Journey Into Uncertainty

By Jane

 

Roy was out of the Squad and running towards the hospital only seconds after the ambulance arrived, yet he barely caught sight of his partner turning into Treatment Room One. He sprinted down the hallway and rushed into the same room, meeting the ambulance crew at the door. Stepping aside as they pushed the gurney past him, Roy could see that things were rapidly going downhill.

 

Dr. Brackett was already inserting an airway, but his apprehensive frown showed how little hope he held. Dixie held the young child’s arm as she checked the IV, then gently laid it next to the still form while Johnny prepared the paddles. He seemed to be almost bouncing with nervous energy. Roy had a feeling that losing this one was going to hit his partner hard.

 

“Okay, I’m in. Dix, take over here.”

 

Roy watched as Dixie moved into place and started the oxygen. Brackett grabbed the paddles, waiting impatiently as Johnny marked the wattage. It was when the little girl’s body arched upward that Roy first realized his partner was in trouble. There was no mistaking the expression on John’s face. He was furious.

 

Most paramedics have experienced it, that emotional level where the human heart overrides medical knowledge. Where everything screams at you to do more, work harder to save the patient. And when it’s a child . . .

 

“Once more.” Brackett’s voice was terse, his own face revealing the strain of this struggle.

 

Roy joined the others in working to save the little girl, but he continued to watch his partner throughout the ordeal. In all that time, Johnny’s expression never changed. It was obvious that he would not accept defeat. But everyone else in the room knew what the outcome would be. When Dr. Brackett finally stepped back from the silent form and looked towards the clock, the room grew silent. When Brackett spoke, his voice was strained but firm.

 

“Time of death, 1:42 am.”

 

And that’s when it happened.

 

A strangled “no” echoed through the treatment room, as Johnny stepped up to the gurney and resumed CPR. His long fingers draped across the child’s chest as he gently pushed air into the tiny lungs. Johnny’s eyes seemed to focus only on the girl’s face, and his expression had finally changed. No longer angry, he looked as if he were standing on a precipice, afraid that he might fall.

 

Unable to move at first, Roy simply watched in amazement as his friend lost control. Then suddenly, he was moving, his hands grasping Johnny’s shoulders. Brackett was trying to do the same.

 

“Stop it, Johnny. She’s gone.”

 

“Johnny! John . . .that’s enough.”

 

He fought them . . . trying valiantly to continue his ministrations to the child. His eyes were locked on the angelic face of the innocent four year old, and Johnny wouldn’t quit. Brackett headed for the drug cabinet, and in some corner of his mind, Roy registered the fact that the doctor was looking for something to calm Johnny down.

 

“Johnny, you have to let her go. There’s nothing else we can do.” Roy tried to talk to his partner, but there was no response. Still, he wouldn’t let go – his hold firm on Johnny’s shoulders. His heart swelled with emotion of his own, the little girl reminding him of a younger Jennifer. But his partner was the one who needed his attention now, and Roy couldn’t let himself be swept into the emotion that John was caught in.

 

It was Dixie’s voice that finally got through to Johnny. Or maybe it was her own long fingers, encircling his forearm. Whatever the catalyst, John’s movements stopped. He didn’t turn, didn’t walk away. Instead, he stood over the gurney, staring at what they’d lost.

 

Silence filled the treatment room. No one moved. No one spoke. The minutes ticked by as each person struggled to control his or her own emotions. This was an all too familiar scene, one that each of them dreaded. Brackett cleared his throat then turned to Johnny.

 

“We did everything we could. She just wasn’t strong enough, and the smoke inhalation was-”

 

“I know, Doc, I know. Thing is. . she never should’ve been here in the first place. She should still be sound asleep in her own bed, dreaming of beautiful things, not . . .”

 

Roy stood by silently as Johnny looked once more at the young child. He seemed to stare right through her for a moment, then with head hung low, he walked slowly out of the room.

 

“Roy . . .”

 

“Yeah, Doc, I got him.”

 

Silence fell like a dark cloak over the room, as Roy turned to follow his partner.

 

 

**********

 

“Are you sure you won’t change your mind, Roy?”

 

Johnny paused in the middle of tying his shoes and looked up at his partner hopefully. He quickly dropped his head when he saw Roy shaking his.

 

“Sorry, partner, I’d really like to, but it’s just not going to work out this time. My mother-in-law still isn’t feeling well, so Joanne is driving down to San Diego to spend a few days with her. That leaves me handling the home front. You understand, don’t you?”

 

“Sure, I understand.” Johnny’s smile was reassuring, but his tone of voice wasn’t. It was obvious that he was disappointed, and Roy felt more than a twinge of regret at the circumstances.

 

“Hey, maybe you could change your plans a little . . . wait for a couple of weeks. By then, Joanne will be home, and things back to normal. I’m sure we could get headquarters to find replacements for us.”

 

“Yeah . . .maybe.”

 

There was a stretch of silence, as Roy let Johnny think about his suggestion. In the end, the younger man shook his head, though he attempted a smile.

 

“Nahh. I’m gonna go ahead. Everything’s already set up, there’s a replacement coming in for my shifts, and the Rover’s all packed. Besides, I think I could use a few days away from here.”

 

Although he wanted to, Roy couldn’t argue. His friend sounded as worn out as he looked, so maybe it was best that Johnny took a little time to enjoy the nature he loved so much. Maybe it would heal his wounded spirit, help him get back on top so he could deal with the job again. Roy just wished that he could go along to watch that healing take place.

 

Johnny remained quiet as he finished up, and moments later he’d closed his locker and picked up his duffle bag. “Well, guess I’ll see ya later, Roy. Take care.”

 

“Hey, you take care, Junior. And give us a call, will ya?”

 

“Yeah, sure. See ya.”

 

Watching silently as Johnny hurried out to the Rover then sped away, Roy had a sinking feeling, an unexplainable sensation that he should have made more of an effort to work things out so he could accompany his friend. Gage had been planning this trip for weeks, and he’d wanted Roy and Chet to join him. Unfortunately, neither man had been able to work it into their plans, and now Johnny was embarking on a solitary trek to fish the rivers of Oregon. The situation wasn’t that unusual for the young fireman, but this time was different.

 

Roy knew that his partner wasn’t in the best frame of mind. In fact, he’d been noticeably quiet since they’d lost the little girl several weeks earlier. After his outburst in the Emergency room, when both Roy and Dr. Brackett had been forced to pull him away from the child, Johnny had refused to talk about the rescue, not to Brackett, Cap, or even Roy. Each shift had followed the same routine. Johnny did his job with the utmost professionalism, but distanced himself from the rest of the crew. And just last night, Johnny had tossed and turned in his bunk, caught in the throes of a nightmare that Roy was sure had something to do with the unsuccessful rescue.

 

Now, Johnny was leaving town, and would be alone with his doubts or fears for over a week. Roy was unable to shake his own fear that there was trouble ahead for his young friend, and a fair amount of guilt on his own part for not being there for his partner.

 

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

 

Johnny tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, keeping time to the music from the radio. He’d found his first few days on the road to be relaxing, and slowly felt like he might be able to unwind and enjoy the solitude of his vacation. The journey had been uneventful so far, and he’d even found a few streams to cast his line into at several camping spots along the way. Still, he was looking forward to the great fishing his friend Brian had promised he’d find up north.

 

There was a certain time of the evening, as Johnny sat alone at his campfire, when he struggled to keep the memories at bay. The recollections of a little girl in his arms were almost more than he could stand. A sense of resentment settled over him at those times; feelings that his friends had abandoned him when he needed them most. He knew that he was being unreasonable, probably even irrational, but Johnny couldn’t shake the idea that Roy and Chet had let him down.

 

There had been no chance for the little girl. Everyone knew it, yet Johnny felt like he’d failed. After all, he was trained to save lives. But when he’d had the chance to save an innocent child, a youngster with years of living ahead of her, he hadn’t been able to make a difference. The paramedic couldn’t get past the remorse; he just knew there was something else he should’ve done.

 

So each evening, as the sky turned black and stars began to light the heavens, Johnny sat before his campfire alone. With no one to reassure him, and even though it was unwarranted, he bore his guilt stoically. Although he knew it was selfish, Johnny longed to look across the fire, and see his partner sitting there. This was one time that he would’ve enjoyed the company.

 

Mentally shaking himself, Johnny pushed the dark thoughts aside, focusing instead on the view around him. The countryside was beautiful, trees a vibrant green and the stream a rippling ribbon of white along the highway. He’d chosen a secondary road, his destination a certain fishing place that his friend swore would make his whole trip worthwhile. As an added bonus, there was a butte in the vicinity that would give him a view of the scenery; a sight that Brian promised would be well worth the hike.

 

Johnny soon found himself lost in the beauty of the area, and the miles sped by. Before he knew it, the sun was setting and the highway was almost deserted. Rounding a curve, Johnny uttered an expletive as his foot stomped on the brake, the Rover’s tires squealing in protest. As he turned the steering wheel sharply to the right, the startled driver was relieved when the lone deer bounded on across the road. His relief was short lived.

 

Frantically struggling to regain control, Johnny’s mind barely registered the chorus of noises that followed. The screech of the tires on pavement, the thud inside the Rover as the brakes locked and held. Finally the noise was joined by a flurry of motion as the Rover flipped over, landing against a tree on the side of the road.

 

Inside the vehicle Johnny lay draped, unmoving, across the steering wheel.

 

***********

 

Captain Stanley poured two cups of coffee while inconspicuously watching his senior paramedic. Roy had been quiet ever since Johnny left on vacation a few days earlier, and Hank was growing worried. Setting one cup on the table, the captain sank into a chair across from Roy, and took a sip out of his own cup.

 

“You want to talk about it?”

 

There was silence for several minutes as Roy looked up to meet his captain’s gaze. He knew there was no sense in covering his concern; it was obvious that Captain Stanley already suspected something was up. Yet, he didn’t really know what to say. How could he express his uncertainty, his fear for his friend? He knew how he felt, but talking about those feelings was another thing altogether. And, too, there was always the possibility that he was overreacting. Maybe Johnny had already resolved his feelings and was enjoying a carefree vacation. Either way, he knew he owed Cap some kind of explanation.

 

“There’s really nothing to talk about, Cap. Guess I’m just a little worried about Johnny.”

 

“You think there’s something to be worried about?”

 

“I’m not sure. I mean, he was pretty upset about losing that little girl, and I’m almost positive he had a nightmare on his last shift. But he’s probably doing okay, now. The thing is, he was going to call in after a few days on the road, and I haven’t heard from him yet.”

 

Cap leaned back in his chair a bit, searching his mind for just the right words of encouragement. “You know how Johnny is when he’s on one of his fishing trips. He’s probably just so busy enjoying nature that he forgot his promise to call. Don’t worry, Pal, he’ll be in touch.”

 

“Yeah. . .”

 

“And, Roy, give Johnny some time. He always takes it hard when he loses a patient, but he comes around.”

 

There was no answer as the paramedic looked down into his coffee cup, studiously examining the dark liquid. In fact, Hank wondered if Roy would even reply. It took several minutes, before he finally did.

 

“You’re right, Cap. Thanks.”

 

Hank stood up and headed for his office, but turned at the doorway to look back. Although Roy had sounded convincing, it was obvious that his words had been forced. His expression was still one of concern, and the captain found himself hoping that his youngest crewmember would be calling in soon.

 

 

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

 

Hours passed before Johnny opened his eyes again. Pulling himself slowly away from the steering wheel, he looked around apprehensively. ‘Where am I?’ The inside of the Rover was lit with faint moonlight, but even though he could make out the interior of the vehicle, nothing looked familiar. The pain in his head was incredible, and he moved carefully so as not to aggravate the agonizing throbbing. Struggling to ignore the pain, Johnny pressed frantically against the door, anxious to escape the strange space that seemed to taunt him with its presence. It took several minutes, but finally the door gave way and he was able to move it.

 

Tumbling out of the opening onto the rocky ground below, he lay quiet, as the world seemed to tilt eerily around him. Unsure of how long he had laid there, Johnny finally pulled himself up and looked around. The Rover was sitting at an awkward angle, the passenger side perched partly against a tree, and partially against the edge of a ravine. Knowing, instinctively, that there was no help for him here, Johnny pulled himself next to the vehicle and peered inside. There was little there of any use, but he did find a white t-shirt and a jean jacket.

 

Unfortunately, the one thing he’d hoped to find was nowhere in sight. There was nothing to identify who he was, no wallet with driver’s license or identification to tell him his name or where he belonged. The realization that he was all alone was terrifying, and he pushed himself quickly away from the vehicle. Stumbling in his hurry to escape, from what he wasn’t sure, Johnny pulled and clawed his way up the slope to the highway above.

 

With the white t-shirt pressed against his bleeding forehead, John Gage made his way unsteadily down the dark and desolate road.

 

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

 

Mr. Jenkins enjoyed his job as a traveling salesman. Still, the road could be a lonely place at times, and he wasn’t against picking up an occasional hitchhiker. So, when he rounded a corner and spotted the solitary man trudging alongside the deserted highway, he didn’t hesitate a moment before pulling over on the shoulder of the road. It didn’t look like the man was feeling any too good, and the salesman entertained a moment of doubt, but then opened his door.

 

“Hey, Mister, you okay?”

 

“Yeah.” The thin voice didn’t sound too reassuring, but his pace did quicken, and moments later he reached the back of the Dodge.

 

“You sure don’t look too good. What happened?” Jenkins persisted.

 

“Just took a little fall. I’m all right.”

 

The hitchhiker was tall and thin. His dark unruly hair, hanging low over his forehead, was in sore need of a cut in Mr. Jenkins opinion. But his clothes, though mussed, seemed well made, and his boots were of high quality. It only took several minutes for the salesman to relax, as he convinced himself that this young man wasn’t simply a vagrant, but someone down on his luck. When the hitchhiker flashed a faint grin at him, his mind was made up. “You want a ride?”

 

The young man looked relieved, yet strangely, kind of lost.

 

“Sure, thanks, Mister . . .”

 

“Jenkins. My name is Bob Jenkins.”

 

“Thanks, Mr. Jenkins. I really appreciate this.”

 

Moments later, they were speeding down the darkened highway. The young man was obviously exhausted, as he leaned back and fell asleep almost instantly. The lights on the dashboard afforded a dim glow, but enough that Jenkins could periodically examine his quiet passenger. It looked like the young man had been roughed up a bit; whether from some kind of altercation, an accident or a simple fall, he wasn’t sure.

 

Looking closely, he could see traces of blood on the man’s hands and face, the origin of which he suspected was somewhere beneath the dark hair. He couldn’t help but speculate on what had happened to his companion, and as he drove on into the night realized he hadn’t even asked the young man for his name. But that’s the way it went when you lived on the road and had only strangers to visit with. There were many unanswered questions and stories left untold. It would be the same with this young man.

 

In the end, Jenkins decided it didn’t really matter. The guy was polite, and though he didn’t afford much in the way of conversation, he wasn’t bothering anyone either. Besides, in his years on the road, the salesman had learned not to be too inquisitive. Turning on the radio, he lost himself in the music, as he continued his lonely journey.

 

Dawn was breaking on the horizon when he finally pulled the car to a stop. They were at a crossroads, and his journey was almost to an end. His out-of-the-way route had taken him near his sister’s home, and Jenkins had planned to make a brief visit. However, he wanted his hitchhiker to be aware that once he turned off the main road, there wouldn’t be much chance of another ride. Although they’d been traveling for several hours, the young man had barely stirred.

 

Reaching across the seat, Jenkins shook the sleeping man several times before gaining a response. Bleary eyes met his as the dark haired man slowly awoke.

 

“Good to see you awake, young man.”

 

“Yeah . . . yeah, I’m awake.”

 

Mr. Jenkins stifled a smile as he studied his fellow traveler. In the faint light of early morning, it was obvious that the young man was not at his best, but in all fairness, he was struggling to pull himself together.

 

“Where are we?” He finally mumbled.

 

“We’re at my turn off. You’re welcome to travel on with me, but I’ll warn you, the little town I’m headed for is pretty much off the beaten path. If you’re hoping for another ride, I suggest you stay close to the main road. Even though it’s not a highway, you’ll have a better chance here.”

 

“Oh, okay . . . sure.”

 

The young man swiped a hand across his face, flinching slightly. Fumbling with the door handle, he finally managed to open it. From the driver’s seat, Mr. Jenkins watched closely as the hitchhiker got out and stretched his legs.

 

At first, it looked as if he were somewhat unsteady on his feet, and Jenkins wondered if he were doing the right thing by leaving the young man out here alone. He hastily convinced himself that this stranger would be fine. It wasn’t up to him to watch over every transient he came across. Still, there was something different about this one . . .

 

Shaking himself from his daydreaming, Jenkins realized the young man was speaking to him.

 

“Thanks again for the ride, Mr. Jenkins. You have a good trip.”

 

With a weak smile, the dark haired man closed the door and waved a farewell. Jenkins pulled back on the roadway, and made his turn towards his sister’s place. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he realized the young man was already out of sight.

 

“Sure was the most polite hitchhiker I ever met,” he mumbled.

 

***********

 

A dark haired man crawled out of the old battered pickup, his feet barely on firm ground before the truck sped off. Looking tired, but resolute, the man resumed his solitary journey on foot, unaware that he was no longer on a main route. The roadway followed a steep grade, its rocky bank sloping down to a shallow river far below, and although the scenery was breathtaking, the weary traveler didn’t seem to notice as he trudged along the edge of the pavement.

 

The day had passed in a haze, each incident blending into the fog of memories he couldn’t quite sort out. There had been some kind of accident, of that he was fairly sure, but the young man was no longer sure what kind of mishap. He could recall a white vehicle along the side of the road, but everything else was a blur. Since then, he knew he’d accepted several rides, however no one had really spent much time talking to him, and that last ride had been in the back of an open pickup.

 

Stopping for a moment, he looked around, as if trying to get his bearings. There was a moment of hesitation, a minute or two when he gently probed the cut above his hairline that it seemed as if he might stop, or even give up. Then, gently pushing his hair away from his eyes, the man resumed his walking, seeming to concentrate only on the placement of each foot as he moved silently forward. Up the hill, over its summit, and down the other side, he continued his trek along the empty road.

 

It was late afternoon when he finally left the paved road to find a grassy place to rest. Slowly lowering himself to the ground, he leaned back against a small pine tree and closed his eyes as the afternoon shadows lengthened around him.

 

Although the landscape had continued to change along his route, from mountainous roads, past barren plateaus, through wide valleys dotted with cattle and horses, the exhausted man had barely noticed. And now, hundreds of miles from the scene of the accident, he had no clear idea of where he’d been or where he was going. He only knew that there was someone he needed to find, one person that would help him. Someone who could make the confusion and uncertainty go away. What he didn’t know was that he was traveling farther away from the one man he was searching for.

 

***********

 

Roy climbed out of the squad and headed for the Dayroom. It was only noon, but with the number of runs they’d already responded to, it might as well be midnight. Several steps ahead of him, Charlie Dwyer was already through the doorway. Charlie was pulling some overtime, filling in for Johnny, a fact Roy felt very grateful for. After all, the alternative was Brice.

 

As he followed Charlie into the kitchen, Roy’s greeting died on his lips as he recognized the unusual behavior of his shift mates. Usually a cheerful group of firefighters, the men now sat silently around the table. The most obvious difference, however, was their captain. Hank Stanley was standing with his back towards the group, his attention focused somewhere outside the window he was staring through. It was clear that he was waiting for something or someone, and Roy instinctively knew that Cap was waiting for him.

 

He stopped near the table, his gaze moving from one firefighter to the other, each of whom merely shrugged in response to his questioning glance. Roy didn’t have to wait long. Cap turned almost immediately and motioned him into a seat. Charlie started to leave the room, but Cap shook his head slightly. Instead, Dwyer stepped over to the counter where he leaned back and waited quietly.

After clearing his throat several times, Hank finally spoke.

 

“The department received a call this morning from the state police up in Oregon. Seems they found a wrecked Land Rover along one of their highways, and after they traced the plates, they contacted the Chief.”

 

“What?” Chair legs scraped across the floor, as Chet jumped to his feet.

 

Marco moaned a soft “Madre Dios” under his breath, even as Mike’s fist thumped the table. But there was only one voice that spoke for them.

 

“What happened? Did he get hurt? Where is he now?”

 

Cap didn’t answer; in fact, he didn’t even look up as his senior paramedic peppered him with questions. Instead, he waited silently until Roy stopped for a breath, then Hank continued with his rehearsed communication.

 

“The Rover is John’s. From their preliminary investigation, they think it went down an embankment and flipped over, but there’s no evidence that any other vehicle was involved.”

 

The break in Cap’s speech was unexpected, and the men waited impatiently for him to continue. Roy didn’t notice the others looking at him. His gaze was focused specifically on Stanley.

 

“Cap?”

 

This time Hank turned to face Roy, staring at the man for a moment before continuing.

 

“He wasn’t there, Roy. There’s no sign of him. The police think the accident occurred last night sometime, but his vehicle wasn’t spotted until early this morning. They’ve already searched the area, but other than some blood inside the Rover . . . nothing.”

 

Numb silence filled the room, as five men struggled to make sense of the information they’d just been presented. Roy watched as Hank looked around the group, and then sank into the nearest chair. There was no expression on his face, and for just a moment, Roy felt sorry for the man. It must’ve been hard for Cap to relay the news, but not any harder than it was for them to hear it. The captain’s voice was thin when he added his last bit of news. “One more thing. They found all his gear still inside, and his wallet was in the glove box.”

 

Roy pushed himself from his seat, and made his way silently towards the window. It was his turn to stare unseeingly through the clear pane of glass. His mind strove to make sense of the information he’d just been given, but the only thing he could think of was the morning Johnny had left on his trip. His partner’s words rang in his mind, over and over again: ‘Are you sure you won’t change your mind, Roy? Are you sure you won’t change your mind, Roy?’ Why? Why hadn’t he gone along? He should’ve been there. Maybe then . . .

 

Unaware of the movement, Roy was startled to find Cap standing at his elbow.

 

“We don’t know anything for sure, Roy. Could be he got a ride and just hasn’t had a chance to call yet.”

 

“After this long, Cap? No.”

 

Again silence permeated the dayroom. Roy seemed lost as he continued to stare out into the bright daylight. But his mind was really focused on a scene hundreds of miles away.

 

“Cap? Can you get a replacement for me?”

 

“Yeah, sure, Roy.” Cap answered confidently. He’d assumed that would be Roy’s response, and had already checked into the possibility. However, he was somewhat surprised when another voice echoed the request.

 

“You’ll need one for me too, Cap.”

 

Roy turned to see Chet Kelly standing on the other side of Captain Stanley. The expression on the fireman’s face was one of steadfast conviction. Chet was going along, and nothing was going to stop him. With a sigh, Hank nodded and walked out towards his office to make the necessary arrangements, while Roy headed over to the payphone. Dropping a coin into the slot, he dialed his home number, and waited impatiently for Joanne to answer.

 

***********

 

Harold Wilson pulled his red 4x4 onto the side of the road, and stepped down from the cab. Cautiously, he approached the motionless figure, stopping a few feet shy of the dark haired stranger.

 

“Hey there, young fella, everything okay?”

 

The dark head moved slowly, but the flash of relief in the young man’s eyes was obvious as he looked up. Harold knew, instinctively, that he’d found someone in need of a friend.

 

“Here, let me give you a hand.”

 

Harold reached down and helped the man stand up, taking in his unsteady balance and bedraggled appearance.

 

“Looks like you tangled with a wildcat . . . and lost.”

 

Again, the crooked smile flashed briefly across the tired face, this time accompanied by a tired voice. “Something like that.”

 

“What’s your name, son?”

 

For just a second, the young man’s face went almost white, as if the question was more than he could handle. Then he simply looked blankly at the older man, as if to ask why a name might be important. It seemed like a strange reaction to a simple question, and somewhat disconcerting to the Good Samaritan. Still, he seemed harmless enough.

 

Studying the young man for a moment longer, Harold made his decision. Taking the stranger by the elbow, he began to guide him slowly towards his pickup.

 

“I have to deliver this load of feed to a neighbor, but after that, I think you need a good hot meal and a clean bed to sleep in. How’s that sound?”

 

“Good. That sounds real good.” The voice was still tired, but the tone somewhat lighter, as if a burden had been lifted from the weary man.

 

It took only a few minutes for Harold to settle his passenger in the front seat. Hurrying around to the driver’s side, he climbed in and started the engine. “So, what happened to land you here on the side of this country road?”

 

His passenger went so far as to chuckle at Harold’s question. “Did you ever have one of those days when nothing went right?”

 

It could’ve been the plaintive voice. Maybe it was the tattered look of the man, or possibly even the dry delivery of his answer. Whatever it was, Harold Wilson didn’t care one whit, he merely bust out laughing as he shifted the pickup into gear. “Yes I have, son. Yes, I have.”

 

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

 

A dusty haze followed the truck as it sped up the dirt lane. From her kitchen window, the Widow Hilton watched its steady progress, smiling happily when she recognized the red Ford as the culprit. Turning the burner to low, she snatched a worn yellow potholder from the counter, and used it to lift the metal lid. She briskly stirred the bubbling stew before setting the cover back on the blue enamel pot. Only then did the petite woman hurry to the screen door and push it open. By the time she reached the driveway, the pickup had rolled to a stop near the large barn, and the driver was climbing out of the cab.

 

“Evening, Bess.”

 

“Harold. How did the sale go today?”

 

“’bout what I figured. The mare I was looking at went for more than I could afford.”

 

“Sorry to hear that.” Bess answered sympathetically. “You know, I was really hoping Steve would sell that mare to you before the auction, but then knowing him . . .”

 

Her voice trailed off as Bess watched the stranger emerge from the passenger side of Harold’s pickup. The young man moved quietly towards the corral, where he stopped to lean against the wooden fence, his eyes taking in the horses milling about there.

 

“Who’s the new hand?”

 

Harold laughed lightly, amused at his friend’s brusque manner. Bess sure wasn’t one to waste time on frivolities when she wanted to know something; she just cut right to the chase.

 

“No, nothing like that. Just a young fella I picked up down at the end of your lane.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah. Kinda strange, though. When I asked him his name, he went real quiet on me. Still don’t know what to think of it, but he seemed friendly enough on the ride over.”

 

Bess eyed the young man thoughtfully, carefully noting his appearance as Harold dropped the tailgate.

 

“Well, Bess, no use putting this off. Where d’ya want me to stack the feed?”

 

“Oh, same old place. Here, let me get the door open.”

 

The small gray-haired woman hurried over to the barn, Harold following close behind with a sack of grain flung over his shoulder. They were only out of sight for a moment before returning for another load, but Bess barely stopped at the door in time. The young man was faltering slightly, yet he held the feed sack as if it were the most natural chore in the world to him.

 

Bess broke the awkward moment with her typical good cheer. “I almost knocked you clean into next Sunday, young man. Sorry about that!”

 

His answering smile was not enough, and the woman persisted gently. “Oh, come on now, I know we haven’t been introduced properly, but you can at least speak to me, can’t ya?”

 

The man’s smile graduated to a full-blown grin. ”Yes, Ma’am. Excuse me.”

 

“Now, that’s better. But I’m the one who should be asking to be excused, getting in a man’s way when he’s working. What’s your name, son?”

 

A cloud of doubt and uncertainty was evident on the stranger’s face. Like Harold, Bess wondered what could make a man act so bothered by such a simple question, then mentally chided herself for her curiosity.

 

“Here, let me show you where that goes.” She offered, in an effort to put him at ease.

 

Watching the young man carefully, Bess continued to direct the two men as they unloaded the pickup. Although she visited with Harold, she worried over the stranger, fully aware that he was unsteady on his feet. With only a few sacks of feed left, she managed to divert his attention for a moment when she poured a scoop full of grain in the mares’ feed bin.

 

“Sure is a nice place you have here,” he offered.

 

“Oh, this is nothing. You should’ve seen it a few years ago when my husband was still alive. Back then, we raised some of the best cutting horses this side of the Rockies.” The woman’s eyes strayed out to gaze at the distant hills for a moment, her mind remembering happier times. Harold’s voice brought her back.

 

“Don’t let her fool you, young man. She still provides some of the best stock you’ll find west of anywhere.”

 

“Oh, Harold, go on.” The two chuckled, their manner comfortable and relaxed.

 

“You like horses, young man?”

 

“Yes, I think so.”

 

Bess couldn’t help but wonder at the strange answer, but as Harold toted the last sack of grain into the barn, she stepped over to the pickup and slammed the tailgate into place. Intent on her task, Bess didn’t realize what was happening until her friend’s shout of surprise burst into her musings.

 

The young man, who only moments before had joined in their conversation, was now lying on the ground, unconscious. Rushing to his side, the woman gathered his hand in her own, rubbing it briskly as she called to him. On his other side, Harold was squatting down, his brow furrowed in concern as he waited for some sign that the stranger was coming to. Within seconds, he was rewarded as the dark eyes half-opened.

 

“What . . .”

 

“No, you stay still, young man. That was quite a scare you gave us, and neither Harold nor I can stand too many more scares at our age.”

 

Bess held his arm as she scolded him gently. She watched intently as he became more aware of his surroundings. “Now, tell me the truth, how long has it been since you’ve eaten anything?”

 

The dark eyes flicked back and forth from man to woman as he struggled to find the right answer. Finally giving up in frustration, he mumbled faintly: “don’t remember.”

 

Bess harrumphed sternly. “Well, then, I say we get ourselves up to the house for something to eat. I have a pot of stew that’s just waiting to be sampled, and you look like you could use a little sustenance. And a little doctorin’ too, if this blood in your hair tells me what I think it does.”

 

Without waiting for a reply, Bess stood up, her movements more agile than expected for a woman of her age. She held out a wrinkled hand, encouraging the young man to join her, which he did, but at a much slower rate. Harold’s ill-concealed smile only partly covered his look of concern as he followed the pair towards the old white farmhouse.

 

 

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

 

With a duffle bag in one hand and a single sheet of paper in the other, Roy stepped off the airplane and moved towards the waiting crowd. Chet was directly behind him, both men scanning the group of people gathered to meet the plane. Several minutes of confusion followed as people milled around, happy voices raised in greeting, friends and relatives hugging each other in joyful reunion. Roy swallowed hard as a vision of his missing friend flashed through his mind. He wondered if they’d ever share that kind of cheerful meeting again.

 

“There, Roy.”

 

Turning slightly to the left, he watched as Chet pointed towards several men on the edge of the crowd, recognizing immediately that only one of the men was in police uniform. The other man, clad in a black suit and tie, was probably the detective they were looking for. Moving forward, Roy quickly glanced down at the paper to check the name again, but his effort was unnecessary.

 

“Mr. DeSoto?”

 

“Yes, I’m Roy DeSoto.”

 

Roy stretched out his arm, and shook the other man’s hand as the detective introduced himself.

 

“I’m Dale Saunders, and this is Sergeant Bud Williams.”

 

“Sergeant.”

 

“This is Chet Kelly, he works with us at Station 51.”

 

“Mr. Kelly.”

 

Chet gamely shook hands but didn’t speak, adding a silent nod to the sergeant.

Greetings finally exchanged, the group stood silent for only a moment before Detective Saunders got down to business.

 

“Did you bring the items I requested?”

 

“Yes, I have everything you asked for.”

 

“All right, then, let’s go directly to headquarters.”

 

Roy and Chet merely nodded in response as they followed the two men towards the waiting cruiser. Everything seemed to be happening at fast speed. Still, it wasn’t fast enough to suit Roy. He wanted some answers, and he wanted them now. So, when the sergeant put the car in gear and pulled out of the parking lot, Roy immediately began to interrogate the detective.

 

“Has there been anything new since we spoke earlier?”

 

“No, Mr. DeSoto.”

 

“Roy.”

 

“Okay. No, Roy, nothing’s changed since we spoke. We’re going to the State Police office, where we’ll leave the pictures and identification you brought. Hopefully that will help us get the information out to more departments statewide. After that, I’ll be driving you to the scene of the accident. It’s over a hundred miles southeast of here, but I figured you’d want to get out to the main search area.”

 

“Yes, we would. Thanks.”

 

The silence was oppressive, and Roy could tell that Chet was holding in his frustration as the Irishman sat quietly, staring out the window. He wanted, needed, to know more, but suddenly he found that no questions seemed important enough. The only one he really wanted to ask was simply, what happened to John Gage? And it was obvious that there was no answer to that question.

 

In the front seat, Dale Saunders sensed the frustration of the two firemen behind him. Turning in his seat, he looked at them compassionately. This was the part of his job he hated the most: trying to encourage people in a seemingly hopeless situation. Still, he had to try.

 

“We’ll find your friend. It might take a little time, but we’ll find him.”

 

Chet answered before Roy had a chance, but the sentiment was the same. “Will you find him in time?”

 

No one answered, and Roy was grateful for the silence. He stared out his window, fully aware that Chet was doing the same thing at the other end of the seat. The detective was looking intently at the passing sites, as if unsure how to respond, while the sergeant simply focused on the road ahead.

 

**********

 

Hank Stanley lowered himself to the couch, grateful when Henry moved closer. Quietly scratching the dog’s neck, the captain did his best to relax.

 

It had been an uneventful day at the station, at least in terms of runs. In fact, their temporary paramedics were the only ones called out, since Roy and Chet left for the airport that afternoon. Mike and Marco kept themselves busy making coffee and answering the phone, while Hank had spent most of his time in his office on the department line, contacting various department heads and police agencies. Nothing seemed to help. As far as anyone could tell him, John Gage has simply disappeared into thin air.

 

Looking up, he was surprised to see that Mike and Marco had joined him. The three men sat silently in the Dayroom, staring intermittently at each other or the floor beneath them. No one made a move to start dinner, turn on the TV, or even attempt conversation. Instead, they shared their worry silently, each wishing there was something more they could do to help find their friend.

 

***********

 

The scenery was beautiful. A ribbon of blue water followed the highway. More appropriately, the highway followed the river. It gave Roy something to focus on.

