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Authors: William Kent Krueger

This Tender Land (10 page)

BOOK: This Tender Land
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The full weight of my crime settled on my shoulders. I’d killed a man. It wouldn’t matter the circumstances. I could tell them exactly what had happened, but it would be the word of a known troublemaker, a known liar. I had no idea if Minnesota had a death penalty, but if it did, I was sure I’d get the chair.

Mose signed,
Let’s go.

He helped me up from the small jut of rock that had saved my life, and I walked away. But not all of me.

CHAPTER TEN

“WHERE WERE YOU?”
Albert asked.

“Faria’s dead,” I said. Then I said, “DiMarco, too.”

Albert’s eyes went huge. “How?”

“He just died.”

“DiMarco just died?”

“No, Faria. I killed DiMarco.”

We had found Albert and Volz standing in the old parade ground. They’d looked all over hell and gone and had been worried sick about me.

Once again, all the strength drained from my legs, and I had to sit down on the grass. Mose signed to them what had happened, and Albert interpreted for Volz.

Volz knelt and looked into my face. “Vincent killed Billy Red Sleeve?”

I nodded, still feeling sick and empty.

“He would have done the same to you, Odie, if you had not killed him.”

I looked up into the kind face, the understanding eyes. “I wanted him dead. I stood there and I was happy he was dead.”

Albert said, “We can’t stay here.”

“We just tell them the truth,” Volz said.

“Who’s going to believe a kid like Odie?” Albert said. Which had been my thinking exactly.

“We show them Billy’s body.”

Mose signed to me,
Know where Billy is?

I shook my head, and Albert said to Volz, “He doesn’t know what DiMarco did with Billy.”

The German rubbed his chin with his four and a half fingers and squinted in the moonlight. “Maybe you’re right. But it won’t look good, you just running off.”

“No choice,” Albert said.

Mose signed,
Run where?

“If we hit the roads, they’ll find us in a heartbeat,” Albert said.

“Maybe you could catch a railcar,” Volz said. “Ride it far away.”

“They’ll put the word out and every railroad bull between Sioux Falls and Saint Paul will be watching for us,” Albert said.

We knew about bulls. A kid named Benji Iron Cloud had run away a year earlier. He’d hopped a freight train and been caught by a bull, a private railroad cop, who’d beat him half to death before turning him over to the proper authorities.

“I can drive you somewhere myself,” Volz offered.

“No,” Albert said. “This is our trouble, not yours.”

“My trouble,” I said.

Albert stared me down. “Our trouble. We’re family.”

Mose nodded and signed,
Family.

I looked away from them across the field of grass that had always been carefully clipped by boys under DiMarco’s watchful eye. The moon was above the dining hall and a river of frosty light flowed across the old parade ground.

“The Gilead,” I said.

Albert gave me a confused look. “What?”

“Remember what Mrs. Frost said? The Gilead River connects to the Minnesota and the Minnesota connects to the Mississippi. We can take Mr. Frost’s canoe all the way, as far as we want.”

Mose signed,
Tornado destroyed it.

I shook my head. “I saw it when I was there today. It’s still sitting on the rack. What do you think, Albert?”

“That you’re not as dumb as you look. It could be our best chance.”

“I will drive you to Cora’s place,” Volz said.

“Not without my harmonica.”

“The Brickmans have your harmonica, Odie,” Albert said. “You have to leave it.”

“I’m not going anywhere without my harmonica.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“You go,” I said. “I’ll get my harmonica back somehow and meet you.”

Albert looked at Volz and Volz looked at Albert, and some silent communication passed between them.

Albert said, “There may be a way.”

IN THOSE DAYS,
folks in Lincoln, Minnesota, didn’t lock their doors. I suspect it was the same in most small towns, where everyone knew everyone else. But the front door of the Brickmans’ home was locked. The back door, too.

“Get us in the old way, Odie,” Albert said, and handed me his official Boy Scout pocketknife, which had been a birthday gift from Mr. Seifert.

“The old way?” Volz said.

“Don’t ask,” Albert told him.

