sunday, june 10th, 2007, 9:30 a.m.
Sally had to fight off tears so she could see the road. She just wanted to go, go fast and go far, far away from the pain of final departure, far away from the man she was determined to stop loving, the father of her two most precious valuables.
The good-bye was wicked.
Trevor was leaning against his shiny black pickup when they arrived a few minutes late at the designated park, his mustache trimmed, he seemed dressed for fishing, his favorite fishing shirt covered a cotton T-shirt. Each waited for the other to speak but no one did. The words had already been said. First it was Sally’s turn. Trevor accepted her embrace, not an extended embrace, they did not want to drag this out. Sally looked up into her man’s face for the last time. Tree’s expression was rigid; he would not allow tears; he still had marine in him. Sally stretched to kiss his cheek, and turned to the car.
Kay-Lyn was confused and angry. Why must she lose her father? What had she done that this could happen to her? Trevor let her hold him for a long time, her head leaning against his chest. Kay-Lyn wanted to say I love you, Daddy. She wanted to say, I will never forget you, Daddy. She wanted to say, Good-bye, Daddy. But words remained inside. Kay-Lyn joined her mom in the car, leaving the side door open for Brandon.
Brandon was a tall lad, his posture noble, like his dad’s, even though he often slouched, like his dad. He could not see through tears that wouldn’t be stayed, he didn’t move, his head drooped helpless in the cool June morning. Trevor rested a hand on the young man’s shoulder. Brandon could feel the squeeze of his dad’s hand and considered it might be a token of affection. Tree felt his son’s body shuddering with grief and could take no more; it was he who would leave. As he pulled away Brandon seized the bottom of his father’s open shirt and wouldn’t let go. A son needs a dad, any kind of a dad is better than none at all, and as long as Brandon hung on to the shirt, there was hope. Trevor undid the cuff buttons, removed his shirt, climbed into his F150, and drove away leaving his family behind. He took a final look in his rearview to see the minivan, side door open, his son motionless, head drooping, clinging to the shirt hanging down to the pavement.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 10:15 a.m.
The diamond was still in rough shape because of two days of heavy rain. The game should have been well underway, but both teams were still trying to work the large puddles out of the pitcher’s and batters area. The Pirates were eager to help, carrying sand from the sidelines to fill in the holes of water, raking the diamond, marking the lines with white powder; they knew if the game couldn’t be played the last playoff spot would go to the Challengers.
Warming up his arm on the sideline, Mac was distracted and Mac was angry. John’s words, “My dad asked me to tell you he had a pressing matter to attend to,” thoroughly peeved Mac, because he knew better. Roo never missed a game. Mac was certain why Roo didn’t show up. Revenge.
This was Roo’s opportunity to get back at him. Mac didn’t offer him use of the pulpit the following Sunday and this was Reuben’s retaliation. And Mac had to admit he hadn’t displayed sportsman character. Had not Roo conceded to allow the Challengers and Pirates to play this morning when he could have said no? It was Mac’s place to respond in good faith, but he wasn’t about to forfeit an opportunity to get everyone out of a big mess.
Still, this was a brutal retaliation, and Mac was irritated. I suppose the pressing matter is a leaky faucet! Maybe he had to collect an unpaid account! Maybe his van was overdue for an oil change! Had the service not been canceled the pressing matter wouldn’t have kept him from the pulpit! Perhaps, Mac reasoned, Roo wanted to strike out at the entire church because of their reaction to his message; everyone would be sorely disappointed if they didn’t make the playoffs.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 10:35 a.m.
First inning. The Pirates immediately sensed the weakness Roo’s absence made. Whenever a batter made it to first base it was an easy steal to second, Phil’s throw from home plate being less than fast and less than accurate; a fast runner could make it to third. Mac and Phil were not connecting. Phil often forgot the signals and that caused him to miss the ball, allowing runners to steal home for a score. The Pirates got an early six to nothing lead.
Third inning. In the third inning the Challengers had three men on base with two out. Normally, Reuben would be at bat with a good chance at scoring some runs. His replacement struck out. The Challengers were still behind 6 to 2.
Sixth inning. Mac was still confident they could come from behind. He steadied the guys in the dugout, he focused hard on each pitch, he had plenty of arm left, probably enough for the entire game. And his team was beginning to hit. If only Phil could catch the ball and get the signals right! Bottom of the sixth found the bases loaded again though it cost the Challengers two outs to make that happen. This time John Tanner was at bat, a heavy hitter and the Pirates knew it. Everyone, outfielders and infielders, backed up. John fooled them. He laid an unsuspecting bunt down the third baseline, scoring a run. Mac was next to bat and he was determined to smash that ball. And he did. The inning closed 6 to 5.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 10:35 a.m.
