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Tumbleweeds, p.11
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       Tumbleweeds, p.11

           Leila Meacham
 

  “That’s it,” John said, sick with repugnance at the thought of the boy’s parents finding him in such a condition. “That way it looks like their son didn’t intend to die. He just wanted a sexual high.”

  Trey got to his feet, brushing at his wet eyes. “That would cover up the bruises…. Oh, God, John, you’re a genius.”

  Solemnly but quickly, fighting to keep their lunch down, they carried the lifeless form into the barn. Trey took the boy’s shirt with him when he ran to his Mustang to get the illicit magazines, and, following instructions, they made a ligature from an extension cord, removed Donny’s clothes, and hoisted the body to a position that simulated death by autoerotic asphyxia. Trey spread the magazines around the suspended feet of the body, leaving one open to the instruction page, while John arranged the boy’s boots, underwear, jeans, and belt on a chair.

  When they were through, John said, “Trey, we have to take a minute,” and indicated the symbol of his and the boy’s faith looking down upon them, a crucifix nailed to a rafter.

  Trey nodded, and they clasped cold, clammy hands and bowed their heads. John made the sign of the cross. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we commend the body of Donny Harbison to You, Father, and may You forgive us for what we have done.”

  “Amen,” Trey said. John turned quickly to go, Trey still clutching his hand. “One other thing, John.” Trey tugged him to a stop. In the filtered light of the barn Trey’s eyes looked like dark fragments of broken glass. “We can’t ever tell anybody—for sure not Cathy—what happened here today. Agreed? We have to keep it our secret always—forever and ever—or we will be in big trouble.”

  John hesitated. Forever meant… forever. The boy’s parents would live the rest of their lives never knowing how their son really died, but he was bound to Trey. He would never tell. “Agreed,” he said.

  Trey gave his hand a hard squeeze. “You’re my man, John.”

  The sunlight had waned, and they knew football practice had begun. At the last hurried moment they thought of raking the ground, deciding to leave the hoop where it fell to allow the ram to get out and eat grass from the yard. They retrieved the razor and button and took the rolling pin with them, not having a better idea what to do with it, and remembered only when they were halfway home that they’d left the bobcat’s leg behind.

  Chapter Seventeen

  Four days later, Deke Tyson, sheriff of Kersey County, had just sat down to a late supper when the telephone rang. His wife answered, motioning him to continue eating when he heard the call was for him. Her husband was off duty, she explained pleasantly, and suggested the caller telephone the sheriff’s department for assistance. After a few bites, Deke could tell from his wife’s tone that whoever was on the other end was not to be put off and held out his hand for the receiver.

  Irritated, Paula handed it to him. “The voice is familiar, but he won’t say who he is. The idea, bothering you at home after you’ve had such a long day.” She pitched her complaint loud enough for the person on the other end to hear. “You haven’t even had a chance to change out of your uniform.”

  Deke gave her a placating pat on the cheek and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Sheriff Tyson. How may I help you?”

  The nature of the call must have shown on his face, for when he hung up, Paula’s hands were on her hips. “No, don’t tell me. You have to go out again.”

  “Could you cut a piece of that pot roast and put it between a couple slices of bread for me, honey? It’s going to be a long night.”

  “Deke…”

  “Please, just do it, Paula.”

  The call had come from Lou Harbison. He’d asked that Deke come alone to his house without a deputy and that he not tell anyone the nature of their brief conversation. Lou and his wife, Betty, had returned from a few days’ visit to Amarillo and found their seventeen-year-old son’s body in the barn. He had hanged himself. Lou had not called the sheriff’s department because he wanted no law officer but Deke to view the body first. There was something Lou and Betty wanted to keep private from the public and the rest of their family if at all possible. Deke would see when he got there.

  Hitting the highway, the sheriff kept hearing Lou’s anguished voice and could think only of his own children—a nineteen-year-old son off at Texas Tech and a daughter, a high school senior, now at band rehearsal for the halftime show of Friday’s big game—and how such a tragedy would affect him and his wife. Paula loved their daughter, but the sun rose and set on their son. Paula would never get over a loss like Betty’s. Deke suspected Betty wouldn’t, either.

