Wearing a half-hearted smile, Mara looked out over the lake, trying to enjoy the beauty of the Minnesota morning. The laughter of a loon in the distance accompanied an earthy smelling breeze that rustled her golden blonde hair.
Mara's arm whipped, and the flat stone she held skipped out across the water, surpassing her earlier toss by several hops. Just around the bend of the shore, she heard her younger brother whoop, heralding the launch of the canoes on the morning fishing expedition.
The summer trip to the Boundary Waters had been a tradition for as long as she could remember. Her father had uncles and cousins aplenty in the area, and it was a time for catching up with the family, far away from the cares and responsibilities of home. Those very cares and responsibilities had kept them away for the last five years, and Mara was glad to be back.
Footsteps rustled through the leaves and undergrowth behind Mara, and she looked over her shoulder to see her mother approaching. Standing close together, it would be easy for one to mistake the pair for sisters, rather than mother and daughter - one of the more noticeable benefits from the dryad part of their heritage.
To most of the world, nymphs were mystical creatures of legend, created by superstitious peoples of the past to explain the unknown. Mara and her mother were living proof that the legends were true, though the family kept the secret close out of necessity. Now in the fourth generation springing from the love of an eternal dryad and a mortal man, they straddled two worlds, protecting the remaining pockets of nature from encroaching civilization.
It was that very secret that stung Mara's heart, keeping her from fully appreciating the return to this place of such happy memories from her childhood.
"Hey," Kia greeted her daughter.
Mara responded, "Hey, Mom," as she turned back to the lake. "I thought you were going out with everyone else."
"I was, but I decided that I'd rather get some sun instead. Care to join me?"
Mara fought down the sigh that tried to escape her. She knew that sunbathing was far down on the list of what her mother actually had in mind. There was little hope of avoiding this conversation for much longer. She'd already dodged it for more than two months, and so she resigned herself to getting it out of the way.
Kia gestured for her daughter to follow, and started back to the camp. Once there, she turned onto what was little more than an animal trail leading uphill toward a golden glow at the top.
The sunbathed hilltop, covered in soft grasses and moss, was the reason that the family chose this campsite on every trip. Firs and shrubs concealed it from view at lake level, providing complete privacy - barring a passing ranger float plane.
Mara couldn't resist looking up to feel the sun on her face. By the time she looked back down, her mother had already tossed aside her shorts. Mother and daughter undressed with a complete lack of shame or discomfort. Xantina, the ultimate dryad mother of the family, had a strong prejudice against clothing, and everyone indulged that whim. Nudity was as natural as breathing to those who spent their time around Xantina's pool.
Kia sat down and leaned back on her hands, lifting her firm breasts to the warmth of the sun. A contented sigh passed her lips as Mara sat down as well.
The elder woman wasted no time in broaching the subject that had brought them both to the hilltop. "So, how are you doing?"
Mara shrugged and frowned.
"You know that you can talk to me about anything. It might make you feel better."
"I know." Mara sighed as she watched a ragged V of geese pass overhead. "I just really don't want to think about it any more."
Kia scooted a little closer and covered her daughter's hand with hers. "Well, you obviously are. You haven't been yourself since you broke up."
"We didn't break up. He dumped me."
"What happened, anyway? You were so upset that night that I couldn't really understand."
"He thought I was cheating on him."
Kia scoffed. "What on earth would make him think that?"
"This bitch at school..."
"Well, she is. Anyway, she started a rumor that I was sleeping with Johnny Forsythe. Alan already knew that I was keeping secrets from him, so he believed all the stories going around."
"Oh, Xanmara," Kia said, using her daughter's real name, only known amongst family. "You blame yourself, don't you?"
"No. Well, sort of. I don't know. How am I supposed to be with anyone when I have to lie about who I am?"
"You aren't," Kia adamantly responded, knowing all too well how difficult it was to keep the secret of her dryad parentage. "You may not be able to tell everyone certain things about us, but I've never known you to pretend to be someone you're not."
