Disclaimer----This story was written for fun in hopes of keeping the characters alive in our memories.
Comments-----This is a Mannix story dedicated to my sister Louise. Her encouragement and help made this story come to life. She is a true Joe Mannix fan.
"Doctor, I'm Peggy Fair. Mr. Mannix is my boss. Will he be ok?"
Dr. Lewis took in the petite woman standing before him. Her dark hair and skin gave her a beauty other women would pay handsomely for. He could tell she was genuinely worried about his patient, "Your boss is a lucky man, Miss Fair. There doesn't seem to be anything broken but he does have some pretty extensive bruising on his upper chest. Does he ever slow down?" he asked as he closed the chart.
"Joe Mannix, slow down?" Peggy laughed, "I don't think he knows what that means."
"You're probably right, Miss Fair. This is the third time he's been in here in the last two weeks. I'm going to recommend he take some time off and rest. I'm hoping you'll be able to convince him to do just that."
"I've tried that before Doctor, but Joe Mannix has a mind of his own."
"I'm going to make it an order. He needs to rest. Two concussions and bruised ribs are nothing to laugh at."
"I'll try to convince him, Doctor. Can I see him now?" Peggy asked.
"He should be dressed by now. Come with me."
Peggy followed the Doctor into an examination room. Her boss was just buttoning his shirt over a very masculine chest. "Hi, Joe," she said, her voice betraying a slight quiver.
"Hi, Peggy," Joe Mannix answered, a half hearted grin on his face, "Dr. Lewis here is trying to convince me I'm not indestructible."
"You should listen to him, Joe. You could have been killed!" she exclaimed, exasperated at how easy he played down his injuries.
"Peggy, it comes with the territory. I race cars and sometimes accidents happen," Mannix said jumping down from the table.
Peggy and Lewis both noticed the grimace of pain from the dark haired, ruggedly handsome man. Peggy rushed to his aid as he tried to pull his brown suede sports jacket on over his shirt, "Here, Joe, let me help you with that."
"Thanks, Peggy," he grinned sheepishly.
"Mr. Mannix." Joe faced the Doctor and waited for the lecture he knew was coming.
"I can't force you to take it easy but maybe you'll listen to your secretary. You need to realize that Concussions are not something to fool around with. I've seen you in this emergency room three times in the last two weeks and from what I see on this chart it's been a slow two weeks. Your body can't keep taking this kind of abuse. It'll give out sooner or later and at the rate you're going I'm betting on sooner. Do yourself a favour and take a vacation."
"I'd love to, Doc, but I'm working on an important case. Maybe when that's finished," Joe told him.
"You know the Crane case is almost resolved, Joe," Peggy interrupted, "All you have to do is turn over the missing files and the case is over."
"That may be, Peggy," Joe said, a little annoyed, "but then we have the Taylor case."
"Mrs. Taylor said there was no hurry. There's no reason you can't take a little time to yourself."
"Dr. Lewis, we need you in room three," a petite blonde nurse said from the door.
"Listen to Mrs. Fair, Mr. Mannix. Take some time off before you kill yourself." Lewis said as he left the room.
"Joe, please do as he says," Peggy's soft voice implored.
Joe Mannix sat on the bed and looked into the worried face of the woman who was more to him than just a secretary. Peggy had been with him for a long time and he knew she was probably right. The last few weeks had taken their toll on him and he felt tired. He just didn't like to admit it. "Peggy, I'm fine."
"You'd never admit it if you weren't," she said softly. Looking up into his eyes she smiled thinly, "I don't want to look for anther job, Joe. I enjoy the one I have."
"You won't have to, Peggy. Tell you what I'll do. Adam offered me the use of his cabin at Eagle Lake a while back. What do you say to you and Toby coming with me?" Mannix asked, knowing that people would talk, yet unable to stop himself from asking.
"I don't know, Joe," Peggy stated.
"Come on, Peggy, you know Toby would love the camping, swimming and fishing," Joe said, once again getting off the table, "Look, why don't we discuss this back at the office?" he asked, hoping she'd think about it on the drive.
"I'll have to think about it," she told him.
Joe opened the door and held it for her to go through.
"Thank-you," she said.
"You're welcome," he answered.
Joe rested his head back on the seat, eyes closed against the bright sunshine. He was grateful to Peggy for offering to drive as his body was still protesting the new punishment he'd dealt it. 'I hope you decide to go with me, Peggy. God knows you and Toby have been through a lot. I know he'd enjoy Eagle Lake and so would you. Never mind what others think. It's you and your son that count,' Joe thought as he slipped into an exhausted sleep.'I want to go with you so much and I know Toby would love it. I just don't know how I feel about being alone with you in the mountains. People can be so cruel. They don't understand how two people can be just friends. Oh, Joe what do I do?' she thought as she pulled the car expertly into the parking spot.' "Joe," Peggy said as she lightly placed her hand on his shoulder.
"Huh,' he murmured as he opened his eyes.
"We're here. Are you ok?" she asked, worried about the look of fatigue on his face.
"I'm fine, just a little sore," he admitted.
"Let's go inside and I'll make coffee," she told him as she opened her door.
"Thanks, Peggy," he said as he followed her inside. "I think I'll make a sandwich and maybe lie down for awhile."
"I'll make the sandwich. You lie down and I'll bring it to you," Peggy ordered.
"Yes, Ma'am," Joe said, grinning weakly. He watched as she walked into the kitchen, then he pulled off his jacket. Stretching slightly so as not to pull his stiff muscles he walked to the sofa and sat down. He reached down and pulled off his shoes and lay back on the soft pillows. He closed his eyes and thought about Eagle Lake.
Peggy came back into the room and found her boss sleeping soundly. She put the tray down on the table beside him and pulled the small blue afghan up to his shoulders, 'Sleep well, Joe,' she thought.
Peggy walked to her desk and sat down. She began going through the documents on her desk but found her mind drawn to the idea of a camping trip, 'I know how much Toby would enjoy the mountains. I can't let him down. Maybe it'll be all right if I don't tell anyone where we're going. I wish people could understand what it's like to be a single Mom. Toby looks up to you Joe. He needs your influence. Lord knows I've tried to teach him right but sometimes he needs to talk to another male. What am I going to do?'
"Peggy, you all right?" Joe asked from the sofa, his right arm held over his forehead.
Peggy jumped in her seat and turned to face her boss, "I'm fine, Joe. Why do you ask?"
"Because you've been staring at that same page for almost five minutes."
"I always study the paperwork before I file it away," she said.
"Even when the paper is blank," Joe laughed.
Peggy looked at the blank white page she held and placed it down on the table, "I was just thinking how much Toby would enjoy camping."
"Yes, he would. Peggy, I know you're thinking about what others will believe, a single man and a single woman sharing a cabin. Her young son with them."
"Exactly, Joe. People talk."
"But we don't have to listen. Toby and I can share one bedroom leaving you the other one. What better chaperone than your own son. If it'll make you feel better we don't have to tell anyone where we're going. I'll just get the keys off Adam and we leave in separate cars. We could even leave on different days."
"I just don't know, Joe. Let me talk to Toby and see if he wants to go. Now why don't you eat your sandwich and I'll get you a fresh cup of coffee?"
"Yes ma'am," Joe smiled, giving her a smart salute as he sat up and picked up half the sandwich.
The next morning found Joe Mannix sitting at his desk drinking coffee and talking to Adam.
"You know, Joe, you were really lucky yesterday. If that car had blown up a minute earlier I'd be drinking coffee at a funeral instead of in your office," Adam Tobias told his friend.
"You're telling me, Adam. That's why I'm taking you up on the offer of your Eagle Lake cabin."
"You going alone?" Adam asked.
"I invited Peggy and Toby to go along. I figured they could use a vacation as well."
"What did she say?" Adam asked not really surprised. He'd always felt there was something more to Peggy and Joe's relationship than mere boss and employee. He'd seen it in both their eyes when they realized Joe's eyesight was back. He hoped that one day they'd realize it as well.
"She hasn't given me an answer yet. Wanted to ask Toby what he thought."
"I can tell you what Toby would say. Like any normal boy he'd jump at the chance to go camping anytime."
Joe smiled at his friend, "I hope you're right. Toby is a great kid and he's been through a lot. I'm just glad we were able to clear his father's name."
"Me too. He was a good cop and didn't deserve to have his name soiled by innuendos," Adam said seriously. Both men looked up as the door opened and Peggy walked in.
"Good morning, Joe, Adam," she said, a happy smile on her face.
"Good morning, Peggy," Adam said.
"Good morning, Peggy. Did you talk to Toby?" Joe asked.
"I did and he said it was up to me," Peggy said as she hung her sweater.
"What did you decide?" he asked anxiously.
"I stayed awake most of the night thinking about this," she said as she poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down.
Joe waited anxiously for her to continue, "And?"
"And I decided to take you up on it. I watched Toby's face light up at the mention of Eagle Lake and I just can't let him down. When do you want to leave?"
"I just turned over the evidence for the Crane case to Adam. So I'm free to leave as soon as you're ready."
"I need to pack and make sure someone's going to watch the house for me. Tomorrow is Friday, why don't we leave tomorrow night."
"Tomorrow nights fine. We'll leave around seven, if that's ok?"
"Seven is fine. But, Joe?"
"Yes, Peggy?" Joe asked suspiciously.
"We'll take my car and I'll drive," she said firmly.
"Are you sure? About just taking your car I mean."
"I'm sure, Joe. This is the seventies and it's time people realized that. I'm a grown woman and I shouldn't fear what others think!" she exclaimed.
"Good for you, Peggy," Adam laughed as he passed Joe the keys to his cabin.
"How much longer, Mr. Mannix?" Toby Fair asked from the back seat of the car, his voice revealing all the excitement of a ten year old embarking on a new adventure. They'd been driving since early Saturday morning after spending the night in a motel. Peggy had let Joe drive for the first couple of hours, until she noticed his body stiffening in residual pain. She insisted on taking over and that he relax in the passenger seat for a while. It was now early afternoon and the sun was shining brightly.
"We have to stop at the General Store for supplies. From what Adam marked on this map we should be coming upon it any minute. Then we've got another fifty or so miles to drive," Joe turned to his secretary, "Would you like me to drive for awhile?"
"You take it from the General Store. Ok?" Peggy told him.
"Yes, Ma'am," Joe said, "Now, Peggy there's one other thing we have to fix."
"What's that?" Peggy asked seriously.
"We're on vacation, right?"
"Right," she said never taking her eyes off the twisting gravel road.
"I'd like you to let Toby call me Joe. At least while we're up here."
"I don't know, Joe."
"Please Mom," Toby begged from the backseat.
Peggy looked in the rear view mirror and saw the excitement in her son's eyes, "All right," she said.
"Yes!" Toby yelled.
"Now just a minute young man. It's only while we're on vacation. When we get back home it's back to Mr. Mannix. Understood."
"Yes, Ma'am," Toby said, a slight grin on his face.
"There's the store," Joe told her as they rounded a bend in the road.
Peggy pulled the car into the gravel drive and parked.
Toby opened his door and jumped out, "Mom, Mr. Mannix, ah I mean, Joe look at the horses. Aren't they beautiful."
"Yes they are Toby," Peggy smiled at her son's excitement. "Don't touch them."
"That's ok, Ma'am. Let the young-un touch them. They don't bite," a male voice said from behind her.
"Oh, hello," she said.
"Howdy, Ma'am. My names Jack Guthrie and I own this place."
"Hello, Mr. Guthrie."
"Call me Jack. You must be the people going to the Tobias Cabin," he said.
"That's right Jack. I'm Joe Mannix and this is Peggy and Toby."
"Well howdy, Peggy, Joe and Toby. I sure hope you all enjoy your stay on our beautiful lake. I was up to the cabin yesterday and everything's perfect. Lot's of wood on the stockpile."
"Thank-you, Jack," Joe said.
"No need for thanks. It's part of what I do. I look after the Tobias cabin under the condition I can use it when I feel like it. You folks need to get supplies?"
"Yes we do," Peggy told him.
"Well then go right on in. Mavis will be only too glad to look after ya. She's my wife and partner. I have to get back to the garden before the storm comes in."
"There's a storm coming?" Toby asked excitedly.
Jack Guthrie laughed at the young boys exuberance, "Yes, Toby. We're supposed to get some severe thunderstorms. You make sure you stay inside the cabin till it's over."
"Yes, sir," Toby said disappointedly following his mother and Joe into the store. His disappointment was quickly dispersed as he took in the shelves of old books, homemade toy sailboats, homemade quilts, knives, canned goods, Jam and Jelly preserves, candles, flashlights, batteries, maps, and fishing equipment. There was also a shelf of home baked breads and rolls.
"Howdy, folks. Welcome to Guthrie General. Feel free to look around and just holler if you need help," a short, plump, woman said from behind a counter.
"Thank-you, Ma'am," Joe said, a smile on his face.
"You're welcome young fella and please call me Mavis," she said returning his smile.
Joe, Peggy and Toby spent the next half hour looking at the things displayed in the store
Toby picked up a beautiful red wooden sailboat, complete with mini sails and passengers. He looked at the price and placed the object back on the shelf. He walked away from the toy knowing that even though Mr. Mannix paid his Mom well she was still a single Mom and sometimes struggled to make ends meet. He was old enough to understand that sometimes you couldn't get everything you wanted. "Mom, I'll be out with the horses, ok?"
"Ok, Toby. We won't be long." Peggy said putting some bread along with canned goods on the counter.
Joe had watched the young boys fascination with the carved sailboats and as soon as he left the store he walked up to the counter, "Peggy, is it all right with you if I get something for Toby?"
Peggy looked at her boss and saw an imploring look on his face. Shaking her head and smiling she said, "Stop looking at me like that, Joe. Of course you can. I'm sure whatever you get him he'll love it. After all I've seen you sneaking him candy from the first day I worked for you," she laughed happily at the chagrined look on her bosses face. He really hadn't known she knew what he was up to.
"That'll be ten fifty, Ma'am," Mrs. Guthrie said a friendly smile on her face. Peggy turned away from Joe and paid for her purchase then carried them out to the car.
Joe shook his head as he walked towards the sailboats. He picked up the one Toby had found so fascinating. The price of the homemade boat was five twenty five and Joe happily added it to his purchases and smiled at the woman behind the counter.
"I'm glad to see that Toby will get his boat," she said as she tallied everything up. "That'll be sixteen seventy-five, young fella."
Joe passed her a twenty-dollar bill and picked up his parcels. He walked out to the car and placed his bags in the trunk beside Peggy's bags. Deciding to keep the boat as a surprise he closed the trunk and watched as Toby and Peggy said good-bye to Jack and Mavis Guthrie. Jack shook hands with him and Mavis held out a small bag.
Toby glanced at his Mom and waited for her ok before taking it, "Thank-you Mrs. Guthrie."
"You're welcome, young man. Make sure you share them cookies with your Mom and Dad," she said, unaware the couple weren't married.
"Thank-you, Mrs. Guthrie," Joe yelled from the car, "Come on Toby. We better make it to the cabin before that storm hits."
Toby didn't bother to correct the older woman, 'Maybe one day Mr. Mannix will be my father. Besides Mom sure likes him,' he thought, a grin broadening on his face.
Joe Mannix kept glancing in his rear view mirror at Toby. The young man was happily taking in the scenic surroundings. Slowly a mountain appeared in the distance and Toby's mouth opened in surprise. "What do you think, Toby?" Joe asked.
"It's great, Mr, ah, Joe. That's a big mountain. Will we be close to it?"
"Actually we won't be that far away and if it's ok with your Mom we'll take a hike on one of the trails," Joe saw the look of excitement on the boys face and couldn't help but return it.
"Can we Mom?" Toby asked his mother.
"We'll see, Toby," Peggy laughed.
The gravel road began to narrow leaving barely enough room should a car come from the other direction. Large tree branches overhung the highway so that it seemed they were driving through a forested tunnel. The late afternoon sunshine barely penetrated the thick overhanging foliage.
"This is really beautiful, Joe. Thank-you for bringing us with you," Peggy said softly.
"Thank-you for coming along. I know I love to camp but not alone. It gets pretty boring when you try singing Row, row, row your boat and nobody is there to take up the next part," he smiled as he heard Toby's laughter from the back seat. "Do you know that song, Toby?"
"Course I do. We sing that all the time."
"That's great. I'm glad I won't have to do it alone. My singing has been known to hurt peoples ears," Joe told the boy.
"You're funny, Joe," Toby laughed.
"I'm serious, Toby. I was kicked out of every choir I ever joined. People used to be afraid to show up for school concerts when they heard I was going to sing," Joe said, glancing at Peggy.
Peggy grinned at the lighthearted way her boss handled her son. Toby was becoming more and more relaxed around the man who spent so much time in his mother's life and she knew it had a lot to do with Joe's easy going attitude with him. For this she was extremely grateful. "He's telling the truth Toby, I've heard what he refers to has singing. It's not!" she laughed.
"Hey, Peggy," Joe said trying to look offended, "It's ok for me to insult my singing but if you keep it up I just might make you walk to the cabin."
"Better watch it, Mom. I don't think you'll make it very far in those shoes you're wearing," Toby said seriously.
"I think you're right, Toby," Peggy said looking at her feet. "I'll put on my runners as soon as we get to the cabin. Shouldn't we be coming up on it soon, Joe?" she asked curiously.
"If I remember correctly it should be just over the next hill. You'll see Eagle Lake directly in front of us and then it's a short two miles around the lake to the cabin."
"Yeah!" Toby exclaimed excitedly.
"Eagle Lake is known as the lake that time forgot," Joe told him.
"Why?" Toby asked.
"I guess because it's virtually untouched. There are a few cabins but no real tourist attractions. I just hope it stays that way," Mannix told the young boy.
"Joe! Is that it?" Toby asked excitedly as they topped the rise and began to drive towards a large body of water.
"That's Eagle Lake, Toby," Joe told him. Before them lay a large body of water snuggled against the base of a small mountain. The sun glinting off the lake made it hard to see where he was driving so Joe had to slow down as they made their way into the valley. "We're going to be at the north end of the lake. There's a river that runs directly into the lake and it has some of the largest trout you've ever seen. Maybe we'll even have time to catch some for supper," Joe told the excited boy as he turned unto the road that would lead them to the cabin.
Once again the overhanging branches touched in the centre of the road before giving way to an open area. The road stopped abruptly and Joe pulled the car to a halt, "There it is Toby. What do you think?"
