The First Amendment

By Rona

“What the…?” Three quarters of the way inside a wrecked car with two victims to attend to, Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage did not expect to come, literally, face to face with a TV camera. “Get out of there!” he shouted, alerting the cops on duty to his problem.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened lately, either, Johnny reflected as he continued to hold one victim’s head to prevent further spinal damage. She was still unconscious and unless they were able to tear apart the car in the next two or three minutes, Johnny thought it unlikely she would survive. As it was, she was almost certainly a quadriplegic and the thought that her family might see her like this because of some over-zealous reporter really upset him.

Not only that, but the reporter was putting his own life on the line to get these shots. There was gasoline leaking from the wrecked car, it was teetering precariously half on top of another car and any minute the whole thing could go drastically wrong. If the car toppled over, there would undoubtedly be an explosion and Johnny, his two victims and the reporter would all be toast.

There were shouts from outside the car and the camera abruptly disappeared, but not before it had got some good shots of Johnny, hanging from his hips through the back window of the car, holding the victim gently but firmly and bleeding freely from a small cut on his cheek where a shard of glass had dinged off his helmet and cut him as he squirmed inside.

“What’s going on?” asked the other victim. Johnny assumed he was the woman’s husband, but they had hardly had time for introductions.

“It’s all right,” Johnny soothed. “We’re working on getting you out of here. Just keep still for me now.” He kept on talking while Marco Lopez washed down the gasoline and Chet Kelly anchored the car and Mike Stoker and Captain Stanley used the Jaws of Life to tear the car apart and the man was extracted and borne away by Johnny’s paramedic partner, Roy DeSoto. By then, he knew it was too late for the lady whose head he held in his hands, but he couldn’t let go; not with her husband there and watching.

“John?” Cap was there, looking in at him with concern. “Do you need any help to get out of there, pal?”

As much as he wanted to say no, for he was sure the camera was still pointed in his general direction, he had no option but to say yes. The way he was hanging gave him no leverage for moving and there were still shards of glass caught in the window frame he was lying over. “Uh, yeah,” he admitted at last and was grateful for Cap’s strong hands helping and guiding him out and then giving him support until he was steady on his legs.

Losing a victim was always hard on the paramedics Cap knew, and Johnny took it especially hard, but having one die in your hands when there was nothing you could do was especially tough. Cap looked into the young paramedic’s face and saw the blood there. “You get your cheek looked at when you get to Rampart,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Johnny agreed listlessly, and Cap patted him gently on the shoulder before releasing him. He watched as Johnny walked slowly over to the squad, sliding his helmet off as he did so and stowing it away before removing the heavy turnout coat and putting it away. With a last glance at the wrecked cars, Johnny got into the squad and headed out.

The camera recorded the whole thing.

***********

“How’s the man Roy brought in?” Johnny asked, fetching up beside Dixie’s desk at Rampart. He was glad he hadn’t had to travel in with the man, especially after his wife had died right next to him. Johnny felt awful about her death, although there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.

“Holding his own so far,” Dixie replied. “Roy’s getting washed up.” She looked at him. “What happened to your cheek?”

“I’m not sure,” Johnny admitted. “Guess I cut it on something. It doesn’t hurt.” He was too miserable to notice the stinging.

“You need to get it looked at,” Dixie told him.

“Whatever,” Johnny allowed, not really interested in himself. “Do you know, that reporter was there again, Dix? Right inside the car with me, almost. What is he playing at? He could get hurt or killed pulling stunts like that!” Johnny was preparing to work himself up into a full-blown rant, but luckily for Dixie, Roy appeared from the men’s room and came over.

“What happened to your face?” he asked. “Have you had it looked at?”

“Ah, Roy, I’m fine,” Johnny grumbled.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’,” Roy commented. “Come on, let’s do that and get out of here.”

Still grumbling, Johnny followed Roy and Dixie into a treatment room and a few minutes later, Dr Early arrived. He examined the cut on Johnny’s cheek, but decided it didn’t need stitches. “I’m going to put a Band-Aid over it, Johnny,” he told the paramedic. “Just to keep it clean this shift. You can take it off in the morning and leave it open to the air. I don’t expect you’ll have problems with it.” He cleaned the cut thoroughly with an antiseptic wipe, which left Johnny squirming and then covered it over.

The ride back to the station was mostly quiet. Johnny idly fingered the bandage on his cheek while his thoughts were back in that car, wondering if there was anything more he could have done to save the woman’s life. He knew there wasn’t, but that didn’t stop him wondering.

“Are you okay?” Roy asked, quietly. He knew how Johnny was feeling; they had both lost patients before.

Heaving a sigh, Johnny finally nodded. “I guess,” he agreed. “I still can’t get over that reporter. Who does he think he is?”

“As far as I can gather, he’s considered the best young reporter since TV began,” Roy informed him. “Joanne tells me all the women think he’s really something, but apparently he is really good at his job. His stories are well reported and generally not too biased. When the department complained about him at that rescue a few weeks ago – the one where we discovered the van was carrying a load of drugs? – he claimed that we were interfering with his rights under the First Amendment. Freedom of the press.”

Johnny snorted. “How does filming a lady dying come under freedom of the press?” he asked. “Does it help her? Does it help her family? I would hate to see my mother or friend in that situation on the news wouldn’t you?”

“Oh yeah,” Roy agreed. “I think what he’s doing is voyeurism at its worst. But have you noticed? He seems to be concentrating on our station and our shift.”

“He is?” Johnny hadn’t noticed that, but he had been so preoccupied with finding the reporter under his feet the whole time, he had never actually thought past the idea that the man was a pest of the first water.

“Yeah.” Roy shook his head. “It was Joanne who noticed. He’s following us – and you and me in particular.”

“Why is he doing that?” Johnny cried.

“I don’t know,” Roy replied. “I simply don’t know.”

***********

In the editing suite at the studio, Brad Jamison Henderson III watched as the editor skillfully cut the footage Brad had shot at the accident scene. It had been messy, with several cars involved, and a fatality. The hospital had grudgingly given the woman’s name after her next-of-kin had been informed. It turned out that the man driving the car was not the woman’s husband, but her lover. The grief stricken husband was apparently swearing revenge on the driver and the firefighters who failed to save his wife’s life. It was turning into a gem of a story. BJ was a lucky reporter. Somehow the stories that he went after always seemed to have some kind of twist that made them interesting. That he was tall, blond and very good looking didn’t harm his career either. He was a good reporter and worked hard for his stories, always carrying his own camera and writing his own scripts. He did the work and collected the bouquets or brickbats, whichever came along. He had won a couple of prestigious awards in the last few years and was considered quite a rising star.

BJ had a particular fascination with the firefighters and paramedics and when he had learned that Station 51 had two of the first paramedics to qualify still working for them, he made it something of a crusade to follow those two around. Most of the first wave of paramedics had moved on up the career ladder and Gage and DeSoto had become something of a legend. BJ could sense there might be a story in there and he wanted to have as much footage of the two of them as he could get. He had plans to make a documentary of their career and in the process maybe give a bit of a pat on the back to the paramedic program. To facilitate this, he bought a scanner and was spending as much time as he could following the paramedics from Station 51 around.

“Cut it right there,” he ordered excitedly as the camera caught the look of despair on John Gage’s face. The blood dripping from the cut and his awkward position half in and half out of the car made it an incredibly powerful image. “We’ll have a still of that shot as I announce the woman’s death.”

“That’s great, BJ,” the editor agreed and pressed the buttons that made the final cut. It was a matter of a few minutes to piece it all together on a master reel, then they played back the footage. BJ would add the commentary live on air, and he made notes about what he wanted to say at each place. “It’s powerful,” the editor concluded as the still lingered. “You’ve done it again, BJ.”

“Thanks, Fred,” BJ grinned and went off to write his piece, timing his words against the pace of the film. The audiences would love it, he was sure.

***********

“Hey, Gage!” Chet called as the paramedics wearily walked into the dayroom. They had eaten lunch on the run and now their supper had been drying out in the oven for more than an hour.

“What?” Johnny was too tired to deal with Chet’s comments right now. “Fallen in love with a new weather girl?” Chet had a real fancy for the busty, pretty but dim girls that were hired to read the weather on the local station. None of them lasted more than a few weeks. “You can have her.”

“Thanks, but that’s not what I was going to say.” Chet grinned as Roy reached into the oven for the plates that had been left there and Johnny laid mats and cutlery on the table. “You were on the news again.”

“Court news?” he asked, knowing that this was the standard reply and unable to think of anything else. He plopped bonelessly into a chair and looked at the congealed mess on the plate before him. He wasn’t even sure what it had been originally, but it was decidedly unappetizing now. “What am I accused of now?”

It wasn’t a joking matter and Cap threw Chet a glanced that quelled anything the shorter man might have to say. “It was a report on the accident this morning,” Cap told him. “There was quite a bit of footage of you doing that rescue.”

“They didn’t show the woman, did they?” Johnny asked, closing his eyes in despair.

“Yes,” Cap answered reluctantly.

“Oh.” Johnny had no idea what to say. He didn’t want to eat now. He wasn’t sure he wanted to eat ever again. He pushed the plate away. He could feel the others looking at him, but didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “I’m going to bed,” he said and pushed away from the table. He kept his head down as he left the room.

After a few moments of silence, Roy glanced at Cap. “How was the report?” he asked.

“Just this side of sensationalism,” Cap replied. “There was a still of John at the end, holding that poor woman, with his cheek bleeding while the reporter announced her death. It was a pretty sordid story, too, but I bet nobody complains. I imagine the husband will be too distraught to say anything.” Before Roy could say anything, Cap added, “He wasn’t the man in the car with her.”

“Oh hell,” Roy muttered. It had all been bad enough, but Roy knew this would just make Johnny feel so much worse. He looked down at the forkful of … food … that he had been lifting to his mouth and knew that he couldn’t eat either.

“Yeah,” Cap nodded.

***********

It was quiet in the dorm. Johnny had arranged his bunker pants and boots, cleaned his teeth and was lying on his back with his eyes closed, but sleep was very far from his mind and body. He often found it difficult to sleep after losing a patient, but what made this one even more difficult for him was the fact that he hadn’t had the chance to do anything to help her. He had held c-spine on her, but due to the nature of the accident, he had been unable to extract her quickly enough to do anything else. Glumly, he wondered if there was a chance the husband would sue him. It wasn’t entirely unknown and although the department was always behind its paramedics and rescue personnel, they had to suspend the man in question while the case was investigated.

Turning onto his side, his back now to the door, Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. His stomach was roiling uncomfortably. He wondered how the reporter was feeling. How could someone film an accident like that and intrude upon a person’s anguish and not feel bad about it? He had wondered over the last few weeks why this guy was always at the accidents or fires they attended. Some of them had, perhaps, been newsworthy, but not all of them by any stretch of the imagination. If he didn’t back off, he was going to get hurt.

It was another hour before Johnny’s tired brain finally switched off enough for him to fall into restless slumber. He woke briefly when the other men came to bed, but was able to roll over and drop off again and was sleeping quite soundly when the tones went off at 2am.

They rolled out of bed and into their boots and bunkers as the dispatcher informed them that they were attending a fire in a residential home along with a couple of other stations. It was the kind of call they all dreaded. Residential homes were generally filled with frail elderly people who were unable to get themselves out of the fire. If the fire was bad, there could be a lot of fatalities.

The churning sensation was back in Johnny’s stomach as they drove to the home. He tried to tell himself it was from not eating the night before, but he knew better. From the look on Roy’s face, his partner was experiencing the same feelings.

“There!” The word broke from Johnny’s lips, although he knew Roy would be able to see it, too. The large, three-storey building was well alight, flames shooting from the roof into the dark night sky. There were some people huddled together across the street, but not enough to account for all the residents of a building that size, Johnny knew. Not nearly enough.

As soon as the squad came to a halt, Johnny was out of the door, grabbing his gear to suit up. Cap hurried across to the knot of people to speak to whoever was in charge and within a few moments, he was heading back to the paramedics. “There are still about 20 people trapped inside,” he informed them. “Some of the staff are in there, too, doing what they can. You guys get in and start getting everyone out.” He glanced at the building. “Better start on the top floor if you can get to it. When the others get here, I’ll send them in and start on the second floor. If you see any of the staff, tell them to get the hell out.”

“Right.” Pulling on his face mask, Johnny strode purposefully across to the entrance, settling his helmet in place as he entered. He glanced at Roy and saw the same determination on his partner’s face as they ran up the stairs.

As they began searching, Johnny thought that this rescue was rather reminiscent of one where they had been sent to deal with a gas leak. He and Roy had searched the building – which consisted of small apartments – and while Roy helped an elderly lady out, Johnny had been searching the top floor and had been caught in the gas explosion. He had been blown down the flights of stairs and had badly broken his leg. He shuddered. Why had he thought of that now? He pushed the thought away and concentrated on his job.

The fire was fiercest on the top floor. Most of the residents there had already evacuated, but there were several people who were bed-bound still trapped. “I got this one,” Johnny yelled to Roy as he spotted an elderly man slumped on the floor by his bed.

“Okay,” Roy acknowledged. He moved on to the next room, which was empty, then the one beyond. A lady was lying in bed, the covers pulled up to her nose as she coughed helplessly. She flinched as Roy arrived, but willingly raised her arms for him to pick her up. She seemed as unsubstantial as fluff in his arms and he made his way carefully downstairs and outside.

The other stations had arrived by then and one set of paramedics were doing triage. Roy headed over there and left the lady in their care before heading back inside. He saw the man Johnny had rescued was already swaddled in blankets and on oxygen. As Roy hurried back to the building, he saw that the press had arrived and there was the familiar blond head of their particular nemesis. Roy hoped that the man would keep a decent distance away and would have the compassion not to show every distressing instant of this fire. As he disappeared back into the building, Roy thought it was most likely a false hope.

As he reached the top floor, he met Johnny coming down with another person flung over his shoulder. The man was quite obese, but his partner was coping with his weight. “I’ve checked all the rooms,” Johnny yelled. “There’s no one else up here.”

“All right, I’ll start on floor two,” Roy informed him. He followed his friend down the few risers to the second floor and peeled off, watching for a moment as Johnny made his way further down the steps. Sure that Johnny would be all right, Roy headed off to resume the search.

As Johnny laid the large man down on the waiting blanket, the alarm on his air bottle went off. It wasn’t surprising, given the way he’d been panting as he had carried two men to safety down three flights of stairs. He would need to change his bottle now and then go back in. Johnny frowned, because he hated leaving Roy alone in a building, even though he knew there were other firefighters in there, too. Straightening up, he headed over to the squad to change his bottle and became aware of the camera lens focused on his every move. Anger surged through his veins. Hadn’t that guy done enough? Clenching his jaw, Johnny forced himself to turn his back and quickly swap to a new air bottle. As he headed back towards the building, he saw Roy heading in the same direction and jogged to catch up with his pal.

