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Journeying the Narrow Path

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Note: This is the first chapter of “Journeying the Narrow Path,” a novel told in serial format. Holten’s previous novel, “The Last Tree.” is available at thedickinsonpress.com for a short time.

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Chapter 1

Sunshine peeked through the drapes of our Deadwood, South Dakota, motel room as I watched Kelli sleep. Her eyes were beautiful even when closed and I looked forward to spending that morning and the rest of eternity with her.

Since our chance meeting two years earlier, we’d become each other’s best friend, lover, confidant and cheerleader; seldom leaving each other’s side and making more than a few people nauseous with our constant carrying on.

Her bare shoulders glistened above the tops of the blankets that were covering us and she said something very softly, like a little girl, to someone in her dream. I wanted to hug her, to run my hands along the side of her body, working my way across her soft belly, to the underside of her breasts and back down skin that felt as though it had been mixed with thick cream. Instead, I let her sleep.

When we first met, I had mistakenly assumed that she might be aloof, preoccupied and a bit of a smart ass because I had learned to expect a woman of profound beauty to be a little self-centered. After all, she was so pretty, with ocean blue eyes, long blonde hair, tanned skin, very full lips, glistening white teeth and a smirk powerful enough to buckle the most stoic man’s knees.

Instead, proving that a cover does not determine the content of a book, I discovered that she was very inquisitive, ponderous, respectful of others, full of wit and, most of all, she was my wife — a fact that was well beyond my comprehension, better than my wildest dreams and way more than I deserved.

No, she wasn’t perfect. She couldn’t knit, sew or play pool worth a damn, but who cared? And she tended to get up later rather than earlier and eat only the inside of her toast, leaving the crust for the birds.

We were married in my hometown church for the second time, across the street from my grandparents’ house, mainly because she didn’t have a church, a home or a family for that matter.

I met her in the springtime at a rest stop in California where she was sleeping in her car and where I rolled in at 3 o’clock that night, dog tired and lucky to be alive after nearly hitting the ditch twice.

When I woke up in the morning, I noticed an old, abandoned clunker parked next to mine blanketed in layers of fine dust. I was readjusting my body, intent on returning to an unfinished dream when I spotted the prettiest girl in the galaxy exiting the restroom. With haste, I popped out of the car, opened the trunk and searched the depths of my mind for a better-than-average opening line.

“Hi there,” I said, coming up with nothing too creative.

“Hi,” she said, eyeing me warily, obviously hesitant to converse with a strange male whose hair was sticking up in all directions, clothes were wrinkled and who slept in his car at rest stops.

“Is that your car?” I asked.

That was followed by an uncomfortable pause during which I realized that I might have inadvertently implied that her car was less than impressive.

She stopped, stared into my eyes, shifted her weight to one leg and put her hands into the back pockets of her very tight, hip-hugging jeans.

“Is that yours?” she asked in a manner that completely put me in my place.

Glancing sheepishly at my beat-up, dust-covered, four-door jalopy with a dented driver’s door and loose-hanging license plate, I began to mentally retreat with my head down like Dick Nixon leaving his first presidential television debate.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“Nice,” she said.

“You don’t mean that,” I said.

“No,” she said.

“But I like your car,” I said.

“No you don’t,” she said.

“You’re right,” I said.

“Then why did you say that?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said sheepishly. “Probably because I didn’t know what to say.”

She smiled and then I smiled.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“North Dakota,” I said.

“Where is that?” she asked as streaks of morning sunlight burst through some tree branches and set her hair aglow.

“A little closer to Mars than here,” I said.

“That’s what I thought,” she said.

“And is that your home?” she asked, pointing to my car.

“It is for now,” I said, “and the trunk is my clothes dresser.”

“Very impressive,” she said.

“Now you’re lying,” I said.

“That’s true,” she said.

“Well, nice meeting you,” I said, once again not knowing what to say while assuming that it might be time to retreat.

“Does it have a shower?” she suddenly asked.

“Hot tub,” I said as I shut the trunk.

“Are bathing suites optional?” She asked.

“Completely,” I said.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of our verbal joust and through further prodding I discovered that Kelli was a recent dropout from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was on her way to Las Vegas. Unfortunately, she had just embarked on a new journey meant to help her forget that her last living relative, her mother, had just died of breast cancer.

As we sat on the hood of my car chatting, I sensed from her further revelations that she and her mother had lived more like roommates or sisters than parent and child in their rented Manhattan Beach, California, duplex, located well south of the Los Angeles Airport.

Meanwhile, her mother, a semi-accomplished artist who had helped pay for her college education, was too much of a free spirit to have had life insurance or to have married Kelli’s father, wherever he was. Kelli had contributed to her own college tuition by selling yogurt at a local beach shop and modeling swimwear for department store catalogs, which was something she likened to having her teeth pulled.

She was, in essence, a pre-med student stuck in the pre-med stage, since her main source of funding had died. The abruptness of her mother’s death and resulting depression then prevented her from working out alternative plans for furthering her education. Thus, her anticipated graduation, instead of being from UCLA, had been from a state of lonely depression to an “I need to get away” mania.

Two hours out of Los Angeles, the headlights on her 10-year-old jalopy began acting more like strobe lights than headlights. So I offered to follow her into Las Vegas that morning in case something else went wrong and we ended up leaving the glitter city two days later, married, both of us being in our early 20s, with I being three months older but no wiser.

It was a decision that my parents considered ridiculous at the time and yet proved to be the best one I’d ever make. It was also the first time I could remember my mother being rendered nearly speechless anywhere, much less on the phone, and for a moment I thought she might have passed out.

“Mom, are you there?” I shouted into the receiver after the long pause.

“Yes, we’re here,” she said, speaking for my father as she always did. “We’re just a little surprised.”

“So am I,” I admitted while Kelli kissed me on the cheek.

“Are they excited?” she asked me anxiously.

“Ecstatic,” I said.

Meanwhile, Kelli’s car stayed behind in Las Vegas with its new teenage owner as we headed north toward Mars and a big, endlessly bright future.

Of course, I’ve thought back to that particular morning in Deadwood countless times, because it would be the last one that we’d spend together.

We were in Deadwood, in the heart of the Black Hills because I was riding in the Days of 76 Rodeo that night and needed to be in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the next afternoon for the final round of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.

You see, I was a professional rodeo cowboy — and a good one — and that meant Kelli and I spent a whole lot of time on the road.

We left Deadwood that evening, after the rodeo performance, in pouring rain on a road that wound around like a snake through the hills, with lightning flashing everywhere, illuminating the sky like rockets shot at allied jets over Baghdad.

Unfortunately, Kelli was behind the wheel when a deer suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Had it been me, I might have plowed into it rather than swerve off the road. But Kelli was too nice for that and we tumbled down an embankment, rolled over twice, came to rest against some big rocks and I felt no worse than I might have had I been thrown from a bucking bronc. But I knew immediately that my Kelli was gone because she wasn’t even in the car.

I crawled out of the wreck and stumbled about half-wittedly until I heard her moans coming from the tall grass up the ravine. So I climbed to where she lay and tried to hold onto her as she laid there all broken up, a jumbled mess, unable to move or speak.

She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but I wondered how she could have been alive at all and I think she hung in there just to say goodbye to me with her eyes.

I asked God why she had to suffer that way, like an angel with broken wings, but he didn’t give me an answer. I assumed that, since her life had been a rough one from the beginning, the end just had to follow that same path.

At any rate, it sent my life spiraling down a new, self-destructive path, prompted by my desire to see her again, if only in Heaven, along with our baby that died inside of her.

From that point forward, it seemed that everything I did was designed to get me there sooner rather than later.

Chapter 2

I came close to winning the world saddle bronc riding title that year, but it didn’t matter much to me.

Coming back from almost $50,000 down at season’s end, I won five out of 10 rounds at the National Finals Rodeo held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas and almost eked out a championship on the final day while thousands cheered me on and a national television audience watched.

Alone that night in my hotel room, I ordered a steak as thick as a king-size mattress and pretended I wasn’t there when my inebriated cowboy buddies, with buckle bunnies under each arm, banged on the door and begged me to come out and play.

“Open up!” one of them said.

“Let’s party,” said another.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” whispered a young, sultry voiced, southern vixen.

That’s when something, perhaps a bottle of champagne, dropped to the floor, popped its top and sprayed the surroundings like a fireman’s fire hose run amok.

“What did you do?” one of my buddies said.

“I’m soaked!” said one of the girls and I turned up the volume on the television set to drown out their noise.

A nearby hotel guest, perhaps sleeping off the frustrations of a not-so-profitable stint at the tables, opened his door and scolded the party animals like a high school basketball coach dressing down his losing team. Then he slammed the door, and for a moment there was complete silence.

“Let’s go,” one of the revelers finally said. “He’s not in there.”

“But the television is on,” one of the girls exclaimed.

“Haven’t you ever left your television on in a hotel room?” asked another.

That’s when I propped my boots up on the desk, leaned back in the chair and tipped my hat forward, kind of like James Dean did in that famous photo where he was sitting in the back seat of a convertible on the set of the ‘50s movie “Giant.”

“Ain’t this grand,” I said to myself and took another sip from a bottle of whiskey.

To tell you the truth, nothing could have bucked me off during those 10 Las Vegas rounds or at any rodeo for the rest of that year for that matter. It was all about how high a score I’d get or if the bucking horse I was riding was ballistic enough to give me the score I needed to win.

You see, as soon as the last shovel full of dirt was added to the big pile that covered Kelli’s grave in my little hometown cemetery, I hit the rodeo trail and never looked back.

I was driven, focused and possessed, not because I wanted to win but in order to keep my mind off of her. And since I didn’t care if I lived or died, I threw all caution to the wind, feared no horse and teased death irrationally.

Still, at the end of the season, I almost bowed out of the National Finals Rodeo — which would have been a first, like the Milwaukee Brewers not showing up for the World Series. That’s because the days between the end of the rodeo season and the National Finals Rodeo gave me too much time to think and I couldn’t bear the thought of being in Las Vegas again without Kelli.

I was a wreck after Kelli died and kept mostly to myself. But since I’d never been the world’s greatest conversationalist or the life of the party, nobody seemed to notice how messed up I was and because I was winning, everyone assumed that I must be OK.

The biggest problem I had to deal with was adjusting to the loss of “what might have been” until I finally figured out that there is no such thing as “what might have been.” Nothing in life is guaranteed and everything can be instantly lost. That was when a stale bitterness swept over me and I began to view life from a very morose perspective because I just couldn’t help but miss her and the baby inside of her that would have soon been born. My time with her had been a fantastic dream but it was over for good and I found that to be an impossible fact to face.

I stared absentmindedly at my uneaten steak as I continued fighting the mental battle and finally gave in, popped up, trotted out of the room, snuck down the hallway, rode the elevator to the first floor and burst through the front doors of the casino, leaving behind an awards ceremony, interviews, a championship buckle, saddle, my riding gear and my rodeo career.

“Where are you going?” someone shouted after me.

“Out,” I said curtly, not wanting anyone to see the tears forming in my eyes.

“Can I have an autograph?” someone else asked.

“I can’t,” I declared as I buttoned the snaps on my jacket, skipped across the parking lot and jumped behind the wheel of my pickup truck.

Having finally come to the realization that rodeo would never erase the reality of Kelli’s death, I sped north on Interstate 15 with the highway’s white lines blurred by tears flowing ceaselessly from my eyes. The dam had burst on my huge reservoir of pain and I abused myself for wallowing in self-pity, but I still couldn’t stop the pity party.

Negative, angry and lonely thoughts pursued me like a hungry lioness and I stepped on the gas harder and harder in an attempt to outrun it.

In what some might consider a trance, I drove seemingly forever across four borders without turning on any music and stopped only when the fuel gauge touched “E.”

Eating nothing and drinking little, I talked to no one as my waistline shrunk and dark rings formed under my eyes.

I left one middle-of-nowhere gas station without paying and another without removing the nozzle, pulling it and the hose along for miles before stopping and casting it aside in a snow-filled ditch.

Somewhere along the line, I vowed that I would never ride in a rodeo again or even attend one. Nor would I call my rodeo buddies or return their calls, simply because I wanted to escape. No, I wanted more than to escape. I wanted to be with Kelli.

Frigid temperatures finally awakened me from my stupor when I stepped through the gates of the cemetery on the west side of my little hometown as granules of ice drifted over the graves driven by fierce northwest winds blowing down relentlessly from Canada.

The headlights of my pickup truck shined into the cemetery, lighting a path to where my grandparents were buried next to my uncle who died long before them, beside Kelli’s grave.

Snow covered the small plaque marking the spot where she lay and I angrily pushed it away with bare hands. The still-high mound of now-frozen dirt peeked through the snow while dead flowers from a withered wreath blew across the barren landscape.

On my knees and wiping tears from my eyes with frosted hands, I made no plans to leave, even if it meant being discovered there frozen to death in the morning by a passing motorist.

Meanwhile, I was surrounded by familiar names on countless stones; faces from the past that had enlivened a once bustling little community and landed there long before either Kelli or I were born.

Schoolteachers, shop owners, farmers, ranchers, old timers, little kids, family and friends, all scattered about and I began to wonder what good it was to be a rodeo star if everyone you did it for was planted six feet under.

Just then, bright lights caused me to turn about quickly and I saw footprints in the snow following me to where I knelt. Silhouetted against headlights were four deer digging in the snow for food and I stared at them for some time and they glanced at me not at all.

As stupid as it might sound, I wanted their respect because it was one of theirs who led me to where I was at that moment, on my knees in the middle of a cemetery, and yet they felt none of my grief. In fact, I didn’t think anyone could feel my grief and that made me feel completely alone and empty.

Suddenly, the deer looked up and scattered. Then, coming out of the darkness and into the beams of light was a familiar shape, a man, his cowboy hat tilted just so, with overshoes covering his boots and the collar of his heavy jacket turned up.

His name was Houston Timber and he was the owner of a big ranch north of town. He was also the father of a friend of mine, my best friend, who used to rodeo with me a lot up until we were 20 years old.

I had seen Houston in the crowd at the National Finals Rodeo and knew that he must have followed me home from Las Vegas, but I was apparently so self-consumed that I didn’t hear him pull up or perhaps it was the winter winds pounding ceaselessly against my ears that blocked out the sound.

Saying nothing, he gently grabbed me around the shoulders, lifted me up, wrapped a blanket around me and guided me back to my pickup truck. Then he circled around to the other side, brushed snow from the driver’s seat, where I had left the door open, got behind the steering wheel and cranked the heater up full blast until it sounded like a hairdresser’s blow dryer. He then put it in gear and as we crawled down the highway, I noticed headlights following us through the right-side mirror and assumed it was his wife in their car.

“When you didn’t show up at the awards ceremony, I had an idea where you might be headed,” he said.

I didn’t say anything.

“I’d been wondering for a long time when things might finally hit you,” he said.

His words went right to my heart, my stomach did a couple of flips and I drew in a deep breath as new snowflakes began to appear in the headlights.

“I’ve spent a few lonely nights at that cemetery myself,” he said, and I knew he knew I would understand what he meant.

I also knew that it was hard for him to say what he’d just said because men in my neck of the woods didn’t talk much about feelings or emotions, or anything else for that matter.

Conversations consisted of phrases, not sentences because sentences were mostly reserved for women, preachers and traveling salesmen.

And yes, I remembered all too well the sultry day that his boy’s foot got stuck in a stirrup at the rodeo in White Earth when we were 20 years old, because he was my best friend. But I also remembered it because it was the day he died and the worst day of my life up until the day Kelli died.

Chapter 3

I had looked over at Billy behind the chutes in White Earth after I saddled my bronc while he was still saddling his, and there was sweat running down his cheeks, and he glanced at me with a funny little smile on his face. At least I thought it was a smile until sometime later, when I really thought about it, I realized that it had actually been kind of a forlorn look with a wince.

Whatever it was, since everyone has a lot of expressions for a lot of occasions, I guess it’s that face that I’ll remember him by forever.

“I spotted you just south of Salt Lake City,” Houston suddenly said, “and tried to follow you home from there but I had quite a time trying to keep up with you and lost you again somewhere in Montana.”

I didn’t respond to him, mostly because I didn’t know what to say and sat there looking out the pickup window watching thick snowflakes fall in the headlights as he hauled me away from my hometown cemetery.

“At any rate, I’m too old to be driving that long and that hard,” he said.

“I’m sorry to put you through that,” I finally said and then there was a pause.

“I don’t guess it’s your fault,” Houston said. “You’ve been through some pretty tough times.”

It was beginning to heat up nicely inside the pickup truck so Houston turned down the heater fan a notch and the tears that had iced on my cheeks started to melt and drip on my chin. I had little feeling in my feet or hands, my ears were burning like they’d been laid in a frying pan and I grabbed at the oversized blanket that he had draped over me as my whole body suddenly began to shake.

“It’s getting warm now,” Houston said as he took off one of his gloves. “Pretty soon you’ll probably be sweating.”

When he said the word sweat, I remembered Billy again and how we had ridden to the White Earth rodeo together the day he died. Fact is we almost always rode together everywhere because Billy was closer in age and more of a brother to me than my own brother was.

Houston turned left into town and then left again on Main Street where blue streetlights high up on timber posts thrust blue light onto the barren, snow-covered streets below. Porch lights lit up snow-blanketed yards and little white rabbits darted in front of the headlights.

“Do you want me to take you to your place?” Houston asked, knowing that I’d either go there or to my parent’s ranch, or maybe even to his place if I really needed to.

“My place,” I said and, as soon as I said it, I thought about how I used to call it our place when Kelli was alive.

Then I suddenly remembered the snorting sounds that the bucking horse made when he drug Billy around the White Earth rodeo arena. When the pickup men stopped the horse, I sprinted to where he lay with my chaps flapping against my jeans and my spurs clanging like chimes.

I remembered thinking as I ran toward him that, since he wasn’t covered in that much blood that he might be OK. But that was stupid thinking or lost hope or something, kind of like hoping that the goldfish floating at the top of the water tank might still be alive, Because there was no way he was going to be alive.

Arena dirt was stuck to the sweat on his skin and where it wasn’t caked to him, his skin was as white as clean sheets on a clothesline, I guess because by then he was a ghost laying there with his mouth open with dirt inside both it and his open eyes.

The whole scene seemed a lot different from what I was used to seeing on TV or in movies, because the TV version suddenly seemed way too sterile. Billy looked scary, grotesque and otherworldly in so many ways. After all, he’d been a vibrant living being turned into a limp and meaningless object, here one second and gone the next.

“What’s it like?” I wanted to ask him, “being dead and all.”

Because, after all, we shared everything in life —from the times we peed in bed, to the first girl we kissed and even the first time we had sex and who we’d had sex with. So, naturally, I’d want to share dying with him too but suddenly I couldn’t and that was what was most shocking. He was no longer in my world and I’d never actually lived without him in my world, so I wasn’t sure what to do.

The white cowboy shirt that he’d borrowed from me had been nearly torn off and there were big dents in his ribcage where thundering hooves, shot like missiles from a low-flying jet fighter, had caved it in. And even I, despite not being a doctor, could see that his right leg was broken above the knee because everything below it was turned in the wrong direction and blood was soaking into the dirt under his head.

I called out to him, because I couldn’t help it, but he didn’t answer. Houston and his wife Audrey weren’t there, and I was glad for that because no parents need to see their boy that way, my buddy, my brother.

“This place looks like a ghost town at this time of night,” Houston suddenly said, shaking me loose from my deep thoughts and I looked at the clock on the dashboard when he turned on the radio and tuned it to a station in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, that everyone listened to.

It was 3:30 in the morning on a cold December evening and I suddenly realized that I had been wrong about one thing: There was someone who could feel my pain and he was the man that was sitting next to me, and that thought began to fill my eyes up with tears again.

Then we rode in silence until Houston pulled up to the front of my house, which looked ominously dark and cold, probably because I hadn’t been there since the morning just before Kelli’s funeral. It looked different, like it had shrunk or something.

It was an old house, built when the sidewalks on Main Street, a block away, were wood planks and the streets were made of dirt.

I loved the antique wood trim around the windows and doorways, and the hardwood floors, the old rugs that covered them and the stained glass section at the top of the large living room window that faced east, caught early morning rays and deflected them in countless colorful directions.

My grandparents had moved there from the ranch long before I was born, after the previous owner, my grandmother’s cousin Willie —a boisterous talker who moved to Washington in search of fame, fortune and warmer weather —had moved out.

Why he settled in Seattle I don’t know but I think it had something to do with the availability of better-paying jobs. At any rate, he came to visit occasionally and seemed happy enough, so I guess it was a good move.

My grandfather died when I was 14 and I would often visit my grandmother after that. She would fill my head full of stories of the “olden days.”

In fact, amongst many other things, she once told me that a physician, who frequently took sips from a flask, had performed surgery on my great-grandfather on the kitchen table out at the ranch and it had not gone so well. As a result, they had to haul him 20 miles by wagon to a train that transported him across the state to a hospital that could patch him up.

The fact that he lived at all was a miracle and it was months before he finally returned to the ranch with a beard that was much grayer than when he had left.

In the end, my grandmother, who was a woman of incredible strength and faith, had survived the death of her husband, parents, 12 brothers and sisters and others, and eventually moved into a senior housing unit filled with more modern conveniences, where she eventually died from heart failure. With my brother having already built another house at the ranch, I was the recipient of the old house in town by default, more or less, and loved it.

Kelli and I had fixed it up in our spare time between rodeos and ranch work that summer, starting right after exchanging vows in Las Vegas. You could say that it was our honeymoon cottage.

“We own a house?” Kelli had shouted when I parked in front of it after I arrived in town with her for the first time.

“Oh,” I said, “did I forget to mention that?”

“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed and hugged me.

“Well,” I said, “where did you think we were going to live?”

“In an apartment until we could buy a house I guess,” she said.

“See any apartments in this town?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I love it!”

“You better look inside first,” I said.

“I don’t care what it looks like,” she said. “It’s ours!”

“That it is,” I said and she hopped out of the car, sprinted to the front door and waited for me to arrive to open the door and carry her across the threshold.

“Hurry!” she shouted.

“Why don’t you just go inside,” I said.

“Why don’t you unlock the door, silly,” she said.

“It’s open,” I said.

“You don’t lock the door?” she asked.

“Not here,” I said.

“And how long have you been gone?” she asked.

“A month,” I said.

“That’s amazing,” she said.

“No,” I said, “that’s normal.”

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you more,” I said and picked her up, kissed her and carried her inside on what was our fifth day of knowing each other and third day of marriage.

In the days and weeks that followed, we completed most of the work on the house just before we were married for the second time in an official church ceremony with most of the town in attendance.

Rather than make major changes, we tried to preserve its antiquity as much as possible. I tore the enclosed porch off the front, replaced one window with a sliding glass door upstairs in the east bedroom, built an upper and lower deck, and added a skylight to the west bedroom which had been an attic with no windows.

The sun would shine in our faces early each morning and lead us outside for breakfast. Eventually, we converted that east bedroom into an entertainment center and slept most nights in the west bedroom where we could look up and find falling stars through the skylight, make wishes and keep them a secret from each other.

“What did you wish?” Kelli would ask me and then smile.

“Can’t tell you,” I’d say.

“Why not?” she’d ask.

“Because then it won’t come true,” I’d say.

“Is it good?” she’d ask.

“It’s a lot better than good,” I’d say.

As it turns out, I could just as well have told her because then she’d have at least known that all I ever wanted was for us to live happily ever.

But I guess that wasn’t meant to be.

Chapter 4

In front of the lower porch of our house was a hitching post where Kelli and I would tie up our horses when we went in for cold drinks on a hot summer day, our spurs singing to us as our boot heels pounded against the wood planks.

An old couch along with my grandmother’s tall, antique clothes dresser dominated the living room. I had converted the dresser into a wall unit that hid the TV and sound system.

The dining room next to it featured an antique table and four chairs along with a large, overstuffed chair in a corner that swallowed us up when we read and listened to music late into the night.

Another bedroom on the downstairs level with a big, iron bed was meant mostly for guests. Meanwhile, our poor kitchen suffered from neglect since we often went across the alley to the local café for meals because it was so convenient and very much like having our own cook. Plus we loved mixing with the locals and they loved hearing my latest stories from the rodeo trail.

“Where are you guys off to next?” they’d ask, I guess because they were living vicariously through me.

Salinas, I’d say or Tucson or Prescott.

“Bring home the buckle,” they’d say, and if I won I’d show it to them when we got back home.

