(An Alternative ending)
This picks up where Johnny is going down to the trapped men.
As he slithered awkwardly down the narrow, corrugated tunnel, his arms stretched above him, Johnny wondered why he always volunteered for things like this. He must be mad. He knew before he set off that his elbows would be skinned raw on the sides. Grimacing, Johnny glanced up at the blue sky above him once more before concentrating on his controlled fall. He knew why he did it and it was for two reasons. One was that he liked helping people. That was why he had become a firefighter and then a paramedic. The other was so that Roy wouldn’t volunteer first. Roy had a family to look after and while Johnny had no desire to exit this earthly coil yet, he felt it was better that something happen to him than to Roy.
He landed feet and rear first into the collapsed tunnel and felt a slight twinge of soreness from the fall he had taken earlier in the shift breaking in a door. It was a momentary sensation and he thought no more about it as he took in his surroundings.
The two men he had been sent to assess were lying one on either side of the collapsed tunnel. One man was unconscious and the other looked as though he was in a lot of pain. They had a small clear area, but that was it. The unconscious man was protected by some sort of boarding. Johnny didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was the fact it had probably saved the man’s life.
“Hey, how you doin’?” Johnny asked as he disentangled himself from the rope harness he wore. He gave it two sharp tugs to let Cap know that he was down.
“Mort’s unconscious,” the man reported. “I think I’ve broke my leg.” He had his leg stretched out uncomfortably. “I’m Andy. Watch that right hand side over there. It doesn’t look too stable.”
“I’m John Gage.” Free from the rope, Johnny handed the HT to Andy while he reached for the drug box, which was being lowered down to him. He looked at the blockage and agreed that it didn’t look good. “I’ll just have a look at Mort here, then help you.”
“I’m all right,” Andy protested, even though he clearly wasn’t. Johnny appreciated his attitude. “Just look after Mort.”
Working quickly, Johnny took Mort’s vitals, then reached for the HT. “Roy? I’ve got the vitals.” He relayed the first set to Roy, then moved over to get Andy’s. Andy was already aware that Mort’s breathing wasn’t too good and he looked concerned.
“Just look after Mort,” he insisted. “He needs you.”
“You need me too,” Johnny replied. “And my boss would kill me if I didn’t send him your vitals, too. Once we’ve done this, I’ll get a splint onto your leg. It should help the pain a bit.” He raised the HT to his lips and passed on Andy’s vitals.
He was barely finished when there was an ominous rumbling sound. The sparse lights in the tunnel began to flicker and a trickle of earth drifted down from above. Johnny stopped and looked around, trying to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. Andy had warned him when he arrived that the soil on one side of the tunnel wasn’t looking good, but Johnny wasn’t sure if that was where the sound was coming from.
There was a sudden whump sound and Johnny instinctively threw himself over Andy, knocking the man off the small shelf of soil he had been sitting on. Andy let out a scream of pain as he toppled over and his broken leg was forcibly moved. Johnny wanted to apologize, but he was too busy trying to keep Andy’s head from being buried in the tons of earth and rock that cascaded down from above them.
When it finally stopped, Johnny was half buried, lying awkwardly on his side, still protecting Andy. He could only hope that Mort had survived. He struggled to free himself and managed to twist round to get off the injured miner. Andy pulled himself up a bit.
Pushing ineffectually at the soil covering his legs, Johnny glanced over his shoulder at Mort. The boarding had kept the man safe once more, although there was some dirt on his body. He was alive, although he needed the oxygen that Roy had been about to send down to him. Johnny had the drug box, for all the good that would do him. It was half-filled with soil and Johnny couldn’t locate the HT. On the plus side, the flashlight was still lit.
One more effort pulled his legs free. Johnny was filthy and he could feel grit everywhere, but that was the least of his worries. He quickly moved over to Mort and began to scrape the dirt off him. The man was still unconscious, but his breathing didn’t seem any worse for the moment.
“How’re you doing?” he asked Andy.
“All right.” It was a lie, but Andy and Johnny both knew what he meant.
“Great. Look, I’m going to start digging to find the end of the tunnel. Can you see if you can find my radio? It must be here somewhere.” They both looked around. The small space they had been in was considerably smaller and finding the HT would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Neither of them commented on that. Andy began to scrabble in the dirt and Johnny clambered carefully up the pile of soil and began to dig.
The second tunnel collapse – the first one being the one that had summoned them there initially – caught the guys up above by surprise. Clouds of dust rose from the ventilation tube causing them to pull back. But not for long. As the dust began to settle, Roy sprang forward and peered in horrified disbelief down the tunnel.”Johnny!” he shouted, then remembered the radio. Lifting the HT he called, “Johnny? Can you hear me?”
There was no response.
Looking round at the man who was in charge of the rescue for the mine, Cap asked, “How long till you dig through?” When they had arrived, the man had sent the other miners off to ‘the other tunnel’ to start to ‘dig in from down below’.
“Maybe sometime tonight?” hazarded the man doubtfully.
Kneeling by the biophone, Roy updated Rampart. “Rampart, this is Squad 51. There has been a further cave-in at our location. We have lost all contact with Gage.”
“How much oxygen do they have, 51?” Brackett asked.
“We don’t know,” Roy replied, frustrated. “We don’t know how big the space is.”
“Did you get the oxygen down to them?”
Heaving a sigh as he stared in frustration at the radio, Brackett frowned. “10-4, 51,” he acknowledged. “Keep us informed.”
“10-4,” Roy agreed numbly. He replaced the receiver and looked at Cap. Cap had ordered more men to come and help them out, but it was doubtful that they would arrive in time.
There was nothing they could do but wait.
