Prologue

The bear ascended through a forest of aspens and conifers, climbing up and over a steep ridge in an easy gait made possible by her long, powerful legs. She ambled over to a wide rock ledge and sat down. The trunks of the pines that survived in this place were bent outward, bowed where the winter’s snow pushed against them. But their roots were strong, and they wrapped around the rocks, clinging to them. Spring snowstorms had continued into summer, and patches of snow still sparkled on the ground here and there.

The ledge was a good place to watch. The headwaters of the river that ran through the valley below were here, a basin where the snowpack melted slowly, forming streams that meandered through the upper valley and coalesced into a river at the lower end. The water followed the lay of the land, flowing into a canyon where it lost its clarity as it picked up speed, becoming turbid and milky white as it rushed over rocks and boulders, curving and twisting its way downslope to the dry plains beyond the foothills.

Above, a red-tailed hawk circled, riding a warm rising current, and let out a sharp cry to claim this territory as his. In reality, the place belonged to many creatures. It belonged to the other creatures of the air—to the small songbirds that visited in the warmer months and made long journeys south to escape the harsh winters, to the observant eyes and loud voices of the jays and crows, and to the night owls who trilled and hooted, but flew silently through the trees and across the meadow. It belonged to the mule deer and to the elk that grazed on the grass in the meadow of the valley floor at night and then worked their way into the safer cover of the forest during the day. It belonged to the cicadas that clung to the coarse bark of the pines and sang, filling the resin-scented air with a raspy chorus. It belonged to the raccoons that slept contentedly in their dens and waited for night to fall before emerging to hunt. It belonged to the beavers who feasted on the soft inner wood of the trees they felled, and who engineered lodges for their families in the lake and the creek, altering and slowing the flow of the water through the valley. It belonged to the pine squirrels and the striped chipmunks that rushed from rock to tree, and from tree to rock, looking for good things to eat, all the while watching for predators from both the air and the ground. It belonged to the coyotes who hunted the ground squirrels and the chipmunks, but who also loved to eat sun-ripened blackberries.

It also belonged to the mountain lion whose presence the bruin detected. The big cat had passed by here within the past few days. The sharp acrid smell of his marking scent still permeated the air. The lion was much like herself, a watcher who preferred not to reveal himself, especially to humans. Humans were complicated, their actions difficult to comprehend. She wasn’t fully convinced that this place belonged to humans, though they thought it did. Most of them failed to see that they were not the only ones to whom the land belonged.

The bear lowered her head and sniffed the ground where the lion’s scent was strong. She scratched the ground lightly with her long, dark claws, stirring up the scent and, in the process, dislodging a few rocks that tumbled and rolled off the ledge.

As the rocks fell, she scanned the valley again. Directly below stretched one of her favorite places, a deep pool that appeared to be watched over by two large owl-shaped boulders sitting shoulder to shoulder above the river. She imagined wading into the cold, deep water, grabbing a wriggling, fat trout with her strong jaws, and tearing into it with her teeth. She found the pleasure difficult to resist. She sniffed the air again, this time seeking to detect the scent of a human, the only animal she truly feared. The air was clear. The bear stood and grunted softly as she shook the dust from her thick, shaggy coat. Then she began to carefully descend the side of the mountain to the river below.


Chapter One

Lugging a canvas tote bag, Melissa walked across the tree-shaded main quad on her way to her office in Fuller Hall. One of the oldest brick-and-stone buildings on the university campus, its exterior had a stately feel, with limestone columns and a triangular pediment marking the main entrance. It was the last week of the first summer term, and the campus was quiet compared to the regular academic semesters.

As she approached, she slowed her pace under the canopy of a big burr oak, her favorite tree on campus. The trunk was wide, maybe four feet in diameter, covered with rough, dark bark. Its lateral branches seemed like twisting arms, some of them stretching out twenty or thirty feet. The leaves, bigger than her hand with fingers outstretched, were a deep, verdant green. Everything about this tree seemed animated and very much alive.

“Hey, Professor Warren!”

Melissa startled at the sound of her name coming from above her head. Squinting up at the branches, she tucked a loose strand of her blond hair behind her ear and looked for the source of the voice. One of her students sat on a branch about fifteen feet from the ground, leaning back against the trunk with his legs dangling over either side of the wide resting place. His backpack was balanced between his legs, with an open textbook on top. Melissa raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun breaking through the branches.

“Hey, Theo. What are you doing up there?”

“Studying for my last physics exam.” He pointed to the textbook. “Everyone said it’s supposed to be easier in the summer, but I’m not so sure. I’ve got to pass it if I’m going to graduate in the fall.”

“It seems like you were just in my freshman class. You’re finishing up already?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Theo spoke politely, revealing his Southern good manners. “But I’m glad I’ll get to have one more class with you before I graduate.”

