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Disclaimer: This story is written for entertainment purposes only.  No profit is being made from it.  No infringement on anyone’s copyright(s) is intended.

 

Night of the Smoking Gun

Written by Sue David and Valerie Wells

© 7/2001

 

Once every month or so, every police officer in the Metro Division -- and throughout the city -- was expected to go to the firing range and practice. Most officers rarely, if ever, drew their weapons on duty, and their skills would suffer if they didn't practice. None of them wanted to discover his skills were sub-par in a situation where they had to draw their weapon. So most went to the practice range uncomplainingly.

 

Starsky was one of those. In fact, he even enjoyed it. His strict schedule of an afternoon's practice twice every month was the reason he was one of the best marksmen at Metro. Hutch sometimes complained a bit about the twice a month routine, because it was twice as much as was required, but he had to admit he never worried whether his partner would hit his target.

 

Today Starsky was in especially fine form. He'd emptied his gun several times, making a tight pattern of holes in his target, and pushed it steadily farther and farther away, testing himself.

 

Hutch had grown tired of shooting at a paper target and had joined Starsky in his cubicle to watch him practice. He never ceased to be amazed at how well Starsky could shoot.

 

"Good thing you became a cop," he commented when Starsky stopped to reload.

 

"Why?" Starsky asked, cocking an eyebrow at him suspiciously.

 

"Because you'd have made a hell of a scary crook," Hutch said with a grin.

 

"Ha, ha," Starsky said. "Whatsa matter? You get bored?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"One more clip and we'll call it a day," Starsky said. "Okay?"

 

"Sure."

 

Starsky put in a fresh clip, sighted, and emptied the gun in one quick burst. He pulled the lever to bring the paper target back and Hutch was astonished -- again -- by the tight pattern of bullet holes in it. He whistled.

 

"Damn. I'm glad you're on my side."

 

Starsky grinned, one of his ear-to-ear Starsky specials. "A guy's gotta be good at something."

 

"Come on, moron," Hutch said, slinging an arm over his partner's shoulders. "I'll buy you a taco."

 

"Wow," Starsky said. "A whole taco? Just for me?"

 

"Just for you," Hutch said, giving him a playful shove ahead of him.

 

They had a stakeout planned for that evening which was liable to go all night, watching a  drug house for a murder suspect. They bought a whole sack of tacos and filled a small cooler with sodas to take with them. But just as they were getting back into the car to head for the stakeout, the radio beeped.

 

"Zebra Three, stand by for a patch through from Captain Dobey."

 

"This is Zebra Three," Hutch said.

 

"That you, Hutch? I wanted to catch you before you headed out. I need you and Starsky to come into the office in the morning."

 

Starsky groaned, and Hutch rolled his eyes before answering, "Captain, you know we'll be up all night."

 

"Not to work, Hutchinson," Dobey growled. "Just come in to meet with somebody before you go home. Is that too much to ask?"

 

"No, sir," Hutch answered with a sigh. "Who is it?"

 

"Steve Hanson," Dobey said. "He's got a proposition for you."

 

"What is it?" Starsky hissed. "Does he want us to be in another movie?"

 

Hutch gave a shrug. "What's he want, Captain?"

 

"I don't know," Dobey said. "But he promised it was for a good cause."

 

Hutch exchanged a glance with Starsky. "Okay, we'll be there. What time?"

 

"Eight."

 

"Okay." Hutch hung up the mike. "Wonder what he wants?"

 

It was a long, boring stakeout and their suspect never showed up. Starsky and Hutch spent most of the time wondering what Steve Hanson wanted, but neither of them could guess.

 

They were a little early, but Hanson was already there. He greeted them with a smile and a firm handshake for both of them.

 

"I never forgot what you boys did for me a couple years ago," he began after they sat down. "I can't repay you and I don't have any business asking another favor but, well, here I am."

 

"What is it, Mr. Hanson?" Hutch asked.

 

"Steve," Hanson corrected with a smile. "Well, boys, it's like this. I've been doing a Wild West show for the last several months, a Buffalo Bill kind of thing."

 

Starsky lit right up. "I used to love those when I was a kid. I didn't know anyone was still doing them."

 

Hanson chuckled. "Nobody was," he said. "But me and some other guys decided to try a revival of the thing and see if anybody was still interested. And they are, believe it or not. It's been going really well."

 

"So what do you need from us?" Starsky asked.

 

"We've been approached by St. Jude to do a benefit for them," Hanson said. "I couldn't say no, but we were supposed to be taking a couple of months off so two of my sharpshooters could appear in a movie. They're committed to do the film and I can't find anybody else to fill their roles for the benefit. So," he gave a shrug and a grin, "I thought maybe you two'd do it. It's pretty easy. Just a 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' spoof, nothing to it."

 

Both detectives looked inquiringly at their captain.

 

"It's fine with me," he answered the look. "I'll check with the chief, but stuff like this is great for public relations. I'm sure he'll give the okay."

 

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other and without a word passing between them, looked back at Hanson.

 

"We'd love to," Starsky said, speaking for them both.

 

Hanson beamed. "That's great, boys. I really appreciate it. It's only one show, on a Saturday night. Two weeks from now. Okay?"

 

Starsky nodded eagerly.

 

"Do we wing it or are you going to rehearse us?" Hutch asked.

 

Hanson chuckled. "I'll rehearse you. Got some time today?"

 

"We haven't been to bed yet," Starsky said. "Up all night at a stake-out. How's this afternoon?"

 

"Fine. Meet me at the county fairgrounds at four. We're renting the arena."

 

They arrived in the middle of someone else's rehearsal, a teen-age girl doing an Annie Oakley kind of act. They hung back in the doorway watching her. Dressed in old-fashioned cowgirl style, the girl was running her horse around barrels, over jumps, and doing trick riding all the while. She flipped herself off the saddle, lightly touched the ground, swung back up and repeated it on the other side, did a handstand on the saddle, stood in the saddle and rode with her hands straight up in the air, and finished by stopping the horse so suddenly it reared.

 

Starsky and Hutch both broke into spontaneous applause. Starsky also whistled, until Hutch elbowed him, hard.

 

The girl dismounted and grinned at them, patting her horse. She led the horse, a palomino, over to them. "You guys must be the cops Steve told us about."

 

"We are," Hutch said. "You're really good."

 

"Thanks," she said. "It's Sunshine as much as me, though," she added, patting the horse's nose. Sunshine nuzzled her hair and made a whuffling sound. "She knows when to turn and how to pace herself so I can do that stuff without killin' us both."

 

Starsky was not at all sure he liked horses, so he hung back, but Hutch put out an inquiring hand to stroke the velvet nose, and Sunshine allowed it. "She's beautiful," he said.

 

"Say thank you," the girl told the horse, and Sunshine bowed. Hutch was so startled he took an involuntary step back, and Starsky burst into laughter.

 

Hutch flushed. "I don't see you making friends with her, either," he said, annoyed.

 

"Shake hands with the nice policeman," the girl said to the horse with a wicked grin. Sunshine solemnly raised her right front hoof and offered it to Starsky. This time Hutch was the one who laughed, but Starsky gave his partner a dirty look and gingerly took the offered hoof.

 

"She's pretty smart," he said to the girl. "How'd she know to give her paw to me instead o' Blondie, here?"

 

"Hoof, Starsk, not paw," Hutch said.

 

"Whatever," Starsky said. "How'd she know?"

 

"Ah, ah," the girl said, giggling. "That'd be telling. I'm Angie, by the way. Steve'll be here in a minute. You guys are gonna fill in for Dan and Tigger?"

 

"I guess so," Starsky said. "What do we have to do?"

 

"Dan does a shootout kind of thing with Steve," Angie said. "You know, a staged gunfight with blanks, saying stuff like, 'This town ain't big enough fer the both of us!' Lots of silly stunts, shooting under their knees and twirling their guns. Tigger does a sharpshooter thing with real bullets. He shoots bottles off the tops of barrels and plugs a nickel and busts balloons and stuff like that. Some of it's staged," she added when Starsky and Hutch exchanged a worried glance. "The nickel's already plugged. It's a sleight of hand thing. But some of it's real, too. Tigger can shoot the wings off a bumblebee, Steve says."

 

"You better take Tigger's job," Hutch said to Starsky.

 

"I ain't THAT good," Starsky answered.

 

"Don't worry," Angie said. "Steve'll fix it. It's all Hollywood stuff, anyway. We can fake things when we have to."

 

"You weren't fakin'," Starsky said.

 

She gave a shrug and blushed slightly. "No, but it's really not as hard as it looks. And I've been riding since I was three." 

 

"Hey, boys!" Hanson came in through the far door at the other end of the arena and waved to them. When he reached them, he shook their hands and beamed at both of them. "Good to see you. I really do appreciate you helping us out like this." He put an arm around Angie's shoulders. "I see you've met our star."

 

Angie's blush deepened.

 

"We got to see part of her act, too," Hutch said. "You want us to compete with that?"

 

Hanson chuckled. "Why not? I have to." To Angie, he said, "Would you show these boys the dressing rooms and their gear?"

 

"Sure." Angie looped Sunshine's reins up over the saddle horn and beckoned to Starsky and Hutch. "This way, guys." She took off at a brisk walk, with the horse following her like a huge golden dog. Starsky and Hutch brought up the rear, with grins at each other over the horse's behavior.

 

Angie led them to the door Hanson had come through and pushed it open. "Dan and Tigger's dressing rooms have their names on the doors," she said to them. "You don't have to worry about the costumes today, but be sure to pick up their six-shooters and the blanks that are with them. I'll get one of the roustabouts to help me set up Tigger's stuff."

 

"Thanks," Starsky said.

 

Angie gave him a mock salute and strolled away, with Sunshine still following her.

 

By the time they came back, Angie and a young man of around 20 were setting up the shooting gallery for Tigger's act. One of the displays looked like a huge dartboard.

 

"What's that for?" Starsky asked the young man.

