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The Hard Road

An Emergency Story By

Xavionite
 

 

 

Disclaimers: The life of a firefighter is fraught with danger. Our first responders recognize and accept this risk, willingly walking into dangerous situations in order to save lives. This story explores the very real potential for permanent injury that exists in such a high risk job. Please be aware that if you struggle with the idea of permanent injury to a beloved main character, this might not be the best story for you.

 

Some readers may recognize the name Andrew Carter from the show Hogan's Heroes. My version of Roy DeSoto appears in katbybee's HH fanfic, Three Ring Circus, which details her idea of what could have happened to several of the HH boys after Stalag 13, during the Vietnam War; in their time together, Roy developed a close friendship with these characters that would certainly bring them to his side in a crisis, and so it makes sense to bring them in here. I make no claims to ownership of the original HH characters (that belongs to Albert Ruddy and the Estate of Bernard Fein), nor to katbybee's storylines and her original character Taffy (he's one of my favorites, though, and I sure wouldn't mind keeping him, but I couldn't write him half as well as kat can!). Taffy also makes an appearance in my story Christmas Eve's Gift. Be on the lookout for more stories involving Roy and his friends from Hogan's Heroes!

 

I likewise make no claim of ownership to the characters of the original Emergency show, created by Harold Jack Bloom and R. A. Cinader, but as long as they keep talking in my head, I'm going to keep taking dictation!

 

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Author's Note: Thank you to my beta readers for their feedback and constant encouragement. I have never met you ladies in person, but I love and pray for you both daily! Your support means the world to me! Special kudos goes to katbybee for coming up with my title and writing the description for me when I was stuck! And to all those who follow my work and leave reviews, thank you as well!

 

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Friday, September 6, 1983, started like any other day. Captain Roy DeSoto stepped into Station 51 bright and early that morning, never imagining that by the end of the day his life would hang in the balance. 51 was no longer his station, but he had traded shifts with Mike Stoker. The 6th was the birthday of the Stoker twins, and Mike had asked Roy to trade shifts so he could be home to celebrate with them. With Marco Lopez subbing for Mike's engineer, it almost felt like old times. Of course… when Mike's junior paramedic arrived, Roy couldn't help feeling old. Matthew Carter hadn't even been born when Roy was a POW in 'Nam with his grandfather, Andrew Carter.

 

All told, it was a quiet day… just a couple of trash fires. The paramedics were called out more than the engine, but their calls were minor and they enjoyed an uninterrupted lunch. Marco managed a nap in the afternoon. By the time the klaxon sounded for an apartment fire, around 19:00, the men were getting antsy for a little action. Roy knew it was a big one — the klaxon practically vibrated off the wall as it sounded the tones to call four different stations to the scene.

 

As always, Roy stepped out to the engine bay and acknowledged the call, passed the address slip to the paramedics, then climbed into the engine and settled himself in the captain's seat. Lopez slipped into his seat behind the wheel and they were off.

By the time they reached the scene of the fire, Station 36 was already there. Battalion Chief Stanley had taken charge, with 36's captain directing operations. Roy told his men to don their SCBA while he headed over to Stanley to receive instructions.

 

"DeSoto," Stanley said, all business from the get-go. "We need your whole team inside on this one, searching for victims. First and fourth floors are cleared… 10's is sweeping the second now. You'll take the third. Lead your men around to the northwest entrance and head up. Sweep those rooms as quick as you can and report back here. And Roy… be careful."

 

Roy grinned. As much as he loved his work as a captain, he missed the thrill of active involvement in a rescue, rather than simply directing it from the sidelines. He saluted. "Yes Sir, Chief!"

 

He pulled on his own SCBA and jogged back to the engine. "Northwest entrance, men. Follow me! We're sweeping the third floor. Move fast but be thorough. Lopez, you're with us on this one."

 

With that, he headed toward the building. In the weeks that followed, after the day had fled from his memory and he tried to piece it together with the accounts that his friends gave him, he wondered whether he sensed what was to come… whether he had some notion that this might be his last rescue, that his life was about to change irrevocably.

 

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Johnny rinsed and dried the last of the dinner dishes and stacked them in the cabinet, then trudged out to the living room to find Nita glowering on the sofa, sitting straight as a poker, her eyes blazing, her arms crossed over her chest. His heart quickened at the sight. Damn, but she's beautiful when she's angry.

 

She was looking down and didn't notice him standing in the door frame gazing at her; he took advantage of the moment to strategize before approaching. Not that he thought it would do much good… strategies were most effective when you could count on the person you were using them on to be predictable. Lately, Nita's moods had been anything but. Johnny knew why and he didn't begrudge her. But it sure made it harder to figure out what he should do when the thing that made her happy one day made her spit fire the next.

 

Finally, he nodded to himself and, resolved to do the one thing he knew (well, hoped) would work, he walked on into the room, angling to stay out of his wife's line of sight. Just before he reached the sofa, the floorboards creaked under his feet, giving him away. Nita glared at him, but didn't duck away when he slid his lanky frame into the space next to her and began gently massaging her neck.

 

"I'm sorry," he said, punctuating the words with a kiss to her left earlobe. She didn't answer, but turned so he could more easily get to her back. He felt a knotted muscle just under her left shoulder blade and focused his attention on it.

 

He could feel the tension flowing out of her as he continued the massage. After a few minutes, she leaned against him, the fire quenched for now. He stroked her raven-black hair with one hand while the other moved to her abdomen. She was just beginning to show, and Johnny couldn't help imagining what the baby would look like, but he didn't say anything. He figured he would keep quiet and let her talk when she was ready.

 

When she did, her voice was just above a whisper. "I am not a china doll. I can wash the dishes. I can clean the house. I have been doing it since I was a child."

 

"I know." Johnny brushed her hair aside so that he could kiss her neck. His thoughts flashed back to the advice her Uncle Willis had given him the day after the wedding, as they sat around the kitchen table just the next room over.

 

"Fighting is a part of the game of marriage, Son… but so is making up…" he'd said. And then he'd waggled an eyebrow and grinned. "In fact, it can be the best part of all, if you do it right!" And at that his wife of 40 years had blushed and swatted him with a dishtowel. A moment later, the two were kissing, oblivious to their audience.

 

Johnny caught in a deep breath. Yeah, that advice was right on the money, and he intended to draw out this session of making up as long as he could. "You just looked tired… I thought I'd give you a break. Next time I'll ask first, instead of telling you. Or we can do the work together. Deal?"

 

She puffed out a breath of air, then looked up at him. Her eyes were softer now, regretful. "Deal. And… forgive me? I don't know why I get so mad… I mean, I should be grateful my husband is so helpful!" Her eyes brimmed with tears as her emotions threatened to get the better of her again.

 

Johnny bent to kiss her forehead again and patted on her tummy. "I believe our little souvenir from France has something to do with that, Madame. From what Roy tells me, fluctuating emotions are totally normal. Don't worry… there is nothing to forgive."

 

He knew better than to quote Roy verbatim, but the memory of his friend sneaking into the station one morning when Jo was expecting DJ, looking like a scared dog with its tail between its legs, made it hard for him to suppress a smile.

 

Roy had said, "I'm tellin' ya, Junior… I'm not sure I can survive another six months on this roller coaster!" At moments like this, Johnny had hopes of making it, but he was pretty sure he had looked just like that scared dog not twenty minutes ago when Nita was raging at him. He kissed her again, then gently thumbed away a tear as it slipped down her cheek.

 

Nita captured his hand in hers and kissed it as she rested her head in his lap and closed her eyes. A moment later, she was sound asleep. Johnny smiled down at her.

 

He planted one more kiss on her forehead and then settled back in his spot and closed his own eyes. He'd spent a long day making repairs in the stable, and he was as tired as his wife. Might as well have a snooze here on the sofa before heading up to bed and enjoying… well… more making up.

 

Johnny wasn't sure how long he had been out before the phone jolted him out of his sleep. Nita slept through it, but his mind and body were well trained to awaken at a moment's notice. Taking care not to jostle his contented wife, Johnny leaned to the side so he could pick up the handset of the phone on the end table. "Hello?"

 

A moment later, pale and shaken, he hung up the receiver. "Nita, honey…" He shook her gently to wake her. "We need to hurry. Roy was caught in a building collapse about an hour ago. They haven't got him out yet… they're not even really sure where he is. I'm taking you to sit with Jo and the kids, and then I'm going to go help however I can."

