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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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“This is nice,” Emmy said. “I wish we could go on like this forever.”

“All the way to the Mississippi?” I said.

Mose laid his paddle across the gunwales and signed,
All the way to the ocean.

Albert shook his head. “We’d never make it in a canoe.”

“But we can dream,” I said.

We turned around and headed back upstream to the Frost farmstead. We set the canoe on the rack beside the river, stowed the paddles underneath, and headed toward the farmhouse.

That’s when we got the bad news.

CHAPTER FOUR

WE ALL RECOGNIZED
the Brickmans’ automobile, a silver Franklin Club Sedan. It was covered with dust from the back roads and sat in the middle of the dirt lane like a big, hungry lion.

“Oh, brother,” Albert said. “We’re in for it now.”

Mose signed,
Run
.

“But Mr. Brickman gave his okay for us to work here today,” I said.

Albert’s mouth was set in a hard line. “It’s not Mr. Brickman I’m worried about.”

They were seated in what Mrs. Frost called the parlor, a small sitting room with a sofa and two floral upholstered chairs. On the mantel above the little fireplace sat a framed photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Frost with Emmy between them, all of them looking as happy as any of us who had no family thought a family ought to be.

“Ah, there you are at last,” the Black Witch said, as if we’d been gone a dozen years and our return delighted her no end. “Did you enjoy your boat outing?”

Albert said, “Emmy wanted to go, and we couldn’t let her be on the river alone.”

“Of course you couldn’t,” Mrs. Brickman agreed. “And how much more enjoyable boating on a river instead of working in a hayfield, yes?” She turned her smile on me, and I expected any moment to see a little forked tongue slip from between her lips.

“The boys worked very hard for me today,” Mrs. Frost said. “Moses cut all my orchard grass, and the three of them together put up the rabbit fence around my garden. I would have been absolutely lost without them. Thank you, Clyde, for allowing me to have them for the day.”

Mr. Brickman glanced at his wife, and the thin smile that had come to his lips quickly died.

“My Clyde is nothing if not softhearted,” Mrs. Brickman said. “A failing, I fear, when dealing with children who need to be guided with a strong hand.” She put down her glass of iced tea. “We should be off or the boys will miss their dinner.”

“I had planned to feed them here before taking them back,” Mrs. Frost said.

“No, no, my dear. I won’t hear of it. They’ll eat with the others at school. And it’s movie night. We wouldn’t want them to miss that, would we?” She stood, rising from the parlor chair like a curl of black smoke. “Come, Clyde.”

“Thank you, boys.” Mrs. Frost gave us an encouraging smile as she saw us out.

“Bye, Odie,” Emmy said. “Bye, Mose. Bye, Albert.”

My brother held the car door open for Mrs. Brickman, then he and Mose and I climbed into the backseat while Mr. Brickman settled himself behind the wheel of the Franklin. Mrs. Frost stood in the lane, Emmy beside her, small lips turned down in a worried frown. From the sad waves they gave us as we drove off, you’d have thought we were heading to our own execution. Which wasn’t far from the truth.

For a long time, no one said a word. Mr. Brickman kept his foot heavy on the accelerator so that we raised a cloud of dust behind us. Albert and Mose and I were furiously signing to one another.

Mose:
We’re dead
.

Albert:
I can fix this.

Me:
The Black Witch will eat us for dinner.

“Enough back there,” Mrs. Brickman ordered, and I thought she must have had eyes in the back of her head.

When we arrived at the school, Mr. Brickman pulled the car into the drive of the superintendent’s home, which was located a short walk from the administration building. It was a lovely two-story brick house, with a lawn and flower beds kept beautiful by the hard
work of kids from the school. We all got out, and Mrs. Brickman said pleasantly, “Just in time for supper.”

Meals were rigidly scheduled: breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, dinner at five. If you missed the beginning of a meal, you missed the meal altogether, because no kid was allowed in once everyone else had been seated. I was hungry. We’d worked hard that day, though not as hard as we would have if we’d been in Bledsoe’s hayfields. I was buoyed by the Black Witch’s comment. Despite what she’d said to Cora Frost, I’d figured we had as much chance of eating that night as Custer had of walloping the Sioux at the Little Bighorn.

