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Skylar Jamison sat near the top of a rise with a gorgeous view of a narrow river valley below and the soaring face of the Wyoming Rockies ahead of her. Fields of wildflowers in brilliant reds and yellows dotted the grassy slope where she sat, and she could see them in the valley below, as well as in patches on the mountains.
From here she beheld a vast panorama of beautiful nature mostly unmarred by human presence.
That's why she'd come here. She needed to refresh herself, rediscover her joy in painting after a bad breakup. The pristine wilderness of the national forest around her washed away the sludge that seemed to have mired her heart and soul.
She sat on the grasses on a paint-splattered lightweight tarp. Before her was a small easel holding a canvas on which she had daubed some of the incredible colors around her. Beside her lay a box of oil paints, some rags and a small plastic bottle of citrus cleaner for her brushes. When she was done for the day, she'd wrap her brushes in a cleaner-soaked rag and plastic until she returned to her motel room and could rinse them. On the other side of her was a camera with several lenses. Painting outdoors might inspire her creativity, but the light changed swiftly, and when it was especially good she'd snap photos to capture it, so that she'd have a visual reminder for working later.
Up here, despite it being summer, the air was a bit chilly, and she had wrapped herself in an old sweater she didn't mind ruining with paint. The quiet breeze tickled her cheeks and occasionally rustled the grasses around her, a great background to her rambling thoughts.
A fluffy cloud blocked the sun temporarily, changing the light drastically, flattening the contrast and perspective. Something about the change gripped her and she reached for the camera, taking a number of quick shots.
The sharp, annoyed cry was so unexpected that she nearly dropped her camera and swung around. A burly man was striding out of the woods just behind her to the left. He wore woodland camouflage head to toe.
She gaped, uncertain how to respond.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Still shocked by the unexpectedness of the man's arrival and his apparent irritation, she sat frozen. One of the things she'd always hated about herself was her occasional slowness to react. It might have saved her some trouble at times simply because she thought first, but at other times it was potentially dangerous.
The man strode closer, and there was nothing casual in his approach.
Suddenly galvanized, she jumped to her feet, still holding the camera.
"I asked what the hell you're doing!"
He was getting so close that nervousness assailed her. Instinctively, she braced herself in a defensive posture in case she needed to protect herself. They were all alone up here, miles from anywhere.
"Painting," she finally said.
"That looks like a camera to me."
She wondered what the hell was going on, but surprise began giving way to anger as she measured the implied threat in his voice and his approach. "So?"
He got close enough to see the canvas and hesitated. Finally he said, "We don't like spies around here. You find some place else to take your pictures. I mean it."
He glared at her for a palpable second, then turned and strode away.
"What the hell?" she said aloud to the now empty hilltop. "What is going on?"
The grasses, trees and mountains didn't answer. The breeze kicked up a bit, chilling her. She looked around, trying to re-center herself. Same hill, same mountains, so why did she feel she'd just slipped realities?
"Idiot," she muttered finally. Probably some cranky old curmudgeon who thought he owned the entire state. Defiantly, she picked up her camera and looked through the viewfinder and her telescopic lens. Mountains, trees, grasses, wildflowers. A cabin.
She turned the camera back. She hadn't really been looking that way because the lighting was bad and didn't appeal to her, but examining more closely now she saw what appeared to be some kind of homestead across the valley on a higher elevation. She could have zoomed in more, but decided not to. Spy? Really?
Damn it, she thought, this was national forest land. She wasn't trespassing and had every right to be here. But did she really want to get into it with that nut?
Annoyed, she squatted and began to pack up. There were probably a hundred places where she could get a view just as good without the hassles, and who needed the hassles? The stubborn part of her defiantly wanted to remain, but she'd come out here for peace, not conflict. God knew, she'd endured enough conflict for a while.
She unscrewed the lens from the camera, slipped it into its case, then put everything in her camera bag. It took a little longer to put up her paints, soak the brushes and wrap them in cloth and plastic. When she was sure everything was secure in her backpack, she started to fold her tarp.
Irritated in ways she couldn't quite put her finger on, she damned the man for destroying a perfectly beautiful day. Part of her wanted to stay put, just to show him, but given the isolation out here, she had to admit that might not be wise. Just find another place, Sky.
