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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“That’s not what I want, Sid, not what I ever wanted.”

“No? You should have seen your eyes when I told you about Corman and broadcasting out of Saint Louis. Like big diamonds, they were, all glittery at the promise.”

“The promise of reaching more people, Sid. Not for me. For them. Don’t you understand? This has never been about me.”

“Look, Evie, before me you were playing the two-bit circuit. But no more. You’re going to Saint Louis, where you’ll reach millions of people, just like you’ve always wanted, and you’re going because of me, because I understand what it takes to get these rubes’ attention.”

“Rubes? Is that how you think of the people who come here every night looking for something hopeful? Sid, the world is in great darkness, and for whatever reason, God gave me a light and made me a beacon. It’s sacred what I do.”

For a long while, there was nothing from the other side of the canvas but silence.

“I guess I made a mistake, Evie,” Sid finally admitted. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not me you need to apologize to. It’s those kids, whose whole future you’ve jeopardized. Go on,” we heard her say. “I hope they can forgive you.”

I had never cottoned to Sid. From the get-go, everything about him felt too slick. When he found Emmy and me in the big tent standing at the side of the cot where Albert lay, he ran his fingers over the thin black line of his mustache and stared at the meadow grass trampled nearly dead by the feet of all those who’d come looking for hope or a miracle.

“Okay,” he finally said, “I may have made a mistake.”

“You really stepped in it,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

“My whole focus is on building Eve’s following, kid. Don’t you want that for her? She’s got a gift.”

“And you’re not doing half bad mooching off her,” I pointed out.

“Listen, you—”

Whisker, who was up on the platform sitting at the piano, cut him off. “Don’t deny it, Sid. Boy’s right. We all ride on Sister Eve’s coattails.”

“You stay out of this, Whisker,” Sid snapped. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry if I’ve caused you any trouble. Although nothing seems to have come of it yet.”

“Key word,
yet,
” I threw at him.

“Well, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

His apology had the dull ring of a cracked bell, but I didn’t see any point in needling him further. He turned and left the tent, and as soon as he was gone, I said, “We have to be ready to go.”

“Tired,” Albert said. “Just want to lie here.”

“Somebody’s going to see that picture of you,” I told him. “Sooner or later it’s going to bring the Black Witch down on us.”

Albert stared up at the tent ceiling and said weakly, “Maybe not.”

He looked so beat I wasn’t sure he could even stand up. But it was more than just a physical debility. The snakebite hadn’t killed him, but the venom had deadened his spirit. Albert had been the engine driving us, pushing us forward, always forward. The dull eyes and monotone voice came not from my brother but from the shell that seemed to be all that was left of him.

“We’re leaving and that’s that,” I said. “I’m going to tell Mose.”

He was working with Dimitri, and when I gave him the word, he just nodded. He turned to the big Greek and made a sign, not one that we’d ever taught him, but something he and Dimitri must have created between them. The Greek said, “You’re the best damn worker I ever saw.” He held out his hand for Mose to shake. “I wish you well, son.”

When we returned, Sister Eve was sitting on the grass at the side of Albert’s cot, holding my brother’s hand. She looked up and smiled.

“Sid has his faults, but he’s not a bad man at heart. He’s got some connections with the law in town here, and he’s gone off to see what he can do to make sure you’re safe until we leave tomorrow. I want you to stay with me.”

“It’s kidnapping, Sister Eve,” I argued. “Can Sid get around that?”

Give him a chance?
Mose signed.

I shook his head. “Too risky. Emmy back with the Brickmans. You and Albert and me in jail. We need to leave.”

I looked to Albert, who’d always been the shoulder I leaned on, but he just closed his eyes.

“Get our stuff together,” I told Mose, using the commanding voice I’d heard from my brother so often. “We need to be off.”

Sister Eve looked terribly unhappy but gave no more objection. “Whisker, go to my hotel room and gather up the children’s clothing. Put it all in my suitcase and bring it back here.” After Whisker had gone, she said, “Mose, get whatever things you and Albert brought. I’ll ask Dimitri to put together some food for you to take when you leave. Hurry now.”

