Straws 2


May 1940 - - November 1941


James R. Muri


Good to see you again. The story won't let go, will it? Well old friend - I can still call you friend? - there's plenty of scotch and that big easy chair over there, so help yourself to both and when you're fortified and comfortable we'll pick up the tale where we left off, that May evening of 1940.

* * *

To the guilty, a conscience is a curse.

To the conscience-encumbered guilty, every handshake, smile and remark contains hidden probings. A simple glance from anyone hints of suspicion. The guilty filter their conversations, their every word and action for self-incriminatory slips.

The guilty keep their guards up forever.

I had yet to learn these lessons of guilt. What I'd learned that afternoon was that murder is a terrible burden for a fifteen-year-old farm boy. The knowledge that I carried it out too late to do any real good made it worse. Uncomplicated but exquisite, paradoxically deadening, my fresh guilt didn't tell me that its lessons would be inflicted in regular and numberless increments. That secret revealed itself over the nearly sixty year span between that Saturday afternoon of May 11, 1940, and my sitting down to tell you this story.

Riding home that Saturday from the scene of my crime, I dismounted Henry to open the gate in the barbed wire fence that ran along our farm's southern boundary. All these decades later the gate wire still creases my hand as I remember pulling it off over the post. I can taste the humid breeze, hear the first tunings of late spring insect instruments. No modern recording medium can match the clarity of those, and other less benign, memories. I've tried dimming them many ways; I've tried alcohol, exhaustion and atonement. I tried confession. Only love worked.

There's irony for you.

On the way home from carrying out my foul crime that afternoon I'd talked myself out of suicide, using the logic that if I did that, the sheriff would suspect what I'd done and quiz my little sister Helen relentlessly until she confessed her part. Then she would go to prison.

We had conspired to rid the world of Jerold Farley, because he'd killed my beloved Hannah, his sister. He'd sodomized her one time too many, and she'd bitten him. He killed her for that. I killed him for that.

Helen knew what I would do once she lured him out into the endless and empty eastern Kansas prairie.

I resolved to keep her out of jail, even if it meant we fell to the thick temptation that hovered implacably between us, even if I had to live. I loved her too much to allow her to go to jail.

Henry and I walked through, then closed the gate. Far to the purple-tinged northeast I could make out smoke curling faintly from the kitchen chimney, promising a warm supper despite the late hour. I wondered how food could even cross my mind at such a time, what with a mutilated and eviscerated Jerold still warm in his hidden grave.

I climbed back onto Henry and let him carry me toward home. When I saw Mr. Farley's Packard and the sheriff's black and white LaSalle in our yard, I pulled up sharply.

How could they already have found out? Surely Helen wouldn't have betrayed me. Would she? But how else could they have found out? No one else knew.

I smelled the acrid stench of my own fear. Like Jerold's, I remembered. But worse: my own.

Without an answer immediately at hand, I quickly changed direction until the barn blocked my view of the house. Anyone home watching for me wouldn't spot me with the barn in the way, I assured myself. There I waited, out of view, confused, resigned, frightened, until two tail lights left the house and disappeared toward the road.

I realized with relief that they had just dropped by for a visit. One day, I hoped tangentially, Dad would get us another car. Our Buick had been destroyed in the wreck that killed Mom and Mrs. Simon almost eight months earlier. We had no engine-driven vehicles of any description.

The cars safely away, I rode the rest of the way home. My sister Helen saw me ride up and came out to help put the tools and tack away. Since the weather had stayed warm and clear-skied, Henry decided that a night in the corral would be pleasant. We left him there to enjoy the company of our other horses.

Helen and I worked quietly, both of us aware that we must eventually talk, neither of us in a hurry to get to it. Finally, as the tack room door closed behind us, I broke our silence.

"Saw two cars."

She reached down and took my hand, pulled it and my arm around her waist. We walked toward the swimming hole.

"Mr. Farley came over to visit," she explained. "Said that Jerold had headed off to town to visit a girl somewhere, and he didn't feel like cooking for himself. And Sheriff Olafsen stopped by to fish for information about Hannah and freeload supper, as usual." She looked up at me, her concern carefully concealed by her smile. "Dad and Carrie suggested they all go to the Metro for supper. We waited for you, but they finally went with Mr. Farley."

"Why didn't you go?" I asked, knowing full well why she hadn't. She confirmed it.