Digging with bare hands was hot, hard work. Johnny was working near the roof of the tunnel and he was aware that he was possibly using up vital oxygen for no gain, but he had to try and uncover the bottom of the tunnel. It was their lifeline to the outside, and if they had to wait to be dug out, they would need any extra air that they could get.
The soil that he was kneeling on suddenly moved, leaving Gage sprawled on his stomach. He scrambled upright, seeing, to his delight, that he had found the opening of the tunnel. “Hey!” he yelled, scrabbling closer on hands and knees. “Roy?!”
He never knew if it was the digging or the yelling or both that triggered the next collapse, or if it was inevitable. One moment he was kneeling with his head at an impossible angle and the next moment, he was swept off his feet, rolling around as more tons of earth let loose with the speed of an express train.
Dirt was in his nose and his mouth and his eyes and his ears. He couldn’t see or hear or speak, and he coughed harshly to rid his lungs of the particles of foreign objects he had inhaled. Slowly, Johnny came back to awareness. He didn’t know if he had been knocked out or not, but he felt utterly pulped. He coughed some more and it hurt. With infinite care, Johnny wiped at his dirt-clogged eyes and pried them open.
Amazingly, the flashlight was still lit, although it had tumbled over. Mort was half buried, although his head was clear. Johnny turned his head the other way and saw that Andy was leaning back against the tunnel wall, his eyes closed and his face white. His legs were buried.
Instinctively starting to rise to attend to his patient, Johnny discovered that he was also buried. How he hadn’t been aware of the weight of the earth pressing him onto the rocky floor of the tunnel, he couldn’t imagine. His head and shoulders were free and he was lying face down. His left arm was trapped by his side, but at least his right hand was free.
“Andy?” Johnny rasped. “Andy?”
There was no response. Johnny knew the weight of the earth on Andy’s broken leg would be hell to bear. He had to get free to help Andy out, but that was easier said than done. He managed to worm his arm underneath his torso and push up. Soil spilled down from his back, but it wasn’t going to be that easy. His left arm was still trapped.
Time ceased to have any meaning as Johnny fought furiously to free himself, rocking his body to and fro to loosen the dirt and finally, he was able to draw his left arm up. By then, Andy was awake again and watching in a curiously detached manner. He was a miner and knew the risks. The chances of being saved after a cave-in diminished quickly as time passed by. His initial optimism that Johnny’s arrival had brought had vanished with the subsequent cave-ins. He was now preparing to die. “Don’t waste your time,” he advised Johnny. “We’re goners.”
Giving in wasn’t in Johnny’s vocabulary. “They’ll get to us,” he vowed, although their small chamber had shrunk once more. He dug his elbows into the ground again and pulled as hard as he could. Had he moved? Yes, he convinced himself. Even if it was just a fraction of an inch, he had moved. He would get free!
It was an agonizing task. Johnny’s elbows were soon raw and bleeding, his forearms scraped. Sweat ran down his dirt-caked face, leaving little clean rivulets behind. Unbeknown to Johnny, blood had also run down his face and neck, staining his shirt collar. He was drenched in sweat as he struggled to free himself, impelled by the occasional moans that slipped from Andy and Mort’s increasingly labored breathing. Johnny ignored the pain in his back and legs as he fought the enveloping earth.
Inch by tortured inch, Johnny dragged his body free. He was beyond exhausted by the effort and had to stop to rest, despite his best resolve to keep going. But finally, he had pulled himself out to the point where only his legs were buried. That was when he had to admit to a small problem.
He couldn’t move his legs.
One of the disadvantages to paramedic training was knowing what was potentially wrong with you when you got hurt. Lying half out of the earth, Johnny paused to take stock. He could feel his legs, more or less, but somewhat to the less of more, he thought, trying to find some humor in the subject. He failed to cheer himself up. There were all sorts of things that could be wrong with his legs and none of them were very cheerful conditions. In fact any or all of them could be career ending injuries and he could be facing his life in a wheelchair.
Closing his eyes against a sudden burning, Johnny forced himself to think of the positive outcomes. It could be that he would be wheelchair bound for a while, but would regain the use of his legs given time and treatment. While that was great, it wasn’t actually any comfort to him there and then. He was too tense and too – he paused before allowing the word to surface in his mind – frightened to be objective about this situation.
Meanwhile, he had a job to do, to the best of his ability. Johnny knew that focusing on his work would help him a bit, but it wasn’t easy. Anyone who said it was, was a liar. Keeping his mind on others helped him stop a pity-party starting, and he knew how easy a pity-party was!
How long it had taken him to drag himself free was unknown to Johnny. He suspected it had taken at least an hour, maybe longer, but time had no meaning in their small chamber. His watch face was shattered to the point where reading it was impossible, even assuming the watch was still going. He knew that it could ‘take a licking and keep on ticking’, but he doubted if the manufacturer had tested it under these circumstances!
Although Mort needed more attention, Johnny helped Andy first. This was something he could do. He snagged a cardboard splint and dragged his uncooperative body over to the miner. Andy refused to meet his eyes and Johnny respected his silence and dug his legs free without speaking. Gently, he got the splint situated and could see the relief that the splint and being free from the weight made. “Better?” he asked.
“Better,” Andy agreed.
Assessing him as best he could in the feeble light, Johnny knew the man could do with an IV, but the drug box had taken a battering in that last collapse and it was more than half-filled with dirt. The IV bags had burst. If they had been intact, Johnny would have given both Andy and Mort an IV and doctor’s orders – or lack thereof – be damned.
Luckily, Mort was no more than a couple of feet away from Andy. Johnny would have hated to have to drag his injured body a long distance. He was quite probably exacerbating his injuries, but he had a responsibility to the other men trapped with him.
