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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“That’d be all right,” I said. “Can I help clean up?” I asked Sarah Schofield.

“Obliged, Buck, but we can handle this. You figure what you’re going to play.”

I watched Maybeth help her mother. She gave instructions to the littler ones with a maternal patience, and she moved with a catlike grace, and for some reason I couldn’t name, her bare feet, slender and brown from the sun and from the dirt, seemed especially beautiful. I tried to think of a song that might impress her. I wanted something lovely and lyrical, but also a little sad and lonely, because that’s what I’d been feeling, and I wanted her to understand. I finally settled on “Shenandoah.”

When Captain Gray returned, he brought not only his concertina but also a large scrap of white wood on which
HOOVERVILLE
had been painted in large black letters. That word had been crossed out with red paint and below it was now the word
HOPERSVILLE
.

“This sign’s been hanging on the tree next to my shack for way too long,” Captain Gray said. “I thought it was time we called this place something brighter. What do you think, Mother Beal?”

“I think it’s perfect, Captain Gray,” she replied.

We played some tunes together. My repertoire was broader than his, but we knew a few of the same melodies, and as we played, folks
came away from their own little places and gathered around the fire. And a kind of miracle happened, or what I thought of then as a miracle. One man brought out a sack of ginger cookies and passed them around to the children who were there. Someone else offered up a jug of cider. Apple slices appeared and some cheese and bread. And while Captain Gray and I played, and a few of the folks who knew the tunes sang along, the people in the gathering, none of whom had much, found a way to feed one another.

Mrs. Schofield finally said, “It’s late and the children need to be abed.”

“One more,” I said. “Something special.”

“All right. But just one.”

I played “Shenandoah,” just as I’d planned. At the end, I looked across the fire at Maybeth Schofield. Her eyes were two blue pearls wet, as if with dew, and when she smiled at me, my heart cracked wide open.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

BEFORE LYDIA AND
Lester were put to bed inside the Schofields’ tepee, Mother Beal brought out a Bible, an old edition, bound in fine leather of a mahogany color and with pages edged in gold.

“Can you read, Buck?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Would you care to read a passage to end our day? It’s what we do in our family. Despite what must seem like desperate circumstances, we don’t believe the Lord has deserted us.”

I’d begun my journey on the Gilead with a profound belief in God, but a different kind of God, one that rained terror. I hadn’t let go of my fear that such a god was out there, dark and powerful and waiting, a shepherd who ate his flock. But Sister Eve had given me a different image to consider, and when Mother Beal handed me the Bible, I didn’t feel at all like a fraud when I read from it. I chose the Twenty-third Psalm because it was the passage most familiar to me.

After I’d finished, Mother Beal said, “Mighty appropriate, Buck, given our current situation. Good night, children.”

Mrs. Schofield ushered her two younger ones into the tepee. Before I returned the Bible to Mother Beal, I saw pages in the very front with names and dates handwritten.

“Our family tree,” the old woman explained. She scooted her crate next to the one on which I sat and drew a finger down each page, elucidating her lineage, from the first name and date—Ezra Hornsby, September 21, 1804—to the most recent names—Lester and Lydia Scofield, May 18, 1924. Among the things I learned was an explanation for the tepee. Her father, Simon Hornsby, had been an Episcopal missionary among the Sioux in the Dakota Territory,
which was where she’d been raised and had learned the beauty and utility of that simple construct.

I stared at those pages, which were a solid map of family, and I was envious. These people knew who they were, where they’d come from, and understood the larger fabric into which their lives had been woven. Me, I felt like I was dangling out there, a thread all alone.

Mother Beal laid the Bible on her lap. “Where do you intend to pass the night?”

I’d been so caught up in the flow of the evening that I hadn’t thought about it at all. “I guess maybe I’ll bed down in the tall grass somewhere.”

“Maybeth, go get a blanket and give it to Buck.”

“No, ma’am, I couldn’t,” I said.

“You can and you will. Maybeth?”

The girl went into the tepee and returned with a folded wool blanket. Before she could give it to me, her father stumbled into the firelight and sat down heavily on a crate. His eyes were dazed in a way I recognized, and the smell of whiskey was on him strong.

