Wildfire

By Rona

“How does it feel to do some real work, Gage?” Chet Kelly asked as he paused for a moment to lean on his shovel.

Glancing sideways at his friend, Johnny kept digging. “Like you would know real work, Kelly,” he retorted. The work was back breaking and the heat was overwhelming and the air was full of smoke. He didn’t feel inclined to have a chat. Besides, the last they had heard, the fire was gaining on this area and the firebreak they were digging wasn’t anything like wide enough.

“Gee, your sense of humor hasn’t survived, has it?” the other returned. Chet had to admit to himself that he was feeling pretty tired, too. His back ached and his arms ached and despite his gloves, his palms felt raw. He just knew that when he took his helmet off, his hair would be plastered to his head in unattractive lumps and his clothes were dripping thanks to the sauna-like properties of his turnout coat.

“The way things are going, not much is going to survive this fire,” Johnny commented, his voice hoarse from the smoky air. He hated brush fires. This one had been raging for two days straight and the clouds of smoke were clearly visible from many parts of Los Angeles. A number of homes in the hills had been lost and several firefighters had been injured. Crews were being called in from all over the county and before long, the city crews would be asked to come, too. Already the media were castigating the firefighters because the fire was not yet 100% contained; to be honest, it was burning completely out of control, fanned by the Santa Ana winds and consuming the tinder-dry brush at a vast rate.

With a sigh, Chet started digging again. Men were strung out all along this hillside, digging out the dry brush, leaving the earth exposed. Over the brow of the hill, the trees started again, but the soil was too sparse to allow them to grow along the top. It was hoped that the firefighters would be able to dig it out quickly enough to make the necessary break. So far, it was looking doubtful.

There was almost no chat along the line. There had been, initially, when they had begun digging here about four hours ago. But four hours with only short breaks had taken its toll on all the men. They were dirty and sweat-streaked and moving more slowly with every passing minute. They were due to be relieved in an hour and then they would make their ways back to their own stations where they could have a meal and a shower before resuming the rest of their 24 hour shift. They had already put in four hours on their regular shift that morning. Saying it was a strenuous schedule was something of an understatement.

Straightening his aching back, Johnny parked his spade in the powdery earth and walked a couple of steps to retrieve a canteen. The water was tepid now, it had been ice cold earlier, but the liquid was magical as it trickled down his parched throat. Johnny’s actions made Chet feel thirsty and he copied his friend. They had been as sparing with the water as they could, but the canteens were less than half full now. They would have to be careful. With a sigh, Johnny resisted the urge to pull his helmet off and pour water over his head. The idea sounded great.

Capping the canteen again, Johnny looped the strap over his shoulder, planning to drop it a bit in front of where he was working, so that he was working towards it, not away from it. He flexed his shoulders, feeling his sweat-soaked shirt peeling off his back, leaving a momentary chill behind it before the wet material and heavy coat resettled. He wanted a shower in the worst possible way.

Picking up the shovel, Johnny sighed before resuming digging. He took a couple of steps nearer to the brow of the hill and looked at the tough brush growing there. “Come on, Chet,” he called. “We’re nearly done.”

“Stop being so optimistic,” Chet chided him, stepping forward to join him. “We still can’t see over the top.”

“You could if you were taller,” jibed Johnny. He pretended he could see over the other side, which he couldn’t – quite.

“Ooooh!” Chet hooted. “Look who’s trying to be funny. You’ll note I use the word ‘trying’. You’re very trying but not in the least funny, Gage.” He took another step forward, convinced that he would be able to see over then, since he would then be further up the slope than Johnny therefore he’d be taller than him.

The sound of a helicopter reached their ears, the distinctive whuap-whuap cutting through the air. It sounded quite low. “Do you think he’s all right?” Chet asked, taking another step towards the brow of the hill and turning round to look back, trying to locate the chopper.

“Sounds okay,” Johnny commented, also taking the last step that brought him to the top of the hill. The downside sloped steeply away from them, the treeline starting about 10 or 15 feet down. “I wonder if they’ve been called to airlift someone,” he commented worriedly. To reassure himself that Roy was all right, he glanced to his right and looked at Roy some 25 feet along the ridge from him. Roy was still digging and didn’t look up. For some reason, Johnny wished he would.

The sound of the chopper grew louder and the other diggers looked upwards as well. All of a sudden, the chopper appeared over the trees and flew straight at them. Nobody had time to react as the chopper opened its payload and deluged the hill top in water.

The stunned firefighters were knocked off their feet by the force of the water, choking and gasping as they inadvertently inhaled it. Winded, bruised, soaked through, they lay where they had fallen for several minutes before anyone recovered enough to do a head count.

Captain Hank Stanley looked around, locating each of his men. Engineer Mike Stoker was cradling what looked like a broken arm. Marco Lopez had a bloody nose and Roy DeSoto looked as though he had bitten through his lip. Roy was crouching by Mike, obviously assessing him. Cap looked round.

Of John Gage and Chet Kelly, there was no sign.

***********

“Hank? What have we got?” The voice belonged to another fire captain who was working the same stretch of ground as 51s. He looked bruised and was soaked. “All my men are accounted for, and we don’t have any serious injuries. What about you?”

“Looks like my engineer has a broken arm,” Cap replied, his voice distracted. He met the other captain’s gaze. “Two of my men are missing.”

“What?” Captain Josiah Washington glanced all around. “Where were they working?”

“The last time I saw them, they were over there,” Cap pointed. His feet had been frozen in place and he had not looked more closely. He just hoped he had not been standing there for more than a few seconds. Now, he moved without conscious thought to where the spades were lying in the now muddy earth. Any footprints there might have been had been washed away with the soil after the water hit. Cap steeled himself to look over the edge. Bits and pieces of brush were scattered on the downhill slope, but the land gave no evidence of his men’s passing. The water had obliterated everything.

Washington dragged his HT out of his coat pocket, hoping that the water hadn’t damaged it. “Base, this is unit 14. We have just been hit by a water drop and have two men missing.”

“Unit reporting in, please repeat,” the dispatcher responded. With a disgusted tightening of his lips, Washington did as he was ordered. “Your transmission is breaking up, unit 14. Did you say you have men missing?”

“Affirmative, base,” Washington confirmed. “Two men from Station 51 have disappeared.”

There was a pause, a long pause, and both captains wondered if the radio had given up on them entirely. However, it appeared that wasn’t the case, as a few minutes later, the battalion chief in charge of the fire was on the air. “Unit 14, are you still at your designated post?” he asked.

“Affirmative.” Rolling his eyes, Washington hoped that the chief would stop gabbing and start mobilizing a search and rescue operation.

“Are any of the rest of your men injured in any way?” the chief asked.

“We have some minor injuries and a probable broken arm,” reported the captain.

“Evacuate those men at once and start search and rescue procedures. A team will be joining you shortly. Be advised; the fire is still gaining on your area. Be alert and move out if you are threatened.”

“10-4,” Washington returned crisply, but both he and Stanley knew that there was no way they would be leaving the area without the missing men – or not willingly. Only the encroaching fire would persuade them to quit.

Crossing to his men, Cap knelt by Mike. “How are you doing?” he asked.

“I’ll be okay,” Mike replied. His face was pale under the dirt and sweat, but Cap thought that he probably looked no better.

“We’ll get you down to the first aid station,” Cap told him. Roy, as the paramedic, should go with him, but Cap knew that Roy would want to stay and search for Johnny. And Marco was Chet’s best friend and he would want to stay, too. Who should Cap order to help Mike?

The decision was taken out of his hands by Washington, who came over with one of his linemen, a burly guy called George Watson. Watson had one eye swelling closed and a gash across the bridge of his nose. “I thought George and Mike could go down to the first aid station together,” the other captain suggested. “George can help Mike if he needs it and Mike can keep them on the right track.”

“Thanks, Josiah,” Cap replied gratefully. “Come on, Mike, let’s get you up.”

“You will find Johnny and Chet won’t you?” Mike asked, although it was not really a question.

“You bet we will,” Roy promised fiercely. “I’m not coming back without them.”

Although more than just reluctant to leave, Mike knew he wouldn’t be any help in the search and his crew mates didn’t need to be worrying about him, too. “Come on, George,” he suggested. “Let’s get going.” He smiled bravely. “Bring them back,” he added. “Please.”

Together, the two injured firefighters headed off downhill back towards the camp, but their thoughts stayed up on the hill top with their friends.

***********

The men were divided into pairs. Each carried a canteen of water and a whistle. They were going to try and search the area and stay within sight of another pair so that no more men were lost. The captains carried HTs, but the transmission could be spotty that high in the hills. They were instructed to keep an eye open for the fire and potential exit routes were discussed and pointed out. Once everyone knew what they were doing, what the signals were when they found the missing men and what they had to do if the fire caught up with them, they moved out, carefully climbing over the top of the hill and making their way through the mud to the treeline, keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of their missing colleagues.

“You all right, Roy?” Cap asked as they gained the treeline.

“No,” Roy replied very matter-of-factly. “But I will be. When we find them.” He glanced at Cap. “And don’t try and tell me you’re all right, because I saw your face back there and I can see it now. None of us will be all right until we find them.” He shook his head. “What the hell was that chopper doing? Why was he dumping water on us? The fire wasn’t that near and if it was, why didn’t they warn us? We’re pretty lucky that nobody was badly injured.” They all knew the stories of firefighters who had been caught by water drops and been hurt.

“Those are questions I want the answers to, as well,” Cap agreed. His tone left Roy in no doubt that he would get those answers, too. Cap was mild mannered, fair and patient; but he didn’t suffer fools gladly, no matter who they were. He would find out exactly why the chopper had dumped water on them and then verbally take apart whoever had cocked up. Roy was glad it wasn’t him in the firing line.

They started their search, methodically covering their area, aware of the men from the pairs on either side of them doing the same thing. While not the meticulous inch-by-inch search that police would have to do in similar circumstances, it was still slow going, as bushes had to be pushed aside or penetrated to make sure that there wasn’t a body lying hidden. Roy even made sure to check the canopies of the trees above them, just in case the water had caused Johnny and Chet to become airborne and land on the tops of the trees. There was no sign of them.

They had been searching for over half an hour when there was a series of blasts on a whistle. It wasn’t the ‘found them’ signal; it was the ‘get out the fire is approaching’ signal. It was coming from the area where Captain Washington was, and Cap knew the other man wouldn’t signal that alert unless the situation was becoming desperate. “Let’s go,” he ordered Roy, knowing that his senior paramedic didn’t want to give up the search any more than he did himself, but they really had no option. If they didn’t get out now, they might become victims, too.

Still, it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, he thought, as he pushed Roy in front of him as they headed towards their rendezvous point. Everything he’d learned at the fire academy had drummed into him not to leave anyone behind in a fire. Unfortunately, you sometimes had no choice, like now; but that didn’t make it any easier. As they headed for safety, Cap sent up a silent prayer that his men would be safe.

***********

It had been one hell of a ride. One minute they were standing on the top of the hill, watching the helicopter coming towards them and the next, they were swept off their feet and sent tumbling into the air to fly for a few feet before they hit the ground and started rolling. Johnny thought he had probably blacked out for a few minutes, but he couldn’t prove it either way.

He wasn’t moving now. In fact, summoning up the desire to move was almost beyond the paramedic at that moment. He wasn’t hurt per se; covered in bruises and scrapes and bumps, but nothing serious. He really ought to check on Chet, but he felt too pulped to move. He could just lie there until he felt better. He didn’t have to move. You’re the paramedic, a small voice reminded him. Chet could be hurt.

There were times when Johnny really didn’t like the small voice that was his conscience. This was one of those times. As he dragged his aching body out of the mud, he vowed that next time something like this happened, he would just lie still and let someone else come to him. He regained his knees and knew that he would still be dragging his body out of the mud the next time.

Grasping a branch that stuck out conveniently close, Johnny made it to his feet. He felt quite wobbly, but after a moment, he regained his equilibrium and was able to let go. Looking down, he made a quick assessment of his own condition. He was filthy, covered in mud and bits and pieces of vegetation and debris. His turnout had probably protected him from the worst of it. His helmet was lying, battered and dented, a few feet away. Miraculously, he still had the canteen.

On the down side, he was freezing cold and stiffening up. They were apparently some distance away from where they had started out and Johnny could not see Chet anywhere. His first priority had to be Chet and then he would see about getting them out of there. They couldn’t have fallen that far, could they?

Wiping the sludge and grit from his lips, Johnny spat out some mud that had seeped between his teeth and cleared his throat. A few feet away, a patch of mud quivered and quaked. Fascinated, Johnny gazed at it for some seconds before he realized he was looking at his missing friend, rising from the muck like some kind of prehistoric monster. Chet spat into the mud, hawking loudly before he did so.

“Geez, that was nice,” Johnny commented, his voice as gravelly as the grit he could feel squeaking on his teeth.

“Shut up, Gage,” Chet ground out, “and get over here and help me get up.”

“I had to help myself,” grumbled the paramedic as he picked his way cautiously over the unstable surface. “Why do you need help?”

“You’re standing and I’m not,” Chet retorted. Looking at him, just his eyes visible from beneath the mud caking his face, Johnny wondered if he looked as bad. He reached up and gingerly moved to wipe his face, but when he saw the amount of grime caked to his hand, he decided against it.

“Do I look as bad as you?” he enquired, reaching down to extend a helping hand.

“As good as, you mean,” the other replied, grasping the proffered hand. “No. You’re covered in mud. You look as black as that guy over at 36’s. Can’t remember his name.” Johnny instantly knew who Chet meant. Not only was Charles Stevenson very black skinned, he was a huge guy as well, standing 6 feet 6 inches in his bare feet and weighing in at about 300 pounds with muscles on his muscles. A well-liked and respected firefighter, he was an incredibly gentle man, unless you were racist and ignorant enough to make an ill-thought-out remark about his color, when he would teach you a lesson, in the nicest possible way.

“I hate to tell you this,” Johnny replied, “but you look the same way.” He pulled, wincing as the ache in his ribs and arms intensified.

Chet let out a yelp of pain and his hand slipped from Johnny’s and he sat back down in the mud with an audible plop. At once, Johnny was by his side, his own aches completely forgotten. “What is it?” he asked urgently.

“My ankle,” Chet groaned. “It feels like it’s busted.”

“Which one?” Johnny demanded.

“The right one,” was the miserable reply. Chet’s teeth appeared gleaming white in his muddy face as he tried to ride the wave of pain that shot up his leg.

