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John leaned back in his saddle and angled his head until he was positioned so that he was looking up towards the heavens.
The thin dark haired man sat poised and self-possessed on the back of his horse as he allowed the late autumn sun to shine down on his face. His eyes were closed as he savored the warmth the sun provided against his skin.
He inhaled deeply, taking in a large lungful of the crisp, clean air as he basked in the sun’s rays. Slowly he released the breath he was holding in with a contented sigh. It would be a safe assumption to say that Johnny Gage was relaxed and completely at peace with his life.
Johnny stayed that way for several minutes, before he opened his eyes and lowered his gaze back down once more.He scanned the horizon that surrounded the perimeter of the pasture lands that were located at the very back of his property.
To the east he could see the lake, as it sat before him, still and smooth as glass.
Gone were the flocks of Canada Geese that had, for a short time, settled in on the lake for a brief respite on their journey to the warmer climates to the south. No longer was the air filled with the sounds of their warning cries.
For nearly two weeks they had acted as nature’s official town criers. The harbinger of things to come; those geese were the prelude to the impending winter … calling out their warning to all who would listen, letting them know that the cold, icy winds from the arctic would soon be on their way down from Canada.
The trees stood out starkly on the edge of the landscape, naked and barren … bereft of life, or so it seemed to Johnny.Their appearance taking on the countenance of some beautiful and yet at the same time, macabre corpse whose skeletal branches reached out like bony arms. Their appendages tapering off at the ends into grasping hands, with gnarled and craggy digits reaching upwards in a vain attempt to grab hold of the dainty clouds that were stretched out white and thin as they went gently gliding across the azure skies overhead.
Gone now, were the majestic colours of the early autumn trees that had graced all of nature with their splendour only a month earlier, when nature had been at its glorious best, bedecked out in all its finery.
Johnny smiled as he remembered how awestruck he had been each morning when he stood out on his front veranda and watched the first rays of sunlight catch each colour of the vibrant foliage… the sun’s rays seemed to magnify their beauty a hundredfold.
It had all been so enchantingly beautiful… it had literally taken his breath away, overpowering his senses each time he witnessed a new autumn dawn. He could never get enough of it.He felt so intrinsically at one with nature here; to be just sitting back and allowing himself to become a part of the natural world that lived and breathed around him.
Johnny was convinced that God himself had reached down from heaven with a paint brush and had skillfully and lovingly adorned each tree with its own unique hue from his pallet full of colours designed for that singular purpose.
He knew without a doubt, that nature’s colours had to be shades created especially by the master’s hand exclusively for autumn in New England, because regular colours such as yellow, red and orange were woefully inadequate and did not do the trees justice. Those mundane colours just weren’t good enough.
No… God’s pallet contained colours with exotic sounding names like; vermillion, saffron, russet, sepia, sienna, carmine and umber…with a touch of goldenrod thrown in for good measure… just to ground the others and keep them humble.
Of this fact Johnny was certain; beauty like this did not just randomly happen… It had to be created; and Johnny could see God’s fingerprints on every part of the world that surrounded him; for only God could imagine this many shades of autumn.
Johnny sighed as he remembered those blissful mornings of September and October. Sadly, the leaves had eventually, and all too quickly, one by one, slowly danced and played with the strong autumnal breezes until they were spent and had fallen to their final resting place onto the earth below so they could take their place in the circle of life, and feed the earth that had so graciously fed them the previous spring.
This past autumn had reminded Johnny once more, just how much he had enjoyed living in a part of the world where the seasons where so different, and in such stark contrast with each other.
He’d never realized until he had moved to Vermont, how much he had missed the four distinct seasons that you never really got to experience in Southern California… they had seasons, but not in such vivid extremes like they did here.
He had been surprised by how quickly and how much he had fallen in love with this area; but what had shocked him even more, was how much Roy and Joanne had fallen in love with the area. Even Dixie and Joe Early had taken to their new home like fish to water.
As much as he missed his other friends at Station 51 back in Los Angeles; Johnny knew that he had finally come home, and that he would be quite content to live the rest of his days here in Swanton.
It was now mid-November and Vermont had already had its first taste of winter ten days earlier, with an early snowfall that had stuck around for two or three days before it had eventually melted away again. The skies had been cold and gray with several nights of a heavy killing frost after that.
Earlier in the week, the weather had moderated and the daytime temperatures the last few days had climbed up into the mid-sixties, with sunshine and a pleasant warm breeze from the south that was currently blowing softly through Johnny’s thick dark hair.
The air around him was heavy with the scents of late autumn. Someone somewhere not too far away; perhaps on the neighbouring farm; was burning leaves.
The earthy smell was mixed in with the smell of a woodstove… probably coming from that same farm. They were smells that he hadn’t experienced in many years.
There was no doubt about it … they were now enjoying Indian summer. Johnny frowned for a moment… he was never quite sure how he felt about that appellation. He wasn’t sure if he was honoured or offended by the term.
He was pulled back out of his ruminations, when Koda shifted restlessly underneath him.
Smiling, Johnny slid off the paint’s back and un-cinched the saddle letting it fall to the ground. He gently stroked the horse along its back as he quietly spoke to him.
“Haw Koda. EE yo monk pee; leela ampaytu keen washtay…due way nee shnee.” ( hello Koda… I am happy; today is a good day…there is no one around.)
The horse pushed its nose against Johnny’s hand and softly nickered.
Johnny laughed playfully.
“Dacoo ya cheen hey?” (What do you want?)Once again Koda gave his owner a small head butt and neighed r
restlessly. Johnny chuckled softly and he gave the horse another pat and then gently slapped his rump.
“Wana sh ka ta yea...” ( you can play now) he called out as he watched the young paint run happily across the open pasture.
Johnny reached into his saddle bag and pulled out his camera. He had no real plans to take any photos, but he liked to have his camera ready in case that one in a million shot presented itself.
He spread out the heavy saddle blanket on the dead grass, and then bent over to pick up his saddle in order to position it on the edge of the beautiful hand woven material.
Johnny had hand-picked this particular saddle blanket himself for Koda. He’d bought it from the nearby Indian reservation when he had first seen it a month earlier and fallen in love with its design and colours.
Once he was satisfied with how he had the saddle arranged on the blanket; Johnny flopped his body down, his long legs sprawled out in front of him.
He reclined back and rested his head against the saddle as he reached into the saddle bag and pulled out an apple and began to munch on it contentedly.
He laid back and lazily watched Koda frolic around the pasture with joyous abandon. Johnny reached over and grabbed his camera and took a few random shots of his horse at play.
After several moments had passed, the paint settled down to graze on those last few edible green patches of grass that had survived the first snowfall relatively unscathed.
Johnny set his camera aside, and laid back. He closed his eyes, content to simply relax and doze peacefully in the fresh air and sunshine.
Normally Johnny would have spent a day like today out on the local trails hiking. He loved exploring the various trails that existed in abundance around his new home.
The majority of those trails meandered around inside the boundaries of the nature reserve that abutted his ranch.
Sometimes Roy or one of his children would accompany him on his hikes, and there was even one occasion when Dixie had joined him; but for the most part Johnny hiked alone.
That was his personal favourite way to go hiking. Not that he minded the company; but hiking alone was his preferred method of decompressing after a tough shift at work, or when he just needed to get away somewhere to be alone with his thoughts.
True enough, he lived alone. But when he stayed at home to think or decompress, he always ran the danger of that unexpected visitor, or phone call that would pull him away from the solitude he so desperately craved sometimes.
Today was one of those cases in point. His original plan had been to spend the entire day on an extended hike, but last night Dixie had come up from the guesthouse and had asked him if he would mind picking her up after her shift at the clinic ended at three that afternoon.
The first snowfall of the season had spurned everyone into action in regards to getting their vehicles winter ready. The only garage in Swanton had been backed up with the mad rush of everyone trying to get snow tires put on their cars and trucks before the weather turned bad.
Roy had wisely listened to Johnny’s advice and had taken his car in to get snow tires back in October when Johnny had had his done. Roy’s Porsche had been stored in one of Johnny’s driving sheds for the winter at that time too.
Dixie had meant to get her car done back then as well, but the day she was going to go in, she had been called in for some unexpected overtime at the clinic, and had never gotten back to it until now.
The weather was still open, and Johnny understood that this may be her last chance before winter set in to get it done. Unfortunately the only place with an opening that could fit her in was in Burlington.