  Biting into his sandwich, he recalled what little he knew of the family, since they were from the other town in the county. He knew they lived in a rambling farmhouse on a good-sized piece of property just outside the city limits. The house and land had come to them by way of Betty’s father when he died. Lou Harbison worked as an engineer for City Public Service, and Betty was a housewife who sold eggs and vegetables on the side. They’d both lived in the county all their lives. They had two children, one a daughter, Cindy, now living in Amarillo and married to somebody from Oklahoma City. Their son, Donny, had come along a bit unexpectedly, about six or seven years after Cindy. Deke’s daughter, Melissa, had mentioned meeting him at band camp last summer. She’d thought he was cute but held out no hope they’d ever get together since he was from Kersey High’s chief school rival.

  The only time the county sheriff had an occasion to make an official call on the Harbisons had come a couple of winters ago when he’d been summoned to handle the situation of a pet dog gone rabid. Lou had not been able to shoot her. Deke had obliged, sending the family back into their house with the soothing promise that Dot would not feel a thing. He recalled a pleasant home and hospitable people. Betty had sent him a note of appreciation later along with an assortment of her delicious jams.

  But most of all, Deke remembered that the Harbisons were devout Roman Catholics, Donny included. Suicide was expressly forbidden in the Catholic Church, the penalty being the loss of the victim’s immortal soul. Deke wondered what in the world had possessed Donny to take his own life and leave his parents to deal with the emotional turmoil of believing their son was spending eternity in hell.

  By the time Deke drew in front of the house, the sun had completely set, leaving only a trace of grayish red in the endless Panhandle sky like blood seeping from a septic wound. Lou would probably prefer that Deke not show up in his official car with SHERIFF written on the door, but he was on the job and he’d leave it to Lou to explain what it was doing parked before his house. Not that he’d have to worry what the neighbors might think. Deke estimated that the closest lived a mile away in any direction.

  Before Deke had unbuckled, Lou stepped out on the front porch, a haggard look dragging down the muscles of his face. He pulled the door shut behind him and met Deke on the walk. “Come on around to the barn, Sheriff, and I’m grateful to you for coming alone.”

  “Sorry it has to be for this reason, Lou. My condolences.”

  Without another word, Lou led the way to a barn set far back from the house. It had been partially converted to house Betty’s chickens in the winter, and the smell of the coop was strong. At the entrance, Lou stepped aside and morosely motioned the sheriff to go first.

  Deke entered and felt a jab to his rib cage. Hanging limply by the neck from a low beam used for drying flowers and herbs was a boy who looked his daughter’s age. He’d been covered with a light-blue blanket from the chin down to the toes of his white athletic socks. Deke noticed that his feet were a little more than an inch from the floor, close enough to have supported himself with his toes if he’d been so inclined. Scattered around were several magazines featuring sexually graphic covers, one folded open to scenes like the one above. On a nearby chair, next to a scuffed set of precisely placed boots, was a pair of neatly folded jeans and white jockey shorts.

  “Good God, Lou,” Deke said, his nose wrinkling at the smell of
decomposition. “What happened here?”

  “We thought you’d know,” Lou said. “Betty and I sure don’t. Take the blanket off, Sheriff. It’s all right.”

  Averse to what he would find, Deke stepped carefully forward, treating the area like a crime scene, and with the tips of his fingers pulled the blanket away.

  “Ah, Jesus, Lou—”

  The boy was naked except for his socks, his abdomen bloated and beginning to show the greenish tinge of decomposition. A thick industrial extension cord was knotted around his neck.

  “His mother found him like this,” Lou said. “What do you call this kind of… sexual perversion, Sheriff?”