Another pair of paramedics were searching the first floor, so Roy and Johnny continued on to the second floor. Johnny was aware that his head was beginning to throb. The heat in the building was growing minute by minute and Johnny knew they didn’t have long to finish this search. He wondered how many more people were still unaccounted for. Not many, he hoped.

They split up to search the different sides of the corridor. Roy emerged from a room with an elderly man, who was mostly on his feet. Johnny waved to show he had seen Roy and indicated he would search the last few rooms on both sides. He patted his pocket to show he had an HT with him. If he needed it, he could call for more help. Roy headed off with his victim.

The last two rooms on Roy’s side were empty. The room farthest from the stairs was likewise empty. That left only two others. Johnny sincerely hoped they were both empty, not for his sake, but for the residents. He opened the first door. The carpet in that room was smoldering and even through his mask, Johnny could feel the smell of urine that emanated from it. His heart twisted in pity. The room, luckily, was empty.

Turning his attention to the last room on that floor, Johnny had a hard time getting in. Behind the door lay an elderly lady, unconscious. Johnny knelt beside her, feeling her pulse, and stripped off his helmet and mask to place the mask over her face. The smoke was getting thicker and Johnny coughed convulsively. In one easy movement, he scooped her into his arms and made his way back out into the corridor. He knew he should put the mask back on, but the lady was so frail, he thought she needed the oxygen more than he did.

He could see other firefighters leaving the building ahead of him as he made his way down the stairs. There was an indefinable change in the air around him. It was tingling along his exposed skin and it seemed hotter than ever. With a crackle, the ceiling above him burst into flames and Johnny ducked, almost losing his footing and his hold on the lady. However, he regained both hold and balance and hurried on, coughing heavily. The smoke stung his eyes, which were watering. He blinked them clear and hurried over the parquet flooring of the lobby. The building was going to blow, any moment. He was sure of it. He hoped it was clear.

Bursting through the door into the relatively fresh air, Johnny began coughing again. He wanted to shout a warning, but didn’t have enough air to do so. He picked up his speed slightly, but he was too late. With a loud bang, the building behind him exploded and Johnny was thrown through the air.

***********

As the explosion ripped through the air, the firefighters ducked instinctively, then straightened up to continue tackling the beast. Roy leapt forward. “Johnny!”

On the ground, the downed man was moving sluggishly, the woman he had been carrying was lying a few feet away. As both Roy and Cap ran towards them, Roy knew that his duty lay with the civilian, not his partner, however much he wanted to run to Johnny’s side. He veered off, shouting to Cap, “Don’t let him get up!”

Skidding to a halt, Cap knelt by his younger paramedic. Johnny was sprawled on his side and was pushing weakly to get up. Cap’s hand on his shoulder stopped his struggles for a moment as he squinted up to see who was there. “Cap … woman…”

“Roy’s got her,” Cap replied. “Now you just stay there until someone checks you out. That was quite a tumble.”

Although Johnny was down, he wasn’t out. “Fire…” he panted. “Flash… everyone… out?”

“Yes, everyone’s out,” Cap assured him. “You found the last resident. Stop worrying, pal.” Under his hand, Johnny stopped struggling and lay still. That was worrying, Cap thought. If he was unhurt, Johnny would now be arguing a mile a minute about being fine and able to get up. There again, Cap reflected, he was wont to do the same thing even when he was hurt.

With relief, he saw another couple of paramedics heading over towards them. They really needed to move both Johnny and the woman, as the heat from the fire was incredibly uncomfortable where they were and with windows blowing out periodically, there was always the chance they could get showered with glass. The men went to Roy first, who issued some instructions and one man turned and ran back, presumably to get some equipment. Roy left the second man with the woman and came over to assess Johnny.

“How’re you doing there, partner?” Roy asked, kneeling beside him.

“Roy… the woman,” Johnny objected.

“She’s going to be just fine,” Roy replied. “It looks like cuts and bruises and a bit of smoke inhalation. She’s come round already, since someone clearly gave her his air.” His experienced hands were running down Johnny’s limbs, looking for breaks.

“How’d … you know?” Johnny asked, sounding surprised, even though he was still clearly dazed.

“Hmmm,” Roy replied, with a moment of mock thought. “It could have something to do with the fact that your mask is lying between you and her and your helmet is even further away.”

“Is it?” Johnny asked, still sounding surprised. He squinted round, but didn’t persevere in his search for the missing helmet. That gave Roy his next clue and he started to feel around Johnny’s head for a bump. Even as Johnny reached to push his hand away, Roy found it, just behind his left ear. “Don’t,” Johnny complained.

“There’s a bump there, so don’t start,” Roy chided him gently. “Cap, we need to move him from here,” he said. “It’s too hot, and I need the biophone.”

“Do you need a stokes?” Cap asked.

“No, he should be fine to walk. I think it’s just the bump on the head,” Roy assured the older man. He had found no evidence of any breaks and Johnny wasn’t exhibiting any signs of pain when touched, but he was clearly groggy. Roy suspected he might have a mild concussion.

Between them, he and Cap got Johnny onto his feet, each pulling an arm around their shoulders to walk him away from the fire. Roy glanced over to where the woman had been, but the other paramedics had already moved her. They headed over to the triage area.

The health and well-being of the home’s residents took priority and Roy joined in triaging them while Cap supervised Johnny with the oxygen. The younger man’s cough cleared quickly, although his eyes were still rather red and irritated. However much he had improved, he still wasn’t firing on all cylinders.

By the time the crowd of victims had thinned enough that it was Johnny’s turn, Roy was concerned at how often he had to speak to Johnny to keep him awake. Cap had had to go back to the fire, and Roy had been splitting his attention as best he could between the victims and Johnny. Fortunately, most of the victims had minor injuries and didn’t require a paramedic to go in with them to hospital and the staff from the home volunteered to provide escort duties.

“Rampart, this is squad 51.” Roy resisted the temptation to add ‘again’ to the end of that sentence.

“Go ahead, 51,” Brackett replied. He had been manning the base station throughout. Roy thought he must be due a break soon.

“Our final victim is a Code I,” Roy reported. “A 26 year old paramedic who was caught in the same explosion as our last lady victim. He was possibly KO’d but is unsure and took in some smoke. There is a contusion behind his left ear. His pupils are slightly dilated, but equal and reactive. Pulse is 82, respirations are 20 with some coughing and BP is 130/95. He is currently on O2. Be advised, Rampart, the victim is John Gage.” He smiled at Johnny who rolled his eyes.

“Keep going with the O2,” Brackett advised, “and bring him on in.”

“10-4,” Roy agreed. “He doesn’t think you’re that bad,” he commented to Johnny as the ambulance attendants brought over a gurney. “He hasn’t given you a TKO.”

“He’ll probably hear you and order one on the way in,” Johnny whispered and tried to laugh at his own joke, but only made himself cough again.

**********

After a night spent at least partly asleep, Brackett released Johnny to go home. He did have a mild concussion, but he had got off lightly; no vomiting. Roy collected him in the morning and drove him home. Johnny had to go and see Brackett in a few days, but would definitely miss his next shift.

After a nap lasting a couple of hours, Johnny felt a lot better. He got up, showered, and got himself something to eat. He wandered through into the living room and slumped down on the couch, pointing the remote at the TV. There was nothing of any great interest on, and when he hit the news channel, he left it on, just to see what he had missed the previous day at work. Sometimes, they felt the world could blow away when they were on shift and none of them would really notice.

His mind wandered as the news went on, for there was nothing of earth-shaking interest in the segment that was currently on. Then they came to the main headlines, and Johnny felt a jolt of surprise when he saw the fire from the previous night. He listened with minimal interest to the lead stories and settle back to wait for the item on the fire. He was keen to learn if they had found the cause and to make sure nobody had died or been seriously injured.

He watched in a stunned mixture of horror and bemusement as BJ Henderson flashed his baby blues as he started his report. “There was a serious fire in the Sunset Retirement Home last evening,” he began, looking deeply into the camera. “The fire broke out in the kitchens, with a short in the stove.” The film he had taken the previous night popped onto the screen. “Residents were rescued by firefighters, with the two paramedics of Station 51 taking a major role in saving 5 of the residents. Paramedic John Gage narrowly escaped injury in saving the last resident when the building exploded just as he was leaving it.” The picture showed the explosion and Johnny winced as he saw himself propelled through the air. He didn’t think he’d been knocked out, but looking at the footage and seeing his own body sprawled limply on the ground, he thought he might be wrong. And small wonder he was covered in bruises.

However, that inconsequential thought was pushed from his mind as the camera zoomed in on him as he started to try and get up. The shot clearly showed his disorientation and Johnny felt his cheeks flaming. How dare that man film him in that situation? Then the camera panned back and he saw Roy and Cap coming over, and Roy kneeling beside the elderly lady.

“Luckily, neither the resident nor Paramedic Gage were seriously hurt in the explosion,” BJ went on. The shot cut back to the studio, after a lingering still of the hapless paramedic being helped away by his two crewmates.

Burning with anger, Johnny savagely switched the TV off and flung the remote onto the armchair across the room. He leapt to his feet, unable to sit still and paced up and down the room, trying to quell the desire to throw more things. How dare that man film him – again! – without permission. And in that situation! What was it with this BJ Henderson guy? Did he have some kind of sick fixation with him?

The abrupt leap to his feet had started Johnny’s head pounding again, and he went to get the painkillers that he had been given and took them before settling down on the couch again. This time, he studiously read a book and avoided the TV until much later in the evening, when he watched a game show that bored him enough that he went to bed and slept soundly through the night.

***********

Johnny had been up for barely an hour when the phone rang. It was Cap. “How are you, John?” he asked.

“I’m fine, Cap,” he replied. “The headache’s pretty much gone and I feel good.” Johnny was slightly puzzled. While it wasn’t unusual for Cap to phone to find out how he was, it was unlike him to do it when he knew Johnny would be off for one shift. Usually he rang after he knew Johnny had seen the doctor to find out if he got the all clear to return to work. “Is something wrong, Cap?”

“Not exactly,” Cap sighed. “John… did you see the news?”

The embarrassment and anger flooded back. Johnny could feel the color mounting in his face. “Uh, yeah,” he admitted. “Why?” He could hear the anger in his own tones and hoped Cap would understand that he wasn’t angry at his boss.

“John, apparently the TV station and Headquarters have been inundated with phone calls about you. I’m told that BJ Henderson would like to interview you. While Headquarters would like the publicity, they obviously can’t grant permission while you’re on the sick list, but they are concerned that perhaps someone might slip your address to that reporter on the sly. I think it might be wise if you went somewhere else for a few days. You don’t want to have to dodge a camera at the moment. Roy is on his way over. If you want to stay somewhere quieter, Chet, Marco and Mike have all said you could stay with them and of course my door is always open, but I do have teenage daughters who play very loud music. It’s entirely up to you, John.”

“Um… I … Ah.” Johnny had no idea what to say. This had all come out of left field at him and the concussion meant his brain was still going slowly. “Thanks, Cap. I guess I’ll go to Roy’s. Thank the others for me, will you?” He thought for a moment as Cap assured him he would. “Cap, will Headquarters want me to do this interview once I’m back?” He really didn’t want to do that.

“No, I’m sure they won’t,” came the reassurance. “By then, it’ll be old news. Look, John, I’ll let you go and get ready to leave and I’ll speak to you later. Don’t forget to let me know when you’re cleared to return.”

“I won’t,” Johnny promised and bid his captain goodbye. He hung the phone up and sidled over to the window to look out anxiously. So far, there were no cameras parked in his street and he didn’t see any strange cars in the parking lot.

Damn that man he thought angrily as he went through to pack a bag for a few days. Who did he think he was?

***********

Cap was right; no one chased up the interview and after two days with Roy and his family, Johnny returned to his apartment in safe anonymity. His initial anger had died away, but he still resented the intrusion into his privacy. And watching the news, Johnny discovered that it wasn’t just him who found the young reporter intrusive. A local councilor had strenuously objected to being followed around after accusations of corruption were leveled against him. BJ’s defense, live on air, was that he was entitled to do this by the First Amendment, which guaranteed the freedom of the press. The unfortunate fact that the councilor was found to be corrupt didn’t lessen Johnny’s sympathy much for the beleaguered man at being so hounded by the press.

Johnny’s return to work was low-key and although they had a busy day, there was, fortunately, nothing news worthy. Johnny hadn’t realized how tense he had become at the thought of the camera being there, recording his every move and he hoped that they would continue to have ordinary calls and BJ Henderson would lose his interest in them.

But it was not to be. On his second shift back, in the afternoon, the squad got a call for a possible heart attack. On arriving at the man’s home, they found a hugely obese man lying on his bed. A friend had brought round some groceries and found him there, barely breathing. From his symptoms, it appeared that he had had a heart attack and was very seriously ill. However, there was no way that he would fit onto a stretcher and it appeared that he wouldn’t even fit through the doorway. Roy summoned the engine. They would need the manpower to carry him, and the window would have to be removed from the frame.

“You can’t do that!” the friend protested when he overheard Roy suggesting this on the radio. “I can’t allow you to do that.”

“Sir, your friend will die if he doesn’t get to hospital,” Roy replied.

“That’s why I called you guys,” the friend objected. “So he doesn’t need to go to hospital.”

“I’m sorry, it doesn’t work like that,” Roy replied. “Your friend is seriously ill and needs constant care from the right doctors.”

Meanwhile, Johnny was working on the man, following the doctor’s instructions. He had managed to find a vein on his second attempt and had inserted a line. Brackett was guessing at dosage amounts, as Johnny had had to guess that the man they were treating weighed in at over 400lbs. If they had to intubate, it could prove to be very difficult. While Johnny knew there were a growing number of seriously obese people in the US, they had had remarkably few to treat over the years. This man was, by far, the heaviest he had ever seen.

“Send me a strip, 51,” Brackett ordered.

“10-4,” Johnny replied. He quickly placed the electrodes and set the machine going. “This is lead two, Rampart.” He watched the heart monitor and winced as he saw the pattern displayed there. This man needed help faster than they could get it to him.

“51, I need you to transport as soon as possible,” ordered Brackett. “Now, preferably.”

“At the moment, we have no way to get the patient out of the house, Rampart,” Johnny reported, trying to keep his voice professional and hide the frustration he was feeling. In the background, the friend was still arguing with Roy and it was distracting to say the least. “We have to wait for an engine, remove the window and make sure we have a box-type ambulance.”

