The Will To Survive
“You just go along ‘til they turn out the lights,
There’s nothin’ you can do to fight it...
No man's got it made, 'til he's far beyond the pain,
and we who must remain, go on livin' just the same."
P A R T -- T W O
Deep in the remote recesses of his mind, Johnny heard it -- the low, steady rumble of distant thunder -- he could feel the wind's icy tendrils begin to swirl around him, brushing lightly against his cheek, and through his hair. He knew he needed to wake up, his senses screaming that he was in deep trouble.
His rise to consciousness was a slow, gradual process, and even when his eyes finally opened, Johnny lay still, his mind numb, not quite ready to process where he was, or what had happened.
A long, deep roll of thunder -- more menacing -- closer this time -- shook the ground beneath him, and echoed in his ears again, forcing him into a greater state of awareness. Johnny lay on his back, his mind registering, but not exactly feeling, the pain dancing on the threshold, and stared upward. Clouds, black and ominous, filled with the threat of rain, rolled across the sky in waves above him. The wind was picking up, and Johnny could feel it prick at his skin, like a thousand tiny thorns from a rose bush.
Yesterday's loving, comforting, Mother Nature had been replaced by an evil twin, and she would take no pity on him.
The cold served a purpose, for now, helping him shake off the last of the fog in his mind; finally comprehending the seriousness of his situation, his self-preservation instinct motivated him to action. He needed to find shelter away from the quickly approaching late-afternoon storm, and tried to raise himself into a sitting position so he could look around, and determine what his closest options were.
As he did, Johnny no longer just registered the feeling in his leg, he felt it like a white-hot dagger stabbing at the center of his knee, radiating in all directions. Gasping at the sudden flood of pain, he sought to control his breathing, and keep himself from fainting -- passing out now would be a deadly mistake.
Steadying himself, he surveyed the damages. He withdrew his pocket knife, and cut away the material from his blood-soaked pant leg to get a better look at the wound, which was still oozing blood from his kneecap, where the skin had been torn away by the rocks when he fell. The entire knee joint was bruised and badly swollen, to the point where attempting to flex it was out of the question. His uncovered forearms were bleeding as well, from cuts and scrapes caused by the rocks and scrub brush; dirt and gravel had worked their way into the wounds, smarting, as he ran his hands over his arms to ward off the chill. One side of his head throbbed, and Johnny felt a trickle of blood slide down his cheek from a cut just below his eye.
He looked around anxiously for his backpack. He needed the small first aid kit, but more importantly, he needed to keep everything in the pack dry, especially his jacket and sleeping bag, knowing there was every probability he wouldn't be walking out tonight. Staying warm and dry was necessary to surviving the night.
It was nowhere to be seen.
A quick succession of lightning bolts flashed through the sky, preceding thunder that was no longer a rumble, but an escalating series of loud, crackling booms, the wind growing stronger by the minute. Wide awake now, he frantically tried to remember where he had been when the rocks had given way. Finding the backpack was as critical as finding shelter at this point. Without both, his chances of walking, or even crawling, out of here --at all -- were slim to none.
Standing up was a supreme effort, his leg violently objecting, causing him to waver as he put pressure on his left foot to try to walk. His eyes followed the trail of loose rock upward, spotting what was left of the ledge he had been standing on. Johnny was dismayed to see that he had fallen almost thirty feet. His pack had been behind him when he was taking the photos, and he assumed it must still be there. Getting back to what was left of the ledge would be difficult enough if he hadn't been injured, but with shape his knee was in, he would have to find a much easier place to climb.
There was no obvious shelter that he could spot from here, and he tried hard to think of the area where he had hiked from, how close he might have been to a stand of trees. There had been one just before he had left the trail, and climbed through the boulders. He couldn't allow himself time just now to think about how stupid that had been.
Unsure of how much time he had before the storm struck at full force, he looked around, his eyes finally picking out a more gradual incline a short distance away, where he could try to climb back toward the ledge, using his hands and uninjured leg. Gritting his teeth, he began to limp as quickly as he could toward it, intense pain dogging his every step.
The lightning was now more than just a few jagged bolts -- the entire sky lit up, bright flashes exploding across the black ceiling of clouds that had collected overhead. Johnny stopped to mentally count off the seconds before the thunder started -- at the speed with which the storm was moving, he knew he had little time left. It was already starting to sprinkle.
His leg felt like it was on fire, the pressure of standing on it was making it bleed again, but that was a secondary concern; retrieving the backpack, and finding shelter was all that was necessary.
Sucking in his breath, Johnny began the long, difficult climb.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon looked at the clock on the wall -- it was ten o'clock -- Johnny was an hour overdue. She had felt increasingly apprehensive all afternoon, a voice inside telling her something was wrong, but she had ignored it, until now. She swore a little that she hadn't insisted that he return earlier, or that she hadn't listened to that voice sooner, knowing there was nothing that could be done now until morning light. She knew which trail he had taken, and where he had planned to camp the previous night, but there were still miles of trail to search, not to mention the miles from the Meadows to the Valley, where something could have happened on the drive down.
Not one to sit and wait, she quickly organized her thoughts, and scribbled a note... in case he returned while she was gone, grabbed her keys, and headed out the door.
Shannon arrived at the park office in the Valley about 10 minutes later. It was quiet, as she headed straight for the phone behind the desk. At this time of night, there would be no one inside the Visitor Center at the Meadows to answer the phone, but it had an outside ring that could be heard in the employee cabins in case of emergency.
She unconsciously tapped her pencil rapidly on the desk, as she waited for someone to pick up the phone, knowing it would take a few minutes.
Finally, there was an answer.
"Josh, this is Shannon Miller.... Yeah, I know.... Look, I'm sorry to bother you this late, but a friend of mine is overdue from a hike up to Young Lakes. He was supposed to be back here by 9:00 tonight, but he hasn't shown up, and... and I'm a little worried."
While Josh was talking to Shannon, he was joined in the office by Molly, a Park Volunteer who worked at the Permit Station up the road, and he filled her in on the situation. She motioned to him to let her have the phone.
"Shannon, this is Molly.... Hi.... I hear you have a friend overdue from a hike. Tell me about him, and I'll probably remember him... we haven't had too many overnighters up here yet."
"He would have checked in about sunrise yesterday morning, Molly. His name is Johnny... John Gage. He's about 6 feet tall, dark hair, drives a white Land Rover."
Molly instantly remembered him. "He did check in, and picked up his permit yesterday, although I didn't see him today... but, I closed up about 5:00, so if he came down after that, I wouldn't have been there, and he didn't stop by here as far as I know."
Molly looked at Josh, who shook his head no.
Shannon had to know for sure, before deciding what to do next.
"Molly, could I ask you a big favor? Could you, or Josh, drive over to the parking lot, and see if his Rover is still there? Then call me back?" The worry in her voice was evident.
She could hear Molly and Josh talking in the background, then Molly let her know that Josh was leaving to go check the parking lot.
"It should only take him about 10 minutes to get there and back, so why don't you just stay on the line? Tell me about your friend while we're waiting."
Without even listening to Shannon, Molly remembered Johnny real well... shoot, if she was about 20 years younger, she'd have offered to go along, and keep him company. He had been waiting when she had driven into the parking lot, standing there, all alone, reading the sign above the door, as though he was memorizing every word. She had startled him when she walked up behind him, and recalled the serious look on his face. But mostly, she remembered the grin he gave her, as he set off toward the trail.
Josh came back into the office, and took the phone from Molly, shaking his head to let her know the news wasn't good.
"Shannon, the Rover is still there. It's all locked up, and I didn't spot any gear in the back that would indicate he came down the trail yet. What are you going to do?"
Shannon's mind was racing. There were so many possibilities... ranging from as simple as he started out late, and had to stay overnight again, to he could be injured... there was almost 20 miles of trail to cover....
