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Authors: William Kent Krueger

This Tender Land (47 page)

BOOK: This Tender Land
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John Kelly jogged toward me in the dark. “Gonna help me deliver papers?” He clapped me on the back in greeting, then saw my face. “You okay?”

“I’m leaving,” I said.

“Going where?”

“Saint Louis.”

“What about the others?”

I thought about my brother and Mose and Emmy. They believed they’d found their home. They were happy. If they came with me, I knew I would somehow destroy that happiness.

“I’m going alone.”

“How’re you gonna get there?”

I considered the canoe stored at the boatworks. It was a familiar vessel, a friend in a way, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t handle it alone on a river as big and as unknown to me as the Mississippi.

“You said trains go to Saint Louis from the rail yard.”

“Sure,” John Kelly said, warming to the idea. “You can hop a freight.”

“Do you know which one?”

“Naw, but I bet if we ask around the yard, someone’ll be able to point us right.”

“We? You’re not coming.”

“No, but I ain’t gonna desert you till I know you’re off safe. We’re pals.”

“Thanks,” I said, truly grateful. “I’ve got to grab something from Gertie’s, okay?”

I slipped into the shed and went to the bunk on which Emmy
slept, slid my hand under the thin mattress, where for safekeeping, I’d put both my harmonica and the envelope containing the letter I’d written to Maybeth. I put these precious items into my pants pocket. I stood above Emmy, who’d had always been as cute as a fairy princess. In our long odyssey, she’d become far more than the orphaned daughter of Cora Frost. She’d become my sister. My sweet, little sister. I was tempted to lean down and plant a kiss on her forehead but was afraid of waking her. I turned and stared where Mose shared a bunk with Albert. His face was peaceful in the way that reminded me of the old Mose, the big Indian kid with a ready grin and a huge, simple heart. All that he’d learned about himself and all that he’d come to understand about the world he was born into had made his grin less frequent, but it was still there sometimes, and his heart would always be huge, I was certain, though never again quite so simple.

And then I considered my brother. There had been only one constant in my whole life, and that was Albert. He was at the beginning of all my memories, beside me on every road I’d traveled, had saved me from a thousand perils, knew my heart better than any other human being. Sister Eve had told me that what my brother wanted, his deepest wish, was to keep me safe. That had been his life, a long sacrifice for me. And I loved him for it. I loved him with every atom of my being, with a love so fierce it threatened my resolve. I wanted to lay my head on his shoulder, as I’d done a million times, and have him put his arm around me and tell me everything was all right and I was safe and we would always stay together, because that’s what brothers did. Leaving Albert was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I kissed my fingertips and touched them lightly to his chest over his heart, wiped away my tears, and stepped outside, where John Kelly was waiting.

the men gathered around the small fire in the rail yard told us. “Any train goin’ that way will head you toward Saint Louie.” He pointed to where the rails and the river tunneled side by
side into the night. “Make sure if the train turns east or west you hop off and catch another ’un. Stay south, son. Just stay south.”

We stood together, John Kelly and me, waiting for a train to rumble through, and it wasn’t long before one came slowly over the bridge from the direction of the Flats, heading the way the guy at the fire had pointed. John Kelly shook my hand, a man-to-man kind of parting.

“Good luck to you, Buck Jones,” he said.

“Thanks, John Kelly. But promise me something. My brother and the others, they’re going to ask you about me. I’d appreciate it if you kept your mouth shut.”

“You got it, partner. This is just between us.” He looked past me. “Open car coming. Better get ready.”

As the boxcar rolled past, I swung myself up through the open door, and when I was settled, poked my head out and signaled John Kelly that I was all right. He was a small silver statue in the moonlight, his hand lifted in a frozen goodbye.

I leaned back against the wall and stared through the broad, open door toward the Flats across the river, where all was dark. There were no streetlights yet, but there would be one day, and one day the roads would all be paved, and better houses with indoor plumbing would replace the ramshackle structures. The devastating spring floods would remain a constant, however, and in thirty years, the city of Saint Paul would decide, in the best interests of all its citizenry, to raze every building, while those whose lives had been shaped by the Flats could do nothing but stand by and weep as almost every remnant of their history vanished.