“What are you going to use for a stretcher?” Brackett asked, for that would give him an idea of what he would need when the patient got to the hospital.

“Right now, I’m not sure,” Johnny replied, looking around. “Perhaps a door.”

At the base station, Brackett only just managed to stop himself from parroting what Johnny had said. A door? Dear God, was the man that big? They were going to struggle to treat this man. They simply didn’t have equipment big enough. He would have to have two exam tables, and two beds. This would be very tricky indeed. Looking back at the ECG, Brackett wondered if they would get the man to them alive. He was in a very bad way.

“Johnny, how’s his general health?” Brackett asked. “Is there someone there you can ask?”

“Stand by, Rampart,” Johnny replied. He glanced at the friend, who was still glaring at Roy, as Roy started examining the window in preparation for removing it. “Sir, is your friend here in generally good health?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” the other replied. “A few sores, but he’s got a good appetite.” The man seemed completely oblivious to what he was saying.

“Sores?” Johnny queried, ignoring the remark about the appetite.

“Oh yes, on his body between folds.” The friend nodded sagely. “He mentioned them to me last week. I haven’t seen them for myself.”

“Thank you.” Johnny just knew where this was going and reached for a pair of disposable gloves before he reported this development to Rampart. As he expected, he was ordered to examine the sores.

When he had first knelt down by the man’s bed, Johnny had been aware of some body odor. However, as he began to examine the folds of flesh, he found that the man had a lot of sores and most of them were suppurating, which contributed to the unpleasant smell emanating from the man. Pity stabbed through Johnny. It must, at best, have been desperately uncomfortable, and probably was extremely sore. They would be very difficult to treat, too. Almost gagging, Johnny reported his findings to the hospital.

There were sirens drawing closer and Johnny was relieved when the engine crew appeared in the house along with a police officer who authorized the removal of the window. The objecting friend was firmly escorted from the premises on the pretext of the officer getting more details. Cap, Mike and Marco set about removing the window and Chet was sent to take a door off its hinges and check that it would fit into the ambulance. With the patient non-responsive, they were forced to push and pull the man onto the door. Two blankets were needed to decently cover the poor man’s nudity. A quick search produced no clothes that would fit him.

The equipment was piled between the man’s legs and everyone grabbed a bit of the door. It required all the men to use both hands to lift securely and Johnny miserably thought that his 400lb estimate was sadly short of the mark.

The trickiest part of the operation was when they had to balance the door on the window frame while some of the men went outside. The next tricky part would come when the men inside had to get outside without letting the door fall. Roy went outside and Johnny stayed inside, watching over the man. He was worried about his patient, because the man’s breathing was getting more strident by the minute. Finally, there was only Johnny and Chet inside the house and they leaned out of the window hole to pass the top of the door down to their crew mates outside.

Chet’s hands slipped.

Feeling the door going, Johnny reacted instinctively, moving his hands to prevent the door dropping to the ground as Chet frantically tried to re-establish his hold on the door. It tilted precariously and Johnny strained further out of the window, imagining the poor man crashing to the ground. “Catch it!” he grunted at the people outside, although they were quickly maneuvering their positions to prevent the very thing Johnny was seeing in his mind’s eye.

At the very moment that Johnny lost his balance and toppled out of the window, losing his hold on the door, the others got it balanced enough to prevent an accident. Without waiting for Chet and moving quickly, they hurried over to the ambulance. Johnny scraped himself off the ground and hurried after them. As he reached the ambulance, he became aware of the presence of the all-too-familiar TV camera.

Anger flared in his soul, but he couldn’t afford the time to go over there and chew BJ out, however much he wanted to. The man in the ambulance couldn’t wait and he quickly hopped inside, Roy climbing in after him. If this man coded – and it seemed ever more likely – one man could not deal with it. In the moment before the back doors closed, Johnny saw the camera pointing inside. The man’s insensitivity seemed to know no bounds.

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

When they arrived at Rampart, Roy was bagging the man and Johnny was doing chest compressions. He was straddling the huge body, for there wasn’t room to work any other way and sweat was trickling down his face. There had been no chance to swap with Roy, again because of the issue of room. As the waiting gurneys were pulled to the back door of the ambulance, the engine appeared and the crew disgorged from it. They knew that the more hands the better, and now that Johnny was also on the door, it was that bit heavier. In the end, there were about 10 people pulling the door out of the ambulance and balancing it on the gurneys. As they pushed the unwieldy contraption inside, Roy gave the update because Johnny was far too breathless to do so.

“He stopped breathing about five minutes ago.” This was not news, as Roy had reported it on the radio. “We gave him the bicarb and shocked three times; no conversion. So we opted to assist his breathing and do CPR rather than waste more time. He’s making no effort to breath unassisted. Trying to intubate in the back of the ambulance wasn’t an option. We simply didn’t have space.”

“Thanks, Roy.” They were in the treatment room now and the superfluous firefighters and orderlies left, leaving the two paramedics with the doctor. “Hold for a minute, Johnny.” Brackett stuffed the stethoscope into his ears and listened to the man’s chest, then glanced at the datascope. It looked pretty bad. “Resume CPR.” Johnny began pumping again, really having to push down to stimulate the heart through the insulating layers of fat. He was absolutely exhausted.

They tried everything, but Brackett had to call it in the end. Roy helped Johnny climb down, supporting the younger man by the arms until Johnny regained enough strength to stand unaided. He brushed the damp hair back off his forehead and drew in a deep breath.

“You fellas did a great job,” Brackett praised them. “This was a very difficult call. Johnny, are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Johnny answered, although he wasn’t sure it was the truth. His arms were trembling from the strain and his back ached from his position crouched over the man’s huge body. “Just tired,” he assured the doctor with an unconvincing smile. He turned his hands over and glanced down at them. The palms were skinned and he could see the end of a large splinter sticking out of the fleshy part of his palm below his right thumb. He hadn’t even felt it before.

Both Brackett and Roy had followed his gaze and Brackett grabbed one wrist and Roy grabbed the other to prevent Johnny from immediately hiding them from view, which he would have done. “Hey!” he exclaimed in annoyance, but neither of his friends let go.

“How did you do that?” Brackett asked, pulling the hand he held up to examine more closely.

“I dunno,” Johnny admitted. His hands were beginning to sting now that he was aware of the damage done to them.

“It was probably when you fell out of the window,” Roy decided. “Didn’t you notice?”

“No.” Meekly, Johnny allowed himself to be shepherded out of that treatment room and into one across the corridor. There, Brackett carefully extracted the splinter and cleaned the grazes. He put a wrap of gauze lightly around each hand for protection and warned Johnny not to use the hoses or ropes that day, but the injuries were superficial and simply needed to be kept clean. They would probably be healed before his next shift and he could remove the gauze the next day when his shift was over. While Brackett was doing that, Roy went and got Johnny some juice, knowing he would need a drink badly after all his exertions. By the time Brackett was finished and Johnny had drunk the juice, he did feel a bit better.

They replenished their supplies and made their way out to the squad, which had been brought in at the same time as the engine had come in. The engine crew was long gone, toned out almost as soon as they had helped get the obese man into the treatment room. Johnny stowed the supplies in the compartment as Roy got into the squad and turned around to find himself almost pinned against the side of the vehicle by BJ Henderson and his camera.

“Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage,” BJ said, delight in his voice. “I’m so pleased to meet you. Let me ask you some questions about that last rescue. I see your hands are bandaged. How did you injure yourself? Was it when you fell of the window, trying to prevent further injury to your patient? Is it serious? How is the patient? Do you resent having to treat people who don’t take care of themselves? Isn’t that a waste of resources?”

Stunned that this man would have the effrontery to ask such invasive questions, Johnny chose to answer the last two. “We’re civil servants, Mr. Henderson,” he replied, his voice tight with anger. “We go where we are sent, to people who call for help. That is never a waste of resources.” He bit back a comment about the resources this man wasted to follow them around. “If you’ll excuse me.”

BJ didn’t move an inch. “How was that man when you left?” he asked. “How are your hands?” He panned the camera down for a shot of Johnny’s gauze-clad hands and Johnny used the opportunity to push past him and climb into the squad.

“Move!” he ordered Roy, who saw the lens coming in through the side window. Sadly, gunning the truck with the man standing right there was out of the question. Johnny glared into the camera and put his hand over the lens. “Mr. Henderson, please move away. You are obstructing a fire vehicle in the pursuit of its duties. You may be harmed if you don’t stand clear and we wouldn’t want that.” The temptation to push that lens really, really hard was almost overwhelming.

They were saved by the tones. The mic beeped three times. “Squad 51, woman down, Jefferson Park, Winston Ave. time out…”

“See you there!” BJ called cheerfully as the squad pulled away.

“Not if I see you first!” Johnny vowed.

***********

There was no sign of the ‘woman down’ in Jefferson Park and nobody seemed to know who had called it in. After as thorough a search as they could manage, they called it in as a hoax and returned to quarters. Johnny had been aware of the camera all the time, but this time, the reporter kept his distance. A woman down apparently wasn’t dramatic enough for him.

“You need some down time,” Roy told Johnny as he backed the squad into the bay.

“Roy, I’m fine,” Johnny replied tightly.

“I’m sure you are, but you could use some down time,” Roy replied. He knew that the younger man was tired; doing chest compressions was exhausting. “Let’s get something to eat, then you ought to lie down for a bit.”

“Is it nap time?” Johnny asked snidely. He knew Roy was right but he hated to admit it.

“Call it what you like,” Roy agreed, not allowing himself to be provoked. “But you need it. Come on, let’s get something to eat.”

Food sounded really good to Johnny and he followed Roy into the kitchen. The engine crew were just finishing up their lunch and as the paramedics entered the day room, Mike rose from the table and got a couple of plates out of the oven where they had been keeping warm. As the hungry men fell on the food, there were various questions directed at them, firstly about Johnny’s hands and then about the victim. They fell silent when they heard he hadn’t made it. It wasn’t unexpected, but that never made them feel any better.

The food and the chance to relax made Johnny feel a bit better, and his anger at BJ drained away as he began to put the failed rescue behind him. He glanced at the clock, surprised to see how late in the day it was. Somewhere, amongst that day’s rescues, he had lost track of time. He watched sleepily as Cap rose and put on the evening news.

His eyes were almost shut when he heard the station’s number mentioned. Snapping awake, he shot a look of disbelief at Roy, who was also sitting up straighter. “I don’t believe it,” Johnny muttered, but he did.

“This evening, another amazing rescue by our dedicated firefighters from Station 51,” BJ chirped into the camera. He went on to tell the story of the man they had rescued that afternoon. Johnny watched with dismay as they showed the crew removing the window and Johnny’s ignominious tumble out of the window and then the shot of them pulling the poor man out of the ambulance, with Johnny doing chest compressions. “Sadly, despite the valiant efforts of the paramedics, the man did not survive.” The shot froze on Johnny’s face as he glanced up momentarily as he pumped frantically on the man’s chest. “Afterwards, I asked Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage how he felt about having to rescue people who don’t take care of themselves. This was his reply.”

The furious face of an exhausted Johnny Gage was suddenly looking at them out of the TV set, as he told BJ, “We’re civil servants, Mr. Henderson. We go where we are sent, to people who call for help. That is never a waste of resources.”

BJ’s smug face was back on screen. “While I applaud Firefighter Gage’s attitude,” he went on, “I can’t help but feel that he is wrong to condone the use of the paramedics to attend to people who clearly have so little regard for their own health and well-being.” He smiled condescendingly. “It is reassuring to we members of the public that we have such dedicated young men out there, prepared to come when they are called, and to even put their own well-being on the line.” He showed a shot of Johnny’s bandaged hands on the screen behind him. “Mr. Gage’s injuries appear to be minor. I wish him a speedy recovery.”

“Geez, Gage,” Chet remarked after a few moments had elapsed, “you’re getting as bad as Wheeler with all this publicity.”

It was a valiant attempt to lighten the atmosphere, but it didn’t work. Pushing his chair back, Johnny retorted, “At least I’m not going looking for it!” He stormed out of the room.

There really wasn’t much any of them could say after that.

***********

The tones went at 2am, dragging the firefighters from sleep. While they shrugged into their boots and bunkers, they listened to the dispatcher sending them out miles from anywhere to a fire at a farm. It was going to take them almost half an hour to get there. A second engine was toned out, too, but it was further away and would take even longer than Station 51 to get there. The men exchanged grim looks. This could be a very bad scene indeed.

In the bay, Johnny and Mike hurried to the map to double check where they were going and to scout out a route. Neither of them had ever been out in that direction before and it was going to take them long enough to get there without getting lost en route. The others were already on board and waiting for them and the squad swung out of the station into the streets.

It didn’t really take that long before they left the well-lit streets behind and were driving out into the country. Johnny had to keep a sharp eye out for the turnings, as signposts were few and far between. The roads were not tarred and the dust blowing up made for more difficult driving conditions for the engine following along behind.

They got their first indication of how bad this was going to be when they spotted light in the sky as they neared their destination. As city dwellers, they were used to the street lights reflecting into the sky, but there were no street lights out here. All that could light up the sky this far out was either a town – of which there were none in the immediate vicinity – or a fire.

“Look at that!” Johnny exclaimed.

“This is going to be bad,” Roy predicted. It was unusual for a firefighter to say something like that, for they were among the most superstitious people in the world and generally believed that saying something along those lines would make it come true. Johnny shot him a disbelieving look, but said nothing. No point in making everything worse.

As they pulled into the farm yard, they could see that not only was the house ablaze, but so was the long barn beside it. Another barn behind that was also in danger. As they exited the vehicles, they could hear the cacophony of the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the trapped animals in the far barn. There were no people to be seen anywhere.

“John, Roy, check the house!” Cap ordered. “In and out as quickly as possible. Marco, Chet, go and get those barn doors open and get the animals out of that barn. Mike, grab a couple of inch and a halves and be ready.” Much as Cap hated to send his men in without the backup of a hose, they were spread too thinly on the ground and would have to manage as best they could. He grabbed his HT. “LA this is Engine 51. We have a house and a barn fully involved. Send a second alarm assignment.”

“LA,” came the prompt response and Stanley heard the tones going off as he returned the radio to his pocket.

It wasn’t going to be enough, Cap knew. The house was going to be a complete loss and it looked as though the barn would be, too. Whether they managed to save the second barn was a toss-up at this point. Cap just hoped that nobody would be hurt. Where were the home owners?

