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The Root of All Evil

Part 1

An Emergency Story By

Mypiot
 

 

Links to Parts 1. 2.

 

 

Prologue:

Declan Cassidy sat rigid with his hands glued to the steering wheel, his eyes were locked on the road in front of him, his jaw set firm. A narrow brimmed hat sat forward on his head covering most of his graying brown hair which he had gathered into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. His mind was so consumed by his thoughts that the scenery passed by largely unnoticed as he made his way home to the town of St. Albans.

At fifty three, Declan still considered himself to be in the prime of his life, but he had never expected that he would have to assume the role of father to a toddler at this stage of the game. But the sudden death of his only daughter Ivy, her husband Glen and his seven year old granddaughter Nicole, in a horrific car accident the autumn before had suddenly thrust him into the role of single parent at the age of fifty two to his then two year old grandson Dominic, the sole survivor of the accident. His own wife, Josephine, had died of cancer ten years earlier, and he had gotten used to the bachelor life during the past decade… and he was hardly living the life of your typical grandparent. The simple truth was that for the past nine years, Declan had spent his time working as a rum runner.

Before that he and his wife Josie had owned their own bar, and had made decent living at it. But when she had been diagnosed with cancer, his life began to slowly unravel. Because of the mounting medical bills from months of treatments and lengthy hospital stays, he had accumulated a large debt … and then came the funeral costs when she had died nineteen months later.

On top of that, his only daughter, Ivy, then only nineteen, was still in university and he had taken out a small second mortgage on the house to help her with the tuition. In the end, Declan had been forced to sell the bar to pay the mounting bills, and even the money he had gotten for the bar barely made a dent in what he owed.

By the time six more months had passed, with no income coming in and the money from the sale of the bar eaten up by the hospital bills, Declan realized that there was a very good chance he could lose his home if things didn’t soon change.

Ever since Josie had died, he had felt so old … so used up… like he was just putting in time until he joined his dead wife in the graveyard. A couple months after Josie’s death, his daughter Ivy had met a young hippie, gotten pregnant and been forced to drop out of school in her final year. When she had finally summoned up the courage to tell him, he had lost his temper and he and Ivy had barely spoken since. The kicker was, Ivy had been on her way down from Canada to finally make peace with her father and introduce him to his grandchildren when the driver of a semi had crossed over the center line and hit them head on just outside of Swanton. It was only because of the quick thinking of an off duty paramedic who had been passing by at the time that Dominic had been saved.

So it was that, during the first year after Josie’s death, he had ended up living alone and broke, just watching time steal away his health and vitality, chipping away at his will to live in small increments, until eventually his body quit altogether.

It had been one night, in a state of depression that Declan had gone back to his old bar and tied one on. It was after a drunken confession to the proprietor about his sad state of affairs that the new owner of the bar had approached him with the idea of becoming a rum runner.

It was basically nothing more than the sale of stolen alcohol under the table, in order to avoid paying the taxes to the IRS.  Declan would get a percentage of the take for acting as the middle man. His job would be to collect the goods from the supplier and transport it back into Franklin county and store it in a concealed place until it was safe enough to deliver it to the bar owner. It had been the act of a drowning man being thrown a life line that had prompted Declan to accept the offer.

In the beginning he was nervous, but after his first run, Declan had found that the adrenaline rush made him feel alive again for the first time in months. Besides, he didn’t even consider himself a criminal… not really. Having been a bar owner himself, having to pay the IRS, he could sympathize. Many times he had said the IRS were bandits with their unreasonably high taxes … squeezing out every dime they could from the working class man.

It wasn’t long before he realized the real potential to make money rum running and within a year, Declan had added to his list of clientele. It quickly became apparent that he had a knack for knowing how to solicit the right customers. He was smart, personable, and being a former bar owner himself, he knew how to talk to these men… they were his kind of people.

He kept his list of clients small and manageable … big enough to haul in a tidy profit, but not big enough to tick off or draw any unwanted attention of the big time players in the cities. He stayed away from Burlington and kept his business to the smaller independent bars in the rural areas. He was smart enough not to get greedy… after all, by his reckoning there was more than enough to go around.

He and his customers had a symbiotic relationship. The bar owners made money by not paying taxes on a large portion of their liquor… they did have to buy enough legitimate liquor so as not to arouse suspicion with the tax man. But by subsidizing their liquor with black market stuff, they were still saving a bundle. So the bar owners were happy, his suppliers were happy, and he made a nice tidy sum himself.

It turned out he was a natural runner, he had an uncanny knack for staying under the radar. His strategy had always been to stay inconspicuous. For starters, other than the man he had sold the bar to, no one else knew his real name. To the suppliers, his customers and his blockers, he was known as Bud Johnson from Montpelier. It was a common practice for most of the players to use an alias. That way if anyone slipped up and was caught, it made it harder for the authorities to trace the others.

He made sure he had no set pattern to his deliveries. He had decided against renting a warehouse or storage unit to stash his goods in until they could be safely delivered. That way no one would get curious or ask questions as to what he was storing or why he came at odd times. Instead he had devised a system of hiding his haul at makeshift fishing or hunting camps all around central and western Vermont. He’d set up a camp in whatever area a particular client was located. He had always been an avid sportsman, so no one batted an eye when he would disappear for three or four days at a time on one of his so called hunting or fishing trips. He even made sure he bagged a deer when they were in season or a decent catch of fish to bring home to Margaret, the neighbour woman who looked after Dominic when was away on one of his “trips”. The one thing he made sure of was to keep all of the contraband away from his home. Within a matter of months he had become extremely adept at managing the duality of his persona, being able to change from Declan to Bud at will.

Declan was one of those rum runners who preferred to use blockers, which was basically another driver whose sole job was to run interference with the law. In this day and age it was nearly impossible to outrun the law… not when they could call on air surveillance via police helicopters. Your best course of action was to either outsmart them…or deception.

The job of the blocker was to simply tag along and drive in front or behind the vehicle holding the contraband in a decoy car. If a police vehicle happened to appear, it became the blockers job to draw away any unwanted attention. This was accomplished by the decoy car flagrantly breaking the law…either by speeding, going through a stop sign or running a red light; basically anything to draw the police’s attention away from Declan’s car.

The blocker kept the infraction small, something that would either get them a warning or a ticket, but nothing major, just enough of a distraction to allow Declan to drive on unnoticed.

Another one of his safeguards was to use fake bird watching blinds set up about a quarter mile around his “campsite” where lookouts kept watch for any sign of some hapless hikers. He had managed to commandeer a couple of ‘fish and feathers’ uniforms which his lookouts would wear.  Should a hiker come too close, the fake rangers would simply give a warning that there was a mother bear and her cubs nearby and quickly send the hikers back in the opposite direction, away from Declan’s camp.

For these tasks he had found a couple of men who had no issues with crossing over the boundaries as far as the law was concerned.

The first of these men was Ben Clarke, a single man in his early forties. Ben made his living as a small time mercenary… a man for hire on a job-by-job basis. For a few hundred dollars, Declan could hire him for a couple of days work whenever the need arose, after which time he would disappear again to do who knows what….Declan didn’t care, nor did he ask too many questions. More times than not, Ben would bring along his teenage nephew, Rusty, to help act as an unofficial lookout and someone to do the grunt work of setting up the blinds and cooking the food.

Rusty was a tall gangly looking lad of about sixteen or seventeen years of age. All that Declan really knew about the boy was that Ben was his guardian… and that he treated the boy like dirt. If Declan was around, he would usually put a stop to the worst of the abuse, but as a rule, he stayed out of it as long as Ben got the job done.

The only other man he hired was a “friend” of Ben’s… a pale, milquetoast looking man named Guy Weatherall, who was, as near as Declan could tell, a hanger on… a wannabe. Someone who had probably been bullied in school and now hung around with the big boys living vicariously through them. It was obvious he had no natural intelligence of his own and was living under the illusion that he was “one of the boys.” For the most part Ben ignored him as long as he did his job, but when he did speak to him, it was clear than Ben had nothing but utter disdain for the man.

Declan kept his association with these men strictly to that of a boss and his hired men. He made no effort to socialize or talk to them outside of what was necessary. To them he was Bud Johnson… the man who paid them for couple days work once a month… nothing more, nothing less.

Within a very short span of time, Declan had made enough money to get himself out of debt. He was smart enough to know if he paid off all of his debts too quickly, people would begin to wonder where he was suddenly getting the money, so slowly, over a period of five years, he paid off all of his debts entirely.

Now, nine years later his thoughts had turned toward retirement….it was soon time to get out of the game. One of the drawbacks of this lifestyle was that it was problematic and uncertain, and with a small boy depending on him, Declan realized he couldn’t carry on leading this double life. The death of Ivy and Glen had unexpectedly thrust the sole responsibility of raising young Dominic squarely on his shoulders, and sooner or later, no matter how careful one was, time would run out. The odds were that somewhere along the line, someone would slip up and the long arm of the law would catch up with him and justice would be done. It was like having a ticket in a bad lottery. Sooner or later your number was bound to come up… Declan planned on being long gone before that happened.

Thankfully, over the past decade he had amassed a tidy little bank account he had hidden away in the Cayman Islands and he had already begun plans to sell his home, retire from the business and move away. He knew he had to do it before the boy reached school age. No one would question it if he just pulled up stakes and moved. He’d simply leave with no forwarding address … settle in the Cayman Islands and raise Dominic in peace.

A slight rustling in the seat beside him caused him to snap out of his reverie and glance at the sleeping boy in the seat next to him. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he smiled down fondly at his only grandchild.

Yes, it was time to get out of the black market liquor business. “Soon,” he muttered under his breath… “very soon.”

 

 

 

                                                                  Chapter One  

 

Johnny rose up onto his elbows, heaved an exasperated sigh and turned his pillow over so that the cool side was facing up. Slowly, he lowered himself back down and buried his face in the coolness of the cotton fabric, settling himself once more. Unfortunately, the stillness in the bedroom didn’t last long. Barely a minute had passed before he flipped onto his back and let out another deep sigh...this time it was one of resignation and defeat. He lay there staring at the ceiling for a long time before rolling onto his side. As he did so, the clock on the nightstand appeared directly in his field of vision.

The illuminated numbers on the clock radio stood out against the darkness of his bedroom. It was almost as if the flashing lights were mocking him as he lay there staring at them … ticking away the seconds. He watched as the numbers changed over from three eleven, to three twelve. It was just another reminder that he was once again suffering through another sleepless night.

Gradually his eyes drifted away from the clock and onto the sheet of paper that was laying open beside it on the nightstand. He could faintly make out the official letterhead sprawling across the top, typed in boldface. It was just visible enough for him to read in the pale illumination given off by the clock radio.

“Damn you all to Hell,” he mumbled angrily. He had been cursing that letter for six days now, ever since it had arrived in his mailbox. He cursed what it said … he cursed everything it represented … he especially cursed its sender.  

He continued to lay there scowling at it for several minutes… as if by doing so, he could will it to just go away and leave him alone and let him live his life in peace. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask was it? “Haven’t I earned the right to just be left alone?” he whispered forlornly at the single sheet of parchment.

Johnny lay in bed trying to decide whether he should try and at least get a few hours’ sleep, or just admit defeat… again. That usually ended with him going down to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and then flipping on the late, late show as he mindlessly watched the television screen until dawn.

If he was being honest, he didn’t really want to sleep anyway, for the simple reason that, each time he had managed to fall asleep during the past five nights, memory had managed to impose its will on his subconscious.

He would no sooner drift off than his dreams would be haunted by the memories of his dying mother’s face, twisted in pain as she lay on the side of the embankment. Further down the hill, the family car lay in flames at the bottom of the ravine. His father’s body still strapped in the driver’s seat was burned beyond recognition. In his dream, Johnny could see his ten year old self sitting beside his mother, crying pitifully, gazing upon her sad smile as she pressed a necklace into his small hand. He could still hear her voice, barely above a whisper, as she told him that she loved him for the very last time. All he could do was sit beside her body, watching helplessly, unable to stop her life from ebbing away.

Each time he had the dream he would beg her not to leave him … hoping that just maybe, this time, she wouldn’t die. It was the faint hope of the ten year old boy Johnny was in his dreams. Hearing his mother’s voice again, even if it was just a dream, was such a bittersweet memory, both a blessing and a curse.

There was a part of Johnny that wanted to stay in the dream, hanging onto the sound of his mother’s voice … looking into her kind eyes, dark as pitch and as deep as the ocean. He wanted to remain with her so he could memorize her gentle smile, grateful that he’d at least had the chance to say good-bye … to tell her that he loved her.

But lying here alone in the dark, the soon to be thirty year old Johnny knew how the dream would end.  He would wake up alone in his bed, covered in sweat with tears streaming down his face, shaking with the realization that both of his parents were still dead. And that damn letter was still there waiting to be answered.

He supposed he could skip the coffee and the TV this time and remain in his bed and try to figure out what to do about his problem, but he hated doing that. It had always been one of his cardinal rules to never make any big decisions during the night. There was just something about the darkness and the shadows that seemed to play funny tricks on the mind. The shadows and the silence tended to cause the human mind to make mountains out of mole hills. And this problem was already big enough as it was.

In the end, Johnny threw back the covers and padded silently downstairs, making his way into the kitchen. He resigned himself to the fact that, once again, he was going to have to try and function on less than two hours sleep.

Grabbing his steaming mug of coffee, Johnny dropped bonelessly onto the sofa and glanced around at the dimly lit living room. Gradually his eyes drifted up toward the mantle, stopping to rest on the picture of him and his parents. It had been taken just a couple weeks before they had been killed. His eyes lingered on the black and white photo for several moments before traveling on to the next photo on the mantle. It was his favourite picture of him and Roy. 

Roy … That was just another issue heaped onto his already overflowing emotional plate. What was he going to do about Roy?

He had been walking around in a state of depression and anger for days now. He’d done his best to carry on at work as if nothing was wrong, but he knew he was failing miserably. He’d always had such a lousy poker face … especially when it came to Roy.

His partner knew him too well to be fooled by any of his feeble attempts to hide the fact that he was upset. It didn’t help that the dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep practically screamed out like a neon sign to Roy and it hadn’t taken very long before his best friend had figured out something was bothering him. Roy must have asked him fifty times during their last shift if everything was alright.

Twice while they had been working around the station, Roy had insisted on feeling Johnny’s forehead to make sure he didn’t have a fever… not to mention the fact that he had invited him over to his place for dinner no less than three times. All three times, Johnny had politely declined, insisting that he needed to catch up on some work around the ranch.

Johnny just didn’t see any point in burdening his partner with his dilemma. Besides there was nothing Roy could do to about it anyway. No, this was his problem and it was up to him to handle it.

The only problem was … he wasn’t handling it. 

                                                ~                         ~                        ~

Several hours later Johnny was jolted into wakefulness by the ringing of the telephone. The diffused light from the morning sun was shining through the window blinds leaving oddly patterned stripes of sunlight across Johnny’s body.

He had obviously fallen asleep on his sofa sometime after five when he had finally turned off his TV in disgust and grabbed a book off the coffee table. The book he’d been pretending to read now lay upside down on the floor where it must have fallen at some point after he had dozed off.

The phone continued ringing as Johnny pulled himself into a sitting position. He slid his legs over the side of the sofa until his feet were resting on the cold hardwood floor. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, his hand brushed against the stubble on his chin… he needed a shave.

He looked down at his wrist watch and tried make out what the hands said. After several bleary blinks he was finally able to bring the numbers into focus … seven thirty.

Shit, I need to get out and tend to the livestock.

He grimaced at the stale taste in his mouth as he turned toward the phone … the damn thing was still ringing. As he hoisted his tired body off the sofa he couldn’t help but groan at the ache in his back, the result of the awkward position he had been in when he’d drifted off two hours before.

“I’m coming already,” he yelled at the phone, as he headed toward the offensive instrument.

It must have rung more than ten times just in the time since he had woken up… and who knew how many more while he had been asleep? He didn’t have to try and guess who it was that was calling him this early in the day… it was Roy.

He knew it was Roy before he even picked it up…it was to be expected. Hell, he would have been more shocked if Roy hadn’t called.  His partner hadn’t tried to hide the fact that he had been worried about his mood of late…which is why he also knew that the phone wouldn’t stop ringing until he answered it…supposing it took thirty rings.

Johnny blew out a deep breath and walked over and picked up the receiver, ending its shrill wail.

“G’mornin’ Roy,” he answered sleepily, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.

 

  

                                                                    Chapter Two 

Roy raked his fingers through his hair in frustration, the phone receiver still in his hand. Like the previous six days, all of his attempts to cajole Johnny into coming over for a meal had been shot down before they had even left the launching pad.  Not that he was surprised, but he still couldn’t hide his disappointment over the fact that his phone call to Johnny had proven to be fruitless yet again.

Well enough was enough… this time he had a plan. This morning’s phone call had been as much about making sure Johnny was still home, as it had been about inviting him to lunch.  And now that he knew his partner was still moping around the ranch, and not wandering around the bush somewhere, he would put his plan in motion. To Roy’s way of thinking, if Mahomet wouldn’t come to the mountain, then the mountain would go to Mahomet. Hanging up the telephone, he headed back into his bedroom to inform Joanne that he would be implementing ‘plan B’ in his effort to find out what was troubling Johnny.

Roy stared into his open drawer trying to decide what he would need to take with him to Johnny’s. It was a decision made all the harder because he wasn’t exactly sure what kind of activities he should pack for … camping, ranch work or just hanging out in the house.

Ultimately, his final destination for the next three days depended entirely on how his partner reacted when he showed up unannounced on his doorstep, duffle in hand, ready to stay until the man gave in and talked to him about what was going on.

 As he stood beside his duffle bag, socks in hand, Roy mentally ran over a list of things he thought could possibly be causing Johnny so much distress.

He had narrowed it down to three possibilities … girlfriend, money or illness.

As far as the woman issue was concerned, Roy highly doubted it would be that.

John Gage was a young, healthy male in the prime of his life and he certainly enjoyed the bachelor life, and while he wouldn’t win any awards as an exponent for celibacy, he wasn’t careless with his dalliances either. He took personal responsibility to make sure that there would be zero population growth on his part … at least until he was married.  Besides, Johnny had left his skirt chasing days behind him back in L.A., opting these days for more long term relationships that lasted more than two weeks.

He had been currently dating Carrie Miller for over seven months now, although neither one was at the point of talking marriage at this stage of the game. Carrie was a nurse at the Burlington hospital who was planning on heading back to school to become a child psychologist, and she was not even considering marriage as long as she was studying… and that was fine with Johnny. He was happy enough with the status quo. His relationship with the DeSotos provided him with the best of both worlds, both family and freedom.

And Johnny always turned to Roy for consolation when it came to affairs of the heart. No, Roy decided. This wasn’t that kind of upset

The second thing that came to mind was financial issues, but somehow Roy didn’t believe that was it either. Johnny’s forced retirement from the Los Angeles County Fire Department had left his partner with a decent pension.

Plus the difference in real estate prices between L.A. and Swanton had also meant Johnny had made a tidy little profit from the sale of his ranch in California. Add to that the rent he was getting from Dixie for the cottage on his land, and he certainly wasn’t hurting for money. In fact John Gage seemed like a contradiction of terms if you knew the man, because half the time he acted as if he were one dollar away from being broke, but the truth was, that for as long as he had known him, John Gage was an excellent money manager. Even Joanne had taken a few tips from him on occasion.

