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Tumbleweeds, p.12
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       Tumbleweeds, p.12

           Leila Meacham

  Deke made a mental list of things to investigate as he drew on rubber gloves to bag the magazines and extension cord. He’d learn more about AA, find out whether Donny’s life was insured, search Donny’s pickup for other porno magazines, ask the neighbors if they saw the vagrant, and interview Donny’s friends and teachers at Delton High. He’d take the magazines and cord to the crime lab in Amarillo to dust for prints.

  Lou was waiting for him in the backyard when he returned. “No shirt, Sheriff.”

  “Don’t you find that a little odd, Lou?”

  “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. Betty and I have discussed this, and we want the details of Donny’s death squelched. Please, Sheriff. I’m begging you. Think if it were your son. How would you and your wife feel?”

  Deke did not reply. Paula would plead to hush it up, but he would want to know what had happened to his son.

  “I can’t answer that, Lou.”

  Betty Harbison came out the back door, new tears flowing from her swollen eyes. “Please, Sheriff…” She went down on her knees before him and clutched his arm in appeal. “I’m begging you. Please don’t let this get out. Our priest would deny him the Mass of the Resurrection if he knew. He wouldn’t let him be buried in consecrated ground. He’d call Donny’s death a suicide because what he did was willful and dangerous. We don’t want our daughter to know how her little brother died. Please, Sheriff…” She released his arm and buried her face in her hands.

  “Betty… Betty…,” Lou soothed, dropping beside her to put his arms around her quaking shoulders.

  Embarrassed by their naked grief, stricken to his father’s soul, Deke found himself saying, “All right, Betty, all right. I’ll call the JP to come out alone. He’ll have to sign the death certificate, but he can be trusted. He won’t say anything. The death will be ruled as accidental and that will be the end of it. Nobody but the four of us ever needs to know how it happened. You and Lou go back inside now and call the funeral home. I’ll wait for Walter in the barn. We’ll cut Donny down and take good care of the body until somebody from the funeral home gets here.”

  Betty, sobbing, collapsed into her husband’s arms, and Deke walked away to call the JP from his unit, unable to bear the sight of Lou’s tears falling on his wife’s head.

  Chapter Eighteen

  The Kersey Bobcats won the game against the Delton Rams 41 to 6, the score so one-sided that Coach Turner pulled Trey and John to the bench for the last part of the final quarter to preserve them for the coming play-offs. Newspapers statewide described the Bobcats’ victory over the Rams as steel ripping through papier-mâché. Members of the team lifted their quarterback and top pass receiver onto their shoulders at the end of the game, but no camera from either the fans and/or news media caught a triumphant smile on the faces of the two gridiron heroes.

  Within the days leading up to the historic night, Trey and John waited to see Sheriff Tyson’s squad car pull up to their houses, expected to hear his official knock on their doors, but neither came. There was nothing of Donny’s death in the county newspaper except an obituary and one article briefly explaining that the boy’s parents had returned from out of town to find their son dead from an accident in their barn. The flags of both schools in the county were lowered to half-staff. A funeral and burial were held privately, open only to members of the family.

  “Why so glum?” an elated but worried Ron Turner demanded of his star quarterback and wide receiver in the locker room after the game. Trey and John were the last to depart. The rest of the team had already boisterously departed to enjoy the victory celebration hosted by the booster club on the blocked-off street of Main. Coach Turner had stayed behind to allay a growing concern. “You boys ought to be bustin’ out of your T-shirts instead of looking like you lost the district championship.”

  “We’re okay,” Trey said. “Aren’t we, John?”

  John concentrated on snapping closed his letter jacket. “Yeah, sure.”

  Coach Turner placed a hand on each of his players’ shoulders. “What’s the matter, boys? You two have been distant from each other all week. You haven’t had a falling-out, have you?”

  “No, sir,” Trey said. Coach Turner was one of the few men Trey ever addressed as sir. “Me and John—we’re tighter than ever. Aren’t we, John?” His gaze at John pleaded with him to agree.

