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Up, Up and Away...

Into the Great Beyond

An Emergency Story by

Mypiot
 

 

   

  Up, Up, and Away (…into the Great Beyond?) 

 

John Gage slipped the halter and blanket off the back of the jet black filly and turned her loose into the pasture to graze alongside the other horses, Obsidian and Koda, and quickly closed and locked the gate.

“How come you never let us ride Raven Uncle Johnny?” asked the blue eyed girl standing at his side.

“Yeah, how come Uncle Johnny?” added her older brother.

Johnny turned and smiled down at the youngsters.

“Because guys, she’s still too young to ride…she’s never even had a saddle on her back yet. Don’t forget, she won’t even be two years old for another couple of weeks yet.”

Johnny shifted the horse blanket until it was draped over his arm. He reached over and grabbed the halter that he had looped over the fence post, while he had closed and secured the gate to the pasture.

Taking the little girls hand in his, he started back towards the stable to put the items away.

“When will she be old enough?” asked eleven year old Chris, as he and his eight year old sister Jenny trotted along happily beside their Uncle.

Johnny shrugged …”When she’s ready. Each horse is different. It’s usually somewhere between two and four years, depending on the horse. Training a horse is a long process. You have to do it in stages … and you have to be very patient.”

“Really?” asked Chris, “like how?”

“Well,” said Johnny as they arrived at the stable door and entered inside; “There’s a lot they need to learn in their first year of life.”

“It starts a few days after they’re born…you need to handle them, so you imprint on them. It’s important that they bond with humans and get used to the human voice and touch. They need to learn that humans will not harm them.”

“A full grown horse is a lot bigger and stronger than a person, so it’s vital that they be taught when they’re still much smaller than you, how to act and behave in ways that won’t hurt or harm anyone. They have to learn to accept humans as their leaders and to have respect for them.”

Once Johnny had everything put back in its proper place, he ushered the two children back outside. He continued explaining the finer points of training a horse as they walked toward the house.

“Horses don’t reason things out or think in the same way humans do, so they need to be socialized, because they rely more on instinct than humans do. They are born with a highly innate sense of fight or flight, and it’s my job to teach them to ignore that instinct and listen to my commands, so that if a loud car drives by them and honks a horn, or a plastic bag rattles as they’re walking by, or a dog runs up to a fence and barks when I’m on their back, they’ll listen to what I tell them to do, instead of what their natural instincts would tell them to do.”

“By the time a foal reaches the yearling stage, it should be already used to wearing a halter and being led around, having a blanket on its back, as well as standing tied and staying calm while being groomed or being examined by a vet.”

“As soon as I feel Raven is ready, I’ll get her used to the feel of a saddle on her back, and then I’ll begin to ride her, and teach her to walk, trot and stop…and all the other commands she’ll need to know.”

By this time, the trio had arrived at Johnny’s front porch, so the three of them sat down on the porch swing while they continued on with their conversation.

“But how will you know when she’s ready Uncle Johnny?” Chris asked.

Johnny smiled down at the tow headed boy.

“I’ll just know Chris…like I said, each horse is different; but I’ll know … I always do.”

“But how?” begged Jenny insistently

Johnny looked down and tweaked her nose and winked.

“Because she’ll tell me,” He said conspiratorially.

“She talks to you?” the little girl asked in wide eyed wonder.

“Yup,” Johnny answered.

“And you know what she’s saying?” Jenny asked in amazement.

“Sure… I know what all my horses are saying. You just have to learn to understand and speak their language.”

 

It was just at this point that a blue pick-up truck came pulling into the lane.

“Ah,” said Johnny. “The vet’s here.”

“Is he here to check on Pandora and make sure the baby in her belly is still healthy?” Chris inquired.

“Not today kiddo” Johnny answered. “I’m waiting to hear about some special news concerning Odyssey, so I’m guessing that’s why he’s here. He phoned me last night and he said he’d drop by around nine this morning and let me know.”

By this time the truck had stopped in front of the house and a heavyset, balding man in his late fifties opened the door and stepped out.

“Good morning John, sorry I’m late, but I got held up by a cat that was hit by a car this morning, and it has me running a bit behind schedule.”

Johnny dismissed the apology with a wave of his hand.

“Hey, don’t worry about it Gideon, I’m a paramedic remember? I’m used to unexpected medical emergencies.”

“Did the kitty die?” Jenny asked fearfully.

“No, she was very, very lucky. She has a broken leg, but nothing more serious than that…she’ll be fine once her leg heals up.” Gideon answered.

The vet then glanced up at Johnny and gave him a sly wink.  “Shouldn’t these kids be in school? It is Monday right?” he asked teasingly.

Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Dr. Forgrave… school got out for the summer on Friday. It’s summer holidays now.”

The vet feigned surprise and put his hands to chest with an overdramatic gasp…”Don’t tell me it’s the middle of June already? What happened to May?”

Both kids giggled and slid off the porch swing.

“So you guys staying with your Uncle Johnny for the whole summer?” Gideon asked them.

“Nope, last night was daddy and mommy’s date night. We usually stay with Uncle Johnny on those nights. And next week; me, Chris and mommy are flying back to Los Angeles to spend ten whole days with Aunt Elaine, Uncle David and Grandma Hirsch.” Jenny explained.

“Wow, it sounds like you guys are going to have lots of fun.”

The vet gave Jenny’s pigtail a playful tug and turned towards Johnny. He reached into his shirt pocket and slowly pulled out a licorice cigar and handed it over to Johnny with a grin.

 “Congratulations papa, in eleven months you’ll be a dad for the third time.”

“What’s he mean Uncle Johnny; you’re not a daddy yet?” Jenny giggled.

Chris gave a whoop and jumped up and down.

 “Is that what Odyssey’s special news is Uncle Johnny? She’s going to have a baby too?” Chris asked excitedly.

“That’s exactly what it means young man,” replied the vet.

Johnny face broke out into a huge grin.

“Well alright; another little foal to add to my growing family; I’ll make this into a working horse ranch yet  … you know you could have just phoned me with the news Gideon, you didn’t need to come all the way out here to tell me… but I’m glad you did, I love licorice cigars,” he joked.

“Well actually John, there is something else I’d like to talk to you about if you have a few minutes.”

The look on Gideon’s face was enough for Johnny to realize the good vet didn’t want to talk in front of the children. Johnny gave a subtle nod and quickly turned towards Chris and Jenny.

“Well this calls for a celebration. Tell you what kids, you can go into the barrel inside the stable and get out an apple for Pandora and Odyssey and give them one each. They’re not in the pasture yet. I left them in the corral in case the doc wanted to give them a quick exam.”

“Cool, thanks Uncle Johnny,” the children chorused.

“Make sure you stay on the outside of the corral fence when you feed them,” he called after the two quickly retreating kids.

“We will,” Chris and Jenny yelled back as they continued to run in the direction of the barn.

Once the two young DeSoto’s were well out of ear shot Johnny motioned to the recently evacuated porch swing.

“Have a seat Doc’ and tell me what’s on your mind… nothing’s wrong with either of the horses is there?”

“No, no, no… it’s nothing like that.” Gideon reassured him.

“Okay then, what’s on your mind?”

Gideon rubbed his hands nervously on his pants.

“I remembered you telling me some time back that your paint horse was a rescue… that he’d been the victim of neglect and abuse?”

Johnny nodded his head; he wasn’t quite sure which direction this conversation was heading in.

‘Yeeeeah,” he said cautiously. “That’s right. I used to volunteer for the Grace foundation and help with their equine rescue program back in California a few years back.”

“Koda came in as a rescue and he was in pretty bad shape. In fact he was so bad that he was slated to be put down. I took over ownership and responsibility for him, and I eventually got him back into good health, but it was a long hard fight, for both of us. He was my very first horse, so he’s kind of my little pet, he kind of reminds me of myself and my past. ….why?”

Gideon looked over at Johnny and tried to gauge his mood before he put the next question forward.

He finally just took a deep breath and took the plunge.

“Look, I know you have said over and over that you are strictly dealing in American Quarter horses only … but I was wondering if just this one time, you would possibly consider taking in another rescued horse?”

Johnny stood silently; his facial expression remained neutral as he contemplated Gideon’s request.

“What’s the history of the horse?” Johnny asked; while still remaining non-committal for the time being.

“About two years ago a man just north of here who has a place just this side of the Canadian border petitioned the BLM for one of their horses…I assume you know what that is right?”

Johnny nodded, “Yeah, it’s the Bureau of Land Management. They oversee the remaining herds of wild mustangs, and often adopt them off to keep the herds manageable in size.”

“Right...” said Gideon.

“Well, this man adopted a young mustang mare about two years ago. What he wasn’t aware of is that she was just a couple of weeks along, and so eleven months later he found himself the proud owner of a mustang foal as well… a beautiful little filly.”

“That was all well and good until about 9 months ago, when sadly, the man was killed in a farming accident, and his property was passed on to his sister and her husband. Unfortunately the new owners weren’t very industrious and didn’t want to spend the money on caring for the animals, so rather than sell them, they just ignored them.”

“Altogether, there were a dozen sheep, a couple of dogs, cats, and the two mustangs, that were just stabled in the fall and left there without being let outside.”

“Over the winter the animals were only given minimal care, and what food they did give them was of poor quality. All during this time, the mare was still nursing her foal.’

“By the time spring came, the animals were all full of parasites, mange and malnourished, and the mare had a critical case of COPD.”

Johnny sighed and shook his head in disgust.

“Why don’t people who don’t want these animals, just sell them off?” he said angrily.

Gideon nodded in agreement.

“By the time it was discovered and reported by a neighbour, it was too late to save most of the animals. We ended up putting down the mare, most of the sheep, all three cats, and the two dogs, and most of a litter of pups that the female dog had whelped.”

“The only animals we were able to save were three of the sheep, one of the pups from the litter of five, and the little yearling filly. The problem is; we don’t have the facilities to permanently house these animals, and we need to find each of them a home ASAP now that they’re healthy again.”

“Fred Grainger, a sheep farmer friend of mine has taken in the sheep. But the only two people I know of who deal in horses around here, is you and George Danforth. And while I know George would give the horse excellent care; she kind of needs some extra one on one TLC, after all she’s been through… I’ve watched you interact with your horses John, and I think you’re exactly what this little mustang needs. I promise you, she now has a clean bill of health… I wouldn’t expose your stock to any diseases.”

Johnny stared off into the direction of the pasture and his eyes tracked over to where Koda stood grazing peacefully in the meadow. He cast his mind back to the days when he had first seen the paint. He had looked like walking death those first few weeks. Johnny shuddered to think of Koda being put down, had he not intervened.

Still, horses were not cheap to look after, and he was soon going to be adding two more foals to his herd … did he really have the extra time and resources to spend on another horse, who held no promise of any future payback?

Gideon sensed this was a critical moment in Johnny’s decision making process, so he reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a snapshot of the filly and handed it over to Johnny.

“This is her…she’s a sweet little thing and we have been working with her as much as we can, and she is now halter trained, and used to being handled by humans. According to the original owner’s records she is 13 months old,” he said hopefully.

Johnny looked down at the photograph and he saw a beautiful white leopard, Appaloosa mustang yearling. His heart melted and he instantly fell in love with her. He’d always thought that the mustang was a noble breed.

It was at this point that Chris and Jenny came running back to where the two men were talking.

Chris looked at the picture in Johnny’s hand and looked up at him questioningly.

Johnny caught his glance and turned the picture so that it was facing the two children.

“Dr. Forgrave wants to know if I’ll adopt this little orphan…What do you guys think?”

“Yes!” both children shouted out excitedly.

“She’s so pretty… you’re going to say yes, right Uncle Johnny?” Jenny pleaded hopefully.

“Yeah, she needs you Uncle Johnny; you’re so good with horses…and with you being an orphan too, you’ll understand her better than anyone else would.” Chris added.

Gideon looked up in surprise at that last statement, but Johnny just shrugged him off dismissively.

Johnny stared down at the picture for a long time before he looked back up at Gideon and smiled.

“Okay, when do you want to bring her around?”

“Really? ... That’s great! ... Is this afternoon too soon?” Gideon asked.

Johnny laughed, “Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said you were in a hurry were you?”

Gideon chuckled, “Well no, I’m leaving for a seminar in a couple of days and I was hoping to get all these animals a good home before I left… So is this afternoon too soon John?”

Johnny looked down at Chris and Jenny.

“Well Roy and Joanne are supposed to be here by eleven to pick up the kids, and I’d like a couple of hours to get a stall ready for her that’s separate from the others until I see how all the horses react to each other.”

“I want to give them all a chance to get used to each other without too much stress…especially since I have two expectant mothers on my hands now. Does four o’clock work for you?” Johnny asked.

“I’ll make it work.” Gideon replied appreciatively.

Gideon made his way back to his pickup truck and opened the driver’s side door. The moment the door opened a small black and white head raised up off the seat where it had been sleeping, and gave a small bark.

The moment Jenny laid eyes on it, she squealed with delight.

“Can I pet your dog Dr. Forgrave?”

Gideon reached in and pulled out a small Border Collie pup that was about three months old and set it on the ground in front of the little girl.

“She’s not mine … she’s another orphan that I’m trying to find a home for.”

Johnny bent over and gave the pup’s head a small pat.

“Is this the pup that was saved?” he asked Gideon.

“Yeah,” the vet replied. “I didn’t have the heart to leave her penned up in the vet office all day, so I decided to bring her with me, and let her run off some of her energy at the park later on.”

Chris picked up a stick off the ground and tossed it across the yard. The pup immediately took off after it, with both children following close behind.

Johnny rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he watched Chris and Jenny play with the little dog.

“You know,” he said thoughtfully; “I’ve been meaning to get myself a good farm dog. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

Gideon looked at Johnny with a bemused look in his eyes.

“I can bring her bed and her bag of food over with me when I drop off your new little filly at four if you want?” Gideon said; knowing full well the little pup wasn’t going to be leaving the Gage ranch.

Johnny rolled his eyes and chuckled.

“Yeah, I guess you might as well… she has had all her shots and been dewormed, right?”

“Of course she has.” Gideon answered, as he climbed into the pickup truck and closed the door.

The vet leaned out the window of the truck, and gave Johnny a small wave of his hand.

“See you at four then,” he said as he started up the engine and drove off down the lane.

Chris and Jenny came running over with the little dog following at their heels.

“Uncle Johnny, Dr. Forgrave left without taking his dog,” Jenny said worriedly.

Johnny grinned and squatted down and stroked the pup’s soft fur.

“That’s because she’s my dog now,” he told the kids.

“Yippee!” Chris exclaimed. “What are you going to name her?”

“Hmmm, well now, I don’t know,” he said. “Any ideas guys?”

“Well I think it should be something Native,” Chris stated matter of factly.

“Like what?” Johnny asked, slightly amused.

“Well,” answered the boy. “What’s the Indian word for dog?”

It’s Suka (shue- kah) Johnny answered.

“Cool, … I like the way that sounds.” said Chris.

“Me too,” Jenny added.

Johnny bent over and picked up the pup that had been busy chasing a cricket through the grass.

He held it up to his face and spoke to her.

“Well what do you say little one? Do you like the name Suka?”

The little dog leaned her nose closer to Johnny’s face and licked his chin.

Johnny laughed and set her back down on the grass.

“I think we have a winner…Suka it is.”

Chris and Jenny bounded off across the yard calling out, “come here Suka.”

The little dog followed behind, even though she hadn’t learned yet, that the name Suka belonged to her. But Johnny was sure by the end of the day, she would have caught on. Dogs were amazingly quick learners when it came to picking up on that kind of thing.

He smiled as he made his way back up onto the front porch, where he sat on the swing to wait for Roy and Joanne to come and pick up the kids.

It wasn’t more than twenty minutes later when the DeSoto station wagon turned off the country road and swung into the lane that lead up to Johnny’s house.

By the time Joanne had the kids overnight bags organized in the back of the station wagon, Johnny had filled in Roy on everything that had happened that morning, including the fact that Odyssey was now expecting as well.

The two men were still standing, leaning against the corral fence when Joanne came over to collect Chris and Jenny and herd them over in the general direction of the station wagon.

She had finally managed to pull them away from Suka and get them into the vehicle, when she turned and looked over questioningly at Roy.

“So, did you ask him yet?” she said.

“Ask me what?” Johnny said curiously.