The man could be as tight as bark to a tree, but not to the point of being miserly. Johnny had nice things, and he enjoyed his life, but he was not extravagant. He knew how to use tools and he was good with his hands. Consequently, a lot of his furnishings had been found in flea markets and restored to their original beauty. Johnny knew how to stretch a buck better anyone else he’d ever known. No, he couldn’t seriously believe that Johnny’s problems were money-oriented.

That just left the one that scared him the most….was he sick? If so, was it terminal? The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that that was what was wrong with Johnny.  It was probably the one thing he could think of that Johnny would hold back from him.

Usually his and Johnny’s communication skills were effortless. Johnny could be an anathema to others… but not to Roy. There wasn’t any subject that was off limits between the two of them.

Roy knew Johnny… he knew the very cadence and motion of the man. He knew the hidden meaning of every facial expression, every look in his partner’s eye.

Johnny’s eyes were the most expressive he’d ever seen. If he trusted you enough to let you look into them deep enough, they would tell you his secrets.

Behind Johnny’s goofy and sometimes irascible façade, there were many deeper, more complex layers to the man.

Roy intrinsically knew and understood Johnny… and it went both ways. Johnny had the goods on him as well. Over the years of working side by side together through thick and thin in such a perilous and emotionally charged occupation, one by one, all of their little secrets, foibles and fears had leaked out, until each man was an open book for the other to read…or so he had thought until this past week. These past few days, Johnny had shut the doors on all communication between the two of them and locked them tighter than Fort Knox.

For some reason Johnny had really dug his heels in this time and he was refusing to open up to Roy. That in itself was unusual, and the idea that he could be seriously ill had Roy worried. No, he wasn’t worried … he was scared. Something must be really wrong with his friend and brother.

With a new resolve and Joanne’s blessing, Roy dropped the last of his gear into his bag and zipped it closed. He was more determined than ever to get over to Johnny’s as quickly as possible. As far as he was concerned, he would go to the ranch and physically unpack his bags and park his butt in a chair until Johnny unpacked his emotional baggage.

Like it or not, Junior. You are going to spill your guts to me… supposing I have to hog tie you to a chair and wait for a month.

                                              ~                          ~                          ~   

 

When Johnny opened his door later that morning, he wasn’t all that surprised to see Roy standing there. What did surprise him was the bag Roy was holding in his hand.

Johnny let his gaze linger on the bag. It was pretty obvious that his partner was planning on staying longer than just a quick visit for a cup of coffee … he shouldn’t have been surprised. Johnny sighed in defeat and stepped aside, allowing Roy to enter through the door and into his foyer.

“You don’t need to do this, Roy,” he murmured.

“Yes, I do,” Roy answered as nudged the door closed with his foot. He pushed past Johnny and stepped into the great room.

“I’m fine,” Johnny replied quietly as he walked ahead of him into the kitchen.

“We both know you’re not, Junior… so you can stop trying to pretend.  This is me, remember?” Roy said as he set his bag down on the floor before following Johnny into the kitchen.

Roy plunked himself down in one of the kitchen chairs and accepted the mug of coffee Johnny had gone ahead and poured for him. He blew on the surface of the steaming liquid before taking a few cautious sips, testing to see how hot it was.

After of moment of prolonged silence, Roy got down to the purpose of his visit.

“I thought maybe we could go camping or something,” he said. “I figured it would give us a chance to talk privately about what’s going on with you, without any distractions.”

Roy made the declaration without any pretense. There was no point in pretending that this was anything other than a fact finding mission on his part. His voice betrayed just how deeply he was concerned for his best friend and brother.

Johnny shook his head vigorously, without looking up from the table’s surface. “I can’t go camping Roy…I have too much stuff to do around the ranch.”

Roy had expected this answer, and he had come prepared for it.

“No, you don’t, Johnny. I called Seth last night and it’s all arranged. He’s agreed to look after the place for you for a few days.”

For a split second, Johnny felt his temper flare at his partner’s presumptuousness that he would be willing to let Roy rearrange his weekend without asking him first. But any anger he felt toward his friend was fleeting.

He knew Roy’s actions stemmed from his concern for him. And no matter how piqued he was at this intrusion on his days off, Johnny also felt a genuine sense of thankfulness that his best friend and brother cared so much about his well-being. He always had, and Johnny had counted himself blessed on more than one occasion because of Roy DeSoto and his tenacious resolve to make positive changes in his life.

He also remembered the times in his life when nobody had given a damn whether he lived or died. Many times in the past, Johnny had counted on Roy being there for him, because he really didn’t have anyone else. So much so, that he had made Roy and his family a part of his Tiyospaye. He also knew that part of being in a family meant that you couldn’t just pick and choose the times when those you loved would care about you.

And one thing was for damn sure; he didn’t want Roy to ever stop caring. He knew what a precious gift that was.

Besides if the shoe was on the other foot, he would be on Roy’s case twenty-four/seven…never letting up until his friend told him what was wrong.

Neither man said a word for a long time. They just sat in silence drinking their coffee until finally, Johnny pushed up from the table and took Roy’s mug from his hands and topped it up, and without a word, walked into the great room. Roy drew in a deep breath and quietly followed Johnny to the front of the house.

The great room in Johnny’s house was decorated with materials found in the natural elements and it was Roy’s favourite room in the house. It was exactly how he would have expected Johnny’s home to be furnished; it reflected his partner’s personality to a tee. The room had polished hardwood maple flooring, and a large stone fireplace that graced the east wall. It had wooden beams along the ceiling and the walls were painted in earth tones. It was heavily accented with a distinctly native-themed décor.

Two large, comfortable chairs sat on either side of the fireplace. His over-stuffed sofa was situated directly across from the chairs. In between the sofa and the chairs rested a beautiful chest made from wood Johnny had rescued from a centuries-old farmhouse that was being reconstructed. It acted as the coffee table and storage unit.

It was a beautiful piece of furniture, finely crafted with great care by his partner last summer. Johnny had clearly put a lot of his heart and soul into the effort. Roy particularly loved this piece, because its mate sat in his own den in his house. It had been a birthday gift from Johnny the previous November. Like the rest of the great room, the wood on the chest was rich and mellow, and polished to a sheen you could see your reflection in. Johnny never bought anything that he couldn’t refinish and add his own character to.

Unlike his old apartment back in Los Angeles…this was not just a building that Johnny lived in…this was his home, which was why Roy loved sitting in this room so much.

If he had to choose a single word to describe how he felt when he sat here on his many visits to the ranch, just talking with Johnny in the warm convivial atmosphere, he supposed that word would be satisfying.

Not that Roy didn’t enjoy his own home … there was no question that he loved his family more than life itself. But he did have to admit that sometimes the floral sofa and the feminine-flavoured décor in his home was a bit more effeminate than he would have chosen. The only

masculine room in his home was his den…and the garage. And even at that, the garage was filled with storage boxes from the house.

 

~   ~   ~

What little conversation the two men had exchanged over the past hour had waned into silence. Johnny sat slouched in one of the recliners, slowly blinking, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair while his hands cradled his now empty mug. He was beyond exhausted and all he really wanted was another couple hours of sleep.

The fire in the grate had long since gone out so that the corners of the room were bathed in shadows, the angle of the mid-morning sun’s rays not quite able to reach into the farthest recesses of the room.

Johnny heaved a mental sigh. He had known all along that he was only fooling himself by thinking he could keep this problem to himself. There was no way in hell Roy was just going to let the matter drop.

He and Roy were like extensions of each other. He was in charge of the unbridled energy, while Roy was in charge of reason. They complimented each other perfectly and it was their closeness that had transformed their relationship very early on from that of best friends to family.

Sooner or later he was going to have to come clean to Roy … he just wasn’t sure he wanted to do it here at the house. He and Roy had always had their deepest conversations during their camping trips. Maybe his friend had the right idea after all… maybe he needed to get away for a couple of days.

~  ~ ~

Roy was sitting on the sofa, trying to think of a new tactic to draw his reticent friend into some semblance of a conversation. He was just about to concede defeat when he heard a ghost of a sigh emanating from Johnny. He looked over at his friend and their eyes met briefly in unspoken conversation. It consisted of a heartfelt plea on Roy’s part, and acquiescence on Johnny’s.

The two men broke their gaze and Johnny dropped his eyes back towards the mug in his hands as he shrugged in surrender. Finally, raising his head, he looked over at his friend with a rueful smile.

“Fishing,” he said decisively. “If we’re gonna do this, then let’s go someplace where I can fish.”

“Ummm…I didn’t bring my pole or tackle with me, Junior,” Roy started nervously. The last thing he wanted to do now was to jeopardize the plan that he’d finally gotten Johnny to agree to.

“S’okay,” Johnny answered. “I got an extra rod. But you get the open faced reel…I hate that damned thing. It always tangles my line.”

“Gee thanks,” Roy teased, relieved that Johnny had given in.

Johnny looked over and gave Roy the first hint of a grin he’d seen from his younger partner in days. “Hey … be careful what you ask for, Pally… you just might get it. This whole trip was your idea, so take it or leave it.”

Roy grinned back, and jumped to his feet. “Okay, then. Fishing it is,” he said rubbing his hands together. “Now shall we take my car or yours?” he asked, knowing the reaction it would provoke.

Johnny snorted derisively. “Are you kidding me, Roy? That little dinky car you drive? That thing will barely hold the two of us, let alone all of our gear. Not to mention the fact that it gets swamped in any mud puddle over one inch in depth.”

Johnny rose up out of his chair and headed back into the kitchen with the empty mugs. “I’ll get my gear and pack up the Rover,” he called back over his shoulder. “You can be in charge of getting together some grub….there should be lots of food in the pantry.”

Roy hurriedly followed Johnny into the kitchen. He knew that there was no guarantee that Johnny would open up to him about what was bothering him, but he would take what he could get for now.

Well it’s a start, Junior… it’s a  start.

 

 Chapter Three

Roy stood on the path and glanced around. His shirt was drenched in sweat, despite the fact that underneath the forest canopy the air was damp and cool. An occasional shaft of sunlight had managed to slip through the dense layer of leaves, casting narrow ribbons of light on the earthen trail in front of him.

The air was heavy with the smell of rotting vegetation left over from the previous autumn. The sodden leaves still lay thick where they had piled up against fallen tree trunks and gnarled roots. The musty smell was interspersed with the faint scent of evergreen that wafted on the breeze from the fir trees that were scattered here and there amongst the hardwood forest.

Roy paused just long enough to take a swig of water from his canteen. He let the cool liquid soothe his parched throat. He filled his lungs with a deep breath of fresh air, and slowly exhaled. He removed the bandana from around his neck and poured some water onto it, using it to wipe the sweat from his brow before screwing the cap back on his canteen.

Once he had finished, he quickly strung the canteen’s strap over his shoulder and hurried to catch up to Johnny who was now a good fifty feet ahead of him on the trail.  They had been hiking for over an hour, walking along in silence.

That in itself was unusual for Johnny. He was never at a loss when it came to the art of casual conversation. It was a large part of what Roy savored most about these fishing weekends, the pleasant congenial atmosphere that usually prevailed during these trips.

But this weekend was different. And whatever it was that was troubling the younger man, he wasn’t forthcoming with any information as of yet.

Well, no matter, Roy thought. He’d let Johnny come to it in his own time. After all, they both knew what the purpose of this fishing trip was. There was no need for either of them to pretend. Johnny was fully aware of the fact that Roy expected him to come clean about what had been bothering him before the weekend was over.

The path they were travelling on traced its way across the middle of the nature reserve, meandering through the woods in a circuitous route. The trail itself was well defined, being used regularly by both hikers and wildlife alike. It wasn’t long however, before Johnny stepped off the hiking path and on to a game trail that veered off to the north.

He wasn’t surprised, Johnny had always had preferred to poke around the lesser used and unmarked paths and game trails. In fact as far as John Gage was concerned, the wilder and more deserted the better.

Roy felt a familiar hollow pang in his stomach and glanced down at his watch. He noted that it had gone past one o’clock … it had been over six hours since breakfast. Raising his head, he called out to Johnny.

“Do you mind if we take a bit of a break now, Junior? I could use one of those sandwiches I packed right about now.”

Roy saw Johnny start at the sudden sound of his voice.  The younger man had been so deep in thought all morning that Roy was sure his partner had forgotten he was even there.

Johnny pivoted around and gave Roy a sheepish smile.

“Sorry Roy. I guess I just lost track of time. You should have told me to hold up an hour ago,” he said apologetically. “There’s a bit of a clearing that runs alongside a small brook about a quarter mile up ahead. We’re only an hour or two away from where I want to camp, so we have plenty of time to stop for a bite to eat.”

Johnny paused, allowing Roy to catch up to him. Holding a branch aside, he motioned Roy to walk on ahead of him on the game trail. He felt mildly guilty for virtually ignoring his best friend and brother all morning. He figured if Roy was in front of him in plain view, he would be less likely to slip back into his own thoughts as they walked along.

“Just make sure you stay on the game trail… this area has a lot of hidden crevices in it for the next couple of miles, but it’s the quickest and safest route to where I want to set up camp,” he said as Roy started to move ahead of him.

He waited as Roy slipped past him, knocking away the few tiny spider webs that were strung between the leaves of the scrub brush whose branches sprawled out across the trail.

Fifteen minutes of brisk walking brought them to the clearing Johnny had mentioned. The younger man let his rucksack slip off of his shoulders and fall onto the bank of the stream, before he too dropped down onto the ground with a groan.

“Too many busted legs in my youth,” he smiled ruefully as he rubbed at his shin and knee.

Roy followed Johnny’s lead and let his pack fall onto the small patch of grass that had managed to grow in the tiny glade. He leaned back to stretch out his own complaining back muscles and smiled as he looked around at the picturesque scene before him. He listened to the quiet gentle melody of the tiny brook as it sang in harmony with the birds in the trees.  The atmosphere would have been blissfully perfect if it had not been for Johnny’s mood. But as it was, Roy could not fully enjoy the view… largely because his concern for his little brother overshadowed all the beauty and cast a pall over his entire surroundings.

Roy’s earlier smile flipped into a worried frown as he glanced over at Johnny, who was currently sitting on the bank of the stream not saying a word as he sat staring at the ground.

Slowly Johnny’s eyes rose to meet Roy’s. For the second time in less than half an hour he smiled apologetically when he noticed the worry on the face of his older brother.

“Sorry, Pally. I guess I’m not the best company today, am I?”

“Well, it is rather conspicuous by its absence,” Roy answered.

Johnny looked back, his eyebrows rising questioningly.

“Your conversational skills,” Roy clarified.

Johnny acknowledged the truth of his friends’ words with a light nod of his head. “Sorry, I’ll try to do better this afternoon,” he said without much conviction.

Roy pushed himself up and walked over to the where his partner sat dejectedly. Sitting himself down on the damp earth he put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder.  “Don’t be sorry, Junior.  You are entitled to your feelings as much as the next man… and I knew all along that this trip wasn’t about having fun. It was my idea in the first place, remember? I just want to be here for you… and I didn’t come here with the expectation of being entertained. I just want to help you deal with whatever it is that’s got you so upset.”

Johnny reached up and patted the hand that sat on his shoulder. “Still, I’ll try to do better,” he promised. “It’s just that I don’t want to go wading into ‘that’ space just yet.” Johnny looked up into Roy’s eyes and held his gaze. “Not until later,” he said quietly.

Roy gave Johnny’s hand a reassuring squeeze and stood up. “Okay, Junior… I’ll be here whenever you’re ready to unpack.”

Roy wasn’t sure what, ‘that space’ meant, but whatever it was, it had him worried.

Roy reached into Johnny’s discarded rucksack and pulled out a couple of tuna fish sandwiches and handed one of them to Johnny. The two men fell into an uncomfortable silence as they sat on the bank watching the tiny waves of water gurgling over the few errant stones that stuck out above the stream, while they ate their lunch.

Roy noted in dismay that Johnny was barely nibbling on his sandwich… it was something else that was out of the ordinary for his partner.

Johnny, for his part was busy taking a walk down memory lane. The scenery around him had called to mind another day just like this one … one that had occurred on the edge of a clear stream many years earlier in Montana.

He would have been about nine years old and he and his parents had gone on an all day picnic. He could still see his mother, sitting on a quilt stretched out beneath a willow tree, spreading out fried chicken, coleslaw and corn bread, while he and his dad fished for trout.

Neither man spoke for almost half an hour. Johnny’s silence had been so prevalent, that Roy nearly jumped out of his skin when from out of the blue, Johnny spoke.

“Hey, Roy?”

“Yeah?” Roy answered.

Johnny turned to face the older man and cocked an eyebrow at him. “If you could have a single wish granted… a wish that let you go anywhere in the world or do anything you wanted for twenty four hours … what would it be?”

Roy stared at his friend, not sure what had brought up this line of questioning.

“It can’t be anything material,” Johnny added. “Nothing like a mansion or a million bucks … but you could be anywhere in the world, with whomever you choose, doing whatever you wanted… for twenty four hours,” he averred.

Roy stopped to think about the question. As much as he was confused by what was running through Johnny’s mind, it was the first hint at conversation he had even heard from the man all day, and he didn’t want to do or say anything that would cause Johnny to pull into himself again… not now that he was at least making some effort at talking to him.

Roy credited himself as being someone who could think quickly on his feet, in their line of work you had to. But he conceded that of the two of them, Johnny had the quicker mind, and with his question coming out of nowhere, Roy was at a total loss as to how to answer his friend. He knew Johnny was expecting him to answer, but his mind was drawing a complete blank.

“I don’t know, Junior,” he said slowly. “I really can’t come up with anything offhand.”

Johnny heaved a heavy sigh of frustration.

“Aw come on Roy, put your heart into the exercise, will ya? There has to be some kind of fantasy you have always secretly wished for?” he coaxed.

Roy looked over at Johnny and blushed as he called to mind a conversation he’d had with Joanne on their last anniversary about a fantasy wish he had.

The moment Johnny noticed Roy’s discomfort; he pounced on it like a fox on a mouse.

“Ah-ha, I knew it,” he said smugly. “There is something…okay partner, spill your guts.”

Considering what he was expecting from Johnny later on, Roy knew if he didn’t share now, Johnny could very well decide to stay silent for the rest of the trip… besides it wasn’t anything kinky and it would be good leverage later on when they got to their campsite.

Still, Roy hoped he could get this out without his face turning too red. He took in a deep breath and faced Johnny.

“Well, since you really want to know,” Roy said as he began to fidget

nervously. He couldn’t believe he was about to openly tell Johnny about his intimate fantasy.

“Um…well, I guess I have always wanted to go to one of those remote tropical Islands and rent a hut… you know those grass huts on one of those small private beaches…maybe near a lagoon… just Joanne and I.  We’d spend the afternoon skinny dipping in the lagoon… among other things… and walk along the shore looking for sea shells. Then when it got dark, I’d build a huge bonfire on the sand and spread out a blanket. I’d have a bottle of wine, a few oysters and some cheese, and then when we were finished our meal, Jo and I would make love under the stars and fall asleep on the beach in each other’s arms.”

Roy was half expecting Johnny to giggle or even make a few sly or rude comments, so he steeled himself for what would come next. But to his very great shock, Johnny quickly disabused him of his fears, by simply staring at him in utter silence for several moments before nodding his approval and saying, “You should do it, Roy. You should save up and go.”

Roy snorted. “Chance would be a fine thing, Junior. A- It would cost a lot of money to do that; and B- I’ve used up all my vacation time for the next six months.

