Disclaimer: I do not own anything associated with Emergency. My utmost gratitude to Mark VII and Universal for sharing their toys. I’ll return them when I’m done.
Christmas in Lost River
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen snow on snow,
Snow on snow.
In the bleak midwinter
Long, long ago.
“It’s irrelevant, Dix, because I’m not going. It wouldn’t be any fun going alone, and I can’t think of anyone who would want to go with me.” Kelly Brackett sipped his coffee as he stood at the base station, taking a much needed break amidst the flurry of cases the day had brought.
“Go where?” Johnny, always curious, approached the desk and handed Dixie his supply request.
Dixie placed the piece of paper on the desk in front of her and smiled at Johnny and Roy, who had joined him. “One of Kel’s patients offered him the use of his cabin for a hunting trip and he doesn’t want to go. Personally, I think a vacation would do him a world of good.”
Roy looked at the doctor, surprised. “Hunting? I didn’t know you went hunting.”
“Well, I haven’t for a long time, but before I came to LA, I used to go quite often. But, it doesn’t matter, because I’m not going.”
“Why not?” Johnny accepted the box full of supplies from Dixie and tucked it under his arm. He suppressed a smile at the nurse’s rolling eyes.
Brackett pretended not to notice Dixie’s non verbal assessment. “For one thing, it’s a very remote area. It wouldn’t be safe to go alone. For another, I don’t even know anyone in LA who hunts, and even if I did, the weekend he’s offering the cabin is the weekend before Christmas.”
Roy walked over to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. “I used to hunt with my granddad when I was a kid. I have a lot of really nice memories of those times. Just him and me… alone in the woods. No matter what else was going on in our lives, that was one time we could just be together and do guy stuff. I kind of miss it. I often think about taking Chris hunting. You know, sort of keeping the tradition alive… but, I just haven’t gotten around to it, I guess.”
Johnny’s face lit up. “Well, here’s the perfect opportunity, Roy. Why don’t you and Chris go along with the doc?”
Roy shook his head. “No…we couldn’t do that. So close to Christmas? Joanne would kill us…wouldn’t she?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Roy.” Dixie looked thoughtful. “Maybe it would be a good opportunity for Joanne and Jennifer to start some mother/daughter tradition of their own. When I was a girl, my dad and my brothers went hunting every year right after Thanksgiving. Then, my mom and my sister and I would go shopping, watch movies, order Chinese takeout…you know, girl stuff.”
Johnny looked confused. “You mean girls order Chinese takeout when they’re together?”
Dixie’s response was a smile and a nod.
Roy stood leaning against the counter, chewing on his bottom lip, deep in thought. “You know…maybe Jo would be okay with it. She’s been after me to spend some one on one time with Chris. This would be a good way to do that…”
Johnny stood between his partner and Brackett and placed his arms around their shoulders. “There, now see? It’s all worked out. You two can go hunting together, and I’ll uh…stay here and do some hunting of a different kind of game…” His face broke into a rakish grin as he watched a young nurse walk past.
“Why don’t you come with us, Johnny?” Brackett offered.
“Yeah, Johnny. Why not?” Roy deposited his empty mug on the counter. “It would be fun! A weekend with the guys…I hear Idaho is a beautiful state.”
Johnny had to admit that a weekend out in nature sounded appealing. But he wasn’t sure. “Well, Pally, a weekend with the guys isn’t exactly my idea of fun if you know what I mean…”
Roy opened his mouth to speak, but Johnny continued.
“But, on the other hand…I’ve always wanted to see Idaho. Where is this cabin?”
“It’s in Lemhi County, Johnny, in the Lost River Mountains. We can get to the cabin with an off road vehicle, but we’ll need to use snowmobiles to get around once we’re up there. Scott said he has a couple we can borrow.” Brackett was smiling. He had always considered Roy and Johnny friends, but he had never had the opportunity to really get to know them. This was turning into an exciting venture.
“Snowmobiles?” That peaked Johnny’s interest. He wasn’t sure if hunting was really his thing, but snowmobiling sounded fun.
Roy smiled and took the box of supplies from Johnny as he walked past him. “Come on, we better go. We can plan later.”
“Then you fellas are in?” Brackett was hopeful.
“Well, I’ll still have to talk to Joanne, but I think she’ll go for it. Then, I’ll have to clean my rifle, get it sighted in. What’s in season? What about licenses?”
Brackett crossed his arms. “Scott said he would take care of whatever licenses we need. And, we’ll be hunting elk.”
“You’ll be hunting elk.” Johnny corrected. “I’ll be snowmobiling.”
Roy thought back to the exhilaration he had felt as a teen when he bagged a buck. Certainly Johnny’s ancestors were hunters, but being the animal lover that he was, Roy could understand Johnny’s hesitation. “Have you ever been hunting, Johnny?”
“Not with a rifle. My grandfather taught me how to use a bow and arrow, but it’s been years…”
Brackett was intrigued. “Do you still have a bow? Scott said archery and rifle are in through the end of the month.”
“Yeah…somewhere…” Johnny wasn’t sure how he felt about killing such a majestic creature for sheer sport. If he needed the meat for food, that would be different. He supposed it was all right if Roy and Brackett wanted to do it, but he didn’t know if he could. Still, he had fond memories of hunting trips with his grandfather, and maybe…just maybe this could be a way to honor his spirit. He decided then and there he would give it a try. “I’m sure I can find it. Count me in.”
“That’s great! Thanks, fellas. I’ll let Scott know the four of us are coming and then I’ll give you guys a call so we can discuss the details.” Brackett was interrupted by the buzzing of the base station radio. “Later, guys.”
“Yeah…see you later…” Roy and Johnny offered their parting words to the doctor and nurse and headed down the hallway, excitedly conversing about their upcoming trip.
E E E
“Wow, Scott wasn’t kidding when he said this place was remote. We haven’t passed a town in over an hour.” Johnny commented as he concentrated on keeping the rented Jeep centered on the snow covered forest road. The road was narrow and heavily rutted beneath the fresh powder that had fallen earlier this afternoon and the edge sported several wash outs. Johnny asked Brackett, who was riding shot gun, to keep his eyes peeled for these areas. Even one wheel in a washed out spot on the road could send them careening over the edge and straight down about 200 yards into the icy creek below.
“I’m not sure that hole in the wall qualifies as a town.” Roy spoke from the back seat.
Chris Desoto, like any nine year old boy, had other things on his mind as he peered out his window and over the edge of the road. “Hey, cool! Look at that drop off! And no guard rails!”
Johnny tightened his grip on the wheel. He trusted his ability to maneuver on these roads, but somehow having Roy’s son in the car changed things. “How much farther, Doc?”
Brackett smiled. “Listen, Johnny. Up here I’m not your doctor. We’re just a bunch of hunting buddies hanging out for the weekend. Call me Kel.” He turned his head toward the back seat. “And that goes for you too, Roy.”
“What should I call you?” Chris asked, still marveling at the drop and the rushing water at the bottom.
“You can call him Dr. Brackett.” Roy answered, with a tousle of his son’s reddish brown hair.
Brackett looked at the slip of paper on which Scott had written the directions. “According to this, it shouldn’t be much farther. We just passed Bear Pen Hollow Camp, so around this next bend, and then over a small hill and we should see the driveway on the left. Scott said it’s pretty steep, but we might be able to make it with the Jeep. If not, we’ll have to park on the side of the road, and haul all of our stuff up to the camp.”
No sooner had Brackett finished talking, the driveway appeared on the left side of the road. It was nothing more than a path carved into the embankment through the trees. They could have easily missed it, with the covering of snow. Johnny stopped the Jeep, got out and trudged up the path to the top before carefully making his way back down and getting back in the drivers’ seat. “I think we can make it. Hang on tight, everyone.” Johnny eased the Jeep over the bump at the bottom and then gradually added more gas, the wheels alternately gripping and sliding as they bounced their way to the top.
The foursome got out of the vehicle and looked around. The cabin still sat atop a small hill and there would be a short hike to get to it. Brackett unconsciously stretched his back. He figured hauling a weekend’s worth of food, water, and supplies up that hill over the course of several trips wouldn’t be a big deal for his two paramedic friends. After all, they did this sort of thing at work all the time. He placed a hand on Chris’ shoulder and smiled down at him, figuring the two of them would be ready for a nap by the time everything was unloaded. “Well, what should we take up first?”
Johnny had already made his way around the small, three room cabin and was currently crouched down, studying the large supply of firewood that was stacked neatly on the large porch. He called down to the others. “I think the first thing we should do is start a fire and get the place warmed up a bit. No sense taking all our things into a freezing cabin. Do you have the key, Doc?”
Brackett started up the hill, feeling slowed down by his layered clothing and heavy flannel coat. His boots crunched in the hardened snow, and he could feel his leg muscles protesting the unaccustomed activity. “Yep.” When he reached the door, he turned the key in the lock and pushed it open, pausing to knock the excess snow off his hiking boots before heading inside.
Johnny followed and went in search of the lights, which were either kerosene or gas powered. Opting for the kerosene variety until the propane tank could be turned on, he reached into his jeans’ pocket and pulled out a pack of matches. He lit a lamp, and explained that it would need to warm up a bit before he could turn up the flame and give the group a better look around.
Chris was already exploring, the dusk allowing just enough illumination for him to pick out the bed he wanted to sleep on. He had carried his backpack with him, and he claimed his spot by throwing it onto the heavy bedspread. “This is my bed,” he announced proudly. He chose it because it offered the best view of the various stuffed animal heads adorning the paneled walls. His load gone, he followed his dad out onto the porch and began helping the others carry firewood into the cabin.