Roy shot Joanne a not yet glare and then pasted on his best enthusiastic smile and turned to face Johnny.

“Well Junior, I was just wondering, how would you like to join me this coming weekend for a beautiful sunset ride in a hot air balloon?”

Johnny looked at Roy and raised his eyebrows in disbelief.

“Come again?” he asked incredulously.

Roy began to shift nervously from side to side as he repeated the question.

“Where did this idea come from? Johnny asked uneasily. “And don’t you dare say, from out of the blue,” he warned.

“Well you see Junior, it’s like this,” Roy began.

“I was at the hardware store in Burlington a few weeks back picking up some washers for the dripping faucet in the bathroom, and when I checked out the clerk handed me this ballot for a contest they were having for a sailboat. I figured what the hell, it’s not like I ever win any of those things anyway, so I filled it out and dropped it in the box… I left the store and promptly forgot all about it.”

“So what’s that have to do with a hot air balloon ride?” Johnny asked in confusion.

“Well,” Roy replied. “I got a call this morning informing me that although I didn’t win first prize, which was the boat… I did win the second prize which was a free hot air balloon ride for two next weekend.”

“It has to be used next weekend, and since Joanne and the kids will be with her sister and mother in Los Angeles, I thought you could come with me. I figured since we’re on duty next Saturday, we’d have to use it on the Sunday… so what do you say, will you come with me? “

Roy shifted uneasily before he finally confessed the real reason for his nervousness.

”Um…I kinda already put your name down as the second passenger when I booked the date… and before you say it;  I know I should have asked first, but I was kind of put on the spot when they asked me, and yours was the first name that popped into my head…sorry... But you will come with me right?” Roy asked hopefully.

Johnny looked at Roy and seen what could best be described as a look that was equal parts of hope and desperation in his eyes.

All things considered, Johnny could think of a thousand things he’d rather do with his days off than spending his time riding around pointlessly in some hot air balloon, a couple of thousand feet up in the air.

But at the end of the day, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for Roy or his family; so after a few more moments of hesitation, he finally nodded his head in agreement.

“Yeah sure, why not … who knows it might turn out to be a really cool experience.”

Roy could sense Johnny’s hesitation and he immediately felt guilty for putting him on the spot, and roping him into going with him.

“Tell you what,” Roy offered as an appeasement.

“Jo’s just going to be spending the afternoon with the kids shopping for new clothes to wear on their trip back to L.A. at the mall in Burlington this afternoon, so how about I just hang around here and help you get that stall ready for your new horse?” he offered.

Johnny shook his head and smirked.

“Roy, it’s okay. It’s not that big of a job… in fact it will only take me a couple of hours at most. I can handle it on my own. You don’t have to hang around. I already said I’d go with you for the balloon ride.”

But Roy wasn’t about to let himself off the hook that easily. He needed to do something to physically assuage his guilt over talking Johnny into doing something he clearly didn’t want to do… especially after he’d just kept the kids overnight so he and Joanne could spend a romantic night together.

He decided to change his tactics.

“What are you saying Johnny? Are you trying to tell me that you don’t want me around or something?”

Johnny looked over at Joanne and rolled his eyes, as she looked on, her face barely containing her amusement at Roy’s discomfort.

Johnny threw up his hands in defeat and gave an exasperated sigh.

“Of course you’re welcome here anytime Roy… you know that. I just meant that you didn’t have to stay and help me.”

Johnny looked over at a Joanne who was now smirking and he got an impish glint in his eyes.

“Fine...” he said in his best smart ass tone of voice.

“Since you offered to stay and help, you can just grab hold of that dung fork over there and get busy mucking out the stalls, while I get my tools out of the driving shed so I can get started on the stall.”

Roy was a city boy, born and bred, and as much as he enjoyed his new rural life; cleaning out horse manure was not what he had had in mind when he’d offered to ‘help’ Johnny out today.

The look of apprehension on his face made both Johnny and Joanne burst out laughing.

“Relax Roy,” Johnny giggled.

“I already mucked them out this morning. I’m just havin’ ya on. How about you go grab us each a cold beer and I’ll go get the tools out. We’ll grab a quick lunch and then we can get started in on it. With both of us working, we should be able to get the new stall ready and build Suka a dog house with plenty of time to spare.”

Roy’s face was filled with a mixture of annoyance at having been ‘had’, and relief that he wasn’t going to be spending the day forking out dung.

“Just let me put Pandora and Odyssey out to pasture with the others, and then we’ll have a quick lunch and get started.” Johnny said.

By the time two thirty came around, Roy was just hammering the last of the nails into the roof of Suka’s new doghouse. The pup had taken quite a shine to her new owner and had shadowed Johnny everywhere he went.

Roy smiled when he had more than once found Johnny down on his hands and knees playing a game of tug of war with the little dog using an old piece of rope that had been lying around in the corner of the barn.

It was at moments like that, that Johnny displayed flashes of his more childlike side.

 It was something Roy found gratifying to watch. His heart ached sometimes when he thought about the fact that Johnny had had his own childhood stolen from him by the very people who were supposed to have loved him.

It was why he suspected Johnny enjoyed having his two kids around so much. It provided him an opportunity to experience some of what he missed vicariously through Chris and Jenny.

 And that was just fine as far as he and Joanne were concerned. Their children benefitted greatly by the life lessons their beloved Uncle taught them, so it was a win-win situation all round.

Johnny reached over and gave Suka and pat on the head before he stood up to survey his work.  This stall was located at the far end of the stable, away from the other horses. It would provide a nice quiet place for the yearling until all of his little herd got used to the newest member.

This stall served a double purpose as well. Now that he had two expectant mares on his hands, it could easily be converted into a comfortable foaling stall when the time came, which would afford both mother and foal, comfort and a quiet private place to spend their first few days together.

Standing back he silently congratulated himself on a job well done. After gathering up his tools he glanced down and the Border collie pup that was just sitting at his feet looking up at him adoringly.

“Well Suka,” he said. “How about we go and see how Roy’s making out on your new dog house.

I haven’t heard him yell out damn it all to hell, in almost half an hour. Either he’s finished it or given up on it. Johnny giggled to himself.

Johnny sauntered out to the yard where he seen Roy standing back, looking down proudly at his afternoon’s work. He stood back and eyed up the doghouse Roy had just finished appraisingly.

Roy had done a good job, which Johnny found surprising considering all the invectives he had spewed out while doing it.

“Wow Roy, that looks great. You saved me a lot of work, thanks Pally… What do you say we move it over underneath that big maple tree so Suka’s got some shade, and I’ll paint it later,” Johnny praised.

Once the doghouse was where Johnny wanted it, Roy looked over at him expectantly.

“Okay Junior, what’s next on the list?”

Johnny wiped the sweat of his forehead with his sleeve and grinned over at his brother.

“Another ice cold beer Pally,” he answered as he headed toward the house.

As they were sitting on the front porch swing enjoying their beer, Roy looked over at Johnny and said; “Look Junior, I’m sorry about kind of signing us both up for that hot air balloon ride, and if you want to back out, I’ll understand.”

“Maybe I could give the trip to one of the guys on C or D shift.”

Johnny looked over at Roy and studied his face for several long moments, he leaned over and nudged Roy’s arm with his elbow.

“You really want to go on this ride, don’t you?” he said more as a statement of fact than an actual question.

“Well, not at first I didn’t, but the more I got thinking about it the more I liked the idea of trying it out.” Roy answered. “But I really will understand if you want to back out. I shouldn’t have said you’d go without asking you first.” He said guiltily.

Johnny smiled and patted Roy on the leg.

“Don’t worry about it Pally… I said I’m going, so we’re going okay? And I’m honestly not upset about it… although,” he added after a slight pause. “I’m a little surprised that you are so het up about this. I didn’t think you were a huge fan of heights.”

Roy looked over at Johnny and was relieved to note that there was no trace of anger or recrimination in his eyes, over Roy having committed him to the balloon ride without his knowledge or permission. All he saw was a genuine curiosity in regards to the question he had been asked, so he answered it.

“It’s not actually heights I’m afraid of Johnny; it’s falling from them that worries me. Going up in a hot air balloon isn’t the same thing as hanging precariously off the edge of a cliff with little to no solid footing under me… or dangling fifty feet over the side of a high rise building by a safety belt with nothing but air beneath my feet. We’ll be sitting comfortably, safe and sound inside a solid basket enjoying some wonderful panoramic views. Just imagine the spectacular shots you’ll be able to get with your camera Junior?”

“But since you brought the subject up,” Roy added; “I’m a bit surprised that you don’t seem all that thrilled about this trip. You usually love heights.”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.

“I do love heights Roy … or at least they don’t bother me. But with me it’s not just about the heights. It’s the heights in combination with all the various challenges that goes along with them. I love pitting myself against those same obstacles that bother you. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy rock climbing so much… It isn’t that I’m afraid to go; it’s just that it’s not on my bucket list, of top ten things to do before I die, that’s all.

“Although, I must say, if you had to win any of the prizes, I’m just as glad that you won the balloon ride and not the boat. Now that’s something I do hate. Open water, waves and me on a boat have never worked out well…the open water and my stomach are definitely not on friendly terms.” Johnny finished.

Roy gave Johnny a sideways glance and quirked his brow.

“You’ve got a bucket list Junior?” he asked in surprise.

Johnny shot Roy a look that was just as incredulous.

“You mean you don’t?” he said.

Roy shook his head thoughtfully. “I can’t believe we’ve been family for over eight years now, and I never even knew you had a bucket list. After all this time you’ve never ever told me that.”

Johnny chuckled as he took the now empty beer bottle out of Roy’s hands and stood up.

“Well Roy, there’s always something new to learn about a person, you know.”

“Even you?” Roy asked

“Especially me,” Johnny laughed.

Roy didn’t doubt that for a second. He knew first hand that John Gage’s life was both an open book…and yet at the same time it could be a closed book. Some of the pages were quite simple, with each word written in mono-syllabic words…and then there were entire chapters that might as well be written in Greek, and neither part of that book was mutually exclusive of the other.

They all made up the person called John Roderick Gage, and Roy was extremely honored and proud to call him his little brother.

Roy thought about what Johnny had said for several minutes until he finally looked back at his partner and asked him quizzically.

“So little brother, just what exactly is on your bucket list anyway?”

Johnny snorted in disgust…”Well going on a hot air balloon ride was definitely not on it… but then, what the hell. I’m always open to trying out new experiences…I’m sure we’ll have a great time. Like I said before, it isn’t that I hate the idea; it just wasn’t on my to-do list is all.”

“Now, if I was going with just me and Carrie, in the sunset with a bottle of champagne and we could be all alone…” he said waggling his eyebrows mischievously.

Roy laughed, as he could already see the wheels turning inside Johnny’s head.

He was just about to comment further when Dr. Forgrave’s pick-up truck, with a horse trailer hooked on behind it, came turning into Johnny’s lane.

“She’s here,” Johnny said excitedly, as he sprang up and leapt off the porch without even using the stairs. He was literally bouncing on his heels in anticipation.

Gideon drove the vehicle right up to the entrance of the corral and shut the engine off. He hadn’t even gotten out of the vehicle before Johnny had the gate to the corral open, and was preparing to open up the doors of the horse trailer.

As soon as the doors were opened, Johnny cautiously stepped inside the trailer until he was right next to the yearlings’ ear.

He leaned in close and whispered something into the little filly’s ear, and then slowly led her out of the trailer and into the corral.

At this point Johnny’s attention was completely absorbed on the horse. He and the filly were lost in their own little world, and the pair of them were completely oblivious to both Roy and Gideon, who were standing at the fence watching the scene unfold.

Johnny was standing in front of the filly as he gently stroked her muzzle and spoke to her in his native tongue.

Both Gideon and Roy watched in awe as they watched the horse respond in kind to Johnny’s words.

“I knew he would be the absolute perfect fit for that little filly.” Gideon said happily.

Johnny finally looked up at the two men watching him and he turned back to the yearling and smiled softly.

Wee chaxk pee he huh nee…. he quietly said to her.

“That’s what I think I’ll call her,” he said matter of factly when he turned to face the two men again.

“You’ll have to translate for us Junior… we don’t speak Lakota.” Roy reminded him.

“Her name is Morning Star,” Johnny clarified.

“In the Lakota life books, the morning star signifies new beginnings….and that’s what this is for her; a whole new beginning.”

Johnny gave her one last gentle pat, and turned her loose to explore the corral.

“Yes,” he said again as he walked over to the fence. “Her name is Morning Star…it suits her.”     

It was just after six thirty on the following Sunday, when Johnny and Roy stepped out of Roy’s Porsche into the late afternoon sun, and began to make their way up the small hill that lay in front of them.

“Are you sure this is the right place Roy?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah this is the place, I talked to the owner of the balloon earlier this afternoon; some guy named Elgin Bennett. He said today’s weather was perfect, so the trip was a go, and we were to meet him in the field on the other side of this hill by quarter to seven.” Roy answered.

Indeed the weather that day had been perfect. The temperature had been in the low seventies, the skies were clear and there was just a hint of a slight breeze.

“So Roy, you never did explain to me how come we had to wait until so late in the day to take our ride?” Johnny questioned.

Roy shrugged, “Apparently just after sunrise and just before dusk are the best times of day for balloon rides. Mr. Bennett said the winds are more stable, and the temperatures aren’t too hot. I guess it’s easier to fly balloons in the cooler air, instead the midday heat and the winds tend to be calmer in early morning and early evening.”

By the time Roy had finished the two men had broached the crest of the hill. As they rounded the top, they looked down upon a large open field that lay stretched out before them. Their eyes where immediately drawn to the center of the field, where they lit upon a partially inflated hot air balloon.

There were several men milling about near the balloon. Two of them seemed to be totally engrossed in the task of inflating the balloon, while three others appeared to be carefully inspecting the lines.

As he took in the scene, Johnny couldn’t explain the sudden ominous feeling of trepidation that inexplicably overwhelmed him as he stood looking down at the balloon. He paused at the top of the hill while Roy continued making his way down toward the men.

Johnny quickly gave himself a mental shake and told himself to stop being so stupid, as he hurriedly jogged forward to catch up with Roy.

                                                                        ~   ~  ~

Fifty nine year old Elgin Bennett had been running his hot air balloon business for over four years now, and he loved every minute of it.

He had been a pilot in the air force for his entire adult life, until he had retired at the age of fifty five.

Upon his discharge, he had returned to his home in Burlington Vermont, where an ex-military buddy of his had introduced him to the world of hot air ballooning. Elgin had quickly become enthralled with the sport, and in less than a year he had bought his own balloon. Shortly after that he had started his own small business, giving tourists rides at county fairs and local carnivals.

Looking up at the skies Elgin couldn’t help but smile. Today was the perfect day to fly, and he knew that the evening colours were going to be magnificent, and he couldn’t wait to get up there.

 Usually his tourist rides would last an hour, but because he hadn’t been up himself in almost two weeks, he had planned to stay up for at least two hours on this afternoon. The winds were about twelve miles per hour and the temperature was sitting at sixty nine degrees ... yes the conditions were ideal for ballooning today.

He turned and glanced over at his ground crew who were doing some last minute checking of the tether lines before he leaned over into the basket in order to do one final check of the instruments. He had just stood up to wipe the sweat off his brow when he noticed his two guests walking down the hill toward him. “Right on time…” he thought happily.

He reached into his breast pocket and took out a roll of antacids and popped two of them into his mouth; “now if I could only get rid of this stupid indigestion that’s been plaguing me for the last week, everything would be perfect…”  He stood up and rubbed absently at his chest willing away the uncomfortable pressure that seemed to be building there. Drawing in a deep cleansing breath, he strode over towards his passengers and extended his hand forward as the two men drew near. 

            

As Johnny drew closer to the balloon, he could see the back end of a heavy set man leaning over the wicker gondola examining the instruments inside the basket doing what Johnny could only surmise, was a final equipment check before their flight.

By the time he and Roy were within speaking distance, the corpulent body pulled itself upright, revealing a bald head, and a round faced man who looked to be around sixty with a ruddy complexion that was drenched in sweat. He looked their way and smiled as he took something from his pocket and popped it into his mouth.

 Johnny thought it mildly strange that the florid man was sweating so profusely when it really wasn’t that hot out right at that moment… but then again, with all the extra weight the man was carrying on his body; he probably felt the heat more readily than Johnny did.

