Rapid Descent

 

By Jane and Whisper

 

It didn’t help that the day was wet and dark, with a wind chill that sent the perceived temperatures into the 40’s. The drive to the station had been dismal. The skies had opened, dropping more than half an inch of rain between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, just in time to drench the men of the A shift as they each made a mad dash from their cars to the station.

 

With hair and shoes still wet from the downpour, the crew grumbled through roll call, complained about the prospect of having to hang hose on such a day, and then headed for the kitchen. Captain Stanley waited until each man had settled at the table before raising the last item on the agenda. He hoped that a cup of hot coffee and a donut would help ease the discontent that he was about to inflict. It didn’t.

 

“Okay, men, listen up. I have one more announcement.” Stanley waited until all of the men were looking at him before continuing. “The county has hired a consultant to look into staff moral and team building.” Immediate groans around him eliminated any hopes the captain had about this going well. “Hey, no comments from the peanut gallery until you hear what I have to say, okay?”

 

“Yeah, Cap. But you know that any announcement that starts with the word ‘consultant’ is gonna be bad,” Chet threw in, ignoring his boss’s request.

 

“Shut up and let the man talk, Chet,” Johnny said. Reaching for a donut, he inadvertently sprayed Chet with water from his still wet mane as his head turned quickly.

 

“Jeez, Gage. Next time dry your hair, or don’t sit next to me after you’ve been out in the rain!”

 

Johnny responded by leaning closer to Chet and shaking his head vigorously in the man’s face.

 

“Hey! Stop that! Cap, did you see that? Are you gonna let him get away with that?”

 

“This coming from the man who amuses himself by finding new ways to get me soaking wet each shift. Can dish it out but you can’t take it, huh Chet?”

 

“That’s enough! Both of you!” Cap frowned at them. “Honestly, you two are worse than my daughter and her friends, and they’re only in junior high! You know, I was going to tell HQ that we didn’t need any team building, but maybe I was wrong.”

 

Both men looked with surprise at the man sitting at the head of the table. Cap never got involved in their squabbles. Chet and Johnny mumbled “sorry, Cap” at the same time, glared at each other, and said nothing more.

 

Captain Stanley waited to see if the argument was really over before he continued.

 

“The consultants recommended that the county participate in a new project designed to promote team work and cohesiveness in fire departments. HQ agreed, but only on a trial basis. We’ve been selected to be their trial.”

 

A new round of groans was issued at this revelation.

 

“Uh, Cap, what exactly do they want us to do?” asked Roy.

 

“I don’t care what anyone says, I refuse to play the chuckle belly game with you guys.” This came from Marco. All eyes shifted in his direction.

 

Gage spoke around the donut in his mouth. “Yeah, what he said. I don’t know what the chuckle belly game is, but I’m sure not playing it with you guys.”

 

“What, exactly, is a chuckle belly game?” Mike wanted to know.

 

“My cousin had to play it at work. Everyone lies down on the floor on their backs, forming a circle. You lay your head on the next person’s belly. Then everyone laughs. It’s supposed to help you get to know each other.”

 

“I just want to say, right here and now, that I don’t want to know any of you that well,” Chet announced.

 

“Yeah, well there’s nothing in here about chuckles or bellies, thank God,” Cap told his men. “But, if you want to know what is here, I’ll be glad to tell you, if you give me a chance.”

 

Once again the men were silent, so Stanley continued. “On Monday, April 18th the department is flying us to Denver. We’ll drive from there to a small town where we’ll be met by an outfitter who will take us on a 3 day, 2 night whitewater rafting trip. The outfitter will provide the raft, the guide, the tents, and the food. The rest of the supplies are up to us.”

 

“Well, all right!” Johnny grinned from ear to ear. “I’ve always wanted to go whitewater rafting on a big river. This is great! Guys, we’re gonna have a great time!”

 

Mike was less enthused. “Uh, Cap? Do you know how the time thing is going to work? I mean, we’ll miss, what, two shifts? Not that I don’t appreciate the department doing this for us. . I guess. . but Patty was counting on us using our vacation to visit her sister in Oregon this summer. I already promised her we would, and if I back out now, well, I might just as well not go home.”

 

“Says here that the trip is considered work time. We get paid. They’ll have other shifts pull doubles to cover the shifts we miss. We’ll be expected to the do the same when their turn comes.”

 

“Why us?” Roy wanted to know.

 

Stanley shrugged. “They drew straws, I guess. I don’t know. I just know that if it works for us, they’re sending more teams each week until the whole department has gone.”

 

“And if it doesn’t work for us?” Chet asked.

 

“I don’t know. I guess the whole thing gets called off.”

 

“Uh, Cap?” The surprisingly timid voice came from Marco.

 

“You okay there, pal? You look a little green.”

 

“Yeah, I’m okay. What happens if one of us can’t go? Let’s say, like, one of us gets sick at the last minute or has some kind of family emergency or something like that? Will they make us go later with someone else? Will they cancel for everybody? Or will they just skip us?”

 

“I’m not sure, but I guess they’d cancel the whole thing. It is supposed to be about teamwork, right?”

 

“Well, that’s it then. We don’t have to go,” Chet announced.

 

“Why, are you planning on getting sick, Kelly?” Johnny jabbed at his sometimes nemesis.

 

“No, Gage. I just figure that with your track record, we've got about a 50-50 chance that you’ll be injured at the time. If you aren’t, well, we can take care of that.”

 

Johnny growled at Chet, then turned back to the others, once again smiling. “You know, guys, this really is gonna be great! Dwyer went rafting last summer. He was telling me all about it. It’s hard work, but it’s a gas. Riding down a river in the middle of nowhere. You have to stay focused, really pay attention, and he said you really do have to work as a team. It’s wild, but it sounds like a whole lot of fun!”

 

“Well,” Roy joined the conversation again, “I think I agree with Johnny. If the department is willing to fly us to Colorado to spend 3 days rafting on a remote, wild river, who am I to protest? God knows, Joanne won’t object. I can’t get her to even go out on a pond in a canoe. She’ll be thrilled that I’m doing this with someone other than her.”

 

**********

 

“You’re going to do what?”

 

Okay, maybe Joanne would object.

 

Roy wondered why he was surprised at his wife’s reaction. He really should have known.

 

“What are they thinking? Don’t they put you in enough danger just doing your job? Now they’re going to put you on a river in the middle of nowhere with some granola and a compass and say: ‘See you in three days. Hope you all survive.’ I can’t believe you agreed to this! You do know about the paddlers who died in the Grand Canyon last spring, right? And they were experienced at this stuff. What makes you all think you can do this? Is it just because you’re firemen? This is ridiculous!”

 

“Are you finished?” Roy asked his wife.

 

“For the moment. I’m sorry, but honey, this is crazy.”

 

“Look, Jo, I don’t think the department would be send us if they thought it was dangerous. We made some calls. The trip isn’t on the Colorado. It won’t be like the one those people died on last year. And we’ll have a guide. Nothing bad is going to happen. I promise. Okay?”

 

“No, it’s not okay….. But then it’s not okay when you leave for work in the morning either, and I’ve learned to cope with that. So, I guess I’ll cope with this too. But I swear, Roy DeSoto, if you come back with so much as a scratch, you’ll not only have to answer to me, but you’ll have to answer to my mother. Got that?”

 

Now that sent a shiver down the man’s spine. “No scratches, honey, I promise.”

 

***********

 

“Hey, Marco, what’s for lunch?”

 

“Enchiladas.”

 

“Anything I can do to help?”

 

“No! No necesito ninguna ayuda. Puedo cocinar una enchilada sencilla sin ayuda. Yo no soy incompetente!!” The words had been muttered under Marco’s breath. He hadn’t meant them to be heard or understood. Johnny did both, but acknowledged neither.

 

“Oh. . okay . . well . .. “

 

Johnny stared at Marco for a moment, then beat a hasty retreat from the kitchen, as he tried to comprehend the man’s recent strange behavior. Marco had been surly, at best, and his foul mood seemed to be getting worse instead of better. His warm and friendly manner had been replaced by terse answers accompanied by muttered Spanish. Walking over to the Squad, Johnny pulled out the trauma box and set it down next to his partner.

 

“Hey, Roy . . what’s wrong with Marco?”

 

Looking up from the drug box, Roy shrugged before answering. “I don’t know. He has been kind of moody, lately.”

 

“Kind of? Shoot, he’s worse than Chet! I just offered to help with lunch and he lit into me about being able to cook an enchilada without my help.”

 

“Well, maybe we should just give him some space then.”

 

The two men worked silently for only a few minutes before Johnny slammed his hand down on top of the box. Roy glared at his partner as he picked up the bags of saline he’d dropped.

 

“You know something, Roy? It must have something to do with the trip!”

 

“What makes you say that?”

 

“Think about it. He started acting strange a couple weeks ago, right after Cap told us about the whitewater trip.”

 

“Could be just a coincidence, Johnny.”

 

“No, I think you’re right, Gage. He’s probably just upset ‘cause he’s going to be spending three whole days in a raft with you. I know I am.”

 

“Chet!”

 

Kelly leaned back against the engine as he watched the two paramedics.

 

“Well, if it’s not being with you that has him upset, maybe he’s not looking forward to giving up the comforts of home. Guess I could have a talk with him; tell him about this great sporting goods store I found. You should see the gear I picked up last Saturday.”

 

“What kind of gear?” Johnny’s curiosity was peaked. It was no secret that he was an avid camper, and talk of camping equipment was certain to catch his interest.

 

“Oh, just some of the basics, like an insulated pack for my stuff, and a new sleeping bag.”

 

“What kind of bag did you buy, Chet? Canvas or nylon? Three pound or four?”

 

“Huh?” Chet seemed somewhat confused at Johnny’s pointed questions, but he recovered quickly. “I don’t know about all that stuff, Gage. But it’s sure going to be comfortable to sleep in. The salesman assured me that it’s the softest bag they sell.”

 

“Soft? Who cares about soft? You need to be concerned about warmth, and durability.” Johnny shook his head at the stocky fireman, surprised at his obvious disregard for the details.

 

“Hey, Gage, it’s down-filled, okay? I told the guy we were camping in the canyons of Colorado, and this is what he recommended. It’s lightweight, packs small, and works in all temperatures. Said it’s the best bag they carry. That’s all I need, or want, to know!”

 

Johnny covered his mouth as he struggled to control his amusement. He laughed openly when he caught sight of Chet’s expression. “I, uh, don’t suppose you mentioned that we’d be traveling in a whitewater raft between campsites, did ya?”

 

“Why would I? We’re not sleeping on the river, you know. Just wait, Gage, you’ll be wishing you had a sleeping bag like mine, and then we’ll see who’s laughing.”

 

Roy couldn’t help but chuckle as he watched Chet glare at them before stomping off towards the dorm.

 

“Well, Johnny, you may not have figured out Marco’s problem, but I think you just nailed Chet’s.”

 

“One thing’s for sure. Neither of them is worried about what their wives think.”

 

The two men looked up in surprise, as Mike joined the conversation. Johnny couldn’t help but grin at the man’s tone of voice, especially as he caught sight of the hangdog look on the engineer’s face. His smile quickly disappeared when Roy joined in.

 

“I know what you mean. Joanne is not thrilled about this trip. In fact, she’s dead-set against it. Seems that some rafters drowned during a trip down the Colorado last year, and she’s sure that we’ll meet up with some kind of disaster, too.”

 

“Sounds like she and Patty have been comparing notes. Even after I told her that a professional river guide would be going along, she still didn’t like the idea. I’ve spent most of the past week trying to convince her that the trip is safe, and I’m still not sure she really believes it.”

 

“Yeah . . same here. Joanne made me promise that nothing would happen to me. If I come home with as much as a scratch, she’ll have my hide.” Roy added.

 

Johnny stared at the two men in shocked surprise. “You’re not going to let your wives ruin this trip, are you? Come on, guys! This is the chance of a lifetime. The department is not only sending us on an expensive vacation, they’re paying us for our time, to boot! We should be thanking our lucky stars, not sitting here worrying about upsetting the women.”

 

“Hey, Pal, you might not have to worry about upsetting the women, but some of us have to live with them,” a familiar voice chastised.

 

Johnny swallowed hard as Captain Stanley joined the group. “Uh…yeah, well… sorry, Cap.”

 

“No problem, John. Couldn’t help overhearing your discussion, but I have to agree with Mike and Roy. My wife isn’t too thrilled about the trip either. It’s a good thing we leave in a couple days, ‘cause she’s pretty anxious about the whole thing, and I’ll be sort of glad when it’s all over. Guess we’ll just have to be a little extra careful, right men?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Sure, Cap.”

 

The two voices were not joined by a third. Instead, Johnny trudged off toward the dormitory, grumbling sullenly under his breath. “. . spend the whole time worrying about their wives. . spoil the whole trip. ‘nuther good reason to stay single. Hmmm, wonder if Chet knows what happens to down when it gets wet . . .”

 

***********

 

The first run of the day landed the paramedics at Rampart, and as Roy exited the treatment room, he found his partner engaged in an animated conversation with Dixie and Dr. Brackett. Roy didn’t have to hear the words to know what was being discussed. The looks of joyful anticipation and excitement on Johnny’s face meant he could only be talking about one thing, the upcoming rafting trip.

 

“I see Johnny’s been filling you in on the county’s latest brainchild.”

 

“Well now, that sounds less than enthusiastic, Roy,” Brackett pointed out. “I would have guessed you’d love this type of trip.”

 

“Oh, he’d love it, alright! It’s the little lady at home that’s putting all the doubts in his head. Left to his own devices, he’d be jumping at the chance.”

 

Roy rolled his eyes in response. He’d had this conversation with his partner numerous times since Johnny had left the bay mumbling this morning. Roy was about to explain, but Johnny was talking once again.

 

“I mean, really, don’t ya think that even married guys should be able to go off and have fun once in while? Huh?”

 

“You know, Johnny, I’ve never gotten the impression that Roy here feels particularly hen pecked or trapped,” Dixie pointed out, defending the quieter of the two men.

 

Johnny opened his mouth again to speak, but this time Roy cut him off. “He’s just worried that us married guys are going to somehow ruin the trip for the single guys because our wives are worried.”

 

“Well, ya hafta admit….”

 

Roy didn’t let him finish. “What I have to admit is that I would rather be taking this trip with just you, or maybe you and Chet. Then I would be really excited about it.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Roy looked at Dix and Doctor Brackett. They were clearly just taking all this in. He shrugged and continued. There didn’t need to be any secrets here. “Honestly, if I was just with the two of you, I wouldn’t worry about anything. I know you both can handle yourselves in the water. But the others, well, it’s not that I don’t trust them, I trust them with my life, but I’ve never seen them in the water. And suddenly finding yourself upside down in a rapid is different than suddenly finding yourself surrounded by flames. And honestly, I think Marco is scared out of his wits but doesn’t know how to say it. As for Joanne, she’ll be okay. She’s use to worrying about me.”

 

Johnny didn’t know what to say. Roy had just deflated his argument, so he went back to describing the joys of communing with nature.

 

“Well,” Kelly Brackett threw in before he went to start his rounds, “I hope you guys have a great time. Oh, and Dix, why don’t you make them up a special first aid package just in case anyone ends up on the injured list in the middle of nowhere.”

 

**********

 

The countywide wake-up tones sounded far too early on the morning of April 17th. At least they seemed too early to the men of Station 51, who had responded to a total of four separate calls during the night hours. Grunts and groans were heard throughout the dorm, as joints were forced into action and muscles were stretched beyond their comfort zone, all operating on less than adequate time for rejuvenation after the workout they had been put through.

 

“Oy!” Cap mumbled as he bent over to reach a boot that had been kicked out of place. Noting that he was not the only one voicing sounds of discomfort, he said, "Gentlemen, we best be careful. We’re sounding like our fathers way too early in life.”

 

“Speak for yourself, Cap.” Roy said, heading for the kitchen, “My father never sounded as bad as we just did. I sure am glad to know that we’re gonna impress that river guide with our physical prowess.”

 

That comment elicited more groans as the men followed him across the bay, and toward the coffee pot that promised salvation.

 

“Okay, is everybody clear on what happens Monday?” Cap handed out mugs, then sat at the table with the others as they waited for the coffee to brew. Cap went through the travel plans, step by step, leaving out no detail. The men sat politely, only half listening. There was no real need. They had reviewed the itinerary countless times. But if doing it again would relieve some of Cap’s anxiety, they wouldn’t complain.

 

“Once we get to the Denver Airport, we’ll pick up our rental car and head to the Eagle’s View Motel. The outfitter will meet us out in front of the motel at 5:30 AM on Tuesday morning.”

Cap finally stopped to take a breath. “Any questions or regrets?” he asked, looking directly at Marco. As expected, however, Marco said nothing and the men headed home, each hoping for a day of uninterrupted sleep prior to their adventure.

 

***********

 

Johnny looked out the window of the 747, captivated by the view below.

 

“Look at those mountains, Roy! I’d forgotten how beautiful the Rockies are from up here. Aren’t they fantastic?”

 

“Yeah, they are incredible. Wish Joanne and the kids could see this.”

 

A stewardess moved down the aisle as a light flicked on overhead. “It’s time to fasten your seatbelts, Gentlemen. We’ll be landing in just a few minutes.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Johnny watched her walk away, his focus now successfully shifted from the landscape below to the view inside the aircraft.

 

“You won’t have time to meet her, you know.”

 

The scowl that Johnny turned towards his partner would’ve been the perfect start for a typical Gage rant, but across the aisle, Cap was putting his things in order and was already starting to organize his men.

 

“Mike, as soon as we land, you and I will find the rental agency, and sign for the car. Roy, make sure you get our bags, too. We’ll meet you guys by the ticket counter in, say, twenty minutes?”

 

A snicker from behind Johnny caused him to turn slightly in his seat. Chet was covering his mouth with one hand, and his stomach with the other. Even Marco was grinning slightly, and that in itself, was enough to bring a smile to Johnny’s face.

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

When Cap turned to look at them, Johnny realized they had been overheard. Managing to flash one of his reassuring grins, Gage was grateful when his captain turned back towards the front.

 

“Chet? What are you laughing at?”

 

“Cap. Just watch him, Gage. He’s gonna have an attack before this trip is over. The brass sure must’ve given him some kind of lecture about getting us to work together. Cap’s so nervous about doing everything just right. Can you imagine what would happen if we got lost, or someone fell out of the boat? Poor guy would probably turn in his resignation.”

 

Marco must’ve elbowed Chet about the same time that Roy bumped Johnny. The two “ow’s” were like an echo, but Captain Stanley didn’t seem to notice.

 

Minutes later, the plane had touched down and was moving toward the gate. With their captain’s instructions still fresh in their minds, the men of Station 51 hurried through their tasks and met at the front entrance.

 

Hank was still in command mode, and after looking over his luggage he motioned to Chet. “We’ll be back to pick you guys up in a couple minutes. Come on, Kelly, you can come with me.”

 

His eyes rolling heavenward was Chet’s answer, but he dutifully followed his captain through the large glass doors. The two men had no sooner disappeared from sight, than the rest of the crew turned to Marco. Mike took the lead as he questioned the quiet fireman. “What’s wrong, Marco? You haven’t said two words since you got to the house this morning. Is everything all right?”

 

Roy was quick to add his concerns. “Is there something bothering you? You know we’ll be glad to help, you just need to tell us what the problem is.”

 

“Come on, Marco. We’re your friends; you can level with us. Chet won’t be back for a few minutes, so tell us what’s got you so upset.”

 

Johnny stared at Marco, waiting impatiently for the man to answer. He’d been hoping that Chet’s absence would make the difference, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Marco simply stood quietly beside them, his face wearing an expression of mild irritation.

 

“There’s nothing wrong, guys. I’m just not fond of traveling, that’s all.”

 

Mike, Roy and Johnny exchanged glances, none of them convinced that Marco was being in the least bit honest with them, but unsure of how hard to push the man.

 

“Hey, look at the car they’ve got!”

 

Marco’s stilted voice was confirmation to his co-workers. Something was bothering him, but what? However, the man in question was already hurrying out the door, his arms full of sleeping bags and backpacks.

 

Muttering in frustration, the three men gathered the rest of their belongings, and followed Marco outside. It was obviously going to be harder than they thought. Mike voiced what they were all hoping. “Maybe Cap can get him to talk . . .”

 

***********

 

Either the county had been misled about the quality of the Eagle View Motel, or they had gotten a really cheap deal. Johnny had noted that any self-respecting eagle would never have allowed himself to be “viewed” within miles of the run down establishment. Between the glare and the hum emanating from the blue neon “eagle” waving at passing cars out front, the constant skitter of bugs of all varieties running across the floor, and the overpowering smell of cigarettes and cigars that lingered in the air, the curtains and the bedding, the men from Station 51 were more than ready to be waiting in the parking lot as the sun began to rise at 5:15 AM.

 

The morning air was cold and dank. As the crew waited outside in the parking lot, woolen sweaters were quickly retrieved from the packs. While they waited for their guide, Johnny pulled a large bag out of his backpack.

 

“Um, guys, I forgot to give you these last night. I got them for ya after our last shift.” Johnny handed around a variety of brightly colored, large, rubber bags. “They’re dry sacs for your sleeping bags. It will keep them from getting wet if you seal them up tight. You might want to shove a pair of shorts and socks in there as well.”

 

“I don’t know what to say, John. These are great, thanks.” Cap selected an orange bag and began trying to figure out how to open it.

 

“Here, let me help ya with that, Cap.” Johnny showed Captain Stanley and the others how to manipulate the seal.

 

“They sure are bright. You’ll be able to see these things miles away,” Mike commented as he pushed and shoved at his sleeping bag to make it fit into the sac.

 

“That’s the idea. We should be able to attach them right to the raft, but if we go over and one gets away, you don’t exactly want it to be a color that blends in with the river bank.”

 

“Hey Johnny,” Marco spoke for the first time all morning, “these things can’t be cheap. We must owe ya something.”

 

Johnny beamed. “Nah, I had a credit at the place I buy my camping stuff. I didn’t need anything, and after Chet was talking about his sleeping bag the other day, I realized you guys probably didn’t have anything to keep your bags dry, so I decided to get these. Think of them as a really early Christmas present.”

 

Suddenly feeling like he’d been one upped, Chet tossed the bag back to Johnny. “Thanks, Gage, but no thanks. My sleeping bag came with a stuff sac all its own.”

 

Johnny was surprised, though he shouldn’t have been. “You know, Chet…” he began. Roy cut him off.

 

“Chet, use the dry sac. You’ve got a great sleeping bag but it’s gonna be useless if it gets wet. Down loses all its insulating qualities the minute it gets wet. It clumps and takes forever to dry.”

 

Johnny tossed the bag back to Chet and wisely said nothing more. If Chet was going to respond, he didn’t have a chance. A small bus was pulling into the parking lot. The near twenty-foot raft on its roof left no doubt that their ride had arrived. Recalling Roy’s comment from the previous morning, the men all straightened up and did their best to look impressive and fit as two young men jumped off the bus.

 

“Hi, I’m Doug Frasier. This is Barry, and from the looks of it, I think I’m safe in assuming that you’re the guys from LA County. Firemen, right?”

 

Cap stepped forward and offered his hand. “Hank Stanley, from Station 51.” Introductions were made all around.

 

“Okay, well, look,” Doug said, as he quietly sized up the group. “We’ve got a 45 minute drive to the put-in on the river. What do you say we load up and head that way? I’ve got coffee, juice, bagels, and oranges on the bus. We can talk and eat as we go. Barry, here, is our shuttle. He’s taking us to the river and will hang around long enough to help us get on our way. He’ll meet us at the take-out in a couple of days. Does everyone have their gear?”

 

The men of Station 51 all nodded, grabbed their gear, and climbed aboard the bus. Throwing their gear into the back seats, the men sat in a group in the front, while Doug stood in the aisle between them and addressed the group. “So, did you all enjoy our five star accommodations last night?”

 

“I’ve stayed in nicer roadside restrooms,” was Chet’s answer.

 

Before Cap could admonish Kelly, Doug broke out in laughter. “Hey, now, there’s an idea we hadn’t thought of. Actually, we put folks up there because we figure they’ll more likely appreciate a couple of nights outside after a night at the Wabluskasa Inn.”

 

Johnny’s snicker caught Doug’s attention. “You understand Lakota?”

 

“Enough to know that isn’t a compliment. You speak the language?”

 

“My wife is Lakota. She’s the one who dubbed the place the ‘Wabluskasa.’ The owner heard someone use the phrase and loved it. He had a big neon sign made up. Must have cost him a bundle. It was hideous. We might have let him use it, just to teach him a lesson, but we depend on this place, and we couldn’t let it go out of business. We figured that something called the ‘Bedbug Inn’ didn’t stand much of a chance of surviving.”

 

“That would have been a more appropriate name. But, if you know it’s bad, why do you use it?” Cap inquired.

 

“Did you see any other options? It’s the only place to stay within 50 miles of the put-in. Someday I’m gonna build a place of my own. We own the land, but it still takes money, you know? Hey, any of you guys looking for an investment opportunity?”

 

“On a fireman’s salary?” Mike could imagine Patty’s reaction to that one. “Well, I could give you twenty five bucks. How much of a share will that get me?”

 

“Well, combined with my savings, that will get you about 50% at the moment.” Doug could feel himself beginning to connect with this group. He hoped they felt the same, but it was time to move onto business.

 

“Okay, so let’s talk about the river, shall we? When the guy from the county called, he said that you all had experience in fast water rescues. I gotta tell you, I’m real excited about that. It’s been a while since I brought out a group with experience. This is going to be great.”

 

“He said what?” Roy was sure he must have misunderstood.

 

“He said you guys had fast water rescue experience.” Doug did not like the looks he was getting. His eager anticipation quickly changed to anxiety. “He told me you guys do rescues on whitewater all the time. Please tell me that he wasn’t lying.”

 

Cap stepped in. “Well, he probably didn’t mean to lie. He probably didn’t know any better. Our territory does include part of the coast, so we are involved in water rescues. And we have to pull a person or two out of the flood control channels every spring. So we do have some training in swift water rescue, but I doubt that’s what you were talking about.”

 

“No, not exactly.” Doug inwardly groaned as he pictured his entire spring’s revenue flying out the window. “Okay, well we have a decision to make then. The Lazy River is considered an intermediate to advanced run in the rafting world. In the spring, right now, the river is cold and it runs high and fast. Even so, it’s mostly class II and III rapids. But there are several class IV and one V. As the class rating goes up, so does the level of difficulty and the level of risk. And river is remote. Help is not exactly a stone’s throw away.”

 

Doug tried to think of a way to salvage this. “It’s up to you. We can make the run. If you guys are in shape and can follow directions, we’ll be okay. However, it’s not the ideal river for a first run. If you’d rather, we can turn back, delay a day, and make the run on an easier river. It will take some footwork, but we can make it happen.”

 

Johnny wasn’t saying anything. He knew what he wanted to do, but he wouldn’t influence the others. Roy also remained silent. In fact, no one wanted to be the one to speak, so Cap finally took the floor.

 

“Well, a delay is out of the question unless we shorten the trip to two days and one night. We still have to be back in LA on Friday. But we shouldn’t do this if any of us has any doubts. If any one of you doesn’t want to raft this river, you need to say so now, and there won’t be any hard feelings.”

 

Doug added his thoughts. “We can certainly do a two day trip on an easier river. And Hank is right. A crew should never do anything that’s beyond the capacity of its least experienced paddler.”

 

All men looked at Marco.

 

“What? Why are you all looking at me? It’s not my decision. I’ll do whatever you all want to do.”

 

Marco knew that the men sitting around him had understood from the beginning that he didn’t want to be here. But he hadn’t been able to put his worries into words. Even if he could, he would never acknowledge them to his friends. How could he tell his peers that just thinking about spending three days on the water, aroused a fear that chilled him to the core?

 

The men were still looking at Marco. He had to say something. “Look, guys, I told you. I just don’t like traveling, okay? I’m funny that way. But if I’m going to travel, it might just as well be on a river, right? You’ll need to tell me what to do and how to do it, but I’m up to paddling any river you all decide. Okay?”

 

“It’s decided then, we’re running the Lazy, right?” This came from Chet.

 

Cap continued to watch Marco, but the man gave no further indication of a problem. He had to take him at his word.

 

“Okay then, all in favor or running the Lazy River, raise your hands.”

 

The decision was unanimous. The bus continued on to the scheduled put-in.

 

**********

 

“So, who here wants some breakfast?”

 

Doug’s question got the immediate attention of the other six men riding the bus. A quick round of affirmative responses confirmed that the men may have postponed responding to the grumbling in their stomachs, but they certainly had not forgotten it.

 

Doug pulled out two large thermoses of coffee, and passed around large plastic mugs. “Be careful with the coffee. These roads are not smooth and the shocks are shot on this thing.” As if to demonstrate, the bus hit a bump and sent two of the empty mugs flying. Doug smiled and added, “Nice touch, Barry. You’ll have to remember that one.”

 

Next, Doug passed around a large bag containing bagels and another containing oranges. He then sat back and smiled, waiting for the comments to begin. He wasn’t disappointed.

 

“Uh, Doug? Man, when did you buy these donuts? No insult intended here, but they’re as hard as rocks! I’m not real sure they’re even safe to eat anymore.”

 

“Yeah, we better save these to fend off hungry bears. If they don’t want to eat them, we could maybe knock them out by throwing them at their head.”

 

“John, Chet, give Doug a break,” Cap instructed. “You heard him say there weren’t many amenities around here. This is probably the best he could do.”

 

Before Doug could defend himself, Mike came to the rescue. “They’re bagels, not donuts. And they look and smell very fresh. Where did you find fresh bagels in a place like this?”

 

This time it was Barry who answered. “My mom. She has a small kosher deli in town. She makes them fresh every morning. They’ve been slow to catch on, but the people who try them keep coming back.”

 

“Sorry,” Johnny apologized, “I didn’t mean to insult. I’ve never seen one of these before, and I didn’t realize you didn’t have any donut shops in town.”

 

Doug had to laugh at the thought that they would only serve bagels because donuts were not an option. “We have plenty of donut shops in town. But these are better for you. They have less processed sugar, and the carbs in these will keep you going longer than the refined sugar in donuts.”

 

The men were momentarily silent as they ate the bagels between sips of hot coffee.

 

Doug knew he was pushing it, but he had to ask. “So, do you like them?”

 

He was answered with enthusiastic nods and “yes’s” from Mike, Roy, and Cap. Marco and Johnny seemed less sure. Chet was clear on his opinion.

 

“No insult to Barry’s mother, but I still think they’d be better used to ward off angry bears. Hey, Barry, maybe your mother should try making some that are honey dipped, or crème filled.”

 

Hank offered his opinion on Chet’s comment. “There are no bears where we’re going, ya twit. And you know, Kelly, just because we’re out in the wilderness, it doesn’t mean we have to act like savages. We should still be polite, and telling Barry that his mother’s baking should be used as ammunition against bears cannot be classified as polite. So, watch your mouth, pal.”

 

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

 

Johnny gazed out the window as the bus rounded yet another corner. He’d been eyeing the terrain for several miles, and with a practiced eye, recognized that they were almost to their destination. Barely able to control his excitement, he glanced over at his partner, surprised to find that Roy was watching him closely.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. I was just wondering if you were going to be like this the whole trip.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like a kid on Christmas morning.”

 

With a wide grin, Johnny simply turned back to the window, watching the cliff tops disappear as the bus moved lower into the canyon. “I can’t help it, Roy. I’ve been dreaming about a trip like this for years, and I can’t believe it’s finally coming true.”

 

Even though he couldn’t see his friend’s nod of agreement, Johnny knew that Roy understood. They’d talked about it several times in the week prior to leaving LA, the opportunity of such an adventure. Roy had made it clear that even though Joanne was not keen on the idea, he was excited about the trip. “I sure wish Marco felt the same way about this whole thing.”

 

Although Roy’s voice was quiet, his concern was evident, and Johnny ventured a quick glance back towards the silent fireman. “Well, you heard him. He’s willing to give it a chance, and he’ll probably decide he loves it.”

 

“I hope you’re right, Johnny.”

 

An excited whoop sounded from the other side of the bus as Chet pointed ahead. “There it is! Look at that, guys!”

 

All eyes looked ahead as the bus pulled to a stop in a small, rocky parking area where the river briefly ran level with the riverbank. The river was running swiftly, but there was no whitewater in sight. However, the beauty of the scene was not lost on the observers. The reddish cliffs on the opposite shore made a picturesque setting for the brownish-blue water that moved through the narrow canyon. Above, the morning sky had cleared and was now an amazing azure blue, with only the thinnest white clouds to accent the view.

 

“Oh, man, this is gonna be great!”

 

Chet was the first one to jump from his seat and hurry out of the bus. The rest of the men followed quickly, but it was the excited Irishman who was already peppering Doug with questions.

 

As Roy grabbed his bag, Johnny couldn’t help but throw his partner’s words back at him. “Are you sure you weren’t talking about Chet earlier?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You know, the kid on Christmas morning. I think Cap’s going to have his hands full with that big kid.”

 

***********

 

It took Doug, Barry, and the men of Station 51 almost forty-five minutes to get the raft off the bus, and the gear unloaded. In addition to the supplies the firemen brought, there were multiple bags supplied by the outfitter and three, five-gallon collapsible jugs full of water.

 

As Johnny looked at the quantity of supplies, he wondered just how much they would be roughing it in the next few days. He also wondered how everything was possibly going to fit on the raft with the seven, not so small, men. His questions were answered as Doug began to open some of the largest duffel bags.

 

“Alrighty then. Can everyone gather over here for a few minutes? This,” Doug held up what looked like a large piece of black rubber, “is a Farmer John wet suit. It’s neoprene, and it’s not the most comfortable thing you’ve ever worn. It will cover your legs and torso, but leave your arms free. If you have ANY questions about whether or not you need one, go stick your hand in the river. Then, imagine your whole body suddenly being submerged. We may be in the desert, but this water was mountain snow yesterday. It’s cold! Hypothermia is, by far, the biggest risk on the river this time of year. It’s a shame, because critical hypothermia is usually avoidable with one of these things. So, this is not optional gear. If you’re on the river, you wear a wet suit. Okay?”