After a few armfuls of firewood, Johnny paused to turn up the lamp. He stood back and admired his cozy surroundings. He was standing in the main room which was a combined living area and kitchen. On the far wall was a large fireplace with a thick, colorful woven rug front of it. There was a sofa and two armchairs that appeared to be in good condition. Johnny was standing in the kitchen area, which was closest to the door. There was a small gas stove, a table and chairs, and a large wooden cabinet flanked one wall. Shelves lined the wall behind the sink and Johnny noticed right away the lack of faucets. He was thankful they had brought plenty of water with them. He walked into each bedroom and found two single beds in each one. Figuring Roy would want to sleep in the same in the same room as his son, he hung his outer coat on a hook above the bed closest to the door in the other room. That way, he would be close to the door, making middle of the night trips for firewood a little easier. Returning to the task at hand, Johnny rubbed his hands together briskly to warm them and went about starting a fire in the fireplace. Within minutes, he had a warm, inviting blaze going, transforming the cabin into a welcoming retreat. Deciding with the others that they didn’t want to get too comfortable until the Jeep was unloaded, they began the arduous unpacking process. By the time everything was inside and the last of the dinner dishes were washed, there was enough time for a brief discussion of the following day’s hunt before an early bedtime. Four a.m. would come all too soon.
E E E
Johnny was the first one awake. He squinted at his watch and saw that the alarm would be going off in about 20 minutes. He hesitated to unzip his sleeping bag. The fire had died down during the night and would need to be stoked back to life. And so, he remained inside his warm cocoon for another five minutes, savoring the warmth. Although he was having a great time and was looking forward to the next two days, he had to admit, he hated being cold. It was the biggest reason he wasn’t fond of water rescues. It wasn’t that he lacked swimming ability or was opposed to getting wet, although getting wet while fully clothed was never a fun thing. But rather, it was the temperature of the water, and the chilled feeling he would experience in his bones sometimes for hours afterward that he wasn’t crazy about. Roy teased that it was because he didn’t have enough insulation on his bones, and maybe that was it. But it didn’t change the fact that Johnny much preferred sweating up a storm while rock climbing or hiking than freezing his tail off waiting for an elk to happen by. Still, he couldn’t deny that these mountains were an impressive piece of creation and his pulse quickened as he thought of the beauty he would have the opportunity to admire this weekend.
Shaking off the last remnants of sleep, Johnny threw back his covers and sat up, taking a moment on the edge of the bed to yawn and stretch. It was then that he became aware of a pressing need, and he cringed at the thought of walking up the hill to the outhouse in sub freezing weather. Pulling his jeans and a three button shirt over his long johns and sliding his wool-stockinged feet into his boots, he reached for his heavy coat on the hook and headed outside. The air stung his cheeks instantly, making the cooler than comfortable temperature inside the cabin seem like a sauna in comparison. A quick glance at the thermometer hanging on the porch caused an involuntary chill to course up and down his spine. Fourteen degrees. Johnny started his trek up the hill, the mild exertion causing his breath to take on tangible form in front of his face. Snow had started to fall, softly tiptoeing through the trees.
Back inside the cabin, Brackett awoke to the sight of an empty bed beside him. At first, he thought Johnny was simply getting more firewood. Surely, it couldn’t be morning already. He flipped his wrist over to check the time and groaned as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He listened for a few seconds and didn’t hear anyone else moving around, so he decided to get up and get started on breakfast.
Johnny returned to the porch and the sound of pans clanking inside. He pushed open the door with his foot and entered carrying a load of wood. “Morning, Kel.” He crossed the room to the fireplace and went to work.
“Morning, Johnny. I put the coffee on. Breakfast will be ready in about ten minutes. No reports from the sleepyheads in the other room yet.”
“I heard that,” came a sleepy reply from the bedroom. Roy appeared in his long underwear and boots.
“You’ll want to dress warmer than that if you’re heading up the hill. It’s so cold out there I almost froze my…”
Johnny’s words were cut off abruptly by his partner and best friend. “Johnny, don’t forget there’s a child present.”
“Oh, dad…I knew what he was talking about.” Chris rolled his eyes at his father and walked out into the kitchen. “How cold is it Uncle Johnny?”
“Fourteen degrees, Sport.” Johnny sat by the fire warming himself.
This was new and exciting to Chris. Born in Los Angeles, he had never experienced such frigid temperatures. “Fourteen? Cool!”
Roy couldn’t help but chuckle at the boy’s choice of words. “No, son. That’s not cool…that’s cold!”
The men reviewed tactics over a hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and coffee. Then, they went about packing their supplies for the day’s hunt. Snow was still lightly falling outside. Roy and Chris would hike up the mountain from the cabin, Roy choosing to keep his son somewhat close to the camp. Kel would take one snowmobile and head for the hollow, and Johnny would take the other snowmobile. He had decided to do mostly riding today, but planned on taking his bow and arrows along “just in case.”
“You sure you don’t want to come along with me, Johnny?” Kel sipped his second cup of coffee.
“Nah. I’m not crazy about sitting in the snow waiting for game. I figure if I keep on the move, I won’t mind the cold so much.”
Roy took a moment to tease his friend, knowing full well about his disdain for chilly temperatures. “Hey, Johnny…aren’t your people supposed to be a hardier folk? You know, braving cold winters in nothing but a loincloth?”
Johnny felt a twinge of anger at Roy’s words, but it quickly dissipated. He knew his friend wasn’t trying to be insulting. “Roy, I’m Seminole. My people are from Florida!”
Chris swallowed his last mouthful of pancake. “Duh, dad!”
“Oh…yeah….” The proverbial light bulbs appeared above Roy’s and Kel’s heads as they nodded, smiling.
E E E
Johnny parked his snowmobile at the edge of the clearing. He had been right. The brown spot he had caught out of the corner of his eye on the far side of the clearing was an elk. As he gazed through his binoculars, his breath caught. It was a large buck, the antlers a trophy big game hunters dreamed about. The object of his attention was too far away for his bow and arrow to be effective, so he hoisted the quiver onto his back and pocketed the keys to his ride. Quietly, he made his way around the perimeter of the clearing, being careful to stay downwind.
Johnny could not believe his prey had not noticed his arrival. Despite his attempts at stealth, he figured surely he would have betrayed his presence by now. But as he made his way closer, the creature stood as if at attention. Johnny slowly pulled an arrow out of the pouch on his back and notched it into the bow. As he drew back and took aim, he remembered two things his grandfather had taught him. The first was a prayer thanking the spirits for supplying this animal for his benefit. And the second was a prayer to the animal itself, asking its permission to take its earth life. As he sighted in the magnificent creature, he recited the long forgotten words to himself, and then stopped, lowering the bow…. just… watching.
He couldn’t do it.
There, standing only a few yards away was a prize that would surely have been the coup of the weekend. And, he couldn’t do it. He whispered encouragingly and moved closer to the large animal. Amazingly, he was able to walk close enough that he could just about reach out and touch its thick, graying winter coat. Then, suddenly, the elk’s ears twitched rapidly and its eyes grew wide with fear before it bounded off, disappearing into the trees.
Johnny watched until he lost track of the elk’s movements. Then, he returned the bow to its holder with a sigh and returned to the snowmobile. He removed his quiver and placed it on the seat, then got on and started the motor. Kicking it into higher gear, he sped over the snowy trail in the direction of the cabin.
Johnny was enjoying himself so much he had nearly forgotten about the cold. The frigid snowflakes were fiercely pelting his cheeks as he rode and his lips stung from chapping. But, he felt exhilarated. The scenery here was some of the most beautiful he had ever seen, and the experience with the elk was one he would remember for years to come. He was looking forward to more male bonding over dinner, already savoring the taste of the burgers he would be preparing when… it happened. There was no way to prevent it. The skis on the bottom of Johnny’s snowmobile suddenly made contact with a log that had been buried just beneath the surface of the rapidly falling snow, causing it to look like a simple mound in the trail topography. Before he even realized what had happened, Johnny could feel himself being hurled through the air. He landed halfway down the embankment with a thud, a sharp pain piercing his left side. Then, momentum carried him further downhill, gravity increasing the speed of his descent until he came to rest in an icy mountain stream. The wind knocked out of him, and his body pulsating from a dozen fresh bruises, he lacked the strength to get up, even though his unbelieving brain was screaming at him to get out of the water. Finally, he complied, dragging himself forward until he was lying face down on the bank, the exertion leaving him breathless and exhausted. The snow was coming down harder now, already covering the marks Johnny’s tumble had made on the embankment. Sitting up forced a cry of pain from his throat. He looked down and dread caused him to taste the granola bar he had eaten at lunchtime. On his left side, sticking out from the fabric of his down coat, was the feathered end of an arrow. Judging from the length of the shaft on the outside of his body, Johnny knew the arrow couldn’t be in very deep, so he cautiously tried pulling it out, only succeeding in forcing the muscles in his side to clamp down around the embedded object. His scream echoed through the hollow as he curled onto his right side, panting.
Johnny tried to reach through the pain he was feeling in order to grasp onto rational thought. He was bleeding…and wet…and cold. Miserably cold. Hypothermia would set in soon if it hadn’t started already. He needed to get back up to the trail and find the snowmobile. Hopefully it wasn’t too damaged to get him back to the cabin. As he prepared to sit up, he remembered the radio in his coat pocket. He groped for it frantically so he could call Roy or Kel or whoever was able to hear him. But his hope turned to disappointment as his fingers wrapped around what was left of the radio. Pulling it out, he heaved a heavy sigh and stared for a moment at the broken pieces. Resigning himself to the fact that he was going to have to help himself, he groaned loudly through gritted teeth as he got to a sitting position once again. After taking a moment to recover, he began a self assessment. His gloved hand fumbled with the zipper on his coat before finally pulling it down. He removed his right glove with his teeth and slid his hand inside his coat. He recognized the stickiness of blood on his flannel shirt right away. Swallowing hard, he quickly zipped back up and took stock. Other than the pain in his side, he only felt numb. Johnny wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing at the moment, but he considered it a blessing nonetheless. At least the cold was good for something. He wiped his bloody hand in the snow and replaced his glove. Grabbing a nearby tree for support, he hoisted himself onto his feet. Pausing to allow the ground to stop shifting beneath him, he began to make his way up the embankment toward the trail.