 

Since leaving the city, the four men remained quiet for the most part, with only feeble attempts at conversation. Roy thought of several questions to ask, as they drove through the mountain pass to the eastern side of the state, but each time he started, he stopped himself resolutely. With no real desire to converse about the scenery or the weather, he focused instead on this final part of their journey. Closer and closer with each mile, he was sure there would be some answer to Johnny’s whereabouts when they finally reached the site of his friend’s accident. In the meantime, he stared out at the tall fir trees that stretched away from the highway, and the occasional wildlife along the river. Johnny would’ve loved this.

 

Their time at the police station had been uneventful. Other than handing over the small packet of information the LA County Fire Department had sent along, there was little to do. The underlying theme remained the same. The Land Rover had been found late last night . . . no one at the site . . .no clue as to Johnny’s whereabouts. The detective reiterated that they had little to go on, but the search teams were looking.

 

Several hours passed, and the sun was low in the sky when Sgt. Williams finally pulled his cruiser off the road. Unsure, at first, as to why they’d stopped, Roy was surprised when the detective pushed open his door and got out. He couldn’t see anything worth looking at, just a dusty stretch of road, no sign of civilization in any direction. But as Saunders stood waiting patiently by the door, it was clear that this was the place.

 

Forcing his hand to grip the handle, Roy managed to open the door and join the other men at the side of the road. Chet was already looking around, as if trying to convince himself that such a desolate spot was the focus for all their grief. But Roy stood rooted in place, his eyes searching for something, anything that would prove to him that his friend had been here. There was nothing.

 

“You sure this is the place?” He finally asked quietly.

 

“Yes, this is it. Come on, I’ll show you what little there is to see.”

 

Roy followed Saunders across the narrow strip of pavement to the other side of the two-lane road. From there, they made their way down the dirt embankment, then towards a barbwire fence. Already Roy could see where they were headed. A gnarled tree stood beside the fence, its side scraped clean of any bark. It was obvious from the ruts and scaring on the ground around its base, that there had been a vehicle here not long before. Unaware that he had stopped to stare, Roy startled when Chet stepped closer.

 

“Wonder what happened.”

 

Unable to fashion a reply, Roy turned to the detective instead. “Where is everyone?”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“The search team. You said there was an active search underway.”

 

“Yes, yes there is.”

 

“Well then, where is everyone?” Chet joined in.

 

“I’m sorry, I should’ve made myself clear. There was an active search in this area most of the day, but as of several hours ago, that group has disbanded.”

 

“What? They quit?”

 

“You mean they just quit and went home?”

 

The two angry voices echoed as if in stereo, but their response didn’t faze Saunders.

 

“No. No one’s quit. But you have to understand, there’s nothing out here. There’s no tracks, no evidence whatsoever. We’ve been all over this area, and there’s absolutely no leads.”

 

“So, what now?” Roy asked after a long silence.

 

“We keep looking-”

 

“But you just said…”

 

“Looking in a different way, Chet. The pictures you brought will help. We’ll get those distributed. We have teams checking in towns up and down the highway. If we get lucky, we’ll find someone who’s seen your friend.”

 

“And if we don’t?”

 

Silence settled over the men, as they stared at the scarred tree.

 

“Detective?”

 

“Yes, Sergeant?”

 

“Just got a call from Team One, said they’d meet you at Mac’s if you’re going that way.”

 

“Thanks. We’ll be right up.”

 

The officer disappeared back across the highway towards his cruiser, leaving Roy and Chet to look one more time at the scene.

 

“Gentlemen, whenever you’re ready, we’ll go on into town and see what our lead team has for us.”

 

“Yeah, we’re ready.” Roy answered quietly. “Maybe you could show us where the Rover is while we’re there?”

 

“Sure thing. In fact, that’s exactly where we’re headed.”

 

Detective Saunders made his way back up the embankment, leaving Roy and Chet following slowly behind. The two friends didn’t speak, but their shared look of frustration spoke volumes. They hadn’t really expected to find anything here, and unfortunately, they’d been right.

 

By the time the group had traveled the remaining twenty miles, Roy was past tired and frustrated, and moving towards exhausted and despondent. A lot had transpired since Joanne had kissed him awake at 5:30am, and he’d had little time to share it with her. They had only a few minutes to talk when he stopped at the house to pack, barely enough time for him to explain what little they knew of Johnny’s accident and his own plans. After a quick hug and kiss, he’d left for the airport while Joanne waved to him from the front steps, tears streaming down her face.

 

Now he yearned for a minute or two in her embrace . . . something, anything to erase the past twelve hours from his memory, and awaken him from this nightmare. But Joanne was thousands of miles away, making dinner for their children, and going about her regular routine. He, on the other hand, was stuck in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely no idea of how to find his best friend.

 

“Here we are.”

 

Recognizing that they’d finally reached the city limits, Roy studied the area as they slowed down. The two-lane highway became Main Street as it angled through the small town. There was a line of shops on each side, most of them closed for the evening. At one corner, a diner was already doing a brisk evening business while across the street a sign flashed its bright neon notice of “Drinks” over a narrow window. As they passed the downtown area, Roy made out a motel sign towards the southern edge of town, but before they got that far, the policeman turned his car into a busy parking lot. A wooden sign perched just over the eves of an old metal building, clearly marked the site as “Mac’s.”

 

Once again, Roy and Chet followed the detective out of the car. Only this time, Roy needed no urging . . .he knew right where he was going. Chet was right behind him, step for step, but when they reached their destination, neither spoke. Standing there in front of Johnny’s Rover, the silence stretched between them. There was no need to voice the questions they knew there were no answers to.

 

With grim determination, Roy finally forced himself to walk over to the driver’s side and pull open the door. He looked for, and found, proof of his friend’s injury. The steering wheel was stained dark red, along with part of the seat and floor below it. More startling was a faint red imprint of a man’s hand on the dashboard.

 

“Roy.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Closing the driver’s door, Roy was almost grateful for the interruption. At the same time, he noticed that Chet hadn’t moved from where he’d stopped in front of the Rover. But Detective Saunders was waiting, so Roy pushed aside his personal concerns and focused on the detective instead.

 

“Roy, I’d like you to come over and meet some of our search and rescue people. I have a feeling you’re going to be working pretty closely with them in the next few days. After that, we’ll get you checked into the local motel. It’s not much, but it’s clean.”

 

“Okay, sure.” Roy stood quietly, his gaze still being pulled toward the damaged Rover.

 

“What would you like us to do with it?” Saunders asked quietly.

 

Roy didn’t hesitate, and he was silently grateful for Chet’s nod of affirmation as he answered.

 

“Fix it.”

 

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

 

Harold leaned against the doorjamb, and fingered the toothpick dangling between his lips, his expression thoughtful. Inside the small bunkhouse, Bess was chattering happily, and Harold was suddenly reminded of a runaway freight train. From the time the three sat down at the kitchen table, he’d known what direction this situation was going to take. His first impulse was to dissuade or argue with Bess about her plans, but he quickly gave up and accepted the inevitable. Bess was taking the boy in, and that was that.

 

After a good meal, the young man was clearly exhausted, and the woman wasted no time in shepherding him across the yard and into the bunkhouse. It was really just a small wing attached to the main barn, but it had been remodeled into a decent living area, consisting of a sitting area, several bunks, and even a modern bathroom. Bess was already doling out towels, sheets and blankets from a cupboard, everything a man could need to settle in with. However, Harold couldn’t hold back a low chuckle as the woman continued to fuss over her charge.

 

“Now, there’s a nice shower in the bathroom, and we’ll stay out here and visit while you get cleaned up a bit. Wouldn’t do to have you keelin’ over in the shower, and nobody around to help ya. After you get some of that grime cleared off of ya, I’ll take a good look at that cut of yours. Seems to me you should’ve had some stitches in that wound, but I’m ‘fraid it’s too late now. Besides, Old Doc Timmons lives almost forty miles from here, and he’s usually kept pretty busy. Even if we did make the drive, chances are he wouldn’t be in his office when we got there.”

 

The dark haired man nodded occasionally at the woman’s diatribe, and finally, she took the hint. “Landsakes! Here I am, talkin’ your ear off and you’re needin’ some rest. Go on now, off with ya! The bathroom’s through that door, and take your time. You holler out if you need something, though. Harold will still be here, right Harold?”

 

Pulling the toothpick from his mouth, the amused onlooker grunted lightly. “Uh huh.”

 

When they were alone a few minutes later, Harold settled himself in one of the over-stuffed chairs, and stared at his friend. “Bess? You sure you know what you’re doing?”

 

“Why sure I do, Harold. I’m giving this poor boy a place to stay. You heard what he said at dinner, when you finally asked him again about his name. He doesn’t know who he. Doesn’t have any idea where he belongs. Poor thing, seemed to get upset when you even mentioned where he come from. And he’s not well, either. Somethin’ real bad has happened to that boy. Somethin’ he can’t or doesn’t want to remember.“

 

There was a long pause, as Bess seemed to mull over the implications of the young man’s fate. But then, almost as if a switched had been flipped, she smiled and resumed her cheerful planning. “Well, I have plenty of room, and work for him to do. When he’s up to it. And maybe by then, he’ll remember who he is and where he’s from.”

 

Harold shook his head solemnly. “Bess, you don’t have any idea what you could be getting mixed up in. The world’s a different place these days. Why, from what I hear, there’re killings in the cities all the time, and there’s folks out stealin’ to buy drugs. It’s not the kind of world we grew up in, and you should pay more attention to what’s going on out there. You need to be careful, now that you’re livin’ up here alone.”

 

“I have a TV, too, ya know.”

 

Harold’s eyebrows rose a notch or two.

 

“Well, I did until the darn thing broke down last year. But it doesn’t matter one hoot about what’s happening in the cities. It’s what’s happening here on my land that matters to me, and this young man’s hurt and in need of help. Well, I’m going to give him that help. Besides, did you ever see a more polite young man? And I can tell, just by looking in his eyes, that boy’s the most honest young person you’ll meet. So there’s no use trying to convince me otherwise, Harold Wilson.”

 

“All right, Bess, all right. Don’t go gettin’ yourself all riled up about it. I sorta figured this is what you’d do. But I still want you to keep a close eye on him. No matter how honest you think his eyes are, he’s a stranger around here, and you don’t know a thing about him. Shoot, he doesn’t know a thing about himself. And even if you have got yourself cut-off from the rest of the world, it can still reach out and grab ya’. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and if you see him acting peculiar, you call me, all right?”

 

“All right, Harold. If that’s what it’ll take to make you feel better, I’ll call you if he acts worse than Rocky. After all, compared to that fellow, no one seems strange.”

 

Unable to stop, Harold burst out with a hearty laugh. No matter what else she might be, Bess Hilton was a good-hearted woman.

 

After that, the two old friends visited together until the young man returned from his shower. Bess forced him to sit still while she applied antiseptic cream and bandaged his head, but no sooner had she’d applied the last piece of tape, than the woman was shooing him off to bed. Later, as she walked Harold to his pickup, Bess reached out and clasped the man’s arm. “It’s going to be fine, Harold. You’ll see. It’ll be fine.”

 

Harold couldn’t think of anything that would cause him to disagree, so he merely nodded his head in defeat. “For your sake, Bess, I hope so.”

 

***********

 

Morning sunlight filtered through the long windows, and Bess paused a moment to enjoy the golden rays decorating her kitchen. This was her favorite time of day. Birds singing, a light breeze lifting white sheers gently from the window frames, an occasional horse nickering in the paddock. The only thing she found missing from these early mornings, was the sound of her Robert as he thumped his way up the walk from the barn, his black rubber boots caked with mud. By now, his workday would be well started, with his stomach growling for a hearty breakfast.

 

Glancing out the screen door, Bess half expected to see Robert, but sadly, the walk was empty. She paused for a moment, wondering at an old woman’s silliness. Robert had been gone several years, long enough that she’d accepted his absence, though she’d never stop missing him. She rubbed her chin absently, speculating on what was filling her mind with thoughts of him today.

 

Her gaze moved slowly towards the barn with its attached dwelling, and she quickly realized what had started her on this line of thinking. Or maybe it wasn’t realizing, as much as it was admitting. There was something about that young man . . .

 

“Okay, Bess, that’s enough of that. You have work to do.”

 

Talking to herself wasn’t something new, but Bess grinned nonetheless. With a swipe of her broom across the floor, she turned and went back to her chores, humming quietly as she completed her morning routine. It was almost three hours later when she heard a soft tapping at the screen door.

 

“Well, good morning, sleepy head. I’ve been wondering how long before you’d make an appearance.”

 

The dark eyes looked at her solemnly, as if he weren’t quite sure of his reception. She knew her teasing tone must have put him at ease, when he flashed a bright grin.

 

“Sorry. Must’ve been more tired than I thought.”

 

“Well, it’s no wonder. And don’t be sorry, I’m glad you were comfortable enough to sleep in. You sure looked like you could use a good long rest. Now, come on in here.”

 

Bess stepped closer and pushed the door open, beckoning for him to enter. “I think you could probably do with a little food about now, don’t you?”

 

“Ohh, well, no . . .that’s okay. Maybe just a little of that coffee, if it’s not too much trouble.”

 

“What? No breakfast? Now, listen here, young man, you need some food in that stomach.”

 

She watched as the dark head nodded slightly, while at the same time, he gently massaged his temple below the bandage. Her voice softened when she spoke again. “You feelin’ all right?”

 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, just a little headache.”

 

“Well, I shouldn’t wonder. There’s a bottle of aspirin, left side of the sink. Coffee cup’s on the right side, and pot’s on the stove. Help yourself.”

 

Pulling open the rounded door of the aging refrigerator, Bess gathered a carton of milk, bacon, butter, and a bowl filled with fresh brown eggs. Taking them back to the counter, she glanced over at her guest, who stood quietly at the sink, looking blankly at the two white tablets in his hand. She quietly took a small juice glass from the cupboard and filled it at the tap, wordlessly handing him the water to wash down the painkiller. “How do you like your eggs?”

 

The visitor looked down at her, and shook his head slowly. “Don’t go to the trouble, ma’am. I’m not that hungry, really.”

 

Bess didn’t miss a beat. She simply placed her hands on her hips, and stared at the man as if he had two heads. “You liked my cookin’ all right last night, didn’t ya?”

 

“Sure. Your cooking is great, and-”

 

“Then set yourself down, tell me how you want your eggs cooked, and drink your coffee while I fix your breakfast.”

 

Rather than offend him, Bess’ no-nonsense tone of voice seemed to amuse him, and he nodded in submission. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

With a wide grin, he pulled out a coffee cup and filled it with the thick, dark brew. Then, he settled himself at the wooden table, and took his first sip. Watching him discreetly, Bess was also happy to note that he nibbled on a piece of toast she’d laid before him, slowly easing into the full ranch-style breakfast she was preparing. In no time, she’d added a plate of fried eggs, potatoes, and crisp bacon, along with fresh biscuits and a large bowl of peaches. He dug in with gusto.

 

Bess tidied up the kitchen while he ate, but within a few minutes, it was obvious that the good cooking, and comfortable atmosphere, had inspired him to talk. With a mouth full of egg and toast, he started asking questions. “I’m real sorry about taking up your extra room last night. I didn’t put anybody out, did I?”

 

“Now don’t worry yourself about that. My hired hand lives there, but he’s up in Portland right now.”

 

“Oh?” The young man answered around another bite of toast, smothered in homemade jam.

”Yes. Rocky hurt his shoulder a few weeks back, and he’s convalescing at his sister’s place.”

 

Bess watched the young man, as he digested this information, her mind suddenly flashing back to Harold’s warning the night before. For a split second, she wondered if maybe she was nothing more than a foolish old woman, giving out a lot of personal details to a complete stranger. In the next second, she scoffed at herself for the sudden burst of paranoia. The man in front of her was busily devouring his breakfast, his friendly gaze and pleasant demeanor reassuring her that he was nothing more than a nice young man.

 

“Sorry to hear that. Hope it wasn’t anything serious.”

 

“Well, for a man his age, it is. But I think Rocky will be all right.”

 

She chuckled lightly, as she realized that her hired man was a scant ten years her junior, but there was no reason to pass that information along. The man before her only nodded as he reached for his glass of milk, downing the foamy white liquid in barely two gulps. Wiping his mouth, he bit into another piece of bacon, before pursuing the conversation.

 

“Rocky?”

 

“Yeah. He likes to tell everyone he was a fighter, long before that other Rocky guy came along. You know, the one in the movie. Well, ever since that flick came out, Rocky thinks he can get lots of mileage out of his name when he goes down to Barney’s to play pool. Thinks he’ll get more attention from the gals, if he brags about how big and tough he is, like that other Rocky. Truth is, he got his nickname when he was a kid. His father owned a rock quarry, somewhere up in the mountains, and his friends tagged the moniker on him ‘fore he even got to school. Course, I did see some pictures of Rocky when he was a young man. He was in the Navy, or maybe it was the Merchant Marines, I don’t know. But if I’m not mistaken, he did a little boxing in his younger days. Anyway, he’s full of hot air, so when he comes back, you just humor him, okay?”

 

“Uhh…sure.”

 

Bess took another sip of her own coffee, having sat down across from her guest.

 

He took another bite of eggs, then looked up and smiled. “You sure do have a nice place here, Mrs. . . . .”

 

“Bess. You can call me, Bess. Everyone else does.”

 

“Okay, Bess.” Scooping up a spoonful of peaches, he grinned at his host. “This sure is a great breakfast!”

 

Bess laughed with pure pleasure. She enjoyed cooking for someone with such a hearty appetite, and this young man was no skimpy eater. “It looks like you’re enjoying it. But, do you always carry on a conversation while you’re eating? ”

 

The sudden drop of his head made Bess want to slap her own.

 

‘Foolish old woman.’ She muttered under her breath.’

 

“I’m sorry, son, that was unforgivable. I know you can’t remember. . .”

 

“Yeah . . . well.”

 

He wiped his mouth on the napkin, then folded it carefully and tucked it under the edge of his plate. Then, pushing himself slowly from the table, he stood and nodded gratefully at Bess. “Thanks again for your hospitality, Bess. Guess I’ll be moving on, now.”

 

“What? Where . . .” Bess fairly jumped to her feet. “You’re leaving?”

 

“Yes. I’m grateful for your help, but it’s time for me to go.”

 

“Go where?”

 

“I . . .I don’t know, for sure. Find a town somewhere, I guess, where I can get a job. . .” His voice trailed off sadly.

 

Bess stared at him for almost a whole minute, before stomping her small foot on the blue and white linoleum squares. “Now you just wait one minute, young man!”

 

He stopped, and turned to look at her, as if caught in a familiar scene.

 

“There’s no reason for you to go traipsing off down the road, to Lord knows where. I know you can’t remember anything right now, and I’m more sorry than I can say about my thoughtless blunder a minute ago. But I’d really like for you to stay here. There’s plenty of room, and plenty of work, when you’re ready. And later, when you remember, or if you decide you want to move on, I’ll give you a ride into town.”

 

Bess stopped for a breath, staring at the young man, as if daring him to defy her. At the same time, she smiled gently, encouraging him with her eyes to accept her invitation.

 

“I guess . . .”

 

“Good. It’s all settled then. You can stay in the bunkhouse. Now, sit back down, there’s more eggs, and I’m sure you can drink another cup of coffee.”

 

His enthusiastic laughter filled the room, startling the old woman as she hurried to the stove.

 

“Do you always get your way, Bess?”

 

“Yep. And don’t you forget it . . . Now, that’s another thing. We can’t go on like this. We’re gonna have to find you a name.”

 

“What do you mean? A new name?”

 

“Yes, sir. A new name. Something for you to go by, besides hey you, and boy.”

 

His laugh echoed hers. “Guess you’re right.”

 

“All right, then. How about Bill?”

 

He shook his head no.

 

“Sam?”

 

Another negative shake.

 

“Tom?”

 

“No.”

 

“Joe? Eddie . . .Rick.”

 

His head came up, a quick flash of recognition briefly crossing his features.

 

“What? Did you remember something?”

 

“No. Not really. But that name . . .it seems kinda, I don’t know . . .”

 

“Well then, Rick it is.”

 

“I don’t know, Bess. It seems kind of funny, getting a new name, like you get a new pair of shoes or something.”

 

“No, it’s not like that. This is only temporary. Just until your memory comes back, and I know it will. But I’m not havin’ any man on my place that has to be called to supper with ‘hey you’ as his name.”

 

Her laughter was infectious, and Rick soon joined in. “Okay, have it your way. I’ll answer to Rick. Just don’t forget to call me to dinner. You’re a good cook.”

 

Rick spooned another pile of potatoes onto his plate, and began to eat.

 

**********

 

Hank pushed the old lawnmower around his backyard, barely aware of the job he was doing. His mind was elsewhere, hundreds of miles north with two of his men. As captain, he was responsible for his crew at work, but over the years, that sense of responsibility had spread to include his men off-duty as well. And that particular sense of duty seemed to increase, where his youngest charge was concerned.

 

Johnny had no immediate family, and since he’d joined A-shift, that role had fallen to his co-workers. Roy and the rest of the crew were like his brothers, but it was Hank who occasionally filled the role of surrogate father. It was a position that the captain didn’t really mind. He enjoyed Johnny’s energy and love of life, and if occasionally the guy got on his nerves with an off the wall rant, or some wild scheme, Hank knew that it was never done with anything other than the best of intentions. Johnny was a good and honest man. One that Hank was proud to know.

 

Turning the mower, Hank began to cut the next strip of grass, his thoughts going over the past few weeks. He’d been worried about Johnny’s state of mind after Roy filled him in on what happened in the Emergency Room when the little girl had died. In the days that followed, he’d made several attempts to talk to Johnny, but all had failed. In the end, his young paramedic had left on vacation alone, and his captain regretted that he hadn’t pushed John to talk to him. And now . . . now it might be too late.

 

Guilt was something a good fire captain couldn’t give in to. If he did, he could spend his career second-guessing himself, and all his decisions. But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t harbor a regret or two. And where young Gage was concerned, Hank felt he had more than a few to atone for. He just hoped that his lack of judgment in this case, hadn’t played a role in the young man’s accident. But that might be something he’d never know for sure.

 

“Hank! Hank, it’s the phone.”

 

Startled from his musing, Hank stopped the mower and ran for the door. Breathless from exertion in the warm sun, he wiped his hands on a towel before picking up the receiver. He already knew who was on the other line. He could tell from the look on Em’s face.

 

“Roy?”

 

“Yeah, Cap, it’s me.”

 

“What’s the news, Pal?”

 

“Nothing. There’s nothing to tell. Cap, it’s like he just disappeared into thin air. They’ve had search and rescue teams all over the area where the Rover was found, but there’s nothing . . .no sign, no trail.”

 

There was a pause on the line, as Roy struggled to keep himself under control, and Hank fought to hold back the string of questions he longed to ask. Finally, Hank went with the most obvious. “What’s next?”

 

“We’re putting up flyers, distributing them to as many places as we can. But he could be miles from here by now. Or . . .”

 

The comment dropped, neither man wanting to pursue that line of thinking.

 

“Is Chet there with you?”

 

“Yeah, he’s talking to some of the officers right now. He’s pretty upset . . .”

 

That simple statement wasn’t meant to describe Chet’s feelings alone, and they both knew it. But there was no sense in stating what they all clearly knew. Roy was lost for words to tell Cap how scared he was. And Cap had few words of encouragement for Roy. They were both stuck in that masculine void, where ego kept a man from admitting his true feelings.

 

“Well, keep us informed. If there’s anything we can do on this end, just call.”

 

“Yeah, will do. Talk to you soon.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Thanks, Cap.”

 

The line went dead, and Hank slowly laid the receiver back in its cradle. He could feel his wife’s curious gaze watching him, could feel her love and concern as it filled the empty space between them. But he didn’t look at her, didn’t say a word. Hank Stanley simply turned and walked out the door towards his mower.

 

***********

 

Almost a week had passed, since Bess named him Rick, and insisted he stay at her ranch. Since that time, he’d rested and healed, until he was as fit as any man had the right to be, in her opinion. Although he wasn’t a large man, he was strong and agile, and in excellent shape. In fact, he was more than ready to take on any work that might be needed around the ranch. Still, she wasn’t in any hurry to send him out to the barn, or to work on the heavier chores. There was a boy from down the road, who’d been hired to do the feeding while Rocky was stove up. Bess was happy to leave that arrangement stand for the time being. Rick, however, didn’t agree.

 

He’d been content, at first, to do a few menial chores around the house. There was the wooden railing on the front porch that needed a few nails, and a fresh coat of paint. Then, there were the Adirondack chairs that Bess enjoyed using under the apple trees. A few adjustments, a little sanding, and a fresh coat of lacquer made them look as good as new, and she marveled at the professional looking job. There was the old white trellis that had fallen under the weight of her roses, and several bushes that needed minor pruning. Yes, Bess had plenty of small things he could take care of.

 

Rick seemed to enjoy the simple jobs she found for him, or at least she thought he did, until today. She’d come out from the kitchen, a plate of freshly baked oatmeal cookies ready for the tasting. But her new hand was sitting on the back porch, his elbows on his knees, head down, brown eyes studying his boot tips.

 

“What’s the problem? Rick, you okay?”

 

“Huh? Ohh . . . yeah, I’m fine.”

 

“Good, 'cause I’ve brought you those cookies I’ve been promising.” She held out the plate, and watched while he grabbed several off the pile, and sampled them absentmindedly.

 

“You sure you’re all right, now?”

 

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Bess, I think I’ll move that tractor this afternoon. It’s in the way of your round pen, and you’ll be wanting that clear to work the mares. And if you don’t mind, I think your tack room could use a good cleaning.”

 

Rick looked up at her, his expression a mixture of hope and tenacity. It seemed, for a moment, that her husband had come back to life. Robert used to give her a similar look, one that usually convinced her to do things his way. He had a certain style about him, and this young man obviously had the same knack. In a flash, Bess knew that if her own son had lived, he’d be wrapping her around his finger in much the same way. There was no fighting it, and Bess capitulated. Reluctantly, she nodded her consent.

 

“All right. But not today. First, I want to take you for a little tour around the property. If you’re going to work here, you may as well know what you’re getting yourself into. Agreed?”

 

“Agreed.” This time, when he reached for the cookies, Rick was smiling broadly. “How long before we leave?”

 

“Well, give an old woman a chance to catch her breath, will ya? I’ll pack us a lunch, and be out in twenty minutes.”

 

“I’ll be waiting.”

 

Rick sauntered off towards the bunkhouse, a tuneless melody floating behind him in the breeze. For the first time, Bess saw him looking happy, and she hoped it would be his new style.

 

**********

 

-Tap-Tap-Tap-Tap- The fingers drummed incessantly.

 

“Roy. Roy! Man, that’s driving me nuts!”

 

Bam! Roy’s hand slapped the small table. “And your constant channel roaming isn’t?”

 

Roy charged out of his chair, and stalked furiously towards the door. It slammed closed with a bang, the noise echoing through the small motel room. With a frustrated shake of his head, Chet reached out to the small television and switched off the set. “Wasn’t much to watch anyway, unless you like snow. . .”

 

With a tired sigh, Chet rose from the edge of the lumpy mattress and strode to the window. Pulling back the faded orange curtains, he watched as Roy paced back and forth across the deserted parking lot. He couldn’t deny a feeling of compassion for Roy’s pain. After all, Johnny had been his partner and close friend for several years now. But for Chet, the overwhelming emotion right now, was one of anger. Anger at the police for their inability to find John, anger at the circumstances that left their co-worker injured on a lonely road in the middle of nowhere, but more than anything, he was just plain damn mad at Gage.

 

Chet knew it didn’t make any sense to be mad at Johnny. It wasn’t like his friend would cause an accident like this on purpose. Yet, that was the feeling that kept coming back to him. Anger. And since Johnny wasn’t here, he kept letting that anger loose on Roy.

 

Kicking absently at the chair leg, Chet continued to watch as Roy made his third turn around the dusty lot. For just a moment, the older man stopped to stare down the desolate highway. It had only been a few hours since the state police officer had driven away, but when he left, he seemed to take their last vestige of hope with him. He had suggested, or rather encouraged, the two men to go home. Search teams had been disbanded, posters had been circulated, and though the firefighters from LA had canvassed many of the back roads, there had been no leads. The officer was right, and as hard as it was for them to admit, there was little more they could do.

 

So here they were. Sitting out their last night in a rundown motel room, in the middle of nowhere. With few words spoken, they’d tacitly agreed that tomorrow morning they’d head west, and meet up with Detective Saunders one last time. From there, they’d book a flight home. Without Johnny . . .

 

With a loud bang, the chair hit the floor, its leg finally and completely dislodged. Chet stared sheepishly at his handiwork, grateful that Roy wasn’t in the room to reprimand him. There was enough tension as it was. Collecting the parts, Chet leaned the chair in the corner, idly wondering how much his foolishness would cost him.

 

A sudden movement near their rental car caught his attention, quickly causing him to forget about the damaged furniture. Roy had climbed onto the front of the hood, his feet planted on the front bumper. The paramedic’s elbows were firmly balanced on his knees, and his head rested in his hands. There was no denying the man’s need for solace, but Chet knew he wasn’t the one to provide that. Instead, he turned back toward the television set, turned it on, and began to flip through the three channels.

 

**********

 

Roy watched the ground race up to meet them, as the plane glided closer to the runway. It had been over a week since they’d received the call from Oregon, and in all that time, he’d never allowed himself to believe that Johnny might not be found. Now, as he returned to LA with Chet, he let the thought in for the first time. Maybe Johnny wouldn’t ever be found. Maybe his friend was gone. Dead.

 

His weak cough was a poor cover for his strangled, in-drawn breath. He had to hold it together. Joanne and the kids would be waiting for him at the gate, and he couldn’t bear to show them how low he really felt.

 

And then there was Chet. The guy was losing it. That was plain enough for even a stranger to see. Jittery was the best word he could come up with. Chet was just jittery. Lack of sleep, barely eating, and running on pure adrenalin, they were a pair to draw to. Roy hoped against hope, that he didn’t look as bad as his traveling companion.

 

As the seatbelt light went off, and the plane rolled to a stop, Roy stood up and pulled his carry-on out of the overhead compartment. “You ready, Chet?”

 

“Yeah. Guess so.”

 

They’d barely spoken to each other since the detective dropped them off at the airport in Oregon a few hours earlier. Neither man could admit that they were coming home not only empty handed, but out of options. They didn’t know of any other way to search, or where else they could look.

 

Saunders had assured them that he’d keep in touch, but his sad expression did little to encourage Roy or Chet. Instinct told them not to give up. Practicality told them that they’d done all they could at this point. Finally realizing that there wasn’t much they could do in Oregon other than beat the brush, which they’d already been doing for days, they agreed that they’d go home. If nothing else, Roy figured that they needed to regroup. Talk to Cap and the Department, get some ideas . . .decide where to go from here.

 

The sound of relief in Joanne’s voice when he called home, reassured Roy that he was doing the right thing. If only Chet had seemed a little more positive. Instead of giving Roy the support and encouragement he longed for, Chet was sullen and belligerent, almost as if he were blaming Roy for their lack of success.

 

Now, as they stepped into the waiting area, and looked around, Roy was relieved to see that he could let go of at least one responsibility. Someone else was here to deal with Chet.

 

Hank Stanley stepped forward, and took hold of Roy’s bag as the paramedic moved into his wife’s embrace. Chris and Jennifer pushed closer to grasp their father, the small family happy to be reunited.

 

“Chet. How was the flight?” Hank asked, as he shook the firefighter’s hand.

 

“Long. Let’s go home, Cap.”

 

Roy nodded in silent agreement, and the small group slowly walked toward the exit. None of them wanted to say what they all longed to acknowledge. There was someone missing from the small band. Someone they couldn’t imagine living without.

 

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

 

Rick tossed the shovel in the back of the old jeep, then pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, and mopped his brow. The sun was warm enough, but it was the hard work that had him overheated. He didn’t feel like complaining, though, it felt good.

 

Looking up, he watched a hawk as it circled above. The afternoon shadows were beginning to lengthen, and he knew he should be getting back to the barn, and his evening chores. But he lingered, enjoying the solitude . . .the peacefulness.

 

He was growing to love this place. The horses, the meadow with the fresh water stream gurgling through, and his favorite spot, the high bluff to the north with its craggy edges, and magnificent view. But mostly, it was the people that held him here. Bess. And Harold. He smiled just thinking about the pair.

 

Though Harold only stopped in once, sometimes twice a week, his visits were the highlight of the day. Those two got into some of the most interesting discussions, usually with one or the other of them stomping off at some point, but they always agreed to disagree by the time they sat down at the supper table. It was a great friendship, and Rick was happy to be included.

 

Still, there was that haunting feeling, especially late at night. That feeling that he belonged somewhere. He just didn’t know where.

 

Tucking the bandana back into his pocket, Rick climbed into the jeep and started up the engine. The fence in this section was finally finished, and Bess would be pleased. For the first time in several years, her brood mares would be able to graze in this lush pasture.

 

The engine sputtered once, then died. Several attempts later, Rick climbed back out of the jeep and pulled up the hood. “Darn plugs.”

 

He mumbled something else under his breath, then smiled when he realized that Beth wasn’t here, so he didn’t have to be polite. Nevertheless, he blushed slightly, as he made the repairs, then slammed the hood. Wiping his hands on his blue jeans, he was glad he’d bought extra work clothes when they went to town.

 

Several weeks had passed since Harold had stopped by and picked them up. It was over a hundred mile round-trip drive, to the little town of about 1500 inhabitants, but once there, they’d made a day of it. With the advance that Bess had generously provided, Rick purchased the clothing he needed from the dry goods store on Main Street, while Bess did some shopping. Then the three of them had stopped at the only diner in town, for a special lunch out. After that, Bess had insisted that they visit the doctor’s office.

 

Although the cut had healed, Rick still suffered from an occasional headache, not to mention his loss of memory, and Bess was adamant that he be checked out. Dr. Timmons had spent quite some time looking him over, and even more time talking with the young man, but in the end, he could find nothing wrong, a fact that Rick didn’t mind reiterating to his employer.