 

In the months since their wedding, Nita had taken on the role of a fire captain's wife with grace. When his lineman Sam Goldstein had been badly burned a month ago, Nita had sat with his wife in the hospital waiting room, offering comfort and support; that evening, she was on the phone coordinating meals with the other wives so that Ruth wouldn't have to worry about feeding her family while Sam was in the hospital. The Gages had already hosted the men and their families at the ranch several times, and Nita had formed fast friendships with JoAnne DeSoto and Emily Stanley. Johnny knew without asking that she would want to be there for Jo now.

 

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A scant 45 minutes later, with a prayer of thanks that he'd managed to avoid a speeding ticket, Johnny parked his Jeep Honcho behind 51's engine. He pulled his spare turnouts, gloves, and boots from under the back seat and suited up, then, with a nod to Vince at the perimeter, he pushed past the gathering crowd and hurried towards Chief Stanley, who didn't look at all surprised to see him. Beyond Chief, smoke rose from a pile of rubble. If Roy was in that… Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat and tried not to let his hope die. God… help him. "What's the story, Chief?" He would waste no time with small talk. "Have you been able to raise him on the handie-talkie?"

 

Stanley lifted a hand in greeting. "Roy was inside helping to clear the third floor when we sounded the all-clear. He handed a kid off to Lopez and went back… Lopez thinks he heard someone calling for help and… well… you know Roy. Next thing we know, he's at the window handing not one, but two kids to Carter and Bowman. But before he could climb out, the floor gave way and he fell.

 

"Bowman saw it happen… tried to grab him… but he couldn't move fast enough. He heard the building groan and had to scramble to get that last kid down before the whole thing went. That was almost two hours ago… we haven't been able to get Roy on the HT, and the best we can figure is, he ended up in the basement. We—" His voice broke off mid-sentence. Johnny had already turned away and was headed toward the building, but Stanley grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back. "Gage… I'm not supposed to send anyone in until the site is shored up and stabilized. It's too dangerous."

 

"You're not sending me." Johnny pulled his arm free from Stanley's grasp. "I'm going."

 

"You don't understand, John." The chief's voice cracked with exhaustion and concern, then softened. "I can't let you go. At this point… it's considered a recovery, not a rescue. We don't want to put anyone else at risk."

 

Stanley moved to block his way, but Gage pushed past him, his voice low and full of challenge. "Try and stop me."

 

A minute later, Johnny felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Chet Kelly drawing up beside him. Chet was off today, but like Johnny, he was all geared up. "The Phantom can't let his favorite pigeon go in there alone." A moment later, both Marco and Mike had joined them as well.

 

Before they reached the ruins, Chief Stanley himself strode resolutely alongside his men, his steely gaze fixed with Johnny's on the charred and smoking remains of the apartment building, his jaw set in grim determination. Johnny glanced over at him and raised an eyebrow. "It could be awful dangerous in there, Chief. You sure about this?"

 

Stanley shook his head. "Nope… but someone has to keep you twits out of trouble." He clapped Johnny on the shoulder. "To tell you the truth, Gage… I had to say those things, but I sure hoped you wouldn't listen. Now let's go get Roy."

 

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The search took six long and frustrating hours and the participation of many more brothers in addition to 51's old A Shift crew. The fire department would not officially encourage the search, but they stopped actively discouraging it when it one man after another joined the effort despite the danger. Johnny found Roy's helmet and HT amid the rubble of the first floor sometime around midnight, but Roy wasn't with them. The department couldn't bring heavy machinery onto an unstable site, so they shifted debris by hand until they discovered where another hole had opened to the basement. Undeterred by the danger, several of the men — including Johnny — descended into the dark, smoky pit.

 

At last, around three in the morning, the beam of Johnny's flashlight glinted off something shiny that seemed different from the broken, twisted skeleton of the building… he elbowed Matthew Carter, who had partnered with him in the search, and motioned toward the patch of light. "There… I think we've found him! Yeah… the light reflected on his watchband!"

 

Johnny quickly apprised the scene while Carter whipped out his handie-talkie to inform the others. "Chief, we've found Captain DeSoto at the northeast corner of the basement. We'll need the drug box and the biophone, a backboard, a C-collar, and a Stokes… and hands to help dig him out!"

 

The pair moved carefully, mindful of each step. They didn't want to cause any more damage to Roy than may have already been done. Roy was almost completely covered — if not for his watch, they might never have seen him. While Matthew worked to clear away debris and check for an airway, Johnny gently wrapped his fingers around Roy's wrist. All the while, he willed his friend to say something, to sit up and brush himself off and insist he was fine. "C'mon, Pally," he muttered, "you've gotta give me somethin' to work with!" At last, he felt it… a pulse. It was weak and thready, but it was there. A relieved grin stretched its way across his features.

 

"A'right, well that's more like it!" He looked up to see how Matthew was doing. "Airway clear?"

 

"Yessir, Cap." Matthew didn't look up. Instead, he kept busy moving debris. Johnny did the same. By the time the others arrived to help, they had their friend free from the waist up and Matthew had cut away his dusty, sooty clothes. It would take more work to free him from the waist down. A heavy beam lay across his lower legs, pinning him. Johnny dreaded what they would find when they finally managed to remove it.

 

His mind worked through the possibilities as he carefully fitted the c-collar in place. Crush injuries, definitely… compartment syndrome by now… and all sorts of dangers when we lift that beam and restore circulation. God, we need a miracle here… another one, I mean. The fact that he's even breathing right now is a miracle in itself…

 

"Dig him out," he instructed, easily taking charge of the situation, "but don't lift that beam." He knew he should probably move aside and let Bowman—the senior partner in 51's C-shift paramedic team — take over the paramedic work, but he needed to be here, taking care of his best friend… his brother. He thought Bowman understood — the man seemed content to move rubble for now. "Crush syndrome is a possibility… which means he could crash after extrication."

 

While Johnny catalogued Roy's injuries, Matthew took his blood pressure and evaluated his respirations. Johnny opened the biophone and connected to Rampart. After relaying the vitals, he reported on the injuries he could see so far. "He is unconscious, no response to painful stimuli. There is a head injury. His lower extremities are pinned by a beam. Broken left radius and ulna, closed but with displacement. Numerous abrasions above the waist, but none that I can see look serious. We cannot yet assess below the knees, but he has probable crush injuries from a heavy steel beam."

 

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At Rampart, Kel Brackett's upper lip twitched with concern. Technically he was off-duty. He'd just been ready to leave when word came of the apartment fire the previous evening, and he had stayed. For a while, Rampart Emergency had been kept hopping with burn and smoke inhalation victims.

 

Then the apartment building collapsed. A few more victims were rescued before the site was deemed too unstable to allow for any further efforts. But Roy was still missing, and so Kel had stayed even after things quieted down, grabbing what little shut-eye he could on the couch in his office. He had known that the firefighters wouldn't hold back their search for a brother for long, and he intended to be there when Roy came in.

 

Dixie had stayed as well. She claimed she could sleep on the sofa in the nurse's lounge just as easily as she could at home, but Kel doubted she managed to doze any more than he did. He glanced over at his head nurse, who stood nearby, listening. Dixie was as good as they come… she knew precisely what was at stake.

 

"Acknowledged, 51." He motioned to Dix to prepare his kit. She knew exactly what he needed without him having to say a word, and she set about gathering supplies. "Do not extricate at this time. I will come to your location. Put him on high flow oxygen and start an IV of normal saline, one liter per hour. Send us a strip. Dr. Early will take over here."

 

"Acknowledged, Rampart."

 

Joe had just stepped out of Treatment 1 and was standing in the hall near the nurses' station. Kel rapped on the window to get his attention and beckoned him in. "It's Roy, Joe. They've found him. Sounds pretty bad. They're setting up to send us a strip. I'm headed over there. I need you to stay here on the phone and work with Johnny until I arrive. Carol can call Paulsen down from Cardiac if there's a need."

 

"I'm going with you, Kel." Dixie stood at the door, Brackett's bag and the field amputation kit at the ready. She held the bag out to him and shouldered the kit.

 

"Dix..." He could see the dark circles under her eyes and knew she hadn't slept a wink.

"Don't argue with me, Kel. Roy is one of my boys, always will be." She gave him that glare that always made him wonder who really was in charge of Rampart Emergency. Hell… he didn't have to wonder. Dixie was in charge, from beginning to end.

 

As Johnny's voice came across the wires again, saying "Rampart, this will be lead one," Kel moved past her without another word. Dixie matched him pace for pace down the hall to the ambulance bay.

