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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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I WAS WAKENED
by a small hand on my chest. I opened my eyes, and Emmy stood in the moonlight, staring down at me, looking dazed.

“What is it, Emmy?” I whispered.

She held out her hand, and in it were two five-dollar bills from the stash in the pillowcase. “Put these in your shoe.”

She spoke distantly, as if in a trance, and I figured she was
sleepwalking. Some of the kids at Lincoln School had been sleepwalkers, and Volz had always cautioned us not to wake them. So I took the bills.

“In your shoe,” she said.

I put them in my shoe.

“Don’t say anything to anyone, not Albert, not Mose.”

“What do I do with them?” I asked.

“When the time comes, you’ll know.”

She returned to her blanket, lay down, and from her steady breathing I understood that she was sleeping soundly once again.

I puzzled over this sleepwalking episode, wondering if I should warn Albert and Mose. But there was something in her manner and such a serious note in her little voice that I decided to keep the whole thing to myself.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“WHAT ARE YOU
going to say?”

“What do you mean?”

“You have fifteen dollars in your pocket, Albert. How are you going to explain that?”

“Why do I have to explain it?”

Albert was smart, way smarter than me, but he could be pretty dense sometimes when it came to other people. We were walking into the little town where he’d bought the newspaper the night before, intending to purchase new shoes and some food for the day. We’d left Mose and Emmy to watch the canoe.

“Fifteen dollars, Albert. That’s a lot of money for a couple of kids like us just to be carrying around. People are going to wonder. They might even ask. What are you going to tell them?”

“I’ll tell them we earned it.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Working.”

“For who?”

“Look, Odie. Let me handle this. We’ll be fine.”

“You get us thrown into jail, I’ll kill you.”

“That won’t happen.”

“Better not.”

The town was called Westerville, and like most of the towns we’d seen, it had several big grain elevators looming at the side of the railroad tracks. I could see four church spires rising up above the trees. There was no sign of a courthouse tower, like the one in Lincoln, so I figured we were still in Fremont County.

It was early enough in the day that not a lot of commerce seemed to
be taking place, although the stores were open. There was a bakery, and the smell from it made my mouth water. There was a hardware store, an IGA grocery store, a drugstore, a stationery and book shop. On one side of the street was a little restaurant called the Buttercup Café. Next to it stood the Westerville Police Department, with one police cruiser parked out front, and I felt my stomach tighten. We came at last to a broad display window full of goods. Painted across the glass in fancy lettering were the words
KRENN’S MERCANTILE
. We stood at the window, staring at the items behind it, which included an assortment of shoes.

“This looks like the place,” Albert said.

I started inside, but Albert hesitated.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just . . .” He let it drop, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay.”

There was a department store in Lincoln, a place called Sorenson’s, which I’d been in only once. It had so many different things for sale—furniture and clothing and appliances—that I’d thought a palace couldn’t have held more kingly treasures. Krenn’s Mercantile, though not as large or well appointed, displayed a dazzling array of offerings. Albert and I walked between rows of shelves that held shirts and pants and underthings, fabrics and linens. We passed a counter with cosmetics, where the air was filled with a floral scent.

We turned in to another aisle, one full of hardware, and almost ran smack into a tall, lean man dressed in bib overalls and wearing a seed cap. His back was to us, but I could see that he held an alarm clock in his hands and seemed to be scrutinizing it as carefully as he might a diamond. He turned toward us suddenly. One eye was covered with a black patch, like a pirate, and the look he gave us with his good eye was mean enough to scare off a wild pig.

The store clerk who was attending to him said, “I’ll see to you boys in a minute. Just look around.”

I gladly left the clerk with the one-eyed pig scarer, and we finally came to where the shoes were on display, boxes and boxes of them,
with samples sitting atop. Albert walked to a box with
BUSTER BROWN
printed on the side. As he picked up the sample shoe, a pleasant voice behind us said, “Can I help you?”

The woman smiling at us reminded me a little of Miss Stratton—tall, slender, blond, with a plain face. Her eyes seemed a little odd, one of them not quite tracking along with the other. But they were kind eyes, and her smile was genuine and lovely.

“Uh . . .” Albert said. “We . . . uh . . .”

