The morning of December 13, they embarked on their journey to the Windy City. Whether or not it would be their last stop before Duluth remained a matter of debate, as did the length of their stay. Starsky, of course, had a long list of possible activities that would take at least three days to get through, and had his mind set on staying in the Drake Hotel on Downtown Chicago's Magnificent Mile. The usual fight about money took the better part of the trip from Cleveland until they arrived in Elkhart, Indiana, where they stopped at a drive-in fast food restaurant for lunch around two in the afternoon.

"Look, I'm gonna stay in the middle of the action when I get there. I'll even pay for the room, Mr. Cheap Skate. If you don't like that arrangement you can sleep in the car." Starsky took out some of his hostility on his hamburger as he bit into it savagely.

"In this car? It's bad enough to have to ride in it all day let alone sleep in it," Hutch grumbled through a mouthful.

"Beats riding in that smelly hunk a junk you loosely call a car," Starsky shot back, intentionally engaging Hutch in a more good-natured line of sparring. He planned to stay at the Drake one way or the other, so why argue about it?

"My car could have handled this trip just fine. I just gave in on that point so I wouldn't have to listen to you bitch about my car during the entire trip."

"Oh, I get it. So now I get to listen to you bitch about mine?"

"You know what they say about turnabout, Starsk."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Starsky took a drink of his pop. "Hey, you know you can pick up better women if you aren't staying in a fleabag."

"Okay, fine, if you want to pay for the fancy schmancy hotel, it's your financial funeral, pal." Hutch smirked and shook his head.

"You mean you'll really consent to stay there with me if I pay for it? Golly, Hutch, I didn't know anybody could be so damn generous," Starsky retorted. Hutch just snickered in response and kept eating.

The rest of the ride to Chicago was more peaceful, the hotel issue having been settled. Hutch scanned the radio stations for something listenable, and they found themselves varying between Christmas music and whatever they could both agree on, which was usually nothing. They sang along with the Christmas carols, and a few other songs they both knew. As they were nearing the end of the trip, Starsky seemed content to tap out the beat on the steering wheel, as he had finally won the battle and gotten a rock station pulsing through the Torino's speakers. The weather wasn't wonderful, with a light snow falling and plenty of slush on the roads. The highways were quite clean, but still slippery in a few spots. Hutch snickered a little when "A Horse With No Name" played on the radio station. "...riding through the desert on a horse with no name..." How about riding through a snowstorm in a striped tomato? he thought with a smirk. Starsky noticed his expression.

"What is it?" he asked, smiling back.

"I think that's about the only thing we haven't done on this trip." Hutch decided to forego expressing his original thought.

"Does riding through a canyon on a donkey named Theodore qualify?"

"Close enough."

"Hey, we should be getting close to the big city pretty soon here," Starsky took an exit off the highway. The Torino hit a patch of ice and skidded a little, but he brought it back under control quickly. "Damn, I'm not used to the ice. I think the last time I drove any distance in this stuff--"

"Listen," Hutch shushed him, turning up the radio.

"...the New York businessman with alleged connections to organized crime was found dead in his Manhattan penthouse early this morning, the victim of an apparent suicide. Authorities say the investigation remains open pending final autopsy results. Martelli was 56 years old. In local news..."

"Oh my God," Starsky murmured, his face going pale. "My mother. I've gotta call my mother." He started searching the highway signs for notice of any sort of turn off that would lead to a pay phone.

"Apparent suicide...know any other good jokes?" Hutch shook his head. "Goretti really went all out on this one, didn't he? Do you realize we now have information on a murder that we're keeping under our hats? This thing just keeps getting worse."

"Dammit, where can I get a hold of a telephone?!" Starsky cut across two lanes of traffic to a symphony of horns and screeching brakes when he spotted a rest area. Bringing the Torino to a spinning and erratic stop, he jumped out and ran to the phone booth. Hutch remained in the car. He had heard too much now. He didn't need to hear more.

Starsky fumbled for his change and pumped it into the phone at the operator's direction. He finally gestured frantically at Hutch for more money, so Hutch went to the phone booth and started handing his partner as much change as he had. Finally, the connection was made.

"Ma? It's me. I just heard on the radio...right. Are you all right? What happened?" He paused while she explained something, and resting his forehead in his hand in a gesture of obvious distress, listened to her story. "Who got hit?" He waited again. "Oh, he gonna make it?" Starsky looked at Hutch, an expression of pure shock and horror on his face. "No, I won't ask that because I don't want to know what you know about it. I wanna know if you're okay, because I'm not too far from O'Hare airport in Chicago, and all I have to do is get there and get on a plane and I'll come get you out of there..." Hutch rested his hand on his partner's shoulder while he continued the conversation, which had him visibly shaken. "Let me talk to him...yeah, I mean it. Give him the phone a minute." Starsky glanced at Hutch, and his partner knew the signal. Something was probably going to be said that keeping to himself could mean compromising his ethics as a law officer. He just nodded at Starsky and squeezed his shoulder a little. Starsky's expression said "thank you" eloquently. "Yeah, it's me. I wanna know what you're doing to keep my mother you've got two cars in the neighborhood? You think there's gonna be a backlash? No, I don't know anything of the sort...I know the drill, Goretti. We haven't had this conversation. Now can we cut the crap? I want to know if there's going to be a backlash that's going to affect my family anymore than it's already been affected...right. So you think that's the last word?" He looked at Hutch, feeling stressed at the content of his conversation with Goretti, and guilty at accepting his friend's willingness to be drawn into knowing plenty about a syndicate murder. All things considered, he couldn't picture dealing with all of it without Hutch's moral support. "Look, I'm gonna tell you something, Goretti. I'm not the little snot-nosed ten-year-old Joe used to push around. If anything happens to my mother because of this, I will personally come back there and take you apart. Got that? Now, put my mother back on." Starsky waited, and after his mother had apparently said a couple of things, he wrapped up the conversation. "I know. I love you too, Ma. I'll call as soon as we get to the hotel...tell Anna and Sam I'll be praying for Sam, Jr. Okay. Bye." He hung up the phone and looked at Hutch.

"Let's get back in the car. It's freezing out here," Hutch tugged on his partner a little to move him toward the car. Once they were inside, Hutch asked the fateful question. "What happened, Starsk?"

"You sure you want me to tell you?"

"I'm in. Tell me."

"They shot up Cardoni's..." Starsky's voice trailed off a little. "Everybody pretty much hit the deck, and they weren't open yet. But when the shooting started, Sam Jr. was sitting at a table by the window, coloring..." Starsky's voice broke and he fought to maintain his composure. "Hutch, he's just a little know what taking a bullet is like for us...and he's so...small."

"He's alive, right?" Hutch asked gently. "That's the most important thing."

"But what does a three-year-old think when he gets a bullet in his chest?" Starsky turned away to look out the window.

"Come on, buddy. Take a deep breath and tell me from the top, okay?" Hutch took a hold of his arm.

"Sam and Anna were setting up for the day--you know, polishing glasses and opening the cash register and all that stuff? They were back at the bar, and the baby was in a carrier behind the bar with them. Sam Jr. was sitting at one of the tables up front because he likes to look out the window...he was drawing or coloring or something. All of a sudden, the shooting started, and just like it happened at the house, there was no warning. Sam Jr. was hit, and the bullet barely missed his heart, but it messed up his left lung pretty badly, he's critical."

"Why did they go after the restaurant in the first place?"

"Apparently Goretti found out that DeSilva had been in charge of the shooting at the house, and he sent his guys after DeSilva's brother--roughed him up pretty good--in retaliation for it. DeSilva went crying to Martelli, who ordered the hit on Cardoni's." Hutch realized the very significant part of the story Starsky wasn't vocalizing, and he didn't press it. The wounding of Sam Jr. had cost Martelli his life. "I did this, Hutch. I went back in there and stirred things up and now look at what's happened. I just feel like this is some kind of a nightmare that I'm never gonna wake up from...They murdered my father...I can still hear that shot... and sometimes I'm just afraid they're going to take everybody..." One wracking sob finally broke loose from Starsky, and was followed by several more as he sat shaking in his seat. Moved by his friend's obvious pain, Hutch slid closer and put his arm around him. Starsky rested his head on his partner's shoulder and cried. "It's all my fault," he murmured. Sam Jr.'s shooting was only a small part of this, Hutch figured. Starsky's father had put his family in the middle of the action with whatever it was he ultimately had, or they thought he had, on Martelli. Starsky's childhood was just another casualty of a mob war. What crime does to kids, Hutch thought. It's unfair. And going through that ordeal with Goretti's goons had shaken Starsky up pretty well, though he had spent most of his time trying to play it down for his mother's sake, because it was a grim fact of life that she needed Goretti's protection and frienship. "None of this is your fault, Starsk. It never was." Hutch pulled him close enough to get both arms around him. "It's okay, just get it out," he said softly, leaning his head against Starsky's. "Maybe you were on your own to deal with this twenty years ago, but you're not now," Hutch said, tightening his hold on his partner. "I know you had to handle all this stuff alone for a long time, with nobody in it with you. You don't have to do it by yourself anymore, buddy. You just lean on me. I'm always gonna be right here, I promise." Hutch paused, groping for something else to say. "Sam Jr.'s a healthy little kid, he'll pull through this, and with Martelli out of the picture, things'll quiet down a lot. You'll see." Only parts of Hutch's words reached Starsky; he was hearing that horrible shot from that night all those years ago, and it seemed like that shot just kept ringing out throughout his life, taking everybody he loved with it--his father, Terry, and now an innocent little child like Sam...and would it take Hutch now too? What was his reaction ultimately going to be now that he knew the truth about the Starsky family's entanglement with Durniak and Goretti? The soft tone of Hutch's voice interrupted the silence that had let Starsky's thoughts wander. "It's going to be okay. We're in this together, partner. I'm here for the duration," Hutch reassured him, as if he had read the thoughts that had been running through Starsky's mind. He knew the worst of it, and it hadn't changed anything. He was still there. After a long silence, Starsky finally spoke.

"I didn't think you'd stick around if you knew all of it."

"All of what?"

"How messed up and tangled up we are with Durniak's people--mainly Goretti." Starsky took a deep but shaky breath. "I've missed my dad so much," he concluded, regaining a little of his voice.

"I know. But none of it was ever your fault--you were a victim, too. Don't you forget that."

"I won't," Starsky responded, calming now and breathing more evenly.

"Here, blow your nose," Hutch handed him a handkerchief. "I don't want you doing it on my jacket." Starsky took it and laughed a little unevenly. He straightened up and moved away from Hutch, suddenly self-conscious at having lost control of himself so completely.

"I'm sorry about that. I don't know where it all came from." He smiled a little. "I didn't mean to go off on a tangent like that."

"You've seen me at my worst, too, pal. Don't worry about it. This whole mess in New York has to be bringing back some pretty bad memories for you."

"I thought I was past that, though. I mean my father's been gone for what, twenty some years now? Eventually you've gotta move on."

"When you were a kid, after your dad died, did you really have anybody to talk to about it?"

"I s'pose I didn't." Starsky looked at his partner through bleary eyes that were starting to clear and resemble their usual state. "I guess I never thought much about that. Or I did but I just accepted it. My mother and I were always arguing about Durniak, and my grandmother had a heart attack not long before my dad's death, so we were always warned not to upset her too much. I talked to her quite a bit, but not too much about my dad getting killed because it upset her so much."

"So you essentially worked through your grief when you were a kid by yourself."

"I guess I probably did. I just kept going...I think the years between his death and when I came out to LA are kind of a big glob in my memory--I don't know as I really came back to life until I got out of there and started a new life."

"And coming back to New York dredged all the old stuff back up again."

"It sure did. In more ways than one." He paused. "I've got you in this whole Goretti-Martelli thing so deep." Starsky shook his head. "If they investigate--"

"Starsky, how far have they ever gotten when they investigate? They aren't going to knock themselves out trying to turn what was made to look like a suicide into a murder and then trying to pin it on your family...or hunt down a couple of LA police detectives who were shot at--and never heard any results back from ballistics. Besides, Martelli may have been powerful and violent, but Durniak's group are the old guard with all the connections in high places. If they want the investigation hampered, it will be."

"Bet when you took that oath you never thought you'd be hiding information on a murder," Starsky stared straight ahead out the windshield. It was almost totally white with accumulated snow.

"It's a matter of deciding which loyalties come first. Keeping my promises to the department is very important to me, but it isn't the most important trust in my life." The unspoken implication of which trust was the most important made Starsky smile a little.

"It seems really weird to be talking about this know, to just say whatever you think about it without weighing how much the other person knows or can be trusted to know?"

"Must be kind of a relief."

"You don't know the half of it."

"Hey, you want me to drive the rest of the way? We're almost to Chicago."

"No, I'm okay." He started the engine and the windshield wipers tossed the light coating of snow back and forth until there was a clear view through the glass. "Hutch?"



They arrived at the Drake Hotel around six o'clock that evening, and despite the dark cloud of fear about Sam Jr. and the whole New York situation, both Starsky and Hutch found themselves gaping at the Christmas lights and the sights of the Magnificent Mile. The hotel itself was all they'd hoped it would be, very stately and historic in its charm. Fortunately, Starsky had called ahead for a room, as the hotel was booked solid when they arrived. Hutch was a little chagrined that it was one of the more expensive rooms with a panoramic view of the area, since he of course planned to foot his half of the bill, even though he had teased his partner that he wouldn't. Under the circumstances though, if a fancy hotel room would raise Starsky's spirits a little, Hutch was the last person who would come down on him for it. As a matter of fact, Hutch was struck with an inspiration that made him leave Starsky with the bell boy at the elevator with the assignment of getting them settled. He had a mission he wanted to accomplish ASAP.

Starsky tipped the bell boy and set his suitcase up on the bed to unpack. They would be here at least three nights, if he had anything to do with it, so he figured they might as well get settled. He hung up both their good clothes, hoping any wrinkles would shake out in time to impress any female company that might be wandering through the lobby. He took note of the phone number on the telephone and decided he might as well place the call to his mother so she would know how to reach them with updates on Sam Jr., or any other new developments that might occur.

It was seven o'clock when Hutch finally returned to the room, package in hand. Starsky was asleep in one of the overstuffed easy chairs in the sitting area, so Hutch slid stealthily past him and set about his task. When he was finished, he poked his partner.

"Oh, you're back." Starsky straightened up. "I guess I dozed off. Hey, we should--" he stopped mid-sentence. On the table by the window sat a small menorah.

"We oughtta light that first, don't you think?" Hutch asked.

"You got that?"

"I figured since we were supposed to be celebrating the holidays, plural, it wasn't really fair for you to get cheated out of yours. I know it isn't the same as being home, but it's something."

Starsky walked over to it and picked up the matches next to it. He lit the service candle and used it to light four of the regular candles, reciting as much as he could remember of a traditional Hanukkah Blessing while he did so. Pausing, he handed the service candle to Hutch. Being the seventh night, there were three more candles yet to light.

"Is it okay for me to do this?" Hutch asked.

"You're already an honorary Starsky, you might as well be an honorary Jew too. Besides, Hanukkah is a family holiday."

Hutch smiled and carefully lit three more of the candles, without being told by Starsky how many were left to light.

"You kept track?" Starsky asked.

"Well, I figured the first one was lit the first night we spent at your mother's, so I just did a little math."

"Oh, I called home a while ago. Sam Jr.'s been upgraded from critical to fair and stable. He even woke up for a few minutes."

"That's great news. See, I told ya he was a tough little kid."

"Hutch, thanks for everything. The menorah...all of it. It really means a lot to me."

"Don't mention it. So, should we get dressed for dinner?"

"I'm starving. I know it's probably expensive here, but I really want to have dinner in the dining room--"

"Wouldn't think of anything else," Hutch replied cheerfully, pulling out his sportcoat. Starsky didn't know if his change of heart was pity or the spirit of the holidays, but whatever it was, he opted to enjoy it rather than over-analyze it.

Dinner was expensive, but it was delicious, and the dining room was beautifully decorated for the holidays. Knowing Sam Jr. was at least out of the woods improved Starsky's outlook considerably, and in Hutch's opinion, he seemed more cheerful and upbeat than he had in a long time. It was as if voicing all the most taboo things about his family's ties with Durniak to someone else had unburdened him greatly. It was not a burden Hutch took lightly. He realized he had key information on a mob hit which was being laid to rest as a suicide. But who would pay if he revealed that information? Goretti, like all of Durniak's merry men, was slippery; he'd probably have an alibi and manage to avoid being tied in directly. The only people who would probably suffer would be the Starskys, out from under Durniak's and Goretti's protection and having raised the ire of Martelli's contingent.

After dinner, they took a walk down the brightly decorated sidewalks of Chicago. Not that the brightly lit streets of a big city were particularly novel to these Californians, but the snowbanks and Christmas lights and general festivity of this stretch of Chicago's downtown business district embodied the very cheer of the season. Storefronts made splashes of colored light, reflected off the wet pavements. Salvation Army Santa Clauses rang bells from several location, which inspired Starsky to start up singing an off-key version of "Silver Bells", which Hutch couldn't resist joining in on, convincing several passersby that they had spent more time in a bar than a fancy dining room. Starsky was determined to experiment with night time photography, which Hutch was convinced was a waste of time and film, but seeing his partner in such a good mood made him bite his lip with that observation.

They wandered into a couple of the pricey department stores on the Magnificent Mile and Hutch finished his Christmas shopping. His sister would wonder why, when passing through the Chicago shopping Mecca, the best he could produce was an Amish quilt. Of course, it seemed like his mother deserved something a little more special than a quilt, so it was relegated to the status of just a souvenir gift, and he prepared to part with a good portion of what money he had left. It didn't take Starsky long to gravitate toward the menswear and investigate some of the more expensive items on the racks. Hutch found his sister a designer sweater that cost him more than his hotel accommodations, while Starsky found himself a black leather jacket he unhappily left on the rack after checking the price tag. While Hutch had located a soft blue sportcoat he felt complimented his coloring perfectly, he too was staggered by the price and replaced it on the hanger. They both settled for slightly less expensive items, leaving the store wearing newly purchased leather gloves.

"We should have top coats. I feel like a nerd wearing this ski jacket with a dress shirt under it." Starsky looked down at himself disapprovingly.

"Top coats? I couldn't even afford a sportcoat in that place."

"Maybe there's a Salvation Army Thrift Shop on the Magnificent Mile," Starsky mumbled with a smile as he peeked inside his wallet at the dwindling supply of cash.

"At least our hands look good anyway," Hutch quipped back.

A woman's scream disturbed their good-humored exchange. They both scanned the area of bustling shoppers and tourists, but could see no one in distress on the sidewalk. The woman screamed again, and this time they followed the sound to the mouth of an alley, at the end of which they could see two men hunched over the struggling figure of a woman. They drew their weapons and Hutch yelled "Freeze, police!"

One suspect fled. The other turned and fired, barely missing Hutch who was to the left and a little ahead of Starsky, who returned the fire immediately, but the suspect darted into a dark doorway near his victim. The two detectives hurried down the alley to the woman who was sitting against the brick building, her clothing in a rumpled disarray. Starsky told Hutch to stay with her, and he raced into the building after the fleeing suspect. Once it was established she was not wounded in any way, Hutch hurried her into the restaurant next to the alley and instructed the hostess that met them to call the police and get back up as well as an ambulance for the frightened victim, who appeared to be close to going into shock.

Starsky's heart was pounding as he slid up a narrow set of steps immediately inside the door. There was nowhere to go but up, and nowhere for the suspect to shoot but straight down, if in fact he was lying in wait at the shadowy head of the stairs. Once at the top, he reached a door which was locked.

"Open up. Police!" he called out. After a second's hesitation, he kicked in the door. All that lay before him was a mostly empty, dingy apartment with an open window to a fire escape. He edged carefully into the room, and made certain there was no more than that one large room and a grimy bath comprising the apartment. Upon Hutch's approach behind him, he spun around and pointed his weapon at his partner momentarily, who had taken his own stance with his Magnum aimed at Starsky until he recognized him in the reflected light of a neon sign outside the window.

Hutch gestured that he would take the internal route to the roof as Starsky inclined his head toward the open window, and climbed out onto the fire escape. The alley and street below were being covered by local police units arriving on the scene. Here we are acting like real cops again, and this isn't even our turf, Starsky thought as he carefully looked up and down the fire escape. There was no sign of the suspect.

Starsky carefully peered over the edge of the roof, holding onto the sides of the metal ladder that took him the last several feet to the top. Hutch was making his way to the roof from inside the building, hoping to make a two-sided attack on whomever might be hiding there.

Two shots buzzed past Starsky's head, almost causing him to lose his balance as he ducked out of the way. He made one more attempt to bob over the side, making two fast shots in the direction the two shots fired at him had originated. No more gunfire erupted in response, so he made the jump over the side and flattened himself on the roof behind a skylight. The door from the inside of the building creaked open, and he could see Hutch silhouetted in the dim light from the inside of the building.

Sirens blared on the street below. So much for discreet back up, Starsky thought to himself. This oughtta be just what we need to panic this nut. And panic he did. As Hutch emerged from the doorway, he was grabbed from behind and a gun held at his head.

"Drop it!" the large, bearded man ordered Hutch. "Wherever you are, cop, you better come out now or I'll blow his brains out!" he called out to Starsky, who immediately stood up with his hands in the air, his left holding his gun. "Put the gun down, nice and slow now," he directed. Starsky pretended to comply, lowering the weapon slowly. Hutch managed an elbow to the gunman's ribs which did not free him but separated his body from the assailant's long enough for Starsky to reverse his downward movement and fire a successful shot into the gunman's abdomen from an odd back-handed angle. Uniformed police arrived just in time to witness the resolution of the stand-off. With the suspect now crumpled in a heap on the rooftop, his gun in Hutch's possession, the two LA detectives held up their badges and presented the officers with their ID's for closer inspection.

"You're a long ways from home, Sergeant Strasky," one of the men commented, handing Starsky back his ID.

"That's Starsky, Officer. We're on vacation here--my partner and I. We heard a woman screaming. This man and another were attacking her in an alley that runs along the west side of this building."

"We've talked to the victim. She explained how the attack happened. We would like you to both come downtown. We'll need to write up a report."

The ambulance attendants were coming up the interior stairway with a stretcher.

The night dragged annoyingly as they both answered the routine questions they had had to ask so many times themselves. By three that morning, Starsky and Hutch wearily made their way back to the Drake. Starsky was still worriedly examining his camera, hoping that all that was broken was the special lens he had put on it just before starting out that evening. It had been in a camera bag he had tossed aside at the onset of the chase. Fortunately, Hutch had thought to pick it and the bag containing his sister's Christmas present up as he led the victim into the restaurant. The menorah candles had burned down low, the room's residents arriving about five hours later than they planned. Starsky blew out the small flames.