“Yeah? Are you registered for my ancient art history class in the fall?” He wasn’t one of her strongest students, but she liked having him in class. Full of curiosity and enthusiasm, he could get classroom discussions going.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, I look forward to seeing you then. Good luck with your summer classes.”

“Thanks. I need it!” He beamed at her from his arboreal perch.

Melissa wagged her finger at him. “And don’t fall out of that tree.”

“No, ma’am. I’m not planning on it,” he said with a laugh.

She waved good-bye and continued walking. A student coming toward her looked at her strangely, and she realized it probably seemed as if she’d been talking to the tree. She smiled at him as she passed and continued to Fulton Hall.

As she walked through the portico and entered the building, she felt relieved to enter air-conditioned space, as the temperatures had been rising steadily. Melissa wiped perspiration from her forehead and tucked an errant strand of hair back behind her ear. She’d gotten a haircut a few days ago, and her hair was a little shorter than she was used to. Cool gray terrazzo floors, plastered walls painted a warm cream, and doors and windows cased in a dark wood trim that gleamed from decades of polishing greeted her. Offices even had transom windows above the doors that, for some reason, Melissa always associated with detectives’ offices in old film noir movies. They were practical in a building constructed before air-conditioning and that had been heated with cast-iron radiators, the high tech of an earlier era that still worked well.

She walked down the deserted hallway. Students who would normally be seen milling around or sitting on the floor waiting for class, studying, or staring intensely at the screens of their mobile phones in between classes were absent. During the summer the on-campus student body was only a fraction of its regular size. Melissa usually taught an art appreciation course during this term, but this summer she was forgoing the extra class to use the time to prepare her tenure application. Although it wasn’t due until the fall, by completing it now she could finally take a break and work on a personal project that she’d kept on hold.

Melissa entered her office and hoisted her tote bag to her desk. After she removed the four large white binders containing nearly a thousand pages that documented her academic teaching and research career for the past six years, she lined them up on her desk for inspection. Seated at her desk she went through each binder, comparing its contents to the checklist. It was tedious but necessary. Everything seemed in order, all as complete as they could be. She just had to turn it in to her department chair in the fall. Her stomach growled, and she realized she was hungry. She looked out the window—the sun was low in the sky and dropping below the tallest trees in the quad. As she glanced at the antique regulator clock on the wall across from her desk, she was surprised to see that it was nearly six.

Melissa had inherited the round-faced clock encased in a dark oak case from her grandmother. Invented in the late eighteenth-century, when the first factories were being built and people needed to pay more attention to the time, regulator clocks were simple. They lacked amenities such as phases of the moon or days of the month but were very precise, so they were often used in schools and train depots.

It complemented the architecture so well, Melissa had wanted to hang it in her office. It wouldn’t even keep time when she received it, so she’d sent it to an antique-clock restorer in Alabama, someone that Beth, her colleague in the department and friend, had recommended. She had warned Melissa that he was rather eccentric, and if she talked to him on the phone she should be prepared for a long, interesting conversation. Melissa had come to learn that, in this part of the country, someone described as “a little” eccentric was actually a lot eccentric. The people of the Deep South had a well-deserved reputation for intolerance and resistance to progressive change, but when you dealt with them at the micro-level, in small towns and rural communities, they were surprisingly tolerant as long as you observed the basic rules of politeness. She had never talked to the horologist on the phone, and eccentric or not, he had returned the clock polished, gleaming, and once again keeping time accurately.

“Ticktock, it’s time to stop,” Melissa said to herself. She placed her hand on top of the first binder, a gesture that felt like a benediction. With tenure, she would have job security. Without it, she’d have to start all over again somewhere else. She didn’t want to think about that possibility, as the academic job market was grim and only getting bleaker.

Before leaving the office, she checked her email one last time. She had several new messages, most of which she would ignore until later. But one caught her eye—a reservation reminder from the Buckhorn Creek Ranch, the guest ranch in Colorado where she would be staying soon. She opened it and smiled at the photo at the top of the message, a panorama of a blooming meadow, pine trees, and snow-covered mountains in the distance.

She’d found herself daydreaming more and more about exploring Buckhorn and sitting on the porch of a cozy rustic cabin in the cool mountain air while drinking coffee, thinking, reading, and maybe even writing. Smiling, she logged out of email, put the computer to sleep, and left the office.

When she reached her silver Subaru Forester, she tossed her bag and the empty tote onto the passenger seat. Her stomach grumbled again as she started the car. Feeling in a celebratory mood, she decided to pick up something on the way home.

The Depot, a popular restaurant and bakery housed in the old train depot, was one of her favorite places in town. Its main building held the kitchen, a bar, and dining room, while the covered waiting platform provided space for dining al fresco. The train had long ceased to run through town, replaced by a walking trail where the tracks used to be—part of a regional rails-to-trails project.

