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excerpt from chapter one

Pressing the shutter, I took half a dozen shots in little more than a second, using the flash to smooth out the austere neutrals and accentuate the color saturation. Adjusting the aperture in quarter stops, I took twelve shots from two different angles on the bank, one set from above the old cabin site, the final set from below, bending, turning the camera for longer views, twisting to get just the right angle of the pliant, mutable light. All the while, I murmured to the camera, to the stone and mortar, to the 70-year-old trees I used as frames for some shots, excitement building inside me. It was a tingle, an electric charge that always came on a shoot when suddenly everything fell into place and the light was perfect and I knew—just knew—I was getting great shots.
     It took 45 seconds to change film in the Nikon F4 camera, a process I completed as I slid down the bank to the creek, tossing the used roll into my sling-bag and inserting a fresh from the same brick of film. Wading out thigh deep, the light meter quickly consulted and dropped into the protection of my sweatshirt, I set my feet in the lose creek bottom. The waders I had donned before dawn were no longer a hindrance as they had been on the hillside. Felt soles cushioned my feet and protected me from slipping and falling into the frigid stream. Rushing water pressed against the thick rubber; even through the ample layers of socks I could feel the icy temperature of the creek leaching body warmth from my legs and feet. My toes threatened to cramp in the cold.
     The sun was coming up fast now and I cut the flash, stopping down the aperture half an F stop to decrease the amount of light through the lens. I suddenly began to think I might make it. If only the light lasted another two minutes. Just two minutes . . .
     "Mom. Above you on the ledge!"
     Whirling, I looked where Bella pointed, high up across the far meadow. Coming down the ridge was a man on horseback, a packhorse negotiating the path behind him. It was sheer serendipity, light in long streams catching the mist through the trees between us. The day had matured radically, according to the light meter. Without even thinking, I slipped on the lens shade and increased the shutter speed to 250 for the brighter shot. "Get me the telephoto," I shouted, taking quick shots on automatic, letting the camera do the work of changing the aperture for me.
     "Right behind you," she said, a grin in her voice.
     I turned and took the adjustable Nikon lens from her, releasing the standard 50 mm I had used all morning, and quickly replaced it with the heavier one. She took the lens, tossing her binoculars over her shoulder on its slender strap and stepped away.
     With the adjustable lens, I could go from 80 mm to 210 mm with a pull of the barrel. I shot it all the way out and aimed at the horseman.
     His hat was old and sear, a western hat with a band of sweat showing traces of white salt. His chin was clean shaven, the only thing I could make out beneath the rim of the old hat. Riding western style, he neck-reined the sure-footed roan beneath him, his butt settled so firmly in the high cantle of the saddle that he could have been part horse himself. He wore a faded green plaid flannel shirt and a denim jacket over it all. Denim-clad legs gripped the horse beneath him, his muscles corded and strained. Old boots, the heels worn into rounded half moons were steady in the stirrups. A long-haired blond dog loped ahead of him scouting at point, a reddish one trotted closer to the packhorse, a half length behind and out of the way of careless hooves.
     I bent into a half squat, moving laterally across the low rise where I stood, and took a second roll of film as he descended. "Oh this is wonderful. Beautiful. Why don't you lift your face? Come on! Lift your face . . ." He didn't. Not once. I used 36 shots on his descent, changing rolls only after he disappeared into the mist behind the tree line.
     I finished the last rolls of film, filled with elation, with the sheer bliss that came from success. The light had lasted, and it had been green and glorious, and I had that horseman . . . The shots were good. I knew it.
     Pulling off the hip-waders, I laced up Timberland hiking boots, loosely tied them, and finger-combed my too-curly hair as I stored the telephoto lens and the light meter, and slipped the Nikon into its sturdy cloth carryall. I put the exposed rolls of film in the bag and stacked the equipment in a pile by the bedrolls. Pulling off the mist-damp sweatshirt, I buttoned a camp shirt over the purple long-john undershirt, leaving the outer hem loose. By full day, Bella had breakfast on and coffee made on the little propane stove; the scent of bacon and biscuits and the divine aroma of coffee wafted on the dispersing mist.