Josh interrupted her thoughts. "Shannon, it's too dark out there to do anything before sunup...."
"Hopefully, he was just running late, and decided to camp out again, rather than risk walking in the dark...." Even though she said it, Shannon didn't believe it. He promised he would be back, and Johnny never broke his promises. At least, not the Johnny she thought she knew.
Josh tried to reassure her. "I'm sure that's all it is. Try not to worry too much... you said yourself that he's an experienced hiker. We can be at the permit station before dawn, and if he shows up, we'll have him wait for you to get here... I assume you'll be here early?"
"I will... thanks, Josh. And tell Molly thanks, too. I'll see you in the morning."
Shannon hung up the phone, and decided this time to listen to the little voice, which was growing louder all the time. She would not wait until morning.
The light was still on in her boss's office, and she knocked softly on the door. Jim was surprised to see her; standing up from behind his desk, he motioned her to come in.
"Shannon, I thought you would be off-duty, and home by now, what's up?"
He could see the concern on her face, as she began to explain. "A friend of mine came up Sunday night for a visit, and left Monday morning for an overnighter at Young Lakes. He was supposed to be back tonight by nine, but when he didn't show up by ten, I came in here to call the Meadows Visitor Center, to see if they knew if he had even checked in. Molly said he picked up his permit yesterday, but that he hadn't come back by the time she closed the station today. Josh drove over to the parking lot just now, and said that Johnny's... my friend's... car was still there, and there wasn't any sign that he'd been back."
"Are you sure he was coming back tonight, or was there any question about him spending a second night?"
I don’t know... the nightmare... his reaction... we didn’t talk about it. Did he decide not to come back?
"No," she said emphatically, "he promised he'd be back tonight. He has to drive home tomorrow... he's on shift again on Thursday morning. He's a fireman/paramedic with the LA County Fire Department... Jim, I can't explain it, but I've had a feeling all evening that something's happened to him -- I know that's not much to go on, but... you'd have to know Johnny to understand.... I'm not overreacting to his being late."
They didn't take chances with lost hikers -- hesitation on their part could mean the difference between life and death in this situation. Shannon had convinced him that her friend could be in trouble, and he reached for the phone.
"I'm going to call Ken James, who heads up the Search and Rescue unit, and fill him in on the situation. He can alert his team to assemble, and make all the necessary preparations for a possible search first thing tomorrow morning."
Shannon breathed a sigh of relief that her boss didn't think she was being foolish to worry about Johnny... but fear grabbed her again, when she thought of his being out there all night in freezing temperatures, maybe hurt, maybe something worse.
No, she wouldn't allow herself to think that way. With a grateful look at Jim, she asked, "Is it all right with you if I drive up there tomorrow morning myself? I don't think I can wait here.... I need to be there... to yell at him if he shows up... or to be there if...."
She didn't want to think about the other ifs.
* * * * * * * *
The brevity of the furious thunderstorm was a relief, but it had nonetheless packed a powerful punch in its' short tenure overhead. Johnny had barely managed to reach his backpack in time to pull off his sleeping bag, and bury it under a pile of rocks. Rolled inside was his rain poncho, rolled inside of that was his wool sweater and jacket. He had to distance himself from the pack itself, the metal support bars making it a dangerous lightning rod in the open space. The bad news was that he had been unable to find shelter for himself out of the rain, and was thoroughly drenched.
The sun was almost down, the temperature was dropping rapidly, as it had done the previous evening; the rain, lightning and thunder had all passed, and the skies had cleared a bit, but the wind remained, not as forceful as it had been a short while ago, but its’ mere presence accelerating the effects of the cold.
The struggle to reach his backpack, combined with the pain that now racked his entire body from the fall, had exhausted Johnny to the point where he almost fell asleep. His training as a rescue man, and as a paramedic, had taught him enough about hypothermia to know that its' progress could be swift, and deadly, and if he didn't act quickly, he wouldn't be around to see another sunrise.
He thought it was kind of ironic, as he reminded himself that at least his last one... the one he had watched and photographed just this morning... had been particularly beautiful. He hoped someone would find the film, and develop it, so they could see what he had seen on his last morning.
He knew wasn’t that far gone to be thinking thoughts like that. Determined he would see the sun rise again, Johnny forced his mind to leave the dark thoughts behind, and concentrate on helping himself make it through the night. He knew, he hoped, that Shannon would already be worried about him, in spite of what he had done, and would have the whole world out searching at first light, and he only had to hang on until then.
Involuntary shivering, the body's natural method of warming itself, had already set in, and his movements, hindered by his injuries, were already becoming more sluggish. He began to dig out his sleeping bag; his hands numbed with cold, he barely noticed the new cuts caused by the rocks that he was pulling off the pile.
The strain of his efforts, and the stress on his knee, made him dizzy and nauseous, but he kept digging, until he finally freed the bag from its' shelter; disappointed to find that, while it wasn't exactly wet, it was damp, and he knew that was not a good omen. Johnny unrolled the bag, and was relieved to find that his sweater and jacket had remained dry, protected by the rain poncho... the rain poncho that should have been on the outside, accessible at a moment's notice when he needed it most. He couldn't believe how the dumb things he had done were adding up to disaster.
He removed his wet T-shirt, the shivering intensifying as the wind met his bare skin, and he quickly pulled on his wool sweater, then his jacket, feeling some relief from the cold. His fingers fumbled with the jacket zipper, giving up in frustration, when he realized his motor skills were already diminishing.
It was completely dark now -- pale clouds floated across the crescent moon, obscuring it and what little illumination the stars might have provided. Even if he could find his way to where he had left the backpack, and retrieve the matches he kept in a waterproof container, he saw there was nothing nearby that he could use to build a fire. There were only rocks, and snow. He would have to stay where he was, or risk the possibility of falling again in the dark.
His shivering deepened, in spite of the sweater and jacket. His hair was wet, and the rest of his clothing... his shoes, socks and pants... were completely soaked, and the wind was continuing to add to his misery. Johnny knew he didn't have much longer before his condition worsened, and he had to remove the rest of his wet clothing, and get inside his sleeping bag.
First, he had to get out of the open, unprotected area he was in, so he dragged himself, and the bag, in between two of the larger boulders, affording him some small, but necessary, refuge against the wind. In the morning, he would find a way to leave some sort of signal that could be spotted by searchers, but for now, he had to get settled before he fell asleep, or passed out again.
His fingers were just not functioning properly, and the simple act of untying his shoelaces became a major project. Being unable to bend his knee made pulling off his boots and socks, and pants, an agonizing chore, that took forever. That finally accomplished, he had to slide into his sleeping bag without unzipping it -- his fingers would not have managed that -- the pain in his knee exploding at the maltreatment, as he struggled into the bag, pulling it tightly over his head.
It would have been easier to stay warm, than to try to get warm. A sleeping bag can't generate heat, it can only preserve body heat... and Johnny's body wasn't producing much at this point. He slept, a fitful sleep, over the next several hours -- each time he awakened, his disorientation, and confusion over where he was, became more pronounced.
He was still shivering constantly... one good sign... it's when the shivering stops, that the real danger begins.
* * * * * * * *
The search and rescue team had already assembled by the time Shannon reached the parking lot, just as the sky began to lighten. The group leader, Ken James, introduced himself, and his team, assuring her that they would most likely find Johnny before the end of the day. That sounded like a long time to her, and she asked if she could go along; the waiting and the uncertainty were killing her.
Ken convinced her that it would be better if she stayed there, where she could listen to their radio transmissions, and to wait for Johnny, in case he managed to hike out on his own. She went over the trail maps with them, pointing out exactly where Johnny said he was going. Since the trail he took was a loop trail, their initial plan was to send two teams of searchers in opposite directions, their pattern eventually having them meet at the lake campground, if they didn’t locate him along the way.
A helicopter was already in the air, doing a sweep over the trail, and the campground, before the teams set off on foot, hoping to pinpoint his location, saving valuable time.
