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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“You boys leave now and say nothing about this to anyone.”

“Or what?”

I turned, and there was Volz standing in the study doorway.

“You would really shoot them, Clyde? Then you would have to shoot me, too. Them, you could explain. Me, not so much.”

Brickman looked panicked, and I knew that wasn’t good. Even a mouse when cornered will fight back. That gun in his hand made him a lot more dangerous than a mouse.

It was Mose who took care of the situation. On the desk sat a stack of documents held in place by a big round paperweight of some dark, polished stone. Mose grabbed it and threw a perfect pitch. The paperweight caught Brickman on the side of his head, and he crumpled to the floor. Albert jumped and grabbed the gun and trained it on Brickman. Which was unnecessary, because the man didn’t move, didn’t appear to be breathing at all.

Dead, I thought. Another murder. I glanced at Mose and could see the devastation on his face. Even though we all hated Brickman, the thought of killing him was probably unbearable for Mose’s good heart.

My brother put a hand to the man’s neck. “He’s got a pulse.”

I saw Mose breathe out a deep sigh of relief.

Albert knelt at the safe. From where I stood, I could see it was full of papers and letters and such, bound up with twine or ribbon. There was also money, two thick stacks of bills.

“Odie,” he said. “Get the pillowcase from Emmy’s bed.”

I ran upstairs and down the hallway to her room. I pulled the cover off her pillow and started back. As I passed the Brickmans’ bedroom, Miss Stratton called, “Odie?”

I stepped into the doorway. Without the flashlight, I could hardly see a thing.

From the bed, she said, “Will you tell on me?”

If we did, it would mean her job and her reputation, and I didn’t know if she had anything else.

“No, ma’am. I promise.”

“Thank you, Odie.” Then she said, “If I could, I would leave, too.”

And I realized there were prisoners at Lincoln School who weren’t children.

“Good luck, Miss Stratton.”

“God be with you, Odie.”

I returned to the study, handed Albert the pillowcase, and he bent to the safe. The first thing he did was return my harmonica to me. Then he began throwing everything into the pillowcase—the money, papers, a leather book of some kind, and a couple of stacks of letters bound with twine.

“What do we need all that for?” I asked.

“If the Brickmans put it in here, it’s worth something.”

When he’d cleaned out the safe, Albert considered the gun he’d taken from Mr. Brickman.

“Leave it,” Volz said. “It will only bring you more trouble.”

Albert threw it in the pillowcase anyway and stood up.

“Time to go,” he said.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

WE REGROUPED ON
the old parade ground under a glaring white moon. The buildings of Lincoln School rose square and black around us and cast great shadows. They should have felt familiar after all these years, but that night, everything felt different, huge and menacing. The air itself seemed unsettled, full of raw threat.

God be with you
. That was the last thing Miss Stratton had said to me. But the God I knew now was not a God I wanted with me. In my experience, he was a God who didn’t give but only took, a God of unpredictable whim and terrible consequence. My anger at him surpassed even my hatred of the Brickmans, because the way they treated me was exactly what I expected. But God? I’d had my hopes once; now I had no idea what to expect.

“You all wait on the other side of the dining hall,” Volz said. “I get my automobile and pick you up.”

“There’s something I have to do first,” I said.

“What now?” Albert said.

“Can I have the key to the carpentry shop, Mr. Volz?” I asked.

“What for, Odie?”

“Please.”

“Just give it to him, Herman,” Albert said. “We’re wasting time.”

Volz took a small ring of keys from his pocket, detached one of them, and handed it to me.

“Behind the dining hall in fifteen minutes,” I said.

The carpentry shop, when I unlocked and opened the door, was a confusion of smells—varnish, sawdust, oils, turpentine. I turned on the light and went to a wooden cabinet along one of the walls.
Inside were paint cans, arranged and stacked by color and purpose. I grabbed a can of black paint and pulled one of the brushes from the shelf above. I turned out the light, locked the shop, and hurried away.

