Authors: William Kent Krueger
This didn’t get such an agreeable response, but it sent an audible ripple through the crowd.
“And what did they promise those of us who were lucky enough to come back? They promised us bonuses for our service, compensation for the horrors we witnessed or were a part of. But they told us we’d have to wait for our money. Well, we can’t wait. We don’t have jobs now, do we?”
There was a resounding chorus of “No!”, which made sense given the state of the clothing most of the crowd wore.
“And we have no roofs over our heads, and we don’t have food to feed ourselves or our families, do we?”
This really got to the crowd, and they raised their fisted hands and shouted, “No!”
“We need that money now. Today. Not years down the road. Hell, we’ll all have starved to death by then! Are you with me?”
Judging from the roar of approval the crowd delivered, they were.
That’s when the cops swept in. They came out of the side streets and the alleys carrying truncheons and shoving their way among the crowd, dividing them into islands of confusion, sending them running every which way.
“You, Mr. Cop, did you fight in France?” the man with the megaphone called out.
But I guessed not, because the policeman he’d addressed simply whacked him on the head with his billy club and I saw him tumble.
Chaos engulfed the scene, and I found myself buffeted by fleeing bodies and thrown against a brick wall. I crawled into the safety of an alcove that was the entrance to a printing shop, where I cowered until the street had emptied, and a man poked his head out the door of the shop and snapped, “Get on, boy. Don’t be loitering here.”
I quickly headed back to the railroad tracks and followed them out of the city, eager to return to the place where I’d left my brother and Emmy and Mose, wanting more than anything to be in the safety of my family again, surrounded by the comfort of our love. Sure, we sometimes got angry and yelled at one another, but we never swung billy clubs.
By the time I found where I’d joined the tracks that morning, it was late afternoon and the shadows were long across the land. I made my way down to the river, to the rock bluff where we’d stayed the night, my heart singing at the prospect of rejoining the others.
But when I reached the strip of beach where we’d camped, I was still alone. Everyone had gone.
I SPENT MY
twenty-fourth birthday hunkered down inside the shell of a burned-out café in Brest, France, with German bullets cutting the air around me. I was scared but, honestly, not nearly as frightened as I’d been when I was twelve years old standing on that empty beach on the bank of the Minnesota River, thinking I’d lost the only family I had.
The remains of the fire still smoldered, and the sand still held the impressions of our bodies where we’d slept in the night, but the beach was empty. My first thought was that Albert had been so angry he’d convinced the others to abandon me. But he was my brother, and we’d been at each other’s throats before. He wouldn’t just desert me, no matter how far I’d pushed him. I looked for a sign, a trail marker of some kind like the one Mose had left earlier on the Gilead. I found nothing like that, but I did discover something disturbing—large footprints in the wet sand at the river’s edge, larger even than Mose would have left. And then I looked carefully at all the footprints. Emmy’s were small and easy to spot. Albert and Mose wore Red Wing boots of the same size, and their prints, though larger, were exactly like those my boots made. But there were other shoe prints, man-size, and the paw prints of dogs. Someone had been there, several someones. Something had happened, and Albert and Mose and Emmy had been forced to flee.
But flee where?
I looked at the river, the brown current pushing east toward Mankato, and I figured there was only one way for them to go.
The rest of the afternoon I followed the course of the river all the way back to the outskirts of Mankato with no sign of my family. It was dusk by then. I was tired and hungry and discouraged. I’d convinced myself that my brother and Mose and Emmy hadn’t fled
the beach but had instead been caught. The Black Witch had worked some kind of dark magic and had tracked them down. I’d been gone when the capture had taken place, but that didn’t mean I was lucky. It meant that I was absolutely alone.
I came to a trestle that crossed another river, a tributary to the Minnesota. A couple of hundred yards north, I could see the place where the rivers met. I sat on the crossties and dangled my feet and tried to make sense of my situation. Albert and Mose were probably already behind bars, and I considered simply giving myself up. What could they do to me? Did they put twelve-year-olds in the electric chair? If that’s where Albert was going, then maybe that’s where I was going, too. We would meet our end together.