 

"Angie stands here," the kid said, demonstrating, "and we stick a bunch of balloons all around her, and Tigger shoots 'em."

 

Starsky went several shades paler. "You're kidding."

 

"Nope," the kid said cheerfully. "You oughta hear the crowd gasping and fainting."

 

"It ain't the crowd I'm worried about," Starsky said. "What if I miss?"

 

"Aw, you won't miss," the kid said. "And if ya did it wouldn't matter. You'll be usin' blanks for that part." He pulled Starsky around behind the contraption and pointed out the miniature openings in the back, so small they didn't show unless one knew where to look. "I stand back here and poke 'em with pins to make 'em pop. The crowd don't know that, of course. They can't see back here."

 

Starsky let out the breath he hadn't even realized he was holding, and the kid laughed out loud.

 

Meanwhile, Hanson was walking Hutch through their act. "You'll be the good guy hero," Hanson said. "You come riding in on Angie's horse -- you do know how to ride, don't you?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Good. Wouldn't matter, though. That horse can almost talk. Anyway, you come riding in, waving and smiling and so forth, and do a turn around the arena. We'll introduce you as Cowboy Ken and the crowd won't know what your act's going to be. You pull one of your six-guns and shoot a round or two into the air, Lone Ranger style, and Sunny'll rear. Just hang on with your knees and don't fall off over her butt."

 

Hutch laughed. "I'll try not to."

 

"Then I come out, dressed in black, Mr. Bad Guy, and call you out. We don't have an actual script, we just wing it, but I'll say something like," he put on a classic Hollywood Western bad guy accent, "'You done put me in that jail o' yers, Marshal, and I come back to git my revenge,' and you holler something appropriate at me -- anything but 'herecomesmccoynow,'" he added, laughing.

 

Hutch flushed to his hairline at the memory of that botched scene in Hanson's movie, but he laughed good-naturedly. "Yes, sir. I promise."

 

Hanson grinned. "Then you clamber down off the horse and give her a little whack on the flank -- she knows what to do, you don't have to do much more than give her a little pat because that's her cue to trot back to Angie, waiting over there," he gestured. "And you assume the position." He demonstrated the cowboy shoot-out pose of feet apart, hands over holsters. Hutch nodded. "Then we start doing silly stuff like turning our backs and shooting over our shoulders and shooting between our legs, and under one knee and so forth, until the crowd's laughing. Wait until they laugh."

 

Hutch nodded again.

 

"When they're laughing good, I'll holler something else, like 'Yer marshalin' days're done, Cowboy Ken!' and shoot right at you. Blanks."

 

"I certainly hope so," Hutch said.

 

"Then you aim both your six-guns at me and let go a couple of rounds and I'll fall down and pretend to be dead. You do a Rocky thing," Hanson raised his six-guns over his head and strutted for an imaginary crowd. "Whistle -- can you whistle?"

 

"Not very well," Hutch said.

 

"I'll get somebody to do it for you," Hanson said. "Put your fingers up to your mouth and pretend to whistle, then. Sunny'll come trotting back, you climb on and do a victory lap and ride back out. A couple of rodeo clowns will come out with big brooms and dustpans and pretend to sweep me up like trash and then carry me out. That's all there is to it. You got all that?"

 

"Sure," Hutch said. "Sounds fun."

 

Hanson gave a grin and a shrug. "It's hokey as hell, but people seem to like it. Ready for a run-through?"

 

"Yeah."

 

When Sunshine reared, Hutch almost lost his seat, but somehow the horse sensed it and dropped back down in time to keep him from falling. Angie, standing nearby, gave him a couple of pointers on how to hang on, and when he tried it again, he didn't have any more trouble. He and Hanson ran through their act three or four times, and Hanson pronounced him ready.

 

Starsky had watched all this, amused, and after Hutch took his victory lap and rode out, he applauded. Hutch made a face at him. "Let's see how you do, hotshot," Hutch said tartly.

 

"Hell, my job's easy," Starsky said.

 

"As long as you don't forget which gun has blanks and which one has real bullets," Angie pointed out. "Please don't forget that."

 

"Don't worry, sweetheart," Starsky said. "I don't wanna shoot ya anymore than you want me to. I'll put the real bullets on this side," he patted the left holster, "and the fake ones over here," he patted the right holster.

 

Hanson, standing on a box where the announcer's podium would be, cued Starsky by his announcements: "Sharpshooter Dave's prowess will amaze you with his accuracy on the bottles..." and so forth.

 

The targets were set against the wall, with stacks of straw and burlap behind them to catch the bullets in case he missed. But he didn't miss, not even once. Even Hutch was startled by his deadly accuracy.

 

"Damn, partner," Hutch said. Starsky just grinned.

 

When it came to the part of the show where he shot at the balloons surrounding Angie, he carefully put the gun back in his left holster and drew the one from the right.

 

"During the actual show," Hanson told him, "we'll have one of the rodeo clowns bring you two fresh guns, both loaded with blanks, when you get to this part."

 

"Good," Starsky said.

 

"You're so good with that, I wouldn't worry too much even if you did have real bullets," Angie said, taking up her position on the dartboard.

 

"I would," Starsky said. "Any particular pattern I should shoot?" he asked Hanson.

 

"No, it doesn't matter. Mitch'll just pop balloons at random and the crowd won't be able to tell where you're aiming," Hanson answered.

 

Starsky took up his position about 50 feet away from the dartboard and called to Angie, "You ready, sweetheart?"

 

"Yeah," she called back.

 

Starsky popped the cylinder open to double-check that the bullets were really blanks before taking up a spread-legged stance, sighting down the barrel, and squeezing off a shot. Mitch popped a balloon, and Angie cringed away as though a bullet had whizzed by her. Starsky stopped and opened the cylinder again.

 

"They're blanks," Hanson assured him with a chuckle. "It's just that Mitch and Angie are good at what they do."

 

Starsky grinned ruefully.

 

He ran through his act two more times before Hanson was satisfied.

 

"Okay, boys, I think we're all ready. We'll have a dress rehearsal the night before the show and I'll introduce you to everyone else then." Hanson clapped a hand on both their shoulders. "I can't thank you enough for this."

 

"We're glad to do it, Steve," Hutch said. "See you then."

 

The days leading up to the dress rehearsal were uneventful for the two detectives. The slow pace allowed Starsky even more time to practice at the firing range. Although he knew he could hit those bottles in the show, he was not leaving anything to chance. Steve had loaned him the guns he would be using so he could practice. Before long, he believed he was as accurate with the old-fashioned weapons as he was with his automatic. He and Hutch both practiced their quick draw and while Hutch was fast, Starsky was amazing.

 

On the way to the dress rehearsal, Hutch told him, "You would have made a hell of a gunslinger, Gordo."

 

"Thanks, Blondie!" Starsky said. "The boots woulda killed me though. Man, those cowboys liked their shoes pointy!"

 

Hutch laughed. "You probably would have found a way to make them more comfortable."

 

"If your feet aren't happy, nothing is happy. My Aunt Rosie taught me that."

 

"Thanks for the tip. Rosie is a wise woman."

 

"She can't make decent chicken soup, but she knows about shoes."

 

At the dress rehearsal, all of the cast and crewmembers were in place for a complete run through of the show for the following night. The costumes were pure Hollywood confection. Hutch's was all white, with lots of fringe, conches and silver buttons. His six guns were shiny chrome with pearl handles. He even wore white boots. Starsky laughed at him and said, "You look like the Good Humor man from 1880!"

 

"More like the Rhinestone Cowboy. Very funny, Sharpshooter Dave." Hutch felt silly dressed in the all white outfit. "Guess if it's good enough for Dan, I can handle it."

 

Starsky looked more like a traditional cowboy. He was dressed in black pants with a tan shirt and tan suede vest. His six shooters were hung in black leather holsters, sans spangles. "This is all right," he proclaimed. He had to promise Steve he would change out of his blue sneakers in favor of black boots for the real show.

 

Steve's rig was perfect for his character -- called "Black Bart" -- in the show. He was dressed in black from his boots to his hat. Even his guns were all black. Everyone was introduced to the cops and they seemed friendly and helpful. One of the roustabouts tried to teach Starsky how to do a few rope tricks while they were waiting. Starsky was coordinated and he picked it up quickly.

 

Angie and Sunshine did their part. Then Starsky amazed the entire group with his sharp shooting. Everyone said they hoped he'd come back and have a competition with Tigger at a later date. Starsky was glad he'd practiced so much. While everyone was watching Starsky, one man in particular had his eye on the dark-haired cop.

 

Lee Garland was not surprised he hadn't been recognized by either one of the detectives. They had busted him in a high school drug-pushing raid on their first undercover assignment. Lee was arrested with a kid named Gary Prudholm who had died in a knife fight in the county jail. That was ten years and twenty-five pounds in the past. Lee had gone bald in that time and grown a mustache. He looked nothing like his younger self. Five years hard time could also do that to a man. Starsky and Hutchinson had changed too, but not as much as Lee. He hated the two men for what he thought they did to him.  Even though the time he did was for a subsequent crime, he still blamed the Metro detectives for his first arrest.  He was only seventeen years old when they busted him. Now, an angry twenty-seven year old sat plotting his revenge.

 

Hutch and Steve ran through their skit. Everything was perfect. Hutch was getting used to Sunshine and his movements with the horse were graceful. Starsky marveled at his best friend. The man could be equal parts athlete and klutz at times. Sitting on that horse with the reins in one of his big hands, Hutch looked completely natural and relaxed. Starsky made himself a promise to get Hutch to go riding. He could get used to the big beasts if it made Hutch happy.

 

Hutch's practice with the quick draw paid off and he convincingly beat Steve. They hammed it up and he "killed" the bad guy. One of the roustabouts whistled for Hutch right on cue and Sunshine came trotting over to him. He hopped on and rode her around the arena, bowing to the clapping crew and waving his hat. The clowns carted off Black Bart as planned.