Johnny shook his head in defiance. “I’m serious, Roy. Before too much time passes, you should find a way to do it. Never lose the chance to create special memories, Roy… because you never know when you’ll lose the chance forever.”

Once again, Roy wasn’t sure how to react to Johnny’s almost maudlin statement.  He was spared having to come with an answer, when Johnny suddenly hoisted himself up and began grabbing at the remnants of their lunch.

“I guess we’d better head out now,” Johnny said, pushing the rest of the uneaten food down into his rucksack.

Roy stood up and brushed a few small twigs off of his pants. “Okay Junior, but first I need to avail myself of the ‘ravine latrine,’ he joked.

Johnny nodded without looking up as he continued working on the drawstring of his pack. He had just got its straps slung over his shoulders and was about to stand up, when he heard an unearthly shout of panic coming from Roy somewhere off to his right in the woods. Moving with a speed he never knew he possessed, Johnny raced toward the sound of Roy’s cries for help.

He hadn’t needed to run very far before he came upon his partner, hanging precariously off the edge of a deep crevice. His hands and forearms were reaching over the rocky edge of the precipice, grasping desperately onto the few shrubs that were providing a temporary hand hold. It was barely a foot and a half wide, but it went down a long way. Below Roy’s feet, the narrow passage fell over fifty feet into a deep black abyss of nothingness that lay in the bowels of the earth below.

Johnny pulled off his pack and unfastened the length or rope that was secured to the outside of the bag. Quickly and with nimble fingers that could tie a knot in less than ten seconds, he fastened one end of the rope to a large elm tree several feet away. Running over to his fallen brother, he gingerly leaned over and secured the rope underneath Roy’s arms, tying it around his upper body so he wouldn’t fall down any further. Once he was sure the rope was secure, he pulled himself back onto his haunches and latched onto Roy’s wrists.

“You hurt anywhere, Roy?” he asked as he began to gently pull his partner back up over the edge of the rock, his voice unsteady with both fear and relief.

“No,” came the reply in a voice that was just as shaky as his own.  “I just scrapped off some skin and I’m a bit shaken up is all.”

In very short order, Johnny had his friend safely back on solid ground.

“The mouth of the crevice was covered over with fallen twigs and leaves… I didn’t even know it was there until I stepped on it,” Roy panted out. He laid there on his back trying to get his breathing back under control, his pants still around his knees. Thankfully his boxers had been in place.

Johnny grabbed his rucksack and began to loosen the drawstring.  “Let me check out those abrasions before you pull up your pants, Roy. It looks like there may be some debris in them,” Johnny said as he pulled out the first aid kit from his pack.

Using the small set of tweezers from the kit, Johnny removed several tiny bits of stone and dirt from the abrasions on Roy’s legs before rinsing them off with a small bottle of saline. After applying some Polysporin ointment and covering them with Band aids, Johnny helped Roy to his feet and steadied him. “You all set?” he asked.

Roy nodded and was about to thank Johnny when he noticed the younger man’s eyes had drifted upward as he whispered, “thanks” to the sky.

Roy looked at him quizzically.

“Just giving, HIM, his rightful credit,” Johnny said by way of explanation, throwing another glance heavenward.

Roy nodded in agreement and quickly added his own word of gratitude to the Big Paramedic in the sky. Until he had met Johnny, he had always viewed God in a more offhand way… sort of like Pascal’s wager. It was just a way of doubling down and hedging his bet. He certainly wasn’t into praying the way Johnny did when times got tough, but he had been increasingly giving the Creator a lot more credit and consideration since meeting John Gage.

Johnny, as usual, seemed to be reading Roy’s thoughts as he smiled and shrugged.

“Praying connects me to something bigger,” he paused. “Something bigger than myself … than any of us,” he clarified. “It gives me a nice sense of comfort knowing that there is someone in control of the universe, and that I can have access to him just by praying.”

Roy grinned and gave Johnny a quick slap on the back. “Well, thankfully, I had both Him and you looking out for me today … thanks again… to both of you.”

Johnny smiled back briefly before growing serious again.  “You’re welcome, Pally. But don’t overplay your hand. One mis-step out here and you’ll have to settle up with the Lord right here in the woods… God may grant you mercy, but Mother Nature doesn’t care if you live or die. She’s as capricious as a lightning strike and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She seldom forgives or offers second chances.”

Johnny rubbed a shaky hand over his face and blew out a steadying breath. “Man Roy. If you ever come nearer to death than you did today, you’ll be able to reach over and steal his scythe. You took ten years off my life today, Pally,” he finished with a shaky laugh.

Roy just nodded in agreement. “Now you know how I feel every time you have a brush with death, Junior.”

Johnny grinned self-consciously. “Well, we’d better play it safe… no more veering off the trail until we are well away from this area. If you have to answer the call of nature…just pee on the path,” Johnny said as he walked back towards the clearing so they could retrieve Roy’s backpack.

The two men pressed onward for another couple of hours before Johnny finally left the game trail and cut a path through a dense stand of trees. They broke into a tiny clearing along the banks of a deep broad river where Johnny dropped their gear and declared that this was where they would be setting up camp for the night.

~                   ~                    ~

Heaven on earth … that’s what this reminded him of. Standing there on the bank of the river, fishing pole in hand, the sweeping expanse of trees above the crystal clear waters of the river was breathtaking. The only thing marring this moment was the rather subdued atmosphere that hung over their campsite like a lead weight. It made Roy feel out of sorts despite the beauty that surrounded him. If only Johnny would just open up and confide in him about what the problem was.

Usually Roy had no difficulty initiating conversation with Johnny, but his partner’s current mood left him feeling unsure about how to approach the man who had grown closer to him than his own skin.

He had argued back and forth with himself for hours. Should he just barge forward and try and force the issue, or should he bide his time and wait for Johnny to bring it up himself. He had been stealing covert glances in his partner’s direction all afternoon in the hopes of seeing some kind of indication that his reticent brother was ready to spill his guts.

When dealing with John Gage, it was a crap shoot. Charging ahead could go either way. It would either prod him into coming clean, or it could push him into a silence that was almost impossible to break.

It wasn’t as if he wasn’t used to silence while they fished. Normally the two of them enjoyed these moments of quiet contemplation with just the two of them relaxing and enjoying their time together with Mother Nature. But this quiet wasn’t the companionable silence they usually enjoyed … this silence was avoidance, and it was unnerving.

Roy glanced over at Johnny who was sitting on the bank of the river, mutely fishing. The younger man’s face was a kaleidoscope of emotions. At times he would tense up and his shoulders would straighten up to attention … his eyes flashing with anger as some thought occurred to him in the private musings inside his head. But it would only last a few moments before he would seemed to deflate, his shoulders slouching back down dejectedly in what could best be described as resignation to his fate. It was then that Roy could see the sorrow creep back into those dark eyes.

A rustling of leaves at his feet pulled Roy out of his contemplations. He looked around but there was nothing to be seen. More than likely it had been a water snake hunting for frogs or perhaps even a small mouse. If he was quick enough or astute enough, he could sometimes catch a glimpse of them as they slithered by. He felt a faint tug at the end of his line alerting him to the fact that something was nibbling at his bait. He waited patiently until the slight tug became a stronger jerk before he began reeling in his prize.

Fish in hand; Roy sauntered over to stand beside Johnny. Reaching down he grabbed the string of fish they had submerged in the river and hauled it up, adding his latest trout to the line.

“This makes two apiece,” he announced. “There’s no sense in catching more than we can eat in one sitting… besides, it’s almost six thirty and I’m hungry. Do you want to cook or clean?” he asked holding the string of fish in the air.

Johnny slowly pivoted around and glanced at their catch but did not immediately answer. For a moment Roy thought he hadn’t heard his question. He was just about to repeat himself when Johnny answered.

“I’ll cook … you clean. I’m better at building a camp fire than you are.” Johnny reeled in his line and gathered up his gear. He glanced over at Roy and gave him a scrutinizing look.

“How are those abrasions on your leg feeling? I should probably have a look at them later on and make sure they’re okay,” he said.

Well, at least he is talking, Roy thought.

“They’re a little tender, but not too bad. I’ll put a little more ointment on them before bed … I’m sure they’re fine… just a few little scrapes,” Roy said dismissively.

Johnny nodded as he bent over and grabbed the tackle box and handed it to Roy. “The knife is in there… it’s really sharp so watch your fingers, Pally. Only one injury per trip is allowed.”

Roy just rolled his eyes and snorted. “Thanks, Junior,” he said, grabbing the box out of Johnny’s outstretched hands. “But might I remind you, you’re the one with the bad track record for injuries on these trips.”

For the first time since they left for this trip, Johnny smiled … well, it was more of a smirk really.

“Well, Pal of mine … with all due respect, I’m not the one who almost died out there today … and as I recall you weren’t exactly the picture of health yourself after that hot air balloon ride you roped me into.”

Roy chuckled as he turned to retrieve their fish. “Fair enough,” he called back over his shoulder.

As he sat at the river’s edge preparing the fish for the frying pan, Roy glanced back in Johnny’s direction. In typical Johnny fashion, he had built the fire as small as possible. He smiled inwardly as he remembered the teasing Johnny had given Chet over their former crewmate’s tendency to build huge campfires. Johnny had explained to him that Native’s couldn’t understand the white man’s propensity for huge fires. He told Chet that little was served in building a huge fire that forced you to sit so far back from it because of the heat and flame.

The only thing that did was waste wood, and it was useless to cook over. Johnny said it was far better to build a small fire … no bigger than your immediate needs and sit closer.

This suited Roy to a tee, as he always worried about Johnny and smoke these days. But he needn’t have been concerned. Ever since his empyema, Johnny played it extra safe around fire, making sure he sat well back out of direct smoke with plenty of ventilation and fresh air.

As the sun lowered in the western skies and the evening colours began to deepen, the two men sat side by side on the fallen log Johnny had commandeered for use as a makeshift bench. They only audible sounds were those of the night creatures beginning to stir in the fading light. The two brothers watched in silence as one by one, the stars began to appear in the night sky. Off to the right, they could hear the grunts and scuffling of a raccoon that had been drawn to their campsite by the faint smell of fish that had mixed in with the smell of burning cedar. Its eyes glowed out from the bushes as they reflected in the light of the campfire. The dry wood cracked and popped merrily, casting off warmth that was comforting. Finally Roy could stand the silence no longer.

“Johnny?”

Johnny turned his head to look at his partner, his eyebrows raised questioningly. “What?”

“What’s going on with you?” he asked softly.

Roy instantly regretted the question as he watched Johnny’s brow crease and the muscles in his jaw tighten. The younger man rose and strode over to the river’s edge and stood looking out over the water. He pushed his hands down into his pockets as he began to kick at a clump of damp mud with the toe of his hiking boot. He stood still as a statue for several minutes, before he stepped a couple feet back from the bank, and leaned his shoulder against the trunk of a large maple tree. He reached up and plucked a leaf from a low lying branch and began shredding it absentmindedly with his fingers. For a long time, Johnny remained still, staring intently at the bits of leaf in his hands before heaving a heavy sigh. He tossed the pieces of mangled leaf in to the water and stood watching in the moonlight as they floated on the surface of the water, until they were carried downstream, disappearing into the dark shadows of the night.

A noise in the bush momentarily drew his attention away, before he slowly made his way back to the fire where he resumed his place on the log beside Roy.

Roy reached over and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.

“Sorry Johnny. I shouldn’t have pushed… not if you’re not ready yet.”

Johnny blew out a deep breath.

“Naw, it’s alright Roy. I’d probably feel better if I talked it out with you. I mean, it’s not like it’s a state secret or anything. Just … just not tonight though… okay? I just don’t want to go to sleep after discussing such a heavy subject. Neither one of us would get any sleep if I did.”

Roy could have argued the point. It was fairly evident from the dark circles under Johnny’s eyes that he hadn’t been sleeping for quite a few nights now, but he decided to let the matter drop for the moment… he could wait until morning. Besides, it was clear to Roy that no more explanations would be forthcoming tonight… even if he did have the heart to prod him some more. But come Hell or high water, tomorrow he and Johnny were going to talk.

“Alright Junior … tomorrow.” 

Roy gave Johnny’s leg a quick pat, before pushing himself up off the log.

“I think it’s time for a bathroom break before I turn in.”

Johnny looked back over his shoulder towards Roy, giving him a warning glance.

Roy chuckled and held his hands up in surrender.

“Don’t worry; I’m not going to go walking through the woods in the dark…just to edge of the clearing.”  Roy said with a grin as he retreated toward the bushes behind their tent. Roy was almost to the edge of the clearing, when he heard Johnny’s voice call out across the darkness.

“Hey, Roy?”

Roy stopped and turned to look at Johnny who was sitting on the log with his back to him.

“Yeah?”

“You know that hypothetical game we were playing today… the one about you having a wish granted for twenty four hours?”

“What about it, Junior?”

“You know what I would wish for?” Johnny asked, as he turned to face his friend.

“No, what?” Roy replied.

“I’d like my parents back … Just to spend one more day with them, maybe fishing…or going on a picnic. A chance to hold them and tell them how much I love and miss them, to let them know I’m doing okay… that I got out.” There was a pause and Roy thought he detected the sound of sniffling. He was just about to go over to his friend, when the younger man spoke again.

“I’d like them to meet you, and see how special you are… to meet my entire Tiyospaye. Maybe show them what I’d done with my life… I think they would be proud of what I’ve accomplished… don’t you think?”

Roy detected more than a trace of a quiver in Johnny’s voice. He walked back to where the young man sat and placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze.

“There is no doubt about it … they’d be extremely proud of you, Johnny … I know I sure am.” Roy paused for a moment to sit down beside his brother.

“You know,” Roy said quietly. “I wish I could have met then too, mainly so I could thank them for bringing such an amazing man into this world. A best friend and partner who has saved a lot of lives over the years … including my own.  A man who has enriched my life in more ways than I could ever count… a man who I am proud to call my brother.”

“Thanks, Pally,” Johnny whispered. “That means a lot to me.” Johnny scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands and then he stood, brushing the bits of bark off his jeans. He leaned over and began to extinguish the flames from the fire.

“I think it’s time to call it a day….don’t you?” he said, his eyes and concentration firmly on the task at hand.

It had been a long day and Roy’s body was beginning to stiffen up from his little fall earlier in the day.

“Sounds like a good idea to me, Junior. I’m pretty bushed myself,” he said. He got back up off the log and walked over the clearing to take care of his personal business before bed. He had just settled himself down into his sleeping bag, when he saw Johnny rise from the fire pit and walk over to the tent. The flimsy canvas walls of the tent flapped as the sounds of the rising wind rustled through the trees. Johnny paused to re-check the guy wires securing their shelter, before he too entered inside and flopped on top of his own sleeping bag.

“Night, Roy,” he called out quietly.

“Night, Johnny,” came the equally quiet reply.

Roy lay there snug in his sleeping bag listening to the sounds of the night. There was none of the usual banter between him and Johnny as he waited for sleep to overtake him. Outside the branches creaked and groaned as the sounds of the gently flowing river lulled him slowly to sleep.

For Johnny, sleep came slowly and even when it did he was plagued by dreams of his mother’s face as she lay dead along the roadside. Nightmares that he had thought were largely a thing of the past now. But since receiving that damnable letter, they had resurfaced. They jolted him awake several times during the night, leaving him with nothing to do but stare into the darkness. Inside the tent, Johnny rolled onto his back and stared through the tent’s opening at the night sky. Quietly he slipped outside and plunked himself down on the log next to the fire pit.

The last of the embers in the bottom of the pit had long since died down to ash. Johnny picked up a stick and poked at the few cinders that remained. There was still a faint trace of warmth left in the bottom of the pit, so he grabbed a small handful of dried twigs, and using his lighter, he rekindled the flames. In no time at all he had the coffee pot sitting on top of the metal grate he used for cooking. As he sat there waiting for the water to boil, he reached inside his back pocket and pulled out the stiff sheet of paper with its official looking letterhead and began to read it in the pale light of the fire.

                                                           ~                ~               ~

Something was digging into his back.

 I must be lying on a stick.

No, that couldn’t be right. Johnny was a stickler for making sure the ground was clear before setting up the tent. He was almost anal about it, saying the last thing he wanted was a tear in the floor of the tent.

There must be something in my back pocket.

Roy contorted his body around inside his sleeping bag until he found the offending object … My car keys.

He moved them into his front pocket and burrowed down further into his sleeping bag. Two things entered into his awareness simultaneously. The first being, that he was alone inside the tent. The second was, he could smell wood smoke… and coffee. The inviting aroma of the rich brew caused a rumbling in his gut. It was at that point that he realized his stomach felt empty and his bladder felt full.

I shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee before turning in last night.

He slid his arm out from the folds of his sleeping bag and pushed the opening of their tent aside.

The moon was low in the sky, although the sun had not yet cleared the horizon. Dawn would soon be upon them, but as of yet the sky was still barely grey in the east and the night shadows still lurked in the woods. His sleeping bag felt soft and warm against the chilly pre-dawn air.

In the center of their camp a curling spiral of smoke drifted upward into the trees overhead. Johnny sat hunched over into himself; a sheet of paper lay open beside him. He sat on the edge of the log, his fingers wrapped around a mug of what Roy assumed was coffee while he stared at the fire in a trance. He watched the flames do their intricate dance. It was almost as if he thought that somewhere in their movements lay the key to his problems … that if he concentrated hard enough, he could extract the answers he needed from the flame.

How long Roy lay there watching his partner, he couldn’t say, but he nearly jumped out of his skin when from out of nowhere, Johnny spoke.

“You might as well come out and sit near the fire where it’s warmer instead of lying there pretending to be asleep.”

He turned around and waved Roy over, gently patting the log beside him.

“Coffee’s hot and there’s lots of it,” was all he said before turning to gaze back into the flames.

Roy extricated himself from the confines of his sleeping bag and grabbed his jacket before heading out of the tent. He was still groggily rubbing his eyes as he sat down.

“How’d you know I was awake?” he asked as he accepted the mug of steaming liquid Johnny had gone ahead and poured for him.

“I know you as well as I know myself … besides, I have ears, don’t I?” Johnny answered.

Roy looked at him in confusion.

Johnny looked at him, the corners of his mouth curving up into a small smile.

“You stopped snoring … and I heard you rustling around inside your sleeping bag,” he said by way of an explanation.

Roy chuckled softly. He joined his partner in quiet contemplation as he too gazed into the fire.

Finally Roy could stand the silence no longer and he looked over at Johnny with concern.

“Johnny … are you sick?” he asked pensively.

Johnny seemed genuinely surprised and somewhat confused by the question, and for the first time in days he could see the misery he was putting Roy through.

“Good Lord, no … it’s nothing like that, Roy.”

Johnny felt horribly guilty when he saw the utter look of relief that passed over Roy’s face at his answer.

“Aw, hell … I’m sorry, Roy. I’ve been a selfish ass, haven’t I?  I never dreamed you would be thinking anything like that.”

And without further hesitation he picked up the letter that sat beside him, and held it in the air.

“It’s this damned letter that’s got me so bugged,” he said miserably.

Roy glanced down at the letterhead. It seemed to be from some lawyer’s office… in Montana.

“I take it, it isn’t good news?” Roy said more as a statement than a question.

Johnny snorted derisively. “See for yourself,” he said bitterly as he thrust the missive into Roy’s hands.