Dixie had dropped off her car at the garage in Burlington, and caught a ride back to the clinic in Swanton with Joe Early, who luckily lived in Burlington, and also worked at the clinic with Dixie.
The car would not be ready to pick up until five that evening, and Joe was on his long shift and would not be off duty until seven.
Since the garage closed at six, Johnny had agreed to pick Dixie up at work at three and drive her into Burlington to get her car.
So Johnny had given up his plans of an all day hike, and opted instead to spend the morning riding Koda and checking the fence line on his pastures, looking for any broken or worn sections of fence that needed repair.
It hadn’t taken more than the first hour to ascertain that the fences were all in good shape, and so Johnny now had time to lounge around with Koda for a while before lunch.
Johnny had been laying out in his field for over an hour. He had been alternately watching Koda graze, and dozing off and on while he basked in the warm late autumn sun.
It was shortly before noon when Johnny felt the wind shift to the north, and he sat up and scanned the skies.
Heavy grey clouds where gathering and they loomed ominously on the northern horizon, holding the threat of a late autumn rain storm.
Johnny wasn’t too concerned as he was only about half an hour away from the barns… less if he let Koda gallop instead of walk. He figured any storm was at least an hour away.
Johnny grabbed his camera and took some shots of some of the more interesting looking cloud formations that were forming, before he began to pack his camera away inside the saddle bag.
The winds had started to pick up in their intensity, and Johnny stood and listened as he marvelled at the varying symphonic tones that were being produced by the wind as it blew through the various kinds of trees that grew along the fence lines and bluffs.
There were all the assorted whistling and rustling sounds that were produced by the birch, maple, ash and elms nearby. But the sound that spoke to Johnny the most was the soulful, mourning moan of the winds as they blew through the pine boughs.
It made the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck stand up… much in the same way as it did whenever he heard the sounds of the timber wolves howling late at night during a full moon.
It wasn’t that those sounds frightened him; it was because those mournful sounds stirred up something deep in Johnny’s soul… something that made him feel alive and at one with the natural world.
It thrilled his senses and made him feel more alive than even the most daring rescue he’d ever been on.
It didn’t take long before the heavy dark clouds began to overtake the blue skies, blotting out the sun and leaving a dull cast over the earth. Johnny shivered slightly as he noticed a perceptible drop in the temperatures.
It was still mild for November, but the temperature had dropped appreciably now that the sun was no longer shining and the winds had shifted from the south to north. The air felt more like the low fifties now instead of the mid-sixties.
Johnny stood up and looked around until his eyes located Koda off in the distance. He pursed his lips and let out with a long, shrill whistle.
As soon as Koda heard the sound of Johnny’s whistle, his ears pricked forward, his head came up and he looked at his master.
As soon as Johnny knew he had the paints attention he called out;
“Hi, Koda” (come Koda)
The horse obediently trotted over to his master and stood still.
It only took Johnny a few short minutes to saddle up the horse once more. Johnny sprang up onto the horses back with all the grace and agility of a gazelle.
“Tiyatakiya” (home…or homeward) Johnny urged, and the two of them took off at a gallop back towards the barn.
Johnny and Koda had managed to beat the rain back to the barn, with time to spare, but by the time Johnny had brushed down and watered the horse, the heavens had opened up, and there was a veritable deluge cascading from the skies.
Johnny pulled his jacket close around him, and turned up the collar, before he ducked his head low and made a mad dash across the barn yard towards his house.
Despite the fact that he had hotfooted it across the yard, reaching speeds that attested to the fact that he truly had earned the title, “galloping greyhound,” he was still soaked through to the skin by the time he dashed up the front steps and onto his porch.
He took his jacket off and shook off any excess water before he entered his house. Once inside he toed off his shoes and hung his jacket on a hook to air dry.
He made a bee-line for his coffee maker and set about making a fresh pot of his favourite dark Columbian blend. Once he had the coffee maker started, he went into the bathroom and stripped off his wet clothes and jumped into a nice hot shower.
By the time he was finished and back into some warm dry clothes, his coffee was ready and it was almost one o’clock.
After pouring himself a large mug full of the rich dark brew, he put on a heavy wool sweater and went back out the front door and sat down on the porch swing that hung outside on his veranda, to watch the rain fall.
Johnny enjoyed watching the rain fall; he enjoyed listening to the sounds it made as it hit the ground… He found its soothing rhythm to be pleasantly hypnotic. It almost seemed like Mother Nature was cleansing the earth one final time, as she prepared to rest under a heavy blanket of snow until spring. Much the same way as some people had a bath before retiring to bed at night.
Johnny looked at his flower bed, and noticed the rows of dead and decaying flowers. Most of them had long ago ceased to bloom as they had rushed to meet the autumn frosts, but he noticed that there was still one lone holdout, a deep maroon Chrysanthemum that was still stubbornly holding onto life. Its vibrant colours had faded somewhat, and its leaves were beginning to wilt, and there was no doubt that it was slowly surrendering its beauty to the colder weather, but at the moment it still bloomed valiantly and Johnny smiled at its resiliency.
Johnny’s eyes drifted down past the guesthouse and he watched as a gust of wind picked up a small pile of dead leaves and sent them swirling across the yard until they met with various obstacles and came to a standstill.
The lake beyond was a drab grey-green colour with miniature white caps that were forcing dead twigs, sodden leaves and other debris to collect along its muddy banks.
This entire morning with all its sights and sounds had put the young paramedic in a rather wistful and introspective frame of mind.
John Gage had certainly seen and experienced more in his twenty eight years than most others had ever done in their entire lifetime… But then again, Johnny had started out at life at an earlier age than most others had.
By the time he was ten, he had already begun living life as an adult. In fact, for the most part, Johnny had had to bypass the innocence of childhood and step into the adult world far sooner than he should have had to… albeit not by his choice. He had learned very early on in his life, that life was not always fair.
So it only stood to reason that because of his tragic and lamentable past, he’d experienced more in his young lifetime than anyone else he knew…simply by virtue of the fact that he had had a head start at facing life’s harsh realities. The last dozen years being a huge improvement on his first sixteen … the time with his parents and White Eagle notwithstanding.
However it was the last eight years … ever since he’d met Roy DeSoto, that had been by and far the best years of his entire life.
Sure there had been one or two little hiccups along the way, and a few bumps in the road. Like that damned Koki virus and a rattlesnake that had gotten a bit too up close and personal with his leg.
Then there was the drunk driver that had decided to play slalom, rather unsuccessfully, with his body, which had left him minus his spleen, and a brush fire that had nearly turned him into a human torch.
The topper of them all of course, had been those three vicious psychopaths that had decided to shoot up a bus load of people and take him and two small children hostage.
It had been that experience that had set in motion the chain of events that had ultimately led to his forced retirement from the Los Angeles County Fire Department at the ripe old age of twenty seven.
Still he had to admit that a lot of good had come from the bad. It was, after all, those particular events that had led him to where he was today.
He had become a Paramedic Captain at the age of twenty seven, and he now owned his dream ranch, with a growing stable of pedigree horses. And someday he hoped to make a name for himself in the horse breeding business as well.
All things considered, Johnny was more than pleased with how his life had turned out; especially when he thought back to where he had come from and all the cards that had been stacked against him as a child.
Johnny shook himself out of his reverie and he was just about to head inside the house to freshen up his coffee, when he noticed a taxi pull into his lane and slowly make its way to the front of his house.
Johnny couldn’t make out its occupant and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out who in the world would be coming to see him… especially by taxi.
It wasn’t until the door opened and the cab’s lone passenger stepped out, that Johnny finally recognized the face.
You could have knocked him over with a feather and his jaw dropped open in shock and surprise; slowly his face broke out into a huge grin.
“Well as I live and breathe … if it isn’t good ole’ Chester B Kelly.”
Johnny sprinted down his front porch stairs and took the suitcase from his visitor’s hand.
“What in Sam Hill brings you all the way up from L.A. to visit us here in no man’s land?”
Chet rolled his eyes as he grinned from ear to ear.
“Well Duh? You’re what brings me here Gage.”
“But I didn’t come all the way up from L.A. just to see you. I’m on my way up to visit my mother in Boston.”
“At the last minute, I decided to make a small detour on my way to bean town to come see my old friend Johnny… I just had to see for myself how my favourite pigeon was making out in his new life up here in the boonies.”
Johnny smiled and with his free hand gave Chet a friendly pat on the back.
“Well, come on in out of the rain. The coffee is good and hot and I was just about to make some grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.”
