Mary Mapes received a care package from two of her best girlfriends the other day. What to send the woman in the eye of the CBS News firestorm? Wine, of course. And chocolates. A romance novel, amusingly titled "Texas Glory." Some Band-Aids to soothe life's little boo-boos. Tums.

Also tucked inside was some under-eye concealer, to hide those awful dark circles that come with nights of sleep lost to worry. Oh, and a do-rag, the better to go incognito on runs to the grocery store.

"We wanted to make her laugh," says Mickey Flowers, Mapes's friend for more than 20 years. "I figured she might need a disguise, just for the peace of mind."

It worked. Mapes laughed, she told the other girlfriend, for the first time in days. Does she need the disguise? Not necessarily. As the producer of the "60 Minutes" segment at the center of the network's very public crisis, Mapes has spent much of the last month under fire, her career and once well-burnished reputation hanging in the balance. Her colleague and partner Dan Rather has been the public face of the story critical of President Bush's National Guard service but based, as it turned out, on apparently bogus documents. But Mapes, 48, was the driving force behind it.

In the face of public calls for his resignation, Rather said Saturday that he had no intention of stepping down over the controversy. Mapes, meanwhile, has not said a word, though questions have been raised inside and outside CBS News headquarters: Is she the one at fault? Is hers the head that's going to roll?

Publicly, Mapes has been defined, in turn, either as a spectacular producer who made a spectacular screw-up or as an overzealous journalist with a political agenda. In the main photograph of her in circulation, she appears wan, rattled. It was taken in 1999, outside a Jasper, Tex., courthouse. The sinus infection she was suffering from that day paled in comparison with a judge's threats to jail her for refusing to release transcripts of an interview.

"Mary has not been portrayed as a human being," says Jim Murphy, executive producer of "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather." "Everything from the deer-caught-in-the-headlights photo to the political operative stuff -- that's not the Mary we know."

Just months ago, Mapes was the first to obtain photographs depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a major coup for the network. Murphy, though he has never been her direct supervisor, knows Mapes best from the "harrowing" eight-day trip they took with Rather into Afghanistan in the days after U.S. forces entered Kabul in 2001. Murphy says she was the best kind of companion on such an assignment: capable, unruffled and able to keep the mood light, no matter the circumstance.

For veteran correspondent Vicki Mabrey, Mapes is the producer she desperately wanted to work with as a young reporter in Dallas, not to mention the expert on where to get the best tortilla soup -- or anything else, for that matter -- in town. For Bob McNamara, another veteran correspondent who still works in the CBS Dallas bureau, Mapes is the fearless journalist who went into the heart of the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict to get the story.

Rather, who long has relied on her judgment, says Mapes has his "respect" and his "friendship."

"Mary Mapes earned my trust and the trust of her colleagues with years of excellent, fearless reporting," Rather said in a statement provided to The Post. "She is tireless in pursuit of a story and she has proven herself many times."

But that woman -- described by those who have worked with her as "funny," "smart" and "very talented" -- has been silent through all of this. Far from CBS News headquarters on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Mapes has remained at her Dallas home -- her base while working on "60 Minutes" -- with her husband and 7-year-old son. She declined to be interviewed for this article through her husband, Mark Wrolstad, a staff writer for the Dallas Morning News. Wrolstad describes much of what has been said and written about his wife and her actions as "inaccuracies and mischaracterizations," but declines to go into details.

Former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, the ex-CEO of the Associated Press, are leading an independent investigation commissioned by CBS into the incident, and CBS News has asked employees involved not to discuss the situation publicly in the interim. Mapes, Wrolstad says, wants to comply.

"Mary is a strong producer with the highest standards and integrity and sense of fairness," says Wrolstad. "And she's also part of a team. She has always counted on the strong leadership of her news supervisors. And everyone, I'm sure, knows that they need to address questions in the independent review. . . . Sometimes you have to wait for the right time and place to try to get people to hear the true details."

How did this woman -- who, by most accounts, was one of the most trusted and talented producers at CBS News -- end up in this place of criticism and uncertainty?