Mother Beal said, “And what did you use to buy it?”

“What?” he said in a terrible attempt at innocence.

She stared him down and he lowered his eyes.

“My mouth organ. A trade.”

Mrs. Schofield came from the tepee and saw her husband bent contritely at the fire. I thought she’d light into him, but she drew him into her arms. He laid his head on her shoulder, as a child might with his mother, and closed his eyes. She gave Mother Beal a look I couldn’t, at that age, interpret but I have since come to think of as profound maternal compassion, a strength emanating from a deep well of endurance that, across my life, I’ve come understand was not particular to Sarah Schofield. I’ve witnessed it in other women who have suffered much without losing their hope or their gift for embracing with forgiveness those who are broken.

“Let’s go to bed, sweetheart,” she said, and led him inside the tepee.

“Maybeth, why don’t you help Buck find a soft spot for the night?” Mother Beal said. “I’ll wait here for you. Don’t be long.”

We walked out of the firelight but not far because there was only a quarter moon in the sky and the night was rather dark. The high grass of the riverbank gave way to sand, and I found a spot a few dozen yards from the Schofields’ encampment and laid the blanket out on the beach. The stars were legion, and the Milky Way was a soft, blurry arc across the heavens.

“I’ll stay a bit, if you like,” Maybeth offered. “It’s kind of scary out here.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“I didn’t think so,” she said.

We sat on the blanket, and Maybeth crossed her legs and rubbed the patch that covered one knee.

“I had a nice dress,” she said. “Blue. But I gave it away.”

“Why?”

“Janie Baldwin needed it more. She was picking strawberries from a garden in town, stealing them, really, and a dog attacked her. Tore her dress almost completely off her. The Baldwins, well, they’re worse off than we are.”

“Your family’s nice.”

She looked back toward the glow of the fire. “I worry about Papa.”

I thought of my own father and how he’d made his living supplying the whiskey for men like Powell Schofield. I wasn’t sure what do with that.

“There’s my star,” she said, pointing toward the upper glimmer in the cup of the Big Dipper.

“Your star? You own it?”

“I claimed it. There are more stars in the sky than people on earth, so there are plenty to go around. I claimed that one because if you follow the line that connects it with the one below, you’ll find the North Star. It helps me know where I’m going. What star is yours?”

“The one below,” I said. “The one that connects and helps show the way.”

We gazed at our stars until Maybeth said, “I better go back.”

“Thank you for the blanket.”

I thought she would leave then, but she stayed a moment longer. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen,” I said. It was almost true.

“Me, too. Do you know
Romeo and Juliet
? Shakespeare?”

Because of Cora Frost, I knew about the playwright. I vaguely knew the story line, two people who were in love and it didn’t turn out particularly well for them.

“Juliet was thirteen and Romeo wasn’t much older,” she said. “People married young back then, I guess.”

Watching her across the fire earlier that evening, I’d thought about kissing Maybeth Schofield and had tried to imagine how that might feel.

“Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

In the quiet after she spoke, I stared at the river, a ghostly, starlit flow before me, and thought again what it would be like to kiss Maybeth Schofield.

“Buck?”

I turned my face to hers, and she leaned to me and pressed her lips against mine for the briefest of moments. Then she stood and ran back to her family’s camp.

I lay that night staring up at the two stars that would forever be connected in my thinking, filled with a fire that was completely new to me and whose burn was not pain but infinite pleasure. “Maybeth,” I said aloud, and there seemed such a sweetness on my tongue.

Then I thought about Albert and Mose and Emmy, and once again I was afraid, terrified that maybe I’d lost them forever. It wasn’t just fear that stabbed at me, but guilt as well because, for a little while, in the company of the Schofields, I’d forgotten them. What kind of brother was I?

MORNING CAME EARLY
in the newly dubbed Hopersville. When I rolled over in my blanket, I could smell the cook fires already burning. I sat up, looked at the river, a broad reflection of a rose-colored sky, and I knew what I had to do that day.

