Part 1 in this trilogy is entitled The Accusation. Part 2 is entitled The Accused. The Accusation and The Accused can be found in Kenda’s Emergency Library.
It wasn’t easy mucking horse stalls with one arm. It wasn’t easy doing much of anything with the use of just one arm, though the frustration John Gage felt over this inconvenience wasn’t nearly as great as it might have been at one time. After all, having your left arm in a cast from knuckles to shoulder was a minor concern when compared to being put on trial for rape. Which was exactly what Johnny was facing in a few short weeks. To make matters worse he couldn’t defend himself. Though it had been a month and a half since he’d been trapped in the Clariton Mine with Vanessa Schaffer, Johnny still had no memory of that attempted rescue thanks to the concussion he’d suffered when the mine caved-in on him and the girl.
Johnny tried not to think of all that had happened since that day, - the humiliation of the preliminary trial where Vanessa described in detail sexual acts the paramedic had supposedly forced her to do. The newspaper and TV coverage that made his name and face recognizable to more people than Johnny ever cared to know. The incident at the Wild Ride Amusement Park where two ten year old boys pushed Johnny from a roller coaster walkway eighty feet in the air because they were protecting their female classmates from the ‘bad fireman.’ Then the final heartache came when the department put Johnny on administrative leave. He knew he should be grateful the phrase ‘administrative leave’ meant he was still getting his full pay and benefits. They could have just as easily put him on leave without pay. Nonetheless; it made Johnny feel like the department he’d faithfully served for nine years was turning its back on him because he was a source of bad publicity.
Johnny knew he should also be grateful for the loyal friends and co-workers who were voicing their support of him. Not a day had gone by since he’d been released from the hospital after his fall that he hadn’t received at least half a dozen phone calls from various people checking up on him, or had a visitor be it Roy, Dixie, one of the guys from the station, or even Kelly Brackett. Johnny appreciated everyone’s concern, but wished they just leave him alone. He wasn’t good company right now, and would rather find solace in his horses than with people. At least the horses didn’t expect him to answer questions with more than a terse, “Yes,” or “No,” nor did they care if he was losing weight, nor did they attempt to get him away from the ranch by insisting he go out to dinner, or fishing, or to a ball game.
Johnny had been forced to put a smile on his face at ten o’clock this morning when the DeSoto family showed up. It was Saturday, meaning the kids came with Roy and Joanne. Johnny hadn’t seen Chris or Jennifer since the day Jenny was in tears over the prospect of none of her friends coming to her birthday party because her Uncle Johnny was her daddy’s friend.
When Johnny walked out of the barn at the sound of a car coming to a halt in his driveway it had taken tremendous effort on his part not to tell Roy to go home. He wasn’t in the mood for visitors anymore than he had been the day before when Dixie and Kelly Brackett had dropped by and insisted he join them for lunch at a local restaurant. When Joanne walked around to the trunk of the Impala and pulled out a big cardboard box with a popular grocery store’s logo on the side Johnny knew that once again someone was on a campaign to make sure he ate.
“Hi, Johnny,” Joanne greeted as she stood on her tip toes to place a kiss on his cheek. “The kids wanted to have a picnic with their favorite uncle today, so we decided to surprise you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No,” Johnny lied, though even to his own ears his words didn’t sound convincing. “No, I don’t mind.”
The kids hung back, unsure of how to greet this man who was suddenly unfamiliar to them. Gone was the big grin and dancing eyes that were always present the second he saw them. He barely took notice of either one of them now, and he was so skinny, just like their father had said. Skinny and pale, Chris thought, despite the fact that Uncle Johnny was spending most of his free time with his horses these days, meaning he was outside more than he was anywhere else.
Jennifer clung to Roy’s hand. She hadn’t been shy around Johnny since the first day she met him. Now she suddenly felt like that three-year-old girl again meeting her daddy’s new partner for the first time. She lifted her right hand and gave the paramedic a little wave with her fingers.
“Hi, Uncle Johnny.”
“Hey, Jenny Bean.”
“Does your arm hurt?”
“No, not too much.”
“Can I give you a hug?”
“Since when do you have to ask?”
Jennifer smiled and dropped her father’s hand. She stepped forward as Johnny crouched down to greet her. He encircled her with his good arm and accepted her hug. She kissed his cheek and thought it felt hollow, like all the smiles his face normally held that gave it shape had been chased away by something sad and troublesome.
“I’m sorry those kids pushed you,” Jennifer said softly into Johnny’s ear. “I don’t know why they did that. If I’d been there I wouldn’t have let them hurt you.”
“That’s because you’re my best girl and you’re always looking after me, huh?”
“Uncle Johnny, some poor girl has to have that job ‘cause you need a lot of looking after.”
Johnny chuckled. “That I do, Jenny Bean. That I do.”
Johnny stood and ran a hand through Chris’s hair.
“Hey, Uncle Johnny.”
“How’s baseball season coming along?”
“Pretty good. We’ve only played two games but we won both of ‘em. I wish you could have been there to see the last one. I hit a homer.”
“That’s great,” Johnny said, though his voice held none of the enthusiasm it normally would have at this announcement. In part, because his mind was barely on Chris’s words, and in part because the last thing he wanted to do was subject the DeSoto children to any more ridicule than they’d already suffered because he was their father’s friend.
“So will you come to my next game? It’s Tuesday night.”
“I’d like to, Sport, but I don’t think I’d better.”
“Chris,” Roy interrupted, “don’t pester Uncle Johnny about your game. He’s still got his arm in a cast. He doesn’t feel like doing too much right now.”
“But he’s working in the barn. All he’ll have to do at my game is sit on the bleachers.”
“Christopher, that’s enough,” Roy said. “We came over here to help Uncle Johnny, not to bug him to do things for us.”
Chris’s eyes dropped to the ground, embarrassed that he’d been scolded in front of Uncle Johnny. He gave a small nod of his head, then felt his father’s hand pat his back.
“Why don’t you go in the barn and start cleaning stalls. I’ll be in to help you in a minute.”
“That’s not necessary,” Johnny said. “You guys don’t have to do this.”
Actually, I just wish you’d leave, Johnny thought as he saw Jennifer pull a bag out of the car that had a feather duster sticking out the top. I love all of you to death, but I’m just not in the mood to have the Cleaver family invade my space today.
Because Johnny didn’t want to hurt any feelings he stifled the urge to speak the words running through his head. He watched Joanne and Jennifer head toward the house where evidently a round of cleaning and cooking was going to ensue. Johnny swallowed a sigh as he turned to follow Roy into the barn.
“Hey, Chris and I are going to do this,” Roy told his partner. “Why don’t you relax on the deck?”
Because this is my home and I don’t feel like relaxing on the damn deck. I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing before you guys showed up. And doing it alone, I might add.
Once again Johnny kept his thoughts to himself.
“No, I don’t feel like relaxing right now. I wanna finish what I was doing.”
“Okay,” Roy conceded. “But we’re here to help you.”
“So I noticed,” Johnny mumbled as he brushed by his friend.
Roy gave a tiny shake of his head before entering the barn.
Joanne, I told you this might not be such a good idea. I think I should have ‘dropped by’ alone for a few minutes and let it go at that.
Roy knew there was no way to change what had already been done, so like his son, he grabbed a pitch fork and went to work beside a silent John Gage.
Two hours later every stall in the barn was clean, and thanks to Chris, the tack room was straightened and organized.
Joanne called for Roy to come to the deck and light the grill, which Johnny realized meant it must be close to twelve o’clock if it wasn’t that time already. He’d only eaten a peach for breakfast, and that was five hours ago now, but not even the slightest hunger pain rumbled his stomach despite his morning of physical labor.
Chris carried the pitchforks over to a wall that held a row of hooks. He hung the tools back in their places while asking, “Uncle Johnny, how come you said you’d better not come to my game?”
Johnny turned from the doorway where he’d been watching his three horses prance in the corral.
“My game.” Chris faced the paramedic. “You said you’d better not come. Why?”
“I said I can’t come.”
“No, you didn’t. You said, ‘better not.’ Which is a lot different from can’t.”
“Better not or can’t, either way it doesn’t matter, Chris. I just won’t be there this time.”
“Is it because of what that girl said about
“Chris, I really don’t wanna talk about this.”
Chris DeSoto was nothing if not persistent when his curiosity got the best of him.
“Because I don’t care what she said. And I don’t care what other people say about what she said. I just want you to--”
“Dammit, Chris, drop it! I told you I don’t wanna talk about this! You might not care about what other people say, but I sure as hell do!”
Chris fought to still the trembling of his lower lip while tears filled his eyes until everything in front of him was one big blur. Uncle Johnny had never shouted at him before, or used swear words in front of him. The boy was just about to turn and run from the barn when he felt an arm encircle his shoulder. At first Chris thought the person offering him comfort was his father, but then he bumped into a cast and heard his Uncle Johnny’s anguish-filled voice as the paramedic crouched down beside him and pulled him close.
“I’m sorry, Chris. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to get mad at you, to yell at you like that. I’m sorry, Sport. I’m sorry.”
Chris buried his head in Johnny’s shoulder so the man wouldn’t see him cry.
“No. . .no I’m the one who should say
sorry. I. . .you told me you didn’t. .
.didn’t wanna talk about it. Even my. .
.my dad told me not to talk about it with you.
It’s just that. . .I don’t. . .Uncle Johnny, I don’t understand why that
girl is saying things about you that aren’t true. Why. . .why is she telling everyone you hurt her when. . .when
Johnny ran his right hand up and down the boy’s back.
“I don’t know, Sport. I just don’t know.”
Chris lifted his head from Johnny’s shirt. He swiped an arm across his eyes. “But her lies might make a judge put you in jail. Doesn’t she understand that?”
“I imagine she does.”
“Chris, believe me when I tell you I wish I knew the answer to that question.”
In so many ways Chris DeSoto was like his father, even at the young age of ten. Unlike Jennifer, Chris rarely spoke of his feelings. It was through what he did for people he cared about that he showed his love and concern. Like the way he’d cleaned the tack room without being asked. That’s why the hug he gave Johnny now meant so much to the paramedic.
Chris wrapped his arms around Johnny’s neck. “I don’t want you to go to jail. It scares me to think about it.”
Johnny wished he had words of reassurance to offer the boy, but he didn’t, so he simply told Chris the truth.
“It scares me, too, Chris.” Johnny placed a kiss on the child’s temple. “It’s scares me, too.”
Roy DeSoto turned from the doorway, leaving the barn as quietly as he’d entered. Telling his son and his partner lunch was ready could wait. Roy had a feeling both Chris and Johnny needed this hug more than either one of them realized.
As Roy walked back to the deck he wished he knew how to help his partner. Trouble was, short of shaking Vanessa Schaffer until he got the truth out of her, there was little Roy could do for John Gage except be his friend.
The Station 51 A-shift returned for duty at eight on Monday morning. After roll call Roy and his temporary partner, a new paramedic by the name of Jim Huntley, did their morning call-in to Rampart. After they checked the supplies in the drug box and trauma box Jim went to clean the dorm while Roy went to do the same in the kitchen. Roy was just finishing up when Chet and Marco came in to take a ten minute break from hanging hose.
“So how’s Huntley doing?” Chet asked while he poured himself a cup of coffee.
Chet questioned, as he took a seat at the table.
“There wasn’t much enthusiasm behind that okay.”
Roy shrugged. “He’s doing fine. He’s a nice kid, and with a little more experience under his belt will be a good paramedic.”
“But he’s no Johnny Gage.”
Normally Chet didn’t irritate Roy, but the blond man was running on little sleep right now and not in the mood for Chet’s observations. Roy whirled from the cabinet where he’d been putting away the last of the dishes that C-shift never got a chance to wash the evening before.
“No, Chet, he’s not Johnny Gage! He’s not my partner! But I’d better damn well get used to it because the way things are looking right now my partner might never be back. Is that what you wanna hear?”