Johnny had the opposite problem, being on the thin side, Johnny always seemed to feel the cold more than Roy or the other paramedics did.

Still … the feeling of apprehension began to edge its way into the back of Johnny’s mind once more.

 The man immediately stepped forward and with a huge grin stuck out his hand in front of Roy.

“Well, good afternoon, you must be my seven o’clock ride.” Elgin said cordially.

“I’m Elgin Bennett; and that…” he said pointing to a tall gangly man in his mid-thirties with a very pronounced farmers tan; “… is Wally Carter. He’s in charge of my ground crew, and he’ll be driving the chase vehicle that will follow us on the ground and meet us at our drop point.”

Wally gave a polite nod and a brief smile and went back to the task at hand. Elgin then turned to his right and gestured towards the remaining four men.

“That’s the rest of my ground crew; there’s Norm, Arthur, Marvin, and Rick. Once we launch they’ll follow along in the other car with the trailer, behind Wally and the van.”

Roy shook Elgin’s hand in return.

“I’m Roy DeSoto; I believe we spoke earlier today on the phone. I’m the one who won this trip, and this;” he said pointing to Johnny; “is my partner John Gage. We’re both paramedics with Franklin County.”

Johnny extended his hand and exchanged a quick handshake.

“Everyone just calls me Johnny,” he said with a grin.

Elgin smiled back. “Okay Roy, Johnny; we’ll be taking off in about five minutes, so if you want to go ahead and climb on into the basket after me, we’ll get the final preparations taken care of,” he said as he lumbered over and heaved his body into the basket.

For the third time that afternoon Johnny found himself shaking off a feeling of trepidation as he climbed inside the basket …it’s just nerves, he told himself and settled his body in beside Roy and Elgin. He was pleased to see that although it was a small basket, it was still more than roomy enough for all three men.

Elgin noticed Johnny looking around and he laughed.

“It’s a five man basket, but I figure I count as at least two men…so I never take up more than two or three passengers at a time. My doctor keeps harping on at me to lose weight and lower my blood pressure, but unfortunately my wife is just too good of a cook, and I enjoy eating her culinary creations just a bit too much for that to ever really be realistic goal for me.”

Roy chuckled and patted his own belly that had slowly started to grow in the last year or so.

“I understand that feeling completely,” he agreed.

Johnny just rolled his eyes and shook his head. THAT was a problem he’d never had before in his life. Being blessed with a fast metabolism meant he usually struggled to keep weight on.

Elgin grinned and pointed to a large cooler in the corner of the basket.

“That’s full of homemade muffins and sandwiches and there’s also a thermos of coffee in the corner. Just in case I feel a bit peckish before the end of the flight… my wife makes terrific banana muffins. I think there are some blueberry ones in there too.”

Elgin returned to the job at hand, as he made one final check on the instruments.

“Wow, I didn’t realize there were so many gizmo’s inside these things,” Johnny said.

Elgin nodded, “Yes, this balloon is equipped with a pyrometer, a variometer and an altimeter. They measure things like the altitude, and the heat of the gases that keep the balloon afloat. They also let me know the rate of descent and the magnetic field of the earth… each one has a job to do.”

“So how do you steer this baby?” Johnny asked while Elgin checked to see that the compass was working, after which he double checked the fuel pressure gauge.

“Well, basically we’re at the mercy of the winds. But we can control our direction with altitude. We just use the differing wind currents at the various altitudes. For instance, at 300 feet the wind currents may be easterly, whereas at 1500 feet they’ll be different… maybe westerly.”

“So if we rise up to say 500 feet and ride the wind currents east for half an hour, and then take the balloon up higher to where the winds end up being westerly, by riding the westerly currents back, you can plan where you will go to a certain degree.”

 “In theory, if the wind currents are just right, you could actually take off and land in the same spot… but that doesn’t happen too often. That’s why we have the chasers follow us in a car, to track where we land. I have arrangements with several land owners in my flight path area, and I have permission to land in their fields, depending on which way the wind carries us. They’re all okay with it just as long as I make sure I stay clear of their crops and livestock, when I land.”

“You gentlemen are in for a treat today, usually the rides only last an hour, but since it was raining last week and the winds were way too strong, I didn’t go up. I’m itching to get up again myself, so I’ve made plans to be up for two hours. Thankfully yesterday being the longest day of the year, means the sun doesn’t set until well after nine. Sunset in a balloon is an awesome sight to behold…I hope you have lots of film in your camera Johnny, you’ll need it.”

Johnny instinctively put his hand up to the camera hanging on the strap around his neck, and double checked to see that he had indeed put in a roll of 24 colour film in it. He was thankful that he had bought an extra roll and put it in his jacket pocket. He had a feeling Elgin was right and that he would be glad he had it on hand.

By this time, Elgin had everything ready to go, so he turned back to the propane burner and twisted the valve, sending a blast of fire up into the balloon. The flames and noise of the ensuing blast reminded Roy of the roar of the mythical fire breathing dragons he had read about in the tales from his childhood.

The flames quickly heated up the air that was already trapped inside the balloon, and the big nylon bag of hot air pulled and strained against the tethers that were still being held by the ground crew, anchoring it to the ground, as the heated air inside of it pushed it heavenward.

Elgin leaned over the edge of the basket and yelled out loudly; “Hands off,” to the ground crew.

The four men nodded and released the lines and stepped back while they watched, as slowly and without making a sound, the balloon ascended up into the skies carrying the two paramedics and the pilot along with it.

Elgin turned the valve on the burner once again, which sent another roaring blue flame up into the balloon sending it rising up even higher into the skies over Franklin County.

Johnny and Roy were both surprised to notice that they felt no motion, as the world below them fell away and the trees, houses and people began to grow smaller and smaller while they were slowly lifted higher and higher into the skies.

The world up here was completely silent except for the occasional blast from the propane burner that belched out with a loud roar each time Elgin sent another flame up inside the balloon.

“Wow, this is incredible,” exclaimed Johnny as he watched the landscape shrink smaller and smaller below him. “It’s like I’m levitating or something. I was sure the wind would be roaring in my ears and blowing my hair all over… and I was a little afraid I might get motion sickness up here… but this is amazing,” he exclaimed again.

Elgin chuckled.

“I get that reaction a lot from first time fliers. The reason it’s so silent and you don’t hear any wind, is because there isn’t any moving air in the basket. You see the balloon travels with the wind, not through it, so you don’t feel any wind during the flight. It’s almost impossible to describe to others how smooth it actually feels until you’ve been up in hot air balloon for yourself… I guess the best way to describe it, is to say it’s like floating… or as you so aptly put it Johnny; it’s like levitating. That’s why you don’t get motion sickness … there is literally no motion at all.”

As they drifted up past the 500 foot mark, the edge of Lake Champlain and the Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge came into sight. Johnny and Roy both gasped in awe at the vision before their eyes.

The sun was slowly beginning to make its way closer to the western horizon, causing the bright midday sun to deepen into a slightly muted and richer shade of amber. As the vista before the three men widened out, Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes.

He quickly began to snap off several pictures of the lake, as the warm June sun, cast its delicate rays upon the water that they were now quickly approaching. The golden light danced and glittered on the surface of the lake as the sunbeams kissed the gently rippling waves making them sparkle like radiant topaz jewels.

Johnny caught a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron skimming over the lake below them, and he quickly snapped off a few more pictures. The sight of the bird flying with the water beneath it made for a very unique shot. All of his other shots of birds in flight were set against the back drop of the sky. Johnny began to scan the horizon looking for more birds to shoot with his Nikon, when his jaw dropped open.

“Roy,” he said excitedly…”there’s my place below us…just look at it,” he whispered breathlessly, as he began to snap away with his camera.

Roy looked down and sure enough there was Johnny’s farm far below. He could see the horses in the pasture, his house along with Dixie’s little cottage, the outbuildings, and what he thought was Seth’s Jeep in the lane. Johnny had asked Seth to come by and do his evening chores since he wasn’t sure how late he was going to be. Seth was the only other person Johnny ever trusted with his babies.

Roy looked over and smiled. Johnny looked like a kid in a candy store, grinning madly and snapping away picture after picture.  He’d have to make sure that Johnny got doubles of his pictures, as he was sure he’d want copies as well.

As Roy thought about Johnny’s childhood, he was extremely gratified that Johnny seemed to be enjoying the ride even more than he was… and Roy was enjoying it immensely. It was everything he hoped it would be and so much more. In fact he had already decided that he was going to make arrangements to bring Joanne and the kids up on one of these rides before the summer was over.

As the hot air balloon approached the edge of the wildlife reserve, Elgin began to explain their itinerary for the rest of the trip.

“Normally we like to have the chasers keep a visual on the balloon at all times … which doesn’t always happen. That’s why we have these two way radios,” Elgin said pointing to the HT that was hanging by its strap from his wrist.

“But my friend who is also an ex flier with the military was up this morning in his own balloon, and he took this same path we’re going to be taking. Right now we’re flying at just over 500 feet, and the wind currents here are about 15 MPH from the south-west. But up at the higher altitudes they were coming down from the north-west this morning. I checked with the weather service at the Burlington airport at three o’clock this afternoon, and they confirmed that it’s a stable system and hasn’t deviated, nor is it expected to for the next twenty four hours.”

“That means we can head out over the nature reserve for the first hour, then we’ll push on up to about 1500 to 2000 feet and ride the north-westerly’s back down to hopefully within a mile or two of where we lifted off. We can’t head too far north because the Canadian border is in that direction, and we also have to make sure we stay clear of the air space for the Burlington airport….but we won’t be going any further than 20 miles in either direction anyway, so we’re good to go as far as those issues are concerned.”

“As soon as we get back close to where I want to land, I’ll confirm with Wally that we’re on the same page and I’ll take her back down. It won’t be in the exact same spot because we have to factor in the coriolis effect … but with the short length of our flight, the effect from that will be infinitesimal anyway.”

“What’s the coriolis effect?” Johnny asked.

“It’s just something that occurs because of the earth’s rotation… it basically causes any free moving object to veer off to the right in the Northern Hemisphere… or to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. With the amount of time we’re up in the air, we will barely notice it… but it is still there notwithstanding.”

“So how do you land this bird,” Johnny asked absently as he kept his gaze focused on the horizon. He continued to take random pictures of the birds and the other scenery below them with his camera every so often.

“Easy as pie,” Elgin answered.

“When we want to descend lower, we simply let the balloon cool down. Once I get closer to the desired area, I simply pull down on the maneuvering vent rope, and that opens up a small hole in the side of the balloon allowing hot air to escape, which will cause the balloon to lower at a faster rate. Once we get down to 100 feet off the ground; I’ll get you two to drop the tow lines over the side of the basket to the ground crew who will be waiting below.”

“At that point I’ll shut off the burner, and as the basket hits the ground, I’ll pull down on the rip cord, which opens a large hole on the top of the balloon, which allows the rest of the hot air to quickly escape, so the balloon won’t catch the wind and become airborne once more, or bounce and try and lift off again. Once the rip cord is pulled the balloon will rapidly collapse, which is where Wally and Rick come in. They are the ones who have hold of the side lines. Wally will grab the crown line and pull hard on it which sends the balloon over to the side, so the wind can’t catch it and pull it away. Once the lines are all secure, you can then safely disembark.”

Johnny tore his eyes away from the horizon long enough to briefly nod and grin at Elgin; “Good deal” he said.

Elgin turned to monitor his instruments once more, as he rubbed his chest. He reached into shirt pocket and grabbed a couple more of his antacid tablets. His indigestion was not letting up today; in fact he was starting to feel a bit dizzy and nauseas, along with the cold sweats that he was experiencing. He hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse. He really liked Johnny and Roy, and all of their enthusiasm and he hated the thought of having to cut the trip short because he wasn’t feeling well.

He reached into the bottom of the basket where his canteen was located and took a long swallow of cool water, to help wash down the tablets.

Had they not been so engrossed in the scenery, Johnny and Roy would have soon picked up the telltale signs that their pilot wasn’t well; but as it was they were far too awestruck with their surroundings to pay any real attention to Elgin, other than the occasional spurts of conversation or questions they directed his way… and even then, they never actually turned to face him when they talked to him.

Each scene that opened up before Johnny caused him more excitement than the last. Even Roy was overawed by the splendor he was witnessing from his vantage point. Each view seemed more amazing than the one before it.

The sun was now moving closer to the western horizon illuminating the sky in some of the most brilliant rich warm copper tones the two paramedics had ever seen. The clouds in the middle of the sky had now taken on varying shades of indigo, blue and violet, while the suns ruddy glow manifested itself in the clouds linings as some of the most stunning shades of scarlet and ruby the men had ever witnessed. Closer to the western horizon the sun’s rays flashed across the early evening sky in lurid streaks that resembled fiery fingers of flame.

With each passing moment the clouds and evening colours morphed and changed into new and wondrous patterns, and before too long, Johnny found himself kneeling on the floor of the basket, rewinding one roll of film and exchanging it for another.

As soon as his camera was reloaded and ready to go, Johnny stood back up and glanced down towards the earth beneath him and saw what he was sure was a black bear with her cubs meandering along the edge of the wetlands below.

“Damn, I wish I was a little closer so I could get a better shot, Johnny said to Roy as he fiddled with his zoom lens.”

“I can take you lower if you want,” Elgin interjected. “We’ll be heading up to the higher altitudes and making the turn towards home very shortly…so if you want to get closer, now is your last chance.”

“Really?” Johnny asked excitedly without taking his eyes from the camera’s viewfinder. “That would be great…just for a minute or so…”

Roy had brought along a pair of binoculars and he was busily scanning the ground below looking for the bears himself.

Elgin allowed the balloon to cool down in order to lower it to about 200 feet. Johnny had to move to the opposite side of the balloon’s basket now and use his high powered zoom lens to get a clear view of the bears, but he did manage to get off two or three great shots of the mother and her cubs.

Johnny and Roy were completely engrossed in their view, and were standing with their backs to Elgin, which is why they never caught sight of the scene that was unfolding behind them until it was too late.

Elgin had allowed the balloon to hit the 200 foot mark. He let it coast along the uplands above the nature reserve for about ten minutes before he looked down at his watch and saw that it was now approaching five after eight. He knew that it was dark by nine thirty and he wanted to make sure he was on the ground by then. He was just about to inform his passengers that the time for them to rise to two thousand feet had arrived so they could ride the north-west current homeward, when a sudden sharp piercing pain travelled up through his neck, his jaw and continued on into his shoulder, and down his left arm, and he began to feel like he was suffocating.

 He opened his mouth to speak, but any words were cut off by the vice like grip of pressure he felt in his chest. A wave of dizziness swept over him as his world began to fade to black. His hand was clenched in pain, grasping the edge of the basket… and then suddenly it went limp causing the HT on his wrist to slip off and go plummeting onto the ground below.

As his body began to slump and collapse, Elgin Bennett’s last living sight was that of a majestic eagle soaring across the western horizon. His eyes slowly rolled up into the back of his head as he gave one final gasp of breath and his body fell onto the floor of the basket.

Johnny having got his pictures of the bears, was about to turn around when Roy pointed off towards the western skies.

“Would you look at that Johnny… isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” Roy said as he gestured toward the eagle soaring freely on the winds in the western skies.

Johnny lifted his camera and quickly began depressing the shutter. He had just finished taking his third shot when he was, without warning; knocked to his knees by the weight of Elgin Bennett’s body hitting him from behind.

Roy turned with a start and instinctively made a grab for Johnny as he went down. Once he saw that Johnny was fine, both men turned to see what had knocked him over.

The moment they lay eyes on the unconscious man on the floor of the basket, the paramedics jumped into action as they quickly did an initial patient survey. Both men drew the same conclusion… it looked as if Elgin had had a massive MI.

Roy grabbed the man’s wrist and felt for a pulse as Johnny checked for respirations. Their eyes met briefly in understanding, neither one needing to voice what they had discovered; neither man had been able to detect any signs of life. At that point the paramedic in them took over and they began to do CPR on the lifeless man. Both of them were well aware that they had no equipment, no medications and no real hope of sustaining the man’s life, even if they did manage to get him breathing again; but their instincts and training simply wouldn’t allow them to NOT try to save the man’s life.

So despite the futility of the exercise, they both went at it hammer and tongs trying to save Elgin Bennett’s life.

