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Authors: William Kent Krueger

This Tender Land (9 page)

BOOK: This Tender Land
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I stood up, wiped my eyes, and went back to the destroyed farmhouse to begin going through the rubble, trying to find what it was I’d come for. I knew the general area I needed to get to, and I worked much of the afternoon lifting and pushing and crawling and sifting. When I’d sneaked away from Lincoln School, I’d known that my chances of succeeding on this little mission were slim, but the longer I dug the more discouraged I became.

I spotted a familiar dust-covered tin, the one in which I knew Mrs. Frost had kept gingersnaps. I salvaged it from the wreckage and popped it open. There were still half a dozen cookies inside, grit free because of the tight-fitting lid. I took them all and divided them between my pockets and kept digging. Five minutes later I saw what I’d come for.
The corner of a silver picture frame peeked from beneath a section of roof beam. To get at it, I had to come from underneath, pulling free the debris from below. Carefully I slid the frame clear. The glass had been shattered, but the photograph inside was still intact. I took the photo out, slipped it inside my shirt, climbed from the rubble, and walked away.

When I got to the dorm, it was almost dinnertime and the other boys were washing up. Volz saw me and quickly came my way.

“You’re in a big pot of trouble, Odie,” he said. “DiMarco is steaming. He’s going to flay you alive. Where did you run off to?”

“I had something to do,” I said.

Albert and Mose came out of the lavatory, and they both eyed me like Mrs. Frost wasn’t the only one who was going to be dead and buried that day.

“DiMarco’s been looking for a chance to come down on you, Odie,” Albert said. “And goddamn it, you gave it to him in spades. Where the hell were you?”

“Language,” Volz cautioned my brother.

Mose looked scared and signed,
He’ll take the skin off your back, Odie.

“I don’t care,” I said. “It was important.”

Albert grabbed my shoulder and dug his fingers in no less harshly than DiMarco had a few days earlier. “Where were you? What was so important?”

Before I could answer, I heard DiMarco cry behind me, “O’Banion!”

I pulled out the photograph I’d taken from the rubble and quickly gave it to Albert. “Don’t let him see it.” Then I turned to face DiMarco.

He came like a bull, and I swear the floorboards shook. In his right hand, he held the leather strap familiar to us all.

“Vincent,” Volz began.

“Fincent?”
DiMarco said, mocking the German’s accent. He held up his hand in warning. “Not a word, Herman. This time I’ve got him.” He snatched me by the shirt collar and started to haul me off. “Let’s go, mister.”

“I’m coming, too,” Volz said quickly.

DiMarco paused and rolled this over in his head. Me, I was grateful as hell, because I knew that alone, DiMarco would probably do a great deal more to me than whip my back. He said, “All right, we’ll do this here. I want all these boys to see what happens when one of them disobeys the rules. Shirt off, O’Banion, and turn around.”

I slowly unbuttoned, turned, and handed my shirt to Mose, who looked at me as if he were the one about to get a strapping. I shook my head and signed,
It’s okay.

“Albert and Moses, you two hold him,” DiMarco said.

“Please, don’t,” Albert began.

“Hold him or you get the strap, too. Then maybe I start on some of the other boys. You want that on your shoulders? This is exactly what you all knew was coming.”

Which was true and why Volz stood by looking helpless, and why Albert took one arm and Mose the other, and I braced myself.

I’d been on the receiving end of the strap many times, but DiMarco had never thrown himself into a beating the way he did that day. I’d vowed I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of making a sound, but on the tenth bite from the leather, I finally cried out and burst into tears. DiMarco gave me two more brutal lashes, then Volz commanded, “Enough!”

I was relieved when the old German accompanied DiMarco as he marched me to the quiet room. I’d been afraid DiMarco might have more punishment in mind.

“Get a good night’s sleep, O’Banion,” DiMarco said. “I’ve got a special duty assignment for you tomorrow. If you think you hurt now, just wait.” He turned to Volz. “Don’t try to interfere with this, Herman. Clyde Brickman told me to do whatever was necessary to keep this hooligan under control. I own him now.”

“You hurt this boy any more, Vincent, I don’t care if they fire me, I will beat you bloody.”

