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The Last Tree: Chapters 1-5

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The Last Tree: Chapters 1-5
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Chapter 1

The right front tire of my pickup truck caught the edge of the highway and woke me up from a brief nap.

I'd already danced on the roadway's edge too many times and once again overcorrected by using most of the oncoming lane. Then I tossed an ample supply of sunflower seeds into my mouth, to keep me awake, and stuck my left arm out the window, where my shirt sleeve flopped in the wind like the skull and crossbones atop the mast of a streaking pirate ship.

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A 20-foot drop hugged the highway's edge and beckoned me to dive in, front tire first, into the sagebrush abyss, which would have put an early end to the undefined, search-for-the-meaning-of-life journey that I'd began just days before.

My life had been nothing but an endless list of rodeos up to that point, and once that ended I'd found it hard to join the 8-to-5 club, boring as it was, and to recreate those daily adrenaline surges.

At 42 I was old enough to be considered ancient by your average high school student, and yet there was little that I'd accomplished in that time other than building up a monumental list of mistakes and regrets that continued to haunt me and probably would until the day I died unless something changed.

If I was to analyze my life, it was probably that list that I was running from, but instead I chose not to over-analyze anything, since running away seemed to be the appropriate elixir.

Nor did I think I was ancient at the age of 42 since those years seemed like little more than a blip on the radar screen, having zipped by at record speeds, leading me to conclude that it wasn't me who was old but life that was simply too short.

Meanwhile, Tonopah, a community referred to as "The Queen of the Silver Mining Camps," was where I'd minutes earlier ventured through, located 6,000 feet high up in the Nevada desert, a world away from both Las Vegas and Reno.

The roadway in and out of Tonopah, commonly referred to as the "Extraterrestrial Highway," featured signs warning of low-flying aircraft and free-wandering cattle.

I'd stopped there long enough to spend a life's savings on a full tank of diesel fuel and make googly-eyes at a bleached blonde who was at least a third my age. She was sporting jeans that'd been spray painted on and a red pullover top that accented breasts that looked like they'd been borrowed from a much larger woman.

"Nice truck," she said to me.

"Nice shirt," I wanted to say but didn't.

"Passing through?" she asked.

"Like the wind," I replied.

"Which way?"

"West."

"Maybe you should take me with you?" she suggested.

"Can't."

"Why not?"

"I hardly know you." I said, "And you might be an alien."

"That would mean there is a whole planet full of babes like me," she said.

"Good point," I replied.

"So, did that change your mind?"

"Almost."

"But I still can't go?"

"Right."

"Oh well," she said, "You don't have room for my three kids anyway."

"Another good point." I said and winked, tipped my hat and sped off, just like they do in the movies.

Getting to Tonopah had been a little like driving through a mine field since the cattle in those parts roamed freely and had turned highway loitering into an art form. And who could blame them, stranded like they were in the middle of nowhere with little to eat and no one to talk to?

Occasionally, I thought I could hear them visiting amongst themselves when I slowed down to slither through their ranks.

"Slow down!" one of them shouted.

"Speed kills!" added another.

"Bring me some sushi?" yelled yet another, "I'm dying for some sushi!"

I knew I was losing my mind.

Bright yellow sage hugged the highway's edge and glowed in the sunlight, apparently not wanting to mix with the aqua-colored sage further out in the desert. Either that or someone had brought yellow sage seeds from afar and spread them along the roadside like Johnny Appleseed. Or the highway department had simply sprayed the highway's edge with hordes of chemicals.

Occasionally, I'd see a horse or two standing alone in the middle of nowhere, far from any ranch or buildings, and wondered if someone, long ago in their family tree, had been crossbred with a camel, enabling them to go for weeks without liquid nourishment.

By myself and in the middle of nowhere, I'd sometimes worry about breaking down and being stranded there with those talking cows and a lonely horse or two surrounded by distant mountains in a place that looked otherworldly when a full moon lit up the evening sky.

Further back I'd seen headlights, bright enough to glare in the afternoon sun, in my rearview mirror, closing in rapidly. Once they caught up to me I could see that it was two retired couples in a white four-door sedan with Utah plates driving at NASCAR speeds.

Apparently they thought Las Vegas might be running out of chips and they had to get there fast. Or they drove that same highway twice a week and knew that very few others did, especially highway patrolmen.

Up ahead Highways 375 and 93 crossed each other to form what looked like a giant plus sign that'd been plopped down on a carpet of sand and sage.

It stood out only because it seemed odd to have two highways crossing at perfect right angles out there in the middle of nowhere, where it mattered little if they were at right angles or not.

My map indicated that the community of Warm Springs had once resided near that big plus sign, but as I got closer I could see that there was nothing but rocks piled high on top of each other where once houses, sheds and bars had once been.

It was a prime example of a western ghost town, a creepy place full of memories past and none current and I turned south onto Highway 93, another trail that disappeared into the distant mountains and waved as I turned just in case there were any ghosts lingering who might be longing for a friendly face.

It wasn't long before I noticed a dwelling up ahead in a low spot where rain water collected, enabling grass and a row of trees to grow, about a quarter-mile long.

Nearby there appeared to be a ranch, to whom the cattle must have belonged, I surmised. Where structures, including a couple of houses, some cattle in pens and barns sat, needing paint, but no people and yet it was clear that somebody lived there.

It felt good to finally see evidence of human life and an oasis that offered somewhere to go if a crisis arose.

Twenty miles further, I noticed a van parked by the side of the road on a hill and thought it might be a survey crew until a fat lady popped up from a squatting position and tried to pull dark green stretch pants over her large bare bottom before anyone could see her. But it was too late and I struggled to flush that image from the hard drive of my mind, afraid that it might never happen.

