Above Atlanta, Hardcastle was returning his seat to the upright position as the other passengers also ready for their landing. Hardcastle couldn't help but wonder if McCormick would be waiting on him. It wasn't the fact that he thought the kid would run from his custody. The judge knew in his mind anyway that worry hadn't been there in sometime, but he couldn't say what or when that happened. Of, course he'd never admit this to McCormick. What Hardcastle was more worried about was that McCormick may have gotten into some trouble. He knew the law here. After Nancy had passed away, he couldn't bare to stay at Gull's Way and had contacted an old friend he had been in the service with. It seemed that his friend's hometown was in need of a judge to fill the remainder of a term after the other judge became ill. So for a short time Milton C. Hardcastle was the traveling circuit judge for the Tri-County area of Hazzard, Placid and Chickasaw Counties.
Hardcastle could still remember the two bedraggled teens that came into his Hazzard Courtroom charged with racing. He was no fool and knew when a deal had been made. These two had let themselves be arrested and charged with racing to keep countless others out of trouble. When Hardcastle had ran both their driver's licenses, he knew that this wasn't the first time these two had been racing. More than likely it was just the first time they had gotten caught. They both had speeding tickets and moving violations in several states. McCormick's driving record went back to age 15 when he'd been charged with Joyriding, but this was the first time since turning eighteen that they had gotten into trouble. Hardcastle decided to give them a small taste of reality, he hoped to tame them down so they would stay out of trouble. Hardcastle had given them fifteen days to think about it, but he could have given them longer.
He was jolted back to present day as the plane touched down.
McCormick had been at the airport since eleven o'clock, just so that the judge wouldn't worry if his plane was early. McCormick almost laughed at the thought, a plane early on Christmas Eve. He heard the announcement where Hardcastle's plane would be unloading and headed for the gate.
McCormick spotted Hardcastle, "Judge, judge, over here." he called.
Hardcastle heard the familiar voice through the crowd and followed it to find McCormick waving his arms as if he were trying to land a 747.
"Merry Christmas, Judge. Jesse's got his fishing pole ready. Bo, Luke, and I haven't even began to ruffle Rosco's feathers." Mark began, then continued with a smile, "And, if we hurry, we'll get good seats for the Christmas caroling tonight. Luke even said he could probably find something for me to keep warm, so let's go get the luggage."
"Well, it seems like you're in a good mood." Hardcastle said as he followed McCormick to get the luggage.
"Yeah, I am. We have to drop off Debbie's luggage, then Jesse's expecting us to have dinner with them. After dinner we're all going caroling in a wagon pulled by horses." McCormick rattled on.
Hardcastle couldn't help but see the excitement of a five year old checking the luggage before him.
McCormick walked over to a familiar, now off white Ford pickup. Hardcastle would know Jesse's truck anywhere, but couldn't help himself, "It's been less than three days and you're already stilling trucks."
McCormick glared and replied, "Judge, I'm not even going to let that ruin my mood or explain how I hot wired it."
Hardcastle's mouth fell open just a bit before he saw McCormick laughing.
"Got ya!" McCormick stated as he pulled out keys.
Once they had delivered Debbie's things and were on the road again, Mark said, "You know you were planning to stay at the Hazzard Hotel? Jesse's gonna insist on us staying there. I told him we didn't want to interrupt their Christmas and he said the more the merrier."
Hardcastle smiled, "Yeah, that's the same Jesse Duke I've known for years. But, from what I remember the Duke house isn't that big for all of us."
"That's not a problem. Bo, Luke and I have slept in the barn the past couple of nights." McCormick replied.
"You? Sleeping in a barn? A city kid like you?" Hardcastle asked amazed.
McCormick acted a bit hurt, "Judge, I can try new things, besides I've slept in a lot worse places than Jesse Duke's barn."
"Yeah, well, I guess you do have a point there. Sure, we can stay there if you want, if Jesse insists. I take it that you and the Duke boys are having a good visit." Hardcastle stated.
"Yeah, Judge, we are. I'm getting the hang of this Tonto routine but I got to admit, I've missed talking cars and racing." Mark said.
Milt added, "And, girls. All while sipping of some of Jesse's finest."
Mark looked shocked then it went to confused. "Hardcastle, how do you do that? You were over two thousand miles away and knew what I was doing."
Hardcastle smiled, "Well, for one, I grew up on farms. Remember? Secondly, I was young once upon a time. I know you find that hard to believe, but I was. Lastly, I've sipped a bit of Jesse's shine myself a time or two."
"From what I understand it may be in pretty short supply these days." Mark said. Seeing the confused look on Hardcastle's face he added, "The boys got caught running a load. Jesse agreed not to make anymore if they were given probation."
Hardcastle fumed, "Oh, lovely. So, Jesse and I will spend the entire visit trying to keep you three convicted felons out of trouble."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence there Judge." Mark grumbled back at him as they pulled up in front of the Duke house.
After a Duke feast of chicken and dumplings, rolls, frozen garden green beans, sweet potatoes with apples and raisins, cherry pie and plenty of coffee, the boys went to the barn to put the finishing touches on the wagon for the caroling while Jesse made hot cocoa to take along.
