Title--The Road Not Taken
Disclaimer--I own no claim to Mannix or the characters and make no profit from this fic.
Comments--This is for my sister Louise whose undying devotion to the show makes her Joe Mannix's number one fan. Happy birthday, Louise, hope this keeps you entertained.
The Road Not Taken
Joe Mannix looked at the sign swinging in the wind and was transported back through the years to a time when summers meant horse back riding and excitement. His memories of his last visit were bittersweet and he briefly thought about turning away, but he'd never shied away from anything in his life, no matter how bitter the pill was to swallow. He'd passed through the small town of Dubois and driven along the dirt road for nearly 22 miles until he pulled to a stop in front of the gate.
The Lazy L had originally belonged to Calvin and Joan Longladd, but the couple had retired years ago and turned the working dude ranch over to their son. From everything Joe had read about The Lazy L, Calvin Longladd Jr. had done well by the ranch and had made it even more profitable since his marriage to Julie Davenport.
Joe's mind flashed to the beautiful red head who'd spent the summer at The Lazy L. He'd been sixteen at the time and needed to get away from his father and the problems that cropped up between them. He smiled as he remembered his mother's words just before he'd left home. She'd told him he was so much like his father and that someday he'd find his lot in life and when he did he'd come to understand what made his father tick.
Joe realized she was right, but that it had taken a lot of years before he was able to sit down with his father and come to an understanding. The older man now understood that working the grapes was not for his son, and Joe had finally realized that his father really did have his best interests at heart. He now made it a point of calling Stefan Mannix every week and visited him whenever he had a free weekend. Stefan had also come to LA on several occasions and surprisingly he'd enjoyed seeing the sights.
"Joe…Joe Mannix? Is that really you?"
Joe turned to look at the pretty woman standing beside his car, holding the reins of a beautiful chestnut in her left hand. She hadn't changed much, still had that perfect smile that could brighten up a stormy night, the green eyes sparkled with delight as she tugged open the door and reached inside to hug him. "Hi, Julie, you look great."
"No, I don't, but thank you anyway," Julie told him. "Did Cal call you?"
"Yes, he did," Mannix said, his heart aching as he thought about the feelings he'd once held for this woman. It still hurt, but it wasn't the devastating pain he'd felt at her betrayal. There'd been a time when he'd contemplated marrying Julie Davenport, but she'd turned him down flat when she realized his best friend could give her more than Joe Mannix ever could. Joe felt slightly guilty at still seeing her as a gold digger, but had long since come to terms with the fact that she made Cal happy. The last time he'd spoken with Cal they'd been expecting their third child, although Julie didn't look like she'd ever given birth.
"Are you going to help us?" Julie asked, leaning against the car.
"I'm going to try, Julie," Mannix told her. "Where's Cal?"
"He's up at the house with the children. He's so good with them, Joe."
"Cal always wanted a wife and a houseful of children," the detective told her, holding her at arms length when she turned to look at him.
"What about you, Joe? Didn't you want…"
"What I wanted isn't important anymore, Julie..."
"Isn't it? I knew it would be hard seeing you again, Joe, but…"
"It is hard, but you're married to Cal now and there can't be anything between us," Mannix warned.
"I know…but tell me you do have some regrets."
"We all do…but they fade with time. You and Cal have a family and as long as you love each other nothing else matters."
"That's just it, Joe, I don't know if I love him…I don't know if I ever did," Julie said. "I should have waited…"
"It's too late for that," Mannix said and got back into his car while she placed her hands on the closed door and let the tears slide from her eyes. "I'll see you at the house."
"Don't tell Cal you saw me," Julie whispered.
"I won't…unless he asks. I'm not going to lie to him, Julie, that's what happened the last time and I refuse to hurt him any more," Mannix said and drove through the open gates. It took another five minutes to reach the house and Joe pulled to a stop behind a weather beaten black Chevy truck. He opened the door and stepped out, leaning against his car as he looked up at the main building. It hadn't changed much over the years, still painted the same off white with brown trim and shutters on the windows. Flowers grew in pots on the sweeping verandah, but what caught his attention were the two children playing in the sandbox in front of the windows. Their laughter wafted up on the wind and brought a smile to his face.
Mannix turned to see the man striding purposefully toward him, dust covering the blue jeans as he flipped the black cowboy hat off his head. "Cal," Mannix said and shook the other man's hand.
"Damn, it's good to see you…I must admit I didn't think you'd come."