 

Chet picked up one of the suits that now lay in a heap next to Doug. He found the zipper that ran down the front but ended just below the waistline. That was the only opening that he could find.

 

“Uh, Doug? What do ya do if you hafta, you know, do what a bear does in the woods?”

 

“Well, I suggest that you take care of all those bodily functions before you put the suit on, because after that, the only option is to take it off. Although I have a buddy who swears he just pees right in the wet suit. Says it keeps him warm!”

 

The groans and laughs were the response Doug had sought.

 

“Most folks wear the suit over a swim suit and put the other layers on top. That’s what I’d recommend. As soon as we go over this stuff, you can change in the bus. Or, you can change in the brush over there. The bushes are both our changing room and the, um, facilities, for this morning.”

 

Doug passed out the wet suits, matching each man with one that would fit. When that task was completed, he grabbed another bag and opened it up, pulling out a life vest. “This, gentlemen, is your savior and your friend. You’ll wear this one hundred percent of the time you’re on, or near, the river. This is your personal flotation device, also known as a life jacket or vest.”

 

The jackets didn’t look like the ones the Johnny had seen in the past. These were not the bulky orange horseshoes that were fastened around the neck. Nor were they like the blow-up ones that the men sometimes wore in ocean rescues. These life jackets were vests that zipped up the front. Made of nylon covered foam cylinders and adjustable straps, they would fit snuggly and would add an extra layer of protection from the cold and rocks of the river, as well as keeping a man afloat. Johnny now realized how they would be fitting most of the supplies on the raft. They would be wearing them. He turned his attention back to Doug.

 

“The vests need to fit snuggly or they won’t do any good. When you take a swim, you want it to stay in place, not float up in front of your face, so cinch it up as tightly as you can without cutting off your breathing. Fit properly, a man can be pulled out of the water by the shoulders of the vest.”

 

Doug sorted through the vests and pulled out one that was labeled “adult medium.” He threw it to Johnny.

 

“This one should fit you just about right. The rest of you guys, take a large and put the rest back in the bag for Barry.”

 

“Ha! Gage gets a baby jacket! He doesn’t even fit an adult jacket! I love it!”

 

So much for best behavior, thought Cap, as he sneered at Chet. He was about to try to nip this battle in the bud, but it was too late.

 

“Yeah, well it is an adult size, Kelly, just not large. Just because I can eat a few tacos without porking up like you, is no reason to be jealous, you know? I mean, there are enough other things for you to envy without focusing on my superior metabolism.”

 

Cap decided to ignore the back and forth when Doug just grinned and continued on with his equipment instruction.

 

“Hey, Doug?” Mike was hesitant to ask his question in front of Marco, but thought it was something that needed to be addressed. “You keep saying ‘when you end up in the water,’ not ‘if.’ That’s just a figure of speech, right?”

 

Johnny shook his head and grinned at Roy. “Mike, if you don’t end up in the river on your own at some point, I’ll personally guarantee that you swim at least once this week. Okay?”

 

Seeing the look on Marco’s face, Cap spoke up. “No one will be throwing anyone in the water. Got that? And just because we have to be ready to be in the water, doesn’t mean it’s definitely going to happen, right Doug?”

 

Doug had seen the look on Marco’s face as well. “No, Hank, nothing’s definite. But I have to tell you, with three days on this river, the odds of someone going in at least once are pretty high. Look, I’ll say it again. If the thought of ending up swimming a rapid is terrifying for any one of you, then this is not the river for us to be floating. Right now we can still turn around. In another thirty minutes or so we’ll be on the river, and we won’t have that option. Now is the time to speak up.”

 

No one said a word.

 

“Okay. Well, these are the paddles. You’ve heard the expression ‘up the creek without a paddle’? Well, you don’t want to be that, so hang onto this. We do, however, carry two extras just in case one breaks or gets lost.”

 

“This,” he continued, pointing to the handle of the paddle, “is the T grip. There are more injuries caused by flying T grips on rafts than were ever caused by the river itself. We don’t want anyone getting this in the eye or the mouth, right? The way to prevent that is to never let go of the T grip. I’ll remind you of this throughout the trip. You remind each other as well. So if I say, ‘Chet, T grip,’ you know I mean hang onto it, okay?”

 

“Hey, why use me as an example?”

 

“It’s in your eyes, Kelly. It’s in your eyes!” Cap answered.

 

***********

 

“You guys ready to get this show on the road?” Doug asked the group. Getting an affirmative reply from everyone, Doug nodded. “Alright then, let’s make this happen. Roy and John, can you guys start attaching rope to the backpacks and dry sacs? Marco, I need your help getting some of this stuff in the raft. Mike, Hank, and Chet, you guys get your wet suits on, then we’ll switch off. Okay?”

 

Barry came over to help with the raft, but Doug shook him off and directed him to help elsewhere. He wanted a few minutes alone with Marco. As he showed Marco how to stow the water jugs in the raft, he broached the question that needed to be asked. “Marco, you don’t want to be here, do you?”

 

Marco sighed. He’d known this was coming when Doug singled him out to help.

 

“Yeah, I do. I just don’t like to travel, that’s all.”

 

“No, that’s okay to tell your pals over there, but I need to know the truth. What is it that has you spooked about this trip? Do you know how to swim?”

 

“Yes, I know how to swim. And nothing has me spooked. I just. . .well. . .I don’t know. I don’t like being underwater, that’s all. And, unlike Mike, somehow I know that’s where I’m going to end up on this trip. But it’ll be okay. It’s just not the adventure I would have picked, okay?”

 

“Look, I won’t say anything to your buddies,” Doug pushed, “but I need to know what I’m dealing with here, or rather, what you’re dealing with.”

 

“No, it’s just being underwater that bothers me. Heck, I don’t even like to jump in a pool. I’m just never convinced that I’m going to reach the surface again. And no, I don’t want to turn back. I want to do this. I’ll be fine.”

 

“You know, you could go back with Barry. I could take the blame. Tell the others I decided you couldn’t go. Or I could tell them you’re sick.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding! You tell two paramedics I’m sick, and you think they’ll just let me get back on a bus and go back to a flea-infested motel? Besides, I don’t want to go back. Really! I want to do this! I’ve gotten past it to do water rescues before, and I will again. This is supposed to be about teamwork. Well, I’m part of this team. And if I don’t do this, it will mean something. Maybe not to them, but it will to me. So let it go. Okay?”

 

Doug nodded. He might be making a huge mistake, but he agreed.

 

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

 

Doug placed the men in the raft based on both their size and their comfort level. Roy and Johnny took the two front positions, followed by Hank then Marco on the right, and Chet then Mike on the left. The gear was stored in the middle of the boat, all securely attached to the thwarts. As they floated out onto the river, Doug began his instruction.

 

“Okay gentlemen, we have about a mile to go before we hit any significant water, so let’s just let the river move us for a minute while we go over a few things. First, the thwarts in the center of the boat look like seats, but they’re really more for stability than sitting. You’re going to sit up on the side of the boat like you are now whenever we’re in the water. Tuck a foot up under the thwart in front of you, both feet if you can. That will help keep you steady and in the boat when it gets tippy. If you start to feel like you’re going in the water, try to lean into the center of the boat. If you find yourself actually going in, try to grab the chicken line on the edge of the boat as soon as you can. That way you stay with the boat, and we can just pull you back.”

 

“Now, if you end up in the water, the best thing to do is to try to get back to the boat immediately,” Doug continued. “Chances are, you’re still right next to the raft. If you’re within reach, we’ll grab you or stretch out a paddle to you, but if you’re beyond that, watch for the throw bag. When you see the throw bag coming at you, grab the rope, not the bag. Otherwise, the rope will just continue to unwind and you’ll continue to get further away from the raft.”

 

“If you find yourself in the water, keep your feet up,” instructed Doug. “I can’t stress that enough. Do NOT try to stand. The most dangerous type of situation is an entrapment. You can avoid it if you keep your feet up. If you find yourself swimming a rapid, put your feet up in front of you, facing down river. Try to avoid the boulders and get yourself to the side as soon as you’re out of the rapid. Keep watching for that throw rope. Okay?”

 

“We’ll keep talking about this as we go on, but one more thing now,” the guide went on. “It’s possible to go in the water and suddenly not know which end is up. If that happens, try not to panic. It probably seems impossible, but the best thing you can do is to relax. The jacket is going to bring you to the surface. You can count on that. One nice thing about this river is that it’s possible to avoid the weirs and holes that can hold you under. We are going to avoid them. So just let your jacket do its job. If you come up under the boat, just use your hands to follow the boat to its side. If you come up and you see the thwarts, that means the boat is upside down and we’re all in the river, so follow it to the side, grab hold of the line, and look for your pals. Okay?”

 

“As warm as this suit is, I don’t think I’d mind getting a little wet, but I sure don’t want to be under this boat,” observed Chet.

 

Mike’s elbow in Chet’s side silenced the good-natured grumbling, and Doug turned slightly to hide his smile. He could tell that this group of men got along well, an important ingredient for an enjoyable trip down the river.

 

The men of Station 51 had listened silently and attentively to Doug. Now that he’d completed his instructions, they spent some time practicing the strokes and using the throw ropes. Feeling more secure in their abilities, the men settled in.

 

“Good job, guys!” Doug said, praising his paddlers on their newly learned skills. “Well, men, I think we’re ready to move on. Is everyone ready?”

 

Doug looked at each man expectantly, his eyes remaining just a moment longer on Marco, but everyone was nodding in agreement.

 

“Alright then, all forward! Oh, and by the way, welcome to The Lazy River!”

 

**********

 

The men concentrated on honing their new skills as the first part of their journey got underway. The water was fairly calm, giving them a chance to get familiar with the feel of the raft, and some time to get in a little practice with the paddle strokes and leans.

 

Everyone was enjoying the calm morning, especially Roy. It had been a busy couple of days, getting ready and saying goodbye to his family. Now that they were actually on the water, he finally felt like he could relax and start to enjoy the trip.

 

Still, it didn’t surprise him when Chet broke the quiet with another round of twenty questions. Roy couldn’t help but wonder if Kelly had been spending too much time with Gage; they both seemed to be vying for the position of most obnoxious.

 

“Chet! Quit swinging that paddle around. You’re going to hit someone!”

 

Peace and quiet descended on the group again, their progress down the river slow but steady. Holding his own paddle carefully, Roy attempted to dip it in the water with the same fluid movement that Doug had demonstrated earlier, but the slapping sound below the boat confirmed his suspicions. . he wasn’t doing very well.

 

“You’ll get the hang of it.”

 

Turning to his right, Roy watched for a moment as Johnny used his paddle with ease. “I thought you said you’d never done this before!”

 

“I said I’ve never been on any whitewater before. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been in a canoe, or a kayak.”

 

Roy simply shook his head, wondering for a moment if he’d ever really know his partner. A sudden movement behind them caught his attention, as Chet called out. “Hey, Gage! If you’re such an expert, how come you just splashed water all over our captain?”

 

“What? Oh, sorry, Cap.”

 

“That’s okay, John. Just don’t let it happen again.”

 

Cap’s voice was tinged with humor, but Johnny’s wasn’t when he answered Chet. “Besides, I didn’t say I was an expert, Chet!”

 

“Ahh, finally . . the Pigeon admits he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”


”I didn’t say that!”

 

“Oh, didn’t you just say you weren’t an . . .”

 

“Kelly!”

 

“Yeah, Cap?”

 

“Watch out, you Twit! You almost hit me in the face with your T.”

 

“Oh, sorry, Cap.”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Hey, guys! Look at that!” Johnny was pointing excitedly down the river where the water was moving faster. By shading his eyes from the sun, Roy could just make out the whitewater ahead of them. Several seats back, a thin voice was barely audible.

 

“We’re going down that?”

 

“This is going to be great!” Chet hollered out, as he dipped his paddle deeper in the water.

 

Roy didn’t waste anymore time listening to his co-workers; instead, he focused his attention on the calm voice from the rear of the boat. Using short, simple commands, Doug coolly guided them into their first set of rapids.

 

“Hank, T-grip! Keep those feet tucked. Paddles up…. Now, right forward. Roy, paddle up, just right side…. Right forward, left back, two strokes.”

 

The front of the boat was now in a direct line with the steepest drop of the rapid. Even with his back to the others, Roy could feel the tension as the boat moved into the fast water.

 

“Okay, here’s your initiation!” Doug shouted. “All forward, hard!”

 

The raft arched and dipped as it moved quickly through the rapids, water splashing up over the men as shouts of apprehension and excitement blended together. Doug continued to shout instructions, which the men followed without difficulty. The ride was thrilling but short, and it seemed only a moment had passed before the boat was gliding slowly down the river again.

 

Wiping the water from his face, Roy didn’t even try to hide his huge smile. He was hooked, and it wasn’t necessary to look at his partner to know Johnny felt the same way. His partner’s excitement was contagious.

 

“Alright! That was fantastic! And that’s only a Class II, huh? Can’t wait to get to the bigger stuff! Cap, we’ve gotta thank the chief for putting us up for this; we must be the luckiest station in LA county.”

 

No one even bothered to interrupt Johnny’s enthusiastic rambling. He was on a roll, and no one would be able to stop him anyway. Not even Chet’s snicker from the middle of the boat dissuaded the excited paramedic. Dipping his paddle back into the water, Roy realized that Johnny was right. This was a pretty fantastic opportunity, and maybe they were the luckiest guys in LA. He just didn’t think he needed to tell Joanne that.

 

***********

 

The friendly banter continued as the raft drifted slowly downstream. From his position in the back of the boat, Doug listened with amusement as the firemen from LA County traded their harmless barbs. He wasn’t bothered by the exchanges, in fact, he found himself to be somewhat relieved by their camaraderie. Years of experience working with people told him that this group was close. Their working relationship tinged with honest friendship that would serve them well, not only on this trip, but also in their work back home.

 

Doug had to admit, the first half-hour on the water had left him wondering if the three-day trip would be filled with tension. With one nervous man on board, and two others spending most of their time engaged in a battle of wills, the guide was sure he had his work cut out for him. But when the raft moved into the first series of rapids, the crew’s working relationship shone through. Immediately, the men seemed to shift into an effective team, their focus on each other, as well as the job at hand.

 

Certainly, it was obvious that none of them were experienced with the paddles they held, but they followed his instructions and worked carefully to guide the craft where he commanded. When they finally reached calmer waters, Doug was surprised at their whoops of delight, joining in with one of his own.

 

His attention drawn back towards the front of the boat, Doug hid a smile as he recognized Gage’s voice tinged with frustration. They were at it again.

 

“It has nothing to do with what we ate, Chet.”

 

“Sure it does; how’s anyone supposed to get by on one of those bagel things?”

 

“Because they’re good for you. Mike said so. You’re just hungry ‘cause we’re outdoors and working hard.”

 

“Hey, we always work hard. And why would those things be any better for ya? It’s just a round piece of fried dough.”

 

“They’re baked and they are good for you, Chet. My grandmother used to give them to us when we visited her in New York. A bakery down the street made them fresh every morning, and she used to say we’d get further on one bagel than half a dozen donuts,” Mike offered.

 

Doug wondered why there was sudden quiet in the raft, as most of the men turned to look at the engineer. But it was only a moment before the chatter returned.

 

“Geez, Mike, where’d that come from? You haven’t said that much since we left home.”

 

“Oh, Chet, leave him alone. You’re just mad ‘cause he knows more than you do, as usual.”

 

“Shut up, Gage.”

 

“Kelly!”

 

“Yeah, Cap?”

 

“Why don’t we all shut up for a few minutes? I think you’re giving Doug a headache…I know you’re giving me one.”

 

“Okay, Cap. But I was just trying to figure out why I’m so hungry and Gage isn’t. He’s usually the one who cleans out the refrigerator by mid-morning. And here we are, out in the middle of nowhere, and he’s not even hungry.”

 

“I didn’t say I wasn’t hungry. ‘Course I am. But I’m not going to sit here and complain about it,” Johnny defended himself.

 

“Well, that’s a switch.”

 

Hank’s defeated shrug was not lost on Doug, who had secretly been enjoying the show. If forced, he’d have to float his stick with Chet anyway . . . it had been a busy morning, and that bagel sure hadn’t filled him up like he’d hoped. Glancing at his watch, the guide saw that it was only 10 AM. Too early to stop for lunch, but a good time to pull into an eddy and pass around some energy food.

 

“Anyone ready for a snack?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Sure, Doug, sounds good.”

 

“Great, I’m starved!”

 

“Okay then, right forward, left back, hard.”

 

And with that the men found themselves in surprisingly calm water near the river’s edge.

 

***********

 

After the fare served for breakfast, Chet did not have high expectations for the snack. He was therefore amazed, and pleased, to find that the morning snack consisted of an apple and a Snickers bar along with Tang to mix in their water bottles.

 

As the men ate, Doug queried about the first part of the morning. “So, how do you all feel now that you’ve so skillfully mastered ‘Mother’s Milk’ rapid?”

 

“What a rush!” Roy was still smiling. “I’ve certainly felt the power of natural forces before, including getting slammed up against rocks in the surf, but this was different. This time it wasn’t a matter of fighting against the power of nature, but working with it. I’ve never felt anything like it before.”

 

“You know,” Mike admitted, “just as we were going into that drop, I made a mistake and did a back stroke. Or I should say I tried to paddle back, but I couldn’t. The river just was not going to let me do it.”

 

“I don’t think I realized just how cold this water was until the first wave came into the boat and soaked me.” Cap was grinning and looking relaxed for the first time since this trip had been announced. “It was like being suddenly hit with the water from the hose after running out of a fire.”

 

Chet finished his drink and refastened the pint size bottle to his vest. “Hey, Doug! How come they call it ‘Mother’s Milk’ rapids? Is it because the water is so white it looks like milk?”

 

“Well, no, not exactly.”

 

“So, why then?”

 

“Because after you’ve been through the next three rapids, you’ll remember this one and think, ‘oh, man, that one was mother’s milk compared to the next ones.’”

 

Marco almost didn’t want to ask the next question. “What are the next three rapids called?”

 

“Um, well, the one after the next one is called ‘Bouncing Baby Buggy’ because it’s choppy, but without many rocks near the surface in the spring, so it’s pretty safe. It’s considered class III. After that, it’s on to the ‘Bow Wow Boogie’.”

 

“Don’t tell me,” Marco said, “a pack of wild dogs hang out there, right?”

 

“Good guess, but no. A few years ago someone tried to run this river in a canoe. It split on those rapids and the bow got jammed sticking straight up. We’ve never been able to get it out without risking someone’s safety. It’s easy to avoid, so we left it there. It’s now called the ‘Bow Wow Boogie’ because of how many people see the broken bow and say ‘wow’ and then ride down the rapid sideways because they stop paying attention to the water. It’s also class III.”

 

If the other’s missed it, Chet did not. “Hey, Doug. You said the rapid AFTER the next one is the baby something. What’s the next rapid called?”

 

“It’s called the Tazmanian Tirade, Chet. It’s one of four class IV rapids we’ll experience on this run. We’re going to hit it just about two miles down the river. The rapid itself is about a half mile long, so after we go through the first few drops, don’t make the mistake of letting up. Keep listening and paddling until we get to the other side. Mostly it’s class IV because it’s so long, but it has one good-sized drop. If we stay focused, we’ll be fine. So what do you say, are we ready to move on?”

 

As all the men, including Marco, nodded, Doug noticed that they each gripped their paddles a little tighter.

 

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

 

The fact that Johnny had said nothing during their short break was not lost on his partner. The look of pleasure on his face, however, kept Roy from being worried. As they moved on down the river, Chet made a few attempts to draw Gage back into a battle of barbs. Johnny simply ignored him.

 

At the first opportunity, Roy leaned over and said quietly, “Not bad, huh?”

 

Johnny’s slight grin turned into a smile that encompassed his whole face. “It’s incredible! Just look at the terrain! Can you imagine how many years it took this river to carve through the rock and create this canyon? And the water . . .well, I can’t imagine a better way to spend a spring day, can you?”

 

“Nope, this is pretty near heaven, pal.” Roy sat back up and left his friend to enjoy the surroundings in silence.

 

***********

 

“Okay, gentlemen, is everyone ready?”

 

The men of Station 51 had spent the past thirty minutes getting mentally prepared, and practicing the skills they would need when they finally reached the Tazmanian Tirade. They had also reviewed, again, what to do if someone ended up in the water. With mixed levels of confidence, they all nodded.

 

“Okay then, here it is. Let’s go. Left up, hard right!”

 

And they were in the rapid.

 

The first wave that washed over them made Johnny gasp in shock from the sudden cold. Blinking the water out of his eyes, he stayed focused on Doug’s commands and on the water around him. He was aware of an odd sense of pride as the raft moved deftly through the natural obstacle course, missing underwater rocks by just inches as the team, his team, quickly and effectively followed instructions. Laughs, shouts and whoops of excitement joined with the sounds of the rushing water, eliminating any sense of peace or serenity that remained in his mind. It, in no way, diminished the wonder of this experience. Quiet is good for a walk through the woods, but you should roar with the water when you shoot a rapid. With that thought, Johnny let out a howl of exuberance.

 

Before the sound had finished leaving his lips, Johnny heard Doug yell, “Lean in, and hang on!” In one fluid motion, Johnny moved his right hand from the paddle to the chicken line and leaned far into the middle of the raft. Only mere chance kept him from butting heads with Roy who did the same. Just as the two men made eye contact, Johnny felt the reason for Doug’s sudden command. A rock, not quite avoided, was suddenly under the raft, forcing the craft to almost leap into the air, and bouncing the men from their positions.

 

Johnny saw the expression in Roy’s eyes change from one of exhilaration to one of concern at the same time that he heard Marco yell, “Cap!” Jamming his foot hard under the front tube, he felt Roy grab hold of his leg. Johnny released his hold on the rope and lunged for his captain, who was now more outside the boat than in. He moaned as he closed his hand and came up with nothing but air. Looking again, he expected to see an empty spot where Cap had been sitting. Instead he saw Marco with a firm hold on Cap’s arm, struggling to keep himself in the raft while he held onto the man in front of him.

 

Johnny tried to twist to an angle that would allow him to help, as Chet reached across and grabbed Cap’s leg, and Mike took hold of Marco to provide more support. Doug’s shouts drew his attention away from his captain and back to the river.

 

“Johnny! Roy! Paddle forward, hard! The other guys have Hank. We still need to get through this thing!”

 

Johnny managed to somehow get back into position. He plunged his paddle deep into the river and pulled back with all the force he could muster, aware that it was now just the two of them providing the thrust, as Doug pointed the boat in the right direction. Another wave, caught at just the right angle, threw gallons of ice-cold water in his face. Sputtering and coughing as he tried to blink the water from his eyes, Johnny glanced at Roy and noticed that he, too, was fighting the impact of the waves.

 

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

 

Roy stole a glance backward as he paddled with all his strength. Everyone was still in the boat. He allowed himself to acknowledge that, despite the near miss, he was continuing to experience a rush like nothing else he had ever felt. The adrenaline-fed elation that he was feeling was overtaking any fear or trepidation that had lingered. But it wasn’t strong enough to prevent a swell of anxiety when he suddenly saw the river disappear directly on the path that they appeared to be taking.

 

“Uh, Doug, up ahead!” He hollered to be heard over the roar of the river.

 

“It’s okay!” Doug shouted back. “It’s only a four foot drop, and it’s safer than navigating the rock bed toward the right bank! Remember, when I say ‘Center’ grab your paddle and the chicken line, and get to the floor in the center of the boat! Make sure to brace your feet! Then hang on and enjoy the ride!”

 

Roy nodded and saw Johnny do the same. He pulled his paddle into the boat and prepared for the maneuver.

 

“Not yet!” Doug called out. “Keep paddling till I call it. We need to hit this dead on!”

 

Roy immediately put his paddle back in the water and dug in hard, the tension mounting as the drop drew nearer. Three more strokes and Doug made the call.

 

“Okay, everyone! Center now, and hang on tight!”

 

Roy pulled in his paddle, grabbed the line, and plopped himself onto the floor in front of the first thwart, forcing his two feet between the floor and the front tube. He looked briefly at Johnny, who was sitting across from him, then forced himself look forward and not close his eyes.

 

For a brief moment, Roy was acutely aware that there was no water, only air, under the front of the raft. But as he and Johnny passed over the top of the drop, the raft quickly bent like a slinky, once again joining the river. Thrown back against the front thwart, Roy realized that he was suddenly almost vertical. He clung to the rope and hoped that the others were doing the same. As the river leveled out, so did the raft, but not before driving the front end into the river at the base of the small waterfall. The wave created by this maneuver threw a wall of water over the two front paddlers, at the same time submerging them almost waist deep. Instinct took over and Roy reached out to grab hold of his partner, latching onto the man’s shoulder at the same time that Johnny took hold of his arm. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the raft was once again parallel with the river and right with the world.

 

With that, they were out of the rapid. The group quickly maneuvered into a large eddy to regroup. The first thing the men noticed was the water, not in the river, but in the raft. Every man and every item was soaking wet, and there was four inches of water covering the floor of the raft.

 

Marco’s first thought was that they had sprung a leak. Before he could give voice to his concerns, he realized they were unwarranted. The water in the boat could be easily explained. He only had to look at his friends to see how much water had come over the sides.

 

Looking at the items in the raft, Marco noted that they were still securely attached, but all were either sitting in, or floating on, the significant pool of water. As he looked at the backpacks, he hoped that everyone had followed the instructions to double wrap everything in plastic trash bags before putting it in the pack. He also shivered at the thought of what Chet’s sleeping bag would feel like tonight if Roy hadn’t pushed him to accept Johnny’s dry bag.

 

Looking back up river, Marco watched as the waves crashed around some boulders and dropped smoothly over others. He was almost seized by panic as he thought about where they had just been, and what they had just done. That panic was quickly replaced by pride in what he had accomplished, and the fears he had overcome. He not only managed to not be a hindrance, he had helped keep Cap in the boat. And he’d done it without giving a moment’s thought to what it meant to let go of the rope, and his paddle.

 

Let go of the paddle! Marco suddenly realized what he had done. His paddle was still in the water when he let go of it to grab Cap. Oh man! I don’t believe this! I lost my paddle! So much for getting the hang of this stuff.

 

“Uh, Doug?” Marco was not sure how the man was going to react to this news. “Doug, I have a problem. I think I lost my paddle.”

 

He heard groans from the men around him as he looked up, expecting to see an angry look on the guide’s face. Instead, Doug was smiling.

 

“Well, you may have lost it, but I found it.” Reaching down in front of him, he retrieved the paddle and handed it back to Marco.

 

Marco sighed in relief. “Thanks. I thought I dropped it in the river.”

 

“You did.”

 

“But…”

 

“Do you mean to tell us,” Roy asked, “that in the midst of all that confusion you managed to not only keep us on track, but also reached down and pulled a stray paddle from the water?”

 

Marco laughed. “He’s my new super-hero. We should get him a cape.”

 

“Yeah, well, speaking of heroes, you do realize that you kept me from taking a swim, right?” Cap asked of the man sitting behind him.

 

“I thought for sure you were going in,” Johnny added. “I grabbed for ya, but came up empty. Great job, Marco!”

 

“Well, Chet grabbed on too,” Marco added modestly.

 

“Wouldn’t have done any good if you hadn’t already grabbed hold. By the time I got to him, I’d have been lucky to grab a foot.”

 

Doug was enjoying the scene playing out before him. “Truthfully, guys, the credit goes to all of you. You all acted on instinct and you each did what you needed to do. I’d like to officially announce that I no longer have any doubts about this trip. We’re going to have a great time, and you’re all going to fly through it! Now, in case you thought this was all fun and games, I’m sure you all noticed the three pumps clipped to the side of the raft? Well, they aren’t there for decoration. Men, it’s time to get the water out of this raft, so get to work.”

 

***********

 

It took the crew 20 minutes to bail out the raft. After assuring that the equipment and supplies were all securely attached, the men again set off down the river.

 

Quiet settled over the raft as the men on board enjoyed their peaceful surroundings. The blue sky was unmarred by even the slightest trace of clouds. The terrain was changing again. No longer the steep walls of a narrow canyon, the sides of the river now sloped gently away, allowing room for some plant growth and trees, waterfowl, and an occasional small mammal that even Doug could not identify.

 

The current carried the raft swiftly but smoothly downstream, freeing the crew from the need to paddle beyond an occasional stroke.

 

“Hey, Cap,” Chet broke the silence, swinging his paddle freely as he turned to face Stanley. “Better hang on. I see a wave coming up.”

 

“Yeah, well, you better start hanging on to that paddle before you take someone’s eye out,” Cap shot back.

 

Unwilling to let himself become the target of the conversation, Chet tried again. “No, really, Cap. I don’t want to be the one who has to explain to the chief that we lost you in the baby rapid.”

 

“We’re not losing anyone in any rapid. Besides, if I died, what makes you think you’d be the one to tell the chief? That honor would go to Mike here. After all, he is second in command.”

 

“Oh yeah, I can hear that conversation,” Roy said, from the front of the raft, “Um, chief… um, when you get a minute… no, I don’t want to interrupt… um, about Captain Stanley. . .”

 

“That’s not what I would say,” Mike defended himself.

 

“Oh yeah, what would you say?” Marco wanted to know.

 

“It’s easy. I’d say, ‘Chief, you know how you never really liked Hank? Well, I’ve got something to tell you.’”

 

Cap couldn’t be heard over the noisy laughter of his crew. Instead, he turned back to Doug and shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “I don’t know what gets into these guys sometimes.”

 

Doug flashed a broad grin before his expression turned serious. “Okay, guys, here we go. All forward, hard.”

 

Six paddles dipped into the water in near unison, and the men holding them pulled hard, as Doug used his guide paddle to rudder the craft into the two-foot waves in front of them. Although the waves were created by the steep grade of the river rather than an outcropping of rocks, as the raft bounced and rollercoastered from one wave to the next, the men understood why this was a class III rapid, and how it got it’s name.

 

As waves crashed over the bow, drenching Roy and Johnny with the frigid water, Chet turned back toward Doug and announced, “You know, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a good enough paddler to sit in the front.”

 

Before Cap had the chance to tell Chet to turn around and pay attention, the raft bounced again. With his foot free from under the thwart, and his paddle in contact with nothing but air, Chet had no way to brace. Already off balance, he couldn’t recover from the hit and landed unceremoniously in the river.

 

By the time he resurfaced, the raft was already out of reach and Doug was shouting commands.

 

“Hard back! Now! Chet’s in the water, let’s slow this boat down.”

 

The men put all of their strength into slowing the forward motion of the boat, and Doug fought to keep the craft under control. Mike unhooked the throw sack and shifted his position to face upstream. Despite the paddlers’ best efforts, the distance between Chet and the raft was increasing with every moment. Mike knelt on the floor of the raft, allowing him to lock his feet under the thwart for balance.

 

Confident in his ability to get the rope to his friend, Mike called out, “Heads up, Chet!”

 

Grabbing the orange nylon sack with the rope coiled neatly inside, Mike took aim and threw, the sack careening through the air, as a length of rope uncoiled behind it. With a thwack, the rope filled bag slapped against the water in front of Chet.

 

Struggling to stay face up and keep his legs in front of him as the water pulled him swiftly downstream, Chet grabbed hold of the sack, only to see the line of rope play out ahead of him.

 

From the raft he heard several voices calling out in unison.

 

“Grab the rope! Kelly, get the rope, not the bag!”

 

Chet grabbed blindly, as the waves continuously slammed into his face, impeding his ability to see the rope that he knew was in front of him. His hand found it on the third try. Wrapping it several times around his hand and wrist, he assured himself that the rope was secure before letting go of the bag. Using his free hand to give a thumbs-up sign, he held on and allowed himself to be pulled back to the side of the raft.

 

Cap, Marco, Roy, and Johnny continued to back paddle, fighting to keep the raft from losing ground while Doug supervised the operation, skillfully holding the craft in place as much as possible. Mike kept calling out to his friend as he swiftly drew the line in, and pulled a sputtering Chet up next to the raft.


”Can you get him?” Doug asked.

 

“Yeah, I’m set.”

 

One hand still holding the rope, Mike reached out with the other hand and grabbed hold of the shoulder strap of Chet’s life jacket. Only then did Mike release the lifeline to reach out and grab the other strap.

 

“I’ve got ya, Chet. You can let go of the rope.”

 

Securing his feet under the side tube of the raft, Mike stood and with a mighty heave, pulled up and back, drawing Chet out of the water and over the side. The momentum was enough to land Chet face down on the floor of the raft, directly on top of his rescuer.

 

Looking up, Chet realized that the hard object that had stopped his forward motion was Marco’s knee.

 

“Uh, Chet?” The voice came from beneath the still sputtering man. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, I think so.” Chet coughed some of the swallowed water out of his throat.

 

“Uh, Chet?” the voice repeated. “If you’re okay, do you think you could get off me? Maybe sometime soon?”

 

“Hold on just one second, Mike,” Doug instructed.

 

Emerging from the lower end of the rapid, Doug breathed a sigh of relief and instructed the men to stop paddling. He quickly and easily maneuvered the raft into an eddy at the river’s edge and pulled in close enough to the bank to grab hold of a tree that was partly in the water. Using the branch to provide added stability, he told the men they were free to move around some, but reminded them to keep their weight low.

 

Tucking his paddle inside the edge of the raft, Hank turned around. “Come on, Chet, let’s get you up and make sure you’re alright.”

 

Mike groaned appreciatively as the weight was finally moved off of him, and he gladly accepted Marco’s assistance at righting himself.

 

“Thanks… Cap,” Chet managed before folding his arms around his chest. Shivering violently, he huddled down on the thwart as the others moved around him.

 

“Hey, pal. I think you can let go of that rope now,” Cap encouraged.

 

Watching Chet shiver, Roy turned to Doug. “Any chance we can get him off the river for a few minutes and warm him up?”

