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This Tender Land


“If you liked Where the Crawdads Sing, you’ll love This Tender Land...This story is as big-hearted as they come.” — *Parade*

A magnificent novel about four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression, from the bestselling author of Ordinary Grace.

1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.

Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an en­thralling, big-hearted epic that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.

Atria Books
ISBN 13:
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* * *

The acclaimed author of Ordinary Grace crafts a powerful novel about an orphan’s life-changing adventure traveling down America’s great rivers during the Great Depression, seeking both a place to call home and a sense of purpose in a world sinking into despair.

“Ask me, God’s right here. In the dirt, the rain, the sky, the trees, the apples, the stars in the cottonwoods. In you and me, too. It’s all connected and it’s all God. Sure this is hard work, but it’s good work because it’s a part of what connects us to this land. This beautiful, tender land.”

1932: Located on the banks of the Gilead River in Minnesota, Lincoln School is home to hundreds of Native American boys and girls who have been separated from their families. The only two white boys in the school are orphan brothers Odie and Albert who, under the watchful eyes of the cruel superintendent Mrs. Brickman, are often in trouble for misdeeds both real and imagined. The two boys’ best friend is Mose, a mute Native American who is also the strongest kid in school. And they find another ally in Cora Frost, a widowed teacher who is raising her little girl, Emmy, by herself.

When tragedy strikes down Mrs. Frost, it’s the catalyst for a series of events that will send Odie, Albert, and Mose to rescue Emmy and flee down the river in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi, leaving a dead body in their wake. Soon they are wanted by the law and ; they know that Mrs. Brickman will stop at nothing to track them down for dark reasons of her own.

Over the course of this unforgettable summer, Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy carefully make their way through the small river towns and big cities filled with people who are by turns desperate and generous, cruel and kind. As they search for a place to belong, these four remarkable children will lose their innocence but gain the strength to survive in the face of terrible loss.

With his signature “pitch-perfect, wonderfully evocative” (Dennis Lehane, New York Times bestselling author) prose, William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.

Praise for Ordinary Grace:

“A pitch-perfect, wonderfully evocative examination of violent loss. In Frank Drum's journey away from the shores of childhood—a journey from which he can never return—we recognize the heartbreaking price of adulthood and its 'wisdoms.' I loved this book.”

— Dennis Lehane, New York Times bestselling author of Live by Night and The Given Day

“Krueger’s elegy for innocence is a deeply memorable tale.”

— Washington Post

“Krueger aims higher and hits harder with a standalone novel that shares much with his other work....ultimately, the world of this novel is one of redemptive grace and mercy, as well as unidentified corpses and unexplainable tragedy. A novel that transforms narrator and reader alike.”

— Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Elegiac, evocative.... a resonant tale of fury, guilt, and redemption.”

— Publishers Weekly

“Once in a blue moon a book drops down on your desk that demands to be read. You pick it up and read the first page, and then the second, and you are hooked. Such a book is Ordinary Grace…This is a book that makes the reader feel better just by having been exposed to the delights of the story. It will stay with you for quite some time and you will always remember it with a smile.”

— Huffington Post

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William Kent Krueger is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestselling Ordinary Grace, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel, as well as eighteen Cork O’Connor novels, including Desolation Mountain and Sulfur Springs. He lives in the Twin Cities with his family. Visit his website at

			Dear Readers,

			In asking you to read This Tender Land, I am, in a way, offering you my heart.

			My hope is that you’re familiar with my 2013 novel Ordinary Grace, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The story was a profound departure from those I’ve written for my New York Times bestselling Cork O’Connor mystery series. The response to Ordinary Grace from readers and critics was immensely gratifying and led to a contract for a companion novel.

			Here’s the problem. The expectations for that companion novel were huge, crushing even. I spent nearly three years laboring over a story in which I tried to satisfy all those expectations. Unfortunately, the completed manuscript fell far short of what I’d hoped. In the end, I asked Atria not to publish the work. I’m thankful that they were understanding and were willing to give me another shot.

