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Chet continued to sit at the table in the kitchenette of the bunk house, his heart still heavy with guilt over what he had just learned.
He had no idea how long he sat there before he was pulled out of himself by the sound of a ringing phone.
“Hey, I saw that guy drive off ten minutes ago; what’s taking you so long to come for breakfast?” Julie asked with laughter in her voice.
Chet let out a quivering sigh and fought to find words to say. None came to his mind.
“Chet, are you alright?” Julie had picked up on the tone in his silence. “What did that guy do to you?”
Again Chet could find no words except, “It was my fault.”
Chet was still sitting on the bed with the phone handset to his ear when Julie and her father let themselves into the bunk house and sat down on either side of him. After a minute of back rubs and coaxed breathing Chet was able to tell them everything that had been talked about and what he had been told.
“So now they know for sure that he didn’t start the fire,” Carl responded with something other than the anger and rejection Chet expected.
Julie remained silent and stunned for a moment then bent over so that she could look in to Chet’s eyes as he sat with his head bowed.
“I think I can understand how you must be feeling but you couldn’t have not answered his questions. It would have been like telling him his question was too stupid to answer.
“She’s right, son, It was a legitimate question that deserved an answer. It’s not your fault that the volunteer fire department in town doesn’t know how to get a fire out like you do.”
Julie’s arms found their way around Chet’s chest and he was pulled closer to her. Feeling like he was going to fall over Chet placed his hand down on the bed to steady himself. As his hand moved over the extra blanket he had placed on the bed because he was cold, Chet’s mind turned back to Frank.
“He must have been freezing being outside all night long.”
“Being cold never stopped Frank before,” Carl commented knowing this young man had a lot more talking that he needed to do.
“I remember when we first met you guys.” Chet talked with a faraway look on his face. “When Roy started to go bad he knelt on the floor right there.” Chet nodded with his head to the spot where Frank had knelt on the floor. “He just held Roy’s hand for over an hour and a half and I remember thinking his knees must be killing him kneeling on that hard floor for so long. He just kept doing everything he could to, I don’t know, to let him know he cared, I think.”
“He did the same thing with the sick lambs,” Carl remembered and gave Chet’s back a little more vigorous rubbing. “When in spite of all the care he gave it the lamb still died my wife knelt down to comfort him and he just looked at her and asked if the lamb knew that someone cared.”
“Yeah,” Chet nodded his head. “That sounds like something Frank would do.”
Julie continued to hold Chet and he was finally able to put an arm around her so that the two were holding each other.
Looking to her father Julie asked, “Do you think Frank knew he was cared about?”
“The way he talked about all the things you three did together,” Carl smiled at his daughter and her very close friend. “He knew. He knew you two thought he was someone special. Before you loaded him in the truck to take him the rest of the way into town the last time he told me that you made him someone special and now he was going to make his dad happy.”
Tears started to slip down Julie’s face and she gave Chet another squeeze, more for her sake than for his this time. “His Dad really did look happy to see him when I dropped him off at the house. Frank was really happy to be home again.”
At last Chet managed to get into the shower and shave before getting dressed in a dress shirt and a pair of dress slacks. He, Julie and her father then had brunch instead of breakfast and then they all climbed in Carl’s truck for the long drive to the county court house for whatever information would be added to what little they already knew.
Once they reached the first town on their way Carl took a detour and they found themselves parked across the street from a house that was totally gutted by fire, the roof caved in on one side as were all of the ceilings down to the ground floor.
“They’re going to have to raise that and start all over again,” Chet speculated.
“I think you’re right,” Carl agreed.
“How bad was he burned before they got him out of there?” Julie questioned.
“Maybe that information will be given at the court house,” Carl tried to appease his daughter, “We best be on our way.”
The rest of the trip Julie and Chet held hands and gave each other all the support they could.
Once they reached the court house Chet was again reminded just how unpopulated this area was. Instead of taking up most of a city block the court house here looked no bigger than a corner church.
Hand in hand Julie and Chet followed Carl Clark up the four steps into the building. Once through the door they found a group of six men and two women gathered together around some portable tables set up in a seating area at the end of the hall way just outside the one and only court room for the county. The two women sat in chairs behind the tables working with two portable typewriters as the six men were seen sorting pages into folders and labeling them.
Even though Chet and the two Clarks were early as soon as they were noticed one of the six men thumbed through files that had already been labeled and pulled three out before walking toward them and inviting them to sit.
“These are printed copies of the statements you’ve made.” The man explained as he handed a file with their names written on it to each person. “Please read them over carefully and if they are correct sign them at the bottom.”
For Carl Clark his folder contained five legal sized pages, representing five different contacts by investigators. One page was full of type written information, the other four only held a paragraph indicating that he had been asked a single question and had given a briefly worded answer. Carl read and signed those first before settling into his chair to study the full page.
Julie had only read the first paragraph on her three page document when she pointed out a spelling error in a medical term that Chet didn’t understand. She was lead to one of the tables and one of the women typing there where she proceeded to find several more errors of similar nature. Her documents would have to be retyped and then signed.
Chet sat in amazement at the speed in which the corrected statement was typed for Julie to sign. Since Julie had been standing over her shoulder while she typed she was able to sign it right away when it was done.
Chet would later learn that the statement she signed included a declaration that she was not pregnant nor had she ever engaged in any intimate activities with Frank or anyone else while Frank was in her custody. He would also learn that she submitted to a pregnancy test as proof.
The typed conversation Chet had to read over covered one and a half pages. After reading it once he marveled at how his acceptance of his role in this catastrophe had changed after his talk with Julie and her father. He still felt overwhelmed when he understood how the answer to what he considered and everyday normal question led to the death of his friend. He tried to think of the lives that information saved but he had never met them and they all felt fictional to him at the moment.
After reading through his statement once again Chet borrowed a pen and signed the paper before handing it back to the man that was patiently waiting for it.
As they waited for what would come next a police officer walked in and Julie’s father greeted him by his first name, Kurt, as they shook hands.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about what happened the other night,” Kurt spoke while he was still shaking hands with Carl, but he was looking at Julie and his words seemed to be directed to her. “He had just dropped the second girl out when the ceiling came down on him. The stairs were already on fire and closed off, I just couldn’t get to him. Not ‘til the fire department got there with their ladders and got some water on things, but by then it was too late.
Julie nodded her head and then fighting with her emotions she asked the question she had asked her father earlier. “How bad was his body burned before you got him out?”
Kurt was able to take a deep breath and it seemed to be a calming breath. “Not as bad as you’d think, the ceiling material on top of him actually protected him some, he had some burns on his feet and his legs but the state coroner said it was the smoke that killed him, he had a skull fracture that was pretty serious and might have killed him eventually but the smoke did the job first. I was assured that he never felt any pain.”
Julie was fighting back her tears and so was Chet as he placed his arm around her in an offer of comfort. It was good to know that their friend hadn’t suffered in his final moments.
In time a man and woman joined them but didn’t say anything to those gathered, they each just read and signed their statement before sitting in a corner quietly. Next in was a man who was clearly staggering drunk and was escorted by a police officer who had to help hold him up. Chet was sure he was there for reasons other than they were and wondered that he wasn’t in hand cuffs.
“Herb,” Carl rose to his feet and offered a steadying hand with one hand and an outstretched hand to shake with his other. “We’re very sorry for your loss. All of us out to the ranch greatly admired your son. He really was a good boy.”
The man addressed as Herb, didn’t respond with more than a glance with an unfocused eye in Carl and then Julie’s direction before he was guided to a chair and helped to sit down. It was explained to Chet in whispers that he was Frank’s father and that he was taking the death of his son rather hard. Chet watched as the officer escorting him kicked a waist basket closer to the man.
They were just being motioned into the court room when another man came in. He was hesitant in his steps and remained back waiting to be the last one through the doors. As he waited Chet noticed his trembling hands and the number of times he ran his hands through his hair. He also noticed how neither Julie nor her father would look at him.
The doors to the room were just starting to close when the bailiff closing them stopped his actions to allow three more men in. These men were dressed in business suits the one in the lead looked to be sixty years old at least. One of the two other men that stood a step to the rear and a step to the side looked to be in his mid forties and the other late twenties or early thirties and all looked to be businessmen. They took a seat in the back of the room even though there were two rows of empty seats closer to the front.
“The Mayor and his councilors,” Julie whispered in Chet’s ear to identify the three men.
“Who’s the real nervous one?” Chet whispered back.
“He’s the local Fire Chief, you can tell just to look at him that he knows he blew it,” Julie whispered back.
“Just remember he doesn’t have nor can he afford to get the kind of training you had to have before they let you put on a fire helmet,” Carl added in a whisper hoping to temper any judgment being made.
Chet had to admit that he didn’t understand and turned his attention to the six men laying out all of the folders and the two inch thick one that was being placed in the middle of the rest. While the men who were setting out the folders were nicely dressed there was one that was wearing a three piece suit. This man started placing a finger on the name tab of each folder and one of the other men would point to someone in the seats. When the fingers were pointing at him Chet was curious enough and close enough to hear what was being said.
“He’s the friend who’s a firefighter with Los Angeles County.”
The finely dressed man pointed to the largest of the folders to be told, “He’s on the way, he was picked up this morning.” The man then walked over near Chet, Julie and Carl Clark.
“I’m Perry Moles, I’m the District Attorney in this county. Thank you for coming today.”
He offered his hand for each person to shake before sitting down so that he could talk with them quietly.
“I know you were invited to attend a Grand Jury but we’ve been able to get enough evidence this morning that we’re able to turn this into a preliminary hearing where we intend to file charges. Mr. Kelly, we will be referring to your testimony several times but unless the fact that you’re here to back up your testimony doesn’t get the confessions the state investigators require to finalize their reports, I will likely not be calling on you today.” Mr. Moles turned his attention to Julie and her father. “It is not likely that we will need to hear from either of you two ether.”
That was the moment when the court room doors opened once again and a man stumbled through. Once he was through the doors he stopped and turned around and looked at the two police officers that were behind him. There was an air of defiance in him as he held his ground until the police officer physically turned him and nudged him forward. Twice more he was nudged before a chair at the defendants table was pulled out and he was motioned to sit in it. He looked like he was going to refuse but then reluctantly sat as the two police officers took their stand behind him.
Seeing that everyone that was needed was present the bailiff called for everyone to rise as the judge entered through a back door. Once everyone except the two police officers standing guard over the one man in the defendant’s chair sat down, Chet leaned over and whispered in Julie’s ear.
“Who is he?”
Julie shook her head in the way of an answer as her father whispered back, “I have no idea.”
The judge took a moment to look over some papers that were on his desk before directing his attention to the lone man at the defendant’s table.
“Mr. Arnold Blake, would you please rise.” The man reluctantly pushed himself to his feet and stood there with an annoyed look on his face.
“Is it true that you have chosen to represent yourself before this court of law?”
“I haven’t done anything wrong and I have no intentions of spending hundreds of dollars for someone who has a fancy piece of paper framed on their wall to say that for me.”
Everyone in the room looked at the man identified as Arnold Blake with wide eyes and open mouths, everyone that is except Herbert Dillon, he was slumped in the chair he had been placed in and it appeared as if he had finally passed out from whatever it was that he had imbibed in.
Chet slipped out of his chair and over to the man in order to check his pulse and breathing. As he did so he wondered what kind of father he really was and what Frank’s life had been like when he wasn’t staying out at the ranch.
While Chet checked on Frank’s father, the judge preceded to inform Mr. Blake of the legal risks of his choice to not obtain a lawyer, making sure that he understood that there would be no undoing whatever decisions were made at this pretrial hearing on the basis that he did not have adequate representation. He also included the fact that due to Mr. Blake’s substantial liquid assets that he wouldn’t qualify for a court appointed attorney.
The man just responded with, “I haven’t done anything wrong and I refused to waste my good hard earned money to pay someone else to say that for me.”
The District Attorney sitting at his assigned table just shook his head and mumbled to no one in particular. “This is going to be easier than I thought.”
The first person called to the witness stand was Russell Lowell, the Fire Chief of Silverton the second largest town in the county. He was asked several questions about Frank’s participation with the local volunteer fire department, the simple fact that Frank had been asked over the years to watch several fire spots after the fire had been put out, in truth to get him to go away and leave them alone, but it showed a precedence that it was reasonable to believe that Frank would believe it was his assignment with the department to do just that.
Even though Frank was not on the ledgers as a member of the department, there were multiple witnesses that had signed affidavits testifying that Frank was told in public that he was a member of the fire department team and was honored as such at dinners and picnics. As a result of the Chief’s confessions to putting Frank to work in reloading the hose and washing the engine whenever he could, it was determined that Frank was legally a member of the fire team and deserved to be honored as such in his death.
In other words the state required liability and workers compensation insurance was to pay for his funeral expenses that would include full honors due firefighters in that state, and his family was entitled to the mandatory life insurance paid to any volunteer fire fighter who lost his life in the act of fighting a fire.
The Mayor in the back rose to his feet to offer an objection but the District Attorney was quick to offer to put the police officer who was with Frank at the time of his death on the stand to tell the details of the young man’s heroic actions. The Mayor admitted defeat and simply sat down.
It was easy to see the feelings of victory on the face of one of the men who had been assigned to the investigations team. Chet noticed a similar feeling of righteous satisfaction welling up inside of himself as well and also a great amount of appreciation for the man that saw to it that Frank got the honor and recognition that he deserved.
Before the fire chief was released from the stand he was questioned about the number of calls his department responds to. He admitted to being suspicious about the sudden increase in the number of house fires starting about two years ago and produced reports filled out during the eight years of his leadership to show that there had been seven such house fires in the last two years compared to one in the previous six years. His reports included a report on five of the house fires given from the insurance adjustor that shared his findings to say that all five of those fires were caused by faulty electrical wiring.
“Now how is it that you were able to obtain a copy of the report from all five of these fires?”
“This is a rather sparsely populated region. All five of these homeowners had homeowners insurance with the same insurance company and I just happen to be the insurance agent that sold them the policy.”
“So you sell homeowner’s insurance policies in addition to being the Fire Chief?”
“Yes sir, I also write up auto insurance policies, but the homeowner policies are often included in the deal to give the customers a discount, neither job pays enough to support my family but every little bit on the side helps.”
“Now, do you get bonuses when a house you’ve signed up for insurance burns down?”
“No sir, quit the opposite. I’ve been investigated by the company twice in the last two years and they’re now insisting on one of their inspectors evaluating each home when I write up a new policy before the policy is in force.”
“How long had that been for?” the District Attorney questioned and Chet was growing more and more interested in the information coming forth.
“Um, the last five months.”
“Do you only write insurance policies in Silverton?”
“No, I have several clients in Middleton, as well as Greenville, Minersfield and on several of the farms and ranches in the area. I’m the only insurance agent in the area; there just isn’t enough business to make it worthwhile for another agent to set up in these parts. There are a few folks that have policies from another company but they have to travel one hundred and fifty miles to find an agent to work with. Most folks will just come to me. Most of the people that don’t have policies with me either travel regularly or have family members up north that recommended the person they’re with as a good agent.”
“Well that explains why five out of seven house fires fell under your policies. Were any of those homes ones that were inspected when the policy was started?”
“Yes, two of the last three in Silverton one in Middleton and the last two in Minersfield.”
“So these fires are happening in areas other than just Silverton where you live, isn’t that right?”
“Yes sir, I don’t know a lot of details about the fires in other towns. My fire trucks did respond to the house just outside of Greenville when it went up but things were pretty well over before we got there. We just helped clean up the brush fire that was started when sparks from the house set off the sage brush on the other side of the fence.
“Have you been able to find anything in common among these fires other than the belief that they were all electrical in origin?”
“Have you thought about calling in a professional inspector to determine if there was anything suspicious about these fires?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve made two formal requests. I have to get approval from the city council before I can call in anyone from the state to investigate.”
The District Attorney produced two forms that had been filled out, dated and a copy submitted to the City Council as evidence to back up the Fire Chief. “What was the result of these requests?”
“Both times the Mayor declined the expense of bringing in an investigator. All of the fires so far have been in older homes in the area and had been deemed to be electrical in nature. He didn’t see anything sinister or surprising. He said that’s why people buy homeowner’s insurance and that they’re all getting newer and better homes out of the deal and that is raising the property values in the area.”
“That almost sounds like your Mayor could be a suspect in these fires,” The District Attorney joked.
There were more than a few eyes that turned to look at the Mayor in question as he sat in the back looking very insulted by the insinuation that was made.”
The next person called to the stand was the police officer who had coaxed Frank into his patrol car the night of the fire.
He talked first about the unnerving number of house fires that had been happening during the last two years as well as his frustration with the Mayor for not calling in investigators. Then the questions turned to his experiences with Frank Dillon.
“How long have you known Frank Dillon?
“All of my life. I’ve always seen him walking the streets, going here and there; he spent a lot of time in the stores down town. When I was younger he was a little on the mean side, but he went away for a while and when he came back he was nicer. After that, my mom and her friends were often asking each other if he was on drugs of some kind, but someone said that he had been taught how to make friends. He did seem to be a lot happier after that.”
“Do you know where he was sent when he went away?”
“No, I never heard.”
“How long have you been in law enforcement in this town?”
“Five years next March.”
“What has your dealings with Frank Dillon been like during the last five years?”
“He’s really no problem although I’ve had to interfere with other kids, usually high school kids, teasing and tormenting him but there have been no complaints of him causing problems. It’s not uncommon to see him out wandering about late at night. I won’t say it’s every night but I’d say three or four times a month. I would always pick him up and offer him a ride home. Sometimes he seemed worried about something. I never really understood what the big deal was most of the time. Now I wonder if I just didn’t listen well enough. Frank had a wicked stutter and you really had to listen hard and patiently to understand what he was saying. I’m afraid that there were a lot of times I just, well, sorta tuned him out.”
“Were there any times when the circumstances surrounding Frank being found wandering at night caused you suspicions?”
“You always get a little suspicious when you see the same person wandering around late at night but there were only a few times when I found anything to act on. The first one was just a couple of months after I started working for the police department. It was about the second or third time I’d picked him up late at night and taken him home. He had a black eye and when I asked him how it happened he wouldn’t talk to me; usually he was always talking when I took him home but not that time. When I pulled up at his house he wasn’t in a hurry to get out and go inside. That was the first time I walked him up to the house and actually knocked on the door to talk to his father. Frank tried to stop me saying I’d make his father mad for waking him up but when there was no answer I tried the door and found it unlocked so I looked in and found the place a bit of a mess and his father stretched out on the sofa. After checking the guy out it was clear he was just soused, I mean totally passed out drunk.”
“What did you do next?”
“I called the lead officer requesting back up and instructions. He lived just down the street so he was there in a few minutes and told me to take Frank to the hospital to be looked at and he’d deal with his father.”
“What happened next?”
“Well Herbert Dillon had a health condition that made it unsafe to lock him up in the jail and being drunk in your own home is not really illegal, so the captain had one of his friends stay with him until he slept it off and Frank was allowed to sleep in one of the beds in the hospital. They put him in the room that doc sometimes uses when he had a bad one in the hospital or is just too tired to drive home.”
“Was that all that happened?”
“Yeah, well they started an investigation into possible abuse but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove anything and Frank would never say that his father hit him. From then on I was instructed to always take Frank to the door and if his father didn’t come to the door or was inebriated I was to take him to the hospital where they’d keep him for the night and Social Services would follow up in the morning.”
Chet listened to the testimony being given but his eyes were on the man sleeping at the end of their row of chairs. There was no response from him because he had been sleeping through the whole thing. Somehow Chet wondered why he’d never heard of anyone in his condition being in a court room before but in the end he just figured that things must be a little different in a small town.
“Where there any other times you suspected that his father may be abusing him?”
“About a month after the first time, I picked him up and he had a bruise on his cheek. His dad wasn’t home that night he had an older brother watching out for him while his father was out of town for some reason, I don’t think we ever found out why.”
“Was there ever a time when you were suspicious that Frank Dillon was doing anything other than just wandering late at night?”
The police officer let out a deep breath and his face cried of regret but he proceeded forward. “About a year ago, the officer from Minersfield and I were talking about the house fires that were happening. Because of his frequent late night wanderings Frank was a person of interest at that time but not for long. We started looking into dates when he had been picked up wandering and dates of the fires, the only ones that matched up was when there had been an earlier small fire at the house and Frank had been at the fire to help out but then if he’s in town he always rolls with the fire department. There were only two of those on our records for the whole two years, except for the last two since he’s been home but we’ve long ruled him out as a possible suspect. There was never any evidence that he was in Minersfield and since it is too far for him to walk there and he doesn’t drive, that and several of the fires took place while Frank was visiting at the Clark Sheep Ranch to give his dad a break from him, it didn’t take us more than a week to take him off of our list.”
“Did you have anyone else on your list?”
“No individual persons but there were a few groups on our radar for a while but there was never enough evidence to even call them in and question them.”
“Now, Frank Dillon was in the Los Angeles California area for the last six months, did the fires stop while he was gone?”
“No, we had two in Silverton while he was gone, and there was one each in Greenville and Middleton and two in Minersfield.”
“It sounds as if the frequency of fires has been increasing lately.”
“Yes sir, we have definitely noticed that trend.”
“Have you found any clues as to what is causing these fires?”
“We started collecting all of the insurance investigation reports for all of the houses that burned down.”
