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The Last Tree: Chapters 6-10

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Chapter 6

The greatest difficulty in life is not deciding what you're going to wear or how you're going to spend your money. It's figuring out who you are and what you're supposed to be doing.

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That debate had been raging in my mind for 40 years and the closer I got to figuring it out, the further it seemed to sprint away, especially since trouble and his cousins torment, tribulation, tumult and their nephew manure were piling up like beer cups under bleachers in my life.

I'd cleaned up plenty of horse stalls in my day, especially in my youth, but no amount of shoveling and pitching was going to keep me ahead of this gang. I needed help and the first person I thought of was my buddy Phil the bartender at the 19th Hole bar, because a couple of beers always seemed to slow things down and momentarily toss troubles aside, for better or worse.

At least that's what I was thinking when my doorknob began rattling, which was just after I'd caught someone sniffing around my apartment, followed by the white service van speeding away.

Couldn't they at least let me get my clothes on?

Holding a towel around my waist, I flung open the front door, frustrated enough not to care what might be on the other side, and standing there next to what looked like a black toolbox was the mammoth policeman I'd encountered earlier, Officer Stormo, with what looked like a kooky professor. It turns out he was actually a lab technician scraping blood off the sidewalk and putting it into a test tube.

"I'm here to save you," Stormo said.

"From what?" I asked.

"Intruders and speeding service vans of course," he said, smirking. "Are you OK?"

"No," I said, "I've got a pain in my ass."

"How can I help?" he asked.

"Leave."

"Sorry," he said, "we're here for blood samples and fingerprints. Can we come inside?"

"How long do you think it will it take?"

"Why?" he asked, "have you got a pressing engagement?"

"Aren't they all?"

"It won't take long," he replied, "but I'll need the jeans you were wearing."

"They won't fit," I said.

"We're going to cut out the blood stain."

"Will you patch it up again?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, "with duct tape."

'I'd prefer an embroidered peace sign."

"Fresh out," he replied.

Before I gave him the blood-stained jeans, I made sure I had removed the key that the old man had given me and the ring I'd found by the sidewalk and placed them on the dresser next to the big screen television. Then I waited for them to finish their tasks, after which I answered a couple of Stormo's questions.

"Did you happen to write down the license plate number for the van?" Officer Stormo asked.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Didn't have a pen," I said.

"You don't carry one?"

"Not in my towel," I said.

I'm sure there was a list of other things a mile long that I could have done, but I felt the need to go to a counselor and tell him my troubles, and Phil the bartender at the 19th Hole Bar was exactly the type of counselor that my budget allowed for. Plus, he was one of the most optimistic people I'd met in my life and he was a professional, which meant that my beer was sitting on the bar as soon as I walked through the door.

"How's life?" he asked.

"Confusing," I said.

"That's normal."

"For everyone?" I asked.

"Everyone I know," he said.

So maybe I didn't need a counselor or maybe I was just too sensitive or maybe everyone's life was as goofy as mine? But I don't think so.

After all, how many people had happened upon a dying old man, were given a mysterious key, had their pickup truck wrecked in a parking lot, got into a fight with a rhino, found out the rhino was dead, got hauled to a cop shop, and spent the better part of a day being grilled by Mesquite's finest. Then got home, showered, had their apartment broken into, watched a mysterious van speed away and had blood splattered on their sidewalk and jeans, all in less than 72 hours?

Not many I assumed. But I didn't tell Phil that.

"Your right," I said to Phil, "I'm oversensitive."

"Want something to eat?" he asked.

"How could you tell?"

"You're about 10 pounds lighter than the last time I saw you," he said and I wondered if I needed a vacation from the vacation I wasn't really on.

Money wasn't an immediate problem for me, not because I was rich but because I really didn't spend that much of it, since I didn't have a wife or kids or payments or a life.

Yes, I'd been married and racked up an endless list of female acquaintances on the rodeo trail, but none during the time that I was married and I wished my wife could say the same thing but she couldn't and I hadn't talked to her in about 10 years, so I guess it didn't really matter anymore.

She'd finally shipped out with some long-legged guy she already knew, at a rodeo in Poway, Calif., while I sulked and rode around the arena on a borrowed horse, sipping from a bottle of elixir for hours until I finally passed out, fell off and missed the whole shebang.

"Another beer?" Phil asked, as I began to lose track of time.

"Keep them coming." I said.

Somehow I needed to find out more about the old man with the key who everyone thought didn't exist. Because he was the author of my most recent set of problems, or so it seemed.

Had he been an illusion? Did he really happen? I began to question myself and suddenly I was thankful that I accepted the key from him because it was the only evidence I had that he was once made of flesh and bone and not just a fairy tale.

"Hi," some female suddenly said as she put her hand on my shoulder and I knew the voice but couldn't quite place it until I looked up from the bar and into the mirror and saw my favorite new "chunky chick," Bernadette Watson, standing behind me and I wondered if I should duck.

