Cowboy Up (by Rona)

Synopsis:  Missing scenes from the episode Saddled.

Category:  Emergency!
Genre:  Action/Adventure, Rescue Drama
Rating:  T
Word Count:  16,675


 

Author’s NoteIn the episode ’Saddled’, Johnny mentioned to Roy that a friend was loaning him a horse so he could compete roping calves, but he said he didn’t want anyone to watch him practice. Roy told the others anyway. Why did Johnny not want them to see him? This story is based on that idea.

 

He’d told Roy that he had a friend willing to lend him a horse so he could practice roping calves and enter some competitions. There was good money to be made at rodeos. Extra money never went astray and the prestige didn’t hurt any either. When he was a child, before his parents’ death, Johnny had competed in the children’s classes and had done well. His love of horses had never left him and he was a very good rider.

What Johnny hadn’t told Roy was that he had been practicing on his friend’s horses for quite some time. One horse was a true cow pony, quick on its feet and smart, too. Johnny was loving riding it. A showy skewbald paint, chestnut and white, with a flowing mane and tail, the horse was going to be a real star, regardless of who rode it.

The other horse was a completely different kind of animal. This one was three quarters Thoroughbred with Arabian not too far back in its ancestry. A glossy black with a white blaze on its face, Intrepid was a show jumper and it was also going to be a star. Johnny’s friend had bred both horses, broken them to saddle and was preparing to sell them on.

Perhaps it had been wrong of Johnny to imply to Roy that he was just starting working with his friend’s horses, but he didn’t want to admit how much he was enjoying being back on a horse ranch and working with the big gentle animals. That was why he said he didn’t want anyone to come and watch him. It wasn’t that he minded his friends at work knowing that he rode; he just wasn’t ready to share it with them yet. While roping calves was not new to him, show jumping was.

When he had first come to LA to live with his aunt, Johnny had looked around for a weekend job. Purely by chance, he had stumbled upon the stud farm and had asked if they needed help. Peter Fraser, the owner, wasn’t actually looking for anyone, but he had seen the skinny youth over by the paddock talking to one of the horses and had been impressed. The animal in that paddock was a notoriously stand-offish, difficult to handle, antisocial stallion and it had literally been eating out of the youth’s hand. That kind of potential was not to be sneezed at and Peter had taken him on there and then.

It had been good for both Johnny and Peter. Johnny was hard working and keen to learn and Peter really liked the kid. They had become good friends and Peter had to admit that he had been disappointed when Johnny had decided to join the fire department. However, he knew he couldn’t match the wages Johnny would get there – being a stable hand was not a lucrative occupation. Firefighters were well off by comparison.

There had been a while that Johnny hadn’t been able to get out to see Peter and when he did return, his friend generously offered Johnny the ride on any horse on the place. Initially, Johnny had been as – well – as stiff as an old horse! Riding used muscles in the legs that almost nothing else did and he was sore to start with, but the more he rode, the more his muscles grew accustomed to it and he was soon as limber as ever.

When Johnny took a fancy to Intrepid, the show jumper, Peter started giving Johnny lessons in jumping, showing him how to pace out the strides between fences, going over all the boring pole work that needed to be done, showing him the difference between riding on a Western saddle and an English saddle. Although Johnny knew that Intrepid would not be there forever, he enjoyed learning and was looking forward to perhaps competing at a local show.

But it was on the other horse, Cochise, that Johnny excelled. Initially, he had been slightly put off by the horse’s name, for Cochise had been a great Chiricahua or Apache leader and Johnny feared he’d been paired with the horse because he was an Indian. However, he was to learn that Peter had named the horse after the black and white paint ridden by Joe Cartwright in the TV series Bonanza. This Cochise was not black and white, but that didn’t matter. Johnny forgot the problem with the name and bonded closely with the gutsy horse.

As was inevitable, Johnny suffered a few falls. He had been riding long enough to know that a rider expected to come off perhaps once a year. If you were doing something particularly risky, you might come off more often and like most riders, he knew how to fall and had a distinct aversion to hitting the ground; it hurt for a start!

Right now, Johnny wasn’t ready to let his friends see this other part of his life. Perhaps he would be – one day.

*****

A certain part of his anatomy was rather tender that morning. Easing himself down onto the bench to put on his boots, Johnny thought he really had overdone the workouts that weekend. He hadn’t been that tender for a while, but he had come off over one of the jumps he had been doing. Intrepid did tend to have a mind of his own sometimes and he regarded small fences as not worth the effort and had pitched Johnny off over his head. Johnny hadn’t bothered to check, but he was pretty sure that his butt was bruised.

“You all right there?” Roy asked, watching Johnny moving as though a part of him might break.

“Just fine,” Johnny replied. “Just a little stiff.”

“So what happened this time?” Roy asked in a long-suffering tone of voice.

Glancing around to make sure that nobody else was in the locker room Johnny admitted, “I came off. Landed on my butt.” He shrugged. “It happens. No big deal, Roy, honestly.”

“You would tell me if you were hurt, wouldn’t you?” Roy queried. “It’s just that I have this aversion to carrying you out of fires when you’ve hurt yourself and not told me.”

“I’m not hurt,” Johnny protested. “I’m just a bit stiff.”

“If you landed on your butt, it must hurt,” Roy objected.

“It only hurts because the muscles are stiff,” Johnny argued. “Trust me, Roy; I know what I’m talking about here.” He looked like a kicked puppy, all big brown eyes.

“All right,” Roy capitulated. “But your butt really will be sore if I find out you’re lying to me.” He grinned. “When I’m finished chewing on it, I’m gonna let Cap and Brackett get you.”

“Why would you think I’m lying?” Johnny whined.

“Gosh, I don’t know,” Roy replied with obvious sarcasm. “Could it be the time that you…”

“All right, all right, so once or twice I hid an injury because I didn’t want you to worry.” Johnny sighed. “Sheesh! Do something once and a guy ends up with a reputation he can’t shake.”

“Once or twice,” Roy echoed in disbelief. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” He nudged Johnny’s arm. “Come on, it’s time for roll call.”

With a theatrical groan, Johnny got to his feet, clutching his behind. Roy just looked at him. “You’re never going to convince me you’re a cowboy,” he told his partner with a straight face. “Your legs aren’t bandy enough.”

He made a hasty exit through the door as Johnny lunged for him, proving that he was fit enough to work.

*****

Work-wise, it was a pretty tame shift. They didn’t have any life and death struggles and there were no major fires. Not only did they sleep all night, but they also were able to leave on time in the morning. That was good news for them all, but especially for Johnny, who was going out to do some more roping practice. He had a great time and Peter told him that he’d entered Johnny and Cochise in a rodeo in a couple of weeks’ time.

The news kept him walking on air for a few days. When he arrived for his next shift, his bruised butt long forgotten, he was absolutely bursting to tell Roy. “You’ll never guess what!” he demanded when Roy arrived.

“The new nurse in pediatrics said yes,” Roy guessed. Johnny had been obsessing about her for a few weeks now.

“No, better than that,” Johnny scoffed, although it had been his heart’s desire for some time.

“You’ve discovered that we’re getting a massive pay rise,” Roy guessed again. He hated guessing games.

“No! Roy!”

“Just tell me,” Roy sighed wearily. “It’s too early to guess.”

Looking around just to make sure they were alone, Johnny whispered, “I’m entering a rodeo.”

“That’s great,” Roy responded. “When?”

“In a couple of weeks,” Johnny replied. “Peter’s entered me in the calf roping on Cochise.”

“I’m really pleased for you, Johnny,” Roy said sincerely. “I really hope you do well.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Johnny mumbled, suddenly shy. “Would you… would you like to come?”

“I’d love to,” Roy declared warmly. They grinned at each other.

“I won’t win or anything,” Johnny hastened to assure the older man. “I haven’t competed for years.”

“It’ll be fun,” Roy declared. “And the kids have never been to a rodeo before.”

“Just don’t tell everyone else,” Johnny begged. “Not this first time. Next time for sure though. Please?”

“Of course, if that’s what you want,” Roy agreed. He could understand his partner wanting to get his first rodeo under his belt before including the others. He was flattered that Johnny wanted him there. “I’m really looking forward to seeing you,” he added warmly.

“Thanks,” Johnny blushed. He rose and followed Roy out for roll call.

*****

It was a very different shift to the previous one. Right from the word go, things went from bad to worse. They were toned out to a ‘man down’ at a local shopping mall. They got there to discover the man having a major MI and although they did everything they could, he was gone when they arrived at the hospital. Johnny had been doing chest compressions for almost 20 minutes at that point.

It was a grim start to the day. They were toned out again immediately to a building site with subsidence. A partially build block of apartments had collapsed into a sink hole that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Four men were trapped inside and it took the better part of four hours for the firefighters to cut their way through the broken and crushed concrete only to find that three of the workers had died from internal bleeding. Although the fourth man was still alive when they got to Rampart, he died shortly afterwards.

It was already afternoon, but both Johnny and Roy were as exhausted as they usually were at the end of a shift. Roy insisted that they grab something to eat at Rampart’s cafeteria, because with the way things were going, it didn’t seem likely they would make it back to the station to eat.

It proved to be a wise choice. They had just finished their sandwiches when the tones went off again and they were headed towards an accident on the 405. Sadly, it was not an unusual occurrence.

The accident was big. Johnny counted 10 vehicles as they drew up. He jumped out and pulled on his turnout coat as Cap jumped down from the engine and started issuing orders. “Kelly! Lopez! Pull a couple of inch and a halves and start washing down gas. John, Roy, let me know what you need.” He pulled an HT from his pocket. “LA, this is Engine 51. We need another two engine crews, two more paramedic units and at least four ambulances to our location.”

“10-4, 51,” the dispatcher responded. They could hear the tones going out to call for more support as Johnny headed towards the nearest car.

