Shawnee plucked a clump of smelly swamp grass from her hair. "Jeez, Mack, you really know where to take a girl for a good time."
"Makes you almost miss Saigon, huh?"
"Almost." They were on their knees in the shallow water, the sucking peat mud molding around their legs.
Mosquitoes buzzed them like fighter squadrons.
Bolan and Shawnee swatted at them, crouching low in the water, but kept their guns dry.
"They haven't moved," Shawnee said.
"They won't until Demoines shows up with reinforcements."
She looked around her at the dense lushness, swatted another mosquito. "Shouldn't we be getting away before they arrive?"
"Get away? To where?"
"It's not the "to where" that I'm worried about. It's the "from what." From Demoines and his goons." She pointed at a green sign sticking up through the swamp. "See that? It marks the canoe path. We follow it and we're bound to run into some people we can hitch a ride with. Or even find one of the tour boats the park service runs through I here. Demoines wouldn't shoot us in front of them."
"Probably not. But the park officials are going to ask some tough questions about what we're doing here. Remember, lady, I'm still wanted as both Damon Blue and Mack Bolan."
"Well, we can't sit in the mud all day waiting for them to come after us. I've been on the tour before, Mack. They got more than twenty-thousand 'gators in this swamp."
Bolan looked at her and smiled. "At least there aren't any sharks."
"Ow!" She swatted a fat mosquito on her arm, smearing the skin with the blood it had just sucked. "I wouldn't be too sure of that, Mack."
He peered up through the trees. "It'll be dark soon."
"Is that supposed to cheer me up?"
"Relax," he said. "Enjoy nature."
She slapped a mosquito on her neck.
"Nature is overrated." She leaned closer to him. "I'm serious, Mack, what are we waiting for? Okay, so we avoid the tour boats and the canoes and we just wade past the snakes and 'gators and stuff and come out somewhere else."
"At least we'd be alive."
"But maybe too late to get to that Miami warehouse in time."
She shook her head in exasperation. "You're impossible."
"Listen, Shawnee. Our car's dead, but Demoines will be back in that Jeep. While they're out tracking us, we sneak back and steal the Jeep. That leaves them on foot and gives us a little extra headstart. Simple."
"Except for the fact that they'll be shooting at us."
He wiped the mud from her cheek and kissed the clean spot. "Nothing's perfect."
They waited in silence, Bolan keeping an eye on the three men with rifles. The men still fired a round or two every few minutes, but since they had no idea where Bolan and Shawnee were now, the shots were more habit than threat.
Bolan looked around, studying the swamp.
Kneeling in the slimy water was like being in the mouth of some salivating monster. There was a desperation about the swamp, as if it knew it was one of the last outposts in the world of primitive beauty. But even here there were signs of encroachment. The canoe trail signs.
A floating gum wrapper. And now Demoines and his men.
The Jeep bounced down the rough road, past the smashed wooden gate. Men were jumping out before the Jeep even stopped moving. They were running toward the swamp, guns ready. Demoines walked slowly, brashly, as if savoring what he already knew would be a sweet victory. Demoines walked to the edge of the road, took a dainty step into the mushy swamp and sank up to his knees in water. The other men joined him immediately.
"Hey, Blue!" Demoines yelled. "I know who you are now. Why don't you save everybody a lot of trouble and come on outta there?"
Bolan didn't answer.
"What's the point, Blue?" Demoines continued. "Eight of us are gonna comb through this shit until we find you. The longer I gotta stand in this crap, the more pain it's gonna cost you and your lady friend. Come out now, you both get it quick, and easy. Over and done."
Shawnee snorted. "Generous cuss, ain't he?"
Bolan pulled her down farther and whispered into her ear. "You follow along that sandy ridge until you're behind them. When they're far enough away from the Jeep, you start it up and get the hell out of here."
"What about you?"
"I'll lead them away from the Jeep."
"Yeah, but what then? How do you get out? I'm not leaving without you."
"You won't be," Bolan said.
Demoinei's voice rose again. "You're wasting time, Blue." A flock of birds cawed and flapped their wings in response.
