Disclaimer: I don’t own them. If I did, I’d probably have a nicer house. I just like to take them out to play once in a while. I always put them back, a bit worse for wear, but they don’t seem to mind!
Hindsight is Always 20/20
By Mary Ann V.
Crickets chirped and an owl hooted softly somewhere above his head. The sounds of nighttime that he always found so comforting now seemed ominous. He tried to imagine that he was lying in his bed with the windows open, letting in the sounds of nature and the cool breeze that wafted over his chest. The thought brought a smile to his face, but it faded when he opened his eyes in response to the sound of winds gusting through the spindly limbs of the dead tree over his head. They swayed in a macabre dance, illuminated by the full moon that shone between the gathering angry black clouds.
Johnny concentrated on ignoring the odd sensation of crickets crawling in the thick grass under his body. Staying calm finally became impossible and he tried wriggling his shoulders to still the insects. The sharp tines of the barbed wire that seemed to encase his body tightened and he let out a strangled cry. He tried to still the shaking of his body, feeling every single tear and puncture in his flesh scream out at him. “Oh, damn…” He swallowed hard as he waited for the pain to subside to a more tolerable level. At least the crawling insects had quieted underneath him. But he knew they were the least of his concerns now. He watched the clouds illuminated by flashes of light, then heard the rumble of distant thunder. Gooseflesh rose on his skin as he felt the temperature dropping. He suppressed a shiver and thought of his friend and what he was doing tonight. Roy was probably curled around Joanne in their bed, sleeping through the thunder and lightning. His partner would not be wondering where he was until morning. “Please, Roy…” He sighed and licked away the first droplets of rain that splashed on his swollen lip. As the cool raindrops fell on his face, Johnny tried to remember just how he had ended up in this predicament.
The sun beat down relentlessly as Johnny walked out the long dirt lane to his mailbox. His dog, Shadow, a large black mutt, loped beside him, tongue lolling out as he waited for his owner to throw the soggy tennis ball one more time. Johnny grinned and obliged, giving the ball a long throw that sent the shaggy dog running ahead. The ball rolled out past the mailbox and the dog raced after it. The sound of tires skidding on gravel alarmed Johnny and he ran the rest of the way to the road, where he saw a red pickup truck with two male occupants. One boy, who looked about seventeen, yelled out the open window. “Damn, dog! Next time I won’t stop!” The kid gave Johnny a sneer, laughed, then sent gravel flying as he gunned the engine and barreled down the road.
Johnny watched the truck disappear, shaking his head. He had seen the red truck several times over the past few weeks, and had already determined that they were teenagers with too much time on their hands. At first he laughed when he would see them, remembering that carefree feeling of endless summer days. Then one day he saw the truck fly by with the occupants letting a sheet and other bits of clothing fly out and land in the dirt. The driver locked eyes with Johnny for a second as they roared down the road, communicating a clear, dangerous message. He had come to recognize the sound of the truck with its chugging engine and loud muffler, and made a point to be seen by the teens as much as possible when they drove by the entrance to his ranch. He wasn’t going to appear an easy mark.
Johnny picked up the articles of clothing and drove down the road, stopping when he saw a clothesline with only a few things hanging from it. He returned the clothes to the old couple in the small, but neat home. Mr. Randolph mentioned this was not the first time this had happened. His wife, Helen, suffered from advanced arthritis and it would be a chore for her to wash the clothes and hang them up again. Johnny felt his cheeks flush with anger at these boys and their hurtful acts. He promised the Randolphs that he would keep an eye out for any further trouble then silently vowed to make a point of finding the pair and having a meaningful chat.
Two days later, Johnny pulled into the gas station. He had a full day planned with work at his ranch, but he needed supplies from the local hardware store before he began. He paid the attendant who checked the air in his tires, then headed for a quick trip to the washroom. A few minutes later when he rounded the corner, he saw the red pickup truck parked right next to his Rover at the gas pump. Two young men were standing by the tailgate talking. Deciding on an easygoing approach, he greeted the two boys. “Hey, guys. How’s it going?”
The boys looked up simultaneously, and Johnny saw recognition flicker in the tallest one’s eyes as they squinted at him. The shorter boy replied cautiously, “It’s going just fine.”
“Don’t I see you guys driving down the road by my house? Nice pickup.”
The taller boy shoved his hands in his pockets and straightened his back. “Yeah, it’s mine. What’s it to ya’?” He brushed his blonde hair out of his eyes. Johnny thought the shoulder length hair looked dirty and tangled. He knew his own hair looked a bit wild at times, but it was always clean.
Johnny put his hands up in a conciliatory gesture and laughed casually. “Nothing, man. I just see you guys around and it seems you’re enjoying the summer. So are you ready for school to start next week?”
The shorter one, a thin tanned boy with brown hair bleached light by the sun glanced at his counterpart before answering. “Yeah, I guess so.” He flinched when his buddy gave him a cold stare.
“I don’t go to school, mister.” The tall one replied.
“Oh yeah? Graduated already, huh? That’s great.” Johnny could tell immediately that he had been wrong about that when the boy stiffened and his jaw set. The younger boy gave his friend a sideways glance before looking down at his boots. Choosing to ignore the reaction, he pushed on. “Hey, guys. I’ve seen that you’ve been having a little fun with that old couple’s laundry. Don’t you think you could stop hassling them now?”
The tall boy stepped forward suddenly into Johnny’s personal space and crossed his arms in front of him. “Hey, man, we aren’t hassling anybody! What’s your problem? And even if we were, it’s none of your damn business!”
Johnny stood his ground, placing his hands on his hips. This boy, although probably seventeen, already matched him in height. “Now look. I’m not trying to give you a hard time. But I did see you throwing their clothes out the back of your truck. I’m just saying that they’re a nice old couple and it’s hard on them to have to wash all that stuff again. I’m sure there’s plenty of other stuff you can do to have fun around here.”
“Oh really? What would you know about it?” The tall one sneered.
“Hey, Brad, come on. Let’s go.” The younger boy pulled at his friend’s arm.
Brad jerked his arm away. “Knock it off, Little Benny!”
“I told you not to call me that, Brad!” Ben’s cheeks flushed in anger but he kept a careful eye on his friend.
Brad nodded slowly, appraising Johnny. “Yeah, alright, ‘big bad Ben’. Like the guy said, I’m sure there are plenty of other things to do around here. We’ll think of something, won’t we?” He flashed a wolfish smile at Johnny before turning to get into his truck. He paused as he gave the Rover a quick once-over. “Hey, mister. What kinda’ truck is that?”
Johnny forced a smile, hoping the boys were backing off. “It’s a Land Rover.”
“And that sticker on your windshield there. What’s that for?”
“It means I’m a fireman and paramedic for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.”
Ben’s face lit up for a moment. “Really? That’s cool. I always-”
“Shut up, Benny. Get in the damn truck.” He stared at Ben until the boy nodded nervously and got in. “Be seeing you around, mister.”
“The name’s Johnny. Johnny Gage.”
“Okay. We’ll be seeing you around, Johnny Gage.” Brad got into the truck and sped out of the gas station, letting gravel fly.
Johnny heard the boy laughing as they turned onto the road. He shook his head, wondering if he had really gotten anywhere with them. He turned to face Gus, the gas station owner who approached him. “Hey, Gus. What’s the story on those boys?”
Gus pulled off his dirty cap and wiped at the sweat on his brow. “The big one is Brad Russell. He and his dad moved out to the old Benson house about 6 months ago. I don’t know much about ‘em though. Except that he’s trouble. He’s really cowed Benny Masters.” Gus shook his head sadly then spit with precision and adjusted the wad of tobacco between his lower lip and gum. “That kid used to be real friendly and he helped me out around here once in a while. I had to let him go when the Russell kid started hanging around when he was working. Candy bars and sodas started disappearing. Then some of my oil cans. Benny’s always been a good kid, but kinda’ lonely, I think. His dad passed away a year ago. There aren’t many kids his age around here, and the Russells live real close to him. It’s a shame, really. I hear they’re stirring up trouble.”
“Yeah, they are. I hope I talked some sense into them.” Johnny did hope he had gotten his point across, but Brad’s parting comments left him apprehensive.
“Keep your eye on that Brad Russell. He’s up to nothing good. Don’t trust him as far as I could throw him.”
“Yeah, know what you mean, Gus.” Johnny pushed his uneasy thoughts aside and headed out of the gas station.
“Now why would I want to do that, Roy?” Johnny clanked the lid on the cookie jar, scowling. He glanced at the other men lounging in the dayroom. “Hey! Who ate the last cookie?”
Appearing around the corner, Hank Stanley peered at his young paramedic, waving the half eaten cookie at him. “I did. Problem with that, Gage?”
“Uh, no sir, Cap- I just- I was- you know, just… well I was just wondering.” Johnny shrugged his shoulders unconvincingly.
Captain Stanley patted Johnny’s shoulder as he passed him, making his way to the stove for coffee. “Didn’t think you’d mind someone else grabbing it for a change.”
“’Course not, Cap.” Johnny frowned at the back of his leader before turning his attention back to his partner. “Why would I want to call the cops, Roy?”
“Johnny, this is the second time something like this has happened! The first time they took a ball bat to your mailbox! This time they slashed a tire! It could just get worse!”
“They’re just kids, man!”
“Teenagers old enough to drive and big enough to beat your mailbox to a pulp! You have an idea who’s doing it, don’t you?”
Johnny gave Roy an irritated wave before he opened the refrigerator and found an apple. “There’s no way I can be sure who it is! Kids like driving around the dirt roads by my place. Not a lot of cops and plenty of places to hide when you want to go park with your girl.” Johnny waggled his eyebrows at Roy then took a big bite from his apple.
“I still think you should report it.”
“Roy, I’m not happy about it either, but I can’t go pinning the blame on someone when I never saw it happen!” He shrugged half-heartedly. “And that old rusty mailbox needed to be replaced anyway. The mailman was always giving me a hard time about it. Got a real nice one now!”
“Johnny, they’ve been on your property! Your Rover’s parked right by your house. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“I’ve already decided to put Shadow out at night. When that happened he was inside and by the time he started barking it was too late. They’ll get tired of me and move on. Besides, school starts in a week, so that’ll probably solve my problem.”
“Don’t count on it.” Roy walked out of the kitchen and to the squad where they would check supplies and equipment.
Johnny took another bite of his apple. He didn’t want to tell Roy, but he was worried. He suspected that the motivation behind the acts of vandalism aimed towards him was meant as a warning or payback for confronting the boys at the gas station. Guiltily, he thought back to his own early teenage years after his parents had died. He had been out of control and angry, acting out in ways that made him identify with these kids. Yet even when he had done something to express his grief and anger, he had been filled with remorse, finally seeking out his aunt in Los Angeles where he found a fresh start. Somehow he just knew if he talked to these kids again that he could turn them around.
Johnny and Roy looked around the small diner for an empty booth. Spotting one, they moved to sit down. “I’m starving, Roy! Hey, thanks for your help, man. I never would have gotten those fence posts up so fast without you.”
Roy shook his head and smiled as he opened the menu. “That’s funny. When you invited me to your place to go fishing, I had no clue that meant I had to work for it.”
Johnny grinned sheepishly over his menu. “Aww, we can still go fishin’, Roy. It’s still early.”
“You better believe we will, Junior.”
A waitress appeared and filled Johnny’s cup with coffee. “Hi, Johnny.” She held the pot expectantly over Roy’s cup. “Would you like coffee too?”
Roy nodded and pushed his cup closer.
“Hi, Frannie. How are ya’?” Johnny looked at the waitress he had become familiar with during his frequent stops at this diner, named “Deke’s” after the owner. Although she looked to be in her mid forties, there seemed to be a sadness about her, despite her attempts to smile and be friendly to her customers.
“Oh, just the same as I was the last time you strolled in here. Another day, another fifty cents.” She gave a quick smile. “Two milks for you, Johnny? Want to give the special a try? It’s meatloaf today, and really not bad.”
“Sounds good to me. Roy?” Johnny set his menu down.
“I’ll give it a try.”
Frannie jotted the order down and picked up the menus and turned, practically bumping into someone behind her. “Ben! What are you doing here?”
Johnny looked up, surprised to see the young boy here. Ben looked nervously at Johnny, then at Roy before turning to the waitress. “Uh, mom, I was wondering if I could borrow five bucks. Me and Brad wanted to go to a movie.”
“Benny, I just gave you five yesterday! I’m not made of money you know. Payday’s not until Friday.”
“Come on, Mom! There’s nothing to do!”
Frannie whispered fiercely at her son. “There would be if you went and apologized to Gus! He’d probably give you your job back if you-”
Ben flushed angrily and was about to respond when Johnny interrupted. “Hey there, Ben. Good to see you again.”
Frannie looked puzzled. “You know my son?”
“Sure. We’ve kind of run into each other a few times, haven’t we, Ben?”
Ben glared at Johnny for a moment, obviously wondering if the paramedic would tell his mother what he had been up to with Brad. “Uh, yeah, Mom. We met at the gas station.”
“Well that’s nice.” She took in the look between them. “I take it you met Brad too then, Johnny?”
“Yes, I sure did.”
“I don’t know about that boy-“
“Mom! He’s my friend!”
Johnny interrupted quickly. “Hey, Ben, this is my friend Roy. He’s my partner at the fire department and also a paramedic.”
Roy smiled and reached out his hand, which Ben took after a moment’s hesitation. “Hi, Ben.”
Ben’s eyes lit up with interest. “So you’re both paramedics, huh? You like it?”
“Oh, yeah, sure we do.” Roy glanced at Johnny. “I was the one that got him interested. He wasn’t so sure about it at first.” Johnny gave Roy an exaggerated smirk.
Ben smiled at the obvious friendship between these two men. “Oh, man. I’ve always thought it would be really cool to be a fireman. Or really hot!”
Johnny laughed at that, glad to see Ben letting his guard down. “Well you just let me know and you can stop by the station when we’re working. You could meet the whole crew.”
“Really? That would be-”
A voice called out from the diner entrance. “Hey, Benny! You comin’ or what?” Brad stood with his hands on his hips.
Ben leaned towards him mother. “Come on, Mom! I gotta go!”
Frannie shook her head and muttered as she reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a few bills she had received in tips. “All I got is $4.00, Benny.”
The boy snatched the money from her hand and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Mom.”
Frannie sighed as she watched her son disappear. “I don’t know about that boy…” She ripped off the order on her pad. “Be right back with your order, guys.”
Roy leaned forward on the table to look at Johnny. “That’s one of ‘em, isn’t it, Johnny?”
“Now look, Roy. I’ve got a handle on things. I don’t think Ben’s a bad kid. He’s just being led astray.”
“By that one?” Roy looked out the diner window and watched Ben jump into the passenger side of the truck. The driver seemed a bit older than Ben, and had a look that made Roy’s hackles rise. “I hate to say it but he looks like trouble.”
“Yeah, well, don’t worry about it.”
“Too late for that, Johnny. And I hope you’re not ignoring the problem. Will you please promise me that you’ll take it seriously, and if anything else happens, you’ll report it?” Roy did not let his gaze waver from his friend.