 

The day after their trip, he’d gone straight to work cleaning out the streambed. Debris that had collected after the spring rains blocked the water’s flow and if left untended, would affect her pasture. It was a strenuous job, but Rick was proud of his work. Bess didn’t really seem to be too upset about his increased labors, though he knew she kept a watchful eye on him. That didn’t bother him, either. In fact, her concern made him feel good.

 

Rousing himself from his daydreaming, Rick reached down and turned the ignition. This time, the engine roared to life, and stayed there. Pushing in the clutch, Rick put the jeep in gear, and headed home.

 

Several hours later, he was relaxing on the hammock in Bess’ back yard. Dinner had been delicious, as always. After helping Bess clean up, he’d made his way to this quiet spot, relaxing as he waited for his friend to join him. She’d gone to retrieve her basket of darning, but the ringing phone changed her course.

 

Now, he could hear half of the conversation through the open window, as Bess squeezed in an occasional word. The caller was evidently Mrs. Watts again, a woman who lived about five miles down the road. The woman loved to gossip, or so Bess had told him several times. He’d yet to meet this particular neighbor, but from the sound of things, he was in no hurry to, either. Stretching out to his full length, he cocked one arm across his forehead and closed his eyes.

 

It was a nice evening, and he enjoyed the tranquil setting. Bees hummed in the rose bushes, getting their last bit of work done before sundown. Overhead, birds chirped, and across the yard, a mare nickered. Rick felt himself relaxing . . .

 

“Rick. Rick, wake up, boy! You’re all right, now.“

 

Sitting up quickly, Rick grabbed for the edge of the webbing as the hammock swayed with his movements. He was breathing hard, and his heart was pounding, but worse, he couldn’t figure out where he was. He looked around frantically, trying to figure out why the air seemed so clear. It had been full of smoke, only minutes before. And where was his turnout coat, and helmet?

 

“Rick? Speak to me. Are you okay?”

 

Bess’ worried tone cut through his confusion, and Rick finally looked up into her troubled gaze.

 

“There, that’s better. Now, you just sit here and calm yourself, while I get a glass of water.”

 

The screen door slammed behind her, as Bess hurried into the kitchen. In a matter of seconds, she was back at his side, urging him to take a sip of the cool liquid. He obliged, using that simple distraction as a way to get himself under control. Handing her the empty glass, he dropped his head down, and rubbed the back of his neck.

 

“Sorry about that. Must’ve been dreaming.”

 

“I’d say so. And it must’ve been some dream. You near scared me out of a year, when I heard you holler.’” Bess faltered, and grew silent.

 

But Rick could tell there was something else. “What is it? Did I do something else? I didn’t hurt…”

 

“Land sakes, no. No. It was just something you were saying. Someone’s name, actually. You were calling out.”

 

“What did I say, Bess? Tell me, please.”

 

Rick’s heart was thumping in his chest. He was anxious to hear what Bess had to say, yet he was fearful, too. She didn’t give him time to worry, though.

 

“You said something about a little girl, and you sounded real upset. But the man you were calling for was Roy. Do you remember? Do you know someone named Roy?”

 

“No. I don’t think so, Bess.”

 

Rick was silent now, rubbing his temples as he struggled to remember the dream. It was already a fading memory, a series of sights and noises that seemed lost in a distant place. “I don’t remember anyone named Roy.”

 

“Well, it was probably just a dream then. Here, let me help you up. I have some berry pie warming in the oven. How about a piece for desert?”

 

“Sure.” Pausing for just a moment, he stared at the grass below his feet before continuing. “You go on, I’ll be right in.”

 

Bess looked hesitant, but picked up the glass and went back inside. He sat on the hammock for several minutes, straining to remember what the man’s face looked like . . . the one in his dream. There was something friendly and comforting about the memory, but nothing clear. It was just a hazy specter, one that was already vanishing.

 

“Rick, your pie is ready.”

 

“Coming, Bess.”

 

Struggling up off the hammock, Rick walked towards the house in the gathering dusk. He looked with pleasure at the twilight view around him, then wondered again, ‘Who is Roy?”

 

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

 

Hank hung up the phone, and ran a hand through his already mussed hair. This was becoming a habit, one that he didn’t particularly enjoy.

 

The past weeks had been filled with as much paperwork off the job, as it had for his regular on-the-job duties. Numerous calls to and from the Oregon State Police had garnered no further information, and it was obvious that they were tiring of the persistent calls. Everyone was at a loss for ideas on how to pursue the search, though A-shift at Station 51 agreed that they wouldn’t give up. Still, after this last conversation with the Detective Saunders, it didn’t look like there was much hope.

 

Roy was obviously taking it the hardest, though Chet was a close second. The two men came back on shift the day after they returned from Oregon, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that things had returned to normal. Nothing was normal around the station anymore. This latest news was going to make things even worse.

 

Hank had tried to talk Saunders out of his decision, but it didn’t take long to realize that the man was only doing what he’d been told to do. Their caseload, and lack of leads on Johnny’s case, had left them with little choice. The file would remain open, but the department would no longer actively search for the missing paramedic from Los Angeles, California.

 

Rising from his desk, the captain made his way towards the kitchen. There was no use putting this off. His men would have to be told.

 

***********

 

The gelding was blowing hard, when Rick stepped down from the saddle. It had been a good ride, and a good learning experience for the young horse. Not for the first time, he wondered at his own ability. How did he know so much about horses? What to do with them, how to do it? Bess had suggested that maybe he was just naturally talented, when it came to working with animals. Harold insisted that Rick had some experience under his belt. As for Rick, he tried not to think about it. Sometimes, thinking too much just gave him a headache.

 

He finished unsaddling the horse, then began to lead Cody around the main corral. As he walked, he continued to talk to the animal in a low, reassuring voice. It wasn’t long before the gelding was cooled down, and Rick began to groom him. It was a quiet time, filled with peace and contentment. He loved it.

 

It wasn’t going to be this quiet for long. There was a visitor expected in early tomorrow, a horse trader from Idaho. Wes Benson was new on the circuit, according to Bess, but a decent trader. He’d called earlier to say that he was looking for something special for one of his clients, and wanted to take a look at Bess’ mares.

 

Rick wasn’t overly excited about the prospect. He’d grown attached to each and every animal on the place. But this was a working ranch, and Bess made money by selling horses. So, Rick added the trader’s visit into his list of chores for the morning. He’d be up extra early, making sure to have the three best mares cleaned, groomed and ready to be shown.

 

If this Benson wanted a good horse, then Rick was happy to prove to him that Bess Hilton had the best horses in the state.

 

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

 

Water ran up over the edge of the sink, catching the woman by surprise. With a muffled cry, she turned off the faucet and grabbed a towel.

 

“Dawdlin’ old woman -- should be ashamed of yourself, daydreamin’ like that.”

 

Bess finished mopping up her mess, then turned to look out the window again. It was a pleasure to watch this young man. Rick was turning into quite a hand, but more importantly, a good friend. She’d watched carefully, as he took on added chores. But he seemed healthy enough, and eager to do whatever needed doing.

 

For days, he’d worked to clean the streambed, and after that, he’d been on top of the barn, repairing the roof. Now, he was busy grubbing out some new growth along the fence line, making the pasture cleaner and safer for the young stock. Not only was she thrilled by the new life he was giving to her place; she was excited to see the contented smile on Rick’s face. He was happy here, she could tell. And she was happy to have him.

 

Bess found herself humming after breakfast in the morning, and anxious to see him come to the table at noon. Every day found her looking for a favorite recipe, or something special to fix for him. And she loved the time they spent in the corrals, working with the horses. But her favorite time was the twilight hours they shared at the end of the day. That was when he’d tell her everything he’d worked on, his ideas for improving the ranch, or what he might be planning to do the next day.

 

Ant then, there were those special treats, when he’d show up on the porch, and urge her to go along with him. Bess would stutter and stammer, claiming to have chores that couldn’t wait. But in the end, she’d climb into the jeep, like she knew she would, and embark on some adventure. She’d even been up to the bluffs, somewhere she hadn’t been able to go since before Robert had died. Sometimes, she had to shake herself, as if worried that she were dreaming. Mostly, she just felt young again.

 

More than anything, Bess Hilton wanted this young man to stay. She wasn’t sure if it was the Good Samaritan in her, or just the maternal instinct, but she liked Rick, and his company. She’d even given a fleeting thought to cutting him in on shares, making him a partner of sorts, but decided to put that aside until later. Instinctively, she knew that Rick would be hesitant, and Harold would have a fit.

 

Although, Harold was more relaxed about Rick’s presence now, something she was grateful for. Maybe it was the fact that they’d visited Dr. Timmons. That had been something of a relief, to be told that this type of memory loss was possible after a head injury. Of course, they’d also learned that it was possible Rick would never regain his memory. That part had been hard, but the young man seemed to take it fairly well. Maybe he was even a bit relieved. She wondered at that.

 

Rick had turned now, and saw her watching from the window. With a wave, he headed towards the house. It was mid-morning, and time for a break. Whenever he was working close enough, he’d stop his work and join her in the kitchen, where she’d treat him to something warm from the oven. Today, it was banana bread.

 

Hurrying over to the stove, Bess sliced off several pieces of the sweet-smelling loaf, and poured a large cup of coffee. That was one thing she was having trouble keeping on hand, coffee. Rick drank it like it was going out of style. She smiled, all the same, as she watched him enter the room. He could drink all the coffee he wanted, just as long as he stayed.

 

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

 

Although the men continued to work well together as a team, life wasn’t the same for the ‘A’ shift at Station 51. Hank dropped the pencil he’d been holding, and leaned back in his chair. The mood of his men was strained, but who could expect anything different? Johnny’s disappearance had left a hole in his command, a hole that Captain Stanley didn’t want to fill.

 

However, it was only a matter of time before the department forced him to make some choices that would result in another permanent change for his crew. The strain of constantly rotating a new man through their shift was causing problems, not only with the fire department, but also with the crew of Station 51 itself. Still, there was always the possibility . . .

 

There had been one time, almost a month after Roy and Chet had returned . . . Marco had finally gotten up the nerve to suggest they hold some kind of service, a way to remember Johnny. His proposal was met with stunned silence, and the tension had been palpable. Roy simply glared at the man, as if shocked that Marco would suggest such a thing. But it was Chet who’d really surprised them. Jumping up, he literally flung his chair back from the table as he shouted: ‘Gage is not dead!’

 

Since then, no one had brought up the subject. The men continued to do their jobs, effective and in control while on a call, brooding and morose while at the station. Johnny’s name was rarely mentioned, yet he was always the center of attention. And whoever was unlucky enough to be filling in as Roy’s temporary partner, was left to deal with the tension-filled crew. Cap knew that they couldn’t go on like this for much longer, yet he couldn’t find it within himself to write Johnny off. Not now. Not yet.

 

Flipping over several papers on his desk, Hank stared at the official looking document in front of him. With a sigh, he tucked it back into the pile, somewhere safely near the bottom.

 

**********

“Now, this is the life.”

 

Rick leaned back against the tree trunk, and stretched his long legs out before him. His grin was contagious, and Harold couldn’t resist laughing at the young man. “You sound like you’ve found your best friend.”

 

The frown that followed was not the response Harold had intended.

 

“I’m sorry, son. Didn’t mean to upset you.”

 

“No. It’s okay.”

 

Rick pulled on a long piece of grass, then stuck it between his lips, chewing thoughtfully on the tender shoot. Silence settled comfortably between the two men, their fishing poles extended out over the slow current of the river. Harold casually watched him for a while, before trying again.

 

“Didn’t think you could be so quiet. You sure had a lot to say when those fish weren’t bitin’ earlier. And then you talked a blue streak when we did pull a couple of those beauties in. So, what’s wrong now? Cat got your tongue?”

 

Rick smiled, in spite of himself. “Nahh. Just figured it was time for me to shut up for awhile.”

 

“Oh.”

 

There was more silence, but this time, the younger man fidgeted around some, as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t know how to get started. Harold simply waited patiently, letting the warmth of the sun, the sounds of the river, and the beautiful landscape work their magic. And he was right. Rick was soon settled back against the tree, his hands motionless around his fishing pole.

 

Harold pushed his straw hat forward, shading his face from the afternoon sun. The two men languished there for another hour, before the conversation resumed.

 

“I was just wondering . . . “

 

“What’s that?” Harold asked, after several minutes of silence.

 

“Was wondering if I liked to fish.”

 

“Well, if you don’t, you’re sure doing a darn good impersonation of it.” Harold exclaimed.

 

Rick laughed, then grew serious again. “I mean, before. I wonder if this was something I liked to do . . . before.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Harold was suddenly aware of what his young friend had been contemplating all afternoon. The sadness of the situation was not lost on him, yet he knew that Rick couldn’t let the what-if’s or could-have-been’s get hold of him. Sitting up, he repositioned his hat, and studied his own pole. “Does it matter?”

 

“What?”

 

“Does it matter? Whether you liked it before or not. You like it now, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well then, that’s what’s important.”

 

“I suppose . . . “ Rick’s voice trailed off, as if he wasn’t convinced, but didn’t want to argue.

 

“Do you like it at Bess’ place?” Harold pursued, gently.

 

“Sure. Bess is great!”

 

“Then relax, boy. Maybe you’ll remember things someday, maybe you won’t. But there’s no sense in making yourself crazy trying to second-guess everything you do. Life’s too short.”

 

Rick didn’t agree, but neither did he disagree. Instead, he simply stared out over the river, drinking in the view. “Sure is beautiful here.”

 

“Yeah, it is, isn’t it? One of my favorite places. And one of the best darn fishin’ holes in the county. Now come on, we have to get at least a couple more, or Bess’ fryin’ pan will be half empty.”

 

The two men refocused their attention on the job at hand, competing for bait and placement of their hooks in the water. It was several hours later that Rick held up a long string of fish. Harold nodded at their bounty.

 

“Looks like a good catch, and I guess we’d better mosey on towards home. Sun’s starting to go down on us, and if we don’t get movin’ soon, Bess’ll have a posse out lookin’ for us.”

 

“Yeah, you’re right. Besides, there’s plenty of chores to do when I get back.” Rick smiled amiably. “Harold, I want to thank you for bringing me out here. I really enjoyed this.”

 

“You’re welcome, son. I’m glad I thought of it.”

 

The two men stooped to gather up their gear, and Rick pulled the string of trout from the river where they’d been kept cool and wet. He snickered softly.

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

“Oh, I was just wondering. You suppose Bess will clean these for us?”

 

The men broke into laughter, each imagining in their own way, what kind of response the cantankerous woman would give them.

 

“Reckon not.”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Oh well. Guess we could do that much for our supper.” Harold added, as they walked back up to his pickup.

 

Rick laid the fish in the back, then slammed the tailgate shut.

 

“Yeah, guess so. Besides, it’ll be good to get home.”

 

Harold winked at him as they got in the cab, and he started the engine. “Bess would be glad to hear you say that.”

 

There was no answer from the passenger side, but Rick smiled a little and then began to whistle.

 

***********

 

Bob Jenkins signed the hotel registration and handed the young lady his credit card. As she processed his paperwork, Bob glanced around the empty lobby, recognizing the clean yet similar surroundings. He’d been in hundreds of these motels over the years, and they all seemed to look the same. But it was comforting in a way, almost like being at home.

 

That was the life of a salesman, always on the move, never getting a chance to make friends or develop relationships, not to mention settling down in one place. But he had a good life; a good job that was paying off fairly well. And he enjoyed the travel, meeting new people, and seeing new places. With no wife or children to accommodate, Bob decided that this was definitely the life for him. Even though there were times, like tonight, when he was so tired, he’d gladly give it all up.

 

Turning back to the desk, he was relieved to see that the woman had completed all the necessary transactions, and had placed his key on the counter.

 

“You can go directly up those stairs, sir, and down the hallway to your left. It’s the 3rd door on the right, number 115.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“You’re welcome. Enjoy your stay.”

 

Bob was already turning toward the stairway when he caught sight of a brightly colored flyer, tacked to a bulletin board near the desk. In large, bold letters, the word ‘Missing’ headed the page, but he couldn’t see the picture underneath. It was hidden by some other newsworthy bulletin, pinned over the top. Shrugging with weariness, he hurried to the stairs.

 

‘Sure will feel good to lay down and rest.

 

 

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

 

The afternoon sky was bright blue, the sun warm on his back, and Chet Kelly was happily hauling hose back to the engine. It had been a dramatic three-alarm fire, and the companies had been successful in fighting back the beast. Now that it was over, the firemen were experiencing the exhilaration that follows a job well done.

 

While the men were busy cleaning up, anxious to get back to their respective stations and maybe get a cold drink and something to eat before the next run, there was the normal camaraderie that firemen are famous for. The liberal dose of banter, and even a few pranks amongst the different engine companies, made for a familiar routine. Chet worked alone, but enjoyed listening to the others. It was a sudden shout from 26’s crew that made him look up and really take notice.

 

Billy Samuels had been hauling hose to their engine, when Nathan Watts came up behind him and poured a jug of ice-cold water over his head. Billy’s shout of surprise was quickly covered by the raucous laughter of his crewmates. Chet couldn’t help but join in. The look on Billy’s face was priceless, especially after he tried to reach out and grab Nathan, only to slip and fall on his butt in the mud.

 

As quickly as he’d joined in the merriment, however, Chet felt his spirits plummet. The scene was so similar, and he couldn’t help but compare it to one of the many times he’d doused his own pigeon with a surprise water bomb. Even Billy’s hair, dripping water as he shook his head, reminded Chet of Gage’s shaggy locks.

 

With a feeling of sadness, Chet turned to his own engine, and hoisted a coil of hose up over the back rail. He didn’t move on with his job, but stood at the back bumper, caught in a web of memories.

 

“It’ll be all right, Chet.”

 

Marco’s hand on his shoulder was a comforting reminder that he wasn’t alone. He nodded silently, without looking at his friend.

 

Neither one of them noticed their captain watching them, as they went back to work.

 

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

 

Bess moved quietly towards the corral, intent on watching the young man leaning against the wooden rails. In the dusky shadows of nightfall, she could see Rick. His elbows rested on the top rail, with his body slumped forward, while his gaze focused on the sky above him. Bess wasn’t sure if he was lost in thought, enjoying the evening, or simply exhausted from the rigors of his work.

 

“Nice night.” She greeted him softly

 

“Yeah. It is.”

 

Rick didn’t encourage the conversation, neither did he seem to disapprove of her presence, so Bess merely stepped up beside him, and leaned comfortably against the fencing.

 

Although he turned slightly, as if to include her, Rick continued to stare up at the stars. The scent of tobacco wafted past her on the night air, and Bess suddenly recognized the offensive item held between Rick’s fingers. With apparent nonchalance, he raised the lit cigarette to his mouth, and slowly drew in its intoxicating aroma.

 

“When did this start?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“The cigarettes. Didn’t expect this was a habit of yours.”

 

Rick held the glowing item between two fingers, while studying it carefully. “Don’t know if it is, or if it isn’t.”

 

“How’s that?”

 

Bess watched him closely, as he flicked ash off the end, then tucked the cigarette back between his lips. After several seconds, he pulled his hand away again, slowly expelling a faint ring of gray smoke into the night air.

 

“Don’t know if it’s one of my habits, or not. Found these in the bunkhouse, and since I don’t know what kinda habits I might have . . .” Rick’s voice trailed off.

 

Suddenly, Bess knew exactly what was on her new friend’s mind. She just wasn’t sure how to counsel the young man. She didn’t need to. Her basic instincts took over. “Well, I don’t think this is one of them.”

 

With an abruptness that caught Rick off guard, she snatched the cigarette from his fingers, and dropped it to the ground. Then, without hesitation, she ground the glowing embers into the sand with her small booted foot.

 

“There, that’s better. Chewin’ is bad enough, and I’ve been tryin’ for years to get Rocky to give up that nasty habit. But I didn’t know he kept these things around, too. Guess maybe I’ll have to talk to that man, when he gets back!”

 

Without realizing her affect, Bess had brought a smile to Rick’s solemn face. He wasn’t offended by her actions; rather, he seemed to feel relieved. If nothing else, it was obvious that she cared. But that was only a small comfort tonight. Leaning back against the corral, he turned his gaze back towards the heavens.

 

“How do you know it isn’t one of my habits, Bess? You don’t know anything about me. Hell, I don’t know anything about myself!”

 

His tone of voice, and the fact that he seemed totally unaware of the language he just let slip in her presence, told Bess how upset and confused Rick really was. She moved closer, and laid her wrinkled hand on his sun-bronzed arm. “I just know, son. Just like I know you’re a good man. You don’t have anything to be worrying about, in that area. You know that, don’t you?”

 

Rick was silent, though his breathing seemed to quicken. The night sounds continued around them, the crickets in the grass, an occasional hoot owl calling from the barn. But the world seemed to move around them, in ever-smaller circles, as Bess waited for his answer. He seemed to be weighing everything, her comments, his fears, what he knew and didn’t know. When he finally answered, his voice was low and husky, filled with pain and suffering.

 

“I don’t know anything, Bess. I’m grateful for what you’ve given me here. I like your ranch, and the work I’m doing. But what was I? Who was I? Do I have a wife or a family? Is there someone . . .anyone out there missing me? Looking for me?”

 

With a loud sigh, he dropped his arms, then straightened to face her.

 

“What if I did something wrong? What if I’m a . . . a thief, a convict, or even a . . . Maybe I even killed somebody! Bess, you don’t know anything about me. I don’t know anything about me! And I can’t stand this . . .this not knowing. I shouldn’t stay here. Maybe I’m putting you in danger. I don’t know . . . But where should I go? What should I do, Bess?”

 

This time when he turned back to the fence, Rick dropped his head in his hands, and stifled a low moan. Silence filled the space between them, and even the night sounds faded away while the two people contemplated Bess’ answer. She didn’t know how to say what she had to say. He was right, of course. They didn’t know what his history was, but Bess did know this young man’s heart. She just didn’t know how to make him understand. How could she convince him of what she knew to be true?

 

Before she managed to gather her thoughts and put them into words, Rick pushed himself from the corral, and started to walk away. Bess had an uncanny feeling that he was walking away from her forever, and that was something she wasn’t going to let happen. With a swiftness she didn’t know she still possessed, the old woman closed the distance between them and grabbed hold of his arm. Her grip, and the strength with which she turned him towards her, surprised them both.

 

“Bess…”

 

“Now you listen here, young man. I have something to say, and you’re going to listen to me! I don’t know your real name, and I don’t care. To me, you’re Rick...a nice young man that I’m proud to have workin’ on my place. You’re polite, good natured, and honest, and I don’t think there’s any way on God’s green earth that you could’ve done any of those things you’re scared you might’ve.”

 

Bess paused only long enough to gulp enough breath to continue.

 

“I know you’re confused. And I know you want to remember. And Lord knows I want you to. But for now, I think you’re going to have to accept that you can’t. I trust you, son, and I believe in you. And when God sees fit to give you your memory back, He will. Until then, you’re going to have to trust Him . . . and me.”

 

With a sigh, Bess softened her tone.

 

“You’ve got a home here, son, for as long as you want it. You might not be my flesh and blood, but I love ya just like you were. Stay with me, here, boy. Let go of the things that scare ya. Make a home with me on the ranch. And someday, if you remember the past, then I’ll help you deal with it.”

 

Bess only waited a moment before adding her final plea. “You will stay, won’t you?”

 

Rick no longer stared at his feet, as he’d done when Bess had stopped his flight. Now he stared at the woman, in shock and amazement. Even in the dark, he could see that her cheeks were red from exertion, while her clutched hands trembled slightly. But what surprised him most was the shine in her eyes that appeared to be the result of tears, rather than from sheer cussedness he would’ve expected. This woman was something else, and he knew without a doubt, he had no desire to cross her. He had no desire to leave her, either. A bond was forming between them, one he welcomed.

 

Suddenly, the humor of the situation struck him, and he was filled with a feeling of relief. He could stay here. No matter what had happened in his other life, here he was loved and accepted. With a glint of playfulness in his eyes, Rick splayed his fingers across his chest as he raised one eyebrow in question.

 

“Who me? Well of course I’m going to stay. I’d be a fool to leave such a cushy set up. Good food, soft bed, all the bruises and sore muscles a man can handle.”

 

His hearty laugh filled Bess’ heart with such happiness, she actually reached up to wipe her eyes. Then she playfully pushed him away from her, as she hurried past him towards the house. “Good Lord, the food. I plumb forgot about the apple pie I left bakin’ in the oven! Rick, you come on up when you finish checking on the animals. I’ll have a piece coolin’ on the plate for you . . . if it isn’t all burnt to ashes.”

 

The woman scurried up the walkway, and through the back door, letting it bang closed behind her. She wasn’t there to watch as the dark haired man she’d come to love, turned back to rest against the corral fence, his eyes focused on a distant star, while his heart searched for even one elusive memory. What if there was someone out there looking for him . . .

 

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

 

Roy leaned his head against Johnny’s locker door, willing himself to make the next move. He’d known this was inevitable. Yet, when Cap called him into the office a few minutes earlier, it had come as a shock. After more than two months, the department had decided that a permanent replacement would be assigned for John Gage.

 

It was obvious that Cap had been putting this off, and Roy suspected that the department had been pressuring him for some time. But in the end, though Hank had bought them a little time, it hadn’t made any difference. There would be someone new in Johnny’s seat, and Roy was going to have to make his peace with that. If he could . . .

 

Still unable to start the process, Roy placed his palm on the door, as if holding it closed would keep him from having to move on. He knew he wasn’t being rational, but didn’t care. The new man would be arriving on the next shift, and Cap had reluctantly asked Roy to clean out Johnny’s locker. But that simple act meant so much more to the grieving paramedic.

 

Letting his mind drift, Roy remembered countless conversations held in this very room, his friend’s laughter, or groans when slammed with yet another one of Chet’s many pranks. It just couldn’t be possible that he’d never hear his friend’s voice again. If only Johnny would just walk through that door right now.

 

The sudden squeak of oil-hungry hinges caused Roy to look up in surprise, but the face at the door wasn’t the one he’d been hoping for.

 

“Need some help, Roy?”

 

Chet’s voice was strained at best, but Roy wasn’t really focused on the fireman. He needed to do this alone, take this next step towards saying goodbye to a man he wasn’t totally convinced was gone.

 

“No, I’ve got it.”

 

Seconds stretched into minutes, and still Chet stood near the doorway. Roy didn’t want to face anyone right now, but in the end, he was forced to recognize the other man’s need. Apparent in his stance, and even more noticeable in his expression, Chet was hurting. Looking away, Roy waited for him to leave, but when the door finally did open, he spoke instead. “Wait a minute, could you hand me that box?”

 

In silence, the stocky fireman walked over to the bench, and placed a large cardboard box on its surface, then stood silently waiting. Forced into action, Roy opened Johnny’s locker and slowly began to remove various items ranging from extra shoes, to uniform shirts, to a shaving kit. As Chet placed each item carefully in the box, he seemed to handle them almost reverently, and Roy realized again, that he and his family weren’t the only ones who were hurting.

 

The atmosphere in the DeSoto household had been strained for weeks now, ever since Roy had received the last call from Detective Saunders. There had been no response to the hundreds of posters distributed throughout the state of Oregon, and since there was no witness to any kind of criminal activity, Johnny’s disappearance had been relegated to that of a simple ‘missing person.’ Dale had been very apologetic, but in the end, he’d explained that there were numerous other active cases that needed his attention, and since there was nothing to go on in the case of John Gage, he had to go by his supervisor’s recommendation. And that meant that no more man-hours would be spent on looking for Roy DeSoto’s best friend.

 

Roy knew that he wasn’t dealing with all this very well, but in all honesty, he didn’t know how to react any differently. Quiet and morose wasn’t healthy, but neither was loud and belligerent. Joanne had been understanding and patient, while the kids simply gave him a wide berth. They missed their Uncle Johnny, but as the weeks went by, it was clear that they were beginning to miss their daddy too. He’d tried his best to act normal with his children, but he was finding it hard to remember what normal was anymore. No longer able to muster up the interest or energy to play with his kids, Roy knew that he was less than patient with their childish antics. He wasn’t sure how his family acted while he was on shift, but he knew that they were unnaturally quiet and withdrawn whenever he was home.

 

The atmosphere at the station wasn’t much better. Roy knew that Marco had only the best of intentions, when he’d made his suggestion several weeks earlier, but the finality of the whole thing was simply unacceptable. Between the police washing their hands of the case, and the guys giving up on Johnny, Roy felt like he was the only one left who held out any hope.

 

And now, even Roy had to admit that his hope was starting to dwindle. It had been so long. Even knowing that Johnny had made it out of the wreck, didn’t seem to matter anymore. There’d been no signs of his survival after that. He could’ve ended up in a ditch, God knew where, and no one would ever know. On top of everything else, Roy knew that if Johnny had made it out alive, he would’ve found someway to contact his friends. But there’d been no sign. No word. There was simply no explanation for the months of silence since the Rover had been found. No explanation whatsoever.

 

Roy’s eyes widened, the hurt unmistakable, as he watched Chet place the last item in the cardboard box. Smokey the Bear wasn’t visible, his round face curled inside the poster, but Roy could imagine the eyes staring at him. He clenched his fist tightly, fighting back a strong urge to reach out and tap the paper, in Johnny’s familiar custom. With his throat suddenly so tight he couldn’t breathe, Roy closed his friend’s locker, and leaned over the box. With one final glance at the contents, he folded the flaps over, and picked the box up. Then Roy hurried past a silent Chet, and out to the parking lot. He prayed that no one would follow him.

 

***********

 

Rick sauntered across the yard, hands in his pockets, eyes on the house in front of him. Bess had promised him fried chicken for dinner, and he could feel his mouth watering already.

 

Stopping at the porch steps, he turned back to survey the layout. From the old farmhouse to the rambling barn and newer outbuildings, the ranch was a testament to hours of hard work and lots of love. This place was built to last, proof that a family had lived and worked here, and left a piece of themselves on the land they loved. Without realizing it, Rick had come to feel part of that.

 

He’d lost track of how many weeks he’d been on the ranch, but Rick decided that it really didn’t matter. There was no place he needed to go, no one he had to see. And every day that he stayed here was another day he became more comfortable in his new home. It was also another day that he didn’t have to face the doubts and fears that surfaced at times, when the night was quiet, and the hours stretched out before him. The busy days and hard work were pushing the questions of who he was, where he’d come from, or even what he had done, into the background.

 

One more glance around the place, noting the yearlings grazing in the pasture, and hearing the brood mares in the barn convinced him that Bess and Harold were both right. This was home. His home. The nightmares that had plagued him came less often now, and only an occasional feeling of loss caused him to falter. His days were busy with work, and fun. He loved his life here, and as far as Rick was concerned, he was here to stay.

 

***********

 

“Okay, guys, that looks like the last of it.”

 

Mike’s voice seemed to echo through the empty space, and no one answered. The group remained silent, much as they had throughout the whole process.

 

Roy looked around the apartment, surprised at how quickly they’d moved Johnny’s furniture out. Now that the living room was bare, it seemed even more desolate than it had before. It was hard for him, this process of dissolving a man’s life, but having the guys around helped. A little.

 

Hank was the only member of A-shift that hadn’t been able to join them. One of his daughters was home from college, and the family had already made plans. But the rest of the crew had chipped in, bringing several pickup trucks, and numerous boxes. Most of the smaller things had been packed first, and moved to storage, then they’d returned for the larger items. Now that the whole process was almost complete, Roy finally let himself think about what he was doing.

 

Standing in the middle of the room, Roy remembered how excited Johnny had been when he moved into this apartment. Not only had he been happy with the location, but he’d quickly made new friends, and enjoyed his outgoing neighbors.

After several moves, he’d finally found what he called, a perfect fit.

 

And now . . . now the apartment was once again an empty shell. The Lazy-boy recliner was gone, along with the worn but comfortable couch. Johnny’s vibrant prints no longer adorned the living room walls, and the small dinette was missing from in front of the patio doors.

 

“Roy? Are you ready?” Chet urged.

 

“Huh? Yeah, sure.”

 

Yet he made no move to leave, continuing to stare at the empty room. Marco was the one who finally stepped closer, and put a hand on his shoulder. Roy turned slightly, to look at his friend. “What’s he going to say, Marco, when he comes back and finds that he doesn’t even have a home?”

 

“He does have a home, Roy. With you, or any of us. And when the time comes, we’ll help him find a new place. Maybe something he’ll like even better.”

 

“Yeah, Roy.” Chet chimed in hesitantly. “Gage will understand. A storage unit is a lot cheaper than paying for rent and utilities every month. He won’t blame you for letting this place go. It’s the right thing to do.”

 

“You’re doing the best you can, Roy. We all know that.” Mike agreed, as he gently set down the last box.

 

The men stood silently, caught in the emotional grip of a job they didn’t want to do. In the end, it was Roy who made the move to leave. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the apartment keys, and laid them on the counter. “All right, then. I guess that’s it.”

 

Mike picked up the box, and Marco opened the front door. Chet hurried out in front of the group, but it was Roy who lingered at the door for one last look. Then finally, he too stepped across the threshold, and closed the door.

 

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

 

“Rick. Could you come on over here?”

 

Bess’ tone was kind, but firm. She wasn’t any happier about the visitors than Rick was, but she knew it was part of the business. Now it was time to make sure Rick understood it too.

 

Morris Simms was a wealthy man, and his children were spoiled rotten. But he had a good eye for horseflesh, and he like to indulge in his favorite hobby. Somewhere in northern California, the man had a sizeable place of his own, stocked with some of the best horses, and most expensive trainers. Yet, at least once a year, he’d take a weekend and travel up to Bess’ place, insisting that he be shown the best horse on her ranch. He’d haggle with her over the cost, and argue about the horse in question, but in the end he’d pay a fair price, and they’d both be happy. The one thing that Bess truly disliked about the whole arrangement was that the man brought his children along.

 

Now, it wasn’t children in general that Bess had a problem with, but rather these children in particular. Obnoxious and rude, they seemed to think that the world was their oyster, and they had every right to crack it open however they saw fit. And while they were at Bess’ ranch, their world included everything she owned. For the better part of a day, they would make themselves at home, running through the paddocks, jumping from the loft, climbing on the broodmares, or sliding off the haystacks. It didn’t matter that they upset every person, and animal, on the place. The only way Bess could handle it was to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear. In other words, pretend they weren’t there.

