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Tumbleweeds, p.10
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       Tumbleweeds, p.10

           Leila Meacham

  “I can see that.”

  Wolf Man said nothing more as Cathy continued her work on the sedated dog—swabbing, suturing, bandaging. When she had finished, she pulled down the mask and stripped off her gloves. “That should do it, Mr. Wolfe. I’m sending you home with some antibiotics and painkillers, and something for Molly’s nausea when she wakes up. Give the drugs to her when and only as long as prescribed. You’ll have to keep her safe and comfortable for at least three weeks to give her injuries time to heal.”

  “You’re going to make a fine doctor someday, miss.”

  Surprised, she said, “How do you know I plan to become a doctor?”

  He grinned, revealing the dark hole of his mouth, his lips lost in the mat of brick-red hair. “There’s hardly anything that goes on in this town that I don’t know about, miss. Now, what do I owe you?”

  Most likely, he couldn’t pay, even if she told him, but she couldn’t risk writing out a bill for the charges. She had just performed minor surgery and administered and dispensed drugs without a license. “No charge,” she said. “Let’s keep this visit our secret if that’s all right with you, and if Molly requires further assistance, you’d best contact me at my grandmother’s, and I’ll see what I can do.”

  He smoothed his beard, a spark of conspiratorial understanding in his shrewd eyes. “Well, that’s awfully kind of you. I owe you, miss, and don’t think I won’t remember. I never forget a kindness any more’n I do an injury. Molly and I thank you.”

  He gathered up his dog, and Cathy opened the door for him. On his way out, he paused. “One other thing, miss, if I may be so bold.”

  “What is it, Mr. Wolfe?”

  “The boy you chose… I was sorry he was the one. Mind your heart with him.”

  Cathy was still standing with the door open and her lips parted in surprise when the phone rang. She glanced at the clock on the wall. Oh, my gosh! It was way past five thirty!

  Chapter Sixteen

  John had known the minute Trey telephoned to tell him he was coming to his place that he had something up his sleeve. Why would he want to hang out at John’s house, without Cathy, on a cold, gray Sunday afternoon when he could be warm and cozy at Aunt Mabel’s or Miss Emma’s—and when he, John, could be there as well? He couldn’t remember when he hadn’t spent Sunday afternoon at either place and stayed for a good supper.

  He’d never seen Trey so worked up over a game as he was over the one coming up against Delton. Trey was convinced that his whole future—all their futures, his, Cathy’s, and John’s—rested on beating Delton Friday night, knocking the one obstacle to the district championship out of the way so that Kersey would have a clear shot to state. How could anybody be as cool and sharp as a knife under ice water on the football field and off it as jumpy as a worm over a fire? Everything was going fine. In early October, they’d been visited by Coach Sammy Mueller in person. Looking like a million bucks, he’d flown in to Amarillo, rented a car, made the hour drive to Kersey, and stayed in a motel overnight just to introduce himself to John’s father and Aunt Mabel and to assure them how much he and the other coaches and the Hurricanes were looking forward to having John and Trey suit up in the orange, green, and white. So far the Bobcats were 9 and 0, having defeated their opponents handily. Trey’s big and only worry was Delton, also undefeated, but in John’s opinion the Rams were overrated. They had a good defensive line and a scrappy little quarterback, but the kid wasn’t much of a field general. He couldn’t touch Trey when it came to assessing the other team’s defense, changing the game play in seconds when he saw something he didn’t like. Trey called the shots right every time, and both he and John were on their way to being selected All-District in their respective positions and, if their luck held, possibly All-State.

  Now Trey had just presented a cockamamie scheme to John that could put an end to all that.

  “Jeez, TD, what’s the matter with you? Have you gone crazy?”

  “Far from it, Tiger. Look—this razor could shave a baby’s butt without waking him from his nap.” Trey demonstrated by running the battery-powered instrument down his forearm. “See?” He held up the razor to show John the hair caught in the blade that had left a swath of hairless skin. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

  “Where did you get that? Did you steal it from Dr. Graves’ office?”

  “I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it. I’ll put it back once we’re through with it.”