 

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Brackett picked his way carefully through the rubble, his natural caution warring with his knowledge that even a few minutes might make the difference between life and death for Roy. His right hand kept a firm but gentle hold on Dixie's elbow, out of concern that she might stumble. The acrid smell of smoke tickled his nostrils. His first thought when he saw the ruins of the Sunny Estates Apartment building was that it looked like a war zone.

 

As he was ushered past the cluster of fire chiefs and policemen before being lowered into this dark pit, he'd overheard the grim statement, "Looks like arson." Five had died… many more were injured… everyone living here had lost pretty much everything. And then there was Roy… Kel hoped he would make it, that the "five" would not have to be revised up to "six." The very thought made his blood boil. How anyone could find satisfaction in taking people's lives, destroying their homes and possessions, was beyond him.

 

Their guide led them through the rubble to the northeast corner of the basement. Several high-powered lights had been brought in to illuminate the scene. Bowman and Carter were bending over Roy's prone form; Chief Stanley and Chet Kelly had a tight grip on Johnny.

 

"Let me go!" Gage insisted as he struggled to pull away. "I'm fine. It's just a scratch!"

 

Kel wondered what the problem was, but then he spotted a flash of red as Johnny wrenched an arm from Chet's grasp and put his hand to his chest. "Just a scratch, huh?" He stepped in and grabbed Johnny's hand. A long, deep cut crossed his palm. "You're out of this rescue, hose jockey. Probably damaged a flexor tendon. You are going to let Dixie take care of you while I work on Roy. But if you cooperate, I won't make you go to the hospital until he goes. No arguments."

 

Johnny opened his mouth to protest, but then closed it again. Kel watched as all the fight seemed to drain out of him. "Fine. Just… take care of Roy." And he allowed Dixie to lead him away.

 

Kel checked Roy's head injury, then moved around and knelt at his feet. The paramedics had managed to cut away his boots and socks. One look at the mangled right foot was enough to convince Kel that it was too late to save the limb, but he still palpated for a pulse. Nothing. For the moment, the weight of the beam was keeping blood loss to a minimum, but once it was removed, Roy could easily bleed out.

 

And even if he could stop that quickly enough, Kel knew that the damaged cells had released toxins that would destroy Roy's kidneys and possibly trigger a fatal cardiac arrest the moment circulation was restored… unless he took the leg first. He moved his attention to Roy's left leg, which thankfully had good color and little swelling, as well as a strong pulse. From what he could see, the beam had fallen on an angle, sparing the left leg from any serious injury.

 

"Bowman," he said softly as he moved around to Roy's right side. "I need the amputation kit." He nodded his chin toward where Dixie had set his supplies. "Then you go take over with Gage and send Dixie to me."

 

"Yessir." Bowman scrambled to do as Brackett had asked.

 

As Dixie settled in across from Kel and slipped her hands into a pair of surgical gloves, the doctor looked to Matthew. "I need you to keep an eye on his vitals. Dix, tourniquet."

 

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Johnny watched in horror as Dixie set up the field amputation kit and then passed a tourniquet to Brackett. The sight of the Gigli saw made his blood run cold. "Doc," he pleaded, pushing past Bowman. "Are you sure?"

 

Kel finished tightening the tourniquet just above the knee, then looked up at him. Johnny could see the regret in his eyes and knew he hadn't come easily to this decision. "I don't have a choice, John. It's his leg or his life — and even then, it… doesn't look good."

 

At that, Johnny's shoulders sagged and he nodded wearily. He knew that Brackett understood exactly what this meant for Roy. "Can you at least save the knee?" His voice cracked with exhaustion.

 

Kel sighed, but looked back up at Johnny with a tight smile. "I'll do my best for him, John… you know I will."

 

While Brackett worked, Chief Stanley moved to stand beside Johnny and place a comforting hand on his shoulder. Johnny could barely stomach what he was seeing, but he couldn't turn away either. When Brackett made his first cut into the leg a couple of inches below the knee, he turned a pale shade of green; and when the doc unwrapped the wire saw, Johnny finally pulled away from Stanley and Bowman and moved to the edge of the ring of light, where he bent double and vomited.

 

Chet Kelly, pale as a ghost, sat to the side on a large chunk of cement, his head in his hands, unable to watch. Marco stood by with his head bowed in prayer as he rubbed at his St. Florian medal. Mike separated himself from the others and watched wordlessly, his face pale, tears pooling in his eyes. Well, almost wordlessly. At one point, Johnny could have sworn he heard the taciturn man mutter, "It should've been me."

 

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The rescuers climbing up from the pit wore exhaustion and sorrow rather than triumph on their faces. They walked with shoulders slumped and heads bowed. Those who had remained above — waiting, hoping, praying — watched silently as Roy was lifted up on the Stokes. Covered as he was with a bright yellow emergency blanket, his loss of a leg was not readily apparent, but word had filtered up and spread from man to man.

 

Most everyone knew of Roy DeSoto. To some, he was a beloved captain, known as a man of integrity and compassion, even-handed and willing to work as hard as his men. Even those who did not know him personally carried a deep respect for this pioneer of paramedicine. The few who did not know his name still recognized him as a brother firefighter, one who had sweated and labored shoulder to shoulder with them and now had paid a high price for his dedication. Though he was unconscious and unaware, every one of them — from battalion chief down to the newest boot — stood at attention as the stretcher was carried past them to the waiting ambulance. Some men crossed themselves, others simply lowered their eyes, but to a man, they all offered their prayers for his survival.

 

Thank you again to my amazing beta readers. This time I'd like to highlight my son, who willingly takes the time to listen to my stories and cheer me on. He also helps me with my research. Thank you also to katbybee for providing dialogue for Andrew Carter!

 

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Choctaw - English glossary

Tasembo - Crazy

Halito - Hello

Minko - Chief

Nashoba - Wolf (Johnny's Choctaw name)

 

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Johnny wasn't sure who drove his Jeep to the hospital. Chief Stanley had demanded his keys, unwilling to allow him behind the wheel. For once, he didn't argue. He knew he couldn't drive right now — the surge of adrenaline that had kept him going through the night was wearing off, leaving him shaky and trembling, and his injured hand hurt more than he would admit to anyone. Besides, he had no intention of being separated from his friend now. When the ambulance pulled into the bay at Rampart, Nita and Jo stood waiting with Joe Early. Johnny stepped down and into Nita's arms and held her close, taking comfort in the scent of her hair and the warmth of her embrace for a moment before turning his attention to Jo.

 

JoAnne stood watching as Kel jumped down, then directed the ambulance attendants in easing Roy's gurney out of the ambulance. Johnny stepped to her side and put an arm around her shoulder. "He's strong, Jo," he said softly. "He's going to make it." He was saying the words as much for himself as for her, but he was struggling to believe them. Roy had coded once in the ambulance, but Kel had brought him back. Sitting, watching, not able to act as the scene unfolded, had been torture for Johnny. "He's got to make it," he whispered. He and Nita gently led Jo to the door, following the gurney.

 

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JoAnne's heart sank as she watched her husband emerge from the ambulance. She wanted to run to him, to feel his heart beating, to entwine her fingers with his. But Johnny's arm around her shoulders held her back, and Dr. Brackett was rushing Roy into the hospital, barely taking a moment to acknowledge her. How often had Roy told her, in their business even a few seconds could mean the difference between life and death?

 

She closed her eyes and took in a deep calming breath, then let it out slowly. It's a good thing they're hurrying, right? It means that whatever else, right now at least, he is alive. If Dr. Brackett stopped to talk with me… well… it would mean there was no hope, no use for the quick pace. Oh God, please… keep him alive.

 

Ever since the news of the collapse had come to her last night, she had been reliving the days when he had been missing and presumed dead in Vietnam. She was stronger now. If the kids lost their dad, they needed to know their mom wouldn't break. So why did she keep thinking of her younger self, sitting in her room with a handful of tranquilizers and contemplating how much more peaceful it would be to die with her love than to go on without him? Don't you even let your thoughts go there, JoAnne. You kept on going then and you'll keep going now, no matter what happens. Roy needs you to help him get through this!

 

Jo gripped Johnny's arm, thankful that he had taken charge, that he was walking her into the hospital, his comforting murmur close to her ear. Even so, she knew he had to be on the edge just as much as she was. She felt the slight tremor in his hand on her shoulder and felt certain the calm he showed now was put on for her benefit. Nita walked on her other side, an arm around her waist, whispering what Jo assumed was a prayer in Choctaw.

