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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“What happened?” I asked.

Mose signed,
Kids fishing.

Emmy said, “They were walking on the other side of the river, but they didn’t see us. Mose thought we should leave.”

We slipped into our new socks and boots. I put my back to the others and quickly transferred the five-dollar bills from my old shoe to my right boot. When I stood up, I thought I was wearing the
clouds that angels walked on. I’d never felt anything so comfortable.

We hit the river again and spent the rest of the morning putting more distance between us and Lincoln School. I watched Emmy in front of me dragging her fingers in a bored way through the water, and I had a thought. I took the sewing kit the nice woman had given me, which included a little cutting tool, and snipped three black buttons from my shirt, which I sewed in a triangular configuration to the sole of one of my old socks. From the pillowcase, I took a piece of red ribbon that had bound up some documents, cut from it an oval, which I sewed to the sock heel. I stuffed my other old sock inside the one I’d been working on, all the way up to the toe. In the end, I had a puppet—two button eyes, a button nose, and a little red ribbon mouth. It was a bit on the soiled side, but not bad, all things considered.

I put the sock puppet on my hand. “Emmy,” I said in what I thought was an appropriately high-pitched, puppetlike voice.

She swiveled toward me, and when she saw my little creation, a look of delight lit her face. I handed it to her, and she slipped it onto her hand and gave it her own special voice, a croaking thing not unlike a frog. She named the puppet Puff, because of its puffy, sock-stuffed head, and all that day she and Puff carried on a conversation between themselves and with the rest of us, and the time passed quickly.

In the early afternoon, we saw a church spire and a water tower above some trees along the railroad tracks a quarter mile south of the Gilead. Albert took money from the pillowcase and went to buy us food for lunch and dinner and maybe even breakfast for the next day.

Emmy sat in the wild grass at the edge of a plowed field pretending Puff was a hungry lion stalking Mose and me.

Offhand, I asked, “Emmy, do you remember last night?”

“What about it?” she said in a distracted way, adjusting Puff on her hand.

“Do you remember talking to me in the middle of the night?”

“No.” She growled and thrust Puff toward Mose, who shrank back in appropriate terror.

“You don’t remember giving me something?”

“Unh-uh.” She shook her head and turned her attention fully to attacking Mose. I decided for the moment not to pursue the question further.

We’d passed a farmhouse not far back, and I’d seen laundry hanging on a line in the backyard. I took three dollars from the pillowcase, told Mose and Emmy I’d be right back, and headed upriver.

Near the farmhouse, I crouched among the trees along the riverbank. There was an old barn, badly in need of paint. The bared places on the walls were gray and the wood looked soft and rotting. The structure leaned a bit, like a tired old man. The farmhouse was small and in not much better shape than the barn. There was a chicken coop with a bunch of hens and chicks inside, pecking at the ground and sometimes at one another. The clothesline behind the house held overalls and undershorts and shirts, some big and some not so big, the clothing of a man and his son, perhaps. That’s what had caught my eye when we passed on the river.

I watched for a while and saw no sign of life and finally walked carefully into the yard. The shirts were old, patched and mended many times. I carefully unpinned two of the larger and one that was smaller. As I pulled the last from the line, it revealed a little girl standing before me, as if she’d materialized as part of a magic trick. She was not much older than Emmy, with blond pigtails and big blue eyes. She didn’t look much better fed than the kids at Lincoln School. She wore a small sack dress and her feet were bare.

“Hello,” I said.

“Those are my pa’s shirts,” she said. “And Henry’s.”

“Henry is your brother?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Where are they?”

“Working for Mr. McAdams.”

“Does he live around here?”

“Has a big farm other side of Crawford. Pa used to farm here, but the bank took our land away.”

“Where’s your mom?”

“Works in town. Irons and cleans for Mrs. Drover.”

“What’s your name?”

“Abigail. What’s yours?”

“Buck,” I said.

“You stealing those?” she asked.

“Not at all, Abigail. I’m buying them.”

I pulled out the dollars I’d taken from the pillowcase and used a clothespin to hang them on the line, which was too high for Abigail to reach.