Mort wasn’t looking good. Without an IV or oxygen, there wasn’t much Johnny could do for him. He was glad the blankets had made it down before the roof caved in. Keeping warm wasn’t a huge problem as the earth insulated them in their small chamber, but Mort was covered up to help him keep warm. The blanket made it easier to clear the dirt off the top of him, too and Johnny tried to keep the dust to a minimum as he tipped it off the blanket, but the air was already full of stinging particles and he started coughing again.
With Mort a little more comfortable and the second blanket bundled up beneath his head to lift him up slightly, Johnny sank back to rest. There really wasn’t much more he could do. He wished there was, so that his mind didn’t have time to dwell on his own problems.
“John, are you hurt?” Andy asked.
“Um, I’m not sure,” Johnny replied, because he didn’t want to say yes.
“You ain’t movin’ your legs,” Andy observed dispassionately.
“No,” Johnny agreed and the finality in his tone told Andy not to go there. At that moment, Johnny couldn’t bear to think about it.
Wisely, Andy took heed.
The extra crews from the fire department had turned up and been deployed digging out the tunnel from the other end. Meanwhile, Roy, Cap, Marco, Chet and Mike were waiting by the downpipe that had been their main means of communication with Johnny. There was nothing they could do there except wait and they were waiting with all their might and main.
Initially, Roy had been pacing, thrusting his hands in and out of his trouser pockets as if he didn’t know what to do with them. He didn’t. Never had his hands seemed so large and useless. He glanced at the biophone again, knowing that someone was manning the base station, waiting for an update when they had one. Roy didn’t think the waiting would be quite as hard on the Rampart staff as it was on 51’s crew; they had other calls to run to help take their minds off what might be happening in the earth below his feet.
Cap straightening up caught Roy’s attention and he followed his leader’s glance to see the mine foreman coming towards them. It was beginning to get dark and odd lights showed here and there on the bare hillside. Roy suddenly wondered what they were mining for – gold? Was there any gold left in California? He didn’t know and didn’t care. Whatever it was they were doing, it might cost his partner his life. What was worth three men’s lives?
“How’s it going?” Cap asked. His tone was calm and reasonable, as though one of his men was not trapped in a collapsed mine tunnel.
“The extra men sure are helping,” the man replied. “We think we’re about a hundred feet away from them.”
“So how long is it going to take?” Cap demanded.
“It’s pretty solid, so there’s no way to be sure,” the man admitted.
“How much oxygen do you think they have?” Cap asked. He found himself resenting the man’s pristine white shirt.
This was the question the foreman had been dreading. He looked down and swallowed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It depends on how big the chamber is. I just hope it’s enough.”
“I hope so, too,” Cap replied bleakly.
The flashlight batteries were starting to give out. The light was flickering, just like the tunnel lighting had done before the cave-in. When it finally gave out, they would be left in total darkness. Johnny hoped that he would be unconscious before that happened. He didn’t want to die in the dark. It would be one thing slipping away not knowing, but another to see the light die and know that you were likely to follow it at some point in the not-too-distant future.
He also hoped he would be unconscious before Mort died. The man’s breathing was growing more and more labored and it hurt Johnny’s heart not to be able to help him. There was still a chance at the moment, but if they weren’t rescued soon, Mort would be beyond help. Johnny glanced across at Andy. The other man had his eyes shut, but Johnny knew he wasn’t sleeping. The tension in the chamber could be cut by a knife. Waiting for certain death to come and claim you was not a sleep-inducing activity.
Shifting position slightly to escape a rock that was persistently digging into his back, Johnny once again felt the dead weight his legs had become. They were gradually getting numb and he was feeling very despondent. If they did get out of there, he would likely never walk again. On top of that, his head was pounding and sweat was trickling down his body. If the chamber was becoming stuffy, they were running out of oxygen.
There was a sound.
For a long moment, it didn’t really register. There were small sounds all the time as rocks succumbed to gravity and rolled down the piled earth all around and trickles of soil rolled in small landslides to land on the floor of the chamber. This was just another sound amongst many.
Except this one was different.
It suddenly occurred to Johnny what this sound was and he sat upright, his numb legs forgotten for the moment, and glanced over at Andy. The miner had his eyes open and was looking at Johnny. They both felt a wild hope flaring in their hearts. What they could hear was the sounds made by their rescuers.
The sound came again.
“Don’t get too excited,” Andy advised. He sounded depressed and Johnny shot him a look. The other man was pale beneath the dirt smeared on his face. Johnny imagined that he was pretty pale, too. “They still have a ways to go before they get here. We might still be dead.”
“They’ll get here,” Johnny predicted, trying to infect the other man with his hope.
“We’re dead men,” he retorted. “If it gets too tough, they’ll tell the bosses that we’re lost causes and pack up and go home.”
“The fire department won’t give up,” Johnny argued.
“Yeah; sure; whatever. Believe what you want. But we’re still dead men.” Andy closed his eyes again and sighed heavily.
Unsure what to say in the face of such determined fatalism, Johnny said nothing. He knew that pain wore a man down and made it hard to believe that rescue would come. Watching a friend dying by inches was a dreadful thing, too, beyond words. Andy had both those things to contend with. And then there was this paralyzed stranger in their midst who tried to be cheerful and keep their spirits up. For Andy, it was too much to bear.
The flashlight gave one last flicker and died.
It was dark and the moon was rising behind the hill. Mike had switched on the big light on the engine and trained it on the ventilation pipe. They were all still huddled there, even though they knew there was no way that Johnny would be coming back up that pipe. Roy sat quietly in a corner, his head tucked down into the collar of his turnout coat. The evening wasn’t cold, but he was wracked with shivers.
