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Ride on the Wild Side

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Ride on the Wild Side

Andy stepped away from a military surplus radio and stared at it like it had grown legs and a tail.

"That's a bummer, sure is," said a grizzled old guy. "But it'll be nice havin' y'all for company. Plenty grub here, and I can always go shoot a deer for somethin' better'n that weird French crap the chef fella keeps fixin'."

"Uh-huh," Andy mumbled.

She could just imagine several models' expressions when they heard the news. Worse, she could just picture Miranda's face. Andy gulped and looked out of a window at clear skies that were sure to stay that way. A small vee of geese flew south, and Andy spotted a raven gliding off in the opposite direction. Birds and bats and bugs would be the only things flying, possibly for days.

The twins' birthday was on Saturday, six days away.

"Oh fuck," Andy breathed.

"What was that, honey?" the old timer asked.

"Nothing. You got a map?"

Some time later, Andy gulped and told herself that things could be much worse. If Miranda hadn't moved this shoot up three days, then they'd have no chance of getting back to New York in time.

Andy had used the radio and a satellite phone and she had a plan. She drew a breath and knocked on Miranda's door. She heard a vague response and entered the room, where she found Miranda looking at something on her laptop, possibly photos from the shoot this morning.

"Can you ride a horse?" Andy blurted.

"What?" Miranda hissed.

"Seriously," Andy said and looked at her watch: just after noon. "The FAA just shut down all airspace and grounded everything from helicopters to hang-gliders. We're not flying anywhere."

"But—Why?" said Miranda.

"Some terrorists blew up a grounded plane in New Mexico, and they sent a video message: look for other bombs, so..."

Miranda's eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth but Andy raised a hand, palm-out.

"Miranda, we're in the middle of frickin' nowhere, and I can get horses, but there's no way we can get a vehicle out here. It's a two-day ride to the nearest town where we'll be able to rent a car—hopefully, but we may have to buy one. From there it's a seven-hour drive to Eureka, where we can get a train. We should get back to New York in time for your girls' birthday. So? Can you ride?"

"Yes," Miranda muttered.

"Okay. Guy who'll bring the horses and gear says he'll take a check for an amount that big, but not a credit card—not even your credit card."

"Fine... Gear?" Miranda said.

"You can't ride and camp out in everything Prada," Andy muttered and stalked off to use the radio again. She grumbled, mostly to herself: "I never thought I'd ever be grateful that I know the size of Miranda's underwear..."

"What?" said Nigel. "And where's our plane?"

"No plane," Andy said, walking backwards. "You and everyone else gets a vacation. Me? I gotta go order long johns, goddammit."

Andy knew Miranda's size in everything, except hats, but Harry—the man who owned the dude ranch reminded her that they'd have to ride by his place before going on, so they'd fit Miranda for a hat there. With mention of stopping in at the dude ranch, Andy said for Harry to just bring two horses and the riding gear.

"No sense in bringing the packhorse out here if we're just gonna traipse right back to your place. Over."

"Yeah. Gotcha. See ya in about an hour," Harry said. "Out."

Andy hooked the mic back onto its bracket and blew up at her bangs. She turned to the table and took a good look at the map again, tracing the route she planned to take. She decided to ask Harry about that route, and it was likely that he'd tell her to scratch it. He'd turned his family spread, at the foot of this small mountain, into a dude ranch about twenty years ago. Harry had been born in that house and he'd grown up learning this land. His route would probably take note of things that weren't shown on the map.

Footsteps in the doorway caused Andy to look over her shoulder. Miranda walked up to the table and put on her glasses.

"You're rather focused. I was standing there for nearly ten minutes. You've done this sort of thing before?"

"Yeah, but not at a moment's notice," Andy said. "Camping is what my parents and I do whenever I get vacation time, while you're off in Europe with your girls. This year we hiked and camped in Tennessee, but last year I took a riding trip with my parents in Colorado, and we planned it for a month."

"How far did you go then?" Miranda asked.

"Couple-hundred miles, more than twice the distance we have to go... The horses aren't cheap, by the way. Harry's selling us the best he has. We'll leave 'em with his cousin in Two Forks. Zach will buy them back, but for a third less."

"Horses aren't cars. They're almost impossible to fix if they break a leg," Miranda said reasonably. She looked up from the map and took off her glasses. "I know how to ride, but the longest trail I've ever ridden was less than ten miles, in the UK. I ride English, in other words."

"Before tomorrow's out, you'll be able to say you ride Western," Andy said. She added apologetically: "And you're gonna be sore."

"I won't care as long as we get back to New York in time," Miranda stated. And: "You're the boss. What do I pack?"

"When Harry gets here, he'll have the right kinda bag to tie into a pack saddle, and you pack your phone, wallet, checkbook, and any meds. You might get a wash in a stream, but it's cold already, so you won't be washing your hair. Take toiletries for a clean-up in Two Forks and Eureka. You want simple changes of clothes for the train trip from Eureka to the first place we can get a plane. If the FAA has cleared flight by the time we get to Two Forks or Eureka, we'll drive straight to Glacier Park Airport, or maybe Missoula. Umm, and better if you remove your makeup now. That's it."

"All right," Miranda said and walked out.

Andy watched her go, and she nibbled at her lip. Hopefully this would work, and hopefully Miranda wouldn't drive her insane in the next few days.

When Harry arrived, a small audience had gathered to see Miranda ride off. The audience was composed of unamused models and hair and makeup people, an even less amused photographer, and a very grouchy Nigel. This place was beautiful and Andy had loved every minute of the last two days here, but everyone else was a city slicker, and boy, did it show. All of them suffered something of a shock when Miranda appeared sans makeup, wearing Cowboy Cut Wrangler jeans over western boots, a sheepskin jacket, and—there were gasps—a plaid lumberjack shirt. The worst part was how good she looked in all of it, even without makeup.

"Is there anything you don't wear well?" Nigel muttered.

"I can't think that I'd look good in coveralls," said Miranda.

Nigel and the rest of the audience frowned, clearly trying to get a mental picture of Miranda in coveralls. Andy tried, too, and failed.

"That... Nah," she said. "You got everything?"

"Yes," Miranda said.

"Okay," Andy said and hung Miranda's bag from the saddle pommel. "Lemme give you a leg-up here, and me and Harry will get your stirrup length sorted out."

Miranda had been given a leg-up to a saddle before: she took hold of the pommel and cantle, and bent her left leg at the knee. Andy put a hand under her knee, gripped her ankle, and lifted, and Miranda threw her right leg over the saddle. Andy and Harry talked over the horse's neck about which holes for the buckles, and adjusted the stirrup leathers and fenders to suit Miranda's leg length.

"Try 'em– stand up," Harry said.

Miranda did as she was told and frowned.

"It's not an English saddle," Andy said before Miranda could comment. "This is more like a dressage-length stirrup, but you sit back more, and when and if you post, you don't come off of the seat by more than three inches, if that."

"And just relax on this pony," Harry said. "He's fourteen and spook-proof. I seen him stare down a mountain lion. He ain't gonna bolt for nothin'."

"He hasn't met Miranda in a bad mood yet," Andy dared to say.

"Ha-ha," said Miranda.

Andy giggled with the rest of the audience and hurried over to her horse. She and Harry adjusted the leathers on that saddle, and they mounted up.

"Don't fall off the horsies, okay?" Nigel said.

"Yeah, yeah," Andy said and, leaning out of the saddle, she kissed the top of his head. "Keep checking in with Drake Air—use the satellite phone. If everything's still grounded by the time we get to Eureka, we'll be taking a train. If not, then we'll go get a plane. See ya."

"Happy trails to you," Nigel sang, and when Miranda raised a gloved middle finger, Nigel took a picture. "Photographic proof you're human."

"Don't make me get off of this horse," Miranda threatened.

"You're not getting off the damn horse," Andy said. "Move it out, c'mon."

Andy's cutting pony helped to herd Miranda's horse along after Harry's.

"Don't get eaten by anything!" one of the models called.

"If I get eaten by anything," Miranda muttered to Andy. "It's sure to die of slow, painful indigestion."

"All depends," Harry said. "I seen a bear bloated up by somethin' or other; I shot him, put him outa his misery. Once found a mountain lion that died of somethin' stuck in its craw. But I ain't seen a wolf that couldn't eat just about anythin', and usually there's never just one wolf. They wouldn't mind chewin' on you."

"Lovely," said Miranda.

"I'll be taking you up on that offer of a shotgun after all," said Andy.

"Thought you might," Harry said lightly.

At the dude ranch Andy and Harry spent a while with the map, and as she'd thought, Harry showed her a better route. Andy wrote down a list landmarks to watch for, and spent a while memorizing it. Afterwards she got Miranda to help with balancing the load on the packhorse. Next to feeding and watering the horses, this would be the most important aspect of their trip. If the packsaddle was unbalanced, the packhorse would suffer with a sore back.

"Or she might stumble and end up lame, or worse, bust a leg," Andy said. "Anything going wrong with the horses will slow us down. Harry, how far do you think we'll get this afternoon?"

"Were I you, I wouldn't push," Harry said. "Get to know your mounts, get a feel for the rigs you're ridin'. Aim for that spot I showed you on the map, along Weldt's Crick, camp there. Then tomorrow you set your heads on thirty miles, and don't mind your sore asses... Here's that shotgun. Like everythin' else, just leave it with Zach. Y'know how to use that, Andy?"

"Over-and-under's a lot simpler to use than a pump-action," Andy said and took the double-barrel shotgun. She checked that the safety was on, then broke it open and checked the loads. She snapped the gun shut and it went into a boot on her saddle, and the heavy bag of three-inch twelve gauge shells went into a saddlebag. "Anyhow, a pump-action's hard to carry in a boot under a saddle fender: the pump slide hitches... Those three-inch slugs pack a helluva kick. Hopefully I won't have to shoot anything."

"Hopefully," Harry said. "But you might hafta. Load the top barrel with buckshot—red shells, and the bottom with a slug—black shells. First shot, let go in the air, and if that don't scare off whatever critter, give it that slug. Don't take chances, y'hear? This land don't forgive mistakes. Sayin' as much, mind how you use that knife."

"Carefully," Andy said of the Buck knife on her belt.

"I was going to ask why I didn't get a knife," Miranda said wryly.

"Knife's your best buddy, or a real bad accident just waitin' to happen," Harry said. He checked the packsaddle, gripping it and rocking it. The horse moved, but the saddle didn't, which meant that Andy had cinched the double girth right. As for the load itself, it was secured with a diamond hitch knot. Harry gave Andy an approving nod. "Good cinch, and I hardly never see a one-man diamond hitch like that 'less I threw it myself. You ever want a job..."

"Hands off my assistant," said Miranda.

"Hey, a guy's gotta try," Harry said and laughed.

A little later he stood waving his hat while Andy, Miranda, and their packhorse rode off at a trot. As she had on the short trip down to the dude ranch, Miranda was posting, rising and sitting to the beat of the trot, English-style, and Andy shook her head at that.

"You're gonna get tired, fast," Andy said. "Drop your heels, so you've got a bit of weight on the balls of your feet, and now sit through that trot. Relax your thighs and lower back and let your hips keep your butt in the saddle. That horse will smooth his stride... There, see?"

"It shouldn't be this comfortable," Miranda said, surprised.

"Most big Thoroughbreds don't know how to add a little shuffle to their trot. Their shoulders are more upright, so sitting a trot can be jarring. Cow ponies like that one are made to trot and lope, not gallop."

"The last horse I rode had just one gait natural to him: flat-out. It wasn't much fun, forever holding him back."

"Annoying, yeah," Andy said. She grinned at Miranda and said, "I might turn my phone on just to get a picture of you in that cavalry-style slouch hat."

"I confess, I love hats," Miranda said and laughed.

It wasn't often that Miranda laughed like that: relaxed and honest and very Miranda, as opposed to the fashionista, the icon. After more than three years on the job, Andy had gotten to know Miranda somewhat better than most assistants. If Andy was honest, she didn't want to move on simply because she knew Miranda better, but it was past time for her to think about another job.

She'd wanted to walk away in Paris, Oh-six, but that would've been childish, and more than that, Andy just couldn't leave Miranda in the lurch in the midst of a crisis. So she'd been there, through the divorce and the upheavals at Elias-Clarke: Irv was fired and the first new CEO had come from a banking background rather than a publishing one. Miranda had nearly been axed yet again, but thankfully the Board had stepped in, saying, "There's a reason we fired Irv, you know. Same to you, sir: goodbye."

The current CEO had been born and raised in a publishing family, and she knew that publishing houses of any variety could not be run on the more-for-less model that had pervaded most other kinds of business. Publishing was, by its very nature, labor-intensive and people-first: without the right people, and enough of them, no publishing company could ever hope to make a success of itself. While other companies were downsizing, Elias-Clarke was doing its best to hang on to good people, and occasionally hiring other good people who'd been cut loose by those other companies.

Andy had been told, repeatedly, that if she wanted to move on from her assistant position, she needn't look beyond the Elias-Clarke building. The company had a two-year in-house experience rule in place, one that would also take Andy's master's degree into account. She could apply for any editing job available in the building, right up to managing editor of whichever publication. That was just one step below editor-in-chief. By now Andy had learned enough to stand as managing editor at Runway, and she could learn the ropes easily at several other publications where she needn't have any tech knowledge of their printed subject matter. She wouldn't do well at Auto Universe, for example, but she'd cut the mustard just fine at Home&Leisure and the two travel magazines, and several others.

This trip represented the perfect gap to talk to Miranda about that, but as Harry had said, today's riding was the time to get used to their horses, and the whole idea of cutting their trail over the relatively unmarked landscape. Whenever she saw one Andy guided her horse onto a game trail, all of which were narrow, forcing Miranda to fall in behind the packhorse, but most of the time Miranda urged her mount forward and rode at Andy's right knee. Andy kept checking on the landmarks she'd been told to look for, and she also regularly checked their heading on a compass.

"I keep seeing those trees. What are they?" Miranda said.

"Cottonwoods, poplar family, and those others are—"

"Birch, that much I know, but what kind of pines are those?"

"Lodgepole," Andy said. "And all this stuff we're riding through is silver sagebrush and four-wing saltbush... Funny. I remember this stuff, but the last time I was out here I was nineteen... See him there—to the left."

A large jackrabbit sat dead-still next to a clump of sagebrush, some distance ahead.

"Why isn't he running away?" Miranda said.

"He would if we went too close," Andy said. "Sagebrush isn't very nutritious, and there's not too much grass out here, so critters like jackrabbits watch their energy levels. He'd bolt if he got a sniff of a coyote, but we're just humans on horses, and he doesn't think we rate being scared."

"So there's not much hunting done in this area," Miranda said.

"Only by private landowners, and they don't do much hunting, no, but ya don't hunt jackrabbits for the pot unless it's winter. In summer they've usually got internal parasites and other icky things going on... We've gotta go over this hill now, around that big rock there. There's a trail to follow."

Miranda reined her horse back without further prompting, and Andy let her horse pick his way over to the rock in question. He rounded it without prompting from her heels and hands, so he'd been this way before. When they reached the top of the hill, Andy halted her mount and the packhorse, and she waited for Miranda to catch up.

"How's that view..."

Miranda's only response was a smile. Andy didn't push ahead for a while, and they sat their horses looking out over a plain marked by a string of cottonwoods along a watercourse, and a large butte that stood alone and magnificent, and in the distance there were white-capped mountains.

"I found myself wishing for a camera, initially," Miranda said. She gestured at the landscape. "But that... A photograph would never do it justice."

"A photo would make it seem too small," Andy said.

"Yes, exactly," Miranda said. "All of that cramped into an eight-by-ten-inch frame? No. Definitely not... And I think I should do something like this more often."

"Get out of the city?" Andy asked.

"Mmm. My girls don't know how to ride. I should fix that, but the last thing I want is for them to become like those horsie-girls at Dalton."

"Oddly enough your girls aren't snobs."

"Because I can't abide snobby children," Miranda muttered.

"You don't like snobby adults much either," Andy noted. Then: "But you can be pretty snobby yourself."