			For me, here’s the beauty of this experience. When all the expectations were lifted from my shoulders and I felt free again, I saw almost immediately the story I should have been writing, a completely different kind of story, one deeply personal. I’ve been at work on that manuscript for the past three years. This Tender Land is the result.

			I love this book every bit as much as I loved Ordinary Grace. It’s been such a joy to write the tale of Odie O’Banion and the other Vagabonds on their great river odyssey in the summer of 1932. I’m so very grateful to everyone who’s contacted me to say how much they’ve appreciated Ordinary Grace and how much they’re looking forward to this new book.

			I’ve poured the best of myself into this story and I invite you to experience all of its remarkable twists and turns. As Odie says in the very beginning, “Open yourself to every possibility, for there is nothing your heart can imagine that is not so.”


					 			William Kent Krueger


			Desolation Mountain

			Sulfur Springs

			Manitou Canyon

			Windigo Island

			Tamarack County

			Ordinary Grace

			Trickster’s Point

			Northwest Angle

			Vermilion Drift

			Heaven’s Keep

			Red Knife

			Thunder Bay

			Copper River

			Mercy Falls

			Blood Hollow

			The Devil’s Bed

			Purgatory Ridge

			Boundary Waters

			Iron Lake

For Boopie, with love

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story.





			IN THE BEGINNING, after he labored over the heavens and the earth, the light and the dark, the land and sea and all living things that dwell therein, after he created man and woman and before he rested, I believe God gave us one final gift. Lest we forget the divine source of all that beauty, he gave us stories.

			I am a storyteller. I live in a house in the shade of a sycamore tree on the banks of the Gilead River. My great-grandchildren, when they visit me here, call me old.

			“Old is a cliché,” I tell them, with mock disappointment. “A terrible trivializing. An insult. I was born along with the sun and earth and moon and planets and all the stars. Every atom of my being was there at the very beginning.”

			“You’re a liar.” They scowl, but playfully.

			“Not a liar. A storyteller,” I remind them.

			“Then tell us a story,” they plead.

			I need no goading. Stories are the sweet fruit of my existence and I share them gladly.

			The events I’m about to share with you began on the banks of the Gilead. Even if you grew up in the heartland, you may not remember these things. What happened in the summer of 1932 is most important to those who experienced it, and there are not many of us left.

			The Gilead is a lovely river, lined with cottonwoods already ancient when I was a boy.

			Things were different then. Not simpler or better, just different. We didn’t travel the way we do now, and for most folks in Fremont County, Minnesota, the world was limited to the piece of it they could see before the horizon cut off the land. They wouldn’t have understood any more than I did that if you kill a man, you are changed forever. If that man comes back to life, you are transformed. I have witnessed this and other miracles with my own eyes. So, among the many pieces of wisdom life has offered me over all these years is this: Open yourself to every possibility, for there is nothing your heart can imagine that is not so.

			The tale I’m going to tell is of a summer long ago. Of killing and kidnapping and children pursued by demons of a thousand names. There will be courage in this story and cowardice. There will be love and betrayal. And, of course, there will be hope. In the end, isn’t that what every good story is about?


			ALBERT NAMED THE rat. He called it Faria.

			It was an old creature, a mottle of gray and white fur. Almost always, it kept to the edges of the tiny cell, scurrying along the wall to a corner where I’d put a few crumbs of the hard biscuit that had been my meal. At night, I generally couldn’t see it but could still hear the soft rustle as it moved from the wide crack between the corner blocks, across the straw on the floor, grabbed the crumbs, and returned the way it had come. Whenever the moon was just right and bright beams streamed through the high, narrow slit that was the only window, illuminating the stones of the eastern wall, I was sometimes able to glimpse in the reflected light the slender oval of Faria’s body, its fur a dim silver blur, its thin tail roping behind like an afterthought of the animal’s creation.

			The first time I got thrown into what the Brickmans called the quiet room, they tossed my older brother, Albert, in with me. The night was moonless, the tiny cell as black as pitch, our bed a thin matting of straw laid on the dirt floor, the door a great rectangle of rusted iron with a slot at the bottom for the delivery of a food plate that never held more than that one hard biscuit. I was scared to death. Later, Benny Blackwell, a Sioux from Rosebud, told us that when the Lincoln Indian Training School had been a military outpost called Fort Sibley, the quiet room had been used for solitary confinement. In those days, it had held warriors. By the time Albert and I got there, it held only children.