It was still early for the dinner crowd, so the restaurant wasn’t busy. The hostess greeted her, and Melissa gestured to the bar, saying she planned to order something to go. Quite a few people were gathered there, taking advantage of happy hour. She glanced around but didn’t see anyone she knew. She took a seat at the bar and waited for the bartender, a young woman with short, spiky, blond hair, who stood at the other end filling pint glasses with ale. She nodded at Melissa and smiled.

“Be with you in just a minute.”

“No hurry.”

Melissa grabbed one of the menus. She thought she knew what she wanted, and a quick scan of the menu confirmed her choice.

“How are you today?” The bartender, speaking in a cheerful tone, set a coaster down in front of Melissa.

“Great, actually.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she said. Melissa found her rather attractive, especially when she smiled and two dimples suddenly appeared on either side of the corners of her mouth.

“What can I get you?”

“I’d like a cheeseburger with sweet-potato fries to go.” Melissa glanced back at the menu. “And an Italian soda while I wait.”

“You got it.”

The bartender entered the order into the register and then grabbed a tall glass, put a scoop of ice in it, and glanced at Melissa.

“What flavor?”

“Almond, please.”

“Cream?”

“Of course.”

The woman nodded and smiled as she stirred the syrup into the seltzer and then floated a little cream on top. She set the glass on the coaster and winked at Melissa.

“Your order will be out in about ten minutes.”

Melissa thanked her and observed while she talked with a group of people clustered at the far end of the bar. She checked her thoughts. Too young. Melissa took a sip of her soda and spun the other way on her barstool, beginning to daydream again about her upcoming journey to Colorado. It would take her two long days of driving to get to her parents’ house and then a few hours more to the mountain town of Buckhorn. She really liked her job and had become accustomed to where she lived, but she still longed for the big sky and the clear dry air of her western home state.

“Here’s your order.”

The bartender placed a paper sack on the bar, and Melissa handed her a debit card. When she returned with the receipt, Melissa signed it, put a cash tip on top, and pushed it back toward the edge of the bar.

“Have a good night.”

“Thanks. You, too.”

The bartender raised her eyebrows and smiled at Melissa, her gaze lingering a little longer than it needed to.

Melissa smiled to herself as she left the restaurant and walked back to her car. The bartender might be too young for her, but at age forty, she didn’t mind feeling like she could still turn a head. Her house was only a few minutes away from the restaurant, but the aroma rising from the paper sack was irresistible. While driving, she snuck a few hot fries out of the bag and ate them carefully, trying not to burn her tongue.

By the time she pulled into her driveway and then under the carport in the back of her yard, the sun was beginning to set. As she got out of the car, she looked up to see crepuscular rays shooting from behind a large cumulous cloud. The edges of the cloud were golden, and the sky above was turquoise, complementary warm and cool colors. It looked like something in a Baroque ceiling fresco.

“Hey, Melissa!”

Her neighbor, sitting in a lawn chair in his backyard smoking a short cigar with a beer in his hand, shook her from her reverie. It was his nightly ritual, and she suspected that his wife demanded that he complete it outside. She suddenly felt self-conscious.

“Oh, hello, Stan. The sky is really beautiful, isn’t it?”

Stan, a Georgia State football T-shirt stretched tight across his pot belly, didn’t seem to give much thought to nature. He looked up at the sky a little skeptically.

“Yeah, sure is.”

Melissa grabbed the paper sack and her bag, nodded to Stan, and headed for the house.

“Have a nice night.”

“Yeah. You, too.”

Stan took a swig of beer from the bottle and looked back up at the sky, as if wondering what exactly she was looking at.

Inside, Melissa dropped her things onto the counter and quickly poured some food into Alex’s bowl. The big gray tabby had been talking to her, complaining, as soon as she put the key in the lock. While he crunched away on the kibble, she grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and took the sack to her back deck. It was screened, and because of the curtains she’d hung for privacy, she didn’t have to see or be seen by Stan or any of her other neighbors if she didn’t want to. She practically lived on the deck for many months out of the year until it was either too cold, or too hot and humid, to enjoy being outside.

She lit a small oil lamp on a table and sat in a wicker chair, slowly eating her burger and fries while sipping her beer. In the growing twilight she could still see the outline of her garden. Knowing that she would be gone from mid to late summer, she hadn’t put in a vegetable garden, as she usually did over spring break. Instead she’d planted rows of crimson clover and sunflowers, plants that were good for the soil and wildlife and would help keep the weeds at bay while she was gone.

As the sky darkened, fireflies began to rise out of the clover. Blinking slowly and emitting a greenish-yellow light, they flew erratically into the branches of the tall pecan and elm trees, looking like tiny stars in the night sky.

Not having a vegetable garden this summer reminded her of her ex, Teresa, who had no interest whatsoever in gardening. Melissa should have taken that as a warning sign that the relationship wouldn’t work out.