"When it's expected of me," Miranda said with a shrug. "Often it is. But then I go home and kick off my shoes and put on comfortable clothes, and I'm just me."

"Kinda like now," said Andy.

"Right now, you are the boss," Miranda said, smirking. "Having someone else make the decisions is a veritable vacation."

"I guess," Andy said, amused. She urged her mount down the trail and pointed out a spot in the distance, where the string of cottonwoods took a bend to the north. "We'll be camping there tonight."

"Do we have a tent?"

"Nope. There's some people who say a tent is a good thing if there might be bears around, but if you ask the right people they'll say sleep light, near a fire, and pick the tree you'll climb before you go to sleep. That thing lashed behind your saddle is a bedroll. We've got thermal blankets with waterproofing; no sleeping bags, cos they're dangerous– can't get out of them in a hurry. And we got groundsheets. Ever slept under the stars?"

"No," said Miranda, and she scowled.

"Think of it this way: your girls will be jealous," Andy giggled.

"I highly doubt it," Miranda sniffed.

"I'm being serious," Andy said. "They're fourteen and still young enough to secretly think adventures are way cool."

"Well, I'm forty-nine and old enough to secretly think that lying awake worrying about bugs crawling into my ears is decidedly un-cool."

"This isn't Africa. I think someone watched that Mountains of the Moon movie, where that Speke dude nearly got driven nuts by a beetle in his ear."

Miranda's answer was a shudder. Andy snorted a laugh.

"Bugs like light, so if you stay at the right distance from the fire, the bugs will burn themselves up."

"Oh," said Miranda. Then: "What about snakes?"

"If ya see one and it rattles, don't move. If it doesn't rattle, and it's not black, red, and yellow, shoo it away. It's too dry out here for copperheads and cottonmouths, so you won't see those."

"And spiders?"

"You're a thousand times bigger than any spider: if it doesn't run away, stomp it. But if it's a scorpion, kick it away. They usually survive stomping."

"I don't think I'll ask any more questions," said Miranda.

"You're worried about bugs, but I got a shotgun for a reason," Andy said. "Bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes—"

"They're not creepy-goddamn-crawly," Miranda grumbled.

"Oh, relax," Andy chortled.

"Perhaps making you the boss wasn't a good idea..."

"Yeah?" Andy said, highly amused. "We'll see, soon as you meet your first spider. My bet, you'll get me to stomp the poor little guy."

"And something tells me you won't," Miranda said.

"I'll just use a twig or something and shoo it. Just remember that the only critters out here that would hurt you on purpose are either scared or sick or hungry, and maybe all three."

"Is there anything you're scared of?" Miranda asked.

"Yeah," Andy muttered. "There's only one animal on this planet that would hurt you for the sake of seeing you hurt: homo fucking sapiens."

"I can't argue with that," said Miranda.

Andy looked over her shoulder and gave Miranda a nod. Further along the trail Andy halted her horse and the packhorse again, and Miranda rode up next to Andy.

"What is it?"

"Spot the elk," Andy almost whispered.

She nodded towards a thicket of chokecherry and bramble along the creek, perhaps thirty yards away. Miranda squinted at it for a while and shook her head.

"What should I look for?" she asked.

"No straight lines in nature, right?"

"Yes."

"And wild bushes are bushy, not likely to have straight tops to them. Look for an almost-straight horizontal line."

Miranda looked intently at the thicket again, and pretty soon she smiled. The horizontal line that Andy had mentioned was the almost-straight back of a lone bull elk, and he was staring right at the riders and horses.

"He's a bachelor," Andy said. "The rut's starting around now, so he'll go cause some harem-keeper grief pretty soon."

The elk took a few steps away from the thicket. His gaze on the intruder humans and their silly, mastered horses was best described as imperious: head high, vast rack of antlers casually held as if they weighed nothing.

"I count seven-by-seven points, seven on each antler," Andy said and carefully took her phone from a pocket. "So he's over twelve years old."

"He's huge..." Miranda murmured.

"And completely unafraid," Andy said, smiling at the picture on her phone. She turned it off and put it away. "He's the boss here and he knows it. Some people say that isn't right, that it encourages animals to be aggressive. Those people prefer it when everything is afraid of them, makes them feel good about themselves."

"If he ran away I'd likely feel a little safer, but I wouldn't feel good about it," Miranda said.

"Yeah, cos contrary to popular belief, you're not a control-freak," Andy said.

"True, but I've not looked at that fact in this context before," Miranda said, watching the elk walk away at a casual pace. "And yes, control-freaks would want everyone and everything to be afraid of them... Did you get a good picture of that magnificent animal?"

"Yeah. My dad's gonna be so jealous," Andy said, grinning. She nudged her horse into a walk again. "He hunts, gets a deer every year, but he wouldn't wanna do more than shoot pictures of an elk like that. Bag an elk that big and unless you've got a big family, you gotta give a fair amount of the meat away. That sits wrong with Dad: you don't shoot it or catch it and keep it if you can't eat it all. There are a lot of hunters like my dad, most of 'em are like that, I'd say—and never mind what know-nothing city people have to say about it. Of course, sometimes they've got reason to think that way, because trophy hunters just want the fucking records– they'd see that big elk as a walking ticket into the record books. Assholes."

"I've never before been more inclined to agree with something my mother once said," Miranda muttered, scowling darkly. "The only good thing about the average man's competitive streak, is that it causes them to kill each other on occasion."

"Pretty much true of most males," Andy said. "Human or otherwise. Big guy over there might gore another bull to death, but that's just natural competitiveness, and it's tied up with survival. Killing things just to claim them as trophies? Only human assholes do that, and not only male assholes."

"Andrea, you had better change the subject," Miranda said. "I'd really rather not end up in a bad mood."

"Yeah, I'd rather you didn't either," Andy said wryly, and changed the subject back to plants and trees and critters they might see.

They made it to their campsite in that bend along Weldt's Creek well before sundown, and got the leather off of their horses before doing anything else. The first thing still involved the horses: they were led to the creek, downstream of the camp so that they didn't muddy the water, and were allowed to drink their fill. After that Andy used a mallet to knock picket pins into a patch of grass, making sure to bury the pins right down to the heads, to ensure that the horses couldn't tangle their ropes around exposed pin shafts. She showed Miranda how to tie a quick-release knot, and she made Miranda tie each horse's halter rope to the rings on their picket pins.

"If I get hurt, you have to know how to do that," Andy said.

Miranda straightened up from tying the last rope, and she looked at Andy for a long time.

"Right," said Miranda. "What else?"

"Do you know how to use that shotgun?"

"I shot skeet for a while, yes."

"Red shells are buckshot, black are slugs," Andy said. "Remember to load one of each. Top barrel fires first, bottom, last, so the slug always goes in the bottom barrel. When you let that slug go, you mean business. Something like a wolf or mountain lion, aim at the chest, face-on, or the ribs near the shoulder, side-on. Bear's big enough that you'll hit his head, if he's face-on, but try for the spot between the shoulder and the neck. If he's side-on, ribs. The trouble with a bear is that he can't be more than twenty-five yards away. Further than that, and the slugs won't have proper effect. So you have to hold your nerve, and you shoot when he's close enough. Then break that gun open, and load two more slugs, because no matter where you hit him just one will never do the job."

"Right," Miranda said quietly. Then: "Maybe I should carry two slugs in a pocket?"

Andy put her hand in the pocket of her jacket and pulled out two black shells. She gave them to Miranda, and went straight to her saddle where she got herself another two slugs. There was a sling on the shotgun, and Andy slung it from a shoulder.

"But isn't this place too open for bears and mountain lions?" Miranda asked.

"The bears are trekking to the big rivers now, to wait for the salmon," Andy said. "There's a major river system west of us, so any bears east of us might cross our path. As for mountain lions, they used to roam just about every square mile of this country, even the deserts and prairies. We called 'em 'mountain lions' cos that's where they were seen a lot. All that says is that in places like this, they're that much better at stalking around. The good news attached to that amounts to the fact that they avoid people."

"So they're not really a concern," Miranda said.

"Thinking like that... Bad idea," Andy said, shaking her head. "This is their world. We could surprise a cat. There's white-tail and mule deer here, and if we come on a cat that's just caught one of those, or maybe we've stumbled over a covered carcass, cos mountain lions cache their kills... If we're on horses we'll be able to get away pretty easily. If we're on foot, do. Not. Run. Ready the shotgun, but otherwise stand dead-still, then start walking backwards, and you keep doing that till you can't see the cat. Then you run, fast, and make sure you watch where you're going."

"All right," Miranda said, her expression thoughtful. "As you said, it's their world."

"Right, and depending on how we behave, we're just visiting, or we're trespassers," Andy said. "And now we should go get firewood."

"First," said Miranda. "I don't suppose there's a ladies room anywhere?"

Andy opened a bag, and she took a camping shovel from a holster on the side of the packsaddle. She gave Miranda a roll of toilet paper and the shovel.

"Pick a bush," Andy said. "Always make sure your bush is at least fifteen yards from any water source, and downstream of the campsite."

Miranda glared at several bushes in turn, and then snatched both the paper and the shovel.

"I'd better not meet with any terrorists or anyone from the FAA any time soon," she muttered and strode away. "And what are these bushes anyway?"

"They're a kinda maple, believe it or not," said Andy, who was trying not to laugh.

Miranda eventually emerged from behind her chosen bush, and she put away the paper and the shovel without being told.

"Firewood," she said.

"Get the hatchet?" Andy said.

The hatchet was in a handy leather holster attached very visibly to the packsaddle. Miranda asked about that.

"Same reason the shovel's where it is: easy to grab it and use it. Never make it hard to get at things you may need in a hurry... Be careful with that thing: it's sharp."

"And like the knife, dangerous," Miranda said.

"Only if you're not careful," Andy said while looking around. She pointed ahead at a dead tree. "Ooh, lucky us: deadfall. Look at all those dry branches..."

They took turns using the hatchet to reduce branches to shorter, more manageable lengths, and they needed to make several trips back to camp with armfuls of wood. Andy made certain that the woodpile, against a tree, was at least twenty yards away from where the fire would be.

"Safety first. You only pile wet or greenwood right next to the fire," Andy explained.

"I see that point," Miranda said. "The last thing I want to be responsible for while we're who-knows-how-many miles from the nearest fire department, is a conflagration."

"I love that word," Andy said. "Why just say 'fire' when you can use 'conflagration'?"

"Oh I agree," Miranda said. And: "Trust you and I to end up talking about words even out here..."

Andy's only response was an amused grin. Once their woodpile seemed big enough, Andy took over the hatchet and split some kindling. This was a well-used campsite: there was already a ring of stones set out, and Andy began building a kindling wigwam in the middle of it, over a small pile of wood chips and bark. Miranda took a knee and watched that operation closely.

"With wood this dry, this is the easy part," Andy said and struck a match. The chips caught alight at once. "Knowing when to add bigger pieces of wood... That's harder. You can kill your fire if you add bigger pieces too soon. Use that flat rock as a base, and split those thicker branches in half lengthways?"

"All right."

Andy watched Miranda work for a while, then turned her attention back to the fire: it was chewing nicely on the kindling. Andy added some more of that. She hadn't built a fire like this in a while, since the summer, but it was one of those things that, once mastered, was never forgotten. When the flames were really busy, she began to add thicker pieces of wood, cut-side to the flames, bark-side away from them.

"The cut wood burns faster?" Miranda asked.

"No, it burns hotter," Andy said. "The bark burns too fast, so it burns up before the thicker wood catches alight."

"So bark is good for starting a fire, but not much else."

"Right."

Once the fire was going to Andy's satisfaction, she started setting up the camp-proper. Miranda helped her to set their saddles side-by-side, and their ground sheets and blankets were laid out in opposite directions, with the saddles for backrests or pillows. Andy unpacked the cooking tripod and set it over the fire. Its hook doubled as a handy fire-poker and she rested that over a couple of the fire-ring rocks. She'd been told that the swift-flowing creek water was safer to drink than city water, and needed only to be strained. Andy got a potful strained, hooked the tripod's chain away from the flames, and set the pot to hang over the flames.

"Coffee?" Miranda said hopefully.

"Tea," Andy said. "I can tell you've never had campfire coffee– got a kick that'll keep you awake half the night."

"Tea," Miranda agreed. "What are we making for dinner?"

"If we're lucky, trout," Andy said.

"What?"

"There's a dip that-away, and a pool after it. Harry said there's brown trout in there, and they bite at anything."

"I love trout," said Miranda.

"Yeah, I know," Andy chuckled. "There's a rod in that tube. Wanna go try catch a couple?"

"I've never gone fishing," Miranda blurted.

"There's lots you've never done," Andy said. "Same here. Like skiing."

"You don't know how to ski?"

"I've done a lotta snow-shoeing, no skiing. But gimme a toboggan..."

"Hell, a tea tray," said Miranda.

"Old metal garbage can lid, with the handle busted off."

"Anything flat," Miranda chuckled. "When I was a girl, if there was a snow-covered hill, I was on it. I sometimes skipped school with a bunch of boys, and we'd slide down even the slightest gradient."

"Where did you grow up?" Andy asked while assembling the three-piece fly rod.

"New York, up near the Catskills. It was a small town... That's something I don't miss."

"Everyone talks about everyone."

"Yes."

With the rod assembled, Andy mounted the reel onto it, and threaded the line through the eyelets. She had to rack her brain for a while, but she remembered how to tie a leader onto the fly-line, how to attach a fine, almost invisible tippet filament onto the leader, and how to tie a fly onto the tippet.

"Remembering how to cast... Well, we'll see. I usually use a bass rod and a spinning reel," Andy said. "But if Harry has it right, I just gotta get this fly out and strip the line a little so the fly twitches, and the fish bite... You take that, and the net."

"It doesn't look much like a net," Miranda said and slung the shotgun from a shoulder.

"You fold it open," Andy said. "And it locks open. It's made to collapse so it doesn't take up lotsa space."

"Nifty," said Miranda.

"This is why camping is cool: gadgets," Andy said. "Let's go try to catch fishes."

The pool was a five-or-so-minute walk away, and it was pretty enough that the two women stood and stared at it for a while. They crossed the creek at a low point, going carefully across wet rocks, and headed for a part of the pool's bank that didn't have too many trees. On the first attempted cast, Andy still managed to get the fly hooked on a branch, and Miranda had a good laugh at that while helping to get it free. Andy decided to go with a cheat cast next, flicking the line out to her side and forward, and actually made the water this time, but only a few feet away from the bank. She freed more line off the reel, and tried again and had better luck: at least thirty feet of line paid out and lay neatly on the surface of the water.

"Now I strip it, draw it in a little at a time, with twitches to imitate a bug..." Andy said.

"I see ripples," said Miranda.

Andy nodded, watching the surface of the water. She twitched the line and a fish leaped out of the water, fly in its mouth. Andy gave the line a small jerk, setting the little hook, and the fish flopped back in the water, mid-leap.

"He's on," Andy said, excited. "Now I gotta be careful not to break the tippet..."

She had to walk the bank, keeping tension on the line while the fish tried to escape. Once the line she'd freed off the reel was all paid out, she reeled in just a little at a time, or else let the fish take more line off the reel. Several minutes passed before the fish started to tire.

"Get the net ready."

"Got it," Miranda said.

"You gotta dip it in the water, or it'll have bubbles and float a little."

Miranda crouched on a rock and swished the net in the water, and Andy stepped that way, reeling slowly. The tired fish pretty much swam into the net, and Miranda straightened up with a grunt.

"It's huge," Miranda said.

"We won't need two of those," Andy said with a grin.

"Andrea, it's flopping," Miranda said with a grimace.

Andy took the net and set it on a rock, then took the knife from her belt and held it by the flat of the blade. A quick whack on the head with the heavy pommel on the knife-handle stopped the trout from flopping.

"Much better," said Miranda.

"Yeah. I don't like people who let 'em flop to death," Andy said while working the now-mangled fly out of the trout's mouth. "I'll gut him here. Big important camping rule. In country like this, you don't do bloody stuff anywhere near your campsite. Bears have the best noses in the world, and they smell fish guts a mile off. Literally."

Miranda straightened up and wiped damp hands on her jeans. She looked around and unslung the shotgun.

