A Sense of Duty

By Rona

It seemed colder than he remembered. He supposed his relatives’ jabs that he had grown soft living in California were true. So what? California was as much his home as Montana had ever been. He shivered once again and looked at the three feet of snow covering the ground and obliterating the familiar landmarks. The bitter cold seeped through his fleece-lined boots and through his down-filled jacket and woolen sweater beneath. His hands inside his sheepskin mitts felt blue.

He supposed he ought to go back inside the house, but it felt so small and claustrophobic. Quite why that should be was anyone’s guess. His whole apartment back in LA was smaller than this house and he had never felt that way about it.

He knew why. Standing there just inside the barn door, Johnny Gage knew exactly why the house felt small and claustrophobic; it felt that way because it was packed full of relatives and neighbors, all come to see how his mother was doing after the stroke she had suffered a few days before.

They all thought they knew better than Johnny what his mother needed and that annoyed him. It was as though he was still a child and while he respected the people, he didn’t need to be told what to do. He was a paramedic after all, and had dealt with strokes on a regular basis. He had understood everything his mother’s doctor had told him about her prognosis and the medications she was being prescribed and while the age-old treatments might sometimes work, he preferred to put his trust in modern medicine, regardless of what his relatives were saying.

After all, it wasn’t them who were paying for it. Johnny was paying and it was money he didn’t have. It was money he wouldn’t have for a long time, since he had had to take an extended leave of absence to come home and stay with his mother for a time to see how she would progress. She might get all her mobility back, but so far there was no sign of it. Her speech was halting and she frequently forgot what she was saying before she reached the end of her sentence. Johnny hated seeing his mother like that. That his mother hated being trapped in her useless body was only too obvious. With her relatives, she was calm and smiling – that weird half smile that was all she could manage, since half of her face was paralyzed. But with Johnny she was vicious and angry, taking out her distress on the one person she could trust not to run away from her.

He had only been there for two days. His mother had only been at home for less than 24 hours. Already, Johnny was desperate to get away. The woman trapped in her bed was not the mother he remembered and he grieved for that. His mother had been gentle and kind and loving, full of fun and taking the hardships of her life in her stride. Johnny was her pride and joy.

He shivered again. You wouldn’t know that now, he thought mordantly. He knew that his mother was bound to be frightened; he didn’t blame her in the slightest. Johnny had been pretty frightened when he learned what had happened to her. He was still frightened now; frightened that he would find himself trapped her looking after her and have to give up his career. It was selfish, he knew, but it was the truth. Johnny didn’t make a habit of lying to himself. But if he had to give it all up, he would. It was his duty, imposed both by his culture and his own personal beliefs and his beliefs had precedence over his culture.

Still, it was a bleak future. Johnny didn’t make all that much money as a paramedic, but he generally kept himself out of debt and he had sent his mother some money every month to help her out. The small piece of ground where their home was didn’t make money; it barely grew enough food to feed the household. Things were going to be tough. Johnny hated the thought of going on welfare, but it was a reality he had to face. His mother’s medical bills would soon deplete his meager savings and Johnny would not be able to afford to pay someone to look after her while he found work. Paramedics were non-existent in this part of the world and the nearest fire station was a good distance away. Maybe one of their neighbors would give him a few hours of work to earn some extra money.

Sighing, Johnny pushed himself upright and exited the barn. He was freezing and there was no point in getting sick. He didn’t have to make any decisions tonight. He had three weeks in which he could make plans, for the department back in LA had been very generous with his leave of absence. Johnny suspected Cap had had something to do with that, although he knew his boss would never admit to anything.

His entry brought a rush of cold air with it and the women gathered around the fire exclaimed in disgust. Johnny had never been entirely sure how he was related to all these women – he suspected they were distant cousins, for both his parents had been only children, like he was. About the only time they came was when there was a tragedy – like when’s Johnny’s father had died a few years before – but they were kind in their way, doing what they could to help; cooking and cleaning. In a lot of ways, it was like the sisterhood of the wives of the fire department. When something happened, they rallied around, leaving food and doing laundry and babysitting.

Shrugging out of his jacket, Johnny accepted the hot coffee and food that were pressed on him. The delicious warmth spread outwards from his stomach and the fire began to thaw out his feet. This house would never be as warm as his apartment, or Roy and Joanne’s house back home in LA. Not only was the climate harsher but the walls of the house were thin, barely keeping the biting cold at bay. Johnny knew that his first priority tomorrow was to try and insulate them a bit. If it didn’t snow again tonight, he would drive into town in the morning and buy some wood and cloth to use. He thought it would be worth stealing a bit of space from the room to create a small porch, which would also help to keep the heat in.

As his relatives left for the night, the cold began to creep back into the room, despite the fire. There was no central heating here. Locking the door, he checked on his mother and crept into his bedroom. It was a thought to undress in the freezing air. Johnny was glad that he had remembered to fill a hot water bottle to take the chill off the bed.

It had been many years since Johnny had worn flannel pajamas, but he was glad of them as his bed slowly warmed up. If he stayed, he would have to buy many more pairs.

***********

It was just as bitterly cold when he woke in the morning and getting out of bed was quite a thought. He forced himself, wrapping up in a robe until he could get the fire going, poke up the stove and heat some water to wash in. If he was going to stay here, he would have to find a way to install a shower. A shower would give his mother a bit more dignity when washing herself, too, as she could sit in the shower.

There was ice on the water in the basin. Johnny broke it and started the kettle boiling before stoking the fire. Once that was done, he went through to look in on his mother and found her awake and in tears.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” he asked, hurrying to her side. He had left her a bell within reach of her working hand, but it was untouched. “Mom?” Johnny crouched beside her, taking her hand in his. “What is it?”

The garbled croak that left her mouth sounded painful and was broken by sobs, but he got the gist. She had needed the toilet but was reluctant to ring for him. Her bed was not wet, for the hospital had given her adult diapers, but that didn’t lessen the humiliation. In as calm and matter of fact a manner as he could manage, Johnny quickly washed and changed her and tucked her warmly into bed again.

“Is that better?” he asked. She nodded, avoiding his eyes. “Mom, just ring the bell, okay? I don’t mind coming to help you,” he added gently.

“I mind,” she hissed. “It’s not…” Her voice trailed off as she sought the word she was looking for. It was an effort for her to retain the sentence in her mind. “… fitting,” she concluded triumphantly.

That the situation was intensely embarrassing for them both could not be denied. Johnny had never thought he would be in a position where he would be washing the most intimate parts of his mother’s body and he could only imagine how much worse it would be for her.

“Then ring the bell and I won’t have to do this again,” he reminded her, but he was unsure how much she was retaining. Her short term memory was a bit patchy.

Glaring at Johnny, Mrs. Gage refused to answer. Sighing, Johnny switched on the heater in the room and went to make breakfast. He scrambled some eggs, figuring that even he couldn’t screw that up and took them through to feed his mother.

It wasn’t a riotous success. To begin with, Beth Gage refused to open her mouth. Then, once he had persuaded her to at least try his cooking, she made a few half-hearted attempts to eat, then spat the rest of the food at him. Johnny patiently scooped it off the bedclothes and tried a few more times to persuade her to eat before Beth lost her temper and screamed at him to get out and leave her alone.

Hurt, Johnny retreated to the main room and forced down his almost cold eggs before quickly washing and dressing. It was snowing lightly, but he thought he would risk the journey into town and buy some stuff to try and insulate the house. He went along to the bedroom to explain to Beth exactly what he had in mind.

“No!” she declared firmly. “No!”

“But, Mom, the house is freezing. I just want to make it a bit warmer for you. It’ll cost a lot less to heat.” He kept his tone calm and reasonable, the one he used on fractious patients in the ambulance. “I won’t be gone long and I won’t go away until Isobel or the others come.”

“Won’t come,” Beth told him.

“Who won’t?” Johnny asked, confused.

“Isobel.” Beth shifted her gaze away and said no more.

“Of course she’ll come,” Johnny protested. “You said she’s been here every day since you took ill.”

“You… here.” The effort of speaking was draining Beth. “Isobel… won’t come.”

“Are you saying she won’t come because I am here?” Johnny asked. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Won’t come,” Beth insisted. “Go away.”

Disturbed by the conversation, Johnny decided the best thing to do was to leave his mother in peace. Going back through to the main room, he quickly washed up the dishes and then phoned Isobel and asked if she would come over to sit with Beth while he went into town. She sounded reluctant, but eventually agreed. Johnny optimistically thought she would be there within the hour and quickly measured up around the house to find out how much stuff he would need to buy to insulate the house – and then take a guess at how much he could afford.

He quickly revised his idea of a small porch over the main door. There simply wasn’t enough room to do that, so he measured the door to buy a thick curtain to hang over it. Draft excluders would work, too and shutters on the inside would help keep the cold out along with thicker curtains.

He quickly realized that insulating the whole house was not going to be possible, so he concentrated on the main areas – the main room and his mother’s bedroom. He was also going to see if he could pick up a more efficient heater for his mother’s room; the last thing she needed was to get cold. He soon had his measurements written down and he was ready to go.

Except Isobel hadn’t arrived. Johnny sat down to wait for a few minutes and when there was no sign of her, he did a few more chores around the house. He had made, eaten, fed his mother and cleared away lunch before she arrived.

Even though he was highly irritated, Johnny thanked Isobel politely for coming and hurried out before he could say something he would regret. Isobel had her own home to run and her own family to look after; he appreciated that. And he did appreciate her coming to help out, but if she really hadn’t wanted to come, why hadn’t she said so instead of leaving it so late? Johnny was going to be pushed to get his shopping done.

The roads were treacherous and Johnny didn’t hurry. He hadn’t done winter driving for quite some time and didn’t want to risk having an accident. His mother’s ancient truck was the only vehicle they had and if he crashed it, they would be really stuck. Still, he made it into town in time to buy thick curtains for the windows and door, trying not to wince too much at the price and glanced briefly into the hardware store to see what was available for insulation that he could afford.

Not a lot was the answer there. The fiber glass was the best option, but far too expensive, as Johnny would then not have the money to buy wood to create an inner wall. There was tar paper, but again, it was too expensive and it wouldn’t really make that much difference. In the end, Johnny went a store that sold fabric and bought some thick grey material (had the woman called it serge?) that she had had lying around for years and thought that, pinned on the walls, it might help. He went back to the hardware store and bought nails, popped into the supermarket and then set off for home.

It was beginning to get dark and the snow was falling again. Johnny drove carefully, because the road wasn’t clearly delineated with the snow blowing over it. A couple of car loads of youngsters sped past him, blowing their horns and gesturing rudely at him. Johnny fervently hoped that he didn’t come upon them somewhere along the road, because he didn’t have a first aid kit with him.

He finally turned off the main road, and far up ahead could see the lights of the house. It looked warm and welcoming and he hoped it would be at least one of those things. His attention had strayed and he glanced back at the road just in time to see something large jump onto the road right in front of him!

***********

Quite how he not only missed the deer, but also avoided crashing into a bank of snow at the side of the road Johnny would never know. He ended up facing back the way he had come, his heart beating 19 to the dozen and the engine stalled, but he was uninjured and the truck was in one piece and that was all that mattered.

It took him a couple of tries to get the engine started again, mainly because his hands were shaking so much, but he managed and carefully turned the truck and continued on his way, this time paying strict attention to the road. He knew that he had been incredibly lucky. How many times had he attended an accident that had been very similar to the one he had miraculously avoided? Too many to count. And this was not a well-travelled road compared to some. He could have been there for a long time before someone happened upon him and by then the cold and any injuries would have taken their toll. He had to be more careful.

The house still felt cold to him when he went in. He took off his jacket and put on the thick cardigan sweater he had picked up in town. Isobel was sitting with his mother, both of them wrapped in quilts and his mother looked pale and wan. “Hi, Mom,” he smiled. “How are you feeling?”

There was no verbal answer, but the scorching look she shot her son told him exactly how Beth was feeling. She then shot a pointed glance at the clock. Johnny had been gone exactly four and a half hours – not an overly long time given the road conditions – and she sniffed audible disapproval. Beth closed her eyes and turned her face away. Johnny took the hint, although he was unable to keep the hurt he felt from his face. He hadn’t gone to town for a pleasure jaunt. He had gone to get some things that would make his mother’s life more comfortable and she was angry with him.

Still, his mother was ill and he forced himself to remember that and make allowances. He went back to the main room, Isobel following him. “There’s food in the oven,” she informed him. “I won’t be over tomorrow.”

“Thank you for coming today,” he replied. He was remembering now; once the immediate family was home, they were expected to cope with the crisis, unless they were very young. The other family members would not want to intervene or interfere. Beth had her pride and it was almost all that was left to her. She wouldn’t want everyone to see her like this. Once she was better, or if she was dying, they would come again, but until then, Johnny would have to cope alone.

The food was dried out, but Johnny ate hungrily. He wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but compared to some things he had eaten in fire houses, it was fine. He washed up the few dishes and went back through to see to his mother. She was genuinely sleeping now and he noted that Isobel had been kind enough to change her earlier. Beth’s tablets had been given to her, too along with a suspicious looking liquid in the bottom of a cup. Johnny sniffed it, but there was almost nothing to smell, just a vague herby scent. He wondered what concoction one of the elders had dreamed up for her. He would have to watch that. There might be something in it that could clash with the medications she was taking.

Ensuring that the covers were properly tucked in, Johnny turned off the heater in the room. He hated to do it, but had attended too many fires caused by just that type of heater. It was okay during the day, when he was in and out of the room, but at night… It didn’t bear thinking about. He left the door slightly ajar and returned to the main room. There was no point in starting his intended renovations tonight. The banging would just waken his mother and he was tired. The ancient TV set in the corner took about a millennium to warm up and he couldn’t be bothered waiting for it only to find there was nothing on that he wanted to watch in black and white. Sitting down by the fire, Johnny reached for the phone. “Hey, Roy,” he said when it was answered.

“Junior!” Roy’s voice was warm and welcoming. “How’s it going up there? How are you managing?”

“We’re getting by,” Johnny replied. “Mom’s home now, but she can’t do much for herself. She’s pretty angry, too and you can’t blame her. The doctors say she’s lucky to be alive.”

“How are you doing?” Roy asked perceptively.

“I’m … all right,” Johnny offered hesitantly. “I had a bit of a close encounter coming back from town tonight, though.” He quickly told Roy about his shopping trip and how close he had come to having an accident. He knew Roy would then worry about him driving on icy roads, but Johnny had to tell someone. “I’m fine, the truck’s fine and the deer is fine,” he concluded. “Good thing I won’t be going to town often.”

“It sounds pretty cold,” Roy ventured, for it hadn’t escaped his notice that Johnny was talking about trying to insulate the house.

The sigh was audible even over the hiss of the long distance phone line. “Yeah, I don’t think the temperature has been above -10 today,” he guessed. “We’re having a cold snap.”

“Really?” Roy replied, stunned. “I’d never have guessed.” He knew it could get very cold in Montana, but temperatures like that still seemed unbelievable to him, who was California born and bred.

“I was told by my relatives that I’ve become soft living in LA,” Johnny reported. “And I’m beginning to believe them.”

There had been universal disapproval amongst the extended family when Johnny’s parents had decided to try their luck in Los Angeles where Beth’s sister had moved when she married. There were construction jobs and other opportunities and for a while, it had worked out well. Johnny had loved the city, loved the climate and when his father announced they were going back home a few years later, he had been devastated. He had graduated high school and applied for the Fire Academy by then, knowing that his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college. He earned a few bucks waiting tables or laboring to give him some cash while he learned about fire-fighting. Reluctantly, for neither of his parents was keen for him to go into the fire service, they gave permission for him to stay, provided he lived with his aunt until he was earning enough to support himself.

The family back home had never forgiven him for that. It was the taint of the white blood that ran in the veins of Beth’s family. Johnny knew his mother was not a full-blood and he was looked down on, too. But Beth had come home, admitting that the easy life in California (and it hadn’t been that easy) was not for her. She was forgiven her folly, but Johnny was looked at askance every time he visited.

When Johnny’s father had died a couple of years previously of a heart attack, it was expected that he would move home to look after Beth. But Beth knew that her son’s heart lay with his work, much as he loved her, and she didn’t expect him to give up his life for her. She could still work and provide for herself. And she had, after a fashion and accepting the financial help Johnny sent her each month. And she had worked right up until the moment she had her stroke a few days previously.

She was still young, Johnny comforted himself. She was only in her mid-50s, young to have a stroke, but she could recover fully. That was the hope Johnny clung to.

“It is a lot warmer down here,” Roy agreed. “But it isn’t as if you loaf around all day down here doing nothing. We haven’t got the easiest job in the world, have we?”

“No,” Johnny agreed. “Still, I sold out by staying in LA and nobody is going to let me forget that.”

“How long do you think you’ll be there?” Roy asked. Although he wanted to know for selfish reasons – he missed having Johnny in the squad with him – he also wanted to know for Johnny’s sake, to try and gauge how much support Johnny was going to need over the next few days and possibly weeks. “What do the doctors say?”

“They say she might recover full mobility within 6 months,” Johnny said. “Or she might not. There’s simply no way of knowing.” He snorted. “Of course, someone persuaded her to take some ghastly concoction while I was away today. Goodness only knows what it was. I just hope it doesn’t clash with the meds she’s on.”

“That’s not so good,” Roy commented worriedly.

“Some of the older people still prefer to use traditional medicine,” Johnny explained. There was no condemnation in his voice. “Some of it works really well, but I’d rather they told me what it was before giving it to her,” he went on.

“I can see that,” agreed his partner.

“Listen, Roy, I’ve got to go,” Johnny told him, conscious of the cost of the phone call. Every penny counted at the moment. “I’ll phone later.”

“How about I phone you the nights I’m not working?” Roy suggested. “Would that work? About this time each night?”

“That sounds great,” Johnny accepted gratefully. He was lonely in a way he hadn’t been for a very long time and talking with Roy regularly would help a lot.

“We’ll do that, then,” Roy smiled. “Meantime, you keep warm up there. I’ll speak to you tomorrow.”

“Night, Roy,” Johnny smiled back and hung up. He felt a lot warmer now.

**********

Beth’s temperament had not improved by morning and as Johnny began his renovations, her temper grew ever shorter. Johnny had opted to start in her room for two reasons; one, it would be warmer more quickly and two, it would be over and done with more quickly. Beth didn’t appear to see it like that. As Johnny started pinning the thick fabric to the walls, she started glaring at him and the further round the small room he moved, the darker the glowers became until she was making noises surprisingly similar to a growl.

“It won’t be much longer,” Johnny sympathized, but he knew if he stopped, she would find it even harder going when he started again. His mother was not placated.

“Stop!” she spat at him. “Stop, I say!”

“It won’t take me long, Mom,” Johnny promised and kept going, despite her distress.

It didn’t take him all that long to do – perhaps an hour and a half. As he finished, he glanced around the room proudly. He was warm from the work, but he thought the room felt warmer already. Certainly, the cold draughts that had been coming in around his ankles had gone. He smiled, and looked at his mother.

She was a picture of misery. Tears poured silently down her face and her body was rigid. Johnny was at her side in a second, drawing her into his arms. “Mom! I’m sorry. I didn’t know it would make you feel so bad, but the room will be warmer now, I promise and I won’t do the main room until tomorrow. I’m sorry. I know you’re tired. I’ll hang your new curtains later and you’ll really feel the difference, I promise.” The room was darker, Johnny had to acknowledge, but he thought that was a small price to pay to feel warm.

“No! Don’t like it,” she gasped. “Away! Away!”

“I know it’s different,” Johnny coaxed, “but you’ll get used to it, Mom. And can’t you feel how much warmer it is?” He had always been good at calming patients down.

Not this time. Beth lifted her working arm and hit him in the face with all her might.

The blow was nothing; he felt it but it barely registered at the time. But the implication was horrible and Johnny practically dropped his mother back onto her pillows as he backed away from her. His hand rose to his face and he stared at her as she drew her lips back and hissed, “Hate!”

He didn’t hang around to discover if it was the fabric she hated or if it was him. He just knew he had to get out of there. He walked into the main room on legs that he could barely feel and sank into the nearest chair. His hand remained on his face, and his mind was reeling. His mother had never struck him before. He had seldom been hit even as a child and then his father used to have the task of spanking him when the need arose. But this was something different.

Ever since he had arrived back in Montana and brought his mother home from the hospital, he had been pretending that she hadn’t changed; that her bad temper was just because she was afraid. That was part of it, of course. Beth was scared about what her life held for her now that she was trapped within her own body. But Johnny had been warned by the doctor that there could be personality changes, too. It was very common in a stroke and most often the carer was the first person to notice the changes and the one to suffer from it. Johnny could certainly testify that his mother had no patience with him; that whatever he did was wrong. It was devastating, but something he had to face up to. The mother he knew and loved had changed and there was no knowing if she would ever return to the person he knew best.

Alone in the room, Johnny wept.

***********

His conscience drove him in to check on his mother long before his hurt feelings would have gone. Beth was awake and when he came in, she practically snarled at him. The room, to Johnny, was perceptibly warmer than the main room and he thought perhaps his mother’s color was better.

Game face firmly in place, Johnny set about changing his mother and then giving her something to eat, but she turned her head away, clamping her mouth closed. “Mom, you’ve got to eat to get better,” Johnny coaxed her gently. “You do want to get better, don’t you?” She shot him a look he couldn’t interpret and turned her head away again, closing her eyes for good measure.

Resisting the urge to sigh, Johnny admitted defeat. “I’ll keep the soup warm for you,” he told her. “Ring your bell when you’re hungry.” There was no visible response to that, so he left the room. He had barely gone more than two steps when he heard the bell crashing to the floor.

Dashing back into the room, he looked at the bell lying on the floor and then looked at his mother. There was no mistaking the triumph in her face in those few moments she met his eyes before once again shutting him out by turning her head and closing her eyes.

Fighting to keep his temper, Johnny simply picked up the bell and replaced it, then left. The bell stayed put this time, but she had made her feelings clear. She would not be calling for Johnny’s help any time soon.

**********

“You sound tired,” Roy commented when Johnny answered the phone that evening. “You aren’t doing too much are you?”

“No, I’m fine,” Johnny lied. He had spent the afternoon pinning the fabric in the main room and was delighted to find that there was enough left to do most of his room, too. The new, thick, curtain was fitted over the front door and the room was a bit warmer. His mother had consented to eat a little soup at supper time and when she had finished, Johnny swapped out the thin cotton curtains for the thermal backed velvet ones he had bought. Unsurprisingly, his mother had looked at those askance, too, but there was no repeat of the morning’s behavior. All that was left to do now was hang the new main room curtains and the ones for his room.

“You’re not getting sick are you?” enquired his partner accusingly.

“No, I’m not getting sick,” he replied exasperatedly.

“How’s your mom?” Roy asked. He knew if he kept asking questions for long enough, Johnny would tell him what was wrong.

The silence that answered that question told Roy he had hit pay dirt. When Johnny continued not to say anything, Roy began to get really worried. “Johnny?” he ventured. “Talk to me.”

“Oh, Roy, I don’t know what it is,” he lied. “She just isn’t herself. It’s … difficult. She hardly talks and when she does, it’s all complaints.”

“What does she think of your insulation idea?” Roy asked. He had thought it was a good idea.

“She hates it,” Johnny replied flatly. “Hates it.”

“Oh.” There really wasn’t a lot to say to that. “That’s a pity. Any idea why?”

“She just seems to hate everything I do right now,” Johnny sighed. He made an effort to sound more cheerful. “It’s probably just the medication and not feeling too good – you know how it is.”

“Or maybe she’s a bad patient, just like someone else I could name?” Roy teased.

“Aw, Roy, I’m not that bad!” Johnny objected, but he was smiling.

“Shall we ask the nurses at Rampart about that?” Roy countered and was pleased when his friend laughed. Still, the laugh was a lot more subdued than Roy liked. “Is there anything I can do?”

“It’s kind of you to offer, Roy,” Johnny replied, “but no, thanks all the same. Mom can’t talk on the phone and there’s no point in you wasting your vacation time to come up here at the moment. Not that you wouldn’t be welcome, but there isn’t anything for you to do up here.”

“If you need me, I’ll come,” Roy assured him. He knew he didn’t need to say that, but sometimes the other person needed to hear it.

“Thanks,” Johnny grunted in a strangled sort of voice. “I mean it, thanks a lot, Roy.”

“Hey, have a quick word with the kids,” Roy suggested, knowing Johnny needed time to regain his composure. The kids could talk without any prompting – a bit like Johnny on a normal day – and their inane chatter would probably cheer him up.

Roy was right. After a few minutes chatting to Roy’s two children, Johnny sounded more like his usual self. Roy wished with all his might and main that there was something he could do to help Johnny, but there wasn’t. Not at the moment, anyway. Maybe later on, when his mother was feeling a bit more like herself… After another couple of minutes of talk about work, Roy bid Johnny goodbye and told him he would phone the day after tomorrow. The next day, Roy was on duty.

“Give my regards to everyone,” Johnny concluded wistfully.

“I will,” Roy promised and they hung up.

Tonight, Johnny felt the cold creeping back more quickly than he had the previous night.

**********

He woke to a howling snowstorm that obliterated the landscape entirely. Even the barn was not visible from the window. The electricity was out, so he lit as many lamps as he could and made the decision that his mother would have to move into the main room for warmth. His breath was condensing every time he exhaled and there was no way that Beth would be warm enough in her bedroom. She wouldn’t like it, but then she didn’t seem to like anything that Johnny did right now.

