When last we left the gang in Apache Flats, local volunteer sheriff—by coercion rather than choice, Claud Burkhart was wading through the facts about an apparent drive-by weed whacking at Nelda Isselfrick's home—flowers shredded like tissue paper in a meat grinder. Before he could ascertain the facts, Pinky Finkelfrack squealed into town reporting the same had been done to the horticultural patchwork in front of her country home. Having heard all of this, it suddenly dawned on Hooter that the pumpkins he was growing on the three family plots he owned at the local Victory Hill Cemetery just north of town might be in danger.
By the time Hooter slid Lonnie Johnson's flatbed through the gates of Victory Hill Cemetery and to a stop by his plot-cum-pumpkin. Like his dreams of a county fair prize this year, his patch looked like it had been brush-hogged with a chainsaw. Nothing but juicy green remnants of the vines, highlighted by a glitter of golden orange here and there that used to be the blossoms.
To say that Hooter felt personally violated as he surveyed the carnage would be akin to suggesting the South was somewhat miffed by the North's approach to national unity and resource utilization once upon a time.
The two-way radio squealed from inside Lonnie's truck. It was volunteer sheriff, Claud Burkhart. “Hooter? Hooter? What's going on, what did you find?”
“Gone,” said Hooter. “Whoever got Aunt Pinky and Nelda got me, too.”
Plenty of static, then the radio squawked, “Don't worry, Hooter. We been doing some figuring, think we know who it was. I just issued an all points bulletin for Norvis LeRoy Underwood. Get back here.”
Norvis was the ancient caretaker of Victory Hill. He'd grown up here and never wandered more than a county or two away.
Shambling for Freedom
Before Hooter could get back to town, Dennie Bratton had already radioed that he had Norvis in sight.
In fact, Norvis was cruising down the highway south of Apache Flats with the throttle of the cemetery's Ford-8N mowing tractor opened wide, the brush hog, swaying and squeaking on the three-point.
Norvis was leaning over the steering wheel in a crouch position, head tucked, eyes straight ahead, apparently trying to cut wind resistance. Blazing along at about 5 miles per hour, he was less a streak of light and more a speed bump.
Dennie idled his pickup alongside the fleeing caretaker and shouted through his window—the old tractor lost its muffler so long ago no one ever remembered it having one. “Norvis! Go on and pull that pop can over to the side of the road.”
Toothless as a seashell and grizzled as a cactus, Norvis never even looked over.
“Norvis! Sheriff says he needs to see you. Come on now.”
Rather than answer, Norvis half stood up and leaned into the throttle lever trying to buy any extra speed he could.
“Norvis!!” shouted Dennie. “I'll plumb run you off the road and right over the top of you if need be. You know it's true.”
Norvis finally looked over at Dennie, a single lengthy eyebrow scrunched up in concentration. Having watched the boy grow from a parent's wish into a man, Norvis knew first-hand that Dennie would take on a rabid gorilla if he was convinced that's what needed doing.
Without changing expression, Norvis suddenly jerked back on the throttle and smashed a bib-overalled foot into the clutch.
Changing Plugs in a Hail Storm
When Dennie pulled into the Old Wittmeyer packing house west of town, it already looked like a circus was in progress. Cars and pickups parked every which direction, small children and old women standing on tailgates trying to get their first sight of Norvis Underwood, the same guy most of them had seen every day of their lives. News travels faster than a spooked bullfrog around here.
As for the abandoned packinghouse, well, the one other time the town was forced to apprehend someone with its volunteer police force, the old meat locker had proven a worthy holding area until state authorities arrived. The other fleeing criminal had been a drifter claiming to be the best horse trainer east of the Mississippi. He didn't find any work from the local skeptics, but he was in the process of helping himself to some of their cattle. If it hadn't have been for that old meat locker, it's reasonable to assume the culprit would have never lived long enough to tell his story in Lubbock.
Both Dennie and Norvis were remembering that. So were Hooter, Peetie Womac, Lonnie, Izzie and some others when the pickup came to a stop. Norvis was one of their own, and flowers sure weren't cattle, but there was no other reference point for Apache Flats' reaction to crime. So, they formed a tight circle around Norvis and inched him through the whispering crowd. Whispering that is, except for Pinky and Nelda, who were hopping up and down and yelling so much they had to be restrained.
After getting Norvis propped up in a rusty folding chair, Claud listened to him explain in a quiet voice—chair squeaking the melody—that he'd had nothing to do with any of the vandalism they were accusing him of.
“If you didn't do it, why were you high-tailing it on the tractor?” wondered Claud.
“Cause I knowed everybody'd think that I had done it,” stammered Norvis, more in anger than fear. “If you're already hung, you take the only shot you got.”
Claud was pacing back and forth in front of Norvis; the human chain stood behind. “You've got to admit, Norvis, it looks plenty bad. Here you are skedaddling right after Hooter tells us his pumpkin plot, I mean patch, was mulched. We know you were against the cemetery board letting him plant them to begin with.”
“And, that comes right after both Nelda and Pinky notify us about finding their flowers in shreds. It's nobody's business here, but we all know that you have attempted to court both ladies in the past.”
Norvis finally looked up at Claud with a sigh of surrender. “I know it looks bad, but I ain't slipped a gear, and I ain't the one who did it.”
“OK,” said Claud. “Let's say that everything you're saying is exactly right. It couldn't have been more than 30 minutes from the time Hooter, Lonnie and Peetie left the cemetery for Nelda's and the time Hooter returned and found his pumpkin patch gone. They say they never saw you both times. Where were you?”
A little extra life drained from Norvis' face and he turned an ashen gray. “I can't say.”
“But Norvis,” said Claud, still in a calm and friendly voice, “You gotta' say. If you don't, then instead of handling all this here at home, we'll have to call Lubbock, then they're going to come out, and they don't know you like we all do.”
Norvis' lone eyebrow arched in recognition of what that truly meant. When you're as given a fact as the sky, those that grow up knowing nothing other than the fact that you and all of your warts are just part of life, they'll forgive your eccentricities without even realizing it. You could fill a book with some of Norvis' legendary odd behavior through the years—like trying to replicate Ben Franklin's kite flying experiment one year and only succeeding in burning old man Sutter's windmill to the town; like showing up at both Pinkie's and Nelda's homes with bouquets assembled from their very own flowers; like his attempts at perfecting a process for dehydrating earth worms so he could expand his local bait business—but no one in Apache Flats disliked Norvis. Far as they knew, he felt the same about them.
“If I do say, how come I have to say it in front of everybody?” asked Norvis, jerking his head toward the sentries lounging against the metal wall.
“You know, Norvis, you're exactly right. Not very mannerly of any of us, is it? We're all so used to doing everything together, I never even thought about it. If I ask them to wait outside, will you tell me where you were.”
Norvis looked like a prairie dog dodging hawks as he puzzled for a long minute. “Yeah, I'll tell.”
To be continued…