“Every last one of them was listed as an electrical fire. The reports included several small fires that the homeowner took care of with a fire extinguisher and never called the fire department; those two were reported to be electrical in nature. Everything looked like problems with old construction but we couldn’t understand why they all started to catch fire now. I mean most of those homes were between thirty to fifty years old. There had to be something that was causing them to start burning down.”
“And did you find anything?”
“Well not until the night Frank was killed. Before we saw the fire in the upper attic window Frank was telling me about how a really small fire could burn inside the walls or the ceiling until it got enough air to really ignite,” the tears were starting to form in the police officer’s eyes and his eyes were clearly seeing back in time. “When we saw the flash of flames through the window Frank just flew out of the car and across the street while I radioed it in. When I looked up again I couldn’t see Frank but the front door was standing open. By the time I got across the street the wife and then the husband came through the door coughing from the smoke and the husband was carrying their son who was still wrapped up in the blankets from his bed. The father said that the ‘dumb guy’, I knew he was referring to Frank, anyway, he said that he’d just burst into their bedroom door and woke them up and before he could pull on a robe and step into his slippers and get into the hallway were the smoke was the thickest Frank was handing him his son and telling him to hurry and get out. The wife told them about the girls in the next bedroom and Frank just pushed her ahead of her husband telling them to get out and he’d get the girls before he ran off into their bedroom. The couple and their son had just gotten to the door and the husband handed his son over to his wife before turning to go back for his daughters but that was when fire and stuff fell onto the stairs. I was trying to pull him out telling him we would try and get to them through the windows when I heard glass shattering outside. We hurried out and noticed that Frank was clearing the broken glass around the window casing. By the time the husband and I were under the window Frank was holding one of the girls out the window, she was wrapped up in the blankets from her bed just like the boy had been and he just dropped her into my arms. It was all I could do to hand the girl to her father before Frank was ready to drop the next girl out of the window. The next thing I know I could see the roof falling down on him.”
The officer lost all composure at that point and started to sob, the District Attorney stepped back to give him a moment but he also could be seen wiping his eyes. Then the police officer started to ramble through his tears. “I tried to get to him. Honest I tried.”
“Counselor, do we need a recess?” the Judge questioned.
“I only have one more question for this witness your honor and then I’ll be ready to make my closing statement.”
The judge pulled a box of tissues from under his desk and handed them to the witness. “I think we should take a twenty minute break.”
Chet looked around the room and there wasn’t a dry eye, except for maybe Mr. Blake in the defendant’s chair. He looked rather horrified. Even Frank’s father was now awake and sitting silently with tears running down his face unchecked. Julie had pulled a white handkerchief from her purse and was dabbing at her eyes as her makeup ran and dirtied the once white cloth. At her side her father pulled a red bandana from his pocket and dried his eyes before using a corner of it to blow his nose.
For his part Chet had been able to see every move Frank must have made as if it were through his own eyes. He could feel the smoke clogging his lungs as he pushed on to do his duty to find and save the lives of all of the people in that home. His heart filled with pride in his mentally handicapped friend who, like him, wanted nothing more in life than to be a fireman. Then the tears finally came as Chet realized his friend didn’t have protective turn out clothes to protect him from the flames. No helmet to protect his head from falling debris, no air tank to protect him from the smoke, none of the standard firefighting gear that may have been able to save his life. Did Frank know he was giving up his life to save that family?
Chet had no idea what his friend knew at the time but he was sure that even if he had understood the great risk to his own life he’d have still done what he did. He’d have done everything in his power to save lives.
There was a line up to the men’s room since nearly everyone that had been in that court room needed to wash their face and dry their eyes before they could return. Before the hearing was called to order once again several boxes of tissues were passed out among those present.
The Bailiff patiently called everyone back into the court room and, Silverton police officer Kurt Marshal was once again called to the witness stand.
“Remember you’re still under oath,” the judge warned Kurt.
“I will your honor and thank you for the moment to compose myself.”
“You’re entirely welcome.”
“Officer Marshal,” the District Attorney, stepped forward. “I understand that what you witnessed was extremely difficult but do you think you can pick up where you left off just after Frank Dillon was trapped inside the burning building after dropping two young girls into your arms.”
“Yes, well I tried to get inside to help Frank to somehow get him out but I wasn’t able to. At one point while I was inside trying to find a way up to the second floor something fell on my back and started my jacket on fire and I knew I had to get out or I was going to die myself. Lucky for me some of the firemen had seen the flames and came straight to the fire instead of going to the fire station one of those guys knocked me down and rolled me in the mud outside the house to put the flames out on the back of my coat.”
A box that was under the prosecutors’ table was kicked forward by one of the men sitting there and the District Attorney bent down to pull out the burnt jacket that Officer Kurt Marshal had been wearing that night.
“Dr. Frick drove to the fire in his car and started taking care of all of those who had been in the fire. He was laying some special bandages over my back when the firemen with their hoses and proper gear carried Frank out and lay him on the lawn. Doc left my side to go look at him but it was too late.” There was somber silence but not the all out emotions that had brought about the call for a recess.
“You said earlier that you found a clue as to how these house fires were connected.”
“Yeah, well I don’t know if it’s accurate to say found but umm… there wasn’t room in the ambulance for all of us so my Captain took me in the police car and since I was deemed the worse injured that was still alive. Doc Frick came with us. On the way to the hospital we drove past the house that had a small electrical fire just six days before and I remembered that both houses had been bought by the same person, who then quickly fixed them up and resold them. Before they were sold they had signs in the window declaring they now had upgraded electrical wiring.”
He paused and glanced at the lone man at the Defendant’s table only to get a defiant stare back. “I was hurting and talking a lot to help me deal with the pain and I suggested that maybe there was a connection and a connection to all of the other house fires the last two years.”
“Do you know what happened with that suggestion?”
“The Captain said he would check it out just before the Doc, gave me a shot of something that sort of knocked me for a loop.”
“Do you know the results of that investigation?”
“No, I haven’t been back to work yet, the burns on my back are still healing.”
The District Attorney walked to his table with purpose and picked up the largest of the folders sitting there. “Would it interest you to know that of the fifteen home fires in this county, including those where the fire department was not called out, that all of those homes were purchased by a man using the name Arnold Blake, not a percentage of them but every last one of them. Each home was reported to have been remolded with fresh paint and carpeting and up graded electrical services. Yet there was no work permits taken out or registered for a single one of those homes, so therefore there was no inspection.
“Now, what about those homes that were required to pass an inspection in order to qualify for homeowners insurance? According to the assigned inspectors, there were three of them by the way, it is possible to hide improper improvements especially electrical wiring so that problems cannot be found without tearing out walls or climbing into attics and crawl spaces. Now of course the new owner of a remolded home doesn’t want someone coming in and pulling the nice walls down just to look behind them so the inspectors required the name of the licensed electrician who performed the work.
“They were given the name of Blake A. Philips based in Colorado. Now this was an amazing coincidence that faulty electrical work was listed as responsible for one hundred percent of all home fires in this area for the last two years. It seemed a good idea to find out as much as we could about this electrical contractor.
“According to the state of Colorado, Blake A. Philips is wanted for falsifying work documents and performing faulty wiring in a two story office building that went up in flames before it was even completed. He’s also wanted for insurance fraud and for skipping bail, let me see, just a little over two years ago. Furthermore, photographs issued with the warrant for his arrest tell us that at the very least Mr. Blake that Blake A. Philips is your identical twin, but I’m more inclined to believe that Blake A. Philips and Arnold Blake are the same person. Something I’m sure will be confirmed once we’re able to compare the finger prints that were collected just a few hours ago with the ones that are on file in Colorado.
“Colorado also reports that as a result of the extremely questionable work done in their state the electrical contractor’s license for Blake A. Philips was revoked at the time of his pre-trial hearing two years ago.
“We hereby file criminal charges against Arnold Blake, aka Blake A. Philips, aka Philip Arnold, for fraudulent representation of licensing, criminal negligence, and in the case of Frank Dillon, negligent homicide. You should be very grateful, Mr. Blake, because if it wasn’t for the efforts of Frank Dillon you could very easily be facing five counts of negligent homicide instead of just one. And those are just the charges to begin with.
Furthermore, since Mr. Blake as he has chosen to go by in this area has wired all of his liquid funds to the Dominican Republic and after evading our warrant was arrested at an airport two hundred miles away holding a series of one way plane tickets and a passport to the Dominican Republic in the name of Philip Arnold, we move that he be declared a flight risk and held without bail until his trial.
“At this time, Your Honor, we also ask that you declare an emergency so that the remaining 15 homes that Mr. Blake has remolded and sold be inspected for similar wiring issues that have caused so many homes to burn to the ground.”
“According to earlier testimony it is extremely difficult to find this faulty wiring because it is hidden behind walls. How does your team intend to go about these inspections?”
“We have been able to establish a pattern, Your Honor. In all cases so far the defendant has added wiring for electrical stoves and electrical heating and in all cases inspected so far there are illegal splices that can be found in crawl spaces and attics. We will have to remove insulation that may be hiding these improper splices and if we don’t find them the insulation can be replaced without causing structural damage. If this kind of faulty wiring is found, however, there will be no recourse but to condemn the home for the sake of the residents until all wiring is inspected and repaired.”
The judge remained quiet for just a moment before turning his attention to the defendant. “Well, Mr. Blake, do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“I plead not guilty on all charges and I demand to be released without bail.” The man at the defendant’s table, whoever he really was, spoke with terrified defiance, as if he really believed he could just bluff his way out of the charges he was facing.
The judge shook his head in disgust, “Well that’s not going to happen. You are ordered to be held in the county jail without bail until which time you are tried for all charges listed. These are very serious charges, Mr. Blake, or whoever you are. I strongly suggest that you spend some of your ill gotten money and hire a lawyer.
“As far as your emergency inspections, I’ll grant your request, but please be mindful of the residents. We’ll work with them on a case by case basis for emergency housing. I don’t want any more deaths over this.”
“This court is dismissed until which time as the trial is scheduled.”
Mr. Blake was pulled to his feet and his hands were pulled behind him as hand cuffs were placed on him and he was led from the room. The judge stood without waiting for the formalities of having everyone in the courtroom to rise and he slipped out his back door and into his chambers.
The courtroom remained numb as a rumble of quiet talking ensued. Slowly, and one by one or in small groups, people moved into the outer hall. The answers they came for had been given but it didn’t make them happy, nor did it make their friend any less dead.
Carl Clark stopped to help Herb to his feet and asked if he had a ride home.
Remembering he was brought by a police officer Carl offered to give him a ride when he didn’t answer.
Carl stepped forward and took a hold of Herb’s arm. He was slightly more sober now but he was still a little unsteady on his feet. Chet silently stepped forward and took a hold of his other arm and helped him along. Before they reached the door of the court room one of the investigations team approached with an outstretched hand.
“Sir, your son was a true hero and it is my privilege to see to it that he is honored as such.” He pulled a business card from his wallet and handed it to Herb Dillon. “I’ll be arranging for full honors to be extended to your son during his funeral services and I’ve already requested that he be fast approved for the Governors’ Award of Valor to be presented posthumously before his burial. Do you know when you are planning to have his funeral?”
“Mon, Monday, his, my other two children, Frank’s brother and sister are driving in to help with the arrangements; they should be here today sometime.” Herb’s tears were very close to the surface but controlled as he accepted several business cards from the man standing before him.
“I would like to meet with you and your other children tonight and discuss what we can do to honor your son as he should be. Would 7 p.m. tonight be acceptable?”
Herb gave a numb nod of his head and then started to move forward.
In the outer hall the Mayor of Silverton and his councilmen were discussing the recommendations that they provide training and updated the equipment for their fire department.
“Now that they’ve got the guy that’s been causing the problem we don’t need to do that anymore,” the Mayor declared in his loud deep voice as if he were making a campaign speech.
“But there is still the chance that they’ll have a house fire even after they fix the mess this, this whoever he is, caused,” the youngest of the councilmen argued.“That’s why people need smoke detectors and homeowner’s insurance. Look at the situation now. Those whose homes burned to the ground are the lucky ones; they have or will get new homes built by their insurance companies and be better off than before. Those that they’re going to go in and condemn will end up footing the bill to fix their homes themselves, either that or the taxpayers will because that crime lord has sent his money out of the country and it’s for darn sure no one here is going to get any of it. After they tear the house up and fix what that guy did wrong they’re still going to have an old, not up to code house to live in. And after what happened here today they’ll have a devil of a time selling the place for the money they’ve put into it.”
“We should still try and give our firemen more to work with,” the younger councilman continued to argue.
“I’ve been around here longer than you have and let me tell you how it always goes. Whenever we pay for any kind of training, the men take the training and then move away to better paying jobs and we’re left to replace them with untrained firemen again.”
Chet listened in on the conversation taking place and had an idea, but he did have to ask one major question.
“Excuse me for a minute,” Chet asked as he released his hold on Frank’s unsteady father.
Walking up to the District Attorney, Chet hesitantly got his attention. “Excuse me, sir,” the man turned to face him with a look that said go ahead even though he said nothing. “Could I please ask a quick question?”
“Sure you may ask but you have to understand I will be unable to defend you in any trial.”
“That’s what I need to make sure of, that I won’t need to be defended or that my department back home won’t in any way be held liable if what I want to do doesn’t work out one hundred percent.”
“I’m not sure I follow you there.”
“Well, I’m a full time firefighter back in Los Angeles County and I’ll be in the area here for a few days. I was thinking I could, well, at least try and teach the firemen here a few things while I’m here but I can’t in all consciousness put my department back in LA in any position of liability if I’m not able to teach them everything they might need to know in a given situation or if they were to get hurt doing what I do teach them how to do.”
“Ah, now I understand. To answer your question the fire department has immunity from being able to be sued. It’s the only way they can function in such a small community base as we have in this area. Since you’re only here for a day or two it is more than reasonable that you won’t be able to teach them all that you’ve learned in the years you’ve been on the job and let’s say you could, which we just agreed was impossible, well I’m sure we only have a fraction of the firefighting equipment that you use everyday you’re on the job back home.”
“That’s for sure,” Chet agreed.
“As long as you don’t charge an exorbitant price for this training, which I know you won’t because old penny pincher over there won’t pay it and the men themselves can’t afford to pay for it, there will be no liability for either you or your department.”
Chet let out a deep breath then directed his next question to all of the men gathered in that section of the hall. “Does anyone know who I’d need to contact to set something like that up?”
“I guess that would be me,” Russell Lowell stepped forward with a slight raise of his hand. “That is if you’re planning to teach the firemen in Silverton.”
“Would you by any chance consider opening up your class to other firemen within the county?” The District Attorney proposed. “I know that you couldn’t handle all of the firemen in the county but what if we gathered the top three or four from each individual department and got them together, would that be acceptable to you?”
“Sure,” Chet was feeling a little bit of excitement and fear and responsibility. “I was wondering, the house where Frank was killed, I looked at it earlier and I suspect it will have to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up, is that correct?”
“Yes,” one of the inspection team spoke with emphasis.
“I was wondering if there would be a chance of using the house as a training ground before it’s torn down.”
“We need a couple more days to photo document some of the code violations as evidence for the trial but we should be done in a day or so. If we did this the day after the funeral, that would work as long as we have the owner’s permission.”
“I know the guy, I’ll talk to him but I’m sure he won’t mind, he just might want to join us in the training,” Russell offered up again.
“There’s one more thing,” Chet realized he didn’t have his car available to him. “I don’t have any transportation with me I’ll need someone to give me a ride into town.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Julie was quick to offer.
“I’d like to attend too, if I may,” Carl Clark requested. “When it comes to stopping a range fire in its tracks I’m second to none but a structure fire is a whole different story. It just so happens that I have a few structures out there on the ranch.”
“Well then I guess that makes you the leader of the firefighting crew at the Clark Ranch then,” the District Attorney smiled at Carl and Chet suspected they knew each other on a friendly basis. “Of course you’ll be welcomed to attend. I’ll take care of getting the word out, Russ there will take care of getting permission to use the training ground and would it be alright if we used your engine so that we don’t have to take the others that far from their homes.”
“Sure,” Russ agreed and everyone went their way. The deal was done and not even a handshake.
Chet returned to offer a steadying hand to Herb Dillon and he and Carl Clark walked the man to Carl’s crew cab truck. After helping Herb into the back seat Carl handed the keys over to Julie and climbed in the back seat with his inebriated friend.
The drive back to Silverton was heart wrenching as they listened to a sobbing Herb Dillon’s laments. “I should have been a better father. Frank was such a good boy. He tried so hard to make everyone happy. I wish I could have taken all those parenting classes when he was younger. I never understood how to be the father he needed all these years.”
Carl just rubbed his back and encouraged him to let it out. Chet and Julie stayed totally silent in the front seat not able to say anything and wondering if they should be turning on the car radio or something.
When Julie pulled over in front of Herb’s house there was a car in the drive way and another parked on the street. As Chet and Carl were helping Herb out of the truck the door opened and a woman of about thirty, and a man about the same age give or take five years walked out to greet their father and to take over for those helping him in the house.
“There will be a representative from the state department of benefits coming by at seven tonight to help plan your brother’s funeral,” Carl informed the two people taking hold of their father as if to push the rest out of the way. Chet noticed a coolness to Carl’s voice but he was trying to be polite.
“They’re going to give him full honors.” Herb was still emotional but spoke with pride.
“Full honors, full honors for what?” the man spoke with annoyance in his voice.
“Frank was a hero, they’re going to give him an award,” Herb spoke again.
“Come on, Dad, let’s get you to bed and let you sleep it off,” the man spoke dismissing his father’s words.
Carl handed over one of the business cards of the man that would be by later and Frank’s sister took it, Chet would later learn her name was Sandy.
“Look,” Frank’s brother responded in a voice laced with anger, “I know you’re all excited about my poor defective, brain damaged brother. I learned to tie my shoes, too, and no one threw me a party and gave me awards for doing it.” The man turned his back on the people who had delivered his father and headed inside.
Carl just stood at the end of the sidewalk shaking his head. “That Herb Jr. is a real piece of work.”
“Julie, would you drive me over to that pay phone next to the railroad station?” Carl asked as he looked at a second business card in his hands. “I want to give this guy a call and fill him in on what he has waitin’ for him.”
While Julie’s father stood in the one and only phone booth in town talking, Chet silently remembered the police officer reporting that the second time he took Frank home with a bruise on his face that his father was out of town and his brother was staying at the house. Without voicing his thoughts Chet was sure his brother inflicted as many injuries on Frank as did his father. As much as he missed his friend Chet felt a hint of peace in knowing that no one could hurt him anymore.
Carl somberly climbed back in the truck, “Alright, Julie, take us home. I gave the guy a bunch of phone numbers of people that I know will help out but I’m pretty sure they’re going to be calling out to the ranch, too.”
Julie then drove back through town to another road leading west and the drive to the ranch started out quiet but once they drove past a road with a sign indicating there was a geothermal research center down the lane, Carl started to talk.
“That research center, the feed processing plant and that meat packing plant and dairy in Minersfield is what contributed to the increase in house fires.” Carl spoke but his words weren’t directed to anyone in particular. “All those construction and factory workers, scientists and such moving into the area, needing a place for them and their families to live. That Blake guy just waltzed in here and picked up those homes for a song because they were built for wood burning stoves and heated with old sooty coal furnaces. Then he does shoddy work and turns around and sells ‘em for three, four times what he paid for them. And then to think he just tried to declare himself not guilty and demand to be released.” Carl shook his head. “No doubt he was just going to go back to that airport and skip the country, never to be heard of again.”
No one in the truck said anything, they were all feeling pretty much the same way.
Once back at the ranch Carl easily convinced Julie to go see if she and Chet could catch some fish for dinner and watched them walk off hand in hand each holding a fishing pole. He himself dealt with some ranch business then sat to mourn the loss of a special young man.
Wanting someone to talk to, Carl headed toward the retention pond only to see Julie sitting between Chet’s legs her back against his chest with his arms around her. They both had their hooks in the water but it was clear they were doing some serious talking between the two of them. Not wanting to interfere, Carl walked back to the house and pulled out his phone book.
Emily Stanley was pleasant to talk to but she was clearly in the middle of fixing dinner for her family. She did however give him the information he really needed, that Henry was on duty and the phone number for the station.
Captain Henry ‘Hank’ Stanley was at his desk sorting through his finished paperwork before putting each page in the proper file folder when the phone rang.
“Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51 Captain Stanley speaking.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not calling in a house fire because the place would be burned to the ground before you get that spiel out so they can tell you why they called.” Carl added a chuckle to his words.
“Chief Clark, It’s good to hear from you.” Hank sat down on the corner of his desk, lowering his voice. “I’ve had some big wigs from arson investigation down here talking to me this morning. Is there any truth that they suspect Frank started the fire that killed him?”
Carl let out a deep sigh, he had no idea how far the investigation had reached out. “I guess the local law enforcement considered him a person of interest in the increasing number of house fires about a year ago. It only took them a few days to rule him out but since there was a fatality they finally had to call in the state investigation team to look into all the fires here. They left no stones unturned including the brief investigation into Frank’s nocturnal wanderings. They completely ruled him out of any responsibility in any of the fires this afternoon. The Fire Department’s insurance is going to pay for the funeral and he’ll be buried Monday with full honors. The offer of letting you all stay in the bunk house still stands if you and your boys want to come out.”