Her expression was morose and she wanted to talk for, some pretty obvious reasons, about her late uncle Bear Watson and she invited me to join her in a dark corner, away from everyone else, which wasn't what I wanted to do but I did it anyway.

"Do you know what happened?" she asked.

"To a point," I said.

"I hear that you were interrogated by the police," she said.

"Interrogated is a little strong," I said. "Just a few bamboo strips under my fingernails, nothing too bad."

"I'm being serious," she said. "Did you kill him?"

"No," I said, "did you?"

She stared into my eyes for too long and then Phil the bartender interrupted us by bringing me a plate of chicken strips and another beer and asked Bernadette if she wanted another cranberry vodka, which she confirmed with a quick nod.

My stomach felt ultra-empty and wrinkled up like a raisin so I quickly picked up a chicken strip and was about to bite into it when I noticed Chris LaDuke, the top-heavy cowgirl I'd met earlier at her horse stable, quite by chance, walk in the front door. She was with some stalky-looking cowboy who I knew had to be a steer wrestler and, from behind, looked a lot like Butch Casper out of Oklahoma, who I'd had a few run-ins with in the past, mainly because his IQ was well below 100, even though he had a lot of daddy's money, which might have explained why he was with her.

I hadn't seen him since the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming, at least five years earlier, when he punched me at the Outlaw Saloon for dancing with his former girlfriend on my shoulders. Of course, a massive brawl ensued, because I had plenty of friends there and so did he, and we were both probably headed to jail until his former girlfriend, Cheryl, a really cute barrel racer, also from Oklahoma, hit him over the head with the padded seat of a barstool and drug me out of there bleeding from my nose and chin.

Fortunately, he couldn't see me in the dark in the corner -- at leadt I assumed -- and they quickly plopped themselves down at a blackjack table at the far end, ordered a beer and a whiskey and probably commenced losing another chunk of daddy's hard-earned dollars.

Meanwhile, Bernadette was beginning to tear up and I felt guilty for calling her "chunky chick," if only in my mind, and tried to promise God or some angels or anyone who might be listening to the small voice inside me, that I wouldn't do it again, knowing that I'd never be able to keep that promise anyway.

"Who do you think killed Bear?" she asked.

"How did you find out he was killed?" I asked.

"Neal tracked me down," she said. "He had me identify the body."

"Who's Neal?" I asked.

"Neal Black, the police officer," she said. "Someone shot Bear in the back of the head! Who would do that?"

"I'm new here," I said. "I don't have a clue."

"But you had a fight with him."

"More like a bullfight," I said.

"And you knocked him out!"

"I mostly moved aside," I said, "and he knocked himself out."

She paused for a moment and stared off into the distance.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," she finally said.

"Surprised about what?"

"That someone finally killed him."

"Why?" I asked, "Because he was so disliked?"

"No," she said. "He was a football hero here. People loved him."

"Why then?"

"Because of what happened before, when he drove into in the ditch."

"He drove into the ditch?"

"Yes," she said, "about a month ago, out by the ranch."

"Was he drunk?" I asked.

"No," she said, "His front tire blew out, I think because of the hole."

"What hole?" I asked. "Was there a pot hole in the highway?"

"No silly," she said as she began to frown, "it was a little hole, like a bullet hole."

Chapter 7

I liked Chris LaDuke for some reason, even though I barely knew her and had only talked to her for a few minutes at her nearby stable. In that time she'd given me no indication she found me the least bit appealing and her appearance at the 19th Hole bar with that loser, Oklahoma steer wrestler Butch Casper, might have given me at least some indication as to why.

What do women look for in a man, I had to ask myself? Is it money, lack of brains and the shape of his hat? Or do they simply date someone until a better version comes along, to keep them from having to sit home alone on a Saturday night? The only way Chris LaDuke would ever have to sit home on a Saturday night was if no one knew she existed. So what was she doing with that idiot, I wondered?

I'd given up trying to figure women out decades earlier anyway. But still, I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Not because I was mesmerized, but because I was interested and somewhat puzzled. That's why, when Bernadette Watson told me Bear Watson's front tire had been shot out, I had to ask her to repeat it again, just to make sure I'd heard her right.

"Someone shot out Bear's tire?" I asked.

"That's what he thought," she said, "and he went in the ditch and almost rolled his pickup truck."

"Just like his uncle," I said.

"He doesn't have an uncle," she said.

"Right," I said, "the old man."

She looked at me a little puzzled and I excused myself and went outside and called Officer Black and told him what Bernadette had told me.

"That's interesting," he said.

"Same thing that happened to his uncle," I said.

"He doesn't have an uncle," he said.

"He was probably someone's uncle."

"If he ever existed," he said.

"Trust me."

"I'm not in the trust business," he said.