“We’ll see who’s still standing at the end of all this, Herman. O’Banion, give me that damn harmonica.”

He’d taken much from me already, my dignity, my firm resolve not to break down when the strap bit into my back again and again, but that harmonica was the hardest thing to lose.

“We will see about this,” Volz said.

“It’s Brickman who wants the mouth organ, Herman. He says they’re at the end of their rope with O’Banion. And listen, you lousy Kraut, if you’re thinking of coming here in the middle of the night to offer this kid some food or comfort, think twice. Because if you do, I’ll make sure the Brickmans know about that big secret of yours out by the quarry. You’ll lose your booze supply, your job, and anything good you think you’re doing for all these miserable little vermin.”

DiMarco took my harmonica, put it to his own vile lips, and blew a shrill note. Then he closed and locked the door.

CHAPTER NINE

FROM THE
ENCYCLOPAEDIA
Britannica
article I’d read years before, I understood that rats had a life span of three years at most. I’d known Faria for four already. Within the protection of the former stockade, he’d grown older than old. The speed and agility that had marked his early years were gone now. When he crept from the wide crack in the masonry, he didn’t exactly scurry so much as sidle along the wall. He would have been an easy meal for any barn cat. But to me, he was an old friend, and I hoped the crumbs I was able to offer repaid him just a bit for keeping me company on so many otherwise lonely nights in the quiet room.

That evening he came from hiding early. When I saw his little whiskered nose poke from the wall crack, I was surprised. I’d never known him to come out without the cover of dark. He emerged a little farther and looked at me. Whenever I’d seen his eyes in the moonlight, they were shiny little things, but now they seemed dull. I reached into my pocket for the gingersnaps I’d pulled from the wreckage of the Frosts’ destroyed farmhouse. They were broken, but I tossed some of the pieces toward the far corner to entice Faria into the open. He didn’t move and that was odd. Me, I could have eaten a horse by then. I’d saved those gingersnaps especially for Faria, and it concerned me that he didn’t seem interested. I tossed more crumbs much closer to him, but still he didn’t respond. Finally, I threw them at the wall crack itself, where they scattered about his feet.

He sniffed at my offering, but didn’t nibble, just sat there, looking at me.

We communicate in myriad ways—with our voices, our hands, our writings, even with our bodies themselves. But how do you talk
to a rat? I wanted to ask, “What’s wrong, Faria? Not feeling well, old friend?” I wanted, maybe, to be able to tell him a story to take his mind off whatever little misery had beset him. Or to commiserate because I was feeling pretty miserable myself after the beating DiMarco had delivered. I did talk, low and soothing and on and on, and Faria just sat there, not moving at all. Finally I realized the truth. The little creature was dead. Right there in front of me, no more than half a dozen feet away, he’d given up the ghost.

I know it must seem ridiculous that I wept over a rat in much the same way I’d wept for Cora Frost. Love comes in so many forms, and pain is no different. The hurt from the welts on my back was nothing compared to the hurt I felt when I realized Faria was gone.

One by one,
Albert had said. And I wanted to scream at him and at God.

I placed the creature’s little body on a mound of hay and vowed that I would bury it in the morning. When night came, I lay down, wishing I had my harmonica, because only music, it seemed to me, could offer any solace. But DiMarco had done Brickman’s bidding and left me no comfort at all that terrible night.

I WOKE IN
the dark to the sound of a key scraping in the lock of the iron door. I sat up, grateful to Volz for ignoring DiMarco’s threats. Although I’d lost much, I still had friends, and that counted for a great deal. The door slid open, but Volz didn’t carry a lantern this time and the only light that entered the quiet room came from the moon, which was nearing fullness. A black figure stood silhouetted against the moonlit sky.

“Mr. Volz?”

“The Kraut ain’t coming tonight, O’Banion.”

DiMarco. Oh, God. I slid across the floor and pressed myself against the far wall.

“Mr. Brickman wants to see you,” he said.

“Now? What for?”

“Cora Frost’s girl. She’s run away. He thinks you might know where she’s gone.”

I didn’t know, but even if I did I wouldn’t have told them. Still, this was better than the other reason I thought DiMarco had come, so I followed him outside. He started walking, but not toward the Brickmans’ home.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Brickman went to check the quarry, thought she might have gone that way. He’s waiting for us there.”