Trevor Kenny was in a rage driving into the hills heading for his fishing site on Bryden River, northwest of River’s Bend. Grief and anger were released in guttural groans and much cursing. As usual, God, who couldhave and shouldhave but didn’t, was blamed for everything. Tree swung his fist at Him but only managed to hit the windshield. Since he couldn’t hit God with his fist he hit him with words, ugly words used only by the shameless, words that surely could never be forgiven.
Tree wasn’t pained so much at the loss of his family as his family’s loss of him. Hurting his family was nothing new. Countless times he kept them on edge while he spent long nights with the guys at the pub, murmuring against everything bad, everything good, and everything in-between, which seemed to have the effect of increasing his self-worth. His humor and interest were for others; his family got his grumpiness and not much else. But this morning was a different grief for his family, a ripping, gashing pain not to be forgotten for many months.
Yet it had to be, Tree was convinced. His family deserved more than this. Best they kiss this life good-bye and reach out for something better, somewhere else.
After parking his F150 in an inconspicuous place at a hunter’s camp he hiked the mile through the bush to his favorite fishing spot where he had caught lots of trout over the years and downed plenty of beer. The river was full and fast because of the rain, making the appearance of accidental drowning more irrefutable.
For an hour he fished catching three keepers, drank a couple of beer, dumped a few more on the rocks. He left his rod and a light jacket on a slope too steep for safety. Now he must hike to his cabin unseen, not letting anyone get a glimpse of his unusual tall stature or his identifiable mustache.
Sunday, june 10th, 2007, 10:35 a.m.
Jeni could only guess Sally would take this highway until it took her to an Interstate heading east. And she could only hope the Kennys would make a stop, gas or breakfast, before the Interstate, or catching them would be near hopeless. She looked to the left and right at every gas station, looking for a red mini van, though not sure red was the right color. Uncharacteristically, she broke every speed limit and hoped she wouldn’t be stopped by a vigilant law enforcer.
Sally was forty-five minutes ahead. It wasn’t the need for gas or hunger for the breakfast they have yet to have that made her pull over into the last café/gas stop before the Interstate, but a need to wash up, to splash their faces with cool water. Once here, they decided to gas up and attempt a breakfast; once on the Interstate they wouldn’t stop until dark. Each only nibbled on their breakfast, and Sally asked for a to-go cup for her coffee.
Were they here? Jeni was not talking to herself but to her Lord as she passed the café but seeing nothing red. What chance have I got to catch up now? Maybe they’re not going on the Interstate. And if they get off how could I ever find them? Both faith and hope were shrinking. Nonetheless she circled the ramp, got into the passing lane and drove fast as she dared.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 10:45 a.m.
Roo found a dozen Kennys in the phone book and called them all. Those who didn’t answer, he drove to the address, sure he would recognize Tree’s black pick-up. And then he remembered Tree sometimes talking into a cell and concluded he wasn’t listed. Now what? He couldn’t phone Mac, he was playing ball. Nor did he want to. He could imagine the conversation:
“Do you know Tree’s address?”
“Sure. Why are you looking for Tree?”
“I think he may be in trouble.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why do think he might be in trouble?”
“I don’t know.” He wouldn’t implicate his Jeni.
“You mean you are missing the most important game of the season because you think Tree is in trouble, but you don’t know why you think Tree is in trouble?”
No, Roo wouldn’t want to talk to Mac.
He inquired at a few gas stations, “A tall man, very tall, early forties, walrus mustache.”
“Sorry,” the reply was always the same.
And then, “Have you heard of the Grizzlies, River’s Bend’s baseball team?”
“Sure. This is a baseball town.”
“Do you know where their baseball field is?”
“The other side of town. I’ll show you on a map. Nice dog you got there. Purebred?”
“Yes. We have had him for a long time. Could I buy that map? I think I’ll need one.”
“You can have it if you gas up here.”
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 12:20 p.m.
Seventh inning. Neither team scored, yet it was evident it was the Challengers who were the threat. The momentum was changing, and Mac was positive. Since the base runners could easily steal bases once they got on, Mac reached down into himself to throw his best ever, and managed to tickle the corners of the plate barely within the strike zone and struck them out, one by one.