At this point, with so few hands and so many potential injuries, the paramedics were doing triage, tagging people with different colors to help the rescuers who would be along shortly. The first car Johnny got to had walking wounded in it; the driver and passenger were already climbing out of the car and had minor cuts and bruises. Johnny told them to wait by the squad. They would need to be assessed to make sure that nothing had been missed.

The stench of spilled gasoline was overwhelming and the cries of the injured people were distressing in the extreme. Not surprisingly, there were fatalities. Johnny tagged them with black and moved along. This was a part of his job that he hated. It hurt to lose someone before he had had a chance to try and help. He hated to lose anyone at any time.

Help was arriving and they were able to concentrate on helping the most severely injured. Johnny had crawled into a car alongside a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 and Johnny thought she must have been pretty, but her face was badly cut and there were clearly broken bones in her face, too. She hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt and the windshield was spider-webbed where she had hit it with her face. Her chest had hit the steering column and she had multiple rib fractures. Her left lung had collapsed and her legs were crushed and bleeding beneath the crumpled remains of the dashboard. Johnny had received instructions from the hospital for two IVs, but he was sure that she was bleeding out and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. She had been conscious when he found her, but she had slipped away from him and now, although he had done everything he could, it looked as though she would die before she could be extricated.

“Here.” Chet handed Johnny a blanket to drape over himself and the victim as they started to pull apart the other cars that kept the young girl pinned. There was going to be a lot of flying glass. Chet looked at Johnny’s face and saw the grim reality there and didn’t envy his friend.

The screeching and groaning of ripping metal just added to the nightmarish dimensions of the scene. Johnny felt the car shudder and was glad that his victim couldn’t feel it. The noise abruptly stopped. “Johnny, we’re going to pull the dashboard off,” Chet called.

“All right,” Johnny responded. He braced himself for the inevitable noise and waited.

With a loud creak, the metal yielded to the force of the chains on the Jaws of Life. Slowly but inexorably, the dashboard was peeled backwards and there was a sudden spurt of blood from the girl’s legs.

His position was already cramped, but Johnny stretched and twisted himself to press down on the huge gashes that all but severed the girl’s legs. He knew it was futile; she was dying under his hands, but he couldn’t simply do nothing at all. He leaned over her shoulders, pressing down with all his weight on his hands, but the blood continued to squirt out between his fingers and he knew that both her femoral arteries had been severed.

What Johnny hadn’t expected was that the locking mechanism on her seat had been damaged by the crash and when he changed his position, the seat suddenly and abruptly moved, catapulting him forward. Instinctively, he thrust out a hand to stop himself. The jagged metal on the top of the dashboard cut through his leather glove as if it wasn’t there and cut through the palm of his hand. With a yell of pain, he yanked his hand back and his helmet clunked heavily off the remnants of the dash. He was well and truly stuck.

Luckily, Chet had heard Johnny’s cry and alerted Marco, who had the young paramedic righted very quickly. Not quickly enough to stop him being sprayed with the blood from his young victim, who had bled out as Johnny tried to save her life.

Letting his crew mates pull him from the car, Johnny leaned against the crumpled wreck. The metallic stench of the blood threatened to make him puke. His hand throbbed and when he looked down, he could see the cut was deep. “She’s gone,” he choked, clutching his throbbing hand at the wrist.

“Come on, John,” Marco said kindly. “Let’s get that hand seen to.” He put his arm around Johnny’s back and led him over to the triage area by the squad.

*****

The paramedics at the scene were busy with the victims from the crash. Marco eased Johnny down onto the bumper of the squad and went to get some pressure bandages from the trauma box. Roy cast a look at him, raising an eyebrow. “Johnny’s cut his hand badly,” Marco reported quietly.

This time, Roy cast a glance at his partner. “Where did all the blood come from?” he asked, horrified. Johnny was soaked in blood.

“The girl victim he had. She bled out when we moved the dash.” Marco met Roy’s eyes. “It was pretty bad.”

“I’ll be over as soon as I can,” Roy told him. “Keep an eye on him?”

“Of course,” Marco replied and went back to the other paramedic. Johnny was leaning back against the squad with his eyes closed. He was pale under the blood and still clutched his injured hand at the wrist. “Johnny? I’ve got some bandages.”

With an effort, Johnny opened his eyes and focused on Marco. Somehow, he expected the skies to have clouded over and rain to be falling, for the world had lost all its color. Yet the sun still shone down from a cloudless blue California summer sky and glinted off the shards of glass that littered the freeway like slivers of ice. It didn’t seem right. “Thanks,” he replied, since manners required he say something and he watched in the same detached manner as Marco set about winding the bandages around his hand, staunching the bleeding.

“John?” It was Captain Stanley. “What happened?”

“I cut myself,” Johnny replied. “Sorry to be so careless.”

“You weren’t careless,” Marco protested. Quickly, he told Cap what had happened. Johnny averted his eyes and tried not to listen. He had failed that girl, however you looked at it. He should have been aware that her seat had been jarred loosed and been prepared. It was obvious that he had never been a boy scout, he thought cynically.

“I want you to go into Rampart and get that hand checked out,” Stanley ordered. “You’re off search and rescue.”

“Cap, I’m fine,” Johnny protested, standing up. At once, the world took a nasty sideways twist and if not for Marco’s quick responses, again, he would have fallen to the ground. He didn’t resist as Cap pushed him back to a sitting position.

“How much of that blood is yours?” Cap asked, crouching beside Johnny.

“Uh, I dunno,” Johnny admitted, looking down at himself. He was pretty liberally covered and the sight just reminded him, as if he could ever forget, of what had just happened.

“Just the stuff on his pants’ leg,” Marco replied.

“Okay,” Stanley nodded. There was still a fair bit on Johnny’s pants’ leg. That, combined with losing the girl would be enough to make him lightheaded. “Let’s get your coat off and Marco can get some vitals for Roy.”

“I’m fine, really,” Johnny protested, but his tone lacked his usual energy and his eyes were curiously lifeless.

“Just do it, Gage,” Cap suggested in a kind tone, but one that told his man that he was going to stand no nonsense. Wearily, Johnny obeyed.

It was a good move. The worst of the smell of the blood was taken away and Cap saw to it that Mike hosed down Johnny’s turnout at once. A little color returned to Johnny’s face although he was still far too pale. Cap wasn’t surprised. Johnny took any loss hard and this whole shift had been horrific. He could well understand that Johnny was feeling depressed. Add an injury to the list and how the girl had died, it was no wonder Johnny was withdrawn.

All the wounded had been extricated from their cars. There were only three fatalities. Several people were essentially unhurt and refused treatment, preferring to see their own doctors. Cap was always surprised how people managed to walk away from crashes like this. They would be out a bit longer, washing down the gas from ruptured fuel lines after the tow trucks removed the mangled wreckage and sweeping up the glass. The coroner’s wagon would be busy for a while.

Glancing over, Stanley saw that Roy was now kneeling in front of his partner. Johnny’s head was still down, but he seemed to be listening to what Roy was saying. Cap saw Roy peel the bandages back and then put them back in place after a quick look. He said something, patted Johnny on the shoulder and rose to his feet. He walked quickly across to Stanley.

“Cap, I’m going to take Johnny in on the next ambulance with me,” he said. “That hand’s pretty bad. I’d be surprised if he’s allowed to continue to work.”

“The way he’s feeling right now, I don’t think he’s in any fit state to work,” Cap responded. “Is he all right?”

“He will be, given time,” Roy sighed. “But he’s in a pretty dark place right now. He thinks it’s his fault that the girl bled out.”

“And is it?” Cap asked bluntly.

“No!” Roy replied indignantly. “The girl was in bad shape when we found her, barely conscious and she went downhill really fast. From the amount of blood on Johnny, she had pretty much bled out before the dash was moved. There was no other choice, really. Short of getting a doctor out here to amputate, there was nothing Johnny could do. She wasn’t going to survive long enough for the doctor to get here, and I doubt she’d have survived the amputation whenever it had been done.” Roy looked at Stanley. “It’s a hell of a thing to have someone bleed out on you like that. Especially a young kid.”

“I had to check, Roy,” Cap soothed. “You know that.” He sighed. “This one will be all over the news.”

“Just what we don’t want.” Roy saw the ambulance backing into position. “I’ve got to go, Cap. I’ll let you know about Johnny.” He hurried over to supervise the loading of the victim and Johnny into the ambulance. Cap watched it go before turning back to the clear up.

*****

It was silent in the ambulance. Roy tended to his patient and Johnny leaned his head back against the side of the vehicle and shut his eyes. It didn’t really help; he could still see that poor girl’s face and he knew he would be seeing it for some time to come. He knew there would be an inquest into her death and he would be called upon to testify. It was a part of his job that he hated. Bad enough these things happened, but to have to remember all the details was awful.

His hand was throbbing. Johnny hadn’t really looked at it too closely; it hurt too much. Anything that could slice through his protective gloves like that was bound to do some pretty intense damage to his hand and that was something he didn’t want to think about either. What if the damage was so great he couldn’t return to work? The ambulance hit a pothole and his hand bounced from his knee where it was resting and he caught his breath through gritted teeth.

“Johnny?” Roy’s soft voice cut through his reverie and he opened his eyes. “Are you all right?”

He nodded. Roy had enough to do dealing with the patient. He would be fine until such times as someone could look at his hand. He wondered what Brackett would say about him allowing that girl to die. It wouldn’t be nice, whatever he chose to say.

The siren cut out and Johnny recognized the motions of the ambulance pulling into the receiving bay. He was going to find out shortly what Brackett thought and Johnny was dreading it.

*****

The stretcher pulled out and the wheels dropped into place. Johnny could hear Roy updating Brackett on the patient’s vitals. Johnny realized that he had no idea what had happened to Roy’s patient and even less idea how the person was doing. He wasn’t even sure if it was a man or a woman. At any other time, he would have known what Roy was dealing with, but this time, he hadn’t paid any attention. It was something else to berate himself with.

“Come on, Johnny.” Dixie’s voice interrupted his musings and he saw with disgust that she had a wheelchair for him.

