Okay folks, wrapping up a lot of stuff in this chapter including the Craig Brice situation. Hope you enjoy it. I had also toyed with how much to tell the rest of the A shift about Johnny's past, and decided to let them know about Johnny's true age as I thought it would lend well for future stories if they knew.

Thanks to all who have continued to encourage me with your kind words. As always Feedback "feeds" the writers. We live for it and love to have it, so please leave feedback if you can. Thanks.

The legalese was mentioned at the beginning of the story so please review it there, no use in repeating it here.

Chapter 14

Later that evening, after a brief visit from Roy, who as promised brought dinner, consisting of Johnny's favorites, a Cheeseburger, Fries, and a Milkshake, Johnny sat comfortably chatting with Erin. They were in the middle of talking about the reservation in Montana and the lack of adequate health care for the people who lived there, when Johnny heard three familiar voices approaching down the hall.

"He's down this way, last door on the right according to Cap." Mike's voice carried quietly down the hall.

"I tell you, I bet you anything he is in there watching TV and moping about not being able to get out of here tonight." Chet's voice rang out the loudest.

"Well I'll bet you five bucks he has some hot nurse in there fawning all over him." Marco came back with his prediction.

"Gage with a hot chick," Chet scoffed, "never happen."

"Chet, knock it off." Came Mike's firm but quiet voice at the door, then he spoke up a little louder as he started to push the door further open, "Hey Johnny, you up to some visitors?"

"Sure guys come on in," Johnny called out.

Chet pushed into the room past Mike and stopped dead in his tracks, taking in the scene. A knock out babe in a form fitting purple mini dress sat on the edge of Johnny's bed holding his hand. When she stood up it was with the grace of a cat.

"Well, I guess this is my queue to leave," Erin said smiling at Johnny. She turned and with her back to the three guys, leaned over the bed, allowing the mini dress to ride up her back thighs. Brushing the forever errant stray lock of hair off his forehead, she whispered something in Johnny's ear and then kissed him on the cheek. Standing up, she winked at Johnny, "I already let Roy know that I'll pick you up and take you home after Dr. Brackett discharges you."

"I'll be here. Don't forget to bring me a change of clothes."

"Step ahead of you there, I did your laundry and I have a pair of Jeans and one of your looser fitting t-shirts sitting by the door along with anything else you'll need. See you tomorrow handsome." With that she turned and faced the three guys blocking her means of exit. The tallest of the three had a big smile on his face while the other two stood there with their mouths hanging open. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I, um, need to get through."

Mike gallantly stepped aside, and the young lady with the very curvaceous figure stepped between he and Chet, stopping briefly to turn and gently close Chet's mouth, before her long legs took her out of the room. After a few moments, Mike let out a soft appreciative whistle and turned back to Johnny, "Hot, and her legs, smoking."

Marco, who had finally recovered his wits, turned and looked at Mike, "You're a married man, your not suppose to notice those sort of things."

Mike rolled his eyes, "I'm married Marco, not dead."

"I will be the first to admit, I'm impressed Gage." Chet said with his usual air of seeming nonchalance. "I just have two questions. First, where did you meet her? Second, when she dumps you can I date her?"

"I met her in the Emergency room. She's a nurse."

"Five bucks my friend," Marco said with his hand out.

As Chet dug out his wallet and handed Marco the five dollars, Johnny answered his second question, "And no, you can not date her. For one thing, she lives in Montana. And secondly, she's my cousin and there is no way on Earth I would let you date a member of my family."

"Your cousin, well that explains things. I knew there was no way a hot chick like her would be dating you. I'll take that five bucks back now Marco." Chet said holding out his hand.

"No way man, a bet's a bet." Marco replied, while shaking his head and crossing his arms in front of him.

"But she's Gage's cousin, it doesn't count."

"I have to agree with Marco on this one Chet. She is a nurse and we did see her 'fawning all over him' when we came in." Ignoring the befuddled looking Chet, Mike turned his attention to his friend in the bed, "So, how are you doing Johnny? Any news of when they might let you go home?"

"They say that Bracket left notes in my chart stating that I'm not to be discharged until he has had a chance to check me out, and he won't be back until tomorrow," Johnny replied, slouching down with a small frown on his face. Then sitting up and looking a little brighter he changed the subject, "So, how's things at the Station? Who's been driving the squad with both Roy and I gone?"

"Brice was there for the first couple shifts, but after he told Cap there was 'a more efficient way' to rotate chores, and then tried to reorganize Cap's files, we haven't seen him since. Mostly it's been one of the Dwyers and a new kid." Marco supplied.

"So, any idea of when you'll be returning?" Chet asked, trying not to sound too interested, but not succeeding.

"Chet, I didn't know you cared." Johnny baited his curly haired shift mate.