Once the two men had returned to the shelter of the porch, Chet did a slow hundred and eighty degree turn as he scanned Johnny’s ranch. He let out with a low whistle as he took in the lake, the guesthouse and the outbuildings.
“Wow John… Is all of this land yours?”
Johnny grinned proudly.
“Yep, it’s all mine Chet. The barns, the other outbuildings the guest house and the seventy five acres of surrounding land. Some of it runs next to Lake Champlain, and some abuts onto the nature reserve, and the rest runs along the road.”
“Dixie is renting the guesthouse from me; she fell in love with it while she was staying there back when we first moved up to Vermont and so she just stayed on.”
Johnny reached over and gave Chet another hearty back slap.
“So why didn’t you call and let me know you were coming? I would have come to meet you… Please tell me you didn’t take a cab all the way from Burlington?”
Chet grinned sheepishly; “Yeah, I did. But the cabbie I got was an independent driver, so he gave me a flat rate instead of turning on the meter, so the bill wasn’t too bad…. I just hope there’s a cheap motel in town.”
Johnny snorted and picked up the suitcase that he had set down on the porch only moments earlier, and he shoved it into Chet’s arms.
“What’s all this nonsense about a motel? Just toss your gear inside one of the spare rooms, and make yourself at home… How long can ya stay?”
Chet followed behind Johnny as they stepped through the front door and into the foyer of the large home.
Johnny gave an exasperated sigh.
“Chet, just use the damn phone and stop acting like a guest…it’s just me for heaven’s sake.”
“Now I’ll start the grilled cheese sandwiches and you make your call to Boston. When you’re done on the phone you can go find a room upstairs… both of the rooms on the left side of the hall are spares, so take your pick.”
Without waiting for a reply, Johnny turned and headed into the kitchen to make lunch.
Within a very short period of time, Chet had been settled into one of the spare rooms and he’d made his call to his mother to let her know his plans. The two friends were now sitting at the kitchen table enjoying their meal of soup, sandwiches and salad.
Johnny set his half eaten sandwich on his plate and looked over at his guest.
“So, Chester B; how are things back at station 51? Cap calls me… or sometimes I call him… every so often.”
He paused to take a drink of his coffee.
“I keep forgetting he’s Chief now; he keeps harping on at me to call him Hank now that I’m no longer an employee of the Los Angeles County Fire Department…but I just can’t make myself do that. To me he’ll always be Cap.”
Johnny stood up and refilled his mug with coffee as he continued talking to Chet.
“But I’m afraid that I’ve kinda lost track of the rest of you guys these past few months. It’s been busy getting the station up and running. How do you like having Mike as your Captain now?”
Chet’s shrug was non-committal.
“Being a Captain suits Mike. He’s actually very good at it. But I’m sure you don’t find that surprising. Mike has the kind of temperament that was made for being a Captain. He’s always been so cool, calm and collected, under pressure.”
Chet shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and began to fidget nervously.
“So what’s it feel like being a Captain, Gage? Have you got used to people around here calling you Cap yet?” Chet said, deliberately changing the subject.
Johnny was quick to pick up on the fact that Chet had gone out of his way to shift the conversation away from Station 51, but since he had to leave soon to go pick up Dixie and take her into Burlington, he decided that he’d let the matter drop… for now.
One thing Johnny was sure of; he was definitely picking up a vibe that all was not well back in L.A. and that this visit from Chet wasn’t a casual one. He was positive his old nemesis had something on his mind that was bothering him, and Johnny was determined to wheedle whatever it was out of the Irishman.
But he let it go for the time being. He swallowed the final bite of his sandwich and answered Chet’s question.
“Well, actually I don’t hear it very often. Since Roy and I are both on the A shift here, and we share the same rank, it’s all still done on a first name basis.”
“As far as the other shifts go, we usually only see them during shift change. It’s mostly when we have to air lift someone over to New York, or we’re at an official meeting, that folks call me Captain Gage.”
“Up hear in the more rural areas, we don’t stand on ceremony as much as the big cities do. You don’t treat as many strangers…you kinda know everyone around, so it’s more intimate.”
“On the downside it can be harder because when we do get called out to help a victim, the odds are, it’s going to be a friend, neighbour or acquaintance. That can ratchet up the tension a bit…”
“It’s a real catch 22.” It makes it hard to see a friend scared or in pain… but the nice part is; we get to see the outcome once they’re healed or have been saved. And it does make the victim relax and calm down more easily on the scene when they know and trust you.”
“But I love it here Chet, I think I’ve finally found my home. I love the people, I love countryside, I love my ranch, and I have my family around me. Roy and I were able to get a promotion, with a rise in rank and pay without having to give up being paramedics… It’s not often in this life when you get to have your cake and eat it too.”
Johnny paused for a moment and stared down at his empty plate, and he slowly shook his head.
“You know Chet… in all honesty; I don’t even miss being a hose jockey as much as I thought I would. And I know Roy and Jo don’t miss it.”
“I’m really satisfied in the work we do up here. Bringing the paramedic program to an area where they didn’t have any previously.”
“It’s great being in on the ground floor of making sure that someday soon, everyone will have definitive medical care on the scene of an emergency… it really is an exciting thing.”
“I felt that same excitement when the paramedic bill was first passed eight years ago. It’s a hell of a good feeling knowing you’re making a difference in the lives of people who really need it… and appreciate it These folks treat us great.”
Johnny sat back with a satisfied smile.
“My life is good Chet, and I’m happy… I’m really, really happy.”
Chet sat in silence for a moment before he finally spoke.
“I’m happy for you Johnny… nobody deserves it more than you do man… and I really mean that.”
Johnny walked over and put his hand on Chet’s shoulder for a brief second.
“Thanks Chet,” he said quietly.
Johnny picked up the empty dishes that were in front of Chet and carried them over to the sink, where he rinsed them off and stacked them in the dishwasher.
He glanced down at his watch and noticed it was almost two. He’d have to leave in half an hour to go get Dixie, and now that the rain had stopped he wanted to run out to the barn and get his camera that he’d left in the saddle bag so he wouldn’t have to carry it outside in the wet. He also wanted to turn the horses out into the pasture for a few hours before supper.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you to your own devices for a while Chet. Dixie’s car is in the shop in Burlington and I promised her I’d pick her up after work and take her into the city to get it. And I want to do a few things out at the barn first.”
“Just make yourself at home while I’m gone. The TV’s in the great room, and so is the stereo and the records. There’s also a shelf full of books if ya wanna read.”
“Or you might wanna grab a shower and a nap. There’s beer in the fridge and food in the cupboard… I hope to be home before six. I’ll just grab us some take out for supper…what do you want, Italian or Chinese? Up here the choices are fewer…I could stop at the sub shop if you want?”
Chet walked over and flopped down on the couch and picked up the TV guide. He absent mindedly began to flip through the pages.
“Whatever you pick up for chow will be fine by me Johnny. I think I’ll just take that shower and watch some TV while you’re gone… maybe even grab a beer and a nap. I had to get up at four to catch my flight. This three hour time difference is a bitch on the internal clock.”
Johnny grinned and headed for the door.
“Okay, well just make yourself at home and I’ll be back later. I’d say you could call Roy, but he’s not home.”
“He volunteered to be a chaperone for Chris’s class at school. They’re away right now for two days touring the State Capital. He won’t be back until the day after tomorrow.”
“Ahhhh… the hazards of being a parent; I’m surprised he didn’t rope you into going along too Uncle Johnny.”
Johnny laughed and shook his head.
“Nope, we all take turns being “on call” in case one of the other paramedics is sick or hurt. With only six of us, we need to make sure we have a backup ready. This weekend it’s my turn to stay close to home.”
Johnny grabbed his jacket and slipped into his shoes.
“I’ll be out in the barn if anyone calls. There’s an extension in the stables, so if the phone rings I’ll just pick it up from there. I’ll be about half an hour. I’ll make sure to come in and let you know before I leave to get Dixie.”
With a final nod to his visitor, Johnny turned and slipped out the front door.
Chet stood and looked around Johnny’s home. It really was a beautiful place. It felt warm and inviting. Chet was suddenly filled with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. With a wistful sigh he turned and slowly made his way up to the guest bathroom.
When he reached the top of the stairs he turned around and took in the view of the great room once more.
“Johnny boy, you’re one lucky man.” He whispered.
His shoulders slumped as though he was carrying a lead weight on his back. He walked over to the bathroom door and quietly stepped inside to have his shower.