“In the end it proved to be a real crook that slipped into the area buying up old rundown homes that no one had lived in for years then after performing some shoddy repair work and illegal electrical upgrades sold them to the first unsuspecting buyer at boomtown prices. The police caught him at an airport holding one way tickets out of the country in some fake name. Now he’s holed up in a jail cell without bail until after his trial.”
“That’s good to hear,” Hank responded. “As far as me and my ‘boys’,” Hank smirked at the recognized term of endearment, “we’ll need to talk it over a little and then I can get back to you in the morning if that will be alright.”
“Sure, sure.” Carl leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk. “I guess I just needed someone to talk to ‘bout all this mess.”
“Well I’m glad you called, I know at least some of my men want to come to the funeral if they can work it around their schedule and it just so happens Monday is in the middle of a three day off shift for them, but we’ll have to talk about it. As far as someone to talk to I’ll be glad to but you do have to understand that if you hear a loud noise in the back ground I won’t have time to say a proper good bye before I have to run.”
Carl laughed, “Understood, life’s a whole lot different there than it was back when we worked the range fires.”
“That it is,” Hank shared his laugh and instant memories. “Is my lineman behaving himself out there?” he started the conversation phase.
Carl was able to tell his former underling of Chet’s presumed guilt and how he and his daughter were nearly inseparable. Before going into more detail about what happened in the fire that claimed Frank’s life. They then talked more of the good old days and Henry’s wife and kids and Carl’s kids and grandchildren before the call of dinner being ready.
“Well those two just brought in enough fish for the next week I guess I better let you go eat your grub so I can cook these things up the way I like them. If I let Julie do it they’ll be all healthy and everything but they won’t taste as good.”
“Just don’t send any home with Chet,” Hank ordered…ah, pleaded…before he said good-bye and hung up the phone.
Hank sat at the table in the day room and while dinner was served he told his men the details of their friend’s death.
“You mean to tell me that guy you all took to the open house is mentally handicapped?” Chet’s replacement was dumbfounded and shocked.
“Yeah,” Cap offered.
“We knew he wasn’t a candidate for the academy,” Johnny cut in, “but it was a chance of a life time for him to be in and around and use the equipment.” Johnny smiled then sobered, “I tried to talk Chet out of it but now I’m glad he didn’t listen to me.”
There was more talk about that day and how Frank had surprised even them mingled in with talk of attending the funeral.
After the evening talks with their families, Roy and Johnny planned to go and take JoAnne’s station wagon offering a seat to anyone else that wanted to go. All five of the regular shift mates opted to go. Chet was already there.
When he got home the next morning Hank called his old Line Chief and confirmed the bunk house.
Back at the ranch Julie had been called and asked to give the eulogy at the funeral. She accepted, managing to keep the tears running down her face from her voice. Chet was asked to speak on his time with Frank and talk about how he loved firefighting and learning about it. Chet also accepted.
When Chet had trouble sleeping that night he completed the task of cleaning out Frank’s closet. The laundry hamper and laundry basket with Frank’s name on them proved to be adequate boxing to place all of the clothes. It really only took him an hour to get everything taken care of. The firefighting print pajamas were on the top, Chet planned to take one pair as a memento of his friend, he thought he’d offer John and Roy the other two pair.
Chet was awake early and sitting on the balcony when he saw Julie come out and head for the barn. He was quick to join her and helped gather the eggs before learning how to ‘operate the fresh milk dispenser’.
Julie laughed as if it was the first time she’d heard Chet refer to the cows as such and laughed more when he proved to be all thumbs when it came to milking the cows.
After eating breakfast and cleaning up after, Chet and Julie spent some silent time sitting next to the fireplace writing their talks for the funeral. Carl had been asked to offer up one of the prayers for the service and felt no need to prepare in fact he felt that any pre prayer preparations was wrong to do. In the afternoon Julie gave Chet a tour of the main ranch area and introduced him to some of the ranch hands. They were both glad that the rest of Chet’s platoon would be joining them for the funeral and made a trip to a nearby chicken farm to make sure they had enough eggs and bacon on hand to feed them all.
Chet laughed at hearing the eggs referred to as cackle berries, and marveled at the quantity of meat and produce Julie purchased and loaded into the truck. But then again since they did have to travel over eighty miles to get the stuff, he did understand.
The next couple of days at the ranch were spent getting ready for the guests that would be coming. In the evenings Chet and Julie were found snuggled together near a crackling fire looking over the Clark family photo albums and Chet was amazed at how many of the photos included Frank and how young he was when he first started appearing in those photos. When he asked why Julie explained.
“My mom had a teaching certificate, she didn’t work except for substituting from time to time because she was needed by my father to help run the ranch, that and she believed in being a full time mother. I’m not sure how it started but when I was about six, Frank and his mother moved out here on the ranch for a while. They were here for about four months. I wasn’t told why or anything but I knew that while I was in school my mom was working to help Frank learn, and then when I got home my mom helped me play with Frank so we could teach him how to make friends. It was a lot like you described how things went between you and Mark at the training center only we kept a table between us. My mom started by teaching him how to hold baby lambs and then baby chickens. When we were alone Mom explained to me that he didn’t have anyone to show him how to be a friend at his house and that he had been kicking people because that was how he was treated. Then his dad started coming out here and some other people and us kids were expected to be somewhere else while they talked. I snuck under the window once to listen in on what was being said, and they were talking about how his dad had to start punishing Frank’s brother when he kicked him. Anyway after a few of these meetings Frank and his mom moved home again but Frank came out here regularly to work with my mom. Mom thought she had him reading once but then a week later she heard him telling the same story to one of the lambs while he was feeding it.”
“He memorized the story, he wasn’t reading it.” Chet understood he knew that Frank couldn’t read but he had watched him tell stories to some of the newer residents at the training center that were frightened at being away from home.
“After his mom died he came here for a while, just until Herb Jr. got off to his army boot camp. Sandy was married by then, she and her husband lived about four hours north of here. There was talk of her taking Frank and getting him into some kind of center up there but I knew it was just wishful thinking on the part of someone. Sandy didn’t want anything to do with Frank any more than her brother did.
When Carl couldn’t hear talking in the living room any longer he went to see why. He found Chet and Julie curled up together on the floor in front of the dying embers of the fire. Feeling a draft he picked up a blanket from the back of the chair and went to cover them up but then thought better of it. He managed to wake Julie without waking Chet. Julie was sent to her room to sleep then the blanket was draped over Chet.
Back in L.A. the crew of Station 51 A shift arrived to work with their dress uniforms and a change of clothes packed in garment bags. There was somberness with all of them but they were glad that they were going to be able to attend the funeral of the young man they had grown to admire.
They were nearly all in uniform when Cap slipped into the locker room. “Guys, I just got a notice from headquarters. Even though Frank Dillon was not a member of the county fire department they recognize that he was a friend to each of us and we have been given special permission to fly the flag here at the station at half mast if we would like.”
All five of the men rose to their feet and turned surprised attention to their Captain.
“Just our station?” John asked.
Hank made headquarters’ position clear to his men. “The other stations can if they want to but none of them knew Frank.”
“Let’s do it.” Roy spoke with determination. “At least I know I’ll feel better if we do something to honor that kid.”
Mike, Marco and Chet’s replacement each gave a nod of their heads as they squared their shoulders.
Hank led the way and the rest of the crew followed him as they made their way to the flag pole in front of the station. As they all lined up to salute the flag the preceding crew fell in line behind them. The ceremony was silent and short but they all lingered for a moment to watch the flag fly at half mast in honor of their fallen friend.
Back at the Ranch Chet was finally getting the hang of operating the ‘Fresh Milk Dispensers’; he actually milked a cow all by himself, while Julie milked the other three. After the morning chores were done Julie helped her father tidy up the house for the family members who would be coming in for the funeral and Chet spit shined the bunk house to pass his Captain’s inspection. His clothes and dress uniform were hung in Frank’s closet and before he was done the sock monkey was placed in the top bunk of the bank of bunk beds where Frank slept. The top bunk because Chet knew Frank would never be afraid or insecure again. As his eyes grew moist he knew that Frank was once again with his mother and he honestly believed that the brain damage, that Chet now knew happened as complications during his birth and had left him challenged
throughout his life, was now a thing of the past.
The morning shift change was taking place and the remaining five men of A shift were changing their clothes and loading the DeSoto station wagon. Hank was stuck finishing the shift’s paperwork but managed to send word by the next shifts Engineer asking the rest of his men to get his dress uniform and his change of clothes out of his locker and he’d just climb in the car as soon as he was done with the paperwork.
Before Hank returned to his paperwork he found Hookraider at his side filling all the required forms in with the standard information in order to speed Hank’s departure. All Hank could do was give him a smile of gratitude as he moved on to add the information specific to his shift and the last run that they had. In moments he was running for the back parking lot to climb in the car so that they could leave. He was still in his uniform but he knew they’d have to stop somewhere along the way for gas so he’d just change then.
The five men were positioning themselves to allow for the greatest amount of comfort and the best possible accommodation of long legs when a Chief’s car pulled into the parking lot and parked in a way to prevent Roy from pulling out.
Hank, having had one leg in the car and trying to fold the rest of his body into a seat, straightened up once again and started to move toward McConnike who was getting out of his car and moving toward the back. Hank met him and was handed a potted tree with a bow around the base and a card declaring that it was from the Los Angeles County fire Department.
“We were hoping you wouldn’t mind taking this with you. In all of our efforts we’ve been unable to find a floral shop in the vicinity. We thought this tree might travel better than the standard floral arrangement and we also hoped that it might turn into a lasting memorial for somebody back there.”
Hank accepted the potted tree and turned his attention to the back of Roy’s wife’s station wagon trying to determine where best to put it when McConnike went back into his back seat and pulled out a decoratively padded binder.
“These are photographs of Mr. Dillon taken during the open house along with a copy of the offer of employment. We thought his family would like to have copies.”
Hank noticed a lump in his throat making his voice slightly higher pitched as he tried to respond. “We’ll see to it that they receive them.”
McConnike understood and just gave Hank a slap to his shoulder as Roy got out from behind the steering wheel and moved to the back to make room for the additional items. While the additional items were placed in the car in a way to protect them Chief McConnike moved his car and once the men were seated they were on their way. Once they pulled around the station and prepared to pull onto the road they all froze in their seat and pause to watch the next shift saluting the flag at half mast. Something they didn’t expect Hookraider’s crew to do. After wiping their eyes they were on their way; they had a six hour drive ahead of them.
It was four hours into their drive before they stopped for something to eat giving Cap a chance to change out of his uniform and someone else a chance to take the wheel.
Johnny and Roy started discussing how to get to the ranch and Hank talked them into pulling over at the state line letting him drive the last leg of the way. Memory lane took him back to the day when a nine year old girl worshiped the ground he walked on to the point that she couldn’t say a word to him. She’d grown up to be quite a young lady now and from what his old line Chief was telling him had finally set her eyes on someone else.
Back at the ranch Julie was getting nervous and emotional in anticipation of her part in the funeral the next day. She needed a distraction and she was sure Chet did too. After hearing some news from one of the ranch hands Julie asked for a couple of horses to be saddled and helped coach Chet into the saddle of the gentlest horse on the ranch while she mounted a larger slightly more spirited mount. Tagging along was an older Sheep dog that had listened to Julie crying herself to sleep every night since she returned from Los Angeles.
After nearly an hour on horseback the horses were tied to a tree and Julie led Chet between the boulders of a rocky hill. There they looked down on a herd of wild horses and watched as they moved around and fed on the leftovers of the sheep who had long been moved to their winter grazing grounds. Huddling in each other’s arms they watched the young colts romping and running around but responding to the call of a parent.
Reluctantly they figured it was time to head back to the ranch to greet the rest of Chet’s crew and to get ready for the viewing that evening. At the bottom of the hill Chet and Julie stepped between two large boulders to see Chet’s mount far into the distance and from where they were it looked like the sheep dog ‘Tippy’ had the leads in his mouth dragging the horse off.
After looking at Chet with a puzzled expression Julie started to laugh and then without any explanation she cried. Chet held her in his arms until she was settled down a little and then she was able to assure him that there was no problem because the other horse could carry both of them.
At the ranch house Carl senior had been drawn out of the house to greet his oldest son and his family. After some somber back slapping hugs with his son and daughter-in-law, Carl tossed his grandchildren into the air and gave them a hug before he looked up to see Tippy leading a horse up to the corral and then stand there waiting for someone to open the gate for him to lead the horse inside.
Carl sent his son and his family into the house and then went to inspect the horse. As he walked across the compound a ranch hand opened the gate and took over with the horse only to meet Carl at the fence when he got there. “That’s the horse we saddled for Julie’s friend.”
“Is he hurt at all?”
“Not that I can see. Do you want me to go looking for them?”
Carl climbed up on the fence to get a better look in the area he was sure his daughter had gone to. Seeing the small speck of a horse and rider way off in the distance Carl was comforted by the casual speed in which the horse was moving toward the compound.
“No, they’re coming and it looks like Julie has everything under control as usual.”
Carl then moved to greet his daughter and her family only to find that she had brought a guest to meet her sister.
Carl rolled his eyes and Beth just ignored him as she guided the guest to the guest house on the ranch. Carl’s attention was then turned to an unfamiliar station wagon kicking up dust as it drove up the lane.
Carl was standing in the middle of the space between the main house and the corral when the station wagon drove close enough for him to recognize the man behind the wheel. Directing him to a spot closer to the bunk house he met the car before all of the men were able to climb out and stretch their road weary legs.
He was greeting his next guests when his attention was drawn to the horse with two riders coming into the compound. Julie was in the front controlling the reins easily with one hand and she held onto the hands that were around her waist with the other. Boy was her sister in for a surprise.
The men waved at Chet and Chet returned their wave as they made their way toward the corral.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Carl left his old friend and walked over to help the green horn fireman slide off the back of the horse.
“Did you come off the horse?” Carl questioned as he looked the fireman over and watched him move.
“No.” Chet responded, feeling that Carl was a friend by now. “You’re not going to believe this but while Julie and I were watching the wild horses…”
“You’re right I wouldn’t believe it, that is if I hadn’t have seen Tippy dragging the horse back to the barn.” Carl laughed as Julie dismounted and tied the horse to a rail before turning toward her father.
Turning her back to the horse was just the invitation it was waiting for to nudge her with its nose in her back pushing her into Chet’s arms as Tippy appeared from nowhere to jump at Chet’s back and push him in Julie’s direction.
Carl scolded the dog and sent him off to the dog house only to laugh when the dog was well on his way. “Match makers, match makers,” Carl mumbled with a chuckling shake of his head, silently he looked at Chet and thought, ‘at least the dog’s got it right.’
“Chet, before I forget I got a call a while ago asking if you would be willing to lead the color guard at the cemetery tomorrow?”
The weight of feelings he and Julie had tried to escape were back as Chet squared his shoulders without a moment’s hesitation. “It would be an honor, sir.”
“I’ll go give the guy a call then and let him know he can count on you.”
The three of them walked over to the rest of the platoon as they greeted with handshakes and studying glances.
“The men putting this funeral together are looking for a color guard. Chet here just agreed to take the lead, would it be alright if I volunteered the rest of you to help him out?”
The response was a combination of head nods, yeses and it will be an honor before Hank spoke for all. “We will be honored.”
Well then I’ll let Chet here show you where you’ll be sleeping and I’ll go make a phone call. Once you’re settled in come on over to the house and I’ll introduce you around, Carl is getting ready to drop some turkeys into a deep fryer.
“Which one?” Julie questioned bringing a smirk from Carl, Sr. Chet and Hank.
“Your brother,” Carl answered. “Oh, and your sister brought someone for you to meet.”
Julie’s eye’s rolled and you could see the growl on her face. “Is his name Roy?”
“I think so,” Carl acknowledged glancing at Chet out of the corner of his eye.
“Well I’m going to go take care of the horses.” Julie turned and stomped off. There wasn’t a person there that couldn’t tell she was more than a little unhappy.
Carl called after his daughter. “Take your time. Just remember we’ll have to leave in a couple of hours if we’re going to make it to the viewing.”
Chet offered to help carry luggage but was only given the binder of photos. Hank thought he might like a chance to look them over before they were given to the family. The garment bags were carried up the stairs and hung together in a single closet as the men looked around and started to stake out their bunks for the night. Mike and Marco were eyeing the stack of bunk beds where a sock monkey rested on the top bunk but it was Johnny that spoke softly after shaking his head. “Those are Frank’s bunks.”
They quickly understood and moved to the other end of the bunk room. A glass of water was taken with them on the way to the main house to give the tree a drink and Hank stepped next to Chet with a compassionate hand on his shoulder as he asked how he was doing.
“I’m fine, Cap,” Chet reported in a solemn tone and with one look into his eyes Hank could tell he was about half right.
Once at the house the men were led to a back yard where there was a rocked in pit about twelve feet across and a foot deep. In the pit were four propane tank powered cookers with tall bubbling pots on them. To one side of the cookers were several stacks of black pots with handles and hot coals under and between them. Everything smelled great as two groups of people came together for introductions.
“Henry, bring your boys over and meet the family, or at least part of them,” Hank’s old friend called out. “This here is my oldest son Carl. My son-in-law Carl,” he pointed to the next man, “my other son-in-law Carl is home with his wife since she’s been put down in bed with some complications to her current pregnancy.” Turning his attention to the shorter ones, “This is my grandson Carl, and my other grandson Carl, the other grandson Carl is the one we’re trying to keep from being born for another two or three months.”
Hank shared a respectful giggle as the rest of the grandchildren and his daughter were introduced before his daughter introduced her guest. The man’s name was Roy Hampton and he was reportedly in real estate, another strike against him.
Hank then introduced his crew making sure to point out the three that had been there before when an accident had left them stranded and injured. Beth was the one that questioned if Henry was the one who had spent a summer working on the ranch with a suspicious glare and she was confirmed.
“Where’s Julie?” Beth inquired.
“Avoidin’ you,” Father Carl didn’t pull any punches as he shifted his eyes to the unwanted guest. Lowering his voice to a whisper and for Beth’s ears only, “It is rather tacky to use the funeral of someone your sister cared about as a set up opportunity.”
Beth just gave an intolerable sigh and proceeded to make an excuse for her sister’s absence.
The rapidly cooling late afternoon air pushed everyone inside as a large fire was started in the fireplace.
Sooner than any of the firefighters suspected cooked turkeys were being carried into the house to be carved and soon Dutch ovens were being placed on the brick hearth a few at a time as everyone was given a paper plate and told to dig in. There were hot rolls, potatoes with bacon, mixed vegetables and a fruit cobbler in the black pots and once one was emptied another was brought in from outside to take its place.
Hank was heard to say, “If you think this is impressive you should be around during sheep shearing time.”
Julie managed to slip in unnoticed, and tried her best to stay away from her sister and the mystery man her brother-in-law was talking with. It didn’t work.
“Julie, dear!” was heard above all of the dinner chatter as Beth hurried across two rooms to take a hold of her sister by her arm and begin to drag her over to meet this new friend of hers. Chet looked on wondering if he should try to interfere as Julie’s father responded to a ringing telephone.
Chet watched as Julie exchanged a pleasant hand shake before responding to the welcome call, “Julie, phone for you.”
Julie hurried to the phone and Chet watched her hold the phone to one ear and her hand against the other ear to block out the background chatter. When that didn’t work she stepped into a closet behind the staircase and working the cord under the door closed it on herself. No one would hear her say, “Whoever you are, this phone call couldn’t have been better timed if we had planned it.”
Julie remained in the closet for several minutes as her sister Beth moved in to recapture her once she was finished with her call and Chet moved in from another direction to rescue her.
When the door opened and Julie stepped out Beth got to her first. Julie just held her ground and gave her sister a look that meant all business. “What is it with you and setting me up?”
“Julie, dear,” Beth spoke with a sickeningly sweet voice, “we all know that meeting men is a little out of your league. You really need to seriously think of settling down, why you’re already nearly a spinster.”
Julie’s eyes narrowed in on her sister. “So what is it about this guy that makes him so great? Anything other than his first name? Is he even single?”
“Well, of course he’s single. What kind of a sister do you think I am?”
“A pushy one who can’t keep her nose out of anyone else’s business, especially mine. And if that guy’s single he hasn’t been for very long, not if the tan line on his finger is any evidence.”
“Now, Julie, it’s not like it seems. His last wife just didn’t understand him; she only married him for his money.”
“Well I can guarantee you that I won’t understand him either and the last thing I’m interested in is a man with money. That’s usually their first and only real love and I really don’t want to get into that kind of competition.”
“Well honestly, Julie, you’re being way too picky. Why at your age you’re running out of options, you need to start grabbing at the few you have.”
“Are you trying to say that men like him are the only ones that will have me?”
Beth didn’t answer, finding the right words impossible to come by.
“Well if men like him, that I’m totally miserable being around, are my only options in life, I’d rather stay single.” Julie then squared her shoulders and spoke sternly but keeping her voice at a volume low enough that not everyone on the room could hear.
“He’s your friend, you brought him, you can be the one to entertain him. I’ve got friends of my own and other things to do.”
Julie then stepped into her comfort zone and was soon surrounded by firemen, only one of which had heard every word she had spoken to her sister. Julie didn’t eat much before looking at her watch and declaring that she needed to get ready and heeding her plans, the six firemen complimented their cooks, thanked their host and made their way back to the bunk house for quick showers and to get into their dress uniforms.
