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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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Without a word to his family, he walked away under the trees.

“Maybeth,” Mrs. Schofield said.

“I understand, Mama.” Maybeth moved to follow him.

“May I help?” I offered.

Mrs. Schofield gave a nod.

We set off together, and in a bit Maybeth took my hand, and although there was still my family to be found, I didn’t feel alone anymore.


with activity. The hovels may have been makeshift, but the lives they housed were real and vital. Though a lot of the residents in that town of shacks were single men, there were a number of families in the encampment, and the sound of the children’s laughter was little different from the sound that might have been heard in a more settled place.

Maybeth and I followed her father at a distance. He skirted a rocky, tree-covered hill that rose above Hopersville and followed the railroad tracks into Mankato. It was clear he knew exactly where he was going. We didn’t talk, but I felt a profound sense of sadness from Maybeth as she watched the hunched figure of her father. At a dirt road that intersected the tracks, he turned right and, a hundred yards farther on, disappeared into the kind of place I knew well. A lot of people would have called it a speakeasy, but my father had always referred to these places as blind pigs, don’t ask me why. Albert and I had accompanied him into dozens as he’d made his deliveries of bootlegged liquor. If Mr. Schofield was the man I was beginning to understand him to be, I figured he wouldn’t come out for a long while.

Maybeth stood in the morning sun and stared at the shabby wayside. “I don’t understand.”

“My father said that in some men it’s a kind of sickness,” I told her. “They crave the drink.”

“That’s the real reason we lost the farm,” she said. “He blames the weather. He blames the banks. He blames everything and everyone but himself.”

Her words were angry now, the sadness flown.

“He’ll be a while,” I said. “I’ve got business in town. Want to come?”

In Mankato, I found a newsstand and checked the morning paper. I figured if the authorities had nabbed my family, it would have made headlines. But there was nothing. Which didn’t necessarily ease my worry. I asked about the sheriff’s office and was directed to the county courthouse, an imposing structure with a tall clock tower atop which stood an immense statue representing Justice, a blindfolded lady holding a set of scales.

Maybeth had been patient as I’d gone about my business and she’d asked no questions. But now she said, “What are we doing here?”

At the edge of the walk that led up to the courthouse steps was a stone bench. We sat down, and I looked deeply into her eyes. “Can I trust you?”

Her answer was to lean to me and plant a kiss on my lips, a long one this time.

I told her my real name and all that had happened in the last few weeks, everything except for the killings. How do you tell the girl you love that you’re a cold-blooded murderer?

“You think they’re in there?”

“If the police picked them up, then maybe.”

“Are you just going to walk right in and ask?”

“I’m not sure.”

“They’ll be looking for you, won’t they?”

“My name hasn’t been in any of the papers, so maybe not.”

“Just by asking, you might give yourself away.”

She was probably right, and I sat there staring at all that chiseled stone with no idea how to get at the answers inside.

“I could ask,” she said.

And I wanted to kiss her again. So I did.

“It might be dangerous. You could get into big trouble.”

“I want to help.” She stood up and smiled down at me. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

She walked to the courthouse and up the steps, and that huge hall of justice swallowed her whole.

I waited a long time, nearly half an hour according to the clock in the courthouse tower. I was sure something had happened to her, she’d asked the wrong question of the wrong people, and now, like my family, she was a prisoner. And it was my fault. I stared at that stone fortress and could think of no good reason to keep myself free. I stood and marched up the sidewalk, up the steps, and was just reaching for the door when Maybeth came back into the light.

She took my arm and we returned to the stone bench.

“I talked to a woman who works for the police, but she’s not police herself,” Maybeth said in a conspiratorial tone. “She types and stuff. There’s something big going on. A manhunt she called it. But that’s all I could get out of her. Nothing about your family.” The fear in her face mirrored my own. “Are you the manhunt?”

Manhunt, I thought, and jumped to the conclusion that my worst fear had been realized. They’d grabbed Albert and Mose and Emmy, and now they were looking for me.

“I guess so.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I can’t just leave my family in there. I have to get them out.”