Johnny knew Roy was serious. It wasn’t often that Roy displayed this kind of concern and he couldn’t dismiss it. “Okay, I will. But I still intend to talk to them again.” He leaned back and sipped his coffee. “I didn’t know Frannie was Ben’s mother. I guess her husband died a year ago. I’m sure that was hard on both of them.”
Roy looked over at the waitress. “Yeah, I’m sure it still is. That might explain why Ben’s taking up with that kid.”
“Explains a lot of things, Roy.”
Johnny whistled to himself as he made the turn down the gravel road that would take him home tonight. He’d been on a date with Michelle, a girl he met at the bookstore. They had gone out for pizza and a movie. Johnny was pleased that she had kissed him goodnight and asked him to call her again.
Four days had gone by without any further acts of vandalism and Johnny was certain that Brad and Ben had finally ended their spree. School started Monday and at least Ben Masters would be there. From Brad’s reaction, Johnny wondered if Brad had dropped out or caused enough trouble at the school to be suspended or expelled. Somehow he thought he couldn’t be far off the mark.
As he approached the driveway of the Randolph’s home, a figure darted in front of the Rover. Brad Russell paused a moment in the headlights beam, wide-eyed, then disappeared into the woods on the opposite side of the road. Something told Johnny that he should check on the old couple, so he pulled into the driveway. Illuminated in his headlights, he saw Bill Randolph kneeling on the ground cradling Helen in his arms. Leaving the headlights on, he grabbed his kit and scrambled from the Rover.
“Mr. Randolph, what happened?” He knelt down next to Bill. Helen was crying and moaning as Bill clung to her shoulders.
“That – that boy! He scared Helen! She came out looking for Penelope, our cat, and he must have been in the garage.”
Johnny looked around to see a toolbox that had spilled on the ground. He suspected that Helen had interrupted Brad’s attempt to steal tools from the garage.
Helen let out a gasp. “Bill, did he hurt Penelope?” She put a hand to her face and sobbed anew at the thought of her beloved pet being hurt. “Go- go check on her, please.” Helen cried out and her face pinched with unmasked pain.
Johnny touched Bill’s shoulder firmly. “Let me check her out. Okay, Bill?”
Bill looked at Johnny, his eyes shining with unshed tears of frustration. “She’s hurt, Johnny. She said her hip hurt. That boy pushed her down.”
Nodding, he took Helen by her shoulders and laid her gently back to the grass. “It’s gonna be alright, Helen. Just relax. Now tell me which hip hurts.”
Helen lowered a shaky hand to her right hip, but she could not manage to speak. She was breathing shallowly now.
“Okay, Helen. Are you hurt anywhere else?” She managed to give a quick shake of her head before letting out another long moan. Johnny’s heart went out to this kind woman. “I’m going to just do some touching, Helen, to see where it hurts okay? I’ll try to be gentle.” He performed a quick check of her extremities, leaving the right hip for last. As he probed the hip she let out another moan and reached to push his hand away. “That’s all, Helen. I won’t touch it again.” He rested back on his heels and looked up at Bill, who stood behind Helen’s head.
“I need you to go call the fire department, Bill. Dial the operator and tell her you need a paramedic squad and an ambulance here. Ask them to send the police too. And when you’re done, bring a blanket out.”
“O-okay, Johnny.” Bill shuffled up to the porch and disappeared inside.
Placing a hand on Helen’s forehead Johnny spoke clearly but gently. “Helen, Bill’s calling an ambulance and as soon as it gets here we’ll get you to the hospital. I have a lot of friends at Rampart who’ll take really good care of you.” He opened his kit and began taking vitals. He wished he could do more to comfort her, but he knew Rampart would likely order some pain medication when the squad arrived, which he hoped would be very soon. Helen was starting to shiver and he knew she was going into shock. A broken hip was a traumatic injury in the elderly, and he became angry at the knowledge of who had done this. This was no longer simple vandalism – it was assault.
Johnny waited until Helen was loaded into the ambulance before approaching the police officer who was finishing his discussion with Bill Randolph. The elderly gentleman reached out a shaky hand to the paramedic. “Johnny, I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t stopped by. Thank you, son.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Randolph. Don’t worry now. Helen will be in good hands at Rampart. Now you better get going. Drive carefully and don’t speed. You’ll get there in time.”
The old man’s eyes misted over and he patted Johnny’s arm before hurrying over to his car. Johnny looked after him, ran his hands through his hair and turned to the police officer.
“Did you see who did this?” The officer held his notepad and pen expectantly.
“I sure did.” Johnny knew that Brad Russell needed to be arrested now. He continued to tell the deputy what he had seen.
“It sounds like this kid was trying to send the Randolphs a message. Bill called and reported some vandalism this morning and another officer went out to talk to the suspect and another kid. All we could do was give them a warning, but it sounds like that was enough to get this Russell kid angry enough to try and send his own warning.” The officer walked over to view the spilled tool box and broken window on the garage door. He made a final note in his book, thanked Johnny and left.
Johnny began cleaning up the tools, then swept up the broken glass from the window. A wave of anger and regret washed over him. His own guilt could not be swept away so easily. If he had reported the earlier acts of vandalism, it was likely this would have never happened. Helen Randolph would be sitting in her house, with Penelope on her lap. He would see this through to the end now. He was just glad that Ben had not been involved.
Roy backed the squad into the station. The morning was cool and their first run had come before roll call. Turning off the ignition, Roy leaned back in his seat and stole a glance at Johnny, who looked back and grinned. Both men laughed as they thought of the run they had just returned from. A pregnant woman had been in labor when they arrived at the house. But as it turned out, they had not been called to help her, but her husband instead. Between groans, the young woman explained that she had awoken early to feel her contractions starting. Knowing they would soon be leaving for the hospital, she decided to take a shower before waking her husband.
According to the wife, who was remarkably calm, she then woke her husband and told him she was in labor. He apparently jumped from bed and rushed to get dressed. He was pulling his pants up and became entangled, lost his balance and fell down the stairs. He had broken his ankle and as the paramedics splinted his leg and got him ready for transport he was still panicked and worried about his wife, whose contractions were getting closer together. She had calmly refused any examination, confident that she had plenty of time. She rode in with her husband who continued to fret and worry. As Roy shut the ambulance door, the wife looked at her husband on the gurney, then looked at the paramedic and rolled her eyes.
Captain Stanley met his paramedics outside of his office. “John, can I see you for a minute?” An older man dressed in a suit stood next to him.
“Uh, sure, Cap.” Johnny frowned at Roy who nodded then headed to the dayroom. “What’s going on?”
“John, this is Detective Montgomery. He’d like to talk to you. Go ahead and use my office.” The captain shook the detective’s hand then walked to the dayroom.
Johnny shook the detective’s hand then stepped into the office, shutting the door behind them. “What can I do for you?” He sat on the edge of the desk and gestured to the chair where the detective sat and opened his notebook.
“I just wanted to come in to let you know that Brad Russell was arrested yesterday on assault and battery charges.”
“Oh. Well that’s good, right?”
“Yes, and we think we have a solid case against him. Mr. Randolph has seen Brad and another boy around his house several times, and he believes his wife will testify that it was Brad that assaulted her. But that won’t happen for quite some time until she is well enough to give a statement.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Johnny thought back to his visit with Helen Randolph yesterday. She had not been awake much, and when she was, she hadn’t been coherent. She was on some strong pain medication after the surgery to repair her fractured hip. Johnny had felt his throat tighten at the sight of the frail woman in bed, moaning softly in her sleep. Bill sat close, patting her hand when she stirred.
“Could you come by the station on one of your days off to give a full statement?”
“Sure. Maybe tomorrow after I get some work done at my place.”
“That would work out fine. We really need your statement to make this stick. His lawyer is already insinuating that Mrs. Randolph could have been confused as to who assaulted her, based on her age… if you know what I mean.”
Johnny suddenly felt his stomach knot tightly. “That’s ridiculous. She knows damn good and well who did this.”
“I don’t doubt it, Mr. Gage. But we don’t have her statement yet, and this lawyer is counting on her condition to imply that she’s not a reliable witness.”
Johnny exploded at that and shouted, “She’s not just a witness, damnit! She’s the victim! She didn’t do anything to that kid!”
“That’s correct, she didn’t. And it’s the biggest reason I want this kid to pay. He’s already been in trouble at school. He got expelled for vandalism there and making threatening remarks to a teacher who gave him a failing grade. I want this to stick, Mr. Gage.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’m sorry for yelling, Detective. I just hate what happened to Helen. At least Brad’s cooling his jets in jail.” Johnny ran his hand through his hair.
“Well, unfortunately he’s out on bail already. He was released to his father this morning.”
“Damnit! Well I guess there’s nothing to be done about that. I’ll make sure to stop in tomorrow afternoon for that statement.”
Detective Montgomery stood and shook Johnny’s hand. “That’s great. Having your reliable testimony to back up what Helen saw will cement this case for us. See you tomorrow.”
Johnny nodded, then after the detective left, he slammed his hand on the desk, angry once again that Brad had turned the Randolphs’ lives upside down, and that he could have done something to prevent it.
Johnny arrived home after a long and tiring shift. He had only gotten about two hours of collective sleep between the four calls the squad had responded to during the night. Johnny walked wearily to the barn as Shadow ran ahead, just waiting for the ball’s release. He wasn’t disappointed when the ball flew out past the barn. Johnny greeted his horses, speaking to them softly as he unlatched each stall’s gate. He led them to the corral where they would wait to be fed until after he had cleaned each stall.
Finally completing the messiest part of the job, he whistled while he used his pitchfork to pull fresh straw from the empty stall nearby and pile it onto the wheelbarrow. He was busy covering the floor of one stall when he heard a voice behind him, making him jump.
“Nice barn, Mister Gage.”
One look at the man leaning in the large doorway to the barn made Johnny instinctively grip the pitchfork a little more tightly. The stranger was tall and bulky. Johnny was sure that when the man was younger, he was most likely a football player and weight lifter. He looked to be about fifty years old. He wore some sort of mechanic’s uniform and his large hands and forearms were smudged with dark streaks of grease. He was smoking a cigarette as he gave Johnny an appraising stare.
“Uh, hello, Mister….?”
“You know it’s amazing that a single guy like you, living alone, working as a fireman, can afford a nice place like this. It’s real nice.” The man took a long drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke out into the barn.
The man stepped forward and wiped a greasy hand on his pant leg before offering it to Johnny in a handshake. Johnny hesitated for a moment then switched the pitchfork to his left hand and reached out to shake the man’s hand.
“My name’s Mac Russell.” He gave Johnny’s hand a hard squeeze and gave a quick smile when he saw Johnny flinch under the pressure. He continued to hold Johnny’s hand in a tight grip as he said, “Brad Russell’s father.”
Johnny pulled his hand free and placed it on his hip. “I don’t think we have anything to discuss, Mr. Russell.” He took a few steps backwards to send the message that he wasn’t talking, but the big man stepped forward after him.
“Now, see there, Mr. Gage, that’s where you’re wrong. I figure we’ve got a lot to talk about.” Mac took another drag from the cigarette then pointed it at Johnny. “You’re about to cause my boy a heap of trouble.”
“Mr. Russell, Brad’s the one who’s been causing trouble, and I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now.”
“Aww, now, Mr. Gage… I’m gonna call you Johnny, okay?” Mac gave Johnny a feral smile. “You see, Johnny, me and my boy just moved here a few months ago. We needed a fresh start after his mother left us. It was a sad thing, Johnny.” The man began moving around the barn, picking up tools and tack, examining them then placing them carefully back down. “She left us, and Brad… well he started getting in trouble. I’m just trying to support my boy. Don’t ya see?”
Somehow Johnny figured there had to be much more to that story than what Mac was telling. “I am sorry to hear that Mr. Russell. But lots of kids are raised by single parents nowadays. They don’t all go out terrorizing… and assaulting frail little women.” Johnny’s grip tightened on the pitchfork and he pointed his finger at the man who still roamed freely around his barn. “It’s time you should leave.”
“Brad didn’t hurt that old lady! She musta been confused because he was home with me all night. And if you go telling the cops he was there, you’ll just be causing trouble.”
“If you’re here to beg me to not testify, Mr. Russell-”
“Oh, no, Johnny. I don’t beg. You’re way off base. But I am telling you that it would be a big, big mistake to lie to the police about Brad being there.”
“That sure sounds like a threat. I want you out of here right now.” Johnny moved the pitchfork so it was pointed slightly towards the bulking man.
Mac smirked at him, took another long drag off his cigarette then blew it in Johnny’s face. “Yeah, you’re real tough with that in your hands, aren’t you, Fireman Johnny? Let me just remind you that we live pretty close to one another. Now it wouldn’t be very neighborly of me if I didn’t stop by now and again to visit. You’ve got such a nice place here, living alone, with just a dog to keep you company. It’d be an awful shame if something happened to this place. I’m sure it’s a real worry when you’re working at that fire station all night – wondering if everything’s okay here.” He turned and looked around the barn. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you, Johnny. I’ll make sure to stop by and check on the place when you’re working.”
“If you set foot on my property again, Russell, I’ll have your ass arrested so fast you won’t know what hit you. That’s a promise.”
“Well, now, Johnny, I can see you’re a man of your word. And you just better believe I’m a man of mine too.” He took one last deep draw from his cigarette and flicked the burning stub into the straw on the floor. Tendrils of smoke rose almost immediately. “Just think about what I said.” He laughed and headed out the door to his truck.
Johnny quickly grabbed the cigarette from the straw, then filled a bucket of water and soaked the area, making sure there was no trace of an ember. When he was sure the danger of fire was over he went to sit on a nearby bench. He was shaking slightly as he thought of the implications. Brad Russell was a chip off the old block. But he needed to be stopped. Maybe going through a trial and a sentence was the only way to make Brad change the direction he was heading. He certainly wasn’t getting any help from his father.
Johnny left the police station not feeling much better about the situation. He had told Detective Montgomery about Mac Russell’s visit but there just wasn’t much they could do about it yet. He hadn’t made any direct threats, only carefully veiled ones. He turned down his lane, apprehensive about what he might find. Would he feel like this every time he had to leave on some errand or to go to work? He was relieved to see Shadow running towards the Rover. He looked around and saw nothing that looked out of place. His horses stood in the nearby pasture, at ease.
Unable to shake the feeling he had, he went inside to call Roy. When there was no answer he remembered that his friend was taking the family to his mother’s house for the day before the kids started school. He wouldn’t see Roy until his next shift. He had wanted to talk to him about what was going on, but also to let him know that he had been able to secure the much needed part to repair the radiator in the old engine. With all that was going on, he was concerned that something would happen to it. They had been storing it on his property, and he kept it covered with a tarp. Berating himself for feeling spooked, he decided to invite Michelle out for the evening. He hoped she would enjoy seeing his place. She had seemed interested when he mentioned he had three horses. He called her at the bookstore, but she explained that she was closing the store tonight and wouldn’t be able to come. She seemed genuinely disappointed and asked for a rain check. They chatted for a few more minutes then she had customers to wait on and promised to call when she got home tonight.
Feeling a slight bit sorry for himself, and angry with himself that he was, he built a fire in his fireplace and sat in front of it sipping a beer. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but if he was going to wallow in self pity, he might as well make the most of it.