  John nodded. “That’s right,” he said.

  Ron Turner narrowed an eye at them. “You’re not still battling that stomach virus you got from Bennie’s, are you?”

  “Sort of,” Trey said, with a quick glance at John.

  Coach Turner darted a skeptical glance at each boy. “Why don’t I believe you? Something’s got the wind up you fellows, but I won’t try to pry it out of you tonight. I want you to talk it out with each other right here, right now. The party will wait. I’ll tell Cathy and Bebe where you are. We’ve got a Bi-District game to play next week, and I want you to be ready for it, but more important, I want you to repair whatever is affecting your friendship. You boys share a rare and special bond that comes once in a lifetime and few ever know. Don’t let something come between you that could be put to rights by a heart-to-heart talk. Okay?”

  Coach Turner observed that his words did not put a spark in their plugs, but both boys nodded and Trey said, “Okay, Coach.”

  When he had gone, hunched in their letter jackets, avoiding eye contact, the longtime friends stood uneasily in each other’s presence. They wore the booster club’s preordered ball caps with 1985 DISTRICT CHAMPS stitched across the crown that had been distributed to the players in the jubilant postgame frenzy. Since Monday, except for appearing together in their classes and at football practice, Trey and John had agreed by some sort of telepathy to avoid each other so that they might come to grips with what had happened privately. After practice each day, John had gone to St. Matthew’s; Trey had spent every free hour with Cathy.

  Shamefaced, shooting an uncomfortable glance at John, Trey cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Tiger. I swear before God, I’m sorry.”

  “You ought to be, TD.”

  “I thought they’d be tougher.”

  “You were wrong. Why’d you bring the bobcat’s foot?”

  Trey’s face bloomed deep rose. He sat down on one of the benches and removed his cap. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his lids as if to relieve a migraine. “Because all season I’ve been afraid of… losing everything, John—all we’ve worked for. It’s made me crazy. I thought… a few scrapes of a real bobcat’s paw would make a bigger statement, give us more of an edge.”

  Trey looked up with remorse-ridden eyes, the high ridges of his cheeks showing the pale imprints of his fingers. “I swear the idea didn’t even come to me until Sunday night when I was lying in bed and remembered Uncle Harvey’s stuffed bobcat in the attic. You can ask Aunt Mabel. She heard me rummaging around up there around midnight and climbed the stairs to ask what I was doing. I… just thought I’d bring the paw along to see if I could go through with it.”

  “Would you have?”

  “No. When I saw the ram, I chickened out. Besides, I knew what you’d think of me. When Donny came tearing out, I was going to ask what we could do with the thing to leave the Rams a message….”

  Exasperated, John asked, “Why can’t you ever play anything straight, TD?”

  “It’s not in me, Tiger. That’s why I need you. That’s why you’re my man. You keep me on the straight and narrow.”

  John shoved his hands into his letter jacket and dropped his chin to his chest in resignation. He believed the cat’s paw story. It was typical of the direction Trey’s mind sometimes took. He’d choose to play a wild card—a joker—when he held an ace.

  “I’ll never get over it, TD, not ever.”

  “I know you won’t, John. That’s the difference between you and me. Look, you… you’re not going to pull out on me, are you?” The note of disbelief in Trey’s voice implied he’d been thinking about the possibilit
y and found it intolerable. “John, you and Cathy are my family, the only people I have in the world except Aunt Mabel, and she’s old.” Tears flashed in his eyes. “I need you, man. I’ve been miserable this week. It’s been like trying to sit on a three-legged stool with one of them missing. Tell me I didn’t blow it this time, that we’re still as tight as we’ve always been. I’ll believe whatever you say.”

  John handed him a towel from a bin and joined him on the bench. “I’m not pulling out on you, TD. I’d never do that. I’m sick over what happened… leaving the body like that… for the parents to find… and all for nothing.”