     Fitting the F4 into my backpack and pulling my older Nikon F3 to me, I inserted a roll of black and white film as my stomach grumbled. I needed to eat, but as long as Bella had been coming on professional photography shoots, I had chronicled the experience afterwards with a roll of black and white. For posterity. For memories. Lifting the camera, I took a half roll of film of Bella as she sat before the little stove, catching a pensive look as she stared into the small flame.
     At the shutter clicks, she looked up, both amused and mildly annoyed. "Put it down and eat before your blood sugar drops to twelve."
     I dropped the camera on its thong around my neck and poured coffee. I drank it down as fast as the scalding of my tongue allowed before sitting down. Bella drank her coffee mostly white, looking far too pretty to be my own flesh and blood in her purple thermal tee and skin-tight jeans. "You get that cowboy and his horses?"
     "Mhmmm," I nodded, taking a huge bite of campfire-pan biscuit. "Fantastic. Wish I had more."
     "You're in luck then. I think that dog is his."
     I glanced up and spotted a dog, part Golden Retriever, part mutt, on the far bank of the stream. Its tail wagged slowly as it evaluated us, nose in the air, ears pricked, tongue lolling. A moment later, a second dog trotted up and barked, coming up on his hind legs, with excitement. A high pitched whistle silenced him, and both dogs turned back into the woods.
     I didn't like being approached by anyone; Bella and I were not in an area of woods where camping was encouraged. We had hiked up more than five miles from the Park Ranger Station to find the long deserted site.
     Easing over to the packed bedrolls, I fished for the gun I kept there. I hated guns. But I hated even more being attacked by a rabid raccoon or being unable to frighten off an amorous stag or a pack of feral dogs on the hunt. I slipped the small .38 Smith and Wesson that had belonged to my father, into my waistband and pulled my camp shirt over the bulge.
     Bella rolled her eyes at me. "Men who like dogs and who ride gorgeous horses are not dangerous. Besides, you hate that thing."
     "Then it won't matter that it's under my shirt and not in my hand, will it?"
     The dogs appeared on the far bank again, and moments later I spotted the roan. The horseman moved easily in the saddle, as if he spent long hours on horseback. When he reached the creek, he whistled again, a different set of notes, and the two dogs drank. He let his horses nose forward to the moving water as well, and they dropped their heads to suck in long draughts. As they slurped water, he studied us.
     He had an easy smile and bright green eyes beneath the brown hat brim, an average face with light eyelashes and brows that caught the sun when he pushed back the hat. "I've been smelling that coffee for the last half mile," he called. He crossed an arm over the saddle horn and leaned against it. A bit of white long-john shirt peeked out beneath his sleeves. "I hope you ladies intend to take pity on a tired man who ran out of instant coffee two days ago. I would be forever in your debt." He tipped his hat, like someone from an old western, "Dell Gregory, on sabbatical from the University of South Carolina." There was laughter in his voice and amusement in his eyes, but his face held understanding and patience. He was in no hurry.
     Bella looked at me, her brows raised.
     I suddenly felt foolish. "Arabica beans suit you?" I asked.
     "Ma'am, if you offered the used grounds to me, I'd chew them up and swallow them. I'm that starved for coffee."
     I laughed, "Come on over, then." Softly, I added to my daughter, "We are hiking. Nothing more. We expect your father back before noon, should he ask."
     "I remember the rules, Mom. But, Jeeze, he's not Jason from Friday The Thirteenth or something. And he's good looking, for an old guy." She slid a sidelong glance at me. Bella knew her daddy was happy, while I was lonely. Once she realized that Marlow wasn't coming back, she'd begun trying to fix my life. For weeks she had been pointing out eligible men to me with a calculated intensity and sly amusement at her new game.
     "We also have a rule about matchmaking."
     "You have the rule about matchmaking. I don't." She had that familiar, mischievous—downright dangerous—glint in her eye.
     "Bella. Don't you dare," I begged, trying to sound stern, but fighting my own smile.
     Dell waded his horses through the creek. The reddish dog, a male, claimed my daughter with the rough swipe of a tongue across her jaw, and settled down beside her. His eyes stared at the crumbs remaining on her plate. The blond dog took up watch on the high point of the hill, near the chimney.
     Dell dropped the reins to the ground, an indication of his mounts' training and disposition. They wandered to nearby grass and began to munch. Dell pulled off his denim jacket and squatted down to the cookstove as Bella poured him a cup of steaming coffee.