 

  

                                                                      Chapter Four

Roy read the letter over twice before returning it to Johnny.

He desperately cast around his mind for the right words to say.  I’m sorry, didn’t quite seem appropriate. For one thing, he wasn’t sorry and he highly doubted that Johnny was either. But at the same time, he couldn’t exactly say congratulations either… that just went against his sense of propriety. And he was sure that as much as Johnny probably didn’t care, neither would he ever wish anyone dead.

It was for that reason that Roy couldn’t conceive why the news had thrown his brother into such a tailspin. In the end, he decided to play it safe and wait for Johnny to speak first. Fortunately for Roy, it didn’t take long for Johnny to react.

The younger man snatched the letter up angrily and waved in front of Roy’s face.

“Can you believe the colossal gall of that woman? I mean, of all the unmitigated, underhanded things she could have done…this was it. She knew I wanted nothing more to do with her. I made sure that there was absolutely no doubt about it last Christmas. You read the letter I sent to her, Roy. Did I, or did I not, make it perfectly clear that I did not want anything from her, nor did I ever want to hear from her again?” 

Suddenly Roy understood what the problem was. It was about the money.

“That’s what all this upset is about? Because your dead grandmother left you a large sum of money in her will?” Roy said somewhat incredulously. 

Johnny’s eyes flared angrily as he shook his head.

“Don’t call her that, Roy… she was never a grandmother to me. She is… was… nothing to me; nothing but a source of misery,” Johnny spat out bitterly.

Roy turned to look Johnny in the face. He knew the man had a tendency to obsess over seemingly minor things and blow things way out of proportion at times, but even this was a bit ‘out there’ for his sometimes mercurial partner. He pulled his now pacing partner back down onto the log beside him.

“I just don’t get it, Junior. So you don’t want the money; fine … that’s your choice … although I don’t necessarily agree with it. If anyone deserves that money it’s you… especially after what they did to you … but I get where you’re coming from. What I don’t understand is why you have been in such a state of misery over it for so long. You nearly made yourself… and me, sick with worry over it. Good heavens, Johnny, I thought you had some kind of terminal illness or something.”

Johnny jumped back up and began to resume his pacing gesticulating wildly with his hands.

“Don’t you see it, Roy? She’s trying to buy redemption with her blood money. The blood of my parents … tainted money I don’t want. It would just be all kinds of inappropriate for me to take it… it would be like I was selling out. It’s as if she thought she could buy absolution … or that I would take the money and just forget about the past. Well my principles aren’t up for sale, Roy… she can’t buy them.”

Roy began to see where his partner was coming from. “Just where exactly did all this money come from anyway?” he asked.

Johnny pulled out a manila envelope that contained several sheets of paper. The top two appeared to be financial statements; the final sheet was another form letter. He glanced down at them and shook his head.

“Apparently before she died, she sold the house and the thirty acres of land that came with it. After that she went to stay at a friend’s house for the final weeks of her life. She left the money from the sale with some lawyer along with her will and instructed him not to contact me until at least a month after her death. They want me to fly out there and get it… well they can go to Hell,” he said coldly.

“And here’s the kicker… even if I refuse it, since it is still willed to me as mine, I have to pay the inheritance tax on it. The lawyer says because I am the only surviving member of the family, legally the money is mine.” He scoffed bitterly. “Like we ever had any kind of a family relationship.”

Johnny ran his hands through his hair, his voice lowering to a more conversational level, but still clearly irritated.

“Trying to convince me that she was my family,” he shook his head in disgust. “That’s like … it’s like,” he waved his hands in the air in frustration as he tried to think of the right analogy. Finally he crumpled the letter and threw in on the ground in front of Roy.

“It’s like someone giving you a map with directions to a place that doesn’t exist … that never existed,” he finished with a dejected whisper.

He dropped down onto the log beside Roy, his energy spent.

“What am I gonna do, Roy? I mean, I don’t want it, but at the same time I don’t want to give it to those people on the rez for them to benefit from it, like some sort of reward, because they knew, Roy… they all knew and either didn’t care, joined in, or turned a blind eye to it. And anyone who showed me any kindness back there is long gone by now.” Johnny paused to take a deep breath and tried to calm himself down, without much success.

“Don’t you see, Roy? She’s still kicking me around, because even if I don’t take the money, it’s still going to cost me thousands in taxes. You know she might have shown me a little consideration and honored my request to just leave me alone… if for no other reason than out of respect for the memory of her only child.”

Roy fully grasped the situation now. Taking the money offended Johnny’s sense of justice… his sense of propriety. Social justice and doing the ethical thing were two causes that were both very close to the dark haired man’s heart. But Roy still couldn’t understand why Johnny had kept all of this from him for over a week. Why did his best friend… his brother, feel like he couldn’t come to him for help… or at least support?

Roy figured the only way he would get an answer to that question, was to just come straight out and ask.

“What I don’t understand. Johnny, is why you didn’t come to me with this when you first got the letter? We’re family. We share our troubles, remember? I thought you trusted me enough by now, to be there for you.”

Johnny suddenly got very interested in his hands, using the distraction as a way to avoid looking Roy in the face. He remained that way for several moments before he finally sighed heavily and shrugged his shoulders.

“I dunno… I just couldn’t… it wouldn’t have been proper,” Johnny said as if it explained everything.

“Okay … I’ll bite,” Roy said, somewhat confused. “Why do you think it wouldn’t have been proper?”

Johnny stood up and walked over to the edge of the clearing and stopped with his back to Roy. There followed a long period of silence before Johnny sighed, his shoulders slumping down. He turned back slowly and made his way back toward the bon fire, but he didn’t return to the log beside Roy, opting instead to sit cross legged on the ground before answering.

“Come on, Roy. Think about it. I know you and Jo are in better financial shape here in Vermont than you ever were in L.A. Your pay as a Captain is higher and the cost of living is cheaper here. But I also know you had to come up with the money for braces for Chris’ teeth and I know they don’t come cheap. Not to mention the fees you have to pay for the kids’ hockey and skating lessons. And then just last month Jo’s station wagon died and you had to buy that new one… all of which has you tightening your belt a little bit these days. So how could I come in and start bellyaching over the fact a dead relative just left me a huge chunk of change and that I don’t want it? It would have been improper, inappropriate and just downright rude … I just couldn’t do it.”

Roy clamored over the log that was separating them and resettled himself beside Johnny.

“Well, maybe for anyone else, Junior. But I’m not just anyone else… it’s me.

You can always tell me anything. If the shoe were on the other foot, would you want me to keep something that was upsetting me from you?”

“No, of course not, Roy … It’s just…well I thought...” Johnny started to stammer out. Finally he just sighed and gave up, realizing he had lost this part of the argument before it had even started. Besides, Roy was right… he should have trusted his brother to understand his situation all along.

“Well, anyway now you know, but it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m stuck with that money and I have no idea what to do about it.”

Roy reached out to grab the other two sheets of papers from Johnny’s hands.

“Do you mind if I read these over, Junior?” he asked.

Johnny never spoke. He simply pushed the papers into Roy’s hands.

Roy sat down and leaned closer to the fire. Even though the logs were fully engulfed, the light was dim and he had to squint his eyes to read what was written on the missive in his hands. As he read it over, he noticed a few very important facts that Johnny had left out … or perhaps in his anger he had simply not realized what the statement said. He read the document over a second and third time before he spoke.

“Johnny?” he questioned slowly. “Did you read all of this financial statement closely?”

Johnny pushed his bangs out of his eyes and blinked up at Roy with the slightly guilty expression that was reminiscent of a child who had just got caught not having done his homework.

“Well, I have to admit I was so angry after the cover letter, that I really only glanced at it … I was kind of focused on the total,” Johnny admitted sheepishly.

“Well, then it may interest you to know that you’d be giving up the money for all the wrong reasons, because a good chunk of this money is rightfully yours,” Roy announced.

Johnny shook his head in confusion. “What are you talking about, Roy?”

“It says here that they bought the home in December 1960, after selling your parents’ house and land. The money from the sale of that land, by all rights, should have gone to you. It was your inheritance. Instead your grandparents used it to help them buy their farm.”

Johnny never spoke, so Roy continued.

“You said yourself that your parents did not get along with your grandparents. They made their choice when they disowned your mother and refused to even acknowledge you and your father. It’s pretty obvious that your father would have wanted that money to go to you. So in actual fact your grandparents denied your parents the opportunity to leave you an inheritance, which means they stole the money from the sale of your home from you… so a good portion of this money rightfully belongs to you. You wouldn’t be taking their money, Johnny… you would be taking back what they stole from you and your parents. They can’t give you what was rightfully yours all along.”

Roy took the papers back and looked them over again.

“For all you know, your parents may have written their wishes down someplace, and your grandparents destroyed it to keep you from getting anything. It’s hard to tell from this, but you could find out how much they got from the sale of your parents’ home and deduct the difference between what they got for your dad’s place and what they paid for theirs.  I am not sure how much of the money was theirs and how much they stole; we would have to sit down and work the percentages out on paper, but a large chunk of this money,” he said holding the papers in the air, “is yours. And might I suggest that you use your grandparents’  money to pay the taxes? It isn’t right that you should have to pay with the money from your dad’s place… consider it reclaiming the interest you would have earned on it over the years.”

Johnny grabbed the papers back and stared at them in stunned silence. As the realization sunk in his shock turned to anger.

“Those bastards … they stole my birthright along with my childhood… son of a bitch.”

His hands literally shook as he read and re-read the financial statement over twice. Another long period of silence hung over the campsite as the dark haired man paused to let what he had just been told sink in.

He sat absorbed in his thoughts, taking a few minutes to consider what he should do with this new information. He handed the papers back to Roy and shoved his hands into his jacket pockets.

“So now I just have to figure out how much is mine and how much was theirs… and then what do I do with what is left of their money?” Johnny sat and eyed his partner up and down with careful consideration. “I don’t suppose you’d want it, Roy?” he quizzed.

Roy vehemently shook his head. “I don’t want their blood money either, Junior. Why don’t you just donate their share to a worthy cause. That way their evil can do some good for someone else.”

Johnny seemed to sit and ponder Roy’s words for a long time. As the minutes ticked away, Roy could tell by the expression on his face that he had made up his mind, but still the younger man sat in silence gazing into the flames. Eventually the look on his face changed from one that was definite in his decision to one of sorrow. It made Roy worry about what thoughts were running around inside his brother’s head.

“Whatcha’ thinking about, Junior?” Roy asked quietly.

For the briefest of seconds, Johnny thought about telling Roy that nothing was wrong, not wanting to delve any deeper into his private pain. But in his heart he knew that it wasn’t just idle curiosity that prompted Roy’s question … it came from a genuine concern.

Johnny just shrugged his shoulders and swallowed hard as he tried to find his voice. The truth of it was, he was playing the same game inside his head that he had been playing for days.  It was the age old ‘What If’ game. The woulda, coulda, shoulda game of conjecture and supposition. It was a game you could play until you drove yourself insane because in the end, the what ifs didn’t matter… there was only his present reality and he had to live with it.

In the end, he turned to Roy with a sad smile and simply said, “Thinking about my dad.”

The dark shadows around the dim light of the campfire prevented Roy from fully seeing Johnny’s features, but even so, he could hear the sad smile that he knew was on his friend’s face. He reached over and gave Johnny’s knee a tender squeeze, but remained quiet. As the two men sat in awkward silence, Roy’s saw Johnny’s eyes become reflective.

“My dad cast a long shadow … I guess in some ways I have spent my whole life trying to be as good a man as he was.”

Roy squeezed the knee again. “Well, I think John Gage casts a pretty long shadow himself,” he said quietly.

Johnny’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at Roy’s proclamation.

“Really?” he asked nervously. “Because lately I’m not so sure. I mean, Roy, I am a Paramedic, bound to preserve and cherish the sanctity of life… to try and save lives at almost any cost, and you know what the first thing I felt when I read that my grandmother died was? It was relief. I certainly don’t feel sadness or pity or even a sense of loss.”

He paused a moment and then continued.

“You know when I was a kid, I often wished I was attending their funeral. What does that say about me? I’m just afraid that that makes me a bad person, because I don’t care that she’s dead… at least in the way one is supposed to feel when a family member dies.”

His voice had grown unsteady and he paused to gain control of it again.

“Maybe that makes me as bad as they were… we do share the same DNA.”

Roy held his hand up in order to cut Johnny off at the pass. This line of thinking had to be nipped in the bud before it got way out of hand.

“Stop it, Johnny… that’s just not true. I don’t believe it, and deep down neither do you. Not everyone is a good person Johnny. History is full of evil people that don’t evoke sorrow or pity for them when they die. Sometimes we even rejoice… Hitler comes to mind. Hell, Johnny, you’re the most forgiving man I know… but there are limits. You’re only human after all. There is such a thing as righteous anger, and holding someone accountable for their actions is not evil, or revenge. It’s about not allowing those people who hurt you to have any hold over you.  If your grandparents wanted you to mourn them, then they should have done right by you when you were a child… for heaven’s sake Johnny, your grandfather had a hand in murdering your parents… I think that entitles you to hold them accountable.”

Johnny kept his eyes averted toward the ground as he nodded.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” He tried to sound convincing, but he couldn’t quite pull it off.

“You are not the sum total of your relatives Johnny; you are your own man,” Roy continued. “You are their grandson… not them. So you share the same DNA. So do Joanne and her mother, and there is a world of difference between the two of them. Your mother was their daughter, and she was nothing like them, right?”

Johnny nodded, but did not speak. Roy could see he was finally getting through to the younger man so he pressed on.

“And you are her son more than you were their grandson. In the ten years they had to raise you, your parents instilled in you a good set of morals. You are as much Gage as you are Running Wolf… and you got the very best of both.”

Johnny was still staying silent so Roy decided to drive the point home.

“When a child is let down by an adult … especially when that adult is family and supposed to love and nurture them… an adult who has a place of power over the child, it is devastating for that child. It’s one of the vilest things an adult can do,” Roy said as he inwardly raged at the duplicity and cruelty of Johnny’s grandparents.

“I would be more worried if you didn’t hold them responsible. It would be an insult to the memory of your mom and dad, if you just let them off the hook.  Don’t carry around a burden that is based on false supposition, Johnny. It’s a burden that was never yours to carry in the first place.”

Johnny smiled and nodded his head.

“Thanks, Pally,” he whispered. “I can’t help thinking about all of the rights of passage I missed out on because of my mom’s parents. Things like tossing a football around with my dad, or having him teach me how to drive a car. Hell, I never even got the birds and bees speech,” he said bitterly.

“You know, my dad promised me that he was going to buy me my own horse when I turned twelve, right after I won my first rodeo. It’s one of my favourite memories of just me and my dad. He was so proud of me that day…  I missed out on so many things.”

It tore Roy’s heart out as the abject sadness he heard in his little brother’s voice. He would have given anything at that moment, to be able to go back in time and give Johnny his parents back.  He was pulled out of his silent musings by the sound of Johnny’s voice as he continued to unpack some of the emotional baggage he’d been carrying around for days.

“I can’t help but wonder about what things never came to pass because they were taken too soon. What did they have to teach me that I lost out on? How would it have influenced my life choices… altered my future?”

Johnny paused. It looked to Roy as if his younger brother was warring within himself over what he was feeling.  Rather than pushing him, Roy decided to let Johnny come to it at his own pace. His patience was rewarded, when eventually Johnny revealed what else was going on inside his head.

 “Part of the problem, Roy, is that I start thinking that if they hadn’t died, then maybe I would have never gone to L.A. and met you… never became a Paramedic. And the truth is, I really can’t imagine my life without you in it. And then I feel guilty… like maybe I am glad it happened because I like where my life is right now.”

Johnny shook his head sadly. “It’s just really hard for me to reconcile that in my head sometimes.”

Roy could see that Johnny’s emotions were being torn in all directions at once, and at that moment he could have happily wrung his grandparents’ necks. He needed to try and diffuse this line of thinking right away. He took Johnny by the shoulders and spun him around until they were looking each other directly in the eye.

“Johnny. Sometimes the answer is … there is no answer. You lost your family at the hand of those who were supposed to be on your side. Evil exists in this world and no one is immune. It’s just one of the hazards of life that not everyone you meet is going to do the right thing. Just because you found happiness, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you’re glad things happened like they did. It just means you made the best out of a bad situation…that you strove for happiness and succeeded.”

“Look, Junior.  I’m not in control of the Universe and neither are you. We all live with the consequences of what happens to us in life. The important thing is how you react to those events…. The choices you make. Johnny, you chose a good path, you made excellent choices, and I think your folks would not only approve … they would be so proud … I just wish I could have been there when you were a kid to try and stop it… or at least help you.”

Johnny threw Roy a half-hearted attempt at a grin.

“Thanks, Roy. But like you said, it’s not your fault it happened and it’s not your job to fix it. Neither one of us is the Divine Paramedic.”

“No,” said Roy. “But I am your brother and I care about you. When you hurt, I hurt for you. And anyone who hurts you better pray that they are well out of my arms reach.”

Johnny put his arm around Roy’s shoulder and gave him a half -hearted sideways hug.

“The people who hurt me are beyond either one of our reaches now… but thanks for the sentiment. It’s nice to know I have you in my corner, Pally.”

“Always, Junior… always,” was all Roy said.

The atmosphere in the campsite grew quiet as the two men took the opportunity to think about all that had transpired between them in the last hour.

For his part, Johnny sat and thought about the genesis of their friendship and how lucky he was to have found Roy. Suddenly it became important to him, to let Roy know how grateful he was that he was part of his life.

“You know, Roy, I am so incredibly lucky to have found you all those years ago. And if I haven’t said it lately… thanks, Pally. The fact that you accepted me into your family and gave me the chance to belong someplace again, is my most prized possession,” Johnny said, trying to maintain his composure, but failing miserably.

This time it was Roy’s turn to look surprised.

“I didn’t give you anything, Johnny … at least not in the way you mean it. First of all, we give to each other, to our mutual benefit. But it was I who was blessed when you agreed to be my partner. And then the fact that you made me a part of your Tiyospaye… that was the incredible gift in our friendship. In fact the three highest honors I have ever been given were when Joanne gave me her hand in marriage, when she gave me two beautiful children and when you asked me to be your Tiyospaye… your brother. All three of those gifts are truly humbling and I cannot believe how blessed I am because of all those things.”

Johnny looked Roy in the eyes, but couldn’t trust his voice to answer. But it didn’t matter because no words were needed. Which was just as well, he thought to himself. Because sometimes words just weren’t good enough.

As for what Roy had just said about him being the one who had blessed Roy… well that’s not the way Johnny remembered it, but he liked Roy’s version better anyway. In the end, he just smiled.

Suddenly it felt like a ton of weight had just been lifted from his shoulders. But then talking things over with Roy almost always made him feel better… he just wished he had remembered that a week earlier.

Now that he had allowed himself to purge all of the demons that had been haunting him all week, he began to realize how cathartic it had been to get it off of his chest.

As far as Roy was concerned this trip had been a success. He could see the strain around Johnny’s eyes melt away as he finally seemed to have acquired a certain amount of peace and resolution over the matter. But there was one question that was still troubling Roy… something he had always wondered about but had never worked up the nerve to ask. He figured now that they had opened Pandora’s box, he might as well ask it.

“Johnny? I want to ask you something … and if you want me to back off, just say so,” Roy started somewhat hesitantly.