"It's the same thing," Mara disagreed, and rolled over onto her side, facing away from her mother.
"It isn't, and deep down, you know it. If he didn't trust you, then he wasn't the one. Did he even ask you if the rumors were true?"
Mara tensed, the painful memory of him calling her a slut and demanding his class ring back making her eyes fill with tears. "No," she answered in a small voice.
"How could anyone who loves you do that? Believe you would do something so awful? Judge you that way?"
"I don't know," Mara murmured, her voice cracking with sobs trying to emerge.
"Neither do I." Kia stroked her daughter's hair. "It isn't your fault, sweetheart. He's the one that gave up what you had for a lie."
Mara finally broke, the wall she'd erected after crying herself to sleep that night crumbling. "I loved him so much."
"I know, and he obviously didn't deserve it."
Kia sniffled, her eyes misting up as well. "I'm going to let that one go, because I agree with you. Come here."
Need of the love and protection of her mother's arms welled up in Mara. She sat up, leaned into the embrace, and let her tears flow.
Though she'd resisted it with all her might, Mara felt a great deal better after a long cry in her mother's arms, followed by actually taking advantage of the hilltop to soak up the sun for an hour.
Since the plan was to take a swim after giving their early lunch a little time to settle, both women wore their bikinis beneath shorts and t-shirts. Even in the shade of the rustling trees, the air was hot and humid. With each passing minute, the thought of the cool water grew more inviting.
"Ho the camp!"
Mara's brow furrowed when she heard the call from the lake, as the voice seemed familiar. She and her mother shared a glance before rising from where they sat in front of the tent, to see a canoe down on the lake.
Kia waved as she walked toward the shore and called out, "Paul!"
Upon hearing the name, recognition fully dawned on Mara. Paul could almost be called a resident, and acted as an unofficial deputy to the park rangers during his frequent sojourns. His bushy black beard and wooden canoe served to make him look like a fur trapper of old, though his smile was anything but the sort of gruff expression one would expect from such a character.
"Kia? Good to see you back. You haven't changed a bit. Is that Mara?"
"All grown up," Kia answered as she reached the edge of the water, careful of her footing on the uneven stone.
"That she is. Dara's going to be heartbroken when she finds out she missed you, Mara. You two were always as thick as thieves." He drew himself up, his face filling with pride. "She's in medical school - top of her class."
Mara smiled, knowing that the older girl had always dreamed of being a doctor. "Tell her I'm sorry I missed her too."
"What about Wade?" Her mother asked.
Paul hiked a thumb behind him, even as the tip of a canoe pulled into view from around the bend where Mara had stood earlier in the morning.
"Hey! Look who it is," Wade called out as he paddled up to join his father.
Mara's eyes widened when she saw him. Though he had proved a nuisance sometimes, Wade was just as much a friend to her as his sister. When she'd last seen him, he was all skinned knees and elbows.
He was anything but, now.
"All grown up," Kia whispered, leaning over to bump into her daughter.
Mara's face burned when she realized she was staring at him, muscles bulging beneath his t-shirt as he propelled the canoe with powerful strokes. His pale blond hair stood up in spikes, looking artfully mussed as it always had, a sharp contrast to his father. She waved and smiled to cover her embarrassment, calling out her old nickname for him. "Hey, Fishbait!"
"I hardly ever fall out of a boat any more, thank you," he said as he sat down his paddle and drifted up next to his father's canoe. "There's a camp set up at forty-two, but nobody's there."
"Probably kin of yours?" Paul asked, his smile fading.
Kia nodded. "They're off fishing. Something wrong?"
"Happen to see a couple of blond boys in a red fiberglass? They were supposed to be back to the portage this morning, and they haven't showed."
"No, but I'll call Steve and the others. Mara, can you go get the radio?"
"Yeah, Mom," Mara answered, glad to have the chance to recover from her shock at the change in her old friend. When she returned, Wade and his father had paddled up to shore.
Kia pressed the button on the two-way radio. "Steve?"
"Yeah, honey," his voice answered.