 

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Inside, Johnny led Jo to a chair in the waiting area. "Wait here." He motioned for Nita to stay with her, then went to find Dixie, who had dashed in with Roy's gurney. She stood with Kel outside Treatment Room 2. Johnny guessed that Lee had already brought in the portable x-ray machine and was taking the required films.

 

Kel looked up as Johnny approached, and Johnny knew from the doctor's intent stare that he was in for it. Mike Morton came around the corner and Kel flagged him down. "Mike… got a patient for you. Hotshot here took off his gloves to go digging through rubble. Probably thought I'd forgotten about it."

 

Lee stepped out to let Kel know he was finished, and Kel turned to Dixie. "Go talk with JoAnne and Nita. Let them know Johnny's getting checked out, and I'll be out with news as soon as I've got some."

 

"Of course, Kel." Dixie patted Johnny on the shoulder, then hurried to the waiting area.

 

"C'mon, Gage," Morton said with a sigh. "Treatment Room 1 is free."

 

Johnny hadn't expected Kel to forget, but neither had he planned on making a big deal of his own injury. It could wait. Roy was the priority here. With a sigh, he followed Mike into the treatment room and took a seat on the exam table.

 

Mike grasped Johnny's hand and held it, palm upward, to unwrap it and examine the cut. "This laceration is pretty deep. How did it happen?"

 

Johnny shrugged. "Couldn't fit my hand under a piece of concrete I needed to move. Took my gloves off. Ended up slicing the palm on a jagged piece of metal I couldn't see."

 

Morton scowled. "You know better than that, Captain Gage," he snapped. "It was an idiotic stunt to pull and you're paying for it! Now, bend your index finger for me and let me know if you feel any pain." He grasped the other fingers to hold them straight.

Resisting the urge to snap back, Johnny managed to bend the finger at both knuckles. The pain was excruciating, but he masked it. He just wanted to get through this exam and get back to Roy.

 

"All right, let's check the middle finger and then the ring finger," Morton said coolly.

Johnny avoided his gaze and made it through the rest of the exam without betraying any pain. His thumb and pinky fingers were unaffected, but bending the middle finger was extremely painful, and he could not bend the ring finger at all.

 

"There it is…" Morton wrote in Johnny's chart as he explained. "You've snapped the flexor tendons that control your ring finger. You'll need surgery to repair it. You may have a minor tear in the tendons to the middle and index fingers, but they should heal well with just the splint. You would have a great deal more pain if they were bad enough to require surgery."

 

"Surgery, Doc?" Johnny shook his head. "Now?" Over the course of the exam, he had silently taken back everything he'd ever thought about Morton's marriage to Kay Fletcher mellowing him. He wished Dr. Early had been available to take care of him instead. The relationship between him and Morton had always been prickly. "I've got to focus on Roy. Can't it wait?"

 

Suddenly Morton's tone softened. "I know. We're all worried about Roy. And no, the surgery doesn't have to be immediate. We'll splint the hand today and schedule you in a week to ten days. It's a zone three tear—generally a good prognosis. You were lucky, hotshot."

 

Johnny relaxed a bit and almost forgave the surly doctor. Maybe he was just tired after a long night of worrying about Roy. Nita always said he needed to give Mike Morton the benefit of the doubt more often, and he supposed she was right. Still, he wasn't going to admit to how much his hand hurt.

 

"All right, then." Morton made some final notes in Johnny's chart. "I'll send Carol in to get a pressure bandage on that, splint your hand, and then you're free to go. Keep it elevated and follow up with me on Wednesday. Obviously, you're off duty, but all things considered, I figure you would rather be here anyway. Just take it easy for a few days. And if you have pain or numbness, come back. Oh, and Johnny… let someone else take care of the horses."

 

"Yes, Doc." Ten minutes later, splinted hand elevated above his heart, Johnny strode to the door and into the hallway. He was about to slip into Treatment 2 when Dixie stopped him.

 

"Roy's gone up for an MRI scan. Jo and Nita are in the nurses' lounge. Kel said I should bring you up when you were done with Mike, and then you can go down with him when he is ready to give them some news. Now tell me… How's the hand?"

 

"How's he doin', Dix?" Johnny avoided her question for two reasons. For one thing, because he knew Dixie would see right through him; for another, his only interest was news about his best friend.

 

Dixie took a moment to answer. Johnny knew she would not sugarcoat things, not with him, and he appreciated it. "He scored a three on the Glasgow coma scale. The x-rays didn't indicate a skull fracture, amazingly enough, but Kel wants to check for any bleeding or swelling that wouldn't show up in an x-ray." She punched the elevator button.

 

Only a three? Johnny chewed on his lower lip as he considered the implications. That meant Roy wasn't responding to anything… no opening his eyes, no vocalizing, no movement. Shouldn't he be waking up by now?! If I'd just found him sooner! But no… he couldn't think that way.

 

They rode up to the second floor in silence and turned right into the hallway. They stopped at the door to the MRI room and Dixie directed Johnny to a seat in a small waiting area. She sat next to him and wrapped her hand around his unbandaged one.

 

"His heart rate had stabilized by the time they moved him. Considering what happened, he's actually doing remarkably well, Johnny. It's a miracle he's still alive."

 

"I know, Dix." Johnny leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. "No skull fracture, huh? We thought maybe he…" He yawned. "...rode the debris down, 'stead of just fallin' straight… if tha'... makes sense." His thought processes were slowing down as exhaustion overtook him. "Maybe th —" And with that, he dozed off mid-sentence, his head sagging forward. He never even noticed when Dixie gently lay him down and lifted his legs up so he was lying stretched out across the padded seats.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Kel chuckled softly as he looked down at Johnny, his lanky form sprawled across the chairs, sound asleep and sawing logs. He'd been there for several hours now, as Dixie had refused to let anyone waken him until she felt he'd had a decent rest. The doctor took note of the splinted hand, carefully positioned on a pillow to keep it elevated… Dixie's touch, he was sure. He would have to ask Morton about the hand later. Really, he would have preferred to tend Johnny himself, or have Joe do it… Morton and Johnny were at odds more often than not, and Kel knew the previous day had been awfully hard for Mike. The man shouldn't have been on duty at all, but had insisted he needed to work to take his mind off Kay's diagnosis. At least her meds had her too drowsy at the moment to notice that her husband wasn't at her side.

 

He bent to give Johnny's shoulder a gentle shake. "Hey, hose jockey. Time to wake up."

 

Johnny was sitting up and fully alert within a couple seconds, though it took him a little longer to disentangle himself from the blanket Dixie had used to cover him. "Roy… is he —"

 

"Still alive and holding his own. He's settled in ICU. JoAnne and Nita are with him."

 

"Is he conscious?" Johnny finally got free of the blanket and was fumbling as he tried to fold it with his bandaged hand.

 

"C'mon, Johnny." Brackett rolled his eyes and snatched the blanket away. "Give me that. No, he's not conscious yet. But the swelling is minimal and we didn't see any bleeding. Of course, that could change, so we'll be keeping a close eye on it. We've reduced the fractures in his left arm and put him in a splint. For now, we'll wait for the swelling to go down before we decide whether or not he requires surgery. At this point, I think we can safely say he's going to live."

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Johnny let it all soak in as he lumbered to his feet and followed the doctor up to the ICU. He felt an enormous sense of relief that Roy was now expected to survive. Dr. Brackett wouldn't say so unless he was certain. And yet… what sort of life was it Roy would wake up to? In one fell swoop, his career was over. Roy had always struggled with depression, and Johnny was afraid this might just take him over the edge.

 

A hand on his arm pulled him from his thoughts. "Johnny?"

 

"Huh? Oh… sorry, Doc. Distracted." He barked out a wry laugh. "Yeah?"

 

"I was asking what Mike had to say about your hand."

 

Johnny glanced down at his fingers, poking up out of the splint. "Maybe a partial tear… not too serious. I could move 'em OK and everything. He stitched it up, said keep it elevated and follow up with him on Wednesday."

 

"See to it you do. If you don't take proper care of it, you could do a lot more damage."

 

"Yessir, Doc." Johnny held the splinted hand to his forehead in a salute. His hand was throbbing, except where it buzzed.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Three days into his ICU stay, Roy's coma persisted, though he now scored a five instead of a three. He had not yet opened his eyes, but he had mumbled incoherently and had moved slightly in response to pain. His wife and friends would take any improvement as a good sign.