Eighth inning. The Challengers were still one run behind, eight to seven. At the bottom of the eighth it was the Challengers weakest link in the batting order. The Pirates pitcher struck the first Challengers batter out but, oddly, the Pirates changed pitchers. After ten rather slow warm-up pitches the ump impatiently called, “Play ball!” Phil was next on the batting order, a so-so hitter, and could only hit a weak grounder to first base for the second easy out. But Mac wasn’t disturbed. He knew he would face the Pirates weakest hitters in the top of the ninth, and his pitching was very good today. And for the bottom of the ninth he had a bold strategy.
Mac told the third batter to purposely strike out so that the next hitter on the batting order, John Tanner, would be the leadoff hitter in the ninth. There was a good chance that John, one of the Challengers best hitters, facing the Pirates number two pitcher, would get on base with a hit or a walk. Once John got on, he would signal John to steal second, and Mac, following John, would help him out with a swing and a deliberate miss to distract the catcher. No one runs faster than John Douglas Tanner; he would make it to second. The Challengers would then have three outs to get John home to tie the game. And if Mac managed to get on base (I’ll get on base if it kills me!), he could score the winning run.
By now the Challengers fans were noisy with excitement. They needed this game to help eradicate the shame of finishing last place so many times, the shame of butt jokes always reserved for weaker teams. There was a time when winning was quite secondary to their foremost ambition of being a light to the unsaved, an influence for Christ. But the secondary usurped the primary years ago. Like the other teams in the league, winning was paramount.
But what’s this? Mac wondered incredulously. The Pirates changing pitchers again? Twice in the same inning? In comes their number three, another ten slow warm-up pitches. Dumb, Mac thought to himself. Why put in a secondary pitcher now? Sure makes it easier for us. Now we get to face their number three pitcher at the bottom of the last inning. The Challengers batter deliberately struck out as planned.
Ninth inning. Mac was standing on the pitcher’s mound eagerly waiting for the first batter. But there was no batter. Mac looked to see the Pirates coach in a very heated discussion with the umpire, pointing at his watch. The umpire waved Mac into the dialogue.
“Mac,” the umpire said, “I’m sorry, the game is over! The regular season ends at 1:00 p.m. and it is now 1:04! I tried to talk the Pirates into finishing the game, but they won’t budge! Because they are in the lead, the game is theirs. I’m sorry.”
“Now wait a minute,” Mac protested. “They purposely delayed the game! That’s why they changed pitchers twice in one inning!”
“It seems that way. But it’s within the rules to change pitchers twice in an inning. If we could have started the ninth inning by 1:00, I would make them play. I’m sorry, Mac! The game is over! The Pirates win!”
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 1:15 p.m.
Two hours of speeding the Interstate brought no success in finding the elusive red van. Jeni concluded she either didn’t see the van because of trucks and buses and RVs, or she had not caught up to them yet. Perhaps Sally was a faster driver than she was. It took her a while to realize the colored lights of the State Patrol car she spotted in the rear view mirror were for her. She worked her way to the inside lane the quickest she could and came to a stop near a No Stopping sign. The officer walking to her car was a young man, well-groomed, sunglassed. This is it, Lord. I give up. The chase is over.
“Good afternoon, madam,” the young officer’s voice was stern.
“Officer, I am sorry! You see, I was trying to catch up…… ”
“Please step out of the car, madam.”
“But officer, I can explain……”
“Please step out of the car, madam.”
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 1:15 p.m.
The scratches tainting Tree’s face didn’t bother him a little; they wouldn’t hurt for long. Staying in the dense trees away from the river kept his tall figure concealed. He hiked a short distance, watched and listened, and walked some more. A few hours later, shortly after one, he came to the backside of his property, confident no one had spotted him. Before getting to work he grabbed a cold one from the fridge. So far, so good.
Tree removed the sod and placed it to one side. Digging the grave the second time was much easier than the first. He dragged a plate of safety glass over the hole, moved the crate on top of the glass, filled the crate with the dirt from the grave, and neatly placed the sod on top of the dirt. Next, he dug a furrow under the glass, big enough for his slender body. He returned to the house to grab another beer and a flashlight. He remembered the last funeral he attended, people placed a few keepsakes in the coffin. Hmmm, he thought, what would be a fitting token for old Tree? He considered choosing one of his many baseball or bowling trophies, but they would only be a final reminder of his loss of this year’s championship. He took the one family picture of a few years ago off the wall, removed it from the heavy frame, scribbled over himself with a felt pen, and returned the picture to its frame.
