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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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During the school year, the younger boys were in one dormitory and the older boys in another. But in the summer, when so many of the students had gone home, all the boys were herded into a single dorm. While I read, one of the younger kids was sitting alone on his bunk not far from mine, staring at nothing, looking sad and lost, which wasn’t unusual, especially among the newer kids. His name was Billy Red Sleeve. He was Northern Cheyenne from somewhere way west in Nebraska. He’d come to Lincoln School from another Indian school, one in Sisseton that was run by Catholics. We all knew about the Sisseton school. Eddie Wilson, a Sioux kid from Cheyenne River, had cousins who’d been sent to Sisseton. He told us stories his cousins had told him, about beatings worse than anything we got at Lincoln, about nuns and priests who came into the dorms at night and took kids from their beds and made them do unspeakable things. At Lincoln School, there were a couple of staff we all knew sometimes did things to kids, most notable among them Vincent DiMarco, but we did our best to wise up new kids fast, so that they could stay out of harm’s way. Those who came from other schools, like Billy, wouldn’t talk about what had been done to them, but you saw it in their eyes, in the frightened way they regarded everyone and everything, and you felt it every time you tried to reach out to them and met that invisible wall they’d erected in the desperate hope of protecting themselves.

I was deep into a story about a guy fighting Martians in the Arctic
when I glanced up and saw DiMarco standing in the doorway. I slid the magazine under my pillow but realized I didn’t need to. He wasn’t even looking at me. His attention was focused on Billy. DiMarco walked down the dormitory, between the rows of bunks. There were a couple of other boys in the dorm, and they sat up straight and were as mute as posts while DiMarco passed them. Billy didn’t notice him at all. He was busy mumbling to himself and fumbling with something he held in his hands. DiMarco stopped a couple of bunks away and just stood there, glaring. He was big and heavy. His arms and hands and knuckles were black with silky hair. His cheeks were dark with a perpetual stubble. His eyes were little beetles, which at the moment, crawled all over Billy.

“Red Sleeve,” he said.

Billy jerked as if somebody had shot a few thousand volts through him, and he looked up.

“You were talking Indian talk,” DiMarco said.

Which was a terrible transgression at Lincoln School. No kid was allowed to speak his Native tongue. It was a strict tenet of the Indian boarding school philosophy, which was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Getting caught speaking anything other than English usually resulted, at the very least, in a night in the quiet room. But sometimes, especially when DiMarco did the catching, a strapping was also part of the punishment.

Billy shook his head in feeble denial but said not a word.

“What do you got there?” DiMarco grabbed at Billy’s hands.

Billy tried to pull away, but DiMarco yanked him to his feet and shook him hard. Whatever Billy had been holding fell to the floor. DiMarco let the kid go and picked up what had dropped. I could see it then, a corncob doll with a red bandanna for a dress.

“You like playing with girlie things?” DiMarco said. “I think you need some time in the quiet room. Come with me.”

Billy didn’t move. I figured it had to be because he knew—all of us in the dorm knew—what going to the quiet room with DiMarco might really mean.

“Well come on, you little sissy redskin.” DiMarco grabbed him and started to drag him out.

Before I knew what I was doing, I was up off my bunk. “He wasn’t talking Indian.”

DiMarco stopped. “What did you say?”

“Billy wasn’t talking Indian.”

“I heard him,” DiMarco said.

“You heard wrong.”

Even as I was speaking these words, inside my head a voice was screaming,
What the hell are you doing?

DiMarco let go of Billy and came my way. The sleeves of his blue work shirt were rolled up to his biceps, which seemed enormous to me at that moment. The kids in the dorm were statues.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me this is yours?” DiMarco held out the doll.

“I made that for Emmy Frost. Billy just asked to see it before I gave it to her.”

He didn’t even glance at Billy to see if some different truth registered on his face. He glared at me, not like a lion, whose appetite was understandable, but like the monster Windigo of the story I’d told Mose the night before.

“I think you’ll both go to the quiet room with me,” he said.

Run!
the voice inside my head desperately advised.