When I went back into the bar, I ran into Butch Casper on his way to the restroom and he did a double take and I think I saw the hair on his neck stand up, because he was that kind of beast. To my amazement, however, he didn't say anything and just walked on by, which meant that he either didn't recognize me or he was too drunk to care. I assumed the latter.

Meanwhile, Bernadette was still at the table in the dark corner, waiting for me to return. So I got another beer and cranberry vodka from Phil at the bar and rambled back there, in case she had some more revelations, making quick eye contact with Chris LaDuke on the way.

Chris looked mighty fine in her hiphugging jeans, heels -- not too high, long blonde hair, and black tank top filled to the brim, if you know what I mean. I waved, she waved, I smiled, she smiled and I almost went over to talk to her but suddenly remembered that Butch Casper would soon be approaching from behind and decided to leave well enough alone.

"Where were you?" Bernadette asked.

"Had to make a quick phone call," I said.

"Girlfriend?" she asked.

"New friend," I said.

I quickly concluded that it might be in my best interest to leave the 19th Hole sooner rather than later, lest trouble ensue, so I quickly agreed when Bernadette suggested we go to the Virgin River Casino.

Once there, she tried to get me onto the dance floor but I bellied up to the bar instead and she quickly camped out at a blackjack table for what I hoped would be all night.

The cute Latina bartender, with the buttoned-down vest was not working, but Carlos was and once again he gave me two beers when I ordered one and I didn't argue.

"A little quiet here tonight," I said to Carlos.

"It's Sunday," he said and I suddenly realized that, not only did I not know what day it was, but I couldn't recall the last time I'd gone to church. It'd been far too long, I knew that and, given the way my life was going, I wondered if getting back to one might not be a bad idea.

"What do you have going on tonight?" Carlos asked me.

"Nothing exciting," I said.

"Did you just move here?" he asked.

"Passing through," I said.

"But not real quickly," he replied.

"You could say that," I said.

"Happens to a lot of people," he said, though I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that. More than likely it was nothing and since he was busy, I didn't try to find out.

I sat there for a total of four beers, decided I'd had enough, got up from my barstool and then Bernadette, seeing that I was getting restless, hustled over, grabbed me by the arm and almost wrestled me onto the dance floor.

After two dances I told her I wasn't feeling well and wanted to go home, especially since it was getting late and I'd had my fill of beverages, jingling gambling machines and casino chaos. Nevertheless, she tried in vain to invite herself to my place for a continuation of the fun and I wondered how I could comfortably avoid having that happen.

"You want to go home with the guy that, hours ago, you thought might have killed your uncle?" I asked.

"I never really thought you could," she said.

"Could or did?" I asked.

"Both," she said and smiled.

After one more beer together at the bar and 30 more excuses, I got her to finally give in by promising her that we could do it, "another time." She smiled and quickly made her way back to the blackjack table.

Once outside, I heard a commotion to my right and was going to ignore it, since my pickup truck was parked to the left, but didn't because I didn't have that much to do anyway and because it sounded like an argument between a man and a women and those, at least physically, can often times be pretty one-sided.

With numerous cars between the commotion and I, it was not until I was almost on top of the action that I realized it was Chris LaDuke and that loser Butch Casper going at it. From what I could quickly ascertain, Chris was ready to go home and wanted Butch to give her a ride and Butch, sloppy drunk, mean and as dumb as ever, wanted to party all night and was literally trying to drag her towards the casino entrance.

He'd grabbed her arm, she'd broken free a couple of times and then, I suppose out of frustration, he slapped her across the face and nearly knocked her down.

I was one vehicle away by that time and galloped toward them and rammed into Butch's side, sending him flying. The flight ended with him being sprawled out on the asphalt next to a new blue Ford F-150 pickup truck.

"You son of a bitch, I'll kill you," he said as he quickly got up and pulled a knife out from the inside of his jacket somewhere.

"No!" Chris screamed.

Now if you were a passerby quickly analyzing this situation, you'd have seen that Butch had a weight advantage of at least 30 pounds and a weapon. Therefore, you might suggest that I quickly bow out, which happened to be precisely my thoughts. Except chivalry is something that is still strong in the cowboy and rodeo community and there was no way I was going to back off, especially knowing that Chris might ultimately be in danger if I did.

It didn't take long for Butch to charge at me and it was then that I realized he might actually be intent on sticking that thing in me rather than just intimidating me with it.

For just a moment, I thought about calling for a temporary truce and then calling for Officer Black and his boys to intervene because this nut really was nuts.

But I didn't think the nut would go for that. So I simply ducked to the side when he charged at me and ducked again when he came again. "Go into the casino," I shouted to Chris.

"No!" she shouted back.

"Now!" I said with a great deal more emphasis and she finally did.

Butch never did stop charging and at one point grazed me on the left arm with his blade. But it wasn't too deep, I didn't think, and either way, I didn't have time to look.

