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Walt led Charlie a short distance away before turning on his flashlight. The younger man followed him through the woods for almost half a mile before the man stopped and looked around.
“This’ll do,” he said, not wanting to go too far or stay away to long for fear Gage would get away. He figured he had some time since they had two wounded men to care for.
He handed Charlie his bow and pulled his ax from his pack. He made short work of hacking down a few pine boughs He quickly used fallen and dead branches to create a ragged hunter’s blind, using the pine boughs as a roof. It wasn’t fancy, but it would I would shield them from the weather and the casual observer.
He needed somewhere to dump Charlie to keep him out of his hair until he could figure out how to get his hands on Gage. He could only hope the rest of the group he was with valued the other injured man and their own skins enough to hand over the younger man as long as they were sure they weren’t going to be hurt.
He threw his pack inside and waved Charlie over. “There’s a blanket in the pack if you’re cold and some canned meat if you’re hungry. Stay here and stay quiet,” he instructed.
“Where are you going?” Charlie whined, glancing nervously around the darkened woods.
“I’m going back to do what I came here for. You’re going to stay here and leave me alone to do it. I’ll bring Gage back here once I have him, if they give me any trouble I may come back and get you so stay put,” he growled irritably.
“You’re gonna leave me out here alone?” Charlie asked.
Walt rolled his eyes. “Oh for Pete’s sake,” he muttered under his breath in disgust. “Here,” he grumbled, handing him rifle. “And don’t shoot yourself or me,” he sneered before he turned and stalked off through the trees.
It was no small wonder the nurses would prefer the heroic paramedic to this cowardly fool, he mused again. He’d known Charlie for years, but had never seen this part of him, but then again, he’d only seen him in the comfort of a back yard barbeques.
Charlie crawled inside the lean to and set the rifle beside him before pulling the pack to him. He rummaged through it until he found the blanket. He yanked it out and wrapped it around his shoulders. He found the canned meat. He opened it and settled in to wait for Walt to return, anticipating the moment where he could watch Gage quail in fright in front of him and prove he was no better or stronger than those stupid women thought Charlie was.
Walt crept back through the woods. He thought he heard someone call out but couldn’t make out what was being said. He finally approached the campsite and once again crouched between the trees, blending into the branches and shadows.
He peered through the darkness in time to see one of the group…the shorter, curly haired man race across the clearing and dive behind one of the tents. He heard his soft call. “I think he’s gone Cap.”
Walt smiled wickedly. “Oh no I’m not,” he mumbled to himself. He loaded another bolt into his bow. He saw the man take off for the trees. Walt didn’t want to kill anyone but his intended target…He aimed low and fired.
He was rewarded with a cry of pain as the man fell. Walt chuckled to himself. The man wouldn’t sit right for a couple of weeks, but he’d live.
Walt settled in trying to decide on his next course of action. He heard the bushes rattle from the other side of the clearing, but couldn’t see well enough to make out a clear target from this distance.
There was silence for a few long moments and then what might have been soft conversation. Walt had just about decided to call out to them and promise them they could all leave scot free if they’d be willing to give up Gage to save themelves and their wounded men.
They now had two other wounded men who needed medical attention to consider. He wasn’t sure about Gage’s partner, but the other guys may value their own skins enough to take the offer, and he and Charlie could handle the blonde and Gage by themselves, despite Charlie’s basic uselessness.
Maybe Gage would even care enough about his friends to give himself up but he doubted it. The coward preyed on defenseless women after all. His musings were interrupted as a voice suddenly called out of the darkness.
“HELLO? YOU IN THE WOODS…CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
Walt grinned, hoping they were willing to surrender. “I CAN HEAR YA,” he yelled back.
Hank threw a surprise glance at the others. “Well; now we’re getting somewhere,” he murmured, before once again cupping his hands around his mouth. “I’M CAPTAIN HANK STANLEY…LA COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT. WHO AM I SPEAKING TO?” He called, not really expecting an answer.
There was a long pause while Walt thought about his answer. It really wouldn’t take the police long to figure out who’d killed Gage. He’d either be on the run or in prison regardless of whether or not he answered.
“YOU CAN CALL ME GRADY,” he shouted back.
“Grady?” Hank murmured with a frown. The name didn’t ring a bell. “ALRIGHT GRADY,” he yelled. “WHY ARE YOU SHOOTING AT US? WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“I DON’T WANT ANYTHING FROM YOU CAPTAIN…I WANT JOHN GAGE,” he replied.
Six mouths dropped open in shock and their eyes shifted to their junior paramedic.
John’s dark eyes locked with his captains before moving to Roy. “ME?” he whispered in stunned surprise.
“What the Hell?” Hank murmured with a frown. The others shook their heads equally baffled at who would want to hurt Johnny? “WHY? WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH HIM?” He called back to their unknown assailant.
“HE MURDERED MY WIFE CAPTAIN,” the disembodied voice came back.
“Oh my God,” Johnny whispered, barely audible. He remembered a man at the police station when Officer Warren had first brought him in.
The others gasped in shock. This had to be the husband of the woman John had been accused of killing.
Hank once again used his hands as a megaphone. “YOU HAVE THE WRONG MAN MISTER. JOHN DIDN’T KILL ANYONE,” he yelled. “HE WAS WITH US AT THE STATION WHEN YOUR WIFE WAS KILLED,” he added.
Walt blinked in surprise. Was it true? If so why would Warren have arrested the man? He must have checked that out before he would have arrested him. He worried his lip in momentary uncertainty. He finally shook his head. They were lying to protect their friend, just like that other cop. That had to be it he mused to himself. Warren wouldn’t have told him he was the guy if he had an alibi.
“DON’T LIE TO ME,” He yelled. “THE COP TOLD ME HE DONE IT. NOW I DON’T WANNA HURT THE REST OF YA…YOU ALL JUST GIVE ME GAGE AND YOU’RE FREE TO LEAVE.”
“MISTER…YOU’RE MAKING A HUGE MISTAKE HERE. THE OFFICER MADE A MISTAKE, THAT’S WHY THEY LET JOHN GO. PLEASE CHECK IT OUT.”
Walt shook his head, he’d already been told why they’d let Gage go. Well…he wouldn’t get away with it. “YOU GOT ONE HOUR TO THINK IT OVER AND THEN THE DEAL IS OFF,” Walt offered. “YOU GIVE ME GAGE AND YOU WALK OUTTA HERE AND DON’T TRY ANYTHING….I’LL BE WATCHING.”
“Well that’s not gonna happen,” Roy said positively.
Hank started to call out to the man and tell him so, but Roy waved him down. “No Cap…Let him wait. We need the time to figure out what to do here,” he suggested.
John threw them all a worried glance. They were completely unarmed and defenseless out here, and now that their attacker was back, they couldn’t even sneak away without being at risk. There was now only two ways out…Trying to make it through the heavy brush to the river without making any noise with three wounded men, or trying to sneak past Grady. His friends were all in danger because of him.
“Roy?” He mumbled quietly.
The blonde paramedic looked toward his friend and saw the unwarranted look of guilt in the pain filled dark eyes. “Don’t John,” he said sternly.
The others glanced over curiously at the obvious reprimand.
“Maybe you should…,” he began.
Four mouths dropped in shock.
“You don’t really think we’d go along with that and just leave you to him do you?” Hank snapped in disbelief.
“You’re all in…danger. Chet and Marco…need a doctor,” he panted.
“Yeah; well so do you, so forget it Gage,” Chet growled.
“We stay amigo,” Marco vowed.
“We’re all in this together Johnny,” Mike assured him.
“But guys…,” he began to argue.
“NO,” Roy hissed.
John heard the tone and knew he’d get nowhere with his best friend. “I’m sorry,” he whispered despondently to his friends.