  “I know, I know.” Trey put an arm around his shoulders and joggled them. “Don’t think about it. We’ll get through this together. Someday it’ll all fade, be nothing but a dim memory. You’ll see. And when I make lots of money playing for the NFL, I’ll start a scholarship fund in Donny Harbison’s memory. You just wait. I’ll do it.”

  “It won’t make up for anything—not to the Harbisons. Without their son, they’ll go through life feeling what we do without our parents.” John shook off his arm. “Jeez, TD, somebody might come in and think we’re a couple of queers. Has Cathy suspected anything?”

  “She knows I’ve been… on edge. I could never have gotten through this past week if it hadn’t been for her. You’ve been going to St. Matthew’s, haven’t you? What do you do there? Pray?”

  “Sometimes, and sometimes I just sit in the pew. It’s helped.” He hadn’t gone to confession. Father Richard would have him do the only thing possible to unburden himself—go to Sheriff Tyson—but he couldn’t do that to Trey. He simply couldn’t. He would have to live without absolution for the rest of his life.

  Trey drove a playful fist into his shoulder. “So, we’re still going to Miami and kick butt together, right? We’re still best buds, joined at the hip, right?”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  “And I’m forgiven?”

  “Don’t push your luck, TD.”

  Trey slapped his cap back on his head. “You’re my man, John.”

  In the steady march to the deciding game for the state championship, the duo led the Kersey Bobcats from victory to victory in stadiums packed to capacity. John’s star status made Bert Caldwell something of a celebrity to the point that he stopped drinking in order to be, he said, “in working order,” at the games. The same standing was given to Mabel Church, who preened with pride over praise of her nephew, despite her secret hope that the Bobcats would lose to relieve her persistent worry that he would be injured.

  The constant stream of telephone calls, telegrams, requests from college head coaches to meet with them personally, and the number of “offer” letters and invitations from prestigious university athletic departments to visit their campuses, all expenses paid, made John and Trey among the most hotly recruited high school football players in the country. In December, Mabel and Emma took their phones off the hook so the trio could do their homework undisturbed around their kitchen tables. Offer letters and telegrams piled up in drawers, unopened. No matter what the special allure of other schools, Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell let it be known they stood fast in their decision to attend the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, and that was that. Come Signing Day in February 1986, they’d be writing their names on the dotted line to play for Coach Mueller and his Miami Hurricanes.

  Trey’s only peace from the stress and pressure of leading the team to the final game came when he and Cathy were alone together, John’s when he was at St. Matthew’s. He and Father Richard had become philosophical friends, the priest often inviting him to supper when John wasn’t at Miss Emma’s or Aunt Mabel’s. They mainly discussed the history of the Catholic Church, which John found fascinating, especially the background of the Society of Jesus, from which the Jesuit Order evolved. Father Richard, an aesthetic, kindly man, was a Jesuit.

  It was on one such visit that John encountered Lou and Betty Harbison face-to-face on the sidewalk leading to Father Richard’s office. Before then, numerous times, John had visited their son’s grave, sometimes bringing flowers from Emma’s and Mabel’s flower beds to place before the headstone.

  “You’re John Caldwell, aren’t you?” Betty said. She and her husband had just come from the cemetery behind the church.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “We’ve been keeping up with you Bobcats since you whupped us,” Lou said, his brief grin overshadowed by his visible memory that the game was played the week his son died.

  “And we hope you go all the way to state and make the county proud,” Betty said.

  “Thank you,” John said. He paused, adopting a teenage boy’s awkward stance. He looked down at his feet, pushed his hands into his pockets. “We’ll try our best,” he added.

  “You’re the one who sometimes leaves flowers on our son’s grave, aren’t you?” Betty said, bending down to peer up into his face.

  John felt his chest compress. “Yes, ma’am… sometimes.”

  “Why? Did you know Donny?”

  “Only slightly—from St. Matthew’s. I… was sorry about his death.”