Basically, life was as good as it could get and I’d lay in bed with Kelli at night wondering what I’d done to deserve it and if it could really last.

“Do you love me?” she asked me more once.

“Do frog’s croak?” I said one time.

“What’s this got to do with frogs?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “the answer is yes, more than you know and I will until I croak.”

“You’re funny,” she said, “and weird.”

“Good thing you like weird,” I said.

“Sure is,” she said and kissed me.

We entertained often on those porches on summer nights, grilling burgers, steaks, chicken and corn on the cob, and discussing an endless list of topics with a myriad of guests including ranchers, rodeo buddies, cousins, teachers, pastors and, of course, my parents, my brother and his wife. There were even friends of Kelli’s who flew in from California.

Once, we even invited the whole congregation over after church. They all loved Kelli and she loved them, and after they’d gone home we talk about the evening’s conversation while in bed and fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Yet in all of our conversations, planning for the future rarely came up —simply because there was just so much future ahead for us. We were kids, after all, and nearly immortal. Time was on our side and there was always something to do to keep us from getting bored and more than enough travel for rodeo to help us appreciate our time at home.

A swing through California brought us back to her friends and the sunny beaches and gave us the best of both worlds.

With more than 80 rodeos a year in California, we spent a lot of time there that winter, along with Florida, Texas and Louisiana. We even went to the Rose Parade, getting up at 6:30 a.m. in Manhattan Beach and trekking to Pasadena, where we stood on the street watching marching bands and equestrian units.

Afterwards, we returned to Manhattan Beach and walked on the beach for a long time watching surfers and porpoises and fell asleep with the Sugar Bowl on TV in our hotel room.

Blocking the front entrance to my house was a small snowbank, so Houston and I kicked it aside and stepped into what had been the little dream house that Kelli and I shared.

A mental image of her sitting in the overstuffed dining room chair with her bare feet tucked under her flashed before my eyes, knocking the breath out of me and weakening my knees. I reached for the light switch and plopped down on the couch while Houston located the thermostat and cranked it up. It would take hours for the temperature to reach a comfortable level since it had at least 30 degrees to climb.

Wrapped in quilts, I lay on the couch staring at the ceiling while Houston and his wife checked the fridge for food and found none.

“Maybe you should come to our place instead,” he suggested.

“I’m staying here,” I declared.

“It’s a little barren in that fridge,” his wife said.

“I’ll be OK,” I said.

“We don’t pretend to know how you feel,” she said, “but we do have a little bit of an idea.”

What she said, which was meant to comfort me, instead made me feel embarrassed at my own self-focus as I thought of Billy again, who’d been robbed from his parents at such a young age.

“I should have been there for you,” I said. “I should have done more.”

“No,” she said as she approached the couch. “That wasn’t your job.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

She sat on the edge of the couch next to me, patted me on the head and ran her hand through my hair.

“Things just happen,” she said, “we don’t know why. We’ll see them both again someday. You’ll see.”

“It seems like such a long time,” I said.

“Yes it does,” she said, “but you’ll see that it’s not. Life is pretty short. You’ve got to make the most of it while you can. There’ll be a lot of happy days ahead.”

We sat in silence for a moment, except for the creaks from the rocker Houston was sitting in.

“I’ll be fine,” I said, “you better go home and get some sleep.”

“We’re here for you when you need us,” Houston said. “And your parents should be back from Las Vegas soon.”

“I know,” I said. “You’ve always been like parents to me.”

We all got up and I hugged them both.

“Billy loved you too,” she said. “He’d be so proud of you.”

Then she turned before I could see her cry.

When the front door closed, I kicked off my wet boots and wondered how I had managed to make such an amazing event, the National Finals Rodeo, such a depressing ordeal and then I fell asleep only to wake up at around 6:30 a.m., sweating profusely because the temperature in the house had finally reached and exceeded comfortable limits. I opened the nearest window a crack and fell back to sleep.

At 11:30 a.m. I got up and found another pair of boots, jeans and a denim shirt that was hanging in the closet upstairs next to one of Kelli’s summer dresses. On the closet floor were a few pairs of her little shoes lined up just like she’d left them.

I grabbed a big UCLA hooded sweatshirt of hers and an old goose down jacket of mine and some tattered gloves. After a cold shower I dressed, dumped underwear and socks into a duffle bag and looked for my pickup truck keys, which were nowhere to be found. Houston had obviously misplaced them on purpose to keep me from going down the road again, so I located a spare key in a cup on top of the kitchen cabinet. Then I stood in the doorway, paused to look around the house for one last time and turned to go as tears welled up in my eyes.

“You’re an idiot,” I said. “This pity party has got to end!”

With that, I closed the front door, ignored my ringing cellphone, walked out to my pickup truck, threw the duffle bag into the back seat, checked the fuel gauge, exited town and watched the water tower disappear in my rearview mirror.

My older brother was probably on the way in from the ranch to check up on me, having been called by Houston, my parents or both. I was relieved to have been able to escape in advance, not wanting to have to justify my quick departure.

“Where are you off to?” I asked myself.

“I have no idea,” I said.

With each passing mile, a sense of guilt grew inside of me and I had to continually tell myself that I was leaving nothing behind because Kelli wasn’t there.

As I drove on, I thought about driving by the same spot where Kelli and I had gone off the road in the Black Hills and wondered if I happened to go off the road too, if I might be able to go through the same gate in Heaven that she’d gone through.

Thoughts like that made me wonder if I was going insane.

Being near her grave and her things in the house tortured me and yet part of me wanted to go back and wallow amongst them and continue my pity party, while a bigger part of me wanted to escape from it all. So I thought of myself as an astronaut watching Earth get smaller and smaller through a tiny porthole.

Ultimately, I concluded that I had to escape; from that house, that town, that life, rodeo and everything that had previously existed. I was on a mission to erase the past and let go of it all. Still, letting go of Kelli was a very difficult thing to do because it wasn’t something I wanted to do.

It was something I had to do.

Was leaving everything behind a cop out? Absolutely. But I thought that I had to run away physically to survive mentally. It seemed to me that the only way I could keep from wallowing in sorrow was to run away. No, it wasn’t a rational conclusion, but it was my best solution nevertheless.

Perhaps I felt that way because the highway had always been a way for me to escape any of my problems and that time on the road would often allow me to think things through. Of course, you’d have thought that the months I’d already spent on the road following Kelli’s death would have done that. Instead, it had only delayed my coming to grips with reality and this latest departure might simply be more of the same. Only time would tell.

Either way, the highway’s white lines were like markings on a ruler that measured how long it would take to clear my head.

In this case, I knew I still had quite a few white lines to go.

Chapter 5

Rodeo was an occupation that allowed me to earn money, and come and go as I pleased. It was also mostly common knowledge that the cowboys who rode in rodeo were basically ranch hands who were very interested in getting out of work. In that way, for those of us who did, freedom was the cake and winning was the frosting.

I noticed that the wind had stopped and the sun reflected brightly off the soft snow blanketing the community of Broadus, Montana, as I went inside a small hut and paid the attendant for the fuel I’d just put into my tank and the bottle of water I had grabbed from the cooler. Then I drove slowly down the only paved street in town and parked in front of a tiny Laundromat next to Broadus Boot and Tack.

I dumped a pile of dusty jeans that I’d worn during 10 rounds of the National Final Rodeo into a washing machine along with too much powdered soap from a couple of those little boxes that you wrestle out of a vending machine. Then I strolled next door to shop for shirts, underwear and socks, casting most of my dirty shirts aside because they were covered with rodeo sponsor logos and that would be a little too conspicuous to wear “on the street.”

Burning a hole in my back pocket was a National Finals Rodeo check for $100,000, which was little more than a piece of paper in a town like Broadus, whose population was the size of a big city high school and where bankers seldom let strangers walk out of their front door with a bag full of that kind of cash.

I was a little worried that someone might recognize me in Broadus since it was smack dab in the middle of Montana’s ranch country, with most of its population being made up of avid rodeo fans. In fact, I’d seen a rodeo arena on my right when I entered city limits, next to the park.

So I felt a little like a criminal on the run even though I wasn’t, because I just wanted to get away, and being recognized or being reminded of who you are simply made that more difficult.

Broadus had not been a planned destination. It was just a place where my fuel tank began to scream for a refill. I’d been there a number of times before because it was sitting on top of a southbound highway that offered an alternative to going through the Black Hills when headed south.

Surrounded by buttes and ranches, Broadus was definitely secluded and too far east to be in the midst of Montana’s majestic mountains, but west enough to be in the heart of the Wild West. It was also a very cold place in December and I thought that, if my goal was to get away, it might as well be to a warmer climate, thus my stay in Broadus was destined to be short-lived.

Broadus Boot & Tack was a small western store crammed from floor to ceiling with cowboy stuff. I went inside and snooped around for some underwear, socks and cowboy shirts with snaps. I liked shirts with snaps because they reminded me of the one’s my uncle and aunt gave me every year for my birthday when I was a kid.

The middle-aged female owner of the shop appeared to make it her mission to sell me a pair of boots and tempted me with substantially reduced prices on a number of models. But I wasn’t in the mood to buy boots and in even less of a mood to bargain.

“They’re made of very soft deer skin,” she said, trying to boost my interest.

“Not a big fan of deerskin,” I said to myself and thought about how she couldn’t possibly know that her reference to that animal was not going to be an appreciable selling point.

“Maybe another day,” I said.

“You’re not going to walk around in those boots, are you?” she asked.

I looked down and noticed a piece of white sweat sock sticking out through the side of a tiny tear in my right boot.

“Good point,” I said and she grinned.

“Let me try on a pair of those over there,” I said pointing to a square-toed model with a flat heel.

“Sure thing,” she said and grabbed a box from the shelf in my size.

That’s when I noticed a big western wear poster on the wall behind the cash register with a picture of me on it. Of course part of having a rodeo sponsor, like I did, meant being used by them to promote their products in a variety of ways. A photo session here and an autograph session there got me my travel expenses and rodeo entry fees paid.

I didn’t necessarily like the publicity, but I did like the added money and the freedom it provided.

She caught me looking at the poster as she rung up the sale and yet never seemed to put two and two together, which might have told me how lousy I looked at that moment, to the point of being unrecognizable.

I spent the next hour watching no traffic pass by the Laundromat while my jeans took an extraordinary amount of time to dry in what must have been a lukewarm dryer. When my stomach began to growl, I spotted the nearest — and only — bar and restaurant and left my clothes behind to fend for themselves, at least for the moment.

When I got to the bar, I bellied up and ordered a steak with American fries, whole kernel corn and a dinner salad. I might have been the third person that year to order a salad there, which was not a big seller apparently and wondered how fresh the lettuce leaves might be in Broadus in mid-winter.

“We’ve got the best steaks in town,” the bartender said.

“And the only ones,” I said.

“That’s true too,” he said and wiped off the bar in front of me.

“Just passing through?” he asked.

“Quickly,” I said.

“To where?” he asked.

“South,” I said.

“Good choice,” he said.

“I think so,” I replied.

As I sipped from a glass of water, I noticed a gentleman by the name of Buck Haley playing pool in the corner. Buck was not my favorite name since it seemed to be normally associated with stupidity, inbreeding and white trash and, from what I knew of him, he did nothing to alter that misconception. So I wondered for a second if it was the name that shaped the man or the man who shaped the name and couldn’t quite come to a conclusion before I snapped out of my momentary daydream.

Buck was a rancher near my hometown who was semi-tall and fat, though others might have called him “big boned,” at least to his face. Not me, I called 260 pounds tacked on a man under six-feet tall “fat.” and I often wondered how he’d convinced a woman as beautiful and seemingly intelligent as his wife to marry him, and thought his dullness might actually be an act. But he’d never done or said anything profound enough to support the “he might have brains” theory, so I finally concluded that there were simply pretty women in the world who had a thing for large, slow-witted men.

He and three other slightly smaller men were very preoccupied with their game of high-stakes pool and had yet to glance my way. and I hoped they wouldn’t. Perhaps my frazzled appearance would throw Buck off if he did glance at me anyway. Whatever the case, remembering our prior interactions, I wondered if there might be a sheriff in town and some competent medical facilities, seeing as how I was outnumbered.

In that situation, a man with any intelligence might have just tipped his hat to the bartender and sauntered out the door but apparently I wasn’t that intelligent. Or I was just too hungry.

At any rate, I knew it wasn’t me that Buck hated as much as a pair of brothers I often hung out with, which was precisely the situation people referred to when they suggested that you choose your friends wisely.

You see, my friend Mickey and his brother Darrin were also ranchers from my neck of the woods and they, like a lot of cowboys who had substantial intellectual ability but spent too much time on the ranch, tended to stir things up a bit once they got “to town.”

Mickey was actually in the midst of working towards his master’s degree in mathematics, go figure. And despite the fact that he could be like an animal after a few too many beers, he was a crafty animal. His brother, Darrin, who was labelled “Calendar Boy” by a rather stocky fesmale at a bar somewhere in Kansas, could be a borderline psychotic after he’d downed a couple of shots of whiskey.

They both loved to fight and had been bred to do so by the generation before them, with alcohol being the great facilitator that prompted them to create a fighting situation if one didn’t automatically evolve.

Buck had crossed them in a pool game once, oddly enough, and paid for it, and were they both with me at that moment he would have simply backed out the door with his buddies in tow and sped down the highway. Instead, I knew I would look like a tasty treat to him, a sacrificial lamb, all alone and vulnerable and the opportunity to take out all of his past frustrations would be just too tempting for him to walk away from.

That’s when the bartender brought me my steak along with a large glass of orange juice and two kinds of salad dressing on the side, just like I ordered. When Buck finished missing his pool shot, he casually picked up a glass of beer sitting on the edge of the pool table, spotted me through the bottom, sitting there all alone, and nearly spit what he’d just swallowed across the room.

“Very impressive,” I muttered, mostly under my breath.

“What?” the bartender asked, probably hoping that I was commenting on the taste of my first bite of steak.

“Nothing,” I said and glanced at the napkin he’d given me, thinking that if it’d been red I could have used it as a bullfighting cape for when Buck the bull came charging, which I knew he soon would.

Figuring that I might was well get some enjoyment out of the meal I’d just ordered and probably wouldn’t be paying for, unless the bartender grabbed some bills out of my jeans pocket as I lay unconscious on the floor, I took a couple more bites of what would soon be my “last supper.”

Chapter 6

Buck Haley glanced about that Broadus bar to make sure that I was alone and he seemed temporarily uncertain how to proceed, seeing as how I, someone who he hated, was there by himself and easy prey.

“Can I really be this lucky?” I imagined him asking himself. Unfortunately he was.

Although I had briefly thought about making a mad dash for the door to save my life, I finally decided that I’d just get my blows in once Buck and his buddies attacked me, and then probably join Kelli in Heaven.

Of course, I really didn’t debate it long because I could never have lived with myself anyway had I run away from Buck Haley, who I so greatly disrespected, because then, in the end, I’d have to disrespect myself.

While he huddled with his boys to formulate a plan of attack, I simply looked down at my plate and took two more bites. Then I glanced back at Buck, with a manufactured look of cocky arrogance on my face, as if I had an entire army covering my backside, and I even snickered a little, which might not have been the smartest thing I ever did because it seemed to fuel the fire.

Hours later I located the nearest medical facility, around midnight in fact, in Gillette, Wyoming, and watched as the glass doors popped open when I walked through them.

I felt OK but I definitely didn’t look OK because apparently one of the participants in my “Broadus Brawl” had been wearing a big ring and caught me with it on the underside of my chin. The resulting gash spewed what seemed like gallons of blood onto my shirt and jacket before I could ebb the flow with a handful of Broadus bar napkins.

My left eye was swollen almost shut, which made driving a little difficult, even though I tried to minimize the swelling by holding a snowball against it, which, while driving, was no easy task since I was also trying to hold the bar napkins to my chin.

Gillette was one of those wild oil towns, and I got the feeling that a busy emergency room was mostly the norm at any time of day. A nurse at the reception desk gave me a clipboard and asked me to fill in the blanks on a variety of forms while a knifing victim was whisked by me on a gurney, down the hall and through some double doors.

“Are you in pain?” she asked me.

“Usually,” I said.

“Usually?” she asked.

“More often than not,” I said.

“Why,” she asked, “do you have a condition?”

“No,” I said, “an addiction.”

“To what?” she asked.

“Rodeo,” I said.

“I understand,” she said.

“I wish you did,” I said.

Having diligently filled out the forms, I slumped in a chair in the waiting room along with many other valued customers in various states of ill health and together we watched way too many minutes of sitcom reruns while yawning and trying to stay warm.

I quickly tired of gazing at an elevated television through one eye and promptly drifted off to sleep, did one of those falling off-a-cliff-things you do when you first fall asleep, woke up, fell asleep again and woke up again.

Then I began to contemplate how far I’d fallen in such a short time, nearly winning a world championship in rodeo on a national television network one day and in a barroom brawl and a hospital emergency room two days later.

Across the aisle, a young boy was sitting next to a large lady wearing what might have been a flowered tent and he looked at me warily as though he thought I was about to star in some low-grade horror flick.

Truth is Buck might have made short work of me back in that Broadus bar had he not uttered a derogatory remark about Kelli that propelled me to a previously unattained level of rage.

Surely he must have known she was dead. The man had absolutely no class or he was dumber than I thought.

After kicking him squarely between the legs I busted him one on the jaw that instantly buckled his knees and sent him into dreamland for the night, or at least for the moment. I was working over his buddy who was wearing the ring as the other one scurried out of the bar, and then the bartender and two customers pulled me off and held me, and that’s when Mr. Ring got his sucker punch in and then he ran off too.

“Gee thanks,” I said to the bartender.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

Later, a very attractive black-haired nurse, who softly poked me on the shoulder, coaxed me from my slumber and escorted me into the emergency room where she cleaned my chin wound with gentle hands and examined the area around my eye to see if there might be some unapparent damage.

“Any visual problems?” she asked.

“There is now,” I said.

“Before it swelled up?” she asked.

“None that I can remember,” I said.

“Where you knocked out?” she asked.

“Not by that lard ass,” I said.

“Just one lard ass?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact there were three,” I said.

“So you must be Superman,” she said.

“Only on Halloween,” I said.

Her name was Wendy, she was in her late 20s, she’d married a man in the military at a young age, lived on various bases throughout the south and was now divorced. What had happened to her husband and how she’d ended up in Gillette I didn’t know, nor was I about to ask because I didn’t want to be accused of prying.

When the doctor finally arrived he sewed 17 stiches on the inside and 18 on the outside of my wound. I guess that meant my gash was both deep and wide.

“Did you run into a grizzly bear?” he asked.

“Wild boar,” I said.

“How is the wild boar?” he asked.

“Sleeping peacefully,” I said.

Afterwards, they covered my chin with a big, thick bandage held on by long strips of thin white tape. It might have been an impressive-looking patch were I a soldier returning from the battlefield. But I knew it’d be no asset for a cowboy, whose shirt and jacket was covered in blood, trying to locate a motel room in the middle of the night.

When he was done, I went out to the parking lot, climbed into my pickup truck, started it up and began to drift off to sleep.

Suddenly there was a tap on my driver’s side window.

“No place to go?” Wendy asked me.

“Probably not tonight,” I said, “looking like I do and not being able to see all that well.”

“You can sleep on my couch,” she said.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“Across the street,” she said.

“But I hardly know you,” I said.

“That might be a good thing,” she said.

“Good point,” I said, and she walked me across the street, let me in her house, showed me the bathroom, gathered some blankets, threw them on the couch and said she’d be back in two hours when her shift ended.

“I’ll pay you,” I said.

“Not necessary,” she said. ”Just don’t leave the toilet seat up.”

“That might be asking too much,” I said.

“You’re right,” she said, “I momentarily lost my mind.”

“Thanks,” I said, and as soon as she closed the front door, I passed out.

At five o’clock she woke me up, unintentionally, and I pretended I was still asleep when she passed by me and went into the bedroom.

With the light on and her door open just a crack, I watched her peel off her emergency room scrubs and drop them to the floor. She was a fairly tall woman, maybe 5-foot-9, with a very nice figure and slightly dark skin with nary a blemish.

While slipping into a bathrobe, she made her way to the bathroom, where she turned on the shower and, I assumed, completed a nightly ritual. A short time later, the bathroom door opened slightly and the smell of shampoo and cleanliness flooded the living room. I continued to pretend that I was asleep as she traipsed very quietly around the apartment until I suddenly felt her soft lips touch mine.

She was wearing a pink satin robe that did little to hide the fullness of her breasts and I looked into her gentle eyes and she put her hand around the back of my neck and kissed me passionately. Then she took my hand, guided me into the bedroom and asked me to lie down next to her.

“I never do this,” she said.

“Then why are you doing it now?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said, and there was a moment of silence.

“But you’re not a stranger,” she added.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I saw you on TV and I obviously know your name from your chart,” she said, “but it’s more than that.”

“Oh?” I said.

“You’re very sad,” she said.

I looked away.

“I know what it means to be sad,” she said, and then she hugged me and we cuddled that night in a way that added a missing ingredient to both of our lives, I think.

I felt a bond with her as if something deep in her soul was trying to heal mine and I stayed there for a day and a half while the swelling in my eye went down, but for bigger reasons than that I think.

We spent a lot of that time talking, became very good friends and she did a lot to heal my soul, but in the end she couldn’t bring Kelli back or replace her, and I took off the next mid-morning in the general direction of Denver.

As I waved goodbye, I found myself asking God to take care of her and to give me an opportunity to see her again.

“Don’t be a stranger,” she said as I pulled away.

“Wouldn’t think of it,” I said, and tipped my hat like I remembered my grandfather had often times done.

Chapter 7

Poor planning on my part brought me to Denver at the early stages of rush hour traffic. Rather than crawl along at 25 miles per hour with no specific destination in mind, I elected to veer off of Interstate 25 onto the Boulder/Denver Turnpike towards the community of Boulder and the frosty mountain peaks dominating the horizon. It would prove to be a life-altering decision.

Fifteen minutes later, I topped a large hill and drove right into the center of a postcard, or so it seemed, that featured the city of Boulder visually filling a large basin with purple mountains as the backdrop. Those mountains, called the Flat Irons, seemed to have been thrust from the center of the earth skyward.

Once inside the Boulder city limits, I found it to be a rustic, hip and hippy town, and soon parked next to a beer and burger tavern downtown, across the street from the local newspaper.

Inside, the tavern’s 20 booths were filled with boisterous conversationalists involved in deeply intellectual conversations while cute waitresses in wrap-around skirts attended to their every need. I sat down in a vacant two-person mini-booth near the jukebox and glanced at the menu.

“What can I get you?” a waitress soon asked.

“I’ll have a burger,” I said.

“Nice choice,” she said.

“And a consistent one here it appears,” I said.

“That too,” she replied and spun around, walked to the back and shouted instructions to some eyeballs peeking through a long slit in the wall. Then she picked up a tray of draft beers from a little bar bellied up to by three or four thirsty regulars and delivered them to another booth.

“New in town?” she asked when she soon delivered my burger.

“Very,” I said. ”Is it obvious?”

“We don’t get many cowboy hats in here,” she said.

“Guess that makes me unique,” I said.

“Not that you weren’t anyway,” she said, “especially with that black eye and big bandage on your chin.”

“That’s not a popular look here?” I asked.

“It’s not unpopular,” she said.

“Just unusual,” I said.

“That’s right,” she said.

“I’ll take that in a good way,” I said.

“You should,” she said and smiled.

After two hours of fun-filled conversation with her, most of the waitresses and some of the patrons over beers, I later found myself on the front step of her brother’s house waiting for him to answer the door. He looked a little puzzled when he opened it and saw me wincing under his too bright porch light.

An advance description is one thing but actually seeing a black-eyed, bandaged and beaten refuge on your front porch holding a duffle bag without a jacket on in mid-winter can be a little shocking to anyone. Nevertheless, he kindly invited me in, and I marveled at the risks people in dire need of a roommate will take. Of course, the fact that he was a 6-foot-2, 245-pound gorilla with a crushing handshake might have eliminated a lot of his paranoia.

We haggled over rent, not at all, and discussed the rules of the house, of which there were none and then I moved my belongings in, which didn’t require a return trip to my pickup truck.

“How soon can you pay rent?” he asked.

“Soon,” I said and showed him my $100,000 check.

“Are you here to buy the house or rent a room in it?” he asked.

“Whichever is cheaper,” I said.

