Miracle in the High Sierras
By Janet Brayden
Somewhere, in the deep recesses of sleep, Cayce McKenna thought she heard the school bell.
Rolling over to her left side, she pulled her covers up over her head and tried to ignore it. She couldn't ignore her six-year-old Australian Shepherd, Rusty. The dog whined and nudged her until she was awake enough to reach for the ringing telephone on the nightstand next to her bed.
"'Lo," she said groggily.
"Cayce, it's Cody. Did Nick decide to spend the night up there with you?"
"Cody? Do you know what time it is?" Bleary eyes looked at the luminous dial on her watch.
"Cayce, hon, wake up. Is Nick spending an extra night with you?"
"No, he's not here. Isn't he home?" was the reply
"No, he's not," was the reply.
Cayce was wide awake now. She sat bolt upright in her bed.
"What do you mean he's not home? He left here late this morning." Cayce was getting scared now and she could hear the panic Cody was trying to hide. "Cody, we all know that you're only three hours or so away by air. Nick should have been home hours ago."
Getting out of bed she barked orders to her oldest "brother".
'You and Murray pack a bag and some clothes for Nick. I'm coming to get you. In the meantime call the FAA and see if they've heard anything. Tell them we have a helicopter and pilot missing. I'll see you in three hours!"
With that she hung up the phone, then dialed the bunkhouse extension. When Alex McGregor answered she quickly explained what was happening. Seconds later all the lights in the bunkhouse were on.
No more than five minutes later, Cayce was clattering down the back stairs into the kitchen to let McGregor, Brian Hays and KC Campion into the house via the back door. They went into Cayce's office and warmed up her short wave radio. Campion got on the phone to the Sunny Acres police who promised to get word out to the other departments in the immediate vicinity. When he hung up Campion made more calls - to the state police in California and Nevada as well as local airports and the CAA.
Brain Hays was on the radio.
"Sikorsky N619er, this is the Lazy M Ranch. Can you read me? Over."
There was no answer except for a lot of static.
While Campion and Hays were on the phone and trying to raise Nick on the radio, Cayce and McGregor were looking over a map of the area and the area where Cayce's wildlife refuge was located. Once she got back with Cody and Boz she planned on taking her helicopter, the Red Baroness, up. It would be late morning by the time she returned with the two men by which time there would be ground units searching as well as planes.
"Call Cody and tell him and Murray to meet me at the Mimi's helipad," Cayce said as she went out the door pulling her sheepskin jacket on as she went.
The sky was pitch black with millions of tiny white lights - stars - twinkling in it. The moon was full and bright making the snow on the ground appear blue.
Cayce pulled her collar up around her neck as the bitter January wind blew through the field where the baroness was parked. The breeze from the rotor whipped loose tendrils of hair across her face. Ranch hand Frank Harding, a dually licensed pilot - meaning he was capable of flying fixed wing and rotary craft, had started the chopper's motor and was waiting for his employer.
"Want me to come along, Miss Cayce?" he asked.
"Not this trip," she told him. "I'm flying down to King Harbor to get Cody and Murray. If you want to take the Bluebird up when it gets light you can start the search." she pulled leather gloves on her cold hands. "When I get back we can better coordinate the search. Murray won't be happy, but I'm going to leave him here at the house. He's the most capable of us by far with electronics. Maybe he can boost the radio's power or track any signals or messages Nick sends out."
Shivering in the cold, she said, "I pray he's not hurt - just lost. Cody would be devastated if anything were to happen to Nick. So would Murray."
"So would a certain young rancher I know," the cowboy said.
And some cowboys?" she asked as she climbed aboard.
"The Baroness took off whipping the powdery snow around as Frank watched his employer turn southwest toward Los Angeles. He then turned toward the twin engine plane Cayce used for trips to the wildlife refuge. He intended to give her a good pre-flight check before taking off at dawn.
In King Harbor, Cody anxiously paced the deck of the Riptide while he waited for Cayce to arrive. He was sick with worry over Nick's failure to return home and the lack of contact anybody had had with him.
Below decks, in his cabin, Murray was tapping into every computer he could think of to see if he could find any information on their missing friend. So far he hadn't found anything but he kept at it. It beat sitting around doing nothing of pacing like Cody was doing.
Two hours later Murray heard Cody call him from the deck.
"Murray - Cayce's here. Let's go!"
Murray scrambled to shut down his computer and put the Roboz on alert. Then he went topside to join his friends. He carried his suitcase with him.
He was greeted with a warm hug from Cayce.
"Hi, Boz," she said. "You doing okay?"
"Yes, I think so. I've been trying to find Nick by tapping into other computers but I didn't have any luck."
"Don't kick yourself, Murray. It may be that the database he's to be listed in isn't up to date just yet. The hospitals in my area have been busy with victims of car wrecks and slip and fall accidents. Some roads are snow covered and some are icy and there are very tall snow banks to try and see around."
"What are we standing around for?" an agitated Cody asked. "Let's go!"
Cayce turned to follow him but stopped when she noticed that Cody was not carrying his suitcase, and in fact she didn't any bag but Murray's.
"Aren't you forgetting something, Cody?" she asked.