"You got it all wrong Gage, I couldn't care less when you return. It's just I've heard that the Phantom has been kind of board without his favorite pigeon around." Chet replied with feigned innocence.

"Well tell the 'Phantom' that he's going to have to wait another couple weeks." Johnny replied while pulling the sheets off his legs and swinging them over the side of the bed, "If guys will excuse me, I need to use the restroom."

Hopping out of bed, Johnny walked between his friends. Three voices sounded out. "Madre de Dios." "Whoa." "Jesus, how many times have you had a ceiling drop on you, Gage?"

Johnny turned back to look at his shift mates, "What are you talking about Chet?"

"All those old scars on your back, there's dozens of them there."

Johnny looked back over his shoulder and realized he had forgotten that the back of hospital gowns don't close, leaving his back and all his scars exposed. "Shit," he cursed as he looked up to see the shocked look on the three faces. Taking a deep breath and then letting it out, he turned back toward the bathroom, "Listen, I really have to pee." He took a couple steps toward the bathroom and put his hand on the door handle, pausing he stared at his feet, "If you really want to know, I'll tell you when I'm done." With that he walked into the restroom and shut the door.

After he used the facilities, Johnny stood at the sink and listened to the quiet words whispered back and forth in the other room. Words he had heard whispered before. 'It's really none of our business.' 'What could he have done to deserve those?' 'Maybe we should just leave.' Every time he tried to make friends when he was younger, a parent would see the scars and forbid their son or daughter to play with him, labeling him a trouble maker and that he must have earned those scars. Why else would his Pa have to whip him so hard? So he just accepted the fact that the scars were something to be ashamed of and hidden. To be borne in silence.

But damn it, he didn't deserve them. He hadn't 'earned' them. They were laid upon him by the hands of a sadist, for no other reason then the fact that he was alive. So, his friends wanted to know about the scars on his back. Fine, the lid to Pandora's Box had been opened. It was time to see who remained standing by his side once all the demons kept there in were revealed. Taking a deep breath, resolutely he turned, opened the door, and walked back into the room. "Hope you guys don't have anyplace to be tonight, cause this might take a while. And if anyone has a weak stomach then you might want to think twice about staying. What I'm going to tell you isn't pretty."

The three shift mates looked at each other, and without a word being said, a pact was made to stand by their friend. Pulling up chairs they gathered around while Johnny settled himself on the bed. Looking down at his hands folded in his lap and wishing to hell he had a cigarette, Johnny started his story. He spoke fondly of the stories his mother had told him of his father and the time before his father had died. He told of how, after his father, who was white, had died, his mother had to return to her people on the reservation. His father's parents would have nothing to do with him, feeling that having a half breed for a grandson disgraced their name. His mother's family, although ready to welcome their daughter back, also wanted nothing to do with a non pure blood child. So they quickly and quietly married her off to a tribal elder's son, a man no one else would have due to his volatile tendencies. Perhaps it was hoped that a wife and child would calm his violent nature, but Charles Strongbow was not one to be tamed.

Mike quietly broke in, "Strongbow, that was the name you said at that incident in the park."

"Yeah, I guess that big guy hitting the little girl stirred up some memories. Strongbow was that big and sometimes he would knock me around like that." Johnny paused and gave a soft chuckle, "There I go down playing things again. Strongbow didn't just 'knock me around', he beat me, whipped me, burned me, cut me, broke more bones in my body then I can even remember. And it wasn't just 'sometimes', it was practically everyday of my life from when I turned 4 years old till I was rescued from that hell the Spring before my 14th birthday. He never passed up the chance to remind me that I was nothing, that I was trash beneath his feet. Some nights he would come home so drunk that he would pass out before he could take his anger against 'the white man' out on me. But on other nights he would find any excuse to slap me around, hit me, throw me into a wall, and if he was really angry he took me down to the cellar where I was forced to stand and hug one of the support posts while he laid my back open with his leather belt."

"Christ," Chet broke in, "You mean this guy, this Strongbow person, he's the reason you have those scars on your back? He did all that with a leather belt? I mean, sure, my old man took his belt to me a couple times, but he never left any scars."

Johnny shook his head, "Chet, when your dad took his belt to you, how many times would he hit you?"

Chet shrugged, "I don't know, two maybe three times. I think one time he might have hit me four times."

"When Strongbow would take his belt to me he would never stop at anything less then ten. If I cried out or flinched then he would start again." Johnny looked up and saw his three shift mates squirm in their seats as the full impact of what Johnny had told them sank in.

Marco was the first to speak up, "What about your mom, didn't she try to stop him?"