A few steps away, Cap rested his head against his arm as he leaned on the chain link fence. He had never lost a man under his command and he was desperately trying to think of a way to stop this being the first time. Each plan he came up with was more outlandish than the last and all were completely unworkable.
Sitting alone in the engine, ostensibly monitoring the radio, Mike was gazing into a vista of hell. He loved being a firefighter and had never thought of another career. But doing rescue work the way Johnny and Roy did had never been his passion. He loved the engines and running the gages. While he wasn’t averse to handling a hose on occasion, he preferred fighting the beast with his technical know-how by handling the engine. He had lost comrades before and didn’t want to do so again. But he feared that Johnny was already gone and he didn’t want his air of melancholy to depress the others who were managing to hold on to hope.
Hope was such a fragile thing. Chet didn’t want to admit how close he and Johnny actually were, because that would admit to a side of himself that Chet took great care to ensure stayed hidden. He had never been comfortable with showing affection directly, just indirectly by playing pranks and cracking jokes. Chet couldn’t imagine Gage dead – he didn’t want to imagine it. If he couldn’t imagine it, then it wouldn’t happen. As simple as that. Wasn’t it?
Beside him, Marco was praying. He had to do something constructive; the waiting was killing him. It had all been going so well before the cave-in. Marco concluded his prayer and looked at Roy. He knew the other man was blaming himself for allowing Johnny to go down, but if Johnny hadn’t spoken up first, Roy would have wanted to go down. Johnny was the most likely candidate for the job in any case; he was the slimmest member of the crew by a long way. He was also the one who kept the crew going. There was always something to smile about in his antics and Marco knew that if, God forbid, Johnny was gone he would miss him immensely.
“We’re nearly through!” The shout brought the whole crew to their feet. The foreman’s white shirt was now grubby and Cap liked the man better for that. “You’d better come.”
“Quickly!” Cap ordered unnecessarily. The men were all grabbing bits of equipment and hurrying after the foreman. Cap hauled out his radio as he hurried after the others. “LA, Engine 51. We are getting closer to freeing the trapped men. Alert the air ambulance to stand by.”
“Air ambulance is standing by, 51,” the dispatcher confirmed.
They hurried over to another mine entrance, this one full size and rather more like Roy expected to see in the first place. And then they were waiting again, with that painful mixture of hope and despair that was so hard to bear. Roy knelt by the biophone. “Rampart, this is squad 51, do you read?”
“Loud and clear,” replied Brackett’s voice. It sounded as almost as anxious as Roy felt.
“Rampart, we are informed that the rescue crews have almost reached the victims. Please stand by.”
“Standing by, 51.” Brackett drummed his fingers on the desk. There had been someone on duty in the base station constantly since Roy first contacted them to say there had been a further collapse. His shift was drawing to a close, which was why he was now standing there. He would stand there until he heard about the victims one way or another. While he hated losing any patient, he especially hated losing one of his friends. And Johnny had been with the paramedic program almost since the beginning. He and Roy were the dream team, the ones that were held up for new paramedics to aspire to be like.
The door closed behind him and Dixie came in. Her lovely face was drawn and anxious. “Any news?” she asked, having seen the red light flash, indicating a call coming in.
“They’re almost through,” Brackett told her. “We’re waiting again.” He placed his hand over hers and gave it a squeeze. “It shouldn’t be much longer.”
“It’s been too long already,” Dixie replied, almost inaudibly. For a moment, she allowed herself to lean on Kel’s strength, then took a deep breath and stood up straight. “We’re all ready for them,” she reported.
He was unbearably dizzy and thought he might throw up. The darkness was pressing down on him, becoming heavier with every moment that passed. Nearby, Mort’s stertorous breathing was becoming louder and less rhythmic. Andy was silent, either unconscious or withdrawn into himself. Johnny knew that he was panting, too and hoped he would pass out soon. He was afraid that if he remained awake, he would start screaming and be unable to stop. Loss of control was only inches away.
The worst things, unbelievably, were the sounds of rescue. The constant noise was wearing and it never seemed to be getting any closer. If he had been entirely rational, Johnny would have realized that sound could be distorted because of the tunnel and the earth around them, but after hours trapped in the chamber, the oxygen level was running low and injury and isolation and helplessness had taken their toll. He lolled against the dirt piled behind him and his eyes drifted closed. There was no point in keeping them open – he couldn’t see anything anyway.
He was floating, his mind no longer attached to his body and he thought, vaguely, that this wasn’t too bad a way to go, in the end.
“We’re through!” The shout, though joyful, was muted in deference to the state of the ceiling above them.
Moving quickly, Roy pushed his way into the tiny chamber. For a moment, he feared all three men were dead and he didn’t know which one to help first. The paramedics who had come in the air ambulance joined him and, luckily, Jay Parker was more decisive at that moment. “Roy, you deal with Johnny. Del and I will take the other two.” Parker also gave Roy a small push. He could only guess at the strain 51’s crew had been under for the last 6 hours. It was no wonder that Roy was slightly stunned now the time for action had come.
With immense gratitude that he knew he wouldn’t be allowed to express, Roy hurried to Johnny’s side. His partner was caked in dirt, his face dirty, with dried blood on one side and tracks showing where sweat had trickled down his face. Johnny was unconscious. His body was lying limply on the earth. Apart from the head injury, and some minor tears in his pants, there was no immediate sign of injury. Still, Roy knew he couldn’t take any chances. He quickly gathered some vitals, frowning as he saw the signs of shock and dehydration.
“Rampart, this is squad 51.”