Both Chet and Marco stared wide-eyed at the paramedic who so rarely raised his voice that they couldn’t recall the last time they’d heard Roy shout.
“Look, Roy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it any other way but as a compliment to Johnny.”
Roy dropped his forehead into one hand and massaged his throbbing temples.
And I’m sorry, too. It’s just. .
.I’m really worried about him, guys.”
“Me and Marco are worried about him,
too. We stopped by his place yesterday
to see if he’d go fishing with us.”
Roy brought his head up. “Did he?”
“No. Said he had stuff to do. He looks. . .Roy, he doesn’t look good. I used to think Gage was skinny enough to thread through a needle, but now. . .well let’s just say that expression takes on a whole new meaning now. And he looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks. Me and Marco wanted to hang around and help him do whatever it was he wanted to get done, but he more or less told us to get lost.”
“I know,” Roy nodded. “I took Joanne and the kids over there on Saturday morning. By the time we finished eating lunch I could tell we’d overstayed our welcome.”
Marco opened the refrigerator and pulled out the orange juice. “But this whole thing will only be harder on Johnny if he cuts himself off from everyone.”
“You’re probably right,” Roy agreed. “But we can’t make him extend invitations to us.”
“So what do we do to help him?” Chet asked.
“Just what we have been, I guess. Keep checking up on him through phone calls and dropping in every so often. Johnny knows we care, Chet, and he knows any one of us would do anything for him. Or at least I hope he knows that. But Johnny’s the one who has to tell us what he needs from us.”
“Man, this just pisses me off,” Chet declared with a vehement shake of his head.
Marco looked up from the glass of juice he was pouring. “What pisses you off?”
“This whole situation. That girl. Her lies could ruin Johnny’s life. Man, I’d like to confront her and ask her just what the hell she thinks she’s doing.”
“We all would,” came Hank Stanley’s voice
from the kitchen doorway. “But for the
sake of our jobs, and the reputation of this department, none of us are going
to do that. Do I make myself clear, Kelly?”
“Yeah, Cap, you make yourself clear. But how does that help Johnny?”
Hank Stanley sighed as he crossed to the coffee pot.
“It doesn’t, Chet. That’s the sad thing about all this. What we can’t do doesn’t help Johnny at all. And neither does what we can do.”
The room fell silent as the men pondered the truth behind their captain’s words. Roy was glad when the tones sounded a few seconds later. If nothing else it got all of them away from the depressing atmosphere of the station. The station that no longer seemed like Roy’s second home without Johnny there by his side.
A week had passed since the Saturday the DeSoto family had descended on John Gage’s ranch. Of course Vanessa Schaffer had no way of knowing that, even though Johnny Gage rarely left her mind these days.
Vanessa sat on the cushioned window seat clutching Buster, her old brown teddy bear, to her chest. It seemed like she clutched Buster a lot these days, as though his silent presence could bring her both comfort and answers. So far the faithful friend had proven to be little more than something to hold onto when the choice between right and wrong, and the urgency to make that choice, threatened to overwhelm the girl.
The view from Vanessa’s second story bay window was one she treasured no matter the season. No one could say her parents hadn’t built their dream home without comfort in mind for all the family members inhabiting it. Vanessa’s room was at the front of the house. Beyond the yard and driveway were the gently rolling hills of the desolate canyon. Vanessa heard her father say more than once in recent months that with the rate new homes were being built in this area the peace and quiet they’d come here for when they’d escaped the suburbs would be gone in a few short years. Vanessa hoped that wasn’t true. She loved being able to look at the overgrown grass as it swayed in the gentle spring breeze. Now it was green, but come summer it would be yellow and dry from lack of rain. Late in the fall it would turn brown and die off for a few weeks, then be revitalized by the winter rains. But no matter the color, Vanessa never tired of the view. If you only looked out her window you wouldn’t realize the Schaffers had a neighbor a quarter of a mile away. The world appeared endless from Vanessa’s room. Or so it had seemed until recently when the world began to close in on the teenager, threatening to suffocate her and her ugly lies with each breath she took.
A knock on her closed door brought the girl’s head around.
“Vanessa, what’s for lunch?”
The girl glanced at her bright yellow alarm clock. She didn’t know where the morning had gone. It was now almost noon. Of course Nick would be hungry.
“I. . .make yourself whatever you want!”
“Can I make something for Lance, too?”
Lance was Nick’s best friend and lived in that house a quarter mile from them.
“Sure! Just don’t leave a mess in the kitchen!”
“I won’t! Do you want something? I could make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!”
“Okay. But if you change your mind let me know!”
Vanessa heard her brother’s tennis shoes thump on the carpeted steps as he dashed back to the first floor. She couldn’t help but smile at his thoughtfulness. They’d always been close, and she knew everything that had happened since she’d been caught in the mine cave-in had left Nicky worried and confused. Her parents had only told Nick that she’d been hurt by John Gage. Typical of them, when he asked them what they meant by the word ‘hurt,’ they’d told him he was too young to understand and sent him out to play. Not that Vanessa expected them to give Nick a blow by blow description, but she thought they could have done a better job of calming his fears than by simply dismissing him from the room. But then that was how they handled everything. No discussion. No explanation. No questions allowed. Just a dismissal when they deemed it time for you to go.
Boyish laughter drifted up to Vanessa from the kitchen. She could only imagine the mess Nick and Lance were making down there, but she left them to their fun. Her parents were gone today. They’d departed at six o’clock that morning for a church retreat two hours away. They weren’t expected to return until six o’clock that evening. Vanessa imagined Nick was enjoying the freedom of being out from under their often ridged thumbs as much as she was. Or at least as much as she usually did on the rare occasions when both her parents were gone and Vanessa was left in charge of her brother and the household. For some reason today she didn’t feel like listening to the radio station her mother didn’t approve of because of the popular rock tunes it played. Nor did she feel like taking advantage of the privacy she had to talk on the kitchen phone to her girlfriends like she generally did when she had the house to herself. Nor did she feel like watching any television shows her parents would frown upon, nor reading the Harlequin Romance novels she got from the library that her mother would have a stroke about if she ever caught sight of their covers.
Vanessa glanced at one of those novels now. She’d tossed it on her bedside table a few hours ago when she found she couldn’t keep her mind on the printed page. The cover showed a young woman with light brown hair the color of her own, being held so tenderly by a man with coal black hair that fell in unruly waves to his shoulders. The man was looking into the woman’s eyes in a way that said he loved her with all his heart and would sacrifice his own life before he’d let anything happen to her. The man made Vanessa think of Johnny. He looked a little like Johnny, too. Thin yet strong. Handsome with high cheekbones, dark hair and warm brown eyes the color of a Hershey bar. That’s all Vanessa had ever wanted from Tommy, to be cherished in the same way the heroines in her romance novels were cherished by the men who loved them. She’d tried to convince Johnny that he could love her that way, but now she knew how foolish that notion had been. She was only fifteen and he was thirty. Of course he couldn’t fall in love with her. He’d only done the right thing by being honest and telling her that. And how had she repaid his honesty? By lying about what had gone on between them in the mine.
Vanessa heard the front door slam, then watched as Nick and Lance crossed the front yard. She could tell they both had something in their mouths, either Fudgesicles or Popsicles, which she wasn’t certain from this distance. Nick was carrying a paper bag that probably held their lunch, and Lance had two cans of Coke under one arm. Vanessa felt a pang of guilt, knowing she should have made the boys something to eat like her mother would have wanted her to.
Mom would be mad at me if she saw Nick eating his dessert before he’s eaten his lunch.
Vanessa’s eyes tracked the boys’ movements. When they disappeared over a rise in the canyon she knew she should run after Nick to remind him of the boundaries her parents had long ago set forth in regards to how far he could wander from the house. But for whatever reason she wasn’t so inclined.
He’ll be fine. Besides, I bet Nicky enjoys a little freedom from Mom and Dad’s rules every now and then as much as I do. Dessert before lunch isn’t going to hurt him. And if he wanders a little farther than Mom and Dad approve of that’s not going to hurt him either. We’ve lived out here since he was seven. He knows his way around. Plus, Lance is with him. All they’re going to do is hike and talk about whatever it is that comes to a ten year old boy’s mind when no parents or older sisters are around to listen.
An hour passed before Vanessa set Buster aside and flopped stomach down across the orange and yellow patchwork quilt on her bed. She thought of the upcoming trial for a long time. A female counselor provided to Vanessa by the District Attorney’s office had been preparing her for the trial for weeks now. She knew exactly how she was to respond to almost any question she might be asked. And at the end of each session the counselor always smiled at her and emphasized, “The best thing you can do, Vanessa, is just tell the truth. No matter what Mr. Gage’s lawyers do, no matter how they might try to tear your story apart, you just look them straight in the eye and tell them the truth.”
The counselor’s words echoed in Vanessa’s head now as she reached for her book. She didn’t open it, but instead studied the man on the cover. She traced a finger over the sharp planes of his face. It was so easy to gaze upon this slightly exotic looking person and think of Johnny. To think of the man her lies might send to prison.
Vanessa bit back her tears. She was so tired of crying. With utter despair she buried her face in her pillow.
Oh, what am I going to do? Who. . .who can I talk to? I need help, but I don’t know who to turn to. They
all. . .they all think I’m so perfect. A good girl, with good grades, who goes to church and lives her life by the teachings of the Bible. But I’m not that perfect girl. I’m just. . .I’m just a regular girl who’s made some stupid decisions and told some horrible lies. Oh, Lord, please help me. I need to talk to someone. . .to someone who can help me figure out what to do, but I don’t know who that someone is.
Vanessa fell into a troubled sleep. She spent her dreams searching for a nameless face she could confide in, and crying when that person never appeared.
Johnny knew returning to this area of Mason Canyon was foolish on his part. If someone saw him and recognized who he was God only knew what kind of story would appear in the newspaper. But something even Johnny couldn’t identify was urging him here. He thought it might have to do with his memory loss surrounding the rescue Vanessa Schaffer. If he came back to the Clariton Mine maybe something about the place. . .the landscape. . .the smells. . .the sounds, would cause a door in his mind to open that would finally reveal all he’d forgotten.
It was a good thing for Johnny that it was his left arm in a cast. He needed his right to shift gears on the Land Rover. The Rover was able to bump up to within a few feet of the mine’s entrance just like the squad had been able to do all those weeks before. Johnny hesitated a moment before shutting the vehicle off and climbing out. He shoved his keys in the front pocket of his blue jeans, then walked around the front of the truck.
The mine’s entrance was once again boarded up. A new sign that declared in bold, black print; DANGER. KEEP OUT, stood guard in front of the mine.
John Gage might be a dare devil at times, but he wasn’t an idiot. He didn’t attempt to get into the mine regardless of how much he might have liked to. Instead he stood on the outside just staring at it, as though it was suddenly going to start talking to him and give up all its secrets.
The early April sun was warm on Johnny’s back in a way that would have normally brought him comfort. Today, like all days he’d experienced since February 26th, nothing brought him comfort. Not the sun, or the occasional chirping of a bird, or the sound the grass made when it rustled in the gentle breeze, or the beauty of the landscape surrounding him. The trial was set to start in three weeks. Johnny had no more to offer now in his defense than he had at the preliminary hearing. He had a sinking feeling his answers of, “I don’t know,” and “I don’t remember,” weren’t going to get him far with a jury. Especially when you considered what he’d been charged with.
Johnny stared at the mine a few minutes longer before finally turning away in defeat. He knew he should get in the Rover and drive back home, but right now home was the last place he wanted to be. As much as he loved his ranch it had become his self-imposed prison ever since he’d been put on leave from the department. Other than the times he was forced to run an errand, or someone dropped by and insisted on taking him out to eat, he’d stayed on the ranch. No matter where he went it felt like everyone was staring at him. Realistically he knew that wasn’t true, yet considering all the publicity his case had garnered, often times a good number of people were staring.