 

Early on, she’d learned to keep her opinions to herself, where this man’s children were concerned. That, in itself, was enough to set the woman on edge for at least a week after their visit. Keeping quiet was something that Bess didn’t take to. But Morris Simms thought his children could do no wrong, and Bess decided long ago that she couldn’t change that, and she wasn’t going to try. Simms paid a good price for her horses, plus he sent a lot of business her way. So, if she had to bite her tongue once or twice a year, so be it. The oldest boy was almost twelve now, which meant that she’d been dealing with this annual act for almost nine years. One more year wouldn’t hurt.

 

“Rick? Did you hear me, son?”

 

“Sure, Bess, be right there.”

 

Bess turned to find Morris scrutinizing her. Her wide smile seemed to put him at ease, but she attempted an explanation anyway. “Oh, he’s not really my son, but the way he’s taken to this place, he might as well be. I swear, if my Robert was still alive, he’d be a happy man for sure. Rick is the answer to all our prayers.”

 

“He sure seems to be busy.”

 

“Yes, doesn’t he though?”

 

Bess followed the man’s line of vision, to the paddock where Rick had just finished lounging a two year old. However, where the man beside her was smiling, she frowned instead. Having spent most of the previous evening explaining all the in’s and out’s of the business arrangement between her and Mr. Simms, she’d hoped that Rick would be ready to step in and give her a hand. Sure, he laughed at some of the stories she’d shared, but by the end of the night, he seemed more distant than usual. Bess couldn’t put her finger on it. He seemed to understand her desire for him to be more involved in the business dealings, yet when she asked him to be on hand to meet Morris and his kids, Rick had argued that he had too much to do.

 

Now, it seemed that he was looking for any excuse in the book, to stay out of the way. Was it Morris Simms, or was it his children? Bess wasn’t sure what the problem was, and it gave her an uneasy feeling, but the three brats who’d just run into the barn made her feel even worse.

 

‘I’m getting too damn old for this.’ She muttered, under her breath.

 

“Did you say something, Bess?”

 

“Huh? Oh, no . . . just wondering why Rick was holding us up for this. Let’s walk on over, it looks like he’s about done.”

 

Rick was hanging the halter over the fence, as they walked up. His crooked grin, along with his outstretched hand, was congenial and welcoming. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Simms. I kinda had to finish what I started with that one.”

 

“Nice looking gelding, Mr. . . .”

 

“Rick. This is Rick, my hired hand.” Bess interjected.

 

“Rick. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Simms.”

 

“Well, Morris, shall we show you what we have this year?” Bess motioned toward the other paddock, clearly pleased to have Rick’s assistance. She smiled broadly at her young friend, and nodded her pleasure, as they all walked towards her selected offering.

 

Her pleasure increased as Bess watched Rick become more at ease around their customer. With practiced ease, he caught up the yearling, and showed Morris what the little fellow was like. It was obvious that Simms liked what he saw, but Bess instinctively knew that he wasn’t going to make things easy. Maybe it was his way of showing her new hand what a good businessman he was, or maybe he was simply in one of his moods. Bess didn’t really mind. She enjoyed a little haggling, and maybe Rick would learn a thing or two.

 

It only took Bess a few minutes to realize that her boy wasn’t easily intimidated. Rick stepped right up to the fence, and joined in the negotiations, quick to point out the horse’s attributes and value. The three of them were deeply immersed in their discussion when they heard a screech from the barn, followed by a large bang, and someone crying.

 

Rick was the first one off the fence and through the barn door, skidding to a stop in front of the three children. At that point, he froze, and Bess was startled by the look on his face. It was something akin to fear. His arms were pulled in close to his side, and he was breathing fast, but his eyes were focused solely on the young blond-haired girl curled up on the floor.

 

With a quick pat to his arm, Bess pushed past him, but Morris was already on his knees, checking on his young daughter. Her cries had already subsided to whimpers, and it only took a minute to discover that a bloody knee was her only injury.

 

“Rick, could you grab that first aid kit in the tack room?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bess turned to look after him, startled by the terse tone of his voice. He quickly returned with the desired box, but after handing it off, Rick hurried out of the barn. Fighting down the desire to follow him, and get to the bottom of his unusual behavior, she worked on the young girl instead. There was no reason to comfort her, like a woman would to any other six-year-old girl. This little blond-haired monster was already snarling at her father, while accusing her older brothers of pushing her off a ladder. It was an unpleasant, but familiar scene. Bess had witnessed similar situations in the past, and knew that within minutes, the girl would be up and running, right behind the boys.

 

True to form, the girl was soon on her feet, and the children back to their antics. Bess walked out to the corral with Morris, but when they resumed their negotiations, things weren’t quite the same. Although Rick rejoined them, he didn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for the discussion. Several times, she caught him looking off towards the children, his eyes clouded with uncertainty.

 

It proved to be a long ordeal, one that Bess was glad to see the end of. When she and Morris finally shook hands on the deal, Rick simply took the yearling back into the barn, and returned to his chores.

 

“Stay for dinner, Morris?”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it, Bess.”

 

“I suspected as much. I’ve got a chicken baking in the oven, so if you’ll gather up your little ones, I’ll get dinner on the table. I know we’re running a little late, but it’d be better for your family to eat, before you get back on the road.”

 

Morris nodded in agreement, as Bess hurried off towards her kitchen. She was secretly anxious to get the meal ready, so their company would have no reason to tarry. Catching brief glimpses of Rick, as he moved in and out of the barn doing his chores, she could see that he wasn’t his usual, relaxed self.

 

When the screen door banged open a half hour later, she wasn’t surprised to see that Rick wasn’t with the others. Morris managed to get his children settled around the table, while Bess set steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, freshly baked bread, and green beans on the table. It wasn’t until she placed the large platter of golden-brown chicken in the middle of the spread, that Rick quietly entered the house. Stepping to the sink, he quickly washed and dried his hands, then took his customary place at the table.

 

The meal was relatively calm. Morris seemed to be in a good mood, evidently pleased over his new purchase. The children were quiet at first, probably hungry after a busy day of running about the ranch. It wasn’t until the last half of dinner that they become a bit more boisterous, but by that time, their father was ready to finish up and get back on the road.

 

Bess wasn’t sorry to hear the chair legs scoot across the floor, as the group pushed away from the table. Normally, she was inclined to encourage her guests to stay, offering them another cup of coffee, or a second piece of pie. But today, she was anxious to see the Simms’ family on their way. Rick had barely said two words throughout the entire meal, and that was unusual, to say the least. She couldn’t help but wonder, and worry, about what was bothering him.

 

Pulling out another piece of foil, she deftly covered the last of the berry pie, and carried it to the door. “Here you go, Morris. Now you make sure and share that with Jenny, and tell her that I said hello.”


”I’ll do that, and thanks for the meal. Your cooking is wonderful, as always.”

 

“Oh, go on with ya.” Bess laughed appreciatively.

 

“Kids. Kids! Get in the truck now, it’s time to go.”

 

Morris pushed open the screen door, and hurried out after his rambunctious children. Looking over his shoulder, he called back to Bess. “Thanks again, Bess. We’ll see you in a couple of months, when we come to pick up the yearling.”

 

“Sure thing. Just give me a call, and let me know when you’ll be here.”

 

“Will do. Bye.”

 

“Bye.”

 

Bess waved at the group, more than a little surprised when the blond-haired girl stopped and came running back.

 

“Thank you for the bandage, ma’am.” She muttered, as if coached by her father.

 

“You’re welcome, sweetie. Bye, now.”

 

The girl ran back, and climbed into the pickup, squealing as one of her brothers pinched her. Starting up the engine, Morris put the truck into gear, and backed out of the yard. He raised his hand in a quick farewell, and then they were gone.

 

When she turned back towards the kitchen, Bess could see Rick watching from the window. His expression was guarded, his mouth turned downward in a frown. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she hurried back inside, and started to clear the table.

 

“Need some help?” Rick offered quietly.

 

“Sure, dear. You wanna take these dishes to the counter, while I run the water?”

 

He grunted once, in reply, as he began to carry the empty plates and bowls to stack on the counter beside her. Bess kept a watchful eye on him, but his expression never changed, and she didn’t push. It was Rick, himself, who finally started the conversation.

 

“That Simms is a pretty good judge of horses.”

 

“Yes, he is. I’ve always been impressed with his instinct and knowledge.”

 

“He got a good horse, but you made a good deal.”

 

“I thought so.” Bess paused, as she dipped the first dish into the suds, smiling as Rick pulled out a dishtowel in order to dry the dishes. “You did a good job showing the little fella, too.”

 

“Thanks. I kinda enjoyed the dickering. You’re good at it.”

 

This time, Bess laughed in response. “That’s what my husband always used to tell me. He liked working with the horses, and I liked making the deals. We were a good pair, when it came to making a sale.”

 

Rick finally relaxed, and laughed along with her. He piled the dried plates together, then lifted them into the cupboard. Bess continued to watch him, still wondering at his earlier sullenness. “Everything okay, dear? You feeling all right?”

 

“Huh? Who, me? Sure, Bess, I’m feeling fine.” He closed the cupboard, and opened another to put the glasses away. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Oh, just wondering. You seemed a little quiet today.”

 

“Nope. Just working.”

 

Bess rinsed one of the kettles, and placed it on the drain pad before turning to face him. Slowly wiping her hands on a yellow flowered towel, she scowled slightly. “I don’t think you were just working. Something was bothering you. Was it that we’re selling that yearling? Was it Morris? The kids…”

 

The strange look that came over Rick’s face was enough to take the words right out of Bess’ mouth.

 

“It was those kids, wasn’t it? You don’t like children, is that it?”

 

“No. No! I like kids, all right. It’s . . .it’s just . . . I don’t know, Bess. Sh. . . they just made me uncomfortable, I guess.”

 

His stuttered answer was confusing, in comparison to the look on his face. And Bess was almost certain that Rick had started to say “she” instead of they. Was it the little girl that had him all riled up? Or just the children in general? While she studied on the problem, Rick must’ve decided that he’d had enough.

 

“Sorry I can’t help you finish, Bess. I need to get back and check on that foal.”

 

Rick flipped the damp cloth over the back of a kitchen chair, and darted for the door. He was down the walk and across the yard, before Bess even made it to the screen door. Her eyes were filled with worry, as she turned back and picked up the dishtowel. It was the children. But why did they upset him so? He’d been nothing but agreeable and good-natured to anyone and everyone they’d come in contact with. But Bess suddenly realized that these were the first children he’d been around, since arriving at the ranch.

 

Did he really dislike the younger generation? Or had something happened to him? Bess idly twisted the cloth in her hands, wondering if there were some little ones in Rick’s life . . . a boy, or a girl . . . a wife who was missing him. For the first time since Rick had come into her life, Bess wondered if she’d done right to give him a home so freely. Then again, maybe she was protecting him from something so sad that he couldn’t bear to remember. Maybe he’d lost a child.

 

Wringing out the wet cloth, she slid it over the drying bar, then wiped the counter with the dish rag before draping it across the faucet. Pulling off her apron and draping it over a chair, she headed out to the barn. The least she could do was to help Rick with the evening chores.

 

***********

 

Bob Jenkins was on his way south. This was his second trip in less than four months, but it was a good route, one of his best. That, and the fact that he didn’t mind an excuse to stop by his sister’s place, made it an enjoyable tour.

 

Having spent the better part of his first week making daily stops, he liked the fact that he had a good stretch of driving ahead. This part of the state was thinly populated, and that was reflected in the number of diners or motels that was available. Bob didn’t have to check his map to know that he needed to stop for a bite to eat now, or it would be another three hours before the next opportunity. He didn’t mind driving until after dark, but he sure didn’t like to drive on an empty stomach.

 

Pulling into the parking lot, he surveyed the familiar diner. He hoped that Mattie still had some of her pot roast left. It was one of his favorites. And as he stepped into the diner, the familiar scents made him smile. Of all the places he could’ve ended up tonight, it was providence that brought him here. Mattie made a good roast.

 

“Bob. Good to see ya!”

 

“Hi, Mattie. How’re you doing?”

 

“Good. Good. Business has been picking up.”

 

“That’s great. Hey, you got any of that pot roast left?”

 

“Course, I do. Pick a table, and I’ll get your coffee.”

 

It didn’t take long for Bob to get settled in the corner booth. He looked around the diner, recognizing a few regulars still finishing their meals, but it was the brightly colored flyer on the table that finally caught and held his gaze. For some reason, he had the strangest feeling he’d seen this paper somewhere before. He just couldn’t remember where. Still, his eyes focused on the picture copied there, the dark eyes hauntingly familiar.

 

“Bob? Bob!”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Are you all right? I’ve been asking you if you wanted salad or coleslaw, but you look like you’re a thousand miles away.”

 

“Oh, I am. I mean, I should . . . uhhh . . . salad will be fine.”

 

“Are you okay? You’re not sick or anything, are you?”

 

“No, no. I’m fine.” He smiled up at her reassuringly. “Really, I’m fine. I just noticed these flyers on the table.”

 

“Yeah, they’ve been there for awhile. Suppose I should throw them out, but every time I start to do that, I get a feeling I should leave ‘em there.”

 

“I suppose.”

 

“Sad thing, isn’t it? To have someone go missing like that? The guy that dropped ‘em off seemed real nice. Said he was a fireman, or something. I got the feeling he was real close to this young man. But it’s been a long time. I doubt he’ll ever find his friend now. Oh, Bob, I’m sorry. Chattering away when you’re probably starving. I’ll get your salad. French dressing, right?”

 

“Right.” Bob answered absently.

 

As she turned to walk away, he reached out a hand to stop her. “Mattie, where’s your phone?”

 

“My phone? Why it’s right over there.”

 

“Mind if I make a long distance call? I’ll be glad to pay whatever the cost.”

 

“Why no, of course I don’t mind. Is something wrong?”

 

Holding the flyer in front of him, Bob merely shook his head as he pushed himself from the seat. “No. I just think there’s some information I need to pass along.”

 

Her strange look wasn’t enough to stop Bob. He knew what he was seeing, and knew what he had to do. Mattie’s words had just given him the final push. Within minutes, he’d dialed a long distance number to California, and was waiting for the phone to ring.

 

“Hello, DeSoto residence.”

 

“Is this Roy DeSoto?”

 

“It is.”

 

“My name’s Bob Jenkins. I run a sales route here in Oregon. I have some information you might be interested in.”

 

There was a brief pause, before the man uttered a quiet: “Yes?”

 

“Well, I stopped to eat at a diner this evening, little place up here in Oregon. Anyway, I came across a flyer, with your name on it. Something about a missing man named John Gage. . . ”

 

A slightly longer pause ensued before the other man answered. “Yes, go on.”

 

“Just thought I should tell someone. Could’ve called the authorities, I guess, but it is kind of old news now. Anyway, I gave this guy a ride. It’s been more than three months ago, now, but I’m sure it’s him.”

 

“You . . . are you positive? It’s been a long time.”

 

“Yes, I’m positive. It was the same man.”

 

There was an audible sigh from the other end of the line, but DeSoto’s voice conveyed a hint of nervous energy when he continued. “Was he all right?”

 

It was Jenkins turn to pause, and when he finally responded, he was almost hesitant. “Well, come to think of it, he was kinda out of it. Looked like he’d been roughed up or something, but he didn’t offer any explanation, and I didn’t ask for any.”

 

“You didn’t ask? Didn’t it occur to you that he might’ve been hurt?” DeSoto barked.

 

“Hey, it wasn’t any of my business.” Jenkins answered indignantly. “The guy was thumbing for a ride in the dark, and I gave it to him. Figured if he needed my help, he’d ask. But he just went to sleep, and when I came to my turn-off, he wanted to stay on the main road, so I let him out. That’s all there was to it.”

 

“Okay. All right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overreact, Mr . . . .”

 

“Jenkins. Bob Jenkins.”

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jenkins. You’re the first person who’s even reported seeing Johnny after the wreck. And Johnny has a lot of friends who are really worried, friends who have been looking for him for months now.”

 

“Well, maybe he doesn’t want to be found. Maybe I shouldn’t have called in. I don’t know. My motto has always been to ‘live and let live,’ you know? But when I saw his picture on this paper . . . well, I just thought I should let someone know.”

 

“I’m really grateful, Mr. Jenkins.”

 

“All right, then. Okay . . . well . . . good luck with-”

 

“Wait, sir. Just a moment, please. Could you tell me where you saw Johnny . . . what road you were on?”

 

“Sure. Sure, I can do that. Do you have a pen?”

 

“Yeah, just a minute.”

 

There was a rustling sound from the other end, and several seconds passed, during which Bob argued with himself about whether he’d done the right thing, and if he should hang up now and forget he’d ever seen the flyer. In the end, he waited it out. When DeSoto returned to the line, it only took a moment for Bob to give him the general area of where he’d picked the man up, and where he’d been dropped off.

 

“That’s all I can tell you, Mr. DeSoto. Hope it helps.”

 

“Yes, I do too. Thanks. Thanks a lot for calling in.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

He hung up, abruptly, still unsure if he’d done the right thing. Tucking the flyer in his pocket, Bob returned to his table, still wondering.

 

 

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

 

The sign labeled Mac’s was still worn and faded. Roy wondered at the odd quirks in a man’s brain that produced such strange thoughts. What difference did an old wooden sign make? Shouldn’t his mind be filled with tactics and plans? At least some concrete strategy on what he should do next to find his friend? Instead, the first thing he noticed as he climbed out of Detective Saunder’s state-issued car was the battered old sign over the equally battered body shop.

 

With one arm bent to hold a lightweight jacket flipped across his shoulder, Roy used the other to reach behind him and grab his duffle bag off the seat. With deliberate care, he pushed the car door closed with his knee, and turned to stare at the deserted building.

 

Unlike the last time he’d been here, there were no rescue teams or volunteers to fill the narrow parking lot. A rusty drop-box stood in one corner of the lot, while an older model tow truck monopolized the area directly in front of the building. From his viewpoint, Roy couldn’t see the white Rover that belonged to his best friend, but he knew that it was there. Saunders was already walking back from the open bay of the shop, a key chain dangling from his left hand.

 

“Is that it?”

 

“Yeah. I took care of the paperwork last month. All that was left to do was pick up the keys.”

 

“I should pay him for the time he’s kept it stored.”


”Not necessary. That’s already been covered through the department, although you’ll probably see a charge on the insurance papers, when they come through.”

 

“Fine. Fine.” Roy nodded absently, not really interested in any more red-tape.

 

“Guess you’d like to get your gear stowed.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Stepping forward, Roy walked alongside the detective, their destination now clearly apparent. To one side of the aging building, a fenced area contained several vehicles in various stages of repair. But in front of the battered ones, sat the newly restored Land Rover. Roy didn’t speak as he stepped up to his friend’s car. Opening the driver’s door, he carefully studied the interior, as if half-expecting the bloodstains to remain. He was relieved to see they were gone.

 

“Well, Roy, have you made a decision?”

 

Straightening up, Roy nodded once as he tossed his bag inside. “Yes. I’m going to drive north, see if I can find anyone else who’s seen him.”

 

“You know, I’ve checked and rechecked every lead. Especially since you called about that tip you received.”

 

“I know you have, Dale, and I appreciate it. We all appreciate everything you’ve done to look for Johnny.”

 

“But you’re going to do a little more looking anyway.”

”Yeah, I guess I am. Johnny would do the same for me.”

 

“Well, if there’s anything more that I can do, you have my number.”

 

Roy reached out to shake the other man’s hand, truly grateful, but unsure of how to express the feeling. He didn’t need to. It was clear that the seasoned detective understood.

 

“I really hope you find something, Roy. And I’m sorry we couldn’t do more.”

 

“Thanks. Thanks for everything.”

 

Turning back to the Rover, Roy climbed in, before Saunders pushed the door closed for him.

 

“Have a safe trip.”

 

With that, the detective stepped away from the car, watching silently.

 

Roy had the oddest feeling, as he buckled the seatbelt across his chest. It was something akin to deja-vu, yet it was different. An eerie premonition maybe, or perhaps it was simply remembering the man who’d last sat in this seat, and the fear over what had become of him. Shaking off the peculiar sensation, Roy slipped the key into the ignition, and fired up the engine. With practiced ease, he put the vehicle into gear and slowly pulled out of the parking lot.

 

As he turned north onto the highway, Roy glanced into the rearview mirror. Behind him, Detective Saunders held his hand up for a brief moment, before turning towards his car. Eyes back on the road, Roy quickly dismissed the scene from his thoughts, as the small town faded from view. He wasn’t ready to quit just yet, even if he had to go-it alone. If there was even the slightest chance that Jenkins was telling the truth, then he had to check it out. Besides, he’d always felt that Johnny was out there . . . somewhere.

 

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

 

The music drifted away into the darkness, but the laughter rang on. A large crowd had slowly dwindled to a few diehards, but those still partaking in the town’s annual festival were determined to enjoy every last minute.

 

Rick drew the young woman towards him, as they circled one last time. Even though the musicians had stopped playing, the memory of the tune seemed to flow around the couple. It wasn’t that she was anyone special. He’d met several young ladies during the weekly trips to town, but Maryanne was by far, the best dancer.

 

“I think that was the last one.”

 

“Yeah, and it’s probably for the best, too.” She groaned. “My feet are killing me!”

 

His answering laugh rang out, while Maryanne’s softer giggle blended in. From the sidelines, they could see Bess watching them, a faint smile playing across her own aging cheeks.

 

“Well, my feet don’t hurt, but it is late. Guess it’s time to be heading back to the ranch, or Bess won’t get any work out of me tomorrow.”

 

The couple walked, arm in arm, towards the edge of the makeshift dance floor.

 

“Oh, it doesn’t look like she’s too worried about it.”

 

“No, you’re right. She looks pretty happy tonight. I think she had a good time this weekend.”

 

“Bess always has a good time at these get-togethers. She likes to act all tough and independent, but she’s really very social.”

 

“You’ve got her pegged, don’t you?” Rick noted playfully.

 

“Well, I like to know the people I spend time with.”

 

“You do, huh? And what do say about me, pretty lady?”

 

“Oh, you’re easy. Hard working, tough, macho-type. Soft as a kitten inside, and wouldn’t hurt a fly. You’re just what Bess needed.”

 

“So, you think you have me all figured out, do you?”

 

“Yes, I do.” Maryanne answered smugly, but with a twinkle in her eye.

 

“Okay, then. If you know so much, who am I going to ask to the movie next Saturday night?”

 

“Oh, that’s easy. Susan Finley.”

 

Rick would’ve laughed, if Bess hadn’t beaten him to it. Her eyes flashed with amusement, as she joined the young couple. “Good for you, Maryanne.”

 

“What? Now you’re both ganging up on me?” Rick sputtered good-naturedly. “Okay, then, if that’s the way you women are going to act . . . picking on a poor working man with no means to defend himself, then I’ll just go hang out with my own kind.”

 

With a jaunty twist of his head, Rick walked off toward the corner coffee shop. Several tables had been set out on the sidewalk for the festival, and a group of men sat together, sharing the last minutes of a pleasant day. Though the sun had long since dropped below the skyline, the few streetlights continued to light the area, a perfect setting for a town gathering.

 

“How about one more beer?” Luke asked, as Rick joined the others.

 

“Nah, I think Bess is about ready to go. I’ll take a rain check, though, ‘til Saturday.”

 

“Sure, Rick, no problem. I think you still owe me a round of pool anyway.”

 

“Wait a minute there, farm boy, you owe me a round, remember?”

 

“I don’t think so . . . the bet was best two out of three, and winner paid the next round.”

 

“And beer, and I won.”

 

“Now Rick-”

 

“Oh, come on you two. You’re not going to start this again, are you? Last time we went through this, it took an hour to get it settled.”

 

Several voices joined Harold’s in laughing at the two men. Rick had found a good friend in Luke Templeton, and vice versa. Though they hadn’t known each other long, and didn’t see each other often, the friendship had quickly grown into something solid.

 

“All right, we’ll save it. But come next Saturday, there’s going to be some paying up.”

 

Rick elbowed his new friend teasingly, while Luke ducked and feinted in mock fighting style.

 

“You know, boy, it’s a good thing Rocky hasn’t come home yet. He’d be showing you a thing or two about paying up.”

 

Another round of laughter answered Luke’s taunt, but Rick was unaffected. “Yeah, right after I send him over to your place.”

 

One by one, the men said goodnight, until only Harold and Rick stood talking to Luke.

 

“Hey, I’d better be heading for home. Bess looks a little tired.”

 

“Don’t let that old gal fool ya, Rick. She’ll outwork and probably outlive the whole lot of us.” Harold answered.

 

“See ya Saturday, Luke.” The young man laughed.

 

“Night, Rick.”

 

“Harold.”

 

“Night, boy.”

 

As he walked across the street, Rick felt warm in a way that had nothing to do with dancing. It was a great feeling, having friends you cared about, and who cared about you.

 

“Did you have a good time, Bess?”

 

“I had a wonderful time.” She answered happily, while tucking her arm into his.

“How about you? Was there enough fun in this old town to keep you happy?”

 

“Plenty. Between the horse race, the good food, and dancing, I think it was one of the best times I ever had.”

 

Neither one acknowledged that he didn’t have a lot of things to compare this too, but it didn’t seem to matter. Strolling slowly down the street, the pair seemed content to simply enjoy what they had.

 

“So, I hear you’re coming to town next weekend.” Bess announced suddenly.

 

“Well . . .yeah. Thought I would, if you don’t mind.” He answered hesitantly.

 

“Then make sure that Luke Templeton pays up. He likes to pull a fast one, now and again.”

 

Rick laughed out loud, and Bess smiled in delight. Anyone watching would’ve been hard-pressed to decide which one looked the happiest.

 

***********

 

Joanne dropped the last laundry basket on the floor, and reached for the door of the dryer. It was just one of a woman’s everyday chores, but today, it seemed like an unnecessary burden. Part of her wanted to scream at the washer and dryer for going too slow, while another part of her ranted against the children who insisted on dirtying up so many clothes.

 

Pulling out the last pair of jeans and depositing them in the basket, Joanne slammed the door and wearily picked up the clean load. Walking back into the living room, she dumped the still-warm clothes on the couch, and sat down to fold them. It was then, as she caught sight of Roy & Johnny’s picture on the mantle, that she finally admitted to herself what had been plaguing her all week. It wasn’t the household chores, or the kids’ extra homework. It wasn’t even the fact that Roy had flown to Oregon. The fact of the matter was, this journey was a difficult one for her husband, and he was making it alone.

 

Even though Roy was following up on that salesman’s tip, he didn’t hold out much hope. Months had passed since Johnny’s disappearance, and the police had long ago exhausted every lead. The fact that Roy was planning to drive Johnny’s Rover home was just another link in the long chain of events. Roy had really gone to Oregon to say goodbye, whether he was willing to admit it to himself or not. And Joanne knew that when he returned, her husband was going to need all the love and support she could offer.

 

It hadn’t been easy for any of them, these past months. Had it been an accident at work, or even an illness that took Johnny from them, like that virus that he’d had several years before, they would’ve been devastated, but they would’ve accepted it and went on with their lives. But this . . .this was different. There was no tangible. No body to bury, no headstone to erect. Instead, there was only guesswork, and innuendo, and blind paths to follow.

 

Yet in the end, they were still left with one simple fact. Johnny was gone. The how and why didn’t matter. He was gone from them, and they had to accept the fact that he was never coming back. No matter how much they missed him, and wished it wasn’t true, Johnny would never walk through that door. He’d never join them at the dinner table, pull Jennifer’s ponytail, or tease Chris about the little girl down the street. He’d never raise his eyes over something Roy said, or flash that wonderful grin at Joanne when she offered to fix him one of his favorite meals. No. He was gone. Gone for good.

 

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Joanne dropped her head in her hands, and let herself really cry for the first time in months. She’d held it in, for Roy’s sake. But now, she could truly let herself grieve.

 

The ringing of the phone broke into her thoughts, and she grabbed blindly for the box of tissues that sat on the end table. Wiping at her blurry eyes, she hurried to the kitchen and managed to grab the receiver on the sixth ring.

 

“Hello.”

 

“Hello. May I speak to Roy DeSoto, please?”

 

“I’m sorry, he’s not here right now. May I take a message?”

 

“Oh . . .ummm . . .well-”

 

“This is Mrs. DeSoto, is there something I could help you with?”

 

“Well, yeah, I guess so. I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to call again, so maybe I should just leave the information with you.”

 

“Okay. Just a moment, let me get a pen . . . All right, what is the message?”

 

“My name is Benson, Wes Benson. I buy and sell horses, all the way from the California border up to my home in Idaho. So, you can probably guess that I get around to a lot of different places. Anyway, I got your husband’s name and phone number off one of those flyers. Saw it while I was eatin’ dinner . . . it was about a lost person . . . a John Gage. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought I should take the chance. You see, well, I wanted to let someone know . . . I think I’ve seen this Mr. Gage.”

 

Joanne’s hand began to tremble, and her knees felt weak. “You . . . you’ve seen him? He’s alive?”

 

“Well, ma’am, I think so. It sure looked like him, anyway. Course, the guy wasn’t going by the same name, but I could swear that it was him.”

 

“When did you see him? And where . . .”

 

“Ohh, it’s been awhile, now. Over a month; might be close to two. I just happened to see this notice at a truck stop last night, and I realized the guy looked real familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Then, this morning at breakfast, I finally figured out where I’d seen him.”

 

Joanne slowly sank to the kitchen floor, still clutching the receiver in one hand, a notepad in the other. Leaning back against the cabinets, she cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder, while she held the pad steady and began to write.

 

“Where was it that you saw this man?”

 

“Ohhh, sorry. Well, I saw him up at Bess Hilton’s place. He’s workin’ with her horses. Been there for awhile, from what I could tell. Real friendly, and a good hand. Funny thing, though, Bess didn’t call him John. Don’t quite remember what his name was, but I’m sure it wasn’t John. Maybe it was Ron or Randy . . .something like that. But it was him. I recognized his-”

 

It took more than a little control on Joanne’s part, not to scream at this man in frustration. Here he was, not only telling her that Johnny might still be alive, but also that he knew where their friend was . . .yet he couldn’t seem to get the information out. She knew she probably sounded rude, but at this point, she couldn’t help herself.

 

“Sir . . .could you please give me the phone number and address of the place? I’ll be glad to pass the information on to my husband as soon as possible.”

 

“Ohh, yeah . . .okay. Well, wait, I can tell you how to get there, but I can’t give you a phone number. Don’t know if I even have one, and if I do it’s at home. I’m out on the road right now, making a quick trip, and I don’t have my regular notebook with me. But hey, I bet you could call information.”

 

“Whatever you can tell me would be fine. We really appreciate that you’ve called with the information.”

 

Joanne wrote frantically, as the man finally gave her vague directions on how to find the Widow Hilton. He seemed to know his way around the back roads of Oregon, but he sure didn’t know how to describe them. It was almost five minutes later that she finally managed to blurt out her thanks, and hang up the phone.

 

It took almost another ten minutes before Joanne could get herself under control enough to make her call. She was filled with elation at the possibility that Johnny was alive, yet scared to death that this may be nothing more than another wild goose chase, one that would only hurt her husband more. Still, if there was any chance that this was really John.

 

Roy had phoned in just the night before, so she knew that it might be another full day before she heard from him again. But even though she had no way of contacting Roy, there was someone she had to call immediately.

 

Reaching for the phone, she dialed the number by memory, relieved when her call was answered on the second ring.

 

“Station 51, Captain Stanley speaking.”

 

“Hank, it’s Joanne. I have some news . . .”

 

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

 

Rick seemed amazed at how quickly the weather seemed to change. Where only a week before, the evenings had been comfortable and warm, now they were cool, with a hint of frost in the air. He looked comfortable in his new flannel shirt in the mornings, yet by mid-day, he had stripped down to his white t-shirt, the beams from the southern-tipped sun warming him as he worked.

 

There were a lot of chores to keep a man busy, especially in the fall of the year. On a ranch, there were many tasks that still fell into the natural order of things. Making sure the hay was put up, enough to last through whatever the winter might bring. There was fencing to repair, before the winter winds and rain set in, and a million other little jobs that needed doing on a place this size. Rick didn’t shirk any of his duties, but seemed to buckle down and work that much harder.

 

From her place in the garden, Bess watched him as he worked, even as she busied herself with the final clearing of the summer vegetables. There were rows and rows of her canned goods on the pantry shelves, and for the first time in several years, she was looking forward to using them up during the winter. The thought of having someone to share the long cold evenings with was pure joy.

 

Sure, Rocky was always around, but he was more into carousing with the guys at the pool hall, not visiting with her. Other than the meals they shared, he tended to keep to himself in the bunkhouse. This winter would definitely be different.

 

Not only had she enjoyed her time with Rick these past months, but with Harold as well. He’d started coming by more often, and the three of them had developed an evening routine they all looked forward to. Some evenings they played card games, even though Rick wasn’t overly good at them. Occasionally they sang, while Bess played her small organ. But many evenings were simply spent in friendly conversation. From time to time, Rick would pick up the old guitar he’d found in the attic, and strum it quietly. The tunes he played were nothing that Bess recognized, but she enjoyed listening to him.

 

There were times, rare though they were, that his expression would darken, and a look of sadness would come over him. It was disheartening to Bess, yet she hid her own concerns behind an expression of love and understanding. In the beginning, those sad times were fairly frequent, and would be followed by nights filled with dreams. Nights that she would hear him call out, even from her bedroom far away from the bunkhouse.

 

There’d even been a few times when she’d slipped from her own bed to hurry down the walk in her bathrobe, to hover outside the bunkhouse, unsure if she should knock on the door, or leave him to awaken on his own. That was when Bess had heard him mutter names she did not recognize, and situations she couldn’t even imagine. It was almost as if he’d lived some terrible life before he came to her, a life filled with risk and danger. But as the months passed, the sadness did too. Now, he seemed content, and yes, even happy. It had been some time since she’d heard him call out in the night, and even longer since he’d questioned his past.

