(Prequel to "There's a Hero" and sequel to "Only One Promise"))
By Lizabeth S. Tucker
"Didn't I say last time that I didn't want to go to another brushfire?" John Gage shouted to his partner over the sound of bulldozers and crackling fire.
Roy DeSoto's teeth gleamed white in his soot blackened face. "I seem to remember something like that. Too bad you forgot to tell the chief."
The paramedics were working the front line, digging a fire break. They had been at it for quite a while and were due to rotate to paramedic calls.
It was none too soon for Johnny, who was exhausted from a three day hiking trip. He had planned to rest during the remainder of his week's vacation to recover only to be greeted at his door by his partner. They had been called up for the fire.
Multiple brushfires in the hills to the north of Los Angeles had combined and were spreading out of control. Firefighters from all the surrounding departments had been called in to help halt the Beast.
"Gage, DeSoto, you're relieved. Head back to base camp for your rotation." Station 84's captain took their shovels, handing them off to firefighters in the bright yellow turnouts of the Pasadena Fire Department.
The two Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedics climbed on the back of the transport truck. Roy took a swig of water from his canteen. He held it out to his partner. Johnny shook his head, leaning back against the stacked salvage covers.
"You need to drink some water, Johnny. You know that as well as I do," Roy commented.
"Yeah, I know. I will, Roy, just let me take a breather." John never opened his bloodshot brown eyes.
Roy looked at his friend with concern. He was well aware of the reason behind the fatigue. He also knew there was nothing he could do to help, except be there and keep an eye on Johnny for signs that he was overtired.
Although the ride was bumpy, Johnny fell asleep. He looked so uncomfortable that Roy gently repositioned the covers to allow the younger man to recline more. Exhausted, Johnny never woke while being moved about. As they headed back to base, the truck would periodically stop to allow other weary firefighters to climb on. Conversation was non-existent; nods were exchanged as well as an occasional tired smile.
Roy shook Johnny's shoulder when they finally arrived at the base camp. By the time he managed to rouse the dark haired man, all the other firefighters had slowly climbed off the truck. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty. We're there."
Johnny stared blankly at his partner. "Wha?"
"We're at base. Time to get something to eat." Roy handed the canteen over. "And to drink."
Without a word, Johnny took the canteen and chugged the remaining water. "Thanks." He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket, reminding Roy of his son Chris.
"You're welcome. C'mon, let's get some food before the others eat it all." Roy clapped his friend on the back, letting his hand rest on Johnny's shoulder as they walked to the makeshift mess hall.
"Hey, Roy! Gage! Over here!"
Roy searched for the source of the voice and saw Chet Kelly waving madly from across the tent floor. He was sitting with the rest of Station 51's crew. Roy acknowledged him, nudging Johnny to get his attention. "I think Chet's saving us some seats."
"Great," Johnny muttered, then grinned. "At least he'll keep me awake."
They got their food, sandwiches, hot soup and cookies, and made their way across the floor of the canteen to where their station mates waited. "Hey, Cap."
"Hello, Roy. How're you going, John?" Captain Stanley asked.
"Makin' it, Cap. How are you guys?"
"Wiped out," Chet answered.
Marco nodded. "We aren't making any headway. I heard they're calling in departments from the north to help."
"We'll be lucky if we manage to save half of the houses along the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains." Their captain sighed. "They've evacuated Monrovia and, from what I've heard, they may have to do the same in Burbank."
Mike Stoker, their very quiet engineer, spoke. "We're losing. If the weather doesn't change soon, the fire will overrun Burbank, Glendale, Monrovia, and from there, on to Los Angeles."
The other firefighters sat stunned, both by Stoker speaking up and by what he had to say. Yet they couldn't deny that the drought and careless campers had combined to cause the worst brushfires known in the history of California.
"We need rain. Lots of it," Stoker continued. "But according to the weather forecasts, we only have more days of sunny, hot and very dry."
The conversation faded away as the men concentrated on eating and finding a place to sack out for a quick nap. Then it would be back to work for the crews of both Engine and Squad 51.
