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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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Albert responded more soberly: “I think that would work.”

Mose grinned ear to ear and signed,
Lucky us.

Mrs. Frost cautioned us to say nothing to anyone. She had to put some things together, and until all the arrangements were in place, we should just sit tight and—she eyed me particularly—“Don’t get into any trouble.”

After she’d left, Albert turned to me. “Don’t get your hopes up, Odie. Remember, she’s dealing with the Black Witch.”

Back in the dormitory, we changed out of our Sunday clothes. Albert and Mose and I kept looking at one another, and it was clear we could hardly believe our good luck. I wanted to shout hallelujah, but I kept it bottled up. Volz came in and spoke quietly to Albert and the two of them left together. Then Mr. Freiberg came in and took Mose and a couple of the other boys to clean up the baseball field and get it ready for the next game.

I had some time before lunch, and I lay on my bunk and stared up and imagined what it might be like living with Cora Frost and Emmy.

I barely remembered my mother. She’d died when I was six. Albert told me it was from something inside her that had just eaten her away. I had this final impression of her lying in bed, looking up at me out of a face like a dried and shriveled apple, and I hated that picture of her. I always wished I had a real photograph so that I could hold on to a different image, but when we’d come to Lincoln School, they’d confiscated everything, including a photo that Albert had kept of us all together, him and me and my mother and my father, taken when I was quite small and we lived in Missouri. So, in a way, Mrs. Frost had become the idea of a mother to me, and now it looked as if it might be that way for real. Not that she would adopt me or Albert or anything. But who knew?

My reverie was interrupted by Mr. Greene, who suddenly loomed over me and asked, “You seen Red Sleeve?”

KIDS RAN AWAY
from Lincoln School all the time. If they were off a reservation, they usually headed back that way, so it wasn’t hard for the authorities to locate them trying to hitch a ride. Very few made it to the rez before getting caught. If they did reach home, they just got sent back anyway. The hardest to locate were the kids who had nowhere to go, nothing to return to. There were a lot of those. When they ran, God alone knew what was in their heads.

Mr. Greene questioned all the boys, but none had seen Billy take a powder. Just out of curiosity, I checked the trunk at the end of his bed. That little corncob doll was gone.

On Sunday afternoons, one of the most ironic gatherings at Lincoln School took place, our weekly Boy Scout meeting. Our scoutmaster was a man named Seifert, a banker in town. He was round and bald, with a bulldog face and a perpetual sheen of sweat on his pate, but he was a decent guy. He did his best to teach us all kinds of things that might be useful if we ever found ourselves lost and alone in the forest. Which was funny because there weren’t any woods around Lincoln. We met in the gymnasium, where we got demonstrations on how to hone an ax or knife blade to a razor edge, how to identify plants and trees and birds and animal tracks. Outside on the old parade ground, we were shown how to pitch a tent, how to lash together branches into a lean-to for shelter, how to construct a fire and how to start it with flint and steel. In summer, when fewer activities were scheduled because of the reduced student population, all the boys were required to attend. If the situation hadn’t been so tragic, I’d have found it funny, this heavy white man showing a bunch of Indian kids things that, if white people had never interfered, they would have known how to do almost from birth.

Albert was our troop leader, a position he took seriously. No
surprise there. Mr. Seifert had donated two copies of the official Scout handbook to the school library, but I think Albert was the only one who ever read them.

That afternoon we learned about knots. Which turned out to be interesting. There were all kinds of knots—who knew?—and they all served different purposes. I was pretty quick in picking up most of them, but there was one called a bowline that gave me no end of misery. It involved thinking of the rope end as a rabbit coming out of a hole and around a tree and back into the hole, or something like that. It was a knot favored by sailors, Mr. Seifert had told us, so I finally figured the hell with it. I was never going to sea.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Seifert sat us all down and looked at us like he was ready to cry.

“Boys,” he said, “I’ve got some bad news. This is my last meeting with you as your scoutmaster.”

He didn’t get much of a response, but he was probably pretty used to that by now. Most of us accepted everything he offered with stone faces.

“The bank I work for is transferring me to Saint Paul. I leave next week. I’ve been trying to get someone else to act as your new scoutmaster, but I confess I’m having a little trouble in that regard.”

He took a clean, white handkerchief from his pocket, and I thought he was going to wipe off the shiny coating of sweat on his bald head and brow. But he blew his nose instead and wiped at his eyes.