Because there was no one around to stare now Johnny decided to take a short hike. The breeze was cool on his bare arms. He couldn’t get a long sleeve shirt over his cast so had been forced to wear T-shirts or polo shirts ever since the accident. Today he had on a tan polo shirt some past girlfriend had given him for his birthday. She said tan was a good color on him. That it brought out the brown in his eyes. Johnny briefly wondered if prison stripes would be a good color on him as he slowly made his way up the first hill.
Nick Schaffer stuffed the empty lunch bag and soda cans in the crevice of two boulders. He knew better than to be a litter bug, and made a mental note of where the boulders were located so he could retrieve the trash on his way back home.
Nick hiked beside his best friend Lance. The ten year old boy loved the outdoors and was glad his parents moved here from the small suburban home they used to live in. Or at least he had been glad until six weeks ago when that fireman hurt Vanessa in the Clariton Mine. Nick still wasn’t sure how the man had injured his sister, but he’d overheard enough to know whatever the man did was bad. He’d been in court with his parents the day Vanessa had to tell her story, but his Grandpa Schaffer had taken him out of the room when Vanessa was called to the witness stand. Not that Nick wanted to leave, but his parents insisted. When he told his grandpa he wanted to hear what Vanessa had to say the man simply patted him on top of the head and replied, “Oh, Nicky, some things just weren’t meant for the ears of a ten year old.”
Whatever was going on was confusing, that was for sure. Nick’s parents spent a lot of time whispering, and they always looked worried now. And Vanessa. . .well Nick had heard her crying in her room more than once since she’d been hurt, but every time he knocked and asked her if she was okay she simply said through the door, “Yes, Nicky, I’m fine. You go play now.”
But Nick knew his sister wasn’t fine. And lately she’d been spending even more time in her room. He would be glad when the trial was over and that fireman went to jail. Maybe then things would get back to normal and Vanessa would be happy again.
For now Nick put his worries behind him as he romped with Lance. First they pretended they were settlers making their way across the continent on a wagon train, then they were Indian scouts slinking through the tall grass, then they played a round of cops and robbers using sticks as guns. Nick paused as he waited for Lance to stand up from where he’d fallen after being ‘shot.’ He looked around and realized they’d come farther from home than he was allowed. He wasn’t too concerned. After all, it wasn’t like he was lost. And his parents wouldn’t be home for hours yet, so there was no fear of getting grounded for breaking the rules. Nonetheless, Nick supposed he and Lance should start heading back the way they’d come.
The boy brushed his auburn bangs from his blue eyes as his tow headed friend stood.
“Come on, let’s be Indians again,” Nick said as he dropped to all fours and began crawling through the grass in the general direction of their houses.
“Okay,” Lance agreed, copying his friend’s movements.
The boys’ game of pretend was livened when Lance suddenly stood up. He pointed a finger.
“Look, Nick! Wolves! Man, this really is like being an Indian scout.”
Nick pushed himself to his feet. He cupped a hand over his eyes to protect them against the sun’s glare and squinted. He wasn’t sure what wolves looked like, but he’d never heard of any being around here. The pack of animals who had stopped their travels to stare at Nick and Lance looked more like German Shepherds to Nick. When their ears flattened against their heads and they growled unison Nick tugged on the sleeve of his friend’s Starsky and Hutch T-shirt.
“Lance, we’d better get outta here.”
The boys took three steps backwards as the dogs slinked toward them as though they were stalking prey. Nick and Lance took three more steps, only to have them countered by the dogs again. Though Nick didn’t think running would be a good idea for some reason, Lance panicked before his friend could tell him that.
“Nick, run! Come on! Let’s get outta here!”
As Lance turned to flee the dogs gave chase. Nick had no choice but to follow his friend. Both boys screamed, “Help! Help!” as they raced for a distant tree.
Johnny’s hike was reaching the thirty minute mark. He decided he’d crest this one last hill before returning to the Land Rover. He wished he could say this walk had cleared his head and brought him some answers, but in truth it did nothing of the kind. The only other time in his life he remembered being this depressed, this close to wanting to give up, was when his wife and child had been murdered. Kim and Jessie had been gone for almost a decade now, and his memories of his time with them were best kept in the past. He wished his memory of Vanessa Schaffer was in the past as well. He briefly wondered what the next decade was going to bring him. If a jury believed the teenager’s words the future would garner him nothing but an eight by eight prison cell. Everything the paramedic had worked for since coming to Los Angeles in 1968 would be taken from him in the short time it took Vanessa to weave a well-constructed lie. If Johnny could only figure out why she wanted to lie in the first place, then maybe there’d be some way his lawyers could break through her story. But since he couldn’t remember anything about the time he spent in the mine with her he was hard pressed to know why she wanted to cause trouble for him.
Could I have done it? Johnny asked himself not for the first time since this nightmare began. Could I have really done what she said?
Johnny knew Roy, and Dixie, and Kelly Brackett, and at least two dozen other people would assure him that no, he couldn’t have raped Vanessa Schaffer. And at any other time he would have believed them. But they didn’t know what it was like to have part of your memory missing, only to have it replaced by a story of sexual assault as told by a distraught fifteen year old girl.
Johnny was well aware that Brackett had discussed all angles with his lawyers from the possibility that his head injury had caused him to act in a way that wasn’t normal for him, to the possibility that there had been some sort of fumes in the mine that had altered his personality after lengthy exposure to them. The trouble with those theories was that they would be easily disputed. The first one Vanessa would deny. She’d maintained all along that the assault had occurred before his head injury happened. And the second couldn’t be verified by any blood tests. All Johnny’s blood work had come back clean. There was always the remote possibility something was in his system that didn’t show up in the blood work, or so Doctor Brackett had said, but Johnny knew the jury would never buy that. Especially after listening to Vanessa’s testimony.
Johnny paused a moment. He lifted his face to the sun and heaved a sigh. Maybe worrying about going to prison was a moot point. If he didn’t get some sleep soon, and have the desire to eat more than a couple bites at each meal, his health would begin to suffer. Not that Johnny thought that was necessarily a bad thing. Maybe death would be better than what was waiting for him in the weeks to come.
The paramedic tried to shake off his dark thoughts but didn’t have much luck. He had just turned for the Rover when he heard what sounded like a scream. He took two steps toward its source, but when he didn’t hear the cry again he shrugged his shoulders.
Probably just kids playing.
Johnny started to turn again when another series of screams sounded.
“Help! Help! Help!”
John Gage had been a firefighter long enough to know the difference between a child screaming in fun, and one screaming in terror. This scream was definitely a scream of terror.
Forgetting all about his wish to die, Johnny took off at run to see what was going on and what assistance he could offer. He charged up the hill, his cast tucked tight against his body.
The first thing Johnny saw was two boys charging for a tree one hundred yards to his left. A blond boy was in the lead, his dark headed friend trailing behind by at least thirty feet. At first Johnny couldn’t imagine what the kids were so upset about. He wondered if they’d stepped in a yellow jacket’s nest, or seen a rattlesnake, but then he heard the barks. A pack of dogs crested a hill. The lead animal wasn’t more than ten feet behind the dark headed boy.
Oh damn! Wild dogs!
Johnny recalled Captain Stanley briefing the A-shift about a pack of dogs that had been spotted in the canyons in recent months. So far no one had been attacked by the dogs, though a rancher had lost a pony to them and a couple families had lost small house dogs who’d been let out to do their business only to be discovered lifeless and horribly mauled when their owners went looking for them. Johnny knew these animals could easily kill a child. They were already honing in on the one they’d determined was the weakest of his pack - the boy who hadn’t been able to keep up with his friend.
Johnny was vaguely aware of the blond boy making it to the tree. Fear gave the child had the skills of a monkey. His arms caught a sturdy branch and he pulled himself up, then scrambled as high as he dared, calling for his friend.
“Nick, come on! Run! Run!”
Johnny knew Nick would never make it to the tree before the dogs would be upon him. He ran with all the speed he’d possessed in high school, grateful that he’d left his cowboy boots at home today in favor of tennis shoes.
The paramedic hollered as he ran.
“Get away from him! Go! Get away!”
Johnny waved his good arm in the air, trying to look as menacing as possible even though he knew this method worked better with cougars. With dogs you were supposed to stand still, not make eye contact, and slowly back away. Unfortunately these dogs were already in pursuit of the fleeing child. Standing still wasn’t going to do Johnny or the boy any good.
“Go on! Get outta here!” Johnny ordered. If nothing else he hoped he could divert the dogs’ attention from the child to himself.
John Gage never slowed down as he ran a straight line toward the panic stricken ten year old. Just as the lead dog was about to pounce on Nick Schaffer, Johnny scooped the boy up with his right arm. The force of the dog’s body hitting Johnny’s knocked the paramedic to the ground. He used his own body to cover the boy’s as the dogs attacked. Johnny cried out as teeth sank into the flesh on his back. He used the best weapon he possessed, his cast, to try to knock the dogs off him.
Johnny struggled to his feet three times. If he could just make it to the tree he could get the boy up there and maybe get up there himself. Each time he’d fight to a semi-standing position the dogs would bring him down again, growling in victory. Now he knew what an elk must feel like it when it was being mauled by a pack of wolves. Johnny gave up trying to get to his feet to instead concentrate on protecting the boy. He cried out again when teeth sank into the skin of his right biceps and yanked. As pain and blood loss began to take their toll Johnny felt himself slip toward darkness.
Can’t. Can’t lose consciousness. Gotta save the boy. Gotta save him.
Johnny fought with renewed vigor. He glanced up, saw the tree in the distance, and started dragging himself and Nick toward it despite the pack of dogs that were determined to stop his every move.
When three o’clock arrived and Nick hadn’t returned home Vanessa set out to find him. Not that she was worried. She knew Nick and Lance were playing somewhere in the canyon.
Vanessa tried not to think about Johnny as she walked past the Clariton Mine. She noticed a white vehicle there, but didn’t pay much attention to it.
It wasn’t unusual for visitors to hike these hills on weekends.
Like Johnny had a few minutes earlier, Vanessa initially thought the cries she heard were of children playing. She assumed when she got to the top of the next hill she’d see Lance and Nick. But then she heard what sounded like dogs fighting amongst each other in order to tear something apart. Then she recognized Lance’s voice.
“Nick! Nick! Nick!”
Vanessa flew up the hill. She stopped for a moment in wide-eyed shock. Five dogs that all appeared to be a cross between a German Shepherd and a wolf had a man on the ground and were attacking him. It was only when the man’s body shifted that she saw Nicky beneath him. When the force of the dogs’ attack caused the man’s body to shift again Vanessa caught a glimpse of Nick’s protector’s face.
Vanessa started to run for her brother and Johnny but was stopped by Lance’s voice.
“No, Vanessa, no! Get help! Go get help!”
The girl saw her brother’s friend clinging to a tree branch with tears streaming down his face. With one last glance over her shoulder at Nick and Johnny she took off at run for the road behind her. Vanessa wasn’t sure where the closest house was, but she prayed someone would be home when she found it. She couldn’t believe her luck when she saw a big red fire engine coming her way. She stopped right in the middle of the road and started waving her arms.
“Help! Help! Please help!”
Mike Stoker eased on the brake. He glanced in the rearview mirror to see the squad slowing up behind him.
Vanessa Schaffer saw the 51 painted on the side of the engine. Mike couldn’t figure out what the girl was doing when she ran right by him and headed for the squad.
“Roy! Roy! Please help! Oh, God, please help them!”
Roy sat in stunned surprised. What the hell was Vanessa Schaffer doing out here by the Clariton Mine again? And who did she want him to help?
