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Behind the Claddagh

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Can love bloom a second time?

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Chapter 1

Chapter 1, New Beginnings

“I give in, maybe you’re....” Karen saw a deep scowl appear on her grandmother’s face, “Ok, ok, you’re right. I’ll go, but promise me that you’ll try to come up for Labor Day!”

“If it’s at all possible, I’ll be there.” Nanna assured her, “You remember how to hook everything up? You know it’s been over a year since we were last there. Don’t forget to turn on the phone or plug it in, or whatever you’re suppose to do to it. Gabe’s phone number is in my address book, in the drawer by the fridge in case you need any help. You know he wouldn’t mind helping, he’ll be so happy to see you.”

“I’ll manage just fine Nanna.” Karen didn’t want Nanna to worry. “I used to help.... Poppie do it all the time. I might need Gabe’s help getting the water turned on, if those knobs are stuck or a little too tight.” Karen lifted her suitcase into the back of her Jeep, then closed the lift-gate. Nanna stepped towards Karen with arms open. Karen walked into her grandmother’s arms, hugging each other very tight. Before stepping away, Nanna patted Karen on the back.

“Now take those mutts of yours and get going, maybe I’ll be able to get some house cleaning done without them leaving dog hair all over and always getting in my way!” Nanna was trying so very hard to sound real stern about the issue.

“Bruno, Betsy, come.” Karen called her dogs, as she walked to the car door to open it for the dogs to get in. The dogs were already there, wagging their tails, creating a dust storm from the loose dirt. “Enough with the dust storm already, let’s go!” she opened the door. The dogs jumped in, running to the rear of the vehicle and laid down on the blanket Karen had put there for them. She had also placed a pillow in the rear of her vehicle, which Betsy laid claim to real quick. When Karen was seated she reached across the vehicle to crack the passenger window a little, then she rolled down the window on her side. Putting the key in the ignition she started the Jeep. As she drove down the driveway she yelled to her grandmother, “I love you, Nanna!”

“I love you too sweetie!” Nanna replied as she watched Karen drive away with the dogs. Nanna smiled and began giggling to herself as the vehicle disappeared from sight. “Gabe will keep an eye on her for me.” Nanna had called Gabe last week to let him know that Karen would be coming up to the cabin.

As she drove to the cabin, her mind began to wander back to hikes, picnics, swimming in the lake with the dogs, and all the long talks she had with Poppie, while sitting on the dock together fishing. Karen’s vision became a little blurry, bringing her hand to her face, she wiped a tear from her cheek. Shaking her head, she pulled over and stopped the car. As her mind quickly returned to the present, she felt a few tear drops fall on her shirt. She shook her head, trying to erase these feelings that had engulfed her with such sadness. Slowly she realized she was at the point where she needed to turn off the main highway. She had no idea how she had gotten there. She made the turn onto a narrow road into the state park and drove for another five miles, till she came to the driveway. As she turned into the driveway an uneasy feeling overwhelmed her, her heart began to pound like a trip hammer. She applied the brakes, she couldn’t go through this all alone. Sure, her Nanna would probably be here in a few weeks, but her Poppie wouldn’t. She’d give the cabin one last look before she put the jeep in reverse and head back to Nanna’s house.

“What the....” Something was wrong, the shutters on the windows were standing wide open. The last thing they had always done, every year before leaving, was to close and latch the shutters. Someone was here using her grandfather’s cabin... her cabin! She drove up to the house. Slamming on the brakes, she parked the jeep and jumped out with the dogs right at her heels. Looking around as she walked to the door, she noticed the dogs weren’t barking, like they always did when strangers were around. Instead, they were running around in the yard playing and wagging their tails, they were so happy to be there. Still somewhat hesitant, she knocked on the door, no answer. She knocked louder, still no answer. She called out, “Is anyone here?” Silence. She turned the knob but the door was locked so she put the key in the lock, turning the key she pushed the door open. Stepping into the kitchen slowly with a heightened sense of awareness, she saw a vase sitting on the table with a bouquet of red roses in it, a note was leaning against the vase. Karen let out a quivering sigh, “Ok,....” Her nerves began to calm as she picked up the note to read it.

‘Dear Danny’, - a smile came to her face, with a calmer sigh, she sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. Only one person in her whole life ever called her that. She remembered the day she had met the park ranger and how he had brought it to her attention that she acted too much like a tomboy to be called Karen. It had surprised him that she had no qualms over baiting her hook with a live worm, she’d rather climb trees than play with dolls. He was going to use her middle name, Danielle, only he shortened it to Danny. He said that fit her better! Karen continued reading, - ‘Your grandmother let me know you’d be coming up, I thought I’d air out the place a little so it wouldn’t be so stuffy when you got here. The water’s already on, so is the electric. I’ll stop by in a few days to make sure everything’s ok. Say hello to the dogs for me. Take care..... Gabe’. It would be so nice to see Gabe again. Karen laid the note back against the vase and went to the living room to plug in the phone.

Still outside, the dogs began barking, startling Karen a little. She jumped up and ran outside to see what this commotion was all about. “Bruno, Betsy, come! What’s going on here?” When the dogs stood beside her, movement at the end of the driveway caught her attention. “Hush now, it’s just some hikers walking by. They’re not bothering us. Come on, we’ve got some unpacking to do.” Karen had decided to stay, to at least give it a try. After Gabe had gone to so much trouble and Nanna was so hopeful that this trip would bring Karen a little closure and maybe back to her normal self. She couldn’t disappoint everyone and give up without at least trying.

As the hikers walked past Karen’s house they couldn’t help but notice the dogs barking at them along with the beautiful young woman that was standing there with the dogs. A funny feeling came over one of the hikers as he gazed at the scene of the house on the lake. There was something very familiar about it. He thought about it as they hiked to their destination, a shelter at the foot of the mountain side, not very far southwest of where they were now. Nothing came to mind of anything concerning this place so he finally shook it off, thinking he must have seen a photo that resembled this place in a park brochure.

Karen always talked to her dogs as if they were human and understood her every word. “We’ll just stick these things inside, and make a list of the groceries we need, we’ll unpack later.” She took her suitcase out of the jeep. With her dogs in tow, she walked into the cabin. “Maybe it won’t be as bad as I thought.” The roses and letter from Gabe had helped a lot, she wouldn’t have gotten this far with out Gabe’s welcome home gift. Walking through the house, Karen stopped in front of the bedroom that her grandparents had shared every summer before. Closing her eyes, she hesitated only a moment longer before she continued on to her own bedroom. She laid the suitcase on the bed and looked around the room. All her things were still there, right where she had left them. Of course they would be, they were there every year waiting for her, as always. Why had she expected anything different? As if everything would be gone, like it all would have left with her grandfather. Suddenly she remembered her grandmother’s words as they came pouring back into her mind, ‘....... get on with your life, put this sadness behind you...’ Here was the proof she needed, all her things were still here where she had left them,.... waiting.... waiting for her to get on with her life. She went back into the kitchen, found some paper and a pencil, she began writing her grocery list. No food was ever left in the cabin, dry goods would draw mice and anything else would freeze during the cold winter months. There was a grocery store about seven miles or so down the road. It was a small grocery store, but it would have everything Karen would need.

The house sat on level ground at the crest of a bank that sloped lazily down to the lake, bordered by a split rail fence. At one point along the bank’s drop-off, it became a rather steep incline to the lake. The patio that had been added to the house, per her grandmother’s stern requests as a safe haven from all the mosquitoes, with it’s cantilevered supports, jutted out from the house to hang above the edge of the shoreline. Close enough to the lake to enjoy the cool breezes that blew up the valley across the lake.

Later that evening, Karen and the dogs went down to the dock that protruded from the lake. The dock’s flooring was constructed of pressure treated two by tens with a very narrow space between the length of each plank of wood. The dock was held in place, secured to four, pressure treated four by fours that had been driven into the lake’s floor bed, the posts at each corner of the dock, stuck out three feet above the dock’s floor. The dock measured, twelve feet wide by twenty feet long. A large wooden bin had been built and attached securely to the left rear corner of the dock. Attached with brass hinges, it’s lid was slightly slanting downward, to provide runoff for rain or melting snow. It had more resemblence of being a deck than a dock, it was a nice place to lounge and enjoy the lake and tranquil setting it provided.

It was a warm evening but there was a cool breeze blowing up the lake. There always seemed to be a breeze blowing, that helped make it very pleasant spending the hot summers here. Karen sat cross legged on the dock. The dogs were laying, one at each side of her. Listening to all the sounds in the woods and from lake, as night fell around them. She leaned back on her arms to listen to all the wind chimes tinkling in the breeze. Nanna and her had added another wind chime to their collection in the yard every summer. Some were small, some were medium, some were large. They had been placed all around the yard and on the front porch. There were some hanging on the patio. Whenever the wind blew, like tonight, it sounded as if there was an orchestra in her yard. She had forgotten how much she missed everything about this place. Karen smiled to herself, the beaver were splashing in the lake, the frogs were croaking, the crickets were chirping, even an owl could be heard in the not too far off distance. It was as if all the woodland creatures were welcoming her back, back to where she belonged, back home. Her Grandfather’s version of a credo came to her mind, ‘Make do with what you have and make it count for something’.