“I can walk, Dix,” he protested, climbing slowly out of the ambulance.

“I know you can,” Dixie replied. “But today you don’t have to. It isn’t everyone that I chauffer around you know.” She patted the seat of the chair. “Come on, I promise I won’t do any wheelies.”

From somewhere, Johnny found a smile surfacing. Dixie certainly had a way with her. She could scald your ears off when you did something wrong, but she was a rock when you needed support and love. Somehow she always knew how he was feeling and he was very thankful for her friendship. He lowered himself into the chair and Dixie began pushing him inside.

To his surprise, she took him straight to a treatment room. He had expected they would still be backed up from the traffic accident, but apparently not. He didn’t ask; he didn’t want to learn how many people had died out there before they could help.

He sat up on the exam table and allowed Dixie to remove his shirt and undershirt. She bundled them away out of sight and brought back a basin of warm water and a washcloth. It was surprisingly soothing to let her wash his face, neck and upper chest and brought back vague memories of his mother doing the same thing. He had to blink back tears at the thought.

It felt good to be rid of the blood. He lay back on the exam table while Dixie took his vitals. He was aware of her watching him, but he didn’t say anything. What was there to say? He had got injured while he let that girl die.

As she noted his vitals down, Dixie was well aware of how unusually silent Johnny was. She had heard the update on the radio about what had happened and she wasn’t surprised by Johnny’s silence. For all his brashness, Johnny was a sensitive young man and was often depressed after he had lost a patient. It was part of what made him such a good paramedic – he cared. At times, he cared too much. This was one of those times and Dixie was pretty sure that between them, she Roy and Kel Brackett could talk Johnny round. But at the moment it was too soon. Right now, he needed to be treated as a patient. Once they knew where they stood with his physical injury, they could start to treat the mental injury.

She was just finishing up when the treatment room door opened and Dr Brackett came in. Dixie didn’t miss Johnny’s wince and knew that it wasn’t from his injury. She hoped Kel would be gentle with the miserable young man.

“Hi, Johnny,” Kel said. He looked tired. “How did this happen?” he added, picking up Johnny’s hand. He peeled the bandages back.

“I was in a car with a young girl. She was trapped by the dashboard. Initially, she was conscious, though groggy, but she went out on me within a couple of minutes. I got the IVs started, but she was bleeding from her legs and I couldn’t do anything about it. When we pulled the dash to free her, she started bleeding out. Her legs were almost severed. I leaned over the seat to put pressure on her legs, but the seat had broken free in the crash and I hadn’t realized it. It moved and I was thrown forward. I must have thrown my hand out and the metal of the car cut right through the glove and my hand.” Johnny kept his head down during the recitation, so he couldn’t see Brackett’s disapproving expression. “I bumped my head, too, but I had my helmet on. Marco pulled me off the dash, but the girl was already dead.” His shoulders slumped as he concluded his story.

“You’re going to have a bruise on your forehead from the helmet,” Brackett observed. “This cut is deep, Johnny. Dixie, I want an x-ray of this hand, just to make sure there’s no tendon involvement. Can you close it?”

Slightly surprised that Brackett hadn’t chastised him, Johnny risked a glance up, but the doctor was looking at his injury. “Yeah,” he responded and closed the hand, wincing as he did so, for the pain was fierce.

“All right, thanks,” Brackett said. He covered the hand again and put it gently down. “How are his vitals?”

“His blood pressure’s a bit low,” Dixie replied, “but not too bad apart from that.”

“Johnny, I’m going to have Dixie start up an IV and give you something for the pain. We’ll send you to x-ray and then see about getting that stitched up. All right?” The younger man nodded. So the lecture would come later. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He closed his eyes while Dixie fixed him up with an IV and sighed with relief as the promised painkiller flooded his veins. He felt Dixie’s hand on his arm and opened his eyes. “What happened to the girl wasn’t your fault,” Dixie told him. “She was in a really bad way when you first got in contact with us and Kel didn’t think she would survive long enough to get in here. You gave her everything you had.”

“Did I?” Johnny asked miserably. “I hadn’t checked the seat was secure before I leaned over her. I should have.”

“And how much room was there in that car? Weren’t you the one who reported that cars had to be moved from either side to allow access to the front to free her?” Dixie cocked an elegant eyebrow.

“All the more reason to check the seat out more thoroughly,” Johnny argued. He didn’t want absolution that easily.

Time to change tack, Dixie thought. “And what would you have done differently if you had checked the seat and found it was loose?” she asked.

“We’d have had to stabilize it before we tried to free her,” Johnny replied.

“How long would that have taken?” Dixie asked bluntly. “Five minutes? Ten? How long did she have, Johnny?”

Unable to find an answer, he just looked at her. Satisfied for now, Dixie patted his arm again. “X-ray is here already, so I’ll send them in and then we can get on with seeing to your hand.” She left him to think.

*****

Coming out of another treatment room, Roy looked around. Things were settling down again, as much as they ever did in the ER, now that the last of the crash victims had arrived. Dixie was at her desk, so Roy headed there. She smiled up at him. “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” he grinned, then sobered. “How’s Johnny?”

“Well, the cut on his hand is pretty deep and he must have lost some blood because his blood pressure was a bit low. Kel has him on an IV and x-ray is there at the moment.”

“X-ray?” Roy echoed, looking worried. “Did he hit his head?” He slumped. “I didn’t have time to check him out. Marco took vitals, but that was all.”

“Don’t you start!” she chided. “Johnny is beating himself up over that girl’s death, convinced he could have performed a miracle and sure if he hadn’t got hurt she’d have survived.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Roy admitted. “I’d feel the same way. She was a kid, Dixie. It’s a crying shame she died, but Johnny couldn’t have stopped it. She was already too far gone for a doctor to come out to amputate and even if he had been told to do it,” a shudder ran through his body at the thought, “she wouldn’t have survived that, either. From what he told me initially, she was bleeding internally from her lung at the least and her chest was half caved in from hitting the steering wheel and from what Marco told me, her legs were severed almost all the way through. That poor little girl was going to die no matter what we did.”

“I don’t think I’m the one who needs to hear this,” Dixie commented. “Treatment three. X-ray’s just come out.”

For a moment, Roy just blinked at her, his mind still back at the crash scene. He had barely seen the girl, but he had seen the tiny space Johnny had somehow wormed into and he had seen the look of impending death on the girl’s bloody, broken, face. It was something he wouldn’t forget for a while either. “Thanks,” he commented softly and headed over to the treatment room.

Johnny lay on the table with his eyes closed. His chest was bare and washed clean of the blood. He was still pale, but looked better. He opened bleary eyes. “Hi,” he croaked.

“Hi,” Roy replied. He grabbed a stool and brought it over. “Are you warm enough?” he asked, for he always found the treatment rooms a bit cool.

“It doesn’t matter,” Johnny mumbled.

“That wasn’t what I asked,” Roy reminded him as he went to get a blanket. He spread it over Johnny, pulling it up to his neck. “Is that better?”

“Yeah,” Johnny admitted. His eyes were slightly glassy from the painkiller. “Is Brackett mad at me?” he asked.

“Why would Brackett be mad at you?” Roy queried.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Brackett agreed, coming into the room in time to catch Johnny’s question.

“I let that girl die,” Johnny replied and color flooded his pale cheeks as shame overwhelmed him.

“There was nothing you could have done that would have saved her,” Roy declared firmly. “We both knew when you crawled inside that car that she was beyond help. She was too badly injured and even if you had been in a position to amputate her legs, she still would have died.”

“You don’t know that,” Johnny argued.

“Yes, I do,” Roy insisted. “Johnny, Marco told me her legs were almost severed as it was. She was bleeding internally and her blood pressure was in her boots when you first took it. The IVs made no difference, as you well know. Yes, she was conscious when we found her, but she couldn’t speak and her GCS was eight at best. There was nothing you could do.”

“I have to agree with Roy,” Brackett mused. “The first set of vitals you sent indicated to me that the girl was barely alive, and you know that, Johnny. You did nothing wrong in your care. Sometimes, we just can’t save everyone.”

“She was just a kid,” Johnny whispered. “She had her whole life in front of her.”

“And that makes it a lot worse,” Roy agreed. “But this isn’t your fault. I already told Cap that.”

“And I imagine it will be of some comfort to her parents to know that someone like you was fighting to save her and was with her in her last minutes,” Brackett added. “I’m going to start numbing that hand of yours and look at your hard head while I’m waiting for the x-rays.” He turned away to draw up the local anesthetic.

“Do you still think it’s your fault?” Roy asked.

“I guess a part of me will always think that,” Johnny replied. “But I know you’re right in my head. My heart might take a little longer to believe it.”

“I’ll keep on telling you until you do,” Roy threatened. “I’ve learned this really good technique from a friend of mine. It’s called ranting and you go on and on and on and on about something until the other person will believe black is white, even when they know it’s really black.”

“I’m not that bad,” Johnny protested, laughing. He could feel his burden lightening.

“No,” Brackett agreed. “You’re worse!”

They all laughed.

*****

The x-rays came back as Brackett finished giving Johnny a neuro exam. There was no sign of a concussion, which was a huge relief to Johnny as he had no desire to spend a night at Rampart. Of course, his sense of relief might be premature, as staying might depend on what Brackett found on the x-rays of his hand. Tendon damage might well require surgery.

Neither of the paramedics spoke as Brackett perused the x-rays. Johnny was filled with a sudden apprehension that his hand injury would be career ending and Roy was hoping against hope that the hand injury wasn’t as bad as it looked.

“Well, there’s no sign of tendon damage,” Brackett announced. “So I’ll get you stitched up.” He had already prepared the suture tray and pulled up a stool. He covered Johnny’s hand with a surgical drape and pulled on some gloves. “Is this numb?” he asked, prodding Johnny’s palm gently. He would have been astounded if it hadn’t been; he had put in plenty of local.

“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed. He watched as Brackett threaded the needle, then averted his eyes before the doctor started working. Roy glanced at Johnny, saw his partner close his eyes and looked back at the action.

