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Tumbleweeds, p.41
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       Tumbleweeds, p.41

           Leila Meacham
 

  “That’s what I told Randy a little while ago when I spoke with him. The evidence appears damning, but it’s not clear-cut proof.”

  John released his breath and relaxed a little as he crossed his legs and sipped the tea. He had known to come to Deke. Deke would get to the bottom of this. He hoped to convince him to conduct his own investigation. “I’ve arranged a good lawyer for Will. Any idea who may have done this?”

  “Not a one. The question always goes back to who knew Trey was staying at Harbison House.”

  “That’s what has Randy hung up. He believes the only people with a motive to kill Trey who knew where to find him were Cathy and Will, but suppose somebody spotted Trey in town Friday and followed him there, then later drove out to shoot him?”

  Deke grunted agreement. “Sounds possible. Bobby Tucker mentioned seeing Trey in town about noon, and he told me that my darling daughter had made no secret that I was buying Mabel Church’s house and meeting with Trey. When I questioned her about it, she said she couldn’t remember where all she’d spread the news, and of course, her husband knew of the sale and our meeting, but I didn’t mention to them or Paula or anybody else that Trey was bunking with you.”

  “Well, then, considering there were others in town who knew of your meeting with Trey, shouldn’t Randy and his deputies be trying to track them down for information that could lead to something?”

  “It’s what I would do.”

  John uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. “Deke, we all know that Trey was bound to have had enemies. Who’s to say that somebody from out of the county didn’t kill him? Someone in San Diego or Santa Fe or wherever he hung out that he told where he was headed and that person followed him here to kill him? Shouldn’t the sheriff’s department be canvassing the area for anyone who saw a stranger in town and motels for someone who rented a room for a day or so—just long enough to get the job done?”

  “It’s worth a shot,” Deke said.

  “And… I know this is grasping at straws, Sheriff,” John said, hardly heartened by Deke’s lack of enthusiasm, “but… what if there was a hit on Trey?”

  He detected an amused twist of Deke’s lips. “A paid assassin using a .30-30 rifle, Father?”

  “I thought of that. I think it would be pretty clever to use a country bumpkin’s weapon for the hit. Make the police think somebody in the county did it.”

  Deke gave him a wry look over his tea glass. “Well, it’s been my experience, not firsthand, mind you, that hit men are not particularly interested in laying blame for a killing as long as they get away with it themselves.”

  Right, John thought, feeling foolish. He put up his hands to concede the absurdity of his suggestion. “Okay, so maybe that’s a little far-fetched, but there have to be other rocks Randy and his deputies have failed to look under.” Disappointed, he stared at the unforthcoming Deke. But where and who and why? The questions had hammered him like stones for almost four days, and he was defenseless against them. He’d come to Deke for answers, but he suspected even the canny and resourceful Deke Tyson would have no more success in finding them than Randy and his bunch. The murderer would forever elude the authorities. His son would be convicted of a crime he did not commit and a cloud of suspicion would hang over his mother the rest of her life.

  He fell back in his chair, suddenly drained of energy, faith, and hope. His mind was numb from despair. He looked at Deke helplessly. “Do you have any ideas at all, Sheriff?”

  “I’ll look around, make inquiries. Like I said, I’m meeting with Trey’s lawyer this afternoon. I’ll question him about Trey’s associates—those who might have had it in for him.”

  “His lawyer knew where Trey was staying?”

  “But his lawyer knew he was dying, John.”

  Deke had heard the lift of hope in his voice, read his mind. Ashamed, John said, “Right. Scratch the lawyer as a suspect. As a man of the cloth, I hate thinking this way, but I’m frantic to save an innocent boy from going to prison and his mother from disgrace.”

  “Understood.” Deke sipped his tea.

  There was that short tone again, dismissive, not at all like Deke, who’d always held him in special affection and respect. He’d come in hope of a warm hand but been given a cold shoulder. Something was wrong. “Why were you at mass Friday night, Sheriff?” The question slipped out before he meant to ask it, but John had the eerie feeling, almost as if it had been delivered on angel’s wings or the devil’s fork, that Deke’s appearance at St. Matthew’s the night of the murder had some connection with Trey’s death.