     He breathed in long and sensuously at the double-walled camp mug, refused the offer of sugar and cream, and drank the dark brew. "Ladies, you know the way to a man's heart, right here."
     "Bella Morgan," Bella prompted, cutting her eyes at me.
     "Mac Morgan," I said.
     Dell paused, blowing across his cup. "Mac?" Before I could respond with my usual, "It's short for MacKenzie," he repeated, "Mac Morgan," as if testing it for familiarity. "Interesting name. But you two women shouldn't be up in the mountains alone like this. It can be dangerous." His eyes surveyed our camp as he spoke.
     "My husband's joining us later today. Kept over on business. You know how it is."
     Dell looked at me, his eyes missing nothing, his face revealing less. His gaze dropped to my left hand, the band of white skin marking the spot where my ring had once protected me from sunlight. A slight chill slithered up my neck, creeping across the exposed hair on my nape. The reddish dog raised up from his place on the ground and sniffed at the air. Bella sat suddenly still, looking back and forth from me to Dell, alarm in her eyes. I knew she could sense my disquiet. I had always been an open book to my daughter.
     "More coffee?" I asked resisting the urge to close my right hand over my left.
     "It would be a kindness. Ma'am. That's the truth." The accent on the word truth was subtle, but I couldn't have missed it. I held his eyes, saying nothing, my left hand out waiting for his cup. Finally he smiled and passed me the mug for a refill. "That's Rufus there," he said nodding to the red dog, who looked over in response. "And that's his mama up on the hill. Polly is bit skittish with strangers but she'll come around." he assured Bella.
     I said nothing, and he sipped his coffee. Rufus sat back down, and I poured myself a second cup, wondering at the momentary disquiet. What had that been?
     "You ever seen raw gold? I found a nugget upstream a ways. These hills had gold in them once. Miners took what they wanted and moved on. A man can still pan or mine enough gold to support himself if he doesn't plan to live too lavishly. Or mine silver. Used to be a rich place, the Appalachians. Now miners and geologists look for other riches here." He grinned, exposing white teeth, the bottom row not quite lined up evenly. "Want to see the nugget?" His excitement was contagious, the animate energy of a professional talking about his love. He was stepping to his horses as he spoke, the plastic mug cradled in his hand. Polly trotted down the hill, following him, scouting with nose and ears. Dell sent her off in another direction with the flick of his finger.
     "Be careful," I whispered. "We'll give this another half hour and then we pack up and head back to the car."
     "More coffee?" she asked me in warning, and I knew that Dell was within earshot.
     "Please," I said. "Dell, would you like a biscuit? Bella makes a fine pan of canned Hungry Jack and bacon."
     "That would be mighty generous," he said. "I ate rehydrated eggs about five-thirty, but they're long gone. Polly circled back and looked at Bella, mistrust in her gaze, her jaw held low, her tail down and unmoving.
     "I don't think Polly likes me," Bella said.
     "Don't mind her. She's just jealous. She'll become friendly soon enough. Polly likes young girls."
     Dell opened a small bag, emptying the contents into Bella's hands. I had seen nuggets of gold before, the bright raw metal twined with white quartz, but this was large, perhaps as big as my thumb, and mostly gold.
     "Oohhhh. Look Mom."
     "I'm seeing," I said softly. It was beautiful. And somehow just a bit odd that he would share such valuables with us.
     A second drawstring sack held malachite, a greenish, rough stone. Then a sapphire appeared in the palm of Bella's hand, a dull rock more greenish than blue. "This is a perfect white quartz arrowhead," he said, adding to the pile of pretty baubles. "I'm a geologist by trade. Girls like pretty things," he confided to me.
     The phrase startled me. Girls like pretty things . . . A feeling of dread crawled insistently at the base of my skull. Girls like pretty things . . . I stood and finished off my coffee in one long scalding swallow that burned my tongue. "I have to wash up," I said, turning off the propane that had kept the coffee warm. Bella nodded to me without looking up from the pile of stones. Dell ignored me. The .38 was warm and secure against my belly, close to my hands. Girls like pretty things . . .