"Come on, Carl. How would I be able to eat with the father of the boy we'd just - - uh, taken care of this afternoon? And with the sheriff right there, already suspicious that we know something about Hannah's death, watching my every move?" Her frown furrowed her brow before she looked away.

We arrived at the swimming hole, the wide spot in the creek created when Dad and I had dammed it up a few years earlier. I sat and pulled off my boots. I looked up at Helen. "I'm going to wash some of the dirt and bugs off. Could you bring me a towel and soap?"

"Sure. Be right back." She turned and ran to the house. I finished stripping and piled my filthy clothing up into one pile, then waded into the water. Mid-spring coolness goose-bumped my stinking hide as I waded out to shoulder depth. I enjoyed the feel of the mud squishing up between my toes, the feel of the sluggish current around me. I hoped there were no catfish snoozing on the bottom; I'd taken a poisonous spine in the bottom of my foot two summers earlier and hadn't liked it a bit.

Helen returned. She tossed me the bar of floating soap, then sat on the bank with her knees drawn up under her chin. I lathered the stubble on my scalp, fingernailing out the chunks of dirt and other debris that hiding in the dirt, then burying Jerold and his horse had placed there.

"Want help?" she asked quietly and predictably.

I squinted through the soapy water at her. She still sat, calmly regarding my ablution. Her question, I decided, was sincere.

"Not now, thanks. Another time?"

"Of course. Hungry?"

"I'm not sure."

She stood and draped my towel and a clean pair of PJs over the buckbrush near the bank. "I'll put your supper on the table, just in case. You going to be okay?"

Another question that needed interpretation. Exhausted, I elected the simplest. "Yeah. Thanks."

She picked up my pile of dirty clothing and carried it to the house. I took my time, overscrubbing to remove all traces of Jerold and his horse. Finally satisfied that no visible contamination remained, I waded out of the creek. I picked up my towel and PJs and trotted the hundred and ten yards to the rain barrel at the corner of the house. There I sluiced off the soap and creek grit with dipper after dipper of cool soft water, then toweled off and pulled on my PJs.

Ready for bed, I went inside to join Helen for supper.

We carried our boiled potatoes, smoked ham hocks and beans out to the front stoop and sat on the glider. Helen had also prepared for bed, wrapping herself in her favorite flower print robe. Freshly face-washed and hair blonde and bedtime-brushed loose to her shoulder blades, she made a breath-catching picture. Precociously developed, she passed for late teens whenever the fancy struck her or, in our more private times, when she doffed all clothing. And although her legs weren't visible just then, I knew them to be unmatched by local females of any age.

Fourteen, I reflected, and looking like that. I looked up into her eyes, those blue echoes of my own, as I forked a chunk of ham into my mouth. For the ten thousandth time I regretted that she was my sister. For the ten thousandth time I thanked God for her.

The knowledge that I could even make such an observation after the day's events surprised and disturbed me. Certainly aware of my regard for her, and probably sensing that it bothered me especially just then, she didn't object as we swung slowly and ate and avoided all but the most superficial talk.

But that wouldn't go on forever. Her appeal nibbled away at my tight focus on the day's terrible events. Her scent, a familiar one of soap and light traces of girlish perfume, brought up scandalous memories. Despite my stern resolve, those memories would not accept even temporary banishment.

"Tired?" She asked as we cleaned up the kitchen after supper.


"You going to be okay tonight, Carl?" She scraped the last dish into the slops bucket.

I thought about that for a moment, then went back to drying the dishes. "Maybe," I decided. "I feel - - away, sort of. Numb and away, like I'm watching from across the room. You?"

She washed the plate and handed it to me, then turned. "I don't know," she admitted, leaning back against the drainboard and crossing her ankles. The bottom of her robe parted, revealing those ankles and her lower legs. The summer weight fabric stretched across her breasts, clinging to their soft form and rough nipples. A surge of energy woke the Dragon when I guessed that she wore nothing beneath her robe. "I feel - - strange," she went on. "I've never done anything like today. It must be worse for you, though. Did you kill him?"

"I said I wouldn't tell you, Helen."

"Well - - will I have to worry about him tapping on my window in the middle of the night again?" She lifted her left leg to rest her foot against the cabinet beneath the drainboard behind her. The robe fell away, baring the entire leg. Graceful and lithe, her thigh demanded the eye and invited the hand.

