by Nels Hanson
In the shade of the locust I could smell the scent of the hanging bunches of yellow blooms. The high clusters of finger-shaped leaves moved gently in the soft wind, filtering the light in shifting bars that played across the patrol car’s brown hood.
The wide expanse of blue-green lawn, dotted with pine and aspen and red maple, each tree an island in its own lake of shadow, had the air of a wild but well-manicured park, of somewhere north, perhaps in Canada.
There was the tart sweet tang of moist mown grass.
The white house with its three gables, blue roof, the long open porch and white cane rockers, the chairs on either side of tall windows with open sky-blue shutters, was delicious with the appealing immaculate neatness of a dream.
Sheriff Blair walked up the painted steps. He knocked at the old-fashioned door, which opened before his knuckles finished tapping at the pane of etched glass.
A handsome, white-haired man smiled and waved at the car after greeting Blair and shaking his hand. Then he turned, calling to someone in the house.
Hat in hand, Jack Blair stepped through the door.
“Blair’s the best,” said Ray Bell, Blair’s deputy. “I’ve been worried about him.”
“Don’t worry,” said Sergeant Glad. “We’ll crack it.”
Gazing up from the pleasing shadow of the honey locust, at the pristine sky that touched the tips of the snowy mountains, I almost said, “Sure,” as if all contorted problems were about to disentangle with the ease of an afterthought.
“It’s an odd crime.” I felt the balmy air against my face. “The hovercraft angle may be a break.”
“It makes sense to me,” Bell said. “Except for the hills. I don’t know if it could handle uneven ground.”
“I thought we ruled out the helicopter,” Glad said. “Too noisy.”
I was happy to let Glad and Ray Bell work it out. Here was Montana, at last, all I had hoped and hungered for as I’d counted the days in violent smog-bound Fresno. I remembered last night, when I woke in the chair before the fire the color of the cobalt flower and the startled deer was trapped for an instant in the cabin with the door half ajar—as if Ellen had just stepped out and was waiting in the ferns where the silver river passed.
I turned from the lovely house to drink in the sea of blue, clipped grass, and my heart turned over—
I reached for my gun.
“Roll up your window!”
Bell ignored my warning, putting his hand out in greeting at the great black bear moving fast in muscular strides across the lawn.
The animal reared up, walking on two legs, six feet tall, its front claws gesturing outward. Glad had his hand on his shoulder holster.
“Hi, fella,” Bell said as the bear collapsed, going down on all fours and loping the remaining five yards to the car.
“No gum today. I forgot. Anyway, it’s not good for you. Viv says it’s off your diet.”
Bell ruffled the thick black fur between its ears.
The bear poked its long head into the car, sniffing and looking over at Glad, then stood up, placing two paws on the windowsill.
“You ever petted a bear?” Bell said.
Glad reached out a slow hand.
“Easy Charlie,” Bell said.
Its mouth opened showing rows of white teeth and Glad jerked back.
“He won’t bite,” Bell said. “Will you, Charlie?” He squeezed its black nose. “He’s like a big dog.”
Glad put out his hand and the bear licked his fingers with a wide dark tongue.
“Wait till I tell the kids,” Glad said.
The bear stretched its neck across Bell to reach Glad. It nosed at the silver tips of the string tie Glad had bought in Clovis.
I lifted my hand and the bear turned, alert, sniffing at my palm.
“Go ahead,” said Bell, “feel between his ears. He likes that.”
I stroked the glossy head, then a big ear, and again the bear opened its mouth in a satisfied yawn.
In a reflex I brought back my hand but the bear leaned over the seat, trying to lick me on the cheek.
“Okay, big fella,” Bell said. “You’ve met everybody. You’ve smelled us and we’ve smelled you.”
Bell grabbed its neck and the animal drew back, pulling its head from the car and dropping its paws to the ground, rubbing its side against the door.
“God,” Glad said. “He’s big.”
“He’s a pushover,” Bell said. “Aren’t you, Charlie?”
Charlie threw back his whiskered muzzle in agreement.
“Where’d they get him?” Glad asked. “He just runs loose?”
“Four years ago some hunter killed his mother. The Stones took him in. Viv bottle-fed him. He was just a cub.”
“Not anymore,” Glad said. “What’s he eat now?”
“He’ll eat anything. Won’t you, Charlie? Meat or berries, fish or the bark off a tree.”
I had settled in my seat, secretly slipping the gun into its holster, when something moved at my right elbow and I started again, leaning toward the steering wheel.
“Look. Here’s Blossom. Come to say hello. She won’t bite either.”
I sat up, expecting Charlie’s mate, and registered the tan narrow neck. Her face was a foot away.