“Are you rich?” she asked.

“Just lucky. It’s been very nice meeting you, Abigail, but I have to go now.”

“Back to the railroad tracks?”

“Maybe. Why?”

“Cuz that’s where everybody comes from looking for food or work or a place to sleep for the night. Ma says it’s important we do what we can. They never have money, though.”

“That’s right,” I said. “Back to the railroad tracks. See if I can catch me a train to Sioux Falls.”

“Trains don’t stop in Crawford.”

“Maybe I’ll have to hike to the next town where they do stop.”

“Lincoln,” she said.

“Then Lincoln it is. Goodbye, Abigail.”

I walked away, but not back to the river. I strolled up the dirt lane in front of the house to the place where it joined the county road, then to the other side, where the railroad tracks lay. I stood on the bed of broken rock, smelling the creosote from the ties, and stared back at the farmhouse. It was old and worn, like the shirts I’d taken, but I could understand how inviting it might seem to someone who had
even less than Abigail’s family and was walking the rails in search of a kind and restful place to come to.

I headed toward town for a while, then cut back across the next field to the river. Albert had returned, and he let me have it with both barrels.

“Where the hell were you?”

“Fetching replacements for our Lincoln uniforms,” I said and proudly held up the shirts.

“Where’d you get those?”

“Farmhouse upriver.”

“Stole them?” There was such anger in his face, I thought he might hit me.

“I’m no thief. I paid for them.”

He glanced at the pillowcase. “How much?”

“A dollar apiece.”

Mose’s eyebrows shot up and he signed,
For those rags?

“Who’d you pay?” Albert demanded.

I decided it was best not to mention Abigail, so I said, “I pinned the money to the clothesline.”

“Of all the stupid notions,” Albert began.

“At least if people spot us now, we won’t look like fugitives from Lincoln School.”

“Three dollars,” Albert said and looked ready to wring my neck.

“I could tell those folks needed the money.”

“I don’t care about the money. I’m worried they’ll report us.”

“Then the cops will just think we’re riding the rails to somewhere.”

“Yeah? And why is that?”

Because it’s what I told Abigail,
I wanted to say but said instead, “Because that’s what makes the most sense.”

Albert shook his head in disgust. “Let’s get going. We need to put distance between us and those three dollars.”

Albert and Mose bent hard to their paddles, and I sat in the middle with Emmy, brooding. It seemed to me that no matter what I did,
it wasn’t good enough for Albert. Well, fine, I thought, the hell with him. I drilled the back of his head with my eyes, imagining a dozen scenarios in which he was the one who screwed up royally and I had to save him and he finally realized how lucky he was to have me for his brother.

Near evening, clouds began to mount in the west, and we could see lightning along the horizon. Emmy watched the threatening sky with fear-filled eyes.

“We need to find someplace to sleep inside tonight,” I finally said to Albert.

Mose splashed his paddle lightly on the water to get our attention. He pointed toward the south side of the river and signed,
Orchard.

Beyond the trees lining the Gilead lay a familiar sight—the boughs of apple trees, just as they’d been in the little orchard on the Frosts’ farm. They were dark green in the waning light and welcoming.

“Maybe we can sleep there,” I said.

“Let’s see.” Albert guided us to the riverbank. “You two wait here,” he said and signaled for Mose to follow him.

When we were alone, Emmy looked at the apple trees with longing. “I miss Mama.”

“I know.”

“Do you ever miss your mama, Odie?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “But it’s been a long time since we lost her.”

She reached inside her overalls and drew out the photograph I’d saved from the farmhouse rubble and studied it, then looked up at me while little tears rolled down her cheeks. “Will I always miss her, Odie? Will it always hurt?”

“I suppose you’ll always miss her, Emmy,” I said. “But it won’t always hurt.”

I could hear now the grumble of the lightning in the distance, and I could smell the rain on the wind that came before it. Albert and Mose finally returned.

“There’s a farmhouse and barn and such on the other side of the
orchard,” Albert said. “A good-size garden with an old potting shed. The shed’s small and probably leaks some, but there’s no lock on the door and it’ll be a roof over our heads. We could sleep there tonight and be off early in the morning before anybody in that farmhouse wakes up.”