But I knew none of this in the summer of 1932, just shy of my thirteenth birthday, watching everything I loved move steadily away from me into the past. The train rolled slowly out of Saint Paul, gradually picking up speed, and as the engine thundered into the night, I knew that, more swiftly than was possible with any canoe, it was taking me to the place Sister Eve had told me was always in my heart, where all my questions would be answered and all my wandering would cease.

It was taking me home.


I sat in the boxcar all night, staring at Old Man River, who was a constant companion. Towns came and went, but the river was always there, and the moon, too, a white, unblinking, all-seeing eye. I remembered Mose’s assurance to Emmy:
Not alone.
And I told myself this again and again and was grateful for the company of the river and the moon.

Near dawn, I finally fell asleep on the boxcar floor. I must have slept hard, because when I awoke, the train had stopped moving. I sat up, aching from the unforgiving wood that had been my mattress, and peered out the open door. We were in a rail yard not unlike the one I’d left the night before, though this one had tall grain elevators, like castle towers, rising beside it. Far up the line of cars, a man walked briskly along, looking under every freight car and peering into those with open doors. A bull, I figured, thinking of the stories I’d heard of the beatings at the hands of the cruel railroad police who patrolled the yards. I eased myself down from the boxcar and hightailed it.

The rail yard and much of the town lay below a high bluff. I found a small diner on a dingy street near the tracks, where the smell of frying bacon reached out, set a hook in my hunger, and reeled me in. In her dream state, Emmy had told me that I’d know when the time was right to use the money in my boot, and I was hungry—and lonely—and decided it was time. I took a stool at the counter. The woman back of it was thin, blond, tired-looking, but with a nice smile when she saw me sit down. She reached out and plucked a couple of bits of straw off my shirt.

“Where’d you sleep last night, hon? In a haystack?”

“Something like that.”


“You bet.”

“What’ll it be?”

“Eggs and bacon,” I said. “And toast.”

“How do you want those eggs?”

“Scrambled, please.”

“Please,” she said, still smiling. “Wish all my customers were that polite.”

“Where am I?” I asked.

A man who sat a few stools away said, “Dubuque, Iowa, son.” He winked at the woman behind the counter. “No haystack, Rowena. This boy slept in a boxcar or my name ain’t Otis.”

“That right, hon?” Rowena said. “Are you riding the rails?”

I didn’t know how they might feel about that, so I didn’t answer.

“Where are your folks?” Rowena asked.


“Aw, sweetie, that’s a shame.”

“How long since you ate, son?” the man asked.

“Last night. I ate pretty good.”

“Right,” the man said, as if he thought I was lying but understood. “His breakfast is on me, Row.”

“I couldn’t,” I said.

“Look, son, I got a boy your age at home. If he was out there on his own, I’d want somebody to give him a hand.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Sir,” he said with a smile. “Somebody raised you right.”

I left the diner full, not just from the food but also from the kindness of those strangers. I couldn’t help wishing Albert had been with me to share the experience, something we could talk about warmly over a fire at night. I missed him terribly, and besides that, good things are made even better when you share the story of how they came to be. But whenever I thought about Albert—or Mose or Emmy—a cloud came over my happiness because I wasn’t certain if I would ever see them again.

freight train south and, because I’d hardly slept the night before, quickly nodded off and didn’t waken until late afternoon. When I looked out the boxcar, I saw that the train was rushing through cornfields, heading straight toward the sun, which was low on the horizon and red in the sky. We were going west. How long I’d been traveling in the wrong direction, I didn’t know. I kicked myself and swore out loud and prayed that the train would stop soon. But it didn’t. It rumbled on past sunset and then moonrise and finally slowed as the lights of a city appeared on the horizon.

The train rolled to a halt amid a large network of rails and idled freight cars, and as soon as I was able, I leapt to the ground. I tried to get my bearings, to see if there were any cars coupled to engines pointed in the direction I’d just come from, but it was a maze of tracks and it was night and I was lost.