God, she was learning to hate men. Such a sense of privilege, as if they were masters of the universe. She had a right to be here, too.
She was stuffing the tarp in her backpack when she saw another man emerge from the trees from the opposite direction, this one riding a horse. She tensed at once, then recognized the colors of the U.S. Forest Service. A ranger. She decided to stay right where she was and give this guy an earful about what had just happened. After all, wasn't it his job to make sure the public wasn't harassed on public land?
She wasn't at all clear what these folks did, but she was sure of one thing: at the ranger station before she'd come up here, a very nice woman had told her she was free to go anywhere she liked in the forest, but advised her to file a description of her planned activities and check in when she returned, just in case.
"If we need to rescue you," the woman said cheerfully, "it would be really helpful to have some idea when and where to start looking."
Raising her hand, Sky waved at the rider. At once he turned his mount a little and began to come directly toward her.
God, he looked iconic, she thought. A big man on a big horse under the brim of a felt Stetson. There was no mistaking that long-sleeved light olive shirt with its patches and brass nameplate, or the dark olive jeans. And soon there was no mistaking the glint of a badge on his breast, or the gun holstered at his waist. Or the shotgun in the saddle holster. She guessed he wasn't an ordinary ranger. What the heck happened in these mountains?
When he got close enough, she could see a square, sun-bronzed face, some dark, close-trimmed hair. Not his eyes, though, in the shadow of his hat. He rode easily, as if he'd been born in the saddle, seeming to sway with the horse's every move, relaxed and comfortable. Broad shoulders, narrow hips. And armed.
That kept grabbing her. She wondered if she was foolish to come out here without some kind of protection.
He reached her at last, raising a finger to the brim of his hat. "Something wrong, ma'am?"
"Maybe. This is forest land, right? Open to the public?"
"Then why would some guy come tell me to go someplace else?"
He glanced across the valley. "Big guy? Burly?"
"I know him." The ranger shook his head. "I'll take care of it. He won't bother you again."
"What is he? Some kind of nut?"
"I suppose you could argue that." For the first time he smiled faintly. "Isolated places sometimes grow cranks. Are you getting ready to leave?"
"Believe it. I don't like being treated that way. Besides " She hesitated. "He unnerved me a little. It's very lonely out here." Something she'd been enjoying only a short time ago.
"It can be." Rising a bit in his stirrups, he scanned the area. "How long ago did he bother you?"
Sky tried to measure it. "It had to be at least fifteen minutes. I started packing up as soon as he left."
He looked at her things. "What do you do?"
"I was trying to paint. I'm an artist."
"Sometimes. To capture the light."
"Well, that might do it. All right, I'll have some words with him. In the meantime.. " He swung down from the saddle. "Let me help you carry your things and make sure you get safely back to your car or your campsite."
Before she could do more than thank him, he'd swung the strap of her heavy camera bag over the pommel of his saddle and picked up her backpack, holding it with one hand and his reins in the other. "Which way?" he asked.
She pointed to where she'd left her car, grabbed the box containing her supplies and canvas, and together they started walking. He didn't seem to be in any hurry, sticking to a leisurely pace.
Sky, for her part, was starting to bubble over with questions. She just didn't know if she should ask him. But finally one burst from her.
"Are you some kind of cop?"
He glanced at her, just before they entered the shadow of the trees, and at last she caught a glint of dark gray eyes. "Some kind. I'm in law enforcement for the service, but I'm also a biologist. So I wear a few hats. I keep an eye on the wildlife while patrolling for violators, I do search and rescue, firefighting." He gave a laugh. "Short staffing makes everyone a jack-ofall-trades, I guess. Anyway, I guess you could say my main job is protecting visitors and employees. Whatever's most needed on any day." He paused. "I'm Craig Stone, by the way."
"Skylar Jamison. Sky for short."
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Jamison."
"I was certainly glad to see you. That man made me really nervous, and I don't get unnerved easily. What is he? Some kind of hermit who thinks he owns the woods?"
"It's a little more complicated than that. Are you aware that when we turn land into national forest or parkland we don't throw out people who are already living there?"
"I hadn't thought about it."
"Well, we don't evict people. They get to stay the way they always have if they want to, or we buy them out. The guy you met owns a spread inside the forest here."