"I almost didn't," Mannix answered honestly. The year had been hard on Cal Longladd and the lines of age were evident on his forehead. "You look like…"
"Hell," Cal said with a slight smile. "Thanks for being honest."
"Are things as bad as you told me in the letter?"
"Worse, Joe, I don't know what I'll do if you can't help me find out who's behind it," Longladd told him, smiling as his children spotted him and came running. He lifted them both and hugged them before releasing them and introducing them to their guests. "Joe, this pretty little filly…"
"I'm not a filly, I'm a girl," the child said and folded her arms crossly. There was no mistaking who her parents were because she had her father's mannerisms and her mother's fiery red hair and green eyes.
"A filly is a girl, Lily," the boy lightly scolded.
"A girl horse…I ain't no horse…"
"I'm not a horse," Lily told her father.
"No, but you're still a filly," her brother teased.
"Okay, Bryan, stop teasing your sister and show Joe you have some manners," Cal told the children. "Joe Mannix, I'd like you to meet Bryan and Lily Longladd."
"Hello, Mr. Mannix," the children said as one and smiled when he shook hands with them.
"Are you going to help Dad?" Bryan asked.
"Easy, Bryan, Joe only just got here and it's not nice to start asking for help before we've even offered him some refreshments," Cal said. He'd known the children had overheard some of the conversations he had with his wife, and wished there was some way to keep them out of it, but like all kids they had big ears and were smart enough to put two and two together.
"Mind your manners, Bryan…Mr. Mannix would you like some lemonade?" Lily asked, suddenly becoming the perfect little hostess.
"Did you make it?" Joe asked.
"No…I'm too small to squeeze lemons and reach the water taps, but Mommy makes the best lemonade in Wyoming," Lily assured him.
"Where is your mother?" Cal asked and looked around.
"She went for a ride," Bryan answered.
"I saw her a few minutes ago," Joe told him, and saw a hint of the old jealousy in the way Longladd looked at him. "She rode up just as I got here."
"Bryan, why don't you and Lily go inside and ask Cookie to bring some refreshments?" Cal said and led Mannix toward the patio table. Once the children disappeared inside, he turned to his guest and sat down tiredly. "I'm sorry, Joe, I know how hard it must be for you to come back here…seeing Julie and all."
"Julie and I ended things a long time ago, Cal, you know that?"
"I know, but I also know she still has some feelings for you," Longladd told him. "I catch her staring at that old photograph we took the night before you returned to Summergrove."
"She made her choice, Cal, and from what I've seen she loves you," Mannix assured him. The sun beat down on the dusty driveway, while the soft wind did little to cool the heat of the summer day.
"I know…God help me I do, Joe, but I still feel so damn inadequate where she's concerned," he said, smiling when he spotted his wife riding toward them.
"Just keep telling her how much you love her, Cal, that's all she needs," Mannix assured his friend.
"What about you, Joe? Did you ever find someone special?"
"I did," Mannix said softly and thought about the woman who'd become not just his secretary, but his confidante and possibly even more if things continued as they were.
"I'm glad…you deserve to be happy." Cal stood up and hugged his wife as she joined them on the patio. There were several ranch hands working horses in the corral while half a dozen guests watched them from the fence.
"Hello again, Joe," Julie said softly. "Did you tell Cal we ran into each other at the gate?"
"He did…Lily and Bryan are inside," Cal told her.
"I think I hear someone else calling," Julie said and turned toward the door. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
"God, Joe, I know it's unfair of me to ask, but I don't have a choice. I need your help," Longladd stated and began to pace the short distance between the table and the door.
"That's why I came, Cal, what's going on?"
"I think someone is trying to ruin me. Not just me, but my family and our reputation. I don't have anything concrete, Joe, but there have been some strange things happening and some long time guests are pulling out of their agreements," Longladd told him, growing quiet as the children returned with the woman who'd been like a second mother to him.
"Hello, Joe," Maria 'Cookie' Delaney greeted, placing the tray of lemonade, glasses and finger cookies on the patio table before hugging the newcomer fondly. "You need to visit more, Joe, I miss seeing that handsome face of yours."
"You're still the most beautiful woman in the state, Maria," Mannix said, returning the affection the woman had always shown him, smiling when she swatted his shoulder.
"You always know just what to say to an old woman…"
"What old woman?" Mannix asked with a grin.
"Oh, Joe, you make me smile…better watch it or I'm going to have to marry you."
"Anytime, Maria," the detective told her. Maria had always been a part of The Lazy L and they'd flirted since his first trip to the ranch.