E E E
Scott Kensington hung up the phone with a sigh. He had been speaking with his friend, Paul, from Salmon, Idaho who is a forest ranger who keeps an eye on his cabin for him during the year. It was through him that he made the arrangements for Brackett and the others to pick up their hunting licenses. He was also to be the emergency contact for the hunting party. There was a heavy snowstorm over the area which was expected to increase in severity overnight to blizzard status. But it also had sparked a few landslides in the area. Scott’s friend had just informed him that the only road out of the area where his cabin was located was now blocked by a mountain of snow. It would take several days to clear the area, which meant the hunters were stranded. He promised to do his best to make radio contact with Kelly Brackett to apprise him of the situation and make sure that his party was safe and well supplied, not that he would be able to do much for them if they weren’t. Scott thanked Paul for the information and then pulled out his address book. He had two phone calls to make: One to Joanne Desoto, the other to Rampart General Hospital.
E E E
Roy keyed his radio to call in reinforcements. He and Chris would need Johnny and Kel’s help to drag the large elk he had just tagged back to camp. Chris was elated. He had spotted the deer first, pointing it out to his father, barely holding back his excitement. Less than a minute later, a shot rang out and the massive animal went down.
“Johnny, Kel…this is Roy. Do you read?”
There was a crack of static, then a reply. “Roy, this is Kel. I read you loud and clear.”
Roy paused a few seconds to give Johnny a chance to reply before rekeying. “Johnny, it’s Roy. Do you read?” He was not immediately concerned at the lack of response. It was possible Johnny was in a dead spot or out of range. “Kel, Chris and I got one! We’re about 50 yards off the main trail. Just head up from the cabin and eventually you’ll see us.”
“10-4, Roy. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Oh, and Kel?”
“See if you can raise Johnny.”
Kel tried several times to make contact with Johnny. Finally, he let Roy know about his lack of success, hopped on his snowmobile, and headed back to camp.
E E E
Johnny paused when he reached the relatively level area he believed was the trail and looked around. The snow was falling at a more rapid rate now, and he couldn’t be sure he was in the right place. He was exhausted, out of breath, and he felt light headed. He knew he needed to pace himself if he had any hopes of locating his snowmobile and making it back to the cabin, but he also knew the longer he stayed out here in this weather, the more confused and lethargic he would become until finally he lost consciousness. Making one more attempt to orient himself, he started walking.
The longer he walked, the more he started to believe he had missed the snowmobile. The swirling flakes made it hard to see, and his back and legs ached from trudging through the heavy snow which was now at knee level. The pain in his side had faded into a dull throb which occasionally flared into a sharp spasm, causing Johnny to double over and wait for it to subside before he could continue. A few times, he actually lost his footing and fell down, the snow finding its way inside his clothing wherever it could.
Finally, he saw it. Relief swept over him as he blinked his eyes, his frozen eyelashes making the lids feel awkward and heavy. For a few seconds, he thought maybe it was his mind playing tricks on him, but as he moved closer, he saw the twisted and broken skis lying in a heap about six feet from the damaged body of the snowmobile. Elation turned to fear and dread as Johnny realized he was stranded several miles from camp. Feeling defeated, he sat down on the seat. Just for a minute…just gotta rest a minute…then I’ll start walking…
E E E
“Johnny, this is Roy. Come in, please.” Roy was getting worried. He tried to tell himself that Johnny was simply enjoying himself, exploring the snow covered forest trails, the whirring of his snowmobile motor drowning out his radio transmissions. The tense look on Kel’s face told him he shared his concern.
“He’s probably having the time of his life. You know Johnny. He’s in his element out here. I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon.” Kel was trying to stay positive for Chris’ benefit. The truth was, he knew Johnny well enough to know that it wasn’t like him to miss the preplanned check in time they had discussed this morning at breakfast. If he was out of range, he would move around until he could make contact. Johnny was well aware of the importance of communication when out alone in the wilderness…especially in bad weather.
The trio had reached the cabin over thirty minutes ago. The result of the day’s hunt was hanging from a beam which extended away from the porch and was meant to be used for that purpose.
“Man, I can’t wait ‘til Uncle Johnny sees this!” Chris beamed as he took a step back, admiring the trophy buck he had been responsible for sighting.
Roy exchanged a look with Kel. “He’ll be real proud of you, Chris. So will Mom. This deer will give us enough meat to last for months, and that’s after we share some with Dr. Brackett and Uncle Johnny.”
“Well, we might not have to share, because we still have tomorrow. Uncle Johnny and Dr. Brackett can still get their own deer. Maybe Uncle Johnny already did! Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard from him in a while.” Chris was old enough to sense his father’s concern, so he tried to rationalize that maybe his “uncle” was busy tracking prey and had turned down the sound on his radio. After all, he needed to get much closer with his bow and arrow than his dad had been with his rifle. But, Chris couldn’t ignore the gnawing in his stomach.
“Yeah, maybe Chris.” Kel patted the young boy on the shoulder and looked over at Roy. “I’m going to start heading in the direction Johnny was going. If he did get one, he’ll need some help.” Kel’s expression indicated he suspected their mutual friend might need help of a different kind.
“Can we go too?” Chris was as anxious to see his Uncle Johnny as the others.
“I think you’ve earned a rest, Chris.” Roy wrapped a protective arm around his son’s shoulders. “If Dr. Brackett and Uncle Johnny need help, they’ll let us know. Now, how about some hot chocolate?” He ushered Chris into the warm cabin and closed the door, remaining outside on the porch. He looked down at Kel, keeping his voice low so Chris wouldn’t overhear. “This storm is really picking up.”
“If Johnny’s in trouble…”
“I know, Roy. I’ll find him.”
Roy watched as the doctor straddled his snowmobile and took off down the trail.
E E E
Brackett hadn’t ridden more than two miles down the trail when he caught a glimpse of something red. He slowed down and moved closer, finally pulling to a stop when he recognized Johnny’s coat. He wanted to be relieved, thinking at first that maybe Johnny’s snowmobile had simply broken down, causing him to have to make his way back on foot, but a closer inspection of the haggard figure coming toward him told another story. The first thing Kel noticed was that Johnny had not acknowledged his arrival, hadn’t waved, called out, or even looked up. Also, his gait was uncoordinated. It could have been because the paramedic was having some difficulty making his way through the deep snow, but that wasn’t quite it. Johnny appeared to be staggering, barely on his feet, as if he could drop over at any moment.
No sooner had that thought crossed Kel’s mind, Johnny suddenly pitched sideways and went down, landing in a heap on his right side. “Johnny!” Kel quickly sprang to action, swinging his leg over the seat and moving as quickly as was possible to his friend’s side. When he reached him, he could see that Johnny was conscious, his hand grabbing clumsily at his side. His hair was a series of icy spikes, his cheeks were chapped nearly raw, and snowflakes clung to his ice-hardened eyelashes. There was a bluish tinge behind his wind ravaged lips. The doctor knelt down and placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny? What happened?”
Johnny blinked at the blurry image beside him. He felt as if he were floating, his senses dulled. On some level he knew he should be feeling pain, but there was only a constant annoying stitch in his side. His extremities felt leaden and he shivered intermittently, causing his fingers and toes to tingle. “D-Doc? Uh…”
“Johnny, are you hurt?”
“I…uh…I n-need…need t-to…”
Kel was becoming increasingly concerned about Johnny’s sluggish movements coupled with his slightly slurred and confused speech. He was just about to help him to his feet when he noticed the arrow protruding from his left side. “What the hell…” He quickly unzipped Johnny’s coat and slipped his hands inside, eliciting a gasp and a weak moan when he felt for the shaft of the arrow. Kel fingered around it and realized it had gone through the inner layers of clothing, a fact confirmed by the blood on his hands. “Let’s get you to the Jeep.” Placing his hands under Johnny’s shoulders, he helped him to his feet. Then, he walked him back to the snowmobile and deposited him on the seat. Climbing on in front of him, he turned to speak. “Johnny, can you hold on around my waist? Johnny!”
Johnny simply stared dully and blinked as his mind attempted to process the doctor’s words.
Kel reached behind him and picked up Johnny’s hands, wrapping them around him as if to demonstrate what he wanted him to do. He was relieved when Johnny seemed to understand and held on weakly as he sunk his full weight against Kel’s back. Then, Kel started the snowmobile and carefully turned it around. He would need to go slowly. He was just about to kick into gear when his radio crackled.
“Kensington Camp, this is Ranger Klinefelter. Do you copy?”
Kel fumbled with getting the radio out of his pocket then keyed the button. “This is Kelly Brackett. I copy.” The doctor planned to ask Paul Klinefelter where the nearest medi-copter landing pad was.
“Kelly, I just received word that there was a landslide about eight miles south of your location. The road out is blocked with snow. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but it may take several days to open the road. I’m afraid you and your party are stuck there until then.”
“Ranger Klinefelter, I have an injured man here. He needs a hospital right away.” Kel’s heart sank into his stomach. For one thing, he knew there was little hope of getting Johnny off this mountain and to a hospital. Even without the landslide, the roads would be impassible until the snow ended and they could be cleared. And he was fairly certain crews would not even begin to work on the mountain of snow blocking the road until the weather was more favorable. Second, Kel was fully aware that Roy and Chris were sitting by the radio back at the cabin waiting for news on Johnny. Now, they not only knew that they were stranded, but they also knew that Johnny was injured. He would need to contact Roy as soon as possible. The paramedic and his son were sure to be conjuring up scenarios that would worry them sick.
Paul set his jaw and gripped the microphone a little tighter. “How bad?” He knew the man he was speaking to was a doctor and therefore would not panic and inadvertently upgrade a minor injury to a major one. If Kelly Brackett said his man needed a hospital, then surely he meant it.