They were all putting their lives at risk for him. They didn’t deserve this. They’d done nothing but try to help him. How had this gotten so out of control? He rested his head back against the tree.
Roy breathed a sigh of relief that John had given up and reached out to smooth the sable hair off his young friends face. “We’ll figure this out, don’t worry.”
The dark orbs locked with blue for a long moment before drifting closed under the gentle touch. Roy frowned, not liking the determined glint in his partner’s eyes.
Lance Frasier and Vince Howard along with several Rangers and a dozen officers from the LAPD were spread out all along Temescal Canyon. They were rapidly losing the little daylight they’d had and were afraid they’d have to call off their search efforts for the night.
Most of the officers, including Pete Malloy and Jim Reed, were currently off duty and were volunteering their time. They all knew Johnny and Roy and they were very worried that Grady would get to them first if they had to wait until morning.
The only hope was that he’d have as much trouble hunting them in the dark as they would have if they continued.
Vince glanced toward the setting sun. “What are we gonna do?” He asked Frasier worriedly.
“I wish I knew. All we can do is hope they’re out in the boonies well enough that even Grady can’t find them. We’ll get a chopper in the air at first light and pray we get to them before he does, or find Grady and set the record straight.”
“What if Grady finds them first?” He asked.
Frasier glanced at the ground. “Then we’ll arrest him for murder.”
His radio squawked to life and Vince almost cringed, afraid of the words he knew were coming.
“This is base 1214 to all search teams. We need to call off the search for the night. Do you copy?”
Vince keyed his own radio. “Base…this is one David six; if our suspect finds them before we do, he’ll kill Gage,” he began to argue.
“One David six; we have no alternative. The conditions off the trails are to hazardous to have you all out stumbling around in the dark. Terminate the search…we’ll start again in the morning,” the base camp sergeant replied.
Frasier threw a sympathetic glance at Vince as the sky continued to grow darker. He could only pray that Gage, Desoto and the rest of the crew of station 51’s A shift were safely ensconced out there where no would find them.
Out in the gathering darkness, sixteen disappointed men turned back in frustration. Those who could, would be back to help tomorrow…The rest would be monitoring the search via radio.
Joanne DeSoto, Emily Stanley and Melissa Stoker sat waiting in the DeSoto living room, praying and hoping that the phone would ring and they would hear the police tell them that their men were safe, but as the sun sank lower in the horizon, they all knew it would be a long night of waiting.
Hank glanced around at his men. Their decision was made, but Roy was right, they could use the hour they’d been given to implement their escape plan.
They looked around, weighing their options. They’d have to quietly work their way through that stand of heavy forest with three wounded men and pray Grady didn’t hear them and give chase.
Their biggest concern was the open clearing about a quarter mile downstream. If they could get that far, they’d have to cross that space without being seen.
“Should be dark enough to get through it,” Mike said hopefully.
Roy glanced up at the brightly glowing moon. “That’s gonna cast us in silhouette when we cross up there,” he warned the group.
They all looked up at the dark sky. There were a few clouds, but nothing to give them hope that the moon would stay hidden for very long.
“Then we need to stay low and quiet,” Hank said determinedly, unwilling to just sit and wait for their attacker to make a move. “Can Johnny and Chet make it?” He questioned, not wanting to aggravate their wounds and cause more damage.
“I’ll help Chet,” Mike offered.
“Me too,” Marco volunteered.
They all looked to Roy and John. “I don’t know. It’ll be pretty rough on him,” Roy murmured worriedly.
“You can leave me…,” John began, once again hoping to give his friends a chance to get away.
“Sure; alright, good idea,” Roy agreed snidely, the tone saying ‘not happening’ despite the words of agreement.
“I’ll help you with John,” Hank told Roy with an eye roll at the young man’s unacceptable offer.
Roy nodded. “Let’s get moving then,” he added as the crew gathered around the two injured men. “Even if we can only put a few miles between us and him, it’ll give us some breathing room.”
John allowed his friends to help him to his feet, biting his lip to stifle a groan of pain, and swallowing back the fear that his injury would hold them back and get them all killed.
Mike and Marco helped Chet up and the group set off. They moved into the heavy brush. Marco moved ahead of them, holding the branches aside to allow the others to go through before carefully putting them back in place.
They moved slowly and as silently as possible, freezing at every snap of a twig and then blowing out relieved breaths when there was no outcry from behind them.
Roy cast occasional glances at his young friend. John’s teeth were dug into his lip and pain was etched into his face, a thin trickle of blood streaked his chin, and the older man knew he trying desperately not to cry out. He was very worried about the toll this was taking on his partner, but they had no option.
Johnny could taste the metallic tang of blood on his tongue, but he said nothing as they half carried him through the woods, determined not to be the one that kept his friends from getting away.
Blood began to seep through the bandage on his shoulder. He could feel the wetness soaking his skin, but said nothing and continued to stumble along beside his best friend and his captain.
They finally made it to the river and started to head downstream. “Wait,” John murmured.
“What is it pal?” Hank asked.
“Go north…then into the…water…and head south,” he panted.
“Why Junior?” Roy asked.
“This guy…knows the woods. Can’t track us…in the water…he might think we took the easy path…if he sees the tracks…go that way…first,” he explained with ragged gasps.
“Good call John,” Cap said admiringly. He’d have never thought of that.
The crew turned north for a short distance and then waded into the water and turned south. They went quite a distance before John spotted a rocky area on the bank. “Here,” he said, knowing it would be harder for a tracker to see where they exited the water on rock than it would be in dirt. “Step lightly,” he warned.
They stepped carefully from the water, trying to avoid disturbing the stones as much as possible, and once they moved back onto the pine needle covered forest floor, they were able to move at a better pace, finally stopping at the edge of the tree line to let Chet and Johnny rest.
“Okay guys,” Hank began after a few minutes rest. “We’re going to have to move fast and stay low to get across this clearing without him seeing us, and hope he thinks he has us pinned down with a couple of injured men and isn’t expecting us to run for it.”
The others nodded.
“John? You okay Pal?” Hank questioned his youngest crew member.
John’s head was drooping and his breaths were ragged gasps. Sweat ran in trails down his face, but he managed a small nod for his captain. “I’ll make it,” he mumbled determinedly, not about to be the reason they failed to escape and came to harm.
Hank could see the pain and stress in the young face. This was the last thing Johnny needed after the morning he’d already had, but they had no choice but to press on.
He turned to his other two wounded men. “How about you guys?” He asked. Marco nodded reassuringly. “Chet?” Hank pressed.
“Hurts like hell Cap, but... I’m ready when you are,” the Irishman assured his superior, not about to stay and be used for target practice again.
They glanced at the moonlit sky worriedly, but then spotted a small cloud drifting by overhead, and as if guided by an unseen hand, it floated by the face of the moon. It wasn’t big and it was moving at a good clip, but it afforded them the opportunity they needed…The sky darkened.
“Let’s go,” Hank urged.
The group got John and Chet on their feet and moved as quickly as possible across the clearing. They made it across the open field with only moments to spare before the moons glow once again brightened the area.
They breathed a sigh of relief and a silent thank you toward Heaven. They stopped once again, giving John and Chet a chance to breath and rest.
John was gasping for breath now, his teeth clenched against the pain. “Let me take a look Johnny,” Roy said, squatting next to him and pulling the wet, blood stain shirt aside to check the wound. “Damn,” he mumbled, seeing the blood soaking through the gauze.
“What is it?” Hank asked.
“He’s bleeding bad,” Roy muttered, knowing all this running around was aggravating the wound, despite the wrapping they’d done to keep the bolt still. He tore open more gauze pads to pack around the area and then used the last roll of kerlex to hold it in place. “we need to let him rest,” he said softly.
John shook his head. “Can’t…won’t take him long…to figure out he’s gone…in the wrong direction,” he panted in exhaustion. “Need to keep…moving.”
