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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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I remembered when Louise’s grandmother died. She cried for a week. But she never went home.

Letter after letter read much the same, requests of one kind or another with a small amount of money included. I looked at the pillowcase and wondered if every dollar in there had come with some hope attached, a hope that had probably gone unrealized. I could see that the letters had all come from families of kids who, like Albert and Mose and me, never went home for the summer and who’d probably never be able to report the theft of the money.

Then I came to a letter from the Red Sleeve family, mailed from Chadron, Nebraska.

Dear Superintendent,

Billy Red Sleeve is our only son. He is needed on our farm. Things are bad. His mother cry hard when they took him. She still cries. We do not know who to ask for this. So we ask you. We can send money so he can ride a bus home. Please tell us what to do. Regards, Alvin Red Sleeve.

I lowered the letter and felt that great emptiness still inside me. I wondered if anyone would ever find Billy’s body and tell his parents what had become of him. Or would they go on forever watching the bare horizon of the South Dakota plains for a small figure walking alone toward home? The pillowcase lay open, and I could see the gun that Mr. Brickman had threatened us with. I wanted to hold it in my hand and kill Vincent DiMarco all over again.

Albert came back with a burlap sack that held a loaf of bread, a jar
of peanut butter, a jar of apple butter, and four oranges, which were rare treats. I hadn’t tasted an orange since I’d been delivered to Lincoln School, but the ones Albert brought turned out to be dry and rather tasteless. I’d put everything back in the pillowcase and had decided to keep to myself what I knew. At least about Billy and where the spent dollar had probably come from. I knew Albert and his code of ethics. I was afraid that if he realized its source, he wouldn’t touch the money, now twice stolen, or let any of the rest of us.

“Did you hear anything about us?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Albert said. “But it’s still early. Word probably hasn’t had time to spread yet.”

We ate on the blankets. Mose signed to Albert,
Lots of money in the bag.

“Won’t last forever,” he said.

Emmy said, “We can buy some clothes.”

Albert looked at what we wore, the uniforms of Lincoln School—dark blue shirts and dark blue pants and our worn-through shoes. “That’s not a bad idea, Emmy,” he said.

Then I was sure I wouldn’t tell him about the money, at least until after we were wearing new things.

When we’d finished eating, Emmy said, “I want to brush my teeth.”

“We’ll figure out how to take care of that later,” Albert told her.

Mose tapped my brother’s shoulder and signed,
Farmer.
He nodded toward the field that bordered the cottonwoods where we’d slept. A man walked between the green rows of young corn, bending occasionally to check the quality of his crop. A black dog trotted at his side. They were halfway across the field, a couple of hundred yards from us, coming our way.

“Pack up,” Albert said. “We’re leaving.”

We gathered the food and put it back in the burlap bag and folded the blankets, but before we could descend the bank to the river, the black dog spotted us, or maybe caught our scent, and began to bark up a storm.

“Down,” Albert said, and we lay on the ground.

The farmer looked our way and spoke to the dog, who bounded toward us, then ran back, then toward us again.

“Crawl,” Albert said.

We crawled down the bank, and once we were under its cover, quickly threw everything into the canoe and cast off. Albert and Mose paddled like crazy, and I craned my neck, looking back at the trees that had sheltered us the night before, watching for the farmer and the dog to appear.

“Do you think he spotted us?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Albert said. “But we’re not sticking around to find out. Keep paddling, Mose.”

We camped that night where a big cottonwood had fallen, half blocking the river. The water swept among the branches with a sound like fast wind. We were in sight of another little town, and before dark, Albert took one more dollar and went to buy us something to eat. He came back with food, the evening edition of
The Minneapolis Star,
and a troubled look on his face.

“Everybody knows,” he said and showed us the headline:
HEINOUS KIDNAPPING!
Beneath it was a photograph of Emmy, and next to that a photo of the water tower and the final inscription I’d left painted across it in black. Then Albert read the article to us.

