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We somewhat followed our previous route that year, choosing to avoid Price Canyon in Utah by heading east from Provo into Colorado. We worked our way toward the opposite corner of the state and arrived at Coopers four days later, welcomed with smiles and hugs.

Mike couldnít wait to see his new rifle. He followed Ren into his shop before getting our camper set up for the stay. I went with Beulah into the house, where she fixed a glass of iced tea for us both. We sat at the kitchen table, catching up on the last two years of our lives.

"My goodness," she said, rising from her chair. "Itís almost noon. Ren will be expecting lunch to be ready."

"Can I help? I have some lunchmeat in the camperÖ" I gestured to the door.

"Oh, no. Thank you anyway, but I made a chicken casserole yesterday. I just need to warm it up." She pulled the dish from the refrigerator, set it in the oven and turned on the heat.

I washed my hands and picked flatware from the drawer where I remembered it was, then carried on with plates and paper napkins. Beulah poured two more glasses of iced tea and topped off the ones she and I had been drinking.

After lunch, Ren took us in his old Toyota Land Cruiser to a bumpy field where Mike could try out his new firearm, custom-built to his own specificationsóa single-shot 25.06 with a tapered hexagonal barrel (made only by Ren at that time), mauser action, Canjar trigger, and a stock fitted to Mikeís measurements, carved from a walnut gunstock blank he had picked out two years before. Ren himself had hand-checkered the stock. I felt certain that dear Beulah had oiled and polished it to perfection.

Ren retrieved a couple of rounds from his shirt pocket and handed them to Mike. "I set up some soda cans at the foot of that berm over there last week when I sighted it in," he said, gesturing to a raised section of earth about a hundred yards away.

"I see them, I think. Two red, one green?"

"Yes. Thatíd be them." Ren concurred. "Fire away, boy!"

Mike slipped a round into the chamber, locked it in, took aim, and fired. Bam! The green can shot into the air, then kicked up a smidgen of dust as it hit the earth again. He lowered the rifle and grinned at Ren like the proverbial Cheshire cat. "Itís beautiful, Ren. So smooth. I love it."

Little-boy-smiles lit up their faces as they stood there, tall and proudóRen for making the rifle, Mike for owning it. They each took a few more shots before we left the field that day. Happy campers, all!

Back at Coopersí house I took Shotgun, our Cairn Terrier, for a walk while Mike prepped the camper for our overnight stay. That done, I went into the house to help Beulah with dinner.

The evening was spent visiting, enjoying once again Renís unforgettable delivery of old-timersí tales. We talked about the weather, the gun shop, gunsmithing and Kennyís legacy to take over the business one day. Ren excused himself, motioning for Mike to follow him to the kitchen. I guessed they would finally discuss payment for the new rifle.

"Honey?" Mike called shortly after they disappeared. "Can you come in here?"

I got out of my chair and went to the kitchen. "What?"

"Hereís the bill." Mike held a paper out toward me. He looked worried. Or maybe ashamed. I couldnít tell for sure.

I slipped the invoice out of his hand—$800 more than he told me when he ordered it. Oh God, not again. It wasnít hard for me, an old automotive bookkeeper, to see the original quote was more than what Mike had told me at the time. I knew it! This was getting to be a habit with him. My anger rose. I took a deep breath and spoke slowly with it, "Youíd better get your checkbook from the truck, huh?"

He rose to leave.

I called after him, "And bring my purse in with you, okay?"

"Okay." I could see his face relax.

Mike wrote a check from his drafting funds. I wrote a check for the balance out of our community account and handed it to Ren.

"Iím sorry. I wasnít aware of the full amount. Iíll have to transfer funds when we get home to make this goodócan you hold it for a week?"

"Yes, Helen," he drawled. "I can do that. Why donít you just give me a call when itís okay to deposit it?"

"Thanks so much. I will do that."

We stayed another night at the Coopers before heading home, this time with a stop in Denver to see a girl I had worked with at the Porsche+Audi dealership. Our plan was to secure a motel room so we could clean up before meeting her and her husband for dinner, and have a place close by to stay over.

We happened upon an older, two-story motel in south Denver that backed up to an alley next to a vacant lot overgrown with vegetation. It seemed a likely place to walk the dog, and according to the map, was not far from where my friend lived. I waited in the truck with Shotgun while Mike went to the office to inquire.

He was back within minutes, room key in hand.

"You got a room already?" I asked.

"Yep." He slid into the truck and shut the door.

"I thought you were going to look at it first, to make sure it was okay." We didnít stop at motels much when camping, maybe every three days or so, mostly just to shower and get a good nightís sleep.

"Wouldnít let me," he said. "Twenty bucks for the night. No previews. Itís on the ground floor."

"Well, thatís good. Letís have a look then."

He backed the truck up and parked in the slot in front of room #15ólooking a bit shabbier now than it did from the street. We left the dog in the truck cab and ventured into the room.

"Oh my God Ö" I couldnít believe itóair thick with the odor of stale cigarettes, litter all over the stained brown carpet, a rumpled, unmade bed in the corner, and a Happy Birthday banner hanging from the ceiling over the kitchenette. I grabbed a tissue from my pocket and covered my nose. "I donít think I want to sleep here tonight!" I crossed the room to the bathroom door, closed my hand around the knob and hesitated. "Iím afraid to look."

"Aw, go ahead." Mike grinned. "Canít be any worse than out here."

I opened the door to peek. "Well, itís no better." I stepped inside. "The toiletís dirty, towels are messed up, probably used, broken floor tiles in the back corner by the tub." I pulled aside the shower curtain. "And several tiles missing from the tub wall, with grout spilling down inside. Whoa Ö there are holes in the wall, too, just under the ceiling. Iím not sure I want to shower in here!" I exited the room and stared at Mike, expecting a solution. "Iíd bet this place has not been cleaned in months."

"Well," he said. "Weíve already paid for it. Might as well at least get our showers."

"Okay," I reluctantly accepted. "But I want you to guard the door while Iím in there Ö and I refuse to sleep here tonight. Gives me the williesómy gut tells me it is not a safe place. Itís a flophouse, isnít it?"

"Could be, honey Öcould be. Iíll bring our travel bags in from the truck so we can get cleaned up." He turned to the door.

"Grab my flip-flops, too!" I hollered after him.

Even wearing my campground washroom foot protectors, this bathtub was so filthy that I prayed all during my shower that I wouldnít catch some skin disease, or something worse. Mike and the dog kept guard as agreed. It felt good to scrub my hair and scalp after five days on the road, and I was happy Iíd thought to tuck bath towels into our travel bags before we left home.

The dog and I kept watch while Mike showered. We used a payphone to call my ex-workmate, and arranged to meet her and her husband at a White Spot restaurant. We followed her directions, found them without any problems, and visited over a nice dinner. After hearing our tale of the Motel from Hell, they insisted we camp overnight in their driveway.

We accepted their offer with gratitude, and said our goodbyes the following morning as they left for work and we departed on our long journey home. We carried with us fresh memories of good friends, a new rifle hidden in the camper, and the #15 motel key still in my pocket.


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