Sunday, April 3, 2011
Bobo chomped happily on the tall grass outside the pasture fence. His tiny, square teeth pulled and gnashed the juicy, green stalks unceasingly, as if he knew it would take a full day’s work to keep his enormous round belly in its perfect, pony-like condition. His little head rose from the fragrant grass only once all morning, and that was when they carried the body out of the barn to deposit it into the waiting ambulance.
As his shiny, brown eyes watched the medics push a large, black-bagged bundle into the back of the truck with the flashing crown of lights, he pushed his head into the air and folded his lips away from his teeth, exposing the small, green tinted choppers and shaking his head in an effort to expel the smell of death coming to him on the warm breezes. He watched the ambulance pull away down the gravel driveway, and stared after it for a full five minutes before the insistence of his pony belly drew him back to the important job in front of him.
George Hawthorne left the house with Jeff Kincaid and the two of them wandered toward the smoldering remains of the barn. They stood looking up at the two remaining walls of the hundred-year-old barn for a minute, each of them silent with his own thoughts. Then George’s eye reluctantly turned toward the charred, green hunk of metal in the center of the ruins. “I was gonna give that tractor to my son when he got married, Jeff.”
Jeff recognized the tactic. He knew George would get around to asking the right questions, he’d just have to do it in his own time. “G.J. would have put that tractor to good use. I heard they were buyin’ the old Sullivan place.”
George nodded. “They’ll have their work cut out for ‘em there, by god. That land hasn’t been so much as mowed in over twenty years. Old man Sullivan just kinda gave up after he had to sell off his milk cows.”
Jeff spotted Mike Cleary talking to another Sheriff’s deputy around the side of the barn. He knew they were probably discussing the rifle that had been found stuffed in the victim’s crotch. Jeff shivered violently and deliberately turned his eyes from the barn. “That little pony sure got lucky didn’t he, George?”
George’s eyes softened as he followed the fireman’s gaze. “Bobo has more lives than a cat.” Then he frowned and shook his dark head. Turning toward the pasture gate, he opened it and walked over to the munching pony. “I’ve told that stubborn old woman a thousand times to take this thing off him when she puts him out.”
Jeff followed him into the pasture. As George unbuckled the fat, little pony’s halter and removed it, Jeff reached out and stroked the little guy’s wide rump. Bobo responded by turning and licking Jeff’s outstretched fingers. Jeff’s laughter rumbled up unexpectedly. The pony tossed his head and turned toward George on the other side of him. George reached out a large, callused hand and Bobo licked it too.
“He’s always been more like a puppy than a horse.” George said with a smile. “He likes the reaction he gets when he licks. People usually laugh. Did you know horses like it when people laugh, Jeff?”
Jeff shook his head. “They sure are interestin’ creatures, these horses. I always wanted one when I was a kid.” Then he nodded his head toward the canvas halter in George’s big paw. “Why’d you take that thing off him, won’t he be hard to catch now?”
George laughed. “All you have to do is shake a little grain at him and he gallops over to you. Only time this little guy gets any exercise. Naw, he doesn’t need this thing, he’ll only get it caught on something and hurt himself. I been tellin’ that old woman that for years, but she still puts it on him. Sometimes she forgets to take it off him when she puts him away.” George shook his head and reached out to scratch the fat pony’s belly. Bobo pushed his nose into the air and squinted his eyes with pleasure.
Jeff’s eyes were drawn again to the still smoldering barn.
George gave a huge sigh and followed Jeff’s gaze. “Any idea who the dead guy was?”
Jeff raised his hand to call Mike over. “I’ll let Mike give you the details, George.”
George threw a sharp look at the approaching man and sighed again. He continued scratching the pony, using Bobo as a barrier between himself and the bad news that was surely coming his way.
Mike Cleary came through the pasture gate, latching it firmly behind him, and moved toward them. The color of his face was now a deathly, ash gray, rather than the purple-red color he’d achieved in the confrontation with Mary Agnes. George wondered if the young man would take the confrontation out on him now.
But Cleary gave George a curt nod as he approached, and reached his hand out. “Mr. Hawthorne, I’m sorry about your barn.”
George nodded. Grasping the younger man’s hand firmly. “And I’m sorry about my ma.”
Cleary shrugged his broad shoulders as if to throw off the memory of his encounter with Mary Agnes. “Do you have time to answer some questions for me now, sir?”
“Do you know who was in the barn, Mike?”
Cleary’s eyes narrowed, but he shook his head. “Not much left of him, I’m sorry to say. Surprising too, cause he wasn’t far from the Deere and he was burned much worse.”
George felt the bile rise in his throat. He looked down at the fat pony, still happily snarfing the grass. “Any idea how the fire started?”
Jeff glanced toward Mike before looking back at George. “We won’t know that for sure until the investigator gets done.”
“Come on Jeff, you and me go back a long way. You have to have some idea.”
Jeff shook his head and looked at his feet.
George’s head jerked toward Cleary, his mouth dropping open in shock. “That’s crazy, Mike!”
Mike Cleary’s lips turned up in a bitter smile. “It’s not as crazy as you think, Mr. Hawthorne.” His eyes moved toward the house meaningfully. “That mother of yours has a few enemies around here.”
“Oh, I’ll admit she’s pissed a few people off now and then,” George said a little guiltily, “but arson? There’s no way.”
Cleary turned away from George Hawthorne’s accusing face and looked at the smoldering remains of the old barn. He watched the fire investigator sifting through the remains of the fire for a minute before saying, almost happily. “Thing is, sir, it’s not just arson. It’s murder too, isn’t it?”
~~*~~Next installation coming soon!