatchet, rifle, and rope on the table just as Jo turned back and saw him. She gasped. He signalled for quiet and mouthed the words "how many?" He thought she mouthed back "one", so he held up one finger. She nodded. He pointed toward the other room. She nodded again. He gave her a thumbs-up sign and dropped down again, then pointed toward the pines lining the drive and made a quiet run for them, Starsky at his heels. He stayed behind the pines all the way to the barn, then slipped in through the back door and quietly filled Starsky in.
"What can we use against a rifle?" Starsky whispered.
"There's a rabbit gun back at the farm."
"That's nearly a mile. Take too long." Starsky looked around and picked up a pitchfork. "No good. Too clumsy."
Hutch went over to the tools hanging on one wall. He selected a sturdy axe, then his eye fell on an old slingshot hanging from a nail. It jarred a pleasant memory and he picked it up.
Starsky's voice broke into his reverie. "You've gotta be kidding!"
Hutch shrugged and stuck the toy into his shirt pocket. "You never know."
"This ain't no game, Hutch. You need a real weapon." He picked up a sharpened sickle. "Like this."
Grimly they weighed the merits of an axe and sickle against a rifle. Starsky finally said. "Okay, you hide on the back porch. Give me five minutes to go around the front and in through the bedroom window."
"Figures you'd know where that is."
Starsky ignored him. "Then make a noise to draw him away from Jo, and I'll get him."
"Some peaceful country life!"
They gave each other a long look, then slipped back out, along behind the pines and across to the house. A quick peek into the kitchen showed their quarry poking around in the refrigerator. Jo still looked all right.
They split up and Hutch crept along the house next to the gravel drive. Absently he picked up a few stones and slipped them in with the slingshot. The setting sun cast long shadows, and he stayed in them as he crept to the back door. Taking care not to make the boards of the steps squeak, he gripped the axe and reached for the screen door. It creaked loudly as he opened it.
My God, I forgot about that noisy door!
He slipped inside and dove for the corner beyond the freezer chest. He slid into the tiny space under the shelves of canning jars just as the kitchen door opened and the man came cautiously out to investigate.
It's too soon. Starsk isn't ready yet. He saw the man go over to the screen door warily, a shotgun clenched in his hands, then start to turn back toward the kitchen. Damn. He'll see Starsk, and Jo's in there, too. Got to get his attention away from them. He pulled the little slingshot from his pocket, loaded it, and, just before the man got to the door, inched up high enough to let fly a well-placed rock. It caught him on the side of the head.
Hutch tried to duck down behind the freezer again as the man whirled, shouting in fear and pain, and discharged a blast from the shotgun at Hutch's corner.
Jo had heard the screen door creak, and, knowing Sonny was outside somewhere, was terrified when the escapee picked up the shotgun and went out back. The quiet was unnerving, so the yelp of pain followed by an explosion and shattering glass were too much. She screamed, but in her ears it seemed to each "Huuuuuuutch," and a frightening apparition wielding a sickle flashed by from the frown room toward the back porch. Then she heard a strangely vicious order, "Freeze!" She strained to hear some sound that would let her know Sonny was alive.
An eternity later, she heard his tense voice. "Thanks, partner, that was close."
Her head still twisted around, she watched in horror as a parade of bloody savages entered her kitchen. The convict was shoved into sight first, a sickle encircling his bleeding throat. His arm was twisted behind him by Starsky whose face was distorted with anger. He marched the man to a chair and threw him into it, carelessly scratching his throat with the sickle. Jo found herself frightened of this creature so alien from the sensitive lover who was shocked by the slaughter of a chicken.
Then she saw Sonny. Her dear, gentle friend for all these years, his face bloody and terrible, held the shotgun leveled at the man in the chair. His inhumanly cold eyes dared the man to move, and she knew if he did this suddenly transformed Sonny would kill him. A taste of bile rose in her throat. She shivered involuntarily, and became aware of Starsky's voice as he moved about.
Starsky had quickly tied the man to the chair and was not carefully easing the gun out of Hutch's shaking hands. He led Hutch to a chair and urged him to sit down, then grabbed a dish towel, soaked it with cold water, and started to clean away the blood with careful, gentle strokes.
"That was close. When I saw him about to fire that second barrel I thought you were a goner. And you with only a dumb axe looking up at him. Damn that creaky door. A slingshot yet. I'm David, you're Goliath, you dumb ape. Glass everywhere! He got every jar on the shelf, and so did you. Look at all this blood! You're still bleeding, damn it! I think you'll need stitches on the one back here."
His soothing voice continued and Hutch sighed, the tension visibly draining from his body. But Jo was still in her private world of horror, and while her senses reported what was going on in front of her, her mind refused to understand it. She wanted to get away from here, away from the last few hours, especially away from the thought of the grisly procession into her peaceful kitchen. She lurched angrily against her bonds, drawing Starsky's attention.
"Oh, hey, Jo. I'm sorry." Quickly he untied her, his face showing his confusion at her obvious revulsion.