"Is that what I saw across the valley?"
"Part of it. He owns a fair piece."
"Does he make a point of bothering people?"
"Not usually. He's got his property posted and doesn't like trespassers, but " He paused. "Something's going on over there lately. I usually mind my own business when it comes to his property, but maybe it's time to have a few friendly words. I'm certainly going to make sure he doesn't drive people off public land, or scare them. Maybe I can even find out why he was bothered by you at all."
"He called me a spy."
Craig turned his head and looked straight at her.
"His word, not mine."
He fell silent as they continued to walk. The sound of the horse's hooves were almost entirely muted by the deep pine needles under the trees, then would become louder again as they scuffed through leaves. "How often have you been out there?"
"This was the third day."
"Do you use that camera a lot?"
"Like I said, to capture the light as much as anything. It's changing constantly, and sometimes there's something about it I really want to catch for later."
"I wonder if the camera got to him. Well, I'll find out. Either way, if you want to come back to this spot, you can. I'll make sure of it."
"You may have a lot of guns, but they won't be around when I'm out there alone."
That elicited a laugh from him. "True, but I don't think Buddy runs to violence. A little nutty maybe, but I never heard of him hurting anybody. But if you like, I know some other vantages as good as that one I can show you. Well away from Buddy."
"I may take you up on that." Although the idea of ceding ground to a crank annoyed her no end. She knew perfectly well that she could deal with that guy. He hadn't even been armed that she could see. She just didn't want the conflict. This was supposed to be a break.
"Feel free. Just leave a message for me with Lucy at the station. She'll radio me."
"Thanks. So you're a biologist, too?"
"Focused on wildlife mostly."
"If it walks, crawls or flies, I'm probably on it. Our mission is to protect everything in these forests for future generations. It's not always easy. We humans seem to have some problems getting along with nature."
"No kidding! So I bet you know the names of all the wildflowers?"
"Sure. You want to know what they are?"
"Actually no," she admitted. "I see them a different way, categorize them by colors and shapes. Names might change what I see."
"An artist's eye?"
"Then why did you ask?"
She gave him a sidelong glance. "Because you're the first person I've ever met who might actually know the official names of everything in the woods."
He flashed another truly attractive smile as they reached the service road and her battered sedan came into view. He helped her load her car, then closed her door after she climbed in. She rolled down the window and started the engine.
"Drive slow. We've got some logging trucks driving a little crazy up here."
She looked up at him, drinking in again his good looks. "I didn't see any."
"We're doing some thinning to prevent disease and clearing some deadfalls. If you stay around awhile, you'll see them. Drive safe." He gave the top of her car a friendly rap, then stepped back, remounted and watched her drive away.
Glancing in her rearview mirror, she saw him. Dang, that man looked good enough to eat.
As soon as there was nothing left but a cloud of dust, Craig pulled the radio off his belt to call his boss. "Hey, Lucy."
"What's up, Craig?"
"Buddy. He's done it again. I'm going to have to go talk to him, probably in the morning. Night's drawing near."
"Want me to send someone to meet you?"
"I doubt that's necessary. I'm just going to remind him that the public has a right to be on public land."
"What's going on with him?"
"Damned if I know, but maybe I can find out. I told a lady artist to let you know if she wants me to find her somewhere else to paint."
"He bothered her? Craig, I don't like it. I can see him getting mad at a bunch of rowdy campers, but a woman alone who's just painting?"
"And taking photos." Craig paused. "It's the photos that might have been the problem, and that's what worries me. Why would that bother him?"
"Are you sure you don't want some backup?"
"I never had a problem with Buddy before."
"Nobody had a problem with him before. But don't forget that dead hiker we found at the beginning of the summer."
"I seriously doubt Buddy was involved in that. Misadventure."
"Misadventure my butt," Lucy said bluntly. "I'd feel a whole lot better if the medical examiner could ascertain cause of death. I know it probably wasn't Buddy, but you take care. The guy's getting weird."
Craig tucked the radio away and looked at the sky. The day was waning; it would take him a while to get to Buddy Jackson's place, which meant there wouldn't be much light when he got there. Definitely best to wait for morning, especially if he wanted to be able to see anything.
And seeing what was going on at Buddy's place suddenly seemed like it might be important.