 

“Bess?”

 

His voice startled her from her musings. “What? Oh, yes, Rick. What is it?”

 

“I’m going out to check the south fence line. Want to come along? We’ll be back by supper.”

 

“No, I can’t today. There’s just too many things left to do in this garden. You go ahead, but don’t be too late. I’ll be fixing up something special.”

 

“You always do.”

 

“Oh, go on with you.”

 

“See you in a couple hours, then.”

 

Bess waved once, as he climbed into the jeep and pulled out of the yard. He almost beamed at her, as he shifted gears to climb the narrow road towards the ridge. She threw up a silent prayer for his safety as he drove away, and suddenly realized that little practice had become a habit.

 

Humming an old tune, Bess turned back to her work.

 

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

 

The place was nothing more than a wide spot in the road, but there was a small filling station, with an equally small store. It had only taken a few minutes for Roy to tour the inside of the old-fashioned store, purchasing a few snacks and a cold soda. Gas was expensive out here, but since there wasn’t a larger place within a hundred miles, Roy pulled out his wallet and handed over his gas card. It was while he was waiting for the attendant to fill the tank that he finally let himself give in.

 

It had been over a week since he’d picked up the Rover, a very long, very unproductive week. If Johnny had been walking alongside the road after his accident, then Bob Jenkins must’ve been the only one in the country who’d seen him there. There was no leads, no evidence. Nothing. Just like Detective Saunders had told him. Roy knew that he’d been warned, and he knew instinctively that Saunders had been telling him the truth. But just as instinctively, he knew that Johnny had made it out of the wreck. And even now, he sensed that his friend was alive somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, that sixth sense, as Joanne would label it, wasn’t helping Roy. Time was running out. He still had to make the drive home to LA, and he couldn’t miss many more shifts. There was simply no vacation time left. Fact was, vacation had been used up long ago. Even with donated hours by various coworkers, his family couldn’t afford to see him missing any more work. And those were just the responsible, practical parts of the issue. More importantly, there were the sentimental parts. . .the fatherly impulse that urged him to go home. The loving man who needed his wife and kids. Needed to hold them, share with them . . . move on.

 

Roy DeSoto knew he owed his partner a lot, and he didn’t want to give up. But the time had also come for a good dose of honesty. There was very little hope that one man, driving the back roads of Oregon, would find that missing needle-in-the-haystack known as John Gage.

 

Blinking against the sunlight, and the brutal knowledge that he was making a final choice, Roy turned to the older gentleman.

 

“Here’s your card, son. Anything else I can do for you?”

 

“No. Thanks.”

 

The older man nodded, then pulled out a faded red bandana from his back pocket, and slowly wiped the back of his neck. “Sure is a warm one, for autumn. You headin’ someplace special, or just travelin’ through?”

 

Staring at the man for a moment, Roy finally found his voice, and his decision. “I’m heading home.”

 

“Oh well, that’s good. You drive careful now.”

 

“Thanks, I will.”

 

A phone booth beckoned from across the gravel-strewn lot. It only took a few steps to reach it, and several seconds to dial the number. Roy drummed his fingertips on top of the payphone, waiting impatiently as he counted the rings. By the time he reached nine, he’d come to the conclusion that Joanne was either outside or running errands, and started to hang up. It was only the high-pitched ‘hello’ echoing across the line that caused him to stop, and put the receiver back to his ear.

 

“Joanne?”

 

“Roy! Oh, thank God. I was hoping it was you, and that I hadn’t missed your call.”

 

She sounded breathless, as if she’d just run a five-mile marathon.

 

“That’s okay, honey, I’d have called back.”

 

“Oh, no. That would’ve been worse. Oh, Roy, I just stepped out for a few minutes. I never dreamt that you’d call so early. But I hurried, and . . . oh, never mind. I don’t know why I’m rambling.”

 

Roy frowned slightly, as he tried to decide what had gotten into his wife. “Joanne, is everything okay?”

 

“Oh, yes. Everything is fine. Better than fine. Roy . . . I have the best news.”

 

The excitement in her voice, now, was unmistakable. Roy felt a surge of adrenalin, as he fought against a sudden wild hope. It couldn’t be . . .

 

“Roy. I got a call yesterday, from a horse trader in Idaho.”

 

“Idaho? What did he…”

 

“Roy. He thinks he saw Johnny!”

 

Unaware that his wife had the same reaction only the day before, Roy fought the desire to sink to the ground with the receiver in his hand.

 

“Did you hear me, Roy?”

”Yeah. Yeah, but . . . Idaho? He saw Johnny in Idaho?”


”No. He’s from Idaho, but that’s not where he saw Johnny. I don’t know much, honey, but he said that he’d been at a lady’s ranch in Oregon, and there was a man there that looked like Johnny. He doesn’t think that was his name, though.”

”What do you mean, that wasn’t his name?”

”I don’t know. It was kinda strange. He was pretty sure that it’s Johnny. He told me that he recognized the face, you know, when he saw one of your flyers. But he didn’t think that the lady called him John. It was a little confusing.”

 

“Sounds like it could’ve been a prank call.”

 

“No, Roy, I don’t think so. He sounded really sincere, and he seemed very nice. It was just that he hadn’t a while since he’d been there, and that he hadn’t talked to the man that much, anyway. I’m sure he’s just forgotten. But I don’t know why Johnny wouldn’t be using his name.”

 

Roy didn’t want to examine the whole thing too closely. There were too many variables, and none of them seemed very positive. Yet, there was an undeniable excitement filling him.

 

“What about a phone number?” He finally managed to ask.

 

“He didn’t have a phone number, but he did leave directions on how to find the place. I didn’t try information to get a phone number so that we could call. I was waiting for you. What do you think?”

 

“Why don’t you just give me the directions, and I’ll look into it.”

 

Staring out the glass walls of the phone booth, Roy did his best to take in the information his wife was giving him, while struggling to remain calm. Only part of the details truly filtered through, but he did manage to get the directions written down. If this was true, then Johnny was only a four, maybe five hour drive away.

 

“Joanne, I want you to calm down. We don’t know if this is Johnny. But I’ll drive up there this afternoon, and check it out.”

 

“You’re not going to call first?”

 

Roy paused for a moment, as he considered her question thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I will,” he finally answered. “Something tells me to check this out in person.”

 

“Please, Roy. Call me, either way. I want to know what you find out.”

 

“Of course. You know I will. And you’ll let Cap know, right?”

 

“I called him yesterday.”

 

Roy’s laugh was only half-hearted, but at least it was a laugh, something neither of them had heard for months. “I love you.”

 

“Love you, too. Talk to you soon.”

 

“Bye.”

 

The line was disconnected, and still Roy stood inside the booth, with his hand pressed against the receiver now resting on its hook. Could any of this be true? Was Johnny really alive? And if he was alive, why hadn’t he contacted anyone?

 

Half excited at the prospect of good news, half dreading the sad outcome he fully expected, Roy forced himself to walk back to the Rover, and pull out the dog-eared road map. It only took a few minutes to plot his route, and then he was back on the highway, only this time he was heading northeast.

 

**********

 

Roy stood on the porch, waiting impatiently for an answer to his knock. Now that he was finally here, his sense of nervousness had grown dramatically. If Johnny was really okay, and living at this isolated ranch, then why hadn’t he tried to contact his friends? Was something keeping him from calling home?

 

He was unsure of what to expect, but when the white painted door was finally opened, Roy found himself gaping in surprise at the sight of the woman before him. Gray haired and buxom, the woman was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, not the typical outfit you’d expect a lady of her age to be dressed in. Although she was smiling, the woman’s blue eyes bore into his, and Roy stared back for a moment before forcing himself to speak.

 

“Excuse me, ma’am, I wonder if you could help me?”

 

There was the briefest pause, as she seemed to study him thoughtfully. “Well, young man, what do you want?”

 

“I’m looking for a friend of mine, and I was told that you might have seen him.”

 

The woman’s smile dissolved into a look of anxiousness, causing Roy to hurry on with his questions, suddenly worried that she may try to close the door in his face.

 

“I’m sorry to bother you, but this is very important. Would you mind taking a look at his picture?” Roy held out the photograph he’d brought along, waiting impatiently for her answer as the woman studied the image on the glossy paper. He took the opportunity to watch her, anxious to understand the woman’s hesitation. However, he was totally unprepared for her answer.

 

“You’re Roy, aren’t you?”

 

Roy stood as if frozen in place, struggling silently to make sense of her question. How did she know his name? He’d never been up this way, didn’t even know of this place until today. “Ma’am?”

 

“Is your name Roy?” The woman repeated.

 

“Yes . . . but how did you?”

 

“Come in, son. I think we need to talk.”

 

Roy forced himself to walk the few feet through the doorway, and waited while the woman closed the screen door behind him. As soon as he heard the wooden frame bang into place, he turned to face her, his patience completely gone.

 

“What is this? How did you know my-”

 

“He told me.”

 

“He? My friend? Johnny? He’s alive? Is he all right? Where is he? Can I see...”

 

“Hold on there. Slow down a bit. Yes, he’s all right, very much alive, and healthy as a horse.

 

Roy’s shoulders slumped in relief; as his previous burst of energy seemed to evaporate into thin air. He dropped his head, unwilling to allow the woman to study his expression. The whole ordeal…months of worrying and wondering, afraid that his best friend was dead, now to finally find that the man was safe and living on a ranch. Roy wasn’t sure if he should scream in elation, or find his errant partner and strangle the man.

 

“Looks like you’d better sit down before you fall down, young man.”

 

Taking advantage of the offered luxury, Roy dropped into the nearest chair, and leaned to rest his face on one hand. The range of conflicting emotions within him was staggering, and he found that he couldn’t speak for several minutes. Maybe it was better that he didn’t utter any of his thoughts, for the next bit of information simply caused him further anguish.

 

“He’s healthy, young man, but he’s probably not the way you remember him.”

 

Looking up, Roy met the worried eyes of the old woman. “What do you mean?”

 

“He looks like your friend . . . Johnny?”

 

“Yes, John Gage. His friends call him Johnny.”

 

“Oh, well he still looks like your friend, but I suspect he doesn’t act much like him anymore.”

 

Roy was having trouble following what the woman was getting at, but before he had the chance to interrupt, the woman held up her hand. “Let me just explain this, then if you need to ask questions, you can. All right?”

 

Unable to find any basis on which to disagree, Roy merely nodded his assent.

 

“My name’s Bess. Bess Hilton. This is my ranch. Belonged to me and my husband ‘til he died; now it’s mine. Few months back, a friend of mine brought this young man up to the house…don’t think he ever intended for the young man to end up here, but he did. Poor boy, he’d been in some kind of accident . . . bruised up and had a bad cut on his head. Worse thing, though, he couldn’t remember who he was or where he was from.”

 

Bess paused for a moment as her news settled in. She was worried about what she needed to tell, yet knew that it was important to get the story told before Rick came home. It didn’t help that the man in front of her looked like he’d just been sucker-punched.

 

The story wasn’t long, and Roy was a good audience, his focus intent on her every word. Bess told him of the long hours and hard work that Johnny had put in at the ranch, how he’d grown to be like family to her. She even shared the troubles he’d had when bits and pieces of his memory seemed to be coming back, and how talking about his past seemed to worry and even upset him. Several times she even repeated herself, struggling to convey how upset the young man could be after some of his dreams, and how worried she was that memories or information about his previous life might disturb him. Through it all, her voice was warm and tender, belying how much she’d come to love the young man.

 

“So that’s why that horse trader told Joanne that Johnny didn’t seem like the right name.” Roy mumbled, when Bess finished explaining.

 

“What was that?”

 

“A horse trader from Idaho called my wife yesterday. That’s how I found you.”

 

“Must’ve been Wes Benson. He was here several months back.”

 

“I think that was the name. Evidently, he saw one of the flyers we’ve been circulating, and he called my home in California. I’ve been up here for almost a week, and when I called my wife today, she gave me the directions to your place.”

 

“I see. Well yes, we didn’t have any idea what his name was. And like I told you, he gets very upset when he thinks about who he was, or where he came from. I want you to understand, young man, I won’t let you upset him. Not for any reason.”

 

“He’s my best friend. I just have to see him, know that he’s all right. He’s very important to me, and my family . . . his friends. But I would never do anything-“

 

So intent were they on their conversation, the two were startled to hear the kitchen screen door slam, and before they were prepared, a dark head poked through the doorway.

 

“’xcuse me, Bess. Didn’t wanna interrupt, but I needed to ask you…”

 

“No, of course you didn’t interrupt. My goodness, I didn’t realize how late it was getting to be. Are you back already?”

 

“Yeah, everything looked good.”

 

Bess felt herself relax a bit when Rick flashed her a grin. He didn’t seem upset, and she felt certain that he hadn’t overheard any of the conversation. Hurrying over to him, she grasped his arm and pulled him gently forward.

 

“Good, good. Well, come on in here, Rick, I want to introduce you to someone. This is Roy. He’s my . . . my nephew. Great nephew, actually, on my sister’s side. Anyway, he just stopped by to visit, since he was traveling through the area. Roy, I’d like you to meet my hired hand, Rick.”

 

With a quick swipe of his hands across his jeans, Rick stepped forward, his right hand extended in greeting. “Good to meet you, Roy.”

 

It was almost impossible to keep his expression neutral, but Roy did his best as he clasped the familiar hand in his own. He hoped the handshake didn’t seem to be too friendly, especially when he had to force himself to release his grasp. Staring into those brown eyes, Roy waited for some flicker of recognition to appear, but there was none. Emotions threatened to overwhelm him again until finally, he released his friend’s hand. Making a mental note to thank Mrs. Hilton for her subterfuge, Roy forced himself to answer Johnny, lightly. “Rick. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Thanks, same here.”

 

Roy searched for something else to say, grateful to Bess for her quick thinking in claiming him as a nephew, but at a loss for how to prolong the conversation. Finally, he settled on simple pleasantries.

 

“So, how do you like it here at my aunt’s ranch?” Roy choked out.

 

“I like it a lot. Your Aunt Bess has been real good to me,” Rick answered, uneasily.

 

Bess put her arm around the tall man briefly, almost as if in a protective manner. But her voice was friendly when she spoke to Roy again. “Oh, he’s an easy one to be good to. I tell you, I’ve never met a man more eager to work than this one. He’s got this ranch running better than ever. Heavens, I don’t know what I ever did without him.”

 

“Now, Bess.” Rick murmured, with ill-concealed embarrassment.

 

Roy silently watched the exchange, but mostly his eyes remained focused on Johnny. He looked well; had even put on several pounds since the last time he’d seen . . . Refusing to allow his mind to dwell on that, Roy continued a mental inventory. Johnny’s skin was bronzed from the sun; muscles rippling beneath the flannel shirt he wore rolled up at the elbows. Although his clothes were dusty, he seemed to be in good shape, and most important, there was a smile on his face.

 

It was hard to keep his emotions in check, so anxious was he to blurt out Johnny’s name, and grab hold of him. It had been too many long months of worry, months filled with pain and loss, and the underlying fear that he might never see his best friend again. Now, here he was, only a few feet away. Yet, Roy couldn’t bridge the gap those few feet represented. He couldn’t even speak Johnny’s name. Pushing aside his personal emotions, Roy clenched his fists, and continued to stare. He knew that he was probably making Johnny nervous, but he simply couldn’t help himself.

 

“I’m sorry, Bess, but I need to ask you about that yearling,” Rick pressed. “Did you want him held another day or two in case the buyer shows up, or should I take him out to the pasture with the others?”

 

“Well, I think we’ve waited long enough for Mr. Bates to make up his mind. Let’s let the little guy have some fun. But why don’t you wait until tomorrow to move him. I’m going to fix a special supper, and if you take him out now, you’ll be late getting back.”

 

“Sure, Bess, whatever you say.” Rick nodded once, and turned to go back through the kitchen, but stopped as the woman spoke again.

 

“Why don’t you show Roy around while I’m getting supper started? I’m sure he’d like to see the place, and I won’t have time for awhile.”

 

“All right. Come on, I’ll show you some of Bess’ new stock.”

 

Roy looked at Bess in surprise, but her look of encouragement was enough to insure him that she was doing what she thought was best. Swallowing back his urge to question, he simply nodded his acquiescence instead.

 

“Don’t take too long, though. I told you I was fixing something special tonight.”

 

Roy remained mute as he simply fell in behind the dark-haired man and followed him out the door. He wondered how he’d ever be able to keep up this deception, yet he remembered several things that Bess had mentioned earlier. If memories upset Johnny, then he needed to be careful. The last thing he wanted to do was force anything on his friend. Maybe just being close to him would be enough to bring back the past. Roy could only hope.

 

**********

 

Johnny’s long steps carried him quickly toward the barns, but Roy had no problem keeping up. In fact, their strides matched, almost step for step. Roy fought back another wave of elation at the keen realization that his partner and best friend was not only alive, but was walking right beside him. It was a struggle to keep the euphoria out of his voice, as he searched for a safe topic to get them talking. He finally decided to go with the most obvious.

 

“So, how long have you worked here with my aunt?”

 

“Don’t know for sure . . . been awhile . . .” the young man answered hesitantly.

 

“Do you like it?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. She’s been real good to me.” Johnny paused, as if he wanted to say more, but didn’t. He sounded very matter-of-fact when he did continue. “Here’s the first part of the tour.”

 

Roy nodded at all the right times, and asked the appropriate questions when required. Mostly he just stared at Johnny as they moved through the various barns and buildings. He didn’t realize how quiet and unresponsive he’d become until they’d finally ended up at one of the round pens inside the largest barn. Side by side, they leaned against the rails, each staring quietly at the mare and foal inside. The surreptitious glances he’d been casting towards his long-time friend were something he’d hoped went unnoticed.

 

The silence between them lengthened, an awkward quiet. When Johnny finally turned to stare at the visitor, there was an apologetic smile on his face. “I’m sorry. This must seem pretty weird.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Having a stranger show you around your aunt’s place. Maybe you’d rather have Bess take you around tomorrow.”

 

“No!” Roy stopped himself, realizing that the response was too abrupt. “I mean, no, that’s okay. I really don’t mind. I haven’t seen my aunt in years, and never have been out here. I really appreciate you taking the time.”

 

There was a long pause, broken only when Johnny cleared his throat. “Then why do you keep staring at me?”

 

“I . . . oh man, I’m sorry.” Roy stuttered. “I didn’t mean to do that. It’s just that . . . well, you look like a friend of mine.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Johnny nodded quietly, and turned back to watch the animals. Roy strove to come up with another topic, anything to get a conversation going again, but his mind was a blank. More appropriately, his mind was a blank when it came to making conversation, but that was only because it was filled with curiosity and questions about his friend, and more than a couple prayers of thanks that Johnny was alive and well.

 

“Would you look at that?”

 

Roy looked up, surprised at the excitement in his partner’s voice. The minute he followed Johnny’s gaze towards the foal, he understood why. The little one was full of energy, and seemed to be almost dancing about his mother’s legs. It was a beautiful, natural sight, and both men stood quietly, enjoying the scene together.

 

“Jen would love this.”

 

“Jen? Who’s that?”

 

“Oh, sorry. Jennifer. My daughter. She’s in love with horses. That’s all she talks about these days. Amazing, how a little girl can graduate straight from Barbie dolls right up to the expensive things. She’s been begging me for months, to give her riding lessons.”

 

“Well, they’d be good for her. If a kid’s going to be around animals, then they should learn how to handle them. Better than going in unprepared and getting hurt.”

 

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

 

“Do you have any other kids?”

 

“A boy, Chris. He’s eleven.” Roy studied Johnny’s expression, anxious to see if the names prompted any recognition. There was none, but the conversation did seem to break the ice.

 

“He like horses, too?”

 

“No. He’s more interested in baseball and camping.”

 

Johnny’s laugh was like balm to Roy’s soul. “Come on, you can help me feed.”

 

Roy found that there was a lot to do, and plenty to remember. He was amazed at the things Johnny had to do, and the ease with which he accomplished the evening chores. It was like he’d been at this job his whole life. Roy found himself curious about the operation, and began to ask questions, which Johnny answered unerringly.

 

By the time they returned to the house, the conversation was relaxed and friendly. The familiar banter between them almost made Roy think that things were back to normal, and that any moment, Johnny would turn to him and ask about Joanne, the kids, or the guys at the station. However, as they walked up the steps to the kitchen door, he was quickly brought back to reality. Bess was calling out, her voice shaky, as if she were out of breath. “Rick? Oh, I’m glad you’re here.”


”Bess? What’s wrong? Where are you?”

 

Rushing through the open door, he almost collided with the woman, as she came out of the dining room. Grasping her arms, he tried to move her toward a chair near the table.

 

“What did you do? Are you all right?”

 

“Land-sakes, boy. Where’s the fire? I don’t need to sit down. I’m fine. What’s gotten into you?”

 

Bess swatted at his hands, stiffening as he tried to help her sit down. Roy would have been amused, if he wasn’t worried that the woman may have fallen, or injured herself in some way.

”You sure you’re okay?” Johnny persisted, as he finally got her seated, and visually checked her over.

 

Her voice softened some, as she watched him squat down in front of her. “Rick, settle down, son. I’m all right. I was just tryin’ to move that old buffet around a bit. Dropped a tablecloth down behind it, and couldn’t reach it. Darn old body, won’t let me do a thing I want to, anymore.”

 

Sitting back on his heels, Johnny put his trembling hands on the chair, one on either side of her. “You mean to tell me that you were trying to move that heavy piece of furniture all by yourself? Woman, that was a stupid thing to do. You could’ve really hurt yourself!"

 

Johnny’s voice was filled with frustration, but it also held a very serious overtone of concern. Roy observed the scene, suddenly aware that there was a deeper bond here than just an employer and employee relationship. He watched as Bess reached out and cupped Johnny’s cheek with a wiry hand.

 

“I’m fine, son. Just fine. You worry too much.”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Oh, come on now, this is much too serious. I was just calling you for a little help. You know, so you could use some of that muscle you’re always showing off to the ladies. Come on, both of you, and help me get the table set. Dinner’s almost ready.”

 

Johnny looked up, looking somewhat embarrassed when he realized that Roy had been watching the whole time. “Umm, I’m sorry. You probably want to help your aunt . . .”

 

Johnny stood up and moved back, as if he were in the way, then quickly stepped into the dining room. Roy could hear the buffet being moved into place as he reached out to help Bess up.

 

“He’s a little sensitive, don’t you think?” She muttered, brushing aside his helping hand.

 

Roy smiled at her, and nodded slightly. “Always has been.”

 

Bess didn’t smile, but nodded slowly as she turned to the stove, and busied herself with the dinner preparations. After Johnny retrieved the tablecloth, she hurriedly set the table, urging the men to wash their hands while she dished up the steaming food.

 

Seated across the table from Johnny an hour later, Roy found himself grateful again. It was so good to look up and see his friend’s face, hear the man’s familiar laugh. Even his habits remained the same. Though Johnny was completely unaware of his actions, each time he splayed his hand across his chest, Roy felt a strange tightening in his own. If only he didn’t have to call him Rick.

 

“Bess, that was a great meal. As usual,” Johnny said with a smile.

 

“Oh, you’re just happy 'cause I made that apple pie I promised you.”

 

“Well, there was that . . . even if you did make me wait.”

 

“Wait? You only asked for it a few days ago, and you knew I had all that work in the garden . . . “

 

His quick laugh turned her frown into a smile. “It was worth the wait, Bess.”

 

“Oh, go on with you.”

 

Bess got up, and slowly began to gather the empty dishes, Johnny immediately jumping up to help.

 

“Here, let me help you with that.” Roy offered. He wished he could eat his words when he saw their effect on Johnny’s demeanor. The younger man stood still for a moment, then quietly set the vegetable dish back on the table.

 

“Well, if Roy’s going to help out, and you don’t mind Bess, then I think I’m going to work in the tack room for awhile.”

 

“Sure, Rick. That’s fine.”

 

“All right then. You two enjoy your visit.”

 

Without a backward glance, Johnny headed out into the night. The air was already turning cold, but he didn’t bother to grab his jacket from the hook behind the door. Bess watched as the door slammed closed behind him.

 

“He usually spends the evening in here,” she murmured quietly.

 

Roy stared at the door for several minutes before answering. “Maybe he thought we’d like some time alone, since we’re supposed to be related.”

 

“Oh, yes . . .sorry about that.” Bess smiled apologetically. “It’s the only thing I could come up with, real quick like.”

 

“Hey, no problem. It’s worked out fine. And I appreciate your letting me stay.”

 

“Of course. I can see how much you care about him.” Bess grew quiet again, as she piled the dishes in the sink.

 

“There’s one thing I’m curious about, though.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“How did you know my name?” Roy questioned, as he picked up a dishtowel.

 

“I was right, wasn’t I?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

There was another long silence, while Bess filled the sink with water. Roy almost missed her response. “He used to dream a lot. Nightmares, really. In the beginning, it was almost every night, and sometimes in the afternoon, if he’d doze off after dinner. He would call out for Roy, and some others, too. But mostly he called for Roy. I just knew it had to be someone he was close to. Someone he probably depended on.”

 

“We’re partners.”

 

Roy’s answer was almost so soft that Bess turned to stare at him. “Partners?”

 

“Yes. We’re firemen/paramedics for Los Angeles County in California.”

 

“Oh, well that explains some things.”

 

“It does?”

 

“Yes. The dreams . . . there were times when I wondered what he’d done in the past that would made him talk that way. Like he was in dangerous situations.”

 

“He was. Many times.” Roy answered quietly.

 

Bess went about washing her dishes, seeming to concentrate on the job at hand, but Roy sensed that wasn’t the case. She didn’t disappoint him. “Do you know what happened to him? How he ended up here?”

 

Roy hesitated for a moment, before answering. “We don’t know for sure. Johnny drove up here alone for his vacation, after a friend told him about the great fishing in Oregon. Somewhere along the way, he wrecked his car, and by the time someone found it, he was gone. We’ve been looking for him ever since.”

 

“Harold found him alongside the road one day.” Bess added. “He didn’t look too good, but Harold sensed that he was a decent man. So he picked him up, intending to take him home. He only made it as far as my place. Been here ever since.”

 

“It looks like you’ve been good for each other.”

 

“We have.” Bess faltered. “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

 

They finished the dishes in silence. There was no animosity; just a quiet break while each one contemplated their private thoughts. When they’d put away the last dish, and wiped the last counter, Roy made his request. “I wonder if I could use your phone. There’re some people at home who need to know what I’ve found out.”

 

Bess’ frown wasn’t the answer Roy expected.

 

“I don’t mind paying, of course. Whatever you think is fair for the charges, I-”

 

“No! Oh, no, it’s not that.” Bess motioned for Roy to have a seat on the upholstered sofa as they moved into the parlor. “Of course I don’t mind if you use the phone. Call whomever you need to, and talk as long as you like, young man. The only reason I hesitated is. . .well. . .you know, we’re a little behind the times out here, and our phone company hasn’t done much upgradin’. We’re still sharing a party line, and my neighbor, Lizzie Watts, is one of the biggest busybodies you’d ever hope to meet. Doesn’t seem to matter what time of the day or night you’re on the phone, she’ll be there, listenin’ in. I’m just worried about what’d happen if she figured out that you know Rick. It’d be all over the countryside by mornin’, and right after that, some well-meanin’ neighbor would mention it to him. Don’t think either one of us wants that to happen.”

 

Roy remained silent as he digested this latest piece of information. He desperately needed to call home, and if he did, there was no way he could keep this from Joanne. All she’d have to do was hear the tone of his voice to know that he had good news. Then, there was the call he wanted to place to Dr. Brackett. But if Bess was right, he knew he couldn’t take the chance that Johnny might be told information he wasn’t ready to hear.

 

“Bess, is there a payphone anywhere close by?”

 

“Down at Walker’s store, but that’s about ten miles from here. They’re all closed up tight by now.” Bess pushed herself from the wooden rocker and began to pace the room. It was her third turn around the narrow space before she stopped and smiled. “How about I send you on an errand tomorrow after breakfast? Rick will be movin’ the yearlings out to pasture, so you could drive down then, and he’d never suspect a thing.”

 

Roy’s expression must’ve been obvious. Bess almost laughed, but stopped herself and smiled warmly instead. “Course, you’d probably like to spend a little time with him, wouldn’t ya?”

 

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

 

The two were silent again, until Roy finally stood and walked towards the kitchen.

 

“Watcha gonna do?” Bess asked curiously.

 

“I’m going to call my wife, and try to be as discreet as possible. If I can get my message across to her, then I’ll be free to go out with Joh. . . Rick, tomorrow morning. The other call will have to wait. I just wanted to ask some questions of a doctor we both know.”

 

“Oh, well, Rick has already been seen by a doctor, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

 

“I’m grateful for that, Bess, but I still want to talk to Dr. Brackett. I need to find out if he has any suggestions on how to help Johnny. But I’m willing to wait on that for a few days, if I have to.”

 

“All right, young man. I guess I’ll have to trust that you know best about that. My only concern is for that young man out there. I’ve grown to care about him. A lot. I don’t want anything, or anyone, to hurt him. And that includes you.”

 

Roy moved closer before stopping directly in front of the woman. With his most assuring tone, he answered her quietly. “Believe me, Bess, I feel the same way.”

 

He waited until she nodded at him, before walking into the kitchen and picking up the receiver. Standing next to the wall phone, he hesitated for a moment before dialing. There was no mistaking the small click he heard on the line, and he wondered how anyone could be so nosey. Shaking his head, he slowly dialed his home number and waited for Joanne to pick up.

 

“DeSoto Residence.”

 

“Hi Joanne!”

 

“Roy? Honey, are you okay? Where are you?”

 

Tilting his head slightly, Roy could see that Bess was standing just outside the kitchen door. “I’m fine. No problem here. Just decided to spend a few days with my aunt while I’m here in Oregon.”

 

“You’re aunt? Roy, you don’t…”

 

“You remember Aunt Bess, don’t you? She’s the one on my dad’s side . . .he used to talk about her all the time.”

 

The pause on the other end lengthened, and Roy knew that his wife was trying to figure out what kind of game he was playing. Okay, he had to work fast here, or the old biddy in the middle of this conversation was going to get curious.

 

“Well, maybe you don’t remember her, but I promised my dad that if I was ever up this way, I’d stop and see her. Since I was in the area, I figured now was the time. You don’t mind, do you, sweetheart?”

 

“Ummm, no . . .I guess not.”

 

Joanne’s tone was none-to-happy, and Roy could only imagine her expression about now.

 

“But what about the reason for your trip? Did you find…”

 

“Yes, I did! Can’t tell you much right now, but I found the place I was looking for. And that tip was real. You wouldn’t believe how good it feels to know that our hunch was right.”

 

“Oh, Roy . . . are you serious? It really was true? Johnny’s okay?”

 

Roy almost choked, but fought down his concern in favor of keeping the conversation light.

 

“Yep. But listen, hon, I really can’t talk any longer. My aunt has a young man staying here . . . guy by the name of ‘Rick’, and I promised him I’d help with the evening chores before turning in. You’d really like him, reminds me of one of the guys I used to work with. But he’s probably waiting on me, so I’ll call you back in a few days, and let you know how things are going, and when I’ll be home.”

 

This time, there was no mistaking Joanne’s tone. “You have to hang up now? But I have so many questions, and the kids want to talk to you. Why can’t you talk a little…”

 

“I’m sorry, Joanne, really. I’ll tell you about the whole trip when I get home, but not long-distance, okay? Just give my boss a call, will you, and let him know what’s going on. Tell him everything’s okay, and that he’ll have his whole crew back before he knows it. Night, hon, I love you.”

 

“Well . . . okay, yes . . . I’ll call him. I love you, too, Roy. Bye . . .”

 

Joanne’s pause was her indication for more discussion, but Roy knew he couldn’t say much more. And if the kids got on the line, there would be enough questions running through Miss Lizzie’s mind to launch a full-scale investigation. Nope, he had to say goodbye, and hope that Joanne had gleaned enough to tide her over until the next call. The excited tone of her voice when she’d agreed to call Cap left him to believe that she had.

 

“Bye.”

 

As he hung up the receiver, Bess moved into the room to stand beside him.

 

“Well, what do you think?”

 

Her laugh was filled with respect, and more than a little relief. “I think you did a mighty fine job. You sure you don’t work for the police? Maybe a detective or undercover man?”

 

Roy’s laughter joined hers. “No. No police work. But I’ve learned a few tricks from a couple guys who love to pull pranks on one another. Guess some of their scheming has rubbed off on me.”

 

Bess simply nodded as she patted his arm. “You’re all right, Roy. You’re all right.”

 

The two chatted quietly after that, and it was quite late when Johnny finally showed up at the back door again. His shirt was dirty, his hair speckled with bits of hay, proof that his time in the barn had been well spent, if a bit unnecessary.

 

Bess didn’t bother to chastise him. Her young friend had thought he was doing what was best, and she couldn’t fault him for that. Besides, it had given her and Roy a chance to get to know each other. And Rick, or Johnny . . . she knew him better too. Better than he knew himself right now. She longed to be able to talk with him about his past, comfort him, reassure him that there was nothing for him to be worried or ashamed about, but Bess wouldn’t do anything to hurt this young man. And if there was even a slight possibility that making him remember could be harmful, then she wouldn’t do it. No, it was better to let things move slowly.

 

She’d offered, and Roy had accepted her invitation to stay at the ranch for a while. It was going to be a hardship on his young family, but that wasn’t his concern right now. He’d assured her that his wife would understand, and would be supportive. But more than anything, it was obvious that he needed to spend some time with his friend. So for now, she’d provided him with a way to stay close, and maybe in the end, his presence would help bring back Rick’s memory.

 

Whether that was something she really wanted or not, Bess was unwilling to explore her feelings about. It was enough that she was doing the right thing. The rest, well . . .the rest she’d leave in God’s hands.

 

The door banged closed, and she forced herself to paste a smile on her face. “’bout time you got back up here. Didn’t we have a cribbage game to finish tonight?”

 

“Yeah, sorry about that. But I figured you’d like to have some time alone with Roy. We can always finish that game later.”