"Like what?" Cody was so intent on looking for Nick that he didn't know what she was talking about.
"Your suitcase - and one for Nick," she answered.
"Oh." Cody only noticed that the missing bags now that it was pointed out to him.
"Go on," Cayce told him. "Pack a bag for you and one for Nick. Make sure its jeans - not shorts. And no sandals."
Cody went below in a daze, to pack the two suitcases. When he was out of earshot Cayce turned to Murray.
"He's not doing so good, is he?"
'No," the slender scientist said. "He's worried sick and frustrated that he can't do anything to help."
"And you?" Cayce asked gently.
"I'm worried, too," Murray said, "but at least I can run computer checks."
Cody joined them a moment later and the trio headed for the Baroness. They were airborne a couple of minutes later headed northeast toward the Lazy M. No sound was heard from the occupants except for Cayce checking in with the LAX flight control center and the Lazy M. She kept the radio tuned to the Lazy M's frequency and spoke to McGregor, Nays and Campion who were on standby in the office.
Frank Harding was about to take off in the Bluebird to start the aerial search.
"Where are you going to start your search, Brian?" his boss asked him.
"I'm going to fly over the area where we saw that herd of mule deer last week. It seems like a logical place to begin searching."
"Good idea. Once I drop Murray off and pick up a copy of the detailed map of the preserve I'm going to refuel and head for the other side. It could be that Nick saw something we don't know about and went in for a closer look - maybe another herd of mule deer or something. I did ask him to try and get an idea of the size of the herd."
Cody's face stayed pale and his features were set like stone. He didn't like this "hurry up and wait" business. Nick and Murray were the brothers he'd never had. To have one missing with no idea of where he was bothered him more than he could say. He and Nick had gone that route with Murray once. He didn't want to go through it again.
Cayce glanced over at him. She, too, was worried but she was determined not to show it. Seeing how scare, and worried, Cody was she switched hands on the cyclic. Reaching over she took his right hand in her left one and gave it an encouraging squeeze.
"We'll find him, Cody," she said. "We'll find him."
Cody tried to smile but it was more of a grimace than anything. Cayce gave him an understanding smile, then concentrated on her flying and monitoring the searchers by radio.
Roughly three hours later they came in for a landing at the Lazy M. Two of Cayce's ranch hands grabbed the bags and headed toward the house while two others pushed the chopper to the fuel pump.
Cayce, and her brothers, headed for the house to check in, get Murray settled and grab maps. They were greeted by Cayce's housekeeper, Josefina Delgado who had a pot of coffee for the men and a cup of hot chocolate for Cayce who couldn't stand the taste of coffee.
Putting the hot beverages down on the small table she had set up outside the office she pulled first her employer, then the two men into warm, comforting hugs.
"Ai! You are so pale - all three of you! Sit. Eat. Rest a few minutes while the men regroup and get the Baroness ready to fly again."
Cody opened his mouth to protest but Josefina cut him off.
"You will do as I say, Señor Cody. You will do Señor Nick no good if you faint from hunger or because you do have rested."
"She's right, Cody," Cayce said. "If I know you you haven't slept a wink all night. It's already quarter after eight. Relax for a few minutes while I get some things together. We'll leave shortly. I'm sure search and rescue is already on the move. We will be within fifteen minutes - I promise."
So saying she made a quick trip upstairs to gather her camera and telephoto lens, an air mattress and pillow, a sleeping bag and a couple of blankets. Downstairs again she handed these things to Brian Hays who took them out to be stowed in the Baroness. Cayce, meanwhile got several large thermoses of coffee, cocoa and hot water as well as some bouillon cubes and a well stocked first aid kit. She strapped her hunting knife, in its sheath to her belt
A trip to the den got sidearms and rifles plus extra ammunition for herself and Cody. One look at the gun cabinet told her that Frank was also prepared for almost anything.
"Here." Cayce handed Cody one of the rifles.
"What's this for? You think Nick's in some kind of trouble?" The panic was rising to the surface again.
"Cody, calm down." His "sister" put her hand on his shoulder. "I just want us to be prepared for anything. You've only been there in the summer when the ground was clear. There's five feet of snow up in those hills now. The animals are finding it difficult to find food. Mountain lions don't hibernate - they may be hunting. If game is scare they'll attack anything."
"Are you worried about mountain lions, Cayce?" Murray asked.
"I'm worried, period, Boz."
She gave him a steadying look. It seemed funny that she was the calm one but they were on her home ground. In the city they would have the advantage and be the calming ones. Now the tables were turned and she was going to remain calm, cool and collected - even if it killed her! She would not let her "family" down.
"Nick's a good pilot but he and the Mimi are not used to the sudden storms we sometimes get. He could be lost or hurt of had to make an emergency landing somewhere she his radio signal can't get through."
"All set, Miss Cayce," Brian Hays said as he returned to the house. "All the gear is packed and the food and the Baroness is refueled and ready to take off."
"Thanks, Brian," his employer said as she stood. "Come on, Cody. It's time for us to join the search."