Suddenly there was a loud crashing noise that startled Karen and her dogs. She jumped to her feet, turning on her flashlight, she ran to the darkly shadowed steps that led up the bank to the driveway, where the sound seemed to originate from. Her dogs had easily passed her on the stairway. By the time Karen had caught up with them, they were furiously barking at something up in a very old, very large oak tree that stood tall and stately in the front yard. When she realized what was going on, she began to laugh. Shinning the flashlight up into the oak tree she saw the probable cause of the startling noise. “Well, they finally caught you in the act, didn’t they?” turning to the dogs, “Hush now.” She stood the garbage can up that she had found lying on it’s side, which she assumed had been the source of all the commotion that had ended the complete tranquil serenity she had been enjoying. Up in the large oak tree sat a small raccoon, trembling. It looked as if it had come very close to being literally scared to death. “Let’s go, I’m sure the two of you scared the poor little thing half to death. Come on, he won’t come down for quite a while, and when he does, I don’t think he’ll be back to visit us any time soon.” Karen petted each of her dogs, “I guess you think you earned a reward for saving me from that big scary beast.” Opening the door she followed the dogs into the house, to find them sitting, wagging their tails, in front of the kitchen cabinet, where she had placed a box of dog treats. “Ok, ok, but only one treat, he wasn’t that big, or that scary.” She handed each of them a dog biscuit and they scooted off to the living room, to lie down beside each other in front of the fireplace to enjoy their reward. As Karen walked through, she petted their heads, “Good dogs, I love you guys!” She went on to her bedroom, changed into her night clothes, folding back the comforter and pushing the sheet aside, she sat down on the bed and laid her head on the pillow. Karen feared this was going to be a long night. As her nerves began to calm, her thoughts drifted to happy memories at the lake in times past. Sleep finally settled in, to rest Karen’s troubled heart and mind.

Her sleep didn’t last through the night. Karen was startled awake by the dogs barking. She sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, calling to the dogs. They couldn’t hear her calling them, for all the loud racket they were making with the sound of their barking. As she slipped her arms into her robe, the thought came to her that the raccoon had gotten hungry and was back looking for more food. By now the dogs were running back and forth between the kitchen door and Karen. “Bruno, Betsy, come! Quiet down. Did that rascally little raccoon come back?” When the dogs did calm down for a few seconds Karen heard a knocking, no not knocking, but rather a pounding on the kitchen door. She gave up looking for her second slipper, she kicked off the one slipper she had found and ran to the kitchen. The thought came to her that it might be Gabe, but no, it couldn’t be Gabe, he wouldn’t be pounding on her door like that.

“Who the......, I’m coming, alright I’m coming already!” she yelled, but the pounding didn’t stop. When she reached the door, turning on the outside light, the pounding finally stopped. Karen pushed the curtains aside so she could see the source of such a racket on the other side of the door. “Oh my God!!” Karen gasped at the sight in front of her. With her fingers shaking, she found and turned the deadbolt lock, jerking the door open. The dogs began to growl very loud, showing these intruders all of their sharp teeth. She was stunned at what her eyes saw. Two young men with cuts, scrapes and bruises covering their faces, arms and chests. They were both very tall, and had very broad shoulders. Both of them were rather muscular, one had enough muscles to brag about and was slightly shorter than the other. The taller one, had some kind of wound on the upper right side of his forehead. From his head wound, a line of blood ran down along his temple, continued down his cheek to his squarely chiseled, masculine jaw. The blood was dripping from his chin, onto his distractingly muscular, furred chest. Where the triangle of chest hair came to somewhat of a pointed feature, only a thin line of hair continued on down across his abdomen to disappear inside the waist of his pants. Neither had on a shirt or shoes. The more muscular, shorter of the two young men, supported the other taller one that was bleeding. “What the hell happened? Come in, please.” Karen moved away from the door into the kitchen and pulled a chair out from under the table. “Please, sit.” Then walked around them to close the door that had been left standing open. Bruno and Betsy had kept themselves guarding, as a barrier, between Karen and these two strange young men. The dogs hadn’t stopped growling yet. “Bruno, Betsy, Sit!” With her words, she also signed ‘No’ with her hand. The dogs sat down, one dog at the side of each stranger. The growling had stopped for now, Bruno and Betsy never moved away, or took their eyes off these two young strangers, not even for one second.

The one young man that was supporting the injured one helped steer the bloody young man to sit down on the chair Karen had pulled out. As Karen walked passed them to the refrigerator, she looked at the young man still standing. She motioned to one of the remaining empty chairs, “Please sit.” Karen opened the smaller door inside the fridge. Taking out an ice cube tray, she laid it on the counter and opening a drawer she pulled out a dish towel. She opened the towel on the counter next to the tray of ice. She pulled what looked to be a lever on the ice tray, releasing the ice cubes. Lifting this levered device from the tray, Karen emptied the ice tray onto the towel, she folded in the towel ends to secure the ice inside the towel. When she stepped close to the injured one to tend his wound, Betsy stood up between the stranger and Karen. Betsy began to growl. When Karen made a sign with her hand to Betsy, the growling stopped, Betsy sat down. Mark noticed the control she had over these dogs with mere hand signals. Mark knew sign language but never in his life had he ever seen animals that could understand it. Closing the distance, she stepped around Betsy and stood next to Mark. “Tip your head back please.” So very gently she used her index finger to remove a few strands of hair from his would. As she pressed the towel containing the ice to the badly bruised and bleeding torn flesh on his forehead, she heard a quiet groan. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Hold this here while I go get the first aid kit, I’ll be right back.” She quickly ran to the bathroom to retrieve the first aid kit, “What happened, has there been an accident?” she questioned in a louder voice so they would still be able to hear her voice from where she had gone.

The broader, more muscular of the two, spoke up, “This was no damn accident! We’re so sorry for intruding on you but I remembered passing by this house yesterday. We saw you with your dogs in the yard. I was afraid that Mark needed some medical help as soon as possible. You were the closest only sign of civilization that I remembered seeing. That’s why we came here. I was hoping that you might have a phone I could use, to call someone for help.”

“Sure.” She said as she entered the room with the first aid kit in her hand, “Let me see what I can do to clean this wound first, then I’ll know exactly what I’m dealing with and whether or not a visit to the ER is necessary.”

“All we need is the use of your phone, ma’am.”

“If you’ll give me a minute to finish cleaning the blood,” adding in a little louder voice, “then we’ll know if we need to go to the hospital or not.” Karen hurried to the cupboard, grabbing a few jars of herbs. She spooned a little of the red, ground herb into a mug, adding water, she stirred the herb into the water. She put the mug in her microwave to heat the water. “While I’m cleaning the blood, maybe you could tell me what happened.” She laid the items she would need to use on the table. Closing the lid of the first aid kit, she laid it out of her way on a counter close by. The microwave beeped, the liquid was hot enough now. She turned to the one holding the ice towel to his head and handed him the mug. “Drink this.” Karen opened the fridge, grabbed two jars and set them on the table. Noticing the red liquid was still in the mug, “Drink it all, it will help ease your pain. You can take the ice away now.” Mark removed the ice towel and hesitantly drank the red liquid as she began to gently wipe the trail of blood from his face away with a wet cloth. She looked to the other young man to see if there were any blood dripping wounds she hadn’t noticed before. Not noticing any blood, she instructed him “Now maybe you can elaborate a little on just how you two ended up on my doorstep, in such a bloody mess like this, at such an ungodly hour.” Turning her attention back to the injured party, she added, “while you just sit very still please.” As Karen stepped closer to tend his wound she placed her fingers along his jaw, turning his head to face her, which brought his line of sight level with her bust line.

After a deep breath, he closed his eyes thanking God for the damage done to his face. With one finger she raised his chin, closing his mouth in the process of leaning his head back. As she cleaned the blood off his face, Karen noticed his light brown hair was matted in some places. It seemed to be evident that he must have spent some of time in the sun from the lighter highlights she saw in his hair. The lighter strands of his hair seemed to reflect the kitchen light. He had dark, deep blue eyes marked with flecks of amber. She had never seen such dark blue eyes before and he had the cutest dimples at the corners of his mouth when ever he did smile.

With the blood washed from his face she could see that there were a few specs of dirt in the wound and knew it would have to be cleansed. “I’ll need you to walk to the sink with me. I need to flush the dirt out before I can treat the wound.” She helped Mark get to the sink. “Lean your head over the sink.” She ran a slow stream of water across his wound until it looked clean to her. Now for the part she hated. Opening the bottle of alcohol she poured a tiny amount into a glass and diluted it with four times as much water as she explained to Mark, “This is going to hurt like hell! Maybe enough to make you pass out. Are you ready?” Mark nodded his head, tightly closing his eyes as he took a deep breath and held it. Gripping the rim of the sink, he was preparing for the worst. Karen began to drizzle a thin stream of the watered down alcohol slowly over his wound. She could see his jaw tighten, his cheek muscles twitched. His knuckles whitened as his hands clenched the sink’s rim. “Breathe.” She told him. “You might not believe me but the pain will be a lot more tolerable if you just breathe through it.”