Toby didn't say a word. He opened the door of the car and got out. The Tobias cabin lay flush against a forest of pine and other coniferous trees so tall they seemed to touch the clouds. The cabin itself was made of logs cut by Adams grandfather and blended in perfectly with the forest behind it. The veranda ran the length of the cabin and there were two porch swings, one on either side of the door. A big bow window had been cut into the front and they could see blue lace curtains hanging inside.
Peggy opened her door and joined her son in his perusal of the surrounding area. She took Toby's hand and together they walked towards the lake and out onto the dock.
"Look at the fish, Mom!" Toby exclaimed.
"I see them, Toby," she answered quietly, awestruck by how clear the lake was. She could see the bottom for as far as her eyes could see.
"What do you think?" Joe asked coming up behind them.
"It's beautiful, Joe," Peggy said.
"Can we go fishing?" Toby asked.
"As soon as we get everything inside, Toby," Joe told him.
"Ah," Toby said disappointedly.
"Now, Toby, remember the rules. Chores have to be finished before we get to play," Peggy reminded him.
Back at the car they removed the suitcases and bags and brought them into the cabin. The living, dining, kitchen area was all one room and decorated in handmade furniture. Joe explained that everything had been made from trees that Adam's grandfather had cut himself. There were two bedrooms; one had a set of twin beds while the other had a large four-poster bed attached to the wall.
"You take this one, Peggy. Toby and I will room in the one with the twin beds if that's ok with you?" Joe asked Toby.
"Fine with me, Joe," Toby grinned.
"Are you sure, Joe? I can sleep in the room with Toby. That way you can have some privacy," Peggy told him.
"If I wanted privacy I wouldn't have invited you two along. Come on Toby, let's get unpacked so we can go fishing."
"Yeah!" Toby exclaimed and took his suitcase into their room. Joe smiled at Peggy and turned to join Toby.
Peggy went into her room and began to unpack. 'I can't believe I'm here. What would my folks think of my agreeing to go along with a man on a camping trip? Toby needs this. He needs Joe to teach him to do things that men enjoy. He needs a man to talk to,' she thought as she sat on the soft bed. 'I need a man to talk to,' she thought as a single tear ran down her cheek. Frustrated she stood up and wiped the tear from her face, 'Get a hold of yourself, Peggy. Joe Mannix is your boss. He's doing this because he's a good man not because he has any romantic feelings for you,' she thought.
"You ready, Peggy," Joe asked from the other bedroom.
"Ready for what, Joe?" she asked fighting to keep the emotions out of her voice.
"To go fishing, Mom," Toby said.
"Why don't you two go ahead and I'll finish up in here," Peggy called back.
"All right, Peggy. But you don't know what you're missing."
"I'll join you as soon as I'm done," Peggy said.
Peggy heard the door open and close and she began to unpack her own things and place them in the large wooden dresser. When she finished she started on the kitchen area. 'I'll bring them some hot chocolate when I'm done,' she thought as she busied herself in the kitchen.
"What do we use for bait?" Toby asked.
"Well now normally we'd use worms."
"Yuck," Toby exclaimed.
"Yuck to us maybe but the fish seem to like them," Joe laughed. "Why don't we give these a try?" Joe asked as he pulled some yellow silicone balls from his tackle box.
"What are these?" Toby asked as he fed a couple unto his hook.
"They're the latest things in fish bait. Supposedly the fish are attracted to the bright colour."
"How do you know they'll work?"
"I don't. It looks like you and I are going to do some research on these things," Joe said as he threw his line into the water.
"Here goes," Toby said and he tried to flick the pole as he'd seen Mannix do. The hook splashed into the water directly in front of them causing them both to jump as the cool water hit them. "Sorry, Joe," Toby laughed.
"That's ok, Toby. I needed a bath anyway. Would you like me to show you how to do it?"
Fifteen minutes later Toby could flick the line into the water without any problem and he sat beside Joe to watch the poles.
"Hey Toby, better watch your line," Joe said.
"Something's at it, Joe!" Toby cried excitedly picking up his pole.
"Keep the line tight, Toby," Joe laughed.
"I'm trying," Toby told him.
"That's it you're getting it now let out a little line so he can run," Joe explained patiently.
"But you said to keep it tight," Toby said somewhat confused.
"I know but you also have to let him think he's getting away so that he'll tire himself out."
"Ok, Joe," Toby said and did as he was told.
"Hey what's going on down there," Peggy called.
"Better get your camera, Peggy. Looks like Toby's hooked himself a good one," Joe yelled back. He watched as she ran back inside the cabin and emerged with a small camera in her hands.
She ran the short distance to the lake and snapped a picture of her son battling the fish, "You can get him, Toby," she encouraged her son.
"I hope your right, Mom," Toby said as he started to reel in the fish.
Joe reached for a net and dipped it into the water scooping up the fish Toby had caught, "Wow, this is a big one, Toby," he said seriously.
"It is?" Toby asked excitedly.
"You betcha. Looks like he could weigh as much as three pounds. A couple of more of these and we'll have a fine feed," Joe smiled.
"Hey, Joe. It looks like those new baits work real fine," Toby said as he flicked his line back in the water.
"For you maybe but nothing seems to be after my line," Joe said trying to sound disappointed.
"I got another one, Joe." Toby called, "Mom, look I'm catching dinner."
Peggy laughed at her son's exuberance and once again snapped pictures as Joe helped him land another larger than average trout.
"Peggy, your son is a natural born fisherman," Mannix told her.
"I think you're right, Joe. Looks to me like he's catching more than you," Peggy teased her boss.
"You do realize that talk like that will not get you that raise I told you about," Joe laughed.
"Now, Joe, you said this is a vacation and has nothing to do with work. So that means you can't use my raise as a means of blackmail."
Joe grinned at his secretary, secretly thinking how beautiful she looked in the white shorts and yellow tank top. "All right, you win, Peggy. Toby," Joe turned his attention to the happy boy and smiled, "If you catch the next one then it's up to me to clean them. Deal?"
"Deal, Joe," Toby said as he confidently threw his line back in the water.
Within minutes a trout attached itself to Mannix's line and he began to struggle to bring him ashore.
"You caught a big one, Joe." Toby yelled excitedly.
"I don't know if he's a big one, Toby or if he's just a fighter," Mannix said honestly.
"Come on, Joe. Bring him in," Toby said.
Joe walked towards the river and slowly found himself walking into it. He felt the cold water slowly rising above his ankles and up towards his knees as he felt himself slogging deeper into the water, 'I hope you're worth it' he thought feeling his legs slowly becoming numb.
"Careful, Joe. Don't fall," Peggy called.
"I'll try not to," Joe called back and immediately regretted dividing his attention between his answer and the fish. His right foot landed on a smooth flat rock and he felt himself losing the battle with his balance.
Peggy and Toby watched as Joe Mannix lost his balance and as if in slow motion landed with a resounding splash in the water. He lost his grip on the pole and tried to stand only to fall again this time even his head went under the cold, numbing water. "Are you all right, Joe?" Peggy asked.
Joe Mannix finally regained his feet and slowly turned towards shore, "I'm just fine," he said water dripping from his hair, down his face to land on his wet shirt a small smile plastered on his face.
"Did you catch him?" Peggy asked once she was sure her boss was ok.
"No! I didn't catch him, Peggy. I was kinda busy trying to stay on my feet," he told her.
"I guess that means you get to clean the fish," Peggy told him.
"Hey it's not over yet," Joe said walking towards shore and picking up his abandoned pole along the way. The line had snapped and there was no fish at the end. "I just have to put another hook and some bait on and I still have a chance of catching the third fish," he told her as he stepped out of the water.
Peggy grinned at her boss, " I think you'd best change into some dry clothes. Otherwise someone might mistake you for a large fish," she laughed.
"Is that right, Peggy?" he asked as he slowly walked towards her.
The grin on his face told Peggy she'd went to far. She'd seen him like this a few times and it always meant someone had to pay. Not violently but playfully. She backed away towards the cabin, laughing as she went, "What are you doing, Joe?"
"Hey, Toby. Do you think your Mom could use a bath?" Joe asked her son.
"Toby!" Peggy exclaimed.
At first Toby had been nervous when Joe had started walking towards his mother but then Joe had winked at him as he passed and Toby decided to go along with the joke. "I sure do, Joe," he laughed.
"Toby!" Peggy cried backing further away.
"Sorry, Peggy but Toby's on my side. Maybe I should send him into the cabin for the soap. What do you think, Toby?"
"Yeah sure, Joe," Toby said running past his mother and the man chasing her.
"Don't you dare, Toby!" she exclaimed turning just in time to see her son open the cabin door.
Joe saw his chance and took it. He reached her and pulled her towards him. Her warm skin felt good against his cold wet chest. Suddenly their eyes met and he pulled her into an embrace. "Peggy, I..." he stopped as he saw the same desire mirrored in her gorgeous dark eyes.
Peggy tried to turn away but found herself lost in his hypnotizing gaze. She lifted her face and felt his mouth touch hers igniting the fires they'd tried to ignore since the day she'd come to work for him. He traced her moist lips with his tongue oblivious to everything happening around him. A small droplet of water dripped from his drying hair onto her face jolting her back to reality. "I can't, Joe," she said simply tears flowing down both dark cheeks.
Joe heard her voice as if from a distance and slowly opened his eyes. He pushed her to arms length and immediately missed the warmth of her body pressed so closely to his. Shaking his head he released her arms and smiled, "I can't say that I'm sorry, Peggy. I've wanted to do that for a long time."
Tears streaming down her cheeks, her voice barely audible she looked into his eyes and said, "I've wanted you to do that a long time as well, Joe."
"Hey, Joe. I found it," Toby called from the front porch of the cabin.
Peggy wiped the tears from her face as Joe reached down and picked her up. "What are you doing, Joe?" she cried.
"I told you I'm going to give you a bath," Joe said trying to lighten the heady mood.
"No buts Peggy. We can't disappoint your son now can we?"
"You wouldn't dare!" she cried as she felt herself flung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
"Wouldn't I?" he asked. Slowly walking into the water. "By the way it's a little cold so get ready."
"No! Please, Joe, don't," she pleaded, her laughter betraying the fact that she was enjoying herself in spite of his threats.
Joe splashed into the water up to his knees and pulled her around to face him. He cradled her in his arms and grinned triumphantly, "Say uncle," he told her.
"Uncle, uncle," she cried as her hand touched the chilly water.
"Looks like theirs to be no bath today, Toby. You're Mom cried Uncle."
Toby's face took on a slightly disappointed look as Joe started back towards shore with his cumbersome burden. Unfortunately whether by accident or on purpose his foot found the same slippery, flat rock and he slowly fell backwards into the water. Peggy flew over his head to land on her stomach in the thigh deep water. The two surprised people sat in the water and looked at each other. Staring at each other in the cold water they began to laugh heartily.
Toby heard their laughter and sighed with relief, "Mom, Joe, do you guys want the soap?" he asked mischievously.
Peggy and Joe looked at each other, "It looks like my son needs to be taught a lesson," Peggy said quietly.
"I think you may be right," Joe said standing and taking her by the hand. The two made their way to shore and in a sudden burst grabbed Toby by the arms. The sun was hot on their bodies as they slowly pulled the shrieking boy into the water. Each holding an arm they pressed his head under the water so that he was just as wet as they were. Fifteen minutes of frolicking in the cold water was enough and they made their way back to the warmth of the shore.
"Well I think I'll change and then clean those fish for dinner," Joe told them.
"But there's only two," Toby exclaimed.
"That true, Toby, but they are bigger than most trout I've seen," Joe tousled his hair as he hurried past him and into the cabin.
Peggy and Toby hurried after him. "I'll make a salad and some baked potatoes to go with them," Peggy told her son.
"Great, Mom," he exclaimed happily.
"Get changed, Toby."
"Yes, Mom," Toby said following Joe into their room.
Joe cleaned the trout and brought them to Peggy. She'd volunteered to cook dinner and in return he'd said he'd do the dishes. While waiting for dinner he decided to give Toby his surprise and take him down to the lake to sail it for a while. He brought the bag holding the boat out of his room and walked out unto the porch where Toby was sitting in one of the wooden swings. Joe sat opposite him and placed the bag on the seat beside him, "What do you think of the Cabin, Toby?" he asked.
"It's great, Joe. Thanks for bringing Mom and me with you."
"You're welcome, Toby," he said picking up the bag and passing it to the well-mannered young man.
"What's this?" Toby asked, his expressive eyes lighting up.
"Take a look," Joe told him.
Peggy watched from the kitchen window and felt a warm glow as she saw the excited look on her son's face. She knew her feelings for her boss were beginning to make her head swim and she could tell he thought a lot of her son.
Toby stared in awe at the boat he'd wanted so badly back at the Guthrie's shop, "How did you know?" he asked.
"Let's just say I know how much a kid needs a boat when he's at the lake. Feel like sailing her?"
"Can we?" Toby asked his eyes wide with excitement.
"As long as it's ok with your Mom," Joe told him. "Why don't you go ask her?"
Toby stood up and opened the door to the cabin, "Mom, look what Joe bought me," he said.
"Oh my that's one beautiful boat, Toby. Did you remember to say thank-you?"
"Oh no. Thanks Joe," he called.
"You're welcome, Toby," Joe called from the porch.
"Mom, can I go sail it with Joe?" he asked.
"As long as Joe is willing to go with you I don't see why not. Just remember, Toby I don't want you down by the lake unless Joe or I go with you."
"Yes, Mom," Toby said as he ran out onto the porch. "Joe we can go."
"Well then let's go christen the SS Toby."
Toby grinned and ran towards the lake. He waited at the waters edge until Joe caught up to him and then slowly peeled off his shoes and socks. "Can I go in, Joe?" he asked.
"As long as you watch out for that rock," Joe reminded him and began to slip off his shoes and socks as well.
Peggy stuffed the trout and washed the potatoes. Placing them both on trays, she put them in the oven and walked to the front porch to sit in the swing and watch her two companions sail the new boat. Her eyes fastened on the man who was more than a boss. He was a friend, a companion, an advisor, and a father figure to her son.
Her mind slowly went back to earlier in the day and the kiss she'd shared with the dark haired man standing knee deep in water. He'd bent over and helped Toby release the boat into the lake. 'Can't help but admire his physique,' she grinned and then shook her head. 'Get your mind out of the gutter, Peggy. It was just the passion of the moment,' she thought, again shaking her head in frustration.
"It works great, Joe. Thank-you so much," Toby said as he followed the wooden sailboat further into the lake.
"Not to far, Toby," Joe told him.
"Ok, Joe," Toby said.
Peggy watched as they sailed the boat for the next forty minutes and then went inside to check dinner. The trout was baked to perfection and the potatoes were tender to the touch. She set the table and then went out onto the porch to call Joe and Toby to dinner. As she looked out over the lake she noticed that the sun had slowly begun to sink down over the mountains in the distance.
The lake itself had begun to form some fair sized white caps as the wind began to pick up. She watched Joe pick up the sailboat and begin to walk towards shore. Once again she found her eyes going to her bosses well-formed chest. Even though he wore a strap t-shirt she couldn't miss the rippling muscles as he flexed his arms.
"Perfect timing guys. Dinner's ready," she said as they exited the lake and walked towards the cabin.
"Great! I'm starved," Joe called.
"Me too," Toby yelled.
Dinner was over and dishes cleaned and put away. Toby had fallen asleep on the couch. Peggy had made him dress in warm pyjamas and he had curled up beside her holding his new boat. She hated to wake him but there was no way she could lift him into his bed.
"Want me to carry him in, Peggy?" Joe asked before she could shake him awake.
"Would you mind?"
"Not at all," he told her as he lifted the young boy and carried him into the room they shared.
Peggy poured two cups of coffee and placed one on the table where Joe had been sitting. She sat on the chair next to his and waited for him to return. It wasn't long before he rejoined her at the table.
"Peggy, this is a vacation. That means you don't have to get me coffee or anything else for that matter," he said.
"I know that, Joe, but I also remember how badly your coffee tastes," she said seriously.
"Never could make a decent cup of coffee," he said and lapsed into silence.
"Peggy, I..." they both began at the same time and laughed tensely.
"You first, Joe."
"Ladies first," Joe told her softly.
"All right, Joe. It's about what happened today."
"I thought so," Joe interrupted, "I'm sorry Peggy. I didn't mean to take advantage of you."
"You didn't take advantage of me and please don't apologize. I was just as much to blame for what happened as you. But, Joe, that's not the problem. I...I just don't know how to tell you," she said placing her head in her hands to cover her soft cries.
"Why are you crying, Peggy?"
"You awakened feelings in me that I thought I'd never have again. I've been trying to ignore how I felt for so long but it's just not working anymore."
"What are you saying, Peggy? No, don't answer that. I think I know what your saying and I can assure you that I feel the same way," he told her lifting her face so she looked him in the eyes. "I'm not exactly the easiest man to get to know. You've been working for me for almost four years and we've been through a lot together."
"Yes, Joe, we have and I don't want to ruin things by going to far to fast."
"I see," Joe said trying unsuccessfully to hide his disappointment.
"Don't get me wrong, Joe. I really would like to see where we could go together but I'd rather take it a little slower. People tend to be racist."
"I don't really care what other people think, Peggy. I hope you'll at least give us a chance to see how far we can take this. Who knows what might happen."
"I'd like that too, Joe but I'd like to wait until after our vacation. Just to make sure we're not just giving in to temptation because we're secluded in the mountains. Please say you understand."
"Of course I do, Peggy. I'm glad you're not giving up on us totally though."
"I could never do that, Joe," she yawned and finished her coffee. "I think it's true what they say."
"That mountain air makes you tired. I think I'm going to go to bed. Good night, Joe."
"Good night, Peggy. See you in the morning."
"I really think you should go up to the Tobias cabin and warn that young couple of the danger," Mavis told her husband as he finished his breakfast. Dawn had only just lightened the skyline as the older couple read the papers delivered to them the night before.
"I think you're right, Mavis. These three fellas could be anywhere including up near the Tobias cabin. I'll take the boat up and warn those people as soon as I finish with the animals."
"Maybe you should bring them some of these fresh rolls," Mavis suggested.
"You'll never change will you Mavis. Always trying to make sure people have the best of everything."