Turning to Murray, McGregor, Josefina and the others she said, "I'll check in every fifteen minutes once we're in the air. Keep checking with the ground search teams and let me know what you hear. Set up the spare radio in the den. One man on each radio can monitor me and change frequencies often. If Nick's gone down somewhere - of even if he hasn't - he may be trying to reach help by broadcasting on different frequencies."
With that, and a final hug from Josefina, she and Cody were out the door.
The sun shone brightly on the new fallen snow. The siblings, as they thought of themselves, hurried across the yard to the waiting helicopter. Several grim faced ranch hands, tending to ordinary chores, waved them off.
"Lazy M, we're taking off now. I'm going to head northeast and start covering the preserve from the south. Please let air traffic control at Silver City Field know that I will contact them as soon as I'm in range of their receiver."Once airborne, Cayce notified the airport nearest Sunny Acres of her destination and flight path. A little while later, as they approached the Nevada border, Cayce handed Cody a pair of binoculars from the box she had dragged close to the cockpit to be within easy reach.
"We're about to cross the state line where my land starts. I'll watch for signs of Nick or the Mimi or whatever on my side. You look out on your side."
"What do I look for - the Mimi turned into a pile of scrap? Nick's dead body?"
"Cody!" the rancher/pilot snapped. "Don't be such a pessimist. It's not like you."
"I'm sorry," Cody said contritely. "I'm scared - you know?"
"I know," Cayce smiled at him. "Just remember that we don't know that anything has happened to him. We only know that he's late. He's probably just fine, sitting someplace in front of a nice warm fire in one of the cabins up here and cursing us for being slow to get there - wherever he is."
Her words got a brief smile out of Cody bit the worried frown was back seconds later as he trained the binoculars on the countryside hoping to see something that would lead them to Nick.
Cayce watched him with an inward sigh.
"They are so joined at the hip," she thought. "All three of them but especially Nick and Cody. Nick, you'd better be okay. I'll be upset but Cody will be completely lost without you."
"Sikorsky N Six One Niner, this is Skirosky N Six Zero Two, can you hear me?"
Cayce tried several times but had no luck raising Nick so she radioed the Lazy M.
"Lazy M Ranch this is Skirosky N Six Zero Two - how do you read me?"
McGregor answered "Sikorsky N Six Zero Two, you're a little staticy but we can understand you."
"Hang on, Lazy M," Cayce said. "I'm going to go a little higher and get clear of these peaks."
She guided the Baroness about a hundred feet higher and tried again.
"Lazy M Ranch this is Sikorsky N Six Zero Two can you hear me better now?"
"Much," the ranch foreman said.
"Alex, what's happening on your end? Any word from Nick?"
"Negative, Sikorsky N Six Zero Two. We've heard nothing on any frequency."
"How about the CAP or the ground teams?"
"Negative. Nothing from them either. Sorry Miss Cayce."
Cayce let out a frustrated sigh.
"He's out there somewhere, I'm sure of it," Cayce said. "I just wish I had a better idea of where to look." She was silent for a moment, then said, "I'm going to head further northeast where the ground is more open. I'll be out of your range but will relay through Silver City to Sunny Acres. They'll keep you informed of my progress."
"Roger. Take care of yourself," McGregor said as he signed off.
The next couple of hours were spent searching the area where Cayce had taken the men camping the summer before on the off chance that there might be some landmarks left uncovered by the consistent snowfall that Nick might recognize. It was another dead end.
"Daylight's fading fast, today," Cayce said with frustration. I hate to say it but we're going to have to stop for the night. The Baroness doesn't have a searchlight and flashlights won't cut it at this altitude."
"We can't quit now," Cody was distraught to say the least. "What if he's sick or hurt? He could be nearby and we just can't see him."
"Cody!" Cayce spoke sharply. "DO you think I don't know that? I'm worried about him, too, but I can't risk flying in the dark with no searchlight. We could go right by him and not even know it."
'I suppose so," Cody agreed reluctantly.
"Hey, cheer up. I didn't say we were going all way back to the Lazy M did I?"
Cody looked at her quizzically. "We're not? Why? Where are we going?"
"You remember that cabin we stopped at last summer - the one where we got the horses and then left them, and the camping gear and foodstuffs, after you were hurt and we had to take you to the hospital?"
"Yeah. What's that got to do with anything?"
"That's where we're going," she told him. "It's not more than an hour from here. We'll spend the night there and be airborne when the sun comes up."
Cody looked relived at that announcement. He'd been planning to beg, if he had to, to have someone keep searching. The knowledge that they would be that close to the search area greatly relieved his anxiety.
"This is Sikorsky N Six Zero Two calling the Silver City Airfield. How do you read me?
"We read you loud and clear Sikorsky N Six Zero Two."
"Silver city, I'm going to set down for the night at my cabin about an hour southwest of here. Please relay the message to Sunny Acres, and have them inform the Lazy M of my plan. I'll call them from the cabin when we get there."
"Message received," the air traffic controller said. "We'll notify Sunny Acres and wait to hear from you in the morning."
"Roger and out," Cayce said as she ended the conversation.
Twenty minutes later she landed the helicopter in a clear spot about 150 yards from the cabin. Once she had shut down the engine, she and Cody climbed out and headed for their shelter for the night.
