It was a clarification he would repeat to Martha, after he hung the quarter of venison in her barn and they were sitting down to a late-night leftovers dinner. Got some exercise, that was all, he told her. Exciting, I'll give it that. My fault really. Should have settled for hauling one quarter out and gone back in tomorrow. Taking the last load out in the dark, not a good idea. Too many things that go bump in the night up there. The cat? Never really saw it clearly. More like a ghost than an animal. The scream, that was the weird thing.
"Where was your rifle all this time?"
"In the rig. I was hauling meat, not hunting."
"You could have dropped your backpack. That might have distracted it."
"I thought about it, but it would make me look smaller without it. And I thought if it attacked, the pack would protect my back and the back of my neck. Anyway, I had so much adrenaline flushing through my system that I hardly felt the weight."
"Interesting," Martha said. "Go on."
He told her about falling into the stream. "That's why I'm shaking."
Martha nodded. "I can see you're shaking." Then, under her breath, "Men."
"Is it so hard to admit you were afraid? It's just me, Martha. We live together now. We'll be married in a few months. We don't keep things from each other. I've been down that road. It ends in divorce."
"He cheated on you."
"That's not what I'm talking about. You know, I take the badge off when I'm home. You can talk to me a little. I can't divine what you're thinking." She kissed him. "Go clean up."
"I'll do the dishes first. You're still hobbling."
"It looks bad, but I don't think anything's broken. Could be worse. I love you, you know. Even if you were afraid." And she smiled and he smiled, and they fell back into their easy ways.
The cold inside of Sean ached, and was still there after a hot shower an hour later. Martha was sitting up in the bed when he came out of the bathroom. She had lit a candle. Sean saw a tumbler of amber liquor on the nightstand. The two dogs and both cats were on the far side of the door.
"Is that the whiskey from Willie's Distillery?"
"It is. I know only one way better to warm you up."
"We'll get to it. But first, tell me honestly, you were afraid up there, right? I would be."
"What would I have been afraid of?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe a mountain lion that looked like a ghost. Or the other way around. Something along those lines."
"All I ever really saw were its shadow and its eyes. Anyway, a mountain lion hasn't killed anyone in Montana in years."
"Okay. A little, I suppose. How afraid do you want me to have been?"
"Be serious. You weren't afraid up there in the dark, just you and whatever? Maybe just a little bit?"
"I was scared."
"You're not just saying that to get a sip of whiskey?"