Roy frowned worriedly at his young friend, but Hank looked at his watch and nodded “He’s right Roy. We only have twenty five minutes left before he figures out we’re gone.”
“Gotta move,” John mumbled tiredly
“Okay,” Roy finally acquiesced, knowing they were right, but wishing they didn’t have to put John through this. The group set off.
Walt shone his tiny penlight toward his watch. Almost the whole hour had passed and he’d heard barely a sound from across the clearing. He chuckled to himself. They were probably over there trying to figure out how to escape through these woods without making enough racket to wake the dead, but they were now out of time.
They’d boxed themselves in with their choice of camping sites and two wide open clearings on either side of the thicket of woods and would have no option but to abandon Gage. It was too much to hope the coward would just turn himself over to him. No…like any gutless jackal that preyed on defenseless women, Gage would hide behind his friends instead of doing the right thing.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. “CAPTAIN STANLEY…GAGE! TIMES UP!” He shouted across the clearing. There was no reply.
Walt frowned. They were obviously not going to make this easy and give up their friend. He almost admired that in a way, but he thought their loyalty to a guy like him misplaced. Regardless, he had a job that needed to be done. He cast a glance in both directions but saw nothing.
Were they trying to draw him in…hoping to jump him when he got close enough? Perhaps they had a weapon and were waiting for him to step out in the open. Well he was wise to their game. He was no babe in the woods after all.
He crept back into the darkness, circling to the north and then around to the river just inside the wood line where he wouldn’t be seen. He came to the river’s edge and headed back toward where they’d made camp. He’d come up from behind them and take them by surprise. He had no intention of killing them; just incapacitating them enough to leave them helpless to protect Gage.
He came upon the area where they’d most likely been fishing. The grass was trampled and the sand was marred by footprints where they’d moved around. He started back through the trees. Moving slowly and taking care to stay as silent as possible.
He frowned at the sounds around him. Crickets were chirping and small animals stirred the brush, which made him worry. If there were people close by, the wildlife should be quiet and still. Walt moved a little faster and the expected silence fell around him.
There was no sound…Not a whisper. He shoved through to where they’d been hiding but sure enough; they were gone.
“DAMN IT!” He shouted angrily to the forest around him. Birds took flight and the brush rattled as small critters fled for cover. How had they gotten through this without him hearing them? How had they got past him? Worse…which way had they gone?
Walt turned and shoved his way through the thick branches and overhanging limbs until he reached the river. He looked up and down but there was no sign of them. Just wait till he caught up with them, he mused to himself. They’d had their chance and now he wouldn’t show them any mercy. They were harboring a murderer and they were just as bad as Gage in his eyes.
He shone his flashlight on the ground and after several long minutes, found what he was looking for. Among the older tracks, there were two sets where the men were walking three abreast.
One showed the unmistakable sign of someone favoring an injured leg and was walking on the toe of his right foot, rather than putting his entire weight on the sole. The other showed the shuffling steps of someone significantly weakened or in pain. The prints led off to the north and then disappeared into the water.
“Damn,” he growled again. Whoever was leading them was smart enough to know he couldn’t track them in the water, especially at night. Well; he didn’t have a choice. He couldn’t let Gage get away…He set off toward the north, figuring they were running for the campgrounds.
It would be the easiest way for the wounded men and the Ranger station was close by. There would be other campers in the area to shelter and offer them assistance. He couldn’t imagine them going the other way; that way was steep and difficult even for someone fit and healthy.
Walt continued on.
“Cap,” I gotta rest a minute,” Chet mumbled tiredly. Even with help, hobbling on one leg was exhausting and slow going. He glanced over to where Hank and Roy were easing Gage down to rest against a tree, before sinking down beside him.
The younger man’s face was sweat soaked and pale in the moonlight. Blood stained his chin from where he’d bitten his lip to keep from crying out in pain. He was breathing in short gasps and yet he hadn’t uttered a single sound or word of complaint.
He had to be in more pain than Chet was and the lineman didn’t know how such a skinny kid had such endurance as John had, though he’d never admit that to Gage.
He had no idea that John had grown up hiding bruises and broken bones from his grandfather for years, for fear that his aunts and uncles would abuse him even more for telling of the abuse they meted out to the young boy after his mother had died.
He had no idea now that John was hiding the agony he was in for fear that the others would hold up to let him rest and give Grady time to catch up with them.
Chet watched Roy recheck the wound and didn’t like the look of worry on the man’s face.
“How’s Gage?” He finally murmured.
“He’s bleeding again,” Roy mumbled, sweeping the sable hair from John’s face. “How are ya feeling?” He asked John.
“I’ll be fine,” he whispered, barely audible.
Roy wasn’t buying it and neither were the others. “We got to let him rest,” the blonde paramedic whispered to the others.
They were at the base of the steep summit now and the climb would be arduous and slow. Just getting here had taken quite a while with Chet and John injured. It was well past midnight.
“Can’t,” John mumbled. “He’s got to have...figured out by now that… we didn’t go north,” he wheezed.
“Maybe he figured he lost us and gave up,” Marco suggested.
John shook his head. “He’s not gonna give up…till he has me,” John whispered.
“Then he’s in for a long wait,” Roy said with certainty.
Johnny frowned but knew better than to argue. “We need to move,” he urged tiredly.
“We can wait a few more minutes pal,” Cap said, gently patting John’s good shoulder.
John knew Hank wouldn’t yield and sighed. “Kay,” the younger man replied, letting his dark eyes slide closed.
Roy pulled John against him, letting his head come to rest against his shoulder. “We’re gonna get you outta here,” he murmured against the sable hair. He felt the faintest nod but John said nothing.
Walt ran along the bank of the river until the tree line crept down to meet it, leaving only a narrow strand of sand for several miles. The older man had kept a sharp eye out for any sign of his quarry, but there was nothing. He moved into the trees and stopped to listen several times without hearing anything. Not a snap of a twig or whisper broke the stillness.
He finally came upon some of the designated camping areas and stopped. Most of the people were tucked securely in their sleeping bags inside of tents. There was no sign of any commotion six men stumbling from the forest with three wounded among their group would have caused.
He heard the sound of voices and made his way toward them. Several men sat around a fire, drinking and talking. They stopped abruptly as they spotted the armed man coming toward them.
“Can we help you mister?” One of them asked nervously.
“Yeah…I was uh…wondering if you saw a group of men come through here from the woods over there. A couple of them mighta been injured,” he hedged.
The group looked at each other for a moment before they all shook their heads. “Nope…We been here all night,” the first one replied.
“Thanks,” Walt growled, turning and heading back the way he’d come, leaving the men staring after him in bafflement.
Walt slipped back into the trees and stopped. He stood trembling with rage. He’d been duped after all. They hadn’t come this way. “AAAAGH!” He shouted angrily, before kicking a tree in frustrated fury.
He heard the stirrings of people around the campsites at his bellow of rage and his foot was throbbing in pain but he didn’t care. He’d go pick up Charlie and track them down. Gage would pay and so would anyone who got in his way.
Charlie was sleeping peacefully inside the small lean to until he was jerked awake by Walt’s angry voice.
“WAKE UP,” he bellowed, nudging Charlie none to gently with his boot.
The younger man sat up quickly, looking at Walt in terror. Had he figured it out? He wondered in fear at the man’s rage.
“W…what is it?” He asked in a quavering voice.
“I lost them that’s what. I need your help to find them.”
“In the dark?” Charlie warbled nervously.
Walt’s eyes rolled in aggravation. “Yes in the dark. I’ll protect you from the boogey man,” he sneered angrily. “I just need you to back me up if I run into trouble with Gage; now let’s go,” he demanded.
Charlie nodded in fear at the man’s anger and quickly climbed to his feet. Walt grabbed the rifle and threw the pack to Charlie. He stuffed his blanket inside before shouldering the bag and following after Walt.