“What’s the point of doing all that work when you can just go to the store or a farmers’ market and get the same thing?” Teresa had argued. As Melissa discovered, Teresa didn’t like getting her hands dirty, and she didn’t like being sweaty, unless it involved sex. Melissa realized, for the first time, that the only thing she really missed about Teresa now was the sex.

A scampering sound caught Melissa’s attention. Alex came running through the open kitchen doorway, probably chasing something, a fly perhaps. Wild-eyed, he launched himself on to the screen and started to climb it.

“Oh, no you don’t, mister!”

Melissa jumped up, grabbing him before he could tear a hole in the screen, and let him drop onto the decking floor. Seeming unperturbed, he ran back into the house, presumably after the fly. She picked up her bottle and carried it into the garden. A glowing firefly hovered in front of her, and she watched it ascend slowly, her gaze going beyond it to the stars visible in a narrow window between the edges of tree branches. She spotted the tip of the tail of Ursa Major, the Big Bear or, as her grandmother had taught her to call it, the Sky Bear. She could hardly wait until she was back in the western landscape with unfettered views of the vast night sky that would allow her to see the bear in its entirety.


Chapter Two

“Hey, Beth. Come on in!” Melissa had just taken a shower and was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and had a towel wrapped around her head.

“Oh, are we too early?” Beth stepped in, followed by her eight-year-old daughter, Emma.

“It’s not a problem. Just give me just a minute to deal with my hair. There’s coffee in the kitchen if you want some. Emma, would you like some chocolate soy milk? That is, if it’s okay with your mom.”

Emma flashed a toothy grin at her mother.

“A small glass,” Beth said.

“You know where everything is. Help yourself.” Melissa nodded toward the kitchen and went back to her bathroom and finished drying her hair and put on a little makeup. As she walked back to the living room, she heard Emma talking to Alex. When she turned the corner, she found Emma seated on the couch. The tabby was curled in her lap. Beth sat in an armchair sipping coffee and watching them.

“Good Lord, that cat loves you, Emma. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“He’s so sweet,” Emma cooed at him, drawing out the words. She petted him in long strokes from the top of his head to his tail. Every time her hand hovered over his head, he bumped it with his nose and ran his cheek across her palm.

“I appreciate you being willing to take him home with you while I’m gone. Six weeks is a long time to leave him alone. You really don’t mind?”

“Look at that love fest.” Beth tilted her head toward Emma. “We’ve already gone on our summer vacation, and I told Emma that if she takes really good care of Alex like she says she will, we’ll look for a kitten after you get back.”

Emma’s face lit up. “I’m going to take great care of him!”

“I bet you will. Hey, why don’t you stay here with Alex while I show your mom how the garden gets watered?” Melissa said.

“Okay.” Emma turned her attention back to the purring tabby.

Walking around the yard, Melissa pointed out the new soaker hoses running through all the flowerbeds and explained that they were attached to programmable timers at the front and back spigots. She showed Beth how they worked and told her that, unless it rained too much or too little, she probably wouldn’t need to adjust them. “But you should check on them to make sure they’re working right.”

Beth nodded and pushed her sunglasses down her nose, squinting at Melissa in concentration. “Something’s different about you. Did you get highlights in your hair?”

“No. It’s still the same mix of my father’s blond and my mother’s chestnut.” Melissa ran her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. “I got a haircut last week.”

“It suits you.” Beth smiled, pushing her dark glasses back up. “Still, something’s different about you. You seem happier than I’ve seen you in months.”

“I finished putting my tenure application together yesterday.”

“Good for you, getting it done early. I’m impressed. But it still seems like something more than that.”

“Well…” Melissa stared at a fuzzy mason bee searching a nearby coneflower for nectar. “I’ll be in Colorado for six weeks. I’m pretty excited about that.”

“Maybe that’s what it is…” Beth searched Melissa’s face. “I was wondering if you’d met someone.”

“You mean you were hoping I had. But no,” Melissa said with a dry laugh. “In this town? The pond is small, and the lesbian fish are few.”

“There is such a thing as online dating, honey. And Atlanta’s not that far away.” Beth arched an eyebrow.

Beth had a point. Buck Springs, Georgia, home of Dreighton College, had less than twenty thousand people living in it. In contrast, several million people lived in the Atlanta Metro area, which was over an hour away. Some faculty actually lived in the suburbs and made long commutes, about which they usually complained. Melissa had considered doing that when she first took the job but decided she didn’t want to spend hours of her life every day driving.

“Or are you just not over Teresa?”

“Ouch, Beth.”

“It’s true, isn’t it? Some little part of you thinks she’s going to come back.”

“No. I know she isn’t. She went to Asheville to escape from here, and from me. I know that.”

“I think it was less about you and more about here,” Beth said. “Don’t get me wrong. I think y’all were a great couple, but she didn’t seem ready for a long-term relationship, and she wanted a new view.”

“Clearly.” Melissa touched the stems of a lavender plant to release its fragrance. She loved its scent.

