The following story won a Commendation in the Society of Southwestern Authors 1997 Short Story Contest. It was published in a volume titled The Story Teller, © Society of Southwestern Authors on behalf of the authors.
I noticed the tumbleweeds last Saturday morning. It was the first time I ever saw that many tumbleweeds all at once. They rattled toward me as I scuffed down the road past a field that looked as if it had been plowed a couple of weeks ago. I was heading home after spending the night with my best friend in the whole world. Normally, I would have gotten a ride home from her father after breakfast, but that day wasn’t a normal day. Not at all. Her father probably would never give me a ride home again. Matter of fact, at the time I didn’t think I would ever see her again – my best friend in the whole wide world. But I was wrong about that. Just like I was wrong about the tumbleweeds. I thought they were beautiful and free, the way I pictured my best friend, but they were really only scraggly, ugly, old weeds after all.
My friend (Juniper was her name) and I had a found an old volume of mystery stories and were looking for a quiet place to read them the previous afternoon when I looked out the window of her living room and saw her mother coming toward the house from the barn. We wanted to go out to the loft, but we had been told to stay out of the barn by Juniper’s dad. We snuck up to the loft anyhow, as soon as we saw that Juniper’s mom had gone in the house.
We ended up scaring ourselves reading those old mystery stories in the dimly lit barn. That’s why, when we found him in the barn, we were too scared to look real close to see if we knew who he was. Actually, Juniper was the one who saw him when she came up the ladder after going to the outhouse. She had been gone for quite a long time and I was just going to look for her when I saw her poke her head up through the ladder hole in the loft floor. She looked sort of scared, like she had seen something that didn’t belong there. I thought maybe she had seen the snake her brother said lived in the hole in the outhouse. (I never really believed him, though; why would a snake live in that stinky place?)
Juniper’s long, brown hair was all twisted up with straw from the bales we had been lying on, and when she jerked her head toward the floor of the barn, little golden bits flew all over the place, making me sneeze.
“Shhhhhhh!” she put her finger over her mouth, “There’s some guy down there!” Juniper’s voice was scary – kind of shaky but excited all the same.
I peered over the edge of the loft and saw – nothing. “Where? I don’t see anyone, Juniper, you’re just trying to scare . . .”
“There, in the empty stall next to that dumb ole mule you like so much.”
I leaned way out over the railing and thought I saw a deeper shadow in the murky light at the back of the barn. “Who is it? What’s he doing there? Did he see you?” I whispered, even though I still wasn’t sure I saw anything.
“I don’t know who he is. I just thought I saw something when I went down the ladder. I went to over to the empty stall and looked in and saw him, all crumpled up. I was too scared to look closer.”
“Oh, yeah? I bet it’s one of your brother’s friends trying to scare us. He’s probably just pretending to be asleep or dead so we’ll think he’s just some ole tramp or something.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’re right.” Juniper’s voice was funny. Like she really wanted to believe me, but couldn’t for some reason.
“But if I’m not . . .maybe we should tell your dad. He won’t like some ole tramp sleeping in his barn.”
“No! we can’t tell anyone!” Juniper sounded frantic. “Remember, dad said for us to stay out of the loft because the ladder isn’t safe? We’ll get into trouble and you won’t be able to come over here any more.”
So we went back to the house without saying anything to anyone about the visitor in the empty stall.
Late in the night I heard someone yelling out in the yard and figured that Juniper’s dad had found the tramp and kicked him out of the barn. I looked toward the window and was surprised at how light it was. Then I realized the light was a strange orange flickery kind of color. And the yelling was Juniper’s dad all right The barn was on fire! I woke Juniper up and we hurried outside.
“Juniper, we better see if the tramp got out! He could burn up!” I was running toward her dad and the burning barn.
“Wait! He probably got out long ago. Don’t say anything to dad. You know how mad he’ll get if he finds out we were in the barn earlier! He might even find a way to blame us for the fire!” Juniper just stood there watching as the flames licked up the side of the building.
“I called the fire department! They should be here right away.” Juniper’s brother, Billy, was running from the house behind us. He grabbed the garden hose and yelled for Juniper to turn it on. She looked around at the sound of his voice, but ignored his instructions. It was she was in a trance or something, moving in slow motion. I ran to the spigot at the edge of the garden and turned the water on. Juniper didn’t say anything more, just watched awhile, then turned her back and walked back to the house.
“Cora, help me get some water to this side, where the hay rack is. I don’t want the fire to spread any further!” Mr. Marsh was yelling and running to the side of the barn nearest the garden. Mrs. Marsh looked around like she hadn’t heard him. She watched the fire for a few minutes, like Juniper had, then followed her daughter into the house.
“Sally, where’s Juniper?” Mr. Marsh apparently noticed me for the first time.
“She went back in the house.”
“You get in there with her! It’s to dangerous out here! Billy, aim that hose over here!”
A pick-up truck skidded into the yard, and I recognized the hired hands from the neighboring farm as they jumped out and rushed to help Billy and Mr. Marsh with the fire. Some other people were running through the yard with buckets of water. With so much commotion going on, I was afraid of getting trampled, so I went back into the house to find Juniper. She was so quiet in her bed, I figured she was asleep, even though I didn’t know how she could sleep with so much racket going on. I watched the fire fighters from the bedroom window as they got things slowly under control. It was soon dark again without the flickery light from the fire and I went to bed, but I could not sleep. I also couldn’t figure out why Juniper and her mom had acted so strangely.