"Paul and Wade are here. Have you seen two boys in a red fiberglass canoe?"
"We aren't having much luck with the fish anyway. We'll help look."
His last sentence echoed in stereo from two radios. "Channel three, Wade," Paul said to his son.
"Got it, Dad."
"Whereabouts are you?" Wade asked into his own radio.
"Up off the point. Come on up here and we'll come up with a plan to spread out."
"You girls want to come along?" Paul asked.
Kia turned to her daughter and lifted her eyebrows.
Regardless of the inner turmoil she was dealing with, Mara couldn't ignore the possibility that someone was lost or hurt, and that she could help. "Sure."
Wade picked up a paddle from within his canoe and held it out to Mara. "All aboard the S.S. Fishbait."
Mara laughed, snatched away the paddle, and soon they were off.
Her paddle leaned over her shoulder, Mara dangled her fingers in the water, waiting for her father and brother to make their way across the sparkling surface of the lake.
Though the search was tedious, the company was good. Wade was as full of good humor as ever, joking and singing as he paddled along in the seat behind her. Everyone had stories to tell, many of which were new to Mara by virtue of her being too young to actually remember the incidents at the time. Despite the camaraderie, none forgot the task at hand, and kept their eyes open as they fanned out from arranged meeting spots.
Mara's father shook his head as his canoe drifted between the two waiting boats. "No sign. Ran into a group of scouts at the portage. They haven't seen them, and they've been up on the other side all week."
Paul eyed the sun and said, "We only have about an hour before we'll need to head back." He sighed.
"We've got an hour, so we'll use it," Mara's father declared. "I'll head up toward fifty-five."
Paul nodded. "Fifty-three and fifty-eight are about the same distance. That will put us all back here at about the same time, and back to camp right at dark."
"We'll take fifty-three," Wade piped up.
Kia looked a little dubious, as she and her daughter had stayed within sight throughout the search. The look vanished a moment later and she agreed, "That leaves us fifty-eight. Don't dally."
Wade dipped his paddle in the water. Mara followed his example, and the little flotilla disbanded.
"Arrr! Off to Blood Island, Lass!"
Mara groaned and shook her head at Wade's pirate imitation. The island where campsite fifty-three was located looked especially inviting from the water. It had a sand and pebble beach that stretched far out into a shallow spot of the lake, perfect for swimming. The trees formed a semi-circle around the campsite, offering shade and protection from the wind.
The problem was the native inhabitants.
Swarms of biting black flies called the island home - thus the name - and voraciously attacked anyone who was damp from swimming or sweat. The trick was to jump in the canoes as soon as you finished swimming and paddle away as quickly as possible until you dried, but few stayed on Blood Island long enough to learn that secret.
Though she had a closer bond with her family than most girls her age, Mara still felt a surge of freedom when her mother and father both passed out of view. Wade immediately took up a shanty, the lyrics deviously suggestive of things that had nothing to do with sailing. Mara kept paddling, pretending that she didn't hear him, though she did find herself smiling and stifling chuckles throughout.
"For all the sailors love her - and flock to where she's moored. Each man hoping that he might - go down all hands on board!"
"Are you quite done?" Mara asked over her shoulder as he punctuated the song with a loud Yo Ho!
"Ah, don't be a party pooper. Let's pick it up a bit. I need to drain the bilges."
Though she blew a raspberry at him, Mara did match the increased speed of his paddling. He wasn't the only one who needed a pit stop. As they passed a narrow, tree-shrouded inlet, movement caught Mara's eye, and she turned to see two men fishing.
"I see them. Let's make this quick." His j-stroke turned the canoe with ease.
"Hey there," Wade called out as they approached, staying back far enough to avoid any chance of fouling the men's lines. "Have you seen two guys in a red fiberglass canoe?"
"Day before yesterday, up by the falls. Saw them fighting with some other boys and calling the girls with them..." He trailed off, his eyes darting to Mara, and cleared his throat. "Anyway, we steered clear."
"Thanks. They've gone missing and we're trying to find them. Luck to you."
