John sat on a log and wordlessly rubbed his aching leg.
Roy crouched down beside him. "Hurting again?"
"It never stopped," John admitted ruefully.
Craig sat by him on the log. "I told you this was a bad idea."
"Aw, shut up," John growled at him, which set both blonds to grinning.
Craig raised his hands and signed. How much?
Five, Roy gestured back, as he grinned.
John looked from one to the other. "Okay, what's this all about?"
"We had a bet going about how long it would be before you told one of us to shut up," Craig laughed.
With a groan, John rolled his eyes. "Oh, you two are very funny!" he sighed, flexing his knee experimentally.
"How are you doing, Junior?" Roy asked.
"It hurts. I've said that already." John sighed and stood up, testing his weight.
Ten minutes of walking later, the trio reached the campsite. John sank down with a groan of relief.
Craig sat beside him and gingerly rubbed his knee. "Have you seen Brackett lately for it?"
John nodded and sighed. "I have to have orthopedic surgery."
"WHAT?!?" Roy and Craig gasped together. Then, they found themselves snapping in unison, "Why didn't you tell me?"
Despite his pain, John grinned. "Cause you two are the Worry Twins. I'll be fine -- the surgery is just to stabilise my knee, to stop it popping in and out. Once I recover from it, I'll be able to return to work."
"But in the meantime?" Roy asked.
"In the meantime... got any painkillers?"
Craig smiled and reached for his backpack. "As a matter of fact -- and I told you this camping trip was a bad idea."
"I agree," Roy put in. "Junior, if I'd known you were having this much trouble with your leg --"
"All right, already!" John sighed, throwing up his hands. "It was a bad idea, okay? A very bad idea! But we're here, so why don't we just make the most of it?" He downed the aspirin, chasing it with water from his canteen.
Roy frowned at him. "Because you are in too much pain to enjoy it!" he snapped.
"Roy's right," Craig said with a pragmatic nod. "Let those pills kick in, then we'll make our way back to the Rover."
John sighed and leaned against the tree behind the log. "I guess there's no changing your minds?"
He was pierced by a Look from both blonds. With a sigh, John closed his eyes. "Okay. Fine. Let me rest, then we'll start."
Roy began to rummage in his bag. "Joanne packed some trail mix...." he mumbled.
John suddenly struggled to his feet. "Did you hear that?" he whispered.
"Hear what?" Craig whispered back. Roy turned to face John, frowning.
John motioned for silence, then signed, I heard something -- a rustling. He limped, as silently as he was able, to the edge of a muddy creek.
He reached to part a bundle of grass -- and things exploded in a flurry of activity.
Something yellow and grey shot from the grass, latching itself onto John's hand and arm. With a wild cry of shock and pain, John was knocked off-balance. There was an audible CRACK and John's leg collapsed, sending him into the shallow, dirty water.
"Get it off me!" John wailed, struggling to a sitting position and curling around his right arm. "Get it off me!"
Craig and Roy ran over, straightening John up as best they could -- then gawking at each other. "What in the..." Roy whispered.
"Let's get it off of him, then we can figure out how it got here," Craig returned.
Roy nodded and lay his hands on the distinctive diamond-shaped head, pressing his thumbs behind the powerful jaws. An angry hiss was his answer, and the yellow and grey snake released its grip on John, whipping around to attack Roy.
But Roy had been expecting it and he sidestepped, supporting John as Craig released him. Moving swiftly, Craig flung a net they'd brought to catch small fish over the serpent, and held it there till Roy got the Tupperware bowl of trail mix empty.
Together, they 'persuaded' the snake to go into the bowl, and soon it was securely in Roy's backpack. Roy pulled it right back out and used a knife to poke air holes in the lid before returning it to the bag. "Aw, shut up," he told it as it hissed in protest.
Craig used his canteen water to wash John's wound. Roy crouched beside him. "That's obviously been someone's pet at one time," he sighed.
Craig nodded. "That's got to be it -- what other explanation is there for how an Australian children's python ended up in LA county?"
"Too small...for a python..." John gasped out.
Craig shook his head. "That species doesn't get much over three feet long."
John managed a wan smile. "At least... didn't have... fangs!"
"Yeah, well, it's teeth did enough damage," Roy ground out, looking at the deep wound on John's hand. "But I'm more worried about the creek water."
"Me too," John sighed. "It... was filthy!"
"There's a first-aid kit in the Rover," Roy said. "Can you walk, Junior?"
John shook his head. "Knee.... out of joint...."
Craig met Roy's eyes. "You go get that kit. I'll get his leg set and we'll join you." At Roy's look, he smiled. "I've done it before. Go on."
"Wait..." John fished in his pack and handed Roy a pair of binoculars. He hung another around Craig's neck. "Just in case..."
Roy nodded and squeezed John's shoulder before moving off.
John leaned heavily on Craig as they made their slow way back through the woods. Craig suddenly froze, looking at the top of the hill.
"What is it?" John asked, following his gaze.
Roy stood at the top of the hill, waving his arms. "Set me down," John said, "and..."
"Way ahead of you," Craig muttered, settling John comfortably. He then raised the binoculars to his eyes and focused on Roy.
Roy nodded and raised his hands, firing off a rapid-fire sign message.
Craig's stream of soft profanity spoke eloquently of both his feelings and the amount of time he'd spent with John -- some of it was in Cheyenne. He dropped the binoculars and signed, Wait for us. We go together. Make travois he fingerspelled the word for John.
"What for?" John asked. "What's happened?"
Craig let out a long sigh, but his eyes blazed with anger. "We've had visitors. The Rover's been stripped. It's undriveable, and everything of value -- including the first-aid kit -- is gone."