 

Doug nodded and declared out loud, “We’re stopping here for lunch. Marco, can you help me tie this baby off.”

 

The rest of the men quickly but carefully moved from the raft to the riverbank. Grabbing one of the dry sacs, Mike followed as Roy and Johnny led Chet away from the river. The man was already grumbling as the two paramedics sat him down on a log and Roy reached for his wrist.

 

“I’m alright, guys,” he insisted.

 

“Sure you are, Chet, but I think it would be a good idea if we checked you out anyway.”

 

If he hadn’t been shivering so badly, Chet may have argued with Roy, but the longer he had been out of the water, the colder he felt. Even the neoprene wet suit was beginning to feel like a soggy cold blanket sealed around him. Suddenly, Chet found that he appreciated his friends’ help.

 

Johnny unfastened the clasps on Chet’s life vest and pulled it off, then helped him take off his jacket. As Mike reached them, he pulled a blanket from the dry sac and held it out for Johnny.

 

“Thanks, Mike. Wrap it around him, would ya?”

 

Turning back to Chet, Johnny asked, “Did you hit anything in there? Any bumps or bruises we can’t see?”

 

Chet’s shivering was beginning to lessen as the warm air and sun worked with the blanket to restore his body temperature closer to normal.

 

“No. I never even felt a rock. I just swallowed about 100 gallons of that river, is all. Boy, is that water cold! Kind of a rush though, you know? Not that I want to do it again, mind you, but let’s just say it will be something to tell the chicks about.”

 

Roy grinned and shook his head. “Chet, you’re gonna be just fine. You keep thinking about those ‘chicks’ and that will get your blood all hot and bothered in no time. Now, get up and walk around. Do some knee bends and toe touches. You need to get that hot blood flowing to all your extremities, not just the one.”

 

“Very funny, Roy. I bet you don’t talk that way around your wife.”

 

“You’d be surprised,” Johnny said as he grabbed Chet’s arm and helped him stand. “But he’s being serious about the walking, Chet. Moving around is the best way for you to get warm again.”

 

As soon as he’d secured the raft, Doug collected the necessary items for lunch, and hurried up the bank. He watched the men working around Chet. Noting the man was still shivering, he decided to break from his planned routine.

 

“Marco, how about gathering some wood? I think we’ll take a few extra minutes here and get a fire going. It looks like Chet could use something warm to drink.”

 

A short time later, a small campfire was burning brightly with Chet huddled near it. With a blanket draped around his shoulders, he sipped from a cup of hot chocolate while eating a cold sandwich. Given that the air temperature was over 70, the rest of the men kept some distance from the fire, but stayed close enough to keep Chet in the conversation while all enjoyed a brief reprieve from their work on the river.

 

Moving closer to Chet, Hank studied him closely. “You okay there, pal?”

 

“Yeah, Cap, I’m fine.”

 

“Good. That’s good. I was just wondering… what was that you were warning me about earlier? Something about watching out for a wave up ahead?”

 

***********

 

As the men repacked the raft after lunch, Marco managed to get Chet off to the side. “You really okay, amigo?”

 

“Yeah, Marco. Really. You know, once I got over the instant brain freeze from the cold, it was okay.”

 

“You took in a lot of water. I saw you go under. And I saw the waves keep hitting you in the face. Man, I think I would have panicked. I’m not sure I could have found that rope and grabbed on. Hell, I’m not sure I even would have ever come back to the surface in the first place.”

 

“You would have been fine. Just like I was. I didn’t want to end up in that river any more than you do, but the life vest did exactly what it was supposed to do, and it brought me right back up and made it easy to stay there. It took a few minutes, but once I got used to breathing deep in between the waves, I stopped swallowing water. Honestly, Marco. You’d have been fine. If you go in, just don’t panic and you’ll be fine.”

 

“Yeah, I know you’re right, but I sure hope I don’t get to prove that theory.”

 

***********

 

A hand clasped Chet’s shoulder, and he turned to see Doug standing beside him. “Well, guys, you think you’re ready to try it again?”

 

“Sure!” Chet answered enthusiastically.

 

“Yeah, let’s do it.” Marco added.

 

Chet discarded his blanket and pulled on the damp splash jacket and life vest. Johnny hurried to put out the campfire and wet down the ashes, while Marco and Roy gathered up the remnants of their lunch supplies. At the edge of the river, Hank was helping Doug reload the few items they’d used during their stopover, and within minutes, the men were taking their positions in the raft.

 

As they pushed away from the shoreline, Doug moved back into his role as guide. “We’ll get into the next set of rapids just around the bend.”

 

“Bow Wow Boogie, right?” asked Marco.

 

“That’s right, and it’s a Class III.”

 

Several glances confirmed what Doug had already suspected. The men were hesitant now; with one man having gone overboard, their confidence had suffered a bit.

 

“Now, remember, you’ve already made it safely through a Class IV, so you shouldn’t have any problem with this one. The important thing to remember is that you have to keep your mind on the river. Take a look at the wreckage there, but don’t lose your focus. The river is going to be moving fast and there’s one significant drop, so keep a firm grip on your paddle, and listen for my commands.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Got it.”

 

“We’re ready, Doug.”

 

The men didn’t see Doug’s grin, but they could hear it in his voice. “Alright then, hard forward.”

 

The waves crashed around and over the raft as it bounced its way through the rocky passage, but everyone managed to keep their seat. About halfway through the rapids, they noticed a few large boulders in the middle of the river. Just as promised, the bow of a boat was wedged there, its nose pointing skyward, and its hull shattered by the incessant pounding of the fast water. But the rafters were too busy to dwell on the fate of that boat.

 

Suddenly, the front of the raft was in mid-air as the river dropped off below them, but almost immediately a wave of water washed over them as the rubber bottom made contact once more with the river’s surface.

 

With Doug calling out commands behind them, they paddled furiously, first forward, then back. . left side or right. A kind of time warp existed, a situation where it seemed like forever as they bounced their way through, yet seemed like seconds before they were out of the worst part. As they emerged from the rough water, excited shouts erupted from the raft.

 

“Alright!”

 

“We made it!”

 

“Man, that was fantastic!”

 

“Too much!”

 

“Way to go.”

 

“What a rush!”

 

Doug waited until the excited voices calmed a little, and then he added his own. “Good work, guys! Excellent job. Now we’ll have a little calm spell, some easy water, but you’ll have to work harder. It’s going to take some paddling, so if you’re ready, all forward.”

 

The men worked together, paddles dipping in unison as the raft moved down river. After a while, the familiar chatter gave way to silence as they enjoyed the changing scenery, the wildlife, but primarily, the simple pleasure of being on the river. Doug pointed out an occasional landmark, but for the most part, the next hour was a combination of silent teamwork and appreciation for their surroundings.

 

It was Roy who finally ended the silence. “Joanne sure would love this.”

 

“Yeah, Patty would too.” Mike added. “What about Grace?”

 

Hank nodded in agreement. “She’d love the quiet, and the view.”

 

Johnny turned to Chet, who was already looking back at Marco, and the three bachelors found themselves exchanging looks of surprise. It was Johnny who voiced their astonishment. “What do you mean they’d like it here? I thought all the wives were against this trip. Heck, Roy, there for a while, I wasn’t sure you’d even get to come along. Now you’re telling us that Joanne would love it here? ”

 

“Well . . . yeah, parts of it. The scenery, the serenity. .”

 

“Uh huh . . . maybe if we could get Scotty to beam her over here,” Chet offered.

 

“Good one, Chet,” Johnny laughed. “We could just transport the wives over the rapids and dump ‘em here in the middle of the raft.”

 

“Hey, you should’ve tried that, Kelly, right before you fell in, you could have hollered, ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ It would have saved us all a lot of time and energy.” Hank suggested.

 

It took several minutes for the laughter to die down, but eventually Hank continued. “You’re probably right, though. Grace wouldn’t like that rough water. She’d enjoy this part, but I can’t see her wearing all this gear, managing the rapids, or camping out. Guess I’ll just have to tell her about it.”

 

“I think Patty would like it,” Mike offered.

 

“You mean, the whole experience?” Marco asked.

 

“Yeah. If I could get her to try it, I’m pretty sure she’d be hooked. She’s always been a pretty good sport, and she likes the water.”

 

Johnny couldn’t hide his look of surprise. “Hey, that’s cool, Mike. That’s the kind of woman I want to find, someone who’d enjoy doing the stuff I like.”

 

“Right, Gage, just keep wishin’. ‘Cause you know there’s not a chick out there that would like all the weird things you do.”

 

“Oh, shut up, Chet.”

 

Another round of laughter followed, but when quiet descended upon them, Roy finally agreed with Hank. “Joanne would like the view, but I guess not the rest of it. Guess this won’t be a sport I’ll be taking up.”

 

“Sure you can, Roy. Don’t forget the kids are getting older; Chris and Jennifer would love this, and there’s a lot of rivers that are easier than this one. You should take them out next summer, it’d be a blast!”

 

“Uh huh . . . and of course, their Uncle Johnny would have to come along.” Roy grinned.

 

“Well . . . uh . . .if you wanted me to, yeah sure . . . I’d go along.”

 

“I’m just not sure Joanne would go for it. Especially after all the arguments she raised on this trip.”

 

“Hey, it’ll be fine. You’ll come home unscathed, and she’ll be won over. Just you wait and see. By the time we get done talking to her, she’ll probably want to go along.”

 

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”

 

Chet had been following the conversation, but could no longer hold back. “Hey, Gage, there’s a chick who’d like the things you do. Jennifer would go anywhere her Uncle Johnny goes.”

 

“Chet! Didn’t I tell you to shut up?”

 

***********

 

The afternoon sun was changing subtly. The warmth from its rays was now periodically interrupted as an outcropping of trees, high on the hillside, blocked the sun from view. Doug knew that while they were still several hours away from sunset, they were approaching the time of day when they’d be without benefit of the added warmth of the direct sun. That meant that it would be that much more difficult to recover from a fall into the frigid water. It also meant that wet clothing would not dry out. Looking at his watch, he also realized that despite the extra time taken at lunch, they were about thirty minutes ahead of schedule. Barring any difficulties on the last rapid of the day, they would reach their planned camp in plenty of time to set up and eat, well before sunset.

 

But, there was still the last rapid of the day to contend with. It was a class IV. The men had handled the previous class IV with respectable skill, and except for the near miss with Hank, and Marco having dropped his paddle, they had passed through like seasoned paddlers. Of course, that had been at 11 AM this morning. The men were now far more comfortable with the raft and their paddles. They were also far more tired. Though not worried, exactly, Doug hoped that they’d traverse the last rapid without incident. It would make for a much more comfortable first night on the river.

 

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

 

Johnny had fallen into a comfortable rhythm with his paddling as the afternoon had worn on. Though not intentional, he realized that he and Roy were paddling in sync, even to the point of stopping at the same time to take a brief rest. The constant, easy paddling was far different from the focused efforts that had been necessary to pass through the rapids. In some ways, it was harder on the muscles. For one thing, there was no rush of adrenaline to aid in the effort. There was also no break, though Doug had been quick to point out that they could each feel free to take breaks when needed. The river, though flat, had been pushing them forward at a slow but steady pace. As long as only one paddler on a side of the raft took a break at the same time, it did not impact on the path of the raft.

 

Pulling his paddle out of the water for a moment, Johnny took a deep breath, trying to identify some of the fresh smells that filled the air. He wasn’t sure what they were, but he knew what they were not. They were not car exhaust, or chemicals burning, or the antiseptic smells of the hospital, and that made them good. Doug interrupted his thoughts.

 

“Hey guys, I think we should talk about what’s coming up on the river, okay? Let’s stop paddling and let the river do the work for a minute.”

 

The men pulled their paddles into the raft, and turned their attention toward their guide.

 

“First of all,” Doug began, “is everyone still having fun?”

 

“Are you kidding?” Johnny asked. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this day. I mean, I can only speak for myself, but, yeah, I’m having a blast. Of course, I have a few back and shoulder muscles that may not agree with my assessment by morning, but it’s about time they joined in the work.”

 

Marco jumped in. “Hey, even I’m liking this, and I figure if I’m happy, everyone else must be, right?”

 

The other’s voiced their agreement.

 

“Okay then,” Doug continued. “In about ten or fifteen minutes, if we just float, we’ll come up on the last rapid of the day. It’s a class IV rapid called Twins. It’s a little different from the one we passed through this morning. That one was class IV mostly because of the length and the single drop. Twins is class IV because there is some complicated maneuvering involved.”

 

Johnny had known that they still had their most complicated paddling in front of them. But with the lull of the afternoon, he had somehow begun to believe that the day would end on this calm note. He had thought that he was regretting that fact. Now he realized he had been looking forward to it. As he listened to Doug explain what to expect next, Johnny forced his mind to shift gears and get psyched up for the challenge still in front of them.

 

“It’s still a ways away, but if you listen, you can hear the water. I’m going to try to explain what the river does. We can make it through this if we stay focused. If I thought it was going to be a problem, we could portage around it, but you guys are doing great, and I don’t think that’s necessary.”

 

“What does it mean to portage?” Mike asked.

 

“Portage means to pull everyone out of the raft and walk on the river bank around the rapid. If you do that, there are two options. You can use ropes to guide the raft through the rapid, or you can haul the raft out as well. I have to be honest with you guys. With some groups, I’ve decided to portage this section of the river, especially where it’s at the end of the day, and folks are getting tired. But I don’t think we need to do that with you all. I think you can handle it. There is another choice of course, and that is to let one or two people portage while the rest run the rapid. Tell you what, why don’t you let me tell you about it, then we can decide.”

 

Johnny couldn’t imagine deciding to get out and walk around a rapid that Doug thought they were capable of running, especially one that was only a class IV. After all, Doug had said there was also a class V rapid on this river. But he also recognized that not everyone might agree with him, so he remained quiet and listened.

 

“Up ahead, a few things happen to the river.” Doug was speaking loudly now to make sure everyone heard all he had to say. “First, the river narrows some, which makes it a little faster. Then the river makes a sharp turn to the left. When that happens, the current is going to want to push us into the right bank. There are some low hanging trees there so that’s one reason we need to stay away from the outer elbow of the turn. But we can’t hug the left bank either because of the rocks, so we have to try to stay pretty near the middle of the river. Immediately after the turn, we’re going to see the twins.

 

The twins are two large boulders on either side of the river. The first boulder is on the left, so we need to be a little to the right. However, a few feet after that, the other twin is on the right so we have to turn quickly back toward the left. There is room to maneuver, but only just, so we have to be pretty precise. If we bump against one of the boulders it’s not a big deal. Problem is that the second boulder is shaped in such a way that the raft could actually ride up its side for a bit. If that happens, we could tip the whole raft over, so we want to make sure we do this right.

 

After the twins, we should be pretty good. A little more fast water, then the river widens and we’ll see our campsite on the east, or right, bank. So we’ll get a little more sun shine, and with any luck we’ll get to watch a pretty sun set.”

 

Johnny could picture the river as Doug had described it. He understood Doug’s concern, but hoped that the men would decide to run it rather than portage. It would be a shame to miss such a thrill. He listened as Cap posed the question that needed to be answered. “Well, guys, what do you think? Anyone want to portage this?”

 

The answer was a unanimous “NO!”

 

“Alright then,” Doug said. “We’re going to see it in just another minute. Get ready for it. Listen closely because we’re going to spend a lot of time with one side paddle forward while the other paddles back. Okay?”

 

Johnny nodded with the others and looked over at Roy. Roy reached up and brushed his wet hair out of his eyes one last time. Perhaps sensing that his partner was watching him, he looked over.

 

“You ready for this, Junior?”

 

“Heck, I’ve jumped off buildings with nothing to hold me but a little rope. Who am I to be upset by a little bit of water? What about you? You ready, Pally?”

 

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

 

“Okay, all forward!” came the command from the back of the raft.

 

Johnny watched as the river played out exactly as Doug had described. With less space between the banks, the water moved faster as it approached its sharp turn. Johnny felt the adrenaline surge. The aches in his muscles disappeared with the introduction of the endorphins. He paddled forward and briefly wondered if Doug had somehow forgotten to change the command. The riverbank and the low trees seemed to be approaching very quickly.

 

“Right forward, left back HARD!”

 

Despite the forward thrust of the river, the paddlers forced the raft to turn hard to the left. Johnny ducked to avoid being hit by the trees, although it was probably unnecessary. No sooner had they successfully negotiated the turn, than Johnny saw the twins in the river ahead. Before he could process the fact that they were headed directly for the first rock, he heard Doug shout out his next command.

 

“Left forward, right back! Now! Right, pull hard!”

 

Johnny could hear the tension in Doug’s voice, something that had not been present before, even when Chet had fallen into the river. He did not take the time to wonder whether or not that meant they were in trouble. He simply dug in and paddled back with all his strength. He felt the bump as the raft nudged up against the first twin, but the raft continued unimpeded on its course.

 

“Right forward, left back! Come on, left. Pull hard!”

 

The raft turned quickly, and completely missed the second twin. Johnny relaxed but Doug did not. Although they seemed to be doing well, the tension was still heavy in Doug’s voice, and this time Johnny thought he heard a tinge of fear. He assumed he was just imagining it, since all was going without incident so far. He was wrong.

 

“All back! Hard! Now! Come on guys! Dig in as hard as you can!” Doug was shouting.


As Johnny complied, he suddenly saw the problem. A few hundred feet downstream, a tree was down, blocking the left half of the river. If they went into the tree, they would be in serious trouble. Johnny knew enough about fast water in drainage ditches to know all about the risks of strainers created by debris in the river. The raft could get stuck and a man who was thrown out could find himself trapped by the tree branches. The river current would force him down under the strainer and unless he somehow made it through, he would be dead in minutes.

 

Doug had turned the raft so it was facing the opposite shore.

 

“All forward!” Doug’s voice was loud and commanding. “Hard, guys! Dig in! Paddle like your life depended on it!” He did not add that it might.

 

With the efforts of all in the raft, the men reached the right side of the river just in time to narrowly miss the tree. Johnny felt Doug use his paddle to push up against the fallen timber, which assured that they had an extra foot of clearance as they moved by.

 

Just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. The water calmed, and the men tried to calm their heavy breathing.

 

“Alright men. Job well done. Paddles up. Everyone relax. I don’t know about you, but I need a second to regroup.”

 

Johnny wondered how many of the others realized the peril they had just faced. Looking at Roy, he was sure that he had known. Roy now had his eyes closed, perhaps in an effort to slow his heartbeat and calm his breathing. Johnny looked around and noticed that others were doing the same thing. He took a deep breath and tried to refocus. It only took a moment of breathing in the air around him, and he was at peace. Doug’s voice, once again, broke his concentration.

 

“Okay guys, two strokes forward and let’s sit for a minute.”

 

The men paddled the two strokes and found themselves parked in a calm eddy on the riverside. Johnny pulled his paddle into the raft and turned to face the guide.

 

***********

 

Roy leaned back and stretched his back and shoulder muscles as he turned to face Doug. He couldn’t help but notice the looks of relief and elation on the faces of the men around him. Johnny, especially, seemed to be reveling in the experience.

 

At the back of the raft, Doug had found his small dry sac among the supplies. Holding it tightly, he opened the clasp and removed a two-way radio. Roy hadn’t realized that Doug had brought along a means of communicating with Barry or someone else on shore, but now that he thought about it, it made perfect sense.

 

“I need to do this now,” Doug explained. “Once we get to our camp site, I lose the signal.”

 

Looking around, Roy realized he was not the only one who was trying to work the aches and kinks out of his back and shoulders. Mike was flexing his shoulders while Marco rotated his right arm. Cap and Johnny were both rubbing the muscles on the back of their necks. Chet seemed to be trying to flex every muscle in his upper body, waving his arms back and forth despite the fact that he was still holding his paddle. Before Roy could comment on the risk Chet was posing, Doug made contact with someone on the other end of the radio. “Hey Barry, are you there?”

 

The static squealed on the radio before Barry’s voice could be heard. “Hey, Doug. How’s it going out there?”

 

“It’s been a great day. We’re already to the campsite. It’s just up ahead.”

 

“Anyone take a swim?”

 

“Yeah, but no problem. These guys are unbelievable. I’m having a great time. We’re actually a little ahead of schedule.”

 

“That’s great. The weather looks good for the next few days. Temps in the 70’s, dropping into the 40’s overnight. But it looks like the storm is going to hit us Thursday. It’s due in sometime late in the day. You won’t want to be late getting off the river. They’re predicting a major electrical storm with high winds, so if it comes in early, be careful.”

 

“Okay. We’ll watch out for it. Looks like we’ll have a great run. I’ll be in touch tomorrow night to give you a better idea of when we expect to reach the take out. If I can’t get a signal, I may not be able to reach you until we leave the canyon. If you don’t hear from me, make sure the bus is there by 3 PM.”

 

“Where do you plan to camp tomorrow?”

 

“Not sure yet. Either Martha’s Pass or at the Seven Mile Creek, depending on how fast we go.”

 

“Did you portage the Twins?”

 

“Nope, we ran it. No problem, but hey, you need to let folks know there’s a ten foot tree down off the left bank right after the second twin. It’s creating quite a strainer, and it comes up fast. We may want to look at sending someone in to take it out.”

 

“Got it. I’ll contact Dave. I think he’s got a run leaving later this week. Then when you guys both get back, we can figure out what to do.”

 

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll try to talk to you tomorrow. If not, I’ll see you at the take-out. But, Barry, don’t forget to keep the radio with you this time.”

 

“Right, boss. Like I’m the only one who’s ever lost a radio.”

 

“Hey, I didn’t lose it that time. It just got temporarily misplaced is all.”

 

The sound of laughter echoed over the radio before Barry signed off.

 

As Doug turned off the unit and bent down to pick up his dry sac, Chet swung around to face him, paddle still in hand. Cap nearly yelled out his warning.

 

“Chet, you twit! Watch out where you’re swinging that …”

 

Before Cap could finish, or Chet could react to his words, Doug let out a scream. Roy watched as the T-grip of Chet’s paddle made direct contact with Doug’s eye. Reacting to the pain, Doug drew his hand to his face, releasing the radio, which took one bounce off the side of the raft and disappeared into the river.

 

“Shit! Oh damn!” A string of curses continued to pour out of Doug’s mouth, as Roy and Johnny instinctively and simultaneously moved toward the injured man.

 

Chet, never having taken his eyes off the point where the radio disappeared, prepared to jump in the river. As he lifted one leg over the side of the raft, Doug reached out and grabbed hold of the man’s life jacket.

 

“Let me go! I know where it went in. I can get it,” Chet insisted.

 

With one hand still covering his injured eye, Doug maintained his hold on the jacket.

 

“Don’t bother, Chet. It doesn’t matter. It’s not water proof.”

 

“We can take it apart and dry it out.”

 

“It won’t work, Chet. Let it go. It’s not that big of a deal.”

 

Cap grabbed hold of the other side of Chet’s vest and firmly pulled down. “Listen to Doug. Just sit, and for God’s sake put that damn paddle down.”

 

Impeded by the supplies, Roy and Johnny found themselves unable to reach Doug’s side. Considering the options, Roy remembered what Doug had just said about the campsite. It may be quicker to go forward than to try moving this stuff here.

 

“Doug, how bad is your eye?”

 

“It’s okay. No big deal.”

 

“Take your hand away, let me see it.”

 

Doug looked up, and slowly removed his hand from his face. Even from a few feet away, Roy could see that Doug’s face was swollen and bleeding, but he wasn’t able to tell how much of the damage, if any, was to the eye itself.

 

Roy looked at his partner, seeking an opinion on their best course of action. Johnny asked Doug, “How far to the campsite?”

 

“About five minutes at most. It’s just around the bend on the right.”

 

“I think we should just get him there, and then take care of it,” Roy suggested.

 

Johnny nodded his agreement.

 

“Okay, men,” Cap stepped in. “You heard Roy. Let’s paddle hard and get to the campsite. We’re going to have to do this without a rudder, so let’s at least try to make it without too many too many unplanned detours.”

 

Doug spoke up. “Thanks, Hank, but I can still provide a rudder. It’s mostly a straight shot, anyways.”

 

Within five minutes, the raft was being pulled on shore. As Doug began to help unload, two sets of hands firmly pulled him back and guided him to a rock on the river shore.

 

“No way,” Johnny said. “You are now under our direction, for the next few minutes at least.”

 

“That’s right,” Roy added. “You’re now officially a victim. That means we’re now officially paramedics.”

 

“And since you’re part of this team now,” Johnny offered, “once we’re done, you get to kill Chet Kelly.”

 

“Do I have to?” Doug asked.

 

Both Roy and Johnny nodded. “Yup,” Johnny replied, “if you don’t, he’ll think you’re mad, and he’ll sulk all evening.”

 

Roy gently held Doug’s injured eye open while Johnny examined the area more closely, using the flashlight to check for possible damage to the eye itself.

 

“I’m confused,” Doug admitted, pointedly ignoring the ministrations of the paramedics. “If I don’t kill him, then Chet will think I’m mad?”

 

“I know it’s strange, but trust us on this one,” Roy advised. “He’ll expect you to make him pay. Now, can you cover your other eye and tell me if your vision is impaired?”

 

Doug obeyed the instructions. “I can see fine. I’ve been through worse. Hey, how about if I make him clean the fish you guys are going to catch?”

 

“Oh yeah,” Johnny grinned. “That’s even better than making him clean a latrine.”

 

Cap’s voice interrupted their conversation. “Um, you do have something else besides fish for dinner, right? Please tell me you brought peanut butter.”

 

Doug looked at Roy and Johnny questioningly.


”Is he serious?”

 

“’Fraid so,” Roy replied. “Cap doesn’t do fish.”

 

“Do you catch them?”

 

“I’ll catch them,” Cap promised. “Just don’t ask me to touch them, clean them, cook them, or eat them. But you hand me a rod with a worm already on it, and I’ll gladly hold it out over the river.”

 

Doug grinned widely before grimacing in pain.

 

“How’s his eye, John?” Cap asked.

 

“I don’t see any sign of damage to his eye.” Turning back to Doug he continued, “You’re gonna have one hell of a headache and a beaut of a shiner by tonight.”

 

“It could even swell shut,” Roy added. “In another setting I’d say you should hold ice on it, but maybe we can make something work with the water from the river. I put a butterfly bandage just above your eyebrow where it was bleeding some. That should be okay. I’ll get you a couple of aspirin.”

 

Johnny grabbed a towel from the first aide supplies. “I’ll get this wet and you can hold it over your eye. It’s not ice but I think Chet can tell you it’s pretty close.”

 

***********

 

Chet had helped unload the raft and now stood in the background and watched as Roy and Johnny tended to Doug. He was unable to hear their conversation, but he could tell from Doug’s expressions that the man was in pain. The occasional laughter calmed some of his fears, and he was appreciative of the fact that his friends were clearly serving to ease what might have been a very uncomfortable situation.

 

With a sigh, Chet forced himself to walk over to the small group. Their laughter died off as he approached, and he swallowed hard at the look on Cap’s face.

 

How could I be so stupid? I knew better than to be swinging that paddle around. The man knew he owed their guide an apology. The accident was unintentional. Nonetheless, it was his responsibility, a fact that Chet did not take lightly.

 

“Is he okay?” Chet asked.

 

“Yeah, he’s going to be fine,” Roy replied.

 

“Hey, Doug, I’m really sorry. Man, you gotta know, I didn’t do that on purpose.”

 

“Really? Wow, I thought sure you’d been planning it all day,” was Doug’s reply.

 

Chet looked to make sure Doug was kidding. Assured of that fact, he replied, “No way. If I’d been planning it, it would have been Gage here who caught the paddle, and he would have ended up in the water, for sure.”

 

Before Johnny could respond, Chet continued. “Seriously though, Doug. I really am sorry. If there’s anything that I can do…”

 

“Well, now that you mentioned it, Chet. You need to set up camp, collect some wood, start a fire, catch some fish, clean the fish, cook dinner, clean up… You wouldn’t mind taking care of all that, would you?”

 

Chet sputtered for a minute. “Well, um, sure, um, I mean, I’ll help, you know?”

 

“Tell you what, Chet. You start collecting the firewood and building the fire. Then you can clean the fish once they’re caught, okay?”

 

“Well sure. I mean, that’s fair, right? But you know, you better let Mike do the fishing. If you wait for Gage here to catch the fish, we’ll never eat.”

 

“Actually Chet, Hank here has agreed to be in charge of the fishing.”

 

“Oh my God,” Chet mumbled as he walked away, “the only fish Cap ever caught was a plastic one at the game booth at the fireman’s picnic. We’re never gonna eat.”

 

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

 

Contrary to Chet’s concerns, the fish were biting, and dinner was plentiful and satisfying. Clean up was quick, and the men were soon settled around a roaring campfire.

 

Wet suits had long since been replaced by jeans and sweatshirts, and wet clothes were placed on rocks near the fire, in hopes that they would dry out before morning. Warm and dry for the first time since early morning, the men were able to fully appreciate the beauty of the evening sky.

 

“I could get used to this,” Mike commented as he moved closer to the fire.

 

“Imagine that,” Marco said, “Mike Stoker happy to be sitting in front of a fire with a whole river of water rushing past.”

 

“It’s more than the fire and the water, Marco,” Mike shot back. “It’s the whole thing. The whole day has been great. Don’t you guys feel it? It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before.”

 

“How often do you do this, Doug?” Cap asked.

 

“Often as I can,” was his reply. “During the spring and summer I manage to get out on a river about once a week. Mostly it’s day trips, but the trips like this… these are my favorites.”

 

“Do you ever get tired of it?” Johnny wanted to know.

 

“Well, there are some days when someone is here who just shouldn’t be, you know, someone forced into this who is really better off spending their days behind a desk being waited on by their secretary. Those days I could live without. But mostly, no. I never get tired of it. How about you guys? You ever get tired of being firemen?”

 

“Tell you what,” Johnny answered. “You tell me that you’re hiring river guides, and I’ll walk away from it right this minute.”

 

“You don’t mean that,” Roy countered. “This is great, but you don’t mean that you’d really walk away. I know you better than that.”

 

“Yeah, Gage,” Chet added. “It’s in your blood. You know that as well as we do. Once a fireman, always a fireman.”

 

“What made you become a fireman, Chet?” Doug wanted to know.

 

“I’m a Kelly. What else was I going to do?”

 

“Huh? What does being a Kelly have to do with it?”

 

“The Kellys have always been firemen. My father is a fireman. His father was a fireman and so was his father before him. Uncles, cousins, my brother, we’re all firemen. It’s in the blood.”

 

“Did you ever think about doing anything else?”

 

“Are you kidding? No way! I’d have been thrown out in the street for even thinking such a thought. Besides, what could be better than being a fireman?”

 

“Nada,” Marco offered. “When I was seven, my Tia Marita’s home caught fire. I knew that night this was what I’d do. I was fascinated and terrified. Those firemen worked really hard to save her house and her things. They even went back for her dog, Taco. I decided that this was something I wanted to be a part of. Being a fireman means helping people, being there for them when they think there’s no hope. That’s what makes this more than just a job for me. I could never walk away.”

 

Silence followed as each man contemplated the truth of Marco’s statement. Roy looked up as Johnny began to speak.

 

“I couldn’t either. Not really. You’re right, Roy. I’d never be able to walk away. Not that there aren’t days when it’s tempting. I could be happy running rivers, you know, but in the end, I’d miss it. I’d feel, kinda, only half there, you know? I’d have to go back.”

 

“Go back to what?” Mike asked. “If you couldn’t be a paramedic, would you still want to be a fireman?”

 

“I don’t know. I can’t separate those things in my mind anymore. I used to think they were separate, but they aren’t. I’m a fireman, I’m a rescue man, I’m a paramedic -- it all goes together.”

 

Mike wasn’t going to let it go. “What if the county changed things, like up north, and the paramedics operated under the hospital rather than the fire department? What if you had to ride an ambulance all day and let other guys fight the fires and do the rescue the work? Then what would you choose?”

 

Johnny shook his head. “Geez, Mike. You say nothing for five years and now this. I liked it better when you were the strong silent type.”

 

Once the laughter abated, Johnny continued. “I really don’t know. Honestly, I can’t explain it. All I know for sure is that I’m doing something I was meant to do.”

 

Johnny looked over and noticed his partner nodding. Without any words being spoken, it was clear that everyone was waiting for Roy to speak next.

 

“Well,” Roy began, “I can tell you that it’s not because it makes Joanne happy. And it’s definitely not for the money. In fact, if there’s one thing that is most likely to lead to an argument at home, it’s my career choice. So I guess I must be getting something out of it to stick with it.”

 

Roy stopped, but no one spoke, so he continued. “I’m not really sure why I decided to be a fireman in the first place. It wasn’t a family profession. My dad was in the construction business. My mom thought I was crazy. But there was just something about it that called out to me. Once I started though, I knew I’d never stop. What could be more right than trying to stop a force that has the power to destroy. If I stopped being a fireman and a paramedic, I don’t know what else I’d do that would ever feel as worthwhile. As for the paramedic part, well, that just makes it all the better. It’s just like the fire fighting. Once I tasted it, I knew I could never turn back.”

 

Doug turned to Mike. “What about you?”

 

Chet answered before Mike could respond. “Are you kidding? Mikey was born a fireman. Hell, legend has it that the first time he pee’d he put out his father’s cigarette.”

 

Mike joined the laughter before adding, “Nah, you got it wrong, Chet. It was a cigar. I don’t do anything small.”

 

The men waited expectantly for Mike to continue, but he remained silent for several minutes. When he spoke, his voice was low. “There was never any question about what I was going to do with my life. I guess Kelly’s legend isn’t really that far off. My dad was a fireman, and ever since I can remember, I wanted to be just like him. He used to let me visit him at his station, and I would sit up on the big rigs and pretend to drive. Even back then, I knew that was what I was going to do. The day I became an engineer was one of the best days of my life. I finally fulfilled a life long dream, and you should have seen the look of pride on my old man’s face. There’s no way in hell I’d ever walk away from this job. When I go, they’ll be carrying me out on top of my engine.”