“Go ahead, 51,” Brackett responded immediately.
“Um, Rampart, I have a paramedic trapped in a cave-in for 6 hours. He is unconscious at this time. There is a minor head wound but no other apparent signs of injury. Vitals are as follows. Respirations are 24 and shallow, BP is 90/60 and pulse is 120. Skin showed marked turgor.”
“10-4, 51. Start two IVs D5W and normal saline. Oxygen 10 liters. Immobilize on a backboard just in case and transport as soon as possible. Update vitals every 5 minutes.”
“10-4,” Roy acknowledged. He could see their own drug box, but there was nothing in it he could use, given the state it was in. However, Jay had been listening and handed Roy what he needed. Chet had brought in the oxygen with him and set the mask over Johnny’s face. Marco ran for the backboard and a C collar and Cap held the flashlight steady while Roy got a stick on both arms.
It took only a couple of minutes to prepare Johnny for transport. Andy and Mort were also bundled into Stokes and the men helped the paramedics carry the stretchers over to the waiting helicopter. It was going to be a tight fit to get three stretchers and three paramedics in, but no one could be left behind. The helicopter took off and flew into the night and the firefighters and miners left behind watched until it disappeared from sight behind a hill.
Suddenly exhausted, Cap looked at his watch. It was almost 10pm. “Let’s go home,” he suggested. “Chet, are you okay to bring in the squad?”
“Sure, Cap,” Chet agreed.
“Marco, why don’t you go with him, pal?” Cap suggested. He climbed into the engine. “Home, Mike,” he sighed and lifted the mic. “Engine 51 returning to quarters,” he reported.
The flight made good time and touched down outside Rampart 15 minutes later. Johnny was stirring by that point, mumbling slightly but not yet responding to verbal commands. Andy was in much the same way, but Mort was not improving. Roy hoped that they had not got there too late to save the badly injured man.
They were met by three doctors. Mike Morton took charge of Andy and whisked him away. Dr Brackett looked quickly at Johnny, and Mort and took Mort with him. Joe Early smiled at Roy. “Looks like you’re stuck with me,” he joked.
Smiling back briefly, Roy supervised the orderlies transferring Johnny onto the gurney and began updating Early as they hurried into the ER. “His BP is 110/90, respirations are 20 and pulse is 100. He is semi-conscious. He was trapped in a small chamber for over 6 hours and the air was running out when we got to them. He’s probably a bit hypoxic.”
Dixie was waiting for them in treatment four. She gave Roy a tight smile before she started to cut Johnny’s clothes off.
“Johnny, can you hear me?” Early asked, leaning over and checking Johnny’s pupils. Johnny winced and tried to move his head away. “Johnny?”
“Yeah,” Johnny mumbled from under the oxygen mask. His head was pounding and he was finding the lights too bright after all those hours in gloom and darkness.
“Do you know where you are?” Early asked, starting the standard neurological exam.
“Uh ... Rampart?” Johnny guessed.
“Got it in one,” Early smiled. “Do you know what day it is?”
“No,” Johnny responded. Who cared what day it was? What did it matter?
Exchanging a glance with Roy, Early went on with the questions. “Do you remember what happened?” he asked.
“No,” Johnny began uncertainly and started to cough. He dragged in a breath and gagged. Immediately, Dixie recognized the signs.
“He’s going to be sick!” she cried and grabbed an emesis basin as Early and Roy quickly lifted the backboard and turned Johnny. They weren’t a moment too soon.
With Johnny lying flat once more, Dixie wiped his mouth, then began to clean the dirt off his face. The cool water felt good to the injured man. The oxygen and fluids were doing their job and his head was clearer every moment.
“The cave-in!” Johnny exclaimed and tried to sit up. Dix, Early and Roy all made to restrain him, as he was still strapped to the backboard and they didn’t want him hurting himself further.
“Doc!” Roy said urgently. He had one hand resting on Johnny’s leg. He beckoned when Early looked round at him.
“What is it?” Early asked, coming down beside Roy and lowering his voice.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Roy whispered. “Watch.” He pinched his friend’s thigh hard. Johnny didn’t flinch or moan. There was no reaction to it at all. Fearfully, Roy raised his eyes to Early’s. The physician looked grave. He repeated Roy’s action on the other leg and got no response.
“Johnny?” Early leaned over Johnny and made eye contact. “Johnny can you feel this?” Again he pinched the paramedic’s leg.
“Feel what?” Johnny asked.
The tension in the room was almost palpable. “Dix, I want x-ray here stat! Full spine, pelvis and skull series. Draw blood, typed and cross match four units to hold and put an OR on standby.” His genial face was drawn and serious.
“Roy?” Johnny called. “Roy?”
“I’m here,” Roy soothed, stepping up so Johnny could see him.
“How’re Andy and Mort?” he asked. “After the cave-in, I couldn’t get free to help them.”
“They’re in good hands,” Roy answered. “Just worry about yourself.”
Memory was flooding back now. Johnny made an agitated motion. “Roy...” He tried to clutch his friend’s arm, but was prevented by the straps. Roy took his hand. “Roy, I ... I can’t feel my legs,” he confessed. “I had to sort of dig myself out after the cave-in and my legs wouldn’t move, though I could kinda feel them. Then they got numb. Roy?” He gulped. “I’m frightened,” he admitted, sounding bewildered and not a little scared.
“It’s all right,” Roy soothed. “It’s all right.”
He knew he was lying.
It had been a fight, but Dr Brackett was sure that Mort would live now. He had inserted a chest tube, which had re-inflated Mort’s collapsed lung and Mort was in ICU. His head injury was quite severe, but he had regained consciousness. It was quite a save.
