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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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Volz said, “Odie, that don’t mean you don’t work hard today.”

“I’ll work extra hard,” I promised.

Albert said, “I’ll see to that.”

At mealtime, the children entered the dining hall through different doors, the girls from the east, the boys from the west. That morning, Mrs. Frost led us out through the boys’ entrance, which could not be seen from the administration building. I figured this was because she didn’t want Thelma Brickman to spot us and maybe countermand her husband’s decision. Everyone knew that although Mr. Brickman wore the pants, it was his wife who had the balls.

MRS. FROST DROVE
her dusty Model T pickup down the road that followed the Gilead River into the town of Lincoln, half a mile east of
the school. Emmy sat up front with her. Albert and I sat on the open flatbed. We passed the square where the Fremont County courthouse stood, along with the band shell and two cannons that had been fired by the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. A number of automobiles were parked around the square, but this was 1932 and not every farmer could afford a vehicle, so there were a few wagons with horse teams tied to hitching posts. We passed Hartman’s Bakery, and I could smell warm bread, the kind with yeast, so it didn’t break your teeth when you bit into it. Even though I’d already had cereal, the aroma made me hungry again. We passed the city police station, where an officer on the sidewalk tipped his hat to Mrs. Frost. He eyed Albert and me, and his hard look brought to my mind Mrs. Brickman’s threat of the reformatory, which I’d pretended to shrug off, but which in truth scared me a lot.

Beyond Lincoln, all the land had been turned with plows. The dirt road we followed ran between fields where green corn sprouted in straight rows out of the black earth. I’d read in a book that this had all been prairie once, the grass higher than a man’s head, and that the rich, black soil went fifty feet deep. To the west rose Buffalo Ridge, a long stretch of low, untillable hills, and beyond that lay South Dakota. East, where we were headed, the land was flat, and long before we reached them, I could see the big hayfields that belonged to Hector Bledsoe.

At the Lincoln Indian Training School, boys were fair game for Bledsoe, or most any other farmer in the area who wanted free labor. It was justified as the “training” part of the school. We didn’t learn anything except that we’d rather be dead than farmers. It was always grueling, dirty work—mucking out cattle yards or slopping hogs or detasseling corn or cutting out jimsonweed, all of it under an unrelenting sun—but haying for Bledsoe was the absolute worst. You spent the whole day bucking those big bales, sweating bullets, covered in hay dust that made you itch like you were being chewed on by a million fleas. You got no break except for lunch, which was usually a dry sandwich and water warmed by the sun. The kids assigned to
Bledsoe were the bigger, older ones or, like me, those who’d created a problem for the staff at Lincoln School. Because I wasn’t as strong as the older boys, it wasn’t just Bledsoe giving me crap. It was also the other kids, who complained that I didn’t pull my weight. When Albert was there, he stood between me and trouble, but Albert was a favorite of the Black Witch and seldom worked for Bledsoe.

Mrs. Frost drove into the field where the alfalfa, cut and dried, lay in rows that seemed to stretch to the horizon. Bledsoe was on his tractor, pulling the baler. Some of the boys were throwing hay into the machine with pitchforks; others followed behind, lifting the bales from the ground and loading them onto a flatbed truck driven by Bledsoe’s son, a big kid named Ralph, every bit as mean as his old man. Mrs. Frost parked ahead of the tractor and waited for Bledsoe to reach her. He cut the engine and climbed down from the seat. I glanced at the guys from the school, shirts off, sweating like pack mules, black hair turned gold from all that hay dust. On their faces, I saw a look I understood—partly relief that they could rest for a few minutes, and partly hatred because Albert and I weren’t suffering along with them.

“Good morning, Hector,” Mrs. Frost said cheerfully. “Is the work going well?”

“Was,” Bledsoe said. He didn’t take his big straw hat off in the woman’s presence, which most men did. “You want something?”

“One of your young men. Mr. Brickman promised him to me.”

“Whoever it is, Brickman promised him to me first.”

“And then changed his mind,” she said.

“Never called me to say so.”

“And how would he have reached you out here in your fields?”

“Could’ve called the missus.”

“Would you like to take a nice long break, and we’ll go to your farmhouse and ask Rosalind?”