"Why thank ya, Jack. I'm glad to hear you think my rolls are the best."
"I've always loved you for you're baking. You know that," Jack Guthrie said as he kissed his wife's cheek on the way out the door.
"You just make sure you come get these things before you head out in that boat of yours," Mavis told him.
"I will. Don't worry."
Peggy sat on the porch swing enjoying the quiet solitude of Eagle Lake. Joe and Toby had left an hour earlier to go hiking. She elected to stay at the cabin and clean up after Joe had cooked breakfast for them.
She wrapped her hands around the coffee mug to ward off the still chilly mountain air. She smiled as she thought of the kiss from the day before, her thoughts warming her much faster than the coffee she held. A smile formed on her face as she thought back to their conversation the night before.
Peggy stood and walked towards the lake. The sun was beginning to spread its warmth over the land and she was unaware of the danger that lurked in the trees to her left.
"I tell you she's alone," Craig Burdette whispered to his two companions. Burdette was much larger than the other men. His broad shoulders reminded everyone of a football player. He'd been a body builder since age fifteen when he'd decided he'd had enough of being passed over for high school sports teams. His dark skin stood out against the white shirt he wore and the blue denim jeans he wore were a size to small for him. His baldhead shone in the sunlight as he turned to face his buddies.
"Who'd be that stupid to leave a beautiful woman like her alone up here," Pete Howard said, grinning malevolently. He was the smallest of the three but just as deadly. His blonde hair, ice blue eyes and angry demeanour gave him an air of evil.
"Then why don't we pay the little lady a visit?" Bulldog Jay Malone asked his buddies. His eyes were set to close together, his nose had been broken several times and not set properly, he had dark red hair and a scraggy beard streaked with grey. His body was also heavily muscled and he stood about six foot six.
"I'm with you, Bulldog, let's show the lady what a real man is like," Burdette said, grinning hungrily.
"Now just a minute you two. What if we were to just rush out there like you want and there were others in the cabin. I don't know about you fellas but I don't plan on goin back to jail now that I've come this far. Why don't we give whoever's with her another fifteen minutes or so and if no one shows then we go say hello to her," Howard reasoned calmly.
"Do we have to?" Malone whined.
"No we don't have to but remember, I got us out of that prison, didn't I? I think it's best to go slowly," Howard told them.
"We'll wait, Pete," Burdette said disappointedly watching the woman from afar.
"What do you think, Toby?" Joe smiled at the boy as he looked out over the cliff.
"Wow, Joe. That's a long drop." Toby said moving back from the ledge nervously.
"Yes it is and I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who doesn't want to stay to close to the edge," he said trying to put Toby at ease. He glanced behind him at the sheer rock cliff and caught sight of one of Nature spectacular climbers, "Toby," he whispered twice before the young boy glanced his way, "Look halfway up the next ledge."
Toby did as he was told and Joe watched as his eyes lit up excitedly, "Are they mountain goats?" he asked.
"Yes they are, Toby. Looks like a mother and baby."
"They are beautiful."
"Yes they are. Look at how fast they can climb."
"Wow!" Toby exclaimed and they watched the animals make their way easily up the treacherous terrain.
Joe looked at his watch and realized they'd been walking over an hour and knew they'd better head back to the cabin, "I think we'd better go see what your mother wants to do today. Maybe we can convince her to pack a picnic lunch and we can come back here. What do you think?"
"That sounds good to me, Joe. I love picnics."
"Me too, Toby."
Peggy finished her second cup of coffee and went back into the cabin. She looked at the pile of breakfast dishes and grinned, 'some vacation,' she thought as she filled the sink with hot water from the kettle. She gazed out the window at the lake wondering when Joe and Toby would be back. 'It's so beautiful here,' she thought and was startled when something moved off to the right of the window. 'What in the world was that?' she thought as she walked to the door and looked out onto the porch.
A large, bald headed, dark skinned man sat on one of the swings, grinning maliciously, "Hi beautiful," he said, his voice harsh and gritty.
Peggy knew this man was anything but friendly and she tried closing the door quickly. She felt the door ripped from her hand and saw two more men standing to her left. She ran for her bedroom and thought she'd made her escape as she slammed the door and pushed a chair under it.
"Come on beautiful. Why don't you make this easier on yourself?" this time the voice was softer.
Peggy knew there was nothing soft in any of the three men and she rushed across the room wishing the doors had locks. She forced the window open and began levering herself through the narrow opening. Her right leg and most of her right side was through the window when she heard the door open violently.
"Come here, beautiful," Craig Burdette leered at her.
"NO!" Peggy screamed and pushed herself the rest of the way out the window. She fell to the ground and as she picked herself up two hands grasped her in a vicelike grip.
"Let's go back in the house, little lady," Bulldog Malone told her.
Peggy began to kick and scream as loudly as she could. She used her head as a battering ram but only managed to hit her antagonist in the chest. She lifted her knee and tried to connect with the mans sensitive area only to find he had succeeded in turning himself so that her knee harmlessly connected with his upper thigh.
"I figured you'd try that, little lady. It was an old trick my old lady used to use on me but I wizened up to her tricks. Now calm down and let's get inside."
"No," Peggy said and began screaming again.
Malone lifted her on his hip with one hand and used his other to cover her mouth. He carried her around to the front of the cabin and onto the porch, "Hey where are you two?" he called.
"What's the matter? Can't you handle a slip of a woman like her by yourself?" Pete Howard called as he opened the door, a cup in his hand.
"Course I can handle her," Malone said depositing Peggy none to gently on the floor. He walked over to the stove and picked up a dirty mug. Without bothering to rinse it he poured coffee into it and began sipping the strong substance. "This is so good," he said.
Peggy waited for the smaller man to turn away from her and jumped to her feet. She dove for the open door leading to the porch. She thought she'd made it until she tripped in the edge of the step and went down heavily to the ground. Tears streamed down her face as she felt her arm grabbed and she was pulled back inside.
"Try that again and I'll have to teach you a lesson," Howard told her icily.
"Hey, Pete. You'd better come in here."
"What's wrong, Craig?"
"You were right she ain't alone."
"Damn! Bull, make sure she stays put," Howard said walking into the second bedroom.
Craig Burdette sat on one of the two beds. He was holding a wooden sailboat in one hand, "Looks like there's a kid with her."
"A kid and another adult from the looks of the clothes. Put that thing down and come out here."
"But I want the sailboat," Burdette told him.
"We can't take that thing with us. Now get out here so we can take some supplies and move further into the mountains."
"Why don't we just take the car?" Malone asked as Howard walked back into the kitchen.
"We wouldn't get very far in that car. It's too big and no good for the rough terrain. I told you guys we have to hide out for a couple of weeks. I'm sure they have a state wide search for us already."
"All right, Pete. We do it your way. But do we still take the little lady with us?" Malone asked anxiously.
"Please leave me here," Peggy pleaded.
Howard looked at the woman sitting on the floor. Her tears had dried but she was trembling uncontrollably. He bent down and took her hand pulling her to her feet, "Sorry, ma'am, but you're coming with us." Without warning he placed his lips forcefully on hers.
Peggy tried to squirm away from the tight grip only to find his hands tightening around her arms and his dry, chapped lips chafing hers. His breath smelled bad and Peggy felt her stomach churn nauseously. Finally he released his grip and she sank to the floor her stomach emptying its contents. She cried as the final spasms ceased and she sat back on her legs.
"That's lesson number one. Craig bring that boat over here," Howard ordered.
Burdette, grinning evilly, placed the small delicately carved wooden sailboat in Pete Howard's hand, "Does this belong to your child?"
"Yes, it belongs to my son," Peggy cried as she wiped her mouth.
Howard passed the boat to Malone, "Show her what will happen to her son if he comes back and we're still here."
Malone smiled as he took the boat in his large hands and began to crush the toy with his bare hands. Within seconds there was nothing left but a pile of kindling on the floor in front of the captive woman.
Peggy reached her hand out to the toy Joe Mannix had lovingly bought her son. Tears of anguish fell from her eyes at the thought of what these men could do to Toby and Joe. "What do you want me to do?" she asked as she pulled her feet under her and stood on trembling legs.
"That's better," Howard said maliciously. "You just sit there and behave yourself while we throw together some food and supplies," he said indicating that she should sit on the couch. "Don't try to escape because I'm watching you."
"I won't," Peggy said her voice full of defeat.
Joe was feeling uneasy as they came in sight of the cabin. He didn't know why he'd suddenly had a creepy sensation and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood up, "Toby," he said quietly.
"Yes, Joe," Toby answered just as softly, thinking they were going to have some fun with his Mom.
"I want you to wait here for a few moments."
"Why?" Toby asked nervously.
"I don't know. Just do this for me. OK?" Joe asked forcing a smile to his face.
"Ok sure, Joe," Toby said, his voice betraying a slight tremor. " Do you think something happened to Mom?"
"I don't know, Toby. I just want to make sure. Let's pretend we're playing a game and you're my back up. All right, Officer Fair?" Joe asked keeping his own voice steady.
"We're the cops. Hey that's great, Officer Mannix. I've got you covered. Don't take no chances."
"I won't," Mannix grinned and began making his way carefully to the front door of the cabin. He knew instantly that something was wrong. A strong sour smell wafted out through the open door and he could hear some one rummaging through the main bedroom. He stepped softly across the floor and was about to pounce on whomever the invader was when he saw the familiar form of Jack Guthrie walk out. Mannix barely held himself in check.
"What are you doing here, Guthrie?" he asked and then his seasoned mind took in the details his eyes had already picked up. The vomit congealing on the floor in the kitchen area, the broken sailboat next to it, the empty cupboard, the clothing strewn all over the floor. "My God!" he exclaimed.
"Thank God you three weren't here when this happened," Guthrie said.
"But Peggy was here," Mannix told the older man.
"Well she ain't here now. I just checked all the rooms."
"Who could have done this?"
"That's why I came up here. To let you folks know that there's three escaped cons around here somewhere. I hope they didn't find your Missus here by herself."
Joe shook his head, "If Peggy had gotten away she would have come out of hiding to show us she was all right. They have her and I'm going to go after her!" Mannix stated.
"Where's the boy?"
"He's waiting outside. Will you take him back with you, Mr. Guthrie?"
"Course I will. Let's go get the boy."
Mannix and Guthrie walked out on the porch and Joe called Toby.
"Is everything Ok, Officer Mannix?" Toby asked still playing the game.
"Afraid not, Officer Fair. I'm going to have to ask you to go along with Inspector Guthrie here and get some reinforcements," Mannix said trying to keep the boy calm.
"What's wrong, Joe? Where's my Mom?" Toby asked, tears welling up in his eyes.
Joe Mannix knelt in front of the young boy, "Toby, I don't know where your Mom is right now but I'm going to find her."
Toby tried to brush past them and into the cabin but Joe grasped his shoulders gently, "She's not in there, Toby," Joe told him.
"Where is she, Mr. Mannix? Did somebody kidnap my Mom?" Toby asked reverting back to the name he usually used.
"I don't know, Toby. But I promise I'll find her," Mannix said holding the sobbing child to his chest.
"I want to stay and help you," Toby stated.
"I can't let you do that, Toby. I'm going to need to move fast and track your Mom. Toby, I really need you to go along with Mr. Guthrie."
"Can't I stay here?" Toby asked.
"That's not a good idea, Toby. If someone did take your Mom they could come back. I won't be able to concentrate on finding your Mom if I'm worrying about you here all alone. Please go with Mr. Guthrie."
"I'll go, Joe," Toby said, his small shoulders slumped, his hands trying to wipe away the storm of tears flowing down his cheeks. "Please find my Mom."
"I will," Joe said reassuringly.
"I think we'd better head back and call the police, young man." Guthrie told Toby.
"Yes, Sir," Toby said still trying to dry his tears.
"I got a rifle in my boat, Mannix. I think maybe you'd better take it with you."
"Thanks Mr. Guthrie. I think you may be right."
Joe watched the small boat until it was out of sight. He walked to the car and opened the trunk. He'd hidden his gun and extra ammo in Peggy's spare tire. He pulled it out and checked to make sure it was loaded and the safety was on. 'Stay safe, Peggy. I'm coming,' he thought and began to track the four sets of prints he'd spotted after Guthrie had taken Toby away.
"Break time," Howard said and dropped to the ground. He drank thirstily from the canteen and then held it to Peggy's mouth. She drank from it until he pulled it away. "From now on you'll have to earn your water," he told her.
"What do you mean," Peggy asked not really sure she wanted to know.
"It means you're gonna have to move faster, little Lady, or I'll be forced to carry you," Bulldog Jay Malone grinned.
"I'm going as fast as I can," Peggy said quickly, "Maybe if you'd untie my hands I wouldn't fall as often."
"Can't do that, little Lady. We don't want to lose the only entertainment we're going to have for the next few weeks," Burdette laughed.
Peggy shivered uncontrollably despite the heat. They'd been walking steadily up hill since leaving the cabin. The three men seemed to be heading towards the highest mountain peak in the range, "Where are we going?" she asked breathlessly.
"We're going to an old trappers cabin, the perfect place to hide from the law for a couple of weeks or months or maybe even years. What do you say boys? Think the lady would be willing to keep us company for a couple of years?" Howard asked.
"I don't know if she'd have enough stamina but I'm sure willing to put her to the test," Malone said hungrily licking his lips.
Peggy tried to put as much distance between herself and her captors as possible. But with each backward move she made Craig Burdette countered with one of his own. He reached out and pulled her close to his own body, "Your skin is so smooth," he said and boldly began to place wet slobbery kisses from her elbow to her neck.
"Please stop," she pleaded her voice betraying her fear.
"Stop! Why I've only just begun," Burdette told her. He became more forceful as he reached the tender nape of her neck. He scraped his teeth savagely over her the area.
"No," Peggy whispered becoming more and more afraid of Burdette's intentions.
"That's enough, Craig. We'd better get moving," Howard said taking Peggy's arm and pulling her to her feet.
"Ah, come on, Pete. There's plenty to go around," Burdette whined petulantly.
Peggy felt Howard's eyes rake over her body, "You got that right," he said. "But this isn't the time to partake of our little flower. Don't you think it's time you told us your name?"
Peggy remained quiet.
Howard grew angry at her stubborn silence and squeezed her wrist till she cried out, "Your name?" he asked.
"Peggy Fair," she cried.
"Well, fair, Peggy Fair. If you don't want that beautiful face of yours marred, you'd better answer our questions a little faster," Howard warned.
"I will," Peggy said meekly as she was pulled further into the mountains.
Joe Mannix had no trouble picking up the trail. He knew Peggy must be tied because he'd come across a few places where someone had fallen. From the imprints in the marshy ground he could tell that it was some one tiny. Jack Guthrie had shown him pictures of the escaped cons and none of them were as tiny as Peggy. He prayed that she would hold out until he was able to catch up with them. They were steadily climbing the same treacherous trail that he'd been on earlier with Toby. He now knew that he'd crossed paths with Peggy and the convicts on his way back to the cabin. Somehow he'd find them before they disappeared into the mountains.
He stopped and lifted the canteen to his mouth and drank greedily. He knew there was no need to conserve water because Adam had told him where to find water any time he needed it.
"Don't worry about your Mom, son. That Mannix fella will find her." Guthrie tried to reassure the boy.
Toby looked at the older man, tears still streaming from his innocent eyes, "Do you really think so?"
"Course I do. Don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Mr. Mannix is the best private detective in the whole world," Toby said proudly.
"Then he should have no problem finding you're Mom," Guthrie leaned over the back of the boat as the motor began to sputter and suddenly cut out altogether.
"What's wrong, Mr. Guthrie?" Toby asked his voice taking on a scared tone again.
"Not sure, Son. Looks like something's happened to the motor."
"Can you fix it?"
"I don't know, but I'm sure gonna try."
"But we have to call the police."
"I know we do. If I can't get the boat going then I'll use the oars. It'll take longer but we'll get there."
"I can help you paddle," Toby volunteered, smiling slightly.
"I just might take you up on that offer, Son. For now let me see if I can fix the motor."
"Yes, Sir," Toby said and fell silent. He watched as the sun began its final trek towards the mountains. Darkness wouldn't be long coming to this area of the lake and he shivered in spite of the heat of the day.
Peggy found herself wedged between Pete Howard and Bulldog Jay Malone. If she tried to slow them down Malone just gave her a vicious shove that usually resulted in her falling to her knees in the dirt. They had tied her hands behind her back and her shoulders ached painfully.
Pete Howard stopped the group in a small clearing as the sun descended below the mountains and darkness began to close in around them. "I think we'll stay here tonight. We should have thought to search for flashlights. It's hard enough climbing up this mountain in the light of day but it'll be impossible in darkness."
Peggy sank to her knees and sighed with relief. Her whole body was a mass of pain from the constant falling. Her arms and face stung from the numerous scratches, as she'd had no way to stop the branches of trees from hitting her in the face.
Pete Howard walked over to her and pulled her back to her feet. He reached out and touched one of the scratches on her face, "Poor, poor, Peggy. Look at your beautiful face. Don't worry tomorrow I'll warn you when I let go of the branches so you can duck. I mean we can't have your face to messed up, right boys?"
"Right, Pete," Burdette grinned.
"That's right, Pete," Malone grinned hungrily.
"Please, leave me alone," Peggy cried in an exhausted voice.
"You're not gonna be alone for a long time, Peggy. With the three of us around you won't lack for company," Howard laughed and kissed her cheek roughly.
"Hey, Can't I have a kiss, Peggy?" Malone asked crudely pulling Peggy's face towards his mouth.
"Me too," Burdette whined.
"No, please, NO!" Peggy screamed loudly as three pairs of hands began roughly groping her pain-ridden body. Her screams only succeeded in getting her backhanded across the face.
"All right. That's enough boys," Howard said releasing his grip on Peggy's arms.
"Ah, come on Pete," Malone and Burdette whined petulantly.
"First things first. Let's get us a fire going and have some dinner. I'm starved. I'm gonna tie Peggy to that tree over there and maybe we'll draw sticks after dinner to see who gets the little lady first," Howard said staring intently into Peggy's eyes.
Peggy felt her fear turn to terror at the hungry look in the convict's eyes. She began to shiver uncontrollably as she tried to pull away from her antagonists, "Joe, please help me," she said not realizing she was speaking aloud.
"Who's Joe? He your husband?" Howard asked.
"No. I work for him."