At two-thirty that afternoon the engine and squad had been called out to a brush fire with injuries in Mason Canyon. The brush fire proved to be nothing but a man burning trash. As far as the report of injuries went, Roy chalked that up to an overzealous citizen caught in the excitement of phoning in the supposed fire.
Jim Huntley sat next to Roy in the squad. Like Roy had told Chet, the young man was a nice kid and would make a fine paramedic. He was as quiet and reserved as Johnny was talkative and outgoing. Jim’s silent presence made Roy miss his exuberant partner even more.
I never thought I’d live to see the day when I longed for one of Johnny’s mile-a-minute spiels about whatever issue he’d latch onto for that particular moment. But damn, do I miss you, partner. I really miss you.
Roy realized his thoughts reflected the gut instinct that told him, short of a miracle, Johnny would never be riding with him in Squad 51 again. The likelihood that a jury wouldn’t find him guilty after hearing Vanessa’s story, and being presented with the evidence gathered at the hospital that fateful afternoon, was slim to none.
For the first time in his five years as a paramedic Roy actually wanted to drive away from someone who needed his help. The last person he desired to lay eyes on was the girl clinging to the squad’s side mirror while crying, “Oh, Roy, you’ve got to help them! Please, you’ve got to help them!”
“We’ve got to help who, Vanessa?”
“Johnny and Nick!”
“Johnny. Your partner! And Nick, my little brother!”
“Help them how?”
“Over there!” Vanessa pointed to a hill as Hank Stanley walked around the engine and came to stand beside her. “Dogs! A pack of dogs has Johnny on the ground. He’s trying to protect Nicky! They’re attacking him! Oh, please help them! Please!”
“Get in the squad and show us where they’re at!” Roy ordered the girl.
Hank took her by the elbow and ran her around to the passenger side. Jim had already jumped out so Vanessa could scoot into the middle. The paramedic got back in. He barely had his door closed before Roy was gunning the engine and heading the squad off the road and up a hill, Mike Stoker right behind him.
Chet and Marco clung to their seats as the engine bumped beneath them. They had heard the girl’s frantic words and already knew what they’d need to do if her story proved to be true. The slipped into their turnout coats and put on their helmets, ready to jump down and grab the hoses as soon as Cap gave the word.
As the squad tore up the ground beneath its wheels Roy wondered what the hell Johnny was doing out here.
Dammit, Johnny, don’t you think Mason Canyon has caused you enough trouble to last a lifetime?
“What’s he doing out here?” Roy asked the girl as he drove.
“I don’t know. My brother. . .Nicky, he and his friend Lance went hiking at lunch time. When they didn’t come back I went looking for them. I found Lance clinging to a tree and Nick and Johnny on the ground. The dogs. . .they’re attacking Johnny, Roy. He’s trying to protect Nicky and they’re attacking him!”
“Dogs, Vanessa! How many dogs?”
“I. . .I don’t know. Four maybe. Or five. I think there were five.”
Damn, damn, damn. They’ve got to be the pack of wild dogs people have reported seeing in this area. Damn!
Roy almost couldn’t believe the scene before him when the squad finally came to rest on flat ground. It looked like the dogs had gotten a hold of a rag doll and were trying to shake it apart. Johnny’s shirt was in shreds and he was covered with blood.
As much as Roy wanted to run to his partner he knew better than to get out of the squad. Getting himself hurt wasn’t going to do Johnny any good. He watched as Chet and Marco pulled two hoses off the truck and saw Mike adjust the valves. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Cap still seated in the engine and saw his mouth move. Over the squad’s radio Roy heard the man requesting a Flight For Life helicopter and a police marksmen unit.
Chet and Marco had the hose nozzles open to full force long before they got near the dogs. They were smart enough not to take any chances with their own safety. When the force of the water hit the pack the dogs flew in the air and landed in five different places. They scrambled to their feet and tried to advance on Johnny and Nick again, but were held at bay by Chet and Marco. The dogs regrouped four times, but on each occasion were thwarted by a well-aimed gush of water. When they had finally retreated far enough that Roy deemed it safe he said, “Vanessa, stay right here. No matter what happens you keep these doors closed and stay in this squad. Jim, let’s go!”
The two paramedics ran from the vehicle. Jim scooped up Nick and raced for the back of the squad with him. Roy knelt by Johnny’s side. Between the water streaming over his head and spraying him with a heavy mist, along with the blood covering his partner’s body, Roy was hard pressed to make an accurate assessment of Johnny’s condition. This was one of those times you had no choice but to move the victim without examining him. Staying here was more dangerous to Johnny than getting him away from the dogs who were already starting to circle again.
“Let’s put him over my shoulder!” Hank Stanley shouted above the roar of the water as he knelt next to Roy.
Roy nodded. Within seconds he and Hank had Johnny over the Captain’s shoulder in the standard fireman’s carry. Hank doubted Johnny weighed much more than one hundred and thirty-five pounds now, meaning he was down fifteen pounds from what was normal for him. Even soaking wet Johnny’s weight on his Captain’s shoulder felt more like that of a teenage boy’s than an adult male’s. Roy ran along beside Hank with one hand on Johnny’s back.
Jim Huntley already had a sterile sheet spread on the ground in preparation of Johnny’s arrival. He helped Roy ease the man off Captain Stanley’s shoulder, then returned his attention to his young patient.
Other than being frightened from his experience, Nick Schaffer appeared to be unscathed. Jim took the child’s pulse, B/P, and respiration rate, then wrapped the shivering boy in a blanket. Jim wasn’t certain if the shivers came as a result of the cold spray from the fire hose, or were a leftover result of the horror he’d just been a part of. For now the paramedic carried Nick to the squad and placed him in the seat beside his sister. Vanessa hugged the boy to her chest and cried while Jim ran back for Lance. He got the blond out of the tree and carried him to the safety of the squad as well. He shut the doors in order to keep the children free from harm in the off-chance Chet and Marco weren’t able to hold the dogs at bay, then ran to Roy’s side.
Roy already had an oxygen mask on his partner and was pouring saline solution over Johnny’s wounds with one hand while holding the receiver of the Bio-phone with the other. Johnny was staring straight up at the sky and shivering like Nick had been, though Roy knew these shivers were the first signs of shock as a result of blood loss.
“Rampart, this is Squad 51.”
Roy heard Kelly Bracket’s voice respond.
“Go ahead, 51.”
“Rampart, we have a thirty year old male paramedic who’s been attacked by a pack of wild dogs.”
“You heard right, Rampart. Wild dogs. B/P is 100 over 60, pulse is 100, respirations are 16. I’ve got the patient on oxygen, Rampart, and am irrigating the lacerations as we speak.”
“51, start an IV with Ringer’s Lactate. Is the patient complaining of pain?”
Though Johnny had yet to say anything, Roy knew the man well enough to determine the level of pain he was in just by seeing the way Johnny was biting down on his lower lip.
“No, Rampart, but the patient doesn’t appear to be coherent enough to make such a complaint. However; the wounds he’s suffered are no doubt quite painful. Rampart, as well, the patient was wearing a cast on his left arm that has been shredded by the dogs.”
It was then that Kelly Brackett was able to take a good guess as to what paramedic had been injured. Any confusion he had over how in the world John Gage, who was supposed to be home resting, had been attacked by a pack of dogs was set aside for the moment. There would be plenty of time at a later date to get that information.
“51, provided there’s no sign of any head injuries administer two milligrams M.S. and immobilize the arm as best you can without removing what remains of that cast. 51, is your patient John Gage?”
“Affirmative, Rampart, on all accounts.”
“10-4, 51. Transport as soon as possible.”
“We’ll be doing so by chopper, Rampart.”
“Affirmative, 51. We’ll be waiting. Give me an update on vitals every five minutes while enroute.”
Hank Stanley assisted Roy and Jim as best he could while Mike continued to man the pumps for Chet and Marco. The steady gush of water kept the dogs at a safe distance until they finally gave up and ran off in the same tight pack they’d arrived in.
Johnny rolled his head from side to side as the pain flared like fire across his back, right arm and the right side of his chest. He bent one leg at the knee, only to have it straightened by Roy.
“Don’t move, Johnny. Don’t move.”
He felt the sting of a needle as an I.V. was started in his right arm. Someone was messing with his left arm, too, wrapping it tightly against his body. He tried to pull away from the person and the pain, but had no success when again Roy stopped his movements.
“Lay still, partner. Just lay still and let us help you.”
Johnny never realized how cold the saline solution was that every paramedic squad carried until he felt it being poured on his chest. He moaned when they rolled him onto his right side and liberally soaked his back with the stuff. He wondered if he’d been burned. It sure felt like he might have been. His back and chest hurt in a way he couldn’t describe if his life depended on it. His eyes finally found Roy, though his partner’s face was little more than a blur. He tried to speak, but no sound would come out.
“You’re gonna be fine, Johnny,” Roy assured when he saw the brown eyes resting upon him with a confused glaze to them. “You’re gonna be fine.”
Again Johnny tried to talk, and was finally rewarded with a dry croak that was muffled even further by the oxygen mask.
“Roy. . .Roy. . .the boy? Boy. . .okay?”
“He’s fine, partner,” Roy assured without ever breaking the stride of the emergency care he was giving his friend. “We’ve got him in the squad. Other than being a little scared he’s okay.”
“Goo. . .good.”
Roy looked over at Jim as the helicopter appeared in the distance.
“Let’s get pressure bandages on these wounds that are still bleeding. Then we’re going to wrap him up and go.”
“Do you want me to fly in with him?” Jim asked.
Although Roy knew he should say yes, at this moment he didn’t care about protocol. He was the senior paramedic and the best qualified to give Johnny the help he needed.
“No, I’ll go with him. You bring the kids to Rampart in the squad.”
Even Hank Stanley didn’t overrule Roy on this one. One look at Johnny’s glazed eyes, the torn skin on his torso and back, the immobilized arm with shredded plaster hanging from it, and the way his right hand was clutching Roy’s boot as though his life depended on that contact, made the Captain decide Roy was the paramedic who would stay with Johnny.
Though Roy could detect no neck or spinal injuries they put a C-collar on Johnny and placed him on a backboard as a safety precaution. The backboard was put in the Stokes, the Stokes then lifted by Roy, Jim, Mike, and Hank while Marco and Chet remained on guard in the event the dogs returned.
Roy climbed in the helicopter with his end of the Stokes, then guided it the rest of the way. Jim ran back for the drug box and trauma box. The bio-phone wouldn’t be needed. Roy could talk directly to Rampart through the chopper’s communication system.
As his co-workers turned away so the chopper could take off Roy grabbed a hold of Hank Stanley’s arm. He pointed toward the road where three squad cars were traveling at a high rate with lights and sirens blaring. Over the sound of the chopper engine he shouted, “Tell them they’ve got to kill those dogs! All of them! That’s the only way we’ll know if they’re rabid or not!”
Hank nodded his understanding. Johnny had suffered enough. The last thing he needed was to be put through a series of painful rabies shots.
Captain Stanley backed away from the helicopter. He signaled to the pilot that the area was clear, then ran toward the police cruisers that were parking haphazardly by Chet and Marco. He explained to the first cop he came across what had happened and what needed to be done.
The cop shook his head. “It’s a long shot that we’ll find those dogs now. Especially all five of them.”
“That might be so, but you at least need to try. They tore apart one of my men like he was nothing more than some kid’s discarded toy. I’d shoot the son-of-a-bitches myself if the fire department would issue me a gun.”
The cop nodded, knowing how any man feels when someone under his command gets hurt.
“We’ll do our best, Captain, but I can’t promise you more than that.”
“Then I can’t ask more than that,” Hank agreed.
Hank watched as the officers took off on foot, spreading out in the direction Chet and Marco said they’d seen the dogs flee.
As the two men walked their hoses back to the engine Chet asked, “How bad was Johnny, Cap? Marco and I couldn’t really tell.”
