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Tumbleweeds, p.31
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       Tumbleweeds, p.31

           Leila Meacham

  Deke had just stretched out his legs and tilted his Stetson forward to doze in the spring sun when he heard a car drive up to the curb. Son of a gun! The kid was on time. Somehow, he’d expected him not to be. Deke recognized the famous but older and thinner face instantly and went down the steps feeling the thrill that used to come over him when he watched Trey play in high school, then later in college and the NFL. Trey Hall might be a reputed horse’s behind, but he was one hell of a great quarterback.

  “Hello there, TD,” Deke said, meeting him on the walk. “Welcome back to your hometown.”

  “Looks like I can say the same to you, Sheriff Tyson,” Trey said, shaking Deke’s hand. “Amarillo doesn’t suit you?”

  “Not for the golden years. It’s gotten too big and noisy. And Melissa lives here now with her husband and our grandson.”


  “Our daughter. You and she were classmates. Graduated the same year.”

  “Oh, right.” Trey looked about ready to smack his forehead. “I went blank there for a second.”

  “And it’s not Sheriff anymore,” Deke said. “Just plain ol’ Deke Tyson.”

  “Well, just plain ol’ Deke Tyson, let’s go inside and see what we can work out.”

  Still a smart-ass, Deke thought, remembering the crooked grin, but for some reason Trey’s cussedness had endeared the boy to him. “After you,” he said, to allow Trey to go first into his boyhood home.

  Deke was curious to see what Trey Hall’s reaction would be when he stepped inside the house he hadn’t visited in twenty-two years. Surely the bric-a-brac, framed photos, his aunt’s hand-stitched pillows, the treasures she had loved, would have some meaning for the boy who had grown up here. Deke held back at the threshold to give him time for the memories, the ghosts to rush out to welcome their long-lost boy, and for a moment, he thought they had. Trey stood still in the musty living room, his body tense as if he heard voices from long ago.

  “It’s smaller than I remember,” he said.

  “Places we come back to after we’re grown nearly always are,” Deke said quietly, hearing Paula exclaim over some find in another part of the house. “Excuse me, and I’ll go get my wife. She’s around somewhere.”

  “You can have any of this stuff you want,” Trey said suddenly, sweeping his arm about the room. “I won’t have a use for it.”

  “Oh?” Deke said politely, his policeman’s ear catching won’t instead of don’t. “Does that mean you’re moving to another place out there in San Diego?”

  “That’s right. I’m not taking much with me.”

  “Sounds like you’re downsizing.”

  “You could call it that.”

  “Well, that’s awfully generous of you,” Deke said. He glanced around the room, saddened that the boy placed no value on the things that had been such a part of his life. “There are some fine items here, and you haven’t been through the house yet. There might be something you want to keep.”

  “No, there’s nothing,” Trey said, “and I’d appreciate your taking it all off my hands. Whatever you don’t want you can sell or give away.”

  Paula stood in the doorway, wearing the expression Deke understood well. She disliked the rough-and-tumble game of football and placed no stock in professional athletes with bad manners and worse morals who were paid fortunes for their talents while her daughter drew a paltry salary as a public school teacher. Never on Paula’s good side, Trey Hall had zoomed to the top of her bad list for his treatment of Cathy. She looked at him now as if he were a dead bug in her soup.

  “What about the attic?” she asked, her tone cold. “Boys’ things are usually relegated to the attic when they leave home. I imagine Mabel did the same with yours. You might find something up there you’d like to have.”

  Trey flashed his devilish grin, apparently amused at his cold reception. “Hello, Mrs. Tyson. It’s nice to see you again. No, I can’t think of a thing. The only items I remember stored in the attic were my uncle Harvey’s stuffed hunting trophies. I imagine they’re in pretty bad shape by now and ready for the trash heap.”