He got the answer to that question a few minutes later when the animals from the barn started pouring out into the adjacent pasture, several human figures chasing them. Chet and Marco were obvious by the helmets they wore and Cap guessed the other two were the home owners. He reached for the HT again to summon Roy and Johnny back, but there was no need. The two of them came running out of the home at full pelt and a few moments later, there was a loud bang as something exploded inside. His paramedics stumbled, but stayed on their feet.

“You okay?” Cap asked. They both nodded. “All right, let’s get some water on this fire. Grab an inch and a half and start on the barn. Let’s see if we can contain this fire a bit.”

As Roy and Johnny began wielding the hose, Chet and Marco came back and grabbed the other one. But even with both hoses going, it was clear that there was no way they were going to contain the fire. Finding enough water was going to be a problem, too. At this rate, they would drain the tank in the engine in no time at all and in the dark, it was impossible to see if there was a handy pond. Cap added a call for a tanker, but he dreaded to think how far ahead of them the fire would be by the time it arrived. He saw the home owners coming towards them, the stunned look on their faces one he had seen many time before. The woman clapped her hand over her mouth as she looked towards the flaming hulk that was her home.

Before Cap could reach them, the woman suddenly started running towards the house. Both Cap and her husband made an abortive grab for her, but it was too late. She dived into the flaming structure. Cap spun round. “John!” he shouted. The paramedic, behind Roy on the hose, glanced round and saw Cap beckoning. He said something to Roy, who shut off the nozzle, and both hurried over. “The woman has gone back inside,” Cap shouted over the noise.

He didn’t need to say any more than that. Both paramedics started running towards the house and Cap sent up a prayer for the safety of them and the woman.

***********

The inside of the house was well ablaze. Time was most definitely of the essence and with a wordless glance, Johnny and Roy agreed to split up to search for the woman. Johnny headed for the stairs and Roy began searching the main rooms downstairs.

It didn’t take long to find her. She was sprawled on the floor, clutching a photograph album to her chest, coughing violently. Johnny leaned down and pulled her into his arms and headed back down the stairs. The album bumped off the bottom of his mask with every step. Roy was just emerging from the living room area and hurried over to grasp Johnny’s elbow firmly to help guide him out of the house.

They were none too soon. The second floor ceiling came down with a loud crash and fingers of flame surged out of the shattered windows for a moment. The paramedics ducked, but no debris came anywhere near them and the hurried over to the squad, where Roy pulled out a blanket for Johnny to place the woman on.

While Johnny stripped off his air tank, Roy got the oxygen and other equipment. He hoped that the biophone would have as good a connection as the HT had, as relaying through dispatch was always difficult. He placed the equipment down beside Johnny and removed his own air mask and tank before opening the biophone.

“Rampart, this is squad 51. How do you read?”

“Reading you loud and clear, 51. Go ahead.”

“Rampart, we have a woman, in her mid-fifties. She was inside a burning building. Please stand by for vitals.”

“Standing by.”

Roy looked over at Johnny, who was taking the woman’s BP. The light was dreadful. The only ambient light came from the fire itself and Johnny had his penlight between his teeth. It wasn’t exactly ideal working circumstances, but there wasn’t a lot they could do about it. Johnny pulled the stethoscope from his ears and removed the pen from between his teeth. “BP’s 135/70,” he reported. “Pulse is 110 and respirations are 20. She’s definitely suffering from smoke inhalation and from her vitals I think there may be burns. I’m just going to have a look. Can you get a big flashlight from the squad and hold it for me?”

“Yup.” Roy jumped up and retrieved one of the flashlights from the squad and held it to provide as much light as possible. It still wasn’t enough, but it was an improvement over the little pen light. It revealed burns on her chest and around her face. Johnny glanced up at Roy, but his partner’s face was in shadow and he couldn’t see Roy’s expression. He didn’t really need to. This woman was seriously injured and they needed to get her to hospital as quickly as possible. Roy set down the flashlight and hurried back to the biophone. “Rampart, this is 51.”

“Go ahead, Roy,” Brackett replied.

“Rampart, the patient has burns on her chest and facial area. We suspect airway involvement, but the light we have is too poor to confirm that at this time.” Roy took a deep breath before reeling off her vitals. “We have her on 15 liters of O2 and we’re applying a burn pack. She is unconscious.”

“Start an IV of Ringer’s,” Brackett ordered. “Transport immediately.”

“Um, we’re a long way out in the country, Rampart,” Roy replied. “There’s no ambulance on scene.” He glanced round and saw Cap in conversation with Johnny. He watched as Cap nodded, then lifted the radio to his lips. Johnny glanced at Roy and made a whirling motion with his hand and Roy nodded. “Rampart, an air ambulance has been requested.” He looked at Cap, who nodded as he put the radio away. He held up a hand with all five digits spread. “ETA is a little over 5 minutes.”

“Transport as soon as possible,” Brackett ordered. “Update vitals every five minutes and have an airway standing by.”

While they waited for the helicopter, the other stations that had been toned out began to arrive. At the moment, 51 was fighting a losing battle. Cap sent the engines to the places they would be most needed and hoped the tanker truck would hurry up. Johnny and Roy transferred the woman to the stokes and continued to monitor her breathing and pour sterile water over the burns. Her husband crouched beside her, clutching the photograph album to his chest.

As the sound of helicopter blades crept in over the noise of the fire, the paramedics looked at each other in surprise. Unless the chopper had already been in the air when it was called for – and that was unlikely – it couldn’t possibly be here already. Johnny glanced up, as though he would see anything in the dark sky.

He did. The helicopter that was approaching had a bright spotlight beneath it and it was focused on the fire. But rather than coming into land, it hovered a short distance away. A firefighter was laying flares out in the field, outlining a safe landing place for the chopper, but it made no attempt to go in for a landing.

“What the hell?” Cap picked up the HT again. “LA, please confirm the air ambulance ETA?”

“51, the air ambulance reports that it should be with you in approximately three minutes,” the dispatcher replied, after a pause.

“LA, we have another chopper hovering over us right now,” Cap reported. “Can you find out who it is and warn them off?”

“Stand by.” There was a very long pause this time, and Cap anxiously watched both the rogue chopper and the fire as he waited for a reply. “51, air traffic control report that this is a TV news helicopter. The pilot insists they are free to watch and film because the First Amendment gives them that right and they refuse to leave.”

For a moment, anger choked any response Cap might have made. Finally, he was able to acknowledge the report. He had no doubts as to who else was in that chopper with the pilot, even though he had no proof; BJ Henderson.

***********

The air ambulance arrived exactly when they said they would. The paramedics waited with their patient until the chopper touched down before picking up the stokes and running over with it. It was one of the smaller choppers, and that meant only one paramedic could go with the patient. As Johnny had been running the call, he jumped in and took the equipment from Roy. “See you at Rampart,” he mouthed. Roy nodded and stepped back out of rotor range. Johnny slid the door shut and nodded to the pilot as he pulled on the earphones.

“Who’s the bloody idiot in the other machine?” the pilot asked. “He’s going to cause an accident if he doesn’t get out of here.”

“It’s a news chopper,” Johnny replied.

“Figures,” the pilot responded. He contacted air traffic control and then they lifted smoothly off. “He was probably filming you when you ran over,” he told Johnny. “His light was on you the whole time.”

“We noticed,” Johnny commented dryly. It had made running across the field a bit safer. Neither of them had twisted an ankle, but they weren’t happy about it.

“Shit!” the pilot commented. He sounded worried.

“What?” Johnny had enough to worry about with his patient, who really wasn’t doing all that well.

“That other bloody chopper is shadowing us and he’s much bigger. If he gets too close, the turbulence from his blades could upset our air balance.”

While Johnny admitted he knew very little about helicopters, he knew that sounded bad. “How bad is that?” he asked.

“Bad,” the other replied emphatically. “I’m gonna get air traffic control to warn him off.”

While the pilot contacted ATC, Johnny leaned over to check his patient’s breathing yet again. So far, she was holding her own, but her breath was shallower than it had been and that was never a good sign. Johnny grabbed the BP cuff, preparing to check her vitals again.

The chopper staggered sideways.

The pilot bit out a curse that Johnny didn’t quite catch. The chopper staggered again and Johnny could feel it beginning to see-saw in the air. He swallowed down the notion of air sickness. He really didn’t have time for that right now. Then he felt the shudder as the blades of the larger machine just marginally clipped the blades of the air ambulance.

The pilot shouted something incoherent and then they were tumbling from the sky.

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

The fight against the fire went on, but it wasn’t until the full second alarm was there, as well as the tanker truck, that they started to notice any difference. By then, the second barn was also alight and Cap called for a third alarm and another tanker truck. Five backbreaking hours later, the last flame was finally extinguished and the firefighters started on the horrible job of cleaning up. By then, the sky had lightened and the birds were singing in the trees.

“Trust Gage to get the cushy rest at the hospital for all these hours,” Chet grumbled as he probed for hot spots in the debris of the first barn.

“It’s not as if this is an easy place to get back to,” Roy commented mildly, although he was surprised that Johnny hadn’t managed to wangle a lift somehow. They hadn’t needed any paramedics, for which everyone was thankful.

“I thought his reporter ‘friend’ would have offered him a ride in the helicopter,” Chet suggested.

He hasn’t been back, either,” Roy agreed, and suddenly an uneasy feeling crystallized in his stomach. Dropping his probe, Roy hurried over to Cap. “Can you contact Rampart and ask how the woman is?” he enquired.

“Sure, why?” Cap asked. Roy seemed agitated. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Roy admitted. “I just have an uneasy feeling all of a sudden.”

The uneasy feeling increased as Cap was finally patched through and spoke to a nurse they didn’t know. Dr Brackett was no longer on duty and she knew nothing of a burns patient arriving during the night. There were no notes about it and there wasn’t a paramedic hanging around the ER. Roy was not the only one with an uneasy feeling. Cap contacted dispatch again and asked them to contact the chopper station to find out what time they had dropped off Johnny and the victim. After a very long pause, they got the answer they had been dreading.

“51, the air ambulance has not returned to base,” the dispatcher reported. “Another helicopter has been dispatched to start searching.”

“There may be two helicopters missing,” Cap reported, after hearing Roy’s worry. “Check with the local news station to see if their helicopter has returned. It was here last night and left just after the air ambulance did.”

“Stand by.” Ten anxious minutes ticked past. “51, the station reports their helicopter is missing.”

“10-4,” Cap replied, dazed. “Please notify Rampart hospital that an air ambulance and one of their paramedics is missing.” He drew in a deep breath. This was going to be a nightmare search, as the chances of finding any of the occupants of the helicopters alive was slim at best. “Station 51 is going to start searching from this end,” he informed the dispatcher. “It is John Gage who is missing.”

“10-4, 51,” dispatch replied. He sounded a lot less calm and unruffled than usual.

Cap knew how he felt.

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

Alarm bells were soon ringing all over the county. Helicopters were dispatched to search from the air and Station 51, dirty and tired as they were, set off on the ground, estimating the route the helicopter might have flown. At Rampart, Dixie McCall phoned Dr Brackett at home.

“Kel, its Dixie. Sorry to wake you, but the air ambulance went down last night.”

“What?” Brackett was stunned. “Last night? Didn’t it come in?”

“No,” Dixie replied. “Johnny Gage was aboard.”

“We got busy and I assumed that someone else saw them. How could I have been so stupid?” Brackett squeezed his eyes closed. They had become very busy last night and since he had been caught up with treating a man with severe stab wounds, he had completely forgotten about the chopper. “How could I not have checked?

“It seems that nobody else checked until a little while ago,” Dix replied. “Roy and the others were fighting a big fire miles from town. They assumed that Johnny hadn’t been able to get back to the scene. Dispatch hadn’t realized that the chopper hadn’t returned to base. I don’t know what alerted them, but they discovered that the chopper went down and a news chopper that was in the vicinity of the fire is missing, too.”

“I’ll be right there,” Brackett promised. While he knew rationally that there was nothing he could really do at the hospital, he would be nearer the news and he now felt responsible for not noticing that Johnny had not come into the ER. It wasn’t realistic to check on every patient that came into the ER over the course of a shift, but he still thought he should have noticed that Johnny hadn’t arrived.

His heart in his mouth, he hurried from the house.

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

The first thing he was aware of was a monumental headache. He groaned and thought about opening his eyes and decided against it. It seemed like far too much effort. Hell of a hangover, he thought vaguely. Strange, but he couldn’t recall going out for a drink. It was very rare that he drank a lot and never to the point where he couldn’t remember what he had been doing. Had someone spiked his drink?

After a few more minutes of drifting, he was suddenly sure that this was not a hangover. While he felt absolutely dreadful, it wasn’t quite like a hangover version of dreadful. This was more like being sick ‘dreadful’, which left only two possibilities; he’d either had an accident at home or at work. Of those two, he’d take bets it was at work in which case… Roy!

The thought that his partner might be somewhere nearby and hurt galvanized the paramedic. With a huge effort, he pried his eyes open.

Whatever else he had expected to see, scrubby woodland was not it. He winced as the sun hit his eyes, intensifying his headache. He would have sworn it couldn’t get any worse, but he was wrong. Sun? Why had he expected it to be dark? A vague memory of a large fire, burning brightly against a dark sky flashed into his mind. They had been at a fire and it had been night time! How had the time passed without him being aware of it? His muddled mind fought to make sense of the clues.

It was only when he tried to move that the pieces started falling into place. Pain exploded across his body and as he panted harshly to try and control it, he knew he had been seriously injured. He turned his head to look down the length of his body and Johnny’s gaze was drawn inexorably along the line of sight to the broken, twisted remains of the air ambulance helicopter.

The rotor blades were bent and one had been torn off completely. The body of the chopper had broken in half from the belly up, leaving the tail hanging at a peculiar angle, only joined to the front by the reinforced metal around the base of the rotors. It was a terrifying sight.

While his memory was still nowhere near intact, Johnny knew he had to get to the helicopter, because there had to be other people in there; the pilot at the very least and probably a patient or patients. The patients were his responsibility and he had to get to them to check them out. He could only hope they were still alive.

First things first. Johnny knew he had to find out the extent of his own injuries. He lifted his right arm to probe his head and was gratified that his arm worked without any pain. However, his head, when probed, objected mightily and Johnny could feel the crusted blood along a huge gash that ran from near his eye back into his hair. From the way his face felt, it had probably bled enormously. Heads had a habit of doing that. His left arm hadn’t been so fortunate and his hand was dangling at a funny angle. Broken wrist Johnny diagnosed. Not great, could be worse, and hopefully just a straight forward fracture. He unbuttoned his shirt and carefully tucked the injured limb inside for some support. It hurt like hell while he was doing it and he swallowed heavily to prevent himself throwing up.