Cayce used a key from her key ring to open the door. It was chilly inside but she quickly got a fire started in the pot bellied stove. While she got an early supper started she had Cody bring in more firewood and get the sleeping bags. Pillows, and extra blankets, from the closet were put on the bunk beds in the corner. It wasn't a large cabin and was mostly used as a staging area for expeditions into Cayce's wildlife reserve. Still, it was shelter from the elements and could be quite snug.
The siblings ate a hasty supper and cleaned up. Cayce got things ready for breakfast in an effort to save time for flying.
Both Cody and Cayce slept poorly that night. Every little noise - a tree branch scraping the window, the wind howling, snow blowing against the glass roused them.
It was four-thirty in the morning when Cayce finally gave up on sleep. Quietly, so as not to disturb her friend, she set about getting a fire started. Half an hour later Cody was awakened by the smell of sausage and eggs frying and bread toasting.
"Hi," Cayce smiled at him. "Feeling better?"
"Better than what?" Cody groused.
Cayce ignored his attitude. She knew it was from lack of sleep and worry over his partner that caused it.
"Breakfast is about ready. I hope instant coffee is okay 'cause we don't keep a coffee maker here since we usually only use this place for brief stopovers."
"Yeah, that's fine," Cody replied.
"As soon as we eat and clean up we'll be in the air again, but I'm going to check in with the Lazy M first and see if they've heard anything."
Cody didn't say a word. He just moodily stared at the stove and picked at his food.
Cayce left him there, donned her jacket and went out to the Baroness to use the radio. The wind had died down some and it promised to be a bright, sunny day. The young woman felt like it would be a bit warmer as well.
"Lazy M this is Sikorsky N Six Zero Two. How do you read me?"
"Sikorsky N Six Zero Two we read you. You're a little faint but clear." KC Campion's voice responded to her call.
"Keith - any word?"
"A rancher whose place borders the preserve remembers hearing a helicopter pass over the eastern boundary around on o'clock or so yesterday afternoon. It could have been Ryder but he didn't get a look at the chopper so there's no way of knowing for sure."
"Which rancher?" Cayce asked. "I'd like to talk to him face to face."
"Kittredge - the guy who owns the Double K."
"Give the Double K a call and tell him I'm going to fly in to his place to talk to him."
"Murray thought he heard a distress call but it was very faint and full of static. He's monitoring that frequency again after he finds a way to boost the receiving power of the spare radio. We keep putting out calls to the Mimi and checking with all the search teams on the radio in the office." He sighed. "No luck yet, though."
"I'm hoping he's landed safely but in a blind spot and just can't get a signal out past the hills." Cayce looked behind her to see if Cody was anywhere in earshot.
"How's Boz holding up? I've got my hands full with Cody."
"So far he's okay. He's sleeping on the couch in the den at the moment. He's really wiped out from monitoring the radio all night."
Cayce smiled fondly at the thought. "Thanks just like him. Keep an eye on him, Keith. He's not above working himself into the ground if he thinks he can help his friends."
"That goes for you, too, Miss Cayce," Campion said.
"The weather was pretty nasty during the night," Cayce told Campion. "If Nick's gone down somewhere, and didn't find shelter, he could be in real danger form frostbite or hypothermia."
"I know, Miss Cayce," Brian said. "Nick's as tough as they come, though, or he wouldn't have survived that time he spent in Nam. You just keep searching and listening for distress calls and our update. We'll find him. You'll see."
"We'll head for the Double K with half an hour. Depending on what we find out we may head east again or back over the preserve. I'll keep in touch by relay through Silver City."
"Got ya. You be careful now."
Murray roused from his sleep and fumbled for his glasses. He had barely sat up when Josefina came into the room with a breakfast tray laden with fried ham, 3 fried eggs over easy, plus biscuits, butter, jam and honey. Homemade hash browns rounded off the meal.
"Eat every bite," he was told. "Señor McGregor has found volunteers to help listen to the radio while you eat and take short siestas. It was a hard day for you," the Mexican woman told him. "Señorita Cayce will be very upset if you don't take care of yourself. She has enough to worry about with Señor Cody being so upset."
Murray ate every bite while Josefina watched over him like a hen watches her chicks. When he had cleaned his plate she filled it a second time and made sure he ate all of it and had milk and juice instead of coffee. The coffee would come later.
When he had finished Josefina sent him to the guest bathroom to clean up and shave before he took over monitoring the radio again.
Brian Hays was monitoring the radio in the office. McGregor was dozing in Cayce's office chair. Both men looked tired and in need of a break.
"Hi guys," Murray said as he entered the room. "I'm already to take over now. Why don't you go get something to eat and get some real rest?"
"No need of that," Hays said. "Cowboys are used to long hours in the saddle. Hanging out in Miss Cayce's office is easy. Wish I could say we heard something from Nick but nothing has come through so far."
"Darn! I'm getting worried," the computer whiz admitted. "It's not like Nick not to keep in touch."
True to her word, Cayce and Cody were airborne no more than five minutes later, headed for the Double K ranch in order to have a talk with its owner about what he may have seen or heard.
Kevin J. Kittredge was an imposing figure. At forty-five years of age he stood six-foot=five and had a shock of jet black hair under which were a pair of bright blue eyes. He was a hard headed businessman whose attitude irritated both of Nick's "siblings".