Kel’s mouth twitched into a concerned frown. “Bad enough. Is there any way to expedite things?”
“I’ll see what I can do. The snow is supposed to stop by tomorrow afternoon. Right now we’re probably looking at Thursday. I’ll see if there’s any way to get help up there before then. With it being Christmas and all, it will be hard getting volunteers, but I’ll let my people know you have an injured man…and a child too. How are you on food and water? Are you well supplied?”
“Yes, we should be.” Kel was becoming aware of what felt like dead weight on his back and shoulders. He wondered if Johnny was still conscious. “Paul, just make it as quick as possible, okay?”
“Roger that. Stay close to your radio. And check in with me every couple of hours.”
“10-4.” Kel paused for a moment for the transmission he knew would come next.
“Kel, it’s Roy. Do you copy?”
“I copy, Roy. And I need to get off the radio and get Johnny back there. Put several pots full of water on the stove to warm up. And unzip Johnny’s sleeping bag and lay it out on the floor in front of the fireplace. Gather as many sheets and blankets as you can find, and a few towels. And have my bag ready.”
“10-4.” Were it not for the fact that his son was standing next to him, Roy would have thrown the radio down in frustration. He wanted to know what had happened to Johnny, but he knew better than to delay the doctor when he was trying to get him back to the cabin. The instructions Kel gave indicated that Johnny was likely suffering from mild hypothermia at the very least. But…Kel told Paul Johnny was injured, hadn’t he? The impatience that had been growing since Roy overheard Kel’s conversation with the ranger was settling into the pit of his stomach. It was bad enough the four of them would not get home in time for Christmas. He could already see that although Chris was trying to put up a brave front, inside the boy was struggling with disappointment and possibly fear. Then there was Joanne and Jennifer back home. Jennifer, who was still young enough to believe in Santa, yet old enough to make postponing his arrival impossible to pull off. Add to that the fact that Johnny was injured, and apparently badly enough that he needed a hospital…
Roy pressed down his frustration and began pouring water into several large cooking pots. “Chris, go get Uncle Johnny’s sleeping bag and start making a bed in front of the fire.”
Chris headed toward the bedroom without a word. He was disappointed that Christmas would have to wait this year, but mostly he felt sad for his mother and sister…and worry over his Uncle Johnny’s injuries. He was determined to stay strong and do what he could to help out, figuring the last thing his father needed was to have to worry about him. He quickly grabbed Johnny’s sleeping bag and pillow and carried it out to the main room.
E E E
Kel eased the snowmobile to a stop as close to the cabin as he safely could. Johnny had begun to shiver more on the way back, likely a result of leaning against the relative warmth of Kel’s body. But with the increased movement and body temperature came increased awareness and pain causing Johnny to feel every dip and bump on the trail. Kel knew that his friend was hurting, and he had a feeling it would only get worse as Johnny warmed up inside the cabin. But right now, Kel’s biggest concern was hypothermia and the arrow in Johnny’s side, which he would need to remove without the benefit of sterile conditions or anesthesia.
Roy headed toward the pair, having heard the snowmobile’s approach. He was relieved to see that Johnny appeared conscious and that he was sitting up, but he cringed at the sight of his shivering form, and frosty features. If Johnny hated the cold before, Roy was sure he would hate it even more from now on. He tried to get a visual handle on his friend’s condition while questioning the doctor. “What happened?”
Kel spoke as he dismounted. “I’m not sure, Roy. I found him staggering through the snow. No sign of his snowmobile, and I didn’t go looking for it.”
“Johnny? Johnny, it’s Roy. Can you hear me?” Roy was leaning over, looking directly into his partner’s eyes, all the time keeping steadying hands on his shoulders.
Johnny shuddered. “Y-yeah…R-Roy. ‘Mokay…j-just…cold…”
“Careful…” Kel warned, indicating the arrow which was not easily seen through the swirling snow and against the red fabric of Johnny’s coat.
Roy took a step back and his heart started racing at the sight. Either Johnny was not aware of the injury or he was too numb to feel it. And if the latter were the case, then there could be some other injuries as well. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”
Crossing the twenty or so yards to the porch seemed to take forever as it was made more difficult by the nearly white out conditions and blustery winds. Chris opened the door for the three men, and they tromped inside with no concern for the amount of snow on their clothing and boots. They helped Johnny sit down on the rug near his sleeping bag. He immediately tried to lie down.
“No, Johnny. Not yet.” Kel held him upright while barking some instructions to Roy and Chris. “The first thing we need to do is get these clothes off of him. Chris, put a dry towel over his head and be ready with three more when I ask for them. Soak them in warm water first.”
Roy glanced up from his task and noticed Johnny’s thawing hair dripping despite the towel. It was then that he remembered his friend leaving the cabin this morning with a winter hat on. He wondered what had happened to it, what had happened out there period. Johnny was trying to speak, but his shivering was becoming more intense now, preventing him from doing so. “Hey, take it easy. Just let us get these off, and then we’ll get you all wrapped up and let you lie down by the fire.” Roy looked down at Johnny’s hands after peeling off the nearly frozen gloves. Most of Johnny’s clothing was stiff and icy as if it had been wet and then froze, adding to Roy’s confusion. He was alarmed to see some patches of white skin on Johnny’s fingers. “Doc?”
Kel looked over. He was busy cutting off Johnny’s coat and layered clothing. He frowned at the patches Roy was studying. “Frostbite.”
Roy’s concern grew. He didn’t know much about frostbite, but he knew it could be serious enough to cause amputation. He tried not to think about that. “I’ve never seen it…”
“I haven’t seen many cases of it myself. Luckily, it looks relatively mild. We’ll need to check his feet too.” Kel finished removing the last pieces of Johnny’s thermal undershirt and took just a quick glance at the wound in his side before wrapping a blanket around him and moving to his boots. He was relieved that although the arrow definitely pierced Johnny’s side, it didn’t appear as if it had gone in too deep. The thick down material of his heavy coat, and the added layers of clothing worked in his favor. And the bleeding, while alarming, was not as severe as it could have been, the cold helping to slow it down. Kel pulled off Johnny’s socks, which were not as icy as he expected them to be. Apparently, his friend had gotten himself a good pair of waterproof boots. He quickly examined the reddish digits. “Looks like a little more here…on a few toes. Very minor.”
Johnny’s jeans and long johns were the last to go, and after several seconds of trying to move the hardened material past Johnny’s slender hips, Roy grabbed Kel’s scissors and cut them off as well. Kel stood by with a blanket, covering Johnny’s bare legs with it as Roy went.
Finally, the two men moved Johnny onto his sleeping bag and laid him down gently onto his back, covering his head with another dry towel, and his body with several blankets. Johnny was shivering uncontrollably now, moans of discomfort chattering forth in a sort of staccato cadence.
Kel looked over his shoulder at Chris. “I need those warm towels now, son. And, put some drinking water on the stove.” Looking back at Roy, he added, “We’ll need to get some warm fluids into him as soon as he can tolerate it.” Accepting the towels one by one from Chris, Brackett placed one behind Johnny’s neck, one on his chest, and one over his groin, searching for injuries as he went. The extensive bruising on Johnny’s body indicated a traumatic accident of some kind, and Kel began wondering about the possibility of fractures.
Roy looked away from his son’s somewhat haunted face. He hated that Chris had to witness his Uncle Johnny in this condition, but there was nothing to be done. He thought back to the conversation he had with Joanne when he first brought up this trip. She had some concerns that Chris was too young to go on a hunting trip with his father and his buddies. But Roy had convinced her that the sport was rich in tradition, and that some of his most memorable growing experiences had been while standing by his grandfather’s side in the middle of the forest, on hunting expeditions such as this one. In the end, they both felt it could be a good opportunity for growth. Now, Roy feared that Chris was being forced into growing up too quickly. How much more could he reasonably expect from his nine year old before he would need some comforting and guidance from his father? As much as Roy wanted to gather Chris up in his arms this very minute, the fact was, right now Johnny needed him more. He was worried about the amount of pain his friend appeared to be having now that warmth was returning, and he did his best to soothe, while simultaneously assessing him for injuries. “Shhh…it’s okay, Johnny. I know you’re hurting, but we have to get you warm now. I know your left side is painful. Do you hurt anywhere else?”
Johnny tried to concentrate beyond the miserable cold he was experiencing. He knew Roy and Kel were fishing for injuries, but the truth was, Johnny was having trouble focusing on that. “H-h-hands…b-burn…”
Roy decided Johnny wasn’t really capable of localizing his pain at the moment, so he sat back while Kel began at Johnny’s head and began a detailed assessment. Finding no other apparent injuries, other than what was sure to become some pretty severe bruising, Kel turned his focus on the wound from the arrow. It had entered the intercostal space between two ribs and was angled upward. Kel asked Roy to get a set of vitals for him while he palpated the area. His biggest concern was that the arrow had punctured Johnny’s lung, although he didn’t appear to be having any trouble breathing. Still, it would be hard to tell with the amount of shivering he was doing, but at least he appeared to be getting enough oxygen. He apologized to Johnny for the pain his probing was causing, and then leaned close to his ear. “Johnny, I want you to try to focus for a minute. Do you think you can do that?”
Johnny nodded, as his upper and lower teeth clattered against each other.
“Do you have any pain in your chest?”
Johnny tried to think. He could feel the muscles in his left side tightening around the foreign intruder. “S-s-side…”
“I know…I know your side hurts, Johnny. What about your chest?”
“Are you having any trouble breathing?”
Johnny shook his head. “N-n-no…” He closed his eyes and tried to calm down. How had he gotten in this condition anyway? Then, his eyes flew open as memory returned. “C-crashed! D-didn’t…s-see...”
Roy resisted the urge to grab Johnny’s hand, instead settling for squeezing his shoulder through the layered blankets. “Don’t worry about that right now, Johnny.”