The next morning he awoke early feeling renewed, and more than a little stupid for the way he had been feeling yesterday. He was glad to have followed through and given his statement to the police. For a brief moment after Mac Russell’s visit he had contemplated not going to the police. But one thought of Helen Randolph in the hospital wiped that idea from his mind. Shadow had spent the night outside on the porch and there had been nothing to alert him to any trouble. He hoped Mac Russell was putting his energy into getting his son some help, but somehow he didn’t think that would happen.
He ate a piece of toast and coffee then let the horses out of the barn into the corral. He made quick work of cleaning the stalls and feeding the horses. Looking around his property, he knew there was plenty of work he could do. He felt restless and frustrated by the past week’s events. He decided that he needed to run some of that frustration off. It was something he tried to do a few times a week. He loved running. It helped to work off excess energy and helped him concentrate. But mostly it gave him a sense of freedom. Once the endorphins kicked in, he felt like he could run forever. He went inside and put on some running shorts and an old sleeveless t-shirt. He headed out the door and started a slow jog towards the road. Shadow barked then bounded after him, eager to go along.
He had run about two miles when he decided to take a different route than the usual circuit that would lead back to his ranch. The narrow road he took was less traveled and he didn’t know the people who lived down this way. He had driven by several times, and there were only a few ranches spread out with cows or horses in pastures. He was glad he took this route. He enjoyed seeing the landscape, and the deserted area gave him a sense of peace that he realized was just the thing he was seeking. Shadow ran along beside him for the most part, but occasionally something would get his attention in the deep ditch beside the road and he would disappear into the underbrush, barking at some bird or rabbit that easily escaped his eager pursuit.
He had run down this quiet road for nearly two miles when the sound of an engine behind him broke him out of his pleasant reverie. He hugged the edge of the road, careful to not step too closely to the edge of the ditch. He thought he heard the vehicle slow but he was giving it plenty of room to go around so he didn’t pay much attention when it passed him by, throwing up dust in its wake. The pickup was a dull brown color, and had several dents decorating its rusted exterior. The truck’s brake lights lit up and it screeched to a fast halt. Johnny figured the driver was someone who lived up this road and probably wondered if he needed a ride. Shadow had disappeared again into the underbrush of the nearby ditch. The truck’s reverse lights came on so Johnny stopped jogging and waited to tell the owner that he was fine and wouldn’t need a ride anywhere. Clouds of dust rose around the truck after it came to a halt. The driver opened the door, and as the dust cleared Johnny could see he was in for trouble. His heart raced when Mac Russell stepped out of the truck.
Johnny held up a hand and took a few steps back. “Now look, Mister Russell, get back in that truck and move on. I don’t want any trouble from you.”
“Well, Fireman Johnny, you should have listened to me yesterday. But you had to stick your nose into our business. My lawyer told me you went in and made a statement to the cops. Now, I thought we’d come to a neighborly agreement.”
Johnny knew he could outrun Mac Russell, but probably not his old truck. The road was bordered by a ditch filled with brush and trees then rose to a pasture behind an old barbed wire fence. “You can call it whatever you want, but we had no agreement. Brad hurt Mrs. Randolph! He made that choice. Why don’t you set a good example and tell him he has to accept the consequences?”
A voice from behind made Johnny twist around, startled.
“Because he’s my dad, you jerk! He looks out for me!” Brad Russell stood behind Johnny wielding a baseball bat. “Maybe you don’t understand that family looks out for each other.” He lifted the bat and rested it on his shoulder.
Suddenly Johnny knew this had been planned. Mac had slowed enough behind him to drop off his son then driven ahead. He was cut off but figured if he had to make a choice, he would take his chances with Brad. Even though he held a bat, he wasn’t as big as his father. “Brad, you’re making a big mistake right now. This is when you make a decision, kid. You can take a road that leads to jail and trouble for the rest of your life, or you can take a stand and be a man. What kind of life do you want, Brad?”
Mac walked to end of his truck and reached into the bed and pulled out a length of rusty pipe. “Brad knows his path, Johnny. He’ll make his own road. Not everyone wants to be a flashy fireman. Why would he listen to you? You’re the one that got him in trouble!”
Johnny moved further away from Mac, who was approaching him slowly. “Brad, if you didn’t mean to hurt Helen Randolph, you should tell the cops that. But just admit what you did and get it over with.”
“Of course I didn’t mean to hurt her. The old lady came out to the garage at the wrong time. But she was standing right in my way and I guess I knocked her over when I ran out.”
Johnny nodded and gave a nervous smile. “See, I didn’t think you’d really want to hurt her.”
“Brad, you little idiot!” Mac spit on the road. “You just admitted you did it! To the damn witness! Why can’t you just listen to me and keep your damn fool mouth shut!”
“I already knew he did it, Mac.” Johnny gave the angry father a quick look before turning to Brad. “Look, you know you’re guilty. Just give up and take the consequences. It won’t be that bad. But if you hurt me, you’ll be looking at prison, Brad. And so will your dad.”
Brad’s eyes flickered uncertainly and he looked to his father. “Dad?”
Before Johnny knew what had happened, he was falling to his knees. Pain exploded in his left arm and drew the breath from him. He dropped over on the ground clutching his upper arm. While still trying to get his lungs to work, the pipe came down on his shoulder. “Agh! God damnit!” He managed to whisper. He knew without a doubt that his arm and clavicle were broken.
“Dad! We were only supposed to scare him!” Brad took a step towards his father, but the bigger man held the pipe with one hand and grabbed his son’s arm and twirled him back towards Johnny.
“Look at him, Brad! That’s the man that can send you to prison if he shows up in court! This is your life we’re talking about now, boy. You want to do five to ten years for burglary and assault? Now I’m telling you to stop acting like a kid and be a man!” Mac Russell gave Johnny a hard kick to the stomach, causing him to curl into a ball and groan. “Who is it that’s taken care of you your whole damn life?”
“I- I don’t want to go to prison, Dad. But why are you doing this?”
“It’s either you or him, Brad. How stupid are you?” Mac grabbed his son’s neck and forced him to look down on their victim, who looked up at them gasping, trying to gain eye contact with Brad. “You think he has the answer to all your problems? You idiot! He is your problem! I’m going to solve it for you now. You’re too much like your mother, boy! Here’s a lesson for the rest of your life, son. I’m going to handle this for you, but the next time you better step up and take care of business yourself.”
With strength borne of pure panic, Johnny pushed himself up on his knees and glanced down the road, praying that he would see a car coming. He understood the irony here. He had picked this road to run on because it was so quiet and deserted. Clutching his arm tightly, he knelt up in the gravel. “Brad, I-I’m sure you won’t go to prison. It’s your first offense… r-right? But doing this finishes you off.” He adjusted his arm and gasped. “What does being a man mean? Bullying and… and beating down people to get what you want? Or can it mean doing what’s right, even though the consequences are hard to… to take?” He panted and tried to find words that might get through to the impressionable younger man, but he was interrupted before he could convey his point.
“You’ve said enough, Fireman. Let me tell you what being a man is. It’s taking care of number one and doing what needs to be done!” Mac’s boot connected with Johnny’s ribs.
Johnny had no idea how he managed to remain on his knees, but his head fell forward onto the gravel and he tried to take in a breath but his lungs were not cooperating. His whole right side throbbed with a knifelike intensity.
“Okay, son. It’s time you took a step to help yourself. Now take that bat and show him who the man is here.”
“Dad, please!” Brad gripped the bat but did not raise it to strike.
“You stupid fool!” Mac threw the pipe down and approached Johnny, grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling him to his feet. Johnny sagged against the man then dropped to his knees when a solid blow connected with his eye. The next punch came so fast he couldn’t tell at first where Mac’s fist had connected. His whole face was numb. He shook his head then tasted blood filling his mouth. He spit it out, making sure he hit his target. Mac roared with anger when he looked at the bloody spittle on his boot. Johnny took that split second of distraction to call on the adrenaline pumping through his system to rise up and ram his body against Mac’s. The big man stumbled back but did not fall. Johnny turned and started to run down the road. He got about ten feet when he felt the Louisville Slugger crash against the side of his right knee. He collapsed immediately and felt his knee grind sickeningly. He managed to turn towards his attacker then felt bitter disappointment flow over him when he saw Brad standing over him with the bat. Guess he made his decision…
“My dad was right! You think you know everything!”
Mac came up to his son’s side. “Go on, Brad. Let’s finish this then we’ll go by the diner for lunch.”
Oh my god… they’re planning on lunch after they kill me…
From out of nowhere a dark blur burst out from the ditch and launched itself against Brad. Shadow was a dog possessed and his viciousness startled Brad causing him to drop the bat and fall to the ground, using his arms to try to fend off the dog’s attack. Mac gave the dog a quick kick and Shadow yelped and jumped back barking. The older man picked up the bat and swung it hard at the dog, but Shadow was too fast and easily dodged the blow. “God damn dog! Come on, Brad. Let’s finish this and get out of here.” He pulled his son to his feet, and Brad looked at his arm, which had been bloodied by the attack. The father looked at his son and shook his head. “See what a pain in the ass you are, Fireman?” He turned to hit the dog which barked and growled, but Shadow easily ducked the bat. “I’ll take care of this for you, Brad. Like I do everything else.” Mac Russell raised the bat over his head and brought it down in an arc that would surely crack Johnny’s skull open.
Johnny didn’t know how he had managed to duck the bat that swung towards his head, especially after it had just contacted his left arm, leaving him in a shocked daze. He knew the full impact would have killed him. He managed to move just enough, receiving a glancing blow to the back of his head, and was propelled down into the ditch amongst the growth of brush and weeds. He supposed survival instinct had something to do with it, but he also knew fear was what drove him now. Knowing the pair would follow and try to finish him off, he got shakily to his feet, putting all his weight on his uninjured left leg. He braced himself on a fence post and swallowed down the nausea that rose in his throat. His vision blurred and his arm was a mass of pain. All he knew was that he should run. Adrenaline coursed through his body and he tried to move one foot in front of the other but only managed to drag his injured right leg along. He felt thorns from the underbrush scratching at his bare arms and legs. The sleeveless t-shirt he wore was poor protection against the pull of branches and thorns. It caught on a limb, slowing his progress until he wrenched free, partially tearing the thin shirt from his body. He stumbled and his vision swam.
Johnny thought he could hear a commotion not far behind him. He could feel that he was close to blacking out, but he took a deep breath and he pushed himself forward with renewed strength. He heard Shadow barking then more cursing, and he fervently hoped his dog’s teeth had made contact with someone’s flesh. In fact he prayed Shadow was ripping one of them to pieces.
Suddenly he was caught on something again, and he panicked when he could not pull loose. Sweat dripped into his eyes, causing them to burn and making his already blurry vision even worse. He felt the constraints give way for a moment, so he surged forward, only to stumble and fall hard, driving the air from his lungs. He felt the wire pull against his legs and chest and in his panicked state he rolled, trying to move away from the pain slicing into his body. His good arm flailed and he kicked out with his left leg. When that did not work, he rolled over twice and came to a stop. He breathed hard and his body shook uncontrollably. He knew this was shock and he felt like he was slipping away. Voices that seemed nearby now seemed like a distant echo. He was not sure but he thought he heard Mac talking.
“Damnit! We need to find him! I can’t see anything in this brush!” Mac Russell yelped as Shadow bit his calf and shook. “Agh! Brad! Kill this dog!” He cursed that he had not brought the ball bat or pipe with him to finish the fireman off down here. He grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck and pulled him off his leg. The dog continued to snarl and snap, so Mac pushed the dog away. Shadow barked and darted easily back and forth between the underbrush.
Brad joined his father, panting heavily. “I don’t see him, Dad. You know he’s not going anywhere! I busted his leg and his arm’s broke too. I bet you cracked his skull. Come on and let’s get out of here before that dogs barking gets someone’s attention!” Brad looked at his father, who still grumbled and kicked at the thick brush in an attempt to find his victim. “Dad! We have to go!”
“Yeah, you’re right. If he’s still breathing he won’t be for long. Let’s go get cleaned up. And keep your mouth shut, you hear me?” He grabbed Brad by the hair and pulled his son close to his face to look into his eyes. “No one knows about this but you and me. The way we get away with this is by trusting each other and not talking about it anymore. Got it?”
Brad swallowed hard and nodded. “G-got it, Dad.”
Mac gave his boy a sly grin. “Good. Let’s go. I’m proud of you, son. You really came through there. I thought you were going to turn pansy on me.” Mac Russell beamed at his son, released his hair and gave a hearty pat on the back. “Nothing’s going to stop the Russells.”
Johnny heard the men scrambling back up the ditch. He listened to the truck start then finally pull away. Mac was probably right. He wouldn’t last long if he wasn’t found. Hopelessness fought for attention with the overwhelming pain of his injuries. He was cocooned inside what must be barbed wire. It felt like it was everywhere, slicing into his body deeper with every small movement. Even taking a breath aggravated the razor sharp tines. He laid still for a while letting his situation sink in.
Lying here now Johnny could see that Brad was probably too far gone to save. He wondered if Ben knew about this plan to attack him. It was a good sign, at least, that he was not here to help the Russells. He thought he had seen flashes of hope in Ben’s eyes at the diner – kind of a hope for something better. Johnny supposed the boy just didn’t know how to get out from under Brad’s thumb.
Johnny’s head throbbed and he felt nauseous. He breathed evenly, trying to still the urge to vomit, but it finally overwhelmed him. He turned his head as much as possible as the contents of his small breakfast were ejected onto the thick grass nearby. He spit the foul taste from his mouth then rested his head back and closed his eyes. He felt everything spinning around him and his last thought before losing consciousness was that he surely had a concussion so he should really try to stay awake.
Johnny woke to feel a gentle pressure on his face. He wasn’t sure where he was and his memory was blank right now. He blinked and tried to focus on the dark shape above him. Gradually Shadow came into focus. The dog was whining and licking his face. “Sh-shadow…” He tried to lift a hand but the barbed wire cut into his arm and chest. The events of the afternoon came rushing back to him. He shuddered and closed his eyes. The temperature had dropped and the sky, from what he could see through the thick brush, was overcast. Shadow whined once more then nestled his body next to Johnny, seemingly unaffected by the barbed wire. The cool air over his chest and legs told him that he was bleeding in numerous places. He heard the buzz of insects over his body and felt them land on his wounds. He squirmed but gasped when the razor sharp tines cut into him more deeply. He took comfort in the nearness of his dog, and knew that he had helped to save his life. The animal had succeeded in driving the Russells away. He was certain he would be dead now if had not been for his protectiveness. He hoped the animal’s effort was worthwhile. He could not think of anyone who would possibly know he would be here. Roy wasn’t expecting to talk to him until his next shift. He hadn’t told anyone that he was going running. And even though Roy knew he ran occasionally, there was no way his partner would look for him on this road, which ran farther away from his ranch. He shivered again, grateful for the warmth of the dog huddled next to him, and for the comfort it gave. He let himself drift off, not really sleeping, but not really aware of time as it passed. Somewhere deep inside, he knew he was in trouble. His head injury, along with the broken bones and battered body, would not allow him to maintain consciousness for long. He wondered, in a detached way, if he would wake up the next time he drifted into darkness.