"That's some boss. The two of you getting romantic?"
"No, it's not like that," Peggy said and realized that it was like that; at least it was for her.
"Do you really think he'll be able to help you?" Howard asked curiously.
"Yes," Peggy said honestly.
"Who is this Joe and what does he do?"
"Joe Mannix, and he's a..." Peggy found herself facing Howard and her blood ran cold.
"Joe Mannix the private detective?" he asked her.
"Y...yes," Peggy said her voice betraying the fear she felt.
"Did you guys hear that?"
"Hear what?" Malone asked.
"Peggy Fair's boss is none other than Joe Mannix," Howard told them.
"Joe Mannix. Who's he?" Burdette asked.
"I know who he is," Malone said softly.
"I thought you would Bulldog. Why don't you enlighten Craig and Peggy?" Howard said.
"I had a cell mate when I first went to prison three years ago. This man was really good to me. He had friends in high places and was able to get special privileges and he always gave me cigarettes and anything else I wanted. We got separated when Joe Mannix complained about Alec's special privileges. Alec was sent to solitary confinement shortly after and then sent to another prison," Malone said unable to keep the malice from his voice when he said the name Mannix.
"That's right, Bulldog," Howard said and turned his icy eyes back to Peggy, "Alec Ryan was a good man. He was a true leader in our cellblock. He made sure we got anything we wanted in there. When they took him away we lost everything. It was all because of Joe Mannix. You know what, Peggy? I hope your boss catches up to us. I'd sure love to teach him a lesson or two."
"Alec Ryan was a murderer and got what he deserved," Peggy told them.
"Alec Ryan was a man who saw what he wanted and took it. Where's the crime in that?"
"He took it all right. He took peoples money and their lives and would have continued if Joe hadn't stopped him."
"It was none of Mannix's business," Howard grated out. "I've had enough. Just shut up before I shut you up," he told her and pulled her to a thin sapling. He untied her hands and pulled them around the tree. He bound her wrists tightly and let her slide tiredly to the ground. "Get some sleep, my dear cause I'll be back shortly," he said and walked back to the centre of the clearing.
"Oh please, Joe, come soon," she thought as her tears rolled quietly down her cheeks. She closed her eyes as exhaustion forced her troubled mind to sleep.
Darkness had fallen swiftly in the mountains and Joe Mannix tried using his flashlight sparingly. As he made his way up the slope of the mountain he began to see a dull glow that became brighter as he moved up. He knew it was some form of campfire and he hurried his pace a little more. Impatient to get Peggy away from these convicts he stepped on a dried branch that snapped and echoed through the mountains like a gunshot.
"What was that?" Malone asked worriedly.
"I don't know but I think we'd better find out," Howard ordered. "I'm going to check down the trail. Bull, you check up the trail and make sure you keep the fire in sight. We don't want to get lost."
"What about me?" Burdette asked.
"You stay here with Peggy. Make sure she stays put."
"Sure, Pete, sure," Craig Burdette grinned happily.
"Watch out for that Mannix fella. From what Ryan told me he's a dangerous man," Malone warned Burdette.
"I will," Burdette said and glanced at the terrified woman.
"Don't touch her, Craig. I mean it. We are going to draw straws and if I find out you did anything to her then I'll kill you myself. Understood?"
"I guess so, Pete. I was just kiddin you know?"
"You better be," Howard said and walked away from the light. Malone grinned at Burdette and left the camp in the opposite direction. Burdette watched their retreating backs and went to the fire. He picked up one of the knives they'd taken from the Tobias cabin and walked towards Peggy a leering grin on his face.
Peggy's head snapped up when she heard the snapping branch, 'Joe,' she thought looking around in the dark. She picked out the form coming towards her from the campfire. She saw that he was holding a knife at his side as he advanced on her. "You stay away from me," she said.
"I'm not gonna hurt ya. I'm just gonna make sure your boss isn't around. If he knows what's good for him he'll stay away," Burdette grinned as he knelt in front of her. He reached out with his free hand to touch her chin.
Peggy pulled back as far as she could but found herself stopped by the trunk of the tree she was secured to. "Leave me alone," she whimpered.
"I ain't gonna hurt you, pretty lady. I just want to taste the sweetness of your lips again."
"No, please, NO!" she cried.
Joe Mannix had moved off the trail in order to bypass anyone coming towards him. He knew that the men who had Peggy would come to investigate the snapping of the branch. He also realized this could be his only chance of getting Peggy out of their hands. He carefully made his way towards the fire and was outraged when he heard Peggy's terrified voice pleading with one of her antagonists. He fought the urge to run head on into the clearing. He wasn't sure how many men there were and if they had any weapons. He pulled his gun and made his way stealthily towards the two figures he could barely make out on the outskirts of the firelight.
"I love it when women beg for mercy," Burdette laughed harshly.
"Please leave me alone," Peggy's voice halted as she sensed rather than saw a shadow behind the convict.
Joe Mannix dropped his pack and as anger overcame his caution, he rushed forward pulling the slightly smaller man off his frightened secretary.
"Joe," Peggy's voice cried in relief as Burdette's weight was pulled from her.
Joe Mannix didn't take the time to answer her as he turned the man towards him and hit him resoundingly in the jaw with his right fist.
Burdette dropped to the ground but held onto his knife. He waited to see what the other man would do.
Mannix reached down and grabbed the man by the shoulder roughly. He pulled him to his feet and tried to spin him around.
Burdette used the momentum to strike viciously with the knife.
"Joe, watch out for the knife," Peggy cried.
Mannix heard her warning and tried sidestepping to the left.
Burdette felt the other mans movements and turned the blade slightly, slicing deeply into Joe Mannix's left shoulder.
Joe Mannix felt his arm explode in searing pain but knew he must not let the man win. Ignoring the burning sensation he grabbed the man by the knife hand with his own right hand and squeezed until he was pinching into Burdette's wrist. Slowly Joe forced him to his knees and twisted with all his strength. As the man fell to his back Joe straddled him and began to force the knife towards Burdette's chest. He could hear Peggy's cries from behind him but couldn't understand what she was saying.
Burdette fought with all his strength to get the advantage back but soon found his left arm pinned under his enemy's knee. He could feel his right hand holding the knife inching towards his chest and he fought desperately but to no avail.
With the last of his strength Joe Mannix shoved the blade into Burdette's upper chest between his ribs.
"No!" Burdette cried his voice barely above a whisper. He tasted blood in his mouth and knew from fights he'd seen in prison that he didn't have a chance. With his dying breath he screamed for Howard and Malone.
Knowing time was of the essence Joe pulled the knife from Burdette's dead body and turned to face Peggy. He moved behind her and sliced through the ropes.
"Joe! Oh Joe," Peggy cried as she put her arms around him.
Mannix knew it wouldn't be long before the other men returned, "Peggy, listen to me. We have to get away from here. Do you think you can walk?" he asked.
"I think so," she answered, and then looked around worriedly, "Where's Toby?"
"I left him with Jack Guthrie. He's taking him back to the store with him to call the authorities," Joe reassured her.
"Thank God he's safe," she said gratefully. She stood on wobbly legs and rubbed the feeling back into them. Finally she was able to move on her own, even though it felt as if she were in a boat on rough seas, "I think I'm ready," she said trying to sound confident.
"I hate to do this but we have to hurry before the others get back. I'm sure they heard his cry," Mannix said as he picked up his pack and threw it over his right shoulder. He grimaced in pain as his injured shoulder protested even the slightest movement.
"Let me see your shoulder," Peggy told him.
"Later. We have to move," he told her. Peggy held his right arm and they quickly moved out of the range of the fire and into the complete darkness of the forest. They found the rough terrain hard to manoeuvre in the dark and both were soon bleeding from numerous scratches caused by low hanging branches.
Peggy didn't know how long they'd been hurrying blindly through the trees when she felt the ground give way before her. She screamed as she tried to stop her forward momentum. Blackness overcame her as her head connected with a fallen limb and she lay there.
Joe reached out to grab her as he felt her fall but instead of grabbing her he felt his own feet slip from under him and began his own tumble down the steep embankment. He couldn't tell how far he fell but when his right side slammed into a protruding boulder he felt his ribs give way in an agonizing white-hot fire. 'At least I don't feel my shoulder anymore,' was his last thought as consciousness ebbed away.
Pete Howard and Bulldog Malone entered the camp at exactly the same time. "Where the hell's Burdette?" Howard asked.
"Probably with the little lady," Malone grinned as he turned towards the tree they'd tied the woman to. "Where is she?" he asked when he realized she wasn't there.
"That stupid idiot!" Howard said as he rushed to the tree. He looked down at the dead body of his friend and swore angrily. "I'll kill Mannix for this."
Malone knelt beside his dead friend and used his fingers to close his eyes. "I warned him to watch out for Mannix."
"He let his guard down and now he's paid for it with his life," Howard said softly.
"What are we gonna do, Pete?" Malone asked.
"We're gonna find Mannix and the woman and have some fun."
Malone immediately forgot about the dead man and stood next to his partner, "What kind of fun?" he asked hungrily.
"I think you and I are gonna enjoy it more than either Mannix or the woman. Peggy Fair is gonna be used to teach Mannix a lesson. He'll know what's being done to his secretary and know there's nothing he can do about it."
"That's perfect. But first we have to catch them," Malone told him.
Pete Howard grinned at Malone, "They can't get to far in the dark. I say we get some sleep and find them in the morning. No sense searching for them in the dark. We'd probably end up falling down a mountain or something."
"Your the boss, Pete. Should one of us stand guard?"
"I don't think there's any need. Mannix will try and get Peggy Fair as far away as possible. They won't come back here tonight," Howard said laying down by the fire and closing his eyes. 'Don't let your guard down, Mannix!' was his last conscious thought as he drifted off to sleep.
"Oh, my head," Peggy said aloud as she regained consciousness. She felt something wet on her head and placed her hand against it. She found a large lump where her fingers connected and when she took them away she saw they were covered in blood. She ripped off a piece of her shirt and began to wipe the blood from her face.
She glanced around her and wondered how she'd ended up halfway down a ravine. She closed her eyes as another wave of dizziness overcame her, "Joe," she whispered. As she said the name the nightmare of the last twenty-four hours came back to haunt her. She felt herself running from the convicts, clinging tightly to her bosses arm and then falling through the night, then nothing. "Oh my God. Joe, where are you!" she cried.
She got to her feet, her body trembling, pain stabbing at her head. She knew she had to find Mannix. They didn't stand a chance on their own because they'd be looking for each other. She knew her boss well enough to know that he would never give up looking for her and she would have to do the same. Slowly she clambered to her feet and using the trees to lean on she began to look for her boss.
Joe Mannix was regaining consciousness about the same time that his secretary began to search for him. He twisted away from the rock he'd slammed into and grimaced as stabbing pain invaded his senses. Slowly he glanced around and saw that the rock he'd landed against had prevented him from tumbling over the edge and falling to the bottom of the ravine. His knapsack was about one hundred feet from where he lay but he was unsure if he could make it even that short distance. He continued surveying the area trying to find any sign of his secretary. "Peggy," he called weakly. When there was no answer he tried pulling himself to his feet. Ignoring the pain in both his side and shoulder he edged towards his knapsack, continuing to call his secretaries name, "Peggy!"
Peggy held her hand to her eyes and sank heavily to the ground. She felt as if a herd of elephants were stampeding through her head. "Where are you, Joe?" she asked not realizing how loud her voice was.
Joe heard Peggy's voice and began edging his way through the foliage. He knew she wasn't far away because her voice hadn't echoed through the mountain that meant she hadn't been yelling. Holding his left arm against his injured ribs he moved in the direction he thought her voice had come from.
"Peggy," he called weakly.
Peggy heard his voice and smiled as she forced herself to stand. Stars shone brightly behind her eyes. She shook her head to clear the remaining cobwebs and moved towards the sound of his voice, calling softly, "Joe, where are you?"
Joe Mannix grinned as he pushed his way through a strand of heavy brush. The grin left his face as he saw the dried blood on her face and right temple. "Peggy," he said and forced himself to hurry over to her.
Peggy saw her boss at the same time. She took in the dishevelled blood stained shirt and hurried to him, "Oh, Joe, I thought you were dead," she cried.
"Not dead, Peggy," he said weakly and began to sink to the ground.
Peggy sat in front of him and let the tears of joy and relief flow down her cheeks. She watched as his eyes closed and suddenly realized he'd lost a lot of blood and could be going into shock. "Joe!" she cried. "Joe, open your eyes. Come on stay with me. I need you, Joe."
Joe Mannix felt his mind moving away from the pain in his body, "I'm sorry, Peggy," he said.
"No, Joe you can't. You can't leave me. Please, Joe, I love you," she cried realizing immediately that her words were true.
He heard her calling but the pain in his side was increasing. He felt as if he had no strength left to fight with, "I love you too, Peggy," he answered automatically as coldness seeped into every part of his body.
"If you love me then you can't leave me. NO! JOE! Please come back to me," she cried as she pulled him into her arms.
He heard the anguish and fear in her voice and tried to reassure her that everything would be all right. He knew at that moment that he couldn't leave her here alone. Somehow he made his body react to what his mind wanted and the coldness he'd felt began to ebb from his body. Opening his eyes he looked directly into her moist dark ones, "I won't leave you," he promised and instantly lost consciousness.
At first Peggy thought he'd lost his fight for life and she felt the anguish of her loss. She placed her hand on his chest and breathed a sigh of relief when she felt the weak but steady rise and fall of his chest. "Thank-you, God," she cried as she laid his head gently on the ground.
Jack Guthrie glanced at his young companion. Toby Fair had finally fallen asleep from exhaustion in the front of the boat. He'd pulled the boat into a small alcove for the night knowing that without the motor it would have been impossible to run the lights and see where he was going. Since dawn had come to Eagle Lake he'd been paddling quickly towards home. He hoped that Mannix had been able to rescue the woman before the convicts had done any harm to her. He knew now that the couple weren't married but he prided himself on being a man who had no prejudices. He could see the mutual love and respect these two had for each other and hoped they'd be smart enough not to let anyone interfere with their lives.
"Well hello there young fella. Did you have a good sleep?" Guthrie smiled at the sleepy looking boy.
"Yes, Sir. When will we be at your store?"
"We should be there in half an hour. Then we'll call the police and your Mom and Mr. Mannix will be home in no time at all."
"You really think so?"
"Course I do. Who knows maybe the police have already found them and they're at the store worried about you," Guthrie said reassuringly.
"Thanks, Mr. Guthrie," Toby grinned.
"Which way do we go?" Malone asked Howard the next morning.
Howard was standing over the body of Craig Burdette. The only blood present was around the wound in the centre of his chest and Howard knew this was where he'd died. What he couldn't figure out was where the other blood had come from. He looked around the tree until he saw some telltale droplets spattered on a small rock. He laughed harshly as he turned to answer Malone, " Mannix is hurt."
"What makes you think so?" Malone asked.
"Look what I found," Howard said and showed the rock to his partner.
"What is it?"
"Don't you know anything? It's dried blood."
"But how do you know it's not Craig's or the woman's blood?"
"Because I know what to look for. Look at Craig," As Malone turned to the body, Howard explained. "There's no blood except what's on his shirt which usually means that death was almost instantaneous because the heart stopped pumping blood through the body. That's why there's such a small amount on his chest. I don't think it's the woman's because she'd have no reason to be behind the tree. No this is Mannix's blood and I think Craig got him good before he killed him. Maybe we'll be able to find a trail of his blood."
"Maybe he'll bleed to death and leave the woman defenceless," Malone said hopefully.
"From what Ryan told me it takes more than a knife wound to kill Mannix. You check over that way and I'll look over here. Shout if you find anything."
"Sure thing, Pete," Malone stated anxious to get moving.
Peggy found the knapsack and began going through the contents. She found bullets but no gun, a small tin cup, a package of matches sealed in plastic, and an emergency blanket that she quickly wrapped around her boss. She found some dehydrated vegetables and some beef jerky. Opening the beef jerky she started biting into the tough meat. The emergency first aid kit was resting in the bottom of the sack and she pulled it out gratefully.
She sat back by Mannix and wrapped some of the lightweight blanket around herself. She opened the first aid kit and found it was stocked with everything she needed to treat small injuries. She poured a small amount of iodine on a gauze pad. She took a mirror out of the case and looked at her head injury in it. The cut didn't look as bad as it felt so she used some tape and secured the gauze to her head.
Joe Mannix opened his eyes and watched as the woman beside him slowly washed and cleaned the wound on her head. He watched her face grimace in pain as she secured the iodine-covered bandage to her head. He felt the warmth of her body next to his under the emergency blanket and grinned weakly. 'I could get used to this,' he thought. He tried to sit up and groaned.
Peggy looked down at the man lying beside her, "So, you're finally awake," she said.
"Is that what you call it? How's your head?" Mannix asked meekly.
"Better. Now let me see that shoulder," she ordered.
"Yes ma'am," he said trying to sit. The pain in his ribs intensified with each upward movement of his body and he was unable to suppress a gasp of pain.
"What's wrong with your side, Joe?" she asked worriedly.
"I had a fight with a rock and lost, I think," he told her weakly.
"Let me see," Peggy said remembering that he had only recently gotten over badly bruised ribs. She helped him lower his body back to the ground and began using her hands to examine his right side. She gently pressed against his ribs and felt at least two of them bend easily.
Joe felt her warm hands begin to feel along his injured ribs and was unable to hold in another gasp as she put slight pressure on them.
"Sorry, Joe," she said anxiously. "I think you've got at least two broken ribs. Maybe more," she told him.
"I figured as much," Joe told her solemnly.
"I wish I had something to tape them up with," she told him searching through the knapsack once more. She looked at the blanket and debated whether or not to tear it in strips.
"No, Peggy. We're going to need this if we have to spend another night out here," Joe told her as he saw her glancing at the blanket.
"I guess you're right. But there's nothing else I can use," she said frustrated.
"Are there any aspirin in there?" he asked indicating the first aid kit.
"I think so. Hold on I'll get you some." She opened up a package of two aspirin and passed them to Joe. The canteen had been lost so he was forced to dry swallow the two pills.
Peggy looked at the supply of pills and took a couple herself. The throbbing pain in her head had returned and she felt nauseous. Fighting not to lose the slim contents of her stomach she laid back next to her boss.
"You ok, Peggy?" he asked.
"Not really," she answered honestly.