While squirming into his grave, he thought of the jacket he intended to use to protect his face from the dirt that would fall on him. He backed out, returned with his Grizzlies jacket, took a final look around for nosy neighbors, and began to squirm a second time into his grave – when he realized he forgot his pistol. Returning to his house, he lingered a moment, scanned the scanty furniture, looked out the kitchen window, his favorite looking-out spot, sat in his recliner, fully extended, for a few minutes, spun his pistol around his index finger imagining himself a fast gunslinger, waved good-bye to himself in the bathroom mirror, combed his walrus mustache, locked the outside door behind him and squirmed fully into his tomb. From inside he filled the furrow with dirt. Where is that flashlight? And after groping around in the dark, Oh, there it is!
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 1:25 p.m.
Though wanting to distance herself from River’s Bend, Sally felt less intimidated by the slower traffic in the inside lane. She felt for the lone lady she spotted on the side of the highway emerging from her minivan, obviously stopped for a speeding violation. “That’s Jeni Tanner!” she exclaimed, pulling over and coming to a sudden stop.
“Mom, who is Jeni Tanner?” Kay-Lyn asked, both teens suddenly alert.
“That’s my new friend, the one I’ve been talking to every morning!” Sally backed up towards Jeni and the uniformed officer searching her car for alcohol or drugs. “What is she doing here…… by herself?!”
Climbing out of her gray minivan, Sally yelled, “Jeni! It’s me, Sally!”
“Sally! Thank God I found you!” And they hugged each other in delight under the No Stopping sign.
“Jeni! What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been looking for you and the kids!”
“Excuse me, ladies,” the young officer said.
“The Lord wants you and Kay-Lyn and Brandon to come and live with us on the ranch for one year!”
“What? Jeni, you know we are on our way to the east coast!”
“Excuse me ladies,” the young man tried again.
“I really think the Lord wants you to come and live with us…… a time of healing. I know it must seem strange, but the Lord spoke to me this morning when I was praying for your family.”
“But Jeni, we’ve got plans! We can’t just drop everything now! We just can’t…… change directions! We haven’t even met your family!”
“Excuse me, ladies!” his tone much louder, no longer would he be ignored. “You are both parking under a No Stopping sign. And there’s the matter of driving 20 mph over the speed limit.”
“Officer,” Jeni turned to the official, “thank you for pulling me over! God used you to help me find my friend Sally!”
“Sir, Jeni was speeding because she was trying to catch up to us. We are on our way to the east coast.”
“I thought they were ahead of me. They just said final good-byes to Sally’s husband.”
“Near River’s Bend,” Sally added.
“The Lord spoke to me and told me to catch up to them and bring them back to our ranch!”
“They own a ranch in Canada,” Sally tried to be helpful. “Bryden Falls. Her husband plays ball for the Challengers and my husband, that is, my ex-husband, the one we said good-bye to this morning, plays for the Grizzlies. That’s how we met. They are Christians, the entire family.”
“Well, I go to church once in a while when the wife pushes me,” the officer said somewhat defensively. “I know the salvation message.”
“The what?” Sally wanted to know.
“Don’t you know?”
“Officer, I didn’t say I was a Christian. I’m not really sure what one is.”
Jeni interrupted, a touch of indignation in her voice. “You mean, young man, you know about salvation through Jesus Christ and you still haven’t received Christ?”
“Sorry, madam. I mean, I thought maybe I would one day, you know, …
“Receive Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Jeni helped out.
“Yes…… that’s what I mean…… someday.”
“And do you have children?”
“A girl and a boy. Seven and five.”
“And what about them?” Jeni demanded. “Shouldn’t you be a better example?”
“I’m sorry, madam. I’ll give the matter serious reflection. Really.”
“Are you going to give my friend a speeding ticket, officer? She doesn’t normally speed …… do you Jeni?”
“A speeding ticket is a small thing, Sally. I would never have found you if it wasn’t for this gentleman.”
“Glad to be of assistance. Now madam,” he looked at Sally, “are you going to accept this lady’s kind offer?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Now it was two against one.
“Perhaps you should ask the kids,” the officer pointed to the Kenny minivan.
“Sally, I thought you said your van was red.”
“No, the interior is red.”
The policeman and Jeni followed Sally.
“Kids, please step out of the van. I want you to meet Jeni Tanner. And this is Officer……
“This is Officer Miller. Mrs. Tanner has invited us to live with her on her ranch…… in Bryden Falls…… for a year. She has been trying to catch us for two or three hours. They both think it would be good for us, you know, a time to be healed and strengthened. I said we couldn’t just drop our plans like that, but Officer Miller suggested we ask you.”