“Still bitter, I see.” Beth looked at her sideways.

“What’s not to be bitter about?” Melissa tried not to let a sharp edge creep into her voice. “I really loved her, and I thought we were a good thing.”

“You were a good thing,” Beth said gently. “But sometimes situations change, and you forget that she grew up around here. The appeal of experiencing another place was, well, appealing.”

“You’re defending her.”

“No. I just understand her. You know I was raised in Marengo County, Alabama, knee deep in kudzu and miles from a town that had only one stoplight. I couldn’t wait to get out into the world. I know that itch.” Beth paused and looked at Melissa with a gentle expression. “But that doesn’t mean I approve of her breaking your heart, you stuffy old art historian.”

“Me? Old? Stuffy? Oh, no, has it happened already? I haven’t even gotten tenure yet.” Melissa appreciated Beth’s attempt to make her laugh and responded to their old joke by patting herself all over dramatically. “I’ll never get a date now!”

Melissa had first met Beth when she was carrying a box of books into Fulton Hall. Fresh out of grad school, she was moving into her new office when she bumped into Beth, a recently tenured professor of graphic design. Beth introduced herself and had joked that she was glad to have gotten rid of the stuffy old art historian in exchange for a fresh one. Melissa warned her that she might become the next stuffy old art historian if things worked out and she was awarded tenure. Beth replied that she hoped to be retired before that happened and then clarified that she meant the stuffy part, not the tenured part. They’d both laughed. Over time Melissa had come to rely on her for both professional and personal advice, and more recently, when she needed a shoulder to cry on.

Beth put her hand on Melissa’s shoulder. “Give it time, honey. The right one will come along.”

“So you say.” Melissa sighed and shrugged. “Let’s go back inside before it gets any hotter.”

As they walked up the deck stairs, Beth gestured toward a flowerbed brimming with salvia, echinacea, butterfly weed, and day lilies—all in full bloom. “Your yard is always so pretty. Won’t you miss it?”

Melissa paused on the steps and thought about the possibility for a moment. “Yes. But I’ll get to exchange this for cool mountain meadows of foxglove, lupine, and columbines.”

“Hm. Good point.”

Melissa led Beth back inside and removed a printed note tacked to the refrigerator with a magnet. It listed her parents’ contact information in case she had a problem and couldn’t reach Melissa. There was also information about feeding Alex.

“Please follow the instructions. The last time I was out of town for two weeks, my house sitter overfed him. Don’t let Emma overdo the treats.”

“I promise not to feed him too much,” Emma said, walking into the kitchen. She cradled Alex in her arms like a baby.

“Thank you, Emma. It’s for Alex’s own good. He’ll live a longer, healthier life,” Melissa said and rubbed the cat between his ears.

Emma nodded and stared at the kitchen table.

Beth turned to see what had gotten her daughter’s attention. “Are those maps?”

“Yeah.”

“Why don’t you just use your phone like the rest of the modern world?”

“I could and I do, but I like to plan my road trip with an atlas.”

You’re so old fashioned…” Beth playfully nudged Melissa with her elbow. “Stuffy old art historian.”

“Ha. What can I say? I like to see the big picture. Out West, sometimes you don’t have cell service.” Melissa noticed that Emma was regarding them with curiosity. It was like she’d never seen a paper map before. Considering Beth’s response, maybe she hadn’t. Melissa flipped the atlas open to the two-page complete map of the interstate system and put her finger down north of Atlanta and then again north of Denver. “I’ll start here and end up there. I’ve made this trip several times, so the map is really more of a reminder.”

Emma put Alex down and looked more closely. “You’re going to drive all by yourself?”

“Yes. I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait to hit the open road.”

“That sounds rather romantic,” Beth said.

“It is.” Melissa grinned at Beth. “And old fashioned. But definitely not stuffy. There’s something about leaving town, getting away from it all—something about having my hands on the wheel and the wind in my hair, though I don’t have a convertible. I’ll be keeping the windows up and the air-conditioning on.”

“We would die without air-conditioning,” Emma said.

Beth rolled her eyes at her eight-year-old’s dramatic proclamation, and Melissa laughed but couldn’t help but agree with her. Southern summer heat and humidity were brutal.

“You’re leaving Friday, right?” Beth asked.

“Yes. I’ll head out early. I’ll feed Alex before I go, so you don’t need to come over to get him until later in the day.” As if on cue, Alex hopped up onto the table, strutted across it with his tail straight up, and then sat down in the middle of the open atlas.

“I read somewhere that when a cat sits on whatever you’re reading or writing, they’re blessing it.” Beth reached out to pet Alex.

He began to bathe himself and pointed a back leg, yoga-like, up toward the ceiling. Melissa gestured to him with a nod. “Well then, I’ll take that as a good omen.”