Kneeling beside his friend, Johnny gently felt around the injured joint. It was difficult to be sure, but he thought it might be fractured. Whatever, the boot had to come off and that wasn’t going to be pleasant for either of them. Johnny reached under his coat to see if his knife was still in his holster, and was relieved to find it was. That would help with all sorts of things until their friends found them. “Chet, I’m going to have to take that boot off,” he said.

“Off? Oh no you don’t!” the Irishman replied. “You’re not touching my foot again!”

There was no point in beating around the bush with this, Johnny decided. He let his friend conclude his tirade about paramedics who thought they knew everything but were just sadists wanting to inflict pain on poor innocent firefighters and then said, “If I don’t cut it off, you’re going to lose the whole foot.”

As he had hoped, that declaration stopped Chet as he began to bluster. The shorter man’s mouth hung open and he gazed at Johnny in stunned disbelief. “Say… what?”

“If the boot stays on, your ankle will swell to the point where your circulation will be cut off and after that, there’s not going to be a whole lot they can do to save your foot.” Johnny softened his tone slightly for the next part. “I’m sorry, it’s going to hurt like hell, but it’s got to be done.”

Although he wouldn’t have admitted it under torture, Chet trusted Johnny’s medical expertise implicitly. If his friend said the boot needed to come off, then it needed to, but such was the pain in his ankle that Chet didn’t know how he could possibly endure the removal of the boot with his macho image still intact. His mouth closed and the lingering taste of earth and grit mingled with the fear to the extent that he thought he would throw up right there and then.

It took several moments for him to be sure that his voice would be under control. He lay down on his back, reasoning that he would have less distance to fall if he should faint. He couldn’t remember any time he had been more scared.

“Do it,” he ordered bravely and shut his eyes.

***********

Chet wasn’t the only one feeling sick by the time it was over. Johnny sat back on his heels, stretching his aching back and turned his head and spat into the mud. Chet was currently unconscious, having passed out after a few minutes of determined screaming. Johnny had worked quickly after that, so that the boot was off before Chet came around. The ankle was swelling under Johnny’s concerned gaze and the skin was starting to discolor. While Johnny had seen that with bad sprains, he was certain that Chet’s ankle was broken. That was going to make getting out of there more difficult.

At that thought, Johnny was forced to admit that he was on his own in this rescue effort. Surely someone ought to have heard Chet’s screams? Had they really been washed that far away? If so, where exactly were they and how the hell was he going to get them out of there?

A groan alerted Johnny to Chet’s return to consciousness and he pushed those disquieting thoughts out of his mind to concentrate on his patient. There wasn’t that much he could do for Chet. He knew there had been a small first aid bag with them on the ridge, but since they weren’t there now and there was no telling how far away it was, he couldn’t count on it materializing at any point in the foreseeable future.

“Is it done?” Chet asked blearily. He blinked, then looked down his body to see his foot propped up on a couple of branches. It wasn’t vastly comfortable, but it was the best Johnny could do under the circumstances. They were both so cold and wet that sacrificing his turnout coat was a bad idea.

“It’s done,” Johnny confirmed. “Have some water.” He helped Chet sit up a bit and then gave him a drink. His canteen was the only one they had, so they would have to be sparing with the water until they were found or came across a stream. Although he was thirsty, Johnny corked the canteen without taking any. “How are you feeling?” he asked, taking Chet’s pulse. It was slowing back to a normal rhythm.

“Don’t come over all gooey on me, Gage,” Chet chided him. “I’m tougher than you any day.” As bravado went, it was pretty good, but Johnny knew Chet well and he knew what a broken ankle felt like. He translated that remark into ‘hurts like hell but there’s nothing you can do about it, so just shut up’.

“I’m going to have a look around,” said Johnny with affected casualness. “See if I can’t find someone else to haul your sorry carcass out of here. I don’t see why I should do all the work if I don’t have to.”

“Typical,” grumbled the other. “You paramedics really are soft.”

“That’s us,” nodded Johnny as he scrambled to his feet. “Just shout if you need me.”

“I won’t need you.” The bravado was there as loud as ever, but Johnny could hear the underlying anxiety.

“I know.” He set off uphill, thinking that he would soon be on the edge of the trees and the other firefighters would see him and everything would be all right. That nasty small voice told him he was kidding himself, but Johnny was always optimistic. Nonetheless, he left small markers for himself that he would be able to follow so he could retrace his steps if need be.

After five minutes of dogged climbing, Johnny was beginning to be worried.

After 10 minutes, he was deeply concerned. Not only did he appear to be no nearer the treeline than when he had started, the smell of smoke was much more pronounced and that could only be a bad thing. Stopping to catch his breath, Johnny listened, realizing that there were no bird sounds and the wind was picking up. The hair rose on the back of his neck and all at once, he made a decision. He had to get Chet out of there and he had wasted enough time already. He didn’t know where they were, but that didn’t matter anymore. Somehow, they would find civilization, but for now, Johnny was convinced the fire was encroaching on their position and although they had their shake and bakes – the aluminum shelter provided by the country – they wouldn’t protect the men if the fire burned right through the area where they were. Johnny anxiously felt for his one and was relieved to find it was there. He wondered if Chet still had his.

Going downhill, it didn’t take Johnny long to retrace his steps. Chet was lying back with his eyes closed, but he opened them as he heard Johnny approaching. “What’s wrong?” he asked, struggling onto his elbows. “Is it the other guys? Are they all right?”

“I didn’t even find the edge of the trees,” Johnny replied, sinking to his knees beside Chet and shrugging off his turnout. He stripped off his muddy shirt and pulled out his bandage scissors and began to cut the shirt into strips.

“What are you doing?” Chet asked apprehensively.

“We’ve got to get out of here right now,” Johnny told him. “You can’t walk on that ankle and it needs some protection when you start moving. I’m going to wrap it as best I can to give it support and you’re going to lean on me and if need be I’ll carry you. But we’ve got to get out of here before the fire reaches us. Do you still have your shake and bake?”

“Uh…” Chet fumbled around while eyeing Johnny worriedly. “Yeah,” he reported. He was scared; terrified in fact. Oh, he’d been hurt before, he’d been in danger from a fire before, but not like this. He had no idea where he was, and he was pretty sure Johnny was just as clueless in that regard. Their friends seemed to have disappeared and now Johnny was convinced the wildfire was coming in their direction. You couldn’t outrun a wildfire. People died every year because they thought they could do just that. Firefighters died when the fire suddenly turned on them. “Johnny, you can’t carry me,” he protested through a dry mouth. “You’ll have to leave me here.” That prospect terrified him even more. Burning was a horrible way to die.

“Just shut up,” Johnny replied roughly. “I’m not leaving you here, so just shut up!” He pulled a couple of small branches from his pocket that he had tugged off on his way back down. They were about the right size to use as a splint, however makeshift it might be. “This is gonna hurt,” he warned his friend. “I’m sorry.” He worked as quickly as he could, using the strips of shirt to bind the branches into place to give what support he could to the injured joint. Chet was sheet white when he was finished, but had not made a sound.

Putting his turnout on over his mud-streaked undershirt, Johnny shivered as the clammy canvas touched his cold flesh. He and Chet were both going to be candidates for exposure and pneumonia unless they found help quickly. He rose to his feet and went over to a nearby tree where a branch hung down to the ground, partially broken off. It took a bit of wrestling, but he eventually got it to part company with the tree and gave it to Chet as a walking stick.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“As I’ll ever be,” Chet agreed. His terror had subsided now that action was in the offing and he grasped Johnny’s hand to be pulled to his feet. “Which way are we going?” he asked.

“Down,” Johnny replied confidently. “We’ll find water when we go down.” He hitched the canteen more firmly over his shoulder and wrapped his other arm around Chet’s waist. He discarded his helmet. Chet’s was long gone and neither of them knew where it was. It didn’t matter. They wouldn’t need them, Johnny hoped. “Let’s go,” he urged.

Together, they started walking to safety; wherever that might be.

**********

Cooling their heels at their designated safety area didn’t sit well with any of the men, but especially the men from 51. For some reason, radio reception was slightly better there and Hank Stanley had snatched up the radio to shout at whoever was manning the dispatch, but Captain Washington had confiscated it before Stanley said something he might regret later.

“What is the status of our search and rescue team?” he asked.

“A team will be dispatched within the next two hours, assuming we get the fire under control in your area,” the dispatcher replied.

Washington’s lips tightened in disgust. “Why were we not warned there was going to be a water drop?” he demanded. “And why was there a drop over us when the fire wasn’t near us at that time?”

“It was pilot error,” the dispatcher said.

Pulling the HT away from his lips, Washington swore inventively for several moments, castigating the parentage of the said pilot. Getting himself under control once again, he asked, “How are the men we sent down to you?”

“I don’t have that information at the moment,” came the reply.

That was it. “Well, you’d better get it and damned quick!” Washington ordered. “We already have two men missing, the fire is encroaching on the area where they went missing and you don’t even know how the two injured men we sent down to you are. Is there anything you do know?” The sarcasm was so heavy that even the distortion of the radio signal didn’t dilute it.

“Stand by.” The dispatcher sounded huffy, but Washington didn’t care.

“I don’t know who’s running this show,” he growled to Stanley, “but whoever it is, they’re a bloody amateur!”

While Stanley agreed wholeheartedly, he found his thoughts constantly drawn away to the missing men. He could hear the fire now. People didn’t realize how noisy a fire was. About the only experience most people had of a fire was the one in their living room fireplace, which was by and large tame and under control. It crackled pleasantly in the background and if you had the right kind of wood on it, it emitted a lovely smell. But a big, out-of-control blaze could sound like a freight train bearing down on you at high speed. A forest or brush fire was often punctuated by explosions as the sap in trees and bushes ignited. There was always a wind with a wildfire and the fire itself generated a wind, which was partly what made them so unpredictable.

The HT crackled and Hank brought his wandering attention back to it. “The injured men arrived safely back in camp and are being transferred to hospital shortly. Neither is reported to be seriously injured.” To say the information was given grudgingly was an understatement. Washington didn’t care.

“Thank you,” he replied curtly. He glanced at Hank. “Guess we have to wait,” he offered.

“Much good that’s going to do,” Hank returned. He found a grimace. “Sorry, Josiah, I know it’s not your fault.” The other man shook his head, smiling slightly, letting Hank know that no offence was taken.

Turning, Cap walked over to where Roy and Marco were sitting. They looked up at him expectantly, but when they saw his face, Roy cursed. “Guess that means we’re not going back looking straight away,” he commented cynically.

“No,” Cap agreed. “The extra search and rescue team will dispatched within the next two hours, assuming they get the fire under control in this area.”

“But Johnny and Chet could be dead in two hours!” Roy shouted. He knew it wasn’t Cap’s fault, but fear for his friends’ lives was eating into his gut. The other men nearby studiously looked the other way.

“Don’t you think I know that?” Cap snapped back. “I don’t like it any better than you do, but what are we meant to do? Burn to death while looking for them?”

“If that’s what it takes, then yes!” Roy declared. “They wouldn’t leave us behind.”

Somehow, Cap managed to find his patience again. “We’re not leaving them behind,” he reminded Roy. “We’re waiting here until it’s safe for us to go after them again.”

There was a sudden blast on a whistle and training took over. All the men ducked down, burying their heads in their arms and bracing themselves for the water drop – another water drop. They could only hope this one would be of more use than the last one.

This time, the pilot managed to miss the firefighters completely and hit the fire. One or two men commented sourly that it must be a different pilot – one who had learned to read a map. There were a few chuckles, but not many. They were back to waiting again, this time for the all clear to resume the search for their missing colleagues.

***********

It was slow going. It would have been slow going even if Chet didn’t have a broken ankle, as the ground was not even, littered as it was with deadfall, leaves and some scrubby undergrowth. Time and again, one or other stumbled and almost pulled the other over. Despite all Chet’s efforts, Johnny was supporting most of his weight and they had to stop to rest far more frequently than Johnny had anticipated.

During one of their rest periods, Johnny realized that the trees seemed to be blocking sound from beyond the canopy. The forest was unusually dense and he wondered if that was why their friends hadn’t heard Chet screaming and they hadn’t heard any whistles or calls. He thought about mentioning it to Chet, but couldn’t make the effort. He was already exhausted and he supposed the other man was even more so. Chet was pale and drawn, sweating profusely and although he occasionally allowed a groan to slip through his control, he hadn’t once complained. Still, Johnny knew that it had to be exceptionally hard going for him and he wished there was something he could do to reduce his friend’s pain.

Although he was reluctant to move, Johnny’s sixth sense wouldn’t let him rest any longer. He got to his feet, consciously making no noise, because although his body was sore, he knew he wasn’t half as sore as Chet and he felt he had no right to complain. “Are you ready?” he asked.

“Johnny, you go on and leave me here.” Chet wouldn’t look at his friend. He knew that suggesting that would hurt Johnny, but Chet felt he couldn’t go another step. He couldn’t think of a word that described how bad his pain was. Agonizing and excruciating didn’t really cover it at all. But he knew that he simply could not take one more step. The lightest of touches of his toes on the ground sent daggers through his ankle and lower leg and try as he might, he couldn’t keep the foot up all the time. Hopping on the other leg was no great shakes either; the shockwaves from each hop seemed directly wired to the damaged ankle.

“I can’t do that,” Johnny replied roughly. “Come on.”

“No.” Nobody could out-stubborn the little Irishman, with the possible exception of John Gage. “I’ll wait here and you bring back help. It makes sense.”

It did – except for the fact that Johnny’s senses were telling him that the fire was heading in their direction and if they didn’t get out of there, both of them would die. Johnny could only try to imagine the kind of pain Chet must be in. It really didn’t bear thinking about. Broken bones were horrifically painful and walking on them was torture of the worst kind. But dying in a fire ranked top of the list of things firefighters were scared of and Johnny had no intention of leaving Chet behind to face death by the flames.

“You’re in no condition to make decisions for yourself,” he said brutally. “If I leave you alone here, you’ll die. It’s not happening, not on my watch. You’ll come with me, like it or not.”

“How are you going to make me?” Chet retorted angrily. “You can’t carry me out of here and I’m not going with you.”

Normally, Johnny’s temper would have taken hold and he would have started ranting. But Johnny was in paramedic mode and Chet was his patient, a patient who was in considerable pain and therefore not entirely responsible for what he was saying. And he was Johnny’s friend; that counted for a whole lot right now.

“Listen,” he said, and pointed a finger up.

Surprised, Chet looked up and listened. There was complete silence. No birds were singing and the leaves barely rustled. The silence was completely unnerving. Chet swallowed heavily. “I don’t hear anything,” he faltered.