In the end after trying to revive Elgin for over ten minutes the two men were simply too exhausted to continue any longer and they had to finally concede defeat. Both men were panting and sweating as Johnny finally looked down at his watch and quietly said, “time of death 8:23 pm.”

 In actual fact, Elgin Bennett had been dead when he hit the floor of the wicker basket.

Reluctantly they sat back and wiped the sweat off of their brows. Suddenly the colour drained out of Roy’s face and Johnny’s eyes widened in fear as they simultaneously remembered where they were, and the peril they could be in themselves.

The two men sprang to their feet and peered over the side of the basket. All during their determined struggle to save Elgin, the balloon had been slowly descending closer and closer to the earth. It was Johnny and Roy’s unfortunate luck that the balloon had now reached the part of the 6729 acre nature reserve that was hardwood forest, and their balloon was quickly heading down towards a stand of American elm trees. Currently they were only about twenty feet above the treetops.

The two men realized that a crash was imminent, and they quickly sat back down onto the floor of the basket and braced themselves as best they could. It was while Johnny was sitting there uttering a silent prayer, that his eyes glanced up and fell upon the propane burner. It only took him seconds to ascertain that the flame on the burner was still on.

He looked over at Roy in panic. “Roy, that propane burner is still on…if we crash it could set the balloon on fire...or the forest. I’m gonna try and shut it off before we crash.”

Without waiting for a reply Johnny stood up and began immediately to turn the valve and shut off the flame. He had just nicely accomplished his task when the bottom edge of the basket came in contact with the top of one of the large elm trees.

Because he had been in a standing position; the resulting sudden and extremely violent lurch sent Johnny tumbling over the side of the basket and into the canopy of the trees. The fact that the leaves were out in full helped to slow Johnny’s descent through the branches, but not before several of the limbs tore into his flesh on the way down.

During his decent, Johnny had the presence of mind to grab a hold of one of the larger branches with his hands. Unfortunately once he had a good hold on the limb of the tree, the full weight of his body came to a sudden and violent stop. The resulting force from the jerk on Johnny’s arms was tremendous, and he felt his right arm snap under the strain.

Johnny heard himself screaming out in agony while he dangled precariously over fifteen feet above the forest floor solely by his left arm, his right arm hanging uselessly at his side. Bile rose and burned its way into the back of his throat as the pain in his arm caused a surge of nausea in his stomach.

He hung precariously suspended, holding on for dear life with his left hand for as long as he could. The entire time he was gritting his teeth against the pain in his body, and willing the nausea to subside; but it wasn’t long before the entire weight of his body, compounded by the trauma it had suffered, was just too much for his body to bear.

He gradually lost his tenuous grip on the branch, and his fingers slowly began to slide off the limb. He felt helpless as he plummeted the final fifteen feet to the earth below.

His body hit the ground with a resounding thud, and he lay insensate and bleeding on the forest floor.                

                                                      ~  ~  ~

For Roy the trip down had been much slower.

After the first contact with the trees, when to his horror he had seen Johnny thrown out of the basket; the hot air balloon took a final bounce back up ten feet into the sky.

 When it came down again; the hot air balloon made contact with a much smaller birch tree. This time the fabric part of balloon got caught up in some branches from a significantly taller neighbouring elm tree, which tore a large gaping hole in the fabric of the balloon, thus releasing the last of the hot air.

Roy managed to stay with the basket until it was about eight feet off the ground, when the corner of the basket snagged the crook of the tree. Almost as if in slow motion, the basket tipped over sideways sending most of its contents, which included Roy, onto the soft damp earth below.

 Roy might have escaped completely unscathed, but for the fact he landed awkwardly on his legs, and the moment he hit the ground his left knee wrenched sideways and his left ankle bone gave a sickening crunching sound, as Roy felt the bolt of pain shoot up his left leg.

For the first minute or two Roy just lay on the ground panting in agony. As he gradually got himself back under control, he began to assess the situation. He glanced down at his left ankle and could immediately tell that it was broken.

He turned his focus onto the knee as he examined it closely. Although he didn’t think it was broken, he knew he had at the very least done some ligament damage…the question was how serious was it? There were several grades of ligament damage, and he couldn’t tell just by looking at it.

The forest floor around him was remarkably open with very little undergrowth…just the odd fallen tree and small branches and tree roots dotted the ground. Elgin Bennett’s body lay about six feet away still caught up in the litter on the ground that had fallen out of the basket.

Thankfully the propane tanks had landed intact and unharmed.

As luck would have it, there were a few decent sized broken off branches that were within Roy’s immediate reach that were the right size and dimensions for him to construct a crude, but effective splint for his left leg and ankle, using his belt and strips of material he had torn off of his shirt. Thankfully, apart from his left leg, he seemed to have escaped any other injuries.

Once he had his leg stabilized, he turned to the next item on his check list…Johnny.

He hadn’t seen where he had landed as he had been sitting on the floor of the balloons’ basket at the time, but his gut told him that it would be a miracle for anyone to have survived a fall from that height.

Already the pain he felt in his chest at the thought of his brother’s death was unbearable and the entire time he was working on his leg, he could feel the hot tears of grief streaming down his cheeks.

Roy didn’t have any time to absorb the full implications of Johnny being dead; or for it to really settle into his soul, because just at that very moment his attention was diverted by the sound of something large that was coming crashing through the bush just ahead of him.

He glanced up expecting to see an animal…. hopefully not the mother bear and her cubs. But to his utter shock and amazement, he looked up to see an extremely dazed and obviously injured Johnny come stumbling along the forest floor.

His right arm was obviously broken and by the glazed look in his eyes, and the large gash that was still bleeding at his hairline, the man was concussed. He also appeared to be walking slightly bent over, which was clearly indicative of some kind of rib injury.

 Although he was only now about ten feet away, Johnny didn’t seem to have seen Roy sitting on the ground in front of him…Roy’s face broke out in a huge grin as he called out his brother’s name in pure, unadulterated joy.

“Johnny!” Roy called out in relief.

 “I was so sure you were dead after that fall…Thank God you’re alive.”

The very fact that Roy had been convinced that Johnny had died, made his voice come out sounding more like a sob than a shout of joy.

Johnny jumped as if he’d been startled by the sound of Roy’s voice, but the reaction was fleeting as his face broke out into a relieved grin, and he turned his head towards the direction of Roy’s voice.

“Yeah, well you can give the credit for that to a tree with lots of leaves on it that cushioned my fall… but trust me on this Roy, the bugger sure made me pay for breaking off some of its branches on the way down.” Johnny ground out painfully.

By this time Johnny had slowly and painfully made his was over to where Roy was sitting on the ground. He awkwardly stuck out his uninjured arm and eased himself down slowly and painfully onto the ground beside his friend.

“How about you Roy… were you injured at all?” Johnny asked; his voice full on concern.

Roy looked over at Johnny in confusion; he thought the splint on his leg would have been obvious to his partner who seemed to be just sitting there staring off at some unknown point over Roy’s right shoulder. Roy began to become concerned about Johnny’s head injury.

“Uhhh- well just the leg. My left ankle is broken and I am positive I’ve done some ligament damage to my knee.”

Johnny frowned at the news. His glazed eyes scanned the area, but didn’t appear to focus on any one object, but instead appeared oddly blank…in fact he hadn’t even once looked Roy in the face.

“What happened to Elgin’s body and the balloon?” Johnny asked.

Considering the fact that there was debris from the basket of the balloon scattered all around them and Elgin’s body was only a few feet away, Roy grew increasingly more worried about Johnny’s condition.

“Look for yourself Johnny…its right there.” Roy answered mildly.

“Well, I’m afraid that’s going to be a bit difficult for me to do right now.” Johnny answered.

“What are you talking about Johnny, why can’t you just look over there for yourself? Roy was really beginning to panic at this point as to the seriousness of Johnny’s head injury.

“Because…I’m blind Roy,” Johnny said quietly.

“You’re blind?” Roy said incredulously.

“Evidently…” Johnny replied; his voice was very matter of fact and calm.

Roy immediately dragged his body over until he was sitting within an inch of Johnny. 

Johnny shook his head in disapproval.

“Roy, if you have a broken ankle and messed up knee, you shouldn’t be moving around.” He admonished.

“Shut up, and let me take a look at you, Junior.” Roy ordered.

Johnny heaved a sigh, but he capitulated to Roy’s request, knowing he was in no position to argue with him at the moment. He gave a small yelp and jumped slightly when Roy’s hands made contact with his injured arm.

“Your right arm looks like it’s broken at the elbow and the wrist.”

“Yeah… it feels like it too.” Johnny acknowledged.

“I reached out on the way down and grabbed a branch to break my fall… unfortunately my fall wasn’t the only thing it broke.”

Roy reached over and began to lift up Johnny’s shirt. He barely got the shirt tails untucked before Johnny began to protest.

“What are you doing Roy?” Johnny asked, as he tried to bat away Roy’s hands with his uninjured left hand.

Roy used his best no nonsense parental tone with his younger partner, as he knocked away Johnny’s hand.

“None of that Junior; I saw you walking hunched over like your ribs were bothering you. Now sit still and let me look at them.”

“Fine,” Johnny sighed. “It’s my posterior ribs on both sides, but I don’t think they’re broken...maybe cracked.”

“It looks that way.” Roy said grimly as he carefully palpated Johnny’s rib cage.  “How’s your head feel?”

“Well, besides the obvious vision issue, it feels like there is a tiny blacksmith inside my skull and he’s using my frontal lobe for his anvil. I did vomit twice after I came to, and I’m still nauseated now… but I don’t think I’m going to hurl again.”

“Yes, well you’ve got a nasty looking gash right at the hairline. Can you see anything at all John?”

“Shit… you called me John. Do I look that bad?”

“Johnny, you’re blind. How much worse does it have to be?”

“Dead,” Johnny answered.

When he got no answer from Roy, Johnny reached out with his good hand until he found Roy’s shoulder.

“Okay… sorry for the gallows humour, but come on Roy… we’re alive right? And we’re going to be found. Maybe not tonight, but tomorrow for sure… where is the balloon now?”

“Well,” Roy answered slowly. “Most of it got caught up in the top of the trees. There is a small portion of it that tore off and is hanging about four feet up in the birch tree that upended the basket.”

“Good… very good.” Johnny sounded pleased.

“That means it’s visible from the air. That also means search planes should be able to spot it easily. Where’s the basket?”

“It’s not far away… it tipped over on its side, most of the stuff inside of it is scattered around.”

“Okay, do you think you can be my eyes for me?”

“What?” asked Roy.

“Look Roy, you can’t walk, but I can. I can’t see but you can. You have two good arms and I only have one, so we need to do this together.”

“What do you mean by; we need do this together Junior?”

Johnny sighed and rolled his currently sightless eyes… “I mean we as in the first person plural pronoun…as opposed to I in the singular… We need to set up a bit of a camp of sorts and salvage anything we can use… plus we need to deal with Elgin’s body. Now, I’m guessing it’s dark by now, am I right?”

“Almost; but I don’t think you should be moving around Johnny, and I need to try and splint your arm for you.”

“Roy… do you have anything you can use within your reach?”

“Yeah, I can use your jacket and your belt to fashion a sling… I’m sure there’s something in the wreckage I can use for a splint.”

“Okay… I agree. You help me get my arm into a sling, and then you can direct me where to go, and I’ll use your directions to get a hold of the food Elgin’s wife packed. Then I think we need to do something about Elgin’s body Roy. Animals can smell death, and his body could bring out the scavengers. Since he’s not long dead, it shouldn’t be too hard to disguise the scent for now… it won’t be strong yet. Maybe if we wrap it up in some of the balloon fragments you were talking about.”

Roy knew he wasn’t going to win the argument and that his protests would fall on deaf ears, so he just sighed and listened as Johnny kept on talking.

“Since the basket is already on its side, we can just crawl into it, and it should keep the heavy dew from settling in on us and sapping away our body heat. It’s a good job the weather’s warmer now… it shouldn’t be too cold. Maybe between the two of us we could get a fire going.”

“Johnny…YOU’RE BLIND.” Roy yelled in frustration.

“Yes,” Johnny answered calmly.  “I’m guessing that the crack on my noggin has caused some swelling in the anterior cerebrum, which in turn is putting some pressure on my optic nerve. I’m sure once the swelling goes down my sight will return.” Johnny said with much more conviction than he actually felt.

“I’m sure your right Junior,” Roy agreed, praying that that was indeed the case.

“Now will you help me fix up a sling for my arm please? It hurts like hell.” Johnny asked.

“I still think this a bad idea Johnny, but I guess I can’t very well stop you now can I?”

“Glad you see it my way Pally… now let’s hurry because my head is pounding and the sooner we get this done the sooner I can rest.”

Despite all his reservations, Roy had to admit Johnny’s plan had gone off without a hitch. Roy managed to ease his body over about twenty feet to where the overturned basket lay and he was able to hoist himself inside, he even managed to locate a first aid kit.

Johnny for his part wasn’t able to pull down the balloon fragment to cover Elgin’s body due to the pain from his ribs; and in the end he abandoned the effort. They just had to hope that it drew no unwelcome visitors during the night.

Johnny easily followed Roys’ directions to where the cooler of food had landed, and he was able to drag it over to the basket using his good arm and hand.

 What Johnny didn’t tell Roy was that in pulling on the cooler, he was reasonably sure one or two of his cracked ribs, had now been downgraded to broken. He bit back the yelp of pain that nearly escaped his lips when he felt them shift. He had no intention of telling Roy about it. He wouldn’t lie to Roy if Roy happened to ask him if he had hurt his ribs…but that didn’t mean he had to offer up the information either.

Within the space of an hour, the two of them had managed to arrange themselves inside the overturned basket and Roy had done what first aid he could on Johnny. He’d managed to construct a makeshift splint for Johnny’s injured limb; the pain it caused the younger man when he did his best to align the bones brought on a fresh bout of vomiting. Thankfully Johnny managed to make it outside of the basket before he threw up…not that he had much left on his stomach to throw up anyway.

Roy also cleaned and bandaged the gash on Johnny’s forehead. There were six aspirin in a small tin inside the first aid kit. The two men argued back and forth over who needed the pain relief more. In the end they agreed to each take two now and save one each for later on.

What Johnny couldn’t see, was Roy slip his two back into the tin. He figured with Johnny having more injuries than him, he would need them more, so he opted to just let Johnny think he had taken two… he could always claim to find a second tin of aspirin later on.

Johnny was far too pale and Roy could see how hard he was trying to cover up his pain.

Roy had managed to locate Elgin’s unopened thermos of coffee that had somehow stayed inside the basket. The coffee was sweet with lots of cream, which made Johnny cringe, but it provided something for Johnny to wash down the pills with. At least it was still warm. Roy screwed the lid back on to the thermos tightly, saving the rest for later.

He then pulled the cooler inside the basket and opened it up.  He looked inside and let out a small whistle.

“What is it Roy?” Johnny asked curiously.

Roy snorted; “Elgin’s wife packed him enough food for a week Junior. I can see at least six sandwiches in here. It looks like there are three roast beef and three ham and cheese. There are also six blueberry and six banana muffins, as well as three apples.”

“That’s one hell of a snack...sheesh Roy; Scott took less food than that with him when he left for Antarctica. Well at least we won’t starve while we wait.” Johnny said with grin.

Roy chuckled, but the laugh quickly died in his throat as he shifted his leg painfully to the side.

Johnny heard Roy’s painful intake of breath and his face showed the marks of concern.

“Hey Roy… did Elgin’s wife put any ice packs in that cooler?”

Roy nodded, before he remembered Johnny couldn’t see him, so he spoke out loud.

“Yeah, there are a couple of ice packs in here Junior. The sandwiches will be fine to eat.”

Johnny shook his head, and then grimaced as the pain and nausea flared up.

“No, Roy,” he said after the nausea settled back down. “I was thinking you could take the ice packs and put them on your knee and ankle… Maybe it will help with the swelling and the pain, since you probably didn’t take those aspirin.”

Damn, thought Roy. He’d never been able to put one over on Johnny… not even when he was blind and concussed.

“What about you Junior, I’m sure you need them more than I do.” Roy insisted.

“Roy, I’m not going to use my only good hand to hold ice on my head or arm…you can just drape them over your knee and ankle…besides, I’m doing okay over here.”