A hundred yards away, at the edge of the yard, I spotted the glow of a small fire. I thought of the welcoming fires in Hopersville and of the man beside the fire in the Saint Paul rail yard who’d pointed me in the right direction and had advised me in a friendly way just to stay south. I crossed the yard to a shallow gully where a small thread of water ran and followed it to a culvert where the fire had been laid.

There were two of them, shabby-looking men, one asleep on a blanket and the other sitting up, bent toward the flames, a bottle in his hand. That bottle should have made me think twice. I approached slowly, not wanting to startle anyone, but the man with the bottle turned suddenly in my direction and tensed as if for a fight.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He eyed me up and down, then relaxed. “Take more’n a snot-nosed kid to scare me.”

The moment I heard the animal growl of his voice, devoid of any humanity, I understood that I’d made a terrible mistake.

The man on the blanket roused himself and sat up.

“Company, George,” the man with the bottle said.

George eyed me, too, and it was clear from his squint that he’d been sharing whatever was in the bottle. “Only a kid, Manny.”

“Yeah,” Manny said as if that was good thing. “Have a seat, kid.”

“I was just passing through.” I took a step back.

“I said have a seat.”

George stood and began circling around to my back.

I took another step away.

George wasn’t as drunk as I’d hoped. He moved coyote quick and clamped my arm in an iron grip. I tried to pull free, but he was stronger than he looked and pinned my arms behind me. I kicked back at him with a booted foot and connected with his shin, but he didn’t let go. It only made him mad, and he shook me like a rag doll and snarled, “Do that again, kid, and I’ll break your neck.”

Manny rose and went through my pockets. “What’s this?” He pulled out my harmonica and the envelope containing the letter I’d written to Maybeth Schofield. He blew one sour note on the harmonica and laughed cruelly. He threw the envelope onto the fire, and I watched it turn brown and burst into flames. He leaned close to my face, and his breath, fouled by whiskey and the long absence of any oral hygiene, hit me.

“Got any money, kid?”

I thought about the two five-dollar bills hidden in my right boot, but I was damned if I was going to give it to them.

“Unh-uh,” I said.

The man patted me down roughly all over. “He ain’t lyin’, George. He’s got nuthin for us.”

“Not nuthin,” George said and gave a grunt like a pig.

“Right,” Manny said.

I saw in the face of the man before me the same repellent hunger I’d seen in Vincent DiMarco that terrible final night at the quarry when he told me about Billy Red Sleeve. I tried to break loose of George’s grip, but his hands were iron manacles. I kicked out at Manny,
but he danced back, and George released the grip of one of his hands and gave my head a blow that made my ears ring.

“Over by the fire,” Manny said.

George dragged me there and shoved me to the ground, and both men stood over me, ugly as jackals. Whenever I’d thought about Billy Red Sleeve, I’d tried not to let my imagination wander into the horrible specifics of what might have been done to him before DiMarco put an end to his suffering, but in those few seconds with the two leering men above me, images came to me so brutal I felt my stomach fold in on itself in a way that threatened to make me puke. And maybe that would have been a good strategy. But I did something else instead.

“I have money,” I said quickly.

“The hell you do,” Manny said.

“I swear. Ten dollars.”

“Where?” George demanded.

I reached to my right boot and unlaced it. The men watched me closely. I slid the boot off, reached inside, and drew out the five-dollar bills. The men’s eyes went bright with a different kind of hunger, and Manny grabbed for the cash, but I jerked my hand out of his reach and held the bills over the fire.

“I’ll burn them,” I threatened.

“The hell you will,” George said.

“Give me back my harmonica, and I’ll give you the money.”

“Do like he says, Manny.”

As soon as I had the harmonica in hand, I threw the bills on the fire, where they fluttered like dry leaves onto the eager flames. The two men stumbled over themselves trying to save the burning cash, and in that confusion, I sprang up and sprinted away from the culvert, carrying the boot and my harmonica. I ran for the maze of tracks and the idled cars and, when I finally risked a glance over my shoulder, saw that I was alone. But still I ran, until I came to an open car and swung myself up and inside and lay panting.

BOOK: This Tender Land
8.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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