“I know,” replied Johnny. “That’s because the animals and birds have already fled. They know the fire is coming and they are running for their lives. That’s why I can’t leave you here.”

While Chet enjoyed the odd night’s camping and fishing, he wasn’t really an outdoorsy sort of person. A couple of night sleeping on the ground was just about his limit; he didn’t really know anything much about nature. He left that up to Johnny. For all their teasing and jibing, Chet trusted Johnny implicitly; if Johnny said the animals and birds were fleeing, then he knew what he was talking about. Yet the thought of moving was scary, because he knew the pain was going to get worse and worse and it was more than bad enough.

“I don’t think I can,” he whispered, ducking his head down.

“That’s why I’m going to help you,” Johnny assured him. “Come on.” He rose to his feet and reached down to pull Chet to his feet. He snugged his arm around the shorter man’s waist and waited while Chet adjusted his grip on the branch he was using as a crutch. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.” Chet drew in a deep breath as they started to move. The pain was as bad as he had feared, but Johnny was taking a lot of his weight and Chet thought he could keep going for a little while. Then he would persuade the paramedic to go for help. He found the plan comforting.

He knew there was no way Johnny would agree to it.

***********

Just when Cap thought he was going to have to get someone to come and sedate Roy, they were given the all clear to resume searching. The fire had scorched through part of the area where they had previously been working and although no one would admit it, they were now looking for bodies. They were also on alert for a further evacuation, as the fire was not totally contained in that area and to make matters worse, the light was starting to fade.

Charred remnants of trees crunched under their feet as they resumed their search positions as best they could. Any mental markers they had made were gone. Tree skeletons reached blackly towards the sky and branches that seemed to offer potential handholds crumbled away like ghosts under their hands.

They were just about to be called back when a whistle sounded. Cap and Roy exchanged a glance, because the whistle was a ‘found something’ not ‘found them’ call. While that might be hopeful, it also might not be. They had travelled much further into the trees than they had anticipated, searching for over an hour. By now, they were working with flashlights. Unfortunately, there was no way to get a light truck anywhere near to help the search.

Hurrying towards the sound of the whistle, Roy felt his breath catching in his throat, his heart hammering painfully in his chest. He was terrified. What if they had found bodies? He had seen many burned bodies in his career as a firefighter and it wasn’t something he ever wanted to see again and especially not his friends’ bodies. For a moment, he almost wanted to cravenly beg off going over, but one look at Cap’s set face told him his boss was feeling just as bad. This whole scenario was a nightmare for everyone involved.

Marco and his partner were standing looking down into the pool of light provided by their flashlights. There was an object there, twisted and blackened, and it would have been unrecognizable to a member of the public. The sight of it made Roy want to throw up.

“Is that what I think it is?” Cap asked, kneeling for a closer look.

“It’s a fire helmet,” Marco confirmed.

Aiming his own flashlight at it, Cap gingerly reached out to touch it. He half expected it to crumble under his fingers, but it didn’t. The material that protected them from heavy objects and the fire itself had stood up remarkably well to the direct exposure. Still, it wouldn’t have saved the life of any firefighter that had been wearing it, but it was clear to Cap and everyone else gathered there that this helmet had been abandoned.

“You can’t tell much, because of the fire,” Marco offered. “But some of these branches were broken before they were burned. Look.” He pointed and Cap again turned his light on the same area as Marco’s. He saw what his lineman had meant at once.

“Do you think this is where they landed?” he asked. “We’re a good way from the top.”

“Anything’s possible,” Marco agreed. “None of us actually saw them go over. If they were right on the top, they could have been lifted up by the force of the water.” He shrugged. “We’ll probably never know exactly. But this would explain why we didn’t get any response to the shouting before. They were too far away and the trees were too thick.”

“You could be right,” Cap agreed. “And they could be seriously hurt.” He looked at Roy.

The senior paramedic looked tired and strained. “But they aren’t here, and there’s no sign they were here when the fire came through,” he said. “So at least one of them is ambulatory and able to either help or carry the other.” He shrugged. “I guess that’s good news,” he added. He sounded as frustrated as Cap felt. “But where are they now?”

***********

The air around them was hot and crackling. Chet’s agonizing breath panted in Johnny’s ear as the injured man hopped as quickly as he could. More and more of his weight was coming to bear on the slender paramedic, but Johnny didn’t mind. He wasn’t leaving Chet behind, no matter what his stubborn colleague kept trying to tell him. Johnny strained his ears to try and hear the tell-tale sound of the fire, but he couldn’t. His own breath was coming in gasps. He couldn’t even begin to estimate how far they had come; he just knew it wasn’t far enough. The hot air was telling him that the fire was gaining. He had to try and find somewhere for them to take shelter, but so far, nowhere suitable had turned up.

The ground suddenly moved beneath Johnny’s feet and before he could make any attempt to regain his balance, Chet’s weight pushed him over onto his side. He heard Chet’s cry of pain, but there was nothing he could do to soften the other’s landing. As it was, Chet landed on Johnny, not directly on the ground, and they tobogganed down the slight slope, with Johnny as the toboggan.

He was so stunned and winded that it took Johnny several moments to realize that they were lying in water. He forced his eyes open and looked at the small stream. On top of him, Chet let out a heart-felt groan. “Gage? Johnny? Are you all right?”

His breath came back with a jolt that Johnny thought Chet could probably feel. “Uh-huh,” he allowed. He wasn’t all right. He hadn’t really been all right since this whole nightmare started, but he was beginning to feel that perhaps they might get out of this mess intact after all. He gently pushed Chet off him, then leaned over to drink some of the precious water. He hadn’t had a single drink since this whole thing began and he was parched. As he drank, he pulled the canteen open and refilled it, too.

“Hey, Gage!” Chet nudged him. “Don’t drink the whole stream, pal.”

Feeling better, Johnny shook his wet head and splattered the already soaking Chet with cold water. The stocky man spluttered indignantly. “Stop exaggerating,” Johnny retorted. He looked around, and finally saw what he had been looking for all along. About 50 feet down the stream, there was a patch of rocky beach. There seemed to be a trail leading away from it and Johnny thought it would be worth following. But first, they had to get to that beach. Even down in this slight gully, he could smell the smoke and he knew the fire was gaining on them.

There was no time for niceties. The stream bed was too rocky for Chet to walk on and the banks of the stream were choked with undergrowth where they were. The stocky fireman wouldn’t like it, but Johnny was going to carry him. Johnny scrambled to his feet. “We’re going down to that beach,” he told Chet, pulling the other man to his feet. “And I’m carrying you and that’s an end to it.”

Despite the intensified ache in his ribs, Johnny bent over and Chet obligingly folded over his shoulder. Slowly and carefully, Johnny straightened up, finding his balance on the unstable surface beneath his feet. Chet grunted uncomfortably, but Johnny didn’t have time to listen. For the first time, he had seen flames dancing in the treetops and they were much closer than he had realized. Time had almost run out for them.

By the time he reached the beach, sweating, breathless and in agony from his ribs, the fire had already reached the place where they had fallen into the stream. Johnny deposited Chet onto the ground and grabbed his shake and bake. “Get into it!” he ordered, yelling against the noise of the flames. “Get into the edge of the water. Hurry!” He helped Chet get into the contraption, one eye on the encroaching flames. The moment Chet’s shelter was touching the ground, Johnny pulled his own one out and got into it, kneeling in the shallow water and planting his chin against his chest. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

***********

Walking back down to where they would be picked up in a rickety truck for the rest of the journey to the base camp, the firefighters were essentially silent. They were all cold and wet and tired and dirty. Darkness had long since fallen and each man was caught up in his own thoughts.

Without conscious volition, Cap, Roy and Marco sat next to each other. Cap closed his eyes. He had never lost a man under his command and now two of his crew were missing. While they had not found Chet and Johnny’s bodies, they had also not found them alive. Now it was dark and the full extent of the fire could be seen as it danced around the hilltops, throwing light into the night sky. It was an undeniably impressive sight, but one which nobody wanted to see. He found himself praying that his missing men were safe, wherever they were.

Word had spread that there were two firefighters missing. TV camera crews added their battery of lights to the ones already in place at the base camp. As they climbed wearily from the truck, they were surprised to see Mike Stoker waiting for them, his arm in a cast from fingertips to shoulder. He came over to greet them, his face as somber as their own. “Anything?”

“No,” Cap replied. “Just this.” He held out the misshapen helmet they had found. Mike caught his breath.

“That’s Johnny’s,” he said.

“Yeah.” Cap didn’t want to talk about this anymore, but he knew he would have to. He would have to show what they had found to the chief in charge and he wanted to find the stupid pilot who had wrongly dropped water on them and rip his head off.

“Captain Stanley.”

Turning, Cap looked at Chief Houts, who appeared to be in charge of the operation at the moment. “Yes?” Civility was proving difficult to find.

“You and your men please come with me,” Houts ordered, gesturing towards one of the tents that were set up. He cast the slightest of glances over his shoulder at the hordes of media and Stanley took the hint at once. With a single jerk of his head, he got Mike, Marco and Roy moving. He could almost feel the lenses of the cameras focusing on his back.

The inside of the tent was dimly lit compared to all the arc lights outside. There were several chairs and the tired men didn’t even wait for an invitation. They slumped down as though sinking into the most comfortable feather beds. Houts looked at them all and his heart wrenched with pity. It was never easy to lose a crew mate and 51s crew were tighter than a lot of the other ones under his command.

“Someone will bring you some food shortly,” he announced. “Then you are going to be driven back to your homes and you’re off duty until further notice.”

“With all due respect, Chief, we’re going to be back out here at first light to look for John and Chet,” Cap objected.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Houts started.

“Right now, what anyone else thinks doesn’t matter,” Roy interrupted. “Johnny and Chet are missing and we aren’t going to stop looking for them until we find definitive proof one way or another.”

“That’s a very commendable attitude,” Houts replied. He held up his hand as Roy opened his mouth to make another remark. “I’m not finished yet,” he chastised lightly. “I suggest you eat here, then go home and have a hot shower and sleep in your own bed. We’ll send cars for you in the morning. Mr. Stoker, I assume you’ll want to be here at base camp?”

“Yes, sir,” Mike nodded. He had feared he would be banished to waiting at home, anxiously scanning the news channels. It would be no less nerve wracking to wait at the base camp, but he would at least get the most up-to-date news and be on hand to welcome his friends back.

A couple of men came into the tent bearing bowls of hot soup and piles of sandwiches. It smelt divine and they fell on the food as though they had never eaten before. The warmth spread outwards from their stomachs, dispelling the icy cold that had been clutching at their bodies since the first water drop, all those hours before. The chief quickly got them allocated cars to take them home and collect them in the morning and hoped that exhaustion would let them sleep.

He stood outside the tent to watch them go, then turned his eyes to the fire dancing on the horizon. The smell of the smoke had become so common place that he barely noticed it. But he noticed it then and hoped against hope that the missing firefighters would be found alive and safe.

As he turned back into the tent to look at the plan of action for the night ahead and the search and rescue operation the next day, he realized that he was already planning how he would word the statement he would give to the media to let the world know that the two men had perished in the fire.

************

He thought perhaps it was over. Chet cautiously lifted his head and took a tiny breath. While still hot, the air was cooling rapidly. Coughing, Chet started to disentangle himself from his shelter. They had trained with them at the Academy, but the training had done nothing to prepare Chet for the reality of crouching in that shelter while the temperature around him rose and rose until he was sure he would die just from the heat. It was, undoubtedly, the most terrifying experience of his life.

Throwing the shelter off, Chet looked around. The vegetation was burnt away on both sides of the stream and it was still smoking. A few feet away, Johnny’s shelter was still erected. Chet’s heart lurched with sudden fear. “Johnny?” he called. “Johnny?” As best he could, he dragged himself through the shallow water and pulled the shelter away.

Blinking, Johnny looked up owlishly at Chet. His face was pasty white. He swallowed thickly. “Hi,” he croaked.

“What’s wrong?” Chet asked. “Did the fire get you?”

“I’m fine,” Johnny lied. “It didn’t get me.”

“You don’t look fine,” Chet commented, with stunning lack of tact. “You’re a really funny color.” He took in his friend’s position, curled on his side. “What is it? Gage, you’re scaring me here.”

“I was sick,” Johnny explained. “Musta been the heat.” It wasn’t the heat, although that hadn’t helped him at all. He knew why he had been sick. He had gulped down the water far too fast and his system couldn’t cope with it. Johnny knew he was doing the wrong thing, but he had been so thirsty that he had been unable to stop himself. The stomach cramps had been so bad that he had collapsed on his side and been unable to get back up. One foot had been perilously close to the edge of his shelter and Johnny was convinced that his boot sole had melted onto his foot. He wasn’t going to look at it to see. It was bad enough to feel it.

Chet frowned. The heat had been pretty bad and he had felt like throwing up, too. Yet something didn’t seem right with Johnny’s story. The other man appeared too ill just for the heat to have affected him. Chet had no idea what to do if Johnny was really ill. There was no way he could walk out alone to get help for the paramedic. But would Johnny be well enough to assist Chet any further?

The light was almost gone. Sitting there in the water, Chet accepted the fact that they weren’t going to get to safety that night. They had to find somewhere to hole up, but would there be somewhere safe for them to sleep? The fire had passed through here so there was no vegetation to shelter them, but if they were able to find a place where the fire had not been, how could they know if the fire was going to come that way? He shivered and not just because he was wet. “We need to find somewhere to rest,” he said. “We’re not going to get much further before its dark.”

His comment seemed to bring Johnny out of his misery. “You’re right,” he agreed, trying to sound more with it. He looked around trying to get his bearings. Everything looked a bit fuzzy, he thought. He was even more dehydrated now than he had been before he drank. That wasn’t good. He shivered convulsively.

“Johnny?” Chet was looking at him closely and his voice held that ‘this is the third time I’ve said your name’ tone.

“I was just thinking,” Johnny replied, trying to force himself to do just that. They were undoubtedly going to get colder as the night wore on and the risk of exposure was high. They needed shelter of some kind and natural shelter would be hard to find. He knew Chet couldn’t walk much further and he wasn’t sure how far he could walk himself, especially supporting Chet. “Let’s get out of the water first.” He staggered to his feet and helped Chet up and over to the bank. Chet’s stick had disappeared and its loss was a big problem.

The sandy soil on the riverbank retained some of the heat from the fire. There was no way Johnny was going to risk lighting a fire, even if he could find suitable material to feed it with. He deposited Chet gently against a slight rise and stumbled back to retrieve the shake and bakes. The light aluminum would reflect their body heat back at them and retain some of the heat from the scorched earth. Huddling together under both shelters would hopefully keep them warm enough to stave off exposure.

