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The Last Tree: Chapter 11-15

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Chapter 11

I actually thought that if I wished hard enough, like I'd never wished before, that I might be able to make myself disappear. That's how desperate I was standing there propped up against the wall in the garage at Bear Watson's ranch as one of the men, who'd just shown up dressed in a dark suit, approached rapidly.

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"Who do you think they are?" I asked myself.

"How should I know?" I answered.

"Maybe they're vacuum cleaner salesmen or Mormons on a mission," I said.

"With a really strong sales approach," I said, "considering one of them just busted in the back door."

"Good point," I said.

I could hear his footsteps and looked for something to club him with and found plenty of things like a hammer, crowbar, fencepost and even a block of wood and figured that if I surprised him, knocked him out and he had a gun, I could shoot the other guy with it. Unless they were cops or FBI agents and then I'd be in real trouble. Even if they weren't, I might be in real trouble. Then again, I didn't really want to kill someone and have to live with that for the rest of my life either.

"Your life might end before you have time to think about it anyway," I said.

"Another good point," I replied. "Why are you so smart all of a sudden?"

"Shut up," I said. "You need to stop thinking and concentrate."

"What?"

"Never mind!"

Once again I looked at the last tree, the one that was different than all of the others, in the distance and wished I'd had an opportunity to walk out there and dig around in the dirt before I died and find the box that the old man had talked about, because I was dying to find out, literally.

"Curiosity killed the cat," I said.

"Now I know what that really means," I replied.

How big a box could it be, I wondered? Was it a shoe box or a box that once held a washing machine or maybe it was actually a trunk? Or maybe it was a cereal box or a box that held something the size of an engagement ring or a real expensive diamond.

"It couldn't be made out of cardboard or it would rot," I said.

"Unless it was buried in a plastic bag," I replied and looked around for a spade that I could could use to dig with and suddenly realized that a spade might just be the perfect weapon to use in a hand-to-hand battle with the rapidly approaching man in the dark suit, who had to be close enough to hear my heavy breathing.

So I looked around for a spade and saw one just to the left of the big door and yet I didn't think I should move at all, lest he hear me and then he would be able to calculate his bodily distance from mine, giving him the offensive advantage.

But he had the advantage anyway, didn't he, in numbers and probably weaponry, and thus I shuffled over to the door, about 10 feet, as quietly as possible and grabbed the spade without making a discernible sound. Or so I thought.

That's when he came inside, entering just after his shadow, a shadow that was barely visible since the sun had almost dipped below the distant mountains, two feet and then maybe five feet inside with his back to me, dressed in a nicely tailored dark suit, not something off the rack, but something more expensive that clung to his well-muscled back, a back so thick that it had to have been constructed in a weight room.

He looked both left and right but never actually looked back, like he should have, which led me to believe that he couldn't have known, nor did he think I was there or he would have entered tentatively, perhaps in a crouching position, with weapons drawn ready for warfare.

No, he looked like he was simply on a fact-finding mission, investigating another one of the ranch buildings while his partner broke into the house for who knows what reason, and then he walked over to my car and looked inside and, of course, found nothing because there was nothing to find except maybe a registration form that didn't belong to me anyway and, ultimately, might inadvertently involve my friend in my mischief, which was not good.

Still, he never checked for the registration or much of anything and then I heard someone shout and he ran outside and while he was doing so, he should have seen me but didn't, either because he was too preoccupied or because the contrast between the light coming in the door and the shadow within which I was hiding was too much for his eyes to adjust to at the speed he was traveling.

Outside I could hear muffled voices, one of them strained and the other asking questions, though not loud enough for me to make out any details, and yet I didn't want to move from my spot, my island of security, and put myself in jeopardy.

So I listened a while and then a while more. When the voices started to sound like they were getting further away, I peeked around the corner and saw the two of them entering the house through the back door again. Then I ducked back inside the garage to think about the situation and put together some kind of plan, knowing a plan probably didn't exist that could save me, short of me making myself disappear, and I'd already discovered that I didn't possess the magic to make that happen.

As minutes that seemed more like hours passed by, I wondered if these guys were planning on staying in the house forever, or at least for the night, leaving me stuck in the garage to sleep the night away, hoping I wouldn't fall asleep and snore loud enough for them to hear me and murder me.

Then the back door of the house suddenly burst open again and out they came carrying something long and big under a white sheet, with one of them on each end.

"Is that a body or a big rug?" I asked.

"It has got to be a body," I said.

"Why?"

"Because you don't wrap a sheet around a big rug," I said.

"Unless..."

"Unless what?" I asked.

"Unless there's a body inside a big rug," I said.

Whatever it was, the body or rug or both went into the back seat of the black sedan and they slammed the back door and each got into the front seat.

"Why not put it in the trunk?" I asked.