“I hope I gave you all a few things you might take with you into the rest of your lives. I’m not talking about knots or putting up tents. I’m talking about a respect for who you are, maybe a sense of what you can accomplish if you set your minds to it.”

He looked us all over and seemed for a moment too choked up to speak.

“You are every bit as good as any other kids in this country, and don’t believe anyone who tells you different. The Scout oath is not a bad code to live by. Will you join me in it now, boys?”

He held up his right hand in the official Boy Scout sign, and we all did the same.

“On my honor,” we repeated with him, “I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country. To obey the Scout law. To help other people at all times. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

He let his arm drop to his side.

“I wish you all the best of luck.”

He turned to Albert, who stood next to him, and they shook hands. Then Mr. Seifert walked slowly out of the gym, looking like a man who’d lost something he valued greatly.

We sat in silence after he’d gone.

Then Albert said, “All right, everybody back to the dorm.”

Volz and Mr. Greene were waiting at the gym door to escort us. As we filed out, I asked them both, “Any word about Billy?”

“Nothing,” Mr. Greene said.

“He will turn up,” Volz assured me. “They always do.”

On the way back, I walked with Albert and Mose.

“Transferring him, my ass,” Albert said.

Mose signed,
What do you mean?

“Mr. Seifert refused to foreclose on farmers behind in their mortgage payments. The people in Saint Paul are turning the bank over to someone who’ll do that.”

“What’s
foreclose
mean?” I asked.

“The banks take the farms away.”

“Can they do that?”

“They can. They shouldn’t but they can. It’s all because of the Crash.”

I knew about the Crash on Wall Street but didn’t really know what that meant. When I first heard it, I imagined Wall Street like this giant castle wall, and the banks and all their money were hidden behind it. And then one day—they called it Black Friday, and when I imagined it I saw it happening under a dark, threatening sky—that
wall came tumbling down, and all the money the banks had stashed away just kind of went up with the wind and vanished. On the edge of the Great Plains, it didn’t interest or really affect me. Out there, nobody had money.

That night in bed after lights-out, I listened to one of the younger kids crying. Sometimes a new kid cried at night for months. Even the old-timers occasionally gave in to an overwhelming sense of despair and let the tears flow. Despite the good news of that morning, Cora Frost’s proposal and the prospect of leaving Lincoln School, I was feeling kind of down myself. I was thinking about Mr. Seifert, who was a good man, but it had got him nowhere. Thinking about all the kids who’d been taken from their homes and everything that was familiar to them. And thinking especially about Billy, who was weighing heavily on my mind. I’d vowed to be the shepherd for kids like him, but until Mr. Greene had asked about him, I hadn’t even noticed that Billy had gone missing.

“Think they’ll find him?” I whispered.

Albert’s bunk was next to mine. We weren’t allowed to talk after lights-out, but we could get away with it if we spoke quietly enough.

“Billy Red Sleeve? I don’t know.”

“I hope he’s okay.”

I heard Albert turn on his bunk, and even though I couldn’t see him clearly, I knew he was facing me. “Listen, Odie, don’t you go caring too much about other people. In the end, they just get taken from you.”

“Are you thinking about Pop?”

“Don’t forget Mom,” he said. Because more and more I did.

“Are you afraid I’ll get taken from you?” I asked.

“I’m afraid I’ll get taken from you, and who’d look after you then?”

“Maybe God?”

“God?” He said it as if I were joking.

“Maybe it really is like it says in the Bible,” I offered. “God’s a shepherd and we’re his flock and he watches over us.”

For a long while, Albert didn’t say anything. I listened to that kid crying in the dark because he felt lost and alone and believed no one cared.

Finally Albert whispered, “Listen, Odie, what does a shepherd eat?”

I didn’t know where he was going with that, so I didn’t reply.

“His flock,” Albert told me. “One by one.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

MONDAY MORNING, MOSE
and I were assigned to work Bledsoe’s hayfields. At breakfast, Volz stopped by our table in the dining hall to give us the word. Albert and several other boys had been assigned to the German to help him slap a new coat of whitewash on the old water tower.