Johnny looked up as he tried to move his hands out from under the blankets. “R-roy? Hands…what’s wrong with…m-m-my hands?”
Kel answered for Roy as he gently helped him stop Johnny’s movements. “You’ve got some frostbite on your fingers, Johnny. They’re going to be very painful as they warm up. I’ll give you something for it in a minute.” He looked over at Roy. “How were his vitals?”
“Not too bad. BP 138 over 84. Pulse 100.”
Kel grabbed the stethoscope from around Roy’s neck and used it to listen to Johnny’s heart and lungs. Satisfied that everything appeared to be working properly, he issued some more instructions to the waiting paramedic. “Recent research on frostbite has shown that rapid rewarming is best. It halts the formation of ice crystals and helps dilate the blood vessels. I think his toes will be all right. But, we’ll need to place his hands in a bowl of warm water for about 15-30 minutes.”
Roy looked down at Johnny, relieved that his shivering seemed to be decreasing. Looking back up at Kel, he kept his voice a whisper. “But, Doc…won’t that hurt?”
Kel sighed. “Yes, it will.” The doctor also noticed Johnny’s shaking was subsiding, and although he was restless and seemed to be in some pain, he seemed content for the moment to bask in the warmth from the blankets and the fire. Kel motioned for Roy to follow him to a spot out of immediate earshot and spoke in a hushed voice. “Here’s the situation, Roy. We need to warm his hands, and we also need to get that arrow out. The sooner the better. Let’s get him onto his right side. Get a bowl of water and immerse his hands in it. It will help if you also keep some water moving over his hands. I have some morphine and some meperidine with me, but only what I’m allowed to carry. So, let’s try to make the best possible use of it. He’s going to have a lot of pain when you start rewarming his hands. And we have no way to completely anesthetize him in order to remove the arrow and explore that wound. I’ll give him some morphine and diazepam, and let’s see how he does. I can give him more if necessary, but we need to try to make what I have last as long as possible. He’s going to need it, and we have no idea how long we’re going to be here.”
Roy looked back at his friend. His pain was increasing the warmer he became. “But…”
“I wish there was a way to make this easier, Roy. But, we’re going to have to make the best of it. Do you think you can tend to his hands and assist me at the same time? I won’t need much help. That arrow didn’t go in very far. I should be able to have it out in a few minutes.”
“Sure.” Roy walked over to the kitchen area to retrieve a bowl of warm water and another towel. He could hear Kel explaining to Johnny what they were about to do, and it made his stomach twist into a giant knot.
“There will be two injections, Johnny. In your left hip. Then, soon you’ll start to feel sleepy. I’ll inject some lidocaine around the arrow to get things nice and numb before I start. Do you have any questions for me?” Kel had already helped Johnny onto his right side, and he was readying the first syringe.
Johnny noticed Roy kneeling down beside him with a bowl of steaming water. “Let’s just…get it over with.”
Roy turned to Chris, who was seated near Johnny’s head after hanging a wet towel close to the fireplace to dry. “Chris, go wait in the bedroom.”
“But, Dad. I want to help.”
Roy felt a surge of pride. Chris had been holding himself together very well, but he had no idea what was about to take place. “I know you do, son. And you’re doing a great job. But I want you to go to your room until we’re finished here.”
Johnny knew what Roy was trying to do, and he felt a twinge of guilt. He didn’t want to be the cause of a rift between father and son. He moved his head, trying to find the boy. “Chris?”
“Yeah, Uncle Johnny?”
Johnny’s hands were burning furiously now, and he tried his best to hide his discomfort. “Do…do what your…your dad says.”
“But…” Chris began to protest.
“I’ll be…I’ll be okay.” Johnny closed his eyes and winced as he felt the sting of the second injection.
Chris made eye contact with his dad, who was nodding toward the other room. Reluctantly, he rose to his feet and made his way to the bedroom, where he sat on the bed and leaned against the wall…listening.
Kel nodded at Roy to start on Johnny’s hands, and so he did, lifting them gently into the bowl of water. Almost immediately upon contact with the water, the pain became unbearable, a combination of intense throbbing and the sensation that his skin was being burned to the bone.
“Ahhh! God, Roy…stop!” Johnny tried to pull his hands out of the water, but they were held in place by strong hands around his wrists.
Kel rested a hand on Johnny’s back. “I’m sorry, Johnny. But it has to be done. The morphine I gave you should begin to take effect soon.” He made eye contact with Roy. Both men knew the medication would probably take at least ten minutes to begin working.
Johnny panted furiously as he tried unsuccessfully to hold back the cries that wrenched from his throat. He had no idea anything could hurt this badly, and would never have believed such agony could result simply from exposure to cold. He thought back to when he pulled himself out of the frigid water. He knew his gloves were soaked, and he thought about removing them. But in that moment of quick decision, he reasoned that some protection from the elements was better than none at all. Now, he wondered if he would have been better off. As this thoughts drifted, Johnny became only slightly aware of the conversation and the words of encouragement that floated around him. Was it possible that the pain was becoming less intense? He felt drugged, as if he were now floating a few inches above the floor.
Kel noticed Johnny’s legs, which had been moving restlessly beneath the covers, were beginning to still. His pain-filled outbursts had quieted to a series of slurred moans. “Looks like the drugs are starting to work.” He indicated Johnny’s hands. “Let me see.”
Roy lifted his friend’s hands out of the water, cradling them in his own. Several digits had begun to swell, the skin red and angry looking.
“Keep going, Roy.” Kel leaned over his patient. “Johnny? Can you hear me?”
“Mmmm,” was Johnny’s only response.
Deciding that Johnny was likely as relaxed as he was going to get, Kel made a decision. “Johnny, I’m going to inject the lidocaine now. It might sting a bit.” The doctor was relieved that Johnny appeared to be asleep.
Roy allowed Johnny’s hands to soak while he got up to refresh the bowl with some warmer water. He was back in time to see his friend’s eyes open and a groan escape his chapped lips as the lidocaine went in. “It’s okay, Johnny.”
Johnny was exhausted. He could feel the blessed escape of sleep tugging at his senses, beckoning in its efforts to pull him under. But pain kept him perched on the edge of awareness. As soon as he would start to give in, to allow the sedating effects of the medicine and the stress of the day to claim him, a sting in his side or a bolt of electricity through his fingertips brought awareness back. And so he remained suspended on a tense line between distress and release.
“We’ll give that a chance to get good and numb, and then I’ll get started. How are you doing, Johnny?” Kel had used as much lidocaine as he could, but he was concerned about how painful this procedure would be for his young friend. He would have to cut into muscle, and there was no way to gauge the extent of what he might find once he got started.
When Johnny didn’t respond, his breathing having transformed from hitched uneasiness into a deeper pattern indicative of sleep, Kel took that as his cue to begin. He purposely avoided meeting Roy’s eyes as he tentatively plucked his scalpel from the neatly arranged display of supplies beside him.
Once Kel began, he moved quickly, wincing in sympathy only occasionally as Johnny stirred beneath his hands. He allowed Roy to be the one to keep Johnny calm and still, so that he could stay focused on the task at hand, offering fragmented observations as he explored. “…no spleen to worry about… stopped by his seventh rib…probably fractured, no way to tell…damn lucky…”
Roy watched the procedure in detached silence, only speaking when Johnny seemed to rouse as a result of Kel’s ministrations. He wasn’t sure if Johnny could hear his attempts to reassure, but he seemed to settle back down into sleep mere seconds after they were offered. Roy breathed a monumental sigh of relief when Kel finally announced he was ready to close the wound. Then, he found his voice, which he had to clear once or twice. “Is everything okay?”
Kel’s face contorted into a strained smile as he painstakingly threaded a suture through Johnny’s skin. “He was fortunate, Roy. It wasn’t very deep, and it missed everything vital. His rib was the only thing that prevented the point from going deeper and puncturing his lung.”
Roy averted his gaze as a chill skittered up and down his back. If Johnny had developed a pneumothorax out here, or had been bleeding internally, he surely would have died.
“That rib is probably fractured. And he’ll be dealing with some pretty severe pain and spasms as those muscles heal, but he should recover from this pretty quickly. I’d feel a lot better, though, if he were in a hospital. I’m afraid there’s a fairly high risk of infection. His hands too.”
Roy nodded as he watched Johnny for any indication that he had heard.
“Roy, do you happen to know when Johnny’s last tetanus booster was?”
Roy chewed his lip, as he watched Kel expertly tie off the long piece of silk he was using. His hands moved for the scissors when the doctor indicated the place where he wanted the thread to be cut. “Uh…he cut his hand on that car door. It was during the rescue of that kid who fractured his hip.”
Kel nodded at the memory. “Yes, I remember Mike Morton going on and on about ‘firemen who ask for trouble when they don’t wear their gloves.’ He put fourteen stitches in Johnny’s hand that day if I remember right.”
Roy cast an affectionate smile at his sleeping friend. He remembered Johnny’s rant about the dressing down he had gotten from the intern and the subsequent admonishment from Cap when they returned to the station, which was borne more out of concern than anger or frustration. Johnny had been cleared for the rest of his shift, but Roy had offered to start any IV’s that needed to be done. Eventually, Johnny asked to go home when his hand began to throb so much that he felt he would be too much of a liability holding a rope or a hose. Looking down at his partner’s palm now, Roy could just barely make out the indentation of the scar. “Yeah…that was back in the spring…I think.”
“Well then he’s up to date with that at least.” Kel finished stitching and reached for a large bandage and some tape. He glanced down at Johnny’s hands which were still resting in the bowl of water. “Go ahead and dry his hands…gently and carefully. Try not to disturb the tissue. Put some Neosporin on them, and then they’ll need to be bandaged and elevated. They should be splinted too, but I can’t think what we would use. Separate his fingers with some gauze.”