"Those eggbeaters are scaring my cattle, young woman. The sooner you're out of here the better! The more those cattle run the more weight they lose!" he told them. "I'm losing money when my herd is underweight."
"I am sorry, Mr. Kittredge," she said with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "However, I think the fact that our friend is missing - maybe hurt - is a bit more important."
Cody kept tight rein on his own temper. This guy was an associate - and, in some ways - a neighbor of Cayce's. He didn't want to stir things up by telling him just what he thought of him. He smiled to himself when he heard Cayce speak. Sometimes, when she sounded sincere like that, she was truly being sarcastic. Only someone who knew her well - like her family, Nick and himself - could tell the difference.
"When did you hear - or see - the helicopter?" Cayce asked Kittredge.
"Early yesterday afternoon. Right after lunch."
"What time would that have been?"
"Around one o'clock, I guess. I wasn't really paying attention."
"Did you notice which direction it was headed?"
"Northeast I think."
"That doesn't make any sense," Cayce said to herself. ""That's not going to get him to King Harbor."
Turning to Kittredge shed asked, "Is there an airport or small airfield in that direction - maybe one that just opened?"
"Not that I'm aware of," he told her. "I'd have protested if there had been a plan to build one.""Like I told you - I don't like those whirlybirds of yours. They're a menace."
"Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me," Cayce said with a hint more sarcasm. "My friend has been missing for over a day now. We're following any leads we get." She turned to leave with Cody. "Oh, by the way, if winter gets much harsher up here don't look to me to fly hay to your stranded herds. I wouldn't want to scare them."
She and Cody hustled through the cold air and the snow back to the Baroness as quickly as they could and climbed aboard. Once they were settled the pair discussed what they had learned.
"That doesn't make any sense," the blond said as they took off. "That's the opposite direction from the ranch or the preserve." Cody was as puzzled as Cayce was. "Why would he go that way?"
"I don't know," Cayce said, "but we're gonna find out."
She reached for the radio control and flipped the send switch.
"Silver City Airport, this Sikorsky N Six Zero Two requesting a patch to the Silver City PD."
"We read you, Sikorsky N Six Zero Two. We'll patch you through."
A moment later Office Steve Howell was heard.
"This is the Silver City Police Department. What can we do for you?"
"Silver City, Sikorsky N Six Zero Two requests information on possible poaching or smuggling activity the vicinity of the Double K ranch and Mustang Creek Wildlife Sanctuary. We have a report of our missing pilot and helicopter being see flying northeast away from the preserve. It's possible he spotted some suspicious activity and decided to investigate."
"I'll patch you through to Lieutenant Whitney. He's the department's detective and can answer that question better than I can."
"Cross your fingers," Cayce said. "We may finally be onto something."
"Sikorsky N Six Zero Two, I have Lieutenant Whitney on the line."
"Lieutenant, this is Cayce McKenna. I own the wildlife refuge near the Double K."
"Yes, Miss McKenna. I know the area and I know of your reputation in the ranching business. It's a good one I might add."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Cayce said. "Lieutenant Whitney I have a friend missing since yesterday afternoon. He was delivering hay, in his helicopter, to the refuge. When last heard from he was supposed to be heading home to King harbor, California but he never got there. There are search teams in the air and on the ground."
"Do you think your friend was headed for Silver City?"
"I don't know. Kittredge says he saw him heading northeast which makes no sense at all. The Lazy M and King Harbor are both southwest of here."
"I've been shuffling through some paperwork here," the lieutenant said, "and I find a couple of reports of possible illegal activity in that area. Several people have reported strange vehicles, at night, going back and forth - and gunshots. "The lieutenant shifted the receiver back to his right ear."Could be poachers. Could be thieves or drug runners."
"Any reports of a pink helicopter with a face painted on it/" Cody asked. "My partner flies an old Sikorsky called the 'Screaming Mimi'."
"There's really a pink helicopter?" the officer was shocked. "I thought that report was an optical illusion - or a hallucination."
In spite of their worry for Nick, Cayce and Cody couldn't help but laugh. While the folks around King Harbor and Sunny Acres were accustomed to seeing her, the Mimi's appearance made others do a double take when they saw her.
"Let's just say that Nick likes to make statements," Cayce said, "though even his partners are sure what he was trying to say by painting her pink and all the rest."
"I won't ask," the bemused officer said.
There was silence for a moment as he shuffled through some paper again.
"Miss McKenna, do you employ a game warden for you preserve?"
"No, I don't," she replied. "Several of my ranch hands, and myself, take turns patrolling during the week. Some drive while others of us fly up."
"We've had a couple of reports of someone claiming to be your game warden trying to extort money out of hunters and fisherman over the last couple of weeks. How long has it been since your people patrolled the preserve?"
Cayce and Cody exchanged looks. If Nick had run into the phony game warden there was no telling what he would do. He knew, as well as Cody and Boz, that Cayce did not employ a full time game warden.
"I was there a couple of months ago and Frank Harding was there right after me. KC Campion and two teams of three were there the following weeks. Nobody noticed anything. My cousin Josh, who's a game warden, has also patrolled. If we've got poachers we all missed the signs."