Mrs. Schofield had her own cook fire going. A black pot half-filled with water hung over the flames, and a sooted coffeepot had been set among the embers at the fire’s edge. No one else seemed to be up yet, and Mrs. Schofield sat alone with a steaming blue enamel cup in her hand. She smiled at me.

“Are you always an early riser, Buck?”

“When I have things to do,” I said.

“Do you drink coffee?”

I didn’t, but I was almost thirteen, old enough to marry, at least in the old days, and I figured I must be old enough for coffee, too.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Grab yourself a cup from that red crate in the back of the truck.”

The tailgate was down and on it sat the red crate, which contained cups and plates and flatware, and pots and pans. The rest of the pickup bed was jammed full of everything the Schofields had brought with them from Kansas. I took one of the cups from the crate, and Mrs. Schofield filled it from the blackened coffeepot. The brew was bitter and not at all to my liking, but I smiled as if it were ambrosia and thanked her.

“So you have a plan, Buck?”

“There are some friends I have to find.”

“Around here?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I hope.”

“Where are you going to look?”

I’d thought about that much of the night. If the cops had somehow apprehended my family, they were near enough to Mankato that I thought that’s where they might have been taken for processing. I intended to visit the police department and find out for sure. Beyond that, I didn’t have much of a plan.

“Around,” I said.

“Big place, that. Might they be here in Hopersville?”

“I doubt it, ma’am. If they’d heard me playing my harmonica, they’d have come running.”

Mother Beal emerged from the tepee, her long gray hair all mussed from a night’s sleep. So early in the morning, she looked like an old tree bent and battered by a storm. She straightened her back and it was like firecrackers popping. When she saw me, she smiled.

“Sleep well?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thanks again for the blanket.”

“It’s what people do, Buck. Help one another. My, my, that coffee smells wonderful.”

Maybeth was up next. She must have brushed her hair before she came out because it was long and soft and didn’t look at all slept on.

The sun had just risen. The light of the new day broke through the trees and I saw Maybeth drenched in gold and my heart leapt.

“What can I do, Mama?” she asked.

“We’ll need oatmeal and molasses,” Mrs. Schofield said.

Maybeth headed toward the truck and Mother Beal said, “She might need some help, Buck.”

We stood at the dropped tailgate, and Maybeth said, “I dreamed about you last night. Did you dream about me?”

“Yes.” It wasn’t exactly a lie because, although I hadn’t actually dreamed about her, I’d certainly thought about her a good deal and had imagined more kisses.

“That box,” she said, pointing. “Could you pull it out here?”

It was corrugated cardboard, filled with canned goods and jarred preserves of all kinds, none of it store bought.

“You made this stuff?” I asked.

“Mostly Mama and Mother Beal, but I helped. Most of it came from our garden in Kansas.”

She drew out a jar of amber-colored liquid, the molasses.

“And that box.” She pointed toward another, and when I pulled it onto the tailgate, she took out a round box of Quaker Oats.

The twins had risen by then, but it was a while before Mr. Schofield made his appearance. By then Mother Beal had said grace and we were eating. Without a word, Mr. Schofield sat beside his wife and she ladled out hot cereal for him.

“Buck,” he said, “I wonder if I could have your help today.”

“Whatever for?” Mother Beal asked.

“I’m going to give a shot to fixing that truck engine.”

I saw Mrs. Schofield and Mother Beal exchange a look, but they said nothing.

“I don’t know a lot about engines,” I said.

“Me neither, Buck, but if I don’t get her running we’ll never make it to Chicago.”

I thought about Albert, who could probably have worked magic on the broken engine, and that made me think about the mission I’d set for myself that day, one I was afraid might be hopeless.

“Powell,” Mother Beal said, “maybe Buck has other plans.”

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I can help.”

But it was a doomed effort from the beginning. After a couple of hours that served only to set the man to using language that would have done a sailor proud, he gave up. Engine parts lay scattered on the ground, and I thought that if ever there’d been a shot at fixing the truck, it was gone now. Mr. Schofield looked at the result of our labor, shook his head, and said, “I need a drink.”

BOOK: This Tender Land
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