  “We?” John stared at him aghast. “Not this time, TD. I don’t want to have any part in what you’ve got in mind. You do it alone, or you don’t do it at all. You’re our quarterback, for heaven’s sakes. Quarterbacks don’t pull the kind of stunt you’re suggesting.”

  “That’s why they’ll never know we did it. Come on, John! Can’t you just see the look on those goons’ faces when they see their mascot?”

  “I can see the look on Coach Turner’s face when we get caught.”

  Trey had proposed shaving stripes on Delton’s ram mascot to resemble bobcat claw marks. He’d discovered the ram was looked after by Donny Harbison, a boy their age, when Aunt Mabel had sent him to pick up eggs and vegetables from Donny’s mother. The Harbisons lived in a big farmhouse on the outskirts of Delton. John had a slight acquaintance with the family, who were Catholics, from St. Matthew’s. Trey was absolutely positive that those shaved stripes would demoralize the Rams, and he wanted to do it tomorrow afternoon.

  “We won’t get caught,” he insisted. “That’s what I’m telling you. Mrs. Harbison told Aunt Mabel they’re going to be out of town until Thursday. Their twerp of a son will be at band practice after school on Monday. We can cut English and be back in plenty of time for practice.”

  “I don’t want to cut English.”

  “We’ll say that by the time the last period rolled around, we were so sick from what we ate at Bennie’s that we had to miss English. We went to the home economics room to lie down. Hell, John, we’re four pointers and team captains to boot. Who’s not going to believe us?”

  “All we’ll accomplish is to make the ram look sheared, not clawed, and that will just make the Rams more determined to win, not scared.”

  Trey got up angrily from the bed. There wasn’t much room for him to pace in John’s room. Twin beds and a bureau, desk, and chair took up most of the space, and two boys their size almost filled the rest of it. “Let’s go outside,” John suggested. “You need air.”

  “I need your help with this, Tiger. That’s what I need.” Trey’s fuming expression and tone slipped into their appeal mode. “Why can’t you realize what’s at stake? Trust me, we’ll be roadkill to Coach Mueller if we don’t get a few more games under our belt after district. Do you want to see us go our separate ways if we aren’t offered scholarships to Miami? To see Cathy go off alone—without me? Do you?” Trey’s look was desperate.

  “Your grades would get you into Miami, TD. Don’t be so melodramatic. You don’t have to go on scholarship.”

  “Without you?”

  He made the idea sound unthinkable, and John admitted it was like a punch to his gut. Sometimes he thought it was almost unhealthy how tight the three of them were, but the truth was he couldn’t imagine his life without Trey and Cathy. They were his family. They were the only ones in the world who loved him or that he loved. They were one for all and all for one, and they had looked forward to going to the University of Miami so long—and together—they’d put all other schools out of their minds.

  “Besides,” Trey said, “without a scholarship, I couldn’t ask Aunt Mabel to pay the high out-of-state tuition when I could go to as fine a school anywhere in Texas. The only reason we’re going to Miami is the prestige of their football program that will give us a leg up to the NFL.”

  John willed his expression inscrutable as a rock, but Trey could tell when he was getting to him. Trey sat down next to him on the bed. “We’re going to need all the help we can get out there Friday night, Tiger, and I believe we should consider any id
ea that might give us an edge. Can’t you just imagine what their players will be thinking when they see their mascot on the sidelines Friday night? Those stripes will scare them shitless.”

  “Oh, Trey…”

  “If you don’t help me, I’ll get Gil Baker to go with me. I can’t do this by myself.”

  Gil Baker? Gil Baker, one of their defensive linemen, couldn’t keep his mouth closed if it were sewn shut. He’d spout the secret of their escapade—brag about it—and news of what they’d done would be all over town by the start of school Tuesday morning. Coach Turner wouldn’t hesitate to kick both of them off the team—he was that kind of coach—and what would that do to Trey’s record in the eyes of Sammy Mueller! Their prank might even be against the law and get Trey in trouble with Sheriff Tyson.

  But John knew Trey. Once he made up his mind to do something, no logic in the world could persuade him to change it.

  “I promise, Tiger, that if you do this for me, I won’t ever ask you to do another thing that goes against your grain.”