“I don’t know. I have to think. Let’s walk.”

We made our way along the streets of Mankato, I don’t know for how long, Maybeth silent beside me. I beat my brain trying to think how I could spring my family, but I always came back to the fact that I was nobody and had nothing.

“I should go back,” Maybeth finally said. “Mama and Mother Beal will be worried. Come on, Odie.”

“Buck,” I said. “My name is Buck now.”

At the harshness in my voice, she stepped away. But instead of leaving, she took my hand. “When you don’t have anything else to believe in, that’s when you need to believe in miracles.”

I looked at her patched pants, her scuffed shoes with their worn-down heels and twine in place of laces, her thin shirt faded nearly
white from the sun. I thought about the farm they’d lost in Kansas and her father right now in a blind pig, probably drinking away what little they still possessed. The Schofields had lost everything, and yet Maybeth still believed in miracles.

She tugged gently on my hand. “Come with me. We can figure this out together.”

Where else did I have to go? So I turned with her, and we headed back.

Before we got to Hopersville, however, we came across a monument to a legion of the dead. In a small grassy area, set behind the rails of an iron fence, stood a huge slab of granite, smoothed and shaped like the headstone for a grave. Into its face had been chiseled





DEC. 26TH 1862

“Oh my God,” Maybeth said. “That’s awful. What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

I stared at that gray memorial to some great human cataclysm, and what it brought to mind was Emmy. I thought about what she’d said when she came out of her last fit and before she’d slipped back into a healing sleep. She’d said, “They’re dead. They’re all dead.” It seemed a stretch, but I couldn’t help wondering, had this been what she’d seen? And if so, how had she known?

Which got me to thinking again about Albert and Mose, and especially about little Emmy. It seemed to me in that terrible moment, standing before such a solid and solemn reminder of tragedy, that all I ever did was let people down. I’d killed Jack. I’d got Albert snakebit. I’d promised Sister Eve that I’d watch out for Emmy, keep her safe, but she was probably already back in the greedy hands of the Black
Witch, and Albert and Mose were rotting in jail, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about any of it.

“Come on,” Maybeth said and took my hand.

we found a tub of hot water near the fire and Mrs. Schofield hanging wet laundry on a line strung between two trees. Like everyone else in Hopersville, the Schofields drew their water from a pump in a large park on the far side of the tree-covered hill, hauling it a long distance for their cooking and washing. Maybeth told me that sometimes fetching the water could be a harrowing experience because the townspeople hated Hopersville and if you encountered them in the park, they threw insults and sometimes even rocks. Just the thought of anyone being cruel that way to Maybeth made me angry.

It was well after noon by then. Mother Beal was sitting on a crate, knitting. The twins were playing marbles around a circle Lester had drawn in the dirt. When they saw Maybeth, they cried out for her to play.

“In a while,” she put them off. “We followed Papa—” she began in explanation to Mother Beal.

“He’s back,” the old woman said with a sigh of exasperation. She nodded toward the tepee, from which came a loud snoring. “He used your mother’s pearl brooch this time.”

“I haven’t worn that brooch in years,” Maybeth’s mother said from the clothesline.

“He could have traded it for gas money, Sarah.”

“Enough to get us where? Not all the way to Chicago.”

Mother Beal’s eyes went to the truck, much of whose engine lay disemboweled on the ground. “We may never get there now.”

“He tried, Mama,” Mrs. Schofield said.

Mother Beal’s face was hard, but her voice was not when she said, “I’ve got some bread and cheese, if you two kids are hungry.”

Just then, Captain Gray came limping into the Schofields’ camp. “Police are sweeping through Hopersville, looking for someone.”

“Who?” Mother Beal asked.

“I don’t know. But they’re tearing everything apart. Best not get in their way.”

Now I could hear the barks of dogs, lots of them, and distant shouts.

Mr. Schofield stumbled from the tepee, trying to buckle his belt, his eyes a little unfocused as if still in a drunken haze. “What’s going on?”

“Police,” Mother Beal said. “Searching for someone.”

