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Tumbleweeds, p.40
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       Tumbleweeds, p.40

           Leila Meacham
 

  “Randy is not going to find that out,” John said. “We’re going to keep that information under our hats. Somebody killed Trey. It wasn’t you, and it wasn’t your mother. I repeat, Will, under no circumstances are you to admit to a murder you didn’t do. We have to keep the faith that the killer will be discovered.” He pointed to his neck and tried to grin. “I don’t wear this collar for nothing.”

  “I hope it carries a lot of weight with the man upstairs,” Will said, but his eyes betrayed his doubt.

  When Will had gone, John went to his office and telephoned a fellow Jesuit and graduate of Loyola University who was practicing criminal law in Lubbock. After he related the details of his concern, the attorney said that yes, Will’s arrest was probably imminent and to let him know when he was taken into custody. He would leave immediately for Kersey.

  John wandered back into the nave of the church and sat down in the same spot he’d occupied all those afternoons ago following the one that had changed his life forever. He’d not filled the seat since. Today he went to it automatically, the site where he’d poured out his greatest anguish and fear. Here in this eighteen-inch expanse he’d found peace. Here he’d found the answer he was seeking for his life. With the same desperate hope for deliverance, he knelt on the prayer bench and pressed his clenched hands to his forehead, but he could not pray past his horrible memories of Pelican Bay Prison or the mental image of his son confined in such a hell.

  If Will was charged, Cathy would admit to the crime. John had no doubt of that. She would sacrifice herself rather than allow her innocent son to be found guilty of murder. The motive she’d give would be simple: She’d hated TD Hall. She’d never reveal her real motive for wanting him dead for fear of exposing Father John Caldwell, and Will had pointed out a reason she could not use his paternity as cause to kill him. It was doubtful the police would buy her confession in light of the evidence against Will, but it would certainly raise the possibility in the county that she was the killer.

  For the first time in his ministry, John found he could not sincerely pray, Thou will be done. He wanted his will done, and that was to see the real killer found and his son and Cathy exonerated. God’s will was always right but not always just.

  John returned home to hear from Betty that Trey’s lawyer, Lawrence Statton, would be flying in from California the next morning and had requested a meeting with her and Lou that afternoon. “Now what do you suppose that’s all about?” she asked.

  Guilt, he could have answered. Trey had left them a sop in his will. “We’ll have to wait to find out,” he replied.

  “He asked if you’d help him make funeral arrangements. Trey’s to be buried beside his aunt,” Betty said. “He also said that Trey had requested you officiate at his burial.” She handed him a notepaper. “He’s staying at the Holiday Inn on I-Forty. Got the last room. That’s the number where you can reach him.”

  John took the slip of paper and studied it. What could he say over the grave of a man who even in his death continued to devastate his family?

  Chapter Sixty-Two

  The bishop of the Amarillo diocese had advised John to say and do nothing concerning his admissions until he had time to consider his counsel. His preliminary opinion was that John’s act had been committed before he took his vows and therefore did not fall under the Church’s purview to determine the course he should take.

  As a result, Saturday evening John had resumed his place as presiding priest at the celebration of the mass at St. Matthew’s when Sheriff Randy Wallace filed a complaint with the county magistrate formally charging John Will Benson with the murder of Trey Don Hall. He presented as probable cause fingerprints from a Styrofoam cup the accused willingly gave him at his residence that matched the fingerprints taken from the scene of the crime. Warrants were issued for Will’s arrest and a search of his property and vehicle for further evidence linking him to the crime.

  The sheriff and his two deputies found him feeding his horses at sunset, Silva at his heels. After reading Will his rights and allowing him to call his mother and Father John, Randy left him to finish his duties while a deputy stood guard and he and Mike searched the house and Wrangler. The only gun found was a .22 rifle in the house, but the Jeep’s glove compartment yielded a receipt for gas purchased in the vicinity where Trey Don Hall’s body was found and on the date and time that corresponded with his murder.