 

“Hey guys, we’ve gotta get him out in the fresh air more often,” Marco piped up. “Here all these years we thought he had nothing to say, and turns out it was just the smoke and smog constricting his vocal chords.”

 

Cap was still shaking his head when he realized all eyes were on him.


”Well, Hank,” Doug persisted. “What’s your story?”

 

Hank cleared his throat before he began. He had never really talked about this with his men. Knowing their stories, he wasn’t sure how they would react to his. But he couldn’t very well deflect the question now. So he took a deep breath and began.

 

“Well, the truth of the matter is, it wasn’t a choice but was something that was thrust upon me. When I joined the service, at the end of boot camp they assigned us all to different companies. My sergeant came up to me and said, ‘Stanley, you’re gonna fight fires.’ So I did. When I got out of the service, I didn’t know how to do much else, so I joined the department. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s just that I didn’t exactly get the chance to choose.”

 

“But, Cap,” Mike pushed, “you’ve been a fireman for how many years now? Surely you’ve had the opportunity to make a different choice along the way. Why did you stick with it? There was always the GI bill. You could have changed careers anytime.”

 

“I never wanted to change. When I got out of the service, I wanted to get married and I needed a job. It was the easiest choice to make at the time. I don’t know when it became more than that. Maybe it was when Grace’s father offered to get me set up in his business. Grace wanted me to say yes. The kids wanted me to say yes. The money was better. It was sure as hell safer. But I said no. I guess it was then that I knew that, my choice or not, it was the right choice. ”

 

The silence that ensued was at first comforting, then disquieting. Doug wondered if he had made the right decision in leading the men down this path. As he considered what to do about it, the crew took matters into their own hands.

 

“Hey, Cap,” Mike broke the silence. “Since we seem to playing truth or dare here tonight, I’ve got something I need to know.”

 

Had the comment come from Chet, Cap may have ignored it. Coming from his engineer, he felt obligated to respond. “Okay, Mike. What is it?”

 

“What ever possessed you to set fire to the chief’s hat? Time to fess up.”

 

“That’s a secret I’ll take to the grave, my friend.”

 

With that, the serious conversation of the night drew to a close. The sun had set. The men spent several more minutes chatting and laughing together before banking the fire, exchanging goodnights, and settling into their tents.

 

***********

 

Doug had sought Hank’s advice on how to assign tents. In the end, the captain had decided to put Marco and Mike together, while he bunked in with Doug. That left Roy, Johnny and Chet sharing the bigger tent. As Johnny and Chet began immediately to bicker, Hank wondered what had possessed him to ever put them together.

 

As if reading Hank’s thoughts, Doug said quietly, “This is supposed to be about team building remember. Let them work it out.”

 

Cap wasn’t sure he agreed, but it was too late to make a change now. Just the same, before retiring to his own tent, he stuck his head through the flap of the three-man tent. “Goodnight, gentlemen,” he said. Looking directly at Johnny and Chet, he continued. “You two are going to get along tonight, right?”

 

Both men looked up with put on expressions of pure innocence.

 

“Of course, Cap,” Chet replied. “We’re buddies, remember?”

 

“Yeah, Cap,” Johnny added. “You have nothing to worry about.”

 

Cap shook his head and walked away, noting that Mike and Marco’s tent was already dark and silent. Returning to his own tent, he climbed into his sleeping bag and closed his eyes, glad to note things seemed to be calm.

 

He was just beginning to relax when he heard Roy shout, “Chet, what the hell are you doing?”

 

Cap groaned but made no move to intervene. Instead he lay back and listened to the conversation coming from the tent next to his.

 

“Kelly, what is that?”

 

“Nothing for you to worry about, Gage. Just go to sleep.”

 

“Chet, what are you doing? Would you stop kicking me? Ow! Johnny, that was my head you just punched.”

 

“I’m just trying to see what Chet’s doing. Kelly, what is that thing? Oh my God! Roy, he’s got an air mattress. He’s blowing up an air mattress!”

 

“Mind your own business, Gage. What’s it to you? It fit in my gear. Just because I wanted to be a little better rested in the morning, what’s so wrong with that, huh?”

 

“You’re soft, Kelly. I can’t believe you brought an air mattress. Can you believe that, Roy?”

 

“What I can’t believe, Chet, is that you waited until now to blow it up. Would you just hurry up and be done with it so we can get some sleep? You aren’t the only one who wants to get some rest tonight.”

 

“Would you guys ALL shut up?” Marco hollered from his tent. “For Pete’s sake, it’s worse than being in the dorm. Madre de Dios, go to sleep!”

 

After a few more minutes things quieted down, and the men were soundly sleeping.

 

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

 

The sun was above the treetops by the time the men finished breakfast, broke camp, and stored their gear on the rafts. Their aching muscles had caused only a slight delay as they got started, but now that they were on the river again, all that was forgotten. Sunlight glinting off the water gave the scene a surreal quality, and even Chet was quiet as the first leg of the day’s journey began.

 

The morning passed without incident. Every rapid mastered, further built each man’s confidence and sense of accomplishment. At Doug’s suggestion, the men had shifted positions at the start, and again after the mid-morning snack, allowing everyone the opportunity to experience paddling in the front position. By noon, the men were flying high with exhilaration.

 

During lunch, Doug described the conditions they would confront over the course of the afternoon paddle. “Well, are you guys ready to face the big one this afternoon?”

 

All the men nodded eagerly, knowing that the lone class V rapid of the trip was still in front of them.

 

“Okay then,” Doug continued. “Mile Long is about twenty minutes from here. It’s a class V for several reasons, not the least of which is its length. It really does continue for almost a mile without letting up. It has two parts, The Rock Garden, and The Narrows. Now that we’re back in the canyons, there’s no real option for portaging since the riverbanks are 300 feet high. About ten years ago, there was a landslide that dropped hundreds of rocks into the river at Mile Long. The result was a rock garden that’s very complicated to navigate. It’s possible, and I’ve done it dozens of times without mishap, but I’ve also had people go over there. I actually flipped an entire raft once. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to be ready for anything.”

 

“Once we come out of The Rock Garden, the rapid continues because the river narrows and makes some tight turns. As it opens again, we’ll find more boulders,” continued Doug.

 

“Now listen carefully, because this is important,” the guide cautioned. “If you end up in the water before or in The Rock Garden, try to get back to the boat immediately. We’ll try to get you back in before the river narrows. But do not, and I can’t stress this enough, do not put your feet down. If you get entrapped in The Rock Garden, it’s going to be very difficult to get you out because of the force of the current. You are better off riding The Narrows. If you go in after The Rock Garden, or are still in the water as we hit The Narrows, put your feet up in front of you, try to avoid hitting the canyon walls, and enjoy the ride. There is no way for us to pull you out of The Narrows. The water is just too fast. As soon as the river widens, start swimming. You should be able to reach a calm area on the right before you hit the next outcropping of rocks. If we lose you, and you’re swimming at that point, watch for the rope as the river widens. We’ll have it waiting for you. I don’t say this to panic you, but it’s better to be prepared.”

 

Without being told, the men shifted back to their original positions as they re-boarded the raft. There was no banter, no light conversation as they moved down the river. Each man focused on the challenge he was about to face.

 

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

 

As Roy allowed himself to admire the beauty of the canyon, he had to admit that his exhilaration had turned to apprehension. He’d listened closely as Doug prepared them for the upcoming rapid, and although he trusted the man’s faith in their ability, Roy had to acknowledge that he had some doubts. After all, this was still very new to all of them.

 

From his position in the front of the raft, Roy looked over at Johnny, trying to figure out if his partner shared his concerns. But the expression on Johnny’s face was unreadable. Staring straight ahead, the man wore the same look of concentration that Roy had seen many times before. It was the look he wore during difficult rescues, when he was shutting out everything that might distract him from the task at hand. Although Roy would have liked to make eye contact at that moment, he knew that would not happen now, and he turned back to face the river.

 

The roar of the rapid grew louder, and Roy dutifully followed instructions as Doug shouted to paddle forward.

 

As they entered the rapid, Roy immediately understood what Doug had been saying about the difficulty of navigating this portion of the river. Despite Doug’s commands and the skillful paddling of the crew, the raft repeatedly bumped up against, and over the rocks that surrounded them. Just as the raft turned, avoiding a sharp rock ahead, the front of the craft slid up a boulder hiding just below the surface. The left front of the raft was suddenly up and out of the river, and despite his best effort, Roy’s foothold was lost. Instantly, he knew that he was headed for the water.

 

Okay, I can handle this, he told himself as he felt his body bounce off the thwart and tumble over the side. Trying to keep hold of his paddle with his right hand, Roy grabbed for the chicken line with his left, looping it under his arm. His relief at finding the line was short lived as he felt his body jerked back by the current. The snap of the bone was something he both felt and heard, as his arm was forced in a direction opposite of his body. His brain screamed at him to hold on, but his arm was unable to obey that command, and his last physical connection with the raft was lost.

 

The river engulfed Roy. Water was everywhere he looked. He fought to hold his breath as the river bubbled and roared around his head. The force of the current pushed him downstream, tumbling him over and over until he didn’t know which way to reach for the surface. He panicked until he remembered what Doug had said about relaxing and letting the life vest do its job. When he stopped fighting the current, he quickly found himself drawn back up. Gasping for air, he managed to fill his lungs once before being forced under again.

 

The pattern repeated itself several times. Roy would surface just long enough to get a breath, but never long enough to make sense of his surroundings. At last he heard Johnny call out, and he realized the voice was behind him. Just as he turned to look for the rope, which he was sure was now at his side, Roy felt his head connect with something hard. A blinding flash of pain chased everything else from his mind, and Roy’s only thought as he slipped beneath the surface was How am I ever going to explain this to Joanne?

 

***********

 

Johnny tried to keep his mind on the river, struggling to shut out anything that might disrupt his concentration. However, he remained acutely aware of the men around him, and although he did not return the glance, he was conscious of the fact that Roy had looked in his direction before they entered the rapid.

 

From the very beginning, Johnny sensed that they were in for some trouble. There was simply no way that a raft this size was going to make it through, without striking at least some of the rocks strewn throughout. The best they could hope for would be to avoid rocks that would tip the raft or rip a hole in her side. The risk of the latter was immediately in front of them.

 

All of Johnny’s attention was focused on the jagged edge of the approaching rock. As he paddled hard, following Doug’s directions, he prepared to use his paddle to shove them away from danger if they got too close. Just before he had to make that decision, the raft turned away from the rock and toward apparent safety.

 

His relief was fleeting. Feeling the raft lift from the left, Johnny turned in time to see Roy disappearing over the side.

 

Shouting, “Roy’s over,” Johnny lunged for the other side. His relief at seeing Roy’s arm secured in the chicken line was quickly replaced by dread as he heard his friend scream out in pain. Reaching out, Johnny’s fingers found only air as Roy’s arm came free from the line, and he disappeared beneath the surface. Continuing on over the side, Johnny felt someone take hold of his vest as he grabbed blindly into the water, hoping to somehow reach his friend. Moments later he saw Roy resurface several feet from the raft.

 

Doug’s voice rang out over the others. “Mike, help Johnny. Everyone else, keep paddling! We can’t help Roy if we’re all in the water.”

 

Tuning out the rest of Doug’s paddling instructions, Johnny watched anxiously for Roy to resurface. As soon as the man’s head appeared, Johnny saw Mike throw the rope. Both men called out to Roy but there was no indication that they had been heard before he went under again. Mike quickly hauled in the rope and Johnny grabbed the other throw bag. The next time Roy’s head emerged from the water, both men threw lines and called out. Again it was to no avail.

 

The next time Roy was visible, Johnny realized they were losing ground. The distance between his friend and the raft was rapidly widening. As they threw the ropes a third time, Johnny saw Roy turn toward them, only to hear him cry out again in pain, before disappearing under the surface.

 

In that moment, Johnny made a decision. Roy was not going to be able to help in his own rescue. If he was going to have any chance, someone needed to be in the water with him. Without a second thought, Johnny scrambled over the edge of the raft and into the ice-cold water.

 

He was aware of several voices shouting as he went in, including Doug’s, “Johnny, don’t!” and Cap’s anxious, “John,” but he disregarded their concern as he focused on locating his partner. There was one voice, however, that he didn’t ignore.

 

“Johnny, grab the line.”

 

Just to his left floated a rope, and from the corner of his eye, Johnny could see Mike motioning toward it. Stretching out his left hand, Johnny snagged the line and immediately wrapped the rope around his wrist.

 

Never taking his eyes off the last place he had seen Roy, Johnny was rewarded when his partner surfaced again. Johnny took several strokes against the current, and grabbed onto Roy’s vest before he re-submerged. This time, as the wave forced Roy under water, Johnny was with him. With a swift kick, Johnny forced them back to the surface as he felt Mike hauling them toward the raft.

 

With Roy’s vest clasped firmly in his right hand, Johnny managed to keep the man’s head above the surface as Mike pulled them quickly through the water. Even in his precarious position, he could tell that Roy was barely conscious.

 

I can’t believe this. Johnny tightened his grip. Damn it! We are not going to lose you to a river. Aloud he said, “I’ve got you, Roy, hang on.”

 

The only response from the injured man was a low moan.

 

His color is so bad. No! Don’t do that yet. First things first. I’ve got to get him out of this river!

 

Kicking with the current, Johnny worked to help Mike as they drew close to the raft. With one last kick, Johnny felt a hand grab hold of his vest. At the same time, he was aware that other hands had grabbed hold of Roy and were hauling him into the raft.

 

“Watch his arm!” Johnny managed to call out, as he let go of the line in an attempt to help pull himself into the raft. It was a mistake. As the line dropped into the river, the raft bounced up, and the hand on his vest lost its hold.

 

Johnny barely managed to fill his lungs with air before being forced underwater again. Remembering Doug’s instructions, he tried to relax and allow his vest to bring him to the surface. However, the view that met him wasn’t that of the Colorado sky. Instead, Johnny found himself directly underneath the raft.

 

Fighting to ignore his rising panic, Johnny inched his way along the bottom of the raft. With no clear knowledge of where he would end up, he continued to move in the same direction, certain that he’d be out from underneath at any moment. When he finally emerged, his lungs were screaming for air, and his only thought was to reach the surface.

 

It wasn’t until he took his first breath that he realized his mistake. Only seconds ago, he was in contact with the raft, but in his efforts to get to the surface, he had forgotten to hang on. Now, Johnny watched as the raft moved into The Narrows, and he realized that, for the moment, he was on his own. Consoling himself with the knowledge that Roy was safely on board, he prepared to ride the rapid alone.

 

***********

 

Cap could hardly believe it when he saw his second paramedic enter the water. Even though he called out the man’s name, he knew it would be useless. Johnny had obviously reached the same conclusion that he had. Roy needed help, or he wouldn’t make it. Given that fact, Cap knew that Johnny would never turn back.

 

He found it almost impossible to follow Doug’s commands as his paramedics fought for their lives, but he also understood that they needed to keep the raft under control. Taking his place, Cap paddled hard, yet he kept one eye on the scene playing out to his left. He felt some relief when he realized that Johnny finally had a hold of Roy. However, Cap could do little but watch, as Mike pulled his men toward safety.

 

Once the men were within reach, Cap dropped his paddle and threw himself to the opposite side of the raft. Mike and Chet grabbed hold of Roy, as Cap latched onto Johnny’s shoulder strap. “Good job, pal,” he said.

 

As Mike and Chet managed to pull Roy into the raft, Johnny finally let go of his partner, and Cap tried to draw him close enough to grab the other shoulder strap. Leaning further out over the edge, Cap had just reached for the top of Johnny’s vest, when the raft jerked unexpectedly. The sharp movement threw him backwards, and suddenly, his hands were empty.


”Damn, I lost him!”

 

Quickly regaining his balance, Cap braced himself and leaned back over the side, desperately searching for his man. The raft continued to buck and bounce over the rapids, making it almost impossible to focus on the waterline. Even when the motion finally leveled out, there was still no sign of Johnny.

 

Neither was there any response to his shouted, “Gage!”

 

Needing to keep both eyes on the river, Cap had to settle for listening to the scene playing out at his side. Chet had already returned to his position while Mike kept hold of Roy.

 

“Are you okay, Roy?” Mike asked several times. Roy did nothing more than moan in response. At least he’s breathing, Cap thought, as he continued to scan the water’s surface for his missing man.

 

It had been too long, and now Cap began to worry in earnest. Had they saved Roy, only to lose John?

 

“There he is! Behind us!” Marco hollered.

 

Cap turned in time to see Doug reaching out with his paddle in an attempt to reach Johnny. It was too late. The raft was already in The Narrows, and Doug ordered the men back to their positions.

 

“No!” screamed Chet. “We have to get him!”

 

“He needs our help,” Marco joined in. “We can’t leave him behind.”

 

“We don’t have time to argue,” Doug insisted. “He’s conscious, and he’s swimming. Marco, stay with Roy. Everyone else, grab your paddles. We’ve got to do this right if we want to be in any shape to pull him out when he reaches us.”

 

Cap’s heart screamed at him to jump in the river and somehow get to Johnny. But the voice of reason told him Doug was right. The best thing he could do for John was to make sure they were in a position to grab him at the other end.

 

It took every ounce of resolve Cap had to force himself back into his seat, and as he grabbed hold of his T grip, he couldn’t help but look back once more. He prayed that Johnny would still be alive the next time they saw him.

 

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

 

Johnny could barely tell which way was up or down as he felt himself being sucked into The Narrows. Gasping for breath at every opportunity, he fought to keep his face above the churning river. The icy tendrils of the frigid water wrapped themselves around his extremities. Feet alive with fire and hands numb with cold, it was as if frozen needles were burning his skin.

 

Struggling to see through the unrelenting barrage of spray, Johnny was unable to locate the canyon wall. Damn it. What’s… the matter with me? Johnny shook his head, trying to clear the fog that seemed to cloud his thinking. Gotta keep… my head… out of the water…. Don’t wanna hit that wall…. must be almost there.

 

Energy waning, Johnny could barely keep the proper position. Feet in front of him with knees bent and arms held close to his legs, it was a pose he found difficult to maintain while battling the powerful waves. Still fighting the fog, Johnny took a deep breath just as a wave washed over his head from behind. Coughing and sputtering, he pushed himself back to the surface, right before the river slammed him against the canyon wall. The force of the collision quickly expelled the little air he had in his lungs. Every nerve ending seemed numb. His arms and legs now little more than dead weights. Panic rising, his pounding heartbeat echoing in his ears, Johnny suddenly wondered if this is what it felt like to be paralyzed.

 

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

 

As the raft exited The Narrows and moved into the eddy, Cap dropped his paddle and turned to study the river behind him. There was nothing to be seen but the churning white water. He kept watch and listened, as Doug began shouting directions.

 

“Mike, Chet, grab the throw bags. I’ll take the third one. Marco, you need to hang on to Roy. The water’s calm but we’re apt to bounce the raft around some. Everyone but Marco keep watch for Johnny. Chet, the second he’s in sight, you and I are going to throw the ropes. Mike, you hold back in case we both miss. We don’t have a lot of chances at this.

 

“Who’s the strongest swimmer?” Doug asked.

 

“I am,” Chet announced, and the others agreed.

 

“Okay, then. If we miss him, grab a line and go in after him. But whatever you do, don’t let go of the line.”

 

Up river something dark appeared amid the whitecaps, showing itself for only a split second. Cap clutched the side of the raft as he leaned forward, willing the object to reappear. Afraid to blink for fear of missing it, Cap kept his eyes glued to the river. ‘Please, God!’

 

“Get ready,” Doug was saying. “It could be any second.”

 

Roy moaned.

 

“Steady, amigo. Uno minuto mas. Hang on for just another-”

 

“There he is!” Cap cried.

 

“John, over here!”

 

The others immediately joined Cap’s shouts, as Chet and Doug threw the rescue lines. Chet’s line hit its mark, landing immediately in front of Johnny. But he made no attempt to grab the line. Cap’s heart sank, although he refused to accept defeat.

 

“Gage! Snap out of it!” Desperate to get the man’s attention, Cap called out again. “John! Look for the rope!”

 

The others joined in, and finally Johnny turned, but in the wrong direction.

 

“Wrong way, you idiot!” Chet yelled. “Behind you, Gage!”

 

This time Johnny turned to face the raft.

 

Mike braced and threw his rope. His aim was perfect, the bag striking Johnny on the head. Relief washed over Cap when he saw the man reach out and grab hold.

 

Even though Johnny now held the rope, something was wrong. He was not responding the way Cap would have expected. He seemed distracted and almost lethargic, as he fumbled with the rope.

 

“Wrap it around your wrist, John. Grab it tight.”

 

Cap watched as Johnny tried to comply, but as he continued to struggle with the simple task, Cap realized the cold had taken its toll. Oh God, I hope he can pull this off.

 

“Come on, Johnny!” Cap urged, as Mike was carefully pulling the rope in. “Wrap the rope around your wrist!”

 

Johnny appeared to try again, but failed, and his tenuous hold on the rope was lost. Chet moved to jump in the water, but stopped when Johnny grabbed the rope again and somehow wrapped it around his wrist.

 

“Hang on!” they all yelled, while Mike continued to draw Johnny ever closer to the raft. As he neared the eddy, Doug maneuvered the raft close enough for the men to reach their friend.

 

Cap and Chet wasted no time in grabbing hold of Johnny’s life vest. With his right hand around the shoulder strap, Cap grabbed one of the chest straps with his left. I lost you once. By God, I’m not going to lose you again.

 

“Watch out for Roy,” Doug warned, as Cap and Chet pulled Johnny safely into the raft.

 

“You took quite a swim there, pal.” Cap grinned, not trying to hide his relief at once again having his whole crew in the raft. “Are you okay?”

 

Johnny showed no sign of having heard, as he dropped to his knees, and crawled over the thwart to get to Roy. Cap watched as John took Roy’s wrist. When the man moaned and opened his eyes, Cap waited to hear Johnny say something to his partner, but it didn’t happen. Instead, Johnny lost his hold of Roy’s wrist.

 

Almost panting, Johnny’s breathing was fast and shallow. His hands were red, his lips blue, and his shivering was quickly escalating to near violent levels. It was apparent that although the paramedic was staring intently at his partner, he was not fully aware of what he was doing.

 

Cap looked up to find Doug studying the two men on the floor of the raft.

 

“We need to get them off this river,” Cap declared. Doug nodded his agreement.

 

“There’s a place right up ahead, ten minutes at the most. Marco and Chet, take the front. Mike, you take the back with me. We’re going to do this fast.” Making eye contact with Hank he added, “Stay with them.”

 

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

 

 

Johnny knelt in the raft and looked down on his friend lying in front of him. He knew that Roy needed his help, but for some reason he couldn’t quite remember what he was supposed to do first. Raising his hand to brush his wet hair from his eyes, he found himself staring at it, as if it wasn’t his own. Trying to move his fingers, the hand in front of him barely obeyed his command. Instead, it shook violently. It slowly occurred to him that it was not just his hand that was shaking. His entire body was trembling uncontrollably. Suddenly, he was fully aware of just how cold he really was. Okay then, it’s the cold. With that knowledge, he looked again at his hand, and this time forced his fingers to move.

 

Johnny reached for Roy’s wrist and managed to find the place where the pulse point should be. A wave of panic came over him when he was unable to find a pulse. Dropping Roy’s arm, he immediately placed his hand on his partner’s chest, needing to reassure himself that he was, in fact, breathing. Thank God.

 

“You okay?”

 

The voice was weak, and for a moment Johnny wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it, but looking into Roy’s face for the first time, he was surprised to see that his eyes were open.

 

“Yeah,” he nodded. Better than you.

 

As the raft shifted, Johnny felt a tug. Turning to his right, he saw a hand tightly clutching the shoulder strap of his vest. He looked up into the worried face of his captain, and raised his eyebrows in question.

 

Cap just shrugged and said, “Humor me.”

 

***********

 

The raft slid easily into the shallow water of the riverbed, allowing Doug to step out and pull the boat to shore. Cap watched as Doug tied the raft off, only then releasing his hold on Johnny’s vest. Even then, he left his hand on the man’s shoulder.

 

Chet and Marco helped Doug, while Mike began searching through their supplies.

 

“What do we need to do before we move him?” Cap asked Johnny.

 

“Well… um… we need to… um…I think…”

 

Immediately all the men turned back to Roy and Johnny, surprised at the paramedic’s answer.

 

Cap looked at Mike, and then glanced at Johnny, slowly shaking his head. Mike nodded silently.

 

“Chet, Marco, give me a hand. We need to get Roy on shore,” Mike instructed. “Be careful. We don’t know if anything’s broken.”

 

“His arm,” a quiet voice muttered.

 

“What?” Cap asked. “What about his arm?”

 

“Broke,” Johnny said. “Careful.”

 

“Okay, Gage. We’ll be careful with him,” Chet said. “But we have to get you out first. You’re in the way. Give me your hand.”

 

Johnny shook him off, fighting to come up with the words to say. “Gentle…heart …easy…”

 

Doug put Johnny’s concerns into words. “Hypothermia can cause cardiac problems. Move Roy as gently as you can. The blood in his arms and legs is apt to be colder than his torso. You don’t want it to suddenly rush into his heart.”

 

Johnny nodded gratefully at Doug, and allowed the man to help him out of the raft. As the other men prepared to move Roy, Cap climbed out and pulled Doug away from John and the others.

 

“We may have a problem.” Hank spoke quietly, not wanting to be overheard. “Obviously Roy’s in pretty bad shape. If Johnny’s problem is more than hypothermia…”

 

“You’re right. We don’t know what happened in The Narrows,” Doug agreed. “On the other hand, we do know that he spent almost fifteen minutes in water that’s not much more than forty degrees. His confusion, lethargy, and problems with motor control can all be explained by that exposure.”

 

“Agreed,” Hank conceded, but added, “They can also all be explained by a head injury.”

 

“Or any number of other injuries. You’re right, Hank. We just don’t know. What do you want to do?”

 

“Well, I guess the place to start is to warm them up. Then we pray. If Johnny can’t help us with Roy… Even if he can …” Cap was unwilling to finish that thought.

 

The captain never took his eyes off his men as he talked to Doug. Two sleeping bags now swaddled Roy, who was out of the raft, lying on the ground. Johnny knelt at his side, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

 

Turning to Doug, Hank said, “I don’t suppose you have a second radio hidden somewhere in your supplies.”

 

“I wish I did.”

 

Mike approached them, his expression grim. He wasted no time getting to the point. “We can’t put these guys back on the water. Is there any reason why we can’t stay here tonight?”

 

Doug rubbed the back of his neck as if he were carefully considering his answer. “No, not really. There aren’t any trees, but there’s a stash of wood over behind the outcropping of rocks. We stock this site every year in case we have to use it. So, it comes down to a question of time. We would have to stop in a couple of hours anyway. Could those two hours make a difference in the end?”

 

“Two hours won’t matter if Roy’s already dead.”

 

Cap was taken aback by Mike’s response.

 

“Damn! And Johnny?”

 

“He says he’s okay, but I’m not convinced.”

 

“Is he injured or just cold?” Cap questioned.

 

“I don’t know,” Mike shrugged. “I’m not sure he even knows.”

 

“I doubt he’s going to let us check him out until he’s taken care of Roy.”

 

“I think that’s a given.”

 

“Either way,” Cap cautioned, “we need to keep a close eye on him.”

 

Mike nodded.

 

“So are we agreed?” Doug interjected. “We’re staying here tonight?”

 

Hank sighed. “I don’t think we have any choice.”

 

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

 

No longer immersed in the near freezing water, and with a dry blanket now wrapped around his cold shoulders, Johnny finally started to warm up. As his body temperature slowly began to rise, his mind cleared enough for him to realize that what he was experiencing was the effects of hypothermia. With this knowledge came the ability to push back against the fog that still clouded the edges of his thinking.

 

Johnny looked down at his partner lying in front of him. You do NOT look good, Pally. Reaching out from under his blanket, he placed his hand on Roy and counted breaths. That could be better, but at least it’s steady. He carefully moved aside a portion of the sleeping bag wrapped around Roy, and reached for the man’s hand, being sure to expose only as much as necessary. His skin is red. His hand is so cold. Still fighting against the fog, Johnny didn’t realize he had spoken the last words aloud until Chet responded.

 

“At least he’s warmer than you. He’s not shivering.”

 

He’s not shivering…. Damn! He’s not shivering!

 

Remembering his earlier inability to find a radial pulse, Johnny clutched Roy’s wrist and tried again. Please be there!

 

Try as he might, Johnny could not feel a pulse. My fingers are still numb. That HAS to be the answer. Holding onto Roy’s wrist with one hand, he grabbed Chet’s with the other. Bringing the two hands together, he addressed Chet.

 

“Tell me if he has a pulse.”

 

Chet looked first at Johnny then Marco in disbelief, but after a moment, his fingers hesitantly encircled Roy's wrist. It was obvious that the man was confused about the request, but Johnny didn't have the strength to explain the situation to him. All he cared about was Roy.

 

Chet repositioned his fingers several times before announcing, “He has a pulse. But how do I count it out without a watch?”

 

Johnny shook his head. “It’s okay. Don’t need a count. Just needed to be sure.”

 

Chet's look of concern was obvious, but he chose to ignore it.

 

Johnny wished he could ask one of the men to contact Rampart and get the drug box. He wished he could explain to Brackett that he, too, had been exposed and was perhaps not thinking clearly. He wished there was an IV to start, a helicopter on the way, heated IV fluids and a warm lavage waiting in the ER. He wished he had a heart monitor to hook up so that he could watch for changes in Roy’s cardiac status. But he didn’t have any of that.

 

Okay, so I’ll make due with what I have. Snap out of this and act, damn it! Take charge! Johnny knew that he was going to continue to have to fight the effects of his own hypothermia. Until his mind cleared and his body was more responsive, he could not do this alone.

 

“I need everyone’s help over here!” Johnny called out as loudly as he could manage. It wasn’t very loud at all, but it was enough to get their attention. Thank goodness I can at least talk again.

 

“We need to get him warm, now. I need warm compresses, hot water bottles, dry clothing.”

 

Johnny spoke between his own shivers. He didn’t address the orders to any one man. He didn’t offer a suggestion for how to get, or make the things he needed. They would work all that out amongst themselves.

 

Pulling the top sleeping bag completely off for a moment, he looked at the man on the ground in front of him. He considered the layers of clothing, and how they kept him from being able to complete an assessment.

 

He replaced the sleeping bag before he asked, “Do we have an extra wet suit?” Johnny grabbed the bag of medical supplies and pulled out a penlight.

 

“No,” Doug answered. “We only brought one per man. Same for the life vests. Everything else, I have extra.”

 

Johnny nodded. “Let’s see if we can do this without cutting it up too much. Just in case.”

 

Roy groaned and twisted his head away, as Johnny checked his carotid pulse.

 

“Don’t let him move his head around.” Johnny had barely finished speaking the words when Marco was at Roy’s head, holding him steady.

 

“Keep still, Roy,” Johnny firmly instructed his friend. “Don’t move around. Open your eyes. Talk to me.”

 

Roy only moaned. Johnny needed to check his partner’s pupils, but he realized he was still shaking too hard to safely manipulate Roy’s eyelids.

 

“Chet, be my hands.”

 

No further explanation was needed as Chet stepped in to help. Marco continued to hold Roy’s head still while Chet gently opened each eye. Johnny flicked the penlight back and forth then spoke aloud, knowing the others would be waiting to hear.

 

“The pupils are sluggish, but equal.”

 

Johnny gently ran his cold, quivering hands over Roy’s head. The blood on his right hand confirmed what he suspected. Beneath the blood he could feel the swelling beginning, but there was no indentation. If there was a skull fracture, it was stable. “He definitely took a blow to the head. It’s bad, but it could be worse. Marco, can you clean and bandage it?”

 

His voice was unsteady, but he tried for commanding when he called to his partner again. “Come on, Roy! Talk to me, pal. Tell me where you’re hurting.”

 

Roy’s eyes flickered open.

 

“That’s it. Look at me. Roy, stay with me. Tell me where you hurt.”

 

The voice that answered was weak. “You … okay?”

 

Johnny laughed for his friend’s benefit. “You have a one track mind, you know that? Yes. I’m cold, but I’m fine. Now answer me. Where do you hurt?”

 

It was slow, but Johnny could feel his mind clearing and the sensation returning to his fingers. He was feeling surer about what needed to be done, and more secure in his ability to do it.

 

“Roy? You’re not answering me. I need to know. Where do you hurt?”

 

“Cold . . . So . . . cold!”

 

“I know. We’re working on that.” Johnny tried to be more direct. “Does your left arm hurt?”

 

“Um…. cold…. hy… po…..”

 

“Okay. I know. You’re right. It’s hypothermia. You don’t feel any pain right now, do you?”

 

“Cold . . . Shivering?”

 

“Soon. We’ll have those teeth chattering in no time. Can you move your fingers for me?”

 

It took a moment, but Roy succeeded in moving his hands, though not his individual fingers.

 

“Okay, how about your feet?” Johnny pushed.

 

Again there was a delay, then each foot moved.

 

“Alright then. Good job. Let’s get you warmed up.”

 

Roy didn’t respond. His eyes were once again closed.

 

Johnny turned to the men at his side. Though his fingers were still tingling, his mind had cleared and he was able to explain what he hadn’t been able to only minutes ago.

 

“He’s not shivering, which is not good. Shivering will raise his body temperature. The fact that his body stopped trying is not a good sign. We need to get him out of these clothes, including the wet suit. All it’s doing now is trapping in cold water.”

 

Marco had finished cleaning the wound and had used a wrapping of gauze to hold the two by four bandage in place.

 

“That’s great, Marco. Get him a hat. Let’s keep him from losing any more heat through his head.”

 

“Sure.” Marco headed for the supplies.

 

“So why isn’t he shivering, if he’s colder than you are?” Chet wanted to know.

 

“At a certain point, the body stops trying.”