 

Five days in, he had blinked his eyes open for a moment in response to painful stimuli, and he had slurred out one word they recognized: "Carter."

 

At first Johnny thought maybe he was talking about Matthew, one of the last people he'd seen before the collapse. But JoAnne wondered if maybe he meant Andrew Carter, Matthew's grandfather and Roy's old friend. That evening, when she was home to check on the kids, she made several calls. It was time to let his Camp 208 brothers know what had happened.

 

JoAnne pulled Roy's address book out of the desk in his den and paged through to the Cs. There, at the top of the page, was the name Andrew Carter. She picked up the phone and dialed the number, then waited for him to answer.

 

A soft female voice answered with just hint of a German accent. "Hello, Carter residence, may I help you?"

 

"Hello... Hilda?" JoAnne remembered Andrew's wife fondly, but she could not take the time to chat. "Um... Hilda, this is JoAnne DeSoto." Her voice was thin and strained. "Could I please speak with Andrew? It's... about Roy."

 

Hilda must have caught the urgency in her tone because she made no attempt at small talk. "Of course. Just one moment."

 

A couple of minutes passed and the line picked up again. This time, Andrew's voice came over the telephone wires. "Hello, JoAnne? What can I do for you?"

 

JoAnne had held back the tears for days, determined as she was to be the pillar of strength for her family and friends, but now she felt them threatening to spill over. She caught in a breath and tried to master her emotions before speaking. "Andrew... it's Roy... He... uh... he was injured in a building collapse last Friday. He's... in a coma. I... I'm sorry I didn't call you sooner, but... well... I've been—" And with that, she couldn't pretend anymore. Every vestige of control slipped away and she found herself sobbing out the whole story. "He said Carter today," she said at the end.

 

"Maybe he meant Matthew, but... maybe he was calling for you. And… I just thought I should call you."

 

"Could be, I guess…"

 

Just four words, but his steady tone helped her steady her own. The babysitter brought her a box of tissues and she blew her nose. The cry had done her good and she thought she could go on now, with a greater semblance of control. "Would you let the others know?" Her voice wavered only slightly.

 

"I will… of course I will. JoAnne, would you like me to come? I can be there within a couple of days."

 

Her eyes still tearing, she dabbed them with a tissue as she answered. The compassion in his voice seemed to wrap around her like a warm blanket. "Thank you, Andrew. Yes… it would mean so much to me... and to Roy too, I'm sure. And... do you think... Taffy would come? It's a long way, I know…"

 

"I can call him if you like, but I am certain he would want to be there."

 

"Please do, Andrew. Even if he can't come... we would value his prayers."

 

"Of course, and our prayers are with you as well. You know that."

 

She nodded, though he couldn't see her. "I know," she said softly. "And thank you. Umm... you could call Rampart and leave a message with Dixie about when you'll arrive. I'm there most of the time these days. I'll make sure someone meets you at the airport."

 

"Okay, that's fine. I'll call when I get to town. Don't worry about me, I'll get in touch with Matthew as well."

 

"Thank you, Andrew. I'm... sorry I was such a mess on the phone. I'm better now."

 

"You take care of yourself, JoAnne. I'll see you soon."

 

When she hung up the phone, JoAnne felt a seed of hope taking root in her heart that hadn't been there before the call. Carter was coming... and maybe Taffy. These men had walked her husband through the darkest part of his life and his bond with them ran deep… deeper, even, she thought, than his bond with Johnny. Somehow, they would make sure things would work out.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Johnny had made an effort to follow up with Morton, but the one time he saw him, Morton was hurrying to the elevator and didn't even seem to notice him. He thought about talking to Early or Brackett, But there had been no change in his hand since Friday, and Nita was waiting for him. They were supposed to go home today for the first time since Friday evening.

 

He had only left the hospital once in that time, and Nita had been living at the DeSoto's, watching the kids so that Jo wouldn't need to hire a babysitter. Today she'd gotten a neighbor to come over and told Nita and Johnny both that they needed to go home and get a good rest before coming back.

 

Johnny had argued, but in the end he relented. He was tired and his back was killing him — too many nights sleeping in the waiting room chairs or the sofa in the nurses' lounge. An afternoon at home… some time with the horses… some private time with his wife… a good nap… it sounded wonderful. He had extracted a promise from JoAnne to call if anything happened, and then made his own promise to leave as soon as he saw Dr. Morton. Well… he'd seen him, just hadn't talked with him. It was time to go home.

 

"Are you sure you can drive?" Nita asked as he slid behind the wheel.

 

"I'll be fine." If she had learned to drive yet, he would have been glad for her to drive them home, but so far she hadn't taken time to get her permit. Billy had recently earned his license, but he was on duty today. Johnny figured he would manage.

 

When they pulled up to the ranch, the door opened and their black lab pup, Tasembo, came running out to greet them. Johnny grinned. Nita's cousin Charlie had come to house-sit and tend the stock for them. The grounds looked like he had been doing a good job. Johnny even noticed that the repairs to the stable roof that he had started before Roy's accident were finished.

 

Charlie stepped out to the front porch after Tasembo, his young wife Sarah next to him. "Halito!" they called.

 

Johnny and Nita returned the friendly greeting. Tasembo jumped up to greet Johnny, who knelt down to pet the crazy pup and accept some happy kisses. He rubbed the hound's head, then glanced up to Nita. "I'm going to look in on the horses. Meet you inside in a few minutes."

 

After taking a moment to greet Nita properly as well, Tasembo scampered after his master to the stable. Before stepping inside, Johnny inhaled deeply. The scent of pine filled his senses, washing out the odor of antiseptic that had pervaded them for the last several days. It was good to be home.

 

Minko nickered from his stall, trying to get Johnny's attention. "I know… I'm comin'," he said, and he stepped inside. The horse stamped and whinnied, overjoyed at Johnny's return and probably expecting to go on a ride up to the meadow. He was a high-strung fellow and didn't take easily to new people, so Johnny had recommended Charlie not try to exercise him with the others. "Sorry, boy… I can't. Doc Morton would kill me." He stroked Minko's neck and then fetched a carrot from the bin to give him. Then he took a moment to greet Jesse and the other horses and give them each a treat before heading inside.

 

Johnny talked to JoAnne later that evening. She was back at the hospital and nothing had changed. Andrew Carter would be coming as soon as he could. The kids were spending the night with friends, and she told him not to come back until the next day. Reluctantly, but craving a full night in his own bed, his wife beside him, Johnny agreed.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Thursday morning, the Gages awoke to the aroma of bacon wafting through the house. They emerged from their room to find that Sarah had prepared a lavish breakfast. For a brief time, Johnny pushed aside his worries and concerns and the two couples enjoyed their time together.

 

After the meal, Johnny headed back out to the stable to spend time with the horses. Minko snorted and tossed his head, eager once again to get out of his stall and run.

 

"You've had enough of these walls, haven't you boy?" Johnny asked, keeping his tone calm and soothing.

 

Minko tossed his head again and then nuzzled his snout up against Johnny's ear, pleading with him. Johnny sighed heavily. "Morton be damned," he murmured. "Be right back, boy." He went to the small tack room. He didn't intend to ride, so he wouldn't need reins, and he could manage fitting the lead rope around the horse's neck with only one hand. It wouldn't hurt him to walk Minko up to the meadow and let him run for a bit, and it would only take an hour or so to get there and back… they'd be down to the hospital by noon. Jo had said they should take their time coming in, and a trip to the meadow would help him get centered and focused before heading back into the stressful atmosphere of Roy's room in the ICU.

 

He led Minko outside and tethered him near the house, then went to the kitchen to let Nita know his plans. With a reassurance that he was just taking a walk to give Minko some exercise, he headed out the door. For the first time in days, he felt… uplifted, peaceful even. Coming home had been a good idea. He grabbed Minko's lead rope and started up the trail toward the meadow.

 

Later, he wasn't sure how to explain what made him do it. Drunk with the September sunshine? Delirious from the heady fragrance of pine and fir? Probably just plain idiocy.

 

Minko seemed interested in grazing for a bit, so Johnny had taken a break, sitting on an old stump. When he was ready to move on, he just stood up on that stump and whistled for Minko, who trotted obediently to him. Though he couldn't have done it one-handed from the ground without the horse in full tack, it was easy enough to mount from his elevated position. Guiding the horse with his knees, the lead rope draped loosely across his left arm, he headed on up the path.