"Your cheating heart ...," a classic country tune by Hank Williams blared on the radio, above the wind whipping by my left ear and I rounded a curve that opened up on the other side of a cutout and thought I noticed something at the furthest reaches of my peripheral vision; a car or truck in the ditch and caught it again in my rearview mirror just before I rounded another curve.

Thinking it to be nothing, I continued to drive but not for long before I found a place to turn around, intrigued at the prospect of seeing something out there where nothing had been for the last few thousand white lines.

It was a vehicle all right, an early '80s pickup truck, turquoise and white and overturned. I figured it'd been there for months or years until I strode up next to it and found a body inside.

The body was moving and in pain and belonged to an older man who might have been in his 70s or 80s and in real bad shape lying on the ceiling of the overturned vehicle and coughing up blood. He reminded me of bull riders I'd seen gored or stomped on by 1,500-pound bulls in rodeos that I'd ridden in who eventually died and I knew this guy would die too.

"Take this," he said between coughs.

"What?" I asked, sticking my head as far into the crushed cab as I could to hear his anguished, hoarse voice.

"The key," he said and I looked at a hand that was on the end of a broken arm and wondered how he could have gotten a key into his hand with that arm unless it'd been there before he hit the ditch.

"It's for a box," he said and then he had to catch his breath for a long time and I noticed a cane in the cab and realized that this guy hadn't been running wind sprints for some time, even before the crash.

"By the last tree," he said and his eyes rolled back and I thought he'd died but then he closed them and opened them again and coughed and spit some blood on my white cowboy shirt.

"Where?" I asked.

"Back there," he said and his eyes rolled back again and this time he didn't close them and he quit coughing and even breathing. I knew he was dead and I had no clue what to do next until somebody suddenly drove up behind me.

It was a beat-up pickup truck, early '90s model, parked right in front of mine at an angle, like he was trying to block me in, with a rifle on a rack in the back window. Out of it climbed a man who was about 10 years older than me and looked like a gorilla, his belly hanging over his jeans and his jeans nearly falling off of his buttocks, his butt being half as big as that of the fat lady a few miles back; wearing a white cowboy hat that hadn't been white in a long time.

He was in no big hurry and sauntered down the ditch, bull-legged and he limped a little and came over towards me and didn't say anything until he got to within a few feet.

"He dead?" he asked.

"Yep," I said and he nodded and stared to circle the vehicle looking at or for something and at me occasionally as he did so.

"He alive when you got here?" he asked and I thought for a moment.

"Nope," I said for some reason, not sure why and not wanting to be held responsible for anything.

"Did he say anything?"

"Pretty hard when you're dead," I answered and he smirked a little and continued to scour the area.

"How did you get that blood on your shirt then?" he asked, which was a real good question since he could obviously see that it was speckled and not smeared and I wondered how to answer.

"Well, he coughed once," I said.

"So he wasn't dead?"

"Yes he was, except for the cough," I said.

He looked at me for too long and then the sun and adjusted his hat and wiped some sweat from his brow.

"We need to call the police," I suggested.

"There are no police," he declared and then shifted his weight to the other leg and put his thumbs into his front jean pockets on each side of a big belt buckle.

"But we have to notify his family," I said.

"No we don't."

"Why not?"

"I am his family," he announced and then turned and went back to his pickup truck and got some leather gloves and that's when I noticed what looked like a bullet hole in the old man's left front tire.

Chapter 2

I had little interest in sticking around to help the gorilla haul his dead uncle out of a crushed pickup truck because, for one thing, I didn't think it was legal without law enforcement supervision and for another, I hadn't signed up for coroner duty that day.

Meanwhile, the gorilla seemed pretty determined to not only quickly clean up the mess but to also keep me around for as long as possible.

"Where are you headed?" he asked.

"South," I said.

"Vegas?"

"Nope."

"Where then?"

"Not sure."

"You're not sure where you're going?"

"I'm not sure you need to know," I said, trying to fend off any further questioning.

"Got a phone number?"

"Why?"

"In case I need to get ahold of you."

"You won't need to get ahold of me," I declared and started to walk back to my pickup truck.

"Hey!" he shouted.

"What?"

"Be careful," he said, which I thought was really weird.

In fact, everything about it was weird, especially the gorilla, and I wanted to sprint back to my pickup truck, smoke my tires and quickly put distance between me and him.

Instead, as cool as possible, I walked slowly back, thinking that running might cause the wild beast to sense my fear and charge after me. Or maybe I just didn't want to act like I was guilty of something I wasn't.

At any rate, I backed my truck up to get around his and watched for oncoming traffic, which, if I thought about it, probably wouldn't have shown up until later in the week.

As I did so, I eyed the rifle in his back window, thankful that it wasn't in his hands and figured that it might be the one that had put a bullet hole in the old man's front tire.

When I pulled away I took one last look at the scene and saw that the gorilla's thick shoulders were slumped, his big hands were on his hips, his protruding brow was sticking out from under his soiled hat and he was looking back at me and seemed to be smiling. That creeped me out even more and I kept checking my rear-view mirror for many miles after to make sure he wasn't following me. I wished I had his gun instead of him.

I think it was his lack of remorse and abounding insensitivity that bothered me most, not to mention that I was ill at ease anyway and in shock because I'd just watched an old man die and figured that the gorilla had set the whole thing up, but wondered why?

Then I remembered the key in my jean pocket and wished I'd never let my curiosity get the better of me and accepted the stupid thing from the old man in the first place, because it was probably the key that was the "key."

Unless it was my imagination that was running amok because, after all, the gorilla could have been grimacing instead of smiling and maybe his stoic, hard-edged nature didn't allow for him to show any signs of emotion, just like the men I'd been raised to be like in North Dakota.

Plus, how many pickup trucks had rifles hanging on a rack in the back window in that neck of the woods, all of them? And what did I know about bullet holes in tattered tires? It could have been put there by a piece of metal or a rock or a laser beam from a spaceship hovering over the Extraterrestrial Highway for all I knew.