  “Whatever,” Paula said, ending the discussion with a dismissive wave of her hand. “But just remember. What we don’t keep we toss or sell. Don’t change your mind a year later and ask for something that’s not here.”

  “I believe I can assure you I won’t,” Trey said. “Now, Sheriff Tyson, why don’t we go out on the porch and finish our business?”

  It was done in less time than it would have taken to drink a cup of coffee. Deke handed over the check and Trey the deed. A muscle worked along Trey’s jawline, and Deke was glad to see some visible sign that the boy was sorry to see the place go. “Will you be going back to San Diego or staying around for a while?” he asked when Trey slipped the check into his shirt pocket.

  “I’m planning to take off tomorrow morning after I finish taking care of a few things. I’m staying with John Caldwell at Harbison House.”

  “That’s nice,” Deke said, wondering if Cathy Benson and her son were among the few things Trey would be taking care of. “You’ll be a treat for the kids. They’ve never seen a real, honest-to-goodness superstar.”

  Trey threw a mock punch at his arm. “You’re dating yourself, Sheriff. Those kids are too young to have a clue of who I am.” He put out his hand. “You and Mrs. Tyson enjoy the house. I’m glad I’m leaving it in your care. My aunt would be pleased.”

  “I wish you’d reconsider and look through the house, son. I imagine your high school trophies are still in your room.”

  “History,” Trey said. “I couldn’t take them with me to my new digs anyway. So long, Sheriff. You’ve been a good man to know.”

  Hands in his pockets, his Stetson pushed back, Deke watched Trey go down the steps to his car, oddly depressed. Trey Don Hall impressed him as a very sad man. It wasn’t an enviable position to be in at his age with the career over and the money gone and no loving wife waiting at home, no child to give him grandchildren, at least not the son he’d left Cathy to raise. Will Benson wanted no part of Trey Don Hall, so county gossip went, and Deke found that especially tragic, since the boy had made one mighty fine young man.

  But… as with his aunt’s treasures, Trey seemed not to mind leaving behind the valuables that would have been his to keep.

  Sighing, Deke went back inside to accompany Paula on a tour of the attic. It was the one area of the house they hadn’t explored, since they’d turned that inspection job over to their son-in-law, who was a building contractor. Paula wanted her husband with her in case spiders and other unwanted visitors had taken up residence in Mabel’s absence. By a miracle, one bulb in the overhead fixture still worked and added to the light cast from Deke’s flashlight.

  He almost didn’t see it. As Trey Hall had stated, his aunt had stored in the attic mainly the stuffed trophies of her late husband’s hunting expeditions, and they lay piled in a dried-out, forgotten heap gathering dust in a corner. Deke passed the beam quickly over the glass-eyed creatures and was about to move on, then threw it back.

  “What is it?” his wife asked as Deke grunted and left her side to investigate.

  Without responding, Deke reached into the pile of taxidermist specimens and drew out a large gray bobcat mounted in a pouncing position, its eyes wild and teeth bared and claws extended. Only one problem detracted from its menacing pose: a missing foreleg.

  Chapter Forty-Eight

  Upstairs at his study window, John observed the gray BMW take a slow turn at the gate and make its way at a sedate speed up to the house. He had been expecting to see something on the order of a red Corvette tearing up the drive, sending gravel flying and shattering blossoms from the mock orange trees, arriving late for the lunch Betty had prepared. That was the vision his childhood memories evoked of his long-ago best friend.

  John’s stomach tightened. Had Christ felt this clenching of his muscles when he saw Judas enter the garden the morning of his betrayal? he wondered.

  He watched the car draw into a visitor’s space, the door open, and the man he’d once thought of as a brother get out. He looked the same TD Hall, a little older, hair a little thinner on top, his clothes a few notches above the ones Aunt Mabel had provided. But he still hitched up his pants the old way, glanced around with the same cocky turn of his head. In spite of John’s feeling that a serpent had entered Eden, he could not suppress his joy. By all that was holy, it was good to see Trey again.