Working quickly before his mother woke, Johnny warmed blankets in front of the fire and made up a bed on the couch. He made the tea she liked and left it to cool slightly while he went to bring her through to the warmer room.

“Mom?” Johnny thought, for one horrible instant, that she had slipped away through the night, as she was so pale and waxen and slow to rouse. However, gentle stroking of her face eventually woke her and she looked at Johnny blearily. “Mom, I’ve got to take you through to the other room,” he explained. “There’s a big storm outside and the electric is off. It’s too cold for you in here.”

For once, Beth didn’t argue. Johnny un-tucked the blankets and carefully lifted her in his arms, trying to keep as much warm air around her frail body as he could. Even so, Beth shivered violently as he traversed the cold house. They both felt the increased warmth as they entered the main room. Johnny carefully placed her on the couch and settled her in.

“Here’s your tea,” he told her and held the cup for her to drink. He wasn’t sure exactly what was in this blend – she seemed to change her herbal teas regularly and as far as Johnny was concerned, they were all disgusting. He was sticking to coffee, although he wished he had packed a jar of instant, since the one he had discovered in the cupboard was rather aged and somewhat fusty. They sipped companionably.

“Thank… you,” Beth whispered when she was finished. It was the first pleasant thing she had said to him since he had arrived.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, feeling a rush of love for her.

Now that Beth was settled in the main room, Johnny extinguished some of the lamps, because he had no idea how much kerosene they had in reserve. He shrugged on his jacket and gloves and went out to the wood pile to replenish the stock of firewood inside. Fortunately, there was a large wood pile just outside the door and some more piled up against the side of the house. Johnny didn’t think they would run out of wood for quite a while.

It felt gloriously warm inside the house compared to the maelstrom outside. Johnny shook the snow from his boots and coat and put the wood down. His mother was still awake and watching him. “Would you like some more tea?” he asked. She nodded. He quickly made her some more, sniffing at it again to see if he could identify what was in it, but it still eluded him. All it smelled to him was disgusting.

Beth fell asleep after drinking her tea and Johnny settled down by a lamp to read a book. It looked like it was going to be a long day.

**********

It turned out to be a long few days as the storm raged outside without abating. Johnny only left the house to get more wood and spent some time checking through the stores of food and fuel in the house and finding that there was quite a lot of kerosene stored away. He missed his phone calls to Roy, but the other thing that worried him about being cut off in that way was that his mother didn’t seem to be doing very well and he had no way to summon a doctor or an ambulance. He made a foray out to the truck, but it wouldn’t start and he knew the cold had taken its toll on the battery and that was despite the truck being parked inside the barn to try and give it some protection.

They were living in the one room. Johnny had bundled as many blankets and quilts as he could find on the floor for him to sleep on. It wasn’t very comfortable or overly warm, but he slept in his clothes to help keep the cold out. The last thing he needed was to get sick.

And then he woke up on the fourth day to find the storm had blown itself out and the sun was shining brightly on the snow. Oddly, there was less snow lying, but Johnny guessed that a lot of it had been blown in front of the howling wind and was piled up elsewhere. He certainly wasn’t going to complain about less snow that was for sure.

That morning, his mother wouldn’t even drink her tea. Her food intake had dwindled over the last few days and she slept more and more. When she was awake, she complained of a headache, which worried Johnny immensely. He knew he had to get help for her, but the phones were still out and leaving her alone was not an option.

Luckily, about noon, he heard an engine outside and, looking out, saw it was a police car. He opened the door and greeted the officer with relief. “Thank goodness you’re here! My mother needs to get to the hospital and my truck won’t start.”

“Come on, then,” the man agreed, seeing by a single glance that Beth was very poorly. He helped Johnny lift the older woman, then set the guard in front of the fire as Johnny gently placed Beth on the backseat of the patrol car and crouched on the floor beside her. Closing the door, the officer got back into the car and turned around.

“I was sent to check on you,” Officer Davies told Johnny as they drove to town. “Your friend in Los Angeles, Roy DeSoto, got concerned when he couldn’t contact you. So he rang us and asked us to come out as soon as the storm was over.”

“Thank you,” Johnny replied. “I really appreciate it. I’ll ring Roy later.” He wanted to urge the officer to drive faster, but he knew they were going as fast as was safe, given the state of the roads.

Still, the journey seemed to take too long. Beth appeared to be sinking, her eyes barely open and she wasn’t responding to verbal commands. Johnny spoke to her, urging her to stay with him and wishing with all his might and main that he had the drug box from the squad and a doctor on the other end of the biophone.

Thanks to Davies radioing ahead, they were waiting for her when the car pulled in. Johnny could only watch as his mother was whisked into a treatment room. He pulled himself together enough to thank the cop, who seemed to be waiting around to see how his mother did, which Johnny thought was kind. Davies got Johnny some coffee and stood near him as they waited for news.

It was impossible to judge how long he waited, but a time later, the doctor came out and beckoned to Johnny. “I’m sorry, but your mother has only a few minutes left. Would you like to be with her?”

“Yes, thank you.” Numb with shock, Johnny stumbled after the doctor into the treatment room and looked at his mother’s still face. He wondered why it had taken someone else to tell him what was so obvious to him now. “Mom?” he whispered and took her hand.

Beth didn’t reply, but her fingers moved slightly against his for a moment. Johnny stood there for what seemed like a very long time, assuring her of his love and thanking her for being there for him. There was no acknowledging movement of the fingers this time and a few minutes later, Beth Gage slipped quietly from this life into the next.

**********

The hospital staff was very kind to him. He was escorted into the relatives’ room while the nurses did what was needed to tidy up the body. Davies even went to ring Roy and pass on the bad news. Johnny obediently sat where he was told to and drank the sweet, milky tea the staff insisted was just the thing he needed, although he didn’t drink tea and he didn’t take sugar. He was completely stunned. His mother was dead. Then suddenly, the reality hit him and he burst into tears.

A little later, he was taken back into the treatment room. His mother looked like she was sleeping. The nurse who accompanied him stood back discreetly as he sat by her and took her hand again. Johnny had seen many dead bodies in the course of his work and each had affected him, but this body was different. Her flesh was starting to cool and she somehow, indefinably, no longer looked like his mother. She seemed little and frail and he was glad for her that she didn’t have to suffer any more indignities and yet his heart was breaking because she had only been in her 50s and that was young to die. There was still so much more life she had to live. And now, he was alone. He was an orphan. As an adult, with a life of his own, Johnny was suddenly scared.

***********

He didn’t know how long he sat there; time seemed to have developed a peculiar elasticity, moving at its own pace and ignoring the dictated seconds, minutes and hours. Finally, the door opened and the doctor came in. “Mr. Gage?”

He seemed curiously ill at ease, Johnny thought as he stood and nodded acknowledgment of his name. “Yes, that’s me.”

The doctor came into the room and Officer Davies came in behind him, also looking uneasy. “Mr. Gage, your mother’s blood pressure when she came in this morning was extremely high. Much higher than it should have been and this contributed to her death. I believe that you have not been giving your mother the drugs that were prescribed to her and meant for her to die as she was clearly going to be a burden to you. Obviously, there will have to be an autopsy, but I have little doubt what that will find.” He gave Johnny a hard look and turned to Davies. “Do your duty, Officer.”

Looking hugely embarrassed, Davies stepped forward and read Johnny his Miranda rights before cuffing his hands behind his back and leading from the room. Johnny was too stunned to protest. His mother had just died and he was being arrested for her murder.

**********

The nightmare only got worse. Davies was fine, but the booking sergeant at the county jail was not. He took one look at Johnny and he knew he was in trouble. “Murdering Injun scum,” he spat. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded of Davies, who had started to unlock the handcuffs. “This here’s a murderer and we ain’t letting him free until I say so, got it?”

Cowed, the young officer did as he was told. He didn’t like the way a lot of the older men on the force treated the Indians, but he didn’t know how to stand up to them. Johnny seemed to be the least likely candidate for matricide. The marks of the tears he had shed for her earlier were still on his cheeks and he seemed to have totally withdrawn into himself. Davies admitted he didn’t know very much, but the way this young man had carried his mother had spoken to Davies of concern only.

It didn’t take him long to get booked in. Johnny answered when spoken to only; he had met this type of man before. When it was done, the sergeant drew him through to the jail side of the desk and clicked handcuffs on over the ones he already wore before allowing Davies to reclaim his ones. Johnny caught the young man’s eye. “Thanks,” he said briefly. He meant it. His mother would never have reached hospital if not for Davies.

Making a rueful face, Davies nodded. “I’ll phone your friend,” he offered and Johnny nodded gratefully. While he was sure he would get his phone call – eventually – he didn’t know when it was likely to be. While he didn’t expect Roy to come up, it was a comfort that someone else outside the situation knew what was going on.

He followed meekly behind the sergeant into a room with shower heads in it. The sergeant unlocked one cuff and fastened it to a ring in the wall under one of the heads. “Strip,” he ordered. “Once you’re showered, you’ll get your uniform and then I’ll take you to a cell.”

It was difficult to undress with one hand locked to the wall, but Johnny managed it. He pretended not to see the sergeant eyeing him up and obediently stood there while gallons of cold water cascaded over his head. The tiny towel he was handed was pretty much useless in drying himself, but he did what he could, then endured a body search to make sure he wasn’t carrying drugs or weapons within his body.

When the sergeant was sure his prisoner was fully humiliated, he handed him an orange jumpsuit and Johnny dressed, still cuffed to the wall. The suit fit all right, but the shoes he was given were too big and he got no socks or underwear.

“Until you prove you can behave in here, boy, you’ve gotta stay locked up,” the sergeant informed him. He grinned offensively right in Johnny’s face, clearly trying to provoke him. Johnny stayed absolutely still. He couldn’t let this man get to him at all. He was innocent of his mother’s death and he would do nothing while in here that could cause him more trouble. He forced himself not to flinch as a chain was padlocked around his waist and his hands forced into the cuffs at the front. He had perhaps an inch of chain to allow him to use his hands, but it wasn’t much. Eating would be difficult and humiliating and Johnny knew that was just what the sergeant wanted. Still, he said nothing and allowed himself to be prodded along a corridor, through a locked door and into the cell area.

It was a small jail, with no more than 20 cells and they were the kind composed solely of bars. There would be no privacy. There were men in most of them, but the one Johnny was forced into was empty. The iron bunks on the wall were devoid of blankets, but he wasn’t going to ask for one; who knew what kind of trouble that would get him into? There was a steel commode against the brick wall at the back of the cell and it had no seat.

The barred door crashed shut behind him and Johnny turned around and watched impassively as the key was turned in the lock. The sergeant grinned at him as the men on either side crowded up against the bars and leered at him. “Watch yourselves with this one, boys,” the sergeant told them. “He just murdered his mother.”

There was a sudden cacophony of noise as the prisoners began to shout things at him. Some of the suggestions were lewd in the extreme. Johnny fought to control the shudder that ran down his spine. There was nowhere to go to escape it. Wearily, he turned and walked to the back wall and sank down on the floor there between the commode and the bunk.

In the space of a few short hours, his whole world had been turned upside-down and he didn’t quite know how to make sense of it all.

**********

The phone was ringing as Roy came back into the house. He had been out weeding the flower bed at the front and had decided enough was enough. He grabbed the phone. “Hello?”

“Roy DeSoto?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Officer Davies in Montana. I spoke with you earlier,” the voice continued.

Fear gripped Roy’s heart. Something had happened to Johnny, he knew it. “What’s wrong with my partner?” he demanded. “Is he sick?”

“No, sir, he’s not sick,” Davies replied. “I’m sorry to tell you that it seems his mother was murdered and your friend has been charged with that murder and is in the county jail.”

“What?!” Roy sank into a seat. “Johnny wouldn’t do that,” he mumbled. “He couldn’t.”

“We’re investigating, sir and there will be an autopsy that will establish the cause of death. I said I would let you know.”

“Thank you for that,” Roy replied gratefully. He asked some questions – who was the doctor involved; what hospital did he work from; where was the jail – and then hung up. “How do you always end up in these messes, Johnny?” he moaned. He couldn’t imagine how bad his friend must be feeling right now. Bad enough for his mother to have died without being accused of her murder.

Sending a quick prayer heavenwards for his friend’s safety, Roy got to work. He phoned Cap and apprised him of the situation. Cap was instantly as concerned as Roy and promised to make arrangements for them both to get time off, effective immediately. Roy’s next call was to Rampart, where he was lucky enough to catch Dr Brackett before he finished for the day.

“Roy, here’s my home phone number,” Brackett told him. “Ring me once you have travel arrangements, but count me in! I’m going to phone a couple of my father’s associates and see if they can recommend a lawyer for Johnny up there, just in case. I’m sure the autopsy will support what we already know – that Johnny did not kill his mother.”

“Thanks, doc,” Roy replied. He was just hanging up the phone when Joanne came in from her hair appointment.

Normally, Roy was very good at complimenting his wife’s hair after she had forked out an extortionate amount (in his opinion) to get her hair done, but today, he was thinking of anything but that. And Joanne just needed one look at Roy’s face to see something wasn’t right. “What’s happened?” she asked.

Making her sit down, Roy told her.

**********

They were on a flight three hours later. Quite how Cap had managed this miracle, Roy had not asked. It was enough for him that they were finally on the way, because he was growing ever more anxious about Johnny. Dr Brackett assured them that he had spoken to a lawyer in Montana who was on his way to the county jail to talk to Johnny. “I also rang the coroner in the area and expressed my interest in the autopsy results. There is no need to keep the results private, so there shouldn’t be any problem that way. I have little doubt the autopsy will confirm Johnny’s innocence.”

“It’s the last thing he needs,” Roy muttered.

“It’s the last thing anyone needs, Roy,” Cap agreed. “I know he was finding it difficult, knowing his mother was so ill. How did he sound on the phone?”

“A bit down,” Roy replied. “The cold was getting to him. I did mention the cold, didn’t I?”

“Repeatedly,” the two older men chorused and that did get a small smile from the worried paramedic. “First thing we’ll do is buy sweaters and coats,” Cap promised.

**********

Eventually, the other inmates had given up shouting at Johnny and had resumed whatever they were doing before he arrived, but the paramedic didn’t get up from the floor. It was probably just about as uncomfortable as the iron bunks anyway and at least sitting there, nobody could touch him.

Dimly, he recognized that he was in shock. The suddenness of the events of the afternoon had overwhelmed him. It had all happened so fast. Now he sat in the growing darkness and shivered. It wasn’t actually cold in the cells, but sitting on the uncovered concrete floor as he was, his body heat started to drain away. When the wardens came to get them for the evening meal, Johnny was so stiff he could barely get up.

His least favorite gaoler was there again. As Johnny struggled to get himself upright without the use of his hands, the sergeant entered the cell and hauled him roughly to his feet. “I told you to hurry up, boy,” he reminded Johnny and gave the hapless paramedic a shove towards the door. Johnny caught his balance and obediently joined the other men to walk to the dining room.

It wasn’t a pleasant walk. The other men pushed, shoved and tripped him. Somewhere along the way, his shoes came off and there was no question of allowing him to stop to get them. Bare foot, Johnny gritted his teeth and kept walking.

There were several long tables in the refectory with benches on either side and a chair at each end. Johnny was prodded into one of the chairs and the chain around his waist was locked to the chair. He wouldn’t be leaving the seat until someone released him. A plate of food was slapped down in front of him and the sergeant reluctantly un-cuffed his hands. Johnny rubbed his wrists gently and picked up the plastic cutlery. With the sergeant looming over him, he quietly ate the meal.

The food was nothing to write home about, but it was warm and filling. There was plenty of talk from the other men, but they ignored Johnny. That suited him just fine. The less he had to do with them the happier he would be. Of course, he would be happier if he could get out of there, but he still hadn’t had the chance to make his phone call and he had to admit that he was scared of the result if he should ask.

The meals were cleared away and the men rose to their feet. Johnny’s hands were cuffed again and he stood obediently and followed as the others led the way to a large, open room. It was clearly the recreation room. Johnny knew that he had to ask now. “I haven’t had my phone call,” he stated quietly.

“What did you say?” the sergeant asked.

“I haven’t had my phone call,” Johnny repeated. “I’m entitled to make one by law.” He held the other man’s gaze, trying to tell himself he wasn’t intimidated.

“Did you hear that, boys? This murdering Injun thinks he’s entitled to make a phone call!” He laughed and the inmates joined him. Johnny could feel a flush creeping up his cheeks, but he held his ground. The sergeant looked at him. “Maybe later,” he said. “If I feel like it.” He turned and walked away to stand in the doorway, his posture relaxed, but his hand always beside the gun that he toted.

The leisure hour was one of the longest Johnny had spent. He remained standing where he was, having no desire to watch TV or read a book or play a card game with the others. He was aware of them watching him, whispering about him and his fear grew. He had grown up in this area and he knew that the Indians were often the victims of the white thugs who lived in the town. This was a group of criminals and they already knew that the sergeant wasn’t going to worry about anything that happened to Johnny. The other wardens were an unknown quantity; Johnny hadn’t seen any signs that they agreed with the sergeant’s methods and attitude, but he hadn’t seen anything that said they disagreed, either.

It was 8pm when the wardens straightened up. All the men in the room tensed and slowly rose to their feet. They formed a line and began to walk back to the cells. Johnny ended up about the middle of the line, the sergeant just ahead and to his right. The paramedic was tired, the long traumatic day having taken its toll. He was aware of the whispering behind him, but he was in no way prepared for the violent shove in the middle of his back. He staggered forward and tripped over someone else’s foot and fell into the sergeant’s back, knocking them both to the floor.

Winded, Johnny was only barely aware of the man leaping to his feet. But by then, the prisoners had taken advantage of the wardens’ distraction and were attacking them and each other. Sergeant yanked Johnny to his feet and delivered a couple of punches to his stomach before a large prisoner punched Sergeant on the side of the head and grabbed Johnny. The dazed paramedic found himself pulled aside and pinned to a wall while the large man who had grabbed him tried fervently to punch him.

The mini-riot got no further. As Johnny turned his head away, the large man suddenly stiffened and fell to the floor, unconscious. Behind him stood Sergeant, his head bleeding, but his eyes blazing with triumph and enjoyment. He dealt Johnny a painful blow to his hip with the nightstick he had used to knock out the large prisoner. “Just make one move,” he threatened Johnny.

The wardens had control again. Most of the men were shackled at the wrist and dragged away. Johnny stayed pinned to the wall, the nightstick now resting against his throat, but with no pressure on it. He knew, however, that the slightest twitch would cause the pressure to grow. “I hate you redskins,” Sergeant breathed in his ear. “There’s always trouble when we’ve got one of you in here. I thought you were going to learn your lesson from this, but it seems not.” He plucked at the chain around Johnny’s belly when he said ‘this’. He kept Johnny there while the other men were led away and Johnny’s fear grew every moment.

Finally, one of the other wardens came back, carrying a handful of chains. He knelt and locked the metal cuffs around Johnny’s ankles and handed the end of the long chain between them to Sergeant, who took it and padlocked the end to the belly chain Johnny still wore. He was now hobbled as well as cuffed and he knew that this man hated him simply because of the color of his skin and his heritage and if someone didn’t do something to get him out of there soon, he would be bearing more injuries than just a few bruises. Sergeant grinned into Johnny’s face. “How’s that, Injun?” he asked.

Stepping he back, he gestured to Johnny. “Let’s go and be smart about it.” He gave Johnny another sharp smack on the hip.

It took several moments to get used to the hobbles. Johnny kept moving as quickly as he could. He was relieved that the other warden stayed close by, because Johnny was afraid of what Sergeant would do to him. It was a relief to be locked inside his cell again, for at least there, for the moment, he was safe. A lot of the other prisoners were also cuffed and hobbled and the large man who had tried to punch Johnny was lying groaning on his bunk a few cells down. The atmosphere was subdued.

The second warden appeared back at Johnny’s cell a few minutes later, bearing blankets and pillows for him. Without saying anything, he spread the blankets out on the bottom bunk and placed the pillow. Then he removed the leg irons and cuffs that Johnny wore.

“There’s been a phone call from a lawyer who says he represents you,” the man whispered. “He’ll come in the morning.” Straightening, he glared at Johnny. “You’re secure for the night,” he grunted and left, locking the door behind him.

Exhausted beyond belief, Johnny sank down on the thin mattress on the bunk. He had never been in such a predicament before and it took some time before his body began to relax slightly. Johnny became aware of the ache in his hip and his knees, where he had landed on the floor when he was tripped. He also became aware that he needed to pee and after a short time he shuffled over to the commode and used it. There was the odd catcall from other prisoners, but Johnny ignored them. He lay down on his bunk and closed his eyes, but sleep eluded him. All too soon, he was supine, his eyes wide, gazing at the bottom of the bunk above him.

Abruptly, the lights went out. There were sighs from all around, but the men were evidently used to the suddenness of lights out and he heard them getting into their bunks. Safely shielded by the dark, Johnny was finally able to give in to his feelings about what had happened that day, his sobs absorbed by the thin pillow.

**********

That he slept at all was a miracle, Roy thought, as he woke the next morning. The frustrations and anxieties of the day before had left him wound up and he’d been sure he wouldn’t sleep, but he was wrong. Stretching, he saw that it was almost 8am; time he was up and moving.

They had been shocked by the cold when they disembarked the plane on arrival. Dr Brackett had produced his credit card for their purchases of warm clothing and had refused to hear anything about reimbursement until after everything was settled. They hired a car and found a motel and then Brackett rang the lawyer he had contacted earlier. His end of the conversation was non-committal, but Roy was worried nonetheless.

“What’s the bad news?” he asked, as calmly as he could manage under the circumstances.

“The lawyer hasn’t been allowed to see Johnny yet,” Brackett replied. He was frowning. “The county jail says it hasn’t finished processing him yet.”

“But that shouldn’t make any difference – should it?” Roy asked uncertainly.

“No, but here in these small towns, the law is often more relaxed than in the big cities,” Brackett told him, quoting what the lawyer had just said. “It’s not right,” he added before Roy could protest, “but that seems to be the way it is and there isn’t anything we can do tonight.”

“What about the autopsy?” Cap asked.

“It’s scheduled for the morning,” Brackett replied. “I hope to be able to sit in on it. It isn’t my area of expertise, but it might do some good to watch.”

“I want to talk to the police again,” Roy decided and dialed the number he’d been given earlier, but Officer Davies was off duty and nobody else there seemed to know anything about the case. Thwarted, there was nothing else they could do that night.

Now that morning had come, Roy was ready to get things under way. He met Cap and Brackett for breakfast, and then Brackett was dropped off at the Medical Examiner’s office while Roy and Cap went off to meet Officer Davies at the police station. The first person they met there was the lawyer Brackett had contacted on Johnny’s behalf.

“Paul Goode,” he introduced himself. “I was just having words with the officer here about the arrest of my client yesterday afternoon.”

“It doesn’t seem right to me,” Cap replied after introducing himself and Roy. “What is the evidence for the arrest?”

“The word of the doctor who treated Mrs. Gage,” Goode replied. “He is a rather forceful character and doesn’t like Indians, unfortunately.” He grimaced. “Round here, the law is run very autonomously at local level because it is such a rural area. This is not unheard of and given an accusation of murder from a well-respected doctor, you can sort of see why someone would be taken into custody immediately. I, for one, wouldn’t feel happy having a potential murderer wandering around loose.”

“Well, no,” Cap agreed cautiously. “But where was the proof?”

“The proof will come from the autopsy,” Goode replied. “Mr. Gage’s arrest was unfortunate and I am going to speak to the judge this morning and hopefully will get him released straight away.”

“Hopefully?” Roy queried. He didn’t like the sound of that.

Drawing the firefighters aside, Goode spoke in a quiet voice. “You’ve got to understand that around here, the Indians are not given the respect as American citizens that they deserve. You’d think that a lot of them had been around in the times when Indians’ testimony in court was automatically counted as false, simply because they weren’t citizens of the US. It still happens.”

“That’s crazy,” Roy insisted, even knowing of the times that his partner had been insulted and spat at and cursed as he worked to rescue someone or saved their loved one’s life. He felt sick just thinking about it.

“Unfortunately, it happens,” Goode sighed. “I’m going to see the judge right now.”

“Do you want me to come?” Roy asked.

“Better not,” Goode replied. “I’ll come back here and get you and we can pick Gage up together if that’s all right with you.”

“In that case, I’ll go and speak to the police officer and find out the story from him,” Roy decided.

“I’ll come with you,” Cap offered. There really wasn’t much else for him to do.

Officer Davies was in and was as young and inexperienced as Roy had suspected he would be. He explained that he had gone out to the house, as Roy had requested, and taken the Gages to the hospital, where Mrs. Gage had subsequently died. It was while Johnny was sitting with his mother after that that the doctor had come to Davies and insisted that Johnny was to blame for his mother’s death, as her blood pressure had been so high. Davies had balked, but the doctor had been having none of that and had phoned the sheriff, who had agreed that it sounded as though Gage had killed his mother and since he was an Indian, he should be arrested at once. Who knew what else he might do if left free in the community? Davies was too young to disobey a direct order, but felt heartsick over what he was expected to do and was now terrified he would lose his job for an unlawful arrest.

Unfortunately, the sheriff was in the backroom. “Right now, we ain’t got no proof it was an unlawful arrest,” he contradicted, stepping out to confront the firefighters.