			I didn’t know anything about rats then, except for the story about the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who’d rid the town of the vermin. I thought they were filthy creatures and would eat anything and maybe would even eat us. Albert, who was four years older and a whole lot wiser, told me that people are most afraid of things they don’t understand, and if something frightened you, you should get closer to it. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t still be an awful thing, but the awful you knew was easier to handle than the awful you imagined. So Albert had named the rat, because a name made it not just any rat. When I asked why Faria, he said it was from a book, The Count of Monte Cristo. Albert loved to read. Me, I liked to make up my own stories. Whenever I was thrown into the quiet room, I fed Faria crumbs and imagined tales about him. I looked up rats in the worn Encyclopaedia Britannica on the school library shelf and discovered that they were smart and social. Across the years and the many nights I spent in the isolation of the quiet room, I came to think of the little creature as a friend. Faria. Rat extraordinaire. Companion to misfits. A fellow captive in the dark prison of the Brickmans.

			That first night in the quiet room, Albert and I were being punished for contradicting Mrs. Thelma Brickman, the school’s superintendent. Albert was twelve and I was eight. We were both new to Lincoln School. After the evening meal, which had been a watery, tasteless stew containing only a few bits of carrot, potato, something green and slimy, and a little ham gristle, Mrs. Brickman had sat at the front of the great dining hall and told all the children a story. Most dinner meals were followed by one of Mrs. Brickman’s stories. They usually contained some moral lesson she believed was important. Afterward, she would ask if there were any questions. This was a conceit, I came to understand, to make it seem as if there were an actual opportunity for dialogue with her, for the kind of conversation that might exist between a reasonable adult and a reasonable child. That evening, she’d related the story of the race between the tortoise and the hare. When she asked if there were any questions, I’d raised my hand. She’d smiled and had called on me.

			“Yes, Odie?”

			She knew my name. I’d been thrilled at that. Amid the sea of children, so many that I didn’t believe I would ever be able to learn all their names, she’d remembered mine. I’d wondered if maybe this was because we were so new or if it was because we were the whitest faces in a vast room full of Indian children.

			“Mrs. Brickman, you said the point of the story was that being lazy is a terrible thing.”

			“That’s true, Odie.”

			“I thought the point of the story was that slow and steady wins the race.”

			“I see no difference.” Her voice was stern, but not harsh, not yet.

			“My father read that story to me, Mrs. Brickman. It’s one of Aesop’s fables. And he said—”

			“He said?” Now there was something different in the way she spoke. As if she were struggling to cough up a fish bone caught in her throat. “He said?” She’d been sitting on a stool that raised her up so everyone in the dining hall could see her. She slid from the stool and walked between the long tables, girls on one side, boys on the other, toward where I sat with Albert. In the absolute silence of that great room, I could hear the squeak, squeak of her rubber heels on the old floorboards as she came. The boy next to me, whose name I didn’t yet know, edged away, as if trying to distance himself from a place where he knew lightning was about to strike. I glanced at Albert, and he shook his head, a sign that I should just clam up.

			Mrs. Brickman stood over me. “He said?”

			“Y-y-yes, ma’am,” I replied, stuttering but no less respectful.

			“And where is he?”

			“Y-y-you know, Mrs. Brickman.”

			“Dead, that’s where. He is no longer present to read you stories. The stories you hear now are the ones I tell you. And they mean just what I say they mean. Do you understand me?”

			“I . . . I . . .”

			“Yes or no?”

			She leaned toward me. She was slender, her face a delicate oval the color of a pearl. Her eyes were as green and sharp as new thorns on a rosebush. She wore her black hair long, and kept it brushed as soft as cat fur. She smelled of talcum and faintly of whiskey, an aromatic mix I would come to know well over the years.

			“Yes,” I said in the smallest voice I’d ever heard come from my own lips.

			“He meant no disrespect, ma’am,” Albert said.