“Where are we going?” He asked timorously.
Walt pointed at the steep embankment to the south and Charlie’s face paled. “We have to climb that?” He quavered.
Walt spun around and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “Look you gutless little coward…Gage and his friends went up there and I’m going to get him. You can help me or I’ll leave you out here for the bears to finish,” he sneered angrily.
Charlie was shaking in his shoes. He’d never faced someone this enraged, after all, he preyed on the helpless, not the strong. He nodded his head submissively. “Y…yeah okay Walt,” he stammered.
Walt shoved him away from him. “No wonder the nurses prefer Gage to you,” he said scornfully.
Charlie’s eyes filled with anger at the derisive words as he shook his coat back into place. He’d be glad to see Walt behind bars, he mused bitterly, after the man had killed Gage of course. He followed after the older man.
The crew continued on after they’d rested for a bit. It was slow going as they had to stop frequently to help John and Chet over some treacherous slope or rocky out cropping. They were all tired, but Johnny and Chet were near to exhaustion.
“Gotta stop,” John finally gasped. The rest halted; this was the first time Johnny had stopped their progress so they knew he had to be on his last reserves.
They all sank down behind the cover of some huge boulders to rest. Roy broke out the canteens for them to pass around. They all drank gratefully.
“What time is it?” John mumbled.
Hank looked at his watch, pressing the button that illuminated the face. “Three thirty pal,” he replied.
“We gotta be…at the top…in an hour to be in the woods…by dawn,” he murmured tiredly.
The group glanced upward worriedly. They still had a tough climb ahead of them.
“I guess we better move then,” Marco suggested tiredly.
They climbed tiredly to their feet. The four uninjured men gathered around Johnny and Chet and managed to assist the two wounded men on to their feet; the uphill battle began again.
Roy cast frequent glances behind them to be sure their pursuer was nowhere in sight. They moved as quickly as possible and finally reached the top of the summit an hour later.
Dawn was still an hour away and they had seen no sign of their pursuers. They moved to the clearing where John loved to camp, and where the crew had had to rescue him from the ledge not long after Hank had become their captain.
“You think we lost him Cap?” Mike asked hopefully.
“Haven’t heard him or seen him,” he replied. “I think he’d have made his presence known if he was around,” he added.
“Yeah…He ain’t exactly subtle,” Chet said snidely, sitting on his left butt cheek.
“No he isn’t. On that note, let’s move into the trees where we aren’t readily visible,” Hank suggested.
The others nodded and the group moved into the trees, where they could rest for a few minutes.
Roy and Hank gently set Johnny down where he could sit back against a fallen log.
“We can’t stay…too long,” John advised, not believing for a moment that this guy had given up that easy. “We need…to keep going,” he panted.
Hank reached over to pat the young paramedic on his dark head. “I think we can take a break and rest for a bit,” he soothed, his youngest crew member.
“But Cap,” he began to argue.
“Relax John…we won’t take long, we all just need a break,” he assured him. Hank was as tired as the others and needed a few moments to rest.
“You included,” Roy added.
John sighed and looked around at his friends. They were sweaty, tired, scratched and dirty, and he understood their need to rest, but he was very worried that Grady would catch up with them and that his friends would get hurt because of him, but he had no choice.
“Okay Cap,” he murmured.
“Good; close your eyes John, get some rest,” the blonde paramedic urged, settling down next to him.
The younger man nodded.
They all moved around to try and find a comfortable, sheltered spot and settled down to take a breather. Despite their resolve to only rest for a few minutes, it took only moments before they began to nod off…All but Johnny. He was exhausted but fear for his friends kept him awake. He sat up straighter; his dark eyes scanning the clearing, keeping watch for his crew mates.
Walt and Charlie had been on the move for several hours. Walt had returned to the river bank and headed south, all the while looking for some sign of their passage to give him a direction.
He’d finally found several freshly turned areas in the forest loam where they’d left the river for the woods. The going had been slow. Walt was limping a bit, his foot still throbbing from where he’d kicked the tree, and they’d stopped frequently to try and find signs that they’d in fact gone this way, or if they were once again leading him on a wild goose chase.
Charlie wisely held his tongue and followed closely behind the older man, not at all sure that if he held him up, that he wouldn’t carry out his threat to leave him out here, but Walt still heard his moans and groans as tripped and stumbled through the darkness.
They finally came to the base of Temecal Canyon’s most dangerous summit. Walt had never made the climb, he was a hunter and had no need to sight see from its vantage point and most average campers wouldn’t attempt it. It could be treacherous even in daylight, but the tracks led straight to it.
Was this another trick, he mused sullenly, still steaming that they’d tricked him and made a fool of him the first time. It had cost him hours of tramping through the woods with that sniveling oaf Marsh.
He looked up, unable to believe they’d actually climbed this with two wounded men. It was still another hour before Dawn and the moon was waning, sinking below the mountains in the distance. He glanced at Charlie, worried that the clumsy fool would fall down the mountain and make enough noise to wake the dead.
“Stay here,” he growled, moving off to the east for a ways to see if they’d doubled back and taken the easier route, but he saw no sign of it. He finally returned to where Charlie waited. “Let’s go,” he snapped, swinging his crossbow over his right shoulder and his rifle over his left.
He had no intention of trusting Marsh with it. The idiot might just shoot him in the back by accident.
Charlie’s face paled as he looked up the steep incline. “I uh…I’m not sure I can climb this,” he said nervously.
Walt turned back to give him a mocking chuckle. “Gage did it with a crossbow bolt in his shoulder,” he taunted.
Charlie’s face turned red with a mixture of humiliation and rage. He began to climb.
John glanced at his watch as the sun began to peek up over the eastern horizon, squinting at the face in the meager light. The crew had been asleep for about forty five minutes, and he figured if he woke them now, they’d have about fifteen or twenty minutes of travel time before full daylight.
He was about to call out to them when he heard the soft sound of rocks sliding down the steep trail they’d come up on. He sat up, wincing and hissing softly as pain flared in his shoulder.
He heard the low murmur of voices and he knew he’d been right. Grady hadn’t given up. He was still tracking them, and worse…he wasn’t alone.
If he woke the others, they’d have to flee, and having to help him and Chet would slow them down. Grady would have an easy time catching up with them, and they’d all be in danger of that deadly bow. John didn’t want his friends hurt because of this man’s anger with him.
If he could slip away, and get the man to follow him, he’d give them time and a head start, besides, he had no need to bother them at all if John wasn’t with them.
John knew these mountains like the back of his hand. He knew every hidden cave and hollow tree where he could hide. He knew his mobility was severely compromised right now, but he couldn’t let his friends put themselves in danger to protect him either.
John glanced at his sleeping partner, knowing Roy would be furious with him but he’d made his decision. “I’m sorry Palley,” he mumbled softly.
He carefully eased himself over onto his knees, using his good arm to push himself slowly to his feet. He clenched his teeth to hold back the cry of pain as his shoulder throbbed unmercifully.
He reached up to hold the bolt steady as he began to move stealthily away from the other’s, glancing back to be sure they were all still asleep. He was unsteady, but he barely made a sound as he slipped wraithlike through the trees as his grandfather had taught him.
He could hear the sound of soft voices as he drew nearer to his pursuers and further from his friends. He saw the graying blonde head appear cautiously over the edge of the escarpment, before he pulled himself up and over.
Another man followed. This one was thin and dark haired, but John couldn’t make out much more in the faint light.
They began to move toward the clearing and that was the last thing John wanted. He turned and ran making no effort to stay quiet now, hoping the men would pursue him and not notice his friends.
Grady heard the snapping of branches as John pushed through the trees. He grinned; his friends must have thought they’d lost him and left him behind to go for help. The kid was out here alone and was now a sitting duck for him.
