Her brush paused above the canvas. She concentrated, tried to make the colors flow from her heart, through her hand to the brush, but they refused. Her thoughts circled, then settled again on his face.
His face, the cowboy in the portrait, had haunted Victoria Ames since she’d created the acrylic image two weeks ago. The cowboy’s face was not unusual; blue eyes, with brown hair and mustache under a wide-brimmed black hat, but the unknown source of the image perplexed her.
Vicki rarely painted portraits. She preferred animals and landscapes that conveyed her longing for the expansive vistas of the West. The act of painting the landscapes allowed her to flee, if only temporarily, to the place where her dreams lived. She wondered if the cowboy’s face had come to her from that same twilight of her mind.
She tried to focus, but now, Joanne’s words of an hour ago returned with the urgency of an alarm. “He wanted to speak to the artist,” her best friend had said. “He thought he might come back.” Joanne’s description of him, virtually matching the face in the portrait, had sent Vicki’s insides into a whirlwind. Had Joanne seen the portrait? Vicki doubted it. She had hidden the painting behind a stack of canvases in her cluttered studio shortly after she’d finished it and she hadn’t even stolen a glance at it herself in the past two weeks.
As Native American flute music drifted into the studio from the gallery out front, Vicki shook her head and dropped her brush and palette on the table to her right after pushing aside an orange peanut butter cup wrapper. When painting became difficult, she needed to stop, retreat, and clear a new path.
She reached down and tugged off her cowboy boots and socks, then kicked them away across the hardwood floor. Sliding her feet across the cool, varnished hardness of the oak, she closed her eyes and took a long breath, letting it out slowly through her nose. Painting barefoot sometimes made the difference. She relished the cozy feel of the wood beneath her. It helped her connect with the rustic surroundings of the studio and gallery, helped her detach from bonds of tension.
Another gentle breath and Vicki concentrated on the pungent, familiar smell of the oils and turpentine that was like a trusted companion within the chosen insulation of her studio. The isolation was a reward she anticipated whenever she was away. Painting was a tonic.
She ran her hands through her long, coppery hair and let it fall on her back and shoulders, on the black blouse Joanne had chastised her for wearing on such a hot day. In the air-conditioned gallery it hadn’t mattered, but Vicki wore black regardless of the weather. She liked the hint of mystery it provided.
As she tugged the tails of her blouse from her blue jeans, Vicki remembered the neglected roses, her entire yard that had been unattended for most of the last three months. Her face creased with guilt as her gaze landed on the peanut butter cup wrapper, another indulgence she shouldn’t have allowed. Her newfound freedom, as exhilarating as it was, battled daily with her guilt. She could not understand why because the freedom was owed to her. She had earned it with the years of patience and pain.
Perhaps she simply wasn’t yet used to being alone. By herself, there was so much more time to think, and to magnify emotions. Every activity, from picking up the mail at her post office box to washing paintbrushes, seemed to have a sharper edge, a force that threatened to disrupt her delicate balance with only a whisper of effort.
At least her fear of being alone had diminished. An unexpected seedling of courage had asserted itself and grown within her in the last few weeks. It had sprouted from the fire-blackened forest floor that had been her marriage, and it rose, vibrant and spring-green. She tried to nourish it every day.
With a sigh, she made a promise to water the roses when she got home. The rest of the yard, however, could wait. When she was done with the roses, she’d microwave the remnants of last night’s pizza and descend into her old armchair, her favorite piece from the Mineral Point estate sale, and she’d start a novel. A little nourishment, every day.
What pleased her the most about her plan was that she would ignore the clock. She might even shut off the phone. Having that amount of control, to be able to avoid the telephone, gave her a spark of excitement.
Vicki’s shrouded world had been created out of necessity. Over time, she had needed to barricade certain sections of her life, building barriers to both shield herself and to repress a pocket of darkness inside of her that she did not know how to confront. The doorways to the covered places were still there, she knew, but she never ventured through them. The courage she needed for that was still beyond her. Marking her calendar one day at a time, she hoped the internal walls would come down, or at least weaken, if her separation from Glen became permanent and ended in divorce. She could see no other solution.
The cowboy in the portrait eased himself into Vicki’s mind once more. Silent warmth spread through her as she pictured the depth and intensity of his blue eyes. She wanted to assign some special significance to the portrait, but that might be too daring. It was only a painting. And she wasn’t certain if she still believed in magic.