~ ~ ~
Chet tossed aside the book he’d been thumbing through for the last hour, and pushed himself up off of the couch in Johnny’s great room. He had long since run out of things to do to keep himself occupied while he waited for Johnny to return home.
He glanced down at his watch and took note of the time… it was twenty after five and it was dark outside. The only light on in the house was the small lamp that sat on the end table closest to where Chet had been sitting reading.
Chet got up and began to wander around the room, absent mindedly checking out the record albums that sat in a rack beside Johnny’s stereo system.
He had spent most of the afternoon trying to shake off the restless feeling that had been plaguing him all day. He felt unsettled and out of sorts… The truth of the matter was, he’d felt that way for months now.
It was one of the reasons for his trip to Boston to visit his family. This little side trip to Vermont had been a completely spur of the moment decision he had made when he arrived at LAX this morning.
It had taken some doing, but he had managed to get his flight changed from LAX to Logan; to LAX to LaGuardia. Then he had taken a small plane from New York to Burlington.
He hadn’t previously planned on taking this route, but once he had thought of it earlier that morning; it had become an all-consuming desire. The thought of seeing Johnny and Roy again filled his heart with more happiness than he had felt in months.
But now that he had been here for a few hours, he was beginning to second guess himself. He tried hard to convince himself that he had done the right thing by coming here today.
It was just that right now, his life was filled with a sense of inertia that he found to be unbelievably stifling, and he just knew that he had to do something to get out of this funk he was in.
Chet made his way over to the fireplace. He figured he’d get a nice roaring fire going, in the hopes it would warm his spirits along with the room.
Once he had piled the logs into the fireplace, he stood up to look for some matches to use to light the fire with. He reached up to the mantle hoping to find what he was looking for.
As his hands wandered along the top of the solid oak mantle, feeling around blindly for some matches, his eyes fell upon a sterling silver picture frame. Inside the frame was an old black and white photograph.
The moment he laid eyes on it, he knew who the people in the picture were. Although it had obviously been taken some years earlier, there was no mistaking he features on the child that was standing between the two adults.
The picture was of a young John Gage with what were clearly his parents. Chet reached up and took the picture down so he could take a closer look at it.
Chet was taken by how much Johnny looked like his mother… except for the smile. The smile on Johnny’s face was a carbon copy of his fathers.
Chet studied the picture for a few more moments. It looked like it had been taken on some sort of farm or ranch, due to the fact that there were several horses in the background.
Johnny looked to be about nine or ten in the photo. Chet called to mind the day Roy had told him about Johnny being orphaned at the age of ten, and he found he was filled with a profound sadness as he realized that both of these adults standing beside his friend must have died, not long after this picture had been taken.
Chet continued to look at the photo, and presently his eyes wandered back to Johnny’s mother…it was then he noticed the necklace that was hanging around her neck. He was momentarily filled with shame at the sight of it.
It had been that necklace and his disrespect of it, that had nearly cost him his job and his friendship with John… but in the end it had been that necklace that had led to a new level of respect and understanding in their friendship as well. Chet slowly put the photo back and continued on his search for something to light the fire with.
He eventually found a box of matches in a small container on the mantle and in a matter of a few moments he had a warm comforting blaze going in the hearth.
Chet walked over to the large picture window and gazed outside. The night sky was an inky black and for the most part the only thing he saw when he looked out the window, was the image of his own face reflected back at him in the glass.
He stood there at the window staring out at a point off in space, frowning in concentration. He seemed to be lost in some private thought that was demanding his full attention, when in actual fact the only thought running through his head now was… why in the hell had he suddenly made this detour to Vermont out of the blue?
He shook himself out of his reverie with a defeated sigh.
Hell … who was he trying to kid? He knew exactly why he had come here today. He was here because he missed his friend and he wanted to see him again. No that wasn’t it … he was here because he needed to see him again.
Things just hadn’t been the same since John and Roy had left Los Angeles. Chet had known that life would be different once Gage and DeSoto left L.A., but he hadn’t been prepared for just how big of a change it had been.
He had always been aware that Johnny’s vibrant energy had been a large part of what made him enjoy being a part of Station 51’s A shift… but it wasn’t until he was gone for good that Chet had realized just how much of that enjoyment had been directly tied to his friend.
But once Johnny had gone, the change was immediate. It was true that Gage had been gone from the station for a few months before he had even left Los Angeles; but somehow in the back of his mind, Chet’s brain had convinced him that he was only out on sick leave and that sooner or later he would return.
As much as his head had known that that wasn’t the truth, it was his hearts’ deepest wish that someday, somehow, a miracle would happen, and Johnny would return to Station 51.It had been that kind of wishful thinking that had allowed Chet hold onto that unreasonable hope as long as Johnny was still in L.A.
It wasn’t until Johnny had left for Vermont for good that it became real for Chet.
Gone were the days of all those impromptu, drop in visits and the phone calls on their days off. There had been no more double dates or fishing trips. The nights they had gone out bowling or shooting pool together were now a thing of the past… and Chet dearly missed those days.
Johnny had really and truly moved away from Los Angeles, and no more was that loss more keenly felt than at Station 51.
It was there that Chet had noticed just how lonely he had become. He had suddenly become aware of just how big Station 51 was, and how empty it seemed to be these days.
There was no one there to fill up the huge void that had been created with John and Roy’s departure. John Gage may have been as skinny as a bean pole, but his energy and presence had been huge.
Chet looked at his reflection in the window and heaved a sigh of resignation. The bottom line was simple… He had come to Vermont because he was lonely and depressed. He had come, because he missed his friend.
It was while these thoughts and revelations where swirling around inside Chet’s head that he noticed a set of headlights turn off the road and slowly make their way up Johnny’s long laneway. As the Land Rover neared the house he could hear the crunch of the vehicle wheels in the gravel.
Chet turned and made his way back into the kitchen and switched on the lights, in preparation for Johnny’s entrance into the house.
~ ~ ~
Johnny bounded up the steps of his front porch, opened the front door and stepped inside. He tossed his keys on the hall table and set a large bag of take-out food beside them.
He quickly shrugged out of his jacket and slipped off his shoes. He used his sock feet to kick them onto the welcome mat as he hung his jacket on a hanger in the closet beside the front door. Then he turned toward the lighted kitchen and smiled.
“Chet? I’m home and I brought us some chow…I hope you’re hungry because I brought a shit load of food with me…” he called out as he picked up the bag of take-out food and sauntered into the kitchen.
Chet was out in the kitchen and in the process of making a fresh pot of coffee when Johnny came into the room and set the bag of food onto the counter.
“I finally settled on Chinese, I hope that’s okay. I got both the pork and the chicken.”
Chet looked back over his shoulder at the bag on the counter and grinned.
“Sounds great…I’m starved.”
Johnny began unloading the food containers from the bag and set them on the table.
“So, you never did tell me, how long can you stay for?”
Chet shrugged his shoulders.
“Just one night, mom’s anxious for me to arrive. My dad’s not been well lately and it’s been hard on her. I have a flight out of the Burlington airport to Boston tomorrow afternoon at six.”
“Wow, I hope it’s nothing too serious with your dad.” Johnny said.
“Emphysema… dad was an old smoke eater from way back when… long before they used SCBA gear. All those years of breathing in smoke finally caught up with him, I guess.” Chet replied.
“Yeah, I kinda know the feeling,” Johnny said wryly.
“So, you got that coffee just about ready there Chester?” Johnny asked changing the subject.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure where you keep everything, so I’ll set the rest of the food out while you get some plates and cutlery and bring them over to the table.”
Johnny nodded his head and reached up to grab the handle on the cupboard door. He was just about to open it up when his hand froze in mid-air.
Suddenly his whole demeanor changed, and he immediately took on the air of a cat walking through the middle of the dog pound.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he cast a sideways glance over towards Chet.
“Uh uh… no way Chester B. I’m not falling for that one. There is NO WAY I am going to get nailed by the Phantom in my own house… you want to eat on plates, YOU get them. There up here in this cupboard.”
Chet looked over in utter amazement for a second before he threw back his head and laughed out loud.
“I don’t believe it,” he laughed. “You actually think I planted a water bomb in your cupboards? I swear Gage I didn’t do anything.”
Chet was now laughing so hard there were tears running down his cheeks.
“This is quite a coup for the Phantom… it’s like he’s got his pigeon trained like some Pavlovian experiment. You just see a cupboard door and you quake in your boots… I love it,” he giggled.
Johnny looked over at his friend and shook his head.
“Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t, but I don’t trust you.”