“Okay.” Roy did as he was told, carefully tending to Johnny’s swollen digits. The skin looked red and waxy now, and Roy wasn’t sure if he should pause or move more quickly when Johnny stirred and moaned a protest due to the pain the movement was causing. Finally, Johnny was rolled onto his back, each of his hands elevated on cushions Roy pulled from the couch. While he had the tube of antibiotic cream in his hands, Roy dabbed some onto Johnny’s cheeks, nose, and lips, which had been chapped raw. Then, he straightened Johnny’s blankets and moved to the chair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, taking in his friend’s sleeping form. “Do you think he’ll be okay, Doc?”
Kel finished putting the last of his medical supplies back in his bag. “I think so, Roy. Between the day he’s had and the sedating effects of the medication I gave him, he should sleep a while. It’s too soon to tell how his fingers will fare, but…” Kel pulled the blanket aside and quickly examined Johnny’s toes. “His toes are okay now.”
Roy’s gaze was locked on the thick white bandages covering both of Johnny’s hands. At the very least, Johnny would need help for a while, but at worst… “His hands…will they…”
Kel got up and stood directly in front of Roy, temporarily blocking his view. “I don’t have an answer for that question right now. It will be several days before I will know how severe the damage is to his fingers. If I had to guess, I would say that although he’s going to have a lot of pain for a while, he should make a complete recovery. But, like I said, I would be guessing. The last thing I want to do is make promises I may not be able to keep.”
“I understand…it’s just that…well, if Johnny can’t…”
Kel saved Roy from having to finish the thought. “I know, Roy. And it’s just too early to tell.” The room was silent except for the soft sighing of the snow against the single pane windows and the metal roof of the cabin. “Why don’t you have Chris find some comfortable clothes for Johnny to wear once he wakes up, and bring in some more wood for the fire? I’m going to radio Paul Klinefelter and let him know what’s going on.”
Roy took one last look at Johnny before standing up and rubbing at his eyes. It was getting late, and he was tired. He thought he should have been hungry too, but he didn’t feel like eating. Still, he would need to make sure Chris got something to eat. Chris… “Is Paul going to call Scott? Joanne will be worried…”
“I’m sure they’ve been in touch, Roy. But, I’ll ask him to be sure.”
Roy finally removed his heavy boots, placing them in front of the fireplace to dry out, and padded into the bedroom to talk to his son.
E E E
Roy pushed open the curtain that hung in the narrow archway between the main room and the bedroom where Chris was waiting. He choked back a tear at the sight of his son, sitting on his bed, backed into the corner, nervously fidgeting with the zipper on his sleeping bag. Gone was the proud visage he wore earlier, when he anxiously awaited sharing the excitement of his day with his uncle. In its place was a mask of carefully crafted stoicism that Roy knew was dangerously close to cracking. Chris was nine years old, this Christmas being the first that he did not believe in Santa. Roy remembered the discussion well, the day that Chris informed Joanne and himself that he had known for some time, but had been afraid to tell them, fearing their disappointment. They assured him that they understood, and Roy had been able to turn the conversation around in a way that allowed Chris to share in this grown up secret, causing him to look forward to helping play Santa for his younger sister this year. Roy remembered the talk he had with Joanne after Chris had gone to bed that night, the pride they felt over Chris’ compassion and unselfishness. And, he remembered holding Joanne as she cried, when the realization her son was growing up sunk in.
If only she could see him now.
Roy moved closer to the bed and sat down, trying to figure out what to say. He was sure the boy was disappointed that they would not be home for Christmas, but would be weighing his own discontent against his concern for Johnny, his mother, and his sister.
“He said he would be okay.” Chris’ voice sounded small and innocent in the dark room.
Roy’s throat ached with emotion. Of course. Chris had heard everything. “He is, Chris. Dr. Brackett thinks…”
“He didn’t sound okay.”
Roy fished around for the right words. He knew he couldn’t sell this young man short. Chris was far too perceptive to believe half truths. But then Roy tried to remember back to a day in his own life where innocence had not yet given way to the sense of detachment that developed after years of seeing things humanity had no business being subjected to. He realized right then, in a humbling moment of self awareness, that he no longer could recall what blessed ignorance felt like. He lifted an arm to Chris’ shoulder. “Chris, normally when someone has injuries like your Uncle Johnny’s…they’re in a hospital, where they can be given strong doses of medicine to keep them from feeling any pain. You remember when he was hit by the car…and we took you to see him about a week later?”
Chris nodded solemnly. He remembered how he had gone into that hospital room expecting Johnny to look and act like he always did. He knew he had been hurt, had been prepared by his mother and father for what he would see, but something prevented him from believing that his invincible “uncle” could ever be anything less than whole. Sure, there had been other injuries during the time that Roy and Johnny were friends and partners, but Chris had not been old enough to visit the hospital then, and by the time Johnny was released, aside from a cast here or a bandage there, he looked no worse for the wear. The hit and run had been different. It was Chris’ first glimpse at how easily and quickly life can change, and it had affected him. Although Johnny had tried to put up a good front, Chris knew something was not right. Johnny looked more tired than usual, and the playful spark that he could always count on was just a little dimmer.
“Well, Johnny was in a lot of pain then. But he had medicine he could take that made it better.”
Chris spoke without looking up at his dad. “And Dr. Brackett doesn’t have any medicine to give him now?”
Roy struggled to think of the easiest way to explain. “He has some…but not a lot. Since we’re going to be here for a few days, he wants to save some of it for when Johnny needs it the most. Does that make sense?”
Chris thought about that for a moment before answering. “Kind of like when you and mom tell me to hold onto my allowance and not just spend it on little spur of the moment things. You tell me that there might be something I really need it for later, but then I wouldn’t have it.”
Roy smiled, amazed at Chris’ uncanny ability to analogize, and a little disappointed in himself for not giving the boy more credit. “Yes, son. Exactly like that.” Then, his expression turned serious, as he tilted his head in such a way that he could draw his son’s eyes up to meet his. “Chris, the important thing is, Johnny’s injuries really aren’t very serious.” He decided not to speculate on the possible complications. “He’s gonna be sore for a while, so you might hear or even see some things that are kind of scary. But, it’s only temporary. He’s gonna be okay.” Roy waited a few seconds for this news to sink in before placing a finger under Chris’ chin and lifting his head. “Okay?”
Instead of agreeing, Chris answered with a statement. “Mom says that’s one of the hardest parts of you and Uncle Johnny’s job.”
“Seeing people in pain, and not being able to do anything about it.”
Roy couldn’t find his voice for a moment, for to do so would have brought forth an expression of emotion he didn’t want Chris to witness. He had hit the nail on the head. Roy was again dumbfounded by his son’s display of maturity. How had he managed to miss this? Was he really away that much? Or was he just that unobservant? Finally, he managed, “Yes, Chris. It is hard. And when it’s someone you care about…Well, that just makes it harder.”
Chris squared his shoulders, and looked up at his father. “Well then we’re just gonna have to be strong. Uncle Johnny doesn’t need us being upset. He needs us to tell him he’s okay. Just like when Jennifer skins her knees and I tell her to be brave…that her owie will go away soon. Right?”
Roy’s heart swelled with pride. “Yep! Just like that.”
The discussion was halted by a knock on the wall beyond the curtain. Kel listened for an invitation, then stepped inside. His expression was guarded, as if he had news he didn’t want to share. “I spoke with Ranger Klinefelter. He thinks they may be able to have us out of here by Wednesday. The snow is due to stop by Monday night, and he’s rounded up some crews who will work round the clock, even on Christmas Day.” He looked down at the others, feeling regret. He and Johnny were single, but the doctor knew this was going to be hard on Roy and his family. “Sorry fellas. Looks like we’re not going to make it home in time for Christmas.”
To both Kel and Roy’s surprise, Chris hopped off the bed and reached for his backpack. He was looking for the notebook he had brought with him. “Well then we’re just going to have to have Christmas here! It might just take Uncle Johnny’s mind off being hurt. I’ll write a letter to Santa to let him know he needs to wait a few days to stop at our house. Dr. Brackett, you’ll let the ranger know that, so he can tell Jennifer, right?”
Kel stood in shock for a moment, before exchanging a look with Roy and sputtering out, “Oh! Yes… sure, son. I’ll be sure to tell him to let your sister know.”
“Good deal!” Chris exclaimed and made his way out to the table to begin writing down some ideas. Let’s see…first, we need a tree…
E E E
Johnny awoke disoriented. He was flat on his back on the floor and as he lay fogged in a narcotic induced hangover, he couldn’t seem to recall where he was or how he had gotten there. He tried to sit up and gasped sharply as pain shot through the middle of his back and wrapped its way around his chest. An attempt at rolling rewarded him with another spasm and shockwaves sped downward into his left hip and leg. When he was able to open his eyes again, his bleary vision settled on the seething face of a fiery hot dragon, its tongue lashing hungrily, it’s flaming fingers greedily reaching for him, nearly pricking his skin.
Oh…god…what happened? Did the roof cave in? Did I fall? I don’t remember getting called out. Where’s Roy?
Johnny tried again in desperation to move away from the angry beast surrounding him, but every attempt caused excruciating pain in his back. Then, he noticed searing heat enveloping his hands. It was so bad, he was certain they were on fire. He pounded them frantically on whatever debris they were resting on, crying out as the burning intensified and a deep ache bored into his wrists and crawled upward through muscle and marrow toward his shoulders.
“Aaaagh! Roy!” Where are you? I need help…
Earlier, Kel had assured Roy he would sleep in the main room with Johnny, so that he could sleep in the bedroom with Chris. The doctor had finally managed to doze off, slumped in one of the arm chairs, when he was jolted awake by Johnny’s screams. He was off the chair in an instant and he switched on the battery operated lantern that was sitting on the floor next to them. Kel had witnessed the night terrors of numerous firefighters during their hospital stays, including Johnny, so he wasn’t entirely surprised. His main concern was that Johnny would cause further damage to his frostbitten fingers, the way he was slapping at the cushions beneath them. Knowing that he needed to rouse his friend, but not wanting to startle him, Kel resisted grabbing his wrists for now. “Johnny! Johnny, wake up!”