Sirens could suddenly be heard in the distance, I assumed because Chris or someone in the casino had called 911 and Butch, who for the first time showed some mild intelligence, took off running through the parking lot and disappeared into the night.

I was walking towards the front door of the casino and had nearly reached it when Officer Black, my new friend, showed up.

"Not you again," he said. I smirked a little and didn't say anything. "What happened this time?" he asked. "Damsel in distress," I said. "And you had to be her knight in shining armor?" he asked. "It's a dirty job but ..."

"Spare me the details," he said, "unless someone is planning to press charges."

"Don't think so," I said and that's when Chris exited the casino accompanied by Carlos and a casino security guard.

"Are you the damsel," Officer Black asked Chris.

"What?" she said. "Yes," I said.

"Do you want to press any charges miss?" he asked her.

She looked into my eyes, for what seemed like forever, in search of an answer I suppose and then asked me if I was OK.

"Might need a few stitches," I said, suddenly realizing that my sleeve was soaked and there was a big pool of blood rapidly forming on the asphalt below my left arm.

"Oh my God!" Chris said and Officer Black's eyes got real big and they loaded me into the back seat of the cop car, along with Chris, and sped towards the hospital with lights flashing and the siren blaring.

Chapter 8

Turns out that if Chris or Carlos or someone from the casino hadn't called 911 when they did I might have bled to death, at least that's what the doctor said. All I know is, whatever it was, it sure came on quickly.

He also said that, because there was probably a lot of adrenaline pumping through my veins, it wouldn't have been unusual for me to overlook my injuries. What he didn't know was that I'd ridden in rodeo for a lot of years and it was a common procedure for rodeo cowboys to "overlook their injuries."

Just before they threw me into the cop car, I was getting dizzy and woozy. By the time they rolled me into the hospital my pulse was getting weak and, had they not began to fix things, my heart would have gone into an electrical disturbance or cardiac arrhythmia, so they said. That's because, Butch Casper, the moron, hit an artery and opened a blood flood gate. I didn't notice it because it didn't seem that painful. Plus I was too preoccupied to realize that there was a big leak in the creek.

Chris was sleeping in a chair next to my hospital bed wearing the old rodeo jacket I'd had on earlier when I woke up. I'm not quite sure why I had gone to sleep, except, I guess nearly bleeding to death really takes it out of you. Or they gave me something to make it happen when they stitched me up.

My arm was bandaged, I was hooked up to monitors and there were a couple of tubes or lines going into my arm. I think they were giving me a blood "refill." What I probably needed was a lobotomy.

Just then, a nurse suddenly walked in with little concern for who might or might not be sleeping. As a result, Chris woke up and caught me staring at her, immediately smiled and it felt like I'd known her my entire life and hoped to know her more. She then went into the bathroom to freshen up and the nurse looked at some of the monitors and asked me if I needed anything.

"Just a free pass out of here," I said.

"I can get you a pass but it won't be free," she said, smiling.

"And less free the longer I stay," I said.

"Good point," she said. "But then it's hard to put a pricetag on what you bought."

"And what's that?" I asked.

"Your life," she said.

"Good point," I said.

The nurse left, Chris came out of the bathroom and Officer Black came strolling in.

"So, Prince Valiant," he said, "how's it going?"

"Super," I said.

"Any new adventures planned for today?" he asked.

"I'll keep you posted."

"Always nice to have some advanced warning," he said. "Meanwhile, Butch Casper is still on the run so whatever you do, be sure to watch your backside."

"And all sides," I said. "I know the drill."

Officer Black left after dishing out some more B.S. and there I was, in a hospital bed with a gorgeous horsewoman next to me who I didn't know from Eve, but felt like I did.

"Want to order a pizza?" I asked her.

"Is this a party?" she asked.

"Could be," I said.

"Nice setting," she said.

"I spare no expense." I said.

We had a lot to discuss, at least I thought so, but didn't really know how to proceed, so I suggested that we "check me out of this resort and find a new setting" if she was up to it and she agreed, probably because she had no interest in being home alone with a nutcase on the loose anyway.

Unfortunately the nurses didn't agree and held me there for a couple more hours and then finally put me in a wheelchair around 2:30 p.m. and opened the front gates of the prison to where Chris was waiting with her shiny new Chevy pickup truck.

"Nice wheels," I said.

"Nice job, saving my life," she said.

"Give me the truck and we'll call it even," I suggested.

"Sure," she said, "just let me put 200,000 miles on it first?"

"How long will that take?"

"At least a couple weeks," she said.

"I hope I live that long," I said.

We went to my place primarily because Butch didn't know where that was, which seemed to be a continuing theme for me in Mesquite. It was then that she apparently thought it time to explain why she was at the bar with the intellectually challenged steer wrestler in the first place.

"Did you already know Butch?" she asked.

"We'd had some disagreements."

"So, you're probably wondering what I was doing with him?" she said.

"Aren't you?" I asked.