"Right," Andy chuckled.

She made quick work of gutting the trout (another thing that, once done a few times, one never forgot), and they walked back to camp. Andy had thought that she'd end up cooking the trout, but Miranda demanded to know what other ingredients they had to work with, and she took over.

"Hey, I don't mind," Andy said, while pouring hot water over teabags in tin mugs. "Just never thought you'd be a cooking person."

"I love cooking," Miranda said, already chopping a peeled garlic clove on a small cutting board. The whole trout was in a flat stainless steel dish, covered in spiced and herbed flour, resting before it was cooked. "I get home and cooking is my favorite way to relax... You should come to dinner some time."

"I thank you for the invite, which is, y'know, what's needed before one comes to dinner."

"Touché. However, I'll counter with the fact that we're both awful about being oh-so-professional."

"I've gotten better at that," Andy said. "But as you say, it's also not good."

"Necessary evils..." Miranda muttered. "There's no room for those out here."

"Nope," Andy said and sat cross-legged on the dirt close to Miranda. "You made me the boss, but I'm not, really. We have to be a team out here, or we're screwed."

"But it seems to me that you could manage alone."

"If I reduced the load on that packsaddle, or turned the packhorse loose and reduced what my horse carries to the bare minimum, yeah, I could. But it's the two of us out here, and if you chose to sit back, I'd have a hard time making things work for the both of us. I'd probably be tired enough by tomorrow noon that we'd have to camp, rather than go on after a break. But you're helping out, you're not deadweight, and sure, we'll both be all aches'n'pains by the time we get to Two Forks, but we'll get there."

"I'm already all aches and pains," Miranda confessed.

"We'll start out tomorrow leading our mounts, walk for about a mile, and that'll help."

"It won't slow us down too much?" Miranda asked.

"Nope. These horses have all got bottom, like they say out here—they dig deep and go for miles. We could push for forty miles tomorrow, and they'd be fine. But we wouldn't be. Tired riders fuck up horses' backs faster than anything else."

"You're swearing more," said Miranda.

"I'm not at work, so yes, I'm being more me and cussing more," Andy stated flatly.

"Actually, we're the only two who don't swear at work," Miranda noted. "Even your second drops F-bombs all over the place."

"Natalie's your second assistant, not mine," Andy said. "But you always call her my second. Why?"

"She's not likely to become my first assistant any time soon."

"She might," Andy said.

Miranda put down the hunting knife (she'd said that she liked the balance), and looked Andy in the eye for a long while. Andy held that look, relaxed and patient. Miranda could still make Andy nervous, but that always had to do with work, and as Andy had said, they weren't at work, weren't on-the-job.

"I suppose it's time," Miranda muttered, and her expression was distinctly sad. "No-one else is going to match up. That's why I usually never keep assistants for longer than eighteen months, and better, less than that, if they show enough promise to send them off with a good letter of rec."

"You've made it... difficult for me to leave," Andy said, thinking of several generous raises, more responsibility, her byline on at least two articles per month, and quite a bit of editing work. "And yeah, you like me and we get along, but there's more to it than that, right?"

Miranda poked the chopped garlic inside the fish, and turned the whole thing over, scooping and sprinkling flour over it. She dusted off her hands and wiped them on a damp cloth, and she shifted off of her knees, and drew up a leg, lightly hugging her shin.

"You could have my desk, one day," Miranda said quietly. "Another two years, I should think."

"I got the editing chops for that," Andy said, shaking her head. "But the personality, and the... the passion for it? No, Miranda."

"That's Nigel's reservation, yes," Miranda said. "But he doesn't want that desk, and so..."

"Steal Emily back from Vogue," Andy said, and she'd been waiting to say it for a while. "I mean that: headhunt her back. She hates it there and would give her eyeteeth to work for you again."

Miranda frowned and looked into the fire for a while.

"I didn't expect her to even out the way she did."

"She got mad at you," Andy said. "And instead of trying to impress you, she just... Well, Em decided to just get her recommendation from you and go chase her dream of working in fashion journalism. But like I said, Vogue's not Runway, and Wintour's a worse boss than you."

"Yes, she doesn't do snark half as well," Miranda sniffed.

"That, and other things," Andy chuckled.

"Mmm," said Miranda. Then: "But hiring Emily back won't solve my assistant problem."

"Natalie's good," Andy said seriously.

"Yes, but she's not Andrea who reads my mind and does everything just-so, and the list goes on." Miranda frowned darkly and threw a twig into the fire. "And would Natalie have organized this? I think not."

"Your best solution there is not to oversee shoots in the middle of nowhere," Andy said simply.

"Reading my mind again," Miranda pointed out.

"Yeah," Andy said. "I'll miss you, too, weird as that may seem."

"It's not weird. We get along, as you said... Where would you like to work?"

"I'll stick with Elias-Clarke."

"Oh," said Miranda.

"Yeah, I'll be around," Andy said with a small smile.

"That won't be entirely awful, I suppose," Miranda muttered.

"I'll get thirty calls a day, to start, huh?"

"No. But perhaps twenty," Miranda said with a laugh.

"I wanna get to know this side of you better," Andy said. "I can't do that—rather, I shouldn't if I work for you."

"True," Miranda agreed.

And she changed the subject by asking about a pan, and what the hell they were going to use to fry the fish.

"Olive oil, what else?" Andy said.

Miranda blinked and looked even more surprised when presented with a leak-proof, break-proof squeeze-bottle of said oil.

"Having a packsaddle is as good as having a car trunk," Andy said. "And bonus, there's no trunk lid to get stuck on weird-shaped things, like the fishing rod tube."

"I'm going to want to do this again," Miranda said.

"Even with the creepy-crawly aspect?" Andy asked.

"I can get over that," Miranda said. "When I want to do something, it gets done. I like the quiet out here, and riding is something I miss... May I presume and say that we'll plan the next trip better?"

"You'll get no arguments from me," Andy said. "After all, you need a handy spider-shooer, right?"

Miranda's answer was a glare, but it wasn't an especially good one, given that she couldn't keep an amused smile at bay.

Dinner ended up being delicious and filling– Miranda confessed that she'd never eaten as much trout at a single sitting before. After dinner there was still enough light to see by, and Miranda was introduced to that camping marvel called Campsuds, a biodegradable, non-polluting soap that could be used for everything from washing people to pots and pans.

"I'm tempted to go and swim in that pond," Miranda said while washing the pan. "But given how cold this creek water is..."

"Never mind that. I don't think you've ever swum in a pond," said Andy.

"How do you know?"

"If you had, you'd never consider swimming in any silt-bottom pond at night. Slime between your toes and the water getting all muddied up is freaky enough during the day."

"Ugh," said Miranda.

"Right," Andy giggled.

"Giggling Gerty," Miranda muttered and flicked creek water Andy's way.

Andy flicked water right back, and more accurately. She laughed when Miranda gasped and wiped her wet cheek on her upper sleeve.

"Are you suddenly five?"

"Hey, you flicked first."

"And now I have this mugful of water here..." Miranda threatened.

"Now who's five?" Andy said and scrambled away. "I'm gonna get the big pot."

"But it's clean."

"You wanna wash with cold water?"

"Get the big pot," said Miranda.

Andy had thought that Miranda would take her pot of warmed water into the shadows, but she didn't. She asked about something to stand on and Andy fetched the oilskin tarp meant to go over the packsaddle if it rained. When she turned around, Miranda was stripping next to the fire.

"Okay," said Andy, and wondered if her eyebrows would make it to space. "Someone's not shy."

"It's about forty degrees away from this fire," Miranda said. "Even if I was shy, I think I'd be instantly cured. If you're shy, I promise, I'll turn my back."

"I'm not—Hey, that's not fair," Andy complained. "You've got abs and I don't."

"You have abs, or you'd not be able to stand up," Miranda retorted. "If you want them to be defined and visible, that's the work of years, and I'd actually not recommend it."

"Huh?" Andy said and straightened up from spreading the tarp. "You don't think exercise is good?"

"Exercise is wonderful. A near-addiction to it is not," Miranda said and stepped onto the tarp. "Thanks."

"Yeah," Andy said and went to sit on the other side of the fire. "What did you mean about addicted to it?"

"You noticed, I'm sure, how agitated I was yesterday and the day before."

"And this morning. Cos you didn't go to your yoga classes?"

"Yes, and yoga and swimming are a step down—excuse the pun—from step aerobics. I used to do that, morning and evening, five days a week."

"Okay, considering you put in a ten-hour workday, that's bordering on nuts."

"I was firmly told as much by my personal trainer, before she resigned. She said that she didn't want to be present when I had a heart attack."

"That woulda stopped me cold. Wow," Andy said.

"Indeed. I spent a while rethinking things," Miranda said, busy with a washcloth. "Bad enough that I'm thirty-five years older than my girls, and as the averages go, they're likely to lose me thirty-five years sooner than most other people would lose their parents. Dropping dead earlier than three-score-and-ten, when they'll be just thirty-five themselves, is just... That's completely unacceptable. And so, no, I do not recommend the kind of physical insanity required to get someone of my body-type to look like I do... You're longer and leaner, though, so perhaps you'd not need to work as hard. Still, be careful."

"All I do at the gym is swim," Andy said. "And the only reason I go to gym at all is cos I love to eat. I used to run, was pretty serious about track, but I ended up not having enough time to train, at college."

"The only sport I really liked was ice hockey, but in those days, girls weren't allowed to play. Field hockey just wasn't the same. And when I went to college, I got into the aerobics kick... I don't suppose pajamas are a wise choice."

"Nah. What've you got there?"

"That long underwear and a thermal shirt."

"Those and your jeans," Andy said. "Don't bother with a bra now– you can put it on in the morning. Bad enough we gotta sleep on the ground. Add a bra to that? Ouch."

"Aubade don't design with riding in mind," Miranda muttered. "Goddamn underwires..."

"I figured that by now you might say something like that," Andy said lightly.

"Please tell me that Harry provides even in the sports bra department," Miranda said, her tone hopeful.

"He does, and he did," Andy said, grinning. "I got two in your size. And ol' Harry prides himself in providing absolutely everything his clients need, from riding and roping lessons, to sports bras and special tighty-whities for the idiot men who think that riding in boxers is a good idea."

"Yet another reason I'm grateful not to be a man," Miranda said. "And Harry's very clever. Everything he provides makes him more money."

"Tell me about it," Andy said and walked off with the pot.

She tossed out the used water and filled the pot with fresh, and reminded herself to wash the pot when she was done with it. Soapy tea would not taste good. Back in camp she hung the pot over the flames, and added a few pieces of wood to the fire.

Miranda was reclining on her blankets and saddle, managing somehow to look like the Queen of Sheba, even in a sheepskin jacket and jeans, and with her hair mussed. Andy wasn't the least surprised by that.

"It should be hotter," Andy said and sat on her blankets. "And there should be a half-naked Egyptian boy fanning you with a palm-leaf."

"Very funny," said Miranda.

"You just have that whole... air about you," Andy chortled. "Even with your hair all over. I gotta book you in for a haircut when we get back. The unruly forelock is more unruly than usual."

"My hair grows like a weed."

"I noticed. Lucky you."

"Everyone with long hair says that. People with short styles don't envy me at all, I assure you."

"Yeah, I guess not," Andy said, thinking of at least two haircuts per month. She thought of something else, and said, "Didya email Caroline and Cassidy?"

"Before we left, yes. I said that given the flying issues, I was taking a cross-country trip to get to a train, in order to be home by Saturday. The downside would be no phone and no internet... I've never gone without speaking to them for two nights, perhaps three. I'll apologize in advance for my impending wretched mood."

"Understandable, and expected," Andy said. "But given that you aren't stuck somewhere, and that you're actively trying to get home on time... Well, maybe that'll help your mood."

"Perhaps," Miranda said. "But if it doesn't, I'll try not to snap at the person doing their best to ensure that I'm not stuck."

"I can't and won't ask for more than that," Andy said, looking Miranda in the eye.

Miranda held that look for a while, and nodded, and Andy gave her a nod in reply. She got up and checked on the water, and got various things out of her bag.

Andy really wasn't shy, but it was a little unnerving, undressing with Miranda sitting less than ten feet away. Power through it, was what Andy told herself, exactly what she used to say when swimming lengths was still hard. That reminded her that she'd been swimming for a full hour three times a week, for more than two years, and it showed. She didn't have a visible six-pack, but her back, legs, and arms had been complimented by her various friends, and her last boyfriend (very much an ex now) had uttered many compliments on her ass.

"I am forced to comment. One word," said Miranda. "Wow."

"I've never heard you say that before," Andy chortled.

"I reserve 'wow' for special occasions," Miranda said, amused. "You don't project that body at all."

"Not at work, no," Andy said while washing behind a knee. "'Sexy' is not in my job description."

"More's the pity," Miranda muttered.

"God, you and eye-candy," Andy giggled. "You're shameless about it, too. I still say Rose woulda been better than Natalie, but Natalie rated as better eye-candy."

"The fact that I like pretty things is the reason I edit a fashion magazine," Miranda said with a shrug. "And why shouldn't I have pretty assistants? Men can't corner that market, damn them."

"Yeah, but you surely don't wanna be lumped with all the men who like pretty girls because they're... trophies."

"Oh no, no," Miranda said, shaking her head. "It's all about aesthetics, for me."

A very naked Andy parked a hand on her very naked hip, and pinned Miranda with the sort of look that said exactly what Andy was thinking: Yeah, right. Miranda attempted to look innocent, and Andy arched a brow.

"Yes, fine. You know me far too well," Miranda muttered.

"Uh-huh," Andy chuckled. "'Sexy' used to be in my job description, until I quit being naïve and idealistic and... immature. And frankly, I'm pretty sure that the reason I've been your assistant as long as I have, is all tied up with me putting on the brakes."

"During the divorce," Miranda said quietly, looking into the fire.

"Your divorce and my very messy break-up," Andy said and began to dress. "Neither of us needed more complications."

Miranda's only comment was a nod. Andy had wondered if they'd ever talk about it, and she looked around this evening and guessed that this setting had a lot to do with the conversation venturing even near the subject.

Then again, if Andy was honest, it seemed so long ago now, February Oh-seven, more than two years back. Sometimes Andy clean forgot about that late night, when they'd simultaneously caught themselves flirting, and the conversation had dried up into a long, honest pause. Andy had left the townhouse without another word said, and when Miranda had arrived at the office the next day, she'd allowed Andy to see her surprise: they'd never spoken about it, but Miranda clearly hadn't expected Andy to continue with her job. If Miranda had asked, Andy would've told her about that messy, stupidly prolonged break-up with Nate, and how Andy had felt that she needed at least one anchor in her life: her job.

And Andy had continued to wear pretty things, but as Miranda had noted, she'd ceased to project what was hidden by the clothes, at least, never at work. She'd also managed, more easily, to finalize her break-up with Nate. Some months later she'd met Gill, but that hadn't lasted either and oddly enough for many of the same reasons: Gill objected to Andy's hours and to her job in general. After Gill, Andy called long-term relationships too much work. She'd had a friend-with-benefits for a while, but she'd ended that, too, when she realized that he was becoming attached and possessive. Since then she'd made do with BoB, aka, her Battery-operated Boyfriend, because real boyfriends, of whatever variety, seemed all to be (in a word) irksome.

As for her job, Andy had come to like it, in part because she'd realized that it was pretty damn important. It was something she'd told the last four women who'd served as second assistants: "What we do goes way beyond secretarial. What we do makes Miranda's job possible. That's not an exaggeration: without us, she'd have no time to be La Priestly." The first of those four women had repeatedly shown that she hadn't gotten the message, and Andy had fired her without the slightest twinge of conscience. The next three had been told about that, in detail, and they'd lasted a good deal longer. Natalie had reached her six-month mark just last week. Andy had no doubt that Natalie would make a good first assistant and, more importantly, she'd pick the sort of woman who'd make a good second assistant before eventually replacing Natalie as first.

But Andy felt a twinge at that thought. It really was time for her to move on to another job, but letting go wasn't going to be easy or pleasant.

Andy finished dressing and stepped into her boots, and picked up the tarp. While rolling it, she looked up and found Miranda watching her.