  “I won’t hold my breath. Okay, but this is the last damn fool shenanigan I’m ever going to let you talk me into, TD, and the only reason I’m going along with it is to make sure you don’t hurt that ram.”

  Trey put up his hand for a high five. “You’re my man, John.”

  On Monday, Trey initiated the plan from the moment he and Cathy, John and Bebe climbed into the Mustang after a lunch of hamburgers at Bennie’s—the local grease hole, it was called—to return to school for afternoon classes.

  “I don’t feel so good,” Trey said.

  “What’s wrong with you?” Cathy asked.

  Trey bent over the steering wheel, holding his stomach. “I think… I think I may have picked up a food virus.”

  “Oh, my gosh. I hope it’s not ptomaine.”

  “It might be.”

  John rolled his eyes and looked out the window.

  By the time they were at their lockers, Trey had convinced a worried Cathy that something he’d eaten at Bennie’s had made him sick. “Don’t you feel queasy, too, Tiger?”

  “Yeah, but not from something I ate at Bennie’s.”

  The rest of the day worked according to Trey’s calculations, and he and John arrived at the Harbisons’ farmhouse about the time their English class was discussing the third chapter of Wuthering Heights.

  “A piece of cake,” Trey pronounced, and indeed the place looked theirs for the taking. It was a still autumn afternoon, blue and golden, only a whisper of wind blowing. All they could hear was the crunch of leaves under their feet as they walked around to the back of the house.

  They spotted the pen at once and the small ram eating from his trough. He looked up with trusting eyes and bleated—a cute little guy, John thought. “Now be gentle, TD,” he said.

  “I will.” Trey took the hoop off the gate, the battery-operated razor in his hand. “You hold him real tight, John.”

  Then two things happened simultaneously that John registered in a blur of confusion. First Trey dropped the razor and took some kind of large cat’s paw from his jacket pocket, and next John heard the slam of the screened back door. They whirled in surprise to see Donny Harbison, a skinny kid three-fourths their size, running toward them brandishing a rolling pin.

  “Get away from that gate, Trey Hall!” the boy yelled.

  John looked at Trey, shocked. He recognized the foreleg as belonging to a stuffed bobcat stored in Aunt Mabel’s attic. “I thought you said nobody would be home.”

  “Well, I was wrong.”

  It was over before they knew what had happened. Enraged, Donny Harbison brought the rolling pin down hard on Trey’s shoulder, and he dropped the cat’s paw, which John snatched up and threw away before Trey could use it against Donny. Then everything went crazy with Trey trying to dodge the blows of the rolling pin.

  “Get the pin before he busts my arm, John!” Trey yelled, finally grabbing Donny’s throat and digging in while the boy fought to free himself, the two of them going round and round in a mad, furious dance.

  “Trey, let go!” John cried, pulling at his arms, terrified by the sound of Donny’s strangled gasps, finally driving his shoulder into Trey’s knee. Trey grunted and released his hold, and all three went down. There was a crack as somebody’s head hit the picnic table.

  John got up first, then Trey. John shook his head to clear his vision; Trey rubbed his shoulder. “Damn, he could have put me out of commission, John.”

  “You’d have deserved it, TD.” He reached a hand down to Donny. “Here, I’ll help you up,” he said, and then his breath caught. “Oh, God…”

  “What’s wrong, John?”

  “He’s not moving.”

  The two of them dropped down beside the motionless body of Donny Harbison. “Hey, man,” Trey said, patting the boy’s cheek. “Stop fooling around. We’re sorry, but come on now, say something!”

  Donny stared up out of perfectly still eyes.

  In a stupor of dread, John felt the boy’s neck for a pulse and put an ear to his mouth. Nothing. In horror, John drew up and gaped into the boy’s dead eyes. A coldness like a plunge into ice water swept over him. “He—he’s not breathing, TD.”

  Trey’s face turned caliche white. “But he has to be. He’s only unconscious. Please, please wake up,” he pleaded, pulling the boy up by his shirt collar.

  John grabbed Trey’s hands, a roll of cold sweat running down his back. “Don’t do that, TD. It’s not going to help. I—I think he’s dead.”

  “He’s just passed out. I don’t see any blood. Nothing looks broken—”

  “Well, it is. Inside, where you can’t see it.”