Turned out, I was right.

“Clyde, I think we need an object lesson here. I think these boys will go without dinner tonight.”

Albert said, “It was my fault, Mrs. Brickman. I should have double-checked with you before we left.”

“Yes, you should have.” She smiled on him. “But because you realize that, I think you will not miss your supper.”

Albert glanced at me but said nothing. In that moment I hated him, hated every little toady thing about him. Fine, I thought. I hope you choke on your food.

“Boys,” Mrs. Brickman said, “is there anything you would like to say?”

Mose nodded and signed,
You’re a turd.

“What did he say?” the Black Witch asked Albert.

“That he’s very sorry. But Mrs. Frost told him to leave the hayfield with her, and it would have been impolite to say no to a teacher.”

“He signed all that?” she said.

“More or less,” Albert said.

“And you?” she said to me. “Is there nothing you have to say?”

I signed,
I pee in your flower beds when you’re not looking.

She said, “I don’t know what you signed, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like it. Clyde, I think our little Odie will not only miss supper. He will also spend tonight in the quiet room. And Moses will keep him company.”

I hoped maybe Albert would jump to our defense, but he only stood there.

I signed to him,
Just wait. When you’re asleep, I’ll pee on your face.

THEY’D TAKEN AWAY
my supper, but they’d left me my harmonica. As the sun went down that evening and all the other kids were gathered in the auditorium for movie night, I played my favorite tunes and Mose’s in the quiet room. He knew the words to the songs and signed along with the music.

Mose wasn’t mute. When he was four years old, his tongue had been cut off. No one knew who’d done it. He’d been found beaten, unconscious, and tongueless, in some reeds in a roadside ditch along with his shot-dead mother, not far outside Granite Falls. He had no way of communicating, of saying who might have done these terrible things. He’d always claimed to have no memory of it. Even if he’d been able to speak, he had no idea about his family. He didn’t have a father he knew of, and he’d always called his mother simply Mama, so no idea what her real name was. The authorities insisted that they’d done their best, which because he was an Indian kid, simply meant they’d made a few inquiries of the local Sioux, but no one claimed to know the dead woman or the child. At four, he’d become a resident of Lincoln School. Because the boy couldn’t speak or write his name, the superintendent, in those days a man named Sparks, had given him a whole new name: Moses, because he was found in the reeds; and Washington, who happened to be Sparks’s favorite president. Mose could make sounds, scary guttural things, but not words, and so generally he just kept silent. Except when he laughed. He had a good, infectious laugh.

Before Albert and I had come to Lincoln School, Mose had communicated in a kind of rudimentary sign language that got him by. He’d learned to read and write, but because of that missing tongue he never participated in class discussion and most teachers simply ignored
him. After Albert and I arrived, we taught him to sign in the way we’d been taught. Our grandmother had contracted German measles while she was pregnant, and as a result, our mother had been born deaf. Our grandmother, who’d been a schoolteacher before marrying, learned American Sign Language and taught her daughter. That was how my mother communicated, so even before I could speak, I could sign. When Mrs. Frost saw this facility, she insisted that we teach her and her husband as well. Little Emmy soaked it up like a sponge. Once she could communicate with Mose, Mrs. Frost became his tutor and brought him up to speed in his education.

There was something poetic in Mose’s soul. When I played and he signed, his hands danced gracefully in the air and those unspoken words took on a delicate weight and a kind of beauty that I thought no voice could possibly have given them.

Just before the light died in the sky and the quiet room sank into utter darkness, Mose signed,
Tell me a story.

I told the story I’d thought up the night before when I was alone in the stone cell, except for Faria. This is what I said.

This is a story about three kids on a dark night one Halloween One kid was named Moses, one was named Albert, and the last was Marshall
. (Albert was never impressed when I put him in a story, but Mose loved it. Marshall Foote was another kid at Lincoln School, a Sioux from the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, a kid in whom meanness ran deep.)
Marshall was a bully He liked playing cruel jokes on the other two boys. That Halloween, while they were walking home late at night from a party at a friend’s house, Marshall told them about the Windigo. The Windigo, he said, was a terrible giant, a monster that had once been a man but some dark magic had turned him into a cannibal beast with a hunger for human flesh, a hunger that could never be satisfied. Just before it dropped on you from the sky, it called your name in a voice like some eerie night bird. Which did you no good, because there was nowhere you could run that the Windigo wouldn’t catch you and tear your heart out and eat it while you lay there dying and watching.