There was a disturbance in the background. A few moments later the lieutenant was on the air again.
"Miss McKenna one of our officers just brought in a man that assaulted him during a routine traffic stop. When they searched his car they found animal pelts and one of your 'No Trespassing' signs in the trunk."
"We'll be there in fifteen minutes," Cayce told him.
She looked over at the anxious Cody.
"This may be our first break, Cody. We'll question this guy as to whether or not he encountered Nick while he was poaching on my land." She grinned, "This guy won't know what hit him when we get through with him."
She was right. The obliging police lieutenant - a completely different personality from Lieutenant Ted Quinlan of King Harbor - let Cody and Cayce stay in the room while the prisoner was questioned.
"What do you mean you ran him off?" Cody exploded.
"Just what I said - we ran him off," the prisoner said.
"Nick doesn't scare easily," Cayce put in her two cents worth in an icy tone.
"Yeah, well he ran fast enough when we shot that stupid pink chopper down that he was flying in."
"You..." Cody was furious. "Where was this?"
The prisoner was completely taken off guard by the detective's fury - and the grip Cody had on his shirt front.
"About fifteen miles north of some cabin we passed."
"Did this cabin have a split rail fence and a lean-to with wood stacked up in it?" Cayce asked.
"Yeah. That's right. We thought about using it but my partners wanted to move on. We didn't want to attract any more attention to our activities than we already had."
Cody let go of the man's shirt when his "sister" attempted to pry his fingers loose.
"Cody, you can let go now," she said. "We know where to look for Nick now."
"Yes, we do," she told him. Turning to Lieutenant Whitney she said, "We're going to fly up there and see what we find. Hopefully it's Nick - alive and as angry as I've ever seen him. When we get back I'll sign the complaint for poaching on private property."
Looking at the prisoner she added, "I saw those pelts. Unless I'm greatly mistaken - and I'm sure I'm not - there are at least two endangered species there and I'll just bet if I examine those furs closely, we may find some drugs hidden in them."
Her remark hit home as the captured poacher flinched.
"We don't want to destroy the evidence," she said. "I'll get my cousin Danny up here. He'll be more than willing to help. If he can't come he'll give us the name of a fellow ranger - here in Nevada - that will know."
With that she and Cody were out the door and climbing into the Baroness a moment later.
"Where are we going?" Cody asked as the lifted off.
"Mustang Valley," was the reply. "You remember last spring?"
"How could I forget?"
"Mustang Valley is that area we were in when you got caught in that trap."
"I don't remember any cabin," the blond said.
"That's because it's in the opposite direction from where we were camped," Cayce explained. "It's about ten miles or so from where you stepped in that trap. You can't see it from where we were except from the air."
"You think Nick is there?"
"Yes, I think the Mimi is down in those trees or in one of those hidden gullies. It would explain why we haven't seen him though none of them are deep enough to prevent a distress call from getting out."
"Why wouldn't he come out of hiding if the search teams are there?"
"Think about it, Cody. What would you do if you were shot at, stuck with a disabled vehicle and lost in unfamiliar territory?"
"You think he's lost?"
"Yes, and no," Cayce replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?" an exasperated, and worried, Cody asked.
"It means he's not far from help - us - but he doesn't know that and can't get his bearings unless he's airborne. Everything looks different from the air - you know that."
They traveled in silence, except for the noise of the helicopter's engine, for the next ten minutes. Each of them used the binoculars to search the surrounding countryside. It was Cody who spotted the light reflecting off of glass first.
His pilot did as he requested and saw the reflection for herself. Immediately she adjusted the course of their flight so that they could get a better look. It was the Mimi. She looked to be pretty much in one piece but Cayce could only guess, for the time being, as to why she was still on the ground.
"Do you see any sign of Nick?" Cayce asked as she looked for a place to put the Baroness down.
"No," was the discouraged answer.
"Don't worry, Cody, we'll find him. He can't be too far away." Cayce gave her oldest brother a look. "I know Nick's mule headed, proud and impatient - impulsive even, but surely he would know that his best hope would be to stay put."
"I hope so," Cody said. "I sure hope so."
The Baroness touched down lightly in a clearing about a quarter of a mile from the Mimi's resting place. Cody was quickly out of his seat in the cockpit, down into the cargo hold and out by the time Cayce had settled the chopper into its landing spot. She was no more than two minutes behind him - even after snatching up the Winchesters and some boxes of ammunition - just to be on the safe side. She knew there was no way of knowing if any of the prisoner's partners were around. If they were they were probably armed. Even if they weren't, in the high country there was always the possibility of a mountain lion or wolves.
"Nick? Nick are you here?" Cody called his partner's name hoping to hear him answer. There was nothing but silence - even the wind had died down to an occasional, gentle breeze.
"Cody, look," Cayce pointed to footprints she saw in the snow. Prints that led away from the disabled pink helicopter.
"Is there any way we can be sure they're Nick's prints?" Cody asked, half afraid to hear the answer.
"Well," Cayce said, squatting down to take a closer look. "They're his size - a ten - and look at the pattern of the sole. You see that star in the heel?"
