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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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I’d seen his grave twice. The first time was a perfunctory visit in the company of Mr. Brickman not long after Albert and I landed at the Lincoln Indian Training School. He showed us the grave, then stood away to give us a few minutes alone, and finally whisked us back to the school. I hadn’t reacted much during that visit, nor had Albert. We just stood staring down at the little marker planted in the earth like an isolated paving stone. I didn’t cry, or even feel like crying under Brickman’s impatient gaze.

The second time was on my twelfth birthday. I’d pretty much forgotten what my mother looked like by then, and my father’s face had begun to fade as well. I wanted desperately not to forget him, so I slipped away from the school and returned to the cemetery. I had some trouble finding his marker because the pauper’s grave hadn’t been well cared for, and weeds had grown up and obscured the stone. I knelt and cleared away the wild growth and read the name on the marker, which was all there was, a name, and spent an hour remembering everything I could about him.

He’d been a man who liked music and liked to laugh. I remembered that whenever he bent to hug me, his cheek against mine was rough with stubble. He’d read us stories when we went to bed at night and his voice had changed and become the voices of different characters. I think now that under other circumstances he might have been an actor. What he’d been was a bootlegger, and after my mother died, he’d been a runner for other, more powerful bootleggers. He’d been raised in the hills of the Ozarks, where making corn liquor was a time-honored tradition, and he hadn’t been ashamed of how he earned his living. He’d brought us from Missouri up to Minnesota on a liquor run, and we’d camped along the Gilead River just outside Lincoln. That night, Albert and I had stayed by the river while my father drove his Model T pickup into town to make his delivery. He never returned. The sheriff’s people came for us, and that’s when we learned the truth of his death. He’d been shot in the back and left for dead. They never explained a motive, never identified a suspect. My father was just a crook and had met a crook’s end. And Albert and I were the sons of a crook, and our sentence was life under the Black Witch’s thumb. Why two white boys in a school for Indian kids? Thelma Brickman had always explained it this way: “We offered to take you in because the state school for orphans is already full. You should be grateful that you’re not begging on the streets.” But Cora Frost had told us that the Brickmans got a monthly check from the state for our care.

Although my mother was a vague shade in my past, I still
remembered my father, and Albert remembered him, too, and we knew where we’d come from, and that we had family in Saint Louis, an aunt who’d tried to send us money, to take care of us in the only way she could. Emmy remembered both of her parents and even had a photograph to help keep them fresh in her mind. But when I looked at Mose, who was deep in serious thought as he gazed into the flames, I realized he probably remembered no one. And I thought of what Sister Eve had said when she told me about what each of us was seeking and that Mose was looking for who he was.

We lay down early that night. Emmy and Albert went right to sleep, but I lay awake. Mose couldn’t sleep either, and after a while, he got up and walked past the low flames still flickering among the coals of the fire and went to the river’s edge and sat alone. I let him be for a spell, then rolled out of my blanket and joined him.

I didn’t want to disturb the others, so I signed,
What are you doing?

After a long while, he finally signed,

The water, as it ran against the sand, murmured, and from the woods behind us came the song of tree frogs, and every once in a while the fire popped. A soft wind blew across the river valley, but all I heard from it was a rustling among the trees on the island.

I have a name,
Mose signed.

I signed back.

He shook his head.
Sioux name,
he signed, then spelled out A-M-D-A-C-H-A.

How do you know?

Sister Eve. Held my hand and told me.

What does it mean?

Broken to Pieces. Named after a great-uncle. A warrior.

I listened to the shivering of the trees in the night wind and remembered the story Jack had told us about the stars inside cottonwoods and how the spirit of the night sky shook the trees to set them loose. The spirit must have wanted stars that night, because the sky was aglitter with a million pinpoints of light.

Should I call you Broken to Pieces now?

Before he could answer, we heard a commotion behind us, and Albert cried out, “It’s Emmy.”

He held her as she spasmed in his arms. Mose and I sat with him, and we each took one of her hands, and Emmy’s pain was ours, too. These spells never went on long, but they racked her whole small body, and it was torture watching.