I wondered if DiMarco had told him about the still Volz kept hidden in the shed. Once I knew that DiMarco was wise to Volz’s secret, I supposed it was only a matter of time before he ratted out the old German, who would be forced to leave Lincoln School. It made sense to me that it should happen now, when so much else had already been taken away.

We stumbled across the empty acreage between the school and the quarry, our way lit by moonglow, me in front and DiMarco close behind. When we reached the shed at the quarry’s edge, a lantern sat on the rock where only a few days before Albert had put the pan in which he’d cooked the illicit meal for Mose and me. I didn’t see Mr. Brickman or anyone else. What I did see sent a chill through my bones. On the rock next to the lantern was the leather strap DiMarco had used on me that day, and lying next to it was the little corncob doll I’d thought Billy Red Sleeve had taken with him when he ran away.

“Red Sleeve cried like a baby,” DiMarco said.

I didn’t want to know, really, but I asked anyway, “Where is he?”

“Where no one will ever find him. Same place you’ll be when I’m done with you.”

He took up the strap, and it hung loose in his hand. He stood between me and Lincoln School, blocking any escape in that direction. At my back was the gaping hole of the quarry. He grinned in
the lantern light, and then he lunged, but I was not like Billy Red Sleeve, dulled and broken. I dodged his attack and ran. The edge of the quarry was strewn with great pieces of shattered rock, and I leapt and zigzagged. I could hear DiMarco cursing at my back, and I knew what would happen if I stumbled. I ran between two enormous chunks of stone twice as tall as I was and spun into the black of the shadow cast by one of them. I crouched against the rock, trying to make myself as small as I could. DiMarco sped past but stopped almost immediately and turned.

“Got you now, you little bastard,” he said.

I felt around desperately on the ground for something, anything I could use against him. The whole edge of the quarry was strewn with rock, but my hands couldn’t find a single useful goddamn stone to throw, and now there was nowhere left to run.

In the bright wash of the moon, I could see that DiMarco’s lips were curled in a hungry grin. I thought of the Windigo. That creature had been a fiction, a ghoul out of my imagination. But the thing staring at me from the quarry’s edge was real and the horror in its heart worse than anything I could ever have imagined.

On impulse, I ran straight at him, closing the distance between us in three swift strides, lowering my shoulder to put the force of my whole body into the charge. But DiMarco simply sidestepped, and before I could stop myself, I was at the cliff edge, my arms flailing to keep myself from plunging into the abyss. But to no avail.

To this day, I have nightmares about that fall, about the black pit opening below me, ready, in those awful dreams, to grind my bones with its ragged teeth. But to my amazement, I fell only a few feet. I found myself sprawled on a small jut of rock, a little stone tongue sticking out, almost invisible in the shadow of the cliff wall.

I drew myself up, my head not quite level with the top of the quarry, and pressed myself against the wall, into the dark of the shadow there. DiMarco appeared above me, standing at the quarry edge. That long leather strap, instrument of so much pain, hung loose at his side.
Without thinking, I reached up out of the shadow, grabbed the strap, and pulled on it with all my might. DiMarco must have been caught completely by surprise, because he yielded without a sound, his body rushing past me in its fall to the depths below.

No death is insignificant, and I believe now that no death should be celebrated. But for a moment, just a moment after killing Vincent DiMarco, the man who’d brought only misery into my life and the lives of so many other kids, I felt a kind of elation.

Then the full realization of my crime hit me, and my legs went weak. I leaned against the quarry wall for support. I’d wanted DiMarco dead, had fantasized killing him dozens of times. But that had been imagining. This was real. This was cold-blooded murder.

A hand touched my shoulder and I jerked as from a jolt of electricity. But it was only Mose, standing above me at the quarry’s edge.

He signed,
You okay?

“Where did you come from?”

You weren’t in the quiet room,
he signed
. We went looking for you.

“You and Albert?”

And Volz We split up.
He knelt at the lip of the quarry and peered down.
I saw him go over but I don’t see him now.

“Maybe he’s not dead.”

Two hundred feet onto hard rock. He’s dead,
Mose signed.

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