 

“But you were in the water so much longer than he was. How come he’s colder than you are?”

 

“He’s not. At least he wasn’t. It’s just that his body couldn’t fight it like mine could. It’s focused on too many things. His broken arm, the head injury, either of those things could throw him into shock. It’s the combination that’s left him so vulnerable to the hypothermia. And there’s nothing stimulating his circulation. That’s why I needed to know if he still had a radial pulse.”

 

Johnny looked up at Doug, who was nodding. “We can’t move him again.”

 

“No problem,” the guide agreed. “We’ll stay here.”

 

“We need a bigger fire, a much bigger fire.”

 

“That, I can do,” Mike said.

 

“I need dry clothes. Things that zip up the front are going to be easier. I need those hot compresses and hot water bottles as soon as possible, and I need someone to help me get him out of these wet things.”

 

Johnny paused and looked around at the river and the cliffs. There was no way he was putting Roy back on the river in his condition, but – just in case – “Cut the wet suit at just the shoulders.”

 

“John.”

 

Johnny looked to his left to see Cap standing next to him with a stack of clothes in his hands. “Thanks, Cap. Okay, let’s make this happen.”

 

“Hold off a second,” Cap interrupted. “These are for you.”

 

“Cap, there’s no time…”

 

“Then be quick about it. You can’t help him if you’re down yourself. Marco, help Johnny get into dry clothes. We’ll start getting Roy out of his life vest and spray jacket. We can cut the jacket. By that time, you’ll be back.”

 

“Cap…” Johnny started to protest.

 

“Every second you argue, is a second we lose, Gage. Do it now.”

 

Johnny looked at Roy, then unzipped his own vest.

 

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

 

Everything was cold. From the top of his head to the tips of his fingers to the soles of his feet, he was cold.

 

Roy longed for the warmth of a steaming bath, the heat of Joanne’s body curled up next to his own, an old quilt in front of a fireplace . . . Even the raging flames of a three-alarm fire, anything that would take this cold away.

 

Somewhere, he heard voices. Johnny had been there. He had talked to Johnny. He had felt the man shivering as he touched him. Johnny had been in the river too. Was he okay? Roy just didn’t know.

 

The voices were close, calling out to him, demanding his attention. He tried to answer, but he couldn’t make any sounds. The voices were a blur, something about warm clothes. That would be good.

 

Suddenly, the little warmth he had was gone. Roy forced his eyes open. He tried to look around to see who had taken his blanket, but hands held his head, keeping him from moving. Though he could see figures, he couldn’t discern details. He wanted to talk, but he couldn’t find his voice.

 

Something was put under his neck, as the hands continued to hold his head. A pillow of some sort? Some rolled up clothing? The extra support felt good until it was wrapped around the front of his throat and secured. What the hell is going on? He began to struggle to escape, and the hands held him more securely.

 

One voice now took on an urgent tone, a demanding tone. Cap.

 

“Roy, stop! It’s okay!”

 

Something about a C collar. Why? There was no injury to his neck, was there? Was that the answer? Was he really cold, or was this what it felt like to break your neck?

 

His head secure, multiple hands now reached beneath him and slowly raised him to a sitting position.

 

Damn! He heard the scream and knew that he had found his vocal chords. The excruciating pain started in his left arm and shoulder, and shot across his chest, branching off up to his head and down toward his legs. My neck isn’t broken.

 

“Easy there, pal. We’ll make this quick. Hang in there.” Cap again.

 

Roy’s heart bounded as his body throbbed. Why are they doing this?

 

The life vest was slid easily from his right shoulder. Hands were holding his left arm, trying to keep it stable. They shifted and the life vest was gone. Still being held upright, Roy opened his eyes again. The man in front of him had scissors and was carefully cutting the material of his jacket. Who is that? The blurred image remained silent and focused, but another voice spoke.

 

“Hang tough. … warmer …. no time.” He didn’t catch every word, but he knew the voice. Chet.

 

The spray jacket was gone, the wet suit unzipped, the shoulders cut open. There was a pause in the action. He waited for the scissors to cut the rest of the suit, but they didn’t. Instead the suit was peeled down, away from his body. His shoulder moved and the agony shot through his chest.

 

The scream again escaped. Every nerve was on fire now. Oh, God! Damn!

 

Then everything stopped. There was a hand on his face. A familiar voice.

 

“Guess the pain’s back, huh? Probably doesn’t help much to tell ya that’s a good sign.”

 

Johnny.

 

He opened his eyes and found himself staring into the dark eyes of his partner.

 

“Hurts…” he managed to get out.

 

“I know. I’m sorry.”

 

The voice hesitated then began again. “This part’s the worst. Then it will get better. I promise. Hang in there. Try to stay with us.”

 

Roy felt the hand press against his face before it shifted to his shoulder. He closed his eyes and tried to brace himself. There was no way he could have been prepared. The pain tore through his body, and he fell mercifully into darkness.

 

***********

 

He’s out.

 

Johnny cursed himself at having stopped the first attempt to remove the wet suit. Cap and Doug had known what they were doing. If he’d let it continue, he wouldn’t have had to put Roy through it a second time. But that scream…

 

Now in dry clothing himself, Johnny was all the more aware of the urgency to get Roy out of his river gear. Determined to take advantage of what he hoped would only be a few minutes of unconsciousness, Johnny barked out orders.

 

“Cap, Doug, pull the suit down as far as you can, then lay him back down. Chet, get his sneakers off. Marco, get me the rest of the dry sleeping bags.”

 

Roy was lowered back to the ground and Johnny carefully lifted his hips while Doug and Cap pulled at the wet suit, turning it inside out as they peeled it off Roy’s lower body. Not yet sure of his hands, Johnny handed the scissors to Cap.

 

“You do it. I’m still a little shaky.”

 

Cap made quick work of the task, and in minutes Roy was free of all his wet clothing, including his bathing suit. It left him wearing nothing. Johnny took the opportunity to do a quick visual assessment, as the crew quickly dried Roy off and carefully lifted him onto a dry sleeping bag.

 

Roy’s skin was red with the cold. He still lay disturbingly still. His left arm was swollen, bruised, and slightly misshapen just below the shoulder. A complex fracture of the humerus. Not enough bruising for damage to the brachial artery, but we’ll have to watch. Damn, I wonder if it was displaced when he first broke it, or if we did that. Johnny pushed that thought away. They had done what was necessary to get Roy out of the river, to save his life.

 

“Let’s get a couple of sleeping bags over him,” Johnny said to anyone. “He looks a little ridiculous lying here in nothing but a woolen hat.”

 

But as Chet and Cap put the sleeping bags in place, Johnny suddenly interfered. Pulling the bags back again, away from Roy’s leg, he looked at the sleeping bag on the ground and the red stain that was not so slowly spreading outward from just below his knee.

 

“Damn! How the hell did I miss that?” Johnny began barking out orders. “I need bandages. Do we have anything like hot water bottles yet? Someone check the wet suit and the first sleeping bag he was on. Was he bleeding this bad before?”

 

Johnny made sure that only Roy’s leg was uncovered as he grabbed a bandage and began to apply pressure to the wound that was now bleeding profusely. Doug appeared with an armful of water bottles full of steaming water, at the same time that Cap appeared with some answers.

 

“There’s some blood on the other sleeping bag, but not much. The wet suit’s torn on the leg, and there’s a little blood there. Nothing like this, though. Did we do this when we moved him?”

 

Johnny did not respond, other than to grab Cap’s hand and pull him down next to him.

 

“Hold this, tight. Use as much pressure as you can. I don’t want to have to use a tourniquet. I really don’t want to impede the blood flow to his leg.”

 

Johnny watched long enough to assure that Cap had a strong hold before he turned to Doug.

 

“Help me put those in place.”

 

Johnny knew he didn’t need to tell Doug where the make shift hot water bottles needed to go. Quickly the two men placed the warm bottles on Roy’s abdomen, cradled in his armpits, and on his chest.

 

Johnny saw Cap cringe as the last two bottles were placed between Roy’s legs, up against his groin.

 

“It’s the fastest way to get him warm. How’s the bleeding?”

 

“It’s soaked through. I don’t think it’s stopping.”

 

Johnny grabbed another bandage and took Cap’s place.

 

“How many ace bandages do we have?”

 

Marco quickly counted the ones in the bag Dixie had prepared.

 

“Looks like you’ve got four,” he told Johnny. “Thank God she thought we were klutzes, huh?”

 

“I’ve got another four,” Doug informed him.

 

“Great. Okay, get me one of them.”

 

Johnny tripled the bandages then tightly wrapped the leg with the constricting ace bandage. It wasn’t tight enough to restrict the flow of the femoral artery, but it would hopefully stop this bleeding.

 

Pulling the sleeping bag back over Roy’s leg, he continued his instructions.

 

“We need to get him some warm, dry socks. And have some more water ready so we can fill those bottles up as soon they start to cool down. Cap, I don’t want to leave his leg uncovered, but I need you to check it every minute or so to make sure the bleeding is okay. Let me know if it starts to bleed through the ace bandage.”

 

For the first time since he’d returned to Roy’s side, Johnny stopped, knelt up straight, and pushed his still wet hair back off his face, his hand pausing for a moment over his eyes. A groan brought his attention back to the man lying on the ground.

 

“Welcome back,” Johnny said, a grin breaking through his concern. Roy had started to shiver.

 

“You… o...kay?”

 

“Is that the first thing you’re going to say every time you wake up?”

 

“Pro…bly… ‘kay?”

 

“Yeah, I’m okay. How are you?”

 

“Fin…ly… Shiv…ring… cold… hur…t.”

 

“Yeah. You’re gonna start warming up fast, now that you’re shivering so hard.”

 

“Hurts… shiv…er… h…urts.”

 

“I know. As soon as you’re just a little bit warmer, I’ll immobilize your arm and that will help. I don’t want you to be uncovered quite yet, okay?”

 

Johnny didn’t add that he wasn’t ready to put Roy through that pain again. No matter how careful and gentle he was, the arm would have to be moved again to immobilize it, and that was going to be painful.

 

“Hey, Roy. Can you tell me if anything other than your arm hurts?”

 

“Head… ‘hind … eyes … back.”

 

Johnny hadn’t been prepared for the latter response, and he wasn’t able to keep a bit of the panic out of his voice.

 

“Your back hurts? How bad? Where?”

 

“No… b...b...ack …m…my…head…h...ur...ts. You… n...ne...ed … to … re...re...la...x. … Ch...ch...ill … ou...t...t.”

 

“I think we’ve all chilled out enough for today, thank you. But you’re right. I’ll try to relax if you try to stay awake and tell me what else hurts, deal?”

 

“D…d…deal.”

 

Johnny carefully lifted the sleeping bag to check Roy’s leg. Although not completely stopped, the bleeding had slowed considerably. Without being asked, Doug had refilled the water bottles, so Johnny grabbed the BP cuff and pulled Roy’s uninjured arm out from under the blankets.

 

Johnny pressed on a fingertip and was pleased to see the blood flow quickly return upon release. “Well, your color is a little better.”

 

This time, Johnny was able to feel his partner’s pulse. He flexed his fingers, relieved that they were rapidly returning to normal. Roy looked up as Johnny pumped up the BP cuff.

 

“Get…ting…. wa...rm…er. B…P…o…ka…y?”

 

Johnny smiled reassuringly at this friend.

 

“Well, it’s a little tough to hear over all the rattling from the shivering, pal, but yeah, it’s okay. A little low maybe, but it will come up.”

 

“How… l...low?”

 

“My job to worry about that, not yours. It’s okay.”

 

“How… low?”

 

Johnny rolled his eyes. “100 over 70.”

 

“T...t...oo low…b...b...ut...t o...kay.”

 

Johnny smiled. “Good assessment. Wish I’d thought of that.” Pulling out more supplies, he made eye contact again with his partner. “Do you think with some help you could manage to keep a thermometer in your mouth?”

 

“On...l...ly p...p...pl...ace… g...g...g...o...in.”

 

“Agreed,” Johnny chuckled as he checked to make sure the thermometer was shaken down low enough to register a well below normal body temperature.

 

Johnny knew that an oral temperature was almost meaningless, but since there was nothing more he could do to raise Roy’s body temperature, he didn’t figure it mattered enough to put his friend through the process of getting a more accurate body core reading.

 

“Hey, Mike,” Johnny knew that all of the men, including Doug, were standing in the immediate vicinity. “Mike, I need you to hold Roy’s mouth closed while not letting his teeth connect, okay? Can you do that?”

 

The last thing they needed was to have Roy break a thermometer with his shivering teeth. Johnny showed Mike how to hold Roy’s mouth, then put the thermometer under Roy’s tongue.

 

While they waited for a reading, Johnny checked again on his partner’s leg. The ace bandage was now showing some blood seeping through. The femoral pulse was still strong. Johnny untied the ace bandage and tightened the pressure a little more before retying it. He’d have to watch that closely.

 

Covering up the leg again, Johnny pulled the thermometer from Roy’s mouth as Mike released his hold. 93 degrees. Still in a danger zone, but Johnny suspected it was up significantly from where it had been a half-hour ago.

 

“W...w...ell?”

 

“93 and climbing. Doug, let’s replace the water again. Marco and Chet, get me some dry shorts and pants. I’m gonna have to cut jeans part way up the leg, but I think he’ll be better off with the long pants. Let’s get some gloves or mittens, or whatever someone brought. Did we find any zip-front wool sweaters?”

 

“We’ve got the stuff all ready right here. Just waiting for you.”

 

Johnny carefully shifted the blankets to the side, exposing Roy’s chest and abdomen. Looking and gently palpating, Johnny checked for indications of other internal injuries. There was nothing he could find, and Roy never gave any indication of pain as long as Johnny avoided his left shoulder, chest, and arm. But Johnny knew he couldn’t avoid that for much longer.

 

Using the stethoscope, Johnny heard rales in both Roy’s lungs. It wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing. It could be the sign of all kinds of problems still to come. As he listened to his partner’s lungs, Johnny fought back a cough of his own. Roy wasn’t the only one who had taken on water. But Johnny couldn’t worry about that at the moment, and he appeased himself with the knowledge that no one would be listening to his lungs with the stethoscope, at least not today.

 

With nothing else to delay him, Johnny knew that the time had come to immobilize Roy’s arm, and get him settled in for the long night ahead. Pasting a look of calm on his face, he looked at his friend.

 

“Okay, Roy. Let’s get your arm set so we can get you dressed in something more modest than this sleeping bag. You ready?”

 

***********

Ready? Ready for what?

 

Roy wasn’t really sure what was happening, although it seemed to him that he had known just a few minutes ago. But he could no longer quite pull it all together. The whole world had gone a little bit fuzzy. His feet were numb, his fingers burning. He could feel the heat of nearby flames, but he shivered with the cold. His upper body hurt with every beat of his heart, and he was sure he could hear the blood rushing past his ears, up into his pounding head. And he was tired. He was so very tired. Maybe he would just sleep for a while.

 

The smell of smoke and the sound of crackling wood brought him out of his momentary slumber. He opened his eyes and tried to look about, but found he couldn’t move his head. The fog that clouded his head also clouded his vision, and he could make out shapes but not faces. The words that had been clear a moment ago could no longer be deciphered. Roy thought he heard his name. Was it Johnny? The voice was friendly and calm. Why was it calm? Didn’t he know that something was burning?

 

Roy felt multiple hands moving his legs, pulling on clothing. He felt a hand at his throat, checking his pulse, the pressure of a BP cuff on his arm, the cold metal of a stethoscope on his chest. Then he heard the words again.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

“Yeah,” Roy mumbled, having no idea what he was agreeing to, but if Johnny wanted him to be ready, he would be.

 

Multiple hands reached beneath him and lifted his back into a sitting position. Those same hands held him as the pain tore through his torso, and sent him back into the safety of the darkness.

 

***********

 

“Damn it!”

 

Johnny swore at no one in particular. Roy had passed out again, his face contorted in pain. Quickly, using supplies laid out ahead of time, Johnny splinted Roy's arm, then secured it to his chest, using ace bandages and gauze. In the same moment he finished, Mike was there, pulling a thermal shirt down over Roy’s head, moving his right arm into the sleeve. Marco then added a wool sweater that zipped up the front. Then carefully, the men laid Roy back down, glad to be done with moving him around.

 

Once again, Johnny checked his heartbeat. Although it continued to flutter with occasional irregularities, he felt it would improve as Roy warmed up, especially now that they could keep him still. Turning back toward the crew, he focused on what was still to come.

 

“We should still try to warm him from the inside out. If we have any broth type stuff that we can make him, let’s give that a try the next time he wakes up. What we don’t want, though, is to make him sick. So we need to take it slow. Marco and Chet, do you think you can make a tent near his head with some blankets? We’ll keep boiling water, and try to get it so that he’s breathing some steam. That will help him warm up as well.”

 

“How’s his heart?” Doug asked. Johnny hadn’t mentioned that at all yet.

 

“Well, it’s not completely stable, but it’s not too bad, considering. I’ll feel better when it stops jumping around on me, but it’s okay. His BP is still too low. We’ll have to watch that. At least the bleeding seems to have stopped for the moment.”

 

***********

 

The flickering firelight did little to dispel the gloom of their impromptu campsite. Chet was silently rinsing the metal plates and cups from dinner, while Marco rearranged the clothes drying near the fire. Closer to the river, Doug was standing by the raft, his silhouette barely evident in the twilight.

 

Poking the stick of wood absently into the campfire, Mike watched as a series of sparks rose up into the dark sky. The group of men were subdued, their concern evident in the way they seemed to keep to themselves, as if unwilling to admit out loud what they really feared. There were some decisions to be made, choices that could mean successful rescue or ultimate defeat for their injured friends. But for now, the men were quiet, needing to be content to simply wait and see what happened.

 

From the largest tent, Mike could make out the murmured voices of Cap and Johnny. They'd made Roy as comfortable as possible, keeping him warm and dry as the evening temperatures dropped. Now they were trying to get him to eat something, or at least drink the warm broth that Doug had prepared. However, it wasn’t difficult to tell that they were having little success. Roy had been slipping in and out of consciousness, his condition unstable at best. Johnny had been worried about hypothermia and a possible head injury, but with the added injury to his arm, Roy had gone into shock.

 

There was little they could do to help him in this remote location. With no drugs to ease his pain, or IV’s to replace lost fluids, Johnny was left with administering rudimentary first aid. It didn’t take much to figure out that the paramedic was angry. Yet, everyone knew that his anger wasn’t directed at any of them, it was merely a result of the man’s frustration and fear.

 

A muffled curse preceded Johnny as he threw back the nylon tent flap and made his way through the narrow opening. Back bent and gait uneven, the tall man looked strangely distorted as he stumbled toward the fire. He was now dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. However, even with several layers of dry clothes, he still looked as if he were trembling from the cold.

 

Mike watched closely as Johnny stretched his hands briefly toward the warmth of the flames. Although it was difficult to see his eyes, there was no denying the look of exasperation on John’s face. Leaning forward, Mike carefully stirred the fire while surreptitiously studying his coworker. He didn’t even have time to form a question before the paramedic was moving away from the fire toward the pile of provisions.

 

Kneeling down, Johnny fumbled with several bags before Doug moved over to help him. Almost immediately, the paramedic rose and headed back to the tent, the desired articles tucked safely under his arm. Hesitating at the opening of the tent, it seemed as if he sighed before ducking back inside.

 

The men outside remained silent, seemingly focused on their given chores. From inside the tent, the worried voices returned as Cap and Johnny continued to care for their injured friend.

 

***********

 

Hank straightened up as he exited the confines of the tent. Pausing briefly, he stretched to his full height, then slowly rolled his shoulders back. Immediately aware that he was being watched, he shook his head, communicating silently that there was no change in Roy’s condition.

 

“Chet, why don’t you give John a hand?”

 

The hurried compliance was evidence of Chet’s concern, his mumbled “okay, Cap,” an unusual response for the normally vocal man.

 

Warmth and comfort beckoned in the form of a blazing fire, but Hank moved past the enticement. He had spotted Doug, diligently sorting through their supplies. The guide seemed to be reorganizing everything, and Hank realized that in the confusion of looking for first aid supplies and warm clothing, the provisions had been left in disarray.

 

“Need some help with that?”

 

“No, I’ve just about got it. How’s Roy doing?”

 

“Not very good.”

 

Hank was grateful when Doug stood up beside him. After spending so much time hunched over inside a tent, just being able to stand erect was a luxury he wasn’t ready to relinquish. The two men stood together, quietly reflecting on the events of the afternoon.

 

“Do you think it will be safe to move him tomorrow?” Doug asked.

 

“You mean, put him back on the raft?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I don’t know. . .”

 

Hank looked toward the tent, unable to make out the mumbled conversation from within, but noting the unmistakable tone of concern from his younger paramedic.

 

“I doubt that Johnny will go for it. He’s pretty worried about the head injury. With the hypothermia and shock, not to mention the broken arm, he probably won’t agree to moving Roy around that much.”

 

“Damn.”

 

The expletive surprised Hank, and he stared at the guide for several moments. “That wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”

 

“No. It means we’ll have some hard choices ahead of us. Without the radio, we’ll be forced to run the river all the way to the take-out. There’s nothing between here and there, and no one else out on the river right now.”

 

Doug paused for a moment, and Hank realized that they had an audience. Mike and Marco were listening intently, their faces reflecting their apprehension.

 

“If we do leave Roy here, that means we leave him and Johnny alone, for up to 24 hours. Can they handle that or would we need to leave another man with them? If we do, our paddling time slows considerably."

 

“I don’t think we should leave them alone,” Hank answered, slowly. “Johnny’s doing much better, but I’m still concerned. He was definitely hypothermic when we got him out of the river. The last thing I want to do is head off down the river, leaving two guys here who might both be in need of medical attention.”

 

Hank watched as Doug processed his answer. The man’s expression changed from one of indecision to obvious concern. It was clear that their guide was taking everything into consideration as he stood there silently going over the news. Several minutes passed before Hank pressed him for more information.

 

“How long will it take?”

 

“Best possible time would get us there around noon, but with one less man to paddle, it’ll take longer. Actually, that might not matter. Barry won’t be expecting us until mid-afternoon. There’s no way to contact him, and no one else within miles of the takeout. So, that means that once we get there, we may still have to wait to contact search and rescue.

 

“There’s more, isn’t there?”

 

“Yeah. The river is at the deepest part of the canyon right now, and will stay like this for most of the remainder of the trip. There’s no way to get a chopper down here, so even after we contact search and rescue, it’s still going to be a lengthy and difficult rescue.”

 

Hank rubbed the back of his neck absently, as he went over possible rescue plans in his mind. Not being familiar with the terrain, he knew he’d have to trust Doug’s judgment, but ultimately, he had to put his trust in Johnny. It would be up to the paramedic to help make the decision... he was the only one who was truly qualified to assess whether Roy was up to making the move or not. It was something of a relief when Doug finally interrupted his thoughts.

 

“There’s nothing we can do tonight anyway. Why don’t we talk about this in the morning?”

 

“Yeah. I think that would be best. John will have to be consulted, and maybe he’ll have a better feel for Roy’s condition in the morning.”

 

Doug nodded in agreement, as he turned toward the fire. Hesitating briefly, as if suddenly unsure of his next move, Doug finally turned back to face Hank.

 

“We’ll get them out okay. I’ve never lost a customer yet, and I don’t intend to start now.”

 

Hank smiled feebly at the guide, fully aware that the man was attempting to encourage him. “I sure don’t intend to go home without my crew, either.” And there’re some wives back home in LA who are expecting us to keep our promises. Hank added, under his breath.

 

Doug grinned, then walked on toward the fire where he found a place next to Mike and Marco. The three men sat quietly, staring into the flames. Hank denied himself that comfort. Instead, he walked slowly back to the large tent, hoping that this night would pass quickly.

 

***********

 

The early morning sunlight was just beginning to filter into the canyon, its golden rays still invisible from the campsite. There was only a faint pinkish tinge to be seen above the cliffs, but already the birds were chirping their welcome to the dawn.

 

Moisture pooled on the tents covered with morning dew. Far above the canyon, an eagle called out to its mate, the cry echoing through the clear morning air.

 

The sound of the river nearby completed the setting, and Mike knew that in other circumstances, he would be enjoying this idyllic scene. But conditions deemed this morning to be less than pleasant. Worry over Roy had kept the crew vigilant throughout the night. Mike was certain that he wasn’t the only one who’d managed but a few hours of sleep, at best.

 

Johnny was out of the tent, moving toward the far side of the camp, behind some rocks, before Mike was completely aware of the fact. He shook his head slightly, as if that simple act would rouse him from the lethargic state. Reaching for the coffee, he silently hoped a good dose of caffeine would bring him to life.

 

It was only a few minutes before Johnny made his way back into camp and over to the fire. He seemed to be moving slowly, yet by all visible accounts, he looked well enough. However, Mike vowed to keep an eye on him.

 

“Morning, John.”

 

“Mike. You made coffee already?”

 

“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep, anyway. How’s Roy doing?”

 

Johnny didn’t answer for a moment, concentrating instead on pouring himself a cup of the steaming liquid. He stood quietly for another minute or two, holding the metal cup tightly between both hands. When he finally answered, his voice was thin.

 

“Holding his own. He’s warmer this morning. There doesn’t seem to be any lasting affects from the hypothermia, but it’s hard to tell. He’s definitely got a concussion, and I think he’s suffering from shock. On top of the broken arm, he lost quite a lot of blood from the cut on his leg. . .”

 

Johnny paused, his focus suddenly trained on the flames before him. His last words were spoken quietly, almost as if to himself. “I sure wish we could get him to a hospital.”

 

“Yeah.” Mike wanted to say more, but decided it was best not to pursue the discussion for now. It was obvious that Johnny was exhausted, and the best thing would be to let him have a few minutes to unwind. Besides, it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the group would be getting up, and then decisions would have to be made. Better to let Cap and Doug push Johnny for the answers they needed. For now, Mike would just be a friend.

 

“How about something to eat? You must be hungry.”

 

“Yeah, a little. I need to get back, though.”

 

“Only take a minute. I’ve got hot water, and with all this packaged stuff Doug brought along, we can fix something pretty quick. Cap’s awake, right?”

 

“Yeah . . .”

 

“Well, he’ll call out if he needs you.”

 

Johnny nodded imperceptibly, but Mike took his silence as acquiescence. He busied himself with the simple preparations, all the while watching his companion. John stood first on one leg, and then the other, finally giving in and settling down on a rock near the fire. It was obvious that he was stiff, and Mike was fairly certain that the younger man was favoring his left side.

 

“Here you are.”

 

Taking the tin bowl, Johnny absently stirred the hot cereal, yet he failed to spoon any of the mixture into his mouth. His mind seemed to be a thousand miles away, but Mike knew in reality, it was focused on a site only a few yards away.

 

“He’s going to be alright.”

 

Looking up, Johnny looked almost startled, as if unaware that Mike could read him so easily. “Yeah. Yeah...you’re right. Still. .”

 

“Eat, John. It’s going to be a long day.”

 

There was no more conversation, but by the time Johnny pulled himself up again, the bowl was empty. Finishing off the last of his coffee, he slowly stacked the utensils on the ground. “Thanks, Mike.”

 

Keeping his silence, Mike continued to observe as Johnny walked slowly back to the tent. As he moved around the campsite, cleaning Johnny’s dishes and laying out the supplies for a quick breakfast, Mike stopped for a moment to stoke the fire, waiting for the others to join him. He knew that Cap and Doug would be anxious to make a decision and get the expedition on its way; he only hoped that whichever course of action they took would be the best one for everyone.

 

***********

 

The light of early dawn was already turning from pink to gold when Cap finally joined him at the fire. Mike only caught a quick glimpse of the man’s face, but his expression showed the strain of a long night. Swiping his hand across his eyes, Cap hesitated several moments before speaking.

 

“Marco, come here, pal.”

 

Bleary eyed from lack of sleep, Marco was just emerging from his own tent. “What d’ya need, Cap?”

 

“Would you stay with Roy for a few minutes? I need John to be in on this discussion with Doug.”

 

“Sure, Cap.”

 

Mike watched as Marco took Johnny’s place inside the tent. When the paramedic exited, it was obvious that he was moving even slower than before. He was striving to cover his discomfort, and Mike was fairly sure that the others hadn’t noticed. But to the quiet engineer, his watchfulness was paying off.

 

Their guide had joined the two men, and they were already discussing their plan of action. Doug was clearly encouraging them to move on, but Cap seemed hesitant. Mike could see that their captain was studying John, waiting for the paramedic to voice his professional opinion. But Johnny seemed almost mesmerized by the fire, staring unerringly into the glowing embers.

 

“John?”

 

“I know, Cap. You need to make a choice here.”

 

His voice was unbelievably soft, catching even Cap’s attention. He looked at the paramedic questioningly, but Johnny was already speaking again.

 

“We need to get him to the hospital as soon as possible, but taking him out on the river is not my first choice on how to get him there. Roy has a very serious fracture, not to mention a concussion. He’s suffering from shock, and it’s only been a few hours since we warmed him up from the last dunking. If we put him back into that raft, in his condition, he’s helpless. Not only are we looking at aggravating the injuries he already has, we’re taking the risk of adding to them. What happens when we hit the next series of rapids? He won’t be able to right himself if we have problems, and if by some chance he ends up in the water again, there’s no way he’ll be able to get back to the surface.”

 

When Johnny stopped for a moment to catch his breath, Cap realized that he’d been nodding in agreement throughout the paramedic’s litany. John had just listed some of the concerns he’d had himself, things he hadn’t been able to put into words when he and Doug had discussed their options last night. It was a risky proposition, and not one he was anxious to pursue. Yet, Doug’s words came back to him: “There’s no way to get a chopper down here, so even after we contact search and rescue, it’s still going to be a lengthy and difficult rescue.”

 

Hank considered the alternatives. He had utmost faith in Johnny’s judgment as a paramedic. He also sensed that Doug was every bit the trusted professional in his field. Used to making snap decisions, Cap found that this time he was holding back on making a choice. This wasn’t his territory. He didn’t know the search and rescue operations here, wasn’t familiar with their response time, or even where the nearest facilities were located. It went against his instincts, but Hank held back on agreeing with Johnny. Instead, he turned back to their guide.

 

“What can you tell us about the rescue operations in this area, Doug? If we leave Roy, John and Marco here, what’s the best estimate on when we can get them evac’d out of here?”

 

There was no hesitation from Doug. “As I explained last night, Barry won’t be expecting us until mid-afternoon. With the radio gone, even if we manage to get to the takeout earlier, we won’t be able to contact him. That makes it after 3pm before we’d even be able to call search and rescue. Then, there’s the time it takes to get things organized out here. It’s not like your situations in LA. Our rescue personnel are volunteers, and there can easily be a delay if they’re not in the area. Once they do get here, there’s the time needed to repel down, and then get Roy back up to the top.”

 

“And getting a chopper down here, or a cable to pull him up, isn’t an option, is it?” Johnny interrupted.

 

“No.”

 

Doug’s answer was friendly but firm. Cap didn’t doubt the man knew what he was talking about, and you only had to look at him to know that he regretted that answer. Still, it wasn’t unexpected. Rescues were their business, and the men had already known that there would only be two ways out of this canyon. Either they put Roy back in the raft, or they hoisted him up the side of these cliffs in a stokes.

 

“There’s something else.”

 

The men around the campfire focused their attention on Doug. His voice was hesitant, as if he were apologizing ahead of time for what he was about to say.

 

“I don’t know if you remember, but Barry’s last transmission included a weather forecast. We’re okay for most of the day, but there’s a storm front moving in later this afternoon. This time of year, that means we could be looking at a pretty serious lightening storm and strong winds. So, even if everything goes smooth, and we get to the take-out on time, there’s a strong possibility that a rescue team wouldn’t be dispatched until tomorrow. If there’s a severe electrical storm in the area, they’ll ground all choppers.”

 

Doug stopped for a moment, his gaze resting on the men before him. It was obvious that he wanted to say more, but Johnny didn’t give him the chance. “Are you telling us that if we don’t put him on the raft now, it could be another twenty four hours before we get him out of here?”

 

“That’s what I’m telling you.” Doug nodded slowly. “I know it’s hard to . . .”

 

“Hard? Damn right, it’s hard.”

 

Silence followed, as each man waited for the other to speak first. Cap knew what had to be done, and ultimately, the decision was up to him. He just wanted Johnny to come to the realization on his own. Having the paramedic’s full cooperation would be tantamount in making this rescue operation a success. He didn’t want to push too hard or too fast, yet precious time was slipping by. And with this final piece of news, Cap didn’t want to waste one minute more than necessary.

 

It was during those seconds of waiting that Cap finally realized someone was watching him. More like trying to get his attention. Mike had been standing on the other side of the fire, but unlike his normally relaxed demeanor, the man was practically fidgeting.

 

When the two made eye contact, Mike tried to convey his concerns. With arms crossed in front of him, Mike attempted to look nonchalant as he bent his head slightly to the right while raising his eyebrows in a kind of question. Hank followed the man’s gaze, recognizing immediately that his engineer was looking right at Johnny. For the first time that morning, he gave his full attention to the paramedic. With their thoughts focused on Roy, it had been easy to miss Johnny’s condition, and Hank silently chastised himself for failing to recognize the obvious.

 

Johnny was still standing by the fire, holding himself in the same awkward position. For anyone not familiar with the young man’s normal carriage, nothing would seem out of the ordinary. But, for the men that knew him, Johnny was not comfortable. His posture seemed stiff, almost canted to one side. His hands were cupped around a metal cup, the long fingers quietly, but firmly, gripping the warm sides. That, in itself, was unusual. For Gage, being still was an anomaly.

 

Cap continued to watch his youngest charge. Was he suffering from the effects of hypothermia? Maybe he was simply sore after yesterday’s exertion. Or could there be some undetected injury that was plaguing the young man? Whatever it was, it was clear that Johnny was impaired. That realization made the decision clear.

 

“John, I don’t think we have a choice here.”