In the end, Johnny made Chet go around and open each and every cupboard door and drawer in the entire room. He even made him open the oven door too, just to be on the safe side.
The entire time he was doing so, Chet was barely able to contain his laughter, giggling uncontrollably.
It was the first real, unrestrained, genuine laughing he had done since Johnny had left Los Angeles nearly six months earlier.
His heart felt light and carefree and he thought to himself, this is what has been missing from my life all these months… I am actually having fun. It was good to see Johnny again.
Eventually they managed to get the table set between the two of them amid the giggles and eye rolls, as the two of them sat down to enjoy their repast.
All through dinner the two friends spoke of incidental things that had been going on in their personal lives during the last few months, but whenever Johnny began to steer the conversation towards how things were going back at Station 51, Chet began to do what Johnny could best describe as, “evasive maneuvering.”
“So Chet, anything big and exciting happening back at 51’s?” Johnny avoided being specific, but secretly he was hoping Chet would just come out and state the real meaning for this visit.
Chet just gave a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders.
“Naw… same old, same old. You know how it is Johnny; nothing ever really changes much with the fire department. Folks come … folks go, others get promoted, but basically life within’ the department just keeps chugging along. Pretty mundane shit really.” Chet said without much conviction.
By the way Chet had avoided speaking about the Station directly, Johnny highly doubted that that was the truth, but for now he kept that opinion to himself.
As much as he was tempted to confront the issue, Johnny held his peace and said nothing. It was clear to him that Chet had a lot more on his mind than he had been forthcoming with, but Johnny also sensed that this was not yet the time to bring it up.
But Johnny was not one to be easily deterred, and he made up his mind that before the evening was over, he was going to get to the bottom of what was really on his friends mind.
Across the table, Chet stood up, his face impassive and serious. He tossed his napkin into the discarded paper take out bag and he slid his chair purposefully back under the table signifying that he was through talking about this subject.
Johnny slid his own chair back and rose slowly and heavily.
“Well Chet, I gotta go out to the barns and take care of the horses for the night. I shouldn’t be too long. When I’ve finished in the barns, then maybe the two of us can kick back and relax in front of the T.V. for a while.”
Chet, who had been clearing away the debris left behind from their supper, set down the paper bag and turned towards Johnny.
“Actually, if you don’t mind, maybe I could come out and help you. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Raven. I’ll bet she’s grown a lot since May.”
Johnny nodded his head, “Yeah, she’s grown into a real beauty. I’ve decided to keep her instead of selling her… well if you’re really dead set on helping me, then let’s get going. The sooner we get it done, the sooner we can get back in here and kick back with a beer.”
By this time both men were standing by the back door that was located in the utility room just off Johnny’s kitchen. Johnny reached over and tossed a brown corduroy coat over to Chet.
“Here Chet, you better put on one of my old barn coats, and a pair of my boots.
The boots should fit alright. As I recall we both have the same size feet. The coat however, might be kinda small on you, but it beats coming back into the house with your good jacket smelling like a stable.”
Chet put on the coat and boots without question and followed Johnny out the back door, into the night air.
The second Johnny walked into the stable and switched on the lights the heads of all five horses jerked up and turned with anticipation toward their master.
One by one, Johnny made the rounds, spending some special time with each of his “babies.”
He carefully led each horse out into the coral before he grabbed a manure folk and began to clear away that morning’s bedding that had become soiled throughout the day.
As soon as he had the muck cleared away, he turned to Chet who had been standing back observing Johnny work.
“Hey Chet, you wanna grab that pitch fork and bring over some fresh straw for their bedding, while I feed and water the horses?”
Chet looked around for a few moments trying to figure out which fork was the pitch fork. Finally he looked up and noticed Johnny looking over at him with some amusement.
Johnny reached over and grabbed the appropriate fork and handed it to Chet, and pointed to the loft.
“That’s straw, he said pointing to the left… that’s hay, he said pointing to the right. Straw is what we use for bedding.”
Chet could hear Johnny softly chuckling to himself as he walked back over and grabbed a feed bag.
One by one the horses were brought back in and settled for the night.
Chet was over at Raven’s stall admiring her sleek black coat, while Johnny was getting Koda his feed.
As Chet stood there stroking the horse’s silky flank he could hear Johnny’s voice coming from the other stall.
“Hunta yo...( get out of the way)” Johnny said to the horse, who was trying to push him sideways.
Chet looked over at his friend. He had never heard Johnny speak anything but English before.
He had known that his friend spoke his native tongue, but he had never personally heard him speak it before.
Chet looked over to see Koda playfully nudge Johnny’s arm with his nose while the horse waited for Johnny to feed him.
“Hey choon sh nee yo,(don’t do that)” Johnny laughed.
Once again the horse nudged Johnny’s arm impatiently.
“Dokesha ay cha moo ktay. (I’ll do it)…in a minute, is implied)” Johnny spoke back.
After several moments of playfully pushing each other, Johnny finished up with Koda and stepped out of the stall.
“Okay, Chet. That’ll just about do it. Let’s get back inside and get cleaned up and then we can kick back and relax for the rest of the night.”
Chet just nodded his head and followed Johnny back into the house.
As they walked along the road that led from the stables to the house, Chet thought about what he had just witnessed.
“So Johnny, do you always speak Indian to your horses?”
“I was speaking Lakota Chet, and yes… at least to Koda and the ones I intend on keeping for breeding purposes. It would serve no purpose to speak in Lakota to the ones I intend on selling. I mean, chances are their new owners won’t speak Lakota.”
Chet fell silent for a while.
“That picture on the mantle in your living room, that’s you and your folks isn’t it.”
“Yes, Chet… it was taken just a few weeks before they were killed.” Johnny answered quietly.
“It was the weekend after my tenth birthday and I’d just won my very first rodeo.”
“You look like your mom… well except for your….” Chet started to say.
“Except for my smile... yeah I know.” Johnny interrupted.
“Yeah, my mom was beautiful, both inside and out.”
“Sorry she was killed man…I mean both of them.” Chet said quietly.
“Thanks, Chet. I still miss them… I miss them every single day.”
“Is that why you go off on your own all the time? … To find someplace to remember them in private?”
Johnny walked along in silence for a moment as he thought about Chet’s question.
“Yeah, I guess that’s part of it. I mean when you have no one left who is biologically related to you, it can feel a bit lonely at times. Sometimes when you’re feeling lonely, wandering off on your own can lessen those feelings… I mean out in nature everyone and everything is on an even playing field.”
“Besides, I find I can really connect with life on a spiritual level out there in nature, all by myself.”
Chet looked over at him and raised his eyebrows.
“You mean like talking to your brother bear and that kind of stuff?”
Johnny shook his head in disbelief.
“What the hell are you talking about Chet… my brother bear?”
Chet looked back questioningly at the man beside him.
“Well isn’t that what your people believe? That bears can walk and talk like man and all that shit?”
”Ah no Chet….we haven’t thought stuff like that for a long, long time. Those may be the stories and legends my mother told me when I was a child, but that’s all they are Chet, stories and legends.”
“I mean yes, we believe that the earth and all of its creatures, and that includes the plants, are intrinsically a part of each other. We believe everything is connected and made for its own unique purpose to edify and support each other.”
“Sometimes the animal is to supply food, or its hide to supply clothing, blankets or shelter. Its bones are used for tools and ornaments, or wool for weaving. The trees and plants supply shelter and medicines. We must take care of them, so they in turn can help take care of us.”
“We also believe in God and creation. Whatever name you give him. You may call him the Great Spirit, or Gitchi Manitou, or another name such as Jehovah, Abba, Yahweh, Adonai, Almighty, I AM…whatever name you’re familiar with. It’s all God. We believe he created all things to work in harmony with each other…and we are the keepers of the earth.”
“I mean, yes at one time my people believed in some of those legends as fact, but then again, didn’t your people once believe the earth was flat?”
“Human beings and society as a whole has learned a lot over the years Chet…it’s just my people have learned to adhere to the parts of the old ways that still matter and work, while at the same time adapting…just like all other humans.”
“We learned to drive cars, and we have telephones. We get vaccinations… it’s just we also know that there was truth in the old remedies and medicines as well. Some of the old ways really are better. So we’ve learned to marry both cultures together.”
“It’s not unique to our culture, it’s just that it’s more noticeable in the United States than it would be in Africa or Tibet or some other countries that also hold to their old traditions along with the new.”
“Still a lot of those stories are allegorical in nature.” Johnny added in as an afterthought.
“Ally what?” Chet asked.