"Well, that was an interesting little diversion," Hutch commented, wandering out of the bathroom in his robe, toweling off his hair.

"I guess we still got it," Starsky responded with a smirk. "I was beginning to wonder if we'd get rusty."

"That was a clever maneuver with the gun. Where'd you learn that?"


"Tell me that's a joke."

"No, I mean it. I saw some guy do that on TV, in almost the same situation. It looked like a good idea."

"A guy has a gun at my head, and you're experimenting?" Hutch demanded angrily.

"Worked, didn't it? Look, Hutch, if I had made some big exaggerated gesture of bringing my weapon back up and grasping it in both hands and aiming, you'd have been splattered all over the roof before I got off the first shot. Do you seriously think I'd take a dumb chance with your life?"

"No, I didn't exactly mean it like that. I just wondered whatever possessed you to try something you'd never tried before at that particular moment."

"'Cause nothing I've tried before woulda worked." Starsky picked up his stack of towels and headed for the bathroom.

"In that case, nice job, partner." Hutch stretched out on his bed and turned on the TV.

"Was the woman okay?" Starsky called out the door as he started the shower. "I guess with all the questions and the ballistics stuff, I kinda forgot the victim."

"She was shaken up, but the two guys didn't get anywhere--she wasn't raped."

"Seems weird not to be out there lookin' for the other guy, doesn't it? I mean normally that's what we'd be doing."

"Yeah, but we're on vacation, remember?"

"I'm not saying I envy the poor slobs who have to go out and do that. I'm just commenting on it," Starsky responded before disappearing into the shower.

Hutch won the coin toss for the next day's activities, so Starsky braced himself for another day of museums and cultural attractions. Their first stop was the Field Museum of Natural History, which Starsky had to admit was pretty interesting for a museum. The giant gemstones, genuine Egyptian mummies and various other cultural artifacts were pretty unique. After lunch, the Museum of Science and Industry was on the agenda. Old cars and airplanes, and other technologically-oriented displays and exhibits made it, too, a good stop. This beat the dryness of the art museums, as far as Starsky was concerned. Finally--tourist attractions they both agreed on. After splitting a Chicago-style pizza, they made a stop at the Adler Planetarium. All in all, it was a long day, but an enjoyable and completely escapist one. A call to Starsky's mother that evening confirmed that Sam Jr. was steadily improving, and that peace seemed to have been achieved at least for the time being. Martelli's death had been ruled a suicide, and the case closed.

The next morning, after a big breakfast in the dining room, Starsky led Hutch on his choice of tourist stops, which included Shedd's Aquarium and the Sears Tower. Watching the marine life from such a close, and yet safe, proximity, occupied them for quite some time. Starsky added to his photo collection, of course, and the trip to the Sears Tower added to their souvenir collection, with foot-long matchbooks and other items based on the motif of "height".

The morning started early for the travelers, who were determined to get a prompt start to make it to Duluth for dinner. Hutch's mother had been forewarned that her house guests were going to arrive several days early, and that had not come as bad news to her. She informed Hutch that they would be just in time to accompany Hutch's father and brother-in-law on the official Christmas tree-cutting adventure. Mark and Sally Hutchinson-Croft lived on a smaller ranch adjacent to what was now the sprawling Hutchinson homestead. When Hutch referred to it as a ranch for the first time, Starsky noted the change in terminology. They were back on the road again, traveling through Wisconsin when the discussion came up.

"I thought it was a farm," Starsky asked, squinting through the steadily falling snow. The weather was not as calm and cooperative this day as it had been for most of their trip.

"It was, but my father's been branching out over the years. Before I left home, he had expanded into mostly cattle ranching. The farming business wasn't nearly as lucrative, and my dad liked the wheeling and dealing he could do with the sales end of ranching, so he'd moved away from farming and concentrated on cattle. Of course, from cattle he couldn't resist trying his hand at horses. According to my mother, he's made a bundle over the last several years."

"That's great. So your brother-in-law's in the same business?"

"Yeah. His family owned a ranch not far from us. I remember him coming over once in a while when we were kids. There weren't too many kids to play with when you lived out that far in the sticks, so if someone moved in with one anywhere in the geographic area, Sally and I usually scoped it out before too long."

"You and your sister were pretty close, huh?"

"Well, like I said, we didn't have a lot of other kids to choose from. But Sally was all right, for a girl." Hutch laughed a little. "Not that I consider that a bad quality in a person anymore."

"That's one attitude I outgrew real fast," Starsky responded with a laugh. "How much difference is there between you guys? About four years?"

"Right--and Sally was always real smart, so she was a lot of fun to be with. She was kind of a tomboy, too, which helped, since I can't picture having tea parties and playing dress up." "But she could climb trees and play cops and robbers?"

"The perfect girl, right?"

"If you're ten, yeah," Starsky concluded with a little laugh.

"Oh, I don't know. I still find those qualities a little exciting in a woman."

"Come on, get out that guitar and let's do some Christmas music. 'Jingle Bells' or something like that."

"How about 'Sleigh Ride'? That's what I feel like we're doing. Are you sure you want to get distracted from the road right now?"

"I think I can sing and drive the car at the same time--I've even been known to walk and chew gum at the same time, too. It's pretty amazing."

"You know what I mean. The road's getting a little greasy."

"Just play the music, will ya? I haven't killed you yet in this car, have I?"

"So far my luck's held, yeah." Hutch couldn't resist the little dig, and Starsky's nostrils flared a little, but he said nothing. Aha--I finally got the last word on you, Hutch thought to himself.

Hutch started out playing as instructed, and a boisterous sing-a-long was underway within minutes. Starsky did keep his attention riveted to the road, as the traffic had slowed to a crawl along the interstate. An accident up ahead, combined with the slippery road conditions, had brought the string of cars to a snail's pace.

"Man, this is one ugly day," Starsky grumbled as he noticed the presence of sleet mixed in with the snow. The windshield wipers were having some problems moving the freezing substance off the glass.

"You want to pull over and I'll take it for a while?"

"I might not like driving in this stuff, but I would like to get there alive," Starsky retorted. A little late, but he got his "touche" in at last.

"You were the one who wanted to do this in December."

"Until they move the holidays to July, I think it would be a little hard to get here for Christmas any other way."

"How's Sam Jr. doing?" Hutch had overheard Starsky talking to his mother by phone before they left the hotel, but he hadn't filled Hutch in on what he found out from her.

"Better. I mean he's got some problems with that left lung that he'll probably always have, but he's going to be okay for the most part." Starsky was still sullen when discussing his little cousin and the shooting at Cardoni's.

"You aren't still blaming yourself for that, are you?"

"I can't help it. I know I didn't mean to put anybody in the line of fire, but I did stir everything up by talking to Tony DeSilva. None of this would have happened--"

"If your mother had answered your questions instead of getting defensive when you asked her about Goretti's picture."

"Maybe you're right."

"I am right. It's not you, Starsk. It's the whole damn mess, and that was way out of your hands, and really, out of your mother's hands, a long time ago."

"Look, this is a vacation, and we're on the road again, and I think we ought to let New York be back in New York. Whatever I did or didn't stir up, Goretti seems to have quieted back down again, and my mother's okay, even if she is still buddies with the slimy damn toad. I'm ready to drop the whole thing."

"You got it." Hutch started strumming away at the guitar, but Starsky interrupted him one last time.

"I don't know if I ever really thanked you for sticking with me through that mess. Nobody, including me, would have blamed you if you bailed, or if you turned me and my whole family in to the cops."

"For what? Being in the middle of a mob conflict? Your family are victims in this. I admit I don't like knowing as much as I know about Goretti and Martelli, and now that Martelli's dead, I really feel uneasy knowing he didn't kill himself. I've spent a lot of time soul-searching about all of this. First, there's no way I'd ever tell anybody anything you told me in confidence, no matter what it was, I think you know that."

"I always have, but now more than ever."

"So it hasn't been a matter of deciding if I was going to go tell someone else about all of it. It was a matter of laying it to rest in my own mind. I just can't see how anybody would benefit from us playing this by the book. The only ones who would pay for this with their safety would be your family. Goretti would probably get off, Martelli's already dead--what real good would any of it do now? The time for this stuff to come out in the open would have been when you were a little kid and were hauling all this baggage around by yourself, trying to be loyal to your father's memory and not get your head knocked off by Durniak for it. Now, it seems pointless to poke the hornet's nest, if I can borrow your mother's term."

"So you can live with knowing what you know and not saying anything?"

"I can live with it fine. One thing I learned from this trip, and if I got nothing else out of it, it would probably make it worth it, is that there are a lot of gray areas that don't fall into easy categories. I also have come to view work a lot differently than I did."

"How do you mean?"

"It's scary out here in the real world without a badge and a department full of back up to rely on. I always thought we were in the scary, gritty business. But I'm beginning to think life is easier for us sometimes than it is for everybody else."

"I know what you mean. I found it really scary to be in the middle of all that hassle in New Mexico, then Nashville, and New York--even the little scrape in Chicago--without back up we could rely on."

"Maybe we can honestly tell Dobey we missed him, huh?" Hutch chuckled a little.

"I honestly can say that. No matter what we've gotten into at home, we've never been totally cut off. He's gone out on a limb with us more than once. He trusts us, and respects our judgement-- not that I'm saying he doesn't get on our backs once in a while, but when the chips are down, Dobey is usually on our side if he possibly can be. It would have felt real good to be able to call somebody at the NYPD and have that kind of trust."

"And he okay'd this trip, which is saying a lot."

"Considering he's probably experienced a mutiny and been lynched by now by the guys whose vacation requests were turned down because of us." Starsky laughed.

Hutch resumed his strumming of the guitar, and before long they had launched into an off-key, inaccurate version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". They took great pains to re-write the original lyrics, taking some horrible liberties with the song's Christmas list: "...on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve stale donuts, eleven snitches snitching, ten perps escaping, nine hookers hooking, eight cop cars speeding, seven sergeants booking, six captains screaming, five denied search warrants, four b&e's, three homicides, two misdemeanors and a job at the LAPD."

The sing-a-long had dwindled considerably by early afternoon, and Starsky started scanning the horizon for a restaurant. After their obligatory bickering about what they were going to eat, and how Hutch had not eaten anything remotely healthy since launching the trip, they finally settled on a small family restaurant off the highway in Milwaukee, where it appeared they might have more than burgers and fried foods on the menu. At Hutch's advice, they kept lunch light, as his mother was infamous for her cooking, and it was safe to assume she would have a feast ready by the time they made it to the ranch.

Hutch took the wheel for the final leg of the drive to Duluth. Not only did he feel it made sense because he knew the terrain in Minnesota, but he wanted to be the one to drive down the familiar country roads and turn into the property where he had grown up. Starsky seemed content to take over the "shotgun" seat, occasionally playing the guitar or just helping his partner navigate the increasingly heavy snow. By the time they were an hour away from the ranch, visibility was poor, it was getting dark, the headlights were reflecting off the snow, and the roads were becoming treacherous.

"Maybe this would be the time to sing 'Let It Snow'?" Starsky leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the road.

"Maybe this would be a good time to be in LA." Hutch checked the speedometer. They were barely doing thirty miles per hour, and the other traffic was not moving any faster. Native snow navigators were sliding into ditches and into each other in every direction. Freezing rain was making an occasional appearance. "Damn, this is really bad." Hutch strained his eyes, but could not see more than a few feet ahead of the car.

"Think we should pull over?"

"I can't see well enough to pull over, and I think we'd be in as much danger of being hit on the side of the road as we are in the middle of it."

"I'd offer to try driving but I know I couldn't do any better. I've never driven in anything this bad."

"Yeah and you'd probably get hit by another car trying to change drivers."

"I think we made a good choice living in LA," Starsky commented.

"Next year, our relatives can come visit us."

"I always heard Minnesota winters were pretty intense."

"They are. But usually the snow removal is pretty effective. This stuff is accumulating so fast and with the sleet--the roads are murder." Hutch took a deep breath and sighed. "At this rate, we'll be lucky to get there for dessert."

"At this rate, we'll be lucky to get there at all." Starsky leaned back in the seat.

After two and a half very tense hours of driving a route that normally took a little less than an hour, Hutch's expression brightened. They were approaching the Hutchinson Ranch, which was bordered by split rail fences and thickets of snow-frosted pine trees along the country road, which was becoming nearly impassible in the heavy snow.

"This is it--part of it, anyway," Hutch announced.

"All of this? It's beautiful." Starsky was taking in the view of the rolling hills, the frosted pines, the snow falling onto pristine, glittering ground. As they approached the long drive leading to the house itself, the split rail fence was wrapped with pine boughs and Christmas lights, given a soft, puffy glow by the snow that clung to it. As they followed the winding drive, which was almost clear of snow from the ranch's own snow removal efforts, they were able to relax and enjoy the scenery. In the distance, the house loomed. There had been several additions made onto it since Hutch's childhood there, and it looked like a Christmas card, beautifully decorated with lights and pine boughs and wreaths, smoke curling out of the large chimney, lights burning in most windows.

"Looks a lot different than the last time I was here," Hutch commented, pulling up as close to the house as the new circular driveway would allow. It looked more like a country estate that a farmhouse now.

"It looks like one of those Currier and Ives pictures," Starsky craned his neck to look out the passenger window of the Torino. The white house with its red shutters was perfectly suited to the Christmas season. The huge front porch was lit up in anticipation of their arrival, and once the car had idled outside for a few seconds, faces began to appear in the front window.

"Let's go," Hutch turned off the car and they got out and walked up the front porch steps. The front door flew open and Marion Hutchinson was through it and embracing her son before he made it all the way up the steps.

"Are you all right? This storm just came up so suddenly, I was hoping you wouldn't run into any problems."

"We're fine, Mom. A little rough going for a while, but no mishaps. Mom, this is Dave Starsky--"

"Oh, I'd know who he was anywhere. Come here," she said happily, hugging her son's partner as well. "As if this guy needs a formal introduction around here. Come in, both of you." She ushered them inside what was now a large entry area with an open staircase. A tall man with receding gray hair and a strong build was second in line to greet the visitors. Hutch's father, John Hutchinson, strode over quickly to hug his son, and extended a hand to shake hands with Starsky.

"I'm not gonna hug you," he said, laughing good-naturedly.

"That's okay. I'd rather hug your wife anyway." Starsky shook the extended hand.

"I think I like this one," Hutch's mother patted Starsky on the arm. "Now, we have dinner waiting in the oven."

"You held dinner?" Hutch asked, incredulous. It was almost seven thirty. They had been expected at five.

"I didn't start it until later when I saw the weather was so bad. I figured you'd be late. John, will you take the boys upstairs and show them their rooms? I want to get dinner on. Sally and Mark should be here any minute."

"Right this way, gentlemen." John led the way up the long staircase, which was adorned with pine boughs and several big red ribbons.

"This is a beautiful place you've got here," Starsky commented. "It looks like it oughtta be on a Christmas card."

"Thank you, Dave. We've done a lot of work on the place the last few years. There's not a lot left of the original house anyway, but Marion didn't want to tear it down and start over--at least not officially."

"I can't believe how much it's changed," Hutch added.

"Well, I always wanted your mother to have a little fun with her household. She's always made it her whole life--raising you kids, keeping house. I think she deserves it."

"No argument here," Hutch responded.

"Well, Ken, this is what approximates your old room," his father announced, flipping on the light switch in a room that didn't even resemble the original. It was twice the size, had its own private bath, a double closet and a set of full-length glass doors leading onto a balcony. The furniture consisted of a double bed, a dresser, an armoire, an easy chair and a desk.

"Wish it had looked like this when I lived here," he said with a smile, his feet sinking into the heavily padded plush blue carpeting.

"You're going to be right next door, Dave." John led him to the next room, which was almost the same size, also had a private bath and similar furnishings. "Dinner'll be in about ten minutes if Sally and Mark are on time. You boys get settled in and we'll see you downstairs."

"Okay, thanks," Starsky called after him. He walked back into the hall and looked into Hutch's room. "Wow. This isn't exactly what I envisioned when you told me about the old farmhouse."

"Well, this ain't the old farmhouse anymore," Hutch responded, not sounding all that pleased.

"You don't sound happy."

"I guess it doesn't feel like coming home exactly."

"Hey, both your parents are still here. That's pretty important."

"No doubt. We can unload the car later. My dad wasn't kidding about the ten minutes thing. My mother is pretty quick at getting the dinner on."

The smell of food was wafting partway up the stairs as they descended to find the dining room. A petite, attractive blonde and a young man with a thick head of sandy hair Starsky assumed were the Crofts were in the living room with John, and Sally rushed toward her brother as soon as she spotted him.

"Oh, Ken, it's so good to see you!" She hugged him excitedly.

"Same here, Sal." He moved away from her a little, leaving one arm around her. He shook hands with Mark, and then introduced them both to Starsky.

"So this is the famous Starsky," Sally commented as she shook hands with him.


"Ken's written me all about you. I feel like I know you already."

"Is that a good thing?"

"Most of the time," she quipped. Wonderful--someone else with the Hutchinson sense of humor, Starsky thought to himself, cringing a little inwardly.

"Dinner, everyone!" Marion called from the dining room. They all made their way from where they had gathered near the large fireplace in the living room to the dining room, where a long table was laden with large serving dishes of food and two festive centerpieces.

This was indeed a far cry from the home of the old days, Hutch thought to himself.

The fried chicken and all the trimmings lived up to Marion's reputation. The plates and bowls of food made at least three rounds around the table, and the conversation was lively and friendly. The Hutchinsons were an easy family to fit in with, Starsky concluded, since he felt right at home there.

John seemed delighted to have a couple of newcomers to explain the ins and outs of the ranching business to, and Marion and Sally chimed in with their observations on more than one occasion. The long and short of it was that the Hutchinson Ranch and its owner seemed to have the Midas Touch lately, having swung a few major deals in recent years that had made him a major player. Mark, for his part, seemed to be the quiet, introspective type, preferring to stay on the sidelines.

They adjourned to the living room with large wedges of apple pie a la mode and coffee. All that was missing from the beautifully decorated house was the Christmas tree.

"If this storm lets up, we're going to have to make the official tree trip tomorrow," John announced. At least one thing hadn't changed, Hutch thought with a pleasant memory from the past. When he was a child, that announcement had always excited him, and it strangely seemed to have the same effect even now. Starsky seemed no less enthused about the project.

"Hutch said you go out and cut one down off the property here--it looks like you have some real beauties to choose from."

"It's a tradition. We always go tramping out into the woods, argue for about two hours about which one we ought to cut down, cut it down and then haul it up to the house," John summarized. "It's amazing how so much bickering and hard work can be so damn much fun, but it usually is. Be more fun with a few grandkids around to share it," he said quietly, eyeing his two children, who exchanged knowing looks. "I know, I know, 'don't push'," he said, looking over at Marion, who was shaking her head a little. "With all those girls out there in California, how come neither one of you two have gotten settled down yet?"

"Oh, John, really." Marion shook her head in open exasperation.

"Well if I can't get these two to give us any grandkids, maybe I can get a couple adopted ones out of Dave over here."

"It ain't for lack of tryin'," Starsky responded with a grin. "I was engaged, but things didn't work out." He passed on the lengthy details, but it was soon obvious the Hutchinsons already knew about Terry.

"Sorry, Dave. Didn't mean to bring up something unpleasant," John said uneasily.

"Terry's not really an unpleasant subject. We were planning on having kids--she worked with exceptional children, and she was great with them. We actually did meet some pretty nice girls in Arizona," he said, glancing at Hutch. Janine and Samantha had been on both their minds throughout the trip.

"Well, I think we've put David on the spot about his marriage plans long enough," Marion stated, standing up. "Sorry, David, but I'm afraid we think of you more as family than a house guest, so you'll have to forgive us ruthlessly probing into your personal life."

"I don't mind, really. Besides, this doesn't seem like all that bad a family to get roped into."

"Ah, he's a diplomat too," Sally spoke up.

"You don't know him as well as I do," Hutch retorted, shooting Starsky a good-natured grin.

"We keep hearing about all this singing you do, Ken, and we haven't heard any of it. How about a sing-a-long?" Marion asked, gathering up dessert plates. Sally joined her in the clearing project. "We can sort of get started on the Christmas spirit for you tree hunters."

"The guitars are in the car," Hutch started to stand.

"Stay put. I'll get them." Starsky hurried through the entry way and out to the car, not bothering to stop for his coat. He grabbed the instruments quickly out of the car and ran back inside. "On the way here, Hutch and I came up with a new rendition of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. You've gotta hear this one..."

The evening progressed from the desecrated Christmas carol to other more traditional carols, as well as a couple of Hutch's own compositions, including the song he performed in Nashville. By close to midnight, the gathering in the living room had dwindled to John and Marion and their two house guests, with Sally and Mark braving the elements to make the three or four minute drive back to their ranch. Starsky excused himself, offering to unload the car while Hutch visited with his parents. Hutch found his partner's benevolence in taking on the cold ugly task of hauling in their luggage a little out of character, but he was insistent on it, and Hutch settled in to visit with his folks.

Starsky hauled in the luggage, dividing it up between the two rooms. He figured Hutch would probably enjoy visiting with his family unobserved for a while, and there wouldn't be many subtle opportunities for him to slip into the background to make that happen. This had to be an idyllic setting to grow up in, he thought, looking at the rolling hills leading out to the barn and the stables. It sure was a far cry from gangsters and gunfire in New York. If the Hutchinsons wanted to take him in as part of their family, he had no plans to object.

Starsky was propped up in bed reading when there was a knock at his door. It was almost two in the morning.

"Come in," he responded.

"I saw your light." Hutch came in and sat on the foot of the bed. He was in his robe, but didn't appear to have made it as far as his bed yet.

"Well, we finally made it here," Starsky said, laying the book aside. "Didn't think we would for a while there--in the snowstorm, I mean."

"That was a nasty one." Hutch seemed to be in a contemplative mood, and why he had come in to perch on the foot of his partner's bed and make small talk was a little puzzling.

"So, what d'you think of the place now?" Starsky asked, feeling maybe the changes in the old homestead had his partner uneasy.

"It's really something. It's a great house. It's just different...and yet the same. Does that make any sense?"

"No, but I understand it. Your family's still here, it's still the same land--they just changed the looks of things."

"That about says it."

"Hey, what's with Mark? He seems like kind of a sullen sort."

"He and I don't have a good history."

"I thought you played together when you were kids."

"That was a long time ago, Starsk. A lot's happened since then."

"Such as?"

"We were interested in the same girl in high school. He was in love with her, I wasn't, but I got her anyway."

"The irresistible Hutchinson charm strikes again, huh?" Starsky tried to lift the mood, but Hutch remained serious.

"Something like that. Anyway, he obviously got over it and married Sally, but he didn't handle the situation too well. Don't blame him really..." Hutch stared at the floor a minute. "Well, I guess I'll turn in." He stood up and headed for the door.