If Johnny was bothered by the tone of Roy’s questioning, he never let on. “Go ahead,” was all he said.

Roy seemed relieved that Johnny was still open to the idea of this topic of conversation and forged ahead with his query.

“Those three men … the three men your grandfather hired to drive your dad’s car off the road that night … did you know who they were? I mean, do you think you would recognize them now?”

Johnny didn’t really seem too phased by the question, which actually surprised Roy. It was obviously a question Johnny had asked himself at some point over the years.

“The men who did it? I have no idea. It’s almost as if I’ve blocked their faces from my memory. All I was really focused on was the fact that my dad was dead, and my mom was dying. And when they came back, I was in shock. In fact I am not sure I really processed what I had seen until many years later… after I had left the reservation and come to L.A.  I guess it is a child’s way of self-preservation.”

Roy could only sit and shake his head.

“It’s hard to conceive that all those professionals let it go without question,” he said. “And I don’t just mean the murders… but about everything that went on afterwards… the abuse that they allowed to happen to you. I mean the police, the doctors and nurses, the school teachers; it’s so unbelievable that no one stepped forward.”

Johnny seemed to take the rant in stride. Largely because he had long ago accepted it as just another part of life. The reservation held nothing for him now… it never really had other than the fact that it is where his parents had lived.

“There is a kind of collective amnesia among those that work on or around the rez. Prejudice exists in every culture and every profession. And if someone did happen to wander by that asked questions, they made sure they had a convincing lie to tell them about what was going on there,” Johnny explained.

“Well they must have been some hell of a good lies then, because it is hard to believe no one put two and two together at some level,” Roy answered.

Once again, Johnny shrugged dismissively.

“Even the devil can quote the Bible when it suits his purpose Roy. And don’t forget, they’ve had years of practice at covering up for each other; and truth be told, as a rule, no one really likes to delve into potentially messy situations if they can avoid it. Most believed it, because they wanted to.”

“Will you go back now and claim the money, Junior? Because if you do, I’d feel better if I came with you,” Roy queried.

Johnny was more definite in his answer this time.

“Nah… I’ll get my lawyer to act as my agent. I can’t go back to the rez anyway. As much as they didn’t like me before, they’ll loathe me now.”

“Why is that?” Roy asked, somewhat confused.

“Because, Roy. Even though they despised my presence, in the end, it wasn’t them that kicked me to the curb so to speak. The boot was on the other foot actually. It was I that left them. You see when I left the rez and came to L.A., I sent a clear message. I was rejecting my native heritage and my native way of life. They would see that as me saying, I’m too good for them. They don’t thank you for that. It is an unpardonable offense in their eyes.”

Johnny paused in thought and then shook his head.

“Nope, I could never go back now… not that I would want to anyway,” he muttered. “I’ll just let my lawyer handle it.”

This last piece of information was too much for Roy to handle. Even if Johnny did seem to be underwhelmed by the fact that those who mistreated him so badly, now held him responsible for escaping the abuse, he had plenty of outrage for both of them. He jumped up and began to pace back and forth in front of Johnny.

“You, rejected them?” Roy starred at Johnny incredulously, his voiced barely constrained from a full-fledged yell. “It was them who rejected you, for no other reason than they didn’t like the colour of your father’s skin. Where do they get off even thinking that?”

Johnny reached over and stopped Roy’s pacing.

“I know, Roy. Calm down … that’s just how life is there. I never said it was right… just that it is. Besides, maybe I do think I am too good for them now,” he said with a sly grin.

This brought Roy’s rant to an abrupt halt as Johnny’s final words sunk in. He stopped and turned to face his friend and grinned back.

“There is no doubt about it, Junior… you’re head and shoulders above them.”

Johnny looked down at the papers in his hand with a new perspective.

“That’s a nice bit of change there, Junior. Even after you subtract the amount that was your grandparents,” Roy said.

Johnny just stood staring at the figures on the sheet in front of him.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” he replied.

“Any ideas on how you want to spend it?” Roy asked in the hopes of solidifying the idea in Johnny’s mind that this money was his rightful inheritance.

Johnny shook his head. “I’ll probably just sit on most of it for a while and give myself some time to think about what I want to do with it… or if I just want to invest it all… Although,” he said almost as an afterthought, “I have kind of had my eye on this horse that’s for sale in upstate New York. I had thought about buying it, but he was a bit expensive. He has great bloodlines, but I hated the thoughts of dropping a lot of cash on one horse.”

Roy quickly jumped at the idea.

“I think that is a great idea, Johnny. You said yourself your dad had promised to buy you a horse when you turned twelve. Since this money is really his inheritance to you, you could use part of it to fulfill his promise to you.”

Johnny’s face broke out into a full-fledged grin.

“Hey, yeah… you’re right. And I even have a name picked out for him. I thought if I got him, I’d call him Florian, because you should see his coat Roy… it’s red as fire and he’s really spirited,” Johnny said excitedly, now into the full spirit of the idea.

The two men fell to talking about what Johnny needed to do when he got back home. It was decided that he would hire a lawyer to handle things on his end, thus sparing him from having to return to Montana. By now the sun had begun to peek over the eastern horizon and the morning birds had begun their chorus of wake up calls. Despite his best efforts, Johnny couldn’t stop the almost face-splitting yawn that escaped from his mouth.

The past seven days had been emotionally exhausting on the young man, and now that it seemed as if his burden had finally been lifted, the full consequence of his getting little to  no sleep this past week was beginning to catch up to him.

The yawn did not go unnoticed by Roy. He had to admit that their all night talking session, while it had been exactly what Johnny had needed, had left him feeling a bit drained himself. The prospect of hiking back to Johnny’s Rover on less than four hours sleep was not at all appealing to him.

“What do you say we try and grab a few hours’ sleep before we head back, Junior? Neither one of us got much sleep and I for one, do not relish having to do a five hour hike without getting some rest first.”

It was Johnny’s usual custom to rise with the birds and get an early start on these hikes, but the truth in what Roy was saying was not lost on him. Besides Roy was right, hiking while you were overly tired could be a recipe for disaster, and after yesterday’s near miss, Johnny quickly agreed without argument.

It was approaching one in the afternoon when the two men roused and packed up their gear for the hike home.

The atmosphere on the trail was far more convivial during the return trip than it had been going up. The friendly banter that usually prevailed between the two brothers had returned making the time pass pleasantly enough.

They had been making remarkably good progress, so they decided that they could take the time to stop off at the clearing they had used on the way up. This time Roy was careful to avoid straying off the beaten path where crevices lay hidden beneath the leaf litter. As they approached the area, both men began to notice that the ground that had been quite dry a day earlier, was now quite spongy and damp. As they made their way forward, the reason for the rapidly rising water on the path made itself known. At some point during the last twenty four hours, some rather industrious beavers had damned up the river, causing enough of a flood to spill over the bank, effectively cutting the two men off from their return route home.

“Well, I guess that’s where they got the saying busy little beavers from,” Johnny said ruefully. “There’s no way we can get across that without soaking ourselves and our gear, and with all the crevices around, there is nothing for it, but to backtrack and follow that other game trail we passed about a quarter mile back. If we follow it, we can skirt around this area and we should meet up with the main trail about two miles down. It’s going to add about another hour to our trip back to the Rover, but it can’t be helped. There’s no way I want to risk either one of us falling down another crevice… we’ll just have to go back,” Johnny said decisively.

Roy wasn’t the seasoned outdoorsman that Johnny was, although he had learned enough from his younger brother to certainly hold his own in nature. But even so, he still deferred to his partner when it came to matters of outdoor safety and survival. If Johnny said it, then it was true… and a man would do well to take heed.

There wasn’t a lot of chit chat while the two of them backtracked. Johnny was busy making sure he didn’t miss the cut off to the smaller and less travelled game trail that would take them around the flooded area of the river. For his part, Roy was making sure he followed exactly in Johnny’s footsteps so as to avoid a repeat of his rather embarrassing fall of the previous day.

It was only a short time later that Johnny stopped and pointed to his right. “There it is, Roy. If we follow this for about two miles it will meet up with the main path on the other side of the river. I had to use this trail last spring when the water levels were high.”

Roy nodded and started to follow Johnny down the somewhat smaller trail. It took more concentration on both their parts, as this trail was clearly the lesser used of the two game trails that wound through this part of the bush. Consequently there was a lot more undergrowth, and snags along the way.

Roy estimated that they must have walked a good three quarters of a mile along the trail when he saw Johnny stiffen. Roy could see the younger man’s senses heighten as he suddenly stopped altogether.

“What’s the matter, Junior?” Roy asked. Johnny turned and put his finger to his lips with a whispered, “Shhh.”

Roy moved up to stand beside his partner. “What’s wrong?”

Johnny kept his eyes on the bush to his left, answering Roy in hushed tones. “There’s something moving in the bushes up ahead….something big.”

“Do you think it’s a bear?” Roy asked, his voice showing the beginnings of real concern.

Johnny shook his head. “I doubt it, but hand me the bear spray anyway. Bears can hear you from a mile away and smell you for two. Besides, we’re upwind of whatever it is, so there is no chance we could have gotten this close without an animal knowing we were here.” Johnny grabbed the bear spray that Roy had retrieved from his pack and paused to listen again.

“Not unless it is a rogue bear. Sometimes when they get old and can’t get food as easily, they get desperate and go after anything they can find…including humans. Let’s just play it safe. I think the wisest thing to do would be to just move along as quickly as we can without disturbing whatever it is. It seems to be off to our left, and hopefully it’ll stay that way.”

With both men on high alert they continued along the path, with a slightly brisker pace than they had been keeping before. They had barely travelled twenty yards along the trail before they heard crash in the trees in front of them, and suddenly two men appeared out of brush directly in their path, their uniforms clearly indicating that they were game wardens.

“Good afternoon,” the first man said.

“Good afternoon,” Johnny answered. “Is there something wrong?” he enquired politely.

“I’m afraid there is,” the warden answered. “There is a mother black bear up ahead on this trail with two small cubs. I am going to have to ask you to turn around and take the other trail out of the bush.”

Roy stepped forward and addressed the first game warden. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible, sir. You see a couple of beavers have damned up the river and flooded out the other trail. This is the only trail left that leads out of the bush and back to our car. But my friend here,” he said pointing at Johnny. “Knows just about all there is about wilderness survival, and we’ve got some bear spray on us… we’ll take it slow and keep our eyes open. If we spot a bear, we’ll be sure to give it a wide berth.”

It was at that point that the second warden stepped out fully onto the path, so that Johnny and Roy could get a good look at him. It was then that Johnny knew they could be in trouble.

At first glance it appeared to be two men standing in front of them were actual game wardens. But upon closer inspection Johnny could tell the second man wasn’t actually a man at all, but a boy that could not have been more that sixteen years old. The lad was a tall gangly youth with dirty blonde hair down to his shoulders.

Johnny eyed him skeptically. He knew immediately that something was off. There was no way the Fish and Feathers guys would hire a kid so young. Besides upon closer inspection, the shoulder patches on the uniforms were of a much older style…the new patches were different now, and the uniform was a slightly lighter shade than the official Fish and Wildlife ones that he had seen on his many hikes. It became increasingly obvious that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to fake the uniforms. 

Johnny suspected Roy was now aware of it too. Although not as familiar with the local game wardens, Johnny knew Roy would have realized the kid standing on the path in front of them was far too young to actually be a Gamie, not to mention his hair was far too long and unkempt. He wondered if perhaps they were poachers, and if so, it was best to just play along with them and leave….he could report them later.

Now that he looked closer at the older man, Johnny noticed that there was something unseemly about him. The way he fidgeted… he was clearly hiding something. His eyes were wary as they looked directly into Johnny’s.

Johnny did his best to fake a nonchalant attitude as he took a step backwards.

“Naw, it’s okay, Roy. I don’t think the flooded area is that deep. I think the game warden is right… we’d better go back and take the other trail.”

For a fleeting second the first game warden’s face relaxed…then as he looked into Johnny’s face, suspicion slowly crept back into his features, and Johnny knew then that the older man knew that Johnny had figured out he was lying.

He watched in dismay as the fake game warden reached down to his holster and withdrew his gun, pointing it at the two Paramedics.

“I don’t think I like the way you’re looking at me,” he said accusingly. “I think maybe the two of you had better come along with me.”

 

Chapter Five

No one spoke a word as they walked along in single file. The older gunman was leading the way followed by Roy, then Johnny and finally the teenager who was bringing up the rear. Johnny could sense more than feel the gun that the teen had pointed at his back.

Currently, it was the kid that worried him the most. He was as jumpy as a deer on a firing range… not a good combination when one had a gun pointed between their shoulder blades by said nervous teen. It looked as if any noise could set the young man off, and with his hands bound behind his back, Johnny’s center of gravity was just slightly off kilter so that any unseen entanglement like a gnarled tree root or vine caused him to stumble, and without the use of his hands he couldn’t really catch himself to prevent a fall. He just hoped the kid’s gun didn’t have a hair-trigger.

They were now further along on the trail than Johnny had ever been before. They had long since passed the cutoff he was used to taking to get back to the main hiking path. He was well aware that there were many of these lesser used game trails that wound their way through this part of the reserve. Most of them were deceptive and ended up leading nowhere. He had never explored them because he knew that the further north one travelled in this area, the closer to the swamps and marshlands you got.  There was nothing in those areas but water snakes, snapping turtles, waterfowl and mosquitos… thousands upon thousands of mosquitos.

As if to confirm his thoughts, the trail itself had grown slick and muddy. It was filled with deep pitted grooves made by old hoof prints that were filled with tiny pools of stagnant water. The mosquitos were already hovering around, having a feast on his exposed neck and arms.

Johnny’s mind was racing as several different scenarios ran through his head.  Initially, his first impression had been that their captors were poachers…just out fishing over their limit or maybe trying to bag a deer out of season. But he now doubted that was the case. It was highly unlikely that these two men were simply poachers. Kidnapping two men at gunpoint was way too extreme for someone doing such a minor crime.

Whatever it was he and Roy had stumbled upon had to be bigger than that… there had to be a lot of money at stake for someone to be willing to commit such a serious felony. But for the life of him, Johnny just couldn’t figure out what that activity might be. The two captives plodded forward on the ever dwindling game trail as carefully as possible, trying to avoid the snags and entanglements that were littered along the way.

Twenty minutes into their journey to God knows where, Johnny noticed that the ground was slowly beginning to rise and the path, while leveling out, had dissipated into almost nothing.

Without warning, the first faux-ranger paused to get his bearings. Johnny had been so absorbed in his own thoughts, and the stop happened so suddenly, that he barely had time to catch himself before crashing into the back of Roy.

The older captor motioned to his young accomplice with his hands, pointing off towards the west to a barely discernible path through the labyrinth of undergrowth. It wasn’t much more than a faintly hacked out trail through the trees and tangled shrubs that branched off to their left. Clearly they were about to head off into no man’s land going deeper into the bush … By now, Johnny had lost all track of where they were in the almost seven thousand acre game reserve.

Just bloody great, he mused dejectedly. They were in deep trouble here.

With his hands secured behind his body, the branches snapped back whipping into Johnny’s face and upper body as he stumbled along the dense wasteland of trees. The finer branches stung painfully, many of them cutting into his cheeks and neck, leaving angry red welts on the exposed skin.

The four men labored along the maze of vines and gnarled undergrowth for another ten minutes before the lead gunman turned and motioned silently for the group to halt. Johnny raised his eyes off the trail and looked around wondering why they had suddenly stopped. As his gaze slowly shifted to his right, a makeshift camp came into view.

Johnny couldn’t help but notice that the demeanor of the older gunman had taken on a perceptible change. Gone was the in charge, dominant leader. It had been replaced by a man that suddenly seemed wary. Johnny wasn’t sure what had prompted such a drastic change in the gunman’s mood… but he was certain he and Roy were about to find out.

The Paramedic Captain had to admit he was impressed by the layout of the camp. Not only was it neatly laid out, but it was also practical. It consisted of a small clearing that had obviously been cut out of the bush. The area was no more than twenty square feet of damp earth and moss that had been carefully cleared away. The overhanging foliage had been left in place to act as camouflage in order to keep the camp concealed from the air. It was obvious it had been here for a while. It had all the earmarks of having been used on more than one occasion by this group of men.

Standing beside a small fire pit in the center of the camp, pouring what Johnny assumed was a cup of coffee, stood a slightly paunchy man with a washed out complexion who looked to be in his late forties. He had thinning brown hair and wore thick round glasses.

At first the man didn’t seem to notice the new arrivals as he poured the dark brew into his tin mug, but as he slowly stood up, his eyes caught sight of them standing at the periphery of the clearing. He let out an inaudible gasp as he stood up straight and froze with that quintessential, ‘deer in the headlights’ look on his face. His eyes slid over to the far side of the clearing. Johnny recognized the look in the man’s eyes…it was a look he had both seen and felt before …  the look of fear.

Johnny wasn’t sure what was going on… but the silent communication between the man at the fire and his older gunman was perfectly clear… someone was not going to be pleased…and there was going to be trouble for all of them.

Johnny let his own eyes drift across the camp to follow the other man’s gaze. On the other side of the clearing, half hidden in the shadows, Johnny saw another man who was squatted down with his back to the newcomers. The man’s full attention was currently focused on sorting through a pile of crates in front of him that if they were labeled correctly, appeared to be a very large cache of liquor. 

Well, at least I know what I’m dealing with, Johnny thought dismally. These men definitely aren’t poachers…they’re rum runners… I just hope they aren’t killers as well.

From what Johnny could discern, the man at the liquor crates appeared to be in his mid-fifties and in fairly good physical condition. He was dressed in hunting garb with a well weathered fishing style hat pulled down to his collar making it difficult to tell neither the length nor colour of his hair. As the man shifted his body weight, and turned to the side, Johnny could see a good week’s work of beard on his face.

 

 The two captives remained standing at the edge of the clearing as their kidnappers paused in obvious trepidation. It was as if they were uncertain about what they should do next. It was the first sign of emotion out of the gunmen that either of the Paramedics had seen. The reaction of the two men towards the older fellow by the crates left Johnny with little doubt as to whom the leader of this group was.

He didn’t have to wait very long to find out what would happen next, because it was at that moment that the bearded man hoisted up a crate of Whiskey and turned around as if to reposition it someplace else. It was as he was turning around that he laid eyes on his fellow rum runners … and more importantly the two captives they had brought back to camp with them. By the dark look on the man’s face, Johnny knew that the others had had very good reasons to be nervous. If looks could have killed, his two kidnappers would have fallen over stone dead right where they stood. 

The bearded man had obviously summed up the situation for what it was. He pulled himself to his full height letting out with a string of nasty invectives while glaring at the two phony rangers.  He set the crate of whiskey back down and turned to address the head gunman.

“What in the hell have you done now, Ben?” he hissed angrily.

Johnny’s head jerked up.  Ben … well now I have a name to put to one of their faces. He took note of the information and filed it away for future reference.

By now the kidnapper named Ben had lost what little equanimity he’d had. He quickly lowered his gun, while he tried to explain things to his boss who was clearly furious with him.

“They were getting too close to the camp… I tried to warn them off,” he said defensively.

 “But then this one,” he said, pointing towards Johnny with is gun, “started looking at me all suspicious-like. I could tell he’d figured out we was up to something… so I brought them along to make sure they didn’t set the law on us.”

If Ben’s explanation was supposed to mollify the bearded man…it didn’t work.  If anything it seemed to infuriate him even more.