Bolan continued his instructions to Shawnee. "Once you've driven out of sight, they aren't going to bother chasing you on foot. They'll keep coming after me. I'll sneak around, come up behind them right where our Nova is, and you come burning rubber and pick me up."
"How do I know when to come back?"
"Give me ten minutes from the time you take off. Understand?"
"How do I start the thing?"
"Don't worry, they probably left the key in. They wouldn't take the chance of someone carrying it out here, getting shot and floating off with the key. But if there isn't one, just keep running. Okay?"
"Go." He gave her a gentle nudge.
And she was gone.
Bolan watched her wade through the swamp, keeping out of sight behind the cypress trees. When she was safely on her way, he went to work. The Executioner knew he had to keep Demoines and his men from spreading out and accidentally discovering Shawnee.
That meant telling them where he was. Loud and clear.
He stood up behind a giant tupelo tree, brushed aside a thick clump of Spanish moss and watched Demoines detailing his goons into some kind of flanking movement. Bolan smiled, lifted his .357, steadied the eight-inch barrel against a branch and fired.
A man in a red plaid shirt was jerked back off his feet, rifle flying up into the air. He flopped backward into the water and never moved again.
"There!" Demoines pointed, teeth bared. "There he is! Kill him!"
The seven survivors opened fire at once, chipping hunks of wood from the tupelo, ruffling the lacy Spanish moss but not being able to get a clear shot at Bolan. Who was already moving deeper into the swamp.
They stopped firing and ran after him, occasionally slipping in the muddy peat, tripping on a submerged tree root. Bolan used the thick underbrush to keep them from getting a clear shot at him. Sporadic gunfire broke the marshy stillness, and bullets whizzed by much closer than he liked.
A hazy dimness hung over the swamp as twilight hit the outside world. Visibility would be even worse now, but Bolan knew how to use that to his advantage.
They were resting now, waiting for Demoines to stop wheezing and catch his breath. The Mafia boss handed his Weatherby shotgun to one of his men while he leaned over and retched into the swamp. His men turned their heads. Bolan smiled and ran even deeper into the swamp, his splashing footsteps taunting them.
Up ahead a young man in a park-service uniform was poling a flatbottomed johnboat toward Bolan.
"Hey, fella," the young man called out sternly. "This here ain't hunting season, you know. Let me see your permit."
Bolan spun around and pointed the .357 into the young man's face. "Out!" he commanded.
The young man stuck his pole back in the boat and jumped into the water. He tried to speak, but nothing coherent came out of his mouth.
"I don't have much time, son," Bolan said slowly, "but you'd better listen carefully. There's a pack of men coming this way with rifles and a desire to kill anything human they see. I figure your best bet is to get lost as fast as you can."
"Good boy. Now get going."
The young man, with hands still held over his head, ran through the water with remarkable speed. By the time Demoines got here, they might hear the distant splashes, but they wouldn't see him clearly enough to shoot.
Bolan silently climbed into the flatbottomed johnboat. It was only about twelve feet long and five feet wide, made of aluminum and painted camouflage green. There was no motor, just the pole that was forked at one end to keep it from sinking into the peat. Bolan had been in something similar once called an alligator punt, a boat pointed at both ends made from cypress boards. That's where he'd first used a pole to propel a boat. Slowly, silently, he muscled the pole into the mud and guided the boat across the water.
"What's that?" he heard someone shout, thinking they meant him, but relieved when he heard the panicked reply.
"'Gator!" A volley of shots churned water.
"Stop it!" Demoines snarled. "That's a log, not an alligator."
Just then the Jeep engine rumbled to life.
"The Jeep!" Demoines hollered.
Bolan stopped the boat behind a thick tree and watched them scramble toward shore. They started firing, but the jeep was already roaring off into the distance.
That gave him ten minutes to get by Demoines and his men.
Bolan slipped over the side of the boat, pushed it out in the direction of his pursuers. They were still too far away to see it, but in another twenty yards they would. However, it would be too dark for them to determine if he was in it or not.
Bolan grabbed the forked pole and waded away from the drifting boat.