  Deke got busy arranging the news clippings into a neat pile. “It doesn’t matter now.”

  “Everything matters now,” John said. “What’s bothering you? Something is. I can tell.”

  “It has nothing to do with the case.”

  “Let me be the judge of that.”

  Deke paused in his assembling and addressed him with a stern eye. “Believe me, you don’t want to be the judge of that.”

  John stood up. He’d known Deke a long time and he respected no man more, but he would not leave here without being told what was going on behind that hard stare. He put his hands on the desk and leaned down into Deke’s face. “If it pertains to me or Trey or Will or Cathy, I need to know, Sheriff.”

  “You’ll be sorry you asked, Father, and I’ll be sorrier I answered. I wouldn’t answer at all, if I wasn’t sure what I have to say will never leave this room.”

  John plunked down again. “Tell me,” he said.

  Deke pushed his chair away from his desk, extended his legs, and locked his hands over his paunch. “All right. This may be my only opportunity to get the assurance I need to salve my old policeman’s conscience.”

  “What kind of assurance?”

  “The assurance of your innocence. Now be quiet and I’ll tell you what I know and what I’ve conjectured since I discovered a stuffed bobcat in Mabel’s attic on Friday after Trey left the house. It had a front paw missing—the same paw I found under the picnic table in the Harbisons’ backyard on November 4, 1985, when I investigated the hanging death of their son.”

  John’s mouth had frozen open. His staring eyes had locked in their sockets. He felt like a man paralyzed who could feel every pain. A deep-throated clock struck the hour of eleven somewhere in the house. To his ears, the tones sounded like drum beats knelling his walk to the gallows.

  Deke continued. “The limb is in an evidence bag in the Kersey County Sheriff’s Department along with the extension cord used for the noose and some porno magazines found around the feet of Donny Harbison’s suspended body. All the items I collected from that time, including my notes and interviews, are in it as well—preserved for the day evidence would surface to prove Donny didn’t die from autoerotic asphyxia.”

  Deke’s glare held no mercy and did not invite dispute, even if John had been capable of offering it. So he had not escaped the shadows after all. Trey’s death had not delivered him.

  “When I found that leg, and with a little unwitting help from Melissa,” Deke went on, “I started putting two and two together. I took a football trophy of Trey’s to the forensics lab in Amarillo to compare to the prints on the cord and magazines. They matched. There was only one set unidentified, but again, after some investigating, I had an idea who they belonged to.”

  “Mine,” John said.

  “If you’re missing a water glass from the altar, I’m guilty. I pilfered it Friday night after mass to take to the forensics lab.”

  “And… the prints on the glass matched those on the cord?”

  Deke shrugged. “Don’t know. I never got that far by the time Trey was murdered. I still have the glass. You want to tell me what happened that November afternoon? What you say here stays here. That’s a promise.”

  John had ceased to listen. Light had begun to dawn over the darkness of his despair, and as his brain began to grasp the gift Deke had handed him it burst forth full and glowing, transfixing him, b
linding him, filling him with a happiness so great he could have kissed Deke’s feet. God had not forsaken him. Once again, when his faith had faltered, God had lifted him up. He had given him a way to save his son.

  Deke was saying, his tone now gently urging, “You can tell me, John. I’m thinking it all had to be that rapscallion Trey’s crazy idea to go out to the Harbisons’ that day and you went along to keep him out of trouble. I’m sure the autoerotic asphyxia idea was his, too, but what’s bothered me about the case—about you, a Catholic—was the agony you let the Harbisons suffer all these years believing their boy died in such a shameful way.”

  John uttered a sound of jubilation and got to his feet. He threw back his shoulders and buttoned his clerical coat, a man with a weight no longer on his back. Deke rocked back at the sudden change in him.

  “That’s soon to be rectified, Sheriff, and the autoerotic asphyxia idea was mine, not Trey’s, precisely for the reason that I was a Catholic. I’m going to tell Betty and Lou the whole truth of that afternoon when I get back to Kersey.”