It starts with the story in question, which aired Sept. 8, on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes." In that report, Rather charged that President Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970s, and used as evidence copies of memos that had been provided to the network by a confidential source. Almost immediately, both the validity of the memos and the credibility of the source -- who later would be revealed as retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett -- came under attack. After days of defending the story, Rather made an on-air apology on Sept. 20, stating that a "mistake in judgment" had been made, and that Burkett had lied to the network. CBS did not go so far as to acknowledge the documents as forgeries; instead, it simply stated that it couldn't confirm they were not.

Coming in the heat of a presidential campaign, the story sparked a partisan firestorm that was further inflamed when Joe Lockhart, a high-ranking strategist in the Kerry campaign, told reporters that Mapes had called to put him in touch with Burkett. Both Lockhart and Burkett have since said that their conversation had absolutely nothing to do with the documents or CBS's report, but the call had its own reverberations. In the world of journalism, it is a distinct no-no to take any action that could advance (or be perceived as advancing) any political agenda. Mapes was already under scrutiny because she had worked the National Guard story for five years, found Burkett, obtained the documents from him and engaged the experts charged with vetting the documents for signs of alteration or forgery. There were, of course, higher-ups who greenlighted the story, including "60 Minutes" executive producer Josh Howard, and Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News. But at CBS, the suggestion has been made that Mapes is considered so good, everyone -- including Rather -- felt confident trusting her.

After the Lockhart phone call became public, the attacks became more pointed. The question was no longer: Did she make a mistake on the story? It was: Did she flagrantly break the rules? No one knew what to make of it, but everyone seemed to think it was bad news.

The worst of it came when Mapes's estranged father gave an interview to John Carlson, a conservative talk show host at KVI radio in Seattle, who once worked with Mapes at television station KIRO, also in Seattle.

"I'm really ashamed of my daughter, what she's become," said Don Mapes, who had a falling-out with his daughter years ago for undisclosed reasons. "She went into journalism with an ax to grind, that is, to promote feminism -- and radical feminism, I might say -- and liberalism."

Mapes's close friend Lisa Cohen, who lives in Seattle, was horrified.

"They were throwing anybody up there," she says. "People who don't know her. Her father, whom she hasn't spoken to in 15 years, just because he shares the same last name. Anything to throw fuel on the fire. "

Cohen, Flowers and Mapes all met at KIRO in the 1980s, when Mapes was a twenty-something producer trying to make her mark in the world of investigative journalism. She had grown up on a strawberry farm in Burlington, Wash., one of four sisters. She studied communications and political science at the University of Washington but never finished; instead, Wrolstad says, she started working in journalism.

Even in her early years in the business, Mapes was driven, passionate and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Cohen remembers her clashing repeatedly with the KIRO news director -- writing a scathing memo when he hired actors to play journalists in an ad for the station, bristling at publicity stunts she found journalistically distasteful.

"We had a very portly sportscaster," Cohen remembers, "and the news director thought it would be great publicity if we sent him out in a Santa Claus suit to show up live on people's doorsteps to give them one little bag of groceries. One little bag. Mary was assigned to it. She was horrified. She told him he couldn't do that, that it was unfair to these people, that they were giving them no warning, that it would embarrass them. If he was going to do something, she wanted him to do something meaningful."

To Cohen, that was classic Mapes: principled, unafraid to challenge, always willing to work harder than anyone else.

It was at KIRO that Mapes met Wrolstad. He was a reporter, she was a producer. Together they worked on investigative projects, including the Green River serial murder case, which was at last solved earlier this year. They married in 1987 after dating for years.

In 1989, Mapes was offered a job with CBS in Dallas. Wrolstad followed, and eventually became a senior reporter on the metro staff of the Dallas Morning News.

Mapes quickly gained a reputation for being dogged, fearless and fun. When Mabrey joined the bureau, the two did gospel brunches together, and argued over the death penalty: Mapes con, Mabrey pro. But Mabrey cites Mapes's coverage of a controversial death penalty case as an example of how Mapes did not allow her opinions to influence her work. "I think Mary is very fair, and I think she did not sugarcoat what Karla Fay Tucker did," Mabrey says, referring to the Texas inmate who was executed in 1998. "She would be the first one to tell you that she didn't think a person should be put to death, but she would also be the first one to tell you that these were horrible killings."