Covering Chet with the shelters in the meantime and ignoring Chet’s protests that he wasn’t an invalid, Johnny went looking for something that he could make a windbreak with. The fire hadn’t left much, but as always, there were a few things that had somehow escaped the conflagration. Johnny found a fallen tree, partially burned, that would be small enough to drag, but large enough to provide a little shelter with something else added. By the time he dragged it back to their small camp, he was breathless and sweating.

Feeling somewhat embarrassed to be swaddled in the crumpled aluminum getting slowly warmer while Johnny did all the work, Chet tried to make his friend sit down, but Johnny knew that if he did, he wouldn’t get up again. He stumbled off to find more stuff to keep any wind off them. He kept a close eye on where he was going because it would be very easy to get lost in the sea of burnt trees. He had to stop to throw up again, but it was mostly dry heaves, which hurt his aching ribs like mad. By the time he stumbled back with another partially burned tree, he knew he could go no further.

Between them, he and Chet got the two trees balanced on each other and then Johnny collapsed to the ground. He literally crawled next to Chet and pulled the thin material over himself. He began shivering violently, and was glad of the warmth of the body next to his. Chet was slowly drying out thanks to the heat left in the soil and Johnny got some of the benefit of it.

They didn’t talk. There wasn’t much to say that couldn’t be dealt with in the morning. Johnny, still shivering, fell asleep quickly. Chet stayed awake for a while longer, the pain in his ankle preventing him from dropping off. He wondered how the others were; if they were alive or dead and if they were looking for them. Although he couldn’t see any actual flames, Chet could see the odd colors that lit the sky. He shivered, but not because he was so terribly cold. He was a lot warmer now. He shivered because of an elemental feeling that he couldn’t quite name; part awe, part fear. Nature was indeed a force to be reckoned with.

After a time, exhaustion closed his eyes and he slept.

***********

It had, in some respects, been a very long night. Roy had been almost beyond talking when he reached home and Joanne had welcomed him, concerned that he was injured. But after a hot shower and something to eat, he had gradually told her the story of the day. Deeply concerned for both the missing men and their colleagues, Joanne had encouraged Roy to come to bed and had held him while he slept, soothing him when he woke from a nightmare.

They rose just after five. Roy was stiff and sore and stood under a pounding shower for several long minutes, trying to ease the aches. Joanne had cooked him a breakfast that he forced down his throat. He wasn’t hungry but knew he would need the energy the food gave him. Just before six, he slipped out of the house to the waiting car, having avoided seeing his children for the moment. He didn’t want to have to explain to them about Johnny and advised Joanne not to say anything. He would phone her when he got the chance, or when they had news. From somewhere, Joanne found a brave smile to send Roy on his way, then had a shower herself, sobbing under the cover of the water.

The other occupants of the car, Cap, Mike and Marco, looked no better than Roy felt. They were all at least clean and warm now, but Roy could think of no other pluses as they were driven back to the fire base camp. Mike looked drawn and his casted arm seemed awkwardly held by the sling. Marco kept his face averted after greeting Roy and Cap had the darkest circles under his eyes that Roy had seen for many a long day. He didn’t doubt he looked rough, too. He hadn’t bothered to shave; what was the point? The fire department wasn’t being judged by its appearance today, or not in the usual way. Today, the media probably wanted to see the firemen dirty and unshaven and tired looking. Those seemed to be the markers the public used to judge how hard the men were working to contain the fire.

Such cynicism was not Roy’s usual way, but the reporting on this fire had seemed to be biased against the men who were risking their lives day in and day out to bring it under control. Perhaps they weren’t putting it out as fast as people wanted, but the ground was tinder dry, the Santa Ana winds were blowing and somebody had deliberately lit a match and started this off.

“Better cover your faces,” the driver suggested as they approached the scrum of media at the base camp. “Unless you want them all over the TV.”

It was a good suggestion. Through his fingers, Roy could see the cameras would have been inside the car had they not had the windows shut. As it was, the reporters did their best to stop the car’s forward movement and it was only police involvement that got them to move. They continued to film as the firefighters got out of the car and went to the chief to get their assignment.

“Vultures!” Marco muttered angrily, not quite under his breath.

The chief ignored the comment. “Overnight, the cooler temperatures allowed us to gain the upper hand and we now have 65% containment of this fire. The forecast is for a cool day, with the winds gradually dropping. We hope to have 90% containment by the end of the day. Because of our progress overnight, we have more men available to participate in the search effort. Here are your team assignments and your search area. Packs have been provided with first aid supplies, food and water.” He divided the men up into groups of three, carefully making sure the three men from 51 were together. He smiled at Mike Stoker. “Mr. Stoker, I believe I have the honor of having your help today. I was wondering if you would be willing to man the radio channel covering the search.”

“Thank you,” Mike agreed. It sounded boring as hell compared to being out there, but much better than just sitting doing nothing, twiddling his thumbs. He turned to his friends, ignoring the cameras trained on them. “Bring them home,” he ordered. “Bring them home.”

**********

Morning came far too soon for Johnny. He opened his eyes, squinting against the sunlight on his face. He felt absolutely ghastly. His chest was tight and his nose was blocked and his ribs hurt and the last place he wanted to find himself was lying on a burnt-out stream bank, miles from anywhere. He was cold, despite being snuggled up against Chet’s back. The stocky fireman was warm and as far as Johnny could tell, still asleep. He sighed, which triggered a bout of coughing, which in turn woke Chet.

“Gage?” Chet looked at him closely as he hacked and choked, wheezing as he dragged air into his lungs. “You want a drink?” He fumbled for the canteen, but Johnny simply shook his head, trying to gulp in enough air to keep living, but not as much as would set him coughing again. It was a losing battle. Finally, at long last, after what seemed like hours but was no more than five minutes, Johnny was able to breathe properly again. “You’re sick!” accused Chet.

“I’ve got a cold,” Johnny disagreed. “That’s not sick.”

“Yes it is,” Chet argued. “I’m sick when I have a cold.”

“Some of us think you’re sick all the time,” Johnny rasped. He took the canteen and sipped gingerly. He had learned his lesson yesterday – too late – and was in no hurry to repeat the experience again. The water temporarily soothed his throat, which felt like it was coated in sandpaper. Chet was right; he was sick. Probably seriously sick, but he would deny it with every breath, because he had to be able to help Chet get out of here. He jerked away as Chet put his hand on Johnny’s forehead. “Hey!”

“You’re running a temperature,” the other crowed smugly.

“I always have a temperature when I have a cold,” contradicted the ailing paramedic. “Stop making such a big deal out of a cold.”

“We should stay here,” Chet proposed, genuinely concerned for his friend’s health, despite the teasing tone he’d taken.

“That’s the last thing we should do,” objected Johnny.

“That last camping trip we were on, you said if anything happened to stay put by the tents and wait for help.”

“Yeah, by the tents, where we had told the rangers where we were planning to camp. They would have had a pretty fair idea where to come looking for us.” Johnny paused to swallow gingerly. “But how are the guys going to know where to look for us?” he asked. “Do you know where we are? Neither do I and I doubt if they do. Any trail we might have left will’ve been obliterated by the fire. We have nothing to eat. You’ve got a broken ankle that should’ve been treated yesterday and I’ve now got a cold. We have nothing to burn to keep us warm and although we’ve got water, that won’t fill our bellies. Another night out here and we’ll both be suffering from exposure. We probably are already. We have to walk out of here today because by tomorrow we’ll be that much weaker from another day without food and won’t be able to do it.”

When it came to spending time in the great outdoors, Chet preferred to have at least the basics, like a tent, sleeping bag, food and a fire. Everything Johnny said made sense, but Chet still didn’t want to walk out. His ankle was so sore that he couldn’t find words to describe it. “How are we going to get out of here if we don’t know where we are?” he asked in a small voice.

“We’ll follow this trail,” Johnny suggested, pointing to the barely visible trail that they had found by chance the previous day. “It looks fairly well travelled, so walking will be a bit easier.” He rose to his feet, but it wasn’t his usual lithe movement. In fact, he looked like an old man. Every single muscle in his body protested and the foot that had been partially burned the day before was very painful indeed. He stepped behind a tree to do his business, leaving Chet some privacy down at the camp, then headed off to see if he could find a couple of sticks to help them walk. He didn’t like the fact he had barely been able to pee at all. It wasn’t a good sign and meant they needed to get to help as soon as possible.

He found one viable branch and bore it back to camp. It was too short for him, but was okay for Chet. Johnny took a small drink from the canteen, still wary about drinking too much too soon, and then urged Chet to drink some more before he refilled the canteen from the stream. He slung it over his shoulder and helped Chet to his feet. He glanced at his watch just before they started walking, but the plastic face had melted, leaving the time unreadable, even assuming the watch was still working. He didn’t bother to ask Chet if his watch was going; what did it matter, anyway?

“Ready?” he asked, as he had the day before.

The answer was no, but Chet drew in a deep breath and swallowed that word. “Yes,” he declared.

***********

With the fire now 70% contained, more firefighters were freed up to help with the search. Some off-duty cops had come, too and there were now about 50 men involved. It was heartening, but the lack of a trail or a clue that the missing men were still alive or had come that way was wearing a bit on the hearts of the crew of 51. As the day wore on, they could hear that the same feeling was taking its toll on Mike as he passed on the lack of updates.

It was nearing noon when Marco suddenly slipped. “Whoa!” he cried, wind-milling his arms frantically to keep his balance. Roy, who was closest, took two quick steps and grabbed his friend, pulling him back from the slope he had almost fallen down. “Thanks, Roy,” Marco gasped.

“Are you all right, Marco?” Cap asked, hurrying over.

“Fine,” Marco nodded. They all looked down at the hidden drop-off and a single idea crystallized in their minds at the same moment. “What if…?” Marco began.

“Johnny and Chet had come this way…” Roy continued.

“And Gage fell down the bank,” Cap concluded. He looked at the others and saw that they were all thinking the same thing.

“Let’s look,” Roy proposed, before Cap could think of something sensible to disprove their theory.

“Be careful,” Cap reminded them as they slithered down the bank.

They found their first clue as they crossed the small stream they came to. In the mud at the side of the stream was a heel print. “Someone came this way,” Roy noted as he looked around. He imagined this had been a really lovely little gully before the fire swept through and destroyed all the vegetation.

“Look down there!” Marco pointed and Roy and Cap looked down stream to where they could see a rocky, soil-strewn beach. “Those branches didn’t end up there naturally,” Marco went on excitedly. “Somebody placed them there.”

Moving carefully, for the stream bed was littered with rocks, they went down to the beach and stood looking at the makeshift windbreak. “What do you think?” Cap asked.

Kneeling, Roy took a closer look, remembering the little Johnny had taught him about tracking. “I think there were two people lying here,” Roy replied. He studied the terrain. “Those logs clearly didn’t fall here, so someone had to have set them up.” He rose to his feet and looked around a bit more. There seemed to be footprints going all over the place and Roy was not nearly skilled enough to guess how long ago they were made.

“Do you think they might have followed the trail?” Marco asked. It wasn’t as clearly delineated as it had been when Johnny and Chet first saw it the previous day, but was still obvious enough.

“Well, I certainly would,” Roy mused. “Easier walking, for a start.”

“Let’s go that way, then,” suggested Cap and raised his radio to his lips to report their movements.

************

Not entirely to Johnny’s surprise, he and Chet made a lot less progress than they had the previous day. Chet was in obvious pain, despite his attempts to hide it and Johnny made the decision to rest more frequently to give his friend some respite. However, he was aware that he was weakening, too, the cough he had wakened with wracked his slender body every few minutes and although he felt really cold, sweat was rolling into his eyes and trickling coldly between his shoulder blades. He was sick; very sick.

It was, perhaps, noon. The trail they were following was as good as it had been, but they hadn’t made much progress; less than two miles by Johnny’s reckoning. They were resting, and Chet’s foot was propped across Johnny’s legs as he sat on one hip, his legs curled slightly, which allowed Chet’s foot to be elevated. Johnny was leaning on the remains of a tree, his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He hoped if he kept still enough, the cough would remain quiet. His throat was raw and his ribs hurt with every intake and expulsion of breath. He didn’t know how much longer he could go on.

He thought Chet was asleep, for the Irishman’s eyes were closed and his breathing relaxed, so when Chet spoke, Johnny actually flinched. “When were you planning on telling me you’d hurt your foot?” he asked. “And don’t deny it; I can feel you limping.”

“It’s not that bad,” Johnny croaked defensively.

“How bad it is?” persisted the smaller man.

Opening his eyes, Johnny looked at Chet and met Chet’s steady blue eyes. “Not that bad,” Johnny repeated.

“Talk to me,” commanded Chet. “Johnny, I’m not an idiot. Your ribs are sore, you’re sick and you’ve hurt your foot. Level with me here. It’s not just a cold, is it?”

“Probably not,” Johnny replied, feeling color mounting in his cheeks. He looked away, uncomfortable as always with talk about his health.

Chet was like a terrier; once he had hold of something, he wouldn’t let go. Johnny knew that very well, because Chet had been a tenacious prankster when Johnny had first started at the station. Latterly, the pranks had become fewer and further between, but the threat was always there. He wasn’t letting go of this conversation. “Is it pneumonia?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Johnny replied after a pause. “But by tomorrow it will be,” he added as Chet made an encouraging noise in his throat.

“What happened back there at the river?”

“I drank too much too quickly,” Johnny explained, his voice little better than a whisper. “I know not to do that, but I was parched. When you’re dehydrated and you drink too much too quickly, it’s bad for you. I ended up with stomach cramps and was sick.” He swallowed carefully. “I collapsed into the water and I may have inhaled some; I dunno. But the fire must have touched the edge of the tent and my boot feels like it melted onto my foot.” He forced an unconvincing smile. “I’m not going to take the boot off because I might not get it back on again.”

“And your ribs are sore because I fell on you,” Chet concluded.

“They were sore before that,” Johnny objected. “Everything hurt after we got washed off the hill.” Johnny looked somberly at his friend. “I’ll get you back to safety, Chet. I promise.”

It was rare the two of them talked seriously. They usually jibed at each other with Chet having the faster comeback repartee as a general rule. Chet was seriously worried now. “What else aren’t you telling me?” he asked.

“Nothing.” Johnny’s innocent face was just too innocent to be true. Chet was even more convinced he was lying. He shivered apprehensively. What if it was something life threatening?

“Let’s move on,” Johnny proposed, knowing that if they sat there any longer, they wouldn’t be able to get going. He gently lifted Chet’s foot off his legs and used the skeleton of the tree to get to his feet. It was much more difficult than it should have been and his head spun dizzily for a moment.