"Yeah?" He turned back to look at Starsky.

"Everything okay with you?"

"Oh, yeah, fine. See you in the morning."

"Right. Good night." Starsky watched him close the door behind him. Try lying to someone who doesn't know you so damn well, he thought to himself.

Early the next morning, Starsky was awakened by the sound of motors. It sounded like motorcycles to his groggy senses, but when he rose and plodded over to the window to look out, he saw snowmobiles cris-crossing the hills outside. He glanced at the clock. It was about seven. He showered, shaved, got dressed and headed downstairs.

Marion was washing dishes in the kitchen, and the smell of breakfast lingered in the air.

"Good morning, sleepyhead. What would you like for breakfast?" she asked cheerfully.

"This early rising stuff is hereditary, huh?" he responded with a smile. "Coffee's fine. I can get it."

"Cups are in that cupboard right there," she pointed him in the right direction. "Now don't tell me you're not hungry, because I know you're lying. It isn't any trouble to fix a few eggs. I haven't even cleaned up from John and Ken's breakfast yet."

"You don't have to do that, really."

"Just have a seat. It'll only take a minute. The guys got this idea about taking out the snowmobiles this morning, so they ate and ran. Ken told me not to expect to see any sign of you until about ten."

"Unfortunately, we aren't very tuned in on our rising times in the morning." He took a sip of his coffee. "I enjoyed meeting Mark and Sally last night. How long have they been married?"

"About five years now."

"Mark's kind of quiet--Sally seems so outgoing. They're an interesting combination," Starsky probed.

"Can I tell you something honestly?" She set an unbroken egg back in the dish she had taken it from and pulled up a chair at the table.


"Could I ask you to not mention it to Ken?"

"I suppose," Starsky replied, a little hesitant to accept a confidence from his partner's mother.

"You'll have to do better than that."

"Okay. My lips are sealed."

"I don't like Mark, and I don't think Sally's happy with him."

"Has she ever said anything like that?"

"Of course not. She acts like everything's fine. I just have this feeling I can't shake. I don't like him."

"Do you think he knows that?"

"I try to hide it. But you saw how quiet he was at dinner last night. He doesn't like Ken, but that's an old story--old rivalry from their high school days. I just don't...well, like him."

"You want me to check him out?"


"I could call Dobey back home, ask him if he could have somebody run a few checks on the guy."

"That isn't going to tell us anything new, David. He's lived here since he was seven years old. Our families have lived next to each other all that time. I don't mean that I think he has a shady past. I have a bad feeling about him as a husband. Sally clams up whenever I try to ask her any personal details about their life, but she doesn't seem happy."

"Maybe I can get to know Mr. Personality a little better. Maybe his guard would be down with me, and I might be able to find out something. He's probably gonna be real defensive with Hutch, or with you or John."

"He likes cars. He works on restoring old cars for a hobby. From the looks of your car, I would say you like them too."

"You like my car?"

"It's pretty flashy, but I think that's a good thing in a car," she responded with smile.

"I think I'm in love," Starsky sighed and rested his chin on his hand.

"I think you're hungry. I'll fix you breakfast." She stood up and patted him on the shoulder.

After Starsky finished his breakfast and despite her objections, helped Marion with the dishes, he donned his winter outerwear and trudged out through the deep snow to do a little exploring. The snowmobiles had ground to a halt near nine, and Hutch and his father could be seen heading back toward the house from a pole barn not far from the stables.

"Good morning!" John called, waving as they made their way toward the house.

"Morning," Starsky responded.

"Hey, Starsk, we've gotta take the snowmobiles out again later. This weather is perfect for it," Hutch announced as they reached the spot where Starsky stood. "You ever been on one of those before?"

"Nope--but hey, if you can drive it, I can do it."

"We won't take the route through the trees for a while then," Hutch retorted with a snicker.

"I'm gonna make a run inside here for a while. You boys up for the tree job? Mark's supposed to meet us over here about ten."

"Sounds good," Hutch replied.

"Okay then." John went inside the house.

"Hope you don't mind that we took off without you this morning, but I figured you'd want to sleep in."

"Nah, that's fine. Looked like you and your dad were having a pretty good time out there."

"We were. We used to take the snowmobiles out after every big storm. The only thing about that my mother didn't like was that we usually did that before plowing out the driveway."

"This had to be a blast growing up here." Starsky started walking down the plowed driveway, with Hutch falling into step next to him. "I see the plowing got done first this morning."

"Ranch hands did it. There's one thing that's changed. It always used to be my dad and me with a beat up old truck with a makeshift blade attached to the grille. It's kind of nice to just get up and go do what you want and let the help do the rest."

"I guess. Do you ever wish you'd stayed here?"


"That was quick. No second thoughts at all?"

"Nope. I love this place and I love my family, and I can even see myself as a rancher someday--not that I'll get any of it. Sally and Mark jockeyed into position for that by staying here. But there are a few things that I wouldn't have experienced if I'd stayed, that I wouldn't miss for anything."


"Being a cop, for one. Oh, and meeting this one kind of annoying, arrogant guy in the academy..."

"Annoying and arrogant, eh?" Starsky reached down and gathered up a wad of snow in his hand, quickly forming it into a ball and moving back away from Hutch. "So I'm annoying and arrogant?" He was laughing gleefully as he fired the first shot. The memory of their last attempt at a snowball fight made Hutch a little uneasy, but Starsky's sheer delight in the activity and the safety of the surroundings soon dispelled that feeling, and he returned his partner's assaults wholeheartedly. Before long, they were in the middle of one of the most intense snowball battles of either of their lives, and it soon became debatable if there was more snow on the ground or on their hair and clothing. Soaked and winded, they finally sat in the middle of the snowy mess and laughed. It was this scenario Mark Croft witnessed as his pick up rumbled along the driveway toward the house. He didn't slow down the truck, nor did he wave.

"He's a friendly S.O.B.," Starsky brushed some snow out of his hair with his hand.

"That describes him pretty well. Let's go change into some dry clothes so we can go do the tree thing with Mr. Christmas Spirit."

"I won, you know," Starsky needled as they stood and started back toward the house.

"Oh you did? You've got more white in your hair than my grandmother. I don't think so." Hutch shook his head and grinned. "Nah, you're on my turf now, partner. You New York kids are a bunch of pikers compared to the Minnesota contingent."

"Oh really? Bet I can build a better snowman than you can."

"Okay. What?"


"What do you bet me?" Hutch persisted.

"A twenty?"

"Have you still got a twenty? I'll have to check my wallet," Hutch responded with a little laugh.

"What happened to that prize money, anyway?"

"I spent it."

"Where? You didn't buy $500 worth of stuff anywhere."

"It was my money, wasn't it?" Hutch tried to soften the question with a little humor. "Hey, it's Christmas time--mind your own business."

"Wait a minute--you spent $500 on Christmas presents? You, Mr. Conservative?" Starsky was back in good humor again, but his curiosity was painfully piqued.

"Starsk," Hutch chided as they approached the house.

"Come on, what'd you buy?"

"You'll see. Hey, there's Mark. Morning!" Hutch yelled at the other man.

"Morning," Mark responded in his usual sedate manner. "Looks like you two could use some dry clothes. Reliving your childhood, Ken?"

"Something like that," he responded.

"Everybody's here--what the hell happened to you two?" John appeared in the front door and laughed out loud at the condition of his son and his friend, both soggy and covered with snow. "On second thought, don't tell me. Just get changed, okay? Hey, Mark, come on in. Marion's got coffee on."

Mark and John went to wait in the kitchen while Starsky and Hutch ran upstairs to change into dry clothes. They met in the hall a few minutes later, ready for the next winter activity.

"Ready?" Starsky asked as he pulled on his jacket.

"Wrists are looking pretty normal now," Hutch commented as he noticed the absence of any bandages and only a few pinkish-red areas of healing skin on his partner's wrists.

"Gettin' there," he responded, seeming a little unhappy at any reference to that experience.

"I guess we better join the party." Hutch led the way downstairs and they joined the group in the kitchen.

"Looks like you guys are all ready to start out," Marion commented.

"Well, let's do it then." John rose from his chair and led the group outside. They piled into John's four-wheel-drive blazer, and they were off on the tree mission.

"I understand you're into restoring cars," Starsky probed Mark, with whom he shared the back seat.

"Yeah. I've got a '57 Chevy and a '46 Buick in progress right now."

"If you ever want some help while we're here, give me a call. I've played around with classic cars a little...I'm pretty handy under the hood."

"It's just behind the wheel that he's a little scary," Hutch tossed over his shoulder.

"That's not always a bad thing," Mark shot back. "I am going to be doing a little engine work in the next couple days I could use another pair of hands for--I'll give you a call and if you're up for it, maybe we can get the '57 on the road."

"Sounds great."

Hutch was more than a little puzzled at Starsky's sudden interest in bonding with Mark. He obviously didn't like the guy, based on his comment that morning. Starsky always did pride himself on being a people person, and he usually saw it as a challenge to bring even the surliest people around, so maybe this was nothing more significant than that.

The tree search ended after about an hour of evaluating and debating the options, with an eight-foot tree that would no doubt defy every doorway in the house. It would, however, clear the nine-foot ceilings on the first floor of the house, so it was dilligently lashed to the roof of the vehicle, and they were on their way back toward the ranch in time for a late lunch.

After a series of thrusts, pulls, tilts and curses, the three men managed to drag the tree through the front door, and Marion had been ready for them, with the stand in place. A shower of pine needles and tiny broken branches later, the tree was in place, looking as majestic and commanding as they pictured it would.

"Can you and Sally come over tonight and decorate with us?" Marion asked Mark as she approached with the vacuum cleaner, while Starsky was making the rounds on the floor picking up the larger pieces of debris.

"Depends on her. I'll ask her." His response seemed a little terse and irritated, and Marion had a moment of eye contact with Starsky as she started up the vacuum. He just winked at her in response, trying to let her know that he hadn't forgotten their discussion, nor his promise to try to help.

"Well, you just tell Sally it's an order," John teased, poking his son-in-law in the arm.

"I'll tell her. I better get moving. Hey, Dave--I'll call you about the engine tomorrow."

"Do that. I'm anxious to come over and play with your toys," Starsky replied, bringing the only snicker from Mark any of the group had seen all day. There was something about Mark Starsky liked, though he couldn't put his finger on it. Despite his usually sullen demeanor, he became genuinely animated about his car projects, and he seemed anxious to make a new friend. They had passed much of the ride out to get the tree talking about their mutual interest, and Mark had been eager to hear all the details of the toys Starsky had added to the Torino's engine.

Mark declined to stay for lunch, and so the remaining group had sandwiches in the kitchen, while Marion detailed plans for an elaborate Christmas party for the upcoming weekend. This was her pet project in honor of having her prodigal son back home, and it sounded like quite an event. Saturday afternoon, a group of about five other couples would arrive, including Mark and Sally, another of Hutch's old high school friends and his wife, as well as friends of the elder Hutchinsons. They would have sleigh rides around the property, sing-a-longs and a big dinner Saturday night. The following morning would include a group trip to Church, a brunch at the house, and the exchange of gifts.

After lunch, Hutch suggested taking a low-speed snowmobile tour of the property, and Starsky was anxious to take him up on it. John passed on another "bounce around the hills" as he called it, saying his back had taken all the abuse it needed for one day. It took only a brief time for Hutch to show Starsky the fundamentals of operating the snowmobile, and they were off, taking the hills a little slower than Hutch had with his father, but keeping a pretty good pace nonetheless. They slowed considerably after a while, for a more peaceful look at the terrain. Starsky, of course, was armed with his camera again, and required frequent stops to capture a scene he felt was too good to let pass. Samantha must like winter landscapes, Hutch thought with a smile.

"When was the last time you called her?" Hutch asked as Starsky lined up another shot.



"In Cleveland, I think. You talked to Janine lately?"

"I called her from Chicago."

"Well?" Starsky prodded. "Is the fire still burning, Romeo?"

"I think she's taken with me," he responded with a smile.

"Can't live without ya, huh?" Starsky put the camera back in its bag and sat on his snowmobile.

"What about Samantha?"

"We're just good friends."

"Sure you are. That's why you've photographed everything in sight since we left Arizona."

"I've always liked photography," Starsky answered defensively.

"Yeah, but it wasn't an obsession until now. Admit it, you've got it bad for her."

"I'm not going to deny that I like her a lot."

"That's good thinking, since you do all but drool down your chin when I mention her name." Hutch paused. "You and Mark seemed to hit it off pretty well today."

"Well, he is Sally's husband, and I don't see any reason we all have to be so tense over some girlfriend argument you two had in high school. Water under the bridge. He oughtta get over it."

"Well, he didn't." Hutch started up his engine before Starsky could say anything else. There was definitely something eating away at his partner, and it seemed to be this situation that involved Mark. And Marion didn't like Mark, and Sally wasn't happy...all roads led back to the young man with the thick sandy hair and sullen expression. Everyone was out of sorts over Mark...

The tree-trimming festivities started around seven thirty that evening, with Mark and Sally arriving with some extra tree lights to contribute to the cause. Marion had insisted the previous year's supply would be inadequate, and she was right. With Christmas music filling the room from the stereo, and a number of impromptu off-key sing-a-longs, it was a fun evening that seemed to lift a little of the tension.

Sally and Starsky wound up finishing the unenviable task of decorating the back of the tree, which faced out the window but was inconveniently close to it. When she reached past him to hang an ornament, he took hold of her hand. He was looking directly at one of the ugliest bruises he had ever seen on a woman in his life. The sleeve of her sweater had pulled up past this purplish-blue area on her forearm when she reached. They were momentarily out of sight of the others, and he turned to have a moment of direct eye contact with her.

"Dave, please," she murmured, pulling away.

"How?" he whispered back to her.

"Not now," she responded, slithering back to the front of the tree and the rest of the family.

Starsky weighed the options, and decided to keep his mouth shut for the time being. Domestic violence intervention wasn't exactly his area of expertise, and he didn't want to rush in where angels feared to tread. Maybe getting to know Mark better and dealing with him would be the best way to approach it anyway, he reasoned. Sally was probably afraid and wouldn't give him the straight story anyway. That much he had observed in most abuse victims.

Spin...snap...cold metal on! Spin...snap...cold metal on! Starsky shot straight up in bed and realized a loud moan had escaped him. He frantically scanned the room, realizing he was at the Hutchinson Ranch, miles away from Goretti and his pals. There was a tap at the door.

"Yeah?" he responded a little shakily. The door opened, and John looked inside.

"You okay in here? I was on my way to bed and I heard...noises."

"Noises? I was just having a dream, I think. Sorry about that."

"Didn't sound like a real good one," John stepped a little further into the room. He seemed to be a little uneasy with emotions and offering comfort to others. But like his son, his heart went out to someone who needed it.

"I've had better," Starsky responded with a smirk. "I'll be okay, really."

"Ken said you had kind of a rough time in New York."

"Things got a little dicey." Starsky wiped off his forehead with his hand, pushing a few dark ringlets of hair back that were clinging to the cold sweat there.

"You...wanna talk about it?"

"I don't remember it all that well," he lied, figuring he wasn't about to drag another member of Hutch's family into knowing more than they should.

"Whenever Ken had a nightmare, he could never go back to sleep real fast, so I'd take him downstairs to raid the 'fridge. What d'you think? I have it on good authority there's cold meatloaf in there. Makes great sandwiches."

"Sounds great." Starsky got out of bed and pulled on his robe, following John stealthily down the staircase to the kitchen. A stab of deja vu hit him as they loaded the kitchen table with their supplies. How many times had he done this with his own father before he died? Many...

"Well, well, well..." John straightened up from the refrigerator, holding a bottle in his hand. "Seems Janet Millington's been by with her famous cranberry wine. Goes great with meatloaf," he announced, setting it on the counter and taking two tall beverage glasses out of the cupboard.

"Marion is an incredible cook," Starsky mumbled through a mouthful of cold meatloaf.

"She's the best. Not too hard on the eyes, either." John took a seat at the table and before long, they had constructed thick sandwiches and poured themselves tall glasses of what turned out to be very strong wine. "By the way--you don't have to mention the wine to Marion."

"Don't you think she'll notice it missing?" Starsky took another gulp of it.

"I can tell her I gave it to the mailman for Christmas. She doesn't want me drinking--says it's bad for the old ticker."

"Is it?"

"Probably. But all that stress I'm havin' wanting a drink is worse for it, if you know what I mean." He poked Starsky and had another drink of wine. "I had this buddy who was in the war, saw a lot of action. He had trouble with bad dreams a lot too. I didn't see too much action myself. I was late going in, but he saw some of the worst. Wound up in a mental hospital."

"Thanks for sharing that with me. I'll remember that next time I have a nightmare."

"That wasn't my point," he explained, pouring more wine. "He never would tell anybody anything about what was botherin' him until it drove him nuts. You sure you don't wanna talk about that dream? The way you were sweatin', it had to be a winner."

"I was a little drippy, wasn't I?" Starsky responded with a slight smile. "How much did Hutch tell you about New York?"

"He told me about you getting grabbed by a bunch of hoods and hauled off to some warehouse. He was real upset when he called. I think you younger folks call it 'venting'."

"You know about the kidnapping then?"

"Yes, he told me about it. He also told me it was in confidence he was telling me anything, but I think he needed to rant and rave about it a little."

"He told you about the Russian Roulette?"

"That too. Must've been pretty intense."

"I was blindfolded...I couldn't see what they were doing, but I could hear it. And that was basically the dream. The sound of that gun, and the way it felt on my head, under my chin...and then these bastards laughing after it clicked and then doing it again, over and over and over until I thought I was gonna go nuts." He leaned back in the chair and ran his hands through his hair. "I thought it didn't bother me that much once it was over and we were out of New York. It's not like I haven't been on the wrong end of a gun before."

"Doesn't make it any more fun when it happens if you've been there a hundred times. With that blindfold on, you'd be disoriented anyway...makes it kind of a surreal, nightmare experience because you feel more helpless without your eyesight."

"That's exactly it."

"The whole idea with blindfolding a kid when they try to break a piñata is to make it tougher, to disorient them. And I think we're all basically afraid of the dark when there's something scary in it we can't see coming." John finished off his wine and refilled the glass. "Here, have some more of this and you won't see anything coming," he said with a snicker, refilling Starsky's half-empty glass.

John and Starsky finished their food and the large, jug-size bottle of wine during their visit in the kitchen. They made a feeble and failed attempt to get back upstairs quietly, both laughing almost uncontrollably at a couple of jokes that weren't that funny. After half a bottle each of cranberry wine, everything was funny. Hutch seemed amazed when he opened his bedroom door to see the source of the scuffling in the hall was his father and his best friend, drunk as skunks and laughing like fools.

"What the hell is going on out here?" he demanded in a breathy whisper, knowing his mother would soon be out in the hall to check on the commotion, and another argument about his father's propensity for a late night snort would probably commence.

"Ask Dad," Starsky replied, leaving Hutch in a cloud of wine-breath.

"I don't think I have to."

"You sound like your mother," John grumbled.

"Now that you mention it, he kind of looks like her too," Starsky added, and they both laughed again. By now, Marion came striding down the hall tying her robe around her.

"What on earth?"

"Sorry, Mom, just a little midnight snack," Starsky answered in a slurred voice.

"Oh, joy. You found the wine, I see. Come on, John, time for bed." She took him by the arm and led him down the hall. "He's all yours," Marion said to Hutch, nodding toward Starsky.

"Hey, you take good care of my new drinkin' buddy," John admonished as he was led back to the master bedroom.

"Have you ever been this drunk?" Hutch asked angrily as he yanked Starsky by the arm toward his room.

"I don't know. Am I drunk?"

"Had a little of Millington's cranberry wine, eh?"

"How'd you know?" Starsky asked as Hutch led him to the bed and gave him a shove which sprawled him on it.

"Starsky, that stuff's no better than rubbing alcohol with a twist of cranberry in it. Well, I don't have to tell you about it. You'll pay for it in the morning." He swung Starsky's legs up on the bed and rolled him on his side. "Sweet dreams, pal." He walked out the door and closed it behind him. "Sweet Dreams," Starsky thought to himself. Wouldn't those be nice for a change?

Hutch hadn't lied about the morning after. Starsky awoke to a thundering drumbeat inside his head and felt as if he'd swallowed a lawnmower. Nausea was a word too mild to even utter to describe what he felt like. Still, as the rigors of one of his worst hangovers progressed, he had to look back on the previous evening as a fond memory. Hutch's dad was a lot of fun, and he was perceptive, too. He had a knack of making the most bleak and horrible thing look less grim, and Starsky came to realize that a great deal of this man's almost magical ability to make him feel better in the wake of a grisly nightmare came from a long-unsatisfied need to spend some time with his own father again. John Hutchinson was a good stand-in.

It was noon before Starsky stuck his nose outside his bedroom. He was hoping he wouldn't smell food cooking for lunch, and blessedly, he didn't. When he arrived downstairs, he found Hutch sitting in the living room with his mother.

"Another of the living dead appear," Marion said scathingly. It was apparent she disapproved of the little wine orgy, and her guest was not going to be spared that disapproval. Oh well, she had warned him he'd be treated like family.

"I'm sorry about the wine thing...boy, am I sorry about the wine," Starsky said, laying his hand on his stomach. "Seriously, I hope you aren't too mad."

"John knows he isn't supposed to drink like that. Of course, no one in their right mind should drink like that."

"You're right. I'm sorry. How is John anyway?"

"He looks about the same as you do," Hutch spoke up. "You had a call from Mark this morning. He said if you wanted to work on the engine with him to come over about two."

"Oh, great. I might even be able to see straight by then."

"You want something to eat?" Hutch finally had an element of mercy in his tone, but his mother didn't appear to share it. "You look like hell."

"Thanks. I'm sort of hungry and sort of nauseous--I don't know. Maybe I'll go see if I can find something."

"I'll go with you. I could use a snack. You want anything, Mom?"

"Nothing, thanks. I'm going to head downstairs and get a little laundry done." She left the room without looking back at either one of them.

"She's really mad, isn't she?" Starsky asked Hutch, concerned he had violated a cardinal rule of the household.

"She'll get over it. My dad isn't supposed to drink, but he does it anyway, and she gets angry and worried and takes it out on everybody for a while, but she'll settle down. Come on, I know this really great hangover remedy."

"It isn't one of those weird organic things, is it?"

"You wanna feel better?"


"Then shut up and follow me. I know what I'm doing."

Hutch mixed an ominous looking potion in his mother's blender that looked even worse than it ultimately tasted, if that was possible. Starsky didn't press for the ingredients, figuring he was probably less nauseated not knowing. Hutch made himself a sandwich while his partner nursed the drink along, wrinkling his nose at every swallow.

"I really like your folks. They're good people."

"They're pretty special." Hutch returned to the table with his sandwich. "You want anything else?"