He was thirteen years old and running hard down the dirt path leading to his house. He heard the whoops and yells of the three boys that chased him. He was a fast runner and fear made his feet light. He knew if he was caught now, he’d be beaten within an inch of his life. The three older boys that followed him had teased him at school. It wasn’t anything unusual except now that his parents had died, there was no comfort to look forward to when he went home. The three boys had teased him about the lunch he brought with him. “How many days are you going to eat dry corncakes, runt?” It was true that was all he had to eat, but he wasn’t complaining. At least his mother’s friend, Anita, had spared something for him to eat. She was already feeding four other children and he did not want to bother her for anything more. He knew that was all there was, and he was lucky to get it. But part of him envied the bologna sandwiches and apples his classmates brought with them. His mother had always made him good lunches, but things were different now. When the oldest boy, Rick, grabbed the corncake from his hand and crumbled it onto the ground, anger flared in his heart. He stood and shoved the tall boy angrily.
“If you want trouble, little half-breed, then let’s go. This will be fun.” The other two boys, Denny and Paul, laughed and crossed their arms. Before Johnny could think about what he was doing, he spit into Rick’s face and stared at him coldly. Rick wiped his face and grabbed Johnny’s shirt, pulling him close. “Now you’ve had it, runt. It’s about time you learned your place.” He pulled his hand back and clenched his fist, but Johnny gave him a hard kick to the shin, making Rick release his hold as he grunted his surprise.
Then Johnny ran for his life.
His heart pounded in his throat and he knew he was slowing down. Soon they would be upon him. In desperation, he dove into the tall thicket at the side of the path, and crawled deep inside the thick brush, ignoring the pain of the thorns that stuck to his clothes and punctured his flesh. He lay perfectly still and concentrated on controlling his breathing. He heard the boys’ pounding feet as they passed by his hiding place. He heard one of the boys calling to the others. “Hey, he has to be around here someplace! He wasn’t that far ahead of us! Let’s look around.” There was cursing and more footsteps. “Hey, little runt! I know you’re here. Come out and be a man instead of hiding in the brush like a scared rabbit!”
Johnny heard further discussion between the three friends then froze as he heard the rustle of the bush he was hiding in. He held his breath and closed his eyes, trying to make himself invisible.
“Damn thorns!” Rick yelled. “He’s not around here. Come on, we have to get back to school. Don’t worry, he’ll pay for that. Maybe not today, but soon.” And Johnny knew without a doubt that he would. But for now he was safe and hidden. He kept his eyes closed and thought of his mother. He imagined her cooking in the kitchen when he got home from school and watching his father wrap his arms around her waist as she stirred the steaming pot, kissing her neck and making her giggle. The emptiness overwhelmed him, and he wept.
Stay still… they’re back! Johnny heard a voice from the road. Was it Rick? Confusion swept over him. His body hurt everywhere and he shivered. No, it wasn’t Rick. Rick was a long time ago. It had to be Mac and Brad Russell. They must have returned to make sure he was dead. He remembered having to lie perfectly still to avoid a beating as a young boy, and he practiced it again, staying as still as he could. He took shallow breaths and tried to listen. He could not make out the words but there were voices speaking urgently. He wondered how much time had passed. The fading sun told him that it must be early evening. His vision swam and he felt heat emanating from his body. Fever, dehydration… blood loss. Fear of being discovered washed over him and he surprised himself by letting out a moan from the back of his throat. He cursed himself for letting his fear overwhelm him. He had to stay perfectly, completely still. After a few moments, he heard a car door shut then drive down the road. Relieved, he took a deep breath and concentrated on just that. He realized that Shadow was no longer around. He missed the warm comfort the loyal animal had provided. He shivered uncontrollably as the wind gusted. The limbs of the tree above his head swayed and moved, making him dizzy. He closed his eyes and waited. There really was no hope now. The pain of his injuries came in continuous waves now. Mac Russell had succeeded. He closed his eyes and wished for sleep. Perhaps this time he would not wake up.
He felt absurdly angry that he was still alive when he woke. It was dark now and he was certain he should be dead. Then he felt the first cool drops of rain on his face. For some reason the spirits were punishing him, and would not take him so easily. This must be penance for getting involved in this whole mess with Ben Masters and the Russells. His parents’ faces appeared in his mind, and he knew down deep, that he had done what was right. They had taught him to find strength in himself. That was what he had done after they had been killed on the highway just outside the entrance to the reservation. There had been so much hope when they had left that morning. His mother was accompanying his father on a short trip to a nearby town, where he would be interviewed for a construction supervisor’s job. His mother had kissed his forehead and promised to bring him a treat when they returned. They had almost been home when another driver crossed the center line and hit them head on. There was much talk about the man that had hit them. Some said he was drunk, while others said he had just fallen asleep. It had not mattered to Johnny. The man had died with his parents, and he did not know or care what his name was. His own family could mourn him. His loss was more than he could bear. But his memories of them came frequently. The lessons taught were deeply instilled. He realized that giving up now would greatly disappoint them. He needed to have faith – faith in his ability to endure, and faith in Roy. Somehow he would hang on for as long as it took.
The rain was picking up and he shivered. Sharp pain bolted up his left arm. He worried at how badly it was broken. He was certain his humerus was fractured, and probably his clavicle. His head ached and he couldn’t open his left eye. He knew from the throbbing in the back of his head that he had taken a pretty hard hit, although he was sure it was meant to be harder. His leg pulsed in time to his heart beat. His inability to move without the barbed wire pulling against his flesh was maddening. It had become wrapped around his left thigh and lower leg, as well as his stomach. Both arms were tightly bound against him, with one lying across his midsection. He could feel the deep punctures of the barbed wire on his back. His chest and thigh screamed and burned with pain. The wire bound him so tightly, that his struggles had caused it to become deeply imbedded in places, like the inside of his upper thigh, dangerously close to an area he prayed fervently was left uninjured. He could not be sure because his whole body blazed with sharp pain and deep aches. It was hard to tell where one injury stopped and another started.
Johnny chose to focus on watching the rain make its way through the thick brush. He watched the limbs sway and dance, then his vision blurred. Fever was his enemy now. Ironically, the cool rain was probably helping to keep his temperature down. He could feel the water pooling underneath him, and it made him think of the cooling blankets at Rampart. Fever was nothing new to him. The virus he had caught a few years earlier and subsequent high fever had sent him into a coma. He didn’t remember much from the days that followed, except that Roy held his hand and urged him to come back. He remembered the intense feeling of affection for his friend who insisted that he was needed and wanted. A knot formed in his throat and he wished for his friend to be by his side now. The rain poured down and mingled with the tears that Johnny could hold in no longer.
“Roy, close the window, please! It’s freezing in here!” Joanne gave her husband a not so gentle nudge until he threw back the covers and walked to the window and shut it firmly.
“There! Sounds like a big storm brewing.” Roy rubbed his hands together in front of his bare chest and rushed back to the bed and pulled the blankets up around his chin. “Brrrr…” He grabbed Joanne and pulled her close, purposely wrapping his cold feet around her warm legs, earning him a soft jab to his ribs. “Oomph! Hey, I did you a favor!” She giggled against him so he pulled her closer and nuzzled her neck. “You know Johnny never did call me. He said he’d let me know if he got that part for the engine.”
“I’m sure he just forgot, honey.”
“No, he was really excited about finding the guy who dealt in specialized parts. He was going to let me know how much it cost to replace the cracked radiator.”
“I’m sure he’ll fill you in tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, I guess. I just hope he hasn’t had any more trouble out there. He’s been really worried lately that something will happen to the engine since we started keeping it at his place.”
“Why is it, Roy DeSoto, that when we’re snuggling your mind turns to that old fire engine of yours?”
Roy grinned against her neck. “Maybe because I like hot, hard to handle, one of a kind, fine pieces of equipment…” He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “Fire engines have to be treated just right…” He kissed the nape of her neck. “Run them too rough and they just don’t cooperate…“ He bit the tip of her ear. “Don’t run them at all and they become temperamental and grumpy. They like being challenged.”
Joanne squirmed and turned to face her husband. “Leave it to a fireman to compare his wife to an old, outdated fire engine, and still manage to make it sound really hot.”
The thunder and lightning stole any further thoughts of Johnny from Roy’s mind and he concentrated on the redhead that nibbled on his shoulder.
The sky was still overcast when Roy got up and took the garbage to the curb. He looked at his watch. It was 8:30 and Johnny had not called. He was surprised his friend hadn’t woken him at 6:00 a.m. like he usually did when he was excited about something. It had become almost a joke and Johnny always apologized afterwards. He was an early riser and often times when he was up working in the barn, he lost track of time, not realizing how early it was. If the part was available, they had agreed to work on installing it in the old engine today. With school starting Monday, they would be taking the colorful antique to different functions to build awareness of fire safety as well as entering it in parades. Johnny was just as eager as he was to get the engine running again. He went inside and called Johnny’s house, but got no answer. He frowned, but wasn’t too worried. Most of the time his friend was in the barn working, riding his horses, or out on a date. He was pretty sure Johnny didn’t have a date last night, although he could never be sure. Johnny could meet someone in a gas station and get a date for the evening. If his partner didn’t call soon, he would drive out to the ranch. Chances were that if he got the part, Johnny might try to do the work himself and not bother Roy. He always seemed to feel badly for pulling Roy away from his family on his days off. Roy had to constantly assure Johnny that he was family, and Joanne encouraged her husband to spend ‘guy time’ with him. He wished Johnny knew how much he meant to all of them. He wondered if Johnny had made his statement to the police yet, and if he had, Roy hoped that had brought an end of the vandalism his friend had been experiencing.
Fevered eyes tracked the blurry images over his head. Light and shadows moved over his eyes and confused him. Day or night? He was cold and hot - a fact that didn’t seem strange at all. He shivered and burned at the same time. This must be hell. There was pain all around him, inside and out, and it wormed its way through his body, traveling through the muscles in his injured left leg, cramping it, then bolted up to his thigh where a deep, sharp pain seemed to bore into his flesh. His chest and ribs hurt with every breath. Images of running melded with those of being beaten. Emotions shifted from fear to anger then defeat. Then the concerned face of his friend appeared clearly in front of him, wiping out the fear. Roy’s mouth formed words, but Johnny could not hear them. A bright light shone behind Roy, and he realized it was the sun. The sky had cleared and Roy had come for him. “R-roy?” Johnny’s voice rasped. “W-what… took ya’… so long, partner?” Roy’s mouth moved again and his eyes crinkled in concern. Johnny reached out to touch his friend, needing the assurance that he was here now and safe. But the movement of his arm made him cry out and he closed his eyes tightly as he tried to manage the pain. When he opened his eyes again, Roy was gone, and there was only the blur of the dense brush and the tree limbs over his head. “C-come back, Roy…” His voice cracked and he stopped to listen. There was only the sound of the wind and the crickets that chirped softly around him.
Roy pulled down the dirt lane to Johnny’s ranch. He expected to see Shadow barking out a warning but the dog wasn’t around. Johnny said the dog was easily distracted by rabbits and birds, and sometimes disappeared for hours. Roy was glad to see the Rover parked by the house and the tension in his shoulders loosened a bit. Johnny must have been outside working when he called. He got out and stood by the Rover, calling out. He got no answer so he walked to the barn and found the large door padlocked. Roy looked out into the pasture and saw all three horses grazing peacefully. Johnny had obviously finished his morning chores.
Worry niggled at the back of Roy’s mind as he walked to the house. He found himself fervently hoping that Johnny was inside now. He knocked and waited, then tried the door and found it locked. The worry increased another notch as he dug his keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. “Johnny?” The house was quiet. Roy walked into the large kitchen and saw evidence that Johnny had eaten and had coffee this morning. Roy’s mouth went dry when he saw Johnny’s wallet on the table. “Where are you, Junior?” He picked up the wallet and held it for a moment, as if it could offer a clue to its owner’s whereabouts. Something occurred to him and he walked back to Johnny’s bedroom. He felt like he was intruding, but his concern overrode his embarrassment as he looked in Johnny’s closet. Relief flooded over him when he saw that Johnny’s favorite running shoes were gone. He only had one pair that he would run in. Roy rubbed his face, feeling ridiculous that he had been so concerned. He debated whether he should go back home or hang around and wait for his friend to return. He went to the kitchen and sat down. It was almost noon, and he was certain Johnny’s stomach would guide him home shortly.
Roy went about making a couple of sandwiches and getting out chips. He sat down again and tried to wait patiently. When twenty minutes passed he was seriously concerned. Johnny would have most likely gone running after his chores, which would have brought him home well before noon. He had tried to give his friend the benefit of the doubt, but he knew Johnny’s stomach too. He had seen that Johnny had toast and coffee, and he was sure that had been very early. He would be starving by now. He walked outside and looked around. He heard a car approaching the lane entrance and saw the mailman pull up slowly to the box. Roy waved at him to wait, and jogged the rest of the way to meet him.
“Hey, Nate. Have you seen Johnny out running anywhere on your route?”
The grizzled old man with the full white beard gave him a puzzled look. “Why no, I didn’t. Can’t find the youngster?”
Roy smiled at the comment. “Well, I thought he’d gone running, but he should be back by now.”
Nate pulled the door to the mailbox open to insert some mail. “Well he ain’t even got yesterday’s mail yet. It’s still in here. That’s not like the boy at all.”
Roy thought his heart had stopped beating. He froze as the implications washed over him. “I’m really worried about him now, Nate. If you see him tell him I’ve been looking for him. And will you do me a favor? Would you ask anyone you see on your route about Johnny?”
“Sure thing. Hope you find him safe and sound.”
“Yeah, safe and sound… Thanks, Nate.”
The old man waved and drove off, leaving Roy alone with his mind racing. He kept telling himself that he was being ridiculous to be so concerned. Even so, Roy got in his car and decided to drive the route that he knew Johnny ran regularly. He covered the roads slowly, looking for any sign of his friend. He saw a few people out and stopped to talk to them, but no one had see Johnny. Exasperated and worried to death, Roy thought of one last place to check.
Roy drove the extra mile to the diner they had eaten in a few days ago. He prayed silently that he’d walk in and see Johnny eating in a booth then Roy could tease him about forgetting his wallet. He gave a close look around the busy diner but didn’t see him, and realized he wasn’t surprised. Taped on the wall next to the entrance was a handwritten sign.
“FOUND! Large black dog. Real friendly. See Frannie.”
Roy approached the counter where Frannie was chatting amicably with some customers as she refilled their coffee cups. “Hi, Frannie. Remember me?”
Frannie smiled at Roy. “Sure I do. Roy, right? Johnny’s friend. Where is he? Are you meeting him for lunch?”
“No, but I’m looking for him. Has he been in today?”
“I haven’t seen him since you two were here a few days ago.”
“Well, I saw the sign about the dog you found. Do you still have him?”
“Yes, is he yours?”
“Well, no. But I think it might be Johnny’s dog, Shadow.” Roy glanced around at the few customers who seemed to be listening to them curiously. “Can I talk with you a minute?”