“There,” he shouted to Charlie, as he turned and ran after him. The younger man followed.
Roy and the others snapped awake at the sound of Grady’s shout. They sat up and peered through the trees in time to see the man race off into the woods, followed by another man. They all glanced at each other in concern, realizing their attacker had help.
Roy’s worried voice brought their attention back to him. “Where’s John?” He asked, looking about, hopeful that John had simply moved to a more comfortable place, but his face said he already knew.
Their eyes flew to the woods where Grady and his companion were disappearing in hot pursuit of something. They were all pretty sure of what.
“Dammit John,” Roy growled, knowing his young friend was sacrificing himself to give him time to get away. Under normal circumstances, he knew John could lead these men in circles for days out here, but these weren’t normal circumstances. John was wounded and weakened from blood loss and there was no way he was going to be able to out run these men in that condition.
He turned to the others. “Take off,” he said pointing into the woods. “That way,” he added… “Head due east…It’s tough going but it will lead you to the trail to the ranger station,” he explained.
They stared at him in surprise. “You’re going after them,” Mike said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah,” he added.
“And you think we’re just going to leave you and John out here?” Hank questioned incredulously.
“Chet and Marco are injured. They need you and Mike to get outta here,” he said.
“They’ll wait here with Mike..I’m coming with you,” Hank said with a no nonsense tone.
“But Cap?” Mike began.
“Roy’s right…Chet’ll need your help if we don’t get back.”
“Cap…I wanna come too,” Chet argued.
“You’ll slow us down,” Roy said. “I gotta go,” he added, not willing to stand and argue any further while John was being chased by these goons.
Hank pointed at the other three. “STAY,” he barked, as he turned and ran after Roy.
Vince and Lance Frasier were at the airport before the sun rose. They had sixteen men on the ground searching the woods in Temescal Canyon, but Vince had spoken to Joanne DeSoto again and she’d mentioned a place that John was particularly fond of.
Vince had heard of John’s fall from a cliff there a year ago, but he’d never actually seen the place. There were several high summits all along the canyon and the best way to check them out was with the helicopter.
Another police car pulled up at landing pad and an officer climbed out. The rifle he was holding left no doubt that he meant business if it came to it. He jogged toward the chopper and climbed on board. Vince and Lance followed. A few moments later they were in the air.
They could only pray they’d find them all alive.
John ran, stumbling over tree roots and shoving through the branches. Every pounding step was sending shockwaves of pain through his shoulder and down his arm. Blood soaked his shirt and his face stung from where the branches had slapped him as he pushed through, leaving a trail a blind man could follow.
John was heading for another abutment; one he’d found a while back with a lone tree growing from the rocky crevice. The tree was hollow and if he could make it there and slip inside, they’d never find him.
He could hear the two crashing through the trees behind him. He was almost there…another quarter of a mile and he’d be safe, and his friends would have had the time to get away.
He was breathing hard now, barely able to keep on his feet. John threw a glance over his shoulder to be sure his pursuers weren’t in sight or it would give away his game.
Behind him, Walt Grady plowed through the branches. He’d lost Charlie a ways back, but with all the noise they were making, even a deaf man could follow.
He couldn’t believe Gage was not only still on his feet with that bolt in his shoulder, but was making a run for it…And doing a damn fine job of eluding them, he mused sourly. He almost admired the man’s fortitude if it wasn’t for the fact that he was trying to save his own cowardly hide.
John could barely see the top of the tree now. It had come back beautifully after having been burned in a brush fire that had almost claimed Roy’s life. Thankfully he’d remembered John’s little hideaway and taken shelter in it and the small cave mouth it had grown around.
John turned his head to check on his pursuer’s progress. They weren’t in sight and he was almost there…His foot caught a lifted tree root and he stumbled. He was too weak at this point to regain his balance and he fell.
Agony lanced through him even as he tried to land on his good shoulder, it didn’t help. A cry of pain was ripped from his lips. He lay there panting, trying to catch his breath and ride out the throbbing torture tearing through him.
He heard the sound of running feet and then there was silence. He rolled slowly over on his back and came nose to nose with the deadly crossbow aimed straight at his face.
Roy and Hank sprinted through the trees, following the trail of broken branches and unsettled leaves that marked the earlier passage of Grady and his companion.
They were both tired, having been on the move throughout the night, but Roy never slowed. He had to get to John before they did. His young partner would be no match for these two; not wounded and weak as he was right now. Even with his longer stride, Hank was hard pressed to keep pace with the blonde paramedic.
What had Johnny been thinking to try and run from them like this? he mused angrily. He had to know he’d never out run them. Why hadn’t he stayed? Woke him and the others when he’d realized the danger?
It suddenly hit him that that was exactly what John was doing. His kid brother HAD realized the danger and had deliberately lured their attackers away from his friends, using himself as bait. ‘dammit John’…Just wait’ll till he got his hands on him; if they didn’t get to him first, he pondered worriedly.
He was always thinking of others and putting himself in danger, thinking his life didn’t matter as much as theirs…Well it damn well mattered to Roy and he was pretty sure the others felt the same way. He’d drum that into his young friend if he had to beat it in, he reflected as he ran.
Roy suddenly realized the direction John had taken and if the situation wasn’t so desperate, he might have laughed. John was headed for Temescal Rock… where a certain tree grew; a tree that he remembered quite well.
They were both puffing and out of breath as they climbed a small hillock. How the hell had John managed to get his far? Hank wondered as he loped along behind Roy.
His musings were cut short as they crested the hill. Roy suddenly reached out to stop his forwad progress, waving at him to get down.
Hank ducked behind a tree and squatted, trying to make himself as small as possible; Roy was doing the same.
Just down the incline two men stood over John. A crossbow was aimed straight at the young man’s face.
Roy’s own complexion turned pale with fear as he thought he was about to see his best friend killed before his very eyes.
“Oh God…Johnny,” he almost whimpered.
But then Grady lowered the weapon.
Charlie came up behind Grady. A smug look played over his features as he realized Walt had the young man in his sites. He was going to watch Gage cringe like the coward he was, but his hopes were quickly dashed.
John swallowed hard at the sight of the crossbow aimed straight at his face. His dark eyes rose to meet Walt’s but there was no whine of fear or groveling or begging for mercy, just acceptance. He’d done what he’d set out to do; give his friends the time they needed to get away.
Walt lowered the crossbow and stared at the younger man. He’d thought the kid a coward, but this boy showed no trace of fear.
“Why’d you kill my wife?” He snarled at the wounded man.
John shook his head. “I didn’t…kill anyone,” he gasped softly, wincing in pain and still winded from the long run and the fall.
“The police said you did,” he sneered.
“They made… a mistake,” he panted. “My crew will…tell you…I was with…them.”
“She had your name tag,” he growled.
“Someone stole…my uniform shirt from Rampart,” he explained.
“He’s lying,” Charlie accused, not wanting Walt to give the paramedic time to convince him. “They wouldn’t have arrested him if he had an alibi,” he pressed.
John’s eyes shifted to Charlie briefly and then widened as recognition came. “I know you,” he gasped. “You work…at Rampart?”
Charlie grinned wickedly. “That’s right; and I’ve seen you strutting those halls and all mister hero for a couple months now…Getting all those nurses falling all over themselves for you; Bunch of tramps,” he sneered.
John’s brow furrowed. He liked most of the nurses at Rampart and he’d never describe any of them in that manner, and obviously the man hadn’t been paying attention. John attracted a few nurses certainly, but he got shot down twice as often as he scored.
Walt shot Charlie a disgusted look. The orderly’s jealousy was pathetic, not to mention his callous and degrading description of the nurses. Walt shook his head to get his wayward musings under control. “Regardless, your crew ain’t here are they? They left you out here to die.”
“Bet they figured out what a creep he was,” Charlie pressed gloatingly.
