Chapter 30


        Though Jennifer DeSoto had ridden in several four wheel drive vehicles in her life, she'd never ridden in one that bounced over logs, flew over rocks, and roared up a mountain trail just like it was advertised on television that an SUV could do. She was in the back seat of Troy Anders’ dark blue Ford Expedition. Before she had ever been dropped off at the FBI's base camp, an agent had contacted Quinn Dailey to report smoke was billowing from the vicinity of one of the abandoned ranger stations. The two men momentarily forgot about Jennifer as Troy jammed the accelerator to the floor. The doctor hung on tight and kept her mouth shut. Her medical bag was beside her, and her portable phone rested within. If her father and Johnny needed anything more than minor care, additional help would only be a phone call away.

        Troy took the Expedition as far as the mountain terrain would allow. When the trail got too steep, and the trees too thick and close together, he was forced to stop. The men jumped out and unholstered their guns. Jennifer exited the vehicle as well with medical bag in hand.

        "Oh, no," Troy said. "You wait right here."


        "Jennifer, wait here."

        The woman put a hand on her hip. The smoke from the burning ranger station was blanketing the air with a thick, gray fog-like haze. "Don't you think I'll be safer if I go with the two of you rather than staying here by myself?"

        Troy was forced to admit the doctor had a point. He glanced at Quinn before giving a tight nod of his head. "Fine. Come with us." He pointed a stern finger. "But you do exactly what we tell you to, when we tell you to. Understand?"

        "I understand."

        Jennifer was glad she was wearing jeans and thicksoled running shoes as they hiked up the mountain. The men made her walk behind them as the trio tromped through bushes, bramble vines, and overgrowth. Thorns scratched Jennifer's bare arms. She was wearing a short sleeve Kelly green polo shirt, and despite the warmth of the June day, found herself wishing she'd brought a jacket, just like she imagined the men, who were also wearing short sleeved shirts, wished the same thing. As Jennifer and the men got closer to the cabin they could hear the roar of the fire and see flickers of the shooting flames through the trees.

        Oh, Daddy. Uncle Johnny. No. Please no.

Though the trio was still several hundred yards away, Jennifer watched as the first wall of the structure begin to buckle. She knew if her father and John Gage were locked in that cabin, there was little chance they were still alive. She heard Troy get on his radio and instruct the dispatcher to call the fire department.

        "I also want a paramedic unit up here. Someone will have to bring them in an SUV, but I want them here pronto. I've got a doctor with me, but she'll need their equipment. Keep the Flight For Life chopper on stand-by."

        "Do you really think it will make a difference, Troy?" Jennifer asked with no inflection as she stared at the distant burning building. "If my father and Johnny are in there, do you really think a paramedic unit will make a difference?"

        The detective didn't answer the woman. He clipped his radio to his belt, put a hand on her elbow and said, "Come on," as they resumed their hike.


        John Gage now knew what a person caught in the throes of a violent asthma attack felt like. The cords in his neck strained as he gulped for air while running for his life. He knew Roy had hurt his foot, but there was no time to worry about the extent of the injury. He never let go of Roy's wrist, but rather pulled his friend along with him.

        If he hadn't been so ill, Johnny would have easily been able to outrun Evan Crammer. As he'd told Roy, Trevor kept him young. Though Johnny still had a taste for junk food, and indulged in that taste every so often, Trevor's existence had given Johnny every reason in the world to take care of himself. He wanted to live to see his son grow to manhood. He wanted to live to see his grandchildren born. Thus, he ate right, exercised regularly, didn't smoke, drank a beer or a glass of wine only on rare occasions, and followed whatever advice Mark Benson gave him each year at his annual physical. But Johnny was ill, and the air was filled with smoke, and he hadn't eaten a decent meal for six days now, so the fire chief found himself struggling to stay on his feet. If this was a child's game of cops and robbers he'd simply turn around, raise his hands high, and declare, "I give up." But it wasn't a child's game, and Johnny knew giving up meant dying. Not only him dying, but Roy dying as well, and that last scenario just wasn't an option as far as Johnny was concerned.

        Roy winced as he half ran, half limped through the woods. He could hear Johnny gasping for breath and knew they'd have to stop soon. His eyes frantically scanned the area, looking for any place they could seek shelter. Roy wondered if they were anywhere near the cavern his kids and Johnny used to call the Pow-Wow cave. Johnny would be able to locate it far better then he could, but Johnny hadn't lived here for fifteen years, so whether or not he knew where they were in relationship to that cave Roy had no idea.

        Johnny's hand came free of Roy's wrist as he tripped over a log. He faltered a moment, but regained his footing. He looked over his shoulder to see Roy right behind him.

        "Johnny. . .Johnny. . ." Roy panted as sweat rolled down his face. "We have to. . . have to stop. You need. . .you need to rest. . .to rest a minute."

        What the hell am I saying? I need to rest a minute.

Johnny wasn't able to stop coughing, so had to make due with replying by giving a vehement shake of his head.

        Johnny grabbed Roy's arm again and tugged. "Come on, come on," he gasped between coughs. "The woods. Fire! Come on!"

        Roy turned around to see the trees behind them burning. That didn't surprise him. Summer in Southern California meant little rain. It also meant torching a cabin in a heavily wooded area was, by far, not the wisest of ideas.

        Despite the years Johnny had been away, he had a rough idea as to where they were. If they continued to head west, he estimated they'd reach Highway 65 with three more miles of travel, maybe less depending on how they cut a path through the woods.

        Though Johnny willed himself to keep going, his body was giving out on him. Whatever speed he'd possessed to initially make this flight was rapidly dwindling. His lungs cried for air as he gasped for anything he could give them. His eyes burned and teared from the thick cloud of smoke enveloping the mountain. He never saw the rock that caught his right foot and sent him sprawling. He landed full-force with an "Umph!" Before he could even lift his face from the dirt he felt Roy's hands grasping his upper arms, then heard, "DeSoto! Get away from him! Now!"

        When Roy hesitated to do as Evan Crammer ordered, the man barked, "DeSoto! I said, now! If you don't want his brains splattered on your shoes, you'll do as I ordered."

        Roy slowly rose and moved away from Johnny, his eyes never wavering from Crammer's gun. The man stepped farther out from behind a tree. Johnny coughed dirt from his mouth as he looked up. Crammer was standing fifteen feet away. How the man had gotten in front of them Johnny didn't know. But between his illness, and Roy's bum ankle, Johnny figured it hadn't taken much for Crammer to outrun them.

        He must have seen us jump off the roof. Damn, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. It's the story of your life, Gage.

"Fire Chief Gage, on your feet."

        Johnny pushed himself up, though 'on his feet' was a relative term since he remained bent over at the waist, coughing and gulping for air both at the same time. He heard the crackle of burning wood and leaves, though how close the fire was at this moment wasn't Johnny's biggest concern, nor did it appear to be Evan Crammer's.

        "As I said earlier, gentlemen, it's been fun. Far more fun even than I would have imagined. The amount of entertainment you've provided me with exceeded my wildest expectations. Now; however, I must bid you a final farewell." Evan aimed his gun at Roy. "Because Mr. Gage and I aren't quite finished. . .allowing him to die easy just doesn't set well with me, you'll go first, Mr. DeSoto. Since you haven't pissed me off too much, I promise to make it quick."

        Roy shot Johnny a sideways glance. His friend was still doubled over coughing, so whether or not Johnny had even heard what Crammer said Roy wasn't certain. His heart slammed against his chest with fear rather than from exertion. Nonetheless, Roy schooled his features, willing that fear not to show. Just like Johnny had vowed to himself days ago, Roy would not let this bastard have the satisfaction of knowing he inspired any emotion, much less that of pure terror.

        Roy bid a silent goodbye to his wife, children, grandchildren, and best friend. He hoped that whatever happened after the bullet entered his skull, Johnny would somehow still manage to get away. He resisted the urge to close his eyes as Crammer sighted the firearm to the center of Roy's forehead.

        The thunderous crash of burning trees falling shook the ground and momentarily drew Crammer's attention from the men. That was all the opening John Gage needed. He charged, determined to wrestle the gun from Evan, or at least give Roy a chance to flee before the gun went off.

        Roy cried, "Johnny!" as he saw his friend sail through the air and the gun rise to meet him. The concussion of the blast caused Roy to wince. He saw Johnny fall to the ground, and expected the next bullet to enter his own body. Instead, Crammer sped past Roy, shoving him aside with a stiff-armed tackle as he flew toward the center of the fire.

        Johnny groaned and rolled onto his back. Feet pounded past him. He turned his head to see two men chasing Crammer, one of them yelling, "Halt FBI! Halt!"

        As blood streamed from his left shoulder Johnny scrambled to his knees. Despite all that Evan Crammer had put him through, it was still John Gage's job to rescue a person from a fire. He stumbled forward, only to be snared by Roy.

        "Johnny, stop! Sit down! Sit! You've been shot. You need to sit."

        "No!" Johnny fought to free himself from Roy's grasp. "No. Gotta. . .gotta help him! Gotta. . .gotta--"

        At that moment Evan Crammer ran right into a flaming section of forest. As fire ignited his clothing, he raised his arms and shouted, "Victory!" His shout changed to a series of endless screams that echoed over the mountain as his skin and hair began to burn. Troy raised his gun in order to put the man out of his misery, but Quinn stopped him. He shoved the gun barrel toward the ground.

        "No! Let the bastard burn, Troy. Let him get used to what hell feels like, because that's exactly where he's headed."

        Johnny couldn't bear the sight before him. He watched as Crammer became a human torch and did a bizarre, pain-crazed dance in the depths of the flames, like an ostrich trying to fan the fire out. Johnny finally averted his face, burying it in Roy's shoulder. He felt Roy cup a comforting hand to the back of his head. Roy might have said one of three things at that point, or he might have said all of them.

        "It's okay, Johnny. It's all over now."

         "Come on, you need to sit down."

         "Jennifer's here, Johnny. Let's have her take a look at you."

        Johnny never was certain of Roy's exact words, because at the very moment Evan Crammer died, John Gage passed out in his best friend's arms.

Chapter 31

        Jennifer and Roy DeSoto were crouched low to the ground, but even that didn't keep the thick smoke from irritating their throats and stinging their eyes. It would be hours later, when the smell of smoke was still clinging to her clothes and hair, and the taste of it was still in her mouth, that Jennifer would gain even further respect, if that was possible, for the job her father and John Gage had devoted their lives to.

        Jennifer's focus was immediately on her patient. She gave little thought to the fire beginning to rage in earnest in behind them, nor was she distracted by the additional law enforcement officials dressed in camouflage gear who crawled out of the woods like ants scampering to their hill. Jen and her father had never worked together before. If the situation hadn't been what it was, she would have allowed herself time to savor that. As it was; however, time was a luxury neither they, nor Johnny had.

        "Daddy, are you all right?" Jennifer asked as she helped her father ease Johnny to the ground.

        "I'm fine. Maybe a sprained ankle, but otherwise, I'm fine."

        The doctor unbuttoned Johnny's shirt and peeled it from his bloody shoulder. She looked around, but didn't see what they needed - the paramedic unit Troy had called for. She opened her medical bag and tossed Roy her blood pressure cuff and stethoscope.

        "Get his vitals for me while I try to control this bleeding."

        Jennifer knew the two rolls of gauze she had in her bag weren't going to be nearly as effective as a pressure bandage, but for the time being she made do with what she had.

        Roy wrapped the b/p cuff around Johnny's right arm and pumped the ball. He rifled in Jennifer's medical bag with his free hand until he found a pen and small notebook. He called the vital signs off to his daughter as he wrote. Everything he said told Jennifer what she already knew. That Johnny was losing blood rapidly, that he was fighting hard to get oxygen, and that his temperature was well above normal.

        Roy gave her a quick run down of his other ailments. "I'm sure he's got pneumonia. He's also got first-degree burns on both hands and arms, abrasions on his right hand, and a gash on the top of his head. No spinal or neck injuries, and no broken bones other than the probability of his shoulder as a result of the bullet."

        The woman looked up from her patient again, this time making eye contact with Troy Anders who had just arrived at her side.

        "We've got to get him out of here. The bullet's likely hit the subclavian vein. I can't control the bleeding with what little I have available."
        "Can we carry him to my vehicle?"