“He’s not in good shape, guys. Not in good shape at all. Don’t be surprised. . .” Hank paused a moment before he could find his voice again. “Don’t be surprised if we get bad news once we arrive at Rampart.”
Vanessa overheard Captain Stanley’s words as he passed by the squad. She buried her face in Nick’s wet hair in order to hide her tears.
Johnny remained semi-conscious throughout the trip to Rampart. He was aware of Roy taking his vital signs every few minutes, but the ‘thump, thump, thump’ of the overhead blades prevented him from hearing the information Roy was relaying to Kelly Brackett.
Johnny wasn’t sure why they allowed Roy to stay in the treatment room with him. Partner or not, once the paramedic who brought you in was no longer needed he was expected to leave. Regardless; Johnny was grateful for Roy’s presence, and he assumed Brackett knew Roy needed to be there for his own peace of mind because the doctor kept finding things for him to help with.
As long as he lived Johnny hoped to never again experience anyone irrigating wounds as severe as his. Despite the fact that Brackett had Dixie give him another two milligrams of M.S., Johnny never quite floated away on a sea of oblivion like he wanted to. He clutched the side of the table with his right hand, squeezing it in order to keep from crying out in pain. When they had to turn him onto his side so they could clean the wounds on his back Johnny felt Roy’s hands join those of the doctor and nurse. He knew Roy was supporting him in this position while Dixie and Kelly Brackett worked.
“Just a few more minutes, Johnny,” Brackett said when he looked down to see the paramedic’s eyes squeezed shut against the pain. “We’ve got to get these as clean as we can.”
Johnny gave a barely perceptible nod of understanding. In an effort to give him something to focus on besides the pain Dixie asked, “What were you doing hiking out by that mine anyway?”
Though his voice was drained of any strength, it was fairly easy for Johnny to be understood now because the oxygen mask had been removed shortly after he’d arrived.
“Looking. . .looking for answers.”
The three people attending to Johnny exchanged glances. Brackett shook his head at what ‘looking for answers’ had cost one of his best paramedics.
“Johnny, there’s a few places on your back and right arm that are going to need stitches, but the majority of the bites are puncture wounds. I’ll get the stitches in now, dress the remainder of the wounds, and get you started on antibiotics.” The doctor looked at Dixie. “Dix, when we’re done here have someone check his records and see when the last time was he had a tetanus booster.”
“I already asked Betty to do that. He’s current.”
“Good.” Kel patted his patient’s knee. “One less needle you’ll have to worry about, Johnny.”
Johnny gave a weak smile because he knew that’s what they expected of him, though in truth a booster shot against tetanus was the least of his concerns.
“We’ll also need a portable X-ray unit down here,” the doctor said. “I want films of that arm before we call Ortho.”
Kelly looked across Johnny’s body at Roy. He kept his voice pitched low when he asked, “What about the dogs, Roy? Any chance they’ll be caught?”
“I hope so. I told Cap to have the cops track them down.”
“How many were there?”
Brackett sighed at that news. It was unlikely Johnny wouldn’t have to go through treatment for rabies.
Roy stayed in the room with Johnny that day helping Dixie and Doctor Brackett in whatever way he could. He only stepped out long enough to allow the X-ray technician to do her work. After Brackett read the films he put a call into the doctor on the orthopedic floor who had put the first cast on Johnny’s arm. Fortunately he had not rebroken the bones in the fray. They cut away what was left of the old cast and put on a new one.
Four very long hours later Johnny was finally settled in a private room. No matter how he tried to lay it hurt. His left arm was aching again, and he didn’t even want to think about what his back, right arm, and chest looked like. He tried to relax and let the pain meds do their work, but each time he closed his eyes all he saw were those dogs chasing that little boy.
Roy peeked his head in the door. When he saw Johnny was still awake he entered the room.
“You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
“Do you need me to get a nurse, or Brackett?”
“No, I’m okay.”
With all the bandages he was swathed in, and with the new clean cast, Johnny looked more like a mummy that someone had just pulled out of a tomb than he looked ‘okay.’
“You need a drink? There’s water here by your bed. Or I can get you something from the machine down the hall. Or juice from the cafeteria.”
“No,” Johnny replied in a voice so tired and weak Roy could barely hear him. “I’m fine.”
“All right. Well then you get some rest. I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
Roy saw his partner’s eyes close. He waited a few minutes, then turned for the door.
Roy stopped his progress. He turned around so he could face his friend and saw that once again Johnny’s eyes were open.
He’s worse than my kids at bedtime. If he’d quit fighting sleep he’d get the rest he needs.
“The boy’s fine, John. Other than a few bumps and bruises he wasn’t hurt at all. He’s been released to his parents.”
Roy waited, but when Johnny didn’t say any more about the child he assumed his partner had no idea that the boy he saved was Vanessa Schaffer’s brother. An assumption that was quickly proven wrong.
“He was her brother.”
“Her brother. Vanessa’s brother. That’s who the boy was.”
“You knew that all along?”
“Yeah. I remembered seeing him in court.”
There was a lot of things Roy could have said at that point, but he settled on, “You know something, Johnny, if I’ve never told you this before then it’s long overdue.”
“Oh, geez, Roy,” the drugged man slurred, “don’t go gettin’ sappy on me just ‘cause a few dogs used me as a chew toy.”
“I’m not getting sappy, but I want you to know something.”
“I’m proud to call you friend.”
It took Johnny a moment before he could answer. After everything he’d been through in the last six weeks Roy’s words meant more to Johnny than he could ever say. So he didn’t try to say anything about them. Instead, he just shrugged his right shoulder before speaking again.
“You know those answers I was looking for this afternoon?”
“I didn’t find them.”
Roy stared down at his friend as Johnny finally lost the battle to stay awake.
So this is what it boils down to. He risks his life to save the little brother of the girl whose accused him of rape, yet in the end he’ll got to trial and probably be convicted. Why? Dammit why? It’s so unfair. He doesn’t deserve this. Do you hear me, Lord? John Gage does not deserve this.
No higher deity responded to Roy that evening. He left the hospital with a heavy heart wondering what was in store for his partner.
Seven days later Roy had his answer. The dogs hadn’t been found and Johnny was on his fourth day of a sixteen day cycle of rabies vaccinations. Despite the antibiotics Johnny was getting a steady dose of through his I.V., he was running a temperature. Brackett wasn’t certain if Johnny had an infection from the dog bites, or if the fever was a result of the highly potent vaccines. The doctor strongly suspected it was a combination of both.
A delirious John Gage struggled against the men. He felt the sheet being pulled down to the waistband of the pajama bottoms Roy had brought in for him. He threw out his right arm in defense, barely missing Dixie’s face. He knew what they were going to do and he knew it hurt. He couldn’t understand why they kept insisting on giving him shots in his stomach, even though he thought Roy and Doctor Brackett might have explained the reason to him more than once.
“No, no!” Johnny cried as he bucked his body and tried to twist from beneath Roy’s grasp. “Leave me alone!”
The paramedic fought harder when he felt a pair of hands on his stomach. Didn’t they know the last place he wanted another shot was in his stomach?
“Go away! Get the hell away from me!”
“Johnny, stop it!” Brackett ordered. “Calm down.”
“Just do it, Doc,” Roy said from where he was practically sprawled across his partner’s chest. “He might be weak, but he’s persistent. I can’t hold him much longer.”
John had lost so much weight that Doctor Brackett had trouble getting a fold of skin from the paramedic’s abdomen to stick the needle in. He tried three different places before he finally found a spot.
“We’re going to have to fatten you up, John Gage,” Kelly muttered as he plunged the needle home.
Johnny tried to dislodge the needle by flailing his legs but found he couldn’t move them any better than he could move his upper body. He wasn’t cognizant enough to realize Dixie was pinning his shins to the bed in the same way Roy was pinning his shoulders.
Long after the shot was through Johnny continued to struggle. Considering his weakened condition Brackett wondered where the paramedic found the energy to fight them to this degree.
“Dix, let’s have an aid come in here and try to bring his temp down with an alcohol bath. If that doesn’t work we’ll put a cooling blanket on him.”
The woman turned to leave the room only to come face to face with a wide-eyed Vanessa Schaffer. Dixie wondered how long the girl had been standing there, though by her expression the nurse could take an educated guess and say Vanessa had just witnessed the entire scene.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Roy shouted. “Don’t you think you’ve caused him enough trouble as it is?”
Dixie didn’t know who was more shocked at the eruption of Roy’s temper; herself, Kelly, or Johnny, who seemed to recognize Roy’s distress and in turn become more upset himself. In all the years Dixie had known Roy she’d never heard him raise his voice. She imagined Kel and Johnny could say the same thing.
Roy’s shouts told the nurse he was about at his breaking point. Every worry he had for his friend only seemed to deepen as each day went on and Johnny’s condition worsened. So for Roy’s sake, and Johnny’s sake, and for the sake of the fifteen year old girl who was standing in the doorway crying, Dixie put an arm around Vanessa’s shoulders and hustled her from the room. As she passed a nurse’s aid she said, “Diane, can you please assist Doctor Brackett in room two thirty-four?”
Dixie barely heard the woman’s acknowledgment over Vanessa’s sobs. She steered the girl down the corridor and around a corner to a small room in which grieving families could meet with the hospital’s chaplain. Dixie found it empty now and led Vanessa inside. She shut the door behind them before walking Vanessa to the sofa. She urged the girl to sit, then grabbed a box of Kleenex from the end table. Dixie sat down beside Vanessa and offered her a tissue. They went through four more tissues before Vanessa was able to gain control of her emotions. She blew her nose, then plucked another Kleenex from the box Dixie held in her lap and dabbed at her eyes.
“Thank. . .thank you.”
Without turning her body away from the girl Dixie set the box on the end table behind her. “You’re welcome. You seemed pretty upset. Would you like to talk about it?”
“I. . .I just didn’t know Johnny. . .that he was so sick.”
“He’s very sick.”
“I didn’t know dog bites could do that to a person,” Vanessa confessed in a quiet voice as she tossed all but her freshest Kleenex into the garbage can on the other side of the small sofa.
“Animal bites carry a lot of germs. Although Johnny’s wounds were cleaned at the scene by Roy, and have been cleaned here each day since he was brought in, he’s picked up an infection from them. Or so Doctor Brackett believes is a strong possibility. Another cause for his fever could be the rabies vaccinations he’s getting.”
“He. . .he has to have those for a lot of days, right? I remember learning that in health class.”
The girl’s dark blue eyes widened. “Sixteen?”
“But. . .but if they’re making him so sick how can he go through them for sixteen days?”
“He has no choice, Vanessa. The dogs were never found, therefore we don’t know if they were rabid or not. Without preventative medicine he’ll die.”
The girl dropped her eyes to her lap. “He. . .he looks like he might die anyway,” she whispered.
Dixie wasn’t going to lie to the teenager. She had a feeling enough lies had been told already.
“You’re right. Johnny could die. Not only was he badly injured by those dogs, and now has the additional stress on his system of the infection and the side effects the rabies vaccinations bring, but he’s also been very upset ever since the mine cave-in. He’s lost weight and he doesn’t sleep well. The human body can only take so much stress before it finally begins to break down. That’s one reason Doctor Brackett thinks Johnny is so sick right now.”
“Because. . .because he’s been worried. . .worried about the trial?”
“Yes, because he’s been worried about the trial.”
Dixie could see tears fall from the girl’s face to her lap. She reached out a hand and ran it over Vanessa’s hair.
“I’ve known John Gage a long time, sweetie. Over nine years now. He’s a good friend of mine, and I hate to see what this is doing to him. He’s a good friend to a lot of people and they all hate seeing what this is doing to him.”
Vanessa slowly brought her head up. “That’s why Roy got so mad at me, huh?”
“Yes, that’s why Roy got so mad at you. Johnny’s his closest friend. What Johnny is going through right now hurts Roy in ways even I can’t imagine.”