Jeni was very gentle. “My name is Jeni Tanner, and I would very much like to be your friend. I know what you’ve been through. I know you are hurting.” And she gave them a warm embrace. “I am a Christian, and the Lord spoke to me this morning when I was praying for you and your mom and dad to go and get you and bring you home with me. I have five children including a daughter a year older than you, Kay-Lyn. And a son a bit older than you Brandon, but not as tall. You will be good friends. What do you think?”
“Mom?” they both turned to Sally, frowns of confusion on their brows.
“Well, I don’t know. This is a family decision. You have school to think about.”
“I home school my kids. You and I can teach your children together.”
“But I don’t know how.”
“I will teach you how to teach them.”
“But they are already behind, the divorce affected their schooling.”
“We will catch up over the summer months,” Jeni replied.
“I don’t know, Mom,” Kay-Lyn said.
“Do you have horses on the ranch?” Officer Miller tried to entice the kids.
“We each have our own horse. And I am sure we can pick one out for Kay-Lyn and Brandon.”
“My own horse?” These were the first words Brandon, wearing his dad’s fishing shirt, had spoken for hours.
“Yours while you are with us.”
“Mom, I love horses!” Kay-Lyn too was suddenly enthusiastic.
“Me, too!” Brandon exclaimed.
“I must warn you,” Jeni spoke to them all. “It’s a different life. No television. Radio is used only for the news. No video games. And no junk food.”
“You mean no pop and ice cream and chips?” Kay-Lyn was having second thoughts.
“We make our own ice cream, and our own drinks. We eat popcorn sometimes, and lots of pies. We preserve berries and all kinds of fruit.”
“Can we go to town sometimes?”
“That’s up to your mother.”
“But Jeni,” Sally interjected, “is there room for all of us?”
“We have a guest house that has everything except a kitchen. You will each have a bedroom, and we will eat our meals together in the main house.”
“Sounds like a dream. Is there room for my family?” Officer Miller kidded.
“It is a great place to raise a family. But it’s not all play. There are the horses and other animals to attend to. There is a huge garden that takes a lot of time and energy. And we are always expanding, more barns and sheds and corrals.”
“I don’t know,” Kay-Lyn was hesitant.
“Brandon?” Sally asked her son.
“If we don’t go with Mrs. Tanner we end up in a city where we don’t know anyone. We will have to go to a school where we don’t have any friends.”
“Look, kids,” said Officer Miller, “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, don’t you see? I was raised in a big city and I moved out because I didn’t want to raise my children there. It can be harsh.” And then, “Can I make a suggestion? Give it a try for one month. Consider it a summer vacation. And then decide if you want to stay the full year. If you don’t like it, carry on with your plans.”
“Sounds okay to me,” Sally said.
“Do you think your kids will like us?” Kay-Lyn looked pleadingly at Mrs. Tanner.
“I guarantee it.”
“Do we have to become Christians?” Brandon wanted to know.
“Only if you chose to. We give the Lord thanks at every meal. We have family devotion time every morning at eight. Attend only if you want to. Also, we have a number of people over Wednesday nights. Our children will be there, but you certainly don’t have to.”
“Kids, don’t you see?” Officer Miller said. “Being a Christian isn’t so bad. If this lady were not a Christian she wouldn’t be offering to help you.” And then, “I’ll tell you what. If you decide to go with this lady, I won’t give her a speeding ticket. What do you say?”
They said yes, they would try it for a month. And the kids both said, “Thank you Mrs. Tanner.”
“Good!” The officer sounded relieved. “I’ll show you a better way to get back to Bryden Falls. I will lead you to a highway that takes you north to Canada. From there it’s west to Bryden Falls.”
“Thank you, officer,” Jeni was truly grateful and shook the young man’s hand. “You have been a blessing. I want you to come and visit us. Bring your family.” And she handed him a Reuben’s Plumbing business card.
“Do you really mean that? Because if you do, we will come and visit. I would like to know how this story turns out.”
“Please come, officer,” Sally said. “I, too, feel indebted to you.”
“Thank you, sir,” both kids said.
“Kay-Lyn, would you like to ride with me?” Jeni asked the young lady. “I’m sure we have lots to talk about.”
“Follow me, ladies,” Officer Miller said with a voice of authority.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 2:15 p.m.
Roo found the Grizzlies baseball field, looked around for a familiar face, and recognized Spike in the batters practice cage, sharpening up for the playoffs to begin in a few days.