“We’re not going to find safety before tomorrow, are we?” Chet asked. He was looking right into Johnny’s face, searching for the truth.

“I don’t know,” Johnny admitted. “I just don’t know.”

**********

Pushing on ever more quickly, Roy was convinced in his own mind that they were following Johnny and Chet’s trail. Judging by the map they had been given of the area, they were following a hiking trail that eventually led down to one of the fire roads in this district. Once they hit the fire road, they had to turn west and travel about 10 miles to find a main road and it didn’t look as though there were any farms or houses on that route. Roy thought it was doubtful that Johnny knew any of this, but following a clear trail was definitely the sensible option in this case.

Somehow, Roy’s certainty had transmitted itself to Cap and Marco without the need of words and he didn’t try to slow the pace any. His men had already been out here alone for far too long and he wouldn’t rest easily until they were safely in Rampart under the care of the medical staff. He thought that when that came about, he would find a quiet corner and treat himself to a moment’s breakdown. He reckoned he would deserve that.

Bringing up the rear, Marco was praying that they would find their friends uninjured. The desolation of the landscape was bringing subconscious fears closer to the surface of his mind and he thought of his training which instilled the dangers of breathing in ash and smoke. With every step they took, they kicked up clouds of ash.

A ragged cry escaped from Roy’s lips and he broke into a run. There, further down the trail, were two limping men, one tall and slim, the other shorter and stockier. There was no question as to their identity. Cap and Marco also broke into a run, shouting out their names.

Disbelieving their ears, Chet and Johnny slowly turned their heads and looked at the three apparitions bearing down on them at a run. “I’m imagining things,” Chet declared.

“I’m imagining the same thing,” Johnny croaked. And yet he still didn’t believe it; he didn’t dare. What if he believed and it turned out to be a figment of his overactive imagination brought about by his fever? If he let go now, he would not be able to keep walking.

“You two are a sight for sore eyes!” Roy cried. He was covered in dust, but the smile on his face couldn’t be hidden. He skidded to a stop and put a hand on each of their shoulders, taking in their appearances. His crew mates were filthy, their eyes red-rimmed and it was immediately obvious to Roy that they were both injured and Johnny was sick.

The touch on his shoulder broke the spell of unreality for Johnny. They had been found. Someone else could take on the responsibility for getting Chet to the hospital. He automatically lowered Chet to the ground and started to lift his head to say something to Roy, but the world tilted sideways about him and between one thought and the next, he fainted, tumbling bonelessly to the ground in a graceless heap.

***********

While Roy knelt beside Johnny, Cap started talking into the radio, starting with the most important news. “We’ve found them!” he cried. He quickly added the directions to their location as best as they could ascertain. “We need transportation,” he added as the jubilant cries he heard coming over the radio died down. “They are both in need of medical attention. At this moment, I have no further details.”

“10-4!” Mike acknowledged, the joy in his familiar voice tempered with regret as he thought of what his friends must have gone through.

The logistics of getting help to them were not his problem, Cap thought thankfully. He knelt by Chet as Roy shrugged off his backpack and pulled out the first aid kit. “How are you doing?” Cap asked, taking in the makeshift splint on Chet’s hugely swollen and discolored ankle.

“Been worse,” Chet admitted, “but not much.” He looked around. “Where’s Mikey?”

“On the other end of this radio,” Cap replied. “He’ll be fine. Tell me about you.”

“Probably busted my ankle,” Chet enumerated. “Covered in cuts and bruises, I expect. No biggie, Cap.” He spoke lightly, but he was hiding the fear that his ankle would never be right now. He knew walking on a broken bone was not good, but what other choice had they had?

“What about John?” Cap asked. He could see Chet’s fear, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t know if everything would be all right.

“He seemed to be all right until the fire nearly got us,” Chet said. He frowned at his unconscious friend. “But he drank too much at the river and puked. He told me it was the heat at first, but admitted it to me this morning. He’s awful congested and has a bad cough. He says it isn’t pneumonia, but I’m not so sure. And I think one of his feet got burned. He hasn’t looked at it, so we don’t know, but the bottom of his boot got a bit melted as the fire went past. Oh, and he’s hurt his ribs. That probably happened when I landed on him in the stream, but he says that everything was aching after we got hit by the water.” That reminded Chet. “Did anyone ever catch that pilot? Because I’m going to rip his head off!”

“Get in line,” Marco commented dryly. “There are a lot of us looking for him.”

Patting Chet’s knee and giving him a meaningless smile, Cap moved over to crouch next to Roy and Johnny. “How’s he doing?” he asked in an undertone.

“Not too good,” Roy replied. “His skin is dry and hot; he isn’t sweating. His lungs sound really congested. The turgor of his skin says he’s really dehydrated. I haven’t had the chance to look at his foot yet.”

“Do it,” Cap suggested. He grasped Johnny’s leg below the knee to help Roy take off his boot and sock. The sock disintegrated and the sole of Johnny’s foot was burned.

“First degree, maybe a few patches of second degree, but it isn’t that serious,” Roy reported thankfully. He pulled out some gauze and soaked it with sterile water and wrapped Johnny’s foot in it. “Cap, we need to set up a relay with Rampart. I need permission to start an IV on both of them and get some pain meds on board for Chet at least.”

“I’ll do that,” the tall man nodded and took a step away.

“Marco, do you have a splint in your pack?” Roy asked, rummaging for the stethoscope and BP cuff that was in his.

“I think they’re in Cap’s pack,” Marco replied. “I’ll take a look.”

“Okay. If they are, can you cut those branches off Chet’s foot and get a splint onto it? Thanks. Chet, I’ll be over to check you out in a minute.”

“Hey, I’m doing fine over here,” Chet lied. He was shivering despite the sunshine.

“Marco, I think Chet needs to lie down,” Roy observed. “And don’t take no for an answer. He’ll never forgive you if he faints as well.” Under Roy’s hands, Johnny stirred.

***********

With the relay to Rampart up and running, Roy soon had the two men resting as comfortably as was possible. Although they had basic first aid supplies, toting oxygen canisters around with them had not been feasible and so Roy was unable to administer it to Johnny, who he thought needed it badly. Both men sported IVs and Chet had been given some MS to relieve the pain of his ankle. With Johnny’s breathing already compromised, he had had to make do with a lesser pain reliever and as far as he was concerned, it wasn’t doing anything for him.

“What are we waiting for?” Chet asked a trifle querulously. The cardboard splint he was wearing was a definite improvement over the branches Johnny had used and the MS was taking the edge off nicely, but now he really wanted to get out of his dirty clothes and have a hot shower and something to eat. To punctuate his thoughts, his stomach growled loudly.

“A way to get out of here,” Cap replied. He had known it would take a bit of time, but this was ridiculous.

“They could send us a helicopter,” Chet suggested “That stupid pilot who caused all the problems in the first place, maybe.”

“I’m not getting in any helicopter with him,” Johnny objected.

“There’s nowhere for a helicopter to land,” Cap pointed out. Chet was clearly stoned.

“I don’t want to go over someone’s shoulder,” Chet went on. “No offense, Gage, but your shoulder was pretty bony.”

“I wasn’t offering to carry you,” Johnny replied, but his heart wasn’t in his comeback. He wanted to sleep, but Roy wasn’t going to let him do that and now that Chet had started talking, he wasn’t going to get any peace to fit in a quick nap. He knew that he’d feel much better after a good sleep and maybe even something to eat… His stomach roiled uncomfortably and he swallowed hard to keep the nausea down. He hoped Roy hadn’t noticed but his eagle-eyed pal had.

“You feeling okay, Johnny?” he asked.

Drawing in a deep breath to help keep the nausea at bay, Johnny started coughing and found he couldn’t stop. Before long he was gagging and only the fact that there was nothing in his stomach stopped him throwing up. He slumped back, struggling to get enough air in, his wheezing perfectly audible to all of the others. Roy exchanged a worried glance with Cap, who moved away slightly to use the radio to find out where the hell the other rescuers were.

As he thumbed the button, he glanced down the track and saw a handful of men walking up towards them. He waved and they waved back. They were too far away for Cap to identify, but he knew that they were firefighters because of the amount of equipment they were carrying. “Here they come,” he told Roy.

“I don’t hear any engines,” Roy noted after a few seconds.

“They’re on foot,” Cap replied. “I don’t know why and I hope it isn’t bad news.”

“Me, too,” Roy agreed. He glanced at his watch. It was now 3pm. He really wanted to throw Johnny and Chet into the back of an ambulance and high tail it to Rampart. They had already been outside for too long.

The firefighters proved to be the paramedics from stations110 and 45. They both bore stokes full of equipment, and Roy was delighted to find they had brought oxygen. He busied himself setting it up as Cap questioned the men.

“Why are you walking?” he asked. “Is something wrong with your vehicles?”

“We brought the squads to the bottom of this track, about three miles away,” Ramirez of 45 explained. “But the track is impassable at the bottom because of the number of trees that have fallen over it. So we elected to walk. Chief Houts has organized a chopper to meet us at a meadow part of the way down.”

“I’m not getting in a helicopter with that pilot,” Chet objected.

“Shush,” Marco scolded him. “It’ll be a different pilot.” As if any of us would know anyway, he thought.

That one went past the newcomers anyway, as they put it down to the drugs Chet was on. They cleared the stokes of the equipment and gently lifted Chet into one of the baskets, spreading one of the yellow blankets over him before strapping him in firmly, watching out for his IV. Roy supervised them placing Johnny, wishing there was a way to have him sitting up to help his breathing. Then they gathered up the rest of the packs and equipment and picked the baskets up. “Let’s go,” he said.

***********

It wasn’t a pleasant journey for the two injured men. The jolting and swaying had them both feeling nauseated and a couple of times they had to stop for Johnny to be turned as he dry heaved helplessly. It was slow going, too. The footing was uncertain in places and here and there they had to climb over fallen tree trunks. Carrying the two men was also very tiring, so they often had to stop and swap places. It was well after 5pm before they reached the fire road where the squads were parked.

Putting a stokes on top of a squad was not ideal, but they had no other option. Roy climbed onto the back beside Johnny and Ramirez watched over Chet. Cap got into the front seat of one squad and Marco got into the other. It was blissful to just sit back for a few minutes. Cap sighed as he reached for the mic. “Base, we are now heading to the rendezvous with the helicopter,” he reported.

“10-4,” Mike’s voice confirmed. Cap could hear him smiling. “The chopper will be waiting for you. See you at Rampart.”

“Yes, see you there,” Cap agreed. He hoped there would be room for all of them in the chopper, because he for one didn’t want to let either of his men out of his sight for some time to come. He found his eyes closing as they drove down the road and shook himself. He needed to stay awake for a good while longer. He could sleep at Rampart once he had handed Johnny and Chet over to the doctors.

As Mike had promised, the chopper was waiting for them in the meadow. The stokes were unloaded from the backs of the squads and Cap could see that Roy’s face was tight with worry. Johnny looked pale, apart from a slight flush in his cheeks – the classic signs of a fever. His breathing was obviously labored and his eyes were closed, his head lolling to one side. “Roy?”

Shaking his head, Roy pursed his lips. “He’s not doing too well,” he muttered in a sweeping understatement. “I think the only thing that was keeping him on his feet before we found them was the need to get Chet some medical attention. You know what he’s like. He’s dehydrated, he probably aspirated some water, and if he hasn’t got pneumonia, then I’ll eat my hat.”

“We’re nearly at the hospital,” Cap comforted him. “John will be all right.”

“I hope so,” Roy sighed. “I really hope so.”

***********

It didn’t take long for them to load the stretchers, then Roy, Marco and Cap jumped in beside them and donned the protective headphones. Johnny was moving restlessly, and Roy put his hand comfortingly upon the younger man’s arm, which had the added benefit of protecting the IV. Chet was lying quietly, his volubility thankfully quelled, his eyes at half-mast. Cap didn’t wonder that both Johnny and Chet had become so quiet; he could only imagine their relief at being rescued and understood that the adrenaline that had kept them going for the last two days had thoroughly worn off.

The big chopper lifted effortlessly into the air and almost instantly, Johnny was coughing and gagging. Cap slid from his seat to drop to one knee to help Roy tilt the basket. On the other side of Cap, Marco leaned forward to block any chance of Chet seeing his friend in such extremis. It was worrying to all of them the speed at which Johnny seemed to be deteriorating, but Chet didn’t need to see it. He had enough going on himself without taking Johnny’s problems on board, too.

The 10 minutes the flight took seemed like hours to Roy. Johnny was, at best, semi-conscious, sometimes rousing to look at Roy when his name was called, but often not responding at all. They were all concerned for Johnny and Chet was looking rather pale, too.

The helicopter touched down lightly on the helipad at the hospital and the side door opened. Dr Brackett and Dr Early were waiting there with a couple of gurneys and just beyond him, kept back by a couple of cops, was the media.

Anger ripped through Roy’s heart and if it hadn’t been for the two patients he had under his care, he would have given the cameras quite a show. It disgusted him the way they hovered around a disaster or tragedy and he knew they were there in case one of the missing men should die. Their rescue was newsworthy, but they would get more mileage out of the fire, the search for and subsequent rescue of Johnny and Chet should one or both of them die.

As the stokes was placed on the gurney, Brackett leaned over to look more closely at Johnny. He didn’t like what he saw. “He’s gone downhill since you contacted me,” Brackett stated. It wasn’t a question, nor was it an accusation. The relay had been patchy at best and really, there had been little more Brackett could order Roy to do until x-rays could be done. Johnny’s breathing was not good, but it certainly wasn’t labored enough to require intubation and manual assistance.

“Yeah,” Roy agreed. He gave Brackett the latest set of vitals, taken just before they took off. “He just seemed to let go.”

“We’ll fix him up, Roy,” Brackett assured him as they followed the gurney into the ER. The x-ray machine was standing waiting for them and Brackett ushered them in after the gurney. He put up his hand to stop Roy following. “Go and wash, then have a cup of coffee and then I’ll send someone to get you,” he ordered. “And make sure Marco and Hank do the same.”

“But, doc…”

“You need a few minutes downtime, Roy,” Brackett said, placing a comforting hand on the paramedic’s shoulder. “It hasn’t exactly been easy on you this last couple of days with Johnny and Chet missing, has it?”

“I guess not,” Roy agreed. He heaved a deep sigh as the doctor disappeared into the treatment room to issue instructions about the x-rays he wanted. Brackett was right; he was bone weary. A cup of coffee sounded great right now.