"In the beginning she did, but every time she tried to help me, he would just beat me harder. I do remember one time she threatened to leave him. I remember the look of pure evil in his eyes when he looked at her and told her that if she ever tried to leave him before she bore him a son to carry on his name he would kill her. My mom got pregnant by him three times. The first two times she had girls, my two sisters, Amy and Anna. She was told by the doctors after she had Anna that she shouldn't have anymore children because she had a difficult pregnancy with both Amy and Anna. But Strongbow wouldn't stop until he had a boy. The third time my mom got pregnant by him, it was a boy, but she miscarried. Strongbow blamed me of course and damn near killed me. After that my mother was never the same. I think her soul died. She lost herself to pain pills and ended up overdosing when I was 13."

"What about other people, like neighbors or teachers or the doctors and nurses at the hospital, surely they must have know what was going on." Mike quietly asked.

"I'm sure they all knew I was being abused to some degree. After all, how many times can a kid fall down the steps to the cellar and break a bone? But you have to realize that life on a reservation is not easy for anyone. The teachers usually come from the bottom of the pool and don't want to be there anyway. Believe me, corporal punishment was not only used frequently in school, but it was encouraged. Best way to keep us heathens in our place. As for the doctors and the nurses at the clinic, they were worse then the teachers. Doc Wibbley, and believe me I use the term Doc loosely, was incompetent at best when he was sober. The nurses were nice and I am sure some of them cared, but even if they reported something, no one else cared. Better that we 'Injuns' kill ourselves off. Save the Government some money. And before you ask why I didn't just tell someone or run away, believe me I tried both. The one time I ran away Strongbow damn near killed my youngest sister who was one at the time. He left her brain damaged. As far as telling someone, I once told a teacher. The teacher sent me to the Principal's office, the Principal called Strongbow, who was pissed off that he had to leave work. Strongbow of course laid it back on me stating that I was a lying, ungrateful, rebellious child and that sometimes he had to use a 'strong hand' to keep me in line. The Principal apologized to Strongbow for the inconvenience, took the paddle down from the shelf, instructed me to drop my pants and bend over with my hands on my knees and then proceeded to punish me for lying. That evening Strongbow made me eat a bar of soap for dinner."

Johnny paused and looked up at the sober faces of his three friends. The four sat in silence for a while before Chet finally spoke up. "So, how did you end up getting out of there man? I mean, how did you end up in L.A.?"

"Well, as I mentioned, my mom died when I was 13 years old. Shortly after that Strongbow nearly killed me. If it hadn't been for my track coach, Jack Kemp and his wife I would be dead. They rescued me from the cellar where I had been chained, beaten, and left to die. They told me it was touch and go for a while and that I almost didn't make it. They had taken me to the 'white man's' hospital and kept things hushed up so that Strongbow wouldn't be brought into the equation. When I was strong enough, I went home with them where I spent the summer and part of the fall. Shortly after my 14th birthday Jack and Carol helped me take my graduation exams and as soon as I had my High School Diploma in hand, they looked for a way to get me out of town and as far away from Strongbow as possible. They decided to send me down to live with Carol's brother Nick here in L.A., but were worried that I was underage. When Jack called the Nurse Midwife in Oregon, where I was born, for my birth certificate, she couldn't find the paperwork so Jack told her I was born in 1947, thus making me 18 and not 14. After that, they put me on a bus headed for L.A. I stayed with Nick and his friends for a couple years and then joined the Academy. And from there, the rest of the story you know."

Chet was the first to speak up, "So…, if you were really born in 1951, that means you are really only 20 and that also means you were only…., Jesus, 16 when you entered the Fire Academy."

Johnny nodded his head in affirmation and then waited to see what the results would be from the release of this last 'demon'. Would this be the undoing of all?

Mike looked troubled, "Does Cap know?"

Johnny let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, "Yes Mike, he does. Cap said that since at the age of 16 you can become an emancipated minor, then, technically I did not need parental permission to enter the Academy. As far as the misrepresentation of my age, a clerical error. I didn't start the Paramedic program until I was already technically 18 so Brackett has no problems either."

Mike nodded his head, "Okay, I can accept that then."

Marco agreed, "Yeah man, I mean, you are one of the best paramedics out there, it shouldn't matter if you're younger then we all thought. As far as being a firefighter, I'd have you back me up on a line any day. And if any one gives you grief about your age, my brothers and cousins would help me straighten them out."

At this everyone looked at Chet, who was looking thoughtfully at a spot on the floor in front of him. After a few minutes of silence Chet looked up and saw three pairs of eyes staring at him. "What? I wouldn't say anything. I mean a guy's got to do what a guy's got to do in a difficult situation." Chet looked back down at the spot on the floor, thinking to himself, 'I wish I had as much guts as Johnny did when I was 14.' Out loud Chet addressed the group, "Listen guys, it's getting late and I'm sure Johnny needs his rest, we probably should be heading out." Standing up he walked over to Johnny's bed, "Believe it our not Gage, I know how to keep secrets when needed, and your secret is safe with me."

