“One of a Kind” Party

by Jane

“Aw, Johnny, you don’t need to host your own birthday party!  That’s why I asked you last week what your plans were.  Joanne and I wanted to throw you a surprise bash, but you said you had other plans. . .”

“Yes, I did. And that’s what the plans are.  I’ve thought about this for a while, Roy, and this is how I want to celebrate my birthday.  Having all my friends enjoying the day with me, I can’t think of anything I’d like better.” Johnny settled back against the counter, coffee cup in hand as he looked at his co-workers. “Come on, guys, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but I guarantee it’ll be a one of a kind birthday party!”

Cap quickly answered for the men. “John, of course we’ll come.  We just don’t think you should have to go to all the work by yourself.”   

“Yeah, Johnny.  We’ll be there.  What can we do to help?”   Mike asked.

Marco followed swiftly with his offer. “Yea, man, what can we bring?  Food?  Drinks?”

Johnny nodded happily as the group began to discuss the party.   He had been thinking about this ever since he found out ‘A’ shift would be off on his birthday, and he just knew this was a great idea.   If only Roy would join in.   Looking carefully in his partner’s direction, he was surprised to find a pair of blue eyes watching him intently. “What?”

“Nothing.  Just thinking.”

“Hey, Pally, it’s going to be a great day.  The kids can ride horses, we’ll play some ball, and have a barbeque.  Everyone can just relax and enjoy!”

Roy relented as he watched his friend’s face shining in anticipation.   After all these years as partners, he still found himself amazed at the simple way Johnny enjoyed life. He was so easy to please and everyone enjoyed being around him.  Although he could be exasperating at times, there was no one as good-natured as John Gage. “Ok, Johnny.  If that’s the way you want it, of course we’ll be there.  Just tell me what you want Joanne and I to do or what we can bring.”

The famous Gage grin fairly lit up the room as Johnny slapped Roy’s back.  “Thanks, Roy.  You’ll see, it’ll be a great birthday party!”

The klaxons were silent for the rest of the afternoon, and by the time Marco served up his famous enchiladas, Johnny’s friends were thoroughly convinced that this birthday party would be a great treat for the crew and their families.

**********

Saturday dawned sunny and clear, with just a hint of fall in the air.  Johnny had stayed up late Friday evening preparing for the big day, leaving only a few finishing touches for the morning.  Now he sat on the deck, enjoying his early morning coffee.

Having a birthday was not such a big deal, now that he lived so far from his relatives, but the friends that he’d made here in California were like family to him, and he looked forward to the time they’d spend together.  There’d been many parties and celebrations over the years, but Johnny had usually been the guest and rarely the host.  Now that he had his own place, not just an apartment but a real home, he looked forward to repaying his friends for their past hospitality.

Leaning back in his chair, Johnny watched the sun rise over the hills east of his house.  The horses grazing in the pasture made a perfect picture of peaceful solitude with the early morning rays shining on them.  Johnny set his chair back quietly as he rose.  He leaned through the open doorway, snagging his camera from the counter where he kept it handy.  He loved being able to take pictures of nature, and this promised to be a perfect shot. 

As he moved silently to the edge of the deck, he rested his camera on the railing and waited for the lighting to be just right.  Off to the left of the barn, Johnny caught sight of something moving through the grass.  He watched intently as the long blades moved gracefully aside revealing a much larger animal than he expected.

Johnny’s breath caught in his throat as he realized what he was witnessing.  Moving stealthily through the meadow was a cougar.  The huge cat advanced with a natural grace and beauty that the young man was compelled to admire, and Johnny found himself mesmerized by the scene. 

There had been frequent sightings of the cougars in recent years as the sprawl of civilization encroached upon their homeland.  The cats were becoming increasingly bold, and there had even been instances where people were injured by the animals.  Usually those type of incidents occurred in more remote areas, but occasionally a young cat would venture into a populated area. 

As the wind shifted slightly, the horses that had been peacefully grazing moments before, were now frozen in place.  Heads held high, ears alert, they stood motionless for only a moment.  All at once they moved as one, swiftly retreating away from the danger.  Their manes and tails flying behind them, the three horses raced over a low rise in the pasture.  Moments later, John could see them ascending the ridge behind the barn, their instinct to flee protecting them from harm.  As the horses retreated from sight, the cougar halted, pausing while it considered which path to take.  Then, turning smoothly, the beast moved silently towards the protection of the tree line.

Johnny realized abruptly that he’d been holding his breath.  Visibly relaxing as the drama drew to a close, he dropped back into his chair and breathed a sigh of relief. 

That was close!  Better get out there and round up the horses before everybody gets here.

No sooner had the thought entered his head, than Johnny was up and moving rapidly into the house.  Returning his camera to its designated place, he moved to the closet where he kept the gun.  It wasn’t really a gun, at least not a shotgun or rifle like one might expect, but rather a pellet gun.  Carefully loading it, Johnny thought back to the day he’d purchased the weapon.   Being fully aware of the danger of guns, Johnny had chose this option in an effort to be prepared for such an incident as he’d just witnessed.   He had no desire to kill any living thing, yet he must have a means to protect or defend his animals. This type of weapon allowed him the ability to scare off an unwanted creature, without risking his or the animal’s life.  

Grabbing his lightweight jacket from the same closet, Johnny called his German Shepard, Luke, and then closed the sliding glass door as he hurried towards the pasture. 

Moving steadily upwards, Johnny climbed the ridge and was soon at a point where he could see his home below.  The horses were still nowhere in sight, but he knew they wouldn’t go far.  Though Luke seemed uneasy, and continued to pace around his master, there was no sign of the intruder.  Johnny was confident that the beast had already moved back towards the open country where he came from.  Only a young, inexperienced mountain lion would remain in an area where humans were so prevalent. 

Whistling occasionally for the horses, Johnny continued his jaunt, fervently hoping the task would soon be completed.  There were some last minute preparations he was anxious to finish before the party began, and this situation had already taken up a substantial amount of his morning.  Everyone would be arriving soon, and the last thing Johnny wanted to do was show up after his guests.

Minutes later, he was relieved to see the gelding moving towards him.  Once more he whistled softly and the horse answered with his customary neigh, followed by a soft nicker from both mares.  The horses moved slowly towards their master as he stood silently waiting.  They seemed much calmer, and Johnny was relieved to know they were safe.   Turning back towards the house, he talked quietly to the animals as they followed him closely.   He was so busy working with the horses, Johnny didn’t notice the sudden change in his dog’s behavior.  Luke was no longer moving about nervously, he now stood motionless, as if waiting.