In a strangled voice she said, "I've got to tend the animals," and fled the scene, not even seeing the devastation of the porch as she switched on the barn lights and ran for the comfort of routine. She led the horse into the barn, and closed her mind to anything but milking machines and fodder. She had no idea how much time had passed, except that the chores were all done and she was putting the last of the milk away in the cooler when she saw Sonny standing in the doorway. His head was patchy with bandages, and his eyes were troubled.
"Jo, the sheriff's men are here. They want to talk to you."
He reached for her arm, but she pulled away from him and trudged wearily to the house to face the ordeal. It didn't last long, and soon the officers left with their prisoner. She still couldn't remember his name. She sank dispiritedly into the same chair she'd spent hours in earlier that evening. Starsky came over and put his hand on her shoulder. "Jo, are you all right? Want us to stay here with you tonight?"
It was too much. Her suppressed fear turned to anger, and she looked up at him, her eyes venomous. "You?" she exploded. "You stay with me? Why, to protect me? I'm more afraid of you than I was of him!"
Starsky backed up from her verbal attack, his face a picture of shock. Hutch found his voice. "Jo, what's the matter? What's wrong?"
"Wrong? Nothing's wrong. I just saw you turn into a madman tonight, ready to kill another human being if he so much as twitched, that's all."
Starsky came to his defense. "You don't understand, Jo. That guy tried to kill Hutch. He hurt you, and was going to kill Hutch. We had to stop him."
"Oh, you stopped him. He didn't dare move or you'd have cut his throat, but you hated me for killing a chicken! Damn it, Dave. I've never killed a man! Where do you get off condemning me?!"
Starsky looked miserable. "You're right, Jo. I just didn't understand about the chicken. I'm sorry."
"Well, I just don't understand either. I don't understand how you can kill people, and I'm sorry, too. Sorry for the whole damned world, and sorry for myself, and I want to be alone and not have to look at you any more." She grimaced. "And I felt guilty about killing a chicken."
Hutch tried again. "Jo?"
"Go home, Sonny, and take your hypocritical friend with you. I'm going to bed."
Hutch turned around, and with shoulders drooping started out the door. Starsky looked at her a long moment, then caught up with Hutch, putting an arm around his shoulders as they disappeared from the circle of the yardlight.
For the first time in her life Jo locked all the doors and windows.
The sun streamed cheerily onto the breakfast table the next morning, but did nothing to dispel the gloom in the Ken Hutchinson's farmhouse. An unusually silent Starsky was at the stove trying to transfer strips of bacon from the frying pan onto two plates that already held freshly-cooked eggs. One fell off the fork. He reached for it and his fingers touched the grid.
"Ow!" His cry broke the quiet, but Hutch, slumped in his chair at the table, didn't seem to hear it. Starsky brought the plates and set one in front of Hutch with a worried frown.
"Here, eat. 'A good breakfast is important'," he quoted as he sat down himself.
Hutch sighed, picked up his fork, and dutifully ate a bite of bacon. He looked at his plate. "You cooked meat, Starsk."
"Yeah, well a guy has to accept the facts sometime." He looked hard at Hutch, but decided not to force the reverse point yet. He finished his breakfast, then noticed Hutch pushing his fork aimlessly around the half-eaten eggs.
"The least you can do is eat what I cook," he encouraged.
Hutch looked up. "I'm sorry, Starsk. It's good, but I'm just not hungry." He stood up and wandered absently from the room, forgetting to clear his plate. His partner watched him go, then without a word cleaned up the table and kitchen, just as he had done all the other chores that morning while Hutch had milked Cleo slowly in the same distracted way.
Starsky walked into the front room. Hutch was standing by the fireplace staring at the pendulum of the antique calendar clock. With each tick, the mechanical stars at the top of its face moved further out of sight, making way for the curling rays of the smiling sun.
"She'll get over it, Hutch."
"It's not just Jo."
"Oh, it hurts, all right. I didn't expect that from her."
"Yeah. A simple 'thank you' woulda done."
Hutch continued thoughtfully, "All these years I've been looking at the farm through Jo's eyes, not mine."
"How do you see it now?"
Hutch looked at his calloused hands and laughed ruefully. "Everything's different." He looked up. "Or I am." He gazed out the window. "It's peaceful here, and I'll always like that, but it's too structured, too routine."
"Like having to write reports when you want to hit the streets."
Being understood felt good. "Right. Jo seems to like that. She knows just what to expect every day -- the same chores, the same people, no surprises -- a nice closed environment with a selective society," he added in his best textbook manner.
"No wonder she blew up like that."
"Yeah." A determined look came into Hutch's eyes. "Starsk, I want to go home."
Starsky began to grin and reached up to give Hutch's cheek a happy pat. "Attaboy, Hutch. I knew you'd see the light. Let's start packing!"
Hutch frowned. "It's not that easy, Starsk. The animals, the garden... besides, I don't have an apartment anymore."
"Hell, you can stay with me for awhile!"
"What about the farm? I can't sell it. It means too much."
"Maybe you can hire someone to live here." Starsky remembered the conversation with Hutch's mother. "Why don't you call your aunt and ask for suggestions?"
"Yeah. Okay." He headed for the phone. "No time like the present."
The call went through quickly. A sleepy voice answered.