“How long is he likely to be out, doc?” Roy asked, to confirm in his own mind that Johnny would be coming back to work. There was the faintest of trembles in Johnny’s limbs; Roy wasn’t sure if it was relief or cold.

“A couple of weeks, anyway,” Brackett replied in a slightly preoccupied tone. He hadn’t realized the directions the other two men’s minds had taken regarding the injury. “I want to see you in three days, Johnny and sooner if there’re signs of infection, but otherwise, I’ll take the stitches out in a week and then see you again in another week to see how things are.” He paused to concentrate on a particularly tricky stitch. “I’ll tell you then when you can go back.”

“All right,” Johnny agreed, drowsily. The good news had made him feel suddenly exhausted and the pain meds were kicking in with a vengeance.

“Keep the bandages clean and dry,” Brackett continued, “and don’t use your hand more than necessary. No lifting or carrying or that sort of thing and no driving.”

“Oh,” Johnny said in a small voice. Roy looked at him sharply and saw disappointment on the fine-drawn features.

For a moment, Roy couldn’t fathom that and then he remembered; the rodeo. “What about horse riding?” he asked.

“Definitely not!” Brackett vetoed firmly. “No matter how careful you are, dirt and horses are inseparable.” He looked at Johnny and saw that this was not good news. “No, Johnny,” he added. “No riding until you get the all clear. Sorry.”

Eyes closed again, Johnny nodded. “There’ll be other chances,” Roy quietly told Johnny, putting a consoling hand on the other man’s arm.

“I know,” Johnny agreed, but couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice. It seemed like the final blow in that horrific day. Johnny felt like he could cry. Stop being such a baby he chided himself. There’ll be other rodeos. The pep-talk didn’t really help. The disappointment was too sharp and his emotions too raw.

Sensing something of Johnny’s feelings, Brackett paused and looked from one man to the other. Johnny’s head was back and his eyes were closed and he looked suddenly very vulnerable. Brackett opened his mouth to speak, but Roy caught his eye and shook his head. Johnny didn’t need any questions right now. He needed time to calm his turbulent emotions and regain some control. The last couple of stitches were placed in silence.

“I’m going to give you some painkillers to take home with you for the first few days. If everything’s all right after that, you can probably manage on over the counter stuff, Johnny.” Brackett was rummaging in a cupboard for the pills. “I’ll get Dixie to bring you scrubs to wear.” He took another look at Johnny. “And I’ll give you a sedative to take if you need it. All right?” The last two words were a challenge.

“I’ll go find Dixie and phone Cap,” Roy said and slipped out.

“All right,” Johnny capitulated. Much as he hated to admit it and much as he hated to take sedatives, he had the sneaking suspicion that he just might need it. He watched in silence as Brackett bandaged his hand and made a face as a sling was produced. “Doc, I don’t need that!” he protested.

“If it’s in a sling, you won’t go using it,” Brackett countered.

With a petulant sigh, Johnny gave in. He knew Brackett was right. Given that he was right handed, and it was his right hand, he would use it. He probably still would, but if it was in a sling, not as often as if it wasn’t in a sling.

The door opened and Dixie came in with scrubs and helped Johnny change into them. He hated wearing them, but his uniform pants were stiff with blood and he didn’t know if the blood would come out of his shirt and t-shirt. He would throw the lot at the dry cleaner and hope for the best. Dixie had pulled the IV and took some vitals. His blood pressure had returned to normal and Brackett was quite happy to let him go home. Johnny was quite happy about that too, although he hated being laid up, as he got bored very easily.

“See you in three days,” Brackett reminded him as he left.

“Three days,” Johnny echoed. The next couple of weeks seemed to stretch out in front of him like eternity.

*****

It was only as they were driving back to the station that Johnny realized he was far too drowsy to drive, even if he was able to use his hand. “How’m I gonna get home?” he asked.

“I’ll take you in the squad once you have your stuff,” Roy replied. He had already arranged it with Cap on the phone. It would be a while before Johnny’s replacement got in and if he arrived before Roy got back, he would just have to wait. “We’ll bring your car back tomorrow, as long as you promise not to drive it,” he added.

“I promise,” Johnny sighed. “Gee, you’d think I was in the habit of doing things I shouldn’t.”

“Yeah? I wonder why I’d think that?” Roy answered sarcastically.

“I’m not that bad,” Johnny protested.

“We had that conversation earlier, if you recall,” Roy sniggered. “And you lost then, too.”

“Oh shut up!” Johnny retorted without rancor.

*****

The others were in the day room when they got back to the station and Roy parked Johnny in a chair at the table while he went to get Johnny’s clothes and keys. “How’s the hand, pal?” Cap asked, looking concerned.

“Still numb,” Johnny admitted. “But I’m sure it’ll hurt like a son-of-a-bitch when the local wears off.”

“How many stitches did it take?” Chet asked with gory relish.

“Too many,” Johnny replied. He wasn’t going to admit he didn’t know.

“How long are you going to be out?” Mike asked.

“At least two weeks,” Johnny replied gloomily. He sighed heavily. What was he going to do during those two weeks? He couldn’t ride, he couldn’t drive, camping was out – time was hanging heavily on his hands already.

Seeing how despondent he was, Marco said, “It could be worse, Johnny.”

“I know,” Johnny agreed, trying to sound more cheerful.

“John, pal, I’ll come past your place tomorrow afternoon,” Cap suggested. “I need your statement about what happened for the log.”

“All right,” Johnny nodded. He knew that Cap had to get the details, but he really didn’t want to relive the whole scene again so soon.

“Are you ready?” Roy asked, coming back into the room with Johnny’s stuff. He would help his partner change clothes at home, without Chet’s helpful comments. Johnny didn’t need those right now.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed and rose tiredly to his feet. It would be good to get home and go to bed.

*****

He woke with a gasp, his heart pounding and his mouth as dry as a desert. Sweat clung clammily to his body and the sheet was twisted around his legs. The dream was still vivid in his mind, the young girl’s face staring at him accusingly.

Wiping a shaky hand across his face, Johnny looked at the clock on the bedside table. It was just gone midnight. He had only been asleep for an hour. He sat up and dropped his head into his good hand. It was not the first nightmare he had had. After Roy had dropped him off at home earlier, he had lain down for a nap. A short time later, he had woken to his own screams. In that dream, he had been on the witness stand and the judge and the girl’s parents had accused him of negligence and he had been sent to prison.

Clumsily shoving the sheet aside with his bandaged hand, Johnny rose from the bed and stumbled to the bathroom. He was dog tired. After his abortive attempt at a nap that afternoon, he had watched TV until his grainy eyes burned with tiredness. Convinced he would sleep, he had gone to bed – and here he was, awake again. He splashed cold water on his face and used a cloth to wipe the sweat from his body.

Chilled, he went back to bed and crawled under the covers again. They were slightly damp, but warmed up as he huddled beneath them. He longed to sleep and his eyes were drifting shut, but he was sure he would be awake again shortly. He needed to sleep; he was exhausted, mentally and physically. After lying there for half an hour of starting to doze off and jerking himself awake, Johnny finally gave in and went to get the sedative he had been given.

It wasn’t long before he was deep in a dreamless sleep.

*****

It was gone 10am when Johnny woke and he felt dreadful. It was like having a hangover without having had the drink. Staggering from the bed, he threw himself under a hot shower and stood there until the water began to run cold. He dressed and went to the kitchen for coffee. He wasn’t even sure he felt rested – a drugged sleep was never as good as natural sleep as far as Johnny was concerned. Wandering into his living room, he turned on the news and flopped down on the couch.

The lead story was the crash from the previous day. Johnny couldn’t drag his eyes away from the screen as he saw the all too familiar mangled wreckage. Three people had died, the report announced; a couple in their late 40s and a girl of 17.

A picture flashed onto the screen of a lovely young girl with shoulder length blonde hair. Her teeth were white and straight and her body shape spoke of athletic ability. “Catherine Jones, 17, of Carson, died at the scene of the crash, despite the valiant attempts of the firefighters to save her. She had received the car as a gift for her 17th birthday just last week. She is survived by her parents and twin sister.”

Hot tears scalded Johnny’s eyes but didn’t fall. It had been bad enough seeing Catherine die without learning about her family. Johnny felt twice as guilty now as he had felt the previous day, even though his head knew he had done what he could. He stumbled to his feet and put the TV off. He needed to get out of the apartment. Shoving on shoes, he grabbed his keys and set off to walk.

*****

Cap was waiting for him when he got back, sitting in Johnny’s truck, which he had driven from the station. When Johnny saw the vehicle there, his steps slowed momentarily. Cap alighted from the car to greet him.

“Cap, I’m sorry,” Johnny greeted him. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”

“Well, I didn’t tell you what time I was coming,” Cap replied, although he had been worried when he could get no answer from Johnny’s apartment. He could see the strain in Johnny’s face. “Are you all right, John?” he asked.

Opening the door, Johnny led the way into the apartment. “I guess so,” he shrugged. “I saw the news.”

“Oh.” That explained a lot.

To try to put off the moment he would have to talk about it all again, Johnny put some coffee on. Cap watched him working, juggling mugs with his sore hand, which he had pulled from the sling. “How’s the hand?” he asked.

“Pretty sore,” Johnny admitted. “Could be worse.” Awkwardly, he poured the coffee with his left hand. Cap took the mugs and led the way into the living room. He deliberately put the mugs side by side so that Johnny would come and sit near him on the couch, but that ploy didn’t work; Johnny scooped up his mug and sat in the recliner. He avoided Cap’s eyes.

“Tell me what happened,” Cap coaxed.

He had known it was inevitable. Talking quickly and quietly, he told Cap about climbing into the car with her, trying to stabilize her and knowing that she was unlikely to make it, given the extent of her injuries. He paused and made himself take a deep breath and slow down. He met Cap’s eyes.

“Go on,” Cap encouraged softly.