***********

Roy and Joanne had hurried to reach Johnny’s place before the others, but as usual, Chris and Jennifer were so excited that getting ready took twice as long.  Finally, in a desperate urge to get moving, the normally patient Roy raised his voice to his children. “If you two don’t quit arguing, and get your stuff in the car, we’re going to leave without you!   Now, move!”

He was astonished at the change in temperament as the siblings worked together to load the assorted bats, balls and various games they’d chosen to take to their Uncle Johnny’s.  Roy loaded the ice-chest as Joanne brought the last box from the kitchen. “Are you sure we have enough food?”

”Yes, Roy.  I’ve got everything on the list, plus a little extra.  I just wish Johnny had let me do more, but he seems to have everything well organized.   Jennifer, did you bring that suntan lotion I told you to get?”

“I’ve got it. Mom.”

“Chris, how about the extra towels?  And did you get the blankets I set out?  We might need those if anyone wants to relax on the lawn after dinner.  And, Roy, did you pick up Johnny’s gift?  I left it on the table in the dining room.”

As Chris started to answer, Roy interrupted anxiously. “Joanne, we’ve got everything we need.  Let’s just get moving.  I wanted to be there early to give Johnny a hand before the rest of the group arrives.”

“Alright, I guess we’re ready.  Let’s go.”

The DeSotos launched into an excited discussion of the anticipated fun, and before long they’d left the busy city behind as they moved into the hills where Johnny’s home was located.   Driving up the long driveway, Roy wasn’t surprised to see a car parked near the house.  “Darn, I knew we were late getting started.  Cap’s already here.”

“Roy, it doesn’t matter.  We’ll all pitch in and help Johnny.  It’ll be fine, honey.  Just relax and have a good time.”

Roy barely had time to park the station wagon next to Cap’s Edsel before the kids had exited the vehicle.  Running towards the barn, they merely waved a greeting to Hank and his wife as they climbed the fence, then vaulted over a couple hay bales near the door.

Hank laughed as he watched the DeSoto children disappear into the barn.  “Looks like the kids are already starting the party.”

Looking over his shoulder, he noted his own daughters had made themselves comfortable on the chaise lounges Johnny had arranged around the deck.  His eldest, Lisa, was intent on tuning a radio to their favorite station.  Roy followed his glance and grinned at his boss affectionately. “Looks like your girls have started their own party.”

The two men laughed amiably as they unloaded their cars and moved towards the house.

Roy looked up as he realized his wife was already returning from her first trip to the kitchen and paused briefly. “Joanne, tell Johnny we could use some help out here.”

“I don’t know where he is, Roy.  Kate and I were in the kitchen for only a minute, but I didn’t see him.”

Hank and Roy shook their heads as they continued with their task.  Moments later, they were joined by Marco and Chet, who cheerfully lent a hand.  As they deposited the final box on the kitchen counter, Roy looked around for his partner.  “Johnny.  Hey, Johnny!  You’ve got company, man.  Where are you, birthday boy?”

There was no answer to his call, and Roy looked around with heightened interest.  He realized with a start, that Johnny’s dog hadn’t been underfoot, either. Something just didn’t seem right.

Wonder where he’s off to? 

“Cap.  Have you seen Johnny, yet?”

“No, I haven’t seen him.  We pulled in just a few minutes before you.  There was no sign of him except a cold cup of coffee on the picnic table.”

The two men looked at each other curiously. 

“Let’s check down at the barn, he’s probably working with the horses.  He promised Chris and Jen all the kids could ride today. “

The two men moved towards the barn as Marco and Chet joined them.  Chet was the first to express his amusement. “Hey, Roy, where’s Gage?  Thought he was suppose to be the life of the party.”

Roy shrugged nonchalantly. “Don’t know where he is.  Maybe he’s hiding from the Phantom.  You do know that today’s his day off, don’t you?” 

Chet grinned mischievously, but lost the look quickly as he caught sight of Cap’s face. “Yeah, Roy, I know.  I guess the Phantom could give his Pigeon a rest for one day.”   

But that’s all he’ll get . . .

The men’s laughter rolled over them as they walked together towards the barn.  Inside the house, the women smiled warmly at each other.  Joanne looked in wonder at the contents of the refrigerator.  “Look at all the food he’s got!  Can you believe he’s done all this on his own?  Did he call you for help?”  Joanne looked at her friend suspiciously, but Kate Stanley merely shook her head.

“Haven’t heard a word from John, except for the invitation.  He must’ve been planning this picnic for a while.”

Closing the door on the array, Joanne moved to the table and seated herself tiredly.  “I can sure use a day of relaxation.  How about you?”

The conversation proceeded as they caught up on each other’s lives.  Though their husbands saw each other almost daily, the wives were busy with their own lives and only found time to visit occasionally.  They welcomed this unexpected diversion, and looked forward to a relaxing day with their families.

Moving through the barn, Roy called to his friend once more. “Johnny, are you out here?  Come on, John.  We’re all ready for the party to begin!”

There was no reply, and an uneasy feeling overtook Roy as he moved back to his friends.  Marco shook his head slightly at the look on Roy’s face.  “What do you think happened to him?  He couldn’t have made a last minute run to the store, all his vehicles are here.”

Roy jumped suddenly at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, but a quick check through the doorway revealed the newcomers to be Mike and his family.  The party had begun, but where was the guest of honor?

***********

Over an hour had passed since the crew arrived at Johnny’s place, and Roy was becoming more concerned with each passing minute.  When Roy and his co-workers hadn’t been able to find Johnny in the barn or house, he’d called Johnny’s neighbor.  The man said he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary since visiting with John the night before.  It wasn’t like his partner to disappear without a word, especially when he’d invited everyone to his home. 

This is all you’ve been talking about for a week, Johnny, where Are you?

Chet had been watching the kids playing in the barn, so Roy was surprised to suddenly find the dark haired man standing at his side. “That Johnny, he’s pulled a good one on us this time, huh, man?   Inviting us all out here and then not showing up.  Yeah, that’s some kind of party!  Only Gage could think up something like this.”