 

“Yes, you’re right.” Bess agreed, though silently she wondered if they’d ever spend another quiet evening alone, as they had throughout the summer.

 

“Is Roy planning to bunk down with me?”

 

“I thought that’d be best.”

 

“Sure. I kinda figured that, since you’ve got that quilting spread all over the spare room.”

 

Bess laughed outright. “You scamp.”

 

Turning to Roy, she winked slyly. “Hope you don’t mind, but there’s an extra bed in the bunkhouse. It belongs to Rocky, but he’s still up in Portland with his sister. Don’t know when, or if, that man will be back on the ranch. Old coot.”

 

Johnny winked at Roy this time, unaware that he was following the old lady’s lead. “She misses him.”

 

“Yeah, like I’d miss a toothache.”

 

“The bunkhouse will be fine.” Roy smiled, enjoying the repartee between these two. “If you’re sure Rocky won’t mind.”

 

“We won’t tell him.” Bess laughed.

 

After saying a quick goodnight, the two men made their way to the sleeping quarters. It was obvious that Johnny had been there ahead of time, getting things ready. Lights shown through the windows, and as they went in, Roy was surprised at the homey atmosphere within. It was warm and comfortable, completely different than he expected.

 

It didn’t take long to get cleaned up, and settled under the covers. There was no teasing or small talk, like there would’ve been back at Station 51. But Roy felt very content when he looked across the room and saw Johnny crook his arm over his eyes.

 

“Night, Roy.” The man murmured tiredly.

 

“Night, Jo. . .Rick.”

 

Roy switched off the small lamp, and snuggled under the covers. The night temperature had dropped, making the warmth of his bed feel good. His mind replayed the events of the day for only a few minutes, before the rest of his body took over, and sent him into a deep, but satisfied sleep.

 

**********

 

The movement in the other bunk was unmistakable, the moaning incoherent but familiar. Roy had slept next to Johnny enough years to recognize his partner in the throes of a nightmare. The only problem this time was in knowing the best way to help him. As the moans turned into pleas for help, Roy threw caution to the wind, and jumped into action.

 

“Johnny!” Roy shook his head in frustration. “Rick! Rick, wake up. You’re okay . . .everything’s all right.”

 

The movement had turned to thrashing, but only for a moment before Johnny’s eyes flew open . . . his chest heaving, sweat pooling on his forehead. Dark eyes stared up from the bunk, unseeing at first, then finally recognizing his surroundings.

 

Roy managed to flip the light on, while keeping a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You okay, now?”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Man, I’m sorry. I don’t know what . . .”

 

His voice trailed off, as Johnny looked uncomfortably from spot to spot, his eyes never resting on Roy for more than a second.

 

“It’s okay. Really, you…“

 

“Excuse me.” Shrugging off Roy’s hand, Johnny bolted from the bed, barely taking time to pull on his jeans, and stuff his feet into the boots at the end of his bed. He almost left without his jacket, only grabbing it up at the last minute before flinging the door open, and stomping into the night. The door swung back but didn’t latch, swinging back instead until it stopped halfway between closed and open.

 

From his vantage point where he still sat on the floor next to Johnny’s bunk, Roy could see through the door all the way to the corral outside. Though the hour was late, an autumn moon lit the sky like day, making it easy to watch the scene unfold.

 

Johnny’s footsteps were quick and determined at first, but by the time he reached the fence railing, his feet were dragging, as if he’d lost all sense of direction. Roy didn’t move, choosing to remain still, his focus intent on the man outside. One foot cocked on the lowest rail, Johnny laid his arms on the top. He stood that way for more than a few minutes, completely still, head raised towards the moonlit sky. And then, he dropped his head onto his arms. Unmoving, he stayed in that position until Roy couldn’t bear it any longer.

 

Dressing quickly, he only took his eyes off his friend for a minute. But in that short space, Johnny had straightened up, and was now fiddling with something in his jacket. Stepping out of the bunkhouse, Roy could see that his best friend, his partner, was now lighting a cigarette, trembling fingers clearly visible in the moonlight.

 

Roy stopped next to him, hesitating only a moment before placing a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You all right?”

 

“Yeah. Sorry I woke ya.”

 

“Not a problem. I’m used to getting up in the middle of the night.”

 

“Oh, that’s right. You’re a fireman, aren’t you?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

Johnny took another puff on his cigarette, watching the smoke as it drifted slowly away on the night air. Roy fought back the urge to snatch the thing from his friend’s fingers, the same way he fought back the overwhelming desire to lay his arm across Johnny’s shoulders to reassure him. Instead, he tried to think of some way to get his friend talking. “Was it bad?”

 

“What? The dream?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“No. . . some. . .”

 

“Wanna talk about it?”

 

Another pause while Johnny stared at his cigarette, before dropping it in the dirt where he ground it out with his heel. “Not much to talk about. Someone’s hurt . . .I’m trying to help him. There’s smoke . . . lots of voices. I think I have the guy’s hand, and then . . . then nothing.”

 

“Sounds like you’ve had this dream before.”

 

“Similar ones.” He looked up at Roy, his expression almost pleading in its sincerity. “Thing is, it doesn’t make sense. The feeling, I mean. Like my heart is being torn out of my chest or something, I wake up in a cold sweat, every time. But I don’t know why.”

 

“Maybe it’s from the past.” Roy suggested.

 

His comment caused Johnny to stiffen perceptibly. “Bess told you.”

 

“She mentioned that you’d had some problems. I hope you don’t mind. Guess she figured I was family, and wanted me to know.” Roy lied.

 

“No, I don’t mind.” Johnny relaxed some. “I guess it’s only right she’d tell you. And she’s been good to me . . .” His voice trailed off.

 

They stood quietly together, the night still around them.

 

“It’s getting cold out here. How about we go in and finish talking there,” suggested Roy.

 

“Nahh, how about we get some sleep. There’re a lot of chores waiting for me tomorrow.”

 

The two men turned and slowly walked back towards the bunkhouse. They were almost to the doorway before Johnny spoke, his voice almost teasing. “Hey, was your aunt ever in the Army?”

 

Roy laughed with relief. He recognized Johnny’s tactics, but felt it was better to let the issue slide for now, at least until he had a chance to Dr. Brackett. When they finally settled into their bunks again, Johnny crooked his arm over his face then spoke quietly. “Thanks, Roy.”

 

There was no way that Roy could respond. Something in his throat kept the sound from escaping. Instead, he put his hand over his own eyes, and wished for a miracle.

 

Sunshine filled the room when Roy opened his eyes again. He rubbed them slowly, wondering at the late hour, and the unfamiliar feeling of peace that filled his waking moments. It had been a long time since he’d felt this good. Since before Johnny had . . .

 

Sitting up, Roy anxiously scanned the empty room. Johnny’s bed was neatly made, but there was no sign of him.

 

Jumping to his feet, Roy jammed them hurriedly into his faded jeans, then slid his arms into a cotton shirt. He didn’t take time to grab his jacket, barely getting his shoes on before stumbling through the bunkhouse door. Searching the yard for any sign of his missing friend, Roy half walked, half ran as he made his way toward the house. Reaching the back door, he barely knocked before pushing his way into the kitchen. Bess looked up in surprise, as he struggled to calm down.


”Where is he? Where did he go? When?”

 

“Now, now…calm down, Roy. Here, sit at the table while I pour you a cup of coffee. For pete’s sake, you sure have yourself all riled up this morning.”

 

She filled a white ceramic mug with hot coffee, pushing it in front of him firmly. He obeyed her silently, using the diversion to get himself under control. After he’d sipped at the black brew for a few minutes, she patted him reassuringly on the shoulder then sat down beside him.

 

“He hasn’t gone far. I suspect he didn’t sleep well last night, ‘cause he was up bright and early this morning. He left a note for me, does that from time to time when he’s heading out early, and said he was going up to the high pasture to check some fencing.”

 

“Was that something he planned to do?” Roy interrupted.

 

“No, but then that boy does have a mind of his own.”

 

“Always has.” Roy added.

 

Bess laughed, but then turned sober again. “Was everything okay last night?”

 

Roy studied her expression, surprised at the depth of concern he read on the old woman’s face. It was obvious that she cared deeply for Johnny, and from all the signs, it looked like the feeling was mutual. He wondered, briefly, if this new relationship was affecting Johnny’s memory, or lack thereof.

 

“Roy?”

 

“Huh? Oh, last night . . . umm, he had a dream. Seemed to really upset him at first, but we talked a little, then went back to sleep. I thought he was okay.”

 

“I’m sure he is. But he gets like this sometimes, after he’s had one of his nightmares. Takes him two, even three days to get over it. I still haven’t figured out if the dreams are something he fears, or something he remembers.”

 

“Memories.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Pretty sure. He’s talking about rescues, fires . . . things we’ve dealt with on the job.”

 

“Oh. Well, I kind of thought so.”

 

Bess stared into her own coffee cup, as if looking for answers. When she spoke again, her voice was low, but full. “I just can’t figure out if he’s afraid to remember, or afraid not to.”

 

Silence spread between them, until finally the woman seemed to pull herself together and stood up. “I bet you’re hungry. How about a big breakfast?”

 

“Don’t go to any trouble, Bess. Just some juice and toast would be fine.”

 

“Good Lord, that’s not a breakfast. Sounds more like a snack to me. You just sit there and drink your coffee, young man, and I’ll show you what a real breakfast looks like.”

 

Roy grinned as she bustled over to the stove, and lit the first burner. He watched her for a few minutes, considering his question. Finally, he decided he had to know. “Bess?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Why do you call him Rick?”

 

She stopped for a moment, as if surprised at the question, then returned to her cooking while she answered. “Had to call him something. Couldn’t just be hollering ‘hey you’ at the poor boy. We talked about it a little, the first day he was here. It seemed to make him nervous, not knowing who he was, so I tried to be real casual when I suggested a few names. He was the one that perked up when I mentioned Rick, so we just stuck with that one. Why?”

 

“He recognized it?”

 

“Well, not really. I mean, not like he answered to it at first, or anything. But he seemed comfortable with Rick, and that seemed to be the most important thing at the time.”

 

“Oh.”

 

It was Roy’s turn to stare into his coffee, wondering at the strange twist of fate that made people choose the things they did. He didn’t realize that Bess had set a plate of eggs in front of him, until she called to him for what must have been the second time. “You okay?”

 

“Yeah. Yes . . . sorry. Just thinking.”

 

“Do you think it was wrong? To call him Rick?”

 

“No, not at all. I just found it interesting. See, Johnny’s middle name is Roderick, and though that may be stretching it a bit, I just wondered if you calling him Rick sounded familiar to him.”

 

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know it fits him. Now dig in. You may not think so, but you’re needin’ a good breakfast. After that, maybe you’d like to drive down to the payphone. It’ll probably be at least noon before Rick shows up, and that would give you plenty of time to make those calls you wanted to.”

 

“Will that make him suspicious?”

 

“No, course not. It’s not like there’s a lot of places to go around here. And if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll give you a short list of things to pick up. We do our big shopping in town, but there’s always a thing or two we need in between trips. He’s used to me sending him down the road for something.”

 

“Okay, that would be great. Thanks, Bess. I’m anxious to call home again, and this might work out for the best.”

 

“Things usually do.” Bess murmured quietly.

 

Roy didn’t know if she’d meant for him to hear or not, but he hoped that in this case, things worked out for everyone. Bess was a nice woman, and he hated to see her hurt. But if there was any way in this world that Johnny could regain his memory, then Roy was going to do everything in his power to see that happen.

 

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

 

Kel Brackett leaned back in his leather chair, tiredly surveying the pile of folders on his desk. There were charts to look over, schedules to confirm, surgical information he needed to read. None of it appealed to him. In fact, there was nothing right now that convinced him to do anything at all.

 

It had been a grueling twelve hours, a shift he was glad to be done with. Dixie said that shifts like this came with the full moon. He didn’t know whether to laugh at the superstition, or agree with her.

 

The busy evening had been followed by a horrific night, filled with accident victims from a MVA on the 405. It was capped off by an extremely difficult case brought in by 36’s, a young woman who had died less than thirty minutes earlier.

 

Kel rubbed his right arm tiredly, anticipating the necessary writing he was going to have to do. Soon. He leaned back a little further in the chair, letting his eyes move away from the desk and up to the ceiling. A little nap would be nice about now.

 

The phone picked that exact minute to ring, and Kel sighed deeply. But he only moved far enough to snag the receiver and pull it to his ear.

 

“Brackett.”

 

“Doctor Brackett? It’s Roy. Doc! Doc, I found him!”

 

“What? Roy. Roy, is that you? Is it . . . Johnny? You found Johnny? What happened? How is he...”

 

“He’s okay, Doc. I mean he’s okay physically. But he doesn’t recognize me. Doesn’t seem to remember anything about his life in LA, or being a fireman. Nothing. I don’t know what to do, or what to say . . . I need your help.”

 

Roy’s voice was filled with excitement, like a young child at Christmas who was showing off his new toys for the first time. It seemed like he was barely taking time to breathe. Kel rubbed his forehead, then leaned back in his chair, as he struggled to control his own excited thoughts.

 

“Roy, this is great news. Now, calm down a little, and tell me everything you know, okay?”

 

“Sure, Doc. Sorry. It’s just . . . well, I still can’t believe I found him. And I can’t really say much around him. See he’s up at this ranch . . . “

 

For the next fifteen minutes, Brackett first listened to, then counseled one of his top paramedics on what he should and/or shouldn’t do for their friend. In the end, he didn’t know if his advice would be of any help. With an injury like Johnny’s, there were so many variables.

 

In the end, he wished Roy luck, and asked him to keep in touch. As he laid the receiver back in place, he stared at it for several minutes, knowing that there was little else he could do.

 

Kel couldn’t help but wish though, that things had been different. That he’d been the treating physician, or at least had access to Johnny’s initial care. But from what little information Roy could give him, it didn’t sound like Johnny had any care. That made the case all the more puzzling. Was he suffering from some physical problem? A head injury that caused irreparable damage, possibly even a chemical imbalance? Or was his memory loss tied to something less intangible? Maybe something to do with the emotional stress he’d been under during those last few days on the job. Kel longed to sit down with Johnny himself, but that wasn’t possible. So for now, he had given Roy as much advice as he could, and prayed that something he said would help.

 

A quiet knock on the door caught his attention. Seconds later, the door opened a crack, and a familiar face appeared before him.

 

“Kel? Everything all right? I knocked several times.”

 

“Sorry Dix, I was lost in thought.”

 

“Oh. Well, I didn’t want to interrupt. I just thought you should go home, and get some…”

 

“Dix . . . sit down.”

 

“Why? Kel, what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing’s wrong. Just . . . Here, sit down.” He stood up and walked her to one of the chairs in front of his desk. Then, sitting opposite her, he smiled. “Roy just called in. He’s found him. Johnny’s alive.”

 

“Johnny? He’s alive! Oh my God. That’s wonderful! Where is he? What happened?”

 

Kel grinned widely for the first time, his own relief only now coming to the surface. Whatever the problem with Johnny’s memory, at least their young friend was alive and well. Roy had found him, and maybe his presence would be the push Johnny needed for his memory to return.

 

“Here.” Kel smiled indulgently, as he handed her his handkerchief, not the least surprised that his friend was a little emotional over the news. “Dry your eyes and I’ll tell you what I know.”

 

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

 

Roy DeSoto was a patient man, but this constant waiting was beginning to wear on even his tolerant nature. The problem was he didn’t know what he was waiting for. He knew better than to expect that Johnny would suddenly look over at him and say ‘Hi Pally, how are ya?’ Yet in some strange way, Roy suspected that’s exactly what he was waiting for. And the more time he spent here with Johnny, the more he doubted that his waiting would ever be over.

 

It had been four days since he’d knocked on Bess’ front door, four very full days. His trip to the store that first morning had been uneventful. There were few customers while he was there, and the small corner phone booth had been fairly private.

 

Joanne had been more than understanding, after he’d had a chance to explain. She’d even laughed at his frustration with Ms. Lizzie Watts, who’d kept their previous conversation to a minimum. But he could also tell she was fighting back tears when the conversation turned to Johnny. It was hard to explain how he could be standing right next to his best friend, and go unrecognized. It was harder still, to make her understand that he might be coming home alone.

 

Roy was grateful that he’d called while the kids were in school. He didn’t think he could’ve handled trying to answer their questions long-distance. Joanne had promised to do her best to make them understand, and Roy choked back a bitter laugh at that. How could he expect them to understand what he couldn’t?

 

His call to Dr. Brackett had been less than fruitful, for although the good doctor had given him suggestions of symptoms to watch for, he had no concrete answers to Johnny’s condition. Again Roy fought against laughing at himself. Did he really expect Brackett to diagnosis Johnny’s problem over the telephone?

 

On the drive back to the ranch that morning, Roy had answered his own question. He simply wanted someone else to fix everything, wave a magic wand and make the problem disappear. He wanted Johnny to be his old self, but the hard cold truth was that might never happen.

 

By the time he pulled into Bess’ yard and saw Johnny working in the paddock, Roy had at least consoled himself with the fact that his family and friends knew what was happening. And it had made him feel a little better to talk to Dr. Brackett. There was only one other person he needed to speak with, and that was Hank Stanley. But the engine had been out on a run, and his latest partner, Tom, said they weren’t expected back for several hours. So Roy had left a message for Cap to call Dr. Brackett himself. At the time it had seemed easier than relaying all the information through Tom, but later he admitted to himself that he didn’t feel comfortable telling his temporary partner all the personal details about his real partner. Roy shook his head at his strange line of thinking. As if he would betray Johnny by talking to Tom.

 

The last person he’d called from the phone booth had been Detective Saunders. Dale had been happy to hear the news, and genuinely relieved that Johnny was all right. Of course, there were still unanswered questions, such as why no one had come forward sooner, in view of the many posters they’d plastered over half the state. But as the detective had been careful to remind him, this area was pretty remote. So, with Johnny spending most of his time on the secluded ranch, and with scant police coverage in the district, it was possible that none of the information had made it to the general public, or at least to anyone that had seen Johnny and put two and two together.

 

Unfortunate, the detective had called it. Roy wanted to call it something else, but had held back. After all, the man had worked for months to find Johnny. No one could fault him for the size of the state, and who would’ve ever thought that one victim would have traveled hundreds of miles from the accident site, to end up at an isolated ranch.

 

As he stepped out of the Rover, Johnny’s voice caused him to turn abruptly. “That your rig?”

 

“Uhh, yeah. I mean, no. It’s my friend’s.”

 

“Ahh. Nice.”

 

“You like it?”

 

“Yeah, I do.”

 

“You want to take it for a drive?”

 

Johnny had stopped at that point, looking closely at the white Land Rover. His brow furrowed unnaturally, and Roy suddenly felt as if he’d cheated in some way. He didn’t know how to take back his offer, so he waited patiently for an answer.

 

“Nah. Too much work today. Maybe some other time.”

 

Johnny had walked back towards the barn, pitchfork in hand, and Roy dutifully followed him. From that point on, he’d pretty much shadowed his partner. Morning ‘til night, he’d worked side by side with Johnny, learning his friend’s new daily routine. They spent hours working around the horses and the barns, and Roy had a firm grasp of the fence lines and pastures. Johnny showed it all to him. All but the high pasture, which he said he was saving for Saturday. The evenings were spent with Bess, and sometimes Harold. The food was excellent, and the friendly card games made the time pass quickly. Roy had enjoyed every minute of it, but time was passing, and he couldn’t stay here indefinitely.

 

Looking over at Johnny now, he had a feeling that things were truly spinning out of control. While his friend slept soundly, Roy longed for the same peace. He was too tired to get up, and too wound up to sleep. He had to get in touch with Joanne, and he really needed to call Cap about his extended vacation. There were too many responsibilities waiting at home, yet he couldn’t stand the thought of driving away and leaving Johnny here. Maybe forever.

 

A slight moan caught his attention, and Roy sat up in his bunk, but Johnny settled almost immediately, his breathing becoming slow and regular again. Only one other nightmare had disturbed their sleep since that first night, and Roy was hopeful that his presence was keeping them at bay. Would this be just another thing to regret when he left? He couldn’t help but wonder -- was he helping Johnny in some way by being here? And would his leaving affect his friend, even if he didn’t regain his memory?

 

Turning on his side, Roy punched his pillow in an effort to get comfortable. Tomorrow he’d have to make some kind of decision.

 

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

 

Reining his horse to a stop, Rick looked back along the narrow roadway, watching with interest as Roy slowly guided his mount carefully up the steep incline. It couldn’t really be classified as a road, even though he had managed to drive the old battered jeep up the rock-strewn ruts several months ago. The passage would be better described as a thin ledge, jutting out of a sheer canyon wall. It could be a treacherous ascent, but it was the only way to the high pasture.

 

Roy was taking the path slowly, his mount steady and sure, and Rick was impressed with his new friend’s willingness. It wasn’t a route for the faint-hearted. He didn’t especially like the climb, either, but he’d come to love the view from above so much, that he made the trip as often as possible. He smiled widely when he heard the man holler up to him.

 

“You sure picked a helluva route, par- . . . Rick.”

 

“Yeah, but you’ll think it’s worth it when you see what’s on top.”

 

“I sure hope so.” Roy took a hesitant glance over the side. “Looks like a trail for a mountain goat.”

 

“You’re probably right. I think they used to have some of those around here.”

 

“That’s about all it’s good for.”

 

“Well, the pasture above is definitely good for something, just not for horses.”

 

“Then what are we doing up here looking at it?” Roy questioned, as he drew nearer.

 

“For the cows.”

 

“Cows? What cows?”

 

“The ones that’ll be living up here next spring. Now that we have the fences all repaired, Bess is going to rent out this high pasture to a neighboring rancher. His herd will do well up here, and Bess will be able to use the cash.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Roy’s simple answer wasn’t lost on Rick. The older man looked rather winded, and somewhat shaken when he finally pulled his horse to a stop.

 

“Didn’t care for the scenery?”

 

“Nah, scenery was fine.” Roy panted. “It was the drop-off I could’ve done without.”

 

Rick threw back his head and laughed, his dark hair ruffling in the breeze. The look on Roy’s face caught him by surprise, and he sobered instantly. It was like this sometimes. More than once he’d found Roy staring at him, as if trying to figure out some dark secret. It was unnerving, yet he liked Bess’ nephew, and felt relaxed and comfortable when they were together. Except for times like this, when he caught Roy staring at him intently.

 

“Come on, let’s go see your aunt’s hidden fortune.”

 

The two men urged their mounts forward, quickly leaving the steep rocky path behind. Ahead of them stretched abundant pasture, its grasses now showing autumn’s yellow color. But in the spring, it promised to be full of plentiful feed for another man’s cows.

 

They rode in silence for almost an hour. During that time, Rick’s eyes had constantly roamed the horizon, torn between the fantastic views he’d grown to love, and the fence line he was surreptitiously checking. Roy’s time seemed to be divided between his awe of the magnificent scenery, and staring at Rick.

 

“Roy?”

 

“Huh? What . . . “

 

“I asked if you were ready to head down.”

 

“Oh, yeah, sure . . . anytime.”

 

“Well, if we’re going to get into town anytime soon, then we’d better get going. I told Luke that we’d meet him about 8:00. That okay with you?”

 

“Sure, whatever you say.”

 

“You still wanna go, don’t you? I mean, don’t feel obligated if you-”

 

“No, it’s not that. I’m looking forward to it. Just kind of hard to leave this place, I’ve been enjoying the view up here.”

 

“It’s something, isn’t it?”

 

They sat quietly, staring at the vista before them. The view was varied, from craggy mounds covered with brown grass, to a deep canyon complete with its silvery ribbon of river running through it. In the distance, the Cascades rose above the skyline, the highest peaks covered in year-round white. It was beautiful, a scene that one could stare at for hours. But the afternoon shadows were lengthening as the sun moved slowly westward, and finally, with almost unspoken mutual consent, they turned as one to ride home.

 

“Race you back!” Rick suddenly shouted, as he kicked his horse into a gallop.

 

“Not down that hill you won’t!” Roy hollered back.

 

Rick simply laughed.

 

Though they did slow down for the dangerous part, most of the ride had been made at a gallop, with a lot of laughter and good-natured ribbing. When they finally rode up to the barn and dismounted, Rick realized he’d just enjoyed one of the best days of his life. Of the ones he could remember, anyway. It was a good feeling, and he was happy to have made friends with Roy. It seemed so natural.

 

They were busily unsaddling and currying their horses, discussing their plans for the evening, when Roy unexpectedly grew silent. Rick didn’t push, but focused on his chores, even though the sudden change in the other man’s attitude was slightly unnerving. Just as he measured out the last bit of feed, he heard a brush drop into the tack box, just before the lid snapped shut.

 

“Race you to the shower!” Roy called out tauntingly, as he scurried out the barn door.

 

“What the . . . Hey, that’s cheating!” Rick hollered in mock anger. He grumbled for a moment, about guests and their bad manners, before dissolving into laughter.

 

Rick didn’t see the woman watching him at the other end of the barn. If he had, he would’ve wondered at the strange look on her face.

 

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

 

Roy sat at the small table, nursing his third beer. It was tempting to tip his head back, and down it in a gulp. Forgetting about everything for a little while would be a welcome relief. But when he picked his glass up, he sipped at the brew instead. Getting drunk wasn’t going to solve anything.

 

Across the room, Johnny was engaged in another game of pool, his friend Luke a worthy opponent. The two men seemed fairly evenly matched, in more than just pool. In fact, they seemed to have a lot in common. Or, at least, Luke and Rick did. Roy wasn’t sure how much Luke would have in common with John Gage.

 

So far, the evening with Luke had been pleasant. They’d started out at a local diner where they’d enjoyed a good steak and their first beer. The dinner conversation had covered everything from pasture rental, to feed bills, to the prices of yearlings in the fall, along with a little town gossip mixed in. Roy had learned about the librarian’s recent tryst with the local lawyer, the barber’s new baby, and the speculation that Harold had a thing for Bess. Add in a few facts about the availability of single women, and which ones Luke was sure had an eye for Rick, and Roy figured he was on top of the town’s current events.

 

After that, they’d walked to the other end of Main Street, stopping at the Watering Hole.

 

He would’ve accused the others of pulling his leg, if it hadn’t have been for the neon sign arched over the doorway. The crowd inside was decent though, typical small-town regulars. There had only been one brawl so far, and that was after a drunken salesman made a pass at a local cowboy’s wife. Roy smiled at the smooth way the problem had been handled. Within minutes, quiet had been restored, the cowboy had free drinks on the table for him and his missus, and the drunken salesman had been escorted to his motel where he was ordered to stay until he sobered up.

 

“Too bad that doesn’t work at home.” Roy mumbled to himself.

 

“What’s that?” The barmaid asked, as she stopped to clear their table of the empties.

 

“Oh, nothing. Just talking to myself.”

 

“That’s not any fun. It’s Saturday night; you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.”

 

“I think my friends are having enough fun for all of us.” Roy grinned, as he watched Johnny and Luke arguing over their latest bet.

 

“Oh, those two. They’re always good for a laugh. Nice guys, though. Which one’s your friend?”

 

“J. . . Rick. I’m here visiting Bess, and that’s how I know Rick.”

 

“Oh. I thought maybe you knew him before he came here. Nice guy, but a little quiet about his background. Not that it means anything bad, mind you. It’s just that I like to know a little more about a man before I get close to him. Course, some of the girls around here don’t seem to mind. There’s a couple who’d be pretty happy to have him camping out on their doorsteps, I’ll tell you.”

 

“Really.” Roy was grateful that his one-word answer didn’t encourage her to continue.

 

“Want another one?”

 

“Sure.” He agreed, after only a moment’s hesitation. “Why not?”

 

“Yeah, that’s right . . .why not? Like I told you, it is Saturday night.”

 

He wasn’t unhappy to see the young lady move away. There were things he needed to work out in his mind, and he couldn’t do that while making conversation with a stranger. Stranger. That’s what Johnny was, really. Or at least he used to be. Not so, after today. Roy smiled as he remembered the afternoon ride.

 

Even with the treacherous route, he’d enjoyed the beautiful surroundings. It reminded him of places that he and Johnny had hiked to back home. Then there had been the talk of the pasture rental, and improving Bess’ holdings. Roy knew, even without having been told, that this new venture had been Johnny’s idea. The young man might not be aware of it, but he really hadn’t changed all that much. He was still headstrong, full of new ideas and innovations.

 

The scraping of chair legs caught Roy’s attention, as the pool sharks returned to their table.

 

“Who won?” Roy asked.

 

“Who else?” Johnny grinned, as he held up a ten-dollar bill.

 

The sound of Johnny’s laughter was like music to his ears, and Roy couldn’t help but join in. Johnny was happy here. He was doing something he loved, with people he felt comfortable with, in a place he seemed at home in. It was a realization that Roy had trouble accepting.

 

“Here you go,” the barmaid murmured, as she sat his fourth beer on the table.

 

Picking up the cool drink, Roy was grudgingly thankful that he’d ordered it. He didn’t really expect it to help him accept the inevitable. Then again, at this point, he figured it couldn’t hurt. Maybe it would help get rid of the knot in the pit of his stomach.

 

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

 

Roy leaned back against the bunkhouse door, and watched the proceedings. Mr. Simms had finally shown up to buy the yearling, an event that Bess had been talking about every evening. It was interesting, the way the old woman looked forward to the man’s visit. Roy could tell there was a history here, and though she tried to act tough and unyielding, she actually was quite fond of the customer.

 

It had also been made fairly clear, that neither she nor Johnny had much time for the man’s children. It took less than five minutes for Roy to understand why. Even Joanne would have her hands full with those three.

 

Having finally made his decision last night, Roy decided that he would use this time to pack, since he hadn’t told either Bess or Johnny that he’d be leaving first thing in the morning. Standing here now, he was glad that he hadn’t told them. It was going to be hard enough to leave, but dragging out the goodbyes on his part wouldn’t help. He just hoped that he was doing the right thing.

 

Turning back towards his task, he grinned as he caught sight of Harold, leaning against the corral fence. The neighbor had stopped by for his regular Sunday visit, only to spend his afternoon watching the tug-o-war between Bess and Simms. It wasn’t like there was anything to even discuss. The price had already been agreed upon, the sale more or less completed. But like oil and water, the two hardheaded business owners were quarrelling about everything from the type of feed the yearling should have, to the shape of his hooves.

 

Back in the bunkhouse, Roy was just tucking the last shirt into his bag when he heard the shouting. Hurrying to the door, he stopped for a moment to watch the flurry of activity. The adults seemed to be searching for something, while near the barn door, two children were laughing hysterically. Johnny had stopped to stand in front of them, his expression one of distinct displeasure. Unaware that he’d even started to run, Roy suddenly found himself standing next to the group.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

“Kid says that her brother is missing. But this one says he went for a ride.”

 

Johnny was already walking into the barn, his steps rapid but deliberate. Roy had to hurry to keep up, and he was suddenly reminded of his partner at a rescue scene. Johnny had a plan in mind, and he was already putting it into action. It didn’t take long for Roy to realize what that plan was.

 

Saddles and bridles were swiftly gathered and put to use, and within minutes the two men were mounted. Stopping near the fence, Johnny leaned down to talk with Bess before they left. “Lacy is missing,” he muttered.

 

“It figures. The little snot. I saw him watchin’ her earlier; I should’ve kept a closer eye.”

 

“Don’t worry, we’ll find him. But, you might keep looking around here too, just in case he didn’t make it too far.”

 

“Will do,” Bess assured.

 

Then Johnny turned in his saddle, studying Roy. “You ready?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Roy wasn’t overly comfortable on horseback, but given the area they were in, and Johnny’s basic instincts, he knew this was their best course of action. Without a word, they walked their horses through the pasture gate then urged them to a trot.

 

They could still hear Harold and Mr. Simms calling for the boy, as they searched the pastures close to the house, but their voices died away as Johnny led the way across a dry gulch and then another pasture. Pulling up at the other end of the large meadow, Johnny rubbed his forehead for a minute, as if trying to decide.

 

“Roy, let’s split up. You head east. There’s another meadow on the other side of this knoll, and a stream that’s still running shallow. If you don’t see anything, meet me at the base of the bluff. Shouldn’t take you too long. I’ll check out the western edge of the ranch, and if we still haven’t found him, we’ll go up. I don’t think he’ll try that route, but you never know.”

 

“Sounds good.”

 

Urging his horse forward, Roy glanced over his shoulder only to see Johnny’s back as he galloped away. Clearly, the younger man was upset, but it was more than simple worry over a lost boy. Roy had a feeling it was something much deeper, something that had been evident when the children first arrived. He wondered if this had anything to do with their last rescue, all those months ago. Could that have influenced Johnny’s natural response? Was that why Bess commented that he didn’t seem to enjoy children? That in itself should’ve raised a red flag for Roy. Johnny had always enjoyed kids, or at least, other people’s kids. In fact, his partner had become a perfect surrogate uncle to his own two, so this attitude seemed very out of character.

 

There was plenty of time to analyze the situation as he rode down the dirt road, around the knoll, and along the edge of a large meadow. He called out repeatedly, but the only thing that answered was a crow high in a pine tree. Turning to skirt the other side of the large field, Roy quickly made his way back to the edge of the knoll then kicked his horse into an easy lope.

 

There was no one in sight when he reached the base of the bluff, and though he yelled ‘Rick’ several times, there was no answer. Unsure of what to do, Roy turned his mount in a nervous circle. Go back? Stay here? Head up the narrow roadway? He stopped his horse for a minute, and stroked the mare’s neck. She was a steady animal, and hadn’t given him any reason to fear her. Still, riding wasn’t Roy’s favorite pastime, and sometimes he found that he had to force himself to stay calm while mounted on one of the animals. It had been hard enough to attempt the incline when Johnny was with him yesterday, he wasn’t sure he was up to the ride alone.

 

“Well, girl, what do you think?”

 

He would’ve laughed at himself, if the situation hadn’t seemed so dire. Talking to a horse. He had a sudden flashback to Johnny back at the station, making some comment about an old TV show.

 

“Well, that was a mule wasn’t it?” He patted the horse again. “Wish you were a mule. Maybe I’d feel better about doing this.”