“Go, Buck,” Maybeth said. “Run.”

Everyone stared at me, surprise and suspicion on their faces. I heard the dogs coming toward us, but I just stood there, undecided.

“Go!” Maybeth gave me a shove. “I’ll find you.”

Without any idea of what it was all about, Mother Beal said, “Go on, son. And God be with you.”

I took off at a run along the bank of the Minnesota River. A hundred yards away, I dove behind a thick growth of sumac and lay where I could see what went on in Hopersville. Officers with dogs on leashes moved swiftly through the encampment, rousting men from the shanties, barking at them harshly, a sound little different from the dogs’. If a man objected, a billy club was the response he got. I felt terrible and guilty because I knew I was the cause of all that disruption in a place where lives were already brutally disrupted. I watched three cops with a dog approach the Schofields, and I hoped that because there were children present the family might be spared the worst. But when Captain Gray stepped between the officers and the family, he was shoved to the ground and a snarling dog went at him. Mrs. Schofield cried out and tried to help, but she went down under a blow from a billy club. Her husband, who still hadn’t succeeded in securing his belt, stepped toward the cop as if to defend his wife, but his pants fell down and he tripped himself and tumbled over Mrs. Schofield. Maybeth rushed to help her parents and was rewarded with a cop’s boot to her ribs. Mother Beal pulled the twins to her bosom and shielded them with her old body.

I couldn’t take it, couldn’t just stand by and not try to help those good people who’d opened their hearts to me and their home, such as it was. I was blind with a rage far greater than any fear, and I stood up to run to their aid. I had no idea what I would do, but I wasn’t going to let this travesty continue.

Before I could take a step, a powerful hand grabbed my shoulder from behind, and a low voice growled, “Got you.”

The hand spun me around. And I stared into the face of Hawk Flies at Night.


pull away, but the Indian held me in a vicious grip.

“Let me go, you bastard.” I kicked at him.

“Easy, little man,” he said. “Keep your voice down. They’re waiting for you.”

“Who?” I tried another kick.



“Broken to Pieces. You call him Mose. Him and your brother and the little girl.”

That made me go still. “Where?”

“Across the river. Quick, before those bullies spot us.”

“I can’t leave them.” I looked desperately toward the Schofields’ encampment, where the altercation was continuing, and Maybeth lay on the ground next to her mother and father, holding her side where she’d been kicked, and the twins were screaming bloody murder, and old Mother Beal was up and giving those boys in khaki a good what-for with her tongue.

“You can’t help them,” the Indian said. “If they’re smart enough to build a tepee, I’m guessing they’re smart enough to get through this. But if the law lays its hands on you, Buck, you’ll never see the light of day again.”

One of the cops had gone into the tepee, and he came out now and shouted something above the cacophony. The cop with the dog pulled the canine off Captain Gray, and the law moved on. In our direction. The Indian and I crept low behind the cover of the sumac, and together began to run. We didn’t stop until we reached a bridge that spanned the river.

We found them in a dense copse of poplars a quarter of a mile downriver from Hopersville. The canoe had been carried into the trees and laid on its side. From the river and from the far bank, it would have been nearly impossible to spot the camp—unless a fire attracted someone’s eye, but there was no sign of a fire having been lit. The blankets lay together in the soft undergrowth, and I could see that this was where the others had passed the night.

When the Indian and I appeared, they came scrambling. Albert and Emmy, anyway. Mose only looked up from where he’d been sitting, which was apart from the others, and stared at me as if I were simply a stranger, someone who meant nothing to him. Emmy hugged me and she was crying from happiness. Even Albert, who was normally about as emotional as a pipe wrench, smiled huge and embraced me.

“Where’d you find him, Forrest?” my brother said.

“Across the river, like we thought,” the Indian replied.

“I went back to our camp yesterday and you were gone,” I said.

“We heard dogs and men coming,” Albert said. “We had to leave.”

“We couldn’t even make a trail sign to let you know,” Emmy said. “We had to get out of there so fast.”

BOOK: This Tender Land
6.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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