John swore with extreme feeling. "It's a four-hour drive.. out of here. On foot..." His eyes trailed down to his hand wound, crudely bandaged by a handkerchief. "...with no first-aid kit..."
"We'll keep it flushed out," Craig said, pulling him to his feet and supporting him. "How long of a walk is it?"
"I don't know," John groaned. "I've never walked it. But we head east ... keep following the road. It isn't that... deserted," he gasped as his knee protested their movements. "Someone's... bound to come...by..."
As they came to the top of the hill, Roy reached down and helped Craig pull John up. Behind John's back, he signed, He's so pale...
The bite, the dirt, and the pain in his leg, Craig signed behind his back as well. We've got to get him to civilisation as fast as we can.
John shifted position, trying to help his friends support his weight. His entire foot hit the ground, and he let out a sharp cry of pain as his face turned ashen. His mahogany eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness.
Together, Roy and Craig pulled him onto the crude travois made by lashing spare shirts to branches. After securing him, the pair began to pull John toward the east.
After hours of walking and seeing no one, John suddenly asked, "H...Hey, Roy?"
Roy lay the travois down and crouched by John. "Yeah, John?" He laid his hand on John's forehead, dismayed but not surprised to find it fever-hot. He wiped the sweat from his partner's cheek.
"You still.... got that snake...that nailed me?"
Roy met Craig's eyes. Craig shrugged. I have no idea.
Me either. Then he lowered his hand and returned his attention to John. "Yeah, we're holding onto it till we get back to LA... why?"
"Let me...see it."
Roy blinked. "See it? Why on earth..."
"Please..." he sighed. "I don't want... to touch it... just see it."
Craig got the Tupperware bowl out of Roy's backpack. John propped himself up on one elbow and fixed a glare onto the serpent visible within the clear bowl.
Neither Roy nor Craig could suppress their grins as John proceeded to thoroughly scold the python, blaming it for ruining everything.
Finally, with a satisfied nod, John wound down. He lay back down, sliding into sleep once more.
Roy looked around as Craig made John more comfortable. "Know what?"
"What's that?" Craig replied, sliding the bowl with the serpent back into Roy's pack.
"I think we're going the wrong way."
Craig turned toward him. "Tell me I didn't just hear you say that."
Roy grinned sheepishly. "Johnny said go east, right?"
"Right! And we've been going east!"
"I know -- but I've been so worried about him that I forgot one of his little ... quirks."
Craig sat on his heels. "I'm liking this less and less."
"You're gonna love this, then." Roy's smile was humourless. "Johnny's one of the best -- if not the best -- navigator in the paramedic program."
"Which is why you always drive," Craig nodded.
"Right. Anyway, it's like he's got some kind of internal compass -- until he gets even a bit febrile. Then it seems to... shift into reverse," he finished a bit sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck.
Craig's eyes widened. "So you're saying that all this time --- we should have been heading west?"
Roy nodded slowly.
Craig wiped his nose and mouth. "Okay. I'll buy that. Let's turn around and head back the way we came."
Catching the note of fury in his voice, Roy asked, "Hey -- what is it?"
Craig heaved a deep sigh. "I just want this over with." He looked down at John's pale, sweaty, unconscious form. "For his sake."
"Me too, partner," Roy squeezed Craig's shoulder. "Me, too."
Another few hours passed, with them now moving west. Then, suddenly, Roy turned to Craig. "Am I hearing things?"
"If you are, I'm hearing them, too! It's a car engine!"
They lay the travois down and, without discussing it, Roy stayed by John's side while Craig the sprinter ran for the road, waving his arms and shouting.
The sedan screeched to a halt and so did Craig, startled into immobility by the forms he saw getting out of the car. Then, three quick steps forward and he enfolded her in his arms, burying his face in her hair and trembling.
Joanne rubbed his back and the back of his head for a moment, then broke the convulsive embrace. Where are they? the deaf woman signed.
For answer, Craig pointed. Without another word, her companion grabbed a black bag and followed his finger, vanishing into the woods.
Only then did Craig allow his knees to buckle as the last few hours caught up with him all at once.
Three days later, John sat up as best he could when his hospital room door opened and Roy and Craig walked in. "Well, hey!" he laughed. "I hope you smuggled in some of Joanne's cooking -- I'm getting tired of mystery meat!"
Both blonds laughed, then Roy produced a small sack. "A thermos of Joanne's famous soup, just for you!"
"Oooh, give!" As he ate, John waved the pair to sit. "So what brings you to this neck of Rampart on your day off?"
Craig answered, "We came to give you moral support till visiting hours are up. When do they do your knee surgery, anyway?"
John sighed and capped the thermos -- he'd eat more later. "Next Monday. They want to be sure all those antibiotics did their job."
Silence fell for a moment, then John chuckled. "Know what? When I saw Doc Brackett coming over the hill, I thought I was having another fever delusion!"
"You and me both," Roy laughed. "Then, to find he's real and we really are rescued..."
Craig shook his head in wonder. "I don't think I'll ever scoff again when Joanne has one of her 'bad feelings'."
"You and me both, partner!" Roy and John chorused, then all three laughed.
Watching the interaction from the doorway, Dixie smiled and whispered, "Looks like things are getting almost back the way they were."
"Almost?" Brackett whispered, frowning slightly. "What do you mean, 'almost'?"
Dixie nodded into the room, where the conversation was lively and animated again. "I mean I don't think we can call those two the Trouble Twins anymore." She smiled. "I think they've become the Three Musketeers."
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