 

By the time the lights were being turned off in the arena, Lee Garland had his plan. The only thing he needed to do to make it work was to figure out how to keep Steve Hanson from performing the following night.

 

When the detectives arrived an hour before the show the next evening, a frantic teenager greeted them.

 

"Slow down, Angie. What happened?" Hutch asked, putting one hand on each of Angie's shoulders.

 

"I don't know what we're gonna do! The show's a sellout and Steve can't go on!"

 

"Wait a minute, sweetheart, why not?" Starsky asked. "Is he okay?"

 

Just then, Steve walked up behind them and Hutch saw that he had his arm in a sling. "What happened?" he asked the actor.

 

"It was the damnedest thing. I was climbing up on my horse to practice the ride in sequence and he bucked. I fell right off onto my kiester and dislocated my arm. I can't do the shootout with you, Hutch."

 

A few of the crewmembers had gathered around, including Lee Garland who had placed a burr under the horse's saddle to ensure that Steve would take a tumble. "Hey," Garland said, "I have an idea. Why not use Sharpshooter Dave here? If we rearrange the sequence so he does his act first, he could change into the Black Bart costume while Angie's in the arena."

 

Steve smiled and nodded. "Great idea. How 'bout it?"

 

Starsky smirked. "Me and Blondie here in a quick draw?"

 

Hutch poked him in the ribs. "Just be sure you let the good guy win."

 

"Yeah, okay. I can do that. I saw you two do the act enough times, I think."

 

"That's great! Thanks, boys," Steve said appreciatively.

 

Steve did manage to ride into the arena with everyone else. He was also able to emcee the show. As anticipated, the appreciative crowd was awed by Starsky's sharp shooting. They loved it when he plugged the nickel. Mitch and Angie were right, the crowd enjoyed the balloon sequence and no one knew Mitch was behind the board with his pin.

 

After he took his bows, Starsky rushed back to the dressing room to change into the shirt, vest, and hat that would turn him into Black Bart. He came out in time to see Hutch adjusting the strap on one of his holsters before climbing onto Sunshine for their act. Lee Garland was giving him last minute instructions.

 

"Be sure and use the left gun for the first shot and the funny ones. That way you know you have enough blanks for the final showdown."

 

The detectives had reworked the sequence a bit. They wanted to have the final shots fired in a quick draw. Hutch nodded his understanding.

 

Walking up to him, Starsky asked, "Do I look like a Jewish Jesse James?"

 

Hutch looked up and said with a snort, "Nah, you look terrific. Put that tough cop look on your face. You know, the one you use when you're doing bad cop."

 

Starsky pretended he was interrogating a murder suspect and changed his facial expression and body language. "This one, punk?" he asked.

 

"That's it! I'll just look like my usual charming self, of course." With that remark, Hutch swung up into the saddle. "Break a leg, partner," he said as he rode out on his cue.

 

The crowd applauded wildly for Cowboy Ken. He trotted around the arena and fired one shot into the air with the gun from his left holster. Starsky watched the fluid motion as the horse reared and Hutch didn't even break a sweat. While he was turning the horse around, Starsky strode out into the arena, adding a little "gunslinger" to his usual swagger.

 

"Marshal Ken!" he shouted. Hutch spun the horse around to face him. "You done throwed me in yer jail and I come fer my revenge!" Starsky continued.

 

"You'll never win, Black Bart. You and your evil kind always lose out to good." Hutch jumped down off the horse and slapped her flank just like he had rehearsed. Sunshine trotted out of the way.

 

Starsky continued, "You'd better hope yer faster'n me, Marshal. If'n you ain't, I'm gonna plug you fulla holes."

 

The two friends squared off in the middle of the arena. Each one taking cowboy style strides toward the other. Since Starsky wasn't riding, he had put on a pair of spurs and the audience could hear them clearly with every step, "clink, clink, clink."

 

With a knowing glance, the partners dove in opposite directions, firing at each other in ways guaranteed to make the crowd laugh. When Hutch had counted down his shots and was ready to switch to the gun from the right holster, Starsky shouted, "Enough funny stuff, Marshal. Git up and fight like a man. Yer marshalin' days is done!"

 

They stood again, taking up the cowboy stance. Hutch's fingers twitched beside his holster. Suddenly, they both drew their guns and fired, the sound reverberating around the arena. Hutch watched in fascination as Starsky's gun dropped from his hand and he fell over into the dirt. He didn't even put a hand up to catch himself. Hutch couldn't help thinking that had to hurt.

 

While the crowd cheered and applauded, Hutch raised his shiny gun barrel in front of his lips, blew the smoke away, twirled the six-shooter around his finger a few times and smoothly set it back into its holster. The audience went wild. He was just hoping he wouldn't drop it.

 

Hutch and the offside crewmember faked his whistle. He raised his hands Rocky style and jumped up and down a few times while Sunshine trotted to him. Looking back over his shoulder at Starsky a few times, the crease between his eyes deepened. Starsky was supposed to be playing dead, but something didn't feel right to Hutch. Ignoring that feeling, he swung into his saddle and started his victory lap. When he turned back to face Starsky, he saw the clowns heading out from the side. Then, he saw something worse.

 

Underneath Starsky, the ground was starting to show a spreading dark wetness. The color drained from Hutch's face as his mind raced. Jumping down from the horse, he ran to his fallen partner saying, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"

 

Some of the crowd had seen it also. They were starting to climb to their feet and a woman close to where Starsky was lying screamed as Hutch reached him.

 

"Starsky!" he exclaimed as he knelt in the blood-dampened dirt and gently turned him onto his back.

 

The clowns were beside him and one of them screamed for an ambulance.

 

Hutch's hands were shaking as he pushed the vest back and ripped open the black shirt to reveal a heavily bleeding chest wound. "Oh, God!" Hutch said. He pulled off his white bandana and pressed it against the wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding. His ears were ringing and visions of Starsky lying on the ground next to the Torino after Gunther's hit man shot him floated into his brain.

 

Oblivious to all other sounds around him, Hutch concentrated on Starsky.

 

"Hey, buddy, open your eyes for me, will ya?" he said. The bandana was soaked through, but someone had produced some clean cloth for Hutch to use instead. One of the clowns applied pressure while Hutch took Starsky's hand in one of his and patted his cheek with the other one. "Please, Gordo. Please don't die!" He raised Starsky's head and shoulders and laid them in his lap to help his labored breathing. The motion promoted a response from the stricken man and his eyes fluttered open for a few moments.

 

"Hu-sh?" he mumbled. Hutch's blood turned to ice water when he saw a little blood slip out of the corner of Starsky's mouth.

 

"Shhhh, I'm here. I'm right here," Hutch said. He looked into eyes that weren't really focusing on him.

 

Starsky blinked, trying to clear his vision so he could see Hutch better. He raised his other hand and touched Hutch on the face. "I'm okay," he said. Then he added, "Hurts. Hold my hand?"

 

Hutch turned even whiter. He was holding Starsky's hand and he gave it a squeeze. "I'm holding it, buddy. Can't you feel that?" He was starting to shake and a tear had escaped from his eye and rolled down his cheek.

 

Starsky looked up at him, brushing at the tear and said, "Don't cry, 'm not scared." Then his eyes rolled up and he went completely limp in Hutch's arms, his hand dropping.

 

"Noooooo!" Hutch yelled at him, letting go of his lifeless hand to feel desperately for a pulse. "Where's that ambulance!" The pulse was still there, but it was weak. Hutch couldn't hear the siren screaming into the fairgrounds. Some of the cowboys had opened the back for them and soon they were driving the ambulance right over to the grisly scene.

 

Steve rushed to meet them. "They were supposed to all be blanks!" he shouted, pointing at the group surrounding the dying detective. "Please, God, help him!"

 

They pushed their way through the crowd. The cowboy in white was covered in blood from the man on the ground. He was pleading with him and rocking him on his lap. "Please hang in there, buddy. Don't leave me. Oh, God, please!"

 

The paramedics looked at Starsky and immediately took him from his partner. They strapped him onto the stretcher and hustled him into the ambulance almost before anyone knew what had happened, knowing they had better treat him in transport or they were going to lose him. Hutch ran after them, but he was pushed back when he tried to climb into the ambulance. "No! Your friend is in serious trouble. We're headed for Memorial," the paramedic shouted at him.

 

"He's my partner. We're cops!" Hutch shouted back, "I'm riding with you."

 

"No, you're not. Don't get in the way or your friend's gonna die. Have someone drive you." The man jumped into the back of the van and pulled the doors shut. Before Hutch could voice any other protest, the ambulance was churning up dirt to rush out of the arena.

 

Steve took Hutch by the shoulder with his good arm and turned him around to face him, "Come on, we'll drive you."

 

Hutch said, "I killed him, Steve." His voice was icy and almost calm.

 

"He's not dead, Hutch! He'll make it, now come on with me."

 

Steve and Charlie, one of the roustabouts, tried to guide Hutch toward the exit. The crowd was being escorted out of the building, but Hutch didn't notice. Suddenly, as they passed the large area of wet, blood-tainted dirt, Hutch stopped, dropped to his knees, and was violently ill.

 

The two men helped the shaken blond to unsteady feet and successfully got him out of the building and into the back seat of a car. Angie had stabled Sunshine and was running toward them. Steve called to her, "Angie! Call Captain Dobey at Metro right away. Let him know what happened."

 

She nodded and ran back for a phone as Steve's white Mercedes peeled out of the parking lot.

 

Charlie sat in the back with Hutch, trying to help him get out of some of his gear. When he tried to take the six guns from him, Hutch stopped him. "No. They're evidence." His hand pushed Charlie's away.

 

"Evidence?" Steve said, a catch in his throat.

 

"If I've killed him, they might press charges." Hutch's expression was flat, his words without emotion.

 

"Against you?" Steve said.

 

Charlie chimed in with, "No way, man. This ain't your fault."

 

Hutch shook his head and started to put his hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose with his fingers. He stopped his hand in its motion, staring with wide eyes at the blood on it.