When the episode had passed and she’d gone limp, her eyes opened and she said, “They’re dead. They’re all dead.”

“Who, Emmy?”

“I couldn’t help them,” she said. “I tried but I couldn’t. It was already done.”

“Is she talking about the Indian kid?” I asked.

“More than one,” Albert noted. “She said
all dead.”

I looked down at Emmy, whose eyes were open but glazed. “Are there more dead kids on this island, Emmy?”

“I tried. There’s nothing I could do.”

“Tried what?” Albert asked.

She didn’t answer, just closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep. We wrapped her in her blanket and sat with her as the last of the flames from our little fire died out, leaving only the dull glow of red coals.

“They’re all dead,” I said, repeating Emmy’s words. “What did she mean?”

Albert stirred the fire with a stick. “What she says in her fits always sounds like nonsense.”

Maybe isn’t,
Mose signed. He turned and peered at the dark stand of trees that covered the island and hid God knew what.

“This place is giving me the creeps,” I said. “I think we should leave.”

Mose nodded and signed,
First thing in the morning.

What little sleep I got that night was restless, and although I didn’t remember them exactly, my dreams were full of menace. When the sky began to show signs of morning, Mose and I got up, and in the
cool blue of first light, packed our things and loaded the canoe. Albert tried to help but wasn’t much use. Emmy was sunk in such a profound slumber that she didn’t stir as Mose lifted her and laid her gently in the canoe. Albert sat in the middle, the position he’d occupied before his snakebite, and I took the bow. Mose shoved us off the island and stepped into the stern, and we lifted our paddles.

Although we didn’t know it yet, the current of the Minnesota River was sweeping us toward revelations that would open our eyes to a darkness even greater than the Black Witch.


railroad tracks shadowing this stretch of river and, for a significant distance, no towns, and along the banks only thick stands of trees, so no prying eyes to discover us. We made good distance that first morning. Emmy had awakened in the peach light of dawn with, as usual, no recollection of her spell the night before. She seemed refreshed and full of smiles, and both her spirits and her lively conversations with Peter Rabbit buoyed me and even seemed to lift Albert’s spirits. Mose, of course, was silent, but something came from him that told me he was still in that dark place he’d gone after our discovery of the Indian kid’s skeleton.

Near noon, we pulled up to the bank where a little brook emptied into the silty brown river, and we ate the last of the food I’d bought at the village market.

“How long do you reckon we’ve been gone from Lincoln School?” I asked Albert.

He was slow answering. “A month, give or take a day or two.”

“How long before we reach the Mississippi?”

“Days,” he said with a heavy sigh.

“And how long after that before we reach Saint Louis?”

“Weeks. Months. I don’t know.”

“Months? That’s forever.”

“Would you rather be working Bledsoe’s hayfields?”

“I’d rather be eating at the Morrow House and sleeping in one of their soft beds.”

Emmy sighed, but not sadly, a kind of pixie sound. “I’d rather be a princess riding on the back of a swan.”

“And eating nothing but ice cream,” I added.

She held up her sock puppet. “With chocolate sauce,” Peter Rabbit said in a little rabbit voice.

“What about you, Mose?” I asked.

He’d put his back to the rest of us and was chucking stones at the river, flinging them hard so that they hit the water with little explosions. He didn’t respond.

“Come on,” I said. “What would you rather be doing?”

He turned toward me, and what I saw in his face scared me. He signed,
Tracking down my mother’s killer.

Which brought an end to the game.

We stayed on the river until late afternoon and made camp on a little strip of beach at the base of a rock bluff. I tried my hand at fishing again, and this time had some success, pulling in a big something that definitely wasn’t a catfish. I made a spit over our fire that night, and skewered and roasted the fish. Its firm white flesh came easily off the bone and tasted far better than any catfish I’d ever eaten. I didn’t understand until much later that I’d landed a walleye, a prized catch in Minnesota.

As night came on, we could see a glow in the east as if from a fire. I’d observed the same sort of phenomenon once when we camped with our father south of Omaha and the distant city had lit up the night sky.