A dog search team was on standby, and would be called up to join them, if the helicopter failed to spot any sign of him.
* * * * * * * *
The nightmare had returned, and this time someone was pushing him over the edge, and he was falling -- it was the same dream, taken one step further. He couldn’t see who pushed him, but he could see Roy standing there, watching, letting it happen. Johnny reached out his hand, and begged Roy to help him, but Roy just turned his back and walked away.
Johnny could feel the anger swell as he plummeted off the ledge. He would never, never have let go of Roy -- he would have followed him down... down to the depths of hell, if that’s what it would have taken to save him.
Roy had always held his lifeline, had always been there to pull him to safety, surely he would do it again. His eyes frantically searched the ledge above him, as panic set in.
Johnny hit the ground, and blackness swallowed him.
* * * * * * * *
It had been an incredibly long, bitterly cold, night. Johnny had awakened every few hours, and lay there, staring up at the night sky. The memory of the dream returned each time to haunt him.... His heart ached for the lost friendship, his spirit crushed by the weight of the realization he had been abandoned, left to die out here all alone.
The sun was rising in the sky now, but it offered no warmth... it was coming up behind him, and it would be many hours before it was in a position to shine on the spot where he lay. His mind was clear now, although being lucid at this point was of no help, when his body couldn’t move.
He thought he heard a sound, but it was distant and unrecognizable, and he tuned it out. It wasn’t until the helicopter was closer, that he realized what it was. He hadn’t left a signal or a marker, and he knew that it would be difficult to spot him, jammed between two large boulders. He needed to get up so they could see him, but the task was not so simple.
His shivering had decreased, and the cold had depressed his ability to feel pain, but it had also numbed his extremities to the point where voluntary movement was virtually impossible.
The sound of the helicopter grew fainter before he could do anything. A depression settled over him when he realized it could still be hours, or days, before they found him.
The question was whether or not he would be alive when they did.
* * * * * * * *
The helicopter put down in the parking lot by the wilderness station. When they advised they had not spotted John in their first pass over the trail, and the campground, Ken had radioed for the dog search team to join them as quickly as possible.
The crew of the helicopter exited, and joined the others gathered in the parking lot at the wilderness permit station, where the entrance had been closed to visitors. The small group of volunteers waited for the report, ready to begin the search on foot.
The chopper crew and the rescue personnel were well acquainted with each other, but Ken quickly introduced Shannon, and explained her presence.
The assembled team consisted of the pilot, and two members of the Mariposa County Sheriff's Helicopter Search and Rescue Unit, both EMT’s, well trained in recognition and treatment of hypothermia in the field; a young resident from the Merced City Hospital, which, though small, housed the local trauma center, due it’s close proximity to the park; four seasoned search and rescue personnel, including Ken James, all with extensive first-aid training and certification.
While waiting for the dog team to show up, they would reformulate their search pattern, based on the report of the helicopter personnel.
The helicopter had put down in a clearing near the campground where Shannon had said that Johnny had planned to stay, near the lower lake. John had left little behind to indicate he had been there, but due to the absence of other backpackers in the area, and the presence of a recent campfire, they felt pretty certain they could conclude he had safely reached his destination Monday night.
That would allow them to concentrate most of their search effort on the downside of the loop trail, assuming that whatever occurred, it would have been on the return trip yesterday.
The trail head to Young Lakes was about 4 miles up the day hike trail, just beyond Soda Springs. It was decided that Team One would follow the trail that he probably took to get to the Lakes, in case he had decided to return the same way, for some reason. Team Two, the EMT’s, would go by helicopter to the campsite, and work their way down on foot on the other side of the trail from there, while Team Three, which would include the dog and her handler, would also start at the trail head, and work their way up to meet Team Two in the middle of the trail. The helicopter, with the doctor on board, would search again from the air.
Shannon was impressed with their organization and professionalism. Every person there was a volunteer SAR expert, trained specifically in mountain search and rescue procedures. Even the dog, a beautiful female golden retriever named Joey, had several years of experience, and numerous successful rescues to her credit.
Impressed as she was, Shannon waited impatiently for them to begin the search. They were the experts, but the voice inside her was shouting now... Johnny needed help, and he needed it soon.
* * * * * * * *
Time had no meaning any more, and he had no idea how long ago he had heard the helicopter. Johnny felt really strange. His mind knew it was still cold where he was, between the rocks, with patches of snow all around; but he didn’t feel cold anymore. He didn’t feel much of anything anymore.
He could hear Shannon calling him. He could see her green eyes, laughing, teasing him, seducing him. He loved her, but she had other things, more important things to do than to stay with him. He let her go, without a word, and buried her deep in his heart.
But the other night, he had hurt her, without meaning to... it just happened. He had come here to confront his pain, his doubts, his fears... but the anger, that he didn’t even know was there, released by the nightmare, had blind sided him... and he had taken it out on her. He had felt so sick, ashamed, confused. He had offered her nothing... he couldn’t find the words to express his regret, so he had just said nothing.
He saw tears in those eyes, tears he had put there. They would never laugh again because of him, and he would rather die, than see those tears again.
Johnny had stopped shivering a short while ago, and his muscles felt stiff. He couldn’t feel the pain that he knew was still there, and he wanted nothing more than to give in to the urge to sleep, give in to the urge to let go... it would be so much easier to stop fighting, and give up the struggle.
His nightmares would finally come to an end, and there would be no more pain.
* * * * * * * *
Team Three had been searching on and around the trail for about three hours, and had stopped at noon, for a quick break. None of the other teams had reported spotting Gage, although Team Two had found evidence that someone had been on the trail recently. Again, because of the absence of other hikers, their hopes were lifted that it had been John, and that with the gap narrowing between the two teams, he would be found soon.
Shannon listened in on the radio conversations, as she waited in the Visitor Center office. She had tried to occupy herself by straightening the books, and maps, and other literature on the shelves, but her mind was on Johnny, and she finally gave up, retreating to the small office to be alone with her thoughts.
She and Johnny had often talked about their ability to read each other’s minds -- they laughed at the idea that they were kindred spirits; but she realized now that no matter how far apart they had been, there had been a connection between them. They had kept in touch, and called each other regularly, even after she had moved up here two years ago. Shannon was the one he had turned to this time, and she had taken him in with open arms.
Shannon could somehow sense that Johnny wanted to give up, but she would not let him go -- if it was war Mother Nature wanted, then it was war she would get. Shannon closed her eyes, and offered her prayers to the spirits of his ancestors, asking them to send a message to Johnny that he had to hang on for all the people that loved him, then a prayer to God, asking Him to send him an angel to give him a reason to live.
* * * * * * * *
He could tell by the position of the sun, that it was noon, maybe a little later. He was thirsty, and his throat felt raw, his eyes burned. He had nothing left, he just wanted to let go. The two people he loved most in this world were no longer by his side, and he knew their lives would be better without him in it.
He thought it was the wind, at first. It almost sounded like a child’s voice, calling his name. It was quiet, then he heard it again.
It was Jennifer.
“Uncle Johnny! Guess where I am? I’m at Disneyland, and I’m riding the merry-go-round... I’m on a big black horse, and we’re going around so fast! I wish you were here to see me.”
He smiled, and closed his eyes... at least this hallucination was a happy one.
“Uncle Johnny... we’re gonna buy one of those suckers you told me about... Daddy said he’d help me pick it out. I’m not going to open it ‘til you come home, so we can share. But I hope you hurry, ‘cause I don’t know if I can wait too long.”
She never forgot anything. Roy was so lucky to have such a great family. He had been a part of that family once, and it had been one of the best things that had ever happened to him. Next to Shannon, of course. And his job, and his friends at the station, and in the department. There was Dixie, too, and the doctors at Rampart.
“Uncle Johnny! Can you hear this? I’m singing a song to my daddy....”