"He was boarding horses at my stable," she said, "plus he was just passing through and I thought it would be harmless to have a drink with him."

"So his horses are still there?"

"I assume so," she said, "along with his pickup truck and trailer. And then things changed, after he'd slurped down way too many whiskies. Do you think he even remembers anything?"

"Seldom," I said, "with or without alcohol."

"I am so sorry," she said.

"That's OK," I said, "really."

We did order pizza and then, since it was still light out, we went to her place to check on her horses and guess what? Someone was there, but it wasn't Butch. It was Officer Stormo, the mini-blimp, looking for Butch and he seemed none too happy to be there, nor did he seem comfortable around horses.

"Howdy cowboy," I said to him. "Find any horse thieves out here?"

"This place smells," he said.

"Don't smell a thing," I said.

"That's because it's already on your boots," he said.

"No, I picked that up at the cop shop."

"We'll be stopping by periodically," he said, ignoring me.

"For the smell?" I asked.

"To find Butch?" he said. "You should stay away."

"Love to," I said and he drove away.

Chris went about feeding her horses hay and sweet feed and I could only watch, having had some pretty delicate surgery.

After all, to get out of the hospital I had needed to throw a small fit, threaten to leave and promise that, if there was any sign of bleeding, I'd come right back to them.

"You should stay a day or two," Dr. Monroe suggested.

"I can lie in bed at home," I said.

"But you won't have a nurse," he said.

"Yes he will," Chris said and that settled the case.

I also had to promise to go back to have my wounds reexamined, re-cleaned and re-bandaged. That would initially happen in a day and a half and I was beginning to wonder if it'd all been worth it but only for a second.

Chris seemed unconcerned about spending the night with me and even packed an overnight bag to bring along.

"After all," she said, "it won't be the first night I've spent with you."

"You're counting the hospital?"

"Sure," she said.

"I can be a little more exciting."

"That's a bold promise," she said.

"Not that bold," I said.

As it turned out, romance was the last thing on my mind once the hospital's painkillers began to wear off and I could finally feel the jagged edge of Butch's blade for real. So I mostly paced around the room and watched Chris sleep, while waiting for a new dose of meds and then another, to kick in, which they finally did in a big way just before sunup.

"You need to do some shopping," she said when I finally opened my eyes around 11:00 a.m.

"I hate shopping," I said.

"I can see that," she said. "You need to hire someone."

"You mean, people do that?" I asked.

It took me a while to shower and shave and if she hadn't been there, I'd have really struggled to tie a garbage bag over my left arm. We ate breakfast at a nearby hole-in-the-wall and it was there that I found out a lot more about her past.

Her mom was dead and her dad was alive. She had a stable near Mesquite because her father had moved there five years earlier from south of Salt Lake City after her mother died and built the place along with a house and some barns. Three years later, he met a rich snowbird widow from Minnesota and gave the place to Chris two years later when he and his new widow bride moved to Arizona.

Meanwhile, Chris had been living in Broadus, Montana, for five years with her husband, who was a former rodeo bull rider turned drunken rancher that she'd met at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and married on the spot.

"Big mistake number one," she said.

She then made the gallant effort to ride out the storm with him, while he made promise after promise to quit drinking but never did. So when the stable opportunity came up in Mesquite, thanks to her father, she grabbed hold of it with glee.

"That was mistake number two," she said.

"Moving here?" I asked.

"No," she said, "staying in Broadus ... too long."

Now, despite the fact that Officer Stormo had suggested we stay away from her stable, that was not going to be possible since she derived an income from boarding horses there for people. Plus she had stable hands who fed the horses twice a day that needed some supervision.

Thus that topped our list of post breakfast duties and when we got there, Officer Black was slapping cuffs onto the wrists of some young cowboy who'd shown up to load horses into Butch Casper's trailer.

As we drove up, there was another black and white unit behind us with flashing lights, driven by Officer Stormo and the other uniformed gorilla, from which both jumped out to assist Officer Black with guns drawn.

"Get behind the trailer!" Office Black ordered as soon as we exited Chris's pickup truck.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because this place is not secure?" he shouted.

"Looks pretty secure to me," I said as we approached him and the young man.

"Except for one thing," he said.

"What's that?" Chris asked.

"That body in the third pen down," he said, pointing to his right.

Chapter 9

Dead bodies tend to look like discarded, discolored, empty, lifeless manikins; at least that's what Butch Caspter looked like as he lay crumpled up in a horse pen at Chris LaDuke's stable on the edge of Mesquite, with an empty bottle of Pendleton whiskey at his side.

When it came to drinking, Butch was apparently in deep, to the point that he could not have quit without professional help because a body, quicker than you think, gets to a point where you cannot quit cold turkey and survive. Therefore, you must have medical personnel on standby to see you through the withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be life threatening.