“You don’t have any proof it was murder, either,” Roy replied.

“He’s an Indian,” the sheriff explained, as if stating the obvious. “Of course he’s guilty. They always are.” He fixed the two men with a steely glare. “You ain’t gonna cause trouble about this, are you?” The threat in his voice was quite clear.

While Roy was starting to bristle, Cap quietly put his hand on the other man’s arm. Until Johnny was out of the jail, they couldn’t afford to get into an altercation with the local law. It wouldn’t help Johnny’s cause at all to end up having words – or worse – with the sheriff. “No, sir,” he agreed. He nodded to Davies and dragged a fuming Roy out of the office.

“We can’t let him get away with that!” Roy protested.

“Until Johnny is safely back with us, yes we can,” Cap contradicted him. “It won’t do Johnny any good if we go around getting into trouble.”

“I know you’re right,” Roy sighed after a moment, his shoulders slumping. “But it’s so difficult! They way they’re treating him is … wrong,” he finished lamely. It was a lot more than wrong.

“Once we have Johnny back with us, his innocence established beyond any doubt, we’ll report all this to the state police and leave them to deal with it,” Cap declared. “Johnny is our main priority and once we’re away from here, we can forget about it.”

It wasn’t an ideal solution, but Roy knew Cap was right. Together, they trudged back to the motel to wait for Brackett to return.

***********

It was a fairly long wait. Roy and Cap had had lunch before Brackett reappeared. He joined them in the coffee shop and ordered something to eat before sighing. “Mrs. Gage had had a huge stroke,” he confided. “That was one cause of death, but we’re waiting for test results to come back from her blood and stomach contents. From the doctor’s report, her blood pressure was incredibly high and there must have been something contributing to that. Obviously, we’re checking the levels of blood thinners in her blood, because that will prove Johnny was giving his mother her medication.”

“What could have caused the high blood pressure?” Cap asked.

“Any number of things,” Brackett replied. “Did you know that in some areas of the US, there is arsenic in the groundwater and people develop immunity to it?”

“Is that true for here?” Cap asked.

“There is some, but not enough to cause problems. I don’t think that’s the answer, but I’m pretty sure that it’s something that isn’t usually considered dangerous, but that can cause problems. Just because something is an herb or part of an alternative medicine, it doesn’t mean that it won’t react against something else and cause problems.” Brackett frowned, sure he could have put that more clearly, but unable to untangle his thoughts.

The other two seemed to understand, though. “So we should look round Mrs. Gage’s home?” Cap suggested.

“Yeah, good idea,” Brackett agreed, looking up eagerly as his food arrived. He tucked in with more appetite than either of the firefighters thought they could have found after watching an autopsy.

He was just finishing his meal when Goode arrived – alone.

“Where’s Johnny?” Roy cried.

“The judge won’t release him until all the autopsy results are in,” Goode explained apologetically. “I tried everything I know, but he wasn’t budging. Sorry, guys.”

For a moment, it looked as though Roy wanted to punch the lawyer out, but he knew that it wasn’t Goode’s fault. Still, to say it was frustrating was a sweeping understatement. Brackett was scowling in that familiar way and Cap fleetingly thought he should have been sent to talk to the judge. Or perhaps if he had, he would be in jail with Johnny right now.

“The results should be in tomorrow morning,” Brackett offered. “Not that that helps Johnny any.” He sighed.

“Then let’s go to Johnny’s place,” Roy proposed. Just sitting around waiting was driving him nuts.

“We don’t have a key,” Cap reminded him.

“I’m pretty sure we won’t need one, but I know where the spare is kept,” Roy replied. Unless Beth Gage had moved the spare key, but Johnny had told Roy where it was kept as part of a story about his home. He had also confided to Roy that the house was seldom locked; there was nothing in it worth stealing.

While Goode returned to his office, the other three set off in the hired car, driving very carefully indeed, although they were assured the weather was moderating. Quite how that was possible was beyond the Californians; they thought it was more than cold enough. The temperature was sitting about -5.

They found the house with comparative ease. The small, square building was grey against the pristine snow and the barn was practically falling down. The signs of poverty were unmistakable and this was a poverty of a kind they had seldom seen.

The door opened at once to Roy’s touch and he led his way into a small, cold room that smelled indefinably of sickness. The blankets on the floor and the couch testified to the fact that they had been living in this one room. The fire was burned out and the grey fabric lining the walls made the room darker than it would already have been.

It was an eye-opener.

While Brackett and Cap looked around to see what they could find that might help explain Beth’s death, Roy went into the other rooms to find Johnny’s belongings and pack them for him. It was obvious which was Beth’s room and Roy could have wept for the love that his friend had shown towards his mother, for the fabric lined the walls to help keep the cold out, but he had carefully rehung the faded pictures on the walls after he had finished. It was typical of Johnny’s thoughtfulness.

Shivering despite his warm coat, Roy quickly packed Johnny’s clothes. There was ice on the inside of the window in the tiny bedroom. The heap of blankets in front of the fire now made perfect sense. Roy felt completely ashamed of the times he had complained about lack of money or that he needed to pull an overtime shift or two to pay for something unexpected. He lived in the lap of luxury compared to this small house and he vowed to be much more grateful for what he had.

Going back through when he had regained his composure, Roy found them waiting for him, their faces grim. “What have you found?” he asked.

“Not much,” Brackett admitted. “Mrs. Gage’s medications are here and from the labels and the number of pills in the bottles, Johnny had been giving them to her. From what I was told, she wasn’t really in any condition to pretend to take the pills and then quietly flush them later, so there must be something else she had regularly that counter-acted the tablets.” He frowned.

Glancing around the room, Roy’s eye fell on the cups sitting on a low table by the couch. There was some liquid sitting in the bottom of one and prompted by some instinct of tidiness, he thought he would give them a quick rinse under the tap. One cup had clearly had coffee in it and Roy looked around for a coffee maker in vain. The jar of instant, sitting on the counter, still had the lid off. Johnny’s coffee habit must have suffered a direct hit, Roy thought bleakly.

Carrying the cups over, he sniffed at the liquid in the other cup. It smelled vaguely herby and, to his nose, repellent. He couldn’t begin to imagine what might be in it, but tea was something that he had never had a taste for and herbal tea was completely beyond his experience.

“What’s that?” Brackett asked, his attention sharpening on what Roy was doing.

“Some sort of tea, I think,” Roy replied doubtfully. Truth be told, if it hadn’t been in a cup, Roy might even have assumed that it was something Johnny was using to clean.

Taking the few steps necessary to cross the room, Brackett took the cup from Roy and sniffed it. “I wonder,” he mused and looked around. The tea caddy was sitting right beside the jar of coffee and Brackett opened the metal lid to sniff the contents. Roy made a face. Cap didn’t look too enthralled either.

Closing the lid of the caddy with a decisive snap, Brackett looked at his companions. “Don’t get your hopes too high, but I think we might have found something significant.”

***********

Before they left, Roy took another look around the house and took the few personal items he found. There was little of any worth at all. Johnny might want to go back for a last look around; he might not. Either way, Roy had taken the necessary steps to safe guard his personal belongings, like photographs.

They were silent on the trip back into town. None of them had been prepared to see that level of poverty. Cap was driving and concentrating on the road, while Brackett was musing over his find and Roy was fitting together the jigsaw pieces of things his friend had told him over the years and coming up with a more complete picture of the life Johnny had led.

It was dark when they got back and as they settled in to eat, Roy could not help but think of Johnny enduring a night behind bars.

***********

His first full day in the county jail had one major plus to it; Sergeant wasn’t on duty. Johnny had laid awake most of the night and when he did drop off, his sleep was fitful. The lights clicked on at 6.30am and Johnny just lay on his bunk, not ready to face the day.

He was given no choice. When he wasn’t standing by the cell door, ready to go, the warden came into the cell and a single blow from the nightstick across his thigh was enough to make him move. He shuffled along amongst the other inmates, his feet still bare, and saw how much more watchful the wardens were that day than they had been the previous evening.

When they reached the refectory, he was allowed to sit on one of the benches instead of being locked into the chair and he ate the tasteless mess he was provided with as quickly as he could. When breakfast was over, the prisoners dispersed, going to the various jobs they had to do. Johnny was ushered into the kitchen where he was pushed over to the sink full of dirty dishes. “Wash ‘em,” he was told and to make sure he didn’t run away, a warden parked himself close by to watch him.

Despite the work and his icy cold feet, Johnny didn’t find the morning too onerous. He was taken back to his cell after the dishes were done and managed to get a short nap before the other men returned. He remained in his cell apart from for meals for the rest of the day.

The next day started out in exactly the same way. Johnny didn’t feel so good, but he had had another broken night and blamed exhaustion and stress. Just before lunch, a warden appeared at his cell with chains. Johnny’s heart sank. What torture had they in mind for him now?

“Your lawyer is here,” the warden told him. “Get on to your feet and come over here and don’t try anything.”

There was nowhere for him to run to avoid this, so Johnny did as he was told. The belly chain went on again and his hands were cuffed to it as they had been the previous day. Only then was the cell door opened and he was escorted away, with the now-familiar lewd suggestions echoing from behind him.

The room he was taken to was cold and had peeling pea-green paint on the walls. The windows were filthy and barred and the floor was covered with linoleum that might once have been beige but was now simply dirty. It was bare apart from a functional wooden table with a chair placed on either side of it. Johnny was pushed down into a chair and the warden loomed over him menacingly.

After a few moments, the door opened to admit a man in his 30s, dressed in a very stylish suit and carrying a briefcase. He placed the case on the table and looked expectantly at the warden. After a beat he said, “You can go now and close the door behind you. Thank you.”

“This man is a murderer,” the warden replied stonily. “I should stay in case he attacks you.”

“This man is innocent until proven guilty,” the lawyer shot back. “I’ll be fine. Thank you.” He kept his gaze steadily on the warden, who shuffled from foot to foot for a few seconds before backing down and leaving the room.

“I’ll just be outside if you need me,” he reported before closing the door. It locked from the outside with a loud click.

“Mr. Gage, I’m Paul Goode,” the lawyer said. “I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances. How are you holding up?”

“I’m all right,” Johnny lied. He was glad the man had had the sensitivity not to offer to shake hands.

“My deepest condolences on your loss,” Goode went on. “It must be very difficult for you. Let me explain what is happening and where things stand at the moment.” He sat down and steepled his fingers. “I believe that when your innocence is firmly established and you are released from here, you will be compensated for unlawful arrest, but we aren’t going down that road until you are released without charge. As I’m sure you are only too aware, Mr. Gage, this is a small town, with small town prejudices and getting on the wrong side of the law is not a good idea.”

Johnny nodded. That made sense, although he didn’t care at that moment about being proved innocent. He just wanted out.

“The autopsy was held yesterday morning, but unfortunately, the judge won’t agree to your release until the last of the results are in. Cause of death was confirmed as a massive stroke. I’m sorry. The ME is running tests to determine if you were giving your mother the correct medication and to see what else was in her blood stream. Dr Kelly Brackett attended…”

“Dr Brackett?” Johnny interrupted. “What’s he doing here?” It only then occurred to Johnny that he had not contacted this lawyer and it was beginning to dawn on him that Davies’ phone call to Roy had done more than just inform his partner of Beth’s death.

“Dr Brackett, Captain Hank Stanley and Mr. Roy DeSoto hired me to be your lawyer. They believe in your innocence and I believe it, too.” Goode smiled at Johnny. “Mr. Gage, you are very lucky in your friends.”

“Yes, I am,” Johnny agreed, dazed.

“As I was saying, Dr Brackett attended the autopsy and they went out to your mother’s home yesterday afternoon. I believe that Dr Brackett found something and it is being tested, but I can’t say any more than that, as I don’t know what they found, or what they are testing it for.” Goode grimaced. “Sorry, I’m not usually this incompetent, but your friends appear to have got the wind at their heels and are unstoppable.”

“I can believe that,” Johnny smiled.

“Rest assured, we will get you out of here, tomorrow at the latest. Now, tell me the truth. Is everything all right? Why are your feet bare?”

Grimacing, for he really didn’t want to go into details, Johnny hesitated. “I lost my shoes the first night in a minor scuffle that broke out,” he confessed finally. “But it’s fine; I’m not hurt. The food’s pretty lousy.” He shrugged. “It’s jail. I guess it’s meant to be bad.” He kept his mouth shut about Sergeant. With any luck, the man would be off duty until Johnny had gone.

“And those do come off, don’t they?” Goode asked, pointing at the cuffs.

“Yeah, they come off,” Johnny agreed.

“Well, I guess that’s all, unless there’s something you want to ask me?”

“No, nothing.” Johnny actually wanted to beg the man to break him out of this hellhole, but he knew there was a limit to what Goode could do and he appeared to be doing everything possible.

Rising, Goode knocked on the door. “Goodbye, Mr. Gage. I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

The door opened and the warden looked in. Johnny’s heart sank right into his bare feet; it was Sergeant. “All finished now, sir?” he asked politely. Johnny felt his skin crawl.

“Yes, thank you. I’ll be back tomorrow.” Goode smiled at Johnny, wondering at the suddenly still figure behind him. “Goodbye, Mr. Gage.”

“Bye,” Johnny mumbled, his heart racing. The door to the room closed and locked behind his lawyer and Johnny sat frozen in the chair.

All too soon, the door opened again and there was Sergeant. His usual sarcastic grin was in place and he held a handful of chains. “Dawson took a risk bringing you like that, Injun,” he commented. “I know you’re a murderer and I’m not taking any risks with you. Stay still if you know what’s good for you.” He quickly hooked up the leg irons and then grudgingly slid a pair of shoes onto Johnny’s feet. It felt great to get his feet off the cold floor. “Get up.”

Rising, Johnny followed Sergeant out of the room. He was sure there was going to be more to this little vendetta than there had been so far. He was right. Sergeant took him back to his cell. Everyone else was at lunch. “Get in there.” Johnny was hungry, and when he hesitated before going into the cell, Sergeant shoved him in the back. Johnny stumbled and couldn’t get his feet under him and tumbled to the floor.

“For disobeying that order, you can go without food today,” Sergeant told him.

Picking himself carefully off the floor, Johnny took a step closer to the bars, wincing at the pain in his lacerated knees. “What about the chains?” he asked in a carefully neutral voice.

“What about them?” Sergeant turned and walked away.

**********

It seemed to take forever for the test results to come back. Roy was consumed with anxiety, even after Goode phoned to say he had seen Johnny and that his friend was fine. Roy’s anxiety was catching and Cap and Brackett were just as on edge as the paramedic.

It was late afternoon when the phone finally rang. “Dr Brackett, you were right,” the ME told him. “The drug levels in Mrs. Gage’s blood were completely right for the dosage she had been prescribed. However, when we analyzed the tea that you found, we discovered that, amongst other ingredients, there was a lot of liquorice, which is contra-indicated for someone who has had a stroke. If Mrs. Gage was drinking more than a couple of cups of tea per day, that certainly would explain her high blood pressure. There were some other anomalies in her bloods and if it hadn’t been for the young woman who works here and is an Indian, we might never have got to the bottom of them. However, we tested and found that they were consistent with an ancient remedy that is still used by some of the older people hereabouts. Fortunately, it didn’t do any harm, just knocked her electrolytes off somewhat. It is safe to say that Mrs. Gage was not murdered. I’ve phoned the police and passed on the news.”

“Thank you,” Brackett said fervently. “It’s just what we wanted to hear.” He hung up the phone and turned to the others. “It was the tea!” he told them excitedly. “Johnny is innocent, as we knew all along.” He quickly rang Goode, who promised to get in touch with the judge and get back to them.

When he did phone back, the news what not what they had hoped. “The judge agrees that Johnny is innocent, but says it is too late tonight to expect the jail to release him. The release form will be sent to the jail first thing in the morning and we can collect him about 10am.”

“That’s not right!” Roy protested. “He’s innocent! He shouldn’t be kept in jail for another minute.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Goode did not mention that it was always easier to get put into jail than to get out of it. “I’ll meet you in the morning and take you out to the jail.”

“Thank you.” Roy didn’t feel in the least grateful, but he knew the lawyer was doing everything he could.

Their excitement quenched, the three men spent a quiet evening, hoping that nothing more could go wrong.

**********

It was a long, hungry day. The other men returned to their cells after lunch and Johnny overheard one complaining that their exercise period outside had been cancelled again because of the cold weather. Johnny couldn’t imagine really wanting to go and spend some time outside in this, but he sensed the undercurrent of restlessness building up. These men had been confined for longer periods than they were used to and things could well come to a flash point. Johnny hoped he was long gone before then.

Time for the evening meal came and the rest of the men were taken away. Johnny was starving and even the usually unappetizing meal seemed an attractive proposition at the moment. His body ached from the chains he still wore; it seemed that Sergeant was going to leave him in them for some indefinable period.

As if thinking of the man had conjured him up like an unwanted genie, Sergeant appeared beyond the bars. “Get up!” he ordered. “This isn’t a rest home. Time you did some work.”

With no other option, Johnny did as he was told and was handed a broom. Since sweeping was obviously going to be beyond him with his hands cuffed to the belly chain, Sergeant cuffed his hands together in front of him and stepped back, watching.

He swept the same length of corridor about five times, each time Sergeant telling him it wasn’t done properly. His one verbal protest gained him a blow from the nightstick, so Johnny just continued to sweep. He could smell the food from the refectory and his stomach growled loudly, much to Sergeant’s amusement.

It was only when they heard the sounds of the men coming back to the cells that Sergeant relented. Johnny turned to shuffle back to his cell when there were raised voices and the sounds of scuffling. He turned, wondering what was going on. Sergeant stepped up beside him and before either of them could do anything, a wave of humanity bore down on them as the prisoners expended their unspent energies in an uprising against the wardens.

Neither of them stood a chance. Johnny never knew quite what happened. One moment he was standing there, the next he was falling and then he knew no more as his head stuck the iron bars of the cell behind him. Sergeant was swept away by the charge. Johnny was stepped on and trampled as the men surged unheedingly along the corridor, seeking for a freedom they wouldn’t find.

**********

The first thing he was aware of was hands touching him. Moaning, Johnny forced open his eyelids and peered at the person leaning over him. He didn’t recognize the man and he could barely think for the pounding in his head. Dimly, he became aware that the man was removing something from his body and for a moment, Johnny thought he’d been mugged and was being robbed. Then he heard the chinking of chains and memory came rushing back. He was in prison, although he had no recollection of why he was lying on the floor with chains on.

“He’s coming round,” the man said and another face appeared in Johnny’s vision. Johnny realized that both faces were slightly fuzzy. Concussion his brain said. “Let’s get him back in his cell.”

“Shouldn’t he go to the infirmary?” asked the other man, sounding somewhat nervous.

“There isn’t any room,” the first man replied. “He’ll be fine in his cell.”

“There’s a lot of blood here,” the second quavered.

“Head injuries bleed a lot,” snapped the first. “Now get a hold of yourself and help me move him. We have other things to do tonight.”

The men grabbed Johnny by both arms and pulled him to his feet. That was a bad move, Johnny thought, as his head swam dizzily and his stomach flipped over. He was less than pleased to be dragged backwards, but he couldn’t seem to find his voice to protest and when he was dumped unceremoniously onto his bunk, he rolled over and vomited over the side.

There wasn’t much to come up; he hadn’t eaten all day, but the wardens jumped back making disgusted noises. Johnny was indifferent to their disgust. He was barely aware of them leaving the cell and locking it behind him. He rolled back over and winced as the back of his head touched the pillow. It was more comfortable to lie on his side and Johnny allowed his eyes to drift shut, despite knowing he should stay awake. He slid into the darkness, unaware of the shouts and noise and lights and general hubbub that echoed through the jail as the last of the men were returned to their cells.

**********

The phone ringing brought Roy to awareness and he grabbed for it, conscious that a ringing phone during the night is never a good thing. His first thoughts were of his family at home in LA. “Roy DeSoto.”

“This is Paul Goode.” The lawyer sounded wide awake and tense. “I’ve just had a phone call from the police. There has been a riot at the jail. The judge has allowed your friend to be released now if you can go and get him?” It was phrased as a question, but Goode was pretty sure he knew the answer.

“Is Johnny all right?” Roy asked, scrambling out of bed. “And yes, of course we can come and get him.”

“As far as I know, he’s fine,” Goode replied. “I’ll be outside the motel in 10 minutes to take you over.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Roy promised and quickly threw on some clothes before going to rouse his friends.

It was raw outside and the car heater was taking its own sweet time to warm up. They huddled in their coats and Roy held the big coat he had brought for Johnny so that it was at least a little warm. Goode’s car appeared and they peeled out of the parking lot behind it. There was no other traffic on the road and as they drove, it began to snow.

It was, perhaps, a 15 minute drive to the prison. It materialized out of the snow, a low, squat building, grey and drab with few visible windows. Goode leaned out of his car to talk to the guard on the gates, which were opened to permit them to enter, closing with a hollow boom behind them.

Leaving the warmth of the car was hard and they huddled together, heads bowed against the strengthening wind as the main door was opened to admit them. Inside, the harsh light from the uncovered bulb showed the block-work walls painted the same color as the concrete floor. They were asked to take a seat while Johnny was brought through to them.

“What happened here tonight?” Roy asked Goode in an undertone.

“From what I was told, the men had been restless because the weather has been too bad for them to go out and burn off energy,” Goode explained. “And tonight, there was a riot. I don’t know all the details yet, but believe me, I will find out.” He’d lost his audience though, because Roy let out a gasp and jumped to his feet as Johnny came into sight.

The younger man was pale and his eyes looked unfocused. He was unsteady on his feet. He stopped while they unlocked the necessary doors and Roy could see him swaying. He exchanged glances with Brackett, who also looked concerned. There was something far wrong with Johnny.

It was reassuring for them to see that he wasn’t in handcuffs. His clothes were rather wrinkled, but his own at least. As he stepped through the last barrier, the warden with him let go of his arm and Johnny staggered as the support was withdrawn. It didn’t matter, because Roy was there, catching him by the arm and moments later, Cap was on the other side, supporting Johnny over to the chairs where Dr Brackett was waiting to have a good look at him.

The amount of dried blood in Johnny’s hair was quite spectacular. Brackett and Roy exchanged another worried glance. “Let’s get him out of here,” Brackett suggested. “We can take care of him better at the motel.” Normally, they would have headed for a hospital, but after what had happened when Johnny’s mom died, none of them even suggested it.

As Roy bundled him into the big coat he had brought, Johnny looked at him. “Roy?” His voice was hoarse. “I think I’m concussed,” he mumbled.

“It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Roy agreed, threading his partner’s arms through the sleeves of the coat. “So you stay awake for me on the ride to the motel, okay? It’s not far away.”

“I’ll try,” Johnny agreed. He had a killer headache and all he wanted to do was sleep it off, but if Roy wanted him to stay awake, he would try.

Glancing round to see if everyone was ready to go, Roy saw the lawyer was talking to the warden who had brought Johnny out. Their faces were grave and Roy felt a pang of anxiety in his gut. Was there going to be a problem with taking Johnny away? However, Goode simply nodded and turned away, joining the group around the now-free paramedic. “Everyone ready?” he asked.

The journey back was pretty much as silent as the journey to the prison had been, apart from Roy nudging Johnny every few minutes and asking if he was awake and Johnny’s mumbled replies, which always sounded sleepy. Still, he was awake and that was what counted.

Back at the motel, Roy and Cap settled Johnny in the twin room Roy had and swiftly undressed him before tucking him under the covers with the electric blanket going. Goode followed them in and sat out of the way in a chair. Brackett went to his own room and picked up his medical kit and returned.

“Have you got a license to practice in Montana, doc?” Goode asked from his corner. There had been enough trouble with the law without adding anything else.

“Yes, I do,” Brackett replied without missing a beat. “I was up here on a working holiday a few years ago and got it then. And yes, it is still valid.” He sat on the side of the bed. “Roy, can you get a BP for me? Hank, I need some warm water to bathe Johnny’s head with.” As Cap headed into the bathroom without a word, Brackett shook Johnny slightly. “Johnny? Open your eyes for me.”

It took a moment, but Johnny’s eyes slowly opened. The brown orbs were glazed and slightly bloodshot. Brackett flashed his penlight into them and Johnny winced. “Don’t,” he protested.

“Pupils equal and reactive, but sluggish,” Brackett reported.

“BP 130/110,” Roy added. It was high, but could have been worse. “Pulse 85 and respirations 22.”

Cap came in with a basin of warm water and a wash cloth. Between them, Brackett and Roy sat Johnny up and Brackett cleaned the gash on the back on Johnny’s head. It wasn’t too deep, but it was long and had bled quite a bit. “You’re going to need stitches there,” Brackett told his young patient. He gently laid Johnny down again, then pulled back the covers to listen to his chest and examine the rest of him.

There was bruising all over his body, but most of it was superficial. There were several deeper bruises on his hips and under questioning, Johnny admitted they were inflicted by the guard. Some of the bruises, they surmised, were from the rioting. Johnny’s knees were badly skinned and there were marks on his wrists that Brackett knew came from handcuffs. His temper was burning by now and he fought to keep his anger from his young friend, as he knew Johnny, dazed as he was, would think that Brackett was angry with him, when the opposite was true. Silently, he glanced at Goode, while still running his fingers gently down Johnny’s limbs. Goode saw the marks and nodded.

“Nothing broken, Johnny,” he commented. “Your chest is a bit congested, but I’ve heard it worse.”

“It hurts,” Johnny commented.