His work complete, he went to see how Morton was getting on and was pleased to see that Andy was already settled in a ward in orthopedics and had had his leg set. That was another good save. Morton’s shift was over, so Brackett sent him home. It was time that Brackett and Early finished, too, but he knew Joe would not leave until he had Johnny settled, so he went to see how Johnny was doing.
The x-rays were back but Johnny was off having a CT scan, too. Roy sat in the corner of the room, nervously chewing his lip. Both Dr Early and Dr Brackett were poring over the x-rays. Roy wanted to ask about them and in another way he didn’t want to ask about them. He didn’t want to hear that his partner had broken his back and would never work as an active firefighter and paramedic again.
The door opened and Dr Brackett came in. He took one look at Roy’s face and knew something was up. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“We’re not quite sure,” Early responded. He glanced round at his friend and adjusted his glasses on his nose to peer at the x-rays again. “Johnny has no feeling or movement below his waist. He’s having a CT right now.”
“What’s the mechanism of injury? Do we know?” Brackett also peered at the x-rays.
“Johnny says that there was a second collapse after he lost contact with Roy. He appears to have lost consciousness and we’re surmising that was when he received the head injury. It isn’t severe, but he does have a mild concussion. However, when he came round, he was buried under a lot of rocks and dirt. By the time he’d dug himself out, he’d realized that his legs weren’t moving but he still had feeling. That wore off gradually.” Early frowned. There was nothing to see on the x-rays.
“Was he moving around?” Brackett asked and then answered his own question. “Of course he was. What am I saying? This is Johnny we’re talking about.”
“You’ve got it,” Early nodded.
“Well,” Brackett said, ruminatively, “there’re no visible breaks on the x-rays.” He looked closer, but there was no change. He glanced at Roy, who had remained silent. “What are you thinking, Joe?”
“Right now, I’m not thinking anything,” Early responded, casting a significant look at Roy. “I want to see the CT results first.” He took his specs off and popped them into his breast pocket. “We’ve got at least another 15 minutes before Johnny and Dixie get back from CT. Why don’t we grab a cup of coffee and then see what’s what?”
“Good thinking.” Brackett crossed the room to take Roy’s elbow and managed to get the paramedic moving without any undignified pushing or pulling. Brackett knew how hard the waiting had been for him when he had other things to do; he couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for Roy and the crew when they had nothing else to do but wait. He wondered when Roy had last eaten anything.
The same thought had occurred to Joe Early because he went to the vending machine and bought Roy some fruit and a sad looking pre-wrapped sandwich. The cafeteria was long closed and he knew there was nothing edible in the lounge fridge. While Brackett poured them all coffee, Early pushed the food at Roy. “You’ve got to eat,” he ordered.
Reluctantly, Roy did as he was told. Although the sandwich left a lot to be desired taste-wise, he did feel better for eating it, much as he hated to admit it. “Thanks,” he offered.
“You’re welcome,” Early replied. “Do you feel a bit better?”
“Yes,” Roy nodded. “Can we talk about Johnny now?”
“We can, but I still don’t know yet exactly what is wrong with him,” Early reminded Roy. “The CT should give us some answers.” He slowly twirled his cup in his hands, wondering vaguely if the coffee had been made that day or several days previously. To say it was stewed was an understatement. “His concussion isn’t too serious, so I’m not worrying unduly about that, although we’ll keep an eye on it, of course. Like the other two, he’ll have inhaled a lot of dirt particles, so we’re probably looking at some kind of respiratory problem, from a chest infection up to pneumonia. We’ll get him started on antibiotics and hopefully head that one off. I’ll have to give his arms a thorough cleaning because we don’t want an infection started there, either. Judging from the mess they are in, he had quite a job dragging himself free.” Joe paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “Obviously, he is going to be here for several days at the least.”
The lounge door opened and Dixie stuck her head in. “That’s us back,” she announced unnecessarily.
The three men at the table rose as one. Roy felt less shaky than he had before, but no less worried. He hurried along the corridor to the treatment room and went straight to the head of the table, leaning over Johnny and finding a smile from somewhere. “Hey,” he murmured.
“Hey,” Johnny responded. He looked better, with more color in his cheeks. “Roy, my legs...”
“The doctors are just looking at the CT scan now,” Roy soothed. “Then we’ll get some answers.” He patted his friend’s shoulder. He wanted to say more and assure Johnny that he would be all right, but he was afraid to, in case it wasn’t all right.
“No, Roy...” Johnny began, but Roy was no longer looking at him.
Drs Brackett and Early were coming over. Roy’s mouth was suddenly very dry and his legs trembled beneath him. He could pretend no longer; they were about to hear Johnny’s fate.
“Roy, Johnny.” Brackett nodded to them, assessing both of them. Roy looked as though he was about to fall down. Johnny, on the other hand, looked a bit better.
“Tell me,” Johnny demanded, what he had been going to say to Roy vanishing out of his head.
“The news is pretty good,” Brackett told him. “There are no breaks in your back, but there is bruising about L1. There is some swelling over the spinal cord, but it doesn’t appear to be damaged. We’re going to start you on steroids to help the swelling and some antibiotics. You’ve got to be still, Johnny, so we’re going to put you in traction for a few days till we see how things are going. In the meantime, we’ve got to debride your arms, so I’m going to give you a sedative, because it’ll be pretty painful.”
“Doc,” Johnny began, but Brackett cut him off.
“Johnny, I don’t know if you’ll get full use of your legs back, but let’s think positively. L1 is pretty low and that’s good. There’ll be no problems with your breathing and you may well get some sensation back for your bladder and bowels. Obviously, we’ll be catheterizing you in a few moments. Just relax and think positively.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder.