        "If we have to we can."

        Troy got on his radio and told the dispatcher he'd be transporting an injured man down the mountain in his Expedition. He instructed her to radio that information to the paramedics, and instructed her to have a section of Highway 65 blocked off so the helicopter could land.

        Quinn Daily called his people away from the scene. Until the fire department arrived and got things under control, it was too dangerous for anyone to stay in the vicinity. He ran to Jennifer's side to see if he could help. Like everyone else present, water streamed from Daily's eyes and soot smudged his face.

        "I'd don't know how you guys do this," he said to Roy. "Take in all this smoke, I mean."

        "Years of practice," was Roy's distracted answer.

        Jennifer kept pressure on Johnny's shoulder wound while giving the men instructions. She felt his blood soaking the gauze and seeping through her fingers.

        "Troy, you take his upper body. Quinn, you take his legs. I'm going to keep my hands on the gauze covering these bullet wounds."
        "Wounds?" Troy questioned.

        "The bullet exited out the back of his shoulder, which means right now that's just one more place he's bleeding from." Jennifer looked at her father as he quickly packed up her medical bag. "Daddy, can you make it on your own, or do you need help?"

        "I made it this far, little girl."

        "Fair enough," Jennifer nodded. "When we get Uncle Johnny off the ground I want you to support his head. Keep his airway as open as possible so we can aid with his breathing."

        "Will do."

        Quinn reached out a hand and took Jennifer's bag from Roy. "I can carry that."

        "Okay, gentlemen, on the count of three," Jennifer said. "One, two, three."

        On three Johnny was lifted from the ground. He gave a low moan at the pain the movement caused him, but never opened his eyes. Roy limped beside his friend, cradling the back of Johnny's head and neck in his hands. He kept Johnny's head tilted back as much as possible as they moved, just like he'd do if he was going to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation.
        Roy bit the inside of his mouth each time his right foot hit the ground. He didn't think the sprain was a bad one, but the ankle was definitely letting him know it did not appreciate being walked on. He could feel it swelling over the top of his tennis shoe, but ignored the discomfort. Jennifer's hands were covered with Johnny's blood, meaning that right now there were more important things to worry about.

        Later, Roy would be certain the trip to Troy's Ford was the longest mile he'd walked in his life. The fire chased them down the mountain as they rushed Johnny to the vehicle. With Roy's help, Troy maintained his grip on Johnny's upper body while fishing his keys from a pocket of his jeans. The detective opened the big rear hatch, then wiggled in on his butt while bringing Johnny with him. He reached a hand behind himself, hit a button, and dropped the back seat in order to make room for the injured man and those tending to him. He dug through a beach bag that had been sitting in a corner behind the bench seat.

        "My wife and I were up in Carmel last week, but never did get to the beach before I got the call from Chris." Troy pulled out two thick towels and a blanket. "These things should be clean."

        "Clean or not we'll use them." Jennifer climbed in, her hands still tightly pressed to Johnny's shoulder. "Just get us off this mountain as quickly as you can."

        When everyone was situated Troy climbed over the seats and got behind the steering while Agent Dailey, who remained in the back with Roy and Jennifer, reached up and shut the hatch. Roy sat behind Johnny's head. With Quinn's help, Jennifer positioned Johnny so his upper body was leaning against Roy's chest. She knew this position would make him bleed more, but at the same time he was in desperate need of air as he gasped to draw in each breath.

        Quinn helped Jennifer fold the towels into fourths, then covered Johnny with the blanket. Jen pressed the towels to the entrance and exit wounds on Johnny's shoulder while she talked to the unconscious man.

        "You hang on for me, Uncle Johnny. I know better than anyone else what a tough guy you are. Don't you dare give up on us. There's too many people who are depending on you. Your friends in Eagle Harbor. Your friends here in L.A. Trevor. My father. Don't you dare give up. Do you hear me, Uncle Johnny? Do you hear me?"

        Jennifer kept up a steady stream of conversation while the Expedition bumped down the mountain, rocking their bodies from side to side like a crazy carnival ride.

        "You said you'd come back and have me paged. You never did though. Never. Now come on, I'm expecting you to do that. I'm expecting you to walk in Rampart one day and have me paged. I'll even treat you to lunch if you do. Dixie and I both will. Boy, I bet she has a lot to say to you. Especially after you promised to keep in touch with her but never did. You don't want to miss out on that, do you? I know she's going to be so happy to see you. She took to Trevor right away. We all did. He's part of the family, just like you, Uncle Johnny. Just like you."

        Johnny's eyes opened a mere slit during the woman's monologue. Though it was her voice that brought him around, he was too shocky, and in too much pain, to recognize her. Instead, his right hand lifted and fished for the person behind him.

        "I'm here, Johnny." Roy took the hand. Being mindful of the burns and abrasions, he gave it a gentle squeeze. "I'm right here. We're on our way to Rampart right now. You're going to be fine. You just hang on a little while longer. You're going to be fine, I promise."

        Johnny wanted to tell Roy that he didn't think he was going to be fine. As a matter of fact, he had little hope of surviving to make it to the hospital. He was working so hard to get air into his lungs, and was as weak and chilled as a newborn kitten. Despite his fever, Johnny shivered. He gave Roy's hand a squeeze in return with such a slight amount of pressure Roy could barely feel it.

        "Than. . .thanks, Roy," Johnny whispered as the world started going black again. The rest of the words he mumbled were lost on Roy as Johnny's eyes drifted shut. Roy looked at his daughter.

        "What did he say?"

        Jennifer hesitated, gathering her emotions before meeting her father's gaze. "He said. . he said, 'Thanks, Roy, for being my best friend.' "

        Roy was forced to blink water from his eyes. He told himself the salty moisture that suddenly blurred his vision was caused by smoke, as opposed to being caused by John Gage's words.

        Jennifer did her best to offer her father a reassuring smile even as blood stained the white towels red.

        "He'll be all right, Daddy. Uncle Johnny will be all right."

        Roy wanted to remind his daughter that he'd taught her better than to lie, but because he couldn't find his voice at the moment, he simply gave a small nod of his head while squeezing Johnny's hand again.

Chapter 32

        Johnny's arrival at Rampart via helicopter caused quite a stir. There were still a number of people on the medical staff who had worked with him when he was employed as a paramedic by the L.A. County Fire Department. Any of them who were available immediately volunteered to assist with his care in whatever way needed. As it was, Johnny ended up with the cream of Rampart's crop - Jennifer DeSoto, Mike Morton, Dixie McCall, and even the hospital administrator, Kelly Brackett, - working together to save his life.

        The minor burns he'd suffered to his arms and hands when jumping from the flaming cabin could be easily taken care of, as could the dehydration he was suffering due to his illness and captivity, as well as the gash on the top of his head that required a thorough cleaning and twelve stitches. The damage caused by the bullet from Evan Crammer's gun required surgical repair, and physical therapy would ultimately be necessary in order for Johnny to regain full mobility.

        For the time being physical therapy was the least of everyone's worries. The major hurdles Johnny had to overcome were the three things taxing his body's reserves; blood loss and shock from the gunshot wound, pneumonia, and the high fever accompanying it. After Johnny was rushed to a treatment room the oxygen mask he was wearing had been removed and he was placed on a ventilator. IV's of blood, Ringer's Lactate, and antibiotics were running wide open, a Foley catheter was inserted, and X-rays of his skull and shoulder taken.

        Despite the pain his ankle caused him, Roy had assisted in the treatment room in whatever way was needed. It was only after Johnny was stabilized and taken to surgery that Roy allowed Mike Morton to look him over.

        Like Johnny, Roy had a few minor burns that needed cleaning and ointment. His ankle was X-rayed, but no broken bones were found. The sprain was 'light' as Morton put it. The ankle was wrapped, and Roy was advised to stay off it for a couple days, elevate it, and ice it. Other than that, Doctor Morton recommended rest, food, and liquids to the man who had been taken in exchange for his granddaughter ten hours earlier. Then he arranged to have a pair of crutches brought to Roy.

        "I know you're planning to hang around here a lot longer than I'd advise you to, so the crutches will allow you the mobility you need without further injuring that ankle. Just get some rest while you wait for word on Johnny, and have something to eat and drink, okay?"

        "Okay," Roy smiled. "And thanks, Mike. Thanks a lot."

        "You're welcome," Mike patted Roy's arm as he turned to leave the treatment room. "I'm happy to see him again, too, Roy. I'll be even happier to see him when he's sitting up in a bed giving me a hard time by contradicting everything I say."

        "Yeah, me too," Roy agreed, thinking of the pale, soot-covered, disheveled man wrapped in blood soaked bandages who'd been whisked to the OR thirty minutes earlier.
        Roy called Joanne from the phone in the nurses' lounge. She'd already been informed by Troy Anders that her husband was safe at Rampart General Hospital, and had suffered only minor injuries from his ordeal. All Troy would say about Johnny was, "He's in pretty bad shape. Roy will be able to fill you in much better than I can." Joanne wanted to load everyone in the mini-van and head right down to Rampart, but the detective had told her no, that Roy requested she wait until he called her.

        After assuring his wife he was fine, Roy told her everything he knew about Johnny's condition. He then asked her to bring a change of clothing to Rampart with her, along with toothpaste, a toothbrush, his razor, soap, shampoo, and a comb.

        "Mike Morton said I could shower in the doctor's locker room. If you want to wait while I clean up, then we can go to the cafeteria and eat something. Johnny won't be out of surgery for a couple hours at least."

        "What about Libby and Trevor?"

        "Don't bring them. Jenny said Chris and Wendy were at the house with you. Are they still there?"


        "Leave the kids with them. Don't. . .Joanne, don't tell Trevor anything about Johnny just yet if you don't have to."

        "I won't. Neither he nor Libby know you and Johnny have been found. They're both sleeping right now."

        "Good. Just tell Chris. . .well tell him and Wendy to keep Trev and Libby occupied after they wake up. Let them go swimming, watch a video, take them to the park. . .whatever. There's no use in getting Trevor's hopes up until we know more."

        "Does this mean you. . .you don't think Johnny's going to live?"

        "I don't know. He. . .he's in rough shape, Jo. The gun shot wound or pneumonia either one would be enough for him to battle, but both. . .I don't know, sweetheart. I just. . .I just don't know."

        Despite Roy's dirty face and clothes, and the smell of smoke permeating from him, Joanne didn't hesitate to wrap her arms around him when she located him in the nurses' lounge. She cried quiet tears into his shoulder. She couldn't put into words the relief she felt knowing this ordeal had finally come to an end for her family.

        Roy returned the hug. He kissed his wife's cheek and forehead while assuring he was fine. "It's over, sweetheart. It's over. Don't cry. Please don't cry. You know how I hate it when you cry."

        "I know." Joanne eased out of Roy's embrace and wiped her eyes. "I just. . .do you know how lucky we are, Roy? How lucky we are that neither you nor Libby were seriously hurt or even. . .killed?"

        Roy caressed his wife's face with the back of his hand. "Yes, I know how lucky we are."

        Joanne fought to gather her emotions. She had a feeling the next few days were going to be difficult at best, and that Roy and Trevor were going to need her to be strong for them.

        "Has there been any word on Johnny?"

        "No, not yet. Dixie's keeping tabs on what's going on. She'll let me know as soon as she has anything to report."

        "Jennifer's with him?"

        "Yes. She's assisting Doctor Cho with the surgery. So is Brackett."

        "Wow." Joanne raised an eyebrow. "I bet it's been a long time since he's donned surgical scrubs."
        Roy smiled. "Quite a while. But he said Johnny earned VIP treatment."

        Roy adjusted his crutches beneath his armpits and followed his wife out of the lounge. They headed down the hall toward the men's locker room. When they reached the swinging door Joanne handed her husband the New Balance zippered sports bag she was carrying.

        "Everything you need is in here. I'll sit in the waiting area while you shower."


"There's a grocery sack in there you can put your dirty clothes in. Roll the top down on it before you put it in the sports bag, otherwise everything else in there will smell like smoke."

        Roy smiled his admiration at the woman he'd been married to for over three decades now. "You think of everything."

        "I've been married to a fireman too long not to."

