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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“Pleasant dream, then?” Volz said.

“She was in a rowboat on a river. I was in a boat, too, trying to catch up with her, trying to see her face. But no matter how hard I rowed, she was always too far ahead.”

“Don’t sound like a good dream,” Volz said. He was wearing clean bib overalls over a blue work shirt. His huge hands, nicked and scarred
from his carpentry, hung at his sides. Half of the little finger on his right hand was missing, the result of an accident with a band saw. Behind his back, some of the kids called him Old Four-and-a-Half, but not me or Albert. The German carpenter had always been kind to us.

We entered the building and went immediately to Mrs. Brickman’s office, where she was seated behind her big desk, a stone fireplace at her back. I was a little surprised to see Albert there. He stood straight and tall beside her like a soldier at attention. His face was blank, but his eyes spoke to me. They said,
Careful, Odie.

“Thank you, Mr. Volz,” the superintendent said. “You may wait outside.”

As he turned to leave, Volz put a hand on my shoulder, the briefest of gestures, but I appreciated what it meant.

Mrs. Brickman said, “I’m concerned about you, Odie. I’m beginning to believe that your time at Lincoln School is almost at an end.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad thing.

The superintendent wore a black dress, which seemed to be her favorite color. I’d overheard Miss Stratton, who taught music, tell another teacher once that it was because Mrs. Brickman was obsessed with her appearance and thought black was slimming. It worked pretty well, because the superintendent reminded me of nothing so much as the long, slender handle of a fireplace poker. Her penchant for the color gave rise to a nickname we all used, well out of her hearing, of course: the Black Witch.

“Do you know what I’m saying, Odie?”

“I’m not sure, ma’am.”

“Even though you’re not Indian, the sheriff asked us to accept you and your brother because there was no room at the state orphanage. And we did, out of the goodness of our hearts. But there’s another option for a boy like you, Odie. Reformatory. Do you know what that is?”

“I do, ma’am.”

“And is that where you would like to be sent?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I thought not. Then, Odie, what will you do?”

“Nothing, ma’am.”

“Nothing?”

“I will do nothing that will get me sent there, ma’am.”

She put her hands on her desk, one atop the other, and spread her fingers wide so that they formed a kind of web over the polished wood. She smiled at me as if she were a spider who’d just snagged a fly. “Good,” she said. “Good.” She nodded toward Albert. “You should be more like your brother.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll try. May I have my harmonica back?”

“It’s very special to you, isn’t it?”

“Not really. Just an old harmonica. I like to play. It keeps me out of trouble.”

“A gift from your father, I believe.”

“No, ma’am. I just picked it up somewhere. I don’t even remember where now.”

“That’s funny,” she said. “Albert told me it was a gift from your father.”

“See?” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Not even special enough to remember where I got it.”

She considered me, then said, “Very well.” She took a key from a pocket of her dress, unlocked a drawer of the desk, and pulled out the harmonica.

I reached for it, but she drew it back.

“Odie?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Next time, I keep it for good. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am. I do.”

She gave it over and her spindly fingers touched my hand. When I returned to the dormitory, I intended to use the lye soap in the lavatory there to scrub that hand until it bled.

CHAPTER TWO

“REFORMATORY, ODIE,” ALBERT
said. “She wasn’t joking.”

“Did I break a law?”

“That woman, she gets what she wants, Odie,” Volz said.

“The hell with the Black Witch,” I said.

We left the shadow of the elms and headed toward the great yard, which had once been the parade ground for Fort Sibley. Directly south across the huge, grassy rectangle were the kitchen and dining hall. Spaced along the rest of the perimeter were most of the other school buildings: the dormitories for the youngest children, the laundry and maintenance facility, and the woodworking and carpentry shops, one above the other. Set back a bit were the dormitories for the older children and the general classroom building, which were newer constructions. Everything had been built of red stone from a local quarry. Beyond these lay the athletic field, the water tower, the garage where the big pieces of heavy equipment and the school bus were parked, a warehouse, and the old stockade. Edging the whole property to the north ran the Gilead River.