“Sure. Hang on.” Frannie set the coffeepot down and wiped her hands on her apron. “Julie, I’m taking a break!” The older waitress looked over and waved.
As they stepped outside Roy crossed his arms. “I’m getting kind of worried. Johnny’s nowhere around. His car is at the house but his mail’s still there from yesterday. We were supposed to get together today to do some work. It’s just not like him to go off this long without talking to me. I thought maybe he took one of his horses out but they’re all still in the pasture. Now I think they’ve been out all night.”
“What’s that got to do with the dog I found?” Frannie’s eyes conveyed her concern at Roy’s story.
“Well, see, I think that Johnny went out running. He does that quite a bit.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen him.” She blushed as she remembered admiring the long tanned legs.
Roy couldn’t help but grin despite his concern. “He always takes Shadow with him when he runs. Where did you find the dog?”
I found him on the road to our house. I was on my way home from work. He was standing at the side of the road. I’d never seen him before so I stopped.” She rolled her eyes a bit. “I always was a sucker for a stray dog. He was real friendly, but kind of hard to get a hold of. Kind of antsy and whining. I thought I saw blood on his fur so I got real worried. I finally got him in my car, and once I got home and took a look. He wasn’t hurt like I thought, so it probably wasn’t blood.”
Roy held his breath for a moment when she mentioned seeing blood. “I’m worried something’s happened to him, Frannie. Has your son seen him?”
Frannie’s face darkened. “Benny’s been grounded since the police talked to him. I don’t want him to have any more to do with Brad Russell.”
“Do you think you could show me where you found Shadow?”
“I’m working, Roy! I’ve got the lunch crowd here. Julie will kill me if I leave.”
“Then tell me where I can start looking. I don’t know these back roads very well.”
Frannie gave Roy directions then added, “I’ll call Benny and have him head down the road to meet you. He likes Johnny. You let me know if you find him, okay?”
“I will. Thanks, Frannie.” Roy left in a hurry. He knew the road she lived on. He’d driven past it several times on his way to Johnny’s ranch, but had never been on it.
The road was fairly narrow. In fact, if there was an oncoming car, Roy would have to hug the side of the road near the ditch to let it pass. But by the looks of it, he was certain two cars rarely met on this dirt lane. Frannie had told him she had driven almost a mile before she saw the dog, but she couldn’t be positive.
Roy pulled the car over and got out. He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for. In fact, he felt pretty stupid coming out here. Shadow could have wandered for several miles since yesterday, and Frannie just happened to spot him here. Even the blood she found on the dog shouldn’t really alarm him. Who knows what kind of messes that dog got into? He could have rolled in a dead animal he found along the road. Dogs did some pretty disgusting things. Even as these thoughts went through his mind, he started walking along the roadside, looking for something, he wasn’t sure. He stopped after a few minutes then saw Benny riding a bicycle down the road.
“Hey, Roy. My mom called and wanted me to help you. What are you looking for?” Benny had a bottle of soda in one hand and didn’t look too thrilled to be ordered out here by his mother.
“Ben, your mom told me she had picked up Shadow out here. I’m really worried about Johnny. No one’s seen him since before yesterday. It’s just not like him to go off without talking to me.”
The young boy gave Roy a thoughtful look. “You guys are really good friends, huh?”
“Yes we are. Best friends.” Roy realized Ben probably didn’t have any close friends living out here. No wonder he’d latched on to Brad Russell.
“Why would he come out here? I thought the dog was just lost.”
“I don’t think so. Shadow runs all over but he usually hangs around the ranch if Johnny is gone. I think Johnny went running yesterday and something happened. I just can’t shake this feeling I’ve got.”
Ben’s hand went to his forehead and his eyes opened wider as a thought ran through his head. “Oh my god…”
Roy saw the scared look on Ben’s face. “What, Ben?”
“Uh… um… I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure.” He finally looked up at Roy. “Brad stopped by this morning trying to get me to go out. I’ve been so bored at home and I almost went with him. But mom’s threatened to ground me for life if I do, so….”
“Ben! What are you saying?”
The boy rubbed his face agitatedly. “I asked why he wasn’t grounded too. I mean, he’s the one who got arrested for hurting that lady.” He paused as if he was thinking hard about what to say next.
“Ben, sometimes you have to make the right decision. I know you might feel like you’re ratting on someone, but if something’s happened to Johnny, you have to do the right thing.”
“I know, I know… it’s just… he really didn’t tell me anything. He was just in too good of a mood, you know what I mean? It just didn’t seem right that he got into all that trouble and I didn’t do anything, but he’s out running around and I’m grounded!” Ben looked angry then his voice softened to a defeated tone. “He told me he didn’t have anything to worry about anymore. I thought maybe he meant because his dad bailed him out, but then he said it was all over now and that everything was fine. I thought maybe Johnny decided not to give a statement.”
“Johnny wouldn’t back down. We have to find him, Ben. Let’s start looking on each side of the road. Go slow and yell if you find anything – anything at all.” Roy gave an involuntary shudder as he realized he was looking for his friend’s body. Why else would he be here, looking in a ditch at the side of a dirt road?
The two separated and started searching. Roy walked slowly, sometimes going down into the deep ditch to push aside some thicker scrub. He looked over at the other side of the narrow road and saw Ben doing the same thing. He stopped and looked down at the road. There was an area where the gravel and dirt seemed oddly disturbed. It wasn’t from tire tracks, but seemed almost like footprints. Out here it seemed most unlikely that anyone would linger in a place like this. Roy swallowed hard then headed down into the ditch.
It was difficult getting down this far, and the scrub and bushes were thick. Grateful for the jeans he wore, Roy pushed through and started searching. “Johnny?” It seemed absurd to be calling his friend’s name. For a moment he thought how Johnny would laugh at him when it turned out that his partner had returned safely to his ranch and Roy was out here looking through thorn bushes for his body. He almost gave up when the brush became so thick he could hardly push through it. He pulled aside some thicket and put his foot through, but what his foot touched did not feel like ground and he quickly drew it back. He crouched down and reached through the brush. There was no mistaking the feel of cool skin and a lump rose in his throat. “Oh dear God, please, no…” No longer feeling the thorns that grabbed at his arms, he hurriedly pushed them aside and knelt down. “J-Johnny?” Tears stung his eyes and he brushed them away.
Tentatively he reached for his friend’s carotid to confirm his worst fear. Images of a funeral and a career without his best friend next to him in the squad swirled through his mind and brought a fresh onslaught of tears. But again he brushed at them and went about finding an absent pulse. Gasping, he drew back his fingers as if he’d been shocked. “Johnny!” Roy yelled loudly. His friend’s heart still beat, although fast and faint. “Please, Johnny! I’m here now! I-I’ve got you… please!” Desperately, Roy placed his shaking hand on Johnny’s stomach, finding very shallow respirations. He gave Johnny a quick visual assessment. His face was swollen and badly bruised. His right eye was particularly swollen. Roy could tell immediately that Johnny’s left arm was broken. But it was the barbed wire that was wrapped so tightly around his best friend that sent a cold shiver down his spine. Quickly he stood and yelled, “Ben! I found him! Ben! Get over here!” He remained standing because he was certain he wouldn’t be visible if he knelt next to Johnny again. He heard the scrabble of shoes on gravel then Ben peered down into the ditch.
“What? He’s down there? Oh my god, he’s dead isn’t he?” Ben put his hands on his mouth and clenched his eyes shut.
“No, Ben! He’s alive, but just barely. I need you to listen very carefully. You need to go back to your house as fast as you can and call the police. Ask for a paramedic squad and ambulance. You’ll have to give them directions. Then get back here as fast as you can. Bring me back a couple of blankets. Do you have any tools at home?”
“Yeah, some. What do you need?”
“I’m going to need something to cut wire. Do you think you have something?”
“If I do I’ll bring it. I’ll hurry, Roy. I promise.” Ben turned and ran toward his bike.
Roy knelt back down and took a deep breath. It calmed him enough that he was able to begin a more detailed assessment. With gentle fingers, he felt Johnny’s skull, and quickly found matted blood at the back of his head. With practice borne from years of experience, Roy’s fingers roamed over his extremities and felt for any abnormalities. He could tell that Johnny’s left arm was broken but he wasn’t sure just how badly. He felt along the clavicle and knew that was broken too. Johnny’s shirt was torn open in the front and his body was covered with bloody scratches mixed with dirt. He felt along the left ribcage first where there appeared to be a large bruise. He felt Johnny’s body tense and his eyelids twitched then he was still. Roy leaned over Johnny’s head and touched his cheek gently. “Johnny? Hey, wake up for me, will ya’? I need to know you can hear me.” Roy was surprised at how quickly Johnny’s one good eye snapped open, but became alarmed when his friend let out a whimper and his breath came is short, rapid gasps. His mouth opened but no words came out. “It’s okay! I’m here now. I found you.”
Johnny’s eye slowly slid shut and he breathed easier. Roy tried to rouse him again but he got no further reaction. He was happy for the brief rush to consciousness, but wished Johnny had not looked so frightened. He didn’t know what had happened to his friend, but he was beginning to get a good idea. Injuries like this didn’t come from a fall down a ditch.
Johnny felt frozen with fear. He heard the voices and knew his time had come. They had finally found him. Who was it? Rick and his friends? No… no… someone else now… With all his strength he tried to move and get away. He needed to run! He felt a surge of panic so he struggled, feeling flesh tear around his calf and thigh. The sensation that he was bound increased his panic and he jerked. Pain flared in his arm and leg and he tried to scream, but only a quiet rush of air and a soft whimper escaped.
“Johnny! Stop moving! You’re making yourself bleed again!” Roy placed a hand on Johnny’s forehead and positioned himself directly over his friend’s eyes. “It’s Roy! Calm down now. I’ve got you and you’re safe. Do you hear me, Johnny? I have you… it’s gonna be okay… shhh…” Roy’s heart ached at the fear and panic that overwhelmed his partner. The barbed wire wrapped around Johnny’s thigh was deeply imbedded in his flesh, and oozing blood from the recent movement. Johnny’s frantic movements stilled, but soft moans and mumbled words continued to be heard.
Johnny was so tangled in the barbed wire that Roy dreaded what he would need to do. He would be as gentle as possible, but just releasing the tension in the wire would cause it to move and shift across his body. Satisfied that Johnny was calmer, Roy continued to check his legs. Johnny’s right knee was grossly swollen. With great care, Roy removed Johnny’s shoe and sock and felt for a pedal pulse. He found one and breathed a sigh of relief. Resting back on his heels now, Roy was frustrated with just how little he was able to do for his friend. He saw that the barbed wire seemed to be wrapped around Johnny twice, almost as if he had rolled in it. Mud was thick on his back and legs. Roy could barely imagine what the night must have been like for his injured friend. It looked like he had lain in a big puddle of mud. Roy recalled the thunder and lightning the night before when Joanne had made him close the window on the cool night air. As he snuggled with his warm wife, Johnny had been lying here through the downpour. His exposed skin showed that he had been a convenient feast for insects.
Keeping his hand on Johnny’s uninjured arm, Roy waited impatiently for Ben’s return. He offered soft words of comfort when Johnny mumbled or moaned. It was clear that Johnny’s mind was elsewhere, probably reliving what he had gone through. Roy grasped his friend’s hand when he started to gasp and move his head around. “Easy, Johnny. I’m here. Help will be here soon and we’ll have you at Rampart.” He was pleased when he felt a weak squeeze to his hand, so he held on.
Finally Roy heard the crunch of bicycle tires on gravel. He stood up so that the young boy would see him. “Ben! Down here!”
Ben scrambled down the side of the ditch with an armload of blankets. “Okay, Roy. I called and the cops and fire department are on the way.” He handed over the blankets then pulled something from his back pocket. “I found these wire cutters in the garage. Do you need me to stay?” Ben’s eyes wandered over Johnny’s form for the first time. “Oh man… Is he going to make it? I mean, he looks…”
“He’ll be fine, Ben. I need you to go to the end of the road and direct the police and fire department out here. Make sure to wait for the ambulance if they don’t arrive with the others.”
Ben hesitated for a second then looked at Roy. “I- I think that Brad did this.” When Roy’s eyes flashed with anger, he added hastily, “but I never knew anything about it! It’s just that today he was acting like all his problems were over… I’m so sorry! If I had known he was going to do this I would have stopped him! I mean it! I- I…” Ben’s eyes had filled with tears.
Roy touched Ben’s arm then patted it. “I believe you, Ben. Let’s just get Johnny taken care of. You need to go watch for the help that’s coming.” Ben nodded then hurried up the side of the ditch.
Kneeling again, Roy spoke clearly. “Johnny, I need to cut this wire that’s wrapped around you so that we can get you to Rampart. It’s going to hurt like hell… I’m sorry.” Johnny didn’t acknowledge him, and Roy hoped that this would be quick. A quick inspection told Roy that the best place to start would be Johnny’s left calf, where the wire first contacted his skin. The other end of the wire trailed off into the underbrush, assumingly still connected to the pasture fence on the other side of the ditch.
Roy moved to a better position, then grabbed onto the wire with one hand. He hoped that by holding one end as he cut, that he could prevent the release of tension so it would not be as painful to Johnny. “Okay, Johnny. I’m going to cut the wire down here on your calf. Hang on.” Roy saw Johnny lick his dry lips, but that was the only reaction. Positioning the wire cutter as close as possible to where it first touched skin, Roy gave a quick, firm squeeze and saw the wire snap in two. He thought he had done a fairly good job of holding the wire firmly, but as soon as the cut was complete, Johnny’s leg jerked and he let out a startled gasp. Blood oozed from the small wounds as the barbs released their hold. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Roy patted Johnny’s leg in a place unmarked by the wire. “Okay, I’m going to get this one on your thigh.”
“Noooo…” Johnny’s voice was a cracked whisper. Roy examined the area closely and noted with concern that the wire was deeply embedded in the soft tissue of Johnny’s inner thigh. There was a lot of dried blood and several other deep cuts where the barbs had drug across skin before digging in and taking hold. The whole area was swollen and Roy was dismayed to see that there was a two inch section where it was so deeply embedded that the tissue had swollen completely around the wire. There was no way he could remove this himself without doing more harm. Giving it more thought, he decided to cut the wire from the opposite end, which would leave about a six inch section remaining with Johnny. He hated the idea of the pain it would cause, but he hated even more the knowledge of how much it would hurt to pull it out now. Not to mention the amount of bleeding it could cause. He knew the doctors at Rampart would be better equipped to manage this injury.
“Here we go, Johnny.” Without hesitation he held onto the wire to still as much movement as he could when he cut it. With a firm squeeze he clipped the wire. Despite his care, the wire moved and Johnny let out a strangled scream, his back arching off the muddy ground. “I know, I know… It’s done now. The rest won’t be so bad… I’m sorry.” The wound started bleeding, and Roy once again cursed that he had nothing with him to help.
Johnny was moaning softly between panting breaths, his brow furrowed as he struggled to still his own movements, which had aggravated the wire still wrapped around his arm and torso. He felt a warm pressure on his forehead and opened his eyes to see a blurry, but concerned friend gazing down at him. He gave a short nod and relaxed under the hand.