Wake up? Who’s there? I am awake, damn it! I’m burning up! Help me… “Roy!”
E E E
Roy made his way through the ever thickening smoke. Somehow he and Johnny had been separated during their sweep of the second floor. He fumbled his way down the hall, running his hands along the wall, feeling his way. He shouted for his partner, but could not hear any response. Roy’s pulse quickened at the implications. Maybe he couldn’t hear Johnny over the roaring flames, or maybe…Roy refused to allow that thought to take on tangible form.
The seasoned firefighter knew it was happening mere seconds before it did. There was a thunderous crack followed by a rain of sparks and debris. Roy instinctively fell into a fetal position, covering his head with his arms. After an eternity which was in reality only several seconds, Roy assessed his condition and found everything in working order. Rising to his feet, he began a frantic search for his missing partner. “Johnny!” He called as he waded his way through what was left of the third floor of the house.
“Roy!” The sound broke through the hissing steam, groaning wood, crackling flame. It was Johnny! But, there was something about his voice, and as it called for him again, Roy could detect the frayed edges of panic.
“Johnny! Where are you?” Roy pushed aside a burning beam and continued trudging through the mess, turning down his captain’s voice on the radio for now.
“Roy!” The voice had become more urgent, almost desperate. “Help me…”
“Johnny, I’m here! Help me find you!” Roy’s chest tightened at the blaring of a regulator alarm. It wasn’t his, so it had to be Johnny’s. “I hear you! I’m coming, Johnny! Are you hurt?”
“T-too late, Roy…trapped…burning…”
No. It couldn’t be. Roy would not allow himself, or Johnny for that matter, to believe it was too late. As long as Johnny was alive, he had time. Roy moved swiftly until he saw the object of his search just on the other side of a large pile of debris, which was blocking his path. Johnny was on the floor, trapped beneath a heavy beam. Just behind him, the fire was creeping dangerously closer. The heat was so intense from where Roy was standing, he could imagine Johnny’s skin was blistering. “Hang on, Johnny! I see you!” He tried to move the heavy beams blocking his way, but it was no use. Roy watched in terror as the beam lying across Johnny’s body finally caught, the flames licking the surface as they rapidly moved down its length. No…
Roy jerked awake in a cold sweat. He could still feel the heat from the fire, could still taste the acrid smoke. A nightmare…he thought, relieved. But then, a sound from the main room grabbed him by the throat and threatened to choke him.
Roy leapt out of bed, banging his foot on the bed frame as he rushed through the dark. He hadn’t been dreaming. Johnny was calling for him, and he sounded scared to death. But, interspersed with the screams, was Kel’s calm yet stern voice.
“Calm down, Johnny! You’re going to hurt yourself.” Kel looked up at the parting of the curtain. “Roy, see if you can get through to him. I think he’s dreaming.”
Roy quickly dropped to Johnny’s side, trying to dredge up some measured calm. “Johnny… come on, calm down now.”
Johnny continued thrashing his arms, becoming frustrated when he felt someone or something restraining them. “T-trapped, Roy…c-can’t move…”
“You’re not trapped, Johnny. You’re safe…”
“No! Help, Roy! Burning…” Johnny’s eyes were wild with fright.
A shudder made its way through Roy’s body. He had seen this look in Johnny’s eyes before… in his worst nightmares. He increased his grip on Johnny’s wrists, his voice a shaky mixture of urgency and concern. “Johnny, listen to me. You’re not burning. You’ve had a nightmare. You’re safe.”
Johnny’s breathing slowed as Roy’s voice brought him closer to reality. His eyes darted around the room, his nose taking in the musty smell. Out of the corner of one eye, he could see a familiar dancing light. Fire. “Not a…nightmare. Roy…hands are…I think I burned them.”
Satisfied that Johnny was beginning to calm, Kel spoke. “You didn’t burn them, Johnny. Although I’m sure it must feel that way. You have some frostbite.”
Johnny blinked in confusion, his eyes refusing to leave his partner’s face. “Frostbite?”
“Yes, Johnny.” Roy let go of Johnny’s wrists, and gently returned his hands to the cushions. “You had an accident on your snowmobile.” In truth, Roy wasn’t sure that was what had happened, but a discussion with Kel before they had retired for the night resulted in both men sharing the same suspicion. “Do you remember?”
Johnny’s eyes closed as memories broke through the cloudy haze of medication and pain. “Yeah…yeah…hit something…under the snow. Ended up…in the water.” His brows furrowed and he hissed through clenched teeth. “God…hands really…hurt.”
Kel was pulling a stethoscope out of his bag. “I bet they do, Johnny. I’ll give you something for it in a minute. But first, I was able to remove that arrow from your side. How does that feel?”
Johnny focused in on his left side, and tried to move a hand in order to investigate it. But, the limb was intercepted by Kel and returned to his side. “I…I don’t…It’s a little sore. Hurts to breathe.”
“Well, one of your ribs got in the way. Kept the arrow from damaging your lung. It’s probably fractured, so I’m sure that’s what you’re feeling.” Kel moved the stethoscope over Johnny’s chest before removing it from his ears and handing it to Roy so he could get a BP. “Do you have pain anywhere else?”
Johnny vaguely remembered pain in his back that held him pinned to the floor. He briefly wondered if he had indeed been dreaming it until he tried to move. His breath caught in his throat and his eyes squeezed tightly shut at the sensation of knives twisting into his spine.
Kel rested a hand lightly on Johnny’s chest. “What is it, Johnny?”
“My…my back!” Johnny was finally able to choke out.
Kel looked over at Roy who had finished with the blood pressure and looked alarmed at this new information. Returning his attention to his patient, he asked, “Where?”
Johnny’s breathing was coming in short heaves as the painful muscle spasms moved in a ripple like effect up and down his back. His jaw tight against the agony, he found it almost impossible to speak. He opened his mouth to try, but only a moan escaped.
Kel pulled down the blanket until Johnny’s upper body was exposed. It was difficult to see much in the dim light from the lantern, but a quick examination revealed the cause of Johnny’s discomfort. “Looks like muscle spasms.” Glancing up at Roy, he added, “Let’s try moving him onto his side.”
Johnny shook his head fervently. He was all too familiar with the suffering movement brought on. “No…”
“Johnny, your back is in spasm. If we change your position, it may relieve it.” Kel hoped he was right as he again made eye contact with Roy and nodded. Together they rolled Johnny onto his right side, then watched as Johnny’s breathing finally slowed and he relaxed with a prolonged sigh.
Roy breathed his own sigh of relief before asking the doctor, “What brought that on?”
“I’m not sure.” He began moving his hands down Johnny’s spine. “Tell me if this hurts, Johnny.”
Johnny was relieved that the intense cramping had diminished, but he lay in a state of readiness, unable to completely relax for fear it would start up again. “Doesn’t… hurt when… you do that.”
“How about this?” Kel’s hands moved from Johnny’s vertebra to the muscles in his middle and lower back. He found his answer when his patient cried out and tried to withdraw from his touch. “Sorry, Johnny. I think you may have a bad sprain. Sometimes it takes a while for the muscles to tighten up and you start to feel it. How do your legs feel? Any numbness or tingling?
Johnny wished Kel would just stop with the questioning and give him something for the horrible burning in his hands and the painful ache in his side that grew worse with each inhale. His back hurt, but as long as it wasn’t cramping, it was manageable. “My…my left leg…and my hip.”
“What about them, Johnny? They feel numb?” Kel’s hands moved under the blankets to the areas in question.
Kel moved the blanket aside so he could get a better look. There were some bruises on Johnny’s back and on his leg, but Kel figured the pain in his extremity was a result of pressure on a spinal nerve. “Okay, Johnny. I’m going to give you some cyclobenzaprine. How’s your pain right now?”
“Back’s not…too bad.” Johnny knew the muscle relaxant would help ward off any additional spasms. “Side is…really starting to…hurt. But, Doc…my hands are…killing me.”
Kel had planned to explain to Johnny the situation with the pain medication. He didn’t think Johnny was aware that they would be stuck here for several days, and he wanted to coach him to use the numerical pain scale in order to make better use of the limited supplies they had. He hesitated to give another large dose of the morphine, knowing that in a few days, Johnny would likely suffer severe throbbing pain in his hands as the nerves and muscle tissue began healing. But, hopefully by that time, they would be rescued, and Johnny would be in a hospital where supplies were unlimited. But finally Kel decided the young man wasn’t ready for that much information yet. And he certainly wasn’t in any condition to be expected to manage his pain without medication. He was still in the acute stages of these injuries, and he needed relief in order to get the rest his body required. Besides, he still would have half a vial of morphine and all of the meperidine left. “Okay, Johnny. I’m going to give you some MS so you can get back to sleep. I have to do it IM, so it will take a few minutes to work.”
“That’s…okay, Doc. Just…please…don’t think I can…stand this…much longer.” Johnny’s hands were beginning to pulse with agonizing heat. He couldn’t believe the cold could make him feel as though he had buried his fingers in a bucket of hot coals.
That cinched it for Kel and he reached into his bag to retrieve the precious concoction. He handed Roy the vial of cyclobenzaprine and a syringe. “Draw up 10 mgs. We’ll see how he does on that.”
Once the medications had been administered, Kel and Roy did their best to distract Johnny while they took effect, a feat not easily accomplished due to some of the questions he had.
“They should start to feel better soon, Johnny.”
“No…no, I meant…will they? I mean…are you gonna have to…”
Roy knew this question would come sooner rather than later, but he wasn’t prepared for it. “Johnny, just rest now.”