"We'll keep a weather eye out," the fisherman answered.
Wade dipped his paddle back in the water. "Let's get to Blood Island before I pee all over myself."
The speed at which Wade paddled bespoke no small amount of urgency, and Mara was beginning to feel that way as well. The canoe skimmed across the water, propelled by the pair's coordinated strokes toward the island in the distance. By the time Wade pointed the bow at the beach, Mara was fidgeting in her seat.
The canoe crunched up on the sand and smooth-worn stones, the speed of the beaching fast enough that Mara could step out without getting her feet wet when the momentum finally halted. Wade climbed to the middle of the canoe and leapt for the shore, muttering, "Gotta go. Gotta go. Gotta go."
"I'm going up to the latrine," she called after him.
"Okay," he yelled back as he ran into the trees.
When she returned from the latrine, Mara found Wade on the beach with a pair of binoculars. He was looking toward the far side of the lake in the direction of the waterfall.
"Not on the right," he answered as he scanned left, toward the other campsite there. "Bingo. Red canoe."
Wade handed Mara the binoculars and unhooked the radio from his belt while she zeroed in on the campsite he'd spoken of.
Wade called, "Hey Dad. We may have something."
When no answer came, he tried again. This time, there was an answer, but not from his father.
"Hello? Can you hear me?"
Mara heard the panicky call and turned around, slinging the binoculars around her neck.
"Whoever that was, I can hear you," Wade answered.
"Thank god," the unfamiliar voice responded. "We're lost, and I think Terry broke his leg."
"Were you in a red canoe by the falls?"
"Yeah. We were fucking around in the woods and can't find our way back to camp."
"Okay, try to calm down. We were looking for you. We're on an island out in the lake, and we can see your canoe." Wade searched his memory for the other young man's name. "Ryan - right?"
"Yeah. Terry looks bad. We haven't had anything to eat since yesterday."
"We've got some food, and we know where you are. We're coming, so don't move, and don't panic. Keep your radio on this channel, and we'll call you every so often."
Wade nodded toward the canoe and said, "Let's go. Those guys are freaking, and Dad's out of range. We may have to go try to track them down until Dad heads this way to find out what happened to us."
Mara argued, "What if we get lost?"
"I've got a GPS. As soon as we don't show up where they expect us, our folks will come looking for us to tan our hides. They'll probably find us long before we find those two numbskulls." He broke out in a broad smile. "It's an excuse for us to get out from under the parental thumbs for a little while without getting in trouble for it. Adventure, Lass!"
Mara shook her head and let out a sarcastic-sounding sigh. "Okay, you're right. One condition."
"Talk like a pirate day is over."
"Spoilsport," Wade grumbled, and then climbed into the canoe.
On the water again, it dawned on Mara that she wasn't thinking about the end of her relationship. Even acknowledging that didn't bring the memories crashing back down on her, and the sound of Wade whistling the tune of his earlier shanty brought a smile to her lips.
About halfway between the island and their destination, Wade's radio sounded out, "You still there?"
"On our way across the lake now. Give us a couple of minutes. I'll let you know when we're at your camp."
"He sounds really scared," Mara observed.
"Yeah. Let's hope we can find them before he completely freaks."
Steady paddling brought the canoe up to shore, and Mara hopped out with the tie rope while Wade kept the boat steady. Once the canoe was safely tied off to a birch clinging to land near the edge of the water, Wade climbed out and grabbed his pack.
Handing Mara the radio, he said, "Give them a call while I get something out of here."
Mara keyed up the radio and said, "Ryan, we're at your campsite."
"Hurry. Terry's real pale and he's starting to say weird shit."
"Tell them to listen for this," Wade instructed, holding up an air horn. When Mara gave him a puzzled look, he explained, "They let us bend the rules because we're sort of the advance rescue party out here."
"Ryan, we're going to sound a horn. Listen for it."
Mara covered her ears, and Wade gave a long blast. When the sound died away, save for the echoes returning from far shores, she called again. "Did you hear that? Can you tell what direction it's coming from."