  “Autoerotic asphyxia,” Deke answered, arranging the blanket back over the boy’s exposed body. “I don’t know much about it other than it’s the latest crazy sex fad.” He pointed to the open page of one of the magazines. “Looks like it’s explained there. Basically, it’s the act of hanging yourself in order to cut off oxygen and blood to the brain while masturbating. Apparently the lack of blood and oxygen contributes to the sexual experience.”

  Lou looked sick enough to faint. Deke took his arm and led him out of the barn into the backyard. At the kitchen window, Betty Harbison’s ashen face appeared, looking like a corpse underwater. “How is your wife taking this?” Deke asked, rebuking himself instantly for the absurd question.

  “ ’Bout as you’d expect. She’s inconsolable. None of this makes any sense. There’s so much about it not like him.”

  “Like what in particular?”

  “Betty trained the boy well. He’s like her in a lot of ways. Likes to keep things neat and tidy. He left the kitchen table a mess….”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I don’t know anything about this… this autoerotic—whatever you call it. I guess the urge came on him while he was eating a snack at the kitchen table. He got up and left a half-eaten sandwich and some biscuits spread with peanut butter. There were crumbs everywhere, the lid off the peanut butter jar, the top off a bottle of mustard. He’s never done that before. Always cleans up after himself.”

  “Will you show me what you’re talking about?”

  “Sure.”

  They went through the back door into a kitchen spacious enough to accommodate a rooming house of boarders. Betty sat at the large, round table, mute and shockingly pale. Deke forced himself to meet the shattered look she lifted to him.

  “Honey,” Lou said gently, taking her lifeless hand, “the sheriff’s here to conduct an investigation.”

  “What’s there to investigate?” Betty asked, staring at him vacantly.

  “Well, I told him that Donny would never go off and leave the kitchen table like this.”

  Deke saw what he was referring to. Orange peelings, a partially eaten sandwich, biscuits split open, the knife that had been used to slather them in peanut butter stuck to the table. But then, the boy’s parents had been out of town for several days. Plenty of time to clean up after himself before they got back.

  “Uh, Lou, when did you folks leave for Amarillo?”

  “Monday morning after breakfast. Cindy’s baby was due in the afternoon. We left today to come back for the football game tomorrow night.”

  “Monday morning,” Deke repeated quietly. This was Thursday. The boy looked to have been dead since Monday or the day after. “Anything else that looks amiss?”

  “Well, yes. Ramsey. He was half-starved when we got in.”

  “Ramsey?”

  “Ramsey, our football team’s ram mascot that Donny looks after. When we got home, the hoop was off the gate of his pen. We found it buried in the straw. Donny’s never left it off before. The little fellow is so used to staying penned, he never thought about trying the gate. He could have gotten out and eaten the grass in the yard. As it was, he stayed in his pen and nearly died of starvation. The only thing I can think of…”—Lou stepped away so that his wife wouldn’t hear him—“is that Donny thought that he… was taking a chance with his life and took off the hoop, figuring Ramsey would wander out when he ran out of feed.”

  “Stay with Betty while I look around,” Deke ordered. “And can you throw some light into the backyard?”

  “Sure,” Lou said, and flipped on a switch.

  The backyard flooded with light. Still, Deke took a minute to go to his unit for a flashlight. He returned and cast its beam around on the ground, looking for… signs of a struggle, maybe? He saw no indication of any, but the hard-packed ground with its sparse covering of dry grass around the ram’s pen had been raked recently. He searched the enclosure with the flashlight, caught a pair of bright, wary eyes watching him, and heard an anxious snuffle, but the ram stayed in his bedding and did not come out to investigate. The hoop was back on the gatepost. Fresh feed was in the trough.

  Deke directed the light under the concrete picnic table and saw something in the shadowy darkness. He got down on his hands and knees to draw it out in his handkerchief. It was the limb of a gray cat sawed from a taxidermist specimen, judging from the lack of bones or cartilage. The size of it looked too big to belong to the house variety. Its claws were hooked and wickedly sharp, and Deke thought it had to have come from something like a mountain lion or bobcat.

  “Lou!” he called.

  Lou, who had been watching from the open kitchen window, ran out at once. Deke held up the severed limb. “Ever seen this?”