I’d crawled deep into a hole of misery when I heard something that made my heart sing a little. From among the trees downstream came the reedy voice of a harmonica. I knew the tune, “Arkansas Traveler.” I took my own instrument from my shirt pocket and began to play a counterpoint to the melody. The other voice paused, as if surprised, then picked up the tune and we played together to the end. I climbed down from the trestle and headed toward the trees from which the music had come.
At the place where the two rivers met stood a community of temporary shelters. The little structures had been built of materials you might have found in a city dump—cardboard, sheet metal, corrugated siding, scrap lumber, wooden crates. There were lean-tos of driftwood covered with tarps. Here and there, a tent had been pitched, but mostly it was a village predicated on desperate necessity, given shape and substance by the discards of those who were better off. Fires burned in cut-down barrels or in the open, and I could smell food cooking.
The voice of the harmonica kept calling. I wove along pathways between the shelters, where folks looked up from their fires or peered at me from the entryways of their hovels.
I came at last to what looked like a big tepee, a cone of long
branches covered with canvas. It stood in the high grass that edged the big river. Near the tepee sat an old pickup truck whose bed was jammed with furniture and whatnot. In front of the tepee door was a stone fire ring with a nice blaze going at its center, and a big black cook pot hung over the flames. Three adults sat on low crates around the fire, one of them a squat, balding man with sun-darkened skin and a harmonica to his lips. Their faces turned toward me, and the man lowered his mouth organ. They stared, not with hostility but as if with an expectation of what they knew would come next.
“I play, too,” I said feebly and showed him my harmonica.
“That was you a while ago?” he asked.
A woman sat next to him. I judged them to be about the same age, the age my parents would have been, but her face seemed far more careworn than his. Her hair hung about her shoulders in limp blond strings badly in need of washing. She wore a flour sack dress, old but of a colorful pattern, with ballerinas and butterflies. Her feet were shod in beat-to-hell work boots, and as far as I could tell, she wore no socks.
But the one who commanded my attention was a woman of great age, a loose construct of folds and wrinkles out of which two dark eyes studied me intently. She wore a shawl over an old dress that came to her ankles, and the stem of a corncob pipe was lodged in the corner of her mouth.
“Are you alone?” she asked in a voice surprisingly gentle.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Don’t have any.”
“Orphan?” the younger, careworn woman said.
“Are you with somebody here?” the old woman asked.
“No, ma’am. Just came in on the railroad tracks up there.”
“Awfully young to be a hobo,” the other woman said.
“Lots of young ones on their own these days, Sarah,” the old woman said. “Hard times for us all. Have you eaten, son?”
“I ate a bit this morning.”
“You’re welcome to join us. Soup’s almost ready.”
“Mother Beal,” the man said.
“We can spare the boy some soup, Powell,” the old woman said. All the wrinkles on the lower part of her face formed themselves into a smile. “And then maybe he can pay us back with some music.”
WHAT I WOULD
come to learn in time was that Powell Schofield; his wife, Sarah; and his mother-in-law, Alice Beal, had lost their farm in Scott County, Kansas, and had set out for Chicago, where Mother Beal had family and Schofield hoped to find work. Their truck engine had begun to act up and they had no money for repairs—no money for anything, even gas—and they’d been in the thrown-together village, which they told me was called Hooverville, for more than a week. There were Hoovervilles everywhere, another thing I learned later. Like many of the men in the encampment, Schofield had heard there was work to be had in the canneries in the area, a report that had turned out to be terribly untrue. Now they were stuck.
Mrs. Schofield stirred the soup in the black pot and said, “Powell, will you round up Maybeth and the children? Tell them supper’s ready. And tell Captain Gray he’s welcome to join us if he brings his own spoon and bowl.”
The man stood. He wasn’t big but was powerful-looking, his chest and arms muscled from the work of a farmer. He trudged off among the makeshift abodes, heading toward the sound of kids playing, which I’d heard on my arrival.
Mother Beal eyed me carefully. “Buck Jones, eh?”