Johnny’s eyes opened. Jennifer?
“No... Jennifer... Roy... look out!” It had taken all his strength to call out his warning, before he passed out again.
* * * * * * * *
Joey’s head snapped up, her head cocked, and her ears perked at the sound that only she could hear. She had been intently sniffing the area for some time, giving the team reason to think she was on to something. They stood still, watching her circle at first -- her movements then becoming more hesitant, as she tried to figure out just which direction to go.
Ken checked his map to get a fix on their location, and quietly radioed to Team Two, who after checking their maps, radioed back that they were maybe twenty minutes away. The helicopter, now waiting again in the parking lot was alerted, and began to move in their direction.
All eyes were on Joey, as she stood as still as a statue, listening for it again. Instantly transformed from statue to speeding bullet, she shot off down the rocky slope, leaving the humans scrambling to follow her.
They had so much faith in this dog, that Ken James didn’t even wait until they spotted Johnny to radio the other teams that he had been located. Team Two was ten minutes away, the helicopter less.
Shannon tensed and held her breath, waiting for the word. What is taking so damned long?
“Rescue Team Two, this is Rescue Team Three, over.”
“Team Two, we should be there in about five minutes, what is your status Team Three?”
Come on, come on.
“Team Two, we have a patient for you.”
A patient, not a victim.
Shannon whispered a thank-you, and went to share the good news with Molly and Josh, thinking to herself... leave it to the only female on the search and rescue team to be the one to find Johnny Gage.
* * * * * * * *
The EMT’s, Chad Johnson and Chris Harrison, arrived a few minutes later, and set to work. Gage was semiconscious, but in no condition to help them move him out from the rocks. The helicopter had found a place to put down about a half-mile away, and Ken and the others quickly left to collect the equipment they would need, and return with the doctor.
In the meantime, they would use the supplies they had in their packs to get started. Chris opened a blanket, and spread it on a flat surface of rocks about 10 feet away. The sleeping bag Johnny was in was still damp, and unaware of what injuries he might have, they opted to pull out the shears, and cut it way. Chris held another blanket, ready to cover him as soon as they removed the sleeping bag. Insulating him from any further heat loss was their primary goal.
They took in the injured knee, and the blood-caked arms, as they quickly covered him with the blanket. They exercised extreme caution in moving him to the other blanket -- where they quickly covered him with their jackets, and pulled a cap onto his head. Chad began taking his vitals while they waited for the rest of the equipment. Chris made note of the low blood pressure, obtained by palpation, the slow pulse and respiration, the skin that was cold to the touch, the bluish tinge to his lips. His pupils were dilated, and his speech was slurred. The good sign was that Gage was responding to their words, and seemed vaguely aware of what they were doing, and was being cooperative and still.
Dr. Martinez, and the others arrived with additional blankets, a stokes, and other equipment. Chad and Chris quickly reviewed his vitals, and the injuries they had noted, with the doctor, while the others gently wrapped more blankets around him.
The doctor had them start him on oxygen, while he searched for a vein that wasn’t constricted, to begin an IV of D5W, instructing Chad to wrap the plastic bag in a cloth to keep the fluid warm.
That done, they began the task of lifting him into the stokes, keeping him horizontal, and not jolting him, trying hard to keep him from going into cardiac arrest. His other injuries looked as though they could wait until they got him to the hospital and stabilized. All six people helped carry the stokes to the waiting helicopter, while Joey trotted behind.
Before approaching the helicopter, they made sure to cover Johnny from head to toe with blankets, so that the down-wash from the rotor blades didn’t send another chill through him, afraid his system wouldn’t have been able to stand the shock.
Dr. Martinez, and the EMT’s boarded the helicopter for its’ flight to the hospital, leaving the others to make their way back on foot.
Assured by the doctor that Gage had a good chance of survival, they made in the journey in silence, reminded once again why they did the job they did -- without pay, training on their own time -- responding at any time, in any weather -- the effort well worth their time, when the victim lived to see another day.
Joey wagged her tail happily, as she ran down the trail ahead of them.
* * * * * * * *
The attendant inside the gas station on the corner had witnessed the accident, and immediately picked up the phone and called the police.
Roy could hear the sirens, mournful wails in the still of the evening, somewhere in the distance. It took him a few minutes to realize that he was not on a run in the squad, and it was not Johnny next to him. His vision was blurred, and when he lifted a hand to clear his eyes, he felt something warm and sticky, but couldn’t identify what it was. He closed his eyes, for just a minute, as the sirens grew louder.
The occupants of the other vehicles at the intersection had watched in horror, as the speeding black convertible raced through the red light, not seeing the car waiting to make a left turn, until it was too late. The sound of brakes squealing, and tires screeching, followed by the sickening crunch of metal smashing metal, and glass shattering, pierced the air... and then as suddenly as the sounds had begun, a deathly silence had settled over the street.
Temporarily frozen by the sight, several bystanders finally ran into the street, to the cars, to see what they could do, if anything, until help arrived, while others jumped from their cars and quickly laid down flares.
Some turned away, repelled by the condition of the driver and his passenger in the black car; they would leave them to the professionals. Moans and cries from the other car drew their attention, and they did the best they could to help.
When Roy opened his eyes, he was out of the car, not sure if he got out by himself, or if someone had helped him. He was laying on a blanket spread out on the asphalt, and could see the emergency lights, blue and white and red, revolving all around him, and could hear the dispatcher’s voice over the radio. He squeezed his eyes closed against the pain caused by the lights and the noise. He couldn’t remember the call... were they at a fire?
He tried to raise himself up on his elbows, but dizziness forced him back down.
“J... John... Johnny?” No one heard him over the shouting, and clamor of rescue personnel and police.
Roy could make out bits and pieces of conversation swirling around him, but was unable to focus on who was doing the talking, and who and what they were talking about.
“...never had a chance, better call the coroner for this one.”
“...poor kid, hope she’s gonna be all right.”
“...hey, this guy’s a fireman/paramedic... LA County.
“...get that gurney over here, we need to get these people to a hospital... the kid goes first!”
Someone knelt beside him, and began to take his pulse, while talking to him softly.
“No, my name is Raymond. My friends call me Ray. You just lie still...you’ve been in an accident, and we’re getting ready to take you to the hospital... it’ll just be a few minutes... so hang in there.”
It all came back to him then -- the screech of tires, the look on Joanne’s face, the sound of metal ripping apart -- Jennifer lying on the seat, her song frozen on her lips, then she was gone.
“Jen.... Oh, my god, Jennifer!” He could hear someone crying. “Jo... Joanne?” He felt a hand slip into his, as he slipped away into darkness.
* * * * * * * *
The C-shift engine crew said their good-byes, and ducked out the door, as Chet sauntered into the kitchen. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, Marco also filled Chet's outstretched mug for him.
"Hey, where is everyone this morning?" Chet hadn't seen anyone else from A-shift in the locker room, and Marco was the only one in this room. Usually after four days off, everyone showed up bright and early.
Marco shrugged. "Stoker is checking out the engine, and Cap's been in his office with the door closed since I came in about twenty minutes ago. I think Hookrader is still in there with him, too. Neither Roy or Johnny have shown up yet."
So, Dwyer and Peters are still out with the squad?" Chet's razor-sharp mind was on top of things this morning.
"Yeah, I guess they're on their way back from Rampart right now. Cap'n Hook wants them both to stick around for a while." Marco knew they couldn't leave until Roy and Johnny came in anyway. "I wonder what's going on...."
Before Chet could swallow his coffee, and add his two-cents worth, they heard the squad back into the bay, and the doors slam... hard.... They watched as Dwyer, and his new partner, Dave Peters, shuffled wearily into the room, heading straight for the coffee pot.
Having seen the same worn look far too many times on Roy's and Johnny's faces, Chet and Marco simply offered a quiet good morning greeting to the pair, and moved aside to let them at the much-needed caffeine.