Years ago, she created magic, was surrounded by it. She once thought that anything was possible, that all you had to do was believe. But dreams died, reality crushed fantasy, and the magic became hard to find. It had become easier for her to live unexposed, her truths hidden behind the walls. It was safe, but there was no passion.
Maybe the magic was never there in the first place. Maybe she hadn’t yet found it. Sometimes, in the small hours of the night when her vulnerability was taut, Vicki questioned her place and the choices she’d made that had brought her there. She would trace the familiar trails, the circular avenues, and the same conclusions would appear. She wanted to live in the scenes she painted. She wanted to make them a living and vibrant part of her, an existence she could grasp every day instead of being an observer to an artificial world on canvas.
She knew, however, that the choices placing her in Galena, Illinois were the only ones she’d had at the time. Her reasoning seemed certain, even through the clarity of hindsight, but clouds of doubt always formed as she reflected. What if she had waited? What if she had pushed Glen to move farther west instead of settling on a compromise that satisfied neither of them? What if? There were too many what ifs. They would overwhelm her and then the regrets began to line up.
Vicki had learned to live with the regrets. She had accumulated enough of them at forty-four, small ones and large, that they had faded into an aged blur resting behind her. One or two more wouldn’t change anything.
Then, as always, the tide of regret would wash away and leave a defining memory: her father’s death when she was eleven. Only in the last few years, when her marriage to Glen began to suffer, had she realized how deeply her father’s passing had affected her. Her father was a salesman and he traveled often. On that spring morning, he had left early. It was a last-minute trip and he was gone before she had awakened for school. He hadn’t been able to say goodbye to her.
She had never forgotten how the school principal came to her classroom that day and whispered to her teacher, then the expression on her teacher’s face. Something was wrong. Vicki thought she was in trouble. The principal walked her to his office where Mrs. Calahan, a neighbor, was waiting. In silence, Mrs. Calahan drove her home. Vicki remembered that vividly because she sat in the front seat of the car, still wondering why she’d been taken out of school.
At home, she found her mother and aunt. Her mother, sobbing, hugged her and told her about the plane crash halfway across the country. A picture of a rainbow and flowers Vicki had painted for her father that morning was left on her desk at school.
Her innocent soul had a hole gouged into it that day, and it had never been filled. She had come to regard the emptiness as a need, almost a compulsion, for a male figure in her life. She considered it a weakness. Whether she was being fair to herself by doing so, she didn’t know.
If not for that need, she knew she could have walked away from her relationship with Glen long ago. Perhaps they never would have married in the first place. And now, separated from her husband and being propelled forward by passing days, Vicki had regular bouts with questions and fear, echoes between doubt and certainty. Her seedling of courage was growing, to be sure. It was gratifying, but it was tiny and she needed more. She had no idea where it would come from.
* * *
Casey Beckett stood on the doorstep of summer, brimming with expectations of soaring over the roads, to new places and old. A few thousand miles of highway would pass beneath his shadow in the next four months, from four-lane interstates to lonely gravel roads, each byway providing rich images to be recorded by his mind, then rendered with care in a song or poem.
It was the exhilaration of freedom that made each of his days another adventure living among the overtures and anthems of the country. He’d play his music and listen to nature’s music, taking it one highway at a time. It was the best he could hope for.
He gazed out the café window at the narrow brick street in Galena. Cars and people floated by in the glare of the afternoon sun, but he saw beyond them. Another break in the curtain of time had opened and the past had reached forward and touched Casey’s shoulder with a cold hand. He sighed, pulled off his black Stetson and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. As much as he enjoyed these trips, lived for them, actually, they were getting longer. Somewhere, the spark had faded. It still burned, but the intensity of his desire had waned. He laughed to himself as he replaced the hat. Was that a sign of age?
An old image came, of his parents’ eastern Wyoming ranch; the high buttes, immense sky, cattle on the green grasslands; the ceaseless wind, flowing, streaming, laced with the smell of rain and dust. There had always been a sense of security when the ranch was there. It was his foundation, no matter where he traveled.
When the ranch had been sold, it was a milestone, a point of time Casey used when referring to events occurring before or after. He’d always thought he would work the ranch, continuing the sacred tradition. But even if he hadn’t, its very existence was stability enough in a changing world frequently out of tune with a singing cowboy. At least his lifestyle still allowed him to be close to the land. That, more than anything, fired his soul. Every day, he drew strength from the land and he hoped he was honoring it in return.
