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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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That’s when the imp remembered the vial the forest woman had given him, and he pulled out the stopper and released the mist into the air. The little cloud grew huge and gray and blinding to the snakes, and they couldn’t see the four Vagabonds, who slipped away and left them far behind. Blind and confused, the snakes began fighting among themselves, killing one another until the whole army had destroyed itself.

“And that’s the end of that adventure,” I said.

“But what about the Black Witch, Odie?” Emmy said. “Do they ever kill her?”

I tapped the end of her nose with my finger and said, “Their odyssey isn’t over, and that’s another story.”

It had grown late. The fire was dying and the sliver of a new moon had risen over the island. Emmy lay wrapped in her blanket, safe between Mose and me. Albert, still weak from his ordeal, lay at my other side, his eyes already closed. After a while, I heard deep, sonorous breathing from them all. I was still plagued with the insomnia that had beset me after I killed Jack, and after a while, I stood quietly and walked across the sand, a soft stretch of pale gray under the stars and the slender moon. The river was broad and still and black in its sweep around the island. In the distance beyond the trees that edged the riverbank, a gathering of lights marked a small village. I imagined
the people in the houses there, safe in their slumbering, happy in the comfort of the love they shared as families, as friends. I’d envied them once, but no longer. Like one of the Vagabonds, I had no idea where I was headed, but it didn’t matter. Because I knew exactly where my heart was.

- PART FOUR -
THE ODYSSEY
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

WE STAYED ON
that island in the middle of the Minnesota River for two full days while Albert continued to recover his strength. The wall of jumbled driftwood, much of which was whole tree trunks that had been carried on the raging river’s back during floods, offered us both shelter and a blind behind which to hide from prying eyes, although in the time we were there, I saw not a single soul along the riverbanks. I made Emmy another sock puppet to replace Puff, which Jack had taken from her. For this one, I fashioned bunny ears and took one of the cotton balls from the medical supplies Sister Eve had given me to tend Albert’s wounds and tied it with thread as a little tail. I diluted some iodine with a little water, put a small drop below the button eyes as a pinkish nose, and on either side made three whiskers with black thread. When I presented it to her, she was delighted and promptly named the puppet Peter Rabbit.

When she’d handed me the paper bag of medical supplies, Sister Eve had told me she’d put in a few other useful items. They turned out to be five ten-dollar bills. I thought maybe it was one of the envelopes I’d seen in Sid’s satchel. It wasn’t nearly the size of the windfall we’d found in the Brickmans’ safe, but it was still a lot of money in those days. The second morning on the island, I took one of the tens, and Mose and I crossed the river channel in the canoe. I made my way to the nearby village, whose lights I’d seen in the night, and found a small market, where I filled the water bag and bought food supplies. When I saw that they sold night crawlers as bait, I bought some of those, too, along with a roll of fishing line and a package of hooks. I also picked up the most recent issue of the
Mankato Daily Free Press
because Emmy was part of a front-page story about the
Federal Kidnapping Act—or the Lindbergh Law, as it was to become popularly known—which Congress had just recently approved and which made the taking of Emmy a federal crime, a capital one. We could get the chair.

When I gave him the newspaper, Albert read it to himself, so as not to alarm Emmy. Mose and I were already well aware of our precarious situation. The one element that offered a measure of relief was that Sister Eve and the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade weren’t mentioned. According to the article, there was still no news at all concerning the fate of Emmaline Frost, the kidnapped girl. Thelma Brickman had been interviewed about the impact of the Lindbergh Law on her own heartbreaking situation. She was eloquent in expressing her fear for the safety of her sweet little girl, and God alone knew what horrors those deviants might be subjecting her to. “Whoever they are,” the article quoted her, “these criminals must be the Devil’s own disciples, and they deserve the swift and merciless punishment this new law dictates.”

Albert said, “I think our camp needs some livening up, Emmy. Could you gather some wildflowers for us?”

She looked delighted at the prospect and scampered off.

“I don’t understand it,” I said, when she’d gone. “The Brickmans know we took Emmy. Why don’t they just say that?”