Lightning split the sky not far to the west, and the boom of thunder followed a few seconds later. I felt the first big drops of rain begin to fall. We didn’t have a lot of time to think it through. We gathered our things, stowed the canoe and paddles among thick brush on the riverbank, and made a run through the orchard for the potting shed on the other side.

I saw the farmhouse, a simple black shape in the near dark with a dim light showing through one window. The barn was not especially big, not like Hector Bledsoe’s back near Lincoln. Like so many of the farms we’d seen, this was a hardscrabble operation. We ducked inside the potting shed just as the sky opened and rain began to fall in sheets. The lightning was on top of us, and there was a wind with it that howled through the gaps in the old plank siding of the shed. Emmy held to me and to Mose and squeezed her body together as small as she possibly could.

It was clear the shed hadn’t been used in some time. There were no tools inside and it smelled of mildew and rot. The floor was dirt, but at least it was dry, and being in the old shed was far better than being out in that wicked weather.

When the storm finally passed, the sky cleared almost immediately. The moon came out, full now, and broad bars of silver shone through the windows of the potting shed and fell across the dirt floor. Albert took out some of the food he’d bought that morning, and we ate. Finally, exhausted from the day, we lay down to sleep, without Emmy even asking for a story but with Puff on her hand, gently cradling her cheek.

My earlier resentment had passed, as it always did. Lying on my blanket beside Albert, I was happy to have him for a brother, though
I had no intention of telling him so. I didn’t always understand him, and I knew that, more often than not, I was a bafflement to him as well, but the heart isn’t the logical organ of the body, and I loved my brother deeply and fell asleep in the warmth of his company.

IN THE NIGHT,
Emmy had one of her fits. I heard the commotion and woke in an instant. She lay in a pool of moonlight, writhing, her jaw clenched, her eyes rolled up in her head, every muscle of her body quivering.

We’d seen this once before, Albert and Mose and me, on the Frosts’ farm, a few months after the accident that had killed her father and put Emmy in a coma. Everyone thought that when she came back to consciousness, she was fine. But several weeks later, when we saw her fall in the farmyard and begin to shake as if she’d been possessed by some terrible demon, Mrs. Frost had been forced to tell us the truth. Since the accident, on rare occasions, Emmy suffered these fits that resembled epileptic seizures but, doctors had assured her, were not. In fact, they had no explanation. The fits didn’t seem to harm Emmy in the least, and after she came out of them, she was just fine and remembered nothing. Mrs. Frost didn’t want this information broadly known, and she had sworn us to secrecy. As far as we knew, no one at Lincoln School was aware of Emmy’s condition. I thought that if the Black Witch had known, she’d never have wanted to adopt the little girl.

Albert held Emmy in his arms until the fit passed and Emmy opened her eyes. She looked dazed and said groggily, “He’s not dead, Odie. He’s not dead.”

“Who’s not dead?” I asked.

But Emmy closed her eyes immediately afterward and went back to sleep. We wrapped her in her blanket and laid her down.

Mose signed,
Bad dream.

Which seemed the most likely explanation, and I wondered if the
dream had been about DiMarco, and the bad part was that he wasn’t actually dead. I didn’t want to be a murderer, but even more I didn’t want DiMarco back in this world.

We all returned to our sleep.

AT DAWN THE
next morning, a gruff voice woke us: “Trespassers.”

I sat up instantly, and so did Albert and Mose. Little Emmy didn’t seem to have heard.

“Goddamn trespassers. Come out of there, boys.”

The man was tall, awkwardly built, and held a shotgun in his hands. His face was like a diamond, a hard thing cut at sharp angles. He had a black patch over one eye. The other eye glared at us, and I recognized him from the mercantile in Westerville the day before, the man who’d bought an alarm clock.

Albert and Mose and I stood, but Emmy woke more slowly, probably the result of her fit in the night. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. When he saw her, the pig scarer stared as if he were seeing a ghost.

“I’ll be damned,” he said.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THE WILD PIG
scarer took the pillowcase that held everything of value to us.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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