"If anyone taps at your window," I promised grimly, appalled that I could be entertaining such ideas, "you can bet it won't be him." She searched my face. Her eyes held me in thrall as I continued burnishing the already dry plate with my dishtowel.

She moved a hand to the knotted belt that held her robe together. "Did I do good today?" She fished, already knowing the answer. Her eyes looked up at me from beneath lowered lashes. Her knee swung slowly back and forth in front of her, an unlatched gate to a forbidden playground. My lips felt dry.

"You were perfect," I reported, my eyes unable to decide between watching that hand at her waist or reviewing her lovely thigh. I lifted my eyes to hers. "You distracted him well, but it was risky. I shouldn't have asked you to do that."

"I wanted to help," she told me. "You know I did. Besides, you had him covered. I wasn't in any danger at all."

Ripping my eyes away from the temptation of her beauty, I placed my well-polished plate on the stack on the shelf and waited for her to hand me the last dish. "Well it's over," I announced inanely. "Now we have to try and get back to normal. Or at least act normal." I shuddered as flashes of the grisly execution I'd committed flashed across my imagination.

She handed me the last plate, dumped out the dishpan, rinsed it and dumped it again, then dried her hands. I'd finished with the last plate by that time and stood watching her.

She looked at me calmly as she tossed the towel onto the drainboard, the silence of the room settling about us. "If we want to be normal we're going to have to forget everything that happened," she finally prescribed. "Hannah, Jerold, everything."

"That'll be tough, Little Sister. I still can't believe I could do what I did. I can't believe any of it. But it happened. Jerold did it, I did it. All of it, a horror story direct from hell. I don't know how I'll be able to just - - just erase it all."

She walked over and took my hand. "I need help forgetting, just like you, Big Brother. I need comforting just like you."

Her eyes, wide and blue and serious, waited for my feeble blathering. "I don't even know how to start to erase it all, Sweetheart," I repeated.

"Maybe we start by erasing a little bit for a little while. Daddy and Carrie won't be home for an hour or so," she said, gently tugging me toward my room. "We used to forget everything but each other after lights out, remember?"

"Yes," I said, half mesmerized. I went with her.


* * *

An hour or so later she scampered to her own bed when Mr. Farley brought Dad and Carrie home. With no one in my arms, with no one to chase the nightmares away, with the slide to hell greased and my admission already paid, I wept.


Chapter 1

Helen and I knew that getting away with murder would be tough.

Sure enough. When we arrived home from school on Monday, May the thirteenth, 1940, Sheriff Olafsen's black and white LaSalle sat in our drive. The sheriff waited inside the house, talking with Dad and Carrie. After shaking hands and a friendly, put-us-at-ease type of greeting from the sheriff, Helen and I sat on the divan in the parlor. The sheriff had a few questions. He paced in the middle of the room as he tried to both interrogate and keep us comfortable.

"As you probably heard at school, Carl and Helen, Jerold has disappeared. His dad doesn't know anything about where he might be, except that he got dressed up fancy Saturday about mid-morning, tied a blanket on behind his saddle, and headed off toward town." He looked at us, seeming to wait for us to say something.

Carrie asked the obvious question, breaking the short silence. "Did anyone in town happen to see him, Sheriff?"

He glanced over at her. "Couple people, Miss Carrie. But no one remembers seein' him after lunch."

"Carl," Dad asked helpfully, "you were out fixing fence that day. You didn't see him riding out there in the Prairie that afternoon, did you?"

I shook my head. "No, didn't see him or anyone else, except Helen. She brought me lunch."

The sheriff turned to Helen. "Miss? You see him?"

"No, Sheriff. No one except Carl. We had lunch and I came home by one thirty or so."

The sheriff stroked his chin and looked at us. Dad and Carrie stayed quiet.

"Dangdest thing," he finally observed, "this Farley business. First his daughter Hannah, now his son Jerold. Almost seems like someone's got it in for them. But the only fella who's had any fightin' with their dad lately is now a friend of his." He looked at me. "Leastwise, that's what he says. Can't figger it."

Then he looked at Helen. "You'n Jerold had a grapplin' 'n wrasslin' match a few months back at that dance, Miss. Carl got his butt kicked helpin' you outa that jam. That have anything to do with his not bein' around these days?"

We hadn't expected that, but it didn't have anything to do with what we'd done. So it was easy for Helen to just shake her head.