Suddenly he relaxed as if he didn’t feel anything of what she knew must be excruciating pain. Even after irrigating the wound was done there would still be residual pain as the alcohol trace remained. She patted the area dry with a clean towel and walked him back to the chair. Now she began to tend the wound itself. “I hate having to do it but what I need to do now is going to hurt too. Not as much as the alcohol but it will sting!” Holding his chin between her thumb and forefinger, she turned and tilted his head back. Taking a large cotton tipped swab, she dipped it into a jar of orange, yellowish paste and applied it as gently as possible but liberally to the wound. She saw he was still smiling at her and thought she could offer him an alternate treatment. “I guess I should tell you first before I start this herbal healing process, in case you have a problem with me using herbs, there is another way I could treat your wound. I could cauterize it with a little gun powder if you might prefer to feel more pain.” Mark’s eyes opened wide as he maneuvered his head in a negative response. She looked over to the other young man that was sitting half naked in her kitchen, asking him to continue, “Explanation, if you don’t mind, please?” She continued working on the wound.

Barrett began his explanation, “Well, we hiked up to the shelter yesterday afternoon.”

“About two o’clock, with blue backpacks?” Karen interrupted but kept her attention focused on the wound.

“You saw us then. Anyway, we made camp at the shelter a little southwest of here. In the middle of the night a group of very drunk guys woke us up, kicking us, saying that it was their shelter, and we had to get the hell out. I tried to be tactful and point out the fact that we had gotten there first, but.....”

“Excuse me!” the injured one interrupted his friend, “Was that what you meant, when you said that you hadn’t seen their F’ing GD names anywhere?”

“Yeah, well....”

“Yeah, well, what the hell got into you, you stubborn ass? Couldn’t you see that they were extremely intoxicated and definitely not in a very friendly state of mind?” She was beginning to get a little agitated at the patient’s moving his head to talk.

Karen looked at both of them then in a calm. cool, but very stern voice said, “Cool your jets, it’s over, it’s done. There isn’t a damn thing you can do about it now. Let calmer winds prevail and PLEASE, try to lower your testosterone level for now.” Karen paused a moment looking the two over. “You two sound like a couple of old biddies clucking. Don’t fight amongst yourselves. Learn something from what happened and move on, you can’t change the past.”

“I got their message. They had some very convincing powers of persuasion, not the least of which, were all those rocks that they were throwing at us. With the state of intoxication they were in, I’m sure it was just a lucky throw that one managed to hit you in the head, Mark.” Barrett quipped to his friend.

“Rocks? That explains all this colorful ecchymosis I’m seeing. It is very colorful but it looks more painful than pleasant.” Karen told the injured one as she spread some green pasty concoction onto a gauze pad. She stepped very close to Mark pressing the medicated gauze pad directly to his wound, she held it there for a few moments.

“It doesn’t feel all that pleasant either, Doc.” Mark told Karen as he smiled at her, very pleased with the sight of this Good Samaritan that his eyes were watching as she nursed his wound. “The pain’s starting to ease up a little now.” With some of the vocabulary she was using, Mark was pretty certain that she must have some kind of a medical background.

“It can’t be all that bad if you can smile about it.” Barrett teased him.

Karen took the gauze pad away from his wound, looking it over for any dirt that may have escaped her flushing procedure. Seeing none, she gathered several gauze pads together, squeezing some red liquid from an eye dropper onto the layers of gauze. When she turned back to Mark, he noticed that a slight grimace had came to her face as she warned him, “Dieu aide moi. This is going to sting quite a bit. I’m sorry.” After taking a second to pause she asked him, “Are you ready for this?”

Mark smiled as he winked at her, “Go ahead Doc, do your thing, I trust ya.”

She smiled back and pressed the gauze to his wound. Every movement of her hand was so gentle, with the grace of a flowing liquid, having no hesitations. On several occasions Mark heard her inhale through her teeth as if she were the one feeling whatever pain there might be. As she leaned closer to tend his wound part of her hair fell from behind her shoulder to land on Mark’s shoulder and cascade down onto his chest. Mark closed his eyes, his breath came out quiet and slow. With her hair so close he could smell a faint scent, it was a very pleasing aroma. Mark never let any of the pain he might have been feeling show on his face. He maintained that impish, dimpled smile of his through it all. The only sign she had seen that it was hurting him at all, was the whitening of his knuckles and finger tips, as he gripped his arms that were folded across his bare chest, that and the pursing of his lips. “I think this could use a few stitches.” Karen measured out her words, not wanting to bring any undue alarm to the injured party.

“Really?” Mark questioned, “That bad huh?”

“I can’t say how many for sure but this isn’t going to completely stop bleeding until it gets sutured up. I’m sure it will need at least three, maybe four stitches. But at least it’s clean now. You can put the ice back on it. It’s still bleeding, a little more now, since I had to disturb the site to get all the dirt and grit out of the wound. I’m going to apply a poultice to your wound, it should help the healing process and slow the bleeding a little until I can get you to the hospital” Another jar was opened. The paste it contained was spread on a clean gauze pad. Pushing the ice towel away Karen placed the gauze pad on his wound taping it gently into place. She wrapped part of a roll of gauze around his head several times. To make sure that everything she had done would stay in place, she applied medical tape to the gauze wrapped around his head. “You still need to hold the ice to your head to slow the blood flow.” She lightly brushed her hand like a whisper, over his torso and arms to see if she could find any other wounds that were also in need of any aid she might be able to render. “You have several contusions. Are you feeling any pain anywhere that I touch,... other than your head?” She washed the blood from his chest. She pressed firmly but gently as her hand slowly moved across his chest to locate any possible broken bones. It seemed as though, from his feet to his neck, his muscles never ended. They didn’t bulge but just by her light touch she could feel the hardness of the powerful sinews beneath his skin. As she palpated the bruises on his chest she could feel his heart beating through his left pectoral muscle. As far as she was concerned it was beating a little too fast for someone that was sitting still. It could be that his heart rate hadn’t recovered from the trauma yet. Moving her hands in the same manor, she assessed his back for any unseen injuries. “Do you have any other wounds somewhere that I can’t see without x-ray vision?” All she could find, were minor abrasions, cuts and contusions. They were all clean now and would heal just fine after a little soap and water.

“Nah, that’s it Doc.” Mark assured her. “The only slight bit of pain I can still feel seems to be coming from the wound on my head. I can assure you of one thing though, if you get any closer to me the pain will begin to radiate into my heart,... as well as to my... extremities.” He winked at Karen again. She was so beautiful, gentle and kind. Her face appeared to be in the shape of a heart. That made sense to Mark, rationalizing what other shape would it be on someone that was so kind?

Karen closed her eyes for a moment, slightly shaking her head as she smiled. “Focus playboy! Sit still and stay calm. I understand it, you’re a guy, everything turns you on.” She couldn’t believe what he had just said, wondering, what is it with men? As banged up as this guy was and he still had only one thought in particular on his mind. “Would it be to much to ask you to stop ogling me while I’m trying to patch you up? I don’t take very kindly to,..... how do you guys put it? .... being sized up? .... As if I were a chicken about to be impaled on a spit and roasted for your consumption!” Being eyed in such a way she thought that maybe it was a good time to let these two half naked men know how very well protected she actually was. “Bruno,... Betsy,... Watch!” The dogs immediately rose from lying on the floor. Bruno was standing awfully close to Barrett’s legs and Betsy’s mouth was very near to Mark’s thigh. Both dogs were snarling with their hackles raised. The dogs did not move, they just stared at the two young men. “Do I need to give them any further commands?”

Mark flinched as he saw the deadly intent in Betsy’s eyes and felt her hot breath so close to his thigh. “Ah,... No. I think I’ll just close my eyes.”

Barrett agreed, “Me too!” Both guys tightly closed their eyes.

With her objective accomplished, Karen relented, “Thank you! Bruno, Betsy, down!” The dogs returned to lying on the floor. “Ok you can open your eyes but you don’t need to be staring at me. I already know I look a mess! My only defense is that I was awoken during the middle of the night. Had I taken the time needed to make myself presentable before answering the door, you could have bled to death!” She hadn’t meant it so much as a threat, more like a warning of caution, for them to tread lightly or suffer more unnecessary pain.

Mark took it upon himself to respond to her obvious predicament. “Doc, and I mean this only as a compliment, in my present condition, you couldn’t look any better to me if you tried!”

With Bruno still in close proximity, Barrett dared a comment, “I bet these dogs of yours tend to narrow down the number of boyfriends you have.”