"I guess we'll stay here for a little longer," he looked at her face and kissed her gently on the forehead. "Sleep easy," he told her and closed his own eyes.
"Get over here, Bull. I found the trail," Howard yelled.
Malone heard his partners call and hurried in the direction of his voice, "What'd you find?" he asked.
"There's blood on some of the branches here and it looks like someone was running through the brush. It's them and Mannix is definitely bleeding. How do you feel about a little game of hunter/killer?"
"You know me, Pete. I'm always ready to hunt and kill."
"I figured as much. Let's go," Howard moved into the brush and took the lead, Malone hurrying to keep up with his fast pace.
"Peggy," Joe touched her forehead gently with his fingertips.
Peggy felt the warmth of the man next to her and opened her eyes. She was forced to shut them immediately as a thousand stars exploded behind her eyes. "Oh my head," she groaned.
"I know your head hurts, Peggy. But we have to get out of here," Joe said, holding her close.
"Why?" she asked in a pain-laden voice.
"We have to find a safe place to hole up until the police capture the other two."
"I feel safe right here," Peggy sighed.
"I know you do but it's not safe. We didn't get very far last night and if those men are following us we can't chance staying here," he said gently nudging her shoulder.
"What men?" Peggy asked and then her eyes widened in fear as she remembered why they were in such dire straights. "Do you really think they'll follow us?"
"I'm afraid so. I killed one of them and I don't think they're the type to forgive and forget."
"Joe, there's something else you should know," Peggy told him as she remembered something Howard had told her.
"What is it?" Joe asked as he stood stiffly.
"These guys were in jail with Alec Ryan," Peggy said as she began folding the emergency blanket.
"Alec Ryan!" Joe exclaimed. "Damn! Did they say whether he escaped as well?"
"No. They said he was transferred before they escaped but they admire him and they want to kill you because of him."
"Lots of people have tried that before. Let's not worry about Ryan. We have to move now. Do you think you can walk?" he asked worriedly.
"I can but can you?"
"I don't have a choice. We have to get moving or be caught out in the open," he opened the knapsack and began searching the meagre contents.
"What are you looking for?" Peggy asked when Joe dropped the sack in frustration.
"My gun," he told her and began to look around the area they were in.
"I couldn't find it either. I think it fell out when we were tumbling down the hill."
"Damn! I knew I'd lost the rifle but hoped the gun was still in the bag. We haven't got time for a more thorough search," he said and picked up the knapsack. His ribs and shoulder protested painfully and he was forced to breath deeply to keep from passing out again.
"Let me take the knapsack, Joe," Peggy told him.
"I'm ok, Peggy. Let's go," he began leading the way out of the ravine. He had little hope of finding the trail back to the cabin but knew they had to give it a try.
Peggy followed Mannix shaking her head slowly. She stopped as she realized that she was setting off the fireworks again. 'You are one stubborn man, Joe Mannix. But I can be just as stubborn. I'll let you carry the pack for a little while and then it'll be my turn whether you argue or not.'
'They got further than I thought they would,' Howard thought as he pushed his way through the bushes. He'd been following the rough trail for over an hour and still hadn't found much trace. The blood had dried up and was harder to find now so he had to find bent or broken branches in order to stay on the trail.
"Can we take a break?" Malone whined out of breath.
Howard stopped and turned to his companion. He took in the red face and heaving shoulders and nodded his head, "I guess so, but only for a couple of minutes. I don't want them to get to far away from us."
"Maybe they're already dead," Malone said hopefully.
"If they were we'd have found their bodies by now. No I think they are still alive and we're going to find them."
"Yeah sure, Pete. Whatever you say," Malone told him sarcastically.
Howard heard the sarcasm and grabbed Malone by the shirt. "Don't ever forget who got us out of prison. I could have left your sorry butt back in that hellhole," he said and released the large man.
Malone knew he'd pushed to far and his voice reflected that fear, "Sorry, Pete. Really!" he said.
"You just make sure you keep up with me. Now let's go," Howard ordered and hurried into the brush.
Malone hurried to keep up with the smaller man. He knew he could take Pete Howard in a fight but he also realized that he needed him in order to survive in the wilderness. He knew Pete was the brain and he was the muscle. For now he would let him think he was meek, at least until they were out of the woods.
Jack Guthrie hung up the phone and looked at the worried boy sitting across from him, "The police are on their way," he told him.
"How long till they get here?" Toby asked.
"It shouldn't be more than an hour. They want us to wait here and show them where the Tobias cabin is."
"I'm scared, Mr. Guthrie," Toby told him.
"I know you are, son. But your Mom and that Mannix fella are gonna be fine."
"I wish I could believe that."
"You can, Toby. I seen the look in Mr. Mannix's eyes and he's a determined man. He'll find your Mom and keep her safe."
"Thank-you, Mr. Guthrie," Toby said as silent tears rolled down his cheeks.
"You're welcome, Toby."
Mavis Guthrie walked into the room at that moment holding a tray with two glasses of cold milk and a platter of warm chocolate chip cookies. "Thought you two could use a snack right about now. Here you go young man," she said and placed a glass of milk beside Toby.
Toby looked at the cookies and a slight smile formed on his face. As he reached for one of the warm cookies he thought of his Mom and Joe Mannix and pulled his hand back.
"What's the matter, Toby?" Jack asked, knowing what was going on inside the boy's head.
"I'm not hungry," Toby lied.
"Now, Toby, you can't leave all those cookies for Jack to eat and believe me he'll do just that. That man doesn't know when to stop once he starts into my cookies. So please eat as many as you can cause you'll be doing me a favour. I don't want to let his pants out again cause there's really no material left to let out," Mavis told the boy trying to keep the smile from her face.
Toby once again reached for a cookie and took a small bite. He smiled happily at the older woman and said, "These are really good."
"Thank you young man," Mavis said and grinned at her husband as she left the room.
Jack Guthrie watched as the boy ate four cookies and was about to say something when the phone rang. He reached over and picked up the receiver.
Toby listened to the one sided conversation but didn't really hear what was being said. His mind was on the two people he cared about. He was unaware of Jack Guthrie hanging up the phone and staring at him thoughtfully.
"Penny for your thoughts," Guthrie said.
"Huh. Oh sorry I was just thinking of Mom and Joe."
"I thought so. I was just talking to Adam Tobias. He said to tell you he was on his way up here."
"Lieutenant Tobias is coming here."
"He certainly is. He wants to help search for his friends."
"That's great," Toby said, feeling a little more at ease.
Joe and Peggy finally reached the top of the ravine and began skirting the edge. Neither one knew which direction to go because of the anxious flight through the brush the night before.
"I think we should make our way to the other end of the ravine and then maybe we'll be able to make our way south towards Eagle Lake," Joe told her over his shoulder.
"Whatever you say, Joe," Peggy said weakly.
Joe heard the tremor in her voice and realized that her head injury was probably worse than it actually looked. He knew what it was like to have a concussion and he was pretty certain that was what Peggy was suffering from. "Maybe we should take a break," he suggested.
"I'm ok, Joe. I just want to get out of here," she said her voice betraying her fear.
"That's what I want to, Peggy," Joe said as he turned and wrapped his right arm around her. His left arm hung useless at his side and he shuddered as the strap from the backpack slid over the knife wound. He felt the chill of the night before and knew the sweater she was wearing did nothing to ward off the cold. Another night on the mountain and they'd both have a problem with exposure.
"I'm so tired, Joe. My head hurts."
"I know, Peggy. Maybe we should find a cave and get some rest," he noticed Peggy's body going limp and realized she was in danger of losing consciousness again, "Come on, Peggy. Stay with me," he said as he laid her on the ground and began lightly tapping her face.
"Huh, I can't. Please, Joe let me sleep."
"Not yet, Peggy," he said. He knew he had to do something to get her back on her feet and he used the one thing he knew would do it, "Peggy, honey, think of Toby!" he told her.
Peggy heard her sons name and fought back from the edge of darkness. Slowly she opened her eyes and looked around anxiously, "Where's Toby?" she asked.
"Toby's safe with Jack. But he needs you to fight. I need you to fight, Peggy. I need your help badly," his voice quivered as he spoke the last sentence and he realized just how much he did need her help.
Peggy got shakily to her feet and noticed the paleness on her boss's face, "Oh, Joe, I'm sorry," she said.
"Sorry? For what?" he asked genuinely confused.
"For not realizing how badly you're hurt. For being selfish and making you carry the knapsack."
"You didn't make me do anything, Peggy. You've always said I'm the most stubborn man you ever met."
"That's so true and I'm hoping that stubbornness will get us out of here. Which way, Joe," she asked heaving the knapsack over her shoulders.
Joe shook his head and pointed to the west, "And you say I'm stubborn," he said and they began moving in the direction he'd indicated.
"That makes us a matched pair," she said as she followed his retreating back. She looked overhead and noticed the dark thunderclouds looming on the horizon. 'Don't do this to us,' she thought.
They hadn't gone far when she noticed that he was breathing heavily and holding his left arm against his ribcage with each step. Her worry turned to fear as she saw him begin to slide to the ground. "Joe!" she cried. Dropping the knapsack she knelt beside her boss, "Joe, speak to me, Joe. What's wrong?"
"I...I...Don...don't know. Pai...painful...t...to breath."
Peggy could hear his struggle to breath and knew she had to find a place for them to rest. She stood up and looked around her. A dark crevice in the mountain just below them caught her attention and she prayed that she could get him inside before the skies opened up. "Joe, listen to me. I think there's a cave just down the ravine. I'm going to check it out and I'll be right back for you. OK?"
"I...I...ca... can...make it," he struggled to get the words out.
"No, you stay here. There's no sense in moving you until I see how big it is. Just stay put till I get back."
"Y...yes boss..." he answered a weak smile on his face.
Joe watched as she picked up the knapsack and made her way down into the ravine. He lost sight of her and glanced up at the sky as the first large raindrop struck his cheek. Thunder echoed as it came in over the mountain and streaks of lightening signalled the coming of a severe mountain storm. "Peggy, " he cried forcing his way to his feet. He stumbled to the edge and glanced down. He saw the cave Peggy had told him about but there was no sign of her. "Peggy!" he called as the wind picked up.
Peggy threw rocks into the cave opening to make sure it was unoccupied. She breathed a sigh of relief when nothing exited the cave. She felt the rain as it began and heard the thunder. She hurried into the small cave and lit one of the matches. It wasn't deep but was large enough for her and Joe to keep dry. She dropped the knapsack and hurried out of the cave. As soon as she stepped outside she noticed how dark the sky had become in a matter of minutes. Jagged lightening streaked across the sky as thunder echoed through the mountains. "Joe," she called as she saw him coming down the hill towards her. "Stay where you are," she ordered when she saw his unsteady gait. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw he heard her and stood still. "I'm coming, Joe. The cave is perfect." She told him as she hurried towards him.
Joe's left arm dangled by his side and Peggy raised his right arm over her shoulder. Slowly they made their way to the cave entrance. By the time they reached the cave Joe's breathing had become decidedly harsher. Peggy began to worry about Pneumonia. She lay him down on the floor and hurried outside to find some dry branches before the rain drenched everything.
Joe closed his eyes for a minute and realized how much pain he was in. His body protested every move he made. Even taking shallow breaths did little to ease his discomfort. He closed his eyes and drifted into a troubled sleep.
Peggy came back inside with some dry wood she'd managed to find just outside the entrance. She knew it wasn't nearly enough to outlast the storm but it would be enough to start a small fire. She placed the wood on the ground near the entrance and made a tepee out of some of the smaller pieces. She used one of the matches and lit the smaller pieces. Keeping her hands wrapped around the small flame she blew softly and soon had all the tepee burning. She placed a couple of the heavier pieces into the fire and hoped that there wouldn't be much smoke from it. She checked on Joe and went back outside to gather more fuel for the fire. Three trips later she thought she had plenty to keep a small fire going for a few hours.
"Peggy," Joe called in a raspy voice.
"I'm here, Joe. Just relax and try to breath deeply," she said as she sat beside him.
"Thirsty," he told her.
Her own mouth and tongue felt dry and she realized how long they'd been without water. If they didn't get some soon they'd both become dehydrated. Suddenly she remembered the small cup in the knapsack. She opened the sack and pulled it out. "Hang on, Joe. I'll get some water," she said as she stuck her head out of the entrance of the cave. The rain had become a torrential downpour in a matter of minutes and the cup she held was full almost instantly. She hurried back inside and placed the cup to his lips. She could feel the heat radiating from his body as she wrapped her arm around him to help him drink.
"Joe felt the cold water touch his lips and drank thirstily. "M...more..." he begged as he finished what was in the cup.
Peggy filled the cup for him over and over until he slumped into an exhausted sleep. She drank her own fill and then placed some of the dehydrated vegetables in the cup. She again filled it with water and placed it beside the fire to heat. Half an hour later she began forcing the broth into her boss and succeeded in getting him to take most of it. She felt the beginnings of a rattle in his chest and realized he was on the verge of pneumonia. She opened the bottle of aspirin and forced him to take three hoping to keep the fever at bay.
Her headache had returned full force and she drank her own broth without even realizing it. She placed a couple of large pieces of wood on the fire hoping to keep it going if she fell asleep. She pulled out the blanket and wrapped it around them both. She closed her eyes and slipped into oblivion.
Bulldog Malone hated being wet and cold. His anger at Pete Howard had begun to increase as he followed the undeterred man deeper into the mountain. "Come on, Pete. I'm wet and I'm hungry. Can't we stop and eat?"
"NO! We need to keep moving. Do you really think Mannix and the woman are going to stop because of a storm?"
"I guess not but at least let's get something to eat."
"Eat some Jerky," Howard told him.
Malone reached into his bag and pulled out the tough as rawhide jerky. He began chewing on it as he followed Howard, mumbling angrily under his breath.
Howard looked up at the sky as the storm began to worsen and realized he should have listened to Malone. He hated when somebody pointed out the obvious, especially when that somebody was a lowlife like Malone. Determined to catch up with Mannix and the woman he kept up the pace until the rain and darkness made it impossible to go on. "Let's find someplace to hole up until the storm passes," he told Malone.
"I was wondering when you'd come to your senses," Malone grated out.
"Shut up, Bull. I'm in charge here and it's time you remembered that. I can always leave your sorry butt here you know."
"You need me," Malone yelled.
"Don't you think it's the other way around? I'm the one who knows where the cabin is. I can leave you here and be nice and snug in a day or so. Now let's find someplace warm and dry."
Malone seethed inside. He had to hold his anger in check until they were at Howard's cabin, "All right, Pete," he said forcing his voice to sound meek.
"The boys finally sleeping. Looks like that storm came early," Jack told his wife.
"The poor lad. I can't imagine what he's going through. When do you think the police will get here?"
"I was expecting them half an hour ago. Don't suppose the bridge is out because of the storm, do you?"
"It probably is and there's no telling how long this storm's gonna last, Jack. Do you think those folks are all right?" Mavis asked her husband worriedly.
"If they found a place to stay out of this rain then they should be just fine," Guthrie told his wife uncertainly as he walked to the window shaking his head at natures fury. He hoped that the two people trapped on the mountain had indeed found a place to stay dry.
"I'm cold," Malone whined.
"There ain't nothing I can do about it. Just be glad we're out of the rain. Man I love storms like this," Howard told him.
"Not me. I never did like thunder and lightening. We should have went on up to your cabin."
"I told you I'm not going anywhere until we find Peggy Fair and her boss. I owe that much to Alec Ryan and you do to. If it weren't for Alec we'd both be back in prison with nothing. Remember he's the one who showed us how to take the power from the other leaders. He bought things for us that we never could have afforded ourselves. At least he did until Mannix complained and had him transferred to a maximum security prison." Howard grated angrily.
"I guess you're right, Pete. I'm just cold. We'll get Mannix and the little lady. Are we still gonna have some fun with her?"
"I've got plans for her too, Bull. Maybe we can still take her to the cabin with us after we get rid of Mannix," Howard said grinning lustily.
Joe Mannix woke up to a body wracked by pain. His shoulder throbbed with each beat of his heart and every move he made sent tremors of pain through his injured left side. He wanted to move but found a soft body moulded to his own. He felt her soft hair tickle his face as she breathed in her sleep. The faint scent of her body enticed his senses to the point where he was becoming aroused in spite of the pain and the predicament they were in. He realized he could see flickering shadows and remembered Peggy had found firewood and started a small fire to keep them warm.
Gently he moved out from under her body and glanced towards the fire. The flames had nearly burnt themselves out and he carefully moved towards it. He placed a couple of pieces of dry wood into the ember and blew gently. The dry wood finally caught and he lay back under the blanket.
Imperceptibly Peggy moved back into the crook of his arm and mumbled softly, "I'm cold, Joe."
"I know, Peggy. Just go back to sleep and I'll keep the fire going."
"I love you," she whispered as she faded back to sleep.
Unsure he had heard her right he lifted his head and looked at the beautiful dark-skinned lady lying protectively in his arms, 'I love you too, Peggy. I just hope we can admit our feelings when we're both awake and back home,' he thought as he closed his eyes and listened to the howling storm outside.
"Looks like the cavalries finally arrived," Jack Guthrie said as he opened the door. The storm had pretty well abated but lightening still danced in the distance lighting up the surrounding mountains.
"Thank goodness," his wife replied as the old grandfather clock chimed the hour of ten pm. She went into the kitchen to fix coffee for the officers.
"Come on in, Chief," Guthrie called to his friend.
Mark Perkins had known Jack and Mavis Guthrie for nearly thirty years and they'd both called him chief from day one when he was still only a wet behind the ears policeman who'd gotten tired of the hustle and bustle of big city life. Jack had taken one look at him and told him that since one day he would be the chief of their little police department then he'd start calling him Chief immediately. Four other officers followed Perkins into the house.
Perkins prided himself on his appearance. At the age of fifty-three he was just showing signs of grey at his temples. He was six foot four and weighed in at two hundred and twenty pounds. Muscles rippled under his shirt giving evidence to how much he worked out. He wore his uniform proudly and had a revolver hidden under his jacket in a shoulder holster. He'd never married because he hadn't wanted to put any woman through being a policeman's wife. He'd seen to many marriages fail because the wife or husband couldn't handle never knowing whether their spouse would return when they left each day. He grinned at Mavis as she brought out the old percolator and coffee cups, "You always seem to know what I need, Mavis."