I looked into the doe’s large dark eyes, the same eyes I had seen last night—after I dreamed Ellen was alive and kissed my ear as I caught the cool scent of the indigo flower’s many rings of petals—before I woke before the blue fire and the little deer’s face was next to mine.
She had panicked, hit the fireplace, then spun and leapt in an amber streaming flash out the open door and I had almost followed—I could see my white shirt flicker as I disappeared among the shadowed pines and Ellen’s voice whispered at my side:
“Without coat or gun, Lambert hurried forever into the cool night, into the darkened green world—”
“Here, honey—” Glad waved his hand at the other window, but the deer didn’t move, staring back at me.
I raised my hand slowly and the doe’s wet, perfect black nose touched my fingers.
“She’s awfully pretty, isn’t she, Phil?” Glad said.
“She’s beautiful,” I said as I felt the fur like velvet along the bridge of her nose.
Who are you? I thought. Who sent you?
“What else is around here?” Glad said.
“Don’t worry,” Bell said. “No pet rattlesnakes. Just Charlie and Blossom. And Viv—”
The deer pulled back from my touch, alerted by some sound silent to human ears. Now a screen door slammed.
The doe turned with a clatter of shiny hooves on the gravel.
“Are those animals bothering you?”
A slender, attractive woman in her 50’s or early 60’s, with neatly cut short silver-gray hair, in boots and jeans and a Western shirt, stood on the porch.
“You shoo them away if they make a nuisance!”
“They’re all right, Viv,” Bell called.
She held a brown paper bag as she started down the steps, and the deer ran toward her, the bear hurried heavily around the front of the car.
“Hungry, are we?”
The animals smelled at the sack as the trim woman lifted it high in the air.
“Get back now,” she said firmly, “or I won’t give you any.”
The doe waited, then dropped her glistening nose. The bear stood still on all fours, head raised, attentive.
“That’s better. We’ve got company.” She threw two large cookies out onto the grass as the deer bolted and the bear like a talented but overweight sprinter quickly ambled toward its quarry.
The woman smiled and approached the car.
“Your friends probably think you’ve brought them to the zoo.”
“Hi, Viv,” Ray said. “Nice to see you.”
“I brought you some oatmeal-nut and raisin.” She passed the bag into the car. I could smell her perfume, faintly, like fresh mint.
Or wisteria, the bunched blossoms hanging like lavender grapes from the trellis in the yard—I could taste their sweetness above the locust blooms.
“Is that the missing flavor?” Ellen’s voice had whispered at my ear as I felt her warm breath. “The blue flower?”
“Viv, this is Lieutenant Lambert, and Sergeant Glad, from Fresno. This is Viv Stone.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Stone,” I said.
“Call me Viv.” She had dark-blue eyes nearly as large as the doe’s, a shapely, straight nose, and a generous smile.
She was a beautiful woman, I saw that now, the short hair and lack of make-up couldn’t hide it. She must have broken hearts as a girl. She was still breaking hearts.
“All the way from California, to see the Big Sky. Then this—” She shook her head. “It makes me ashamed.”
“No one’s been hurt yet,” I offered.
She stared at me with her navy, almost purple eyes.
“I mean people,” I amended awkwardly. “Just the livestock.”
“That’s true, ” she said. “So far we’ve been lucky—” She lifted a graceful hand and pushed her silver hair back, exposing a small ear and a clear lovely jaw.
“Things been quiet here?” Bell asked.
“So far so good. Knock wood,” she smiled, softly tapping at her temple. “When some of these people get up in arms they get some odd thoughts.”
“Isn’t that the truth? Bigfoot and aliens. Lieutenant Lambert here—”
“Phil,” I said.
“Phil helped Jack break that ring of survivalists, a couple of years ago.”
“Those bombings? Didn’t they—”
“A young couple,” Glad said.
“Just married,” Bell said. “On their honeymoon. Backpacking.”
“Terrible,” Viv said, then quickly, almost nervously, smiled her lovely, heart-wrenching smile. “I’m happy you fellows are here.”
“You’ve got a nice place,” I said.
“It’s great,” Glad said, grinning from under his wide new Stetson.
“I’ve been after Lloyd to get rid of the antlers in the wagon, for Blossom’s sake. I want to make a planter box. But all in all, I guess we think we’re in heaven, don’t we, Ray?”
“We are,” Bell agreed.
Now in tandem the bear and deer came up on either side of her, nuzzling her empty hands.
“I’ve got my kids,” Viv said. “What more do I want?”
And yet her smile and friendly voice were edged with an elusive sadness, her beauty was fragile and austere.