"Oh, my God. W-What if he dies, Steve? Starsky's my partner! He's my best friend. I-I...."

 

Steve was stopped at a traffic signal. He spun around to look at Hutch's stricken expression. "Look, we don't know how this is gonna turn out, Hutch. He needs you to be strong for him. Keep your chin up."

 

The blond man in the back seat just stared at him blankly. When they arrived at the hospital, Charlie and Steve had to help Hutch out of the car and into the waiting area. The receptionist looked up at the blood stained apparition of Dudley Do-Right as he was steered into a chair.

 

"He all right?" she asked Steve.

 

"No, but he's not bleeding. You have his partner here, just brought in, David Starsky."

 

She looked at the paperwork in front of her and then asked him to wait a moment while she put her head into the treatment area to see what was happening. She came back and nodded at him. "GSW, sorry, gunshot wound to the chest? He's in Trauma One. I don't know anything else yet."

 

"Officer Hutchinson over there is his partner. Keep us posted, huh?"

 

"Sure, mister. Hey, you look familiar...."

 

Steve just smiled and started to walk away from her. The young woman was probably only in her early twenties. "Wait! Steve..." she snapped her fingers a few times and said, "Hanson. Steve Hanson. Wow!"

 

He smiled at her. "Yes, ma'am. I'm him."

 

"I can't wait to tell my mom. Oh, sorry to meet you this way, though." She blushed.

 

"I know. I'll be over there with my friend." He walked over and joined Hutch, just as Captain Dobey barreled into the Emergency Room. He made it to the waiting men in seconds. He was surprised to see Hutch sitting there, knowing his partner was shot. Usually, Hutch would be fighting the staff to let him into the treatment area.

 

"A young girl called and said Starsky was shot. What the hell happened?" he asked breathlessly.

 

Hutch looked up at him, his eyes full of pain. "I think I k-killed him, Cap."

 

Dobey was stunned. "You what? How?"

 

Hutch unbuckled his holsters and silently handed them over to Dobey. The captain was worried about his detective. Hutch looked terrible, and his all white costume had too much of Starsky's blood on it.

 

Steve said, "Real bullets, Captain Dobey."

 

"How the hell...." Dobey started.

 

"We don't know yet," Charlie said.

 

Dobey motioned Steve away from Hutch. "How bad is it?"

 

Steve shook his head. "Bad. I've never seen anything like that."

 

"On the way here, I called for a team to go over to the arena for physical evidence and to interview the crew."

 

Steve nodded his understanding.

 

Hutch was shaking his head and mumbling, "I should have checked them. Oh, God, why didn't I check them?"

 

A doctor was walking out toward them. They were the only people in the waiting area. He stepped up and introduced himself. "I'm Doctor Moore. You gentlemen here for David Starsky?"

 

Hutch stood on shaky legs and said, "How is he?" He didn't like the grim look on the doctor's face.

 

"Not good, I'm afraid. He's lost a lot of blood and he coded once before we sent him up to surgery. I'm sorry, but it doesn't look very good."

 

What little color had been in Hutch's face drained away and Dobey pushed him back down into a chair. He dropped his head into his hands and started to shake again. "No," was all he would say.

 

"I called for his medical records. His scars...some of the staff explained about his previous injury."

 

Dobey said, "Is that making things worse?"

 

"I'm not sure it will be a factor. That was a while ago and he looks to have recovered. As I said, he's up in surgery. Thank God it was only a single bullet this time. We'll know more in a few hours."

 

Moore turned and walked back through the double doors, leaving the shocked men in his wake. They all turned and looked at Hutch, none of them knowing what to do for him. Dobey whispered to Steve, "Stay with him. I have to make some calls."

 

Dobey went to the pay phone to call Edith and Huggy. When he spoke with Huggy, he asked him to come to Memorial immediately. If Starsky died at Hutch's hand, he knew what it would do to the blond. "We can't leave Hutch alone for a minute, understand?"

 

"I hear ya, Captain. I'm there." Huggy hung up and headed for the hospital.

 

Dobey returned to find little had changed. Hutch still sat on the same chair, upright now, with a look of shock on his face that frightened his captain. It was almost as if he'd checked out -- except for the haunting anguish in his eyes. When Dobey sat down next to him, Hutch turned his head and looked at him with such pleading in his eyes that Dobey felt his own eyes burn in sympathy.

 

"Can I ask a favor?" Hutch said hoarsely.

 

"What is it, son?" Dobey asked, very gently.

 

"If I promise not to run, will you let me stay here for now? At least until we know how he is?"

 

"Run? What are you talking about?"

 

Instead of answering, Hutch reached into the hip pocket of his costume and withdrew a flat leather wallet. He held it out. "From the charges," he said, voice shaking. "I won't run, Captain. I promise you."

 

"What charges?" Dobey recognized the leather wallet. It was Hutch's badge. And he damned sure wasn't going to take it.

 

"A--assault with a -- a deadly weapon," Hutch said, his voice shaking so badly now he could barely get the words out, and he stammered as he always did when he was particularly upset. "For -- shooting..." He couldn't finish.

 

"No, Hutch!" Dobey laid a hand on his shoulder. "There aren't going to be any charges. Have you lost your mind?"

 

"You have to arrest me," Hutch said.

 

"For what? It was an accident! They were supposed to be blanks!" Steve said. He was almost as pale as Hutch was. "It's not like you did it on purpose."

 

"Doesn't matter," Hutch said, suddenly intense. "You think I'd've done that on purpose? I'd cut off my own arm first!"

 

"Hutch, son, take it easy," Dobey said. When Starsky was like this, he shouted. With Hutch, he was afraid to. And something occurred to him. "Wait a minute. They were supposed to be blanks. How come they weren't?" He directed this question to Steve.

 

Steve shook his head. "I don't know. The only real bullets in the place are for Tigger's gun, the one Starsky was using. All the others are loaded with blanks. We're very careful about that. We keep the guns and the bullets in separate cabinets to make sure we don't make a mistake. How could real bullets have gotten into Hutch's gun? I watched Starsky lay his gun with real bullets down and pick up the one with blanks in it when he came backstage to change. He opened the gun and checked to make sure it had blanks."

 

"But I didn't," Hutch said bleakly. "I didn't check. My God, why didn't I check?"

 

Dobey suddenly gripped Hutch's shoulder hard. "Who loaded your gun?"

 

Hutch shook his head and now Dobey saw tears standing in his eyes. "I don't -- I don't know."

 

"Mitch or Lee," Steve said. "They handle the props. But they both know the difference between blanks and bullets. Like I said, we keep them in separate cabinets."

 

"Do you trust them?" Dobey asked.

 

Steve nodded. "I've known Mitch since he was a kid. His dad was a prop man on several of my pictures."

 

"And Lee?"

 

"Lee was a rodeo cowboy on the Oklahoma-Texas circuit before he moved out here," Steve said. "Why would he do something like that? Why would anybody?"

 

"Is Wally still in prison?" Dobey asked.

 

Steve nodded. "I just talked to his sister a few weeks ago."

 

"It sounds to me as if someone wanted to kill you," Dobey said. "You were supposed to be playing Starsky's role." His eyes narrowed. "Why weren't you?"

 

"His horse threw him," Charlie put in. "He wrenched his shoulder and that's his shootin' arm."

 

"Wait a minute," Steve said. "That horse has never done that before. He's as gentle as a lamb, normally."

 

"There was a burr under his saddle," Charlie said. "After he threw ya, I unsaddled him because I figured you wouldn't be ridin' him tonight. Big ole cocklebur under the blanket. No wonder he bucked. Musta hurt like hell."

 

Steve and Dobey both stared at him. Hutch was too miserable.

 

"How did a cocklebur get under the saddle blanket?" Steve demanded. "There isn't any brush within miles of that arena, and I bought that blanket myself only last week."

 

Charlie frowned. "I don't know, boss. I didn't think about that."

 

Steve turned to Dobey. "You may be right. Or half right. Somebody was aimin' to kill somebody else, but I don't think it was me. I think it was Starsky."

 

Dobey drew a heavy sigh. "Or Hutch."

 

"No, it must've been Starsky," Hutch said in a low voice. "Or they'd have put the bullets in his gun instead of mine. They had a great chance to do that. He changed guns before the -- the -- " He shook his head. "He changed guns and I didn't."

 

"Did you recognize anybody among the crew?" Dobey asked.

 

Hutch thought about it and shook his head again. "No. Nobody."

 

"Can you get me the names and social security numbers of everyone connected with your show?" Dobey asked Steve. "I'll have R&I run them and see if anyone pops up."

 

"It'll take a while," Steve said. "I'll go make some calls." He started to rise, but the doctor had appeared in the doorway, and he sat down again. Hutch, however, shot to his feet.

 

The doctor's surgical cap was damp over his forehead and his mask, where it hung under his chin, was rumpled. He glanced from one face to another until he had made eye contact with all four of them, and returned his gaze to Hutch. "He's in ICU," he said without preamble. "We got the bullet out. Thank God it was a small caliber. It didn't do much damage except to muscle tissue. But he lost a lot of blood, and that's what I'm worried about. That and the fact that his heart stopped in the emergency room. That did some damage, and from what I understand, his heart stopped when he was shot the last time."

 

Hutch's face had gone so white that Dobey and Steve both rose to brace him in case he fell. "What's the bottom line?" Hutch asked, his voice shaking.

 

"It means we don't know," the doctor said. "It means he's lost a lot of blood, which is hard on the heart. It's the same principle as running a water pump dry. It can seize up. The heart has to work so much harder when there's massive blood loss, because it automatically reroutes as much blood as possible to the brain. So his heart is damaged two ways -- by stopping and by having to work so hard before it stopped. That, coupled with the damage he suffered a couple of years ago, could be serious."

 

"H-how serious?" Hutch asked.

 

"He could die."

 

Huggy came in just in time to hear that last, and his eyes widened with fear.

 

"When will you know?" Dobey asked.