“Roo! You looking for me? I didn’t mean to hurt your kid!”
“John’s okay, Spike. No, I wasn’t looking for you.”
“No hard feelings?”
“No hard feelings. Mind if I take a few swings?”
“Be my guest!”
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Roo was the best, and Spike was impressed. “You sure know how to punish a ball!”
“Ninety percent technique, Spike. It’s learning to get all the body operating together. You’re a pretty good hitter yourself.”
“Thanks! I hear you lost your game.” Spike held up his cell to indicate how he got the news. “Big of you guys to cancel your church service to play them.”
Roo didn’t let on he hadn’t known and was careful to conceal his disappointment. “Win some, lose some.”
“I thought you guys had a good chance. You beat us, and we are stronger than the Pirates. Are you sure your kid is okay?”
“John’s leg is fine.”
“But I seen his leg! Man, it was broken! Some of the guys figured it wasn’t really broken but I told them, I know, I’m the one who broke it! I heard it snap! It almost made me sick! I’m real sorry, man!”
“John’s leg is fine, Spike. Jesus healed him.”
“I can’t argue with that. Man, was I relieved to see him get to his feet!”
“It seems you have a good chance to win the playoffs. You have the league’s top pitcher.”
“No more. He quit.”
“Trevor Kenny quit? Why?”
“I don’t know, man. Tree just quit on us. The team is right sore. Maybe it’s because his family left him. They’re heading east right now. Real tough. My old lady left me a while back. It hurts big time.”
“That’s a shame. Do you think I could talk him out of it?”
“Why should you want to?”
“The league wouldn’t be the same without Tree. Did he also quit as president of the league.”
“Yes. The vice-president is taking over.”
“And who is that?”
“Me!” Spike revealed his yellow teeth when he laughed. “Roo, go talk to Tree if you can find him. He’s on vacation. He told us to leave him alone, but you talk some sense into him if you can.”
“Does that mean he’s out of town?”
“Nope. Tree has nowhere to go. Said he wanted to be alone. To lick his wounds, I guess. Suspect he’s downing beer at his place or reeling in a couple of trout.”
“Does he live far from here?”
“The other side of town. Go back towards customs and make a left just before you get there, at the gas station. He lives in a cabin exactly one mile from the turnoff. Do you know his truck?”
“A black pickup, isn’t it?”
“Yea. F150. Shiny. He’s fussy that way.”
“One mile from the turnoff?”
“Yea. A cedar cabin on a small piece of property, right hand side, set in from the road a little. Name’s on the mailbox. Can’t miss it.”
Roo casually returned to the parking lot, but once out of Spike’s sight raced for his van and hurried back towards customs. He now sensed what Jeni sensed: Tree was in serious trouble.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 3:15 p.m.
Tree’s neck was getting kinked and he regretted not bringing a pillow, but there was no way he was going to dig himself out again. He put his folded jacket under his head and stared at the picture of Sally, Kay-Lyn and Brandon, turning the flashlight off intermittently to save the batteries, keeping their images in his mind. When the flashlight went dead and his beer was finished he would point his pistol upward and pull the trigger. And if claustrophobia brought on the dreaded flashbacks before that, he wouldn’t hesitate to fire. Tree reckoned he would lose consciousness in less than two minutes, and shortly after that he would be visiting his marine buddies in hell, if there really is such a place.
Tree thought about his only friend, Mac, who he first met in the marines when they were both still in their teens. Attracted to each other when they learned they were from the same city, Tree found Mac to be solid, tough, a man. And Tree was no flake himself. They got along good and became buds, in time adding Billy and Jesse, and then Pete and Greg to their inner circle. Tree lost four of his buds in a moment’s time, and lost his fifth a short while later when Mac accepted Christ. Yes, they were still close, yes, they would each lay down his life for the other, but now they lived in two different worlds, looking at each other from separate shores. Mac ached for Tree to join him; Tree just wanted his friend to come back.
Then he went over the last game that cost the season championship. He smiled a little smile, thinking Mac undoubtedly beat the Pirates to make the playoffs, genuinely happy for the friend who once put himself at serious risk to save his life. And he thought of John Tanner, the broken leg, and the kid streaking across the infield to retrieve a loose bat. He still hadn’t figured it out. “John, in the name of Jesus Christ, get to your feet.” The words of Roo Tanner stayed with Tree ever since spoken.