  John had stepped out onto the porch before Trey climbed the steps. The two men halted, stared, then laughed and embraced, slapping each other’s back as if they’d shared a hard-won victory.

  “Hi ya, Tiger,” Trey said, his voice cracking with emotion. “How the hell are you?”

  “I can’t complain,” John said, as hoarsely. They broke away to look each other over through tear-glazed eyes that neither bothered to hide.

  “You never did,” Trey said. He ran his gaze mockingly over the plaid shirt and jeans John had changed into. “What? No cassock and cross for the returned sinner?”

  “What would be the use?”

  Trey laughed. “You look good, Tiger. A little undernourished, maybe, but then all you zealous clerics do. Proof of your sincerity, I guess.”

  “And you look like you could still knock the girls dead. How about a beer before lunch?”

  “Love one. Want me to bring in my carry-on?”

  “Leave it until later. My quarters are upstairs. We’ll go there. It gets a little noisy down here. The kids are out of school now. They’ll be playing the TV in the next room at full volume. Go on up, and I’ll get the beers from the kitchen.”

  Trey did as directed, and John found him standing before the group pictures of the 1985 football team when he joined him.

  “Quite a team, weren’t we?” Trey mused.

  “Well, we had a good quarterback.”

  “And a great wide receiver. You were the best, John.”

  “So were you.”

  Trey shrugged. “At playing football, not much else.”

  John returned no comment as he handed Trey the beer. “I would have brought mugs, but I remembered you like your brew straight from the can, or has that changed?”

  “No, that’s stayed the same.”

  The men sat down, John at his desk, the light of the window behind him. Trey chose an easy chair with an ottoman. The sound of popping tabs echoed in the sudden silence of their faltered conversation. John noted Trey’s ironic interest in the room’s book-lined walls, fireplace, bedroom beyond, and outside balcony.

  “Fancy you living here,” Trey said.

  John took a swallow of his beer. “I lived in the St. Matthew’s rectory when I first arrived, then moved here when the Harbisons offered their house to the diocese as a home for abandoned children, and I became its director. We house ten children who’d otherwise be in foster care. The extra duty stretches me thin, so I find it easier to work from here.”

  “That’s not exactly what I meant.”

  “I know,” John said softly. “I only wanted you to know what we’re about here. Why are you back, Trey?”

  Trey lifted the beer can to his lips. After a lengthy swallow, his lips glistening with residue, he said, “I told you. I came to unload Aunt Mabel’s house.”

  “Is that all?”

  “Is that long, ecclesiastical look supposed to suggest I have something else in mind?”

  “Don’t play games, TD. This is John, remember?”

  “I remember.” Trey closed his eyes for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice sounded tired. “I remember you could read me like a book, knew what I was thinking before I said it. I could never put one over on you, and that was somehow my greatest consolation growing up, knowing my best friend knew me through and through and cared for me anyway. And you always did know when I was about to play a card from under the table, didn’t you, Tiger?” He shot John a fleeting grin before it vanished in the gloom that settled over his face. “Well, here it is. I’m dying, John. I have it on the word of none other than Cathy’s old friend—and yours, I understand—Dr. Laura Rhinelander. I have a brain tumor, stage four. Laura gave me about eleven months when I was referred to her. I’ve already used up half of them.”

  Several long ticks of John’s desk clock went by before comprehension penetrated his shock. Trey dying? It wasn’t possible. He was TD Hall, superstar, invincible, indestructible. He was only forty years old, for heaven’s sakes! He couldn’t be dying. But he was. The dark shadows under Trey’s eyes told him it was so. Pain spread in his jaws, mingling with the acrid aftertaste of the beer. “Is that why you came home—to tell me?”

  “I came home to confess.”

  “To me as a priest?”