Roy shot Chet a glance that simply froze the stocky man in place, and his voice when he spoke, shook with frustration.  “Johnny’s not pulling some prank, Chet.  Something’s happened!  Look around.  Everything’s in place for the party, the doors were all unlocked when we got here, his Rover and the pickup are both parked out back, but Johnny’s nowhere around.   Even his dog is missing.  Something’s wrong!”

Chet stood in stunned silence as Roy walked quickly across the yard toward Hank.  Suddenly he realized with amazing clarity that Roy was right.  Ever since they’d arrived, the Phantom had expected his Pigeon to show up with a smug look on his face, ranting some unintelligible explanation of his whereabouts.  But too much time had passed for this to be some kind of prank, and Chet looked about uncertainly.

Where the heck are you, Gage?

Hank listened intently to Roy’s concerns, as the children stopped playing to gather around the men.  Realizing the kid’s focus was upon the adult’s conversation, Hank moved to break up the group.  He began to walk slowly towards the house as he shot a warning glance in Roy’s direction.   Immediately sensing Cap’s concern, Roy smoothly changed the subject as they ascended the steps to the deck.  “Joanne, don’t you think the kids could have a snack?  It’ll be awhile before lunch.”

He winked at his wife over Jennifer’s head as Mike’s kids bounded up.

“Yes!  Yes!  Can we have something to drink too?  I’m thirsty.” 

Joanne gently patted Mike’s daughter, Susan, as she herded the youngsters towards the door. “Come on, kids, let’s get you something to eat before you starve to death.  Then we’ll set up the badminton set for you.  Lisa, Cindy, would you girls mind giving us a hand?”

Hank’s daughters rose reluctantly and joined the rowdy group.  It was obvious they weren’t all that interested in dealing with the excited children, when they’d much rather be listening to the radio while relaxing on the deck.  But they dutifully moved into the kitchen to help with pouring juice and handing out snacks.

“Roy, let’s go talk to the guys.”  Hank motioned for Roy to follow and the two men walked back across the yard.  The coworkers gathered next to the fence and looked at their captain expectantly.  It was Roy who broke the silence.

“Cap, I think we’d better take a look around.  Johnny’s rigs are still here, and he knew Joanne and I were coming over early.  I can’t help but think that something’s happened to him.”

Mike and Marco nodded in agreement as they surveyed the landscape, while Chet voiced everyone’s thoughts.  “But where should we look, Roy?  The horses are still here, and there’s no sign that anyone else has been around.  Marco and I checked the loft, and out behind the barn, while Mike checked the rise at the back of the house.”

Roy nodded as the men contemplated Chet’s question.  “You know, guys, I’ve been watching the horses, and I’ve only seen the mares so far.   They seem a little agitated, and if you noticed, they haven’t come close to the barn.  They’re keeping their distance and that’s unusual, especially when the kids are around.  Johnny usually has his hands full, with the kids trying to feed them apples and carrots.  Those horses are like a bunch of spoiled babies, but today, they won’t even come within shouting distance, and I’ve yet to see Johnny’s gelding.  I really think we should check it out.”

Hank nodded in agreement as he watched the horses across the meadow.   Roy was right, and he mentally chastised himself for not noticing earlier. “Ok, men, let’s take a walk.”

“I’ll tell the girls where we’re going.”

Cap nodded at his senior paramedic, then turned towards the pasture.

Roy sprinted across the yard, but stopped in surprise when Joanne called to him from the corner of the house.  “Roy, I’m over here.”

“I thought you were inside with the kids.”

“Well, we’ve been watching you guys and figured you were going to go looking for Johnny sooner or later.  We didn’t want to worry the kids, so I came out here to find out what you were planning to do.”

“We’re going to take a little walk and check out the horses.   Nothing to worry about.”

“Yet.”

Roy looked hesitantly at his wife and realized she was just as worried as he was.  All pretenses were dropped as he grabbed her for a quick hug.  “We’ll find him, honey.  He’s probably out riding and just lost track of time.”

Joanne nodded silently as she reached up to give Roy a light kiss.  “Get going, you.  And bring back that partner of yours.  It’s time we got this party started for real.”

With one last squeeze, Roy let go of his wife and ran back towards the pasture.  Once again he pondered the whereabouts of his best friend.  

What are you up to this time, Junior?

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

It had been almost an hour since the men had left the house.  What had started out as a simple look around was quickly turning into an all-out search.   As the men moved closer, the horses bolted in fright, something Roy had never seen them do.  Johnny was proud of the animals he owned, and always bragged about how calm they acted in every situation. Roy had to admit he’d been impressed with how well behaved the horses were when the kids came out to ride.   Mike quietly interrupted Roy’s musings. “Something’s sure got these horses spooked.  What do you think happened?”

No one answered as they looked around.    Finally Hank broke the silence as he fell into his roll as their leader. “Lets break up into two groups.  Roy, Marco, you two head up the hill.  Chet, you’re more familiar with Johnny’s place than Mike and I, so we’ll stay with you.  Let’s meet back here in, say, one hour.  If we haven’t found him by then, we’re going to need some help.”

The men nodded silently as they split up and began to search for their missing friend.

It was a beautiful August day, and the sun shone warmly on the men as they moved through the pasture and up into the hills.  There was little conversation as they walked.  Everyone’s thoughts were on the man they searched for, and what might have happened to make him leave the house on a day he had a party planned. 

Roy was the first to notice Johnny’s horse in the distance.  “Marco.  Look up the hill, next to the big oak, that’s Cisco.”

“What’s he doing up there?   He looks pretty nervous.  Do you think he sees us?”

“No, we’re downwind of him, and it looks like he’s watching something on the other side of the hill.”

The two men worked their way carefully towards the gelding.  Moving cautiously amongst the trees, Roy searched his mind for any idea on how to handle the animal.  He wasn’t very familiar with horses.  Most of what he did know, he’d learned from Johnny over the past few years.  Remembering bits and pieces of that advice now, Roy knew that he had to approach the animal in a non-threatening manner.  With that in mind, he motioned to Marco as he halted just below the crest of the hill.  

There was only about twenty feet between them, and Roy was surprised the horse hadn’t picked up their scent.  Knowing that he must make the horse aware of their presence before he could get closer, Roy cleared his throat quietly, then spoke in a soothing tone. “Cisco.  Hey, boy, how ya doing?”