“Well, they do help me a lot with the elimination process. If my own dogs won’t accept a guy, why should I?” Having finished all she could do with helping Mark, she asked, “Who’s next?” Karen smiled as she turned to look at the other young man. This one had longer, black hair, which seemed rather mussed and soiled at the present time. His eyes were green with flecks of amber. His arms and chest were very muscular and bronzed, a telltale sign of hours spent in the sun.

Barrett looked around the room, as if someone else might have come in for treatment. “I guess that would be me.” he stated.

“And just exactly who is this ME person?” Karen teased him. It was time for her to find out who they were.

“Barrett, Barrett Winslow, ma’am, and this is my best friend, Mark Colburn.”

Mark smiled and winked, “I’m pleased to meet you Doc, extremely pleased to meet you!” Mark extended his hand to shake Karen’s.

Barrett continued, “That’s for sure! And how ’bout you Doc, what’s your name?”

A devilish grin came to Karen’s lips, her eyes were alight with mischief, she bowed to the two young men before making her introduction, “Karen Hamilton........ herbal physician to evicted campers,.... at your service m’lords.” As Karen stepped next to Barrett, Bruno stood up growling. Karen made the same hand sign to Bruno. He stopped growling and hesitantly sat back down, looking to his mistress. She looked over what she could see of Barrett. “You also have a good many contusions on your arms and torso. Let me know if I touch anywhere that causes you to feel any pain.” She palpated Barrett’s bruising on his very muscular furred chest. Her hands move ever so gently across his chest, finding no evidence of any pain there. She proceeded to examine the contusions across his broad muscular back in the same manner. Barrett didn’t even wince one time. “Lean your head back please, so I can see to the bruises on your face.” Pushing his hair aside with her gentle fingers, Karen found no bleeding, just a few minor scratches, she wiped away the blood on his face with a clean damp cloth. “A good washing is all I would prescribe for you, Mr. Winslow, unless you have an injury somewhere on your body that’s covered by your jeans.”

What she meant by that remark finally dawned on Barrett, he began to stutter, “Ah... ah...no...no, this is it, I swear I’m not hurt anywhere else.” He seemed almost embarrassed by the questioned she asked.

“Good,” She turned back to Mark, “Mr. Colburn are you alright?”

“Sure, why?”

“You look very pale, I think I’d better get both of you over to the hospital now!”

“Hospital?” Mark was a little surprised and shocked.

“Yes, hospital, I told you that you would need a few stitches, in order to completely stop the bleeding from that head wound of yours. It’s a very serious wound Mark. Any wound to the head should always be taken very seriously! So, unless you want me to stitch you up myself, with a very dull needle and some non-sterile thread, I suggest we leave ASAP.”

“I know but...,”

“No buts, the hospital’s not far from here. I can drive us there in my jeep. Let me get a couple shirts for the two of you to wear. While you’re putting them on, I’ll call Gabe, he can meet us at the hospital.”

“Gabe?” Barrett looked puzzled as he glanced at Mark, pointing to the note standing against the vase holding the roses. Barrett had noticed the roses in the vase on the kitchen table and the note that sitting next to it was signed, Gabe.

“Gabriel Sanders.” Karen answered, and continued the conversation in a bit louder voice, as she went into Nanna and Poppy’s room to find some shirts for these two half naked young men to wear. She found two shirts, still hanging in the closet. She grabbed two pair of foot ware as well. “He’s the park ranger in charge of this area of the park. You can tell him what happened to you. He might even be able to help you recover you belongings.” She returned to the kitchen with her hands full. “I found a couple shirts, a pair of slippers and some flip flops. They’ll have to do for now.” She handed them to Barrett. Karen went to the phone. Picking up the receiver, she dialed the number. It rang once, twice, after the third ring, she heard a burly, gruff voice on the other end of the line, that was very familiar to her.

“Yeah! This better be pretty damn important!” Gabe growled.

“Is that any way to answer your phone?” Karen quietly asked Gabe.

“At three in the morning, it’s the only way I answer my phone....... Danny? Danny is that you? What the hell’s going on? What’s the matter? Are you alright?” Every type of disaster possible, went through his Gabe’s mind, hearing Karen’s voice at this hour.

“Gabe, calm down, yes it’s me, Danny.” Barrett and Mark gazed quizzically at each other when they heard the name Danny. “I’m fine. Gabe, I have a couple of young hikers here...”

“Did they hurt you Danny? Do you need help?”

“Gabe! Gabe, let me finish, don’t get yourself all upset. Listen to me. I said I’m fine, it’s the hikers that need your help, they’ve been roughed up quite a bit. I’m going to take them over to the hospital. One of them is bleeding quite a bit from a wound to his head, he’ll require a few stitches. Could you please meet us at the hospital Gabe?”

“Sure Danny, I’ll see ya at the hospital in about half an hour or so.”

“Gabe,... thanks for the roses! It’s nice to be back. I can’t wait to see you again.”

“It’s nice to have you back Danny, see ya soon.” they each hung up the phone. Karen turned to find Barrett smiling like the cat that had eaten the proverbial canary. Barrett had seen the note lying next to the vase full of roses and had started to make a few presumptions.

“Danny?” For some reason this peaked Barrett’s interest. He felt slightly awkward, having listened to one side of what seemed to have been an intimate conversation. Karen refilled the ice tray with water and placed it back in the freezer compartment of the fridge, then she put all her herbs back in the cabinet and refrigerator where they belonged.

“Yeah, Danny!” Karen was a little embarrassed at this acknowledgment. A blush crept onto her cheeks. “I’ll explain later. Let me go change my clothes and make myself presentable. Put the shirts and shoes on that I gave you. I’ll be right back.”

With Karen gone, Mark couldn’t help but state the obvious, “I didn’t see an engagement or wedding ring on her finger.”

Barrett was a little surprised that Mark had noticed. “Yeah but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t got a love sick beau hiding somewhere!”

“We’ll never know if we don’t ask.” Mark replied with a raised brow.

“When she gets back, I’ll have to ask.”

A few minutes later Karen reappeared in cutoff jeans and a large tee shirt with flip flops on her feet. Her bright auburn hair had been brushed and was secured in a ponytail now. Mark’s mouth fell open when he saw her, silently mouthing the word, ‘Wow’. He couldn’t believe the muscles he saw on her legs. Her legs looked sleek and very feminine, only purely muscle, more like what you’d find on a cheetah or some other animal that ran a lot. He smiled thinking to himself, ’I bet nobody’s gonna ever catch something like that unless she wants to be caught.

Barrett stood up, unsure how to broach the subject, he just asked very bluntly, “Is there a Mr. Hamilton that might not condone our imposing on you?” Since she had given them a man’s clothing to wear, there must be a guy somewhere close by.

She hesitated in giving him an answer. A look of longing came over her, seeming to pull her thoughts to somewhere far away. They could see a far off look in her eyes. She slowly blinked and held back the tears. “No, I’m sorry. My father died when I was quite young.”

Mark immediately stood up, feeling very much the cad. A really low down unabashed, ill mannered, disreputable cad. “Doc, I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to hurt you.”

With a slight shake of her head she acknowledged his apology. “It’s ok, you had no way of knowing.” A smile returned to her face, “No harm done. I can’t lay blame where there is none.”

“We didn’t mean to be snooping or anything. Really. We were just wondering if you might be married, if there might be a husband that wouldn’t take very kindly to our intrusion.”

She was giggling now, “Guys, if you want to know anything just ask. I have no secrets.” She paused for a moment. “No, thank God, I’m definitely NOT married!” Was her response as she held out her left hand to show proof of no ring on her finger. “No one will be coming after you for retribution except my dogs.”

As Karen reached for her purse she heard Barrett’s voice, “Thanks for the clothes, but it really wasn’t necessary. You’ve done way too much for us already.” As she turned to face Barrett, taking in the view presented to her, Karen coughed, raising her hand to cover her mouth as she coughed a little more to cover the laughter she could hardly contain. She found that she couldn’t suppress her laughter any longer. Her Grandfather had always seemed to be a large man to her, but those were mostly childhood memories, with the loving embellishments one usually applies to someone held in such esteem. There they stood, with Mark’s one arm across Barrett’s shoulder, while his other hand, still held the ice towel to his head and Barrett’s arm was around Mark’s waist. The shirt Mark had put on, was barely large enough to fit around his torso, the shirt tails and sleeves were way too short, revealing part of his midriff and forearms. Barrett looked even funnier, if that were possible. Not only was the shirt too short, the buttons were strained to their popping point where they were fastened across his wide, muscular chest.

*** Through coughs and suppressed giggles Karen explained the need for the garments she had given them to wear, as she led them outside to her jeep, “Nonsense, I can’t walk into the community hospital accompanied by two half-naked men and expect to keep my respectability among the town’s people. This is a very small town and when anything happens, everyone knows about it. Let’s get going! The jeep’s not locked, go ahead and get in. Sorry there’s only the two bucket seats. There’s a blanket and a pillow, on the floor in back. I’ll lock the house and be right with you.”