“I bet it does,” Brackett agreed. He really wanted to do a full skull series, but that wasn’t going to be happening. “Johnny, I’m going to give you something for pain, then numb your head and stitch it, okay?”

“Then can I sleep?” he asked plaintively.

“For a while,” Brackett smiled. He drew up some meperidine and shot it into Johnny’s thigh. The young man winced as the needle pierced his skin, but began to relax after a few moments. Brackett let it take effect while he sorted out a local anesthetic. With Roy holding Johnny’s head, he carefully numbed the area to be stitched and then cleaned it a bit more thoroughly before starting stitching. Roy kept Johnny’s head still and resting against him and his partner even began to doze off. Once it was done, Brackett put a dressing on it and wound gauze around Johnny’s head to keep the dressing in place. Then he finally allowed the weary young man to slide into welcome sleep.

Once he was soundly asleep, the four men gathered in the tiny bathroom. It was too cold to stand outside and neither Roy nor Brackett wanted to leave Johnny alone for a minute, but they didn’t want to waken him by talking, either.

“He’d been chained,” Roy stated, his voice flat, trying to contain his anger. “And for more than just a few minutes.” He glared at Goode, as though it was the lawyer’s fault.

“Yes, I saw that,” Goode agreed. “That is something else that I will be bringing up when I lodge a complaint for unlawful arrest. I’m also going to look into that doctor. I don’t know why he acted the way he did; he had no call to have Johnny arrested on the paltry evidence alone. Nor had he the authority to make Davies arrest Johnny. Something fishy is going on around here and I’m going to get the state police to look into it and if necessary take it to the state legislature and my representatives. Hell, if that doesn’t work, then I’m sure the media would love the story.”

“Johnny won’t want this dragged up,” Cap worried. “He’s a very private person.”

“I can understand that, Captain Stanley,” Goode assured him. “But we can’t let this slide. What these people did to John – and possibly his mother – was not right.”

“His mother?” Roy was shocked.

“I might be wrong,” Goode admitted, “but I just have the feeling that perhaps the doctor didn’t do as much for Mrs. Gage as he might have done. It might all be above board, but since I’m going to be delving into this, I might as well look at all aspects.” He sighed. “There’s something else. There was one guard in particular at the prison that had it in for Johnny.”

“Who?” Roy barked and Cap put a hand on his arm.

“He was one of the senior wardens and he was only known as Sergeant,” Goode explained. “He was notorious as being very hard-nosed with the prisoners.”

“Was?” Brackett asked sharply.

Goode nodded. “He died in the riot. As far as I can make out, he had been targeting the men more and more, especially the minorities. The guard who spoke to me said that when the prisoners learned John hadn’t been allowed to eat, that seemed to be the last straw.”

“Not allowed to eat?” Roy was about beside himself. The fact that the guard had died made no impact on him at that moment. He was far too incensed about the mistreatment his friend had suffered. “What was going on in there?”

“That’s what we have to find out,” Goode replied. “There’s a lot going on here and we need to get to the bottom of it.”

“The sooner we’re back in Los Angeles the better,” Brackett sighed. “I’d like to get flights booked for tomorrow.”

“We can’t do that,” Roy told him soberly.

“Why not?” Brackett looked confused.

“We still have to arrange a funeral for Johnny’s mom.”

For a moment, Brackett couldn’t believe that he had forgotten. Of course they couldn’t leave yet, although the instinct to get home was overwhelming. He wanted Johnny safely in Rampart where he could keep a close eye on him for a few days; make sure he was over his ordeal and this concussion. That clearly was not going to happen and what was more, his patient was going to have to do more moving around than Brackett was really happy with. Even flying home was going to be an event, but an hour and a bit’s discomfort was preferable to a couple of days of stress arranging and then attending a funeral. He sighed. “Of course,” he nodded. “How could I forget?”

“I’m going to get the ball rolling first thing in the morning,” Goode promised. “In the meantime, I’m going home to get some sleep.”

“I’ll sit with Johnny,” Roy offered. “I’ll waken him in a couple of hours.”

“Hank and I will get some sleep, too, then take over from you a bit later,” Brackett promised.

They all trooped out into the bedroom. Johnny was still sleeping, undisturbed, looking all of a defenseless 16. Roy went over and sat down on the other bed. The others let themselves out into the cold night and stood for a moment. “See you in the morning,” Goode offered and they shook hands.

It was with heavy hearts that Brackett and Cap took themselves off to bed.

***********

It was a long few hours for Roy as he watched over his friend, waking him regularly. He was still angry over Johnny’s treatment by several people in this town and even angrier that in a supposedly free and equal society, there was still prejudice of this kind. He was beginning to calm down when there was a quiet knock on the door and he opened it to find Dr Brackett there, bearing a cup of steaming coffee.

“How’s he doing?” Brackett asked, handing Roy the cup.

“All right,” Roy sighed. “He wasn’t too happy to be woken, I can assure you.”

“I can imagine,” Brackett agreed. “I’ll take over from you here. Why don’t you go and have a shower in my room and catch some sleep if you need to.”

“I’ll take the shower, but I’ll pass on the sleep, thanks,” Roy replied. “I’m not that tired.” He drank the coffee while Brackett woke Johnny and examined him. Satisfied that Johnny seemed to be doing all right, he went off for his shower.

When he got back, Cap was there, too and Johnny was being persuaded to eat something. Johnny looked slightly better than he had the previous night to Roy’s critical eye. He looked up and smiled at Roy. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey yourself,” Roy replied. “How are you feeling?”

“My head aches,” Johnny admitted, “but I don’t feel as bad as I did yesterday.”

“Still, I don’t want you overdoing things today,” Brackett reminded him.

“I’m not going to forget,” Johnny smiled. “As if I could have got on a plane, anyway.” There was a teasing glint in his eyes. Cap was grinning openly, too.

“I think I’ve missed something here,” Roy mentioned.

“Remember our conversation during the night?” Brackett asked. “I said I wanted to book plane tickets for today for all of us.”

“Yeah,” Roy frowned, his thoughts going back to the rest of that conversation.

Brackett looked chagrined. “Of course, smarty-pants here reminds me that he can’t fly at the moment anyway because he has a concussion.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t remember,” Johnny joshed.

“It was the middle of the night and we had just dragged your butt out of jail, if you remember,” Brackett returned, but nobody was fooled by his stern demeanor. “We kind of had other things on our minds; namely getting you out of here and getting back to somewhere warm.”

“Yeah, we believe you, doc,” Johnny laughed. He caught his breath slightly as the laughter jarred his bruises.

“Have you told him?” Roy asked.

The laughter faded from Johnny’s face at once. “Told me what?” he asked. He looked from face to face as Brackett shook his head. “Told me what?” he repeated.

Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Roy quietly told Johnny all the things that had happened, concluding with the news that the lawyer was going to be looking into various charges. Johnny sat silently, his breakfast forgotten. The last thing he wanted was for his ordeal to be splashed in the media, but he could see that the threat would be useful. “I just want to forget it,” he whispered at last.

“I know,” Roy agreed softly. “But we can’t let this happen to someone else. While the sergeant may be dead, he wasn’t the only person who made your life a misery. The doctor that ordered your arrest, the judge who seemed to think it was okay for an innocent person to be kept in jail, the police who assumed you were guilty simply because you are an Indian. It all needs to be looked into, Johnny.”

“I guess it does,” he agreed, his head still down.

“There’s one other thing, Junior,” Roy said.

Slowly, the dark head came up and Johnny looked at Roy, his face full of an unnamed fear. “Another?” he echoed.

“There is a chance – a faint chance – that the doctor who treated your mother did not do everything for her that he could have done,” Roy explained. “Paul Goode is going to look into that, too. It may mean a delay on your mother’s funeral; I don’t know.”

“There’s been an autopsy,” Brackett reminded him. “So that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“We’ll need to find out,” Roy insisted. “Then we can make whatever arrangements Johnny wants.”

“Mom wanted a traditional ceremony,” Johnny mumbled. “We need to speak to the tribal leaders to put that in place.” He sighed. “Guess I’d better go out and do that today.” He looked round at his three friends as they all reacted to that statement. “What? I can’t leave it any longer. I want to get out of here as much as you do.”

“We’ll see how you do getting up in a while,” Brackett decided. “Meantime, you just let your breakfast settle.” He rose. “I’ve got a couple of things to do,” he added. “I’ll be back soon to see how you are.”

Johnny looked unhappy as Brackett left. “Do you really think things are that bad here?” he asked. “That the doctor didn’t do everything he could for Mom?”

“I don’t know,” Roy replied. “You seemed to think things were fine when you got here and I know you were stressed, but you would probably have seen if something seemed off.”

“I guess.” Johnny thought back to his arrival at the hospital. The doctor had been standoffish and disinterested, but lots of doctors were like that. Not everyone cared as much as the doctors at Rampart. Besides, it was a small town hospital, with few beds and fewer resources. Johnny had had to make it clear to the doctor that he could not afford to pay for medicines indefinitely, but that was fairly routine for the area, too. “I don’t remember anything,” he offered. “It all seemed pretty normal.”

“It probably was then,” Roy assured him. “We went out to your house,” he went on. “I took your clothes and as many personal things as I could find; photos and the like. I wasn’t prying, but I didn’t want them there just in case something happened. I wanted them to be safe for you.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Johnny responded. He sounded pleased. “That was really nice of you. I want to go to the house while I’m out there today, just to be sure there’s nothing else that I want.”

“As long as you don’t overdo it,” Roy reminded him. “Why don’t you try and sleep now and we can have an early lunch and head out after that?”

“That sounds like a plan,” Johnny agreed and was asleep in five minutes.

***********

It was clear that Dr Brackett was still doubtful about Johnny taking the trip out to speak to the tribal elders, but he held his tongue and accompanied the others as Cap drove carefully through the snow. Johnny directed them without any difficulties, although Cap couldn’t see any landmarks to guide him. When they arrived, Johnny refused all offers to go in with them and they couldn’t argue in the face of his resolution.

It didn’t take long and when Johnny emerged from the small building, he climbed back into the car and sighed deeply. “That’s done,” he offered. “Can we go to my home now please?”

Again, his directions were impeccable and they arrived there without any problem. They could see Johnny was tired now and this time Roy was not going to accept a veto about going in with him. He expected an argument, but Johnny acquiesced quietly.

The house was cold and felt empty. It looked pretty empty, too, for many of the bits of furniture had disappeared. Johnny seemed unperturbed by this fact and just looked around. Roy shivered. He would swear there was almost a freezing fog inside the house.

There wasn’t much in the way of things that Johnny wanted to take. He produced a couple of things from hiding places that Roy would never have thought of, but there really wasn’t anything of value in the house. He had his mother’s rings, which she had told him, years before, were his when she died, and a couple of necklaces she had, but Roy had already removed the photographs and apart from the quilt his grandmother had made, which still lay in the heap of blankets that now were on the floor where the couch had been, there was nothing else. Johnny carried them outside and looked back at the small house. It seemed even smaller than he had remembered and he knew he would never come back here.

“Ready?” Roy asked finally, as Johnny had been standing there in the cold for longer than he was happy with.

“Ready,” Johnny agreed. He had returned home out of a sense of duty and he had done what he could to make his mother’s last days as comfortable as possible, all but beggaring himself in the process, but he didn’t regret it. His mother had gone on to a better place and although Johnny’s heart ached with sorrow for her passing, he knew that, despite appearances to the contrary, he was not alone in the world.

With a sigh that acknowledged that things changed all the time, Johnny climbed into the warm car with the men who comprised part of his family. Johnny knew, better than most, that family did not always mean blood. In the men of Station 51, the ER staff in Rampart and particularly in Roy, he had found a family.

**********

It was dark when they got back. Johnny deposited the items he had retrieved in his motel room and then joined the other men for the evening meal. He was tired and his head ached and his body was sore, but he felt that he was nearly done here. His mother’s funeral, provided all was well, would go ahead the following day. He hoped that after that, he could put all this behind him and forget about it.

Although he wanted to stay awake and talk with his friends, by the time the meal had ended, he was yawning. Johnny tried to insist the men stay on and he would go back to the motel alone, but they were having none of that. They weren’t prepared to let him out of their sight yet. Sighing, but appreciating the concern, Johnny capitulated gracefully.

In actual fact, he didn’t feel too good over and above the concussion symptoms. His chest was feeling rather tight and he suspected he was coming down with a cold. That was the last thing he needed. His head ached enough without his sinuses getting clogged and adding to his misery.

“You’re a bit warm,” Roy commented as he helped Johnny into bed.

“Don’t feel it,” Johnny admitted wearily. In fact, he was shivering a bit. “Don’t tell me I’m sick.”

“No, I’ll leave that for Dr Brackett,” Roy joked. He turned serious again as he sat down on the side of the narrow bed. “There’s been a lot going on, Junior,” he reminded his partner. “Emotionally as well as physically. It’s not really a surprise that you’ve come down with something. I expect us all to come down with a cold, too, after coming from the warmer weather in LA.”

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” Johnny scoffed. “You don’t get a cold from being cold.”

“Maybe not, but it sure lowers your resistance to bugs,” Roy defended himself. As Johnny slithered down beneath the covers, Roy moved to sit on the other bed. “Try to get some sleep.”

“All I seem to do is sleep,” Johnny complained. “I hoped that I’d hear tonight about the funeral,” he added wistfully, pulling the covers right up to his neck.

“I’m surprised we haven’t,” Roy agreed. He glanced at his watch. It was still early. “I’ll give Goode a ring and find out what’s going on.” He rose to go through the pockets of his jacket to find the lawyer’s card. There was a knock on the door, so Roy opened it, finding Cap, Brackett and Goode on the other side. He stepped back to allow them in. Johnny pushed himself up into a sitting position and shivered slightly.

“Well?” he asked, knowing he was being rude but too impatient to hunt for his manners.

“The funeral can go ahead tomorrow as planned,” Goode replied, smiling. “The undertaker already has the body and the instructions and its set for 10am. Is that all right with you?”

“That’s fine,” Johnny agreed, feeling a wash of sadness. “Thank you.”

“I spoke with the medical examiner, who had seen your mother’s medical records,” Goode went on, taking the seat he was offered. The other men sat on the beds. “The doctor’s care of your mother initially was very good. Unfortunately, it took some time to get her here, as the stroke occurred while your mother was alone, as I’m sure you know. It wasn’t until a relative found her some time later that she was admitted to hospital.”

“Yes, I knew that,” Johnny replied. “I’m glad he was good to her.” He looked away, his eyes suddenly full of tears.

Embarrassed, Goode carried on speaking, allowing Johnny to get himself under control. “Apparently, he only has problems with male Indians. He thinks the women are downtrodden and has a theory that when they die unexpectedly, they almost certainly have been murdered because they have become a burden to the men.”

“I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life,” Cap declared.

“He’s been suspended for the moment by the hospital administrators while they do an investigation into his conduct,” Goode informed them. “I’ve also been in contact with the state police. They are going to do an investigation, but I have persuaded them to wait until after the funeral tomorrow before they start asking questions. Things could get unpleasant around here when they do start. This is a small town. The cops and the judge are being above the likes of us and therefore are exempt from the rules that govern we lesser creatures.”

“How unpleasant?” Roy asked uneasily.

“I don’t know exactly, but there could be attempts to make us withdraw the charges, there’ll be name calling at the very least.” Goode made a face. He also feared physical retaliation, but he didn’t really want to bring that up. No point in scaring them off.

“And we’ll have to stay here until they say we can leave, won’t we?” Brackett asked, frowning.

“I’m afraid so,” Goode replied.

“Better get used to being shouted at in the street,” Johnny muttered. “We probably ought to buy some food, because they might not serve us in the restaurant.”

“If things get too bad, the state police might take you into protective custody,” volunteered Goode. He was just trying to reassure them, but Johnny flinched violently.

“I’m not being locked up again!” he cried. His memories of the jail were all too fresh.

“It won’t come to that,” Roy soothed.

“But it might!” Johnny shouted. “It might come that we get chucked out of the motel! It might come that they corner us somewhere and beat us to death! It might come that they make an example of me and hang me from a tree somewhere! This is why I didn’t want to do this! It’s different in a big city, like LA, but this is rural, small town America and I’m an Indian! That changes everything!” He coughed. Roy silently handed him a glass of water and he took a sip. “Sometimes it’s best not to be friends with the Indian.”

The other men looked shocked, apart from Goode, who knew there was truth in what Johnny had just said. When Johnny was growing up, there were always stories told to the children about the things that could happen to Indians at the hands of whites. A lot of them were simply that – stories and completely untrue, but Johnny knew of a boy he had gone to school with who had been viciously assaulted and had bled to death from his injuries after a white girl had claimed she had been raped by an Indian boy. The truth had eventually come out that the baby was her boyfriend’s, but it was too late to save Johnny’s schoolmate. The boy had been barely 15. Unfortunately, prejudice was alive and well.

Once Johnny’s coughing was under control, Roy put the glass down. “Then it’s going to be tough,” he said resolutely, although there was a slight tremor in his voice.

“We’ve been through tough times before,” Cap agreed. “And we’re not running away from them now.”

“Exactly my thoughts,” Brackett agreed. “We aren’t simply fair-weather friends, Johnny. We’re in this for the long haul, come what may.”

“I don’t want you guys to get hurt because of me,” Johnny protested, touched by their declarations of loyalty.

“If we all stick together, we should be all right,” Roy assured him. “Safety in numbers? That’s not an old wives’ tale.” Johnny smiled slightly.

“I do appreciate what you’re saying…” he started.

“John,” Cap interrupted. “We’re staying, regardless of what happens.”

“I think you ought to get some rest,” Brackett told him. “Do you want something to help you sleep?” Johnny was as taut as a bowstring and Brackett knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep just now. The stress wasn’t good for the concussion. Johnny was pale, too.

“Why don’t you take it?” Roy coaxed. “I’ll be right here with you. Tomorrow will be a long day.”

“All right,” Johnny capitulated. His head was pounding and he felt anxious for his friends’ safety. Sleep would be a long time coming naturally, if it came at all and tomorrow would be a long day. He lay back as Dr Brackett drew up some diazepam and shot it into his hip. As Paul Goode bid them goodnight, Johnny slid into a drugged slumber.

**********

The next day dawned cold and foggy. Johnny was very quiet and had eaten almost nothing at breakfast. They drove out to the sacred grounds and the white men stood back and watched respectfully. The ceremony was beautiful, even if they understood not a word, and the eerie freezing fog provided the whole thing with an other-worldly spirit. Only when it was over did they realize that their feet were freezing and Cap and Brackett got back into the car while Roy waited for Johnny.

He was speaking to the few relatives he had. They had come to pay their respects. Johnny really didn’t know most of them. They were all much older than he, relatives of his mother’s parents, disapproving of the taint of white that was in his blood. They said what they had to and left. Johnny watched them go for a few moments, then turned to walk back to the car. He was almost numb with cold and his head was aching fiercely. He staggered slightly.

Instantly, Roy was at his side. “Come on, let’s get into the car,” he urged. He assisted his friend inside and went round the vehicle and got into the back beside him. Johnny sat with his eyes closed and tried to doze as they drove back, but he couldn’t quite drop off.

“You need to rest,” Brackett told him. They were sitting in the restaurant having something to eat and again, Johnny was only picking at his food. That alone told the others he was not feeling like himself. “Is it your head?”

“It’s aching,” he agreed. “I feel a bit sick.”

“Strict bed rest for 24 hours,” Brackett ordered. “You’ve been over doing it.”

“Aw, doc!” Johnny protested. “It’s just aching because it was cold.” Although Johnny had a warm hat, he had taken it off during the ceremony and had neglected to put it back on. The other men could attest to how cold it had been when they had taken their hats off, but they had put them back on as soon as they could.

“Bed!” Brackett replied implacably.

“You don’t need to come with me,” Johnny added as he rose to leave and the others rose with him. “I’m a big boy; I can put myself to bed.”

“Safety in numbers,” Roy reminded him as they all got to their feet. Sighing, Johnny said nothing more and they left the restaurant together.

At the motel, Johnny took a couple of Tylenol and climbed into bed. He was soon asleep and Roy sat reading a book for a while before finding himself nodding off. He quietly let himself out of the room and went to join Brackett and Cap. They sat and watched a football game on TV.

Everything hit the fan all at once. There was sudden shouting in the street and then the wail of sirens. Looking out, they saw state troopers on the streets and as the people milling about looking bewildered. “It’s begun,” Cap said.

**********

All that night, they heard shouting and sounds of fighting. Come dawn, they were all tired. Johnny was told quite categorically that he was not getting out of bed that day apart from to go to the bathroom and he actually felt lousy enough to agree. More than anything, he wanted to go home, back to LA and sunshine and forget about what had happened to him in this place.

His hopes were dashed when there was a knock at the door and a state trooper stood there with Paul Goode. He had come to take Johnny’s statement about his arrest and time in the jail. It was made very clear that nobody could stay apart from Johnny’s lawyer, not even his doctor, although Brackett protested.

“Doc, it’s fine,” Johnny told him wearily. “I just want it over with.” He watched them leave, then turned his attention to the state trooper.

It was part interrogation, part statement taking and the man was very thorough. Johnny told him everything he could remember about his mother’s death, his arrest and time at the jail. It was all too fresh in his mind and he wondered how long it would be before he stopped hearing the clang of the jail cell in his dreams, or wake up feeling those chains around his wrists.

“Thank you, Mr. Gage,” the trooper said as he put his pen away. “That can’t have been easy for you. I do have to warn you, too, that the people in this town are not happy with the actions we have had to take here today and for your own safety, I would advise you to stay close to your friends.”

“When can I go home?” Johnny asked.

“In a few days,” the man replied. “I’m sorry; I can’t be that definite yet. It depends on whether we get confessions or rely solely on your statements and those of the wardens at the prison.”

“So I’m public enemy Number One,” Johnny commented. He hoped he didn’t sound as scared as he felt.

“I’m afraid so,” agreed the trooper. “I’ll try and always have someone posted here at the motel, but we’re rather thin on the ground for another day or so, so I can’t guarantee he’ll always be there.”

“Thanks,” Johnny replied. One trooper, no matter how dedicated, wouldn’t be much use against a whole town anyway.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Goode apologized as the trooper left. “But it needed to be done.”

“I know,” nodded the paramedic. “It’s done now; I can’t take it back even if I wanted to. If you’ll excuse me now, I want to get some sleep.”

“Of course,” agreed the lawyer and he left. Johnny lay down and switched off the lights. Sleep was a long way away.

**********

The air felt cold and clear as Roy stepped from the stuffy bedroom to walk the few steps to the room he shared with Johnny. He stopped for a moment just to allow his body to cool and for the sharpness of the air to clear his tired brain. He felt like he could sleep for a week and he started to relax as he realized that things had quieted down. Maybe they would all be able to sleep tonight.

The street lamp that lit this part of the motel had gone out, he noticed vaguely. He probably ought to report that to reception, but it could wait until morning. He wasn’t planning on going anywhere tonight except bed and perhaps the shower before that. Sleep was definitely the main priority right now. He reached into his pants pocket for the room key and hoped he wouldn’t waken Johnny.

A shadow detached itself from the building and lunged at him, closely followed by another shadow. Roy was caught completely unaware and didn’t even have time to throw his hands up to defend himself. He gasped as a fist grazed his chin and his wits came back to him in a flash.

“Help!” he cried. “Help!”

The next moment, a fist buried itself in his stomach and the air rushed from his lungs. Darkness nibbled at the edges of his consciousness. A sharp pain in his ribs snatched away what little breath he had and Roy feared he was going to die out there in the cold at the hands of people he did not know.

Dimly, as his sight and hearing waned, he heard a familiar voice cry his name. “Roy! No!”

Then darkness overwhelmed him and he knew no more.

**********

Sleep had proved elusive to catch and keep. Eventually, Johnny gave up and just contented himself lying still, sometimes dozing, but mostly trying not to remember.

After a time, nature called and Johnny heaved himself out of bed and trundled off to the bathroom. He was due for some more Tylenol and took it before wandering back into the bedroom. He was fed up with staying in bed, but he had to admit that his headache was slightly better than it had been. The Tylenol was not making as much difference as he would have liked, but that was always the way with concussions and at least he wasn’t trapped in hospital.

He was trying to decide if he was hungry or not when he heard the sounds of a scuffle outside. Frowning, he moved over to the window, intending to draw the drape back and peer outside. He wasn’t sure if calling the police was still an option, after what had happened and then realized he was being dumb; the state troopers would be manning the station.

But all thoughts flew out of his head as he heard a desperate voice shouting for help. It was Roy! Johnny yanked open the door and barreled outside, intent only on saving his best friend from the people who appeared to be doing their very best to beat him to death!

**********

Roy’s shout alerted Brackett and Cap that something was wrong. Brackett threw open the door and took in the scene with a single glance. “Call the cops!” he shouted and rushed out to join the fray, even as Johnny, clad only in pajamas and in bare feet, hurled himself onto the nearest person.

It was the first time Brackett had been involved in a fight deliberately. Oh, a time or two he had got caught up in one in the ER, but it was rare. He might have had a fist fight as a kid, but he genuinely couldn’t remember. So it was with a good deal of trepidation that he ran over to the melee. “Hey!” he shouted, hoping to scare at least one of the attackers away. It didn’t work. None of them even glanced in his general direction. With a pang of fear, he dived into the fray.