A couple of hours later, we were standing together in the big tent, ready to depart. Mose was supporting Albert, pretty much bearing all his weight. The first cars were arriving for the evening service, and Sister Eve and Whisker walked us out the back way. Behind the tents, we said goodbye. Whisker shook my hand, his long, reedy fingers warm and reluctant to let go. “Sure going to miss you, son. You keep playing that mouth organ, you hear me. You got the music in you.”

Sister Eve knelt before Emmy and said, “You have something amazing and beautiful in you. You’ll realize that someday. I would love to be there when you do.” To Mose, she said, “I’ve never known anyone stronger here.” She touched his chest over his heart, and then she hugged him. To Albert, she said, “You’ll recover, and when you do, I know you’ll guide them all well.” She kissed his cheek. Finally, she handed me a small paper bag and said, “I’ve put some cotton balls, antiseptic, gauze, and such in there. You have to keep your brother’s wounds clean. I’ve also put a few other useful items in.” Then she leaned to me and whispered into my ear, “This is important. It’s up to you to make sure that Emmy is safe. Promise me.” And I did. Then she said, “Remember this. It’s an old saying but a true one. Home is where your heart is.”

She kissed my cheek, too, and we were preparing to leave when I saw something that made all my hope sink. Among the cars arriving in the field was an all-too familiar silver Franklin Club Sedan, and right behind it came a Fremont County sheriff’s cruiser.

“The Black Witch,” I said, and my heart began to race.

“Go,” Sister Eve said. “I’ll take care of them.”

We hurried off, although Albert, in his weakened condition, kept
us from going as fast as I would have liked. We crossed the meadow and the railroad tracks and entered the trees on the bank above the river. Mose and Albert and Emmy made their way down to the water’s edge, then Mose headed toward the bulrushes where he and Albert had hidden our canoe. I stayed among the trees, watching as Clyde Brickman, that snake with legs, got out, went to the passenger’s side, and opened the door. The sight of Thelma Brickman, thin and dressed all in black so that she looked like a burned matchstick, was ice water on my soul. A heavyset, red-faced man emerged from the cruiser, and I recognized Sheriff Bob Warford, who’d terrorized so many runaways from Lincoln School. The Brickmans and Warford started toward the big tent, and Sister Eve came out to greet them.

I didn’t stay to see anything further. I hopped down the bank to the river, where Mose had the canoe already on the water. He’d put in the canvas water bag, the blankets, the pillowcase with the letters and other documents we’d taken from the Brickmans’ safe. He’d tossed in the suitcase with the clothing Sister Eve had purchased for Emmy and me, as well as the basket of food Dimitri had thrown together for us. Albert was in no condition to paddle, so he sat in the middle with Emmy on the blankets, holding the food basket in his lap. I sat in the bow, Mose pushed us into the current and took the stern, and we paddled as hard as we could away from the place where I hoped Sister Eve was somehow misdirecting the Black Witch and her toady husband.

The river curled around the eastern edge of New Bremen. We passed the flats where houses stood near grain elevators and the white steeple of the little church rose above the treetops. We slid under the railroad trestle where I’d sat before I stumbled onto Sister Eve praying upriver. We left the town behind. The current, coupled with our own efforts, took us between fields where young corn and soybeans rose out of the turned earth. The sun had fallen below a long, undulating ridge that edged the fertile floodplain. We moved inside the broad blue shadow of those hills, and for a long time no one spoke. Partly,
I suppose, this was because Mose and I were putting all our effort into making distance, and I was breathing too hard for words. But I believe our silence was also because, once again, we were grieving loss. It was a feeling that should have been familiar to us by then, but does anyone ever get used to having their heart broken?

About the time dusk began to slide into true dark, we came to a wooded island, and I called back to Mose, “We need to stop for the night.”