As buttons were being buttoned and ties being tied, the men inspected each other, offering a dusting of the shoulders and backsides of the uniforms. Black bands were somberly placed around their badges before they were pinned on their suit coats and after shoes were once more dusted the men stood and let out their last weak sounding emotional sigh before they marched with command in their feet back to the parking area to find out who was leading the way into town.
Carl pulled up in a large passenger van, a little scraped up from hauling men through heavy brush for years, but it was clean and had enough seats for all six firemen, Julie, her father Carl, her brother Carl and her sister Beth. All of the in-laws and the children would remain behind, and thankfully so did Roy Hampton.
The ride was long and the firemen from Los Angeles County were amazed at the wide open spaces and no lights. They sat quietly holding their dress hats in their laps listening as Carl Jr. and his sister Beth shared memories of Frank over the years. It was revealed that Frank had killed a couple of chickens in his first attempts to learn how to hold them and be gentle. This surprised most in the van. Chet just remembered his experiences with Mark. Julie was in the front passenger seat, she was wearing a lovely black dress and shawl and was seen toying with a white handkerchief as she frequently let out a long slow breath.
When they finally drove into town Marco and Mike were again surprised by how small the town was and how fast they were able to go from one edge of town to the other where the church was located.
They arrived at the same time as the hearse and the men climbed out of the van and waited respectfully in the cold night air as the casket was moved in and situated before they moved into the warmed building. There was already a line started as the firemen were stopped to hand over the potted tree. Before the men would make their way to the grieving family, the line would end up snaking throughout the halls of the church building, out of the building and down the block. Julie stayed close to her father’s side as Chet remained in his standard station lineup behind his captain, followed by Mike, Roy, Johnny then himself followed by Marco. He was grateful that his crewmates were there but he hated being so far away from Julie.
They each signed the guest book in the hall and Chet made sure to get a copy of the program available. It was clear to him by the number of programs that were sitting by the guest book that Frank’s family hadn’t expected the kind of turn out they were getting. There was no seeing the end of the line but police officers, who also wore a black band on their badges, were giving regular reports. The firemen from California felt as if they were in a fishbowl with the way other’s in the line watched them.
Some were seen having their place in line saved as they left only to return wearing a pair of coveralls sporting their EMT patches and area logos. Chet, Roy and Johnny smirked ever so slightly as they remembered the inner competition among the local first responder trained personnel. Nurse Brown was noticed some distance back in the line and Johnny immediately bristled as the thought of talking with her again.
A door opened and Doc Frick slipped in with a large floral display bearing a banner that read ‘Friend to All’. He was led to the head of the line where the flowers were finally taken from his hands and placed on a pedestal that was squeezed in among all of the other flowers. He then paused behind those in line and looked into the casket over the tops of those in front of him. He was clearly emotional but under control and he mumbled something that none of the firemen could hear and then was on his way. He was heard telling someone on his way back out that he had a patient in labor he needed to get back to.
Captain Stanley had reached Frank’s father, as was confirmed by a nod from Chet, at the same time Julie and her father stepped up to the casket. Hank extended the photo album to Frank’s father. “Here are some pictures from the time your son spent with us; we thought you would like to have them.”
The man looked shocked to see someone, let alone six someones, standing before him so dressed, with dignity and showing honor to his son. So did the son and daughter on either side of him. Each of the men behind him shook hands with the family members repeating, “We’re sorry for your loss. Frank was a good friend. We’re going to miss him.”
Julie was holding her handkerchief to her face to catch the tears as she sobbed as quietly as she could manage.
With her other hand she brushed a few hairs back in place and caressed Frank’s lifeless cheek before taking a hold of his cold hands and giving them a squeeze. No one would realize how comforted she was that Frank’s condition hadn’t required a closed casket. Still it was hard to say good-bye. Her father placed his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close but let her have whatever time she needed. Frank had been just like a brother to her and she cared for him deeply. In the end, she fingered the metal hung around his neck before turning into her father’s chest to be led away.
They paused in an out-of-the-way corner to wait for the rest of their group and Julie just held her arm around her father’s waist and the handkerchief to her face as she kept her eyes locked on the man in the casket. The six firemen walked by the casket respectfully, Chet being the only one to reach in and hold his friend’s hand one last time. “You did good, buddy, real good,” he spoke softly. Then the six men took half a step back and snapped to attention before throwing their comrade a formal and respectful salute.
Eyes throughout the room were wide with wonder at what they were seeing, none more so than Frank’s brother and sister as their father offered a tearful smile for the men.
Julie managed to dry her eyes as the men approached and when they were close enough, her first act was to take Chet by the hand and lead him off in a predetermined direction. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
The rest of the men were directed to follow as they all worked their way single file through several bends in the lineup until they stood in the middle of a gym and Julie slowed just a little to let everyone come together near a family with three small children. For Chet, the first hint of just who they were was the bandaging on the face of one of the girls.
“I would like you to meet the Gomez family,” Julie began her introduction.
Mr. Gomez was quick to step forward offering a hand to shake. “We’re the family your friend gave his life to save.” With controlled emotion in his voice he proceeded to shake the hands of all the men in the LA Fire Department uniform. “I tell you I had no idea what was happening when he burst into my bedroom yelling at me and my wife to wake up. The next thing I knew he was thrusting my son and all of his blankets into my arms and pushing me toward the stairs. We barely made it to the door before fire fell from the ceiling and set the stairs on fire. I thought we lost our two girls there for a while.” Mr. Gomez placed his hands on his daughters’ shoulders and pulled them both next to his hips. There was still trauma in their eyes as the father relived the ordeal And Chet knew once again in his career that they weren’t lucky that their insurance would now build them a newer, up to code, home.
The young boy at his mother’s side began to cry and Chet was quick to stoop down to try and talk to him.
“Are you alright?” The boy pulled tighter to his mother and nodded his head. “I was scared.”
“I bet you were,” Chet offered a calming smile. “Just try to remember that you’re safe now and that you’re going to be okay. You’ll feel better in time when you get a new house.”
“He was a really scary man,” one of the girls spoke up. “But he was really nice, and he saved me even though I wasn’t very nice to him.”
“She stuck her tongue out at him,” the other girl tattled on her sister, I just hid behind mommy.” There was a pause as Chet smiled at the slight the girls had given to Frank. He knew they were new to the area and had only seen Frank in passing. The truth was that he was an adult, or at least he looked like one; that alone would be enough to frighten a child of this age.
“You’re right when you said that Frank was really nice but make sure your mom and dad say it’s okay before you talk to any grown-up that you don’t know.”
“Does that mean we’re not supposed to talk to you?” the little boy asked in confusion.
The area around them erupted with reserved laughter as the honest question.
“Not if your mom and dad tell you not to.”
Another man pushed forward pulling his wife and two sons after him. “I’m Mel Harper.”
He extended his hand toward the men in polished uniforms. “It was my house Frank Dillon kept watch over all night just a week before the Gomez home burned down. I had no idea how close we were to suffering the same fate until that inspector explained it to us. I want to thank you all for teaching him the things that allowed him to save us.”
“We didn’t teach him all that much,” Chet was quick to answer, seeing these people and these children still alive was a healing that he needed and Julie had known it. “Frank learned a lot right here in town, watching the firemen and helping them maintain their equipment. He already knew most everything before we met him.”
The three families, one being a firefighting family came together and shook hands as several of the firefighters got down to be on face level with the children and talked. One of the boys was frightened because he thought he was now obligated to be a firefighter but didn’t think he would ever be brave enough. “You just do whatever it is that you want to do and be the best person you can be,” Chet admonished with a moist smile.
As others started gathering around the closest thing these people had seen to celebrities one snarling woman stepped up behind Julie and jabbed her in the back before talking to her just loud enough that the next person could hear and start the rumor mill through the crowd.
“So what are you going to do now that Frank is dead? You know no one is ever going to want to help you raise his illegitimate child.”
That was enough for Chet to nearly shoot up to his full height and face the woman. “You really are a witch. You of all people know that Frank Dillon was not capable of fathering a child, I’m sure you also know that Julie submitted to a pregnancy test because of the rumors someone started, probably you, and that the test was negative.”
Jessica Brown was instantly the recipient of multiple unhappy glares and very angry that her evil plan had just blown up in her face. Julie had always just kept quiet before and the evil rumors she had started had always blown over. This time someone stood up in her enemy’s defense and she wasn’t prepared for that.
Noticing that his son and daughter were waiting near an exit, Julie’s father suggested they return to the ranch. On the drive home Hank asked his friend if he had a flag they could borrow. “I’d like to run through folding the flag at least once before tomorrow and make sure we all know our part.”
While Hank followed his old friend and mentor to the house to get the requested flag, Julie quietly took a hold of Chet’s hand and pulled him into the barn. Standing together in the most open part of the barn to protect Chet’s dress uniform Julie turned to face him and held both of his hands with both of hers.
“There’s something I really have to talk to you about, right now, before it’s too late.”
“Julie, what’s wrong?”
Julie took a deep breath. “Not wrong, at least I hope not.” Julie’s hands trembled in Chet’s as she nervously licked her lips. “That phone call I got tonight,” she looked on for some sign that Chet remembered.
Chet gave her a questioning nod and she took another deep breath.
“It was a job offer. I was offered the job of head nurse for an Urgent Care clinic that’s about to be opened up in Oakdale.”
“Oakdale? Oakdale, California? The Oakdale that’s just outside of Carson?”
Julie nervously nodded her head, unsure of what Chet’s feelings were. For the next few moments there was silence as neither person knew what the other needed from them.
Finally Julie chewed on her lower lip and then spoke up. “I know this is probably the craziest question I could ever ask but I have to know. I told them yes and they want me out there next week to start setting the place up but I can call them back and tell them I’ve changed my mind if you want. I just have to hear you say that it’s alright with you if I move back there to be close to you, because, Chester Kelly…I love you and I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”
Chet quickly grabbed Julie around the shoulders with both of his arms and pulled her tight as he locked his lips with hers in the most passionate kiss he could give. When he finally came up for air he swallowed hard and locked eyes with Julie.
“I love you too, and I’d love nothing more than to have you with me for the rest of my life. I’m sure my sister will let you be her roommate until we make things official and then I can use some of the money I’ve got saved up along with the money I got from that doctor that released me from the hospital when he shouldn’t have, and, and, we can buy a little farm or something in Oakdale. There are a lot of them in that area; it’s so green compared to here. I’ll get you your very own Fresh Milk Dispenser and, well, we’ll go from there.”
“Are you asking me what I think you’re asking me?” Julie questioned, half excited, half scared to death.
“Not yet,” Chet placed one hand over his lower face and toyed with his mustache as he held the other at the side of Julie’s face and caressed her cheek with his thumb. “There’s one person I have to talk to first.”
Hank returned from the main house with the borrowed flag in his hands. As he rounded the barn he saw a very emotional Chet and Julie step out of the barn.
Chet gave Julie a tight hug then responded to the sound of footsteps in the dirt and looked into Cap’s eyes.
Chet was clearly closer to and more involved with Frank Dillon that Hank had realized. His friend had been right; he would need to get Chet alone and get him to open up and somehow convince him that he wasn’t at fault for Frank’s death. Hopefully he would start to unwind after the funeral and his part in it was over.
Hank hoped that he’d be able to talk Chet in to going home with the rest of them right after the funeral even though he still had another shift covered. In Hank’s opinion he needed his friends now.
Chet’s voice was understandably off when he responded to his Captain. “I’ll be up there in just a few minutes; I need to walk Julie to the house.”
If it hadn’t have been growing dark Hank surely would have noticed the lipstick coloring the lineman’s mustache as he walked by but he didn’t so he was sure Chet was still reeling from the aftermath of his friend’s death.
Chet proceeded to hold Julie tight to his side and offer her whatever body heat was getting through her shawl as they headed for the house.
“Have you told your father about the job offer yet?”
“No, I wanted, needed; to tell you first…Dad’s probably in bed already. He has a shipment of salt lick and supplies that’s scheduled to arrive around four in the morning. I’ll tell him as soon as he unloads that.”
Chet just nodded his head in understanding that he’d have to wait until morning to talk with Julie’s father.
When they got to the house they heard Julie’s sister talking, or rather giving out orders. “Now, brother dear, you need to keep those firemen,” she spoke the word as if it were some social disease, “away from Julie whatever you have to do. I’m sure she’ll grow to like Roy if she’ll just give him a chance. And he’ll be much more interested in her if she’s not hanging around those smelly firefighters. If we don’t do something right now she just might end up married to one of those low life public servants. Just think of what that will do to our family name.”
Julie turned to Chet with embarrassment at her sister’s words. Chet just smiled at her and brushed her tears away with his fingers.
“We can’t choose our family members,” he offered up in understanding. “Don’t worry about it, I know how you feel about me and that’s all that really matters.” Chet placed a kiss on her forehead and led her into the house before allowing her to slip up to her room without engaging with her siblings and in-laws.
Chet quickly returned to the bunk house were his fellow public servants were waiting to run through their part at the cemetery the next day.
It had been a while since any of these men had been part of a color guard and they all felt the need to run through the flag folding once or twice as a refresher. The most difficult issue to deal with was the placement of people. This would be the first time they had all been together with Chet Kelly as the head. There wasn’t anyone there that had any kind of a problem with this order but it did make it necessary to figure out where the rest of the men would be placed in the formation. All of this took just a few short minutes and as they worked it out they all noticed Chet’s less than totally focused attention. Even though it was Chet’s first time as the head he knew the commands. All of them did; this was something they did with honor, to show honor and it ment a lot to each of them for reasons that were unique to each of them.
They ran through folding the flag three times before they felt their movements were as crisp and professional as they should be then Kelly recited the words used to present the flag three times before he felt his words met his satisfaction.
Five very tired firemen then prepared to call it a night, each commenting that this was similar to sleeping at the station but they were sure they wouldn’t be called out on a fire or anything before morning. It was Cap that set his travel alarm clock and informed everyone that breakfast would be served at 7:30 sharp and that they could expect to be well fed.
Five men climbed into their chosen bunks and the lights were turned off except for a night light to point out the door to the bathroom for sleepy persons in a strange place. One man continued to shuffle with a few things before sitting on his bunk and thinking hard, letting out several quiet but noticeable sighs.
“You alright there Chet?” Cap called out in the darkness but when Chet looked around he noticed all eyes on him.
“Yeah, I um, I just need to find my copy of the talk I’m giving at the funeral tomorrow. I can’t seem to find it; I thought I left it right here on the night stand.”
“I moved it under the phone book after the breeze caused by us moving our things around blew it under one of the bunks,” Roy called out from his bunk.
Chet was able to feel around in the darkness and find the papers. Counting the pages in the dark, he sighed.
“Thank you, I’m just going to slip this in the inside pocket of my dress uniform.” Chet got up and slipped into the closet, closing the door behind him and turning on the light there. John and Roy each gave a sorrowful smile at the memory of Frank in that very closet. They had already discovered that it was the only one with a light inside.
They all watched until Chet returned to his bed and since he was aware that they were all watching him Chet did climb under the covers and lay as quietly as he possibly could. However he did not go to sleep, but fought to keep his breathing slow and even for the sake of all those he knew were watching him. His mind however was going at full speed. What if Julie’s father felt the same as her sister did? Was he good enough for Julie in his eyes? Of course he wasn’t, no man is ever good enough for your daughter.
Could the guy really say no when someone asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage? Well now, all Chet had to do was think about the guy his daughter brought for her sister to meet this time and what he over heard about the men that had been brought for her to meet when her brother announced his engagement. He sure hoped the father had the right to say no. If it was his daughter, he’d want the right to say no.
Did he deserve Julie? That was a heavy question. He wanted her, he loved her but was he so selfish that he would come between her and her family?
Between her and her sister, yes, at least until she learned to accept Julie’s wishes. But Julie truly loved and respected her father even if she acted otherwise from time to time. They were close, they didn’t always agree but they could talk things over and accept to disagree. At least they did when it came to her accepting custodianship over Frank.
Did he meet with her father’s approval? Was there something he could do to change things if he didn’t?
In the next bunk Captain Stanley was also slow to get to sleep, he could tell that Chet was stressed but then he had every right to be. The death of a young man he had grown close to and speaking at his funeral, were very stressful. He had to somehow talk him into going back with them after the funeral so that he could have the support of his firefighting brothers to help him deal with everything and get his life in order again. He knew that he personally needed to spend some time with him and convince him that answering that boy’s question in no way made him responsible for Frank’s death.
Chet must have finally drifted off to sleep; in his sleep he drifted into a dream where he and his crew mates were standing before Chief Houts. There had been a lot of talk that was mumbled and indistinct then the high Chief pounded his gavel on his desk. ‘Alright, everyone, since there seems to be an agreement The man previously known as Roy DeSoto will now be known as Chester Bernard Kelly, and the man previously known as Chester Bernard Kelly will for now on be known as Roy DeSoto. Unfortunately, parties named JoAnne DeSoto, Christopher DeSoto, and Jenifer DeSoto are outside the Los Angeles County Fire Department jurisdiction so the party now known as Chester Bernard Kelly may no longer claim, JoAnne DeSoto, Christopher DeSoto, and Jenifer DeSoto as his family.
This leaves the party now known as Roy DeSoto to be their legal and lawful responsible party and since according to this legal decision, Mr. DeSoto, you are already legally bound in marriage and you are therefore not available to take Miss Julie Clark as your legally wedded wife.
“But I don’t want him to be my daddy he had hair on his face,” the little blond girl stood on her chair to scream.
“I don’t want him to be my dad; he’s just a fireman he doesn’t save people, my father is a paramedic,” the boy next to her started yelling.
“Now wait a minute, I agreed to let him have my name but not everything else.”
“You can’t expect me to sleep with that, that, that…fur rug.”
Chet’s eyes finally flew open but he felt as if he had been trying to get them to do that for a while. As his breathing calmed down he felt grateful for the darkness and the complete knowledge that what he was opening his eyes from was a dream, a totally ridiculous dream.
When his breathing was finally down to normal Chet pulled the covers up to shield the light from his watch. It was two a.m. Julie’s father would be getting up to accept that shipment in a couple of hours.
Chet looked around the room to make sure he hadn’t shouted out in his sleep or something to wake everyone else up. No one moved so he carefully sat up and placed his feet on the ice cold floor. He managed to ever so quietly slip over and into the closet where his clothes were kept and turning on the light he was able to get dressed in the warmest clothes he had brought with him.
Pulling the extra blanket off of his bed as he walked by, Chet wrapped it around him and as silently as he could Chet made his way down to the kitchen and sat in a chair at the table where he could see the Clark house across the open area of the compound.
He was sure Julie’s father wouldn’t refuse him his daughter’s hand in marriage just because his name wasn’t Roy. Would he?
Chet sat at the table thinking of Julie’s father standing in front of him as he mentally rehearsed how he would word his request for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Was he supposed to get down on one knee to talk to her father? They don’t show this part in the movies.
Sitting at the table, Chet was afraid to go back to bed for fear that he would fall asleep and miss Julie’s dad getting up to accept the shipment. So there he sat, wrapped up in a blanket, thinking and rethinking every word he wanted to say ‘til he had no idea what he was going to say.
Chet did manage to lay his head down on his arms and soon he felt a hand on his back, rubbing.
“You need to get some sleep there, pal. If you don’t you’ll be yawning.” Cap continued to rub Chet’s back. “Now this is something I would never do on the job but under the combined circumstances here I’m going to make a huge exception.”
Chet felt his captain take a hold of his hand and place something inside of it. “Looking down he saw a mini bottle of whisky. “If you take it now it will help you get some sleep but you’ll have slept it off before you have to give your speech at the funeral. We’ll all make sure you don’t do any driving.”
Chet just couldn’t believe what was happening. He blinked his eyes and rubbed them a little to make sure he wasn’t just having another dream. That was the moment he noticed the light come on at the Clark house and knew Julie’s dad was getting ready to accept his shipment.
Chet glanced at his watch and it was only a quarter to three in the morning. What was he supposed to do now? The only thing he was sure about was that he didn’t want to be under the influence of anything when he talked to Julie’s father.
Growing more and more nervous Chet noticed the door to the house across the way opening and a loan figure coming out pulling his coat tighter around him and walking slowly toward the barn.
Chet slipped the bottle in his pocket. “Cap, I think what I need right now is to go for a walk.”
“Now! Chet, I know you’ve not spent a lot of time around here but it’s cold out there this time of night. A lot colder than it gets in Southern California.”
“I’ve been here for several days now, Cap,” Chet whispered in an attempt to keep from waking anyone else. “I know how cold it gets. There’s some heavy coats in the barn; I’ll borrow one of those. I just need a little fresh air and if that doesn’t work I’ll take your advice. Just promise me you’ll wake me up in time to get ready in the morning.”
Before his caring captain could talk him out of it, Chet slipped into the frigid night air promising to be back in half an hour.
Carl Clark heard the footsteps on the stairs coming from the bunk house and waited to see who would step into the moonlight. He guessed one of two people and he was right, the only other person he would have expected was Henry. This time it was Chet and he was pretty sure the man needed to talk to him.
“You’re going to freeze to death in that California jacket.” Carl pulled him into the barn and tossed him one of the coats hanging on the wall. It was common to work up a sweat while mucking the barn and be in need of a dry coat so several older ones were kept there for that reason. Carl then moved to a bench in the barn in an area that was warmed by the body heat of the animals and patted the other end inviting Chet to join him.
“Looks like you’re having difficulty sleeping tonight, too,” Carl opened up the proverbial conversation floor.