It was all a bit of a blur. Brackett was subliminally aware of Roy lying motionless on the ground and Johnny coming off worst against someone else, but he was concentrating on not getting his brains beaten out. Dimly, he was aware of Hank running out of the motel room, swinging the odds in their favor.

The attackers didn’t seem to care that they were outnumbered. They kept on slugging until the moment they heard the sirens in the near distance. Then, they did their level best to disengage themselves from the fight, and Brackett found himself shoved onto his back as the man he had been fighting high-tailed it in the opposite direction. The second man broke away from Hank and Brackett shook his head to clear it and saw both his paramedics on the ground.

Scrambling to his feet, Brackett hurried over to them, Hank on his heels. Roy was unconscious, his face marked with red where the fists had hit him and it looked like his nose might be broken. His pulse was strong and already he was making small movements and sounds that foretold him regaining consciousness.

“Kel.” Hank was kneeling by Johnny and his face was grave. Brackett hurried over, his eyes automatically taking in the marks on his face, but his attention was directed to the knife blade sticking out of Johnny’s stomach.

***********

Thankfully, the young paramedic was too dazed to move. Brackett ignored the arriving cops and ran back into the motel room to grab a couple of towels and blankets. He stilled the shaking of his hands as he knelt in the snow beside Johnny, ripping the tough fabric into strips. Working quickly and carefully, he stabilized the knife, talking reassuringly the whole time, although he had no idea what he was actually saying and wrapped a blanket around Johnny’s shivering form.

“An ambulance is on the way,” reported one trooper, leaning over Brackett’s shoulder to look.

“Thanks.” Much as Brackett hadn’t wanted to go near the hospital when they got Johnny out of jail, he couldn’t wait to get his friend there now. Removing the knife in a hotel room was not high on his ‘to do’ list. He glanced over his shoulder to where Hank was kneeling by Roy. The other man was groaning as he came back to consciousness and was also wrapped in a blanket. “Keep Roy still until I get a chance to look at him,” he requested and then realized that he was teaching his grandmother to suck eggs. Hank knew that perfectly well.

The ambulance arrived very quickly, which was all for the good, since Johnny was so thinly clad. He was gasping with pain and Brackett had his hands full keeping Johnny’s hands away from the knife. The injured man’s instincts were to pull the knife out, but until they knew the extent of the damage, Brackett would not let him touch it. The attendants were not paramedics, but they were few and far between in this area. That wasn’t a huge problem because they were not that far from the hospital. Johnny and Roy were quickly loaded on board and Brackett jumped in the back with them. A trooper waited to escort Hank there in the hire car.

The doctor on duty at the small hospital that evening was very young. Brackett quickly up-dated him on both paramedics and assured the young man that he was licensed to practice in Montana. He had his credentials in his wallet. “I’ll deal with John if you want to take care of Roy,” he concluded.

“All right,” agreed the young intern nervously. He detailed one of the three nurses in the building to help Brackett and went off into a curtained cubicle with Roy. Brackett followed Johnny.

Compared to his ER at Rampart, the facilities were limited, but Brackett was more than grateful for them. He set the nurse to getting a fresh set of vitals while he cut away Johnny’s clothing. “Set up an IV,” he requested after the nurse gave him the vitals, detailing the bloods he wanted drawn. “Do you have a portable x-ray?”

“No, sir,” she replied, gathering the supplies she needed. “Dr Green will work it for you.”

“Dr Green?” Brackett queried. He liked her. “I’m sorry. I’m Dr Kelly Brackett. And you are?”

“Jean Wagner,” she replied, smiling. “Dr Green is the doctor who is looking after the other patient.” She picked up the blood she had drawn. “I’ll take this to the lab – it does have its own staff night and day – and ask Dr Green if he can do x-rays.”

“Thanks,” Brackett replied. As she left, he leaned over Johnny. “Johnny? How are you doing?”

“Get it out,” Johnny breathed between clenched teeth. “Just get it out.”

“Soon,” Brackett soothed, although he knew it couldn’t be soon enough for Johnny. “I’ll give you something for the pain, then we’ll get some pictures, then I’ll get it out, okay?”

The acknowledging noise was neither a sigh nor a groan, but was related to both. Brackett patted him and drew up some painkiller and injected it into Johnny’s hip. After a few moments, the younger man relaxed a little and his eyes closed for a moment. Brackett took the opportunity to more closely examine the knife where it entered Johnny’s belly, trying to gauge how far in it had gone. He assumed that Johnny was asleep, but when he straightened up, the dark eyes were looking at him, the pupils dilated from the drug. “How’s Roy?” he croaked.

“We’ll find out in a few minutes when the nurse comes back,” Brackett promised.

It was no more than the few minutes Brackett promised before the nurse returned. She reported that Roy had regained consciousness and was getting a skull x-ray. Johnny was next on the list and their tiny operating theatre was ready and waiting. “I’m afraid there isn’t an anesthesiologist available though,” she apologized in a quiet voice. “The nearest one is about 40 miles away and with the bad weather further upstate, he won’t get here before morning at the earliest.”

That was not the news Brackett wanted to hear, but he would have to improvise. It wouldn’t be the first time. “All right,” he nodded. “I’ll work under twilight sedation.” He preferred to let a specialist handle that kind of thing, but he had done a course on it and could handle it himself if need be. He hoped that the knife hadn’t gone in too far and that bleeding would be minimal. He heard a trundle of wheels and the nurse nodded to him.

“Dr Green is ready for you now.” She pulled the curtain back and released the brakes on the gurney. Brackett grabbed one end and she pushed the other, issuing instructions as to how to find the x-ray room. There weren’t many rooms and getting lost would have been pretty impossible. He stood outside while Dr Green squeezed himself into the tiny booth to take the x-rays, then Johnny was wheeled back.

“Roy?” he asked. The pain was creeping back and the urge to haul the knife out was almost overwhelming. Brackett must have sensed that, Johnny thought, for he kept one hand resting on Johnny’s hand all the time.

“He’s got a broken nose and a concussion,” Brackett told him. “But he’ll be fine and he’s asking about you.”

“Cap?”

“Cap’s with Roy and he’s fine, too.” In truth, both Brackett and Cap were scratched up a bit and would have a few bruises to show for their intervention in the fight, but right now the adrenaline was still flowing through their veins and they didn’t feel anything.

Dr Green popped his head through the curtains. “The x-rays are ready for you, doctor,” he reported. Brackett thanked him and left Johnny with Jean while he went out to the light box to look at them. Cap joined him there.

“How does it look?” he asked.

“Not as bad as I had feared,” Brackett replied, “but not as good as I had hoped for. We haven’t got an anesthesiologist available, so I’m going to have to remove it under twilight sedation. It’ll be tricky, especially if there’s internal bleeding.”

“Do you need an extra pair of hands?” Cap asked.

“That would be good,” Brackett nodded. “Thanks, Hank.” He nodded towards the other cubicle. “How’s Roy doing?”

“He’s concussed and the doctor is setting his nose right now. It was pretty straight, but he’s bruising already. Luckily, he hasn’t broken any ribs, but they’re going to be sore for a while, too.”

“Good.” Brackett’s mind was already on what he needed to do for Johnny. “I’ll get Johnny moved through to the OR. Do you need to get a drink or anything before we begin?”

“No, I’m good,” Cap assured him.

Pointing to a door that read ‘Scrub Room’ Brackett said, “I’ll see you in there.”

**********

By the time Brackett was ready to start, Dr Green had joined them, too. Jean was standing by with the instrument tray. Johnny was lying quietly on the table. Brackett leaned over him and smiled. “I’m going to give you the sedation now, Johnny. Hank will be right here beside you and Dr Green is here, too. I’ll waken you in a little while. Okay?”

“Okay,” Johnny agreed. He was feeling rather loopy from his last dose of painkillers. He tensed as he felt restraining straps going around his wrists and across his chest and legs, but having seen twilight sedation at work when Chet had had a dislocated shoulder put back, he knew that the patient could buck quite violently at the pain, even though they weren’t consciously aware of it. Then the drugs were shot into his IV and he drifted away at once.

Affixing the oxygen mask, Brackett charged Cap with watching his breathing. Dr Green stood by ready to assist wherever necessary. Brackett lifted the shears and cut away the strips of towel he had used to stabilize the knife and discarded them. He palpated carefully around the abdomen, watching Johnny for signs of pain. The younger man barely moved.

“All right, let’s do it.”

To say he wasn’t operating under optimum conditions was an understatement. By preference, Brackett would have had Johnny under a general anesthetic and had ICU on stand-by, along with several units of blood. He only had one unit on stand-by here, because that was all they had. There wasn’t a dedicated anesthetist watching over his patient’s breathing and heart rate. No, it wasn’t ideal at all. Still, it was all they had. Dr Green had been on the phone to find out the possibilities of a life-flight, but the weather had closed in and grounded the choppers. Brackett had no choice.

It took moments to ease the wicked blade out. Brackett let it clatter onto the tray and it lay there, glinting, the tip of the blade covered in blood. Brackett leaned over his patient as Jean wiped away the blood. Although the blood spilled over the lip of the wound, there was not a huge quantity and that eased Brackett’s mind. An artery hadn’t been hit and the bleeding was only moderate. He flushed the wound out with an antiseptic antibiotic solution and examined Johnny’s abdomen again. It was still soft. His probing fingers could find nothing that spoke of damage, so he had to take the chance and stitch the wound. If problems developed, they would have to deal with them then. He had no desire to open up his friend any further if it wasn’t necessary.

“Let’s waken him up,” he declared as Jean placed a bandage on the wound. He administered the necessary drugs and within a few moments, Johnny was mumbling and pulling against the straps that bound him to the table.

It took a few minutes before Johnny was fully awake. By then, Cap and Brackett had removed the restraints and Brackett was fairly sure that Johnny would have no memory of them at all. Wary of Johnny’s usually adverse reaction to anesthetic, Brackett had strategically placed an emesis basin in close proximity, but he had no call to use it. Johnny drifted comfortably on the drugs he’d been given, and after about half an hour, Brackett deemed it safe to move him through to the small male ward.

The only other occupant of the ward was Roy. He was asleep, breathing loudly though his mouth. His nose was packed and taped. Brackett would have given him humidified oxygen to help keep him comfortable, but that wasn’t available. He stirred as Johnny was brought him and propped himself up on an elbow to peer through swelling eyes at his partner. “How is he?” he asked nasally.

“Doing fine,” Brackett smiled. “Why don’t you get some rest?”

“Easier said than done,” Roy grumbled. His face throbbed and his head ached and his ribs made every movement difficult.

“Do you need something more for pain?” Brackett was reluctant to give too many drugs with a head injury, but Roy needed to rest. He picked up the paramedic’s chart and looked at it. Roy had only been given a minimal amount of pain relief and could safely have something stronger. Brackett scribbled the order down and went hunting for a nurse to get the drugs.

Once Roy was settled, Brackett sank into a seat. Cap was sitting nearby and looked utterly wrung out. He glanced over at Brackett. “I don’t know how you can do that,” he commented. “I was terrified something would go wrong while you were taking that knife out and if there’d been a lot of blood, I’d have probably embarrassed myself and passed out on the floor.”

“I doubt that,” Brackett chuckled. “You’re pretty tough, Hank.” He saw the other man wince as he moved. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, just a bit sore,” Hank replied. “It must be old age or something, but I’ve stiffened up since I sat down.”

Getting to his feet, Brackett went over. “Let’s have a look at you.” He quickly examined the fire captain, noting the bruised, reddened knuckles where he had clearly punched someone, and the scratches and bruises coming on his arms and body. “Hmm, I’m not surprised you’re sore,” he commented. “Let me get you something.” He rose, feeling rather stiff now himself. “Maybe I’d better let Green have a look at me, too.”

“We’re both too old for fighting,” Hank commented as Brackett left the room.

He soon returned with something mild for them both to relieve their aches and pains and a suggestion that they utilize the other two beds in the room. It was a suggestion they didn’t need to have repeated. They were both exhausted.

***********

Come morning, they had all had some sleep. Roy had found it difficult to get to sleep and it seemed to him that every time he dropped off, someone came and woke him asking damned stupid questions when they did so. Of course, he knew that was the procedure for a concussion, but he resented it all the same. His mouth was dry as he had no choice but to breathe through it and his eyes would barely open. He knew he must have matching black eyes and he felt altogether thoroughly out of sorts. His headache was no better, just to add to his misery.

In the other bed, Johnny slept on. He was still pale from the previous night. He had woken every time the nurse came in to wake Roy, and had listened anxiously for his partner’s answers, relieved each time that Roy was oriented to time and place. He felt ghastly; shivery and cold and his nose felt stuffy. His abdomen ached, which was a huge improvement over the agony of the knife the previous night.

The other two ‘guests’ had also been disturbed. Like Johnny, they too had woken every time the nurse came in. Brackett had even got out of bed a couple of times to check on his friends. He was relieved that Johnny seemed to be doing so well and had made sure that his painkillers were kept regular. He didn’t want the pain to get ahead of the young man.

Rising about 7.30, Brackett went to find somewhere to wash and get a cup of coffee and introduced himself to the daytime staff, who had just completed the handover from the night staff. The nurses were very pleasant and the junior doctor he spoke to was keen to talk about working in a big city ER. Brackett promised to chat to him about it later.

But the senior doctor who was on duty that morning was a good deal less welcoming. Dr Steiner was the doctor that had treated Johnny’s mother. He was barely polite to Brackett, but the visiting doctor could understand that. After all, he had been temporarily suspended, charged after having Johnny arrested and had had his treatment of Johnny’s mother investigated, although it had been completely above board. Now, not only did he have the man he had had arrested in his clinic, he had an out-of-state doctor there as well and that doctor was well respected and much more experienced than he was. It was almost enough to sour a saint, and Steiner was certainly not a saint.

Taking a cup of coffee into the ward for Cap, Brackett went over to speak to his two patients. Roy needed another 24 hours of rest and the hospital was as good as place as any for that, Brackett thought, for Johnny certainly would not be leaving for at least that long and Roy might as well be lying on a bed close by as sitting in an uncomfortable chair right by the bed.

His other patient didn’t seem to be doing quite as well. His temperature was slightly elevated and he shivered, despite being warm to the touch. Brackett anxiously checked his abdomen, probing the wound gently and feeling all round. The wound was clean and his abdomen was soft, although everything was very bruised and tender from both the original injury and the subsequent surgery. A listen to Johnny’s chest put everything in place for Brackett. “It sounds like you’ve got a thorough-going chest infection,” he told his miserable friend. “We’ll get a chest x-ray; see what’s going on in there. I’m going to change your antibiotics for something stronger.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder. “I guess running around barefoot in the snow wasn’t too good for you.”

While the x-ray was organized, Brackett explained to Johnny and Roy that he thought that the cold Johnny had had for the last day or so, combined with the trauma of the previous night, his exposure to the cold while he looked after his mother, the emotional trauma and lying in the snow in only pajamas had combined to give him a mild case of pneumonia.

As Brackett went off with Johnny, Cap and Roy looked at each other. “Is he going to be all right?” Roy asked, as though Cap knew.

“I hope so,” Cap replied. “I hope so.”

***********

It was no surprise that Dr Brackett was right; Johnny did have a mild case of pneumonia. However, they had caught it early and with a change of antibiotics, he hoped to get it knocked on the head pretty quickly. While they had been gone, one of the state troopers had come in and was still there, waiting for them all to be present so he could update them.

“We caught the two men who attacked you last night,” he reported. “Well, I call them men, but they’re just boys, really. Two of them, 18 and 19 and as drunk as skunks. We have no idea why they decided to attack you, Mr. DeSoto; I don’t think they’re any too clear on that point themselves. However, it seems the excitement from the other night had made them think that you guys were to blame. We’ve arrested them, obviously, but they are the only ones who have even mentioned you guys in a bad light. Everyone else is sympathetic to you.”

“We heard fighting the night before last,” Johnny remarked. He was lying curled on his side, a quite uncharacteristic position for him and his eyes had a sleepy droop to them. “What was that about?”

“It actually had nothing to do with any of this,” the trooper replied. “Two rivals gangs of lads in the town decided to have a stand-off. They made a lot of noise and there are some pretty sore and bruised boys going around, but apart from one store window, they didn’t do a lot of damage; not even to themselves. They talked a good talk, but apart from the noise, they couldn’t live up to it.”

“That’s a relief,” Cap commented.

“Anyway, just to be on the safe side until this is sorted out, there is a trooper on duty at the clinic door and another is at your disposal should you want to go back to the motel.”

“When is this going to be sorted out?” Brackett enquired.

“The judge arrives later this afternoon and preliminary hearings are set for tomorrow morning,” the trooper replied. “Most of them are formalities. Right now, we don’t know what anyone is going to plead, but we’ve been doing quite a bit of digging into files and asking questions and lots of things have come to light. The sergeant at the prison may have died, but his cohorts in the police station are in it up to their necks and if they don’t plead guilty and try and wangle some kind of plea bargain, I’ll eat my hat.”

“I’ll provide the condiments,” Brackett commented dryly and the trooper grinned.

“I imagine that you’ll probably be all right to head back home in two or three days,” he continued. “We’ll know more tomorrow, obviously. I’ll keep you up-to-date with everything that’s going on.” He rose and took his leave.

“Well.” Cap stretched. “I fancy a shower, a change of clothes and chat with my wife.”

“Me, too,” Brackett agreed. “Well, no offence, but I probably won’t chat to your wife, Hank. She might find it a bit odd, since we’ve only met once – or is it twice?”

“Don’t ask me,” Cap replied. “My wife knows everyone, or that’s how it seems to me.”

“I think you two ought to get some sleep,” Brackett suggested to his patients. He knew that neither of them had slept particularly well the previous night and they both needed the rest. “It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel after a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.”

“Sounds good,” Johnny mumbled. He was three-quarters asleep already.

“I guess,” Roy agreed. He was feeling decidedly unsettled and the idea that he had been beaten up by a couple of drunken kids for a kick was annoying. In fact, the news that everything might be all over and done with the following day and they might not have to go to court after all was annoying, even though he had been dreading it. It didn’t make any sense to him at all. Nonetheless, he kept his misgivings to himself and even closed his eyes and tried to make his body relax as Brackett and Cap took their leave and promised to be back in a few hours.

It didn’t work. Roy found himself lying on his back, gazing at the ceiling while his partner breathed noisily in his sleep a few feet away. Roy knew his concussion was probably at the back of all his feelings, but that didn’t make them go away. After a while, he got up carefully and shuffled to the bathroom. When he was done, he peered at his reflection in the mirror. To say he looked bad was a mega-understatement.

He was almost back in bed when the ward door opened and a doctor looked in. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly, entering the room. “Do you need anything?”

“I just can’t sleep,” Roy replied. He climbed laboriously back into bed and the doctor smoothed the covers up.

“Any particular reason do you think?” the doctor asked, taking his pulse. “Are you anxious about something? Do you feel ill? I’m Dr Steiner.”

“No, I feel okay,” Roy assured him. “My head aches and my face is sore, but I don’t feel ill. I guess it’s just the concussion and all the stuff that’s going on.”

“Stuff?” Noting down Roy’s pulse, the doctor looked up at him. “What kind of stuff?”

“Lots of stuff,” Roy answered bleakly. “My partner’s mother died, he was wrongly arrested for murder and hurt in prison and…” Belatedly, Roy realized who this doctor must be. He raised his eyes and saw the man gazing at Johnny, color blazing in his face.

“Yes,” he agreed stiffly. “It must be all the stuff. Excuse me.” Turning on his heel, Dr Steiner left the room.

With a groan, Roy dropped his head back on the pillows. How could he have been so tactless? He wasn’t usually the one who put his foot in his mouth, but boy! He had certainly done an outstanding job of that today. Roy stole a glance at Johnny, who was still asleep. He hadn’t expected that the doctor who had insisted on his partner’s arrest would be working in the hospital, but then, it was a small hospital and every staff member counted. Oh dear. His presence was going to make everything uncomfortable. Dr Brackett couldn’t be expected to be at the hospital with them all the time and if, lord forbid, something happened to either one of them, then Dr Steiner might well be the person who looked after them. Dear God, what had he done?

**********

He did eventually sleep, but it wasn’t the kind of sleep he needed. The nurse came in with some lunch and woke them both, but neither Roy nor Johnny was able to eat much. Roy’s problem was caused by guilt, and Johnny’s because he simply felt too ill to be hungry.

At Rampart, refusing food usually meant a visit from a doctor, but no one showed up. Roy didn’t know how to feel about that. Should he be glad because nobody was fussing about it, or should he be worried? He really wasn’t sure at all and he was highly relieved when Brackett and Cap arrived back in the middle of the afternoon.

His relief didn’t last all that long, however. Cap looked unhappy and Brackett looked as though he was about to explode. Neither face was good news. Roy knew he had been right to worry. “What’s happened?” he asked fearfully. He really didn’t know how he was going to deal with any more catastrophes; he had had enough already.

“The esteemed head of this clinic, Dr Steiner, has issued instructions that no members of the medical staff can treat either of you,” Brackett ground out. “No nurses, no doctors; nothing!”

“What?” Roy was dumbfounded. While he had worried about what Steiner might do, he had never in his wildest dreams imagined this scenario. He shot a worried glance at Johnny, who was still sleeping, although starting to stir. “Can he do that?”

“It seems so,” Brackett growled. “Quite how he equates that with the Hippocratic Oath is beyond my understanding, though.”

“What are we going to do?” Roy asked. Johnny needed to be in the hospital; he was too sick to go elsewhere.

“Nothing right now,” Brackett replied, trying to calm down. “I don’t want to move Johnny at the moment. We’ll stay here overnight with you and tomorrow we’ll go back to the motel. I need to make some plans before we do that, though.” He picked up Roy’s chart and started perusing it.

“This is my fault,” Roy confessed.

“How do you work that one out?” Cap asked, exchanging a perplexed glance with Brackett.

“Dr Steiner came in here earlier,” explained the guilty man. “He asked if I was all right and I started telling him about what was going on and…” He glanced at the other men. “He glared at Johnny and left. I didn’t mean to upset him, but he asked me about the stuff I said was going on…”

“Roy!” Cap interrupted. “This isn’t your fault,” he insisted. “Dr Steiner knew you were both in here. I don’t know what his motives were for coming in, but he knew who you were. Maybe he thinks you blame him for what has happened and goodness knows, he does bear some of the responsibility, but that’s his problem. I expect the order not to treat you would have come regardless of anything you did or did not do.”

“Hank’s right,” Brackett concurred. “I don’t know why Steiner came into the room, but regardless of what you said to him, this order is completely contrary to professional guidelines and I fully intend to report him. Roy, you’re overdue for painkillers; I bet your head is pounding. So is Johnny and he’s due more antibiotics. I’ll go and chase them up and then you are going to have a proper sleep, mister, and I’m going to make some arrangements.” He smiled tightly at Roy and went out of the room. Roy looked miserably at Cap.

“What’s going on?” mumbled a sleepy voice. “Why’s the doc all riled up?”

With a sigh, Cap told Johnny the latest developments. The younger paramedic looked concerned, as well he might. Being ill and in a hospital where you had already had some bad experiences and then learning that the head doctor was refusing to treat you was enough to make anyone feel anxious. “Don’t worry,” Cap soothed. “Dr Brackett has everything under control.” Johnny didn’t look noticeably soothed.

The door opened and Dr Brackett came in with Jean, the nurse who had assisted him the night before. She smiled brightly at both patients. “This is Jean,” Brackett introduced. “She helped me last night with Johnny.” The young paramedic gave her a grateful smile. “She’s going to be nursing the two of you.”

“But what about Dr Steiner?” Johnny asked. “He gave orders that you aren’t to treat us.” He didn’t want the nice nurse to get into trouble and maybe lose her job.

“I’m a nurse,” Jean replied. “The doctor can give the orders, but I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t treat patients. He can try and sack me if he wants, but the nurses’ union will stand by me.”

“Thank you,” Johnny replied.

“No need to thank me,” she smiled. “Mr. Gage, I was here the night your mother was brought in. I’m so sorry to hear about her passing, but rest assured, we did everything for her that we could.”

“Thank you,” he replied again. He blinked back tears. Tactfully, the others looked away, giving him some privacy until he regained his composure.

For a couple of minutes, Jean bustled around giving Roy his painkillers and hooking Johnny’s next dose of antibiotics to his IV drip. Brackett examined them both, chided them gently for not eating and then headed out to ‘make some arrangements’. Nobody asked what those arrangements entailed. Cap sat down to visit with his men and brought them up-to-date with the happenings back at the station.

“I want to go home,” Johnny sighed disconsolately when Cap had finished. He coughed and made a mental note not to sigh again. He knew he wouldn’t remember until the next sigh or yawn or deep breath triggered another coughing fit.

“A few more days, pal,” Cap promised. “You’re not well enough to travel yet anyway.”

“We won’t be flying back anyway,” Roy reminded him. “We’ve both had concussions.” Johnny rolled his eyes.

“I don’t suppose the pressure would be too good for your nose either,” he commiserated.

“Or your pneumonia,” Roy agreed. Still, it was a long way home if you weren’t flying. He didn’t fancy being stuck in the back seat of a car while they drove back to LA. Johnny had not thought that far yet. Even getting out of bed was beyond him at that moment.

With nothing else left to do, they all settled down to wait for Dr Brackett to return.

***********

It was evening before he returned. Johnny had been persuaded to eat a little when Jean brought their evening meal, but he was clearly feeling rotten. Roy had finally been able to fall asleep and felt slightly better when he woke up. A phone call to Joanne had helped as well. They all looked up as Brackett came in and there was no doubt the doctor looked pleased with himself.