"Squad 51, report of trapped campers, three miles north of Dugan Trail."
Roy acknowledged the call and reluctantly woke his partner. "Johnny, we've gotta go, we have a call."
"'kay, I'm awake." But even more tired, he thought, the catnaps are not helping. "Where?"
"Three miles north of Dugan Trail. Do you know where that is?"
"Uh," Johnny scanned their area map, using his own hiking knowledge to find it quickly. "Got it." He gave Roy detailed directions and they drove off.
"I can't believe anyone would stay in this hell," Roy said, gripping the steering wheel as he maneuvered the squad through the smoky obstacle course that was once a fire road. It now was littered with fallen tree limbs and rocks displaced by the heavy pumpers sent to the front lines of the fire.
"They might not have heard about the fire or were too far away to make it back before it got out of control," Johnny responded, watching for anything Roy might not catch.
The road inclined up and through the hills, the woods becoming denser as they went up in elevation. The road became narrower, barely wide enough for the squad. On the driver's side was a sharp drop off. On the passenger side was the slope of the hill. Both men hoped that they wouldn't meet anyone coming down the road.
After 20 minutes of driving, Roy asked, "How much farther?"
"Should be right about…"
"Squad 51, cancel call and return to base." The radio squawked, interrupting Johnny's response.
They looked at each other, then sighed in unison. Roy looked for a spot to turn their vehicle around. Johnny pointed out an old logging trail in the hill they were driving along, just big enough for the squad to pull into. With some careful driving they could back out and head down to base.
"It's getting closer."
"Yeah, I know."
The drive tested Roy's driving skills. The fire was eating its way down the hill and as it consumed the trees, the debris came tumbling down.
"Look out!" Johnny grabbed the dashboard as Roy slammed on the brakes to avoid an avalanche of rocks, trees and dirt. The squad almost stood on its nose but Roy's quick reaction kept them from being caught in the slide as well as stopping them from going over the side.
"Wow. That was a…you sure can…great driving, partner."
Roy leaned his head back against the rear wall of the squad, blowing out his breath. "Thanks."
Johnny reached for the mike. "Squad 51 to Dispatch."
"Go ahead, 51."
Johnny turned to his partner. "Does Sam ever go home?"
Roy shrugged, smiling.
"Uh, be advised that we're blocked about six miles from the foot of the hill. There's also no chance of turning back. The fire is behind us."
"Acknowledged, 51. Be advised that there will be no assistance for at least three hours. What are your plans?"
"Roy, we can't stay here. The fire will overtake us long before any help can arrive."
"So we hike out."
"I don't think we have a choice."
"Yeah. Well, let them know. I'll put together a kit for us to carry."
"Keep it light," Johnny reminded him, then got back on the radio. "Dispatch, be advised we're in danger of being overrun by the fire if we stay here. We'll have to hike out. We'll stay on the fire road as long as possible."
Johnny joined his partner in pulling supplies from the bins and packing them carefully into a sling bag. They concentrated on basic first aid items and the protective covers used to survive a flashover in the brush. Johnny also packed his bag with extra water bottles he had put in the squad for emergencies and personal use. Once they were done, Roy locked the bins and the squad.
They both had sling bags over their head and shoulder, and Roy was carrying the HT. With one last look at the squad, Roy turned to his partner. "Ready?"
Johnny ran his hand on the hood of the squad. "Good luck, ol' girl," he murmured, then nodded. "Let's roll."
Chet was helping carry a litter into the triage tent when he overheard paramedics Craig Brice and Bob Belliveau talking.
"I doubt if either Gage or DeSoto will make it," Brice stated.
"How come? Gage knows how to hike and he visits these trails often."
"According to the latest reports, the fire is racing down the hills where they abandoned their vehicle."
"Hey! What are you talking about?" Chet demanded.
Brice looked down his nose at the scrappy firefighter. "This is a private conversation, Kelly, and doesn't concern you."
Chet bristled. "If it's about Johnny and Roy, it concerns me!"