“I hadn’t realized her seat had jarred free of its mountings in the crash. When the dash was moved, she began to bleed out in huge spurts. I leaned over her seat as much as I could to put pressure on and the seat moved, throwing me off balance. I must have put my hand out to stop falling and I felt it get cut. I bumped my head, too. And then Marco came in and pulled me back and by then she was dead.” The recrimination and grief were clear in his voice.

“You have nothing to reproach yourself for, John,” Cap told him firmly. “I’ve spoken to everyone concerned in this, and they all agree that it isn’t your fault.”

“Maybe,” Johnny muttered. He still wasn’t totally convinced. “Will I have to go to court to testify?”

“I’m not sure,” Cap replied. “Perhaps. We’ll know when the results of the crash investigation come out.” He could sympathize with the sigh Johnny let loose. He hated testifying, too. “What are you going to do with yourself while you’re off?”

“I don’t know.” Johnny looked ruefully at his hand. “I’ve been doing a lot of riding,” he confided. “I was going to be entering a rodeo in a couple of weeks, but I can’t now.”

“That’s a real shame,” Cap sympathized. “Will you get another chance?”

“I don’t know,” Johnny admitted. He remembered that he had still to phone Peter and tell him that he wouldn’t be able to ride. “I’ve been doing some show jumping, too.”

“I’m not familiar with that,” Cap confessed.

“Jumping over a course of colored poles in an arena?”

“Oh right. One of my daughters is into that,” Cap nodded. “Fancies some guy who does that.” He shrugged. “I don’t understand it.”

“There’s a lot involved in teaching the horse to jump,” Johnny explained, keeping it simple. “I’m really just learning myself.”

“I’d like to see you ride sometime,” Cap told him sincerely.

“Thanks, Cap,” Johnny replied, flushing with pleasure. “I’ll let you know sometime when I’m going.”

“Speaking of going,” Cap said, looking at his watch, “Emily is picking me up in a couple of minutes.” He rose to his feet. “Thanks for the coffee. And take care of yourself, John. Remember, this wasn’t your fault.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Are you sleeping?”

“I slept last night,” Johnny said and then saw the stern gaze Cap fixed upon him. “After I took the sedative,” he admitted.

“If you still can’t sleep, then make an appointment to see someone,” Cap suggested.

“Yes, sir,” Johnny agreed. “Thanks for bringing my car back.”

“No problem, just as long as you remember not to drive it.” He heard a horn sound outside. “That’ll be Emily. Take care, John and don’t be a stranger.”

“I won’t,” Johnny promised and saw Cap out.

Alone, Johnny finally summoned the resolve to phone Peter and tell him what had happened. His friend commiserated. “That’s tough, Johnny,” he sighed. “But there’ll be other rodeos. Cochise isn’t going anywhere just yet. He has to earn his spurs, remember.”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed. He couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice.

“Listen, how do you fancy coming down to a show with me?” Peter proposed. “I’m going to take Intrepid to a show in San Diego and I could use the company.”

“I’d love to,” Johnny responded eagerly. “But I can’t ride and I can’t help out.”

“Nobody asked you to do either thing,” Peter replied, laughing. “I’m taking a couple of horses down and one of the girls is going to ride them in the ring. I could do with the company for the drive there and back. You up for it?”

“Definitely!” Johnny exclaimed. He suddenly felt a lot better. He wouldn’t be stuck at home for the entire two weeks. This trip sounded perfect.

*****

At his three day check up, the hand was looking good. Brackett asked if he was wearing the sling all the time and Johnny just said yes. It was easier than saying he hadn’t had it on at all. He told Brackett he would be going away for a couple of days and couldn’t now come in on the day he should get his stitches out. Brackett okayed him to come in the day after instead. Roy had already been alerted to his absence.

He was all packed and ready to go the next morning. Peter had a beautiful Mercedes with a soft top. As the weather was glorious, he had the top down and it was sheer magic driving along with the wind rushing through his hair. The drive took about 3 hours and they arrived in time for a very nice lunch that Peter had booked at their hotel. Johnny had tried to pay for his share, but Peter refused, saying that Johnny was doing him a favor by coming along.

After lunch, they went to the stables at the arena and found the horses were already settled in and had travelled well the previous day. Johnny went over to Intrepid and the big black put his nose down to greet Johnny, who rubbed his face and pulled his ears and finally slipped him a mint. Intrepid’s competition was on their last day. Johnny knew that Peter hoped to interest a buyer for all his horses and knew he would miss Intrepid when he went.

“Did you know Rodney Jenkins is competing this week?” Peter asked as they headed back to the hotel.

“I don’t even know who he is,” Johnny responded.

“He’s a really good show jumper,” Peter replied. “He’s competed abroad and is really talented. There are a lot of potential world champions going to be here.”

“Wow. The sport is really up and coming, isn’t it?”Johnny knew the sport was really in its infancy in the US, compare to Europe. He was excited to see someone who knew what he was doing in the sport actually competing.

It looked like this was going to be a good week.

*****

The first two days were enjoyable and profitable for Peter. He managed to sell the two show jumpers that competed on those two days and had high hopes for the following day. Rodney Jenkins had led the way and Johnny was impressed by his skill and the skill of the other riders.

On the final day, it was Intrepid’s turn to impress. Johnny felt a pang thinking that the horse might be sold that day, but the harsh reality of the matter was that Intrepid was not his horse and he not only couldn’t afford to buy him, but he had nowhere to keep him, either.

It all seemed to be going swimmingly. Intrepid did well in the class and afterwards, Peter and Johnny met one of the riders who was interested in buying the horse. The youth was barely 20 and arrogant with it. He had done well in the class, but not won, although he walked as though he owned the earth. They went to the exercise area and the youth mounted up.

It was interesting to watch the rider putting the horse through its paces on the flat, getting the feel of the mount. Johnny knew he did the same thing when mounting a strange horse. “All right, put up a jump,” the youth instructed.

While the groom did as he was bid, Peter frowned. “It’s a bit soon to be thinking of jumping,” he muttered. “He’s only been riding him for 10 minutes.”

Frowning, for Peter’s concern made him uneasy, too, Johnny watched as the youth put the horse into a canter and rode it around the arena. Once he had the stride he wanted, he turned the animal towards the fence. Intrepid cleared it beautifully. The young man went round again. “Put it up!” he called after the second jump.

This time, the young man went in more tightly to the jump. Intrepid didn’t jump as cleanly, knocking the poles down with his hind legs and spooking slightly on landing. “Put it back up!” the youth shouted as he urged the big horse to keep cantering.

Intrepid was a good jumper, but he was still young and had been unsettled by the mess he had made of the previous attempt. He was chivvied towards it, rose to meet it, realized he was too far off and set down again. The youth was already rising in preparation and got smacked soundly on the nose by the horse’s head. His helmet flew off as the horse, trying desperately to stop, crashed into the fence. One of the poles broke and gashed the horse’s chest. Intrepid stumbled over the pole and somehow crashed to the ground, flinging the rider off.

At once, Johnny leapt to his feet and loped over the fence. “Someone call the fire department and get a vet!” he cried.

The horse was trying gamely to rise, but had damaged a foreleg, how badly Johnny couldn’t tell. He grabbed the groom, who was standing frozen in horror, having barely missed being injured in the debacle. “Sit on the horse’s head and keep him down!” Johnny ordered, literally pushing the girl to the ground and making her lean over the horse. He kept going, heading for the rider who was lying ominously still.

The young man was unconscious, blood pumping from a head wound. Johnny snatched the decorative handkerchief from the rider’s jacket pocket and applied direct pressure. He quickly assessed the rider, seeing that he was breathing easily. There were no apparent injuries apart from the head wound, but Johnny had been around horses all his life and knew the biggest danger was a back injury. He quickly took steps to protect the rider’s neck.

It was pandemonium. As always when something happened, people appeared to rubber neck. There was always someone who insisted they knew first aid and then suggested something that showed they knew nothing about first aid. That someone turned out, in this case, to be a voluminous lady in a garishly flowered frock who teetered across the sandy surface of the arena and told Johnny to move. “I know first aid,” she declared. “He needs to be on his back, you know.”

“I’m a paramedic with the Los Angeles County Fire Department,” Johnny informed her. “And I am not going to let you move him.” When the lady moved to grab his arm, Johnny shouted, “Don’t touch me! If he’s got a broken neck and you pull me, you could leave him paralyzed for life or kill him.” In that instant, Johnny saw the lifeless face of young Catherine Jones.

“How rude!” the woman sniffed. “You hoodlum! Firemen don’t have long hair.”

“This one does,” Johnny growled. “Ma’am, please step back.” He was relieved to see Peter appear at his side.

“Help’s on the way, Johnny. What can I do?”

“Nothing right now,” Johnny replied. “How’s the horse?”

“Not good,” Peter replied and Johnny could hear from his voice that it was serious. “We’re just waiting for the vet.”

It took about 20 minutes for help to arrive and Johnny was glad to hand over to the paramedics who arrived on scene. He rose from his knees, shaking the kinks out of his legs and watched as the rider was loaded into the ambulance. He suddenly became aware that his hand was throbbing and looked down. He had been using it to staunch the bleeding from the head wound and the bandage was filthy. He grimaced in disgust. He would need to replace the bandage. Luckily, he had brought a couple with him.

Looking around, he realized that part of the commotion around about had been the vet arriving to tend to Intrepid. He headed over, seeing that it was not looking good. The vet was on his knees, running his hand down the damaged leg. From the look on both the vet’s face and Peter’s, Johnny realized that Intrepid had broken his leg. “I’m sorry,” the vet said, looking up at Peter.

“Give me a minute,” Peter begged and knelt by the stricken animal. Johnny had to turn away.

It was all over in a matter of minutes. Johnny put his hand on the horse’s muzzle for a moment, saying his own farewell, regretting the waste of a good young horse, then waited while Peter gathered himself together and ushered his friend back to the hotel. There, he gave Peter a stiff drink and just sat with him. Later, when Peter fell asleep, Johnny went to the stables and told the grooms to head for home the next day as had been planned.