"It's not too often you come out our way, Chief. I figure the best way to entice you to visit more often is to make you and the boys feel welcome. I see you brought your four best men. Want some coffee boys?"
The four men who'd accompanied their chief into the room smiled and said they'd love some. When the coffee was served Jack explained in detail what had happened at the Tobias cabin that morning, and how Joe Mannix had stayed behind to search for his secretary while he'd taken the woman's son home with him.
"Sounds like this Mannix fella knows what he's doing," Chief Perkins said when Jack finished his story.
"I think he does. From what Toby says the man can do no wrong," Guthrie told him.
"Where is Toby?" Perkins asked.
"He's sleeping right now. The poor kid's been through a lot. He's worried about his Mom and Mannix. I know you want to talk to him but seeing how we won't be able to go to the cabin till morning I figured we'd just let him rest. That ok by you, Chief?" Mavis asked.
"That's fine, Mavis. I can take his statement first thing before we leave for the cabin. Oh, Jack, Adam Tobias called earlier to say he's coming up."
"You don't mind that I called him, do you Chief?" Jack asked.
"Right now I'll take any help I can get. I've put in a call to some of the other towns and asked them to send everyone that's available to help search for the missing people. Dale has put his chopper at our disposal as soon as the weather clears. I just hope you and Mannix were wrong about the escaped cons being involved. From the flyer we just got they're extremely dangerous."
"From what I saw of the cabin somebody definitely took the woman without her consent. The place was a mess. Even the kids toy boat was broken up."
"I hope Mannix gets her away from them before they have a chance to do anything," Perkins said quietly.
"Me too, Chief, me too," Jack agreed and settled down to wait for morning.
Peggy opened her eyes and felt the warm body next to hers. She faced away from him and his left leg was drawn up over her waist. She smiled at the warmth that radiated from his body until she realized that it was being caused by fever. She gently pulled away from him and felt his head. It was hot to the touch and his clothing was soaked with sweat yet he was shivering violently. She grabbed for the first aid kit and realized that the sun had come up while they slept and it was shining through the cave entrance.
Opening the first aid kit she took out the aspirin and poured three into her hand. Without water it would be difficult to get him to take them but she had to try. She moved closer to Joe and lifted his burning head with her right arm. He moaned as she moved him and made contact with his left shoulder. "Open your eyes, Joe. Can you do that for me?" she asked worriedly.
Joe Mannix opened his eyes and looked into the face of an angel. His eyes refused to focus and his fevered brain couldn't fathom what was happening. He knew the woman holding him was Peggy but in his mind she was his life. "Peggy, I love you," he mumbled incoherently.
"Open your mouth, Joe. I need you to take these for me." Peggy told him. She forced a smile to her face as he opened his mouth and dry swallowed the aspirin. He gagged immediately and she worried that he wouldn't be able to keep them down.
Slowly the gagging reflex subsided and he managed to give her a weak smile before he was hit with a violent coughing spurt. Peggy cradled him in her arms until the worst of it stopped. My...chest...hurts, Peg," he grated out.
"I know it does, Joe. Just close your eyes and relax. I'm here and I'll look after you."
"We...can't stay...here. Those men...will be...looking...for...us," Joe told her as full awareness returned and he tried to pull away from her comforting arms and gain his feet.
"We're safe here for a little while, Joe. Howard and Malone probably gave up and went up to that cabin they talked about," Peggy said trying to make him sit back down.
"Do you really believe that, Peggy?" he asked.
"No. I don't. But neither one of us are in any shape to get off this mountain. You close your eyes and try to sleep. If I hear them I'll wake you."
Joe Mannix wanted more than anything to lay back and rest. His chest, shoulder and ribs protested every move he made, but he had to get them moving. He knew men like Howard and Malone would never give up. They would want to exact their revenge on both him and Peggy. "Can't do that, Peg. We have to get out of..." he stopped as once again he began coughing. He folded his arms across his chest to try and ease some of the agony. Slowly he leaned back against the wall of the cave and tried to hide the extent of his injuries from Peggy.
Peggy Fair knew her boss was hiding things from her. She could tell by the heavy coughing and high fever that he was probably suffering from pneumonia. The aspirin would help with the fever and some of the pain but not much. Her own headache had receded and was manageable without using the aspirin. She watched him as he sank to the floor still holding his chest, "We'll stay a little longer," she said.
"No we can't," he whispered painfully.
"We don't have a choice. You can barely stand, Joe. We'd be at the mercy of those two animals if we tried to leave here now."
"Maybe you should go for help?"
"No way, Joe. I'm not leaving you here."
"Then we have to go together," he said getting to his feet and stumbling towards her.
"Sit down, Joe," she ordered grabbing his right arm to stop him from leaving the safety of the cave.
Joe Mannix stared at her through pain-ridden eyes, "Peggy, I have to get you out of here before they find us. I don't want their hands on you," he said.
"I know you don't. I don't either for that matter but we have to let you get some of your strength back."
"Peggy," he said taking her tiny hands in his larger ones. He held them to his cheek and spoke softly, "We have to leave now while I can still move. I'm not going to lie to you, Peggy. My chest feels like someone's tearing me apart when I cough. We don't have a choice."
She stared at the man before her knowing how hard it was for him to admit just how much pain he was in. A tear slowly trickled from her eye as she pulled her hands from his and reached behind her for the knapsack, "All right, Joe. We'll do it your way but I'll carry the pack."
Joe wiped the tear from her eye and smiled, "Peggy Fair, you are one terrific woman," he said and placed a tender kiss on her forehead.
"Lean on me whenever you need to," she told him as they walked out of the dull cave and into the bright afternoon sunshine.
"Looks like someone took a serious fall down that hill, Pete. Do you think it was them?" Malone asked.
"More'n likely. I don't think anyone else is out here. Come on maybe we'll find them at the bottom," Howard told his companion as he started down into the ravine.
"Maybe I should wait here. It's a long way down that hill. At least if I stay up here I can cover your back in case that Mannix fella is still around here," Malone said.
"Maybe I should just leave you to fend for yourself. I'm sick and tired of your whining. You either come with me or I'll leave you behind. I mean it, Bull. If you can't keep up with me then find your own way off the mountain!" Howard yelled angrily.
Malone resigned himself to the fact that he'd have to climb down the treacherous terrain with Howard or find his own way off the mountain. Without a word he began to slip and slide carefully down the hill.
'That's better,' Howard thought as he quickly followed.
Mark Perkins stood with Jack Guthrie as his men finished scouting the area around the Tobias cabin. The rain had effectively erased any evidence of which direction Mannix and the criminals had taken.
"Sorry, Chief. There's nothing there. I don't think anyone could pick up Mannix's trail," Officer Ronald Smith told him. Smith was a well-respected tracker who'd been known to find a trail where others had all but given up.
"I figured as much. That storm was pretty fierce. Any ideas, Jack?"
Jack Guthrie shook his head, "If Ronnie can't find a trail then there's none to be found. How long before the chopper gets here?"
"We should be hearing from them any time. They took off from Search and Rescue about an hour ago. We also have the rangers searching around their own stations. Hopefully someone will spot them soon. I'm going to have my men wait here until we get some kind of an idea where to begin a search," Perkins told him.
"I'd say that's the best bet. Think I hear the chopper," Guthrie said looking out over the lake, "Yep, there they are."
Chief Perkins pulled out his two-way radio, "Search leader to search one. Do you read? Over."
"Search one to search leader, read you loud and clear. That you Chief? Over," came the disembodied voice.
"It's me, Mike. I'd like you to do a spiral search pattern starting from this location. Over"
"Sure thing, Chief. We have a passenger here. Met up with Adam Tobias at the airport and brought him along. Over."
"Did he tell you who we're looking for? Over."
"He sure did, Chief. Beginning search pattern now. Will keep you apprised of any findings. Over."
"Roger that search one. Search leader over and out," Perkins said and turned his attention back to Jack Guthrie. "Now all we can do is wait."
"Hopefully not to long but if they're in the thickest part of the trees the choppers will be of little or no use," Guthrie said quietly.
"Let's not even think about that," Perkins said seriously.
Joe and Peggy made their way out of the cave into the hot sunshine. They were about to make their way up the slight incline when Joe stopped suddenly and held his finger to his lips.
Peggy immediately stopped next to him, "What's wrong, Joe?" she whispered.
"I think we're in trouble. Let's get back into the cave," he said turning her around and hurrying back to the relative safety of the cave. Once inside he stood at the entrance and scanned the surrounding area until his eyes fell on the two men making their way down the slope he and Peggy had fallen down the night before.
Peggy held onto his arm, "What is it, Joe?" she asked, tremors in her voice betraying her fear.
"Howard and Malone. They found where you and I fell yesterday. I hoped the rain would have concealed it but we weren't that lucky."
"What do we do?"
"I think the only thing we can do is wait for them to reach the bottom. You're not going to like what I have to say but I think you're going to have to make a run for it while I stay here and hold them off as best I can!" He watched as she shook her head violently. "Peggy listen to me. I can't make a run through the trees and then down the mountain. The only chance we have is for you to go for help. Look at me, I've got broken ribs, a useless left arm, and probably pneumonia," he said and tried to stave off a coughing spurt. He held his ribs and waited for the pain to subside. "You're our only hope of getting out of here, Peg," he gasped.
Tears streamed down Peggy's face as she realized that Mannix was right. If they were to survive she needed to get off the mountain. She had to get help and bring it to this man she'd once thought of as her boss and friend but was now so much more. True terror was watching the man she finally realized she loved in so much pain. "I'll go, Joe," she said her voice pained.
"I'll be ok, Peg," he told her weakly.
"You'd better be, Joe Mannix. I want to find out if these feelings I have for you are real," she cried not bothering to hide her tears as she wrapped her arms around him.
"I want the same thing," he said as he held her close and stroked her dark hair. He could feel his own tears nearing the surface, "Let's see where they are," he told her as he pulled away from the soft comfort of her arms.
Joe looked down into the ravine and spotted the two men immediately. They were directly across from the cave he and Peggy occupied and still moving towards the bottom. There was a strand of dark pine just below them and he waited for the two men to enter the woods before turning to her, "I don't think there'll be a better time. Go Peg. I'll hold them off," he told her.
"I love you, Joe," she cried as she kissed his face and hurried out of the entrance.
Mannix watched as she made her way slowly to the top of the ravine and was out of sight. 'Be safe, Peggy,' he thought as he turned his attention to the strand of trees and waited for the two men to emerge from the bottom.
"Hey, Pete. Look at this!"
"What is it, Bull?" Howard asked.
Malone held up a thirty-eight special, "Do you think it's his?" he asked.
Howard took the proffered gun and grinned malevolently, "Don't matter if it was his or not cause it's ours now," he said as he opened the barrel and checked the bullets. He let out a shrill whistle as he saw the gun was fully loaded. "This is great. Kill Mannix with his own gun," the irony made him laugh and he placed the gun in his belt.
"Hey! I found that!" Malone exclaimed angrily.
"And now I have it. Besides you don't even know how to shoot a gun. Come on, Bull, I'll let you have first go at the little woman.
Malone's face took on a look that would have struck terror into anyone. "Will you really?" he asked hungrily.
"Don't you trust me, Bull? I get to kill Mannix and you get the woman first. Now how's that for a deal?"
"That's great," Malone grinned.
"Now let's get going. They may just be at the bottom and we can begin to have some fun," Howard said as he led the way through the trees, Malone following behind.
Peggy reached the top of the ravine and took one last glance at the cave entrance. 'I'll bring help, Joe,' she thought. She began to make her way back to the opposite side of the ravine. It took her nearly an hour to make her way back to the place they'd fallen and she once again looked across at the cave. She couldn't really see it at this distance but she was sure she could feel two eyes looking in her direction. Turning away from the ravine, Peggy tried to follow the course that had brought her to this spot.
"Search one to search leader, come in. Over."
"Read you loud and clear. Have you found anything? Over!" Perkins said into the radio.
"Nothing so far. We're about to expand the search pattern up into the mountains. Over!"
"Roger that, Search one. Search two is doing the same. Over!"
"I'll let you know as soon as we see anything. Search one over and out!"
"It'll be getting dark soon," Guthrie said as the sun began to descend towards the mountains.
"We still got another hour or two before we have to call off the search. There's nothing more for us to do but wait for the choppers to spot them," Perkins said as he watched another boat move up to the dock. Volunteers had been arriving at the docks ever since word had gotten out that people were lost in the mountains.
Jack Guthrie beamed as he saw his community at work. These people knew what family meant. They'd search until they were told to stop and go home. Even then they'd protest if the search hadn't found anything. This was a close-knit group and he'd asked for their help in finding Joe Mannix and Peggy Fair. There were now over thirty men and women waiting to join in the search.
The pain in his chest was making it increasingly hard to breath. He watched from his vantage point in the cave entrance. He knew sooner or later they'd come out at the bottom and he'd have to find a way to keep them from going after Peggy. He stumbled around outside of the cave searching for rocks or anything else he could use as a weapon, all the while keeping an eye on the tree line.
"Nothing. Guess you were wrong about them being down here," Malone said his voice dripping sarcasm.
Howard glanced around as they exited the trees. His irritation at Malone was beginning to grow. He slowly turned back to his companion, icy eyes glared at Malone, "If I were you I'd shut up right now, Bull!" he ordered.
"And just what are you going to do about it. You know, Pete, I'm sick and tired of you giving orders all the time. I think it's time I showed you who should be in charge," Malone said as he pulled a knife from his pocket and began to swipe at Howard.
Pete Howard laughed as the bigger man advanced menacingly towards him, "Are you really that stupid, Bull?" he asked.
"I'm not stupid," Malone said as he continued to advance.
"Not stupid, hey. Well you have a short memory, Bull," he laughed as he pulled the thirty-eight special from his waistband and placed a bullet dead centre of Bulldog Jay Malone's chest.
Malone's eyes opened wide as he felt the impact of the bullet. The knife fell from his hands and he dropped to his knees.
Pete Howard walked towards him still laughing, "you've got to be one of the stupidest people I've ever met. I'd put you out of your misery but I may need the bullets. I hope your death is long and painful," Howard said his voice chillingly cold.
"I'm sorry, Pete," Malone cried trying to stem the flow of blood from his chest. "Don't leave me here like this."
"I sure as hell ain't gonna carry you out of here. Maybe some wild animal will find you and put you out of your misery. Good-bye Bull. It's been fun," Howard said as he stood and turned his back on the dying man.
"NO, PETE, COME BACK!" Malone cried as his strength ebbed. The last thing he heard was Howard's cold laughter.
Peggy's head shot up when she heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot echoing through the mountains. Instinctively she knew it had come from the ravine where she'd left Joe Mannix. Turning away from the downhill trail she began running back the way she'd come.
Joe turned towards the bottom of the ravine when he heard the gunshot, 'Damn, the must have found my gun,' he thought angrily. He watched as one of the two men fell to his knees as the last of the echoes died away. He knew he should feel elated that there was one less opponent but he'd always hated the loss of life. He watched as the man who'd fired the gun walked to the fallen man and held the gun to his head. He suddenly felt very weak and moved back towards the cave. A sudden sound from above him made him look up and he saw what appeared to be a helicopter coming in a low search pattern over the mountain. He walked as far out into the clearing as he could and began to wave his right arm trying to get their attention.
"I know it gets dark pretty quickly up here but how long before it gets to dark to search?" Adam Tobias asked his pilot without taking his eyes from the binoculars he was using to scan the rugged terrain.
"I'd say we have another hour before we have to call it quits. There'd be no point in continuing once the sun goes down. I think we'll just circle this ravine and then we'll check in with Chief Perkins."
"Can't you get some of those big searchlights?"
"We have one but I'm afraid it's in for repairs," the pilot told him.
"Wait a minute. I think I see something. Can you bring it down a little lower?" Adam asked.
"Hold on," the pilot said as he began to swing in lower towards the edge of the cliff.
"It's him. It's Joe Mannix. I don't see Peggy though. She must be hiding or something. God, I hope she's not still with Howard and his gang. Can we land and pick him up?"
"Sorry Lieutenant, but the only place large enough to land this chopper is back at your cabin. Use the bullhorn and let him know we're on our way."
Adam reached behind his seat and found the bullhorn. As the pilot kept the chopper hovering he put the horn to his mouth, "Joe, we can't land. We're going for help. You just stay put. Wave your left hand if you hear me!"
Joe forced his left arm into the air and waved once before the pain made him drop it. Another coughing spasm began and he bent over as agonizing pain ripped through his chest. He heard a gunshot and saw a chunk of rock fly up beside him. He knew the surviving man had found him. From his vantage point it wouldn't be long before the man would be upon him.
Pete Howard lowered his gun, a stream of fowl language coming from his mouth. ""I'LL GET YOU YET, MANNIX!" he shouted angrily and began to climb the lower incline.
"Someone's shooting at him!" Adam exclaimed worriedly. "Get me down there."
"I can't! This is as low as I can go. There's to much of a down draft here," the pilot told him.
Adam reached for his own gun and hoped it was heavy enough for him to drop close to where Joe Mannix hid. He put the bullhorn to his mouth again, "Joe. I'm dropping you my gun. Can you hear me?"
Mannix fought the weakness brought on by the coughing and injured ribs. He moved back out in the clearing and gazed down the ravine. The man was still coming towards him but he seemed to be moving cautiously. He heard Adam's voice and looked up as he dropped something from the chopper. It landed about ten feet up the incline and he gingerly made his way towards it. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Adam's gun sitting near a large outcropping of rock. He picked it up in his right hand and waved towards the chopper.
Adam grinned at his companion, "I'd say that puts those guys at a disadvantage. Joe Mannix has a gun and he knows how to use it," he laughed.
"I think it's time we get back and get Mannix some help. Dale Foster is the pilot of the other chopper. He's got a lot of experience with this type of rescue. Hopefully he'll be able to get Mannix off the mountain before it's to dark."
"I just wish there was something I could do to help him now. Do you have a ladder I could use to climb down?"
"This is just a regular helicopter. I was called to help in the search but we're not equipped for rescue. Dale will know what to do." The pilot said as he turned the chopper away from the ravine and headed back to base.
Peggy heard the second shot and picked up her pace. Adrenalin flowed through her body as she realized that Howard and Malone had found Joe's gun and were using it on him. The unstoppable flow of tears streamed down her face as she thought of Joe defenceless and injured trying to fend off the criminals. She was halfway across the top of the ravine when she spotted the rescue chopper and screamed at it when it turned away and headed back down the mountain.