"Because," I said.

"Because why?" I asked.

"Because that rug probably isn't dead," I said and they drove off and I sat down on the top of an air compressor to rest my shaking legs and to wonder how my life could have gotten to the point where I would have felt much safer on the back of a bucking horse.

"No," I said, "you are not going to do that are you?"

"Do what?" I asked.

"Go out and dig around by that last tree," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because this is insane and you need to get out of here," I said.

"And waste a trip out here? No way," I replied and began walking toward the last tree with the spade in my hand.

Except that on the way reality started to set in harder with each step as though someone was piling a 50-pound bag of flour on my shoulders each time a foot of mine went forward and I began to seriously look at the situation and wonder if I had completely lost my mind?

After all, I was not a cop or a private investigator or even a person mildly intelligent enough to take on the forces that might be behind all of the things I had witnessed in the last few days, and it was almost dark anyway and I didn't have a flashlight.

More importantly, I was at a place I had no business being and I had just traipsed through a house that might have had a body inside and, while doing do so, probably left an army full of fingerprints that could possibly link me to a murder I didn't commit if, whoever it was, had been murdered, assuming those two guys were law enforcement officials, which they didn't really seem to be, but still could be.

So I stopped in my tracks and debated my next move and decided to go back to my car and speed off.

"Don't you think you should check inside the house first?" I said.

"For what?" I asked.

"Who knows?" I said, "They just carried a body out."

"You don't know if it was a body," I replied, "it might have been a rug."

"Do you really think two guys who looked like Olympic weightlifters dressed in nicely tailored suits driving an expensive sedan really came way out here to steal a rug?" I asked.

"Perhaps," I said.

"Perhaps not," I replied.

Back into the house I went, through a still-open back door to investigate and found it a little too dark to see and yet I didn't want to turn on a light because who knew who might still be around or driving by or watching me from a space satellite or drone.

So I stood there debating what to do next and decided that I'd just turn on the light for a split second in each room and hope that no one would notice.

I half-stumbled back to the doorway, felt for the light switch and flicked it on for just a second, trying to memorize everything on the walls and around the room in the meantime. I looked down at the floor last and thought I saw what might have been blood with tracks in it and realized that the tracks were made by my boots and figured that I'd just dug myself a deeper grave.

So I stood there, frozen in the back entryway facing into the house and wondering what to do next, with a million thoughts soaring through my mind. Suddenly, I saw my silhouette on the wall as bright lights lit my backside.

I turned to look and realized that another vehicle had just turned into the ranch yard.

Chapter 12

It's amazing how many thoughts can travel through the human mind in less than a second. Of course, I'd already had a sense of that, having ridden bucking horses in rodeo and knowing that eight seconds can seem like eight hours on a particularly vindictive horse.

So I quickly discerned that I was not going to become the next victim of the big boys in the dark suits and black sedan, whoever they were.

No one was going to wrap me in a rug, cover me in a sheet and throw me in the back seat, I silently declared. So when another vehicle showed up, I sprinted for that open bedroom window in the back of Bear Watson's house and dove through it like Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, landing on the ground on my previously knife-slashed left arm and tearing away more than a few stitches.

Then I sprinted away from the house, in pain, around other small buildings and stacks of hay bales, to the barn and hid inside.

"You've gone from a garage to a barn," I said to myself, "nice work. That's real progress."

"Shut up," I said.

"You should have gotten out when the getting was good!" I said.

"And miss all the fun?" I asked.

"You call this fun?"

"Beats digging ditches," I said, "or sucking on a wine bottle on some street corner in south central Los Angeles."

"That's heavy," I said.

"Very deep," I replied.

Was it possible that whoever had pulled into the ranch yard had not seen me in the house, with me standing there framed in what felt like stage lights? Because it didn't appear that anyone was searching for me unless they were extremely stealthy searchers.

I was at the back entrance of the barn, squatting like a Taliban and needed to move toward the front entrance if I was going to have any hope of seeing the vehicle that had suddenly appeared or reappeared by the back door of the house. Still, I felt like I needed to remain motionless and silent for a while until I could confirm that they weren't sending out the hounds to track me down.

"I could be at the 19th Hole in Mesquite sipping on a cold beer right now," I muttered to myself.

"And looking into Chris LaDuke's baby blue eyes," I added.

"Instead of sitting here waiting for someone to kill me," I said.

"Or worse," I replied.

No one seemed to be in pursuit and I couldn't believe my luck, if you can call it that. So I crawled towards the front of the barn and when I got to the open door I waited again, trying to pick up any sounds that might reveal what was going on.

"If those are cops, they are probably finding your fingerprints all over the house and your footprints in the blood right now," I said.

"Probably so," I replied.

"Not to mention the tires in your trunk," I said. "When they discover those, they'll have enough evidence to put you away for life."