Barrett spoke up when they had reached her jeep, “I’ll take the back, Mark, you need to keep holding that ice pack to your head.” Barrett let Mark support himself leaning against the vehicle’s door. Barrett jumped into her jeep, seating himself on the blanket that had been spread on the floor of the vehicle, behind the front seats. Mark slowly pulled himself inside and seated himself on the passenger’s bucket seat. Karen sat down in the driver seat. When the doors shut, she started the engine. Looking at Mark, to make sure he was still ok, she leaned across him, reaching for the seat-belt, to secure him to the seat and cause less jostling for his wound to endure. As she adjusted her rear view mirror Mark noticed a medical Caduceus pendant swinging on a chain from over the mirror with a charm that said ‘Do No Harm’. Now he was sure his assumptions were correct. Once they were on their way, the guys started apologizing again for their intrusion on her. They kept thanking her for all she had done for them.

“You can stop all the apologies, it was nothing, I wanted to get up early this morning anyway,.... only maybe not quite that early. We’ve helped plenty of hikers during the time we spent here every summer when I was growing up. Poppie always said that what you get out of life depends on what you’re willing to put into it. He would explain it, as if it were a bank account.” Speaking in a lower, gruff sounding voice, she added, “Karen,′ he’d say, ’when you help someone it’s like putting money in the bank, ‘cause every time you help someone, you’re just that much richer for having done it, because of what you did to help someone else.’ ”

“Sounds like your grandfather is a very wise man.” Mark extolled.

“He was! He’s gone now, and I miss him very much!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Mark apologized, feeling a connection of lost family with this girl.

“It’s ok, you had no idea about him either. It’s my own fault, I talk about him as if he’s still here. Maybe in a way, he is still here with me.”

“It sounds like your loss was very recent.” Barrett was guessing.

“It was last December. He had a heart attack while he was shoveling snow. With the bad road conditions, the paramedics couldn’t get there in time to save him, and I wasn’t there to give him any CPR or medical treatment he might have needed, that might have saved his life.” The tone of Karen’s voice had changed.

Barrett detected a slight quivering with a little over tone of guilt in her voice and thought it would be a good idea to change the topic of conversation. Then he remembered something that earlier had caused him to smile. “By the way, you haven’t yet explained, this Danny thing. I thought you said your name was Karen. I’ll bet Danny’s a pet name, this boyfriend of yours, this Gabe, has given you, right?”

Now, Karen was smiling once again, she even started to laugh. “I guess you could say that.” she chose her words carefully, wanting to see the look on this one’s face when the two finally met. “I’ve known Gabe since I was a little girl and he’s the ONLY one that gets to call me Danny.” Karen said it as a very stern warning, she paused for a moment.

“But why Danny?” Mark interrupted. “I thought you said your name was Karen.”

“It is.”

“So why Danny, then? How did he ever come up with that?” Mark was puzzled. While Barrett just sat back and listened, enjoying the revelations he was being made privy to.

“Mark, did anyone ever tell you that you’re very impatient? I was just coming to that part, if I may be allowed to finish.”

“Go ahead, Doc. We can’t wait to hear about this.” Mark added

Shyly she confessed to the origin of being called Danny, “My middle name is Danielle, when Gabe found that out, he just shortened it and started calling me Danny all the time. He said that it fit me a lot better than Karen, that I acted too much like a tomboy to be called such a girly name like Karen.”

“So we have a tomboy with us. I suppose, I should have guessed that.” Barrett teased.

“And just why would you suppose such a thing? Do you find that I have upset any of your ideas of what a woman should be like?” Karen wondered, not knowing yet whether she should be offended or not.

“Let me first assure you that what I said, was only meant as a compliment. Not too many girls, where I come from anyway, drive jeeps, not to mention, let strangers come into their houses in the middle of the night, to mend their cuts and scrapes with all the finesse of a well trained physician. I agree with this Gabe fellow, I think that Danny seems to fit you better....... I.... I..... I mean Karen is a nice name too,....” Barrett had begun to fear that maybe he had gone a little too far and had really insulted her now.

Karen’s infectious laughter seemed to fill the vehicle. At the sound of her laughter, Barrett’s fear was quickly abated. “Don’t worry Barrett, I know what you meant.” As she continued with her story, Barrett relaxed, with his back against the pillow he leaned against the tailgate. The sound of her voice slowly seemed to fade away. Barrett reflected on this person he had so recently met, and the conditions under which the meeting took place. She was very pretty, not what he’d call drop dead gorgeous, like the girls he usually dated. Karen’s eyes were the greenest eyes he had ever seen. She was pretty much average height and build, maybe a little bit shorter than most. There was something about her, something that made her so different from all the others. Barrett tilted his head to one side, as if in doing so, he could deepen his thoughts and find the answer he was searching for.

All of a sudden, it came to him, like an electric shock. It wasn’t anything you could see, but how she made you feel. It was her welcoming, calming, charming personality, that’s what caught your attention. Karen was quick to smile. Her laugh was almost infectious. Talking to others came easy to her, even when she was speaking with complete strangers. She hadn’t hesitated one moment when they needed her help. Damn, she was very good at what she did. She was very sure of herself, sure of what she did to help them. Her self presentation was commanding, she gave instructions expecting them to be followed to the letter! Very trusting, Barrett thought, maybe a little too trusting for her own good, considering her size.

“It’s not far now, just at the top of this hill.” Karen informed them.

Barrett was just coming to a more conscious state of mind, he had heard only the last part of what she had said. “What’s on the top of this hill?”

“Where the hell have you been? Are you ok? Did you loose consciousness back there?” Mark scolded Barrett in a brotherly way. “The hospital, that’s what’s at the top of this hill, we’re pulling up to it right now.”

Realizing that he had missed part of the conversation, Barrett just shrugged his shoulders, “I must have dozed off I guess. I missed a lot of sleep last night, remember?”

“That could also be the early signs of a concussion, it’s a good thing we’re here, you’ll need to get checked out too, Barrett.” Karen turned the jeep off, she looked to Mark and asked, “How’s your head doing Mark?”

“Ok I guess, it sure doesn’t hurt as bad as it did any more, thanks to you.”

“That’s good, if you can still feel any pain at all, that’s all the proof we need to convince us that you’re still alive.” Karen had reached over to lightly slap his thigh, trying to make light of their situation. She leaned against his thigh to unfasten his seat-belt then climbed out of her jeep, Barrett was right behind her.

He quickly made his way around the jeep to where Mark was sitting. He opened the door. “Think you can make it inside under your own power Bro?” Barrett questioned when he saw how pale Mark looked.

“Hell yes, I’m not that bad off, it’s just a scratch.” Mark tried to portray the somewhat stalwart hero for the benefit of the lady present.

Barrett wasn’t so sure of that, “Are you sure you’re ok, there seems to be a lot of blood on that towel?”

“And you’re making me feel so much better, stating your amazing, obviously astute observations.” Mark slid his legs around to the side of his seat and hopped out. As his feet reached the ground, a feeling of queasy weakness enveloped him, causing Mark to reach out, grabbing at Barrett’s arm for support.

“Just a scratch huh?” Barrett mocked Mark’s earlier statement, then pulled Mark’s arm around his shoulder so that most of Mark’s weight was supported by him.

“Let’s get him inside ASAP, so he can lay down before he falls down.” Karen directed, as she ran ahead of them to open the hospital door for them to get through. She led them down the hall, to the emergency room. She opened the door to the ER.

Barrett looked at Karen rather puzzled as he passed her entering the ER with Mark, “Come here often, do you?” Barrett smiled, now he was beginning to understand a little more about Karen. Things started making more sense.

“I use to.” Karen stated matter-of-factly. Following the two inside leaving Barrett completely baffled. The commotion emitting from the hallway, had startled the nurse inside. Then a smile came to the ER nurse’s face as she walked over to meet the trio.

“Karen, what are you doing here? Are you coming back to work?” Beth seemed rather excited at seeing Karen again.

“It’s a long story Beth I’ll tell ya later, who’s the ER doc tonight?” Beth took over for Barrett, supporting Mark. With Karen’s help, Beth guided Mark to the exam table.

“Doctor Hunter is the physician on call tonight.” She told Karen, then turned to face Mark. “Sir, can you hop up onto the exam table for me?” Beth went to collect the supplies that would be needed to treat Mark’s head wound.

“I’ll help Mark onto the table Beth, you go call the doctor. Barrett, a little assistance, please. ..... Barrett! I need your help, please.” Karen had to call Barrett twice before he came over to help Karen lift Mark onto the table. “Still a little dazed Barrett?” Karen questioned, fearing he might have a concussion and that might be why he hadn’t answered her.

Beth had immediately gone to the phone to alert the ER doctor on call. When the doctor answered the phone, Beth explained to him what he was needed for, then hung up the phone. She went to gather more supplies that the doctor would need for Mark’s head wound. Beth took the supplies to the tray unit, which stood next to the exam gurney Mark was sitting on. “He’ll be right here, lie down please, so we can have a look at this wound on your head.” She removed the ice towel from his head and placed it on the examination table next to Mark.

