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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“She didn’t attack you.”

“That’s not what Clyde will say. And you kidnapped a little girl, Odie. God only knows what despicable things you’ve done to her. Do you think anyone would believe a story told by a depraved boy whose mother was a whore?”

That’s when I went for her.

I don’t recall hearing the report from the gun, but I still remember the sting of the bullet in my right thigh and tumbling to the floor before I reached the Black Witch. In the chaos of that small room and the confusion of my mind as it processed the stunning realization that I’d been shot, I felt the air around me swirl as if a great storm were passing, and I was sure the Tornado God had descended.

But it wasn’t the Tornado God. It was my mother. She rushed past me and threw herself at the Black Witch. They struggled, reeling across the room. Then they were at the open window, writhing as one fiercely grappled with the other. And in the next instant, they were gone.

I tried to rise, but my wounded leg would bear no weight. Clyde Brickman ran to the window and stood looking dumbly down. I crawled across the floor, leaving a trail of blood, and grabbed the windowsill to pull myself up. Brickman, whose heart had never been as black as his wife’s, lifted me so that I could see what he saw. Together on the stone of the old patio three stories below, the two women lay unmoving, their bodies as entangled as their lives had been.

CHAPTER SIXTY-FOUR

THEY LET ME
sit beside my mother’s hospital bed, my wounded leg bound thick with gauze. She hadn’t returned to consciousness. The doctors weren’t sure she ever would. Dollie was there with me, keeping vigil. The hospital wards were crowded, but because Aunt Julia had money and some influence, we were in a private room.

The Black Witch was well and truly dead, her head smashed like an egg against the patio stone. A fortunate circumstance had saved my mother from the same fate. She’d landed atop Thelma Brickman. In her departure from this world, the Black Witch had done something almost redeeming. She’d cushioned the impact of my mother’s fall. The doctor had called it a small miracle.

I’d been at her bedside for hours when Albert entered the room. Mose and Emmy and Sister Eve were with him. When I saw them, I broke into tears.

“How . . . ?” I tried to ask.

Albert knelt and put a comforting arm around my shoulder. “We finally got John Kelly to spill the beans and came downriver on the
Hellor
as fast as Tru could make her go.”

From the doorway, I heard, “Lucky the river was high and clear.” Truman Waters poked his head in, and I saw that Cal was with him.

I looked at Sister Eve with some bewilderment. “You found them?”

“They found me. The same way you did. All those posters Sid insists we put up everywhere we go.”

“She took us to Aunt Julia’s house,” Albert explained. “The women there directed us here.” He looked at Aunt Julia, who lay so still it was as if she were already dead. “I was afraid we might be too late.”

“I have so much to tell you,” I said.

A nurse pushed through the gathering and demanded that everyone leave.

Emmy put her hand on mine and said, “But he’s our brother.”

In the end, the nurse shooed Cal and Tru away but allowed the rest to stay.

I shared everything with them. When I told them the truth about my lineage, I watched Albert’s face closely and didn’t see at all the surprise I’d imagined. “You knew we weren’t really brothers?”

“I’ve thought about it from time to time. You just showed up one day. I was only four years old, so what did I know? But now I understand why you drive me crazy sometimes.”

I didn’t laugh.

“Listen, Odie, you’re the biggest part of every memory I have. You
are
my brother. The hell with everything else. I love you so much it’s nearly killed me sometimes. Until the day I die you will be my brother.”

Mose stepped in and signed,
And mine.

Emmy smiled and said, “And mine. We will always be the four Vagabonds.”

THE OTHERS TOOK
turns sitting with me while I kept vigil at Mother’s bedside. Once, when it was just Albert and me, I shared with him what Sister Eve and I had discussed about Emmy and her fits.

He looked at me as if I were insane. “You’re saying she kept your bullet from killing Jack? And the snakebite from killing me?”

“Think about it. It required such a small shift of circumstances. A fraction of an inch for the bullet to miss Jack’s heart. A little extra time for you so the antivenom could arrive.”

He mulled that over. “She had one of her fits on the
Hellor
on the way here. When she came out of it, she said, ‘She’s not dead now.’ I asked her who wasn’t dead, but she just gave me that blank stare, you know the one, like she’s not really there. Then she slept. I had no idea what she meant.”