The morning was sunny and warm. The boys who’d drawn grounds duty that day were already at work mowing the grass and trimming along the walkways. Some of the girls knelt on the sidewalks with buckets and brushes, scrubbing the concrete clean. Who cleaned sidewalks that way? It was a useless chore, one we all knew was meant to drive home to the girls their complete dependence and the school’s absolute control. They glanced up from their work when we passed, but none risked conversation, because the watchful eye of the groundskeeper, a sloppy, sullen man named DiMarco, was always on them. DiMarco was responsible for the welts on my back. When a
boy required a beating at Lincoln School, it was usually DiMarco who delivered it, and he enjoyed every swing of that leather strap. It was late May and school no longer in session. A lot of the kids at Lincoln had gone home for the summer to their families on reservations in Minnesota or the Dakotas or Nebraska or even farther. Children like Albert and me, who had no family or whose families were too poor or too broken to take them back, lived at the school year-round.

At the dormitory, Albert cleaned the welts on my back, and Volz gingerly applied the witch hazel he kept on hand for just such occasions. I washed up, then we headed toward the dining hall. In the stone above the entrance was still chiseled
MESS HALL
from the old days when soldiers had been fed there. Under the stern command of Mrs. Peterson, who was responsible for feeding all the kids, nothing could have been further from the truth. The floor of the great hall, though terribly scuffed, was always swept clean of every crumb. After each meal, the rows of tables were wiped down with water and a bit of bleach. The kitchen and bakery were run with a rigid hand. I’d heard that Mrs. Peterson complained there was never enough money to buy proper food, but she managed to stretch whatever she had. True, the soups contained more water than solids and often tasted like something ladled from a ditch, and the breads were hard and heavy enough that they could have been used to break rock (she claimed yeast was too expensive), and the meat, when there was some, was mostly gristle, but every child ate three meals a day.

When we stepped inside the dining hall, Herman Volz said, “I have bad news for you, Odie. But also some good. First, the bad. You have been assigned to work in Bledsoe’s hayfields today.”

I looked at Albert and saw it was true. Bad news, indeed. It almost made me wish I was back in the quiet room.

“And also, you have missed breakfast. But you already know this.”

Breakfast was served promptly at seven. Volz hadn’t sprung me from the stockade until eight. Not his fault, but Mrs. Brickman’s doing. One last punishment. No breakfast that day.

This in advance of one of the hardest work assignments a kid at Lincoln School could draw. I wondered what the good news was.

Almost immediately, I understood. Donna High Hawk appeared from the kitchen, wearing a white apron and a white headwrap, and carrying a chipped, white bowl filled with Cream of Wheat. Donna High Hawk, like me, was twelve years old. She was a member of the Winnebago tribe from Nebraska. When she’d come to Lincoln School, two years earlier, she’d been scrawny and quiet, her hair long and worn in two braids. They’d cut the braids and run a nit comb through what hair was left to her. As they did with so many of the new kids, they’d stripped off her shabby clothing and washed her all over with kerosene and put her in the uniform dress of the school. She hadn’t spoken much English then and had hardly ever smiled. In my years at Lincoln, I’d come to understand that this was not unusual for kids straight off the reservation.

But now she did smile, shyly, as she set the bowl on a table for me, then brought out a spoon.

“Thanks, Donna,” I said.

“Thank Mr. Volz,” she said. “He argued with Mrs. Peterson. Told her it was a crime to make you work without food in your belly.”

Volz laughed. “I had to promise to make her a new rolling pin in my carpentry shop.”

“Mrs. Brickman won’t like this,” I said.

“What Mrs. Brickman don’t know won’t hurt her. Eat,” Volz said. “Then I take you out to Bledsoe.”

“Donna?” It was a woman’s voice calling from the kitchen. “No dawdling.”

“You better go,” Volz advised.

The girl shot me one last enigmatic look, then vanished into the kitchen.

Volz said, “You eat, Odie. I’ll go make nice with Mrs. Peterson.”

When we were alone, Albert said, “What the hell were you thinking? A snake?”

I began to eat my hot cereal. “I didn’t do it.”

“Right,” he said. “It’s never you. Christ, Odie, you just took a step closer to leaving Lincoln.”

“And wouldn’t that be terrible.”