The severity of these withdrawal symptoms is usually dependent upon how "chemically dependent" you have become. Those who drink heavily on a daily basis have developed a high level of dependency. Even those who drink daily, but not heavily, and those who drink heavily and not daily, can also be chemically dependent.

Within six to 48 hours after not drinking, hallucinations may develop. These usually are visual hallucinations but they can also involve sounds and smells and can last for a few hours up to weeks at a time.

Also within this time frame after quitting, convulsions or seizures can occur, which is the point at which alcohol withdrawal can become dangerous, if it isn't medically treated. The symptoms may progress to delirium tremens, also known as DT's, after three to five days without alcohol and the symptoms of DT's can include profound confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, hyperactivity and extreme cardiovascular disturbances.

Once DT's begin, there is no known medical treatment to stop them. Grand mal seizures, heart attacks and stroke can occur during the DT's, all of which can be fatal.

That's where Butch Casper was at. He'd put himself in a situation where he couldn't live without a drink and he couldn't live with one.

At the age of 40, his liver was shot, and despite the fact he'd been advised by doctors that one more drink might do him in, he binged anyway. So, as it turns out, if the police had caught him after he slashed my arm, he might still be alive but probably not for long.

I learned all of this from his nephew, Luke Casper, the young cowboy that Officer Black had strapped handcuffs on when Chris LaDuke and I arrived at her stable.

As it turns out, Luke and his brother Stephen had planned to meet Butch at the stable in Mesquite after looking at some roping horses in California. When they couldn't find him, they naturally assumed that he had gone on another binge, as he had so many times before. So they started loading the horses Butch had bought in Oregon into the trailer to take them back to Oklahoma, knowing Butch would eventually show up there later, like he always had. That happened to be at the same time Officer Black was making his rounds at the stable, where he discovered the body and put Luke in cuffs.

"Butch was a time bomb," Luke said to me after they'd removed the cuffs, while we were standing around.

"Did he ever stop drinking?" I asked.

"He jumped out of the fast lane a couple of times but not really," he said.

"That's crazy," I said.

"No," he said. "That's stupid."

Of course, Officer Black had never actually seen Butch in person, so when he spotted a body in a pen at Chris's stable, he assumed the worst and called in the troops with guns drawn. That was despite the fact that Officer Black and his gorillas didn't technically have jurisdiction there, since Chris's stable was located in Arizona, which is why a few county sheriffs were on the way to work in conjunction with the Mesquite policemen as they often did.

For me, it was hard to not look at the situation as good news because I thought Butch was an idiot anyway and now I didn't have to look over my shoulder and worry about him showing up with knives drawn and neither did Chris.

"This is creepy," Chris said.

"Which part?" I asked.

"Having a dead body on my property," she said.

"I think I like him better this way," I said and figured she agreed but knew she wouldn't say so.

"It's unfortunate," she said instead.

At any rate, the situation looked pretty cut and dry to me. I was ready to go before Officer Black asked Chris to stick around in case he had some questions and she asked me to hang out with her so I did.

They examined and loaded the body pretty quickly, scanned the grounds briefly and mentioned to Luke that they would try to find out a little more about what he'd done in his last few hours; like what bars he might have hung out at, even though I assumed that they had already done that since he was technically a fugitive, but maybe not. Again I had to remind myself that they didn't have the resources of Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, Luke and his brother Stephen wanted to leave too, as soon as possible, hoping to put miles between themselves and what had happened, and being sick of putting up with their uncle's antics for far too long anyway. But the policemen held them up until they could scour Butch's pickup truck and trailer for anything that might be evidence. Plus they wanted to figure out what to do with the body and let the family decide whether or not they wanted an autopsy done and where.

After finding nothing in the truck and trailer, they sent the boys on their merry way and let the body be taken away by a local mortician who'd would wait for further instruction from Butch's brother Bill, the boy's father.

Not long after that, the policemen and sheriff deputies left too and Chris agreed to give me a ride home but wanted to go into her house and use the restroom first. So I strolled towards her pickup truck, which was parked fairly close to where Butch's body had been found and took one last glance into the pen. Then I executed what could be called an introspective walk toward her pickup truck. Along the way, I noticed a key on the ground between the pen and where the hearse had been parked.

Not knowing what to do with it, I simply picked it up, looked at it briefly and put it into my pocket, thinking that I might give it to Officer Black later or even to Chris, since it could be hers.

"Find something?" Chris suddenly asked, having nearly strolled up to my side without me noticing.

"No," I quickly said, for some unknown reason, "I thought I saw a nail half-buried in the dirt for a second but I guess I didn't."

"Are you ready to go?" she asked.

"Absolutely," I said.

Since I didn't know if Chris was hanging out with me because Butch was on the loose or because she had an authentic interest in me, or both, I was at a bit of a loss with regards to what to do next. Plus my arm was hurting, I was in the mood for some "down time" and I felt weird for having lied to her about finding the key, not really knowing why I had lied to her in the first place.