With that, Marco and Mike also got up and wished Johnny a speedy recovery and then followed Chet out the door.

Johnny stared at the door his friends had just exited. He was puzzled by Chet's reaction. He expected more joking and off handed remarks from The Phantom's alter ego. Shrugging his shoulders he lowered the head of the bed, dimmed the lights and closed his eyes.

Johnny restlessly dozed for several hours, never quite finding that comfortable position, never quite blocking out the nocturnal noises of the hospital. The almost imperceptible squeak and groan of the door to his room opening brought him fully awake, but instead of the expected bright white of a nurse's uniform, the figure in the door wore turnout pants and jacket.

Still fuzzy from sleep, his first instinctual thought was Roy, but that couldn't be right because Roy was still out on leave. It couldn't be one of his shift mates because A was off until tomorrow. The silhouetted figure stepped further into the room. "Brice?"

"My apologies Gage, I did not mean to interrupt your sleep. I only wanted to check to see how you were doing. I had heard that you had suffered an adverse reaction and had been rendered unconscious for an abnormal period of time. I am glad to see you are doing better." Brice stated.

"Um, thanks Brice." Johnny replied as he sat up a little further in the bed. He was confused by the sudden interest in his health and well being.

Brice picked up on the uncertainness in Johnny's voice. "Just because I prefer to adhere to the book and the rules and regulations, does not mean that I am not without compassion for my fellow firefighters. I, after all, am the one who brought you in."

"About the ride in, I umm, well you see…" Johnny tried to find someway to tell Brice that he had been conscious the whole time and had heard everything that had been said.

Brice, misinterpreting his injured coworkers attempts, jumped in, "Gage, there is no reason to apologize for loosing the contents of your stomach. It is a perfectly normal response to the trauma you incurred."

"If you hadn't gone on about the condition of my injuries and about starting an IV on me, then I probably would not have 'lost the contents of my stomach'." Johnny held up his hand forestalling any response on Brice's part. "But that is not what I wanted to talk about. Do you have a few minutes? Or do you have to get back?"

"As my partner is still back at the fire assisting with clean up and to address any further injuries should they occur, then I find myself at your disposal until at which time my presence is required else ware. At which point I am sure I will be notified." Brice said, holding up the handitalkie.

"Okay, then since we don't know how much time we have, I will just come right out and say it." Johnny paused for a fraction of a second, took a breath and plowed on, "During the ride in the ambulance, I heard everything."

Brice stood silent, staring at the piece of equipment in his hand, almost willing it to come to life and summon him. But it didn't.

"Brice, did you hear what I said? I heard everything you said. I heard you talk about your brother and him getting in trouble for not following the rules. You had mentioned that your brother had scars too, like mine, and you wondered if I had trouble following the rules too."

"I must stop you there, and apologize. I had no right to question or infer anything about your personal life based on my personal experiences. It was unprofessional and will not happen again."

Johnny sighed and shook his head, "Craig, don't get your underwear in a bunch. It's alright, really. I am not going to pretend to know what your family life was like growing up, just as you have no inkling as to what mine was like, but what I can tell you is that no person, especially no child deserves scars like the ones I bare. No one deserves to have their back laid open in bloody welts, to be beaten until bones break, to be burned and scarred both inside and out. That is no longer punishment; that is abuse. No, that is torture. I tried to follow the 'rules' my stepfather made, but no matter what I did he would find reasons to take out his hatred on me. It was only because someone stepped up and removed me from that situation that I am here today. I've come a long way since then, but I still have a ways to go. I don't think I will ever be able to put it all 100 percent behind me, but with the help of friends, I'm learning to live with it. Hopefully your brother found someone to help him and was able to heal some of the scars."

Craig Brice stood there staring at the Handitalkie for several seconds before responding in a quiet voice, "My brother's dead. He committed suicide his Senior year in High School. One day, he never came home from school. They found him and his car at the bottom of one of the seaside cliffs. He didn't even slow down when he hit the guardrail. He was flunking out of school and wasn't going to be able to graduate. I guess he couldn't face Mother. I was in 10th grade at the time."

"I'm sorry Craig. I know it must have been really difficult for you."

Craig took his glasses off, wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and replaced his glasses, "Well, I better get back down stairs. I'm glad to see you are doing better." Craig turned and walked toward the door, pausing in the doorway, "Johnny."

"Yeah, Craig?" Johnny replied, a little taken back by the use of his first name.

"I just wanted to say thanks. You've given me something to think about."

"You're welcome Craig," Johnny said to the figure as it walked out the door and into the hallway.