"Nah. I don't think I'd keep it long. Man, I've never been this sick with a hangover in my life."

"They say wine's the worst hangover you can have, and that cranberry slop is notorious. I know. I stole a bottle of it out of the refrigerator once, took it out behind the barn and a buddy of mine and I got dead smashed drunk. We were probably sixteen or so at the time. I was never so sick in my life. What possessed you to do that anyway?"

"Your dad was on his way to bed, and he heard me thrashing around in my room--I had a nightmare. He asked me if I wanted to raid the refrigerator with him, and it sounded like a good idea. Actually, my dad and I used to do that quite a lot together, so I guess I kind of rented your dad for the evening. It was fun, and we had a good visit."

"Anything you want to talk about--the nightmare, I mean?"

"Nothing unusual. Everything in New York still kind of has me a little tense, that's all. John's a good amateur shrink. He got me back on track."

"Good. You plan on going over to Mark's later?"

"Yes. You wanna come with me?" Starsky hoped he'd decline, because he really wanted to talk to Mark alone, but he feared not asking would make Hutch a little suspicious.

"No thanks. The less time I spend with that turkey, the better." Hutch finished his sandwich and carried the plate to the sink. "Feel any better?" he asked Starsky over the running water.

"Actually I do. That stuff must really work."

"I told you I knew what I was doing, didn't I? Well, I think I'll go out and have a look at the horses." He checked his watch. "We probably won't have time today, but one of these days we'll go for a ride. Ever been on a horse?"

"Of course I've been on a horse."


"Well, when I was a kid."

"How many horses were there in your neighborhood?"

"I suppose a pony at the petting zoo doesn't count. But there was Theodore at the Grand Canyon."

"Ponies and donkeys aren't horses, Starsk." Hutch snickered. "I'll teach ya everything I know."

"In that case we've got plenty of time," Starsky retorted with a grin.

With directions from Marion, who was thawing out a bit when she found he was going over to visit Mark, Starsky started out in the Torino just before two o'clock. He felt no small amount of guilt at not telling Hutch or his parents about the bruise he had seen on Sally's arm, but again, he felt caution was the best policy in approaching the situation.

He pulled up in front of the large garage behind the Croft house a few minutes after two and trudged through the deep snow to the door. This smaller ranch was obviously not blessed with professional snow removal; Mark's makeshift snow blade was propped against the side of the garage, having been detached from his pick up. Starsky tapped on the side door of the garage. Mark opened it quickly.

"Hey, Dave, come on in. These are my masterpieces," he annouced as he gestured toward the two cars. The '57 was in good shape, the cosmetic work apparently done on it. The '46 was another story. It looked rusted and war-torn, but salvageable.

"These have some serious potential." Starsky stuck his head in the open window of the Chevy.

"I'll show you what I'm trying to accomplish with the engine here." He popped the hood, and so began a long afternoon of engine work. Starsky found himself enjoying Mark's company and the challenge of getting the old car up and running. This man didn't seem like a wife beater, but then, what does a wife beater act like when he isn't beating his wife? Starsky asked himself. When they finally took a break from their project, he knew he'd have to find some way to bring the conversation around to Sally, and hopefully shed some light on this difficult situation.

"Did you always want to stick around here and have a ranch of your own?" Starsky asked, taking a seat on a stool near the workbench. Mark took two beers out of a small, grimy refrigerator nearby and handed one to Starsky. He opened his own and took a swallow, as if to bolster himself before answering.

"Nah. It was the last thing I wanted to do. I got my business degree and was offered a couple jobs with investment firms in Minneapolis. About the same time, I started seeing Sally. She made it pretty clear she wanted to camp out on Daddy's property and wait for her inheritance."

"You don't think she just wanted to be close to her family?"

"Oh, sure. They're a tight-knit group. Of course, Ken is the oldest, and a son, and that carries a lot of weight with John. He has this traditional homestead mentality of leaving all this to another Hutchinson to carry on the tradition. Well, your partner doesn't appear to be in the position to take up ranching anytime soon, so I think Sally is figuring by hanging out here, she'll inherit everything, and she probably will."

"So you'd rather be in the big city juggling somebody's stocks and bonds, huh?"

"Honestly? Yes."

"Did you tell Sally that?"

"Yes. And she gave me an ultimatum after we got engaged that if I wanted her, I'd have to take the offer of this parcel of land from her father, build a house on it and be a rancher. I loved her too much to say no. God knows the last person I wanted to fall in love with was a Hutchinson."

"We're back to the old rivalry between you and Hutch for a girl back in high school, right?"

"I know you two are real tight, and he probably can do no wrong as far as you're concerned, but your partner can be a real asshole when it suits him."

"I think you better watch your mouth." Starsky straightened up from the slumped position he had taken on the stool he occupied.

"I don't expect you to want to hear my side of things. You've known him for what, ten years now? You've known me a couple days. All I'm saying is that the golden boy isn't all sunshine and light."

"Mark, there's something I have to ask you about. I don't know all the right ways to go about this, so I'm just gonna say it. Sally has a really ugly bruise on her arm and she won't tell me where she got it. What do you know about it?"

"Oh that's nice. You think I beat my wife now? I'm living in this God-forsaken plot of tundra shoveling horse manure for a living instead of working in an office and using half the brain God gave me just to make that woman happy and you think I beat her?"

"I didn't accuse you of anything. I just want to know what you know. Because if somebody's beating her up, she needs help."

"It isn't me. God knows who it is."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning she screws around on me. I don't know how to put that delicately either. I don't know why she married me, because I swear to God she hasn't been happy since. I fell in love with her and I didn't want to, she wanted to fall in love with me but she didn't--I think that's what it amounts to. She wanted a husband, and a home, and kids--the whole nine yards. When we found out the kid thing wasn't gonna happen with me, she'd have just as soon divorced me. But the Hutchinsons don't like divorce either."

"Hutch is divorced--that doesn't seem to matter to them."

"It matters. But he was married to a tramp--Marion's words."

"You said something about the kid thing not happening..."

"It isn't something I like to talk about, but I have a little problem in that department. I've been tested. I'm the reason she hasn't had kids yet. I think at a point she decided to find a way to have one with somebody who could."

"I'm sorry." Starsky felt embarrassed at having probed so deeply into this other man's life. He barely knew him and yet knew more about him that most of his close friends did.

"Yeah, me too. I tried to get her interested in adopting, but she said something characteristically sensitive like 'If I had married a real man this wouldn't be a problem'. I'm gonna tell you, Dave--and you can walk out the door and never come back if you're too pissed off about it--I love Sally more than anything, but she can be a world class bitch."

"So why don't you divorce her? I couldn't take that from a woman no matter how much I loved her."

"Well, I've been out of college about five years now, and all that's on my resume is an outdated internship at an investment firm during college and running a fifth-rate ranch my father-in-law gave me. Now if I divorce Sally, not only am I out in the cold because the property will undoubtedly go to her, but I get my situation screamed from the rooftops all over town. And now I'd be a has-been in the financial business. I've been out of the loop with that so long that I don't know half the new tricks that are out there. I couldn't get a decent job in my field now. I'm stuck. I just hope Sally'll find some stud to do what it is she wants done and get it out of her system. Then we'll have a kid and maybe things'll go back to normal. Whatever the hell that is."

"So who do you think gave her that bruise?"

"If you put the pressure on her she'll blame me. I think it's probably whoever she's messing around with."

"What do you think made Sally the way she is? I mean the picture you're painting is way different from what I saw, and sure way different from Hutch."

"Not way different from Ken. He just hasn't had a reason to turn on you yet. Ask him about Plain Jane sometime. After he's leveled with you, if he will, you come back and tell me what you think of your partner. John and Marion are good people with a couple of spoiled kids who use the people around them to get what they want. Maybe you serve a better purpose for Ken as his friend. As soon as you don't, watch out the door doesn't hit you in the ass on the way out of his life."

"I think I better go." Starsky stood up. "I'm sorry about your situation with Sally. I really am."

"You just don't buy 95% of what I'm telling you, right?"

"I need to sort this out."

"Ask Ken about Jane. It'll clear a few things up for you." Mark took another swig of the beer he'd been drinking and watched Starsky walk out the door.

The Torino pulled up in front of the Hutchinson house near six o'clock. Dinner usually was served about six thirty, so Starsky figured he wouldn't have missed anything yet. He walked in through the front door and could smell food cooking in the kitchen. He took off his boots and leaving them on the rubber mat in the foyer, made his way back to the kitchen. Food wasn't making him cringe anymore, and his old appetite was roaring back at warp speed. Marion was busily seasoning steaks on a large grill on the cupboard.

"Hi," he greeted her gingerly. "Am I still in the dog house?"

"I think I can forgive you," she responded with a smile.

"Where is everybody?"

"John and Ken are out in the stable. One of the horses is sick and the vet's out there." She turned away from her steaks. "Well?"

"I can't get much out of the guy this fast. It could take a while," he lied, feeling he needed to have a heart to heart with Hutch before this went any further.

"I appreciate that you're trying. I'm just worried about my daughter."

"I know. Mark does seem to love her, though."

"Well, I'll feel better when we know something concrete."

"Yeah, me too." Starsky responded. "Need some help?"

"No, I'm just fine. Dinner should be ready in about half an hour."

"Okay. I'll go get washed up then."



"Thank you for trying with Mark."

"I'm not done yet. Hey, what's family for, huh?"

"Right." She smiled and turned back to her cooking.

Dinner was uneventful, with the usual dinner table small talk exchanged between the group. Starsky eagerly accepted Hutch's suggestion to take a walk and get some fresh air. He was hoping to get a few moments to talk to his partner out of the earshot of John and Marion. Fortunately, the elder Hutchinsons declined the walk idea and were content to sit at the table with an extra cup of coffee.

"You never see the stars like this in the city," Hutch commented, sitting on the top rail of the fence. Starsky joined him. "Too many lights."

"This is a beautiful setting, no doubt about it." Starsky was quiet a minute, in no hurry to shatter this moment of peace and tranquility. Finally, he did. "Can I talk to you about something?"

"Sure. What?" Hutch was still studying the constellations.

"Promise you won't be angry?"

"What exactly are we talking about here?" Hutch turned his attention from the stars to his partner's worried expression.

"Your sister."

"What about her?"

"The first morning we were here, your mother said she didn't like Mark and she was concerned about Sally--she didn't think she was happy."

"What was she telling you that for?"

"She wanted me to try and find out what was going on. I guess she thought Mark would be less suspicious of me, and she had a point. She begged me not to tell anyone--not even you. I went along with it as long as I could because I wanted to help her, but now I think you need to know what I know, and I need some answers from you."

"Whoa. You've been playing undercover cop for my mother now?"

"When we were trimming the tree last night, I saw a real ugly bruise on Sally's arm. I tried to ask her where she got it, but she brushed me off. I wasn't going to ultimately go along with snooping for your mother, but then I felt I had to, for Sally's sake."

"If he's hurt her, so help me God, I'll--"

"Hang on a minute. I confronted him about it today--asked him right out. He denies doing it, and he said a few other things you're probably not gonna like."

"Don't stop now, partner. You're on a roll." Hutch looked angry and perplexed, but he listened while Starsky recapped his conversation with Mark, and everything he had told him.

"He told me you were no different from Sally and that I should ask you about Plain Jane."

"And you bought his line of crap?"

"I don't know Sally. I care about her because you do. I know you...I don't have to have someone else tell me what kind of person you are. So where you're concerned, no, I don't buy it because I have my own opinions. Where Sally's concerned, I don't wanna believe it, but I hate to say this. I think he's telling the truth. It's just a feeling. I may not like what he says, but I believe him. My instincts tell me he isn't lying."

"These are the same instincts that trusted Tony DeSilva? Spare me." Hutch slid down off the fence and walked a few paces away. Starsky stayed seated, reeling a little at the remark. For a moment, he was too pierced by the comment to respond. Hutch filled the void quickly. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for and just plain mean." Hutch turned back to face him.

"You were looking for something to hurt me back for what I was saying to you--and I gotta hand it to you, you did a good job." Starsky dropped to his feet and walked closer to Hutch. "But that doesn't change what I'm saying to you, no matter how much you might want it to."

"So he brought up Jane, huh?"

"Plain Jane. Is that the girl that caused all the trouble between you?"

"Yeah. Plain Jane was never my name for her. It was the other kids at school. She was small, petite, pretty--but she never wore make up or jewelry or did fancy things with her hair like the other girls. She wore very basic clothes, pulled her hair back in a pony tail and everybody knew she was a 'good girl'. In other words, no matter how many guys asked her out, nobody got anywhere. I kind of liked her--she was smart, creative and she had a great smile--so I asked her out. I courted her, I bought her flowers, and we became lovers. I never really loved her, but I honestly thought that I did. I really wouldn't have put the pressure on her to take the relationship that far if I hadn't thought it was what I wanted--because Jane was a 'nice girl'. I guess it was just that lure of the one thing you can't have that keeps you coming back even if you don't really want it that badly. I think the whole 'forbidden fruit' principle was at work, making me think that she was all I wanted. For a little while there, I had myself convinced I was in love with her. At least I thought that until I got her, and then I realized I didn't have any deep emotional attachment to her. Somewhere along the line she thought I was going to be around forever. Maybe I even muttered something in the line of a promise in the heat of the moment, and if so, I meant it when I said it. I planned on leaving Minnesota after graduation, and my relationship with Jane didn't change those plans for me."

"I still don't get where Mark fits into all this," Starsky interjected.

"Mark was in love with Jane all this time and pursuing her, and she dumped him to go out with me. Hence, the grudge is born. Anyway, I got ready to leave as planned, and she tells me she's pregnant. The worst part of it was, she was all happy about it. She was a year behind me in school, which meant she couldn't go anywhere for a year yet, but she never dreamed I wouldn't stay around and play house with her. I told her I was leaving anyway, and that I never promised her anything, and that I was sorry if she was in trouble but there was nothing I could do. I ran scared, Starsk. I didn't know anything about having a family...supporting kids. I wasn't ready for it, and I didn't love her." He shook his head and stared back up at the stars. "So I took off for LA, and the last time I saw her, she was sitting on a bench in the park, crying her eyes out."

"So why didn't Mark just ride in on his white horse and rescue her then?"

"That isn't the end of the story. I got to LA--it took me about a week to get there in the heap I was driving--and I started feeling really crummy about what I did to her. I wrestled with it for probably two weeks, and then I called her. I was going to tell her I'd come back, marry her, give the baby a name anyway, and we'd take it from there. I couldn't promise her anything terrific, but I was at least going to tell her I'd stand by her--do the right thing, whatever the hell that was. Her father answered the phone, and when he heard it was me, he lit into me with a string of oaths and curses, and the long and short of it was that Jane had hung herself from the rafters in their attic a few days after I left. They knew she was pregnant...I don't know if the doctor or a medical examiner told them. So all in all, I killed her. So that's what Mark meant about me."

"You didn't kill her, Hutch. How many guys say what they have to to girls to get them to come across? That's been going on as long as there've been men and women in the world. It's bad, and it's wrong, but it happens. Kids think they're in love when they're really just infatuated or looking for some action or trying to prove something to somebody. You can't judge the actions of an eighteen-year-old boy by the values and standards of a man in his thirties. You wouldn't do to a girl now what you did to her then, and you apparently at one point thought you really loved her. Maybe you weren't used to going out with girls that were quite as...conservative about sex as she was, so you didn't look at it as that big a deal. Ultimately, you were going to do the right thing. You just got caught in a case of tragic bad timing."

"That doesn't change the fact that I was responsible. I was responsible for her getting pregnant, and then responsible for the loss of two human lives." Hutch nervously brushed a hand past his eyes and cleared his throat.

"She was responsible for the loss of two human lives, Hutch. You didn't hang her from the rafter. She did that herself."

"But if I hadn't sweet-talked her into it, she'd have never gotten pregnant."

"When you were a kid, did you really think that hard about unwanted pregnancies? I mean people didn't talk about that stuff the way they do now. Girls held out on guys to get a commitment, or something else they wanted, and the guys tried to get as much as they could and give as little in return. And I didn't hear anybody doing a lot of talking about pregnancy. Once in a while, you'd hear some whispering about how somebody got somebody else 'in trouble' and the girl went away for a while and took care of 'it'. When I was a kid, we didn't do a lot of deep philosophical thinking about the consequences of the stupid things we did in the backs of cars on Saturday nights. Looking back, it was stupid and immature, but that's the way it was."

"But somebody died because of this incident. A young woman--and my child."

"And that's tragic--I'm never belittling that. You tried to do the right thing, Hutch. You were young, you were irresponsible and you got caught. And then you ran scared, which isn't all that surprising. You were just a kid yourself. At eighteen I didn't have my head on straight, and my values weren't what they are now. I'd bet yours have changed a little too. You took off because you didn't know what to do, and you probably didn't think your parents would be supportive of that kind of a mess--am I right?"

"Pretty close."

"When you had time to get your head cleared, get away from it, and think about it, you were going to help her. You made the right decision to get away and think...and you were going to do the right thing--that's what's important. Fortunately most of us don't get caught in the timing the way you did."

"Maybe you're right."

"I am right. Hutch, you finally convinced me, which wasn't an easy job, that everything that ever went wrong or continues to go wrong surrounding my family and the connection to Durniak's gang isn't my fault. I've been walking around feeling like I was the source of all my mother's difficulties during my entire childhood because I said something or did something that made Durniak mad. I finally can look back at that and see that it was the situation that was wrong--not me, not my mother, not my father--the whole mess itself. I can look at even this mess with Sam Jr. and see that all roads lead back to the situation. I wouldn't have gone to Tony if I had gotten the information out of my mother when I asked, and she wouldn't have held out on me if she hadn't been afraid of upsetting the situation. Sometimes things happen that we aren't equipped to deal with, and we struggle through it the best way we can, and sometimes our best isn't good enough to fix what's wrong. Maybe it goes back to that prayer--the one about not being able to change things--there are some things we can't fix, either because they're impossible or we don't know any better way to handle them. That doesn't make us bad people. It doesn't make me a bad person because I went to Tony for information--it makes me a stupid person, maybe, but I did what I thought was right at the time. And you did the best you could at the time."

"I really did plan to help her out in the end. I just didn't make it in time."

"So now it's my turn to tell you that it isn't your fault." Starsky put an arm around his partner's shoulders. "You made a stupid kid's mistake but you were going to fix it the right the right thing. You didn't get there in time, and you couldn't have predicted that she would die before you had time to get a clear perspective on what you had to do."

"I still feel responsible for Jane. I always will. But at the moment, we still have the situation with Sally to deal with." Hutch moved away. "Now I'm sorry but I don't picture my sister as some unfaithful tramp."

"Well, I said I didn't think Mark was lying. That doesn't mean his vision of the truth couldn't be a little distorted. She might be having a relationship with someone else, but maybe his mental picture of her being promiscuous about it is a little warped."

"I have to talk to her next. Think you could keep Mark occupied out in the garage for a while if we went over there?"

"I s'pose. I don't know if he's going to be in the mood to tinker with engines after the discussion we had earlier, but I'll be glad to try."

"I'll go tell Mom and Dad we're leaving."

"I'll fire up the car."

Upon pulling up in front of the Croft house, Starsky spotted a light burning in the garage. He pulled up near the entrance to the house and while Hutch went up to the door, Starsky trudged back through the snow to the garage. He knocked on the door, and this time Mark just called out from his position under the front end of the '57 Chevy.

"Come in."

"Mark? It's Dave Starsky."

"Didn't think I'd see you again anytime soon." He pulled himself out from under the car on the rolling board that supported him.

"I got thinking about the car. We were gettin' pretty close to having it on the road."

"And your partner wanted to talk to his sister while the crazed wife-beater is kept busy in the garage? I wasn't born yesterday." He stood up and wiped his hands on a grimy towel that hung over the front fender of the car.

"Maybe he'll get to the bottom of what's going on with her." Starsky sat against the side of the '46.

"I told you what was going on with her."

"Do you really believe that?"

"I don't know. I know she doesn't have any interest in me, and I know she goes out a lot. Put two and two together, man. What would you call it?"

"Look, you know Hutch is in there trying to talk to her, and I have to kill some time. Why don't we work on the car for a while?"

Hutch waited impatiently on the front porch of the small one floor house until his sister opened the door.

"Ken, what a nice surprise. Come on in." She closed the door behind him. "I've still got some coffee--want some?"

"No. Sally, we need to talk. I think you better sit down. This could take a while."

"Dave told you."

"About that shiner on your arm? Yeah, he told me. Let's see it."

"It's nothing." She held the cuff of her sweater down defensively.

"Who did it?"

"Mark and I had a little was nothing."

"So Mark did it?"

"Things got a little heated, and he grabbed me, that's all."

"You're lying, little sister. You never were too good at it." Hutch sat on the couch and his sister finally joined him.

"You don't know all the facts here."

"I know that you and Mark are having some serious problems and he thinks you're stepping out on him."

"Is that what you think?"

"I don't know what to think, that's why I'm asking."

"Mark can't...we've had some problems...and I met someone..."

"I know about Mark's...problem, too."


"He told Starsky."

"He never tells anybody."

"I guess he needed to unload." Hutch rubbed his forehead and then looked up at her again. "Level with me, Sal. Whatever this is, I'll help you."

"When I couldn't get pregnant, we went to the doctor, and we found out the problem was with Mark. It was like the last straw. I married Mark so I could have a home and a family, and I could see all that going down the drain."

"Do you love him?"

"No--I mean I care about him, but not the way I should to spend my life with him."

"Why on earth would you marry the guy then?"

"I had just finished college, my art degree was leading nowhere fast. I couldn't get a job, I didn't know what to do with my life and then Mark came along. We ran into each other at a couple of parties, and pretty soon he started calling me. There had been so much bad blood between the two of you that I was hesitant to even go out with him, but we had all been friends as kids, so I didn't see the harm in it. We started seeing each other, and I guess I fell in love with him being so in love with me. He brought me flowers, he dedicated songs to me on the radio, he brought me little gifts...I loved the attention, and I guess I mistook that for loving him. When he asked me to marry him, I saw a way to have some direction to my life. I thought raising a family and having a home, like Mom did, would be perfect. Then he started telling me about these job offers in Minneapolis. I wanted to stay here. Dad had always said that there was this beautiful little parcel of land I could have someday when I got married, and you know how I've always loved this place. Even the pond we used to skate on when we were kids is at the back of our property."

"So you told Mark you and the ranch were a package deal?"

"Selfish and horrible, wasn't it? I didn't care, though. I saw a way to have it all--a handsome husband who was crazy about me, the home I always wanted, a family, to be close to Mom and Dad, and probably have the whole ranch was all perfect. And Mark may not have been Prince Charming, but he was here, and he was in love with me, and he agreed to stay on and be a rancher. He knew the business from his parents, and with his business skills, I don't have any question he can do well."