 

He never knew for sure what spooked Minko. They had just reached the meadow, where he intended to rest awhile in the shade while he gave the horse a chance to run or roll or graze as he pleased. Suddenly Minko's ears flattened back and he was rearing and Johnny couldn't hold on tight enough or get him under control. He tried to twist himself as he fell to protect his hand, but when he hit the ground he felt a sharp pain in his wrist. He lay where he landed for a moment, just getting himself oriented at first. When he sat up to take stock, he found that his splint was displaced, his wrist was bent at an odd angle, and his hand had begun to go numb.

 

"Damn!" At least he didn't seem to be hurt anywhere else. Oh, he'd be sore tomorrow, that was certain. Probably feel like he'd been hit by a semi. But he could still get himself back to the house… Charlie could drive him and Nita back to the hospital. He whistled for Minko, who came trotting back as if nothing had happened.

 

With a groan, he used the lead rope to haul himself to his feet. Minko nudged his shoulder with a soft snort… Johnny took it for an apology. "I'm all right, buddy," he said. "Let's go."

 

The trip down took longer than the trip up… and not only because he walked the whole way. He was moving slowly, could feel his muscles beginning to stiffen and rebel, and he was fighting nausea. As the ranch house came into sight, he glanced down at his injured hand and could tell it wasn't good—the coloration was off and his hand felt awfully cold, leading him to believe he'd done something to disrupt blood flow to his fingers.

 

Charlie came running out of the stable. "We were worried about you, Nashoba! I was just about to ride up and find you!" He frowned. "You don't look so good… pale as a ghost!" He put an arm around Johnny and led him to a picnic table beside the house, then took care of putting Minko away. For once, the horse didn't complain… maybe he realized something was wrong.

 

"Sarah! Nita!" Charlie called loudly as he emerged from the stable again. The women came hurrying out, and the three converged on the picnic table and Johnny.

 

For now, Nita seemed too worried to scold. Johnny was glad, though he knew he'd have to face the music eventually. They got him in the back seat of the Jeep pretty fast and Nita climbed in next to him while Charlie got behind the wheel. Sarah waved goodbye, then went back into the house, with instructions to call Rampart Emergency and let Dixie know John Gage was on the way in with a hand injury.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Dixie leveled a death-glare at her patient. "You were supposed to follow up yesterday."

 

"I tried to find Mike…" Johnny gave his best effort to looking contrite.

 

Dixie blinked, then softened. "Oh… no one told you?"

 

"Told me what? I've been focused on Roy since Friday… barely been out of his room till yesterday."

 

"Kay Fletcher was admitted a week ago today… I won't go into detail, but she's pretty sick… yesterday was a bad day. It's… touch and go."

 

Johnny just stared. He had always liked Dr. Fletcher. "Well, I'll be… no wonder Morton just about bit my head off Saturday morning." He frowned. "Can I visit her?"

 

Dixie nodded. "I think she'd like that… you always were one of her favorites. But first, let's take care of this hand. Joe Early will be right in."

 

"Dix… how's Roy?"

 

"I'd say he's continuing to improve. He responds to painful stimuli… and he's talking a little… though he is not oriented at all, hasn't seemed to recognize anyone when he does open his eyes." She sat next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't look so discouraged, Johnny. It's going to take time."

 

Johnny sighed. "I know, Dix. I just…" He looked down at his hand. "I wish I hadn't gone and messed this up… I should be with Roy now."

 

"You've got plenty of time to be there for him, John," Dr. Early said from the doorway. He stepped into the treatment room and began his examination. It didn't take him long to render a verdict. "Well, it doesn't take an x-ray to tell us you've fractured your radius and ulna at the distal end." He raised an eyebrow as he glanced to the bulge just above his patient's right wrist. "Julian Valdez is reviewing your films now. He will make the final decision, but my guess is, you are headed for surgery as soon the OR is available."

 

Johnny frowned. "Figures."

 

Early crossed his arms over his chest. "Now, John Gage, as you know, I tend to keep a tight hold on my temper. I figure Nita will let you have it—if she hasn't already—so I don't have to. But next time you come to us with an injury, if you do not follow your doctor's instructions to the letter, I will happily loose Morton on you. Is that understood?"

 

"Yessir." Dang, but he felt like a little kid just now. He half-expected Early to send him to the corner. "Won't happen again, Doc."

 

Dixie arched an eyebrow. "You won't need to sic Morton on him, Joe. I'll take a strap to him myself."

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Johnny's brain buzzed and he felt as if he were suffocating. Was he caught in a house fire? No… not a fire… Drowning maybe? He could hear a distant voice… sounded like Dixie, maybe... calling to him. "C'mon Tiger… wake up now... take a good breath for me."

 

He struggled to draw in one breath and then a second. His mouth felt as if it were full of cotton. At last everything began to fall into place. Aw, man… I hate wakin' up after surgery. He blinked open his eyes. "Hey, Dix," he croaked. "Any news… Roy?"

 

Dixie shook her head at that. "Johnny, what are we going to do with you?" Well, at least she didn't sound mad at him anymore.

 

"Please... Dix?" He did his best at tossing her what Nita called his puppy-dog look.

 

"He continues to improve. Today he has called for Carter a couple of times, and he opened his eyes for several minutes. Jo thought maybe he was watching the television, but he didn't actually respond." Dixie took Johnny's chart from the foot of his bed and paged through it. "And now… about your surgery…"

 

"Yeah… 'bou' tha'…" Johnny shifted slightly in bed, trying to get comfortable.

She smiled down at him and patted on his arm. "Dr. Valdez said it was a qualified success. He'll come see you once we move you out of recovery, when you're a little more awake, to go over the details with you."

 

"Koala-fied… huh… no' sure… 'f tha's good… or no'." His speech slurred more as his eyes drooped closed. He was too tired to worry about it just now. "Jus' a li'l nap," he murmured. And before Dixie could hang up his chart again, he was sound asleep.

 

Author's Note: Thank you, wonderful readers, for your encouraging reviews! I'm getting one more chapter up before I leave on a road trip that will limit my writing time for the next ten or eleven days. I have tried to respond to each review — if I missed yours, I apologize. Please know that your encouragement means a great deal to me!

 

A special thank you to my awesome beta readers and to my medical consultants! You are all wonderful!

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

 

Glossary:

 

Choctaw - English

 

Ahattak - my husband

 

Pronunciation note: In Choctaw, underlined vowels are nasalized, putting just a hint of an 'n' sound after the vowel.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

"Nita…" Dixie stepped into the ICU nurses' lounge and smiled sheepishly, immediately lowering her voice almost to a whisper. JoAnne DeSoto lay stretched out on the sofa, sound asleep. Nita Gage sat nearby, a book in hand, the very picture of calm. But when she looked up from her reading, Dixie could see that, no matter how calm she appeared, her eyes were tired and her cheeks were tearstained. "Nita, Johnny's out of surgery. Dr. Valdez says it went very well. He'll be in Recovery for about an hour and then we'll move him to Room 312. You can see him then."

 

"He has to stay here?"

 

"Just overnight," Dixie assured her. "He's fine — they just want to observe him, make sure there are no post-op complications, before sending him home."

 

Dixie could see the tears pooling in Nita's eyes, but she blinked them back as she gave a slight nod. "He won't want to go home anyway… he will want to stay near Roy."

 

"Of course he will." Dixie gave Nita's shoulder a comforting pat. "I know how hard JoAnne had to work to convince him to go home for a rest yesterday. At least if he's here, we can keep his stubborn hide off that horse of his, right?" Her words had their intended effect — they brought a ghost of a smile to Nita's lips. "He's going to be fine," she continued. Her gaze traveled from Nita's eyes to her slightly bulging abdomen. "And how are you feeling?"

 

"I'm fine," Nita said, but her words came too quickly to convince Dixie. The stress of the last several days had to be wearing on Johnny's wife, and Dixie ached to do something to bring a real smile to her face or to JoAnne's.

 

Her eyes alighted on Nita's belly and a thought occurred to her. "Come with me for a few minutes, Nita. I want to show you something." The hospital had invested in a new obstetric ultrasound machine and Dixie was eager to test it out. She knew a nurse in OB who would almost certainly be willing to help.

 

Nita's gaze flitted to JoAnne. "I shouldn't leave."