Karen had positioned herself on the other side of the exam gurney, across the patient from Beth. Mark slowly laid down. “That’s good Mark, Doctor Hunter, he’s one of the best.” She tried to reassure him. Noticing the towel and amount of blood on it, she picked up the towel and tossed it into the trash bin. “Beth, I just got here yesterday. During the night these two managed to find their way to my door. You can see this one has a nasty gash at his right upper temporal region. I did my best to clean it up. I didn’t have anything to irrigate it with but water and alcohol. I thought he might pass out from the pain but he didn’t even flinch. I thought he needed a few stitches to stop the bleeding. I did apply a poultice to fight infection, relieve some pain and help it heal.” When the Doctor arrived, Karen went to stand along side Barrett. Noticing the look on his flushed face she asked him, “Are you sure that you’re ok?”

“Huh,... Oh yeah, I’m fine. Is Mark going to be ok?” He was whispering to her. “There was an awful lot of blood on that towel.”

Karen could see that Barrett was very concerned for his friend’s welfare. “Sure, they fix ’em up good as new here. I’ve seen a lot that were far worse off than Mark. They walked out of here just fine. Beth, I’m gonna take Barrett next door to the waiting room until Doctor Hunter is ready to take a look at him, if you need any help with anything, just yell.”

As Dr. Hunter crossed the room to stand next to Mark, he saw the poultice that had been applied to Mark’s head lying on the gurney next the patient where Beth had left it. “Looks like Nurse Hamilton has already treated you.” With closer scrutiny of the poultice he added, “Aah,... looks like she used some comfrey and calendula. Mr. Colburn, did she also give you a hot reddish liquid to drink?”

“Yes Sir, it didn’t taste very good though.”

“I bet she told you to drink it all, and the pain shortly began to subside, am I right?”

“Yeah, it took a little while but the pain almost completely stopped. What did I drink?”

“She gave you what she and I like to call a cayenne cocktail. It’s an herbal pain reliever, it slows bleeding, and fights infection. If she had sewn you up, you wouldn’t even need to be here. Her methods may be old, even archaic but I trust her herbal ways of healing more than the methods of some of these new young physicians that I’ve met.” Mark was surprised by all the respect this doctor had for what Karen had done with nothing more than a few herbs.

“Apparently, from what you say, she must have used the right herbs. How did she know which herbs to use?”

Doctor Hunter raised his brow to Mark’s question as he applied an anesthetic to the wound area. “Most of the medicines used today, come from an herbal base. I have no idea how she knows so much about so many herbs. You’re just very lucky that she did know what to do, she almost completely stopped your bleeding with her herbal drugstore method of doing things. She’s something else, that girl. Maybe she should have taken her schooling further and become a physician instead of settling on being a nurse.” Doctor Hunter looked at Beth smiling, “I guess just because there’s a little dust on the bottle, you shouldn’t let it fool you about what’s inside.” Seeing that his statement had confused Mark, Dr. Hunter added, “Even though the herbs she used may be a very old way of healing, they still work. Sometimes a lot better than some of the medicines in use today.” Having given enough time for the anesthetic to numb the area needing treatment, Dr. Hunter began to sew up the wound.

When Karen was alone in the hall with Barrett, he stopped and turned suddenly to face her. “I take it that you’re a nurse or something at this hospital, right?” He said it as more of a statement of fact rather than a question.

“Yes, but I haven’t worked here for several months.”

“No wonder you were able to handled Mark’s injury so well.”

Karen looked at him to begin further explaining. As he looked into her eyes, she was smiling and she seemed to be looking right past him. He looked over his shoulder to find what had caught her attention. He noticed a tall, muscular man standing just inside the hospital entrance, all dressed in green with the same smile on his face that Barrett had just seen Karen wearing. Karen side stepped past Barrett, brushing his arm as she walked past. She walked right up to this gentleman. With tears in her eyes, she uttered with a quiver in her voice, “Gabe, it’s so good to see you again!”

The man quickly paced a few steps to meet Karen. “You sure are a sight for these old eyes, Danny.” With that said, the man in green hugged the cause of his smile as picked her up. Turning around with her tightly encased in his arms, she was facing in Barrett’s direction when Gabe finally put her down. The tears started to well up in Karen’s eyes again. She blinked her tears back, this hadn’t gone unnoticed by Barrett. He wondered at what possible relationship there was between these two could be, since they were so far apart in age. Could this be her father? No, she had already has said her father had died, maybe it was an uncle.

Karen took hold of the man’s arm, turning him around to face Barrett. “This is one of the hikers I told you about on the phone.” She brought the park ranger closer to Barrett and proceeded with introductions. “Barrett... ah... I’m sorry, I can’t remember your last name.”

“Winslow, Sir, Barrett Winslow.” Barrett reached out his hand to take the one being offered by this other man.

As Karen went on to finish the introductions, she kept her eyes on Barrett’s face. “Barrett Winslow, this is my good friend, Ranger Gabriel Sanders. If anyone can help you, it’s gonna be Ranger Gabe.”

“Pleased to meet you Sir.” Barrett said, suddenly a smile crosses his face.

“I hear that you had yourself quite a little problematic incident during the night, which led you to end up on Danny’s doorstep at such an ungodly hour this morning.”

Karen moved to stand next to Barrett, “Don’t let his demeanor scare you, even if he does think that he’s part grizzly bear.” She whispered to Barrett as she ushered the two men into the waiting room.

“Thanks for the heads up.” was Barrett’s only whispered reply.

“Gabe, I’m going back to the ER to check in and see how Mark’s doing while you two talk, I’ll be right next door.” Leaving the room, she closed the door behind her. Karen waited in the hall just outside of the emergency room door. She cracked the door open asking, “Is it alright for me to come in?”

Beth replied, “I have no objections, if the patient doesn’t mind.”

“Mark, is it alright with you, if I come in?” Karen asked.

“Only if you can promise not to laugh.” Mark cautioned her.

She stepped inside to find Beth finishing up working on Mark. “Is there anything I can do to help?” The patient was sitting up now.

“I’m just finishing up. I’ve gotten all the necessary information from Mr. Colburn but I’d like to get a little information from you. You know how rumors fly in this town! What happened? Are you ok? Where have you been? We were hoping you’d be here in time to help us out for Labor Day’s busy weekend.”

“I’m ok, actually I’m doing a lot better than I thought I would be. I don’t know what you heard, Beth, my grandfather passed away just before Christmas, this past December.”

“Oh Karen, No... I know how close you two were.”

“Yeah well, it hit me pretty hard. I guess I let a lot of people down, feeling so sorry for myself.” After a deep sigh, Karen went on to say, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since I arrived at the cabin, especially since my early morning guests arrived. You know what, I think I’m gonna be just fine after all.”

“Does that mean you’ll be able to help us out over the holiday and maybe even a lot longer than that, like accepting a steady permanent position again?”

“Why the hell not! Let Mary know that I’m available, she can put me on the schedule if she needs any help.” Karen scribbled on a small piece of paper she had pulled from her purse. “Here’s my name and phone number. Tell her to call me with any hours or whatever help she needs from me. So, how’s Mark doing? Is he being a good patient?” Mark had listened intently to every word that had been said between these two women.

“He was very cooperative until I told him I’d have to shave his head a little, then he wasn’t quite the model patient he had led me to believe he was. He became a little belligerent.”

“Really?” Karen raised a questioning brow as she turned to face Mark. When she finally saw his face, she began to smile and had to suppress a laugh that was threatening to erupt from her lips with another ingenuous cough.

“Yes really! You promised not to laugh!” Mark warned, waving his finger at Karen. “You wouldn’t think it was so funny if it had happened to you!”

“I’m sorry Mark! It’s not that you look funny, you don’t. I was just trying to imagine what the scene in here was like when you protested over your head being shaved. I wish I could have gotten in here a little sooner to see that.”

“I probably could have used a little help from you to hold him down while I shaved part of his head.” Beth’s voice had came from the stock area, where she was gathering supplies to replace what had been used to treat Mark.

“That bad huh?” Karen teased.

Mark seemed to take offense at Beth’s response, his male pride was wounded. “No, it wasn’t that bad. Some people just like to exaggerate things!” He had said it in a little bit louder voice to make sure Beth could hear him. Turning his attention back to Karen he added, “I could have used someone to hold my hand while I was going through this horrible ordeal.” Reaching out he took Karen’s hand in his as he gave her another wink.

“I believe Beth has some instructions for you, Mark.” Changing the subject, Karen tried to ignore the wink and gently took back her hand. “Isn’t that right, Beth?”

“I sure do, and he better follow them to the letter, if he knows what’s good for him.” Picking up the paperwork as Beth came past the desk, she walked over to Mark and handed him his copy and read the instructions to him. “That’s it, Doctor Hunter left you a prescription, you’re done here and free to go. Just take it real easy for the next few days, come back if you have any problems or if the wound starts bleeding again. I’m giving you a small bottle with a few pain pills inside. They should be enough to get you through any pain, until the pharmacy opens and you can get the prescription filled.” Beth handed the bottle over to Mark. Leaning back slightly, he shoved the pill bottle into his jean’s pocket.