 

“No, Cap, you’re wrong. We do have a choice. It’s just one helluva choice to make.”

 

Johnny’s voice was low and strained. It was clear that he was not happy about their decision, but was resigned to it.

 

“Okay, let’s do it.” Johnny nodded slightly towards the guide. Still, he didn’t move.

 

Hank glanced over at Mike, before moving to stand behind Johnny. With an inaudible sigh, he rested a hand on the paramedic’s shoulder. “We’ll get him out of here, John. He’ll be alright.”

 

Johnny didn’t answer, but his head dropped a notch lower. Seconds later, he was moving away from the campfire as Doug called out directions to the rest of the group.

 

“Chet, start taking down your tent. Mike, as soon as everyone gets something to eat, pack the food and get that fire out.”

 

The guide had already pulled out his own bag, and was stuffing items in it. Across the campsite, a groggy-looking Chet was gathering his gear while Johnny slowly bent down to enter his tent. And behind him, Cap and Mike shared a look of quiet concern as they watched their friend disappear from sight.

 

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

 

The flap of the tent fell back in place behind Chet, and Johnny relaxed just a little. He was grateful for everyone’s help, but it felt good to be away from prying eyes, if even for a moment. They knew. But there was nothing he could do about it. Just go on as best he could. He couldn’t let his guard down. . couldn’t let anyone see the truth.

 

Squatting down next to Roy, it took only a moment to find the steady beat at his wrist. Pulse is good, and you’re a lot warmer today. Just hope you stay that way. We’re not doing the smartest thing, but I’ll do my best to make sure it’s the right thing.

 

There was no movement, no hint that Roy was aware of his presence. That was a relief, yet also a cause for concern. Was his partner simply in a deep sleep, or was he getting worse? Johnny studied the slow rise and fall of Roy’s chest, and watched the man’s face carefully as he slept. Finally convinced that his friend was just resting, Johnny sat back on his heels.

 

“Okay, so you’re sleeping on the job. Guess that means that I’ll have to do all of the work getting you ready to go. You know you’re going to owe me, Pally.”

 

Stretching out to his full height was impossible in the confines of the small tent, but Johnny did his best to extend his arms and roll his neck from side to side. It was when he bent over that the pain became almost unbearable. He couldn’t hold back an agonizing groan, but covered it quickly with a forced cough, then sank down to his knees. Several minutes passed before he could manage to pull himself up again, although it took a great deal of effort.

 

Must’ve been that damn rock wall. . but I don’t think anything’s broken.

 

Johnny fingered his side gently, feeling for anything out of place. Satisfied that all was well, he slowly stooped to pull swim trunks and a dry sweater from his pack. It took some careful maneuvering, but he finally managed to pull his t-shirt off. It took a lot more effort to get the jeans down over his hips without losing his balance, but within minutes, he was pulling the dry trunks up into place. Suddenly aware of a soft rustling behind him, he turned when he heard the familiar voice.

 

“What the . . .”

 

“Roy? What’s wrong? You alright?”

 

“Should be askin’ you . . . what happened? You’re hurt.”

 

“Nah. I’m fine. Just a little bruise from jumping off the raft yesterday.”

 

“Not little. Looks bad . . .”

 

“He’s right. That looks pretty serious.”

 

Johnny looked up to find himself the recipient of Mike’s worried gaze. Smoothly adjusting the waistband of his swim trunks, the paramedic grabbed the wool sweater and slid it on, biting back the painful moan that threatened to give him away.

 

“Looks worse than it is. Roy, Mike’s going to help get you ready. I know it’s not the best plan, but we’re going back in the raft this morning.”

 

Glancing down, Johnny realized that the man’s eyes had already slid shut.

 

“Well, maybe this’ll be better anyway. Come on, Mike, let’s get as much ready as we can before we have to move him around.”

 

They worked together silently, laying out the garments needed, along with Roy’s damaged wetsuit. It was the moment Mike cleared his throat that Johnny knew he had to get away.

 

“John, are you sure you’re okay? Maybe we should... ”

 

“I’ll be right back, Mike. Gotta get some extra bandages from the other pack.”

 

He didn’t have to look back to know that he’d left the engineer ‘open-mouthed’ behind him. Clearing the tent, he was met with another challenge.

 

“John? You need something?”

 

Pasting a complacent look on his face, Johnny shook his head as he moved past the campfire, towards the stack of supplies. “No, I’ve got it, Cap.”

 

The look faded, however, when Johnny spotted their guide. It took every ounce of willpower to keep his mind on what he was doing. Even so, Johnny’s hands shook as he pulled the roll of ace bandage from the pack and turned back to the tent. Back rigid, he knew he was failing miserably at hiding his feelings, but he refused to drop his guard. It wasn’t going to help anyone, especially Roy, to get emotional about the situation. And no river guide, even one as qualified as Doug, could fully understand the risks Roy faced out on that raft.

 

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

 

Mike fumbled with the clothing in front of him, then squatted back to wait. Everything was ready, now it was just a matter of getting Roy into the river gear without injuring him further. It was Johnny that had him worried at the moment. The young man was obviously in pain.

 

His earlier suspicions had been confirmed, but what should he do about it? What could he do? Nothing had changed. They still had to get Roy to a hospital, and the raft was their best chance. The fact that John might be injured too, simply made their mission that much more serious. It would take all of them, working together, to get Roy safely down river and on to a hospital. Johnny’s medical knowledge was going to be imperative in making that happen.

 

Lost in thought, it took Mike a moment to realize that someone was clutching his arm.

 

“Roy? Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”

 

“Johnny . .”

 

“Just a minute, I’ll call him.”

 

Already pushing himself up, Mike was surprised when the grip on his arm tightened, and he lowered himself back down next to the injured man.

 

“No . . . don’t. Need to tell . . . you.”

 

“What is it, Roy?”

 

“Something wrong . . . he’s hurting. Won’t . . . tell anyone. Watch him close . . . Mike.”

 

“Sure thing. I’ll keep an eye on him. But don’t worry, it’s probably just like he said, it’s just . . .”

 

The sounds were unmistakable, and Mike stopped in mid-sentence. Just in time, as Johnny was already pushing his way into the small tent.

 

“Everything okay, Mike?”

 

“Yeah, he’s doing fine.”

 

Looking down at Roy, Mike nodded slightly, and was rewarded with an acknowledging nod from the wounded man.

 

***********

 

Johnny watched the interchange between the two men. Great, he thought, I need that like I need more rocks and water right about now. He was going to have to put an end to this. He didn’t want either man’s focus diverted to him. Mike needed to watch the river and Roy, well Roy surely didn’t need any more distractions or worries.

 

“Okay, you two,” Johnny put on his best grin as he made a point of making eye contact with both Roy and Mike. “Whatever it is that you think you know, you don’t. I hit a wall and I got a little bruised up. Isn’t the first time and won’t be the last. But my jacket protected my ribs. I’m sore, but no more so than after your average cliff-side rescue. If it gets worse, I promise I’ll tell someone, okay? Trust me. Now, can you two stop the mother hen act and take me at my word? We’ve got enough real things to worry about today without adding made up stuff.”

 

Mike didn’t look convinced, but he agreed. Roy didn’t even pretend. “Trust you? With my life, yes . . . yours? Not so sure.”

 

Johnny shook his head. “You’re impossible. But I’m glad to hear you trust me with your life, because I want you to remember that when I tell you what we’re doing today.”

 

“ . . not gonna like this . . . am I?”

 

“Probably not. Listen, Roy, there’s no way to pull you out of here by chopper, and there’s a storm coming in. If you and I wait here, it could be 24 hours, or even more before help can get here. We’re gonna have to get back on the river and ride out of here with the rest of the guys.”

 

Johnny thought he saw both fear and pain flash across Roy’s face, but when the man spoke, neither was evident.

 

“We do what we need to . . . nice day for a paddle.”

 

“Okay then.” Johnny was willing to play into Roy’s nonchalance for the moment. “Let’s get you suited up.”

 

***********

 

We’re going back on the river. That was a possibility that Roy had never once considered. As his hypothermia had resolved and his mind had cleared, Roy had come to understand more about their situation. He had assumed that the others would go further down the river and send back help. He had prepared himself for a day of waiting. But getting back on the river – that was not something he had never thought to prepare for.

 

As Johnny re-bandaged his leg, Roy closed his eyes and found himself back in the river, surrounded by water, the river’s forces pushing against him. His breaths increased in frequency and depth as he fought off the body memories of the frigid water, swirling about his face, laughing as it threw him against the rock. He fought against the river as it sent him tumbling, shivering, drowning, until a loud voice broke through the flashing memory.

 

“Roy! Stop!”

 

Roy opened his eyes and looked into Johnny’s concerned stare. His partner had hold of his good arm, which was up in the air, as if he had been swinging it about. The hands holding down his feet belonged to Mike. “Sorry,” he said, as he pulled his arm down to his side. “Guess I was day dreaming.”

 

“More like a nightmare, I’d say.” Johnny’s grip had relaxed, but his eyes were no less intense.

 

“Just thinkin’ ‘bout Jo’s mother. ‘nough to make anyone shiver.”

 

“Uh huh,” Johnny replied. “Well, if it gets too bad, you can send her on a rafting trip. I’ve heard there are some great rivers in Africa. And those lions probably would love a nice meal of fattened white meat, you know?”

 

Roy knew that his partner didn’t buy his explanation, but he also knew that Johnny understood that he couldn’t bear to put his fears into words at the moment. So he did his best to smile, and help with the process of getting dressed.

 

***********

 

Johnny rolled his shoulders, trying to get some of the kinks out before he knelt back by Roy’s side. There was little more that he could do to prepare his partner for the rest of the day. He wasn’t the only one who realized that the readjustment of the straps of Roy’s life vest was necessary only as a means of distraction.

 

“Cut that out!” Roy’s voice wasn’t strong, but his annoyance came through loud and clear. “ . . already can’t breathe.”

 

Johnny managed a smile as he reached for the BP cuff. “Okay. I’ll take another set of vitals instead.”

 

Roy rolled his eyes and slapped Johnny’s hand away. Before Johnny could tell him to behave, Doug stuck his head into the tent.

 

“Hey, Johnny. When you get a minute, can I talk to you?”

 

“I’m busy.”

 

Johnny kept his eyes glued on the BP cuff, avoiding looking at Doug, and avoiding Roy’s sudden stare.

 

“No rush,” Doug pushed. “Just sometime before we put in.”

 

“I’m not going to have time before we put in.”

 

Johnny could feel his jaw muscles tighten as he spoke the words. “There’ll be time. We’re not going to launch until you and I have had a minute to talk. I’ll be around when you can get free.”

 

Doug didn’t wait for Johnny to reply. Johnny threw the BP cuff down as he watched the man walk away.

 

“What was that?” Roy whispered, perhaps to keep the question between them, perhaps because a whisper was all his strength would allow.

 

“That was our handy dandy guide exerting his authority."

 

“I meant you.”

 

Johnny just looked at him for a moment, then got up and left the tent without saying a word.

 

“Chet.” Johnny nodded toward the tent as he spoke to the man standing a few feet away. He watched as Chet ducked in, and then he turned to face Doug.

 

“What?” he asked the guide, having no intention of saying anything more than necessary.

 

“Thanks for taking a minute,” Doug said as he stood up.

 

“Uh huh. What?”

 

“You’ve got a problem?”

 

“I’d say we’ve all got a problem.”

 

“Agreed. You, however, appear to have a problem with me.”

 

“No,” Johnny replied without expression. “Is that all?”

 

“No, it’s not all. When we get back on that raft, we’re going to have to work as a team. So whatever the problem is, let’s work it out now and leave it here.”

 

“Yeah, well, it’s my problem, not yours, so don’t worry about it. And you don’t have to worry about me. Whatever my ‘problem’ is, I’d never do anything to put anyone in jeopardy.”

 

“Look, Johnny, I know this isn’t the way you want to play this out, but I’m responsible for you guys and I just don’t-”

 

“Bullshit.” Johnny cut him off.

 

“Huh?”

 

“That’s bullshit. The minute Roy got hurt he became my responsibility. Some lawyer may tell you that you’re responsible, and HQ may tell Cap he’s responsible, but it’s garbage and you know it.”

 

“Look, Johnny…”

 

“No! You look! I’m the one who’s going to have to tell his wife, his kids, his mother, that I didn’t bring him home. Not you, not Cap, not the other guys. Me.”

 

Doug opened his mouth to say something, but again Johnny denied him the chance.

 

“I’m the one who’s going to have to look his wife in the eye and tell her that I put her husband back on a raft, and that he got bounced out in another rapid, and this time he couldn’t help himself and he drowned. Or, that despite everything we did to immobilize his arm, the broken bone shifted when we hit a rock, and it pierced his artery and he bled to death before we even got out of the rapid. Or that he had finally gotten warm when we let him fall into the river again, and this time his heart couldn’t take the cold. Or that the jouncing around re-opened the wound on his leg, and he lost so much blood that he went into shock and his organs shut down before we could get him to help. I’m the one who’s going to have to explain to his children why I decided to put him back on that raft, not you. So don’t tell me that you’re responsible, because you’re not.”

 

Doug took advantage of Johnny’s pause. “Look, Johnny, I don’t disagree with you. But the problem is…”

 

Again Johnny didn’t let him finish. “The problem is . . .” Johnny stopped when he heard how loud his voice had gotten. Looking back toward the tent, he took a deep breath.

 

“The problem . . .” he stopped again, this time pressing his fingers against the bridge of his nose. His spewing of the words had released his anger, leaving him only worry and exhaustion. He looked up and made eye contact with Doug for the first time.

 

“The problem – isn’t you. The problem is that there’s no good answer. Hell, there isn’t even anything close. If we wait here, maybe help gets to us tonight, probably not. If we have to pass another 24 hours here, he could lose the use of his arm permanently, if it isn’t already too late. If the ongoing in and out of consciousness is the head injury, and that sure seems likely, pressure may be building and every hour increases his risk of death. He didn’t pee this morning. Maybe that’s no big deal, but if his kidneys are shutting down from shock or from some injury we don’t know about . . . well, he may not have until tomorrow. So, since there is another option, we need to take it. But the other option sucks, and it’s just about as likely to kill him.”

 

Doug just nodded. Cap, who had joined the duo in time to hear most of Johnny’s soliloquy, put his hand on his paramedic’s shoulder in a show of support. “Are there any possibilities for getting out of this that we haven’t considered? Could we get back on the river for a ways, then leave Roy and Johnny in a place where they could be reached by a chopper? Maybe there’s a place where a rescue team could drive in close. Or even a place where we could carry him out?”

 

Johnny allowed himself a moment of hope before he noticed the expression on Doug’s face. “Those are all good ideas, Hank. But I went through every foot of this river in my mind last night. There are certainly places where a chopper could get in, but we still have the dilemma of the electrical storm. The lightning and winds, if they hit us, will ground the choppers, perhaps before we could make arrangements. Then Roy and John are back in the same position, stuck on the river overnight. As for walking out, we stay in the canyon until almost the end of the trip. There’s one spot about half way where folks could hike out, but it’s a ten-mile hike, mostly up rough terrain. Then we’d have to pray for a passing car on a back road. The nearest house is probably another five miles away. By the next place we could walk out, there’s only a mile of river left, and it’s a pretty calm mile. From there, by raft it will take us minutes to reach the take-out and hopefully help. By foot. it would take us hours.”

 

The conversation continued on as the three men discussed all the possible contingencies. In the end, it was Johnny who proposed a sort of compromise.

 

“Okay, well, we all agree we can’t stay here. So let’s just agree that we go to the halfway point where we could possibly hike out. When we get there, we can decide whether to keep paddling or start hiking.”

 

There were no objections.

 

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

 

As the men broke camp and repacked their gear, it slowly dawned on each of them that there was going to be a new problem with space in the raft. The plan was to use Chet’s air mattress as a base for Roy, to try to protect him from some of the rocks bumping against the bottom of the raft. They would sit him on the floor of the raft, leaning up against one of the thwarts. Johnny would share that space with him. But with Roy and Johnny on the floor of the raft, instead of sitting on the sides, the carefully planned space was now a problem. Mike and Marco were engaged in a conversation about how to resolve that problem when Doug took care of it all with one simple declaration.

 

“We take only what we need. We’ll leave the rest here, and I’ll pull it out on my next trip down the river.”

 

Supplies were unpacked and pared down to fit in the fewest bags possible. All but one of the water jugs was left behind. They could always boil more if need be.

 

Mike made sure to find a space for the remainder of the duct tape. Much to Roy’s distress, the material had been used extensively in redressing him for the day. Mike and Johnny had made use of the tape to refasten the shoulders of the wet suit. They also used long strips of the tape to create a crotch strap for Roy’s life vest. Although they had put the vest back on before they had secured Roy’s arm to his chest, they were concerned about what would happen if they had to grab onto the shoulder straps. At the very least, it would cause incredible pain if the vest were pulled up against the underarm. At worst, it could cause the brachial artery injury that so worried Johnny. So the men wrapped the tape around the chest straps, and created a type of harness between Roy’s legs to assure that the vest would not ride up under his arms if they had to pull on it. Roy was more mortified with the solution than uncomfortable, and in the end he had no grounds on which to protest. Besides, he had been at their mercy.

 

The day was warm, but already cloudy. Barry had said the storm was due in sometime in the late afternoon. Mike hoped that for once, the weathermen had been right. If it held off until late afternoon, they would be long off the river. If not . . . well, that was one challenge they could do without today.

 

Mike knew that the men faced many challenges today. There were several more rapids to get through before they got off the river. He hoped that some could be portaged. But taking Roy out of the raft to carry him around each rapid had its own set of problems. Besides, that might not be possible for all of the rapids. It would depend on the canyon and the shoreline.

 

The fact that none of the men had gotten a good night’s sleep also concerned Mike. No one on the raft was at a hundred percent today. What did that mean for their ability to perform? And their attention was bound to be affected, not only by their exhaustion, but by their concern as well. Each man would worry about Roy and Johnny with ever bump and bounce. Would that draw away from their ability to successfully run the rest of the river?

 

Mike was sure that the rest of the men, like himself, had played out in their mind a hundred times, what they would do if Roy ended up in the river. Each scenario that Mike imagined was worse than the one before. No, it was simply an eventuality that they would have to avoid. The alternatives were just too dangerous to even consider.

 

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

 

Satisfied with the way the packing was proceeding, Cap allowed himself a moment to sit down next to his senior paramedic who was watching the activity from his resting-place.

 

“Hey, Roy.” Cap lowered himself to the ground. “How ya doin?”

 

“Okay. Sure wish these aspirin were Percoset, but …”

 

“Yeah, next time you’ll have to tell Dixie to forget the splints and pack drugs instead.”

 

Roy almost smiled before turning very serious. “Cap . . . Johnny’s hurting.”

 

“I know. Mike told me about the bruising. But there isn’t much we can do. We’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything strenuous, no lifting. And he’s watching over you, so we don’t have to fight about whether or not he can paddle. Once we get off the river, I’ll make sure he gets treated. But until then, we’re all pretty much in the same boat here. No pun intended.”

 

“Just hope we all stay in that boat this time.”

 

“Hopin’ and a prayin’, pal. Hopin’ and a prayin’.”

 

Cap watched as Roy closed his eyes in a grimace of pain. He reached out and put his hand on Roy’s good shoulder.

 

“It’s okay. We’ll get through this. By this time tomorrow, you’ll be basking in the glow of morphine, and complaining about hospital food.”

 

“While you guys . . . flying home.”

 

Cap had thought about that, but was somewhat surprised to find that Roy had been thinking that far ahead. “Well, let’s not worry about that one right now, okay? Let’s get you to the hospital before we worry about leaving you there alone. I’ll work something out with HQ and the hospitals. I promise.”

 

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

 

Roy watched with trepidation as the crew got closer and closer to being ready to launch. Try as he might, he was not successful at calming his nerves. When he sat or lay perfectly still, the pain was bearable. Any movement caused a flare-up that made him want to scream. If things went as scheduled, they still had almost eight hours on the river. Eight hours of bouncing, and bumping and getting soaking wet. Eight hours of potential to take another swim.

 

Roy thought about his arm, strapped tightly to his chest. Even with the life vest, would he be able to reach the surface with just one arm if he went over? Heaven knew the vest wasn’t coming off. Mike and Johnny, and their duct tape had made double and triple sure of that. But there was still the issue of balance. How could he keep his head above water with just one arm?

 

As Roy saw the men approaching him, he realized that the time had come. This was the point of no return. If he was going to object to this plan, it had to be now. He looked at Cap and Johnny and Doug, and tried to reach peace in his own mind. They would not be going forward with this if it weren’t the best choice available.

 

He’d told Johnny he trusted him with his life. Did he mean that right now, in this moment of decision? Yes. He meant it. Roy braced himself for the pain that he knew was going to come, and pasted a smile on his face. “Okay,” he said to Chet, Marco, Mike, and Cap. “What do you say we get this show on the river?” Then he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, as the men lifted him and the air mattress into the air and onto the raft. Roy bit his cheek to keep from calling out in pain. It was going to be a very long day.

 

***********

 

As the crew set off down the river, Chet couldn’t help but think about what the next forty-eight hours would bring. First and foremost, they had to make it to the take-out. Their goal was no longer to complete the trip without incident; it was now to complete the trip without debilitating injury or even death. Once off the river, they would have to get Roy to medical help, maybe Johnny too. Chet thought back to the last time he had faced a medical emergency in a rural area. That time they had gotten lucky, and the local doctor had happened in to the office in time to save the lady, and her child. Chet knew that luck had been on their side that day. At the time he thought that their good fortune had been a once in a lifetime thing. Now, he hoped he’d been wrong.

 

As much as Chet longed to look back and keep an eye on Roy and Johnny, he managed to stay focused on the river. They were approaching the Mason Madness rapid. Doug had told them it was a class III rapid because of its length. That brought some comfort until Chet remembered that was the exact description of the rapid that had tossed him into the river. Well, this time I won’t lose my grip.

 

Chet watched the river while he kept his paddling sure and steady, following Doug’s instructions to a tee. Ten minutes later, as they emerged, he realized he had never heard Roy call out in pain. Maybe Johnny’s splint and his air mattress had made the difference. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad on Roy after all.

 

As soon as Doug gave them permission to stop paddling, Chet turned to look at the men at the center of the raft. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he was certain that the moisture on both Roy’s and Johnny’s face was not just from the river. They were both covered with sweat. Roy’s eyes were clenched shut, and his hand held a tight grip on the rope that had been attached to the thwart. Every muscle in his neck and face were tightened, and Chet knew that Roy had neither been spared the pain nor been given the relief of passing out. He had simply decided not to give it voice.

 

***********

 

The sunlight glinting off the river made a pretty picture, and for a few minutes, Hank reveled in the peaceful setting. But when he glanced back towards the middle of the raft, reality came rushing back to meet him.

 

Roy was stretched out on the bottom of the boat, the look on his face one of controlled agony. Mumbled reassurances from his partner seemed to do little to relieve the man’s suffering, though he occasionally nodded slightly in the younger man’s direction.

 

Hank found himself clenching his T-grip tighter, as he followed Doug’s instructions. He longed to paddle furiously, moving the raft swiftly to the help Roy needed. But the current had slowed, and there were miles of river left to travel. They needed to conserve their energy.

 

At the front of the raft, Chet turned to the side as he continued to paddle slowly. He seemed to be watching the two men in the middle, as if he wanted to say something. Yet, he appeared almost hesitant, his gaze flicking back and forth from Johnny and Roy, to the river ahead. Several minutes of watching the man left Hank on the verge of speaking. The last thing they needed was some juvenile theatrics, but the look of concern on Chet’s face was reassuring. He wouldn’t say anything out of line today.

 

Hank turned his attention to the paramedics. Johnny was watching Roy closely, his worry evident in the frown he wore. It was at that moment that Chet cleared his throat and finally broke the silence. “Hey, Gage, bet you wish some of your ancestors were around to help us out about now.”

 

Johnny looked up, his expression a mixture of surprise, frustration and curiosity. “What the hell are you talking about, Chet?”

 

“Oh, you know . . . in all the westerns, they show the Indians living out on the plains. Those guys made it through every kind of situation with nothing more than what they could carry with them, or use from the land. Too bad you didn’t learn some of their tricks.”

 

“Chet, you watch too much TV.”

 

“That may be, but the stuff they showed was real. We could use a little Injun know-how in this situation.”

 

“Madre de Dios.” Marco muttered from the side of the raft.

 

“What’s wrong with you, Marco?” Chet asked innocently.

 

“Chet.” Hank’s voice was low, but strong. He wasn’t sure if Chet really didn’t hear him over the sound of the river, or just chose to ignore his captain. Either way, the Irishman was like a dog worrying a bone, and he wasn’t ready to give up.

 

“I’m serious, Gage. There must be something in your native background that’ll help us out.”

 

Hank did his best to get Chet’s attention without actually shouting at the man. Mike quickly caught on, but even his attempts to control Chet went unnoticed. In the end, Doug was the one who put a stop to the conversation.

 

“Just ahead is where we’ll make the portage. Everyone pay attention now, we’re going to head for shore.”

 

Immediately, the group quieted, focused on the work at hand. Paddles dipped in the water, matching the guide’s verbal commands, and within seconds, the raft was headed towards the river’s edge.

 

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

 

The rocky shore was a welcome sight to Johnny. Passing safely through one series of rapids had helped to calm his fears. Still, the thought of Roy being completely vulnerable at the bottom of a rubber raft on a dangerous river, made the younger paramedic cringe.

 

“Right, back hard.”

 

Doug’s voice rang out as he directed the men to beach the raft. It seemed odd, but Johnny couldn’t help but recognize the improvement in the men’s abilities as they dipped their paddles into the water. Their movements in unison, the paddles matched in depth and pull, his shift mates worked well together as the boat glided smoothly towards shore.

 

“Steady, Chet, that’s it. Okay, Mike.” Doug was already out of the raft, his legs knee deep in the river water as he steadied the craft. At the bow, Mike had just climbed out, and Chet was doing the same. Within minutes, they had the raft securely beached.

 

“Alright, Pal, let’s get you out of there first.”

 

Johnny looked up to see Cap waiting patiently to help him out. It took a moment, and his legs felt like they’d been folded into the same position for hours, but he carefully edged himself away from Roy and out of the raft. Pins and needles seemed to burn his feet and ankles, but Johnny ignored the discomfort as his feet slipped over the side and into the water. He was grateful when Cap’s hand grasped his arm, supplying the stability he needed to stay upright and move towards shore.

 

Unwilling to admit it verbally, Johnny was grateful that the guys were taking charge of getting Roy out of the raft. Sitting on the bottom of the raft put a person in a much worse position to manage the bumps and jolts of a river passage. It took a few minutes of stretching before he felt that everything was in good working order again. Even his side felt a little better, now that he wasn’t bent over like a pretzel.

 

It took a little more finesse to get Roy out of the raft, but the group was well versed in rescue operations, and they quickly came up with a way to use Chet’s air mattress as a makeshift stokes.

 

“Okay, partner, this concludes your early morning river adventure. We will now take a short rest before starting the next leg of our scenic tour.”

 

Chet’s snort of laughter seemed to grant the others’ release, and they all enjoyed the absurdity of Johnny’s remarks. Roy managed a rather weak grin for his partner, but that was enough to give Johnny a sense of reprieve. They’d made it through a difficult part of their journey. There was more ahead, but this part was over, and he was grateful.

 

“Why don’t we all take a little breather?”

 

Doug’s suggestion was accepted with nods and smiles. Chet and Marco both sat down, stretching their legs out in front of them. Doug began to check out the raft, a routine the men were familiar with by now. Mike stepped over to give him a hand, while Cap squatted down near Roy. Johnny, for his part, spent several minutes walking slowly around the narrow strip of beach. It felt good to stretch his legs and back, but it also gave him an excuse to step away from the group for a few minutes.

 

There was no question that they were making the right decisions, John was certain of that. Still, the worry was there, nagging at him constantly. Would the next part of the journey be worse? Could they portage this area safely? Could the three men left in the raft guide it successfully through this dangerous section of the river? Or would the men on land be left with no way out, if the raft didn’t make it through?

 

The questions plagued Johnny as he shuffled slowly along the shoreline. Still, he was practical enough to shove those thoughts aside and focus on what needed to be done next. Turning back, he paused next to the raft.

 

“Doug?”

 

“Yeah, John.”

 

“How many paddles can I use?”

 

Doug studied the younger man for a moment, as if trying to discern what Johnny was thinking. Yet, he didn’t hesitate to answer the question. “There’s the two that you and Roy used, and the two that Cap and Marco are using.”

 

Johnny didn’t respond, standing quietly instead, his head down. His silence finally prompted Doug to inquire, “What do you have in mind?”

 

“We’re going to build a travois.”

 

Ignoring Doug’s questioning look, Johnny stepped over to the raft. “Mike, can you get that length of nylon rope? And we’ll need the duct tape.”

 

The engineer responded immediately, pulling out the requested items, and laying them in a pile. It was clear that he was used to trusting Johnny’s impulses. “Anything else?”

 

“No, just the paddles.”

 

Johnny picked up the rope, slowly undoing the loops until he had several lengths splayed out before him.

 

“What do you have in mind, John?”

 

Once more, Cap rested his hand on his paramedic’s shoulder. Johnny wondered, briefly, if the contact was for his sake or his captain’s. But the thought was immediately dismissed. It didn’t matter. Maybe they both needed the reassurance.

 

“I was just thinking about something Chet said.”

 

“What? What did I say?” Chet had moved over beside them, his curiosity piqued. But Johnny chose to ignore him, working instead on uncoiling more of the rope. “Come on, Gage. What did I say?”

 

Johnny knew he was pushing Chet’s buttons, but it felt kind of good to enjoy the familiar baiting. Besides, the guy had it coming after all those “injun” cracks earlier. He knew that Chet was just trying to lighten the mood, but Johnny wasn’t about to let the man know that his teasing had been appreciated. “Nothing special. At least, not to you white men.”

 

“What? Tell me what I said!”

 

“Cap, can you lay two of those paddles together, end to end?” Johnny asked, as he continued to ignore Chet.

 

“Sure, John. How’s that?”

 

“Fine. Now, place the other two the same way, about two feet apart.”

 

Johnny squatted down next to the paddles, now twice their length.

 

“Good. Now, Marco, take this tape and secure the paddles together. Make sure to overlap the widest parts, so you can snug them up tight.”

 

While Marco, with Mike’s help, taped the paddles together, Johnny made a loop at one end of the rope, and slipped it over one of the paddles. Then, he began to criss-cross the rope, from one set of paddles to the other, carefully intertwining the rope until he had a makeshift net between the two poles. It didn’t take long for the others to realize what an ingenious stretcher he’d created.

 

“I made you think up this contraption?”

 

“No, Chet. You just made me remember what they looked like.”

 

“How did I do that?”

 

Johnny grinned at the flustered man. “You kept making all those cracks about the Indians, and I got to thinking about all the westerns I used to watch when I was a kid. Shoot, everyone’s seen an Indian pony pulling a travois. Well, this one’s going to be a cross between a travois and a stretcher. We’ll have to carry this one, but it’ll be a lot easier on Roy than bumping along behind a horse.”

 

The others nodded in appreciation as they realized what Johnny had managed to come up with. He studied the finished product a moment, before adding his approval. “Okay, now all we need is to put the air mattress on top of the rope and tie it together. Then we’ll be ready to move.”

 

“Good work, John.”

 

Cap’s words of praise meant a lot to Johnny, but he couldn’t help but add his own comment under his breath. Yeah, if it holds.

 

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

 

The warmth of the sun on his face was relaxing, and under different circumstances, Roy had a feeling he’d be enjoying the morning. Right now, it was all he could do to lie quietly on the air mattress. It seemed as if every inch of his body hurt, and there was no such thing as a comfortable position.

 

The first series of rapids had been brutal, and it had been all he could do to choke back his screams. He still wasn’t sure if he’d been conscious the whole time. There were dark spots in his memory, where his view of the clouds and the sky disappeared into a black void. The only part Roy remembered clearly was the sight of his partner’s worried frown.

 

Being trussed up the way he was, it was nothing but sheer willpower that kept Roy from screaming in frustration. Only his trust in Johnny and the others, had given him the strength to keep quiet. Still, he’d never felt more vulnerable than he had out on that river. Roy knew that if he went over the side, he was finished.

 

Although he’d done his best to cover any signs of the pain he was experiencing, it was getting harder as the day went on. For now, he was relieved to be off the river, if only for a little while.

 

He could hear the others talking in the background, their voices muted as if they were at the end of a long tunnel. At first Roy strained to catch a word or two, curious as to what they were doing or planning. But the effort wasn’t worth the reward, and he returned to focusing his attention on holding back a painful groan.

 

“How ya doin’?”

 

Johnny’s expression was guarded, but Roy recognized the anxious stare. His friend was doing his best in a bad situation, and doing it while battling his own pain.

 

Roy knew there was something wrong with Johnny. You couldn’t be a guy’s partner for as long as he’d been Johnny’s, without recognizing the signs. Problem was, he couldn’t figure out what could’ve happened to his friend. For that matter, he wasn’t exactly sure what had put him on the injured list. “’kay. You?”

 

“Hey, quit trying to turn things around. You’re the injured partner this time. Just lay still, and let me be the boss for a change.”

 

Johnny’s gentle teasing was a normal part of his paramedic routine, and Roy was grateful for the familiarity. It seemed a little easier to lay back and relax, and for a moment, the pain even seemed a little less. “Don’t get used to it.”

 

A choked-back laugh was his answer, and Roy didn’t bother to open his eyes. He could imagine Johnny’s grin, and he didn’t want to see the pain-filled eyes. It was too frustrating. He couldn’t help himself, let alone his friend. “Now what?”

 

There was a short pause, and the answer didn’t come from his partner. “We’re going to take a little walk, Roy.”

 

Forcing his eyes open, Roy found himself being watched closely by his captain. “Cap?”

 

“Yeah. You doing okay?”

 

“Not for walkin’.”