When he got back to the hotel, he found that Peter had had a few more drinks. Johnny tried to persuade his friend to eat something, but to no avail. Peter had bred Intrepid, worked with him and to lose the horse in that manner was devastating. Intrepid had been valuable, but he had also been loved. It was heartbreaking. Peter was intent on drinking himself to sleep and succeeded. Johnny, concerned, stayed in Peter’s room all night. A couple of times the other man got up and was sick.

It was a long night.

*****

Peter was certainly not fit to drive home the next morning. It took Johnny all his time to get the other man roused and out of the hotel on schedule. The Mercedes was a pleasure to drive, even if Johnny’s hand protested all the way home. By the time they reached Carson, Peter was feeling a lot better and looking more human. Still, Johnny wouldn’t let him drive and took him home before heading off on public transport to get to Rampart.

Inevitably, he was late for his appointment with Brackett. He breezed in with his suitcase in tow and was made to cool his heels for half an hour in Brackett’s office. It gave him some more unwelcome thinking time. The previous evening, he had been too concerned over Peter’s state of mind to think about what had happened, but there was no doubt that Johnny was affected by the loss of Intrepid, too. Losing the horse to a sale was one thing, but to someone’s carelessness was something else entirely.

“Hi, Johnny, how was the trip?” Brackett asked, bursting into the office at his usual speed.

“Good, thanks,” Johnny replied, but his tone lacked conviction.

“Oh?” Brackett ushered the younger man out into the hall and down to the treatment rooms. “Tell me more.”

Briefly, Johnny wondered why he seemed to spend half his life talking about the bad things that had happened, but he told the story. They had heard the previous night that the rider had not been seriously injured in the fall and would be back in the saddle within a couple of weeks. It didn’t seem fair, not that Johnny wished harm on anyone.

“That’s really rough,” Brackett commented. He was a horse lover himself and had once fancied life as a cowboy. He thought he had been about 10 then. Still, he liked to get out on horseback when he could. “Let’s get a look at this hand.” He began to unwrap the bandages.

“I drove home,” Johnny told him. “And I held pressure on that guy yesterday with this hand.” He saw the look on Brackett’s face. “What did you want me to do?” he protested, although Brackett hadn’t said anything. “Let the guy bleed? Allow a still-drunk man to drive? You tell me, doc, what should I have done?”

“Calm down,” Brackett told him. “You’re right, Johnny. There wasn’t anything else you could have done, except stay down there for a bit longer perhaps. Let me look.” He directed the overhead light so it shone directly on the injured palm.

The stitches were all intact and the cut seemed to be healing well. The hand was a bit red and puffy, but not nearly as bad as Brackett had feared. “It doesn’t look too bad. How does it feel?”

“A bit sore,” Johnny confessed. “But all right.”

“And the truth?” Brackett enquired, having learned the hard way about Johnny and his injuries.

“That is the truth,” Johnny replied. He managed a grin. “I thought I’d see how truth worked for me, but I might just go back to lying.”

“Oh don’t start!” Brackett laughed. He got what he needed to remove the sutures and settled himself. “How are you feeling about things otherwise?” he asked. “And the truth for this, too, John.”

“I’m feeling a bit better,” Johnny replied. “Getting away helped.” He looked down as Brackett snipped the stitches. “Is there going to be an inquiry?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” Brackett replied. “I imagine Roy would know more about it than we do, since we didn’t treat her.” With all the stitches cut, he made short work of pulling them out. It stung, but was over quickly. Johnny peered interestedly at his hand.

“Looks good, doc,” he praised.

“You need to keep a light bandage on it this week,” Brackett told him, “and I want to see you again next week. You can start to do things with it, but be careful. Keep driving and lifting to a minimum. No riding yet.” Brackett wound some gauze over Johnny’s hand. “If it continues to do as well as this, you should be back to work pretty soon.”

“Thanks, doc.” Johnny jumped down from the table. “I’ll just get my bag and head on out.” He was bone tired and the prospect of getting a bus back was rather daunting. He wanted nothing more than to sleep.

“Johnny?”

“Roy?” Johnny turned and smiled at his partner. “Hey!”

“What did the doc say?” Roy asked, looking down at Johnny’s hand.

“Seems to be okay,” Johnny replied. “He took the stitches out.”

“Good. How was the trip?” Roy followed Johnny to Brackett’s office, where Johnny collected his case.

With a sigh, Johnny told Roy what had happened. Roy grimaced in sympathy. It was the last thing Johnny had needed at the moment. “Come on,” he suggested. “We’ll give you a lift back to your place in the squad.”

“Really?” Johnny asked, delighted. “You don’t need to do that.”

“I know I don’t,” Roy smiled. “Come on, Junior.” They headed back out to the desk where they found Roy’s partner of the day, Dave Clark, waiting. It was a quick trip out to Johnny’s place and saved him the best part of an hour. Johnny thanked the others and promised Roy he would come visit at the station now he was allowed to drive again and headed inside for some much needed sleep.

*****

Recuperating was never much fun for Johnny. He was by nature too active to enjoy a lot of down time and the day after he got back from San Diego, he headed out to the horse ranch to see how Peter was doing. He found his friend hard at work in the barn, looking a lot better than he had the previous day. “I’m sorry I got so drunk,” Peter apologized.

“Don’t sweat, man,” Johnny replied. “I understand.”

“It was horrible,” Peter sighed. “You were so calm, Johnny. I don’t know how you did it.”

“Training,” Johnny replied. “I knew what to do and did it. I hear the rider is going to be all right.”

“So I hear,” Peter nodded. “I asked my lawyer to contact him. He caused the accident with Intrepid and I want compensation.”

“That seems fair,” Johnny agreed. It hadn’t seemed right to him that the rider should be able to walk away after a horse he was trying out was put down.

They talked for a while longer, then a potential client appeared and Johnny wandered off, leaving Peter pouring on the charm. The barns smelt of hay and horses, the rich aroma bringing back good memories for Johnny of working there. He left the barn and went out to the ménage to watch the horses being worked. One of the girls was up on Cochise and Johnny couldn’t help but admire the animal. Today, the horse was learning the rudiments of barrel racing.

He stood and watched for a while, until the girl brought the horse back to the gate and jumped down. “Hi, Johnny,” she cried and blushed, for she had an unrequited crush on the handsome paramedic.

“Hi, Louise,” Johnny replied. He liked the girl, but she was just 17 and too young for him. “How’s our boy?” He put his hand out to stroke the horse’s muzzle.”

“Doing real fine,” Louise smiled. She patted the chestnut-and-white neck proudly. “Real fine.”

“Louise!” a voice called from inside the barn. “Could you give me a hand?”

“Sure!” she called back. “Johnny, could you cool Cochise out for me?” Without waiting for an answer, as it was a rhetorical question, she handed the reins to Johnny and hurried away.

He knew he shouldn’t. He knew he’d been expressly forbidden to. But … the temptation was overwhelming and if Johnny was honest with himself, he didn’t even try and resist. He moved to the horse’s side, put his foot in the stirrup and mounted.

It was the best feeling ever. Even just going around at a walk to cool the horse down and loosen off his muscles, Johnny felt a sense of freedom that just couldn’t be beaten. It was like coming home. His spirits lifted as he felt the long muscles beneath his seat moving so smoothly and he felt better than he had since that dreadful day at the car accident. Unconsciously, his body adjusted to move with the swing of the horse’s step.

It didn’t take long to get the horse cooled down, but there was no sign of Louise. Johnny rode over to the barn and then took the horse inside to his stall. There, he set about removing the heavy Western saddle and putting it and the bridle away. Then he grabbed a brush and set about grooming the silky skewbald hide to remove the sweat. The long rhythmic strokes lulled Johnny and his mind drifted to pleasant day dreams where he had his own horse – like this one – to ride whenever he wanted to. When he was satisfied with his work, he slipped a halter on and led the gelding to the paddock, where he turned the horse out to graze.

On cloud nine, he bid Peter goodbye, pleased to hear the clients were going to be buying a horse and headed back to his apartment. He’d always known that being around horses was good for his soul and he knew that although he shouldn’t have done any of the things he had, he didn’t regret it. He had found his peace of mind again and that was invaluable.

Until he woke up the next morning and his hand was hugely swollen.

*****

He thought round and about the problem for quite some time. He showered and dressed and ate breakfast, his hand wrapped around some ice cubes in a towel. That numbed the discomfort a bit, but didn’t appear to help the swelling. He knew he was being foolish, but he didn’t want to go to Rampart and have Dr Brackett chew his ass for doing what he’d been told not to. He had felt so much better the previous day and he didn’t want to go back to feeling down.

However, Johnny knew he would have to go in. His hand was probably infected and it needed more than just home care. Driving was out of the question and he hated to have to ask someone, but he girded his loins and phoned. Roy was out. Mike was out. Marco was out. He certainly wasn’t phoning Cap, knowing that he would get his ass chewed by Cap as well as Brackett. As a last resort, he rang Chet. Not only was Chet in, but he agreed to take Johnny to Rampart.

Chet arrived full of wise-cracks as ever, but once he saw the extent of the swelling, he stopped making smart comments and bundled Johnny into his car as fast as he could. “Gee, Gage,” he commented as he drove off, “why is nothing ever simple with you? Isn’t one injury at a time enough? Do you have to go for complications all the time?”

“You think I wanted this?” Johnny grumbled back. “I spend enough time at Rampart when I’m working.”

When they pulled into Rampart, Johnny fully expected Chet to simply drop him off and drive away and he was surprised and a bit touched when Chet came into the ER with him. It was nice to have someone with him, for Johnny was dreading the tongue lashing he was going to get for this.

Of course, the first person they saw was Dr Brackett. He looked up from where he was making notes on a chart by the base station and his brows drew down. “Uh-oh,” Chet commented, not quite under his breath.

“What did you do?” Brackett demanded, foregoing any pleasantries. He pushed Johnny unceremoniously towards a treatment room.