To prove his point he carefully drew his knees up to his chin and gingerly leaned forward as much as his injured ribs would allow and rested his head on his knees with his trussed up arm tucked protectively in between.

Roy sighed in defeat. He carefully picked up one of the ice packs and set it on his swollen knee, and then he reached inside the cooler and grabbed a couple sandwiches.

“What’ll it be Junior; ham and cheese or roast beef?”

“No thanks Roy. I’m not hungry. You go ahead though.” Johnny replied.

Roy reached over and touched Johnny’s good arm.

“Look, that aspirin might sit on your stomach better if you ate a bit of food with it … how about you try one of these muffins then, they look really good?” he coaxed.

Johnny shook his head again. “Naw Roy. My stomach’s still a bit iffy right now. I’m doing well to hold on to the aspirin I took. Besides I live by the credo … what doesn’t go down, can’t come back up.”

Roy wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t push the issue either. He picked up a ham and cheese sandwich and slowly ate it. In all honesty he wasn’t all that hungry himself, but he wasn’t nauseas, and he knew the nourishment would do him some good.

Roy sat quietly in the basket beside Johnny while he ate his food. He glanced at the man whom he considered to be his younger brother that sat injured beside him and cringed at how pinched and in pain his features were.

He also took note of the fact that because of the pain in his ribs, Johnny didn’t seem to be breathing deeply enough. If they weren’t found in good time tomorrow, there was always the risk of pneumonia… especially where Johnny was concerned. With no spleen and his past history, Roy knew Johnny was extremely vulnerable to the malady.

It didn’t help matters any that privately Roy was feeling responsible for Johnny’s predicament. He blamed himself for Johnny being here. After all it had been him who had tricked Johnny into coming along for the ride in the first place.

Rationally Roy knew that none of this was his fault, but that rationalization wasn’t enough to assuage his guilt. To Roy’s way of thinking there was no getting around the fact that he was the one who had signed Johnny up for this ill-fated trip in the first place.

Even blind, Johnny was in tune with his partner and the way his mind worked. It didn’t take long before he began to clue in to the fact that Roy was being uncommonly silent all of a sudden.

That could only mean one thing… he was brooding, and that also usually meant that he was carrying around some undeserved guilt. And Johnny being Johnny; he had no problem with speaking his mind and calling a spade a spade.

“Stop it Roy… Don’t start up with any of that guilt bullshit. None of this is your fault and we both know it. You didn’t have anything to do with this accident.”

Roy sighed. He should have known Johnny would put two and two together over his silence.

“But I’m the one who signed you up for this trip without even asking you first… you would never have gone on this hot air balloon ride if it wasn’t for me,” Roy said miserably.

Maybe it was because he was feeling ill and in pain… maybe the silent worry he was harbouring that his blindness was permanent was wearing on his nerves more than he cared to admit…but whatever the reason, Johnny was even less tactful than he usually was; and tact had never been his strong suit in the first place. But either way, he wanted to shut down Roy before his guilt got out of hand.

“Roy, just don’t even get started … I came of my own free will okay? I mean honestly, you couldn’t have made me do this if I really hadn’t wanted to. I had a good time… well at least up until Elgin died, and that can hardly be your fault.”

“We saw some amazing sights today, and I got some incredible pictures. Now will you just lay off the guilt?  Honestly Roy every bad thing that happens to me isn’t your responsibility… shit happens…end of story.”

“Fine…point taken. No more guilt. I am allowed to worry though right? Or do you want to do all of my thinking for me tonight?” Roy asked a bit too sarcastically. He hadn’t meant it to be a jibe, and he immediately regretted his tone as well as the words, but it was too late.

He saw Johnny stiffen noticeably… and then clam up. He could literally see Johnny put up the barriers and shut the door on any further conversation. That was something Johnny hadn’t done to Roy in ages… not since their first couple of years together as partners.

“Damn it…” Roy cursed himself inwardly.

Reasoning with an upset, closed off Johnny was like trying to teach a pig to skate on ice at the best of times… but reasoning with a severely concussed and closed down Johnny was going to take some fancy foot work.

He thought he’d test the waters with some light conversation.

“Hey, I found your camera Junior… it wasn’t even damaged in the fall… I hope you ‘ll let me get some copies of the pictures when you develop them.” Roy said in an effort to change the mood.

Johnny just shrugged and gave Roy a terse nod of his head.

Great….the silent treatment…this is going to make neuro checks a lot of fun.”

Roy was tired and in pain himself, so he figured to hell with it, he’d just might as well cut to the chase and get it over with.

“Aren’t you going to say anything to me?” Roy finally asked.

“I’ve got nothing else to say… besides I’m tired. I think I’m going to get some sleep now. You can just sit there and think about anything you want to.” Johnny answered stiffly.

Without waiting for any reply, Johnny carefully eased his body back until he was close to the rear corner of the gondola. He then slowly and oh so gently, positioned his body so that his uninjured shoulder and arm were resting against its wicker surface.

He took extra care to make sure he had wedged himself in so that his good shoulder and arm were doing all of the weight bearing for his upper body, thus keeping all pressure off of his broken ribs and broken right arm.

Once he had arranged himself as comfortably as he could under the circumstances, he heaved a tired sigh and laid his head back and let his eyes slowly close.

He knew that he was behaving like an unreasonable and sulking child in regards to Roy, but damn it all, sometimes Roy was just as guilty of displaying annoying and irascible behaviour as he was. He had only been trying to absolve Roy of his undeserved guilt over their present predicament.

Roy’s cutting remarks had been nothing short of tossing his magnanimous gesture back in his face; which in Johnny’s opinion was completely unwarranted and uncalled for; and as far as Johnny was concerned, at this particular moment in time, he simply was in too much pain and felt too ill to give a damn about his anger…Roy had been ungrateful and he was mad about it.

All he wanted to do right now was to try and get some sleep, and hopefully gain some respite from his misery. Even if it was only a temporary escape into the blessed arms of sleep. Hopefully by the time he woke up, it would be morning and the search teams would have found them.

Even more than that, he hoped by the morning, his sight would be back to normal. As it stood right now it was taking every ounce of his resolve not to give into the panic that assailed him in the back of his mind… because he just couldn’t bear the thought of being blind for the rest of his life.

Giving himself a mental shake, he pushed his negative thoughts and fears back into the darkest recesses of his mind and told himself to snap out of it. He’d work things out with Roy once they both had a chance to cool down… once they’d both had a healthy dose of pain relief and were lying in a couple of nice comfortable beds.

He knew they wouldn’t want to give him any MS with this head injury, but Johnny’s unreasonable concussed brain didn’t care. Come hell or high water he’d get some pain meds on board, supposing he had to demand it. All he cared about at the moment was getting some relief from this constant throbbing in his skull; and the flaring pain his broken arm and ribs were causing him…head injury be damned.

And with those jumbled thoughts running through his slightly addled mind, Johnny finally allowed the blessed relief of sleep to pull him under to a place where there was no pain.

                                                                              ~  ~  ~

  Roy had been feeling slightly guilty before his and Johnny’s little tiff, but now that Johnny was suitably pissed off at him, that guilt had grown and swelled to monumental proportions.

Roy had been in pain and feeling miserable and he had let that fact allow him to become short tempered with Johnny.

Roy knew that if his pain over one injured limb was this bad … what must Johnny’s level of pain be? He was dealing with not only an injured limb, but cracked ribs and serious head injury on top of it. Roy knew from his own past experiences how miserable and unpleasant the symptoms of a serious concussion could be.

He knew Johnny had to be dealing with the mother of all headaches on top of his nausea and other pains. Not forgetting the fact that he had to be scared shitless that the blindness he was experiencing was permanent… hell it scared Roy and it wasn’t even happening to him. And Roy also knew that those two small aspirin he’d taken certainly were not going to go very far toward alleviating any of those discomforts.

Of course Johnny’s nerves had to be raw and on edge right now, and he certainly had every reason for being tetchy. That kind of pain, fear and uncertainty would understandably be taxing on his nerves.

Still Roy had been caught off guard by Johnny’s reaction to his own short tempered words from earlier; even if they had been borne of his own pain and fatigue. That combined with the fact that he knew Johnny was right, had not helped the situation.

Roy’s biggest character flaw was the fact that had a tendency to be a bit arrogant and condescending if he wasn’t careful...especially when he was on the defensive.

Johnny had blown up at him about it once very early on in their partnership. He had been lauding the status of senior paramedic over Johnny’s head during one of their petty disagreements back in their early days… and on that particular day; Johnny had had enough of it and he had let him have it with both barrels.

The truth over his being given the senior paramedic status, was simply because Roy had been in the first ever paramedic training class and not because he had any more skill or knowledge or experience than Johnny. Johnny had been in the second class, and the first one being taught out of Rampart after having been a rescue man for over a year.

And while Roy had finished top of his class at Harbour General; it had been Johnny who had claimed top position during their training at Rampart .His senior status was also an acknowledgment of the fact that Roy had been in on the recruiting and training for the newly formed paramedic program since day one… that and the fact he was six years older than Johnny.

Johnny had, however, been the first paramedic to officially treat a victim in the field after the bill had been passed. And there was certainly no longer and junior or senior status where they were now.

 In fact it had been Johnny’s heroic deeds from two years earlier regarding his escape from a killer with two small children; that had made nationwide news. That had been what had caught the interest of the folks in Vermont in the first place.

But they had come such a long way since those first days as partners and friends back in Los Angeles. So Johnny’s shutting him out tonight had left Roy feeling a bit off balance.

Back during that first year or two they were together, Johnny had been so closed off and untrusting of everyone, including Roy. He had been carrying around some serious unresolved issues stemming from his childhood… especially about trust and abandonment. He was terrified of letting anyone close enough inside his world, in case he got hurt again.

But bit by bit, Roy had cracked that hard veneer and he had chipped away at the fortress walls that surrounded Johnny’s soul… and in the end, the two men had managed to form their own unique and special brotherly bond.

During those first couple of years, Johnny had needed a lot of reassurance about his place in Roy’s family, and it wasn’t unusual for Johnny to pull away and close himself off at times; but Roy had thought they had settled those issues long ago… but then again, head injuries could do that to a victim, and Roy suddenly cursed himself for not remembering that fact before he had snapped so harshly at Johnny.

Roy knew that his and Johnny’s relationship wasn’t in any real danger of falling apart. In fact in many ways, he and Johnny were like an old married couple that had occasional spats and took each other for granted sometimes… but who always quickly made up again.

This tiff was in no way, shape or form a harbinger of any forfeiture of the closeness they shared with each other. The bond they shared was far bigger than that. Both men knew that there was absolutely no doubt about the solid footing upon which their friendship was based.

Their relationship was both complex and symbiotic. It stemmed from the kind of interdependency and trust that one needed to literally place their lives into each other’s hands, day after day. But it also ran deeper than that. It ran through their very souls, solidified by years of shared experiences and shared sorrows… In fact, if Roy was being totally honest…on some levels Johnny understood him better than Joanne did.

Their intimacy was not the kind shared by a husband and wife, or soul mates. It was more like Johnny was simply and extension of himself. Together in their jobs they had witnessed horrors that were unimaginable. They saw on a daily basis, human beings at their very best and their very worst.

They often witnessed firsthand, instances of recklessness and some victims’ callous disregard for not only their own lives, but for the lives of others… including Johnny and Roy’s. They saw and experienced firsthand the results of discrimination, hubris, greed and cruelty; they also saw the results of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

But on the other side of the coin, they also saw amazing acts of heroism, selflessness, loyalty, love, devotion, along with the sorrow and grief.

And always mixed into the frenetic atmosphere of a rescue, was the pain and loss when it came to death. It was all of life’s harsh realities combined with the very best and the very worst of all mankind.

They faced things that they only discussed with each other… a mutual purging of the demons that haunted their dreams. There were those moments when they needed to release both tears, and anger. Sometimes it was simply venting frustration over man’s stupidity or inhumanity to his fellow man.

It had heightened their empathy and appreciation for life’s simple everyday gifts… a smile, a hug, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or the sunrise of each new day…but especially for their family.

It had created a bond and a comradeship between them, of the shared experiences that fighting the common foe called death brought about…and that bond that had been forged between them was stronger than any steel known to man… and it was certainly stronger than a few stupid words said in the midst of fear and pain.

Roy glanced over to where Johnny sat sleeping, propped up awkwardly in the corner. Even in his sleep he looked uncomfortable… and so damn young.

Even after eight years, Roy could never get over how young he looked for his 28 years. The man had always been such a paradox. He was this weird juxtaposition of the innocent, naïve youthful spirit that filled him with an unbridled energy; and the ancient wise soul who had experienced far too much of life’s harshness all rolled into one body.

And Johnny had certainly experienced, abandonment, loneliness tragic loss and hardship in his first twenty years on this earth… life had definitely not been kind to him.

 But instead of using it as an excuse to become hard, cold and embittered; Johnny had used his experiences to foster a deep desire and an overwhelming need to help those, who like him, needed someone who cared enough to help them when they were lost or hurting.

For all his bluster and bravado, Johnny could be extremely tender hearted and full of empathy … especially to those downtrodden souls who had been cast aside and abandoned by life. At his heart of hearts, John Gage was a nurturer.

 Roy had no doubt that that was the reason why he had been drawn to Koda several years ago… and why he had been so quick to take in both Morning Star and Suka now.

It was because of his empathy for the unwanted and abused creatures that they had been. He could relate to them on a personal level and he had a desire to ease their sense of abandonment and pain… it gave him the opportunity to give them a second chance at life.

It was that same sense of warmth and kindness that drew people to him… it was like they could see that long ago forgotten, wounded and abused child that he had been back on the reservation in Montana; and Roy counted the fact that Johnny was now a part of his family to be one of the chief blessings in his life. But then again, all of those who were closest to Johnny felt that way.

Of course it didn’t hurt his cause, that he possessed that damn crooked grin and two very deep dark soulful eyes that could look so lost and pleading. In fact when Johnny turned those eyes and that smile on, he could get just about anyone to cave into his requests… or forgive him some small indiscretion.

Roy was still absorbed in his private ruminations, when Johnny stirred and shifted his body in his sleep. Unfortunately when he shifted, his body had rolled so that his back and his now broken ribs were up against the wall of the basket and bearing the full weight of his upper body. The resulting flash of pain that went searing through his body caused him to scream out in agony, into the night air.

His eyes snapped open as he painfully gasped for air. But not being fully awake he had forgotten about the days’ events and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see, or why he was in so much pain. He immediately began to panic and shout for Roy.

“Roy…where are you? What’s wrong with me… why can’t I see?” Johnny cried out desperately as he flailed around in the dark with his uninjured arm…“Oh God, please help me Roy…” he sobbed out frantically.

The instant Roy heard Johnny’s cry of pain and his panicked calls, all remembrances of their little tiff was forgotten. The whole matter had been shoved out of his mind so that he could concentrate fully on the more pressing matters at hand. There was an immediate situation right in front of him that urgently needed to be dealt with regarding Johnny…right now his younger brother needed him.

Clearly Johnny had rolled over onto one of the injured areas of his body and had been jarred into wakefulness because of it. The sudden and painful awakening in combination with his concussion had obviously left him disoriented and confused. One thing was for sure; Johnny was in pain and frightened by the fact that he couldn’t see.

At this point Roy wasn’t even sure if Johnny’s confusion was because he had been so abruptly woken up and that he hadn’t had a chance to orient himself, or if his concussion was worsening… but one thing was obvious, and that was that Johnny needed his comfort and support.

Roy gritted his teeth together and quickly began to painfully pull himself over toward the frantic man’s side. All the while he was calling out to him in an effort to reassure him.

“I’m right here Junior… hang on I’m coming. Everything’s going to be alright.” Roy said in his best reassuring tone of voice. But Johnny didn’t seem to be able to hear his voice.

Johnny was still lost in a sea of darkness and pain, as he frantically called out to Roy for help.

“Why can’t I see Roy? Oh God it’s so dark…please hurry Roy, I need your help.”

Roy quickly became frustrated at his own limitations with regard to his broken ankle and wrenched knee, and he silently cursed his impediments and the length of time it was taking him to come to his brother’s aid… right now getting over to Johnny and calming him down was his sole focus.

Although it seemed like eons to Roy, it barely took him a minute to reach Johnny’s side. He reached out and took Johnny’s hand, which Johnny clung to in desperation.