“That depends,” he said.

“On what?” I asked.

“On how long you stay,” he said.

“I love roommates,” I said, “but I hope to grow out of that someday.”

His name was Dave and he’d grown up way back east in Rochester, New York. I mentioned that I’d ridden in a large county fair rodeo near there and broke the tip off my elbow a couple years earlier, and he seemed to like that for whatever reason.

“Looks like you got bucked off something in the last couple of days,” he said and I assumed he was referring to my black eye and chin patch.

“Ran into a wild boar,” I said.

“It happens,” he said.

Dave, as it turned out, was a big puppy who’d recently graduated from college and worked in the advertising department at the Boulder Daily Camera, the local newspaper. Sitting on his lap, as we talked in his living room, was an attractive young girl, about college age, who he said also worked at the newspaper part-time as a support person in the advertising department.

Dave’s father worked for the same newspaper chain the Boulder Daily Camera was owned by, thus his ease at getting a job there. He and his sister, Pam, my waitress, had four other siblings. It wasn’t long before his friendly nature and big heart led me to nickname him Baby Huey, after the terminally naïve cartoon character.

I decided to stay in Boulder for a while and Santa failed to visit me that Christmas Eve.

In fact, it began as a desperately lonely night, which was my fault because I was living life “undercover,” so to speak, and none of my friends really knew where I was. The loneliness led me to seek out a local church where I might find some companionship, because one can only watch so many reruns of Jimmy Stewart in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” by himself before he begins to feel a little too much like Ebenezer Scrooge and looks for the sudden appearance of the ghosts of Christmas past.

At 10:30, I was the first one to arrive for the 11 O’clock evening service and promptly sat myself down in the next to back pew.

“Welcome to Trinity,” the silver-haired male greeter with the red sweater had said to me as I entered.

“Visiting from out of town?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said as I looked about for other worshippers, fearing that I might be part of a congregation of one at that late hour.

“Don’t worry,” he said, reading my mind, “It’s a late-arriving crowd.”

“I’m not worried,” I said and a lull in the conversation then ensued.

“Have I seen you before?” he suddenly asked. “You look very familiar.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think so.”

“Are you a hockey player?” he asked. “I see you’ve got quite a scar there under your chin.”

That’s when I absentmindedly felt my chin and tried to respond quickly without making up a total lie in the house of God.

“N-no,” I stammered, “I came to the defense of a not-so-fortunate diner at a restaurant not so long ago.”

“Oh,” he said, “who was that?”

“Me,” I said and he chuckled mightily, thankfully.

In minutes, the pews were overfilled and, as a reflex action, I eyed the crowd in search of a familiar face and found none.

The stout older lady seated next to me had the hide of some unfortunate creature wrapped around her neck and appeared to be the grandmother of the teenage girl seated next to her. I wondered if she’d been a famous opera singer in her past based upon the way she belted out the hymns at a decibel level that put the church’s giant pipe organ to shame.

The pastor, a blonde-haired man in his early 30s, originally from Duluth, Minnesota, greeted me warmly and did his best to make me feel like an honored guest. I liked him immediately because of his warm eyes and because he smiled a lot.

His name was David Nelson and after the service, as if I was a homeless pup, he and his wife, Mary, invited me into their home and served me hot cider and popcorn balls by the fire.

He opted not to pry into my past, which led me to believe that there was much wisdom behind that young pastor’s eyes, and I stayed there for about an hour while their dog, a huge Alaskan malamute, about the same size as my roommate, Baby Huey, served as a pillow for their 3-year-old sleeping daughter.

“So,” he said, “you’re originally from North Dakota?”

“Yes,” I said, “where hockey pucks spend more time on ponds than ducks.”

“That’s a good one,” he said laughing.

“And true,” I said.

On the way home, I remembered to call my parents to wish them a merry Christmas and assure them that I was very happy, even though that was a small lie.

“Are you eating properly?” my mother asked.

“Better than most Americans,” I said.

“Which isn’t necessarily reassuring,” she said.

“But nonetheless true,” I said.

When I got back to Baby Huey’s house, I threw a pile of logs into the fireplace, grabbed an afghan lying on the couch that his girlfriend had made for him, played some classic Christmas music and unsuccessfully tried not to think of the prior Christmas spent with Kelli.

Baby Huey and his sister Pam, who were back in Rochester for the holidays, were kind enough to give me a call earlier in the evening to wish me a merry Christmas. Thus, all in all, it turned out to be a fine, if somewhat lonely, Christmas Eve.

Around 3 O’clock in the morning, I woke up when I thought I heard reindeer on the roof and Santa in the fridge. Concluding that it had been part of a dream, I shed my jeans and sweater, climbed into my bed in the basement and slept off the remainder of that holiday evening. Not a creature was stirring.

That next morning turned out to be an interesting one.

I met Stephanie when her purple Corvette skidded off an icy street in front of Huey’s house, spun around and plowed into his front yard, stopping just short of my large, split-level bedroom window.

She said that her stodgy father lived next door to David Letterman in New Canaan, Connecticut, an hour north of New York City. Her mother, an overweight real estate big wig in New Mexico with cotton candy hair, had a drinking problem and more money than she knew what to do with. Meanwhile, their daughter appeared to be the poster child for the “I get my own way society of America.”

She was neither frantic nor hurt, but drunk and I mistakenly did what so many had done for her in the past when I covered her tracks.

After getting her undamaged car off of the snow-filled lawn, with the aid of two neighbors, I put three logs on the fire, perked some high-octane coffee and listened to her babble her life’s story, repeating certain themes two too many times.

From that point forward, I somehow knew that the peaceful existence I had created in Boulder would quickly come to an end.

Chapter 8

“My mother is a fat pig and my father is a loser,” announced Stephanie, the motorist who’d just run her car onto the front lawn of the house I shared with Baby Huey.

“That’s a little harsh don’t you think?” I said.

“You don’t know them,” she said. “I’m nothing to them. My mother pays me off to keep me out of her life and my father pays other people to keep an eye on me and make my life miserable.”

“Really,” I said.

“The hell with them,” she said, “I don’t need them!”

Now I didn’t know the girl but I figured that she would need them if she was going to continue what appeared to be a fairly opulent lifestyle. Everything about her was bought and paid for, after all, including her body, tan, auburn hair and tight-fitting jeans.

She had been a student at the University of Colorado, located just down the road, and quickly dropped out when sorority life began to bore her. At the moment, she was without a boyfriend because all men were pig. Though ironically, she’d just left the home of some nameless joker whom she’d met at a party the night before.

For five hours she lay passed out on the living room couch while I did everything I could think of to occupy my time, which included reading the morning newspaper, showering, cleaning my room, washing clothes and wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

Around 4 o’clock, after numerous attempts to awaken her failed, ranging from clearing my throat to dropping things on the kitchen floor, blasting music and opening doors and windows, I debated driving my pickup truck up the steps to the front door and hooking jumper cables to her big toes.

Finally, at five o’clock, Sleeping Beauty woke up red-eyed and hungover and begged me to drive her home. I agreed, if only to get her out of the house.

“I’m a loser,” she said. ”I need to change my lifestyle or I’m going to end up dead.”

“Sliding into front yards can be lethal,” I said.

“I’ve got to quit drinking,” she said.

“That helps,” I said.

“I can’t remember the last day I went without a drink,” she said.

“Because you drank too much or because it was too long ago?” I asked and she ignored me.

“Do you drink?” she asked.

“Less than you,” I said.

“All my friends drink,” she said.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” I said.

“Maybe I need a new life,” she said.

“Maybe you need to go home,” I said, but only to myself.

Her condo was located on the opposite side of town in north Boulder, which, for some reason, gave me great comfort. Its contents reeked of lavish overspending with an overabundance of items purchased, looked at once and cast aside. I assumed that she simply bought everything she ever saw in any ad.

“I’m going to jump in the shower,” she said.

“Don’t jump,” I said.

As she soaked for hours, I sat down on her couch, flicked channels on the world’s biggest big screen and thought about how she might have been the exact opposite of Kelli.

I tried to ignore the phone when it rang but then she yelled for me to answer it.

“Hi, is Stephanie there?” an older male voice asked.

“In the shower,” I said.

“This is Donovan Rolander, her father,” he said. “Could you tell her that I am wishing her a very Merry Christmas and that I want her to know I love her very much?”

“I sure will,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said and hung up.

Shortly after that the water in the shower quit running, she primped for a decade and then appeared stage right, morphed, fabulously dressed and ready for me to shower her with oohs and ahs. My unintended lack of enthusiasm seemed to dull her glow a bit and I suddenly felt guilty. Hidden behind all of the toys, makeup, self-centeredness and toughness, I quickly realized, was a little girl who was very lonely and in need of confirmation.

“You look very pretty,” I said.

“I know,” she said and smirked. ”Are you hungry?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Let’s go eat,” she said.

“Your dad called,” I said.

“That’s nice,” she said.

“He wished you a Merry Christmas and said he loves you,” I said.

She muttered a profanity, went through a door that led to her garage and I followed.

“Not going to call daddy?” I asked.

“Not this year,” she said.

I dropped the topic in favor of more mundane issues like abortion, homosexuality, sex before marriage and politics.

I’d driven her Corvette to her house and she drove from there to a downtown restaurant, a trendy brick building full of beautiful people, at NASCAR speeds.

Stephanie was fairly composed, interesting and sincere as we waited for our meals and she nursed a gin and tonic. After a short time, her rowdy friends arrived and she took on a totally new persona, becoming loud and gregarious, and buying round after round of drinks for what I soon realized were her “hangers on.”

Meanwhile, I was a mostly sober party of one, which is always no fun, sitting off to the side watching a group of drunks cackle and crow, laughing at stories which, without the aid of alcohol, wouldn’t really be that funny.

Oddly, each member of the group made repeated trips to the restroom for what I thought at first was a contagious bladder problem and then realized it had more to do with recreational drugs, with Stephanie wearing out more carpet then any of them.

“Merry Christmas!” she shouted once, on her way back, while nearly tipping over the table of four much more conservative diners, as her heel caught on the carpet.

“Let’s party!” she shouted.

Eventually, I worked my way out the front door and walked in light snowfall three miles back to the warmth of my roommate, Baby Huey’s house. Then at three in the morning I responded to a loud and never-ending knock on the front door wearing only pajama bottoms and a frown.

“Hi,” Stephanie said.

She was drunk, missing a shoe, her dress was torn, her coat was hanging half off and her top lip was bloodied and bruised. I quickly whisked her inside, wrapped her in the living room afghan and sat her on the couch.

“I was raped,” she said.

“Who raped you?” I asked.

“Sam,” she shouted.

As far as I was concerned it could have been Bill, Ed or Sue and not have had any less meaning but I, nevertheless, urged her to fill me in on the details.

Seems she and her hangers on had gone back to her condo, and she and one of the males had slipped into her bedroom and he’d raped her when she refused to grant his wishes. The other members of the group laughed when she re-emerged, distressed, partially clad and screaming, with mascara tears running down her cheeks.

Some of the boys even gave high-fives to the rapist as he smiled and raised his fists in a victory salute.

None of them was going to be of assistance were charges ever brought against Sam, I knew, and I could imagine how an unscrupulous defense attorney might have a field day when describing Stephanie’s suggestive attire and lifestyle to a judge or jury.

Aided by Stephanie’s description, I remembered the perpetrator sitting across the table from me, an arrogant gift to women who was clad in a leather jacket, with an open collar shirt framing a gaudy gold chain. His accent revealed a foreign origin and his buddies seemed to jump at his command.

I hugged Stephanie like a loving father and rocked her back and forth while she cried for what seemed like hours. Despite my repeated urgings, she refused to go to the hospital or call the police and cursed Sam repeatedly.

Eventually, I removed her jacket and helped her to the bathroom where I turned on the water in the shower and tested the temperature. When I turned around she had removed the straps of her black party dress and let it drop to the floor. As she stood there naked with her arms crossed and her bottom lip quivering I could see some light bruises here and there.

She stayed in the shower even longer than she had earlier that day and when she got out I wrapped a large towel around her that I had warmed in the dryer, handed her a bathrobe and left, careful to make sure that the bathroom door was not locked, since I’d heard of girls becoming suicidal in that type of situation. Then I called the pastor I’d met the night before and asked him to come over.

Pastor David was there in minutes and talked to Stephanie for a while, until she was too tired and, after I tucked her in my bed, he and I sat in the living room and talked some more. He had some experience in these matters and suggested a counseling center that could help her with both her rape and alcohol issues.

He also declared that she should have gone to the hospital, which I knew, and that she should not have showered and that pictures should have been taken of her injuries.

While he talked it may have appeared that I was listening to him but most of my thoughts were centered on Sam the rapist. I was concerned that he might repeat his offense and hurt her in other ways, both mental and physical. He needed to be corralled somehow and taught that he did not have free reign.

The next day, I cooked Stephanie a nice brunch, after which her spirits seemed to improve. Then I left her lying on the couch, sleeping, and went to her condo to pick up clothing and bathroom items to hold her over.

Her house was a mess, with empty glasses and beer cans strewn all over. In the bedroom I found the panty hose and underwear she’d been wearing on the floor next to the bed.

I grabbed some bathroom items and clothing, stuffed them into a bag and found a video camera lying on a table. There appeared to be film inside so I shot everything the way it was and then called her to make sure she was all right and to tell her that I was on my way back.

She didn’t answer.

Chapter 9

It was Friday night in Boulder and a dance club called Night Cap was the place to be. Located at the corner of Arapahoe and Broadway, it was on the edge of downtown but still close enough to the University of Colorado campus to draw plenty of student partiers.

I flashed the bouncer my driver’s license, he did the math and I sped inside. The mirrored globe hanging from the ceiling deflected bright colors in every direction, young bodies banged against each other on a packed dance floor and the music blared so loud that the bass nearly altered my heart rhythm.

Working my way across the dance floor, I spotted the crew that’d partied at Stephanie’s the night before. They were gathered around a high top table in the back.

Sam, the rapist, was walking toward the restroom so I approached him from behind, put my arms up under his armpits and locked my hands together behind his neck, a move that is referred to as a full nelson in the sport of wrestling. Then I drove his nose into the carpet and held him there while I shouted in his ear.

“If she dies,” I said, “then you do too!”

Having finished my speech, I picked him up, drug him back to where his friends were seated and threw him towards their high-top table, sending both it and their drinks flying through the air and knocking two of them off of their stools.

By then, two bouncers had been alerted to the scene and I slipped between them unnoticed as they glided toward the action. Continuing on out the front door, I got into my pickup truck, checked the rearview mirror and sped off towards Boulder Community Hospital.

As I drove, I reminded myself that confronting Sam in the bar had been a stupid thing to do for a variety of reasons. After all, I had considered Stephanie to be a self-centered, spoiled bimbo so why would I want to come to her aide, defend her or exact any kind of revenge on her behalf?

Of course, that attitude changed abruptly when I’d left her home alone, while retrieving items from her place, and she promptly slit her wrists.

The event shot me into a new stratosphere of rage I had to admit, and jettisoned me towards the need to take some kind of action. In addition, deep down I wondered if the event also served as a convenient outlet for me to release personal emotions that’d been pent up for far too long.

Meanwhile, Stephanie was either asleep or unconscious when I entered her hospital room, her wrists were heavily bandaged, there were tubes running into her arms and Pastor David was sitting in a chair next to the bed.

“She’s been asleep for some time,” he said. “The doctors said you got the ambulance there just in time. She’s lost a lot of blood.”

“Her dad is on the way,” I said, having called him. “He’ll be here tomorrow.”

“What about her mother?” he asked.

“Don’t know how to get ahold of her,” I said and picked up a chair from the corner of the room and moved it closer to the bed.

“Where have you been?” he asked me.

“Stopped off to educate some of her friends,” I said.

“That’s nice,” he said.

“I thought so,” I said.

We sat in silence for a moment and looked at Stephanie.

“Why don’t you go home?” I finally said. “I can handle this.”

“I can stay,” he said.

“There’s no need,” I said.

When he left 15 minutes later, I sat there wondering how I might describe the evening’s events to my new buddy and landlord, Baby Huey. After all, his neighbors would undoubtedly clue him into what they’d seen take place next door at some point.

“Never mind the purple Corvette in the front yard or the ambulance and fire truck parked outside,” I might say to him. “It was all a misunderstanding or a figment of their imagination.”

I thought it best to pack my bags and be prepared to move out and that’s when Stephanie called out my name.

“I’m here,” I said.

“It wasn’t me,” she said, laboring to speak through what must have been a drug induced stupor.

“Relax,” I said. “You’re in good hands.”

“It wasn’t me,” she said again.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

“It wasn’t me,” she said. “I didn’t cut my wrists!”

Her revelation stunned me so I asked her to repeat it again but she couldn’t quite pull herself out of the stupor enough to do so. I sat there for a moment and then pulled out my cellphone and called a number that I’d obtained only hours before.

“Give me Detective Stypula,” I said and then waited on the line for what seemed like far too long.

From our earlier contact, I knew that Stypula was a Penn State graduate who’d grown up near Pittsburgh. A good-sized cop with blond hair and thick glasses, he’d been one of the officers who’d made an appearance at the house after I’d called 911. He’d also gone to Stephanie’s house, at my suggestion, to investigate things there and scoffed at any suggestion that her event might be anything other than a suicide attempt. I had to admit that the evidence supported his “let’s get this over with quickly” conclusion.

“What have you found out?” I asked him.

“Looks to me like we might have an unstable lady of questionable morals trying to implicate a foreign male because he dumped her and this is how she gets back at him,” he said. “We also found no evidence at her home, despite your suggestion that we’d find something to support a rape. Nor do we have any corroborating testimony from witnesses.”

“Cut and dried,” I said.

“That’s right,” he said.

“Then you probably wouldn’t believe it if I told you she wasn’t the one that cut her wrists,” I said.

“That’s a big 10-4,” he said. “Besides, there isn’t anything in your home to suggest that there’d been any kind of struggle there or that an intruder had broken in. In other words, I think the little lady is being less than honest with you.”

I reprimanded myself for not taking her to the police station immediately after she’d been raped, even if it would have required me to rope and drag her like a stampeding steer, so opposed was she to the idea.

“I suggest that you distance yourself from that young lady and quit this nasty habit of roughing up foreign nationals in bars,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I heard about the little incident at the Night Cap tonight,” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. I expect that Stephanie’s friend Sam will be getting a restraining order against you as soon as he can.”

I momentarily stared at the ugly tiled floor.

“But what about her house,” I said, “what about any evidence of sperm on the sheets?”

“Her sheets were clean and the bed was made,” he said. “For all we know, she went home with you and the two of you had rough sex.”

That statement, I assumed, was his not-so roundabout way of telling me to back off.

“That’s right,” I said, “and then I called a pastor to come over so that I could tell him all about it.”

“I’ve seen weirder things,” he said.

“I doubt it,” I said, and he went on to tell me about how they’d briefly investigated Sam, the rapist, and found out that he was originally from Egypt, his college grades were very good, his teachers had nothing but good things to say about him, all of his papers were in order, and his family was very influential and blessed with unlimited resources.”

I ended the call having formed the opinion that Detective Stypula was a grade “A” jerk and that he, unfortunately, might be right. Perhaps Stephanie was just a rich bitch trying to get back at Sam. Or maybe she had been so drunk that she didn’t know she was being taken advantage of until it was too late. After all, she did drink enough to float a navy, and that was only while I was at the restaurant with them. Not to mention that she was teasingly affectionate with Sam and every other guy who came near her.

Whatever the case, I decided it was time for me to wash my hands of the whole mess because Stypula was right. I needed to distance myself from her. She was bad luck.

Not that she would be talking to me anytime soon anyway because, when I told her earlier that I’d gotten ahold of her father and that he was flying in she’d gone ballistic on me. So when daddy arrived she’d be his problem.

But more importantly, I had to realize that I wasn’t a detective or responsible for fixing the problem even though it had fallen into my lap.

Still, there were a number of things that bothered me. For example, I wondered who had made up the bed at her home. It couldn’t have been a maid because maids don’t typically make up a bed in the bedroom and leave the rest of the house a mess.

Plus, I wondered what had happened to the video that I had shot of her messy apartment? I was quite certain that I had put the camera in my pickup truck in the midst of my rush to get back to my place. But for some reason, I couldn’t find it.

Chapter 10

I was in a foul mood anyway, but when the airline stuffed me into the middle seat of the last row on a crowded airplane, I became even crankier.

The flight from Denver to Newark was long and it seemed like people were lined up 10 deep back there for most of it, waiting for the next restroom door to pop open so that they could rush inside.

Then a too-tall, just-of-out-college and very-drunk pretty boy started hassling the flight attendants because they wouldn’t serve him more booze.

Of course, once again, I knew better, but because I had reached a high enough level of frustration, I decided to come to aide of the sky waitresses and quickly swore myself in as air marshal.

Glancing briefly at the lady holding the baby to my right, I asked the New York businessman seated to my left to move up four rows to the aisle seat left unoccupied by Mr. Cocky College Boy. Then I squeezed past the passengers who were nearly hugging the restroom doors and jerked back the curtain to the kitchen area where Mr. College was towering over and yelling at two very intimidated flight attendants.

“Hi ladies,” I said. ”How’s it going?”

“Get lost,” Mr. College said.

“Pardon me?” I asked.

“You heard me cowboy,” Mr. College said. “Get back to your seat. I’m having a little discussion with the ladies.”

“Funny that you should use the word little,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because those girls who were seated next to you were just talking about how funny it was that such a big boy could have such a small mind,” I said.

He uttered a profanity.

“No, really,” I said, “they said something about how interesting it was that a vertically excessive peon like you doesn’t have it where it counts most.”

One of the flight attendants smirked.

“Go to hell,” he said as he formed a fist and tried to punch me.

“No thanks,” I said and grabbed him between the legs and squeezed so hard that he dropped to his knees and squealed like a “Green Acres” pig.

Then I applied even more pressure and pushed on his neck with my other forearm, leaned his body against the rear exit door and told him that he was going to act like a perfect little schoolboy, while seated next to me, for the rest of the flight, adding that the alternative might be for him to sail out the exit door.

He quickly agreed, for some reason, and crept behind me back to our adjoining seats, holding his hands to his groin area and emitting little whimpering sounds. The rest of the flight was mostly uneventful except for the few minutes he spent blowing his lunch into his barf bag, which grossed out most of the people seated in the last half of the plane.

“Do you think it’s food poisoning?” I asked him and he failed to answer.

When we got off the plane at the Newark airport, he had hidden himself in the restroom where it sounded like he might also have been relieving himself of his dessert.

I then darted to the car rental counter and slapped a driver’s license and credit card down in front of the pimple-faced, oversized attendant dressed in an ill-fitting, mostly polyester uniform. He instructed me to repeatedly scribble my initials on layers of documents and I wondered if buying a house might be less tedious.

“Welcome to Newark,” he said unenthusiastically and handed me my copy of the contract while the fingers of his other hand continued to dance across the computer keys.

I realized a little too late that he didn’t really expect me to respond, since he was already focused on the next renter, and I caught my muffled “thank you” after it had leaked halfway out of my mouth and reeled it back. Then I slung my bag over my shoulder and marched on.

“He’s probably a robot,” I said to myself and hopped onto the car rental bus with other frowning travelers who mostly kept to themselves.

Having, shortly thereafter, been dropped off in front of my rental car, I studied the map of the greater New York metropolitan maze and eventually found the Merritt Parkway, the route that would lead me to New Canaan, Connecticut, the suburban community where Stephanie’s father, who had failed to show up in Boulder as promised, supposedly lived.

What I would find or do when I got there remained a mystery to me. But when a man promises me that he will do something, especially when it involves his daughter, I expect him to follow through — or find out why he didn’t.

New Canaan was a postcard community nestled amongst trees with cute little shops, gas stations, homes with shutters, pretty mommies who didn’t work and frazzled dads who commuted to their office in Manhattan by train and died young of heart attacks brought on by stress.

With nary a hotel or motel in sight, I checked into a large, three-story house that featured a wide front porch and a big sign out front that touted it as the finest bed and breakfast spot in the Northeast.

After checking in, I glanced about and realized that I could either hide in my room or mingle with other guests of diverse backgrounds who were milling about in the living room. A third option, and one to avoid, was to walk in on someone in the bathroom down the hall that featured a claw-foot bathtub with oversized feet and no lock on the door. Especially since all of the female guests appeared to be well beyond retirement age.