Although it was tempting to say ‘nothing’, Johnny knew it was his own fault. His head dropped as Brackett urged him onto the exam table. “I rode a horse, un-tacked it, groomed it and turned it out,” he replied, his voice almost inaudible.

“You did what?!” Brackett’s voice was clearly audible and probably was heard the next county over to boot. “What did I say to you? Did you even listen?”

“I didn’t mean to,” Johnny denied. “But I just couldn’t stop myself.”

“And now look what you’ve done!” Brackett cried. “All because of your lack of willpower! John Gage, you don’t have the sense you were born with.”

Much as he knew he deserved Brackett’s ire, Johnny wasn’t going to take this lying down. “Yeah, look where it got me!” he retorted. “But I would do it again. It felt great, doc! Really great! The best I’ve felt since that bloody accident where this happened. I felt like a human being again!” He started to push himself off the table, but Chet moved to stop him.

“Come on, babe, you can’t go home,” Chet coaxed. “I don’t want to spend all day driving back and forward.” He fixed Gage with a look. “You know you’ve got to get it seen to. You want to come back to work and you can’t work with it like that.” He persuaded Johnny back onto the table and looked at Brackett. “He’s been really down, doc,” Chet explained, as though Brackett wasn’t aware of it. “It was pretty grim for us all, but we’ve been at work and able to think about other things. The Pigeon here hasn’t had that.”

Angry, frustrated and worried, Brackett huffed out a sigh, but he had to admit Chet had a point. “You’re right,” he conceded. “I’m sorry I shouted, Johnny.”

“I’m sorry I screwed up,” Johnny replied. “I just couldn’t help myself.”

“I know,” Brackett soothed. He was remembering now that Johnny had had to witness the horse he was fond of being destroyed, too. He had had a lot to deal with in the last week or so. “Let’s have a look.” He gently felt the swollen palm, apologizing as Johnny winced several times. “You’ve got an abscess,” he finally announced. “We’re going to have to operate.”

“When?” Johnny asked.

“When did you last eat?” Brackett countered.

“Um, about three hours ago,” Johnny decided, glancing at the clock.

“All right.” Brackett also looked at the clock, obviously making calculations. “We’ll get you booked in and into a room. We should be able to operate in about an hour. We’ll get you started on IV antibiotics and then test the abscess against them to get strain specific and change them if need be. I’ll give you a shot of Valium now to keep you calm.”

“I am calm,” Johnny protested, although he wasn’t really.

“Regardless if you are or not, you’re getting a shot,” Brackett told him. “Chet, can you get some things for Johnny? He’s going to be here for three or four days.” He filled a syringe and shot it smoothly into Johnny’s upper arm. “I’ll get Dixie to come and help you change into a gown.” He patted the already-woozy paramedic’s arm. “Don’t worry, Johnny, I think we’ve caught this in time.” He hurried from the room. Chet stared after him open mouthed.

“Wow, surgery,” Chet marveled. That had all happened rather fast.

The door opened and Dixie came in. She retrieved a gown from the cupboard and crossed to the table. “Why don’t you phone Roy and get a cup of coffee and you can wait with Johnny till he goes to the OR?” she suggested in a tone that ably implied it was not a suggestion.

“Yes, Miss McCall,” Chet responded agreeably. He quickly left, suspecting that Johnny was about to get chewed out by someone else and just as glad to miss out on it.

However, in this case he was wrong. Dixie had nothing but sympathy for Johnny. At this stage in healing, it was unusual to develop an abscess and she had been told the story of what Johnny had done the day before. It sounded like great therapy to her and it was just a pity it had backfired like this.

Since Brackett had given Johnny a fairly big shot to prevent him worrying, there wasn’t a lot of point in telling him about the post-operative procedures. Dixie kept up a constant stream of soothing chatter and Johnny occasionally mumbled something in reply, but it wasn’t what you would call conversation. Once Johnny was ready to be moved, Dixie summoned orderlies and Chet and dispatched them to a room.

It was a quiet wait, as Johnny was pretty much asleep the whole time. Chet read a discarded magazine and bit his nails, waiting for Roy to arrive. However, the older paramedic hadn’t appeared by the time they came to take Johnny to surgery, so Chet decided to wait a bit longer, to update Roy on what had happened. About 10 minutes after Johnny had gone, Roy came in.

As Chet had told him everything on the phone, there wasn’t much more for him to tell Roy. He did volunteer to get Johnny’s stuff, but Roy said he would take care of it. He took Johnny’s keys and wallet from Chet and the shorter man went home, after eliciting a promise that Roy would let him know how Johnny was. Chet hate waiting in hospitals and he was a man with a mission. He had to let the others know what was happening.

Boy, he thought. Gage’s ass is grass when Cap gets hold of him!

*****

Luck was on Johnny’s side. The surgery was as straightforward as hand surgery could be and the specialist Brackett had called in was a master of his trade. In less than an hour, the abscess was thoroughly cleaned out, a drainage tube put in and the wound bandaged.

When Johnny came round, he found that his injured hand was elevated, swathed in gauze up to his elbow and in a special sling hung from the ceiling. At the moment, his left hand was in a restraint cuff and he surmised that was to stop him compromising the IVs that were in that arm while he was still out. The call button was in his left hand and he was lying with his head elevated. He pressed the button urgently – he knew he was going to be sick.

Fortunately, the nurse came at once. While she was still there, Roy came back from having coffee and assisted where he could, too. Soon enough, Johnny was settled back on his pillows, feeling ghastly. He hated getting a general anesthetic; they always made him sick. “Hey, Roy,” he whispered hoarsely.

“Hey yourself,” Roy smiled. “Don’t feel you have to talk to me. Go back to sleep if you like.”

Although he could think of nothing that he wanted more at that minute, Johnny fought to stay awake a few minutes longer. “What did they say about my hand?” he asked.

“It’s looking good,” Roy answered immediately. “The abscess wasn’t deep seated and they’re sure they got all of it out. A little physical therapy and you’ll be fine.”

“It’s my fault,” Johnny murmured.

“Actually, if you hadn’t gone riding yesterday, things could have been a lot worse,” Roy told him. “They think the abscess had been sitting in there all week. Because you weren’t using that hand, it wasn’t bothering you, but it could have been very nasty if it hadn’t been caught when it was. So if you hadn’t ridden the horse, you might have ended up having very major surgery further down the line, which might not have been so successful.”

“Wow,” Johnny sighed and drifted off to sleep while he tried to think about that.

*****

When he woke, it was dark. Roy was gone. His hand, still suspended above him, ached mercilessly. He fumbled for the call button, found it wound round the side of the bed and pressed it. The nurse came in, saw immediately what he needed and disappeared again. When she came back, she had Dr Brackett with her. She injected his painkiller and left.

“How’re you feeling, Johnny?” Brackett asked, looking at his chart.

“Um, better than I did,” he mumbled. “Doc, is my hand going to be all right?”

“Yes, it is,” Brackett responded without hesitation. “I’m sorry I chewed you out, Johnny. You had an abscess in your hand, and from the looks of it, it had been there for several days. But because you weren’t using your hand, it hadn’t flared up, so we weren’t aware of it. When you went riding yesterday, that was enough to irritate it and that was a good thing. If we hadn’t found it until you returned to work, it could have been much, much worse, as it could have spread and then you would have been looking at major surgery. It’s a good thing you ignored my orders this time.”

“I think Roy said that,” Johnny mused.

“Yes, he told me that he’d told you, but you fell asleep before he could ask if you had understood it.” Brackett thrust his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and smiled. “Johnny, you have the damnedest luck of anyone I know.”

Smiling, Johnny looked at his hand. “How long am I going to be here?” he asked.

“A minimum of four days,” Brackett replied. “After that, it depends on how your hand is, how you are; you know the procedure.”

“Only too well,” Johnny groaned. The pain meds were kicking in; the pain in his hand was easing and he was feeling sleepy again. Despite his efforts to keep his eyes open, the lids seemed suddenly ton-weighted and he gave up the fight.

“Sleep, Johnny,” he heard Brackett say. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

*****

It was incredibly uncomfortable being stuck in one position like that. Johnny found it difficult to sleep after the first night and his back ached from the angle his bed was placed. Although the nurses did what they could to help, putting the head of the bed flatter pulled more on his shoulder and making it more upright made it even more difficult to sleep. Johnny tried turning over onto his right side, but then the angle of his arm was wrong and he got grumpier and grumpier and his appetite suffered and he was rude to visitors and nurses alike. While everyone understood the problem, his attitude didn’t endear him to the people who had sacrificed their time to come and cheer him up.

After four incredibly long days, Johnny’s hand was released from its suspension, the bed was laid flat and Johnny was able to get some decent sleep. The difference in his demeanor when he woke was quite amazing. His appetite returned along with his good humor. The drain was removed from his hand, the IV antibiotics were pulled and he began physical therapy on his hand.

On the sixth day, with a collective sigh of relief, Johnny was allowed to go home.

*****

The knock on the apartment door came as a surprised. Answering it, Johnny was even more surprised to find Cap on the other side. “Cap! Come in.” He stepped back to allow his visitor in and did a mental inventory. The apartment wasn’t too messy. “Coffee?”

“No, thanks. Have a seat, John.” Cap sat on the couch.

Slightly confused, for wasn’t it his place to offer the seat, seeing as they were in his apartment, Johnny sat down, too.

“John, I didn’t want to say anything while you were in the hospital,” Cap began, “but now you’re home, I feel I should say something. You were incredibly lucky that you didn’t damage your hand permanently,” he went on. “But the next time you deliberately disobey direct orders from either Dr Brackett or myself, you will find yourself in serious trouble, do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Johnny replied, sitting up straighter. “I’m sorry.”

“I know everything worked out for the best for you this time, but next time you might not be so lucky. I’m not going to put anything in your file about this incident, but when you come back to work, you’ll have latrine duty for the following six weeks. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Crystal,” Johnny nodded. Latrine duty for six weeks? Well, he supposed it could have been worse; it could have been forever.