"Except for one thing," I replied.

"What?"

"A missing body," I answered.

"You hope," I replied.

There was no light coming from the direction of the house so I assumed that the vehicle's lights had been turned off, which left everything cloaked in darkness, except for the light coming from what had to be a nearly full moon.

Then, when I looked around the corner I saw light in the house, in one room and then another, moving about as though it was coming from a flashlight that was being pointed toward the floor or the lower parts of each room.

My heart skipped a beat when I looked toward the back door again and noticed there was a white service van parked there glowing in the moonlight, like a black light poster under a black light, with the side door slid open.

Seconds later, whoever was in the house, whose face I couldn't see, came out carrying what might have been a bucket in one hand and a sponge or rag in the other. He put them in the van and pulled out what looked like a vacuum cleaner and carried it into the house and sure enough, I soon heard what sounded like a vacuum cleaner roaring away, probably cleaning up evidence.

"The good news is he might be erasing anything that links me to the house," I said, slightly comforted.

"The bad news is he's also erasing any evidence of a murder," I replied.

"Still, the good news is he didn't see me and isn't going to kill me," I said.

"Except the bad news is he is probably the same guy you let into your hotel suite," I replied.

"Which means he's a cleanup guy for someone or some a group of someones," I said.

"A not so nice group," I added.

"A bad group," I said, "And one that happens to know who I am and has known for a few days."

So overall it wasn't good news and I began to wonder if those two big guys in dark suits had killed Bear Watson? Had they also rammed the side of my pickup truck to keep me around, and furthermore, had Mr. Service Van been the one that cleaned up all of the evidence at the old man's accident site? Which meant that the accident site was really a murder site and I had arrived on the scene at exactly the wrong time and so had Bear Watson.

Suddenly my cellphone rang and I grabbed it as quickly as I could, shut off the ringer and squatted with my back against the barn waiting for Mr. Service Van to fly out of the house with guns drawn, ready to fill me full of holes.

But he didn't.

The vacuum cleaner was still running, so he must not have heard the phone and I wiped some sweat from my brow and looked at the caller ID and saw that it Chris LaDuke who had called.

"Nice timing," I said to myself.

"Impeccable," I replied.

"Think you should shut off your cellphone now?" I asked.

"Good idea," I replied.

Meanwhile, Mr. Service Van finished up soon thereafter and drove away leaving me to wonder what to do next.

"I think it's time to get out of here before the next near-death experience comes along," I said.

"But I need to dig around the last tree," I replied.

"I'd save that for a later date," I said. "Maybe you can pack a lunch and disguise it as an afternoon picnic."

"But shouldn't a picnic have more than one person in attendance and no freshly dug holes?" I asked.

"Yes but perhaps you can bring a dog along," I said, "And blame him for the holes."

"That's funny," I said.

"I thought so," I replied.

It was a long drive back to Mesquite, primarily because I was wondering if every car coming toward me was out to get me while looking in the mirror to see if any murderers were following.

In addition, my arm was now bleeding badly where I'd popped open the stitches. I had debated going into Bear Watson's house and finding a towel or something to wrap around it but thought it best not to put down a new set of prints.

Still, it hurt like hell and I wondered if I'd put my life in jeopardy again by reopening that artery because my sleeve was real bloody, which was certainly a conundrum since I was out there in the middle of nowhere by myself.

Still, if I had reopened the artery, I'd already be dead I concluded and then I remembered that Chris LaDuke had called me and I thought it might be a good time to call her back, just so I could have one last conversation with her before I bled to death. After exchanging niceties, we quickly got to the bare bones of the conversation.

"I tore open the stitches in my arm," I said.

"Doing what?" she asked.

"A tuck and roll," I said,

"Where are you now?" she asked.

"Mars," I said, "or I could just as well be."

Eventually I made it back to the little town by Interstate 15 and pulled into a convenience store with blood dripping from my arm onto the floor and the young female cashier looked at me like I was a terrorist leper and was about to call the police before I somehow convinced her not to.

"I just need some gauze and tape," I said. "I recently had surgery and just broke open my stitches."

Naturally there were others milling about, as there are in every convenience store in America, and luckily one of them was a retired nurse who quickly came to my aid along with her husband.

"You need a hospital," she said immediately.

"Do they sell them here?" I asked.

"No, but we'll wrap this up in gauze for now and quickly get you to Mesquite," she said.

"They know me there," I announced.

"Good," she said, "in the meantime, we'll seal this up as best we can and my husband can follow us in your car."

"I think I love you," I said.

"Say what?" her pudgy husband asked.

"Just a figure of speech," I said and he smiled.

The trip to Mesquite was very pleasant, the retired nurse, Mrs. Emberly, was very nice and my re-bandaged arm was doing quite well, thanks to the painkiller I took at the convenience store that was just starting to kick in once we dropped into the basin and spotted the lights of Mesquite in the distance.