Not to mention that the gorilla probably thought it was me who'd run his uncle off the road and that's why he'd acted so strange. Especially since he'd caught me in the middle of a lie, telling him that the old man was dead at the scene when he really wasn't.

So I pulled the key out of my left front jean pocket and was about to throw it out the window when I looked up and saw a cow in the middle of the road and swerved to miss it and damn near hit the ditch myself, which might have explained how the old man had hit the ditch in the first place. The key flew out of my hand and onto the floorboard of my pickup truck somewhere and my heart nearly beat through my chest.

"Oh crap!" I said and took a deep breath to slow down my heart rate.

But what I really needed to do was start the day over, go back to bed and wake up again from the bad dream I was in the midst of. Then I remembered that I hadn't been to bed since I'd left that cheap motel room in Grants Pass, Oregon, too many hours earlier, where the people were friendly and the cherry pie in the restaurant next door was sweeter than a politician looking for votes.

I knew I was at least 75 miles past Warm Springs, the ghost town by the big plus sign, and 30 miles from Interstate 15, the mega-highway that stretches nearly from Mexico to Canada. So I decided, once I got to Interstate 15, that I'd continue north to Mesquite, Nevada, and look up a friend of mine that lived there and then, at that point, proceed to map out my future.

By the time I got there, it was nine o'clock on a Friday and the Virgin River Casino looked pretty inviting. So I bellied up to what might be the longest bar in America and ordered a beer from Carlos the bartender who either misunderstood me or knew me better than I knew myself and gave me two.

I drank them both way too fast and quickly ordered a third and that's when my paranoia about the gorilla began to subside until I noticed someone walking towards me, on the other side of the casino, who looked a little like him and then someone else tapped me on the left shoulder.

"Do you own that damaged red pickup truck out front?" an oversized policeman with a shaved head asked.

"I hope not," I answered meekly.

"Someone bumped into it," he said.

"Hard," he added.

"Hard?"

"Yep, hard," he said, "Like they rammed into it on purpose."

How could the police officer know it was mine, I wondered, as opposed to the few hundred other people throwing hard-earned cash down the throats of the jingling slot machines surrounding me?

"That young lady pointed you out," he said before I could ask, and he pointed towards a chunky girl at a blackjack table nearby who'd apparently seen me park it. She waved with one of those "I'm available for an adventure, dating and marriage" waves and I followed the policeman outside, walking backwards for a brief second while I tentatively waved back.

"You won't be driving this anytime soon," he said, as we looked at a right rear panel that was bashed in and resting against the right rear tire.

"Do you have Triple-A," he asked, and I nodded, "because we can have it towed to the body shop?"

"Which one?" I asked.

"There is only one," he said and handed me a slip of paper. "You can call them on Monday."

"Okay," I said, dumbfounded as I began to return to the casino with an even stronger thirst.

"I see you're from out of state," the officer said suddenly. "Been here long?"

"Maybe 30 minutes."

"And you've already picked up a new admirer and a new enemy," he said.

"Maybe."

"You work fast."

"Life is short."

"Don't make it shorter," he suggested and gave me one of those two finger salutes that only guys in uniform can do.

I thought for a moment.

"Well, it could have been some drunk or an absent-mined senior citizen," I shouted, as the officer started to pull away.

"Drunks and seniors are too sloppy," he shouted back. "They wouldn't have avoided being seen by a witness or gotten away so quickly."

"Comforting conclusion," I whispered as I watched him pull away and then I re-entered the casino, gear bag in hand, and plopped down on my new favorite barstool.

"What now?" I asked to no one in particular and the chubby girl smiled at me again from afar as she gambled. I tried to hide inside myself but couldn't.

Then I spotted a foxy bartender with luscious skin and a pretty face wearing a black vest with too many buttons unbuttoned, to enhance customer tipping, I assumed, and I wondered, briefly, how I could debonairly separate myself from the herds of other guys who'd no doubt tried to get her attention. Ultimately, I concluded that I wasn't on my "A" game anyway, not that my "A" game was any better than my "F" game, and gave up on the idea entirely.

Suddenly a frail-sounding older male on my left side asked where I was from and I spun around, shocked to see a skinny, wrinkled old lady with an extra-long cigarette dangling from her lower lip.

"That depends," I replied.

"North in the summer, south in the winter?" she asked.

"Ah, something like that," I answered, wondering how many of those things she'd had to smoke to get her voice that low.

"Us too!" she said. "You're a snowbird!"

"Guess so," I agreed, even though it drummed up images of blue hair, big bellies, sagging nylons, walkers and motorhomes.

"We're retired!"

"We?"

"My husband and I!" she announced as she put her arm around a grumpy old ambivalent dude sitting on the barstool next to her who looked a little like a crumpled up piece of paper towel.

It was obvious that they were mainly there to gamble, continually pressing keys on the machines built into the bar in front of them. As it turns out, she was a retired schoolteacher who'd occasionally get sidetracked from her gambling duties and he was a former bartender who would elbow and urge her to bet back to business between puffs on his cigarette, because drinks were free for gamblers, not that they needed any more liquor.

They'd just returned to Mesquite from eastern Washington, an annual event, it being late in October with a chill beginning to move in back home and she was getting a little looped. In fact, when she went to the restroom she used a lot more carpet than necessary, swaying from left to right and bumping into slot machines along the way, as though the room was a giant pinball machine and she was the pinball.

Then the chunky girl strolled over to inspect the goods (me) and see what might potentially transpire between the two of us, I think.

"Sorry about your truck," she said.

"No problem," I responded, "I'll get a new one tomorrow. You can have that one."

"Really?"

"No."