"But then you found out he was damaged goods?"

"I think that was just the final thing. I wasn't really in love with him, then I found we couldn't even have children. In the middle of all of it I met someone else. I didn't try to find someone else. It just happened. You remember when I dated Steve Archer in high school?"


"Well, I ran into Steve at the grocery store--he's back in the area now. His dad died and now he's back here running the farm for his mother. Anyway, we started...seeing each other. One thing led to another, and I realized I had never really forgotten about him, even though he left me for someone else."

"And Archer gave you the bruise?"

"I told you Mark and I--"

"Sally, if you're going to dump the guy, dump him. But don't call him a woman-beater if he isn't one."

"Steve had a hard childhood. You remember that. His father was a very heavy drinker, and he used to beat the kids, and there's all this pent up hostility inside of him, and when we argue, it comes out sometime. He didn't really hurt me. He grabbed me really hard and wouldn't let go when I tried to leave one time, and that's how the bruise happened. I don't think he meant it. He was so sorry afterwards. I think he just needs to learn--"

"Oh, come on, Sally. I've seen too many women wind up in the morgue because they had that mentality. He needs to learn that behavior isn't okay. You're so obsessed with this Archer character that when he abuses you for no good provocation, you stick up for him. This isn't high school anymore, Sal. You can't go back and recapture some infatuation that you had when you were sixteen and make a healthy adult relationship out of it."

"I don't know what I want anymore!" she yelled, tears spilling down her cheeks. "It's like I have a third of what I want with Mark, a third of it with Steve and part of it still missing! My life's all screwed up and I don't know what to do." She stood up before Hutch could comfort her. "Everything's black and white to you, isn't it? Right and wrong? No in-betweens?"

Hutch froze at the statement. Where had he just heard this before? Had he really become one with his badge so completely that it had taken a month away from it to get his priorities back in line?

"Sally, I don't know what to say about your love life. All I know is that your my sister, and I want you to be safe and happy. Right now you're not either one."

Rumbling engines could be heard in the driveway. Sally walked to the window and looked outside. Mark was behind the wheel of the Chevy, and Starsky was moving the Torino out of its path. Starsky got back out of the Torino and hurried up to the door. Sally opened it, wiping at her eyes self-consciously.

"Mark and I are taking the car out for a test drive. We'll be back in a while. You guys okay in here?"

"Fine, Dave." She started to close the door, and he took the hint to get moving. He got into the Chevy and the car roared down the driveway and onto the road. "Well, they got the Chevy going," she explained as she returned to the living room. "Look, Ken, you can't fix this the way you used to fix my bike and you can't go beat up Steve Archer the way you used to beat up the bullies at school for me. This is my problem."

"I might not be able to fix everything, but if Archer lays another hand on you, I can still beat him up for you." Hutch stood up and embraced his sister. "I'm still your big brother, and I love you."

"I know. I don't know why sometimes, but I know you do."

"Listen to me. You're in a mess right now, but the most important thing you have to do is sort out what you want. If it's neither one of these guys, then you should just make a clean break and wait until you find someone that you want to be with." He stepped back, holding her by the shoulders. "Sally, get away from Archer. Please do that much. I don't know if Mark is any good for you, but any guy who's pushing you around and leaving bruises on you isn't. Trust me, it only takes one time he hits you or pushes you too hard and it's all over. He wouldn't even have to mean to do it. People fall and hit their heads, somebody punches somebody harder than they expected to hit them, sometimes men don't know their own strength pushing a woman around. It can be the end of your life, Sal. Promise me you'll end this thing with Archer, and let me go with you to do it."

"I need to think." She pulled away but took Hutch's hand. "I will think about everything

you've said. I promise."

"Okay. That's all I can ask then." He walked toward the door. "How far do you think those guys went?" He looked out the back door window but saw no headlights on the horizon.

"I don't know. Depends on how the car's running, I suppose."

"Snow's really starting to come down again. Hey, could Mark give Starsky a lift back to the house if I go ahead?"

"I'm sure he'd be glad to."

"Okay. Let Starsk know I'm home."

"I will. Goodnight." She watched him get into the Torino and head for the main road.

Mark was pleased with the success they'd had with the Chevy. It hummed along down the road with no noticeable hesitation. After a few tense moments, he and Starsky had resumed their initial rapport, chatting comfortably about the car and what still needed to be done, as well as the more complex task at hand with the '46. Starsky was increasingly convinced this was a good person, and one who genuinely loved his wife, no matter how angry she may have made him or how hurt he was by her infidelity.

"You want me to drop you off at the big house?" Mark asked as the approached the entrance to the Hutchinson Ranch.

"Sounds like prison, man," Starsky retorted with a laugh.

"If the shoe fits...I can tell Ken I dropped you off."

"Okay. Hey, this baby rides great. You got some good shocks in this thing."

"Yeah, I spent a few bucks on those." He turned in the long drive and followed it toward the house. "Did you ask your partner about Jane?" He slowed the car to a stop a distance from the house.

"Yes, I did. It was typical stupid teenage behavior, but he tried to make it right in the end."

"Fat lot of good that did Jane. God, I loved her. Sometimes I think about the life I could have had with her, and I think she'd have been happy with me, even if I wasn't perfect. But she was so floored by having the captain of the baseball team ask her out that she couldn't remember my name. She had never been very popular, and it turned her head. He just used her and tossed her out. She was nothing to him, and everything to me."

"Look, Mark, it wasn't right what happened. But how many teenagers mess up their lives with a couple of dumb mistakes because they think they're in love? Hutch really thought he loved Jane for a while there. He was gonna come back, offer to marry her, do the right thing. But when he tried it was already too late. If she hadn't killed herself, he'd have come back and married her and done right by her."

"Ironic. He ruined the only real chance I had for a future with a woman I loved who would have been faithful to me, and his sister took care of my career options, married me and stepped all over me."

"I can't say anything to change how you feel about Hutch. I don't agree with you, but I can't change how you feel." Starsky stared straight ahead. "But I know that he regrets what happened to Jane. I know he feels guilty about it, and I know he wanted to make it right with her, and would have if he'd had a chance. He panicked at the thought of having a ready made family at eighteen. But when he got his head on straight, he was prepared to do right by her. There wasn't anything else he could do. We all make dumb mistakes in our lives, and unfortunately, this one took a tragic twist. I think something we're all losing sight of is that Hutch didn't hang Jane from a rafter. She did that all by herself." Starsky almost regretted the directness of the statement and expected angry reprisals from Mark, but none were forthcoming.

"Maybe I'm looking for a convenient scapegoat to blame for my own screwed up life. Maybe I just have bad taste in women."

"You love Sally, though."

"More than anything. I've given up my whole life for her. If she loved me back, I wouldn't regret or resent a minute of it. But she doesn't, so here I am with nothing."

"If it's any consolation, I believe you. I don't think you hit her."

"Thanks. It is. At least I don't look like a wife beater."

"I was trying to figure out earlier what one of those looked like when they weren't beating their wife."

"Good question," Mark replied with a snicker. "Maybe we should ponder that one over a beer sometime."

"Anytime. Hey, are you guys still coming to the party this weekend?"

"Oh sure. Can't stumble on keeping up those appearances you know."

"Well," Starsky opened the door and stepped outside the car, "drive carefully. This is getting nasty out. Maybe we can get a few things started on the '46 before I leave."

"See you tomorrow." Mark put the car in gear as Starsky closed the door. The Chevy passed the Torino going in opposite directions on the wide drive. Starsky waited on the front porch for his partner, who parked the car and hurried up the steps.

"What happened?" Starsky asked.

"She's seeing somebody else, and he's the one who's roughing her up. Damn, I just hope I got through to her about breaking it off with that jerk before he really hurts her."

"Who is it?"

"A guy named Steve Archer. She dated him in high school. His old man was a drunk, used to knock the kids around and smack his wife once in a while if he didn't like what she fixed for dinner. Mom and Dad wouldn't even let us go over there. They had a farm about a mile from here, and Steve would ask once in a while for us to stop there after school, but my folks said no way, and the fight was on when Sally started going out with Steve. He was the tall, dark, brooding type--never had any problems with the ladies, until he'd get a little rough with one of them and she'd break it off with him. He never hit Sally that I know of, because I'da pulled him apart if he had. He started seeing another girl and broke it off with Sal, who took it real hard. Seems they met up again--he's back in town helping his mother run the farm now that his old man's dead. She's involved with him now, and she says she never really loved Mark and since he can't produce kids, she can't get what she wants out of life with him. She's so damn messed up I don't know how she managed it."

"Too bad she's so set against her husband. That guy really loves her."

"I'm not going to wait forever to deal with this Archer character."

"Give her a chance to sort this out first. If she doesn't, we'll go sort him out, if you get my meaning."

"Welcome to my nightmare." Hutch sat on the porch swing.

"Every family has 'em. Some are just a little better hidden than others. If you could get through the initiation process to becoming an honorary Starsky, I think I can handle the Hutchinson clan." Starsky sat on the porch railing and leaned against one of the posts, staring out at the falling snow. "Do you think she's going to try and resolve this?"

"I hope so." Hutch swayed slightly in the swing.

"I thought I heard voices out here," Marion said, as she opened the front door.

"We just got back," Hutch replied wearily.

"Don't you think it's about time you two filled us in on what's happening with Sally and Mark?"

"I think we should all butt out for a while and let nature take its course." Hutch stood up. "Sally has a lot to think about and work through, and I think we should give her a little time to do that. If she doesn't handle it on her own, we can all rush in and get in the middle of it." He walked inside past his mother. "'Night, Mom." He kissed her on the cheek and headed for the stairs. She looked back and Starsky, who hadn't moved from his perch on the railing.

"Is Sally all right?"

"She's confused, but she's okay. One thing I want you to know is that Mark isn't the bad guy here. He really loves your daughter--more than you probably realize. So don't worry about him mistreating her in any way." He stood up and headed inside, and Marion closed and locked the door behind them. "I agree with Hutch. I've talked to Mark and he's talked to Sally, and we've stuck our noses in far enough for a while. I think we need to sit back and see what they do next."

There was a persistent knocking on the door. Starsky tried to ignore it and roll over. Maybe if he waited long enough without responding, the visitor would leave. It was so cold and the bed was so warm...The knocking resumed. He finally sat up in bed and gave up on ignoring the visitor, who eventually swung open the door.

"Come on, sleeping beauty. There's a stable full of horses out there, and I feel like taking a couple out for a test drive. Whadd'ya say, huh?" Hutch was leaning on the door frame, fully dressed and looking too damned energetic considering it was still dark outside. "We can watch the sunrise through the pines--it'll be great."

"What time is it?" Starsky blinked a few times to regain consciousness.

"Six-thirty. Come on, I think breakfast is cooking downstairs."

"I'll be down in a few minutes."

"No you won't. You'll roll over and die."

"Oh, all right." He tossed the blankets aside and stood up. "Happy?"

"Delighted. See you downstairs."

Hutch was right about it being a beautiful time to take the horses out for a ride. Day was breaking, the first with sunshine in quite a while, and once Starsky had mounted the beast and gotten the basic knack of riding along at a moderate trot, it wasn't half bad. There were numerous trails plowed through the woods by ranch hands who had worked diligently in the pre-dawn hours to get the ranch up and running and all trails passable by morning.

"Feel like you could speed up a little and not fall off?" Hutch prodded his partner.

"If I can handle a ton of metal with a whole bunch of these under the hood, I think I can ride one of them down a trail."

"Okay," Hutch responded, speeding up a little. Starsky did the same, and before long, both horses were moving swiftly down the trails among the trees. It was an icy but exhilarating experience, but Starsky knew when to pull the reigns in on his horse and slow down. He watched with some amusement as his more experienced partner took off across a field, the horse almost appearing to fly over the ground, barely touching it. After a several-minute detour, Hutch doubled back and returned to the trail.

"I think I'da broken my neck if I followed you on that one," Starsky said with a smile as his horse fell in step with his partner's at a moderate pace.

"Sorry. I just got a little carried away."

"That's okay. I'm just not quite that used to this guy yet."

"Looks like the party preparations are underway," Hutch said, pointing to a truck parked near the pole barn pulling a trailer bearing a sleigh. An honest to God, horse-drawn sleigh.

"I don't believe your mother seriously rented a sleigh."

"Wouldn't be the first time. She sent me pictures of the Christmas party a couple of years ago. It's a major event."

"Hey, that snowman challenge still stands. You haven't proven your superiority in the snowman department yet," Starsky needled.

"You aren't serious about that?"

"Whatsa matter? Can't stand a little competition? Or maybe you were one of those inept kids that made lopsided snowmen?"

"You want to see a real snowman? I'll show you a real snowman," Hutch retorted as they slowed down and stopped in front of the stables. One of the stable hands came out to lead the horses back inside after they had dismounted.

"I could get used to that," Starsky said, nodding back toward the stables.

"We'll have to do that some weekend. There are a couple of great places to go riding not that far from home."

"Maybe we can get Samantha and Janine interested in something like that one of these weekends."

"Hope so." Hutch made his way to a prime spot in front of the house. "Okay. You ready to put your money where your mouth is, hot shot?"

"Any time."

And so the diligent work of constructing snowmen began, and Marion was more than a little amazed to be cast so far back in time as to have to search for carrots and various other oddities to be used for faces on snowmen. How long had it been since she had been sent on that mission?

When they were finished, two large snowmen adorned the front yard, each with its own unique personality derived from the hats, scarves and facial construction added by the "artiste" who constructed it. With the usual diplomacy of a mother, Marion announced the contest a draw. Despite any attempts to sway her one way or the other, she held her ground and announced that if they really felt the need to part with $20 over the bet, they could give it to her for all the work she did finding the accessories.

The guests began arriving as planned around one that afternoon, and among the first of them was a surprise neither Starsky nor Hutch would have ever expected. Steve Archer and his mother, Ellen, pulled up in a bright red pick up truck.

"This is all we need," Hutch muttered.

"Who is it?" Starsky was still adjusting the hat on his snowman.

"Archer and his mother."

"Oh terrific." Starsky moved forward to stand next to his partner. "Just keep your cool, pal. This isn't the place to have a scene."

"Look who's coming up the driveway right behind them. Damn it." Hutch paced back and forth a little.

"Mark and Sally. Great. This oughtta be interesting."

"Mark doesn't know yet, that's one good thing."

"We're all supposed to be spending the night under the same roof. I wonder how long before he figures it out."

"Sally's not going to do anything stupid. Hopefully, we can just ride it out." Hutch took a deep breath. "How do we play this?"

"Dumb. How else? If we act like we know, we're gonna have to do something about it. I think it's wrong for us to not back off and let Sally have at least a fair chance to handle it her way."

"Good point. Okay. We see no evil, hear no evil...etc." Hutch prepared his plastic smile as the Archers approached. Steve grinned widely and held out his hand.

"Ken Hutchinson, eh?" Hutch shook the extended hand.

"Steve Archer. Long time no see. How are you, Mrs. Archer?"

"Fine, Ken. It's amazing to see you so grown up. You were just a boy the last time I saw you."

"This is my partner at the LAPD, Dave Starsky."

"Steve," Starsky said the name as liltingly as possible, shaking the hand that was quickly extended. "Mrs. Archer." he nodded toward the older lady who did not offer her hand but smiled pleasantly. Sally and Mark were approaching from behind. Sally appeared understandably nervous. Mark greeted Steve like an old drinking buddy, which is what it turned out they were. The uneasy group made its way to the house, and Marion threw open the door and welcomed everyone inside, where she had hot chocolate and snacks waiting, with the tree lit and Christmas carols soaring out of the stereo speakers in the living room.

The rest of the guests arrived a short time later, and before long the festivity of sleigh rides and horseback rides through the pines were occupying the group. Having ridden horseback earlier, Starsky was content to take a more passive tour of the grounds on the sleigh with the Hutchinsons and a few other guests while his partner opted to return to the horses, challenging one of his old high school buddies to a race across the field.

A sumptuous buffet dinner was served about seven, featuring carved ham, potatoes and several other delicacies Marion and Sally had prepared. John's spiked egg nog got the crowd in the mood for the sing-a-long that took place immediately after. Marion played the piano and received enthusiastic accompaniment from her house guests on their guitars. The evening's selections included the now-notorious rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", as well as more traditional selections.

Sally and Steve kept their distance from one another, but Mark, unaware that he was consorting with the enemy, visited congenially with Steve about the ranching and farming business and Steve's previous job in St. Paul before coming home to run the family farm. Sally seemed to notice the eagerness in Mark's voice when he asked for the details of Steve's brief tenure as a financial analyst and advisor at large firm. It seemed to dawn on her, just a little, how much her husband had quickly and without hesitation, given up to make her happy. Maybe this stupid, hot-blooded fling with Steve had been just that. Maybe Ken was right, and it should be ended. And maybe, she thought to herself, tonight is the time to do it, when I'm safe with my family and friends.

Sally waited that night until she heard her husband's breathing become deep and even. When

she was convinced he was sleeping, she got out of bed and slipped down the hall to the den where Steve was sleeping on a sofa bed. He had had a few beers during the sing-a-long, liberated by not having to drive home, as were most of the guests, but she still felt this was the time to do what had to be done. She tapped on the door nervously. The response was immediate. The door flew open and Steve pulled her inside and closed it behind her.

"I wondered how long before I'd see you," he leered, encircling her waist with his arms. "I've been thinking about you all evening, Sal." He began kissing her neck, but she pulled away.

"Steve, we have to talk."

"Talking wasn't what I had in mind."

"Well it's what I have in mind." She noticed his surprise at her sudden assertiveness. "This can't go on anymore, Steve. You know I care about you, but I've decided that what I have to do is concentrate on my marriage."

"What marriage? Come on, baby, you've been laughing at that guy since we got back together. You said yourself he was a pansy."

"Look, this was a mistake. It was a bad one, but I have to try and fix things with Mark. It's over between us, Steve. I mean that. I don't want to see you anymore--not like we've been." She turned to walk to the door, but he grabbed her arm and yanked her back. "Let go of me," she said through clenched teeth as she tried to pull away.

"Better be quiet, baby. Don't want to explain to Mommy and Daddy what you're doin' in here in the middle of the night in nothing buy your nightie, do ya?" He pushed her back on the sofa bed and hovered over her menacingly. "Now I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be. Nothing's gonna change between us, you got that?"

There was a knock at the door. Without further invitation, it opened, and Mark stuck his head in.

"What's going on in here?"

"Seems your wife couldn't get what she needed down the hall, so she came lookin' for me." Steve straightened all six-foot-four of his frame and stared down at Mark, who was a little under six feet tall. "Seems you're lackin' in a few major ways, old buddy."

"Him?" He looked past Steve at Sally, who was wide-eyed and horrified at this confrontation. "You're having an affair with him?"

"Mark, I can explain--I was trying to end it--break it off--"

"Hold on a minute. If she's been with you, you're the one who gave her all those bruises. You sick son of a bitch! I'm gonna kill you!" Mark lunged at Steve, grabbing him by the throat. Before long the two men were fighting, and the lights started coming on in the various bedrooms as the guests rushed out to see what the commotion was. Hutch pushed his way into the den and managed to get between Mark and Steve temporarily, but was knocked out of action by Steve. He regained his footing and tried again, this time with the able assistance of his father. Between the two of them, they were able to subdue Steve, and Starsky pulled Mark back and tried to calm him down.

"I'm gonna rip your freaking head off!" Mark screamed at Steve. "You stay the hell away from my wife or I'm gonna kill you, man! You got that!"

"Mark, take it easy. This isn't getting us anywhere," Starsky said firmly.

"Where're you gonna get ten men in a hurry, eh, pansy boy?" Steve shot back. Both men were lunging at each other again and had to be held back.

"Let go of me! That bastard's been hitting Sally--you think that bruise on her arm's the only one she's ever had? Tell 'em, Sal--he's been slapping you around for months now! And I'm gonna kill him!" Mark bellowed. "I just needed to know who it was, and now I do. You keep lookin' over your shoulder, you fucker, because I'm gonna be waiting for just the right time to hang your ass!"

"Get him out of here," Hutch yelled to Starsky, who pulled Mark by the arm out of the room. He finally fell into step with Starsky and followed him back to the bathroom, where Starsky handed him a washcloth to mop up a little blood that was trickling down his chin from a split in his lip.

"Take it easy, man. Killing that guy--or letting everybody hear you threaten you're gonna do it--isn't gonna solve this problem. We're on our way there. Sally's broken it off with him, that's obvious."

"You saw one bruise on her arm. She's had them on her legs, her back--and every time it's been a new story. Damn it, I just want one shot at beating the shit out of him."

"That makes about four of us in this household alone, but that's not going to solve anything. If he's been assaulting her, and she files a complaint, the law can go after him. You listen to me, and listen to me good," Starsky said intently, taking a hold of Mark by the shoulders. "Steve Archer can be dealt with under the law. Anything you do to him is going to land you in jail, no matter how unfair that may be. Now Sally's gotta make her decision here, and if she presses charges, we can go after him. If she won't, he walks, and you're going to have to live with that. I've had to live with seeing a lot of guilty people walk, and it never gets easier, but it isn't worth the price you pay to be a vigilante. Are you hearing me?"

"Yeah, I hear you." There was an element of the usual calmness in Mark's voice.

"I wouldn't steer you wrong on this, man. Just keep your cool, and let nature take its course with Archer. Can you do that?"

"Yes, I said I hear you." Mark walked out into the hall, and caught sight of Sally, standing with her mother outside the room where all the commotion was still going on. She left her mother's side and rushed down the hall and threw her arms around her husband.

"Can you ever forgive me for being such an idiot?" She started to cry, and Mark held her, looking over her shoulder to see Steve being led out, his hands bound somehow behind his back, with Hutch on one side and John on the other. "I'm going to press charges," Sally told Mark, moving back a little. "Ken called the police."

"I'm going to make sure they don't need any extra back up." Starsky made his exit and followed John and Hutch as they led their prisoner downstairs. He was considerably subdued, most likely the result of being on his way to jail. His mother was crying quietly in the hallway, comforted by one of the other guests.

"Okay, everyone, I'll have some hot chocolate in the kitchen for everybody who can't sleep. Sorry about all the commotion," Marion announced, calmly taking the helm to attempt to salvage something of the weekend. The majority of the guests followed her downstairs to the kitchen, while a few returned to their rooms. So this is where the infamous Hutchinson stoicism comes from, Starsky thought to himself as he watched Marion pull herself together and click back into the hostess mode.

The police made reasonably good time out to the ranch and loaded Archer into the back of the squad car. They agreed to wait until morning for Sally to come into town and sign a formal complaint against him. John drove Ellen home in the red pick up at her request, with Mark following to drive John back to the ranch.