 

"First let's worry about him making it through the night. If he does that, his chances will be better. At this point, I just don't know." He patted Hutch's arm and left.

 

Huggy immediately took his place. "Hutch, you better sit down, man. You're as white as a sheet."

 

Hutch didn't seem to hear, so Huggy gently pushed him backward and applied pressure to his shoulders to get him to sit down. He took the seat next to him and looked up at Dobey. "I got him," was all he said, but Dobey understood. Huggy would take care of Hutch, leaving Dobey free to set an investigation into motion. He went back to the pay phone, followed by Steve, who had to call his bookkeeper and get a list of everyone in the crew.

 

As soon as they were out of earshot of Hutch, Steve said to Dobey, "I don't know what to say. My God, if I hadn't asked them to do this, Starsky -- "

 

"Don't blame yourself," Dobey said, stopping him. "You couldn't have known."

 

"But apparently someone I hired has it in for those two!" Steve said. "What are the chances? If Starsky dies, it's my fault, not Hutch's."

 

"You couldn't know," Dobey repeated. "It was an accident. All we can do now is pray that Starsky makes it, and try to find out who did this."

 

"I can't imagine who it could be," Steve said. "I've known most of them for years. The one or two I don't know were recommended by people I trust." He shook his head. "My God," he repeated.

 

"Steve, please," Dobey said. "Get me the names. We'll figure it out and he'll pay, I promise you."

 

"I'll make him pay," Steve said grimly.

 

"No, you won't. We will. It's our job." He called the station and got Jack Hill on the phone. He and Sean Cavanaugh were working the night shift that week. He told Hill what had happened and that Lt. Gary Sheppard was head of the crime scene team that had gone to the arena. "I've got the gun Hutch was using," he said. "We'll need to get prints off of it and see if there are any besides Hutch's on it. And I want you to interview every last person who has anything to do with that Wild West show. Every one. I want to know what they saw, who they saw, why they saw it, and what everyone was doing every moment today."

 

"Y-yes, sir," Hill said. "How is Starsky?"

 

"We don't know yet," Dobey said. "It's touch and go."

 

"My God," Hill said. Dobey could hear Cavanaugh asking what was wrong with Starsky, and Hill turned from the phone long enough to say, "He's been shot. I'll fill you in later." To the captain, he said, "We'll get right on it. Tell Hutch we're pulling for him. For both of them."

 

"I will."

 

Steve had finished making his phone call, too, and when Dobey hung up, he said, "I've got my bookkeeper pulling personnel records for everyone, including me. You'll have them in a couple of hours."

 

Dobey nodded his thanks. When they returned to the waiting room, it was empty. "I knew Hutch'd have to see him," Dobey said, shaking his head. "It'll only scare him more."

 

"I'd like to see him, too," Steve said.

 

"All right. Let's go."

 

They took the elevator up to the ICU. It was quiet and dimly lit outside the rooms, many of which were empty. But Dobey could see Hutch's blond head bent over a bed in the second room, and he steered Steve that way. A nurse, coming out of the first room, stopped them.

 

"Visiting hours are on the hour," she said sternly. "Ten minutes. You can't go in there."

 

Dobey had seen both Starsky and Hutch circumvent this particular rule before. He pulled out his badge. "Yes, I can, and I will. One of my men may be dying, and he might not be there on the hour," he growled. "I'm going to go see him NOW." Ignoring her, he marched on into Starsky's room.

 

Hutch was holding one of Starsky's hands in both of his, tears in his eyes, his face white to the lips. A large bandage covered most of Starsky's upper chest, and an IV steadily dripped blood into one arm. Huggy stood next to Hutch, his eyes on the blond instead of Starsky, and one hand on Hutch's back. He looked up when Dobey and Steve came in, but Hutch did not.

 

Dobey shook his head at the pallor of Starsky's face. He didn't look good. He looked as bad, if not worse, than he had when Gunther's goons had shot him two years ago. That time it had been three bullets, and this time it was only one. He couldn't be expected to bounce back forever.

 

"Hutch," Dobey said softly. "I've called the station. The investigation is underway. I assigned Hill and Cavanaugh."

 

Hutch made no sign that he had heard. Dobey and Huggy exchanged a glance, and Huggy's eyebrows rose ever so slightly in warning. Steve hung back by the door, his eyes also fastened on Starsky.

 

"I have to take the guns in for prints," Dobey said, even more gently.

 

Hutch never took his eyes off his partner's face. Dobey sighed, patted his shoulder, and left the room. He had work to do. Huggy could handle this.

 

It was a long night. When the shift changed at 11 p.m., the night nurses tried to pry Hutch away from Starsky's bedside. Failing that, one of them brought him a chair and tried to get him to sit down. He wouldn't accept it, but Huggy did. He was afraid to leave Hutch alone, even to go to the waiting room, but he was worn out with watching and worry. Hutch continued to stand at Starsky's bedside for hours, holding the limp, pale hand and watching him.

 

The doctor said if he made it through the night, he had a chance. You’ve got to make it, buddy! You’ve got to!

 

Huggy dozed off in spite of his best efforts not to. Hutch finally sank to the floor next to Starsky's bed, but he didn't sleep. He continued to watch his partner's pale face.

 

Sometime around dawn, Moore came back. He got off the elevator and started past the nurse's station, but the night nurse stopped him.

 

"Doctor, that man has been in Mr. Starsky's room all night," she whispered, jerking her head in that direction.

 

"What man? Detective Hutchinson?"

 

She nodded. "We can't make him leave. We tried."

 

Moore sighed. "I had breakfast with Dr. Franklin and he warned me that might happen. He's on staff at Receiving," he added when she looked puzzled. "He's dealt with these two before. Don't worry about it."

 

He went on into Starsky's room, shaking his head at the sleeping Huggy's position in the chair. There was a man who was going to have a stiff neck. And there was Hutch, crouched on the floor, one hand still holding Starsky's, his eyes red and bloodshot from sleeplessness and worry.

 

"Sergeant?"

 

Hutch jerked his head around at Moore's voice.

 

"Any change?" Moore asked.

 

Hutch shook his head. "No. He hasn't stirred all night."

 

"Do you mind?" Moore said, gesturing for Hutch to get out of his way.

 

Hutch finally let go of Starsky and backed up, but he hovered at the foot of the bed, watching.

 

Moore listened to Starsky's heart, took his pulse, peered into his eyes, peeked under the bandage, and finally straightened. "He's no better," he said, "but he's no worse, either. I told you he had a chance if he made it through the night, and he has."

 

Hutch nodded tersely, but didn't relax.

 

"Go get some rest and something to eat," Moore said. "I'll be here doing my rounds, and I'll tell the nurses to keep a close eye on him."

 

"I can't leave him."

 

"If you make yourself ill, you'll be in here, too -- on another floor," Moore said pointedly. "Go get something to eat and take a nap. Leave a number with the nurse. We'll call you if there's any change." He gestured at Huggy. "And take him with you. The poor guy's gonna be sore from sleeping in that chair."

 

Hutch looked at Huggy as if he'd just noticed him. "Oh, man," he said. "He stayed with me all night."

 

Moore was exasperated, but he recognized the deep worry that was causing Hutch's behavior. "Scat," he said, softening the word with a smile. "He's stable. We're doing everything we can. He wouldn't want you to make yourself sick over him."

 

Hutch wet his lips and finally nodded. "Okay. But I'll be back."

 

"I know."

 

Hutch roused Huggy and took him home. He went home himself, took a shower, ate a carton of yogurt and tried to sleep. But he couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he again saw Starsky fall from his bullet. Or he saw him lying in the hospital, pale and still.

 

I did that. I put him there. I might have killed him...

 

The pattern persisted another day. Hutch went back to the hospital and sat vigil by Starsky's bed, holding his hand, talking softly to him. Starsky did not stir. All Moore could say was what he'd already said. Every passing day meant there was a little more hope. He was no better, but no worse. He was "holding his own."

 

Hutch hated that phrase. Holding his own. It meant nothing at all.

 

In the middle of the second night, the nurse called Hutch to the phone. "It's a Detective Cavanaugh," she said softly.

 

Hutch nodded and followed her to the nurse's station. "Hutchinson," he said into the phone.

 

"We ran the prints from that gun you were usin'," Sean Cavanaugh said, knowing from the tightness in Hutch's voice that he didn't want to bother with niceties. "We lifted yours and some smudges that look like maybe the guy was wearing gloves. Nothing else. But when we ran that list of names from the crew of the show, we found one that might be it. Lee Garland. Mean anything to ya?"

 

"No. Should it?"

 

"Well, he skipped, Hutch. Gone. The very night this all happened. Mr. Hanson went back to the arena the next morning and Garland had packed his stuff and split. Didn't tell nobody where he was goin'. We figure it's gotta be him or he wouldn't've run off like that. Only nothin's comin' up in the records."

 

"Fake name?" Hutch asked.

 

"Probably. Hanson's been tryin' to reach the guy who recommended Garland to him. Somebody named Jewell. Hanson said he'd been an animal handler for one of the studios back in his heyday and now he's cowboyin' in Oklahoma City. But he hasn't been able to reach him. We've been in touch with the PD there and they don't have any records on Garland either."

 

"Sergeant?" The nurse was standing next to him, her hand on his sleeve.

 

"What?" Hutch turned to her.

 

"You'd better come."

 

Hutch dropped the phone and ran, leaving Sean on the other end to say Hutch's name repeatedly. "Hutch? What's happening? Hutch? Hutch?"

 

The nurse was hard on Hutch's heels as he dashed down the corridor, terrified that Starsky was slipping away from him. He expected to hear the monitor screaming out a flatline, but he didn't. When he reached Starsky's room, the monitor was beeping rapidly. He rushed in and came to a sudden stop at Starsky's bedside. Dr. Moore was checking his vitals and looking at the monitor with concern.

 

"Doc?" Hutch said anxiously.

 

The doctor's tone was tense. "I don't know. We may be headed for trouble."