  “He can’t be dead. He’s just… he’s just knocked out.” Trey began to cry, smoothing the boy’s shirt as if the gesture might restore him to life. “How can he be dead?”

  “He hit his head on the picnic table.”

  Trey cast an accusing look at the concrete offender. “Oh, God, John. I didn’t mean this to happen. He wasn’t supposed to be home. What are we going to do?”

  John mumbled between stiff lips, “I don’t know. Call an ambulance, I guess.” Chills were sweeping his body.

  Trey moaned and covered his face with his hands. “Oh no. Oh no…”

  “Or maybe Sheriff Tyson.”

  Trey took his hands away. “He’ll arrest me, won’t he, put me in jail?”

  “No, no. This was an accident.”

  “How’ll we explain why we were here?”

  John could not answer. His jaws had locked.

  Trey lowered his catatonic gaze to the body. “Look at him, John. My finger marks are beginning to show around his throat. How will we explain those? Look at his shirt. There’s a button off, and the ground’s scuffed. Sheriff Tyson will know there was a fight. I’ll be charged with—with murder.”

  “No, Trey, not if you tell him the truth. You were defending yourself. I’ll testify to it.”

  “What if they don’t believe us? Oh, God, John—”

  Trey, charged with murder? John pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead. He couldn’t think. His head felt as if a block of wood had been wedged into his brain, but some part of it told him that Trey could be right. The police might not believe them, but they couldn’t go off and leave Donny Harbison like this. Somebody else could be blamed for his death.

  “Could we—could we make it look like something else happened?” Trey said. “Like… maybe he hanged himself?”

  John’s brain cleared as suddenly as if wax had been flushed from his ears. “No, TD. No way! No way! Donny’s a Catholic. Catholics believe you go straight to hell if you take your own life. We can’t have his parents believe that’s where Donny is spending eternity.”

  “What else can we do, John?” Trey sounded as if he had a crushed larynx. “They might not call it murder, but they could see it as manslaughter—‘the crime of killing a human being without malice.’ Remember that definition from civics class? We were
trespassing. We came to do mischief. That’s the way they’ll look at it, Mrs. Harbison especially. She doesn’t like me, and she’ll try to get ’em to throw the book at me. Not you. You’re off the hook. This was my idea, so it’s all on me, but I could go to jail.”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “Can you tell me for sure it wouldn’t happen?”

  John couldn’t. Trey’s panic was justified. There were likely to be charges brought against him. He was seventeen. In Texas, they held seventeen-year-olds accountable for their criminal acts.

  John couldn’t see his best friend—like a brother to him—hauled off to jail. The image of Trey behind bars, his future wrecked, his life ruined, brought up a taste of something so vile John had to spit before he gagged. It would kill Cathy. Besides, if he hadn’t tried to break up the fight, Donny might not have fallen and hit his head. Trey hadn’t reminded him of that. He wouldn’t. John squeezed his eyes shut, remembering an incident from the summer they were nine years old. A bull had charged after him as he and Trey were crossing a pasture. Trey had yelled and screamed and thrown rocks to divert the bull, and he had changed course to storm after him. Trey had made the fence just as the bull’s horns grazed the seat of his jeans. It had always been that way with Trey…. He would have attacked a cave of bears for John.

  The little ram bleated mournfully. He had braved the threat in the yard to come out to investigate and was peering at his keeper lying on the ground. John’s stomach turned over. Donny was dead…. There was no bringing him back, but Trey was alive. God forgive me for what I’m about to suggest. He gazed dully at Trey. “What about… what about that—that kinky method of masturbation Gil Baker was showing us in that magazine, the one where you get off by choking yourself?”

  “Auto… erotic… asphyxia?” Trey stumbled over the word. John was referring to the magazine Gil had waved about in the locker room demonstrating the technique. It featured pictures of people in the act of hanging themselves to cut off oxygen to the brain in order to intensify an orgasm. John and Trey had thought the pictures and the whole idea obscene and disgusting. John hadn’t touched the magazine, but locker checks were being conducted at school, and Gil had pushed it and several others of the same sexually explicit contents onto Trey to keep in his car until Gil could find a new place to hide them from his mother. They were in his Mustang right now, hidden under the seat.

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