"Okay?" Andy asked.

"I hardly ever think about that night," Miranda said.

"I was thinking that I forget about it, too," Andy said. She went to the packsaddle and put the tarp away. Back at the fire she picked up the pot and an LED headlamp. "I'm not changing the subject. I gotta go wash this and get more water, for tea."

Miranda nodded, and Andy walked off into the dark. She turned on the headlamp only when she reached the creek, and she rolled her eyes: there were raccoon tracks all along the bank where they'd washed the dishes earlier. The only good thing about those tracks amounted to an absence of large predators nearby. The bad thing about those tracks—

"Get out of it!" Miranda snapped. "Andrea? There's a thing fiddling with our... things. Get!"

Andy chortled and went back to camp to shoo the raccoon, and had to shoo two of the little bastards. Andy rummaged around in a bag and, with a flourish, produced a spray bottle. She gave it to Miranda.

"Vinegar. Just spritz it on everything, but don't soak any leather. Raccoons can't stand the stuff."

"Good," Miranda said, already spritzing away.

"It also chases pack-rats," Andy said while walking away. "They're way worse than raccoons. One tiny drop of pack-rat pee will make your eyes water worse than teargas."

"If you intend to stop me from doing this again, you're nigh on successful," Miranda muttered.

"Yeah, yeah."

Andy soon returned to camp and set the pot over the flames for the third time. Miranda still had hold of the spray bottle.

"You can put that away now," Andy said and sat on her blankets.

Miranda muttered a response and put the spray bottle back in the right bag. Andy noted that Miranda checked on the position of the shotgun (resting between their saddles) before she sat down.

"Raccoons aren't bears," Andy just had to say.

"No, but they reminded me that we're not alone out here," Miranda muttered. "At least there don't seem to be many bugs..."

"Like I said, this isn't Africa," Andy said, keeping her face straight with effort. Something that helped there was a subject switch: "Are we gonna talk about that night now?"

"I'd rather talk about the next day," Miranda said. "You came to work, and I think you know that that surprised me."

"At the time my only thought there was that I needed one solid thing to hang onto," Andy said. "My personal life was a fucking mess, and work... I was on my way to where I am now, to where I see crises as problems to solve, not as disasters. So yeah, I went to work because that was an anchor, and I became extra-professional because that's what helped me to keep that anchor. That's what I meant when I said that I quit being immature and idealistic, the latter especially. The idealist says that we should never have reached the place where we were flirting with each other. The realist simply says, 'Such is life.'"

"True," Miranda said with a wry smile. Then: "But I didn't sleep much that night, because I fully expected to find a resignation letter on my desk. If that had been the case, I'd have beaten myself up quite a bit, not least because my lawyers kept complimenting you and your handling of various things. The short version is that, in a professional capacity, I needed you, and if I'd done something to chase you off... Yes, I'd have hammered myself rather badly."

"But only for a while," Andy said while fixing the tea. "Until you remembered that lecture you gave me in Paris, about choices. And all the other things you taught me. The most important, I think, was that conversation with Nigel, where you had to bully him into being honest about what he wanted, bully him into waking up to the fact that you care deeply about him, and that what happened in Paris wasn't personal... That was another odd night."

"Yes, you didn't expect that invitation to dinner in my suite," Miranda said. "But some things are always best said before witnesses, especially when the person meant to hear those things is likely to doubt the truth behind what is said. Alone, Nigel would've probably effected a clever topic switch, and he'd have acted as if that whole Jacqueline Follet mess didn't matter."

"I got that, about halfway through," Andy said. She gave Miranda a mug and sat on her blankets again. "And now look at Nigel: he's still lead editor, Art, but he's also pretty much an editor-at-large, coming up with his own ideas for features... I think we could both talk about Nigel for hours."

"And we're supposed to be discussing other things," Miranda said, nodding. "If I thought about that night with any regularity, I'd have stripped off in the shadows over there somewhere."

"Ditto, but on your part, considerate or shy?" Andy asked.

"A little of both, I should think," Miranda said. "But I'd have been annoyed at myself. I generally don't allow myself to have unreasonable personal hang-ups. Being... freaked out by bugs, especially large ones, is somewhat reasonable because one cannot reason with bugs– they're not likely to listen when one asks them to respect one's personal space."

"True enough," Andy chortled.

"But you aren't a bug," Miranda said, her smile wry. "The way past any sort of hang-up about that night, would've been to talk about it, and by now that conversation would've been in the past by at least two years. And let's hypothesize: we had that conversation, I remembered as much, and tonight I would've asked whether you'd have preferred me to go off into the shadows."

"Thing is, that hypothesis..." Andy said. "We can have this conversation now, after I've worked for you for more than three years. That hypothetical conversation in February Oh-seven? You and I were not comfortable enough with each other for that conversation, and more to the point, I didn't have half the amount of maturity on board that I do now. If we'd had that conversation, I wouldn't be here now. We wouldn't be here."

"These days I have to be reminded of what you were like, a couple of years ago," Miranda said.

"That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in a long time," said Andy.

Miranda snorted a laugh and asked about Andy's mention, earlier, of nosebags for the horses. Andy nodded and got up, and she offered Miranda a hand, which she took. Andy hauled her to her feet, and ended up grinning when Miranda smacked a kiss on her cheek.

"What was that for?" Andy asked.

"You," Miranda said. Her expression turned to mischief, and she kissed Andy's cheek again. "But that one was for me."

"Work is gonna be boring," Andy giggled.

"Not for long, hmm?"

"Yeah, I really gotta look at another job. But let's not talk about that now?"

"Nosebags," Miranda agreed.

"Rule number one: never give horses dry feed in a nosebag," Andy said. "It's dry and dusty and they end up breathing it in. Bad, bad, bad."

The big pot was truly a general purpose article. Andy tossed out a little of the water in the pot, and measured out three large scoops of pre-mixed horse-feed directly into the water remaining. She mixed it up with her hands to a damp crumbly texture, and Miranda held each nosebag in turn while Andy scooped the damped feed out of the pot.

"They're stamping," Andy said of the horses. "They smelled their dinner. They get this for breakfast, too, first thing, at least ninety minutes before we get back on the trail."

"So it should be the first thing we do," Miranda said.

"Yeah," Andy said, nodding.

They had light from the LED lamp, and Andy demonstrated by attaching one nosebag to a horse's halter; Miranda did the other two.

"Now we stand here till they're done," Andy said. "I said earlier that they're our early warning system– they'll smell or hear a bear or something else that worries 'em. When they've got nosebags on they're nervous, because all they can hear is crunch-crunch-crunch, and all they can smell is their feed. So we stick around, and they're less nervous."

"You said we should picket them on the downwind side of the camp," Miranda said. "But you didn't say why."

"That way you get the best out of both their senses of smell and hearing," Andy said. "Here, the breeze can carry the scent of anything on that side of the camp, the far side. On this side, they can hear the approach of anything, and if it's a predator, they'll always approach a camp from..?"

"The downwind side," Miranda said. "Which is this side... And that thing will meet the horses first, not us."

"And the horses will make a lot of noise," Andy said. "Like I said, they're the early warning system. They'll give us the few seconds we need to grab the shotgun."

"From what Harry said, you refused that shotgun at first."

"A good fire and three country-savvy horses really are enough to keep bears and mountain lions away, or the horses will at least let you know it's time to keep feeding wood into the fire, or climb a tree. But wolves are another story entirely, because they sometimes carry rabies and when that disease is far gone, you get loners that'll walk right into a camp and bite anything that moves. Worse than that, if they've never or rarely met humans before, they go, 'What's this? Maybe we can eat it? Let's try,' and that's called prey-testing, and it's responsible for most wolf attacks in North America. When I was nine my parents and I arrived at a campsite to find it was closed because five wolves had prey-tested a twelve-year-old kid, and they hadn't tracked and shot the wolves yet. And out here... I haven't heard even distant howling yet, but Harry says there are wolves, and that's enough to say a big grateful Yes to a shotgun."

"Agreed," Miranda said. And: "I think the horses are finished with their dinners. Already."

"Wasn't much, just tick-over stuff meant to add to whatever grazing they get, and this is good grass."

They removed the nosebags, and led the horses to the creek to drink. After picketing them again, the nosebags and the big pot needed to be washed. Back in camp Andy added more wood to the fire, and this time, instead of sitting on her blankets, she got under them. Miranda took note of that, and the fact that Andy had jammed the top of one boot into the other. Andy didn't mention scorpions. She was sure Miranda had figured that out because she jammed her boots together, too.

"It's far too early to sleep," Miranda muttered.

"Just lie down and try it. You'll be surprised," Andy said and she smiled at a skyful of bright stars. "But first, look up."

"Oh..." said Miranda. "That's beautiful."

"Yeah," Andy said quietly. There was a small bright flash near the Big Dipper. "Didya see that?"

"Yes," Miranda chuckled. "I think I'll stay awake a while and watch for a few more of those."

"Same," Andy said, smiling.

She might've seen as many as six shooting stars before she fell asleep.

Andy's bladder woke her up in the morning. Once she'd taken care of that and a few other personal tasks, she poked the fire into proper flame, feeding it carefully so as not to overwhelm it. That handy big pot was set over the flames, and Andy left Miranda sleeping and went to check on the horses. All three were still lying down in the grey of dawn, and Andy left them to that, too.

Back in camp Andy stretched various achy muscles before turning her mind to the first tasks of the day. She measured grounds and water into a coffeepot, and buried its base in the coals of the fire. She used the poker to push coals up around the sides of the pot as well: they'd have coffee pretty soon. She got on with mixing the horse-feed next. After rousing and feeding the horses, and watering them, Andy got on with mixing biscuit dough, and she let it rest while she found two long green sticks. Once she'd stripped the leaves and bark off of those, she divided the dough in half, rolled each half into a sausage shape, and wrapped each one around the mid-section of a stick. She rested the ends of each stick on the rocks around the fire, and parked on her butt to take care of turning the sticks regularly, keeping both away from direct flame. She might've woken Miranda up to help with that, but it was still really early, around five a.m.

The birds were waking up now, and near the fire it was warm, but even three steps away it was bitter-cold. The sky should've still showed a few stars, but high wispy clouds had scudded in from the north. Andy turned the biscuit twists, and when she heard distant honking, she looked up in time to catch a long vee of geese arrowing south. When she looked down again, she found Miranda watching her sleepily.

"Hey," Andy said.

"Everything is stiff. Ouch," said Miranda, grimacing. "But the coffee smells very good."

"Biscuits, too, campfire-style," Andy said, raising a stick.

"I'll get up now," Miranda chuckled. She pushed her blankets off, and just as soon grabbed them back. "Jesus Christ..."

"Yeah, it's cold enough for frost," Andy chuckled. "But if you get up, you can come sit by the fire. And the coffee's just about ready."

Miranda sat up and hurried into her jacket. She also hurried into her boots and hurried off behind a bush. After that she went to the creek and washed her hands and face, and she brushed her teeth. When she got back to camp she asked about the horses.

"Fed, watered. While I'm busy with this, you can go run a brush over them, especially the saddle patches: make sure all the dried sweat is brushed out and the hair's all freed up."

"Where's the brush?" Miranda asked.

Andy told her where to find it, and Miranda walked off with the semi-stiff bristle brush. By the time she got back, Andy was pouring coffee and the biscuit twists were on tin plates. Andy dug out a box of honey sachets, and gave Miranda a couple of those.

"This is real honey?" Miranda asked.

"Oh yeah," Andy said and sat down. She tore open her sachets and blessed her biscuit twist with sticky streamers of liquid gold. "It was restauranteurs who got this idea rolling, cos honey in squeeze-bottles results in customers using as much as they want, which costs a helluva lot. But then the camping fanatics latched onto the sachets, and this company makes 'em specifically for campers. These little plastic sachet packets? Hundred percent biodegradable: we just bury 'em."

"I keep saying 'nifty,'" Miranda said and nibbled on a little biscuit and honey. "That's... I could have these every day."

"We'll probably have 'em for lunch, too."

"Oh good," said Miranda.

"We'll definitely have 'em for lunch," Andy chortled.

After breakfast they got moving. The camp was packed up and cleaned up, the packhorse was saddled and loaded up, and the other two horses were saddled up last. Andy got out the map and needed the headlamp to show Miranda their route: the sun had yet to rise.

"Like Harry said, we gotta get our heads set on thirty miles, which will take us... here. That's another waterside camp, this time a little creek-fed lake in the start of hill country."

"More trout?" Miranda said hopefully.

"Rainbows this time," Andy said, nodding. "Browns are nice, but rainbows..."

"Delicious," Miranda mumbled.

"Let's go," Andy said.

As she'd said yesterday, they walked the first mile or so on foot, and that helped to limber up stiff muscles. The horses didn't mind the slow pace, but were ready to pick it up as soon as their riders mounted. Even the packhorse trotted along with her head up, ears pricked: eager. Andy patted her mount's neck and in the growing light from the east, she checked the compass and noted a few landmarks. She also dug in a pocket and turned on her phone– the battery was full. Andy turned in the saddle, taking her weight on the left stirrup, and she caught a good shot of Miranda: sitting easy in leather, left hand holding the reins, right on her thigh, jacket collar turned up, slouch hat set to shade her eyes. Andy grinned and slowed her mount, giving Miranda the phone.

"Well, don't I look the part," Miranda chuckled and gave the phone back. "My girls will love that."

"Uh-huh," Andy said and turned her phone off and put it away. "I think Harry will, too. Okay if I send him a copy?"

"Certainly. I'll be writing him a thank you letter... And perhaps my girls might like to spend a bit of time at that ranch."

"They see that picture of you looking every bit the cow-puncher, just without the cows... I'm pretty sure they'll wanna come out here. It's called Big Sky Country, but it's also called God's Country, and not for nothing. Look at that view..."

The rising sun was painting the clouds and distant white-topped mountains with fire, and that was a view that couldn't be escaped. They were a part of it, and not apart from it, as they might've been in a car or train. With that view and a clearer look at the open country ahead, the miles and time fell behind them easily, with neither woman saying a word about various little aches here and there. But by noon, when they stepped out of leather along an unnamed creek (it wasn't even on the map, but it was right where Harry had said it would be), they both felt the last seventeen or so miles.

"I feel old," Miranda muttered, rubbing her butt. "And my ass is numb."

"Ditto," Andy chortled.

After leading them to water, they got the saddles off the horses and picketed them on good grass. Andy kicked a hollow into the sandy dirt of the creek bank and this time Miranda cut kindling from collected wood. She asked Andy to coach her through it, and she built the fire, feeding it slowly so it went from a blaze to a slower, hotter burn. Miranda asked about fish in the creek and seeing as Andy was busy with the biscuit dough, she told Miranda to have a look and see what was moving.

"I see fish, but they're not very big," Miranda said.

"Like eight, ten inches?" Andy asked.

"And less, yes."

"Brookies! And they're invaders so we can catch and eat as many of 'em as we want. Come and take over here."

"All right," Miranda said. "And do those fish have a name other than 'brookies'?"

"Yeah. Brook trout," Andy said, already busy with the fly rod.

"More trout?" Miranda said, winding biscuit dough around a stick. "Do I press this on?"

"Yeah. Just get it an even thickness," Andy said while contemplating the contents of a fly box. "Okay, I'm gonna go with a little deer-hair bomber here, and see..."

The rod was long, not really suited to small stream fishing, and Andy hadn't done much fishing in swift-water of any variety. She didn't cast so much as flick and allowed the fly to drift to wherever the fish were riding the current. She lost several strikes, but the little trout were game and kept biting, and she landed four all around ten inches. Within a half-hour of her last catch, they had coffee and were nibbling on fried trout and campfire biscuits.

"You think we came seventeen miles?" Miranda said.

"Going by the map scale, yes," Andy said. "That means we've got around twelve miles to our overnight camp. We've crossed one corner of that big plain we saw from the hilltop yesterday, and now we're heading toward hill country. Tomorrow we'll backtrack along that creek that's fed by the lake we'll camp beside tonight, then cross the creek, and follow a fork. It'll be slower going, but we don't have as far to go tomorrow, just twenty-three miles. We should reach Zach's place by sundown. If we don't, if it's still dark, we'll make camp and get going at dawn, and we'll definitely get to his place by around seven a.m Wednesday morning."