"Oh," she said as she looked into my eyes and tried to read my mind. "Well, want to dance?"

"Can't," I said, "I hurt myself in the accident."

"But you weren't in the truck,"

"You're right," I said, "I forgot."

There was a country-western band jamming in a little dance hall on the far end of the bar, a football field away, and we meandered onto the dance floor and began to two-step along with a lot of other folks and a few young chicks who were dancing with each other.

One of the young girls was particularly cute with long blonde hair, a real sexy figure and the face of an old girlfriend of mine. She looked at me a couple of times as if she thought she might be interested, but it was dark and my silhouette probably looked a whole lot better than the real thing. But Mr. Ego liked the attention anyway.

Meanwhile, chunky chick said she had to visit the restroom after a couple of dances and I was tempted to bail out even though she told me to "stay right there" and then I remembered that my gear bag was still by the barstool a football field away. I rushed out to find it but it was gone, so I panicked and then Carlos, my new favorite bartender, pulled it out from behind the bar and my sense of relief was immeasurable.

"You're my hero," I said to him.

"It wasn't me," he said. "That guy over there picked it up and told me to hold onto it until you got back."

"What guy?"

"The Bear," he said and pointed to someone behind me and I turned around and two tables away I spotted the gorilla playing blackjack.

"There you are!" chunky chick, suddenly said. "I wondered where you went."

She'd re-applied a hefty layer of makeup in preparation for more laps around the dance floor, I assumed, and then I looked at the gorilla again and this time he winked and I knew who it was that'd rammed into the side of my pickup truck.

"Do you know that guy?" I asked her.

"Who?"

"That big guy with the dirty cowboy hat over there."

"Sure," she said, "everybody does. That's Bear Watson. He has a lot of land, a lot of cattle and a lot of money."

"His uncle died today," I said.

"I don't think so," she replied.

"Why not?"

"He doesn't have an uncle."

"How do you know?"

"Because he's my uncle," she said and then waved to the gorilla or bear or whatever he was and he waved back, raising a beefy palm without extending the fingers, as if doing so was too much work, in a strange but cool kind of way.

"By the way, I'm Bernadette," she said and I wondered if they were co-conspirators or if I was just way off the mark when it came to the gorilla, like when I played darts once every 10 years.

"So you didn't see anyone hit my truck?" I asked out of the blue while still looking at the bear.

"Nope," she said, "I was busy playing blackjack and watching you."

"Well, how did you know that my truck had been hit?"

"I went out to get something that I'd forgotten in my car and the cops were already there."

"How did you know it was MY truck?"

"I got to the casino the same time as you and saw you get out of it," she said, "I checked out your butt as you walked in."

I let that last comment disappear into the night.

"Why do they call him Bear?" I asked.

"Why do you think?"

"Because he looks like a ballerina?"

"Exactly," she said and giggled. "His real name is Max but they've always called him Bear."

"That's odd because he looks more like a Charles, Mitchell or Pat to me."

"You're funny."

"Sometimes," I agreed.

My friend was gone when I finally got to his house but the front door was unlocked so I slipped in and plopped down, foggy-headed after too many beers, on a single bed in a spare bedroom and immediately fell asleep.

Blinding light woke me up at about 3 a.m. as my friend, who was rummaging around and slurring his words, stumbled into the bedroom.

"Oh," he said, "it's you."

"Yes it is."

"Okay then," he said, quickly putting an end to a very in-depth conversation, after which he shut off the light and stumbled to bed.

Laying in the dark I remembered again how I had necked with Bernadette in her front seat in front of my friend's house even though I didn't want to, figuring that I didn't have a choice since she was kind enough to give me a ride "home."

"Aren't you going to invite me in?" she'd asked.

"Can't."

"Why not?"

"Wouldn't want to wake up my friend."

"I understand," she said. "But call me."

"Sure thing," I said as I accepted the business card she thrust towards me.

The next day I arose early and rented a studio apartment within walking distance of my friend's house for a month because they had made me an offer I couldn't refuse and because I couldn't go anywhere for a couple of weeks without my truck anyway.

Plus, I had to admit that I was curious about the death of the old man, the gorilla's potential part in it and, ultimately, I wanted to know who'd hit my truck.

Then I cruised around Mesquite in an old maroon sedan that my friend had lent to me and, by chance, met Chris LaDuke, who was a tall, top-heavy girl with long blonde hair in her late 30s with two gelding horses in a pen at the edge of town in what was technically Arizona, since Mesquite was located on the border of Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

She wore jeans, a big buckle and boots that laced up high and I liked her immediately because she put on no airs and laughed easily at my jokes.

"You've lived here for how long?" I asked her.

"Three years," she said.

"Year around?"

"Yep."

"Get's kind of hot in the summer," I said because I'd been through Mesquite in July when it was well over 100 degrees.

"You learn to do certain things early," she said.

"What kind of things?"

"Everything," she said and I said goodbye and drove away, looking forward to seeing her again in the very near future.

Chapter 3

My new buddy Phil was a bartender at the 19th Hole, a lounge and supper club sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Mesquite. It was located nowhere near a golf course as its name implied, but since Mesquite was a big golf community I guess they thought it could be located anywhere and be successful, but it wasn't.

According to my friend who lived there, who also happened to be a part-time real estate agent, it'd been built by someone with too much money who needed a tax write off, so maybe its lack of success had been preplanned. Whatever the case, Phil was an All-pro bartender who could keep you captivated with his endless stories and listened patiently to his customer's bullshit, of which there was plenty.

"What can I get you?" he asked as I bellied up to the bar.

"Beer."

"Glass?"

"Nope."

Conveniently located within walking distance of my new pad, I was directed there by Chris, the top-heavy horsewoman, who I'd hoped might meet me there but she didn't, leaving me to fend for myself and glance wishfully at barmaids who failed to dress in Las Vegas style, breast-enhancing attire like those who worked at the Virgin River Casino.