Tree wanted his last thoughts to be on his family, and turned on the dimming flashlight to gaze a final time at the picture. It pained him to recall his boy’s shoulder trembling under his hand. He could still feel his daughter’s face pressed against his chest, and Sally’s kiss on his cheek. “Sorry, guys,” Tree apologized to the picture. He swallowed the last of the beer and reached for his gun…… when his cell chimed in his jeans pocket. Should I answer it? One last contact with the world?
“Tree here. Make it quick. I’ve got important business to tend to.”
“Hey, man! How is it going? You beat the Pirates, I presume?”
“Really? What happened? Did your star performer run out of horseshoes?” “Really? What could be so urgent that he had to miss this game?”
“Tough break, man. But there’s always next year.”
“Yes, they’re gone. Said our good-byes this morning. Real tough, but it’s for the best. Life minus Tree is better than life with Tree.”
“Yes, I’m doing okay. Right now I’m at my favorite fishing spot,” he lied, “you know, I’ve brought you up here a few times. The river’s running fast because of the rain. I got a couple of trout already.” Tree had never lied to Mac, rarely lied to anyone, but he did it for his family.
“Thanks for the good wishes, but I quit the Grizzlies.”
“You heard me, pal. Quit as in done, over and out, I’m out of here. Thought I would take some time to lick my wounds, catch lots of fish and down some extra beer.”
“Yea, life can be the pits.” Tree wished he could let his bud in on the irony.
“Yea, I know I’ll get over it.” Tree fiddled with his pistol. “Maybe sooner than one might think.”
And then, “Hey Mac, I don’t think I ever thanked you for saving my life way back when, such as it’s worth. Thank you.” Tree was sincere.
“Hey, didn’t mean to embarrass you. It was just some nagging, unfinished business I put off for twenty-something years.”
“Yea, sure, I would do the same for you. Hmmm. Or would I?” Tree wanted to get in the last dig. “Well, I don’t have time to chat all day. And I’m sure you got some serious sorrowing to do.”
“Okay. And thanks for the call.”
The light was almost extinguished. All the beer was in his tummy. No sense prolonging the agony. A man must do what a man must do. He placed the jacket over his face, held the picture frame against the jacket with one hand, grabbed the pistol with the other, a couple of quick spins around his finger, exhaled, and fired into the safety glass.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 3:45 p.m.
Mac had just finished talking to his bud, knowing he was having a worse day than himself, and now he was doing what Tree called “some serious sorrowing,” leaning on his beloved pulpit, his silent but potent friend. He hesitated removing his Challengers uniform, knowing he wouldn’t put in on again until the spring of next year…… if ever. Would there be a baseball team next year? The way things were going the most he could hope for is another last place finish, certain Roo and his son, and maybe a few other players, would no longer be part of the Center.
They had come so close to winning. They lost by one run, and he was certain they would have come from behind in the last inning for the win if the Pirates didn’t play dishonestly. Yes, they were within the rules, Mac brooded, but dirty ball nonetheless, ducking behind a technicality instead of facing their opponents men-to-men. Did we not show good faith by canceling our morning service, giving the Pirates – those scummy Pirates – a fair chance to get into the playoffs? Look how they showed their appreciation! And they call us Christians wimps! It’s just not right!
And then Mac’s conscience kicked in. What about me? Didn’t I just do the same thing with Roo by ducking behind a technicality? Roo responded with integrity, and it was my place to honor that integrity by giving him the pulpit the following Sunday. Am I simply reaping what I have sowed? Ouch!
Had Mac not been thoroughly angered at Roo, his conscience would have annoyed him for a while. Roo cost us the game! It was simple revenge! A man who turns on his friends like that is not fit to get behind any pulpit! Roo’s betrayal canceled Mac’s betrayal; his conscience was silenced.
Mac pounded the pulpit. We came so close! So close! And the “serious sorrowing” went on and on.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 3:45 p.m.
The directions were simple and Roo had no trouble locating the mailbox marked Tree Kenny, Inc., but was disappointed Tree’s pickup was not in the driveway. Maybe he’s at a store or something, Roo was thinking, and will be back soon. He was happy to have an excuse to be here should he return, to talk him out of quitting the team before the playoffs; that was better than, “My wife thought you were in trouble and I came down to check it out.”
He called Shep out of the cab to stretch his legs. Walking towards the cabin he thought he heard a gunshot, like a pistol, but, funny, there was no echo. He also thought he saw the big box crate in the yard shift ever so slightly, but concluded that was impossible. He slowly strolled to the porch and knocked on the door even though all indication was against Tree being home.