Clearly not their typical guest, and the only one wearing cowboy boots, I wondered what I’d do if someone were to ask me what I did for a living.

Rather than lie or recreate myself, I decided that I would simply tell the truth: I was there to beat some sense into the father of a suicidal friend of mine. Then, upon further reflection, I decided it might be best to try to avoid that conversation all together and I climbed the stairs to my third-story room.

While lying on the canopy bed in my room, I overheard Mrs. Magnuson, the kindly old proprietor of the place, talking while she escorted another guest to their room across the hall. The new border had the voice of a young woman who spoke much too formally for the setting, using words that were longer than necessary, as though she was checking into the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and being shown to her room by a bellhop awaiting a sizeable tip.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Magnuson, I had quickly deduced, wouldn’t have accepted a tip had it been shoved into the pocket of her soiled apron.

When I heard the door close across the hall, I rolled off my bed and skipped down the stairs and out the front door, with my mind focused on my mission.

Snow was piled high on the street in front of Stephanie’s father’s house, which I could barely see, set so far back off the street and protected by a short, brick fence and gate.

Jumping over the fence was a little more conspicuous than I wanted to be, so I sat in the car for a short time, committing the scene to memory and planning my next strategy.

Despite the fact that I would have preferred to completely separate myself from Stephanie, a guilty conscience kept me from walking away entirely. What I really wanted was for her father to ride in on his silver steed and take care of things, allowing me to disappear from her life.

Thus, since her father had failed to show up in Boulder as promised, I figured I’d put my face in front of his and not-so quietly explain how important it was for him to come to his daughter’s aide.

Apparently I was a little lost in thought when knuckles rapped harshly on the driver’s side window, causing me to jump like a demonized war veteran.

Partially hidden behind reflective shades were the eyes of a stout police officer who informed me that I was parked on a street that did not allow for parking. My first clue might have been the complete absence of any other vehicles, had I looked.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Well,” he said, “we don’t allow parking here. Can you do nothing somewhere else?”

“Almost anywhere,” I said and smiled.

“Good,” he said and went back to his squad car, and I appreciated the fact that he had been kind in an unkind kind of way.

Of course, I’d thought it best not to tell the office that I was looking for Mr. Rolander, who had refused to answer my phone calls regarding his daughter, a possible psycho, who had accused a Middle Easterner of being too rough during drunken sex and then tried to kill herself.

The gossip mills, I assumed, were probably as well greased in New Canaan as any small western North Dakota farm and ranch community and I saw no need to supply them with more material.

Back at the bread and breakfast lodge, I walked in on dinner being served to a dozen guests, with Mrs. Magnuson passing plates and bowls filled with wholesome, high-calorie food.

My stomach, which had not been filled in many hours, strongly suggested that I occupy the one remaining open chair.

Seated directly across from me was a dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty whose plate held about the same quantity of food that I balanced on my fork each time I took a bite. She was wearing one of those slinky silk shirts that you can see a bra through, and her hands and nails were so well manicured that she could have been a hand model if she wanted.

When she spoke, I quickly connected her to the formal voice that I’d heard being escorted to the room across the hall from mine.

“This is Karen,” Mrs. Magnuson said to me.

“Hi,” I said.

“You don’t come here often,” Karen said.

“No I don’t,” I said.

“Well, you should,” she said and I knew the evening was about to get more interesting.

Chapter 11

The entire group that was seated at the dining room table at the Mrs. Magnuson’s bed and breakfast place was immersed in conversation while I, the late comer, finished my meal.

The group included a nice retired couple, an overweight businessman with horseshoe hair, a retiree dressed in a plaid shirt and baggy pants held up by his thick suspenders, who I somehow concluded was a permanent resident, a handyman and three ladies in their late 50s who looked and talked like elementary school teachers. There were also some others who kept mostly to themselves.

One remaining clown, who I figured might be about 28 years old, was seated at the end of the table to my right. He wore a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, his hair was slicked back with a quart of lube and his bright red tie was hanging slightly askew.

Whilst dominating the conversation, he had an answer for everything and obviously hoped to lay claim to Karen, the dark-haired beauty. How did I know that? You can call it men’s intuition.

This self-elected global president stopped at nothing to impress us with his ability to sell pharmaceuticals and a couple of times I noticed the old guy, Frank, the guy with the suspenders, roll his eyes and escape inside himself.

“So,” I said, having finally had enough, “you’re a drug pusher.”

“Yes,” he said, “I am a representative for the world’s largest pharmaceutical company.”

“Like I said, you’re a drug pusher,” I said.

He seemed appalled at my apparent lack of respect, judging by the crimson color his face suddenly turned and Karen glanced at me, and shot me a quick smile.

“And just what is it you do, cowboy,” he asked, “besides line dance?”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m a line dancing instructor.”

“Really?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

He looked at Karen to see if she had figured out what a dork he was. I assumed she had.

“Then what do you do?” he asked.

“I’m between jobs,” I said.

“Aren’t we all,” he said. “So what was it you did?”

“I’m a rancher,” I said.

“Somehow I knew that,” he said.

“That’s because you’re so insightful,” I said.

He paused for a moment but only a moment.

Have you thought about college?” he asked, I assumed because he wanted to portray me as being very young, ignorant and naive.

“Yes, I have,” I said.

That seemed to set him back just a bit.

“And what type of degree will you pursue?” he asked.

“I already have two undergraduate degrees,” I said, “and I’ve also completed one year of graduate school.”

“You’re a college graduate?” he asked.

“That’s right, professor,” I said. “They don’t all wear ties.”

“Quite right!” Frank suddenly shouted as Mr. Horse Shoe chuckled and the schoolteachers puckered their lips.

Apparently the drug pusher hadn’t expected me to be blessed with even minor intelligence, which is a common misconception on the part of urbanites when it comes to cowboys, and he grasped for something witty to say and apparently came up blank.

I stood up, excused myself and thanked Mrs. Magnuson for a delicious meal.

“Well, cowboy,” he said, “perhaps you can let us know when you get a real job.”

I turned and paused for a moment, and I figured he had to be wondering what I was up to.

“Do you sell valium?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “Why?”

“You might want to swallow a couple,” I said. “It’ll take the edge off.

“Good night, everyone,” I then said and headed up the stairs.

The canopy bed in my room was so high, and my stomach so full that I wondered if I could climb into it. Once I did, I grabbed the TV remote to do some serious channel surfing, and that is when I heard a light tap on my door.

I quickly jumped up and opened the door, not thinking that it might be the drug pusher readying a roundhouse for the smart aleck cowboy that had showed up late, and showed him up, at dinner.

Fortunately, the rap belonged to the luscious Karen dressed casually in faded jeans, an oversized sweatshirt, with the collar stretched big enough to reveal a bare shoulder.

She was carrying a tray holding two brownies the size of square hay bales with two huge glasses of milk.

“Is this room service?” I asked.

“I thought you might like a bedtime brownie,” she said. “It’s a tradition here.”

“Sure,” I said and invited her in, leaving the door open. “I wouldn’t want to break with tradition.”

She placed the tray on the ottoman by the overstuffed chair and turned towards me.

“Mind if I have mine with you?” she asked as she flicked some short silk hair out of her eyes.

“Be my guest,” I said.

I glanced at the brownies again.

“These are huge,” I said. “There’s much more here than was on your plate at dinner.”

“One must plan ahead,” she said. “It’s important to leave room for dessert.

The sound of thundering hooves suddenly caused both of us to look towards the open door and that’s when the drug pusher suddenly appeared and then gawked and continued down the hall to the restroom.

“That’s odd,” I said.

“Especially since his room is down the hall and down a flight of stairs,” she said.

That caused me to wonder if her motivation for being in my room had a lot less to do with me and a lot more to do with getting away from the drug pusher.

“So, what brings you to our neck of the woods,” she asked while licking chocolate off of her full lips.

“Are these your woods?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said. “I actually live in Manhattan and work in the apparel industry. I consider this place to be my little oasis. Somewhere to escape to from time to time to regroup, refresh and rejuvenate. Things get a little hectic in the city.”

“But it’s midweek,” I said. “Isn’t escaping usually a weekend thing?”

“Not when you’re in my position,” she said.

“Which means you’re either the boss,” I said, “Or else the boss answers to you.”

“Both,” she said, “So I answer to myself.”

“Do you argue a lot?” I asked.

“With myself?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“No,” she said and smiled and I smiled back with pursed lips, not wanting to expose my chocolate covered teeth.

“How about you?” she asked. “Are you a real cowboy?”

“No,” I said, “I’m an actor auditioning for the remake of Midnight Cowboy.”

“Really?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“What then?” she asked.

“Bonanza,” I said.

“Shut up,” she said. “Where are you from?”

“North Dakota,” I said.

“I see,” she said.

“Have you ever been there?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But I’d like to go.”

“You can,” I said

“With you?” she asked.

“Perhaps,” I said, “if you play your cards right.”

“I love playing cards,” she said.

“Somehow I knew you were going to say that,” I said.

The next day we strolled down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue with me wearing jeans, cowboy boots, my hat and a jacket with the collar turned up to block out strong winds whipping down the concrete canyons.

Rivers of morning commuters flowed to towering office buildings like ants to mounds as horns blared, sirens screamed, vendors shouted and steam rose from manhole covers. I both longed for the peace of the open range and enjoyed the city’s sensory overload.

New York was a nice place to visit, I concluded, but not where I’d be hanging my hat.

What I was doing in the city, I hadn’t a clue as we skipped along with Karen holding onto my arm, from the train station to a taxi to her work, a few blocks below 34th Street.

I held my breath as an overstuffed elevator rose at warp speed to the 25th floor of what was an old office building where her clothing company was located. When the doors opened, I exhaled briefly and then gasped at the site of her staff flying in a variety of directions. The chaos measured high on the madness meter, just below spiraling paper airplanes and food fights.

We sailed to her office where frazzled lieutenants threw questions at her like pellets from a shotgun. I slumped onto a black leather couch and understood why it was she sometimes found it necessary to escape to a Connecticut bed and breakfast oasis.

The fact that she had risen to a position of prominence at such a young age was a testament to her intelligence and wit, I assumed. And I knew that she’d have had little trouble chewing up the drug pusher from the night before and spitting him out had he been more of an irritant.

Thus, I concluded that her wanting to share a brownie with me had more to do with her really wanting to than wanting to hide from Mr. Obnoxious.

But as it turned out, we had burned the midnight oil the night before discussing a myriad of topics from rodeo to polio and delved hardly at all into our personal lives, which was fine with me and maybe even more so with her. Then I promised to accompany her to the city the next day, if only to make her stop asking, and even acted like it was, when it really wasn’t my first time there, having ridden in rodeos at Madison Square Garden more than once.

The plaque on her desk indicated that her last name was Snyder, which was something I only then realized I didn’t know, as the endless stream of fast-talking robots confronting her with one challenge after another seemed unaware of my existence, and I wondered if it was because I was just one of many who had sat there.

“Come with me please,” she suddenly said and I followed her like a happy puppy wanting its master’s attention.

“We’ve hired a new model and I need to see her wearing some of our recent designs,” she said.

We scurried down a hallway to a large, mostly empty room with big mirrors and dozens of skirts, blouses, dresses and gowns hanging on mobile racks. A very tall, indescribably beautiful blonde-haired model, who looked vaguely familiar, was picking through the racks like a bored housewife at a second-hand store.

“OK, let’s get started,” Karen commanded and an assistant, nearly as attractive, with pulled-back red hair and glasses propped low on her nose, appeared out of nowhere.

“Are you doing OK?” Karen turned around and asked me.

“Sure,” I said and then the model, who was wearing a slinky dress, let it drop to the floor.

Chapter 12

There we were in downtown Manhattan at Karen’s clothing design company and Heidi, the famous model, must have disrobed and redressed fifty times that afternoon and I realized that even watching a gorgeous model strip over and over can get a little boring after a while, but less so than watching “Gunsmoke” reruns, The Weather Channel or Al Gore anywhere anytime.

Karen picked up on my impatience and took me to lunch at a bustling New York eatery and then to her apartment building on 34th Street and Lexington. The doorman greeted her enthusiastically and I could see him reexamining her bottom in the mirror, after she removed her coat while we waited for the elevator.

By then it was close to five o’clock, darkness was descending upon the city and Karen had slurped down three fancy drinks while I drank one beer.

Her apartment was huge by New York standards I knew, having been in one or two before, whilst in New York riding in rodeo. Then she took me on a grand tour that suddenly ended in the bedroom where she threw her arms around me and kissed me with a high degree of passion and I voluntarily failed to fight her off.

“I’ve been waiting to do that since dinner last night,” she said.

“And here I thought you were just enjoying the asparagus,” I said and we tumbled onto the bed.

We shed our clothing in record time and made mad passionate love until long into the night. You might say that she was the very appreciative recipient of a cowboy’s long-overdue, pent-up passions, further fueled by the memory of a model stripping repeatedly for most of the afternoon.

I woke up at dawn feeling a little guilty, as though I had somehow betrayed Kelli and wondered how it was that I could be so easily distracted from my original mission.

Karen lay asleep next to me with her light skin glistening in the early morning light and her short black slinky hair splayed across her cheek. She was beautiful, intelligent and quite extraordinary, and yet I felt oddly uneasy, as if Sampson’s Delilah had seduced me too easily.

So I threw on my clothes, popped out the front door and pressed the elevator down button.

Having located the subway, I tossed the New York Daily News into a trashcan and skidded down the subway steps intent on working my way back to Grand Central Station and boarding an early morning train back to New Canaan, Connecticut, and my original mission.

The top step had been streaked with early morning sunshine and the lower steps were unusually empty, I thought, for a weekday. As I turned a corner and glided down a second flight of stairs, I notice two beefy men following close behind me.

When I reached the bottom and headed toward the turnstiles, they gained on me and seemed to double again in size. They grabbed me from behind, punched me in the head, tackled me to the concrete floor and kicked me repeatedly.

In the midst of the onslaught, my fellow commuters chose to observe the action from afar, preferring not to get involved.

Instead of yelling for help, I chose again to get to my feet as each goon grabbed an arm, pinned me to a wall and punched me in the midsection and face. One of them caught me with a blow between the ribs and knocked the wind out of me just before they smashed my head against the wall, dazing me and opening up a big gash.

“I love New York,” I wanted to say, just to be a smartass, but couldn’t.

Warm blood began to flow down the back of my neck and I assumed that they’d soon be digging for my wallet and not find it since I always wore it in my left boot. Instead, one of them grabbed me around the throat and held his pockmarked face inches from my nose. So I thrust my knee into his groin, which initially seemed like the thing to do but obviously wasn’t, and he bent over gasping and his buddy pulled out a knife.

“Get out of town cowboy,” his buddy said, “you’re way out of your league.”

Then they left.

“That’s it?” I shouted after them. “You ambush me and leave? You’re cowards!”

I staggered back, hit the wall and slumped to the floor while a train stopped and all of the mildly startled but unhelpful commuters got on and off. Eventually, a Good Samaritan, probably someone else from out of town, spotted me and rushed over to check on my welfare. Then he turned to run for help as soon as he spotted blood flowing from the back of my head but I grabbed him by a sleeve.

“Don’t bother,” I said.

“You’re insane,” is what he should have said, but didn’t and flashed me a look that said it instead.

Of course, he couldn’t have known that it was normal for a rodeo cowboy to refuse to be helped from the arena. Nor could he have known that I didn’t want to compound my problem by adding an ambulance, hospital and doctor bill to the equation.

Crawling into a corner, I tore off a good portion of my shirt, applied it to the back of my head and pressed it against the wall to stop the bleeding, while ignoring the pain. A nearby beggar, who’d been trying to solicit contributions from mostly apathetic commuters, was kind enough to give me his stocking cap for five bucks. I put it on my head to hold the bandage, hopped on a train and sat with my head pressed against the window.

As my vision began to double, I thought I saw the boy that I’d seen in the emergency room in Gillette staring at me again but then I realized it was actually a little black woman knitting mittens.

How I got from the subway to the New Canaan-bound train I haven’t a clue, but when it arrived someone woke me up and I staggered off.

Feeling pain in every part of my body, I pulled one of Mrs. Magnuson’s business cards out of my pocket and gave her a call.

“Hello,” she said.

“I wonder if you could send someone to the train station to pick me up?” I asked.

“Who is this?” she asked.

“Your favorite cowboy,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “are you OK?”

“No,” I said and hung up.

Her husband Frank, still nattily dressed in his fat suspenders and plaid shirt, appeared shortly thereafter and failed to recognize me, I assume because my eyes were almost swollen shut, my lips were twice the normal size, dried blood coated my face and dirt, soot and more blood clung to my jacket. Plus the $5 dollar beanie made me look more like a leaf-smoking Jamaican musician than a rodeo cowboy.

I woke up the next day in my high-rise canopy bed with a splitting headache and cottonmouth. Across the room, Frank was sleeping in a big chair with his feet up on the ottoman.

“Are there no attractive nurses in this hospital?” I asked.

“I think I’m attractive,” he said.

“Good point,” I said.

“Welcome back to reality, cowboy,” said Mrs. Magnuson, who I hadn’t realized was standing to my left. ”How are you?”

“Brilliant,” I said.

“Then perhaps you could explain what happened to you,” she said.

“Fell down a subway stairs,” I said.

“I don’t think so,” she said. ”You were mugged.”

“Is my wallet still in my boot?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then I wasn’t mugged,” I said.

“I got my nephew doctor up here to sew up your head,” she said.

“Nice,” I said.

“What happened?” the drug pusher suddenly shouted from the doorway, “Did a horse buck you off?”

“Hush!” Mrs. Magnuson said.

“Did the poor country boy run into trouble in the big city?” he added.

I didn’t respond.

“Maybe things are a little tougher here than out there in the sticks, huh, Roy Rogers?” he continued. “You ain’t in Kansas anymore. Better mosey on home. I hear the sheep are getting lonely.”

He seemed very pleased with his overrated sense of wit and I decided to let him bask in a few moments of awkward silence before responding.

“So,” I finally said, “you’re the salesmen those sheep were asking for when I left.”

His face turned a little crimson, he swore and then stomped down the hall.

“Rather uptight,” I said.

“He’s very competitive,” Mrs. Magnuson said.

“Or something,” I said.

Later, after another nap or two, I found my cellphone and dialed Baby Huey’s number, intent on reminding him that he still had a housemate despite the fact that my basement bedroom featured the same level of activity as your average a ghost town or any church on Super Bowl Sunday.

Having just returned to Boulder from Christmas in Rochester, New York, Huey was totally unaware of the suicidal events that had occurred in his absence, primarily because I hadn’t told him and also because he had yet to have his ear talked off by one of his nosey neighbors.

The hours I spent scrubbing bloody evidence from the bathroom tub and linoleum floor also contributed to his temporary naivety, as did my luck at having stumbled upon a clone of his bathroom rug at one of those all-purpose department stores.

With things rolling along so smoothly I briefly contemplated keeping him in the dark forever but thought better of it when I remembered that I’d have to kill the neighbor or his wife to do so. Plus, I thought he might enjoy some minor chaos in his life, at least I hoped so and if he didn’t, what was the worst he could do? Throw me out? There was nothing to throw out because I had my bag with me.

Thus, I laid out the facts for him like a lunch buffet and he seemed to devour them. But then there was a long pause and I thought he might be thinking about how no amount of rent could possibly compensate for the headaches I might cause. That was until he asked how soon I’d be returning to the Rockies.

“It’s getting a little boring around here,” he said, and I knew I was still in good standing.

“As soon as my mission is accomplished in New Canaan,” I said.

“How can I help?” he asked.

“You already have,” I said and hung up.

Chapter 13

A black, four-door Jaguar appeared in the driveway of Stephanie’s father’s house at 7:37 a.m. in New Canaan and exited through a slow opening automatic gate onto the street where I was illegally parked.

The driver appeared to be an older male who I assumed was Mr. Rolander but didn’t know for sure since I’d never seen him or a picture.

Following him in my rental car, I parked on the street near the gas station where he parked next to a gas pump. A refined-looking gentleman, with hair as thick as a fuller brush, and a hairline that originated a millimeter above his eyebrows, he exited and skipped inside the adjoining convenience store. I intercepted him when he came out holding a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a magazine in the other.

“Mr. Rolander,” I said. “How are you?”

“Good,” he said as he tried to walk past me.

“You don’t recognize my voice,” I said, standing in his way.

“No,” he said. “Should I?”

“I’m the guy from Boulder whose phone messages regarding your daughter have been ignored,” I said.

He acted a little puzzled at first and then quickly recovered, took on an air of confidence and then smiled, like John F. Kennedy did when he was disarming an overzealous reporter at a press conference. He was a real pro I could see.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember.”

“I’m a little surprised to see you here,” I said.

“Really,” he said. “Why is that?”

“Because wasn’t it supposed to be you flying to Colorado rather than me flying east to New Canaan?” I asked.

“I’m sorry not to have gotten back to you,” he said and smiled politely. “A number of business emergencies suddenly came up and stole away my time.”

I felt like rearranging his little smile.

“You’ve got some interesting priorities,” I said.

He seemed to sense the presence of a loose cannon in his midst, which in this case was me. Not that a couple of black eyes and stitches in the back of my head should alarm him at all.

“Listen, son,” he said, “I think you need to know the entire story. I’d love to have breakfast with you and explain it all but I’m a little busy right now.”

The way he called me “son” seemed a little arrogant and disrespectful to me. Plus, I despised his cold, ultra-professional manner.

“I think you’ve got the time,” I said. “There’s a breakfast place across the street. You can take the time.”

He agreed for some reason, probably because he knew there’d be an embarrassing moment to follow if he didn’t.

Once seated, he began to fill me in on the “real story,” as he referred to it.

It seems that Mr. Rolander was an investor. What did that mean? It meant that he had no real job but instead owned a lot of companies that’d he’s taken over, improved and then sold for profit. That had transformed him from a man of meager beginnings to one of substantial wealth.

His manner was impressive and he was much younger looking than his 55 years might imply, with a chest that stuck out far in advance of his hardened stomach. Meanwhile, he wore a tailored suit and tie ensemble that could only be described as impeccable, right down to the monogrammed cufflinks.

He told the tale of a youthful romance with Stephanie’s mother that began when he was a young, eager executive working for a network television acquisitions department. She was the daughter of a wealthy and prominent New Jersey politician and businessman.

The romance later turned into a booze-riddled nightmare marriage he thought it necessary to escape from, even though he took great care to throw piles of money at both Stephanie and his former wife to keep them as secure and happy as possible.

“In return,” he said, “I get nothing but turmoil and torture from two ladies who excel at consuming drugs and alcohol, and going from one troubled situation to another.”

“And isn’t it odd?” he added, “that he, a California native who’d grown up on the beach, would end up living in New Canaan while his former wife, an East Coast native, whose greatest goal was to be the queen of affluent East Coast society, would end up living in the hills of New Mexico.”

“Yes, very odd,” I said as I took another bite of my rye toast bathed in honey.

He concluded our breakfast meeting by thanking me for my help and praising me for going so far as to fly to the East Coast to get his attention.

I thanked him for thanking me and then he handed me 10 crisp $100 bills for my troubles and paid the breakfast tab.

“I suggest that you distance yourself from my daughter,” he said, “unless you want to end up being tortured for the rest of your life.”

“Sound advice,” I said, fully prepared to heed his warning.

“And by the way,” he said, “I’ll try to help my daughter once again. But I will not personally confront her, nor will I put myself in the position of having to fly out there and witness her demise. It’s just too painful.”

“But you did promise,” I said, not wanting to let him off too easy. Maybe I said it to make myself feel like my trip there had not be a complete waste of time.

“I know,” he said. “I had intended to but then changed my mind once I’d had a chance to think it through.”

Looking into his eyes, I concluded that he was either an award-winning actor or a seriously honest and troubled rich dude.

“I’ll have my assistant call again to reserve a spot for Stephanie at a noted Denver rehabilitation center,” he said.

I left the breakfast table impressed, satisfied and a little embarrassed at my initial arrogance, sarcasm and lack of respect. Mr. Rolander, it appeared, was a man of accomplishment who carried a ball and chain around in the form of a former wife and daughter, and probably always would.

With my belly filled and my mission accomplished, I went to the restroom and symbolically washed my hands of the whole affair, feeling a huge weight drop off my shoulders.

After exiting the restaurant, I was feeling so good that I called Karen, the black-haired fashion designer, to invite her to New Canaan to celebrate my victory. Better she come there than me risk being beat up again in some subway, I concluded.