        "That you have," Roy agreed as he and Joanne exchanged a final kiss before he entered the locker room. Not for the first time in all his years of marriage, Roy DeSoto realized what a lucky man he was. 'Lucky in love' as the phrase went, and that he certainly was.

        An hour later the smoke and soot was gone from Roy's body, and he was dressed in clean clothes. Joanne had even brought a different pair of tennis shoes for him. He didn't bother to put the right shoe on after he showered. He rewrapped his ankle and pulled a sock over the Ace bandage, then made use of the crutches again. Though Roy didn't feel much like eating, he did make an effort. If nothing else the three glasses of ice water he drank, and the barbecued chicken sandwich he got down, did take some of his weariness away.

        When they finished eating Roy and Joanne headed to the waiting area on the surgical floor. Dixie joined them when she went off-duty at three. The only news she had was that, "Johnny's holding his own."

        Two hours later Jennifer and Kelly Brackett got off the elevator together. Bracket had changed from his scrubs into his street clothes, while Jennifer wore a white lab coat over a fresh pair of blue scrubs since her jeans and polo shirt were covered with soot and smelled like smoke. She rolled her head from side to side as she walked, trying to relieve the tension in her neck and shoulders. She felt like she could sleep for a week, and was looking forward to a night in her own bed for a change. But for now, that rest she craved would have to wait. Jennifer's father was coming toward her with the aid of crutches. By the look on his face she knew he was anxious for a full run down on Johnny's condition.

        Jennifer put an arm on her father's back and spoke the words Roy needed to hear.

        "He made it through surgery, Daddy."

        Roy breathed a sigh of relief, then questioned, "And?"

        "And. . ." Jen's eyes traveled to her mother and Dixie as she, her father, and Doctor Brackett arrived at the waiting area. "And, he's got some challenging days ahead of him. I can't make any predictions. We've repaired the damage to his shoulder and have it immobilized. As you know, he's been through a lot since last Wednesday, and was already very ill. He didn't need the additional trauma from the gunshot wound, but that's Uncle Johnny for you, always in the middle of trouble." Jennifer smiled. "Or so you often said, Dad."

        Roy nodded. "He. . .he was shot because he jumped in front of the gun. Crammer had it pointed at me. But Johnny. . .well, the damn fool. . .he. . .I guess he thinks I'm too old and fat to jump out of the way for myself."

        Jennifer chuckled, as did her mother, Dixie, and Kelly Brackett. "I doubt that. Knowing Uncle Johnny, my guess is he did it out of. . ."

        Jennifer let her sentence trial off, but Roy finished it for her. "Friendship? He did it out of friendship? Is that what you were going to say?"

        "Um. . .yes. Yes, something like that."

        Roy turned and looked out the window. "Well, you're right. I'm sure that is why he did it."

        "What do we tell Trevor?" Joanne asked her daughter. "Can we bring him to see Johnny?"

        "No, not now." Jennifer shook her head. "As for what we tell him, Trevor's too smart for us to be dishonest with him. I think the best approach is to let him know his father's seriously ill, but that when he's better and can have visitors, we'll bring Trevor to see him."

        Roy faced his daughter again. "And if he doesn't make it? If Johnny. . .if he doesn't pull through?"

        "If he gets worse and I have concerns he won't survive, then yes, we'll bring Trevor to say. . .to say goodbye. But I promise you I'll do everything in my power to keep that from happening, Dad. Uncle Johnny's got to do his part though. He's got to fight right along with the rest of us."

        "Don't worry, I'll see that he does. You just make sure the ICU staff knows they'll be seeing a lot of me over the next few days."

        "I had a feeling that request was coming," Kelly Brackett said. "Therefore, it's already been taken care of."

        "Thanks, Doc."
        "You're welcome." Brackett smiled. "Just chalk this one up to old time's sake."

        "I'll do that."

        Roy looked at Jennifer. "Is he still in recovery?"

        "Yes. He'll probably be moved to ICU in an hour or so. Once he's settled there I'll let you know. I'm guessing you'd like to see him for a few minutes before you go home."

        "Who said anything about going home?"


        "Jennifer, he's got no one else. His father and sister aren't here, Trevor's too young to be here, his friends. . .his close friends now are the people he knows in Eagle Harbor. When Johnny lived here we always said he was part of the family, and he was. If he was my brother I wouldn't leave this hospital until I knew he was out of danger. Well, in many ways, your Uncle Johnny was more than a brother to me over the years. Because of that, I'm staying until you can assure me I can go home and give Trevor the best news he'll ever be told."

        "All right, you win. But only if you get some sleep on one of the cots in the doctor's lounge, and only if you promise to eat decent meals and take care of yourself."

        "I will."

        "He will," Dixie echoed.

        When Roy looked at the woman she smiled. "And just where do you think I'm going?"

        "Dix, you don't have to stay."

        "Why not? It's not like I've got anyone at home keeping track of where I am, and I'm not on-duty again until Friday. Besides, I figure you can use the company."

        "I'd argue with you, but years of experience tell me I'd be wasting my time."

        "That you would be."

        Once that was settled Kelly Brackett bid the group goodbye.

        "I need to get back to running this hospital. But, believe me, I'll be keeping a close eye on our old friend."

        Roy shook the man's hand. "I'm sure you will. Thanks for everything."

        "You're welcome."

        The women departed shortly after that. Dixie was headed home to pack an overnight bag for herself, while Joanne assured Roy that she and Chris would handle things at the DeSoto house, including breaking the news to Trevor about his father.

        After Jennifer's parents had kissed good-bye, and her mother and Dixie were walking toward the elevator, the doctor dug a piece of paper from the right pocket of her lab coat.


        "What's this?"

        "A nurse found it in a pocket of Uncle Johnny's blue jeans. It's addressed to you."

        Roy accepted the folded piece of manila paper. His first and last name was written on the outside in black crayon. Jennifer made her leave then as well.

        "I'm going to check on my patient. I'll let you know when he's been moved to ICU."

        "Thanks, sweetheart."

        As Jennifer turned for the same elevator her mother and Dixie had just made use of, Roy beckoned, "Jennifer?"

        The doctor faced her father once more. "Yes?"

        "I'm very proud of you. The way you handled yourself out there today. The skills you employed under less than ideal conditions in order to get Johnny here alive. I always knew you had what it takes, but getting to work with you. . .well, it was an honor for your old man, you know?"

        "Daddy, number one; you're not old." Jennifer kissed her father on the cheek, then finished with, "And number two; the honor was all mine."

        Roy gave a slight shake of his head as his daughter walked away. Once again he found himself wondering where the years had gone, and how his children had grown up so fast.

        With the aid of his crutches, Roy hobbled over to the sofa where Joanne had left his sports bag sitting. The waiting area was deserted. Roy took advantage of that fact and gingerly propped his injured ankle on the coffee table. He stacked the crutches against the arm of the sofa, then unfolded the paper he was holding.

        Roy's first reaction was to smile. Only Johnny would write a note on a page from a coloring book using a crayon. Not that he probably had anything else at his disposal, but nonetheless it emphasized the unorthodox thought processes that made Johnny who he was. If John Gage had something to say, then by God he was going to say it, even if his last words were written on the page of a Xena, Warrior Princess coloring book.

        Roy's eyes traveled over the writing he would have immediately been able to identify as Johnny's even if the letter hadn't been addressed to him.


        It will probably come as no surprise to you that I find myself in a big mess once again. A really big mess as a matter of fact. The man who tried to take Jennifer that weekend in 1978, has kidnapped me and your granddaughter Libby. I promise you I'll do my very best to keep Libby safe. She's a sweet little girl, just like her mother was. But, I'll be honest with you, Roy, right now it feels like I'm fighting a losing battle. I've told Libby she has to get away if she can. I think we're being held at an old ranger station in the San Gabriel Mountains. If someone finds me, or my body rather, but Libby is nowhere around, start your search in the mountains. Libby knows she's to try to get to a road, and from there, get help for herself. I wish I could do more for her, Roy. I hope you know that I wish I could do so much more for her.
         I have a son now. He's eight years old and his name is Trevor. We live in Eagle Harbor, Alaska. Trevor should be under the care of the police chief there, Carl Mjtko. Please get a message to my boy for me. Tell him his papa loves him more than he can imagine. Tell him to be good for Carl and Clarice, and to make his papa proud.

         I guess there's a lot more things I could say, but writing with crayon is a bitch. Thanks for all the years of friendship you gave me. I'm a better man because of that friendship, and the times we shared together as partners in Squad 51.

        John Gage

        Tears ran down Roy's face as he read the letter through a second time. He could sense the despair and failure Johnny was feeling as he wrote, even though the man never directly spelled out those emotions.

        Roy stared down at the letter long after he'd swiped his face dry. He finally folded the paper and put it in his shirt pocket. No matter what happened, he'd keep it for the rest of his days. For this letter was a symbol of the bond that had formed between himself and Johnny close to thirty years ago now, and without either one of them realizing it, had never actually been broken. Cracked a little bit at one time, yes. But broken, no. And one way or another, Roy would make sure Johnny knew that.

Chapter 33


John Gage drifted in and out of awareness. Time had no meaning to the man who lay on a bed in the ICU, sometimes burning with fever, other times suffering through a bone-penetrating chill. A kaleidoscope of thoughts floated within the sedated fire chief. He could feel the IV needles in his right arm, and the cooling blanket that was sometimes on him. He was aware of the sling immobilizing his left shoulder, and he could hear the beep of monitors and the buzz of conversation. But he couldn't move, or open his eyes, and his brain said, "cis-atracurium," which he knew was a paralyzing drug being used to sedate him so he wouldn't cough, and therefore put further stress on his system.

         The answers Johnny was seeking - "Where am I?" "What happened?" "How'd I get here?" came in small segments. He was periodically released from his paralyzed state and brought up from the sedation in order to squeeze a hand on command, or open his eyes when told to do so. The young blond woman who seemed to be the physician in charge of his care smiled at him in a way that told Johnny he should know her, but as hard as he attempted to put a name to her face he couldn't. When the woman would leave his side, Roy instantly reappeared.

        Even when Johnny wasn't able to open his eyes, he could feel Roy rubbing his right arm, or gently squeezing his hand. Sometimes the things Roy said made sense - that Libby was all right thanks to her Uncle Johnny. That Trevor was anxious to see his papa, but understood he had to wait until Papa was feeling better. That Joanne was taking good care of Trevor and Johnny wasn't to worry. But at other times Johnny had no idea what Roy was talking about. At those times he had no clue as to who Libby or Trevor were, or how he was supposed to know them. That always frightened Johnny as images of a night twenty-two years in the past would then assault his mind and he'd give an internal scream of, "Jenny! Jennifer!"

        Somehow, Roy always seemed to know when he was scared or confused, because Roy was right there rubbing his arm, or his shoulder, or squeezing his hand while saying, "It's okay, Johnny. You don't have anything to worry about. Everybody's fine. I'm taking care of everything. You just rest. You rest now."

        By day four of Roy's vigil he could at least walk without crutches, though his ankle was tender and it remained wrapped in the Ace bandage. It was Saturday, and Trevor Gage was still staying with the DeSotos. Joanne had called Carl and Clarice on Tuesday evening. After explaining all that had happened, and telling them Johnny was in the Intensive Care Unit at Rampart General, Carl and his mother agreed with Joanne that it was best if Trevor remained near his father instead of flying home to Alaska on Thursday as planned. Clarice wanted to fly to L.A., but Joanne and Carl convinced her to wait until Johnny's doctors knew more one way or the other about his condition. As Carl told her, "There's no use in you sitting around that hospital, Mom. Roy is with John, and Trevor's being well taken care of. Joanne will let us know when John needs us to be there, too."

        Evan Crammer's death was the lead story on the TV news and in the papers. Troy Anders had come by Rampart to get a statement from Roy, and had taken a statement from Libby as well. He'd need a statement from Johnny, but that event had to be put on hold.

        Roy had a lot of time to think while he sat beside his old friend. The realization that Johnny would have willingly died while trying to protect Libby hit him hard. Roy knew Johnny would have crawled to him with Libby in his arms if need be, despite being fully aware that Roy might take her from him and then turn his back on Johnny like he had fifteen years earlier. For that's the kind of man John Gage was. A loyal friend to the bitter, bitter end.