“I’m going to just do the rest quick, Johnny. I need to get you covered up.” Johnny’s shaking was becoming more pronounced and Roy was concerned now about the level of shock his friend would experience. He got no reaction so with grim determination he quickly cut the remaining wire into manageable pieces. He tried to ignore the anguished cries each action caused Johnny, but he was glad when he had successfully removed all the wire. Fresh blood oozed from a myriad of puncture sites and deep cuts. Some would require stitches, while others may only need butterflies. Regardless, Roy knew the real enemy would be infection. The wire was definitely rusty and old. It had apparently been left here for quite some time after the barbed wire fence was installed. The amount of time Johnny spent lying in this muddy ditch only compounded the possibility that infection had already set in.
Johnny began shaking violently, seemingly unable to control his body. “C-cold… Roy.”
“Let’s get you covered up. Take some slow breaths. I’ve got you.” He wrapped the blankets around his shaking friend then rested his hand on Johnny’s forehead once more. He heard the distant sound of sirens and sagged with relief. He stood up and waited until the sirens grew closer, then waved to make sure he was seen.
Charlie Dwyer and Bob Bellingham jumped out, looked down the embankment then began pulling the stokes and equipment from the compartments. It was difficult for the men to maneuver through the thick brush, but with determination, they were soon standing beside Roy, who was crouched next to Johnny.
“He’s in shock right now. He’s been here for almost 24 hours and he’s hypothermic. He’s been beaten and has a probable fractured left humerus and clavicle. His right leg is swollen at his knee, so I’m not sure what type of fracture he has, if any. There’s a good pedal pulse. There is some bleeding at the back of his head, and I did detect a good sized bump, but it’s such a mess I can’t tell how bad of a laceration he’s got. His eye’s swollen shut. There are some severe lacerations and punctures from this damned barbed wire!” His foot pushed at a strand he had cut from Johnny’s stomach. “I haven’t been able to really take a look at the ones on his back. Then there’s the one I had to leave.” Roy pulled back the blanket enough for the men to see the wire that remained embedded in Johnny’s thigh.
“What the hell happened?” Charlie Dwyer asked as he knelt down to take Johnny’s pulse.
“Look, guys. I’ll explain everything later, but right now we need to get him out of here. There’s just no room to work. We need to splint his arm and leg, then let’s get him in the stokes so we can work on him topside.”
Charlie and Bob exchanged worried looks, but trusted that Roy had already done a thorough assessment. Splinting took several minutes as they talked Johnny through it. Then with great care the three men lifted their patient into the stokes, eliciting a gasp and lengthy moan as he was settled. After securing a rope, Bellingham climbed the embankment and pulled as the other two paramedics climbed up holding the stokes between them. Finally on flat ground, they lowered their patient gently. Johnny was unconscious now as Dwyer and Bellingham worked around him. Roy wanted to be treating Johnny, but he knew his two friends would take care of him. He found himself shaking now that he could step back and let the enormity of what happened to Johnny flow over him.
The sound of another siren brought Roy’s attention from the scene in front of him. Ben trailed behind the ambulance on his bicycle. He turned back to listen as Bellingham called Rampart. “County 51 to Rampart, how do you read?”
There was a slight pause before Dixie’s voice could be heard. “Loud and clear, 51. Go ahead.”
“Rampart, we have a 28 year old victim of an apparent assault, who was found after a delay in recovery of about 24 hours. He is currently unconscious and has a large hematoma to the back of his head with a laceration. It appears that there was substantial bleeding, but that has stopped. He has facial lacerations and bruising. There is a probable fractured left humerus and clavicle. He has pronounced swelling to the area of his right knee. Those injuries have been splinted. He has numerous lacerations and punctures on his arms, chest, back and left leg from being tangled in barbed wire. We have left one piece of deeply embedded wire in the patient’s left upper thigh. Stand by for vitals, Rampart.”
”51, how long did you say the patient was out there?” The voice of Kelly Brackett asked.
“Approximately 24 hours, Rampart. Vitals are pulse, 130, BP is 89 over 56, respirations, 36 and shallow. The patient is hypothermic. We currently have him on oxygen.”
“What’s his temp, fifty-one?”
Dwyer was just pulling the thermometer from Johnny’s armpit shaking his head. “89.8”
Bob shook his head and repeated the information to Brackett. “Temperature is 89.8, Rampart.”
“10-4, 51. Push an amp of D50, start an IV with ringers lactate and send me an EKG.”
“10-4, Rampart. Standby.” Bob set down the phone, then cut the last remaining shreds of wet clothing off their colleague’s body. He covered him with a yellow emergency blanket while Dwyer finished setting up the EKG. “Rampart this is lead two.”
Roy looked at the screen with the paramedics. Roy scrubbed a hand over his face as the rhythm displayed on the monitor confirmed his fears. Nonetheless, he was expecting to see the ugly blips that reflected results of shock and hypothermia. Roy also knew he was damn lucky he had a rhythm at all.
Brackett’s voice confirmed what they saw on the screen. “I see a J wave and he’s pretty tachy, 51. Monitor vitals closely. No sudden movements. Transport as soon as possible.”
“10-4. Rampart. Be advised that the patient is John Gage.”
There was a second’s long pause before Kelly Brackett’s voice responded, his voice an octave lower than usual. “Get him in here, 51.”
Glad to hear the ER department head would be directing Johnny’s care, Roy knew he would have been just as relieved to hear Joe Early’s voice. The fact that Johnny was found and alive and getting treatment made Roy weak with relief. He sat on the running board of the squad, close enough to watch and help if needed, but far enough away to let the men work without being crowded.
Roy heard the ambulance attendants pull the gurney from the back and walk up near him, but he could not tear his eyes away as Dwyer worked to get an IV into Johnny’s good arm. He listened as Bellingham gave Johnny’s vitals and Dwyer placed bandages on some of the still seeping, more serious wounds.
“Is he going to make it?”
Ben’s voice brought Roy out of his intense concentration. “Damn right. He’s in pretty bad shape, though.” From the conversation he was hearing, it was evident that the paramedics were packaging Johnny for transport to Rampart. “Ben, I need you talk to the police about what you told me.” At the look of panic on Ben’s face, Roy placed a hand on his shoulder. “If you don’t I will, then they’ll come by your house to see you. It’s time to step forward, Ben. If you don’t want to be treated like a kid don’t act like one. You can do this.” He gestured toward the officer that climbed out of his squad car. Ben nodded and took one more look at Johnny then turned towards the approaching officer.
“Charlie? How’s he doing?” Roy knelt down next to the stokes.
“His BP is pretty low – 89 over 56. We need to get him to the hospital and warmed up.”
Roy placed a hand on Johnny’s forehead taking in the pale skin that had replaced his friend’s darker skin tones. His eyes were dark and sunken, giving them a purple hue, but the most horrific discoloration had been the blue tinge to his lips and fingertips. He felt for his friend’s pulse. Johnny’s eyes fluttered open and his one uninjured eye roamed for a moment before going wide. He gasped and struggled against Roy’s hands that were placed on his chest and uninjured shoulder. “Johnny! Settle down! It’s Roy! You’re safe. We’re taking you to Rampart.”
From behind the oxygen mask he uttered, “Oh god… don’t feel good, Roy… Cold.”
“I know. Doc Brackett’s on the biophone and we’re getting you to Rampart real soon.” Roy grabbed onto Johnny’s hand.
Johnny swallowed hard and held onto Roy’s hand. He panicked when his hand cramped around Roy’s and he couldn’t let go.
“It’s okay. It’s just the cold.” Roy reassured him as he pried his fingers loose being careful not to rub on Johnny’s skin. “We’ll get you warmed up at Rampart and then you’ll be good as new, partner. Understand?”
Johnny nodded, closed his eyes and held fast to Roy’s presence.
Dwyer stood and looked at the ambulance attendants. “Let’s get him loaded. No sudden moves. He’s hypothermic.”
The attendants nodded and used special care with this man they knew from countless calls they had responded to together. Dwyer jumped into the ambulance and looked at Roy. It only took a second for his patient’s friend to jump in beside him. The doors closed and Roy looked out to see Ben Masters having a conversation with the police officer. His attention turned to Johnny who moaned as the ambulance shifted into gear and moved. He placed his hand back on Johnny’s forehead and let it remain to remind him that he was not alone. A closer look at Johnny’s face told him he was conscious but drifting in and out. Dealing with the pain of his injuries along with the blood loss was quickly exhausting his friend. Anger flared in Roy again as he pictured Brad Russell beating the man that gave everything when helping a victim, and prayed that justice would come for Johnny.
The ambulance ride seemed to take forever. Johnny continued to moan or gasp each time the vehicle turned or hit a bump. The warm hand on his forehead kept him anchored when he was certain he would float away. It stayed in place during the entire ride – even as Dwyer took vitals and inserted a thermometer in his armpit. Roy had to hold his arm tight to his body to ensure Johnny did not dislodge it.
After a few minutes Dwyer removed the thermometer. Becoming increasingly agitated and confused, Johnny reached up to grab at the oxygen mask. “Hey, come on, leave it alone. Relax now. We’re almost there.”
“R-roy?” Johnny’s good eye opened and he didn’t have to search long before his friend’s blue eyes appeared over his. “Why? W-why d-d-did he do it?”
Roy knew it was extremely difficult for Johnny to get those words out between shivers, and their tone nearly broke his heart. “I don’t know why a person does something like this, Johnny. You only tried to help and I know you hoped you could get through to him.”
“Tr-tried… to t-talk to him.”
Johnny’s one visible eye was glassy and reflected such bleak hopelessness that Roy had to rub his forehead soothingly. “I’m sure you did. Don’t talk now. Just rest and we’ll be at Rampart in a couple of minutes.” Roy looked out the window and saw the familiar landmarks, grateful to be so close now. Turning to Dwyer he asked, “What’s his temp?”
Charlie frowned and replied, “89.6. I want to get another set of vitals.”
Roy let Charlie fuss over Johnny while he concentrated on watching the monitor. Johnny’s heart still beat too fast. He continued to drift to unconsciousness, only to jerk awake moments later, moaning or mumbling incoherently.
The ambulance backed into the spot at Rampart’s ER entrance as Charlie and Roy packed the oxygen and EKG monitor securely in the stokes. The back doors opened and the concerned face of Kelly Brackett greeted them. He helped pull the gurney out and his eyes moved over Johnny’s face. “Vitals?”
Charlie jumped down and took the IV bag out from between his teeth. The men started moving the gurney down the hall as the paramedic gave his report. “Slight improvement on the BP. 96 over 60 . Pulse is still 130, respirations are 32 and shallow. Temp is 91.6. He’s had periods of consciousness and talked to Roy a bit. Slightly agitated at times, but for the most part he’s been incoherent. ”
Dixie held treatment room three’s door open, and Roy saw her take her first look at Johnny. He saw her expressive eyes flash, and knew her anger at whoever perpetrated this deed only sharpened her senses now. But in an instant the anger he had glimpsed was gone, and she had once again become the consummate professional he knew and admired.
Dixie reached for the tubing on the wall and ran it to the filter that would provide warm, moist oxygen. She and Kel had used the time waiting for Johnny’s arrival to prepare the treatment room. She unhooked the oxygen from Johnny and let Roy remove the portable tank before placing the tight fitting mask over Johnny’s nose and mouth. Johnny protested weakly and tried to brush it away, but Roy was quick to hold his arm down as he gave a soft “shhh now”. The mask started to fog, proving that the oxygen being inhaled was warm and moist. Johnny seemed to settle a moment, perhaps relieved to feel warmth flowing through his lungs.
As Kelly Brackett inserted the eartips of his stethoscope, he glanced at Dixie. “Get that 50% Dextrose started.”
The seasoned nurse grabbed the bag from the warmer and quickly hooked it up, then replaced the bag of Ringers with a warmed one.
Bracket pulled the blanket down and blinked, pausing to take in the lacerations and scoring across Johnny’s torso. He placed the diaphragm on his patient’s chest and listened, moving it around to the lungs. His mouth twitched and he pulled the eartips out. “I’m hearing rales. He was out all night… in that storm?” Kel looked at Roy who nodded somberly. It was evident to Kelly Brackett that Roy was struggling with the knowledge that his best friend had been so badly assaulted and left for dead.
The doctor’s hands moved to examine Johnny’s head, lifting it slightly to feel the bump and laceration. Johnny mumbled and jerked his head to the side then let out a breathy moan. “Johnny? It’s Kel. Open your eyes for me.” When he got no reaction, he pulled his penlight from his pocket and peeled the eyelid back from his patient’s one uninjured eye. “Slightly dilated and sluggish.” He gently probed the swollen eye and cheekbone.
Johnny’s speech was slurred but his intent clear. “S-s-s-op’. Hurzs…” He had never felt so cold. He couldn’t remember a time when his body seemed so thoroughly frozen. These people weren’t letting him get warm, and someone had pulled his blanket off. “C-c-old.”
“I know, Johnny. But you have to let us take care of you. We’ll get you warmed up soon.” Brackett examined the lacerations on Johnny’s arms, noting which ones would require stitches. “Barbed wire? And rusty, right?” All the wounds would require a very thorough cleaning and debridement.
“Yes, Doc. Very.” Charlie gathered the squad’s equipment then paused. “You don’t need me now, do you, Doc?”
“No, Charlie. Go ahead.” The doctor didn’t look up as he continued to probe the wounds.
Charlie waited until he caught Roy’s attention. “Let us know how he’s doing, okay?” At Roy’s silent nod, he took one last look at his colleague then left to find his own partner.
“Dix, let’s get a tetanus booster. I want a CBC, blood culture, chem 7 and glucose level. Get a UA and anchor a foley. And tell X-ray we’re about ready for them.” The doctor moved the blanket down further, eliciting a soft whimper from Johnny. He palpated the bruised abdomen and was relieved to find no rigidity or guarding. He adjusted the blanket so that it again covered Johnny’s chest, but moved it aside so he could examine the left thigh. He noted the severe swelling around the embedded wire, and couldn’t suppress a wince at how painful it must have been to lie for so long wrapped in the razor sharp tines.
“I’m going to want that OR, Dix. As soon as we get his temperature up and his heart rate stable. And I want Bill Johnson ready to go. It wouldn’t hurt for him to take a look too.”
Roy didn’t understand. “Surgery?”
“I’d rather sedate him and remove this wire, Roy. It would cause too much stress on his heart and system if I just numbed him up. So far his heart rate is decreasing. I want that to continue. And while we’re in there, we can get these wounds debrided and treated without him having to go through that. His fractures can be set then too. Right now the key is to keep him as relaxed and stress-free as possible. I want the OR so I have everything at my disposal in case something unexpected comes up. Let’s roll him and get a core temp.”
As he waited for results, Brackett examined the right leg, touching and pressing in certain places. Johnny gasped and moaned. “I’m not sure about this knee. There’s so much swelling. We’ll have to wait on x-rays to tell us if there’s a fracture.” He stepped over to the EKG monitor and watched intently for a few moments. “Good. Rate’s dropping. He’s down to 120.”