John remained silent and Walt’s eyes narrowed. If his own friends had abandoned him out here wounded and being hunted, he’d have a few unkind things to say about them, but not Gage. He remained mute, giving away nothing.
“They didn’t abandon you did they? They’re still out there. You ran so I’d chase you and let them get away?” He asked. John’s dark eyes shifted away evasively and Walt knew. This kid was no coward…Was he telling the truth.
“Shoot him,” Charlie urged him, seeing the hesitation and afraid the man was having second thoughts. “What are you waiting for…He killed Anna,” he reminded him, grabbing Walt’s arm to try and shake him back to what they’d come here for.
Walt shook the younger man’s hand from his arm, giving him a vicious glare. Now there was a coward, he mused in annoyance…If the roles were reversed he’d have no doubts about the man’s guilt.
He pulled his rifle from his shoulder and handed it to Charlie. “I’m gonna go check on his friends,” he said quietly, first wanting to be sure they hadn’t followed and second…he wanted to talk to them. He needed to know the truth.
“No,” John said urgently, not wanting him to go back and hurt his crew and most especially not Roy. “I’m the one… you came for. They didn’t do…anything,” he gasped, trying to get to his feet.
Charlie swung the gun butt, hitting John in the chest. “AAAGH,” the young man’s cry of pain brought a smug grin to his lips. John fell back, writhing on the ground in pain.
In the woods a short distance away, it was all Roy could do not to race down there to rescue his young friend.
“You won’t do him any good if we get caught,” Hank reminded him.
“What are we gonna do?” Roy asked plaintively. “I can’t just stand here…,” he began.
“You’re gonna go around behind them. I’m gonna make some noise and lead them away. You get Johnny,” Hank said. “I’ll try to lose him and circle back to where the others are.”
Roy nodded and pointed toward the lone tree on the mountainside. “See that tree?” Hank nodded. “It’s the tree I took shelter in when I got caught in that fire.” Hank’s face lit up as understanding dawned.
“Be careful Cap…I’d hate to lose you,” Roy said softly.
“Thanks Pal,” he said with a small grin.
Roy began to move, circling around through the trees, staying low and trying to stay quiet the way John had taught him.
Walt snatched the rifle from Charlie. “I don’t want him hurt,” he snarled at the younger man.
“I thought you wanted to kill him,” Charlie shot back.
“Yeah…And when and if he dies, it’ll be by my hand, not yours,” he growled in the orderly’s face. He handed the weapon back. “You be sure he’s breathin when I get…”
His voice trailed off as he heard the snap of a branch behind them. He spun around. So Gage’s friends were still around after all, he mused. He glanced at the younger man and noticed that he was looking in the same direction, though he quickly turned away when he caught Walt’s eyes on him.
“I think we have company,” he said quietly. “Keep him here, while I take a look.”
Charlie nodded while Walt moved off. He shot a hate filled glare at John. The young paramedic sat silently, knowing anything he said would be an excuse for Charlie to hurt him again. His shoulder was throbbing miserably and he was afraid the man had fractured his sternum with the gun butt, but John wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of showing him the pain he was in.
Hank stayed low and moved quietly through the trees, leading Grady away from John and the rest of the crew. He made sure to snap a twig here and there just to keep the man interested and maintain the pursuit.
He prayed Roy would have a chance to get John to safety or this would all be for naught. He heard the crack of a branch and the crunch of pine needles somewhere behind him and grinned.
Roy came around behind Charlie who was now pacing back and forth in front of John worriedly. The man looked positively frantic and Roy couldn’t figure out why until he spun around in his direction and he got a good look at the man’s face.
It was that orderly from Rampart. Roy was sure of it. What the hell was he doing out here with this Grady character? And why would he want to hurt John?
He remembered seeing him in the hall with another man yesterday morning. Had that been Grady? He also remembered he’d been in the room when he’d told Brackett that he wanted to take John camping in Temescal Canyon. No wonder they’d found them so easily.
But why would he be helping this man? What would he gain?
Roy didn’t know, but he did know that he’d already hurt John once and he wasn’t about to give him another chance, especially not with a loaded gun.
He crept forward on his hands and knees. He could see John’s dark eyes watching his captor closely, and he knew John was as nervous as he was about the man pacing before him. He could also see the clenched jaw and labored breaths, and he knew John had to be hurting. He hated doing this, but he had no choice.
Roy found a fair sized rock and waited for Charlie to turn back and scan the woods for Walt’s return. He stood up and pegged the rock with all his might before ducking down once again.
It crashed into a tree about ninety feet away. Charlie spun around to look. He threw Gage a glare but he could tell the young paramedic wasn’t about to run anywhere at this point.
John nodded, not sure he could if he wanted to.
Charlie turned and ran into the woods with the rifle at the ready. Walt would be very grateful when he got back and found that Charlie had caught one of Gage’s friends.
Roy shook his head and almost laughed as the man charged off. That had been way too easy.
He moved forward, coming up behind John. He clapped his hand over his partner’s mouth to keep him from crying out in either pain or surprise.
John gasped in a mixture of pain and shock, reaching up to try and frantically pull his hand away.
“It’s me,” he whispered in John’s ear. The dark head turned toward him and Roy could see the alarm in his face; terrified that Charlie would return and Roy would be hurt or worse. Roy slipped his arm around John’s waist and hauled him backward into the brush, before he got him to his feet and led him deeper into the woods.
“Why’d ya come…after me?” John whispered plaintively.
“Did ya think I wouldn’t?” He growled back, helping John through the trees and back toward the escarpment where the rest waited.
“I wanted you…to get away,” he puffed breathlessly.
“I wanted you to as well,” he shot back.
John was too out of breath to argue.
Charlie ran for about a half a mile before he tired and slowed to a walk, after all, he reasoned to himself at his lack of stamina, he’d been up all night. ‘So was Gage and with a crossbow bolt in his shoulder and he ran for two miles,’ a small voice in his head taunted.
Charlie pushed the thought angrily away. He figured he better get back to Gage…he didn’t want him sneaking off while he was gone. He wouldn’t be running anywhere when he was done with him.
He turned back and prayed he could find his way to where he’d left Gage. He returned to his contemplation of his situation as he walked.
What was he gonna do if the man got a chance to talk to the crew. What if Gage truly did have an alibi and the cops really had made a mistake? He stopped in mid step and grinned. He’d kill them both…
He’d tell the cops that Walt had shot Gage and that he’d tried to stop him. They wrestled for the gun and it had gone off. They’d believe that. Walt had every reason to kill the young paramedic and Charlie didn’t, not that they knew of anyway.
He trudged back to where he’d left Gage and his face paled. His captive was gone and Walt would kill him for sure.
Walt continued to pursue his prey through the woods. Whoever it was, was staying ahead and just out of sight. Walt thought it was probably the blonde paramedic…Gage’s partner but he’d be out of luck shortly.
He was running for a sheer drop and wide open spaces. He’d have nowhere to run to. Walt ran out of the trees and skidded to a halt. Before him lay a plateau of gray stone and a single tree… Beyond that was nothing but a deadly fall. He looked to the right, but there was no sign of anyone.
He cautiously moved toward the edge and peered over, but there was nothing below. He must have veered off when he realized that he was running out of the woods and circled back. “Damn it,” he muttered angrily as he turned around and headed back to where he’d left Gage and Charlie.
Hank stood flattened just inside the narrow opening of the hollow tree. He eyed the small entrance to the underground cave and quailed at the idea of crawling into it but he would if he had to.
The silence grew and he finally peeked out just in time to see Grady trudging back into the woods the way they’d come. He gave him a few minutes before he slipped out of the tree and carefully made his way back to the woods, taking care that the man wasn’t lying in wait for him somewhere, but he’d apparently fooled him.
He trudged back toward where the others waited.