The other two boys said he was crazy, there was no creature like that, but Marshall swore it was true. When they reached his house, he left them, warning them to watch out for the Windigo.

Albert and Moses walked on, joking about the beast, but every sound they heard made them jump. And then, from somewhere ahead of them, came a high, thin voice calling their names.

“Albert,” it cried. “Moses.”

Mose grabbed my arm and signed into my hand,
The monster?

“Maybe,” I said. “Just listen.”

The boys began to run, scared out of their minds. When they came to where the branch of a big elm tree hung over the sidewalk, a black shape dropped and landed in front of them. “I’ll eat your hearts!” it cried.

The two boys screamed and nearly crapped their pants. Then the black shape began to laugh, and they realized it was Marshall. He called them girlies and sissies and told them to get on home so their mommas could protect them. He walked away, still laughing at his prank.

The two boys went on in silence, ashamed, but also mad at Marshall, who, they decided, was no friend after all.

They hadn’t gone far when they heard something else. Marshall’s name, called from the sky above in an eerie voice like a night bird. And they smelled a terrible smell, like rotting meat. They looked up and saw a huge black shape cross the moon. A minute later, a terrible scream came from far behind them, a scream that sounded like Marshall. They turned and ran back. But he was nowhere to be found. And no one saw him again. Ever
.

I let our lightless cell fall into a deep, ominous silence. Then I screamed bloody murder. Mose gave out a scream of his own, one of those guttural, wordless things. Then he was laughing. He grabbed my hand and signed into my palm,
I almost crapped my pants. Like the kids in the story.

We lay down after that, both of us deep in our own thoughts.

At length, Mose tapped my shoulder and took my hand.
You tell stories but they’re real. There are monsters and they eat the hearts of children.

After that, I listened to Mose breathe deeply as he drifted into sleep.
In a while, I heard the little scurrying sounds from Faria as he came out from hiding to see if I had any crumbs to offer him. I didn’t, and not long after that, I was asleep, too.

I WOKE IN
the dark to the scrape of a key turning in the lock of the iron door. I was up in an instant. The first thought I had panicked me:
DiMarco.
I didn’t think he’d try anything with two of us there, especially if one of us was Mose. But like the Windigo, DiMarco was a being of huge, unsavory appetites, and we all knew the things he did to children in the night. So I tensed and prepared to kick and scratch and claw, even if he killed me for it.

The light of a kerosene lantern shown through the door. Mose was awake now, too, crouched and ready, his whole body taut in a way that made me think of a bowstring about to let an arrow fly. He glanced at me and nodded, and I knew we would not go down to DiMarco’s depravities without a good fight.

But the face that came into the lantern light was not DiMarco’s. Herman Volz smiled at us, a finger to his lips, and motioned us to follow.

Just west of the school grounds lay a vast open field full of rock slag and tall wild grass, and beyond that was the huge pit of an abandoned quarry. We crossed the field using a path that had been worn over the years by kids and others who’d sneaked away seeking solitude or to throw rocks into that deep-gouged hole or, if you were Herman Volz, for another reason. There was an old equipment shed at the edge of the quarry and inside was a secret only Volz and Albert and Mose and I knew about. Volz kept a heavy padlock on the door.

A small fire burned near the shed, and I smelled sausage cooking. When we got closer, I saw Albert holding a skillet, his face aglow in the firelight.

Volz grinned. “Couldn’t let you boys starve to death.”

“Sit down,” Albert said. “Food’ll be ready soon.”

There were not just sausages in the skillet but scrambled eggs, too,
and diced potato and onion. Albert was a good cook. When it was just him and my father and me traveling all over hell and gone, Albert had done most of our cooking. Sometimes it was over an open fire like this, or sometimes on the woodstove of some little motor court in the middle of nowhere. But he wasn’t a magician. He couldn’t just conjure food. I figured our meal had come from Volz’s pantry.

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