“Because it could get messy for them,” Albert said. “I think they want to conduct their business with us as privately as possible.”

“How? Ambush us and kill us?” I’d said it in dark jest, but I could see from the look on his face that Albert wasn’t kidding.

“Something I haven’t told you,” he said. “Bring me the pillowcase.”

I retrieved it from the canoe and handed it to my brother. He reached inside, drew out a small book bound in black leather, which he opened. Page after page was filled with names, dates, money amounts.

“A ledger,” Albert said. “Payoffs of some kind. Sheriff Warford’s name is in there. The Lincoln police chief, too. And the mayor.”

“Payoffs for what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the bootlegging. Maybe other things.” My brother closed the book, looking as drawn as he had when the snake venom was climbing toward his heart. “Bet there’s lots of folks in that county who think it would be best if we all just disappeared and this ledger never came back to haunt them.”

“Shoot first, ask questions later,” I said, recalling what the cop had told one-eyed Jack. “But we’re not in Fremont County anymore. Maybe we should just turn ourselves in to the police around here and tell them everything we know. Show them all those letters in the pillowcase and that ledger book and tell them how Emmy doesn’t want to be the Black Witch’s daughter at all.”

“And how you killed two men?”

It wasn’t an accusation, just a cold reminder of the reality of our situation.

He killed to protect himself and us,
Mose signed.

“Couple it with kidnapping, and who’s going to believe us? Jail for us all at the very least,” Albert said in that dead voice he’d been using since the snakebite. He glanced down at the headline. “Maybe worse.”

We fed that newspaper to the fire.

I had earthworms and fishing line, and I rummaged around in the driftwood until I found three straight sticks that would serve as poles. While Albert lay in the shade of a huge ash tree whose branches overhung the driftwood wall, Mose and Emmy and I stood on the sand at the river’s edge. I’d attached a dry little twig to each line as a bobber. Emmy, who’d grown up on a farm, had no compunction about skewering an earthworm with her hook, and she had her line in the water even before Mose and I did. We fished through the afternoon without a nibble.

Finally Mose put down his pole and signed,
I’m going to noodle.

Which, I recalled, was how Forrest, the Indian we’d encountered before New Bremen, had said he’d caught the catfish he’d shared with us.

Mose wiggled his fingers like worms to give us an image of what
he was planning. Then he followed the edge of the island until he came to a place where a great cottonwood had been undercut by the river and the arcing lacework of the exposed roots formed little caves that were half-filled with river water. Mose scooted out along one of the thick roots, laid himself down, reached his hand into the water among the roots, and held it there. I couldn’t see his fingers, but I suspected they were wriggly and delectable-looking to a fat catfish.

Emmy watched and whispered in a frightened voice, “Will they eat his fingers?”

“I guess they’ll try,” I said, and the image of Herman Volz and his hand with only four and half digits filled my mind. I didn’t know about catfish, but I hoped their teeth were a lot more forgiving than those of a band saw.

Mose was nothing if not patient. He lay on that thick root long after Emmy’s attention had drifted, and mine, too, and we left him to his noodling and went into the woods that covered the island. The trees were thick with vines, and the ground under the broad reach of the boughs was covered with brush. Emmy and I made our way slowly. I told her we were exploring the island because we were vagabonds on an adventure.

“To kill the witch?” Emmy said.

“And all the other monsters who threaten children,” I proclaimed.

I grabbed a vine and pulled it loose from the trunk where it had hung, and I tried to swing, in the way Johnny Weissmuller had done in
Tarzan the Ape Man,
which was one of the few movies I’d been allowed to see in the theater in Lincoln. The vine broke under my weight. I came crashing down and landed in the middle of a clump of sumac, square on my butt. I sat for a moment, a little stunned, and heard Emmy calling my name with concern. Then I turned and looked down and screamed.