Pete Howard moved quickly up the ravine. He knew where Mannix and the girl were and he wanted to get to them before the chopper brought back help. He had four shots left in the gun and would have to save them for a true shot. 'You have to die, Mannix. For Alec Ryan and everyone else you've ever sent to jail. I swear I'll get revenge for each and every one of them,' he thought.
'Where do I hide out now?' Joe Mannix asked himself. His body was nearing the end of its endurance and he knew he couldn't hold out much longer. He slowly made his way behind the rocky outcrop and slid to the ground unconscious.
Peggy ran to the cave just as darkness descended, "Joe," she called worriedly. She didn't hear anything and slowly made her way into the darkened cave. "Joe, she called again.
Suddenly two hands wrapped around her throat and she began to fight furiously. It wasn't long before she realized she was at a disadvantage both in weight and size. She found herself forced to the floor a gun placed to her temple.
"Don't move, little Lady!"
Peggy whimpered as she recognized the voice. Pete Howard was smaller than the other two but she'd felt he was much more deadly.
"What's the matter, little Lady? Cat got your tongue?"
"Let me go," she said trying to sound braver than she felt.
"I don't think so. I think it's time we found out where Mannix is hiding. When I'm through with him we'll head on up to my cabin. Can't waste any time right now. I'm sure that chopper's gone for help and I don't want to be here when they come back. Now let's go outside," he said shoving her towards the opening of the cave.
Peggy breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Mannix was still alive as she walked out into the almost total blackness of nighttime in the mountains. She could barely make out the tree line in front of her. She knew the ravine spread out below her and cringed as she was forced to move up the steep incline. Howard had a vicelike grip on her arm as he pulled her along beside him. She fought but in her weakened condition from the terror of the last thirty-six hours she was no match for her captor.
They reached the summit of the ravine as the cloud cover dissipated and Peggy stood in awe of the wondrous star covered night sky. The glow from the stars lit up the surrounding area enough for her to make out a rocky outcropping on her left. She tried to pull away from her captor and move towards the safety of the rocks but Howard just tightened his grip until she let out a cry of pain.
"Let me go!" she cried.
"I don't think so little lady. Maybe we can put on a quick show for your boss before I kill him," Howard laughed and placed his chapped lips on hers.
"NO!" Peggy screamed and bit down on the offensive lip.
Howard pulled back his hand and slapped her resoundingly across the face. "You witch! I'll make you pay for that," he said as he wiped away the blood dripping from his bleeding mouth.
"Don't you touch me again," Peggy told him angrily through her own bleeding mouth.
"When are you gonna learn that you don't call the shots here, I do. Now call your boss," Howard ordered.
"No," Peggy said quietly.
"You must enjoy the pain," Howard said as he once again grabbed her arm and twisted it up behind her back. "Now call him."
"I can't," she cried as her arm began to feel as if it were on fire. As his grip tightened she was unable to hold back her scream.
"That's more like it," he said as he released some of the pressure and began to run his lips across her neck. "Hey, Mannix, you hear this. She tastes so sweet. Why don't you come out and watch?" He continued to explore her neck enjoying the tiny whimpering sounds he elicited from her.
Joe Mannix shook his head and tried to focus on what he was hearing. "Peggy, I...I'm coming," he said his voice barely audible. His lungs felt ready to burst for want of air but he was unable to take the deep breaths he needed in order to find some relief. His ribs and shoulder were on fire and each time he tried to stand he lost the battle. Slowly he pulled himself to his knees and glanced bewilderedly down at his hand. He couldn't remember where the gun had come from but he knew he had to keep it close and out of sight. In his pain filled mind he could barely hear a woman's cries of fear and he placed the gun in his waistband. He forced himself to crawl out from behind the rocks. As he rounded the bend he could make out two people huddled together under the stars. He forced himself to think and finally remembered that the woman was his secretary and that she was fighting for her life against a hardened criminal. Slowly, painfully, using a large rock as a counterbalance he pulled himself to his feet, "Let her go," he said and realized his voice was so low that they hadn't heard him. "I...I said LET HER GO!" he shouted with a little more force and began coughing fitfully. He held his left arm to his chest as the pain wracked his body.
Howard heard the voice and turned towards it using Peggy Fair as a shield, "Well, well, we finally meet eye to eye Joe Mannix. Let me introduce myself, the names Pete Howard. I think we have a mutual friend."
"Oh, Joe," Peggy cried as she took in the dishevelled form of her boss.
"I'm ok, Peg," he gasped. " Alec Ryan was never a friend of mine, Howard."
"That's what I figured. He said the same about you. Said you were nothing but a lowlife private cop who had no business snooping in other peoples business. I think maybe he's right. Look where it's got you."
"Why don't you let the woman go and face me like a real man," Mannix grated out as he fought the urge to cough.
"Ryan told me never to trust a snake like you," Howard said and raised his gun, "Ever been shot in the leg, Mannix?"
"Maybe," Mannix answered quietly watching for his chance to use his gun. He coughed harshly but held onto the rock.
"It's quite painful and almost impossible to walk on. Let me demonstrate," he said as he pulled the trigger.
Hot searing pain filled Joe Mannix's head as the bullet ripped into his leg just above the knee. He lost his precarious grip on the rock and fell to the ground holding his injured leg.
"JOE!" Peggy shouted and using the last of her strength pulled away from Howard.
Howard whipped his gun up and pointed it at her as she lost her balance and fell to the ground.
Joe saw his chance through tear filled eyes and pulled his own weapon. He levelled it at Howard's head and pulled the trigger.
Howard's head snapped back as the bullet entered his forehead. He was dead before he hit the ground.
A stunned Peggy began to pull her legs under her and staggered to her feet. She turned to see Mannix holding his leg with his injured left shoulder and dragging himself towards Howard's body with his right arm and leg. She hurried towards him and helped him to his feet. He leaned heavily on her as they stumbled to the downed man. Joe felt the Howard's neck but could find no pulse. One look at the bullet hole told him that his aim had been deadly. Howard would never hurt another human being.
Relief flooded through Peggy and her control disappeared. Tears began to fall from her eyes and she tried to gulp them back.
Joe reached for her with his good arm and pulled her to him. He placed his hand under her chin and smiled weakly, "It's ok, Peggy. He won't be hurting any one else. You're safe."
Peggy's face suddenly filled with fear and she looked around worriedly, "Where... where's Ma...Malone," she gasped.
Joe smiled at her, "He's dead. I think he had an argument with Howard and he lost," Joe said and began to cough again.
Peggy looked at him worriedly. She could tell he was having difficulty breathing and that she needed to stop the bleeding from his leg and reopened shoulder wound. She made him lay back on the ground and tore strips from her ruined blouse to stop the flow of blood from both wounds.
Joe tried to hide the wince of pain as she touched his leg. One look from her told him that she knew she was causing him more pain, "I'm sorry, Joe," she said.
"It's ok, Peggy. Do what you have to do," he said his chest heaving.
"I wish I could have signalled that chopper," she said as she remembered seeing the chopper retreat over the mountain.
"They...know where...where we...are. A...Adam was with them," he rasped painfully.
"Then why didn't they rescue you?" Peggy asked angrily.
"To much downdraft and no landing strip. Don't blame them, Peggy. At least Adam dropped me his gun. For once he made it on time. At least his gun made it on time," Mannix tried to laugh at the running joke he had going with Adam Tobias. They'd often commented on the fact that Adam had a tendency to show up just after the action took place.
"When will they be back?" Peggy asked.
"I guess sometime tomorrow. I'm...ti...tired...Peggy. Why don't you...lie down here beside...me and we'll...get some sleep," he said as his eyes began to close.
Peggy Fair experienced one of the worst moments of her life as his eyes closed and all was quiet. Tears once again flowed freely down her cheeks as she thought she would lose the man she loved for the second time. She pulled his head onto her lap and began talking soothingly to him, "Joe, don't you do this to me. I know you can hear me, Joe. I do love you and I want to be able to prove that to you. Please, Joe, stay with me. Toby needs you in his life. I need you, Joe Mannix!" she cried despairingly. Slowly she lay him back on the ground and fearfully felt for the pulse in his neck. She breathed a sigh of relief as she found it. She lay next to him on the cold ground and placed her arm under his head cradling him close. It wasn't long before her eyes closed in exhausted sleep.
"Are you sure these are the right coordinates?" Dale Foster asked Mike Leonard.
"They have to be around here somewhere. Keep that searchlight panning around the upper part of the ravine. The last time I saw Mannix he was trying to make it up to the top," Leonard told him.
'Come on, Joe, Peggy. Where are you two?' Adam Tobias thought as he looked down at the illuminated area of ground. The light showed about a twenty-foot diameter and then faded to shadow. Adam found himself searching the ground along with three other men, one of who was a doctor. They'd returned to his cabin in time to find Dale Foster had returned and his searchlight had been fixed. He was ready and willing to continue the search all night if necessary. His chopper was completely equipped right down to a fully loaded medical first aid kit. It had a winching system for lowering and raising anything up to five hundred pounds. A safety stretcher complete with backboard was strapped to the back wall. There was room for eight men but they were only carrying five, Foster, Leonard, Perkins, Dr. Allen Martin, and himself.
"I see something," Perkins said excitedly. "Pan the light back to the right a little. There! That's it. Looks like a body to me!"
"It is," Foster said. "Mike, see if there are any others before we decide if we should send someone down or wait till morning."
"What do you mean wait till morning? They could be injured. Joe didn't look like he could use his arm very much and that guy was shooting at him," Adam said angrily.
"All the more reason not to jump right in. We'd be sitting ducks if we tried to lower someone and that guy was still there with the gun," Perkins turned from Tobias and asked Leonard, "Anything?"
"No sir. There doesn't seem to be anyone else around," Leonard said as he slowly moved his eyes over the shadowed ground.
Peggy could hear a droning sound in her ears but thought she was dreaming. Her headache had returned and she felt nauseous. Slowly she opened her eyes and saw a bright light off to her right. Suddenly she realized that the rescue helicopter had returned. She pulled her arm out from under Joe's head and heard him grumble in either protest or pain, "Sorry, Joe," she said as she hurried towards the light. She was waving her arms frantically even before she entered the lighted area.
"Wait a minute. There's a woman down there, Chief. She's waving her arms in the air. She don't look dangerous," Leonard said excitedly.
"That's Peggy Fair, Joe's secretary. Thank God. Can we get to them Dale?" Adam asked.
"Pass me that bullhorn, Allen," Perkins told the doctor.
Dr. Martin took the bullhorn from behind the seat and passed it to Perkins, "What are you going to do?" he asked.
"I'm gonna ask the lady if there's any one else with her," he told the others and opened his door to lean out, "Mrs. Fair. Are those escaped cons in the area? Wave your right hand for yes, left for no." He watched as she slowly raised her left arm and waved it back and fourth. "Is Joe Mannix with you?" again he watched as this time she waved her right arm. He turned to face Foster, "What do you think, Dale. Can we do this safely?"
"I think so, Chief. Adam and Mike have volunteered to go get them. If you just go back there and help them get ready. Mike will let us know if he wants the gurney."
Chief Perkins nodded his head and placed the bullhorn back to his mouth, "Mrs. Fair, we are sending someone down to help you. Is Mannix injured?" he asked.
Peggy's head began to swim as she waved her right arm and then like a marionette without its strings she slid to the ground.
"Something's wrong," Adam said worriedly, "We'd better get down there."
Ten minutes later Mike Leonard found himself being lowered to the ground. He had a two-way radio in his hand and was in contact with the men in the chopper. He could see Peggy Fair lying unconscious in the centre of the bright searchlight. As soon as his feet touched the ground he snapped the harness away from his body and signalled for it to be raised. He knelt by the limp woman and felt for her pulse. He sighed as he found it was steady and strong. Taking his canteen from his belt he poured water onto a cloth and wiped her face with it.
Peggy felt the cool wet cloth touch her face and slowly opened her eyes. The light made her head spin but she tried to push herself to a sitting position. She reached out and touched the man kneeling before her. Suddenly she remembered the escaped cons and cringed from the unfamiliar figure, "No, please, no," she cried.
"It's ok. It's ok Mrs. Fair. I'm here to help you. Adam Tobias is in the chopper above us," He talked in a soothing tone trying to keep her from panicking further.
"Adam? Adam's here?" she asked.
"He sure is, Ma'am. He's probably being hooked into the harness as we speak," looking into her glazed eyes Leonard asked, "Where's Mr. Mannix?"
Peggy shook her head in confusion until she realized that he was referring to her boss, "He's by the rocks. Please help him. He's been hurt badly," she said trying once again to stand.
"You just lie there I'll go check on him. I mean it you stay put cause it looks like you took a nasty blow to the head," Leonard insisted.
"I don't think I could move if I wanted to," Peggy told him and smiled as she spotted the man who'd just landed behind Leonard, "Adam," she said weakly.
Adam Tobias replaced Mike Leonard at Peggy's side and watched the other man walk towards an outcropping of rock. He looked down at the injured woman and smiled reassuringly, "Hey, Peggy, what have you and Joe gotten into now?"
"Adam," as she said the name relief washed over her and she knew they were safe. "They...they... were animals, Adam. Th...they wanted... to...to take...me up to the...the cabin," she stammered through her tears.
"It's ok, Peggy. We're going to get you and Joe off the mountain. You'll be fine."
"Joe's hurt bad, Adam. I...I couldn't...help...him," she gulped.
"I know. But you're both safe now," He glanced up as Leonard returned. He knew immediately that things were not good for Joe Mannix.
"Let's get you up to the chopper, Mrs. Fair," Leonard suggested.
"No!" she cried, " First get Joe!"
"We'll get Mr. Mannix as well Mrs. Fair. But first we have to get the backboard down here. Aside from your head are you hurting anywhere else?" Leonard asked.
"I...I don't think so," she said moving her body gingerly.
"That's good. Dale is lowering the harness and the gurney. I'm going to send you back up and Adam and I will get Mr. Mannix ready to transport. I really need you to cooperate with me in this."
"It's best for you to go up, Peggy. I'll stay with Joe," Adam said.
"I'll go. But Adam take it easy with him. He's hurt."
"We will, Peggy. Now let's get you out of here," Adam told her.
Peggy Fair was soon being raised towards the hovering chopper and Adam turned to Leonard, "Where is he?"
"Over by those rocks and I'm afraid there's no hope. He's been dead for quite some time."
"Are you sure?"
"As sure as I can be. Looks like he took a bullet between the eyes. Somebody must have done it at close range," Leonard told him.
Adam reached for the flashlight Leonard held and walked away from the centre of light. The beam of light revealed a man lying on his right side facing away from Adam. Slowly he shone the light on the dead man's face and smiled in relief, "This isn't Joe Mannix. Must be one of the escaped cons. Mike, come on help me find Joe!" Adam shouted to his companion.
Mike Leonard and Adam Tobias searched the area around the rock and were soon rewarded when the light found another body lying on it's back. They could tell he was alive by the slight rise and fall of his chest.
"Is that him?" Leonard asked kneeling beside the man.
"It's Joe. Although with all the cuts and bruises on his face it's hard to tell." Adam leaned over his friend and began speaking softly but firmly, "Joe. Can you hear me, Joe? It's Adam. Peggy's going to be all right. We're going to get you both out of here. Mike get that gurney over here. He needs to be in a hospital."
"Will do, Adam. Be right back," Leonard said as he rushed into the circle of light just in time to grab the gurney. He unhooked it and raced back to the waiting men. Between Adam and Mike Leonard they soon had Mannix on a backboard and strapped securely into the gurney. They raced to the centre of light and attached the safety lines to the gurney and signalled to have it lifted aboard.
Chief Perkins lifted the gurney into the chopper and he and Dr. Martin secured it to its birth in the back of the chopper.
Dr. Martin immediately began to go over the parts of Joe's body that were easily accessible. The blood was seeping through the wound in his shoulder and the doctor began putting pressure on it. He glanced around as Adam Tobias was lifted into the chopper and he signalled for him to sit with Peggy.
Adam nodded his head and sat in the seat next to the sobbing woman. He placed his arm around her and held her as sobs of relief and pain wracked her body. He had no idea how long she cried but Mike Leonard was lifted back into the chopper and Dale Foster raced the chopper towards the nearest hospital in Susanville.
"Take us right to the Lassen County Medical Centre, Dale."
"That's where I'm headed Doc. There's a big field behind the hospital that can be used to land my chopper. You want me to call ahead and have us met?" Dale Foster asked as he picked up the mike and started to make the call before Dr. Martin answered.
"Tell them we'll need two stretchers," Chief Perkins said before Dr. Martin had the chance.
"I can walk," Peggy insisted weakly.
"Let's do as Dr. Martin says, Peggy. You passed out a few minutes ago," Adam told her.
Peggy didn't have the energy to argue so she laid her head on Adam's shoulder and closed her eyes.
Joe Mannix felt the movement of the chopper but was to confused to realize where he was. His lungs were filling up and he felt as if he were drowning. The pain from the broken ribs intensified each time he tried to draw in a deep breath.
Dr. Martin didn't need a stethoscope to know that the man before him was in danger. He knew that if they didn't get him on antibiotics and oxygen soon that he'd lose the fight for his life.
Joe began to thrash wildly as his fevered mind began to hallucinate. He cried out each time Dr. Martin touched him.
Peggy heard the commotion behind her and turned in time to see Joe flail out with his right arm and connect with the Doctors left cheek. Even in his weakened condition Joe Mannix was a force to be reckoned with and the doctor landed hard on his posterior.
Adam stood and went to help with his friend, "What's happening, Doc?" he asked worriedly.
"He's delirious. Help me secure his arms. How long before we reach Lassen Medical, Dale?"
"ETA is five minutes."
"Damn! We have to stop him from thrashing around so much. I felt at least two broken ribs and there's a danger that one of them could puncture a lung."
Peggy heard what the doctor was saying and removed her seatbelt. She glanced at Chief Perkins in the seat across from her and could see the concern in his eyes. "I have to help," was all she said by way of explanation.
Chief Perkins smiled at the woman's concern for the man lying injured in the back, 'there's more here than meets the eye,' he thought.