She indicated that she had to go back to the stable after she dropped me off anyway to make sure everything transitioned back to normal; that the stable hands showed up on time and did their duties and that the people who rented pens from her felt OK with the situation. So the atmosphere was a little uncomfortable when I got out of the car at my place, but we had already exchanged phone numbers and promised each other that "we'd call later" and that was that.

Sauntering up the sidewalk to my suite, I once again noticed the blood on the sidewalk and on the exterior wall and suddenly remembered that there were still other mysteries in my life that were left unsolved and that prompted me to take a quick glance about for anything that might appear unusual, like a white service van parked nearby or a stranger lurking in the bushes.

Seeing nothing, I opened the door, went inside and plopped down on the bed, hoping to relax a little bit. Unfortunately, my mind was working overtime and I wondered if Chris had seen me pick up the key and if that had created the somewhat uncomfortable and disjointed atmosphere on the ride home. Or if she was simply affected by the day's events and preoccupied with getting things back to normal.

I began to wonder if I should just call her and tell her about the key, but ultimately I decided that I'd bring it up to her the next time I saw her.

Meanwhile, thinking about the key prompted me to pull it out of my jean pocket. I was struck by how familiar it looked, so I got up from the bed, walked over to the big screen television, grabbed the key from on top of the dresser that I'd gotten from the old man in the rolled-over pickup truck, placed the stable key on top of the old man's key and felt a flood of adrenaline surge through my body when I realized that each key was a perfect match for the other.

Naturally, that kicked my brain cells into overdrive and I began to mentally explore what that "match" could possibly mean, with the possibilities being far too endless and numerous for me to get my head around.

After all, what was the key really for? A box by the last tree, as the old man had said? What did that mean anyway and where was the last tree? Had the key fallen out of Butch's pocket and, if so, how was he tied to the situation? Or did someone else drop the key, including anyone who boarded horses at Chris's stable, Officer Black or Chris herself?

Yes, the possibilities were endless and I suddenly felt very alone and wondered if there was anyone in the world that I could really trust?

Then, to add to the confusion, my doorknob began to rattle again.

Chapter 10

I was coming to the conclusion that Nevada led the nation in doorknob rattling, simply because I'd never been to a place where more people tried the doorknob first, and then, as an afterthought, knocked on the door.

Suddenly my doorknob was rattling again, followed by the sound of someone trying to pick the lock or perhaps insert a key, so I quickly skipped over to the door, opened it and some guy dressed in what looked like a service uniform with a bushy mustache, three-day beard and a key in his hand, nearly fell into my suite.

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"Oh," he said sheepishly, "I'm here to service your air conditioning."

I paused for an uncomfortable minute and then said, "Seems like that would be more of a summer job."

"We do it every three months," he declared.

"Whether it needs it or not?" I asked.

"I just do what I'm told," he said.

"Which is somewhat unique," I said.

Of course I was wary of everyone in the world at that point and still preoccupied with being in possession of two keys that looked exactly alike but came from totally different sources; one being a gift from a dying old man that nobody seemed to know, who had vanished from the planet, and the other being a happenstance "find" of mine, spotted while traipsing through Chris's stable grounds.

I decided that I needed to drive out to the site of the old man's accident and examine the area to see if that might initiate an epiphany of some kind. But first I had to stop by the body shop and find out how long it was going to take them to repair my damaged pickup truck in case I suddenly felt like escaping from Mesquite and the bad dream that I'd driven into.

So I put the two keys and the ring that I'd found in the grass by the sidewalk, into my pocket, left the serviceman to do his thing and noticed, as I pulled away, that he'd parked a white service van, with one of those removable magnetic signs on the door out front. That gave me some pause but only briefly because my mind was way too distracted, mostly by death, murder and mayhem.

The body shop owner, as it turned out, looked like he was 12 years old and wouldn't need to shave for another 10 years, which was slightly unsettling, especially since it was the only body shop in town.

"This one's going to take a while," he said, "because we have to order parts in and we're backed up as it is."

"Which means?"

"At least two weeks," he said. "Or it could be up to a month."

"So much for just passing through town," I muttered to myself.

"You're not from here, are you?" he asked, even though he could see that my license plate was from a faraway state.

"Not a snowbird," I said.

"Well, you are now," he said smiling and I wanted to slap him.

"Good point," I acknowledged and then cringed, like I normally did, when I thought about the blue hair and walkers always associated with the snowbird term.

"I'm going for a drive," I said to Chris when I called her on my cellphone.

"Where to?" she asked.

"Into the country," I said.

"For an hour, a day or forever?" she asked.

"One of the above," I said, "want to go with?"

"Can't," she said, "one of my stable hands didn't show up."

"Do you need help?" I asked.

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

"Am I not qualified?"

"You need to heal," she said.

"I'm not an invalid," I complained.

"Just a partial one," she declared, which gave me no comfort and fed the insecurity that I was already feeling about her and I developing the relationship of the century.