"In front of us, I think. It's not very loud," the young man answered.
Wade groaned, shook his head, and held out his hand for the radio. "Look at the shadows. I'm going to blow it again, and you tell me what direction it's coming from by the shadows."
Again the horn shattered the peace of the wilderness, and Wade waited for the answer.
"It kinda seems like it's coming from the same way that the shadows are going."
"That's close enough," Wade responded. "Stay there and we'll head your way. We can narrow it down when we're closer."
Another voice - a familiar one - emerged from the radio. "Wade? Who are you talking to?"
"We found them, Dad. They're lost in the woods to the east of the falls, and one of them broke his leg. We're at the campsite by the falls."
"Okay, go after them, take your pack, and mark your trail. I'm on my way."
"Got it, Dad."
Wade handed Mara the horn and radio, pulled a spindle of orange day-glow ribbon from a side pocket, and shouldered his pack. Mara was surprised by the change in his demeanor, which was suddenly very rugged and manly - quite unlike his usual boyish humor.
Memories from her last trip here crept up on Mara as she watched him. Shaking her head and silently scolding herself, she resolutely pushed those memories - and the emotions that came with them - back down. That's the last thing I need right now.
"You can wait here for Dad if you want."
Focusing on the here and now, Mara said, "I'll go with you. I might be able to do something to help."
Wade gave her a nod and set out. Mara followed and soon understood how the pair she and Wade were looking for could have gotten turned around. There was no way to take a straight path through the trees and undergrowth.
Wade wove his way through the woods, pausing to tie sections of ribbon onto limbs at about the same height, at about the same intervals. When she chanced to look behind her, despite the wandering path, she could see the last two ribbons fluttering in the breeze, perfectly aligned with the one Wade was currently tying.
He sounded the horn again, and the young man on the other end of the radio said that it was coming from the same direction - louder. About ten minutes later, Wade tried shouting instead of sounding the horn. Ryan's faint, relieved cry of answer preceded him anxiously announcing over the radio that he could hear them.
Mara followed Wade up a small rise dominated by black spruce, and saw the two men below. One was pacing anxiously, while the other lay on the ground.
"We're on the trail, Wade," Paul's voice emerged from the speaker.
Wade called back to his father, "We can see them. We're going over."
The pacing man below looked around, and then waved frantically when he spotted his rescuers moving his way.
"He's been asking for water," Ryan blurted out as soon as they were close.
Wade turned slightly, giving Mara easy access to the canteen sticking out of a pocket of his pack. She took it and headed toward the ashen-faced blond lying on the ground with his head propped up on a mossy hillock at the root of a tree.
Mara immediately saw the swelling and bruising on the young man's right ankle, and knew that it was either broken or severely sprained. She unscrewed the top from the canteen and held it out to him.
He stared at her for a few seconds, his eyes confused and glassy, and then reached up with a shaky hand to take the canteen. He drank, spilling quite a bit down the sides of his face and his chin in the process. The canteen thumped into his chest when he finished, and he sighed. "Thanks," he offered in a weary voice.
"You're welcome. Try not to move."
The young man's eyes focused a little more and the corners of his mouth twitched up. "Wow. You've got great tits."
Somehow, Mara kept the sarcasm out of her voice as she responded, "Thanks. Stay still."
Wade knelt down next to her and held out an unwrapped energy bar to the downed man, taking the canteen and passing it to Ryan, waiting eagerly behind him while devouring the last bite of his own bar.
Mara asked, "Do you think he's in shock?"
Wade reached down and squeezed the man's thumb, seeing the color beneath the nail return almost immediately. He shook his head and answered, "No, just a bit delirious." Glancing up at the other man, he said, "Keep an eye on your friend."
Mara stood up when Wade did and followed him off to the side a bit. Wade leaned in and said, "I'm going to see if I can find a couple of poles. We're going to have to improvise a stretcher and carry him back to camp. Can you dig my jeans and my jacket out of the pack?"
Wade looked over at the two men and muttered, "Numbskulls," before heading off into the trees, scanning the ground beneath the canopy for suitable deadfall.