The mouth of a skeleton next to me hung open in a ghastly smile of greeting.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

MOSE CAME RUNNING.
A minute later, Albert was there, too, but looking weak and winded. They stood beside Emmy and me—I’d leapt away from that macabre grin as fast as I could—and we all gaped at our only companion on the island. It was a full skeleton, completely intact, head to bony toes. Tendrils of vegetation grew up between its ribs and vined out the empty eye sockets. Like the driftwood piled on the tip of the island, the bones were bleached to a ghostly white. For a long while, we simply stared.

Finally Mose signed,
Who?

Albert said, “No telling.”

“It’s not very big,” I noted.

“About your size,” Albert agreed.

A kid,
Mose signed.

“What do you suppose it’s doing here?” I asked.

“Just like the driftwood, maybe,” Albert said. “The river dropped it here.”

I crept near the skeleton again, less afraid now, and knelt and examined our companion more carefully. “Look.” I pointed to the side of its skull, to an indentation surrounded by a spiderwebbing of cracks. “I’m no cop, but I’d bet somebody whacked this kid on the head.”

Murder,
Mose signed.

“I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions,” Albert said.

I spotted something lying at the feet of the skeleton and picked it up. Dark brown and brittle, it almost fell apart in my hand, but we could all see what it was.

“A moccasin,” Emmy said.

“An Indian kid,” I said. And I thought about Billy Red Sleeve. “What do we do?”

“Nothing,” Albert said.

I looked at him, the shell of him anyway. He might have been just too exhausted to care, still recovering from his ordeal with the snakebite, but I thought it went deeper. In New Bremen, he’d had one foot in the grave. Death had looked him in the eye, and I think he was still afraid.

Nothing?
Mose signed, and I could see a rare fury rising in him.

“Whatever happened was a long time ago,” Albert said in a tired voice. “Who knows? Maybe a hundred years ago. There’s nothing anyone can do about it now.”

I couldn’t get out of my head the image of Billy Red Sleeve, lying so long forgotten in the quarry where DiMarco had thrown his little body. “We can’t just leave it.”

“What do you suggest?” Albert’s words were stone cold now. “That we alert the authorities? What a good idea that would be.”

We bury him,
Mose signed.

“I’m not going to handle those bones,” Albert said.

Mose, who was almost never confrontational, faced my brother and signed angrily,
He was an Indian kid, like me. If I’d died in that ditch with my mother, I would have wanted a decent burial. So we give him a decent burial. I’ll handle the bones.

Mose and I used sticks scrounged from the driftwood wall to dig a hole in the soft dirt. Three feet down, water began to seep through the soil, and we stopped. Mose carried the skeleton in pieces and set the bones in the little grave, arranged, more or less, as we’d found them, so that what was left of the Indian child appeared to be lying in repose.

Before we covered the bones with dirt, Mose signed,
Say something, Odie.

My first thought was, Why me? But it was obvious that Albert wasn’t interested, and this was what Mose wanted.

“This kid,” I began, “was just like us. He loved the sun on his face,
the dew on the morning grass, the song of birds in the trees. He loved to skip stones on the river. At night he liked to lie on the sand and stare up at the stars and dream. Just like us. He had people who loved him. But one day he went away and never came back, and they were heartbroken. They vowed not to speak his name again until the day he returned. That day never came. But every night his mother stood on the riverbank and called his name, and if you listen close at night, you can still hear the wind over the river whisper that name so he will never be forgotten.”

“What name, Odie?” Emmy asked.

“Listen to the wind tonight,” I said.

Mose bent over the grave and signed,
I will never forget you.
And he began to cover the bones with dirt.

Mose, it turned out, had been successful in his noodling, and he brought to our little camp two fat catfish for dinner. He cleaned them with Albert’s Scout knife and, just as we’d seen Forrest do nearly two weeks before, threaded them on sticks thrust into the sand and tilted over the fire to cook. We ate the fish with bread I’d bought at the village market, and we split a Hershey’s bar for dessert.

After dark, we sat around the fire, staring into the flames, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I was brooding about Albert, who was only a ghost of himself. But because of the skeleton we’d buried, I was also thinking about my father, who’d been laid in a pauper’s grave in the cemetery in Lincoln. As far as I knew, there’d been no service for him. They just threw him into the hole and covered him up.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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