I took the knife and went to one of the basement windows. In the years we’d traveled with my bootlegger father, Albert and I had learned about jimmying locks. The lock on the basement window gave me no trouble, and I was quickly inside. Although the basement was terribly dark, moonlight poured through the narrow casement at my back, and after a minute, my eyes fully adjusted. I made my way to the stairs and up to the first floor, where I smelled fried chicken. Missing dinner had been a part of the official punishment DiMarco had levied, and I was starved. Although I was tempted to detour to the kitchen, I went straight to the front door and opened it to the others. Albert and Mose came in, but when Volz tried to follow, Albert blocked his way.

“You can’t be a part of this,” he whispered.

“I am already a part of it,” Volz said quietly.

“Not officially. Listen, Herman. If you get blamed for any of this, the Brickmans will have your ass. Think about all the kids here at Lincoln School who depend on you to keep the worst from happening. You owe it to them to look clean.”

I was surprised to hear Albert call Volz by his first name. I understood that the familiarity between them went deeper than I’d imagined, and I was hurt in a way. I felt left out of a part of both their lives.

I could tell it pained Volz to give in, but he nodded and remained outside.

“I will wait for you. If anything goes wrong, I will be here,” he promised.

Albert closed the door softly and led the way. I’d never been inside the Brickmans’ home, but it was clear that Albert was familiar with the layout. We walked through the living room, which was lit by moonlight through the windows and smelled of leather furniture. The lamps looked ornate and expensive, and the rugs we crossed felt plush under my feet. Albert led us to the kitchen, where the smell of the chicken became overpowering and my stomach growled.

“Hush,” Albert whispered.

“No dinner,” I said. “I’m starved.”

Albert opened the refrigerator, and a light went on inside. The Brickmans ate like royalty, I saw, which made me wonder how the Black Witch managed to keep herself bone thin. From a plate of cold fried chicken, Albert grabbed a drumstick and handed it to me. I sank my teeth in immediately. Although I hated everything about the Brickmans, my God did I love their fried chicken.

Albert slid open a kitchen drawer and reached inside. A moment later, a flashlight beam cut the dark. He turned it off right away and signaled Mose and me to follow. He led us up the stairs to the second floor, down the hallway, stopped at a closed door, and signed,
Let me talk.
He reached for the knob and flung the door open. At the same moment, he hit the switch on the flashlight.

The beam lit up the bedroom’s four-poster, the biggest bed I’d ever seen. Brickman sat up instantly. The sheet covered him from the waist down. Above that, he was bare-chested. He wasn’t alone, and I thought this was odd because Mrs. Brickman had driven their silver Franklin to Saint Paul that afternoon and wasn’t due back for a couple of days. Then I saw that his bed partner’s hair was blond. She sat up slowly, holding the sheet against her bosom. Miss Stratton stared doe-eyed into the flashlight beam.

“What the hell’s going on?” Brickman blustered.

“We need your assistance, Clyde,” Albert said.

Brickman must have recognized Albert’s voice. “O’Banion—” he began.

“We just want Odie’s harmonica, that’s all.”

“Harmonica? What the hell are you thinking?”

“That if we don’t get the harmonica, Mrs. Brickman will get the lowdown on you and Miss Stratton.”

Though it was far too late, the music teacher drew the sheet up, so that it covered the lower part of her face.

“You can’t threaten me.”

“I just did.”

“Who’s that with you?”

“My brother. And Moses Washington. And moral rectitude.”

Whatever the hell that was. I had no idea. But was I impressed with Albert. My brother stood there, just a kid really, in a face-off with Clyde Brickman, who wielded as much authority at Lincoln School as a king in a castle, and by God, Albert had the upper hand.

“The harmonica?” Brickman said. “That’s all you want is the harmonica?”

“And to say goodbye to Emmy,” I threw in.

That clearly puzzled Brickman. “Goodbye?”

“We’re leaving Lincoln School,” Albert said.

“You bet your ass you are,” Brickman said.

“I figured that would make you happy. So, the harmonica?”

Mose signed,
And Emmy.

“And Emmy,” Albert said.

“I need to get dressed. You boys wait outside.”

“We’ll wait right here.”

Brickman threw off the covers and stood up, buck naked. He drew on his pants, which lay on a chair next to the bed, and thumbed the suspenders over his shoulders. He turned to the woman in his bed and said, “You stay right where you are. I’ll take care of this.”

Brickman moved through us into the hallway and down to another door. He reached into his pocket and drew out a key.