"And then we get a car," Miranda said.

"Right," Andy said around a mouthful. She swallowed it, and added: "I'm hoping we'll get told that the FAA's okayed flying again. That'll mean that we can drive to Eureka and get a charter to Glacier Airport, or Missoula, and commercial flights from there."

"Or," said Miranda. "We could charter a chopper to get us from Two Forks to the nearest airport serving commercial flights."

"Or that," Andy said wryly. "But that's gonna cost a lot."

"I really don't care," said Miranda.

"Okay," Andy said. And: "So whadya think of brook trout?"

"If I wasn't familiar with the little flavor-bombs that are anchovies, I'd wonder how such a small fish packs so much flavor. All we added to those little fish was salt and pepper."

"Anything more woulda wrecked them," Andy said.

"I agree wholeheartedly," Miranda said.

With their camp packed up, they rode out again and as Andy had said, they were heading towards the hills, but as yet those were just a hazy loom in the distance. An hour or so outside their noon camp they spotted their first bear, perhaps sixty yards off, ambling along on a course forty-five degrees to Andy's and Miranda's. They halted their horses and watched him a while, and he paused, too, returning the favor by standing on his hind legs. That distance of sixty-or-so yards didn't seem enough, suddenly.

"Good God..." Miranda mumbled.

"Yeah, that's one big motherfucker," Andy said and gulped. "I think moving on is a good idea, huh?"

"As long as moving on is in the general direction of away, yes," Miranda said.

Perhaps sensing the humans' nervousness, the horses needed little urging and broke willingly into a trot. For the next hour Andy kept her eyes peeled, as did Miranda. They spotted another bear heading generally west, and it was much further off.

"There's another brown lump," Andy pointed out a third bear, a half-hour later. The bear wasn't quite as far off. "Is he limping?"

"Or digging?" Miranda said, standing in her stirrups. "He doesn't seem to be moving forward, at any rate."

"Maybe he found a groundhog or something," Andy said. She was about to look away when the bear reared up, clearly looking their way. "Holy fuck. He's even bigger than that other one."

"I think we should replace that red shell with a black one," Miranda said quite seriously.

Andy wrapped the reins around the pommel of her saddle, and wordlessly took the shotgun from its boot. She broke it open and took out the buckshot shell and switched it for a slug.

"Done," she said as she homed the gun in the boot.

"Right," said Miranda. "And give me another two of those slugs, please."

Andy dug in a saddlebag and handed over two black shells, and put another two in her jacket pocket. She looked over her shoulder.

"That bear's still watching us."

"How far is it to our campsite?"

"From here, about eight miles."

"I say we keep going at this pace for at least another three," Miranda said. "And hopefully we don't see any more bears."

"Hopefully," Andy agreed.

And she tried not to think various thoughts along the lines of a bear that size seeing herself and Miranda both as not much more than a snack– after all, together they didn't weigh even half of a small cow elk. The trouble with trying not to think about certain things was that one tended not to think of much else. Andy had seen bears before, but most of them had been black bears and they'd all run away rather than stick around and observe the humans. Andy looked back a second time and by now the bear had dropped back to all-fours. He was too far off now to see distinctly: he was just a brown lump, and Andy hoped that that particular brown lump was continuing westward, also known as the direction of away.

They saw one more bear, smaller than the rest, and he also stood up to get a look at the humans, but not for long: he dropped and ran.

"That's a bear who knows what we are," Andy said. "And he's small enough, young enough to still be frightened, even if we're far off."

"So he's had some sort of unhappy contact with humans," Miranda said.

"Or he had a mamma who taught him that humans are bad news... But shit, what the hell is this, Bear Highway One?"

"It seems so. We have to change course soon, don't we?" Miranda asked.

"Yeah, there's a creek at the bottom of that pointy hill there, and we follow it southwest, and then there's a tributary brook that rushes down a steep little draw, and we follow that, up. That brook is fed by the lake where we'll camp."

Another ninety minutes worth of riding brought them to the draw in question and they walked their mounts up the slope, with Andy and the packhorse bringing up the rear. When she made it to the top she found Miranda waiting for her on a small plateau, called a bench hereabouts, and Andy said to keep following the brook. Its course wound along a rocky crease in another hillside, one that sloped a lot more gently than the one they'd just climbed.

Andy looked around and noted that the vegetation was changing. There was mountain mahogany in amongst Russian olive, chokecherry, serviceberry, mountain-spray, and stunted juniper, and an elm or two stood tall and proud with Douglas-fir for company. While the ubiquitous cottonwood was present along the brook, it shared space now with willows. Behind them lay a view of the plain and its butte, and ahead the view was abbreviated by the hill they were climbing.

They reached another bench, one much bigger and relatively open barring the occasional cottonwood, elm, and willow along the brook. At their horses' feet, the sagebrush and saltbush had been changed for grasses and sedges, and phorbs like milkweed and clover.

"The horses got good grazing last night," Andy said. "But tonight they're gonna have a proper mustang's feast. All this stuff we're riding over is why wild horses do so well in this state. This good graze is also a part of the reason their numbers have to be thinned."

"I hate the idea of horses being rounded up with helicopters and kept indefinitely in pens," Miranda said.

"Huh. That's the sentiment that stopped them from being properly managed in the first place. That sentiment is the first reason they have to be thinned out now."

"I suppose so."

"Suppose?" Andy said, annoyed. "Hey, hold up."

Miranda halted her horse and Andy drew rein when they were knee-to-knee.

"'I suppose so' is the sulky response of every unrealistic bunny-hugger I ever met," Andy said. "Don't tell me you're a fur-wearing bunny-hugger. I mean, that's the worst kind."

"I'm not any sort of bunny-hugger, Andrea," Miranda said evenly. "Why am I getting a lecture?"

"Because you've got kids, that's why," Andy said. "And they might be the only two kids in their class, in their whole year at Dalton, who end up saying that mustangs get rounded up and kept like cattle in feedlots because we humans are sentimental fools. Or like you, they could say, 'I suppose so.' People who say 'I suppose you're right' don't ever really agree, do they?"

Miranda wordlessly shook her head, blinking at Andy, who rubbed at the back of her neck.

"My parents and I come to places like this every year for a reason," Andy said. "You don't really see places like this, and everything that lives in them, as important, until you let it all get... get in your face and under your skin. You can't ride through this country and think 'I suppose so' about something like mustangs which, if their numbers aren't kept in check, will destroy all of this. But you keep their numbers right, and then they're a part of it for good. Which is better?"

"The latter, clearly," Miranda said.

"You tell your girls that," Andy said. "If you can get them to understand about mustangs, a real hot-button issue, then they're all set to come here and look at other problems in the right way. You tell 'em."

"All right," Miranda said quietly.

"Thanks," Andy said.

She nudged her horse's ribs and he moved out, and Miranda rode alongside.

"I like passionate you," Miranda said. "I've never met her before."

"I'm a lot more knowledgeable about fashion stuff, but no, I'm not passionate about it," Andy said.

"How many pictures have you managed to get on your phone so far?"

"Maybe fifteen, sixteen. Real good camera on my phone."

"Mine, too, and I've gotten a few," Miranda said. "You might want to do a write-up of this... jaunt. I'm pretty sure that the people at The Trail will be very interested in it. And you might be interested in a job there."

The Trail was Elias-Clarke's outdoorsy magazine and by sales it wobbled between the rank of third or fourth most popular, season-dependent. Andy was a subscriber, as were her parents.

"I've been reading that mag since I was five years old," Andy blurted.

"Even better," Miranda said with a smirk. "Think about it, hmm?"

"Yeah," Andy said, already thinking about it.

Another half-hour's riding brought them to their evening campsite, and for a while Andy and Miranda sat their horses, staring. The lake wasn't very big, with only one gravelly stretch of shoreline. Rocks, some of them huge, bounded the rest of the water, and trees were sparse except for the clump of cottonwoods and elms near the gravel stretch. The little lake was fed by three separate tumbles of water, and Harry had told Andy that those were all three spring-fed. One of the little waterfalls was easily reached from the campsite– no more than a two-minute walk, and Harry had promised that that water tasted so good, almost sweet, that she and Miranda might choose to forego tea or coffee.

Andy dug in a pocket and took out her phone, and Miranda did the same. They took a couple of pictures each before making sure to turn those phones off, to save the batteries. Minutes later they got down to the work of setting up camp.

With more room and more time to practice this late afternoon, Andy assembled the fly rod but didn't attach a tippet or fly to the leader, and she worked on her cast. She eventually got the hang of the two-and-ten, two-and-ten action needed to get the line out forty and more feet, and even the bare leader-end attracted a few ripples: inquisitive fish.

"You wanna try?" Andy asked Miranda.

"Yes, actually," Miranda said with a laugh.

Andy showed Miranda the basics of pulling the line off the reel to free it up, so that it sailed through the rod's eyelets at the end of the cast. In other types of fishing the weight of the lure took the line out, but in fly-fishing the fly lure was practically weightless, and the line itself was impelled forward by the whipping action of the rod. They focused on the basic cast, just getting whatever length of line had been freed off the reel to sail out on the ten-o'clock part of the cast.

"Now you hold the line to the rod with your right forefinger," Andy said. "Strip it in by pulling the line with your left hand. Now do that again, and simultaneously move your right and the rod away—see how you pull a lot of line in that way? When you're fighting the fish, a lot of the give and take is with your hands, like that. When he's all the way at the end of the line, you can strip the line in by hand, or reel a little and use the rod-tip to make the line tight and loose. Raise it and lower it, and remember that the tippet will break if you pull too much and he's swimming in the wrong direction."

"I think you should catch our dinner before I try to catch a fish," Miranda said. "I can let mine go, if I manage it, right?"

"Yeah, good ol' catch'n'release," Andy said. "If we catch a cutthroat or bull trout, and there might be a few in here, we have to let it go anyway, cos they're both threatened species. Ironically, it's the rainbow trout in this small lake that are the cutthroat's and bull's biggest threat."

"So we can catch as many rainbows as we like?"

"As many as we can eat, yes. I think we'll be having fish for breakfast, too."

"I'll never say No to that," said Miranda.

With a tippet and fly on the line, Andy got two bites within the space of three minutes, but both fish spat out the fly before she could set the hook. She told Miranda that the fish here were wilier, and probably because the lake water was clear as glass. She walked along the shore and found a rock where a distant tree cast a shadow that would mask her own, and she tried again. This time the fish bit, Andy struck, and then the fight was on.

"It's big," Andy said, letting the line pay off the reel. "I'm gonna be running around."

"I'll stay out of the way until you ask for the net," Miranda said.

Andy nodded and jumped off the rock before the line paid to its end. Once on the gravel shore, she started to fight the fish properly, and that ended up being a much longer battle than the one last night. After nearly ten minutes Andy was sweating, partly from exertion, and partly because of the focus required to mind the tension on the gossamer-thin tippet. She thought that she was getting the better of the fish, but then he swam a fast zigzag, and Andy made a half-step in the wrong direction: the line went tight and then abruptly limp: the tippet had snapped. Before Andy had chance to comment, out on the lake a gleaming jewel-pink missile shot out of the water, and reentered it with a triumphant splash.

"Holy shit..." she breathed. And to Miranda, "He had to be like fifteen pounds. If we'd landed him, I woulda let him go."

"And people say fishing is boring?" Miranda mumbled.

"Some kinds of fishing is boring," Andy said. "But not fly-fishing... Okay. Let's try again, and hope that all his charging around in there didn't spook the rest of the fishes into hiding for the night."

"That happens?" Miranda asked.

"Yeah, but given it's fall and the bugs are scarcer than they were even last week, we might get lucky. Wet fly this time, a streamer. This one sinks a bit and mimics a little fish."

When Andy got that fly out on the water, she really didn't have any hope of a bite, but she got one, and lost it. She tried again, this time stripping the line in fast and slow, with little twitches to trick the trout into thinking there was an injured bait-fish in their lake. The next bite she managed to set the hook. She could feel that the fish wasn't as big as the previous monster rainbow.

"But it's not a minnow," she said, walking the shore.

She managed to land that fish and it got a whack on the head. It was about five pounds or a little less, certainly big enough for dinner. The only problem now amounted to where to gut it, and preferably nowhere near camp.

"Umm..." Andy said, looking around. "Okay. I'm gonna go gut this thing in that brook we followed to get here. It's fast enough to carry everything away, scent included."

Miranda followed with the shotgun, and Andy got her gutting job done as quickly as possible. When they got back to camp, Miranda breaded the fish, and promptly picked up the fly rod. Andy grinned and slung the shotgun from a shoulder.

"Two-and-ten," Miranda muttered while casting. And: "Oh! I did it. What's that? Forty feet?"

"No, longer, about fifty, good cast," Andy chuckled.

Andy coached Miranda on bringing the line in twitch-by-pull, to mimic an injured fish's movement in water, and they watched for the occasional ripple. Andy saw the line budge.

"Strike it in," she said.

Miranda gave the line a small jerk and it went taut, and fish on. Andy coached and Miranda did all the work, taking direction well, and Andy let up when she saw that Miranda had the hang of it. She got out her phone and took a couple of pictures, and she left the phone on this time. Miranda's very first fish was a rainbow trout that had to weigh six pounds, and Andy got a photographic record of the fact, and a shot or two of Miranda swimming the fish before releasing it.

"Oddly enough, I think that was the best part," Miranda said and straightened up, wiping her hands on her pants. "But I can't believe I actually caught him..."

"You looked pretty good catching him," Andy said and handed over her phone.

Miranda went through the pictures, smiling, almost bashful.

"I think I'm starting to understand why some people are very philosophical about fishing," Miranda said. "Especially when it involves releasing the fish."

"Yeah, the catch'n'release side of things is... It's a whole ethos unto itself. Some people never keep their fish."

"But I like eating them," Miranda muttered, frowning.

"Uh-huh," Andy said. "But part of the philosophy behind the idea is acknowledging that the fight was fair and you could eat the fish, and it would be really good, but you let him go anyway."

"Apart from fish that are too small, that idea really didn't make sense until a few minutes ago," Miranda said. "Like your fish that got away, he was beautiful. I didn't want him to die."

"Keeping is killing," Andy said. "And back in NYC you can eat farmed trout. So if you do take up fly-fishing, you need never keep what you catch."

"But out here it hardly seems fair that we kill your catches, and I get to send mine off free as... fishes."

"It is what it is," Andy said with a shrug. "I've been catching and releasing fish since I was about as high as your knee, and I've also been eating one or two for just as long. I've let way more go than I've kept, and that is the whole point."

"Then I might keep my next one—might," Miranda said.

"You'll know when you catch him," Andy said. "Let's go cook that other one. We'll use a couple of those spuds, too, huh?"

"Sounds good," Miranda agreed.

After a soak in salted water, ridiculously thin slices of potato went into the pan first, and the chips produced were a snack while they waited for the fish to fry. Tonight they didn't sit around after dinner but went straight out to feed and water the horses, and afterwards they set off to see to the nosebags and dishes and dispose of the trout remains in that brook some way from camp. Now that it was full dark, "Better safe than sorry" was something both women kept muttering. After they'd had a wash, they went together to get fresh water from the little waterfall, and Andy made sure that the big pot was full.

"We can put the lid on it and I'll use it to fill the coffeepot and mix up the biscuit dough and horse-feed in the morning."

"You should wake me tomorrow," Miranda said while they walked back, and the shotgun was in her hands, not slung from her shoulder. "Shine the lamp there... Oh. I'm sure bears don't have horns."

"Antlers," Andy corrected with a chuckle. "Hiya, Mister Deer."

'Mister Deer' was about fifty yards off. He blinked at the humans and moseyed off at a relaxed pace.

"If there's a bear around, that deer can't smell it or hear it," Andy said.

"Still—"

"Better safe than sorry," Andy chorused with Miranda.

In camp, they eventually settled under blankets with mugs of tea. Miranda had wanted to put a sachet of honey in hers, and Andy had said she shouldn't unless she intended to wash the sweet-smelling mug afterwards.