“You were just supposed to divert them, not bloody kidnap anyone…are you insane? What the hell are we supposed to do with them now?” the boss man growled accusingly.

Ben faltered. His face fell and slowly began to drain of colour… it was obvious to everyone that the boss thought he had screwed up.

By this point the younger gunman began to fidget nervously. He took a cautious step forward in an effort to back up his buddy, tripping on a tree root as he did so. The untimely stumble caused the gun to fall out of the teen’s hands and onto the ground, where it discharged loudly, the report echoing through the branches, causing the birds to squawk and fly noisily out of the trees above them. The sound of the bullet whizzing pass Johnny’s ear made him involuntarily flinch and drop down to the ground. The kid’s face turned beet red as he quickly grabbed up the gun, pulled Johnny back up onto his feet and skulked back to his original position.

The bearded man let out with an unholy curse and stalked over to where the group was standing on the edge of the campsite. He snatched the rifle out of the kid’s hand.

“Be quiet, you fool … are you tryin’ to alert the whole damn state of Vermont that we’re here? Now give me this damn gun before you accidentally kill someone you idiot,” he snarled. He then whirled around to face the man named Ben.

“Things are already bad enough as it is, the last thing we need is anymore unwanted attention.”

He paused momentarily as he eyed up Johnny and Roy. He shook his head in disgust before returning his glare back to Ben.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” he barked out. “Take them over and tie them up good and tight until I can figure this mess out…. And for heaven’s sake, keep them quiet.”

The man in charge then strode away muttering to himself. Although Johnny couldn’t hear everything he was saying, the one snippet he did manage to overhear gave him some hope. He had distinctly heard the man say, “… I didn’t sign up for no kidnapping, and the last thing in the world I need is to have a couple of murders on my conscience …”

The older gunman named Ben shoved his two captives over to the far side of the clearing, pushing them roughly onto the ground.

“Rusty, go grab me some of that rope we got in the supply box,” he ordered the teen. “And then get me a cup of coffee.”

The kid hurried away and quickly returned with both a mug full of coffee and several sturdy lengths of rope.

Ben grunted his acknowledgement and lifted the mug of brew to his mouth, taking a deep swallow. Suddenly the air filled with a curse as Ben fired the cup of hot liquid back at the teen.

“Damn it, Rusty… there ain’t no sugar in this. You know I can’t drink this sludge without sugar. Now go get me another one and this time put some sugar in it.”

The teen meekly picked up the empty mug and hurried back over to the coffee pot. He muttered angrily to himself the entire time he was binding up his prisoners ankles.

“It boggles my mind how someone can be so stupid that they can’t even get me a cup of coffee without messing it up. And I thought Guy over there was about as stupid as one person could get,” he scoffed as he looked over his shoulder at the man by the campfire.

Johnny tried to steel his expression into one of neutrality as he gleaned this new information… he now had names to put to three of the faces.

The teen returned momentarily with the fresh cup of coffee and then quickly retreated back into the shadows.

By then, Ben had bound both Johnny and Roy’s ankles so tight that it cut into the tender flesh of their wrists and ankles. He sat back and admired his handiwork, before standing up with a word of warning. “Just in case either one of you gentlemen should have any lapse in your judgment, let me assure you both that if I have any trouble from either one of you, you won’t live to see the sunrise… you got it?”

The sound of Ben’s voice alone was enough to make the captives’ blood run cold, but the hard menacing look in his eyes certainly drove the point home. Whereas the boss may not have had any murderous intentions toward them … Ben clearly had no such apprehensions about shooting them both dead where they sat.

Johnny glanced around, taking a closer look at his surroundings. Apart from what he had already discerned, he could see just how well prepared this group of men were to hunker down for a while. There were two small tents that had been erected in the corner of the clearing. They were both sturdy but well used. He could see that over the years, the sun had slowly leached the colour from the material and they were now faded and worn which made them blend in even more with their surroundings. Overhead, strung from a branch in the trees was a large stash of food. These men were clearly well versed in the art of hiding out in the wilderness.

Rusty had wandered over to a stump by the campfire and pulled out a pad of paper and began drawing in what Johnny assumed was a sketch book. Guy had gone back over to the campfire and looked to be getting ready to cook something for their evening meal.

By this time Ben had focused his attention on Johnny and Roy’s rucksacks. Reaching over he grabbed hold of the drawstring on Johnny’s pack and started to open it up. He hadn’t gotten very far before the sharp voice of the boss came across the campsite.

“Put those bags down….that’s not what you’re here for.”

“Why the hell not, Bud?” Ben growled. “It’s a little late to be worrying about breaking the law now. In case you haven’t noticed, this ain’t exactly Sunday school,” he said snidely.

The boss stood to his full height and stormed over snatched the back packs out of Ben’s hands.

“Because I said so … and since you take my money you wear my brand… got it? And you’re going to keep your hands off of these two as well,” the bearded man warned pointing at Johnny and Roy.

It was clear that the leader of the group was still in a dour mood and was still unhappy with Ben and Rusty over the kidnapping. But the conversation had also finally given Johnny a name to put to the bearded man’s face… Bud.

For a moment it appeared as if Ben was going to challenge his boss, but then he quickly thought better of it and tossed the remaining pack onto the ground with a dismissive shrug of his shoulders.

“So,” Ben asked the captives mockingly. “Just what exactly are your names and what were you doing out here where you don’t belong?”

Johnny glanced over at his partner who sat grim faced beside him. Their eyes locked for a moment before Johnny spoke up.

“My name is John Gage and this here is Roy DeSoto … we were just out here for a day or two fishing. We were on our way back home when you forced us to come with you.”

If Ben noticed the ire behind the last part of Johnny’s statement, he never let on. He simply continued on with the questioning of his prisoners.

“So, you two guys are just a couple of friends out wandering around these little known game trails … game trails that lead to absolutely nowhere on your way home huh?  I kind of find that hard to believe because these trails don’t lead anywhere near anyone’s home that I know of,” Ben asked suspiciously.

“We’re brothers actually,” Johnny said, meeting Ben’s eyes defiantly. “And like I told you out there, some beavers built a dam that flooded the main trail and we were just using the game trail to skirt around the water… if you had left us alone, we would have gotten back on the main path and we would have never even known that you guys were here.”

This last bit of information seemed to infuriate Bud even more. The fact that Johnny had all but confirmed that they hadn’t been snooping, and that Ben and Rusty had jumped the gun in kidnapping them, had only served to increase the tension between Ben and his boss. But again, either Ben was oblivious to Bud’s mood… or he simply didn’t care.

Ben walked over and kicked the bottom of Johnny’s hiking boot.

“Brothers, eh? You two don’t look like brothers to me … and if you’re brothers, how come you have different last names?” he asked accusingly.

“Because we have different fathers,” Johnny said, not bothering to explain the intricacies of a Tiyospaye to the man.

Ben, however, took it to mean that one of them must have been a bastard child. Strangely the idea that one or both of them was illegitimate seemed to make him loathe them a little less … maybe even raised them in his estimation.

Well he is a criminal, Johnny thought. They did have a different code of ethics than the rest of society.

“Stop talking to those two and find something useful to do,” Bud ordered Ben.

“And as for you two,” he said pointing at the two prisoners, “I’m sorry those two fools got you into this mess, but it can’t be helped now. Since you are here, I’m going to lay a few ground rules.

“Rule one: no talking to each other whatsoever or I’ll separate ya. Rule two: As long as you don’t try any funny stuff, I promise that I won’t let that goon over there,” he said, motioning toward Ben, “hurt ya. It may be a day or so, but once we’re done here, we’ll take you back to the main trail and let ya go. Are we clear?” he asked in a voice that told Johnny that the man was deadly serious.

Both captives nodded without speaking.

Bud gave his head a satisfied shake and turned to Ben with a warning glare.

“You heard what I told them… you lay a glove on them and I’ll shoot yer damn ass myself. And I thought I told you to go find something useful to do.”

Ben was clearly annoyed at this latest order but rather than challenge Bud, he turned his attention toward the boy, snatching the sheet of paper he’d been drawing on out of his hand.

“What are ya wasting your time on now, boy?” he sneered.

“I was just drawing a picture of that deer we saw yesterday, Uncle Ben,” the teen answered.

Johnny’s head jerked up as another piece of the puzzle fell into place. The boy was Ben’s nephew. That explained the power he wielded when it came to the boy… and why Bud didn’t make any move to step in and stop the taunts. Johnny could almost feel the cringing terror of the teen as he was held under his uncles scrutinizing gaze.

Ben looked at the picture and smirked. “Well now ain’t you just another budding Michelangelo,” he said as he crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the fire as if it were nothing.  Ben broke into gales of laughter at his own words as if they had been the funniest thing he’d ever heard.  Everyone else, however, sat poker faced and unamused… everyone but Rusty, whose face was crestfallen and embarrassed. Ben had said the words in such a way that it made the boy instantly feel ashamed of his drawing.

Johnny knew that the picture hadn’t really annoyed the man… that Ben had simply done it as a way to assert his power over the boy, and to try and take back some of his dominance after having been rebuked by Bud.

Johnny hadn’t missed the fleeting flash of hurt in the teen’s eyes as he watched while his uncle had taken something that had meant a lot to the boy and destroyed it for no other than reason than he was a bully. The look on the teen’s face resonated strongly with Johnny, and he felt angry for him.

Ben reminded Johnny of those types of bullies who would try and convince their victims that their meanness was nothing more than harmless teasing or a meaningless prank … using the reasoning as a way to excuse their bad behaviour. The only difference was that Ben didn’t feel the need for the pretense of either excuse. It was obvious he did it because it fed his need to feel superior to others.

It was clear than Guy was afraid of the man, and was in no way prepared to challenge him. Besides, from what Johnny could tell, Guy was far from the sharpest knife in the drawer. Any kind of independent thinking on his part would require a much higher skill set than he possessed. It would be akin to asking a child who had barely learned to count to ten to do complex calculus.

Bud for the most part seemed to tolerate the abuse as long as it didn’t get out of hand.

Johnny, on the other hand was angry and finding it hard to check both his temper and his tongue. It was not a good space to get into when you’re being held hostage by a group of criminals… especially when one of them was a maniacal psychopath with a penchant for abuse. Johnny willed himself to calm down and quash down his anger, but there was no doubt about it … the man named Ben was currently at the top of his shit list.

Just then the small tan coloured head of a puppy appeared outside of the tent and tentatively made its way over to Rusty. For the first time since they had arrived in camp, Johnny saw the first hint of a smile on the boy’s face.

As he knelt down to play with the puppy, there was the briefest trace on his features of the happy carefree teen he might have been if life had dealt him a different hand. The teenager reached over and pulled the furry bundle onto his lap and began to lovingly stroke its fur. The pup appeared to be a mix of some kind of husky and shepherd. It had two of the most strikingly pale blue eyes Johnny had ever seen.

Ben looked at the dog with a degree of irritation and it almost appeared as if he were about to say something, when Bud spoke up once more.

“Why don’t you leave the kid alone and just sit down … supper’s going to be ready soon anyway.”

“Mangy cur,” Ben spat out disdainfully. “I don’t know why you’d even want this half breed mutt anyway.”

The words were just another reason for Johnny to dislike the man. He seethed inwardly at how the word half breed had rolled off the man’s tongue. It was a bitter word to Johnny, and one he’d heard directed toward himself many times in his life. It had been invariably said in such a way that it had always made Johnny feel ashamed of his mixed heritage.

Half breed … he hated what the word implied… as if he were only half a person… only worth half the effort. Those were the two words he hated most when they were strung together.

The negative connotations that were associated with the word made it seem as if somehow the two words were enemies that had been shackled together for life.

Johnny looked over at the puppy with its soft fur and beautiful blue eyes.  He shook his head. He had never understood the stigma of a dog being considered a half breed. As far as he was concerned it was nonsense. By his way of thinking, the little creature in front of him was 100% dog. Besides he knew that any vet he had spoken to had always said that dogs that were a mixture of two different breeds were healthier than those that boasted a pedigree.

Rusty’s face was like stone but his eyes were wary, watching Ben’s every movement as if he was just waiting for the other shoe to fall. His facial features relaxed marginally as he realized that his uncle had backed off and was now headed toward the fire to join Guy as he prepared their meal.

Everything remained silent after that while everything was made ready for their supper.

Johnny and Roy’s hands and feet were untied briefly in order to allow them to eat and relieve themselves under the watchful eyes of Ben and Guy. After that they were tied back up and moved to the edge of a tree and where they were promptly ignored. Every so often one of the kidnappers would look over as if to reassure themselves that they hadn’t escaped… as if they could even consider making a break for it with their hands tied behind their backs and their ankles and feet bound together.

                                                                       ~ ~ ~

Several hours had passed as Johnny sat uncomfortably on the ground beside his partner, wishing that they were anywhere but here.  It seemed like he’d been sitting there for days… and by the fading daylight, he knew it had to have been at least six hours since he and Roy had been shanghaied by these men. He shifted his body trying to find the least painful position to sit in, trying to gain even a moment’s respite. Cramps were wracking his limbs, and he was sure that Roy was just as uncomfortable. The prospect of spending the night in this position was disheartening. He struggled against the ropes that bound his hands. Even though they had been drawn tight, Johnny had discovered that he could move his hands slightly, and so bit by bit, he shifted his wrists, slowly loosening the ropes that bound his hands behind his back. The rope burned as it tore into the flesh on his wrists. But despite the pain, Johnny refused to give up. He wished he could say something to Roy… to find out how he was doing, but Bud’s earlier warning still rang in his ears, and considering the fact that Bud was probably the only thing keeping them from being hurt… or killed, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and so followed the man’s edict regarding silence. Apparently Roy was of the same mind, because he hadn’t once made any attempt to communicate with him.

As he sat there, Johnny tried to size up the men to whom his life was at the mercy of.

The man named in charge… Bud … was currently a hard man for Johnny to pin down. All he knew for sure was that he was the one that called the shots, and that he definitely knew the difference between a jail sentence for rum running and one for kidnapping and murder. Therein lay his and Roy’s only hope of getting out of this alive. Bud’s thinking seemed well organized and calm. He wasn’t rash or careless in his actions. This was not a two bit operation and the man had clearly been making his living at this profession for quite some time. If anyone was likely to listen to reason….this man would be the one.

The one thing that worried Johnny was the obvious tension between Bud and the man called Ben. It was clear that even now the two men were at variance and what little conversation there was between the two men was filled with tension. It was obvious to everyone that Ben’s compliance with his boss’s orders was nothing more than strained politeness.

Unfortunately the man named Ben was Bud’s polar opposite. Johnny instantly diagnosed the type of man he was dealing with when it came to Ben… he had seen it far too many times before in his life.

It was clear Ben had no qualms about indulging in his propensity toward violence. He seemed to have a complete disregard for the sanctity of life…other than his own.  Just watching him now, by the way he seemed to treat Rusty and the man named Guy, he could tell this man got off on power and that doing what was right simply didn’t come into play. He seemed volatile and unpredictable… a man whose rage and vanity controlled his actions… not a very admiral quality… especially in someone who is living on the wrong side of the law and was trying to remain inconspicuous. This kind of work just seemed to attract that type of personality. This man named Ben displayed all of the more sinister aspects of human nature.  He presented himself as a truly terrifying personage.

The only man he seemed to bow down to was Bud and even that was forced… and Johnny was certain that if push came to shove, the man would quickly turn on his leader. If this man did in fact have any kind of moral compass, then the arrow was most assuredly pointed straight toward Hell.

Next he turned his attention toward the man named Guy.  By the way he carried himself it was clear he was a follower… a poser who lived vicariously through the lives of those he deemed his superiors. He reminded Johnny of those the kids in high school who followed around the popular crowd in the vain hopes of being accepted.

He was a nervous, twitchy man whom Ben clearly enjoyed manipulating.  Johnny guessed that the others found Guy mildly amusing and had deemed he was useful enough as long he followed orders and remained totally subservient.

Bud clearly viewed him as somewhat insipid and weak. This man was obviously here for the sole purpose of helping the teen with the grunt work. But even at that, Johnny refused to underestimate the man. Like the others, he too had a weapon and Johnny knew that a foolish act could be just as dangerous as an evil one.

Last but not least, Johnny turned his attentions toward Rusty. His overall body language was easy for Johnny to read …he was all too familiar with it. He knew from personal experience the hell this teen was living.  Rusty always walked with his head down… a result of the constant browbeating he had suffered at the hands of his uncle Ben. He was a sullen, angry teen of probably no more than sixteen years.  From the conversations he had overheard, the boy was Ben’s nephew and his ward.  The boy had been beaten down by his uncle until his spirit had been broken. His demeanor was one of part cheerless despair, part sorrow and part futility. He was tall, gangly and somewhat clumsy. He was going through that awkward stage of puberty that his Aunt Marian would have called, ‘all arms and legs.’

He spent the times he wasn’t cowering from his uncle playing with his pup or drawing in a book.  He carried out most of his tasks around the camp with a sullen, resentful scowl.

Johnny couldn’t help but feel a pang of empathy for the boy … two decades earlier and this could have been him and his grandfather.

Like Ben, Johnny knew Rusty could be dangerous. Anger born of fear was just, if not more, powerful as the kind that stems from revenge or greed.

As the evening shadows fell, the mood in the camp grew darker as well. Ben had been sent to the edge of the campsite to take the first watch over their prisoners. Currently Guy was just staring off into space. He appeared bored and listless as if he had partaken of some of their own ill-gotten liquor and was now in a drunken stupor. Rusty had long since disappeared inside his tent with the puppy for the night.

Bud drained the last of his coffee and stretched. He turned toward Ben to give his final orders for the night.

“Wake Rusty up at three for his turn at watch,” Bud said.

“What about Guy?” Ben asked.

Bud looked over with a sneer. “What about him? You and the boy are the ones that brought these two prisoners here…. so you can babysit them. And I expect to find them in the same condition tomorrow morning as I am leaving them in now… if not, I will do to you whatever it is you do to them... do I make myself clear?” he warned.

“Crystal,” Ben answered sourly.

Bud walked over and nudged Guy out of his reverie and pointed toward Rusty’s tent. “Time to call it a night,” he said.

With his final orders settled, Bud ambled towards the second tent and entered inside, closing the flap behind him.

Despite the fact that they were trussed up like a Christmas turkey, the two captives had had a long exhausting day and both of them found their eyes heavy with sleep. Regardless of the peril they found themselves in, it wasn’t long before both men nodded off to dreamland.

                                                          ~                   ~                      ~

Dawn arrived shortly before six. It was heralded in by the song birds as their wake up chorus filled the cool morning air. A slight mist hung close to the ground covering everything in its wake with a cool damp covering … Including the two captive paramedics sleeping underneath the forest canopy.

Johnny would have been hard pressed to say which one of them woke first…him or Roy.  It seemed to him as if it had been more like a mutual awareness that neither one of them were still asleep.

As the endless stream of hours had passed through the night, the discomfort from their cramped position slowly changed from pain to a dull numbness. Even the cold damp ground had ceased to bother him.

Johnny found it impossible to suppress the groan that escaped his lips as he tried to stretch out is long cramped legs, and judging by the sounds of Roy’s groans, his partner wasn’t faring much better.

Both men gave a startled jump when they heard Bud’s voice less than a foot away.

“I’ll get Guy to untie you boys so you can take a leak and grab a cup of coffee. Just give me a minute to go get him,” he said, not unkindly.