“Kinda.” Chet realized now that there was no time left for rehearsing, no second guessing and he couldn’t remember what all he rehearsed any way.
“Mr. Clark, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Carl turned to the man sitting next to him with excited anticipation and a mournful sense of loss. “You’ve got my undivided attention, son, what’s on your mind?”
“You know as well as I do that Julie makes up her own mind and pretty well does whatever she wants but my mother raised me to do things properly so I’m…” The words were trying to freeze in his mouth and freeze his mouth and vocal cords with them but he had to get it out. He’d deal with the aftermath later.
“I would like to ask your permission to ask Julie for her hand in marriage.” There he said it, now what was Julie’s father going to say.
Carl looked at Chet for a few minutes without saying a thing. Then he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees before sitting up straight and looking at Chet again.
“What if I were to say no?”
He said it, Julie’s father said no. No wait, he asked what if he said no? That was a question Chet needed to answer. Sometime during his night of planning he had even prepared to answer this question. Now what was it he planned to say?
“Well sir, I’m afraid mine and Julie’s feelings are a little too deep for either of us to just walk away right now. I don’t want to do anything to come between you and Julie I know that she loves you very much. But like I said earlier, we both know the decision is ultimately Julie’s.”
Carl looked at Chet then started chewing on his tongue, but it didn’t help. The smile came through. “That’s a good answer, and you’re right, the decision is ultimately Julie’s.”
Chet sighed in relief but still remained just a little nervous.
“So this bit about asking my permission is just a formality then, is it?”
“Well, in a way I guess you’re right, but isn’t that the way it usually is?”
“Not necessarily,” Carl giggled and shook his head. “I was working a range fire when the twins announced their engagement. I remember thinking that I’d only been gone a week; surely they could have waited for me. In the time between the engagement and the big double wedding the girls reveled that they didn’t think I’d approve of their choices for mates. When it comes to Julie however, I’ve been asked for her hand in marriage more than I’ve bothered to count. The first time she was only thirteen. Some self important bully from the Middle East came out here trying to set up his own sheep ranch. Giving him my daughter was supposed to prevent him from running me out of business. He proceeded to import a bunch of fancy sheep over here, more than was wise for the grazing land he had, while I kept a super close eye on Julie. I literally kept her at my side every waking hour of the day and even slept on the floor outside her room for a while. I was terrified of that guy trying to kidnap her and I’d heard horror stories of how they treated their women. She didn’t know about my sleeping arrangements but, the rest, she loved all the attention and learned enough to make her a pretty fair rancher. Some of my men called her the ‘She Boss’. When spring time came he tried to beat me to market and sheered his sheep a month earlier than I did, then came the late winter snows that we always seem to get around here and he lost most of his flock to the late winter snow. Then there was a dry spell that summer and he lost a load of the rest of his flock to drought. Before winter snows fell the following year I bought what was left of his flock for pennies on the dollar when he decided to cut his losses and head back to where he came from."
“Every year since then I’ve had two or three guys ask for her hand in marriage, most of them were fall down drunk at the time and all I had to do was ask ‘what if I say no’ and that was the end of it."
“There have been three times I finally answered only if Julie agrees, and each time I knew without a doubt that she’d as soon spit in the guy’s eye and brake his nose in response to them asking."
“After watching you two these last few days I suspect this time will be a different outcome.”
Chet blushed and hung his head to hide his smile.
“Do you know why I couldn’t sleep tonight?”
“Was it because of the funeral tomorrow?”
“NO, not the funeral. I’m sad about Frank and all but he did himself proud, it’s been downright pleasurable to watch the look on Herb’s face at the number of people who came out to show their respects for his poor defective son.
“No, what kept me from sleeping tonight was hearing Julie’s sister, my own daughter, plot against you and cut you down with her words, and then to hear her gloat because she knew you’d heard her and she thought her mission was accomplished. Then to listen to Julie crying in the next room because of what was said.”
“I thought I raised my children better than that. I’m sorry, not just that you heard what she had to say but because I failed to teach her to value and respect all people.”
Chet shrugged his shoulders, “Like I told Julie last night, you don’t get to choose your relatives.”
“Julie always said she was holding out for a man, not just any guy. I must admit she seems to have found one.”
“Julie doesn’t know about it yet but the board of directors over the medical in this area has decided to let Nurse Jessica Brown go. Dr. Frick can’t even trust her to carry out his instructions on all of the patients. They’re planning to offer Julie the job. As proud as I am at all that she has accomplished, I’m now hoping that you will be able to take her away from here. She will never get the respect that she deserves as long as she lives in this area. There are a number of people who can’t stand what she’s made of herself and will stop at nothing to knock her off the pinnacle she’s reached.”
Chet once again bowed his head to hide his smile. “Sir, you need to talk to Julie, but I will say that won’t be a problem. And I want you to know that you’ll always be a welcomed guest in our home.”
Carl glared at Chet. “I guess by that statement you think I’m going to give in and say yes.”
Chet had his number by now and he just smiled back at him and said nothing,
“I’ve never seen my daughter happier or treated with more respect than since you’ve been around. You have my blessing, her sisters on the other hand…”
“I can deal with them,” Chet assured.
Carl smiled. “I just bet you can.”
The shipment arrived and Chet helped to move four hand trucks full of vaccinations and other such supplies into the locked room of the barn before Carl slapped him on the shoulder and sent him back to bed,.“I think maybe both of us will be able to sleep better now.”
Chet slipped into the bunk house very aware of his captain’s watchful eye but it didn’t matter anymore. There was nothing in the world that could bring him down. With a smile in his heart Chet slipped into his bed and was soon dreaming of Julie and all the happiness she brought to him.
In the next bunk Hank was sure Chet had given in and finished off the mini bottle but whatever it took to get him to sleep at this point he was happy for. Given the smile on his face he was definitely a happy drunk.
Back at the main house Carl took advantage of the opportunity to pull the covers around his daughter and tuck her in one last time before going to bed himself and finding a few moments of blissful sleep.
At ‘O dark thirty’, the time to get up to get breakfast ready in order to make the greatest use of daylight, Carl was up again. The gas griddles were already set up in the screened off patio and they just needed to be heated and oiled and the pancake batter needed to be mixed and the eggs cracked. Carl pulled the bacon and eggs out of the fridge and when he shut the door there was Julie, ready to take things from his arms.
Setting the flats of eggs out on the counter Julie found a big mixing bowl and started cracking eggs. “Did they get the omelet fixings cut up last night or do I still need to do that?”
Carl opened the fridge again and looked. “Looks like they’re all ready to go along with the blueberries and chopped apple pieces for the pancakes. Do you think that will be enough variety for everyone?” Carl shut the fridge door and watched as Julie cracked two eggs in each hand until she had emptied one flat and then stopped a moment to count heads before moving to the next.
“I’m sure it will be fine.” Julie continued to crack the eggs before adding water and starting to mix well.
“I missed you during sheep shearing last spring,” Carl commented before getting his own mixing bowl and moving in next to Julie.
“Yeah, but if that training camp had been any later they wouldn’t have gotten us trained in time for the fire season,” Julie small talked as she beat the eggs.
“A little birdie said you have something to tell me.” Carl started the conversation before turning to see Julie blushing at him as she chewed on her lower lip.
“Chet talked to you?”
“Yep, met me when I couldn’t sleep and decided to go wait in the barn until the shipment arrived.”
“And?” Julie started fishing for more information.
“He said you had something to tell me.” Carl wasn’t going to give up so easily.
“Yeah, well, that phone call I got last night?”
“The one you hid in the closet to take?”
“Yeah, well, I’d have done it any way to get away from Beth and her new friend. But um, it was a good thing because I really needed to hear what was said clearly. It was a job offer.”
“A job offer here in this area?”
“No Dad.” Julie cringed just a little, she knew it had been hard on her dad since her mother passed away, but there was no real hope of her finding happiness in this land that time forgot. “It’s in a suburb area outside of Carson, California, a place called Oakdale, It’s surrounded by a collection of small farm/ ranch type areas and well they don’t have a hospital there but this company is putting in an Urgent Care Center.”
“What’s an Urgent Care Center?” Carl asked as he started mixing up the pancake batter.
“It’s kind of like an Emergency room only it’s geared for minor injuries. We won’t be able to do surgery or anything like that but we can treat simple broken bones and illnesses and if they are bad enough that they need a hospital there’s a fire station just across the street with paramedics who can take them into Carson.”
Carl could tell that his daughter was excited about the job. He had also been able to tell that she was excited that one Mr. Kelly had talked to him.
“When I interviewed I was able to make some suggestions to increase their usage and then when they took me out to the construction site of the clinic there was an accident and I was able to get in and help extricate the workers that were trapped when the scaffolding came down. They said then that they were impressed that I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. I guess they really were impressed because they offered me the head nurse position with administrative responsibilities. I’ll be hiring some of my staff members.”
“Well, I’ve always known that you weren’t afraid to get your hands dirty or any other part of you for that matter. But this is the first time I’ve heard of that being a good thing in a clinic.” Carl smiled. “I’ll miss you around here but I know you’ll be happier if you get away from here.”
“I’ll only be six hours away; you can come and visit me whenever you want.” Julie offered the feeble apology but she knew, just as her father did, there were enough people in this area that wouldn’t be happy with her being here and would do their best to make her miserable.
“I’m happy for you, Julie, and very, very proud of you. You better believe I’ll be visiting from time to time. Don’t intend to run this ranch forever you know.”
In the bunk house Hank managed to wake up before his alarm and after shutting it off managed to wake each of his men except for Chet. “He didn’t get to sleep until after four ‘o clock this morning so let’s let him be last in the shower,” Hank whispered. The men were willing to comply.
Chet woke up just a few minutes later as his crew mates moved about quietly. Without saying a word he sat up stretched and then seeing his crewmates coming out of the shower he entered and quickly took care of business before stepping out and into his dress uniform once again, pausing only to make sure his papers were still in his pocket before he followed his Captain on the trek to the main house. One of the ‘Grandsons Carl’ let them in and they were greeted with the smell of cooking bacon and hash browns as well as what sounded suspiciously like a chick fight.
“First you tell me he’s the only one that will have me and now you tell me that he won’t have me if I cook. I’ll make the stand I did yesterday, I’d rather remain single.”
“Henry,” the eldest of the Carls called from the dining room. “You remember how we do pancakes and omelets around here?”
“Sure do,” Hank responded with a smile.
“Then I’ll let you give instructions to your boys, I need to go referee.” The next words they all heard were, “Beth, leave your sister alone, let her do what she’s doing. Julie learned years ago that the shortest distance to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
“Not another word out of you. Get your food, sit down and shut up.”
Hank quickly explained the process of breakfast to his men. “Those smaller containers are full of stuff to put in your omelets, take one of those cups and fill it with whatever you like and give it to, well it looks like Julie is doing the omelets this morning. Those other containers are things to put in your pancakes. If you’d like, you fill another cup with that and hand it to the guy cooking pancakes. Any questions?”
“Yeah,” Chet piped up. “Which Carl is it that’s cooking pancakes?” Chet’s answer was a glare from his captain.
The men were amazed at the skill Julie had with a spatula as she poured out the egg mixture and let it cook for just a few seconds before taking their cups and evenly sprinkling the contents on the top before folding the side of the cooking egg mixture over the top of the filling and then rolling it up in a nice package.
Julie was just finishing up the omelets for the firemen and her nephews when Roy Hampton was led into the house by Beth’s husband. Without missing a beat Julie talked him through the process and threw his omelet together and on his plate. He had just sat down next to Beth and her family when there was a knock on the door.
Carl, the oldest one, took a quick head count. Everyone was there including his son Roy and his wife that has just driven in that morning.
Heading for the door he found the county sheriff and two other men wearing jackets labeled FBI.
The county sheriff beckoned him outside. “Carl, may I have a word with you?” Carl’s conscience was totally innocent so he complied.
“I’m sorry to bother you but we got a wire this morning. The FBI is looking for a fugitive that is a real confidence man. He’s currently going by the name of Roy Hampton and well, knowing your daughters obsession with men named Roy, and well, your ranch set up is the kind of business he’s targeted before. I just thought it was worth a trip out here to check it out.” One of the men labeled as FBI was holding up a picture and Carl was just nodding his head.
“Good guess, he’s in the dining room.”
The men split up one following Carl through the front door and the others going around the house to cover the back door.
“Curtis Applegate, we have a warrant for your arrest.” Before the law enforcement officer could say what he was wanted for, the man known as Roy Hampton jumped from his chair and ran out the back door only to be tackled and placed in hand cuffs.
Everyone looked surprised at the happenings except Beth who was simply aghast. Julie just started giggling uncontrollably and the longer she laughed the louder she laughed until she was laughing so hard that she couldn’t catch her breath. Chet was quickly at her side and easing her down to the floor before she collapsed. Roy and John were close behind, coaching her in her breathing and asking if there was a paper bag somewhere they could use.
Julie gasped and managed to whisper with a breathy voice. “Use one of Dad’s cowboy boots; that’ll do the trick.” She then turned into Chet’s shoulder and continued to giggle but she did get her breathing under control.
Author’s note: When I took my EMT training the doctor who taught the section that included treating hyperventilation actually recommended a cowboy boot as the most effective tool for restoring normal breathing. I wrote it in my book and still laugh at it every time I read it. In fact sometimes I go looking for that book just to read those notes.
Julie finally managed to get her breathing under control but she didn’t stop giggling. Her father finally returned from talking to the police that had been left behind while the criminal was taken to the county jail until his transfer could be arranged. Carl senior was quick to notice the two paramedics and a particularly protective fireman huddling around his daughter. She was now sitting cross legged on the floor with her hands cupped tightly over her mouth and nose to allow her to breath in the carbon dioxide she needed to regulate her breathing.
Carl glanced at his other daughter to see that she was still in shock but had also taken on a totally innocent approach. “How was I supposed to know that wasn’t his real name? I don’t know why Daddy let those policemen in here like that. Does he have any idea how humiliating something like this is to our family?” Beth was heard saying to her husband in a low voice.
Carl just glared at his older daughter and then turned his attention back to the one on the floor. The two paramedics stepped out of the way to allow the father in to check on his daughter. “I think she’s going to be just fine she just laughed so hard that she hyperventilated herself a little but she’s got it well in hand now.”
Carl knelt down next to his daughter and opposite one Chet Kelly and placed a concerned fatherly hand on her shoulder. Julie just looked back and forth between the two men she loved most and she could read it in their eyes. Her Father approved of her choice in a man and her father’s opinion was the only one that mattered to her.
Julie smiled and started to cry, then she started to giggle again to hide her tears.
“Hey, now, let’s not start that up again,” Chet chastised tenderly. “I don’t want to have to go find one of your father’s cowboy boots.”
Julie smirked again and took hold of both her father’s hand and one of Chet’s with her own hands. Carl confirmed everything she already knew with a nod of his head and he and Chet helped Julie back to her feet.
“You better get your breakfast eaten,” her father spoke with an all business tone to his voice.
“Yes, Daddy.” She then walked around the grills to gather whatever unclaimed food looked good to her before defiantly choosing a seat at the table with the firemen instead of her sister’s family. Her sister noticed and was quick to give Julie a look of disapproval. Julie just smiled back and started to eat.
Carl ‘in Charge’, had one more command to give before he sat down to his breakfast.
“Beth, you and your husband need to stop by the police station after the funeral, the FBI guys there need to know how you got involved with that ‘Not a Roy’ they just hauled out of here.”
Julie started giggling again.
A short time later everyone was finished with their breakfast and a couple of ranch hands had been instructed to put the griddles away after everyone had left.
This time the trip into town required two vans. Julie would drive the one with all the firemen and the newlyweds, Roy Clark and Roy DeSoto were quick to renew their acquaintance as they got in. Carl would drive the one to be filled with his son and daughter-in-law and all of the grandchildren. His son wisely handed him some ear plugs before he got behind the wheel.
Beth and her husband Carl, would drive their car into town so that they wouldn’t hold anyone else up with their required stop at the police station. That and also, no one else wanted to be around them right now.
Julie’s van arrived first and the firemen were pleased to see a polished fire truck backed up to the church door. It was an antique model to them but Julie assured them it was in regular use in this area. Chet took just a moment to meet up with the local Fire Chief and get a look at the equipment they had at their disposal. It only took a minute; Chet had never seen such empty compartments before in his life. The firemen were then given a brief set of instructions and they all found a nice sunny spot to wait for a few moments.
The next van from the ranch pulled into the parking lot as the sound of ‘25 bottles of Seven-up on the wall’ announced their arrival. As the van door was opened the kids all sang in unison, “Take one down and pass it around and 24 bottles of Seven-up on the wall.”
“Alright you rowdy cowpokes, we’ll have to finish off the rest of those bottles of Seven-up on the way back to the ranch. With all that you’ve drunk so far I’d recommend you all make a quick trip to the facilities first thing.” Carls, both the father and the son, showed their skills in herding as the children were directed through the doors of the church. They even had to head one toddler off at the pass when he detoured to see the “FIRE TRUCK!”
Roy and his wife Julie wanted to take part in the last of the visitation before the casket was closed and most of the firemen found their way into the line once again.
Throughout the building they noticed colored long sleeve t-shirts being worn by a large number of men in attendance. There were several different colors and when the men turned so that the backs of their shirts showed the firemen from California realized that the t-shirts were the uniform for this area. The white shirts were printed Silverton Fire Department, and each color bore another name.
Hank and his platoon had been informed that they would be following behind the fire truck to the cemetery right behind the six men that would serve as pall bearers and would lift the casket onto the back of the fire engine and then down again at the cemetery. The grab bar had been temporarily removed from the back of the engine to make that task easier.
They all laughed when they were asked if they were alright walking three quarters of a mile.
They had also been informed that there would be a luncheon back at the church after the graveside services and that they were expected to attend.
The rest of the firemen would fall in behind them in order of their local departments.
Chet’s eyes misted over and he wasn’t able to say much. He was so grateful that his friend was going to be so honored.
At last the men from Station 51, minus Chet, were led to the seating reserved for them. The chapel was already filled except for the few benches reserved for those taking part in the funeral. In the back a dividing curtain had been pulled open for additional seating in a basketball gym behind. That seating was rapidly filling up as well. All too soon they were asked to stand as hats were removed and the organ played while the casket was wheeled into the chapel followed by Frank’s family and a few close friends, that included Julie, Chet and Carl Clark, Sr.
The family, Herb senior being supported on either side by his two children, and what was guessed to be the husband of Sandy and the wife of Herb Junior and one child of about eight years old, filed into the bench saved for them. Julie, Chet and Carl made their way to the chairs behind the pulpit and of the three of them Chet was clearly the most nervous.
Julie surprised a lot of people by maintaining total control as she told of Frank’s life and accomplishments. Julie ended by telling all gathered that she thought of Frank as a brother who cared for all living things, whether man or beast, and wanted every living thing to feel cared for.
Chet slowly stepped up to the microphone and started by letting out a deep breath. “Back home I’m the one they’re always telling to shut up.” I don’t think I’ve ever had this many people listening to me, however.”
“The first time I met Frank he was indeed a friend in need. A couple of friends and I had just been in an auto accident and those of us in our vehicle faired pretty well but the other truck rolled a few times leaving it’s driver in serious life threatening trouble. To make matters worse sparks from the trucks engine and gas from the ruptured gas tank heated up the situation a lot.
“Frank was one of three people who were in the first truck that came our way and I still remember the way he jumped out of the cab of that truck with a fire extinguisher in his hands ready to take on the fire. He did a wonderful job but that fire was too big for the two extinguishers to take care of and he soon came to those of us who were taking care of the injured looking for a shovel to go back and fight some more.
“We didn’t have any shovels but we did need help to move the victims to the nearest hospital and we feared we wouldn’t get help in time for one of them. Frank was put to work helping to load our two victims, one of which was a good friend of mine. Then, when we were met part way to the hospital with life saving supplies, Frank chose to go with the man who delivered them and help fight the fire we had had to leave burning. The next time we saw Frank he was sitting in the back of a bush buggy operating the fire hose like a seasoned pro. Then later that night after he and the team he was working with got the fire out, my friends and I had the privilege of sharing the bunk house at the Clark Ranch with him. I never want to forget how he looked when he came up to the bunk house that night. He was filthy, firefighting does that to ya’, he was hungry, firefighting does that to you, too, but he was also happy. There wasn’t a second that I didn’t understand that he wouldn’t have chosen to be anywhere else in the world other than where he had been and doing want he had been doing. Yes, Frank was mentally handicapped but he was also a firefighter and proud of it. He cared for people, all people, even those that weren’t particularly nice to him.”
Chet proceeded to talk about the first time Frank came to his station and how he spent the tour telling them the difference between my truck and his back here. He talked about the multiple bowling outings they had together and how, as long as he didn’t talk, no one could tell he was handicapped.
He talked about the apartment building fire across the street from the training center he was staying at and how he evacuated the building carrying one person out on his back. He talked of the honor that was his to be standing with the group that presented his award as a hero at that fire.
He talked of taking Frank to the firefighting tryouts, admitting that he knew Frank couldn’t pass the written test for admittance to the academy but wanting to give him an opportunity he couldn’t get back home.
“Frank surprised a lot of people that day, and even received a job offer to help out at the firefighting academy. But Frank’s heart was here in Silverton, his home was with his father and the people here.