Phil, at 60 years old, closely resembled a fire hydrant with a shaved head and had been a cop in Detroit in his younger days. Then a bullet lodged in his back during a shootout and turned him into a Las Vegas bartender and weekend biker. Eventually the rat race in Las Vegas chased him to Mesquite where he had been mixing drinks for six years.

"Happily married Phil?" I asked him after my third beer.

"Yes," he replied, "because I haven't lived with her for 15 years." That prompted a hearty laugh from me, a barmaid, and a busboy who might have been the barmaid's boyfriend.

Meanwhile, a young man seated next to me, named Jason, who'd been raised in Scobey, Mont., and had served in Iraq, where he'd also been shot, didn't laugh with the rest of us, he being in full possession of a serious, faraway look that comes with having been introduced to life's cruel, ugly side, where tainted experiences and corresponding nightmares eliminate all giddiness and frivolity.

"How about you?" Jason asked as he took a drag on his cigarette and looked straight ahead at nothing in particular.

"Not married," I said, "just shot at."

"Not married?" Phil the bartender asked, "Is that what you said?"

"I'd rather be shot at," I responded, which was a whole other topic I preferred not to discuss, not because I hated marriage but because I hated having to admit that I'd been married unsuccessfully.

"Bad marriage?" the barmaid asked, of course.

"Aren't they all?"

"Good point," Phil said and the busboy and his girlfriend, the barmaid, looked at each other naively, like two deer in headlights.

"Like another beer?" Phil asked.

"Sure," I said and bought a round for the rest of the group, and then listened awhile longer to the casual banter.

My mind also wandered and I wondered to myself who might have opened the first bar in the world and assumed that it was a psychiatrist who had trouble getting his patients to open up in his office and decided instead to go behind the bar and serve drinks to help facilitate the flow of information, working on more than one person at a time; very ingenious.

Then later, bars became a center of modern civilization for they are always the last business to close its doors in any dying prairie town. They are the last oasis, apart from a church, which isn't open for business every day like a bar is.

Little beer joints last forever because their profit margin is always good as long as the bartender owns the building and has two customers who drink a bottle of vodka a day at two bucks a drink.

Stumbling back to my new studio apartment two hours later, I happened upon a man in the parking lot scrubbing a van to a shiny sheen as though it was a Jaguar or Ferrari. So I struck up a conversation for no real reason except that I love to do that and I was glad I did because he was a fountain of information about everything from health and politics to keeping up with the Joneses and war.

A former Southern California surfer dude and Vietnam vet who'd turned northwest logger, writer and dropout, Ben had been in and out of V.A. hospitals recently and almost died from blood clots he'd developed after having a pacemaker put in.

He was eccentric, stocky, could have used a dentist, had a full head of still-blond hair and was forever dealing with haunting memories of being a machine gunner on a helicopter that flew missions of over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for both the army and the CIA.

"I've killed," he said after we'd talked for nearly an hour.

"That's what soldiers do," I replied, trying to attach a heroic slant to his story and give him his due respect.

"Not Americans," he said.

"What?"

"Americans don't shoot Americans," he said. "For the CIA, I killed two Americans."

I didn't say anything because it seemed like it would have been appropriate.

"They made me," he declared and I looked into his eyes.

"I have to live with that," he added and I wondered if I'd heard him right or if he was filling me full of bull and I wanted to run away and ask him for more details all at the same time.

"It isn't right," he said and at that moment I could have been there or not because he was so into the memory that the world around him had disappeared, so I tried to change the subject.

"Nice day," I said.

"Sure is," he agreed as he suddenly snapped back to reality and realized that he'd taken us down a road that he'd traveled far too many times before and I guess I was glad he did but wasn't quite sure where to take it from there.

"We all have regrets," I finally said after a moment of silence, looking down and pushing a pebble around with the tip of my boot.

"Some more than others," he replied.

"Want to compare lists?" I asked and he smiled for a moment, realizing that he might not be the only person who'd spent half of his life doing what he

didn't want to do.

"No," he said, "there are far better things to focus on."

"I think you're right," I said and figured we'd arrived at a good point to end the conversation and I bid him adieu and looked forward to when I might have a chance to visit with him again and then went into my suite and suddenly realized how alone I was.

That's the benefit of being single, you can do whatever you want whenever you want to but you often have to do them alone. Therefore, shared experiences are probably much better and yet I'd concluded that I'd rather be alone than share them with the wrong person again because I'd already done that and it can be torture.

The sun was sinking into the distant mountains so I laid down for a little beer-induced nap with a growling stomach and an empty refrigerator. When I woke up it was dark and I realized that if I were to buy groceries I'd have to have something to cook them with and wandered over to Walmart, the great price under cutter, and invested in a few kitchen tools like one pot, one fry pan, a spatula, fork and a knife.

As I pulled out of the expansive parking lot I noticed a dirty white ranch-style pickup truck pull in. Out of it jumped the gorilla, Bear Watson, who didn't see me or shouldn't have since I was in my friend's car and because I was parked quite a distance away. So I watched him walk into the store and then pulled around and into the aisle where his truck was parked.

It suddenly occurred to me that if it had been Bear who'd not so subtly damaged my big red pickup truck, then there might be evidence on his vehicle which showed that he'd done so, if that was the vehicle he used and I thought it might be since the flatbed on the back would have been perfect for putting the type of dent in my truck that I'd seen. And sure enough, there was red paint on the flatbed further illuminated by the bright light under which he had parked.

"Hi," I said into my cellphone, having called Officer Black, the Mesquite policeman who'd responded to my "accident" in the Virgin River Casino parking lot.

"Oh yes, I remember," he said after I explained who I was.

"I've caught the man who smashed into my pickup truck," I declared.