			“Was I talking to you?” The green thorns of her eyes stabbed at my brother.

			“No, ma’am.”

			She straightened herself and scanned the room. “Any other questions?”

			I’d thought—hoped, prayed—this was the end of it. But that night, Mr. Brickman came to the dormitory room and called me out, and Albert, too. The man was tall and lean, and also handsome, many of the women at the school said, but all I saw was the fact that his eyes were nothing but black pupils, and he reminded me of a snake with legs.

			“You boys’ll be sleeping somewhere else tonight,” he said. “Come along.”

			That first night in the quiet room, I barely slept a wink. It was April, and there was still a chill in the wind sweeping out of the empty Dakotas. Our father was less than a week dead. Our mother had passed away two years before that. We had no kin in Minnesota, no friends, no one who knew us or cared about us. We were the only white boys in a school for Indians. How could it get any worse? Then I’d heard the rat and had spent the rest of those long, dark hours until daylight pressed against Albert and the iron door, my knees drawn up to my chin, my eyes pouring out tears that only Albert could see and that no one but him would have cared about anyway.

			• • •

			FOUR YEARS HAD passed between that first night and the one I’d just spent in the quiet room. I’d grown some, changed some. The old, frightened Odie O’Banion was, like my mother and father, long dead. The Odie I was now had a penchant for rebellion.

			When I heard the key turn in the lock, I sat up on the straw matting. The iron door swung open and morning light poured in, blinding me for a moment.

			“Sentence is up, Odie.”

			Although I couldn’t see the contours of the face yet, I recognized the voice easily: Herman Volz, the old German who oversaw the carpentry shop and was the assistant boys’ adviser. The man stood in the doorway, blocking for a moment the glare of the sun. He looked down at me through thick eyeglasses, his pale features soft and wistful.

			“She wants to see you,” he said. “I have to take you.”

			Volz spoke with a German accent, so his w’s sounded like v’s and his v’s like f’s. What he’d said came out, “She vants to see you. I haf to take you.”

			I stood, folded the thin blanket, and hung it across a rod attached to the wall so that it would be available for the next child who occupied the room, knowing that, like as not, it would be me again.

			Volz shut the door behind us. “Did you sleep okay? How is your back?”

			Often a strapping preceded time in the quiet room, and last night had been no exception. My back ached from the welts, but it did no good to talk about it.

			“I dreamed about my mother,” I said.

			“Did you now?”

			The quiet room was the last in a row of rooms in a long building that had once been the outpost stockade. The other rooms—all originally cells—had been turned into storage spaces. Volz and I walked along the old stockade and across the yard toward the administration building, a two-story structure of red stone set among stately elms that had been planted by the first commandant of Fort Sibley. The trees provided the building with constant shade, which always made it a dark place.

			“Pleasant dream, then?” Volz said.

			“She was in a rowboat on a river. I was in a boat, too, trying to catch up with her, trying to see her face. But no matter how hard I rowed, she was always too far ahead.”

			“Don’t sound like a good dream,” Volz said. He was wearing clean bib overalls over a blue work shirt. His huge hands, nicked and scarred from his carpentry, hung at his sides. Half of the little finger on his right hand was missing, the result of an accident with a band saw. Behind his back, some of the kids called him Old Four-and-a-Half, but not me or Albert. The German carpenter had always been kind to us.

			We entered the building and went immediately to Mrs. Brickman’s office, where she was seated behind her big desk, a stone fireplace at her back. I was a little surprised to see Albert there. He stood straight and tall beside her like a soldier at attention. His face was blank, but his eyes spoke to me. They said, Careful, Odie.

			“Thank you, Mr. Volz,” the superintendent said. “You may wait outside.”

			As he turned to leave, Volz put a hand on my shoulder, the briefest of gestures, but I appreciated what it meant.

			Mrs. Brickman said, “I’m concerned about you, Odie. I’m beginning to believe that your time at Lincoln School is almost at an end.”

			I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad thing.