  “We’re going to have to impound your Wrangler, Will,” Randy said. “We’ll need to compare your tire treads with a mold that we took at the scene of the crime.”

  “My keys are hanging inside the door,” Will said.

  “And your dog can come with us, if you like. Either Father John or your mother can pick him up at the department and take him home.”

  “What about your allergies?” Will asked.

  “Oh, that was a temporary thing.”

  Chapter Sixty-Three

  By Monday, Will Benson had been charged, arraigned, and released on bail. On Tuesday, Randy Wallace finally returned Deke’s calls. His protégé had rightfully guessed that his mentor still had a bee up his butt about some crime Trey Don Hall may have committed when he was seventeen. What difference did it make now? The boy was dead.

  Deke could appreciate that Randy had his hands full. A media frenzy had ensued when the Department of Public Safety in Amarillo disclosed full forensic and pathology reports to the public that included the shockingly ironic information that Trey Don Hall was dying from a brain tumor when he was shot and killed. This sensational news was followed by Cathy Benson, mother of the accused, also confessing to the murder of the former NFL football star. As proof, she produced a sweater with the victim’s blood on its sleeve and maintained she had wiped out the tire tracks of her Lexus with a hand whisk broom kept in her car for sweeping the grave sites of family members. Her son had come along after her departure from the scene of the crime and parked in exactly the same spot opposite the victim’s BMW, leaving discernible tread marks. What other reason would explain why that section of the shoulder was pristine when the rest of the area was too heavily scored for the police to take clear impressions? To corroborate her story, a farmer driving a tractor had reported seeing the top of a white car “going a mite fast” down the road about sundown. She’d thrown the murder weapon away and denied knowledge of the victim’s inoperable brain tumor prior to the shooting. Against the irrefutable body of evidence against Will Benson, the district attorney had brushed off her confession as a mother’s desperate attempt to save her son from prosecution.

  Deke took Randy’s call feeling disconcerted. His reason for bugging Randy was now a moot point that would remain undisclosed to the current sheriff. Randy could return the evidence bag dated November 4, 1985, to its proper place, and the monogrammed water glass bearing the logo of the Jesuit Order would remain in Deke’s possession until he decided what to do with it. Father John Caldwell would not be investigated as an accomplice in the death of Donny Harbison.

  Yesterday, Lou Harbison had shown up unexpectedly, looking as if years had dropped from his face. He explained that he had brought Deke something he and Betty thought he ought to see. Deke had taken him into his study.

  “What is it, Lou?”

  “Read it and see for yourself,” Lou said, and handed him a letter. “Trey Hall’s lawyer gave it to us. Trey wrote it when he learned he was dying. He instructed Mr. Statton—that’s the name of the lawyer, awfully nice fella—to get it to Betty and me upon his death.”

  Deke had read while Lou was speaking, his neck hairs lifting. The letter, dated months ago, was a confession from Trey Don Hall to Lou and Betty Harbison that he was responsible for their son’s death on November 4, 1985. He explained the reason he was on the premises, described the fight, and admitted hanging Donny’s body in the barn to simulate a death by autoerotic asphyxia. He was writing the letter to assure them their son had died bravely and was innocent of the impression Trey had deliberately created to throw off an invest
igation. He asked them to forgive him.

  Nowhere in the letter was John Caldwell’s participation in the incident mentioned.

  Feeling as if the air had been whacked from his lungs, Deke had coughed and handed the letter back. “That’s it then. You and Betty can rest easier now that you know the truth.”

  “You always did think Donny’s death wasn’t what it seemed, didn’t you, Sheriff? Betty and I have been grateful to you for that, and this proves you were right.”

  “For your sakes, I wish the case could have been solved earlier.”

  Lou had ducked his head sheepishly. “Oh, well, we all know why it wasn’t, don’t we, Sheriff, and of course we want to keep this letter a secret only you and Betty and I know about. For obvious reasons, Father John is never to know that we… misled the Church about the cause of our boy’s death, and… I suspect it would mean trouble for you, too.”