Not wanting to exacerbate any of Johnny’s existing injuries, Roy carefully put his free hand on Johnny’s chin and turned his unseeing eyes towards him.

“I’m here Junior, but I need you to calm down okay… you’re going to be alright. We were in a balloon accident, don’t you remember? You have a concussion and it’s affecting your vision right now. But it’s going to be alright… I promise you.”

As Roy’s words filtered through to Johnny, he slowly began to calm down and get his breathing back under control. As he did so, he became more fully awake and cognizant to what Roy was saying to him. Slowly the days’ events began to slide into place inside his mind.

“Elgin had a heart attack and I fell out of the balloon’s basket into a tree…and then it crashed.”

He panted out in between painful breaths. “I remember now.”

“That’s right Johnny… you broke your arm and cracked a couple ribs along with the concussion. That’s why you hurt so much.”

Johnny nodded his head to signify, he had finally understood. His blank gaze looked back at Roy; “You’re ankle and knee… how are they?” he asked.

“They’re sore, but I’ll be fine…we both will. You just rolled over onto your sore ribs while you were sleeping, and the pain from that woke you up.”

“Actually…I think they’re broken,” Johnny confessed.

“What are you talking about Johnny?” Roy asked.

“I think a couple of my ribs are broken now,” he repeated.

Roy quickly lifted up Johnny shirt and gently palpated his rib cage. He heard Johnny gasp in pain and flinch. Unlike the last time he had examined Johnny’s ribs; when he felt them this time he could definitely feel a couple of them shift.

“When did this happen, Johnny? Rolling over on them surely didn’t cause them to break.”

“No…it happened when I was dragging the cooler over to the basket.” Johnny replied guiltily.

“What! … Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier Junior?” Roy chided.

“To what point and purpose Roy? You were already feeling guilty,” Johnny said in his defense.

Roy heaved a frustrated sigh and ran his hands through his hair. He counted to ten in order to calm himself down. He let the matter drop out of fear of provoking a fresh argument with Johnny, no matter how much he wanted to scold him for dragging the cooler across the ground with several cracked ribs.

Roy shifted his weight until he was now propped into the corner behind Johnny.

“Here Johnny, I want you to lean against me now, so I can make sure you don’t shift again while you get some rest, okay?”

“No, Roy” Johnny shook his head adamantly. “You need to rest as much as I do; besides I’m not sleepy anymore anyway. You go ahead and get some sleep.”

Roy heaved another aggravated sigh… his second in as many minutes.

“We’ll both be able to get some rest this way Junior. I’m going to lean back in the exact position you were in earlier so I can rest, and you’ll lean against me, so you won’t roll over again. Now I’m not going to argue with you about this little brother…now will you please just do as I ask?”

Johnny opened his mouth to argue, but he quickly thought better of it.

“Fine, have it your way,” he capitulated, and he allowed Roy to gently ease him back against his shoulder.

For several seconds the only noise that Roy heard was the buzzing of the mosquitos inside the basket. Then just when he had decided that Johnny had fallen back asleep, he heard Johnny’s tired voice come out of the darkness.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“For what?” Roy asked.

“For getting mad earlier,” Johnny replied.

Roy patted Johnny on his leg. “As I recall Junior, my own behaviour wasn’t exactly exemplary in the matter either. Now why don’t you try and get some sleep okay?”

After another moment had passed Roy looked over at Johnny and saw that his eyes were still open.

“I’m sorry too Junior,” He said quietly.

The corners of Johnny’s mouth curled up into a small smile.

“Get some sleep Roy.”

And that was all that needed to be said; the entire matter was now forgotten.

Roy suddenly felt his own injuries beginning to catch up with him, as well as the exhaustion brought on from the worry and the pain, and he soon found his head beginning to nod.

Everything was relatively silent until Johnny’s hand came up and slapped at the side of his neck.

“Damn you little buggers…,” he said angrily.

Roy was suddenly jerked wide awake by Johnny’s words.

“What’s the matter Johnny?” he asked worriedly.

“These damn mosquitos, is what’s the matter; they think they’re at a smorgasbord and my flesh is some kind of, all you can eat buffet.” Johnny groused miserably.

Johnny pulled himself upright and sighed. After a few minutes he began to clumsily pull at the buttons on the front of his shirt with his left hand. His fingers were stiff and awkward and he just wasn’t making much progress with undoing the buttons.

“What are you trying to do Junior?” Roy asked.

“I’m trying to get my necklace out… but these damn buttons are so small and my fingers are stiff. It doesn’t help that I can’t see either.”

“Here, just let me help you with it.” Roy said as he undid the top two buttons on Johnny shirt and pulled on the leather strap that held Johnny’s most prized possession.

Roy pulled the bone pendant part of the necklace out of Johnny’s shirt and held it in his hand. He could just barely make out the etched figures on its surface if he held it up and angled it just right towards one of the few shafts of moonlight that had permeated the tree canopy outside the basket.

Finally he took the necklace and set in the palm of Johnny’s left hand.

Johnny lovingly fingered the bone medallion as he let the tips of his fingers feel the raised edges of the carvings. Roy felt his heart leap into his throat when he considered how much Johnny’s actions looked like he was using braille. The thought of Johnny’s blindness being permanent tore at his heart.

No!  He told himself. He wasn’t even going to consider that…The swelling that was putting pressure on Johnny’s optic nerve would recede and Johnny’s sight would be restored as good as new.

Johnny shifted slowly as he leaned against Roy’s shoulder. He let go of the necklace and left it hanging loosely around his neck.

“I wish you could have known my parents Roy. I think you would have really liked them … and I know they would have loved you.” Johnny said wistfully.

“I wished I could have known them too Johnny. There’s a lot I’d like to tell them.”

“Yeah?”

“Absolutely Junior; I would love to be able to thank them for giving me my best friend and little brother; and I’d make sure they knew that their son had grown up to be one hell of a man… a man of integrity, skill, honor and compassion, who has saved many, many lives over the years…including my own. They’d be so proud of you John. They really would.”

There was a long period of silence, and Roy could see a few errant tears sliding down Johnny’s cheeks in the moonlight. Finally after an overly long pause, Johnny spoke.

“Hey… that’s tit for tat you know. You’ve saved my ass many times too. And I’d think they’d be the most proud about my choice in a best friend and brother. You’re a great man yourself Roy DeSoto… and that witch of a mother in law you have is a fool for not seeing that. Joanne, Chris and Jenny are incredibly blessed to have you in their lives… I know I sure as hell am.”

There was a momentary lull in the conversation before Johnny continued on.

“I’d give almost anything to have them back here with me… even for just one day. I’d love for them to know about my life in L.A….and to see my ranch here in Vermont and the paramedic program we’ve started here.”

 I could explain to them what a paramedic is, and what it is we do…and that I’d made Captain. But mostly I’d want them to see my family, so that they could see that I’m doing okay now.”

“And just once more, I’d like to spend an evening with them … just the three of us alone. We’d be sitting in the kitchen and I’d be talking to my dad while we polished up the saddles, or we’d be eating mom’s fry bread. The three of us would then move out onto the front porch and just talk about inconsequential things, while we listened to the sounds of the night.”

“And I’d give anything to be lying in my bed while mom told me the history of this necklace… and then when she was finished I’d fall asleep listening to her sing to me.”

Johnny put the necklace back underneath his shirt again, and wiped at the tears that were sliding down his cheeks; “… I’d give anything to have that back… just one more time.” Johnny lowered his head as the tears continued to run freely down his cheeks.

“I’d give anything to be able to give you that too Junior… I really would.” Roy said softly as he pulled Johnny into as gentle a hug as their injuries allowed for.

Once again the night air became silent as Johnny sat lost in thought while Roy sat by his side silently giving him all the support he could.

Roy knew that sometimes concussions could make people overly emotional and maudlin… and Johnny certainly had had enough things happen to him in his life to be maudlin about.

 Even taking all of those factors into consideration, Roy was still thrown off by Johnny’s next statement that seemed to come out of left field.

“Why did they hate me so much Roy?  I mean how bad of a person do you have to be to have your own family want to see you dead?” he said plaintively.

Roy understood that Johnny’s mind was now thinking about his grandparents. He instinctively pulled Johnny closer to him in an obvious protective gesture.

“Don’t you even go there John. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You weren’t the one with the problem... you weren’t the one who was wrong… and you didn’t do anything to deserve what they did to you.”

“I don’t know why some folks are so full of hate and evil…and in all honesty I’m glad I don’t. Because if I did that would mean I understood where it came from. And at the end of the day the only answer I have for you is this… there is no good answer or excuse for how they acted. They were wrong and they were evil.”

Johnny’s body stiffened when he heard Roy use the word evil, but Roy stopped him before he could speak.

“Yes Junior, they were evil. So is anyone who could treat a child in that way. It takes a special brand of evil for anyone to be able to hurt a child… whether it’s through physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Those types of people are sick predators, who prey on the weak and innocent, and I for one think that there is a special place in hell for people like that.”

Johnny didn’t say anything for the longest time. Then he slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position and laid his head back against the wicker wall of the basket.

“When I first woke up a few minutes ago, I thought I was back in Montana and I was sixteen again and that the beating I took from that baseball bat had blinded me… It’s funny that even though I thought I was sixteen again; I still knew you were close by… Stupid isn’t it?”

“How could I have gotten the past and present all mixed up like that?” I mean I thought I’d come to terms with my past a while ago.”

Roy shifted over and gently patted Johnny’s good arm.

“It’s the concussion Johnny… you know they can make your mind play tricks on you like that. Any head injury can make your memories get all jumbled up inside your head. The pain you’re feeling now is probably a lot like the ones you were feeling back then, so your mind just bunched them all in together.”

“The things you went through with your grandparents are all still there inside of your head Junior. You never forget that kind of thing. You may come to terms with them… but you never forget. And sometimes things happen in life that can trigger those feelings to come back up to the surface… things like a concussion.”

“But that’s all they are Junior… they’re just long distant memories. Your grandparents are gone, and they can never hurt you again. Now why don’t you lean back onto my shoulder again and try and get some sleep. Try not to worry about anything okay… everything’s going to be fine.”

Johnny settled back and thought about what Roy had said to him. It didn’t take him long to realize that Roy was right. The past was still in the past, and it couldn’t hurt him here in the present… not anymore.

His grandparents and the memories of Montana were nothing more than ghosts of his past that were now long dead and buried. He’d survived them all and come out victorious. Time and time again it seemed as if God had been watching over him, and had seen him through… and Johnny had no doubt that the almighty would see him through this time too.

He turned his head to where he thought Roy’s face would be and smiled.

“Thanks Roy… and you’re absolutely right. I know everything’s going to be fine…the big paramedic in the sky is watching over us. He’ll make sure we’re okay.”

Roy smiled at the words Johnny spoke with such confidence.

“You know, I’ve always envied your faith in God Johnny. I mean when I first met you, I never would have pegged you for a believer.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe;” Roy continued. “But I guess I’m just not as religious about it all. But I do believe in God…I’ve seen too many miracles in our line of work not to. I just wish I had your convictions in that faith.”

Johnny snorted. “Well Roy you know how they say that there are no atheists in fox holes? Well let’s just say that I’ve been in a fair few of those fox holes in my life time…metaphorically speaking … to not believe.”

“I guess it’s because there have been so many times that the only thing I’ve had to rely on was my faith in God, and that he hears and answers prayers. I guess you could say it started the day my parents died in that horrible crash… and yet I miraculously survived with only a broken arm. And then I managed to survive the years after that with my mother’s parents; at least until that horrible beating with the baseball bat my grandfather gave me. And I survived that when no one thought I would. Not to mention everything I’ve lived through since we’ve known each other.”

“There is only one explanation for how I survived those things Roy. It’s because the man upstairs has always come through for me. In fact sometimes I would swear that I could actually feel his presence with me… and that’s how I know that he’ll see us through this one too Pally.”

Looking back on all of the things Johnny had survived, even since Roy had known him made Roy think about Johnny’s words. Johnny had survived the Koki virus, the fire tornado, the snake bite and the hit and run accident. To this day no one was sure how it was he had survived that gas explosion in the apartment building on Dixie’s birthday several years earlier… and then there was the whole deal with the kidnapping on the bus; and that was after his life had been spared on the night his parents died, not to mention what he had suffered at the hands of his grandparents.

The more he considered all of those things, the more Roy began to believe that Johnny was on to something… he began to realize that Johnny truly was being watched over from above; which was probably just as well, considering the job they were in.

Roy could feel Johnny settling back onto his shoulder once more as he let out a tired sigh.

“Goodnight Roy; and thanks … thanks for everything.” Johnny sleepily mumbled.

Roy smiled and patted his leg gently.

“Goodnight Junior … and you’re welcome.”

There was no more talk inside the overturned basket, as the two exhausted paramedics fell into a restless sleep.   

                                                                ~   ~   ~

The first thing Roy became aware of the next morning, was the damp smell of the earth and the decaying leaves. That was followed by the sounds of the birds singing their wake up calls.

Roy sat with his eyes closed listening to the pleasant sounds of the world waking up; but it wasn’t long before he heard another sound… only this sound made him frown as he realized that what he was hearing was the sound of Johnny wheezing. He could also feel that the body leaning heavily against his was a lot warmer than it should be.

Damn it Junior, don’t you dare come down with pneumonia.

Roy had meant to wake Johnny up during the night so he could perform some neuro checks, but his good intentions were all for naught, as his own fatigue and injuries had sent him into such a deep sleep that he simply hadn’t woken up to do it… not that there was anything he could have done should Johnny’s condition worsen anyway.

But now that dawn was approaching he had a different opinion on the matter and he figured he might as well just let Johnny sleep. At least when he was sleeping he wasn’t in any pain.

Roy also figured the best way to avoid a repeat performance from the night before, would be to just let Johnny slowly wake up on his own. Roy gently took hold of Johnny’s wrist and took his pulse. Once he had done that, he took his respirations, taking extra care not to wake him up. Even without the benefit of a BP, he could tell Johnny was slightly shocky… but then he figured he probably was too.

Roy laid his hand against Johnny’s forehead in an effort to try and gauge his temperature… if he had to guess he would peg it at about 101°. Unfortunately there was not much he could do about it now… hopefully once daylight came; the search for them would commence and they would be discovered before midday.

Roy gently tried to ease himself up, but it wasn’t long until he realized his mistake as a sharp pain went shooting down his through his left knee and ankle. That was followed in quick succession by the awareness of another discomfort… an extremely full bladder.

The injured man tried to protect his ankle and knee as much as he could while he eased his body over to the edge of the basket so he could relieve himself as far away from their wicker shelter as possible. The going was slow; in part because of the pain from his injuries and the fact his body had stiffened up in the night air. The other reason being, that he was being extra careful so as not to wake Johnny up.

It took Roy almost ten minutes to accomplish his task…which had been awkwardly done to say the least. But he soon found himself easing his body back inside the wicker basket.

Roy had been able to clearly make out Elgin Bennett’s body from his vantage point inside their shelter, and he had been relieved to notice that the man’s body had remained undisturbed by any of the indigenous scavengers and predators that lived in the wildlife reserve during the night. That was a scenario he had shuddered to even think about the night before.

Roy took a moment to examine his ankle and knee as best he could in the gray, pre-dawn light. Even in the poor lighting, Roy could see both his injuries were now badly swollen and discoloured.

“How bad are the knee and ankle this morning?” he heard Johnny ask sleepily.

“Colourful, swollen … and sore. How about you Junior?” Roy asked.

“Well I’m still as blind as a bat, if that’s what you meant.”

Johnny gave a large yawn, which quickly turned into a hacking cough.  The ensuing pain it caused in his broken ribs caused him to groan in pain.

“Pneumonia,” Roy said grimly. It was said more as a statement of fact than a question.

“Feels like it.” Johnny replied once he had caught his breath.

“How’s the headache Junior?” Roy asked.

“Ohhh, I’d give it a six out of ten.” Johnny answered slowly.

“Nausea?” asked Roy.

“Not as bad this morning…only about a three.”

Roy reached over and felt Johnny’s forehead again, and lowered his ear to Johnny’s chest in order to listen to his lungs. Not liking what he could hear, he heaved a heavy sigh and decided to change the subject. 

“Thankfully Elgin’s body was left alone during the night.”