  Lou reached to take it, but Deke held it from him. “Better not touch it. Could be evidence.”

  “Evidence?” Lou echoed thinly.

  “Just in case this wasn’t an accident. Now, does this belong to you?”

  Lou inspected it out of doleful eyes. “No. I’ve never seen it before.”

  “I found it under the picnic table. What was it doing there?”

  “I don’t know. We had a drifter in here last week, a hobo we found had slept in the barn. We locked it, but he was back the next night. Stayed in the ram’s pen. This could’ve belonged to him. It’d be something his kind might carry for luck or a weapon.”

  “The ground looks raked around here. Why is that?” Deke asked.

  Lou glanced at the area and shrugged. “Donny must have raked it while we were gone. He was a good one for keeping things tidy.”

  “So you said,” Deke mused. “I’m just going to the car to bag this; then I’ll be back.”

  “Sheriff…” Lou pushed his hands into his pockets and set his feet firmly. “We don’t want no investigation. That’s why I had you come out by yourself. This was an accident, pure and simple. Well…”—his mouth twisted—“not so pure and not so simple. Donny did this to himself. Why, God only knows. I never thought the boy was interested in pornography, sex fantasies—” He hunched forward, bowed by what was an obvious attack of fresh grief.

  Deke put his hand on his shoulder. “Let’s talk a little bit about those magazines,” he urged quietly. “Did you ever see them before? Where would he have hidden them?”

  “In his room, most likely, and no, I never saw them before.”

  “Wouldn’t Betty have discovered them when she put away his laundry? Mothers have an uncanny nose for sniffing out illicit stuff like that.” Deke remembered when Paula had come across racy magazines stuffed in their son’s camping bag when she aired it out.

  “Sons have ways of keeping such things from their mothers,” Lou said.

  Privately Deke disagreed, but he said, “How about from you? You had no hint whatsoever he was into this kind of thing?”

  Lou shook his head. “None, and that’s what’s so shocking. Donny liked girls, but he had a healthy attitude toward them and toward sex, too, for that matter. I mean, I just never, ever heard him say or do anything lewd—”

  “That’s why we have to investigate, Lou, have the coroner determine the exact cause of death. There could be more to this than meets the eye.”

  “No!” Lou shook off Deke’s hand. “You can’t investigate, have the deputies out here, do an autopsy, have thi
s get into the newspaper. I won’t have it. The shame of it would kill Betty. We could never hold our heads up in this county again. I wish now I’d dressed the boy, but I wanted you to see that he… didn’t commit suicide. That’s what it would have looked like if I’d put a shirt and pants on him, gotten rid of those magazines.”

  “Where is his shirt?” Deke asked.

  “What?” Lou said.

  “His shirt. Where is it? I’m assuming he was wearing one when he went out to the barn. This is November, Lou.”

  “Why… I don’t know,” Lou said, frowning. “We didn’t think about his shirt. We just left things as we found them. He didn’t leave it in the kitchen.”

  “Look, while I go bag this, would you see if you can locate the shirt he may have been wearing? You don’t have to say anything to Betty. I don’t think Donny would have gone into his room and hung it on a hanger when the urge hit—not and leave the kitchen table as he did.”

  Lou turned reluctantly toward the house while Deke made for his squad car to slip the cat’s limb into a paper bag. Little tattoos of doubt drummed in his head. He was the county’s chief law officer. As much as he wanted to respect the feelings and privacy of the Harbisons, he wasn’t convinced Donny’s death was an accident. There was the discrepancy of the mess he’d left on the kitchen table and the neatness of his folded clothes. But what other explanation could there be? Suicide? No, Deke believed he could rule that out. The boy wouldn’t have let himself be found in that condition, and he’d have left a note.

  Also… a little thing, but would a student from Delton High want to miss the biggest game of the season against its archrival Friday night? Delton and Kersey were in a neck-and-neck race for the district championship. That left murder, but who would want to murder Donny Harbison and for what reason?

 
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