The girl twisted her Kleenex with her fingers, then took a deep shaky breath.
“Dixie, I. . .sometimes when a person tells a lie it just gets bigger and bigger without that person intending for that to happen.”
“And did you tell a lie that just got bigger and bigger?”
Vanessa hesitated, then nodded her head.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“I. . .I need to tell somebody. Somebody who can help me figure out what to do now.”
“Only you can decide if I’m that somebody, Vanessa, but I’m here if you’d like to talk.”
Vanessa thought a long moment. Maybe the Lord had sent Dixie to her just like she’d prayed. After all, Dixie had been so nice to her when she’d been brought in after the mine cave-in. Even after Vanessa had said Johnny raped her Dixie was still nice to her despite the fact that Johnny was Dixie’s friend. Yet Dixie wasn’t someone she knew well, which meant Vanessa wouldn’t be judged by the nurse in the same way her mother, or pastor, or teachers might judge her.
“I. . .do you have time?”
“I have all the time in the world, sweetheart.”
Vanessa took a deep breath. Once she made this confession there was no turning back. She thought about the weeks that preceded this moment and knew, no matter how much trouble she might get in, she couldn’t go on living like she had been.
“Johnny. . .Johnny didn’t rape me, Dixie. He didn’t hurt me at all. He was nothing but a gentleman the entire time we were in that mine together. He was sweet, and kind, and a little goofy. . .but in a fun sort of way.”
Dixie smiled. “Yes, he can be a bit goofy in a fun sort of way. Every time he walks in this hospital we know we’re going to be laughing by the time he leaves. That’s part of what makes him so special to us.”
“And. . .and once, he even got stern with me. But I deserved it.”
“What did you do?”
“I. . .I tried to make a pass at him.”
“Oh, I see,” Dixie nodded. “So when he refused your advances you were so angry with him that you decided to tell people he’d raped you?”
“No. No, that wasn’t the reason.”
“Then what was the reason, Vanessa?”
“I. . .my parents don’t know I was dating. . .dating a boy from school. No one knows. We were seeing each other on the sly because I’m not allowed to date until I’m eighteen. I. . .I thought I was pregnant. We. . .me and Tommy. . .we used to go to the mine when we wanted to be alone.”
“And you were there with Tommy. . . your
boyfriend, the day the mine caved-in, weren’t you?” Dixie surmised. “You had
sex with him there.”
Vanessa felt her face turning red, but she was well aware that Doctor Brackett’s exam had concluded she’d had sex with someone the afternoon of February 26th.
“Yes. I. . .after I told Tommy I was pregnant he slapped me around, then jumped up and ran out. That’s when the cave-in happened.”
“And that’s why you told your parents and the police Johnny raped you,” Dixie guessed. “So you could say the baby was his when you finally revealed you were pregnant.”
Vanessa looked down at her hands and nodded. When she could speak again she said, “Only I’m not. Pregnant that is. I got my period a few weeks ago.”
Dixie heard the squeaky wheels of a supply cart roll past the door as the silence between she and Vanessa lengthened. The nurse gently grasped the girl’s chin and forced Vanessa’s head up until the teenager made eye contact with her.
“Vanessa, what you did. . .the lies you told, almost ruined John Gage’s life. He could have gone to prison. Do realize that means he would have lost everything he’s worked for? His home. His job. His reputation. Do you have any idea what that would have done to him? Do you have any idea what you’ve put that man through these past seven weeks?”
Vanessa started crying again, but Dixie had little sympathy for the girl’s tears. Yes, she felt sorry for any teenager who felt she had no one to turn to with her problems, but that didn’t negate that Dixie had seen first hand what Vanessa’s actions had done to a man she loved like a little brother.
“I. . .I just didn’t know what to do, Dixie. My parents. . .they’re real strict and I was so scared.”
Dixie never had been able to stay angry for long. She couldn’t help but wrap her arms around the girl and pull her close.
“I know, sweetie. I know. Sometimes it’s so difficult to be fifteen.”
“I. . .I want to make it right with Johnny. I’ll do whatever I have
to. . .anything I have to in order to make things right.”
“That sounds like a good place to start. But you realize that means you’re going to have to tell a lot of people the truth.”
“I know,” Vanessa said as she moved from Dixie’s embrace so she could make eye contact with the nurse.
“And it won’t be easy.”
“I know that, too. But. . .but it can’t be worse than what I’ve already gone through. At least. . .at least not much. Johnny. . .Johnny was willing to die trying to save my brother. I don’t know if he knew Nick was my brother but--”
“He told Roy that he did.”
Vanessa used the Kleenex she still carried to wipe at the fresh tears trickling down her cheeks.
“I thought he might have. But. . .but it really doesn’t matter whether he did or not. I just knew when I saw what he was doing for Nick, that I had to do something for him. And telling the truth is the best way I can say thank you.”
“I would have to agree with that.”
“So can I see him? Johnny? I can see him and tell him now?”
“Honey, Johnny’s too sick for you to see him now. I think seeing you. . .if he even recognizes you, will upset him. But how about if I tell him?”
“Yes, I will.” Dixie straightened the girl’s hair, gently extracting the strands that were glued to her face by the water from her tears. “Now how did you get here?”
“Rode the bus.”
“Where do your parents think you are?”
“At. . .at cheerleading practice.”
“Maybe you should call them to come pick you up.”
“No, I can--” Vanessa paused, then slowly nodded. “You’re right. I have to stop the lies now. I’ll call them.”
“You can use the phone right there on that end table behind you. But before you do that would you like to speak to the hospital chaplain? She could even wait in here with you until your parents arrive.”
“Deborah Powell. Reverend Powell. Would you like me to have her paged?”
“Yes. Yes, I’d like that. Thank you.”
Dixie stood to do as Vanessa requested. She paused with one hand on the doorknob when she was summoned from behind.
The nurse turned around. “Yes?”
“Is she. . .is Reverend Powell as nice as you?”
Dixie smiled. “Even nicer.”
Vanessa smiled briefly in return as she wiped her eyes one last time.
“Please. . .please tell Johnny how sorry I am.”
“I will. And maybe at later date you can tell him yourself.”
The teenager nodded, knowing she had a lot of difficult bridges to cross before this experience was behind her.
Dixie waited with Vanessa until Reverend Powell arrived, then sat with the girl while she told her story once more. When Dixie could tell that Vanessa felt comfortable with the chaplain she gave the girl’s hand a final squeeze before slipping from the room.
The nurse was thankful she heard no shouts coming from Johnny’s room as she entered. She hoped that meant he was doing better than he had been an hour earlier.
Johnny was lying under a cooling blanket with Roy seated in a chair by his side. Afternoon visiting hours were over and evening visiting hours had yet to start, but Doctor Brackett had told the nursing staff Roy could come and go as he pleased.
Roy looked up when Dixie entered the room. He gave her silent wave, which she assumed meant Johnny was finally asleep. He appeared to be, but he must have heard the slight squeak her rubber soled shoes made on the floor tiles because he opened his eyes as she approached his bed.
“Hey, good looking.”
“Hey, Dix,” the paramedic greeted in a raspy voice.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like a Popsicle.”
“Getting a little chilly inside that blanket, huh?”
“A bit. I told Roy I want it off, but he said I had to wait for Brackett to come back. I told him you could make the decision.”
“Now that’s what I like. A man that knows who’s in charge around here.”
“Always, Dix. Always.”
“Let me take your temp and then we’ll see.”
Johnny allowed Dixie to slip a thermometer under his tongue. His eyes closed involuntarily as he waited for the reading. The next thing he knew Roy was taking the cooling blanket off and Dixie was replacing it with two light weight sheets.
“Okay, huh?” Johnny asked the woman as Roy left the room to return the cooling
blanket to a nurse.
One hundred on the dot. For that
we’ll let you give up that Popsicle feeling,” Dixie teased. “So other than being a little warm how are
Dixie raised an eyebrow that told the paramedic she knew better. “Should we try that again?”
Johnny tossed the woman a slight smile. His voice didn’t have much strength to it, and his throat was sore from the shouting he’d done earlier.
“Okay, okay, you win. I feel lousy. I’ve got a headache, every muscle in my body hurts, and I used to think shots in the butt were a pain, but I’d gladly trade them for shots in the stomach.”
“The headache and muscle aches are side effects of the rabies vaccinations.”
“Yeah, Brackett told me.” Johnny allowed Dixie to straighten the pillow beneath his cast that had gotten knocked askew when his delirium was at its worst. “You know, Dix, more and more lately I feel like someone’s entered me in a contest.”
“You know, a contest. A ‘trap Johnny, make him fall, and bite him,’ contest. I suppose it sounds weird, but if you’d been through what I have in the past seven weeks you’d understand.”
“I’m sure I would.”
Dixie turned as Roy reentered the room. She motioned him over to be reseated in the chair he’d vacated. She gingerly sat down on the edge of Johnny’s bed, making certain she didn’t bump him as she did so. She reached out and rested a hand on his right forearm, not liking the prominence of the bones she could feel there.
“You’ve got to start eating before a gust of wind carries you away.”
“Can’t say food’s been much on my mind lately.”
“Well, if you want Kel to release you from this hospital you’d better plan to put on ten pounds mighty quick, Mister Gage.”
Johnny merely nodded, the familiar feeling of depression coming back to haunt him. He almost wished for the terror of delirium over this. At least when he was at his sickest he forgot about his troubles.
“You had a visitor a little while ago.”
Roy shook his head. “Dix, I don’t think now is the time to--”
“No, Roy,” the woman assured, “it’s okay.”
“What’s okay?” Johnny looked from one friend to the other. “What are you two talking about?”
“Vanessa Schaffer was here, Johnny.”
“She came to tell you something, but you were in no condition to see her.” Dixie tossed a smile at Roy. “Not to mention the fact that your partner kicked her out.”
Johnny’s eyes traveled to Roy. “You did?”
“I wouldn’t exactly put it that way. I told her to get out, which is a bit different from kicking her out. Though that was coming next.”
“So what’d she want?” Johnny asked.
“Probably to cause more trouble,” Roy said.
“No,” Dixie shook her head. “No, that wasn’t it at all. Actually, she came to right a wrong.”
“Right a wrong?”
“Yes. She came to tell you that she lied, Johnny, when she said you raped her. She came to say she was sorry.”
Johnny was too stunned to say anything, so Roy asked his partner’s questions for him.
“Where is she now?”
“Talking to the chaplain while she waits for her parents to come pick her up.”
“But there’s got to be more to it than that. She’s got to tell the police, and Captain Stanley, and Chief McConnikee, and Judge--”
“She will, Roy. Don’t worry, she will.” Dixie turned to look at Johnny. He’d sunk into his pillows, pale and obviously shocked by the news.
“Johnny? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. . .just. . .just surprised. I didn’t think she’d ever tell it like it really happened.”
“Well, she finally did. And after you’ve eaten supper and had a good night’s sleep I’ll fill you in on the whole story. Suffice to say she’s not a bad girl by nature, just a troubled girl who felt she had no one to turn to in a time of need.”
“That doesn’t excuse what she put Johnny through,” Roy said.
“No, it doesn’t. And I think she knows that.”
The nurse and paramedic looked at the ill man in the bed when he requested quietly, “Can
we. . .can we not talk about this? I really. . .I’ve been living with it for so long now I really. . .I really just don’t wanna have to talk about it anymore. Ever.”
Dixie rubbed her hand up and down Johnny’s forearm. “No, we don’t have to talk about it if you’d prefer not to.”
“That’s what I’d prefer.”
Dixie remained seated on the side of Johnny’s bed until she could tell he’d fallen asleep. Without disturbing him she stood and left the room. She wasn’t surprised when Roy made no move to follow her. She knew he’d stay to make sure Johnny ate his supper, and probably several hours after that until Johnny was settled for the night. When she thought back to Johnny’s words, That’s what I’d prefer, Dixie realized he had a lot of healing to do in both body and in spirit.