"Didn't know you were a detective," he said.

"I'm not."

"Dumb luck?" he asked.

"Intuition."

"Nice work Sherlock, who is it?"

"Bear Watson."

"You're kidding."

"Nope."

"You have witnesses?"

"There's red paint on the back of his pickup truck," I said, "I'm looking at it right now in the parking lot of Walmart. He was at the casino that night."

"As he is most nights," he said.

"So you know him?"

"Everyone does."

"Maybe you should come out here and ask him some questions?"

"Don't think so."

"Why not?"

"Need witnesses," he said.

"Always a technicality."

"Takes the fun out of it doesn't it?"

"So, what should I do?"

"Quit trying to be a detective, get your pickup truck fixed and go on with your life."

"Can't do that," I said, "so I guess I'll have to ask him myself."

"Have at it," he said. "I'm sure he'll admit that it was him, say he's sorry, pay for the damages and offer to buy you a new one."

"You never know."

"Don't bet on it."

"You're so cynical."

"I prefer realistic."

"There's a fine line between the two."

"That's the way life is."

"So you're saying it's not black and white?"

"Mostly gray."

"With just a little red in this case," I said.

"Funny," he replied.

"I thought so."

Chapter 4

Bear Watson never came out of Walmart.

At least not that I saw.

I must have waited half an hour, drove away, dropped my newly purchased cooking and food items off at my apartment, went back to Wal-Mart and sat in the parking lot for another half hour and still his white pickup truck, with the red tinted flatbed, never moved. Not an inch, centimeter or millimeter.

Weird, I thought, because I just didn't picture him as a shopaholic. Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe he was in there strolling up and down the aisles, smiling, visiting with housewives and gently picking things off the shelves and throwing them into his cart. Or maybe he was carefully reading the food ingredients, concerned about consuming too many calories or not wanting to buy those things that could be harmful to his long term health, right? No way.

According to Officer Black, Bear Watson spent most nights sucking down Pendleton whiskey and throwing cash away at a Virgin River Casino black jack table. If he bought anything at Walmart it was a set of tools, some toilet paper, white jockey shorts, three frozen pizzas, a case of Coke, some bacon, eggs, pancake batter, a loaf of bread and a package of jerky that he ate at the checkout stand.

Let's face it, Bear Watson was the type of guy that thought going out to dinner meant stopping at a convenience store. There's no way he could still be shopping for over an hour anywhere, much less at Walmart.

The curiosity was killing me, so I went inside.

In fact, I went up and down every aisle and unless he was busy trying on women's underwear in the lingerie department, he was not on the premises. But where could he be? Had he left with someone else when I briefly went back to my apartment? That was a possibility. But why would he leave his pickup truck behind?

Then a thought suddenly occurred to me. What happened to the key the dying old man had given to me in the overturned vehicle? I'd dropped it when I almost hit the cow on the highway and then mostly forgot all about it. So it had to be on the floorboard of my pickup truck, that is, unless I accidently kicked it out at some point.

I suddenly felt the need to retrieve it, as if it was the Holy Grail or the "my precious" ring in the movie, "Lord of the Rings." So I decided to drive by the body shop on my way home to see if they'd accidentally left the doors unlocked allowing me to get inside, and because I had nothing else to do.

Apparently Bear Watson had the same idea because he was there when I got there with his nose up against the glass, standing on his tiptoes, trying to look inside, and pulling on the door handle with little success. So I drove past, in my friend's car, which he wouldn't recognize, and parked a block away.

Was he looking for the key? He had to be. What else would he be looking for? That seemed to me to confirm that the key was definitely "the key" to something big.

I watched him from behind a bush for at least five minutes as he walked around the vehicle, opened the gas cap and looked in inside, peeked in all the windows, felt under the bumper and in the wheel wells and then he gave up and walked away with his hands in his front jean pockets, looking around to make sure that no one was watching him.

After he'd been gone for about 10 minutes, I approached the vehicle myself and began to snoop around. It was indeed locked and I didn't have an extra set of keys so I briefly contemplated breaking a window but that would have been messy and I didn't want to have to lie to the body shop about not having done it. Plus they could have had security cameras pointed right at it even though it was parked, not in a fenced in lot, but on the street in front of their building.

That's the last thing I remember until I woke up lying next to it on the sidewalk who knows how many minutes or hours later, having obviously been plopped on the head by something bigger than a stuffed pillow, a woman's purse or a plastic bat.

Covered in small pieces of glass from a broken window on the driver's side, I struggled momentarily to get my bearings, something I was not unfamiliar with, having been knocked unconscious at rodeos plenty of times.

Eventually I staggered to my feet and even gathered my wits enough to still duck into the already opened driver's door and look around for the key but I couldn't find it anywhere on the floorboard, obviously because whoever had broken the window had also found the key. Still, rather than give up I looked inside the side pockets in the door, just for kicks and, amazingly, I found it there under some wrappers and assorted junk!

"Whatcha doin?" someone suddenly said and I spun around and there, parked in the street, leaning out of his pickup truck window, was Bear Watson. How I had not heard him pull up I don't know.

"Breaking into your own vehicle?" he asked.

"Sure," I said.

"I wonder if that's illegal."

"Hard to say."

"I might have to call the cops."

"Good, because one of them in particular might be interested in visiting with you."

"Really," he said as he got out of his pickup truck, "who's that?"

"Officer Black," I said.

"Nice guy," he said. "Why should he want to talk to me?"

"Something to do with that red paint on the back of your flatbed," I said.

"Where I backed into the barn?" he asked.

"Or something else," I said.

"Like what?"

"A red pickup truck," I said.

"Barns are more fun."

"And if there are no barns nearby?"

"Find a good game of blackjack," he said.

"At the Virgin River Casino?"

"Usually," he said and smirked.