        "What an anomaly you are," Roy had told Johnny while rubbing a hand over his right arm early on Saturday morning. "A guy who would borrow my pick-up truck and was too cheap to fill it with gas when he was done using it, but would show up on my doorstep on Christmas morning with so many presents for all of us, Joanne and me included, that I was sure you'd mugged Santa Claus.

        "A guy who made me sleep in his God-awful convertible chair rather than offering me his bed, but was the first person at my house whenever there was an emergency. Do you remember climbing up on the roof with me at two o'clock in the morning in what seemed like a typhoon to nail down those loose shingles? Or the time you let me roust you out of bed at midnight to come stay with Chris and Jenny when Joanne's dad had his heart attack?

        "I'd practically have to tip you upside down and shake the money from your pockets when I bought lunch and you were supposed to pay me back, yet you'd never accept a dime from me when you took my kids to the zoo, or an amusement park, or to see a movie.

        "You were the best paramedic I ever worked with. Ever. A guy who could memorize and comprehend a huge range of medical conditions and treatments with almost lightning speed, yet you never seemed to remember the Phantom was always lurking with his water bombs. A guy who would run into the station's kitchen to snitch the last cookie from the cookie jar before anyone else could have it, yet when it was somebody's birthday you'd order pizzas for lunch and wouldn't let the rest of us go in on the cost with you. Johnny. . ." Roy had to swallow hard in order to continue. "Johnny, you've got. . .you've always had a big heart, even when. . ." Roy chuckled, "even when I wasn't certain where your brain was sometimes. And it's because of that big heart that I know. . .I know that whole thing. . .that thing between you and me over Chris. . .well, I know it must have hurt you deeply. I've got a lot. . .a lot of things I need to say to you, and I think I finally have them organized in my mind so I can say them, but you've got to do your part and get well so you can hear them. I'm not gonna say them now. That's not fair to you. You deserve better than that. You deserve the opportunity to look me right in the eye and say, 'Go to hell, DeSoto.' And if that is what you say, I'll accept it. I really will. I just. . .you know I just want you to get better. What happens after that. . .well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, okay, Johnny? Does that sound like a good idea to you?"

        Because Jennifer would be making her rounds soon Johnny's sedation had been allowed to lighten, and the cis-atracurium was wearing off. Nonetheless, Roy didn't expect any response to his monologue, but he got one when he saw the fingers of Johnny's right hand twitch. He reached for the hand and cupped it within his own. Johnny's eyes never opened as he gave Roy's palm a weak squeeze.

        Roy smiled and returned the pressure. "Am I supposed to take that as a yes?"

        Again, Johnny's fingers moved just a fraction within Roy's strong grip.

        "Okay, then, yes it is." Roy turned around in his chair when he heard footsteps behind him. "Listen, Jennifer's here to take a look at you, so I'm going to shower and get some breakfast. I'll be back in a little while."

        Roy paused beside his daughter as she read Johnny's chart. Jennifer looked at her father and smiled. "He's improved some overnight."

        "A lot?"

        "Not a lot, but some."

        "Some is good right now."

        Jennifer nodded. "Yes, it is. We'll accept 'some' for the time being, because I know he can surpass that once he puts his mind to it."

        Roy smiled at the faith his daughter had in Johnny. But then, it was a faith they all had in him. Imagining anything but his eventual recovery was just too difficult to accept right now.

        Roy patted his daughter's shoulder. "Take of your Uncle Johnny for me."

        "I will," Jennifer promised. "Don't worry, Dad, I will."



        Doctor Jennifer DeSoto made good on her vow to her father. She, along with other members of Rampart's medical staff, gave John Gage their best care, and finally, after he'd been with them nine long days, Jennifer pronounced him on the road to recovery.

        By Sunday Jennifer had been able to convince her father that his round-the-clock vigil was no longer necessary, and that he should spend some of his time at home. Therefore, when Jennifer walked in her patient's room on Thursday morning he was alone, and his eyes were open. Johnny was still on the ventilator, but Jennifer planned to take him off it the next day if he continued to do well. And though his level of awareness had been increasing, Johnny had given no indication yet that he knew who Jennifer was.

        "Good morning," the woman greeted, purposely not adding 'Uncle Johnny.' "We've met a. . .few times, but you may not remember my visits. I'm your doctor."

        Johnny held his right hand up in the form of a greeting. He then moved the hand in a scribbling motion.

        "You want something to write on?"
        Being mindful of the tube in his mouth, Johnny gave a slight nod.

        Jennifer took a notepad and pen out of the pocket of her lab coat. She slipped the pen in-between Johnny's fingers while holding the pad for him. She could feel the pen pressing against the paper. When he was done she turned it around. Though the letters were shaky and hard to read, she could easily decipher the message.

        Hi, Jenny Bean.

        Jennifer put the pen and paper back in her pocket, then took Johnny's hand in hers and smiled. "Hi, Uncle Johnny."

        A small sparkle lit Johnny's eyes - the best he could do for a smile right now. He gave her hand a light squeeze. Jennifer squeezed back.

        "I can't thank you enough for what you did for Libby. For how you took care of her. I know how frightened she must have been. I. . ." Tears filled Jennifer's eyes as she recalled the twenty-four hours of terror she had experienced with Johnny in the San Gabriel Mountains when she was nine. It was a terror she wouldn't have wished on any other child, and certainly a terror she'd never wanted her own little girl to experience. "I'm just so glad. . .so very glad, that you were with her."

        Johnny wiggled his hand from Jennifer's grasp. Again, he indicated that he wanted to write. She helped him get the pen in-between his fingers, then held the paper for him. She waited patiently while he labored to scribble his thoughts out, then read the message.

        No thanks needed. Couldn't do less for my best girl.

        Jennifer smiled, then bent and kissed his forehead. "Yes, thanks are needed. We'll talk about it later when you're stronger."

        As Jennifer straightened Johnny once again indicated he wanted to give the woman a message. Jennifer flipped to a clean sheet of paper for him. When she turned the pad around this time she laughed as she read out loud, "This is why I told your dad no girl doctors."

        "Oh, so you don't like your doctor kissing all over you, huh?"

        Johnny wavered his hand back and forth in a gesture Jennifer took to mean, "Not while I'm in the hospital. And it would depend on who that doctor is. Certainly not one I think of as a daughter."

        "Okay, Mr. Gage, then we'll get down to business," Jennifer said with mock seriousness. "No more kisses. But when you're back on your feet, both my daughter and myself owe you a couple of very long hugs, and we're not taking no for an answer."

        Again, Johnny's eyes sparkled his smile at Jennifer. When she had completed her examination of her patient, Jennifer patted his arm.

        "If you continue to improve today we'll take you off the vent tomorrow."

        Johnny made the writing motion with his hand. His message this time was, My son?

        "Trevor's fine, Uncle Johnny," Jennifer assured, even though she knew her father had told Johnny the same thing numerous times over the past nine days. "He's staying with Mom and Dad. Trevor and Daddy have become best buddies. It's going to be hard for Daddy to say good-bye to him."

        Johnny wrote something else.


        "Yes, he's behaving himself. He's a sweetheart. He misses you terribly though."

        Another message was scrawled.

        See him?
        "Soon. I promise he'll be able to visit very soon. Let's just give you a few days to get a little stronger, okay?"

        Johnny wrote one last thing.

        Tell Trevor Papa loves him. Misses him, too.

        "I'll give him the message." Jennifer put the pen and paper back in her pocket. She squeezed Johnny's hand as his eyes began to droop. "You rest now."

        Johnny gave a small nod of his head as he drifted back to sleep.

        Jennifer left the room and headed for the phone at the nurses' station. This time when she called her parents' house to update everyone on Johnny's condition, she'd be able to give a very special message to little boy who was anxious to be reunited with his father.


        Johnny was removed from the ventilator the next day. Two days after that, on Sunday morning, he was moved off ICU and to a private room where his last IV was removed, and a nurse helped him take his first short walk down the hallway.

        Though Johnny had vague memories of a number of familiar faces bending over him while he was in the Intensive Care Unit, he'd never been too certain who was with him, versus whose presence might have been a dream, save for Roy. Roy's presence had always been the one constant Johnny was aware of.

        John Gage's first visitor that Sunday entered the room, approached the bed, planted her hands on her hips and said, "Mr. Gage, your worst nightmare has come true. I'm here. I'm your nurse. And now I'm going to box your ears for not staying in touch with me like you promised you would."

        Despite the flaming sore throat the vent tube had left him with, Johnny chuckled. He raised the head of the bed to a forty-five degree angle, then he held his right arm out to his visitor. "Hi, Dix."

        Dixie stepped into the one-armed embrace. Being mindful of Johnny's left shoulder, she gave him a long hug. "It's so good to see you, Johnny."

        "It's good to see you, too, Dixie." Johnny hugged the woman whom he'd come to cherish like a sister during the years they'd worked together. "Really good to see you."

        "Why, Johnny?" The woman asked when she finally stepped from their embrace. "Why didn't you stay in touch with me?"

        "It's not that I didn't want to, Dix. You gotta believe me when I say it's not that I didn't want to. I just. . .it was. . .I just thought it was easier on everyone that way."

        "Was it?"


        "On you? Was it easier on you?"

        Johnny dropped his eyes to the bed while giving a shrug of his right shoulder. "No. No, I. . .it was. . .it was pretty difficult on some days." When he was able to gather his emotions and push past hurts aside, he met her gaze again. "But things have been good in recent years. I have a lot to be thankful for."

        "You do," Dixie agreed. "For one thing, you have an adorable son."

        "Thank you."

        "Trevor's a smart little guy, that's for sure. And charm." Dixie gave her eyes an exaggerated roll. "Like his daddy, he could charm a snake right out of a tree."

        "When he sets his mind to it he sure can."

        "And does that boy love to flirt. He has me and Joanne wrapped right around his little finger."

        "Well, don't let him take advantage of you," Johnny cautioned. "If he knows he can get his way then he'll try pulling stuff he'd be in trouble for at home. You tell Joanne to keep him in line."

        Dixie laughed.

        "What's so funny?"

        "Nothing really. Just you."


        "I never thought I'd live to see the day when John Gage was a father. Let alone a strict father."

        "Raising him alone like I am means I gotta be. There's no. . .there's no one else there to help carry the load."

        Dixie picked up the man's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Well, I'd say you're doing a very fine job of it. Trevor's a wonderful boy, and there's not a person who's met him so far who doesn't think so."

        "Except Chet maybe," Johnny smiled. "Roy says Trevor kicked him."

        "He did. I was there when it happened. But don't blame Trevor. Chet deserved it. And to tell you the truth, there were a few times over the years when I wanted to kick Chet in the shins myself on your behalf, so I was silently cheering Trevor on."

        "Don't spoil him, Dixie."

        "What? Like I didn't spoil his father, you mean?"

        "Yeah," Johnny laughed while squeezing the woman's hand. "Something like that."

        "All right. Then I'll let you do that job."


        "Just a minute." Dixie dropped Johnny's hand and headed for the door. She opened it, stuck her head out, and made a beckoning motion with her hand.

        Roy entered the room with Trevor clinging to his hand. Roy had prepared the child, as best he could, for what to expect upon first seeing his father. Johnny had lost twelve pounds since his ordeal began, and was still pale and very weak. Because of his maladies, and the tube that had irritated his throat, his voice was half its usual strength. It was hard for Trevor to see his papa looking so. . .so unlike Papa. He looked small and frail, like he was some other boy's papa, and not the papa who picked Trevor up and swung him in the air upon arriving home at night.

        Trevor's eyes swam with tears. He wanted to run to Papa and throw his arms around him, but he was afraid he'd hurt him. But then Papa leaned over the bed a little bit and held an arm out to him.

        "Hey, you. Come here."

        That was all the invitation Trevor needed. He ran to Johnny's side with his arms wide open.

        "Poppy! Poppy!"

        Roy lifted the boy up and gently deposited him on the bed. Johnny and Trevor were oblivious to the crowd gathering in the room to watch this reunion. Aside from Roy and Dixie; Kelly Brackett, Jennifer, and Joanne were present.