"He was rude at that dance, Sheriff, very ungentlemanly, and Carl caught him at it," she told him with outraged indignation. "But after Carl rescued me, it was over. We went back to the dance and I haven't had any dealings with him since."

"Don't sound like you miss him much, Miss Helen."

"He was very rude."

He pursed his lips, looked thoughtful. "Coupla classmates of his said he looked skittish last Monday. They said they asked him about it, and I guess he said he had a secret, and that if it was they who had the secret, they'd keep it, so don't ask him nuthin' more about it." He paused. "Said he clammed right up after that, then stayed strung tighter'n a three-dollar banjo the rest of the week. Sounds like a fella lookin' forward to a get-together with a pretty girl, especially the way he dressed up and rode off Saturday. You know anything at all, Miss Helen? Any little bit might help."

Dad and Carrie looked over at Helen. She squirmed , then blushed. Finally Helen looked back at the sheriff. "He's made sure I know that he hasn't given up on me, Sheriff. But it's been - oh, I don't know. Weeks since we had any words. He certainly wasn't riding to see me, if that's what you're asking."

"He mentioned a secret. You know anything about that?"

She shook her head, her blonde locks shimmering in the afternoon sun that filtered through the parlor window. The sheriff looked at me. "Carl? Can you shed any light on this?"

I also shook my head. "No, Sheriff. I spent Friday after school and all day Saturday fixing fence."

Sheriff Olafsen pursed his lips. "Well, I guess when he turns up we'll know. But you know what's pickin' away at the back of my brain? That blanket. Now why would Jerold take a blanket to town? There he is, spiffed up and with a blanket. Sounds like a picnic by a lake or a creek, or maybe in a quiet shady spot somewhere on the Prairie, with a pretty girl to keep him company. No one saw him with a girl in town nor down at Flat Lake Park, where most city picnickers go. And the only pretty girl I know of out there on the Prairie that day was you, Helen." He looked at Helen. "Not sayin' there weren't others, mind you. But I ain't found them yet, and I still can't figger why he'd take a blanket to town."

"It's going on summer, Sheriff," Carrie observed.  "Are you sure he just didn't decide to - I don't know - maybe travel somewhere?  He'd need a blanket if he's taking a long trip on horseback."

Sheriff Olafsen had already thought of that.  "I asked his dad that same question.  He said that Jerold didn't take no food, no cook pot, and only one canteen of water.  And there's his fancy clothes, not the sort one might wear on a trip.  No, I don't think he's travelin', Miss Carrie."

Quiet again. Finally the sheriff turned to Dad. "Well, Jack. Maybe you'n me could go check that fence Carl fixed. I know it ain't polite to question what he said, but I wouldn't be sheriff if I didn't check that out to make sure."

Dad stood. "Sure, Sven. We got a few hours before dark." He turned to me. "Son, go out and saddle my horse. You come along too, show us where you worked." He turned back to Sheriff Olafsen. "Sheriff, Helen's horse is still saddled. Why don't you use her?"

The sheriff, Dad and I rode fence until dark fell, then we headed back to the house. Dad and the sheriff saw all the fresh-cut wire repairs I had made over that entire previous week. Both seemed satisfied that I had done a good job that would have taken a fair hand the better part of two days. The sheriff ate a late supper with us, then left.

After lights out I tiptoed into Helen's room. Skipping our usual affectionate greetings, we got straight to the topic at the top of both our lists.

"Is he done, or is he going to keep coming back to us and asking questions, Carl?"

"He'll probably be back," I whispered morosely as I sat down on the edge of her bed. "He's a good sheriff. He'll keep digging as long as Jerold doesn't show up. That damned blanket is gonna keep him itching."

"What did you think about Jerold being in town?"

"Yeah," I said. "That surprised me. Sounds like Jerold did what he could to cover his own tracks. That was good of him, considering. Helped our story out a lot." I puzzled over that, then another idea dawned, chilling in its implications.

"He knew I was out fixing fence, right?" I turned to look into her eyes. "And he knew you were going to meet him after you brought me lunch, right?"

She answered yes to both questions. "I told him you'd be out riding fence, remember?"