			The superintendent wore a black dress, which seemed to be her favorite color. I’d overheard Miss Stratton, who taught music, tell another teacher once that it was because Mrs. Brickman was obsessed with her appearance and thought black was slimming. It worked pretty well, because the superintendent reminded me of nothing so much as the long, slender handle of a fireplace poker. Her penchant for the color gave rise to a nickname we all used, well out of her hearing, of course: the Black Witch.

			“Do you know what I’m saying, Odie?”

			“I’m not sure, ma’am.”

			“Reformatory. Do you know what that is?”

			“I do, ma’am.”

			“And is that where you would like to be sent?”

			“No, ma’am.”

			“I thought not. Then, Odie, what will you do?”

			“Nothing, ma’am.”


			“I will do nothing that will get me sent there, ma’am.”

			She put her hands on her desk, one atop the other, and spread her fingers wide so that they formed a kind of web over the polished wood. She smiled at me as if she were a spider who’d just snagged a fly. “Good,” she said. “Good.” She nodded toward Albert. “You should be more like your brother.”

			“Yes, ma’am. I’ll try. May I have my harmonica back?”

			“It’s very special to you, isn’t it?”

			“Not really. Just an old harmonica. I like to play. It keeps me out of trouble.”

			“A gift from your father, I believe.”

			“No, ma’am. I just picked it up somewhere. I don’t even remember where now.”

			“That’s funny,” she said. “Albert told me it was a gift from your father.”

			“See?” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Not even special enough to remember where I got it.”

			She considered me, then said, “Very well.” She took a key from a pocket of her dress, unlocked a drawer of the desk, and pulled out the harmonica.

			I reached for it, but she drew it back.


			“Yes, ma’am?”

			“Next time, I keep it for good. Do you understand?”

			“Yes, ma’am. I do.”

			She gave it over and her spindly fingers touched my hand. When I returned to the dormitory, I intended to use the lye soap in the lavatory there to scrub that hand until it bled.


			“REFORMATORY, ODIE,” ALBERT said. “She wasn’t joking.”

			“Did I break a law?”

			“That woman, she gets what she wants, Odie,” Volz said.

			“The hell with the Black Witch,” I said.

			We left the shadow of the elms and headed toward the great yard, which had once been the parade ground for Fort Sibley. Directly south across the huge, grassy rectangle were the kitchen and dining hall. Spaced along the rest of the perimeter were most of the other school buildings: the dormitories for the youngest children, the laundry and maintenance facility, and the woodworking and carpentry shops, one above the other. Set back a bit were the dormitories for the older children and the general classroom building, which were newer constructions. Everything had been built of red stone from a local quarry. Beyond these lay the athletic field, the water tower, the garage where the big pieces of heavy equipment and the school bus were parked, a warehouse, and the old stockade. Edging the whole property to the north ran the Gilead River.

			The morning was sunny and warm. The boys who’d drawn grounds duty that day were already at work mowing the grass and trimming along the walkways. Some of the girls knelt on the sidewalks with buckets and brushes, scrubbing the concrete clean. Who cleaned sidewalks that way? It was a useless chore, one we all knew was meant to drive home to the girls their complete dependence and the school’s absolute control. They glanced up from their work when we passed, but none risked conversation, because the watchful eye of the groundskeeper, a sloppy, sullen man named DiMarco, was always on them. DiMarco was responsible for the welts on my back. When a boy required a beating at Lincoln School, it was usually DiMarco who delivered it, and he enjoyed every swing of that leather strap. It was late May and school no longer in session. A lot of the kids at Lincoln had gone home for the summer to their families on reservations in Minnesota or the Dakotas or Nebraska or even farther. Children like Albert and me, who had no family or whose families were too poor or too broken to take them back, lived at the school year-round.

			At the dormitory, Albert cleaned the welts on my back, and Volz gingerly applied the witch hazel he kept on hand for just such occasions. I washed up, then we headed toward the dining hall. In the stone above the entrance was still chiseled MESS HALL from the old days when soldiers had been fed there. Under the stern command of Mrs. Peterson, who was responsible for feeding all the kids, nothing could have been further from the truth. The floor of the great hall, though terribly scuffed, was always swept clean of every crumb. After each meal, the rows of tables were wiped down with water and a bit of bleach. The kitchen and bakery were run with a rigid hand. I’d heard that Mrs. Peterson complained there was never enough money to buy proper food, but she managed to stretch whatever she had. True, the soups contained more water than solids and often tasted like something ladled from a ditch, and the breads were hard and heavy enough that they could have been used to break rock (she claimed yeast was too expensive), and the meat, when there was some, was mostly gristle, but every child ate three meals a day.

