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FOR HIS OWN protection, I've changed his name to Dean here; though the only person who's pestered him much in five years is me.

He calls the nursing home "home," and though I can't say he's thrilled about that fact, I will say he's more or less content.His collection of Garfield cats was what caught my eye - he was an old ranch hand in cowboy boots and a yoked shirt with dozens of Garfield toys, stuffed animals and cards around his bed.

Up the hall was a sweet, 80-year-old widow who read Louis L'Amour novels day and night.

Figure that.

"It's no bed of roses in this place," Dean told me, tugging on his boots for a stroll. "But when I was a boy my dad said something I've used as a guide. I've lived my life by his words. Dad said, `Dean, que sera, sera.' "

The two of us made our way to the lounge to chat. When we sat down, a woman sitting nearby got up and moved.

"Think I want my hair pulled out?" she explained. "He belongs to somebody else."

I didn't ask who.

Instead, we talked about ranch life at the turn of the century. He talked about having a twin brother killed in a farm accident and how that twin brother comes around from time to time to hover over him and comfort him.

Then he sang me a song - a lovely little ballad about a long-gone mountain home. I was so impressed I brought a tape recorder when I dropped by again. We discussed getting a copyright for the song and maybe having my brother's band take a whack at it in their upcoming concert.

"You do have a beautiful voice, Dean," the woman who feared for her hair called from across the room.

Dean beamed.

"Actually I wrote another song that I like even better," he said. And with that, he cleared his throat and broke into his lilting tenor:

When I was a lad and Old Shep was a pup, over mountain and hill we would roam.

The song was "Old Shep," a cowboy tune from before Dean began singing. I'd heard it first in 1968 in Bolivia when Elder Ray "Twang" Sorensen sang it for some teary-eyed missionaries.

Now I was hearing it again.

Elder "Twang" hadn't written the song, however. And neither had my friend Dean. As I left, the idea of copyrighting his song about the old mountain home vanished in the breeze. And I found myself thinking about another old cowboy I knew, Don Getz.

Don had called me at the paper to recite the latest poem he'd written. He called it "A Walk Down Memory Lane." It began:

On the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder over China on the bay. . . .

"Don," I said, "that's `On the Road to Mandalay' by Rudyard Kipling."

"Correction," he'd said. "Was by Kipling. Kipling's work went into the public domain this week and I picked up that poem for myself."

A moment of silence passed.

"But Don," I said, "my dad's been singing that song for 40 years."

A longer moment of silence passed.

"Well," Don said, "tell your dad it's now on me."

And Old Shep was now on Dean. In fact, in many ways old, arthritic, good-hearted Shep was Dean. The song was his in ways the original writer could never know.

Que sera, sera.