Yet, while her phone was ringing, I sensed the pull of some nagging and perhaps meaningless thoughts that wouldn’t go away.

Mr. Rolander hadn’t asked a single question about me. What I did for a living, what my favorite color might be or which terrorist leader we should go after next. Yes, he was a busy man and maybe too busy to care. Or maybe he thought I was just another in a long line of victims who’d briefly pass through Stephanie’s life … so why bother.

Still, it bothered me. I felt like I could have propped up a cardboard cutout of me in front of him and been just as effective.

My thoughts were interrupted by a recording that asked if I’d like to leave a message for Karen. I did, but she never called back. The next day I drove to the Newark airport and hopped on a plane back to Denver.

After nearly a week in the New York metro maze, despite having been focused on a mission and having been beat up by inner-city thugs, my thoughts were dominated by the affair — the one-night stand with Karen — that seemed to have ended meaninglessly.

Combine that with the impersonal treatment by Mr. Rolander, natural feelings of insignificance after having floated in a sea of East Coast strangers, and mix in the loss of Kelli somewhere, and I felt like an invisible ship without a sail on some pointless voyage. I knew then that I was still a mental mess.

When I arrived in Denver, I climbed into a taxi that eventually dropped me off in front of Baby Huey’s house in the middle of a frigid January afternoon. I was a weary, wounded traveler who was glad to be home and more than ready to kick back, soak up some normalcy and heal his wounds. My cellphone rang as I unlocked the front door.

“Hi, it’s Stephanie,” she said. “Where have you been?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “my mom is dead!”

“What?”

“She’s gone!” she said. “They found her dead in her car in the garage. The motor was running.”

I’d never met the lady and had no idea what she was like but still, given my brief relationship with Stephanie and having met the woman’s husband, I couldn’t help but be somewhat affected by the news and it’s timely irony.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“They’re trying to say that it was suicide,” she said.

I didn’t find that to be particularly surprising since carbon monoxide poisoning was a common way for people to “check out.”

“They also said her alcohol level was high and that she had sleeping pills in her system,” she added.

Why should that be a surprise, I wondered? Being full of booze and drugs seemed to be normal for both she and her daughter, from what I could surmise.

“But it wasn’t suicide!” Stephanie declared.

That was quite an assumption I thought, especially since she hadn’t talked to her mother since Lincoln was president.

“Get real,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

“It wasn’t?” I said instead.

“No!” she said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I just know,” she said.

“OK,” I said.

“Can you come over?” she asked.

I paused as neurons raced about in my brain, trying to construct a plausible excuse as to why I could not come to her place. But being mentally exhausted, I couldn’t come up with anything remotely legitimate.

“OK,” I said.

So, normalcy decided to stay at Hubert’s house that day, knowing that it would not be welcomed at Stephanie’s. And I officially marked that day as the day that I lost total control of my life.

Chapter 14

Stephanie, the rich chick, tried to kill herself unsuccessfully one week and her mother did it successfully the next. Who would be next? Would it be her father? I didn’t think so. He was too stable.

Did she have any other siblings somewhere sucking on an exhaust pipe like hippies on a bong? I chastised myself for having such insensitive thoughts but chuckled at them anyway. Call me rude.

Of course, maybe her mother hadn’t committed suicide at all but instead took a sleeping pill when she was drunk and then got the munchies and decided to go out for a snack and passed out in the garage before she backed out. Then again, maybe there was oceanfront property available in Arizona.

As I walked through the front door of Stephanie’s condo, having been summoned there, I wondered why I was entering the last place in the world that I wanted to be. I had flown to Connecticut to deal with her problem, handed it off to her father and mentally washed my hands of her existence, only to be sucked back in like used shampoo down a shower drain.

It was very discouraging to say the least, and in the back of my mind, I also wondered if she using her mother’s death to manipulate me. But what was I supposed to do? Tell her “No, Stephanie, I know your mother just died but can’t you get some other sucker to come over?”

She was curled up on the couch, and leaped up and hugged me and wouldn’t let go for a long time. I hugged her back, feeling like I had no other choice. When she finally released me, I noticed how good she looked, without the usual ton of makeup on. In fact, she looked so much healthier, almost as if she was glowing.

“Do you have black eyes?” she asked me.

I had kind of forgotten about my subway altercation and the bruises and stitches, proving that you can eventually become accustomed to almost anything.

“Well … yes,” I said.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Door opened in my face,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“No,” I said and she immediately moved on.

“I have a really big favor to ask you,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

“I want you to go to my mother’s funeral with me,” she said. “It’s the day after tomorrow. I’ll pay for everything.”

The invitation felt more like a gut punch than an invitation. If fact, you might say that it was the third gut punch that that week. The first one was in the subway, the second was delivered, in another way, by Karen, the New York fashion babe, and this was the third.

Thus, I felt like I needed to take a step back and assess things. After all, I’d only known Stephanie for two weeks or less and now I was going to accompany her to her mother’s funeral? I didn’t even own a tie.

“First, we’ll have to get you a suit and tie,” she said, reading my mind.

“And a decent winter coat,” she added, “and new shoes.”

“Boots,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“I only wear boots,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “OK.”

I dropped my face into my hands, rubbed my forehead, ran my fingers through my hair and readied myself to say no.”

But when I looked up again, I was shocked by what I saw. Stephanie looked like a queen, a goddess, a diva dressed not in a gown, sequins and veils but in a tattered sweatshirt and little white shorts.

Her bangs were pulled back, which exposed her forehead and brought life to her eyes. Her legs seemed longer and glisteningly soft with little toes wiggling on the ends of tiny feet that might fit into Cinderella’s slippers. Plus, her lips appeared to be much fuller than I had remembered, and they framed glistening white teeth.

“But …,” I began.

“I better call the airline right now,” she said.

“Ah, where’s the funeral?” I asked, assuming that it’d be a quick trip to New Mexico.

“New Jersey,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

“Have you been there?” she asked.

“Well … yes,” I answered, “Fairly recently.”

Of course, the last person who had bought me a suit was my mom for eighth-grade graduation. But Stephanie showed much more enthusiasm going through the process, and when the dust settled, the pricetag was a whole lot higher.

Our purchase was made at a stylish shop in downtown Cherry Creek called Lawrence Covell, where Stephanie searched through rack after rack until she found the perfect black Giorgio Armani sport coat with matching charcoal colored, pleated pants.

I explained to her that I was highly opposed to wearing a tie and that prompted her to select a black long-sleeved pull-over shirt with a collar and three buttons. It completed a very “Hollywood appropriate” ensemble that my rodeo pals would never have recognized me in, hopefully.

I looked about for someone to hand me an official gigolo certificate as a tailor pinned, poked and prodded me, coming precariously close to my crotch and, within minutes, we were walking down the street with a clothes bag slung over my shoulder that was worth more than the rest of my wardrobe and pickup truck combined.

We landed back at Newark Airport the next mid-afternoon and I looked about nervously for anyone who might recognize me, but no one did. Silly me. A black limo drove us to the Montvale Marriott, where I was surprised to discover that, with all of her substantial wealth, Stephanie had reserved only one room with a single king-sized bed.

“I’ll sleep on a cot,” I said when we entered the room.

She didn’t answer.

Then I half expected her to go to the hotel bar and get loaded, even though I hadn’t seen her drink since well before the alleged rape episode. Immediately, there was a knock at the door and a number of older people, couples mostly, also dressed in black on black, flowed into the room and exchanged hugs and “air kisses” and cackled nonstop.

I was introduced as her “friend” and since we were staying in the same room, it appeared to most, I’m sure, that we were an “item,” by design. Then I noticed another girl about Stephanie’s age, who I assumed might be a cousin, sizing me up with her eyes stopping for an uncomfortably long period on my rear end. When she noticed that I had noticed she licked the rim of her “drink” glass and smiled, and I went out onto the patio to get some air.

From there, we went to the funeral home for a short memorial service and to view the body and I was shocked to discover that her mother was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, even in death. Amplified by the fact that Stephanie had described her as being a sloppy, overweight lush with a W.C. Field nose and rosy cheeks.

Instead, I saw a virtual Grace Kelly look-a-like and had a hard time taking my eyes off of her. If drinks and drugs were a problem, they had failed to alter her appearance or else the mortician was a magician.

Afterwards, we dined at an award-winning restaurant and then visited with some more relatives in a garden area back at the hotel. At 11:30, Stephanie got up from her chair and looked me in the eyes.

“Come on honey,” she said, “it’s time for bed.”

I looked around to see if she was talking to me and noticed that everyone was looking at me, including Bridgett, the girl I had correctly assumed was Stephanie’s cousin, winking at me. Then we walked down the hall towards the elevators and Stephanie grabbed my hand and held it briefly before pulling my arm across her shoulder and giving me a kiss on the cheek.

As I glanced at her face, I was once again struck by what seemed like a remarkable transition. Her beauty was growing and her mother’s face, a face that I had not seen prior to that evening, appeared to be transposed over hers.

When we reached our room, she went straight to the mirrored dresser and took off her earrings, bracelet and black, medium-heeled shoes. Then she walked towards me and asked me to unhook the clasp and pull down the zipper in the back of her medium-length black dress.

I felt my legs weaken a little, probably from the jet-lag, and the room seemed to be getting suddenly warmer.

After I had lowered the zipper to the small of her back, she turned around and looked up at me with innocent, Bambi eyes and placed her open hands and forearms on my chest and smiled sweetly.

“Thank you for coming with me,” she said. ”I don’t know where I’d be without you.”

I hesitated briefly and then leaned forward, kissed her lips and, with both hands, gently nudged the top of her dress off of her shoulders and it dropped to the floor. She immediately began unbuttoning my shirt and I paused for all of one millisecond and then lay down on the bed with her.

We made love for most of that night.

The next morning, I found myself seated in a huge church with a vaulted ceiling, endless rows of pews, an army of priests and alter boys, and a Super Bowl-sized audience. In fact, mourners filled not only the church but also the narthex and much of the parking lot despite arctic temperatures.

After a lengthy service, Stephanie’s mother, Kathryn, was laid to rest in an old cemetery established long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, among countless giant headstones all featuring the same last name, McHenry.

Her family, I discovered, had come to America from Ireland during some famine, not as starving huddled masses looking for freedom but as wealthy landlords escaping the wrath of the poor. Stephanie’s great-grandfather, Peter McHenry, then built up even more wealth and prominence in America and at one time served in the United States Senate and was even on Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet.

These historical revelations came to me not from Stephanie but from articles appearing on the front page of newspapers like the New York Times and New York Post.

That was my second surprise of the morning. The first had been the site of Stephanie seated at the desk in our hotel room reading when I woke up.

“What are you reading?” I asked her.

“The Bible,” she said.

 Chapter 15

As we sat in the pew at her mother’s funeral, I thought about how Stephanie had blushed earlier that morning when she discovered that I was watching her read the Bible in our hotel room.

“Pastor David suggested that I read some verses each day,” she had said. 

“That’s very nice,” I said. 

“They make me think,” she said. “And refocus.”

“Refocus?” I asked.

“Refocus my life,” she said.

That’s what I was thinking about when, at her funeral service, Stephanie’s mother suddenly walked down the aisle and sat next to us. How could that be?

Imagine my relief when she was introduced to me as Kathryn’s younger sister, Joanne, a clone of Stephanie’s mother and the person who had orchestrated the entire funeral event. She was also the mother of that flirtatious cousin, Bridgett, the girl who had winked at me and looked at my butt the prior evening, who was also the third-year Princeton student seated directly behind us.

Stephanie’s father was, not surprisingly, conspicuously absent, and I began to wonder about the legitimacy of the tales he told me at our historical breakfast meeting in New Canaan based upon two main things: My view of things from this side of the fence and the McHenry’s enormous wealth.

Was it possible that Mr. Rolander’s quick movement from lower to upper class was less a result of his own creative abilities and more a result of his wife’s prominence and wealth?

Plus, did Stephanie’s big bank balance remain high because of the McHenry’s family gold reserves rather than her supposedly benevolent father’s bankbook? I found it hard to believe that Kathryn had relied on her former husband for support, given the opulence that surrounded her, but then I couldn’t see the big picture.

At any rate, my attempts to match the former wife and mother that Mr. Rolander and Stephanie described to me with the woman that I saw lying in the casket, whose funeral was attended by hundreds of prominent mourners, was difficult at best. Had this beautiful woman really descended to the depths that Rolander and Stephanie implied? And if not, what was their motive for saying so?

My sudden preoccupation with untangling the myth was further complicated by my having witnessed a complete Stephanie metamorphosis from drunken caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. She was, as anyone could plainly see, strikingly different from the Boulder party girl who had completely repulsed me.

I watched as she glided amongst people at the funeral reception like a poised and well-bred politician’s wife, mingling with prominent mourners, thanking them for coming and looking nothing like the obnoxious drunk that I had left at the bar on Christmas night.

You might say that I was transfixed and consumed with the sights and sounds that were before me and that bothered me a little because, in a day or two, I’d be back home in Boulder focusing on the next phase of my life. At least I hoped so. Or did I?

It seemed that my life, which had been so black and white just a year or so earlier, was getting grayer by the minute.

Hoping to subtly distance myself from the proceedings and clear my head a little, I spotted a chair in the corner and nearly sprinted to it to sit down and observe things from afar. Bridgett, the flirtatious Princeton student and cousin, spotted me immediately and scurried over and plopped down beside me.

“So,” she said, “do you think she was murdered?”

“What?” I asked.

“Do you think she was killed?” she asked.

“Who?” I asked.

“Auntie Kathryn, of course,” she said. “You don’t actually think she committed suicide, do you?”

“I beg your pardon?” I said. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

She shrugged her shoulders, bit into a piece of cake that had been sitting on the plate on her lap and then waved to someone across the room.

“How long have you and Stephanie been going out?” she then asked.

“Going out where?” I asked.

“You know,” she said. “How long have you two been dating?”

“Well … ” I said.

“Are you getting married?” she asked.

“Ah … ”

“I heard she dropped out of school,” she said. “Is that true?”

“I’m not … ”

“You’re not saying?” she asked.

“I … ”

“I’m just interested,” she said. “That’s all.”

I shook my head.

“Hey, want to go for walk?” she asked.

I looked at the snow piled outside and was about to say “no” when an old man walked up and greeted Bridgett. He could have been an uncle, a great uncle, the mayor of Montvale or a mafia don for all I knew.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Colorado,” I said.

“I know that,” she said, “but where are you really from?”

“Not Colorado,” I said.

“No shit, Sherlock,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Just interested,” she said. “Why not?”

“But why?” I asked again.

“Why do you not want me to know?” she asked.

“I didn’t say I didn’t,” I said.

“Good,” she said and a short pause ensued.

“I just like to know what’s going on in my family.” she said, “That’s all.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

“And I was just wondering if you were planning to become my cousin,” she said and smiled.

“Your cousin?” I asked.

“Yes. If you marry Stephanie, you’ll be my cousin. My kissing cousin,” she said and kissed me.

I leaned back like an impish prude who was fresh off an Amish farm.

“Call me at room 327 tonight,” she said as she stood up. 

“After all,” she added, “you and I have a mutual friend.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Someone who’s surprised to see that you’re still hanging around his daughter,” she said and left.

I stared at the floor for a moment and wondered what had just happened.

The next thing I knew, I was watching an older gentleman wearing boots, a black suit, a bushy white mustache and a beige cowboy hat skip from New Jersey’s arctic exterior through the automatic doors and into the warmth of the lobby of the Montvale Marriott.

“You must be from New Mexico,” I said as he strolled by.

“That’s right,” he said. “I flew in last night.”

“For Kathryn McHenry’s funeral, I assume?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, “and how about you?”

“I came here yesterday from Colorado with her daughter, Stephanie,” I said.

“I recognized you right away,” he said. “Saw you ride at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. You’re one hell of a rider, son.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, and we bellied up to the hotel bar. Walt, my new buddy, ordered whiskey and water, and I ordered a tall glass of orange juice because, for some reason, I just didn’t see booze and funerals as a perfect match. Nevertheless, the McHenry family did as they gathered nearby and hoisted drinks, intent on sending ole Katie off in grand style.

“Did you know Kathryn well?” I asked Walt.

“Pretty well,” he said. “My wife and I bought our ranch house from her, and she went with us to the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack quite a few times to watch some of my ponies run.”

“What was she like?” I asked.

“Great lady,” he said, “and she was very classy.”

“She sure was pretty,” I said.

“No doubt about that,” he said.

He took a sip of his drink.

“So,” he said, “are you and Stephanie dating?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve only known her for a short while. I’m just helping her through some tough times.”

“Her mother had filled us in on a few of her activities,” Walt said. “She’s a free spirit for sure.”

“To say the least,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “she looks to be in pretty good shape now.”

“She’s handling things well,” I said.

There was another short pause while Walt took another sip, and I wondered how to best phrase my next question.

“I’ve heard that Kathryn committed suicide,” I said.

“That’s what they say,” Walt said.

“And that she had a lot of trouble with drugs and alcohol,” I said.

“I heard that, too,” he said.

“But when I saw her in the casket last night,” I said, “I was surprised to see how beautiful she was. Not at all like someone who had abused themselves.”

Walt took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair and put it back on.

“She’d had her problems a few years back,” he said.

“OK,” I said.

“The way I heard it, her husband was pretty abusive and she escaped to New Mexico with Stephanie to get away from him,” he said. “When she left New Jersey, there was a lengthy legal battle and her husband tried to wrestle away a lot of her loot, and I guess he did get a bunch. But that was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the McHenry family fortune they say.”

“So,” I said, “she still had a lot of money?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “more than she could spend. In fact, I’ve heard that it’ll take a few generations to go through that family fortune.”

He took another sip.

“Still, the whole situation back here drove her to booze and drugs for a while,” he said. “But I’ve never seen her take a drink as long as I’ve known her. And that has been five years.”

I nodded and thought for a moment.

“But I was told that she died with booze and sleeping pills in her system,” I said.

“That’s what they say,” he said, “and I suppose anyone could have a relapse.”

“Do you think she did?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

Another hotel guest, probably a salesman, with an ample belly and undone tie, came up to the bar, ordered a drink, paid for it and left.

“Did Kathryn have a boyfriend?” I asked.

“Plenty of boyfriends,” he said. “They were good men, and some of them were my friends. She was the belle of the ball.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said.

Walt finished his drink and told the bartender “no” when he asked him if he wanted another one. That’s when a few of the McHenry mourners hooted and hollered in the background, and one of them started singing an Irish ballad, which seem to foretell where the evening was headed 

“So, what did Kathryn tell you about Stephanie?” I asked Walt.

“That she was worried about her,” he said. “That she said she went through money faster than Congress.” 

“But her father kept padding her account, right?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “Rolander cut her off years ago. But that didn’t matter.”

“Why not?” I asked. 

“Because Kathryn was loaded anyway,” he said.

 Chapter 16

After visiting with Walt, the cowboy from New Mexico, I walked to the elevator, pressed the up button and waited for the doors to open.

As I stood there, I contemplated Walt’s revelations about Stephanie’s mother, Kathryn, and how they conflicted with what Mr. Rolander had told me. When the elevator doors finally opened, Bridgett — Stephanie’s cute and crazy cousin — was its lone occupant and she quickly decided not to get off as I stepped inside and pressed the button for the second floor.

“Hey, cowboy,” she said, “are you coming to my room later?

I pressed the stop button and the elevator jerked to a halt.

“I’m just wondering,” I said, “Are you Rolander’s onsite spy?”

“He doesn’t need a spy,” she said.

“Then what is it that you are up to?” I asked.

“What makes you think that I am up to anything,” she said as she stuck her hands into the front pockets of her very low-riding jeans and fluttered her eyelashes.

“I think you’re always up to something,” I said.

“The mark of a creative mind,” she said.

“Or a demented one,” I added as I pulled the stop button out and the elevator jerked back to life.

When it arrived at the second floor, the doors opened and Stephanie was waiting to get in. She looked at Bridget and then at me.

“I was just coming down to look for you,” she said.

“I was just going to change my clothes,” I said and got out of the elevator as the doors closed on Bridget’s sly grin.

“What were you doing with Bridget?” Stephanie asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“No one does nothing with Bridget,” Stephanie said.

“She was on the elevator when the doors opened,” I said.

“She’s big trouble you know,” she said.

“I sensed that,” I said. “But then, it wasn’t long ago that I was saying the same thing about you.”

The card key clicked in the room lock and we entered the room.

“I’m not going back to Colorado with you,” Stephanie suddenly said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I have to take care of things here,” she said.

“What kind of things?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I’m not ready to leave my mother behind.”

“Oh,” I said. “But I don’t think you’re really leaving her behind.”

“I feel like I am,” she said. “I suppose because I was cruel to her. Or more precisely, we were cruel to each other, and now I realize that she is gone and I’ll never be able to repair my relationship with her. So, I just can’t leave her yet.”

“I see,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Then again, why did I really care?

She stared into my eyes for a moment.

“You know, I love you,” she said.

“What?” I asked, not knowing if I had heard her right.

She loved me? How could she love me? She didn’t even know me. Nor could she know that I could probably never love anyone ever again. After all, the girl I was “meant to be with” had already been taken from me. Anyone else would be nothing more than a substitute, so why bother? No, I couldn’t love her.

Her Prince Charming had to be someone else. I’d already been someone’s Prince Charming and so I couldn’t be Prince Charming again.

“Look,” I said, ”about last night.”

“I know, I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. It should never have happened. It’s crazy to think that you could actually love me.”

“No,”

“It’s OK,” she said. “I’ve made a total mess of my life. How could you possibly love me? I mean, come on. First, I almost drive my car through your bedroom window, and then you help me and end up walking miles home on Christmas night.”

“Stephanie,” I said.

“No,” she said. “It’s OK. You can take off for Colorado tonight if you want to. There’s probably a late flight.”

“But,” I said, “I don’t.”

“I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” she said. “And coming here with me was so nice. I’ll never forget that.”

“But … please listen,” I said.

“I can give you some money,” she said.

“Hey!” I shouted.

She immediately got quiet and didn’t move.

“What?” she finally asked while looking up at me very timidly.

“Can I say something?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

“Please quit saying you’re sorry,” I said.

“Oh, sorry,” she said.

“Look,” I said, “It was wrong of me to take advantage of you last night.”

“But,” she began.

“I don’t even know you,” I said, “and I took advantage of you at a very vulnerable time in your life. I’m the one who should be sorry.”

There was much more that I wanted to tell her but I couldn’t, because I didn’t dare.

After all, it was too crazy. I felt a little like saying that I loved her and I knew that had to be idiotic. In fact, it would be absolutely nuts.

A little more than 48 hours earlier, I had been repulsed by her. So now was I going to turn completely around and beg her not to stay in New Jersey? Was I going to ask her to come back to Colorado with me and live happily ever after?

There was no “happily ever after.” I already knew that. Because happily ever after only happened in fairy tales.

“Put your head on straight,” I told myself. “You need a drink or a shrink. Get some fresh air. This is Stephanie that you are talking to. Remember, she’s a drunk and a spoiled brat.

I sat down on the bed and rubbed my face in my hands.

“I’ll leave in the morning,” I told her. “There’s no use incurring more costs by changing my airline ticket to tonight. I’ll call housekeeping and sleep on a cot in the corner.”

She quietly walked over to the other side of the room and sat on a chair, crossed her legs, rested her chin on a propped-up arm and tried to unsuccessfully stop tears from running down her cheeks.

I felt really sad and wanted to go over and hug her. But I didn’t.

The next day, except for a five-minute nap, I did little more than stare at the seat in front of me during the entire flight back to Denver.

Stephanie had secured a limo to take me to the airport that morning and rode along to say goodbye. When I got out, she did too and gave me a big hug. As I entered the airport through the glass doors, I glanced back towards the limo and she was still standing next to it watching me. I waved, she waved and then blew me a kiss, and I assumed that I’d probably never see her again.

When my flight landed at a cold and overcast Denver Airport, I immediately called my housemate, Baby Huey, and asked him if he’d mind picking me up.

He agreed and was his usual jovial self when he arrived, which snapped me out of my melancholy mood while we drove straight from the airport to his favorite smelly, Boulder beer joint near the University of Colorado campus. Once there, we watched sports on a variety of TV’s and inhaled a greasy, late lunch.

As can sometimes happen, we started out by ordering a single beer and that quickly evolved into several. A couple of his friends arrived and began ordering shots of Wild Turkey, an ominous sign for someone who’d hardly slept the night before. It didn’t take long for my blood-alcohol level to soar and kick me into a real longing for a nap, and it wasn’t long before my forehead was on the table.