“Temperature’s up a little. 93 now.” Dixie announced, pleased. She grabbed a blanket from the warmer and quickly replaced the one on their patient. Johnny’s shivering increased in response to the warmth. The door opened and the X-ray technicians pushed the large unit through the door.
Kelly Brackett tore off a sheet from his notepad then handed it to one of the techs. “Here’s what I need. Be very careful. No sudden movements. He’s hypothermic so keep him covered as much as possible. Let us know if he starts to get agitated.”
Reluctantly, Roy released Johnny’s hand and laid it by his side. He followed the doctor and nurse into the hallway and to the nurses’ station. The senior paramedic stood looking blankly at the door of the treatment room. “Um, I guess I better call Cap.” He stood still and didn’t make any effort to move to the phones.
Kel and Dixie exchanged glances. The nurse recalled another time Roy looked this lost. He had felt helpless after Johnny had been bitten by a rattlesnake at a rescue scene. “That can wait a minute, Roy. Let’s get you some coffee.”
Roy blinked and shook his head. His eyes never left the treatment room door. He felt a firm hand on his shoulder. “Roy, x-rays will take a while. They have a lot to do. Someone will come for you when you can get back in. I promise.” Kelly Brackett’s hand squeezed Roy’s shoulder.
The senior paramedic turned reluctantly and allowed himself to be led down the hall with Dixie, after she exchanged worried looks with the doctor.
Roy sat heavily on the well worn couch in the doctors’ lounge. Dixie watched him under long lashes as he leaned his head back and rubbed his eyes. She poured two cups of coffee then sat down next to him. “Here, Roy.” She held the cup out to him.
The paramedic’s hands remained over his eyes and he made no move for the coffee. “He asked me why, Dix.”
“Why? Do you mean why this happened?”
“Yeah. He was left for dead out there by a kid who’s only seventeen years old. At least I’m pretty sure that’s who did this.” He lowered his hands to his lap and looked at the nurse. “I didn’t know what to say. He was so frightened back there – he still is.”
“The guy who did this may be young, but he’s no kid, Roy. He made a very grown up decision to do what he did.” She nudged him with her knee and moved the coffee closer. Roy gave a tired smile and took it. “I wonder how a seventeen year old was able to do this alone? Johnny may be skinny, but he’s tough.” That phrase brought a grin to Roy’s face. He had shared that story with Dixie once, in a setting just like this when he sat and worried over Johnny when he had been bitten by a rattlesnake.
“I’ve been thinking about it. The road he was running on was pretty remote. Not well traveled. There are lots of places to hide in the brush, but I still don’t see Johnny being surprised out there. He would have seen a car coming in any direction from a pretty good distance. It doesn’t make sense.”
“None of it makes any sense. Give him some time, Roy. He’ll come around before you know it and he’ll need you.”
“He needed me last night, Dix. He was lying out there in that storm, and I was in my warm bed. I had even wondered why he hadn’t called me. He was supposed to earlier that day. But I didn’t think about it.”
“Roy, that’s ridiculous to think you should have suspected something was wrong.”
“No, Dix! He’d been having trouble with these kids. There had been some vandalism to his Rover and mailbox. Then he had a little run in with them. I had been telling him to call the police. So, yes, I should have suspected a problem.”
“Nothing like this, Roy. You need to get past this and concentrate on helping Johnny now, when he needs it.” Dix took a sip of her coffee and looked at Roy. She could see that any amount of talking now wasn’t going to change his mind. The senior paramedic stood and set his untouched coffee down on the table and walked to the window, gazing out. Dixie took that as an end to their conversation. “I’ll see how it’s going with x-ray.”
Roy gave her a weak smile. “Thanks, Dix.”
Warmth. It was elusive. He knew it was near but he didn’t think he could get close enough. Every time he tried he felt his limbs being moved gently, and voices urging him to relax. He heard the familiar sound of a machine clicking and he thought vaguely that it must be an x-ray machine. Finally he was allowed to rest, and he thought someone told him they hoped he was better soon. Better at what? He wasn’t quite sure where he was, but he knew he was cold. His whole body throbbed as he shivered. At least he wasn’t shivering constantly now, but each time his body convulsed it felt like a lightning bolt had struck.
It was quiet now, and despite the pain in his body, he drifted. He felt light and heavy at the same time. That’s crazy. As he drifted further, confusing images filled his mind. A young man with hate in his eyes, and an older man with features similar to the younger one. There was hate there too, but it was old hate. This man harbored hate in his soul the way most people coveted the ones they loved. He had lived with it so long that it was his strength. Odd thing to know, but Johnny could see it. The boy’s hate was fresh and new, but he was taking it from the older man, feeding on it, and there was plenty to share between them. Then there were the blurred images of a pipe swinging, or was it a baseball bat? Not sure at all, but he felt the pain of its impact on his arm and leg. He felt each limb throbbing as if they remembered too.
Dixie entered the treatment room moments after the x-ray techs moved the cumbersome machine into the hall. She saw Johnny shiver, let out a soft moan, then quiet. She walked closer and saw that he was frowning as he mumbled words she couldn’t understand. His head moved back and forth and he became more agitated.
Johnny tried to shout, but the oxygen mask muffled most of the sound. “No! S-stop!”
“Hey, Tiger. Just take it easy. You’re safe now. Open your eyes and look at me.” Dixie placed a hand on Johnny’s forehead as she had seen Roy do, and she felt the man relax and his one good eye blinked open.
“Johnny, you’re at Rampart.” Dixie turned to see Kel and Roy enter. “He’s a bit agitated.” She stepped to the head of the bed so Kel could take her place.
“Johnny, we’re going to take care of the pain you’re having in just a minute. I need you to answer some questions for me. Can you do that?” Kel touched his patient’s hand when Johnny’s eye closed.
Kel ran through some basic questions and was satisfied with most of the answers, although he had to ask most of them twice. But Johnny was slow to answer and got confused when the doctor asked him what day it was. Then he began to get upset.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure that you haven’t exactly been keeping track of time.” Roy spoke softly and grinned. “Do you remember what happened, Johnny?” Roy knew there was a detective waiting outside hoping to speak to his friend before surgery.
“Wh-what happened…?” Johnny frowned then winced as that one small movement caused a painful twinge to his swollen eye. Images of running along a dirt path as fast as his feet would carry him blurred along in his memory. “Running…”
“Yes, you were running. Then what happened?”
Johnny’s body went rigid as he remembered. Fear, hot and real. Angry voices calling out a challenge to come out and be a man. “Noooo… stay here…” His arm flailed out and Roy caught it, but was surprised at the strength Johnny had as he pushed and pulled to free himself.
The doctor barked an order at Dixie. “Ten milligrams diazepam.” The beeping of the heart monitor increased as Johnny shivered on the table. “Settle down, Johnny.” It sounded more like a wish than an order. He took the syringe and injected it into the rubber port. His patient’s frantic movements slowed almost instantly then stopped completely as he went lax. Kel turned to Roy. “You can tell Detective Montgomery that any questions will have to wait until after Johnny’s surgery, then I’ll evaluate his condition to see if he’s up to it. It may be a few days.”
Roy nodded with relief that Brackett would not let his friend undergo any stressful questioning now. He wasn’t sure how much Johnny remembered but he obviously recalled some of it. The parts he was remembering caused him to become frightened and agitated. He left silently to talk to the detective.
Dixie removed the thermometer and announced, “95, Kel. Getting better.” She reached down and pulled the blanket up to Johnny’s chin, then clucked a soft noise as she patted his good shoulder gently.
“Good. If he continues to improve, we’ll move him upstairs for surgery in a couple of hours.” Brackett moved the blanket to look once more at the piece of wire embedded in Johnny’s upper thigh. “Damnit. I’m worried about infection. It certainly got a head start on us.” The flesh was an angry red and swollen tightly around the wire. He moved his stethoscope around on Johnny’s chest. “Heart rate’s coming down. He’s almost to 100. I’m hearing bilateral rales.” He sighed and shook his head. “He’s got a tough time ahead, Dix.”
Roy stood at the phone bank contemplating what he would tell his captain. Then he worried about what he would tell Joanne. The children would be upset if they knew the full truth, that Johnny had been beaten and left for dead. His hand rested on the phone, but he made no attempt to pick it up. He was glad that Detective Montgomery had been very understanding about Johnny’s condition. Roy told him that his partner was still very confused and in too much pain as he awaited surgery to talk to anyone. Although the detective was disappointed, he had thanked Roy and asked to be updated as to when Johnny might be able to be interviewed. He asked if an arrest had been made yet and that was when the detective ran a hand through his short hair and told Roy that Brad Russell could not be located.
Finally, Roy picked up the receiver and fished in his pocket for change. Nothing. “Damn.”
“Here, Mister.” A hand dropped some dimes on the shelf in front of Roy who turned to see Ben Masters.
Roy hung up the phone. “Ben? What are you doing here?”
The young boy shoved is hands into the front pockets of his well-worn jeans and shrugged. “I wanted to know how Johnny was. He looked pretty bad.”
“He is in pretty bad shape. He’s going to have some surgery on his leg in a few hours.”
“Oh.” Ben looked at the floor.
“How did you get here, Ben?”
“Uh, my mom brought me. She’s parking the car. I called her after I got back home and told her what happened.”
“Thanks for talking to the police. It was the right thing to do and I know Johnny will tell you how much he appreciates it.”
“If Brad finds out, I’m dead meat.” Ben ran his fingers through his messy blonde hair. “He’s mean… He’ll do the same thing to me.”
“No he won’t. The police will make sure of that.” Ben nodded, but Roy could tell he was not convinced.
Frannie stood at the end of the hall, her eyes roaming the area for her son. Ben waved and she hurried forward, then seeing Roy, she grabbed his arm. “How’s Johnny? I couldn’t believe it when Ben told me!”
Roy patted her hand, not feeling the assurance he was trying to convey. “I’ll let Ben fill you in. I need to make a couple of phone calls.” Frannie pulled Ben away and Roy could tell Ben was explaining everything he knew to his worried mother.
Roy turned his attention to the phones. He wanted to talk with Joanne, but his duty told him that his Captain needed to know first. The phone rang several times at the Stanley household before it was answered by Kim, their oldest daughter. She was a senior in high school and had a mad crush on Johnny. No matter how hard she tried to hide it, Kim would melt and turn red the second Johnny gave her one of his patented grins. “Hey, Kimmy. It’s Roy. Is your dad home?”
“Hi, Roy. Yes, he’s here but he’s real busy right now working on the pool. The pump went out. He’s trying to fix it but all he’s done so far is cuss and kick it a few times. Can I have him call you back?”
Roy thought for a moment. “No, Kimmy. It’s really important. I need to speak to him now.”
“Oh.” Kim’s voice was filled with questions, but she knew better than to voice them. “Sure, hang on. Daa-ad! Roy’s on the phone!”
Roy winced as Kim yelled for her father again. He heard the sound of a screen door slamming shut then a vague curse before Hank picked up the phone. “Roy? What’s going on?”
“Cap. Sorry to interrupt but you need to know what’s happened.”
Hank could sense Roy’s worry in his voice. He’d come to know each subtle variance in the men’s voices that conveyed levels of distress or worry. This was definitely big. “Roy? What’s wrong?”
“I found Johnny about an hour ago. He’d been out running yesterday and he was assaulted while he was out there. I’m here at Rampart with him. He needs some surgery on his leg…” Roy’s voice drifted off. He didn’t know where to start. The story seemed preposterous. Someone hating Johnny enough to try and kill him?
“But you just found him? How bad is it, Roy?” The captain had questions he wanted answered, but he could sense that his senior paramedic was having a hard time putting two sentences together. Best to keep to the bare facts for now until he could get details later.
“He has a head injury, but he’s been conscious. He has a broken arm, and maybe a broken leg. Uh, Cap… he was beaten, and… and… left for dead. He was tangled pretty badly in some barbed wire. He’s in bad shape.”
“Okay, Roy. I’m going to head over there. I’ll take care of letting the guys know. Are you by yourself?”
“Uh, yeah, Cap.”
Roy’s voice was soft and uncertain. Stanley was sure that his senior paramedic was probably feeling a bit lost. “Okay, hang in there. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
“’Kay.” Roy hung up the phone slowly. His mind reeled with all that had just happened over the past hour or so. He needed to call Joanne, but right now his head was buzzing and he wasn’t sure he could form two words. He did need to hear her voice, so he lifted the receiver and inserted a dime. He was right to have called her. The words poured out of him in a way they never could have with his captain. Joanne’s gentle but firm voice soothed him and centered his thoughts. His head felt clearer and he was able to give Joanne more detail than he had to Cap. She told him that as soon as she could find someone to watch the kids she would come over. He urged her to wait until he knew more, but even as he said it he knew he wanted her there, and she seemed to know it.
Roy turned around and shoved his hands into his front pockets. Ben and Frannie approached hesitantly. “Roy, we know you’re worried, and we don’t want to interfere.” Frannie spoke apologetically.
“You’re not interfering, Frannie. Johnny would be pleased to know you came. We’re just not going to know much for a while. They need to get him stabilized before he can go to surgery.”
“We’d like to wait a while, if that’s okay.” Frannie led her son to the chairs and urged him to sit down. The young man seemed stricken by the whole incident, and his mother seemed just as worried about him.
“Sure, that’s fine. I need to get back in there.” Roy gave a weak wave, then turned and walked forlornly down the hall. He entered the treatment room to see Dixie drawing blood from Johnny’s arm. His face seemed a little cleaner, and he could see that she had been tending to some of the more minor scratches. Johnny seemed so pale and still. “Dix?”
The head nurse looked up and gave Roy one of her reassuring smiles. “He’s resting fairly well now. He mumbles something every now and then. His heart rate has slowed to 100 and his temp is rising. Kel thinks he could be ready for surgery once his temp stays up above 96. Maybe another hour or so.” She noticed that Roy was hanging back by the door looking a little lost. “Hey. I have to run this blood to the lab. Why don’t you sit with him?”
Roy nodded and gave her a smile. He knew that the nurse could very well give the blood to another nurse or orderly to run to the lab, but she was giving him the time she knew he needed with his friend. She patted his back softly before leaving the room. He rolled a stool next to the treatment table and sat down, watching Johnny closely. His partner seemed to be sleeping, but occasionally he would shiver and moan softly. Roy instinctively pulled the blanket up much like he did when he tucked in his kids at night. “It’ll be okay, Johnny. Don’t worry.” He hoped his words were getting through. He realized he was saying them as much for himself as he was for his partner. He rested his hand on Johnny’s forearm, and contented himself to watch the drip of the IV fluids run through the clear tubing.
Minutes passed and Johnny remained quiet for the most part, except for the occasional mumble. Roy heard the door open and assumed Dixie had returned. It wasn’t until he heard the sharp intake of breath that he turned around to see Cap standing by the door. He looked at Roy, then stepped close and rested a hand on Roy’s shoulder.
“How’s he doing?” Cap’s eyes focused on his younger paramedic’s pale and bruised face.
“He’s more stable now. His temperature is coming up and his heart rate is slowing. Dix said he should be ready for surgery soon. Doc’s waiting on the x-rays.”