Relaxing now the ‘official’ part of his visit was over, Hank said, “I’ll have that coffee now thanks. Can you manage?”

Taken aback by the change of pace and subject, Johnny blinked. “Um, you’ll need to carry your own mug,” he responded rather dazedly.

“I expect I can manage that,” Hank replied and followed Johnny to the kitchen where the coffee was soon ready. “I was sorry to hear about the horse,” he said as they went back to sit down.

“It was tough,” Johnny agreed. “I had promised myself I would never again get attached to a horse that didn’t belong to me, after one I really liked was sold when I worked there as a kid. It broke my heart, and yet I let myself get attached to both Intrepid and Cochise.” He made a face. “I couldn’t help myself. Horses get under your skin, Cap.”

“Are you still going to do a rodeo at some point?” Cap asked.

“I hope so,” Johnny replied. “But it depends on when my hand heals and on Peter, too.”

“Well, as I said before, I’d like to see you ride.”

“Oh, Cap, I almost forgot.” Johnny put down his mug, got to his feet and disappeared down the hall. When he came back, he was brandishing a glossy booklet. “This is for you. Well, actually, it’s for your daughter.”

Taking the booklet, Cap saw it was the program for the show that Johnny had attended. “Thanks,” he replied.

“Open it,” Johnny suggested and on the inside page, over a photograph of himself, Rodney Jenkins had written ‘To Sally, best wishes Rodney Jenkins.’

Looking up, Cap saw the broad grin on Johnny’s face. “Think she’ll like it?” he asked eagerly.

“John, she’ll love it,” Cap replied. “Thank you so much.”

“Aw, it was no big deal,” Johnny denied. “Peter was speaking to him about a horse and when they were finished I simply asked if he would sign the program. He’s a nice guy.”

“Thanks, John. That was a really nice thing to do. What happened with that rider you helped?” Cap placed the precious book on his lap. Sally would be in ecstasies over it. Perhaps he would reduce the latrine duty to four weeks…

“He got out of hospital a couple of days later,” Johnny replied. “He wasn’t seriously injured, just a mild concussion. I expect he’s back riding by now. Peter did phone to tell me that he had paid Peter for Intrepid. I gather that a bit of pressure was brought to bear on him by the governing body of show jumpers. Peter didn’t give me all the details, but apparently they thought he should cough up the cash and he did.”

“I suppose that’s some consolation for your friend,” Cap agreed.

“Yeah,” Johnny nodded, but thought that although the money would help, it would never heal the loss Peter had suffered. Losing a horse to death was different than selling it on.

“Well, I’d better get going,” Cap declared, rising. “Thanks again for this, John.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder and took his leave.

All in all, Johnny thought as he closed the door behind his boss, he had got off remarkably lightly all round.

*****

Physical therapy was hard, but Johnny persevered with his exercises and although there were times initially that he felt he wasn’t getting anywhere, he managed to battle through his despair and came out the other side able to do something that had been getting him down previously. He made it back to work in a little over 12 weeks.

It was great to be back and it was great for the others to have him back. Johnny didn’t even mind the prospect of all those weeks of latrine duty. It just felt so darned good to be back! As ever, Johnny’s high spirits infected everyone else and they did their chores and went on runs feeling much more positive than they had for a while. Seeing the change, Cap mentally revised the latrine duty down another week, although he wasn’t going to tell Johnny that! Let the twit sweat!

Now that he had the all clear, Johnny was back riding, too. He was spending a lot of hours working with Cochise on barrel racing and the calf roping. Somewhere along the line, Johnny’s confidence had grown dramatically and he was one with the horse.

“I’ve entered you in a rodeo,” Peter told Johnny one afternoon as he was brushing down the horse. “Next weekend.”

“That’s not much notice!” Johnny objected. He could feel the excitement rising inside. “Really?” he added. “I’m off.”

“I know,” Peter smiled. He didn’t mention how he knew that.

“Wow, thanks, Peter.” He patted the horse. “Do you hear that, Cochise? You’re going to get your chance to shine.”

With a secret smile, Peter patted Johnny’s back. “And you, too,” he grinned.

*****

It was nerve-wracking waiting for his turn. Somewhere out in the audience, Johnny knew Roy was there with Joanne and the kids. Cap had brought his wife and daughters. Maybe another time, he would invite the others along too. It was too late to do it now, although Johnny wished he had asked them, but his nerves had got the better of him and he didn’t want Chet’s teasing to take the shine off his excitement.

Mounting up, he rode to the entrance of the ring. It was a pretty small rodeo by comparison to some, but the people had turned up to watch in their hundreds. He jammed his hat on his head, took the rope into his hand and flexed it. There was no pain now and the scar was fading into a thin line. Beneath him, he could feel the horse quivering in anticipation.

“Put your hands together for Johnny Gage!” called the announcer and the crowd generously applauded as he rode in.

Up in the stands, Chet Kelly leaned over to Roy. “I thought this was a wind up,” he admitted. “Is Gage any good?”

“Would he be taking part if he wasn’t?” Marco asked.

“Nice horse,” Mike commented.

“Here he goes,” Roy warned, having never taken his eyes off his partner.

Johnny got Cochise into position. The marshal made sure everything was ready, then raised his arm. When his arm went down, the chute would open and the calf would run out. When it reached a certain point, the rope barrier in front of Johnny would fall and that would be his cue to ride.

The marshal’s arm dropped. The calf sprinted out of the chute and seconds later the rope barrier fell. Johnny touched his heels to Cochise’s sides and the horse leapt straight into a gallop. Johnny swung his lasso, aimed and threw it. It landed right over the calf’s head and Johnny pulled Cochise to a standstill. Leaping down from the saddle, Johnny ran over, lifted the calf, placed it on its side and quickly tied three of its legs with a short rope known as a ‘piggin’ string’. While he was doing that, Cochise kept the tension on the rope that was secured to the saddle horn. Once the calf was secured, Johnny threw his hand in the air and went back to Cochise, mounted and moved the horse a pace or two forward to put slack in the rope. The calf squirmed, but was not getting free. Six seconds later, the buzzer sounded to indicate that the roping was completed. The official time would be released in a few more seconds. Johnny dismounted again and released the calf. Cowboys ushered the small creature back into the chute and the pens beyond.

Mounting up again, Johnny rode out of the arena. “The time for Johnny Gage was 8.34 seconds!” the announcer declared and a cheer went up. “That puts him in second place with one competitor to go.”

Exhausted but exhilarated, Johnny dismounted and leaned on Cochise. Peter came running up. “Well done!” he cried, buffeting the tired firefighter on the shoulder. “That was great!”

“Thanks,” Johnny replied. “Wasn’t Cochise brilliant? Maybe someone will want to buy him.”

“Maybe,” Peter agreed, but his attention was on the last competitor and they watched as the man made a complete hash of his throw and had to pull his rope in and start again. It was a tough thing to happen, but Peter realized what it meant. “You’ve come second!” he crowed. “You’re brilliant!”

“What?” Johnny couldn’t believe it. He had come second in his first competition for more than a decade and his first as an adult. It was a heady moment.

Mounted up once more, Johnny rode out with his fellow competitors to collect his prize – cash, an engraved silver belt buckle and a rosette. They rode a circuit of the arena, then left one by one to let the winner do a solo lap of honor.

Back at the stables, Johnny dismounted and laid his prizes on a hay bale next to his hat. He hugged the horse, whispering sweet nothings in his ear and rubbing the mole-soft muzzle. He heard voices, then one shouted, “Hey, Gage!”

Turning, he saw his shift mates descending on him en-masse. “Surprise!” Mike commented laconically.

“What are you guys all doing here?” Johnny asked dazedly. “How did you know?”

“A little bird told us,” Chet replied.

“I invited them,” Peter confessed, stepping forward. “Your first rodeo was deserving of a celebration, don’t you think?”

“What if I’d bombed?” Johnny wondered, still taken aback by his friend’s thoughtfulness.

“It’s not like we would’ve known,” Chet told him. “The only thing I know about horses is that one end bites and the other end kicks! I could never do what you did in there.” Chet was genuinely impressed. However, he could only praise for so long. “But don’t get carried away. Just ‘cos you can ride a horse doesn’t mean you’re any better at fighting fires than me.”

“Well, I for one am really impressed, John,” Cap told him, casting Chet a ‘look’. “Congratulations.”

“Yeah, you’re a real cowboy, amigo,” Marco added, grinning.

While Jenny, Roy’s daughter, clamored to be picked up so she could pat the horse, Roy simply smiled at his partner, his eyes telling Johnny how proud he was of his achievement. Joanne leaned in and kissed Johnny’s cheek as he let the little girl pat Cochise. He basked in the approval of his friends.

“Come on,” Peter declared. “Supper’s on me!”

“You can’t do that!” Johnny protested. With Cap and his family, Roy and his, plus the others that came to 13 people. It would cost a fortune.

“Yes I can,” Peter replied. “We’ve got a lot to celebrate. Your first win and the launching of the new Fraser-Gage Rodeo Team.”

“What?” Cap asked. Johnny was just looking at Peter with his mouth open. The others were all saying similar things.

“I can’t possibly sell Cochise; you and he are made for each other,” Peter explained after the exclamations all died away. “So I thought of this. You ride the horse, you’re doing most of the training with him, so I’ll be the owner and you can compete! Deal?” He held out his hand.

For a long moment, Johnny just looked at him. He couldn’t believe Peter was being so generous. Cochise might not be his horse legally, but they were a partnership and this sounded like an unbelievable opportunity. He didn’t know what to say. He looked at his friends and marveled that he had somehow found so many people who cared about him. He couldn’t speak.

“Uncle Johnny?” Jenny, still in his arms, patted his cheek. “Don’t you want to do it?” She sounded disappointed.

“Oh yes, Jenny,” Johnny replied. “I want to do it.” He kissed the girl’s cheek and held out his hand.

“Deal!”

*****End*****

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