“I’ve had an interesting afternoon,” he reported, once he had satisfied himself as to Roy and Johnny’s conditions.

“Do tell,” Johnny muttered, drawing a smile from his friends. Johnny had had enough ‘interesting’ afternoons lately to last him a lifetime.

“After a bit of digging and quite a few phone calls, I was able to establish who runs this clinic and had words with them about Dr Steiner and his attitude. It turns out he was already under a supervisory order because of his attitude to patients. The person I spoke to had not heard about him ordering the young police officer to arrest Johnny, nor had he heard about Steiner’s order to the staff not to treat you two, or the 24 hours suspension he had been given by the chief administrator here. Let’s just say that he was not pleased and is on his way here right now from the parent hospital to take immediate steps. I think it is sufficient to say that Dr Steiner won’t be a physician here for very much longer and by the time we’ve finished with him, he won’t even be allowed to clean toilets in a hospital.” While not a vindictive man in any way, Brackett could not help feeling some satisfaction at the outcome of this action. “And to compensate you for his treatment of you, Johnny, and you as well, Roy, the parent hospital is going to cover your costs here and also reimburse you for your mother’s treatment, too, Johnny.”

That was more than good news to Johnny; it was an enormous weight off his mind. His savings had been scanty enough, but there in case of a rainy day when he was off work. His safety net was back in place and that was a huge relief to him.

“That’s great,” Roy agreed. “This isn’t the hospital’s way of trying to get him off the hook for arresting Johnny, is it?” Roy didn’t normally have a suspicious mind, but the events of the last few days had changed his thinking.

“I asked that, too,” Brackett replied. “No, they aren’t going to do anything to protect Steiner. He’ll have to face the music from the police and from the AMA.” Brackett didn’t like to think of the charges that could be brought against doctors who failed in their duty of care. Steiner would not have an easy time of it that was for sure.

The other three men settled down, as though that was all the news. Kelly Brackett could see why they thought so, but it wasn’t. He smiled. “I happened to meet the judge this afternoon, too,” he mentioned casually.

That brought all three of the straight back to attention. Johnny even pushed himself up in the bed, wincing at the strain on his tender stomach. “You met him?” Cap echoed. “Accidentally or on purpose?”

“You’ve got a really suspicious mind, Hank,” Brackett admonished him.

“We’ve told him about you,” Roy inserted dryly. They all laughed.

“Accidentally on my part,” the doctor answered, “but purposefully on his part.”

“Well don’t keep us in suspense, doc!” Johnny cried. “Tell us what happened!”

“Judge Watson was waiting for me when I got back to the motel with the trooper. He introduced himself and told me that he thinks we ought to be free to go back to LA in a couple of days. I explained that we might have to wait for a couple of days after that before thinking of moving you guys, depending on how Johnny is doing. The judge has been kind enough to organize a Winnebago and a couple of drivers for us to take us back to LA in style. You’ll be able to lie down when you need to, Johnny and the rest of us can sleep as we need to without worrying about doing all the driving.”

“Must be a big Winnebago if it can take us and two drivers,” Johnny commented, sounding awed.

“From what I can gather,” Brackett grinned, “it belongs to a rock group, so it’s essentially a custom coach. Plenty of room for us all.”

“Can we accept something like that and not compromise any potential trial?” Hank asked.

“It would seem so,” Brackett replied. “I asked Paul Goode about accepting and he said it would be fine. But if we feel something isn’t right about the offer, we can always refuse, because Johnny won’t be fit to travel for another couple of days anyway.”

It certainly did seem like the perfect answer. They all quietly said a prayer that accepting it wouldn’t place either them or the judge in an awkward position.

***********

It was a more peaceful night for Roy and Johnny. They both slept better which made them feel better when they woke. Johnny even managed to eat a little breakfast, although the dark looks they both got from the nurses made them very uncomfortable. It wasn’t until Brackett and Cap arrived that they learned that Steiner had been suspended immediately while an investigation was started into his conduct at the clinic. It seemed that his questionable behavior towards patients was not confined to just Indians.

It was good to discover that Johnny’s antibiotics were doing their job. His temperature was down and his lungs sounded clearer. Brackett dispatched him for another x-ray, but it was more to confirm what he already knew than to look for something that might be hiding. Sure enough, the x-ray confirmed it. Johnny was on the road to recovery.

To his intense delight, Brackett said Johnny could get up that day as long as he took things easy. Johnny practically threw the covers back and started to get up, but the damaged muscles in his abdomen chose that precise moment to remind him that however much better he was feeling, he wasn’t up to bouncing out of bed in his usual hyperactive fashion. In fact, when he stood up, with Brackett’s assistance, he found standing straight was pretty painful. Walking wasn’t much better and Johnny’s new-found exuberance vanished like snow in summer. While sympathizing with his very real pain, his friends couldn’t quite hide a smile as his face fell.

“Oh, man,” Johnny gasped as he lowered himself carefully into a chair. “That hurts!” He was more breathless than he had expected to be, too and his spirits, which had shot up to the ceiling, dropped back to the floor.

“It’ll get easier each time,” Brackett promised. “Just don’t push yourself. You’re still not well and it’ll be a few days until you’re moving around more easily.” He crouched by Johnny and watched until the color returned to the younger man’s pale cheeks. “How do you fancy having a shower this afternoon?”

“Sounds good,” Johnny agreed, for there was nothing like illness and being confined to bed to make you feel grubby.

“Smells good from where I’m sitting,” Roy seconded the motion. Despite his attempt to look outraged at the comment, Johnny had to smile.

***********

The following morning passed slowly for the two paramedics. Johnny had thoroughly enjoyed his shower the previous afternoon, but it had wiped him out. He was feeling much better in himself, but was still quite weak. Getting out of bed required the planning of a military campaign to avoid putting strain on the wound on his abdomen. Roy was little better off. The bruised ribs were at their height of discomfort and supporting Johnny was quite a trial, although he was more than willing to help his friend. Jean was not on duty, so unless they rang for a nurse, they were pretty much left alone after their breakfast was delivered.

Brackett and Cap had gone to the court for the hearings.

Somehow, the idea they were both there made Johnny uncomfortable. He hated to think of either of them being subjected to the kind of comments he had had to endure and he really didn’t want them to hear the worst of the racial epithets that had been slung his way during his ordeal. He didn’t really think anything bad would happen to Cap or Dr Brackett, but given what had happened to him, he couldn’t help but worry.

“Calm down,” Roy suggested, about 11 am. Johnny had just had a slow shuffle to the bathroom and Roy was giving him a little support on the way back and could feel his partner’s pulse racing. Part of it was the exertion, but he knew part of it was Johnny working himself into a state. “They’re fine.”

“I hope so,” Johnny muttered darkly. “I thought they’d have been back by now.”

“There’s no need to borrow trouble. There were quite a few people to come before the judge today and I shouldn’t think any of the cases will be straightforward. It’s all bound to take some time, especially if there are bargains being made.” Roy eased Johnny back into the chair and managed not to hurt himself while doing it. Things were improving. He sat down carefully beside his partner.

“I know,” Johnny allowed. “It doesn’t make me feel any better though. I won’t believe everything is all right until they are back here.”

“You’re letting your fears get the better of you,” Roy chided gently.

“I lived here for years,” Johnny reminded him. “I know what it can be like.”

There really wasn’t anything that Roy could say to contradict Johnny, so he put on the television to see if he could distract his partner that way. Even cartoons failed to bring him out of his funk. Roy was getting seriously worried now, too. Johnny often did have a sixth sense about trouble, even though he usually ran towards it instead of away from it. Roy had that instinct to thank on many an occasion when his partner pulled him out of danger.

Lunch came and went, mostly untouched on Johnny’s part and still they heard nothing. Roy hoped that one of their friends would think to phone, but the instrument remained silent on the table between the beds. Worried in case they had somehow become cut off, Roy even lifted the receiver at one point when Johnny was in the toilet, but the dial tone hummed comfortingly in his ear.

The afternoon waned and Roy persuaded Johnny that he needed to go back to bed. Dark circles lurked under his partner’s eyes and he looked as though he had lost weight. Worrying was not going to help him recover and he needed to rest. Johnny lay down to oblige his friend, but his eyes stayed open, despite his obvious fatigue.

Darkness had fallen before there were sounds of movement beyond the door of the room. Cap and Brackett came in, looking utterly wiped out. Behind them, before the door closed again, the paramedics could see uniformed police officers moving about. “What’s going on?” Johnny asked.

“The state police are taking all the medical records for examination to find out how deeply Steiner’s corruption goes,” Brackett reported flatly. “This place is being closed down tonight for a couple of days until other personnel can be put in place. An ambulance is coming to move you two to a hotel.”

“We don’t need an ambulance,” Johnny protested. He might have had more of an impact had he not been lying down when he said that. “We can go in a car.”

“I have no say in this right now,” Brackett informed them. His face was tight with worry. “This has been ordered by the court and as of right now, we are all in protective custody and have to do what we are told.”

The hair on the back of Johnny’s neck rose at those words. His fears had come true; something had happened in court that day. He could feel his heart rate rising and made an effort to take deep breaths. Protective custody – was that another name for being arrested? He shuddered.

“Why?” Roy asked. “Why do we need protective custody?”

“There are certain elements in the town who are furious at what happened today,” Cap explained. “It annoyed a good many that of the four police officers in this town, three are indicted for quite a few charges of wrongful imprisonment and false arrest. Then the news about the hospital came out and another group became enraged. While neither group constitutes a very large number, joined together, they are a substantial bunch and it was deemed that, for our own safety, we should be moved post haste.”

“How big is substantial?” asked the senior paramedic slowly. “Ten or twelve?”

“Make that 35 to 40,” Cap responded grimly.

“Come on, Johnny, calm down,” Brackett ordered, his fingers on the younger paramedic’s wrist. “If you don’t, I’m going to sedate you.”

“Where are we going?” Johnny asked.

“A hotel somewhere,” Brackett reminded him.

“Are you sure it’s a hotel?” enquired the young man timidly. Like everyone else, he had heard of people who had been taken into protective custody and found themselves in a prison environment. They had not been incarcerated like the ordinary prisoners, but still, it was prison and Johnny didn’t think he could cope with going back to a prison, regardless of the circumstances.

“Without knowing exactly where we’re going, I’m as sure as I can be,” Brackett soothed. “Now, are you going to try and calm down or am I going to have to sedate the daylights out of you?”

While it would be bad enough to land up at another secure facility, it would be infinitely worse to wake up and find yourself there. That smacked of a particularly bad made-for-TV movie plot. Johnny shuddered and closed his eyes for a second, forcing his tense muscles to relax. Slowly, he got himself under control.

While the noise continued outside the room, Roy dressed, trying not to listen to the raised voices. It was impossible. He felt almost as anxious as Johnny and Cap and Brackett’s sober demeanor didn’t help calm his nerves. He wanted to ask more about the day’s proceedings, but conversely wasn’t sure he was ready to hear them yet. Once they were settled in their mysterious ‘hotel’ perhaps.

At length, a gurney was brought in by a couple of ambulance attendants and Johnny was assisted from the bed to lie on it. Several blankets were tucked around him and the straps tightened. He fought back a wave of panic. He hated to be restrained. Roy was given a wheelchair and a blanket was draped around his shoulders and over his knees. They were wheeled outside.

The whole clinic was in an uproar. Everywhere they looked, they could see uniformed men putting files into boxes and carrying them outside. Nurses stood around either looking bewildered or shouting abuse. As soon as the gurney bearing Johnny appeared, a couple of troopers stepped forward to flank him. Another couple flanked Roy. Johnny could feel his heart rate increasing again. They were really taking these threats seriously.

The ambulance was backed right up to the doors and as soon as Brackett was happy that Johnny and Roy were comfortable, he forced a smile. “We’ll see you when we arrive,” he promised. “We’re going by car.”

“Wait!” Johnny cried, suddenly sure that this was all a horrible trap designed to separate them.

But it was too late. The ambulance doors were closed and the vehicle was moving off. They were on their own, heading towards an unknown, uncertain, destination.

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

As the ambulance sped off, Brackett and Cap were led to the waiting car. They had already checked all their belongings out of the motel they had been staying at and returned the rental car. The trunk of the police car was stuffed to capacity and a couple of bags were in the back at the men’s feet. Brackett had been allowed to take a certain amount of painkilling drugs and the antibiotics that Johnny was on with him and he had signed for them. The box containing those precious drugs rested on his lap.

Much as Brackett would have denied it to his dying day, he felt the same unease as Johnny. He didn’t really believe that they were heading for a prison; Judge Watson had seemed far too upfront for that to be the case. However, there remained a niggling doubt. He didn’t know if it was just his paramedic’s jitters that had got to him, or if it was hearing all the things that had been revealed in court that day. Maybe it was a combination of the two. Either way, he was feeling rather spooked as they drove through the wintery darkness to an unknown destination.

It was just as uncomfortable in the ambulance. A trooper sat silently by the doors and his presence discouraged the paramedics from speculating as to their destination. Roy tried peering out through the windscreen, but all he could see was the road, which appeared to have been ploughed.

They travelled for about half an hour before stopping before high, imposing gates. Roy could hear muffled conversation from the front of the ambulance, and the cold air seeped inside the vehicle, making him shiver. Johnny stirred from the restless sleep he had been in. “Where are we?” he asked. “Are we there yet?”

For a moment, Roy had the slightly hysterical urge to laugh at the phrase. He was only too familiar with it from family trips, when his children seemed to parrot that every two minutes. However, he quelled the urge. “I don’t know,” he replied.

The gates opened and the ambulance drove inside, moving slowly. It stopped and a few moments later, the back doors opened. The trooper had his gun drawn, but relaxed when he saw the people greeting them. They were wearing white uniforms and those uniforms were definitely not like those from any hotel Roy had ever seen. His apprehension grew.

They were allowed no time for speculation. Johnny’s stretcher was pulled from the vehicle and Roy was helped down. It was bitterly cold outside. Roy did not linger, but he got the impression of a large, imposing building as he scuttled into the warmth. A wheelchair was waiting for him inside and he sat down in it meekly.

The lobby of the building spoke of a past that had included money. The wide stairs were carpeted, but looked like they might be marble. The ceilings were ornate, with gilding on the cornices and intricate plaster work. The floor was tiled in a pattern that Roy associated with Victorian times. The doorways were wide and the doors were of polished oak. All in all, it was a very impressive building that appeared to be staffed with nurses. As he was taken down to a concealed lift, Roy could only wonder where on earth they were.

They emerged onto the second floor and he was taken into a large room with a high ceiling. Again, the cornices were ornate, although not gilded. There was a beautiful fireplace. The windows, judging by the blinds, were almost floor to ceiling and the floorboards were highly polished. There was a door on one wall and the room was furnished with two hospital beds and nothing else. No phone, no TV, no nightstands; just the beds. There weren’t even any chairs in the room.

“Where are we?” Roy asked as he was helped into the bed.

“You’re safe,” the male nurse replied evasively. “Bathroom is over there. The lights dim automatically, but they never entirely go out, so you don’t need to worry about switches should you need to use the facilities.” He headed towards the door.

“Wait a minute!” Johnny protested as the nurses who had been helping him also made moves to depart. “Where are Dr Brackett and Captain Stanley?”

“I don’t know,” the nurse replied and they left. The sound of the door locking echoed in the bare room.

“I don’t like this,” Roy declared, sliding carefully out of bed. He walked around the room, peering into the bathroom as he went, but there was nothing anywhere that told him where they might be. Finally, he pulled the blinds back and caught his breath.

The windows were barred.

**********

From the back seat of the car, Brackett and Cap had a much better view of the imposing wrought-iron gates than Roy had had from the back of the ambulance. They could also see the large sign on one of the gate posts that read ‘State Mental Health Institute’.

“What?” Brackett drawled in disbelief. “This is the ‘hotel’?”

“I’m afraid so,” the trooper replied. “We felt it was safer to put people off the scent by saying you were going to an unspecified hotel. Here, you’ll be comfortable and safe.”

As to the comfort level, neither of the men could comment on that until they got inside. However, they had to agree that it most certainly be safe. Nobody would be getting either in or out in a hurry. The gates opened to admit them and closed silently behind the car after it drove through.

The building itself was a large mansion house, clearly converted decades before to its current use. The gardens were obscured by snow and the darkness and it was too cold to linger outside admiring the architecture. The inside of the building was just as impressive and it was lovely and warm as well.

A man in a business suit came forward to greet them. “Dr Brackett?” he asked, looking between them.

“That’s me,” Brackett acknowledged and put out his hand to shake. “This is Captain Stanley,” he continued and Cap shook hands with the man, too.

“I’m Jack Elliott, director of this institute. It’s a pleasure to meet you. The others in your party have already arrived and are settled into a room upstairs.” He led them towards the back of the building and into a wood paneled office. He gestured to the leather couch and Brackett and Cap obediently sat. Elliott pulled his desk chair over to join them. “Would you like coffee or tea?” he asked. “Or a soft drink? Obviously, we don’t have alcohol on the premises.”

“I’m fine,” Brackett replied, and Cap also demurred. “This is a very impressive building,” commented the doctor.

“It is lovely,” Elliott agreed, “but it eats money. High ceilings are lovely, but heating the rooms is a nightmare and we have to keep the temperature as constant as possible. Some of our residents are very troubled and the last thing we want is someone who refuses to wearing clothes, for example, to catch their death of cold in an improperly heated room.” He made a face. “And keeping the floors properly sealed and polished seems to be a full time job.”

“I can imagine,” Cap agreed.

“I was rather surprised to receive the phone call from Judge Watson today asking if you could stay here,” Elliott said, cutting right to the chase. “Of course, I was pleased to help, but it is rather an unusual request.”

“We were rather surprised at the choice of accommodation, too,” Brackett admitted.

“I understand the situation,” Elliott went on. “In fact, it’s possible that some of our residents might be involved in this whole messy situation.”

“How so?” asked Brackett, his attention sharpening.

“We had a couple of men referred here after trial,” Elliott explained. “Personally, our doctors couldn’t find any problems with them, but the courts had ordered them detained here indefinitely and only the doctor who had advised the court had the authority to order their release. Both men are still here. They are exemplary residents and have always maintained that they did not do what they were accused of and certainly have no mental health problems that we can detect.”

Brackett rubbed his face and the vague thought that he needed a shave passed through his head. He shook his head. The net seemed to be spreading wider and wider and he supposed that corruption spread its evil tentacles in all directions. “I’d like to meet those men,” Brackett said. “Did you tell Judge Watson about them?”

“No, because it only occurred to me after I had spoken to him. I’ll phone him in the morning. And of course, you’re welcome to talk to the men in question, but not tonight.”

“No, of course not tonight,” agreed the doctor. He was far too tired to even think any more. “And I’m not a psychiatrist, just an ER physician.”

“’Just’ is not the word I would use to describe someone who works in the ER,” Elliott protested. “That is a specialty that’s just coming into its own. I wouldn’t like to try it.”

“Thank you,” Brackett responded. “There again, I couldn’t do your job. I’ve got a lousy bedside manner and I’m not renowned for my patience.”

“Really, doc?” Cap jibed. “We hadn’t noticed.” Both men laughed. Elliott smiled politely.

“Well, gentlemen, I’ll have someone show you to your room. Do you need anything else?”

“We both need to see John and Roy,” Cap replied.

“Of course,” Elliott agreed. He summoned one of the nurses, who led them upstairs and unlocked the door to the room where Roy and Johnny were.

“I’ll wait here for you,” the nurse informed the men. “When you’re ready to leave, just knock on the door.”

“You don’t need to keep this door locked,” Brackett frowned.

“These doors all lock automatically,” the nurse replied. “It’s for the residents’ safety.”

“It’s a fire hazard,” Cap grumbled as they went inside, but he had no authority here.

But Brackett wasn’t listening. He was smiling at the two paramedics, who were looking at them with mingled relief and anxiety. He crossed the room and laid the box of drugs on Johnny’s bed. “Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” he grinned.

***********

“We’re where?” Johnny gasped. He glanced around the bare room again. “Well, that explains it, I guess.”

“Sure does,” Roy agreed. “I suppose it is safe.” He sounded rather doubtful. He had had hopes of a nice comfortable hotel, perhaps with a pool and he had wanted to phone Joanne again. “I don’t understand though. Why did they tell us it we were going to a hotel when we were coming here?”

“I don’t know,” Brackett admitted.

“It was just in case someone who shouldn’t have been was listening in,” Cap suggested. “After all, the way things have been going, anything is possible.” Actually, the way things had been going, Cap was inclined to wonder if someone’ up there’ was playing some kind of game at their expense. It was enough to make anyone paranoid.

“I guess that’s possible,” Johnny nodded. He could feel himself slowly starting to relax now that they were all together.

“Let’s get you hooked up to this dose of antibiotics,” Brackett suggested. “Then you can get some rest.” He had left the IV port in, capped, when the drip was removed. The antibiotics were definitely working more quickly intravenously.

“I’d rather eat,” Johnny protested. “We didn’t get anything before we left.”

“Let me see what I can do about that,” Cap offered and knocked on the door and spoke to the orderly outside. When he came back, Johnny was hooked up to the IV and Brackett had done something, Cap had no real idea what, that made him look a lot more comfortable. Roy had also settled back against the pillows. With no seats in the room, Cap sat on the end of Roy’s bed.

“So what happened today in court?” Johnny asked.

“Well, the gist of it seems to be that the police department has been guilty of nepotism and corruption for years,” Brackett began. He aped Cap and sat on Johnny’s bed. “Now, the charges of nepotism aren’t serious; it happens quite a lot in small towns. The father was the cop, so the son follows in his footsteps and so on. The problem here has been that for the last maybe 30 years or more, the cops have had a policy of imprisoning people on charges that wouldn’t stand up to the light of day. Some of the people disappeared when they were released from the prison, before their relatives arrived to collect them. Some relatives weren’t told their loved ones were being released and so were unaware of their disappearance for several days. By then, they were impossible to trace.”

“What happened to them?” Roy asked soberly.

“Right now, we don’t know. Nobody is talking. However, Davies, the young cop who helped Johnny, has been telling the judge everything he can think of that has happened since he started working there and things he can remember from when his dad worked for the police.” Brackett looked at Cap and Cap nodded. “Davies’ father died in the line of duty when a shoot-out went wrong. He was killed by another cop. It was ruled an accident, but in light of the recent developments, the inquest into his death has been reopened.”

“It just gets worse and worse,” Johnny commented.

“And we’ll probably never know the half of it,” Cap agreed. “Tomorrow, John, the judge wants to speak to you about what happened. Paul Goode is going to meet us at court. From what he said, it would seem we’ll be free to go home after that.” Cap could hardly wait to get back to LA. Fighting fires was a piece of cake compared to this.

There was a knock on the door, and Cap got up as it opened and an orderly brought in a trolley with four plates on it. There were delicious smells coming from the plates and the four hungry men tucked in. Brackett was glad of the diversion. He didn’t want to go into any more detail about the day in court. It had been very disturbing to listen to it and he suspected it would be tough on the young paramedic the following day. He needed to eat and have a good night’s sleep to keep his strength up for the ordeal he was going to face.

***********

Exhausted from the anxieties of the previous day, Johnny slept well. The bed was narrow but comfortable and the room was warm. He woke next morning when breakfast was brought into their room and it was only as he finished the meal that he remembered what this day would bring.

“What am I going to wear?” Johnny asked Roy. He certainly wasn’t going out in public in a hospital gown but the thought of putting on his dress suit, which he had worn to his mother’s funeral, was horrible given how tender his stomach still was.

“I don’t know,” Roy replied. He had no idea what clothes his friend had brought with him, despite having packed them up a few days before. His priority then had been to pack up and get out of the icy cold house. Just being there for that short time had depressed him and he could only imagine how that kind of poverty could wear a person down. “I guess I could lend you a pair of my pants.” They were the same height, but Roy was stockier than the slender Johnny. His pants would be long enough, but loose on the waist.

“I guess,” Johnny agreed. “Thanks, Roy.” He didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, but he hated wearing other people’s clothes. He climbed gingerly out of bed and had a shower. The warm water soothed and calmed him slightly, but by the time he was heading back to get dressed, he could feel the tension building again.

The tension was eased slightly by the presence of Dr Brackett and Cap and he sat down willingly on the bed for his next lot of antibiotics. “This is the last lot of IV antibiotics,” Brackett told him. “You can have the rest orally.”

“Thank goodness,” Johnny sighed. Although the cannula was in his forearm, and not somewhere really uncomfortable like the crook of his elbow, he was hyper-aware of it all the time. He slid on the shirt Roy held out for him first and allowed his partner to help him into the borrowed trousers, for bending still hurt. Roy helped him dress in a matter-of-fact manner that forbade any embarrassment to grow.

The drugs took about half an hour to run through and by then, their escort of state troopers was waiting impatiently for them at the door. Johnny was helped into a wheelchair, which he thought was a huge improvement over a gurney and with Roy opting to walk, they headed down to the waiting cars.

The sky was clear and the sun shone brightly on the snow, but the air was still bitter. Getting into the car was not as easy as Johnny had anticipated and he realized that he wasn’t healing as fast as he had hoped. Still, his stomach was improving with every day and he leaned back and stretched his legs out as much as he was able to, relieving some of the tension on his wound.

