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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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I felt bad now for hating Albert when the Black Witch hadn’t sent him to the quiet room with Mose and me. I wondered if even then he’d been planning to find a way to feed us. Or maybe this was all Volz’s idea. Either way, I couldn’t be mad anymore.

“What was the movie tonight?” I asked when we sat on the ground near the fire.

“Something called
Fighting Caravans
. A western,” Albert replied.

A western, of course. Which was fine with me. I liked shoot ’em ups. But I always thought it was odd at Lincoln School to show movies where Indians were mostly terrible people and killing them was the best solution.

I picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “Any good?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Albert said. “I didn’t see it.”

Mose signed,
Why not?

“Right after supper, Mrs. Brickman put me to work washing and waxing her Franklin.”

“That woman and her cars,” Volz said, and shook his head.

Every year, Mr. Brickman bought a new car for his wife. In justification, they claimed that it was important she have decent transportation, because she spent a good deal of time driving around and raising funds for the school. Which was true. But it was also true that the lives of the kids at Lincoln School never got any better as a result.

“She buys herself a slick set of wheels while the children wear shoes no better than cardboard.” Volz waved his hand, the one with only four and a half fingers, toward the general darkness beyond the fire. “Mr. Sparks, he must be turning in his grave.”

Mr. Sparks was the Black Witch’s first husband. He’d been
superintendent of the school but had passed away long before Albert and I arrived. Though he’d been dead for years, everyone still spoke of him respectfully. Mrs. Sparks had taken over as superintendent. Shortly after that, she’d married Brickman and her name had changed. I thought it was interesting that both names fit her well. When she was angry, the sparks flew. But when she was quiet, you had the sense that she was just waiting for the right moment to come down on you like a ton of you-know-whats.

“I hate that witch,” I said.

“Nobody’s born a witch,” Albert said.

“What’s that mean?” I said.

“Sometimes when I’m working for her, after she’s had a drink or two, she lets something else show through, something sad. She told me once that when she was eight years old, her father sold her.”

“That’s a lie,” I said. “People can’t sell people, especially their own children.”

“You should read
Uncle Tom’s Cabin,
” Albert said. “I believed her.”

“Sold her to a carnival to be part of the spook house, I’ll bet.”

I laughed, but Albert looked at me seriously. “We lost our dad because he died. Hers sold her, Odie. Sold her to a man who, well, you know what DiMarco does to kids.”

Which should have made her more like us. But for me, it made her even blacker because if she knew the pain of a strapping—or worse—she should have been more understanding, yet she still delivered kids into the hands of DiMarco.

“I’ll hate that woman till the day I die.”

“Careful,” Albert said. “Maybe it’s that kind of hate that’s made her heart so small. And one more thing. When she’s been drinking, I can hear a little Ozark slip in.”

“You’re saying she’s got some hillbilly in her?”

“Just like us.”

We’d been raised in a little town deep in a hollow of the Missouri Ozarks. When we first came to the Lincoln School, we still spoke
with a strong Ozark accent. That twang, along with a lot of who we were, had been lost over our years at the school.

“I don’t believe it,” I said.

“I’m just saying, Odie, that nobody’s born mean. Life warps you in terrible ways.”

Maybe so, but I still hated her black little heart.

When the food was ready, Albert set the skillet on a flat rock, then produced the crusty end of a loaf of dark bread and a tin of lard. He gave us forks, and Mose and I tore the bread apart and slathered the pieces with the lard and dug into the eggs and sausage and potatoes.

Volz went to the old equipment shed and returned with a corked bottle of clear liquid—grain alcohol, which he’d made himself from his secret still inside the shed.

He’d built the still with Albert’s help and Albert’s expertise. Long before he began running bootleg liquor for other men, my father had been a moonshiner himself. Growing up, Albert had worked with him constructing many an illegal distillery, a skill in particular demand after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Once Volz had Albert’s trust and knew that he could trust Albert in return, the still was, as Albert liked to say, a foregone conclusion. We knew that Volz not only made alcohol for himself but also sold it to supplement the paltry salary he was paid by the school. With anyone else, this would have been a dangerous piece of knowledge for us to possess. But Volz had been like a godfather to us, and we would have undergone torture before divulging his secret.