“I guess they’re my kids,” she said, petting their backs. “The ones I never had—”
Was the sweetness her response to the disappointment that the world was ugly when it might have been beautiful? When she’d shaken her head at the mention of the murdered newlyweds, I’d caught a ghostly glimpse of Ellen in the way the corners of her mouth had fallen.
“Do you know why,” my wife had asked me once, “the mix of guns and roses?”
The bear thrust its head through the window again, toward the sack on Bell’s lap, and Viv slipped a quick hand under its chin.
“Come on, you. You’ve had your snack. Anyway, we’re getting ready to eat.”
I imagined the four of them sitting together at the table, like something out of “Goldilocks,” and felt a pang of envy. All was well, within the borders of Viv’s country.
“I’ve got potatoes on. And chicken with country gravy. I asked Jack if you folks could stay, but he turned me down.”
Fool! I thought. Why not?
“Thanks,” Bell said. “We’re on duty.”
“I imagined you were,” Viv said. “I thought I’d ask.”
“Nice talking with you,” Glad said. “And meeting your family.”
“They’re a handful,” she said, “but I love them. Don’t I?” she sang as both Charlie and Blossom lifted their heads toward her.
“Thank you for the cookies,” I said.
“You’re most welcome. Maybe you can come again, for dinner, when this awful thing blows over.”
“We’ve got ’em all summer,” Bell said. “Maybe we can get ’em to pull up stakes and move to Montana.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice!” Viv said.
I could almost see the tall slender candle flame waving within her slim form. It rose and fell with each new gust of feeling. Someone should guard her always, so no clouds crossed her sun.
“Phil here is unattached,” Bell put in. “A widower. Jack and I have been trying to interest him in Beulah, Betty’s sister.”
“She’s pure gold,” Viv said to Bell. “She’s a jewel, an utter jewel.”
“Phil has nearly got the case all figured out,” Bell said. “He’s pretty smart.”
“We’ve got a ways to go—” I began modestly, then stopped. Bell’s remark was addressed to Viv.
“She’s a bright girl, very bright. She comes out a lot, to Sunday dinner. Always something new, something she’s read. You’d like Beulah,” Viv said, turning her lavender eyes to me. “Did you ever read Pilgrim’s Progress, about Beulah Land? In Hebrew her name means ‘married.’”
“That’s quite a recommendation. I’ll have to give it serious thought.”
“Don’t wait too long,” Viv said, looking closely at my face. “You’ll lose out on the chance of a lifetime—”
She swiveled, suddenly, both animals at her heels. She gestured with a hand, and the deer and bear ran around the corner of the house.
“She’s something, isn’t she?” Bell said. “Viv was in the movies.”
I felt myself believe it all again, America and Viv Stone and her peaceable kingdom, every bit of it. As she reached the steps Viv looked back and waved, then went into the house.
“She’s a real pretty woman,” I said. I realized the color of her eyes kept changing.
“And she likes Beulah,” Glad said.
“Yeah,” Bell said. “I’ll have to get Betty to call her.”
It was as if I heard a bird singing, a song and bird I hadn’t missed in 20 years, whose existence I had almost forgotten until now.
It all came back, like last night’s dream of Ellen and the sapphire flower she had offered across the silver stream like the river beyond the cabin, before the doe nosed my ear and I woke before the coals like blue diamonds or cubes of ice . . . .
Nothing had changed, there was a psychopath still on the loose, the Night Slayer, but I was happy—
The front door opened and Blair and Lloyd Stone stepped out onto the porch, shaking hands. Stone smiled widely and raised an arm. Blair came down the steps and got into the car.
“You guys meet the family?”
“They’re something,” Glad said.
“You got any more surprises?” I asked.
“Beulah,” Bell said. “Your sister-in-law. Viv thinks it’s a good idea.”
“Well,” Blair said, starting the car, “she ought to know.”
“You want a cookie?” Glad said, holding up the bag.
“Sure,” said Blair. “You guys getting hungry?”
“Hungry as a bear, huh, Bob?”
“That’s right,” Glad said.
I watched the white house and blue lawn, then the red barn and bluer silo beyond the wagon of white antlers as Blair started down the line of poplars and the slanting shadows that fell across the road of silver gravel.
“What’s next?” Glad asked.
“Web Olson’s place. He’s our kingpin around here, last of the cattle barons,” Blair said. “A wealthy loner.”
“Web’s getting up there, isn’t he, Jack?” Bell asked.
“Must be near 100. Still packing the Colt double action.”
I turned once more, like Ronald Coleman in “Lost Horizon” as he looks back at Shangri-La, to catch a last glimpse of the house and wooded park down the corridor of trees—
Viv’s world, where deer and bear walked in peace and I’d remembered Ellen holding the azure dahlia whose strong sweet scent matched some thing or person I couldn’t name.
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