While I lay there comatose, someone grabbed the TV remote, started flicking through channels and stumbled upon a re-telecast of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas on ESPN.

“Leave it there!” Baby Huey’s buddy Edwin suddenly shouted.

“Why?” Baby Huey asked.

“Look,” Edwin said again pointing to the TV screen.

“Look at what?” Huey asked.

“Look at the guy riding that bucking horse,” Edwin said. “It’s him.”

“Who?” Huey asked.

“Him,” Edwin said as he grabbed my hair and lifted my head off the table.

They all looked at me and then back at the TV screen.

“He’s a big-time rodeo guy,” Edwin said.

“No kidding,” Huey said, and they all giggled and then Huey ordered another round of beers.

The next morning I was awakened by a call from Jessie, the cute nurse that I’d met at the emergency room in Gillette, Wyoming, where I went after the fisticuffs at the bar/restaurant in Broadus, Montana.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“Boulder,” I said.

“Isn’t that a hippie town?” she asked.

“Not sure,” I said.

“So, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Playing the flute, flipping pizzas and wearing a kilt,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m just hanging out. How are you?”

“Burned out,” she said.

“You’re not happy with your life and your pursuit of happiness?” I asked.

“Too many hours,” she said.

So, I suggested that she slide down to Boulder for a weekend of rest and relaxation. She concurred.

“However,” I said, “You may not recognize me without a swollen eye.”

“I hope it’s an improvement,” she said.

“Not sure,” I said.

“If not. I can always make it swell up again,” she said.

“That’s always an option,” I said.

She arrived the next day and after she made herself at home in the spare bedroom, we filled the next few days with movies, watching live bands, good conversation, sleep, museums, no kilts or pizza and a view of Boulder from high atop the Rockies.

On Saturday night we dined with Pastor David, his wife Mary, their little daughter, Jennifer, and their wolf-sized dog, whose cuisine was different but portions much larger.

“How can you afford to feed that moose?” I asked.

“That’s why we invite guests,” he said without smiling.

After dinner, David and I did the dishes, Jessie and Mary stretched out on couches, Jennifer played on the floor and the moose snuggled on a rug by the fireplace.

In the midst of stacking an army of pots and plates in the dishwasher, David expressed some concern over not having heard from Stephanie.

“Don’t worry about her,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because she’s a new person,” I said.

Chapter 17

“Why do you say that Stephanie is a new person?” Pastor David asked me, as we did post-dinner dishes, obviously intrigued by my summation.

I filled him in on my trip to New Jersey for her mother’s funeral. How she had wanted to stay longer, her amazing transformation while I was there, her mother’s incredible beauty, my original trip to Connecticut, the breakfast discussion I had with her father and a detailed description of how I had been mugged in Manhattan’s subway bowels.

He absorbed the data silently for a moment, like an electronic device synchronizing with a home base, and then finally responded to my dissertation.

“I haven’t had that many experiences in a lifetime,” he said, “and you did it all in less than two weeks.”

“Well,” I said, “I left out some good parts.”

“Bless your heart,” he said. “That’s quite a story. But I’m still a little concerned for Stephanie’s welfare.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Did she happen to tell you that she stayed here while you were gone,” he said, “after she got out of the hospital?”

“No,” I said.

“She did,” he said, “and we did a lot of talking. Actually she and Mary did a lot of talking. Then I had a counselor friend of mine stop by and visit with her.”

“How did that go?” I asked.

“He said that he didn’t think she was someone who would try to kill herself,” Pastor David said.

“He can somehow determine that in one sitting?” I asked.

“Well,” David said, “he has counseled a lot of young people who have tried unsuccessfully to kill themselves, and others who have threatened to do so. And he said he didn’t think she exhibited the classic symptoms associated with either group. He said that he believed she was telling the truth when she said that someone had tried to kill her.”

“That’s alarming,” I said.

“He also said that he thought she was someone who was trying to show courage in the face of adversity rather than someone who might be depressed or reaching out,” David said.

I suddenly felt like an insensitive jerk.

“So if someone really did try to kill her,” he said, “that could be the reason she wanted to stay in New Jersey.”

“She certainly wouldn’t feel safe here if she felt that any of us, including the police, didn’t believe her story,” I said.

“That’s right,” he said.

“I’m an idiot,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because she told me that she hadn’t tried to commit suicide and that she had gone from sitting on the couch that day to waking up in the hospital,” I said. “But how could that be? Because Detective Stypula said that there were no signs of a struggle.”

“I don’t know,” David said. “I suppose someone could have snuck up behind her and somehow rendered her unconscious.”

The thought of her being imposed upon by an intruder while I had been at her condo picking things up was more than disconcerting.

“I called Stypula to tell him what my counselor friend had concluded,” David said, “and he listened but didn’t sound the least bit convinced. Nevertheless, he promised to give my friend a call, but as of today he hadn’t done so. Can you get ahold of Stephanie to see if she is okay?”

I immediately called her cellphone and there was no answer. Then I called the Marriott in Montvale and I was informed that she had checked out.

For the rest of that night, I was a very poor conversationalist. David rented a movie but instead of watching it, I kept involuntarily playing back scenes from when I had first met Stephanie, the funeral and my entire stay in New Jersey, trying to match them up with her actions to see if I could think of anything that might be somehow revealing.

The next morning, I made Jessie and I a big breakfast and afterwards walked her to her car and gave her a big hug.

“Thank you for a great little vacation,” she said. “I may be tempted to come back to this resort.”

“Your room awaits you,” I replied. “Come any time.”

I watched her drive off and then skipped up the steps and closed the front door. Almost immediately, I heard someone ringing the doorbell.

“I wonder what she forgot,” I said to myself as I opened the front door.

Suddenly a female, bathed in perfume, grabbed me and tried to kiss me. I found myself hoping that it was Stephanie, and I even began to feel some relief at her having returned to Boulder safely. But it wasn’t her.

It was her cousin, Bridget.

“Since you’re not wearing brown, can I assume that you’re not here to deliver a package?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, “I’m here to deliver a package all right.”

She stood with her hands in the back pockets of her faded jeans looking like a cross between a sultry mountaineer and Annie Oakley, clad in a buckskin jacket with lots of fringe and a trendy fur hat from which her long, blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders.

“Did you follow me home?” I asked.

“Of course not, silly,” she said. “I’m here on a ski trip and just happened to see you standing on the street.”

“There aren’t many ski lifts in this neighborhood,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “I’m still getting to know the lay of the land.”

“And where are your skis?” I asked.

“Oops,” she said, “I knew I forgot something.”

I hoped that her visit would be short and feared that getting rid of her might be a monumental task.

“Have you dropped out of Princeton and given up your dream of becoming a lawyer?” I asked.

“Of course not,” she said. “The holiday break isn’t over for another two weeks and besides, New Jersey’s not big enough for both Stephanie and I, so I figured that while she’s there, I’d take her place here.”

“Did you clear that with her?” I asked.

“I didn’t know I had to,” she said.

“Well, give her a call,” I said as I turned to go back into the house, “and get back to me.”

“Not so fast, cowboy,” she said. “I didn’t come all this way to have a door slammed in my face.”

My blood pressure began to rise.

“What do you want from me?” I asked her.

“It’s not what I want,” she said. “It’s what I want to give.”

“And what’s that?” I asked.

“Some fun,” she said.

“Have at it,” I said. “There’s a lot to do in this area.”

“But I want to have fun with you,” she said.

“I’m busy,” I said.

“Or in love,” she said.

“With who?” I asked.

“Stephanie,” she said. “And she’s in love with you. I saw it in her eyes.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s true. But I’d advise against going down that path.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because it’s a unhealthy route,” she said. “At least that’s what I was told to tell you.”

“By who?” I asked.

“By someone who is prepared to pay you handsomely to evict Stephanie from your life,” she said.

“And who would that be?” I asked.

“Sorry,” she said. “That’s privileged information.”

“Does he live in New Canaan?” I asked.

“He might,” she said.

“And how did you find me?” I asked.

“I invested wisely in some investigative work,” she said.

“You had me followed?” I asked.

“Actually, I recruited someone to accompany you on your journey home to protect and guide you without you knowing it,” she said.

“Which probably included a little research into my past?” I asked.

“That’s right rodeo stud,” she said.

I felt a little like I had been raped.

“And this is your part-time job during college?” I asked.

“You might say that,” she said.

“Why couldn’t you be a waitress like every other college girl?” I asked.

“Because I’m much more accustomed to being served,” she said as she glanced at her fingernails and snickered.

Suddenly, my housemate Baby Huey and his girlfriend drove up, prematurely ending my conversation with Bridget and hastening her departure.

As she turned toward her awaiting limousine, she invited me to meet her for dinner later that evening at one of Boulder’s more expensive hotels at around 8 p.m.

“I don’t think I can,” I said.

“I think you might want to,” she said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because I have so much to tell you,” she said as she climbed into the limo and then immediately rolled down the window.

“So,” she said, “I’ll see you later. And by the way, Karen says hi!”

I watched slightly dumbfounded as her limo pulled away.

“If I start riding in rodeos, will cute little rich girls stop by and visit me too?” Baby Huey asked as he and his girlfriend walked by.

“You might have trouble finding a horse tall enough to keep your feet from touching the ground,” I said.

“Good point,” he said. “And who was that?”

“The wicked witch of the East,” I said as I walked back towards the house.

“Nice broom,” he said.

I skipped down to my basement bedroom to digest the events that had just transpired and made absolutely no plans to meet Bridget later for dinner. And then my curiosity got the best of me.

“What connection does Bridget have to Karen, the fashion designer?” I asked myself. “How could she know about Karen and I?”

Naturally, she could have had her private investigator tail me, I thought. But I hadn’t even met Bridget until after my relationship with Karen had begun and ended in less than a 24-hour period.

When I got to Bridget’s hotel, I pulled into the parking lot and sat there for a few minutes wondering whether or not to go in. Confusion with the course that my life had taken had by then graduated to “Twilight Zone” levels. In fact, my original plan, which had been all about getting away in order to simplify my life, had backfired and instead resulted in adding complications, challenges and irritations.

I strutted inside and used the house phone to ring Bridget’s room.

“I’m here,” I told her.

“Come right up,” she said excitedly.

“Not a good idea,” I said to myself but went anyway.

When I knocked on her door, a muscle bound boy wonder wearing what had to be his little brother’s T-shirt answered it and escorted me inside. Bridget was lying on a portable table wearing nothing more than a towel.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you said 8 p.m. I’ll come back when you’re less …horizontal.”

That’s when she sat up and her towel fell to the side.

“Actually,” she said, “your timing is impeccable.”

Chapter 18

Despite the fact that she was very pretty and sparsely clad, like someone who was ready to hop into the shower, I knew that getting out of Bridget’s hotel room was the best move I could make.

“I thought that’s how men preferred their women,” Bridget said as she sipped from a tall glass of ice water.

“How is that?” I asked.

“Unclothed,” she said.

“That’s probably true,” I said.

“But not in your case?” she asked.

“You’re not my woman,” I said.

“I’m trying to be,” she said.

“I’m not in the market,” I said.

“That’s not what I heard,” she said.

“You heard wrong,” I said.

“I think not,” she said.

“Would you like a massage?” she asked as she pointed at the hulking guy wearing his little brother’s T-shirt. “I’m sure Frank here has time for another.”

“Nothing personal, Frank,” I said, “but I don’t really let guys touch me.”

“Perhaps I can help you then,” Bridget said.

“Tell you what,” I said as I turned to leave, “I’ll be downstairs in the bar for about twenty minutes. If I don’t see you down there … have a nice trip home.”

Nineteen minutes later, I hopped off the barstool, thanked the baritone-voiced bartender for my extra-tall orange juice, left a tip and headed for the front door just as a sleek black limousine slithered between me and the path to my pickup truck. Then the driver popped out and opened the back door.

“Can we give you a ride sir?” he asked.

I glanced inside and spotted Bridget casually adorned in jeans, a beige sweater and a fox-colored fur jacket. Her long, blonde hair was again falling over her shoulders like a waterfall.

“Get in,” she said. “I’m in the mood for a delicious burger.”

I hesitated for a moment, wrinkled by brow, glanced to the side, told myself I’d be forever sorry and then got inside and gave her limo driver directions to the best burger place in town; a cozy beer joint on the edge of the downtown open-air mall.

Once there, we selected a corner booth near the jukebox, grill, back door and restrooms. A prime location, I thought, since I wanted nothing but the best for my new not-so-best-friend Bridget.

She ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a pitcher of beer, proving that she was neither a health nut nor a diet fanatic, even though her figure looked like it’d been chiseled by one of ancient Rome’s finest sculptors.

Meanwhile, I elected not to order a burger and instead asked for an empty glass to help her drain her pitcher of beer, lest I have a drunken Bridget on my hands, which I thought might be lethal.

Had the other males in attendance known what I was thinking, they might have assumed that I was either insane or had been rendered a eunuch. Because while they salivated over her appearance, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get rid of her while she acted as though she was the lead in a Broadway play.

I elected to let her initiate all conversation and focused less on showing her a good time rather than keeping her from turning what was actually a fact-finding mission for me into some sort of date.

“Eat here often?” she asked.

“I haven’t been in town long enough to do anything often,” I said, “as you well know.”

“How would I know that?” she asked.

“You either do,” I said, “or that private investigator you hired to tail me is grossly overpaid.”

“Okay,” she said, “so I do know a little about your past. I’m intrigued by it, and that’s really why I’m here.”

“Really,” I said, “and I thought you were just a two-bit spy.”

Her food arrived and I refilled my beer glass. Then six boisterous fraternity brothers from up the hill at the college rolled into a booth, glanced at Bridget repeatedly and whispered to each other like pre-school kids.

“This is a great burger!” Bridget exclaimed. “You really know how to show a girl a good time.”

I winked at the frat boys who appeared to be hanging onto Bridget’s every word and they giggled, drooled and gave me a thumb’s up and I felt a little guilty about misleading them about my interest in her.

Then, as I watched the little princess eat her dinner, I found that I couldn’t quite make myself despise her no matter how hard I tried. In fact, the more she talked the more I found myself feeling a little sorry for her.

When she casually revealed that her parents were estranged, it was obvious that their divorce and the pain that went with it had impacted her life very negatively.

Apparently her father, who’d gotten bored with his suit-and-tie existence, including the nightly dinners at the club and limo rides, had moved to a little hideaway in the mountains of Montana. I was familiar with the placed she described in mid-Montana because for one, I’d been there, and for another, Lincoln, Montana, was the home of the “Uni-bomber,” the one the only Ted Kaczynski.

Of course, Teddy had since moved to a nice federal facility, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder if Bridget’s father had once been one of Teddy’s Wednesday night poker pals, but I didn’t ask.

Her father, she added, went from being the president of one of the family’s many corporations, a gift from his dad-in-law on the wedding day, to driving a snowplow for the county and shacking up with a 24-year-old waitress who was expecting their first child. Whether the old man had brains or balls, I don’t know. But he certainly had a sense of adventure.

Bridget tried to flippantly fill me in on the details, but I could tell that she missed her father and that the pain was deeper than she implied. At the same time, I wondered if she had inherited the same magical gene that had caused all of her family, at least all of the McHenry women, including Stephanie, to chase their men away.

When the princess finished her burger, she ordered another pitcher of beer and, through her cellphone, ordered up an endless list of songs on the jukebox. I rolled my eyes and sighed as the frat boys across the way began to get restless.

Over a chorus of some Willie Nelson tune, she asked if there was a place that we could go and dance.

“Dancing has been outlawed in Colorado,” I declared.

“No, it hasn’t,” she said.

“Yes, it has,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

At 11 o’clock, I suggested that it might be time to go home.

“If we don’t, I’ll be worthless at work tomorrow,” I said.

“But you don’t have a job,” she replied.

“I know,” I said, “but I might someday.”

“So why not practice?” she asked.

“Precisely,” I said.

“I can get you a really good job,” she said.

“I bet you can,” I said.

“In fact, I can set you up for life,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”

The frat boys couldn’t believe their ears and howled in unison. I had to admit that I couldn’t help but be entertained by them and, of course, Bridget basked in their attention.

“All I have to do is stay away from Stephanie, right?” I asked.

“Correct,” she said.

“But I’m already staying away from her,” I said, “so you can save your money.”

“It’s not my money,” she said. “Plus, I know the separation won’t last. And I have another motive.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I want you for me,” she said.

That really set the frat boys off, and a couple of them fell out of the booth as the rest gave high fives to each other.

“You can have ME if he doesn’t want you!” one of them shouted.

Through it all, she locked her eyes on mine trying to be serious, even though her mouth was beginning to show a sinister smirk.

“I’m not a race horse on the auction block,” I said.

“Too bad,” she said, “because I was ready to put you out to stud in my pasture.”

The frat boys feigned passing out and howled. It had to be one of Bridget’s best performances.

“Sorry,” I said, “I’m not ready to be put out to pasture.”

“I can see that,” she said.

That’s when I stood up, excused myself, saluted the frat boys, they applauded and I headed for the restroom.

After quickly relieving myself, I exited to the right out the back door, and immediately a brisk breeze slapped me in the face. After strolling down the sidewalk about eight steps, I heard the back door of the bar suddenly pop open.

“Hey!” Bridget shouted, “Don’t you want to know how I know Karen?”

Naturally I did but answered, “No.”

“She’s Stephanie’s sister,” she said, and I re-swallowed the beer that rose up in my esophagus.

Chapter 19

I took a cab back to Bridget’s hotel after leaving the burger joint in downtown Boulder, shocked at her revelation that Karen, the New York fashion queen, was actually Stephanie’s sister. Are you kidding me?

I wondered why my life was intertwined with all of these women. If I had wanted it to happen, it wouldn’t have. But since I didn’t, it did, if that makes sense, which it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Stephanie and Karen being sisters hoisted the situation to a whole new level of absurdity that I couldn’t even come close to wrapping my mind around. I ran through a myriad of possibilities as I rode in a cab back to Bridget’s hotel and my pickup truck in the parking lot.

Once we arrived, the cabbie hesitated after I paid him, as if, just because he’d taken me to a nice hotel, he felt I should give him an inordinately large tip, even though we’d ridden only a few blocks. I didn’t take long for him to conclude that I had enough on my mind without having to also deal with him, so he sped off.

That’s when I hoped I wouldn’t see a black limo pull up as I opened the driver’s door of my pickup truck and turned the key in the ignition. But it wouldn’t start, so I immediately suspected foul play since the thing had never failed to start for me in the past, even in very inclement winter weather.

Summoning another cabbie, I sped off toward home, or more correctly, Baby Huey’s house, formulating a plan for the next day that would include fixing my pickup truck, tossing my gear inside and moving on to warmer and perhaps even tropical climates.

It seems I’d had enough of the neverending play that I’d suddenly become an actor in and decided it was time to exit stage left.

When I got to Baby Huey’s house, I went inside, feeling exuberant and free, thanks to my new plans — until I spotted Bridget seated on the couch in the living room across the room from Huey.

“Your roommate was kind enough to let me in after I told him that you told me I could stay over,” Bridget announced.

Huey flashed me a toothy, glisteningly naïve grin, thinking that he’d done me a big favor, even though he’d somehow become the unwitting participant in a bad dream.

“That was very kind of him,” I said and then my cellphone rang.

“Hi, it’s Stephanie.”

“Where are you?” I asked as Bridget walked by me with her overnight bag and said, “See you downstairs, honey.”

“Who was that?” Stephanie asked.

“Where are you?” I asked, trying to ignore her question.

“Still back east,” she said. “I just wanted to see how you were.”

“I need to talk to you,” I said. “Pastor Dave told me you stayed at their place while I was gone and that you had talked to a counselor friend of his who said he didn’t think you were … well … the type to commit suicide.”

“I told you that,” she said.

“I know, but …”

“Listen,” she said, “this was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have called.”

“But wait,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“I know whose voice that was,” she said. “Bridget is there, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said, “but …”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”

She hung up. I plopped down on a barstool with my elbows pressed against the kitchen counter and my face wrapped in my hands. Baby Huey got up and got a beer from the fridge, glanced my way, winked and returned to his favorite chair. He had no clue, and I wanted to somehow escape from the whole situation.

Then, like a death row inmate, I descended the darkened stairway towards the beam of light flowing from my bedroom doorway. Inside, Bridget lay in bed under the covers, her straight blonde hair flowing over the pillows, her lips moistened and glowing, and her clothes — all of them — placed on a chair beside the bed.

As I crossed the threshold, her inviting green eyes met mine, and she sat up and held out her welcoming arms. I floated towards the bed in a daze, like a jet on autopilot, hoping that I could just sit down beside her and reason with her.

Leaning over, she kissed me, her mouth tasting like a nice chardonnay and I thought briefly about how I might as well enjoy the evening, because in the morning I’d fix my pickup truck and hit the highway and never see Bridget or Stephanie again.

That’s when she tried to kiss me again, but that’s also when something caught my eye: a reflection. It was Stephanie’s camera, the one I’d grabbed at her apartment the day after she was, in her words, raped. It was sitting by a stack of dirty clothes next to the bedroom closet. Shocked, I grabbed the camera and ran upstairs, planning to connect it to the television in the living room and see what photos or recordings might be on it besides mine.

“What are you doing?” Huey asked.

“I found Stephanie’s camera,” I said.

“Found what?” he asked.

“I found the camera that I had picked up at Stephanie’s place,” I said. “Watch this!”

I pressed play and what appeared on screen was a taping of Stephanie’s Christmas Day post-party, where Stephanie, Sam, the other male revelers and the cocaine babes were stumbling about, being very loud.

At one point we could hear screams, and the camera was pointed towards Stephanie’s partly opened bedroom door, where, it appeared, a struggle of some sort was taking place. Then the screen went blank, as though the camera operator knew better than to film something he or she didn’t think should be filmed. That’s also when the camera cut to what I had taped the following day: the messy apartment and bed, torn underwear and more.

“Someone was shooting Stephanie’s rape,” I said.

“Oh, wow,” Huey said. “And they must have shut the camera off when they figured out what was going on!”

“Looks like it,” I said. “Those were Stephanie’s screams.”

“Where did you get it?” Huey asked.

“I went back to her apartment to pick up some things the next day, noticed the camera and just started filming,” I said. “I didn’t know the rape thing was on there. After I’d brought it back here, I couldn’t find it again.”

“So you haven’t shown this to the police,” he said.

“No,” I said.

“You need to,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“But where did you find the camera?” he asked.

“By my closet door downstairs,” I said.

“It was there all this time?” he asked.

“No way,” I said, “or I’d have seen it.”

“So how did it get there?” Huey asked.

“I have no idea,” I said and then turned around when I heard a rustling sound behind me and saw Bridget standing there in the stairwell wrapped in a sheet and smiling.

That next morning, orange sunrays peaked through my bedroom shades and I shivered, coughed and pried my parched tongue from the roof of my very arid mouth.

Rolling out of bed, I limped to the thermostat, turned up the heat and scurried to the bathroom for a drink of water.

That prior night, I had continued to watch the recording of Stephanie’s Christmas Day post-party over and over so many times that I almost felt like I had been there and then eventually fell asleep on the living room couch.

Bridget, meanwhile, had returned to my downstairs bedroom, probably distraught at having shooed away her limo driver, and I assumed that she was still asleep.

Huey rose early that morning like clockwork, hustling about, getting ready for work, dropping breakfast silverware and sending fumes of freshly brewed coffee wafting throughout the house. By 8 a.m., he was at his desk at the newspaper ready to face the day.

My plan that day was to have a lengthy discussion with Bridget about her family, and her desire to make sure that Stephanie and I remained at opposite ends of the globe. I was determined to find out if it was her or the tooth fairy that’d dropped that camera on the floor near my closet.

I jumped into the downstairs shower, and it wasn’t long before Bridget crept into the bathroom and suggested that she join me in the shower to conserve water. I suggested otherwise.

“Don’t let her,” my conscience told me.

“I won’t,” I said. “Give me some credit.”

“Just making sure,” my conscience said.

“It’s all yours,” I said to Bridget as I left the bathroom with the water still running.

A short while later, as I labored in the kitchen, she emerged from the basement looking very clean and fresh, minus all of the makeup and dressed in one of my shirts.

I placed an omelet in front of her and she dug into it like a ravaged ranch hand just off the range.

“Got any more toast?” she asked.