Johnny rolled his eyes.
“They have a moral to them…kind of like Aesop’s fables.”
By this time the two men had reached the back porch of Johnny’s home. Johnny walked over to the hose that was attached to the outside tap and turned on the water.
As soon as the water was flowing he stuck his boots underneath the stream of water to rinse off any residual manure that may have clung to his boots.
“I don’t want to track any muck into the utility room,” he explained.
Chet just nodded and followed suit.
Once inside, the two men kicked off their boots and slipped out of their coats.
As soon as they hand hung up the jackets, they went to wash up in the bath room that was located just off of the utility room.
By the time they had grabbed their beer, and made themselves comfortable, it was almost eight thirty.
Johnny got the fire blazing once more and them made his way to his leather lazy boy and sat back with his beer. He sat looking at Chet for a few moments before he finally spoke.
“Okay Chet, spill it. Why did you really come out to Vermont?”
For the briefest of moments, Chet looked like he was going to deny that there was another reason for his trip up North, but at the last second he flopped down on the couch and gave a dispirited sigh.
“I’m not exactly sure I even know why I came here to see you John,” he said dejectedly.
“I think you do Chet.” Johnny said gently.
“Now why don’t you just tell me what the trouble is; what exactly is wrong back at the station?”
“What are you talking about Gage? What makes you think there’s anything wrong with the station?” Chet asked defensively.
Johnny took a drink of his beer and gave Chet a challenging look.
“Oh I don’t know Chet, maybe it’s because every time I mention the station, you do more evasive maneuvers than the entire US military.”
“Why don’t you want to talk about it? Is there something seriously wrong back at 51’s?” Johnny asked worriedly.
Chet sighed and set his bottle of beer down on the coaster that sat on Johnny’s end table.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong at the station Johnny… everything’s wrong. In fact it’s so wrong that I’m thinking of leaving the station for good. That’s the real reason I came up to Boston.”
There was a profound silence in the room and Johnny’s beer sat frozen in his hands in mid-air, halfway between his lap and his mouth.
“You’re leaving L.A.!” Johnny exclaimed.
“Is it as bad as all that? What’s wrong? I thought you said Mike was a great Captain?”
Chet got up and began to pace nervously around the room as he began to try and explain things to Johnny.
“Well you see…” he started.
“It’s all wrong now… I mean it’s just…” his voice trailed off in frustration.
Chet walked over to the front window and looked out into the night, and stopped talking.
Johnny set his beer down and spoke to Chet in the same tone of voice he used on agitated victims and their family members at accident scenes.
“Chet, come over here and sit down, and I want you to take a deep breath and just start at the beginning, and I want you to tell me everything… I want you to tell me just exactly what this is all about.”
Chet came back over and sat on the couch. Johnny got up out of the lazy boy and sat down beside him.
“Well,” Chet started.“I guess it all started about a month after you and Roy left. You already knew that Alan and Jeff were made the permanent paramedics for 51, after you guys left.
Johnny nodded his head. Alan Livingstone and Jeff Baker had been subbing for Johnny and Roy for a few weeks when Roy gave his notice to the department, that like Johnny, he wouldn’t be returning to Station 51.
Since Jeff and Alan had been floating from station to station waiting for a permanent spot to open up anyway, the department had just given them Gage and DeSoto’s spot at 51.
It was the logical solution since both men had already been there for a few weeks, and had begun to settle in anyway. This way the new paramedic team wouldn’t be starting in “cold”.
Chet continued on talking drawing Johnny’s attention back to the conversation at hand.
“Well about the middle of August, Alan’s wife just up and runs off with some greasy haired singer from a local rock group, leaving the poor guy alone with three kids under the age of eight at home. So he had no choice really but to apply for a new placement in San Diego, closer to where his family lived so they could help him out with the kids, ya know?”
“Well his replacement was this new guy named Enrique Mendez.”
Johnny shook his head, indicating he didn’t quite understand where Chet was going with his story.
“So what’s the problem… is there something wrong with this Enrique guy Chet?”
Chet shook his head sadly.
“It’s just that by the time Enrique arrived, Cap had left and Stoker had taken over. And he’s a helluva Captain and a great guy and all… but he’s not Captain Stanley…Sorry I mean Chief Stanley now.”
“Captain Stanley was more outgoing and chummy. I mean he shot hoops with us, and joked around with us when there was some down time. But Mike is all business… he’s damn good at it and he’s still nice. But you know how quiet and reserved he can be.”
“To make matters worse, our new engineer Dennis Bradford is not much better. I mean what is with the department? Is it some kind of requirement that all engineers have their sense of fun surgically removed? Or maybe they just remove their voice box…kind of like having your dog de-barked.”
“I mean I don’t think I’ve heard a casual word out of him in the entire time he’s been there. Not unless it had something to do with department business of the job at hand.”
“And Jeff…damn it John, it’s like he’s the reincarnation of Brice. All he does is read and quote rules and regulations. I swear he’s channeling Brice in some weird cosmic way.”
Chet rose up again and resumed his frantic pacing.
Johnny just sat back and let Chet unload without interrupting.
“But the worst thing about it all is that now I don’t even have Marco to chum around with.”
Johnny looked up in shock, afraid that something had happened to Marco.
Before he could speak, Chet put up his hand to stop him.
“Marco’s fine John, it’s just that it turns out Enrique’s Uncle Mario had three or four Mexican restaurants in the Los Angeles area, and both Enrique and Marco have taken to working as Chef’s for Enrique’s uncle on their days off to earn extra money, so I never see Marco on our days off anymore.”
“And even when we’re on duty, every spare second the two of them are off in some corner pouring over new recipes and cooking ideas. They just sit there speaking in Spanish and laughing.”
Chet sat back down and lowered his voice to just above a whisper.
“It’s like I’m stuck way out in right field by myself with no one to hang around with anymore.”
Chet took a long pull from his bottle of beer.
“I guess what I mean to say is that I’m just not happy there anymore Johnny. And so that’s why I’m thinking of leaving… What do you think about it? Do you think I’d be making a big mistake by walking away?”
Johnny didn’t immediately reply. He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly before he began to answer Chet.
“Well Chet, the way I see it is that you have two choices. You can stay on at 51’s and make what life you can in a situation you’re no longer happy with; but if you’re truly not happy there, then you’ll be of little use to anyone there, including yourself… and you may even be a danger.”
“You need a lot of passion and drive to do that job Chet … I don’t have to tell you that. You have to crave it as much as your lungs crave oxygen. And if you’re only going through the motions, you’ll become lax and careless. And neither of those qualities bode well for anyone’s safety… not yours, your shift mates, or any potential victims.”
“You need that drive and energy, and if it’s not there at Station 51 for you anymore; then it’s time to move on to somewhere, where you do feel that drive again… or get out of the game for good.”
Reluctantly Chet was inclined to agree with Johnny’s opinion.
“Yeah, well that’s why I’m here. I really did mean it when I said I came up to see my mom because my dad hasn’t been well. But there is another reason too.”
“It was actually my brother Danny’s idea. I called him up about a month ago and I was grousing about how miserable I was with how things around the station had changed.”
“He told me about a couple of guys that were leaving the department in Boston in the New Year and he suggested I come on back up to Boston and apply for one of the jobs.”
“My family has always had someone at the Boston fire department, so Danny figures I’ll be a shoo in, if I apply for it. Of course Danny has other motives as well. He and his wife are moving to San Antonio in April because he got transferred there with his job, and he hasn’t told the folks yet.”
“He hates the idea of leaving mom alone with dad, when he’s not well, and if I took a job in Boston and moved back in January; then Danny could hold off telling mom and Dad about his move until March.”
“My Dad’s a proud man Johnny, and doesn’t like to think he needs anyone to help him and mom take care of things around the house. He likes to think that he’s still able to be there for his wife and handle things on his own.”
“The trouble is, he really can’t do a lot of that stuff anymore, and he would be miserable if he thought I was moving back home to keep an eye on him and mom. So this idea kills two birds with one stone.”
“If I take the job and move back to Boston, then after I’ve been home a couple of months, Danny can make his announcement and hopefully my move home will look more fortuitous and not contrived for Dad’s sake.”
“Plus I’ll be back home with my family, and I’ll be closer to you guys. I mean a three hour drive and I’m here. Hell I could even leave at breakfast and be here by lunch. Maybe even get in some camping and fishing weekends again.”
Johnny’s pleasant laugh answered him.