  Deke stood hastily, nearly upsetting his tea glass. “No, that won’t be necessary. The Harbisons already know the truth—or at least part of it. I can’t tell you how I know, but I do. You’ve got to trust me on that.”

  “Oh, I trust you, Sheriff—completely. That’s why I know you’ll do your duty and take me in for killing Trey.”

  “What?”

  “I killed Trey to keep him from implicating me when he confessed to the Harbisons how Donny really died.” His voice came strong and confident. His strength had returned. “Trey was dying and didn’t want our sin upon his conscience. He was going to tell the Harbisons everything when Lou brought the kids back from mass. I couldn’t let that happen. The people’s faith in me—in the Church—would be destroyed. I would lose everything I cherished—the Harbisons’ affection, my parish, my ministry…”

  Deke tore from around his desk. “Think what you’re saying, John. Remember you’re talking to a retired officer of the law. Why are you telling me this?”

  “I can’t let Will Benson go to prison. I can’t let my son take the blame for something I did.”

  Deke’s jaw dropped. “Your son!”

  “Will Benson is Cathy’s and my son.”

  Deke rolled back on his feet. “What!”

  “That was another truth Trey came home to reveal. Trey was sterile and had been since he was sixteen from a bad case of the mumps. He kept the secret from Cathy and me and let us believe for twenty-two years that Will was his. She and I… had a moment during a time when Trey had broken up with her. So you see, I had plenty of motive to kill TD Hall.”

  Deke gasped, “I don’t believe you.”

  “You don’t have to. All that matters is that the jury does. Now, if Paula wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to go with me to turn myself in to Randy. You don’t have to bring along the water glass. I’ll be glad to give you a sample of my fingerprints. And Deke, none of this will reflect against you. You had no proof in 1985 that Trey and I were guilty of the death of Donny Harbison.”

  Deke rushed to stand between John and the door. He put up his hands. “I can’t let you do this. You were at mass when Trey was killed. You have an alibi.”

  “Not fifteen minutes before. Father Philip can attest that I was late for mass.”

  “But you didn’t kill him,” Deke moaned.

  “My confession and that evidence bag will prove I did.”

  Chapter Sixty-Five

  Members of the news media were still camped out in the parking lot of the Kersey County Sheriff’s Department when John and Deke arrived in their vehicles. Scenting new fodder for their news stories at the appearance of the county’s well-known priest and its former sheriff, the men had barely slammed their doors before microphones were stuck before their faces. John and Deke brushed them aside and made for the double glass doors, the reporters trailing in the wake of their “No comments.”

  Randy listened to John’s confession with his mouth open in dumbstruck awe. The box containing the taped bag of Deke’s articles of evidence from 1985 was on his desk, not yet returned to the storage locker. Only he and Deke were in the office. His other two deputies had gone to lunch.

  “It’s all in there, right, Deke?” John said, pointing to the clearly marked box.

  Deke made a face and nodded.

  Randy began to thaw from his frozen position. He squeezed his eyes shut and held up his hands like a man surrendering but expecting to be shot. “Let me get this straight. You are now confessing to shooting Trey Hall, Father John.”

  “That’s right. You have all the evidence you need to arrest me. I had motive and opportunity. Will Benson is innocent.”

  “Your son.”

  “My son.”

  Randy pursed his lips. “Where’s the rifle?”

  Deke drew to listening attention. He’d been hoping for that question.

  “What?”

  “The rifle. The murder weapon. Where is it?”

  “I… threw it away.”

  “Where?”

  “Somewhere on the prairie.”

  “You possessed a .30-30 rifle, Father? What for?”

  John looked perplexed. Deke and Randy exchanged glances.

  “Tell you what,” Randy said, getting up as if he needed more breathing space. He hitched his gun belt to a more comfortable position. “I’ll have to drive to Amarillo to get your fingerprints analyzed, then back.” He set the paper sack containing the monogrammed glass in the evidence box. Deke had brought the glass along to avoid the embarrassment of John having to be fingerprinted in the sheriff’s office. “Then if your prints bear out your story of being involved with the Harbison kid’s death, I won’t be able to get the paperwork done and a request for an arrest warrant until after lunch tomorrow. Mavis Barton gets her hair and nails done on Wednesday morning, and God help me if I disturb Her Majesty, the magistrate. You go on home, Father, until I can make heads or tails of this mess with the DA. Meanwhile, I imagine you and the Harbisons have something to discuss.”