“You lock her in?” I said.

“Just tonight.” He looked back toward his own bedroom, and I got it. Even so, I hated the thought of Emmy locked up anywhere.

When he swung the door open, he called out, “Emmy, there’s someone to see you.”

He reached for the wall switch and the light came on. Emmy sat in a chair in the corner, dressed in overalls and a shirt and new-looking shoes, as if she’d been expecting us. When we appeared, she gave a little cry, leapt up, ran across the room, and hit Mose at a run, then she threw her arms around me, and finally Albert.

“I knew you’d come to get me,” she said.

“We’re just here to say goodbye, Emmy.” Albert turned to Brickman. “A moment alone with her.”

Brickman moved back into the hall to give us some privacy.

“You try anything, Clyde, and I’ll make sure the Black Witch knows everything.”

Brickman didn’t even wince at that derogatory nickname, but he gave my brother a taciturn nod of agreement.

When we were alone with her, Emmy looked up, her little face scrunched in horror, tears glistening in her eyes. “Goodbye?”

Mose signed,
We have to go.

“I know,” Emmy said. “And I want to go with you.”

“You knew?” Albert asked. “How?”

“I just did. And I’m going with you,” she demanded tearfully.

“You can’t.” I petted her cut-short hair. “But I have something for you. The picture, Albert.”

On the way to the Brickmans’, Albert had slipped back into the dorm and retrieved the photograph I’d given him earlier. It was the one that had sat on the mantel in the Frosts’ parlor, a picture of them together, Mr. and Mrs. Frost and Emmy, all of them looking happy. Albert handed it to me and I gave it to Emmy.

“I lost my mother when I was a kid like you, Emmy. I can’t even remember now what she looked like. I don’t want you ever to forget your mother or your father. So I brought you that. Keep it somewhere safe, somewhere the Brickmans will never find it. Your folks were good people. They deserve to be remembered.”

Emmy held the photograph to her heart. Then she pleaded, “You can’t leave me with them. They’re mean. Please take me with you.”

“We can’t, Emmy,” I said.

It was Mose who stepped in. He tapped my shoulder and signed,
Why not?

“She’s six years old,” Albert said. “How do we take care of her?”

Mose signed,
Better off here?

I hadn’t even considered bringing Emmy along, but now I thought, Why not? It made perfect sense. Leaving Emmy with the Black Witch and her husband was sure to give me nightmares. Could worrying about how to take care of her if we brought her along be any worse?

“Mose is right,” I said. “We take Emmy.”

“That’s crazy,” Albert said.

“This is all crazy,” I shot back.

“Please, please,” Emmy said and put her arms around Albert’s waist.

He remained rigid for a moment, then I saw him relax. “All right,” he said and stepped away to eye her pants and shirt. “Looks like you’re already dressed for it.”

“What’s taking so long?” Brickman called from the hallway.

We trooped out with Emmy, and Brickman looked as if he was having a heart attack.

“You’re not taking her,” he said.

“We are, Clyde.”

“That’s kidnapping.”

“Not if she wants to go.”

“I can’t let you take her. Thelma will have my hide, and yours.”

“She’ll have to catch us first. Where’s the harmonica?”

“No.” Brickman crossed his arms and stood blocking the hallway.

“What do you think the Black Witch will give you the hardest time about?” Albert said. “Us grabbing a child who hates her anyway? Or knowing that you and Miss Stratton share a bed whenever she’s not around?”

Brickman didn’t give a hoot about Emmy, we all knew that. But his cushy life with Mrs. Brickman? That was something else altogether. Still, he hesitated.

“And don’t forget the moonshine, Clyde,” Albert said.

Which was something I didn’t know about but was the final straw for Brickman. He turned on his heels and said, “This way.”

We followed him back downstairs and into another room. He turned on a desk lamp, and I saw that we were in a study or a library. Shelves of books ran along every wall. The books in the school library were all donated, well used, spines broken, pages falling out. These looked barely touched. Brickman walked to a corner where a big safe stood. He knelt and turned the dial this way, then that, yanked the handle down, and opened the safe door. His body blocked our view of what was inside. He reached in and came up with a gun.

I knew the Black Witch would have shot us in a heartbeat, and then shot us again. But Mr. Brickman was clearly hesitant.

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