“Do you always eat like a truck driver?,” I asked.

“Must be the mountain air,” she said. “Or maybe it’s the lack of love.”

“Or both,” I said.

She continued to eat with what seemed like a terminal smirk on her face, which, I had to admit, was somewhat appealing.

“Why is it that you’re offering me funds to stay far away from Stephanie?” I asked.

“I couldn’t possibly divulge that,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I have my orders,” she said.

“Is it Stephanie’s father who wants me to stay away?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Just give it up and move east with me.”

Most men would have leaped at the chance to be taken care of by a rich, beautiful woman. For some reason, I didn’t.

“Sorry,” I said, “but I’m not ready to settle down. There are too many things that I want to explore.”

“Okay, Chris Columbus,” she said. “What is it you plan to do?”

“A lot of things,” I said, “but mostly I just want to be left alone.”

“You should have thought of that before you started dating Stephanie,” Bridget said.

“That’s just it,” I said. “We’re not dating.”

“Does that mean you’re available?” she asked.

I realized the woman could twist a conversation in any number of ways and have it come out exactly as she desired. Thus, the legal profession for her seemed to be a good choice. I rolled my eyes and ran my hands through my hair in desperation.

“Do you know where Stephanie is staying?” I asked.

“It’s not my job to watch her,” she said.

“But you know where she is,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“And where is that?” I asked.

“With Karen, her sister,” she said, “the fashion designer that you just happen to know.”

Bad answer, I thought to myself.

Chapter 20

Okay, so Karen, the exotic-looking New York fashion designer, is Stephanie’s sister, at least according to Stephanie’s cousin, Bridget.

If that’s the case, then Karen’s absence from her mother’s funeral was obviously a good measure of how close their relationship “wasn’t.”

So after calling Karen an embarrassing number of times on her cellphone, and also being told repeatedly by her receptionist that she was in a meeting, I finally got her on the phone by convincing the receptionist that I was an outraged agent and lawyer for one of her big-time models and needed to talk to her.

Oh sure, you could say that was cheating, but sometimes you have to go with what works.

So when she finally answered I said, “Let’s see, you were kidnapped, forced to play Russian roulette endlessly and couldn’t respond to my calls?”

Predictable silence ensued.

“Or you and Bob the drug salesman from the bed and breakfast place in New Canaan ran off together and you were waiting to tell me the good news,” I added.

The second pause seemed to confirm that she lacked some appreciation for my elaborate wit and I debated whether to hang up or stay on the line long enough for her to insult me.

“Must you harass me at work?” she asked.

Her use of the word “harass” was definitely impactful, because it was one of those painful words that all too quickly categorized more than just the conversation.

“Is there a better place to harass you?” I asked.

I’d had my fill of her entire dysfunctional clan and their incessant mind games. So her verbal comeback, though slightly justified, led me to act like even more of a jerk. Not to mention, of course, that I was still hurt by how she’d treated me after our rendezvous in New York. But, of course, I could never admit to that, right?

“Perhaps we could talk later,” Karen said, “because I have people in my office.”

“Perhaps,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she said.

I knew she wouldn’t, so I figured I might as well ask one more question.

“You knew, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Knew what?” she asked.

“You knew that I knew Stephanie,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“But for some reason you failed to mention that to me when I met you,” I said, ignoring her question. “And then later you even made love to me.”

“That was unintentional,” she answered. “My father wanted me to see what you were doing in New Canaan.”

“I’m sure you vastly exceeded his expectations,” I said. “But is your father your only client, or are you also occasionally employed by al-QaIda?”

“I’d rather not get into it right now,” she said.

“Nor would I,” I said. “But for some reason I’ve been swallowed up by this really bizarre family and I’m wondering how to escape its grasp.”

“I’m not part of that family anymore,” Karen said.

“Oh, you forgot to pay your membership dues?” I asked.

“I don’t stay in touch,” she said.

“But you talk to your cousin, Bridget,” I said.

“When she calls,” she said.

“And you spy for your father,” I said.

“I’m not a spy,” she said.

“What then,” I asked, “just an observer?”

“Look,” she said, “what do you want?”

“First of all. I’d like to be released from your family’s grip,” I said. “And yes, I’m just a little bitter about our not-so-chance meeting in New Canaan and the resulting misadventure. Apparently, I’m used to people returning my calls, or perhaps I’m just naïve.”

“I didn’t return your calls because I was afraid of what it might lead to,” she said.

“A conversation?” I asked.

“Or more,” she said.

There was a long pause and I could hear a chorus of noise in the background, and I knew that she was in the midst of another frantic day. I felt a little sorry for her.

“Why are you calling me?” she asked.

“I need to know where I can get ahold of Stephanie,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Have you talked to her?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said.

“When?” I asked.

“Eight years ago,” she said, “at my high school graduation. She and my mother were about to move away. It was our last chance to see each other. My mother was drunk.”

Suddenly, I was very confused again because Bridget told me that Stephanie had stayed behind with Karen.

“Stephanie hasn’t been staying with you?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Why would she?”

Now I didn’t know who to trust. Or perhaps I knew there was no one to trust.

“So,” I said, “you are daddy’s girl.”

“You could say that,” she said.

“He wouldn’t happen to own that company you work for, would he?” I asked.

“He might,” she said, and suddenly the bustling sounds in the background disappeared, and I assumed that she’d closed the door to her office or went somewhere else that was private.

“Look,” she said, “I wanted to call you.”

“That’s amusing,” I said.

“When can we talk?” she asked.

“Right now,” I said. “And you can also tell me where Stephanie is.”

“I don’t know where she is,” she said.

“Then why did Bridget tell me you did?” I asked.

“I can’t account for Bridget’s actions,” she said.

I doubted that anyone could.

“Then I guess this conversation is over,” I said.

“I think not,” she said, “if escaping the grasp of my family is what you really want.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because my family’s grasp might be bigger than you think,” she said and hung up.

The next day, snow pelted my windshield as I drove up the turnpike from Boulder to Aurora, a community located on the west side of Denver and just east of Boulder.

The pre-dawn freeway was dotted with early-bird workers trekking towards their inner-city offices and another battle-filled day. Occasionally, I corrected my car’s subtle sideways slide as it passed over intermittent sheets of ice.

It was those early years spent manipulating the snow-covered highways of the Dakotas that helped me to maneuver towards patches of dried pavement, and I listened as my snow tires grabbed at concrete like tiger claws reaching for an evening meal.

The pre-sunrise hour made headlights a requirement, and a pair of them approached me from the rear at a very high speed, prompting me to initiate a lane change that would enable the daredevil to easily pass by.

But suddenly the maniac’s high beams filled my rear window with blinding illumination, leading me to assume that he was piloting a large pickup truck or utility vehicle. The darkness behind those stage-like lights prevented me from ascertaining the exact make of the vehicle or a description of the inconsiderate driver.

Meanwhile, the driver, not content with having blinded me, then tapped my rear bumper with his front. A second tap, perfectly timed with the arrival of another patch of ice, sent my car into a spin across four lanes of freeway and turned my percolating anger into desperation.

The resulting wild ride, which closely resembled a rodeo bucking bronc ride in many respects, including the length, ended abruptly when my rear end met concrete and sent my pickup truck careening along an outside retainer wall for many yards.

When the ride was over, I sat motionless until I could gather my wits, of which there were few, and began to initiate a damage assessment, which is something that I’d learned to do in rodeo. With no major injuries to report, I told myself to hop out of the pickup truck in case there might be something like a leaky fuel tank and eventual flames to contend with.

Once outside, my initial reaction was to glance about for the daredevil who had forced me into this situation and, of course, he or she was nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile other commuters, ignoring my life-altering experience like a primetime television commercial, continued on their merry way.

Then, before I could begin to plot my next move, a burly highway patrolman drove up, determined to do a quick but thorough investigation. He not-so casually concluded that I was lucky to be alive and that my pickup truck would never be driven again, unless its parts were melted down and became part of a new vehicle.

“Is there any good news to report?” I asked him.

“You’re alive,” he said.

“That’s not surprising,” I said, having survived plenty of wrecks in the rodeo arena, not to mention my wreck with Kelli.

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“I just seem to be blessed with dumb luck,” I said.

He then jotted down some notes for his report, looking as though he didn’t necessarily believe the part about someone tapping me on the rear end, or so it seemed, as I thought about why I had been on that freeway in the first place.

As an official nonmember of the morning commuter club, it was not somewhere that I’d normally be, except that I had received a call in the middle of the night from an unidentified female who said that she was a “mentally burdened” reveler who had attended Stephanie’s Christmas Day party.

It seems that she needed to drain her overfilled reservoir of guilt and asked me to meet her to discuss the events of that night at length in the parking lot of a mall just off of the freeway in Aurora.

“Why me?” I asked.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Because I don’t know you,” I said.

“Thus, your qualification,” she said.

Apparently, I was, in her mind, a semi-participant who’d earned the qualification by simply not being an official member of the “party crowd,” and yet one familiar enough with the situation to know how to best describe it to the police, while at the same time preventing her from being labeled as a snitch.

“I get it,” I said.

“You do?” she asked.

“Only partially,” I said.

What she failed to realize is that she’d ultimately have to come forward as a witness anyway, but I decided to let that small detail remain anonymous.

“I see you’re from North Dakota,” the officer said as he continued to jot down notes on his pad. “Have you been here long?”

“Not long,” I said.

“How long?” he asked again.

“Long enough to nearly lose my life,” I said.

“I see there’s no luggage in your pickup truck, so you obviously didn’t just roll in,” he said.

“Nor would there be if I had,” I said.

“So you travel light?” he asked.

“Extremely,” I said.

“Do you think someone would purposely try to kill you?” he asked.

I stared at him for a minute.

“You said someone tapped your rear end,” he said. “Do you think it was on purpose?”

“Yes, I think it was on purpose,” I said.

“So it’s quite possible that someone was trying to kill you,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “because that only happens in movies.”

“I wish it did,” he said, “but it doesn’t.”

Chapter 21

After I was rear-ended on the Boulder/Denver turnpike, with my pickup truck having been rendered useless, the highway patrolman on sight was kind enough to give me a ride home.

I considered asking him if he’d take me to the Aurora mall parking lot to meet the girl who had called me to rid her mind of the gruesome details of Stephanie’s post-Christmas party rape. But I decided trying to meet her might be senseless given the amount of time that had passed and the fact that she wasn’t answering what I assumed was her cellphone. Nor did I think the patrolman’s job description included taxiing accident prone motorists.

Nevertheless, he did drop me off at Hubert’s house, which was more or less on his way and it was then that I remembered I had left Stephanie’s camera sitting on my front seat, without any possible means of retrieving it, since I no longer had a vehicle.

So I went right to work getting a replacement vehicle and scanned the local Boulder newspaper that was sitting on the dining room table, and spotted a classified ad that described an old ’90s-era pickup truck as being in prime condition despite its age. My personal inspection, that took place a short while later thanks to a taxi ride, revealed that the elderly owners, who were Boulder natives, had actually under-promoted its condition.

“It hasn’t spent a night outside of the garage,” Mrs. Anderson said, as if she was talking about a delicate pet.

“Looks like it,” I said.

“And here are all of its service records,” her husband said as his wife set a glass of cold milk and a pile of very tasty sugar cookies in front of me.

A few thousand dollars cash made the pickup truck mine and I waved to the Andersons as I backed out of their driveway.

Although much older than my parents, as they stood there, the elderly couple reminded me of the distance that I’d put between my family and I, and made me think of a time in the distant future when I might be confronted with my parents declining health, a circumstance facing the Andersons at that very moment and prompting their move into a retirement village.

Meanwhile, the odometer on the truck read 39,000 miles, which meant that it had barely been broken in, had traveled no great distance from Boulder and, although it lacked a few modern comforts, it was nevertheless a solid investment and I gave them a nice amount over the Blue Book price.

In fact, I showed my appreciation for its meticulous upkeep by stuffing an extra $500 under the plate of sugar cookies for them to find later, knowing that they’d never accept it any other way. And I was glad I did after seeing the old man’s sad face and noticing some tears forming in his wife’s eyes as we discussed the details.

“Please take care of them,” I said to God as I pulled away, hoping that he might still recognize my voice.

Then, after a fairly lengthy drive to a junkyard in Broomfield, where they had towed my truck, I discovered that Stephanie’s camera was not in it. That was no great surprise, since I’d called ahead to have the junkyard people look for it and they’d already told me it wasn’t there, but I drove there anyway just to “not see for myself.”

Fearing that it might have fallen out while the tow truck driver was preparing it for transfer, I scanned the freeway for remnants, found none and kicked myself for not having downloaded the contents onto a computer or zip drive.

Then, back at Huey’s house, I paced for a bit and called Karen again in New York to get a better definition of what she had meant when she implied that the web I was tangled in might be bigger than I thought. My bravado had blown it off at the time she said it, but the sudden appearance of a driving demon that bumped me off the road gave rise to my need to investigate further, but Karen didn’t answer.

So I called the bed and breakfast place in New Canaan.

“Is Karen there by chance?” I asked Mrs. Magnuson.

“Haven’t seen her since you were here,” she said.

“How about Mr. Pharmaceutical?” I asked.

“Who?” she asked.

“You know,” I said, “Bobby the drug pusher.”

“Oh him,” she said. “Yes he’s here.”

“Tell him hello from his favorite cowboy,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.

“No,” I said, and wished her the best.

I had to meditate for a while after I hung up and sort through my mixed up life. Then my stomach began to growl loud enough to probably scare some kids in the neighborhood and cause dogs to howl. So, I slapped a can of tuna onto whatever bread showed no signs of mold and added potato chips to the plate.

Then, while I was engrossed in my five-star meal, the evening news anchor was concluding another gloomy newscast and I almost missed the report about the murder and possible rape of a young female whose body had been discovered in a trash dumpster at a nearby mall.

I left the kitchen, walked into the living room, placed my plate on the coffee table and continued to listen with mild interest.

As the camera panned over the crime scene, while an onsite reporter interviewed a police representative, they streamed the location across the bottom of the screen. The line said that it was at the Galleria Mall in Aurora and that’s when my heart sank.

Days later, I watched attentively from my vehicle as a large throng of mourners filed out of a church, jumped into their cars and followed the hearse to wherever that murdered girl’s body was to be buried.

Of course, I couldn’t be certain but I knew that it was quite possible that the girl that was being laid to rest and the girl with the guilty conscience who had called me to vent about Stephanie’s rape were one in the same.

“You’re wasting your time,” I said to myself.

“Have you got something better to do?” I answered back

“No,” I said.

The brief clip in the Denver newspaper outlining the 24-year-old victim’s gruesome demise had failed to include what I wanted to see most — a photograph. Without that photo, my only other option was to view the body in person or check out a photo on Facebook, but if she’d had a Facebook page, it had been eliminated.

The other options, which included sneaking into a church in the midst of a funeral or unearthing a freshly buried coffin, were a little beyond my moral grasp.

Not that a photograph would be the Holy Grail. Because, even if I did see a photo and didn’t recognize her, it didn’t mean that she hadn’t been at Stephanie’s post-Christmas Day party or called me with a guilty conscious.

Anyone could have gone to Stephanie’s condo that night without having gone to the bar and she may have also avoided being on the footage that was housed in Stephanie’s camera. Plus the deceased, for all I knew, could have been the person operating the camera. So, unless she called me back, I’d never know for sure if the one who called me was dead or not.

Meanwhile, conspicuously absent from the funeral crowd, at least the part that I saw, was anyone I recognized from that evening’s group, which seemed to prove that I was wasting my time.

After all, there was nothing to link the girl that I was supposed to meet with the dead girl, except for the fact that, had I not been run off the road, I might have witnessed a murder and a body being dropped into a dumpster, both amazing coincidences and a compelling argument all in one.

The newspaper clip, although brief, had revealed the following: Her name was Melissa Boyle, she had grown up in Aurora and graduated from high school there, attended Long Beach State University in California on a volleyball scholarship, earned a business degree and was employed by an investment firm in downtown Denver.

The name Melissa meant no more to me than John Doe because Stephanie had not formally introduced me to any of her beverage-consuming colleagues, except for Sam, the rapist, and that was only after the fact, to accuse him of rape, with him not present. So I had taken care of that intro by myself, in person the next night at the nightspot where they were partying in a much more memorable and physical way.

Meanwhile, as I watched the funeral proceedings from afar in my not so new pickup truck, I began to assume, perhaps incorrectly, a couple of things. First, if it was Melissa who had scheduled our rendezvous, she probably had hoped for it to be a quick and clandestine meeting, and one that would have taken place on her way to work, given the early hour of the morning.

That implied a certain degree of risk, intrigue and urgency, unless I was reading more into it than there really was, putting James Bond where not even Barney Fife was needed, which was entirely possible given my level of boredom.

Now, knowing that most funeral attendees return to the church for a reception after the graveside ceremony, I felt that if I was going to sneak inside and look around for photos that the moment had arrived.

As I entered through the front doors, I spotted a huge bouquet of flowers that was eerily similar to those that had been on display at my wife Kelli’s funeral. Their aroma immediately dredged up memories and weird thoughts as I wondered, now that Kelli and Melissa were both dead, if they could talk to each other.

Dressed casually and standing out amongst a sprinkling of attendees appropriately attired in dark-colored suits and dresses, I quickly made my way to a long table upon which lay a guest book, tri-fold brochure and a photo display.

Before I could study any of the soccer, volleyball, cheerleading, graduation and family photos, an impeccably dressed older gentleman with light reflecting off of his oily, bald head came out of the woodwork like a ghost and looked at me oddly with eyes so close together that they were nearly one. I assumed he was one of the undertakers.

“Are you looking for something?” he asked.

“A bingo card,” I mumbled.

“What?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said, “I just moved into the area and had a day off so I thought I’d look around for a church.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Did I come at a bad time?” I asked.

He studied me for a moment and then flashed an insincere grin.

“We’ve just laid a young lady to rest,” he said.

“Does that mean she died?” I asked in an intentionally sarcastic manner, simply because I hated that stupid phrase.

“Yes,” he said. “Perhaps you can come back another time.”

“Perhaps I can,” I said and did an about-face.

Chapter 22

Okay, so I’d failed to get a good glimpse at any photos of the girl who’d been murdered in the parking lot of the nearby mall at her funeral. That was not good because I felt bad being there in the first place, and a little like a weirdo, so not accomplishing my mission made it doubly bad.

Yet after having words with the spindly mortician I spun about, intent on leaving the church, and noticed that the parking lot was refilling with vehicles. Therefore, I assumed that the graveside ceremony was over.

That’s when I noticed a tri-fold brochure of sorts lying on another table near the entrance which featured a photo of the deceased. Not only was it a photo of one of the “party girls” that was part of the crowd at the bar on Christmas Day but it was THE girl who had stumbled out of the restroom with white powder on her face and shouted, “let’s party!” at the top of her lungs, just before she nearly knocked over a conservative group of four seated at a table nearby.

“Oh,” I said.

“Oh?” said the spindly mortician who’d apparently snuck up next to me.

“Such a shame,” I said. “She’s so young.”

“Always a shame,” Mr. Mortician said with pursed lips.

“Indeed,” I said and continued on through the main entrance.

Once outside, I regretted having made the discovery, not only because of the outcome for the girl but because of what could have meant for me.

“That guy was trying to kill me too,” I said to myself in reference to the turnpike and the person who had tried to run me off it.

Thinking that someone might be trying to kill you is one thing. Actually coming to the realization that they ARE is another.

“Do I have to go into hiding?” I asked myself.

“I thought you already had,” I answered.

“Good point,” I said.

As I walked toward my new — but really old — pickup truck, I noticed a group of young people getting out of a car. One girl in particular looked like someone who’d been part of the alleged party group at the bar the night I sent Sam the rapist flying like a Frisbee.

As I approached our eyes met and she looked the other way and tried to subtly alter her course. I quickly picked up my pace, she did too, and I caught up to her as she neared the front entrance of the church.

“Can I talk to you a minute?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“You were there, weren’t you?” I asked.

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” she said.

“You were at Stephanie’s condo on Christmas night,” I said.

She stopped, turned around, looked into my eyes and said, “Excuse me, but I have to go inside.”

I hesitated.

“Look,” I said. “There’s something very odd going on here. Is there a time we can talk?”

“No,” she said.

“What’s your name?” I asked. That’s when one of the young men from the group came up from behind and grabbed her arm.

“Amy,” he said, “are you coming?”

“Yes,” she said, “I’ll be right there.”

If the young man’s stare could have drilled holes, I’d have looked like a chunk of cheese. I returned his look with one equally full of disdain.

“I wasn’t there,” Amy said and turned to go.

That’s when the young man, obviously a boyfriend who had the shoulder of an ox and a palomino ponytail, put his arm around her waist and nearly shoved her inside.

I watched helplessly, not wanting to create a scene and he flashed me a “get lost” look as I made my way to my pickup truck, where I sat behind the wheel and debated my next move.

“Who would want to kill her or me?” I asked.

“Perhaps it was Sam the rapist?” I answered.

“He wouldn’t dare,” I said.

“Perhaps not,” I answered, “but he might dare to pay someone to do it for him.”

“Another good point,” I said and then turned the key in the ignition and then, as I was staring at the church doors, I turned it off again.

“You can’t stay in the church forever,” I said to Amy, out of earshot, and prepared to wait her out.

Now, there are perhaps few people in this world, given its ever-changing horizon, who can claim that their occupation is the same as their great-grandfathers had been. In my case, in spite of the invention of cellphones, texting, emailing, jet travel and frozen pizza, my occupation had remained that of horse wrangler. That was the same job title that my great-grandfather had listed on his 1910 wedding license, proving that some things never change.

At least that was my occupation until fate intervened and changed it to “spy” because, as I sat perched in a tree on a cold black night watching the occupant of a house across the street, I knew that something had dramatically changed.

Especially when the front door suddenly creaked open and a lone dark figured emerged and walked down the street.

You see, I had spent a grueling hour or more, waiting for Amy to come out of the church after the funeral reception so that I could talk to her. When she finally did, it was as part of a group — of course — none of whom seemed to notice me in my pickup truck across the street.

So I followed their car like a seasoned investigator, anticipating turns and laying back an indiscrete number of vehicle lengths to insure invisibility.

My journey ended when they dropped her off at their third stop, in front of a two-story house on a residential street dotted with turn-of-the-century homes, just north of downtown Boulder and three blocks from where I would have run out of gas, if my calculations were correct.

As she entered the front door, I rolled past, parked a block away and came back to half perch in a tree, in the yard of what appeared to be an unoccupied house —with a real estate sign out front —whose branches could have held a small castle.

“This is stupid,” I said to myself.

“I know,” I replied.

Who it was that later burst through the front door was hard to ascertain but the height and walk seemed to match that of Amy, although a long black coat and a floppy knit hat obstructed my view of her face.

For 30 minutes, I had debated sauntering up to and knocking on her front door and inviting myself in for a heart-to-heart discussion, but for some reason I’d held back. It probably had to do with not wanting her to summon the police. Although, staying in a tree and being arrested as a peeping Tom didn’t seem to offer a viable alternative.

But I was glad that I hadn’t knocked when she finally popped out the door, which is when I studied her movements with the intensity of an anxious new father viewing his newborn for the first time.

Following her at a safe distance, this time on foot, I marveled at my innate spy ability, watching carefully as she turned left on Broadway toward downtown with her hands buried deeply inside her coat pockets.

When she finally glanced back, I ducked into some nearby bushes and waited until the streetlight changed at the intersection she’d stopped at. As I did, a brisk north wind swirled about, lifted silt off the street and momentarily deposited it in my eyes.

Just before Pearl Street, she took a right turn and then a quick left down an alley, approached the back door of a small gift shop and went inside. Moments later, a heavy-set woman in her 50s emerged, walked up the alley, got inside a car parked on the street and drove away.

Crouched under a stairwell by the back door, I feared that I might become involved in another elongated waiting spell and realized that the life of a private eye was fraught with drudgery and discomfort rather than bright lights and brilliantly exciting escapades.

After a lengthy period, during which I questioned my sanity, I began to think about things like digging into an oversized bowl of popcorn in front of toasty fireplace flames. Then suddenly an old four-door sedan veered into the alley and nearly framed me in its headlights but I pivoted around a corner just in time and hovered within viewing distance.

A male driver with a ponytail emerged from the car and crossed rapidly in front of the headlights holding a rage and cigarette lighter. He tapped on one of the back door’s glass panes with a tool of some kind, broke it, lit the rag and threw it inside, then hopped back into the car, backed out of the alley, shifted gears, popped the clutch and squealed down the street. I stood there momentarily dumbfounded.