        Trevor lay down so he was parallel to his father, then wrapped his arms around Johnny's neck as tears streamed down his cheeks. "Poppy, Poppy. Oh, Poppy, I missed you so much."
        Johnny hugged the boy as tight as he dared. He kissed Trevor's forehead, then his nose, then his cheek. His own tears mingled with his son's. "I know, Trev. I know. Papa missed you, too."

        "I was. . .I was so. . .scared, Papa," Trevor hiccuped between his sobs. I. . .I knew that man had taken you. . .and then I found a picture of him. . of him in your desk. . .but no one. . .no one would listen to me. . .and then I--"

        Johnny wiped at the boy's tears with his thumb. "I know. You don't have to tell me. I know. Don't cry, Trev. It's okay now, don't cry."

        Trevor's sobs slowly diminished as his father continued to comfort him. After Johnny had plucked a Kleenex from the box on the nightstand and wiped Trevor's eyes and nose, the boy asked, "Why'd he hurt you, Poppy? Why did he want to hurt Libby?"

        "He. . .he was sick, Trev. In his mind. Things just didn't work right in his mind."

        "You mean like Crazy Kenny? He ate Playdough for me once, remember?"

        "I do remember," Johnny smiled, while the others in the room chuckled. "But no. Crazy Kenny does goofy stuff to get attention. And to make the other firefighters laugh. But he's not sick, Trev. There's nothing wrong with Kenny's mind. He's what you'd call eccentric."

        "What's that mean?"

        "That he's different. That he's a little odd, but not in a way that would ever make him do something that would hurt another person. The man who took me and Libby. . .well, he had an illness in his mind of some sort that made him do things he shouldn't."

        "Maybe he didn't get a swat on the rear end from his Papa when he needed it."

        "Maybe not."

        "Or maybe his Papa never hugged him, or told the man he loved him."

        "Maybe not. I really don't know, Trev. No one does."

        "But he's gone now, right? Uncle Roy said the man can't ever hurt you, or Libby, or anyone else ever again."

        "That's right, kiddo. He's gone."

        Johnny words were the reassurance Trevor was so desperately seeking. Not that he didn't believe his Uncle Roy, but there were just some things a boy had to hear from his father.

        Trevor nestled his head against Johnny's shoulder and put his right arm around his father in the best form of a hug he could manage considering Johnny's sling.

        "I'm being a good boy for Uncle Roy and Aunt Joanne, Papa. I'm earning my keep."

        "I'm glad to hear that." Johnny looked into his son's brown eyes, drinking in the sight of his little boy. "What kinds of things are you doing?"

        Trevor's eyes flicked to the ceiling briefly in thought. "Making my bed. Taking out the garbage. Setting the table. Putting the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Weeding Uncle Roy's flowerbeds. Cleaning his swimming pool. I even helped him clean his car after I spilled ice cream in it. But he didn't yell at me. He said it was okay, that you had spilled ice cream in it one time, too."

        Johnny's eyes traveled to Roy. "I think your Uncle Roy likes to tell tales on Papa."
        "He sure does. I've learned all kinds of things about you, Pops."

        "I just bet you have."

        "And Aunt Joanne trimmed my bangs so they wouldn't hang in my eyes. And she brought Harry Potter along in case we want to read."

        "We'll have to wait until we get home to read Harry Potter. I don't have my reading glasses with me."

        Roy shook his head in wonder. It was hard to imagine the man who used to bounce around Station 51 like Tigger on speed, now needed reading glasses.

        Whether we like it or not, Johnny, we're getting old.

"That's okay. I can just read it to you, huh?"

        "That's a good idea."

        "And you know what else, Poppy?"

        "No," Johnny said as he ran his hand through his son's hair. "What else?"

        "You would be doing Uncle Roy a disservice to punish me for coming to California."

        Johnny cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

        "Yes, you would. Do you know what disservice means?"

        "I do. How about you?"

        "Sure. Uncle Roy told me. It means not honoring something important, like friendship."'

        "And just how would me not punishing you for stowing away on Gus's plane be a disservice to your Uncle Roy?"

        "Oh. You heard about that, huh?"

        "That, and quite a bit more."

        "Oh. Well. . .can I think about that question for a while?"

        "You've got until we get back to Eagle Harbor to think about it, just like I've got until we get back there to decide what your punishment will be."

        "So I'm not gonna get out of this one?"

        "Absolutely not."

        Trevor shrugged. "Oh, well, can't blame a guy for trying."

Johnny started drifting to sleep with his son still snuggled against his side. He felt Trevor's kiss on his cheek, and heard the boy say, "I love you, Papa. Uncle Roy will bring me back tomorrow," right before Trevor was lifted from the bed.

        For the next fourteen hours Johnny slept without awakening. It had been a long time in coming, but finally, John Gage was at peace with his world.

Chapter 34

        Johnny remained in the hospital one more week. During that time he had a variety of visitors from Joanne and Libby, to Chris and Wendy, to Kelly Brackett and Mike Morton, to other members of Rampart's medical staff he'd known, to men he had worked with when he was an L.A. County Firefighter/Paramedic, including his old station mates, Marco Lopez, Chet Kelly, and Mike Stoker. It was through all these people that he'd had no contact with in fifteen years that Johnny caught up on the news of former co-workers, associates, and neighbors. He was saddened to find out Joe Early had passed away in 1996. Anyone who had known the man couldn't help but like and respect him. Johnny was also saddened to hear his old neighbor, Bob Emery, had died a year earlier, and that Bob's wife had died two years prior to his passing. At the same time, Johnny was happy to hear Mike Stoker's family was doing well, as was Marco's, and he quickly came to realize Chet was as proud of his boys as Johnny himself was of Trevor.

        Johnny had also talked to Carl and Clarice via the telephone. He'd been able to calm Clarice's fears by assuring her that both he and Trevor were being well taken care of, and that there was no need for her to spend the money to fly to Los Angeles.
        Both Chad Gage and Reah Gage had finally been reached, too. Johnny was glad he was well on the way to recovery by the time either of them heard the news. They'd lived with so much worry the last time he had encountered Evan Crammer. At least this time he was able to talk to his father and sister personally to let them know he was all right. Chad wanted to head the motor home for California, but Johnny refused to entertain the notion.

        "Dad, don't change your plans. It's all over now and I'm fine," Johnny downplayed his ordeal. "I'll be out of the hospital in a couple days, probably spend a few days recuperating at Roy's, then Trevor and I will head for home. Clarice will be right there ready to help in any way she can, so I don't want you spending the money to come out here, or drive up to Alaska. We'll all be together at Christmas like usual."

        Chad was reluctant to agree to that at first, but finally bowed to his son's wishes, knowing Johnny had an independent streak a mile wide.

        Much to Johnny's surprise, Ashton tracked him down at Rampart, too. Roy and Trevor had been visiting Johnny when the call came. Considering the woman hadn't deemed it necessary to fly from Paris to be with her child during this crisis, Roy thought Johnny was very gracious to her.

        "Yeah, I'm fine, Ashton," Johnny told her. "No, there's nothing to worry about. It was no big deal. I'm okay. A little banged up, but I'll be fine." Johnny made small talk with the woman a minute longer, thanked her for calling, then handed the phone to Trevor.

        "Here, Trev. Say hi to your mom."

        Roy had shot his friend a look of disbelief while Trevor talked to Ashton.

        "It was no big deal?" Roy mocked quietly.

        Johnny simply tossed him a grin return. "Ah, you know, she's married to that old man who probably takes a double dose of Viagra just to be able to please her. Every so often I enjoy reminding her of what a macho guy I am."

        Roy had rolled his eyes and laughed. Once again he realized that for as much as Johnny had changed he was, in essence, still the man Roy had known so well and for so long.

        Troy Anders had come by three days after Johnny was released from ICU to take his statement. His story didn't differ much from Roy's and Libby's, other than filling Troy in on the two days he was held by Evan Crammer before Libby joined him.

        "I don't remember much about those first couple days," Johnny told the man. "He kept me out most of the time by using chloroform. Then there was that other drug. It was pretty nasty."
        "So I heard," Troy said, acknowledging the drug that never had been identified since no trace of it was found in Johnny's bloodstream by the time he reached Rampart. Jennifer was going to let Mark Benson know about it when she sent him Johnny's medical records, in the event any repercussions from its use ever returned to bother the fire chief.

        After Johnny was done giving the detective his statement, Troy answered the questions Johnny had for him. It would take months for the FBI to completely unravel the various trails left behind on paper documents found in the suitcases in Crammer's van, but for the most part Johnny simply wanted assurances that both Scott Monroe and Evan Crammer were dead. He'd been told those facts a number of times by Roy since his hospitalization, but now that his system wasn't clouded with sedatives Johnny wanted to hear them again.

        "Don't worry, John," Troy had said. "Neither of them will ever bother you again. And in the end, I guess you won."


        "Crammer had a hand drawn map of the United States in his van. It had a gold star placed in every state but one. Alaska."

        "And that means what?"

        "Quinn Dailey believes it means that's the one state Crammer didn't have a victim from."

        Johnny simply nodded, realizing the intended victim for the state of Alaska was to be him. The sad thing was, so many children had died in forty-nine other states before the killing spree initiated by the monster known as Evan Crammer came to an end.

        Two days before Johnny was due to be released, Roy showed up at Rampart alone. Johnny hit the button on the remote that would shut off the TV.

        "Where's Trevor?"

        "Chris and Wendy will bring him by later. They took their girls, Trev, and Libby to the zoo."

        "Oh. That's nice of them. The kids will enjoy that."

        "Yeah, I'm sure they will."

        Johnny picked up on an underlying nervousness to his friend as Roy stood in the middle of the room, as opposed to sitting in the chair next to the bed like he normally did.

        "Roy? You okay?"

        "Yeah. . .yeah, I'm fine." The man reached for the robe laying across the end of the bed. "Here. Why don't you put this on and we'll take a walk."

        Johnny didn't hesitate to agree. "All right." Any excuse to get out of his room was welcome.

        The fire chief put the blue robe on over his pajamas, worked his right arm in the appropriate sleeve, then allowed Roy to belt it from him while he shoved his feet into his slippers. After he was moved from ICU, Johnny contacted his bank in Eagle Harbor and had them transfer money to Joanne and Roy's account at the bank where Joanne worked. Trevor and Roy had gone on a shopping spree then, purchasing Johnny the necessary clothing he'd need for his hospital stay, as well as the clothing he'd need once he was released, along with a razor, wallet, toothbrush, comb, and anything else Johnny had written on the list he gave them, including a few sets of extra clothing for Trevor. Johnny knew how quickly his son could get his jeans and T-shirts dirty. He wanted to give the DeSoto washing machine a break.

        Roy walked beside his friend as they exited Johnny's room and headed for the elevator.

        "Where are we going?" Johnny asked.

        "How about to the solarium?"

        Johnny nodded his agreement. Rampart had been expanded with a multi-million dollar addition in 1994. A portion of the new addition included a solarium with glass walls rising six stories into the air. Tables allowed patients and their family members to eat together, or sit together and play games. Overstuffed chairs allowed for a comfortable spot to read, people watch, or visit. Potted palms resided in big brass buckets and were strategically placed to allow for privacy. Alcoves of various shapes and sizes were tucked here and there to allow for private conversation as well. It was to one of those private alcoves that Roy led Johnny. Two pale green chairs were hidden amongst the palms. The chair Johnny sat in faced the windows. Roy took the chair directly across from him.

        The fire chief looked up, once again marveling at the beauty of the room. A waterfall was in the distance to his right. The sound of the rushing water made it impossible to overhear any other conversations going on in the room.

        "It's really nice down here. Brackett must have had a fit when they put money into something like this."

        "A mild one. But I think he's come to realize it was money well spent."

        Johnny nodded. He had certainly enjoyed the beauty of the solarium several times since he'd been hospitalized. He and Dixie had been down here several times together, he'd been down here a couple times by himself, and three days earlier he and Chris DeSoto had sat down here for two hours and talked. The conversation had been a good one for Johnny, and he realized now, a necessary one. Chris had helped Johnny put to rest the last vestiges of guilt he still carried with him over Chris's injury.

        "It wasn't your fault, Uncle Johnny," Chris had stated. " None of it. I never once blamed you. It was my choice to drop out of school and join the fire department. You didn't influence me to do that. As a matter of fact, it was you who tried to get me to stay in school."