"Tough run, huh?"
"Yeah, the guy arrested on us twice before we could get him to the hospital. They worked on him for a long time in the ER, but he was too far gone...." He trailed off, glancing at his partner, who was staring intently into his coffee cup, as though he would find answers there, seemingly oblivious to the conversation in the room.
Dave Peters was fairly new on the job, having been certified for only about a month; this was the first time he had lost a patient, and was taking it hard. Chet and Marco knew that the first loss for any fireman or paramedic was the most difficult to deal with -- always questioning whether there was something more they personally could have done to save the victim.
Recent events had reminded them that, for some, it never got easier to deal with, experience simply trained them to handle their emotions in other ways, but the results were not always so good.
After a moment of awkward silence, Chet spoke up.
"Hey, I know you guys are beat, but..., uh..., your Captain asked if you could both stick around for a little while. Gage and DeSoto haven't shown up yet."
Dwyer rubbed his hands over his face in a tired gesture. Most of the time, he didn't mind the overtime, but today he really wanted to go home.
Reading his mind, Marco said, "I don't know if either one has called in yet... Cap just said roll call would be a little late... I guess he'll let us know what's up then."
An oddly uncomfortable silence suddenly blanketed the room, each of the men wishing Roy and Johnny would walk in the door just then, relieving the C-shift paramedics, allowing A-shift to get on with business as usual... wishing their Captains would come out of the office, and explain what was going on.
Chet and Marco both had a strange feeling gnawing in the pit of their stomachs.
* * * * * * * *
Hank Stanley felt like he had been on the phone for hours. Actually, he had been, now that he thought about it, and he wasn't done yet. He needed some coffee, and he needed to get his shift started. It had already been a long day for him, given that he had been up since one o’clock this morning.
As he and Hookrader came out of the office, he signaled to Mike to join them in the rec room; asking everyone to sit down at the table, he dispensed with formal roll call for today. Stanley hoped the tones wouldn't sound until he was able to finish with what he had to say.
"I'm afraid I have some bad news." He was tired, and worried, and he shoved his hands in his pockets to hide it. The others recognized the familiar gesture, and gave him their undivided attention.
"Roy and his family were involved in a car accident last night...."
He wasn't able to finish his sentence, as the others in the room immediately began to pepper him with questions. He pulled his hands out of his pockets, and held them up, to put a halt to the inquisition.
"How about we all slow down, and give me a chance to explain?"
He drew a deep breath, and started over. "It seems some idiot went through a red light at high speed, and hit Roy's car... they had just left Disneyland... I guess the guy attempted to swerve, and tried to stop at the last minute, but still hit Roy... impacted on the front fender on the driver's side of the car. The police said the guy had probably been drinking... the driver apparently went through the windshield, and died instantly. His passenger was DOA at the hospital."
The faces around the table paled.
"Roy is in the hospital with some minor injuries, but I understand that he's going to be all right. Joanne and Chris are both okay... they were in the hospital for a few hours for observation, but were released early this morning. I just got off the phone with Joanne. She still sounds pretty shook up. Roy's mother is with her, and I guess she's going to take Chris back to their house, and stay with him, while they wait for the news on Jennifer.”
You could have heard a pin drop now, as they waited for Stanley to finish.
Stanley swallowed hard. "Jennifer is in a coma... apparantly the force of the collision blew the car door open, and she was thrown out onto the street. There is some head trauma, but I guess at this point... well, I guess they're not sure what the outcome will be."
No one spoke, as they digested the news.
"Is that why Gage isn't here... he's at the hospital with them?" Mike had asked the question.
That drew a frown from both Captains, as they glanced at each other. Stanley was slow to answer, nervously scratching the back of his head. Gage had just been officially reported as AWOL... unusual for the report to be made so quickly, but under the circumstances, they were under instructions not to delay reporting a late or missing status where he was concerned.
"No, John isn't there. I don't really know where he is right now. I've been calling his place since I got the first phone call from the police about Roy at one o'clock this morning, but there hasn't been any answer. At first, I thought maybe I had gotten his new number wrong, but I checked with headquarters a while ago, and it's the right number. He hasn't called in there yet either."
"Maybe he had car trouble on his way back from Yosemite," Chet offered.
Marco shook his head. "He would have called in by now." He looked at Captain Stanley. "You don't suppose something happened to him too, do you?"
The men just stared at each other, hoping there was some other, reasonable, explanation for John's absence.
Even though they really had no option, Captain Hookrader still asked his men to stay until Gage showed up, or until replacements could be found. Peters offered to stay the full shift in place of DeSoto, knowing he wouldn't be in. That way, Dwyer could leave if Gage showed up, but Dwyer, too, agreed to pull a double shift, if it became necessary.
The tones sounded... Station 51... Hookrader wished Stanley good luck, and asked him to call if he needed anything else, and headed out the door to go home. The rest of the men climbed in the engine, and followed the squad, with Dwyer and Peters in place of DeSoto and Gage, out the door.
* * * * * * * *
Joanne was by Roy's bedside, holding his hand, when he woke up. It only took a minute for him to recall what had happened, and he sat up quickly, looking into her face for answers.
"She's still hanging in there, Roy." Joanne could barely contain the tears again; she thought she had cried herself dry, but found there was a never-ending supply of them. "The doctors are with her now, so I thought I'd come in here, and sit with you for a while. They said they'd be in to talk to us when they're done."
"Jo, are you okay? Chris... how is he?" Much of what had happened since the accident was still a blur.
"Chris is fine. Your mom's been here for hours; it was hard for her to leave, but we decided it would be best if she took Chris home, and let him get some rest. I'm fine... my neck is going to be a little sore for a while, but I'm fine, honest.”
Roy looked so pale to her. “Roy, are you okay? You really gave me a scare for a while... there was so much blood... but the doctors say you're going to be all right, and that they'll probably release you in a little while."
Roy nodded, rubbing the bandage on his forehead, wanting to reassure her that he was okay, too.
"Minor head wounds bleed a lot... they look a lot worse than they really are." He started to get up. "I need to see Jennifer."
At the mention of her name, Joanne’s tears flowed freely from the bottomless well. "Oh, Roy...she's so small, and she's been laying there, so still, for hours. I don't know what I'm going to do... if... if...."
Roy gathered her in a tight embrace, and simply held her. There were no words that he could say to take her fears away, because he felt exactly the same.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon had driven straight to the hospital from the Visitor Center parking lot. Her boss had arranged for a few day's emergency leave of absence... normally reserved for immediate family members only; but it had been obvious to him from the beginning that John Gage was family to her, and she had been extremely grateful for Jim’s understanding.
When she arrived, Johnny was still in the emergency room, undergoing treatment to stabilize his heart rate and bring up his core temperature. The doctors and nurses had been friendly and sympathetic, keeping her updated on his condition throughout the evening. They had assured her that he was responding well and that he would be fine, but Shannon needed to see him, touch him, before she would believe it.
She checked her watch... another hour before they moved him to a room, and she could see him. Waiting patiently was not one of her strong suits, but at least they were going to let her spend the night by his side... she could wait one more hour.
Shannon wondered if Johnny had found his answers while he was gone. The memory of the other night was still vivid -- she hadn’t been able to stop replaying it in her mind since he left.
When she and Johnny had gone into her cabin that night, they had made love... long, and sweet, and gentle, as they rediscovered the tender passion that they had shared for each other’s bodies. They had finally fallen asleep, with her legs wrapped around him, his arms holding her tight, just the way it had been so many times before, so many years ago.
She had been awakened in the middle of the night, startled to find Johnny caught in the grip of a nightmare, obviously reliving a horrible rescue gone wrong. Afraid to wake him, she had simply stayed close, waiting for it to end. Most of his words were mumbled, but she recognized anger in his voice.... I can’t open the f***ing door... Roy help me... and caught the desperate pleading... leave me alone....