“As hard as it is to say good-bye to Frank Dillon, I know that the night he died he was just being true to himself. He was watching out for others and when he saw the need he did everything that he could to fill those needs. I don’t think anyone really knows if Frank understood the sacrifice he was making that night but as I look at the family that he saved I know that he had no regrets.
“Frank was considered a wana’be, someone who wanted to be more than he was, but that never stopped him from trying and always giving his best effort. It is very appropriate for Frank Dillon to be honored this day as a Firefighter who fell in the service of his duty because that is truly how he lived and how he died.”
At the end of the funeral the six firefighters who were to load the casket onto the hose bed of the fire engine stepped up to the casket while Chet slipped into his line up with her teammates. “You did good Chet,” Hank whispered to his crewman and each of his teammates echoed those feelings as the men closest to him placed a hand on his shoulder.
Once the casket was situated the fire engine pulled ahead until it reached the end of the parking lot as men and women in various colored shirts fell in behind the firemen in dress uniforms.
Julie and her father were seen taking their place among those wearing khaki colored shirts and patches identifying them as wild land fire management. And Chet noticed the Chief leading one of the platoons was the same guy who had introduced himself as the District Attorney that day in court.
When the fire engine finally pulled out there were over a hundred firefighters, volunteer and career, lined up eight deep walking behind it. There had been career firemen who had less.
At the cemetery the casket was removed from the fire engine and carried to the final resting place. The final words and prayers were spoken and then Frank’s friends from California stepped up next to the casket with precision, the flag that was draped over the casket was lifted and smartly folded, and Chet numbly tucked the last fold into place. With his white gloved hands he took the folded flag from his captain’s hands and carried it as respectfully as he could until he stood in front of Frank’s father. The words he had practiced were uttered in respect of his fallen friend and Chet was grateful with the manner in which the flag was accepted and pulled to the heart of the Father who had lost a son. There was a part of Chet that really wanted to present the flag to Julie for she had been the only guardian to Frank he had known but that was not the way of things.
Taps was played; the casket was lowered into the ground and covered with earth. Chet watched as flowers were placed over the closed grave and felt the cold breeze around his ears. Looking around, he noticed that the crowed had thinned out. A soft and tender hand slipped into his as he spotted the rest of his platoon waiting near the van that had brought them. Roy Clark was behind the wheel this time. It was time to return to the church for the luncheon and then the rest of the guys would need to start for home. They had to report for duty the next morning.
Author’s Note: There are pies, rolls and other such stuff not to mention a Turkey to cook so the next chapter might be a day or two further down the road than usual. Won’t be long now though, Chet has to be back on duty in four days doesn’t leave much time to wrap things up at the ranch. All things at the ranch will be wrapped up before the end.
Julie and Chet walked hand in hand toward the van as Hank stood on the outside holding the door open for them. The person from the state who had taken on the preparations for the funeral had stepped up to Hank as soon as the graveside services were concluded and gave him an envelope of cash. It was the customary fee paid to defer travel costs for the color guard.
“I’m not sure it will cover all of your gas to get back home but still it’s yours to help out.”
“It was an honor for us to do this for our friend.” Hank spoke with just a hint of emotions to his voice.
Julie was helped into the van and then Chet after her before Hank climbed in and shut the door. While on the drive back to the church Hank started his attempt to talk Chet into coming home with the rest of them. By the time they reached the church everyone in the van not only knew of the training exercise Chet had planned for the next day but they also knew that Hank was not happy about it. In fact their ears were ringing.
“But Cap, all of the liability issues have been taken care of. I even talked with a lawyer.”
“I want to talk with this lawyer.” Hank demanded.
once again Chet had a question that showed he knew nothing about sheep ranching.
“Don’t you keep your sheep in a barn during bad weather like this?”
Julie started giggling quickly but she did try to keep it quiet. “If you call this bad weather you have no idea how bad the weather can get.”
Carl just smiled, “Julie’s right this is nothing as far as what we’ve yet to get. But you also have to understand that our biggest market is for the wool the sheep grow. The colder they are the thicker their wool, if we kept them nice and warm in a barn all winter there wouldn’t be nearly as mu“That shouldn’t be a problem he’s one of the fire chiefs, we can probably talk to him when we get back to the church.”
“Fire Chief’s, I thought you said he was a lawyer.”
“He’s both Cap. Trust me.”
It just so happened that Perry Moles, the District Attorney/Fire Chief wasn’t planning to stay for the luncheon, there was an understanding among the people in that area that the luncheon was ment for family and friends who had traveled far to attend the funeral and had yet to travel far. He was sure ten minutes away didn’t qualify him for the luncheon. However he was just getting in his car when the van carrying Henry Stanley and Chester Kelly drove up so they did manage to catch him and talk with him. He was more than happy to supply Captain Stanley with the written releases that he wanted and even offered to Call LA County Headquarters to make sure the papers contained whatever information they would require. Hank gave him the phone number from memory and he promised to have them on the phone within the hour. Hank’s argument was over and so was any chance to talking Kelly into going home with them.
“So how are you going to get home?” Hank questioned, half afraid his friend would get pressed into making a drive he didn’t really need to.
“Um, well there’s still a couple of details to work out but I’ll be back in time for work shift after next, I promise.”
While Chet and Captain Stanley were talking over details Julie found herself surrounded by the six people that made up the medical board of trustees. Like her father she had been hearing rumors and was pretty sure what they wanted to talk to her about but she was also sure that the confrontation between Miss Jessica Brown and one Chester B. Kelly at this very church the night before had made it necessary to move this meeting up. The town people had been slow to realize Jessica’s vindictiveness and the lies she used to undermine Julie but more and more people had been able to see through those lies in the recent year and the number of people that didn’t want her to be their nurse was growing exponentially
Julie was led to a corner table and a couple of the board member’s spouses were instructed to deliver plates of food to everyone at the table while they began to talk.
Julie sat down and turned her attention to the man she knew would be the speaker for the group but didn’t say a word.
“As I’m sure you have heard the rumors by now, Nurse Jessica Brown has fulfilled her contract associated with her educational scholarship and is to be released to pursue other opportunities.”
The conversation paused as if to allow Julie to say something, she remained silent. The man doing the talking was one Larry Jackson, the father of Dirk Jackson whom was reportedly going to be released from prison in the near future.
“Well any way, now that you’ve finally completed you’re education, we’d like to offer the job to you.” Papers were pulled out of a briefcase and pushed across the table to where Julie could look at them. Julie paid them the courtesy of straightening her posture and looking over the papers properly, lifting the top page and reading the second.
“As you can see we’re prepared to offer you a wage that is very comparable to you current training.”
“Actually this wage is what a two year graduate would have expected to earn six years ago when my mother was on the board of trustees.” Julie finally spoke.
“Well yes, well in sight of you dropping out of school before completion and diverging in to such fields as range fire suppression and road side first aid we trustees wanted to give you a chance to prove that you’ve matured before we offer you the top salary.”
Julie glanced at each person at the table including those who were standing guard around it with their backs to the table making sure no one interrupted them. Only Doctor Frick seemed to be displeased with what was being said and the two of them had talked about the position off and on since she returned from Californian. He had expressed a desire for her to run the Middleton clinic after Ozella retired. He even worked it out so that she covered for Ozella for three weeks while she took a long overdue vacation.
“Actually I ran the medical aid station for the state wild land fire suppression teams in this area; I was not in fire suppression. And as far as road side first aid that was just being a Good Samaritan but we saved a life and a leg if my information is correct. Both of those are listed on my resume and were talked about at length at my last job interview. They seemed quite impressed in the responsibilities of that position and how it showed my qualifications for a much more demanding position with more responsibility and a substantially higher salary. Your offer is quite frankly, an insult; I’m going to take the other offer I got and be glade of it.” Julie stood up leaving the plate of food that had been placed before her untouched.
“And just where is this offer?”
Julie just looked at the main speaker and smiled but didn’t say a word, turning to leave she paused and turned back. “I understand there have been a couple of trained nurses move into town lately with their husbands when they took positions at the new factory. Maybe one of them will show more of the maturity you’re looking for.”
“Wait just one minute!” was heard behind her but Julie didn’t even pause in her escape. She went through the food line and gathered a modest plate of food before finding a seat next to Chet.
“What was that all about?” Chet gestured toward the group of people standing around their table looking at Julie, she didn’t even look back.
“Nothing to get excited about they just offered me a job. I told them I wasn’t interested.”
Before the firemen surrounding them could swallow their food to ask the questions they wanted, several ladies approached them carrying take along boxes of food. “We’ve been told that you men have a long drive tonight in order to get back to your homes. We don’t want you starving on the way.” A cute little lady who looked to be in her late sixties early seventies told the men. “We want to thank you so much for the way you honored our special little Frankie,” Julie cringed at hearing her friend refered to as frankie, “He was just such a special angel sent to watch over us here in this little town.”
“There’s one of those Styrofoam ice chests in the back of the van to put those in.
There’s some ice in it but you’ll be able to fill it up at the ranch before you head out.”
Carl Clark informed the firemen as they accepted their travel meals.
“They do this all the time?” Hank questioned.
“No, not always, but they were quite impressed with everything you did last night and while you were talking with the family that Frank saved they asked me what special thing they could do for you to show their appreciation.”
A quick check of their meals showed them to be heavy on salads and a couple of lunch meat sandwiches for each man. All of which would need to be kept cold to prevent the men from getting food poisoning. Before they left to go back to the ranch Chet talked to a couple of firefighters for just a few minutes about the next day before hurrying to get in the van. He knew his friends had a long drive a head of them and he wanted to do his part to get them on their way before it started getting dark.
While Chet helped his teammates load the station wagon, Julie took on getting the ice chest filled with ice. Actually she put down two layers of frozen fish then a skiff of ice then their meals and some drinks followed by replacing the ice she dumped out. Carl pulled up with the gas truck and topped off the gas tank.
“Depending on the gas mileage you get that should get you boys to Vegas or there bouts.”
Hank and Carl took hold in the rescue hold and patted each other on the shoulders with their other hand.
“Don’t be such a stranger,” Hank spoke as he watched his men say their good-bye’s to Chet and Julie before climbing in the car.
“I’m going to have to ask you to keep an eye on him for me till he comes home. He didn’t get to sleep last night til after 4 a.m. As hard as I tried I wasn’t able to get him to talk to me.”
Carl grinned one of those, ‘I know something you don’t know’ kind of smiles that caught Hank’s attention. “I wouldn’t worry much about him. He’s being well watched over. I’ll ask you to help keep an eye on mine for me, seeing that she’s accepted a job back in your neck of the woods.”
“Oh really?” Hank turned and looked at Julie and was quick to notice Chet’s arm around her shoulders as they talked with the rest of the crew.
“Yep, someplace called Oakdale, she tells me it’s close to that Carson you all call home.”
“Yeah, it is, in fact it’s part of our extended response area.”
“That close hum. Well I guess that means we should be seeing each other from time to time.”
Hank looked at Chet once again and remembered the smile he had on his face when he finally got to sleep. Chet had handed him back the still unopened mini bottle of scotch as they were packing up their things.
“Why do I get the feeling that had a whole lot more to do with my man not going to sleep till the wee hours of the morning than morning the loss of his friend?”
“Beat’s me why you would be having that feeling my friend.” Carl answered with a twinkle in his eye and a cheesy grin. “But you’d be right. Looks like my girl had finally found someone who could turn her head just like you did all those years ago. Gotta admit she seems to be a better judge of character than her sister’s do. All though I must admit my son-in-laws are growing on me.” His attention was drawn to Beth and her husband returning from the police station.
“I can’t believe you asked him to come along,” Beth yelled at her husband across the hood of the car.
“Me, I’m the one that told you not to bring him. You know your sister is never going to talk to a guy you introduce her to ever again.” her husband responded.
“Yeah, I think I’ll keep the son-in-laws, the daughters well,,, we’ll see.”
Hank couldn’t stop the smirk that escaped.
“Careful there now, your day is coming faster than you think,”
“Don’t I know it,” Hank agreed with the shake of his head.
Chet promised one more time that he would be home in time for his next shift as the firemen drove out of the compound and on the road heading west.
Carl had a few more hours to give his grandchildren horseback rides and Julie taught Chet a few tricks of cooking for a crowd before the rest of the guests all moved out.
The men and Grandchildren had helped do many of the evening chores but once the last of them were on their way Chet helped finish up the chore you just don’t let the grandkids do. Mucking out the stalls was a smelly job and a bit more heavy duty than children could do but a strong backed fireman made a good addition to the ranch hand in getting the job done.
Carl and his ranch hand Jose joked back and forth in Spanish as Chet helped them with the chore. Little did they know that Chet knew just enough Spanish to know that they were making fun of him behind his back. It wasn’t too bad though most of the talk was pointing out that Chet wasn’t a pretty boy like the guys Carl’s daughters kept bringing around for Julie to meet, the term, not afraid to get his boots dirty, was understood and when it was time to place fresh straw on the floor of the barn Jose was verbally amazed that Chet knew the difference between straw and hay. At least he sounded amazed but not nearly as much as when Chet spoke to him in broken Spanish as they closed up the barn after putting the cattle in for the night.
While Carl and Jose saddled their horses to make one last ride to check on the flock Chet slipped up into the bunk house where he showered and dressed in the nicest non firefighting clothes his sister had packed for him and then put the rest of his clothes in the wash, minus his dress uniform of course, that needed to be dry-cleaned. Before he slipped his uniform in the wash he removed his badge and placed it in his wallet then retrieved the box from his pants pocket.
He had wanted to give the contents of that box to Julie at Disneyland but plans had to be changed. He had kept it in his locker at the station wondering at times if he’d ever get a chance to give it to her and then slipped it in his pocket just before he ran across the street to climb into Jack’s semi. Tonight was the night.
By now Chet was a welcomed guest and had been told he didn’t need to knock just let himself in. That is what he did. He heard humming in the kitchen and followed the sound to find Julie rolling out pie crust. Chet watched as she rolled the flattened pie crust onto her rolling tool, it was different than any rolling pin he had ever used, once she had the crust rolled on the long round dowel she was using she lay it over the pie plate and unrolled it again before carefully tucking it into the pan and making appropriate punctures.
Julie then popped the lids off of two quart jars of what looked like home canned cherries, after draining the liquid off but saving it the cherries were dumped into the pie crust and then a portion of the liquid had a few things added without the need of a measuring spoon before she added the liquid to the filling and then rolling the top crust on her rolling pin she placed it on the top and carefully cut it to shape before pinching the crusts together with her thumb and forefinger to create a decorative scalloped edge. The stray pieces of crust were lain out on a cookie sheet and then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. They’d go in the oven toward the end of the cooking time.
Julie smiled at Chet and then taking the unbaked pie in her hands turned her back on him to put it in the oven. When she closed the oven door she found Chet on one knee before her.
Tears started to drip down Julie’s cheek as the corners of her lips turned upward.
“Julie Clark, will-“
“Yes.” Julie cut him off.
Chet started to giggle, “Aren’t you supposed to let me finish the question first, I might be asking you to strip naked and run through the woods with me.”
“Yes to that too, but we’ll have to find someplace a little warmer than it is here right now and we’ll have to wait till after we’re married.”
Still on one knee Chet slipped the ring onto Julie’s flour covered finger and continued what he had been rehearsing for weeks. “Julie Clark will you please join me in holy matrimony and spend the rest of our lives walking side by side through all the adventures that are yet to come.”
“Yes, through whatever life has in store for each of us, the good times the bad times and everything in between.”
“It’s not a diamond,” Chet began to apologize before Julie had a chance to look at the ring to closely. “I’ll get you one if you want.”
“It’s a fire opal,” Julie reveled that she had recognized it. “How did you know it was my favorite?”
Chet blushed, “Frank told me, he pointed it out to me and told me that you’d really like it when we went to the mall to get him some new shoes. I went back later without him to get it. I didn’t want him to spoil my surprised.”
Julie’s tears flowed with a fresh supply as she nodded her head, “He would have.”
“He teased me all the way home about the kiss on the lips you gave me when we said good-bye as the station.” Julie knelt down on the floor in front of Chet to join his height.
“I love you Chester Kelly; you’re the real man that I often wondered if I’d ever find.” She threw her arms around his neck and they locked in a passionate embrace.
That’s when her father and Jose stomped through the back door shaking the mud and fresh falling snow off their boots. “Julie could you whip up some hot chocolate, it’s colder than a witches backside out there.”
That’s when he noticed Chet’s back and his shoes around the side of the counter and bending to the side to see what was going on it wasn’t hard at all to see his daughter’s arms around the fireman’s neck or the brand new sparkly thing on her finger.
“Sure daddy, it will take just a second.” Julie jumped to her feet and turned her tear streaked face away from her father as she opened the refrigerator door to pull out a bottle of milk.
Chet too got to his feet and not feeling as if he had been out of line or anything like that, after all he had been given permission. He just looked at his future father-in-law totally lost for words.
While Julie pulled a pan onto the stove top and filled it with milk, again without measuring, and then reached for the sugar and coco in the cupboard. Carl Clark shifted his eyes back and forth from his daughter and his soon to be son-in-law. He too was totally lost for words.
It was Jose who knew how to break the spell, he started singing. The words of his song were laced with his Spanish accent as he rolled all of his r’s. “Can she bake a Cherry pie, Chester boy, Chester boy? Can she bake a Cherry pie Charming Chester?”
At hearing the words Charming Chester, Julie started to giggle through her tears as she continued to stir up the hot chocolate. It was her father that sang the next verse.
“Yes she can bake a cherry pie fast as you can wink your eye; she’s a young thing and shouldn’t leave her father.”
Julie turned to her father in mock surprise, “After all the lectures, all these years about me needing to settle down and give you more grandchildren!”
“I have one little moment of regret and that’s when I find out she’s listened to me all these years.”
Carl wrapped his arms around both Julie and Chet and they came together in a group hug that lasted until the hot chocolate started to bubble on the stove.
There was talk and joking as they drank two batches of hot chocolate and warmed up next to the fire before the pie was done and also consumed.
As much as they talked there was little said about the elephant in the room that reflected the light from the fire on to the walls. There would be time to talk of that later.
Chet woke up the next morning when the house started moving before dawn to get the chores done. He was stretched out on the sofa with a blanket tossed over him.
The skiff of snow on the ground the next morning was just a hint of how cold that air at least in the barn the wind didn’t hit you with those tiny shards of ice crystals that had Chet feeling like he needed to be covered with bandages.
The biggest issue with the cold was that it slowed them all down making the chores take longer to complete. Chet was finally told to shower at the house and given an extra warm coat before he was pushed into the truck to head in to town for the training meeting. Julie placed in Chet and her father’s hands warm biscuits filled with bacon and scrambled eggs to eat as she drove.
Half of the way into town Chet feared no one would show up because of the cold weather, the other half of the way in he was hoping no one would show up because of the weather. The heat from the truck’s heater was enough to put him at ease and help him steel himself and prepare his mind for the lessons he wanted to teach these men with good intentions but nothing to back that up.
When they arrived at the burnt out shell of a house they found that the skiff of snow hadn’t made it to the town. Even though they were early there were nearly a dozen men gathered around the police officer who had stood under the bedroom window to receive the girls. It was clear from the body language they could see that officer Kurt Marshal was reliving the night of the fire and all that had happened there. Chet made a mental note to talk with the man and find out how he was dealing with things mentally.
Asking Julie’s father to keep them distracted Chet pulled a handful of candles out of his pocket and a cigarette liter. Julie then watched as he proceeded to place the lighted candles inside some of the walls to make his point.
The air was cold but with the buildings and trees to block some of the wind it wasn’t as cold as it had been on the ranch.
“What if you end up starting a fire?” Julie questioned.
“The building is a total loss to begin with or I wouldn’t be doing this,” Chet whispered his instructions, “I don’t think there’s enough flammable material close enough to the flame to catch fire but if it does we’re fire fighters we’ll but the fire out.”
Julie stood guard as Chet set out the candles. He did place them inside jars that were found in the area and then placed them inside what was left of the walls. He then walked over to the rest of the group and listened to the last of what Officer Kurt Marshal had to say.
Soon the Silverton Fire Engine pulled up with more men hanging on the back and sides than was really safe, no wonder the grab bar on the back was bowed. Before Chet knew it he had thirty men representing five different fire stations throughout the county and each and every one of them was eager to learn. It was a little intimidating but Chet took in a deep breath and accepted the crow bars that were being handed to him by Silverton’s fire chief, local insurance salesman, and local hardware store manager.
Chet started by telling them about the apartment fire that Frank had watched them put out in California, and how Frank had asked why they pulled the ceilings down before we left. He was quick to agree with one of the firemen in his group, that they couldn’t just tear down the walls on every fire. That’s when he had the men placing their hands on the walls feeling for hot spots. They were all surprised by the heat a simple birthday candle could put out. Chet then showed them ways of checking out such sources of heat in ways that left minimal damage.
The local insurance salesman also offered that most insurance policies allowed for a night or two in a motel with even a small fire and talked of his plan to encourage people to do that in the future. “I don’t ever want to have a family trapped in a burning home again.”
“Well, I own the motel in Middleton, it’s not much but there’s most always a room available, I’ll offer a special rate for anyone who needs a night away from their home.”
Another man in the group offered. “I didn’t know that Frank kid all that well but, man, I just can’t believe anyone could do what he did.”