That was not what Johnny wanted to hear. “Roy…”
“They’re going to be fine, Johnny. Now, Roy’s right. You need to rest.” Kel watched as Johnny’s eyelids grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep. He looked up at the window and could see flakes of snow scratching sinisterly against the panes. God, I hope I’m right.
E E E
Roy paused outside the doorway to the bedroom praying that Chris had managed to stay asleep during Johnny’s nightmarish exclamations and the conversation that followed. His son had always been a sound sleeper, often sleeping through the most clamorous of events, to the amazement of Joanne and himself. Resting a hand on the thin curtain separating the rooms, Roy wondered exactly how much more he had been missing. His little boy was getting older now, in four mind numbingly short Christmases, he would be a teenager. Surely his sleep habits had changed by now. Roy could not suppress a smile as his mind drifted to Chet Kelly. Chet was an adult, at least chronologically, and yet there were times when he had to be shaken awake after the tones sounded, because he slept so soundly. Then there was his partner, who seemed to snap awake so quickly it was almost as if he could sense the subtle vibrations of the radio click just prior to the blaring alarm, hopping out of bed and pulling on his bunkers a fraction of a second before anyone else. Roy frowned as he thought of how his friend’s knack for sleeping light might prove to be a curse for the next few days.
Stepping into the cool room, Roy tiptoed over to the bed, becoming annoyed at the abrasive sound of a loose, creaking floorboard. Peering down at Chris’ bed, he was relieved to find him burrowed into his sleeping bag, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled tight around his head, sound asleep. Roy smiled and draped an extra blanket over the bed, tucking him in for the night, before burying himself under his own layers of bedding. He lay there a long while thinking about how time seems to pass right before our eyes, until one day we wake up and wonder what we’ve missed. His stomach knotted at the thought of his son growing up, but then he again found his mind drifting. He thought of Johnny, and almost chuckled at the amount of “little boy” that still seemed trapped inside him. Roy supposed it was one of the qualities that made Johnny so endearing to women, so uncannily able to communicate with the children they rescued, and yes…sometimes so utterly annoying. But that childlike innocence was balanced with a healthy measure of confidence and bravery, tempered with the maturity required to make Johnny so good at his job. Roy drifted off thinking that if Chris grew up to be like Johnny…well, that would be all right with him.
E E E
Johnny awoke to the smell of coffee. His mouth was dry and he licked at his lips, the irritating soreness reminding him of the events of the previous day. As he moved his legs under the thick layers of blankets, he noticed he had been dressed at some point in a pair of sweatpants and a loose fitting, striped pajama top. Pajamas? I don’t have pajamas. Must be Roy’s…Brackett doesn’t strike me as a jammies sort of guy…
Pain took a few minutes longer to awaken, as Johnny tried out his limbs in a tentative stretch. He was relieved that his various discomforts seemed, for the moment anyway, manageable. His hands were the worst, pulsing in time with his heartbeat. He imagined the skin pulled taut, as if it had shrunk overnight and had become too small for him. And the stinging and burning was still there, but it was more of a background accompaniment to the persistent throbbing ache that blared in the forefront.
Yawning brought forth a sharp twinge in his left side, and he let out an involuntary moan, causing the men who were sitting at the table across the room to turn in his direction.
“Johnny?” Roy stood and closed the distance between them, kneeling down at his side.
Johnny raised a hand weakly, then quickly rested it back on its cushion when an electrically charged jolt blazed a path down his arm. “Hey…” He swallowed against the dryness in his throat and squinted his eyes.
“Headache?” Roy recognized the signs easily. Johnny always got a headache when he swallowed too much smoke. He decided not to focus on the other injuries for now, trusting that Johnny would let him know if something needed attention.
“Yeah…” Johnny shivered slightly, grateful that his friends must have dressed him at some point during the night, and slightly concerned that he couldn’t remember it. The added layer provided him that much more of the warmth which was still elusive despite the fire less than two feet away and the heavy, wool blankets that covered him.
“Well, you’re probably a little dehydrated. Are you still cold?” Roy adjusted the blankets.
Roy spoke as he stood. “I’ll get you something warm to drink.” He added another log to the fire before walking over to the kitchen area where Kel had been watching the exchange.
“Plain water would be best, but I guess a little coffee would be okay.” Kel poured a cup of the steaming black liquid into the mug Roy placed on the table. He followed the paramedic back over to Johnny’s makeshift bed. Kneeling down, he wrapped his fingers around his patient’s wrist, estimating his pulse rate. “How are you feeling, Johnny?”
Johnny felt miserable. He couldn’t seem to get warm, the nagging, relentless chill seeming to penetrate into the depths of his bone marrow. The muscles in his side and back spasmed and twinged, becoming worse with every attempt at movement. He remembered brief snippets of conversation, things that he had overheard…something about being snowed in. It made sense. Surely, Roy and Kel would have seen to it that he was taken to a hospital by now had they been able. He remembered drifting on a cloud of narcotics and he was coherent enough to realize without being told that the restricted medications would be in short supply. Despite his increasing pain, he decided he could wait it out for now. “Not…too bad.”
Kel exchanged a knowing look with Roy, but said nothing. He watched as Roy held the mug of coffee in front of Johnny’s face, and intercepted Johnny’s hand when it instinctively reached for the handle. Deciding an examination could wait until Johnny finished his drink, Kel sat cross-legged on the floor, basking in the warmth from the fire.
E E E
About an hour later, Chris padded sleepily from his bedroom lair to join the others. His first stop was to check on his Uncle Johnny, and while the heavily bandaged hands gave him pause, Chris was relieved at the smile that lit Johnny’s face at his arrival.
Chris knelt down on the rug. It was almost too warm here by the fire, and he wasn’t sure how Johnny could be comfortable under so many blankets. He decided not to bring it up. “Are you feeling better, Uncle Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t feel any need to inform the child that now that his bruises and other injuries had a chance to settle in, he actually felt worse than he had the previous day. “Sure, Chris…I’m doin’…okay.”
Chris looked over at Roy, who was sitting in a chair nearby. “Can we go out and look for a tree today, Dad?”
“Chris, I don’t know…”
“Tree?” Johnny was curious.
“Yeah,” Chris stated hopefully. “I was thinking since we won’t get home for Christmas, that we should have Christmas here. I saw some popcorn in one of the cabinets. We could pop some over the fire and string it…”
“Where are we going to get the thread?” Roy didn’t want to be a wet blanket, but he really didn’t feel like going out in a blizzard to cut down a pine tree. Besides, he wasn’t even sure if it was legal.
“I have needles and thread in my suture kit. We could use some of that.” Kel offered from his position at the table.
Roy was beginning to feel outnumbered. But, the more he thought about it, finding a tree was a small price to pay to give some semblance of a celebration, despite their circumstances. A lump formed in his throat as he thought of Joanne and Jennifer, but although they would be apart this Christmas, at least everyone was alive and safe. Besides, it could prove to be a good bonding time for him and his son. “Well, let’s get you something to eat then. You’ll need lots of energy if we’re going to go out hiking for a tree.” He stood and walked toward the kitchen, his excited son following closely on his heels.
“You should try to eat something too, Johnny. How about some oatmeal?” Kel got up from the chair and knelt beside his friend.
Johnny winced as he stifled a yawn. “Not…hungry. A long, hot shower would be nice though…”
Kel smiled. “I’d have to agree. But you really should try to eat. After all, if you were a bit more…insulated…you might not feel as cold.”
“Very funny, Doc. Oatmeal will be fine.”
Kel started getting up to retrieve Johnny’s meal. “I thought we agreed you would call me Kel.”
“Well…you said to call you that because you weren’t my doctor up here. But now you are…so…it just feels right to call you Doc, Doc.” Johnny smiled weakly at his retort.
“Okay, Johnny.” Kel shook his head as he accepted a bowl of oatmeal from Roy and returned with it. “Do you want to try sitting up?”
Johnny hadn’t thought of that. It would be pretty hard to eat oatmeal lying down. For that matter, it would be hard to eat it without the use of his hands. The thought of having someone else feed him caused his stomach to flip. If there was one thing Johnny hated more than the cold, it was feeling dependent and vulnerable. “I…I don’t know…”
“How does your back feel?” Kel eyed Johnny suspiciously, trying to determine the cause of his sudden lack of appetite.
“Pretty sore, Doc.” Johnny was telling the truth. His back was sore. And the thought of sitting up made him cringe.
“Hmm…well, let’s get your head elevated enough that you don’t choke. Then, I’ll help you eat.” Brackett motioned for Roy to come over and help him, and together they were able to position some pillows in such a way that Johnny’s head and shoulders were more elevated. Johnny tried hard to remain stoic throughout the transition, but it was becoming more and more obvious the amount of pain he was trying to hide. Kel made a mental note to at least offer some Tylenol if Johnny was able to keep his oatmeal down.
As Kel brought the spoon of lumpy liquid toward Johnny’s mouth, he immediately reached for the spoon, causing Kel to pull back and return the utensil to the bowl.
“I can do it myself.” Johnny insisted.
Roy chimed in now. “Johnny, you can’t grip anything right now, with your hands the way they are…”
“And even if you could, I don’t want you using those hands at all. They need time to heal, Johnny. Now, face it.” Brackett lifted the spoon and held it in front of Johnny’s mouth. “You need some help.”
By this time, Chris had finished scarfing down his second bowl of oatmeal and he moved over with the others. He surprised Kel by taking the spoon from his hand. “Come on, Uncle Johnny. Mom always says you need healthy food to heal and get better. And you need to get better so you can go back to work and help other people get better.” He moved the spoon to Johnny’s lips and slipped it inside. Then, he continued until Johnny had finished the entire bowl. Finally, he handed the empty bowl to Roy before standing up and dusting off his hands. Looking over at his father, he informed, “Well, that takes care of that. Now, let’s go get that tree.”
Roy waited until Chris had disappeared into the bedroom to get dressed before sharing a chuckle with the other men in the room. Yes, his son was definitely growing up, right before his very eyes.