  “No, Padre. To you as a friend. And to others, too. I have to clear my conscience so that I can die in peace. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

  John did. Trey’s meaning loomed like a long-buried specter rising from the grave. Alarm swept through him, swamping his compassion, displacing his grief of a few minutes ago. His uneasiness at Trey’s return had not been unfounded. Trey had come to buy peace at the cost of his.

  “Funny, I always thought you’d be the one to squeal on me,” Trey said. “At the beginning of my career, I lived in fear you’d have an attack of conscience and bare all, but I stopped worrying after you became a man of the cloth.”

  John observed him coldly. “Why?”

  Trey seemed surprised that he did not understand the obvious. “Why… because of all this.” He swept a hand about the room. “You’d have as much to lose as I would if you hadn’t kept silent.”

  “Yes, I would, but did it ever occur to you I kept silent because of my promise to you?”

  Color rose to Trey’s cheeks. “Of course it did, but you’ll forgive me if I felt better protected when you took your vows.” After a moment’s embarrassed silence, he said, “Tell me, John. Has it worked?”

  “Has what worked?”

  “The priesthood. Has it given you… the peace you craved?”

  John hesitated to answer. There was no mockery in Trey’s eyes, only plaintive hope. He had to disappoint him. “It has had its moments,” he said.

  “Ah. I’ll take that as a ‘sometimes,’ ” Trey said, reaching for the beer can. “Well, let me strike that look off your face, Tiger. I didn’t come to undo your good work. I don’t intend to involve you in my confession to the Harbisons. Father John and what he’s about are safe. This is all on me and only about me. My conscience, not yours. As far as the Harbisons will know, I acted alone that day. You were back in Kersey, sick in the home economics room.” He took a swig of the beer as if his throat had gone dry. Restored, he patted his wet lips with the back of his hand and continued. “Don’t be afraid that Lou and Betty Harbison will say anything to the authorities. Why would they and let the world know the condition in which they found their son? It will be comfort enough to know their son isn’t burning in hell. I’m guessing they probably cut the boy down and dressed him and made his death look like an accident. Otherwise, Sheriff Tyson would have been all over the case.”

  John should have felt enormous relief. At last, the Harbisons would know the truth of their son’s death. Their grief would be lifted, and they could live out their years in peace without ever knowing of John’s part in the crime—without having to lose a second son—but he had lived long enough to know that once a light was shone on part of the truth the other half would soon be revealed.

  “What’s the matter, John? I thought you’d be happy and relieved to have this burden off your soul.”

  “Your share, yes. Mine still weighs heavily.”

  “I’d say you’ve more than made up for it.”

  Betty’s tap came on the door, and John, feeling slightly sick to his stomach, called for her to come in.

  “I’m sorry to interrupt, Father, but lunch is ready. Should I bring it up?”

  Trey looked around, gave a sound of
surprise, and got to his feet. “Hello, Mrs. Harbison. How have you and Mr. Harbison been?”

  Betty gazed at him as if having trouble with her recollection.

  “Trey Hall, remember?”

  “I remember. You used to pick up your aunt’s order for eggs and vegetables.”

  Her tone did not match the warmth of his.

  “Yes, I did,” Trey said. “Is that all you remember?”

  “All I’ve a mind to,” she said. She turned to John. “Father, should I serve lunch?”

  “That will be fine, Betty.”

  When the door had closed, John explained. “She and Cathy are friends, and Betty is crazy about Will. Every year for his birthday, she bakes him her famous butterscotch cookies.”

  “And she hates my guts because of what she thinks I did to Cathy.”

  “Well, didn’t you?” John said.

  Trey turned to sit down again, a little slower, his silk shirt defining his thin shoulder blades, reminding John of his illness. When he was settled, he said, “I saw Cathy a while ago, but only for a few minutes. She didn’t see me. She was stopped at the traffic light next to Bennie’s. Damn, John, she looks good. Better than ever.”

  “She’s survived well. So has her son.”

  “Will Benson? He’s another reason I’ve come to town.”

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