Once his stomach was under control, he continued on with his self-examination. His ribs were tender but felt intact and his belly was still soft. That was a major relief. Johnny wryly reflected that the downside of being a paramedic was that you could potentially diagnose yourself with life threatening injuries and not be able to do anything about it.

Carefully, he pushed himself into a sitting position and waited while his head slowly stopped spinning. It took quite a long time and Johnny really wasn’t happy about that. Sitting up increased the pounding yet again. How much worse could this headache get? Again, he swallowed against nausea. This time, he wasn’t so lucky and leaned over to one side, heaving. When he was done, he slumped back to the ground, breathing heavily and feeling as though his head was going to explode.

He drifted again for some time, not quite fully conscious, but not fully out. When he finally roused himself, he had no idea how long a time had passed. He couldn’t tell if his watch was working or not, because he simply couldn’t focus enough to tell. Once again he laboriously sat up and continued his self-exam. His pelvis was fine and his thighs appeared okay, too. It was when he went to move his right leg that he discovered the biggest problem yet.

Not only did he have a serious compound fracture of the tib/fib, he was impaled through the calf by a large tree branch.

***********

“LA this is Chopper 10. We have spotted debris. It is approximately 7 miles west of the road leading to the farm and maybe five miles from there. There doesn’t appear to be vehicular access and there is nowhere for us to land.”

“10-4, chopper 10. Return to farm landing site and await instructions.”

“10-4.”

Following the engine along the road with Marco in the squad for company, Roy felt sick. It was going to take them some time to walk to the crash site, and they only had the vaguest idea of where it actually was. If anyone had survived the crash, they might not live long enough to be rescued. If they had survived. The chances of surviving a helicopter crash were minute.

He parked the squad behind the engine and got out. Cap was walking briskly towards him. “What equipment do we need to take, Roy?” he asked.

“The stokes from the engine and the oxygen,” Roy replied. “And the trauma box.” He closed his eyes, trying to think what else they needed. “Johnny had the biophone and the drug box,” he continued. “When the other teams join us, they should have the drugs we’ll need.” That last statement was made more from hope than optimism.

Knowing that Roy was shaky, Cap indicated to the others to gather the things they needed and then they set off, Cap patting his pocket to ensure he had the HT with him. He just hoped that radio contact wouldn’t be spotty. That would be an absolute disaster.

They set off strongly, but were slowed after a while by the undergrowth and lack of a natural path. Although they all enjoyed being outdoors, the only natural outdoors man in the group was Johnny. He would not only relish the trek, he would probably be able to find them a pathway through it. Despair dragged them down and slowed their steps slightly, too. None of them wanted to be the one to find Johnny’s body. That was a nightmare that firefighters had to face all too often. Roy wasn’t the only one who had to occasionally wipe some ‘dirt’ out of his eyes.

Lugging the stokes and the other equipment, it took them two and a half hours to reach the approximate area of the crash. Cap contacted dispatch and they sent Chopper 10 up again to guide them. It took the chopper a while to find them, and then they had to walk about another two miles, as they had veered too far to the east.

It wasn’t the air ambulance they found. It was the TV news chopper.

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

He stared at his impaled leg in total disbelief. His first instinct was to yank the branch out, but fortunately, he was still with it enough to realize that wouldn’t be a good idea, even as his hand reached out for it. The branch was huge! He blinked, and admitted that it wasn’t that big, but seeing it sticking through his leg like that did tend to change his perception of size.

The branch wasn’t attached to anything anymore, but Johnny thought it had probably been part of the tree that he was leaning against. That suggested he had fallen through the tree before hitting the ground, which was probably why he wasn’t hurt more seriously. All the same, he was in pretty dire straits. He had a serious head injury, a broken wrist, compound fracture of the tib/fib and a penetrating wound to that same leg. However much he might want to get back to the helicopter and work on any patients and the pilot, he was going to be unable to do so. Dragging himself around was not only going to be agonizing, but also inadvisable in the extreme. If the branch had punctured an artery, it was in all likelihood preventing him from bleeding out. If he moved around, he might dislodge it.

His common sense lecture to himself didn’t make Johnny feel any less guilty about not being able to go over to look after the patients he was now sure were on the helicopter. On previous occasions when he had been injured at the scene of an accident, he had been able to carry on treating others, disregarding his own injuries. That was how it should be, not trapped like this with no way to contact anyone or help anyone. Johnny had seldom felt so useless.

He continued to lean against the tree, too shocked to think about lying back down, his blurry gaze darting between his own predicament and the helicopter, where he was sure that people were injured and dying and there was nothing he could do about it.

***********

It was a pretty grim discovery. It was miraculous that the helicopter hadn’t burst into flames, but none of them liked to think about the two men trapped and dying in the machine, wondering and fearing if it would happen. Both BJ and the pilot were dead. From the temperature of their skin, Roy thought that they hadn’t been dead more than a couple of hours, but he was no expert and that determination would have to be left to the pathologist. Still, it was a horrible thought and they all had enough imagination to shudder violently when they dared to think what it must have been like and knew that their imagination thankfully could only take them so far and no further.

Cap contacted dispatch and the chopper which had been hovering nearby immediately peeled off to widen the search area. With two helicopters missing, and one definitely come down after a catastrophic collision, it seemed highly unlikely that the other chopper had simply flown on and on and not noticed they hadn’t arrived at the hospital. The deaths of the two men in the TV chopper lowered their miniscule hopes of finding Johnny and the others alive. Roy looked bleakly at the on-board camera and wondered that it looked intact. He hoped that BJ thought it had been worth it. Two lives had been wasted because of BJ’s obsession with filming rescues close up, and rescues that specifically involved him, Johnny and the rest of 51’s crew, and another three lives might also have ended because of him.

The radio spluttered. “I have sighted more wreckage,” the chopper reported. “About one mile west of your current position.”

Jumping to their feet, the men scanned the skies until they found the small dot that was the helicopter. Picking up the equipment once more, they set off on their trek to the other site, their hopes rising slightly despite their better judgment.

Miracles happened. Didn’t they?

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

Opening his eyes with a jerk, Johnny realized that he had either fallen asleep or passed out. His headache was still ever present and his vision was dreadful, blurry and doubling and generally adding to the feeling of malaise that swept over him. Fortunately, the tree had continued to support him, for he had no doubts that falling over would not have been pleasant.

He knew immediately that he had been woken by a sound; a noise that hadn’t been there before. Blinking against the brightness of the sky and wincing at the bolt of pain that shot through his skull, Johnny squinted as best he could. He knew that sound; it was a helicopter!

It made sense that they were searching for the downed chopper. Johnny waved his right arm in the air, wincing at the pain that shot through his body. The chopper circled and hovered, but Johnny was pretty sure he couldn’t be seen, sitting as he was. A patch of pale blue shirt was not going to show up particularly well against the browns and greens of the land. Not tucked against a tree as he was. He was going to have to do something to attract the pilot’s attention.

His brain seemed to be working in slow motion, as if packed with polystyrene peanuts and cotton wool. It took him several minutes to figure out that if he took his shirt off and waved it, it would most likely be seen more easily. It seemed a great solution, but Johnny’s fingers fumbled with the buttons, which seemed to have shrunk dramatically since he donned the shirt – was it yesterday morning? He had lost track of time completely. He was terrified the chopper would go away before he could signal to it and eventually he lost patience and ripped the buttons open, not caring that they pinged in every direction. He winced as his left arm was left unsupported and fought to get the fabric off his body.

He was almost sobbing as he finally succeeded in drawing the sleeve over his injured hand and began waving the shirt with all his might and main. It was agonizingly painful and not nearly as vigorous as he hoped it would be, but Johnny gave it his all until his strength ran out. He slumped back against the tree, his breath coming in harsh grunts of pain, his vision swimming in and out of darkness. He coughed once, twice, then threw up again. For a moment, he thought he was going to die as he fought for breath. Then he hoped he might die as there was no response from the chopper. He couldn’t do it again.

“We have seen you,” boomed a voice and Johnny jumped out of his skin in shock and surprise. “Don’t move. Help is on the way.”

Relief and exhaustion combined as the words sank in. he had been found! Help was on the way! He sagged against the tree to wait for rescue. Without being aware of it, he slid off into unconsciousness.

***********

The last mile was undoubtedly the hardest part. The men were already tired from working for 24 hours and fighting a large fire for most of the night. They had walked six miles over rough country carrying some fairly weighty equipment, had to face the reality of a couple of dead bodies and now had another mile to go. Roy in particular found it harder and harder to put one foot in front of the other. His suddenly all-too-vivid imagination kept presenting him with various different pictures of Johnny lying dead in the helicopter. Each one was more gruesome than the last.

The HT that Cap carried had been spluttering intermittently for the last little while, but nothing coherent was coming through. It seemed they were in a dead spot for the radio, which was not comforting at all. Roy glanced up to look at the chopper again, and tripped over a rock, almost dropping his end of the stokes and giving Marco a poke in the backside as he did so.

“You all right, Roy?” Marco asked, then wished he hadn’t, as he knew the answer. None of them was really all right, and might never be all right again if Johnny was gone.

“Fine,” Roy replied dully. His toes throbbed but he really didn’t care. His hopes, which had risen at news that the chopper had been found, had now plummeted into his boots. It was taking them far too long to reach the crash site. Every single minute that passed was a minute too long for someone who had been injured. The other chopper had shown him that. He was sure now that Johnny was dead. Setting his jaw, he plodded grimly on.

***********

They were close enough now to see glimpses of the helicopter fuselage through the trees. Cap’s radio flared to life. “Chopper 10 to HT51.” The voice was impatient.

“We read you,” Cap replied.

“There is at least one survivor,” the chopper pilot reported, sounding relieved.

It was amazing how those words galvanized the men. Their pace increased, despite the aching of their exhausted bodies, and they all but ran the last couple of hundred yards.

The helicopter was grotesque in its death posture. Unfortunately, the choice of averting their eyes from it wasn’t possible. They had to go and check on the people still inside. The HT crackled again. “The person who signaled us is under a tree on your right hand side.”

“10-4,” Cap acknowledged. “Dump the gear, guys. Roy, we’ll check the chopper, you go find the person.”

Not knowing if he should hope, Roy hurried over to the small copse over to their right. For a moment, he couldn’t see anyone, then his eyes found the figure slumped against a tree and his heart leaped in a mixture of joy and fear. He rushed forward and fell to his knees by his partner’s side, his hand automatically reaching for his pulse. “Cap, he’s alive!” he shouted and began to visually assess his partner’s condition.

While the news gladdened the hearts of his crewmates, the others had not fared as well. The pilot was just hanging on to life, but he was in a very bad way and they were afraid to move him. The woman patient was dead and had clearly died in the crash. Most of the equipment they were counting on finding was missing and the biophone was nothing but a lump of twisted orange metal. They would have to wait for the paramedics coming from Carson, which was not a happy state of affairs.

Cap hurried over to Roy’s side and looked at his junior paramedic sorrowfully. “How’s he doing, Roy?”

“He’s unconscious,” Roy replied, stating the obvious. “Looks like he has a broken wrist, compound fracture of his tib/fib and he’s been impaled by a branch. I haven’t had the time to check for any other injuries. What have you got over there?”

“The woman is dead,” Cap reported. “The pilot is still alive, but he’s in a really bad way. You’d better come and have a look and see what you can do. We haven’t been able to salvage any of the equipment. I’ll stay here with John.”

“All right.” Roy was reluctant to leave his friend, but Johnny didn’t appear to have any life threatening injuries for the moment. “If he comes round, don’t let him move that leg,” he ordered as he hurried off.

Settling himself on the ground beside Johnny, Cap looked more closely at his man. Johnny’s face was pale, the right side caked in dried blood, which had soaked into his undershirt. His uniform shirt lay on the ground beside him and the collar of that was soaked with blood, too. The left wrist was deformed and bruised and the broken leg made Cap feel sick.

It could all have been much worse, Cap reflected. How Johnny had survived was a question to which they would never know the answer. He could still have internal injuries; Roy said he hadn’t had time to check him out thoroughly. Cap hoped and prayed not.

His thoughts were interrupted as Johnny stirred and opened bleary brown eyes. He squinted at Cap and his boss recognized the signs of a really bad headache. “Hello, John,” he said warmly. “How are you doing?”

“Cap?” Johnny blinked a couple of times. “What are you doing here?”

“Rescuing you, by the looks of things,” Cap responded, smiling slightly. “Don’t move, John,” he warned the younger man as it looked as though Johnny intended to try to stand up.

That seemed like good advice, Johnny thought groggily. He hurt too much to move, although he was feeling pretty cold. The sun didn’t seem as warm as it usually did. Perhaps that was because he wasn’t feeling all that well? He shivered violently. Cap saw and turned his head. “Chet, bring a blanket!” he ordered.

Seeing the helicopter again roused Johnny’s feelings of guilt. “Cap, I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“What for, John?” Cap asked. He resisted the urge to reach out and gather the younger man to his chest; Roy had said not to move him.

“I didn’t go to help,” Johnny replied, which made no sense to Cap.

“Help who?” he asked gently.

“The helicopter,” was the reply. Johnny still didn’t remember who was in the helicopter or why, but he knew that a crashed helicopter was a bad thing. “I couldn’t,” he concluded.

“Nobody expected you to,” Cap soothed. “You’re pretty badly injured yourself, you know.” He smiled as Johnny gave him a doubtful look. “Trust me, John,” he went on. “Nobody is blaming you.”

“I’m sure I wasn’t flying it,” Johnny muttered, almost to himself. “I don’t know how.”

Cap laughed. “No,” he assured the bemused man. “You weren’t flying it.”

***********

That was the only light moment of the day. Cap and Chet wrapped Johnny in one of their yellow blankets and sat with him while Roy worked with Mike and Marco to extricate the pilot and do what they could for him. However, his injuries were too severe and he died before the other paramedics could arrive. The combination of no equipment and the severity of his injuries proved too much. Roy covered him with a blanket and walked slowly back over to Johnny. With all the fatalities he had dealt with that morning, Roy fully expected Johnny to die, too. It seemed far too good to be true that Johnny should be the only survivor of five people.

Johnny wasn’t doing all that well, either. His head injury was clearly serious and he was finding it harder to stay awake. Roy was concerned that the puncture injury to his leg was causing other complications that he could do nothing about. He was unable to examine it too closely, as even a feather-light touch on the limb caused Johnny to cry out in agony and almost pass out. Roy was able to splint the wrist and secure it in a triangular bandage, but the life-saving fluids that Johnny needed were still some time away.