Chet then accepted the invitation to the local fire station where they did have a room for training purposes, which was out of the wind and cold weather. Even though the room was heated the heat was only warm enough to keep the water in the fire engine from freezing so they all still kept their coats on. While there Chet invited questions and was able to answer most of them over the next two hours. After which warm boxed lunches were delivered from one of the local restaurants. Paid for by all the firemen in attendance out of their own pocket and Chet’s lunch was also covered.
While they all ate, the hardware store manager started talking of crow bars and other supplies that he could order for the fire stations at his cost and the guy from Minersfield started talking about how he knew someone back east somewhere that converted a water tanker into a fire truck. There was talk of alternatives to turn out gear that would be cheaper than ordering it from fire fighting supply companies and Chet knew these men served in a different world from the one he came from.
The men were still talking when Julie excused herself, “I’ve got a quick errand to run.”
From the fire Station Julie walked two blocks to an older home in the area. The place was in need of a fresh coat of paint but was otherwise in better up keep than some of the neighbors. Julie hesitantly knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer. She saw the drapes part and knew that the occupant knew she was there; she waited a while longer and knocked once again.
Finally the door was thrown open with force as Jessica Brown propelled herself out of the door. “What are you doing here? Come to gloat that you’ve got my job now?”
“Nope,” Julie kept her tone even and refused to join into a fight. “It was offered, but I think you would be surprised to find out how much they were offering me to take it. I’m not so desperate that I’m willing to work for less than you made when you first started four years ago.”
“You’re kidding,” Jessica stared down her opponent in clear disbelief, “but you have a four year degree I only have two.”
“Yeah but I’m more immature than you are, I dropped out of school and played around with fire suppression and need to prove that I’ve grown up now,” Julie smirked.
“Look, I’m not your enemy, I never really have been. The reason I’m here is to tell you about a company that’s building what they call urgent care clinics throughout the western states. It’s kind of like a walk in clinic, medium emergency room type of thing.
They really like the skill sets us, out in the boondocks trained medical workers, bring to the table. You have the ability and know how to take x-rays and run some basic lab work.” Julie produced a business card from her pocket. “You’d have to move from here but I thought you might be interested. Whatever you do is up to you.”
Julie turned to leave but stopped before she took the steps down off of the porch, “Something you don’t know is that I was in the next changing room at the dress shop the day your mother told you that if you wanted a guy you had to do what it took to keep him interested. I’m sure by now you have seen more than a few problems with that philosophy in your line of work. What I don’t think you know is that you deserve a guy who wouldn’t demand that kind of thing from you.”
Julie didn’t say more she just walked back to the fire station and waited in the back ground a while longer as Chet continued to answer questions. When they finally left they made a stop at the cemetery and after visiting Frank’s grave, Julie took Chet by the hand and took him to her mother’s grave where, with tears in her eyes, she introduced the two of them the best she could.
Carl took over as the driver on the way home. He wanted to stop by and check on one of the flocks that were wintering on the way. Julie chose to sit in the middle seat instead of the back and was quickly snuggling into Chet, after reaching over and locking his door of course.
Chet noticed his future father-in-law watching them and made sure he stayed respectable and was surprised at the road that Carl turned off on, that is if you could truly call it a road. Surprisingly they did manage not to get stuck and once they were on the paved road once again
Chet had a question that showed he knew nothing about sheep ranching.“Don’t you keep your sheep in a barn during bad weather like this?”
Julie started giggling quickly but she did try to keep it quiet. “If you call this bad weather you have no idea how bad the weather can get.”
Carl just smiled, “Julie’s right this is nothing as far as what we’ve yet to get. But you also have to understand that our biggest market is for the wool the sheep grow. The colder they are the thicker their wool, if we kept them nice and warm in a barn all winter there wouldn’t be nearly as much wool come spring shearing.”
“I guess I never thought about that.” Chet responded, “I have to admit though that I’m glad I live along the coast line where it doesn’t get this cold.”There was silence in the truck for a moment as the occupants watched the snow swirl across the road in the breeze.
“You two talked at all about when you want to get married?” Carl asked.
“Not yet Daddy,” Julie answered with a clear tone in her voice that implied, ‘don’t go gettin’ all pushy on me now.’
“I was just thinkin’ that if you were to say do it soon here, say in the next couple of weeks now, you two could take that cruise I’ve got booked and call it your honeymoon.”
“Daddy,” Julie started then paused to choose her words, “you promised momma, that you’d take this cruise, it was the last request that she made of you. Besides, I’m starting a new job next week, I can’t exactly take three weeks off just after I start.”
“That’s real thoughtful of you sir,” Chet followed Julie’s lead, “but I’m not scheduled for vacation for another six months and I’ve already taken some time off to come here that I’m going to have to pay back before the end of the month.”
“Guess I didn’t think of any of that. Round here your mother and I just always took vacation during the winter when things were quietest here on the ranch. You know no lambing, no bummer lambs to feed, no sheering and sheering crews to feed. Not to mention no wild fires that make it so you have to shift grazing fields in a hurry.”
“Or go show the paid fire fighters how to put out the fire,” Julie added with a smile.
“Yeah, I’ve had to do that a few times alright, them government officials and their let it burn policies. Don’t take into account a man’s grazing lands or what the fires do to their livelihood.”
“Still,” Carl shifted the conversation back to his daughter’s wedding. “It seems like a better idea for the two of you to hurry up and get married, than for Julie to go out there and look for an apartment where you have to come up with first and last month’s rent and utility deposits for a lease you won’t finish out. Of course it would be best if we waited for warmer weather to have a reception here in these parts. Like after sheering time next spring but there’s no need to wait that long for the two of you to get married. Why I can see now that you’re Fightin’ to behave yourselves as it is, and I suspect that’s only because I’m right here in the truck with you.
“If you stop to think about it you have to go through Nevada to get back home and to your job as it is. The two of you might just as well make it official.”
Julie looked at Chet out of the corner of her eye then back to her father. “Can the two of us talk about it before we make a decision?”
“Well you should, it’s your wedding you know, just the first of many decisions you’re going to be making together for the rest of your life.”
The rest of the ride was made in silence but both Julie and Chet could tell by the way the other was thoughtfully rubbing their hand that they were thinking.
When they turned into the main ranch they noticed three unfamiliar cars parked near the main house. The exhaust from two of them showed that they were idling their car’s engines and it was quickly guessed that it was for the purpose of running the car’s heater. Carl recognized one of the people in one of the cars and pulled up in front of the garage before he stopped and got out. Just as he suspected the six men waiting were consisted of the medical clinic and hospital board of trustees and they were there to talk to Julie.
Taking pity on the shivering men, Carl welcomed them into his home and quickly lit a fire and got it burning good before adding a couple of sizeable logs. He then motioned for Chet to follow him into the kitchen where they would work together to make some warm drinks for the guests while they had their private words with Julie.
Once they were in the kitchen Carl placed his finger in front of his mouth before he reached over and flipped a vent open. This allowed warm air to come in from the living room but it also allowed the men to hear all that was being said in the next room.
“Miss Clark,” one of the men started and Carl was silently surprised that it wasn’t the all knowing voice of Larry Jackson. “We’ve done some looking into the pay scale for nurses of your training throughout the state and we’re embarrassed to admit you were right when you said our offer made to you yesterday was an insult.”
“Of course we do have our own budget restraints to work within,” that was Larry Jackson speaking and the look on Carl’s face told Chet just how little respect he had for the man.
“Anyway, we are here to make you a more appropriate offer.” They could hear papers being shuffled, “Dr. Frick was unable to attend this meeting but he did send along a letter, I’m sure you are aware of the great admiration he has for you and your skills.”
There was silence for a moment as Carl managed to get some coffee going and mix up a pot of hot chocolate as well as a pot of tea. Chet was directed to the cupboard where the cups were stored and serving trays.
There was still silence in the room when Carl and Chet carried the warm drinks into the living room and placed them on the coffee table there. They noticed Julie looking over papers she had been handed and watched as she opened a sealed envelope and pulled a card from within reading it thoughtfully. Chet thought for sure he had seen a surprised smile on her face but he could only guess what was written there.
“Thank you,” Julie offered along with a smile that was all Chet’s and it gave the assurance that she wouldn’t be accepting the job. Her life was with him now.
Carl and Chet returned to the kitchen where Carl silently moved one of the kitchen chairs right next to the vent and motioned for Chet to do the same. The two men sat silently with their heads bent toward the vent to maximize their hearing ability.
“Well I see that you have indeed increased your offer, double what you offered me yesterday still there are a lot of, shall we say intrapersonal political type issues in this area that would make employment in this region less than totally enjoyable for myself.”
“Before you say no, think about where your loyalty lies. You’ve been a part of this community all of your life, you know better than most the needs in this area as well as the people.” Someone cut in.
Chet could hear Julie’s sarcastic laugh, “Yes, yes let’s talk more of loyalty, and my part in this community. I don’t recall every being considered a part of this community. I’ve always been just one of the Ranchers that lived out of the way. Never once have I been considered worthy of the scholarships that you trustees award every year.
“I could easily tell you that I’ll think about this offer but I won’t. It is still substantially less than a previous offer that has been made by a company that is impressed by the accomplishments I’ve made and the work that I’ve done, and the working conditions are much more pleasurable than what I can expect if I were to stay here. Not to mention a few other personal reasons involved that I will not discuss with you, I will be accepting that offer. I wish you men luck in finding someone to fill this position. Please however stay and finish your drinks and get warmed up before you take on the long trip back into town.”
In the kitchen Carl cupped his hands over his mouth to muffle the sound of his laughter. Chet just kept silent and shook his head, he felt some of the humor his future father-in-law was seeing but he also felt relief.
It wasn’t long before Carl was seeing his guests to the door and when the last of them were driving toward the main road Carl turned to Julie and Chet. “I’ll go work on getting some dinner ready you two have some things to talk about.”
Chet and Julie smiled at each other and moved over to the sofa where they could sit together. Julie set the papers she had been given down on the coffee table and Chet couldn’t help but see the card that lay open on top of the other papers. Above the fold was written in large hand writing; Run Julie Run. Then below the fold was written in smaller print. You know you’ll never be totally respected or find real happiness here. That mustached fireman may not be a Roy but anyone who cares can see that he makes you happy and treats you with the respect you deserve. Don’t forget to send me a wedding invite. Doc Frick
Chet picked up the card and gestured with it to get Julie to talk.
“Doc and I have done some talking since I got back in town and let’s just say, he understands.” Julie offered and then there was silence again.
“Who goes first here?” Julie looked to Chet to share his feelings first. “It’s not hard to tell Dad’s trying to hurry this wedding along but it is up to us. What are your feelings?”
“Frankly I much prefer the thought of an elopement, if we have a big wedding my sisters, all of them, will probably bring someone for me to meet.” The two of them laughed and fell into each other’s arms.
The engaged couple talked a while longer, Julie admitted it would be better to change all of her professional licenses over to her married name before she started working, and that she liked the idea of not having to hunt for an apartment or having to move multiple times. She also shared her desire to join Chet in the bedroom, adding that she wanted it to be in an official state.
There was talk of where to find a wedding dress on such a short notice and who they would like to have there as well as who they thought would be willing to travel to Vegas on such a short notice. Then Chet remembered the kitchen.
“You know your father can hear everything we’re saying in here don’t you?”
“Uh hu. That’s why the box with my mother’s wedding dress in it is now leaning against the door frame.”
Chet turned to where Julie was looking and sure enough there was a box there that hadn’t been before.
“I would really like to have my mother there,” Chet admitted, “She’d never forgive me if I didn’t invite her. I’m sure my brother will drive her and bring my sisters along.”
The phone from the kitchen was handed around the door opening and sat on the table just inside the room.
Julie giggled than added. “Where will we tell them to meet us?”
The Los Vegas phone directory was soon added to the table next to the phone, partially on top of the phone.
“It might be a good idea to get the maps out and find a place that will be easy to find for everyone traveling.”
Two maps were soon placed on top of the phone book. Never once did Chet and Julie see any more than her father’s arm.
“You sure you don’t want to come out here and join us dad?” Julie called.
“Nope, you two are doing just fine without me.”
Chet and Julie giggled and shook their heads.
“At least I don’t see a shotgun,” Chet added.
“I’ve got several that I could show you if you want to see them.” Carl called from the kitchen.
“Um, thank you sir, perhaps another time.”
At Station number 51 in the locker room the men of A shift were gathering to change into their uniforms in preparation of starting their shift.
“Isn’t this the sift Chet promised Cap he would be back for?” Marco questioned as he looked at the long unopened locker.
“Yeah,” John showed his thoughts were also on the missing phantom. “I’m sure he put off leaving Julie till the last possible minute. I won’t be surprised to find out he drove all night planning to get here just in time for his shift.”
“I was kind of hoping he’d be bringing her back with him.” Roy added as he lined up the buttons on his shirt then absent mindedly buttoned each one. “It was rather clear that group that cornered her at the luncheon after the funeral had a job offer for her.”
“Yeah,” John smirked at the same memory, “But it didn’t look like she accepted the offer.”
”Yeah,” Roy added thoughtfully, “It did look that way, but it could have just been her way of holding out for higher pay.”
“Chet sure has changed since Julie and Frank came into his life. I don’t remember the last time I got a water bomb.” John sat in his locker to pull his boots on. “He sure took Frank’s death hard, I’m betting he’s going to still need to talk about it once he comes back.”
“I’m just going to be glad to have him back,” Marco confessed, “I always know he has my back and what to expect of him. It takes half a shift to figure that out from all the subs I’ve had to work with.”
The men continued to talk about their friend and plan together how they would let him know that each of them were there to talk to when Mike stuck his head in the door announcing it was time to line up for roll call. To their surprise Dutton from the last shift was standing in line waiting for them.
“Didn’t Chet make it back?” Johnny questioned before Cap cleared his throat to get their attention.
“Yes Chet Kelly is back,” Hank started out. He had stopped by the locker room to give the boys their five minute warning when he heard them talking about Chet and what he might need from them. It was one of those times when he knew he had the best crew a captain could ask for and he left them to their discussion rather than interrupt it. “He was called into headquarters first thing this shift he’ll be along in an hour or so and Dutton here has agreed to stay until he arrives.”
There were sighs of relief and then Hank noticed the men tensing up once again, like him they were wondering why Chet had been called into headquarters.
The morning went on just like the last four shifts as the men checked out their equipment, checked tire pressure and looked up expectantly every time a door opened.
Chet finally pulled out of the parking lot at headquarters. He had been told when he left the building that he had an hour and a half to reach the station. Since rush hour was thinning out he was sure he’d get there in plenty of time. The wedding band on his left hand still felt new and slightly annoying but he’d never even think of taking it off. He knew some guys that wouldn’t wear theirs while on the job, like Roy DeSoto, for fear that it would get in the way or damaged. Chet’s thoughts were on Cap’s hand and he was sure he would get used to the ring and liked the symbol that he belonged to someone.
Once the decision had been made to stop in Vegas on the way home it came down to whom to tell and invite to attend. The choice for both he and Julie had been immediate family only. For Chet that turned out to be a simple phone call.
Both of his sisters and his brother were having Sunday dinner with his mother. It was common for him not to make those meals since he was often on duty. He told his mother first and was a little disappointed in her response. His brother Danny managed to hook up the speaker phone he’d given her on her last birthday and Chet was able to talk with all of his family at once.
It was his sister Chris that asked if it was Julie he was marrying and once they all realized this was someone Chet had known for a while and not just a fly by night romance the excitement began to grow.
Danny just happened to have the day off so he quickly volunteered to drive and made doubly sure where to meet up with his brother.
Julie’s dad took on the task of calling his offspring with the news and both Chet and Julie had to laugh when he told Beth and BethAnne that this was for family only and they were not allowed to bring any guests. Julie had deliberately chosen a wedding chapel that was most convenient for her sister Anne since they were keeping her down in bed a lot to keep her from going into premature labor. The place they chose was only fifteen minutes away from her house so they were sure she would be alright this once.
Julie had looked totally stunning as her Father walked her down the isle of the little room set up for such activities. Julie wore her mother’s wedding dress that was a white western style tight fitting top and a full skirt with a train. Instead of a vale she wore a white cowboy hat with a scarf tied around the brim and cascading around her shoulders. Chet thought he heard one of Julie’s sisters say how they hated that dress but Chet knew the moment Julie pointed out the box it was in that it was something special to her. He had the distinct impression that Julie was closer to her parents than any of her other siblings. He was wearing his dress uniform and was glad they had been able to find a dry cleaner that got it cleaned for him in an hour once they got to Vegas.
The only thing Chet could remember about the ceremony was the smile on Julie’s face as she looked into his eyes and said, “I do”. He couldn’t even remember saying “I do” himself but he was assured that he had. He was also aware of Julie’s father giving his mother some money to put together a reception in the Los Angeles area and telling her that he’d, “Do it up right,” in the spring with a shin dig at the ranch.
There was no time for a honeymoon just yet. Chet had to report for duty this morning and Julie had made arraignments to take care of the paperwork part of starting her new job while Chet was on duty. They were both tired when they arrived at Chet’s duplex to find that his sister had cleaned and changed the sheets in preparation of him bringing his bride home.
The two of them had agreed however that they didn’t want their first time together to be rushed. They would consummate their marriage after Chet was off shift and had two days with no other commitments than their commitments to each other. Chet would wait till Julie was in the stage of getting the new clinic ready to start up and would need to spend a lot of over time to get it ready for opening day to start paying back the time he took off for the funeral.
When Chet finally pulled off the freeway his thoughts turned to his friends at the station. One thing for sure since he was two hours late for the start of shift they would all be there when he got in. He could give them all the news at once and not one at a time. He was sure they would be disappointed to have not been there but he hoped they’d deal with it.
As he turned into the station parking lot he noticed the bay was empty, the guys must be out on a run. He parked, scooped up his cleaned uniforms in one hand pulling them over his shoulder before pulling two packages wrapped in brown paper and string off of the passenger seat and stuffing each of them under his arm. He would take this load in and put it in his locker before he returned for the two pies that were on the floor board where they were sure to stay flat.
Julie had been so nervous about negatively affecting Chet’s sleep on the night before going on shift that once he was asleep she slipped out of bed and kept herself busy.
Chet woke up to the smell of baking pies and his first feelings were of embarrassment when he realized the only pie tins he had in the house were the ones he saved from his favorite take out place so that he could return them for a discount on his next pie. He then vowed to go out soon and buy her some good pie plates like the ones she was using at her father’s house. When he found out that she had used a pickle jar to roll out the pie dough Chet added a rolling pin to the list of items he needed to buy. After eating the wonderful breakfast she had slaved over Chet decided that they would go to a hotel with room service when he got off shift.
After placing the pie’s in the kitchen Chet roamed the station. It was his first shift back in two weeks and it felt like his first shift ever. For the first time in his life he had someone waiting for him to get off shift. Someone hoping he’d come home safe and sound, someone he needed to try his hardest to stay safe and sound for. He’d never thought about that before. Right now he was just hoping that he wouldn’t jinx himself by thinking about it now. He was also mindful of his responsibility to see to it that the rest of his brothers on the department also returned home. The thought was a little mind boggling at the moment.
The radio chatter penetrated his thoughts as Captain Stanley was heard instructing the squad to head back to quarters telling them that the engine would be along in just a few more minutes. Chet knew from past experience that John and Roy would be there in about four minutes. That was good; he really wanted some time with just those two.
Anticipating their arrival Chet moved back into the locker room and pulled the two packages from his locker. Running his hands across the string holding them closed Chet hoped he was right in what he was about to do. Hearing the bay doors open Chet sat the packages down on the bench in front of his locker before standing in the doorway holding the door open as he watched the squad back into place.
“Hey look who finally decided to come to work,” Johnny teased through the open window of the squad before he opened the door and got out. Roy also got out of the squad quickly to greet the long missing Chet Kelly.
“Hey guys could I see you in the locker room for a minute?” Chet called back his voice squeaking with emotion.
“Sure,” Roy responded and the two men moved toward the door until Johnny thought of something.
“Do we need to bring the equipment?”
“No,” Chet smiled at the thought, “I’m fine. I just have something to give you guys.”
Chet continued to hold the door until the two paramedics had stepped through and then he let it slide shut. Walking silently over to the two packages sitting on the bench Chet picked them up and took a deep breath.
“One of the things I was asked to do back on the ranch was to clean out Frank’s closet. Julie’s dad wanted all of his clothes to go to the training center so that they could be given to others that needed them but I saved his firefighting print pajamas. I thought you guys might like to have them.”
Looking for the names written on the packages in pencil Chet first handed one package to Roy. “These are the ones you wore home that time and then your wife took them in.” He then handed John the other package, “These have a draw string in the waist so that you can make them small enough for you.”
Both men were chocked up and unable to say anything as they accepted the packages.
“Thanks Chet.” Roy recovered first as he placed a hand on Chet’s shoulder.
“Did you keep a pair for yourself?” Johnny asked feeling if he hadn’t he should have the pair he was currently holding.”
“Yeah,” Chet answered with a moist smile, “I kept the other pair. Don’t know if I’ll ever wear them but I wanted something to remember him by.”
“Thanks man.” Johnny finally said and then the sound of the bay door rising once again pulled their attention to the returning fire crew.
Two packages were quickly placed in lockers and the doors closed behind them before one hand was placed on Chet’s shoulder and another hand took hold of the back of his neck before all three men stepped out of the locker room into the bay just as the engine came to a stop.