Johnny had awakened from the nightmare, and she had held him in her arms, stroking his hair, caressing him, while he calmed down. He had laid in her arms quietly for a few minutes, before turning to face her.
This time, his eyes held a different look, and he began to kiss her... forceful, demanding, painful kisses with a tense, hard edge, fueled by anger and frustration and desperation. The sex that had followed had been fast and rough... raw and powerful... frightening and exciting at the same time.
When it was over, both were silent, save for the heavy breathing, shocked at what had just happened.
Shannon had seen the deep remorse in his eyes, but without a word, she curled on her side, with her back to Johnny. His arms had gone around her; he pulled her close, and buried his face in the pillow beneath her. She felt the pounding of his heart, and heard him draw his breath in short, shaky gasps. She didn’t pull away, but lie there quietly, waiting for him... wanting him to say something, but he never did.
Johnny had fallen asleep again, while Shannon had lain awake for hours. In all the years, all the times, Johnny had never hurt her like that, had never used her like that. If it had been any other man, she would have fought him, she would have hated him for doing that to her. But this was Johnny, and she loved him; she lay still by his side, in his embrace, and cried silent tears, not for herself, but for him, for the terrible things that must have happened, to push him to this point.
She recalled his serious expression, the next morning, when he told her he would explain when he got back, but he had offered nothing else. Their casual conversation, the teasing, as though nothing had happened, and his hasty departure, had left a great deal unsaid between them.
“Miss... Miss Miller?” She hadn’t even noticed the nurse was sitting beside her. “Can I get you anything? You look a little faint, would you like a glass of water?”
Shaking off the memory, Shannon brought herself back to the present. “No... no, I’m fine. Is everything... is Johnny... okay?” She had no idea how long she had been lost in her thoughts.
“Mr. Gage is doing better, and we've gotten him settled in his room. He’s sleeping now, but you can stay as long as you like. The doctor is in his room now, and said he'd like to talk to you for just a few minutes.” The nurse gave her a compassionate smile, as she patted her knee. “Don't worry honey, he’ll be just fine.”
Shannon headed down the hall to make sure of that for herself.
Johnny was asleep when she stepped into his room. The nurses had tried to find the most comfortable chair they had for her, when she asked if she could spend the night, and it was there by his bed, along with a small pillow and a blanket. She decided she must remember to send the staff something to thank them for the warmth and compassion they had shown her... to thank them for saving Johnny's life.
She stood by his side, almost afraid to touch him. They had him breathing warmed, humidified oxygen, and connected to a heart monitor, two IVs dripping warm fluids in his veins. There was a heating pad laid across his chest, and he had several layers of blankets covering the rest of him. He seemed to be resting quietly. She reached out a hand to carefully brush his hair from his forehead, a decidedly loving feminine gesture, and let her fingers caress the side of his head. Touching him again felt so good, so right.
The doctor talked to her for quite a while, explaining Johnny's current condition, and what the next 24-hours would bring. As a park ranger, she had received some first aid training in dealing with hypothermic victims, but in the hours she had been here, she had learned enough about it to write a book.
What worried them most at this time was his disorientation, and his intermittent agitation, when it seemed he was experiencing nightmares. Hallucinations were a common problem for those who were exposed to extreme cold over a long period of time, but his seemed to be lasting longer, and upsetting him more than most, at this point in his medical recovery. Danger of developing cardiac arrhythmia was still of concern, and it was important that he be kept still and quiet.
The doctors on his case agreed that if Shannon was present during those nightmares, hearing her voice might help keep him calm, and they welcomed the fact that she had asked to stay with him through the night.
He left her some last minute instructions, reiterating his instructions that she call the nurse immediately if Johnny showed signs of becoming agitated again.
A small night light cast a soft glow across the room. He looked so vulnerable in his sleep, those boyish good-looks she thought were gone when he had first shown up at her cabin, were there again. She could only imagine what he had gone through, and wanted desperately to gather him in her arms and hold him again. She settled for pulling the chair close to his bed, softly grasping his hand in hers... laying her head on the bed next to his arm, she drifted off to sleep.
She felt his arm jerk and heard him talking. She glanced around the room, and realized no one else was there. His eyes were open, and he was mumbling... something unintelligible... she sat carefully on the side of the bed, reaching to touch his cheek, to reassure him that he was safe.
Her hand never reached his face, withdrawing it slowly when she saw him recoil at the movement. She realized he wasn't awake, but reliving the nightmare again.
"Johnny... Johnny, can you hear me?" She wanted to touch him, but was afraid that she would scare him. "Johnny, it's okay... you're okay... you're safe now."
He thought heard her voice above the others, but they were so loud, he couldn't be sure.
"Sh... Shan... non?"
She gathered his hand in hers. "Johnny, it's me. It's Shannon. I'm right here. Johnny... please... can you wake up? Johnny, please.... You're safe now, I'm right here, and I'm not letting you go."
He felt himself standing on the ledge again... the rocks crumbling... he was going to fall, and there was no one there to help him.
"Johnny... please... I'm not going to let you go."
He felt her hand in his. He heard her voice, clearly now. He scrambled off the ledge.
"Johnny, can you hear me?"
He opened his eyes, and she was there. His throat was dry, his voice hoarse, but it was the sweetest sound she had heard in days.
"Shannon, you're... you're here."
She didn't want him to see her cry... even if they were tears of joy... he might not understand. She put on a smile -- not that it was an effort -- and brushed her fingers down his cheek.
With his free hand, he grasped hers, wanting to make sure she was real. He needed to tell her something, but just like the other day, he couldn't find the words. He was too tired to think... but he had to say something.
Shannon leaned over and kissed him softly on the lips.
"I know, Johnny."
Sleep claimed him again. He had survived the nightmare.
* * * * * * * *
Joanne had composed herself once again, and they waited impatiently for the doctors to come in, with news of Jennifer's condition.
Roy suddenly remembered he was supposed to be on duty this morning, and started to reach for the phone. "I've got to call the station, and let Cap know where I am."
Joanne shook her head. "No, Roy, the police called him at home last night. You had his number listed on your emergency notification card...and I gave it to them while we were in the emergency room. I called the station just a little while ago, while you were still asleep, and talked to Captain Stanley myself. He was really concerned, and asked us to call as soon as we found out anything about Jennifer." The tears threatened again.
"What about Johnny?" Roy asked. "Did you talk to him... is he on his way here?"
"The police said the number you had listed for him on your card had been disconnected."
"That's right... I forgot... Johnny changed his number a few weeks ago... for some reason... he's got an unlisted number now, but Cap's got it. He would have called him right away."
Joanne couldn't think of any reason he wouldn't have come, or at least called; it wasn't like Johnny, even if he and Roy were having problems.
"Maybe he did call, and we didn't get the message. Maybe he couldn't get a replacement this morning." Joanne thought about her conversation with Hank Stanley. "Now that you mention it, Captain Stanley didn't say anything about him... and if he knew at one o'clock this morning, then I'd have thought Johnny would have been here by two. Wild horses couldn't have kept him away."
Roy's voice had an angry tone to it, when he answered. "Maybe he just doesn't care anymore. We haven't exactly been the best of friends lately... I'm sure you've noticed that."
"Roy! How can you say that? Johnny loves Jennifer... he loves all of us... I know he'd be here if he could, and you know it, too. Do I need to remind you that you're the one...."
The door opened just then, and two doctors walked in. Joanne recognized them as the doctors who had been taking care of Jennifer, and almost fainted in relief, when she saw the smiles on their faces.
* * * * * * * *
The engine backed into the bay about an hour after the call-out; the squad was on a follow-up to Rampart with the victim of the household accident. Two men in suits and ties were waiting in the rec room for Captain Stanley; as soon as they introduced themselves as police detectives, the three of them disappeared into the captain's office, leaving the others anxiously wondering if their visit had anything to do with Gage.