"Easy, Kelly," Bob said. "I'll tell you what we know. Seems Gage and DeSoto got a call up above Dugan Trail."
"Where's that?" Chet asked, unfamiliar with the higher elevations. His outdoor interest was more with fishing and camping, not hiking.
"The fire road curves about so much that the actual distance is close to fifteen miles. The call was cancelled just about when they would've arrived. Coming back they found the fire road blocked."
"Who was sent to pick them up?" Chet dreaded the answer, but had to ask.
Brice and Belliveau exchanged glances before Bob answered Chet. "No one. They're hiking back."
"Show me," Chet ordered, waving at the topographical map outside the triage tent.
Belliveau pointed out where Squad 51 was stopped and where the two paramedics had set out on foot. Chet traced the distance and frowned. "And the fire is here?" He pointed to various spots on the map that were slightly above the road Roy and Johnny were hiking down on.
"According to the last reports," Belliveau replied.
"They'll get out."
"The odds, Kelly, are against them." Brice stepped back quickly when Chet moved closer, his hands curled into fists. "There's no reason for violence."
"You just shut up, Brice, ya hear me? I said they'll make it and they will!" Chet prayed he was right. He spun about, running to where his crewmates waited. "I've gotta tell the others."
"How ya doing, Roy?" Johnny asked his partner, lagging slightly behind him.
"Surviving. How 'bout you?"
"Been better." Johnny wiped the sweat from his face. He could hear Roy coughing and knew they were losing the race with the fire. It was following the trail they were walking on and would soon overtake them. "We're gonna have to cut across country."
"Yeah. You know the way?"
"Uh, I think so," Johnny grinned. "If not, I'll just ask a local bear for directions."
"Smart ass." Roy grinned back.
"Let's take a breather. I want to go over the map with you, just in case."
"I don't like 'just in case', so let's not have any of those," Roy retorted.
"I'll do my best."
They sat on the edge of the trail, sipping their water slowly as Johnny orientated Roy as to their position, the direction he wanted to go and their ultimate destination. Once he was certain that his partner had the plan memorized, Johnny folded the map and stored it back in his bag. He rubbed his hands over his face, digging into his eyes with the heels of his hands.
"What's wrong?" Roy asked.
Johnny removed his helmet, laying it on the ground next to him. He ran his hand through his sweat-matted dark hair. "I don't know. Just tired, I guess."
"We'll make it."
Did Roy believe that or was he trying to convince the both of them? Johnny didn't know and wasn't certain he wanted to find out. He pressed against his chest as he coughed harshly. Spitting out some phlegm, he rinsed his mouth out. He took the HT that Roy was carrying.
"Dispatch, this is HT 51." Johnny knew they needed to let someone know that they were leaving the road.
"Go ahead, 51."
"Be advised that the fire is catching up with us and will overtake us before we can get to base camp." Johnny gave his itinerary to the dispatcher. When done, he handed the HT back to his partner and put his helmet back on.
"Ready?" Roy got to his feet, holding his hand out to Johnny.
"Born that way," Johnny responded, gripping Roy's hand and holding it for a moment longer than necessary. "Let's go."
The walk turned into a climb down the steep hill as they left the fire trail. As far as the two men could see, the fire was above the road, there was no indication that it was ahead of them. Rocks and dirt would occasionally slip beneath their feet as they carefully made their way down the hill.
Johnny never knew what made him look back, but when he did he saw fire arcing high in the tops of the trees over their heads. "Roy, run!"
They half ran, half slid down the hill, slipping and skidding in a barely controlled fall. They needed to get out from under the potentially dangerous situation. Suddenly Johnny tripped. One moment he was dividing his attention between his footing and his partner. The next he was tumbling down the hill, scrambling to grab a shrub, a tree trunk, anything to stop his rapid descent. He heard Roy shout, and then knew nothing but a fight for control of his fall. When he did finally come to a stop with the help of a dip in the ground, he stayed for a moment on his back, trying to catch his breath.