"That's right. I remember that. What if - and this is just thinking - what if he was worried that we might figure out that he'd killed Hannah? What if he planned to, uh, visit with you a bit, kill you and then kill me? He'd have a few hours to do everything he wanted and hide the bodies, and then show up in town and pretend to have been there all along. He could act the gentleman and refuse to identify who he'd been with." Had we just beaten Jerold to the punch on the very day he'd planned to kill us? That very same day? The idea grew, an icy knot in my belly.

"That doesn't make any sense, Carl. Why would he have come scratching at my window offering to cool my hots if he thought that we suspected he'd killed his sister?"

That one stumped me, too. "Well - maybe he did it to see how you'd act, and that would tell him if you had suspicions. I don't know. He was a strange one. But I think we may have sprung the trap on him just before he did it to us. Covering his tracks like he did sounds like he might have wanted to set up a story, and the only reason I can think of that he'd do that is that he planned to kill us that very same day."

She pondered that a moment, then: "Wow. He was armed that day. Both pistol and rifle. That's more hardware than a guy going to a, ah, romantic picnic might normally carry."

"Yeah." I realized how lucky we were to be alive. Helen's eye-popping diversion had probably made the critical difference. "You may have saved both our lives with that little show you put on."

She reached out and took my hand. "I told you I'd keep his attention. I did my part, you did yours. Do you think the sheriff will be able to figure any of this out?"

I squeezed. "No. All he has is hints. Those aren't enough; he's going to need some actual evidence, and he's going to have to be a mind reader to find any. I think he wanted to talk to us because he has to check with all the people who know him or are neighbors, and we're both of those types of folks."

"So you think he doesn't have any special suspicions about us?"

I thought about that a bit, then decided that maybe he did. "He might have, Helen. Between that blanket pointing to a picnic or something, and our history with Jerold, my bet is that he has us high on his list of people to watch."

She dropped my hand and sat up and hugged her knees. "Well, we'll just have to make sure he gets bored, then."

"Yup. We're just two kids going to school and farming at home. Boring stuff."

"Boring?" She asked, then leaned over and offered me a kiss.

When we broke she put her head on my shoulder. "Boring in public, not boring in private, Big Brother. I am so in love with you!"

Talk about a change in direction, I thought. But Helen had always been nimble, especially after a kiss or two. I stood. "We've been in love since you were born, Little Sister. And no matter what else might change, that won't. But it's time to go back to bed. There's too many spotlights on us, and will be for a long time."

She sighed. "I know. It's always something, isn't it, Mr. Duck and Dodge?"

"What we feel - it isn't allowed. We can't be found out. We have to be careful."

She thought that over, then looked up at me. "Is that all that's stopping you?"

"I don't know. I'm - I feel like a foul criminal for thinking about you like I do. But I also love you, and can't stop."  I hesitated, then plunged ahead - "I shouldn't.  I know it. I know all the reasons why. But knowing doesn't seem to be enough."

"We're in love, Big Brother. It isn't just - just 'want' for either of us. It's always been true, as long as I can remember. Knowing what the law is doesn't change that."

"It used to be cute, Hon. You know, brother and sister all wide-eyed and smiling in each other's company, kissing and helping each other instead of fighting like most kids. But these last three years or so we've come closer and closer to breaking that one last law every time we're alone. We have to understand that we could really hurt each other if - - well, you know."

"It would only hurt the first time," she explained as though she misunderstood.

"That isn't what I meant, Sweetheart. I meant we have to understand the damage we could do to each other's futures." As soon as I spoke I realized that she had purposely pretended ignorance of the point I tried to make. I felt foolish.

She flopped back down on her bed. "Go on, then. Understand all you want."

I felt chastened, a child who'd been banished by one whose patience had been exhausted. "Good night, Helen. I love you."

She sliced her eyes back at me. They softened a bit in the gloom. "I know. What do you think I've been telling you? Kiss me goodnight."

I bent over her and kissed her, a kiss that scorched with the heat of shared desire. Then I tiptoed back to my room and crawled into bed.

My fourteen-year-old sister's kiss had stirred the Dragon again, I thought as I stared at the ceiling above me. Didn't the Dragon know it's only been three months since Hannah's murder? Three months, almost to the day, I reflected angrily. Only three months! How could the Dragon even think about anything else?  Why wouldn't it behave?

The mind is a fickle thing, I decided. Well, my mind is my own. I'll control it. I'll not let it lead me places I know it shouldn't lead me. Surely, I thought as sleep pulled my eyelids down, I have at least that much strength.

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