Now that they were actually on the way, Johnny allowed himself to think about what might happen in court. He had testified in court several times on things to do with fires and rescues and the like and that was one thing. To testify in court as a victim was something else altogether. The word ‘victim’ often implied someone who was unable to look after themself. Johnny didn’t think he came into that category. Usually, he was well able to look after himself, but he didn’t seem to be doing a bang-up job of it at the moment.

“Johnny?”

He looked around at the sound of his name. Roy was looking at him closely. “Yeah?”

“You’re winding yourself up,” Roy declared. “Don’t do it. You didn’t do anything wrong here, remember that.”

“I know,” Johnny agreed tentatively, but his imagination was powerful and he could see lots of ways that this whole unfortunate situation could be made out to be his fault.

“That was convincing,” Roy teased. “Come on, Johnny; tell me what you’re thinking.”

Sighing, Johnny debated about the wisdom of telling Roy his thoughts, but he knew that it would be better to get them out in the open rather than brooding over them and winding himself up. Of course, he would probably still wind himself up, but at least this way, Roy would know why he was as jumpy as a hen on a hot griddle. “I was just thinking that I hate the word victim,” he confessed. “It makes me sound like a complete wimp; like I can’t take care of myself and I can, Roy. Usually. I haven’t been managing it very well lately, but you know I can look after myself.”

“Of course I do,” Roy agreed. “You look after me, too, when we’re working. We look out for each other. Victim is just a word,” he added. “It’s not a label unless you want to wear it.”

“I don’t!” Johnny declared. “But still, what do I look like? Wearing too-large pants and looking like death warmed up, never mind the fact I can hardly totter. I’m a firefighter, Roy. I’m supposed to be tough!”

“You are tough,” Roy protested. “Most people would have crumbled completely under what you’ve endured over the last week and a bit. You haven’t. Sure, you might be a bit down, but you’re not out and don’t you forget that!” He fixed Johnny with a steady stare. “You were stabbed a couple of days ago, Junior. Nobody bounces back from that except on TV and we all know how that works.”

“I know, you’re right,” Johnny agreed. He did feel a bit better for getting it off his chest. “But with everything that’s happened, I can’t help being a bit paranoid.”

“Watch out,” Roy joked. “You’ll turn into Cap!” They both smiled at that thought.

***********

The journey to the courthouse took less time in daylight than it had in the dark. Johnny obediently waited for someone to come and help him out of the car, and tried not to look at the cameras that were ranked nearby, or at the protestors who stood in two groups on the other side, waving placards. It wasn’t easy to pretend he didn’t see them or that he wasn’t affected by them. He faltered slightly on the slippery sidewalk, but Roy’s hand was discreetly under his elbow and Brackett came to walk on his other side. Cap stood behind him and on either side of their small group, the state troopers formed a guard.

They were ushered straight into the court room and Johnny eased down into a seat. Brackett crouched by his side. “How do you feel?” he asked, for Johnny had only had Tylenol for pain that morning, which was a big step down from the meds he had been receiving.

“Sore, but okay,” the paramedic answered honestly. “And you can’t really give me something else, because I don’t want to feel drowsy or muddled. I need to have my head clear.”

“If you need a break, then say so,” Brackett instructed. “The judge will understand.” He fixed Johnny with a look that was a twin to the one Roy had used in the car. “I mean it, John. No heroics.”

“No heroics,” Johnny promised, wondering if Brackett and Roy had trained at the same place to learn that look. His attempt to distract himself from his bad case of nerves failed. His palms were sweating and his heart was racing. As the people began to file into the court room, he began to feel sick.

“All rise,” intoned the clerk and Brackett put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder to keep him down. The judge had better understand, or Brackett would give him what-for. Judge Watson entered the room and spotted Johnny at once; not hard to do when he was seated in the front row. His eyes acknowledged Dr Brackett’s hand on Johnny’s shoulder and he nodded, smiling slightly. Brackett felt Johnny relax minutely.

Everyone resumed their seats and Judge Watson began.

“This is not a trial,” he declared. “There is substantial evidence against the accused and the majority of them have already pleaded guilty. Right now, I need to hear Mr. Gage’s story so that we are quite sure that all potential charges against the accused have been filed. Mr. Gage, can you take the stand?”

With help from both Roy and Brackett, Johnny rose and began the long walk over to the witness stand.

**********

“First of all, Mr. Gage, I want to offer my deepest condolences on the death of your mother,” the judge said.

Blinking back unexpected tears, Johnny mumbled, “Thank you.”

The judge nodded to the prosecutor, who rose and crossed to the witness stand. “On the night your mother died, can you tell us what happened?”

Slowly Johnny began, glancing only once at his friends. He couldn’t bear to see the sympathy and concern etched on their faces. He told how the doctor had accused him of not giving his mother her meds so that she would die and he wouldn’t be forced to look after her. How Steiner had ordered the young cop, Davies, to arrest him on the spot. “Officer Davies radioed to the station and the officer in charge there told him to take me straight to the jail, because that was the best place for a murderer,” Johnny reported. His friends listened closely, for this was part of the tale they had not heard. “The officer on the radio said that he wouldn’t be able to stop any lynch mob and it was less hassle if I went straight to jail. At least I would be used to it by the time I was found guilty after my trial.”

“And how did Officer Davies treat you?” the lawyer asked.

“He was nice,” Johnny replied and smiled at the young officer who was wearing plain clothes and sitting in the public section. “He did what he was told and you can’t blame him for that. He also had been very helpful when my friend Roy DeSoto had phoned, concerned because he couldn’t get any answer from my mother’s home during the storm and he phoned Roy for me when I was taken to the jail.” The young man gave Johnny a grateful smile.

“You were handed over to Sergeant Willoughby, is that correct?” the prosecutor asked, glancing at his notes.

“I never knew him as anything other than Sergeant,” Johnny replied. “I didn’t know the names of any of the wardens or inmates.”

“And how was your treatment at his hands?” the man probed.

Revulsion washed over Johnny as he remembered Sergeant’s leering and the way he had felt Johnny up during the body search. He felt color mounting in his face and drew a deep breath to keep his voice from shaking. “He kept me handcuffed to a belly chain until night that first day,” Johnny replied tonelessly. “He forced me into a cold shower and body searched me. He made it clear that he thought I had murdered my mother,” his voice shook, but he pushed past it, “and that I deserved to be treated badly.” He swallowed. “He used quite a few racial slurs, too,” he added. He fought the urge to wipe his sweaty palms on Roy’s pants.

“Did he mistreat you physically?”

“I was hit by the nightstick a few times,” Johnny admitted. He still bore the bruises on his hip and thighs.

“That isn’t all, is it?” the prosecutor asked gently.

Glancing away, Johnny took another deep breath. His head was suddenly pounding. “No,” he admitted at last. “The first night, someone tripped me and made me fall into Sergeant. There was some fighting and Sergeant put me in leg irons, too. They stayed on till lights out. Then, after I met with my lawyer, Sergeant was there and he again put me in leg irons and refused to let me eat. There was the riot that night. I was sweeping the corridor while everyone else got something to eat and each time I did it, I was told it wasn’t good enough and to do it again. When I tried to protest, he hit me with the nightstick. Then, the riot started and I was knocked out. I don’t really remember much after that,” he concluded. “I just know that when Roy and the others came for me, the chains were gone.”

“How badly were you injured in the riot?” asked the lawyer.

“I sustained a concussion,” came the reply “and some bruising.”

“So you’ll still be living with the effects of those,” he sympathized. “Mr. Gage, can you tell me what happened a couple of nights ago at the motel where you were staying?”

“I was alone in the room, trying to sleep,” Johnny replied, “but I just couldn’t drop off. I had just come from the bathroom and I heard the sounds of a fight outside. I was gonna call the police and then I heard Roy’s voice. I ran outside and threw myself at the guys who had him on the ground. I don’t really remember much of the fight, but I got stabbed.” Johnny unconsciously put his hand over the aching wound.

“Thank you, Mr. Gage. No more questions.”

The judge banged his gavel. “We’ll have a short recess for 15 minutes. Mr. Gage, don’t feel obliged to rise. Take your time. The defense may want to question you after the recess, so you may continue to sit there if that is easier for you.” He rose and everyone else got to their feet, too. Johnny was glad he’d been given permission to remain sitting, for in all honesty, he wasn’t sure that he would be able to get up unaided.

As the judge exited the room, Dr Brackett, Roy and Cap hurried over to Johnny. Brackett crouched beside him and took his pulse while Roy pressed a glass of water into his hand. Johnny sipped gratefully; he felt totally drained. “How are you doing?” Brackett asked.

“Hanging in there,” Johnny replied. He summoned a weary smile. “If this isn’t a trial, how come the defense might want to question me?”

“Probably if there are things they need to clarify,” Cap suggested. “They must be hoping that there is something in your testimony that will let one of their clients off the hook. The law has to be observed, even if most of the people arrested have pleaded guilty.”

“Do you need something else for pain?” Brackett asked.

The answer was really yes, but Johnny shook his head. “I’m fine,” he lied. He didn’t want to become drowsy and perhaps say something he didn’t mean.

“All right,” Brackett agreed reluctantly. “But if it gets too much for you, let me know. As your doctor, I can put a stop to the questioning for a few minutes at least.” Johnny’s pulse was quite quick and he was sweating, but his skin was not overly hot and Brackett thought it was probably due to nerves as much as the discomfort he was in. However, he silently vowed to get Johnny lying down again as soon as he possibly could.

“I will,” promised the paramedic. He handed the empty glass back to Roy, who bore it away to get a refill. It was left on the rail of the stand and a few moments later, everyone filed back in and resumed their seats. Johnny was left alone in the witness stand.

The defense attorney was a large man, tall and well built, but not fat. He looked like he had been a line backer at some point in his life. “Mr. Gage, I believe you are an American Indian, is that correct?”

“Yes,” Johnny responded tightly, thinking what a dumb question that was. Surely it was evident from his skin tone and his hair?

It seemed to be something of a non-sequitur too, for the man leaned against the railing and said, “The autopsy stated that your mother had ingested a large quantity of tea with liquorice in it. Why did you give it to her?”

“I didn’t know what was in the tea,” Johnny told him. “And it was about the only thing she would take.”

“Why didn’t you know what was in the tea?” the lawyer challenged.

“For a start, I couldn’t isolate any of the scents,” Johnny replied sharply.

“Why didn’t you ask someone?” the lawyer replied, in a tone that suggested that Johnny was clearly lacking in the brains department.

“Who do you suggest I ask?” he snapped. “My mother had had a stroke and could barely talk.”

“Surely there were other family members around?”

“My mother’s cousin was there until I came back, but I don’t know if she knew what was in the tea and I had no way to contact her to ask, even if the thought had occurred to me. When I last lived at home, my mother drank coffee, not herbal tea. Why would I even think to ask?” He fought back the anger. “I kind of had other things on my mind,” he concluded coldly.

“Were you giving her something other than the white man’s medicine?” the defense lawyer asked patronizingly.

“What?” Johnny looked at the man in disbelief. Before he could say more, though, the judge’s gavel banged.

“There is no call for racial slurs in this court room, mister,” he warned. “Remember, Mr. Gage is a highly skilled and respected paramedic in Los Angeles. He did everything he could to save his mother’s life; that is already lodged in evidence, as you well know. This line of questioning stops right here. We are not here to discuss Native American medicines. You are only here to clarify questions, not cast doubt on Mr. Gage’s innocence.”

The defense lawyer looked affronted. “No more questions,” he stated in a huffy voice and whisked away to sit down. He shot Johnny a glare.

“Thank you, Mr. Gage, you may step down,” Judge Watson told him. “Again, my deepest condolences on your loss.”

“Thank you,” Johnny replied and wondered how on earth he was going to manage to walk back to his seat in the public section. He knew any of his friends would leap to their feet and help him in an instant, but Johnny didn’t want that. He wanted to walk back unaided, if just to show that stupid defense lawyer that he was a man, not a savage, but mostly because of pride. He didn’t want to show weakness in front of such a man and it was bad enough that he knew he wouldn’t be walking with his usual straight back and brisk stride. Summoning all his courage and warrior spirit, Johnny carefully pushed himself from the chair and stood.

Behind the barrier, he could see Roy starting to rise and shook his head fractionally. He straightened up as best he could and walked slowly back across the court room. Roy opened the gate into the public gallery and Johnny eased himself down into the empty seat. He could feel his legs shaking, but he refused to slump down as he really wanted to do because he could feel every single eye in the place on him. His reputation had taken a sideswipe but was still intact and his pride kept his head high. After a moment, Roy’s hand touched his briefly and he turned his head slightly and smiled.

A few minutes later, Roy was called to the stand to answer some questions about the attack on him. It didn’t take long and the defense didn’t utter a word apart from, “No questions.” He was soon back in his seat.

“Mr. Gage’s statement corroborates the statements we already have,” Judge Watson declared. “I will pronounce sentence on the defendants who have pleaded guilty in two weeks’ time when I have studied all the details of their statements. The trial for the one man who has pleaded not guilty will begin in one month from today.” He looked over at Johnny. “Mr. Gage, you will have to return for the trial at that time.” Johnny nodded and the judge went on. “Every effort will be made to trace those men who disappeared from the prison. I believe that two of them have been found and will be released today back to their families. Once the investigation into those disappearances has been concluded, the people involved will be facing further charges.” He banged his gavel on the desk. “This court is adjourned.”

“Is that it?” Johnny asked as murmuring broke out behind him.

“Apparently so,” Brackett nodded. Paul Goode, who had been conspicuous by his silence that day, leaned forward.

“You’re free to leave and return home. Do you want to leave today?”

“Yes,” Johnny declared fervently. “Yes!”

***********

It wasn’t quite as easy as Johnny had hoped it would be. While the Winnebago the judge had procured for them was on standby, it wasn’t right there in the town. The four friends also had to return to the hospital where they had stayed the previous night to collect their belongings. Roy wanted to phone Joanne, since he had been unable to do so the night before. It would be good to tell her they were coming home! He did that at the court house.

Once Roy was finished, they got back into the police car for the return journey to the hospital. They once more had to run the gauntlet of the crowds outside the court house, who shouted abused, but it seemed to Johnny that there were fewer of them than there had been when they went in. A number of them had been in the court room and Johnny wondered if they had had their eyes opened by the testimonies of himself and Roy.

By then, exhaustion was setting in and Johnny was getting increasingly sore. He could feel Roy eyeing him anxiously as they drove back, but he was unable to keep his eyes open. He didn’t quite fall asleep, but he dozed the whole way back.

A wheelchair was waiting for him when they got there and he simply didn’t have the necessary energy reserves to fight them over using it. He did admit, if only to himself, that it was rather nice not to have to walk. Also waiting for them in the lobby were two men. Both were clearly Native Americans, men in their middle years, their graying hair cut short.

“John Gage?” asked one.

Warily, Johnny nodded. “That’s me,” he agreed. He wondered what on earth he had to face now. He had had enough trouble in the last few weeks to last a lifetime.

“I am Dan Black,” the man replied. “You might know me as Dan Blackfeather.”

Nodding once more and wishing he hadn’t, as his headache was no better, Johnny replied, “I know your name.”

“I was sent here for life by the sheriff and judge for the crime of parking my truck in a spot that a white woman wanted to use at the grocery store,” he told his stunned listeners. “This is Jim Twoshoes. He was sent here for daring to speak for me at the trial. I believe it is you that we have to thank for being released from here.”

“I had nothing to do with it,” Johnny denied.

“It is because of you and what happened to you that we are being freed to return to our families,” Blackfeather contradicted him. “Thanks to you and your friends, we are getting justice at last.” He put out his hand and Johnny took it and they shook firmly.

“How long have you been here?” Johnny asked.

“Ten years,” Blackfeather reported. He glanced at Twoshoes, who had said nothing so far, but had smiled at Johnny and the others. “It has not been easy.” Somehow, those simple words conveyed a world of meaning in them. Blackfeather smiled. “We can go home and live our lives in peace.” He touched his short hair. “And let our hair grow.” For a lot of tribes, short hair was only seen when the person was in mourning. He reached out his hand and rested it on Johnny’s head, muttering a few words. Johnny blushed.

From behind them, by the front door, a voice spoke respectfully. “We’re ready to take you home, Chief Blackfeather,” a trooper told him.

“Thank you.” Blackfeather picked up a small, battered suitcase and nodded to the group from LA. “Goodbye, John Gage.”

“Goodbye,” Johnny mumbled and blushed once more when Twoshoes put his hand on Johnny’s head and said some words that the others didn’t understand. He also lifted a suitcase and the two Native American men left with a good deal of dignity.

Crouching by the wheelchair, Roy looked into his friend’s face. There were tears glinting in Johnny’s eyes, but he blinked them away. “Are you all right?” Roy asked.

“Never better,” Johnny replied. He looked at Roy and smiled. “Never better.”

**********

While their belongings were taken down to the lobby, Brackett insisted that Johnny lie down on the bed for a while. The Winnebago would take about an hour to reach them and he wanted Johnny to rest for a bit. “I’m going to give you something for pain,” he told the paramedic, who was pale despite the look of utter calm that he was now wearing. “We’ll take care of everything. Do you want to put on sweats or pajamas?”

“Later, doc,” Johnny answered. “I just want to rest for now.” He was completely exhausted but his soul was at peace. He accepted the painkilling injection that Brackett gave him and relaxed into the warm waves that were the soft edges of sleep.

“Can I ask a question?” Roy ventured as Brackett and Cap left to gather their own stuff.

“Sure,” Johnny agreed.

“What did Blackfeather and Twoshoes say to you?” Roy was consumed with curiosity, but he didn’t want to seem overly nosy. “You don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“It’s fine,” Johnny replied. “They … they blessed me,” he murmured and blushed once again. “Dan Blackfeather is the chief and Jim Twoshoes is … I guess the word is shaman … of the tribe. I didn’t know them, but I knew of them. Funny; I never realized they had gone away. Mom never talked about them, because we didn’t have much to do with them. I suppose we didn’t know because we were in LA when this happened.” He shook his head. “So much bigotry and for what? We’re all just people.”

“You’re right,” Roy agreed. He had seen Johnny and Marco take abuse from people whose lives they had just saved and could not understand it. People were people in his book and it didn’t matter where they came from or the color of their skin or even their sexuality. If you liked someone, what difference did it make? “I just wish we could make everyone understand that.”

“Let’s hope that one day we can,” Johnny mumbled. His eyes were closed now and he knew they weren’t going to open again in a hurry. “Maybe…” he muttered as he drifted into sleep.

**********

Two hours later, Roy reluctantly shook Johnny awake. “Johnny? Time to get up. Our transport is here.”

Rubbing his hands over his face, Johnny blinked in the light. “Oh. Okay.” He still felt washed out, but years in the fire service had taught him to wake up instantly when called. He rolled over and groaned at the aches and pains that seemed to assault his body from all over.

“Slowly, Johnny,” Brackett advised. “Take it slowly.” He helped the paramedic to sit up and braced him while Johnny got his head together. “What do you say we get you into something more comfortable and then you can go back to sleep as soon as we get moving?”

“Yeah, sounds good.” Johnny had taken his tie off and opened his collar before he had lain down, but that was all. His shirt was hopelessly wrinkled and Roy’s pants were rather crumpled, too. He started fumbling with the buttons, his coordination still mostly asleep. Brackett left him to it while he got a pair of sweats and a t-shirt from Johnny’s case. Changing was slow, but Johnny managed all of it himself apart from putting on his shoes. He slid into his coat for the transfer from the hospital to the Winnebago and looked around at the room where they had stayed. He was more than glad that he had not had to stay there for any length of time.

The converted coach was the last word in luxury. There was a seating area at the front with leather seats and a table. A small galley lay just behind that and then there was a toilet and the sleeping area. It was by far the largest vehicle of its kind that Roy had ever seen. Their belongings were stowed in the belly of the beast and Johnny was assisted up the high steps.

The drivers seemed very nice and introduced themselves as Ken and Fred. Fred was doing the first leg and Dave the next part. “We’ll have a few stops for diesel,” Fred reported, “but apart from that, we intend to pretty much drive straight through to LA. When we get there, you’ll need to direct us to where you want to go.”

“We can do that,” Cap promised.

With a hiss of air brakes, the coach started moving and drove sedately down the drive, out through the gates and onto the highway.

**********

The hum of the wheels on the highway lulled them all to sleep at one point or another. They drove without stopping to Idaho Falls and stopped there and later on at Salt Lake City, where they pulled in to service areas and had the coach filled with diesel. Everyone got out to stretch their legs there before piling back into the coach to carry on south. Johnny was all slept out by then and sat with the others. It was dark out and there wasn’t much to see. Cap went through to get some sleep and Roy was not far behind him. Brackett dozed in his seat while Johnny chatted with Fred, learning more about the rock group that owned the coach and how Judge Watson came to be able to borrow it. He was rather surprised to learn that the Judge’s son was a member of the group. Somehow, it didn’t seem to be the kind of thing a judge’s son should do.

As dawn broke, they were rolling through Nevada, and the scenery was glorious. They pulled in to another service area and had breakfast and Fred, who had slept a good bit of the night, took over driving duties and Dave slept.

The luxury of the coach notwithstanding, the travelling was monotonous. Usually, the scenery was good, but the weather took a turn for the worse and the clouds descended, obscuring the landscape in rain and sleet. Johnny retreated back to bed and could barely admit, even to himself, how tired he was and how sore. He yearned to be back in LA, but he had the sudden premonition that Brackett would make him stay at least one night in Rampart and then he would probably not be allowed to go home alone for a few more days after that. Although it made sense and Johnny knew he wouldn’t be fit to go home alone, he wanted to be on his own, to allow the past week or so to retreat and so he could heal, mentally and physically. He really hadn’t had the chance to mourn his mother and as he thought of her, tears stung his eyes.

“John, are you all right?”

“Cap?” Johnny swiped at his eyes. “I’m okay,” he replied listlessly. “Just tired, I guess.”

“That’s no wonder,” Cap agreed, sitting down beside him. “There’s been an awful lot going on that you’ve had to deal with; one thing after another. Even getting home isn’t as straightforward as we would have liked.” Cap looked at the younger man with concern. Despite the sleep he had had, Johnny still had dark circles under his eyes. He was pale and he looked sad and lonely. Small wonder, his boss thought. Taken individually, each thing that had happened over the last couple of weeks would have been tough. To go through them one after the other, each thing interconnected in ways that were unexpected, was very difficult indeed. “Do you want to talk?” he asked.

The word ‘no’ was on the tip of his tongue, but it never made it past his teeth. Suddenly, all Johnny wanted to do was crawl onto Cap’s lap and be held and sheltered and comforted. For in that moment, Johnny became aware that he was on his own now; both his parents were gone and although the word orphan was associated with a child, Johnny felt orphaned. Suddenly, there was no one else that he could fall back on, no one older than him, wiser than him, someone who seemed to have all the answers. And although he had been on his own for years, Johnny, who was seldom lonely, felt completely isolated, adrift on an endless sea without an anchor. To his horror, he burst into tears.

The tears were cathartic and when he finally stopped crying, Johnny’s burden was lighter. He was mortified to find himself cradled in Cap’s arms, but when he attempted to draw away, the older man stopped him. “I know what it’s like, John,” Cap told him. “Realizing that you’re on your own? It’s daunting. But think about it; are you really alone? Your blood family is gone, but you have other family, of your own choosing. They’ll be there for you. We are there for you.”

Cap was only 15 or so years older than Johnny, but he was someone that Johnny already relied on professionally and although there was the barrier of Cap’s rank between them, Johnny knew that Cap was as much his friend as Roy, Chet, Marco and Mike. He had another family at Rampart, with Dr Brackett, Dixie, Dr Early and even – in a way – Dr Morton.

“You’re right,” he croaked and Cap gently helped him lie down again. “And I knew that all along.”

“I know you did,” smiled Cap. “You just had to let that grief out and believe me, John, there’s been many a night that I have shed a tear, wishing my parents were around for one thing or another. You’ve had a bad time. Let us take care of you for now and before you know it, you’ll be back on your feet, back at work, driving Roy mad with your schemes and dreams.”

“Me?” Johnny gasped in mock disbelief, splaying his hand on his chest. “Drive Roy mad? Cap, you’ve got me mixed up with someone else.”

His boss chuckled. “Go to sleep, you twit,” he ordered.

**********

It was the middle of the night when they arrived back in LA. Cap issued the directions to find Rampart and they pulled into the parking lot about 2.30am. Brackett hauled himself out of the coach and went to get a couple of wheelchairs while Johnny and Roy were wakened and Fred and Ken emptied their bags and boxes out of the belly of the coach.

After so long in the cold, it felt amazingly balmy outside. Johnny drew in a deep breath and sighed happily. “Home,” he murmured, almost to himself. He caught the look Roy sent him and laughed slightly. “Not Rampart,” he denied. “I meant LA.”

“We’ll believe you,” Roy nodded sleepily.

“No, I mean it,” Johnny protested.

“Of course, John,” Cap nodded skeptically. He began to walk briskly over to the Emergency entrance, pushing Johnny’s wheelchair. Brackett was pushing Roy, who protested that he was perfectly capable of walking, but Brackett ignored him. Fred and Ken carried their stuff over and it was stored temporarily at the nurses’ station, where Joanne would, in time, collect it and take it back to the DeSotos’ home.