Karen tried to reassure Mark, “You look a lot better now, your color has returned,.... or is that just your beard stubble,” Karen was teasing. “You don’t look quite so pale any more. How do you feel now, with your stitches in place and the bleeding stopped?”

“A little light headed, but other than that, I’m good.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yup, I’m fine!” Mark hopped off the exam table taking a deep breath as he straightened up. “Maybe not fine quite yet, but I’m good.” As he reached out his arm to rest it around Karen’s shoulder for some support that wasn’t really necessary at all. Beth was finishing up her notes in Mark’s chart and happened to looked up in time to notice what was going on. Mark smiled and winked at Beth. Beth returned his smile, shaking her head she returned to her task at hand.

Karen helped him to the door, “Where’s Barrett?” Mark questioned.

“He’s talking to Gabe, right now. They’re in the waiting room, next door.” Mark’s smile faded a little, but was quickly replaced by a somewhat evil grin. Mark thought to himself, ‘so, this boyfriend of Karen’s is here now. I wonder how he’ll react when he sees my arm around his girl, and her arm around me’.

Barrett had given the ranger all the details of the incident that had befallen Mark and himself, while they were camping at the shelter. “Well, I can’t promise you anything.” Gabe explained to Barrett, “but if you want to take a ride with me up to the shelter, we might be able to recover some of your gear. Maybe we could also gather a few clues as to the identity of those guys that roughed up you and your friend.”

“Sounds good to me Sir.” Barrett stood up, extending his hand to Gabe, “Thank you Sir, for coming out so early this morning to help us. My friend and I would really appreciate anything you can do to help us.”

As they shook hands, Gabe told Barrett “Son, I haven’t done anything for you, that I wouldn’t have done for anyone else in the same position, it’s my job. I think it’s Danny,... I mean Miss Hamilton, that you owe thanks to.” Gabe smiled at Barrett, thinking that maybe something good could come from this unexpected intrusion after all.

“Of course Sir, you’re very right about that. If it weren’t for her, Mark might be dead by now. We’ll try to think of some way to repay her for everything she’s done for us.”

“Have you been checked out yet son? I mean, has the doctor examined you yet?”

“Not yet Sir, Mark’s head was bleeding. He needed to be examined and treated first, I don’t think I have any injuries that need any attention.”

“Well, you need to get looked at anyway, just to be on the safe side. When you guys get to feeling better, when you feel up to it that is, if I may make a suggestion. I don’t think it would hurt anyone if you guys offered to take her out to dinner. Danny’s had a hard time dealing with life in general since her grandfather died. She hasn’t really gone anywhere or done anything. Till now, she’s been acting more like a hermit. She hasn’t been herself for quite a while. According to what her grandmother told me, coming up to the cabin is exactly what she needed right now.”

When Barrett was beginning to think that this ranger was some kind of a cold, unfeeling, matter of fact, type of old goat, abruptly the man did a one eighty, an about face, showing a side of himself, that Barrett felt, not many of the general public ever get to see, let alone are even aware of. What a coincidence that his gentle manner and his smile, showed every time Gabe spoke of Karen. Barrett sensed some deep feelings that this older gentleman had for the girl. “Sounds like a plan to me, Sir.”

“Now we better go see if the doctor is finished with your friend, so he can check you out as well, just to make sure that you’re ok.” Stepping into the hallway together, the four came face to face. The smile that had been on Barrett’s face, a second ago, was suddenly gone. A foreign feeling began to prick at his insides. Likewise, the smug look that Mark had applied to his own visage changed into a most contented grin.

Karen made the remaining introductions of Gabe to Mark. “Gabe this is Mark Colburn, Mark, this is Ranger Gabriel Sanders, my very close and dear personal friend.”

“You don’t know how glad I am to meet you Sir.” Mark reached out to shake hands with the ranger, at the same time, he gave Karen a slight squeeze with his hand that was around her shoulder. Barrett perceived even this slight maneuver of Mark’s. He took Mark’s out reached hand and pulled it to rest upon his own shoulder. With his other hand now free of being around Karen’s shoulder, Mark extended it to the ranger. The two shook hands.

With that, Karen handed Mark off to Gabe. She asked him, “Gabe can you take Mark, and sit with him in the waiting room while we make sure that Barrett is ok?”

“Sure thing Danny, see ya in a few.” Gabe walked with Mark to the waiting room.

“Come on Barrett, it’s your turn now.” They walked into the ER together. After the examination, Doctor Hunter told Barrett, that he couldn’t find anything amiss, but added that Barrett should be aware of anything deviating from his normal everyday routine behavior. Karen and Barrett went to the waiting room where Mark and Gabe had been during Barrett’s exam.

“Gabe, how about you and the guys coming back to the cabin so we can all have some breakfast? Nothing fancy mind you, but I could...”

Barrett situated himself next to Mark. “No! No thank you.” Barrett interrupted “If Ranger Gabe doesn’t mind, I’d like to get Mark home so he can rest. I think we’ve intruded on Miss Hamilton enough already.” Giving Mark the same squeeze that Mark had given to Karen earlier, only a much stronger version, he added, “Haven’t we, Mark?”

“It’s really not a problem at all,” Karen assured them, “Mark should be resting for a while anyway.”

“We really need to get going, if we want to take Ranger Gabe up on his offer, to see if we can get any of our stuff back.” Barrett took Karen’s hand and for a brief instant, he held it very gently in his. The moment spent, Barrett blinked his eyes and shook Karen’s hand sternly. “Thank you so much Miss Hamilton for everything. I can assure you that we won’t forget all you’ve done for us today. Ranger Gabe, if you are ready to go, I would like to get this invalid home as soon as possible, so he can begin his much needed recovery.” Karen was a trifle perplexed by Barrett’s stern, almost impersonal behavior, but dismissed it on something Gabe must have said to him. She knew how Gabe was about wanting to protect her.

“The truck’s right outside, you two go on ahead, I’ll be along in just a few minutes.” Gabe was secretly laughing to himself at what he had just seen. If he were a betting man, he’d lay heavy odds on a bet that Danny was going to be kept very busy for the next few weeks, at least. If not entertaining these two young men, then certainly refereeing between the two. Gabe was sure, from what he had just seen transpire, that these two had been easily captured and won over by Danny’s charming demeanor and gentle, caring personality.

Before the guys turned to leave, Karen tried to say her goodbyes. “It was nice to meet you both. I wish it could have been under different circumstances.”

Mark was quick to respond to her statement, “With the circumstances being what they were, I’m very glad that you were there to meet.” Karen saw that his eyes wanted to say more before the two of them turned away. She couldn’t help wondering what else he had wanted to say to her but didn’t have the chance to ask him.

As the young men progressed down the hall toward the exit, Mark removed his arm from Barrett’s shoulder to turn his head and wave to Karen with a smile. “I can see that you’re regaining your strength very rapidly now.” Barrett remarked very sarcastically to his friend.

“What’s eating you? And what the hell was all that about back there?”

“Wait until we’re outside!” Barrett whispered very sternly to Mark.

With Mark and Barrett out of sight, Gabe turned his attention back to Danny. She was looking up at him, smiling. Her face radiated all the feelings she had for this man. Gabe took Danny in his arms squeezing her tight. “It’s so good to have you back Danny. These mountains have been like a wilderness without your smiling face here to brighten it. I should be very angry with you!” Gabe’s smile suddenly disappeared. “Do you realize that I had no one except that old biddy, Mrs. Camron to go fishing with?... Welcome home Danny! You belong here, you always have!” Once again Gabe was smiling.

“Thanks Gabe, I needed to hear that, and coming from you, I know it comes straight from your heart. I think you’re right, I feel like I’ve come home again, like this is where I’m suppose to be, like it’s here that I really belong. You know something else Gabe? It’s a wonderful feeling, to be needed again!”

“You sound like you’d enjoy talking for a while, I’d like to sit and talk with you sweetie, but I’ve got to get these two young men squared away first, then I’ll try to drop by a little later to talk, if that’s ok with you?”

“That would be so awesome Gabe! I could cook supper for you.”

“That would be very nice, maybe something Italian?” Gabe was trying to hint at his preference for the possible meal. “Well, they’re waiting, Danny, I’d better go, I’ll see ya later sweetie. You did bring your pole, right?”

“Of course! Don’t I always?”

“Good then, I’ll see ya later, we’ll see if you can remember how to fish, so we have something to eat for supper.” Gabe and Karen both smiled at his remark.

Having reached the outside, Mark reiterated his earlier question to Barrett. “Now are you going to tell me what the hell, all that was about, and just why we couldn’t go to Karen’s house for some breakfast? I could use a little nourishment and I sure wouldn’t mind spending a little more of my time in that lady’s company!”

“I’m well aware of that!” Barrett retaliated harshly.