“Doc...” Johnny began again, but this time it was Roy who interrupted.
“That’s great news,” Roy cried. It was a weight off his mind, even if it wasn’t the 100% guarantee he was looking for.
“Here you go, Johnny,” Early said, shooting the sedative into his IV port. “You should feel better when you wake up tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Johnny slurred as the potent drugs took effect. “But...” He wasn’t able to go on as the warm wave of sleep overtook him and dragged him down into the peaceful depths.
“Your timing was perfect, Joe,” Brackett congratulated his colleague. “He was starting to get upset, although I think the prognosis is good. The bruising isn’t on the cord itself, but in the area. I think it may just be spinal shock and Johnny should regain sensation over the next 4-6 weeks. Physical therapy will sort out any lingering problems.” He turned to Roy, who was feeling a whole lot steadier. “Roy, there’s no point in you staying. We’re not going to allow Johnny to waken up before tomorrow afternoon. That will give us plenty of time for debriding and getting him settled in traction.”
“Thanks, doc,” Roy replied. “I’ll have to go back on duty, but if there’s any change...”
“I’ll call at once,” Brackett promised.
It was only as he left the exam room that Roy realized he had no way to get back to the station. He had arrived in the helicopter, but as far as he knew, the squad could still be back at the mine. He had no idea how long he had been at the hospital. However, he needn’t have worried. The engine crew was waiting for him, wearing identical worried expressions. Joining them, Roy told them the good news. “Johnny should be okay in a few weeks,” he declared.
“Good news,” Cap agreed. “What about the other two?”
“It was pretty close, but they’re gonna be all right as well.”
“Glad to hear it.” Cap clapped his hands together. “Let’s get back to the barn. HQ was calling in a replacement for Johnny and they should be there by the time we get there.”
“The squad...” Roy began.
“Is outside,” Cap completed. “Let’s go. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.”
Spinal traction was not a comfortable option. A halo device was fitted to the head and weights used to keep the spine aligned. It was usually used during healing of broken bones. Since Johnny didn’t have those problems, and the doctors just wanted to keep him still, it was decided that a halo device wouldn’t be fitted and instead an old-fashioned harness would be fitted. To reduce the stress of this, it was decided that Johnny should be kept fairly sedated and large doses of muscle relaxants would aid in that.
The debridement of his arms had gone well and he was now bandaged from fingertips to elbows on both arms. An IV dripped steroids, fluids and antibiotics into the crook of his left arm and he had a Foley catheter. His arms rested on pillows by his sides and he was strapped gently to the bed to prevent him moving. An NG tube was taped to his nose so that he could get high-calorie supplements while he was immobilized. As was usual for a patient in his position, he was in ICU so he could be monitored closely.
While Johnny was sedated enough that moving was not an option, he was awake enough sometimes to want to complain, but was unable to form words. He had to assume that this medieval torture was necessary, but if he had been able, he would have screamed out a protest. Luckily, the drugs made him sleep most of the time.
ICU rules applied to all his visitors and there were no exceptions. Johnny was not in any life-threatening danger; he just required constant care and his visitors were restricted to two people for ten minutes every hour, during normal hospital visiting hours. He tried to talk to Roy and he tried to talk to the doctors when they came, but he was unable to make them understand.
After five days of that hell, Johnny was heavily sedated and when he woke, he was free of the traction. He was still hooked up to the IV and most of the drugs, and the catheter was still in place, but it was a huge improvement.
“Hey,” said a soft voice and Johnny pried open his eyelids to look at Roy.
“Hey,” he croaked and Roy angled a straw towards his mouth so that he could sip. The water felt great, apart from when he swallowed and became aware of the NG tube in his throat. Slowly, he oriented himself. He was in a room at Rampart, but it wasn’t ICU, which was always a plus. He felt foggy, as was usual after being sedated for long periods, but he knew that would wear off. The NG tube was horrible, but with luck it would be pulled as soon as he had eaten something solid. He was stiff but not too sore. He raised his hands to look at them. The worst of the bandages were off by then, but he was still wrapped tightly from wrist to elbow in gauze. “How long has it been?” he asked.
“Five days,” Roy told him. “Do you remember any of it?”
“Bits and pieces,” Johnny replied. “Mostly when I was being moved about.” He wriggled slightly, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Do you think I could sit up?” he asked.
Roy wasn’t listening. “Johnny!” he gasped.
“What?” Johnny asked, feeling a small surge of fear in his belly. What had Roy seen that he hadn’t? “Roy? What?”
“I’m nearly sure... don’t get your hopes up... oh God...”
Staring at Roy, Johnny felt his heart rate picking up. Anxiously, he gazed at his partner. Roy pressed the call button. “Get Dr Brackett or Early,” he ordered the nurse. “Hurry.”
“Roy, you’re scaring me,” Johnny whispered.
“It’s okay,” Roy soothed, but his manner was odd and Johnny was not ready to deal with anything out of the ordinary.
It didn’t take long for Brackett and Early to appear. They looked almost as anxious as Johnny felt. “John, Roy. What is it?”
“Can I please sit up?” Johnny requested. He wriggled some more, as he had been doing constantly since he woke, trying to find a comfortable position.
“See?” Roy asked, looking at the doctors. “Did you see?”
Both of them looked mystified, but as Roy now pointed and Johnny wriggled, they did indeed see. Broad grins broke out on both faces and Johnny began to feel really annoyed. “What?!” he demanded angrily. “See what!”
“Johnny,” Brackett was grinning fit to burst, something that Johnny had rarely seen. “You’re moving your legs.”