"How did I know that time bomb was gonna blow sometime this weekend?" Hutch paced around the living room. The guests and the Hutchinsons themselves had finally all returned to their rooms, and the house was silent once again. It was almost four a.m. Starsky could have easily dropped into a deep sleep, but his partner seemed unusually uptight, so he kept the vigil with drooping lids in an easy chair near the soft colored lights of the tree.

"Do you think Mark and Sally'll work things out? She seemed pretty repentant to me."

"Probably depends on Mark. She came right out and told me she didn't love him. I don't see how that can change in 24 hours."

"Maybe you can learn a lot in 24 hours," Starsky offered, finally raising his sleepy eyes to meet his partner's, who were wide open as he continued to pace. "Come on, Hutch. It coulda been worse. We got Mark and Archer off each other before one of them got killed, and Sally's out of a bad relationship. Maybe she'll wake up and see that she's got something good going with her husband if she'd quit concentrating on what he isn't and looks at what he is."

"You believed in Mark all along. Why?"

"I told you. It was just an instinct."

"Right...guess you're instincts are still pretty sharp, partner."

"Once in a while." Starsky shifted positions in the chair and tried to stay awake.

"Why don't you hit the hay? You look pretty wasted." Hutch suggested.

"Why don't you?" Starsky asked, his lids closed now.

"I don't know," Hutch replied, plopping down on the couch. "I keep thinking about how messed up both our families seem to be. I was so smug after New York, I admit it. I was thinking to myself that when we got here, at least we'd be in safe territory. We'd have this normal family holiday. I'm ashamed to say that I felt just a little bit superior about my idyllic family. I think you summed it up well when you said it looked like one of those Currier and Ives paintings."

"But that ain't reality, my friend," Starsky said through a little snort of a laugh. "You have a great family. I really like your folks a lot. Every family's got their ugly little stuff under the surface."

"I guess. When I left here, it was a textbook example of Mid-American, wholesome family values and all that garbage. Now it reminds me more of Peyton Place."

"You were a kid when you left. Sally was what, fourteen? Steve Archer was still a kid out-running his drunken slob of a father around their farm...I mean, life changes things, Hutch. People grow up, innocence is lost...if I can say something that corny and get away with it..."

"It is a little corny, Starsk," Hutch replied with a smile. "True, but still corny."

"I'm out here in farm country--what do you want from me?" Starsky teased.

"You can be kind of a philosopher at times."

"Surprise, surprise," Starsky responded sleepily. "One thing is kinda funny about all this when you think about it. I went home hoping that everything had miraculously changed since I left, and everything was the same. You came home hoping that everything had miraculously stayed the same, but everything's changed...Life plays some funky tricks, doesn't it?"

"You can say that again." Hutch yawned and put his feet up on the coffee table. When he glanced over at his partner, it was obvious he was not about to say anything again. His breathing was even and his eyes tightly closed. Leaning back into the soft cushions of the couch, Hutch let himself drift, and before long was asleep.

The business at the police department took the majority of the morning, removing Sally, Mark, Starsky and Hutch from the festivities of the Christmas gathering. Marion had weathered well the destruction of her carefully laid party plans, but it was obvious she was more than mildly disappointed that things had taken so many bizarre twists. She managed to prepare a sumptuous brunch for everyone around noon on Sunday, and a little light-hearted festivity seemed to be in the air. This would be the day to exchange a few gifts among friends, and the collection under the tree grew rapidly.

Feeling he needed a breath of fresh air and a break from the claustrophobia of a house full of people, Starsky slipped out the kitchen door and started out for a walk down the trail toward the stables. He spotted Mark several yards ahead.

"Hey, wait up!" he called out, and Mark slowed down and turned around. "Everything okay?"

"I don't know yet. I think the jury's still out on that one," Mark responded, resuming his trek toward the stables once Starsky had caught up to him.

"I'm not trying to pry into your business. I was just concerned."

"Sally and I have done a lot of talking. We're going to at least work on this marriage. Whether or not there's a future in it, I don't know yet."

"You still love her?"

"Never stopped. The only thing is, I don't know if she's discovering some new found love for me or if she's just realizing what a creep Archer is and I look good by comparison--which doesn't say a hell of a lot."

"I think it might be one of those 'Wizard of Oz' experiences--you know, there's no place like home and happiness is in your own backyard--Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera."

"That was 'The King and I'."

"What was?"

"'Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera.' I minored in music in college. I know what I'm talking about here."

"I got my musicals screwed up a little, but it's the thought that counts," Starsky retorted, laughing.

"I want to thank you for believing in me when everybody else thought I was the villain here. I know you had to go head to head with your partner on that, and don't think I don't appreciate it."

"Hutch isn't the villain in this either. He isn't the monster you make him out to be."

"I don't know if I'll ever get past what happened to Jane." He stopped in front of the stall of a large brown stallion. "The best I can do is be civil to the guy right now."

"All you can do is the best you can do." Starsky approached the horse he had ridden the previous day. "Do you ride much?"

"A little. To be brutally honest, I don't like horses all that much."

"I thought you grew up on a ranch."

"Cattle, mostly. Besides, I told you I'd rather live in the city. Now a really good Harley I could get excited about riding."

"Motorcycles, huh? Wish I could afford one now. I've got most of my money sunk into the Torino, and I don't have all that much to begin with. Cops' salaries aren't all that great."

"About as good as ranchers just starting out, I suspect."

"How's the Chevy runnin'?"

"Great. Don't think we'll get much time to work on the '46, but I can send you pictures when I get the body work done. Some people send out pictures of their kids, I send out pictures of my latest restoration projects."

"How's the engine in that monster, anyway?"

"Shot. I've got to rebuild it. Need more money for that too."

"We should probably get back. I think the presents were next on the agenda."

"Don't want to miss all that fun," Mark responded a little sarcastically. They started to stroll slowly back toward the house.

"If things work out with Sally, are you going to be happy to live the rest of your life out here?"

"No, but you can't always have everything exactly the way you want it in your life. I'll settle for getting it about half right."

"Life is all about settling, I s'pose," Starsky responded, thinking back on New York, and how he had to settle for leaving the status quo in place.

"Coming up with a settlement you can live with, yeah. Looks like more snow on the way," Mark announced as they mounted the steps to the back porch.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful in a good sort of way, passed by exchanging gifts and the wrap up of the town's most interesting, if not peaceful, Christmas gathering of the season. When the last of the guests were on their way down the drive, Marion closed the front door and leaned against it heavily.

"Thank God that's over with," she groaned. John was picking up tattered Christmas wrappings and Starsky and Hutch were helping gather up the rest of the dirty glasses and snack plates around the living room.

"It was a great party, Mom--except for the thing with Archer."

"The 'thing' with Archer managed to broadcast our dirty laundry all over the county." She picked up a couple of plates and stormed into the kitchen.

"Marion, it's over, let go of it," John called after her.

"Let go of it? Our daughter has been messing around on her husband with that..."

"Dirtbag?" Starsky offered as he entered the kitchen.

"Thank you, David. That dirtbag, Steve Archer. Now the world knows about it. I've never been so mortified in my life. Of course Mark raving and swearing like a lunatic was a nice touch too."

"Mom, Sally's okay, that's the big thing here," Hutch interjected. His mother seemed to concede at least that point, as she did not make any further comment about the matter.

The next few days were blissfully dull, with a few side trips to nearby cities for an occasional dinner out, a local stage play of "A Christmas Carol" and a symphony concert for the holiday season. Mark and Sally plugged in on a couple of these outings, and they appeared to be fairly congenial with each other. Starsky honed his horseback riding skills under his partner's tutelage, and soon gave Hutch a run for his money on snowmobile races across the landscape. He wasn't lying when he said that "if you can drive it, I can do it".

Christmas Eve day was a festive occasion around the house, with Marion laying her ground rules about where she would be wrapping gifts and who was not to enter the kitchen without her prior permission while she did so. Starsky hadn't forgotten his partner's cryptic remarks about the fate of the $500 prize money, and now that things had slowed down to a peaceful pace, he was able to concentrate on such a frothy and seasonal dilemma. He was also anxious to see the look on Hutch's face when he opened his Christmas present. Starsky patted himself on the back for having executed such a perfect holiday plot to accomplish this one. Having the gift shipped directly to the ranch was a real inspiration, something Hutch would never suspect. Starsky wrapped the large box that afternoon and slid it under his bed. He would slip down during the night and add it under the tree. If there was one thing that required some planning, it was outwitting another detective at Christmas time.

And Starsky wasn't the only one plotting a surprise. Hutch examined the fruits of his $500 shopping spree in Chicago approvingly. The quilt had been a nice hostess gift for his mother, but the expensive perfume from Macy's would be more exciting under the tree. Not trusting Starsky, he had locked the bedroom door before spreading his wares on the bed and wrapping them. He commended himself for thinking of having Starsky's gift shipped directly to the ranch. It was a real inspiration, and something Starsky would never think of himself, Hutch thought with a little snicker. He would wait until everyone was in bed and slip it under the tree. It would drive Starsky nuts not to find anything from his partner in the stash that would accumulate there that evening.

Starsky stretched out on his bed when the wrapping project was over and called his mother. A few seconds later, Starsky heard her voice, and she sounded actually cheerful.

"David! How are you?"

"I'm fine, Ma. I wanted to check up on you and Sam Jr."

"I'm doing fine, and Sam Jr. is out of danger. He's going to be out of the hospital in a few more days. The doctors don't really think he'll have any significant problems with his lung either."

"Thank God. Is everything okay there really?"

"Fine, David. Tommy and I are going to have dinner in a little while, then he's going to give me a ride over to the hospital to see Sam Jr. Please don't worry about anything. Everything is just fine here. I hope you understand about Tommy...I'm not happy about what happened, but..."

"Tommy's a hornet you need on your side. It's okay, Ma. Really. I mean it."

"I'm glad. Now tell me about the ranch..." And so the conversation went, with Starsky describing the Christmas party, the setting, his recently acquired skill of horseback riding and various other details of their stay in Minnesota. When he hung up, he was convinced she was all right, and strangely grateful even to something the likes of Goretti for his ever-vigilant and ever-dependable protection of the family.

The group gathered for dinner and later that night traveled into town for a late church service. The choir performed music from Handel's Messiah, and John and Marion seemed pleased to have the chance to introduce their son to several of their friends. Mark and Sally had opted to spend Christmas Eve with Mark's parents, but they planned to rejoin the Hutchinson clan for the Christmas Day festivities.

At about two a.m., Starsky slithered down the stairs to add the large package to the grouping under the tree. He was amazed to see someone else hunched there, and it wasn't Santa Claus. He snuck up behind his partner, who was carefully hiding a large box under a couple of other gifts.

"Ho, ho, ho!" He bellowed suddenly, causing Hutch to spin around and let out a little yelp. "Shhh!" Starsky pressed his finger to his lips. "You'll wake up Mom and Dad."

"Very funny." Though annoyed at having been caught, Hutch was instantly intrigued by Starsky's mission under the tree. "What're you doing down here?"

"Not much point in lyin' now. Same thing you are. Stashing something I didn't want lifted, shaken, poked or examined before morning." He craned his neck to see past Hutch to the large box he had nestled under the tree. "And you?"

"None of your business. What's in the box?"

"Uh-uh. You hold out me, I hold out on you." Starsky hurried to the tree and stashed the large box in the midst of the other gifts. "Hands off."

"You know I hate surprises," Hutch grumbled.

"You know I hate surprises," Starsky retorted.

"Technically, it's Christmas morning right now." Hutch pointed to the clock on the wall.

"So if we were to tear into a couple of these packages, real quietly, it probably wouldn't really be wrong, would it?"

"No. We're just up earlier than everyone else." Hutch shrugged. They exchanged looks for a moment and then dove for opposite sides of the tree to get their packages. Without offering each other the option of who should go first, they plopped on the floor near the tree and simultaneously tore into the gifts. Amidst the shreds of paper, they both looked up at each other. Each had a large box from Macy's in his lap. They lost little time on the exchanged glance and both box tops were tossed unceremoniously to the side. Starsky pulled out the black leather jacket he had reluctantly left behind, while Hutch unfolded the blue sportcoat he had considered a lost issue.

"How did you get this past me?" Starsky threw his robe in the corner and pulled the jacket on over his pajamas.

"I had it shipped here--I could ask you the same thing." Hutch followed suit and put the sportcoat on over his pajamas.

"I had that shipped here," Starsky responded, with a smile growing into a laugh.

"Great minds think alike, huh?" Hutch answered with a laugh.

"So I've heard but what's our excuse?" Starsky's attention turned back to his present. "I can't believe you bought me this jacket." He stroked the leather sleeves and zipped the front of it. "I wanted this thing the worst way," he said, carefully examining every pocket, zipper and crease of his gift, and it amused Hutch just a little to watch an almost child-like enthusiasm in his partner for this overpriced piece of clothing. Of course, Hutch was more than a little excited with his own gift, though he tried to maintain just a little of his characteristic reserve.

"I had that $500 I was saving for an emergency...I don't know, it seemed like having a little fun with it was more important. I got some fancy perfume for my mother, a watch for my dad, and that sweater for Sally--and of course a little something for Janine...But I didn't even think you noticed me trying on this sportcoat."

"You showed it to me on the way out, remember?"

"I guess I did. Thanks, partner. But this and Nashville--it's too much."

"Yeah? I liked that song you wrote for Terry and me too, but I'm not givin' you back the jacket." Starsky smiled widely. "This trip was a once in a lifetime thing, remember? Nothing's too much. Seriously, thanks for this. I really love it."


"I called home earlier."

"Anything wrong?"

"No, as a matter of fact, things are pretty good. You know, I've spent so many years hating Durniak, then Goretti, and maybe I was wrong. He really seems to care about my mother."

"What about what his goons did to you?"

"That's me, not my mother. I have to look at how Goretti treats her. He's loyal to Joe's memory--I guess there's even an honor among hoods who are friends--so I know he'll look out for her. I s'pose he's a good person to do that. If he'd put me through the paces just to keep me from stirring things up, you can picture what he'd do to anyone who messed with her. Everybody knows that, so nobody tries it. He's not the first guy I'd pick out to have hanging around my mother, but he cares about her and he's kept her safe this far. I can't find too much fault with that."

"So maybe we're both accepting some things we can't change?"

"Maybe." Starsky stood up and offered Hutch a hand, pulling him to his feet. "Seems like we oughtta go out somewhere now and show these off."

"Starsk--do me a favor. Look in that mirror over there." Starsky followed the instruction and stood in front of the long mirror near the entry closet. For the first time, he really zeroed in on how ridiculous he and his partner looked.

"I didn't say the look didn't need perfecting," he said, flipping up the collar of the jacket.

"At least you've got something to go with the gloves now," Hutch joked.

"Think we oughtta get a little sleep before tomorrow?"

"It already is tomorrow."

"Well, should we take a nap before we open more stuff then?" Starsky corrected, turning away from the mirror.

"Good idea. Only thing is, I'm hungry. There's cold chicken in the refrigerator..."

Mark and Sally joined the family on Christmas Day to open gifts and enjoy a large Christmas dinner together. John had ordered the dinner catered by an elegant catering service in the area as a gift to Marion, who could sit back and enjoy the festivities for a change without the burden of any serving duties.

The family attempted to avoid any direct reference to the fight that had broken out the previous weekend, but when the tension was thick enough to cut with a carving knife, Sally finally tackled the subject over after dinner drinks in the living room.

"I know everyone is trying not to spoil today by bringing up what happened with Steve, but I think not bringing it up is harder on everyone that getting it out in the open. Steve and I were having an affair. I have to admit that, I really don't have much choice. None of this is Mark's fault. It's mine and I take full responsibility for being an idiot. I have a wonderful husband who loves me, and I've been stomping all over that love for a long time. I'm very thankful he's even still here. I think I'm most thankful that he still cared enough to even want to attack Steve on my behalf. Anyway, we've been doing a lot of talking, and Mark and I are going to try to work things out. We don't know yet if we can, but we're going to try."

"I'm still in a state of shock. I thought you ended your relationship with Steve Archer in high school," Marion commented.

"I didn't end it. Steve did. And I think I always had this notion that he was the right one for me and that I'd lost him, and when I got a chance to have him again, I thought it was what I wanted. Then I got a taste of having a real relationship with him, and after a while I was more afraid to challenge him to get out than I was in love with him. He was very violent and angered easily, and while there is an element of excitement to a dangerous man, it wears thin pretty quickly."

"I have to say, Mark, I always thought you weren't too interested in my daughter the way you seemed kind of...I don't know...indifferent all the time," John spoke up. "And she looked unhappy all the time. I just hope you two can get your life back on track, that we can keep the family together."

"That's something else we have to work on." Sally took a deep breath. "Mark and I have to make a decision, together this time, which direction our future is going to go if we stay together. I know I've held Mark here and kept him from having the career he originally wanted. If we stay here on the ranch and stay together, we'll have to both want that. If we don't want the same things and we can't resolve it, we'll have to accept that too."

"I hope you can," Marion commented. "And whatever you decide about the ranch, I know your father and I will be behind you both." She shot a very determined look in John's direction, who reluctantly nodded in agreement.

Mark and Sally made their exit by mid-evening, and the post-holiday slump seemed to be on the horizon. The gifts were opened, the food was eaten, the surprises were revealed. Starsky seemed immune to that depression as he put on a sweater and his new leather jacket and black leather gloves to go outside for a breath of air. Hutch followed him willingly, always a victim to Christmas Night depression.

"That was some Christmas." Hutch gazed up at the stars as they walked along a trail which would eventually lead among the pines.

"Had its ups and downs, didn't it?"

"That it did. Lots of ups though. I'm glad we came."

"Me too. Mark and Sally are giving it another shot, my mother seems to be out of danger, we've both confronted--and hopefully exorcized--a few old ghosts. Kinda makes you think there's something to this whole concept of miracles during Hanukkah and Christmas, doesn't it?"

"Maybe. Maybe there really is some Supreme Being up there watching it all."

"I think so. Somebody had to pull our miserable butts out of the jaws of death more than once." Starsky laughed a little. "I'm going over to Mark's tomorrow for a few hours to work on the '46. I thought you might like a little time to visit with your folks. We are still planning to shove off on the road again on the 27th?"

"Yup. You still wanna spend New Year's Eve in Vegas, don't you?"

"You know, Vegas isn't all that far away from Phoenix..."

"Your point being?" Hutch asked with a knowing grin.

"Maybe Samantha and Janine would be up to New Year's Eve in Vegas?"

"Good thinking."

"Let's call 'em tomorrow and see what we can set up." Starsky sighed. "I'm gonna miss this place. Out of all our stops, I think this was my favorite."

"Mine too, buddy. But we haven't been to Vegas yet..." Hutch was quiet a minute, taking in the peace and beauty of this flawless winter night, and the companionship of his best friend. He couldn't help but voice just a little of what he felt. "Did you ever experience one moment in time that was so perfect you'd like to freeze it--not let go of it?" He looked at Starsky.

"Without a doubt," Starsky responded, smiling widely back at his partner. This was a perfect moment in time. The still quiet night, the promise of a resolution to some of the things that had been eating away at both of them more than either of them had seemed like a little holiday miracle all by itself. Starsky leaned on the fence and gazed out at the rolling hills, the frosted pines, the stables...such peace and quiet. Of course, before long, he would feel a pull to the bright lights of the city. Still, pulling out of the long drive and getting back on the road would be hard to do. This felt so much like home. Hutch verbalized his thoughts.

"You wonder sometimes if it isn't easier to never visit. You make that one break and then you don't go through the whole homesick thing again."

"Or you could visit more often," Starsky retorted. "Man, if I had this place to visit, I'd be here every chance I got."

"What do you mean, 'if you had this place'? You have it. I always wanted a little brother I could push around."

"Little brother? How did I get to be the younger one here?"

"I was here first, pal. That gives me dibs on the big brother position."

"Can't argue with logic." Starsky shook his head.

"All joking aside for a minute, you're part of this family, Starsk. You do know that?"

Starsky just nodded and smiled. He didn't say anymore about what Hutch had said, but it was the voicing of a feeling Starsky had always had. Their relationship was what having a brother should be all about. It wasn't Nicky's fault that things were strained between them most of the time. Again, it was that damn situation. But here was this friendship with Hutch, that sprang out of the blue, between two people who didn't even initially get along very well. Who'da thought when I first summed you up as an uptight, goody-two-shoes farm boy and you thought of me as a stupid, ill-bred street punk that we'd wind up best friends, Starsky thought, bringing a slight upturn to the corners of his mouth.

"I really am glad we took this trip." Hutch started to walk back toward the house, and Starsky joined him. "I've had Jane's ghost in my head for a lot of years."

"And I never moved past being mad at life because my father died and things didn't go my way. I left a lot of junk back in New York that I've been hauling around on my back for years." They began mounting the front steps. "Plus, I think when you spend all these hours one-on-one with somebody--and this is different than work, because there weren't the distractions--you get a real good look at what you've got. You and I have always trusted each other--with our lives--that's nothing new. But trusting someone with your physical life and trusting them with something you think is so horrible that no one could know about it and still stick around...that's a whole different ball game. And we're both still here. Jane and the mob notwithstanding, we're both still here. I feel like we survived something bigger than a shootout on this trip."

"Your deep thoughts are starting to make me nervous, buddy," Hutch responded, then became serious. "But I agree with you."

"Suppose your mother has any leftover pumpkin pie in the kitchen?"

"I think we should investigate it."

"Hey, that reminds me--let's call Dobey." Starsky poked Hutch's arm.

"If he's at work, he really isn't gonna want hear our laid back, vacationing voices on the other end of the phone."

"We aren't going to tell him who we are. We're going to get him on the phone wherever he is, and we're gonna sing our 'Twelve Days of Christmas' song and hang up. Whaddya say?"

"I say let's go get on the extensions and brighten up the captain's holiday." Hutch led the dash into the house.

Starsky spent most of the day after Christmas on his back under Mark's '46. The old engine was pretty hopeless, but it was worth a thorough check to determine if there was anything worth saving in the rusted old carcass of a vehicle.

Sally brought sandwiches out for them at noon, and Starsky thought he detected a slight warming trend between the couple. Munching on lunch, he probed Mark on the subject.

"Sally seems to be in good spirits."

"We've been doing a lot of talking the last few days. We're going to give it a try."

"Are you staying on the ranch?"

"For now, yeah. Until we work on our relationship, I don't want to take any chances with uprooting our whole lives. I have been scoping out a few job possibilities in Duluth. It's kind of a compromise. We'd still live here, but someone else would do the day-to-day stuff on the ranch and I'd work in the city. Maybe we can both find a little more happiness in that scenario."

"I'm glad things are looking up." Starsky glanced back at the car. "Too bad the good luck doesn't extend to that critter over there."

"Hey, Sally and I are working toward what approximates a normal marriage. I'd say that car's chances of being on the road are better than our chances were for that!"