Stanley invited the men to sit down, and, taking a deep breath, he pulled up his own chair, and sat down slowly. These men were all business.
"Captain, your headquarters notified us at 8:15 this morning that John Gage hadn't shown up for work, and that you hadn't been able to reach him by phone. Is that correct, and have you heard from him since that time?"
Stanley knew why they were asking, a little unnerved that things were happening so fast.
"He hasn't shown up for work yet, and no, he hasn't called in... unless he called in the last hour while we were out on a run... I've been trying to call him at this apartment since one this morning, but there hasn't been an answer."
The detectives looked at each other, then at Stanley. "Why were you trying to reach him so early?"
"His partner... his friend... the other paramedic on this shift... was in a car accident last night, and is in the hospital. I was trying to reach him to let him know about it. But he never answered the phone, and I don't know where he is right now." The detectives were making him nervous... they weren't telling him anything... but he didn't allow it to show.
"When did you last see Gage?"
"That would have been 8:00 Sunday morning, when we got off-shift. He was leaving straight from here for Yosemite -- said he was going to visit a friend, and do some hiking. Why? Do you think something's happened to him?"
"Captain, that's why we're here, we're trying to figure that out. We've kept a close eye on Gage these last few weeks, because of the harassment situation. He let us know he was going out of town, but he didn't leave a phone number where he could be reached. You wouldn't happen to know the name and phone number of the friend he was going to visit, would you?"
Stanley thought hard about his conversation with John that morning. "No, he didn't even mention a name... but he did say the friend was a Yosemite park ranger... if that helps any."
"It might. Do you think Gage would have told anyone else... anybody here at the station, or someone else he might be close to?" One of the detectives was making notes in a little book, while the other kept asking questions.
Stanley suggested that they go ask the rest of the men in the other room if John had told them anything that would be of help in locating him; he also told the detectives about Roy, and where he could be found, thinking that maybe since John had said he'd seen Joanne recently, he might have said something to her. He hoped the police wouldn't have to bother the DeSotos -- they had enough on their minds right now, without worrying about Johnny, too.
It turned out that no one recalled John mentioning his friend's name, and after another round of questions, the detectives finally left, asking Captain Stanley to contact them immediately if he heard from Gage, or if anyone remembered something that could be of help in locating him.
Stanley escorted them out, and when he returned to the rec room, he found five faces staring at him. As usual, Chet was the first to speak.
"So, Cap, what was that all about? Is Gage is some kind of trouble? I mean, he's a few hours late for work, and the cops are out looking for him already? Don't they usually wait 24-hours before they start looking for someone? Why do they think he's missing, anyway? Knowing Gage, he probably just lost track of time out there in the wilderness, or took a wrong turn somewhere...."
"Kelly, will you just hold on a minute, and give me a chance to explain." Hank Stanley knew he owed his men, John's friends and coworkers, an honest explanation.
"I think you'd all better sit down." They noticed the hands go in the pockets again.
Without divulging every sordid detail, Stanley filled the crew in about the letters and phone calls that John had been receiving since Jessica Jackson's funeral. He assured them that headquarters and the police had been involved since the beginning, and that because of the threats made against his life, they weren't going to risk any delays in uncovering his whereabouts.
The men were shocked. Johnny had never said a word about this to any of them. Marco crossed himself, and said a silent prayer.
"No wonder he's still having nightmares," Mike said softly.
Chet recalled the night he woke Johnny in the middle of one. "Yeah, now I understand why he reacted the way he did when I woke him up. He should have told us... I don't know, maybe we could have helped somehow. Maybe I wouldn't have given him such a hard time about his attitude lately. I didn't know...."
The captain tried to reassure his men. "John just didn't want anyone to worry, and the police wanted the details kept quiet. There's no way any of you could have known, since he chose not to tell you. We can't go jumping to conclusions now, anyway. We have no idea what's up... for all we know, John's car could have broken down somewhere along the way, and we'll be hearing from him any time."
Out of sheer coincidence, the station phone rang just then.
* * * * * * * *
Roy had been discharged after a long talk with the doctor -- yes, he would take it easy -- and he and Joanne had spent the last two hours with Jennifer. She had been awake, and the doctors felt certain that there was no permanent damage. Tired from her ordeal, she had finally fallen into a peaceful sleep.
Reluctant to leave her side, Roy and Joanne decided to grab a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria, then make some more phone calls. They had already talked to Roy's mom, and to Chris; Roy wanted to call the station and let everyone there know that Jennifer was going to be all right. It still bothered him that Johnny hadn't called.
They had just sat down at a table with their sandwiches, when two men walked up.
"Roy and Joanne DeSoto?" They asked, pulling out their shields.
Roy sighed a little. "We've already given our statements to the police about the accident. I don't think there's any more we can tell you."
The men invited themselves to sit down. "We're sorry about your daughter... the nurse told us she's doing better... but we're not here about your accident, Mr. DeSoto, that's Orange County business. We need to ask you some questions about your partner, John Gage. I know this is not necessarily a good time for you, but we're hoping you can give us some information, then we'll leave you alone."
Roy and Joanne exchanged puzzled looks, as the detective continued.
"Mr. Gage hasn't shown up for work today, or called in, and we're trying to determine his whereabouts. Your captain thought maybe he had told you if he was going anywhere besides Yosemite, or maybe he told you the name of the friend he was going to visit there?"
"Has something happened to Johnny?" Joanne asked anxiously.
"Mrs. DeSoto, we don't know. We're just trying to find him right now. Did he happen to mention anything to you before he left, or give you the name of the friend?"
Roy, like the others had been, was surprised that the police would be involved so quickly, just because Johnny hadn't shown up for his shift? "I... I don't understand. If you don't know if anything's happened to him, why are the police looking for him, if he's only a few hours late to work?"
It was the detectives' turn to exchange puzzled glances. They had been told that DeSoto and Gage were partners, and close friends. While Gage's situation had been kept on a need-to-know basis, surely his best friend had been told what was going on?
"Um.... Mr. DeSoto... are you not aware that Mr. Gage has been the target of a harassment campaign for the last four weeks? That he's been receiving threatening phone calls and letters?"
Roy's eyes opened wide, and Joanne put her hand to her mouth, not quite managing to suppress a gasp.
It was obvious to the detectives that they were not aware, so they allowed some time to let the news sink in, before asking any more questions.
Seeing the shock on Roy's face, knowing that he hadn't talked to Johnny for a while, Joanne offered what little information she knew.
"I've seen Johnny about three or four times in the last three weeks, and he never said a word about this to me... to us.... The last time I saw him -- I think it was last Saturday -- he said he was going to Yosemite to see a friend, but that he'd be driving back on Wednesday, because he had to be back on duty this morning. He was going backpacking while he was there, but he never said anything about going anywhere else. I never asked him his friend's name... he just said that he was a park ranger...."
"She." Roy had interrupted, and everyone looked at him. "She... she's a park ranger. Jo, you remember Johnny's old girlfriend, Shannon? She's been working at Yosemite for about two years now. Johnny talks to her at least once a month, and he's always thinking about going up there to see her."
"Oh, that's right. Shannon Miller. I remember her very well... such a beautiful girl... she and Johnny were crazy about each other."
The detectives stood up to go, having noted her name in their little book of information. "We're sorry to have troubled you, but if you think of anything else, would you please call us?" They handed Roy a card. "We hope your daughter is going to be okay. Good luck." With that they were gone.
Roy pushed his sandwich away, no longer hungry.
"I had no idea, Jo... I... he... we never talked about it." He rubbed his head, being careful of the bandage on his forehead. "I haven't talked to him about anything at all lately. I... I couldn't... I can't explain it, I just couldn't talk to Johnny, without remembering that little girl. The one we couldn't save. Joanne, we tried so hard, but we were just too slow, and too late. I felt like it was all my fault... even though I knew it wasn't... but her mother blamed me, and I just stood there, and let her pound her fists on my chest and blame me... then when Johnny tried to pull her away from me, one of the neighbors slugged him. It was bad, Joanne, it was really bad."