Mose and I ate. Volz drank his liquor. Albert watched to the east to be certain we hadn’t been seen.

When we’d finished our meal, Mose signed to me,
Tell them your story.

“Some other time,” I said.

“What did he say?” Volz asked.

Albert said, “He wants Odie to tell us one of his stories.”

“I’m game.” Volz held up his bottle, as if in encouragement.

“It’s kids’ stuff,” I said.

Mose signed,
Scared the crap out of me.

“What did he say?” Volz asked.

“That another time would be fine,” Albert said.

“All right.” Volz shrugged and took a swallow. “Then how ’bout you give us a tune on your mouth organ, Odie?”

I was fine with that, so I pulled my hobo harp from my shirt pocket.

“I don’t know about this.” Albert looked where a waxing half-moon lit the sky, and the buildings of Lincoln School stood black against that dim yellow glow. “Someone might hear.”

“Then play soft,” Volz said.

“What would you like?” I asked. But I knew what it would be. It was always the same tune when Volz had been drinking.

“ ‘Meet Me in Saint Louis,’ ” the old German said. Which was where he’d met his wife, who was long dead.

Volz never got drunk. Not because he was immune to the effects of alcohol but because he understood well how much depended on not being drunk. He drank until he felt a warm fuzziness, a soft distance between himself and his troubles, and then he stopped. When I finished the tune, he was in that place. He corked the bottle and stood up.

“Time to get you two back to the hoosegow.”

He returned the bottle to the shed and secured the heavy door lock. Albert put the fry pan and plates and forks into an old Boy Scout pack and doused the flames with water from a canteen. He stirred the ash and embers and poured on more water until the fire was truly dead. Volz relit his kerosene lantern, and we left the quarry, walking single file toward the half-moon.

“Thanks, Mr. Volz,” I said before he closed the door of the quiet room. Then to my brother I said, “I’m sorry I told you I would pee on your face. I wouldn’t really do it.”

“Yes, you would.”

He was right, but under the circumstances, I didn’t want to admit it.

“Get good a night’s sleep,” Albert said. “You’ll need it tomorrow.”

The door closed gently. The key turned in the lock. Once again, Mose and I were alone in the dark.

I lay on the straw matting, thinking about how much I’d hated Albert when I believed that he’d toadied out on us. And I thought about how much I loved him right at that moment, though I would never have told him so.

I heard the little rustle of tiny paws along the wall, and I reached into my pants pocket for the last bit of dark bread, which I’d saved for Faria. I tossed it into the corner. I heard the furious scurrying as he gathered up his prize and raced back to the hole in the stone wall.

I was ready to sleep, then Mose touched my arm. His hand slid down to my own hand and opened my fingers. On my palm he spelled out in sign,
Lucky us.

CHAPTER FIVE

IT WASN’T VOLZ
who woke us in the morning but the head boys’ adviser. Martin Greene was a large, taciturn man, balding, with perpetually tired eyes and huge ears. He moved with a lumbering gait that, because of those big ears, always reminded me of an elephant. He walked us to the dormitory, the whole way talking about how he hoped we’d learned our lesson and maybe time in the quiet room wouldn’t be in our future again. He hit hard on “the three
r
’s” that were always stressed at Lincoln School—responsibility, respect, and reward.

“Pay attention to the first two, and the last will come your way,” he said.

We cleaned ourselves up and got ready for work. I didn’t see Albert anywhere, or Volz, and that made me a little nervous. I hoped nothing had happened to them because of their kindness the night before. At Lincoln School, nothing good seemed to come from kindness. Ralph, Bledsoe’s son, was waiting with a pickup, and Mose and I piled onto the truck bed along with all the other boys who’d drawn duty in the hayfields.

It was hard work, but it wasn’t long that day. On Saturdays, in spring and summer, we were required to put in only half a day for a farmer. This was because we were expected to attend the baseball games our school team played in the afternoon. Hector Bledsoe fed us a lunch of dry bread and thin, tasteless cheese, then drove us back to Lincoln School himself. As we jumped from the pickup bed, he called to us, “Rest up this weekend, boys. Monday’s supposed to be a scorcher.” I thought he laughed gleefully but that could have been my imagination.