“For now,” Johnny answered. “But it’ll soon have been twelve hours. Nature will be taking its hold on the body now, and the more it does, the more it’ll attract unwanted company. Hopefully we’ll be found in a couple of hours. Have you heard any signs of search planes yet? By the sounds of the birds, morning’s almost here.”

“Almost,” Roy replied.

Johnny’s sense of self awareness about his surroundings, even when he was blind, never ceased to amaze Roy. He sat back and reached inside the cooler and pulled out two muffins.

“How about a muffin for breakfast Junior? You didn’t eat anything last night and your body could probably use the nourishment.”

Johnny shook his head.

“Ummm… Do you really think that’s wise Roy? If these breaks are as bad as they feel, we could both be on our way to surgery by noon, and take it from me Pally; surgery goes better on an empty stomach than a full one… I think I’ll pass.”

Roy’s glance shifted between the muffins in his hands and his knee and ankle while he considered Johnny’s words. Finally with a sigh of resignation he dropped the muffins back into the cooler and closed the lid.

“Noon huh?”  Roy said.

Johnny’s unseeing eyes stared in Roy’s general direction, but they never met Roy’s gaze, but rather a point just over his right shoulder.

The blind man shrugged his shoulders and grinned.

“Sure Roy. It’s just breaking dawn; if the sounds of those birds are anything to go by.  And you know we’ll have been reported missing by now. They’ll be starting the search at first light. Now you said that most of that huge balloon is draped over the top of the nearby trees, so it’ll be almost impossible for any search planes to miss it…It’s better than a beacon. I bet we’ll be found within a couple of hours… tops,” Johnny said optimistically.

Johnny used his good arm and hand to gingerly ease himself into an upright sitting position. Like Roy had earlier on, he too was dealing with the pressing need to answer ‘the call of nature.’

 Unlike Roy, however, he still had the use of both his legs to use to aid him in his effort to get up and take care of his business. True he was blind, but he knew as long as he did not venture far from the basket, he would be fine.

The pain in his arm had abated to the point, that as long as he was careful not to jar the injured limb, it wasn’t any more painful than a deep ache. It was only when he accidentally moved it or jostled it up against something; that the blinding pain shot from his fingertips right on up to his shoulder.

Right now Johnny’s chief complaint was his ribs, and the still persistent, albeit somewhat duller headache…that and the fact that his entire body felt inexpressibly sick. He knew very well by now what the onset of pneumonia felt like; he’d been there more times than he cared to count.

The fact that each coughing fit exacerbated his rib injury did nothing but increase his misery tenfold. Johnny also was aware of the fact that while they were in this condition, there was absolutely nothing either he or Roy could do to help rescue themselves, other than to pray for a quick rescue.

Johnny began to gently pull himself into a position so that he could stand up, but as soon as he started to move, he heard Roy’s voice come from across the basket.

“Just stay put Junior… you shouldn’t be trying to move around with those broken ribs.” Roy said worriedly.

“Well, how about you tell that to my bladder Roy, because broken ribs or not, right now I gotta go and use the ‘ravine latrine.’

Without waiting for Roy to reply, Johnny slowly and carefully slid his legs in closer to his body and gradually shifted his weight onto his legs so he could use his leg and thigh muscles as leverage to pull himself up.

Even being as careful as he could, he was unable to completely protect his injured body. As he used his good hand and the edge of the basket to pull himself up into a standing position, his injured arm brushed up against the corner of the basket, sending a cry of pain escaping from his lips.

His legs felt like Jell-O, and a sudden wave of nausea, sent the hot acid sensation of bile rising up into the back of his throat. He quickly found himself resting his forehead against the side of the basket with his eyes squeezed tightly shut until he was able to steady himself. His broken limb screamed at him, as every single nerve in his arm sent a searing pain coursing down from his shoulder to his fingertips.

He could hear Roy’s panicked voice calling his name, but he was powerless to answer him, as he stood there panting in an effort to get his breathing under control again.

“Johnny!” Roy yelled frantically, as he pulled his body across the wicker surface of the over turned basket. He dragged his injured appendage behind him, his own pain momentarily forgotten, in a desperate attempt to get over to where Johnny stood shakily leaning against the edge of the balloon’s basket.

Eventually the pain slowly receded back into a more tolerable level, and Johnny raised his head back up and looked in what he figured was Roy’s direction.

“Okay…maybe I’ll have to amend the pain level to a nine or a ten, when I do things like that…,” he said sheepishly.

Roy reached out and grabbed Johnny’s uninjured wrist and so he could take his pulse. When he was finished doing that, he made note of Johnny’s respirations and sighed at what the numbers revealed.

Johnny was breathing heavily and the tell-tale wheeze that indicated his probable pneumonia could be clearly heard. His face was flushed and there was a thin sheen of sweat beaded across his forehead.

“Johnny, just go pee where you are, and come back inside the basket and rest before you puncture a lung.” Roy pleaded.

Johnny stood silently and allowed Roy to check his vitals without protest. Roy’s concern for his well-being bled through his voice, and although he couldn’t see anything; Johnny knew by the tone of Roy’s voice, that if he could have seen his partners face at that moment, that Roy’s worry and anxiety about his health would be clearly evident in his eyes.

Not wanting to add to Roy’s worry, Johnny straightened his body until he was fully upright and smiled.

“I’m okay now Roy, I just bumped my bad arm up against the side of the basket… I’m only going to step a few paces away to take care of my business, then I promise I’ll come right back.”

Roy wasn’t happy with the answer, but not having the use of his left leg, meant he was pretty well powerless to stop his tenacious younger brother.

“Just be careful Junior. Just do it and get back here…and make sure you stay where I can see you.”

Johnny gave a snort of disgust… “I don’t usually have an audience when I do this Roy, but since you and half of Rampart have already seen every inch of my body anyway, I’ll humour you.”

Using Roy as his eyes, Johnny managed to move what he considered a decent distance away from the basket and took care of his immediate needs. When he was finished he paused, as he caught a faint but distinctive odor on the breeze. There was no mistaking what it was… It was the smell of death.

 Even without his sight he knew that somewhere off to his left lay the body of Elgin Bennett. The man had been dead over twelve hours now, and he would be in full rigor mortis at this point, but he also knew that before the body had reached that state that the muscles would have relaxed and the bladder and bowels would have emptied themselves. He hoped that a rescue came soon, because as much as he worried about the body attracting unwanted guests to the crash site; he was also concerned about the dignity of the man’s body… especially for the sake of his family.

Suddenly a deep sense of sadness filled his heart as he thought about what Elgin’s family were soon to discover… he knew  what the pain and grief of losing a cherished and beloved member of your family felt like.

Johnny paused for a moment and then he turned his body until he was facing the direction of the corpse. He lowered his head and said a small prayer for the man’s soul… and one for the loved ones that were left behind.

Roy watched carefully; his mother hen instincts were now functioning in overdrive as he carefully gave Johnny directions about where to step, making sure he kept him away from debris from the basket and any stray tree roots that were sticking up out of the ground. When Johnny was about twenty feet off to the left of the basket, he stopped and relieved himself while Roy respectfully averted his eyes.

Roy waited patiently and kept his eyes averted until he was sure that Johnny had completed his task. He wanted to make sure his directions to his blind friend were clear and accurate, in order to avoid any further mishap on the way back to the basket.

 It looked as though Johnny was going to begin the process of making his way back over to Roy and the basket; but before he took his first step, he suddenly stopped and looked off to his left.

Roy surmised correctly that his partner had caught the odor that was emanating from the corpse; he was just about to comment, when he saw Johnny pivot around and face the body. The younger man then lowered his head and it was obvious to Roy that he was saying a prayer over the body.

The gesture was very apt, and it made a deep impression on Roy. Roy himself was not what you would call openly religious, and it wasn’t something that he was often inclined to talk about… but watching his friend in the distance, Roy himself found his own head bowed, as he offered a prayer for the repose of Elgin Bennett’s soul.

After a prolonged pause, Johnny’s head raised and with Roy’s guidance, he began the slow and careful trip back to the basket.

As soon as Johnny had himself situated back inside the shelter of the basket, he heaved an exhausted sigh. He felt terrible as he sat there shivering as if the temperature outside was only forty five, instead of the balmy seventy five degrees that it actually was.

 He felt weak and exceedingly thirsty, and so very, very tired, and much inclined to sleep.

His sleep the night before had been disjointed at best and when it had come, it had been in fits and starts. He hated feeling feverish, especially the miserable sensation of feeling too cold, and then too hot that went along with it. Then there was the general malaise and discomfort of his pneumonia that just intensified the pain of his injuries all the more.

He laid his head back and let his eyes slide shut as he began to drift off. He was almost asleep, when it finally sunk in that Roy was being uncommonly quiet. In fact now that he thought about it, Roy hadn’t said a single word since he got back into the basket almost five minutes earlier.

Now it was Johnny’s turn to worry, and he pulled himself upright once more. He reached out blindly until his good hand brushed up against Roy’s shoulder.

“You’re kinda quiet over there Pally… are you alright?” Johnny asked.

“Yeah Junior; all things considered I’m not doing too bad.” Roy answered.

“Are you sure?” Johnny questioned. “Because you’re kinda quiet all of a sudden over there… You weren’t hurt someplace else besides your leg, that you’re keeping secret from me were ya?”

“Naw… it’s nothing like that Junior; I was just pondering a bit… that’s all.”

“Pondering eh? Is it about anything I should know about?” Johnny queried.

“Not really… I just noticed you saying a prayer over Elgin’s body, and it just occurred to me, that in all the years I’ve known you, that it was the first time I’ve ever seen you pray.”

“What are ya talkin’ about Roy? You’ve seen me pray lotsa times before. I mean there have been a few times over the years where I’ve gone to the Christmas or Easter services with you, Jo, and the kids… and then there were those two funerals for the firemen from Station 45 that were killed back in L.A. a few years ago…I prayed all those times, and you were standing right beside me.”

“Yes,” Roy said slowly. “But those were congregational prayers being said by the minister…I meant this was the first time I’ve actually seen you say a prayer that you made up yourself.”

Johnny thought about Roy’s statement for a moment before he continued on. “I guess that’s so… but then again I’ve always felt any personal prayers I utter to the almighty, are exactly that … personal…and private. I mean sure it’s true you may not have seen me pray before… but why would you? After all I’m not actually talking to you.

Now it was Roy’s turn to think about the words that Johnny had just spoken. “Hmmm… you’ve got a point there Junior… I never really thought about it that way before.”

After that the silence inside the basket returned. And within a very short span of time, both men, being exhausted from having very little sleep, were soon slumbering away in the early dawn hours of the day.  

                                                         ~  ~ ~

It was about two hours later and Johnny found himself awake while he listened to Roy softly snoring beside him. The throbbing in his head was stubbornly hanging on, and his arm was now stiff as well as sore. On top of all of that, his lungs had decided that they were definitely going to make him pay for spending the night in the middle of a bush while injured, as they were now quite congested.

Johnny continued to lie in the basket silently; and while he could see nothing but blackness all around him; he knew it was probably at least mid-morning by now, as the birds were no longer singing their dawn wake up songs. His senses were shifting, as his sense of smell and his sense of hearing began to overtake and do the job of his eyes.

 It was a totally surreal experience for him to hear the day, but not be able to see it, and he was mentally trying to ascertain the correct time in his mind by the sounds of the day. Being inside the bush, made it impossible to feel the sun on his face, so he wasn’t sure just how high in the sky the morning sun had climbed.

He was still deep in his muse, when he heard a sound off in the distance. It was faint at first, but as it drew near, the sound was unmistakable… it was the sounds of a search plane flying overhead.

Johnny listened to the low flying plane. He perceived that it was now just about directly overhead. Johnny held his breath and said a silent prayer that their downed balloon would be easily spotted by the plane, and that the aircraft would not end up flying off without spotting the balloon’s wreckage.

Johnny could have wept with joy, when he began to realize that the plane had not flown off, but had circled the skies overhead not once, not twice… but three times. It was at this point that Johnny knew without a doubt that his prayers had been answered, and that they had finally been spotted by the search party…it would only be a matter of time now.

He sent up a grateful prayer of thanks to the big paramedic in the sky, as he reached over and shook Roy awake with his excited shouts of, “wake up Roy….they’ve finally found us!”

Roy’s eyes opened and he sat up straight at the sound of Johnny’s excited shouts. It wasn’t until Johnny repeated his proclamation that they were saved that its meaning fully sunk into Roy’s brain. A slow smile spread across Roy’s face and he heaved a heavy sigh… “Thank heavens,” he said in relief.

The realization that they would soon be rescued cheered both men greatly, and the atmosphere at the crash site perked up considerably.

Now that he had been assured that they had been at least spotted from the air, Johnny’s thoughts were wholly employed with conjecture as to how long it would take for their rescuers to arrive at the crash site. He reckoned by his observations of what he knew about this nature reserve, that rescue would be at least two hours away, if the searchers had to come in by foot.

After the initial excitement and relief wore off; both men settled back to begin the wait. It didn’t take very long before the two of them began to give in to their battered bodies need for sleep once more… this time around however, the two injured friends slept much sounder now that they had assurances that their rescue was imminent.  

                                                                   ~  ~  ~

Back in Swanton it had been just after nine on the Sunday night, when Wally Carter had phoned the Police Department to report the missing hot air balloon.

Wally informed Ted Cooper, the Police Chief that the hot air balloons’ ground crew had been unable to raise the balloons’ pilot Elgin Bennett on the radio, and that their last contact had been just before eight pm. Its last known location was somewhere over the Missisquoi Wildlife reserve.

According to the ground crew foreman, the balloon had been about to make its ascent to higher altitudes in order to catch the prevailing currents that would have carried them back to one of the prearranged drop points in the middle of Franklin County, but it had failed to show up at any of those locations.

Ted’s heart dropped into his stomach when he was informed that it had been carrying two passengers at the time… two Franklin County off duty paramedics… Roy DeSoto and John Gage.

Ted Cooper immediately got on the phone and began to organize a ground-air search party. They were broken up into several teams. The first one consisted of the Fire department chief, Bruce Jenkins and two of his men, along with the C shift paramedics, Colin Blackwell and Stephen “Gibby” Gibbons.

The current on duty paramedics, Jason Doyle and Tim Blake would stay on duty and available at the station in case any other emergencies in the area arose… but it was understood that as soon as their shift ended at eight the next morning, that the two groups of paramedics would swap positions.

The second search team was made up of Ted Cooper, the other two off duty paramedics, Jack Foulds and Garrett Morrison and the foreman of the balloon’s ground crew Wally Carter.

The other rescuers would consist of the life flight helicopter crew, and one of the local search and rescue planes from Burlington.

Unfortunately there had been only a half an hour of daylight left when the call came in, so any air search effort would have to wait until morning. Even the ground search would have been an exercise in futility, at this late hour of the day.

 It became quickly apparent that the missing men were going to have to spend at least one night out in the nature reserve. All efforts were postponed until the first light of morning.

 Ted Cooper had been on the phone most of the night, making sure that the search plane as well as a chopper would be ready to fly in a grid pattern over the wildlife reserve at first light, and that everyone was on the same page.    

   

                                                           ~    ~    ~

The search planes flew out at first light, while the ground teams got themselves organized for the trek into the Nature Reserve.

 Team A, consisting of Ted Cooper and the D shift paramedics along with Wally, would head into the reserve from the South East, While Team B would hang back and wait for the shift change at the paramedic station before heading in from the South West.

It was agreed that the shift change would start an hour earlier this morning so the Team B searchers could head out as soon as possible. Team A was ready and in position while team B was waiting for the B shift paramedics to arrive, when the word came over the radio, that the wreckage from the hot air balloon had been sighted about a quarter mile inside the wildlife reserve’s hardwood bush area.

Since Ted Cooper’s team was the closest and already to go, they were the ones who were dispatched with the co-ordinates. It was decided that the now off duty paramedics Jason Doyle and Tim Blake, would meet the chopper and Join search team A, so there would be plenty of medical help on the scene, as well as enough men to carry all three stokes.

The rescuers were air lifted inside the borders of the wildlife reserve by helicopter and dropped off in a clearing as close to the wreckage site as the chopper could safely manage.

Once the search team had gathered all of their gear; they began the long, arduous hike to the wreckage site. Each man was hoping and praying that the balloon’s occupants would be found alive, as they trudged along hauling all three stokes loaded down with emergency equipment.