The fact that Bud was in control of this operation and that he had made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t into murder, was the one lifeline that both Johnny and Roy were clinging to. And the only thing that really mattered to Johnny right now was making sure he and Roy got out of this alive… especially Roy.

Given a chance to speak to him alone, Johnny was sure he could talk some sense into Bud… but since the man seemed to be hell bent on letting them go unscathed, Johnny wasn’t about to push the matter.

As far as trying to reason with Ben was concerned… well that would be about as helpful as a fly taking a leak in the ocean. The man was beyond all rational thought. He clearly had no conscience and would kill just for the fun of it…no, Ben was his biggest worry right now.

As for Rusty and Guy, Johnny had no doubt they could easily be coerced into letting them go. Neither one would score very high on the Bell curve, and a simple mind game of divide and conquer would probably be all it would take. It wouldn’t take too much effort to sow the seeds of doubt in their minds about the other’s loyalties to them.  Hell, both Guy and Rusty clearly didn’t trust Ben as it was now. The only problem with that was that it was highly unlikely that either Ben or Bud would ever leave Guy or Rusty in charge on their own.

By the time the sun had fully risen, everyone in the camp was up and moving around for the day. Bud had gone over and was sorting the crates of liquor into two piles. He glanced down at his watch and rubbed his hand over the back of his neck.

“These deliveries are going out tonight… so in the meantime let’s just try and get through this day without any more stupid mistakes, okay?” He looked over to where Ben and Rusty were sitting on a log. It was clear to everyone what he was referring to.

Ben was angered by the rebuke but he quickly recovered his composure.

“Now,” Bud continued. “Ben, I want you and boy to stand guard again today, and this time make sure you come back without any baggage.”

Ben frowned at the announcement.

“Hey, I did lookout yesterday… it’s Guys turn today. It’s my turn to take the cushy jobs around camp,” he complained.

Bud walked over until he was mere inches from Ben’s face. When he was pulled up to his full height, Bud was truly an imposing figure.

“What you want is a matter of concern to nobody but yourself,” Bud growled.  “Now I got to go make contact with the buyers and there is no way in Hell I have any intentions of leaving you here in charge of these men. Now if you hadn’t screwed things up yesterday, then you could have had the ‘cushy’ jobs today… but this is a mess of your making, so you can damn well take lookout again today… now pack up your gear and get out there.”

It was perfectly clear that Bud wasn’t about to put up with any arguments from his crew. But by the murderous look in Ben’s eyes, it was equally clear that the man was nearing his breaking point… it was a fact that scared the shit out of Johnny.

The air seemed charged with a tension so thick that Johnny was sure if he concentrated hard enough, he would actually be able to see it. Thankfully Ben had opted to control his rising temper and follow his boss’s orders. The irate man stalked over and grabbed his pack angrily off the ground and began shoving items inside with such a force, Johnny was surprised the seams on the bag hadn’t ripped apart.

On the other side of the camp, the young pup was following his master as the teen meekly began to gather up his own gear for the day.

As the two lookouts put the final preparations for their long day together, Johnny noticed that Ben had, in his haste and anger, forgotten to zip his backpack closed.

It was at that point, Johnny forgot Bud’s edict and he spoke without thinking… or maybe he was just too cold, tired and in pain to care anymore… but whatever the reason Johnny broke the silence in the camp.

“Better zip your pack closed,” he said to Ben.

Ben scowled over at his prisoner, his eyes narrowing to angry slits.

“Don’t tell me what I need to be doing, punk,” he hissed angrily.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders dismissively.

“Okay, fine. Dump your gear out onto the dirt… see if I care.”

With a look that could have turned a lesser man to stone, Ben seized the pack with a jerk and hoisted it onto his shoulder sending the contents flying out the top of the open bag. Everyone watched as Ben’s lunch spilled out, landing in the dirt beside the fire pit.

Try as he might, Johnny couldn’t stop the smirk from showing on his face.

Ben rushed forward toward the grinning prisoner and made a move as if to back hand Johnny across the face. Fortunately for the tied up Paramedic, Bud was faster and reached out to stop Ben’s blow in mid-air.

“Keep your hands off him,” Bud ordered. “What are you mad at him for anyway? He tried to do you a favour by warning ya? You’re the dumbass who got all hot and bothered about it and didn’t take his advice… you got no one to blame but yourself.”

“But he’s laughing at me,” Ben protested indignantly.

Ben turned to see that Bud himself was laughing at him.  His face turned beet red as his blood began to boil.

Bud shook his head, ignoring the man’s anger.

“Well if you don’t want to be laughed at, then start using your head and quit playing the fool … honestly you and your tantrums are worse than my grandson. Now put that stuff back in your bag… do it up like the man said and get going before I lose my temper with you.”

By now Ben was beyond angry and it didn’t help when he looked over at his nephew and detected a small smirk on the teen’s face over what had just transpired. It was more than the man could take. Getting laughed at by his boss was one thing… but getting laughed at by not only his prisoner, but his own teenaged nephew was beyond bearable. He walked over to where his nephew sat holding the pup on his lap with a sneer on his face and rage in his eyes.

Before anyone could make a move to stop him, he grabbed the pup off the boy’s lap and drop kicked it across the camp.

The pup screamed in fear and pain as it landed onto the ground with a sickening thud. It stood up on shaky legs and staggered over underneath a pile of brush and collapsed into a heap. The wounded creature took a shuddering breath and lay silent.

From where he was sitting, it appeared to Johnny as if the pup had died. By the looks on the stunned faces of the other men in the camp, they thought the pup was dead too.

There was a moment of stunned silence in the camp as the realization of what had just happened sank in. Johnny was sure that there would be all out war between Bud and Ben over what had just happened and he pulled himself back as tight as he could against the tree. He was relieved to see that Roy had followed his lead.

But it wasn’t Bud who was the next to speak… it was the boy.

“You killed him….you killed my dog, you bastard,” Rusty yelled.

Johnny could see that the kid was trying his best not to cry as the realization that the only creature he had ever loved… the only thing that had ever loved him back… was now lying dead in the bushes.

Johnny suddenly realized that it wasn’t Ben that he needed to fear… it was the boy. He bore the look of someone who was pushed to the point to where he felt he no longer had anything to lose.

Before anyone could stop him, Rusty ran forward and grabbed the pistol out of Ben’s holster and pointed it at his uncle. 

“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch… I’ll kill you,” he cried.

Johnny was aware that both Bud and Guy were shouting, but he had no clear idea of what they were saying. The only thing he could hear were the mournful, pain-filled cries of the teen as he lunged toward Ben.

Ben got a crazed look in his eyes and he laughed low in his throat. 

“You think you got the stones to shoot me boy? Hell, you’re still so wet behind the ears you don’t even know what side of the bed to piss on.” And with that he lunged forward in an effort to grab the weapon out of Rusty’s hand.

There was only the briefest struggle between the two of them before an earsplitting explosion filled the air.

The two of them stopped struggling as a look of complete shock filled both their faces. Within a matter of seconds, a small stream of blood trickled out the side of Rusty’s mouth and he slowly began to fall into a heap on the ground, a large stain of blood began to grow on the left side of his chest.

Ben stood there frozen in shock as he stared at his nephew. He let the gun fall out of his hand and onto the ground before staggering back several steps as the realization of what he had just done sank in.

Both Johnny and Roy began to furiously struggle with their bonds.

“Untie us now and give us our bags… we’re both Franklin County Paramedics.  We’ve got first aid gear in our packs…let us loose so we can try and save the kid’s life,’ Johnny yelled out frantically.

Bud swiveled around as he tried to digest this new bit of information amidst all the mayhem around him.  Comprehension over what the two captives were saying finally registered and without any hesitation he ran over and loosed the two men.

Hours of having their limbs bound made the two Paramedic’s movements sluggish and stilted, but they still managed to make it over to the fallen boy in less than a minute.

Johnny ripped open the front of Rusty’s shirt as Roy searched frantically for the first aid kit and the gauze bandages. He had just found the kit and was pulling it out, when he felt Johnny’s hand on his forearm.

Roy glanced over at his partner and saw the look in Johnny’s eyes and the small shake of his head. Roy let his own eyes travel to the wound on the boy’s body.

It was evident by all the damage to the boy’s chest, that his injuries were not survivable… Rusty… a boy who had barely even begun his life … was dying.

Johnny looked down as he heard the telltale signs of the death rattle. The boy’s hand raised up and grabbed hold of Johnny’s as he began to struggle with his breathing.

“Mama… I want my mama…Oh please God… I don’t wanna die… please don’t let me die… Please…I want my mama…”

The boy began to cough and sputter weakly as he opened his mouth to speak further, but no noise came out. There was only the struggle for one final breath as his eyes glazed over and became fixed and then stared up into nothingness.

The hand in Johnny’s went limp and he slowly let it down to rest on the boy’s stomach. He glanced up, his eyes meeting briefly with Bud’s before he reached forward with his hand and closed Rusty’s eyes for the very last time. The whole incident had taken place in less than five minutes.

As Paramedics he and Roy were familiar with the cycle of life and death… but whether it was because Johnny saw so much of himself in the teen or just the intensity of the whole situation… this death just seemed a bit harder to accept.

Johnny stood up and used this opportunity to stretch his back muscles before glancing around at the others.

Roy was quietly putting the first aid kit back into his rucksack. Ben was still standing behind him in shock, his mouth gaping open, not uttering a sound.

Guy was just standing there looking at Rusty’s body. Johnny wasn’t sure what he was thinking. It looked as if he were trying to decide whether to cry or lose his breakfast… in the end he did both.

It was Bud who spoke first as he walked over and picked up the gun off the ground. He then walked around the camp and collected the other guns and put them inside his tent. He came back with a blanket and handed it to Roy.

“Would you two mind, moving the boy’s body out of the way… you can cover it with that blanket.”

Johnny and Roy complied with the Bud’s orders in silence… neither man had the heart to speak. When they were finished, Bud ushered first Roy, and then Johnny, over to their former place and began to secure them back in place.

As he was leading Johnny over to where Roy sat bound he spoke quietly in the Paramedic’s ear, “I promise you,” he said quietly, “I’ll let you go on your way before the day is over… this has gone too far.”

This time he made sure he tied their hands in front of them and though he made sure that the bonds on their feet were secure, they weren’t as painfully tight as before.

Bud walked wordlessly away and sat down on top of the first stack of crates. It was clear he was trying to figure out what he needed to do next.

By this time Guy had managed to calm himself down somewhat and Ben, while regaining his composure, had lost all of his bravado. It seemed as if he was realizing that threatening to kill another human being…and actually doing it were two different things entirely.

Johnny couldn’t help but notice that every so often Bud would stare at him oddly. It occurred to the dark haired medic that after untying him and Roy so they could treat Rusty, the man named Bud had suddenly sat forward as if he were keenly interested his and Roy’s conversation. He didn’t know what to make of it… but he found it extremely disconcerting. One thing was for certain… the death of the teen meant that this was now a whole new ballgame.

As Johnny began to shift his body weight, a slight movement in the bushes caught his eye. His eyes widened as he glanced over and was met with the scared blue eyes of Rusty’s puppy. Johnny was surprised that the puppy’s eyes were so clear and bright. If anything it looked more afraid than injured. Johnny began to surmise that the puppy may have just been stunned, rather than being seriously hurt.

The pup locked eyes with Johnny and began to take a tentative step toward the Paramedic. But with everything that had just gone down in the campsite, Johnny wasn’t sure how Ben would react to seeing the impetus for his and Rusty’s fight walk out alive and largely unscathed. Right now, Johnny figured that the puppy was safer where it was hidden undetected beneath the bushes.

Johnny looked into the ice blue eyes of the puppy and held his breath. He sat in silence… willing the puppy to stay hidden and silent.

Thankfully it did.

 

                                                                     Chapter Six

Declan was in a dour mood as he sat on the stack of whiskey crates and considered his options. This entire situation was unravelling fast and he now had a serious dilemma on his hands. He was never more thankful that no one knew him as anything other than his alias, Bud Johnson, than he was at this moment.

For the better part of the last hour he had been fighting to maintain his composure over the death of the teenager. This was not the time to lose control of his emotions, otherwise the two men Ben had so recklessly kidnapped could very well end up dead too… and he did not want to go down for murder. He may dance around the wrong side of the law from time to time, but Declan wasn’t about to take the life of another human being. He did have a line that he had drawn in the sand… there were still certain things he would not do, and killing someone was at the top of that list. His moral compass simply did not have a heading for murder, let alone kidnapping. 

Declan had originally gotten into the rum running business out of desperation. In the beginning it had been nothing more than a means to an end…a solution to his financial woes. He regarded his way of life as nothing more than a ‘business’…after all, what harm had been done?  He wasn’t hurting anybody….well, nobody but the taxman … and everyone hated him, right? Not that that excuse would hold up in court. He was well aware he was breaking the law and that his offshore bank account in the Cayman Islands was filled with tainted money….but since he wasn’t looking for absolution from Uncle Sam, he didn’t lose any sleep over it. He knew he had made a conscious choice to be a rum runner…albeit a choice borne of desperation…or at least it had in the beginning.

He had gone into it with his eyes open, and he was fully aware that this lifestyle was fraught with dangers. It was just a hazard of the occupation. It certainly wasn’t the glamorous life that was depicted in the movies or on television.

He was constantly scheming in his quest to remain off the revenue man’s radar…making sure he stayed one step ahead of the law.  It was a life of mistrust and jumping at shadows. Everyone he met on the street could be a potential threat. Every person who pulled up beside him at a red light was circumspect, and if they happened to glance over at him and hold his gaze for more than a second, his first thought was always invariably, ‘why are they looking at me? What do they know?’

There was always the fear that he would slip up and be found out…. or be betrayed by a supplier or customer. And though he was a man who enjoyed a nice cold beer on a hot day or a glass of wine with supper, he always stopped at one these days. The last thing he needed to do was get drunk and let slip with an intoxicated statement that would blow the lid off of his secret life.

And then there was Dominic….the apple of his eye. The young child needed his grandpa to not be in jail. Declan knew that the unfortunate turn of events of this weekend had changed his entire game plan…he was going to have to bump up his plans to retire from the business. It was time to cut and run….today.

Ben and Guy were now a huge liability to him and he had no problems with making a fast exit and leaving the two of them to hold the bag. One reason he was still a free man today was because he had always had an innate sense of when to get out of Dodge. This was why he always had a contingency plan.

His chief interest at the moment was getting out of there undetected, to hell with the shipment … an extra five grand wasn’t worth it. He had more money tucked away than he and Dominic would ever need to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

But the two captives posed a problem. He couldn’t leave them to their fate with Ben… especially after overhearing their words after Rusty had been shot. The revelation that the two men were Paramedics had answered a question that had been niggling at the back of Declan’s mind for the past twenty four hours.

Ever since the two men had arrived in camp, Declan hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that he had seen the younger man before. He had originally begun to wonder if they’d had dealings together in the past. But he was sure that wasn’t it. Still he couldn’t shake the feeling of déjà vu he got every time he looked at the younger man’s face.

He had heard him tell Ben that his name was John Gage, but that hadn’t brought about any clarity as to where or when they could have possibly met, and the young man had not shown any outward signs that he had recognized Bud.

Other than their names Bud really didn’t have any information on the two prisoners. But deep inside, he knew he should know the young man with the dark hair. But on the off chance he was mistaken, Declan had refrained from questioning him. The last thing he wanted was to rouse any suspicions with Ben. If Ben thought that one of his captives could identify Bud… the man’s life would be forfeit.

Clarity had finally arrived shortly after they had revealed to Declan that they were paramedics. It was then that the puzzle pieces began to slide into place in his mind. Bud had listened as the young paramedic had worked on the felled teen. He’d overheard the older of the two medics ask about the boy’s condition. And as he watched John Gage work to try and save Rusty’s life, the veil of uncertainty fully lifted.  Like a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky, it finally dawned on him where he seen the dark haired man before… John Gage had been the off duty Paramedic that had been driving along the road behind his daughter’s car the day she had been hit head on by a drunk driver the previous autumn.

It had been John Gage that had pulled his young grandson out of his daughter’s car mere seconds before it exploded, thus saving the child from certain death. And that is what was currently posing his biggest dilemma…He owed the captive named Gage for saving Dominic’s life… and it was a debt he felt honour bound to repay.

And since Gage had told Ben that he and his fellow captive were brothers, that meant Gage wouldn’t leave his brother behind. For that reason, helping Gage to escape would mean he’d have to help DeSoto too.

Now he just had to revise his escape plan in order to save the two medics from Ben Clarke.

                  ~              ~             ~                  ~

This wasn’t happening … this was nothing more than a bad dream that he would soon wake from. He would tell Johnny about it at work tomorrow and they would both have a good laugh over it. Then afterward, his partner would preach to him on the evils of snacking on spicy foods before going to bed.

Only this wasn’t a dream … it wasn’t even a nightmare. It was very real and nobody was laughing. He and Johnny really had been kidnapped and the teenager that lay beneath the tattered blanket across the campsite was really dead…shot by one of Roy’s captors.

The temperature outside was sitting somewhere in the high seventies, but underneath the leafy canopy the air was still cool and fresh. Despite those facts, there were tiny beads of sweat on Roy’s brow that had nothing to do with the temperature. A more likely culprit was all the nervous tension he was feeling. He just wasn’t used to this kind of danger. Sure, he had faced various dangers on the job, but to actually be in danger of being murdered…this was all new territory to him.

He looked over at Johnny and caught his young partner’s gaze. The dark eyes returned his look briefly before they drifted back towards Bud. For as much as they were usually in complete sync with each other, Roy found that he was having a hard time trying to discern the look in his brother’s eyes at this moment. When Johnny’s emotions were intense, his eyes darkened in colour, and right now they were almost black. The older Paramedic couldn’t decide if the look he was currently seeing in Johnny’s eyes was determination, fear or something totally new and foreign to him.

Perhaps his inability to read his partner this time around stemmed from the fact that his own mind was cloudy…a churning sea of jumbled thoughts and emotions. They were filled with fear and uncertainty about the situation he currently found himself in, swirling with thoughts of Joanne, his kids, being murdered and … guilt.

The one comfort he did have rested in the knowledge that he wasn’t in this alone… Johnny was there beside him. That in turn brought on feelings of guilt because he instinctively knew that Johnny’s thoughts were most likely the exact opposite of his own. He was certain that his partner was probably wishing Roy was safe at home with his wife and children instead of sitting there tied up next to him. That knowledge made him feel incredibly selfish.

He knew he shouldn’t be glad that Johnny was with him … but damn it, he was.

It was made worse because he knew that when he finally did purge his soul to Johnny once they got out of this…if they got out of this … that Johnny would absolve him of all blame, assuring him that he wasn’t selfish… that it was just human nature to want some sense of support in tough times.

Roy was used to fighting the beast called fire…but this was a whole different kind of beast and he knew he was so far out of his depth that he would have drowned, supposing he had a top of the line floatation device strapped to his body. 

And that was why he was glad Johnny was with him. Johnny was a seasoned veteran of this kind of thing. This wasn’t the first or even second time that Johnny had faced down someone who wanted to kill him.   He had survived the men who had tried to murder him and his parents when he was ten. He had survived his grandfather’s attacks. And he had survived a bus that had been hijacked by escaped convicts that had taken him and two small children hostage. Johnny was a survivor and a good man to have in your corner when you were in a jam.