“Well it sounds like you didn’t need my advice Chester. It sounds like your mind was already made up before you even arrived here… so why the detour to Swanton?”
“I guess I just needed to hear that someone else thought it was a good idea. One of the positions becoming available in Boston, is for an Engineer out of Station 38, the other is for a linesman at Station 47. I’ve thought about trying for 38’s, but let’s face it John…I barely made the list last time I tried out for Engineer.”
“I mean I’ve been studying on the sly for over a month now, and I really think I’m a lot better prepared this time. But the test is in three days and I’m just afraid I’ll fail.”
“So I’m not too sure I’ll go for the Engineer’s test. That way I won’t have to worry about being embarrassed if I bomb out again. I mean I wouldn’t really mind staying on as a linesman.”
Johnny seemed to be considering Chet’s words. He hesitated briefly and then looked Chet squarely in the eyes and said very matter of factly;
Chet’s mouth dropped open and he stared at Johnny in astonishment, with a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on his face.
“What did you just say to me?” he demanded.
“You heard me Kelly,” Johnny said rather loudly.
It was now Johnny’s turn to stand up and walk over to look out the window.
After gazing outside for a minute he turned around and faced Chet; his countenance was a mixture of anger and frustration.
“Do you want the Engineers job Chet? … Because if you want it bad enough; then you’ll do it. You’re not stupid Chet; I know you’re not.”
“Have you ever considered that the reason you didn’t do well last time you took the Engineers test, is because you didn’t want it bad enough? So you didn’t pour on that extra effort to study for it?”
Johnny sighed and sat back down on the couch beside Chet, and he got his voice under control once more.
“Look, you know your own limitations better than I do Chet, but I’ve seen you on the job, and I know you have what it takes to do this, if it’s what you really want. And I have the strongest possible hunch that you’re a hell of a lot smarter than you think you are.”
Johnny picked his beer back up and emptied the last of it into his mouth before he continued on.
“Trust me Chet; I know what I’m talking about here. Back when Roy first took the Engineers test a few years ago, I was pretty ambivalent as far as seeing myself move up in the department. After all I liked my job and what I was doing, and I was satisfied about how things were unfolding in my life at that time; so I was pretty content with the status quo.
“But then all the shit with the kidnapping happened and then my lungs started crapping out on me; so all of a sudden I had a whole new incentive to make some major changes in my life.
“Hell I was nervous about taking the Captain’s course and starting all over again out here, but I was also excited about it too; I knew that I wanted it bad enough, and that I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way of making it happen.
“And that’s what you need to do now Chet… you just need to get out of your own way, because right at this moment, the only thing stopping you … is you.”
“Do you want that job as an Engineer?” Johnny asked again.
“Yeah, I do.” Chet answered.
“Then go and get it…cos’ it’s yours for the taking.”
Johnny allowed his voice to trail off as he let the truth of those words speak for themselves.
Chet sat there for a moment and then he looked over at Johnny and smiled.
“Thanks John…you have no idea what it means to me to hear how much you believe in my ability to do this.”
Chet looked down at his lap and tried to hide the fact that there was moisture pooling at the corner of his eyes.
Johnny was busy having his own dawning of realization, about just how much his opinion had actually meant to Chet.
Seeing that Chet was having a hard time containing his emotions at that particular moment, Johnny stood up and made his way out to the kitchen to get them each another beer.
He made sure he took an inordinately long time in order to give Chet a chance to compose himself.
After all if Chet didn’t want Johnny to know he’d been close to tears….well then he wouldn’t know it.
After he had given Chet what he was sure was sufficient time to collect himself, Johnny returned to the great room, and handed Chet over another beer.
After that, the two men sat and discussed everything Chet was going to need to do if he was going to make the move from Los Angeles to Boston … if all of these plans worked out; and Johnny was positive they would.
Their second beer had long been consumed and they were still deep in conversation when the grandfather clock in the hall rang out twelve times, signifying that the old day had now ended and a new one had officially begun.
“Well Chester B,” Johnny said, as he slowly rose up and stretched his arms out wide.
“I’m gonna call it a night,” he said as he collected the empty beer bottles.
“You wanna get up early and help me in the barn again? Or would you rather just sleep in late? If you want to get up and come to the barn with me, then I’ll wake you up for breakfast at six. If not, then I’ll just leave you to fend for yourself for breakfast.”
Chet stood up and yawned.
“Actually John, I think I’ll let you wake me up… then maybe after the chores are done you can show me around your spread in the daylight.”
Johnny handed the empty beer bottles to Chet and pointed to the kitchen. And then he walked over and switched off all of the lights but the one in the hallway.
He then walked over and made sure that the fire had completely burned itself out and had cooled down before he closed the damper on the fireplace flue.
By the time he was finished, Chet had returned and had made sure that the front door was locked for the night.
Once that had been accomplished both men made their way up the stairs to bed.
True to his word, Johnny woke Chet up bright and early the next morning well before the sun was up. By the time Chet arrived down at the breakfast table at six thirty, Johnny was dishing up a plate full of scrambled eggs, sausage and hash browns.
As soon as Chet sat down, Johnny set a steaming cup of fresh coffee down in front of him. Once they had finished their meal, Johnny loaded the dishes into the dishwasher and the two of them headed out to the stables to do the morning chores.
By the time the horses stalls had been cleaned and tended to and they had been fed and watered, the sun was up. Once again it promised to be another beautiful Indian summer day.
Now that the morning’s work had been completed, Johnny turned to Chet and asked him; “Do you wanna saddle up and go for a ride around the place? You said you wanted to see it.”
Chet looked unsure.
“Umm I’m not really much for riding horses Johnny; besides do you even have an extra saddle?”
“I do actually have another fancier saddle, but I’ll just give you my everyday saddle. You can ride Pandora. She’s very docile and I’ll just ride Koda bareback. He actually prefers to be ridden bareback anyway.”
Chet still wasn’t convinced that this was such a good idea, but in the end, he reluctantly agreed.
After a tour around the ranch on horseback, Johnny stopped in the middle of the pasture and gracefully slipped of Koda’s back and let the paint roam freely in the field. Johnny turned and looked expectantly at Chet.
After a few moments Chet realized what it was Johnny wanted, and he gingerly got off Pandora’s back.
Johnny nodded his approval as he walked over and removed the saddle from Pandora’s back and gave the horse her own freedom to roam freely and graze in the field.
Johnny grabbed the saddle blanket and spread it out on the grass and motioned for Chet to sit down.
“So Johnny,” Chet asked as he made himself comfortable.
“How do you like this slower pace of life? Do you miss the rush of Los Angeles at all?”
“Actually, I love it here Chet. Trust me, the work is still challenging and we are more than busy enough. We have lots of business to keep us on our toes. It’s just most of the calls are different from what we used to get called out to in L.A.”
“We get a lot of farm related accidents now, as well as injured hikers, and boaters, plus we still get the regular MVA’s and falls and domestic accidents in the home. We still run heart attacks and premature babies, just like in L.A.”
“The one thing I don’t miss is all the drug OD’s and suicide attempts… and the only gunshot call we’ve had was because of a hunting accident, and not because of some gang members who are hell bent on murdering each other; or some thug who wants to rob a convenience store or a bank.”
Johnny paused in the mid-sentence as his mind travelled back in time to eighteen months earlier.
“I had more than my fill of that shit on that bus last year… I promise you, if I never see another crime scene again or witness someone’s else’s murder, I’ll be happy.”
Chet put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“Yeah… I gotta tell ya man, I don’t know how you came through that as well as you did. I don’t think I would have been able to do what you did to get yourself and those kids out of there in one piece.”
Johnny sat quietly and stared off at a point on the horizon. His mouth was turned down into a frown. His voice was barely audible when he finally spoke.
“That wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed a murder Chet… My parents’ death wasn’t actually an accident. A couple of racist men actually wanted them to die that night… all three of us were supposed to die that night, only I survived.”
The two men sat in silence and Chet began to actually digest what Johnny had just told him. For the first time in his life, Chet actually sat down and began to think about everything Johnny had been through in his life.
He didn’t know for sure what had happened to Johnny after his parents’ death, but he knew his grandparents hadn’t accepted his father or Johnny’s half native status.
He didn’t even want to consider what some of the possibilities regarding Johnny’s life were, and what it had been like for him as a child, let alone what he had witnessed on that bus.
He gave an involuntary shudder when he stopped to consider how much Johnny had seen in his lifetime and just how much he knew firsthand about the darker side of human nature.