When Melissa gave Beth the house key, her friend seemed to intuitively understand that she still had many things to do before leaving town. She gave Melissa a hug and wished her a safe trip. While crossing the porch, Emma again promised to take good care of Alex. Melissa sensed she was going to work hard for the promised kitten.

Closing the door behind them, Melissa walked across the living room, stopping in front of the paintings hanging there. These Rocky Mountain landscapes were the subject of her new research project, the one she’d put on hold while she worked on publications derived from her dissertation that were necessary to be awarded tenure. It was a uniquely personal project. She’d received them as part of her inheritance from her grandmother. They were painted by the same artist who had neatly signed her name, Ursula Bergen, on the back of each canvas. Aside from a name that Melissa was able to connect to the town of Buckhorn, she was an unknown artist. Melissa longed to find out who she was and to give her paintings a place, even if a small one, in the history of art.

The two larger canvases, each roughly sixteen by twenty inches, hung together on a wall above a long, low bookcase. She’d considered putting them in different rooms, the way her grandmother had, but it seemed like they should be companions. They didn’t depict the same place, but they balanced each other compositionally. The same color palette had been used in both, and the pattern of the brushwork was consistent. Likely they had been painted around the same time—either that or Ursula was a very consistent painter.

Melissa had spent a lot of time scrutinizing the paintings, engaged in what art historians called “slow looking.” Ursula had mixed her colors from a restrained palette of Naples yellow, cadmium yellow, ultramarine, and cerulean warmed and darkened with ochre, or tinted and highlighted with titanium white. Melissa also detected traces of cadmium red, a pigment invented in the nineteenth century and beloved of modern and contemporary artists for its intensity.

In most areas, Ursula used a type of brush called a bright, its bristles short and square and capable of being loaded heavily with thick paint. Melissa could see how Ursula had manipulated the brush, pulling the paint in long, straight strokes, zigzags, or short strokes made in quick succession. Highlights and details revealed where she had used a brush with a pointed tip, known as a round. Sometimes the paint was laid in with pressure, forcing paint out along the sides of the brush, creating little ridges of impasto. These ridges, in addition to the lively brushwork, added a sense of vivacity to the paintings, bringing them to life.

The painting on the left showed a meadow with rounded, cool-hued boulders in the foreground. One boulder was cracked, a rangy pine tree growing from the cleft in it. Its branches curved, drawing the viewer’s eye from the left edge of the painting to the golden meadow in the center. A large log building with a steeply pitched roof sat between several boulders. Was it a house? Or perhaps it was a lodge for a camp of some kind. Melissa wasn’t sure, but it didn’t look like a modest homesteader’s cabin. The bluish mountain peaks in the distance still had a little snow on them—as expected in the high country in mid to late summer. The sky was clear blue and dotted with a few small cumulus clouds.

While the image of the meadow was bucolic, the painting on the right captured a very different scene—a mountain river, white and raging from a passing storm, cascading from the upper right to the lower left corner of the painting. Turbid water rushed over rocks and over the trunk of a splintered fallen tree, the torn bark revealing bright heartwood underneath, a fresh wound. Although threatening dark clouds hovered in the distance, everything was bathed in a warm light, and the sunlight that broke through the clouds highlighted two owl-shaped rocks, seemingly sitting side by side, in the distance.

When she stood back and looked at both paintings together, the curving arc of the pine and the flowing river almost seemed intentional. She enjoyed the tension between them. While one was calm, pleasing, and inviting, the other was sublime in its truest sense, awe-inspiring, even a little frightening.

Melissa especially recalled this painting hanging in her grandmother’s dining room. As a child, she had been scared of white water. Her family had almost always camped or picnicked in the mountains and near a river. Invariably, her parents had warned her not to go into the cold and powerful river lest she be swept away. Even so, she would get as close to it as she could without being scolded and would sit quietly and watch. Sometimes she saw the dark shapes of trout hiding in the shadows of rocks in the clear water. Jays often paused in the branches of nearby trees to check her out, looking to see if she had some crumbs of bread or, better yet, peanuts. She usually did, and some jays were bold enough to swoop down and take them from her small, outstretched hand. Little striped chipmunks, also looking for an easy meal, scurried from rock to rock with their short tails straight up in the air and their legs a blur of movement. Peering at her over the edges of the rocks, they would also be rewarded for their bravery. In her grandmother’s dining room, she was equally mesmerized by the painted river and would sit on one of the creaky chairs and just stare, imagining she was there at the river’s edge, surrounded by life.

Melissa turned her attention to the third, smaller painting hanging on the wall opposite, between two tall bookcases. Different from the other two paintings, it contained figures. The painting depicted a glade, a brightly lit area ringed by dark ponderosa pines. A woman stood in the center with one arm bent, the fingertips of her right hand lightly touching the center of her chest just above the swell of her breasts, her left arm outstretched with the palm up—a gesture of beckoning. The pose reminded Melissa of figures in early Italian Renaissance paintings, especially those of Sandro Botticelli and Giovanni Bellini.