“Mankato?” I asked Albert.

“That’s my guess,” he said.

“We’re not very far. We’ll be there in the morning.”

Albert shook his head. “We’ll stay here until tomorrow afternoon, then we’ll pass through at dusk. Less chance of being spotted.”

That was the kind of plan the old Albert would have put forward, and I found it encouraging. Except that it meant we’d have to wait in the company of Mose, whose foul mood, the first I’d ever seen him in, weighed on us all. I thought maybe my harmonica would help, so I hauled it out and played some lively tunes that I knew were among Mose’s favorites, but the hard shell he’d put around himself
didn’t crack, and even when Emmy danced a little jig that was cute as hell, Mose showed no emotion at all. In its way, his brooding was as alarming as one of Emmy’s fits.

The next morning found us all in bad spirits. When I’d cleaned the walleye, I’d left the mess of its innards on the sand at the river’s edge, and a storm of blackflies descended, attacking not only the fish leavings but us as well. Albert swore at me and I swore back, and Emmy broke into tears, which brought out the protective side of Mose and he signed at Albert and me so vehemently I thought he’d break his hands.

“I’m not sitting around here all day with you,” I snapped at Albert.

“Fine,” he shot back. “Why don’t you swim to Saint Louis?”

I took off, storming along the bluff, then through a copse of birch trees, heading away from the river. In the night, I’d heard the sound of freight cars clattering over rails to the south, and also the far-off howl of an engine horn. I made my way to the tracks, which were less than a quarter of a mile distant, and followed them toward the city whose glow we’d seen in the night. The whole way I cursed my brother and the bad luck that had made us desert Sister Eve, and I railed at the weeks or months or, who knew, even years before we’d reach Saint Louis, if we ever did. I knew cops everywhere were looking for Emmy, and if they caught us our gooses were cooked but good. I thought maybe I wouldn’t go back to the others. Maybe I was better off on my own.

I walked for a couple of hours and finally reached Mankato, where both the river and the railroad took a dramatic turn toward the north. The city, with a population of thousands, lay along both sides of the river’s curl. Warehouses and industrial buildings stood in big blocks at the river’s edge. A long, high, tree-lined bluff rose behind the city, and along the flat at the base of the bluff lay the downtown business district, where I’d once dogged Sid and had spied on him as he met and paid the people who traveled with the crusade and had been “healed” time and again. I made my way into that busy center of commerce. Automobiles zipped down the streets, and after the long quiet of my canoe journey, their beep and rattle felt like an assault. The midday was humid, the
air stifling, and the unpleasant odor of hot tar hung over everything.

I’d been to cities before—Saint Louis, Omaha, Kansas City—but that had been so long ago that I had no real recollection of them. The time I’d spent in Mankato following Sid had been so brief that I didn’t have a clear sense of the place. After years in Lincoln, which was a small town, and our time in New Bremen, which was only slightly larger, I felt I was standing in an alien, unwelcoming land. And I was alone. That’s what hit me most. I was all alone. In my anger at Albert, this was what I’d wanted, but when I understood the reality of it, my heart sank, and I longed to be with my family again.

I’d just made my decision to hightail it back to our camp, when I heard a commotion up one of the streets and curiosity got the better of me. I followed the sound of raised voices, turned a corner, and found myself at the edge of a crowd gathered in front of the local armory. Cops prowled the perimeter, and I’d have turned away immediately but for the promise that came with the smell of hot soup and, even better, the yeasty aroma of fresh-baked bread. I couldn’t see the food because of the wall of bodies in front of me. I could, however, see a man standing on the steps of the armory, well above the heads of the crowd, and he was shouting through a megaphone.

“Hey, you fellas,” he hollered, “how many of you slogged through French mud or sat hip deep in stinking trench water or threw yourselves down on Gerry barbed wire?”

His question was answered with encouraging shouts and cheers.

“And how many of you saw your comrades-in-arms slaughtered before your very eyes?”

BOOK: This Tender Land
2.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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