"No honey," said Miranda. She paused and turned her head a little. "Is that an owl?"

"Yeah, a who-whooo kinda owl, probably Great Horned... And there's an answer, so that's a pair talking to each other. We get those everywhere in the US, wherever there are woods, even in city parks. There are a couple pairs that nest in Central Park."

"How do they hear each other over traffic?" Miranda said.

"I dunno," Andy said. "But considering owls have the best hearing out of all birds, I wouldn't like to be an owl in a big city... Hear that? That's a poorwill. Back East we've got their cousins, whippoorwills."

"I used to listen out for those when I was a girl," Miranda said. "There was a field close to where I lived, and a dirt track running next to it, with a lone street lamp—put there for who-knows-what reason. Those silly birds would sit there in the pool of light, waiting for bugs, and you could walk right up to them."

"They end up run over by cars, doing that sitting in the light thing," Andy said, nodding. "Not the brightest birdies, like you said."

"No... What's that?" Miranda said of a ringing, almost horn-like sound.

"Bull elk," Andy said. "The rut's starting, so they're bugling to tell the ladies that they're studly, and to keep other males out of their territory and away from their girlfriends. He's way off, too, or he'd be another worry. It's the only time bull elk are guaranteed dangerous. The cows are always dangerous... And that's a wolf."

"How far off?" Miranda asked.

Andy listened carefully and the howl came again.

"Also a long way, as in miles. The breeze is bringing that howl here... There's coyotes yipping out there, too, and they're pretty close. Hear 'em?"

"Yes, and you seem pleased about that."

"They keep quiet if they know bigger predators are nearby," Andy said.

"For once, I think it'll be good to fall asleep to a cacophony," Miranda drawled.

"Great minds," Andy chortled.

When Andy woke the next morning, dark before dawn, she didn't leave Miranda to sleep, and Andy stirred up the fire before they started moving around camp. When they went to check on the horses none of them were lying down, but they were grazing occasionally. Whenever they'd cropped a mouthful, they raised their heads while they chewed, ears twitching this way and that.

"They're nervous about something," Andy said quite loudly. "You don't keep your voice down. Talk loudly. Sound carries out here, 'specially when there's no breeze, all still like it is now. Nothing else in this place sounds like human voices, and usually that's enough to warn things away... Usually. I'd give quite a lot for a battery-powered stereo right now and some rock'n'roll. Hell, even some metal."

"You realize I'll now forever think of heavy metal as a bear-deterrent," Miranda muttered.

"Say it out loud and people will look at you funny."

"But when would I have cause to discuss heavy metal?"

"Point," Andy drawled. "Let's get these horses fed and watered, then we'll go get some of that coffee."

"I don't think fish for breakfast is a good idea," Miranda said.

"Neither do I," Andy muttered.

But like the horses, they had to have something for breakfast, and that ended up being biscuits again, but this morning they forwent the honey. Both women were skittish, and both had their eyes wide open, looking around, both occasionally cursing the slow light. They felt better when the birds began to chirp, and better still for getting all traces of their own breakfast and the horses' washed away. Andy advocated that they not leave camp before sunrise today, and Miranda agreed with a nod. They both went out to take turns with the brush, and the horses each got a full grooming– the women even worked wind-tangles out of manes and tails.

As it had been yesterday, sunrise was a rush of additional brightness, and it was spectacular. Andy looked around and smiled.

"Lovely," Miranda said quietly.

"Yeah. And now we should hustle," Andy said. "I say we get all four canteens filled with that amazing water."

"That gets my vote," Miranda agreed. She gestured at the horses. "They seem less nervous."

"Yeah, and it's not just because we're around," Andy said. She licked her finger and held it this way and that. "Typical morning breeze, coming up-slope. If there's anything down there, these three ponies don't think it's scary."

They loosed the horses' halter reins and kicked the picket pins free, and they led the animals right into their campsite and branch-hitched them while they were saddled.

"I'm going to get that water," Miranda said and picked up the big pot.

"Keep your eyes peeled, okay?" Andy said.

"I will."

Andy continued to work out a balanced load for the packhorse, working quickly but carefully. As she started to lash the horse-feed sack into place, all three horses turned their heads toward the lake, and Andy had heard something, too.

"Andy?"

Miranda had never called her 'Andy' before.

Andy snatched up the shotgun and even while she walked, fast but carefully, she broke it open and checked the loads.

Once out on the gravel, Andy's steps almost faltered. Miranda was halfway back to camp, standing dead-still, and no more than ten yards from her was a very large bear. Just one look at it told Andy the worst story possible. There was a horrible gash over its ribs and shreds of skin and flesh hung from it. When the bear took a step that step was a limp. That bear had been in a fight and had lost, and it was probably really hungry, and hurting, and Miranda was easy prey.

"Lean and put down the pot, slowly," Andy said calmly, still walking forward, telling herself that above all she had to remain in control here. When Miranda had put down the pot, Andy said, "Now drop to your knees, and lie flat, arms over your head, and don't move."

Miranda did as she was told and the bear limped another step towards her. This time he gave a snorting huff, and raked at the gravel with the paw of his injured front leg. By now Andy was just five or so yards from Miranda. The bear swung his head Andy's way, he bared his teeth and gave a short roar, raking at the gravel again, and everything about him now said that he was going to attempt a charge, injuries or no injuries.

"Sonuvabitch..." Andy said and aimed the shotgun.

The first slug smashed into that spot where his great neck met the shoulder of his injured leg, and he was knocked a little off-balance. He roared and tried to take a step and his leg gave out. The second slug hit him in the same shoulder and probably broke the bone. While the bear tried to get to his feet, Andy ignored the pain in her recoil-bruised shoulder and broke the gun open. The light, empty shells bucked out and Andy dropped in two more, snapped the gun shut, and took three steps before aiming at a spot between the bear's shoulders, just below the big hump of muscle, angled for his spine. The slug hit, and the bear groaned and was still.

"Stay down," Andy told Miranda.

Andy skirted the bear and the fourth slug went in behind the bear's head. She fished in her jacket pocket for another two slugs. Only when they were loaded in the gun did Andy skirt the bear again, and she reached down and gripped Miranda's shoulder.

"Pretty sure he's dead. He's not breathing, anyhow."

Miranda raised her head and slowly got to her knees. Eyes locked on the dead bear, she crawled backwards a little before sitting back on the gravel, breathing hard.

"So close at the end, I could've touched him," she said shakily.

"Uh-huh," Andy said and took a knee before she parked on her butt. She rubbed at her shoulder and looked at the dead bear, and shook her head. "I think he was that one yesterday that looked like he was digging or limping—sure is big enough."

"But we saw him eight or nine miles from here," Miranda said.

"Scary shit, yeah," Andy muttered. "Any behaviorist would say he tracked us cos he was hurt and he knew that humans are easy prey."

"So he'd attacked people before."

"Looks that way."

Andy dragged her eyes away from the bear and looked at Miranda. She was trembling and hugging herself, eyes still locked on the bear. Andy tugged on her sleeve and Miranda shifted and huddled into a hug, arms around Andy's middle like a wiry vice.

"We're okay," Andy said quietly, rocking her. "And you were so smart, calling me 'Andy.' Got a fucking grizzly bear practically in your face and you had the presence of mind to do that? Wow. I'm really proud of you."

"Look who's talking," Miranda muttered. "All I did was freeze—"

"No, you did everything right. If you hadn't gotten my attention, that bear woulda probably smacked you, killed you with hardly a sound, and he'd have come looking for me. Injured bears take out any threat. I wasn't even a hundred yards away, and the breeze was blowing my scent right at him, so you bet on it: he'd have come after me next. But he didn't, and we're okay."

Miranda nodded against Andy's neck and shifted a little. Andy let her go, but Miranda didn't go far, taking just the little space back needed to look Andy in the eye.

"Thank you," Miranda murmured.

"That's all right. You'd have handled it and done the same for me," Andy said, certain.

Miranda frowned slightly and after a pause she gave a single nod.

"Right," Andy said. "I mean, Miranda Priestly add a shotgun? That's a lotta bearskin rugs."

Miranda snorted a laugh and hugged Andy's neck, kissing her cheek.

"Was that one for you or me?"

"You," Miranda said. "The sentiment 'I could kiss you' has never quite had as much meaning before."

Andy's heart had eased off its adrenaline-fed hammering, but it kicked up a few beats again.

"I felt that," Miranda said quietly.

Andy nodded and nuzzled at Miranda's cheek. She wanted that kiss, rather abruptly, and that probably had a little to do with what had happened less than ten minutes ago, but there was a fondness in her for Miranda that went back a lot further than that. She kissed the corner of Miranda's mouth, an invitation, and she let Miranda make the little shift necessary for the first press. Andy let her in and felt Miranda smile before the kiss deepened, and they only parted when breathing became a little difficult. Miranda rested their foreheads together and kneaded the nape of Andy's neck. They didn't say anything for a while, and Andy's mind was a small battle-zone: thoughts of Miranda and many wishes for more kisses fought against everything she knew about getting away from that dead bear.

"We gotta go," Andy said. "He's all bloody and something's gonna come see about that."

"Damn you, bear," Miranda muttered.

"Hey, we mightn't have kissed without him."

"My apologies, bear," Miranda drawled.

Andy laughed and got up and helped Miranda to her feet. They hugged, close and tight, and were about to part when they heard a shout.

"Someone heard the shots," Andy said. She stepped away from Miranda and cupped her hands around her mouth: "Here! There's a bench up the hill!"

"Comin' your way!" came back.

"Who do you think it is?" Miranda said.

"Sounds local, so hopefully someone from Fish and Game," Andy said. She took out her phone and turned it on. "Better take a picture or two, seeing as I'll be writing about it... Anyhow, bear policy here is that if you kill one in self-defense, you gotta take the hide with paws and claws attached, and the skull, to the nearest Fish and Game office."

"Oh. Why?"

"They take measurements of the skull and work out the bear's age and gender. The hide they tan and sell, maybe mounted onto a cast of the skull. Even if you shoot the damn thing in self-defense, you shot it without buying a ticket, a hunting license, so the hide kinda pays them back for that."

"That's fair enough," Miranda said and looked at the bear. "But his hide's a mess."

"Never mind that. Skinning him out would waste time, and we've already lost time," Andy muttered.

"Well, except for that lovely minute or so..." Miranda said.

"I want a lot more of those lovely minutes," Andy stated.

"Oh good," said Miranda.

Not much later, three riders sat their horses, staring at the dead bear. One of the men wore a uniform shirt, so he was either a district Fish and Game warden or a Forest Service officer. Given the tracking antenna attached to a packsaddle on a mule, the other two men were probably biologists or researchers. When the guy in uniform identified himself as a warden and asked for a report, Andy gave it matter-of-fact. Before any of the men could comment, she asked if they knew if the FAA had allowed aircraft to quit sitting in hangars and on aprons.

"Not yet, but word is they'll be clearing flights from noon today, or five p.m, latest," one of the biologist/researcher guys said. And: "Don't tell me you two are trekking cross-country just cos you can't fly."

"We most certainly are," Miranda said. "We live in New York, and my twin daughters' birthday is on Saturday."

"Ma'am, I sure get that," said the warden.

"How many have you got?" Miranda asked.

"Three, none older'n twelve. If I was you, oh yeah, I'd be ridin' hell-bent for leather, too."

"And we should get going," Andy said. "But what about that bear? If we leave him here, he'll poison the lake."

"We'll handle him," the warden said. "We'll haul him down the hill, away from the water, measure him up for DFG Records... Not much point in skinnin' him."

"Yeah, big hole over his ribs. Probably got other big holes in that hide, too," Andy said. "And I put four slugs into him."

"We heard 'em," the warden said.

He stepped down from the saddle and approached the bear carcass. He gave it a kick, just to be sure (Andy mentally called him a smart man), and he wrestled a massive front paw flat and looked at it.

"This was one big bastard..."

"A bear bigger than him fucked him up, though," Andy said.

"Which is a scary perspective," said the other biologist/researcher guy.

"Ain't it just?" the warden muttered. He took out his knife and worked at two claws, and when done he got a pair of Ziploc bags from their packsaddle. He put the claws in the bags and gave one each to Miranda and Andy. While writing on a notepad, he said, "There's a DFG office in Two Forks, it's near the west end of Main Street—just ask, and someone will point the way. You give... this to anyone in that office, and they'll sort out your paperwork to transport those claws. When you get back to New York, just find any taxidermist, and they'll clean 'em up. You should keep 'em. The right folks around here will tell you that's big medicine: protection and good health, and it means more cos you two faced this bear. It's not somethin' you bought. So keep 'em, even if it's just for the memories."

"I doubt I'll ever forget," Miranda said quietly.

"No, ma'am," the warden said, looking at the bear. "He's too goddamn big to forget."

When Andy and Miranda rode away, the three men were still trying to figure out the best way to rope the bear carcass to drag it away from the lake. Andy looked over her shoulder for a while then turned eyes-front.

"I don't wanna see him get dragged around," she muttered.

"I know just how you feel," Miranda said. "The good side of it all? He was suffering, and now he's not."

"I keep thinking the same thing," Andy said.

They rode back down the slope to the creek they'd followed yesterday, around the foot of that pointy hill, and Andy got out the map. She and Miranda rode knee-to-knee, each holding a side of the map, both looking at the route they'd take today. When Andy had put away the map, she leaned over and dotted a little kiss on Miranda's cheek.

"We might be flying home tonight."

"We might," Miranda said. "But we'll come back sometime."

"Even after the bear?" Andy asked, surprised.

"Perhaps... Perhaps because of him," Miranda said. "You convinced me that I did a good job, too, and so yes, I still want to bring my girls out here... And anyway, the statistics are probably completely in our favor now. Meeting with a bear, like that, twice? Not likely."

"True enough," Andy said with a nod.

Even with their late start, they made good distance before lunch, more than fifteen miles. Two Forks lay less than ten miles away, and their afternoon ride could be taken at a more leisurely pace, or they could take a longer break for lunch. They decided on the leisurely ride because they'd come out of that branch of hill country and the views had opened up again.

No trout for lunch today. They had those biscuit twists on sticks again, but this time Andy mixed a few sachets of honey into the dough. She ended up cussing herself for not thinking of that until now, because the end results were so damn good. So far they hadn't touched the canned supplies that Harry had packed for them, and Andy dug around in that bag and produced a can of peach halves.

"We were kinda lazy with the cooking," Andy said.

"Mmm." Miranda swallowed a mouthful, and said, "But I think that's the sort of thing best planned beforehand."

"It is, yeah," Andy said. "You work out what's gonna be available that's fresh, like fish or rabbit, for each day. Then you add to that on paper and figure out what you have to take along to make meals filling and nutritious. After that, you stick to the menu... Lemme go bury this can."

Andy made sure to bury the tin can at least a foot deep, where it would rust away to nothing and wouldn't be likely to hurt anything, except perhaps a zealously burrowing gopher. When she returned to the campfire, Miranda was standing with a mug of coffee, her shoulder against a tree, looking at the creek they'd followed. By now it was a small river, fed as it was by several tributaries. Andy took a stealth picture and turned her phone off again. The battery was halfway used up, but by nightfall she'd be able to charge it.

Andy walked over to Miranda and confidently claimed a kiss, something she'd been thinking about on and off since that morning. Miranda's empty tin mug ended up clanging as it fell on a tree-root. Acknowledgment of that little event was the last thought Andy gave to the outside world for a while, not least because Miranda was really good at kissing. She also wasn't shy: she'd stolen a hand inside Andy's jacket and had palmed her breast, and her other hand was full of Andy's right ass-cheek. All of that was wonderful, but also somewhat problematic: it hadn't been as big as the last one they'd encountered, and nothing like as close, but they'd seen a bear less than an hour before they'd stopped for lunch.

"We keep this up and we might get an ursine surprise," Andy muttered.

"Would that species then be renamed ursus interruptus?" Miranda drawled.

"If he didn't chew on us, maybe," Andy giggled. "And we gotta get packed up here."

Miranda muttered agreement and looked grumpy about it, and promptly stole another kiss from Andy, albeit it a quick one.