 

Not giving himself any time to think about his decision, Roy suddenly urged the mare towards the rocky incline. He couldn’t explain why Johnny would’ve went on ahead, after planning to meet, but something told him that’s exactly what had happened. That Johnny and the boy were up there. Instinct, intuition . . .he didn’t know what it was . . .he just knew that was where he needed to go.

 

Roy took it slow, grateful that the mare was comfortable with the ascent, even if he wasn’t. Already the ledge had narrowed, while the distance to the bottom of the chasm had lengthened. He looked down once then turned his attention to the path ahead. That, and slowing down his ragged breathing.

 

It was his horse that responded to the sound first. Her ears pricked up, and she almost shied, but Roy managed to steady her immediately. Sitting tall in the saddle, he strained to see up the trail, but it wasn’t until they rounded the next corner, that he spied Johnny’s horse standing alongside a little dappled mare. Suddenly undaunted by the terrain, Roy pushed his horse forward, and nearly jumped off her when they reached the gelding’s side. With one hand on the horse’s neck, he turned in every direction, searching for some sign of his friend’s whereabouts.

 

“Johnny! Johnny where are you?”

 

For the first time, Roy couldn’t force himself to change the name to Rick. This was Johnny he was looking for, and the overwhelming fear for his safety kept Roy from referring to him any other way. He’d have to deal with those issues later. But those thoughts were fleeting as he rushed to the edge of the cut, and almost slipped over the side when the ground started to give way. Scrambling back, Roy heard a faint but familiar voice below. He didn’t waste any time before scooting closer to peer over the edge.

 

“Johnny?”

 

“Yeah . . . Roy . . .we’re down here.”

 

He started to stretch farther out, in an effort to see where the voice was coming from, but stopped when the loose ground shifted again.

 

“Don’t get too close!”

 

“Is the boy all right?”

 

There was a brief pause before Johnny answered. “He has a broken arm, and a concussion. We need to get him out of here!”

 

The sound of rocks and dirt sliding made Roy jerk forward. “Johnny!”

 

“Get the rope from my horse! Tie one end to the saddle, and drop the other end down to me. Hurry, Roy!”

 

Racing to untie the length of rope from Johnny’s saddle, Roy fastened one end to the pommel, and was back at the edge in seconds.

 

“I’ve got it! I can’t see from here. Where are you?”

 

“The boulder, Roy, just below the boulder . . . ’bout twenty feet down.”

 

Even from where he was kneeling at the edge, Roy was able to see the large rock. What he couldn’t see was Johnny. But he trusted his partner, and years of rescues performed together gave him the instinct or maybe faith, to do what Johnny asked. “Here it comes!”

 

Stretching back his right arm, Roy flung the rope out away from the bank. It spiraled into the air then fell straight down, hitting the target dead-on. He was grateful to see that the end seemed to drape down over the boulder, but had no idea if it was far enough down to do his friend any good.

 

“Johnny? Did you get it?”

 

“Yeah. Good throw, partner.”

 

For a split second, Roy froze at the words, wondering if he’d heard right. “You okay?”

 

“I . . . I’m banged up a little, nothin’ serious.”

 

There was a pause, and Roy heard several low coughs, but there was still movement at the end of the rope. He wondered what exactly was going on down below.

 

“Johnny . . . what can I do to help?”

 

“I’m trying to . . . okay . . . got it. The rope’s around him, Roy. Wait . . . hang on.”

 

There was another pause, and then the rope grew taught.

 

“We’re slipping . . . Roy! Get the horse . . . Roy, hurry!”

 

Up and running before Johnny’s plea could be repeated, Roy grabbed the reins and began to back the gelding up the slope. It was difficult to get a good taut line, as there was only a narrow area to work in, but the seasoned rescue man did his best. Keeping the animal moving steadily back, he watched the line, before calling down again.

 

“Johnny . . .you okay?”

 

“Keep going!”

 

Roy kept the horse moving backwards until he ran out of room then dropped the reins. Having seen the horse in action yesterday, he knew that Johnny’s well-trained mount would ground-tie. Running back to the edge, he was surprised to see his friend staring up at him. Barely eight feet below the ledge, Johnny was hanging onto the end of the rope, while balancing the boy above him. His feet were struggling for purchase, as the loose soil and rocks continued to shift and slide below him.

 

“Hang on. I’m going to pull you the rest of the way.”

 

No response came from below, but Roy didn’t hesitate. Grabbing hold of the rope, he began to pull it up, hand over hand, keeping the movement steady but slow. He didn’t stop until he could see the top of the boy’s head just below his reach. Only then did Roy drop the rope, before kneeling down on top of the coil. Putting as much weight as he could on the end, he reached down to grasp the boy around the chest.

 

“Careful for his arm.”

 

“Right.”

 

Roy pulled the boy upwards, as Johnny pushed from below, and then he was back on the roadway. A cursory glance told Roy that the kid would be all right for a minute. Not taking time to untie the rope from around the boy’s waist, Roy pointed towards the horses.

 

“Sit right back there, son. I’m going to help Johnny up, then we’ll look at that arm.”

 

The boy didn’t answer, but scooted backwards on his rump, while still clutching his arm close to his chest.

 

Leaning back over the edge, Roy could see that Johnny was doing his best to scramble up the slope himself. Reaching down, he snagged his friend’s left arm and started to pull him up, but the answering cry of pain made him freeze in surprise. There was little chance to ask questions, or do any visual assessing of his friend’s injuries. Every second counted, as his arms grew weak from the effort. With one final burst of energy, Roy let go of Johnny’s arm and reached further down to grab hold of his belt. Only then did he finally see his friend’s back. Just below the shoulder, where the jacket and shirt had been ripped through, there was evidence of a deep gouge in the flesh. Roy realized that he hadn’t noticed the blood due to the dark color of Johnny’s jacket, but it was obvious from this position to see that the man was bleeding profusely. Wasting no more time and panting with the effort, he hoisted his friend up and over the edge.

 

The two men lay in a heap on the ground for only a moment then Roy was up and moving. In seconds he had removed his own shirt and undershirt. Quickly folding the white cotton into a thick pad, he placed it over the gaping wound on Johnny’s back. While holding it in place with his left hand, he hurriedly undid his belt and pulled it off, quickly angling it across Johnny’s shoulders and neck, before fastening it across his chest. Roy knew he’d done his best to make as much of a pressure bandage as possible, but within minutes the t-shirt was soaked red with blood. As he slipped his flannel shirt back on, Roy looked around anxiously, trying to come up with something else to stem the flow. There was nothing. During all this time, Johnny had remained silent, though it seemed as if he were looking for something, or someone.

 

“He’s right behind me, Roy assured him quietly.”

 

“O . . . okay?” came the faint question.

 

“Seems to be. Haven’t checked yet.”

 

“Go! Check . . . you know . . .rules. Victim first.”

 

“Yeah, I know the rules. But triage policy makes you the first victim. We have to get this bleeding under control.”

 

“’m okay, Roy. Please . . . check him . . .”

 

“I will, I will.”

 

While continuing to apply pressure, Roy turned to visually check the boy. Still sitting where he’d been left, the boy looked pale but alert. A thin line of blood trickled down the side of his face, and numerous cuts and abrasions were visible on his face and arms. But the most obvious injury was his right arm, which was cradled protectively against his chest. Roy knew that he needed to get both of them down the hill, fast. He turned back to Johnny, just in time to see his eyes roll back.

 

“Stay with me, Johnny. John!”

 

Roy shook his friend once, with no response, before gently laying him the rest of the way to the ground. Careful to turn him on his side, Roy looked at him for a moment before moving to the boy. Quickly checking the child over, he was satisfied that the boy’s pupils were reactive, and his pulse strong and steady. Using the boy’s jacket as a crude sling, Roy immobilized the arm as much as he was able then went back to Johnny. After calling to him several times, Roy was relieved to see his partner’s eyelids flutter. Again, working quickly, he checked the t-shirt bandage, worried when he saw that the bleeding hadn’t lessened. Roy pressed the bandage back in place, holding it firmly as he contemplated what should be done next.

 

“Johnny! Can you hear me?”

 

There was a mere flickering of eyelids, but nothing more. Roy looked around, his gaze resting on the boy who was staring at them intently.

 

“Why do you keep calling him Johnny?”

 

Roy stared back at the child, uncertain as to how he should answer.

 

“’cause that’s my name.”

 

Looking down, Roy was surprised to see dark brown eyes staring up at him.

 

“But Bess calls you Rick.” The boy persisted.

 

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, but there was a faint smile on his face at Roy’s answer. “That’s his middle name.”

 

“Oh.” The boy answered, apparently satisfied with the simple answer.

 

Roy looked back at Johnny and made his decision. Rising, he went straight to the horses and carefully turned them around, ready to descend the steep grade. Then he went back to Jeremy, gently helping the boy to his feet. As they started towards the mare, a quiet voice stopped them.

 

“Put him on . . . my horse. Will do better . . . two riders.”

 

Roy marveled at the way Johnny seemed to read his mind. It was a familiarity born from years of working together. So many rescues, their judgment dependent on each other how they handled each situation . . .he shouldn’t have been surprised. Something told him this was a good sign, that as partners they were still in sync. Although Roy wanted to examine this line of thinking further, right now he was responsible for the care of two victims, and he knew that every minute was precious. So he nodded once towards his partner, then walked the boy a few steps further to help him up on the gelding.

 

“Hold on tight. I’m going to help Johnny, then we’ll head down.”

 

With that simple assurance Roy turned back to his friend, and carefully grasping Johnny’s good arm slowly helped him to stand. Johnny wobbled slightly, his stance somewhat slumped as he struggled to get his bearings.

 

“Let’s take it slow.”

 

“Yeah . . . okay.”

 

With slow, uneven steps, they finally moved towards the mare. It took several tries before Johnny managed to get his foot in the stirrup, and Roy had to help boost him into the saddle. Once there, he bent forward, struggling to catch his breath.

 

Roy waited and watched as Johnny finally reached for and held the pommel. Only then did he gather the leather reins and hand them up to his friend. Putting his hand on Johnny’s knee, he studied his friend. Johnny was pale and barely holding himself in the saddle.

 

“Think you can do this?” Roy finally managed to mutter.

 

Johnny returned Roy’s steady gaze, and though his eyes seemed only half open, their gaze was nonetheless intense. For the first time since he’d arrived in Oregon, Roy felt the old bonds of friendship, exchanged in that one glance.

 

“Let’s get moving.”

 

Roy gently squeezed his partner’s knee. He wasn’t sure if it was for reassurance or simply a grateful impulse, but either way, it brought a faint smile to Johnny’s face. Hurrying back to Jeremy, Roy quickly mounted and urged his horse to follow Johnny down the hill.

 

The ride back to the ranch seemed to take forever. The horses walked sedately, even though Roy longed, for the first time in his life, to kick them into a gallop. When they’d first reached level ground, they had tried a slow trot, but Jeremy’s moan of pain brought them back to a walk.

 

The first leg of the journey had been made in silence, as the horses carefully picked their way down the steep cut. But when they were on even ground again, Jeremy started to talk. It was clear that the boy had been scared, but Roy had hunch that the kid was a firecracker. After ten minutes of false bravado, including a very long-winded sentence describing his exciting venture at the edge of the cliff, Roy was sure of it.

 

They only stopped once. The afternoon sun was relentless, unseasonably warm for a fall day, and Roy could feel the sweat pooling beneath his flannel shirt. He knew that Johnny was barely hanging on as it was, but also knew that he couldn’t risk adding dehydration to his friend’s litany of troubles.

 

“Johnny. John!”

 

When there was no response, Roy kneed his mount closer, and reached across to grab hold of the mare’s reins. It only took a gentle tug to make her stop, and finally Johnny raised his head minutely.


”What . . .”

 

“Just stopping for a minute. Here, take a drink.”

 

Roy had uncorked his canteen, knowing it was easier to do that than for Johnny to manage his own. Tipping his head back, Johnny took several sips before handing it back.

 

“That enough?”

 

“Yeah . . . not feelin’ too good . . . sick.”

 

Roy nodded, knowing how nauseated a person could feel when suffering from a concussion. After giving Jeremy a drink, he took a swig himself before closing the canteen and hanging it back on the pommel. John had already started moving again, and Roy urged his mount to catch up.

 

The horses were side by side now, and though Johnny wasn’t talking, Roy could easily tell that his friend was losing ground. The makeshift bandage was soaked, and red streaks ran down Johnny’s side. Roy knew that they needed to get the bleeding stopped, but he had nothing to work with. If he left John here, riding back to the ranch for help, he’d be losing precious time . . . time his friend didn’t have. The urgency grew, and Roy felt the knot in his stomach moving up into his throat. There was no good decision to be made here, just a choice between the lesser of two evils.

 

“’m okay, Roy. Just gotta keep goin’.”

 

Startled to find that Johnny had been watching him, Roy stared back at him as the horses plodded on.

 

“No you’re not. But I don’t know what to do, other than to keep going.”

 

“Not much farther . . . we’ll make it.”

 

Johnny’s head dropped back towards his chest, and Roy felt a clutching in his own chest.

 

He’d been right, though. It was barely ten minutes later that they caught site of the pasture fence, and almost immediately there were signs that Bess and Harold had been watching for them. Mr. Simms was driving his white crew-cab close to the large gate, while Harold was pushing it open.

 

“Hang on, Johnny. We’re almost there.”

 

“Yeah . . .”

 

“Dad saw us. Dad!”

 

Roy held the boy closer as he began to squirm in earnest, but he didn’t have to tell the boy to settle down. After the first movements, the pain must have reminded him, because he suddenly moaned louder. Roy wondered briefly if the moan was truly sincere, or just an attempt to get his father’s attention.

 

As the horses finally moved through the gate and stopped in front of the truck, Harold and Simms stepped up to help the injured. Once more Roy slipped into professional paramedic mode. “Wait, Harold, don’t let Johnny get down ’til I get there. Mr. Simms, you can take the boy but watch his arm. I think he has a slight concussion, too, so take it slow.”

 

“Okay, I’ve got him.”

 

Roy held onto the boy until his father had him in his arms, fully aware that Harold was alternately staring at him, then Johnny. It was obvious that the man was trying to understand just what all had taken place in the last couple hours.

 

As soon as the boy was safely off the horse, Roy quickly dismounted and hurried to help Harold. The two men looked up with concern as Johnny slumped further over the gelding’s neck.

 

“Johnny. Can you swing your leg over this way?”

 

“Huh?” His head came up a bit, and tired brown eyes looked around, as if surprised to be in familiar surroundings.

 

“We need your help, John. Swing your leg over, so you can slide off this side.”

 

Roy’s voice was commanding yet gentle, and Johnny responded. ”’kay.”

 

With slow, deliberate movements, Johnny managed to turn his body, while bringing his right leg over the back of the horse. It put him in position to slide down off the gelding, except that he had most of his weight on his left leg but didn’t have his left boot out of the stirrup. For one awful moment, Roy was afraid that he was going to fall, but at the last moment, Harold managed to pull the stirrup free. With little strength left, Johnny slid soundlessly towards the ground, caught only by his partner’s strong arms.

 

“I’ve got ya, Junior.”

 

The familiar nickname, though rarely used, brought the barest hint of a grin to Johnny’s face. Without answering, he merely lifted his good hand to grasp Roy’s forearm. “Hurts . . .”

 

“I know it does. But we’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

 

Roy looked to Harold for confirmation that he wasn’t lying to his friend, and was rewarded immediately.

 

“That’s right, young man. We’ve got the truck ready, all we need to do is get you on your feet so we can get going.”

 

Though Johnny sighed, as if the thought of moving again was too much to ask, Harold and Roy didn’t wait for an answer.

 

“You get his right arm, Harold.”

 

“All right. Ready?”

 

“Yeah, but go slow.”

 

“Will do.”

 

Moving carefully, the two men managed to pull Johnny back to his feet. Then the trio slowly made their way towards the open door.

 

“Let’s put him in the backseat,” Harold suggested. “The bed would be too rough a ride.”

 

“Sounds good.”

 

Roy had wondered where Bess had gone off to, but just as they eased Johnny into the back of the rig, she met them at the truck. Quickly unloading the large hamper she had lugged from the house, several blankets and pillows, along with some towels were quickly dispensed. The last items were two metal coffee cans, with hand towels and wet washcloths tucked inside. Roy looked approvingly at everything she’d brought.

 

Bess simply nodded at him. “You can’t live on a ranch for as many years as I have without dealing with a few emergencies, young man.”

 

Harold waited as Simms settled himself in the front seat next to his boy, then shut the front door, and headed around to the driver’s side. In the back, Roy helped Johnny lay on his side, then with one of Bess’ folded towels, put pressure on the bleeding wound. As Harold started the engine, Bess called out to them. “I’ll call Dr. Timmons and tell him you’re on the way.”

 

With a wave of his hand in reply, Harold put the pickup in gear, and started towards the main road.

 

In the backseat, Roy had his work cut out for him. Even though he was now able to put direct pressure on the wound, the bleeding was still profuse, and Johnny was slipping into shock. There was little room to move in the confined space, but Roy did his best to get Johnny’s feet elevated, propping them precariously on the armrest.

 

“Anything we can do?” Harold asked from the front.

 

“Get us there fast.” Answered Roy, worriedly.

 

“I’ll do my best, son.”

 

“He’ll do it . . . Roy. Harold is . . . one of . . .best. Just like . . . Cap.”

 

“That’s quite a compliment.”

 

“Yeah . . is.” Johnny’s voice was faint, his eyes closed now as Roy kept a firm hold with one hand on his shoulder, the other pressing against his back. “Is he…“

 

“Don’t talk, Johnny. Just rest.”

 

“Need to . . . know . . . he okay? Cap? . . . everybody . . . okay?”

 

“Yeah, John, they’re all right. Just been worried about you.”

 

“Sorry . . . don’t know . . . where…”

 

“Hey, we’ll talk about it later, okay?”


”Yeah . . . later.”

 

Harold kept his focus on the road, but Roy knew he was listening to the quiet conversation behind him. Not that he minded; he just wondered what the older man might be thinking.

 

Johnny hadn’t moved since they left the ranch, his muscles tense as he tried to hold himself on the narrow seat. Roy suspected that he was also trying to fight the pain, but other than the one time he’d said it hurt, he’d uttered no other complaint.

 

Roy knew, only too well, the complications they might be facing. Not only did Johnny have a serious wound, and now a substantial loss of blood, but also his body would be fighting without the benefit of his spleen. On top of that, he probably sustained a concussion when he fell. As usual, John Gage didn’t do anything halfway. A mental shake was all Roy could do to stop his current line of thinking.

 

“We’re on the main road, now. Hang in there.”

 

“Yeah . . . still a . . . long way.”

 

“I know, but Harold’s making good time.”

 

The older man nodded once, and Roy knew his previous hunch was right. For his part, Mr. Simms was keeping up a steady stream of quiet chatter with his son.

 

Roy did his best to keep the bleeding under control, but things were getting worse, and even from his cramped position kneeling on the floor, he knew that Johnny was fading in and out of consciousness. It was a helpless feeling, one that Roy wasn’t used to. He longed to be able to pick up the bio-phone and call Dr. Brackett, to start and IV, or even to monitor BP. It was more than difficult to be relegated to watching his friend die right before his eyes.

 

“Quit it.” Roy muttered.

 

Unaware that he’d spoken his thoughts out loud, he found questioning brown eyes gazing up at him. Roy almost held his breath as he questioned. “John? What’s wrong?”

 

“You . . . all right?”


”Me? Yeah, of course. I’m fine.”

 

“Look scared . . . said quit . . . what’s up . . .”

 

Roy was at a loss, surprised that he’d let his control slip, while happy that Johnny was aware enough to notice. “Hey, partner, I’m fine. Just worried about you, that’s all. Guess I was talking to myself.”

 

“Told ya . . . ‘m okay. Don’t . . .worry.”

 

“Yeah, you’re right. All right, no more worrying.”

 

He squeezed his friend’s good arm, while looking out the window to study the terrain. Roy had only been into town once, so the landmarks didn’t look familiar, but he could see that Harold was not wasting any time on watching the speed limits. It was no surprise when he saw a cruiser coming towards them, suddenly turn around and catch up to them. What did surprise him was seeing the patrol car suddenly speed up and pass them while the deputy inside merely raised a hand in salute. “What the…”

 

“It’s okay. That’s my nephew, my sister’s boy, Robert. He’s a deputy for the county. I’ve gotta hunch that Bess called ahead and had him watching for us. He’ll make sure we get there in good time.”

 

Roy knew Harold wouldn’t see his nod of appreciation, but he couldn’t find his voice at the moment. There were so many people working to help them, all he could do right now was be silently grateful, and pray that it would be enough. Glancing down at Johnny, he could see that his friend had faded out again.

 

It was a quiet, but tense group, and the forty-five minute drive seemed to take forever. Roy didn’t know when he’d ever felt so relieved, as when Harold pointed out the trees at the edge of town. Driving down Main Street, Roy noted the familiar places, flashing back to the evening he’d shared with Johnny just hours before. Just as quickly, they’d passed through town and were turning off the main route onto a quieter side road. They passed several older houses before Harold muttered a quiet ‘finally’ as they turned into a narrow lane.

 

Stately shade trees sheltered the clinic from the main road, so Roy found that he was surprised when he finally saw the layout before him. Though the front of the building was an old white farmhouse, complete with shade trees lining the front walk, a newer wing had been added to the back. Bricked walls and a wide double door for an entrance, clean and fairly modern, the medical clinic seemed almost out of place in this country setting.

 

Harold followed his nephew into the graveled parking lot then stopped as close as possible to the door. Immediately, he jumped out to help with the injured, waving at the deputy who was hurrying over to the group. Before he’d even rounded the pickup, a doctor and nurse appeared with a gurney, and a wheelchair. It only took a moment to get young Jeremy settled in the wheelchair then Mr. Simms followed the nurse and his son into the clinic. It took a bit longer to get a lethargic Johnny up off the seat and out of the pickup, and he needed the help of all four men to get onto the gurney. When they finally wheeled it through the entrance and into a large examination room, Roy found himself almost weak with relief.

 

Roy knew, from Bess’ description, that this was Dr. Timmons. The man was probably in his late 60’s, but you wouldn’t have thought so by the way he took charge of the situation.

 

“Millie, get Tim on the phone and see if he can get over here. I’m going to need some help getting x-rays.”

 

“Yes, sir,” came a voice from the hallway.

 

“Robert, why don’t you lend a hand since you’re here.”

 

“Sure thing, Doc. Whadya need?”

 

“Go see if Susan needs any help with that boy while I get started in here.”

 

“Looks like you’ll need my help in here, first.”

 

“No, you go on. From what Bess tells me, we have a real live paramedic on hand. Isn’t that right, son?”

 

Roy could only nod in affirmation as the doctor looked at him, surprised at how knowledgeable this group seemed.

 

“A paramedic? Hey, I’d like to talk to you later, if you have time.” Robert suggested, as he headed for the door.

 

“Sure,” was all that Roy could manage, while keeping his focus on Johnny.

 

Still balanced on his side, Johnny was clenching his good hand, clearly an effort to deal with the pain. Roy stepped closer, grasping his friend’s hand for a moment, as the doctor moved to the other side of the table.

 

“Well, Rick, it looks like you’ve had a little trouble today. Can you tell me what happened?”

 

“Yeah, Doc,” Johnny replied weakly. “I finally remembered who I am.”

 

Of all the answers Dr. Timmons might’ve expected, that was obviously the last one on his list. Momentarily flustered, he looked up at Roy and received a silent nod of confirmation.

 

“Well, well, well. How’d you do that? Fall on your head or something?” The doctor teased quietly.

 

“Yeah . . . somthin’ like that.”

 

While visually checking his patient, the doctor had been busy readying supplies, and seemed to instantly include Roy in his treatment plan. He handed the paramedic a BP cuff almost immediately then personally started an IV on his patient.

 

“Well, we’ll talk about that in a few minutes, but first we’re going to take a look at this shoulder. And it looks like I’ll be your doctor and your nurse today, young man,” Dr. Timmons murmured as he deftly inserted a needle. “Seems like you and your young friend are going to tax our small-town medical facility.”

 

“S . . .sorry . . .”

 

“Think nothing of it. Good for us to be tested every once in awhile. Just as long as you do what you’re told.”

 

Dr. Timmons winked at Roy, assuring the paramedic that he was doing his best to keep the situation under control. Yet the doctor seemed to be waiting expectantly for the information Roy was obtaining. He didn’t have to wait long.

 

“BP’s 90 over 60. Respiration’s 20, pulse is 70.”

 

“Did he lose consciousness?”

”Yeah, but I don’t know how long. He was already awake and moving when I found them.”

 

“Wasn’t . . . long,” mumbled Johnny from his place between them.

”Good. Well, we’ll still take some pictures just to be sure. You’re probably aware of the drill, right?”

 

“Yeah . . . no meds . . . “

 

“That’s right. But before we start with that, I’m going to get this shoulder numbed up so I can do a little sewing. I think you’ve lost enough blood for one day.”

 

Roy nodded mutely, grateful that the doctor was not only speaking to Johnny calmly, but more importantly, that he was obviously a very competent physician. For the next few minutes, the older man busied himself preparing the suture tray, and answering several questions as his nurse hurried in and out. There was a brief interruption when another man joined the group, and Roy was quickly introduced to Tim, a retired radiologist who volunteered his assistance at the clinic whenever needed.

 

All the while, Johnny lay quietly between them, mumbling occasional answers to their questions. Roy was grateful to see a little color returning to his friend’s face as the IV, and later a pint of blood started to take affect, but clearly he was in a lot of pain. The fact that he remained so still was a silent testament to that fact. Roy watched closely as Dr. Timmons worked, impressed with the ability this small town doctor exhibited.

 

“Well, that’s looking better,” the doctor noted, as the bleeding slowly came to a stop. “Now that we’re getting this shoulder taken care of, suppose you tell me what happened up there.”

 

“Not much to tell,” Johnny mumbled. “Kid took off . . . we followed him. Roy and I split up . . . I found the boy first. He’d already fallen over the edge . . before I got to him. Got too close . . . must’ve fell too. Next thing I remember . . . Roy was hollering my name . . then he was helping me over the edge . . .

 

“And you knew who he was?” The doctor prompted, as Johnny’s voice dropped off.

 

“Yeah . . . partner.”

 

Johnny’s eyes slid closed, and Roy wasn’t all together sure that it was from the injuries received that afternoon. He had a hunch that his friend was simply telling them that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. For his part, the doctor didn’t pry, but grew quiet himself, as he went about his work.

 

As for Roy, he simply laid a hand on Johnny’s good shoulder, and squeezed it reassuringly.

 

**********

 

Johnny moved hesitantly on the narrow bed, the pain in his shoulder instantly making itself known and halting any progress he’d made in finding a better position. For the first time since they’d reached the clinic, he found himself alone.

 

The small room was antiseptic white, the furnishings sparse but clean. He was grateful that the nurse had thought to pull the blinds down on the window, but the afternoon sun still filtered through. Though normally he would appreciate the cheery light, today it simply made his head hurt worse. Of course, there were many reasons his head seemed to be pounding, and not all of them came from the bump Dr. Timmons had located on his skull.

 

The whole afternoon seemed like some kind of bad dream, yet he remembered everything with distinct clarity. Maybe that was what bothered him the most, the fact that everything was so clear now, from the time Simms’ arrived at the ranch, through the sale of the horse, the boy taking off, to the subsequent search with Roy.

 

Roy.

 

He had a vivid picture of the first time he looked up into Roy’s worried face, peering over the ledge. It was the first time that he recognized his partner, that part was very clear. What wasn’t clear was how or why he’d forgotten him in the first place. Why was he in Oregon living on the ranch with Bess? How did he get here? The last thing he remembered with any certainty was one awful night at Rampart Emergency. After that, there was a jumble of shady memories until the time Harold and Bess settled him into the bunkhouse that first night on the place.

 

Rubbing his forehead absently, Johnny tried to make sense of the situation. But there were too many questions, and too few answers. And his head hurt. Trying once more to get comfortable, he was rewarded with another searing pain in his shoulder. “Local must be wearing off,” he muttered tiredly.

 

Closing his eyes against the thin light filtering through the shades, John Gage tried to shut out the multitude of questions that just wouldn’t be answered.

 

***********

 

“So, what do you think, Doctor?”

 

Roy watched as Dr. Timmons closed the large book, and slipped it back into its place in the bookshelf. The man didn’t answer until he’d returned to the chair behind his desk, and then his answer was noncommittal.

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

“You’re not sure what caused the amnesia, or you’re not sure what cured it?” Roy persisted.

 

“Neither, I guess.”

 

Almost squirming on his chair in frustration, Roy did his best to calm down. In fact, he became very quiet as he tried to find the right questions to ask the doctor.

 

For his part, Dr. Timmons did his best to be patient and understanding. After a few minutes of tense silence, he sighed loudly and stood up. Walking slowly to a small cart in the corner of his office, he poured two mugs full of coffee then brought them back to his desk. “Here, try this. Maybe it’ll calm your nerves.”

 

Roy looked up at the doctor’s kind features, and suddenly felt sorry for letting his frustration get out of hand. Even if he hadn’t spoken out loud, he had a feeling the good doctor knew he was on the brink of losing control. “Sorry, Doc. This whole thing has been so . . . hard.”

 

“I understand.”

 

Dr. Timmons made his way back to his wooden swivel chair. “It’s understandable, you know, after so much time has passed. You’ve had a very stressful few months, haven’t you?”

 

“Yes. We all have.”

 

“But he’s remembering now, maybe not everything, but the basics. He knows who he is, who you are and where he belongs. Some of the other details may come back to him in time, maybe they won’t. Even though we’ve made huge strides in the medical field, in many ways the mind is still a mystery, even to us doctors. Whether it was the physical blow he received or the emotional trauma that caused first the loss of memory, and then its return, in the end, does it really matter? Your friend, as you know him, is back. That’s all that should matter.”

 

Roy sat quietly, contemplating everything the doctor had said. And he was right. There were so many unanswered questions, but with no firsthand knowledge of the original accident, they would probably never know just what had happened to take Johnny away from them. And now, for whatever reason, the fall down the hill, or the anguish of trying to save the boy . . . something clicked in Johnny’s mind and brought everything back.

 

Setting his cup on the doctor’s desk, Roy finally dropped his face in his hands and sighed deeply. “You’re right, Doc, you’re right. It doesn’t really matter. I’m just damn glad he’s back.”

 

**********

 

Several hours had passed when Roy quietly pushed the door open to Johnny’s room. His friend was motionless on the small bed near the window, one arm tucked safely inside a white sling, the other crooked over his eyes. IV tubing snaked from his hand to a bottle suspended above him, while cuts and bruises provided some color against the stark white of the blanket covering him.

 

Roy stared for only a moment before stepping into the room to pick up a small wooden chair, and noiselessly set it next to the bed. It was only after he sat down, that Johnny stirred. When the dark eyes finally focused on him, Roy greeted his friend quietly. “How are you doing?”

 

“I’m okay. But looks like I’m stuck with this thing for awhile,” Johnny grumbled, as he waved his IV-laden hand towards Roy. “Didn’t even feel the stick. Guess you still have the touch, Pally.”

 

“Looks like you do, too, Junior,” Roy grinned. “You sure held it together with that kid up there.”

 

“Well, at least we didn’t lose another one.”

 

They fell silent, both lost in thought. Roy was anxious to bombard his friend with questions, yet he was also nervous about doing so. Unsure of how much Johnny remembered, he wasn’t ready to be disappointed. There was a murmur from the bed, but so intent was he on his own worries, he almost missed Johnny’s question.

 

“What? What did you say?” Roy asked, scooting closer.

 

“What . . .what happened?”

 

“Well, after we got here, the doctor checked the boy out, and his arm is…”

 

“No. Not that . . . Doc filled me in on the kid.” Johnny fiddled with the thin blanket before speaking again. “I mean . . . what happened. To me? How did I get here . . in Oregon?”

 

Roy hesitated for a moment, gathering his thoughts, trying to determine how to answer. He finally settled on answering with his own question. “Do you remember anything?”

 

Another long pause ensued, ending when Johnny turned to stare out the narrow window. “I remember Harold picking me up alongside the road . . . only thing before that was . . . ”

 

Johnny’s voice faded off, and Roy had a hunch he knew what his friend was remembering. A rescue he didn’t want to recall . . . a young child who hadn’t survived.

 

With a sigh, Roy scooted his chair even closer, cocking his elbows on his knees and propping his chin onto his folded hands. “You came here for some fishing. Chet and I couldn’t come along, so you drove up by yourself. Somewhere along the way, you were in a wreck.”

 

“But you have my Rover,” Johnny interrupted.

 

“Yeah, well, the police found it in a ditch. Your wallet was still in the glove box, and they called the fire department early the next morning. We’ve been looking for you ever since.”

 

Johnny stared at Roy for a moment before he almost whispered. “How long ago was that?”

 

“Five months,” Roy managed to squeak out.

 

“You’ve been looking for me for five months?” breathed Johnny, in surprise.

 

Dropping his face into his hands, Roy remembered that morning at the station, when Hank first broke the news. There followed, in quick succession, bits and pieces of the past months, as he searched for Johnny, never certain if he’d find him alive or dead. Roy shuddered slightly then froze when he felt a familiar hand grasp his shoulder. Silently, he reached out with his own right hand to gently grip Johnny’s forearm. They sat like that for several minutes before Roy finally lifted his head to meet Johnny’s sad gaze. “Yeah, but it was worth it. I found you, didn’t I?”


Johnny flashed a quick smile, his eyes registering relief at the familiar banter. Then, in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood, he groaned half-heartedly and looked up at Roy with a pleading expression. “Okay, now that you found me, how about getting me out of this bed and back to the ranch? You know how I feel about hospitals.”

 

Roy would’ve laughed out loud, if Johnny hadn’t looked so serious. “This isn’t a hospital, remember?”

 

“Close enough. Besides, Doc’s through with me, anyway.”