“Barrett, you’re jealous! You’re actually jealous! I wouldn’t have believed that of you.”

“I’m not jealous, I’ve never been jealous of anyone and especially never jealous of you. It’s just that you were being so damned obvious, hanging all over her in front of that ranger. You were starting to turn my stomach.”

“Yeah, I know...,” Mark smiled and with quite a level of satisfaction added, “....green! That green with jealousy color.” Mark paused, noticing the look on Barrett’s face. “Barrett do you like this girl? I mean do you want a relationship with this one? If you do, I will try to not impede you in any way. If you’re interested, let me know, I’ll back off and get out of your way. Barrett, I have no designs on Doc. She saved my life, I owe her, that’s all it is, a debt I need to repay.”

“I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I’m feeling right now, Mark. I just met her. She seems to be very nice.”

“What do you mean, seems? I think she’s exactly what she appears to be. Maybe a little bit too trusting for her own good, but damn it Barrett, if she hadn’t been that way, we might not be here right now. I surely wouldn’t be in better condition than I was before we intrudud on her. If it weren’t for her and the care she gave to my head wound. Yeah, we both know that I really didn’t need her to support and help me back there......”

“I know that!” Barrett anguished with a jealousy he’d never felt before.

“Let me finish! Yeah, you knew that and so did I, but she didn’t, she thought I actually needed her help and she gave it, with no reservations, no hesitations and no suspicions! The same way she acted earlier, when two injured strangers showed up, banging on her door, in the middle of the night, for help! Just watch yourself with this one Barrett. She’s very different from all the other ones you’ve ever dated. So don’t do anything stupid this time, or someone, maybe even me, might just swoop in to show her that there are a lot of other fish in the sea, and they’re a lot better catch than you are.”

“Ok, ok, I’m not arguing, I agree with you! Now the question is, how do you think we should show our appreciation? Ranger Gabe gave me a suggestion, he said that we should maybe ask to take her out to dinner or something like that.”

The mention of the Ranger Gabe made Mark compare what he had expected the ranger to look like, with what the ranger actually was. Mark started laughing.

“What the hell is so amusing to you?” Barrett asked his friend.

“I was thinking about the ranger, not exactly what I had envisioned him to look like. I guess he’s not the boyfriend we assumed he was. Geeze Barrett, I don’t remember ever meeting a woman built like she was. Did you see those muscles on her legs? With legs like that she could probably outrun a cheetah!”

“Who and what were you looking at? She had a bathrobe on, I never saw any legs.”

“I guess you had to be sitting where I was to see them. When she moved closer to treat my head wound, her robe parted as she leaned against my knee. I couldn’t help but look at what was being exposed. Her legs looked and felt like pure muscle to me. Lord, what I would give to have those legs of hers wrapped around me.”

“Watch it, here comes our transportation now.” Barrett couldn’t stop himself from imagining the same scenario that Mark had mentioned in his own mind.

They were standing by his truck, when Gabe arrived, he asked, “You boys ready?” as they nodded, he added, “Lets have at it then.” They all climbed into Gabe’s truck. As they drove away, Barrett looked behind himself to watch the hospital disappear from view, wondering if he would ever be able to see her again. She had made quite an impression on him. She was someone that would be worth his time in getting to know her a little better.

Seeing that Karen was ready to leave, Beth asked, “Karen would you like to sit and chat for a while? I get off in just a few minutes, we could go have some coffee and talk in the cafeteria.”

“Not right now, Beth, maybe another time, thanks for asking though. Right now I’d like to go home, maybe have a swim in the lake or have a nice long run. I’ve got a lot to think about right now and a few decisions to make, besides, Bruno and Betsy will be wanting their breakfast.”

Beth shook her head, “You still have those over-sized bookends?”


“Sorry, that’s the impression I get, when I see them with you. There you are in the middle, with a very protective, very large dog on each side of you.”

Karen laughed, “I guess they would resemble bookends. Have you got a piece of paper handy so I can leave a note for director Daria? I want to let her know that I’m available, if she needs any help.” Karen penned the note and handed it to Beth. “Could you please leave this on her desk for me?”

“Sure, no problem. I hope we’ll be seeing you around here real soon.”

“I’m pretty sure you will, there always seems to be a need to fill around here.” Karen hugged Beth, “Bye for now.”

Karen went back home to her dogs and her cabin on the lake. After feeding them, she let the dogs out and went to put her bathing suit on. Grabbing a robe on her way out she went to join her dogs that were already swimming in the lake.

On the ride from the hospital Barrett had a question for Ranger Sanders, “Ranger Sanders, if you don’t mind, could we stop at my car for a minute. It’s in the hiker’s parking lot near the northern end of lake Sebago?”

“Anything particular you need to get son? I might have it with me, here in the truck.”

“Oh no, Sir, not to pick up something, rather to drop Mark off. I don’t think he should be doing too much walking around yet. The doctor and nurse, both said he should take it easy and rest for a couple days.”

“Sure, sorry I forgot about your condition Mr. Colburn, you’re right Mr. Winslow, I don’t think it would do any good to take him with us, since it’s not a paved road we’ll be traveling on. He’d get bounced around and jarred quite a bit. You’re better off waiting at Mr. Winslow’s car, son. The ride alone might jar you enough to start your wound bleeding again.” Gabe advised.

“Thanks for looking out for me, you’re right, the nurse did say I’d better take it easy for a while. I feel pretty good, but then, I wouldn’t want to have to do any of that all over again.” Mark was thankful that he wouldn’t have to make the trip to the shelter.

Barrett tried to make it sound as if it were not such a bad ordeal for Mark, to be left alone at the car. “I have tapes in the car, you can listen to them or turn on the radio, there’s some magazines on the back seat. I think you’ll be fine until we get back.”

“Stop all the fussing already. I’ll just take a nap, I didn’t get much sleep last night either.”

“That’s a good idea Mark, rest is probably the best thing for you right now.” Barrett agreed with Mark.

“Look’s like it’s gonna be another scorcher today. It’s getting hot already and the sun’s barely up.” Gabe forecasted the day’s weather for the young men that were with him in his truck.

Barrett began to daydream, hardly hearing the ranger’s forecast at all. His thoughts drifting back to a small hand softly resting momentarily in his, then to it’s amazing ease of movement as it tended a wound, with herbs no less. She seemed quite skilled in what she did. His thoughts shifted, he saw her dark green eyes, full of laughter and imbued with concern, all at the same time. Another memory of those eyes over flowing with love as tears threatening to spill, when she thought no one was looking. Another memory came to Barrett. A look of amusement spread across Barrett’s face as he pictured, long auburn hair, in wild disarray. She was dressed only in a robe for all he knew, after all, he hadn’t been graced to see anything more than that. Nothing like what Mark had told him about her bare legs. From the bottom of the robe he remembered seeing two small, dainty, bare feet. Barrett’s eyes slowly closed as he continue remembering scenes from his time spent with Karen.

“Barrett, what’s the matter, did you change your mind?” The words came to Barrett as a dim light in a fog, becoming brighter and brighter, until his fog lifted completely and he realized Mark was speaking to him.

“Change my mind about what?”

“About letting me go to the shelter to help you and the ranger get our gear back.”

“Absolutely not, you’re going to stay at the car!”

“Then unless you expect me to climb over top of you, please open the door and let me out of this truck, before I do exactly that.” During the ride to Barrett’s car, Mark had taken mental notes of where Karen’s house was, and how far her house was from where Barrett had parked the car. He still couldn’t shake that funny feeling of familiarity he had with that house not to mention how it had seemed as if he had somehow met that girl before.

Looking around, abruptly noticing their whereabouts, “That was quick.” Barrett surmised, having lost track of time as he daydreamed. He opened the door, hopping out of the truck he helped Mark get out. Gabe just smiled as he shook his head, he could easily guess, where Mr. Winslow’s mind had wandered off to.

As they walked over to the car, Mark let Barrett know what he had thought, “It wasn’t that quick, apparently you went on a little vacation. From some of the looks I saw on your face, you weren’t on that vacation alone either. You seemed to be enjoying it very much. I’m a little pissed, that you didn’t show me the courtesy of inviting me to go along with you.”

“Cut the crap Mark! I was tying to catch up on some of the sleep I missed last night.” Barrett explained as he opened the car door, handing the keys to Mark.

As Mark sat down and reclined the bucket seat to a more comfortable resting position, he questioned Barrett’s explanation, “Do you always sleep with your eyes open?”

“Only when I’m thinking about adding a few more stitches to my best friend’s already acquired collection, now drop it!”

“Ok, ok, consider it dropped!” Mark repositioned himself in the car’s seat, “Now I’ll take myself a little nap and see if I can find your......, happy vacation spot.”

“You’re welcome to try!” Barrett dared him with a smile.

As Mark closed his eyes, “Oh, I don’t think it will be very hard at all to find where you went on your private little vacation. Now go on, get going. If I’m still asleep when you get back, and there’s a smile on my face, whatever you do, DON’T wake me up!”

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