It was only a few moments before Chet gurney appeared and Dr Early had clearly given Cap and Marco the same instructions that Brackett had given Roy, for they looked both gloomy and rather put out. However, they both agreed with Roy that a wash and coffee sounded good and before too long, they were clean and sitting at the table in the doctors’ lounge.

They didn’t talk, nor did they put on the TV to watch the news. There was entirely too much chance that they would see their own faces on there and that was the last thing any of them wanted. Instead, they just companionably sat, sipping the coffee, which was rather stewed, but welcomed nonetheless. After about 20 minutes, Mike joined them, shown into the room by Dixie’s second in command, Betty. She gave them all a smile and told them they could go to see their friends in a few minutes. Someone would come by to get them.

“How are they?” Mike asked. “How did you find them?”

They took turns in relating the story, Roy concluding with the medical details at the end. Mike nodded throughout. He was a good listener – probably just as well as he wasn’t much of a talker. However, when he did talk, people listened to him, as he usually had something important to say. Roy had just finished talking when Betty came to say they could see the others.

For convenience’s sake, both firefighters were now in one treatment room. They looked markedly different; for a start, they were clean. Two days’ worth of dust, ash, mud and grime had been washed off, leaving them looking pale and tired but a bit better, too. Both were clad in hospital gowns. Johnny’s foot was wrapped in bandages and Roy could see an antibiotic had already been added to his IV. Chet’s ankle still bore its splint and he also had an antibiotic. He was trying to flirt with the pretty young nurse who was taking his vitals. Given that he sounded completely stoned, he wasn’t really having much luck.

“Hi, guys,” Brackett greeted them. “You look a lot better.” He didn’t prolong their misery, but went straight on to give them an update. “Chet here is on his way to surgery. The ortho boys are going to set his ankle. The break could have been worse, but obviously it would have been better if it had been seen right away. After some physical therapy, I expect him to be back to work in a few months. He rather likes his pre-op as you can probably tell.” He grinned briefly.

“I heard that,” Chet slurred.

“I think you were meant to, amigo,” Marco assured him, smiling.

“Johnny has pneumonia, as I’m sure you already guess,” Brackett went on, sobering. “He has a broken rib on the left, but it hasn’t done any internal damage and several cracked ones on both sides. His foot isn’t too badly burned but will bear watching, as there were signs of infection in it. He was dangerously dehydrated, but the IV is combating that. Both of them are suffering from mild exposure, cuts and bruises and they’ll both be here for several days. They are both covered in bruises, too and we’ve irrigated their eyes a couple of times to try and rid them of the irritation brought on by the constant exposure to the ash they kicked up as they walked. Both of them have blisters and sores on their feet. The ash was everywhere – and I do mean everywhere! – and had clearly worked its way between their socks and skin. Neither would admit to having sore feet, but since they both had other serious problems, I’m not altogether surprised that they hadn’t noticed the lesser ones.”

During this monologue, Roy had drifted over to stand by Johnny. His partner was asleep, his dark hair still wet from being washed. For someone who had survived two days in a wildfire area and helped keep his friend alive, too, he looked incredibly fragile and young, not nearly old enough to have done what he did. Roy wondered if he would have been able to survive the fire. It had come far too close to claiming both Johnny and Chet’s lives.

“Hey, doc,” Chet slurred. “Gage is gonna be okay, isn’t he?”

“Yes, Chet, John is going to be just fine,” Brackett reassured him without an instant’s hesitation, yet something in his tone made Roy look at him sharply. None of the others appeared to have noticed anything, but they didn’t know Brackett as well as Roy did.

They made a little more small talk, designed to keep Chet from worrying, before he was taken up to surgery a few minutes later. When Chet was gone, Roy turned to Brackett. “What are you keeping from us?” he asked.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Brackett denied.

“About Johnny.” Roy tilted his chin towards his sleeping partner. “You’re keeping something back.”

“It’s not something else for you to worry about,” Brackett sighed. “It’s something I thought about a few minutes ago when Chet asked me. There’s a pretty good chance that both Johnny and Chet are going to develop gastroenteritis from drinking that river water. We know that it had to be pretty contaminated by ash, but it was their only source. Let’s hope that they are all right, but they could end up with a nasty bout and for Johnny especially, being weakened by the pneumonia, it could be very nasty indeed.”

“How nasty?” Cap asked, frowning at this news.

“Not life threatening, at least I hope not. But it can be pretty debilitating,” Brackett explained. “With both of them suffering from mild exposure, they are more susceptible to infections and viruses.”

“Won’t the antibiotics help that?” Marco asked.

“Only if it’s caused by a bacterium. A virus is immune to antibiotics.” Brackett crossed his arms. “But we’re jumping the gun here. It might never happen. It was just a random thought that crossed my mind. Don’t worry about it.”

“Are you kidding?” Cap asked. “Roy was born worried.”

“Oh ha ha,” Roy snorted. He glanced down at Johnny again. It wasn’t good news that his friend had not roused with them talking right beside him.

As though overhearing Roy’s thoughts, Brackett drew them over to the door. “I think you guys need to go home and get some proper rest,” he suggested. “Johnny should sleep the night through and Chet most likely will too. You can see them tomorrow and hopefully all of you will be feeling better.”

Reluctant though they were to leave, they could all see the sense in what the doctor was saying. “How are we going to get home?” Marco asked. They had all been collected that morning.

“I’ll get my wife to collect us,” Hank proposed as they were ushered into the hallway.

However, it proved to be a moot point, because Chief Houts was there waiting for them and after being appraised of the situation, he suggested they should get taken home in the official car he had waiting outside. He had come to find out how Chet and Johnny were and was more than happy to drop them off on the way to his home. It saved Mrs. Stanley from having to come for them and they accepted gratefully.

With a smile Dr Brackett saw them off and then went back into the treatment room. Johnny still slept. Brackett looked down at him. He was one very sick young man and Brackett knew that if Johnny did develop gastroenteritis, it might very well kill him.

***********

The persistent voice of his nurse finally forced Johnny to pry his eyelids apart the next morning. It seemed to require a gargantuan effort on his part and the resulting scene was rather blurry. Johnny really didn’t care. He wasn’t planning on staying awake for one single second longer than was necessary.

“There we are,” the nurse chirped. “Your breakfast is here. You’ll want to eat it while it’s hot.” She tried to encourage him to sit up, but he wasn’t having any of that. In truth, he wasn’t sure he was capable of remaining upright even if he somehow managed to sit up.

Casting a glance over his shoulder at the tray, Johnny was glad he had on the oxygen mask and couldn’t smell whatever it was because he was certain it would make him throw up. Actually, now that he was awake, he was sure he was going to throw up and that was without the food. He scrabbled frantically at the mask covering his nose and mouth, frustrated by the fact his fingers were fumbling uselessly.

“You need to leave that on,” the nurse chided him, then realized what was wrong, grabbed an emesis basin and whipped the mask away and not a moment too soon.

It was unbelievably awful. Johnny’s whole body hurt as he heaved fruitlessly, only bile coming up. Involuntary tears clogged his eyes and he gasped painfully, one hand curling into the blanket to try and steady himself. The nurse wiped his mouth and encouraged him to take a sip of water to rinse and spit out. He was so exhausted that he could barely manage to do as she asked.

As he slumped back on the pillows, Johnny became aware of how hot he was. His whole body seemed to be drenched in sweat and he was shaking like a leaf. His head was throbbing, his mouth tasted like socks, his body ached relentlessly and he just wanted to crawl into the black hole of sleep and stay there until he was better. He’d had pneumonia before and knew how it felt, but this was something more. His guts were roiling and cramps were now gripping at his abdomen. He clutched the nurse’s arm as she put back the oxygen mask. “I feel… ill,” he whispered.

“I know,” the nurse soothed. “I’m going to get Dr Brackett now.”

“My stomach,” Johnny persisted. He grabbed at the nurse as she tried to leave. “Please,” he added piteously. “I need … a bedpan.” It was so humiliating. Being ill and helpless was something he hated. If he had to be ill, he preferred to be alone in his apartment with no witnesses.

The nurse was not slow off the mark. She hit the call button, alerting one of her colleagues that she needed help, whipped round the privacy curtain and was helping him sit up when the second nurse arrived. They worked seamlessly in tandem, helping him onto the bedpan and supporting him when his weakened body refused to do even that. For Johnny, the humiliation was almost beyond bearing. He was a proud man and to have two women witness his body’s weakness and help him with something as basic and private as cleaning himself up was a horrific experience. As the first nurse helped him recline against the pillows again, he realized this might not be the only time he had to go through this and wished hopelessly that he would lapse into unconsciousness and not be aware of anything until he was better.

Now lying on his back, semi-upright, Johnny was only aware of his roommate as the nurse pulled the curtain back. Studiously avoiding meeting his glance was none other than Chet Kelly, the one person Johnny did not want to see in this situation. The Phantom, Chet’s alter ego, had more than enough ammunition to goad Johnny with as it was. This was just beyond the pale. How much more humiliation was this day going to heap on him?

However, on this occasion, Johnny had Chet completely wrong. Chet was not having the best of days himself. He, too, was confined to bed and also had the same stomach upset as Johnny. While Johnny had slept through Chet’s episode, Chet also knew that it would not be his only time this happened and that Johnny would certainly be awake for at least one subsequent bout of diarrhea. And since, like Johnny, Chet could not get up, he was subject to the same humiliating call for help.

As the nurse finished wiping Johnny’s face with a cool, damp cloth, Dr Brackett came into the room. He looked at the two firefighters with undisguised concern. “I hear you’ve got a stomach bug,” he said sympathetically. “We’re testing to see if it will respond to antibiotics, or if it’s a virus.”

“You didn’t have to tell us,” Chet piped up, seeing that Johnny was incapable of speech right at that moment. He hoped his friend wasn’t going to barf again, because seeing someone barf always made Chet want to copy them. He felt bad enough without doing that.

“I also hear that neither of you want to eat,” Brackett went on. Johnny looked greener than ever. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll keep you on the IVs for the moment and we’ll give you both something for nausea and with any luck, it will help other things, too.” He really didn’t want to get too specific just in case one or both of them started barfing. “Chet, how does your ankle feel?”

“With every nerve ending,” Chet replied with a nervous laugh. His ankle was in a soft cast with an icepack resting on top. It was propped on several pillows to reduce the swelling so that they could put a cast on it later. The surgery to put his ankle back together hadn’t been as tricky as they had feared and he would be back at work within three months, the ortho doctor estimated.

“I see you’ve been taking lessons from this comedian,” Brackett retorted disgustedly, gesturing at Johnny. “I need to know, Chet.”

“Aw, it’s okay, doc,” Chet replied, shamefacedly. “It hurts a bit, but nothing like it did when we were still lost.”

“Good. “ Brackett bent closer to examine Chet’s toes, which were a nice rosy pink color. Chet’s blood pressure was back to normal, his pulse good and his lungs were clear. There were rumblings in his bowel, but that was no surprise, even if Brackett had hoped they would both escape.

Crossing to Johnny’s side, Brackett knew there was no point in asking Johnny how he felt. His misery was displayed for all the world to see in his pale face with the hectic patches of color on his cheeks, his sunken eyes and the audible wheeze as he breathed. Johnny’s skin was hot; his pulse small, hard and fast. The oxygen mask fogged with each rapid breath. His blood pressure, when Brackett checked it, was still a bit low.

“Johnny, I’m going to change your antibiotic,” Brackett told him. “I’d hoped you’d be a bit better this morning.”

“Feel… awful,” Johnny admitted and that was worrying to Brackett. Johnny seldom admitted if he felt less than 100%. “So… hot.”

“We’re going to get you some cooling blankets,” Brackett promised. He scribbled a few notes on Johnny’s chart and increased the flow of the IV after looking at the small amount of dark colored urine that had been collected via the Foley. “Why don’t you try and get some more sleep,” he suggested.

Sleep was what Johnny craved more than anything, but he was so hot and so uncomfortable and so downright miserable that he didn’t think he would be able to sleep. The head of the bed was at the wrong angle and although it made his breathing a bit more bearable, he found it difficult to sleep in a sitting position and he was too weak to turn himself onto his side to see if that would help. Nevertheless, he willingly closed his heavy eyelids and sought the oblivion of sleep, but it cruelly eluded him.

First, the nurses arrived with the cooling blankets and he endured being lifted and turned like a sack of potatoes while they placed one underneath him. When the top blanket was in place, they switched the machine on and the hum, which seemed quiet and soothing at first, seemed to grow and swell until it was all he could hear. Then he got cold, really, really, cold and the shivering drove daggers through his injured ribs. The sudden cramping of his stomach had him frantically pressing the bell again and this time the nurses barely made it in time to help him. By the time they had cleaned him up and resettled him, Johnny was barely conscious and yet he still could not drift off. Dr Brackett was summoned again.

Although he was reluctant to do it, Brackett decided to give Johnny a little light sedation, just to see if it would help him drop off to sleep. As he had feared, the gastroenteritis was taking its toll on the already-weakened paramedic. If things continued the way they were going, Johnny would be in ICU before the end of the day and Brackett didn’t want to see that happen. He ordered 2mgs diazepam. If Johnny could rest, he would be in a better position to deal with all the indignities and problems he was facing.

It did the trick – for the time being at least. Brackett stood and watched the younger man sleeping for several minutes before turning away. He had the feeling that things were not going to be that straight forward; this was John Gage after all.

“Doc?” Chet was looking pretty subdued himself. Brackett couldn’t blame him.

“How are you doing?” he asked kindly.

“Aw, I’m fine,” Chet replied, brushing off the doctor’s concern. “Is Gage going to be all right? He seems so … sick,” he trailed off lamely.

“He is sick, Chet,” Brackett agreed, his mouth twitching. “He’s very sick. I hope he’s going to be okay but right now, I just don’t know.”

That wasn’t the answer Chet was looking for. When Brackett left the room a few minutes later, having assured the worried firefighter that they were doing everything they could for Johnny, Chet looked across the room. Johnny was still and quiet, sleeping for the moment.

Chet had a capricious relationship with God. His Catholic faith had deep roots in his soul, but there were times when he found it difficult to believe that God would allow such bad things to happen. But in times of trouble, he found immense comfort and reassurance in the familiar rituals of his childhood. He resorted to them now, muttering, “Hail Mary, full of grace…”

***********

The wall of flame leapt at him, searing his skin here and there, grasping and tugging at his body and feeling uncannily like fingers. He gasped and tried to escape, but his body was held in place and he knew that this would be the end for him. The fire was relentless and he had always feared that this would be how it would end – in flames and agony.