        Now Johnny was sitting in the solarium with Chris's father. By the way Roy kept rubbing his hands across the thighs of his blue jeans Johnny had a fairly good idea what this conversation was going to be about.

        It took Roy another full minute before he had collected his thoughts enough to start. He took a deep, internal breath, and plunged ahead.

        "Johnny, I'm sorry. If there was any way I could move the clock back fifteen years, and change what I said to you the day Chris was injured. . .change how I reacted, believe me, I would."


        "No," Roy held up a hand. "Let me finish. I want you to know that I've had regrets about that day for many years now. I don't want you to think that just because you took care of Libby in that ranger station means I suddenly feel I owe you an apology. I've felt that way for a long time. I. . .there's been a lot of times that I've really. . .well, that I've really missed you. A lot of times when I needed you by my side, or just wanted to pick up the phone and bounce something off you in order to get your opinion. When Brandon died. . ." Roy paused and took a shaky breath. It was still difficult for him to say his grandson's name. "When Brandon died I had to be strong for everyone. Jennifer's marriage was falling apart. She needed me. Libby needed me. Joanne needed me. And I. . .I needed someone, too. A best friend I could turn to when I had to get away from the pressure. Someone I could go fishing with, or go to a ball game with, or just sit and talk to over a cup of coffee. But because I'd run you out of my life I didn't have a best friend any longer. I didn't have someone I could talk to about Branny. And, as Libby reminded me one day not too long ago, I didn't have John Gage around to make me laugh anymore. It was a dark. . .a very dark time in my life. And I guess it was then, after Brandon's death, that I really began to realize how precious life is, and how we should never take for granted the people we. . .love. Those who are closest to us. You were family to me, Johnny. Best friend, partner, and brother. You know that. You were family to my wife and kids. I was in the wrong fifteen years ago. What I did. . .well, there's no excusing it. I hurt you, and for that I'm sorry. I know 'I'm sorry' doesn't sound like enough." Roy shot Johnny a tiny smile. "It actually sounds pretty weak. If there was another phrase that would adequately voice my regrets, believe me, I'd use it. But, the bottom line is, I am sorry, Johnny. I'm. . .I'm just so damn sorry."

        Johnny turned his face away, leaving Roy uncertain as to what his reaction to the apology was. The fire chief watched as crystal clear water cascaded over the rocks of the man-made fall. Two little boys stood next to the pool with their mother, pitching pennies in while making wishes.
        With his face still averted, Johnny said, "I understood."


        Johnny turned his head so he was looking at Roy once again. "I understood. I always understood."

        "Understood what?"

        "Where your anger came from. You were Chris's father. You were devastated by what had happened to him. I've come to understand that devastation even more since I've had a son of my own. Nothing is more precious to a father than his children and their well-being."

        "That's true. Nonetheless, I blamed you for things that weren't your doing. Chris's decision to leave school was just that. Chris's. It took me a few years to get that through my thick skull, but eventually it penetrated. As all three of my kids got older and left home, and then began to make decisions for their lives I didn't always agree with, or wouldn't have chosen for them, I began to understand that no amount of talking on your part would have gotten Chris to change his mind. Even if you had gotten him to postpone his decision for a while, he would have still dropped out of school eventually. He would have still joined the fire department eventually. And, he might still have been injured. Though maybe when he was, he wouldn't have had someone with him who is as skilled as you are. Who was willing to cover Chris with his own body and wouldn't move to safety even when ordered to do so by a cop. Maybe if you hadn't been with Chris. . .if it had been another paramedic. . .well, maybe he would have died that night."

        "Don't, Roy. Don't make me out to be a hero. I wasn't. I was just--"

        "Don't say it. Don't say you were just doing your job because that's not true. It's never true when the person you're caring for is someone close to you. It always takes on a different dimension whether we want to acknowledge that fact or not."

         Johnny stared at his old friend a long time. He finally shot Roy a small grin. "I thought you said you weren't going to give me a long, poetic apology."

        "Sorry. Guess I lied."

        "Guess so. Can't say I've ever heard you string so many words together all at one time."

        "Probably not," Roy acknowledged with a small smile of his own.

        Johnny looked over Roy's head, gazing out the window. He let a minute pass before he spoke. "I'd be lying. . .I'd be lying if I told you what happened between us. . .the things you said, didn't hurt me a lot, because they did. But, sometimes good comes from bad."

        "What do you mean?"

        The fire chief made eye contact with his friend. "If I hadn't left L.A. I wouldn't have Trevor. And, there wouldn't have been much to motivate me to advance beyond my rank of paramedic. You, of all people, know I loved that job. I was satisfied with my life the way it was. My ranch, my career. . .I didn't have reason to try to better myself here in L.A. But after my split with Ashton, and the responsibilities that left me with in regards to my son, I did have reason to better myself. And by then I was mature enough to know how I wanted that advancement to happen. In Denver I owned a condo in the city. Granted, my deck provided a great view of the Rocky Mountains, but I didn't want to raise Trevor in the city. Not in any city. When the opportunity with the Eagle Harbor Fire Department came my way, I couldn't refuse it, even though I was scared shitless that I wasn't qualified for the job. That somehow, I'd screw it up."

        "Based on the high regard Carl seems to have for you, and the number of get well cards you've gotten from people back in Eagle Harbor, I'd say you're more than qualified for the job."

         "I suppose. Or at least I learned to be pretty damn quick. The people there are just about the best people a guy could hope to know. They've been wonderful to me and Trevor. I have a lot of good friends in Eagle Harbor. And, I've got to admit, I've got the best of both worlds there. I'm able to put my years of experience to work in a leadership role, while at the same time I'm still able to work in the field as a paramedic. Between my son, my family, my friends, my job, and the people of Eagle Harbor. . .I'm very blessed, Roy. Don't think for one minute that I don't consider myself to have many blessings."

        "I'm glad, Johnny. I want you to know I'm very happy for you. And proud of you. Proud of all you've achieved since leaving Los Angeles."

        "Thank you. That. . .that means a lot to me. Your opinion always mattered, you know."

        "I know," Roy acknowledged softly, recalling the days when he was considered to be the stable half of their partnership.

        The two men fell into a long silence. When Johnny decided he was ready to return to his room he stood and held out his right hand to Roy.

        Roy clasped the hand in his own and gave it a firm squeeze. Then he allowed Johnny to pull him to his feet.

        "I don't know about you, old friend," Johnny said, "but I'm ready for an afternoon nap."

        "I imagine you are," Roy agreed.

        The significance of the phrase, 'old friend' was not lost on Roy. It was Johnny's way of saying, "Apology accepted, now let's move on."

        Roy laid a hand on Johnny's uninjured shoulder as they made their way back to the elevator. Dixie McCall paused in the lobby, watching the two men who hadn't seen her. She turned when she heard someone come up behind her.

        Kelly Brackett smiled. "Looks like the best paramedic team this county ever had is back together again."

        Dixie wiped away the sudden moisture that sprang to her eyes.

        "Yes, Kel," she said, "it sure does. It's been a long time coming, but I'd say Johnny and Roy are definitely back together again."

        Dixie watched until the elevator doors slid closed, effectively taking the two men from her view. She wondered where the years had gone as she thought back to the countless number of times they had gathered around her at the nurses' station playfully arguing over some issue or another, or asking her advice on something, or telling her about a rescue, or simply just taking a short break to share a cup of coffee with her. When Dixie was forced to swipe at the tears that spilled over to run down her face, she felt Brackett's arm come to rest on her shoulders.

        "Dix, what's the matter?" He teased. "Getting sentimental in your old age?"

        "You might say that. Sentimental for a shaggy headed young man who's mouth never seemed to stop, and his soft spoken partner who kept him grounded."

        Kelly Brackett nodded, fully understanding what Dixie meant. The nurse couldn't help but laugh when Brackett said, "Come on, Dix, I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

        As the pair headed toward the cafeteria Dixie again wondered where the years had gone, and wished, that for just a little while, they could all relive them

Chapter 35

        Johnny was released from Rampart on Monday, the tenth of July, almost one month after Evan Crammer had kidnapped him. He spent another seven days recuperating at Roy's home per Jennifer's instructions. The fire chief hated imposing on Joanne and Roy anymore than he and Trevor already had, but they insisted that was far from the case, and Jennifer remained firm regarding the date she'd allow him to fly home. As she reminded with a stern shake of her finger, "Doctor's orders, Uncle Johnny."

        In the end, Johnny was glad to have those additional seven days in Los Angeles. Roy and Joanne's house was as inviting as he remembered it. Granted, fresh paint, new wallpaper, new draperies, carpeting, and furniture had taken up residence in many of the rooms since he'd last been here, but Joanne was still a gracious hostess despite working outside the home now. Johnny was given Jennifer's old room, while Trevor remained in what had been Chris's room. Generally though, before the sun rose, Trevor could be found in bed with his father, seeking reassurance that Papa really was safe, and that the nightmare called Evan Crammer was over.

        As Johnny had long ago promised he would, he showed up at Rampart one day by surprise, had Jennifer paged, and then along with Roy, Libby, Trevor, and Dixie, took her to lunch. Roy also gave him a tour of the revamped Station 51 one day during that week, and with Joanne's help, Johnny learned how to make those dumplings that had beguiled him for so long. On this last event he was cautioned by Trevor, "Now don't forget how to do it right, Papa." Joanne had laughed then and told Trevor, "If Papa has problems with them after he gets home, Trev, you just tell him to call Aunt Joanne. I'll talk him through it."

        The last weekend Trevor and Johnny were in L.A. brought a gathering of people to the DeSoto home. That Saturday, the fifteenth of July, had been the date scheduled the previous year for the 2000 A-shift reunion picnic. With Johnny doing so well, Roy couldn't see any reason to cancel it. John DeSoto flew home with his girlfriend on Friday. He was thrilled to be reunited with the man he'd been named for, and that he had strong memories of despite the young age he'd been when Johnny moved away.

        By two o'clock on Saturday afternoon Roy's swimming pool, deck, and backyard were filled with people. Marco had brought his mother along, and Roy's mother was in attendance as well. All of Roy's children were present, along with Wendy, Shawna, and Roy's three granddaughters. Chet and his two boys were there, Mike Stoker and his wife had come bringing all their grandchildren with them, Lori Stoker-Carson and her husband were able to come, and Hank and Grace Stanley were present. The party was rounded out by the attendance of Dixie McCall, Kelly Brackett, Mike Morton and his wife, as well as their nine year old daughter and eleven year old son.

        John Gage would be the first to admit he had a great time catching up with all these people who had once been such a big part of his life. Though he couldn't swim or run with the kids like he normally would have, he enjoyed watching Trevor have fun with all his 'new California friends' as Trev put it.

        When the picnic was going full swing, Johnny walked in the house behind Roy to assist with carrying out the hamburgers that would be cooked on the grill. Joanne, Jennifer, and Libby were in the kitchen doing last minute food preparations. Roy pointed to a cabinet where the plates were kept.

        "Johnny, would you get me two platters out of there for the burgers."


        Johnny opened the cabinet. He jumped back with a startled "Ah!" when a water bomb detonated, soaking his face and hair.

        Chet slid a patio door open and popped his head in. "Gage, you're still the Phantom's favorite pigeon. And before you say anything, consider that pay back for the kick your kid gave me."

        Johnny stood there dripping, trying to ignore the laughter coming from the deck as his old shift-mates joined in Chet's glee. When Chet slid the patio door shut again Libby looked up at Johnny, her big blue eyes wide with little girl innocence.

        "Boy, Uncle Johnny, that Mr. Kelly is a real asshole, isn't he?"

        "Libby!" Jennifer and Joanne shrieked as one.

        "Olivia Kate!" Roy thundered, shocked at what he'd just heard come out of his granddaughter's mouth. "Grandpa's never spanked you, but I'm tempted to do just that right now! Where in the world did you hear that kind of language?"

        Tear shimmered in Libby's eyes. The word had just slipped out. She hadn't meant to say it, and she'd forgotten her promise to Uncle Johnny about never using it.

        Before Libby could stammer an explanation that wouldn't get Uncle Johnny in trouble, she felt a protective arm encircle her shoulders.