I was sprawled out in the back seat and might have fallen asleep under normal circumstances but I hadn't experienced any of those for some time.

"How long have you lived in Mesquite?" Mrs. Emberly asked.

"Just days," I replied.

"Is that where you got in the knife fight?" she asked while glancing at me in the rearview mirror.

"How did you know?" I asked.

"I used to be a trauma nurse, so this ain't my first rodeo," she said.

"Nor mine," I said, just as a big black sedan suddenly cut in front of us.

Chapter 13

I'd been lost in thought in the back seat of Mrs. Emberly's car, with my left arm newly bandaged, and me feeling secure, relaxed and completely at peace, a far cry from where I'd just come from, aided perhaps by painkillers, thinking about Chris LaDuke, who said she was going to meet me at the hospital and that's when Mrs. Emberly had kicked up the conversation and the black sedan cut in front of us.

For some reason I'd been thinking about Chris's eyes, to get my mind off of the problems at hand, which happened to be bluer than a cloudless sky, the Pacific Ocean and 12 lakes combined. They sucked you in like magnets and wouldn't let you go because they were so shockingly pretty, mesmerizing and hypnotic.

The world simply faded away when those eyes locked onto mine, causing any concerns to disappear like a fog or vapor and I could see how she might be addicting because I wanted to stay there forever, locked in and spellbound.

Was that the way it was for everyone? Did even females recognize the beauty of those eyes, I wondered, like priceless gems looking back at them? I think so. I think it was impossible not to be affected somehow even if you were the milkman, postman or the neighbor's dog.

There was also that long blonde hair, so clean and fresh, surrounding her face like an expensive picture frame and blanketing her shoulders like a waterfall, except when it was in a ponytail and that too was nice, but in a different way.

"The driver of that black car is nuts," Mrs. Emberly said as the sedan swerved and the right rear tire caught a bit of the rocky edge of Interstate 15 and threw a couple of rocks back at our windshield, doing little or no damage.

It had come out of nowhere, or maybe it just seemed that way because I was paying little attention to the lights behind us, assuming that it was just Mr. Emberly back there anyway, following us in my borrowed car. But now there were no lights back there at all and I began to fear for Mr. Emberly and didn't want him to be harmed just because he happened to be driving my car.

Had he been confronted by the two goons in the dark suits and the black sedan, pulled over and done away with and then wrapped in a rug? My mind began to rev like the motor on back of one of those big drag racers, propelling too many thoughts into too many parts of my brain and I looked to see if Mrs. Emberly was thinking that he was lost too but I don't think she was because she was still too focused on the black sedan.

"It must be going twice as fast we are!" she exclaimed, which was fast but not that fast since Mr. Emberly wasn't exactly driving like Rusty Wallace or Danica Patrick, with her two hands on the wheel, her back perfectly straight and her chin nearly touching the top of the steering wheel.

"We're not stopping to help if he goes in the ditch," she declared and I was definitely cool with that because I didn't want to be responsible for two injured dudes who had a body or two stored in a rug in the back seat anyway.

Mrs. Emberly had to be seventy years old, I thought, with her Donna Reed hair, polyester pants and super comfortable shoes. Plus she was a little on the pudgy side, just like Mr. Emberly, who was probably that way simply because he ate what Mrs. Emberly cooked.

"We're not far from the hospital now," she said and I knew that but didn't say anything because I wanted her to feel like she was in charge and to know how much I appreciated what she was doing for me, and then another car zoomed past us, it too being a sedan only this one was white and I couldn't tell if it was chasing the black one or just following too closely behind.

"Are you married?"Mrs. Emberly suddenly asked.

"What?" I said, having not heard her because I was concentrating too much on both sedans up ahead who I thought might slow down and block our route, stop us and then roll us up in a rug or kill each other, if indeed the white one was chasing after the black one.

"Are you married?"she asked again and I said no and she asked why and I said because I had tried that and it didn't work out that well.

"Well, you don't quit eating steak just because you get one bad one," she said and again glanced at me in the rearview mirror and smiled.

"Nor do you order another steak if the first one was burned," I said, which I realized was a stupid thing to say as soon as I said it, because I knew she was just being nice. But I guess I was trying to justify something, not really knowing what it was I was trying to justify, except my failures I suppose.

Meanwhile the two sedans disappeared up ahead and it wasn't long before we were approaching our exit off of the Interstate and into Mesquite and I wasn't looking forward to another visit to the hospital, not because there weren't any nice people there but because I knew I was going to get another painkilling injection and new stitches, which would have to be sewn on both the inside and on the outside of the wound, just like before, and that's never fun.