“A slight twist of Thelma Brickman’s body as she fell, Albert. That’s all it took.” I put my hand on my mother’s hand. Although the current was weak, I still felt the electricity of life coming through. “It gave her a chance at least. And here’s something else. The Black Witch knew about Emmy and her fits. She told me Emmy had one while she was with the Brickmans.”

“Did she tell you what Emmy saw?”

“Not exactly, but I figure it was me and DiMarco at the quarry. When I went over the edge, I landed on that little tongue of rock just below. It wasn’t much but enough to keep me from falling all the way.”

“So, you’re saying Emmy put that rock tongue there?”

“Or just put me in the place that when I fell, it was directly below me. If I’d been to the right or to the left even a little, I would have missed it.”

He thought this over a moment, then said, “If she saw the future, she would have seen the tornado coming. Why didn’t she do something to save her mother?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she tried but couldn’t. Maybe the tornado was just too big for her.”

He shook his head. “You know how crazy all this sounds?” I could see his engineer’s brain trying to accept a possibility that no mathematical calculation could ever prove. And, in truth, he never admitted to me that he believed the things I told him about Emmy. But he must have seen desperation on my face that night, because he said, “Whatever happens, Odie, we’ll still have each other. We’ll always be brothers.”

SISTER EVE SAT
with me. It had been nearly two days since she’d first come to the hospital. My mother’s condition hadn’t changed.

“I pray,” I told her. “I pray with all my heart. It doesn’t seem to help. Do you think there’s any chance Emmy could have another one of her fits?”

Sister Eve smiled. “She doesn’t really understand this gift she’s been given, Odie. Not yet. She will someday. I would love to help her in that, but it’s up to her.”

“Maybe you could just hit me on the head and I’ll get a gift of some kind, too. One that’ll help my mother.”

She smiled again, gently. “I don’t think it works that way. And you’ve already been given a gift.”

“What gift?”

“You’re a storyteller. You can create the world in any way your heart imagines.”

“That won’t make it true.”

“Maybe the universe is one grand story, and who says that it can’t be changed in the telling?”

I wanted to believe her, and so I imagined this:

My mother finally woke. Her eyes slowly opened, and she turned her head on the pillow. When she saw me, her face lit with a brilliant radiance and she whispered, “Odysseus, Odysseus. My son, my son.”

EPILOGUE

THERE IS A
river that runs through time and the universe, vast and inexplicable, a flow of spirit that is at the heart of all existence, and every molecule of our being is a part of it. And what is God but the whole of that river?

When I look back at the summer of 1932, I see a boy not quite thirteen doing his best to pin down God, to corral that river and give it a form he could understand. Like so many before him, he shaped it, and reshaped it, and shaped it again, and yet it continued to defy all his logic. I would love to be able to call out to him and tell him in a kindly way that reason will do him no good, that it’s pointless to rail about the difficulty of the twists in that river, and that he shouldn’t worry about where the current will take him, but I confess that even after more than eighty years of living, I still struggle to understand what I know in my heart is a mystery beyond human comprehension. Perhaps the most important truth I’ve learned across the whole of my life is that it’s only when I yield to the river and embrace the journey that I find peace.

My tale of the four orphans who set sail together on an odyssey isn’t quite finished. Their lives went far beyond the rolling farmlands and high bluffs and river towns and remarkable people they encountered on their meanderings that summer. Here is the end of the story begun many pages ago, an accounting of where the greater river has taken all the Vagabonds.

CLYDE BRICKMAN, IN
his full confession to the Saint Louis police, maintained that it was Thelma who’d shot Albert’s father, the man
I think of as my father, too. It didn’t matter. Brickman still went to prison, not just for his part in that killing but also for the embezzling he’d been party to with his wife while they ran the Lincoln Indian Training School and the bootlegging and all the additional crimes revealed by the ledger and other documents Albert had taken from the Brickmans’ safe. When asked why he’d held on to all those letters, Brickman said he’d thought that someday he would try to repay the money he and his wife had stolen from the Indian families. I considered it just another lie meant to mitigate whatever sentence might be handed down, and I hated him all the more.

During World War II, while fighting in Europe, I received word from Sister Eve that Brickman had died of consumption. Near his end, he’d sent for her and for Emmy, and they’d visited him as he lay in his prison hospital bed. He asked their forgiveness, which they freely gave. He made one request of them before his passing: to intercede on his behalf with me and Albert and Mose and beg our pardon, too.