  Deke drew Randy aside as John stepped into the hall. “About your chat with the DA, Sheriff,” he said, lowering his voice, “I’d appreciate your keeping that part of John’s confession between you and him until it’s absolutely necessary to make it public.”

  “Believe me, I will. I’m sick to my gut about it. John may have had a humdinger of a motive, but if he killed TD Hall may worms eat my ass. A double-wide could pass through his story. However, I want you to look at something Trey wrote just before he died and left on John’s desk.” He unlocked a drawer and removed a plastic evidence bag containing an open note. Deke read the brief message. “For the kids. I’m leaving, Tiger. I’ve reconsidered and have decided not to go through with it. I’m trusting you to keep your silence as you always have. Spare me that blight on my name. I’d appreciate your prayers. Love to the end, Trey.”

  “Good God,” Deke said.

  “That note bears out John’s statement, and with the evidence you collected and if his fingerprints are a match to those on the cord…” Randy looked in pain. “Even with two other suspects confessing to the crime…”

  “John could be the one to hang,” Deke said.

  “Pray he gets a good lawyer.”

  Before leaving the building and to escape the cameras and microphones, Deke asked John to meet him farther up the road before John left for Harbison House and Deke for his appointment with Lawrence Statton.

  When the black-suited figure got out of his Silverado, Deke couldn’t resist comparing the man to the teenager who used to climb out of his old pickup in his letter-jacket days when his future had stretched before him like a plush red carpet. But for that afternoon in November and Trey Don Hall gumming up the works, would he be wearing the black and white of a Jesuit priest today or a Super Bowl ring? No matter. Whichever course he would have chosen, John Caldwell would still be walking on that red carpet.

  “John, I have to
tell you something,” Deke said when they met between their vehicles. John’s dread and pain from what he was about to do once he arrived at Harbison House were as clear as his own face in Paula’s gleaming pans. “I swore I wouldn’t, but I’m forced to for the sakes of Lou and Betty Harbison. When Trey learned he was dying, he wrote a letter that he instructed his lawyer to give them after his death. In it, he confessed to the accident and took full blame for Donny’s death. Your name was not mentioned. Lawrence Statton brought it to them, and Lou drove to Amarillo yesterday to show it to me as proof I was right to question Donny’s death.”

  John looked surprised. “Trey wrote them a letter? Well, then, that explains why Betty and Lou seem to be happier lately, despite what’s happened. Donny’s picture used to be partially hidden. Now it’s on a shelf over the sink where Betty can look at it.”

  Deke took a step closer to John and squinted at him with the hope he could bore through his obstinate skull to a more reasonable mind. “They won’t show you that letter because they are afraid you’ll think less of them for concealing the circumstances of Donny’s death from the Church. Let them have their peace as long as possible. It may be that—somehow, someway—they may never have to know of your part in it. Even if they were to guess Trey had an accomplice, they’ll never suspect it was you.”

  “I don’t see how my confession can be avoided.”

  “You’re a priest, John. Have a little faith.”

  “I’m guilty, Sheriff.”

  “And I’m a monkey’s uncle. Think over my advice. Hold off telling them as long as you can.”

  An hour later, Lawrence Statton capped the fountain pen with which he had signed the final papers on behalf of Trey D. Hall’s estate giving Deke legal possession of Mabel Church’s house. He was a small man dressed in a navy-blue pin-striped suit, his silk tie precisely knotted within the pointed collar of his crisp white shirt. It was an unseasonably warm day, and they were sitting in a picnic area along Highway 40, batting away flies and finishing cups of coffee Deke had picked up at Whataburger, but the attorney looked as fresh and dapper as if he had spent the last hour in the cooling room of a florist shop.

 
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