Except Chris was going to be there and I could again lose myself in her eyes and then I thought about Mr. Emberly again and still didn't see any lights behind us.

"I wonder where you husband is?" I said to her.

"Oh, don't worry about him," she said, "He'll be along. He doesn't like to drive as fast as me because I have kind of a lead foot you know."

So I assumed that, if the speed she drove was like a jog then the speed he drove must be like a crawl and I temporarily put it out of my mind and thought about what lay ahead, especially Chris.

"You again," Doctor Monroe said as he examined me in the emergency room.

"Back for an encore," I replied.

"And what happened this time?" he asked.

"I think your stitches are flawed," I said.

"Or your lifestyle,"he said.

"Or both," I replied.

"Or we're going to be seeing you a lot," he said.

"Which is always good," I said, "because it's nice to have a consistent customer base."

"If you're McDonalds," he replied and I decided to shut up.

Two hours later I entered the waiting room outside the emergency room where Mrs. Emberly and Chris were gabbing like long lost relatives and Mr. Emberly was snoring away, thank God, with a magazine resting on his not so little belly.

"You two have got to come over for dinner," I overheard Mrs. Emberly say.

"Only if you've got a horse," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because right now I could eat one," I said and she giggled.

"You're silly," she said.

"And then some," I replied and looked into Chris's eyes and my knees got weak.

So I thanked the lovely couple for saving my life and we parted ways, after exchanging phone numbers and reminding Mr. Emberly to dig my keys out of his pocket.

Then we proceeded to the 19th Hole where Phil the bartender had my favorite beer and Chris's favorite drink in hand ready to serve before we sat down at the same table I'd sat at with Bernadette Watson.

"Care to tell me about your drive in the countryside?" Chris asked.

"Have you got a week?" I asked, looking into her eyes as she looked into mine.

"Or more," she said and smiled.

"Or a lifetime?"

"Or eternity," she replied and I paused for too long and then kissed her and would have married her on the spot had that earlier steak not been burned and we were suddenly very close and I forgot where I was and any problems that I'd ever had.

That night we stayed at her house, in her bedroom, in her giant bed. And I hoped I'd never spend another night in any bed in any house again without her and she seemed to feel the same way as I did and even started calling me "Honey" in the morning when we woke up much too late because someone was banging on her back door. She threw on a robe and went to answer it and I rolled over to semi-snooze until she got back.

I woke up an hour later, according to the bedside clock, again because someone was knocking on the door and quickly realized that there was no one on the other side of the bed. So I jumped into my jeans and went to the back door to see who it was and a woman clad in UPS brown was standing there holding a big box.

"Can you sign for this?" she asked.

"Ah, sure," I said and did and watched her pull away in one of those big brown vans and then glanced at the label, out of habit, and noticed that it was from Janette Colby from Dallas, whoever that was.

So I skipped throughout the house, looking for Chris and didn't find her anywhere, nor did I smell any coffee or see any evidence of breakfast, so I assumed that she'd showered and dressed and gone about her business. Except that, if she had, she'd have left her robe somewhere and it was nowhere to be found.

I went back to the bedroom, put my boots and shirt on, slipped outside and spotted one of the stable hands throwing flakes of hay into the horse pens.

"Have you seen Chris," I asked.

"Haven't seen her all morning," he said and then I looked to my right and saw a white sedan driving away.

Chapter 14

Like so many cars in Nevada, the white sedan that was pulling out of the stable grounds had tinted windows so I couldn't see who was inside.

"I think they grabbed her!" I said to myself.

"Right in front of your eyes," I added.

People tend to think that way when things, like Chris LaDuke, are precious, at least I do, especially when you're just waking up and you think of the worst first and work back from there.

Of course, I hadn't yet looked for her red car, a new Camaro with fat black stripes, or her hulking black pickup truck, a Chevy with lifts and semi-fat tires. After all, she could have gone to the gym, the grocery store for the ingredients to my best breakfast ever, or to Cape Canaveral for a rocket ride to the Moon for all I knew.

As it turns out, both of her vehicles were there and I felt a little like I was walking into the midst of a just developing bad dream, with sleep in my eyes and my shirt still deposited on the bedroom floor.

I didn't know what to do. After all, I'd only known Chris LaDuke for hours, if you count those that we were together, so I couldn't predict or imagine the patterns of her day.

For all I knew, she picked up wounded cowboys at hospitals all the time, took them home, called them honey and then disappeared into the desert, letting them find their own way back to the real world.

Or maybe she'd truly been kidnapped by some goons in expensive white suits in a white sedan and had already been rolled up in a dirty carpet and thrown casually into the back seat.

"Good morning," she said and I opened my eyes to see hers, glisteningly blue and beautiful, just inches from mine."

"Hi," I said and quickly realized that I had been dreaming one of those "go back to sleep in the morning" super realistic dreams that persuades you that you're awake, because you already were once, but aren't.