Mara squatted next to the pack and opened it, locating two pairs of tightly rolled jeans and a jacket near the bottom. Seeing a first-aid kit, she retrieved it as well. While she was sitting down everything next to the pack, she saw the two men out of the corner of her eye.
They were staring at her ass.
Mara looked up in surprise at the sound of her mother's voice to see the older woman wave and move at a quickened pace down the conifer covered hillock. Seeing the question in her daughter's eyes, Kia explained, "I'm the closest thing we have to a doctor. Now I really wish Dara was here."
Nodding her head in agreement, as her mother's veterinarian experience combined with training in first aid was better than nothing, Mara said, "I don't know if it's broken, but it's really badly sprained if it isn't."
"Where's Wade?" His father asked.
"Off looking for poles to make a stretcher."
Paul nodded approvingly and then started toward the two blond men with Kia following close behind.
Wade returned a couple of minutes later with two stout limbs to make the stretcher. Paul handed Kia a pain killer from his first-aid kit before going to assist his son. Kia got to work on splinting Terry's ankle. Mara helped where she could as the other three went about their tasks with methodical speed. The hike back through the woods would not be easy while carrying the stretcher, and none wanted to attempt it in failing light.
The young man cried out once as he was lifted on the makeshift stretcher. Wade had purposely made one of the rear poles long enough for both Mara and her mother to hold, letting them share their part of the burden. On Paul's signal, they stepped forward on the same foot, at the same time.
The walk was grueling in the humid summer heat. Mara was dripping with sweat by the time they crested the spruce-dotted rise, her t-shirt clinging to her skin before they were a quarter of the way back to the camp. The terrain was uneven, and the obstacles were often hidden beneath concealing leaves and pine needles. Skirting the trees, bushes, and undergrowth was even more difficult, making the journey longer than the trip in.
Despite the difficulty, Wade and his father made sure to pull down all the trail-marking ribbon along the way.
By the time they reached the camp, Mara was weary to the bone. The men helped Terry into the tent where he could lie on his sleeping bag while Mara and her mother collapsed into a shady spot to quench their thirst and rest.
Wade and his father emerged from the tent and exchanged a few words. Paul went to the canoes, while Wade walked to where the women rested.
"We're going to have to pitch camp here for the night. We've got two tents, but they'll be a bit crowded with two each in them."
"Won't Dad be worried?" Mara queried.
Her mother shook her head. "He knew we probably wouldn't be able to make it back before dark. They'll head this way in the morning."
Wade said, "Take it easy while we get set up. If you don't mind cooking, we'll fall in a heap while you're doing that."
Kia nodded, and Wade went to join his father.
Mara looked over when she felt her mother's hand patting her knee.
"I'm proud of you."
Her cheeks warming, Mara asked, "For what?"
"For not dropping that pole because those two were staring at your boobs the whole way back here."
They both broke out into stifled laughter.
The air was cool and everything moist with dew when Mara crawled out of the tent the next morning. The resinous smell of pine hung thick about the campsite, mingling with the smoke of the fire. Her mother sat with Wade and his father, wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt that were decidedly too big for her. Her hair was damp and her clothes hung down by the canoes, drying in the sun.
"Morning, sleepyhead," Kia greeted her daughter. "Come have some breakfast."
Mara felt absolutely ravenous, likely because of how much energy she'd expended the previous day, and cleaned her plate in short order. All the while, she shrugged her shoulders and plucked at her stiff shirt, decorated with half circles of dried salt from the sweaty hike through the woods. She'd barely put down her plate before her mother picked up a bundle of clothing and a towel.
"Let's go get you cleaned up."
Mara cast a furtive glance toward the other tent in the camp, though both of the young men were inside at the moment.
His eyes a little hard as he nodded toward the other side of the camp, Wade offered, "I'll make sure they keep their butts here and their eyes in their head."
Kia stood up and held out a hand to help her daughter rise. "Let's go."