When they got back in the saddle they also turned on their phones. Two Forks was a small town but it had cellular coverage, and eight miles out of the place both women were sure that they'd start to get a signal. Having their phones on and left on made for more picture-taking. They started to see more wildlife, like deer and a small herd of elk; they also spotted distant bison.

"I think we've finally moved off of Bear Highway One," Andy said.

"Given those mildly curious deer over there, I think you're right," Miranda said. She looked at Andy, and said, "Something I'm curious about is you and me."

"I think we should give it a chance," Andy said without hesitation. "Might not work out, but I'd rather not be asking myself, in twenty years or so, if it coulda worked."

"I'm that much older," Miranda noted.

"But so am I," Andy said. "After today, we're both older, in a way that few other people can understand... You never forget something like that bear and making a stand against him. I don't wanna find myself thinking about it, and have to explain to someone who'll never get it."

Miranda's answer was a nod and they were silent a while, riding easy in the saddle under a blue sky wisped-over with crisp white mare's tail clouds. There was a scent of snow in the air, coming clearly over the other scents of bruised sagebrush and the clean, sweet smell of drying fall grass.

"I'd not want to come back here without you," Miranda said quietly. "And there's more to it than that, of course. For starters, you don't want to try a relationship on for size just because of who I am."

"Right, I'm not just about every older eligible bachelor in New York State," Andy said wryly.

"And you're a lot prettier than any of them," Miranda quipped. "But I have to say, even though we ended up flirting a couple of years ago, I thought you were straight as an arrow."

"You're the only woman I've ever been attracted to," Andy said with a little shrug. "I talked to my mom about that once, and in her opinion the average brick wall would be attracted to you."

"I don't know so much about that," Miranda said, amused. "But what do you think your parents will say about it?"

"After this?" Andy said, broadly gesturing at the landscape. "Good things. That's what they'll say. But I'm not a kid anymore, Miranda, and I have you to thank for a lot of that. Neither of my parents would argue that point."

"So that leaves my girls," Miranda said. After a pause: "They like you enough that I'll have to couch news of your resignation in assurances along the lines of, 'But she's not going anywhere.'"

"Now they're older, they're less bratty than they used to be."

"Without a sulky husband to contend with, I've had more time for them," Miranda said. "It took Stephen's exit for me to realize just how much time he demanded of me... The bottom line there is that I shouldn't have married him. We had very little in common. You and I, on the other hand..."

"Yeah," Andy said, thinking of a long list of gradually discovered shared interests. Just a couple of weeks ago, on the flight back from Paris Fashion Week, Andy and Miranda had spent several hours discussing the differences between American and British literature at the turn of last century. That was just one example and Andy said as much, adding, "It's not hard to see this working out. I know you, professionally; I know all about your job and I agree it should be important to you—I mean, what's the point, otherwise. The private side... I've said already that I wanna get to know you better."

"You will," Miranda said quietly. "And I'll get to know you."

They looked at each other and shared a smile before Miranda nudged her horse's ribs and moved their pace up to a trot, this time without consulting Andy. Andy's smile broadened. She'd always admired Miranda's confidence, and to see some of it out here was a grand thing.

Andy hadn't given in to it till now, but she'd had a certain tune stuck in her head for a while, and started whistling it.

"...don't fence me in," Miranda sang. "Let me ride through the wide open / Country that I love / Don't fence me in..."

Andy couldn't whistle and grin at the same time, so she sang along, and she hoped that wherever he was, Cole Porter got a kick out of the fact that one Miranda Priestly was a fan.

They neared Two Forks before four p.m. It was a town typical of the area, patently horse-and-rider friendly: Andy and Miranda rode alongside a secondary road and were slowly passed by a few trucks and SUVs and cars, and not one of the drivers failed to give them a wave. The original plan had been to ride around the outskirts of town and head straight to Zach's little horse ranch. Instead they rode directly to the west end of Main Street to find the DFG office, and one of the town residents told them to go round back where there was a water-trough and a hitching rail.

Unsurprisingly, that warden had called ahead, and the DFG folks were expecting Andy and Miranda. They were also given good news: the FAA had cleared both light and standard commercial flight. On their way out of the office, various bits of paperwork in-hand, Andy mentioned Miranda's idea of chartering a helicopter.

"There's no rush now," Miranda said, shaking her head. "Flying out tomorrow is soon enough."

"All right," Andy said.

Zach's place was a twenty-minute ride away and they found him away from his house, working on a fence-line. Zach greeted the two women in the comfortable, relaxed way common of people out here, and he made little fuss of asking for a hand with the fence. Andy and Miranda learned how to use a ratchet wire-puller, and with the wire taut, Zach hammered in staples to secure the last two lines of barbwire to four posts. He took care of the tricky task of winding and securing the loose ends around a corner post, and nodded at an ancient busted fencepost lying nearby.

"My great-grandpappy mighta set that post, or one of his cowhands did it. This used to be his sister's place, and back in the day, she was one of the only women here who owned land outright."

"She ran cattle?" Andy asked.

"Nope, horses, like me, like all of us on this side of the family," Zach said and tipped back his hat before giving the top string of barbwire a hard yank: it barely budged. "That'll last a while... Heard chatter on the radio about two Back East big city ladies who came out the better side of a quarrel with a bear. Can't be you two– I don't see no city folks nearby."

"I think we've just received the compliment of all compliments," Miranda said.

"We did," Andy said and laughed.

"Earned it," Zach said while gathering his tools. As he strolled over to his pickup, he said, "I'll see ya back at the house. Just half a mile or so along that track."

"Okay," Andy said.

Miranda had already taken up her horse's reins and she gestured at Andy's horse and the packhorse, who were still ground-hitched—their reins were just trailing in the knee-high grass, and both horses were standing as if tied or picketed.

"How were they taught to stand if the reins are dropped?" Miranda asked.

"Starting when they're foals, and using lots of patience and a log on the ground," Andy said and mounted up. She waited for Miranda, then nudged her horse into a walk. "People out here will tell you it's the most important thing to teach any horse or mule, and they'll also say that horses and mules don't know the difference between a rope and the reins. You train 'em to tie any which way—branch, rail, post, and ground-hitch, with a thin, easily-broken rope or even a bit of string or twine. You attach that line to a halter, and never train 'em with the reins on a bit. But after they're trained, if they're wearing a halter or a bridle, if the rope or reins drop, they stop and stand."

Andy demonstrated by dropping the packhorse's lead rope: even though Miranda and Andy's horses walked on, the mare just stood where the rope was 'tying' her. Andy neck-reined her horse around and collected the lead rope, and the packhorse followed on again.

"And that's a really safe hitch, too," Andy said. "If the horse has to run, they can, and the worst that'll happen is they step on a rein and break it."

"I noticed that the picket ropes aren't very thick," Miranda said.

"If they get a hard enough yank, they'll just snap," Andy said, nodding. She looked around and pointed at heavy cloud that was starting to roll over the mountains. "Looks like we'll be missing some weather."

"Rainy weather, I should think– I won't miss that. After all, we get rain in New York. But the rest... I can't but feel that I wasted the first two days here, fussing over silly things, like the breeze blowing the models' hair the wrong way." Miranda threw an arm wide, at the mountains. "For two full days, I barely noticed all of that? All of this? Good God..."

"Like the sign at Harry's place says, 'Don't look back, you ain't going that way,'" Andy said. "From now on, there's no way you'll go to a place like this, and not take notice. That's what counts."

Miranda nodded, looking intently at the mountains and their growing blanket of cloud. Andy had seen other people wear that expression, something her mom liked to call "eyes like cameras," when someone was clearly trying to memorize whatever they could see.

"We'll come back," Miranda said softly, almost a whisper.

Andy had to wonder who Miranda had made that promise to: herself and Andy, or to those mountains over there. Probably both, Andy thought.

At the ranch house, Zach was waiting with a camera, and he aimed it at the two women sitting their horses. He gave the camera to Andy when she stepped down, and she grinned at the little screen.

"Thanks, Zach. We've gotten a lot of shots of each other, but none together."

"Yeah, figured," he said and rubbed at the back of his neck while looking at the diamond hitch over the packsaddle. "Harry said it was a sight to see, but hell..."

"I tied that one," Miranda said, smirking, rightfully proud of herself.

"And she threw that hitch without coaching this time, after lunch today," Andy said and placed the camera carefully on a table on the porch. "You never have to tell Miranda that can't never could: she never says 'I can't.' She says, 'Show me.'"

"How many new things have you learned to do?" Zach asked Miranda.

"Oh, I don't know," Miranda said with a shrug. "The thing I'm most proud of was catching a trout—"

"With a fly rod," Andy said. "Her first damn bite, and what did she land? Six pounds of rainbow."

"Goddamn!" Zach said and laughed. "Let's get these horses sorted out..."

The packhorse was relieved of her load before the other two were stripped of tack. All three were turned into a corral where they wasted no time in rolling around in the dust, the equine equivalent of a shower. Miranda and Andy were told they were welcome to clean up in the guestroom and its en suite bathroom, and Andy shooed Miranda in there first.

"The shower's not small," Miranda said pointedly.

"You," Andy said and gave Miranda a brief kiss. "Are not gonna scandalize our host by getting me to make interesting noises."

"Oh," said Miranda. "Right."

"Uh-huh. I'm gonna make some calls and get online, see what flights are available and from where. Glacier's closer, but it's busier than Missoula, so... Don't use all the hot water, okay?"

"Thanks for the reminder," Miranda said sincerely. And: "Zach said we could stay the night if we wanted to, but ask about a hotel, please?"

"All right," Andy said.

The closest thing to a hotel, Zach said, was a thirty-mile-distant fishing lodge that boasted several private chalets that each stood just a few steps away from lake frontage. Once she'd called the fishing lodge, Andy made some other calls, to book a helicopter charter to Missoula and to book their connecting flights to New York the next day. On her return to the guestroom, she found Miranda drying her hair with a small travel dryer. That wouldn't do at all for Andy's long fall.

"But I'm pretty sure I can buy something better in town," Andy said, digging clean clothes out of a bag. "I'll wash my hair later. Glad I packed my shower-cap."

"Did you find a hotel?" Miranda asked.

"We have a two-room fishing chalet all to ourselves. The chopper will collect us straight from the lodge, at ten a.m, so if you wanna try catch some more trout tomorrow morning, you can."

"You'd better tell Natalie that I like fishing," Miranda muttered.

"Sure. Her expression will be priceless," Andy chortled.

"Then you'd better tell her when I'm there to see it," Miranda said, her tone grumpy.

"Didya call your girls?" Andy asked.

"Yes, but I didn't say anything about that bear, not over the phone. They'd been worried enough."

"They didn't say so, but you heard it anyway, huh?"

Miranda nodded and picked up a can of hair mousse. Andy left her alone to wrestle her unruly forelock into submission.

Hot water. Andy stood still for a few seconds and called that shower pure luxury. Her mom sometimes joked that the whole point of camping was to rough it a while so that one better appreciated things like bathrooms. It was a joke, but it always seemed less like one whenever Andy got back from a trip like the latest.

Only, she'd never before taken a trip quite like this last one. Miranda had certainly pulled her own weight, but Andy had still been the designated Experienced and Responsible Adult, and that had been a first. Her parents had told enough stories about awful camping trips with inexperienced people that Andy had chosen never to take trips with anyone but her parents. She felt a little bad about the fact that she'd thought that this trip was going to be awful, but who in their right mind would've thought that Miranda Priestly would do her best to cut the mustard out here? Certainly not Andy Sachs, and with good reason: Andy had been working for Miranda for more than three years, and hell, Andy had only found out that Miranda liked to cook—as opposed to getting someone else to cook for her—when they were ten miles away from the nearest fully-fitted kitchen. Then again, Miranda-off-the-clock was not someone whom Andy had properly met until recently.

There'd been clues to that side of Miranda, more often just the tiniest of hints and Andy had made note of them, but they'd never been enough to paint a proper portrait. No doubt that had been deliberate on Miranda's part; it had been deliberate on Andy's, too– Miranda didn't know Andy well at all.

That, Andy decided while dressing, was not a bad thing. Getting to know each other was a damn fine way to spend the next however-many years. They respected each other enough that Andy was pretty sure they could work around whichever obstacle. That didn't necessarily mean that they'd live happily ever after. In fact, it might mean that they'd decide to give up a physical relationship and hang on tight to a good friendship instead. The Andy of two and three years ago would've called that a disaster; the Andy of today, the realist who knew that the future wasn't in anyway predictable, simply called that approach common sense.

Once out of the bathroom, Andy found a note lying on the bed: Helping Zach w/ horses. M. Andy snorted a little laugh at that, and told herself that the next however-many years were going to be interesting, and not in the least dull. That was nothing like a prognostication. It was absolute fact.

Someone from the fishing lodge arrived to collect them at six-thirty p.m, and by then it had begun to drizzle. Their driver told them that it was snowing at higher elevations, and by the time they got out of the vehicle at the lodge the drizzle had let up but the breeze had turned icy.

They had dinner at the main lodge, and they'd had to hurry to make it to their table before the meal was served. Miranda had never had moose before and had startled at the fact that it had been humorously termed 'swamp-donkey' on the chalkboard menu. Andy got the giggles and explained that fishing lodges like this one might look fancy but they were usually owned by outdoorsmen who had their own ideas about what counted as proper nomenclature.

"That moose was probably troublesome, so it got called a swamp-donkey."

"It wasn't enough to shoot it?" Miranda said.

"Uh-uh," Andy said. "The only deer antlers my dad had mounted belonged to an old whitetail buck that was a pest– probably hand-raised then turned loose. No-one wanted to hunt him, but Dad ended up turning him into jerky after he kicked a huge dent in Dad's pickup door. He'd been aiming at Dad, and missed. Dad didn't miss. And now that deer's antler-rack is a hat-rack."

"I can see the twisted logic in mounting that deer's head on the wall," Miranda conceded.

"Yeah," Andy drawled. "Pretty sure you'd have liked to do something similar to Irv Ravitz at one stage."

"Reading my mind again," Miranda chuckled.

No matter what it was called and for whichever reason, Miranda had nothing but compliments for her 'swamp-donkey' steak, and while best described as country fare, the rest of the meal was just as good. Miranda and Andy were the only two women in the dining room. The other guests were seated at the long main table and seemed all to know each other, possibly men from the same company. When plates were cleared and dessert was brought in, one-that-got-away fish stories started making the rounds of that table.

"I think it's safe to say that the radio chatter Zach mentioned has not been picked up here," Miranda said.

"Yeah, or we'd have been asked to tell 'em all about how we got away," Andy drawled. She had a mouthful of pear-and-apple cobbler with fresh cream, and sighed. "I'm really glad we got away, or I'd have missed this dessert..."

"It's positively sinful," Miranda said in agreement.

The men at the table were still telling big fish stories when Andy and Miranda left the dining room. One of the waiters told them to take an umbrella from the stand near the door, and they walked back to their chalet huddled under that cover: the rain was falling straight down in big messy drops, the kind that soaked through most clothing pretty fast. They were both wearing their sheepskin jackets, and those were waterproofed.

"But our hair's not," Andy drawled while shaking the umbrella on the porch.

"Mmm," said Miranda. And she added, "Typical: we get back to a semblance of civilization and start worrying about our hair."

"I have to wash mine," Andy said and ushered Miranda inside.

"Tomorrow," Miranda said.

No sooner had Andy closed the door, than Miranda was kissing her, and Andy quite understandably forgot all about her argument for washing her hair sooner rather than later.

Andy had never felt quite as she did that night, and there was more to it than Miranda being Andy's first woman. They were both physically weary and saddle-sore, and both were honest about it, and that honesty led them along a way that was quieter and less fiery than it might've been. Once was enough, and that wasn't at all surprising or disappointing to either of them. This wasn't a one-night stand; it wasn't something to be governed by a time-limit, and there was a great deal to be said for being able to lie tangled together, sleepy and warm and sated, yet with a slight edge: desire lighting up pleasant little sparks wherever and whenever they touched. There was a luxury to it all, and Andy kept linking it to time– time enough for more, later, next week, or next month, next year, for several years.

"I think we're stuck with each other," Andy said softly.