 

Dixie smiled. "She'll be all right… what with Johnny's surgery, she won't expect you to stay sitting here until she wakes up. Come on… you'll like this." She reached for Nita's hand and pulled her to her feet, grateful that Nita relented and agreed to go with her.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Nita suppressed a twinge of guilt as she allowed Dixie to lead her from the nurses' lounge. Even if Jo would not mind, she didn't like just leaving her. Still, the gleeful look in Dixie's eyes was irresistible. Nita caught sight of the word "Obstetrics" on a sign as they passed through a door, but the meaning didn't register until they walked by the glass window of the nursery. She would have happily lingered, looking at the babies and day-dreaming about the child that grew beneath her heart.

 

But Dixie tugged her on down the hall. "Come on," she said. "I want you to meet a friend of mine."

 

A moment later, they stopped at the nurses' desk and Dixie approached a slender young nurse with red curls. The nurse looked up and a bright smile lit her face. "Dixie! We don't see you up here often enough!"

 

Dixie grinned back. "Hello, Trish. I brought a friend of mine to visit. And I thought maybe you could help us with something." She winked, and Nita wondered what she had up her sleeve. But then Dixie leaned closer to Trish and the two talked too quietly for Nita to overhear.

 

A moment later, the two women flanked Nita and led her into a room near the nurses' station. Dixie leaned in and said softly, "Nita, how would you like to show Johnny a picture of that baby when you go in to see him?"

 

Nita's eyes widened. "A picture? You mean with an ultrasound?!"

 

"That's exactly what I mean." Dixie flashed her a smile as Trish handed her a gown. "We'll go out in the hall for a minute so you can change into that. Hop up on the table when you're done and we'll be right back."

 

Nita nodded hesitantly and accepted the gown. She'd heard of ultrasounds before, but her obstetrician didn't have a machine yet. A flush of excitement warmed her cheeks, and as soon as the door closed, she changed into the gown and climbed up on the exam table.

 

A minute later, she heard a knock and then Dixie and Trish came back into the room. Trish smiled at her. "Nita, I didn't give Dix a chance to introduce us earlier. I'm Trish Arrington. Dixie's a good friend of my mother's and the reason I decided to become a nurse."

 

Dixie's eyes twinkled. "As if your mother didn't have anything to do with that choice… Nita, Trish's mom Trudy was a mentor to me in Korea. We've been friends ever since and I'm actually Trish's godmother."

 

Trish flashed Dixie a cheeky grin, but then turned her attention to Nita, suddenly all business. "All right," she said, "how about you lie down now. We can listen to the little one's heartbeat first." She slipped the Doppler device under Nita's gown and slid it slowly across her abdomen, searching for the heartbeat. At last, Nita heard a quick thump thump thump sound. It was more rapid than she had expected and the rhythm seemed… off somehow. She looked into Trish's eyes, searching for any sign that she should worry, but Trish just grinned and glanced at Dixie.

 

"Let's get a look now, all right?" She squeezed some gel onto Nita's abdomen and then set the probe in place. "Dixie, turn the monitor so Nita can see, all right?" Dixie did, and then Trish moved the probe until she managed to capture an image.

 

Nita watched wide-eyed as the form of a baby became clear. "Is that…" She couldn't help smiling now, her heart flooding with love for this child in her womb.

 

"It is," Dixie answered. Trish moved the probe again and the image became clearer… Nita could see a small spot beating rapidly, which she knew must be the heart. Trish pointed out the head and the arms and legs. Then Nita saw another flash of movement behind the baby. She glanced to Trish, uncertain what she was looking at. Trish and Dixie were both grinning ear to ear.

 

"What is it?"

 

Trish didn't answer right away, but moved the probe slightly. Finally, she patted on Nita's arm and asked, "What do you think Captain Gage would say to having twins?"

Suddenly Nita could barely draw a breath. "Twins?!" she squeaked. "But — "

 

Dixie chuckled. "Yes, twins. And from what we can see here, they look good. What is the due date your doctor gave you?"

 

"February 4," Nita whispered. Spellbound, she watched the images on the monitor.

Trish peered closer. "That's pretty close… though the measurements I've taken just now suggest a slightly later date around February 23. Would you like me to try to determine the gender of the babies?"

 

Nita gave her head a vehement shake. "Oh no… I'd much rather be surprised."

 

Trish smiled. "Of course… it's not always easy to tell, anyway." She set down the transducer, then pressed a button to print a few images she had saved.

 

Dixie gently wiped the excess gel from Nita's belly, then helped her to sit up. "Go ahead and get dressed, Nita. You should be able to see Johnny now."

 

Nita nodded, then reached out suddenly to hug her friend. "Thank you, Dixie! You knew just what I needed."

 

At that, Dixie's eyes sparkled. "We aim to please around here, Mrs. Gage," she teased. "Now come on out as soon as you're ready and we'll go to Johnny's room together."

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

The doctor flipped through Johnny's chart, nodding his head and mumbling an occasional, "Mmhmm," then rehung the chart and bent to examine his patient's splinted hand. Finally, he straightened and cleared his throat. "All things considered, Mr. Gage, your surgery went well. I reduced and stabilized the fractured radius and ulna. The displaced bones had been compressing the ulnar artery, significantly decreasing blood flow to the hand, and damaged the median nerve. Once the fracture was reduced, blood flow was restored, and I was able to repair the nerve. However…"

Damn… I knew there was a however coming… Johnny focused his full attention on the doctor. He hadn't met Julian Valdez before, but the man's reputation preceded him. This slight gentleman with the angular face and piercing eyes and a shock of tousled white hair was considered the best hand-surgeon in the state of California… perhaps along the entire West Coast. Johnny wondered, though, if his "however" was a prelude to an attempt to hedge his bets, or there was a serious problem.

 

"We cannot be sure at this time that you will regain full use of the hand. From what I understand, about four hours elapsed from your fall to your emergency surgery. The possibility exists that there is at least some permanent damage. In addition, I still need to repair the torn flexor tendons — you have a complete tear to the tendons to the ring finger and the middle finger, and about a 60% tear for the index finger. We can wait a few days to deal with that, but we shouldn't put it off long…"

 

As Dr. Valdez droned on, Johnny's thoughts began to wander. What were the odds… him and Roy suffering career-ending injuries at the same time? The thought gnawed at his stomach and he was glad Nita hadn't come in yet… she was probably still sitting with Jo. He might be able to hide his emotions from the surgeon, but never from his wife, and he wasn't ready for her to know. He sighed and turned his attention back to the doctor, but the man's words only faintly registered.

 

"...Really, Mr. Gage, I have painted a worst-case scenario for you. Your recovery depends in large part on how hard you are willing to work for it. If you comply with your therapy protocol, you have a good chance of regaining a high level of function."

Johnny nodded, but he hadn't really heard. The phrase 'permanent damage' echoed in his mind, drowning everything else out. He gazed out the window, silently cursing himself for his own foolishness. Nita was going to be furious with him.

 

The doctor cleared his throat, recalling Johnny's attention. "Mr. Gage, get some rest. Assuming no complications, I will discharge you tomorrow morning. Have a nice evening." Without further ado, he turned and strode towards the door.

 

Johnny hated hospitals, but for once he had no argument about staying — not that he'd planned to remain in his bed, of course. He had every intention of heading upstairs to ICU at the first opportunity.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Dixie and Nita arrived at Johnny's room just as Dr. Valdez was leaving. He acknowledged them with a nod, but continued down the corridor at a rapid pace.

 

Nita watched him go, then turned to Dixie. "He must be very busy."

 

"Oh, he probably has a couple more surgeries scheduled today. I was barely able to squeeze Johnny in, and only because it was an urgent situation." She squeezed Nita's hand. "He's the best in the state… and Johnny was lucky to have him. Come on… let's go see how he's doing." She pushed open the door to Johnny's room and Nita heard her speak to him. "I've got someone here who is really anxious to see you, Johnny."

 

Dixie stepped aside and Nita pressed past her, hurrying to her husband's side. The sight of him in a hospital bed brought back bad memories of how he had almost died right after they had first been reunited, but at least this time he was conscious and breathing on his own. Forgetting that they had an audience, she kissed him on the forehead, then on the nose, and then the lips, then sat next to him and took his good hand in her own. "Nashoba… you frightened me."

 

"I know… I'm sorry." He gazed at her, and she could see the anguish in his deep chocolate eyes.

 

"Tell me, ahattak, what is wrong?" She brushed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. "Are you in pain?"

 

He shook his head. "No… morphine's taking pretty good care of that. Just… feel dumb, I guess. I never should've gotten up on Minko."