The water tower was legendary. Long before we came to Lincoln School, a kid named Samuel Kills Many had run away. Before he left, he’d painted across the water tower tank in bold black letters
WELCOME TO HELL
. Kills Many was one of the few kids who’d fled and had never been caught, and he’d become an important part of the mythology at Lincoln. They’d covered his parting sentiment with a coat of whitewash, but over the years the coating had faded and those bold, black words beneath, which resonated in the heart of every kid at Lincoln School, had begun to reemerge, ghostlike.

The morning was still and already hot, the air so sultry that it was like trying to breathe water. I knew the day would be a bastard, just as Hector Bledsoe had predicted, but I was worried less about that than the whereabouts of Billy.

“Any word on Red Sleeve?” I asked.

Volz shook his head. “It’s only been a day. Give it time, Odie.”

We rode in the bed of Bledsoe’s pickup, Mose and me and the others condemned to baling and bucking hay all day. We were quiet, as befitted a group of boys heading out to work under the control of a heartless farmer who would treat us like beasts. I thought maybe Billy Red Sleeve had the right idea. If I’d bolted with him, when we were caught, my punishment would most likely have been a night in the quiet room, and a pretty good strapping in the bargain, which,
all things considered, might have been better than a whole day in the hayfields under an unrelenting sun, sucking in hay dust until it nearly choked me.

At noon, we broke from the work and jostled for a place in the shade under the hay wagon. We ate the dry sandwich Bledsoe’s wife had made for each of us and shared a water bag, and all of us lay dripping sweat and silently cursing Bledsoe and the day we were born. All of us, that is, except Mose, who could work hour after hour without complaint. It wasn’t because he had no voice to do the complaining—his fingers were plenty eloquent—but he seemed to revel in physical labor, in the way it challenged his body and spirit. Nobody faulted him for being the only one not miserable, because he was always quick to step in and help whenever one of the other boys needed a hand. Often, because of Mose’s mute acceptance, Bledsoe lay the hardest work on his shoulders.

I sat next to him under the wagon, staring west, where the sky was beginning to look threatening. Clouds had gathered above Buffalo Ridge. Not the white puffy kind of a normal summer day, but a charcoal wall that mounted out of the southwest and spit lightning. Hector Bledsoe and his son Ralph sat in the shade of their pickup, eyeing the sky.

Mose tapped my arm and signed,
Storm. Quit early maybe.

I shook my head and said, “Bledsoe’s a son of a bitch. If we don’t hay, he’ll probably make us muck his cattle yard in the rain.”

I heard an automobile and saw Mrs. Bledsoe driving their Model B down a hay row. She stopped at the pickup, got out, and spoke to her husband, gesturing toward the west. Bledsoe shook his head, but the woman put a hand on her hip and wagged her finger at her husband. Bledsoe again studied the sky, which was quickly being gobbled up by those ugly storm clouds. He took a deep breath, left his pickup, and walked our way. He pulled a wrinkled handkerchief from his pocket to blow his nose clean of hay dust.

“Wife says the storm’s gonna be a corker, boys. That’s all she wrote
for today. I’ll pick you up again when the hay’s dried out. Load yourselves onto the truck.”

You never saw boys move so fast. We were on the bed of that pickup before Bledsoe finished wiping his nose. Mose elbowed me and nodded toward Mrs. Bledsoe, who stood waiting by her car as if to be certain her husband did as he’d said he would.

Thank her,
he signed.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I called out.

She lifted her hand and watched as Bledsoe hauled us away.

By the time we got to Lincoln School, the clouds had turned dark green and swirled like witches’ brew in a cauldron. The wind was up, and as we climbed off the truck, small hailstones began to fall. Nobody had expected us and so no one was there to herd us along. It wasn’t necessary. We all ran for the dormitory. The building was deserted, which wouldn’t have been unusual on a normal day. Lunch was long over and all the kids would have returned to their work assignments. But a threat like this should have brought them back inside. We all stood at the windows of the dorm and watched that storm sweeping off Buffalo Ridge. The hail got heavier, the sound of it on the roof deafening, so that we had to shout to make ourselves heard. A window shattered and a hailstone the size of a plum hit the floor near Mose’s feet. A couple of minutes more and the hail stopped as suddenly as it had begun, but the storm wasn’t finished. A mile away, we saw a long gray maelstrom of cloud slowly descend. It came down from the great green wall that had swept over Buffalo Ridge, and it looked to me like the finger of God reaching toward earth. The moment it touched ground, it turned raging black.

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