 

“Well, how about a ride, then? Your partner has designed a nifty little contraption. If you’re lucky, you might even manage a nap during the trip.”

 

“Where we goin’?”

 

Cap smiled, and Roy felt a sense of relief. Evidently he was asking the right questions. “There’s a short portage here, just enough to get you around a series of rapids. Doug thinks this’ll be the safest route for you, okay Pal?”

 

“’kay. . . trust you.”

 

Cap cleared his throat, but didn’t answer. Roy didn’t have any idea what expression the man wore. His own gaze was focused on his partner. He just hoped it was clearly understood, he meant that for both of them.

 

***********

 

Hank didn’t know how to respond to Roy’s comment. Gratifying as it was, he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the heaviness that simple comment had brought to his heart. Standing up, he looked around for Doug, anxious to get the group moving again. That must’ve been the guide’s intent also, as he was already slipping on a life jacket.

 

“Okay, let’s get Roy settled on this contraption.”

 

The others responded instantly to Hank’s call, and within minutes, they’d lifted Roy onto the makeshift stretcher. Johnny took another roll of Ace bandage from the first aid kit, and quickly cut it into several strips. Then he deftly used the thin fabric to tie Roy’s legs loosely to the paddles. No one uttered a word, though it looked several times as if Johnny were ready to explain, but his partner kept his eyes closed, and the moment passed.

 

Whether Roy was even aware of the procedure, Hank wasn’t sure. He was just grateful that the man didn’t put up a fuss. It would be hard enough for them to manhandle this thing up the rocky trail, without Roy sliding off of it. As hard as it was to see him tethered, it was the only safe way.

 

With Roy settled on Johnny’s travois, things started to happen fast. It had been decided earlier, that Mike and Chet would accompany Doug in the raft, and the two of them were already pulling on their life vests. With a slight look of relief, Marco bent to lift one end of the stretcher, while Hank stooped to grab the other. Surprisingly, his hands intercepted another’s, and he froze. “I’ve got it, John.”

 

“I’m alright, Cap, I can take him.”

 

The captain’s gaze never faltered as he slowly stared Johnny down. He never spoke, didn’t argue. He simply conveyed with his eyes what they all knew. John was in no shape to travel this rocky path, let alone carry his partner.

 

Hank had no desire to pull rank, but he would. His relieved sigh was audible when he realized he wouldn’t have to. Several seconds had passed before Johnny released his hold, and backed away. But his gaze dropped to the earth for only a moment before he quickly turned to pick up several small bags that Doug had laid nearby. Hank suspected the bags held a water jug and some first aid supplies, but he didn’t bother to ask. Instead, he gripped the two paddles on his end, before nodding at Marco.

 

With a low grunt, the two raised the stretcher between them and slowly moved forward. Johnny hurried out in front of them, pushing himself to stay ahead. If he couldn’t carry his partner, it was clear that he would find another way to help.

 

From the corner of his eye, Hank could see the raft was already moving out into the current, but he didn’t watch as it headed down river. He needed to keep his eyes on the trail. The ground was uneven, and the angle growing steeper. Johnny was staying ahead, tossing or kicking some of the larger rocks out of the way. Occasionally, he’d holler back, advising them of a specific area to be careful of.

 

Every step seemed like torture to Hank. Not because the load was too heavy, or the burden too great. He was a fireman, after all, and this kind of rescue was standard procedure. The torture came from within.

 

Was this too rough on Roy? Would the makeshift stretcher hold up? Was Johnny making his injury worse? Would they make it in time?

 

So far, Roy had been very still during the trek, and Hank assumed he was unaware of what was happening. A sudden tightening of his hand on the rope sling corrected that assumption. The injured man was awake, and very aware of where he was.

 

“Hang on, Roy. You’re doing fine.”

 

There was no answer, but it seemed as if the hand relaxed just a little.

 

They continued to climb, the path barely defined in some places. At times, the trail was so narrow that a foot to the left would’ve put them over the side and into the river below. Hank wouldn’t allow himself to look in that direction. Better not to imagine the worst.

 

And then, Johnny was calling out to them.

 

“Just a few more feet, guys, there’s a great place to rest!”

 

John was already seated when they rounded a corner at the top of the trail. The view was excellent. The path had opened onto the top of a small knoll that overlooked the river, but Hank wasn’t interested in the scenery. As they rested, his eyes were discreetly examining the men in his charge.

 

Marco was fine, a little winded but in good shape. He was sipping, slowly, from a small water jug that Johnny handed him. On the travois, Roy rested quietly, his gaze occasionally moving slowly back and forth between his friends. It was Johnny that held Cap’s attention. His position was awkward at best, half sitting, half slumped over on the hard earth. His breathing was uneven, and his complexion was flushed. Hank moved to sit by him, but John was already struggling to his feet. With a faint grin, he tried again to persuade his captain. “We’ve got a ways to go, Cap. How about I take a turn?”

 

Hank figured the guy deserved a medal for trying, but he wasn’t about to admit it. In fact, he wasn’t even going to bother answering the twit. “Let’s go.”

 

The path stayed level for a short distance, winding its way around rocks and boulders. Then, suddenly, it dipped down towards the canyon’s floor again. There had been no sign of the raft since they parted company almost an hour before, so it was something of a surprise when they heard Chet’s shout. Mere seconds passed before Mike and Chet came into view. They were hurrying uphill to meet the group, quickly taking over the travois for the last part of the journey.

 

There was a distinct change in conversation when they walked down the trail’s final grade. The relief was evident, and their chatter increased the closer they got to the river. Of course, Chet was the loudest. “So, Gage, this thing really worked, huh?”

 

“Worked great.”

 

“Guess those red men really did know their stuff, didn’t they? Good thing you paid attention during those westerns, though it seems to me that you would’ve learned some of that stuff first hand.”

 

“Yeah, Chet, you’d think.”

 

“Got any other tricks up your sleeve? Or should I say buckskins? Gage, I’ll bet there’s a whole bunch of this kinda stuff you know about. Maybe you should teach a class or something. You know, like a mini Boy Scout class.”

 

“Chet.”

 

“No, seriously, they could give you a special title. I bet the kids would love it.”

 

“Uh, huh. And what do you get out of all this?”

 

“Me? Why, you know I wouldn’t think of getting involved in one of your schemes. I was just trying to help you out, that’s all.”

 

Hank would’ve thumped the fireman personally, if he could’ve reached him. The last thing John needed right now, was a personal onslaught from the Phantom. The poor guy was barely standing as it was. Still, as Hank worked to release Roy from the travois, and unwind the rope from the paddles, he noticed Kelly’s verbal abuse was bringing about a strange result. John was working over his partner, but his answers were directed at Chet. There was no real malice, but the familiar bickering of two friendly rivals.

 

Six months of latrine duty that Cap had been scheduling for Kelly slowly slipped away as he recognized, and appreciated, what the stocky fireman had just accomplished. Johnny was grinning at Roy, who managed a return smile.

 

The group didn’t bother to discuss their next move. They simply picked Roy up and started for the raft. Overhead, the sky was already changing in color. Though it was still some time before they’d reach their destination, and longer still, until Barry would meet them, it was obvious that they needed to make time. There were miles to travel, and rapids to get through before the safe completion of their trip.

 

Doug was waiting at the river’s edge, and he helped Johnny into the raft first. Next in was Mike who balanced on the side as he helped guide Roy over the edge and into the raft.

 

Like precision clockwork, the rest of the men crawled into their places and picked up their paddles. With a few quick commands, Doug directed them back into the center of the river, and towards the takeout. Hank was grateful that their guide was confident in his abilities. Now, if Mother Nature would just cooperate a little, maybe they’d all make it home safely after all.

 

Over the objections of the crew of 51, Doug had insisted that they take a short break for lunch. Because of the morning’s portage, there was no pressing need for the men to get out to stretch, so they remained in the raft while Doug passed around the thick, peanut butter sandwiches he had made that morning. Apples, oranges, cookies, and Tang finished off the meal. Not very gourmet, but then, it was full of the kind of energy they would need to get them through to the other end. Even Roy managed to eat a few bites of sandwich and a few slices of orange. While they ate, they talked about the afternoon.

 

“It’s 12:30,” Doug pointed out. “We’re making pretty good time. At this pace, we’ll be at the take out by 2:00. I told Barry to meet us at 3:00, but he’ll be there by 2:30 if not before then. In just about an hour, we’re going to hit the last big rapid of the trip. It’s a class IV, and there is simply no way to portage it because of the canyon walls. The good news is that our take out is only about a mile beyond the end of the rapid. And it isn’t as tough as some that we’ve run. If everyone stays focused, and we get a little bit of luck, we’ll be okay.”

 

**********

 

Johnny took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, trying to focus on the moment. What if… NO! He could not allow himself to go there. There were far too many possibilities that could play out before the afternoon was over. Playing them out in his mind would do no one any good.

 

Johnny looked at his partner. “Okay, Pally. One last run and then we’re off this river. You ready?”

 

Roy forced a slight smile onto his face. “You know – I’ve been thinking – maybe it would be better to run an easier river.”

 

Johnny smiled at the attempt at levity. “Did you hear that guys? Roy’s decided that he doesn’t want to run this river.”

 

“No problem, Roy,” Chet said. “We’ll just turn around and go back.”

 

“Naw, Chet,” Marco jumped in, “that’s too much work. Think maybe we could get Captain Kirk to beam us out of here?”

 

Don’t I wish! Johnny forced himself to tear his eyes away from the river up ahead. “Okay, Roy. One last time. Hang on, ‘cause here we go.”

 

Roy clenched his jaw and tried to brace himself. He wondered what the guys would say in other circumstances, to see Johnny almost laying on top of him, trying to secure him to the raft. Before he could ponder that, the raft leapt from the water and slammed back down, setting every nerve in his body on fire. They were in the rapid.

 

Ice cold water washed over him, as wave after wave crashed over the raft. It stole his breath away, leaving only silent screams of pain as his body bounced between the raft and the brace created by Johnny’s arms. Opening his eyes, he found himself looking directly into the dark eyes of his keeper. No words were spoken, but he found the strength and comfort he needed. He gave Johnny a slight nod of acknowledgement before closing his eyes again.

 

By the time it was over, Roy felt like he had been at the receiving end of a battering ram. He hurt everywhere. He could barely breathe. He was wet and cold. But he was alive and almost to shore. For the first time that day he allowed himself to believe they were going to make it.

 

***********

 

As the raft entered calmer waters, Johnny felt his heartbeat begin to calm down as well. They had made it through the last big hurdle. Another mile, and they would be off the river for good. And just in time. The first heavy drops of rain were beginning to fall, as the sky grew darker. He knew he wouldn't really breathe easy until they'd beached the raft, getting Roy back on solid ground again.

 

Johnny looked at Roy. Despite the pain etched on his face, even he wore a look of relief. "We're almost there," he said as he grabbed onto Roy's life vest and helped him straighten up a bit.

 

"Yeah. But the worst is yet to come," was his partner's answer.

 

Roy must have seen Johnny's look of surprise, because he actually laughed. "Still have to face Joanne."

 

Johnny cringed. "Oh yeah. I almost forgot about that."

 

Johnny couldn’t help but play the scene out in his mind. Joanne’s “Oh my God, Roy! What did you do?” followed by the inevitable stream of tears. But before Johnny could share his thoughts with Roy, the voice in his head became urgent in its tone. It was no longer thoughts of Joanne. It was Doug. And something was wrong.

 

The guide's excited "hang on" was followed by shouted instructions, but Johnny couldn't focus on them. Instead he suddenly found himself clutching Roy's vest in an effort to hold his friend steady. The raft seemed almost out of control as it spun towards the left bank, but he knew instinctively, that Doug had things under control. Right now, all he could do was try to keep Roy safe in the bouncing raft.

 

The jolt was sudden and unexpected. Before he could process what was happening, Johnny found himself air born. By the time he realized he was no longer in the raft, he was in the water. His hands clung tightly to the straps of Roy's vest and he kept his friend in his line of vision and in his control as they plunged beneath the surface. But the sudden impact of his injured hip against an unyielding surface caused blinding pain to shoot through his body, releasing his hold. Grabbing frantically for his friend, Johnny thought for a moment that he had Roy in his grasp. But his hands were empty.

 

Choking and gagging, Johnny felt himself plunged back below the surface. He thought he heard someone scream his name, but he couldn't focus on the muffled sound. He had to find Roy!

 

Roy’s mind could barely process what was happening. Despite the rain and the storm that had been rapidly approaching, he had actually finally relaxed. Doug’s announcement that they were through the last rapid and less than a mile from the take out had allowed him to believe, for the first time in over 24 hours, that maybe things were going to be okay.

 

But that was a few minutes ago and the time between then and now might just span a lifetime, his lifetime – or even Johnny’s. Now, in these last few minutes of the trip, his worst nightmares, Johnny’s worst fears, and Joanne’s worst premonitions were all coming true. He was back in the water, unable to help himself, rapidly losing the ability to even focus. He would not survive this time. As for Johnny, he had entered the water with him, refusing to give up the grasp on his life jacket. But something had forced him to lose hold. That something could not be good.

 

Hank stared at the river, anxiously willing his paramedics to resurface. When they did, it was only seconds before the current pulled them under again. He knew that neither man had the strength to fight the water for long, but Roy was the most vulnerable. With his arm strapped against his chest, there was no hope that he'd be able to pull himself out. Roy was totally dependent on his friends. With that thought in mind, Hank pushed himself up on the side of the raft. Poised to go overboard, he stopped as he heard Doug's shouts. The guide was maneuvering the raft closer to the fallen tree, and Mike was already grabbing hold of the roots in an effort to steady the craft. It was obvious that Doug had a plan in mind, Hank just wasn't sure they had time to put it into action. The icy cold water wouldn't give them any second chances; they had to get Roy and Johnny out, now.

 

Johnny kicked against the current, fighting to pull himself above the surface. A feeling of panic overwhelmed him as he realized he was struggling not only against the river, but against the pain that shot up the length of his leg and settled in his hip. There was no time to sort out the cause of this new torture. “Roy!” If above water, his internal shout would've been a frantic scream. As it was, Johnny's throat constricted with the effort, and he choked on a mouthful of water. It took a tremendous effort, but Johnny was relentless. Ignoring the pain, and fighting to keep from swallowing any more of the river, he kicked his feet while the life vest pulled him towards the surface. Within seconds, he was gasping for air as his face emerged from the water.

 

Johnny turned immediately, his eyes searching for any sign of his partner. But he found none. Shouted curses from the raft didn't help direct him, yet their tone assured him that Roy was still missing. His strength played out, Johnny pulled from his last reserves as he tried to swim against the current. Roy was nearby, had to be. But where? And could he get to him in time?

 

Doug felt his heart pumping wildly in his chest as he took in all that was happening. There were no large rocks in this part of the river. The culprit was a downed tree that was fully submerged in the high water. Because of the shadows, he hadn’t seen the tree until they were already on top of the branches. large limb had caused the bump that had sent the injured men flying from the raft directly into the sunken trunk.

 

Doug watched Johnny grimace as he hit the trunk, watched as the man lost his grip on Roy, watched as both men disappeared beneath the waves. The guide kept his eyes trained on the tree as he forced himself to let instinct take over. The situation was bad, but it could get so much worse. He couldn’t let the raft become part of the problem, but that was a real risk. The men were between the tree and the raft, with the current pushing both the men and the raft into the tree. If Doug did nothing, the raft would pound the men up against the tree.

 

With quick and powerful strokes, he managed to maneuver the raft to the bank a few feet to their left. “Mike,” he yelled to the man closest to the shore, “grab hold of the branches. Keep the raft AWAY from the downed tree. I’m going in.”

 

Knowing that the raft was in good hands and no longer posed a risk to the men in the water, Doug paused only long enough to make sure his knife was attached to his vest. With a quick prayer, he grabbed the chicken line and entered the water.

 

Roy’s chest burned, screamed for him to breathe, but he fought the urge, struggling to somehow get to the surface. But which way was up? Throwing his head back, he saw a brighter light. In a final effort, he focused on his legs and forced them to obey his brain. With a powerful scissor kick, he forced himself to the surface - and right into the branches of the downed tree.

 

Marco was leaning over the side of the raft, scouring the river for any sign of Roy. If he had been a few feet closer to the tree, Roy would have hit him when he popped to the surface. Marco reached out to grab the man, but the current grabbed Roy first, throwing him into the branches of the tree. Marco saw Roy’s eyes open wide then close as his face tightened into a grimace. Calling to Doug, he didn’t wait for the guide to appear. The water was turning red, and Roy was slipping back under. He took a breath, and jumped.

 

Marco was in the water. He could taste the bile in his mouth as a wave slammed into his face, stealing his breath with its ice-cold force. He pushed down the panic as he resurfaced and looked around. Roy was to his left, the safety of the raft to his right. Filling his lungs with air, he turned away from the raft and reached for his crewmate.

 

Mindful of avoiding the same fate as the man he was trying to save, Marco was careful as he maneuvered himself next to Roy. He grabbed onto Roy’s vest and pulled. Roy’s head resurfaced and Marco saw him draw a breath. Pulling harder, Marco tried to draw him back to the raft. But pulling Roy away from the tree only pushed his upper body under water. His foot was trapped.

 

Holding onto the collar of Roy’s vest, Marco considered his next move. The water was red with blood. It was Roy’s blood, that was obvious, but Marco had no way of knowing what was bleeding. If it was his leg and he pulled again… But if they didn’t get him out of the water, an injured leg would be irrelevant.

 

Roy’s head fell forward, dropping his face into the water despite Marco’s hold on the vest. He was unconscious. Before Marco could respond, another hand grabbed hold of Roy’s hair and pulled his face up. It was Doug. With another man there to hold him up, Marco took only the time to say, “He’s trapped,” before deliberately pushing himself beneath the surface.

 

For all of his fears of going under and never coming up, Marco had never imagined it would be difficult to go underwater with the life vest on, but true to Doug’s description, the vest tried to draw him back to the surface. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t get himself down to Roy’s feet. Without a thought to the possible consequences, he unbuckled the straps, unzipped the jacket and wiggled out of it, letting it float away. Before anyone could comment, he was back under the water.

 

This time Marco had no difficulty reaching Roy’s foot. It was ensnared between branches. Fighting against the current that was trying to trap him against the tree as well, Marco grabbed Roy’s leg and the ankle and pulled. But the hold was too tight. He would have to snap some of the branches. But first he needed more air.

 

Marco broke through the surface and allowed himself a few deep breaths before speaking to Doug, who was fighting to keep Roy’s head above water.

 

“His foot is stuck tight.”

 

“You hold him up,” Doug said. He took the knife from his vest. “I’ll cut him free.”

 

“No,” was Marco’s reply. “Give me the knife. I’ll get him.”

 

“Marco…” Doug began, but Marco didn’t let him finish.

 

“Just give me the knife.”

 

Doug complied. With knife in hand, Marco filled his lungs with air and again dove toward the bottom of the river. Reaching for the branches closest to Roy’s ankle, Marco began to saw. He struggled to keep hold of the knife as the cold began to take effect, weakening his grip. One branch gone. He pulled. The foot moved, but not enough. Marco needed more air. He returned to the surface.

 

This time Marco hyperventilated himself, breathing deeply repeatedly, hoping to buy himself a few more precious seconds underwater. As he pulled in the air he realized Doug was speaking to him.

 

“Marco, hold him. I’ll go down.”

 

Marco shook his head. They didn’t have time to do the switch. “I’ve almost got it,” he said through chattering teeth. “If I don’t get it this time…” He didn’t finish the thought, but took one last deep breath and dove.

 

This time he didn’t need to figure out where to cut. He knew exactly what needed to be done. Careful not to cut Roy, he moved in close to his friend’s ankle and twisted the knife to snap the last of the branches. Putting the knife in his mouth, Marco grabbed hold of Roy’s ankle with both hands and twisted and pulled. The foot moved. Roy was free. As Marco returned to the surface, Doug was already pulling Roy up toward the raft.

 

Once breathing again, Marco let himself relax. Without the life vest, he found himself quickly sinking. He knew he should kick, but he was suddenly having trouble making his body obey his commands. As he tried to kick, hands grabbed his arms, and he felt himself being pulled into the raft. For a brief moment he let himself believe it was all going to be okay. A loud crash of thunder put an end to that illusion.

 

Hank didn't have time to be relieved when he saw Johnny surface. Roy was still underwater. He knew that Mike was holding them against the bank, but it was only a matter of time before the river's current pulled the raft further downstream. Although Hank was fully prepared to go in the water, it was obvious that his help was needed inside the raft. With Marco and Doug both in the river, steady hands would be needed to pull them back in. The problem was, while they were both focused on finding Roy, Johnny was losing his fight to stay afloat.

 

Suddenly remembering the sack Doug kept tucked under his seat, Cap lunged for the safety line even as he called out directions. “Johnny! John! Look this way. I'm throwing you a rope!"

 

Hank was already tossing the bag towards his youngest charge, watching intently as the line uncoiled smoothly from the opening. A tired hand reached out of the water to grip the means that would take him to safety. Yet, even as Johnny's hand closed over the rope, Hank sensed his hesitation.

 

"Marco & Doug have Roy, just hang on, Johnny. We need you back in the raft. Hold on, John!"

 

Hand over hand as he pulled Johnny toward the raft, Hank prayed that he hadn't lied. He couldn't break his concentration to check on Marco's progress. Right now, he had to focus on getting his Johnny safely into the raft. Then he could turn his attention to the other missing man. Dear God, just please let them find him in time.

 

Mike's sudden shout was the answer to his prayer. "They've got him! Chet, I'll hang on, you get in position up here."

 

Hank sensed that Chet had joined him at the raft's side, but he didn't bother to glance over. His eyes were glued, instead, on Johnny. Two more pulls on the rope, and the paramedic was within reach. In something of a deja-vu experience, Hank dropped the rope and grabbed hold of Johnny's life vest. No instructions were needed to garner Chet's assistance. The man was already reaching out to help his friend.

 

Up and over the side in less than a second, Johnny was back safely inside the craft. For a moment, there was no sound amongst them, save for the heavy breathing of the weary swimmer. Then Chet was scrambling back to the side to help in the next rescue. Hank crouched over Johnny a moment longer, just to be sure.

 

"You alright, John?"

 

A sputtering cough was his first answer, followed by a faint nod. He didn't allow himself to recall the discussion he and Mike had held around the morning fire. It was a given that Johnny would need to be checked out thoroughly when this ordeal was over. But first, there was another member of their group that needed him.

 

Hank patted Johnny's knee reassuringly with his right hand, while releasing his hold on the life vest with his left. Another prayer found its way into his thoughts as the captain joined Chet at the raft's side. Dear God, please let this nightmare be over. Please!

 

From the bottom of the raft, Johnny watched his co-workers lean out over the river. He struggled to pull himself up alongside them, but didn't have the strength. His chest heaved with the effort to breathe without coughing, and he fought back the desire to be sick. More than anything, he wanted to be able to help Roy. But his body simply wouldn't comply. With a groan of utter despair, Johnny gave in, lying back against one of the thwarts. Tipping his head back in an attempt to take a deep breath, he found himself staring into an angry sky. The clouds that had been gathering strength were now part of a full-fledged storm. Lightning streaked across the sky above them, and a low rumble followed almost immediately. The rain still fell as slow, heavy drops, but Johnny knew that would soon change.

 

A new sense of urgency came over him. He'd heard Mike calling out to Chet, knew that Roy would soon be pulled back in the raft. But in what shape? And what else would they have to endure to finish this journey from hell, and finally get off this river?

 

"Chet, move down just a little. Get on the other side of Doug. I'll get Roy. Mike, do you see Marco anywhere?"

 

Cap's voice was like a sudden charge of electricity to Johnny's system. Once again he pushed himself up, if only to a sitting position. At least from where he was, he could see Doug swimming towards the raft, with Roy held tightly in the crook of his left arm.

 

Chet had followed Cap's instructions and was reaching out towards Doug, while Cap grabbed for Roy. Where's Marco? Scooting back against the other side of the raft, Johnny continued to scan the water's surface as Cap caught hold of Roy's jacket. Not until his partner was pulled over the side did it finally register in Johnny's tired brain. Roy was unconscious. Paramedic training kicked in, and Johnny was suddenly on his knees, helping to pull his best friend to safety.

 

That's when Mike moved. Letting go of the tree, the engineer lurched past the group and almost over the side. When Johnny could see past his captain, he realized that the final missing member had now been accounted for. Coughing and spitting out river water, Marco was none-the-less looking very happy to be back in the raft. And the raft was now moving, unguided, down river.

 

The flurry of activity inside the raft was unprecedented. Doug scrambled past the men to take his place in back. Grabbing his paddle, he did his best to regain control, but they were still perilously close to the tree. Mike and Chet took up their paddles and dipped them deep in the river. Cap quickly followed suit. Working together, they managed, just barely, to navigate around the tree.

 

In the middle of the raft, Johnny took scant notice of what the others were doing. His fingers circling Roy's wrist, he counted the faint pulse, while he visually studied his friend. Marco was putting pressure on Roy's arm, but the bleeding had not slowed. Things had been bad enough. Now they were critical.

 

Above them, another flash illuminated the sky, and Johnny dropped his head to his chest. Out on a river, no equipment, no supplies, and a storm breaking overhead. What could he do? All the training in the world wasn't going to help Roy. They had to get off this river.

 

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

 

"Hard left! All together! That's right, keep it straight, men."

 

Hank followed Doug's instructions along with the rest of his crew, at least those that had a paddle in hand. In the bottom of the raft, Johnny was perched over his partner, his right hand clasping Roy's wrist. To their right, Marco was balanced against the side, as he held Roy's other arm tightly. Even with that pressure, the blood was flowing freely, red rivulets streaming between each of Marco's fingers.

 

The prayers that Hank had intoned earlier were nothing compared to what he was thinking now. This whole adventure had turned into a nightmare, their luck turning from bad to worse. His eyes scanning across the raft, Hank took mental note of each man.

 

Mike was in the front with Chet, both of them working silently to keep the raft moving forward. Without looking behind them, they seemed to know that the injured man was not doing well. To their credit, they kept a steady pace, paddles dipping deep beneath the river's surface. At the back of the raft, Doug was keeping up a constant litany of directions. Only the timbre of his voice belayed the man's tension.

 

“Johnny! What’s going on? Come on, man!”

 

Johnny held Roy's wrist in his grasp, the pulse still weak, but steady. Outside noises were slowly filtering into Johnny's consciousness, and he realized they were moving downstream again. Even with the storm breaking overhead, they were headed towards the takeout.

 

"Johnny?"

 

The voice sounded distant, and Johnny shook his head a bit. What's wrong with me? Someone was waiting for him, but why? There was nothing else to be done. Nothing to do but hold Roy in his arms until someone else could help him.

 

Johnny stared down at his partner, before looking up toward the voice. Who was it that sounded so insistent?

 

“What’s going on? Come on, man!”

 

"Marco?"

 

"John, what can we do? We have to do something, now!"

 

Marco's voice was raised, but the wind whipped the sound away. Through the storm, Johnny could see the other man's disheveled appearance, the missing life vest. He wondered, briefly, if Marco had been injured. He didn't wonder for long. Marco's attention was clearly focused on Roy.

 

“Johnny, we have to do something. NOW!”

 

What the hell is wrong with me? He looked at his shaking hand. It was covered with blood.

 

Roy’s blood.

 

“NO!” He looked at Marco and back at the man lying before him. Damn it, Roy, you're not doing this to me. For the second time in as many days, he forced the fog away and shoved himself into the moment. "No way, partner, you're not leaving me to tell Joanne you didn't keep your promise. Wake up, damn it, wake up!"

 

Johnny was back. No trace of despair or confusion was evident. Not that anyone had time to notice. Completely professional, his hands were checking his partner while he made a mental list of Roy's injuries.

 

"Marco! We have to get this bleeding stopped!"

 

The words were a mere formality. They both knew what was needed. But what could they use? It wasn't like they could pull something from the trauma box, or even use their own belts to form a tourniquet.

 

"Damn it, we've got to have something now!"

 

This time it was Johnny's words that were carried away with a gust of wind, but Marco's hand was already in front of him. Clutched in his palm was a nylon strap. Johnny had no idea where he'd found it, and couldn't have asked even if there was time. "Yes!"

 

Grabbing the strap, he wrapped it above the gash in Roy’s arm. A quick loop for a knot pulled tight. It wasn’t working. It had to work. But it wasn’t. The bleeding wasn’t slowing. "Come on, Roy, damn it! Work with me, here!"

 

Thunder crashed overhead. Wind-driven rain pelted them, making visibility almost nil. Lightning flashed, and the air split with the crack of thunder directly above them. The storm was too close. Johnny’s heart pounded in his chest, vibrating in his ears. Where only moments before he'd almost given up, now he was unwilling to admit defeat.

 

"Roy! I mean it, man. Fight! You gotta fight! Joanne and the kids. Don't forget your promise to Joanne!"

 

He reached for the strap and yanked it hard. Lightning pierced the sky, striking a tree only 100 yards behind them. In the momentary bright light, he could see that Roy’s face was as gray as the sky above them. “Damn it, Roy! You are NOT going to quit now!” He tied off the make shift tourniquet.

 

And the blood stopped. "It's working. By God, it's working, Marco. Way to go, Pally! Now, keep it up. Keep fighting!"

 

Johnny knew that his words weren't being heard, or understood. It didn't matter. He was fighting for his friend, and he wasn't going to quit. “Just get us off this river, Cap.” Johnny groaned. “Hurry and get us off this damn river.”

 

Johnny checked again, to reassure himself. Yes, the bleeding had stopped. Roy was unconscious. He was so still. Not moving at all. No pained breaths. Not a twitch of a finger or facial muscle. Not even the slight rise and fall of his chest was visible. “Damn!”

 

Hank watched as Johnny and Marco stopped Roy’s arm from bleeding. His relief was short lived though as he heard Johnny swear and saw him desperately grab for his partner's neck, searching for a pulse. Hank knew that he wasn't the only one holding his breath. The waiting seemed endless. Come on, Roy! Johnny nodded slowly. Marco turned towards Hank, his eyes shining with relief.

 

Hank couldn't quite pull up that emotion yet. Although Roy was, by far, the most seriously injured, they all needed to get off the river, and fast. Marco and Doug were both soaked, and though they hadn't been in the water long, they were still at risk for mild hypothermia. And there was Johnny. Having escaped the clutches of hypothermia yesterday, it wouldn't do him any good to stay cold and wet today. Watching as he hunched over his partner, Hank could see that the young man was favoring his side again.

 

There weren't many options for the group at this point. The rain was coming down in torrents, and the occasional flash of lightening had grown into a continuous light show above them. The booming thunder was echoing off the canyon walls, making it almost impossible to hear Doug's commands.

 

Then suddenly, the landscape changed. It wasn't gradual, but almost instantaneous. Even through the gray shroud of the storm, Hank could see that the narrow gorge had fallen away until the sides of the river were merely shallow beaches. From there, the ground tapered off gracefully toward a chain of small hills that ran parallel to the river. In any other situation, it would've been a remarkable sight. It didn't promote that sensation today. Yet Hank found it conveyed something even better. He was starting to find that feeling of relief he'd been longing for.

 

"How much farther, Doug?" Hank shouted above the storm.

"Less than five minutes!"

He bit back the surge of excitement that welled up within him. They weren't there yet. Close. Almost. But almost wasn't there.

 

Hank could feel the strength of the river as he plunged his paddle into its dark depths. The scenic view of the river may have changed, but the mighty current hadn't. He worked diligently, the paddle in his hand following the exact movements of Mike's paddle, the two working in perfect unison.

 

Those five minutes seemed like hours, and Hank wondered if he'd ever forget the feeling of raw tension aboard that raft. The human silence was a distinct contrast to nature's fury. Sure, the tempest all around them was enough to silence any man, but Hank knew that wasn't what kept his men quiet. They were unwilling to speak up; afraid to voice the fear they all felt, that by the time they got to shore, it would be too late.

 

"Hard right!" Doug's voice screamed out over the raucous wind.

The men responded immediately, and the raft edged towards shore. And then it changed. The silence on the raft erupted into a steady exchange.

"Chet, watch that branch to your left."

"Got it!"

 

"Mike, be ready to get out."

"Right, Doug."

"Hank, you set to help with Roy?"

"Yes!"

 

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

 

The best laid plans . . . Barry sat in the bus at the bank of the river. He had planned to get to the take-out early, pull out a blanket, and catch a few rays while reading a book and waiting for Doug and the guys. Now he sat in the driver’s seat and stared at the rain and lightning, wishing he had stayed home just a little longer.

 

The fact that he hadn’t heard from Doug since the first day didn’t really concern him. Somehow that was the one part of this business that they just couldn’t seem to get right. Signals were real hit or miss in the canyons, and communication was a long shot.

 

Barry squirmed in his seat. It was only 1:30. He wasn’t expecting the men for another hour and a half. He really wished he had skipped the extra large soda at lunch. The thought of getting out of the bus now, getting soaked, then waiting an hour and a half wasn’t appealing. But the building urgency convinced him he had no choice. Pulling up the hood of his rain jacket, he jumped out of the bus and made a dash for the bushes.

 

If Barry hadn’t gotten out of the bus, he never would have heard the shouts from the river. He couldn’t make out the words, but there was no doubt that his crew was approaching. Barry smiled, knowing that with this weather he would be quite the hero for having gotten there early.

 

But as he listened to the shouts, he began to get the uneasy feeling that something was wrong. The voices sounded panicked, and they carried a sense of urgency. Barry knew that the raft had one more bend to round before they would see the take-out. Jumping back into the bus, he brought it close to the river’s edge and turned on the high beams. He leaned on his horn. At least they would know he was there. Bracing himself against the weather, he went down to the river’s edge to wait. He hoped he was wrong.

 

He wasn’t. He knew that as soon as he saw the raft, even with the poor visibility. Not all the men were paddling. Two were kneeling in the center of the raft. And there were only six men. Barry hoped that the two men in the center of the raft were blocking the view of another man on the floor of the raft. If not . . .