At first, Melissa thought the setting might be an alpine Garden of Eden, but no Adam was present, no snake, not any of the other animals common in such a scene. The woman in this painting peered into the forest, at a solitary dark figure with a shaggy coat and rounded ears. The figure gazed back with intensity, its eyes highlighted with tiny dots of titanium white—unmistakably a bear.

This painting had also captured her imagination as a child, and she had invented many stories about the woman and the bear. Most clear in her memory was a story in which the bear was lonely and the beautiful woman coaxed it out from its forest of solitude. Melissa imagined herself there in that glade, with both the kind woman and the fearful bruin, the three of them playing together. The reminiscence brought a smile to her face.

As an educated adult, Melissa had come to realize how very different this painting was from the others. It had a fairy-tale-like quality, and Melissa wondered if perhaps Ursula had received a commission to illustrate a story. Maybe yes, maybe no, and perhaps she’d never know.

Yet, Melissa thought, people made strong connections with the people they knew and loved, the places they lived, and the things they owned. Traces of those connections often remained, even across a long expanse of time. But a researcher had to look for them, sometimes very carefully. This was why she’d be traveling to Buckhorn, the mountain community where Ursula Bergen had lived, hoping to find any trace the artist might have left behind. Even incomplete fragments of an artist’s life could help reveal why the artist painted in a particular way or why she chose particular themes and subject matter. It was a bit like forensic science: the more pieces of evidence the investigator uncovered, the clearer the picture.


Chapter Three

Sula Johansen slid carefully into the booth in the Blue Mountain Diner. Thanks to her Scandinavian heritage, she was a little over six feet tall and had learned to be mindful not to bump her knees into the metal supports under the vintage red Formica-and-chrome tables.

“Good morning, Sula,” said the waitress, Danni. Sula was a regular customer, and Danni was always especially nice to her. When she’d first started working at the restaurant she often commented about Sula’s naturally wavy hair or her unusual amber eyes. Danni would have grabbed the opportunity for a date, should Sula suggest it, but she never did. Eventually Danni seemed to realize that Sula just wanted to be a friendly customer.

“Ah, my morning just improved greatly,” Sula said as Danni brought her a cup of coffee without asking.

“Because of me or the coffee?” Danni joked, placing the cup in front of Sula. “Wait. Don’t answer that! You want to see a menu?”

“No. I’ll just have my usual.”

“You got it, hon. I’ll go put your order in right now.”

“Thank you.” Sula poured some cream from the little stainless-steel pitcher on the table into her cup.

After the bell on the front door tinkled, a familiar voice resounded.

“Hey, Smokey!”

“Hey, Officer Martinez,” Sula said without looking up. “You looking for doughnuts?”

“Ha-ha.” The police lieutenant spoke flatly but with a smile. “Nope. I’m looking for you.”

Sula had known Lee Martinez for years, and there was no animosity between them. Quite the opposite, actually. As a bear biologist and the executive director of the Colorado Bear Conservancy, Sula worked hard to develop good working relationships with local law-enforcement officials to try to reduce the frequency of bears killed by car accidents or on purpose because they had been labeled as nuisance animals. The conservancy’s “keep bears wild” program had been successful. Fewer bears were being killed, and she was known in the community for being a strong bear advocate.

A number of people, especially hyper-masculine wildlife officers and law-enforcement types like Lee, sometimes called her Smokey, as in Smokey Bear, no doubt due to her affinity for the bruins but also because of her size. She always figured that she made them a little nervous and that the teasing was a way of compensating. But Sula also knew that Lee teased only people he liked, so she suspected him of starting the nickname. While she didn’t hate it, she didn’t love it either.

Sula reached for the bear-shaped plastic bottle next to the sugar dispenser and squeezed honey into the cup. While she stirred her coffee, she looked up to see Lee striding toward her across the diner in his dark-blue City of Buckhorn police officer’s uniform. He stopped and stood by the table, resting his hands on his thick leather belt with the tools of his trade attached—handcuffs, mace, flashlight, gloves, radio, and a 9mm Glock.

“How do you put that in your coffee?” Lee grimaced.

“It tastes good, and it’s better for you than refined white sugar.” Sula lifted her chin, gesturing to the empty seat across from her. “Care to join me?”

Lee sat and declined a menu from Danni but asked instead for a cup of coffee, black.

“So…what’s up?”

Before Lee could answer, Danni returned with his coffee and, resting her fingertips lightly on Sula’s shoulder, she topped off Sula’s cup.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Danni replied sweetly.

Lee sipped his hot coffee, watching the waitress make eyes at Sula. After she left the table, he stroked his mustache and said quietly, “A bear mauled a camper, a sixteen-year-old Scout, last night.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t find it, or you wouldn’t be talking to me about it right now.”

Lee shook his head. “No bear.”