The gelding threw his head up at the sound of Roy’s voice, and his behavior convinced the paramedic that something was terribly wrong. “Hey, fella, we’re not going to hurt ya.  Just gonna walk up there and take a look around.”

Continuing to speak in a relaxed manner, Roy cautiously moved toward the horse, Marco following closely.  Cisco watched them warily, but made no move to leave.  Only his wide eyes and flared nostrils revealed his nervousness.  Ears twitching quickly back and forth, the horse stood his ground until Roy reached out to stroke him.  Then, with a toss of his head, the horse galloped away.  He stopped a short distance from them and whinnied shrilly.

“What’s gotten into him, Roy?  Roy!”

But Marco received no answer.  Roy was running down the other side of the hill, as if the devil himself were behind him.  Stunned, Marco shook his head at the strange behavior of his co-worker.  Though he was unaware of what prompted Roy’s actions, Marco broke into a jog and trailed the man. 

Roy tossed a glance over his shoulder as he ran.  He waved an arm in the air, beckoning Marco to hurry. “I found Johnny!  He’s down here!”

Stopping abruptly at Johnny’s side, Roy was shocked at the amount of blood covering his partner.  Kneeling down, he felt for a pulse, and was relieved to feel the faint beat against his fingers.  Letting out the breath he didn’t know he was holding, Roy quickly checked his partner’s injuries, all the while murmuring softly to his friend. 

“Roy?  What is it?”

Marco had reached the pair and bent over them now, bewildered at the sight before him. “What the hell happened to him?”

“I don’t know for sure.  Looks like something attacked him.  From the looks of these marks, it must’ve been a large cat.  Marco, we need help, and we need it now.  He’s lost a lot of blood, and is going into shock.  Get Cap and the guys up here fast, and put a call in for a chopper.  There’s no time to carry him out of here.  Oh, and bring some blankets and towels back with you.”

Marco was already up and moving by the time Roy had finished his instructions. A call from Roy stopped him in his tracks. “Marco, make sure the women and children go inside the house, and tell them to stay there.  Until we can get someone out here to track this animal, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.  It might attack someone else.”

Once again, Marco was off and running for help.

Looking back at his partner, Roy realized he had nothing to treat Johnny with.  The puncture wounds and claw marks on his friend’s arms and chest were deep, and Roy was acutely aware of the miracle in front of him.  Considering the amount of time Johnny had laid out in the field, it was incredible that he was still alive.  “Johnny, can you hear me?  Come on, Junior, wake up for me.  I need you to help me out here.” 

Quickly pulling off his t-shirt, Roy ripped it into strips.  One at a time, he carefully lifted his partner’s arms and wrapped the strips around the worst of the lacerations.  While lifting him gently, Roy had his first glimpse at Johnny’s shoulder.  He shook his head in dismay.  There was nothing he could do for the man out here, except bind the wounds as best he could.  Moving his friend with smooth and deliberate precision, Roy was able to work the final strips of fabric around Johnny’s shoulder and chest, then knotted them firmly in place.   Rudimentary first aid was all he could offer his friend, but he hoped that these makeshift bandages would at least slow the bleeding until help could arrive. “Hey, Junior, you gonna lay there and sleep all day?  It’s your birthday, remember?  You’ve got a house full of people waiting to celebrate with you.”

Roy didn’t really expect an answer, but continued his soft pleas as he rubbed his friend’s leg reassuringly.  He wished fervently that he could use a sternal rub to revive his partner, but with the wounds he’d seen there, that wasn’t an option.  Having none of the necessary equipment, he couldn’t take Johnny’s blood pressure or start an IV.  There was nothing more he could do at this point, and Roy’s left fist slapped his own leg in frustration.

“R . . o y. . ?”

Startled at the weak voice next to him, Roy quickly leaned over his friend. “Johnny?  Lay still.  Help’s on the way.”

“R . . o y. .?  Is . . is he gone?”

“Is who gone?  What happened out here, Junior?”

“Cat.  Af. .a fter the . . h o rses.   R . . o y?   ‘M cold.”

“I know.  Help’s on the way.  You’re gonna be fine.  Just hang in there, Partner.”

Roy watched helplessly as Johnny tried to focus on his surroundings.   Eyes half-open, as he struggled to remain conscious, he seemed to be looking for something or someone.  

“Luke?   Is. .is Luke ok?”

“I haven’t seen him.  Was he out here with you?”

“Luke?  L . .l u ke, wh. . ere’s  Luke?”

His partner’s voice was growing fainter, and Roy looked about nervously.  He couldn’t see the dog, but he had the feeling he was being watched.   Movement under his arm brought his focus back to the man next to him Startled at the weak voice next to him, Roy quickly leaned over his friend.

The struggle lasted mere seconds.  Slipping his hand behind Johnny’s neck, Roy carefully lowered his friend’s head to the ground as Johnny lost consciousness.

Come on, guys.  We need help now!

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

Hank, Chet and Mike were waiting at the designated meeting place at the end of the hour.  They were anxious and frustrated at having found no sign of their missing friend.  Lost in thought, the three men were startled by the sight of Marco running towards them.  Out of breath and panting, the exhausted man bent over, hands on his knees as he struggled to get the words out. “Help . . . Johnny.  Need a . . chopper.  He’s . . hurt bad. . .”

“Slow down, Marco, what happened?  Where is he?”

Working hard to bring his breathing under control, Marco tried again to enlighten his friends. “We found him, just on the other side of the hill.  Something attacked him, might’ve been a mountain lion.  He’s bleeding bad.  Cap, Roy said to tell you we’d need a chopper, and fast.”

Cap instantly began to shout orders. “Mike, head back to the house and call it in.  Tell them to set down in the lower pasture away from the trees.  Also, call Animal Control.  We might need someone out here to track whatever it was.   Marco, get some blankets and let everybody know what’s happening.  Chet, let’s go!”

As Mike and Marco rounded the corner of the barn, they were met with a welcome sight.  The remaining guests had arrived, and included in the group were Dr. Brackett and Dixie.  The two were visiting with Joanne and the kids as they admired Johnny’s horses.  The group looked up in surprise at the two men running towards them. Marco stopped as Mike ran past them and into the barn where he could use the phone in the tack room. “Doc!  We need your help!”

”What’s wrong?”

“Johnny’s been hurt, and it looks bad.  Mike’s calling for Life Flight, then we’re headed back up there.”

“Give me a minute to get my bag.”