This was the first time Roy had said anything about that night.
Joanne reached over, and gently pulled his hands away from his face, then held his chin so that she could look into his eyes.
"Roy, trust me, Johnny understands. What Jennifer told you the other night was true. Johnny is really hurt, but he understands how you feel. You've got to believe that."
"Joanne, he didn't say anything to you about being harassed? Do you think it has something to do with this case? His nightmares, his being so quiet around the station lately... it all makes sense now. And I... I just ignored it all." Roy thought he was going to be sick.
"Honey, it'll be okay. They didn't say anything had happened to him. They're just trying to find him. You know Johnny. Maybe he and Shannon just got caught up in things, and...."
"That's just it. I do know Johnny. He would never not show up at work without a reason, or without calling in. If anything has happened to him, I don’t think I can ever forgive myself for the way I’ve treated him.”
* * * * * * * *
"LA County Fire Station 51, Chet Kelly speaking."
They were still sitting at the table, stunned by what Captain Stanley had just told them.
"Hey, Cap, it's for you. It's a female... she says it's important."
Stanley took the phone, and Chet went and sat back down, keeping his ears open to the conversation, without appearing obvious. Stanley suspected they were all listening, always doubly curious when a female called the station.
With his back turned to them, only parts of the conversation could be heard clearly.
"Oh, sure I remember you. John's friend, right? I'm afraid he's not here ri.... What?! No!"
The changed tone of his voice, and his shoulders slumping, alerted them to bad news. He turned, and motioned for someone to hand him a piece of paper, as he pulled his pen out of his pocket.
He spent a minute writing something down, then another few minutes listening, asking an occasional question, before hanging up the phone.
This day couldn't possibly get any worse. He was the bearer of bad news for the third time today.
"Okay, men, that was Shannon Miller, Johnny's friend... do you remember her?"
"Who could forget her? She was one gorgeous chick." Chet remembered every pretty face, especially if they were Gage's girlfriends.
"It so happens that she's the park ranger John went to visit. There's been an accident, and John's in the hospital in Merced." This time everyone gave Stanley the opportunity to continue without interruption. "I guess he took a nasty fall sometime Tuesday, and he wasn't found until late yesterday. He was in serious condition... they had to airlift him to the hospital. In addition to some injuries from the fall, Shannon said he was suffering from a pretty serious case of hypothermia by the time they got to him."
Stanley was grateful it had been such a quiet day for fire department business. If he hadn't felt the exhaustion before from the long hours he'd already been up, it hit him hard now.
He sat down, and slumped back in the chair, tilting his head back, closing his eyes for a moment. These two men -- his men -- had already suffered through so much, and it had all started with them 'just' doing their jobs... risking their lives, to save the life of one little girl. He knew life wasn't fair... he'd reminded them of that countless times before... but John and Roy were the good guys, and these things weren't supposed to happen to them.
The guys waited for him for as long as they could.
They needed more information than he had given them. He sat up straight, and clasped his hands together on the table in front of him, picking up where he had left off.
"Shannon said that he was responding well to treatment, and would probably be in the hospital at least another two days. I got the name of the hospital, and the phone number to his room, if we want to call him, but she said it would be better not to call until this evening. John's been asleep a lot since they brought him in, but the doctors said they wanted him to try to stay awake for a few hours tonight."
Mike asked, "Did she say what happened?"
"No, she didn't know. John was only semiconscious when they found him, and he was apparently pretty disoriented. She's hoping that he can shed some light on the story, when she sees him later today."
Stanley stood up to go to this office -- he had some more phone calls to make -- to the police, and to headquarters. He was beginning to feel like he never wanted to touch a phone again. He didn't even make it to the doorway, when it rang again.
The guys shrugged. "That's why they pay you the big money, huh, Cap?" Kelly again.
This time it was some good news, although the conversation ended up being a difficult one. It was Roy, calling about Jennifer. Stanley was relieved to hear Roy's voice, and quickly shared his news about Jennifer with the rest of the crew. At last, there was something to cheer them up.
Stanley didn't know that the detectives had gone directly to the hospital after leaving the station. He hadn't wanted Roy and Joanne to find out about Johnny that way. At least he was able to tell Roy that Johnny wasn't missing anymore, but the news of his accident seemed to upset Roy.
Given the strained relationship between them, Roy agreed that it would be better if he called the station back later that evening for more news, after Stanley had a chance to talk to Shannon again, or hopefully even to Johnny. Under the circumstances, Roy thought Johnny might not want to talk to him anyway.
* * * * * * * *
Assured by the medical staff that Johnny was through the worst of it, and that he would sleep peacefully for a while, Shannon had left the hospital for a few hours... headed for a friend's house, to shower and eat and get a few hours sleep. They promised to call her immediately, if he took an unexpected turn for the worse.
Upon her return, the nurse had told her that Johnny was awake, and was asking for her. She opened the door to his room slowly and quietly, not wanting to startle him. His eyes were closed. Shannon noticed right away that they had removed the oxygen, but a fresh IV had been started... he had several layers of blankets covering him still, and the heating pad remained on his chest. Johnny's face was drawn and pale, accentuating the bruises down the left side of his cheek and jaw line, and under his eyes.
He looked a hundred times better than he had yesterday at this time.
Johnny opened his eyes, sensing her presence in the room, and gave her a small smile. He was tired, and hurt in more places than he could count, but at least he'd be around for a few more sunrises.
"Hey, you," she said softly. "I thought I told you not to make me come looking for you again. When are you ever going to listen to me?"
"I don't know... probably never... you know me." There was still regret and sorrow in his voice.
“Yes, I do know you.” She found a spot on his forehead that didn't look like it hurt too much, and planted a soft kiss there, letting her lips linger for a moment.
He was looking at her with forlorn eyes, that wordlessly begged forgiveness. “Shannon... about the other night.... I....”
She put a finger to his lips. “I already told you... another time, Johnny... when this is all over, we'll talk about it. Right now, it doesn’t matter... all that matters to me is that you’re going to be okay.”
Her kiss warmed him more than any blankets, heating pads, or IVs had managed to do.
Johnny was full of questions, and Shannon patiently answered each one as best she could, filling in the blanks about the rescue effort, and the transport to the hospital. The doctors had already fully explained his medical condition to him, and the precautions he'd have to take in order to recover.
In the middle of their discussion about the length of his hospital stay, there was a knock on the door, then a police officer stepped in.
"Mr. Gage? I’m Officer O’Doyle. I apologize for intruding, but the nurse said it would be okay to come in, and talk to you for a few minutes... are you up to answering just a couple of questions?"
Shannon was about to object, but Johnny answered before she could. "Sure, come on in... um... I don't see another chair."
The officer waved his hand. "This won't take long, I'll just stand, thanks. Mr. Gage, we had a call this afternoon from a Detective Parkinson with the LAPD. He filled us in on your situation back in LA, and wanted to know if we could come by, and see if you could answer a few questions."
"Johnny... what 'situation' is he talking about?" Shannon wondered if it had something to do with why Johnny had come here in the first place.
"Uh... Shannon, I'll explain later. I was going to tell you all about it when I got back anyway. But, let the officer ask his questions first, then we'll talk, okay?"
"Mr. Gage, the detective basically just wants to know what happened to you out there, when you fell." The young officer didn't know how much more to say in front of Shannon.
Johnny looked decidedly uncomfortable, and asked Shannon to hand him something to drink. The nurse had left him some warm apple cider on the bedside table, and it tasted good going down. He took a deep breath, knowing he'd have to share this information sooner or later.
It was just so damned embarrassing, especially knowing what everyone was probably thinking.