When the CBS scandal unfolded, Mabrey was out of the country and missed much of "the palace intrigue, the scuttlebutt." She has no idea if Mapes, or someone else, was duped on the story, though she acknowledges -- as her veteran "60 Minutes" colleague Mike Wallace also has said -- that it's possible for any journalist to get duped, no matter how tenacious.

McNamara worked closely with Mapes for years before she moved from CBS News to the "60 Minutes" team. In working with her on stories, he has observed firsthand her photographic memory and meticulous attention to detail. He also knows firsthand the challenges journalists face.

"Under the pressure of deadlines and competition, decisions are made that could get you into trouble," he says. "And most of the time, people don't get into trouble. But sometimes they do. And I think that there was a rush to get this story on in the face of competition, and it probably should have been checked out some more."

Who exactly is to blame? CBS is taking no action until the investigation is completed, and that's not expected to happen for weeks. But many CBS News staffers, including veterans, have quietly made up their minds: They are furious with Mapes, think that she has badly damaged the network, and they are upset that she has not been suspended at the very least. Those staffers, however, have repeatedly declined to voice their opinions on the record, citing the network's request that the situation not be discussed publicly while the investigation is underway.

"The bottom line is, a lot of us really like Mary and want to help her get through this," Murphy says. "If Mary did something wrong, she's going to pay for that, and she knows she's going to pay for that. But if she got caught in a crazy rush of a story and if a mistake was somehow made -- and I don't know if one was -- I hope people can understand that."

One week after the initial story aired, a former secretary in Bush's Guard unit, Marian Carr Knox, came forward to dispute the authenticity of the memos. She believed the underlying story -- her boss, she said, had complained that Bush was receiving preferential treatment -- but said she did not believe the memos themselves were genuine.

CBS decided that Rather should interview Knox for another segment on "60 Minutes." Mapes would be the producer. She flew from Dallas to the New York headquarters, arriving at about 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 15. The interview itself took about 45 minutes, finishing around 5. That left just three hours to do the work required to incorporate it into that night's segment, airing at 8. It was Mapes's job to make that happen.

"Everyone was getting a little nervous and hysterical," says Howard, the executive producer. "She sat there with a highlighter, going through the transcripts."

It was yet another example of what Howard describes as Mapes's ability to be "remarkably unflappable under pressure."

So how is she handling this pressure? Well, Mapes likes to joke that she has lost 10 pounds but, as Wrolstad dryly quotes her, "it's not a diet she recommends." She is still working on projects, confident there will be many more stories in her future. She is spending time with her family.

Mapes takes calls of support from friends, former subjects and sources. And she tries to maintain her sense of humor.

"I'm sure, at times, it's been difficult, extremely difficult. But she has incredible resolve," says her friend Mickey Flowers.

For now, though, Mapes's de facto statement comes through her husband: She did her job properly. She trusts in the process.

"You believe in yourself, and you rely on those who know you, and you rely on your exceptional reputation and your 15 years of solid work at your network and you move forward," says Wrolstad. "And you know that the truth is going to be known, and people are going to understand that you did things right."

In the interim, though, there is the waiting game.

"She has such a stellar reputation, I can't believe people have been so quick to question her integrity and her honorability as a journalist," Cohen says. "That's what is very dismaying to me. I feel that because of the competitive nature of our business as journalists, we're just so eager to jump on somebody who might stumble -- or is perceived to have stumbled. I just think of it as turning around to eat our young."

So Cohen sees it as her job to just keep Mapes laughing. Hence, the Tums. The romance novel she is utterly certain her friend will never read. And a note, to go along with the rest of it:

"Don't worry," Cohen says she wrote. "The pounds you've lost have found a new home on my hips. And they're here waiting for you, when it's over, and you're ready to have them back."

"She has such a stellar reputation, I can't believe people have been so quick to question her integrity," a friend says of Mary Mapes.Dan Rather's "60 Minutes" report that was critical of President Bush's National Guard service relied on retired Guard officer Bill Burkett, right, whose documentation proved unverifiable. CBS News producer Mary Mapes in 1999 when she refused to release transcripts of an interview to a Jasper, Tex., judge. Left, her besieged "60 Minutes" colleague, Dan Rather, who appeared over the weekend (along with Tom Brokaw and other newsmen) at a media forum in New York.