"Yeah. What about it?" the worried blond asked.
"I put that there last summer. Remember the tracking lessons? Nick was so mad he thought I'd cheated, then I pointed out to him that prints like that have helped police solve crimes as far back as the Clutter Family murders, in the fifties - if not further back than that."
"Yeah, I do remember," Cody said with a grin. "What else do the tracks tell you?"
"Not a whole lot, I'm afraid," his young friend told him. "Just the direction he was heading. Believe it or not he's heading in the direction of the cabin. We'll get airborne again and head that way. We came in from a little different direction. I reckon that's why we haven't spotted him yet."
Fifteen minutes later Cayce noticed that the tracks indicated that Nick was getting tired.
"It shouldn't be long now," Cayce said to Cody. "He's starting to tire and he's stumbling." Pointing to a particularly messy set of tracks she added," See? The snow is messed up where he fell."
Looking around she called Cody's attention to a dark smudge that stood out against the brilliant white snow.
"There's the cabin. I have a feeling that by the time we get there, Nick will already be there trying to figure out how to get in."
Five minutes later the two arrived at the cabin. Sure enough, Nick was there. The Italian's pants were soaked, he was pale and his friends could see that he'd suffered a relatively minor injury from either the rough landing or from a gunshot. But he was alive and that was all that mattered.
"Nick!" Cody shouted jubilantly as Cayce hastily unlocked the cabin door and flung it open.
"Cody? Cayce? 'zat you?"
"Yeah, it's us, buddy."
"Hi guys," the Italian said and promptly pitched forward in a dead faint.
Cody caught him before he hit the ground and carried him into the cabin. It was small, and there was only one bunk but there were plenty of blankets and it didn't take long for Cayce to get afire stated while Cody made Nick comfortable and assessed his injuries.
"How is he?" Cayce asked as she brought basin of warm water, and some clean rags, to clean the gash on the side of Nick's head.
"I'll feel better when we get him to a doctor but I don't think it's too bad," Cody replied, "but look at his hands would you? Is that frostbite? "
Cayce had far more experience with frostbite than her friends so it was only natural that the concerned blond should ask her to check Nick's hands.
The young woman took Nick's hands, one at a time, in hers and looked them over carefully. She could see that blisters, indicative of second degree frostbite, were forming on the brunet's hands.
Concerned though she was, she knew that they had gotten to him before it got worse and that they would be able to get real medical help for him very soon.
"Looks like second degree. We're not going to be here long enough to work on the thawing and I'd prefer a doctor to handle it. For now we need to wrap his hands in some of those rags to keep them from moving. Do not rub them, massage them or shake them. Don't do anything to apply physical force to those hands. As soon has he's had a chance to warm up a little we'll work on getting him to the Baroness and out of here."
"Okay. Is there any chance you can get the Baroness closer to the cabin?" Looking at her, and then at his sleeping partner, he said anxiously, "I'm not sure Nick can walk all the way back there."
"I'll look around for a place. If I can't get within a quarter of a mile we'll carry him out on that stretcher the buys stowed on board."
With that she donned her heavy jacket and gloves. A moment later she was out the door and starting the three mile trek back to their landing site. Without Cody along, who was unaccustomed to walking in snow, Cayce was able to make good time.
"Silver City Police, this is Sikorsky N Six Zero Two. Please patch me through to Lieutenant Whitney."
A moment later the officer was on the line.
"Miss McKenna. Any luck?"
"We found him," she replied. "He managed to find his way to my cabin. We caught up with him there."
"Is he all right?"
"He's injured but I don't think it's too bad. He has developed some second degree frostbite on his hands - he lost his gloves somewhere along the line - but we're going to take care of that very shortly. Right now he's wrapped in blankets in the cabin with a fire going. Cody's watching him while I try and find a place to land that's closer than the three miles we had to walk to catch up with Nick. We're going to take him to Carson Memorial and have him checked out by medical professionals, instead of just us amateurs. We'll have to leave Nick's Sikorsky behind for now. I don't think he's in any condition to fly her. I'll come up with my pilot tomorrow or the next day to check her out and take her home to the Lazy M."
"When will you be in town?" the officer asked.
"I'd say in about an hour. As I said, Cody's keeping an eye on him and he's wrapped up in blankets. Once we get his hands wrapped, and he's had a chance to rest for about fifteen minutes, we'll get him aboard my chopper and bring him in."
"When can you come in to sign the complaint against the prisoner?"
"As soon as I drop Nick and Cody off at the hospital. Say in about an hour and a half?"
"Good. I'll be waiting with the paperwork."
"Sikorsky N Six Zero Two out." Cayce signed off after getting the lieutenant's word that he would notify the Lazy M and the search parties that the missing pilot had been found. She could imagine the cheering and that Murray and Josefina would be shedding tears of joy. She trusted Josefina to look out of the slender scientist as she did for all of the extended McKenna family.
Five minutes later she landed the red helicopter in a spot not too far from the remote cabin where they had taken refuge. Once she was sure all systems were shut down, she slipped down into the cargo hold and out the door.
"So when they started shooting I knew I was in big trouble," Nick told his friends.