“He’s pretty hot,” a voice said from somewhere outside the flames. That was weird, Johnny reflected. He’d never heard voices in the flames before. Clearly he had gone mad. It didn’t really worry him. Madness didn’t seem like a bad thing when he was going to burn to death.

“His temp’s gone up another half degree,” agreed another voice. “What do you think?”

“I think he’s really sick,” replied the first voice.

Am I? Johnny thought. I thought I was in a fire. Wow. How about that? He sighed deeply and began to cough. That smoke’s pretty bad if I’m coughing like this, he thought. Where’s my air mask? His train of thought petered out as he struggled to get in enough air. His lungs felt like they were made of lead. So this is how I’m gonna go, he thought vaguely. He drifted off into unconsciousness.

“Thank goodness he stopped struggling,” Brackett sighed as he expertly dropped the head of the bed. Within moments, he had intubated Johnny and he was hooked up to the ventilator. “Why is nothing ever easy with you, John Gage?” he asked his sedated patient. “Why do you always have to have every complication that’s going?” He nodded to the orderly who was waiting. “You can take him up to ICU now.”

From across the room, Chet looked anxiously at the still figure on the bed. Despite everything they had done, Johnny had continued to deteriorate, the diarrhea sapping his dwindling strength and leaving him dangerously dehydrated. The only remaining option had been to take control of his breathing, up his fluid intake and start using stronger drugs to try and combat the infection raging through his body. It had been purgatory for Chet to watch, for Johnny had spoken in his delirium, giving voice to thoughts and memories that clearly brought him pain and opened Chet’s eyes to the different circumstances his friend had lived with. It hadn’t been pleasant to hear and Chet knew that, although he would never forget what he had heard, he would never make reference to it, either. Chet had grown up in a normal rambunctious family with several kids and he couldn’t imagine the pain of losing your parents at an early age and living in an orphanage and in foster care*.

“Are you feeling any better, Chet?” Brackett asked, breaking into his thoughts.

“I dunno,” Chet admitted. For all he had drunk more of the contaminated water than Johnny had, he had suffered from a milder bout of the gastroenteritis that was causing Johnny such grief. But right now, Chet’s heart hurt so much he was unaware of what his body felt like.

“You need to try and get some rest,” Brackett told him. “We’re taking care of Johnny.”

“Easier said than done, doc,” Chet reminded him. He glanced at the door, but the gurney was long gone. They would almost be in ICU by now.

“Do you want something to help you sleep?” Brackett sincerely hoped they would not be facing a situation where Chet felt guilty because he survived and Johnny died and not just for Johnny’s sake.

“Nah, I’m fine,” Chet insisted. “Really, doc.” He was exhausted, both from the illness and from watching Johnny’s troubles. Whether he would be able to sleep was another matter, but he wasn’t going to say that to the doc. He had to go and help Johnny and Chet would just content himself as best he could until he heard that Gage was going to be all right.

Smiling, Brackett left the room, but he left orders at the desk for a sedative later if Chet was still unable to sleep and fretting. In some respects, he and Johnny weren’t that different, Brackett reflected as he made his way to ICU.

***********

“What do you mean, we’re back on duty at the wildfire?” Roy cried.

As calmly as he could, Cap reiterated, “We’ve been ordered to go back out there, Roy. The fire is almost completely out, but they still need men. The department is shorthanded and needs every fit man available. There are almost no exceptions.”

“But Johnny’s very ill!” Roy exclaimed. “Isn’t that an exceptional circumstance?”

“Not this time, Roy,” Cap warned him. “Like it or not, we’ve got to be out there tomorrow.”

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone and Cap bit back in impatient sigh. He completely understood how Roy felt; darn it, he should! After all, the engine crew almost always had to go back into service after one of Johnny’s injuries and frequently didn’t know for hours how their man was faring. Roy was used to being at Johnny’s bedside when his partner was sick or injured, but it simply wasn’t going to happen this time. Roy might not like it, but he would like the alternative even less – he could be sacked for not turning up at a time of crisis.

Finally, a sigh travelled over the wires. “All right,” Roy said ungraciously, as though he had a choice, “I’ll be there.”

“Good,” Cap replied. There was no point in chastising Roy about his attitude; they all felt the same way. Roy at least had the advantage that as Johnny’s next of kin, he would be notified of any changes. “See you at 7 sharp at the station.”

“Yes, sir,” Roy sighed and hung up. The last thing he wanted to do – ever – was go out to the scene of the wildfire that still might claim his partner’s life. Whoever had done the assignments was either ignorant or unfeeling, or both. Roy wanted to throttle whoever it was. Insensitivity must be their middle name, he thought angrily.

From across the room, Joanne looked down at the pants she was hemming. She could understand Roy’s need to be with Johnny while he was so ill, but given that Johnny was on a ventilator, he wouldn’t be aware of who was or was not with him. And the wildfire was still big news, as the firefighters battled to keep it contained in a small area until it had no new fuel to feed itself with. Even the news had reported that all leave was cancelled for the department.

“I can feel you thinking,” Roy told her in a hard voice.

It was rare that Roy got as riled as this, and he was scary when he was angry. Joanne didn’t want to fight with him; not when he was going back out to face the beast loose on the hills. She resisted the urge to cross to the window and look at the hills decorated with flames. “There’s no law against thinking,” Joanne replied, thinking that perhaps challenging him was not her best bet. She was glad the children were asleep.

“Why don’t you just say it?” Roy flung at her. “You think I’m being pig-headed and stubborn.”

“Don’t tell me what I’m thinking!” Joanne shot back. She glared at him. “Of course you want to be with Johnny. It’s perfectly normal.”

“Joanne…”

“Let me finish!” Joanne knew she had to say this; she had to make Roy listen. “We all know what it’s like, Roy; Hank, Mike, Marco, Chet and I. We are always the ones who have to carry on as normal while you get to sit there and worry with Johnny right under your hand. We don’t get that luxury and guess what? We don’t like it either, but we don’t go around slamming doors and snapping people’s heads off! We don’t have any choice. Well, suck it up, mister, because you don’t have any choice this time round! Not so nice being on this side of it, is it?”

Blinking, Roy simply looked at his wife. She looked completely desirable, her dark hair loose around her face, her color high and her eyes snapping. He was also rather taken aback by what she was saying. He had never thought about how the others must feel as he was admitted to the inner sanctum of the hospital, told what was going on as it occurred, and being right there. Joanne was right; it wasn’t nice being on this side.

“I didn’t know you resented it so much,” he muttered finally. All his anger was gone, leaving him feeling very small and selfish.

“We don’t resent it,” Joanne assured him, her rush of anger dissipating too. “But it is difficult to be left on the outside, Roy. We all love Johnny, too.” She crossed the room and put her arms around him.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized and kissed her. “I’ll try not to be so selfish in future.”

Smiling, she tugged his arm. “Come on, let’s go to bed. You have an early start in the morning.”

“Who’s thinking about the morning?” he murmured and she laughed.

***********

Morning found Dr Kelly Brackett in ICU, looking at Johnny’s chart. Day shift had just taken over and the nurse in charge of ICU was doing rounds with Brackett while the others did routine vitals checks. Brackett sighed as he looked at the figures on the chart. “His temperature has stabilized,” Brackett murmured, “but I hoped it would drop. How do his lungs sound?”

It was always difficult to be sure over the sounds of the ventilator, but the nurse made a face. “Still pretty clunky,” she admitted reluctantly. “But the diarrhea has almost stopped.” That was about the only plus. “His blood pressure climbed a bit and then stabilized too. It’s almost normal now.”

“Urine output?”

“Still a bit low, but definitely climbing.” The nurse looked at the chart. “Do you want to do renal tests to see what’s causing the problem?”

“We’ll leave it another couple of hours,” Brackett decided. “I think it’s still a side effect of the dehydration. Keep pushing the fluids for a while and I’ll decide later.” He scribbled his orders on Johnny’s chart and handed it to the nurse before moving the few feet to look down on his friend. Nothing ever seemed to be simple with Johnny. Just once, Brackett would like to treat him for something innocuous – like a hang-nail. Smiling slightly at that ridiculous thought, he patted Johnny’s arm, then headed off downstairs to start his shift in the ER.

***********

“Why did we have to be here so early?” Marco asked. “We’re sitting about doing an awful lot of nothing.”

“Ours is not to reason why, ours is just to do and die,” Cap mis-quoted and wished he hadn’t. The last time they had been here, it had all too nearly come true.

Although Roy’s mood had improved drastically from when Cap had phoned him the previous evening, he was still fed up and didn’t want to be there. “I agree with Marco,” he muttered sullenly. He wanted to ask Cap and Marco if it was always like this when they were waiting to hear about Johnny, but didn’t quite know how to go about it. Now that Joanne had pointed out how selfish he had been, he was embarrassed and keen to make amends – if he only knew how.

Cap was aware that Roy had something on his mind, but assumed it was Johnny’s condition. It was on his mind, too and no doubt Marco’s, Mike’s and Chet’s. Mike was most put out that he couldn’t come and do something useful at the base and had been left behind. He promised to go and visit Johnny that afternoon and ring the station in the evening when they were back there to complete the shift.

Roy’s paramedic partner du jour was a quiet young man, newly qualified. So far, his entire contribution to the conversation had been to say hello and volunteer his name, Patrick O’Brien. Roy had no idea how he might perform in the field and this could prove to be baptism by fire – quite literally. Roy had been rather taken aback at how young he seemed and recalled his mother commenting, many years ago, that she knew she was getting old when the policemen started looking like school boys. Roy wondered if he was getting old, now that the paramedics looked as though they had just left school the previous week. He had no idea that Patrick was completely overwhelmed by the thought of working with the legendary Roy DeSoto.

“DeSoto, O’Brien, you’re needed out by the fire line,” the chief ordered, coming out of the command base. He handed them a map which showed them the route they needed to take and disappeared from sight again.

“See you later,” Roy offered to Cap and Marco. The paramedics hopped into the squad and drove off. Cap, Marco and the rest of the temporary 51 crew continued to cool their heels.

***********

The call to the fire line was to a firefighter who had cut his hand. It wasn’t a serious injury, but he was pulled off the line and sent back to the station. Another firefighter was called to replace him. Roy bit back a desire to tell the man in charge that the paramedics were being wasted sitting around at the fire. They could be back in the city, covering their own district so that the remaining units were not stretched as thinly. With a disgruntled sigh, they climbed back into the squad and drove back to base.

The engine was gone when they got there. There was nobody around they could ask about where it had gone and Roy certainly wasn’t going in to bug the chief. He wished he could use the radio in the squad to contact Rampart and ask about Johnny, or even use the biophone, but he stifled the desire. He knew that neither dispatch nor Rampart would be very happy about it if he did.

After a time, O’Brien went to get them coffee and sandwiches. Roy was feeling rather unsettled and wasn’t sure that he was hungry, but he knew that he should eat. The choice of sandwiches was limited, as was always the case at temporary bases and it was simply too warm today to contemplate soup. The sandwiches weren’t all that tasty either, having wilted quite drastically in the heat of the day, but Roy choked them down somehow and from the noises and the leftovers, O’Brien wasn’t hugely taken with them either.

They had been back in camp for about three hours and there was still no sign of Engine 51. There was plenty of radio chatter, but Roy had been filtering it out, as he usually did when it didn’t mention his squad or station. He had heard nothing from the engine. During that time, he had removed a large splinter from someone’s behind and irrigated several men with irritated eyes. Anyone could have performed those basic first aid jobs. It was all highly frustrating.

“DeSoto.” The hail came from the command tent and Roy turned to see a Battalion chief coming towards him. “DeSoto – um. I hate to tell you this, but we’ve lost contact with Engine 51.”

***********

“Well at last!” Brackett exclaimed. “It’s about time he turned a corner!” The chart Brackett now had in his hand read completely differently from the one first thing in the morning. “We won’t need to do renal tests. Keep the fluids going at this level until this evening, then we can taper them back down to normal overnight and see how he does on that. How do his lungs sound now?”

“Still noisy, but clearing,” Laura replied. “His temp’s come down a whole degree and the diarrhea has stopped.”

“All good news and moving in the right direction,” Brackett agreed happily. “If he continues to improve, we’ll wake him up tomorrow and get him off the vent.” He scrawled his signature on the chart and went over to Johnny’s side. The deathly pallor the younger man had had was gone and the hectic flush was dying out of his cheeks. “Did you hear me, Johnny?” Brackett asked. “Keep on going the way you are and you’ll get that tube out of your throat tomorrow.” He knew there would be no reply, but they never knew what their patients could hear and Brackett wanted to be sure that Johnny got a positive message.

“Doctor, there’s a Mr. Stoker outside asking to see Mr. Gage,” Laura said, popping her head back into the cubicle.

“Let him come in,” Brackett replied, waving his arm. “He’s one of Johnny’s shift mates.” He grinned at Mike. “Hi, Mike. Have you heard? Johnny’s turned the corner and I’m hoping to get him out of here tomorrow.” He glanced at the unconscious man on the bed. “Of course, we all know what Johnny’s like and he might decide to go back round that corner, but I don’t think so.”

“He’d better not,” Mike agreed in his soft-spoken way. He briefly rested his hand on Johnny’s arm, squeezing for a moment before letting go.

“Any word on the fire?” Brackett asked, knowing that Roy and the others had gone back out there that day. He hadn’t had the chance to watch the news since early that morning.

“Nothing recent,” Mike replied. “I take it you haven’t heard anything either? No casualties?”

“Nope, none,” Brackett agreed with relief. A wildfire always brought a rash of business to the local hospitals. “Things are definitely looking up, aren’t they?”

“Definitely,” Mike smiled. As he sat down to visit with Johnny, up in the hills Roy and Patrick were setting out to look for the missing engine.

***********

To say Captain Stanley was mad was an understatement of dramatic proportions. He was standing about 100 yards away from the rest of the men with his back turned. His hands were clenched into tight fists at his sides, his knuckles showing up white against his tanned skin. His body was rigid and the others watched apprehensively, sure that one wrong move, word or breath would bring his wrath down upon them.

In actual fact, there was only one man amongst the crew who had anything to really fear and the only thing likely to suffer apart from his pride was his hearing, as Cap was going to shout at him, loudly and for a long time, most likely. The replacement engineer, a big brash guy known as Dunk Hiller, had just driven the engine into a ‘pothole’ the size of the Grand Canyon. If the front axle wasn’t broken, it was only because some angel somewhere had reached out a finger to prevent it. But either way, the engine was stuck and they were in a dead zone as far as the radio went. That was bad enough, but Dunk had made the mistake of then trying to laugh the incident off, making a disparaging remark about the amount of time Mike Stoker spent polishing the engine and how it had made the engine slip into the pothole. With half Cap’s normal crew on the sick list, it hadn’t been the wisest move ever. Dunk was reconsidering his choice of career quite seriously.