“Yes?” she encouraged him.

Albert looked at the floor and tried again. “W-we . . . uh . . . w-we . . . uh . . .”

It hit me. Whatever the story Albert had intended to tell her, he couldn’t do it. I didn’t think it was because he lacked courage. Hell, he’d faced down Clyde Brickman. If it wasn’t fear, the only explanation I could think of was that he simply couldn’t bring himself to lie to this nice woman.

“My brother’s got a speech defect, ma’am,” I leapt in. “He stutters. Terrible embarrassing to him. He’s not stupid or anything, he just has trouble talking.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“See, it’s this way,” I said. “Our pa sent us to buy new shoes.”

Her face lit with a desire to help. “Well, we can certainly take care of that. I see you’re looking at our Buster Browns. They’re very good shoes.” She glanced down, saw our cheap, worn footwear, and without losing her smile said, “But maybe you’d rather see something a little less expensive.”

There were some boots on a stack of boxes that had caught my eye. “What about those?”

Another voice boomed in, “Pershing boots, son, made by Red Wing. For my money, the best boot ever made. Helped our doughboys win the Great War.”

The man who’d been waiting on the one-eyed wild pig scarer joined us.

“Manufactured right here in Minnesota. Fine workmanship. Last you forever.”

“Lloyd,” the woman said, “I don’t think the boys would be interested in those boots.”

Her eyes went again to the paper-thin leather on our feet, and the man caught her drift.

“But we also have a fine assortment of other shoes to choose from,” he said heartily. “What did you boys have in mind?”

“How much are the Red Wings?” I asked.

“Five dollars and seventy cents a pair. Sounds expensive, I know, but worth every penny.”

“We got fifteen dollars,” I said. “But we also got to buy groceries for the week.”

“Fifteen dollars?” The man’s surprise was obvious, but I’d anticipated that. “Where’d you boys get fifteen dollars?”

“Their father gave it to them, Lloyd. Like the young man says, to buy shoes and groceries for the week.”

“You’re brothers?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“How come you don’t look nothing alike?”

“Lloyd, you look nothing like your brother. Aren’t you always saying you’re the handsome one?”

The man looked us over good. “Are those uniforms of some kind you’re wearing?”

“No, sir,” I said. “Some church ladies in Worthington gave us these clothes. Maybe they got them from a school or something, I don’t know. But they’re lots better than what we had before.”

“Who’s your father?”

“Clyde Stratton,” I said, grabbing at the first two names that came together in my mind.

“Don’t know him,” the man said.

“We just got to town. Pa’s got him some work over at the grain elevators.”

“They’re hiring? This time of year?”

“They hired him for repairs. Pa, he’s good with his hands.”

“If he got a job these days, he’s one of the lucky ones.”

“It’s good,” I said, then put a dejected look on my face. “But we don’t know how long it’ll last.”

“What about your mother?” the woman asked.

“Don’t got a ma no more, ma’am. She died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, son.”

“Been on the move since. And these old shoes of ours, they’re plumb wore through.” I took one off—not the shoe in which I’d put the five-dollar bills the night before—and showed her the hole.

She looked at the man. “Hoover shoes,” she said. She pulled out the piece of cardboard I’d put inside to cover the holes. “Hoover leather, Lloyd.” She looked at me with wonderful compassion.

“Your brother’s just a kid, but he does all the talking,” the man said to Albert. “What’s wrong? You don’t have a tongue?”

“Lloyd,” the woman snapped. “The boy stutters.”

I took my shoe back and looked at it like it was something dead. “Pa emptied his wallet and told us to buy new ones, best we could with what we got. And we only got fifteen dollars.”

“And w-w-we still got to b-b-buy groceries.” The words stumbled painfully out of Albert’s mouth.

“For the whole week,” I added.

“The Buster Browns are two seventy-five a pair,” the man said. “You’ll have plenty left for groceries and then some.”

“I’d rather have the Red Wings,” I said with such longing that even I felt sorry for me.

Albert shot me a killing look, and I knew he was afraid I was pushing it too far.

“Lloyd,” the woman said sharply.

The man rolled his eyes. “Tell you what, boys. I’ll give you the Red Wings for five dollars even. I make no profit on them.”