A real hero might have burst through the door to extinguish the flames and saved anyone inside, but I held back for a millisecond as fire ate away at the drapes covering the inside of the door.

At precisely the point, when I had finally decided to vacate my hidden roost and offer aid, the flames were suddenly doused by a white cloud. Amy popped through the cloud, coughed and spit as though she was aiming for a spittoon and flung aside a large fire extinguisher, sending it careening across the pavement and clanging like an old grade school teacher’s bell.

I readied myself to hop over and save the day, so to speak, but paused a bit longer, seeing that she wasn’t in immediate danger. Plus, I wanted to witness any further proceedings, while wondering if the man with the ponytail, who’d caused all the fuss, was the same guy I’d seen at the funeral.

I wondered if I’d just witnessed some sort of fraud attempt. Was he teaming with Amy to burn down the shop and collect insurance money? If so, why would she put out the fire?

Or maybe he knew Amy was in the shop and, in that case, it’d be a murder attempt.

Whatever the case, I felt like I was in way over my head. So I decided that I should just go home.

But I didn’t.

Chapter 23

Roughstock rodeo cowboys have a dramatically altered concept of time. To them, eight seconds is more like an hour, a minute is more like an afternoon, a day is like a week, a week is like a year and a year is equal to five years.

As a result, they age like dogs, seven years to one, and no matter how old they are when they starting riding in rodeo, they are old when they quit.

So subconsciously, a cowboy knows that his lifespan — much like that of a mosquito — is day to day and that tomorrow may never come. The reason they know that is because tomorrow never came for some of their buddies and they watched it happen and then rode again afterwards, only to find that those memories are hard to erase.

It is also why rodeo cowboys don’t sleep, dine or drink a beer. Instead they collapse, starve and party hard.

They don’t plan, invest or reminisce. They wander, spend and move on.

They don’t take one aspirin. They take five. They don’t fix. They patch. They don’t talk. They watch. And they don’t just meet a girl at a dance. Instead, they marry her for the night.

So why do they ride, you ask, if it is so dangerous? Because to them it is not a choice or a decision it is a foregone conclusion and then an addiction. Why else would a bareback bronc rider have a spur set into the cast for his broken foot?

Seconds can also seem like hours when you’re hovering under a fire escape trying to be completely quiet.

Especially since I assumed I’d soon hear sirens scream and see beams of red flashing lights bounce off alley walls, followed by black-and-white police units and shiny red fire trucks rounding corners and screeching to a halt. Isn’t that what usually happened after someone tries to burn down a business? Instead, there was only silence.

I even rehearsed what I might say to police when they arrived to ask questions, take notes and dust for fingerprints. Instead, I watched as Amy, the girl I was trying to get info out of, propped open the back door with a broom and let the remaining smoke filter out as though she was cleaning up after an evening barbeque.

It seems the event just never graduated from an incident to a crime. Instead, it remained a nonevent — like burned food on a kitchen stove — and I wondered why there weren’t smoke alarms screaming like a newborn babies inside the store.

Darkness and the remaining smoke altered my attempts to see into the back door, so I circled around the block and put myself in a position to gawk through the front windows. But I could see nothing from that vantage point except dim light, as if it was creeping out from the back of a cave.

Across the street, happy patrons were going in and out of the local tavern, unaware of events on the other side. Three pot-bellied good ole boys fell out of a side door, slurred some unintelligible dialogue, swayed down the block, got into a hot rod and sped off to commit involuntary manslaughter.

An older, overzealous jogger gimped by wearing a knee brace and spit on the sidewalk every few feet. In the distance, a dog barked — probably practicing for when the jogger would pass by its yard — and a blustery breeze swirled uplifted sand and sent soda cans racing down the street clanking an eerie tune.

Finally, a siren blared in the background but it was too far away and probably too late to have anything to do with the shop’s mini-blaze.

Suddenly, a car burst around the corner as though driven through time by Marty from “Back to the Future.”

I stood and watched under a streetlight across the street, as the glare cast my shadow across the roadway well beyond the height of most professional basketball players. The driver of the car, when he popped out, nearly stepped on my shadow’s head but failed to glance my way.

Meanwhile, the car appeared to be the same battlewagon that’d parked by the back door of the shop only moments before. And the same driver with the ponytail got out and knocked on the shop’s front door, it opened and he went inside.

My jaw dropped briefly, wondering why someone who’d just tried to torch the shop would now be let inside the front door, and I skipped not so inconspicuously to the front door again to get a look inside.

As I did so, it suddenly occurred to me that Amy, if she was monitoring my activities, might mistakenly cast me in the lead role of firebug rather than the arsonist who’d just entered her shop.

So, I assumed that I had two choices: don a Superman cape and burst through the front door intent on saving her from a murderous arsonist or call the police. But if I called the police, I might have to explain my back alley loitering, an odd habit that might demand a lengthy and embarrassing explanation. And the absence of a nearby phone booth and cape prevented me from immediately going the Superman route.

Besides, there were no sounds of distress coming from inside the store anyway and Amy, or someone, had obviously let the arsonist in, so I had little motive to proceed. Plus, breaking through the front door or slipping in through the already opened back door might be misconstrued as trespassing with intent to do harm and give them legal grounds to send a bullet my way.

Facing a disturbing crossroads, I conveniently saw the bar across the street as an oasis of sorts, a great place to meditate on the issues at hand, and I crossed again to that side of the street to sort through my frazzled thoughts and plan a course of action, just in case there was to be any.

The bar happened to be windowless on its east side, which faced the smoky shop, and I wondered if the rumor about it having been an early 20th century jailhouse was true? Those thoughts prompted some momentary delusions where I would proceed to lock Mr. Ponytail in the men’s room until the police could come.

Pam, my roommate’s sister, happened to be there and she walked toward me as I leaned against the bar. The bartender, a young lady with blonde braided hair and dressed in a Rocky Flats Nuclear Power Plant T-shirt with a red circle and line through it, planted a beer in front of me and I immediately had an epiphany and plan of action.

“No charge,” Pam declared and winked.

“Thank you,” I said and then asked if it was her, the bartender, who’d sent the three stooges out of there “wasted” a few minutes earlier.

“Not me,” she said. “They strolled in here blitzed and I sent them on their merry way.”

“You have my utmost respect,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Laura,” she replied.

“Do you happen to know who owns the gift shop across the street?” I asked.

“Which gift shop?” Pam asked.

“The one with the overhang,” I replied.

“An older lady and her daughter,” Laura said. “Why do you ask?”

“I just saw someone try to burn it down,” I said.

“Pardon me?” Pam said.

“I just saw someone break a window in the back door and toss a burning rag inside,” I said.

“Should we call the fire department?” Pam asked.

“No,” I said, “the fire is already out.”

“Who put it out?” Laura asked.

“The girl inside,” I said.

“And who tried to burn it down?” Pam asked.

“The same guy who is there right now, inside the store, with the girl who put it out,” I said, expecting them to be somewhat alarmed but they weren’t.

“Why were you hanging out by the back door?’ Laura said, asking the very question that I hoped to avoid having them ask.

“Smoking,” I said.

“Really?” Pam asked.

“No,” I said and just then Laura and Pam scurried out the side door, sprinted across the street, banged on the front door of the shop and inadvertently created a perfect diversion.

Amy greeted them nonchalantly and they quickly partook in a conversation more appropriate for a bridge club gathering than a near miss block razing.

I slipped across the street, snuck up to the battlewagon’s driver’s door and crouched below window level.

When Pam and Laura entered the shop, I tried a car door and discovered that it was unlocked. So I crawled inside and searched the glove box for a car registration and found one. With it in hand, I slid out of the car, crept behind the other cars until I reached the end of the block, turned a corner and slipped into the back of the shop and then entered the still open back door and hid behind a stack of boxes.

When the voices up front went silent, I heard the old front door squeak and close while the little bell above it rang. Light footsteps neared my pile of boxes and I found myself hoping the pony-tailed firebug had exited the premises at the same time as Laura and Pam.

As I sat there crouched low behind the boxes, it became one of those moments in my life when seconds seemed like hours and I suddenly realized that my addiction to danger was still alive and well.

Just then, a cloud of perfume engulfed my nostrils and chased away any semblance of lingering smoke. I also noticed that a small lamp was shining light on a part of my body usually associated with a bent-over refrigerator repairman.

If Amy was the only one left in the shop, then all would be well I assumed. But if the pony-tailed ox still occupied the premises, I anticipated that things could get quite physical very quickly.

Meanwhile, Pam and Laura had to, by then, been back at the tavern noticing my half-full beer. I had overheard Amy tell Laura, the inquiring bartender, moments earlier, that a tipped-over candle had started the small blaze, which was a totally believable myth given the fact that much of the shop’s stock consisted of scented candles.

Pam and Laura had obviously bought into the tale since their visit amounted to nothing more than a friendly chat followed by an invitation for Amy to join them at the bar. At the same time, there was still no evidence of the pony-tailed arsonist’s presence in the shop, which lead me to believe that he had ducked out the back door while the action unfolded up front, probably narrowly missing my grand back entrance.

Nevertheless, I was on high alert and anticipated his return.

Chapter 24

As I hid behind the boxes inside the shop in downtown Boulder, Amy’s perfume continued to reveal her whereabouts as she roamed in and out of the small back room where I was hidden.

So I crawled out from behind the boxes and stood near the doorway, leaning with my back against the wall.

When she re-entered the room again, I flipped a paperclip to the other side of the room to announce my presence. It was an approach I felt was better than grabbing her from behind and holding my hand over her mouth since I was, after all, a rodeo cowboy, not a criminal, robber, rapist or CIA agent.

The deadly look on her face as she spun around scared me more than my presence might have panicked her.

“Don’t shoot,” I said.

It appeared that she was about to scream but then she didn’t, I assumed because she recognized me from the funeral or from the bar on Christmas day, or the other bar after that.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Three candles and some incense,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

She failed to giggle.

“What do you want?” she asked again. “And why are you in here?”

“To talk,” I said.

“About what?” she asked.

“I think you know,” I said.

By then she was shaking and tears were rolling down her cheeks as she put her hands to her face and nearly collapsed into an old wooden chair.

“I saw how the fire started,” I said and she looked up at me fearfully.

“And I know you were at the bar the night I sent Sam flying through the air with the greatest of ease,” I said.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“A friend of Stephanie’s,” I said.

“Where is Stephanie?” she asked.

“Back east,” I said.

“Is she okay?” she asked.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

She ignored my questions, rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her face into her palms again.

“Who murdered Melissa and threw her in the dumpster?” I asked, figuring I might as well go for gold.

Her head snapped up and she gave me a deadly stare.

“Get out!” she shouted. “I’m going to call the police.”

“That would be interesting,” I said. “Because they’ll certainly find the lingering smoke and burned drapes intriguing.”

She remained silent.

“Look,” I said, “I need some answers. I was supposed to meet Melissa when she was killed. In fact, someone tried to kill me too. I just want to know why? I have a right to know, don’t you think?”

She looked into my eyes. I figured that she was trying to measure the level of my integrity.

“Why are you asking me?” she asked.

“Because you may not have all of the answers,” I said, “but you’ve got some of the answers. And you’re in the midst of some real strange things here.”

It was evident that my words were hitting home and I sensed the presence of a bundle of information residing inside of her waiting to get out. Unfortunately it wouldn’t come out easily.

“I went to high school with Melissa,” she said. “That’s all there is to it.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s a start. Do you also know Sam?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Were you also at the party at Stephanie’s condo on Christmas night?” I asked.

“My boyfriend is coming back any minute to fix the window,” she said. “You better get out.”

“Is he the big boy with the ponytail?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“The same one that started the fire?” I asked.

“He didn’t start the fire!” she said.

“And Bill Clinton didn’t have sexual relations with that woman,” I said distastefully.

“Leave me alone!” she said.

It was then that I realized I was about to send her into full-scale hysterics, so I quickly formulated another plan of attack.

“You’re in some kind of trouble,” I said. “I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, maybe I can help.”

She appeared to study me again, trying to determine whether or not I could be trusted.

“What’s your name?” I asked, even though I already knew.

“Amy McIntyre,” she said.

“And you and your mother own this shop?” I asked.

“My mother does,” she said.

“Okay,” I said and grabbed a piece of paper and pen off of a shelf. “Keep this phone number and call me. I’m in the middle of something and I don’t know what it is but maybe you can help. I sense that you are in trouble too. And we can help each other. Got it?”

She stared at the number.

“I don’t need your help,” she said.

“I’m afraid you need someone’s help,” I said. “Because whether you believe it or not, that boyfriend of yours is tonight’s firebug?”

“It’s not him,” she said. “It was someone else.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” I said. “He’s the one, whether you believe it or not. So you need to be careful. And please call me.”

I left the shop through the back door and walked down the alley. As I turned the corner onto the street, I saw Mr. Ponytail walking my way carrying a bag that looked like it could have held a pane of glass. As we neared each other, I looked into his eyes and tried to read his soul. He glanced at me but only for a second, as if he was a busy New York business executive rushing to his next appointment.

“Didn’t he recognize me from the funeral?” I asked myself.

“Apparently not,” I answered.

I crossed the street when I reached the end of the block, entered the bar again, ducked into the hallway leading to the restroom and dialed 911 on an old payphone there.

“I’d like to report a fire,” I said.

“The location?” the operator asked and I gave her the address.

“Your name?” she asked.

“Mitchell Riley,” I said, reading from the car registration that I’d stolen from the big green battlewagon previously parked in front of the store.

“I’m the one that started the fire,” I said and hung up.

Later, I watched as two policemen loaded Mitchell Riley, alias Mr. Ponytail, into the backseat of a squad car. He appeared to be less than thrilled with his lot in life and, in fact, I thought I detected a great deal of anger, with his expression reminding me of a birthday boy being denied a giant piece of cake.

Meanwhile, firemen roamed anxiously about trying to release the reservoirs of adrenaline they’d built up in anticipation of fighting a major blaze. I realized then that I might have poured it on a little thick to the 911 operator.

As we stood by the back door of the tavern, Pam stared at me like I’d just given nuclear bomb-making blueprints to some terrorists.

“The guy had it coming,” I said.

Both Pam and Laura stared at me.

“He lit the blaze!” I said. “Trust me.”

Meanwhile, Amy pleaded with officers to let Mr. Ponytail go and I ducked into the tavern again not wanting her to suddenly point at me and say something stupid like, “He did it!”

The policemen had apparently failed to believe her “tipped over candle” story because she too was being put in the back of a squad car.

I guess one broken window, glass shards on a floor inside, burned curtains, a burned door, some burned boxes, a little smoke damage, a perpetrator on the premises and failure on her part to call the fire department raised a few red flags with the boys in blue.

I assumed that they’d eventually let Mr. Arsonist, formerly Mr. Ponytail, go after some questioning or at, most, a night in a cell with a lonely male lover. Eventually, they might trace my call to its tavern origin and ask patrons if they had seen Riley there that night. Once they discovered that he’d not entered the bar, they’d have to let him go.

Ultimately, there was no one on earth who could say that they’d seen Riley set the blaze except me and I had no intention of explaining why I had been hovering in an alley under a fire escape, especially since it would eventually come down to my word against Riley’s.

I did, however, want to make sure that I kept Mr. Riley away from Amy for as long as possible, thus the main reason for my call, but I hadn’t counted on them hauling her away too.

As events continued to unfold, I wondered at what point I might become part of the story, should Amy decide to mention my presence in her back room. My plan, were that to happen, was to ask for Detective Stypula, the lead investigator in Stephanie’s rape case, and fill him in on the continuing saga.

Plopping myself down on a bar stool, I was planning my next course of action when I looked up and saw Pam and Laura still staring at me with arms folded.

“What?” I asked.

They said nothing so I ordered another beer.

The next day, I discovered that Mitchell Riley had other things to worry about, the least of which was being the prime suspect in an attempt to burn down central Boulder.

The police had discovered that Mr. Riley was working in the automotive industry collecting classic cars that he forgot to pay for. A ’70s Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport registered to a Denver man and reported stolen, was found in the garage of a house he shared with two male students just east of the Boulder college campus.

His roomies knew few details of their beloved housemate’s life beyond his having responded to their “roommate wanted” ad in the Boulder Daily Camera and his tendency to go through girlfriends like paper towels through a restroom dispenser.

They were, in fact, quite shocked to find out that the young ladies he brought home weren’t actually girlfriends at all but prospective employees whom Riley “tested” prior to hiring them for another one of his side businesses, an “escort” service.

Seems he supplied companions to lonely business travelers and exotic dancers to bachelor parties, making him an entrepreneur with a diverse portfolio. Assuming that his businesses were profitable, I wondered why he felt the need to share a house with others, unless he worked for someone who didn’t pay his employees well and had to funnel all of the cash directly to his superiors.

Whatever the case, I couldn’t wait to find out more.

Chapter 25

Mitchell Riley, the man who tried to set the store on fire in downtown Boulder, was a loser.

He stole cars, ran a prostitution ring and who knew what else and he was in jail, thanks to my call to the police station.

I had gathered facts about his past in a roundabout way from Detective Stypula, having called him under the guise of checking on whether he’d caught Stephanie’s rapist yet, knowing that he hadn’t.

“No, because she wasn’t raped,” he said.

“And Hitler was a parish priest,” I said.

“Anything is possible,” he said.

“Precisely my point,” I said.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I heard that someone tried to burn down the town last night,” I said.

“How did you hear that?” he asked.

“I read the newspaper,” I said. “And I was across the street.”

“Oh,” he said, as if he wasn’t really listening.

From there on, our conversation fell under the category of “beating a dead horse” but I did manage to extract some vital information. For example, I found out that Riley was not a native of Boulder. Instead, he was from New Jersey and was wanted for a lengthy list of charges ranging from extortion to failure to pay child support.

“Impressive resume,” I said.

“If you like deadbeats,” he said.

“Is Amy McIntyre, the shop owner’s daughter, also a crook?” I asked.

“It appears that she is simply someone very adept at picking out the perfect man to bring home to Mom,” he said.

“Are you sure that she wasn’t a co-conspirator in a scheme to defraud an insurance company?” I asked.

“We can’t be sure who set the fire,” Stypula said, “because Amy McIntyre says she didn’t see who started it.”

I wanted to say I did but didn’t.

“And you believe her?” I asked.

“I have no valid reason not to,” he said.

“Nice point,” I said.

“I have my moments,” he said.

“Don’t waste them,” I replied.

Because Riley would not be going anywhere for a while, I decided there was little reason for me to reveal my knowledge of the prior evening’s events. Plus, in the end, it would be my word against his and even though I thought I might win, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the battle nor that heavily invested in it.

Still, I wondered why Amy was trying to protect Riley? Was it love? Or was she that naïve and being coerced, or was she being intimidated by him?

The fact that Riley happened to come from the same part of the country as Stephanie and her degenerate family was one impertinent bit of information that, for some reason, irked me a little, like a pebble in my boot. I hoped there wasn’t a connection but, for some reason, I sensed there was.

I wished I could talk to Stephanie, but her decision to go undercover left me with Karen, the New York designer, as my only source of relevant data. But when I called her office again, I was told she had left for a Paris fashion show, so I called Amy at her shop and, for some not-so mysterious reason, she didn’t want to talk me.

I knew that Amy hadn’t told the Boulder police anything about my having witnessed the arson attempt because if she had, Stypula, who was too dumb to act dumb, would have brought it up. I assumed that she’d kept it to herself to protect Prince Charming, ignoring what I told her I’d seen.

Undecided on what to do next, I called Stephanie expecting her not to answer too. After two rings, she answered the phone.

Immediately, her apathy and coldness led me to wonder if she’d had a lobotomy and forgot who I was.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Fine,” she said.

“When did you get back?” I asked.

“This morning,” she said.

“So,” I said, “where have you been?”

“Here and there,” she said curtly.

“Nice place,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

“Nope,” she said.

Long pause.

“OK,” I said, “nice talking to you.”

Then I hung up.

The old Stephanie had returned to reside in the new Stephanie’s body I assumed. It was the bizarre Stephanie, the one who used to hoist glasses full of booze, slur meaningless dribble, plow into stranger’s yards and tell lies about her mother.

It was unnerving and I paced back and forth, amazed at how easily I’d been caught up in her spiderweb, and yet, at the same time, I felt relieved, as though the return of her dark side released me from feelings of guilt and the sense that I had to protect her or right a wrong that she had suffered. Without that monkey on my back, I could move on.

There was no question that my focus on her had taken it off me, myself, and I and my so-called problems made me forget the twists and turns of my own life, stabilized my mental well-being, and proved to me that there was more to life than me, which was a silver lining to a dark cloud. Still, I felt a little like a truck driver trying to race an 18-wheeler against Formula 1 racing cars.

The world was moving faster than I was.

Faced with another semi-frustrating crossroads, an intersection of self-examination, my eyes were suddenly opened to the absurdity of chasing after a murdered woman, an arsonist, a car robber, a pimp, a Middle Eastern rapist, a rich entrepreneur, a suicidal maniac and a nymphomaniac.

I was neither James Bond nor Columbo, and yet I might have given Inspector Clouseau a run for his money. Rodeo cowboys don’t suddenly become secret agents, cops or private eyes at the drop of a hat, I realized.

When my internal search for a method to my madness to my life came up short, I called Pastor David, whom I considered Mr. Stability.

“What’s up?” he asked. “I haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“Just wanted to call and thank you,” I said.

“For what?” he asked.

“For taking care of me on Christmas Eve,” I said. “That was very nice of you, and for everything else that you’ve helped me with.”

“You’re welcome,” he said.

“I’m leaving town in the morning,” I said.

“You’re what?” he asked.

“I’ve had enough of Boulder,” I said. “I’m leaving.”

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “South I think.”

“Is something wrong,” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you are leaving,” he said. “Will you come back?”

“Can’t say,” I said.

“Are you going to ride in rodeos again?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Do you want to come over for dinner?” he asked.

“Thank you, but no,” I said. “I’m going to bed soon so that I can get an early start in the morning.”

We both paused.

“Hey,” he said. “I got a message on my phone from Stephanie. She’s back in town. Have you talked to her?”

“No,” I lied. “I better go.”

“Okay,” he said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

“I hope we see you again,” he said.

“Me too,” I said and hung up.

I woke up very early that next morning and called my parents.

“How are you?” my mother asked.

“Fine,” I said.

“Your rodeo buddies have been calling,” she said.

“Really,” I said.

“They are wondering where you are?” she said.

“Tell them I am taking time off,” I said.

“When are you coming home?” she asked.

“Don’t know,” I said.

“Don’t be gone long,” she said, “OK?”

“OK.”

It felt good to connect with my parents. My dad, as usual, talked less than a choirboy during church service.

Men his age from that part of the country rarely talked on the phone. Still, his phone manner was a dramatic improvement over what grandfather’s had been, because Gramps never even hung up. The first clue that your conversation was over was a click on the other end.

It had to be hard for my parents, I thought, to patiently let me — their prodigal son —wander aimlessly, depressed and half out of his mind, across the country. My mother’s faith seemed to carry her through, however, just like her prayers had kept me alive to that point. Unfortunately, no one says parenting will be easy when you sign on, but people keep doing it.

My dad, a rowdy rancher from way back, had not been a regular church attendee until the day my mother laid down the law, which happened to be the same day he proposed to her.

I had to give him credit because he had promised and stuck to his word. But like most men in those parts, he didn’t sing in church or get all excited and raise his hands in praise, although he did usher, fix things, serve on committees and wash dishes after a big pancake breakfast.

There were no displays of emotion or shouts of “Amen” coming from the pews of our church. For men, Sunday meant putting on their only suit, a thin tie, parking their hats on a shelf in the entryway and sitting stoically in the same pew decade after decade.

Self-sacrifice had been ingrained in people early on back there and there I was being selfish and self-centered. Not because I wanted to be, but because, for me, it was a desperate last resort and somehow my parents seemed to understand and I loved them for it.

My brother, on the other hand, had a different view, I knew, because he always had. The good son, after all, was left behind to slave away at the ranch while I frolicked about the 50 states and Canada making headlines and leaving the dirty work to him.

He’d get his due soon enough when the land was officially given to him, and then I’d be the one left to fend for myself, as it should be. My brother’s whole life story had already been written, it seemed, while my next chapter was yet to become even a rough draft.

That, I assumed, might not be a good thing.

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