Finally feeling his temper was under enough control that he wouldn’t actually throttle his engineer, Cap turned back. “Dunk, take a handie-talkie and start walking,” he ordered. “Find a spot where the radio works, report our position and then get back here.”

“I don’t know our position,” Dunk replied, rather unwisely.

“You’re driving the engine!” Cap bellowed. “How can you not know where we are?”

“I just followed the road you told me to,” Dunk protested. “That’s what I always do. I don’t know what road it is.”

Give me strength, Cap thought, glancing skyward. “Don’t you even remember which fire road we’re on?” he asked through clenched teeth. He resisted looked at Marco, who was trying so hard not to laugh he looked like he was in danger of having a little accident.

For a moment, Dunk gave that question earnest thought. “Uh, no,” he admitted. He was hopeless at directions and was always guided by whoever was riding shotgun with him. Captain Stanley had told him which road to take and that was the road he had taken. It was simple. Why was Cap now angry with him for not knowing where they were? Was that part of the job? Half the time he got lost going home from the station and that was a journey he did regularly.

“I’ll go, Cap,” Marco offered. Cap could be formidable when he was crossed, as Dunk was just learning. Marco had no desire to stand there while Cap took the engineer apart. The sooner someone went and reported their position, the sooner they could get a tow truck or another engine up there to rescue them. He grabbed the HT and headed off uphill in the direction they had been going. Behind him, he could hear Cap warming to his task of chewing out the hapless engineer.

Unfortunately for Marco, they were in a particularly bad spot for radio communication and he had to walk almost a mile before he finally found a spot where he could radio out. “HT51 to base,” he said. “Come in please.”

“This is squad 51,” replied Roy’s voice unexpectedly. “Are you all right?”

“Nobody’s hurt, but the engine’s stuck,” Marco reported. He quickly gave the location of the engine and this time heard base acknowledge and promise to send out someone to rescue them.

“We’ll be there soon,” Roy added after base had signed off.

With a smile, Marco turned around and started trudging back down the road.

***********

It took several hours for them to maneuver something big enough to tow the engine up the narrow fire road, and that was only after it had arrived from the city. Roy and Patrick had been with them for a while, but had been called back to camp to deal with an influx of irritated eyes after a wind had blown up.

It was dark when the engine was towed into the base and Charlie, the irascible department engineer, started tearing a new strip off Dunk for driving so carelessly. He immediately dived underneath the engine and started to examine it. Replacement engines were scarce and usually only pulled out when an engine needed a major service or overhaul and Charlie didn’t want one tied up for several days or more while he fixed something that had been caused through carelessness. “You wouldn’t get Mike Stoker pulling such a bone-headed stunt!” he concluded.

Dunk looked singularly unimpressed. “Oh yeah, yeah, we all know the guys from 51s can’t do anything wrong.” He sneered at Charlie’s back as he walked away. Even Dunk wasn’t dumb enough to sneer at Charlie’s face.

However, he was dumb enough to not have looked round before saying something so provocative. Standing behind him, waiting for Charlie’s verdict, was Hank Stanley. “Would you like to repeat that?” Cap asked his tone deceptively mild.

While playing dumb would not be a great course of action, it was better than the one Dunk opted for, which was basically suicidal. He was notoriously short on a sense of humor and had been enduring veiled jibes ever since the engine went into the pot hole and he had had enough. “It’s true,” he retorted. “You guys get away with murder. Any other fireman that had as much sick time as Gage would have been sacked by now. DeSoto gets to take time off whenever he wants and every single engineer in the whole department has Mike Bloody Stoker held up to him as an example. Every trickster comes in second best to Chet Kelly and nobody can cook chili like Marco Lopez. Station 51 is the station, don’t you know? I don’t know why the rest of us dumb clucks are allowed to be in the department when we’ve got Station 51 and the wonder crew to cover LA County.”

While it was true that the crew of 51 was exceptionally tight and had very good men on it, this was the first time that anyone had voiced out loud – and to the captain of the said station at that – what had only been mentioned in passing and as a joke before. There was a surprising hush from all the men who had gathered around to witness the confrontation. There was a morbid fascination in watching a man end his career in such a manner, for nobody who had heard those remarks would want to work with someone who had such a vast chip on his shoulder and so little respect for his fellow firefighters. The fire department was a very small world and today’s events would be all round the county before it was dark.

Fortunately for Cap, he was struck momentarily dumb by the man’s effrontery. Fortunately, because he was tired and worried about Johnny and had been stuck for hours on a fire road because of his replacement engineer’s carelessness. He would, undoubtedly, have said something he would have regretted and been disciplined for. But Dunk’s diatribe had also been overheard by the chief.

“Engineer Hiller, you are suspended as of this moment,” the chief declared. He glanced at everyone standing around and most of the men took the hint and made themselves scarce. The only ones who stayed were Roy, Cap, Marco, Patrick and the other man, Neil Harris, who was replacing Chet. They were all standing behind Cap, arrayed against Dunk. The enraged engineer didn’t even notice.

“That’s no surprise either,” he snapped at the astounded chief. “Of course you’re going to protect Station 51. I wouldn’t expect anything different from you. I’m through with LA and I’m through with fire fighting. I’m too good for you idiots anyway. I’m going somewhere that I’m appreciated.”

From somewhere in the crowd, safely lost in anonymity, a voice asked, “Are there any openings on the moon?”

There was a chorus of coughs as men struggled to hide the laughter that wanted to break free and relieve the tension surrounding the scene. Only the men immediately involved in the tableau didn’t see the funny side. “Get your gear and leave,” the chief ordered. He turned away. Cap looked at Dunk with distaste but didn’t say anything. Neither did anyone else.

After a long pause, Dunk went off and collected what little gear he had had at the base camp and walked over to his car. He stood beside it for several long minutes and the people watching him assumed that reality had caught up with him and he was wondering what on earth he was going to do now. But that wasn’t the case at all. Dunk got into his car and drove towards the exit. He paused beside a knot of firefighters who had been watching the hoo-ha with a great deal of unbecoming glee.

“How do I get out of here?” he asked.

His ignominious departure was accompanied by a cacophony of laughter and cat-calls.

***********

There was something stuck in his throat. That was Johnny’s first thought as he woke up and began to gag. A hand touched his arm and he flinched, cracking open his eyes cautiously. Dr Brackett’s familiar face swam into focus and Johnny instantly knew where he was. This was not the first time he had wakened up with a ventilator tube down his throat. “Johnny? Are you with us? You’re breathing over the vent.”

Fractionally, Johnny nodded. He concentrated on breathing regularly and not gagging while mentally checking his body out. One or two bits were rather sore, but there didn’t seem to be anything particularly bothersome. He blinked. Pneumonia – again. That had to be it. How had he contracted it this time? He swiveled his eyes back to Brackett and raised his eyebrows. Brackett was smiling. “You want the tube gone, huh? I guess we can humor you on that one.”

It was never pleasant and Johnny coughed and spluttered for a few minutes until a couple of sips of water got everything back under control. His throat felt raw and as they helped him sit up, he realized he was as weak as a kitten. He felt absolutely exhausted by just those few movements. He rested his head back against the pillows. “How’m I doin’?” he asked hoarsely.

“A lot better,” Brackett assured him. “Your temperature is back to normal, you’ve managed to overcome the gastroenteritis and your foot and ribs are healing up nicely. You still have a few days of antibiotics to go, but the pneumonia seems to be gone.” He wagged a finger playfully. “Don’t go having a relapse, okay?”

“Okay,” Johnny promised. His throat was raw enough from the endotracheal tube; he didn’t want a repeat performance. “How long have I been out?”

“A couple of days, and a day before that you weren’t very with it.” Brackett glanced at the monitors which were all still attached. Johnny’s vitals were still sitting nicely within normal ranges. “In a little while, we’ll try you with something to eat and then we can see about moving you back to an ordinary room.”

“Sounds good to me,” Johnny nodded. He didn’t feel hungry yet, but he knew if he didn’t at least try to eat, he would be stuck where he was for longer and ICU was not a quiet place. “How’s Chet?” he asked.

Glancing at his watch, Brackett said, “I think he should be about ready to go home, assuming someone came to collect him.”

“Oh,” Johnny voiced, surprised by how disappointed he felt. He would be stuck in a room alone or with someone he didn’t know. He was rather surprised that Roy wasn’t there, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to sound like a big baby, but he just felt a bit lonely.

Predictably, the nurse brought him soup. It smelt pretty good and he was able to eat about half of it, but by then he was so tired that he simply couldn’t eat any more. He curled up and went straight to sleep and when he opened his eyes several hours later, he was in a different room, the sky outside the window was streaked with vivid sunset colors and Roy was sitting in a chair next to the bed, reading a book.

He must have made a noise or a movement, for Roy glanced up from his book and smiled broadly. “Hello!” he exclaimed. “You’re awake.”

“Guess so,” Johnny agreed hoarsely. He looked for a glass of water and saw one on the table near his feet. It seemed like far too much effort to sit up and reach for it, but Roy followed his gaze and brought the glass over for Johnny to sip gingerly through the straw.

“How are you feeling?” Roy asked as he put the glass down.

“Pretty good, pretty good, as long as I don’t move,” Johnny replied after a moment’s thought. He still felt weak and could tell that he still had the Foley in place. He resolved that tomorrow he would badger Brackett to remove it. Enough was enough, but he was too tired to do anything about it tonight.

“Don’t move then,” Roy suggested and Johnny smirked at him.

“You think you’re so funny,” Johnny commented.

“I try,” Roy agreed lightly. He marked his place in the book and put it aside. “It’s good to see you with your eyes open,” he commented. “The last few times I’ve been in, you’ve been sleeping.”

“Not by choice,” Johnny objected. He looked more closely at his friend. Roy looked rested and relaxed and that was always a good sign. Johnny knew he was getting better, but seeing his friend’s relaxed body language reassured him more than anything the doctor might say. “What about the fire?” he asked. “Is it out?”

“It’s out officially, as of 10pm yesterday,” Roy replied. “There’s rain in the forecast for tomorrow and the next day, according to Chet’s ‘girlfriend’ on TV, so there’ll be less danger of it somehow sparking off again.”

“Were there any injuries?” Johnny asked.

“No more,” Roy replied. “Thankfully.” The injury and death toll had been very light, although even a single death was too many. St Florian had been watching over the firefighters this time for sure and over two of those firefighters in particular.

“That’s good,” agreed Johnny fervently. “So you guys didn’t have to go out there again?”

“Oh no, we did,” Roy told him. A smile crossed his face and was gone. “But we didn’t get directly involved with fighting the fire.”

“It must have been pretty boring, then,” Johnny commented, not understanding the smile.

“Well, it had its moments,” Roy allowed and again the smile shot across his face. He had more trouble wiping it off this time.

“What does that mean?” Johnny asked.

“It’s not my story to tell.” Roy steadfastly refused to say anything else on the matter, leaving Johnny to stew in his curiosity.

***********

It was the following afternoon before Johnny found out what had been making Roy smirk the previous evening. That morning, he had persuaded Brackett to remove the Foley and had got out of bed and had a series of short walks. He was still weak, but could already feel his strength seeping back. He had eaten real food that morning and Roy had promised to bring him in something tasty that afternoon. They all knew what Johnny was like when he was on the road to recovery. His hollow leg was very hollow indeed.

“So what happened at the fire?” he finally asked, after he had, to the best of his ability, brushed off questions about his health. “Roy wouldn’t tell me anything!” He shot his partner a look that matched the aggrieved tone he had used.

“Do you know an engineer called Dunk Hiller?” Cap asked, because he thought it would be wise to establish Johnny’s relationship, if any, with the man before they started castigating him.

“No,” Johnny replied after a moment’s thought. “Should I?”

“No, no, I just wondered,” Cap replied. “He was driving the engine yesterday. Drove it straight into a pot hole.”

“A huge pot hole,” Mike added darkly.

“The biggest pot hole I’ve ever seen,” Marco amplified. He was grinning widely.

“Is the engine damaged?” Johnny asked.

“Broken front axle,” Mike growled and Johnny began to feel a bit sorry for Dunk. Mike was mild-mannered and quiet, a gentleman as defined in the dictionary, but it didn’t pay to cross him – especially if you damaged his engine in the process. “My engine!”

“What’s more, he turned out to have no sense of direction and didn’t remember which fire road we were on, or even how far we had gone along it,” Cap went on, sounding no less aggrieved than Johnny had earlier. “Marco had to go and radio for help because we were in a dead zone, but he knew where we were. Dunk,” there was a world of contempt in Cap’s tone, “was making jokes about crashing the engine. And about my usual engineer and in my hearing.”

“Is he still alive?” Johnny wondered aloud.

“Just,” sniggered Marco.

“When we finally made it back to base, and we had to be towed back mark you, he then lit into me about how privileged we are at Station 51. Everyone is apparently the best and gets special treatment.” Cap was working himself up beautifully. “And do you know the worst thing? The only person he didn’t mention by name was ME!”

Unsure if Cap meant that comment to be funny or not, Johnny hesitated, but when the others burst out laughing, he joined in. “What happened to him?” he asked, when he had caught his breath again.

“Oh that’s the best bit,” Cap assured him. “I was just getting ready to bust a gut – and probably a blood vessel while I was at it – when the chief came out of the tent. He’d heard every word, Dunk had a go at him, too and the next thing Dunk knew, he was suspended. He stalked over to his car in high dudgeon, declaring he was too good to work for us and would go somewhere he was appreciated.”

“Someone asked if they had jobs on the moon when he said that,” Marco added with a good deal of relish.

“And then the dumb cluck had to ask for directions to get back to LA,” Cap concluded. “I hope he’s still driving around in circles,” he added, only half in jest.

Various quips were exchanged about Dunk and his stunning ineptitude. It was probably just as well Johnny didn’t have a roommate, because the other person would have been dreadfully disturbed by the loud laughter that accompanied the comments.

Finally drawing breath, Johnny shook his head. “Do you think he’s related to the pilot that caused all this trouble in the first place?” Johnny asked.

“Naw, couldn’t be, no way, man!” were the comments that replied, but Cap’s voice was strangely silent. It didn’t take long for the others to notice that.

“Cap?” Johnny questioned. There was a peculiar look on Cap’s face. “He wasn’t! Was he?”

“Well…” Cap began.

*****End*****

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