Barely a whisper, the heartbreaking plea shook the paramedic to the core. Ignoring the desperate appeal, he tried to make his patient as comfortable as possible, which wasn't saying much in their current situation.
"Help is almost here," he said loudly, as if sheer volume could make the words be true. "You just have to hang on a few more minutes."
"Please…." A shaking hand reached up to his arm. "Save yourself. Let me go."
The fireman shuddered. Then with a fierce determination, he gently took hold of his partner's chin, turning the ashen face until blue eyes met brown.
"Like hell I will."
Kimberly Sholes turned her small U.S. Park Service truck down the dusty road toward the Granger Outpost camping site and unconsciously gripped the steering wheel tighter. Road was a generous description of the rough and tumble stretch she drove on. It was barely the width of one car. Someone unfamiliar with its ruts and rocks could be caught unaware and have serious damage done to his or her oil pan, but Kimberly had driven it so many times, she knew when to swerve right or left with her eyes closed.
Not many campers ventured out to Granger Outpost. Kimberly had observed it wasn't popular among young families or first-timers, most likely due to its remoteness and lack of facilities. And even fewer people camped as far as the last fire ring, which is where she was headed.
A few times she had caught teenagers having a kegger back there and once or twice she had to kick out some stoners, but over her five years on the job, she hardly ever rarely met anyone this far back. It was where she liked to come and think if she had time off, a quiet and peaceful place to sit and watch the blue jays.
This job was a good fit for her, overall. Kimberly enjoyed both the solitude of driving her truck and the chance to meet people who loved the forest as much as she did. When she was on patrol, she got to talk to campers from all over the world, including a family from Australia and even a man from Brazil. A hometown girl of little means, she had never had the opportunity to travel, so she was fascinated by people who did.
On a typical day, Kimberly didn't have to be at the station very much, which suited her fine. She couldn't stand being around Todd and Nick or the way they would laugh and make comments about fat chicks when they thought she couldn't hear them.
Blonde haired and blue eyed, she shared the same coloring as Cheryl Tiegs, but that's where the similarities stopped. When tourists asked where she was from and she responded Southern California, they would look at her quizzically, as if every young woman from Los Angeles had to be tan, slim, and beautiful. Wouldn't they all be surprised to know she had a boyfriend? That's right, Todd and Nick, a boyfriend and his name was Ben.
The road opened into a small clearing. Kimberly smiled as she spied a familiar white Land Rover parked to one side of the fire ring. John Gage was one of the Granger Outpost regulars. He had been coming there for years and appreciated its true wilderness quality. When she first met him, Kimberly had blushed furiously and couldn't maintain eye contact with the tall, handsome man. But after running into him a few other times, she felt more comfortable, especially if the subject of their conversation turned to nature and the woods.
"Hi Kimberly!" John called out pleasantly as he adjusted his pack.
"Hey Johnny," she said as she rolled down her window. A man with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes approached from the other side of the Rover.
"This is my partner at the fire station, Roy DeSoto. Roy, this is Kimberly Sholes."
Roy waved. "Hey, how are you?"
"Good to meet you." Kim smiled. "So where are you off to?"
"Roy's never been to the Punch Bowls, so that's where we're headed. Oh, thanks for showing me that other way up there. We're going to give it a try," John said. "I can't believe I never knew about it before."
"Not many people do, but it used to be the only way to get up there. Well, have fun. I'll swing by later to make sure your Rover is OK," Kimberly volunteered. "Though I'm sure it will be. No one ever comes out here."
"Thanks, I appreciate it. We'll probably get back by sundown. Have a great day!"
"Nice meeting you," Roy added.
Kimberly watched the pair amble toward the trees wishing she, too, could take the next couple of hours to hike up to the Punch Bowls, one of the area's best-kept secrets. The path most people took was fairly tame, but the route she had introduced John to gained 400 vertical feet as it meandered through a steep canyon, ending at the five granite, bowl-shaped pools filled with cold mountain water.
Maybe on her next day off she could go up there. With one last wave goodbye, she drove around the fire ring and headed back the way she came.
With the scent of dusty pine trees surrounding them, the partners walked a little while in companionable silence.
"How'd you meet her?" Roy finally asked, ducking under a low-hanging branch.
"You know, I don't really remember. Probably when I was camping here sometime." John looked back over his shoulder at his best friend. "I'm glad you could come today."
"Me, too. I didn't want to have to do stuff around the house with Joanne and the kids down at her mom's for the weekend. But tomorrow I'm watching the game."
"The Rams and the 49ers."
"Good? It will be great," Roy said confidently.
"Wait until you see the view from the Punch Bowls. It's fantastic. And the water in the pools? Man, I might just have to go for a swim, 'cause I think it's going to get hot today."
Roy rolled his eyes. "Just spare me and keep your clothes on, OK?"
"Don't tell me you've never been skinny-dipping?" John couldn't see his partner's face, but he knew Roy would be getting annoyed with him. John grinned. "Or gone to Blacks Beach in San Diego? They don't wear nothin' there."
"Are you really asking me this?" the older paramedic asked incredulously. "Do you honestly think I can say, 'Hey Jo, watch the kids for a while why I go to Blacks Beach'? For Pete's sake, I'm married!"
"And that's just one more reason why I'll never get hitched!" John gestured for emphasis. "I mean, why can't a married guy go to a nude beach?"
"Not only do I never want to parade around in the all-together, I don't want to see other people's birthday suits."
"And because I'm a grown up!"
"And… and Joanne would kill me!" Roy sputtered.
John smiled. Sometimes it was just so much fun to annoy Roy. "That doesn't explain why it's against the rules! I mean, if marriage is supposed to be based on trust—"
Roy kicked himself for having given his highly expressive friend something to rail against. "I have no one to blame but myself," Roy muttered under his breath.
"What did you say?" John paused as the path they travelled on split into two. He gestured to the one going up the hill and they continued walking.
"Nothing. I didn't say anything," his partner replied.
"Anyway," John continued, "I was dating this one chick and she said…"
Roy sighed. It was going to be a long hike.