“The lost sheep has finally returned to the fold.” Dutton called from his seat on the engine. “Does this mean I can finally go home?”
Cap opened the door to the engine and looked at his returning lineman, there were a couple of things he needed to talk to him about but at first glance he could see the emotion on all three of the men standing behind the engine. At second glance he noticed the supportive hold the two paramedics had on their friend.
There was a questioning glance and a confirming nod between captain and linemen.
“Sure Dutton, get out of here.” Chet called and managed to produce a convincing smile for the rest of his crew.
“John, why don’t you go get a fresh pot of coffee going while I talk with Kelly here in the office for a moment.” Hank ordered watching Chet’s every look.
The men headed for the day room while Chet followed his captain to the office.
“Take a seat there Kelly,” Hank gestured to the chair next to the desk. Chet complied as Hank pulled a large manila envelope from the file cabinet. “These papers arrived for you last shift.”
With a surprised look on his face Chet pulled the envelope towards him and looked over the return address before opening what was clearly a previously opened envelope.
Inside were the test results from the California State Captain’s exam that he had taken just after Julie left to take Frank home. Not only had he passed the envelope included information about new openings outside the county in state operated firefighting facilities and the forms needed to post for those positions.
“I passed,” Chet let out a surprised sigh, “I guess it paid off to help quiz John and Roy for their exam next month.”
“So does this mean you’re going to be leaving 51’s?” Cap questioned, trying his hardest not to put any sound of judgment in his voice. He had felt a little hurt that he hadn’t been informed of the test before it was taken, something that would have been required if he had taken it within the county.
“I’m just checking out all of my options, Cap. I was at the state offices seeing what was there when they told me about the test that afternoon. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance of passing it but I thought if I took it then I’d have a better idea what to study so I could take it again.” Chet talked as he eyed the papers over again half afraid he’d imagined what he read the first time.
“It’s kind of like Julie’s father told us you went through before you got married. You know looking at other options that would make your wife happier. Of course it’s a lot different with me. Carl Clark told me that you were already a crew captain with range fire suppression and you gave it all up for a starting position with the county fire department here. I don’t really understand Cap, they’re both firefighting positions what difference did it make to work here instead of there?”
Hank did now understand, probably better than anyone else he knew. “Well, with LA County, I work one day out of three with wild land fire suppression I’m gone three to five months a year. When my then fiancé now wife asked me to look into something different what I didn’t realize was that she didn’t like the idea of having to drive so far to the nearest grocery store or spend a day on the road to buy clothes. Having children in the kind of medical coverage that was there at the time terrified her. When she finally explained it to me it was easy for me to realize that the lifestyle in such a sparsely populated area wasn’t the problem and it didn’t take me long to realize how unfair it was to her to expect her to live a life so different than what she had been raised in.
Yeah, sure it was a demotion of sorts to go to work for the county but the pay and benefits over the full year were better in the long run.”
“Have you ever regretted making that move?” Chet asked in all sincerity.
Hank smiled, “Maybe once or twice in the beginning, but all I had to do was look at my wife and I knew I’d made the right choice. Once the kids started coming I never once looked back. This kind of area is much better for raising kids.”
“That’s something to think about,” Chet let out a sigh and sunk into deep thought, “I was just feeling like it wasn’t fair to force Julie to live in the bustling city when she was raised where it was a little quieter.”
Hank smiled once again, “Julie’s father let it slip before we left that she’s accepted a job in Oakdale. That’s a nice happy medium between the two worlds. Does this mean you two are planning something?”
Chet smiled, blushed and hung his head trying to decide just what to say. This was an announcement he wanted to tell everyone all at once.”
“Un hu,” Hank saw through the blushing face. “My guess is that the best thing to do now is join the rest of the group in the day room for an announcement.”
“Yes sir. I’d like to do it that way.” Chet agreed.
“I’ll let you tell them about that too when you’re ready.” Hank gestured toward the envelope Chet was restuffing.
Hank once again led the way as they walked into the day room, “Is that coffee about ready?”
“It will be just a moment Cap,” Johnny called out.
“Hey Chet, what did they want to talk to you about at headquarters?” Marco asked what the men had asked themselves all morning.
“Oh that,” Chet set down in at the table. “Frank’s brother is trying to file a lawsuit against us for teaching Frank the stuff that according to him got his brother killed.”
“So does he have a chance of getting away with it?” Roy asked in dismay.
“I wasn’t aware that we taught him anything really,” Hank spoke his concerned opinion.
“I told them about the pretrial they held back in Middleton where the Fire Chief there admitted that they taught him nearly everything at least between them and the hospital there in Silverton. They said they’d get a copy of those transcripts and if they had all the information I told him was brought out then his brother didn’t have a case.”
“I didn’t spend much time with that family but I wasn’t really impressed.” Roy added.
“Yeah, well neither did I,” Chet reveled “and neither am I, least of all his brother. I kind of got the feeling he was jealous of his brother and all the attention he got.”
With that information discussed now it was time to get the next question answered.
“Chet you know anything about these pies here on the counter?”
“Chet, you know anything about these pies here on the counter?”
“Um yeah,” Chet answered as the color red moved up his body starting at his toes. “I brought them in, Julie baked them for us.”
Grins spread through the station. “Did you just bring the pies back with you or did you bring Julie too?” Roy asked
“I brought Julie,” Chet was grinning from ear to ear not even his mustache could hide his happiness. “As a matter of fact we stopped off in Vegas …”
The room filled with whoops and hollers before Chet was able to show off his left hand and announce that they made it official but in the back ground no one could miss the moan of disapproval coming from Cap as he laid his head down on the table with his arms over his head.
“Chet I know your happy and everything but you don’t know Julie’s father like I do. Chet, he’s going to be devastated that he didn’t get to walk his little girl down the aisle.”
“Oh, he did Cap. In fact this whole getting hitched in Vegas deal was his idea in the first place. He just figured it was senseless to move Julie out here and find her an apartment and pay a deposit and first and last month’s rent when we could just as easily have a quick wedding and eliminate all of that. In fact he even offered to show me his shotgun collection. Not that it was necessary or anything but yeah, he was there, and so was my mother. She’d have been just as devastated if she missed my wedding.”
Cap let out a sigh of relief and started to giggle, “He offered to show you his shotgun collection did he?”
“Yeah,” Chet grinned back. He could tell Cap had more to say but he was laughing too hard to get it out for a moment.
“Because of the timing and location and all we kept it to immediate family only but there will be a reception here in Carson in the next couple of weeks. I’m sure my mom will call me sometime today with the when and where. And then you’ll all be invited to the thing Julie’s dad’s going to throw at the ranch next spring he’s talking about roasting a cow or a pig or maybe three.”
Chet wasn’t sure just how much his friends heard because they were busy pounding him on his back, rubbing the top of his hair and pumping his arm up and down as they repeatedly called out Congratulations. There was no indication of any ill feelings from not being at the wedding.
It took the tones sounding off to get life at the fire station back to normal, they all hurried to their positions on the trucks just like they’ve done a thousand times before and rolled out of the station to a structure fire in an area known to be run down and full of boarded up houses. Before they left the station they knew there was a good chance of homeless people squatting in whatever building that was on fire. Before the engine was on the road the men knew they would be going in and they would need to keep watch over each other’s backs.
Once again Chet thought of Julie and their after shift plans but a quick glance at Marco and he knew that’s where his attention needed to be for right now and that by keeping his attention where it needed to be right now he would increase his chances of being with Julie when all was said and done.
At the fire in a garage of a house that was already burnt out, Chet and Marco kept a cooling hose on John and Roy as they ran in and came out again carrying man between them. Once the paramedics were clear Cap determined the structure a loss and they remained outside to put the fire out. When no ambulance arrived to take the man John and Roy had pulled out to the hospital Chet knew he was dead. He would later be told that he looked to be several days’ dead.
Once the fire was out and the task of reloading hoses was taking place Chet was noticeably contemplative. Hank wondered if Chet’s thoughts were on the new wife or the lost friend as he watched him out of the corner of his eye while he went about his duties and reported what he knew and his findings to the Deputy Chief from arson investigation.
Chet had done his job well but still Hank felt a need to keep an eye on him and once they got back to the station he needed to see if he could get his man talking.
When they were once again on the engine heading back to the station Hank was not able to see Chet since he sat right behind him and facing in the opposite direction but one look at Marco on the other side of the engine and Hank knew he wasn’t the only one keeping watch over Chet.
Using the death of the victim as an excuse Hank ordered his men to sit around the table in the day room for a talk session.
John and Roy started. They were understandably sad over the loss of the victim but had found both arms showing signs of repeated drug use and repeated the inspector’s suspicion that he had died of a drug overdose and his friends placed him in the garage and started the fire to cremate his body. When all was said and done the men were sorrier for the life the man had lived prior to his death than the death itself. They all knew that there was nothing more they could have done.
Marco talked of how grateful he was that Chet was back and that he always knew Chet had his back and what to expect from him. Then the eyes turned to Chet and at first all he could do was nod his head but slowly he was able to speak.
“It feels good to be back too,” Chet paused to give his friend an emotional smile, “Still I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that everything is different now. So different I almost feel like a boot on his first day at the station.
“I don’t know if you guys know this or not but just before Frank was killed, he was sitting in a police car. One of the policemen in the town had noticed that he was sitting across the street watching the house. This is something he had done once before since he had returned home. Anyway since it was cold out the police officer went back and coaxed him into the car where he could run the heater and started to get Frank to talk. They had been suspicious about all of the house fires in the area for a while and just couldn’t figure out why they were happening. The cop thought Frank might know something they weren’t seeing.
“Anyway Frank told the guy that we pull the walls and ceilings away from where the fire was to make sure it’s out before we leave and that since the firemen in that area didn’t do that sort of thing and the smoke detector had been disabled he was watching the house until they could get a new smoke detector hooked up. That’s why Frank was right there when the fire flashed again, and why the fire got so far advanced without the family knowing about it.
“When the investigator told me about those things I felt as if I was responsible for Frank’s death. Before the guy left he told me that I had enabled him to save the family but it didn’t help. It was later, when Julie and her father came to talk with me, Man, I thought Julie would never speak to me again after I told her what I’d done but she just took me in her arms and held me. She told me that to not answer Frank’s questions about why we did the things we do would have been the same as telling him that he was too stupid to understand and would have been an insult to him. She told me that he had a right to be answered and that she, she told me that she admired me for being willing to explain it to him.
”When we went to, what turned out to be, a pretrial hearing, I learned that Frank had been told to go watch a place where there had been a fire before. They did it kind of like we’d give someone a quarter and tell them to go to the movies. They just wanted him to go away for a while. They liked having him around to reload their hoses or wash their engine and to make them feel like they were worshiped. Anyway at the trial the Fire Chief admitted that they had either taught him most everything he knew or he’d learned it by watching them do it repeatedly. That’s why Frank’s brother came here to file a suit against us. They already received a life insurance settlement from the fire department since he died in the act of fighting a fire so he must think he has a chance to get more easy money.
“What is really disgusting though is the Mayor’s attitude about the fires and training the firemen or even seeing to it that they have the equipment they need. He actually said that the people whose homes burned to the ground were the lucky ones because their homeowner’s insurance built them newer homes and they were better off. Later I learned that most of the towns in that area were so excited that this guy was coming in and improving their area property values that they excused him from getting building permits and therefore he didn’t have to have his work inspected when he was done. The insurance company did an inspection when a new policy was started but by then all the faulty work had been covered up. You know when I taught the firemen in the area to feel for hotspots using the house that was burned down, we actually found a hot spot where some smoldering insulation around some wires that had bypassed the main shut off. They had to get the power company to come in and cut the line to the house.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the guy, they’ve got him in jail and since he was caught at an airport with a one way ticket out of the country to someplace where he’s already sent all of his money they’re going to keep him there until the trial. They said they would let me know when he goes to trial and that I might be needed to testify but they have no idea when that’s going to be because there are so few lawyers in that area and the guy won’t have any of them. Not that any of them want to represent him if he did.”
Chet stopped talking but there wasn’t a person at that table that didn’t know there was more he should and probably needed to say. They could understand his presumed guilt with Frank’s death, they had all felt it to a degree and hearing what Julie had told Chet helped them too. It was Mike that knew what to say next to get Chet talking again.
“And now you’re married and have a wife at home waiting for you to come back after shift all safe and sound. That’s got to be real different too. Not to mention if you just got married yesterday you haven’t had any kind of a honeymoon. Were you even able to sleep last night? I mean when I first got married it took me a while just to be able to sleep with someone else in the bed with me.”
Chet gave a sheepish smile but focused hard on the station’s quiet engineer. He remembered how he changed after his wife came into his life and how he was so different after they had gotten married.
“Julie and I were exhausted when we got back to my place last night. She had everything she owned in the back of her truck and we didn’t want her to still have it there when she drives into the office today so we took the time to unload everything. There were only two pieces of furniture, a china hutch that she built in shop class and the hope chest she was given when she was twelve. The china hutch is empty but it was big and the hope chest, well let’s just say it’s packed with all kind of things that she and her mother have collected or made through the years for when she were to get married. I almost called a couple of you guys to come help me move it but Julie insisted she could help. We managed alright and then she rubbed my back to help me get to sleep, but um, she knew it was important for me to sleep well before coming in to work. I sure hope she’s going to be able to sleep good tonight because we’re going to—“ Chet stopped talking with a sheepish grin on his face. As much as he liked to tease there were some things he didn’t want to say out loud in front of anyone not even his brothers at the station.
“I’m going to get us a hotel room for the next couple of days and we’ll have our wedding night when I get off shift.”
From there the talk turned more joyful as everyone offered their recommendations for a hotel. Several were checked off the list right away because they were too far away but before long they knew what Chet was looking for and four such hotels were listed and numbers looked up. From there it was a matter of the first hotel with a vacancy for tomorrow morning. Chet didn’t want to wait for a 12 noon check in time and from what Julie had said to him before he left for work, neither did she.
Talk continued through lunch, of peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches with Cherry pie for desert. They were just finishing the last of the pies when the phone rang and Hank answered it, “Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51 Captain Stanley speaking.”
“Hi Henry,” the caller revealed her identity, “Is it possible to talk with Chester for a moment? I promise I’ll make it as quick as I can.”
Hank turned to Chet with a smile on his face. “Sure you can talk to Chet, just as long as you understand that if we get a call he won’t be able to say much of a good-bye. Oh, and congratulations on the wedding by the way, and thanks for getting him to work this morning.” Hank could hear Julie’s blush through the phone before he reached toward Chet with the handset. “It’s Julie.”
As if Chet hadn’t figured that out before he was informed, he hurried to the phone and determined not to be ashamed of anything he might say he turned his back on his crew mates. “Hi Babe, how’s the first day on the job?”
The reason for the call was to ask little details on all of the new hire paperwork that the two of them hadn’t talked about, like whether or not to put Chet on her health insurance and his social security number for listing him as her beneficiary on her life insurance. Talking about how much life insurance to sign up for was sobering, reminding Chet that he needed to change the beneficiary on his life insurance and death benefits. That included his next of kin and a few other things in his personnel packet. When the last of the needed information was given Julie had one more thing to say.
“My health insurance won’t start for three months.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s normal. Most jobs are like that.”
“It’s just that if I were to get pregnant before then it would be considered a pre-existing condition and the insurance wouldn’t cover it.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” Chet started to pale, “Does that mean we need to postpone tomorrow?”
“Well, no, there are means of birth control we can use, but, um, I don’t know if you know this or not but birth control pills take up to three months to regulate your system before their effective.”
“Really, I didn’t know that. So what are the options, never mind, I’ll take care of it.” Chet was finally able to think straight. Blushing badly he turned to look at his crew mates, namely the married crew mates trying to decide on whom to ask for advice. That was the point when he realized that the married crew mates now outnumbered the single ones.
“Don’t worry about it; I’ll take care of things there. Just pack the bare essentials and I’ll be home to pick you up as fast as I can get there in the morning. I’ll call if we get a run and I’m going to be late. No, I’ll take care of breakfast just be ready to go.”
When Chet hung up the phone he turned around to see his captain standing behind him with his personnel packet in his hands. “I have a hunch that last phone call got you thinking about some changes you need to make in your paperwork.”
“As a matter of fact Cap,” Chet grinned and he was guided back to the table where his file was placed in front of him as Captain Stanley sat next to him to point out a few papers he was sure his lineman wasn’t thinking about.
As Chet made the needed changes to his file he thought of a few other things mostly he thought about the needed items to prevent a little surprise sooner than was wise for he and his wife. “Um Cap, do you think we could stop off at a store sometime today? I’d like to get some champagne for tomorrow.”
“Chet,” Cap paused to choose his words properly, “It’s against department regulations to be seen purchasing such items while in uniform. That includes the personal items you’re going to want from the drug store.”
At first Chet was confused about what Cap was talking about, personal items, from drugstore? He had mouthwash and toothpaste in his locker. Then Chet’s eyes flew open wide as he realized what his captain was so cryptically talking about. Then he immediately turned as red as the fire engine in the bay.
“Look,” Roy stepped in, “When you make your reservations for the Hotel, just have them place a bottle in the room on ice and put it on your credit card.”
“As far as the other items go,” Johnny stepped forward, “I’ll take care of that.”
“What, do you keep a stash in your locker?” obviously if Chet couldn’t buy them while wearing his uniform neither could Johnny.
“No, but I do have connections,” Johnny assured him.
The very next time John and Roy were at Rampart John looked both ways before stepping up real close to Dixie and whispered. “Dix I need a favor.”
He proceeded to tell the story around his co worker’s need and before he was completely done Dixie just held her hand out for the money. Unbeknownst to Johnny Dr. Bracket had stepped up to check on a patient’s chart while he was whispering his request of Dixie and since they were whispering of course he had to try and figure out what was going on. Just as Dixie was coming around the counter on her way to the outpatient pharmacy Dr. Bracket stopped her.
“What if someone sees you buying those things in your uniform?”
“They’ll think I’m buying them for someone else,” Dixie answered in all innocence.
“Here you better let me do it.” Kell offered, well more like demanded.
Dixie just smirked and handed over the money as Dr. Bracket turned to fulfill the errand, but before he got too far away Dixie asked. “What is everyone going to think when they see you buying those things?”
Dr. Brackett scowled at Dixie and proceeded on his way to the outpatient pharmacy mumbling softly to himself as he walked. “They’ll think I’m a responsible adult with a life of my own. That’s what they’ll think.” And then he stopped to ask himself who the ‘they’ would think he was hooking up with and…
John and Roy were getting a little anxious standing around the nurse’s station trying to look like they were doing something important. Finally Dr. Morton walked up carrying a small white paper bag with the name of the pharmacy printed on it. With a challenging scowl on his face he handed the bag to Johnny. “I presume these are for you.”
John made a quick look to make sure it was what was needed and not a prescription of sleeping pills or something worse. “Actually, no, they’re for a friend of mine.”
The look Dr. Morton gave him was one of disbelief but any time for explanation disappeared when the tones started echoing from the handy talky.
Dixie just laughed as the paramedics raced for their squad and once they were gone she was happy to share with Dr. Morton the news about a student nurse that they both admired as they prepared to somehow make Kell Brackett pay for his cowardly handoff.
The call that pulled the medical team from station 51 out of the hospital in a hurry was canceled enroute so they turned back to the station. John had an ear to ear grin on his face as he walked up behind Chet and handed him the sack with it’s not so secret contents.
“They even come with instructions,” he teased as he walked away listening to Chet confirm his hotel reservations and to have breakfast served in the room followed by the chilled Champagne and chocolates.
Dinner was just going on the table when Chet’s mom called with the when and where for the reception. Chet promised to spend his spare time during his next shift addressing invitations and his friends were told.
The evening turned out to be busy with one run after another. An evening rain and heavy fog had lead to several motor accidents. Long after everyone was ready they all climbed in to their beds trying to get the chill out of their bones and get some sleep.
The night kept them hopping with three fires started by homeless people trying to stay warm, in each case the wood they were using was wet so they had to add other flammable substances to get it to burn making the fire a little hotter than law enforcement felt comfortable with. They were just returning to the station, cold, wet and tired when the first hint of the sun was seen coming over the eastern mountain range. There was no hope of any more sleep for Chet.
The rest of the group hit their bunks for the last hour and a half before wake up tones but as they drifted off they all heard the shower running and wondered if it was running hot or cold.
When the wake up tones were heard they could also smell the fresh coffee as testament that Chet did not make it back to bed.
When the guys went in search of the magical wake up liquid Chet wasn’t there. The men wandered through the station in search of their friend, each carrying a cup of surprisingly good tasting coffee. They found him cleaning and organizing his locker and watched as he made sure to place the pharmacy sack in his duffel bag. All of his dirty clothing was being placed in a separate bag, on closer inspection it looked like a pillow case.
The men thought of teasing their team mate but just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
The first person in for the next shift was of course Captain Hookraider, without a word he set to work on the morning shift reports. Then next man in was the engineer and then one of the paramedics. Hank had watched Chet watching the clock and pacing the floor for an hour now and knew without a doubt where his head was. He quietly went to the paramedic who was still in the locker room but in uniform and asked if he would be willing to respond with the engine if a call were to come in before shift change. As soon as he stepped back into the bay Hank started yelling.
“Kelly, get out of here.” He didn’t have to say it twice.
Author’s Note: I’m sure you can take it from here there’s not need to get you all more excited than you want to be.
Posted To Site 5/15/17
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