"You're an ass," I said, certain that it was he who'd not only slammed into my pickup truck but hit me on the head and then broke out the driver's side window. Now, I assumed he was back to wrestle the key away from me in case I found it.

"No," he said, "but I am thinking seriously about kicking your smartass."

"Unlikely," I said as he swung at me with a fist the size of an anvil. I ducked the punch and he flew by so I smashed him in the back of the skull with my two hands clasped together and he went headfirst into the side of my truck, adding another dent and immediately he slumped to the ground, unconscious. Counting my blessings, I left very quickly, before he woke up.

When I got home, blood and adrenaline were still flowing through my veins like firewater in a firehose and I tried to sit down, relax and think things through but ended up wearing a path in the carpet instead, sipping on one beer, then two and then enough to make me tired and crash hard on the bed, still wearing my clothes.

I assumed Bear Watson, once he woke up, would try to track me down and send me to where he'd sent his uncle, through the Pearly Gates, down Deadman's Highway and on a vacation from which I'd never return. That thought made me hyper but sleep finally came and sunshine burst through my open hotel suite window early the next morning like floodlights on a Broadway stage.

I shuffled to the bathroom, peed for about two hours and then opened the medicine cabinet and poured four aspirin into my left hand, hoping that they'd at least minimize the thunder roaring in my dome.

Then I opened the refrigerator door, thinking that I might have a bowl of newly purchased Cheerios floating in milk, but thought better of it after I consulted my stomach which said, "I'm not quite ready to tackle any food yet."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Too many beers too few hours ago."

"Not that many."

"Enough to launch a small bachelor party," it replied.

"But I took aspirin."

"That's for the dome department," it said, "not mine."

"Fine," I said. After a diligent search I found the television remote sleeping peacefully well under my bed and crawled on the floor like a crocodile to retrieve it. Then I dove into the bed again intent on catching a few more well-earned winks except that all of a sudden someone started banging on my door and I assumed it was the gorilla Watson "loaded for bear," as it were, even though he couldn't know where I lived.

"Open up, its officer Black," the knocker said and it might have been the first time that I pictured an officer of the law being more like Santa Claus than Harry Callahan.

"Are you lost?" I said while opening the door and squinting in the harsh sunlight.

"No, but I see you're ready to go somewhere," he said and that's when I realized that I was not only fully outfitted in the prior day's attire but also still wearing my favorite cowboy boots."

"Jammies," I said sheepishly.

"Really?" he asked.

"Just last night."

"Must have been a tough one," he replied and that's when I noticed that he was accompanied by two additional bulky dudes who made Bear Watson look like Danny DeVito's little brother.

"Eight on the 10 scale," I said.

"Where were you?"

"Mesquite."

"Can you be more specific?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Try."

"Walmart," I said.

"All night?"

"They never close."

"Seriously."

"Seriously, they never close."

"I know that," he said impatiently and I tried to find eyes behind the sunglasses that the two beasts were wearing. "Did you happen to see Bear Watson?"

"Might have." I said.

"Where?"

"Breaking into my pickup truck," I said.

"He broke into your pickup truck?"

"I think so."

"But you're not sure," he asked.

"No."

"But you saw him?"

"Yes," I said, "he came at me."

"What'd you do?"

"Hit him of course."

"Then what?" he asked.

"He was napping so I left."

"Knocked out?"

"Or faking it," I said.

"Anything more?" he asked.

"No," I said, "why?"

"Because..."

"Because why?" I asked.

"Because he's dead," he said, and that's when I first noticed that there was blood on my jeans and on the sidewalk outside.

Chapter 5

I'm not a big fan of bureaucracy, meetings, lawyers, courtrooms or cop shops. Despite that, I accepted the friendly invitation offered by Office Black and his two pet apes to visit the Mesquite Police Station to answer a few questions. Unaccompanied by a lawyer, I replied to their inquiries as best I could, naively assuming that the truth would ultimately set me free.

"So, Bear Watson came at you, is that true?" Officer Black asked.

"Like a charging rhino," I replied.

"And you punched him?"

"It was more like a double-fisted chop."

"After which he went down?" he asked.

"Like a potato sack," I said, "or a feed bag, I can't decide."

"He also hit his head on the side of your pickup truck?" Black asked.

"There's a dent that fits his hat size."

"Then you left?" he asked.

"Lickety split," I confirmed.

"And that was the last time you saw him?" he asked.

"Except in my dreams."

An uncomfortable moment of silence then ensued as the officer and his two apes looked at each other, a little dumbfounded, stumped or hungover like me and I wondered what they were up to. Then one of the apes, named Stormo, suddenly chimed in, his voice a little too high for such a big man, like Truman Capote's or Mike Tyson.

"I don't like your flippant attitude," he said.

"I love your clip-on tie," I replied and the angry ape took a step toward me, fists clenched, while the other, more docile ape yawned and Officer Black interceded.

I felt like I was in no-man's land because no one was telling me what was going on. Bear Watson was dead, which initially seemed like a good thing but maybe not, and I assumed they thought I had something to do with it. The two apes were like robots but with less personality. The police station was stark and cold looking, the fluorescent lights gave everything a pasty appearance and I would have paid anything for another cold beer and plane ticket to Tahiti.

"You also think Bear Watson broke into your pickup truck?" Officer Black asked.

"Roger."

"Because he was there earlier?" he asked.

"Affirmative."

"Although you didn't actually see him do it?" he asked.

"Nope."

"So you don't really have a clue who did it," he said.

"Maybe."

"But you still assume it was Bear Watson?" he asked.

"Had to be." I said.

"And you saw no one else?"

"Correct."

"So he was alive when you left the scene?" he asked.

"Hard to kill a charging rhino?"

"But you still don't know why he tried to break into your pickup truck?" he asked.