"You wish," Maria said and poured two glasses of lemonade. "I need to go back inside before Bryan and Lily eat the rest of the cookie batter. Cal, call me if you need anything else."
"I will, Cookie, thanks," Longladd said, sighing heavily as his wife returned carrying their ten month old son. He reached out and took the child in his arms and kissed his forehead. "Joe Mannix, we'd like you to meet Joseph William Longladd…your namesake."
Joe Mannix stared at the child held in his father's arms. The pride and joy were easy to read, and it floored him that they'd actually called the baby after him. Before he could say anything the baby made several small sounds before reaching out and latching onto his fingers. He smiled, lifted the boy into his arms, and sat down while his hosts watched his face. "Cal, Julie…I don't know what to say...thank you."
"There's nothing for you to thank us for, Joe," Longladd told him and wrapped his arms around his wife. "I knew the minute he was born what his name would be. I know I've done some things that hurt you, but I honestly didn't do it on purpose."
"I know, Cal, it's in the past now and we've both gotten a little older and hopefully a little smarter," Mannix said, chuckling softly when the baby burped loudly. "He's definitely your son, Cal."
"You noticed that," Longladd said.
"Joe, are you going to help us?" Julie asked.
""I'm going to do what I can," Mannix assured her. "I'll need to know everything that's happened and when it started."
"I started documenting everything after they poisoned the well the second time," Cal told him and waited for his wife to take the child and go back into the house. "She's scared, Joe, and I don't blame her. Lily got really sick after she drank from the well and we thought we were going to lose her."
"What about the police? Have they been able to find anything?"
"No, Jarrod and Clancy are damn good at what they do, but even a small town like Dubois keeps them busy. It's damn hard for them to make the trip out here every time something happens. There's no way of proving the well was poisoned on purpose, but when you see everything else it begins to look like a conspiracy. God, I sound like a kid who thinks everyone's against him."
"No, you sound like a man who's worried about his family," Mannix assured him. "How many guests were here when things started happening?"
"The first time there were only four, but I trust them, Joe. They've been coming out here since I was knee high to a grasshopper. You probably remember them Gary and Anita Whelan from New York."
"I remember they loved to ride, but they hated anything faster than a slow walk," Mannix said with a soft laugh. "Didn't they have a daughter?"
"Carolyn…she married that boy with all the freckles. Chad Lawrence…they tag along with her parents and was the second couple staying in the bunkhouse. Actually they're due here tomorrow along with four other couples," Longladd explained. "I just wish I didn't feel like things were going to hell real fast."
"We'll find out who's behind the attacks, Cal, but it might not be a bad idea to keep the guests to a minimum," Mannix warned.
"I've cancelled the group due in next week, but it was too late to cancel the greenhorns coming in tomorrow. They've paid in full and with everything that's happened I can't afford to refund their money," Longladd told him. "I know it'll be harder to investigate with so many people around, and I wish I could change things, but…"
"Cal, you don't need to explain things to me," Mannix assured his friend. "I want to see all the reports you have from the police and I'd like a list of everyone who works for you. I'm also going to need to find out about your seasonal workers and who else employs them."
"I figured as much and I have everything ready for you, but first we need to get you settled," Longladd said. "You'll be staying in the main guest room."
"It might be better if I stayed with the hired hands, especially if we want to give the impression that I work for you," Mannix advised. When they'd first spoken of the trouble he'd suggested taking the job under the guise of being just another ranch hand. He knew enough about riding to get along and had ridden in several of the cattle drives during the summers he'd spent at The Lazy L.
"Are you sure, Joe, I mean there's plenty of room in the main house," Longladd told him.
"I know, but it'll be easier to get information from the other hands if they think I'm one of them."
"Charlie is still with us, Joe, but I told him we needed him to treat you like any other newcomer."
"One and the same. He's nearly seventy now, but he's still up at the crack of dawn and milks the cows by hand," Longladd said with a grin.
"Hard to believe he's still around. Does he still chew tobacco?"
"Hell yes, disgusting habit, but he can't seem to stop. Come on…grab your bags and I'll show you to your bunk. Are you sure this is the best way to work it?"
Joe walked to his car and opened the trunk before answering. "It just might make it easier for the men to open up if they think I'm one of them. There's no way of knowing if any of them are involved, but if there's anyone you're suspicious of I'll listen. I'd also like access to the employee files."
"They're in the files in my office. When you come back tomorrow I'll figure out an excuse to have you come up to the house," Longladd assured him.