Which would have eaten up a good half hour. I saw the Lincoln kids, slumped against the baler, looking hopeful at that prospect.

“Or would you be willing to accept my word as a lady?”

I could see Bledsoe’s brain going over the rough ground of the question. Unless he was willing to call her a liar, he had to give in. Everything in his black, shriveled, little heart was dead set against it, but he couldn’t challenge the word of this woman, this schoolteacher, this widow. It was easy to see how much he hated her for that.

“Who is it?” he demanded.

“Moses Washington.”

“Son of a bitch!” Now he took off his straw hat and threw it to the ground in utter disgust. “Hell, he’s the best of the lot.”

“And now he’s part of my lot, Hector.” She looked to a kid who’d been standing on the baler, feeding it hay. “Moses,” she called to him. “Put your shirt on and come with me.”

Mose grabbed his shirt and jumped nimbly from the machinery. He trotted to the Model T, easily hopped aboard the flatbed, and joined Albert and me where we sat with our backs against the cab. He signed,
Hello,
and I signed back,
Lucky you, Mose
. He responded with
Lucky us,
and drew a circle in the air that indicated me and Albert and him.

Mrs. Frost said, “Well then, I guess I have what I came for.”

“Guess you have,” Bledsoe said and leaned down to retrieve his hat.

“Oh, and if you’d like, here’s the note of permission Mr. Brickman wrote for me.” She held out the paper to Bledsoe.

“You could’ve given me that at the beginning.”

“Just as easily as you could have accepted my word. Good day.”

We drove from the field and watched as Bledsoe remounted his tractor and began again moving down the long row of dried alfalfa while the boys from Lincoln School bent again to their miserable labor.

Beside me, Mose made a grand gesture of gratitude toward the morning sun and signed again,
Lucky us.

CHAPTER THREE

CORA FROST’S PROPERTY
lay two miles east of Lincoln, on the south bank of the Gilead River. There was an old farmhouse, a small apple orchard, an enormous garden, a barn and some outbuildings. When her husband had been alive, they’d planted a good acreage in corn. She and Andrew Frost had both worked at Lincoln School, Mr. Frost as our sports coach. We’d all liked Mr. Frost. He was half Sioux and half Scotch-Irish and was a terrific athlete. He’d been sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and knew Jim Thorpe personally. When he was eleven, he’d been in the stands the day that sports great had helped his team of Indian kids shock the hell out of the world by beating Harvard’s football elite. Mr. Frost had been killed in a farming accident. He’d been sitting atop his disc harrow with little Emmy in his lap, guiding Big George, the Frosts’ enormous draft horse, across the plowed field, breaking up the newly turned clods of black soil. As he approached the end of the field and turned the horse, Big George disturbed a nest of hornets in the grass along the fence line. The horse reared and took off in a panicked gallop. Little Emmy was bounced from her father’s lap and thrown clear of the machinery. Andrew Frost, reaching for her as she flew, fell from his seat into the path of the sharp, eighteen-inch blades of the harrow, which sliced right through him. In her fall, Emmy hit her head on a fence post and was in a coma for two days.

By the summer of 1932, Andrew Frost had been dead a year. His widow had mustered on. She’d leased the arable land to another farmer, but there was still the orchard to see to and the garden. The old farmhouse was always in need of repair, as were the barn and outbuildings. Sometimes Mose and Albert and I were asked to help
with that, which I didn’t mind. I figured it couldn’t be easy raising Emmy alone, trying to see to the farm chores while continuing her work at Lincoln School. Although Mrs. Frost was a kind woman, she always seemed under the shadow of a great cloud, and her smile seemed less bright than it had once been.

When we arrived at her place, we piled off the back of the truck, and she put us to work immediately. She hadn’t freed me and Mose from Bledsoe’s hayfields just out of the goodness of her heart. She gave Mose a scythe and instructed him to cut the grass that had grown high between the trees of her orchard. She set Albert and me to building a rabbit fence around her garden. Because the pay she received at Lincoln School was barely enough to live on, the garden and orchard were important to her. To supplement her diet and Emmy’s during the long winter, she canned the vegetables and preserved the fruit. While we worked, she and Emmy hoed the garden.

“You’re lucky you got your harmonica back,” Albert said.

We’d just finished digging a hole, and I was holding up the fence post we’d put in while Albert backfilled around it and tamped the dirt down firmly.