"Johnny!" Roy started down the hill after his partner, also loosing his footing. His fall didn't end as well. He was slammed into a large tree trunk with both legs taking the brunt of the stop. "Arghh!"
This scream snapped Johnny out of his daze and he sat up, searching for Roy. He saw him fifteen feet below him and scrambled to his feet. He ran to where his friend lay in agony. "Roy! Roy!"
"Don't!" Roy shouted when Johnny was about to touch him. "They're broke. Both legs."
"Aw, man." Johnny swallowed. He reached for his bag, pulled out what he needed to examine Roy. "Where's the HT? Maybe we can…"
Roy held the radio up, the plastic now shattered. "Broken."
"Damn," Johnny muttered. "Guess we're on our own."
"Johnny, you have to get out of here." When his partner didn't answer, Roy tried again. "If you don't leave now, you'll be trapped. Johnny?"
"Shut up," the busy paramedic said tersely. "It's not gonna happen, so drop it."
Roy grit his teeth as Johnny quickly splinted his legs.
"Not pretty, but it will have to do until we get back to base."
"I'm not leaving you, understand?"
"If you try to take me out of here, we'll both die."
Johnny smiled, looking into his best friend's blue eyes. "Then we'll go together, partner."
"You're crazy. You're also bleeding." Roy reached up and ran his fingers under Johnny's bangs. "You're cut. Better clean it out and bandage it. Help me sit up and I'll do it."
"We don't have the time," Johnny replied while helping lift Roy under his armpits.
"We're already dead men, so we'll take the time. Besides, you won't be able to see with the blood dripping into your eyes."
Johnny tolerated his friend's medical fussing, keeping one eye on the fast approaching fire. "Roy, we have to go. Now."
"I'm gonna carry you." Johnny pulled the protective fire cover out of Roy's bag. "And you'll have this wrapped over you."
Roy protested. "I'm too heavy for you to carry for, what, four miles?"
"I'll manage. We don't have the time for a travois." He held his hand up to cut Roy's arguments off. "Save your breath. And let me save mine. This is gonna hurt."
"Yeah, I know. But not as much as burning up. If you're sure about this…"
"Never surer, pally."
Johnny wrapped the fire cover over Roy's head and back, bent down and picked his partner up in the classic fireman's carry. Due to his additional burden the going was much slower. The speed of the fire increased and passed the paramedics, still in the treetops. Ashes and burning needles and limbs began falling around them.
Bouncing on Johnny's shoulder, Roy could feel objects hitting his back but, thanks to the cover and his turnouts, he wasn't being burned. There was pain in his legs, but he tried to ignore it. Complaining wouldn't do him any good and would just serve to hurt Johnny for not being able to stop it. Roy was getting overheated and wondered how Johnny, already exhausted from hiking and fire duty, was planning to walk all the way to base carrying him.
Johnny was wondering the same thing, but he was determined to bring Roy out alive, even if he had to crawl. He would not leave his partner behind.
Johnny's world had narrowed to the path in front of him. He no longer paid any attention to the fire. He didn't even realize that, thanks to a change in the wind and the lack of fuel in the gully he was passing through, the fire was falling behind. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other, hanging onto his partner's unconscious body on his shoulder. A combination of overheating and pain from his legs had been too much for Roy.
Johnny's agony was now constant. His legs were cramped and his walk was stiff-legged. His breath was too shallow, both from the exertion and the smoke inhalation. His hands were scorched as they were above the protective cover wrapped around his partner.
Time was a blur. Johnny could've been walking for hours or for days. He had no way of knowing how long he had been stumbling down the hill. He was afraid to pause for a moment's rest.
His vision was graying at the edges. The suddenness of the ground leveling out startled him and he began to fall, barely recovering in time. He felt wrapped in cotton, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to breath, and finally, unable to go any farther. He was smothering, choking, dying.
"I'm sorry, Roy, I'm sorry." Johnny fell forward onto his knees, still trying to hold his partner on his shoulders. He never felt the arms that caught him, that stopped him from falling flat on his face. He never heard the concerned voices surrounding him.