 

Starsky's nurse had followed Hutch all the way to the injured man's bedside. She put her arm around Hutch's waist when he swayed on his feet. The tension and fear were almost too much for him. He hadn't eaten anything since the cup of yogurt almost two days ago and he hadn't slept at all. Again, all he could say was, "No."

 

The nurse quickly pulled the chair over with her foot and helped him into it, pushing his head down between his knees.

 

"Get him out of here as soon as he can stand," Dr. Moore said.

 

Hutch looked up, all color gone from his face, and said, "Please. If I'm gonna lose him, let me stay."

 

Dr. Moore finished checking Starsky. He had given him some medication and the monitor was settling down again. The doctor looked over at Hutch and said, "When was the last time you had something to eat? Was it when I made you go?"

 

"I'm not hungry." Hutch was staring at Starsky, fear and grief etched on his face.

 

"Look, I want you to go downstairs right now and eat. You look terrible."

 

"I can't leave him alone. I have to be here for him. I-if he...." Hutch closed his stinging eyes. He was so tired, but he wouldn't leave. The doctor left the room, shaking his head and reaching for the business card he had in his lab coat pocket.

 

A sleepy, deep voice answered the phone. "Hello?"

 

"Captain Dobey?"

 

"Yeah, who is this?" Dobey sounded slightly more awake.

 

"Dr. Moore down at Memorial."

 

Dobey sat up, now fully awake. "Has something happened, Doctor?"

 

Edith turned toward her husband, anxious to hear what the doctor said.

 

"We had a few scary moments, but he's still with us. I'm calling about Hutchinson."

 

"Is he all right?"

 

"Frankly, no he isn't. The man hasn't slept or eaten anything in a couple of days. He nearly collapsed a little while ago. I don't want to have security force him out of here but if someone doesn't take care of him soon, he's going to be a patient, too. I'm not sure how much more he can take."

 

"What about Huggy Bear? Isn't he keeping an eye on him?"

 

"No, he left a while ago. Captain, I don't want to make him leave the hospital. His partner is still not out of the woods and I know it's important for him to be here in case we lose him, but Hutchinson is killing himself slowly. What do you want me to do?"

 

Dobey sighed wearily. "I'll take care of it. Give me half an hour or so."

 

"You know where to find him."

 

"Thanks, Dr. Moore."

 

After he hung up the phone and crawled out of bed, Edith said, "Is David all right, dear?"

 

The captain walked around to the closet, dressing quickly in some sweats. "No. Sounds like he slipped back a little, from what the doctor said. I'm going down there to look after Hutchinson. The doc says he's falling apart."

 

"Poor Ken. Where's Huggy?"

 

"That's what I want to know." Dobey sat back down on the bed and dialed The Pits. When he got Huggy on the phone, the man explained he had been called down to the bar because the grill caught on fire. He didn't realize he had been gone so long, but he'd been dealing with the mess and the fire department for a couple of hours.

 

"Dammit, Huggy, he shouldn't be alone down there!" Dobey shouted at him.

 

"Harold, shhhhh." Edith didn't want him waking their children. The big man lowered his voice and added, "I'm headed down there now."

 

Huggy felt terrible. "I'm sorry. I'll come and take over again as soon as everything's okay here."

 

"All right." Dobey hung up and told Edith about the fire. He left for the hospital, promising to call her if anything changed. As he drove to Memorial, he prayed things were going to be all right for both men. His worry for Hutch was increasing as things looked worse for Starsky.

 

Hutch sat in his chair in the ICU, moving only to hold Starsky's hand, or to touch his face. He quietly spoke from his heart. "Please get better. I need you too much to let you go. I love you, Gordo. You're half of me. Me and Thee.  Hell, buddy, without Thee, I'm not sure there is a Me." He put his head down on Starsky's bed. Captain Dobey walked into the room just in time to hear Hutch mumble, "I can't live with myself if I've killed you."

 

Hutch recognized the captain's step as he entered the room. He didn't move, or lift his head. Dobey strode over to the distraught man and put a large hand on his shoulder.

 

"They ask you to get me out of here?" he asked, still without looking up at Dobey.

 

"No. Dr. Moore wants you to take care of yourself though. I just spoke with him again on the way in here. We want you to go get something to eat, then come back up here and try to rest. He's got the maintenance department looking for a cot for you so you can get some sleep here."

 

Hutch looked up then and said, "I won't leave him."

 

"If you don't, I'm going to have to make you go home. Please, Hutch. Starsky's gonna have a fit when he finds out how you've been these past two days and I'm going to catch hell from him. You can't go on like this. I'll stay with him while you grab a bite. All right?"

 

Both men turned toward the door when they heard Sean Cavanaugh's voice. "Come on, Hutch. I'll go with you." The nurses had given up trying to restrict the cops from being there, on Dr. Moore's orders. Starsky had no family to be there with him at the moment. His mother and his Aunt Rosie had gone on a dream trip to Israel. They were unreachable, since Starsky was the only one who knew exactly where they had gone. No one had been able to find Nick Starsky either. Hutch and Starsky's other friends were all the family he had there.

 

Dobey looked curious and Cavanaugh said, "I was on the phone with Hutch when something happened to Starsky. He dropped the phone. I thought about it for a while and decided I'd better come down here. Come on now, Hutch. Let's go get something for you to eat."

 

Reluctantly agreeing, Hutch got to his feet and left with Sean. Dr. Moore told Captain Dobey that the next few hours were important. His medical instincts were telling him they were either going to turn a corner, or lose ground steadily and he was hoping it was the former.

 

Sean sat Hutch at a table and got him some of the least disgusting looking food available at that hour. He picked out a sandwich and an apple from an automat-style rotating vending machine. Hutch wanted coffee, but Sean insisted he should have milk instead. Making Hutch jitterier was not a good idea. Over the next twenty minutes, the blond picked at his food and managed to get about half of it down before they heard an overhead page that nearly stopped Hutch's heart.

 

"Ken Hutchinson, please return to the ICU. Ken Hutchinson, return to the ICU."

 

Hutch bolted out of his chair so fast, he knocked it over backwards and nearly tripped on it dashing for the door. Sean was right behind him as he headed for the stairs, not wanting to wait for an elevator. The whole way up the stairs, Hutch was praying Starsky hadn't died without him being there to say goodbye.

 

Captain Dobey was waiting for him at the top of the stairwell, knowing Hutch wouldn't take the slow elevators. He put his hands up to block Hutch saying, "It's all right. He woke up, Hutch."

 

Hutch sighed out, "Oh, thank God."

 

"Calm down before you go in there. You don't want him to see you like this."

 

 Hutch nodded. He ran his hands through his hair in a futile attempt to look less disheveled.

 

Dr. Moore was walking toward them, a cautious smile on his face.

 

"Did he say anything yet, Doc?" Hutch asked.

 

"Just one word. It was kind of slurred, but it sounded a lot like 'Hutch' to me."

 

Hutch smiled, asking with raised eyebrows if he could go in and receiving a nod in response. He stepped around the doctor and walked into Starsky's room as calmly as he could. When he reached his partner's side, Hutch took his hand again and smiled down at dark blue eyes, looking up at him fuzzily.

 

"Hu-ch?" Starsky croaked.

 

"Yeah, buddy. I'm here." He squeezed Starsky's hand gently and his heart soared when Starsky returned the squeeze. When he couldn't feel Hutch holding his hand in the arena, the blond was terrified. Now, he felt an almost overwhelming sense of relief. "Rest, Gordo. You're gonna be okay and I'm not going anywhere."

 

Starsky smiled at him, his eyelids blinking heavily, and said, "Tired."

 

Dr. Moore was motioning for Hutch to join him in the corridor. He patted Starsky on the hand again and said, "I'll be right back, buddy."

 

The patient's eyes opened again and he said, "Stay."

 

Hutch smiled and promised him he wouldn't go far. He went out to speak with the doctor looking greatly relieved. Starsky was awake and he recognized Hutch. Those had to both be good signs.

 

"How is he, really?" Hutch asked the doctor.

 

The doctor spoke quietly, looking Hutch in the eye. "I think he's turned the corner. He's still critical, but he's stronger. I was pretty worried an hour ago, so I'm keeping a close eye on things."

 

Hutch wasn't sure if that conflicting string of information meant he should or shouldn't relax a little. "Doc, is he going to make it?"

 

"If he keeps getting stronger over the next several hours, I think he will. Look, I just don't want to get your hopes up too high. I think he'll make it, but anything could still happen. Just hang in there for him." Dr. Moore hated giving friends and families false hope, but the man in front of him looked so scared and tired. He wanted Hutch to be a little more at ease. "Go on in there, but I want you to lie down and get some rest. Relax. Things are looking up for him."

 

Hutch accepted that with a nod of thanks. He returned to Starsky's side with the doctor behind him. When he felt Hutch next to him again, Starsky stirred and sought Hutch's eyes with his own. He saw the pain, fear, and guilt in Hutch's eyes and on his agonized face. The doctor was checking Starsky when his patient looked at him, then back at Hutch and softly said, "Sleep."

 

Dr. Moore took the stethoscope out of his ears and smiled at Starsky. "Yes, David. Go to sleep."

 

Starsky shook his head and reach a hand out for Hutch, who took it. "No," he said as he looked back at Hutch.

 

Hutch chuckled and told the doctor, "He means me, Doc. Starsky wants me to get some sleep."

 

"Listen to your partner, Ken." The doctor couldn't believe his critically injured patient was worried about his partner. These two men were every bit as intense as Dr. Franklin said they were. He was wrong when he thought his colleague was exaggerating or imagining things.

 

Hutch nodded and touched Starsky's hair as he smiled, fighting to keep back the tears that were welling up in his eyes. He swallowed hard and said, "I'm so sorry, Gordo."

 

Starsky frowned and shook his head. He licked his lips and said, "No, Hutch. Sleep."

 

"All right, buddy. They brought in a cot for me. I'm going to be right here in the room. Call me if you need me." Hutch moved the call button down near Starsky's hand so he could reach it if he needed anything and he didn't feel strong enough to call out for Hutch.