But before I could move, DiMarco had me by the arm, his fingers digging into my skin, delivering bruises I’d carry for days afterward. I tried to kick him but missed, and then he grabbed me by the throat and I couldn’t breathe. I saw Billy looking horrified, probably thinking his turn would come next, and beyond him the other boys standing stone still, terrified and helpless. Although I tried to fight, DiMarco’s choke hold was doing its job, and things began to go gray and vague.

Then I heard a commanding voice: “Let him go, Vincent.”

DiMarco turned with me still in his grip. Herman Volz stood just
inside the dormitory doorway, flanked on either side by my brother and Mose.

“Let him go,” Volz said again, and it sounded to me like the blessed voice of the soldier angel Michael.

DiMarco released his grip on my throat but exchanged it for a viselike clamp on my shoulder, so that I was still his prisoner.

“He attacked me,” DiMarco said.

“Did not,” I tried to say, but because of what he’d done to my throat, it came out like a frog croak.

“Red Sleeve was speaking Indian,” DiMarco said. “I was going to punish him. You know the rule, Herman. Then O’Banion here jumps in and attacks me.”

“Billy wasn’t speaking Indian,” I said, still raspy but understandable.

Volz said, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding, Vincent. I think you will not be taking these boys with you.”

“Listen, you Kraut—” DiMarco began.

“No, you listen. You let go of that boy right now and you leave this dormitory. And if I hear that you have harmed Odie or Billy or any other boy, I will find you and beat you within an inch of your life. Do you understand?”

For a long moment, DiMarco’s hand still dug painfully into my collarbone. Then, with a rough shove, he let me go.

“This isn’t over between us, Herman.”

“Go,” Volz said. “Now.”

DiMarco walked past me. Volz and my brother and Mose stepped aside to let him exit, then closed ranks again.

In the quiet after DiMarco’s departure, I heard Billy Red Sleeve sniffling. I picked up the corncob doll and returned it to him.

“Best keep that out of sight,” I said. “And don’t ever let yourself get caught alone with Mr. DiMarco, you understand?”

He nodded, opened the trunk at the end of his bed, and dropped the doll inside. Then he sat down with his back to me.

“You okay, Odie?” Albert was beside me now. “Christ, look what he did to your throat.”

I couldn’t see it, of course, but I could tell from the expression on his face that it must be bad.

“That man,” Volz said. “A coward, and worse. I’m sorry, Odie.”

Mose shook his head and signed,
A bastard.

I’d been strapped before enough to raise welts and leave bruises, but there was something about being choked almost to death that was different. It wasn’t punishment, which everyone knew DiMarco enjoyed meting out. This was a personal attack. I’d hated the ugly gorilla before and been afraid of him. Now there was no fear, only rage. I swore to myself that DiMarco’s day would come. I’d see to that.

“Where were you all day?” I asked Albert.

“Busy” was all he said, and it was clear he didn’t want me pressing the issue.

I turned back to Billy Red Sleeve. “You okay?”

He didn’t reply. He sat slumped, staring at the floor, gone deep inside himself.

I had Albert and Mose and Mr. Volz. I thought maybe Billy Red Sleeve believed he had no one, and I couldn’t help thinking what a lonely place that must be.

But for Billy it would only get lonelier, because the next day he vanished.

CHAPTER SIX

SUNDAY MORNINGS AFTER
breakfast we were required to attend the worship service, which was held in the gymnasium. We had two sets of clothing at Lincoln School, one for everyday wear and one just for Sundays and for whenever someone outside the school, usually someone well moneyed, was coming to look at the operation with an eye to donating. We sat in our Sunday clothes on bleachers. The service was conducted by Mr. and Mrs. Brickman, who occupied chairs behind a podium. The music was supplied by a portable pump organ, which Miss Stratton played. Mr. Brickman claimed to be a minister, though ordained in what church I never knew. He did the praying and preaching. His wife read the Bible lessons.

Christianity was the only religion allowed observance at the Lincoln Indian Training School. Some of the kids had gone to church on the reservations, Catholic more often than not, and a few of the girls wore little crosses on chains around their necks, the only form of jewelry tolerated at the school. But the Catholic kids didn’t go into town to the Catholic church. They sat in the bleachers along with the kids who’d grown up in isolated areas where the spirits they honored had Indian names.