"Had something to do with his dead uncle I assume," I said, having already filled him in on the over-turned vehicle episode in the desert.

"Except that he doesn't have an uncle."

"So THEY say."

"Nor is there any evidence of any accident or anyone dying in the desert," he said.

"So YOU say."

"How do you know Bear Watson's neck didn't break when his head hit the pickup truck?"

"Did it?" I asked.

"Let me ask the questions," he said, "why did you think he was still alive?"

"Because his belly was going up and down," I said.

"So you assumed he was still breathing?"

"Like a beached whale," I replied.

"But he might have died later from a broken neck?"

"If so, you've caught your murderer," I said.

"You?" he asked.

"Nope," I replied, "my pickup truck."

Eventually they let me go, after about two hours of being poked, prodded, quizzed and questioned, with a slap on the back and a friendly wave from the lovely short-haired receptionist who was munching on a lemon poppy-seed muffin and sucking down a high-octane Starbucks concoction.

Once outside, Officer Black offered to give me a ride home on what was an unusually warm October day and naturally we stopped at a corner donut shop and, you guessed it, I ordered a poppy-seed muffin to go with a high-octane coffee concoction. I assumed that he wanted to ask me a few more questions, off the record.

"So tell me, how did Bear Watson die?" I asked him.

"Quickly," Black replied.

"Could you be less specific?"

"Sure," he said.

"But, apparently you're quite certain that my pickup truck didn't murder him or I'd still be on ice."

"True," he said.

"So how did he die?" I asked.

"Can't say," he said.

"Or won't say."

"Either way," he replied.

"Do I need to worry?"

"About what?" he asked.

"Anything?"

"Probably something," he said.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Not sure."

"But I should watch my backside?"

"I'd watch all sides," he said.

Of course, the key the old man had given me was the key, it had to be. But I still didn't tell that to Officer Black and I wasn't sure why I didn't. It was like the old man and I had a pact or something and I felt like I'd be betraying him if I told anyone about it.

Meanwhile, Officer Black tried to pick my brain, coaxing me to enter into some kind of subconscious zone to determine whether or not a figure might have been lurking in the background while I was bullfighting the Bear, perhaps a passerby or a car or a detail that might lead to his breaking open the case.

"Let me ask you something else," Officer Black said as he sipped on his second cup of coffee, "Why are you here?"

"Why not?"

"Do you have a job?" he asked.

"No."

"Are you looking for a job?"

"No," I said.

"Independently wealthy?" he asked.

"Just independent."

"So trouble just seems to follow you like sheep follow a shepherd?" he asked.

"It's a knack."

It was almost mid-afternoon by the time he dropped me off at my apartment and as I walked up the sidewalk to the door, I dug keys out of my back pocket, fumbled with them briefly and then dropped them onto my boot and they ricocheted into the grass.

Of course they weren't my pickup truck keys but instead my friend's car keys with the new apartment keys hanging on the same ring. When I bent over to pick them up, my lower back locked up --a leftover gift from rodeo -- and I nearly went down but instead went to one knee.

I picked the keys out of the grass on the sidewalk's edge and got up slowly, still looking down the entire time because I couldn't quite straighten my back all the way and again noticed the blood on the sidewalk, on the right side with some of it also splattered on the adobe wall by the door.

Next to it was someone's ring, also on the sidewalk's edge, a man's ring, which looked to me to be a wedding ring. I wondered if someone had thrown a snowball and it had flown off during the toss and then I remembered that throwing snowballs in Mesquite happened once every two or three lifetimes so I picked it up.

It was then that I also remembered the blood on my jeans, on the left leg near my boots, and I wondered how it was possible that three policemen could have missed seeing it both there and on the ground, or ignored it or at least never brought it up?

Sure, a community the size of Mesquite didn't exactly have the most sophisticated law enforcement organization but they at least had to be blessed with the kind of vision that could spot a blood stain on a sidewalk that looked like someone had tripped while carrying a sizeable pot of spaghetti sauce and flung it onto the sidewalk and wall. The only other explanation was that they were keeping something from me.

I unlocked the door, slammed it behind me, shed my clothes, turned on the television, hopped in the shower and planned on staying in there until it felt like all of the events of the last few hours had been completely washed away.

Stepping under the stream of water, I rubbed my face and then my head, felt a lump in the back and what might have been a cut and then opened my eyes to see my feet covered in blood-soaked water. Apparently the blow to my head the prior evening had opened a little wound that briefly bled profusely and then dried up, in my hair, before my head had ever hit the pillow in my slightly intoxicated stupor.

After drying myself off I opened the medicine cabinet, pulled out a razor, started to shave, thought I heard something in the living room, assumed it was the television, continued to shave and then heard another sound, like someone was opening and closing a dresser drawer. Wrapped in a towel I peeked around the corner just in time to see the front door close; ran into the living room and pushed aside the front drapes and watched as a white cargo van pull away.

"I just had a guest," I said into the cellphone to Officer Black.

"That's nice," he replied.

"Uninvited," I said.

"Oh," he said, "it's hard to plan things when guests show up that way, isn't it?"

"Rummaging through my drawers."

"Which can't be too full," he said, "or did you mean your boxers?"

"And then they escaped in a white cargo van."

"Such a bland mode of travel," he said.

"So I thought you might want to come over here and get some fingerprints," I said.

"You're certainly keeping us busy," he replied.

"It's not me," I said.

"Who is it then?" he asked.

"That's your job to find out," I said.

At that point we both paused briefly, perhaps, deep in thought or in the process of deciding what to do next.

"But really," I said, "how did Bear Watson die? I think I deserve to know."

"Don't tell anyone, but he was shot," Officer Black said.

"Where?" I asked.

"In the back of the head while he was lying unconscious by your pickup truck," he said and then the doorknob on my front door began to rattle."

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