Meanwhile, it was getting a little too late in the day and I had some miles to cover and should have waited until the next day to go exploring but couldn't pull hard enough on my own reigns. So after quickly fueling my borrowed automobile, I drove south on Interstate 15 to the extraterrestrial highway exit that led to the site of the old man's accident.

No one was on the extraterrestrial highway with me, not a soul, and after a short while I began to get lonely enough to almost wish that the squatting fat lady with the screaming stretch pants would reappear. But I slapped myself and overcame that hysterical mini-moment.

Upon arriving at the scene of the accident, which I initially drove past and had to come back to again, I was struck by the fact that there was a complete lack of evidence. In fact, it looked like the site had not been visited by man in the last century or two, if ever, causing me to question my mental well-being and wonder if I had indeed experienced a mirage, except for the key.

Yes, the key in my pocket was real and not only that, it had multiplied into two. Therefore it was no mirage. Plus I was still in possession of a blood-speckled white shirt lying on the floor of my hotel suite closet and no one could wave their wand and make that go away.

So I continued on, towards the ranch that was nearby, but further than I remembered, and when I got to it I saw no sign of life and assumed that I wouldn't since the owner, Bear Watson, had been done away with by some yet unknown murderer or murderers.

It was not a well-groomed place, nor had it ever been I assumed. But ranches often weren't and seldom did that determine the extent of their profit or loss margins.

I parked the car, got out and began to explore the place with caution like a World War II infantryman sneaking through the streets of a bombed Berlin, wondering if Little Joe, Adam, Hoss or Ben might suddenly exit the house, a barn or another building armed and ready to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, I wasn't sure what I was even doing there because, after all, I wasn't a police investigator and knew nothing of what to look for. Yet I did possess the curiosity of 12 healthy cats and a real desire to see justice prevail, which was just enough to propel me at a brisk pace.

I tried both the back and front doors of the house, after knocking. They were both locked but a window was partially open on the south side, with drapes flopping in and out in the breeze and I debated crawling through it but would need something to stand on to do so and elected to explore other buildings first and possibly come back to that.

Then I went to what looked like the biggest barn, which was full of things like old tools, harnesses, cobwebs, manure and little else, and from there to what looked like it might be a garage or tool shed and peeked inside. It too featured tools and junk, mostly in disarray to the untrained eye but probably in perfect order for someone who owned the place and had everything "exactly where they wanted it."

Ultimately, the trek was proving to be futile and fruitless and the sun was rapidly streaking towards the nearby mountain tops, and then I spotted a small stepladder in the garage and decided to take it back to the house and use it to slip through the opened bedroom window and see what I could find.

"This is really stupid," I said to myself.

"I know," I replied.

"But kind of exciting," I added.

"Not that exciting," I said.

"But it could get exciting," I added.

"Shut up," I said, "you're messing with my concentration."

It took some doing to get through what proved to be a stuck-in-place bedroom window, since I got little help from my tender, knife-slashed left arm. Once inside, I could see that Bear Watson had spent little time cleaning or decorating any of the rooms, with most of his last meal still sitting on the stove next to a sink piled high with dishes.

He was a bachelor after all and a messy one at that. But at the same time, he was plenty rich, or at least so everyone said, and possessed acres upon acres of land and hordes of cattle, not that it mattered much anymore.

Still I felt like I was snooping where I shouldn't be and decided to take the easier exit out, through the back door instead of the window, and was about to pull on the door handle when I noticed two tattered tires propped against the wall under a coat rack that held a lot of dirty coats and jackets.

Each tire, despite extensive damage, featured what looked like a bullet hole in the side and I immediately assumed that Bear Watson had collected them from his own ditch-hitting incident and the old man's, as evidence of wrongdoing.

"Stop it," I said to myself.

"Stop what?" I replied.

"You're not going to put these tires in your trunk are you?" I said.

"You bet I am," I replied.

"Are you nuts?" I asked.

"Probably," I replied, "but you don't have to tell anyone."

So into my trunk they went, lickety-split, for what reason I don't know except that it seemed like the right thing to do at the time and a horrendous idea two seconds later when, after I got behind the wheel, I spotted a black sedan slowing down on the highway in preparation for a possible turn into the ranch.

Rather than risk being seen or being part of a confrontation, I backed my car out of sight and through the big open entryway of the mostly empty garage and then got out, peeked out the doorway again and watched as the black sedan entered the yard and two good-sized guys dressed in dark suits got out.

One of them busted open the back door of the house that I'd made sure was locked and the other, as if he had spotted my tracks, began walking towards the garage.

That was when I leaned back against the wall, wiped the sweat from my brow and ordered myself not to panic. It was also when I looked out the doorway in the opposite direction and once again spotted a row of trees that'd grown in a low spot on the south side of the ranch, with one of the trees being a different kind than the others and oddly enough, it was the last tree.

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