Some of the boys, like Mose, had to hurry off because they were
scheduled to play. The rest of us went back to the dormitories. A few minutes before the game was to start, Mr. Greene marched us down to the field. We saw the girls coming from their dormitories, led by Lavinia Stratton, the music teacher and head girls’ adviser. Miss Stratton was a spinster of indeterminate age. She was tall, with elongated features—long legs and arms, and her face, too, which was also very plain and always worried-looking. Her hands were slender, and her fingers, like everything else about her, were long and delicate. When she played the piano, she closed her eyes, and her fingers became things with a mind of their. Sometimes her music was so lovely it lifted me out of my life at Lincoln School and took me for a little while somewhere else, somewhere happy. In those wonderful moments, I thought the world was beautiful and she was beautiful, too. When she stopped playing, the worry came back into her face and she was plain again, and my life went right back to being the uphill slog it had always been.

We sat on wooden bleachers. Some of the town folks were there, mostly to watch Mose pitch. In the same way that Miss Stratton’s fingers on a keyboard could create something lovely, Mose, when he stood on the mound and hurled that horsehide, offered a beauty every bit as moving. That day we were playing a VFW-sponsored team from Luverne. The guys were already on the field, warming up. I looked for Albert, who was not athletic in the least and almost always sat on the bench. I didn’t see him anywhere, and I began to worry. I spotted Mrs. Frost and Emmy sitting at the far end of the bleachers. They usually came to the games and cheered us on. When Mr. Greene was busy talking to Miss Stratton, I slipped away and found a seat beside Emmy.

“Hi, Odie,” she with a bright smile.

“Well, good afternoon, Odie,” Mrs. Frost said. “It’s good to see you. I was afraid Mrs. Brickman might lock you up in the quiet room forever.”

“Just for the night,” I said. “But no supper.”

Mrs. Frost went livid. “I’m going to speak to that woman.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “Albert and Mr. Volz managed to slip some food to Mose and me. Have you seen them?”

“Isn’t Albert out there?” She scanned the ball field, then looked back at me. “You haven’t seen him?”

“Not since last night. And not Mr. Volz either.”

“Is it possible they’re just working on some carpentry project together?”

“Maybe,” I said, thinking the project, if that was what had taken them away, was more likely Volz’s still. I hoped it was that rather than some of the darker possibilities the Black Witch was capable of conjuring.

Then I saw Volz making his way among the bleachers. He caught sight of us and came over.

“Good day, Cora,” he said to Mrs. Frost. “Hey there, little Emmy. You’re looking lovely today.”

Emmy smiled and her cheeks dimpled.

“Herman, have you seen Albert?” Mrs. Frost asked.

He shook his head, then checked the field. “What would keep him from playing?” He looked at me. “Have you seen him, Odie?”

“Not since last night.”

“Not good,” Volz said. “Let me see what I can find out. But, Odie, you should get back with the other boys.”

“Can’t he sit with us? Please?” Emmy said.

Volz frowned, but I knew he would give in. Nobody could resist little Emmy. “I’ll take care of it,” he promised.

When Andrew Frost was alive, he’d coached the baseball team and had whipped them into good shape. They had a reputation, and even the lackluster guidance of the current coach, Mr. Freiberg, whose main job was driving the heavy equipment, hadn’t tarnished the efforts of Cora Frost’s late husband. Mose pitched a great game, the fielding was flawless, and we won four to nothing. It would have been fun, except the whole time I was watching for Albert, or for Volz to return with word of Albert. But when the game ended, neither of them had shown.

After the game, and before dinner, we had an hour of rare free time. I lay on my bed in the dorm, reading a magazine,
Amazing Stories,
which I’d taken from the school library. Everything in Lincoln School library was donated, and I don’t think Miss Jensen, the librarian, ever really checked the donated magazines carefully. I was always finding interesting publications—
Argosy, Adventure Comics, Weird Tales
—among the
Saturday Evening Post
s and
Ladies’ Home Journal
s. We weren’t supposed to take anything away from the library, but it was easy to sneak a magazine out under my shirt.

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