He sensed the ancient energy living in groves of aspens; the wind spoke to him as it whispered through the leaves. Rivers were primordial clocks measuring his months and seasons as their waters flowed eternally from high divides. Clouds in the vast western sky were his markers of change. The sky itself was a life force ebbing and flowing with an enormous, incomprehensible power manifested in thunderstorms, lightning and the wind. Rain was a vital essence. Snow was a purified form of that essence, instilling new plants with vigor as it melted every spring. He could always hear the old voices on the land, calling his name, inviting him to share the wealth.
Smiling, Casey pulled a five from his wallet and dropped the tip on the table. It was time to move on. He nodded to the elderly couple from Milwaukee across the aisle; they’d had an engaging conversation with him about the fear of flying they shared. The old man grinned, raised a hand and said, “Good driving to you.”
Unfolding himself from the booth, Casey stood up with a quiet groan. “Keep the sunset in your windshield,” he said with a smile, his voice deep and resonant. He strode to the cash register, a lean display of denim, boots and silver buckle.
Outside, the June heat licked at him. The troubadour lowered his hat and went for his Chevy pickup. That western gallery was across town and he still had time. One of the paintings he’d seen there lingered in his mind and he was hoping the artist had returned.
As the dark blue pickup nosed through the busy streets of Galena, the air conditioning breezed cool air at Casey from the dashboard. He was in the Midwest to perform in Dubuque, Iowa, twenty miles away and across the Mississippi River from Galena. He sang, played his guitar, and recited cowboy poetry, this time for the annual convention of an agriculture commodities association. He had done a breakfast show that morning and was scheduled for an evening banquet tomorrow on Friday. The following morning he’d be back on the road for his Jackson, Wyoming home.
Casey’s habit was to explore when he had free time during his trips. He never tired of seeking out an unusual store or cultural site, of experiencing the land in its infinite moods across the country. A restless urge to keep moving, to keep searching, rode side by side with him. There were times when he welcomed it, bathed in its liberty, and there were moments when he cursed it, blamed it for his failings. He would never admit the latter to anyone.
Yearning coupled to the restlessness. Unable to define it, he referred to it as his “veil of indistinct longing.” Casey knew he was searching, questing for something more than a ranch, for more than satisfaction in the career path he’d taken, but its nature had always eluded him. So he kept looking. He enjoyed the journey, but there were times, coming more often now, when the journey made him weary. He’d stop and question his direction, taking a deep breath of renewal. At these moments, his bond with the land was the only certainty he could grasp.
Casey parked his truck around the corner from the Cottonwood Gallery. The heat pressed at him as he walked toward the shop, and he recalled the scene in the painting that had attracted him. It was a view of a lone cowboy on horseback on a sagebrush-dotted flat with mountains looming in the background. The artist had enhanced the scene with the orange and pink radiance typical of the first moments after sunrise in open country. A solitary eagle floated in the sky.
The eagle and the particular, familiar look of the mountains had intrigued Casey. Eagles always caught his eye. For years, they had been significant to him. When he was nineteen, a Native American elder who lived on the Eastern Shoshone Wind River Reservation in Wyoming gave him his spirit name. The name, Blue Eagle, Afaa Gweeah in Eastern Shoshone, had come to the elder in a vision. It had profound meaning for Casey, because of its source and the reasons it was granted to him.
Twenty years had passed since his lakeside naming ceremony in the Owl Creek Mountains. The Shoshone elder who had performed the ceremony, Stands-With-The-Mountain, told him that his vision had been powerful, its meaning clear. He’d said that Casey, like the eagle, had been given the gift of communication between worlds. The eagle was a messenger from the Great Spirit and Casey was destined to become a translator of the emotion and power in the natural world. But that gift would come with a price.
Casey’s spirit, Stands-With-The-Mountain had said, would be forever colored with longing, a desire for a certain something that could never be identified and never be fulfilled. Casey knew it was dangerous to discount such a vision. He accepted the elder’s words and watched, through the years, as the essence of the vision became reality.
Pausing in front of the gallery, he glanced up and down the crowded and narrow street. Tourists strolled the sidewalks and traffic inched along. He liked Galena. It reminded him of Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper-mining town. Both places had numerous brick and stone buildings, and stair-stepped, constricted streets nestled into steep hillsides. He turned and pushed open the heavy gallery door, feeling a wash of cool air surround him as he went in.
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