"Hungry?" she asked.

"Do you have a horse?" I asked.

"A few," she replied, smiling.

"Good," I said, "Because I think I can eat a few."

It might have been the best breakfast I'd ever eaten with orange juice, muffins, hash browns, scrambled eggs, and a steak -- medium rare.

"Is this horse steak?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"Really?"

"No," she said and smiled.

She was showered, primped and beautiful, wearing a white sleeveless blouse, a black cap with her ponytail slipped through the open hole in the back, just above the size adjustment strap, and tight low-riding jeans tucked into square-toed cowboy boots, black with red tops. My eyes lingered for a little too long, drinking her in.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Want to get married?"

"Someday," she said.

"But not today?"

"No," she said.

"Good," I said and smiled and then she kicked my shin.

The white sedan pulling out of the stable had not been real but it had been real on the interstate the night before, chasing or following the black sedan that looked strikingly similar to the one I'd seen at Bear Watson's ranch, driven by two goons who apparently had some kind of rug fetish.

I wondered what the relationship was between the white and black sedans. Were they teammates, enemies or just pawns on the same chessboard? Then again, never mind the white sedan. Who was the cleanup man in the white service van and who were the guys in the black sedan and how could I find out? And what was the deal with the rug?

I debated going to Officer Black and telling him everything I'd encountered since entering his domain, including the whole story about my adventures at the Watson Ranch the night before. But I wondered what good that would do if I couldn't even convince him that I'd seen an old man die in an overturned vehicle, never mind that telling him the whole story might result in me being charged for, or connected to, with something in which I didn't want to be involved.

I'd had better luck not telling anyone anything, including anything about the keys for the box buried by the last tree, the ring I'd found outside of my place, each of which was in my jeans pocket, or the blood on the sidewalk and wall. Those were my little secrets and I guarded them like a treasure map, even though I wasn't quite sure why.

Almost everything that I'd encountered in Mesquite had been dark and black except one thing: Chris LaDuke. She was like a single sunray glistening through the leaves, branches and vines of an ever darkening forest. She was minute merriment in a maze of murkiness, hope in a hopeless hellhole, and beauty in a bastion of bunk.

Then again, maybe it was just me bringing it all upon myself. After all, I didn't have to stop and crawl into the cab of an old man's overturned pickup truck and accept his mysterious key to chaos, clutter and confusion. Nor did I have to confront Chris LaDuke's worst date to date, the one and only Butch Casper, and get slashed with a knife or snoop around Bear Watson's ranch without approval and witness things that I might not have wanted to witness.

There was no one to blame for my misfortune but me. I was the source of my own trials and tribulations.

Or was I?

Because if I didn't investigate the murder of an old man that nobody seemed to know, except the late Bear Watson, who would? To me, having knowledge of a murder and being guilty of inaction was equivalent to being an accessory to murder; because inaction in itself is an action, nearly equal to, or more gutless than the original action.

With all of this balancing going on in my brain, it was surprising that I could be remotely cheerful and appealing to Chris LaDuke, who was literally my oasis in the midst of the desert.

"Want to go for a ride?" she asked, after I'd taken my last bite.

"In the countryside?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Like yesterday?"

"No," she said, "on horseback."

"Minus a hospital visit?"

"Let's hope so," she said.

Chris had not asked me for details on what had happened the day before, leaving me to wonder if she was simply incredibly patient, didn't care or assumed that I'd fill her in at some point. After all, the hospital visit and my dirty clothes seemed to hint at some sort of craziness going on in my life, which up to this point she'd been mostly sheltered from.

After all, she had to wonder what I was up to, why I was there and what my future might be, and then it

suddenly came, the questions, about 30 minutes into the ride.

"Are you going to tell me?" she asked

"Tell you what?" I said.

"Gee, I don't know," she said sarcastically, "perhaps we can start with why your arm had to be stitched a second time?"

"A faulty tuck and roll," I said.

"Yes," she said, "I've read that headline. Now give me the rest of the story."

So I did. But only up to a point. Not because I didn't want to tell her, because I really wanted to tell her everything about everything, but didn't feel like I should.

"Don't tell her about the old man's key," I said to myself.

"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I just think it'd be better not to."

"For her?" I asked, "Or for you?"

"For her," I said.

"OK, then don't tell her," I said.

"OK, I won't," I said and then I did. Everything about everything, including the keys, the ring, the blood and even what size underwear I wore, because I couldn't help myself.

Once I got rolling, it was so therapeutic that I couldn't stop. Like when you get a full body massage and then the masseuse stops and you wonder why it couldn't last forever because it feels so good, so you flip the girl another fifty and tell her to keep going.

"Race you to the fence," she suddenly shouted and took off with me following closely behind.