Marco raced to the house for blankets, followed closely by Joanne.  He filled her in with as much information as possible, running back to the barn just as Kelly Brackett returned with his medical bag.  Dixie stood waiting next to Mike and the four ran back towards the pasture, leaving a silent, startled group behind.

Joanne ignored Chris’s questions regarding what was happening as she, Carla, and Mike’s wife, Patty, gathered the children and ushered them into the safety of Johnny’s house.

**********

“Johnny.  Johnny!  Come on, Junior.  You’ve gotta hang in there!  Hear me?  I need you to hang on.  Help’s on the way.”

Keeping his lonely vigil, it seemed as if Roy could actually see the life slowly seeping away from his partner.  Johnny’s face was no longer pale, it was now almost translucent.  His breathing was becoming labored and his pulse, already faint, was fading.  Reaching up to move the hair off Johnny’s forehead, Roy was startled at how cold his skin was.   Once more, he slammed a fist on his leg in frustration.

What’s taking them so long? He’s getting weaker by the minute.  Don’t know how much longer he can take this. . .

As if on cue, Roy looked up to see Hank and Chet coming over the hill. “Guys, over here!”

“How’s he doing?”

“What happened?”

The men’s questions hung in the air as they struggled to catch their breath after the climb. 

“It looks like he was attacked by a cougar.  He’s lost a lot of blood, Cap.  He’s real weak and going into shock.  I don’t think he can make it much longer.  We need that chopper now!”

“It’s on its way, Roy.  Mike and Marco went down to call it in.”

“He’s been asking for Luke, but I haven’t seen him anywhere.  Chet, could you take a look around?  But be careful, that cat might still be in the area.”

Shrugging out of his lightweight jacket, Cap helped cover Johnny with it, then watched as Chet stood, and slowly surveyed the area.  Cisco was still standing a short distance from the group, but there was no sign of Johnny’s big German Shepard.  Chet knew that if the dog were in the area, unharmed, he’d be right here by his master’s side.  He’d always been amazed at the loyalty the dog displayed.  Moving in a widening circle, it took only minutes for the fireman to discover the dog’s whereabouts. “Over here, Roy.  Found him.”

“Cap, could you take a look?  I don’t want to leave Johnny.”

Nodding his head in understanding, Hank moved to join Chet who was kneeling over the dog. 

“He’s hurt pretty bad, but he’s still alive.”

Carefully lifting Luke, they moved him closer to Roy and Johnny.  There was nothing more they could do but wait, and they did that silently.  In his own way, each man asking for God’s help.

It was this scene that the rescuers came upon a short time later.  Dr. Brackett was the first to speak, and everyone recognized the authority in his voice.   Working quickly, with Dixie and Roy’s assistance, he checked Johnny’s vitals.   Kel knew that the young paramedic’s chances were slim, but he carefully chose his words as he relayed the findings.  Only Dixie and Roy, who knew him so well, recognized the doubt in his eyes, and the twitch of his mouth, as signs of how serious Johnny’s condition really were.

The sound of chopper blades cut through air, and within minutes, Life Flight had landed in the meadow below them.  Immediately the doors were opened revealing Dwyer and Peters as they exited the chopper, and made their way up the hill.  A stokes was balanced between them along with the drug box and biophone.  Both men covered their surprise as they recognized Dr. Brackett on the scene.

Wasting no time, Kel barked orders at Dixie and Roy, instructing each of them to start an IV.   Then he turned to the waiting paramedics.

“Dwyer, get in touch with Rampart and tell them what we’ve got.   Let them know we’re going to need Dr. Jordan standing by.  We’re going to need a specialist to help with all the stitching he’s going to require.”   If we ever get him stabilized.   “Peters, let’s get that stokes ready.  We need to get him out of here.”

The men of A shift stepped forward, laying the stokes next to Johnny.  Working together as the close team that they were, they quickly moved their friend to the stokes, and covered him with an emergency blanket.  Then, carefully balancing their cargo, the men moved swiftly down the hill to the waiting helicopter. Within minutes, Johnny was loaded into the aircraft followed closely by Dr. Brackett, Dixie and Roy. The chopper lifted off and was soon lost to the sight of the wearied group.

“Cap, we didn’t get a stokes for Luke.  How are we going to get him down the hill?”

Hank looked about the scene wearily, then reached down to grab one of the discarded blankets Mike had brought from the house. “Here we go, Chet.  Let’s get him on this and the four of us will each grab a corner. “

“Great thinking.”

A short stream of Spanish interrupted them.  As they had worked quietly over Luke, Marco had been moving about the area, gathering any discarded items to carry back. 

“What is it, Marco?”

There was no answer, but the men could see Marco had retrieved something and was carrying it towards them. 

“What the . . .?”

“Hey, what do ya suppose he was going to do with that?”

Mike answered their inquiries with his quiet response. “You know Johnny doesn’t keep a gun on the place.  That’s just a pellet gun.”

“Looks like he never had a chance to use it . . .”

The men stood silently as they studied Marco’s find.  Suddenly, Chet realized what Mike had done. “Mike, how’d you get him calmed down?”

The crew exchanged looks of surprise as they realized what Mike had accomplished.  Standing next to the tall engineer was Cisco, halter and lead firmly in place.  Cap echoed Chet’s query. “How’d you do that, Mike?”

“Brought some sugar cubes back with me.  I figured he’d calm down after a bit.  Johnny’s always said what a good horse he is.”

The men shook their heads in wonder as they watched Mike rub the horse’s nose.  Then, bending down, each man grabbed a corner of the blanket as they slowly carried Luke back to Johnny’s place.  Moving cautiously, Mike concentrated on holding the blanket in one hand, and Cisco’s lead in the other.   Thus, he was the last to notice the advancing team from Animal Control, escorted by Vince Howard.

“Vince.”

“Hank.  What happened here?”

The men gently lowered the dog to the ground, as their Captain quickly explained the incident.  “It’s important that you find that cougar.  We have a man with serious lacerations and bite wounds.  We need to make sure the cat’s not rabid.”

“Sure thing, Captain.  What about the dog?  If we radio ahead, the clinic can be ready for him by the time you get there.”

“Thanks.  That would be a big help.  Tell them we should have Luke there in about thirty minutes.”  

Nodding briefly, the officer thumbed his radio as the crew from Animal Control moved up the hill.  The members of 51’s “A” shift reached for the makeshift stretcher carrying the dog, and resumed their journey. 