“You think reformatory would be better?”

“Couldn’t be any worse.”

He gave me a steely-eyed glare. “Where’d you get the snake?”

“I told you, it wasn’t me.”

“You can tell me the truth, Odie. I’m not Mrs. Brickman.”

“Only her servant.”

That one got to him and I thought he was going to slug me. Instead he said, “She takes her singing seriously.”

“She’s the only one who does.” I smiled, remembering her wild dance when the snake had slithered over her foot. It was a black racer, harmless. If it had been a prank, it would have been a bold one because of the beating that would surely result. Even I would have thought twice about it. I suspected the creature had simply found its way in from outside the dining hall by accident. “I bet she wet her bloomers. Everybody thought it was funny.”

“But you’re the one who got the strapping and spent the night with Faria. And now you’ll be working Bledsoe’s fields today.”

“The look on her face was worth it.” That wasn’t exactly true. I knew that by sundown I’d regret being blamed for the snake. The welts on my back from the beating DiMarco had given me were still tender, and the hay dust and the salt from my own sweat would make the wounds hurt even worse. But I didn’t want Albert, that smug know-it-all, to see me worry.

My brother was sixteen then. He’d grown tall and lanky at Lincoln School. He had dull red hair that was plagued by a perpetual cowlick in back, and like most redheaded people, he freckled easily. In summer, his face was a rash of splotches. He was self-conscious about his appearance and thought of himself as odd-looking. He tried to make up for it with his intellect. Albert was the smartest kid I knew, the
smartest kid anybody at Lincoln School knew. He wasn’t particularly athletic, but he was respected for his brains. And he was honorable to a fault. It wasn’t something in his genes, because me, I didn’t give a crap about what Albert called ethics, and our father had been a bit of a con man. But my brother was stone hard when it came to doing the right thing. Or what he saw as the right thing. I didn’t always agree with him on that point.

“Where are you working today?” I asked between spoonfuls of cereal.

“Helping Conrad with some machinery.”

That was another thing about Albert. He was handy. He possessed a mind that could wrap itself around a technical problem that had others scratching their heads. His work assignment was often with Bud Conrad, who was in charge of facility maintenance at Lincoln School. As a result, Albert knew about boilers and pumps and motors. I figured he’d grow up to be an engineer or something. I didn’t know what I wanted to be yet. I just knew whatever it was it would be far away from Lincoln School.

I’d almost finished my meal when I heard a child’s voice call out, “Odie! Albert!”

Little Emmy Frost ran toward us across the dining hall, followed by her mother. Cora Frost taught homemaking skills—cooking, sewing, ironing, decorating, cleaning—to the girls at the school, as well as teaching reading to all of us. She was plain and slender. Her hair was reddish blond, but to this day, I can’t recall clearly the color of her eyes. Her nose was long, bent at the end. I always wondered if it had been broken when she was younger and badly set. She was kind, compassionate, and although not what most guys would have called a looker, to me she was as lovely as any angel. I’ve always thought of her in the way I think of a precious gem: The beauty isn’t in the jewel itself, but in the way the light shines through it.

Emmy, on the other hand, was a cutie, with a thick mop of curls just like Little Orphan Annie in the funny papers, and we all loved her.

“I’m happy they’ve fed you,” Mrs. Frost said. “You have a very busy day ahead.”

I reached out to tickle Emmy. She stepped back, giggling. I looked up at her mother and shook my head sadly. “Mr. Volz told me. I’m working Bledsoe’s hayfields.”

“You
were
going to work for Mr. Bledsoe. I’ve managed to get your assignment changed. You’ll be working for me today. You and Albert and Moses. My garden and orchard need seeing to. Mr. Brickman just gave me approval to use all three of you. Finish your breakfast and we’ll be off.”

I gulped down what was left and took my bowl to the kitchen, where I explained to Mr. Volz what was up. He followed me back to the table.

“You got Brickman to change his mind?” the German said, clearly impressed.

“A little flutter of the eyelashes, Mr. Volz, and that man melts like butter on a griddle.”

Which might have been true if she’d been a beauty. I suspected it was the goodness of her heart that had won him over.

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