Albert opened his mouth, and I knew he was about to accept, but
I cut him off. “If you could see your way clear to give us three pairs for fifteen dollars, we could take Pa some new boots, too.”

“You wouldn’t have anything left for food,” the woman said.

“We’re pretty good at scrounging, ma’am. My brother here, he’s real good at catching fish in that river outside of town. Me, I got a slingshot and can put out a squirrel’s eye at thirty feet. And there’s lots of wild greens to gather, if you know what you’re looking for. But shoes? That we can’t do for ourselves. And one more thing. I know it don’t mean much to you folks, but today’s our pa’s birthday. We ain’t never had the wherewithal to buy him nothing, but if we could bring him a new pair of those Pershing boots, I expect it’d be the best present we could ever give him.”

I swear I saw the woman’s eyes get wet with tears. “Lloyd, if you don’t sell these boys the boots, you’ll be sleeping on the porch swing for a month.”

We walked out of town carrying three boxes of new Red Wings, plus three pair of new socks, and a little sewing kit the woman had thrown in so that we could mend the holes in our old socks. When we were well beyond the last house of town, Albert said, “Lies come from you sweet as honey, don’t they?”

I was pleased with what I thought was a compliment, and I said, “A gift.”

“Or a curse. That woman has a good heart, Odie. She was nice to us, and all you did was con her.”

Which stung. But I soldiered on. “Imagine how she feels right now,” I said. “She just helped out three needy people, and that’s God’s truth, Albert.”

“How’s she going to feel when she realizes there’s no Clyde Stratton working at the grain elevators?”

“Big help you were,” I shot back. “Uh . . . uh . . . uh. You sounded like you were choking on your tongue.”

Albert stopped and turned to me, his face sad and serious. “Listen, Odie, things have happened to you, bad things, and I know I should
have done a better job of protecting you. But I don’t want you to turn out like . . . like . . .”

“Like Clyde Brickman? Like DiMarco? You think that’s who I am? The hell with you.”

I walked away from him as fast as I could. Not only because I was angry but because I didn’t want him to see how much he’d hurt me.

“Wait up, Odie,” Albert called.

I stopped, but not because of Albert. The sound of a police siren brought me around. Albert turned, too, and we both watched a cop car speeding toward us down the gravel road out of Westerville, kicking up a cloud of dust that would have done a herd of wild horses proud.

“Oh, crap,” I said.

“Take it easy, Odie. Just stay cool.”

The morning sun glinted off the windshield, blinding me to the policeman at the wheel. I stood petrified. I could look the Black Witch in the eye and hold my own against her husband, but there was something about a guy with a uniform and badge and gun that made my guts turn to jelly.

“Wave,” Albert said as the cop approached. “And smile.”

I lifted my hand. My arm felt like lead.

The cop car sped by so fast I wasn’t even able get a good look at the driver. It shot down the road, across the bridge over the Gilead River, and kept on going.

We walked to the bridge and lingered, just to make sure the cop wasn’t coming back and that no one else was around and watching us. Then we slipped into the trees along the river and made our way to where we’d left the canoe. When we got there, Albert and I looked at each other with complete astonishment.

Mose and Emmy were gone, and the canoe with them.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

NOTHING, NOT EVEN
the worst of what DiMarco had ever threatened, frightened me as much as finding Mose and Emmy gone.

“Where are they, Albert?”

“I don’t know.” He stood on the bank, looking upriver, then down. “Something must have scared them.”

“Or somebody took them.”

“And the canoe, too? I don’t think so. They’re on the river.”

“Which way did they go?”

Albert studied the ground where we’d laid our blankets the night before. He walked around tree trunks, and I had no idea what he was doing.

“Here,” he finally said, kneeling in some wild grass.

Two sticks had been laid on the ground in a way that formed a V pointing toward the east. It was a trail sign technique that Mr. Seifert had taught us in Boy Scouts.

“They’re downriver,” Albert said.

We followed the Gilead, working our way among the trees and brush, carrying the boxes of Red Wing boots. We’d gone half a mile when I heard Emmy call to us. We found her and Mose pulled up where a small creek fed into the river.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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