Bo and Luke decided that they would both drive the wagon for half the evening. To settle who drove last had to be settled by drawing straws which Mark held. Luke won and would drive the wagon first. Luke jumped up onto the seat smiling as Bo climbed in the back fussing a bit and Mark was laughing at them both as he took his seat. Luke drove the wagon from the barn to the house to pick up Daisy, Jesse, and Milt. They would pick up the others as they went.
Hardcastle told Jesse, "It's been years since I went Christmas caroling in a wagon."
Jesse replied, "It's been a tradition in our family for as long as I can remember. I'm just glad the kids enjoy it as much as I did."
Luke started the wagon toward town and asked, "Okay, what's first?"
Daisy replied, "Rudolph!"
The entire Duke clan laughed at her.
"Why did I even ask?" He said, as they all knew this was always her first chioce.
They began to sing and caroled all the way to town, stopping only to pick up three waitresses from the Boar's Nest to keep they guys company, Cooter, Enos, Rosco and even Boss Hogg and Lulu. It took several hours to make the rounds through out the county. Luke and Bo had switched places so Luke could also enjoy his date. They dropped off everyone on their way back to the farm except for Cooter who was spending Christmas with the Dukes.
Back at the farm while the boys took care of the horses Jesse made hot apple cider to easy everyone's tired throats from all the singing.
In the barn Mark said, "That was really great. I've never went Christmas caroling before. Some of those songs I haven't heard in years."
"Glad you enjoyed it. Now let's go get some cider." Luke said, "It's another Duke tradition."
Bo rolled his eyes a bit and added, "Yeah, it's right up there with listening to the Santa Claus report."
"What?" asked Mark.
Luke laughed, "It's kind of silly but we still listen to the radio's report of where Santa Claus is."
Mark replied as he remembered his Mother, "It's not silly. It's great to have family traditions. Don't take your family or it's traditions lightly. Trust me on that."
"Well, we'd better hurry or we'll miss it." said Luke, seeing the distant look McCormick had gotten.
Gathered around the radio in the living room of the Duke home, Bo, Luke, Daisy, Cooter, and Mark took seats as Jesse tuned the radio to WHOGG's Santa report as Hardcastle looked on from the doorway.
The announcer said, "This is WHOGG radio, bringing Hazzard County our annual Santa report. I've just checked in with my good friend in Atlanta and he has picked up a sighting of a flying object on his radar that appears to be Santa's sled. It was spotted about a hundred miles North of Hazzard County. So, all you good little boys and girls need to head off to bed and be fast asleep before Santa arrives. WHOGG wishes you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Now, back to our music."
Luke nudged Mark then nodded towards Jesse, who turned off the radio, picked up his cup and said, "Well, kids let's all turn in. Merry Christmas. I love ya'll."
Daisy was up and hugging Jesse, "Night Uncle Jesse. I love you too." She was followed by both Bo and Luke.
Cooter said, "Good night Uncle, Mister Jesse. Have a Merry Christmas."
McCormick stood and looked at Hardcastle who was looking at him. There eyes met and McCormick was the first to speak, "Merry Christmas, Hardcase."
The three simple words McCormick spoke said more than anyone could have known. Hardcastle swallowed the lump in his throat and replied, "Merry Christmas, Kid."
Neither had to say more, their meaning was clear to them both.
In the barn the guys talked for a time sipping on a bit of shine before actually attempting sleep. But even before the sun was up they were up and ready for Christmas morning. Doing only the very necessary chores the three headed to the house for a shower and breakfast before they all went to church.
After church they exchanged gifts. These were gifts of love from the heart, not monetary in value. McCormick reached for a box that contained the present he had seen at one of his gas stops coming across county, and handed it to Hardcastle, "Merry Christmas, Hardcase."
Hardcastle opened the box to find a framed autographed picture of the Lone Ranger and Tonto mounted on Silver and Scout. Tonto was beside the Lone Ranger and just a step behind him. The Christmas card that was attached read: "Kemosabe, Where ever you go, I will follow. McCormick." These few words said more to Hardcastle than McCormick could have said in a life time.
Before Hardcastle could say anything past the lump in his throat, McCormick said:"He already gave me my present. He trusted me to drive out here."
Part of Jesse's present was for him and Milt to be able to go fishing the whole week. The 'kids', Mark included had agreed to do all the chores, housework and cooking. The boys had even made Jesse and Milt several homemade fishing lures.
Daisy had made special Christmas ornaments for everyone.
Jesse had baked all his special goodies for the family.
Cooter was also giving of himself. He was going to tune up all the vehicles whether they needed it or not.
Bo and Luke had exchanged magazine subscriptions as well as a few phone numbers. Bo had given Luke a subscription to 'Mopar' while Luke chose repair manuals for Bo, who only acted hurt for a minute or two. They'd give Cooter his yearly subscription of his favorite magazine later when they could all enjoy it.
They had given Daisy her favorite magazine to keep up with all the goings on in Nashville.
As it turned out the real presents given and received in the Duke home this year as always were: love, trust, loyalty and friendship.
Hardcastle and McCormick spent the next week with the Dukes as uneventful as you can in Hazzard County enjoying the gifts of friendship before heading back home. McCormick's drive, with Debbie, home was a little more slower and Milt's flight was a little more relaxed. Hardcastle walked into the airport knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that McCormick would be there and he was, standing off to one side trying to get a stewardess' phone number. Milt grumbled, "He'll never change!" but deep down he knew that McCormick had changed and he wouldn't have him any other way.
I hope ya'll had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Please R & R! Thanks.