Mike, Marco and Chet, were waiting anxiously for the others to return. They were alternately praying that Johnny was alright and thinking of ways to kill the kid for putting himself at risk like that.
It was over an hour before they heard the rustle of bushes. They took cover in case it wasn’t Roy and Hank returning, but then breathed a sigh of relief as Roy led John from the trees.
The young man was barely on his feet with exhaustion. They ran from the woods to meet them.
“Is he okay?” Chet asked as Roy none to gently dropped John onto the ground.
“Aaah,” he groaned, clutching at his shoulder.
“What the hell Roy?” Chet barked.
“What the Hell?” He snapped back before turning to John. “What the hell were you thinking taking off like that?” He snarled at his young friend.
John’s face was wet with sweat and tears of pain filled his eyes. He looked up at his furious partner and his already pale face went even whiter at the fury in his blue eyes.
“I didn’t want…you guys to…get hurt because…of me,” he whispered breathlessly.
“Because of them…not you.”
“But Roy,” he tried again.
“He’s right John. We had the chance out there to walk away. We chose to stand by our friend,” Mike said quietly.
“You could have… been hurt,” he said, looking at Chet and Marco. “Maybe killed. I couldn’t let…that happen,” he argued.
Roy reached down and gripped John’s chin, jerking his head up to meet his blazing blue glare. “It wasn’t your call to make John,” Roy barked angrily. “It was ours. We made the decision to stick together because we care about you. That’s why we were out here in the first place.”
“I know,” he whispered miserably.
“Good…Then know this too. I care about you….you’re my kid brother, and I’d have hated myself forever if we’d just taken off and something had happened to you,” he said, his voice cracking at the hurt and pain in the dark eyes looking up at him. “You’re not alone…We’re here for you…all of us.”
The others nodded, glancing around at each other. “Uh…Where’s Cap?” Mike asked, suddenly noticing they were a man short.
John pulled his gaze away from his best friends and looked around curiously. “He’s leading Grady away from us.”
“What?” John asked in alarm.
“He finished what you started,” he added. John frowned. “He led him to Temescal Rock,” he explained.
John grinned. The others shared a confused expression before they suddenly remembered. Their chuckles joined John and Roy’s.
Vince and Frasier had been circling Temescal Canyon for over an hour. Flying along above the river to check every escarpment carefully, but there was nothing to see.
The ground crews had found where they’d camped. Their gear was there but the crew of station 51 was not. Where had they gone? Were they alright or had something terrible happened to all of them?
Vince was very worried. They’d found blood…a lot of it. Who was wounded and how bad? If one of them had been injured, why hadn’t they found any sign of the rest of them?
There were too many questions and no answers. They flew toward Temescal Drop and Vince said a quick prayer for the safety of his friends.
Charlie was sitting under a tree when Walt trudged back through the trees. The older man glanced around and looked angrily toward Marsh.
“WHERE IS HE?” He barked in a rage.
“He uh…He got away,” he mumbled, afraid to meet the other man’s angry glare.
“What happened? He over power you?” He sneered.
Charlie flushed in humiliation at the taunt that a wounded man had beaten him up and escaped. “I um..I heard something in the bushes…and I went to check it out. When I got back. He was um…gone,” he admitted.
Walt rolled his eyes in irritation. “Let’s go,” he growled.
“To get Gage and some answers,” he muttered.
Charlie paled…His eyes fell on the rifle but before he could do anything with it, Walt snatched it away. “Hey,” Charlie protested.
“Don’t want you to shoot yourself…or me,” he sneered as he stomped off.
Charlie winced at his words and his perception, however innocent it had been. He got up and followed.
The crew was safely tucked in the woods, carefully hidden from casual observation as they waited for their Captain to return.
Roy had gotten Johnny settled. He gently pulled his shirt aside to check the wound, frowning at the amount of blood he’d lost. His shirt was soaked in it. He blew out a frustrated breath. John needed a hospital and he needed it now.
His run through the woods had dislodged the bolt and Roy was very afraid of the damage it may have caused.
He pulled the remaining bandages from the backpack and tore them open. They wouldn’t be a lot of help, but it was all he had at the moment. He re-bandaged it as best he could and then settled down next to his young friend to wait.
John’s head drooped in pain and exhaustion and the dark eyes closed in much needed sleep.
Roy eased closer to his partner and pulled the dark head over to rest on his shoulder. He reached up and smoothed the tangled, sable hair. “You get some sleep Junior,” he murmured softly.
It was another twenty minutes before they heard someone approach.
Mike rose to his knees to peek out into the clearing. “It’s Cap,” he said in relief as the rest of the crew came out from the cover of the trees.
Roy eased his shoulder out from under John’s head and came to meet him as well. “What happened?” He asked.
“Worked like a charm,” he said with a smirk. Walked right past me and never suspected a thing.”
“Good. Then let’s get out of here before they come back,” Marco said.
“Too late gentlemen,” A deep voice said from behind them.
They turned slowly to see Walt Grady and Charlie Marsh standing about ten feet away. “Look mister,” Hank began.
Walt waved him down. “Where’s Gage?”No one answered. “I’ll find him regardless,” he advised them, admiring their loyalty.
“I’m here,” John said from the tree line, stepping into the open, unwilling to hide while his friends faced a potential killer.
Walt looked over at the young man. He was exhausted and barely on his feet. Roy and the others moved quickly to get between him and their attackers. Roy’s arm wrapped around his friends waist to hold him steady.
“Mister, you have the wrong man. I promise you,” Hank assured him.
“John’s never hurt anyone in his life,” Mike avowed.
“Don’t listen to them. Their lyin to ya Walt,” Charlie yelled.
Roy looked over at him. “Why are you so anxious to have him kill John?” He questioned suspiciously, starting to put things together.
Walt shot him a look. “I’d like to hear that myself,” he said curiously, shrugging the rifle from his shoulder. His crossbow held loosely in his hands.
“He killed your wife Walt. I thought you wanted him dead,” he pressed, easing forward to stand next to his companion... and the rifle.
“He didn’t kill anyone. He was with us that night…I promise you,” Hank insisted.
“My shirt…was taken from the ER,” John repeated. “I don’t know…who took it.”
“YOU’RE A LIAR,” Charlie shouted. “DO IT WALT,” he yelled. Shoving at the hand holding the crossbow.
Walt shook him off. “I have to think about this,” he snarled, uncertain now that he had the right man. What if they were telling the truth?
Charlie snatched up the rifle. “I’ll do it for ya if you’re too scared,” he taunted. Walt stared at the man in surprise. The crew took action of their own at their moment of inattention.
Roy suddenly yanked John out of the line of fire, catching the men off guard. The others made a flying tackle of their attackers. Mike and Marco hit Walt while Hank and Chet took Charlie to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
There were several grunts and groans as fists flew. Roy let John sink down on the fallen log and ran to join the fray.
After several long minutes, Charlie rolled free of Chet’s grip, and his hand closed over the rifle. He managed to point it at Chet and the Irish fire fighter stopped his advance. “Back up,” he hissed.
He fired the gun in the air, stopping the fighting. He pointed the weapon at John. “You... get over here with the others,” he snarled.
John began to walk slowly toward his friends. “I’m gonna finish this for you,” he sneered.
“Just leave it Charlie,” he said quietly.
“HE KILLED ANNA….YOU WANTED HIM DEAD!” Charlie screamed. “YOU DRAGGED ME OUT HERE TO GET EVEN AND NOW YOU DON’T WANT TO?”
“I’m not sure he did it now,” he replied honestly.
“He didn’t,” Marco insisted.
“But whoever did had access to John’s shirt in the ER,” Roy said, looking pointedly at Charlie.
“Shut up,” Charlie snarled angrily. Walt turned his own suspicious look toward Charlie. “What are you looking at?” He snapped. “He killed Anna and now you want to be merciful to him huh? Where was his mercy when he was bashing her head into the bumper of her truck huh?