As the nurse passed the room where she’d been with Vanessa and saw the girl crying in Deborah Powell’s arms while Mr. and Mrs. Schaffer looked sternly on, Dixie knew another spirit needed a lot of healing, too.
John Gage spent twenty-one days at Rampart as a result of the dogs’ attack. If he hadn’t been running a persistent fever throughout the cycle of rabies vaccinations Kelly Brackett might have let him go home earlier. Arrangements could have been made for a home health care nurse to administer the shots and redress his wounds on a daily basis, not to mention Roy and Dixie had volunteered to take turns doing those jobs. But Brackett decided it was best to keep Johnny until the vaccinations came to end, though by the time day nineteen rolled around Dixie told Kelly they’d better let Johnny out soon or they’d have to tie him to the bed to keep him there.
Doctor Brackett smiled at this pronouncement as he stopped by the nurse’s station for a cup of coffee.
“Good? Kel, do you realize he’s driving everyone nuts with all that John Gage energy he’s just dying to release?”
“Good,” Brackett said again with a firm nod.
“What do you mean, good?”
“If he’s driving everyone nuts, and he’s got energy that needs releasing, then that means he’s healing both physically and emotionally. I’d rather have him driving us to distraction than staring at the wall and shrugging his shoulders in response to every question he’s asked.”
“I see your point,” Dixie nodded. “I’d rather be chasing him back to his room, and chasing nurses out of his room, than see him like he was prior to Vanessa’s confession. He really had me worried, Kel. Downright scared as a matter of fact. I had no idea how he was going to take it if he had been sentenced to prison.”
“Me either, Dix. And since I was going to have to testify I’m just thankful things never went that far.”
Dixie was thankful, too, as were all of Johnny’s friends.
By the time Johnny was released he hadn’t quite gained back the ten pounds Kelly Brackett wanted him to, but he had gained back eight thanks to the food Joanne DeSoto sneaked into him. Actually, the food wasn’t brought in on the sly at all, though Johnny didn’t know that. Doctor Brackett thought it was an excellent suggestion when Joanne talked to him about it. Making a game out of it just seemed to be the right thing to do in order to inspire the ill paramedic to eat what he thought were contraband items.
Johnny would have never imagined dog bites would leave a person so sore, or so bruised. When he’d told Roy he felt like a chew toy he wasn’t kidding. But being back home on his ranch quickly brought renewed vigor and strength to the injured paramedic. He was thankful for the help given him by a neighbor down the road when it came to taking care of his animals, but as much as possible Johnny did whatever he could for himself just to have a chance to be out in the sunshine. After all, he’d spent enough days in bed during the past two months as far as he was concerned.
Johnny’s cast was removed two weeks after he was released from Rampart. His fourth and final physical therapy session had just ended, and in another seven days he’d be able to return to work.
Johnny entered his house through the side door just like he did whenever he came in from doing chores. It felt good to be able to move without some part of his body hurting. Even the stomach muscles that had been made sensitive by the painful rabies shots were finally healing from the abuse they took.
John stripped his clothes off and put them in the hamper. He grabbed a clean shirt, jeans, socks, and pair of boxer shorts from the laundry room cabinet and walked around the corner to the bathroom. He took a quick shower, toweled off and got dressed.
Johnny glanced at the calendar hanging in the kitchen as he passed. Friday’s date was circled, but he never had put a notation as to why. Nonetheless; that didn’t mean he’d forgotten that was the day Vanessa Schaffer was due to appear before Judge Clayborne. Whether Johnny was there or not was up to him. Or so the department’s lawyers had informed him. The paramedic had yet to make a decision in that regard.
Johnny sat at his dining room table a long time that evening staring out the patio doors that looked over the back of his property. When he finally stood it was only to walk as far as a kitchen drawer where he pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. He returned to the table, sat down, and began to write.
The courtroom was packed with news reporters and spectators. Every moment of this story had been a big one from the initial cave-in and the girl’s accusations following it, to John Gage being pushed from the top of a roller coaster, to the paramedic risking his life to save that of his accuser’s little brother.
The Station 51 A-shift was off-duty that day. Just like the first time Johnny had appeared in court, they all showed up in support of him. Chief McConnikee was present, too, as was Joanne DeSoto, Dixie McCall and Kelly Brackett. They’d shared in John Gage’s nightmare since the beginning, they wanted to be there when it finally came to an end for him.
Chet Kelly kept twisting around in his seat and craning his neck toward the doors.
“Where is he?” Chet asked Roy for the fifth time.
“I don’t know. I already told you he doesn’t have to be here if he doesn’t want to be.”
“But didn’t he tell you if he was going to be or not?”
“No. He won’t talk about it. Not any of it.”
Chet raised an eyebrow. “Is that healthy?”
Roy had to resist the urge to laugh at both Chet’s concern for his favorite pigeon, and his pop psychology.
“I don’t know if it’s healthy or not to tell you the truth. But I think after everything Johnny’s been through he has the right to decide for himself how to put this in the past.”
“Yeah,” Chet conceded, “I suppose that’s true. Still, I thought he’d want to see what happens today.”
Roy merely shrugged his shoulders. He had thought the same thing, but like he’d told Chet, Johnny didn’t want to talk about Vanessa Schaffer so Roy was forced to respect that fact.
The proceedings moved along quickly once the judge took the bench. He read a stack of papers in front of him that Roy assumed held, among other things, Vanessa’s retraction of her original statement. When Judge Clayborne was finished he took off his reading glasses and stared down at the girl seated at a table with the lawyer her parents had hired.
“Young lady, please stand.”
Vanessa swallowed hard and pushed her chair out. Dixie felt so sorry for the teenager. Even from a distance she could tell the girl was shaking.
“Now, I gather you have something to tell me.”
“Yes. . .yes, Your Honor.”
“And that something would be?”
“That. . .that I lied when I said John Gage raped him. He. . .he didn’t.”
“So Mr. Gage didn’t act in any other way but professional while you and he were trapped in the Clariton Mine on the afternoon of February 26th, am I correct?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
Vanessa forced herself to maintain eye contact with the imposing man as he stared sternly down upon her for what seemed like hours before speaking again. His deep voice rumbled through the courtroom.
“Do you realize, Miss Schaffer, what your lies could have caused to happen to Mr. Gage?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“You are well aware that your falsehoods could have sent him to prison for the next twenty years of his life?”
It was getting harder for Vanessa to talk now.
“Ye. . .Yes, Your Honor.”
“Do you know what type of a physical and emotional toll your lies have taken on Mr. Gage?”
“Yes. . .yes, Your Honor.
“Miss Schaffer, I will give you more respect in this courtroom today, this courtroom that is filled with news reporters, your family, your friends, and spectators, than you gave Mr. Gage when we all first met by not going into the details that caused you to lie in the first place. Nor by asking you to go into them. And the only reason I’m doing that, young lady, is because of a letter I received yesterday.”
The judge picked up a piece of white lined paper that was plain and unassuming, like the kind that would come out of a writing tablet bought at the local K-mart. He slipped his glasses over his ears once again.
“This letter reads in part; ‘Although Vanessa Schaffer’s accusations caused me a lot of worry and sleepless nights, I ask you to remember that she’s only fifteen years old, and that sometimes fifteen year olds make foolish mistakes and decisions. How she pays for those mistakes is ultimately up to you, Sir, but it would be my wish that the court shows her leniency given her age.’ ”
The judge looked over the top of his glasses at the girl standing before him “This letter,” the man held up the white paper for emphasis, “was signed by John Gage.”
Vanessa bowed her head as her tears began to fall.
“As you just heard, Miss Schaffer, John Gage asked me to be lenient with you. Given the fact that Mr. Gage doesn’t even remember his encounter with you, and therefore has no frame of reference when it comes to Vanessa Schaffer other than knowing she’s the girl who made a grossly false accusation against him that could have sent him to prison, I think that’s pretty generous of him, don’t you?”
Vanessa’s answer was barely pitched above a whisper.
“Yes. . .yes, Your Honor.”
Vanessa jumped when the judge banged his gavel.
“Vanessa Christine Schaffer, this court sentences you to one year of probation. During that time you will perform one hundred hours of community service as directed by this court. You and your parents will also attend family counseling. And not family counseling through your church, but through an independent agency recommended by your probation officer. You are not now, or ever, to have contact of any kind with John Gage, is that understood?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
The judge looked over the head of the crying girl and focused on the faces of the reporters who took up the first three rows on the left hand side of the room.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, I strongly suggest I see headlines in your newspapers tomorrow morning that clearly state all charges against Mr. Gage have been dropped. I also suggest this be the lead story on the six o’clock news tonight for those of you who work in that segment of the industry. You made sure everyone in Los Angeles County knew about the allegations against John Gage. Now I want you to make sure everyone knows those allegations have been retracted, and knows the reason why.”
No one who knew the formidable Judge Clayborne was foolish enough to cross him. Heads bobbed up and down in agreement to his words and smatterings of “Yes, Your Honor,” were heard.
The gavel came down again.
“This courtroom is adjourned.”
Conversations were subdued as the spectators filed out of the room. Roy couldn’t help but think how different this was from the day he and Chet had hustled Johnny to the parking lot with reporters trailing them all the way shouting questions. Thanks in large part today to John Gage, Vanessa Schaffer didn’t have to undergo that particular humiliation.
Roy and Joanne stood in the vast foyer outside the courtroom talking to Kelly Brackett and Dixie as people passed them. Out of the corner of his eye, Roy saw Vanessa hesitantly approaching them. He probably would have turned his back on her if it hadn’t been for Dixie. The nurse held out a hand to the girl, saying softly, “Hi, Vanessa.”
“Hi, Dixie.” The teenager nodded to Kelly Brackett and Roy, whispering, “Hi.”
Kelly gave the girl a tight lipped smile and a “Hello, Vanessa,” in return. Roy got the impression Brackett didn’t feel any more sympathy toward this young lady than he did. Roy himself wouldn’t have responded to the greeting at all if Joanne hadn’t poked him in the ribs with her elbow.
“Hi,” Roy said, while shooting a small look of displeasure at his wife. When she poked him again he introduced, “This is my wife Joanne.”
“Hi, Vanessa,” Joanne greeted with a smile.
Joanne’s words made Vanessa start to cry again. She didn’t deserve to be treated so kindly by these people who were Johnny’s friends.
Dixie squeezed the teenager’s hand. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
“Yes. . .I’ll be. . .I’ll be all right.”
Dixie looked over the girl’s head to see her parents standing a few feet away with Deborah Powell and another young woman Dixie didn’t know.
“How are things going at home?”
“Okay. It was. . .it was pretty rough the first few days. After I told my parents everything. . .the stuff about me and Tommy, and then why I lied about Johnny. . .well, I upset them a lot. A whole lot. But Reverend Powell is really helping all of us. And Miss Lindamon, she’s standing over there with my parents and is my cheerleading advisor and guidance counselor, she’s been a big help, too. Whenever I need a shoulder to cry on she’s there for me.”
“That’s good. Everyone has to have someone to turn to when they need a shoulder to cry on.”
“I know. Or at least I found that out. Maybe if I’d known that before I wouldn’t have gotten myself into this mess.”
“Maybe not. But that’s what growing up is all about, Vanessa. Learning. Take it from me, learning is a life long lesson.”
“That’s what Reverend Powell keeps telling me. She knows a family counselor she wants us to see. She’s going to talk to my probation officer about it.”
I think family counseling will be a big help, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I hope a counselor can help my parents realize they have to be willing to listen to what I have to say. They don’t have to agree with it, or approve of it, but they have to listen. Even if it’s hard for them to change right now, I’m hoping it will make things easier for Nicky when he gets to be my age.”
“If you’re all willing to work together than maybe those changes you’re hoping for can come about.”