One thing Chet was sure of; Johnny still obviously held some mysteries in the very depths of his soul that probably not even Roy knew about.
When Chet finally decided to speak, his own voice was barely above a whisper.
“Sorry Johnny…I really am.”
Johnny’s head nodded almost imperceptibly.
“You know in all honesty, I think you’re the strongest man I’ve ever known John.”
“I’ve always been amazed at how you’re able to handle all the shit life throws at you. And I don’t just mean things like that monkey plague, or the snake bite, or getting hit by that car; … but all of that other huge stuff. Like the bus incident, or your folks being killed. I honestly don’t think I would have survived that.”
Johnny sat and watched the horses grazing in the field for a few moments before he turned to face Chet.
“Well Chet, what can I say. Shit happens, and when it does you just have to decide what you’re gonna to do about it. Do you just toss in the towel; roll over and give up on life? Do you drown your sorrows for the rest of your life in a bottle of Jack Daniels or maybe you just decide to cap yourself?
“Or, do you gather up all that shit and use it as fertilizer on the garden of your life. You spread it on that special place each of us has where you’ve planted the seeds of all your hopes and dreams…all of your aspirations in life, and use it to help all those seeds grow to fruition?
“Do you just turn your back on life or do you use those experiences to make you stronger and fortify your will to survive and overcome all the adversity?
“I chose to live…to follow my dreams. Oh I know you guys all seemed to think I took a lot of unnecessary chances, like I had some kind of death wish sometimes…but that’s not true. Yeah I go into some dicey situations, but only because I know I can help save a life, and even then I always do whatever I possibly can to keep myself as safe as possible.
“Trust me Chet, I don’t have a death wish, I can assure you that I definitely want to live to the very end of my allotted days on this earth…but if taking a certain amount of risk will make the difference between a happy ending or another ten year old kid standing at the side of a grave site saying goodbye to a parent…well then I’m gonna take that risk.”
“So that’s what drives you to be a paramedic and a rescue man? Helping to make sure someone else doesn’t have to go through what you did?” Chet asked.
“That’s part of it… but mainly it’s because it’s just something I always wanted to be… a firefighter and a rescue man. It just happened to be circumstance that put me in the right place at the right time when the paramedic program was being born. But I do love it.”
Chet grinned at Johnny’s enthusiasm.
“So tell me John, what would you say is the best part of your job…and what would you say is the worst part of your job?”
“Well, Chester. The worst part of being a rescue-paramedic is having to pulling people out of all the difficult and messy situations they get themselves into… working in amongst all that twisted metal and shitty conditions.
“But the funny thing is… that’s also the best part of being a paramedic too. It’s getting to pull people out of those places, so we can hopefully save their lives. It’s a double edged sword.
“Contrary to what people think, it’s never been about being an adrenaline junkie or living life on the edge… at least not for me and Roy anyway. It’s about being able to make a difference for the good.
“Sometimes that difference may only be to make sure someone’s loved one wasn’t alone when they drew their last breath. That we could hopefully provide them with a small measure of comfort… because no matter how fast we are, or what medicines we give; we just can’t save everybody.
“But for the most part there’s the positive outcomes… there’s that satisfaction that we were able to give someone another chance at life; another chance to live to see another day.
“We get to see the relief and gratitude on the faces of their loved ones when they realize they’ll be able to spend another birthday or another Christmas with their family. You just can’t put a price tag on that.
“Sure, it’s messy and hairy and dangerous…and we even get hurt ourselves sometimes. But that’s all part and parcel of the job. It just goes with the territory…You join the army? You’re gonna carry a gun. Well if you want to be a first responder… you’re gonna take some risks and find yourself in some dicey situations.
“I mean you wanna climb up a steep cliff to save a victim… well you’re not gonna suddenly sprout wings and fly up and get them. It’s gonna be a hard and dangerous slog, and you’ll probably get bumped, bruised and banged up along the way; but that’s just the price we pay. And it’s a price we’re willing to pay, because at the end of the day the satisfaction we get from knowing we made that difference for the good is all worth it.
“I mean isn’t it the same for you as a fireman Chet?”
Chet nodded, “Yeah I guess it is. But tell me Johnny, do you ever see yourself getting to the point when you’ll want to give it all up?”
Johnny shifted Chet’s saddle so it was behind him and he leaned back against it so he was looking up at the sky.
“Who knows Chet? Maybe I’ll just wake up one day and I’ll be standing outside the Station house door, and I’ll just decide that I’m done. I’ll look over at Roy and tell him that I just can’t stand the thought of hauling my ass out there amongst all the carnage, standing up to my neck in blood and shit for even one more day… and that’ll be it. I’ll just walk away and retire to my horse ranch till the end of my days.
“But to be honest with you Chet, I just don’t see that happening, because I love what I do too much to ever willingly stop.”
And with that Johnny stood up and gave a sharp piercing whistle, which immediately brought both horses on the trot back over to their master.
Johnny saddled up Pandora and made sure Chet had no problems getting back in the saddle before he sprang gracefully on to Koda’s back. Then the two men leisurely made their way back to the barns.
~ ~ ~
It had been ten days since Chet’s impromptu visit to Vermont, and Indian summer had given way to the first dustings of snow. It was shortly after midnight and Johnny had just nicely fallen asleep after a full day of activity over and Roy and Joanne’s home.
Joanne had cooked a wonderful, if albeit two days late, Thanksgiving dinner, because Johnny and Roy had been on duty on the actual Thanksgiving Day. Johnny had stayed at the DeSoto’s for one final cup of coffee, so by the time he had arrived home, it was after ten o’clock; by the time he had finished the chores and got the horses settled for the night, it was well past eleven.
He took the time to grab a quick hot shower, and then he had fallen into bed, exhausted and weighed down with two pieces of Joanne’s pumpkin pie sitting in his belly… he was asleep before his head even hit the pillow.
It was just at that point when the phone beside the bed began to ring. Johnny sat bolt upright in bed at the sudden noise, and it took him a moment before he realized it was the phone ringing and not the klaxons.
He took a deep breath and waited for his pulse to stop racing before he picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” he said sleepily into the phone.
He had barely got the word out, before Chet’s excited voice came out of the ear piece. The volume of the Irishman’s voice caused Johnny to wince and hold the receiver several inches away from his ear.
“I did it Johnny!” came Chet’s excited voice out of the receiver.
“I passed the Engineers test with flying colours. I finished third on the list. I just got home and found the letter in my mail box.
“The guys that finished first and second are both Southies, so they took positions at Stations in South Boston, which means the placement at 38’s is mine…can you believe it? … Oh… of course you can, you’re the one who told me the job was mine for the taking in the first place….”
Johnny glanced blearily at the clock on his nightstand and seen that it was a quarter after twelve. Chet had clearly forgotten about the three hour time difference between Los Angeles and Swanton.
“That’s great news Chet, I knew you could do it,” Johnny said sleepily as he tried to stifle a yawn.
“But do you think we could talk about this tomorrow when I’m a little more wide awake?”
Suddenly Chet realized his error.
“Ah shit Gage…I’m sorry I woke you up didn’t I?”
“Yeah you did… but don’t worry about it,” Johnny said. This time he did yawn.
“Sorry man,” said Chet. “I was just so excited when I got home and found the letter waiting there for me, I had to call and tell you right away… Just think about it Johnny; on January 28th I’ll be moving back to Boston and I’ll start my new job on the first of February.”
“We’ll only be a couple hours away from each other… we can visit all the time.”
Johnny laughed at Chet’s excitement.
“Yeah, with the holidays coming up, it’s gonna just fly by. You’ve got a lot to do in a short period of time Chet. You gotta give your landlord notice and pack up all your gear, and get it moved across country. You’ve also got to inform the department in L.A. that you’re leaving. Plus you have to find a new place in Boston to live.”
“Naw,” Chet answered. “My folks will let me stay in the spare room at their house until I find a place…but you’re right. I have a ton of stuff to do…man first I gotta….”
“Goodnight Chet.” Johnny yelled into the receiver.
He could still hear Chet talking excitedly as he hung up the phone.
Johnny turned over and punched his pillow into a more comfortable shape before he lay back down. He had a feeling he was going to be getting a lot of phone calls from L.A. in the next few weeks.
And with that thought running through his mind, he closed his eyes and fell asleep with a small satisfied smile on his face.
Please note: Some of the Lakota phrases are written phonetically (as they would sound when spoken) while others are written literally. (It all depended on the mood I was in at the time I wrote those pages of the story…)
Posted to Site 02/12/12
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