The relief was overwhelming. Johnny closed his eyes and willed back tears. When he had his emotions under control again, he opened his eyes and looked at his friends. “Down in the ER,” he whispered, “I was trying to tell you that I was getting feeling back into my legs.”
“This is the best outcome we could have hoped for,” Early beamed. “We’ll have to get another CT scan, but it can wait till tomorrow. John, I don’t want you moving about too much and certainly no trying to walk until we give the all clear. We need to see how the swelling is doing before we decide the next move.”
“The next move?” Johnny looked puzzled. “Surely I just go home in a few days?”
“Not quite,” Brackett chuckled. “You’ve been asleep for five days, and although we kept you doing passive movements, you’ll find that getting up is not going to be that easy. You’ll need some physical therapy and we need to make sure that you have control of your bladder and bowels. It could be, if there is still some swelling present, that you have to stay in bed for a while longer. We’re not going to take any risks here, Johnny. There’s no point in rushing things.”
“Can I at least sit up?” Johnny asked, slightly disgruntled that his hoped-for freedom would be longer in arriving than it had seemed a few minutes ago.
“Very slowly,” Brackett agreed and he and Early supervised the lifting of the head of the bed. Johnny could see why. Sitting up was rather like getting up too fast – he got quite a head rush, but once his the dizzy spell passed, it felt good to have a change of position, even if he was still reclining more than he had wanted.
“Any chance of some real food?” Johnny asked, once his head had settled. Roy, Brackett and Early were still grinning at him. He pointed to the NG tube. “And when am I getting rid of this?”
“We’ll start you on something light and see how you get on,” Brackett promised. “Then we’ll see.” While that wasn’t enough for Johnny, that was all he was getting in the meantime.
After the doctors had left, Johnny looked at Roy and smiled. “You haven’t been sitting beside me for five days have you?” he asked.
“No,” Roy replied. “When you were in ICU, there was a rota for the ten minute visit every hour. We were pretty worried, you know.”
“I can imagine,” Johnny nodded. “I lucked out this time, didn’t I? When we were trapped in that tunnel and the air was running out and then the flashlight quit, I really thought I’d bought it.”
“Andy said the same thing,” Roy reported. “He told me he thought you were an idiot to keep hoping, despite the evidence to the contrary.”
“He’s doing all right?” Johnny asked eagerly. Roy nodded. “And Mort?”
“Mort’s going to be fine, too,” Roy assured him. “Andy’s already gone home and Mort will be going in another few days.” Roy smiled. “I told Andy you always were a cock-eyed optimist and he agreed. He sends you his thanks and best wishes.”
“That’s nice of him.” Although they had spent several hours trapped together in the mine, Johnny wasn’t sure he would even recognize Andy if they met in the street. Mind you, since both of them would be clean, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising. “What’s with my arms?” he asked, holding them up briefly.
“Your arms were all cut and scraped, we assume from you trying to dig yourself out.” Roy made a face. “It was pretty nasty. Good thing you got to sleep through it. I wished I known what you were trying to tell us down in the ER.”
“I wish you’d listened,” Johnny retorted. They both laughed. “Anything else about myself I ought to know?” he wondered and yawned widely. “I don’t feel like I had pneumonia, but I’m pretty weak all the same.”
“No, no pneumonia,” Roy replied. “You did have a bit of a chest infection but thanks to the antibiotics, it never really got going. The bump on your head was no big deal either.” He shrugged. “A bit of a disappointment, I’d say.”
“What?” Johnny was confused now. “What do you mean?”
“Well, only one real injury?” Roy teased. “You’re letting the side down there, Junior.”
“Huh!” But Johnny was laughing all the same. “I think I’m gonna catch a nap, Pally,” he sighed. “Hey, whatever happened to that dog that was in the station?”
“Henry? Oh, he’s still in the station,” Roy answered. “We decided to keep him. B and C shifts said they didn’t mind.”
“Henry?” Johnny echoed. “Who chose that? What did Cap say?”
“Well, you kind of chose it,” Roy replied. “One of the times I was visiting, you were mumbling in your sleep and said something about Henry the dog. I didn’t know who you meant, but the name seemed to fit. And Cap said as long as none of us call the dog ‘Hank’, he doesn’t mind too much.”
“Is Chet still alive?” Johnny asked and they both laughed again.
In the end, it was another two weeks before Johnny got home from the hospital and another four weeks after that before he was declared fit to go back to work. He had worked hard at his physical therapy exercises to regain his muscle strength and tone and had managed to get back to work faster than Brackett had originally anticipated.
It felt good to walk back into the station. Johnny stopped in the day room and looked around. The members of C shift greeted him warmly. He spoke to them for several minutes, genuinely touched by the sentiments. But roll call was fast approaching and the last thing he wanted was latrine duty on his first day back.
“Welcome back,” Roy said, as he entered the locker room.
“Welcome back,” Chet, Marco and Mike echoed.
After roll call was over (“Welcome back, John,” Cap said warmly), they all went into the day room, where Cap had sprung for celebratory doughnuts. Henry was lying on the couch.
“Guess that’s his favorite place, huh?” Johnny commented as he went over.
“He only moves when absolutely necessary,” Chet agreed.
Tentatively, Johnny petted the dog. Their last mascot, Boot, had taken a firm dislike to Johnny for no apparent reason. Henry was too lazy to bother taking a dislike to anyone. He simply lay there and accepted the caresses. “Hey, Henry,” Johnny crooned and felt eyes on him. Glancing up, he saw Cap looking at him.
A crooked grin crept across Johnny's face. He raised one hand in submission. “I know, I know,” he promised. “I’ll never call him ‘Hank’.”
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