“We can’t wait for the others to get here,” Roy declared as they finished securing Johnny to the backboard that Marco had had the foresight to load into the stokes. “Cap, contact Rampart and tell them we’re bringing him in now.”

“All right, pal,” Cap agreed. Roy knew best when it came to injuries and Cap wanted Johnny at Rampart as soon as possible. He did that while Roy had Johnny placed carefully in the stokes and indicated to the waiting chopper that they were coming up. The winch man opened the doors and lowered a line.

“No!” Johnny started thrashing around as he felt the stokes leaving the ground. “No!”

Roy, also attached to the same line to stop the basket swinging around too much, risked letting go of the rope with one hand to put it on Johnny’s shoulder. “Easy, Johnny,” he shouted over the noise of the rotors. “Take it easy.”

It was a good thing Johnny was so securely strapped down, because he put up a valiant escape effort. It was only as the basket was dragged into the belly of the chopper that Roy belatedly put two and two together and realized that Johnny, quite naturally, would be somewhat more than apprehensive about getting into a chopper ever again. There was nothing Roy could do about that apart from reassure his partner. There was no other viable way of getting him off that hillside. Carrying him down would take far too long and might well put his life at risk, too. Without a drug box, there was nothing Roy could give him to calm him down and he just had to hope that his presence was enough to stop Johnny doing something drastic – like pulling that stick out of his leg.

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

“He is gonna be all right, isn’t he, Cap?” Chet asked as the helicopter receded into the distance.

“Let’s think positive thought, shall we?” Cap replied. “He’s alive, that’s the main thing.” They had all heard stories about the complications from compound fractures and knew that there was a strong possibility that Johnny might lose that leg if the damage was bad enough. None of them wanted to see that happen to Johnny.

There really wasn’t much for them to do except wait, which they did with less and less patience, as they all stiffened up and got colder. Exhaustion was pulling at them all now, and once they found a sheltered place out of the wind, Cap wasn’t the only one who indulged in a short nap.

The paramedics and firefighters finally reached the crash site, which freed Station 51’s remaining crew members to make the return journey to the engine and squad. The paramedics who had arrived had marked the trail quite clearly, not just for their own return, but for the medical examiner and his people who would be coming to retrieve the bodies. The police had arrived with the paramedics, but apart from to tell them about the circumstances of finding the two choppers, there was nothing else that 51s could tell them.

It took another three hours to trudge to the bottom of the hill where they had left their vehicles, and a further half hour to drive back to the barn. B shift had been on duty since 8am, and it was now past noon. The idle waiting – for even their captain had run out of chores for them to do – had eaten away at their nerves and they poured into the bay to greet the returning A shift members. “How is he?”

“Not good,” Cap replied, indicating to the others to go and shower and change. He quickly updated them with the little he knew and watched with envy as the paramedics jumped into the squad and headed to Rampart to replace their missing equipment. They were no good as a squad if they didn’t have the things they needed. Cap yearned to go with them, but he knew he needed to shower and change before he went to the hospital.

“Hank.” B shift’s captain touched his arm to bring him back to the present. “There’ll be some food ready for you when you’re changed,” he repeated. “You guys need to eat.”

“Thanks,” Cap smiled and dragged his weary body into the locker room to wait his turn for the shower, but his thoughts were a few miles away at Rampart.

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

“How is he, Roy?” Brackett asked as the stokes was unloaded from the chopper.

“He’s been pretty agitated,” Roy replied, jumping down. “I never thought how this would upset him, but there was nothing else we could do. Even if you had authorized something for him, I didn’t have any drugs available and if we’d waited for the others to arrive, he could have gone sour. He’s pretty shocky and in a whole lot of pain.”

“Johnny?” Brackett said, leaning over the basket. “Can you hear me?”

Murky brown eyes opened and Johnny looked back at him for a moment. He looked ill, his skin pale, his lips white and pinched. Polite conversation was not in his purview at the moment. It was taking all his will power not to scream aloud because the pain was pounding him from all sides and there seemed to be no escape. The helicopter ride had just been the last straw. His heart had been pounding so hard in his chest that he had wondered if he was going to have a heart attack.

Brackett didn’t waste any more time. They hurried inside and into the treatment room that had been prepared earlier. Johnny was swiftly transferred to the treatment table, then Brackett, Roy and the orderlies left while the technician took the necessary x-rays – basically the whole of Johnny’s body. Brackett was leaving nothing to chance; he had already dropped the ball on this one.

“I’m not going to wash up or get a cup of coffee,” Roy declared brusquely as Dixie joined them outside the treatment door. “I’m not leaving Johnny until he goes to surgery. I almost lost him once today; I’m not going to let him down again.”

“I’m the one who let him down,” contradicted the doctor, but Dixie put her hand up.

“We don’t have time for the blame game,” she chided them both. “It won’t help any of us help Johnny and that’s what’s important. Roy, you do need to wash your hands because they are filthy. You can’t help us in there until you do.”

Glancing down at his hands, Roy saw that they were dirty and he hurried off to the men’s’ room, where he took care of some other business before washing his hands and face. He felt slightly fresher after doing that, but no less tired. An ache seemed to have settled permanently between his shoulder blades. Roy whimsically thought it was the weight of the world that seemed to have come to rest upon his shoulders.

Neither Brackett nor Dixie was outside the treatment room and there was no sign of them at the nurse’s station, so Roy opened the door and peered in before going all the way in. Dixie was standing by Johnny’s head, talking to him in a soft voice. Roy didn’t catch the words. Brackett was examining the stick that punctured Johnny’s leg, which was black and blue and swollen. The sight made Roy feel sick, despite the fact he had seen many things that were worse. He averted his eyes and went over to stand by Johnny’s head. Dixie smiled at him, and turned to retrieve the BP cuff.

“How’re you doing?” Roy asked quietly.

“Better,” Johnny replied, which was the partial truth. He was calmer now that they were out of the chopper, but he still felt really ill and he was scared. “I don’t remember… Was there a patient?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Roy soothed. “Let’s worry about you for the moment, shall we?”

“I did let someone die,” Johnny whispered fretfully.

“Johnny, look at me!” Roy leaned over and made eye contact with his partner and when the younger man turned his head to avoid it, Roy gently grabbed his chin and turned his head back. “Johnny, you didn’t let anyone die. You had no chance of helping her at all, even if you had been able to walk. She died in the crash, do you understand? It wasn’t your fault.” He softened his voice as involuntary tears welled in Johnny’s eyes. “It wasn’t your fault and I will go on telling you that until you believe me, you goof!” The affection in his voice was very clear.

“I don’t remember,” Johnny whispered, deeply touched by Roy’s words and tone.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” Brackett commented as he overheard Johnny. He didn’t add that Johnny’s subconscious obviously did remember, or the paramedic wouldn’t have become so agitated in the chopper. “It must have been pretty awful.” And he thought that was probably a sweeping understatement.

While Dixie gently cleaned the gash on his head, Brackett poked and prodded and asked questions, but like Roy, he was rapidly coming to the conclusion that Johnny had been extremely lucky, above and beyond the luck required to survive a helicopter crash. His injuries were serious, but hopefully wouldn’t become life threatening. There was no evidence of internal bleeding and that alone was remarkable. The only obvious fractures were of his wrist and leg.

The x-rays arrived and Brackett clipped them onto the light box, poring over them for quite a long while. Roy began to be very anxious. Had they found something awful that he had missed? Was there a skull fracture? The gash on Johnny’s head was both long and deep and he had clearly lost a lot of blood from it. That he was concussed was a given from his symptoms.

“Dixie, phone the OR and let them know we’ll be up soon and alert Ortho to meet us there.” Brackett leaned over his patient. “Johnny, we’re going to take you to surgery to fix up your leg. We’ll sort out your wrist and head there, too. When you wake up, you’ll be feeling a lot more comfortable, I promise you.”

“’K,” Johnny agreed, his voice sounding small.

“I’m going to give you something to make you feel a bit better just now,” Brackett assured him and smoothly shot some diazepam into the IV that Roy hadn’t even notice Dixie administering. Within moments, Johnny’s eyes were heavily closed.

It was literally only a couple of minutes before the orderlies appeared and wheeled Johnny away. Roy started to follow, but Brackett stopped him. “Roy, Johnny is going to be in surgery for several hours. I want you to go home, have something to eat and sleep for a couple of hours before you come back. I expect everything to go smoothly, but obviously, if there is a problem, I will phone you at once.”

“I want to stay,” Roy objected, dimly aware that he sounded like his 8 year old son.

“I know,” Brackett soothed. “But you’ve been on the go for almost 36 hours now, Roy and if you don’t take some down time, you’re going to collapse. What good are you going to be to Johnny if that happens?”

“You play dirty,” Roy protested, but he knew he was beaten.

“I’m not saying you can’t come back tonight,” the doctor reminded him. “But you need some rest first.” He led Roy out of the treatment room. “Do you have a way to get home?”

“The others should be here soon,” Roy replied, looking around vaguely. He was suddenly aware of his exhaustion and wondered if the others felt as bad as he did. They probably felt worse, as they had to walk back to the engine. “Um, I’ll phone the station and find out where they are.”

“If you need a lift, let Dix know,” Brackett told him. “We’ll arrange something.”

“All right.” Roy wandered down to the payphone and rang the station. The B shift captain told him that the others weren’t back yet, but had reached the engine and were driving back. B shift was going to feed them before allowing them to go to Rampart and Roy decided he might as well eat and wait for them. He managed to force down a bacon roll and some coffee in the cafeteria and went back up to wait for his colleagues in the ER. He sat down with a magazine in his hand and promptly fell asleep.

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

He didn’t know how long he’d slept, but his back was aching from sleeping in the uncomfortable plastic chair and his neck had a crick in it. All in all, he felt like something the cat had dragged in. He blinked as a hand shook his shoulder again. “Roy.”

“Cap,” Roy acknowledged, sitting up straighter. “When did you get here?”

“Just a few minutes ago.” Cap looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes and he looked decidedly gaunt. “Any word?”

Unsure how long he’d been asleep, Roy shook his head. “They took Johnny to surgery,” he replied. “I said I’d wait for you before I went home, but I must have fallen asleep. When I phoned the station, I was told you were driving back to the barn.” He tried to work it out.

“Almost a couple of hours then,” Cap calculated. “We got cleaned up and B shift had made us something to eat. Did they say how long the surgery would take?”

“No.” Roy swallowed hard as he remembered how awful Johnny’s leg had looked. “It depends on what they find.” He glanced at the others and saw that they all looked as fearful as he felt. If the injury was severe enough, they would have to amputate. The thought was more than Roy could bear and his mind skidded away from the image. “Brackett told me to go home and sleep.”

Much as he hated to admit it, that was good advice, Cap thought. They were all running on empty and pretty soon, one way or another, they would crash. “I think we should do what he says,” he decided. “We can’t sit here all day, taking up the waiting room and we’ve taken advantage of the doctors’ lounge often enough in the past. We can’t keep doing it. However hard it is for us, we have to go home and try and rest.”

He could sense the grumblings, but the men were all as exhausted as he was, physically and emotionally. At home, they could do as they pleased – sleep or not sleep, cry or not cry – there would be nobody to watch them. But here, the waiting would play on their nerves until they were snapping at each other and that would do none of them any favors, least of all Johnny. Cap knew he needed the down time with his wife. He wouldn’t worry any the less, but he would have peace to express his feelings.

Coming out of the break room, Dixie was surprised to see all the firefighters there. She went over to see if they had heard anything. When she had gone for her break, Johnny was still in surgery. As she approached, they all focused on her and she knew they hadn’t heard a thing. “I haven’t heard anything,” she declared before she could be quizzed. “It could still be a while,” she added. “Why don’t you go home and rest?”

“I’d just suggested that,” Cap smiled. It felt rather odd on his face. Smiling was not what his emotions wanted him to do.

“It must have been pretty rough out there,” Dixie mentioned, looking at them through her lashes.

“Yeah,” Cap agreed, his voice suddenly tight. “Really rough.” He glanced at his men and habit brought them to their feet. When Cap looked at you like that, you didn’t argue. Dixie wondered if she ought to go to fire captain’s school and learn his technique. She was pretty good at getting her nurses to do as she told them, but she didn’t have Cap’s finesse.

“We’ll be in touch,” she promised. “You guys get some rest.” She watched as they walked slowly to the door, their heads down. Perhaps they should have been sent home with some strong sleeping tablets, she mused as she went back to her desk. For all their exhaustion, they looked as though they might need them.

**********

It was an utterly weary Dr Kelly Brackett who came back down to the ER a couple of hours later. His green scrubs were stained with sweat and his hair was plastered to his head. There were dark circles under his eyes and his mouth was pinched. Dixie’s heart leapt into her throat. Oh God, no! she thought. Johnny can’t be dead! That’s not fair! Life wasn’t fair, she knew, but the thought of Johnny no longer being in it was especially cruel to her. She sat frozen as the physician made his way to her desk and leaned a hip heavily against it. Tears formed in her eyes and she put a hand to her lips. “Kel?” she whispered.

“He’s alive,” Brackett replied, his usually rich voice hoarse with fatigue. “We’ve done everything we can to save his leg. The rest is up to his body now.”

It should have sounded like good news. Instead, it sounded like a death knell. “Kel? Is he that badly off?” she asked.

“He’s a sick man,” Brackett confirmed. “A very sick man indeed. If the compound fracture wasn’t bad enough, the stick through his calf was the killer. His leg was full of debris and if he doesn’t contract gangrene, I’ll be astounded. We’ve got him on huge doses of antibiotics and we’re pumping him full of blood and any other drug we think might help him.” Brackett reached across and took Dixie’s hand. It was a very unusual gesture for a very private man. “It’s up to the angels now.”

As head nurse in the busy ER, Dixie prided herself that she didn’t cry on duty. She had been in Korea and seen things most people would never dream of and she had never cried on duty.

Until now.

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

Johnny was desperately ill.

Roy stood there and looked at his partner and thought that this time, his luck had run out. He had survived that helicopter crash just to succumb to blood poisoning and it really wasn’t fair. IVs dripped fluid and antibiotics into his veins. He was still getting some blood products to boost his system because he had lost a lot of blood, both after the accident and on the operating table. His broken and mutilated leg was raised up on pillows and in traction. Drainage tubes sprouted from the wounds like weeds and his body seemed to be swathed in bandages. His eyes were heavily closed and his vitals were being monitored constantly. The BP cuff was wrapped around his right upper arm and heart monitor patches dotted his bare chest.