Hank Stanley had no idea what Roy was talking about regarding Johnny’s temperature and heart rate. He realized that Roy probably did not realize how little he had told him on the phone. But now did not seem to be the time to push too many questions but he did have one that needed answering. “What does he need surgery for?”
“There’s a piece of barbed wire that I couldn’t get out. It’s embedded in his upper thigh, here.” Roy gestured to Johnny’s leg, but did not raise the blanket. “They need to get that out, and there are a lot of deep lacerations that will require some in depth cleaning and debridement, then sutures. It’s best to do that while he’s sedated. Doc thinks it would cause him too much stress to go through that awake. And depending on the x-rays, if either his arm or leg needs surgery they’ll do that too.”
Hank refrained from asking any further questions. He was shocked by the swollen and pale face of his youngest crew member. He was sure that the injuries under the blanket told an even worse story, and he was somewhat thankful to not have to see them. He had seen his share of gruesome injuries that left him indelibly marked, but he had adamantly refused to allow himself to ever become accustomed to the sight of a person whose life leaked out of their body as these men worked to save them.
The door opened and Kelly Brackett rushed in with another tall gentleman behind him. The doctor slowed when he saw the captain. “Oh, Hank. Good to see you. Roy, we’ve got the x-rays. This is Bill Johnson. He’s going to go in with me and help with that piece of barbed wire.”
Roy stood and moved with Hank to see the x-rays that Brackett was forcing into the light viewer. They stood for several moments before Doctor Johnson peered closer at the x-ray film that obviously showed the wire in Johnny’s leg. “I don’t think it should be a problem to get out. I’ll know better once we’re in there if there’s any deep tissue damage. But it doesn’t look close to the femoral artery. Infection on the other hand…”
“Yeah, Bill, I know. We’ll manage that the best we can.” Kel moved to the other x-rays, pointing out the fractured humerus. “I’ll have these sent to orthopedics, but I’m hoping that arm can be set without surgery.” He crossed his arms as he looked at the knee film. “His leg on the other hand will need some work.” Pointing to a place on the x-ray he continued. “His fibular collateral ligament has been damaged, but we won’t know how badly until we get in there. The head of the fibula looks to be broken in a couple of places. That must have been one hell of a hit he took.”
“Bad?” Roy remembered asking that exact question of Joe Early when Johnny had been hit by a car.
“Bad enough, Roy.” Kel looked at the worried paramedic sympathetically. “But if I know Brian Borchardt, he’ll have Johnny back on his feet in no time.”
Roy was relieved to hear that Borchardt would be the orthopedist working on Johnny. The doctor had set Johnny’s leg twice before - once after falling down the stairs of a building after an explosion, then again after being hit by a car. Dixie also had her ankle set by the doctor who usually specialized in athletic injuries. He was certain that Kelly Brackett had made a special request in order to get him to work on Johnny so quickly.
Bill Johnson moved over to Johnny’s side, and Roy followed. The doctor moved the blanket away from the injured leg to examine it. Just the movement of the blanket caused Johnny to gasp. “Take it easy, Mister Gage. I’m just taking a look at your leg.”
“Noooo.” Johnny moved his hand but Roy intercepted it.
“Johnny, its Roy. It’s ok. The doctor needs to look then you’ll be going to surgery. After that you’ll feel much better.” He wasn’t sure how much of that he believed, but he wanted Johnny to believe it. He held his friend’s hand firmly while the vascular surgeon probed the injury as gently as possible. Johnny let out a whimper and began breathing faster behind the fogged mask. Roy shot the doctor a look intended to let him know that Johnny had had enough for now.
Doctor Johnson nodded to Roy and covered the leg. “Kel, I’ll head up to the OR. I’ll drop these x-rays by Borchardt’s office.”
Kelly Brackett nodded to the surgeon then turned his attention to his friend and patient. He leaned over so that he could look directly at Johnny. “Can you open your eye for me? Come on, John. I need to talk to you.” He touched the uninjured side of Johnny’s face. “Wake up for just a minute.”
Captain Stanley stepped forward and gave Roy a shrug before saying, “Gage! Time to wake up.”
Roy smiled at the no-nonsense tone his captain had used. The leader did not have to raise his voice at all, but the effect was the same. It was the tone Stanley used when he wanted everyone’s attention and expected to have it.
Johnny’s eye fluttered open. “Cap? Huh?”
Brackett’s mouth twitched, pleased that Johnny was coming around. “Yes, Cap’s here, but I need you to listen to me. You have some injuries that require surgery, Johnny. Your leg is broken and Doctor Borchardt is going to fix that. Doctor Johnson and I will remove the barbed wire from your leg and suture the lacerations you have. When you wake up, you’ll be in ICU. Do you understand, Johnny?”
“My h-head… hurz’…” Johnny’s good eye drifted shut.
“I’m sure you have a whopper of a headache. But your x-ray doesn’t show a skull fracture. You were very lucky, considering.”
“Roy… here?” His eye opened and tried looking around the room.
“Yeah, Johnny. I’m right here. I’ll be here when you wake up, okay.”
“What happened?” Johnny tried to lift his head, hoping to get his bearings, but a sharp knifelike pain stabbed through the back of his skull. He moaned and took some deep breaths, causing his mask to fog rapidly.
Roy worried for a moment that his partner had forgotten their earlier discussion. He hoped it was due to the medications and that things would be clearer after given a few days for recovery. “Don’t worry about that right now. You’re headed for the OR. You’ll be fine. Just concentrate on getting better.”
“Yeah… easy for you… to say…” Exhausted by the brief conversation, he drifted off.
Kelly Brackett looked at the two worried faces. “It could be a while, gentlemen. I’d suggest you get something to eat. I’ll send word to let you know when he’s in recovery.”
Roy nodded and stepped closer to his friend then placed his hand on Johnny’s forehead for a moment before the gurney was rolled out the door. Roy spoke quietly to himself, “He’ll pay for this, Johnny. He won’t get away with it.”
Captain Stanley frowned at Roy’s statement. He had rarely heard his senior paramedic express such angry determination. He gently grabbed Roy’s arm. “Come on. You have time to fill me in. Let’s go.”
Roy paced the hall outside the recovery area. Joanne had long since gone home and he missed her warm, reassuring presence. Mostly she had just sat near him, patting his hand, and occasionally conversing with Hank Stanley about his family or some other safe topic. He knew she needed to keep herself occupied, but he could not concentrate or follow their flow of words. After a few, “right, honey’s” she stopped trying to involve him in conversation and kept patting his leg or squeezing his hand. He knew he wasn’t much company but she didn’t seem to mind. When she finally left, Hank Stanley assured her that he would be here with Roy until they got word that Johnny was out of surgery.
Frannie and Ben had left after meeting Joanne. Ben had enjoyed meeting Captain Stanley and kept up a steady stream of questions which Hank was only too happy to answer. He seemed impressed with some of the insightful questions the young man asked and promised to set up a time for him to visit the station. Ben had reached out his hand to shake the captain’s in a very grown up manner, which Roy did not fail to notice. Even amidst his worry about Johnny, he could see that Ben Masters just needed a nudge in the right direction, and hopefully he wouldn’t stray back to the likes of Brad Russell.
Hank watched Roy pace, knowing that no amount of urging would get him to sit down. Several tries had only gotten him a distracted head shake from the worried paramedic. Earlier, before Joanne had arrived, Roy had told Hank everything he knew about what had been happening to Johnny. The captain found it hard to comprehend that someone could attack a person so viciously over something like this. And what made it worse was that his youngest paramedic had no way of defending himself. He always found it difficult to feel any sympathy for those victims injured as a result of getting into fights because it was inevitable that someone would get hurt. That wasn’t something taken into consideration when the fight started. But this wasn’t a fight; it was an assault, plain and simple. He was sure that was partly what had been bothering Roy so much. His partner certainly had a history of injuries on the job, but he had always bounced back, eager to ride in the squad again. This injury was not job related, and would certainly have an emotional impact on John. Judging from the impact it had on Roy, he was deeply concerned about Johnny’s mental state. Roy had told him how frightened his partner had been even after being rescued.
“Cap? The doctor’s coming.” Roy stopped pacing and waited for Hank to join him by his side.
Brackett greeted the men and waited for Doctor Johnson to catch up. “Let’s sit down for a minute.”
Roy moved to the chairs impatiently and waited for everyone to sit before taking a seat himself. “Well, Doc? How did it go? How is he?”
Brackett pulled the green surgical cap from his head and bunched it in his hand. “He came through just fine, Roy. His vitals are stable and his temperature is normal. It took us all awhile to finish up. Doctor Borchardt can fill you in later, but he thinks the repair to Johnny’s leg will heal fine. He’s going to wait to cast it until the swelling subsides. Until then it’s in a soft wrap with ice. The same goes for his arm. Another reason we’re waiting to cast is that we need to watch for signs of infection from those deeper lacerations. We lost count of the number of sutures we had to give him. Many of those are on his injured arm and leg, so casting now really wasn’t an option until the threat of infection has passed.” Kel gave the two men a moment to absorb that before continuing. “Debridement took a lot of time. I don’t think Johnny will be lucky enough to escape infection. The signs were already there. We’re loading him with antibiotics, but it’s had a good head start on us. And the fact that Johnny doesn’t have a spleen to help fight infection has me very concerned.”
Roy nodded mutely as Hank Stanley rubbed his face tiredly. The captain asked the question that was on Roy’s mind. “How bad will it get? Is he out of danger?”
Kel twisted the cap in his hands and his shoulders slumped. “I don’t know the answer to that, Hank. Johnny’s system has had a terrible shock. He lost a lot of blood, and the delay in recovery complicated everything. The hypothermia still has an effect on his body, even though his temperature is normal. It can take days for the shock from that to subside. His injuries are painful and will be hard to manage. We’ll do as much as we can with medication, and he’ll be kept sedated until tomorrow afternoon. The next few days will tell us more.”
Roy let out a sigh. “Doctor Johnson, how about the wire in his leg?”
The balding doctor pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Well, I got it out, of course, but it did some considerable tissue damage. He must have moved around quite a bit for it to become so deeply embedded. Some of the tissue was extremely damaged and I did quite a bit of debridement there. I’ll have to suture the wound another time. Again, infection is our most serious concern. I’ve packed the wound open and inserted a drain for fluids and infection. I don’t need to tell you how painful this will be for him.”
“No you don’t.” Roy looked at Brackett hopefully. “Can I see him, Doc? Just for a minute?”
“Sure, Roy. But just for five minutes. We need to get him to ICU.” Brackett stood and the others followed suit. “Come with me. Now promise me you’ll go home after this and get some sleep. He’ll be sedated until tomorrow afternoon, so why don’t you come back then?”
Stanley spoke as Roy opened his mouth to protest. “He’ll do that, Doctor Brackett. No problem.” He gave Roy a pat on the back and smiled when Roy flushed with embarrassment. He gave the tired doctor an assessing look. “As long as you promise to do the same, Doc.”
Kel laughed. “Agreed, Hank. I’m on my way out as soon as Johnny is settled in ICU. Mike Morton will oversee his care until I come on tomorrow.”
“I’ll wait here, Roy, and give you a ride home.” Hank patted his man on the back and watched the doctors lead Roy into the recovery area. Suddenly feeling very tired himself, he headed over to the payphone. He knew there were three men who wouldn’t sleep until they heard from him.
Roy approached the bed slowly then stopped, momentarily overwhelmed at the appearance of his partner. No matter how often Johnny was hurt, he never got used to it. Even after being hit by that car, he was feeling better after a few days of recuperation. Those injuries did not compare to what Johnny was going through now. But ironically, it was that accident, and the resulting damage to his spleen that caused its removal, that would ultimately affect how his friend would fight this infection. Since that accident, Johnny’s resistance to viruses and colds were lower, and he dealt with them matter of factly, always joking that he was glad he was alive and able to sneeze or cough and it that it could have turned out much worse. Somehow, Roy worried that Johnny’s reaction to this assault would not be so cavalierly dismissed.
Roy watched the monitors for a moment, assuring himself that his friend’s heart was beating at a decent rate then he turned his attention to the sleeping form in the bed. Johnny’s face was still swollen and his right eye had been bandaged. Smaller cuts on his face were left unbandaged, but Roy could see that ointment had been applied to all of them. An NG tube snaked out of Johnny’s nose and into a suction machine attached to the wall. Roy knew Johnny hated to have an NG tube, but he would need it to prevent any vomiting. Johnny’s lower lip was stitched and swollen. His left arm was thickly wrapped and two ice packs were balanced on his broken humerus and shoulder. Blood was transfusing through a newly applied central line, while two bags of IV fluids, one presumably antibiotics, dripped through the line into the vein of his uninjured arm. Well, uninjured wasn’t exactly correct. Several bandages covering sutured lacerations dotted the arm. Wires which led to the heart monitor were patched to his chest amid the plentiful bandages. Johnny’s broken leg was wrapped similarly to his arm. It rested on pillows and an ice pack was lying on the knee. A sheet covered his other leg but Roy could see a heavy padding covered the open wound that Doctor Johnson had treated. He could see the end of the drainage tube where it ended in a collection bottle on the floor. Then there was the foley catheter bag, hooked to the lowest rail of the bed. Despite the overwhelming amount of tubes and bandages, Roy watched his friend as he slept but his unnatural stillness and lingering pallor ruined the illusion of mere sleep.
“Roy?” Brackett winced when his voice caused Roy to visibly jump.
“Um, yeah, Doc?” Roy was embarrassed that he had been so absorbed in assuring himself that Johnny was still alive that he’d forgotten the doctor was in the room.
“A couple more minutes.” Brackett said softly.
Roy nodded and reached out to adjust the sheet over Johnny. “He was just trying to help that boy.”
The doctor had to strain to hear the soft spoken man. He had only heard bits and pieces of what had transpired and hadn’t had time to ask more questions when his sole intent over the past few hours was just to save Johnny. “I can’t imagine Johnny trying to do anything else. He has a big heart.”
“Yeah, he does.” Roy didn’t turn to face the doctor. Instead he gently picked up Johnny’s left hand, which had been wrapped with gauze. He remembered the long, deep laceration across Johnny’s palm where his friend had probably pulled desperately at the wire, trying to free himself, all in vain. “See where being nice gets you, Johnny?”
Kel was slightly alarmed to hear the paramedic that most people thought was the absolute epitome of ‘nice’, speak with such a hard edge to his voice. “Roy, we need to get him to ICU now.” He made some final notes in the chart and placed it back on the hook. He reached out and took Roy by the arm and pulled him away from the bedside, and led him to the door. He found it difficult to read the complex emotions that emanated from Roy Desoto. The man was clearly distraught, that was plain enough, but he saw anger in the hard set of the normally soft, friendly eyes, along with a heavy sadness. His concern deepened when Roy jerked his arm away and walked ahead of him to his waiting captain.
Brackett stood with his hands on his hips and addressed Captain Stanley. “Take him home, Hank.” Both men looked at Roy, who steadfastly looked at his shoes. “I don’t want to see him here until tomorrow afternoon.”
“You’ve got it, Doc. Thanks for everything.” Captain and doctor shook hands, exchanging concerned glances. Something more was going on with Roy, and they could both see it. What to do about it, however, was a mystery.