Starsky didn't return to the ranch until dinner time, when he rejoined the Hutchinsons for one last big family dinner around the dining room table. He had promised Marion he'd demonstrate his famous omelette skills in the morning before they left, so she was officially off the hook for kitchen duty for the remainder of their stay.

After dinner, clean up, and relaxing with after-dinner drinks for a while, Hutch talked his partner into one last horseback ride in the areas where there was still enough light from the house and outbuildings to see in the darkness of night. It was an icy experience, but the clearness of the night and the bright full moon and array of stars made it worthwhile. Starsky had gained a lot of ground in his riding skills, and it was rare for him not to pursue his partner even on his faster runs. Still, he knew when the speed exceeded his skill level, and when Hutch took off across the snowy, moonlit field at what looked like warp speed, Starsky regretfully pulled in the reigns and didn't follow. He envied such a wild ride across the terrain, but preferred to keep all his limbs intact for the rest of the trip.

He threw caution to the winds when he saw the horse throw his partner and continue its own run across the field. As he almost flew to the spot of the accident, he could have sworn he saw a shadow moving swiftly through the nearby trees.

Starsky brought the horse to an abrupt halt, almost getting thrown himself, as he approached his partner, who was sprawled face down in the snow, unmoving.

"Hutch!" Starsky raced over and dropped to his knees next to his partner, hesitantly resting his hand lightly on the other's hair. He knew he had to get Hutch's face out of the snow, so against his better judgement, he'd have to find a way to move him as quickly and carefully as possible. He did his best to get one arm under Hutch's chest and neck and hold the other arm against his neck and back. Crouching behind him, Starsky was able to gingerly turn him without a great deal of jostling to his neck and upper back. If landing face down in the snow hadn't brought him around, he had to be hurt pretty badly.

"Hutch, come on, pal, it's me, it's Starsk. Can ya hear me?" Starsky pushed some wet blond hair off his partner's forehead and put his own scarf under Hutch's head. "Damn it, Hutch, talk to me!" There was no response. Starsky pulled out his gun and fired it in the air twice. He couldn't leave Hutch lying out in the middle of the field while he went for help, but they needed an ambulance fast. He soon heard the motors of two snowmobiles tearing down the trail toward the field. John and one of his ranch hands appeared on the horizon and leaving their vehicles, ran to where Starsky was crouched over his partner.

"What happened?" John demanded, dropping to his knees on the other side of his son, checking his pulse and looking wildly at Starsky.

"He took off to run the horse across the field--something spooked that horse, John. I know, because I watched him do the same thing here several times before, and he's never been thrown, and there was someone in the woods...we've gotta get an ambulance out here!"

"Tim, go back to the house and call for help!" John ordered. The younger man raced back to his snowmobile and was launched on a dead run for the house.

"I had to turn him over...his face was in the snow... I hope I haven't made things worse."

"You couldn't let him suffocate, Dave." John released his son's wrist. "Pulse is rapid. He always did take those damn horses too fast out here."

"It wasn't Hutch's fault. I saw someone in the trees. Someone did this." Starsky took his partner's hand and leaned down low near his face. "Come on, buddy, it's me. It's gonna be okay. It's just a nasty fall, but you'll be all right. Just talk to me, please." He waited hopefully but there was no response.

"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" John asked, waiting for Starsky to look up and meet his gaze. All Starsky could think of at that moment was his fallen friend, who showed no sign of regaining consciousness. "Steve Archer got out on bail today. His mother got him out pending his trial...or plea bargain, most likely."

"If I find out Archer's behind this, and Hutch isn't healthy and in one piece when it's over, I'm gonna find that bastard and I'm gonna kill him."

"And I'd like to help you do it. But I think you know as well, probably better, than I do, that we've got to let the cops handle it." John looked back down at his son. "Ken, it's Dad, can you hear me, son?"

"I told Mark not to be a vigilante. Choking on my own advice, I guess."

It seemed an eternity before the ambulance arrived, making its way carefully down the trail. The paramedics sped across the field with the board to immobilize Hutch and the gurney that would carry him back to the vehicle. Starsky and John reluctantly relinquished their positions near Hutch while he was placed on the board, then on the gurney, and carefully transported to the ambulance.

"I'm going to go get Marion and drive behind the ambulance," John announced. "Go ahead and ride with him, Dave."

"Thanks," Starsky responded quickly, jumping into the back of the ambulance.

Starsky had gone to the hospital cafeteria to get coffee for himself and the Hutchinsons, and returned with a carrier containing five cups, since it was a pretty safe assumption Mark and Sally would be there by the time he got back. Only Mark remained in the emergency waiting room when Starsky returned.

"What's happened?" he asked Mark, panicking.

"They've taken Ken into emergency surgery. There's been some damage to the spinal cord, and they're going to try to repair it."

"TRY? What exactly is his condition?"

"It's touch and go, according to the doctor. He said they don't know if he'll make it, and beyond that, there's a pretty strong risk of partial or total paralysis."

"Oh, God," Starsky set the coffee down shakily on a table and lowered himself into a chair.

"I'm really sorry, Dave. I know how close you guys are. This must be tough."

"Archer did this," Starsky muttered.


"I saw a shadow in the trees while Hutch was riding across the field. Something spooked that horse, Mark. I've seen Hutch make that run several times since we've been here, and he's never had the slightest problem. Suddenly he can't control the horse? And think about who'd do something like that? John said he got out on bail today."

"Ellen let him cool his heels in the slammer quite a while, didn't she?" Mark smirked a little.

"What floor did everybody go to?" Starsky stood up suddenly, having recovered his second wind.

"Fourth. I'll get these." Mark picked up the coffee and followed Starsky to the elevator.

The hours dragged unbearably as the surgery progressed. Starsky sat silently in a chair picturing the scenarios: Hutch dying on the table, and the unthinkable vision of burying him and moving on...Hutch surviving but being a cripple in a wheelchair, unable to do anything he loved to do most...not that it would ever matter to Starsky if his partner couldn't move a finger. If he survived, and Hutch was still in that immobile shell somewhere, their friendship wouldn't change. Or would Hutch turn into one of these people who turns everyone who loves them away because of a disability? He shook his head and tried to clear the thoughts away. Maybe this would all work out. Maybe their guardian angel, Supreme Being, or whatever force had kept them alive this long would hold out one more time. Oh, Terry, you said if I was ever scared and alone, you'd be there...if you're a beautiful angel up there now, help us somehow, Starsky thought to himself, trying to avoid giving in to tears. Hutch's song was playing itself back in his mind again, and it seemed now like this was just going to be one more loss...Hutch would be just another shooting star...that was pessimistic, and that wasn't what Hutch's family needed right now, he scolded himself.

"How are you holding up?" Marion sat in a nearby chair and took his hand.

"I should be asking you that," he replied, straightening in the chair and feeling a little ashamed not to have been a greater source of strength for his partner's family.

"I'm all right," she answered firmly. "Ken is strong, he's healthy, and he's a good man. I don't think God will let him down."

"Maybe you're right," Starsky responded, forcing a grin.

"Ken is a good rider--you saw it happen. What went wrong?"

"Something spooked the horse. Could have been anything," Starsky lied. No point in upsetting her more by pointing fingers at Archer.

"But it wasn't anything, was it? You know what happened out there, David, and I want you to tell me."

"I saw a shadow in the trees. It could have been anyone, anything--or nothing. I'm not really the great outdoors type. Maybe it was my imagination."

"You don't believe that, do you?" she persisted.

"No," he finally replied, shaking his head. It was pointless to lie to her. Just like Hutch, she looked into your soul with those piercing blue eyes, and lying was useless. "I understand Steve Archer got out of jail today."

"And you think he came back for revenge?"

"Yes. And when I know Hutch is okay, I'm going to get to the bottom of it."

"Oh, God, it's all my fault!" Sally shrieked, overhearing the conversation about Archer. Mark tried to comfort her but she jumped out of her chair and ran into the hallway and he followed

her. John just sat back and shook his head sadly.

"This is a damn lousy mess," he mumbled, standing and then moving to a chair closer to Starsky and Marion. He plopped back down next to his wife. "Sally and her messing around and now this with Ken."

"As soon as I know Hutch is okay, I'm going to talk to the authorities. And if they won't help us, I'll call Dobey back home. I know he won't leave me floundering out here without help."

"I'd like to rip his heart out," Marion stated simply, drawing shocked expressions from both men. She didn't seem to have a violent bone in her body. "I'd like to take Archer by the hair and twist his head off!" She buried her face in her hands and cried. John embraced her, and Starsky got up and walked out into the hall. Mark and Sally had disappeared to some other spot in the hospital, so Starsky leaned against the wall and tried to collect his thoughts in a moment of solitude. It seemed like collecting confetti in the wind and just as hopeless.

He spotted a doctor in blue scrubs walking toward him. He ducked back into the waiting room and alerted Hutch's parents. The doctor entered the room and encouraged them to sit down while he explained.

"Is he alive?" were the first words out of Starsky's mouth.

"Yes. He survived the surgery. We had some rough spots, but so far, he's holding his own. What we have to be concerned with now is the possibility of paralysis. There is a lot of swelling on the spinal cord at this point, so it is almost a given that he will be paralyzed from the waist down for the time being, until the swelling goes down, which can take a few days or a few weeks. I wish I could tell you some definite date when we'll know for sure, but every case is different, and I really can't. What I can tell you is that he is very healthy and strong, and has a good constitution. My opinion would be that his chances for survival are excellent. Now, I know you're all anxious to see him. He'll be in recovery for the next few hours, but as soon as he's moved into the intensive care unit, one at a time can visit once per hour for a few minutes. The nurse will let you know when you can see him. My personal advice would be to go home and get some sleep. He won't come around from the anesthetic and other medication for quite a few hours. Whatever you folks decide, just let the nurses' station know. I'll be in the hospital the rest of the night, to keep an eye on Ken and a couple of other patients, so if you need me, just have me paged."

"Thanks so much, Dr. Reardon," John stood up with the doctor and shook his hand. After he left the room, John looked down at Marion. "That was probably good advice. We could get a little rest now, and then be here fresh in the morning and be with him when he comes to."

"I don't want to leave him at all," Marion replied.

"It's up to you, Marion, but if you and John want to go home, I'll stay. I can sleep on the couch right here. If there's any change--if he even moves his eyelids funny--I'll call you," Starsky offered. Marion hesitated, then looked at her husband, and then nodded.

"Promise me you'll call if there's anything at all?"

"Would I lie to Hutch's mom?" Starsky asked with a grin.

"I suppose you wouldn't," she answered, hugging him quickly and then taking John's arm as they walked down the hallway.

Mark and Sally never returned to the waiting room, so Starsky figured they must have seen John and Marion and gotten the update from them. He stretched out on the couch, though he didn't feel much like sleeping. It was after midnight, and he'd be cooling his heels in the waiting room until the wee hours of the morning before he could even poke his head in the door of Hutch's room.

He dozed off at some point, and was awakened by a nurse who asked if he was waiting to see Kenneth Hutchinson. He nodded immediately. She inquired if he was immediate family. Fearing that a negative answer would hurt his chances for a visit, he responded quickly-- "I'm his brother." If she noted a lack of family resemblance, she didn't voice it and led him to the quiet, dimly lit area that was the intensive care unit. She left him at the door of Hutch's room, with instructions that he was only to stay five minutes. He approached the still form in the bed. There were a couple of bruises visible on Hutch's forehead now, but all in all, it could have been worse. He was breathing on his own, and apparently from the waist up, the danger of paralysis had passed. Starsky sat by the bed and carefully lowered the rail on the side of it so he could reach Hutch's hand.

"Hey, partner, it's me," he began. "Don't worry if you can hear me but you don't feel up to visiting right now. Just rest and listen. The doctor said you're doing great. I don't want you to be scared if you wake up and your legs feel numb. There's some swelling from that fall, but that's going to go down." God, I hope it gives you your legs back when it does, Starsky thought to himself. "Hutch, your mom and dad and Sally and Mark were all here, and they're coming back soon. They all love you, so you've got to get well for them, huh? I mean it'd be kinda rude to mess up their holidays by staying in this joint too long, right?" Starsky swallowed a lump in his throat. "You've gotta get well for me too, partner, because I still need you around, okay?" He reached up and touched Hutch's hair for a moment, then withdrew, and laid his partner's hand gently back on the bed. "I'll be right down the hall if you need me, buddy. Just get one of these pretty nurses to call me for you, okay?" He quietly eased the side rail up again and took his leave. Hutch's stillness was disquieting, but he was still heavily sedated. Still, Starsky would feel infinitely relieved when he saw some signs of life.

Near six that morning, Hutch opened his eyes. The last thing he remembered was the horse rearing, and then...his legs. He moved his arms slightly, but when he tried to move his legs, he could feel nothing.

"Starsky!" He let out a roar that brought the nurse running to the room. "Starsky!" he yelled again. His partner was just on his way in for his hourly visit, and ran down the rest of the hallway when he heard his partner's voice. He pushed past the nurse who had tried to calm Hutch with no success. "I can't feel my legs!" he cried frantically at Starsky.

"Give us a minute, here, okay?" Starsky asked the nurse, who took her leave. "Hutch, come on, lie back. Trust me, partner, just lie back and don't tire yourself out." Starsky lowered the side rail and sat on the edge of the mattress and took Hutch's hand in both of his.

"My legs, Starsk, what's wrong with my legs?!"

"You remember last night, when we went riding?" Starsky asked gently. "You took a nasty fall in the field, and they had to do a little repair work on your back."

"But I can't feel my legs!" he exclaimed again.

"Not yet, I know." Starsky laid his hand on the side of his partner's face. "But there's still a lot of swelling, and that swelling goes down. That's what's messing up your legs right now. But the swelling will go down."

"When it does, am I gonna get my legs back or not?" Hutch demanded, less emotional now but still clutching Starsky's hand tightly.

"Probably." Starsky hated the weakness of the answer, but he couldn't lie to Hutch. And building unreasonable hopes in him would be cruel anyway. "They won't know anything for certain for a while yet. The doctor said it all depends on how long it takes the swelling to go down, and what the result is when it does. I wish I could tell you something more. God, how I wish I could just say something to make this better...or trade places with you. I would in a minute if I could." Starsky hated himself for the tears that escaped his own eyes. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was upset Hutch anymore than he already was.

"Hey, buddy, I'm the one in the hospital bed here," Hutch spoke up, trying to regain a little of his old voice. As usual, he was also trying to regain control of the situation.

"I wish I was and not you," Starsky replied honestly, pulling himself together.

"I'm glad you're not." Hutch looked down at his motionless legs. "At least if one of us has to lose his legs, it should be the intellectual half of the team." His attempt at humor horrified both of them, and Hutch lost control over his tears, and Starsky sat there holding his hand, crying with him. This possibility was too horrible to even consider, let alone talk about...let alone live through. Finally, Starsky swallowed a couple of times and tried to calm himself down.

"Will ya look at us? Of all the tight messes we've been in, we're going to sit here and snivel our way through this one? What kind of impression are we gonna make on those nurses out there anyway?" His characteristic smile seemed to calm Hutch down, and he returned it.

"We are a pretty pathetic picture, aren't we?" he asked with a laugh.

"I think that's the understatement of the year." Starsky sniffed and reached for a tissue with his free hand, giving one to Hutch and using one himself to mop up his own face. "Seriously, Hutch, we are gonna get through this, no matter what the outcome. You know that, don't you?"

"If I don't have the use of my legs anymore, I don't know if I want to get through it."

"First off, we're sitting here crying and carrying on over something that hasn't even happened yet. This paralysis could very likely be temporary. You're healthy and you're strong--if anybody can beat this thing, you can." Starsky took a deep breath. "You're going to have to forgive me. I'm just so damn glad you're alive and have your head screwed on straight that everything else seems manageable."

"It will be if I get my legs back. How can you be a cop with no legs?"

"Let's see." Starsky's brow wrinkled with deep thought. "I know--we can open our own private eye business. Ironsides can do it--so can we. I'll sell the Torino, get this real funky van all rigged up--complete with one of Merl's custom paint jobs--we can be our own bosses."

"And you'd want to quit the force to be a private eye? I don't think so."

"I do. It could be fun. Hell, maybe we oughtta do it anyway. No deadlines, no captains screaming, no hookers hooking, no perps escaping--gee, I think there's a song in there somewhere," he said with a laugh, and it felt wonderful to see Hutch return it. "Look, whatever stupid thing we do with the rest of our lives, if it's working for lousy pay and getting shot at, or if it's opening some fleabag private eye office, we'll have some fun with it if we do it together--am I right? We're both still alive, so we can deal with this."

"I almost believe that." Hutch was still smiling faintly.

"You mark my words, pal. First of all, I have every confidence you're going to get your legs back in action, and we're going to be back to work like usual before long. But even if the worst case scenario happens, we'll get through it together...and it won't be the end of the world."

"This thing about my getting well--is that one of those 'feelings' you have, like Nashville, or are you just full of it?" Hutch tried to keep the question light, but it was obvious he was counting on Starsky's fortune-telling skills, since they had paid off in the amateur night contest.

"Same thing." Starsky sat back, nodding confidently.

"We'll go with that then," Hutch replied, looking more relaxed. "Where's the family?"

"They were here all through the surgery last night, but since you were out cold, with much coercing your mother agreed to get a little sleep and come back this morning."

"I'm glad they weren't here at first. I needed a little time before I could...well, you know what I mean."

"I know. Hutch, do you remember what happened?"

"Something spooked the horse. I don't know what--I didn't see or hear anything. But I've ridden that field a thousand times, ever since we only had a couple horses on the farm and I was a little kid. I've never been thrown."

"Then we're going to find out why you were this time."

"There's something you're not telling me."

"I saw a shadow--a figure of some sort in the woods as I was riding out to where you were. Since I'm not exactly Daniel Boone, I didn't really trust myself that I wasn't imagining something out there in the dark. The more I thought about it though, I know there was someone or something out there."

"Archer," Hutch stated evenly. "He's gotta be out running around loose by now."

"He got out yesterday."

"Well that kind of falls into place, doesn't it? I encourage Sally to break it off, then we haul him off to the slammer--I talked her into pressing charges right in front of him. He probably was waiting for just the right time."

"I'm gonna nail his ass to the wall, you can count on that, partner."

"But you're not going to do anything stupid, right?"

"Your dad already talked me out of that one."

"He thinks it's Archer?"

"He told me about him getting out of jail. I'm going to head over to the PD and talk to Porter--the detective we talked to the morning they booked Archer?"

"Right..." Hutch stared at the motionless lower portion of his body.

"This is going to work itself out, remember? One of my 'feelings'?"

"Oh, sure." Hutch suddenly pulled his hand away, unaware that he had never let go of Starsky since he came in the room. Starsky hadn't given it much thought himself. He was so relieved to see his partner alive, awake and responsive that his mind was still a little fragmented.

"Is this a private party?" Marion stuck her head in the door.

"Yup, and it's all yours. I've got some work to do." Starsky stood up. "Keep the faith, pal. You're gonna do just fine. I promise."

"I'll hold ya to it," Hutch responded, smiling back at Starsky as he headed for the door.

"I'll be in touch later--did the nurse fill you in?" Starsky asked Marion quietly.

"All of it."

"I'll be back later, buddy!" Starsky called over his shoulder, heading down the hall.

Detective Porter was a congenial, heavy set middle-aged man. He was working on the project of waking up fully, downing his second cup of coffee and a donut, when Starsky was directed back to his desk.

"Hey, Sergeant Starsky, right?" He stood up and extended his hand. Starsky shook it.

"Right. How's it goin'?"

"Ah, the usual drill...too many cases and too few of us--but that's no news bulletin to you, right?" He walked over to the coffee machine. "Coffee?" Starsky nodded in response to the question.

"I'm afraid I'm here to add to your caseload." Starsky sat in the chair next to the desk as the other detective took his seat behind it. "Thanks," Starsky said, taking the coffee. "Somebody did something to spook Hutch's horse while we were out riding last night, and he's in the hospital with two numb legs we don't know if he's gonna get back in action again. I think our friend Archer is behind it."

"That's a lousy shame about your partner. Any chance he'll be able to get up and around again?"

"The doctors are hopeful. They have to wait for swelling to go down to know for sure what they're dealing with."

"Archer's mother just bailed him out of the lock up yesterday. Didn't take him long, did it?"

"You don't sound like this surprises you?"

"That jerk was in and out of juvie court and he's got a couple assault arrests he's weaseled his way out of on his record. I'll do some checking on the good old boy's whereabouts last night. I need a full rundown from you of exactly what happened--time, location, anything you saw--again, you know the drill."

And so Starsky told him the complete story, with all the necessary details, from the outset of their ride to what he thought he saw in the trees.

"Well, we'll get a team of guys out to go over the scene, and I'll go have a talk with our pal, Stevie."

"Mind if I tag along?"

"You think you can keep your mouth shut and your hands off Archer? Look, Starsky, I realize you know what you're doing, and that you encounter cases bigger than this in LA, but this isn't your jurisdiction, and I can't have you going off willy-nilly beating up suspects."

"First of all, there isn't any case bigger than this to me. Secondly, I just wanna be there. I won't do anything to jeopardize nailing him. You can count on that. But I've gotta be Hutch's legs on this one--I have to go where he'd go himself if he could."

"I understand."

Porter and Starsky started out for the ranch first, to oversee the launching of a search of the woods and the surrounding area for any evidence of Archer's presence. Neither of them expected the search to end as easily as it did. There was an engraved cigarette lighter in the snow near the edge of the woods with the initials "STA" inscribed on it.

"I promise I'll be on my good behavior. I just wanna be there when you slap the cuffs on him," Starsky stated.

"It isn't that simple. You know as well as I do that we've got to get him to admit he was there last night. He can say he lost the lighter during the big Christmas party out here. I have to place him there."

"Then let me go. If he thinks I'm coming after him because of Hutch, he'll be too damned arrogant not to goad me on. Put a wire on me and send me over there."

"I don't know about that."

"I mean it. It's the only way we can nail him for sure, because you've got a real good point about him being able to deny it, and us not being able to prove when he was there. If he admits it, we've got him."

"Okay. Let's head back to the station, and we'll get you wired for sound."

Starsky drove his own car up to the front of the Archer house. It was a weather-beaten farmhouse which had fallen into obvious disrepair in the elder Archers' later years. He walked up to the front door and knocked. Mrs. Archer opened the inner door and looked out at him through the screen door.

"David, isn't it?" she asked coolly.

"That's right, David Starsky. I'm Ken's partner. I need to talk to your son."

"He's sleeping."

"I don't mean to be rude, Mrs. Archer, but this is urgent. Please get him down here now."

"Very well." She closed the inside door without inviting him in. Starsky paced on the porch while she was gone.

"She's getting him now," he murmured into the wire.

The front door opened again, this time to reveal Steve Archer's less-than-pleasant countenance. He pulled the door shut behind him and walked past Starsky down the front porch steps.