“There’s no skull fracture,” Brackett reassured the senior paramedic, wondering if his words were getting through. Roy had acknowledged nothing he had said so far. “He does have a severe concussion, though and the wound was deep. We sutured through his hair, but there wasn’t enough flesh on his temple to do a thorough job, so we used butterfly strips there. I don’t think it will leave a scar.” To be honest, Brackett didn’t think it would matter if the cut did leave a scar; he didn’t think Johnny would survive long enough for that to become an issue. He wasn’t going to say that to Roy, however, and he tried very hard to keep his despondency out of his tone.

“And his leg?” Roy asked, his voice flat and clipped and very unlike his usual tone.

“His leg is a mess, as you can see,” Brackett replied, his own semi-optimistic tone dying away. It was hard to keep sounding cheerful when your audience could see right through you. “We repaired the break and removed the stick and washed it out multiple times. The stick hadn’t nicked the artery, but it had carried in lots of foreign bodies, naturally enough. The leg is badly swollen and we’re not going to attempt to stitch it closed until the swelling has gone down a bit. The nurses are going to flush it every day with antibiotic solutions to keep it germ free. He’s going to be in traction for a minimum of six weeks, but depending on how well it heals, it might be a bit longer.” Again, Brackett didn’t think the length of time he could be in traction was relevant.

“Can he hear what we’re saying?” Roy asked. Johnny’s eyes were heavily closed and he gave every appearance of being deeply unconscious, although Brackett swore he was only sleeping off the last of the anesthetic.

“It’s possible,” Brackett acknowledged, and didn’t admit that was one of the reasons why he hadn’t voiced the poor prognosis. If Johnny thought he was dying, he would just give up. Brackett had seen it before. “He is just sleeping. We gave him huge doses of anti-emetics, and they do tend to make him sleepy and combined with the anesthetic, he’s bound to be deeply asleep for a while. It’s the best thing for him.”

“I suppose so,” agreed Roy. He moved around the bed so he was standing closer to his friend. Johnny’s body was covered with cuts and bruises and his left arm was casted and resting on a pillow at his side. Given the large, dark bruises on his ribcage, Roy could see why they hadn’t wanted to rest his arm on his body. His partner’s pale face was half-hidden by the oxygen mask and at the moment, it fogged gently with his even breathing. Roy knew that when he wakened, the pain would hit with a vengeance and Johnny would be feeling very bad indeed.

“When the bruise on his leg has stopped spreading, we’ll treat it with heat packs to soothe it,” Brackett went on, feeling he had to fill the silence somehow. “At the moment, we are applying cold packs every now and then to encourage the blood vessels to contract and prevent the bruise spreading further.”

This time, neither of them attempted to break the silence that fell. It was broken only by the beeping of the heart monitor. Roy didn’t look at the doctor, although he could feel his friend looking at him. He could read between the lines as well as the next person and ever since he had arrived at the hospital a short time before, everyone he met treated him with kid gloves, speaking softly and sympathetically to him, as though he was visiting a dying relative.

Perhaps he was.

It was a grim thought and Roy suddenly felt tears rushing into his eyes. He blinked smartly to clear them, but that only allowed more to form. He didn’t want to raise his hand to his eyes, for that would tell Brackett that he was crying and he was a firefighter and tough firefighters didn’t cry. He then had to fight to control his breathing, for he wanted to wail and sob and hiccup, the way his small daughter did when her world didn’t go the way she wanted it to. Roy dreaded to think how Jennifer would react to Johnny’s death.

Come to that, he didn’t know how he would react to Johnny’s death.

“Um…” he said and fled the room, down the hall into the men’s room. He shut himself in a stall and sat on the lid of the toilet and sobbed into his hands.

Back in Johnny’s room, Brackett wondered what Roy would say if he discovered that Brackett, too, had had a bout of tears over Johnny’s prognosis earlier that day. That Dixie had cried on duty. That Joe Early had barely spoken to anyone that he hadn’t had to. That Mike Morton’s bedside manner was suddenly exemplary. Or that the chaplain had been asked by over a dozen individual nurses to pray for John Gage.

Medical procedures had moved in leaps and bounds since World War II, but Brackett wondered that day if it had leaped far enough. Surely there out to be something more they could do, although he couldn’t yet see what it could be. Emergency medicine was still really in its infancy. Thanks to his dedication, Rampart had an excellent ER and since the advent of the paramedic program, it had improved even further. Johnny had been an instrumental part of that program and it was cruel that there seemed to be nothing medical science could do to save his life.

Numb, exhausted, Brackett simply stood at the foot of Johnny’s bed and waited for Roy to return.

***********

By the time the rest of the crew turned up, Roy had regained his composure. He sat by Johnny’s bed and watched the younger man sleeping, his right hand resting on top of Johnny’s right hand. He didn’t care who saw; what difference did it make? He loved Johnny like a brother, even if the younger man did drive him up the wall with his plans and ideas and dreams and ranting.

There was something intrinsically likeable about Johnny and yet he was probably the most alone person Roy had ever met. He had no immediate family and was estranged from his cousins, of whom he had very few. He seldom saw the aunt who had taken him in during his teens, as she worked abroad. While he had many friends and socialized regularly, the only person he saw a lot of now was Roy, as his other close friend Drew had died a few years ago. While Johnny came across as happy-go-lucky, Roy sensed that under that goofy, happy exterior, he was quite lonely at times.

It was difficult to find small talk at a time like that. All of them had a word of encouragement for their injured friend, but he slept through everything and his unnatural stillness terrified them all. Although no one would admit it, they were all glad when the nurse refused to let them stay very long, insisting that Johnny needed his rest. Even Roy was shepherded out, with the instruction that he was to go home and rest. He looked like he needed it. They all looked like they needed it.

In the doorway, Roy paused to look back. Johnny slept on, undisturbed, unaware. Roy hoped he would continue to be unaware until such time as he recovered.

If he recovered.

***********

“How can you be sure he’s not in a coma?” From Roy’s point of view, it was a perfectly reasonable question. However, the tone he used was very accusing and not like his normal attitude at all.

Patience wasn’t Dr Brackett’s strong suit. He was definitely the straight-talking type and soothing anxious relatives was something he usually left up to Dixie. She was good at it. However, he could see why Roy was being so obnoxious; this was the third day after Johnny had been rescued and Roy had yet to see his partner’s eyes open.

“Because we do waken him up regularly,” Brackett explained, with a good deal more patience than was his wont. “The last thing we want is for him to slip into a coma.”

“So why can I never get him to wake up?” Roy asked, frustrated. Lords knows, it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried. Usually, his voice was the one that Johnny was guaranteed to respond to and this time, he wasn’t responding at all.

“I don’t know,” replied the doctor. He sounded almost as frustrated as Roy did.

“You men!” Dixie exclaimed in exasperation. “You never notice anything unless it’s tattooed on your forehead.”

They both blinked at her. She pointed to the heart monitor. The beeps were coming a bit faster. “You two are all but quarrelling and look what’s happened.” They both obediently looked, but she could see that they had no idea what they were getting at. “When you’re here, Roy, Johnny sleeps more peacefully. That’s why he won’t wake up. He’s exhausted from all the nightmares he has. When you’re here he feels safe and can fall into a deeper sleep.”

“What?” That sounded like some kind of mad mumbo-jumbo to Roy.

“We’re now having an altercation and his heart rate has picked up and he’s restless.” Dixie looked at them. “If we keep arguing, he’ll waken, believe you me.”

“Dix, that’s rubbish,” Brackett growled.

“Yeah?” Dixie pointed to the bed and Roy got his wish; Johnny’s eyes were open.

As he leaned over, smiling with delight, Roy realized that being awake was no kind of pleasure for Johnny. Pain was etched in his face and he looked desperately ill. What was the phrase? Roy thought. Sick unto death. For that was exactly how Johnny looked, his skin grey and taut, stretched over his cheekbones and dark circles had taken up residence under his eyes. His breathing grew harsh and shallow as the pain swept through him. “Hurts,” he panted under the oxygen mask.

Knowing that Johnny had had meds shortly before, Roy placed his hand comfortingly on his friend’s hand. “The meds will start working soon. You just go back to sleep and you’ll feel better soon. I’m sorry we woke you.” The reassuring cadence of his voice and his relief in seeing that Johnny wasn’t in a coma combined to relax his partner and the heart rate dropped again. Within a few moments, Johnny’s eyes closed and he was sleeping again.

Not wanting to disturb Johnny again the trio stepped further away from the bed and resumed their discussion in low tones.

“As I said before, Roy,” Brackett went on, all but whispering, “there isn’t any real change in his condition. He’s not getting any better.”

“But he’s also not getting any worse,” Roy argued, also sotto voce.

“He’s got septicaemia,” Brackett reminded him. “So far, it hasn’t progressed, but I don’t expect that state of affairs to last for much longer. He is very weak. The antibiotics don’t seem to be working.”

“Are you going to change them?” asked Roy, glancing over at his partner.

“I did – an hour ago. Obviously, that isn’t enough time for them to have made any difference. The thing is this, Roy; these antibiotics are very strong. They might cause more harm than good to someone in his condition, but it is a chance we have to take. If things don’t improve in the next 24 hours, then I’m going to have to amputate his leg and he won’t survive the operation.”

Brackett was renowned for his bluntness, but that was a blow that Roy hadn’t been expecting. As Johnny lay in his twilight world, Roy had clung to the hope that his friend would recover from this injury as he had from all the others. Now, with just a few words, Brackett had punctured those hopes and sent them plummeting to the ground. Roy staggered as though he had received an actual blow, all the color draining from his face. Dixie put a sympathetic hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off. He had to face reality and it was tearing him apart.

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

It was mindless escapism that Roy had in mind when he put the television on later that evening when the kids had gone to bed, but it was the news that happened to be on. He looked at it blankly, not really caring about the latest crisis in the economy or whatever the girl was twittering about. But his attention was completely captured a few moments later when a picture of BJ was flashed onto the screen. Roy felt his anger rising again, as it had every time he thought of the reporter who had wreaked such havoc.

“As our viewers are aware,” the anchor intoned solemnly into the camera, a sober look upon her face, “our award winning reporter, BJ Henderson, died a few days ago when the helicopter he was travelling in was involved in a collision with another helicopter. Everyone in both helicopters died, apart from Firefighter/Paramedic John Gage, who is listed in critical condition at Rampart General Hospital. As I’m sure you are aware, BJ was very interested in the work of the fire department and was following John Gage and his partner in the hopes of making a documentary series about the work of the paramedics.” The girl paused, looking at the camera. Roy’s heart suddenly began pounding in his chest, although he wasn’t sure why.

“Today, our editors received back the camera that BJ was using for filming the night of the crash. Amazingly, the film inside was viable and shows the fire that the helicopter was called to attend that night.” Pictures of the fire flashed onto the screen. Roy watched as he and Johnny treated the farmer’s wife. “Further to viewing this film, our station is going to be suing the county, as it appears that the air ambulance was at fault in causing the accident.”

“What?!” Roy shouted, gazing in disbelief at the young woman. Joanne came through to see what he was shouting about. He waved her to silence before she could even speak, gesturing to the screen.

“Our reporter was told to leave the scene, even though he was just recording the news event that was happening below, as is our right as a news organization. On the tape, BJ said that they were going to follow the other chopper to the hospital to report on the condition of the woman the paramedics were transporting and in the hopes of getting an interview with Paramedic John Gage. Of course, that never happened. Charges have been lodged with air traffic control and the police and they are waiting to speak to John Gage as soon as the doctors give the all clear. It is possible that Paramedic Gage might be more deeply implicated in this than appears at the moment. We will, of course, be keeping you up to date with this story as it develops.”

“They can’t do that, can they?” Joanne asked. She felt physically sick.

“They apparently already have,” Roy replied. He was shaking with anger. His mind kept showing him pictures of the dead reporter in the wreckage of the helicopter and that camera, sitting there so innocently. If he had known what was on that film, he would have destroyed it. “How could it have been our chopper’s fault?” he asked, knowing that Joanne had no more of an answer than he had.

The phone rang and continued to ring all night as outraged firefighters, starting with the crew of 51s, rang Roy to express their support for the injured man and disgust with the TV station. After about 40 calls, Roy simply unplugged the phone and they went to bed.

But he didn’t sleep.

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

Because of the circumstances, A shift found themselves with an unexpected day off the next day while the brass made preparations to defend the reputation of the dead pilot and the grievously injured paramedic. They were all quizzed by investigators working for the fire department, NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and the police. The NTSB had been summoned on the day of the crash and were already deep in an investigation, combing the countryside around the estimated route of the air ambulance. To say they were unhappy about the TV station’s actions was an understatement. It implied that the NTSB was either not investigating, or had agreed to sweep the findings under the carpet for the Fire Department, neither of which was true. Irritatingly for them, since the station had not actually said either of those things, the NTSB couldn’t refute the claim and had to simply issue a statement saying they were investigating and would report their findings as soon as they could. Things were further inflamed when it was announced that BJ’s family were suing the county for damages for causing his death.

It was an unholy mess and Roy was further annoyed when he arrived at the hospital and found the TV cameras parked outside. Thanks to the news report, Roy’s face was known and he had to fight his way through a forest of microphones to make his way inside. His terse ‘no comment’ didn’t satisfy them, but the security guards kept them outside the building.

The elevator ride gave Roy time to try and calm himself down. He hadn’t had the chance to phone Rampart that day to get an update on Johnny’s condition, because he had been so busy with the police and department officials. He hadn’t heard anything, which at this point was a good thing. Brackett’s words from the day before still haunted him.

The one thing Roy wasn’t prepared for was finding a man standing just inside Johnny’s room taking photographs of the injured man. Roy didn’t think; he simply reacted.

With a snarl, he grabbed the camera from the young man’s grasp and threw it across the room, where the lens shattered against the wall and the casing sprang open. Johnny stirred and weakly opened his eyes, glazing in disbelief at the sight of his partner pinning someone to the wall. Confused, Johnny pressed the call button. It was the best thing he could have done.

Because of all the hoo-ha surrounding the case, the staff were ultra-alert to anything happening with Johnny and not only did a nurse come on the run, so did Dr Brackett and a police officer. They charged into the room and immediately took in the situation. Brackett and the cop grabbed Roy and pulled him off the other man and the nurse hurried over to reassure her patient.

“He attacked me!” the stranger declared. “Broke my camera! I want to press charges!”

“I want to press charges, too!” Roy shouted back. “He was taking photos of Johnny.”