Mose used his paddle to rudder us toward a small stretch of sand beach at the tip of the island. I leapt out and pulled the canoe ashore and helped Emmy and my brother disembark. Mose came last, bringing the blankets and the basket of food. Flooding over the years had laid up a wall of driftwood along the upper edge of the sand, which the sun had bleached white, so that the whole construction resembled a jumble of great bones. In the lee of that wall, I stretched out a blanket for Albert, who lay down immediately. Emmy put out the other blankets, and Mose opened the food basket. Inside were ham sandwiches and apples and a small container of lemonade, which we consumed but barely tasted. We sat in the gloom of approaching dark and were quiet, depressingly so. I felt the weight of sadness on us all and knew I had to do something, so I gathered driftwood and built a fire. Albert made a feeble attempt at objecting—“Dangerous” he said—but he was in no shape to argue. As the stars gathered above us one by one, and the glow from the flames pressed outward to keep the utter dark at bay, I played some lively tunes on my harmonica, which seemed to brighten us up a bit, then I put my mouth organ away and said to the others, “Let me tell you a story.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

A WOMAN LIVED
in a clearing in a forest of trees so tall and thick they blotted out the sun. It was always dark among the trees, dark as night, and over the years the woman’s eyes had grown used to seeing things that other people could not. She saw the shadows of dreams, the ghosts of hope. Nothing was hidden from her.

The land beyond the forest was full of hunger and pestilence.

“What’s pestilence, Odie?” Emmy asked, her blue eyes wide in the firelight.

“It’s terrible sickness of all kinds.”

“Is this a sad story, Odie?”

“Wait and see.”

One day four travelers came to the clearing in the forest, where the woman lived in a little hut. They called themselves the Vagabonds.

“What’s a vagabond?” Emmy asked.

“A wanderer. Someone who has no home.”

“Like us?”

“Exactly like us.”

One was a mighty giant, one a wizard, one a fairy princess, and one an imp. The woman gave them shelter and food, and when she asked for news from the outside world, they told her how awful things were beyond the forest. They told her how the giant had once thrown a boulder that had felled a great dragon, how the wizard had devised magical machines, how the fairy princess had charmed fierce beasts, and how the imp was always getting the other three into trouble.

“Sounds familiar,” Albert said from where he lay.

The Vagabonds told the woman they were tired of wandering and asked if they could stay with her, but she looked into them, all the way down to
their souls, and knew the true reason for their wandering. They were in search of their hearts’ desires, which were different for each of them, and she knew they would never find what they were looking for if they stayed in the safety of her forest.

Instead, she sent them on an odyssey.

“What’s an odyssey?”

“A long journey, Emmy, filled with adventure.”

On the far side of the forest was a castle where a witch lived.

“The Black Witch?” Emmy asked.

“As a matter of fact, all she wore was black.”

“I hate her,” Emmy said.

“With good reason,” I said.

The Black Witch kept children locked in a dungeon. She had cast a spell that caused her to look beautiful in the eyes of adults, and whenever hunger or disease made orphans of the children, they were sent to the castle to be put in the witch’s care. Once inside those stone walls, there was no escape. What the adults didn’t know was that the witch lived by eating the hearts of the children. Even though she’d eaten lots of hearts, she was still as thin and black as a licorice stick, and her hunger was never satisfied. In the dungeon where she’d locked them away, there was no sunlight except what could make its way through a little crack high up between the stones. For a while every day, the smallest ray of sunshine would enter the dungeon and the children would put out their hands and feel how warm it was. Which was good, except for one thing. It gave them hope, and hope made their hearts grow big, which was exactly what the witch wanted. Hearts fat with hope that would feed her gigantic appetite.

The forest woman told the Vagabonds that they were meant to destroy the witch. So they set off together to seek her out and, although they didn’t know it, to fulfill their hearts’ desires. Before they left, she gave the imp a vial filled with a magical mist and told the imp that when everything looked darkest, he should open the vial and release its contents into the air.

Because of her black magic, the witch knew the Vagabonds were coming,
and she sent an army of snakes to attack them. Some of the snakes were poisonous, rattlesnakes and cobras and such, whose bites could kill, and some were boa constrictors and pythons, who wrapped their bodies around their prey and squeezed them until their eyes popped out.

Long before they reached the castle, the Vagabonds spied the witch’s army. The giant, who traveled with a club as big as an oak tree, went first, swinging his mighty club and killing snakes right and left. The wizard cast a spell so the snakes’ poison couldn’t hurt the Vagabonds. The fairy princess used her wings to fly above them and sprinkle the snakes with fairy dust that turned many of them to harmless worms. But the snakes kept coming, so many that they threatened to overwhelm the Vagabonds, and things looked pretty bad.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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