Of all that we’re asked to give others in this life, the most difficult to offer may be forgiveness. For years after that fateful summer of 1932, there was a heavy stone of anger in my heart with the name Brickman etched upon it. For me, the journey that had begun in a small canoe didn’t end until, with the gentle urging and guidance of Sister Eve, I was finally able to let go of my enmity. In that moment of release, I also let go of any need to believe in a Tornado God, and I began to have my first inkling of this great river we are all part of and to see how right Mose had been when, comforting a grieving Emmy on the banks of the Gilead, he’d told her she was not alone.

I didn’t return to Saint Paul with Albert and Mose, nor did Emmy. We chose Saint Louis, I with my mother and Emmy with Sister Eve, who would guide her in so many necessary ways to a full understanding of her remarkable gift.

There’s no single road to redemption. My mother did come out of her coma, but ever after her legs were useless. When Lucifer bit Albert and the doctor had advocated amputation of the affected limb, I’d
darkly imagined the beggar’s life my brother might have led. When I learned the truth of my mother’s injuries, I fell into despair imagining much the same tragic outcome. I selfishly urged her to embrace a profound belief in God so that Sister Eve might help her to be healed, but like Albert, she simply could not. Instead, she reached into a deep well of courage inside herself and proved to be every bit the woman I’d hoped I might find when I headed for Saint Louis. Though bound to a wheelchair, she set about creating a new kind of life. She’d been designing and making her own clothes forever, and she determined to do the same for others. She bought the empty fudge shop on the corner of Ithaca Street and turned it into a dress shop where she sold her creations. Three of the young women who’d been in her charge stayed with her—to my great relief, Dollie among them—and she taught them her craft. It was a slow go at first, but my mother was not above a little bit of blackmail, and she tapped the wealthiest of her former clientele to buy dresses for their wives. Eventually, her reputation as a designer spread. By the end of the Great Depression, gowns from Maison de Julia were all the rage among women of the Saint Louis elite.

At eighteen, Albert enrolled in the University of Minnesota to pursue a degree in engineering, multiple degrees it turned out. But every year, once the upper Mississippi River was clear of ice, my brother and Mose worked on the
Hellor
with Truman Waters and Cal. I often joined them, and Emmy did, too. On one of our early spring trips downriver together near the end of those days, Mose, on a whim, tried out for the Saint Louis Cardinals as a walk-on. He made the farm team, and a year later they brought him up to the majors. Emmy had once predicted that he would be a famous ballplayer, which was not precisely true, but he twice led the league in RBIs. They called him the Silent Sioux Slugger, and the baseball cards that bear his image and stats are highly prized now.

When World War II commenced, like millions of other young men, Albert and I donned uniforms. Despite his gimp leg, which was the
legacy of the snakebite, my brother’s mechanical genius was an asset too valuable to let pass, and the navy took him. He rose quickly in rank and was finally put in charge of the powerful engines of an aircraft carrier. Near the end of the war, that great vessel was sunk, victim of kamikaze attacks. Although the carrier was abandoned, Albert stayed aboard, seeing to the safe evacuation of as many of his engine room crew as possible. My brother had been a hero to me his whole life, and he died a hero’s death. In Albert’s honor, my firstborn son proudly bears his name, and in a leather case on a shelf above my writing desk, I still keep the Navy Cross given for my brother’s sacrifice.

Mose played three full seasons with the Cardinals, but early into his fourth a fastball caught him in the head, in much the same way the paperweight he’d thrown years earlier had clipped Clyde Brickman. The blow damaged his left eye, and the brief career of the Silent Sioux Slugger was over. But that didn’t end Mose’s love of the sport. A year later, he returned to Lincoln School, where the administration had changed dramatically and the idea of “Kill the Indian, save the man” had been abandoned in favor of a more humane approach to housing and educating Native American children. Herman Volz, that kind old German who’d done his best to mitigate the darkness during the Brickmans’ reign, was still there when Mose arrived, but he died in his sleep a couple of years later. Mose coached the school’s baseball and basketball teams. He married Donna High Hawk, the sweet Winnebago from Nebraska who’d once served me Cream of Wheat in a chipped bowl and who later taught home economics to the girls at Lincoln School.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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