 

“I don’t know about that.” Roy hesitated. He was torn between relief at hearing Johnny’s familiar grumbling about doctors, and his desire to make sure his friend was really all right. Though the young man seemed to be much better, Roy had also talked to the doctor, and knew that Johnny had suffered more than a slight concussion, not to mention the blood loss and extensive sewing job he’d been a witness to. Then, of course, there was the matter of the amnesia. He studied his friend thoughtfully, before finally yielding to the inevitable. “How about we at least check with the doctor first, Junior?”

 

“Nah. He’s fine with it. I already told him I was just waiting for you to take me home.”

 

“Uh huh. I think we’ll check anyway,” Roy muttered in a no-nonsense tone he usually saved just for his children.

 

Johnny was pleading again, but Roy wasn’t listening to the words. He had suddenly realized what Johnny had just said. Home. He wanted to go home. And that, in Johnny’s mind, was still Bess’ ranch.

 

It was a relief when the door opened only seconds later, revealing Harold and the doctor. Struggling to push back his sense of foreboding, Roy pointed towards the doctor. “Okay, Johnny, here’s your chance.”

 

Roy did his best to get back his teasing tone, but the look on Johnny’s face, and the sudden way that he seemed at a loss for words, truly made Roy grin with delight.

 

“Chance to do what?” Harold looked at the two men curiously.

 

“Go home,” Johnny mumbled quietly.

 

It was the doctor’s turn to surprise them all.

 

“I think that’ll be all right. Of course, you’ll need to stay in bed for at least 24 hours, give your body a chance to rest. You did lose a lot of blood, and I don’t want to re-stitch that shoulder. But I think Roy can handle the neuro-checks, and I know that Bess will keep a close eye on you, too. Yes, I think you’ll be fine.”

 

Johnny didn’t get a chance to complain about staying in bed. Roy immediately recognized his friend’s impending complaints, and took the opportunity to cut in.

“How about the boy?”

”He’s already giving my nurse a run for her money.” The doctor chuckled. “I just finished giving his father a full list of instructions, so they’ll be ready to leave soon. I believe they’re planning to take you back to the ranch, and make arrangements from there. But he’s a normal little boy, and children bounce back fast.”

 

Roy started to agree when he suddenly realized that Johnny was trying to get up. “Hey, where’re you going?”

 

“Home. I told you, I’m ready to go home,” Johnny mumbled faintly.

 

“Well, I don’t think we’re ready to head out the door yet. Johnny . . .John!”

 

Grabbing hold of Johnny’s waist, Roy’s grip tightened when he realized that his friend was starting to slide toward the floor. With an ease borne of years of practice, Roy settled his partner back on the bed. It took several minutes before Johnny managed to focus on him again.


Harold was standing close by, having moved in to help at the first sign that his young friend was about to fall. The doctor was already wrapping a BP cuff around his patient’s arm, watching the needle closely.

 

“Still a little low, my friend. You’re going to have to take this slow and easy if you want to go home.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Johnny muttered softly.

 

It took several minutes for the doctor to take the IV out, but as soon as that was completed, Roy reached down and helped Johnny back to a sitting position. This time, the injured man took his time, his movements slow and careful. When he made it to his feet, he swayed slightly before leaning into Roy.

 

“You ready?”

 

“Yeah, let’s go.”

 

The entourage moved slowly into the hallway and out the side door. Simms was already by the pickup; his son nestled between two white pillows in the front seat.

 

It took several minutes for them to traverse the walkway, and reach the vehicle, and in that short time Roy could tell that Johnny was done in. Harold opened the door for them then hurried around to the other side. He was obviously worried for his young friend, but so far, hadn’t said much.

 

Roy tried not to focus on what the older man must be feeling. This had been a traumatic day for everyone involved, and the sooner they could get Johnny settled in bed, the sooner they could all relax and start to sort things out. He hoped so, for everyone’s sake.

 

The drive back was quiet. Harold drove again, while Simms sat in the front seat carefully holding his son in a comfortable position. In the back seat, Johnny slumped against his door for the first part of the journey. Halfway to the ranch, he finally gave in to Roy’s quiet urging. Without a word, he lay down across the back seat, his head supported by a pillow laid close to Roy’s knee. He still didn’t speak, but Johnny’s faint smile of thanks was enough to show that he appreciated his friend’s help.

 

When they finally pulled up the lane and into Bess’ yard, it was no surprise to see the woman watching for them from the doorway. In an instant, she was out of the house and hurrying up to the pickup. In a flurry of directions and commands, Bess had everything taken care of. Roy and Harold walked on either side of Johnny as they slowly made their way to the bunkhouse, while Mr. Simms carried his son into the farmhouse.

 

At first, Roy was a little surprised that she’d went along with the Simms family, given the type of relationship he’d seen between Bess and Johnny. But all doubts were erased when he pushed open the door of the bunkhouse. The old woman must’ve been very busy after he’d called her from the clinic.

 

The room was cozy and warm, a fire already burning in the hearth. The lights were on, and the blankets turned back on Johnny’s bed. A small wooden table held a crock of soup, along with bread, crackers, and a jug of cold milk. There were extra blankets laid out, and even a stack of clean bandages nearby. Evidently, Bess had tried to think of everything. Walking Johnny to the bed, Roy smiled when his friend started to complain.

 

“I don’t really need to be in bed. The chair over there would be just fine.”

 

The trio stopped while Roy stared, unflinching, at his friend. Harold, however, seemed to waver. “Maybe it would be all right, for a little while.”

 

“Uh huh, until he gets a dizzy spell and keels over on the floor. No way, Johnny. The doctor said in bed, and in bed is where you’re going.”

 

“Haven’t changed a bit,” Johnny grumbled as they steered him over to his bed.

 

The look on his face was one of relief, though, as he settled himself against the pile of pillows Bess had arranged there. Roy knew Johnny wasn’t feeling well. In fact, he suspected that the long ride had made things worse. The walk in had taken much longer than even he had expected. He longed to pull out a flashlight and check John’s pupils, or even reach for a BP cuff to monitor vitals. But with no equipment, and fully aware of the fight he’d have on his hands, Roy settled for getting his friend tucked safely between the covers. It took several minutes to get boots and jeans off, but Harold and Roy worked well together. Even Johnny was agreeable, only widening his eyes a bit when they took scissors to one of his white t-shirts, quickly cutting it down the left side so that it would fit around his bandaged shoulder.

 

“She didn’t have to do all this,” Johnny mumbled softly, as his eyes moved about the room.

 

“Sure she did, son,” Harold said quietly. “She cares about you.”

 

No sooner did they have Johnny settled into bed before there was a knock on the door. Harold pulled it open, stepping back as Bess bustled in.

 

“Well, you gave us all quite a scare today, young man. How are you feeling?”

 

“Tired.”

 

“I should expect so. I talked to the doctor myself, you know, so there’s no sense starting in on your complaining. There’s soup here, and Roy’s dishing you up some right now. After that, you’re going to take a nap. And we won’t be seeing you out of this bed until Tuesday morning, right?”

 

“Bess…”

 

“I said Tuesday morning, Rick, and Tuesday morning it is.”

 

Roy wasn’t surprised at the woman’s attitude, or even at the way Johnny succumbed to it so willingly. He was surprised, however, at the strange look that flashed across his partner’s face, and the uncharacteristic silence that followed. He understood though, when his friend finally spoke.

 

“It’s Johnny. Bess, my name is Johnny.”

 

“I know, dear, I know.”

 

The old woman went over and sat down on the edge of the bed, picking up the young man’s hand, and stroking it gently. Harold and Roy exchanged a glance then silently left the bunkhouse. There were sure to be chores waiting, and it suddenly seemed like the perfect time.

 

As the two men measured oats, and divided bales of hay, Roy couldn’t help but wonder what kind of conversation was taking place in the bunkhouse. He knew that Bess was someone very special to Johnny. Still, though it made him feel guilty, Roy hoped the woman wasn’t so special that Johnny wouldn’t leave her.

 

Half an hour later, Harold and Roy walked back to the bunkhouse, only to find their two friends leisurely sipping soup, and laughing cheerfully. Harold grinned at his old friend. “What’s so funny, woman?”

 

“Oh, that boy up in my house. Only been there five minutes, and he already had his dad runnin’ from here to there. I told ‘em I had to check up on my own boy down here, and so I just left ‘em to their own devices. Now I’m not sure what I’ll find when I get back. Hope my house is still standin.’”

 

Johnny grinned tiredly, something not lost on Bess.

 

“But I guess I’ll have to risk it. Good thing it’s only for one night, and then I’ll have my peace and quiet back.” She chuckled. “Harold, you wanna go with me? Just in case I need moral support?”

 

“Sure I will, Bess. Who knows, if they settle down early, we might even get in a hand of gin.”

 

“Oh, you old coot. You’re just anxious to win back the money you been losin’ to me lately. What are you into me for, now? Is it four or five dollars?”

 

“Four or five . . . now Bess, you know I don’t owe you any more than a dollar at most. You just get that notebook of yours out and re-add those numbers.”

 

Harold was already by the door, muttering something about old women and senility. Bess just winked at the two younger men, then stepped over to the bed.

“Night, Johnny,” she murmured to the young man, patting his leg gently.

 

Roy watched Johnny watch Bess, as the older couple left. He didn’t ask any questions though, just shut the door behind them, and turned out several lights. Dishing up a bowl of soup for himself, Roy settled into one of the overstuffed chairs and for the first time in hours, truly relaxed. Johnny was already asleep.

 

Just as the doctor ordered, and just as he’d done several times in the past, Roy woke Johnny every few hours to ask his name, the date, and where he was. Each and every time, the young man answered with the same simple line:

 

“It’s October 28th, I’m somewhere in Oregon, and my name is John Gage.”

 

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

 

Johnny sat on the edge of his bed, struggling to deal with the vertigo that still plagued him. It had only been two days, but in typical John Gage fashion, he was tired of being stuck inside. Carefully bending down to tie the other shoe, he tried to breathe deep and stay calm. When he straightened again, it was to find Roy watching him from the doorway.

 

“I thought you were going to wait for me to help you.”

 

“Been dressing myself for years now, Dad.”

 

“Is that why your shirt is only half on?” Roy grinned wickedly.

 

“Okay, okay . . .so I’m having a little trouble with the arm. Sue me.”

 

Walking swiftly to the bed, Roy reached down to help guide his friend’s arm into the sleeve, and then slipped the white sling over the top of the flannel shirt. “I think you’re going to need a jacket, too. It’s kinda cold out there today.”

 

“Yeah, season’s changing.”

 

The two men were silent as Roy quickly buttoned Johnny’s shirt, then stepped back out of the way. Johnny didn’t stand, but remained perched on the edge of the bed. He hadn’t missed sight of the duffel bag that Roy had unceremoniously kicked out of the way Sunday evening when they returned from the clinic. He’d known, from that moment that his partner and best friend had been planning to leave soon. He just hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask when.

 

All the other questions had seemed easy. Who had Roy called from Dr. Timmon’s office . . . how were Joanne and the kids taking the news . . . what was happening back at 51’s? And Roy had answered each and every one, even taking time to fill him in on the details of what was going on in LA County.

 

Roy had finally told Johnny that his apartment was gone, his belongings in storage, and his job in question. That had been a difficult conversation, and afterwards, Roy had left the bunkhouse for several hours. Bess had filled in the time, chattering happily from her chair by the fireplace while she darned a pair of socks. Johnny hadn’t been fooled though; both of his friends were on edge. Hell, he was too.

 

The important question remained unasked, as if hanging imminently over everyone’s head. He’d waited for two days for Roy to speak up, and still the man remained silent. Johnny knew that his friend had the patience of Job, but this was getting ridiculous. ‘Fine, then, I guess I’ll get the ball rolling.’

 

“When are you leaving?” Johnny blurted, unceremoniously.

 

He knew he’d caught Roy by surprise. It was obvious from the man’s stricken expression, along with the sudden flush of color on his face. ”What . . . why . . . why do you ask?”

 

“Because, man, you can’t stay here forever. I know you have to be out of vacation, and sick days too. Joanne’s probably going nuts worrying about you, and LA County isn’t going to hold both of our jobs open forever.”

 

Roy stared, but didn’t answer.

 

“Besides,” Johnny answered, somewhat softer, “I saw that you’d packed your bag the other day.”

 

“Oh. . . “

 

Roy shuffled over to other bed, and sat down to face Johnny. “I was going to tell you that night, but well . . .things changed.”


”Yeah, they did.” Johnny hesitated. “Were you going to leave without telling me who you were?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Oh . . .” Johnny mumbled, unaware that he was an echo of his friend.

 

“Dr. Brackett said that I shouldn’t push you to remember. We weren’t sure if it would cause more problems . . .you know, like the nightmares.”

 

“Yeah. I . . . okay, I guess I can understand that. It’s just . . . it’s just hard to accept that you were going to walk away.”

 

“I wasn’t going to just walk away,” Roy firmly defended. “Bess and I had already discussed things. We were going to stay in contact. And she promised to call me if . . . in case you started to remember. I . . . well, you said it a few minutes ago . . . I have to go home. I didn’t know what else to do then, and I don’t know what else to do now. . .”

 

Roy stared at him silently, as if begging for his forgiveness.

 

“This stinks,” Johnny stated flatly.

 

Roy dropped his head slightly, and nodded. “Yeah, it does.”

 

The tiny clock on the mantle ticked quietly, the only sound in the room. Johnny stared at his hands, unsure of how to proceed, how to break the news to his best friend. When he finally forced himself to look up at Roy, he realized he didn’t have to. Roy knew.

 

“You’re staying.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You sure?” Roy asked quietly.

 

“No.”

 

Roy stared, first at him, then at the floor, then towards the door. The expression of loss that covered his face, never changed. “You can always change your mind.”

 

“I know . . . Roy, man, this is so hard.” Johnny scrubbed his face feebly with his good hand. “I don’t want to hurt you, and I know that LA is my home, too. But Bess needs me. And truth is, I need her too. This is my home now.”

 

“You’ve thought about this.”

 

“That’s about all I have thought of the past two days,” Johnny mumbled.

 

“Yeah. Me too.”

 

Finally forcing himself up, Roy stood over Johnny a full minute before he spoke. When he did, his voice was strained. “I’ll leave tomorrow.”

 

“Yeah. Okay.”

 

Neither man spoke. After several minutes, Roy helped Johnny to his feet and they walked silently out the door. The rest of the day was spent together, looking over the animals, working at easy chores, or just sitting silently together.

 

It seemed like only a few hours, but it was a whole day later when Johnny leaned against the side of Harold’s truck, and watched Roy shove his bag in the back. They only had a few minutes left. Harold had already warned them that they were cutting it close if Roy wanted to meet the bus in town. Since he’d already scheduled a flight home, it was important that he not be late and miss his connections.

 

They’d finally tried to talk again, the night before, but words had seemed too inadequate for the situation. Johnny tried to console himself with the knowledge that Roy understood. He hoped he was right. He hoped he was doing the right thing. Watching Roy say goodbye to Bess, he wasn’t sure.

 

But now Roy was walking towards him, and the moment was here. Could he do it? Could he really say goodbye to his best friend, to his past, his career, to everything that meant anything to him? As he took Roy’s hand in his, he silently answered yes. Bess was quietly waiting by the gate, her warm and understanding smile a beacon of love and acceptance. He’d found something here. A life he didn’t know he wanted, love he didn’t realized he’d missed.

 

“I’ll miss you,” Roy said sadly.

 

“Me too. Give Joanne and the kids a hug for me. Tell Cap and the guys hello. And . . . I’ll call.”

 

“Okay. Sure.”

 

They stared at each other for several minutes, their handshake frozen between them, and finally Johnny made the only move he felt was right. One armed, he pulled his best friend towards him for a brief moment.

 

“Take care, Roy.”

 

Roy didn’t answer, but squeezed Johnny’s good arm for a moment before letting go. And then, in an instant, he’d climbed into the cab of Harold’s truck. As the pickup headed down the long narrow lane, Johnny stood in silence, one arm raised in farewell. He watched for as long as the pickup was in sight, Roy’s arm stretched out the window in his own silent goodbye.

 

**********

 

Roy slammed his locker door, anxious to leave the room . . . anything to get away from Chet’s current tirade. It had been hard enough to leave Johnny in Oregon, one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do, but Chet’s unending outburst was making a bad situation even worse.

 

Without a word, Roy walked past the Irishman, and made his way to the kitchen and a hot cup of coffee. He spotted Captain Stanley in the doorway of his office, and gave him a weak nod. It was going to be another long shift.

 

Everyone knew what had happened, and that Johnny had chosen not to return to LA. Cap had accompanied Joanne to the airport to meet Roy, anxious to get any information first hand. Though it had been difficult to explain the reasons why Johnny hadn’t come home with him, they seemed to understand. Or at least, they tried to accept the situation. Chet was another story. He worried the topic, like a dog worries a bone.

 

The first several shifts had been difficult. Subsequent shifts were even worse. Chet was angry. And Roy was the unlucky recipient of that anger. Although he was trying hard to be sympathetic, and had even met privately with Cap while off-duty in an effort to deal with the problem, it was hard to keep up a positive front. Especially when his own instinct was to rail against his best friend, and the decision he’d made. How could he argue with Chet, when in truth he had the same feelings? All he wanted was for Johnny to come home, and for life to get back to normal. But all the wishing in the world wouldn’t change the facts. Johnny wasn’t coming back, and normal would never be the same normal again.

They were all just going to have to do their best to accept the inevitable and move on. The guys seemed to understand, and were doing their best. Even Tom, his new permanent partner, had been sensitive to the problem. Everyone was trying except Chet. And as the weeks passed, the situation at Station 51 was becoming unbearable.

 

Neither Cap nor Roy wanted any of this to reflect on Chet’s career. However, they also recognized that if the man didn’t back off soon, Cap was going to have to step in and officially put a stop to it. Mike had tried. Marco had tried, both on and off duty. No one seemed to be able to get through to Chet, and as of this morning, his new plan was to spend his next free day flying to Oregon. In his own words “I’ll drag his skinny ass all the way back to LA, if I have to, but he’s not wasting the rest of his life on some two-bit ranch in the boonies of Oregon.”

 

Roy would’ve laughed if Chet hadn’t looked so serious. Besides, it wouldn’t help their working relationship if he had. As it was, they were barely speaking to each other. Chet had it in his head that Roy had let Johnny down, and that it was somehow Roy’s fault John wouldn’t come home. How he’d come to that mistaken belief was anyone’s guess, but the pressure it was putting on Roy was intolerable.

 

Cap had told him early on, that he should simply tell Chet to back off, but Roy couldn’t seem to do it. Maybe it was because he felt, oddly, that Chet might be right. Should he have done more? Pushed harder? Insisted that Johnny come home?

 

The sound of his cup smashing to the floor startled Roy into awareness. He knew that his apologies were unnecessary, as he hurried to the closet for a broom and dustpan. The room was silent when he returned, making him feel even more awkward than before.

 

The tension was thick, and Roy sensed that they’d reached a showdown of sorts. He didn’t think he could deal with it now, his own emotions too raw. Head down, he focused on the broken cup, and swept the pieces quickly into the pan. When he straightened up, he was met with Chet’s icy stare, and then finally, after weeks of suppression, he broke.

 

“Don’t even say it, Chet. Just don’t go there! I don’t know why he didn’t come home. I don’t know why he chose to make his life on the ranch instead of here. I don’t understand it all, and I don’t want to accept it. But I don’t have a choice. He’s found something there . . . something he wants and needs . . . something that he evidently didn’t have here. I don’t know what else to tell you, and I don’t know how you’re supposed to deal with it. Hell, I don’t know how to deal with it!”

 

Roy stopped for a breath, surprised at the look of contrition on Chet’s face. The other men simply stood wordlessly, as if relieved that Roy had finally given in to the anger they all knew he’d been holding back. Taking a deep breath, he looked around the room, searching for the right words to continue. His eyes settled back on Chet, and when he spoke again, his voice was quieter, yet held no apology. “We just have to accept it, Chet. Right or wrong, good or bad, he’s made his choice. As much as we don’t like, we have to accept it and move on.”

 

Chet didn’t say a word. He placed his own coffee cup silently on the table, and walked out of the kitchen. Cap was standing at the doorway, and Roy wondered if his superior had been to witness his outburst. He decided it didn’t matter, but was glad when he saw Cap rest his hand briefly on Chet’s shoulder. It didn’t stop the fireman. He just kept walking, and no one spoke until they heard the Dorm door close behind him.

 

Sinking to the nearest chair, Roy dropped his head into his hands. Mike and Marco tried to act as natural as possible, as they went about making another pot of coffee, and Tom discreetly withdrew from the Dayroom. It was Cap who finally spoke, and Roy was startled when he realized that his superior was sitting beside him.

 

“It had to be said, Roy. Chet knows it, we all do, but it had to be said. He just needs to accept that life changes, for all of us.”

 

“Yeah, I guess. I didn’t have to yell at him, though.”

 

“I think you did. You got his attention, and that hasn’t been easy to do lately.”

Cap paused for a moment. “It’ll get better, Roy. Time will help us all accept it.”

 

Without looking up, Roy nodded in agreement. “I know, Cap. I know you’re right. I know that everything I said to Chet was right. And we have to accept Johnny’s decision. But I wish I could do what Chet wanted to do.”

 

“What was that?”

 

Roy almost grinned when he finally faced his captain. “Fly up to Oregon, and drag his skinny ass back to LA.”

 

**********

 

Almost three weeks had passed since Roy’s outburst at the station. Since then, A-shift seemed resigned to accept Johnny’ absence and move on. Though Chet and Roy never talked about it, they seemed to have reached an unspoken understanding. They didn’t like it, didn’t fully agree with it, but they would respect Johnny’s decision.

 

Though there had been numerous phone calls between Roy’s house and Bess’ ranch, the conversations felt unnatural, even strained. They talked about Joanne and the kids, Roy’s new partner, Bess, Johnny’s chores on the ranch, and even the upcoming holidays. But they never talked about the choices that had been made, or the consequences.

 

Though the friendship was intact, the old camaraderie was strained. Roy hoped that they’d find some new ground, soon. He didn’t want to lose his best friend. Given everything he’d just gone through to find Johnny, he was determined not to let that happen. But it was a long way to Oregon, and he’d exhausted any vacation time over the past six months. So, for now, their friendship was relegated to letters or phone calls. Maybe, next summer, he could plan a trip north with the family. He knew that Joanne and the kids would love it. Chris and Jennifer couldn’t understand why their Uncle Johnny wasn’t coming home, but maybe after they’d had a chance to visit him on the ranch, and meet Bess . . . well, maybe it would make things a little easier. Like everyone else, they were just going to have to learn to accept the change.

 

The sound of the klaxons startled Roy. Leaning his mop in the corner, he hurried to the squad while Cap took down the information. As they pulled out of the bay, Roy turned right and sped towards their call, smiling when his new partner mentioned lunch. He liked this new guy. Though he was nothing like Johnny, and never would be, Tom was friendly, and most important, a good paramedic. It was going to take some more getting used to, and he suspected that they would never mesh in quite the same way that he and Johnny did, but he’d do his best to make this partnership work. He was tired of a different face every shift.

 

“Just another change to accept,” Roy muttered quietly.

 

“What was that?” Tom asked curiously.

 

“Huh? Oh, sorry. Just wondering what Chet was going to fix for lunch. Some new recipe we’ll have to accept,” Roy lied.

 

Tom nodded as he pointed out the next turn, but his smile seemed a little too forced. Roy bit his lip, wondering what the man was really thinking, realizing again that he had to quit focusing on the past. He didn’t have time to try to cover up the confusion however, as they rounded the last corner. A large warehouse was engulfed in flames, and they were instantly absorbed with the job at hand.

 

Several hours passed before Roy backed the squad into the station again. They had transported two victims to Rampart, one security guard who suffered from smoke inhalation, and a fireman from 8’s who fell off a ladder. The follow up didn’t take too long, but long enough for the rest of the crew to finish the clean up and head home. Roy was just opening his door when Mike backed the engine into the bay beside them.

 

“Guess it’s time to sample Chet’s cooking,” Tom quipped knowingly.

 

“Oh, great,” Roy mumbled, as he slammed the door, and headed for the kitchen.

 

In almost the same instant, Roy and Chet reached the doorway, and immediately froze in mid-step. There were four large pizza’s spread out on the table, plates and utensils at the ready. Almost simultaneously, the two men turned to look around the room, surprised at what they found.

 

Seated on the leather couch, one hand resting on Henry, the other holding a slice of pizza, was Johnny. Unaffected by the crew’s arrival, he simply took another bite then nodded appreciatively. “Good pizza, guys. Sure took you long enough to show up. Better grab some before it gets any colder.”

 

The group instantly erupted in a flurry of motion. Chet was first to cross the room, pulling Johnny from the couch, and pumping his hand vigorously. Marco and Mike were right behind him, both happily welcoming their friend. Roy stood back the longest, watching the activity, and studying the people around him. Cap looked happy, but not as surprised as one would’ve suspected. In fact, at one point, Roy was almost sure that Cap and Tom winked at each other. He’d have to ask about that later.

 

When the initial shock wore off, the others congregated around the table, arguing over who wanted which pizza. Only then did Roy move over to stand by Johnny. At first, he simply stared at his friend in silence, as if trying to discern the true meaning of the visit. When Johnny broke into one of his full-fledged grins, Roy finally knew for sure that his presence here was what they’d all been wishing for.

“You’re back . . . for good?”

 

“Well, I heard that you’re pretty hard to work with, but I thought I’d give it a shot.”

 

Roy glanced over his shoulder, surprised to see Tom smiling broadly at them both. “I take it that you arranged this?”

 

Johnny nodded. “Been talking to Cap. He worked everything out with the department, and with Tom. If you still want your old partner, then yeah, I’m back. For good.”

 

Roy almost beamed with pleasure. Draping his arm across Johnny’s shoulder, he looked at the floor for a moment before continuing. “What about Bess?”

 

“Oh, she’s good. Actually, she’s better than good. She’s great. Seems like Harold finally decided to get around to courting her after you left. They’re getting married in a few weeks.”

 

“You’re kidding!”

 

“Nope. Didn’t surprise me. Well, not much anyway. I always suspected there was a reason Harold hung around the ranch so much.”

 

The two were still laughing when Cap finally stepped over. He reached out to shake hands with Johnny, but in an uncharacteristic action, he pulled the younger man close for what could’ve passed as a quick hug. Looking Johnny over, he nodded in satisfaction. “You’re looking good, John. Real good. I’m glad you’re back.”

 

Johnny didn’t answer at first, hanging his head slightly. When he did look up at his captain, it was with a look of happiness, even contentment. “Thanks, Cap. I am too. It took me a little while, and Bess had to help me see it. But I finally figured out that this is where my life really is. This is where I belong.”

 

There was a brief pause as they considered Johnny’s choice.

 

“What about a place to live?” Cap asked carefully.

 

“I guess, since Roy got rid of my place, I’m finally free to look for what I really want.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“A ranch. Nothing big. Just a few acres where I can keep a horse or two. But what I really want is something of my own. And that way, I’ll kind of have the best of both worlds.”

 

Roy was not only grateful; he was also relieved to hear those words. He’d missed Johnny; they all had. Yet, even though he’d wanted his friend back, he didn’t want it to be for the wrong reasons. Johnny’s admission was confirmation that the choice had truly been his, and not some half-hearted attempt to please his friends.

 

“When did you say you’re going back, Johnny?” Marco asked.

 

Suddenly, he realized that the conversation had gone on without him, and Roy wasn’t sure he’d heard Johnny right. So uncertain he was almost afraid to hear the answer, his voice faltered a little when he finally managed to blurt out his question.

 

“What was that? Did you say you’re going back up there?”

 

Johnny laughed happily. “Geez, Roy, you getting deaf in your old age? I said I was thinking of going up there next summer to visit them.”

 

“Really? You’re going to drive up to Oregon? Next summer?”

 

Instantly, Chet was standing in front of them, his expression one of near shock.

“No way! You wouldn’t!” Turning to the others, his voice raised almost an octave; Chet put the question to them all. “He’s not going up there by himself, is he?”

 

Four voices answered in almost perfect unison. “Absolutely not!”

 

Epilogue

 

Johnny smiled warmly as he folded the letter into thirds and slipped it back into its envelope. He’d read and reread it numerous times, but the feelings it evoked remained the same. He only needed to read a few lines in order to imagine himself back at Bess’ place. Tapping the envelope twice against his palm, he tucked it safely into a box on his dresser and shut the lid.

 

Pulling several t-shirts from an open drawer, Johnny pushed them into his duffel bag then zipped it closed. He shut the drawer and looked once more around the room before hefting the overstuffed bag to his shoulder. What he saw made him happy, and he smiled again.

 

Downstairs, he made one last cursory check of lights and doors. Everything seemed to be in order. Again he looked around and smiled. The large room, complete with his recliner and couch, opened into a small but neatly designed kitchen. It was a perfect layout for his lifestyle, and he was grateful that he’d found the place.

 

After he returned to LA, he’d spent the first several months at Roy’s place. At first, he’d agreed grudgingly, but after only a few days there, he knew he’d made the right decision. Joanne had been wonderful, making him feel welcome and at home. She seemed to understand his need to have his surrogate family close, and was more than willing to give him that security plus a happy, stable home life. Chris and Jennifer were the icing on the cake. Their infectious laughter and busy schedules made the days fly by. The final piece fell into place when he returned to Station 51.

 

Tom seemed to understand when Cap approached him, and willingly offered to transfer to another station so that Johnny could return to his old job. They’d all been grateful to the new paramedic for his consideration, but like Joanne, he seemed to understand what was best for everyone. Johnny was truly relieved when a position opened up at 36’s, and Tom seemed to hit it off immediately with Sam Abbot. In fact, he wondered if they were developing the same kind of relationship that he and Roy enjoyed.

 

They were both a bit nervous, Johnny’s first day back on the job, but it had only taken one run together to put the old partners at ease. Nothing had changed between them, after all, and Johnny was truly happy to be back at his chosen profession.

 

But the best part of the last year was the day he moved into his own home.

 

Roy had spent many weekends helping him look for just the right place. They’d finally found it, nestled into the hills, a fifteen-acre parcel complete with house and small barn. It was perfect. During the spring and early summer, Johnny had worked hard on various repairs and a few upgrades. Now that summer had arrived, he was pleased with all his efforts.

 

Walking to the back door, he flipped off the light and went outside, carefully locking up behind him. The early morning quiet remained, the sky dark with only a thin line of light barely creeping over the eastern ridge of the mountains. Enjoying the scene, he didn’t hurry as he approached the vehicle in his driveway, but took his time stowing his bag in the back of the rented crew cab. He went back to the porch for the large cooler and lunch box, depositing them in the back next to his bag before closing the canopy door.

 

Johnny’s impatience grew as the faint light grew brighter. In the trees near the barn, a weak chorus began as the birds woke to the new day. Sunrise was almost upon him, and he checked his watch. It was time to get going. Looking up the drive, he shook his head before going to check the horse trailer hooked to the back of the truck. Everything seemed ready.

 

The trailer belonged to his new neighbor, a friendly older man named Bill. They’d hit it off instantly, and were already exchanging tools and labor. When Johnny had told him about his upcoming trip to Oregon, Bill had insisted on loaning him the trailer. Though he initially refused, Johnny finally agreed to accept the generous offer, but only after he insisted on repairing his neighbor’s fence.

 

Now, looking around his own place, Johnny was glad that he’d done similar repairs on his own fencing. The corral stood ready, the stalls in the barn prepared for their new inhabitants. Bess had insisted that he come for a visit, and she’d also made it clear that he’d be taking several horses back home with him when he left. He’d argued until he didn’t have any energy to argue anymore, and then Harold had come on the line. He told Johnny that there was no use wasting his breath, the woman had made up her mind. After that, he’d given in. Agreed to the visit, and the gift. Secretly, he also planned to do some work while he was there, anything to help repay the woman’s kindness.

 

He gazed around his new home one last time. Yes, the place was ready, and Johnny was ready, too. Ready to get on the road. Just then, he heard the sound of a familiar car, turning off the main road. He only had to wait a few minutes to see Roy’s station wagon emerge from the tree-lined driveway. He grinned widely at the sleepy group that finally crawled out of the car.

 

“Good morning, good morning! Are we ready to hit the road?” he greeted them happily.

 

Several groans emanated, mostly from the older two, but the youngest members seemed to come alive at the sight of the truck and trailer, packed and ready to go.

 

“Are we really taking that all the way to Oregon, Uncle Johnny?”

 

“We sure are, Jen. Just as soon as you get your suitcase out of the car, and into the back of the pickup.”

 

“Cool,” murmured Christopher, as he followed Jen to the back of the station wagon.

 

Roy was already unloading their gear, while Joanne retrieved her purse and a small pillow from the front seat.

 

“Morning, partner.” Roy managed, as he passed Johnny with a load of luggage under each arm.

 

“Think you packed enough there, Roy?” Johnny grinned.

 

Roy only managed to roll his eyes, as he hurried to cram the bags in with Johnny’s meager supplies.

 

“I was sure we only brought what we needed.” said Joanne, hesitantly, as she shut the car door. “It was so nice of you to include us on your trip, Johnny. I hope we didn’t bring too much.”

 

“No. No, it’s fine, Joanne. I just had to give the old man a hard time.”

 

“Old man . . . getting me up at four a.m. on the first morning of my vacation . . . I’ll show you, old man!”

 

They all laughed at Roy’s mocking tone, while Johnny locked the canopy, and they settled into their seats. As Johnny started the engine, Roy looked over at him from the passenger side. “You ready for this partner?”

 

Johnny studied his friend then turned to look in the seat behind him, noting the happily expectant faces of Joanne and the kids. With a broad smile of his own, Johnny nodded at Roy as he put the truck into gear. It had been a very long year. Full of strange twists and turns. Relationships made, others almost lost. But in the end, he’d found his way, his life, and his family.

 

“You bet I am!”

 

*****End*****

 

Thanks to all of those encouraging voices that kept me coming back to this story, and that includes you, Viv, Audrey, Jill & Leesa. But most of all, my very special heartfelt thanks go to you, Kenda! Thanks for your ideas, suggestions, support and corrections when needed. It truly has been a journey!

 

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