 

It didn’t take Barry long to get his answers. As the raft drew closer, he could see the seventh man. But his relief didn’t have even enough time to take hold before he was able to make out the words being spoken. Grabbing for the raft as soon as it was within reach, he helped haul it on shore. Not taking the time to ask what happened, Barry provided a solid brace for the men to grab onto as they exited the raft.

 

“Barry, do you have towels and dry jogging suits?” Doug asked, as he grabbed the chicken lines and yanked the raft up onto dry ground.

 

“In the back of the bus.”

 

Doug nodded, then yelled out to the others, “We leave everything here. We’ll change on the road. Put Roy and Johnny near the back. The heat’s the strongest there. Barry, blast the heat then floor it for County Health Center.”

 

Barry helped lift the injured man onto the bus through the emergency exit in the back, then headed to the front of the bus. He turned when Johnny called out after him.

 

“How long?” the man asked, his voice shaking.

 

“Twenty minutes in this weather.”

 

“Then pretend it’s not this weather. We don’t have twenty minutes,” was Johnny’s reply.

 

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

 

Johnny fought to stay focused as he tried to shift gears. Twenty minutes. That’s nineteen minutes too long. He’ll lose his arm, if not his life. NO! That was an unacceptable outcome.

 

“Raise his legs. Get them above his chest.” Johnny began barking out orders, determined not to lose any part of this battle. “Mike, grab his arm. Put pressure on the wound. I’m going to loosen the tourniquet and see if we can get some blood flow through the secondary vessels.”

 

Holding his breath, Johnny slowly loosened the restricting band. This time, Mike’s pressure hold did the trick. Finally, something is going right. He reached for Roy’s throat to check his pulse. Looking up, he found himself staring into the distraught face of his Captain. He answered the man’s unspoken question.

 

“I don’t know, Cap. I just don’t know. But if we can keep the blood flow tempered without the tourniquet, he stands a chance of keeping the arm.”

 

“Will he be able to use it?”

 

Johnny just shrugged and turned his face away.

 

From the front of the bus, Johnny heard the sounds of a CB radio. Doug was trying to raise somebody.

 

“County Health Center, this is Outdoor Adventures. Margie, it’s Doug. Do you have your ears on? Are you out there? Over.”

 

The call was met with silence. He tried again. “County Health, this is Outdoor Adventures. We have an emergency. Please be out there. Over.”

 

A crackle of static, then a response could be heard.

 

“Doug, this is Margie. We’re here. What’s going on? Over.”

 

“We just got off the river. We have a seriously injured man. He has a head injury, some broken bones, some hypothermia, and an injury to his brachial artery. He’s in tough shape. Over.”

 

“How far out are you? Over.”

 

“Fifteen minutes if we drive at a safe speed, but we’re pushing it. He may not have fifteen minutes.”

 

“OK. Well, be careful. Doctor Gregory is here. He’s with someone now, but I’ll put him on notice. We’ll have an exam room for you. I’ll put the chopper on notice as well, but it’s grounded in Denver at the moment. Over.”

 

“Thanks. Over and out.” Doug turned to face the men at the back of the bus. “They’re good people over there. They’ll be ready for us. But be prepared, it’s just a clinic. They can do IV’s and they have stores of blood, but . . .well . . . They’ll do what they can.”

 

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

 

Remembering other experiences with rural clinics, Johnny wasn’t hoping for much more than a two-room office. Doug’s warnings reinforced those low expectations. He was therefore surprised when the bus pulled up to a two story brick building with a large sign reading “County Health Center” and a special area set apart for emergency vehicles. As Barry pulled up to the automatic doors, they were met by a doctor, two nurses, and a gurney.

 

“Careful moving him,” Johnny instructed, as one of the nurses took Mike’s place and the medical staff helped Cap and Marco maneuver Roy off of the bus. “He has a complex fracture of the right humerus, and a left brachial artery injury. He also has a head injury.”

 

With a pronounced limp, Johnny had to struggle to keep up with the team as they pushed his partner down the hallway. He prepared for the inevitable battle to be allowed into the exam room. As the door opened, one of the nurses stepped in front of him.

 

“We’ll take it from here,” she said quietly, but firmly. Johnny was about to argue, but was interrupted by the doctor whose nametag read Jim Gregory.

 

“Are you the paramedic?”

 

Johnny nodded and pointed toward Roy. “Both of us are LA county paramedics.”

 

Gregory looked at the nurse. “He can come in,” he said, then disappeared into the room. Johnny looked back quickly toward the rest of his crew before taking a deep breath and letting the door close behind him.

 

The room was smaller than a treatment room at Rampart, but bigger than a standard exam room. And at first glance, it seemed to be well equipped. Johnny tried to stay out of the way, as Doctor Gregory issued commands.

 

“I want a CBC, a blood gas, and a type and cross match. Start an IV with Ringers, wide open, and hang a unit of plasma. I need a body core temp and get him on 10 liters of O2. Then get me a suture tray.”

 

“He’s O negative,” Johnny informed the staff. “The artery was cut about 35 minutes ago. We had a tourniquet on it for the first 15 minutes or so, then we were able to control it with pressure.”

 

Gregory nodded. “Hang a unit of O negative instead of plasma, but still get me a type and cross match, then see if you can find me 4 units of blood to start.” Examining Roy as he spoke, he questioned Johnny. “What else?”

 

“He went off the raft yesterday afternoon. He was in the water for a while. That’s when he broke his arm and hit the back of his head. He also has a bad laceration on his left leg. He was seriously hypothermic, but we got him warmed up. His heartbeat was erratic for several hours, but it stabilized last night. He’s been in and out of consciousness, mostly coherent when he’s awake.”

 

Johnny hesitated before he continued. “He went back in right before the take out. We hit a downed tree. A branch pierced his arm. His foot got entrapped. It took us a few minutes to get him out. He was never without air, but he was in the cold water again for about ten minutes. He's been unconscious since then.”

 

Again Johnny paused, this time long enough to cause the doctor to look up. Looking at his partner lying still on the exam table, Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat and closed his eyes before looking at the doctor and continuing.

 

“We shouldn’t have put him back in the raft. But at the time, it seemed like the only option. I knew it was a bad idea, but . . .well, there just didn’t seem to be any other choice.”

 

The doctor returned to his exam before he responded to the paramedic. “The only new injury is the cut arm?”

 

“That’s right,” Johnny answered.

 

“You made the right choice.”

 

A knock at the door was followed by a young woman entering the room. “Doctor, Denver General called. The storm has let up. Their chopper is in the air. ETA is twenty five minutes.”

 

“Praise the Lord, and then pray that he helps me remember how to suture an artery.” Turning to Johnny, Gregory added, “Why don’t you go have a seat with your friends? I know where to find you if I need you.”

 

Johnny wanted to stay, but knew he would be in the way. Before he left, he asked the question he knew would be asked of him in a few moments. “Doc? What do you think?”

 

Doctor Gregory stopped for only a second to look Johnny straight in the eye. “Does he have family?”

 

Johnny nodded.

 

“Call them.”

 

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

 

Johnny had to force himself to make his way back to the waiting room. Call them. They were just two small words, but they pierced his armor and sapped his remaining strength. He could feel his adrenaline-fed energy drain away, as he struggled to limp to the waiting room. Sweat formed on his brow, sounds buzzed in his ears, and his friends blurred as the room tilted on its side and began to spin. Hands grabbed him before he hit the floor.

 

A wet cloth on his face brought with it a flood of anxiety and embarrassment. Johnny felt like a hysteric, fainting at receiving bad news. Against his better judgment, he opened his eyes and found himself looking into the face of a pretty young woman who was holding a penlight.

 

“Perfect timing,” she said, as she quickly flashed the light into his eyes, checking his pupils for their response. Johnny was relieved to see he was still in the waiting room. He was dismayed to see his crewmates and Doug hovering in a tight circle around him. Gently pushing the young woman away, he moved to sit up. Several hands reached out to stop him.

 

“I’m fine. Really. Look, the chopper is on its way. I need to go call Joanne.”

 

Cap shook his head and took up a spot directly in front of his paramedic. “You stay where you are until someone can check you out. I’ll call Joanne.”

 

Johnny objected. “I should do it.”

 

“I could argue with you on the basis of protocol, pal, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I’m standing and you’re not.” Before Johnny could object, Cap continued. “Look, it’s not like I’m a stranger to Joanne. It will be okay.”

 

“You don’t even know what to tell her.” Johnny’s protest continued.

 

“Yes, I do.” Cap looked at the woman holding the penlight as he answered.

 

Looking closely for the first time, Johnny realized she was one of the nurses who had been in the treatment room. They must have called her out. “I’m fine. You go help Roy,” he insisted.

 

“Dr. Gregory has all the help he needs, and you’re not fine. We’re going to get some vitals, talk to the Doc, start up an IV, and get you into some dry clothes and ready for the helicopter.”

 

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, I’m fine. I’m just tired. I certainly don’t need to be air-lifted to a hospital.”

 

Captain Stanley was about to jump in and pull rank, but the nurse made that move unnecessary. “Are you saying you don’t want to accompany your partner on the chopper?”

 

“No, of course not. I mean . . . of course I want to go with him.”

 

“Well, no civilians are allowed, and your paramedic credentials mean nothing here. The only way you’re getting on that chopper is as a patient. If I were you, I’d think twice about refusing medical treatment.”

 

She looked awfully smug, Johnny thought. “That’s blackmail.”

 

“That’s God’s simple truth. So, what’s it going to be? My way or no way?”

 

Johnny sank back down in surrender. “I still think it’s blackmail,” he muttered under his breath, as the nurse smiled and took his wrist.

 

***********

 

Four disheveled men burst through the doors of Denver General's Emergency entrance. Their expressions conveyed the urgency and concern they were feeling, as they looked about anxiously.

 

"Over there."

 

First to speak, Chet's directions were unnecessary. Hank was already striding across the crowded room to the desk marked "Patient Information," his crew directly behind him.

 

"Excuse me, I'd like to get some information on two of my men."

 

The young woman at the desk looked up nonchalantly. "Your men?"

 

"Yes, ma'am. I'm Captain Stanley from the LA County Fire Department. Two of my men were injured while on a rafting trip. They were air-flighted here from County Health Center a few hours ago. Roy DeSoto and John Gage."

 

"Let me check."

 

Hank leaned nervously against the short counter while Marco fairly stood on his toes in anticipation. Mike was quiet, but had anyone looked, they'd see his hands clenched tightly at his side. Behind them, Chet was in constant motion, pacing back and forth.

 

The nurse tapped quickly on her keyboard, then nodded at her monitor as if it were answering her in person. "Yes, here they are. Both of them are still in Emergency."

 

"How are they? Can we see them?"

 

This time the woman's expression was anything but casual. Her air was suddenly very cool and professional. "Are you relatives?"

 

"No, but-"

 

"I'm sorry, sir. There are no visitors allowed in Emergency unless they are directly related."

 

Hank turned towards his men, temporarily silenced by the woman's answer. She was right, of course. The same rule applied at Rampart General, but their connections with Dr. Brackett had always supplied them with the 'in' they needed. Here, however, there was no friendly acquaintance to grant them extra privileges. Here, they were merely friends of the victims, friends that were destined to sit in a waiting room until some scrap of information would be thrown their way.

 

Worried frowns graced the faces of all but one of his men. That last man wore a look of resentment bordering anger. Hank stared at him for only a moment before turning back to the counter. "Ma'am, I realize you have to follow policy. However, this is an unusual situation. Is there someone in charge here that I could speak to?"

 

In that few seconds, Hank had transformed from worried friend, to Fire Department Captain. His stance, expression, and tone of voice transmitted a sense of calm authority that wasn't lost on the young woman.

 

"Yes, sir, just a moment."

 

Picking up the phone, she placed a brief call. Seconds later, a door opened behind her desk, revealing an older man. Short and balding, he looked somewhat harried as he stepped up to the desk and greeted the captain.

 

"Gentlemen. My name is Robert Hann, Assistant Administrator of Denver Emergency. Is there something I can help you with?"

 

"Yeah, you could-"

 

"Chet."

 

Cap's voice was low and firm, but effective. Chet was silenced but not stilled, not even when Marco laid a hand on his shoulder.

 

"Yes, you can. I'm Captain Stanley of the LA County Fire Department." Hank pulled out his wallet and showed his badge for confirmation. "We're here in Colorado to take part in a department-sponsored event. Two of my men were injured, one critically, and both are currently being treated in your ER. Since there are no relatives in the area, I'd like your permission to see my men and meet with their doctors."

 

Mr. Hann did not respond immediately. However, he did appear to be carefully examining the men in front of him. Whatever he saw must have convinced him to accommodate the group, at least in some capacity.

 

"If you'll give me a few minutes, I'll see what I can do for you, Captain." Waving his hand toward a bank of chairs, he continued. "Why don't you have a seat in the waiting room while I speak to the doctors."

 

Hank watched as the little man hurried through a set of swinging doors and disappeared. "Okay, guys, lets get comfortable. I have a feeling this is going to take awhile."

 

Mike was the first to find a seat, followed closely by Marco. Both were tired, and even though they'd just spent the last two hours sitting in a car, they were glad to stretch out in a more comfortable seat. It had been a long week. Chet, however, made no move to join his friends. His pacing had stopped when Mr. Hann left. Now, he simply stood, silently staring at the doorway.

 

"Chet. Come on, Pal, let's sit down. There's nothing we can do now, but wait."

 

"Yeah, I know. It's just hard . . ."

 

Placing an arm around the younger man's shoulders, Cap guided Chet over to the others. They were all taking this hard, each showing the signs in their own way. That was never more obvious than the quiet drive they'd just shared.

 

The hours spent driving up from the clinic had been long and tiring, even more so after they left their guide at the motel. It wasn't exactly the way Hank had pictured the end of their trip. Doug had proved himself an excellent guide and a good man. It was unfortunate that they hadn't had the chance to tell him so, or to adequately thank him for all he'd done. In such a hurry to retrieve their car and luggage at the motel in order to get on the road, they'd barely taken time to shake hands and say goodbye. Hank hoped that he'd have some good news to share soon. Maybe then he could call Doug and make up for their leave-taking.

 

Lost in thought, Hank was startled when Mike leaned over and tapped him on the arm. Glancing at the clock, he was surprised to see that it had only been twenty minutes since Mr. Hann had left them. Nevertheless, the man was quickly approaching them. Rising to his feet, Hank waited uneasily.

 

"Mr. Hann?"

 

"Captain Stanley. I hope you don't mind, but I called your superiors in LA County. They've vouched for you."

 

There was a moment of hesitation as Hank struggled with the realization that this man had contacted his own department ahead of him. An inner groan marked his frustration, but outwardly, he simply nodded.

 

"Also, I just spoke with Dr. Kenner, our Chief of Emergency Medicine. He happened to be on duty this evening, and is overseeing Mr. DeSoto's treatment. He'd like to speak with you. Follow me, please."

 

Hank held back a smile. It was too early for that. But there was a great sense of reprieve. At least he was going to see Roy and John, and talk to the doctor. If nothing else, he'd know what was happening to them

 

"Cap?"

 

Chet's tentative voice stopped him, but Hank didn't get the chance to answer. Mr. Hann took care of that.

 

"I'm sorry but only the captain will be allowed into the ER. We're bending the rules as it is. You understand."

 

They did, but that didn't make it any easier to accept. Mike and Marco flanked Chet, and three longer faces you'd never hope to see. Even Hank's thin smile of encouragement didn't raise their spirits. But Mike, steady man that he was, kept things moving.

 

"Yes, we understand. We'll wait here."

 

A quick nod of thanks was all Hank had time for as he hurried after the short-legged Hann. Through the doors, and to the right, he didn't have a chance to focus on what the men were feeling behind him. Now he was focusing on the men waiting inside.

 

The ER was set up much differently than Rampart's, but the feel was still the same. White and sterile were the first words that sprang to mind. After that, Hank noticed the busy chaos. Only someone versed in emergency situations would realize that the chaos was strictly organized. Every doctor and nurse on the floor knew exactly what they were doing, and where they were going. Only to the unpracticed eye did the scene appear tumultuous.

 

Two open doorways were passed before Mr. Hann came to a stop. He stared at his clipboard for a moment then motioned Hank inside.

 

"Dr. Kenner will be with you shortly."

 

With that, the man was gone, and Hank realized there was another thank-you left unsaid. Passing it off, he stepped into the room, and came to an abrupt halt.

 

"Johnny."

 

The white-sheeted figure lay still, only the rise and fall of his chest signifying a living person rested there. Hank's eyes traveled past the machines that beeped and buzzed, aware that the numbers he read were close to the normal range. A BP cuff was wrapped around Johnny's upper arm, and he sported a nasal canula. Otherwise, it would seem that the young paramedic was simply napping.

 

Moving quietly to stand beside him, Hank continued to watch John closely. Even though it had only been a few hours since they'd left the clinic, he'd been worried about the young man. It wasn't just the physical injury that concerned him, either. Roy and John were tight. They shared a friendship that was hard to match, and if Roy were to . . . Well, Hank knew that there could be some rough days ahead if the news wasn't good.

 

"Cap?"

 

The weary voice broke through, and Hank grabbed hold of the hand raised towards him. "Hey, Pal, how're you feeling?"

 

"'kay. Gave me . . .somethin' for pain. Roy?"

 

Johnny's disjointed speech confirmed the use of medications. Or maybe it was just the long ordeal finally catching up with him. It was obvious that he was fighting hard to stay awake for news, but there was nothing to tell. So Hank answered casually.

 

"Don't know yet. Doctor is with him now. How about you? Did they tell you anything?"

 

"Nah." Johnny's hand moved absently towards his face to pull at the canula. His captain caught hold and tucked the hand back along his side. "Doctor thinks . . . might have fractured pelvis . . . not sure. Told him . . . just bruised. Gotta have . . . x-rays."

 

"Uh huh. Well, you follow the doctor orders. Okay John? We're not taking any more chances. Got it?"

 

"'kay, got it."

 

The two remained silent, Johnny dozing peacefully. The hard vinyl chair that Cap finally sank into was nothing like the waiting room furniture. Several times, the younger man roused, as if trying to correlate his thoughts into some semblance of order. Both times, he simply uttered a few unintelligible words then drifted back to sleep. Not that Cap minded, really. He wasn't up for any small talk, not that John was either.

 

The waiting was tedious though. With no magazines, and no conversation, the minutes dragged by. And the quiet simply gave Hank more time to think. His thoughts drifted back over the past two days, the trip out from LA, their first day on the raft, and then the accident. He glanced up at the clock, as if hoping that some outside information would calm his tortured mind, but it didn't help. Looking towards the door didn't work, either. No doctor appeared. No nurse was there to interrupt his thoughts. Instead, his mind continued its instant reply of the trip gone bad.

 

He could see them again, Roy and Johnny in the rapids, an injured Roy in the bottom of the raft, the whole crew working to get them safely home. If teamwork was what the brass was looking for on this little jaunt, then he could certainly report that they'd been successful. For teamwork had been performed, with a capital T. Hank was proud of his men, each and every one of them.

 

"Sir? Excuse me, sir, are you Captain Stanley?"

 

"Yes, that's right."

 

"Hello, I'm Nurse Evans."

 

"Nurse."

 

The woman busied herself with checking Johnny's IV and noting his vital signs on her chart. Just as Hank conjured up an acceptable question to get her talking, a tall thin man entered the room. Looking very neat in his long white coat, the doctor stepped forward smartly, and held out his hand.

 

"I'm Dr. Kenner, and you must be the captain that I was told about."

 

"Yes, I'm Captain Hank Stanley. Thank you for allowing me into the ER."

 

"Glad to do it. This is somewhat unusual, but then, from what I understand, your whole visit to Colorado has been rather remarkable."

 

Cap almost grinned as he nodded in agreement. "That's an understatement."

 

"Well, I wish I had good news to convey, but there are too many variables at this point, for both your men."

 

The return of Cap's frown didn't interrupt the man's report, though the doctor did nod reassuringly.

 

“I've just left Mr. DeSoto, and they're prepping him for immediate surgery. We've already looked at the x-rays, and determined that he has a severe concussion, but no skull fracture. His leg has been sutured, and there shouldn't be any complications there. It's his arm that I'm most concerned about."

 

"Can it . . . will he. . ."

 

"Retain the use of it? It's too early to tell. He's responding well to treatment. His body temperature is back up, and his other vital signs are close to normal. He even regained consciousness for a few minutes."

 

"That's good." Hank tried to keep the sound of disappointment from his voice. He knew better than to expect anything different from the doctor's report. Still, it was only natural that a man would hope for more. "I mean, 'm glad that he's doing that well."

 

"I understand. You just wanted better news."

 

"Yes. It's already been a long wait."

 

"I'm sorry to say, it's going to be even longer. We have one of our best orthopedic doctors on call this evening, and he'll be performing the operation. But I expect that it will take four to five hours, and then Mr. DeSoto will be in Recovery for at least an hour."

 

"I see." Hank rubbed his chin thoughtfully, trying to decide what his course of action should be.

 

"I'll be … here. Roy's gonna be...okay. You take guys…get some rest. I'll keep… eye on things."

 

Hank turned sharply at the weary, but familiar voice behind him. Johnny's insistence that Roy was going to be all right was admirable, but they all knew it was nothing more than positive thinking. "And who's going to keep an eye on you, ya Twit?"

 

Johnny managed a weak grin at the Cap's teasing tone. It was an obvious cover-up, one neither man would admit to. Dr. Kenner seemed willing to play along.

 

"He'll have plenty of people keeping an eye on him. In fact, there are two men on their way down here right now. Mr. Gage has a date in X-Ray."

 

Cap looked back and forth between the two, his concern clearly evident. "We can stay around a little longer. I hate to leave with so many questions unanswered."

 

Johnny struggled to pull himself up, an act that was quickly stopped by the doctor's hand on his shoulder.

 

"Cap, s'okay . . . really. Trust me . . . just a bruise. Gonna take a . . . couple pictures . . . prove it to them. You . . . guys are bushed . . . get some sleep. We'll be . . . alright."

 

Hank considered Johnny's sincere entreaty, but it was the doctor's worried frown that really caught his attention.

 

"No, Pal, we're not leaving yet. I think we'll hang out in the cafeteria, get a bite to eat, and wait for those pictures you're so sure about. If Dr. Kenner would be willing to page us when he has an answer . . ."

 

"Absolutely." The doctor agreed with a smile.

 

Clearly, this man had a handle on the situation, and not even Johnny's persuasive attempts could get past him. Hank had a funny notion that Dr. Kenner and Dr. Brackett had been cut from the same cloth.

 

Moving close to John's gurney, Hank laid a comforting hand on his young charge.

 

"Remember what I said, Pal. You follow the doctor's orders."

 

"Yes . . . sir."

 

Hank turned back to the doctor, reaching out to shake his hand.

 

"Thank you, Dr. Kenner. I appreciate everything you're doing for my men." He nodded towards the now-sleeping paramedic. "We'll be in the cafeteria as soon as you have something to tell us about this one. After that, we'll probably head back to the motel, but I'll leave the number with the nurse. We'll also stop by before we leave in the morning. Maybe you'll have more news about Roy by then."

 

"I hope so."

 

Dr. Kenner sounded sincere, and Hank found himself grateful for whatever fates put this man at their disposal.

 

A commotion at the door caused them to step out of the way as two attendants pushed a gurney into the room. It only took a moment for them to transfer the half-sleeping Johnny onto its surface, and back out the door. Following them into the hallway, Hank continued to stare after the group as they moved around a corner and out of sight. It was always hard to trust his men to other people's care, but that's exactly what he had to do. And there were some other men waiting for him.

 

Hank turned, and walked quietly back to the waiting room.

 

**********

 

Hank Stanley looked at his watch as he stood by the doors at the ICU. He had just enough time to spend a few minutes with Roy before he had to meet the others in the lobby and leave for the airport. Just enough time, that was, if he could convince these people to let him in sometime soon. He silently swore at the magnetic locks on the door in front of him and reached again for the phone on the wall. Before he could pick it up, he was stopped by a hand that grabbed his arm. He looked down at Johnny, who sat in a wheelchair at his side.

 

Johnny shook his head and whispered, “Follow my lead.” A man with a pharmacy cart was approaching the door. Using his swipe card, the man opened the door. Johnny spoke up.

 

“Excuse me, could you hold that for a minute? Last time I left the unit for a few minutes, I got stuck in the door coming back in.”

 

“Oh, sure,” the man answered, blocking the door from closing as Cap pushed Johnny through. “Do you need any more help?”

 

“No. I’m all set now,” Johnny answered. “Thanks. Everybody here’s been great.”

 

The man grinned with satisfaction at the praise. “No problem. Glad I could help,” he said, and moved on to the nurses’ station.

 

Cap just shook his head and continued to push Johnny toward Roy’s room.

 

“The key,” Johnny bragged, “is looking like you know what you’re doing. Be free with the compliments and gratitude, and never, and I do mean never, ask permission. The answer is always no. If you don’t ask and you get caught doing something wrong, you can always plead ignorance.”

 

“I’ll remember that next time you plead ignorance,” Cap said. He stopped at room 302 and looked at the television monitor on the wall next to the door. A piece of surgical tape at the top of the screen had the word “DeSoto” written in black marker. The screen showed a read out of Roy’s heartbeat and blood pressure. He knew that the same image appeared on a monitor at the nurse’s station, and at the man’s bedside.

 

“You know how to read that thing?” Cap asked. Johnny nodded. “Well,” he pushed, “are you going to share your insights, or are you planning on keeping it to yourself? How is it?”

 

Johnny shrugged. “I’ve seen worse.”

 

“But you’ve seen better.”

 

Johnny nodded.

 

“Well, they wouldn’t have allowed us to visit if he wasn’t up to it, right?”

 

“Uh, Cap? They didn’t allow us to visit, remember?”

 

“Oh yeah. Come on. We better get in there before we get caught.” Cap opened the door and pushed Johnny through, closing the door behind them.

 

No matter how prepared he thought he was, Cap was never truly ready for the sight of one of his men in a hospital bed, especially not in ICU. Even when he had been hurt and bleeding on the river, Roy had looked like the rugged, tough firefighter that he was. But here, in a hospital bed, surrounded by white sheets, attached to tubes and wires, all signs of dirt long gone, his paramedic looked small and pale – and vulnerable. The smell of disinfectant was suddenly acute, and Cap had to shake off a wave of dizziness that threatened to overcome him.

 

It wasn’t rational. The doctors had told them Roy would recover. They were even optimistic about his arm. Roy’s prospects were far better today than they had been twenty-four hours ago. Cap knew that. At least his intellect knew it. Now, if he could just convince that part of himself that controlled the knot in his throat.

 

“Hey, pal,” Cap choked out when Roy opened his eyes. “You’re looking good. How do ya feel?”

 

“Better.” Roy’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “You okay?” he asked his partner.

 

“I’ve been telling you for two days that I’m okay. Just banged up is all. No big deal.”

 

“And the wheelchair?”

 

“Ah, it’s just for show. You know, impress the nurses and all. The poor, injured, big, strong fireman.”

 

Roy rolled his eyes, then looked at his Captain. “Is he telling me the truth?”

 

“Well, he is an injured fireman. As for the big strong part, well, I guess that’s in the eyes of the beholder.”

 

“Aw, come on, Cap,” Johnny protested, “just look at these big strong muscles.” He flexed his bicep to prove his point.

 

“So, what are you avoiding telling me?” Roy pressed.

 

“Nothing,” Johnny assured him.

 

“They don’t put you in a wheelchair for nothing, and I know you didn’t volunteer to be in that thing.”

 

Johnny rolled the chair right next to Roy’s bed and looked him in the eye. “I’m not pulling any punches here, partner. I’m just all black and blue. The bruising is deep and hurts more today than it did yesterday, but like I told you back on the river, it’s just bruising. That’s all. No fractures, no internal injuries. I just got beaten up.”

 

Roy looked past Johnny to Cap. “Why’s he in the hospital?”

 

“Now wait just a minute. If I say…” Johnny’s objections were cut short by Captain Stanley.

 

“You can hardly blame him for not believing you, Gage. But he’s telling the truth this time, Roy. No broken bones or other major injuries. They’re keeping him here for a few days because of the exposure, and they want to watch both of you for pneumonia. You both took more than one lung full of water as you may recall.”

 

Cap wished he didn’t need to leave these men on their own, but there was really no reasonable choice. “So, the two of you get to keep each other company for a few days. I, on the other hand, need to return to LA as planned. It seems that I have a 6 AM meeting at HQ before our shift tomorrow morning.” Cap could only imagine what the brass would have to say to him once he was there in person.

 

“Better you than me, Cap.”

 

“Gee, thanks a lot, John. It’s nice to know I’ve got your sympathy.”

 

“Speaking of sympathy and conversations better avoided – do you guys have any idea about how to break this to Joanne? She’s never going to let me hear the end of this.”

 

Cap and Johnny looked at each other. “Well, um, Roy . . .” Johnny began.

 

“I mean,” Roy interrupted, “I know I have to tell her something. It’s not like she won’t notice that I’m not on the plane. I’ll have to call her before it lands, but I sure wish there was a way to let her think this happened in a car wreck or something.”

 

Johnny tried again. “Roy, you know . . .”

 

“What time is it, anyway?” Roy pressed on. “How much time do I have to come up with a plan before I have to call her?”

 

“I would say, no time.”

 

The men didn’t need to look to know that Joanne was standing in the doorway.

 

“Oh, hi, Honey,” Roy glared at Johnny before trying to smile at his wife who was glaring at all of them. “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

“I tried to tell you,” Johnny said.

 

“Really, Roy. Did you honestly think I wouldn’t know?”

 

“Well, I have to be going now.” Hank eyed the door. “The guys will be waiting.”

 

“Traitor,” Roy mumbled.

 

“Thought you didn’t want to face the brass, Cap,” Johnny reminded.

 

Cap looked at Roy then Joanne. “I’ll take my chances at HQ. I think it’s safer there. Roy, John, take care of yourselves and take whatever time you need. Joanne, all I ask is that you don’t do any permanent damage, and don’t give Grace any ideas.”

 

“Grace and I spoke last night. She’s waiting for you in LA.”

 

The tone in Joanne’s voice told Cap that his wife wasn’t waiting to give him a welcome home hug.

 

“I can hardly wait. Take it easy.” With a quick, almost dash for the door, Cap was gone.

 

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

 

Roy's frustrated glare went unnoticed as the men focused on Johnny. As for the younger paramedic, he seemed totally oblivious to his partner's discomfort. It was Roy's first day back at Station 51, and the crew was in good spirits.

It was the first time they'd been together since the paramedics had been flown to the Denver hospital, and everyone was anxious to share their memories of the adventure. That is, everyone except Johnny. He was more interested in what happened at the DeSotos' house. Holding out his cup, Johnny never missed a beat in his story, while Marco poured the coffee.

 

"I still can't believe that woman! She must've spent her whole visit telling Roy off. You guys should've heard her: 'You're a fool, Roy DeSoto, and irresponsible too.'”

Johnny's singsong impersonation of Roy's mother-in-law was enough to throw the other members of A-Shift into fits of laughter. But he wasn't done. “'I can't believe you'd be so immature as to go out on a big river like that with no experience. It's just plain stupid, and your boss must be the same to send you on such a trip. I think you're all just a bunch of overgrown boy scouts. And you can tell your fireboy friends I said so, too.'”

 

"No kidding? She really said that?" Chet could hardly contain himself. "You'd better not repeat that story to Cap, though. I don't think he'd appreciate being called stupid, even if it was by Joanne's mother."

Roy was quick to defend his wife. "Hey, it's not like Joanne agrees with her or anything. She was upset at first, but she knows it was just an accident. And now that Dr. Brackett has okay'd me for full duty, well. . .she's gotten over it. Besides, there's no way my wife would ever call Captain Stanley 'stupid'."

"Did I hear someone volunteering for latrine duty already?"

"Cap!" Chet choked out.

 

"Morning, Cap."

"Morning. Roy, how ya doin', Pal?"

”Great. I think."

Roy's 'deer in the headlight' look was too much, and Cap laughed out loud. It took several minutes for the group to quiet down, but Chet was ready.

 

"You know, this is what have we been trying to tell you guys all along," he offered. "Roy's mother-in-law is the perfect example of why smart men stay single."

 

"Yeah, women just have a way of complicating things." Johnny muttered. "Chet's right, there's a good reason why we stay single."

"The only reason you're still single is ‘cause nobody will have you, Gage."

"Oh yeah, Kelly? Well, you couldn't find a woman to…"

"How about a little fire department business this morning?" Cap interrupted.

 

Johnny's expression didn't change. Neither, for that matter, did Chet's. The rest of the men just looked relieved.

Cap didn't bother to waste time contemplating the upcoming Phantom/Pigeon war. He had bigger problems to deal with. Like how to explain this new venture they'd been assigned.

Absently crumpling the paper in his hand, Hank struggled to find the right words to explain it to his men. The directive from headquarters was very clear. Still . . .

 

"Men."

Five pairs of eyes stared at him intently, and Cap couldn't help but stammer unprofessionally.

"I have a . . .well you see . . . there's something I should. . . Okay . . . it's like this."

Not even Mike's nod was encouraging enough. Cap cleared his throat before trying again. Dropping his eyes to the paper, he tried to get it said all at once.

 

"Evidently, the consultant has some new ideas on team-building since the rafting thing was scrapped. Since we've already been involved, they'd like Station 51 to be the first to . . .

Cap's head shot-up as chairs crashed to the floor. Five men raced past him to the doorway and fought their way through.

"Let go!"

"Move, Chet, I have beds to make."

 

"Get out of my way."

"Johnny, you're on my foot!"

"I've got latrine duty!"

 

Cap stared at the empty doorway.

 

“Twits! Hmmm . . . wonder if the Chief would be interested in volunteers for that other seminar. Seems like they were going to play that chuckle-belly game Marco talked about. Yep, that'd get 'em.”

 

*****End*****

 

Special thanks to Kenda for the Beta read.

 

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