"Chet, look! Cap!" Stoker saw the two figures first, one carrying the other. The men of Station 51 ran to them, certain that it was Johnny and Roy.
"Gage! Hey, man," Chet's voice trailed off as Johnny walked past him as if he didn't see him. "John? Johnny!"
It was Chet who caught the oblivious paramedic as he fell. And it was Chet who spotted the burned hands and smoldering turnout. "Cap, can you guys get Roy? John's hurt. I can't see how bad, but I think we'll need the docs over here."
"Got it. Marco, go get help. Mike, give me a hand with Roy. Both his legs are splinted, so let's be easy." Cap and Stoker carefully eased DeSoto off Gage's shoulder.
Captain Stanley looked up to see Dr. Brackett and Nurse Dixie McCall running to them, while others came behind carrying stretchers. "Okay, guys, let's move back and let the experts get to work."
"Doc, John's having problems breathing." Chet held onto Johnny, even while Brackett was checking him over.
"Chet, help me move him onto this stretcher," Brackett ordered, grabbing Johnny's feet. "Dixie, how's Roy?"
"Two broken legs, simple fractures, smoke inhalation. No burns that I can see."
"Gage is in worse shape, but he'll make it. Let's get them to the tent and get started."
Cap, Marco and Stoker watched the two paramedics carried away, an anxious Chet Kelly running alongside Johnny's stretcher. As they watched, a breeze came through with the smell of rain in it. One drop, then another, followed by more as the gray clouds gathered above them.
"Thought you said there was no forecast of rain?" Marco questioned their engineer.
"First rule of weather forecasting, don't believe the forecaster," Stoker replied.
Cap smiled wearily. "We might just win this fight."
Marco turned his attention back to where their friends were being worked on. "We already won one. We got Johnny and Roy back alive."
"Roy? Roy!" Johnny shot straight up in his hospital bed, his heart thundering in his chest. He looked at the empty bed next to him and panicked. He tried to get out of the bed, only to be stopped by the sudden arrival of Dr. Mike Morton.
"Where do you think you're going?" Morton demanded.
"Roy. I've gotta find Roy."
"Gage, chill out. DeSoto's okay. He's getting his legs put in casts."
Johnny stared at Morton, not sure whether to believe him or not. "Really?"
Morton nodded, moving to Johnny's bedside. "Really. They'll bring him here when they're done."
"He's okay?" Johnny couldn't take it in. "I thought…"
"Roy's fine. You brought him out alive, John."
"Alive." Johnny laid back on the bed, trying to slow his breathing. "Thank God."
"And," said a gentle female voice from the doorway. "Thank you."
Joanne DeSoto bustled over to the bed, put a bag on the stand, then leaned over to kiss Johnny on his cheek. "John Gage, you are a mess. What did you do to yourself?" She looked at the bandages on his face and picked his hands up one at a time, shaking her head over the burns covered with salve on the back of each. She moved to the foot of the bed and lifted the blanket.
Johnny made a grab for them. "Jo!" he uttered in a strangled gasp.
"You hush and let me look." Joanne inspected Johnny's ankles and calves. There were spots of burned flesh from where flying embers had made their way under his turnout. She gently covered his legs up again, patting the blanket. "Dr. Morton, will Johnny be alright?"
Morton checked Johnny's chart. "If he takes it easy, drinks plenty of fluids, he should recover quickly. The majority of his injuries are minor. Exhaustion and dehydration are his biggest problems."
Once Dr. Morton left the room, Joanne went to pull a chair next to Johnny's hospital bed, then shook her head. Instead she returned to perch on the bed, gently taking Johnny's left hand in hers. She gazed at her husband's partner with tears welling in her eyes.
"Jo, Roy is okay, right?"
"Yes, thanks to you. Oh, Johnny," she sniffed, laughing. "I wasn't going to do this. Roy hates to see me cry."
"He hates to see you hurt," Johnny corrected.
"Do you remember when we first met?"