Many of the staff were in attendance. Mrs. Frost was there every Sunday with Emmy, looking clean and fresh. I don’t think it was because she found the services particularly comforting in any spiritual way, but more that she wanted as much as possible to be a part of the lives of the children at Lincoln. I, for one, appreciated her there. Her presence was a reminder that the Brickmans were not everything, and that maybe even in the fires of Hell there might be an angel walking around with a bucket of cool water and a dipper.

When he preached, Mr. Brickman was something else, a great storm of vengeful wrath, strutting and gesticulating, beating the air with his fists, pointing an accusing finger at some kid unlucky enough to catch his eye and prophesying that kid’s doom. But that kid stood for us all, because in Mr. Brickman’s view we were, each and every one of us, a hopeless cause, a bag of flesh filled with nothing but sinful thought and capable of nothing but sinful deeds. I figured he was right on the money where I was concerned, but I knew most of the other kids were just lost and trying their best to survive Lincoln School and stumble toward what their lives would be afterward.

To begin his sermon that Sunday, Mr. Brickman read the Twenty-third Psalm, which was odd. Normally he drew his inspiration from some Old Testament passage that had a lot of smiting in it. After the psalm, he talked about God as our shepherd, which led to him and Mrs. Brickman and how, like God, they thought of us as sheep that needed their tending and they did their best to take care of us, which led to our need to be grateful to God for the salvation of our souls and to the Brickmans for the salvation of our bodies, for giving us a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. The whole point of the sermon, in the end, was that we needed to show our gratitude to Mrs. Brickman and him by not being such pains in the ass. I knew that the selfish way he twisted that beautiful psalm was a load of crap, but I did want to believe that God was my shepherd and that somehow he was leading me through this dark valley of Lincoln School and I shouldn’t be afraid. And not just me, but the other kids, too, kids like Billy Red Sleeve. But the truth I saw every day was that we were on our own and our safety depended not on God but on ourselves and on helping one another. Although I’d tried to help Billy Red Sleeve, I thought it wasn’t enough, and I vowed to do better, to be better. I would try to be the shepherd for Billy and all the kids like him.

After the service, Mrs. Frost and Emmy stopped Albert and me and Mose on our way out of the gym. The Brickmans had already disappeared, and Mr. Greene, who was marching us back to the
dormitory, said it was okay if we stayed behind for a bit. Like many of the men at Lincoln School, he was sweet on the kind, young widow.

When we were alone in the gym, Mrs. Frost said, “I want to talk to you boys about something.”

We waited, and I looked down at Emmy, who was smiling as if it was Christmas. I thought that whatever Mrs. Frost had in mind, Emmy had already cottoned to the idea.

“How would you boys like to come and live with me and Emmy for the summer?”

She couldn’t have surprised me more if she’d said, “I’m giving you a million dollars.”

“Could we really do that?” Albert asked.

“I’ve been considering it for a while,” Mrs. Frost said. “I finally talked to Mr. Brickman yesterday after the ball game. He agreed that it could be done, if you’re all willing.”

Mose signed,
What about the Black Witch?

“Clyde said he would talk to Thelma, but he figured she would have no objection.” She looked at me. “Not having to worry about you anymore, Odie, is a big selling point in Mr. Brickman’s thinking.”

“But why?” I asked. “I mean, I’m happy about it and all, but why?”

She reached out and put her hand gently against my cheek. “Did you know that I’m an orphan, too, Odie? I lost my parents when I was fourteen. I understand what it’s like to be all alone in the world.” She turned to Albert and Mose. “I want to farm my own land again. If I’m going to do that for real, I’ll need a lot of help this summer and well into harvesttime. You two are almost of age. You’ll be leaving Lincoln School soon anyway. I don’t know what your plans are, but would you be willing to stay on with me?”

“What about Odie and his schooling?” Albert asked.

I didn’t care about my schooling, but Albert was always looking ahead.

“If it works out, maybe he can attend school in town. We’ll have to see. Would that be all right with you, Odie?”

“Heck, yes.” I felt like dancing, like wrapping my arms around Mrs. Frost and just dancing. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been so happy.

“So what do you all say?” she asked.

“I say yippee!” I threw my arms up in celebration.

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