The mountain lion came closer to their campsite as the evening wore on, so Dixon insisted they keep the flames going strong, that they sit together back-to-back nearby, and that one of them would always stay awake and on guard. But after telling Mara to sleep, he never awakened her for her turn at watch. She was startled and embarrassed to find upon awakening, that she’d changed positions in the night. Curled up, with her head on his lap and her backpack serving as a pillow, one arm circled about his knee, while her other hand held one of his. She felt badly when she noticed later that he moved about stiffly, as though he’d been forced to stay in the same position for an extended period of time. She apologized, but he just waved his hand and told her it was nothing.
Who is this man? she wondered, not for the first time. He really was kind and helpful and—tough. He never gave up on anything, was always ready to assist her and . . . yes, it was true—he was rather charming.
Dixon caught some freshwater trout in the nearby stream and stuffed it with tarragon growing at the outskirts of the campsite. When he was through cooking it, Mara watched on as he broke the fish open. The flaky white meat steamed in the cool morning air. She inhaled deeply of the herb’s light lemony-licorice scent that filled the air, then groaned involuntarily, in appreciation, when she first tasted it.
Her eyes flashed his way. Is he laughing at me?
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”
Feeling herself blush, she looked away. “Next time I’ll do the cooking.”
“Oh, you’re not enjoying it? That was a groan of dismay?”
Quickly, she turned back and found him smiling. He’s teasing me! She grinned. “It’s wonderful.” She took another bite.
He nodded. “I hope you got enough sleep. This will be a long day if we’re to make it off this mountain before nightfall.”
“Is that why you didn’t wake me when it was my turn to watch?”
He shrugged. “You just seemed so comfortable. I didn’t want to move you.”
“Still, I should have taken my turn.”
“Not a problem.”
“So, tell me . . . I take it . . .”
He took another bite of his trout. “What?”
“I take it we . . . were friends.”
He grinned, but then his smile vanished. He swallowed hard and looked away. “Yes,” he finally said, “the best of friends.”
She lifted her chin. “And that’s why you offered to see me back home.”
“That’s right.” He dropped his fish bones into the fire. “You about ready to go?” he asked as he stood.
“Sorry?” His eyes narrowed. “Whatever for?”
“For putting you out like this. It seems a bad way for someone to treat a friend.”
“Don’t give it another thought. It’s not a problem, really.” He grabbed his saddlebags. “We’d best get going.”
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