Joe pulled out his suitcase and made closed the trunk before walking beside his friend. He prayed they'd be able to find out who was behind the attacks before they got worse and someone was killed. The thought that someone as young as Lily Longladd had nearly died because of the unbiased attacks made his blood run cold.
The bunkhouse was situated toward the back of the lot, around four hundred meters away from the main house. It was a single story building made of rough wood, but it was weather tight and comfortable inside. The windows were covered in beige curtains that were drawn back to the center and tied with dark brown cords. The main doors were barred open and laugher could be heard as the neared the structure and stepped inside. Of the twelve beds, six were occupied while the others were covered with clean blankets and toiletries with The Lazy L logo encrypted on them.
Joe made his way toward the last bunk situated beneath an open window. He placed his suitcase on the bed and turned to face the others as Longladd made the introductions.
"Boys, this is Joe Mannix and he'll be taking over for Jake Ryan…"
"Isn't Jake coming back, Cal?"
"No, Taylor, he's not…at least not any time in the near future," Longladd explained. "Joe's been a ranch hand on several of the big spreads in Texas, but he's decided he likes the weather here better."
"Don't see why…flies, hornets, ants, mosquitoes, dust…not much different from Texas," Walter Scott said with a grin.
"Yeah, but they grow everything bigger in Texas. Ever rope and ride a horse fly?" Mannix asked the burly man who sat at the long table.
"Maybe once or twice, but it was hard getting the bit in their mouth," Scott said and moved to shake hands with the newcomer. "Name's Walter Scott, but folks around here call me Walt."
"Joe Mannix," the detective told him. He shook hands, feeling the callused skin that spoke of years of working on a ranch and knew Scott could see right through him. He met the man's blue gray eyes and knew this man would not rat him out, but also saw the promise that he'd be watching him closely.
"Well, Mannix, I hope you know how to handle yourself on a horse because we're heading out to check on the cattle in the foothills at first light," Scott warned.
"I've ridden a few times," Mannix assured the older man.
"Walt is my foreman, Joe, and he likes to think he's got a say in how the ranch works…truth is he does," Longladd finished and nodded to the others before leaving Mannix to get to know the men he'd be working with.
"Young whipper snapper thinks he knows everything there is to know about running a ranch," Scott told them. He'd been part of The Lazy L for nearly twenty years and had worked hard to get where he was. He knew the Longladds had run into a pack of trouble and hoped the newcomer was there to help them.
"I learned it all from you, Walt," Longladd said. "Joe, if there's anything you need just ask one of the boys and they'll help you out."
"Thanks, Cal," Mannix said, sitting on the edge of the bed while his friend left.
"So, you rode them damn horse flies hard did you?"
"Rode them hard and put them away wet," Mannix told him. He opened the top drawer of the small dresser beside his bed and slowly unpacked his clothing and hung his jacket on the hook next to the bed. He could feel the others watching him, and knew they were appraising him much the same way he'd be doing to them over the next few days.
"Well, Boys, Joe's new and needs time to settle in, but the rest of us have chores to do and we'd better get to them," Scott ordered. "Supper's served at six and you'd better bring your appetite unless you want Maria chewing you out."
"Ain't no mister, Joe…everyone calls me Walt," Scott said and followed the others out of the bunkhouse.
Joe lay back against the pillows and thought about the reason he'd come back to The Lazy L. So far someone had been poisoning the well and it had nearly killed Lily Longladd. Then, a few days later they'd found a few scattered cattle killed and left to rot in the hot sun. There didn't seem to be any reason behind it, but Joe knew if he looked deep enough he would find the correlating information that would lead him to the people behind the malicious acts.
Joe found his thoughts returning to the time he spent at The Lazy L and the things he'd learned about riding horses and the workings of a true dude ranch. He'd laughed and joked with Cal before Julie came into the picture, after that their friendship had been put to the test every time she batted her eyelashes. She'd been a flirtatious sixteen year old and their hormones had run wild…he'd kissed her one night when the moon was high in the sky and soft summer breeze tickled his skin and heightened his senses. It had been the first and last kiss between them, because the next day Cal Longladd had discovered the beauty in skin tight blue jeans and made his move. He'd promised her the dreams of every young woman and with his boyish good looks and stunning smile; she'd fallen for his every word. They'd become an item soon after and Joe knew he'd lost to his best friend, but he didn't begrudge him the happiness he seemed to have found.