     I cleaned up the dishes in the creek, packed the lightweight stove and eating utensils in the backpack Bella had hauled up the mountain. The mother dog, Polly, followed me with her eyes, alert and on guard. What was it Dell had said about the dog? She likes young girls. I wasn't sure I liked the sound of that.
     Polly came close and sat, her head cocked quizzically as she watched me work. For a dog who liked young girls, she showed remarkable disinterest in my daughter.
     On one level the two by the stream looked perfectly fine, a man and a young girl—a young woman—sitting on the bank, looking at pretty stones and bits of ore, the girl holding stones to the light. But something bothered me about it all. Something was not quite right.
     Girls like pretty things . . . And suddenly I understood.
     He was courting her. Old fashioned term, but it fit. Courting her. Nice looking man, taking time off from the university. He's probably renting a cabin from a local. Bella looked a good five years older than she was. Relief washed through me, half comfort, half worry at this new development in my daughter's life—men. I could have laughed at myself.
     I strapped the cool stove in place and finished packing. Twenty minutes had passed. As always, I pulled my old F3 to me and framed Bella, and incidentally Dell. I slowed the shutter, checked the camera's light meter, closed the aperture a bit and snapped a few shots.
     Dell looked up at the sound of the shutter clicks. Focused his bright green gaze on me. Something flared in his eyes. An intense reaction as some strange emotion crossed his features and was gone. I was certain I caught it on film.
     "I'm not fond of pictures." His voice was quiet in the clearing, his tone icy with threat. Polly growled low in her throat. The dog was somewhere behind me. Hairs lifted on the back of my neck.
     Slowly, I looked over the camera. "I was taking Bella," I said. "I always take shots of her on—hikes," I faltered. I had almost said shoots.
     The odd emotion crossed Dell's face again, lingering. This time I identified it. Fury. Blatant, uncontrolled rage. Polly's growl deepened, low and feral, off to the side, circling.
     Something was wrong here. Very wrong. The .38 against my belly seemed to heat my skin. A sense of peril pulsed through me. I slid my wrist along the bulge of gun-grip for an instant. Should I pull it? What if I was wrong? I hated guns.
     Time seemed to slow, stretch, hang suspended in one long instant, like taffy, pulled. I backed up a step, one hand angling beneath my shirt for the .38, fumbling. Dell stood, uncoiling fast, like a cobra. Paralysis closed its fist around my neck. Dell stepped forward.
     Coffee boiled its way back up, my left fingers stiffened on the Nikon in apprehension, uncertain. Hidden beneath it and my shirt, my fingers curled, grabbing at the gun. But he was so close to Bella. Too close. A wild shot . . . Coffee-acid blistered the back of my throat.
     "Mom?" I glanced at Bella. She was rising from the ground, confusion in her eyes. Run, I wanted to scream, but my throat clamped closed.
     Dell stepped between us, in front of her, his face now impassive, hands at his sides. Girls like pretty things . . . I'm not fond of pictures.
     "Mom?" Odd tremulous warning note in her voice. Dell's face was stone and ice, the smile gone. My fear ratcheted up, lodging in my throat.
     I had to get him away from her, away from the line of fire and pull the weapon. I had to, even if I was wrong. Panic swelled and pulsed through me. Heat and freezing paralysis and two thoughts only. Get Dell away from Bella. Pull the gun.
     Walking three steps to the left, up the hill, my hand hidden, I ejected the roll of film and pocketed it, talking, hoping the movement of hiding the film was lost in the space between us. If he followed, then I could pull the gun. If he followed I would have a clear line of fire. Always always always have a clear line of fire. Daddy's voice from so long ago.
     "I have shots of Bella in the Urals, and in Siberia, and on deserts from all over the world," I said, my voice breathless, talking to cover the sound of a new roll being put in and fed through the auto load, and the clicks as I took useless shots of the ground. "Her entire life is catalogued on film."
     Face impassive now, Dell pursued, his boots steady on the loam. And I knew. Dropping the camera on its thong, sending several rolls of film bouncing, my hand curled into a claw around the gun. Just a step further, I willed the man. He lifted his foot.
     "Mama?" Rising tone of panic. "Mama!" Shale slipped at the bank as Bella rocketed from the mats toward me.
     "Run, Bella!" I screamed as I pulled the .38, sliding my hand from beneath the camp shirt. "Run!"

copyright © 2005 Gwen Hunter


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