        "Uh. . .Roy. . .Jennifer. . .look, don't punish Libby. She, huh. . .well, she kind of learned the word from me."

        "From you?" Roy questioned while crossing his arms over his chest.

        "Yeah." Johnny felt like a fool standing there with water dripping on his shirt while attempting to explain his way out of this one. "See. . .well. . .it's like this. I got kind of mad at Crammer one night, and I called him an ass. . that word. Libby was sitting there, of course, and she heard me. After he left I told her she wasn't to ever use the word. . .that it was a bad word not meant for little girls to hear. She promised me she wouldn't, and I'm sure she just forgot what with all the excitement going on today, and all the kids to play with, and Chet's water bomb, and--"

        Roy held up his hands. "Okay, okay. Enough said. I think you can be forgiven for letting a few choice words fly in front of my granddaughter considering the circumstances." Roy pointed a stern finger at Libby. "And as for you, young lady, if your Uncle Johnny taught you any other words you know you shouldn't be using, I'd advise you to forget them right now."

        "I will," Libby nodded. "Like Uncle Johnny said, it came out by accident, Grandpa. Honest. I won't use it again."

        "All right then."

        Joanne and Jennifer turned away, fighting to contain their laughter. This whole scene was reminiscent of several that had played out in their home twenty-five years earlier whenever Johnny would inadvertently get in trouble for something he'd allowed one of the DeSoto children to do that normally went against the rules of the household.

        Libby opened a drawer and handed Johnny a towel. "Here you go, Uncle Johnny."

        "Thanks, Olive Oyl."

        While Johnny dried his hair and face, Libby beckoned him down to her level with a crook of her finger. When he bent she whispered in his ear. "Thank you for not letting Grandpa spank me. You're the best uncle in the whole wide world. And no matter what Grandpa says, I still think Mr. Kelly is that word."

        Johnny chuckled and whispered back, "Well, sweetie, I think so too sometimes, but that'll be our secret, okay?"


        Libby gave the man a hug, then ran outside to join the other children. After she was gone Johnny looked at Roy and the women while giving a sheepish shrug.

        "I'm really sorry about that."

        Joanne and Jennifer burst into laughter so uproarious that tears rolled down their cheeks. Roy simply shook his head, once again finding himself playing straight man to John Gage.

        He finally walked over to Johnny and put an arm around his shoulders. "Despite all the trouble you cause, it's good to have you here, partner."

        Johnny shot Roy that famous Gage grin. He looked out the window to see the yard filled with old friends, then looked back at the old friends in the room with him.

        "Partner, it's good to be here," Johnny confirmed. "There's only on thing."

        "What's that?"

        "From now on, if you want anything out of your cabinets, you can get it."

        "Still paranoid of the Phantom, huh, Johnny?"

        "You'd better believe it."

        Roy laughed, but it was Johnny who laughed harder when Roy opened another cabinet and got hit with water bomb this time.

        Roy's bellowed, "Chet!" could be heard all the way outside.

        "Ooops," Chet said as he flew from the deck with Roy in hot pursuit. "Wrong target."

        Joanne, Jennifer, and Johnny stood in the kitchen laughing as Roy chased Chet around the swing set. Joanne ran a hand over Johnny's back and rested her head against his shoulder as they watched the activity out the window.

        "It's good to have you with us again. I haven't seen Roy enjoy himself like this since we lost Brandon. You're good for him, Johnny. You're so good for him."

        Johnny put his arm around Joanne's shoulders and placed a kiss on top of her head. "He's good for me, too, Jo. He's the best friend I ever had. Nothing has changed that. Nothing could."

        Joanne heard the sincerity in the man's voice. She always knew he had a big heart, but now she knew he had a very forgiving soul to go along with it. Later that night, after the house was quiet and everyone was in bed, Joanne thanked God for John Gage, and the difference he'd made in all their lives.


        Roy knew Johnny was ready to return to Alaska when Monday rolled around. He'd received a number of phone calls at Roy's house during the past week that, at first, were well wishes from members of his staff, but soon turned into conversations regarding fire department business. Roy could tell Johnny was anxious to resume his life as Eagle Harbor's fire chief.

        Johnny had said his good-byes to most everyone at Roy's picnic. Because it was the start of a new work week, only Roy would see him and Trevor off from the airport where Gus's plane would land. Joanne gave Johnny and Trevor long hugs before she left for the bank that morning. She made Johnny promise that he and Trevor would be back next July for the annual A-shift reunion picnic, and sooner than that if they were able to get away for a visit. Johnny agreed to those things, then heard Joanne's final words to him.

        "Thank you for taking care of my granddaughter, and for being such a wonderful friend to this family. We love you, Johnny. Take care of yourself, now."

        "I will. I love you guys, too, Jo. You know that."

        Johnny got a kiss and long hug from Jennifer, as well, when she stopped by on her way to drop Libby off at day camp. Her thank you was just as heartfelt as her mother's had been.

        "Anything for you, Jenny Bean," Johnny had said while returning her hug. "You know that, kiddo. Anything for you."

        After Jennifer hugged Trevor, she returned the get-well card to him that she'd made for Johnny so many years before. "Well, Trevor, I guess this was our good luck charm, wouldn't you say?"

        "Yep. I'll put it back with Papa's papers, and whenever I'm missing you, Jennifer, and everyone else I've met in California, I'll pull it out and look at it."

        "You do that, sweetheart, because it's a very special card, made for a very special man in my life."

        Libby said good-bye to Trevor next. The two had become fast friends and promised to keep in touch via e-mail. The girl turned to Johnny next. She wrapped her arms around his neck while burying her head in his uninjured shoulder.

        "I'll miss you so much, Uncle Johnny. Thank your for taking care of me. And thank you for making my grandpa laugh again."

        "I'll miss you, too, Olive Oly," Johnny said as he kissed the girl on the temple. "You be a good girl for your grandpa and your mom."

        "I will be."
        Chris came by the house shortly thereafter to pick up Shawna and John. He was taking them to LAX to catch their flight back to Wyoming, while Roy delivered Johnny and Trevor to their plane.

        Johnny exchanged hugs with the two men he'd always think of as 'Sport' and 'Little Pally,' but who, in reality, had long outgrown the nicknames he'd given them when they were little boys. After everyone had left Johnny turned to Roy and said, "You've got a lot to be proud of. The boys and Jennifer. . .well, they've grown into fine adults. You and Joanne did a great job."

        "Thank you. It hasn't always been easy, but I'll admit they'd done right by us."

        "That they have."

         At eleven o'clock Roy's mini-van was loaded with Trevor's back pack, the suitcase Roy and Trevor had purchased for Johnny, and a shopping bag with a remote control fire engine Roy had bought for Trevor that had a working siren and air horn. There was a twinkle in Roy's eye each time Trevor brought that fire engine to life. He'd look at Johnny and say, "Pay back time for all the noisy toys you gave my kids."
        Johnny bought Roy and his son lunch that day in the same McDonald's Trevor had eaten at upon arriving in California. Libby was staying at McKenzie's house after day camp ended so there would be no rush for Roy to get back and pick her up.

        The two men and Trevor were waiting to meet Gus's plane when it landed. After the engines had been shut off, the trio walked toward the aircraft. Johnny almost fell over with surprise when the hatch was opened to reveal Carl and Clarice walking down the stairs.

        Trevor dropped his backpack and ran for them with open arms. "Carl! Clarice!"

        Carl swept Trevor up for a powerful hug. When the hug ended the boy was passed to Clarice. While the woman kissed and hugged the boy, Carl engulfed Johnny in a bear hug, being mindful of his injured arm.

        "It's so damn good to see you on your feet, John. You really had us worried, old buddy."

        "I know," Johnny acknowledged as he set his suitcase and the bag with Trevor's fire engine on the runway in order to return the hug.

        Roy watched this scene unfold, a bit envious of the friendship Johnny shared with Carl. Then Roy reminded himself that he had no right to feel envy toward this portion of Johnny's life he wasn't a part of. After all, it was because of him that Johnny left L.A. in the first place.

        Clarice set Trevor on his feet and took her turn hugging Johnny. She was like a mother with a lost son as she looked him over from head to toe. Tears ran down her cheeks as she cupped his face between her hands.

        "You're too skinny. Look at the way those jeans hang on you. Haven't they been feeding you here in California?"

        "Yes, they certainly have. Don't worry, your good cooking will put the pounds back on me that I lost."

        "I should say so."

        Johnny stepped out of the woman's embrace and introduced her and Carl to Roy. Handshakes were exchanged, and then thank you's extended for all Roy and his family had done for Trevor and Johnny.

        "No thanks are necessary," Roy said. "We didn't do anything for Johnny that he hasn't done for us."

        Carl cocked an eyebrow at Eagle Harbor's fire chief. "Johnny?"

        "I told you that was my nickname when I lived here. But you don't have to spread that around, okay?"

        "Yeah, right," Carl snorted.

        Gus poked his head out of the plane and gave Johnny and Trevor a big wave. Johnny waved back, then turned to his son.

        "Say good-bye to Uncle Roy so we can leave. And make sure you tell him thank you for everything he did for you."

        Roy crouched down so Trevor could give him a hug.

        "Thanks for everything, Uncle Roy. Until I came to California, I never had an uncle, but now I do and I'm really glad. Thanks for takin' care of my papa and bringing him back to me."

        "You're welcome, Trevor. And thank you for bringing a little boy's laughter into my house again."

        Trevor kissed Roy on the cheek and said a final good-bye. He picked up his backpack and the bag containing his fire engine. He hadn't taken two steps toward the plane before Clarice placed a firm hand on his shoulder.

        "I'm warning you right now, young Mr. Gage, that you and I have some serious talking to do. Do you have any idea how scared I was when I discovered you were missing? Oh, Trevor Roy, but Clarice has a long list of things you'll be doing for her to make up for this stunt. And if you think for even one minute, that you're going to get out of my sight before your twelfth birthday, then you'd better think again."

        The men laughed, then Carl picked up Johnny's suitcase. "I'd better go offer Trevor some police protection. I know how Mom can be when she's miffed at a little boy."

        "Tell Gus I'll be ready to go in five minutes," Johnny said.

        "Will do."

        When Roy and Johnny were alone on the tarmac Johnny grinned at his friend.

        "Well, Roy, it was quite an adventure, huh?"

        "Now there's an understatement if I ever heard one. Of course, I should have known the minute you hit town trouble would come with you," Roy teased. "Trouble I'd end up in eventually, too."

        "Well, hey, it's no fun being in trouble alone."

        "No, I guess not." Roy held out his right hand to the fire chief. "Take care of yourself, Johnny."

        Johnny took the hand and shook it. "I will."

        "Don't forget, you promised to stay in touch."

        "I know. I will."

        The men allowed their handshake to come to an end. Roy glanced at the plane. "You guys have a safe trip."

        "We will. Gus is an excellent pilot."

        "Glad to hear it."


        Roy met Johnny's eyes. "Yeah?"

        Johnny reached up with his right arm and pulled Roy to him. "Thanks for everything."

        Roy smiled as he patted Johnny's back while returning the hug. "You're welcome for everything. And thank you. I don't even like to think about what might have happened to Libby had you not been there with her."

        "Well, you know me. Often in the wrong place, but always at the right time."

        Roy laughed. The two men parted, said good-bye one last time, then Johnny turned for the plane.

        Roy watched as his friend trotted up the stairs with some of the old familiar John Gage spring to his step. After Johnny disappeared within the aircraft the hatch was shut, and Roy stood back as the plane's engines roared to life. When he saw Trevor waving to him through one of the windows Roy waved back. He saw Johnny put Trevor in his lap, and then watched as he waved, too.

        Roy DeSoto remained rooted to his spot on the tarmac long after the plane disappeared into the sky for its flight north. He finally turned and headed for his mini-van. He wondered exactly when Johnny would arrive home.

        Roy already missed him, and just wanted to call to say hi.



        As Johnny had promised Roy would be the case, he stayed in touch throughout that summer and early fall via e-mail and phone calls. By the time mid-September rolled around he had full use of his left arm again, and had gained back the weight he'd lost during his captivity and subsequent hospitalization. It was during the month of September when Johnny called the DeSoto house one night and invited the entire family to Eagle Harbor for Thanksgiving.

