"Got another one for you, Mike!" my rescuer said, as he yanked open the ranger station's screen door. "A damsel—alone, lost, and a bit worse for wear."
As I limped into the log-cabin office, a handsome ranger rose from a chair behind a desk and smiled at me with concern and said, "Not badly hurt, I hope."
"It's nothing," I said, my face flaming.
Smokey—that's the only name the kindly, grizzly old man who'd found me had offered—said, "Spotted her wandering 'bout three miles north of here on Harper's Ridge, long way from Wolf Trail. Figured it was closer to bring her here rather than all the way back to the park, what with it being so late in the afternoon."
With that Smokey said he had to be "gittin' back," and I slumped into a chair just inside the ranger's front door.
"Smokey's quite an old-timer," the ranger said. "He's got a place just north of the preserve. Loves the wilderness. He brings in a lost person once or twice a season." Then, "Let's look at your leg. You should've been wearing jeans. Not shorts," he added a bit reproachfully, I thought.
"I know," I said, sticking out my leg as he knelt down to inspect the gash on my right calf. "I tripped, fell, tumbled down a big hill, and crashed into a boulder."
"Lucky you didn't break something."
The ranger's warm hands carefully rotated my leg back and forth. My heart thumped and I swallowed. Be cool, Brittany!
"Nasty gash," he said. "Won't require stitches, though. Just a good cleaning to prevent infection and then proper bandaging. Name's Mike McFadden."
Then he stood up and looked down at me. As my heart thumped again, I realized just how handsome he was, arms and face perfectly tanned from the summer sun, blue eyes soft and kind.
"I can fix you up in no time," he said, and raked a hand through his blond hair. "Then take you down to Jubilee Park. You got a car parked there? What in the world were you doing hiking by yourself?"
He didn't wait for an answer to either question.
He marched to the fridge, grabbed a water bottle, gave it to me, and then reached for a first aid kit from a shelf above the fridge. I drank, and the refreshingly cold water swirling in my belly seemed to revive me. As Mike worked on my wound, I debated about revealing why I'd hiked alone. Finally, I decided to tell him—I needed to tell someone, if only a stranger. I should've told Smokey, too.
"Look," I said, wincing as he swabbed my wound with something that stung like crazy. "I know I shouldn't have been hiking alone—this is a long, complicated story."
"I've got time," Mike said.
I grabbed a deep breath. Exhaled. "Six years ago my high school held its graduation party in Jubilee Park. My boyfriend Trent and I sneaked away and hiked Wolf Trail all the way to Lookout Point. He carved our initials into the trunk of a dead tree and the word Forever."
"Lot of young kids in love do that."
I bit my bottom lip. "Trent was in ROTC in high school. He served three tours in Afghanistan. We were to be married, but he didn't come home from his fourth tour." Tears burned my eyes now. "For the last two years, his death has been eating a hole in my heart. I hiked to Lookout Point today to finally say goodbye to Trent, and I felt a great relief. Like we were letting each other go." My voice trailed off, and I brushed my tears away.
"And I'll bet when you were coming back down the trail, you were so distracted you got lost."
Happy that Mike understood, I smiled a little. "Exactly."
His gentle treatment and bandaging of my calf completed, he stood. "Great to see you smile, Brittany. Nice dimples."
Heat rushed to my face.
"Umm...I get relieved at five," he said. "There's a dirt road from here to the park. I can drop you off in my Jeep."
"That would be wonderful."
Then Mike cleared his throat. While his feet shuffled, his gaze swept over me, and my heart thumped again.
"I'd be glad to show you around the preserve sometime," he said. "Lot of changes you might not be aware of."
His offer lifting my spirits, I realized my being rescued was going to result in a lot of changes for me, too. Big ones. This time, a big, big smile crept across my face. "All right," I said. "I can't wait."