 

Lying down on the cot felt amazing. He sighed and wiped his eyes. Turning toward the bed so he stood the best chance of hearing if Starsky called him, Hutch closed his eyes. As he drifted off to sleep, Hutch prayed that he wouldn't have nightmares that might disturb his partner. He also prayed his thanks that Starsky was getting stronger. Drifting off to sleep with that comforting thought, Hutch was soon out cold. Captain Dobey hovered in the dark doorway for a few minutes, watching them both. Then he sent Sean home, and went to call Edith to give her the good news. After the phone call, the captain waited for Huggy to arrive and assume the vigil over the partners.

 

Steve Hanson was sleeping soundly for the first time since Starsky had been shot because Dobey had called him and told him Starsky had awakened and spoken to Hutch. But the ringing of the bedside phone disturbed his badly needed sleep. Steve groaned and rolled over to answer it.

 

"Steve? Bud Jewell."

 

"Bud? What the hell? It's 3 a.m." Steve yawned and finally came awake enough to realize he'd been waiting for this call. "Sorry, pal, I'm pretty groggy."

 

"It's okay. What's so important? I just got back from a rodeo in El Paso and found this note that said it was urgent that I call you the instant I got back. What's wrong?"

 

"I need to know everything you know about Lee Garland."

 

"Lee who?" There was a silence and Jewell said, "Sorry, Steve, I don't know anybody by that name."

 

"What?" Steve sat up, wide-awake now. "But you recommended him to me."

 

"Not me, Steve. Recommended him for what?"

 

"The Wild West Show we're putting on out here. I called your office looking for a wrangler -- "

 

"I remember that. I told ya I'd look and I did, but this is the busy season for the rodeo and nobody wanted to miss out on the big purses to go to California," Jewell said. "Didn't you get my message?"

 

"I got a message that you'd found somebody and he'd come by in a few days to see me," Steve said, understanding dawning. "Less than a week later, Lee Garland turned up with a letter signed by you -- at least, it looked like your signature -- and it said he'd worked for you and was good with horses and trustworthy."

 

"Aw, hell, Steve," Jewell said, sighing. "I've been on the road pretty constantly ever since you called me and sometimes it's a week or more before I get messages. After I called and left that message for you that I couldn't find anybody, I was on the road for a good month before I was home again. I figured by then you'd found somebody."

 

Steve quickly told him what had happened and that Garland had disappeared.

 

Jewell whistled. "That's awful, friend. Wonder how he knew you'd asked me to help you find somebody? Lemme ask around amongst my crowd and I'll call you tomorrow. Meantime, can you get a picture of that guy to me? Maybe somebody knows him."

 

"I'll call Captain Dobey in the morning."

 

Steve had some photos of the crew that had been taken during other shows and one posed photo they used on a poster. It wasn't much, but it was the best they could do. Dobey arranged to have them sent to the Oklahoma City PD. Jewell got some of his people together as soon as they arrived and they went to headquarters and looked them over. He called Dobey himself this time, instead of going through Steve.

 

"His name's Lee Garver," Jewell told Dobey. "Not bright enough to come up with much of an alias, I guess."

 

"I guess," Dobey said, writing it down.

 

"He worked for me a couple of seasons ago, exercising horses, cleaning out stalls, that kind of thing. He kept to himself and he didn't cause no trouble, but I didn't really trust him," Jewell said. "Dunno why. 'Spose it was just 'cause he was kinda secretive. That letter he gave Steve's the kinda letter I give all the hands when they leave if they've been good employees, to help 'em get work elsewhere. I probably gave him one, too, though I don't really remember doin' it. He never did nothin' wrong, he just didn't fit in. Y'know?"

 

"Thanks, Mr. Jewell. This is a big help."

 

"Bud," Jewell corrected. "And if you need anything else, or if your detective does, you call me, understand? I ain't that far away and I'd be glad to do anything I can. I'll be home for a while now."

 

Dobey sent Cavanaugh to run the new name through R&I and in a couple of hours the file was on his desk. He stared at it in dismay for several minutes before picking it up and heading for the hospital.

 

Starsky had improved rapidly in the last couple of days, and was already demanding indigestible food and his freedom. Moore had moved him to a regular room and Huggy had sneaked him in a few hamburgers and such, but steadfastly refused to bring him tacos or chilidogs without the doc's okay. When Dobey walked in, Starsky was begging Hutch to get him a Dr. Pepper.

 

"No, Gordo," Hutch said for what felt like the hundredth time. "Dr. Moore says you can have chocolate milk, a milkshake, all the juice you want, but NO carbonated soda. Zip. Zero. Nada. Do I have to tattoo it on the inside of your eyelids?"

 

"Aw, Hutch, I need a soda. Please, buddy. I'm dyin' here."

 

Hutch snorted. "No, you aren't. You're whining. There's a big difference. Now, what'll it be? Orange, grape or apple juice?"

 

Starsky gave a huge theatrical sigh. "Grape."

 

Hutch nodded and turned to go and noticed Dobey at the same moment Starsky did. "Captain! How's it going?"

 

Dobey entered the room and both of his detectives noticed the file in his hand at the same moment.

 

"Whatcha got, Cap?" Starsky said, struggling to sit up. Hutch assisted him and plumped the pillows behind him to make him comfortable. Both fixed their captain with inquiring looks.

 

"We've tracked down Lee Garland," Dobey said. "And I think we know why he wanted Starsky dead."

 

They waited.

 

Dobey sighed. "His real name's Lee Garver."

 

"Garver?" Starsky frowned for a moment, glanced at Hutch, and snapped his fingers. "Gary Prudholm. He was in the drug ring with Gary Prudholm."

 

Dobey nodded. "You busted him at the same time. He got probation, since it was a first offense, but his life's gone into the toilet ever since. In and out of prison on a variety of charges from armed robbery to assault to grand theft." He explained about Bud Jewell and how Garver had worked for him in Oklahoma.

 

"'S'pose it's just a coincidence he happened to ask Steve for a job when he did?" Starsky asked Hutch.

 

"Mighty big coincidence," Hutch said, rubbing his forehead. "I doubt it. I suppose it's possible."

 

"He couldn't have known me and you'd be helpin' out with the show," Starsky pointed out.

 

"No," Hutch agreed.

 

"Could be he spotted us and just took the opportunity 'cause it was there."

 

"Yeah."

 

"Dammit," Starsky said, feeling around the bedcovers.

 

"What?"

 

"I lost my book. I was readin' Jaws," Starsky said, searching his bedside table.

 

Hutch sighed. "You don't need it this minute, do you? We're working here, in case you hadn't noticed!"

 

Starsky gave up. "Okay, okay. But I wanna finish it. It was just gettin' good."

 

"I'll buy you another copy if we can't find it. Now can we discuss the case?"

 

"Sure," Starsky said, with innocent eyes. "Of course."

 

"Thank you." Hutch turned back to Dobey. "I take it there's an APB out on Garver?"

 

Dobey glared at him. "I ain't some rookie, Hutchinson. I put the APB out as soon as I had a positive ID on the guy."

 

Hutch raised a placating hand. "Just checking. Anything yet?"

 

Dobey shook his head.

 

"That would explain his putting the real bullets in my gun instead of yours," Hutch said to Starsky. "You're the one who arrested him and testified against him at the trial. You did most of the face time on that case."

 

Starsky nodded. "And I remember how the kid glared at me all through the trial," he said. "He blamed me for the whole thing, 'stead of his own stupidity in gettin' involved in that mess to start with."

 

"But he was a juvie," Hutch argued. "His record would've been wiped when he turned 18 if he'd gone straight."

 

Starsky shrugged, carefully, since he was still pretty sore. "Guess he preferred bein' crooked, buddy."

 

Dr. Moore walked into the room smiling, with Starsky's chart and some bandaging supplies in his hands. "How are you feeling, David?" he asked amiably. He had become fond of both detectives during the past few days.

 

"Pretty good, Doc," Starsky answered.

 

Hutch filled in the blanks for him, "He's been okay, Doc. Not great. Good spirits, but still having muscle spasms and pain in his chest. Oh, and he wants a soda so bad I think he might sell his first born child for it, if he had one."

 

"Thanks, Mom," Starsky said, sulking.

 

"Hmmm. Let me have a look." The doctor didn't bother asking either Hutch or the captain to leave the room. He already knew it was a losing battle with the blond, and their boss wasn't much better. The doctor peeked under the bandages, did a vitals check, and patted Starsky on the shoulder. "Looks good. The muscle spasms are probably from the stitching inside your chest. I'm afraid we had to go into some areas that were scarred from your previous shooting."

 

Starsky dropped his eyes a little, a wave of depression threatening to crash into him. "I guess I should've expected that."

 

Hutch put a hand on his arm, conveying his silent support. When Starsky looked up with a thankful expression in his eyes, he was pained to see the guilt clearly passing across his friend's face.

 

The doctor continued, "You did get a side benefit out of this whole ordeal. We had to revise some of your previous scar tissue. Some of your scar lines are much neater now."

 

"Really?" Starsky asked, his face brightening.

 

"Really. Want to see? Your dressing could stand to be changed now." The doctor smiled at him, knowing he wouldn't have to offer twice.

 

Starsky looked down at his new scars and said, "Wow! Thanks, Doc. You're right."

 

Dr. Moore laughed softly. "We aim to please, David."

 

When he was done with his task bandaging Starsky's chest, the dark haired man asked, "What do you think, Doc? Am I really gonna be okay from this? You know, this time doesn't feel like the last time. I mean, is what happened before…."

 

The doctor put a hand up to stop him. "This time is nothing like your previous shooting. I've carefully reviewed your medical record from that injury. The wounds were severe and the damage was massive. Those bullets were fired from a high velocity automatic weapon. This was an old-fashioned six-shooter and a single, low caliber bullet. The bullet didn't pass through your body like the others. The entire scenario is different."