The trail from the camp to the waterfall was clearly marked from travel, but new shoots still poked up from between the leaves. The limits on daily visitors preserved even this popular spot from suffering too much from the intrusion of man in the wilderness. The falls wasn't large, only a couple of tumbles from about twenty feet up, but the water cascaded in disperse sheets, catching the sun to form rainbow patterns.
More important for the moment, the vegetation hid the small clearing and frothing pool from view until one walked right up on it. Mara peeled off her shirt even as she walked - the water calling to her.
Her mother took the shirt from her and said, "I'll rinse these out while you wash up."
The water was cold, even in the warming air. Ignoring the shock, Mara moved toward a large rock that broke the surface of the pool directly below the falls. After a few moments of shivering, she let out a sigh and ran her hands over her body, washing away the sweat and dirt of the previous day.
"You seem a little more like yourself today," Kia remarked as she knelt next to the pool, dunking Mara's bikini bottom in the water. When her daughter frowned a little, she quickly said, "Sorry."
Smoothing water through her hair, Mara said, "It's okay. It's hard to wallow in pity around that goof Wade." She rolled her eyes and smiled.
Kia looked up to see her daughter leaned back, the falling water arching out from her firm breasts - her expression one of content bliss.
"I know it's hard, but you'd better hurry before someone decides to hike up here from the other campsite."
Mara gave a sad nod and concentrated more on getting clean than luxuriating in the invigorating spray.
Her father and brother arrived an hour or so later, leading Ryan's uncle and Terry's father - neither of whom looked at all comfortable in their canoe - to the campsite. Mara was relieved to discover that her father had brought along a change of clothing, as the borrowed t-shirt felt as big as a tent, and her own clothes were still wet.
The men broke camp while Mara and her mother made lunch. Paul sat off to the side, a whittling knife in hand. By the time everyone was ready to set out, he'd finished carving a stout crutch to help Terry get around.
The paddle back toward 'home' was a bit slow at first. The two rescued men's relatives were still unsteady, and Terry had difficulty finding a position in which he could sit that didn't send shooting pains up his leg.
It didn't stop him from ogling Mara and her mother any time he thought nobody was watching, though.
A low growl from behind her prompted Mara to glance back shortly after one of those callous stares. She saw Wade staring daggers at Terry, his eyes narrow and his lip twitching.
Doing her best to ignore the emotions his protectiveness caused, Mara mischievously gave a flip of her paddle when completing the next stroke, splashing him. His expression changed to one of amused irritation, but Mara swore she saw his cheeks redden - just for an instant.
"Forget it. They're just jerks," she quietly urged. The hint of a grin touched her face as she asked, "Are you a knight instead of a pirate now?"
Though he laughed, the sound was a bit forced. "Okay."
Wade's curbed enthusiasm made the whole journey a great deal less enjoyable for Mara. Once back in the section of the lake where her family and Wade's made camp, the group drifted to a stop.
The young men expressed gratitude for the rescue, and Mara thought that they looked a little humbled by the experience. Their older relatives, who had found some confidence near the end of the paddle and had begun talking about returning under happier circumstances, were profuse with their thanks as well.
Wade's expression relaxed almost immediately after the other two canoes left, but Mara didn't have a chance to benefit from his improving humor for long. The rest of her extended family wanted to hear about the part of the search and rescue they'd missed, while Wade and his father still had to attend to setting their camp.
Mara watched them cross the lake with a little sigh, content at least in the knowledge that she would see them both again soon.
With five years of exploration that she'd missed under his belt, Wade had all sorts of wonders to share. Though she spent her mornings and evenings with the family, Mara passed the days paddling to little-known corners of the local wilderness with Wade.
The easy friendship they'd shared as youngsters returned, coupled now with the freedom that arose from parental trust in them to roam - within reason. They were wise enough to stay within radio range of at least one person, and keep in contact. Though Mara endured a long cautionary lecture from her parents that first afternoon, after proving her good senses and returning unscathed, her mother had let her go with no more than a wave and a smile the second. That smile spoke volumes, and Mara knew that her improved mood played no small part in the loosening of the apron strings.