“She always threatens to keep it for good.”

“She carries through with her threats.”

“If she kept my harmonica, she wouldn’t have anything to threaten me with. I don’t mind the quiet room.”

“She could order DiMarco to give you more strappings. He’d like that.”

“It only hurts awhile, then the hurt goes away.”

Albert had never been on the receiving end of a strapping, so he wouldn’t know. DiMarco’s beatings hurt like hell, and afterward a kid usually moved gingerly for a day. But it was true; that kind of pain passed.

“If she knew how much the harmonica really means to you, she’d break it while you watched.”

“So she better never find out.” I said this with some menace.

“You think I’d tell her?”

“These days I don’t know what you’d do.”

Albert grabbed a handful of my shirt, and pulled me close. He’d already freckled a lot, and his face looked like a bowl of soggy cornflakes.

“I’m all that stands between you and reformatory, goddamn it.”

Albert almost never swore. Although he’d spoken quietly, Mrs. Frost heard him.

She straightened up from her hoeing and said, “Albert.”

He let me go with a little shove. “Someday you’re going to do something I can’t save you from.”

It sounded to me like that was a day he might be looking forward to.

We took a break for lunch. Mrs. Frost gave us ham salad sandwiches, which were wonderful, and applesauce and lemonade, and we ate together under a big cottonwood on the bank of the Gilead.

Mose signed,
Where does the river go?

Mrs. Frost said, “It joins the Minnesota, which joins the Mississippi, which flows fifteen hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Long way,
Mose signed, then gave a low whistle.

“I’m going down it someday,” Albert said.

“Like Huck Finn?” Mrs. Frost asked.

“Like Mark Twain. I’m going to work on a riverboat.”

“I’m afraid that era has passed, Albert,” Mrs. Frost said.

“Can we go canoeing, Mama?” Emmy asked.

“When the work is done. And maybe we’ll swim, too.”

“Will you play something, Odie?” Emmy pleaded.

I never had to be asked twice. I pulled the little harmonica out of my shirt pocket and tapped it against my palm to clear the dust. Then I launched into one of my favorites, “Shenandoah.” It was a beautiful tune, but in a minor key, so there was a sadness to it that settled on us all. As I played on the bank of the Gilead, the sun glancing off water the color of weak tea, the shadows of the tree branches lying
shattered all around us, I saw tears come into Mrs. Frost’s eyes, and I realized I was playing a song that had been one of her husband’s favorites, too. I didn’t finish.

“Why’d you stop, Odie?” Emmy asked.

“I forgot the rest of it,” I lied. Immediately, I launched into something more rousing, a tune I’d heard on the radio, played by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies called “I Got Rhythm.” I’d been working on it but hadn’t played it for anybody yet. Our spirits picked up right away, and Mrs. Frost started singing along, which surprised me because I didn’t know there were words.

“Gershwin,” she said when I finished.

“What?”

“Not what, Odie. Who. The man who wrote that song. His name is George Gershwin.”

“Never heard of him,” I said, “but he writes pretty good songs.”

She smiled. “That he does. And you played it well.”

Mose signed and Emmy nodded in agreement. “You play like an angel, Odie.”

At that, Albert stood up. “There’s still work to be done.”

“You’re right.” Mrs. Frost began packing things back into the picnic basket.

After he’d finished scything the orchard grass, Mose joined Albert and me to help with the rabbit fence. When the work was done, Mrs. Frost, as promised, sent us boys down to the river for a little free time and to wash off the dust and dirt while she prepared supper. We stripped off our clothes and jumped right in. We’d been sweating all afternoon under a hot sun, and the cool water of the Gilead felt like heaven. We hadn’t been in the river long when Emmy called from the bank, “Can we canoe now?”

We made her turn around while we climbed out and put our clothes on. Then Albert and Mose lifted the canoe from the little rack at the river’s edge where Mr. Frost had always kept it, and they slipped it into the Gilead. I grabbed the two paddles. Emmy got into
the middle with me, while Albert and Mose each took a paddle and their places in the bow and stern, and we set off.

The Gilead was only ten yards wide and the current was steady but gentle. We canoed east for a while, under the overhang of the trees. The river and the land on both sides were quiet.

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