  “Don’t worry, Lou. This will stay between us. Trey didn’t give any indication to you and Betty of the contents of the letter while he was with you?”

  “Nothing but his mention of the rolling pin he refers to in it. Betty says he asked her if she’d gotten a new one. She wondered how he could have known it was missing from all those years ago. She said she spoke to you about it.”

  “Yes, she did.”

  “She also said you’d asked her if Trey could have known we’d be out of town that day. That leads us to believe you knew he was involved in Donny’s death. How was that? And why now?”

  “It doesn’t matter, Lou. You know the truth, and that’s all that counts.”

  “That’s a fact, thank the loving God. Too bad somebody had to go and kill him. We can’t believe it was Cathy or Will. If whoever did it had only waited a while, he’d have died anyway.”

  Deke had pondered what he should do with the rest of his suspicions. Nothing, he decided. The Harbisons had their peace; Trey, his justice—of a sort. Father John could continue his good works and settle up with God in the afterlife, and Lou and Betty would not be denied their second son. John Caldwell had not escaped punishment for his part in the accident. Father John had suffered and would continue to suffer, if he knew anything about the man. Deke wasn’t entirely easy about it, but he could live with it.

  Nonetheless, he had a few things to say to Randy that the sheriff ought to hear. He put the receiver to his ear. “Will didn’t do it, and his mother didn’t, either,” he said by way of greeting.

  “Good morning to you, too, Deke, and I hope to God you’re right,” Randy said, “but what are you going by other than that crystal gut of yours?”

  Deke picked up a press photo of the crime scene from other news clippings of the murder spread on his desk. “The Jeep tracks. They’re parallel to the BMW parked on the opposite shoulder. Trey’s body was found slightly to the rear of his vehicle as if—like you speculated—he was walking toward someone who had stopped behind him. If Will or Cathy had shot him, Trey’s body would have fallen closer to the middle of his car. It’s a small point, but an important one.”

  Dismayed silence greeted Deke’s conjecture.

  “One other small thing,” Deke said. “It’s a logical assumption that neither Trey nor the other driver recognized each other until they were fender to fender. In that situation, how would it be possible for them to come to fast, parallel stops? One would have to backtrack or stop farther up the road.”

  Randy let out a weary sigh. “Jesus, Deke.”

  “It’s no proof of the Bensons’ innocence, but you can’t refute the location of the Jeep’s tire tracks. I believe Cathy came on the scene first, found the body, parked on the opposite shoulder, got out, and felt Trey’s neck for a pulse. That accounts for the blood on her sleeve. Will comes along later, suspects the worst, but takes a minute to grieve for his father and leaves his DNA and fingerprints.”

  “And his mother throws her rifle away so we can’t prove it wasn’t the murder weapon when she takes the blame for her son,” Randy finished for him. “Holy cow, Deke, if neither one of them killed him, who the hell did?”

  “I wish I could answer that. You’re going to have to keep digging. Trey’s lawyer is in town. The Harbisons can tell you where he’s staying. Maybe he can give you some ideas. By the way, you can replace the evidence bag you’ve probably still got in your trunk. It’s inconsequential now.”

  “I was thinking you’d come to that conclusion.”

  He had barely hung up when the phone rang again. He let Paula answer it and tilted his chair back to rake his memory for names of anyone in the county with motive to kill Trey after twenty-two years. The caliber of the rifle suggested someone local. The question always went back to who knew Trey was staying at Harbison House.

  Paula appeared in the doorway, pressing the portable receiver of the kitchen phone against her thigh. “This is your week for unexpected visitors. You’ll never guess who’s on the line asking to come talk to you.”

  Why did his wife, Deke wondered a little irritably—after almost forty-four years of marriage—make him guess the name of the person calling when he couldn’t possibly have a clue of who was on the other end of the line?

  “Your aunt Maude from North Dakota,” he said shortly.

  “Aunt Maude died three Easters ago, and it was South Dakota,” she said. “It’s Father John.”

  “What?”