This looked like it was going to escalate into a massive row and it was the worst possible thing for Johnny at that moment. “Not in here!” Brackett declared firmly and before he was quite ready for it, the cop had both Roy and the other man in cuffs and was shepherding them out of the room. Brackett was torn. He needed to go and vouch for Roy, but he also needed to see to Johnny. He opted to go to Johnny first.

“Roy…” Johnny whispered.

“Don’t worry,” Brackett soothed. “I’ll look after Roy.” He forced a smile, but could see that the sick young man wasn’t fooled by it. “Johnny, you’re in no fit state to get up and go after Roy. Did you know that other man was here?”

“No,” Johnny replied, his strength already gone. His eyes closed. Brackett hesitated, torn between checking Johnny for the umpteenth time and going after Roy. Johnny had improved marginally, but Brackett still thought it likely that he would be amputating Johnny’s leg later that day. Bidding the nurse to look after Johnny, he hurried off after Roy and the cop.

He found them in the hallway. “Take the cuffs off,” he ordered, indicating Roy. “I can vouch for this man. He’s one of my paramedics and he is John Gage’s next of kin. Mr. Gage had not given permission for anyone to be in his room, far less take photographs.” When the cop hesitated, Brackett stared him down. He took the cuffs off Roy.

“What about me?” protested the other man. “He broke my camera. Gage killed my brother! I have a right to see him.”

“No, you don’t,” Brackett informed him, his voice clipped and angry. “Not in my hospital. And Johnny did not kill your brother, whoever he was. Johnny would never kill anyone.”

Rubbing his wrists, Roy looked at the young man for the first time and realized who he must be. The resemblance was striking when you knew. He was BJ Henderson’s brother. He had the same sleek blond good looks and the same air of arrogance, as though the world owed him a living and had better kowtow to him while it was providing the living at that. Roy detested him on sight.

“You’re the reporter’s brother,” Roy muttered.

“Yeah and your next of kin was flying that chopper.” The younger man thrust his head at Roy, sneering at him.

“No,” Brackett interrupted. “Johnny was a paramedic on that chopper, trying to save the life of a badly burned woman. Both pilots, the woman and your brother died in that crash. John might still die and you have the cheek to sneak into his hospital room and take unauthorized photos. What were you planning on doing with them? Selling them to the highest bidder amongst the TV stations? Or do you have a deal with the station your brother worked for? That’s pretty low.” He turned away from the indignant young man. “I want to press charges against this man for trying to breach patient confidentiality.”

“What? You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I can,” Brackett informed him. “But if you agree to drop the charges against Roy, I’ll drop them against you and you can go quietly away and forget this ever happened. However, if I see you anywhere near John Gage’s room, or hear that you have told anyone his room number, including your priest, I will make sure you are charged, do you understand?”

Many people over the years had told Brackett he could be intimidating. He never entirely believed them until that moment, when he saw a flash of fear cross the young man’s face. While he didn’t want to be a bully, he wanted this sorted out right now, because Johnny could be going into surgery in a few short hours and he needed Roy with him, not stuck down at a police station.

“All right,” Henderson agreed. Brackett glanced at the cop who shrugged and unlocked the cuffs. Chastened, the young man sloped off down the corridor and waited for the elevator.

“Thanks, doc,” Roy told him fervently.

Smiling, Brackett replied, “No thanks necessary, Roy. Now, go and see your partner.”

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

The hours crawled past as Roy sat and watched Johnny sleeping. Sleep was what he needed to recover and get well, but it scared the living daylights out of Roy, who was terrified that his friend was just going to slip away between one breath and the next. He knew Brackett was, at that moment, preparing to amputate Johnny’s leg, and dreading it, because the chances of Johnny surviving the procedure were slim to none.

There were cards all over the room and Roy rose to stretch his legs and read each and every one. The majority were from firefighters, there was one from Johnny’s landlady and several from people Roy didn’t know. He had heard that the hospital had been inundated with calls from members of the public who had seen the news on the TV and that many of the calls had come from people he and Johnny had met on rescues. If good wishes could bring about healing, then Johnny had them in abundance.

Feeling restless and unsettled, Roy decided to grab a cup of coffee from the hall vending machine. It wasn’t particularly good coffee, but it was warm, wet and had caffeine in it. That was all that mattered for the moment. He headed outside and then stood chatting to one of the nurses for a few minutes before completing his errand and going back into the room.

Sitting down with a sigh, Roy took a sip of coffee and grimaced at the taste. He looked at Johnny, who hadn’t moved, and thought there was something different about him. He couldn’t think what it was. He had been looking at Johnny so much over so many hours during the last few days that he had almost forgotten what his partner looked like without the oxygen mask and various IVs. He wove his hand through the bedrails and placed it on top of Johnny’s hand.

It took several seconds to sink in, but when it did, Roy snatched his hand away as though he had been stung, banging his hand on the rails as he withdrew. He barely noticed the stinging pain. He looked down at his hand, as though he would see some physical evidence of what he had felt, but of course there was nothing except a growing red mark on the back. Slowly, he slipped his hand back through the bars and touched Johnny again, fearing that he had been wrong before. A grin broke over his face as he confirmed what he had thought before.

Johnny’s fever had broken.

***********

Yet again, Dr Brackett entered Johnny’s hospital room. He made a slight face as he pushed open the door. For someone who was head of the ER, he seemed to spend a good deal of time with his paramedics if they were sick or injured. So much for his ‘hard as nails’ reputation; when it came to the treatment of ‘his men’, he was as soft as butter. He simply had to oversee any treatment they got.

He fully expected that by the time he got up there, Johnny’s temperature would have gone up again. It was simply a fluke that it had dropped for a few moments. It was a momentary blip on the upward curve. He almost had himself believing it, too, because he was too afraid to hope. That way led to more heartache.

As he walked in, Roy jumped excitedly to his feet and beckoned Brackett over. “His temperature’s down,” Roy whispered, his voice elated. “And look at his leg!”

Still unwilling to really believe, Brackett touched Johnny’s hand and then reached for the thermometer. Roy gave him a disgusted look, but Brackett ignored him. He was pretty sure that Roy would have done the same thing already, but he wanted empirical proof. He tucked the thermometer under Johnny’s arm. An oral temp was better, but the axillary one would do. Roy made an impatient noise, but Brackett steadfastly ignored him, timing the wait on the clock and his watch. He reached for the slender tube and peered at it.

Johnny’s temperature was normal, even allowing for a degree of difference because it was an auxiliary temp.

Still saying nothing, and this time ignoring the triumphant look Roy was giving him, Brackett moved around the bed and drew back the sheet to look at Johnny’s leg. The last time he had checked the drain – that morning – there was still a lot of pus. The leg had been swollen and bruised and generally looked bad. There wouldn’t be any change. The antibiotics weren’t working and Brackett just knew he was going to find gangrene there. It was inevitable and he was going to feel his heart sink as he finally faced the truth – that Johnny was likely to die on the operating table and if by some miracle he survived, he would be an amputee; it wasn’t the outcome Brackett had wanted, but facing hard facts was part of being a doctor.

The swelling was not gone completely, but it had subsided a lot. The bruising was finally receding and the flesh was no longer bright red with infection, but turning a healthy pink color. The pus was gone. The wound looked clean and there was no hint of the putrid smell of infection that had lingered despite all the cleaning they had given it. There was no doubt about it. Johnny had somehow, in the course of only a few hours, turned the corner and was not only going to live, but was going to keep his leg, too.

“It’s a miracle,” Brackett said, in a low voice. “I’m going to get Joe Early up here to give me a second opinion.”

“I was right, wasn’t I?” Roy demanded. “He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?”

“I don’t know how or why,” Brackett said slowly, “but I do believe you are right.” He finally looked at Roy and a smile slowly crept over his face. “I don’t believe it.” In a rare gesture of affection, Brackett reached over and squeezed Roy’s arm. Roy’s grin was bright enough to light up several solar systems. He wanted to do a jig, throw a few cartwheels, sing a song… He restrained himself.

There was a stirring from the bed. Johnny opened bleary brown eyes and peered at them both. “What’s… all … the… noise?” he asked. “Can’t… a guy… get… some… sleep?”

He was completely perplexed when his best friend and doctor burst out laughing.

***********

Johnny’s recovery was the Eighth Wonder of the World for a few days. Whenever he opened his eyes, he would find another doctor peering at him and his leg, or perusing his chart. For the first few days after his temperature broke and he started on the long road to recovery, he was too weak to fend off any doctor that decided to examine him, but after that, he began to be quite vocal in his objections and his ‘visitors’ petered out.

There were other developments, too. The NTSB were finally able to get their hands on the footage from the on-board camera, which was vital evidence and they had to get pretty heavy with the TV station to make them hand it over, even though they had a legal duty to do so. The evidence the film provided was incontrovertible; the news helicopter was at fault. BJ could clearly be heard urging the pilot to get closer in terms that could not be confused for any other meaning. The film showed, in graphic detail, the crash. It was harrowing stuff and nothing apart from the beginning of it was ever shown publicly.

The film backed up the NTSB’s preliminary findings and it was declared that the pilot of the news chopper was at fault for flying too close and doing what the reporter told him instead of obeying the rules of the air. The blame was firmly laid at the door of BJ Henderson and the news station.

That was the cue for the other news stations around to suddenly dump their colleagues and start proclaiming against invasive reporting. BJ’s career was gone over with a fine tooth comb and it seemed that the clean-cut young reporter was not as clean cut as he had appeared to be. Several people he had pursued to get a story came forward with tales of intimidation and breach of privacy and even blackmail. A witch hunt blew up with stunning speed and BJ was soon being pilloried in the papers as well as on TV. It was all utterly reprehensible as former colleagues and even the news station itself hastily tried to prove that they had been innocent bystanders as BJ had bullied and blackmailed and generally been public enemy number one, and they had simply been too scared to say anything. However, as time went on, and a public investigation was instigated, it was discovered that the news station had a policy of aggressive fact finding, and many of their reporters were less than ethical in the way in which they garnered facts for stories. Journalists and reporters who had a conscience didn’t last at that station.

With his reputation ruined, the owner of the station put it up for sale and it was snapped up at a bargain price by a rival company, who made swift, decisive changes and turned it around, giving the station a name change in the process. That helped the furor die down, as it did gradually when new revelations finally stopped coming to light.

The public swiftly forgot about the whole thing as events moved on. However, the media as a whole did not and were a whole lot more careful about deploying their reporters in emergency situations.

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

Seven weeks in traction not only took its toll on Johnny, it took its toll on his friends, too. Inactivity was not Johnny’s strong suit. The first couple of weeks weren’t too bad, as he was too ill and then too weak to do much more than sleep. But as his body beat back the last of the infection, he began to find his confinement onerous and took out his frustrations on the doctors, nurses, therapists and his friends.

That they were all expecting it really didn’t help any. Johnny tried not to, knowing that it wasn’t their fault that he had been so badly hurt, but sometimes his temper got the better of him. He was also suffering from survivor’s guilt, unable to understand why he had been the only one to live through the horrific crash. After he began to suffer from nightmares, Brackett suggested to Johnny he ought to talk to Luke Smith, a psychologist he had worked with before. Johnny liked Luke and agreed, and was glad he had done so. Speaking with Luke always seemed to help him see things more clearly.

“Since that’s my job,” Luke commented dryly when Johnny said that to him, “I’m glad to hear it!” They had laughed together. While Johnny still felt bad that nobody else had survived the crash, his nightmares did decrease and he was once more getting the sleep he needed to help his body heal.

At last the momentous day came when Johnny was released from traction and had to start on the laborious process of building up the muscles in his leg again. He was horrified to get a walker at first, but he rapidly progressed onto crutches, then sticks, down to one stick and finally, after three months of rehab and physical therapy, he finally left the hospital to go home.

“How does it feel to finally be free?” Roy asked, as he drove Johnny back to the apartment he hadn’t seen for several months.

“It feels good. Weird, but good,” Johnny replied. “Thanks for collecting me. I should be able to start driving again in a week or two.”

“And after that, you’ll be back at work before you know it,” Roy agree encouragingly. All in all, Johnny was going to be out about 6 or 7 months all told and Roy knew how hard it had been on the younger man, not knowing for sure until the last couple of weeks that he would get back at all.

“Let’s hope so,” Johnny nodded. “Uh, Roy, I ought to stop and get some groceries,” he suggested. “I imagine the milk went off.” Actually, the thought of what the inside of his fridge would look like was giving him the heebie-jeebies. If the whole thing didn’t need to be condemned, he would be astounded. It was probably filled with nasty green growing stuff that shouldn’t be there.

“Don’t you think Joanne thought of that – months ago?” Roy asked. “Geez, you’d think you didn’t know Joanne at all.” He shook his head in mock despair. “Joanne bought you groceries yesterday. And she’s been cooking for a week to fill the freezer.”

“She didn’t need to do that!” Johnny protested, blushing at the kindness of his partner’s wife.

“I know she didn’t, but it’s done now, so just remember to say thank you and if you try to give her the money for it, she’ll probably break your other leg,” his partner advised. Johnny wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. Joanne wasn’t like that – was she?

As they arrived at the apartment building, Johnny was glad to see his Rover was in its usual spot. Roy noticed him looking and smiled. “I’ve been keeping her ticking over,” he remarked. “She’s in good shape.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Johnny smiled. His partner was always there for him and Johnny really didn’t know how to thank him, apart from to help out with projects around the house. He hoped Roy knew how much he meant to him, as there was no way Johnny would ever be able to tell him without blushing himself to death.

Smiling in return, Roy hefted Johnny’s bag from the back of the car and evaded his friend’s attempts to take it from him. Together, they walked into the building and Johnny climbed the stairs steadily, which was a big improvement over when he had first tackled stairs at the hospital. Johnny fumbled in his pocket for the key and opened the door.

“Surprise!”

The chorus of voices rang out and Johnny suddenly understood why he hadn’t seen Dixie at the hospital, or Dr Brackett. The rest of A shift was there of course, and several more of Johnny’s friends plus Joanne and the two kids. The small apartment was quite crowded. Johnny looked at Roy accusingly. “You knew about this!”

“Of course I did,” Roy laughed. “I organized it. Welcome home, Junior.”

Laughing, Johnny went inside to greet his guests and didn’t even wince as the kids threw themselves into his arms. Roy stood back and watched. After a few minutes, he felt an arm go around his waist, and returned the gesture, smiling down at his wife. “You look happy,” she commented. “It’s good to see.”

“I’m happy because he’s happy,” Roy agreed. His eyes followed his young partner as he greeted everyone there. Somehow, he just knew that Johnny would be back at his side in the squad sooner than anyone expected.

Five weeks later, he was proved correct as John Gage returned to work a month before anyone had thought he could.

*****End*****

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