Clinging. Maggie felt as though she'd spent several lifetimes clinging to the soggy chunk of palo verde tree that barely would float, but was the only buoyant thing big enough to take her weight. Thrown up onto the shore of the sink, it took all her strength to push it back into the current, and then cling to it as it bobbed and bounced in the flood. Her arms were frozen concrete, abraded, but locked onto the wood. Her torso and legs were cramping hunches of chilled muscle. Sand and water scoured her face as the waves lapped up and over her head, and the branch plunged in the rapids. Within minutes, her limbs were too numb to feel the bruising of stationary rocks. Her world was bounded by gritty flying water and biting gasps of air and a death-grip on the branch that she hoped would eventually carry her onto the other shore.
How long she bobbed and clung and tried to breathe sandy water, she didn't know. It took a long time until she realized that she was no longer in the rapids, that the waves had stooped slapping her face. She could breathe. And something odd was happening. There were voices, and the branch under her was moving, but jerkily, sideways, as though being towed.
"It's a woman," someone was shouting. "Where's that blanket?"
Hands gripped her under the arms with incredible strength -- no one could be so strong, could they? -- and lifting her like a child from the branch, waded out of the eddie onto the bank. The right bank. Oh thank God... The strong person put her down onto an acre of wonderful softness, which was then wrapped around her, shutting out the sudden chill wind. Maggie sagged back into the blanket, wanting nothing more than to sleep for a millennium.
"Here we go, Miss," a voice insisted, and lifted her head. The smell of steaming coffee shocked her, and she opened her eyes. A thermos cup was near her lips, and she sipped obediently. It was black, and the most delicious drink she could imagine. Some part of her mind chuckled distantly: normally, you hate the stuff.
There were other voices, now, and the sounds of vehicles. Headlights. Lanterns. She looked up into the lantern-lit face of her rescuer. It was a lean face with alert eyes, pale in the cold light, no one she had ever seen before. She took a breath to speak, and began to cough, her throat trying to rid itself of river.
"Who -- are you?" she wheezed.
"Bob Pershing, FBI," he said, then looked past her, not noticing her look of horror. "Right over here, men. Spotted her while looking for a crossing."
FBI! -- Ken had said the people hunting them down were FBI. Maggie tried to gather herself, to run, to grab for a gun, to at least scream -- but her abused body failed her. She lay inert in the blanket, her only response a shudder. Then another person knelt by her, and she looked up into what would probably be death. Instead, it was a face she knew.
"Captain Dobey!" she sobbed, and Dobey reached over and lifted her enough to get his arms around her and give her a fatherly bearhug.
"There, there now, Margaret. You're safe, you're just fine," he said. "We've been looking for you. Are Hutch and Starsky at your camp?"
"Oh god, Captain Dobey -- " she hiccoughed with relief " -- they're hurt. I had to leave them. I was the only one who could go for help, and when that man said he was from the FBI and the people who shot at us were from the FBI --"
"Slow down, slow down. These feds are on our side. The boys are hurt? Where did you leave them?"
"In the dunes, maybe ten miles back. But we can't get there, the flashfloods -- "
"I know. We've been hunting a way to cross for most of an hour. We put in a call for a chopper, it should be here soon. Can you point out the place on a map?"
"Yes, I think so. We were running, away from the road, on foot, and a helicopter came and shot Ken while he was trying to protect us, because Davey was already hurt, he's blind, and I'm pretty sure just about where were. I was careful to note it before I left them, because I had to get help back. We've got to hurry, Captain Dobey, they've been out there, hurt, since this this morning, and -- "
"Calm yourself, Margaret. I'll find you a map. You drink your coffee, and try to collect your thoughts." He handed the cup back to her, and turned to another man who had joined them, crouching by the bank.
"You were right, Buehler," Dobey said. "That missing Bureau copter was sent after my men, but I think they downed it."
"That accounts for the last of the defectors, then," Buehler said. "With the confessions from the bunch of them we nailed at the hospital last night, I think we'll have the whole crew of them. Imagine that: I worked with Rotsler and Schull for sixteen years, and never had an inkling that they were mixed up in anything like this. There'll be quite a shake-up in Washington after this."
"There'll be a hell of a shake-up right here if we don't get some medics to my men. Mrs. Landis here said Hutchinson was shot by your copter. You use pretty heavy ammo in those things, don't you?"
Buehler looked away uncomfortably.
"And she said Starsky was blinded. Did you request paramedics on that chopper you called?"
"Yes, I did. I'll raise them on the radio and see if they can get here any faster. We'll set up a landing site using the Jeep headlights."
Maggie listened to the conversation passively, but when Buehler stood up and left, she caught Dobey's arm.
"Captain, what are you doing out here? How did you find me?"
"The assassins made another attempt to murder a witness we had under wraps in a hospital, but Buehler's men captured them. Under interrogation, it came out that a team had been sent to finish off Hutch and Starsky. The last call Hutch put in with Huggy Bear was from the truck stop where you work. We drove up, showed photos around, and the cook recognized Hutch as the man you left with on Friday morning. He gave us the location of your camp, and said he was worried because you hadn't showed up for work on Friday night."
"Good old Zuiko. I owe that old hash-slinger a big hug."
"He was very helpful," Dobey agreed. "In any case, we tried to drive to your camp on the road, but the flashflood had washed it out, and we sent Pershing and his partner upstream to try to find another crossing while we waited for the chopper. Are you feeling better, Margaret? I'd like you to come with us in the chopper. You know the country better than we do. It won't be easy to find two men out there in the dark."
"Yes, I'll come. I promised Dave I'd bring help. Captain, I hope we're not too late. Ken was bleeding -- " she winced -- "He was in a bad way." She put her hands to her face. "I don't think I could handle any more funerals this year."
"You made an incredible trek getting here. No matter what the outcome, you did the best you could -- better than most, I dare say. Your husband would be proud of you."
"Wade..." Maggie gazed upward, where stars were now brilliant in the clear sky. The Milky Way was an arc of crushed diamonds across the zenith. "If I were religious, I'd almost think he was with me today."
"I'm a devout Christian, Margaret, and don't doubt it at all."
The whop-whop of an approaching helicopter echoed across the terrain. It was a powerful sound, and when it zoomed over then, Maggie saw U.S.M.C. in large white letters on the belly of the huge bird. It must have come from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, about eighty miles to the southwest. The chopper began to descend toward the groundglow of Jeep lights just over the rise.
"Do you think you can walk yet?" Dobey asked.
"If you help me up."
He practically lifted her bodily, then draped his heavy windbreaker around her shoulders.
"Sorry I can't offer you a change of clothes," he said. "We'd better hurry."