  “I thought that would get your boxers in a twist,” Paula said.

  Deke snatched up the receiver on his desk. “John?”

  “Good morning, Deke. I imagine this call is somewhat of a surprise.”

  Deke heard a click as Paula replaced the kitchen phone. “It is somewhat,” he said, and waited, his breath held. He’d been wondering if they’d get back to that tense moment between them Friday night at mass when he’d snitched the glass. Every instinct in him had shouted that John had somehow sensed why he was there.

  “I wonder if I could come see you today?” John asked. “I can leave now and be there in an hour. I’m convinced Cathy and Will are innocent, and I was hoping you and I could go over details the police may have overlooked, kick other possibilities around. Sheriff Wallace seems to think the case is sewed up.”

  “I share both your doubts and belief. How about if I meet you in Kersey? I have an appointment with Trey’s lawyer this afternoon to sign some paperwork for Mabel’s house.”

  “It would be better if I meet you at your home, Sheriff, in case the news media get wind of something in the air. Some of them are camped outside Harbison House, and it’s important I see you as soon as possible.”

  “Come on then. I’ll be waiting.”

  Well, well, Deke thought, as he hung up the phone. “Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

  Chapter Sixty-Four

  You look a little… wasted,” Deke pronounced in a tone of surprise when he opened the door to him.

  “It shows, huh?” John said. It didn’t take much for him to shed pounds he could ill afford to lose. His last attempt at eating a meal had been Friday night, when he’d done little justice to Cathy’s lasagna and cheesecake, and he’d hardly slept since. He knew he looked drawn and weary in his black suit, a man of the cloth who’d lost his faith.

  “You look like you’ve missed a couple nights’ sleep, not to mention a meal or two.”

  “You’re an observant man, Deke Tyson. Hello, Paula.”

  Paula had come up behind Deke, and her expression, too, widened slightly. John recalled they’d met last at a christening in May at St. Matthew’s when the world had been sunny and bright and this blight on the land unforeseen. She rebuked her husband with a swipe of her kitchen towel. “Don’t mind Mister Blunt here, but I bet you could use a good helping of my daughter’s fabulous chicken casserole I’ve made for lunch.”

  “Paula, babe, I don’t think John’s here to eat lunch.”

  “Well, then, how about a glass of my good sun tea?” she asked, quick understanding of the seriousness of the occasion in the look sh
e shot each man.

  “That would be nice,” John said.

  They settled in Deke’s overstuffed study. “Thanks for seeing me at such short notice,” John said, alert to anything in Deke’s manner that would explain his unexpected appearance at mass Friday night.

  “Things pretty tough in Kersey, Father?”

  “Very. Cathy has closed the café indefinitely and Will has to report to a preliminary hearing in the morning. Swarms of reporters are in town. Odell Wolfe laid into one with his whip, and the reporter is pressing charges. Odell is sixty-five years old, for goodness’ sakes.”

  “I thought Odell had retired Ol’ Bull.”

  “He did, but it’s back in action—or was until Randy confiscated it. What’s so disappointing and sickening is the general attitude of the county.” John did not hide his disgust. “People understand Cathy’s and Will’s grievances against Trey, but they have no problem believing that one or the other killed him.”

  “That doesn’t surprise me. People rarely surprise me anymore—sometimes, but not often,” Deke said.

  John heard a world of meaning in that statement and it seemed directed at him, but before he could interpret it Paula entered and placed a tray with a pitcher of iced tea and glasses on Deke’s desk. “Enjoy, boys,” she said, and patted John’s shoulder encouragingly before she left the room.

  “You’ve got a good one there, Deke,” John said, taking a glass.

  “The best. What’s on your mind?”

  There it was again, John thought—the clipped, almost unfriendly tone he’d first picked up on during their earlier telephone conversation. His ear had not mistaken it. He would get to the source of it later. He indicated the news articles. “It’s good to see you’re following the case.”

  “Such as it is.”

  “Exactly. This case has not been properly investigated, despite the evidence collected against Will.”

 
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