        "And it won't cost you guys a thing. Gus will come pick you up. He's got a real dandy of a plane that seats twelve."

        "Well, that will cost something," Roy had said. "For his time and the fuel at least."

        "Yeah, but not you."

        "What do you mean?"

        "I'm picking up the tab."

        "Johnny, no. I can't let you--"

        "Roy, you wouldn't let me give you any money for the time period that Trevor stayed with you, or for the week I was with you as well. Now, come on, I know it cost you something to feed us among other things. This is the least I can do."


        "Look, talk it over with Joanne and the kids. I realize not everyone can probably make it, but I'd sure like you guys to come."

        "All right," Roy promised. "I'll do that. But isn't it kind of cold in Alaska in November?"

        Johnny had laughed. "You bet. You'll freeze your Southern California ass off. But come on up anyway. I promise you my house is warm."

        One week later Roy called Johnny back to say he, Joanne, Jennifer and Libby were accepting the invitation. John wasn't able to make the trip because he was on-duty at Yellowstone over the holiday, and Chris and Wendy were spending Thanksgiving with Wendy's parents, but promised that when their girls were older and able to better enjoy Alaska's majestic beauty, they would come up there to see Johnny and Trevor.

        After he hung up from Roy that night, Johnny called Dixie. It didn't take him long to persuade her to join the DeSotos on this excursion.

        "I'd love to, Johnny. I've never been to Alaska, and can't say I ever thought the opportunity would come my way."

        "Well, it has. So like I told Roy, bring a warm coat, mittens, a hat, boots, a scarf, and I'll see all of you on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving."

        Trevor was practically dancing with excitement when Wednesday, November twenty-second arrived. He could barely concentrate that day in school, and as soon as the dismissal bell rang raced out the door into a light snowfall and flew down the sidewalk to the fire station.

        "Is it time yet, Papa?" The boy cried as he ran into Johnny's office. "Is it time to pick them up?"

        "In a little while," Johnny had said while giving his son a kiss on his mop of thick hair. "Let's get you a snack from the kitchen. When you're done eating we'll head for the airport."

        It was growing dark as Johnny and Trevor waited in the airport's small parking lot in the fire chief's vehicle. Clarice waited next to them in her Explorer. She had volunteered to come along so that those who couldn't fit in the Durango could ride to Johnny's house with her.

        The snow was beginning to fall harder as Gus's plane came in for a landing. When it had stopped, and Gus had lowered the hatch, Libby was the first one to run off dressed in a brand new fuchsia winter parka with matching hat, mittens, scarf, and boots. She threw her arms up and turned in circles.
        "Snow! Snow! It's snow! It's real live snow!"

        Johnny picked the girl up and twirled her around. "You bet, Olive Oyl. It's snow. Haven't you ever seen snow before?"
        "No. And I love it!" Libby gave the man a hug. "Oh, Uncle Johnny, thank you so much for inviting us."

        "Well, thank you for coming."
        Johnny put the girl down in order to greet everyone else. Once hugs and handshakes had been exchanged, he helped Gus and Roy unload the luggage. Jennifer, Libby, and Dixie rode with Clarice, while Roy, Joanne, and Trevor rode with Johnny.

        The Californians' gazed out the windows of the vehicles as they passed through the heart of town. It was completely dark now meaning streetlights lit the way. Eagle Harbor was just as quaint and small-town America as Johnny and Trevor had made it sound.
        "Oh, Johnny, it's beautiful here," Joanne said as she gazed out the windows at the lit storefronts.

        "Wait until Friday night."

        "What's Friday night?"

        "The Christmas parade. All the shop owners in town will put their outside lights up on Friday morning. They all use white. It's really beautiful."

        "And then Santa Claus comes," Trevor turned around in the front passenger seat as much as his seat belt would allow.

        "He does?" Joanne asked, as though this was big news that brought her much excitement.

        "Uh huh. He comes very last in the parade, and he rides on one of the fire engines. And you know what else?"
        "No, what else?"

        "I get to ride with him. Me and any of the other kids that want to whose fathers and mothers work for Poppy. Libby can ride with us, too. Papa said so."

        "Oh, my, but Libby will be thrilled, won't she, Roy?"

        "She sure will be."

        "And Papa's gonna drive the fire engine like he always does, and you can ride up front with him, Uncle Roy."

        "Well, I'll certainly enjoy that. Do you think Santa will be making his list that night of who's been naughty and who's been nice?"

        "Yep. 'Cause after the parade he goes to the fire station and us kids get to talk with him while everyone else in town eats Christmas cookies and drinks hot chocolate."

        Roy smiled at Johnny when he caught his glance in the rearview mirror.

        "And which list will you be on, Trevor?" Roy went on to ask.

        "Well, Papa said that I'm close to being on the naughty list because of my visit to California this summer, but I've been real good since I got back, and I got all A's on my report card, and my teacher, Mrs. Beaumont, hasn't complained once to Papa about me talking too much in class, so Papa thinks I might make it to the nice list by the skin of my teeth. But do you think you could put in a good word for me, Uncle Roy?"

        "A good word for you?"

        "Sure. You know, tell Santa what a big help I was while I was staying with you."

        Roy pretended to mull that request over. "Well, now. . .I suppose I could do that. After all, you did work hard to earn your keep."

        "Thanks, Uncle Roy," Trevor grinned. "I knew you'd come through for me." Trevor turned in his seat and looked at his father. "See, Poppy, I told you I'd make it on that nice list of Santa's yet. And if I get Dixie to talk to Santa, I know he'll put a gold star by my name 'cause she'll say really good stuff about me."

        "Sounds like you've got it all worked out."

        "Oh, yeah. I been thinking about this for a while now. You know, Pops, a guy can't be caught sleeping when it comes to getting things squared away with Santa Claus before Christmas comes."

        Roy and Joanne bit back their laughter while Johnny replied quite seriously to his son, "No, I guess a guy can't."

        When the vehicles stopped in front of Johnny's home the men and Trevor unloaded the luggage while Clarice led everyone else inside. She had supper in the oven, and had already set the table in the dining room. While Johnny showed his guests where they were going to sleep, Clarice put the finishing touches on the meal.

        Roy and Joanne were given Johnny's room, while Jennifer and Libby would sleep in Trevor's. Libby had read about trundle beds in the Little House series of books, but had never seen one before and couldn't wait to try it out. Johnny gave Dixie the room Clarice used, while he and Trevor would bunk on two roll-away beds in his office.

        The visitors oohed and aahed as they toured Johnny's beautiful home. He started a fire in the great room fireplace, and one in the dining room fireplace as well. He asked Clarice to eat with them when they were getting ready to sit down to supper, but she said no, that Carl was waiting for her.

        "Now, everything's made and in the refrigerator for tomorrow, John. I left a list of instructions on the bulletin board. Other than warming up the dishes I prepared, all you really have to do is stuff the turkey and put it in the oven. The pies are made and in the refrigerator, too."

        "I'm sure we'll figure it out," Joanne assured the woman. "Will you and Carl be joining us?"

        "No. John asked us to, but we'll be going to my sister Marie's. You folks have fun and enjoy your visit. I'll see you Friday at the parade."

        The woman kissed Trevor and Johnny good-bye. Johnny walked her to the door and told her thank you one last time for her assistance with preparing for his visitors while handing her a sealed envelope. When she opened it later that night Clarice would discover the envelope not only held a Thanksgiving card along with her weekly pay, but an additional fifty dollar bonus for the work she'd done to get the Gage household ready for guests.

        The meal was a long and merry one. After dessert had been eaten Trevor and Libby were given permission to go to the great room and watch the Home Alone video that was part of Trevor's collection. The adults lingered around the table, laughing and telling stories on one another as they reminisced about old times.

        The rest of the week brought more of the same. Johnny got up before dawn on Thanksgiving morning to start the turkey cooking, then made breakfast for everyone. More snow had fallen overnight, so between that and the barn full of animals, Libby and Trevor were occupied outside for most of the day.
        Thanksgiving dinner was eaten at one o'clock. After the dishes were done the entire household went for a hike in the forest behind Johnny's home, then sledding down a nearby hill. Later, after leftovers had been eaten, games were played around the dining table.

        The remaining three days flew by for Dixie and the DeSotos. As Johnny had said she would be, Eagle Harbor was decked out in her Christmas Finery come Friday night. The high school band played Christmas carols as it led the parade down Main Street. The sidewalks were lined with so many people Joanne was certain every resident was in attendance.

        As is the norm for a small, close-knit community, everyone knew everyone else therefore the DeSotos and Dixie were immediately noticed. Joanne and Roy lost count of how many times they were greeted with, "Oh, you must be John's friends from California." Or, "You're Chief Gage's friends, aren't you?" It didn't take long for the DeSotos and Dixie to realize that Johnny was a well-thought of member of the community. Roy could see why Johnny was so happy here, and really felt the man had found his niche. Through talking with Carl he came to learn that it was Johnny who had initiated the Christmas parade, and Johnny who had initiated the holiday toy and food drive that was kicked off with it. It was Johnny who was instrumental in starting the town's annual summer picnic, and Johnny who had devised a calling tree made up of volunteers who checked on elderly and disabled residents during winter storms to make sure they had heat and weren't in need of anything.

        "I can't tell you the difference John has made to this town, Roy. Before his arrival it had been years since we had a fire chief who was worth the money he was being paid. John has brought an. . .enthusiasm, I'd guess you say, that had been lacking for a long time. His ideas may not always work out quite the way he envisioned, but the thing I love about the guy is that he's not afraid to try."

        "No, he's not," Roy agreed, thinking of how Johnny had always jumped in with both feet back when they worked together, no matter how crazy everyone else told him his latest idea was. Roy was glad Johnny had finally found a venue for his creative side.

Though Libby no longer believed in Santa Claus, she enjoyed pretending she did for that one evening. She'd never ridden in a parade before, and was overjoyed to wave to her mother, grandmother, and Dixie, as Uncle Johnny drove by them blasting the air horn with her grandpa seated next to him.

        On Saturday Johnny took his visitors for a tour of the fire station before departing with them by ferry for Juneau. Everyone in the Land Rover meant it was a tight squeeze, but they made it work so Johnny could show them around the city. After lunch at a waterfront restaurant that was a favorite of Johnny's, the women shopped while Johnny and Roy took Libby and Trevor to see The Grinch That Stole Christmas. Roy chuckled as he stood in line holding one of Libby's hands and one of Trevor's while waiting for Johnny to pay for their tickets. He remembered back to the first day he'd met Trevor, and the boy had told him he was grouchier than the Grinch. They'd certainly come a long way since then. A long way that had been well worth the trip.

        As much as no one wanted to see Sunday come it arrived anyway, and with it, the departure of the DeSotos and Dixie. Johnny cooked pancakes and sausage for breakfast. The household was up and bustling early so they could meet Gus at the airport at ten a.m. Libby played in the snow with Trevor one last time, then said goodbye to all the animals she'd come to love.

        Because Clarice was in church, it was Carl who arrived this time in the Explorer so he could help get luggage and people to the airport. As Gus and Carl loaded the plane, hugs and good-byes were exchanged with promises of more visits in the future. Roy was the last one to hug Johnny.

        "Thanks for inviting us. I did freeze my ass off, but I had a great time."
        "Glad to hear it," Johnny said as he clapped Roy on the back.

        "You've done well for yourself, Johnny. I'm glad you found a home here."

        "Thank you. I'm glad I did, too."

        The men broke apart and Roy turned for the plane. This time it was Johnny who stood waving good-bye, then watching until the plane was out of sight.

        After Johnny and Trevor got home that Sunday, Johnny made Trevor sit at his desk in the balcony study nook and do his homework. While the boy was completing his assignments, Johnny went into his office. He sat in front of his computer and dialed into the Internet. When he was on-line he clicked on the Mail icon. When he was in Outlook Express he clicked on Roy's e-mail address and started to type.


        Thanks for the visit. It's been far too many years in coming. Take care of yourself. I'll talk to you soon.

        Your Friend,

        And with that John Gage sent the message, exited the Internet, and went to read a chapter of the latest Harry Potter book with his little boy.







*Sketch – Cuddles - by Ria.  If you find Ria’s sketch to be as heartwarming as I do, please e-mail her with your thoughts.  Thank you.



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