It was almost eleven thirty on that Monday morning, when the search party finally came upon the site of the hot air balloon accident. At first glance the only things obvious to the searchers were Elgin Bennett’s body, some debris from inside the basket that was strewn about, and the basket itself which was lying on its side.

From their vantage point, the searchers could only see the back of the basket, and it wasn’t until they came around to the front that they saw the two missing paramedics. It was immediately apparent that although they were both alive… they were both injured as well.

Roy DeSoto clearly had a broken ankle and a severe knee injury while Johnny Gage had a nasty looking gash on his forehead right at the hairline as well as some kind of arm injury, although the exact extent of the injury wasn’t apparent due to the fact that it was hidden by a crude makeshift sling.

Johnny was also flushed and obviously febrile; the wheezing in his lungs could be clearly heard from where they stood. Both men had their eyes closed, but neither Jack nor Garrett could tell from this distance if they were unconscious or merely sleeping.

There was an empty aspirin container and some melted ice packs lying in the corner of the basket, as well as an empty thermos that had once held coffee. Beside Roy was an open cooler with several uneaten sandwiches and muffins sitting inside.

Gage was laying propped up against DeSoto, who was in leaning on the wall in the other corner of the basket. Jack and Garrett knelt down by Roy, while Jason and Tim concentrated on Johnny.

Quickly and efficiently, they began to do their initial patient assessments on their respective victims.

Wally Carter made a beeline over to the body of his friend and boss and looked down sadly at the sight before his eyes. Ted Cooper being aware of the fact that Wally and Elgin had been friends as well as boss and employee, went with him to offer what support he could.

Garrett glanced up and nudged Jack’s arm to let him know he was going over to Wally to at least give the body a cursory examination and confirm what was already obvious to everyone there… Elgin Bennett was dead.

After giving Wally a moment with his friend, Ted Cooper gently lead the grieving man away so that he and Garrett could cover the body with a blanket and put it in one of the empty stokes. Once the task had been completed, Garrett returned to Jack and Roy over at the crash site.

Both paramedic teams were relieved to discover that Johnny and Roy were not unconscious, but simply asleep. Both of the injured men roused immediately as their rescuers began to take their vital signs.

Roy stirred first and he slowly opened his eyes. Seeing Jack kneeling in front of him, taking his pulse caused him to give his rescuer a weak smile.

“Hey Jack, we were wondering when you guys were going to show up.”

“That’s right Cap, here we are at your service; ready to fulfill all your rescue needs.” He teased back as he continued taking Roy’s vitals.

By this time Johnny had woken up as well. He lifted his head slightly and blinked his unseeing eyes a few times. He could hear Roy and Jack talking beside him. He was also aware that someone was in the process of taking his BP.

“So,” Johnny asked wearily. “Which one of you drew the short straw and has me for their patient?”

“It’s me Cap… it’s Jake” answered Jason; his voice showing some marks of concern over the fact that Johnny didn’t seem to know who he was.

“Hey Jake, m’ sorry I didn’t know it was you, but I’m afraid this head injury is affecting my vision at the moment.” Johnny offered as an explanation.

“Affected how Cap?” Jason asked. He was now in full paramedic mode and reaching for his pen light.

“I haven’t got any,” Johnny replied ruefully.

“From what I could tell, he’s got a couple of broken ribs, a broken wrist and a broken elbow. He fell out of the basket when it made contact with the tree canopy, and he fell through the trees. He caught hold of one of the branches on the way down, and I’m guessing it was the force of the sudden stop on his arms that did the damage to his elbow and wrist.” Roy interjected.

“It was a miracle he wasn’t killed…” he answered as an afterthought.

Johnny attempted to clumsily rise up into a full sitting position, but quickly discovered that by this point his body simply wasn’t up to the task, and his body sagged back heavily against the wall of the basket, with a painful gasp.

“Hey there Cap, you just take it easy and let me do all the work here now; you know the drill.

Jason leaned over and listened to Johnny’s lungs and frowned.

“It sounds like you’re working on a good case of pneumonia too.”

Johnny snorted derisively. “That’s the story of my life Jakey.”

Johnny put his head back and closed his eyes, and said quietly; “I take it you found Elgin’s body?”

“Yeah,” Tim spoke up now from where he was working with the biophone, he had been praying that they would have reception here in the bush.

 “Ted Cooper and Elgin’s friend Wally are with him now… what happened to cause the crash anyway?” Tim asked in an effort to divert the conversation away from the dead man.

Roy related the entire story of the previous days’ events about how they had been just getting ready to start their ascent to make the trip homeward, when Elgin had collapsed of an apparent M.I.

“We were so busy working on him, that we didn’t notice that the balloon was dropping. Not that either of us knew how to pilot a balloon anyway. Johnny was in the process of shutting of the propane burner to try and prevent an explosion upon impact … that’s how he was tossed out of the balloon. Elgin’s body and I rode the balloon down until it was about eight feet off the ground. That’s when the corner of the basket got snagged on a tree and tipped us out. I landed badly on my left leg, which is how I injured myself… but I never hit my head or lost consciousness.”

With the four paramedics all working together; it had taken barely ten minutes to get the injured men and the corpse ready for transport out of the bush. They had been able to reach the Swanton clinic on the biophone, and had been given their treatment instructions.

In no time at all the group of six rescuers, the two victims, and the body of Elgin Bennett, were on their way out of the bush, leaving the scene of the crash behind for good.

Jack and Garrett were carrying Roy’s stokes, while Jason and Tim had Johnny’s. It was left up to Ted Cooper and Wally Carter to carry the stokes that held Elgin’s body.

As the group plodded along through the bush, Johnny was dismayed to discover that the motion of the swaying stokes was causing his stomach to churn and roll. It felt to him as if he were being tossed around on a rough sea. The thought of vomiting filled Johnny with such a feeling of dread that he literally groaned out loud in misery.

Jason and Tim had heard the prone man’s groan, even though he had an oxygen mask on that covered his face.

The two paramedics immediately paused and Tim reached down and removed the mask momentarily, so he could hear Johnny speak.

“How are you holding up Cap?” Tim asked.

“Queasy,” Johnny muttered miserably.

“Are you going to vomit?”

Johnny hadn’t either the heart or the energy to even try to speak, so he just shook his head no, and closed his eyes as he felt the mask return to his face… in the last half hour, he had begun to feel appreciably worse.

Tim and Jason cast worried glances at each other, as Jason paused to re-check Johnny’s vital signs.

“Okay Cap, well you just give a shout if you need to be sick … we’ll be at the helicopter site soon. Dr. Early is already on his way to Burlington hospital to meet you, and he’ll get you all fixed up right as rain.”

Jason frowned as he read the numbers for Johnny’s vitals and surreptitiously shook his head as he looked at the others.

Rescue Shock, he mouthed silently.

Everyone there was familiar with rescue shock. It was something that happened to a victim who had been injured and had been using all of their will power and reserves to hold on and remain conscious until rescue arrived. It occurred when the victim relaxed once help arrived and no longer seen the need to fight to stay awake. Quite often their condition would deteriorate rapidly, and it wasn’t unusual for the victim to actually die from the shock.

Although the paramedics did not think Johnny was in any immediate danger of dying, they recognized his deteriorating condition and they redoubled their pace with a renewed sense of urgency. They were all extremely relieved when they finally entered the clearing where the life flight helicopter sat waiting for them.

It was just under thirty minutes later when the gurneys bearing the two injured paramedics and their caregivers were whisked into the Burlington E.R.

Joe Early took Gage directly into treatment room four, while Roy DeSoto was taken in to Byron Fellowes in treatment room two.

As it turned out, luck was on Roy’s side. The X-rays showed that the damage to his knee consisted of a stretched medial collateral ligament and that it hadn’t been torn; and that with rest, ice and elevation, it should heal fine without needing any surgery. His ankle was also a clean break, and so after having it set and casted by orthopedics, he was admitted into the hospital for twenty four hours observation.

Thankfully by the time Joanne had been located and told about the accident, Roy was able to speak to her himself and reassure her that he would be fine. She made arrangements for her and the kids to cut their vacation a few days short and return to Vermont in time for Roy’s release the following afternoon.

Johnny hadn’t fared quite as well. By the time he had arrived at Burlington hospital, his fever was nearing 103° and his breathing had become quite laboured. Joe Early was most concerned about his head injury and the resulting blindness.

Once again Divine Providence prevailed, when it appeared that Johnny’s concussion, although severe, had not resulted in a skull fracture, and that Johnny’s original diagnosis of it being a case of swelling putting pressure on the optic nerve had been correct.

Joe Early was confident that with proper medication, rest and proper pain control; that the swelling that was causing Johnny’s blindness would go down in a day or so and that his vision issues would resolve themselves at that time.

Johnny’s rib fractures were straight forward and required nothing more than wrapping, and his elbow and wrist fractures were not as severe as they could have been.

The wrist fracture was a clean break and would not require anything more than being set and casted. His elbow fracture was a little less straightforward, and would require surgery in order to pull the pieces of bone back into position before they were casted. The good news was that it didn’t appear that the orthopedic surgeon would need to put in any screws or plates.

Their biggest issue right at the moment was the pneumonia, and getting it under control. Once Johnny’s elbow and wrist had been set and casted, he was sent up to the ICU for the first 48 hours, so that his condition could be monitored carefully, until the medications and antibiotics he was on had a chance to kick in and do their job.

                                                                   ~    ~  ~ 

 

Johnny became aware of two distant and yet very familiar voices coming from somewhere nearby. At first the words made no sense to his heavily medicated mind; but as he gradually began to resurface to full consciousness, the voices and the words they were speaking began to connect together with more clarity in his brain.

After another minute or so he was able to put faces and names to the two voices. Roy and Chet, He thought to himself.

Chet Kelly had tried to phone Johnny on the Sunday night, and when he finally managed to get a hold of Dixie, he had been told that Johnny and Roy had gone missing that evening while on a hot air balloon ride.

Chet had immediately asked for a few days off to come to Vermont and help in the search for his two missing friends. By the time he had arrived in Burlington the next morning, Roy and Johnny had been found and were already on their way to the hospital.

By Monday evening, Roy looked much improved, now that he had been fed, put to bed and had the proper pain control on board. His injuries had been seen to, and he had had a chance to talk to Joanne and the kids on the phone. Apart from his worry over Johnny, he seemed to be resting comfortably.

Johnny’s condition was a little more worrisome. When Dr. Early had led Chet into the I.C.U. Johnny had been only semi-conscious and unaware of Chet’s presence. His face was flushed and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, which was largely obscured by an oxygen mask. He was covered with a cooling blanket and his breaths were still laboured and a prominent wheeze could still be heard.

He had a bandage on his forehead, and his right arm was covered from armpit to fingertips in a heavy plaster cast that was resting on a pillow on top of his bed.

But that had been over forty eight hours ago, and a lot had changed since then. Roy had been released into Joanne’s care and was now getting around very well on his crutches.

After thirty six hours of being on antibiotics, Johnny’s fever had broken and his condition was improving by leaps and bounds. When he had been moved that afternoon from the ICU into a regular room, his vision had still not been restored, but Dr. Early had assured him that his last test results had shown that the swelling was going down, and that it was only a matter of time now, before his sight returned.

As Johnny now lay in his bed listening, he couldn’t quite make out what his two friends were saying as they were speaking in hushed tones, but he could tell that they were standing in the hallway, just outside his door.

As he slowly opened his eyes, Johnny became aware of a shaft of dim light that was shining into his room from a crack from the slightly open door. It was illuminating a small section at the bottom of the blue cotton blanket that covered him, casting odd shadows across the walls of his hospital room.

For some odd reason he found the light very comforting. It took him several moments to figure out why… and then it slowly dawned on him … he could see again.

He was just about to press the call button to summon a nurse to his room, when the owners of the two voices slipped into the room.

Johnny’s face broke into a wide grin as he greeted his visitors.

“Hey Chet, hey Roy… how long have you two been here?”

The room grew so silent that you could have heard a pin drop, as Roy’s jaw dropped open and then slowly his face broke into a grin that rivaled the one on Johnny’s.

“You can see again Junior?” he asked excitedly.

“So it would seem Roy. I just woke up, and I could see everything just as clear as a bell.” Johnny exclaimed triumphantly.

Joe Early was immediately summoned to Johnny’s room, and upon his examination of his patient, he was more than happy to declare that it appeared as if Johnny’s sight had been fully restored with no lasting impairment.

The joy and relief that filled the room was palpable, and Johnny Gage in his usual fashion, asked a question that no one was all that surprised to hear come out of his mouth.

“So Doc’, How long before I can get outta this joint?” he asked with a grin.

                                                            ~     ~    ~

In the end, Johnny ended up as a guest at the Burlington hospital for a total of eight days, while he recovered from his head injury and his pneumonia. He then spent a further five days under the watchful eye of the DeSoto clan.

It was now the fourth of July and Johnny was back home and managing pretty well, with the help of his part time farm hand Seth. Since this was their first Fourth of July in Vermont, Johnny had insisted in holding their annual barbeque at his ranch.

Chet Kelly had returned to Boston the day after Johnny regained his sight, but he had returned to Vermont for the barbeque. Johnny had also asked Kel Brackett to fly out for the party as well. In attendance besides those two men, were the C and D shifts of the paramedic-rescue station, as well as Dixie, Joe Early and Byron Fellowes. Unfortunately B shift was on duty today, but they did drop in and say hi, on their way back from a call earlier in the afternoon.

There were also several nurses, neighbours, and friends including Ted Cooper, Bruce Jenkins, and George Danforth senior.

Johnny and Roy were sitting on the porch swing enjoying a cold beer as they watched Chet run around the front yard with Chris, Jenny and Suka.

“You know Junior,” Roy said as he stretched out his casted leg, “Those kids got so attached to Suka during those couple of weeks we kept her for you, that Jo and I have decided that we’re going to take them into the shelter next week and let them pick out a dog of their own.”

The DeSoto’s had had a yellow lab for years and years, but it had died of cancer at the age of thirteen, over two years ago, and they had been without a dog ever since.

“That’s great Roy. The kids are gonna love it.”

Roy was just about to answer Johnny, when the front porch door opened up and George Danforth and Byron Fellowes came out pushing a trolley cart ahead of them. Sitting on top of the cart was a huge cake with a lit sparkler in the center of it.

Written across the surface of the cake were the words;

Happy First Anniversary            

        

“May I have everyone’s attention please?” shouted Byron. 

As soon as the crowd fell silent, Byron began to speak.

“One year ago tomorrow, Franklin County, and the town of Swanton in particular, was privileged to welcome seven new citizens to its ranks. Those seven people included; paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto. Along with them came Roy’s wife Joanne, his two children Christopher and Jenny, head nurse Dixie McCall and Dr. Joe Early.”

“Their arrival heralded the opening of the first paramedic-rescue station in Franklin County as well as the Michelle Danforth memorial clinic. While it’s true many of our own local citizens worked tirelessly to see them come into fruition, it was these folks whom they were built for… they were the ones who had committed to coming up to Vermont from Los Angeles to run them and make them the resounding success that they are one year later.”

“When I think of all the people who have benefitted from these two services in the last twelve months, it makes me wonder how we ever managed to get on without them in the first place… So on behalf of Franklin County and its citizens I’d like to wish a Happy First Anniversary to these seven special folks and to offer up my heartfelt thanks for all they have done for us during this past year.”

As Johnny and Roy made their way up to the cake, they could hear the sounds of the crowd cheering. While they waited for the sparkler to burn itself out, Johnny called for Joe, Dixie and the other paramedics and clinic staff who were in attendance to join them up on the porch while they cut the cake.

Johnny leaned over and picked up the carving knife and handed it to Roy.

“I think since my right hand is still encased in plaster, you had better do the honors Pally.” Johnny said with a grin.

Roy picked up the knife with his right hand and with his left hand he grabbed Johnny’s left hand and placed it on top of his right.

“No way Junior… we’ll do it together, just like we do everything else.”

Johnny smiled as the two men’s eyes met and held each other’s gaze in a silent affirmation of their friendship, partnership, and family bond.

“Together” Johnny agreed.

And together the two men cut the first piece of cake while the crowd of guests looked on and cheered.

                                                               The End.

 

Published to Site 05/05/2012

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