She was riding a white quarter horse gelding outfitted in very attractive tack, including a burgundy saddle, breast collar and bridle.

It was her barrel racing horse and one that needed to be exercised regularly to stay in tune and she added to its overall appearance, by being mounted elegantly and riding in textbook style.

I, on the other hand, was mounted on an older bay horse, a quarter horse mare that was owned by someone renting a stall at Chris's stable who rode it maybe once a month and it showed, as she bucked twice and flung her head back numerous times on the way to the fence.

"I win!" Chris declared once she got there and turned back.

"It was a rigged race," I replied.

"Yet still a victory," she said. "You owe me a beer."

"I didn't know there was a wager," I said.

"There's always a wager," she said.

"I'll remember that," I replied.

Meanwhile I still needed to clean up from the previous adventurous day and night and, after putting the horses away, climbed into my borrowed car and drifted over to my lonely hotel suite, which had probably been occupied more by the man in the white service van up to that point than me.

Naturally, I wondered what he'd been up to while he was there and went immediately to the closet to find the blood-speckled shirt that I'd worn the day I'd crawled into the old man's overturned pickup truck and, sure enough, it had miraculously disappeared.

I also looked about for anything else that might be amiss and didn't notice anything. Except when I went back to close the door that I'd left open, I noticed that the blood stains on the sidewalk and wall outside had also magically disappeared.

This situation had suddenly taken on all of the elements of a full-fledged, well-organized conspiracy and I wondered who the ultimate puppet master was that was pulling all of the strings. So I slid over to the bed, grabbed the television remote control and dove in like Michael Phelps, intent on relaxing and meditating on it all when the phone rang.

"You've got to come back!" Chris shouted.

"Why?" I asked.

"Someone's here," she said and then the phone went dead.

Chapter 15

After receiving Chris LaDuke's frantic phone call, my immediate concern was that, in telling her everything, I'd put her life in jeopardy and turned my early morning dream into reality.

Of course, I didn't actually know if there even had been two goons inside a white sedan, or if that sedan was in any way related to the black sedan or any of the activities that'd taken place in the last few days ... ever since I'd called Mesquite home. Because, after all, the white sedan on the interstate was a reality but the white sedan at the ranch had been a dream.

Nevertheless, I sprinted to my borrowed car and sped to her stable, not knowing what I'd find there, with images of Butch Casper lying dead in one of her pens, plus a whole lot of other recent images, reminding me that things can get ugly.

Then an idea suddenly popped into my head at what was nothing short of an odd time: If I could somehow locate the man in the white service van and have a not-so-friendly conversation with him, I might learn a whole lot more about what was going on and follow this whole decadent scenario from peon to pilot and bottom to the top. So I filed that thought and then made a quick phone call.

"Is this good news?" Officer Black asked.

"Sure," I said, "If no news is good news."

"So what's up?"

"I might need your services," I said.

"Where?"

"Back at the stable," I said.

"When?" he asked.

"In milliseconds," I said.

"Let me know," he said.

"You'll be the first," I said and then hung up, feeling slightly better, having the cavalry on standby.

Once I got to Chris's stable I entered the grounds tentatively, if that's possible in an automobile, and noticed nothing amiss or different except for a big white pickup truck parked in front of Chris's house.

I knocked on the door and Chris answered, hugged me quickly, took my hand and led me into the living room. There, sitting on a couch, distressed, rocking forward and backwards as if she was in a rocking chair was Bernadette Watson, Bear Watson's niece, wiping tears from her eyes with a box of tissues sitting nearby.

When she saw me, she quickly half-smiled and then just as quickly looked back down at the tissue she was holding in her two clasped hands and frowned.

"What's going on?" I asked, looking at Chris.

"She wanted to see you," Chris said.

"What's up?" I asked, looking at Bernadette, wondering what I'd gotten myself into and thinking about how my life might be so much easier if I was a bullfighter, test pilot or even a terrorist.

"You were at the ranch last night," she said and my stomach flipped.

"And?" I said, not quite ready to openly confirm her declaration even though I knew Chris already knew.

"Someone saw you," she said.

"Who?" I asked.

"My brother," she said. "He was there."

"In a big black sedan?" I asked.

"No," she said. "He was hiding in the house and called me on his cellphone."

"He doesn't even know me," I said.

"He described you," she said.

"He described someone who was lethargic, ugly and moronic?" I asked. "That could be a few other people."

"This isn't funny!" she shouted. "He also described your car."

"I don't own a car," I said.

"You know what I mean," Bernadette said. "Were you there or not?"

"Yes," I said.

"Do you know what happened?" She asked.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I can't find him," she said.

"You went out there?" I asked.

"No," she said, "but he doesn't answer his phone."

"And that's unusual?" I asked.