Ignoring the ringing in her ears, Peggy knelt beside the doctor and gently touched his cheek, "Joe, its Peggy. Everything's ok. We're safe and those men are dead. We're almost to the hospital," she told him. Her heart raced with fear as she listened to his laboured breathing.
Dr. Martin noticed the almost immediate reaction to the woman's voice, "keep talking to him Mrs. Fair." He said.
Peggy smiled as she continued; "Now you relax Joe Mannix. I don't want to lose you. I need you in my life more than ever. You hear me."
Joe heard her voice and fought his way towards her. He struggled with the last remnants of strength and found himself looking into the face of his angel, "Peggy?" he asked in a weak voice.
"Yes, Joe, it's me. I'm here. Everything's going to be all right," she told him hiding her worry from him.
"I l...love...you, Peg," he said and drifted into darkness again.
"I love you too, Joe," she said forgetting that they had an audience.
"It's about time you two realized that," Adam grinned at her.
"What do you mean?" Peggy asked.
"You know perfectly well what I mean. I've seen how you two feel about each other for months."
"Oh, Adam," she laughed and sat on the floor of the chopper.
"We're about to land, Doc."
"Thanks, Dale. Mr. Tobias, Mrs. Fair. I think we should take our seats and put on our seatbelts."
"I want to stay with Joe," she told him.
"Dale has to follow the rules as well, Peggy. He has to make sure everyone is safely seat belted before he can land. Now if you don't take a seat then he can't land and it delays getting Joe to the hospital. So let's go take our seats. Ok?" Adam asked.
"I guess so Adam. Can you help me up? I seem to be a little dizzy here."
Adam looked at her worriedly as he pulled her to her feet and escorted her to her seat. He felt the chopper begin to descend as soon as their seatbelts were secured. He glanced out the window as dawn began to seep into the world. Below him were lanterns to show Dale Foster the landing area. This field wasn't normally used as a landing strip but under emergencies the owner had given permission for it to be used.
Dale landed his chopper dead centre of the strip and began to shut it down. Dr. Martin was already on his feet and moving to his male patient. Mike Leonard and Chief Perkins opened the doors and jumped down to help with the stretchers.
Adam Tobias looked at the woman in his arms. She'd lost consciousness as soon as they'd strapped in. Slowly he picked her up and walked to the door. He handed her down to Chief Perkins and Mike Leonard and they placed her on one of the waiting stretchers. She was immediately rushed into the hospital.
Adam returned to help Dr. Martin lift Joe Mannix from the chopper. They left him strapped in and passed him down to Perkins and Leonard. The nurses aides lifted Mannix out of the gurney, placed him on the wheeled stretcher and raced with their burden to the hospital.
Peggy opened her eyes slowly. The overhead light had been dimmed but still hurt her sensitive eyes. She looked down at her hand and saw she'd been hooked up to an IV. Carefully, so as to avoid making her headache worse she turned her head to the side and looked into the smiling, concerned face of Adam Tobias. "Adam, wh...where am...I?" she asked confused.
"You're in the Lassen County Medical Centre, Peggy. Jack and Mavis Guthrie are on their way with Toby. Don't worry he's fine," he said when he saw the anxious look come over her face. "How do you feel?"
"Headache. The light hurts my eyes," she grimaced.
"That's because you're still suffering from a severe concussion. It's a wonder you were awake when you were brought aboard the chopper," a man said from the doorway.
Peggy recognized the doctor from the helicopter and suddenly everything came back to her, "Oh my God, Joe. Adam, where's Joe? Is he all right?" she cried.
Adam and Dr. Martin looked at each other over the bed. Dr. Martin was the first to speak, "Mrs. Fair. Joe Mannix is in the ICU unit. He's in critical condition right now."
"I want to see him," she told them as she tried to get out of bed.
Adam placed his hand on her shoulder and gently forced her to lie back down, "I don't think you're allowed out of bed yet, Peggy," he said.
"Adam, you don't understand. I have to see him. Please, Dr. Martin, let me go to him. I have to tell him something."
Dr. Martin watched his patient and knew she would not be satisfied until she saw Joe Mannix, "All right, Mrs. Fair. I'll get a wheelchair and we'll take you to see him."
Peggy smiled warmly at the doctor, "Thank you," she said.
"Don't thank me yet. This isn't going to help your headache any and I'm only letting you stay for five minutes. Then it's back to bed for you. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Doctor," Peggy said to his retreating back. "Adam, how bad is Joe?"
"Bad, Peggy. He's got two broken ribs, a knife wound to the shoulder, bullet wound to the leg, and he's developed pneumonia. Dr. Martin started him on antibiotics and placed him in an oxygen tent," Adam explained.
"Joe's a fighter, Adam. He's got to be all right. Toby and I need him."
"I know. I heard what you said back there. It's about time you two admitted to those feelings. I've seen the signs for some time now," Adam grinned sheepishly at her. Before she could answer the door opened and Dr. Martin pushed a wheelchair into the room.
"Ok, young lady, your chariot awaits," Dr. Martin said gruffly.
Peggy smiled at the older mans humour and began to push herself up. The room spun and she leaned back on her pillow.
"Let that be a lesson to you. Concussions are not something to fool around with. Next time wait until one of us is ready to help you, "Dr. Martin told her.
Adam and Dr. Martin helped her into the wheelchair and Dr. Martin placed the IV on the pole attached to the chair. He watched her until she signalled that she was ready and then began to push her out the door. They walked down a long hallway and into a waiting elevator. Dr. Martin pushed the third floor and once again turned to his patient, "Mr. Mannix is hooked up to a lot of equipment right now, Mrs. Fair. I just want you to be ready. I heard Mr. Tobias explaining his injuries to you and I want you to know that he is still in danger," he explained as he pushed her out of the elevator. "The pneumonia was probably brought on by exposure and complicated by his weakened condition. Here we are." He said and stopped in front of a glass-enclosed room.
Peggy saw a woman in a white nurses uniform sitting beside a bed. The man on the bed could just barely be seen through the mist-covered oxygen tent. Two Iv bottles were attached to a pole and led down into his right arm. Heart monitoring equipment took up one side of the bed. Peggy could hear the muffled beeps and clicks as each of the machines did its job to keep the man she loved alive. Tears once again flowed freely from her dark eyes, "Oh, Joe," she whimpered.
"Are you sure you're up to this, Peggy?" Adam asked.
"Yes. I need him to know how I feel."
The nurse came over and held the door so Dr. Martin could push her into the room and over to the bed. Adam stood beside her and held her hand. They both looked at the pale, unconscious man on the bed. Neither noticed as the doctor and nurse left the room.
Peggy took her hand from Adam's and reached out to stroke Joe's arm. The heat seemed to radiate from his body and she knew he was still fighting the fever. She began speaking to him soothingly, "Joe, it's Peggy. I'm here. I'll always be here," silent tears streamed from her eyes as she placed her wet cheek against his hand and then kissed it gently. "You have to be ok, Joe. We have so much to talk about. I need you to know that I meant what I said in the mountains. I do love you. You have made me feel something that I thought was lost to me forever. You took my heart, Joe and it can't survive without you."
Adam listened to what should have been a private conversation but knew he couldn't leave Peggy alone in the room. She was distraught and he worried that it would be too much for her.
Joe Mannix heard her words but was unable to answer. He felt as if he were on a roller coaster and unable to get off. He fought to speak but his dry mouth could not form the words. Every inch of his body cried out in pain but still he wanted her to know he heard her and was fighting to be with her. Using every ounce of strength he could muster he moved his fingers imperceptibly.
Peggy had been holding his still hand to her cheek when she felt the slight movement, "Joe, can you hear me?" she asked unable to keep the excitement from her voice.
Joe heard her question and once again forced his hand to move again.
"You do hear me. Oh, Adam. He's listening. I love you, Joe."
Joe forced his hand to move again. He wanted to tell her he loved her as well but his mouth just wouldn't work. Slowly he forced his eye's to open and looked directly into her eyes.
Dr. Martin had come into the room and moved around to check on his Patients, "Well hello, Mr. Mannix. Nice to finally see you awake."
Joe smiled weakly and tried to speak.
"Don't try to talk. I want you to save your strength for the battle that's ahead of you. I'm not going to beat around the bush, Mr. Mannix. I can tell you right now that you're not out of danger. The broken ribs could have punctured a lung. As it is the pneumonia is still life threatening. I need you to rest. Mr. Tobias, I'd like you to take Mrs. Fair back to her room and make her rest as well."
"No buts. I told you five minutes and you've already stayed longer. Don't argue or I won't allow you to visit again until I've discharged you. Understood?" Peggy nodded her head, "Good. Now as for you, Mr. Mannix, I'd like to examine you and arrange for some tests."
Joe smiled weakly at Peggy as she placed his hand back on the bed and was taken out of the room by Adam. He tried to tell her he loved her as well but all that came out was a weak gasp as the pain in his chest returned and he began to cough.
"Easy, easy, Mr. Mannix. It'll pass in a minute. Would you like something for the pain?" Dr. Martin asked.
Joe wanted to say no but knew from experience what broken ribs felt like on their own and the coughing only heightened the agony. He closed his eyes and nodded his head slightly, "Can I get something to drink," he asked in a raspy voice.
"I'll order some ice chips for now," Dr. Martin signalled for the nurse and ordered a painkiller and ice chips for his patient. The nurse returned and as she placed the drug into the IV line Joe Mannix felt the warmth and slowly the pain receded. His body relaxed and he closed his eyes in sleep.
Adam helped Peggy back into her bed where she closed her eyes to exhausted sleep. He pulled a chair over and sat next to her. It wasn't long before he heard the door open and an excited boy ran to his mother's side.
"Mom," Toby's face took on a scared look as he saw the IV in his mother's hand and the cut on her head. He turned to Adam tears seeping from his eyes, "Is she ok?" he asked fearfully.
"She'll be fine, Toby. She just needs to rest. I told her I'd wake her when you got here."
"Can I wake her?" Toby asked.
"I'm sure she'd like that," Adam grinned.
Toby smiled and took his mother's right hand in his, "Mom, it's me. Toby. Are you gonna sleep all day?"
Peggy heard her sons voice and smiled as she opened her eyes sleepily, "Toby, I missed you," she said as she pulled him closer to the bed. "Give me a kiss. Right here," she said and pointed to her cheek.
"Are you sure it won't hurt you?" Toby asked worriedly.
"I'm sure it won't, son. I bet it will make me feel even better."
Toby grinned and leaned in over his mother. He kissed her cheek and placed his head on the pillow next to her.
Peggy felt the tears flowing down his cheeks, "Hey, what's wrong?" she asked.
"I didn't think I'd see you again," he said seriously.
"Oh, Toby. I'm so sorry you had to worry but I'm ok now and we'll be going home soon," she said as she wiped the tears from his cheeks.
"Is Mr. Mannix ok too?" Toby asked reverting to the name he always used.
"He's not feeling very well right now, Toby. We just have to keep praying that everything works out."
Toby grinned at his mother and Adam, "Mr. Mannix has been hurt before and he always makes it. He wouldn't leave us now, Mom," he told her confidently.
"I think you're right, Toby. Joe Mannix is a fighter and he'll get through this," Peggy said as she wrapped her arms around her son and let herself relax into sleep.
Two days later Adam, Peggy and Toby stood beside Joe Mannix's hospital bed. All three held their breath as the doctor examined the injured man. The oxygen tent had been rolled back and Dr. Martin was looking into his eyes with a small light. Joe was still hooked to an IV and the antibiotics were still running into his arm.
Dr. Martin smiled at the group and then returned to his patient, "Well, Mr. Mannix, it looks as though your friends were right. They said you were a fighter and you are. You seem to be winning the battle against the pneumonia," he said.
Mannix grinned a one sided smile that everyone except the doctor knew meant trouble, "So when do I get out of here?" he asked.
Dr. Martin looked at his patient and shook his head, "I'm afraid you're going to be here for awhile yet. Those broken ribs haven't even begun to mend and I'm afraid your other wounds need to heal some before I even consider letting you out of here. Relax, Mr. Mannix because you're not going anywhere anytime soon."
"Come on, Dr. Martin. You said the pneumonia was getting better," Mannix tried again.
"That's the operative word here, getting better not is better. Is he like this every time he's in the hospital?" he asked the others in the room.
"Yes!" Peggy and Adam exclaimed at once and everyone except Joe Mannix laughed.
"I thought so," the doctor said as he pulled the oxygen tent back down over his unwilling patient. "I'll be back to check on you in the morning. As for you three," he said to the others, "Don't stay to late. He needs his rest and as a matter of fact so do you, Mrs. Fair or would you like to be readmitted?"
"No thank you, Dr. Martin," Peggy said quickly.
As Dr. Martin left the room, Peggy turned to Joe, "How are you really feeling?" she asked.
"Sore," he told her hiding how he really felt.
"I know you better than that, Joe. Are you in much pain?"
"You could always read me like an open book, Peg," he told her and turned his attention to her son, "Hi, Toby."
"Hello, Mr. Mannix. Does it hurt?" Toby asked with childlike innocence.
"Toby!" Peggy exclaimed.
"It's ok, Peg. He's just curious. It does hurt, Toby, but hopefully not for to long. We still have a vacation to finish."
Toby's eyes lit up, "We can go back to the cabin?" he asked excitedly.
"Not right away, Toby. But when things are better and your Mom feels up to it we can. I'll also get you a new sailboat," Mannix told the boy.
Toby brightened even more, "You don't have to, Mr. Mannix. Mr. Guthrie saw what those bad men did to my boat and he made me a new one. It's just like the one you gave me."
"Well that was very nice of him," Joe said.
"The Guthrie's are great people," Adam said.
Peggy turned to Adam and asked, "Can you take Toby downstairs and get him some dinner?" she asked.
"I'm not hungry, Mom," Toby stated firmly.
"Toby, I think your Mom wants to talk to Mr. Mannix alone. This is the only way she can get rid of both of us. Come on we'll get some dinner and bring some back for your Mom," Adam said and smiled at the other two adults in the room.
"Ok," Toby said as they walked to the door, "do you think they'll tell each other how they feel?" he asked. His question took everyone by surprise and Adam burst out laughing.
"I hope so, Toby." Peggy heard Adam say as the door closed behind them. She turned her full attention to the pale man on the bed.
"Pull up a chair," Mannix told her. His head had been raised to an almost sitting position to help him breath easier. He pushed the oxygen tent up so he could see her better. He wanted to touch her beautiful skin and he reached out his hand as she sat in the chair next to the bed. "We need to talk," he said weakly.
"I know," Peggy said as her tears began to flow again.
"You don't need to cry, Peg," he said as he pulled her closer to him. He held her as the sobs became more pronounced and her body shook.
"Oh, Joe. They, they..."
"I know, Honey. But they're gone now. None of them can ever hurt you again. They're all dead."
"I know that, Joe. I just... just keep thinking about what could have happened if you hadn't found me when you did. They tried to kiss me. I got sick. I couldn't help it."
Joe listened as she recanted the story of what had happened to her while she was in the hands of the three convicts. He knew the terror she'd been through would be with her for a long time. He wanted to be there for her, to hold her, to talk to her, to love her. He used his right hand to wipe away her tears and then placed it under her chin. He lifted her face so he could look directly into her eyes, "Peggy, I want to make it all go away but I can't. I love you so much," he said.
"Oh, Joe, I love you too," she laughed and kissed his bruised face gently.
"I guess I've loved you for a long time and was just afraid to say so."
"Afraid I'd chase you away. I knew you'd lost your husband and I knew how much he meant to you."
"He did mean a lot to me and for a long time I couldn't get past his death. I felt betrayed and was afraid to love so fully again. Oh, Joe, why do people waste precious time?"
"I don't know, Peggy. I think people are afraid of change and change is coming. This is the seventies we're living in. It's time people put away their prejudices and fears and let others live their own lives. You and I deserve a chance at happiness and I'm not going to let anything or anyone get in our way."
"Do you think we can make it?"
"I don't think so, I know so, Peggy. I love you too much to lose you because of other peoples petty prejudices. Do you think you love me enough to pick up the fight for our rights as a couple?"
"I do, Joe. I do. But first we have to get you better."
"I'm much better now that I know you feel the same way I do. Do we tell Toby and Adam?"
"From what they were saying when they left I don't think we have to," she laughed.
"Were we that transparent?"
"We must have been, although I thought we did a good job of keeping it from each other."
"You're right about that. Maybe to good a job," he laughed and began to cough violently.
"Time to put this back down," Peggy said as she pulled away and put the tent back over him.
Slowly the coughing subsided and he smiled weakly at her, "Sorry, Peg, that wasn't very romantic."
"We'll have plenty of time for romance when you get out of here," she told him and turned as a knock came on the ICU door.
"Can we come back in?" Toby asked.
"Just long enough to say goodnight," Peggy laughed.
"Did you tell him, Mom?" Toby asked.
"Tell him what?" Peggy laughed.
"You know that kiss, kiss stuff," Toby said.
"Toby!" she exclaimed.
"Don't blame your son, Peggy. I've been wondering the same thing," Adam grinned at the look that passed between his two friends.
"Oh for God's sake. Yes. We told each other how we felt," she said a smile broadening on her face as she reached out to her son.
"That's great, Mom. You and Mr. Mannix are gonna get married."
"Toby!" Peggy exclaimed.
"What?" Toby asked innocently.
"Can't we at least have a chance for romantic dinners and dancing before we talk about marriage?"
"Ah, Mom. You and Mr. Mannix can have a date or two I guess."
"Peg," Joe said and waited for her to look at him. "If we're gonna date I think it's time for Toby to start calling me Joe instead of Mr. Mannix all the time."
"I guess your right. Then you wouldn't have to sneak him candy when you think I'm not looking," she said and her eyes danced with laughter and happiness. "Let's get out of here so Joe can rest."
"That's a good idea. It's time for me to give him his meds and settle him down for the night. When you come in tomorrow he'll probably be moved out of ICU and into his own private room," Joe's nurse said as she entered the room.
"That's wonderful news. Thank you, Nurse," Peggy said.
"You're welcome, Mrs. Fair."
Peggy, Adam and Toby said goodnight and left Joe in the competent hands of his nurse.
Joe watched them leave and smiled at the thought of seeing Peggy romantically. He knew they had a lot of obstacles to overcome but he had confidence that they could do anything together. A smile spread over his face and he closed his eye's to dream about what was to come.
To be continued in another story...Obsessed!