Improved was actually an understatement. Sitting atop a hill with a magnificent view on the third afternoon, it dawned on Mara that she hadn't thought about her breakup since the day before. Wade's return to jovial silliness was simply infectious and irresistible.
Mara glanced over her shoulder, wondering where he'd gotten to. The view was the bait he'd used to lure her up here - and it was well worth the easy climb - but he'd hiked off wearing a devious smile shortly after arriving at the top. A frothy stream rushing down the hillside only a few feet away made it difficult, but she could just hear him rustling through the woods somewhere nearby.
When he returned, Wade still wore that sneaky smile, and had turned the tail of his shirt into a basket. However, the makeshift pouch wasn't the thing that first caught Mara's eye, but rather the rock hard abdominal muscles below.
She chased that thought out of her head as quickly as possible, and managed to avoid blushing this time. Dealing with the reality that he was a man now, and not just Wade was hard enough, but any time that truth asserted itself, it reminded her of just how alone she felt.
"Blueberries?" He asked as he sat down and revealed the fruit.
The moan of anticipatory delight was unavoidable as Mara picked one of the big round berries and popped it in her mouth.
"They were growing up here last year, so I figured they would be here."
Mara ate another. "Aren't you going to have some?"
"I already had one or two. You can have your pick, then I'll help you finish them off."
Looking out over the lake, a stiff breeze sending her hair fluttering out behind her like a golden banner, Mara sighed and said, "Only one week left. That's the only bad thing about coming up here. We never get to stay long enough."
"At least you've got another week. Everybody else has to paddle out tomorrow."
Mara nodded, knowing that she was going to miss her extended family when they set out for civilization. She was lucky that her parents could carve out much longer vacations. "They live up here, though. They can come out on weekends."
"Ah, you get a little jaded if you're out here all the time like me and Dad. We'll give them a good send off."
Mara was looking forward to this evening, fondly remembering her father strumming his guitar while Wade's father plucked a banjo or played harmonica. The evening get-together was a tradition that always happened whenever her family and Wade's shared the lake at the same time.
The blueberries didn't last long between the two of them, and as Mara took the last one, her mother's voice came over the radio. "I'm getting ready to make lunch, Mara."
Wade grabbed the radio off his belt and handed it to her so she could answer, "Okay, we're heading back."
As she stood up, Mara handed the radio back to Wade, and then took a step toward the animal trail leading back down to the water. The spot where she put her foot down looked solid enough, but the forest detritus gave way, slipping downhill.
Crying out, Mara threw her hands wide for balance, but she could feel gravity winning the battle. Just as she was sure that she would tumble down the hillside, bouncing off rocks and trees all the way, Wade's hand grabbed hers with a resounding clap. He reeled her in, sliding his other arm behind her shoulders to help her find her footing.
Her heart pounding, Mara nodded and let out a long breath of relief. When she looked up into his eyes, her fluttering heart skipped a beat. The deep, liquid blue pools drew her in. It was several seconds later before she realized that he was still holding her, his hand clasped tightly with hers.
Wade let go a little quickly, and nodded toward the trail. "Uh, let's go then."
Following along behind, Mara curled her fingers to stroke them over her palm. She could still feel Wade's hand, the firm, protective grip softening to something far different as she'd regained her balance.
Wade stepped onto the trail and looked back over his shoulder. "If you're going to test to make sure the law of gravity is still in effect again, try not to take me out on the way down."
He just managed to dodge the clump of leaves she kicked at him.
Sitting around the fire at Wade's camp that evening, Mara glanced at her furiously blushing father and stifled a laugh. Her great uncle continued the story, much to her father's chagrin.
"Now, I didn't see Steve's gallantry, so I had no idea what was going on when I paddled up. There he was, standing on the bank holding his paddle planted in the ground like a knight with a lance, lookin' for all the world like he'd thrash anybody who dared set foot on land.
"I asked him what he was on about, and he puffs up his chest and says that he's standing guard. His voice only cracked a little."