Walt’s eyes widened. “How did you know that’s how she was killed?” He said, looking horrified.
Charlie’s eyes widened in fear at what he’d inadvertently let slip.
It finally all came together for the older man. “It was you,” Walt sneered.
Charlie pointed his gun at the group and grinned.
A helicopter suddenly rose from below the edge of the cliff, startling all of them.
Vince and Lance were getting frustrated. They’d been out for almost two hours now and their eyes felt like sandpaper from scouring the hillside. The earphones suddenly gave a burst of static.
“Sir…I think we have something,” the pilot said.
They turned in their seats to look where he was pointing.
Just ahead there was a sheer drop and at the top a group of men standing in a frozen tableau. One was armed. “That’s them,” he said, swatting his sharp shooter on the shoulder.
The man nodded his understanding. He grabbed his rifle, wrapping the strap firmly around his arm before sliding the door open and stepping out on the strut. The chopper dropped below the level of the cliff to remain unseen until they got close enough.
Walt stared at Charlie as if he’d just turned into a snake before his eyes. He would only know how Anna had died if he’d been there. He worked at Rampart, where Gage said his shirt was stolen from. He looked at the bandage on his wrist…right where the officer said the suspect had been cut…His hatred of women…It all added up.
“It was you,” he snarled.
Charlie pointed his gun at the group and grinned.
A helicopter suddenly rose behind Charlie.
The man turned to look and John took that moment to launch himself at Charlie, catching the man off guard. The gun flew from his hands as he fell backwards.
John cried out as his body connected with the other man. Charlie rolled and came to his feet, throwing himself toward the young paramedic. He needed a hostage and Gage was wounded and would be easy to handle. He turned, placing the fire fighter between him and the helicopter.
John’s feet were right on the edge, Charlie’s arm was around his neck. “You all back off or I swear I’ll push him off,” he snarled.
John wasn't normally afraid of heights, but he swallowed hard at the sight of a hundred foot drop inches from his feet.
“Take us off a ways,” Vince ordered, seeing that John was now a hostage.
The chopper banked away.
“You,” he said pointing at Hank. “Bring me that rifle.”
Hank didn’t like the idea but he had no choice. He picked up the rifle and walked toward Charlie. He worried his lip with his teeth. He had an idea, but with Johnny so close to the edge, it was risky.
He extended it butt first toward the man. Charlie let go of John with one hand and Hank acted. He reached out and grabbed John’s arm, pulling him toward him and away from his abductor. Charlie lost his grip around the young paramedics neck, but was quick enough to hang onto his bad arm wringing a cry of agony from the young paramedic.
He began to point the gun toward Hank, but Walt had seen his chance to take out his wife’s killer after all. He snatched up his crossbow and took aim.
There was a hiss as the bolt sailed past John’s head and hit Charlie in the chest. A look of shock crossed Charlie’s face and then pain followed.
Almost simutaneously, there was a crack of gunfire from the chopper and Charlie’s body arched from the force of it. He began to fall, but his hand was now locked around John’s wrist and he was being pulled along with the dying man.
Hank hung on for all he was worth. He was now in a life and death tug of war to keep John from being pulled over. He fought to free John’s wrist from the man’s death grip, without losing his hold on his youngest crew member. John’s foot slipped from the edge as Charlie’s limp body sagged to the ground.
"Oh God," John moaned, knowing he was going to fall.
Hank was being pulled forward along with his junior paramedic, his feet skidding in the soft dirt, but he refused to let go.
John eyes widened in terror as his foot slipped over the edge, and he cried out in pain from his wounded shoulder, but he continued trying to shake the dead man’s hand from his arm. He realized his Captain's peril as his other foot slid toward the lip of the canyon. "You have...to let go," he gasped, not willing to take Hank with him.
"Not...a...chance," Hank gritted out through teeth clenched with determination as he dug his feet in.
Suddenly Roy and Mike joined the effort. Roy’s arms wrapped around John’s waist as Mike pried Marsh’s fingers loose, he tried valiantly to hang on to the man, but it was no use. Marsh's hand slipped from Mike's fingers and his body tumbled over the edge as the four firemen fell backward away from the edge.
John lay on Roy’s chest, panting and trying to catch his breath. His teeth gritted against the agony lancing through him. He looked up at his captain. "You could... have been... killed Cap," he gasped accusingly.
Hank grinned. "I wasn't about to lose you son," he replied softly.
A small smile curled John's lips. "Thanks Cap," he answered, touched by his Captains explanation.
Roy blew out a relieved breath of his own as he cradled his young partner against him. “I think I’ve had enough of the great outdoors,” he said drily, breaking the tender moment.
“Me too,” John whispered, still shaking from his near fatal fall..
“Let’s... go... home,” Hank agreed, slightly breathless himself. He gave John's dark head a gentle pat.
Mike, Marco and Hank pushed open the door to John’s hospital room. Roy and Joanne were with him. Chet lay on his side in the next bed, still favoring his right butt cheek.
“Hey pal,” Hank greeted his youngest crew member before turning to Chet. “How ya doin Chet?” he added.
“Just great Cap,” the Irish fire fighter replied sourly.
“Doin better Cap,” John replied.
“He should be,” Chet said grouchily. “All the nurses are coming in to ooh and aah over his wound.”
“Well, you were wounded too pal,” Hank reminded him.
Chet’s face flushed crimson. “Yeah…But I can’t show mine off,” he growled, drawing chuckles from everyone.
“So what happened?” Roy asked his superior.
“Charlie Marsh was the Highway Stalker. The police had the evidence that would have convicted him. Grady was a neighbor of his. They guess when he stopped to attack Anna Grady, he didn’t realize it was someone he knew and then when he did; he had to kill her to keep her quiet.”
“Oh,” John murmured sadly. “But why did he hate me so much?”
“Walt Grady said he was jealous of you. He hated the way the nurses looked to you like some kind of hero and they couldn’t remember his name.”
Chet snorted with laughter. “Hero,” he muttered.
“He saved our lives out there, leading them off that way,” Roy reminded Chet, giving his young partner an angry scowl. John flushed a bit under his scrutiny.
“What’s gonna happen to Grady?” Mike asked.
“He’ll go to jail for assault on John and Chet and Marco,” he replied, "but with John willing to testify that he had a chance to kill him and didn't? It'll probably lesson the sentence."
“What about Officer Warren? He started this whole mess,” Mike asked.
John cringed a bit at the thought of the man and what he’d done and what had followed, but after everything he’d been through these last two days…He’d all but forgotten what had started the whole mess.
He glanced around at the people gathered in his room. They had all been there for him and he was now sure they would be again if he needed them. He’d never be completely free of his past or his ghosts, but for the moment, he didn’t need to fear Uncle George or his memories. He could begin to look forward, not back.
“They kicked him off the force. He’s going to security guard school,” Hank replied, bringing John’s thoughts back to the conversation.
“Guess that about covers it then,” Roy said, laying his hand on John’s arm. He was happy to see John didn’t flinch away.
“When are they gonna spring you John?” Hank asked.
“Later today; Brackett said I could go home with Roy and Jo.”
“Chet’s gonna come stay at my house,” Marco added before Hank could ask. “Mama is looking forward to taking care of him since his parents are in Boston visiting family,” he informed them.
“Good…Then you’ll both be well cared for.” Hank said with a grin.
John’s dark eyes lifted to meet Roy’s, “I already am Cap,” he said softly. “I already am.”
Roy gave him a wink and a gentle pat on the arm. John had once again put his past where it belonged…behind him. Someday, when he trusted him enough, Roy hoped he’d trust him with all of his secrets, but for now he was content that his kid brother had found his way back and come through strong and sure of himself once more. “Welcome back Junior,” he said softly.
Posted to Site 4/19/16
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