"We'll talk in the barn. No need for my mother to get upset." He led the way to the rickety old outbuilding and Starsky followed him inside.

"I've got a score to settle with you, Archer. I know you were in the woods last night. I went out there this morning and had a look around, and guess what I found?" He pulled the lighter out of his pocket and held it out for Archer to see.

"So you found my lighter. I lost it last weekend."

"Sure you did. I know it was you out there Archer, and because of you, Hutch is lying in a hospital bed with two numb legs!"

"I guess he won't be much of a hit at the next policeman's ball, huh?" Archer remarked with a sadistic snicker. "Won't be too popular with the ladies anymore either, if ya know what I mean," he continued to taunt Starsky, who lost his composure at this final comment. He lunged at Archer and grabbing him by the shirt front, slammed him against the wall of the barn.

"Listen, you filthy son of a--"

Archer brought his arms up under Starsky's and knocked his grip loose, swinging his fist quickly into Starsky's jaw, sending him sprawling on his back into a pile of hay. Archer really was a huge man, tall and powerfully built, and his extra height and weight gave him an obvious advantage.

"Now I'm gonna lay something out for you, pal." Archer grabbed a pitchfork and pointed it at Starsky's throat, only inches away. "Yeah, I spooked Hutchinson's horse, and the only thing I regret is that he didn't break his freakin' neck and die. Nobody messes with me and I'm not doin' time for that slut sister of his. Now you got no proof, you got nothing. You get your ass off my property and mind your own business and I might not have to teach Sally a lesson like I taught your partner."

"Drop it, Archer. We've got all the proof we need," Porter announced, flanked by two uniformed officers, all with guns pointed at Archer. He debated his options a moment, and when he realized he really had none, he threw the pitchfork aside. The uniformed officers quickly handcuffed him and led out of the barn. Porter offered Starsky a hand to pull him up.

"Nice work, Starsky."

"It wasn't all that challenging. Archer isn't too bright. I still have the nagging feeling this was too easy."

"He's bright enough, from what I understand about his professional life in St. Paul. He's just got a real streak of good-old-boy violence in him that makes him crazy. Maybe he was looking for a fight. If you saw him in the woods, maybe he figured you'd be on some half-witted vigilante mission and come after him. He wanted some revenge, most likely. Usually he can intimidate people into dropping charges, or not pressing them in the first place. Hutchinson really urged his sister to go ahead, and I think that made Archer angrier than he was at her--he could have probably scared Sally if it weren't for your partner."

"You're probably right." Starsky accompanied the entourage back to the station, and after waiting around for Archer's statement, he hurried back to the hospital to share the news with Hutch.

When he poked his head in Hutch's room, Sally was sitting in the chair watching TV with her brother. He seemed disinterested in the events on-screen, and immediately acknowledged Starsky's arrival.

"I can come back later if you guys want some time to visit," Starsky offered.

"I have to get going. Ken and I have degenerated to watching the soaps anyway." Sally stood up. "I'll stop in again tonight." She leaned forward and gave her brother a kiss on the cheek and patted Starsky's arm as she walked past him.

"Got some news for you," Starsky took up residence in Sally's chair, but turned it to face Hutch instead of the TV.

"What?" Hutch snapped off the TV by the remote switch.

"We got Archer."

"What do you mean?"

"Porter and his guys found Archer's lighter in the woods near the field. When we got him back to the station, he admitted to Porter that he came over that night to 'talk' to you and your dad about 'reasoning' with Sally. It was a last ditch effort to keep her from testifying. I guess it's the first time anybody's really brought the jerk to task for beating up on women. He said he saw you out riding, and when you came into range, he blew a dog whistle he always carries to call the dogs on his farm. It spooked the horse."

"How'd you get him to admit all this?"

"We knew we had to get him to admit to being out in the woods at the right time, so I wore a wire, went to see Archer, let him get in my face and admit to causing the accident, and in came Porter and his men. It's all on tape. The fact he said he was sorry you weren't dead implies attempted murder to me, pal. He knew he'd been had, so he didn't have much to lose."

"Quite a morning's work. Wish it changed anything." Hutch looked away from Starsky toward the opposite wall.

"How do you feel?"

"Lousy. My head's still pounding and I've got two useless lumps of clay where my legs used to be," he snapped back.

"Hutch, they're still there. And you will be back on them before long."

"I wish I had your faith in that." Hutch turned and his gaze penetrated deep into his partner's eyes, as if he were searching for a way to tap into that confidence himself.

"I'll have to have enough for both of us then. Please don't feel so bad. I promise you it'll be okay. One way or the other."

"Yeah, right." Hutch sighed. "I'm sorry. I appreciate what you did with Archer, and I am glad he's locked up where he belongs."

"And just like that worked out, this will too. Hutch, I'm not God, and I can't promise you this'll go the way we want it to. But I can promise you it'll work out all right. We're a team, no matter what else enters into the picture. Even if you have no limbs at all and I have to pull whatever's left around in a little red wagon, we'll still be partners doing something."

"Little red wagon, huh?" Hutch repeated with a smile. "I thought that's what we were already riding in."

"Smart ass." Starsky smiled back at Hutch's very welcome ability to joke around a little. "But you get the picture. We can be private eyes, we can be cops, or we can sell encyclopedias together."

"This doesn't have to bring you down too. There's no reason for this to jeopardize your career on the force."

"Hutch, you told me once that while keeping your promises to the department was very important to you, it wasn't the most important trust in your life. Well, I feel the same way about this. Yeah, my job is important to me, but not the most important thing in my life. I'd rather we stayed partners and sold Avon door-to-door than be a cop by myself. Can we just accept that and live with it and make our plans from there?"

"Do we have to sell Avon? Their night cream does nothing for my complexion."

Starsky and his partner shared a good laugh, which seemed to put them both at ease again. The remainder of their visit was a relaxing one, as they finally put aside the more difficult situation at hand to watch reruns of old sitcoms and talk about nothing in particular. They had done enough deep soul searching for one day.

When Hutch's parents arrived late that afternoon, Starsky relinquished his post at Hutch's bedside and drove back out to the ranch. He had been putting off the inevitable: a call to Dobey to notify him about Hutch's injury and to let him know they would not be pulling back into LA to start work immediately following New Year's. He stretched out on the bed in his room and dialed the number.

"Dobey," the voice barked into the phone.

"Captain, this is Starsky," he began. Suddenly, explaining what had happened seemed more difficult. Maybe hearing Dobey's voice took him back to the old routine, and made it all that much clearer how screwed up things really were.

"Forgive me, Starsky. I didn't recognize your voice when you weren't singing."

"Oh, that," Starsky responded with a slight chuckle, then became serious again. "Things have definitely taken a downturn since then."

"Meaning what?"

"Hutch is in the hospital. There was a riding accident..."

"How bad is it?" Dobey's voice immediately reflected his concern.

"He's going to make it--that's for sure. But right now he's got no feeling in his legs, and they have to wait for the swelling against the spinal cord to go down before they know if he'll...we just don't know how it's gonna turn out yet." Starsky took a deep breath. It was harder to talk about this than he'd expected. What he wouldn't give for them to both be back in the squad room, bickering about a case and trying to scrape together something significant to report in to the captain. Damn this vacation, he thought to himself.

"I'm getting a feeling there's more to this story than you're telling me, Starsky."

"There is." He explained Sally's situation, how Hutch had urged her to press charges, and how Archer had exacted his revenge.

"Sounds like you've had a hell of a vacation. I got a couple calls from other PD's checking out your credentials. Chicago, New Mexico--I don't think you two have done this much in a couple of weeks when you're at work."

"It didn't turn out the way I hoped, let's put it that way. If I hadn't dragged Hutch on this damn trip, he'd be okay now."

"Hutchinson's injury isn't your fault because you went on a trip. It's Archer's fault."

"I know that. Cap'n, I don't want to come home without Hutch." Starsky waited for the explosion, but none came, so he continued. "I don't know yet if he's ever gonna be able to go back to work, and if he can't, I'm going to stick with him to do something--maybe a private eye business, something. If he can, that's great, but I want to stick with him through whatever's gonna happen here."

"His whole family's there, Starsky. He isn't going to be on his own."

"You know Hutch. He isn't going to lean on his mother or his sister, and as great a guy as his dad is, he's kind of the same as Hutch--a lot of bravado. He's going to need somebody here he can lean on that knows him like I do. And I think I can make him mad enough when he needs to be to motivate him to work at getting well."

"I don't question you on that last point," Dobey retorted, still a little ruffled at what seemed like an outlandish request as almost a month's vacation was drawing to a close. "You know we don't have a lot of spare manpower in this department."

"Captain, I don't know how to say this without it sounding rude--and I don't mean it that way, because I appreciate everything you've done for Hutch and me--but no matter what your answer is, I'm not coming back until I can bring Hutch with me. I just hope you can find a way to work around that without firing me. If you can't, do what you have to do, I guess."

"Nobody said anything about firing you, Starsky."

"I'm not going to give in on this point."

"I can see that," Dobey shot back.

"So where does that leave us?" Starsky asked. A pregnant pause ensued.

"With me in a hell of a bind and you and your partner in Minnesota until you can come back together, I suppose."

"You really mean that?" Starsky asked hopefully.

"You're both on an indefinite leave of absence as of January 2nd. You call me at least once a week during that time and keep me updated on Hutchinson's condition."

"I don't know what to say."

"That's a first," Dobey retorted with a snort of a laugh.

"Thanks, Captain. I promise I'll keep in touch and as soon as I can haul Hutch back to LA, we'll be back."

"Take care of your partner. Tell Hutch I said 'hang in there'."

"I will. Thanks again. I'll call back next week--sooner if anything changes."

"Good luck, Starsky." Dobey hung up the phone.

Starsky went downstairs and rummaged through the kitchen for something to eat. Marion's leftover supply was dwindling, but he found a cold chicken leg, a piece of pie and beer to keep him going. The call to Dobey had been his biggest immediate obstacle, and now that he had free reign to stay on and work with Hutch on his recovery, everything seemed a little less complicated, if not resolved.

The next few days were long, depressing and tedious for Starsky, Hutch and the Hutchinson family. There was no sign of returning sensation in either leg, and it was getting tougher and tougher for Starsky to come up with encouraging words for his partner. On a long, icy drive to the hospital New Year's Day, Starsky missed a curve in the road and skidded into a snowbank. He wasn't injured at all, and it seemed the car wasn't damaged all that badly. The bleakness of the whole situation was getting to him. Hutch wasn't getting any better, and he was only getting more bitter and depressed with each passing day.

"God, if you're up there, please help Hutch. He doesn't deserve this. I know that's probably not mine to say, but he's not a bad person. Please just let him have his legs back. Take anything you want from me, just let him walk...he isn't going to be happy in a wheelchair. Maybe some people could do it, but not Hutch. He's too active, and he hates asking for help...I don't know what I can promise you because I know you don't need anything from me. All I can do is beg. I'll give up anything, please..." Starsky let his voice trail off. Maybe babbling in an empty car was insanity. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe God would listen, and maybe He'd fix things. It sure as hell was beyond Starsky to fix them. Then for some inexplicable reason, he laughed to himself. He was hearing his father's voice in his mind, a voice that had been stilled so many years ago. Now it rang true as if he were sitting in Hutch's usual post in the passenger seat of the car. "If you really want to help him, get off your dead ass and get your car out of the snowbank. God helps those who help themselves, kid." The thought was an amusing and comforting one. Suddenly, he just felt his father's presence so strongly he almost expected to see him. Maybe that was his prayer answered--a little hot shot of fatherly advice from the other side. Still smiling, he got out of the Torino and set about the task of getting it back on the road. He had been blessed with at least one good idea before he left the ranch, and he was anxious to see Hutch and try it out on him. After all, Dad was right--God does help those who help themselves.

Hutch had progressed to sitting up in bed, and finally was to be permitted to get out of bed and into a wheelchair, which he initially resisted wholeheartedly. The nurse, in exasperation, left the chair there and told him he could have some time to get used to the idea, but she would be back later. He had tests scheduled on another floor, and she informed him the chair would be his means of transport, just like any other patient. As he was brooding on that point, Starsky was the lone visitor who showed up to make a stab at celebrating the new year, having braved a mixture of snow and freezing rain which was keeping most rational people at home. He had gotten the car out of the snowbank, and his usual high spirits were back in action by the time he arrived at Hutch's hospital room with their guitars in hand. Hutch could still, even now, do something he loved, and maybe that's what he needed to experience to believe that everything would work out, one way or another.

Hutch was by himself, finishing the fragments of a bland-looking hospital lunch, when Starsky arrived. Hutch regarded him with no small degree of skepticism when he saw the guitars.

"They're going to throw you out of here with those," Hutch grumbled as he pushed the tray away.

"Happy New Year, you grouch. The nurse at the desk said if we keep it down and keep it short, it was okay with her. Come on, aren't you bored with the tube yet?"

"Beyond bored...with all of it."

"Okay then." Starsky moved the rolling tray away from the bed and carefully lowered Hutch's instrument into his grip. He took a seat on the foot of the bed and tuned a couple of strings on his own guitar.

"What do you want to do?"

"You get to pick," Starsky responded with a smile.

"'Black Bean Soup'?"

"I like that. Okay, maestro, hit it."

As they launched into the quietest version of the song ever performed, Starsky could see some of his partner's old spirit coming back. The small cluster of nurses and a couple of mobile patients who gathered at the door and clapped along didn't hurt matters either. After the first song finished, at the request of their little audience, they played two more songs--Hutch's Nashville winner, "The Light of Shooting Stars"--and one of Starsky's choices, "Photographs and Memories", a Jim Croce song he found a little sad, but since Hutch looked like he was tiring out, and it was a slow one that put most of the singing duties on Starsky, it seemed like a good option.

"I think you two should call it a day," the nurse suggested gently as she dispersed the group at the door.

"Thanks for letting us do this," Starsky replied.

"I think you brightened the afternoon for a few of us up here. Just don't get our patient too tired out." She left the room, and Starsky took his partner's guitar with his own, leaned them against the wall and returned to his seat on the foot of the bed. As he did so, he sat against the edge of Hutch's leg, and was stunned when it flinched a little out of the way. He jumped back off the bed, and Hutch stared at it through widened eyes.

"Do that again!" Starsky ordered.

"I don't think I can." Hutch didn't seem able to repeat the gesture.

"Come on, buddy, do I have to sit on you again?"

Hutch stared at the leg, and with a look of grim determination on his face, managed to repeat the gesture. Starsky reluctantly reached down and touched the blanketed leg.

"I can feel that, Starsk! Do it again." Hutch pulled himself up straighter in the bed. Starsky repeated the poke, and his partner's face broke into a huge smile. "I can feel that!" He was laughing and crying at the same time, and it wasn't long before Starsky was in the same condition. He poked the leg again. "Try the other one," Hutch ordered. "I can't seem to do it myself..." The fear of trying it and having it not work seemed to be restraining Hutch from probing the other leg. Starsky was on a high from his first success, so he reached over quickly and poked the other leg, just above the knee. "Starsky, I felt it! It feels like my legs are partially asleep, but I can feel it when you poke them and I can move the left one, just a little." Starsky sat on the edge of the bed and hugged his partner.

"I told ya I had a feeling, didn't I?" He sat back. "If there's even a flicker in there, we'll get you back on your feet again!" Starsky raced into the hall and found a nurse. When she heard the news, she paged the doctor immediately. He arrived at the room within minutes. His assessment was that while he wouldn't give any guarantees, if that much sensation was returning just a few days after the surgery, chances were pretty strong it would all come back eventually.

From the midst of the joy of the moment, Starsky placed a call to Dobey and handed the phone to Hutch.

"Happy New Year, Captain. It's me, Hutch. I'm just sitting here in my hospital bed, moving my legs."

"That's great news! What does the doctor say?"

"If I can feel this much now, my chances of getting it all back are real strong. We just wanted you to know--we might even be back to work in your lifetime," Hutch quipped, winking at Starsky.

"That's encouraging. Like I told your partner, just take care and get this straightened out. We want you back in one piece and ready for action--or at least desk duty."

"Desk duty? Thanks for reminding me!"

"Look, Hutchinson, vacations don't last forever. Seriously, keep up the good work and keep me posted."

"Will do. Thanks for everything, Captain." Hutch hung up the phone and looked back at Starsky, who had blotted out part of the conversation with Dobey. He had been so busy muttering little prayers of thanks in his mind that he hadn't focused on much of anything else. This was a miracle, nothing else. God had heard him sitting in the middle of a Minnesota ice storm in his marooned car, and He had answered in such beautiful way... "You always believed in this, didn't you?" Hutch's voice startled him.

"I had to. Say, since we know you're not going to be in one forever, how about taking a spin around the corridors in that contraption?" Starsky nodded toward the wheelchair. Hutch still hesitated. "Come on, you've been in one before. With our track record for getting ourselves hospitalized, you'll probably be in one again--so will I. It won't turn you into a frog, Hutch."

"I guess I'm being stupid about this."

"You are." Starsky wheeled the chair up near the bed. "Let's see, there are brakes on this thing somewhere."

"Just don't drive like you do on the street, okay?"

"You better watch your mouth about my driving, turkey," Starsky teased back. "Okay. The chair shouldn't move anywhere 'til we want it to." He pulled the blanket back and when Hutch was ready, swung the still-immobile legs over the side of the bed.

"Feels weird. It's like they're both asleep, but there's a little sensation there."

"And as the swelling goes down, more'll come back." Starsky pulled a pair of socks on his partner and prepared for lift off. "Okay, put your arms around my neck and we'll make a shot at the chair."

"We'll make a shot at the chair? Don't miss, okay?"

"Trust me," Starsky answered, laughing. Hutch followed his instructions, and with one relatively smooth gesture, found himself in the wheelchair. "Okay, let's go chase some nurses." He tucked a blanket over Hutch's lap and they were off to explore the surrounding area.

"Seems funny not to see this lying on my back--I think all I recognize are the light fixtures."

"At least I didn't bring you out here with no pants. I mean it's bad enough to be poisoned but to have to leave the hospital with no pants--I mean that's pretty degrading."

"You're the one who ran out in the corridor. Besides, I was a little preoccupied with saving your miserable hide at the time--I didn't think to pack you an overnight bag," Hutch responded sarcastically.

"Excuses, excuses. Seen the outside world lately? You're not missing anything." Starsky pulled up by a window overlooking the parking lot.

"The pavement looks like glass."

"It's pretty wild out there. If it doesn't get any better I'm sleeping in a waiting room tonight. It took me an hour to get here."

"For a twenty minute drive, eh?"

"Yeah, but then ice isn't one of my areas of expertise. Of course I spent 10 or 15 minutes getting out of the snowbank. I told your folks to sit tight until the weather got better."

"Good. Thanks. I hope they listen." Hutch paused. "Snowbank?"

"Don't ask." Starsky resumed their movement, chuckling a little.



"I don't think I've ever thanked you for--"


"But I want to. I really didn't have a whole lot of hope when this all happened, and--"

"Hutch, part of everything I did was selfish. I wanted you to get well as much as you wanted to. And I wanted my partner back, one way or the other. I've had an unfortunate chance to face off with death in the past couple of years more than once. Funny thing about that is, it lets you know what matters."

"Yeah, but quitting the force, selling the Torino and buying a van? Come on, Starsk. You in a van?"

"My job and my car are two of my favorite things. But that's all they are--things. They're props for your life, not your life itself. It's like changing scenery for a stage play. You might change the sets, but the cast stays the same. Choosing between my best friend and my car isn't any choice at all. The Torino's a lot of fun and I love it the way you can love a thing, but it isn't in the same league. My job means a lot to me, and I guess if you can sort stuff like this out in levels, it would be the next level up in importance. But jobs and cars can be replaced. The people in your life that make your life what it is--they're once in a lifetime, and they're treasures. I haven't got many of my treasures left, but I'm not lettin' go of the ones I got." Starsky snickered a little. "Sorry, I guess I'm off on deep thoughts again. This trip is turning me into a philosopher. As soon as you get out of here, we'll have to go do something shallow and hedonistic."

"Been reading the dictionary again?" Hutch looked backwards up at Starsky.

"How'd you know?" he replied with a grin.

"Whether you want it or not, thanks for hanging in there with me. Just about the only thing that got me through the first couple days lying there on my back staring at the ceiling was that mental picture of us cruising the streets in some ridiculous looking van with one of Merl's customized paint jobs."

"I gave that paint job some serious thought...maybe candy apple red with a big white stripe?"

"Oh, great. The Torino on steroids."

"A minute ago you were thanking me, now you're making fun of my car."

"Can't let you get too swelled up of a head, buddy."

"No danger'a that happening anytime soon." Starsky slowed the chair as they made the turn back into the room. The nurse was changing the bed.

"So you finally got him into that chair?" she asked, with a little irritation in her voice.

"I have a gun." Starsky grinned evilly and flexed his eyebrows at her. She smiled a little uneasily in return.

"I'll have to get you downstairs to X-ray now, Mr. Hutchinson."

"Oh, by the way--that's Sergeant Hutchinson. My partner and I here are cops." He looked back at Starsky and winked. "At least we will be as soon as I get out of this stupid chair."

"That's the spirit," Starsky commented triumphantly. "I'm going to go grab something to eat while they're doing their photo session on you, but I'll be back later."

Hutch watched Starsky leave the room with a spring in his step. Life has screwed us both over a few times, Hutch thought, but I guess it did us one favor with those partnership assignments at the academy. Maybe that favor was enough to make up for everything else, he thought with a smile as his own journey to the X-ray department began.

The sensation made slow but steady progress returning to Hutch's legs in the next several days. Two weeks after the surgery, he was making painful and labored steps using parallel hand-rails, and a regime of regular physical therapy was underway. Despite the frustration and difficulty that program sometimes brought with it, the promise of walking unassisted and going back to his old job kept Hutch on the move. When that wasn't enough, pep talks, prodding and harassment from Starsky kept his fighting spirit alive. His partner not only cheered on every stage of his progress, but he harassed the physical therapists until they taught him every possible exercise and massage technique that could be done by someone other than licensed medical personnel. Hutch's spirits seemed much better when they tackled the mundane, though sometimes painful, work of rehabilitation together.

By early February, Hutch had graduated to a cane, and the doctors gave him the green light to make the trip home either by plane or in very easy, short stages by car. Starsky, of course, felt they should take the latter option, since Hutch wasn't ready for work yet anyway, and they still had part of the country to see. Hutch agreed with that idea, because he quite frankly wasn't ready to say good-bye to the "cross-country holiday odyssey" that had led in so many good, bad, strange and ultimately incredible directions.

And Starsky did still have two rolls of film left...

"Every now and then

We find a special friend

Who never lets us down,

Who understands it all,

Reaches out each time we fall,

You're the best friend that I've found...."

-- "Remember Me This Way"

Words & Music by David Foster & Linda Thompson