It was a curious thing, but Roy had noticed that ever since they had been kidnapped, the tone of Johnny’s words … few as they had been … were different. They were more deliberate and calculated. The usual nervous energy he associated most with his younger partner was glaringly absent.

Up until now the two men had been forbidden to speak to each other throughout this whole ordeal. Consequently they hadn’t exchanged more than a word or two since their capture. Johnny had asked him quietly if he was alright, but that had been the extent of their communications with each other.

But the current climate inside the camp had definitely shifted from one of control to a definite air of uncertainty. The killing of the boy had changed everything. Ben and Guy were currently talking in angry whispers near the fire. Roy surmised it was about some unfinished business and he was afraid that he and Johnny were that ‘unfinished business’.

As for Bud, Roy thought that he bore the look of a man who was tired of being patient and was now willing to shoot him and Johnny for the simple reason that he’d have one less problem to contend with.

Roy once again lifted his eyes to look at his partner. He was shocked to see that Johnny’s countenance had changed. He swore he could actually hear the wheels turning inside Johnny’s head. Since he was currently having difficulty getting a read on his younger brother, he could only hazard a guess at what exactly it was that was currently occupying Johnny’s thoughts ... Maybe Johnny had a plan.

He wondered if perhaps he should risk talking to Johnny to find out what his thoughts on their present situation were, and if he did indeed have any ideas about what they could do.  He was still pondering it over in his mind when he heard Johnny’s voice speaking in low tones beside him.

“How are you holding up, Roy? Are you doin’ okay?”

Roy shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

“Well, I’m not exactly sure ‘okay’ is the word I would use to describe this situation… but yeah, I’m hanging in there, although I am not sure for how much longer. It looks like the boss man over there is getting ready to get rid of us,” Roy answered miserably.

“Who … Bud?” Johnny seemed surprised at the notion.

Roy stared at the ground and nodded woodenly.

 Johnny’s faced relaxed. “Nah, Bud’s not a killer, Roy. If he was you and I would both be dead by now.”

Roy gawped at Johnny in disbelief as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head.

“How can you be so blasé about all of this, Johnny? Aren’t you even a little bit scared, because I sure as hell am?” his voice a mixture of disbelief and anger.

Johnny looked back at him with a look that always frustrated, and at times, infuriated Roy. It was a cross between impatience and amazement.

When Johnny looked at him like that, Roy could almost hear the unspoken, well duh, in Johnny’s voice.

“Of course I’m scared, Roy. We’re tied up in the middle of nowhere, with three men…one of whom has already shown that he is capable of murder. You’d have to be insane not to be scared. I’m just saying Bud isn’t the one we need to be afraid of. Ben, on the other hand …” Johnny left the sentence hanging.

“Well you could have fooled me,” Roy protested. “Bud looks like he’d just like to shoot us both and be done with it,” he paused. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas on how to get out of this?” he quizzed hopefully.

Johnny shrugged. “I have some thoughts on the matter,” he answered noncommittally.

Roy, whose emotions were rubbed raw from the stress of the past thirty six hours, was at the end of his rope. He could feel his impatience building at Johnny’s evasiveness to the point where his frustration spilled out in the tone of his voice.

“Well would you care to share those thoughts with the rest of the class?” he asked through gritted teeth.

Johnny eyed his partner curiously for a long moment, but said nothing. He decided it might be wise to give Roy a moment or two to calm down before answering his question. In the meantime he shifted his position as much as he was able so he could stretch out his cramped legs. He waited until he was sure Roy had gained more control over his emotions before he spoke again.

“Look, Roy. I know that we’re in a pinch here, but it’s not hopeless…. I’ve been in worse,” he chided gently. “We’ve just got to play our cards right.”

Roy gave up trying to figure out where his partner’s mind was at. The fact that Johnny seemed so underwhelmed by their present predicament was too much for his frazzled mind to digest. He simply couldn’t understand how matter of fact Johnny was being about all of this, so he decided to stop trying.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said in a flat voice. “How on earth did a simple camping trip get us into so much trouble?”

Johnny snorted softly beside him. “Roy… look who you’re sitting next to?  I would have thought you’d have figured that one out that by now.  When it concerns me, I don’t have to whistle for trouble… it just seems to come searching for me all on its own.” Johnny answered, nudging his partner’s shoulder in an effort to lighten his mood.

The corners of Roy’s mouth quirked up, but he said nothing.

Johnny grew quiet as he contemplated some imaginary spot on the horizon. After a few moments he straightened his shoulders and gave his head a curt nod, as if he had come to some kind of decision about what course of action he was going to take.

He turned to Roy and spoke in a low voice in order to avoid being overheard by their captors.

“Listen, Roy. If my past experiences have taught me anything, it’s that this is not just a physical situation, it’s a psychological one as well. We just need to stay alert and keep our wits about us. I think our best game plan is to divide and conquer.”

Roy looked dubious. “I’m not sure I can do this, Junior,” he said doubtfully.

“Sure you can, Pally,” Johnny said with more confidence than he was actually feeling. “You’ve been doing it your entire adult life.”

Roy looked at Johnny in obvious confusion. “What are you talking about, Johnny. I have never been in a situation like this before… not ever.”

Johnny rolled his eyes and shook his head in frustration.

“Don’t you see, Roy? We defeat our fears and overcome the odds every day of our life. You did it when you were in the army and we did it as firemen. We do it every single time we strap on those safety belts and climb up the side of a house or slip over the edge of a cliff. Our job is full of risks. Running into a burning building is counter intuitive, and the first time we did it on our own it was frightening. We were testing our limits and our abilities to stay calm and not panic … to follow our training and our instincts … to get in and get back out successfully. Sure that first time was scary, but we mastered it. To be afraid of something and do it anyway … that is true courage, Roy.  When we conquer that fear, it takes away its power over us,” he paused.

“And when it comes right down to it, this situation probably gives us better odds than a fire would,” Johnny explained.

“Oh really?” Roy exclaimed. “And just how did you work that one out?”

Johnny sighed heavily, careful not to attract any unwanted attention by their captors.

“Because, Roy.  Fire isn’t human… it doesn’t care … it has no emotions. It does what it does with no thought to self-preservation. That’s the difference here. These men have fears, weaknesses and flaws that can be used against them and exploited. It is an asset if you can figure how to use it to your advantage.”

“Those guys over there,” Johnny said gesturing with his head in the direction of their captors, “those guys are only as strong as their trust in each other. If we split them up and deal with them one on one, we outnumber them. And we have something they don’t … we have loyalty. I mean, do you really think any of those men are willing to die for each other? No way. Their actions have already proven that they won’t.”

“But me and you…we’re a solid team, we have a natural cohesion they could never understand. We’re in it to the end with each other. Those guys would sell the other one out in a heartbeat to save themselves.”

“And that is where we have the upper hand. It is a definite advantage to know what makes your enemy tick… what motivates them.”

Roy wasn’t convinced, but he sat in silence and waited as Johnny paused to collect his thoughts. Johnny gave their captors another appraising glance before he continued.

“You can tell a lot about what a man fears most, by what he says and does to try and control those around him,” Johnny explained.

“Now you take Ben over there. He’s a real hot head…very reactionary. He also gets off on putting others down to make himself look like a tough guy. He likes to give himself credit for being smarter than he actually is. Deep down Ben fears being thought of as inferior to others. He is volatile and it would be easy to get under his skin, because his biggest insecurity is to be thought of as weak minded or stupid.”

Johnny shifted his gaze to where Guy stood puttering around the camp fire, his back to Johnny. 

“As for Guy over there, well that man has probably been a wannabe his entire life. Kinda like the kid they always picked last for baseball in gym class. You know who he reminds me of?”

Roy shook his head but remained silent, so Johnny carried on.

“He reminds me of that cartoon Jenny likes to watch on Saturday mornings…you know the one with the little yappy dog that runs around after the big dog saying, you and me is pals, ain’t we Spike?  Now his biggest fear is not fitting in, or being an outcast. He’s afraid that all the big boys will vote him out of their club.”

“It will be a cinch to rattle both of their chains, Roy. The pair of them could be easily manipulated just by preying on their natural distrust for each other through the power of suggestion… like putting them in a closet and ordering them not to think about green monkeys … you just know that it wouldn’t be very long until all they could think about was green monkeys.”

“So that is all we have to do… we just have to sow the seeds of doubt in their minds and let their natural distrust for one another fan the flames. Now do you get where I am going with this, Roy?”  Johnny finished.

Roy sat and considered Johnny’s words for a moment before speaking.

“Well then, what about Bud?” Roy questioned. “How can you be so sure about him?  I mean, just what is it exactly that makes you think he won’t shoot us? He has been the one calling the shots all along you know.”

“Oh that?” Johnny shrugged dismissively. “That’s an easy one… he told me so himself when he was bringing me back over here to tie me up.”

“He told you!” Roy hissed incredulously. “That is what you’re basing your whole, ‘he won’t shoot us,’ theory on?  For heaven’s sake Johnny, he’s a criminal… they have been known to lie from time to time you know,” his voice had risen a couple octaves and he had to check himself.

“Relax, Roy,” Johnny soothed. “Bud is a lot smarter than that. He’s obviously a business man. He’s in this for the money. He isn’t a cold blooded murderer.

Everything he has said and done up to this point is proof of that. You saw how upset he was when Ben killed the boy.  He even took the guns away from him. And remember how he stepped in to stop Ben from hitting me when I laughed at him over the back pack incident? And don’t forget, he was furious over our kidnapping in the first place. He’s intelligent enough to know that this kinda stuff is bad for business.”

“When two Paramedics go missing in the bush near his hideout … or the body of a teenage boy turns up, it tends to draw a lot of unwanted attention. It gets the authorities poking around and asking questions. Why do you think he told Ben not to lay a hand on us? There is a big difference in the length of time one goes to jail for running illegal booze compared to kidnapping and murder.”

“We can use his intelligence against him. We just have to handle him differently than we do the other two clowns. Even now you can see Bud trying to work things out in his mind… he is already trying to distance himself from Ben and the murder. With him we’ll have to use the whole idea of the cause and effect of living outside the law.”

“So, you see Pally? We do have things we can use to our advantage to try and get out of this in one piece… we just have to be smart about it,” Johnny concluded.

Roy looked over at his partner in amazement.  This was a side of Johnny he had never witnessed before. For the first time it really hit home just exactly what Johnny had gone through during his time with Martin and the two Mills children a few years earlier. Hell, Johnny’s whole life had been one struggle after another. It was both impressive and sad at the same time, and it gave him a new layer of respect for the man he called brother.

“Okay, Junior. I trust ya…the ball is in your court. You lead and I’ll follow… right to the end,” he said.

Johnny’s posture was relaxed as he sat back against the tree. For a long moment he sat staring at his hands. Suddenly his eyebrows shot up in surprise. He looked over at Roy and grinned.

“Hey, you know, these ropes are a lot looser than they were before. I can move my hands a little bit.”

He proved his point by holding up his bound hands and by shifting his wrists slightly, he was able to maneuver his hands so they were facing palms together. In this position, his fingers were able to move more freely. He glanced down at his ankles and his grin widened.

“I bet I can move my fingers just enough to untie my ankles. It would be handy to have the use of our feet just in case we get a chance to make a break for it. You keep watch and warn me if any of those goons looks over my way. If I can, I will untie my ankles … but I’ll have to leave the rope wound loosely so it looks like they are still bound. Once I get my ankles free, I’ll try and work on your hands.”

Roy wasn’t sure it was a good idea.

“Suppose they come over and see that we are loose … then what?  Besides, I thought you said Bud was going to let us go?”

Johnny rolled his eyes.

“Roy, I said I didn’t think Bud would kill us. It doesn’t mean I am stupid enough to totally trust him. Like you said, he is a criminal, and given the opportunity to hightail it out of here and head for the hills… well, he might just do that and leave us with these two guys. Hell, he might already be making plans to leave tonight … and then Ben just might kill us.”

“Either way we have to do something soon. That body is going to start to smell real bad and force their hand.  Something is going to happen tonight...I can feel it in my heart. And given the choice, I would rather have my legs free to run.

Besides, every good plan has a backup. Now just keep watch will ya?”

Roy looked over and noticed that both Ben and Guy were busy sitting around the fire drinking coffee; their backs were turned away from where they sat tied beneath a large maple tree. Both men seemed to have recovered from the shooting incident, although Guy was still very pale.

Bud had gone off into the bush to take watch a few hours earlier and had yet to return. Maybe Johnny had a point. Having his hands and feet free sounded like a good idea in case things suddenly went south and they did need to make a run for it. He looked over at Johnny and nodded in agreement.

“Okay… but hurry up,” he whispered.

Johnny surreptitiously slid his knees up until he could slide his hands over the top. Resting his hands beside his bound ankles he began to work on the knot.

Roy stole a few quick glances at his partner to check on his progress. He couldn’t help but smile in satisfaction; he was sure his captors had no idea just how good Johnny was with ropes and knots. In less than two minutes Johnny had the knot free so that the rope was just lying loosely over his ankles. He left the rope lying so that no one would be able to see that his feet were now loose.

“Okay, Roy. Now shift your body over towards me a bit and slide your hands over.”

Roy stole another glance at Ben and Guy. Both men were still sitting at the fire sipping their drinks while they chatted quietly together. Like he had with his ankles, Johnny made short work of the ropes on Roy’s wrists.

“Leave the rope wound around loosely… it has to look like you are still tied up. I’ll watch Ben and Guy while you do the same thing to your ankles as I did to mine. Then we’ll work on my wrists.”

Roy quietly brought his knees up and began to quickly work on the rope around his ankles. He wasn’t quite as quick as Johnny and it took him a few minutes to get the knot loosened. He had just finished undoing the knot while making sure it appeared as if his ankles were still bound, when he heard Johnny’s urgent whisper.

“They’re getting up, Roy,” he hissed. “You’re not going to have time to free my hands.”

Roy lifted his head in time to see Guy getting to his feet. It seemed that the two men had finished their coffee and were returning to their work around the camp. Roy quickly looped the rope around his wrists so they appeared to be still bound. He silently cursed the fact that he’d been too slow in undoing his feet … if only he’d had time to get Johnny’s hands free.”

Across the camp Ben stood up, tossing his empty cup to Guy before brushing the few stray bits of bark off his jeans.

“I’m going to go get Bud for supper. You stay here and keep an eye on those two,” he ordered, gesturing toward Roy and Johnny. “If they try anything fancy, get a gun from the tent and shoot ‘em both.”

Without waiting for an answer Ben strode off into the bush in the same direction Bud had taken leaving Guy alone in the camp with the prisoners.

Roy glanced over at Johnny and their eyes met. This time Roy had no difficulty in interpreting Johnny’s look.  Now’s our chance to work on Guy.  

Roy got the message loud and clear.

Johnny sat back and leaned against the tree as he watched Guy putter aimlessly around the camp while he muttered indistinctly. Every so often he would shake his head as if he were arguing with himself about something. For the first two or three minutes, Johnny was content to just observe the nervous man with the pallid complexion.

But just as he’d expected, it wasn’t long before Guy began to steal covert glances in his and Roys’ direction. It was on one of those glances that Johnny addressed the man directly.

“You won’t get away with this you know,” Johnny informed him.

The nervous man started with such force that for a moment Johnny feared he might actually faint, but Guy managed to take a steadying breath before turning to stare at his two prisoners with a dull expression on his face.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” Guy replied sullenly.

Johnny laughed. There was no missing the condescending tone in his voice when he answered back.

“Yes, and you always do as you’re told like a good little boy, don’t you, Guy?”

Johnny paused. “You’ll make some man a fine companion in prison. I mean, going down for murder and all…and you will…go down for murder, that is. And that means they’ll be sure to put you in the big boy part of the prison. And those big goon’s just love their little pets to be submissive and follow their instructions to a tee,” Johnny taunted.

Guy’s already pale face drained of what little colour it had left as the implications of Johnny’s words sank in. He made a feeble attempt to speak but ended up just standing there mutely, unsure of what to say. Finally he turned tail and scurried back to his chores.

Johnny sat and watched as Guy’s body convulsed with such violent shivering that it was almost as if he had just stepped into a deep freezer.

This is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel, Johnny thought to himself.

Guy returned back to the campfire and began adding small pieces of wood to build up the flames. When he was satisfied he pulled out two cans of brown beans from a small wooden box that held the food stores.

Johnny noted with satisfaction, that Guy was having great difficulty in getting the can opener to work because his hands were shaking so bad.

Guy maintained his silence as he worked. He was clearly taking great pains to avoid any further eye contact with his hostages. Johnny knew he had to push a few more of Guy’s buttons if he was going to goad him into a conversation.

 “So I guess you’re the bottom rung of the ladder… you get to be the dogsbody now that Ben’s killed Rusty, huh?” Johnny asked.

Still no reply… hmm, well I’ll keep on going then. Johnny tried again.

 “So tell me, Guy, what happens if the boss decides to thin the herd? You know Ben’s not going to protect you, right?”  Johnny asked … like he actually gave a damn.

Johnny watched the further erosion of the man’s self-control consume Guy’s body at the mention of Rusty. Guy finally stopped what he was doing by the fire. He was clearly agitated as he approached the two medics.

“Ben wasn’t supposed to shoot anyone,” he stuttered out. “Rusty shouldn’t have come at him like that … he knew Ben has a bad temper.”

Guy wrung his hands and started to pace like a caged lion. “Besides … who says we’re going to get caught. Bud’s a smart man… he knows what he’s doing,” he finished hastily.

Johnny made no attempt to hide his contempt.

“Listen, Stupid,” Johnny barked out angrily. “You have kidnapped two Paramedics, and you now have a dead body on your hands. That is significantly more difficult to hide than a few crates of Jack Daniels. The police may not go too far out of their way over the odd case of booze, but they take a pretty dim view about missing civil servants, not to mention finding a corpse of teenaged boy on their doorstep.”

Johnny sat back and allowed Guy to assimilate the information. The nervous man’s eyes darted back and forth anxiously which gave him the appearance of a frightened mouse. How in the hell the man had ever gotten into this business, let alone survived it, was beyond him.

Guy just stood there with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched. His pale face was dotted with beads of sweat, his focus concentrated on his feet. He seemed bewildered and lost. In different circumstances, Johnny might have felt a modicum of sympathy for the man. But one glance at his bound wrists and the covered body of the boy quickly pushed any thoughts of sympathy from his mind.

Guy stopped his pacing and lifted his eyes to meet Johnny’s.

“This whole thing is such a mess,” he moaned. “And anyway, why should I be charged with murder? I didn’t even have a gun,” he asked, his voice faltering.

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, like the judge is going to care about that.”

Guy opened his mouth and then closed it again without speaking. He looked around helplessly and tried again. His voice, when he did finally find it, came out as a barely audible squeak.

“But it’s not fair, I didn’t kill anyone,” he said with a cry of protest.

Johnny felt his anger rise.

“What’s fair got to do with it?” he exclaimed. “Do you honestly think the rest of the world gives a damn about what you think is fair? Shit happens that isn’t fair all the time and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’d have to be a complete moron not to realize that if you hang around people like Ben and Bud, that sooner or later your house of cards is going to fall down around your ears.”

Any more conversation between the two men was cut short by sounds of footsteps coming up the path. The sound sent Guy scurrying back to his pot of beans.

Johnny looked at Roy and sat back with a self-satisfied smile.

             

 

Continued in Part 2

 

Posted to Site 09/13/14

Links to Parts 1. 2.

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