"Ken? Is that you? Is something wrong?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot the time difference." He hesitated. "Aunt Edith, I've decided I'm not a farmer. I'm coming back to L.A. Can you think of anyone I could hire to take care of the farm?"
There was a long sigh on the other end of the phone. "Sonny, would you consider hiring a very foolish old couple who did not know enough to stay where we belong?"
Hutch was surprised. "But your letter. You said--"
"I lied a little. Oh, it's exciting here, and there's a lot to do, but the prices are terrible. Paul had to take a job; he didn't want to. All the houses are so crowded together. No yards. If it weren't for your plants I'd go crazy. And the food... nothing is fresh. It must take days to truck it in. I miss my garden. Oh, Sonny, I'm homesick!"
Hutch laughed. "I love you, Aunt Edith. We're a great pair. It only takes a sledgehammer to teach us anything."
"Your mother will never let us live this down, you know."
"She'll be okay. Aunt Edith... thanks for not liking the city."
"It's a great place to visit, but..."
"Yeah, same here."
"We'll be home on the first plane we can get!"
After the goodbyes Hutch hung up the phone, looking totally relaxed and happy. All of a sudden he let out a wild "Yippee," grabbed Starsky, and started spinning him around the room exuberantly.
"Hutch, for Chrissake," Starsky yelled, helplessly pinned in his partner's crazed grip. They lost their balance and crashed to the carpet, laughing. Starsky's shirt slipped up, and Hutch couldn't resist poking the exposed ribs.
"Damn you, Hutch. Stop it! That tickles!" He rolled away and bounced to his feet. With a wicked grin he crouched to spring, and the wrestling match was on in earnest. They were contorted into a tangle of writhing arms and legs when a familiar voice broke in.
"Hey, an orgy. Can anybody join?"
Two heads looked up and spoke together. "Jo!" They untangled hastily and got to their feet. Jo's bravado disappeared as two pairs of blue eyes gazed at her curiously. "I -- I'm sorry about last night," she stammered.
Hutch took her hands. "It's okay, Jo." He checked the rope burns on her wrists. "That was all pretty rough for you. It didn't belong in your world."
"But it does in yours?"
Starsky spoke quietly. "It doesn't belong anywhere. That's why the White Knight here keeps trying to get rid of it."
Hutch squeezed her hands. "There are still windmills to tilt, Jo, and I'm going back to take on a few."
"How can you go back to all that danger?"
Starsky snorted. "Hah, he thrives on it. If nobody was shooting at him he'd die of boredom."
Jo walked over to a chair and sat down heavily. "All these years I never realized what your job was like, Sonny. How can you stand it? Really?"
"Sometimes I reach somebody," Hutch tried to explain, "like the kid I'm Big Brother for, or a little girl who used to be an addict and kicked it, or just ordinary people who're glad somebody is trying to help. Then it's worth it."
Starsky was watching him with a mixture of pride and something indefinable. "He's saved a lot of lives, Jo. Frequently mine."
Hutch returned the gaze for a long moment before speaking. "You notice that works both ways. We keep each other alive."
They both turned toward Jo, who sat transfixed by the solemnity of the moment. Taking a step toward her, Starsky leered.
"Now, about that orgy..."
The moment exploded in laughter.
"Sonny, don't forget the lunch I packed for your trip!"
"Starsk has it in the car already, Aunt Edith. Thanks."
Hutch looked around, ostensibly to find anything he might have forgotten, but actually to wish a silent farewell to each familiar sight. The past week had become the real vacation he had been denying himself since his arrival. He, Starsk, and Jo had crammed in all the happy activities he'd always associated with this beloved place. Even after his aunt and uncle returned they'd stayed for a few days of fun, but now reality intruded into the dream, and Hutch found himself actually looking forward to leaving. He walked out to the car and stopped with a grin. Locked in a warm kiss, Starsky and Jo were oblivious to his presence.
"My turn," Hutch said after a moment.
Lazily they broke apart, still looking into each other's eyes. With a self-satisfied smirk Starsky asked, "Do we know him?"
Jo grinned. "Sure we do. He's Don Quixote." She gave Starsky another quick kiss, then slipped out of his arms and into Hutch's for an affectionate hug. She looked up at him solemnly.
"I'm glad it all happened. I learned a lot about myself."
"We all did." Hutch released Jo and gave his aunt and uncle a hug. "Thank you for everything."
"Come back soon, Sonny."
Starsky revved the engine, and Hutch barely got the door closed before the car spun out the drive and down the road. Starsky started pointing out the sights. "There's the reservoir where you and Jo went skinnydipping. Look at the new barn at Jensen's. There's Snyder's Drugstore -- used to be McCloskey's. There's the town square where they gave the Fourth of July speeches..."
Hutch slid contentedly down in the seat and smiled. "Shut up, Starsk." He was rewarded with a satisfied grin.
As the car left the old landmarks behind and headed for the open highway west, Starsky settled comfortably into the seat. He slid his arm across the back of the seat and gave Hutch a playful punch. Welcome home, partner."
Hutch looked over at him. "Home. That sounds good, Starsk." He leaned his head back against the friendly hand and relaxed completely. "Really good."