"I hope so," Miranda said, her lips against Andy's forehead. "It might be a cliché, but I can't think of anyone else I'd rather be stuck with. We've already been stuck for some time... And now I get to keep you even when you work elsewhere."

"Natalie will be relieved, I'm sure," Andy said.

"Quite possibly," Miranda said, amused. Then: "I'll apologize in advance for all the fuss made in the papers."

"By now I'm used to the press making a fuss– I've been caught up in that fuss often enough. I forget how many times the Post has flighted pictures of the two of us wherever, and I've been hounded for comment and told 'em all to fuck off. I'll just do it again."

"You write about putting four slugs into that bear," Miranda said dryly. "And perhaps the paparazzi will think twice before hounding you."

"Maybe," Andy chuckled. She levered herself onto an elbow and kissed Miranda for a while, before saying, "After more than three years of managing not to kill each other, we took a sixty-odd-mile ride through real wild country, and we made it past that bear. I think we've got what it takes to make this work."

"Yes," Miranda said simply.

~ ~ ~

Almost a Year Later.

This time the trip had been planned for several months, though that had mostly been a case of talking about it. The actual planning-proper had taken a little over a week, only that, because Miranda and Andy had made this trip before. Cassidy and Caroline had decided that they wanted to go on a replica of that ride on the wild side, just without the bear, thanks.

The four of them had boarded a plane at the start of the second-last week of the summer vacation, and they'd spent most of a week at Harry's dude ranch where all four of them had learned how to drive and rope cows. The twins had been taking riding lessons since the start of the summer, and Miranda and Andy had been riding every weekend, and it was hoped that none of them would end up with too bad a case of numb-butt during the ride to Two Forks (though if Harry had it right, even after years in the saddle, sitting a horse for hours on end resulted in numb-butt anyhow).

Once again Miranda looked the part, even down to the fashion faux pas of double-denim. Andy thought that there might not be anything else as sexy as Miranda in a snug fitted denim shirt and even more snug slim-fit Cowboy Cut jeans. A little sweat made it all sexier still, and seeing as the weather was still warm, and Harry's cows were ornery and stubborn, Miranda had regularly ended up changing the kerchief around her neck. Andy had brought a camera along this time, with plenty of spare batteries, and she'd taken a lot of pictures. She'd be writing about this trip as well.

The Trail had snapped up her article about that previous trip so fast it had nearly made Andy's head spin. They'd snapped Andy up just as fast, too, and she loved her new job– contributing editor, with actual editing to do, as opposed to the usual, where the 'editor' in the title was mostly an honorific.

This afternoon Andy had everyone's help to load the packsaddles, plural. They had two packhorses this time around, because Andy had wanted to take along better cooking equipment, namely a Dutch oven and a heavy frying pan, both cast iron. Everything they didn't need for this trip had been packed up and had been collected by someone from Drake Air. It would all be freighted home to New York. Once done with the packsaddles, Andy gave her camera to Harry and he took a picture of Andy and Miranda flanked by two grinning young redheads.

"I think you got your work cut out," Harry said and handed over the camera.

"I've had it cut out right from the start," Andy said. "Teenagers, and they're typical, but while other people might get teenagers at two or three different stages, I landed up with double trouble, in every sense of the word."

"Chore or trial?" Harry asked.

"Sometimes both, but we work on getting along, cos we want that," Andy said with a little shrug. "They've got a right to have their own personalities, y'know?"

"Yeah, I do. Best advice I ever got about my stepkids?" Harry offered.

"Shoot," Andy said.

"No matter how big the boulder, water will flow around it and make it downhill," Harry said. "Like you said, you wanna get along, so just keep goin', and don't let things get stuck and dammed-up."

"I'll remember that. Thanks," Andy said.

"Anytime," Harry said. He gestured to the packhorses. "Sure you got it all?"

"Barring one thing: where's my lucky shotgun?" Andy said.

Harry fetched the gun and a bag of shells, and while Andy stowed both, she noted that this time round Harry didn't bother to check on the packsaddles. Miranda kissed his cheek before she mounted up, and there were promises swapped regarding email.

"You ladies enjoy the ride," Harry said, his tone relaxed.

"We will," Andy said, smiling just-so.

"Yeah, you're readin' me like a book," Harry drawled. "Much better sendin' you off knowin' you got grit enough for this country. You girls mind Andy, y'hear? If she tells ya, 'Don't' that ain't about spoilin' your fun. You mind her."

"All right," Cassidy said.

"Yeah, okay," Caroline agreed.

Miranda and Andy shared a certain look and both shot silent 'Thank you' smiles Harry's way. He winked in reply, and just as he had the last time, he stood waving his hat while they rode away.

Andy had the lead, and she set up whistling a certain tune.

"...land, lots of land / Under starry skies above," Miranda sang. "Don't fence me in."

"Oh God," said Cassidy.

"Must there be corny songs?" Caroline grumbled.

"Corny? Cole Porter is not corny," Miranda said.

"Wait. Porter wrote that one?" Caroline said.

"It's got smart enough lyrics, but it doesn't sound like Porter," Cassidy said.

"And it's so... country," Caroline added. "The words, I mean, like the writer really knew what he was writing about. I can't see Cole Porter out here."

"Me neither," Cassidy said. She pointed out a clump of trees, and said, "But the song goes on about frickin' cottonwood trees."

"That's cos it was based on a poem by cowboy poet, Bob Fletcher," Andy said.

"Porter was given all the credit, even though he fought to have Fletcher acknowledged," Miranda added. "Fletcher only received some of the royalties after Porter died."

"So maybe Porter didn't talk about the song much because of that?" Caroline said.

"In all likelihood," Miranda said, nodding. "Now, where was I... Let me ride through the wide open / Country that I love..."

"Andy, look what you did," Cassidy muttered.

"Yeah, you know that once Mom starts singing you can't shut her up," Caroline grumbled.

Andy might've mentioned that Miranda tended to thoroughly enjoy overdoing whatever anyone complained about, but Cassidy and Caroline definitely knew that by now. If they insisted on shooting themselves in the feet, Andy felt they could carry on.

She picked her battles, choosing to stand her ground only on matters personal, and so far that hadn't resulted in the sort of fight that ended with badly hurt feelings. As Andy had told Harry, she respected the fact that the girls had their own personalities, but in turn she expected them to respect a few boundaries. When they overstepped Andy let them know it, but in the manner, almost, of mentioning the weather. Even if she'd been a little hurt (the count there stood at an even four times), Andy chose to take a step back and speak from that place, rather than blow up. That was a page straight out of Miranda's book, and Andy had borrowed it without thinking twice, because it worked.

No-one had said it would be easy. In fact, Miranda had warned Andy of the exact opposite, and Andy's parents had had the same warning to offer. It was tough and it would be tough for several years, not least because Andy had arrived on the scene just as the twins were heading into the Moody and Rebellious Adolescent phase. That phase was something necessary; it was something that everyone had to go through on their way to finding out who they were, and it wasn't fun. Not only was Andy sympathetic, she also carried a fair amount of empathy for the girls. She didn't miss being a teenager, not in the slightest.

"You're very quiet," Miranda said (probably between songs).

"Thinking for the umpteenth time that I don't miss being a teenager," Andy said.

"Neither do I," Miranda said wryly. She looked over her shoulder briefly and said, "I see earphones."

"Hell, no," Andy said, no-nonsense. "Girls?"

"Yeah?"

"Ear-buds out. Now, please," Andy said.

"Why?" Caroline asked.

"If you don't respect this place, and that includes keeping your ears open, it will kick your asses. More than a thousand pounds of bear managed to get within thirty feet of your mom before she heard him, remember? Ear-buds out, put the iPods away."

"Okay," Cassidy said.

Miranda gave Andy a tiny nod of approval, and Andy answered with a wink. What Harry had told the girls would definitely help, but Andy had no qualms about putting some scary facts to use. Cassidy and Caroline were smart kids, though, and Andy didn't think she'd have to trot out "Bears, remember?" more than once. At least, not in regard to iPods.

They made it to the camp along Weldt's Creek around three p.m. After getting the fire going and setting up camp, it was nearly four p.m: enough time before sunset for Miranda to assemble her fly rod and head off to the pool downstream.

"I still can't believe Mom fishes," Cassidy muttered, following her mother. She poked Andy in the ribs. "Look what you did."

"You can't blame Andy for all of it," Caroline giggled. "I mean, Andy didn't book Mom's casting lessons, and she wasn't even there when Mom bought all that fly gear."

"I still do not wanna know what it cost," Andy said and rolled her eyes. "She's just starting out and she bought not one, but two Tibor Signature reels and a Sage rod? She's nuts."

"Yeah, guess I can't blame it all on you," Cassidy conceded. Then: "Oh my gosh, that's so beautiful..."

The twins were both avid photographers and were soon snapping pictures of the pool and its surrounds. Andy had caught the photography bug as well, and this afternoon she found several spots from which to take good pictures of Miranda fly-casting like a pro (there was even a tricky roll-cast in the mix). As for the fish, Miranda caught two, but not before she missed the strike on a few others. She'd come to realize that her first fish was a one-in-a-million fluke, but just as well: that rainbow trout had been almost completely responsible for Miranda getting into fly-fishing in a serious way. Today she caught a third brown trout, and Caroline came over to get that catch-and-release on video.

"Had no idea they're so pretty," Cassidy said, looking at the fish.

"All those ruby spots are one way you can tell he's a wild-bred trout," Andy said.

"And his fins are perfect," Miranda added. "All of my practice trout were stocked fish, and their fins were mangled somewhat."

"Why?" Caroline asked.

"Stocked trout start out in concrete channels and tubs," Andy said. "They end up dragging their fins on the bottom, and they deform."

"Not so this fellow... There he goes," Miranda said, watching the fish swim off.

"Bye, Fishy," Caroline said as the trout swam away. Then: "But what about dinner?"

"Those will be dinner," Miranda said and pointed at the all-purpose big pot. "Two smaller than that one."

Andy took a look in the pot and grinned.

"Not much smaller. Are you gutting 'em, or am I?"

"No, I will. I need practice at that as well," Miranda said.

She got on with it, Andy coaching occasionally.

"Eww," said Caroline.

"Double eww," Cassidy said, her nose screwed up.

"City slickers," Miranda teased.

"Look what you did," Cassidy giggled and gave Andy a little shove.

"I'm not arguing this time," Caroline said.

"I'll take it as a compliment," Andy said with a wry grin. To Miranda: "Toss those guts into the water, a fair way out."

Miranda did as she'd been told and bent again to wash her hands. When she straightened up she smacked a kiss on Andy's cheek.

"What was that for?" Andy asked.

"Oh, many things," Miranda said.

"Top of the list, fishing that's not just practice," Cassidy said wryly.

"Yup," Caroline agreed. "And I still wish I coulda seen all the fashion people's faces when they saw those first pictures of Mom fishing."

"I shoulda taken photos of all the shocked expressions at Runway," Andy said and picked up the pot, which she gave to Miranda. "Let's go sort out those trout. I'm hungry."

"Me, too," the girls chorused.

Back in camp, Miranda got the trout into some flour, and she gave her girls and Andy the task of slicing potatoes into a bowl of salted water. Other things were on the menu, like bannock bread, and after the Dutch oven was done with that, baked apples, but for now there was nothing else to be done except wait a while. Andy decided to go check on the horses; Miranda trailed after her and ended up going back to camp to fetch the picket-pin mallet. One-by-one, Andy knocked five of the pins loose, led a horse further from its original spot, and knocked the pin in again.

"The way we had them set out before was okay, because the horses couldn't tangle each other's ropes, but their grazing circles shouldn't have been so close. Now it's right. There'll be some longer grass left for various critters to rest in, or hide away... See this, how the grass-stem's cut like a pair of scissors did it? Jackrabbit or cottontail, and you can see a faint trail: rabbits come this way often. If we'd picketed the horses somewhere else, and if it was winter—and if the girls wouldn't freak over it, this would be a good spot to set a rabbit snare."

"If the trout were cute, my girls wouldn't eat them," Miranda said wryly.

"Huh," Andy snorted. "They've never seen rabbits or jackrabbits fight. Cute little cottontails rip each other to pieces, and jackrabbits stand up and box, scratching each other's faces until they're exhausted or one of 'em loses an eye. Hell, pet rabbits will fight to the death, no jokes. Cute? Lambs are really cute, but Cass and Caroline eat lamb."

"But lambs aren't often kept as pets that like to be cuddled and petted," Miranda said. "And speaking of which..."

Miranda stepped closer to Andy and hugged her neck, and Andy squeezed her tight. 'Cuddles' and 'petting' weren't the words to use for what Miranda liked. Andy had learned to be serious about hugs– even brief hugs had to be firm and close. Miranda liked long deep kisses, but if there wasn't time for one of those, she preferred to keep it to a peck. And apparently menopause had gotten something of a hold on Miranda in the year before she and Andy became a couple, to the point where Miranda's libido had seemingly died a quiet and unremarked death, but Andy only believed that when Miranda complained about hot flashes.

Miranda got one of those long kisses this evening, and if they were camping in tamer country than this, Andy had no doubt that Miranda would've unashamedly told her girls to stay away for a half hour or so, and she and Andy would've proceeded to acquire a bad case of grass-rash.

"We'll have to temper those kisses," Miranda muttered against Andy's neck. "I want you."

"Try to pretend I've got my period," Andy drawled.

"That just reminds me that you cycle like clockwork, and your period will present another interruption two days after we get back."

"Well, at least my periods are kinda scheduled, whereas yours..."

"You're reminding me of that, too?" Miranda groused.

"Grouch, grouch, grouch. Don't make me call you cute," Andy giggled.

Miranda huffed and combined stepping away from Andy with a little shove. Andy, however, caught Miranda around the waist again, this time from behind, and snuffled at the nape of her neck. Miranda squirmed at first but eventually laughed and gave up. Andy kissed Miranda's temple and hugged her waist tightly.

"Love you."

"And I love you, but sometimes I wonder why," Miranda chortled.

Andy giggled and nibbled gently at Miranda's earlobe.

"Andrea?"

"Mmm?" said Andy

"We've already established that frustration is something we'll have to ward off," Miranda said a little breathlessly.

"Oh. Yeah, sorry," Andy muttered and let go of Miranda's waist. She bent and plucked a stalk of grass, and said, "Think I'm gonna end up saying 'Sorry' a lot."

"As will I," Miranda said. "I can never keep my hands off of you."

"And you know I love that," Andy said wryly. "Oh yeah, we're in trouble."

"At least it's a lovely sort of trouble," Miranda chuckled. "And think about how much fun we'll have fixing it, eventually."

"Eventually," Andy agreed, amused.

Miranda kissed Andy's cheek and walked back to camp. Andy followed most of the way, but stopped when she noticed a little rascal stealing into camp. Andy leaned against a tree and chewed on that grass stalk, watching and waiting for the inevitable, on two fronts.

"Cassie, look," Caroline whispered.

"Aww, he's so cute. Look at his little hands," Cassidy murmured.

The twins sneaked pictures of the raccoon, giggling quietly at shots of him all but disappearing under a packsaddle tarp, hunting after whatever smelled good.

"Get out of it!" Miranda snapped and stamped her foot. The raccoon scrambled out of the bag and took off in a blur of black-and-white. "And stay away."

"Aww, Mom. There goes our wildlife photo op of the evening," Cassidy complained.

"You'd be cursing your photo op if he chewed holes in things that attract bears," Miranda said and fished out a spray bottle. "Spray this all over those packsaddles, but not too much on anything leather. That'll keep the little pack-bandits away."

Caroline and Cassidy reluctantly took turns with the bottle and spritzed vinegar here and there, while their mother glared at them. Some distance away Andy grinned around the long stalk of sweet grass.

The sun was setting and Andy cast her eyes over the white-topped mountains painted salmon-pink and fiery orange– they seemed to be rising up to touch the sky. God's Country, indeed.

_____Ω_____

Notes post here.

Also, please note that this a story, not a how-to guide, and as such Andy and Miranda do several things wrong. As said in comments, if I wrote a detailed 100% accurate and factual guide, I'd wanna get paid! –N