“Is the kid okay?”

“Yeah. He’s banged up and has about twenty stitches in his leg. He’ll have a good story to tell.”

Danni returned carrying an oval platter heaped with food. She leaned across Sula, allowing her a clear view of her ample cleavage and the lacy edge of her purple bra while she placed the plate in front of her. She touched Sula’s shoulder again.

“You need anything else?”

“No. This is all I need.” Sula smiled and spoke in a smooth voice. “Thanks.”

Lee shook his head at the one-sided flirtation clearly happening in front of him. Sula knew he didn’t understand the attraction. He once said that he preferred to date women who didn’t look like they could beat him in an arm-wrestling contest. It was his way of telling her she wasn’t his type. Sula was tall and anything but delicate. Most days she wore what she referred to as her conservancy uniform: hiking boots and outdoor clothing monogrammed with the conservancy logo. It was practical, given that her job could take her anywhere in a day, from meeting with wealthy donors to going out in the field with biologists. Once, Sula couldn’t resist teasing him and told him he might reconsider if he saw her dressed for a date. His wide-eyed expression nearly brought her to tears while laughing. When she explained that she was a lesbian and he had nothing to worry about, his look of panic and confusion shifted to one of obvious relief. They’d had a comfortable working relationship ever since.

Lee pointed at the mound of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and a biscuit smothered in peppered white gravy and said, “You lecture me about refined sugar, and you eat that?”

“Breakfast like a king,” Sula said in between bites.

“Huh?”

“It’s an old expression. Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, sup like a peasant. You know, eat a big meal in the morning, fuel your brain, but then don’t overdo it the rest of the day.”

“Must be one of your Norwegian expressions.”

“Maybe. I’m not sure. So, what happened last night?” Sula wanted Lee to talk so she could eat.

“A Scouting group of fifteen kids and five adults was at the Wildwood Campground. Around three o’clock in the morning one of the boys woke up and heard movement and snuffling around outside his tent. He thought one of the other kids was trying to scare him, so he tried to be a tough guy and ignored the sounds. The bear grabbed his leg through the tent and dragged him, tent and all, into the woods. His screaming woke everyone up, and they started yelling and making lots of noise. The bear let go and scampered off.”

“Sounds like the bear did the right thing.”

“In biting the kid?” Lee looked skeptical.

“No. In taking off when they reacted to him. He showed fear of humans. The bear probably didn’t know what was in the tent.”

“Hm. That’s a good point.”

“So, what did he have in the tent?” Sula was certain that some bear-safety rules had been broken.

“The kid said he didn’t have anything with him.” The look on Lee’s face indicated otherwise.

“Uh, huh. And what did you find?”

“Toothpaste.”

Sula nodded knowingly. “They just love that fresh minty scent.”

“The kid brushed his teeth before turning in but was too lazy to walk over to the bear locker to stow the toothpaste.” Lee paused to take a sip of his coffee and then leaned back. “So, he took it back to his tent, where he also had a stash of beef jerky and trail mix.”

“Geez. That’s a bear trifecta.” Sula shook her head at the stupidity. “What’s the mayor think about it?”

“The usual. She doesn’t want any bad publicity because that might mean we’ll lose tourist business and then she’ll have the Chamber of Commerce breathing down her neck.”

“What’s Parks and Wildlife doing?”

“Trying to track it. They’re worried about the usual—repeat offenders and rabies.”

Everything seemed under control, though she worried about the bear’s well-being and hoped it had been good and scared by what had happened and didn’t stop running too soon. “So why are you talking to me so early?”

“Denver news is on the way.”

“I think I see where this is going.” Sula put her fork down and reached into her pants pocket to retrieve her phone.

“Yeah. The mayor would like to know if you’d run some interference before they blow it out of proportion.”

“Not a problem,” Sula said and held up her phone. “Excuse me while I text at the table.” She typed a message to her media director, who thrived in these kinds of situations. Sula knew that before the news crew’s van came to a complete stop at City Hall, she’d be waiting for them, interview ready with a big smile on her pretty face and chock full of facts about bear behavior and statistics about the rarity of attacks. She’d be sure to emphasize the importance of bear safety for humans and bears, assure viewers that Buckhorn was a great place for recreation, and represent the conservancy with aplomb. Sula sent the message and then set her phone down on the table. “I bet you I’ll have a response within two minutes.”

Sula continued eating, and Lee sipped his coffee as they both stared at the phone. The phone buzzed and lit up in less than a minute, it seemed. Sula read the message.

“My media director says she’s on it.”

“Thanks, Sula.” Lee finished his coffee and stood up. “I owe you one.”

“If I had a dollar for every time you said that, we’d have a new wing at the conservancy.”

“Just make sure you name it after me.” Lee laughed as he walked away. “See you later, Smokey.”

Sula finished her breakfast, and while taking a sip of her coffee, she wondered if she ought to go check on that bear.