  “Yes…,” Betty mused, her gaze thoughtful. “I can see that. Thank you for caring.”

  “No problem,” John said, and stepped aside for them to pass.

  Shortly afterwards, a college admissions book arrived in the Caldwells’ mailbox from Loyola University in New Orleans, a renowned Jesuit university.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Finally it was upon them, the last game of the play-off season. The journey to Texas Stadium in Irving where the 3A State Championship game was to be played had been long and hard, but Kersey’s defeated opponents had been left with no doubt who was the better team. Against the Houston White Tigers, however, the Kersey Bobcats were going in as underdogs.

  The Houston team reputedly was made up of a group of street toughs—thugs, some called them, a few already having had brushes with the law—and was noted for its brutal tackling and blocking. Their linemen outweighed Kersey’s by an average of fifteen pounds a man and had established a reputation for sacking quarterbacks and making short work of their favorite receivers. Everybody knew the Tigers would be gunning for Trey and John.

  Throughout the entire season, Trey had escaped the fray virtually untouched—at least by game standards—because of Coach Turner’s edict to the offense that their first and most important assignment was to protect their quarterback. The linemen were ready to do so. The instinctive skill that made Trey an outstanding team leader as well as field general was responsible for his blockers giving it their all to ensure the defense didn’t lay a hand on him or his receivers. Trey was quick to praise and slow to condemn and, somehow, such graciousness, coming from Trey, meant even more and had greater effect than had it come from John. Charity was natural to John, not necessarily to Trey. Because the team trusted their pilot to lead them successfully through the storm, regardless of the largest share of media attention going to him and his wingman, they would have done anything for him.

  But would it be enough?

  Every night the week of the game, Cathy went to bed with fear clutching her heart. What if Trey and John, too, of course, were hurt? All bets would be off then. Why couldn’t the boys have been tennis players or golfers? As the play-off season had progressed, her dislike grew for the sport of football and her disgust with a town that put such strain and pressure on its players. But as much as she hated to admit it, she owed the sport for her and Trey having become even closer. Ever since the days leading to the district game, he seemed unable to be away from her and could not get to her house fast enough after practice. “I need you,” he’d say. “You make all the bad things go away.”

  What bad things? The school and town had thrown themselves at his feet, adoring him even more because he did not stick out his chest and strut and posture like some of the other players but accepted the adulation with John’s quiet reserve and distance, which had deepened since the week of the dis
trict game. “A coach’s dream—true team leaders,” Coach Turner described him and John. They were offered free meals at Bennie’s Burgers and Monica’s Café, movie tickets, new jackets from a sporting-goods store, none of which they accepted.

  “Please, God,” Cathy prayed. “I do not ask for Kersey to win the game, only that you spare Trey and John injuries so that we can all go to the University of Miami together.”

  Sportswriters descended upon the small prairie town, hanging out in Bennie’s Burgers and Monica’s Café across the courthouse square to report on the excitement gripping the community the eve of the biggest football game in its high school’s history. One reporter described the atmosphere as so electrically charged that “a lighted match could blast the whole place off the map of Texas.” They searched out and limelighted anyone connected to the Bobcat team who could provide a human-interest story. One of them was its head coach, featured in an article that appeared in major Texas newspapers and began Trey’s lifelong aversion to members of the news media.

  “You’d have to live in Kersey to understand the influence of the man,” the reporter wrote, stating that the town took its marching orders from Coach Ron Turner. He had strict rules that his coaches, players, water boy, and student assistant—anybody associated with the Kersey Bobcats—were to follow. There was to be no talking to the news media or fraternizing with the townspeople, including members of the booster club, two days before a game. After practice, every member of the team was to be off the streets and at home, where they were expected to concentrate on the task at hand in peace and quiet. They were to minimize TV viewing and telephone conversations and avoid distractions. He left it to the mothers to see that their sons ate right, got to bed at a decent hour, and avoided stress.

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