The water tower, whose whitewashing had been interrupted by the tornado, was now fully painted, Samuel Kills Many’s parting sentiment completely obliterated. I stood at the base of one of the long legs, where the ladder was affixed, and stared up at the tank, which was clean and frost white in the moonlight. It was like the face of a naïve child turned toward heaven with nothing but pure expectation. I hooked the handle of the paint can into the crook of my arm, stuffed the brush into the waist of my pants, and began to climb. The catwalk that circumscribed the tank was a hundred feet above the ground. When I reached it, I paused a moment and looked down for the last time on Lincoln School. There was nothing but hardness in my heart. All I saw were the black shadows the buildings cast and how those shadows seemed to eat the earth where they fell. That was how it had been for me, too. Four years of my life eaten by darkness.

When I finished what I’d come there for, I left the paint can and brush and climbed down.

The others were waiting for me behind the dining hall, Volz with his automobile running.

“What was so important?” Albert asked, clearly irritated at the delay.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s done. Let’s go.”

It took us no time at all to reach the destroyed farmstead of Andrew and Cora Frost. Volz parked near the rubble of the house and we climbed out. The rest of us started for the riverbank and the canoe rack, but Emmy held back. She slipped her little hand inside the bib of her overalls and brought out the photograph I’d salvaged from the debris. She studied it, then stared at the pile of splintered wood where her life had once been but would never be again.

I put my arm around her and said as gently as I could, “We’re your family now, Emmy. We won’t ever leave you.”

She looked up at me, her tears in the moonlight glinting silver down her cheeks. “Promise?”

“Cross my heart,” I said, and I did.

Under the trees on the bank of the Gilead River, Mose and Albert already had the canoe on the water. They steadied it while Emmy got into the center. Before I joined her, I offered my hand to Herman Volz, and he enfolded it gently with his four and a half fingers.

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks for everything, Mr. Volz.”

“You take care of this little girl, Odie. And you take care of yourself.”

“I will.”

Volz handed me four folded blankets he’d brought from Lincoln School, the same thin kind on all the bunks in the dormitory. Along with them, he gave me a filled water bag made of canvas, the kind we’d drunk from when we worked in Bledsoe’s fields.
VOLZ—CARPENTRY
had been painted indelibly in white across the side.

“If we get caught with this, they’ll know you helped us,” I said.

“If you get caught, Odie, I defend your honor and mine to the death,” he pledged.

I got into the canoe behind Emmy, gave her two of the blankets to sit on, and put the other two under me. Albert tossed in the pillowcase he’d filled with the contents of the Brickmans’ safe.

“They’ll put the screws to you, Herman,” he said.

“I think not so much, Albert. You and me, we got the goods on Clyde Brickman.” He smiled and took Albert’s hand in both of his own. “I will miss you. I will miss you all.”

Mose shook the old German’s hand, too, then stepped carefully into the stern of the canoe while Albert took the bow. With their paddles, they pushed us into the easy current of the Gilead, and we left Volz, probably our last friend in the world, standing in ragged moon shadow on the riverbank.

As we headed away he called out a parting sentiment: “May God watch over you.”

But the God Volz was talking about wasn’t the God I knew now. As we began our journey into all the unknown ahead, I thought about my own parting sentiment, which I’d painted in bold black on the water tower, one I was sure all the kids still imprisoned at Lincoln School understood in their hearts:
GOD IS A TORNADO
.

- PART TWO -
ONE-EYED JACK
CHAPTER TWELVE

THAT FIRST NIGHT,
we paddled by moonglow. The farmland around us was empty of any artificial light, and it felt to me as if we were in our own world. Cottonwood branches arched over the river, and we floated in and out of shadow, the only sound the occasional rustle of leaves in the night breeze and the dip and splash of the two paddles. Railroad tracks paralleled the river, crossing it from time to time along its crooked course. On the bank beneath one of them, we spotted the red glow of embers, and I figured it was from a fire built by someone who, like us, was on the move—in those days there were so many—and Mose and Albert stowed their paddles and we kept silent as we drifted past.