***********

Even with the IV’s in place, Johnny’s vitals remained dangerously low.  Dr. Brackett rubbed his hands together anxiously as they flew towards Rampart. Dixie watched him carefully, looking back and forth between their patient and the two men who were working so hard, both physically and mentally, to save him. 

Dixie knew how close Roy and Johnny were to each other.  More than just friends, they were almost like brothers.  What she wasn’t as sure of, was the feelings Dr. Brackett had for these men.  She knew he was fond of them.  As members of his team, the head nurse knew he was proud of them, and the work they preformed.   But, only recently, she’d seen a subtle change, especially where these two were concerned.  He had allowed them to join his small circle of friends, and had even shown them the lighthearted side of Kelly Brackett, something few people in the hospital knew he possessed.  

That’s why he was at the party today.  Johnny had noticed the change, too.   It wasn’t that Kel had changed, really.  Just softened a little.  And Dixie was glad that he had.  She just hoped that it wasn’t too late in the case of their young friend.  He was special to all of them, and she couldn’t imagine how they would deal with losing him.

“We’re almost there!”

Kel’s hollered announcement broke into Dixie’s thoughts, and she reached over to gently squeeze Roy’s arm.  He almost jumped at her touch, then smiled wanly at her in apology.

As the helicopter set down, the three jumped into action.  Hospital attendants opened the doors, and reached in to move the stokes onto a gurney.  There was little sign of life in their patient, and Roy’s fears overtook him as the small troupe made their way into the hospital.  Not even bothering to stop at Treatment Room 3, which was ready and waiting, Dr. Brackett ordered them into the elevator, and up to the OR.

“We don’t have any time to waste.  Dix, get 4 units of blood in there, stat.  Roy, you can stay with us until we get to the OR, then you’re going to have to wait outside.  We’ll do everything we can for him.”

Roy couldn’t find his voice, simply nodding at Kel as they exited the elevator.  Everything began to move in slow motion as he watched his friend being moved into the operating room.  A team stood waiting inside, and Roy immediately recognized Dr. Jordan. 

Hang in there Junior.  You’ve got the best people working on you. 

***********

Standing quietly at the deck railing, lost in thought, Joanne was unaware of Kate and Patty closing the patio door, and moving softly to her side.  Kate reached over to hug her as Patty squeezed her hand.  The three women stood together, silently sharing their concern as they worried for their friend.  Each of them knew the bond their husbands shared, and that bond had grown to include their families.  Joanne broke the silence. “Where are the kids?”

Kate smiled, recognizing a mother’s concern.  “They’re ok.  Lisa and Cindy are keeping them entertained with card games in the house.  How are you doing?” 

“I’m scared.  He was out there a long time, and if he was bleeding as badly as Marco said, he has to be very weak by now.”

“He’s a strong man, and he has the best people working on him.  They’ll get him to the hospital in time.”

As the three women stood together, the Life Flight helicopter rose from the hill, and turned to fly over them.  Looking up, Joanne knew her husband was on board.  He’d be at his partner’s side, and she prayed that he’d have the strength to deal with what lay ahead. 

**********

In what seemed like hours to the waiting assembly, Cap and his crew finally returned.  Joanne and Patty were glad the children were not outside to witness the arrival of their friend, Luke.  The men quickly loaded the dog into Chet’s van, and with Marco sitting beside the injured pet, the Irishman sped away towards the city.

“What happened?  How’s Johnny?”

Turning quickly, Hank recognized the questions were Joanne’s.  Pausing briefly to give his wife a hug, he turned back to Joanne. “Let’s go up to the house, and we’ll tell everyone at the same time.”

The party atmosphere of earlier was abandoned as the dismal looking group gathered on Johnny’s deck.  In deference to the children present, Cap chose his words carefully as he patiently explained what little they knew about the day’s events.

As he finished his account, Hank was surprised to see Mike jump up and hurry towards the barn.  Quickly comprehending the scene before him, Hank followed closely.  They met the small band of men at the corral, where they helped to load the cougar into a pickup. “Wow, will you get a look at that?”

“Where’d you find him?  Is he dead?”

“No, Hank.  They just knocked him out with a tranquilizer.”

Hank reached over to shake hands with the head officer of the Animal Control team. 

“He’ll be asleep for quite awhile, Captain Stanley.  We’ll take him back to our headquarters and have him tested.  Who should we contact with the results?”

“Call Dr. Brackett at Rampart Emergency.  He’ll be waiting for the information.  And thank you, fellas.  You did a great job.”

Joanne, Kate and Patty worked quickly to finish their preparations.  They’d long ago decided on their plan of action, and moved swiftly now to put it into place.  Cleaning up what little mess had been made, and putting all the food away, they soon had everything in order.

Kate called her husband to her side as Joanne herded the children towards the cars.  “Hank, we’re all going to the hospital with you; except the kids, of course.  Lisa and Cindy have agreed to take care of them at our place, if you don’t mind.  If we’re late, they’ll order pizza delivered, and let the kids sleep in the family room.  That way we’re all free to stay as long as we’re needed.”

Hank Stanley was normally not a demonstrative man, but the events of the day had been a strain and he looked at his wife with obvious emotion.  Pulling her into his arms, he leaned his chin on top of her hair as he reflected on their plan. “It sounds perfect to me, honey.  Let’s get the kids moved over to our place so we can get to the hospital.   I’m anxious to see how John’s doing, and I don’t want Roy to be alone.”

They moved towards Mike and Patty who had evidently just held the same quiet conversation. “This all ok with you, Mike?”

“Cap, this is great, and we sure appreciate what your girls are doing.”

“Ok then, gang.  Let’s get going.”

***********

Joanne could see her husband sitting alone at the end of the hallway near the operating room.  He was hunched over in the hard plastic chair, elbows resting on his knees, his head held in both hands.  Moving closer, her steps slowed.  Reaching his side, she gently laid her hand on his head as she whispered his name.  When no response came, Joanne knelt in front of him, and lifted his face to her.  She could see the fear in his eyes and noticed the moisture pooling there.  “Is he….?”

“No, honey.  He’s still in surgery.  Dr. Brackett told me it would take some time.  Some of the lacerations and puncture wounds were real deep, and they’re worried about the damage to his shoulder.”

Roy paused as he contemplated his partner’s chances. “How’d you know where to find me?”