“I pray for that every night, Dixie. I really do. And speaking of prayer, I came over here to say thank you.”
“For being willing to listen to me that day in the hospital when I came to see Johnny. I had prayed and prayed and prayed for God to send someone I could talk to. From the first time I said Johnny raped me, I wanted to take it back. I wanted to tell someone the truth, but I just didn’t know who to turn to. So I kept asking God to send someone to me for just that reason, and He sent you, Dixie. I know Johnny’s a good friend of yours, but you never got mad at me, or yelled at me, or told me I was a bad person, you just listened and helped me figure out how to do the right thing. I can never repay you for that.”
“Vanessa, the fact that you came forward and told the truth is repayment enough for me.”
Vanessa moved into the nurse’s open arms and they shared a long hug. When they finally parted the girl turned to Roy.
“Would you please tell Johnny how sorry I am, and also tell him thank you for the letter he wrote to Judge Clayborne? I know he didn’t have to do that.”
“No, he didn’t,” Roy agreed. “And yes, I’ll tell him.”
The girl told the group good-bye, then walked over to join her parents. Dixie was happy to see the way Carolyn Schaffer slipped one hand into her daughter’s. She was also happy when Paul Schaffer, whom she’d never seen crack a smile yet in all her encounters with him, stopped by and asked Roy to tell Johnny thank you for all he’d done for both Schaffer children.
“At some point in the future I’d like to thank Mr. Gage personally, but I realize right now it would be best for all concerned if my family has no contact with him. So please tell him my wife and I appreciate everything he’s done for our children, and that we’re extremely sorry regarding what Vanessa put him through.”
Like he’d said to Vanessa, Roy responded with, “I’ll tell him.”
“And let him know we’ll keep him in our prayers.”
At Roy’s puzzled look the man added, “The job you do is very dangerous. Carolyn and I pray for many people we encounter on a daily basis. We’ll make sure we add Mr. Gage to that list and each night ask the Lord to watch over him and keep him safe.”
“Oh. Oh, well I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.”
After the man walked away Johnny’s friends couldn’t help but smile. Kelly Brackett shook his head and said, “If there’s anyone who needs a few people praying for his safety it’s Johnny Gage. So, Dix, do you think this means we’ll see less of our accident prone paramedic in the coming months?”
“Well, you know what I always say. The Lord watches over fools, little children, and Johnny Gage. So with a little extra help from the Schaffers, that just might be a strong possibility.”
The group headed down the stairs and out to the parking lot. They parted ways when they came to their vehicles. Dixie and Kelly had to get back to the hospital. Roy was going to drop Joanne off at home, then head out to Johnny’s ranch. He had a message to give his partner from a very grateful fifteen year old girl. For some reason Roy didn’t think this ‘thank you’ should wait.
It was April 29th, and Jennifer DeSoto was turning eight years old. She had to stop herself from running to the front door when the bell rang. After all, it wouldn’t do for the hostess of a tea party to act so childish.
Jennifer straightened her dress before she opened the door. It was baby blue with tiny white flowers and had a big ruffle on the bottom that fell to her shins. A white satin ribbon tied in the back at her waist, and she wore white tights and her best white Sunday patent leather shoes. Her long hair was minus a ponytail today, though her mother had tied a white ribbon in a thick strand of it in the back just as Jennifer directed.
The girl smiled as she greeted her visitor. He was dressed just like she’d asked him to all those weeks earlier. He had on his black suit, and a white shirt, and the tie that was striped in black and gray. Jennifer held out her full dress and curtsied.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Gage. I’m so happy you could come.”
Johnny gave a short bow at the waist. “Good afternoon, Miss DeSoto. I’m pleased to be here.”
“You look so handsome today, Sir.”
“And you’re a vision of beauty if I may say so, Miss.”
The paramedic heard snickers coming from the kitchen and immediately identified them as belonging to Roy and Chris.
“I see your court jesters are in attendance also. I do hope they’ll do an excellent job of serving us. If not, I would suggest they spend a week in the dungeon on bread and water.”
“That’s what I’d suggest, too, only Mom had a better suggestion. If they don’t behave they have to fold laundry and then clean the garage.”
“Ah, an appropriate punishment if I ever heard of one.”
Jennifer took Johnny’s hand and led him to her bedroom.
“Come on, Uncle Johnny, the tea party’s ready to start.”
Without ever actually seeing the rest of the DeSoto family Johnny was led to Jennifer’s bedroom. The interior spoke of nothing but little girl with its pale pink walls, white lace curtains on the window, shag carpeting with loops of white and three shades of pink, a pink ruffled bedspread, and stuffed animals and dolls on every shelf.
Joanne DeSoto kept nothing less than a neat, clean home. This extended to how she expected her children’s bedrooms to look. Not a toy was out of place, and the child’s table set up in the middle of the room held a neatly placed tea service.
“Please, Mr. Gage, have a seat next to Gretchen.”
Gretchen was Jennifer’s favorite doll, and had been give to her by Johnny the previous Christmas.
“I hope you don’t mind that Gretchen asked Mr. Peabody to come along. His manners are lacking, but he’s really very nice.”
“No, I don’t mind,” Johnny said of the teddy bear wearing a tuxedo and round spectacles who sat across from Gretchen.
The paramedic once again heard snickers as he tried to squeeze his six foot one inch body into a chair made for an eight year old girl. Before he could suggest that the court jesters find something to do in order to make themselves useful, he heard Joanne call, “Roy! Christopher! If you can’t leave Jennifer and Johnny alone I have plenty of laundry that needs folding!”
Johnny heard two sets of feet scramble away from the door. Ever the polite hostess, Jennifer ignored the goings on in the hallway as she poured tea for her guest. Johnny sent up a prayer of thanks to Joanne when the tea proved to be apple juice. He liked coffee, he loved milk, just about any type of soda or juice was fine with him, but tea was definitely not a drink his taste buds approved of. The crumpets Chet had warned him about turned out to be homemade muffins in flavors that ranged from blueberry, to banana, to chocolate chip. All in all, other than the tiny chair, Johnny didn’t think this tea party was so bad.
When Jennifer sat down across from him and started eating Johnny looked toward the doorway with confusion, as though he expected someone else to join them.
“Where are the other girls? Your friends?”
“I uninvited them.”
“You uninvited them?”
“Yep. At first, when that girl Vanessa told those bad lies about you, my friends believed what she said even though I told them you’d never hurt anyone. So ‘cause they believed her they wouldn’t come to the party if you were here. Then, when Vanessa said she really did lie and that you didn’t hurt her, my friends said they could come to my tea party even if you were here. Well, that just made me so mad. I told them right then and there that I don’t have any use for fair weather friends, and that my Uncle Johnny is always welcome to come to all my parties, but they can just stay home.”
Johnny just shook his head in amazement at the loyalty of this little girl. He turned sideways in his chair and held his arms out to her.
“Come here, you.”
Jennifer stood up and ran into Johnny’s arms. She hugged him as hard as she could and whispered, “I’m so glad Vanessa told the truth, Uncle Johnny. I hate it when you’re sad and when Daddy’s worried.”
“I’m glad she told the truth, too, Jenny Bean.”
“And you know what else?”
“I knew she was a big fat liar all along. I never doubted it for even a single second.”
Johnny gave the child a long, gentle squeeze. “That because you’re my best girl, Peanut.”
“Forever and ever, Walnut,” Jennifer teased in return. “Forever and ever.”
Though Johnny knew that someday Jennifer DeSoto would be some deserving young man’s ‘best girl,’ he also knew the affection they held for one another would last long after Jenny was too old for tea parties, too old to be picked up and swung around in circles, and too old to come running into his arms with glee each time she saw him. Jennifer’s devotion and love, always given so freely, helped heal a portion of the scars John Gage carried around inside himself as a result of his encounter with Vanessa Schaffer.
Two hours later Johnny joined Roy on the deck. He tossed his suit coat and tie over a chair, then rolled up his shirtsleeves. He reached for the cold beer Roy handed him as he sat down next to his partner.
“Thanks,” Johnny said as he took a long swig.
“You’re welcome. After two hours at that little table I see you still managed to get to your feet.”
“One way or another, Roy, I always manage to get to my feet.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Roy grinned, thinking of all the times he was certain his partner had suffered a career ending injury, only to have Johnny return to full health. “I hope Mr. Peabody minded his manners.”
“He tried to goose me once, but I told him to keep his paws to himself.”
Roy laughed. It was good to have the old John Gage back, as opposed to the man who had taken his place during those long weeks of the ‘Schaffer Ordeal’ as Roy had come to think of it.
“Oh, hey, I’ve got something for you,” Roy said, as he reached around to the pile of presents on the picnic table. Pizza and cake would be served out here in a little while, then Jennifer would open the birthday gifts from her parents, brother, and Uncle Johnny.
“Yeah.” Roy handed his partner a small box that had been wrapped in blue tissue paper. “Open it.”
“What is it?”
“Just open it.”
Johnny unwrapped the paper, then pulled the lid off the square box. As he lifted out its contents Roy said, “I thought you might like those back.”
Johnny nodded as he looked through the pictures of Roy’s children that had been hanging in his locker. Two new pictures had been added that were taken that afternoon with Roy’s Polaroid Camera. The first one was of Johnny and Jennifer sitting at her table drinking their ‘tea’, the second one was of Johnny playfully chasing Chris from the room when the ten year old had come in to tease Johnny by asking if it was time to play dress-up yet.
“Thanks, Roy,” Johnny said as he leafed through the pictures a second time before carefully returning them to the box. “These mean a lot to me.”
“I know they do.”
“And. . .uh. . .thanks for standing by me through all this. I know there must have been people who gave you grief, just like Jenny’s friends gave her grief.”
Roy raised an eyebrow. “Where do you think my daughter learned the expression ‘fair weather friends’ from? ”
“Let’s just say she overheard her father say it a time or two when it was suggested to him that perhaps he shouldn’t be seen with John Gage.”
Johnny nodded. Though Roy had never indicated to Johnny that he or Joanne were under pressure to drop their association with him, the paramedic could easily imagine such pressures had existed.
“I hope both you and Joanne know how much I appreciate your loyalty. I know you guys went through a lot on my behalf.”
“No more than you would have gone through for us, Johnny.”
Johnny had no reply to offer his friend because Roy’s words were true. He couldn’t imagine there was much of anything he wasn’t willing to go through for Roy in the name of friendship.
Johnny placed the box back on the picnic table. He returned to his chair, stretched his legs out in front of him, crossed them at the ankles, took a sip of beer, then said, “There’s just one more thing I wanna tell you, partner.”
“And what’s that?”
“The next time we hear a damsel in distress
calling for help?”
“You’re the knight in shining armor, and a Station 51 helmet, who gets to rescue her.”
Roy threw his head back and laughed at his friend. The laughter drifted into the kitchen where Joanne and the kids were getting dinner together. Chris looked up from his job of sprinkling mozzarella cheese on the pizza.
“It’s good to hear Dad laugh again.”
“Yes, Chris, it is.”
As Johnny’s laughter drifted into the kitchen next Jennifer added, “It’s good to hear Uncle Johnny laugh again, too. It’s good to hear both Uncle Johnny and Daddy laughing.”
Joanne pulled her daughter into a hug while resting her chin atop her son’s head. She thought about how one lie had grown to the point that it had almost destroyed Johnny Gage, and shuddered to think of what might have happened had Vanessa Schaffer not sought out Dixie McCall.
Joanne looked down into her children’s eyes. She smiled when she said, “You’re right, Jen. It is good to hear them laughing. And you know what else?”
“That’s the truth. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
Jennifer nodded as she snuggled deeper into her mother’s shoulder. Sometimes the truth might hurt, but it was a good thing. It was always a good thing.
As Jennifer heard her father’s best friend laugh again, she knew Uncle Johnny felt the same way.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~