In the morning, Juniper’s mother got us up and told me I would have to walk home. Her husband wasn’t there, and she said she didn’t want to leave the farm. She hurried me out the door before breakfast and said that she and Juniper were going to be real busy for awhile and not to come around for a few days. I tried to ask her why, but she shooed me right out the kitchen door and sent me right on my way.
I was curious (mom always said I was just plain nosey), so instead of starting right home, I snuck around the side of the house to listen in at Juniper’s bedroom window. Mrs. Marsh was talking to Juniper real fast like, but I couldn’t hear Juniper saying anything.
“Your dad’s been arrested. Seems your Uncle Bob showed up sometime yesterday or last night, passed out in the barn and burned up in the fire! The sheriff thinks your dad killed him in a fight and set the barn on fire in the process.”
Juniper’s Uncle Bob! So that was the ‘tramp’ we saw, and he was passed out, not sleeping! Why would Mr. Marsh kill his own brother? I tried to hear more, but I all I heard was Juniper mumbling something, then I heard her mom say, “We’re leaving here today. We’ll go to my sister’s place. She’ll know what to do.” I didn’t want to hear any more. My best friend in the whole world was leaving, and I’d probably never see her again. I ran out the gate and down the lane where the tumbleweeds slowly bumped down the blown-away little hill-tops between the plowed rows of the field.
When I got home, I looked for my mom to tell her what was going on, but she had already gone into town for the Saturday shopping. I went up to my room to get my diary. I remembered writing something in it a long time ago about Juniper’s Uncle Bob, and I wanted to read it again. It was when I first met Juniper and her family. They had just moved to the farm next to ours and we were both 9 years old. Three years before . . .
“I just met the nicest family. They moved into the old Jensen place down the road. There is a girl about my age named Juniper (what a funny name!), her big brother, her parents and another man. I think he is Juniper’s uncle. I hope we are going to be friends. There isn’t anyone else my age around here, except that weird kid up the road at the Monroe place – and he’s a boy, so he doesn’t count! . . .”
A few pages further on, I found the entry I was looking for. The ink was smeared on the page, but I could still read most of what I had written: “Today Juniper and I were down by the creek when her uncle came by. He scared me because he was so quiet. I thought he was sneaking up on us, but Juniper said he was just a quiet kind of guy. I don’t trust him, though. Dad said he was a fighter and a drinker, but mom told him to keep quiet about people he didn’t know very well…”
The door downstairs slammed and I knew mom was home. I threw the diary down on the patchwork quilt covering my bed and ran to see what she brought home from town. I also wanted to share my exciting news about Uncle Bob and the fire at Juniper’s.
“Oh, Sally!” She sounded kind of our of breath. “I’m so glad you’re home. I just heard in town about the fire and Mr. Marsh, and, oh, how horrible it must have been for you! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom! But we saw Uncle Bob in the barn before the fire. At least I think I saw him and Juniper said she saw him, but she didn’t know it was her Uncle Bob! She thought he got out before the fire started.” I was talking so fast I started to stumble over my words. Mom turned away and started to put the groceries away.
“Now, Sally, why don’t you help me put these things away and just forget about what you and Juniper thought you saw. It really doesn’t do any good to dwell on things we don’t know anything about. Anyway the sheriff has arrested Mr. Marsh and everything will be over soon.” She started to unpack the paper bags from the market, acting like it was just like any other Saturday morning.
I wondered about Juniper and her family all afternoon, but mom changed the subject every time I brought it up. Finally, at dinner, I asked my dad what he heard about what had happened over at the Marshes the night before. Mom frowned and looked like she was about to say something when dad said, “Well, now, Sally, I was wondering when you were going to bring that up.” His eyes twinkled the way they did when he was about to tell me something he knew mom wouldn’t like. “I heard in town that Bob Marsh was back and I knew there would be trouble out at the Marsh place if Juniper’s dad found out he was here.”
“But why?” I wanted to know, “He was Mr. Marsh’s brother. Why should there be a problem with him coming to visit his brother?”
“Honey, I told you we shouldn’t be talking about things we know nothing about,” mom said, firing a warning look at my father before looking at me. That was the end of Dad’s discussion about the Marsh family troubles.
I had just barely dozed off later that night when I was startled awake by a rattle of gravel on my window. It took a few minutes for me to see who had thrown the gravel when I looked outside. It was very dark and the shadows beneath my window blended together. One shadow moved out into the weak light from my room. “Juniper! What are you doing here? I thought you and your mom left this morning?”
“I ran away, I couldn’t stay with her anymore. Not after I found out what she did!”
“What? No, wait! I’m coming out! Don’t go anywhere!” I opened my door and checked the hall. There was no light coming from under mom and dad’s door, so I quietly moved downstairs to the kitchen and back door. When I got outside, Juniper was waiting for me next to the gate to the vegetable garden.
“Now tell me what is going on? What are you going to do?” I couldn’t imagine running away and being without parents at our age. Juniper told me about her mom and Uncle Bob liking each other before her mom married her dad.
She said, “My dad was jealous of Uncle Bob, but he didn’t kill his own brother!” Juniper said her mom did it and was letting her husband take the blame for her.
“But why?” I didn’t understand why adults did such strange things.
“Because my mom was evil! She did it to get rid of both of them! I hated her!” Juniper was getting very upset and starting to shout.
“Shhhhh, you will wake up my parents. What are you going to do now?” I just realized she was referring to her mother in the past tense.
“Why, I’ll live with you, of course,” she replied, sweetly. Maybe too sweetly. “I know you would be like a sister to me and never hurt me the way they did.”
A tumbleweed blew across the yard just then, and I jumped. It was an ugly thing, all scraggly and dirty.