The story reported that Martin Greene, head boys’ counselor at the Lincoln Indian Training School, had discovered Clyde Brickman, the school’s assistant superintendent, tied up in his study. Brickman claimed that he’d been attacked by three unknown assailants wearing masks. They’d surprised him in his bed and had demanded that he open the safe. When he refused, they’d beat him. (There was a small photograph of Brickman, showing a dark bruise around his right eye.) When he still refused, they’d grabbed Emmaline Frost and threatened to harm her. Brickman had finally opened the safe. The assailants had cleaned out the contents, tied Brickman up, but kept the girl,
swearing, in Brickman’s words, “To do something terrible to her if anyone tried to follow them.”

The article quoted Fremont County Sheriff Bob Warford, a red-faced, heavyset man we’d seen often in the company of the Brickmans. He was usually involved in the hunt for runaways, and he sometimes took older girls in for questioning. When they came back, it was clear they’d been roughed up, maybe worse. It was also clear they were scared to death and never talked about what had happened to them while in the sheriff’s keeping.

“We’re going to catch these criminals quick,” Warford told the newspaper. “This won’t be another Lindbergh case.”

At Lincoln School, we hadn’t kept up much with news of the outside world, but we all knew about the Lindbergh kidnapping and the failed ransom. Like everyone else in America, we’d grieved when we heard that they’d found the little baby with his head bashed in. And we knew about the massive manhunt still going on for the kidnappers.

“Masks?” I said. “We didn’t wear any masks. Brickman knew exactly who we were. Why didn’t he say so?”

“I don’t know,” Albert said. “Doesn’t matter. This whole county’s going to be crawling with cops.”

“But you didn’t kidnap me,” Emmy said. “I wanted to go.”

“Won’t make any difference.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Emmy said, and I could see that she was about to cry.

Mose signed,
We won’t let them take you. Promise.

“Who tied up Mr. Brickman?” I asked.

“Had to be Miss Stratton,” Albert said.

“Not a word about her in the paper. Or Volz,” I said, which made me feel better. At least maybe they’d be safe.

“It does say one of the school staff is unaccounted for,” Albert said, scanning further down the page. “Vincent DiMarco. Authorities are looking for him, though he’s not a suspect in the kidnapping.”

The sun had set and the light was leaving us. The river was silver-gray, the color of hard steel. The trees that overhung it were black against the faded blue sky. The air was still, like a held breath.

Albert picked up a stick and flung it at the river, and it was caught immediately in the branches of the fallen cottonwood. “Doesn’t matter that we’re just unknown assailants. Emmy’s picture is going to be slapped all over front pages everywhere. As soon as anyone spots her, we’re dead.”

Emmy said, “I’m sorry,” and started to cry. Mose put his arm around her. I could feel a darkness descending on us that had nothing to do with the night, and a great fire of resistance flared inside me.

“Listen,” I said. “That picture of Emmy in the newspaper was taken before the tornado. Her hair’s long and curly. But with it cut so short now, she’s halfway to looking like a boy. So we keep her dressed in those overalls and try to make sure nobody sees her up close. Heck, she’ll just look like our little brother or something.”

Albert didn’t say anything right away. I could tell Mose was running it through his head. Emmy, though, brightened immediately.

“I don’t mind being a boy,” she said. “I can do anything a boy can do.”

Mose shrugged and signed,
Why not?

Albert gave a slow nod. “Might work. Maybe if we get a cap with a big bill to help hide her face.” He looked at me and offered a grudging smile. “Just might work.”

My brother had brought cheese from town and a big hunk of bologna. He sliced them up with his Boy Scout knife and we put them on the leftover bread and that was our supper. After we’d eaten, we laid our blankets on the wild grass of the riverbank and Emmy said, “Will you play something on your harmonica, Odie?”

“No music,” Albert said sharply. When he saw the disappointment on Emmy’s face, he softened and said, “Someone might hear. We can’t risk it.”

“How about a story?” I said.

“Yes, a story,” Emmy said, happy again.

Mose signed,
Make it a good one, Odie.

All day, while we’d made our way down the Gilead River, a story had been coming together in my head. I didn’t know where it came from, but letting all the pieces fall into place had helped the time pass. So I told it.

There was once a little orphan girl whose name was Emmy.

“Like me,” Emmy said.

“Just like you,” I said.

She went to live with her aunt and uncle, two very mean people.

“Were they Mr. and Mrs. Brickman?” Emmy said.

“As it so happens, Emmy, that was exactly their name.”