Their arrival was not a complete surprise, because Brackett had called ahead at their last ‘pit stop’ and asked for a room to be prepared for Johnny and Roy. Dixie, Joe Early and Mike Morton were not there at that time of the morning, being on an early morning shift rotation and the staff that were on duty were not as familiar to Cap, who of course was not there as often as Johnny and Roy. Brackett was given the room number and they were taken straight to the elevator and upstairs. The nurse in charge of the floor came to help get them settled in, turning down the beds, checking to see if meds were needed and generally doing everything she could as pleasantly as possible and without getting in the way. It was such a change from what they had endured in Montana.

When Johnny and Roy were in bed, Brackett gave them both a mild sedative, just to help them drop off again. The commotion of being woken in the night and of arriving home had them both more wakeful than Brackett really cared for. He was desperate for some sleep and planned on crashing in one of the on-call rooms, so it was with relief that he saw the drugs taking effect and headed for the door, Cap at his heels. The taller man was also dropping. He had stayed awake to direct the driver and was yawning convulsively.

“Do you want to crash here?” Brackett asked him. “We can probably find you a spare bed somewhere.”

“No, thanks all the same,” Cap replied. “I called my wife when you were calling ahead here and she said just to phone and she’d come and get me. Would you like a lift home?”

“I couldn’t impose,” Brackett insisted.

“You’re not imposing, I offered,” Cap replied. “Come on, Kel, we‘ve been to hell and back these last few days together. You’re my friend; we’re taking you home.”

“That sounds great,” Kel admitted. “Thanks, Hank. My own bed sounds more than welcome at the moment.”

“Tell me about it,” Hank agreed and he headed for the phone to call his wife.

**********

The paramedics’ sojourn in Rampart was to be a short one. Both of them were thoroughly checked over once more before being allowed home. Johnny was going back to Roy’s for a few more days, but Brackett privately thought that being back in LA and away from all the tensions would bring Johnny’s recovery on by leaps and bounds.

He was right. Within a few days, Johnny felt well enough to go back to his apartment. He was moving around much more easily, the last of the persistent headache had eased and he was eating well. Roy, too, was a lot better and would be back to work about the same time as Johnny. Their recuperation included a baseball game with Chris, a trip to Disneyland with both kids and a day hiking gently in the hills.

The only blot on the horizon was that it was looking increasingly more likely that Johnny would have to return to Montana in a matter of just over a week. The other men involved had been sentenced to 25 years. Dan Blackfeather and Jim Twoshoes had been asked to testify about their treatment in the prison and had done so. From things they had said, the state police had been trying to trace other missing prisoners, so far without any luck. It was looking more and more as if the missing men had been killed.

***********

“Well, you’re fit to go back to work,” Brackett declared as Johnny tucked his shirt into his jeans and fastened them. “When’s your next shift?”

“Day after tomorrow,” Johnny replied, sounding very down for someone who had just been given a clean bill of health. “But I can’t start then.” He heaved a sigh that came right from his boots.

“Why…?” Brackett shook his head. How could he have forgotten? “The trial?”

“The trial,” confirmed the paramedic. “I have to fly back to Montana tomorrow.” He half expected Brackett to protest, since he had had a concussion only 4 weeks before, but Brackett just frowned.

“Are you going alone?” he asked.

“Yeah. Roy’s back to work, and he can’t really afford to take any more time off and it’s not like I have a choice in the matter,” Johnny replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “If I don’t turn up, a warrant would be issued for my arrest and I could be charged with contempt of court. The last thing I want is to spend any more time in that jail, thank you very much.”

“No, I can see that,” Brackett agreed. He still looked thoughtful, though.

“Listen, doc, you don’t need to worry,” Johnny told him. “I’m a big boy; I can handle going back all on my own.”

“It wasn’t exactly a piece of cake last time, Johnny,” Brackett reminded him. “Who’s to say that it won’t get nasty again?”

“Gee, you’re cheerful,” Johnny complained. He did appreciate the sentiment. “Honest, doc, I’ll be fine. My flight is being met by the state police and even I don’t know where I’m gonna be staying. It’ll be okay. You don’t need to take any more time off; you’ve done more than enough.”

“I just don’t like the thought of you being alone there,” Brackett worried.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Johnny reassured him, although he had doubts himself. His pride wouldn’t let him admit how apprehensive he really was about the whole thing. “Fly up tomorrow and fly back the day after the trial and then back to work.”

“It’ll be good to have you back,” Brackett agreed and Johnny left the hospital, having successfully hidden his fears from one of his friends.

**********

It was a good deal less easy to hide his fears from his other two friends. “I’ll be fine,” he protested as both Cap and Roy looked at his with a good deal of concern. “I’ll go up tomorrow and fly back the day after the trial. I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t like the fact you’ll be there alone,” Roy worried.

Despite the fact he didn’t like it either, Johnny forced a smile. “Roy, it’ll be fine. The cops are meeting me from the plane and they’ll look after me.”

“Hmm,” Roy mumbled, still looking less than convinced.

“Anyway,” Johnny continued, “neither of you can take any more time off. You did more than enough for me the last time.” He still hadn’t found an acceptable way to thank any of his friends for coming to help him when things got rough last time.

“I’m not too happy about it either, John,” Cap agreed. “However, you’re right. We can’t take more time off right now. And it’s kind of short notice to ask anyone else to take time off.”

“I couldn’t ask anyone to take time off,” Johnny protested. “Honest, Cap, I’ll be fine.”

“You phone in every day,” Roy ordered. “Morning and night!” He didn’t care that he sounded like the mother hen Johnny sometimes teased him of being; Johnny was his best friend, the closest thing to a brother he had ever had and the last thing he wanted was harm to come to him.

“I will,” Johnny promised. “I will.”

***********

Despite his brave words, it was rather unnerving to return. The flight was smooth and quick and the police met Johnny from the plane as promised. He got some rather hard stares as he was escorted away and it did give him some slight dark amusement to think that his fellow passengers thought he was some kind of criminal.

The weather had moderated and although there was still snow on the ground, the cold was not as deep and bitter as it had been during his last visit. Johnny looked out at the scenery as they drove to town and he was installed in a room in the nicest hotel – although there wasn’t a huge amount of choice. He dutifully phoned the station to report his safe arrival and then sat down and wondered what on earth to do. Going out for a walk wasn’t vastly appealing, since it was still pretty cold and he wasn’t settled enough to read and there really wasn’t anything he wanted to watch on TV.

However, it was the TV he finally opted for and the program that was on was the local news. There was no prize for guessing the headline story and Johnny grimaced in disgust. However, his attention was caught before he could change the channel by the tenor of the story.

“The shameful trial of the chief officer of the local jail gets underway tomorrow. There has been an outcry from the local people that this good, hard-working man is being persecuted by one Indian man who claims to have been mistreated when arrested for murder last month. John Gage, formerly of this area but now living in Los Angeles, claims to have been falsely placed under arrest and mistreated while in jail. He was not charged in the end, but many people have written to their State representative to have his case re-opened. The trial of Chief Dixon gets under way tomorrow morning.”

Furious, Johnny slammed the TV off. He couldn’t believe that they were reporting in such a biased way. His reputation had taken a complete bashing there and he couldn’t help but wonder how many of the jurors had seen that segment.

It was a long evening. Johnny went down to the restaurant to eat and was aware of other diners looking at him speculatively. He felt like standing up and confirming who he was, but his innate common sense, something that didn’t always work for him, told him not to be silly. He choked down his meal and retreated back to his room. For a few minutes, he debated calling Roy and telling him what he had seen on the news, but in the end decided not to. Roy was worried enough about him as it was.

If it had been a long evening, it was an even longer night. Johnny tossed and turned, waking often with a gasp, knowing that he’d had a bad dream, but unable to remember them. When morning came, he dragged himself out of bed and stood under a pounding shower for 20 minutes before dressing in his one and only suit and going down to get some coffee before he was collected. Eating was beyond him that morning.

Two state troopers were waiting for him in reception. For an instant, Johnny was overwhelmed with paranoia, wondering if they were imposters, but he forced the feeling down and left the building with his escort, feeling all eyes on him. He thought it would be a miracle if he was allowed back in the hotel that evening.

It was a short ride to the court house. Johnny had to run the gauntlet of media cameras and jeering people as he climbed up the steps to the building. It all felt horribly familiar and as if the last month at home had not happened. He fought down the urge to throw up and followed his escort into a small room off the lobby. There, he was introduced to the prosecutor, a dapper, middle aged man called Tiberius Norton.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gage. Now, I’m aware that I should have been in touch to get your deposition, but things have been moving so fast around here that there simply wasn’t time. However, I have read your statement from your last court appearance and I’m quite happy to go with that. All right?”

“Yes,” Johnny replied. “But I don’t really see what help I’m going to be. After all, I don’t think I even saw this man while I was at the jail. How can what happened to me be relevant?”

“Don’t worry, if nothing else it gives us more first-hand evidence for the way the inmates were treated there.” Norton patted his arm. “It’ll be fine.”

Johnny had to hope he knew what he was talking about. Silently, he followed Norton into the court room and sat down where he was told. A few minutes later, people began to shuffle in and then the accused man was brought in.

Despite his protestations that he didn’t know who the man on trial was, a stunned Johnny realized that he did. He had seen him, very briefly, while he was in jail; he was the man who had ordered that Johnny be picked up off the floor and put on his bunk, despite the bleeding head wound he had sustained. “Head injuries bleed a lot. Now get a hold of yourself and help me move him. We have other things to do tonight.” Johnny could hear the voice in his head as clearly as if the man had just spoken.

**********

He was still reeling when the judge came in and he barely managed to get to his feet. He noticed Judge Watson eyeing him and from somewhere found a small smile. His memories of the chief warden were notably absent apart from those few moments. Johnny swallowed hard and looked across at the dark-haired, beefy man sitting at the defense table. He looked sober and respectable and completely and utterly dangerous. A shudder ran down Johnny’s back as the man looked across and their eyes met.

For several long moments, they stared at each other. Johnny didn’t know what the other man could read from his face, but there would be no mistaking the shock and recognition, Johnny was sure. As for the accused, he simply looked at Johnny long and hard. Then his mouth twisted and he turned away as though going to spit, but refrained himself. After another long glance at Johnny, he leant over and spoke urgently to his counsel.

“Are you all right, Mr. Gage?” Norton was looking at Johnny with some concern. “You’re very pale. Are you going to be all right to testify?”

Blinking, Johnny brought himself back to reality, to the court room with the potential jury members filing into the box. “I’m fine,” he replied unconvincingly. “Just fine.”

Obviously not convinced, Norton pushed a glass of water over towards him. Johnny realized, with a stab of mordant humor, that the prosecutor was not concerned for his physical well-being as such; he was only concerned about how it would affect the trial. After all the things that seemed to have happened here, Johnny supposed he couldn’t really blame the man. Nonetheless, he took the glass and took a sip.

As the last of the potential jurors sat down, the defense counsel rose to his feel. “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?”

“All right,” Watson agreed, looking slightly surprised and a touch annoyed. At once, the lawyer hurried over and leaned in close, covering the microphone with his hand. He spoke urgently to the judge, who, after a moment, beckoned the prosecutor to come over. The low-voiced conference continued. People began to shuffle on their seats, wondering what the hold-up was.

At length, the judge nodded and the two lawyers went back to their seats. Watson banged his gavel for silence. “Court will come to order.” He nodded to the defense. “You have something to say.”

Rising, the defense counsel nodded. “Your Honor, my client wishes to change his plea to guilty.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then a wave of chatter swept through the room as people exclaimed in disbelief or amazement or shock. Watson had to bang the gavel a couple of times to get silence. “Any more interruptions like that and I shall clear the court,” he intoned sternly. The muttering died away. “Go on,” he instructed the lawyer.

“My client will tell you where to find the missing men if the court will offer a plea bargain,” the defense lawyer stumbled on. “He will only tell you this if the court agrees not to impose the death penalty.”

“The state agrees,” the prosecutor said, standing up and sitting down again all in one motion.

“Very well,” Watson nodded. He banged his gavel; Johnny had the sneaking suspicion that the judge liked banging his gavel. “Bailiff, take the defendant into custody. He will be sentenced after the information that he gives us is verified. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, your services will no longer be required. Mr. Gage, I am sorry to have brought you all this way for nothing.” He banged the gavel again and the defendant was handcuffed and led away, the jury filed back out of the door they had entered through and Johnny sat there and felt… nothing.

The prosecutor was tidying away his notes. “I don’t understand,” Johnny said, which wasn’t actually true. He understood all too well why the trial had stopped before it even got started. He saw Norton looking at him askance and took a deep breath to clear his mind and speak more coherently. “Why did he suddenly decide to plead guilty?”

Again, the sideways look from Norton. “What?” Johnny asked, perplexed. “What made him change his mind?”

“You did, Mr. Gage,” Norton replied. “Apparently when he saw you, the sight of you made him change his mind.”

“But why? He must have known who I was all along. Why, I remember him, now that I’ve seen him, so he must remember me…” He trailed off as Norton looked at him more sharply.

“So that was what was wrong with you,” he declared. “You were remembering him and that must have shown on your face. Your evidence would corroborate what the others had said and he would have been facing the death penalty when he was found guilty. This way, he might have a chance of release.”

“So he was gambling that my head injury was bad enough to have affected my memory,” Johnny nodded. “And it had, right up until I saw him again. And then I could hear his voice, as clear as day.”

“That would have been the last nail in the coffin, so to speak,” Norton agreed. He closed his briefcase. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Gage. Safe journey home.”

And that appeared to be that. Norton left and Johnny slowly got to his feet, still stunned by the speed at which things had happened. He made his way towards the exit, but before he reached it, the bailiff intercepted him. “Judge Watson would like to speak to you.”

**********

“Mr. Gage, it’s good to see you. Have a seat. How are you? You look like you’ve made a full recovery.” The judge had removed his robes and was dressed in just his shirt and suit pants. He gestured to a chair and Johnny sat in it.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he replied.

“Excellent.” For a moment, Judge Watson seemed at something of a loss. “I hate to be the person who has to do this,” he confessed, “but it falls on my shoulders, so I’m just going to say it and see what happens.” He took a deep breath. “It seems that quite a number of the inmates of the jail were sexually assaulted. I have to ask you if you witnessed any assaults and if you yourself were assaulted.”

A shudder crept down Johnny’s spine. “No is the answer to both,” he replied quietly. “I had very little contact with the other prisoners, but what you say doesn’t surprise me.” He could feel color mounting in his face. “I wasn’t assaulted as such, but when I was getting the body search when I was showered on my arrival, Sergeant wasn’t too fussy where he put his hands. In fact, I have to say he felt me up very thoroughly indeed.”

“That does constitute sexual assault,” Watson said after a moment.

“Maybe,” Johnny agreed. “But I’ve had worse happen to me in the course of my job. I suppose I’m dressed when I’m working though,” he mused. “Anyway, I really don’t want to go into this any further. It’s in the past and nothing else happened to me.”

“Let me explain why I’m asking,” Watson implored, leaning forward. “The state has authorized a payment to the men who were assaulted, over and above the money that they or their families might get for false imprisonment. Of the men in the jail when you were there, only one other was falsely imprisoned. He will be getting a share of both pay-outs. I have spoken to Dan Blackfeather and Jim Twoshoes and they will both be getting a payment as well. Unfortunately, from what I can gather from the defense attorney, we will not be finding the missing men alive.” He made a face as the idea revolted him once again. Every time Judge Watson thought he had plumbed the depths of human depravity, he was shocked to his core once again. “It seems to me, Mr. Gage, that you qualify for money from both funds and I will make sure that you receive it. Unfortunately, money doesn’t take away what happened, but perhaps it might make life a little easier. While the pay-out is substantial, it won’t make you rich.”

Smiling, Johnny replied, “I’ve never been rich, so that thought doesn’t worry me.” He shook his head. “I really don’t think I can accept that money,” he concluded. “I wasn’t sexually assaulted.”

“Mr. Gage, I am responsible for clearing up this whole mess and if I say you’re entitled to a share of that money, you’ll get it. What you do with it is your own business, but let me give you a piece of advice; you never know when a rainy day will come along and it’s nice to have something to fall back on.” Watson eyed the paramedic keenly. “I suspect you’ve already met a rainy day quite recently and that you were facing a future filled with uncertainty and a good deal of poverty; am I right?”

Nodding slowly at the judge’s prescience, Johnny realized he was right. He had faced the scary prospect of years of abject poverty, caring for his mother and although he didn’t make that much money as a paramedic, he wasn’t in debt. Thanks to the hospital paying his bills and his mother’s bills, his savings had been restored, but he was well aware of just how slender those savings were. He did not want to end up on welfare because of a work-related injury. He knew that he would get disability pay, but it wasn’t as much as he was earning now and he knew how easy it would be to fall into debt, be unable to pay his rent every month and find himself on the streets, just another down-and-out Indian, probably seeking refuge in a bottle or drugs. It wasn’t a pleasant prospect. “Would I have to sign anything?” he asked. He had been able to put those few moments behind him, but he didn’t want a bit of paper somewhere with his signature on it saying he had been sexually assaulted. He didn’t believe he had been and he never wanted to risk it coming to light.

“No, there’s nothing to sign,” Watson assured him. “It will be listed as a goodwill payment to the men who were wrongfully imprisoned, or possibly as a payment for the suffering you were facing, if those other men are dead, as we believe.” He shook his head. “No, Mr. Gage, nobody wants this payment to go on record for sexual assault charges.”

For another few minutes, Johnny thought it over. Practicality won out in the end. His sense of duty to his mother would not have allowed him to do other than care for her, even at great cost to himself; however, he was well aware of how fragile life was and any cushion was welcome. “All right, thank you,” he accepted. “On the condition that it is not listed as any kind of assault.”

“Deal!” Watson declared and thrust out his hand. Johnny solemnly shook it.

As they rose, Watson said, “I expect you can fly back to Los Angeles tomorrow, Mr. Gage. As we speak, the men are going out to look for the bodies. As soon as they confirm the find, you are free to leave. I am incredibly grateful that you were willing to come forward with this, even though I know it was your friends who actually started this ball rolling. You are a brave man, Mr. Gage.”

“Thank you,” Johnny replied. He wanted to protest that he wasn’t brave, but he knew that most people only saw the exterior of the person and an air of confidence led many to believe that someone was as brave as they seemed, even if it wasn’t true underneath.

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

The courthouse was quiet, with only a few people wandering around inside, most of the women carrying files. Johnny assumed they were secretaries. It came as an even greater surprise when he left the building and was confronted by a sea of TV cameras and microphones being thrust into his face. Everyone seemed to be shouting at him at once, and he couldn’t make out a single word.

“No comment,” he muttered and pushed his way through, looking for his escort from that morning, but they were nowhere to be seen. Johnny realized that he would have to make his own way back to the hotel. The biggest problem with that was the lack of immediate transportation. While he would have walked quite cheerfully, he wasn’t going to do so with a pack of baying reporters at his heels. He had no idea about bus times and there was no sign of a cab, even if one might have taken him.

Pushing through the reporters, he headed down the steps as fast as he could, but at the bottom of the steps were another group of people – the ones who thought that the police force had been wrongly accused; the ones who thought that Indians were lower than second-class citizens; the ones who were the bigots.

Those people were not constrained by the nominal manners that reporters almost abided by. They were an angry mob and waiting around in the cold for the person they considered the source of all the trouble had only honed their tempers to a knife-edge. Johnny knew he was in big trouble.

***********

There was no chance to escape. Johnny found himself surrounded, pushed and shoved, his feet stomped on, while others spat and jeered at him. The odd punch reached him, but because of the press of people, they had no real force. Johnny kept his arms over his head to protect his face, but his biggest problem was keeping his balance. If he went down under the mob, he knew he would not survive it.

It was turning very nasty when the cavalry arrived. Johnny had just received a violent punch near to his kidneys, which drove him to his knees. Instinctively, he put his hands out to stop himself planting face first on the ground and he let out a strangled cry as his hands were instantly trodden on. The pain was excruciating and Johnny suddenly knew that he was not going to get out of this situation alive.

Suddenly, he heard the wail of sirens and the people surrounding him started to melt away like the snow in the spring thaw. There were a few more kicks and shoves and then everyone was running and he was left alone kneeling in the snow at the foot of the court house steps.

His rescuers were his erstwhile escort, who knelt beside him, rapidly assessing his condition. Johnny wondered where in the hell they had been and a frisson of fear ran down his spine. Were they in on it? He glanced up into their faces and read only concern there.

“Take it easy, Mr. Gage,” one soothed.

“Damn it!” cursed the other, the older one. “We knew those calls had to be hoaxes, but we had to check them out. I’m so sorry this happened to you. We’ll get you over to the hospital right away.” He placed an arm under Johnny’s and gently helped him to his feet.

Blood was dripping from Johnny’s nose and from a cut on his cheek, but the paramedic shook his head. “I don’t need the hospital,” he insisted. “It’s all superficial. I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” the younger trooper doubted.

“A little blood goes a long way,” Johnny joked, although he didn’t feel much like laughing. “Hey, I’m a paramedic. I know when I’m okay, honestly.”

“If you’re sure…” the other one allowed, but he sounded pretty doubtful.

“I’m sure,” Johnny replied. All he wanted to do was lie down and then after a while he’d have a hot shower and ease the kinks out. “So you had some hoax calls?” he asked as he got into the car.

“Yeah, every patrol in town was called out,” the older man answered. “We knew there was something fishy going on, but you can’t ignore a call; it might have been genuine. I’m really sorry we left you alone like that.”

“Hey, I know what it’s like. We get hoax runs, too, because kids like to see the engine going by with the lights and siren on.” He shrugged. “You gotta do your job.”

It wasn’t their fault; they had to do their jobs. But Johnny could wish that they had come to his rescue a whole lot sooner.

**********

He was right. A short nap and a hot shower – not necessarily in that order – made him feel much better. He was going to be bruised; that much was a given, but all things considered, he had come out all right. His knuckles were probably the worst injury he had received and they had just sustained grazes and bruises. His nose had stopped bleeding quite easily and the cut on his cheek was not as deep as he had first thought. A band aid sufficed to stop the bleeding. In a day or so, it would be all but healed. His back hurt, but the kidneys were well-protected by nature and had not been damaged, although there was a bruise developing where he had been punched. A few days of stiffness would probably be the worst thing he would suffer. Tylenol would take care of any pain he might have.

Still, it had been a very unpleasant, downright scary encounter. And it was even worse to see it played out on screen on the evening news. Johnny was furious that the reporters had just stood there and filmed the attack and had done nothing to help him. It wasn’t any great surprise. He had had ample evidence over the years of this kind of thing. Standing behind a camera seemed to cut people off from the reality of what was happening in front of them. He just hoped that Roy, Brackett and Cap did not see this on the news!

Luck appeared to be on his side. There was no phone call from LA, and when Johnny phoned Roy later, he made no mention of it. Better to talk about what had happened when he was 1,000+ miles away from it and safely back home. That way, he would be on hand to stop Roy feeling guilty about being unable to come with him.

***********

The phone call he had been hoping for arrived shortly before 10am. “The bodies were found exactly where we were told they would be,” Judge Watson reported. “I’ve got you on this afternoon’s flight to Los Angeles and expect to receive that money next week. You’ll be collected shortly to get to the airport. Thank you once again, Mr. Gage.”

Packing his few belongings didn’t take long. Johnny waited in the lobby for his escort and took a last long look round. Somehow, he didn’t think he would be coming back there for a very long time, if ever. There was nothing for him here now, if there had ever been. His mother’s cousins were uninterested strangers and if he was brutally honest with himself, he didn’t actually like them. His home was in LA, where he had built his own family.

The journey to the airport was uneventful and so was the flight home. Roy met him at the airport, exclaiming in horror at the bruises he was sporting. Despite Johnny’s protests that he was all right, Roy made a detour via Rampart to get him checked out. Brackett, although as disgusted as Roy at the story, had to agree with Johnny. It was all superficial and Tylenol was ideal for any discomfort he suffered.

As promised, the money arrived the following week and it was very substantial indeed. Johnny knew that he could make a large deposit on a place of his own with this and still have some left over for a rainy day. It was an appealing thought, but with all the flurry and confusion and changes of the last month or so, he decided not to rush into anything, but to take his time looking around to see what he wanted.

***********

Six months later, on the very day that Johnny paid the deposit on a modest ranch house with an acre of land, the news hit all the TV stations. The corruption in the small town in Montana turned out to have tentacles that reached all the way to the state officials. There was a huge scandal and big trials and media circuses galore. It was quite the sensation.

As far as Johnny was concerned, the best bit about the whole thing was that his name was not mentioned. Soon enough, the trials were over, people were sent to prison, safe-guards were put in place to try and stop something similar happening again and it was relegated to memory as the next big news story took over the airwaves. He moved into his new home – with some help from the rest of the guys from 51 – and threw a barbeque to celebrate.

Roy found him, a couple of hours later, leaning against the fence that surrounded his land. “Are you all right?” he asked.

His head was cradled on his arms as Johnny looked out over the lush grass. He turned to look at Roy. “I’m fine,” he assured his worried partner. “Just thinking.”

“I can imagine,” Roy agreed. They were silent for a bit. Roy took a thoughtful sip of his beer. “I was thinking, too,” he confessed. Johnny quirked an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. “I was thinking that despite your mom being so hard to live with those last few days, she certainly has done her very best to bless her boy since, hasn’t she?”

Tears came to Johnny’s eyes and he blinked them away. Slowly, he straightened up, resting his hands on the top rail of the fence.

“She certainly has,” he agreed huskily.

*****End*****

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