Joe sighed and turned on his side and knew he had no regrets, but he'd often wondered what his life would have been like had he pursued Julie Davenport. Would he have married her? Had children? Would they have moved back to Summergrove and taking up working with his father? No, he couldn't have lived like that…depending on whether there'd be enough rain or if the early frost would kill the vines. He wasn't cut out for that and his mother had known that early on. She'd been the one to insist he get away for the mid summer months and he'd jumped at the promise of horseback riding in the mountains. The long nights, cookouts, and listening to the older wranglers talk about the good old days had filled his every waking moment.
Joe knew how hard it had been for Cal to call him, especially after the last time. Cal was so insecure about how Julie felt about him that he'd flown into a jealous rage the day he'd found Joe talking with her near the small creek that ran along the edge of The Lazy L. They'd come to blows, with no real victor until Cal Sr. showed up and pulled them apart. They'd both had to sit through a lecture while Joan Longladd cleaned their wounds and looked at hem with disappointment in her eyes. Joe knew Cal had nothing to be jealous of where he was concerned, but there was no way he could convince his friend of that. Joan had come to him the next day as he was packing his suitcase and Joe smiled at the thought of the woman who'd become such an integral part of his life. She hugged him and told him she knew the problems between him and Cal were centered around Julie Davenport, but that her son really did love the young woman. It was a year later that he got the announcement that the couple was to be married. He'd had a few calls from Cal since then, but they hadn't really connected since the day he'd left Wyoming.
Joe stood up, walked toward the door, and leaned against the doorframe. He could hear the Longladd's children laughing and again felt stunned by the news that Cal and Julie had called their youngest son after him. It was an honor he had never been given before and he vowed to find out exactly who was behind the attacks and put a stop to them. He looked around the yard, stopping when he spotted several of the ranch hands working to mend the fence surrounding the corral.
Mannix walked slowly toward the corral, hoping that by offering to help out he'd gain some ground with the men. If they saw that he was not only ready and willing, but able to help out they might let their guard down long enough for him to get some answers. The sun was high in the sky, but it was already starting the last leg of its daily journey across the azure blue skies. The wind rustled the branches of the nearby trees, bringing back more memories of the lazy summer days of his youth. He reached the men, but no one took notice of him until he spoke.
"Is there anything I can do?" Mannix asked.
"I don't know…is there anything you can do?" Scott asked with a grin.
"Well, I've mended my share of fences…even if it's just to hold a piece of wood while someone else hammers the nails," the detective told him.
"Well then grab a hold and we'll get this done," the foreman ordered. There was something about the newcomer he liked and trusted in spite of the fact that Joe Mannix did not have a rancher's hands. They were the hands of a hard worker, but they didn't have the calluses that spoke of a lifetime of working with horses, cattle, and everything else that went with the job.
Joe raised an eyebrow at the man's easy perusal and picked up one of the logs and held it in place while another man used a hammer to secure it to the fence post. They worked in tandem until the fence was complete and sweat rolled down their cheeks. Joe walked to the water trough and picked up the dipper before using the old pump to bring water from the well. He kept pumping while his fellow workers washed the sweat from their faces. He finally stripped out of the dirty blue denim shirt and doused it with water before ducking his head under the tap and pumping more water from the well.
"Get used to it, Mannix, the next few weeks are supposed to be real scorchers even for this part of the state."
Joe looked up at the tall, gangling 'cowboy' who sat on the edge of the trough. The man's jet black hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail and his face was pock marked with old scars. The eyes were dark brown with the bushy eyebrows meeting in the middle and forming a V. "Thanks for the warning."
"Any time…the name's Paul Tucker," the man said and offered his hand.
Mannix took it and felt the man sizing him up as he squeezed his fingers. Joe simply smiled and applied his own force and saw the respect on Tucker's face before they released the grip. "How long have you worked for the Longladds?"
"About two months," Tucker said, still feeling like an outsider in spite of his ability to do the jobs he'd been assigned.
"There was talk in town about them having problems," Mannix said, watching the man closely for any reaction.
"I wasn't here when the well was poisoned, but there have been other accidents since then," Tucker explained.
"That's what the men are calling them, but I think there's something going on….someone's out to ruin the Longladds," Tucker told him.
"Have you talked to Longladd?"
"About this?" Tucker asked shaking his head. He had his suspicions, but there was no evidence to back him up. Bein the new man onboard was hard enough without having the regular hands think of him as a snitch. "I'm new here, Mannix, and I doubt I'd be able to convince him of anything. Look, I'd better go, but just a warning here…don't look for trouble because it normally shows up on its own when you least expect it."
"Thanks, I'll remember that," Mannix said, unaware that he was being watched.