The little girl was terribly unhappy in the home of the mean Brickmans,
I went on
. One day, as she was exploring the great, dark house, she came to a door in a high tower that had always been locked before, but someone had forgotten to lock it that day. Inside, Emmy found a comfortable little room filled with shelves of books and toys and a nice soft sofa and a little reading lamp. In one corner stood a tall, old mirror in a carved wooden frame. Emmy decided it was the nicest room in the whole house, far from the awful Brickmans. She pulled one of the books from the shelf, a book called
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

“We had that book,” Emmy said to me. “Mama read it to me.”

“What a coincidence,” I said and continued the story.

Emmy settled down in the sofa to read, but she hadn’t been there long when she heard a small voice call, “Hello.” Which was odd, because Emmy was the only one in the room. “Hello,” the voice called again. Emmy looked at the big mirror in the corner and saw a little girl sitting on the sofa, just as she was. But it was not her reflection. It was a different little girl. Emmy stood up, and the girl in the mirror stood up. Emmy walked to the mirror and the girl walked to the mirror.

“Who are you?” Emmy said.

“Priscilla,” the girl said. “I’m the ghost in the mirror.”

“A ghost? A real ghost?”

“Not exactly,” Priscilla said. “It’s hard to explain.”

“My name is Emmy.”

“I know,” Priscilla said. “I’ve been hoping you would come. It’s been so long since I had a visit from anyone who could see me.”

“Mrs. Brickman can’t see you?” Emmy said.

“Only nice people can see me and hear me.”

“How did you get in there?” Emmy asked.

“Put your hand to the mirror and I’ll tell you,” Priscilla said.

But as soon as she touched the glass, Emmy found herself inside the mirror, and Priscilla outside. Priscilla clapped her hands together and danced with joy.

“I’m free!” she said. “I’ve been trapped in that mirror for oh so long, but now I’m free!”

“What happened?” Emmy cried.

“It’s the curse of the mirror. I was trapped there by the little girl who was inside before me. And now I’m you and you’re me and you’re trapped in there. I’m sorry, Emmy. I truly am. But I’ve wanted so much to be free again.”

Suddenly Mrs. Brickman stepped into the room. She looked sternly at the girl who’d just traded places with Emmy and said meanly, “What’s all this shouting about? What are you doing here, Emmy?”

“She’s not Emmy,” little Emmy cried from the mirror. “I’m Emmy.”

But Mrs. Brickman couldn’t see her or hear her, because Mrs. Brickman was not at all nice.

“Come along, Emmy,” Mrs. Brickman said. “I’m going to show you just what happens to little girls who go where they’re not supposed to.”

She took Priscilla by the ear and pulled her from the room.

Emmy tried to get out of the mirror, but it was no use. So she settled down with the book she’d been reading on the other side, determined to make the best of things. And you know what? She found that she was really quite happy there all by herself in that comfortable little room on the other side of the mirror.

Then one day not long afterward, Priscilla burst into the tower room and ran to the mirror.

“Oh, Emmy!” she cried. “Please let me back in the mirror. Mrs. Brickman is such a witch. I can’t stand her. Please, please let me back in.”

“I understand,” Emmy told her. “It was awful being me with Mrs. Brickman. But I quite like it here, so I think I’ll stay until a different family moves into this house, a nice family with a nice little girl. Then maybe I’ll come out.”

Priscilla turned sadly away and little Emmy settled down to read from a new book she’d selected from the shelves. It was called
Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Albert eyed me and gave a nod of approval. “
Alice Through the Looking Glass
. Nice touch, Odie.”

The stars seemed especially bright that night, and Emmy slept without needing her hand held. Mose and Albert, who’d paddled most of the day, fell asleep quickly. Me, my head was so full of dreaming I could barely contain it all. Seeing that photograph of the water tower and what I’d painted there, my words big as life on the front page of
The Minneapolis Star,
made me feel like some kind of celebrity. Not exactly like Babe Ruth, because everybody knew his name. But more than just an orphan nobody. I began to imagine all the wonderful possibilities that might lie ahead of us. Maybe we should change our names, I thought. Just in case. Maybe I’d call myself Buck, after Buck Jones the cowboy star. As I lay listening to the river slip through the branches of the fallen cottonwood, I began to hope, really hope, that, like the Emmy in the story, we were finally on the safe side of the mirror.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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