"We talk all the time," she said and I realized that it might be her brother who was rolled up in the carpet and covered with a sheet, and it was probably his blood on the floor. That set off a flood of thoughts that cascaded down from a million different directions.

"Why was he there?" I asked.

"He lives there," she said.

"With Bear?" I asked.

"No," she said, "Bear lived in town."

"What town?" I asked.

"Dry Lake," she said, "the little town by Interstate 15." It was the one where I'd stopped at the convenience store, I realized.

So her brother was in his house, hiding, while I traipsed through it. That thought sent shivers down my spine.

"So who owns the ranch?" I asked.

"Bear did," Bernadette said, "and Michael was his foreman."

"Why didn't Bear live there?" I asked.

"He moved when he married that dancer from Las Vegas," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because she wanted to live closer to the interstate," she said. "The ranch was just too remote for her."

"When was that?" I asked.

"About five years ago," she said.

"What happened to her?" I asked.

"She ran off," she said, and I knew the Bear and dancer story had to be a good one that I definitely wanted to hear more about. But I also knew this was definitely not the time to get into it, so I let it go for the time being.

"Please try calling your brother again," I said.

"Right now?" she asked.

"Yes," I said and she did and there was still no answer.

"Have you talked to Officer Black?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I can't. I need to hear what happened first. Or if anything happened."

"When did you last talk to your brother?" I asked.

"Just after you were in his house," she said and that, I knew, was bad news. So even though I hated doing so I told her what'd I'd seen, including every intimate detail and every action of mine and she became very distraught and scared, and began to fret even more. Then she called Officer Black, who never seemed to believe me, especially when it came to old men in overturned vehicles, but must have believed her.

"Neal is coming over," she said and that seemed to comfort her some. But it didn't comfort me because I knew I was about to get buried up to my neck in a prize-winning quagmire and I looked at Chris and she looked at me and we both knew that we were in for a long ride.

"Who owns the white pickup truck out front?" I asked. "Is that yours Bernadette?"

"No," she said, "it belongs to Harvey."

"Who's Harvey?" I asked.

"He boards his horses here," Chris said. "He's outside."

"He's my boyfriend," Bernadette said, "sort of."

"And how do you two know each other?" I asked them both.

"We don't," they both said.

"Well, not really," Chris said. "I've seen her here some and around town but she came with Harvey and she was crying so I asked her what was wrong. She told me and eventually she mentioned that she needed to find you. I said I knew you and that's when I called you."

Life was not getting less complicated. It was getting more so and I felt like the situation I'd run into in Mesquite was like a cancer that was spreading rapidly.

Then Officer Black showed up and immediately sat on the couch next to Bernadette and she told him about her concern for her brother.

"He's been scared ever since Bear was killed," she said. "Not only because he had to be responsible for everything on the ranch but because of the things that had gone on before and after."

"Like what?" Officer Black asked.

"Like how Bear had gotten so sullen and quiet," she said, "and how he'd thought that his tire had been shot out and that's why he'd gone in the ditch that time."

"So Bear thought someone was out to get him?" Officer Black asked.

"That's what it seemed like to my brother Ben," she said. "Because he and Bear had discovered the bullet hole in the tire together when they were pulling Bear's wrecked pickup truck out of the ditch with a tractor."

"Did Bear ever mention the old man who'd been killed in a rollover just down the road from here?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I only heard that from you but I hadn't forgotten it, and I mentioned it to Ben and he added it to his list of weird things going on I'm sure."

"What list?" Officer Black asked. "What other weird things had gone on."

"Ben was out checking on the cattle one time in his pickup truck and as he was driving towards the ranch. When he was still about a half-mile away, he noticed a black sedan pulling out of the ranch yard," she said.

"And what did he do?" Officer Black asked.

"Nothing," she said, "he just thought it was someone who might be lost or looking for directions until it happened again."

"It happened again?" Officer Black asked.

"Yes," she said, "about a week later, only this time they were still there when he pulled into the yard."

"Who were they?" Black asked.

"Two big guys in black suits," she said.

"Did he talk to them?" Black asked.

"Yes," she said, "they said they were looking for Bear."

"What did Ben tell them," Black asked.

"That he was in Mesquite," Bernadette said.

"And when was that," Black asked.

"The day that Bear was killed," Bernadette answered, and then suddenly the man who I'd seen driving the white service van, the one who'd been at my hotel suite to check the air conditioning and at Bear Watson's house to clean up, knocked on the back door and came inside.

That's when my heart dropped a second time and I went into one of those moments of mini-shock, where you don't quite believe what you are seeing.

When I gathered myself, I thought this is both weird and perfect because I can rat him out to Officer Black and we can grill him, drill him, find out who he's working and what they're up to. Then suddenly Bernadette spoke up.

"Hey everyone," she said, "this is my friend. His name is Harvey."

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