Because that’s what I’d told them when they asked my name. I was growing rather fond of it.
“Like the cowboy movie star?”
“Uh-huh,” she said and looked me up and down. “Those clothes are awfully nice, and if I’m not mistaken, those boots are Red Wing, not far from new. A suspicious mind might think you’re a runaway.”
Which I was, sort of, though more of an escapee.
“No family to run away from,” I said. “My father died four years ago, my mother a couple of years before that.”
“No other family?”
“An aunt in Saint Louis. That’s where we’re going. I’m going,” I corrected.
“Saint Louis is a long way,” she said.
“Weeks and weeks,” I agreed.
“And just you and no other resources?”
Mrs. Schofield tasted the soup and added a pinch of something from a little bag she took out of her dress pocket. “That sounds awfully . . .” She paused with her hand over the steaming cauldron. “Brave,” she finally said.
Mother Beal laughed. “Plumb crazy is what I was thinking. But look where seventy years of judicious living has got me.” She took the pipe from her mouth and swung the stem in a long arc that encompassed all the flimsy shelters of Hooverville. “And look at them. Most folks here had no idea this was just around the corner. So much is beyond anyone’s control.” She smiled at me. “So, Buck, I’m the last person to tell you whatever you got in mind is crazy. All I’m going to say is God be with you.”
Mr. Schofield returned with three children in tow, one of them a girl no older than I. She wore a boy’s shirt and a boy’s dungarees, patched in several places, and her feet were bare. She smiled shyly at me and went immediately to work helping her mother with the final meal preparations. This was Maybeth Schofield, and despite the boy’s clothing, I thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. The other two were twins, eight years old, Lester and Lydia. Some
distance behind them trailed a tall figure, limping his way toward the fire. When he came from the shadow of the trees and fully into the evening light, I realized I’d seen him before. He’d been the man with the megaphone exhorting the other veterans in the crowd to rise up and demand the bonuses that had been promised them for their military service. A dark bruise spread across the side of his face, and I remembered watching the cop clobber him with a billy club. But that didn’t explain his limp.
“Lost it in the Argonne,” he said, tapping his right pant leg, which produced a wooden sound.
We were eating by then, and that’s when I learned much of the history of the Schofields and Captain Bob Gray. Maybeth sat with the twins on the other side of the fire. Her hair was the color of her mother’s, the soft gold of the alfalfa after it had sun-dried in Bledsoe’s fields, but softer looking and cleaner than her mother’s. Whenever I caught her looking at me, she would quickly look away. For a reason I couldn’t have explained then, that simple, demure gesture captured my heart.
“The rain didn’t come the way it was supposed to,” Mr. Schofield said. He’d finished his soup—a tasty concoction of chicken broth and vegetables—and threw a stick angrily on the fire. “Last two years, the corn just didn’t come up. Had nothing to feed my livestock. They was all skin and bones. Bank told me to go to hell when I asked for more credit. Then they took the farm. The bastards.”
“There was a little more to it than that,” Mother Beal said.
“Yeah, well, that was the crux.” He stood abruptly. “I got things to see to.” And he strode off into the dark under the trees.
Mother Beal watched him go. “Drought, he says.”
“Mama,” Mrs. Schofield cautioned her.
“I’m just saying there were farmers around us who found a way.”
Captain Gray—that’s what he preferred to be called—was on a mission of his own making, attempting to recruit men to travel with him to Washington, D.C., to join the thousands of other veterans gathering there to demand payment of the promised bonuses.
“There are plenty of us here in Minnesota desperate for that money. It’s no handout we’re asking for. It’s what was promised. A government should keep its promises.”
“I don’t know why a government would behave any differently from the people who comprise it,” Mother Beal said around the stem of her pipe. “When it comes to money, people often behave in ungracious and ungrateful ways.”
After the meal was finished, Mother Beal said, “Children, help us clean up. Buck, you promised us a tune on that mouth organ of yours.”
“You play the harmonica?” Captain Gray asked. “Got me a squeeze box back at my shack. Mind if I play along?”