“Dixie told me where you were.  Everyone else is in the waiting room.  Why don’t you come back with me, now.”

Roy sat for a long time, just staring at his wife, then, slowly he stood up.  Gently putting her arm around her husband as they walked down the hall, Joanne felt his dismay as if it physically emanated from him.  Her words of comfort sounded weak, even to her ears, and she accepted the worried silence that settled between them.

Hank rose as the two entered the waiting area, making room for them on the long couch.  “How’s he doing, Roy?”

“Don’t know.  Dr. Brackett promised he’d come out and let me know when they’re finished.” 

The “A” Shift members, and their wives, settled in for the wait.  Occasional bursts of quiet conversation were followed by long, uneasy silences.  Eventually, even the offers of coffee were refused, as the group grew weary.

Hours had passed when they finally recognized Dr. Brackett moving towards them.  His step was slow, and deliberate, and Roy was hard pressed to see any sign of good news demonstrated by his attitude.   Coming to a stop before them, Dr. Brackett cleared his throat before speaking. 

Roy had jumped from his seat, and moved in front of his captain, no longer displaying any patience. “Well, Doc?  How is he?  Is he going to be ok?”

Dr. Brackett turned slightly to face the paramedic.  “He’s still with us Roy, but it’s been a tough few hours.  As you know, he’s lost a lot of blood, and due to the nature of the injuries, I’m very worried about the possibility of infection.  We’ve sutured all of the laceration and puncture wounds, and he’ll be moved into Recovery shortly. 

From the look on Brackett’s face, and the slight twitch to the corner of his mouth, Roy knew there was something the doctor wasn’t telling them.  Not sure if he really wanted to know the answer, a brief hesitation was all he allowed himself before stammering out his final question. “What about his shoulder, Doc?”

Once again, Dr. Brackett’s mouth twitched as he struggled to keep his composure.  Kel knew what was at stake here.  A young paramedic’s future.

“We don’t know for sure.  Dr. Jordan’s an excellent surgeon, and he feels fairly confident that Johnny will regain full use of his arm.  But we won’t have the final answer until the shoulder’s had some time to heal.  There was some nerve damage, but with physical therapy and a little luck, Johnny should make a full recovery.  We’re just going to have to be patient.”

Roy nodded but made no effort to respond verbally.  He knew there were a lot of unspoken ifs, in Dr. Brackett’s account.  The first if they had to get past, was if there was an infection.  The doctor was looking at him intently, and Roy suddenly realized that everyone seemed to be waiting for Roy to answer a question. “What, Doc?  What did you say?”

“I asked if you’d like to see him when they get him moved into Recovery?”

“Yes!  Thanks, Doc.”

Dr. Brackett laid a hand on Roy’s arm as he hurried past him.  They both knew what a close call their friend had experienced.

**********

The buzzing sound would not be stopped, and Johnny raised his right hand to swat at the irritating noise.  This time his hand was caught and held gently, just as a white hot shaft of pain screamed through his left shoulder.  As the buzzing slowly faded, Johnny became aware of other sensations.  Someone had laid a cloth on his forehead, the coolness a welcome relief.  Still his hand was held firmly by another, the gentle strokes of a thumb across the back of his hand a comforting feeling.   As the faint murmuring of voices became more prominent, he realized who was sitting there beside him. “Roy?”

“You’re ok, Johnny.  Everything’s going to be ok.”

”Hurt, Roy.”

“I know, Junior.  The nurse is getting something for the pain.  She’ll be right back.”

Finally, Johnny took a chance and slowly opened his eyes.  Yep, I’m at Rampart, again.  What did I do this time?

The nurse returned before he’d had a chance to pose the question to Roy.  As she injected the drug into his IV, Johnny slowly closed his eyes.  The challenge to stay awake was more than he could handle.

***********

It was almost forty-eight hours before Johnny became fully conscious, again.  The trauma of the attack and subsequent surgery coupled with the high fever, which followed, all left the young man very tired and weak.   He knew he’d been awake for brief periods, and each time he’d awoke to find Roy at his bedside.  Others had come and gone, but Johnny knew without asking, that his best friend had never left his side.  Now, as he lay there with eyes half open, he watched his partner sleep fitfully in the padded chair someone had been kind enough to bring in.   Unable to resist any longer, Johnny called to his partner. “Roy.  Hey, Roy!  Wake up!”

Roy shook with relief as he realized that his friend was finally awake, and aware of his surroundings.  Rising from his chair, he checked his partner’s forehead, happy to find the temperature had dropped considerably. “How are you feeling, Junior?  You had us worried there.  I, for one, was getting tired of waiting around for you to wake up.”

Johnny nodded weakly at Roy’s feeble attempt at humor.  “Well, can’t a guy get a little rest without everybody getting all worked up?” 

Roy’s wavering smile was his only answer.   He repeated his question patiently. “How are you feeling?

“Hurtin’.  Tired.  But, better than I was.  What happened?”

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for you to tell us.”

Johnny closed his eyes briefly as he concentrated on the details. “Don’t remember everything. . .  I was sitting on the deck having coffee when I spotted a cougar out by the horses.  They spooked and took off, so I headed out to round them up.  Wanted to have them back before the kids got there, since Jennifer was so excited about riding Missy.  Finally caught up to them on the ridge behind the house, and I was taking my time getting them calmed down.  Cisco was real upset, but I’d finally gotten him under control.”

Johnny’s voice faded, and Roy wondered if his partner had fallen back to sleep.   But after a moment, Johnny continued. “I’d dropped the pellet gun when I first got up to the horses, so I was bent over to pick it up.  Didn’t know the cat was that close, though I felt he was still in the area.  He must’ve thought I was some kind of prey, cause he was on top of me before I could even yell.  Cisco went nuts.  He reared and stomped, but the cat didn’t seem to notice.  I managed to twist away from him at one point.  That’s when Luke got into the fight.  That dog was something else.  While the cat’s attention was focused on him, I got up and started screaming and shouting.  Didn’t take but a few minutes before that cat decided I wasn’t such an easy meal.  He took off.  I kept expecting him to show up again, but I guess he was just a young male, probably an inexperienced hunter, and once we scared him off, he must’ve decided it wasn’t worth the risk to come back. . .”

Johnny’s voice faded as he dreaded asking the question, which now filled his mind.  Finally working up his courage, he asked uncertainly: “Is Luke . . . ok?”