Little Emmy finally lay down on the blankets Volz had given us and fell asleep. Me, I couldn’t have closed my eyes if I’d tried. Although killing DiMarco had taken something from me—maybe the last breath of my childhood—as the river and Albert and Mose pushed us along through the dark, all I could think about was what I’d gained, which I thought of then as freedom, and I didn’t want to miss a moment of it. The air I breathed felt cleaner than any I’d breathed before. The white satin ribbon that was the moonlit river and the silvered cottonwoods and the black velvet sky with its millions of diamonds seemed to me the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I finally decided that maybe what I’d lost in killing DiMarco was my old self, and what I was feeling was a new self coming forth. The reborn Odie O’Banion, whose real life lay ahead of him now.

After several hours, Albert said, “We should get some rest.”

We pulled to the riverbank, and I woke Emmy, and we climbed up where we could see the lay of the land. A mile or so to the south,
a few lights shone together, a little town. Between us and the town was nothing but open fields. We spread out the blankets, one for each of us, and lay down.

“It’s dark,” Emmy said. “I’m scared.”

“Here.” I moved my blanket so that it overlapped hers. “Take my hand.”

She did, tight at first, but in a little while I could feel her fingers relax and then she was asleep. I heard Mose’s deep breathing and knew he was out as well. But I could feel Albert awake on the blanket next to me.

“We’re free,” I whispered. “We’re finally free.”

“You think so?”

“Don’t you?”

“From now on, we have to be more careful than ever. They’ll be looking for us everywhere.”

“Not Mr. Brickman. You got the goods on him.”

“It’s not him I’m worried about.”

I understood who he meant. Aside from DiMarco, the Black Witch had the darkest heart of anyone I’d ever known. We’d stolen Emmy from her. She would track us down if it was the last thing she did. And it wouldn’t be just Albert and Mose and me who’d pay the price. If the Black Witch caught us, little Emmy’s life would be worse than hell.

“I hope Miss Stratton is okay,” I said.

“You need to worry about yourself.”

“How did you know about her and Mr. Brickman?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then why’d we go crashing into their bedroom?”

“I had something else on him.”

I remembered what Volz had said in the study:
Don’t forget the moonshine, Clyde.
Then I thought about all the times Albert and Volz had been gone together, and how some deeper alliance seemed to have been formed, one that left me out.

“You were in business with Brickman,” I said. “Bootlegging?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. It’s our family business.”

“But Mr. Brickman?”

“That guy’s nothing but con, Odie. I’ll bet bootlegging just scratches the surface.”

IN THE MORNING,
Albert took one dollar from the stack of money he’d snatched from the Brickmans’ safe and went into the little town whose lights we’d seen the night before. While he was gone, I opened the pillowcase, pulled out the two thick stacks of bills, and counted the cash.

I sat back and looked at Mose. “Two hundred and forty-nine dollars.”

Mose signed,
We could buy a car.

Emmy wisely suggested, “How about new shoes for you?”

Emmy wore new, sturdy oxfords that the Brickmans had bought for her. I looked down at the old ones I wore. At Lincoln School, we were given one pair of shoes every year. Because they were cheaply made to begin with and because we wore them all the time, the soles developed holes well before the year was over. Most of us slipped pieces of cardboard inside to keep out the elements as best we could.

“New shoes, new clothes, a whole new life,” I said, feeling richer than I’d ever imagined.

I put the money back and took out one of the stacks of letters tied with twine. I undid the knot and began looking at the envelopes. They were all addressed to the Superintendent of Lincoln Indian Training School. The return addresses were from all over Minnesota and the Plains and beyond. I opened one at random and began reading.

Dear School Superintendent,

Our son Randolph Owl Flies is a student at your school. It is very hard for us to travel there to see Randolph. We would like him to have a present at Christmas. Please use the dollar we have sent to buy him something special.
Tell him we will try to see him when the snow has melted and we can travel the road again. Sincerely, Lois and Arthur Owl Flies.

I knew Randy Owl Flies, and I also knew he never got anything at Christmas, ever.

I opened and read another letter, this from a family in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Like the other, the writing had been done in a careful, respectful hand, and asked the superintendent for permission for their daughter Louise LeDuc to leave Lincoln School and come home for the funeral of her grandmother. Five dollars had been included for bus fare.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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