 

"No… but… I understand why you did." She smiled down at him and gently stroked his hand and arm. "Riding brings you peace when you are troubled."

 

"Any word on Roy?"

 

Nita shook her head. "Nothing yet. No change since we were here yesterday. I left Jo sleeping in the lounge upstairs."

 

Johnny sat up and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed. "I want to go up there… sit with him."

 

"Hang on there, Tiger." Dixie had been standing near the door, but now she moved in and helped Nita settle him back against his pillow. "You need your rest. There'll be plenty of time to sit with Roy. A couple more hours won't make much difference."

 

Nita suppressed a giggle when Johnny practically pouted. Sometimes she could swear there was a little boy inside her husband, just aching to get out and run free. Distraction… that's what had always worked on Billy when he was a little boy, pouting because he didn't get his way. She wondered if it would work on a grown man. "I have something to show you," she said, fingering the ultrasound images she had slipped into a pocket of her dress.

 

He turned to face her again, his eyes brightening with interest. "What is it?"

 

She passed him the first ultrasound picture. Both babies were visible on this one, but one was somewhat hidden behind the other. He stared at it and then raised his eyes to his wife's. "Our baby?!"

 

Nita grinned and nodded, then handed him the second picture Trish had printed. This one clearly showed both babies, labeling them A and B. "Try this one."

 

Johnny stared for a moment, and Nita could see in his eyes the moment when it finally dawned on him what he was seeing. He looked up at her, a mixture of shock and elation dancing in his eyes. "Twins?! We're… having twins?!"

 

Nita nodded again, happy that the news seemed to have restored her husband's joy. He will be a wonderful daddy, she thought. I can't wait to see him playing with our little ones. "Yes, twins." The thought of it sent a shiver of excitement — and maybe a little fear — up her spine.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Twins?! Johnny was stunned. Thrilled, yes… terrified. Yeah, definitely terrified. He wasn't sure what else to say beyond his first shocked statement, but Nita didn't seem to mind. She wasn't usually a chatterbox, but right now she was talking a mile a minute, half in Choctaw and half in English, and he just settled back to listen as she fell back into the conversation about names they'd been having at home before he got the call about Roy. She had picked out four boys' names and four girls' names that she liked, and it was a good thing because they were covered, whether they had two of a kind or a mixed pair. At the moment, her favorites were Royal James and Emily JoAnne. He murmured his approval as he settled back in bed. Dixie and Nita were right — he needed to rest before going to visit Roy. The morphine was really doing a number on him. He felt his eyes growing heavier as he listened to Nita's monologue, and before long he was sound asleep.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

JoAnne woke to find herself alone in the nurses' lounge. Well, not exactly alone… Nita had left — she assumed to see Johnny — but Cindy and Suzanne, two of the ICU nurses, were seated at the table, clearly enjoying a break. They talked in low voices until Cindy noticed Jo was awake.

 

"Hello, Mrs. DeSoto," she said, her whole face lighting up in a bright smile. Jo liked Cindy. She was an excellent nurse, devoted to her patients and to their families, and she always seemed to know what to say to put Jo at ease about her husband's condition and care. Suzanne was younger and less experienced, but a sweet girl, and Jo knew Cindy had become something of a mentor to her. "Nurse McCall came to fetch Mrs. Gage about 30 minutes ago. Captain Gage must have been moved to his room."

 

"Thanks, Cindy." Jo sat up and stretched. "Anything new with Roy?"

 

"His eyes were open when I checked on him last, and it seemed like he was tracking me. Dr. Brackett is in with him now — he said I should send you in if you woke up. I know it can be hard to see sometimes, Mrs. DeSoto, but Captain DeSoto is getting a little better every day."

 

Jo nodded as she gathered her things and got to her feet. "I know… thank you, Cindy. You too, Suzanne. I'm really grateful for all that you do." She glanced from one nurse to the other. "You both go above and beyond… Roy and I… well… we're blessed to have you taking care of him."

 

Suzanne blushed. "I don't think you know this, Mrs. DeSoto, but your husband is the reason… or at least part of the reason… I became a nurse."

 

"Really?" Jo had been about to head out the door, but she stopped, intrigued by Suzanne's words.

 

"I was in a car accident right after I started college… hit by a drunk driver. Your husband and Captain Gage were the paramedics who responded — they had to pry me out of my car." She looked down at her coffee cup. "I don't remember much about it, but Dr. Early told my parents, if it hadn't been for the two of them, I wouldn't have made it. They say I coded in the ambulance, and Captain DeSoto got me back. It took me a couple years to recover and resume my studies, but I knew then I wanted to help people too. I ended up switching to a Bachelor's program in nursing, and I've never regretted it!"

 

Suzanne's story brought tears to Jo's eyes. She rarely got to meet the people Roy had helped, and most of the time, he tried not to talk much about his work when he came home — though sometimes when a rescue went sour, he would come home depressed and she would have to drag it out of him. She blinked back the tears and wrapped Suzanne in a hug. "Thank you for telling me that." With that, she hurried out of the lounge and across the corridor to Roy's room.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

 

Dr. Brackett was just checking Roy's stitches. JoAnne hovered for a moment at the door. She knew she had to get to the point where she could look at the stump of her husband's leg without flinching, but it was still difficult. One of Rampart's psychologists had already talked with her about what she could expect from Roy when he awoke and learned what had happened to him and how she could best support him. She swallowed hard, then stepped fully into the room. "Dr. Brackett?"

 

The doctor looked around and nodded to her, then continued redressing Roy's stump.

 

"JoAnne, come on in. Roy's doing well… emerging a little more each day. I've assessed him at a 9 on the Glasgow scale just now, which is a big improvement. The antibiotics are doing their job — no infection, and the wound closure looks good. He's been saying your name, and I think hearing your voice would do him good. As you know, I have been limiting your visits to 20 minutes every other hour. But now… as long as you go home no later than ten and get a good night's rest, I am going to lift that restriction for you. Roy needs to hear your voice… talk to him, read to him, sing to him, hold his hand… whatever you think would lift his spirits. Keep it upbeat… don't talk about his injuries. But you have to promise me that you will also take care of yourself — when he wakes up, he will need your strength to help him through his recovery."

 

"I will… thank you, Doctor." JoAnne couldn't help thinking back to the first time she'd met Kelly Brackett. He'd been in opposition to the paramedic program back then, but eventually he'd come around. They'd all been surprised to discover that he had given the testimony that convinced California's legislature to pass the bill that would set the program in motion at last. In spite of that, JoAnne had taken a while to warm up to him. Sometimes she thought he seemed arrogant, but she had watched him more than once treat both Roy and Johnny when they were injured, and the depth of compassion he showed them had won her over. Now she counted him a dear friend.

 

As Dr. Brackett saw himself out, JoAnne intertwined her fingers with Roy's. He lay still on his bed, eyes half-open, staring over her shoulder at the far wall. She kissed his forehead and then settled into the chair. "Hi, honey. You're looking better. I thought you might like me to read to you a bit."

 

Dixie had actually suggested a few days ago that Jo try reading to Roy, so she had grabbed a book off his "to-read" stack the previous day and shoved it in her purse. She pulled it out now and held it up for him to see. Roy was a fan of Louis L'Amour and had been happy to find this latest story of the Sackett Family on a trip to the used bookstore with Chris.

 

Jo wasn't sure how far he'd read, so she just opened the cover, flipped through the front matter, and started from the beginning. "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning."*

 

Her voice faltered a bit as the meaning behind those two sentences soaked in. She knew that when Roy woke up and learned what had happened, he would be tempted to give up… to think his life was over. But she needed to help him see that losing his leg didn't have to be the end… it was just the beginning of something new.

 

She cleared her throat to fill the silence as she pulled herself together and then continued. "Pa said that when I was a boy. There was a hot, dry wind moaning through the hot, dry trees, and we were scared of fire in the woods…"*

 

She read on and on and found herself getting lost in the story of the Sackett Brothers. For a little while, it was just Jo, Roy, and "a thousand miles of grass"*… everything else seemed to recede into the distance. When she reached the end of chapter three, though, her voice had begun to grow tired. She needed a drink of water. She set the book down and looked up for a moment. And then she forgot everything else. Roy's eyes were wide open and he had turned his head to fix his gaze on her.

 

•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•◊•

*These quotes all come from the first page of L'Amour's book Lonely on the Mountain, one of his books about the fictional Sackett Family, first published in 1980.

 

To be continued

 

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