It was late morning and they were getting ready to take off for Silver City. His friends were making sure he was warmly dressed, including a hat, and that his frostbitten hands were well wrapped in bandages that kept his fingers separated as the first aid books all stated they should be.
"Nicholas Joseph!" Cayce exclaimed in exasperation. "You were alone - and unarmed! What did you think you were going to do?"
"You took an awfully big chance, Nick," Cody scolded.
"Give me a break! I was just trying to get a look at them so I could report them to the police!"
Cayce rolled her eyes while Cody shook his head.
"What was I supposed to do - let them get away with whatever they were doing?"
"Yes!" his friends chorused.
"You could have at least radioed somebody - say the police. Or the Silver City Airport. You scared the living daylights out of us disappearing the way you did."
"Sorry," the Italian mumbled.
"Is that head wound because you were shot at or is it from flying glass?"
"I'm not sure," Nick admitted, "but it sure is giving me a headache."
Cayce went to the wall where their jackets were hung by the door and grabbed hers and Cody's. Nick was already bundled into his and had a thick, woolen blanket wrapped around him as well.
"Here." She handed Cody his heavy jacket. "I'll go start the Baroness while you get your jacket on and help Nick out to her. Next stop Carson Memorial Hospital. While Nick's getting checked out I have to go to the police station, make my statement and sign the complaint. They can get yours in a couple of days."
And so it went. Fifteen minutes later they were airborne. Thirty minutes after that the helicopter gently landed in the parking lot of Carson Memorial and Nick was hustled into the Emergency Room via a wheelchair that Cayce snagged from the entryway.
Cayce hailed a cab and took care of her business at police headquarters. When she was through she got another cab and went back to the hospital.
Smiling widely enough that her cheeks hurt, Cayce saw that her two "brothers" were waiting for her return. Nick was pale, and wore a bandage around his head, as well as bandages on his frostbitten hands, but he looked much more alert.
As for Cody, well she didn't think he could possibly smile any broader than he already was. Nick was alive and they were together again. Soon they'd be reunited with Murray and all would be well in their world again.
"You two ready to leave now?" she asked as she approached.
"You taking us all the way back to King Harbor?" Nick asked.
"Leave the Mimi stranded in those hills without her pilot?" Cayce laughed. "No, silly. Home to the Lazy M so you can recover. Frank and I will fly up tomorrow, weather permitting - and give her the once over. If she's capable of making the trip back to Sunny Acres we'll do any extensive repairs at the ranch."
Nick looked greatly relieved at that news. He sure didn't want to leave the Mimi behind.
"So what's did the doctor say?" she asked Cody.
"Mild concussion and the headache that goes with it. Five stitches in that gash on his head and it was second degree frostbite. The doctor said we got to him just in time and that you did a great job of bandaging his hands." He indicated the affected patches of skin on Nick's hands. "He said to keep him, and his hands, warm for the next few days. He should be fine once his hands heal completely."
"I can speak for myself," an indignant Nick told them.
"That's true," Cayce said, "but I wanted the whole truth - not your highly edited version of it."
Cody laughed while Nick scowled. Cody wheeled Nick out to the Baroness and helped him get in and get comfortable. The cargo bay had been fixed up, in one corner, with pillows and a sleep bag. A few minutes later they were in the air and headed for the Lazy M.
"Señor Murray! Señor Murray!"
"Yes? What is it Josefina?" Murray groggily asked as he sat up on the couch upon which he'd been dozing.
"Señorita Cayce has just talked to Señor Alex on the radio. They will be here any minute!"
The news that his friends were almost home cleared the fog in Murray's brain. He'd had precious little sleep over the last two days since Nick had disappeared and Cayce had brought him and Cody to the Lazy M. Ever since the Silver City Police Department had notified them that Nick had been found the entire crew of Lazy M hands had waited patiently, with subdued excitement, for them to return. Now they were almost home.
The gray clouds in the sky could not diminish the mood of the happy - no overjoyed - cowhands, housekeeper and computer whiz who gathered in the field near the chopper's landing site. A moment later the red helicopter came into view. Cayce's voice was heard on the PA system warning them all to back up some as she got closer. The group backed up just enough to be out of harm's way but surrounded the bird once she was down and her engine powered down.
A moment later eager hands opened the cargo b ay door and helped the injured detective down while Cody lifted Cayce down (over her protests that she was perfectly capable of climbing out by herself). A cheer went up as Nick was enveloped in a hug by his other partner. A few seconds later everyone laughed to see Nick blush as Josefina pulled his head down to kiss his cheek and then herded her four chicks into the house.
A few hours later Cayce climbed the stairs, her dog, Rusty at her heels and looked in on her "brothers". Not surprisingly she found that one of the roll away beds she owned had been moved into Nick and Cody's room. All three of them were sound asleep, Cody and Boz getting as close to Nick as they possibly could without crowding him.
"Thanks for everything, Cayce," Cody said as they landed in King Harbor the following morning.
"De nada," she said. "It was nothing."
"It wasn't nothing," Nick said in response to her humble reply. "I'm indebted to you forever."
"You're family, Nick," the young woman informed him. "Family takes care of family."
It was a long minute, though, before either of them broke of the embrace they were sharing so that she could head back home.