I should have gotten Tree’s cell number from Spike, he thought as he leaned against the crate. Dumb! Maybe I should hustle back to the ball diamond before Spike leaves. I’ll call Tree on his cell and ask him to meet me for a coffee. He noticed tiny pieces of glass around the outside perimeter of the box, but none on the inside. Odd.
Shep was digging in the filled-in furrow, seemingly wanting to get inside the crate, so Roo pushed it aside to show him there was nothing there. But the dog started to dig frantically into the sod, which seemed to have been cut in strips, making a bit of a mess.
“No Shep! Stop digging! You can have a bone when you get home!” But Shep wouldn’t stop until Roo pulled at his collar and sent him back to the van.
“Let’s go back to the ball park, boy. We’ve got to hurry!”
Something wasn’t right, Roo was thinking as he backed out of the driveway and sped back towards River’s Bend – a big box in the middle of a well-kept yard…… glass along the outside edge…… a pistol shot with no echo…… Shep digging furiously. It just didn’t make sense.
And then it did!
Roo slammed on the brakes, sending Shep flying off the seat onto the floor, put the van into reverse and gunned it, wheeling backwards down the road and into the driveway, over the lawn, braking inches from the crate. While he searched frantically for a shovel, Shep was back to digging with his paws.
“Look out, boy!” Roo lifted Shep aside and frantically worked the shovel at one end of what he now knew was Tree’s grave.
“Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” was the only prayer he could think to pray, and he prayed it loudly. His shovel hit something, and he clawed at the dirt with his hands to expose two very large running shoes. “Wrong end!” he yelled, and began digging the opposite end. He calculated it had already been more than five minutes since he heard the gunshot.
“Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” he screamed. Mud from sweat and flying dirt marred his face and his Challengers uniform. Another minute passed before he uncovered and removed a Grizzlies jacket to see a picture frame and then Tree’s deadly white face.
“Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” Roo continued to yell frantically as he pushed on Tree’s chest, though he thought for sure he was moments too late. If I only paid attention to Shep! he accused himself.
Suddenly a big hand grabbed Roo’s shirt, the other hand still buried, and a look of terror swept Tree’s ashen face, his eyes bulging intensely. And then he went limp again, not breathing. With an enormous effort Roo pulled the partly buried body out of grave, plopped it on its back onto the lawn, and shook the lifeless body up and down, thumping Tree’s back against the ground, pounding air into his lungs. Then two big hands grabbed Roo’s shirt, the stark look of terror returned to the whitened face. But this time Tree did not fall back into unconsciousness.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 4:15 p.m.
“Yes, Mom, we will all get on it right away.”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t have to tell them. Everyone has an ear close to the phone. Where are you?”
“It sounds like you are still a couple of hours from home. Dad phoned earlier. He couldn’t get through to you on your cell. He said to tell you he got the prize, and wants to know if he should bring it home. He said you would know what he was talking about.”
“Okay Mom, I will stay by the phone for your answer and relay it to Dad.”
“No, it was real close, but we lost. I could tell Mr. Maclin was angry. Real angry. If Dad had been there we would have won.”
“That’s okay. Baseball isn’t such a big deal to me any more.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
“Love you, Mom!” the other kids yelled into the mouthpiece.
The kids were excited to have guests, and they were soon in the guest house cleaning from top to bottom.
sunday, june 10th, 2007, 4:40 p.m.
Sitting in a window booth in a roadside restaurant, Jeni was hesitant to bring up the subject. Food ordered, she took a deep breath. “There has been a development. Right now my husband is with Trevor in River’s Bend. The Lord had told me that Reuben should go after him.”
All three Kennys were attentive and silent.
“I have something very important to ask you. I know you have already been through a very trying day, but I must have an answer.”
“What is it, Mrs. Tanner?” Kay-Lyn was tense.
“Mr. Tanner wants to bring your daddy home to the ranch.”
“Jeni, no!” Sally exclaimed, blood rushing to her head.
“But Mrs. Tanner,” Brandon spoke up, “you don’t understand. Mom and Dad are divorced!”
“I know, Brandon.” Jeni, too, was flush with emotion. “I am certain the Lord wants to put your family together again. Your dad would stay with us in the main house, that is, if he agreed to come. We would all have our meals together.”
“We will all get hurt again!” Kay-Lyn exclaimed.
“I can’t guarantee that won’t happen,” Jeni’s reply was directed to the three. “I am going for a walk outside to give you a chance to talk it over. My husband and I will respect whatever decision you make.”