 

"What about his heart, Doc? You were pretty worried about damage the night this happened." Hutch could barely stand to ask, but he had to hear the answer.

 

"Relax, Ken. That's the other good news. I have the results of David's latest tests. We can't detect any damage, no changes in his EKG." He turned expressive brown eyes toward Starsky and said, "In other words, you're going to be just fine."

 

The relief Hutch felt when he heard those words was intense. He sighed and put his head back, his eyes closed while he sent yet another thankful prayer heavenward. Then he looked down again and said, "Thank you."

 

"You're welcome, but you might want to light an extra candle once in a while, Ken. Your friend's guardian angel has a heavy job keeping an eye on David."

 

Hutch laughed at that. "Poor thing. She probably needs a vacation. Maybe we can arrange for that while he's recuperating. He can borrow mine while she's gone."

 

As the doctor left the room, Starsky called out, "What about the sodas, Doc?"

 

He heard Dr. Moore call back through the closing door, "Tomorrow."

 

"Terrific."

 

A few hours later, when the two detectives were alone, Starsky tried to turn over in bed and was hit with a painful muscle spasm. His face went pale and his breath started coming in shallow pants as he closed his eyes to get a handle on the pain.

 

Hutch was up pressing the call button in an instant. Dr. Moore had left orders for pain medications and muscle relaxants in case the spasms returned. While the nurse who answered the call prepared to give Starsky the medication, Hutch excused himself to the restroom. Starsky had the pain back under control fairly well. He put a hand up to stop her, and said, "Can you wait on that, please? Just for a few minutes?"

 

She looked at her patient's face in confusion, clearly noting the distress on his features. "You need this now."

 

"I'll be okay for a little longer. Please. I really need to talk to my partner and I can't be slidin' into a coma while I'm doing it, okay?"

 

The nurse smiled at him in understanding. "Sure. I'll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes. Dr. Moore doesn't want you to go too long without it though." She turned to leave.

 

"Thanks."

 

Hutch was in the restroom splashing cold water on his face and doing his best to get his trembling to stop. He held out his hands, dismayed at how much they shook. Everything his best friend was going through had happened at those hands. He was close to tears and he hated that, but the pressure of guilt he felt was crushing around his heart like a vice. Waiting long enough to be sure the nurse was finished, Hutch dried his face and prepared to walk back out to what he hoped would be his soon-to-be-relieved and sleeping partner.

 

Starsky wasn't asleep when he got back into the room though. He was looking up at him expectantly. He patted the bed where he had scooted over and made a space for Hutch to sit.

 

"Meds not making you sleepy, buddy?" Hutch asked, confused as to the still pained and decidedly not sleepy look on Starsky's face.

 

"I asked her to wait. Come over here. We need to talk."

 

Hutch swallowed and said, "Uh, you need your medication, Starsk. Can't this wait?"

 

"No. This can't wait one more minute, much less the five or six hours I might sleep after she gives me that shot."

 

Bolting out of the room was an option, but Hutch dismissed it. Seeing no other course but to sit next to his friend, he crossed the room and perched on the side of Starsky's bed, his heart racing.

 

Starsky reached for him and took one of Hutch's hands in his own. "Talk to me." The trembling he felt in that strong hand clutched at his heart.

 

"About what?" Hutch hung his head a little.

 

"Buddy, you know about what. I want you to explain to me why you're beatin' yourself up so bad, huh?" Starsky squeezed his hand compassionately and forced the blond to make eye contact.

 

"I'm not. It's okay." Hutch didn't want to lie to Starsky. They didn't lie to one another, but he didn't want to burden his healing partner either.

 

"Hold up your hands," Starsky commanded him.

 

"What?"

 

"You heard me."

 

Hutch blinked a few times, released Starsky's hand and held his up a few inches off his lap. He wasn't able to disguise the shaking and he closed his hands into fists and opened them, staring at the palms for a few seconds. He rested his elbows on his lap and dropped his head into his hands.

 

Starsky wasn't sure if he was crying or not. He reached to try and pull one of Hutch's hands away from his face, but he couldn't do it. Hutch was resisting the maneuver and Starsky didn't have the strength to fight him.

 

"Hutch..." he said, concern in his voice.

 

The big blond shook his head slightly, sighed and said, "Oh, God. Oh, God."

 

Starsky rubbed Hutch's arm gently and said, "Sh. It's okay, Blintz. I'm gonna be fine, you heard the doc."

 

Hutch looked up at him and now Starsky was sure he'd been crying. "I could have killed you."

 

"You didn't."

 

"I almost did."

 

"But, you didn't."

 

"Oh, God, Starsk. Wh-what if you'd died?" Hutch let out a tiny sob, his voice catching when he said, "I'd have died right on the spot. Oh, God. I almost killed you."

 

Starsky put a sterner note into his voice. "Hutch, stop it."

 

"But, Starsky..."

 

"I said, stop!"

 

Hutch looked at him, stunned. Starsky was reaching for him with his hand again. When Hutch took his hand this time, he tugged gently and Hutch followed the motion down to put his head on Starsky's shoulder, being careful not to hurt him. Starsky reached around and rubbed his back, listening while Hutch quietly repeated, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry. I should have checked."

 

Starsky let him go for a little while and then he shushed him. Patting him on the back, he told him to sit up and let him look into his eyes.

 

"You listen to me, partner. This was 100% not your fault."

 

"But..."

 

"Sh. No. Not your fault. Why would you check your gun, huh? You were supposed to have blanks. Your gun always had blanks."

 

"You checked."

 

"That's different."

 

"How? I should've checked, too."

 

"No reason for you to check, Blintz. I was being paranoid. Don't forget, one of my guns DID have real bullets in it for the early part of the show. Yours never did. No reason for you to check. You understand?"

 

Hutch looked like he still didn't agree.

 

"DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?" Starsky said, stronger.

 

This time, Hutch nodded at least his comprehension.

 

"Hutch, the guy who did this was pond scum. No, lower than pond scum. He was that black greasy yuck that ain't good enough to make it to the surface to BE pond scum. You got that?"

 

That comment provoked the smallest of smiles on Hutch's too pale face.

 

"You think you're mad at him? You got nothin' on me, buddy. What he did was done to you as much as to me. I hate to think what would have happened if he had succeeded and I bought it."

 

Hutch blanched at that, knowing what would have happened to him -- after he found and killed Lee Garver.

 

"Let's just say I'm as anxious to find him as you are, Blondie. Now, stop beating up on my best friend or I'm gonna really be hacked. Understand? I don't have the energy to be hacked." Starsky smiled at him, melting away any vestiges of despair. Hutch marveled at the man's ability to work him. Starsky was right and he knew it, but accepting it into his heart took effort. He would get there and he knew his partner would be there to see that he did, every step of the way.

 

TAG

 

A few weeks later, Starsky was back at work, begrudgingly on desk duty for a few more days until the department physician returned from vacation and cleared him for duty on the streets. Hutch stayed with him and they managed to plow their way through mounds of neglected paperwork. Tedious under any circumstances, the partners were on edge because no leads had turned up on the whereabouts of the man who tried to kill Starsky.

 

Late in the afternoon, Hutch had been trying unsuccessfully for hours to turn something on Lee Garver. He hung up the phone with a loud bang. "Dammit."

 

"Still nothing?" Starsky asked, looking up from some notes he had written in such a chicken scratch even he could barely read them.

 

"Not a thing. Garver just dropped off the face of the Earth." Hutch sulked as he stood to get them both a cup of squad room coffee. "Fresh java?" he asked his partner.

 

"Is it leaded or unleaded?"

 

"You know it's unleaded. The doc said no caffeine for a while yet." The rest of the staff in the squad room had gotten used to the neutral pots of coffee the blond had been brewing since they returned to duty. When they were desperate, Dobey let them sneak some from his pot of regular.

 

"Yeah, yeah, well skip it. Least you could do is get me a soda." Starsky knew where that would lead. "Never mind. You'll just bring me another Seven-Up."

 

Hutch smiled at him. "You know, you really are grumpy when you're on the mend."

 

"Yeah, so you wanna make something of it?"

 

Still beaming, Hutch refused to be daunted by his friend. "Nope. I'm not complaining. Just glad you ARE on the mend, buddy."

 

Starsky couldn't help but smile back at him. "Me, too. Unleaded is okay."

 

Their investigation into Starsky's shooting had revealed that it did appear to be a coincidence. Garver had taken a job with Steve's show, apparently unaware he would soon run into the detectives who had busted him so long ago. He saw an opportunity to exact his revenge and he took it. As much as they hated it, the matter seemed just that simple. Not a well thought out plan at all. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

They sat working on their files for a while before they were called into Dobey's office. Taking up familiar positions, Starsky in the chair, Hutch perched on its arm, they listened to what he had to tell them with resignation. They knew it was coming.

 

"I'm sorry, fellas. You know the department doc is due back in a couple of days. Dr. Moore tells me he sees no reason why Starsky won't be cleared for active duty. Garver has just dried up and blown away for now. He's gone to ground and you two haven't had any luck with any snitch in your book finding him."

 

Hutch nodded. "Yeah, we hear ya. But, dammit, Cap. That maniac's still out there somewhere." He pointed at Starsky and added, "I don't like the idea this nut's lurking around God knows where with an eye to getting my partner."

 

"I don't like it any more than you do, Hutch. We just have to move on though. We're gonna put it on the back burner and get on with business. We'll keep looking, but we have to set the case aside for now."

 

Starsky nodded. "You're right, Cap. It's just, we don't take it too well when we can't solve one."

 

Hutch added, "Especially this one."

 

"I know. You two just be careful out there when the time comes. Now go on and get out of here. Call it a day," Dobey said with understanding.

 

"I'm not worried, Cap. My partner's got my back." Starsky smiled at both men as he stood to leave. Hutch followed him out the door, the crease between his eyebrows deepening. Starsky might be confident in his abilities, but Hutch was worried. He was sure they hadn't heard the last from Lee Garver.

 

The End

 

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