“Yeah, Johnny.  Luke is going to be fine.  The guys got him down to the vet in time, and although he’s got some healing to do, he’s going to be just fine.”

A heartfelt sigh filled the room, as Johnny lay back on his pillow and relaxed for the first time since he’d come to.  “Thank God!”

“They found the cat, too.  You were right, about him being a young male.  Animal Control figured he was around two years old.  He weighed in at 98 pounds.  They tested him for rabies, but he was clean.  You were damn lucky, Johnny.”

The partners grinned at each other in relief.  The danger had passed, and only Roy was fully aware that a hard question lay ahead.  Johnny was still too drowsy to think through the implications of his injuries.  Roy looked up in relief as Kelly Brackett and Joe Early approached.   Dr. Brackett grinned happily as he realized his patient was finally awake. “That was one helluva party, John.”

“Yea, Doc.  It was one of a kind, one of a kind.” Johnny grinned crookedly as he thought back to his birthday bash. “Whatever happened to my party, anyway?”

“Broke up early.  The guests weren’t too impressed with your uninvited visitor.”

“Hey, at least he was interesting.  Dr. Early, I guess you’re probably glad you missed all the fun?”

“On the contrary, Johnny.  Next time you have a party, I’ll be there.  Looks like I should’ve canceled my vacation plans after all.  When you put on a party, you really put on a party.”

The men enjoyed the light-hearted banter, relieved that their injured friend was finally on the road to recovery.

As the laughter subsided, Dr. Brackett moved forward for a more serious discussion. “Johnny, we need to check your shoulder.  You sustained some severe damage, and we need to see how it’s healing.”

There had been no time to prepare Johnny for this news.  Roy sensed that his partner was aware of the seriousness of his injury, but he regretted that there’d been no time to discuss the implications before the doctor’s arrival.

The next half hour was spent examining the paramedic’s shoulder and arm.  Even though Johnny was still in considerable pain, they were all relieved to see the amount of use he’d retained, and as the doctors prepared to leave, Kel sighed in relief.

“I have to tell you, I’ve been pretty concerned about that arm.  But I’d say your prognosis is good for a complete recovery.  Dr. Jordan will be by this afternoon, but if he’s in agreement, I’ll have the physical therapist stop by tomorrow to set up a schedule for you.  It looks like you’ll have your partner back before you know it, Roy.”

The partners grinned happily at each other.  Relief was evident on their faces.

**********

It was a month after the attack, before Johnny was able to return to his home.  During that time, his friends had lent their support in many ways.  His brief stay with Roy and Joanne had made him appreciate their friendship all the more.  The rest of the guys had taken turns feeding his animals and checking on Luke.  After the dog’s initial stay at the vet clinic, Mike had even taken him home to complete his recovery under the supervision of Patty and the kids.   The women had cooked for John, driven him to Dr.’s appointments and more.  Johnny knew of no way to truly thank his friends for all they’d done. 

What had started out as a simple party to show his friends how much he cared for them, had turned into a month long example of how much they cared for him.  Now, sitting back in his lounge chair, looking out over his yard, Johnny knew how very lucky they all were.  Good friends were hard to come by.  But they were more than good friends, they’d grown to become a family.

The day was beautiful, just a hint of fall in the air, and Johnny relaxed in the sun as he enjoyed the peaceful quiet of his home.  Unaware that he’d dozed off, Johnny was surprised to open his eyes to a small crowd of people mingling around his deck. “What the . . .”

“Surprise!”

“We never got to finish that party, Junior.  So we figured we’d try it again.”

The men shook hands with Johnny, the women giving him gentle hugs as he moved amongst them.  Chet was the first to hand over a box wrapped with brightly colored paper.  “Happy Belated Birthday, Johnny.”

“Chet, you shouldn’t have brought a gift,” stated Johnny as he lifted the lid of the box.  His eyes grew wide as he stared at the contents.  “Thanks, Chet.  Thanks a lot.”

Johnny’s face relaxed into a grin of acceptance as he lifted his gift from its wrapping.  Snickers and guffaws were hid behind hands as the group surveyed Chet’s token offering, a child’s bow and arrow set.  Outright laughter set in as the next package revealed a child’s walkie-talkie set. 

“Well, Gage, I figured with as much trouble as you manage to get into, you can use that bow and arrow against any more roving cougars you might run across.  And knowing you, you’ll miss when you shoot at him, so you can use the walkie-talkie to call for help.  Personally, Gage, I wouldn’t leave home without that stuff, if I were you.”

“Funny, Chet.  Real funny!”

Johnny grinned in good humor, as he slowly began to open the remaining presents.

 Joanne, Dixie, Kate, and Patty moved quickly to lay out food and drinks.  The children ran off to play as the Stanley girls settled themselves on the deck to relax.  It almost seemed to be a replay of the previous month, except this time the guest of honor was in attendance.

As the party got underway, Roy found himself standing quietly at the corral fence where Dr. Brackett quickly joined him.  “He almost didn’t make it, Doc.  He’s one lucky guy.”

Kel nodded as he leaned on the railing next to Roy, thinking about the paramedic’s comments. “He sure is, Roy.  Lucky, you were all here that day to go looking for him.  Lucky, that he has friends that care so much about him.”

The doctor stopped to consider, then resumed his impromptu speech. “Come to think of it, you’re all lucky.  You share something that’s hard to find.  True friendship.  And, I guess that makes me lucky, too.  Lucky that I’ve been allowed to share in that friendship.”

Unable to find the appropriate words to respond to the doctor, Roy simply nodded in agreement.  He realized as they walked slowly back towards the deck, that Dr. Brackett didn’t expect anything.  He seemed to be truly happy just to be there with his new circle of friends.

As they rejoined the party, Roy moved to stand next to Johnny.  The guest of honor smiled happily as he opened the last gag gift, and Roy was relieved to find that Johnny had accepted this surprise in the attitude it was intended.  

Looking up, Johnny caught Roy’s eye, and the two men stared at each other briefly.  Slowly the trademark “Gage” grin spread across the young man’s face. “Thanks for the party, Roy.  It’s another: one of a kind.”

“You’re welcome, Junior. That’s the only kind for you.”

 

****End*****

Thanks to Kenda for her invaluable help.  All her knowledgeable advice and answers to my many questions, along with the beta read, made this experience a lot more fun.

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