The change in subject threw him for a moment. "Uh, sure. You didn't think much about me, I know that."
"You looked so young. You made me a promise then, remember?"
Johnny remembered that day clearly and gave her a lopsided grin. "Yeah, I promised to do whatever I could to bring Roy back to you."
"And you've always kept your promises, sometimes to your own detriment." She lifted his hand and kissed the raw flesh around his knuckles. "If you hadn't been there…"
"Roy wouldn't have broken his legs." Johnny's mood turned sour and he pulled his hand away from Joanne.
"What are you talking about, Johnny? According to Roy, he fell and hit a tree. That has nothing to do with you."
"It does, 'cause he fell while trying to get to me after I fell! And I didn't even get hurt!"
"Honestly, John Roderick Gage, you are as bad as Roy about going on guilt trips! I think the two of you have been together too long, you're starting to think alike."
Affronted, then amused, Johnny started giggling. "As long as we don't start lookin' alike. No offense, Jo, but I prefer my full head of hair." He ran his hand through the tangled locks, then winced at the sting from the burns.
"Johnny," Joanne meant to scold him, but broke up in giggles as well.
Roy was wheeled in at that moment, amused by the sight of his wife and friend overcome by laughter. "Did I miss something?"
"More like you're missing something," Johnny gasped, while Joanne broke into another flurry of giggles.
Roy shook his head as Dixie, returned from the fire on rotation, and an attendant helped him into his bed, carefully lifting his legs, covered with casts, onto the mattress. "Nut cases, both of them. My partner has corrupted my wife."
Dixie shook her head, smiling as she went to Johnny's bed. "Excuse me, Joanne. I need to check the boy wonder."
Joanne moved to her husband's side of the room, her giggles still erupting as she looked at her husband's head and his much lamented thin spot. She sobered when she looked at his legs, realizing what could have been if it were not for Johnny's determination. Joanne reached out and gripped Roy's right hand. She turned with Roy to watch Dixie examine Johnny's injuries, applying salve to the burns on his hands and legs.
"How is he, babe?" Roy murmured.
"He was more worried about you than about his own injuries. As usual," Joanne replied softly. "His hands are the worst, and I think the burns will cause him trouble as he heals. Remember when you burned your elbow?"
"And every time I bent it the skin would split open again? Oh, yeah, I remember." Roy saw for the first time the injuries his partner had incurred from refusing to leave him behind. He was relieved. Although Dixie had reassured him that Johnny's injuries were relatively minor, seeing was believing.
"Johnny, stay in this bed and don't bother my nurses. Roy, keep him in line." Dixie started to leave only to laugh when her favorite paramedic protested.
"How come you don't tell Roy to stay in bed?"
"Because he doesn't need to be told. And, considering his legs are in casts, he wouldn't get very far, would he?"
"Oh, yeah. I guess not." Johnny replied.
The ash blonde nurse waved her hand and disappeared through the door.
"I need to go, the kids are with a sitter." Joanne leaned down and kissed her husband with passion. "I'll be back tomorrow, lover." She looked at both of them, her smile wavering. "I'm so glad that you two are safe," she choked out.
She walked over to the other bed and kissed Johnny on the cheek once again. "Thank you."
Johnny looked into her face and smiled warmly. "You're welcome."
On July 28, 1995, firefighters Bill Buttram and Josh Oliver of the Kuna Rural Fire Department in Idaho were trapped in their fire truck during a wildfire and killed. "Fire's all around us and we need help! Our engine quit!" That was their last radio transmission. A surviving firefighter said, "All of a sudden we got 70 mile-an-hour winds that entrapped the truck in a wall of flame. That's it."
Over 152 firefighters have lost their lives in brushfires. Despite advances in techniques, fighting fires still come down to man versus fire and sometimes the Beast wins. To those who continue to fight, career and volunteer, my heartfelt thanks.
Thanks again to Audrey who always find the mistakes neither I nor my computer seem to catch and can nudge me in the right direction when a scene gets icky and difficult.