			When we stepped inside the dining hall, Herman Volz said, “I have bad news for you, Odie. But also some good. First, the bad. You have been assigned to work in Bledsoe’s hayfields today.”

			I looked at Albert and saw it was true. Bad news, indeed. It almost made me wish I was back in the quiet room.

			“And also, you have missed breakfast. But you already know this.”

			Breakfast was served promptly at seven. Volz hadn’t sprung me from the stockade until eight. Not his fault, but Mrs. Brickman’s doing. One last punishment. No breakfast that day.

			This in advance of one of the hardest work assignments a kid at Lincoln School could draw. I wondered what the good news was.

			Almost immediately, I understood. Donna High Hawk appeared from the kitchen, wearing a white apron and a white headwrap, and carrying a chipped, white bowl filled with Cream of Wheat. Donna High Hawk, like me, was twelve years old. She was a member of the Winnebago tribe from Nebraska. When she’d come to Lincoln School, two years earlier, she’d been scrawny and quiet, her hair long and worn in two braids. They’d cut the braids and run a nit comb through what hair was left to her. As they did with so many of the new kids, they’d stripped off her shabby clothing and washed her all over with kerosene and put her in the uniform dress of the school. She hadn’t spoken much English then and had hardly ever smiled. In my years at Lincoln, I’d come to understand that this was not unusual for kids straight off the reservation.

			But now she did smile, shyly, as she set the bowl on a table for me, then brought out a spoon.

			“Thanks, Donna,” I said.

			“Thank Mr. Volz,” she said. “He argued with Mrs. Peterson. Told her it was a crime to make you work without food in your belly.”

			Volz laughed. “I had to promise to make her a new rolling pin in my carpentry shop.”

			“Mrs. Brickman won’t like this,” I said.

			“What Mrs. Brickman don’t know won’t hurt her. Eat,” Volz said. “Then I take you out to Bledsoe.”

			“Donna?” It was a woman’s voice calling from the kitchen. “No dawdling.”

			“You better go,” Volz advised.

			The girl shot me one last enigmatic look, then vanished into the kitchen.

			Volz said, “You eat, Odie. I’ll go make nice with Mrs. Peterson.”

			When we were alone, Albert said, “What the hell were you thinking? A snake?”

			I began to eat my hot cereal. “I didn’t do it.”

			“Right,” he said. “It’s never you. Christ, Odie, you just took a step closer to leaving Lincoln.”

			“And wouldn’t that be terrible.”

			“You think reformatory would be better?”

			“Couldn’t be any worse.”

			He gave me a steely-eyed glare. “Where’d you get the snake?”

			“I told you, it wasn’t me.”

			“You can tell me the truth, Odie. I’m not Mrs. Brickman.”

			“Only her servant.”

			That one got to him and I thought he was going to slug me. Instead he said, “She takes her singing seriously.”

			“She’s the only one who does.” I smiled, remembering her wild dance when the snake had slithered over her foot. It was a black racer, harmless. If it had been a prank, it would have been a bold one because of the beating that would surely result. Even I would have thought twice about it. I suspected the creature had simply found its way in from outside the dining hall by accident. “I bet she wet her bloomers. Everybody thought it was funny.”

			“But you’re the one who got the strapping and spent the night with Faria. And now you’ll be working Bledsoe’s fields today.”

			“The look on her face was worth it.” That wasn’t exactly true. I knew that by sundown I’d regret being blamed for the snake. The welts on my back from the beating DiMarco had given me were still tender, and the hay dust and the salt from my own sweat would make the wounds hurt even worse. But I didn’t want Albert, that smug know-it-all, to see me worry.

			My brother was sixteen then. He’d grown tall and lanky at Lincoln School. He had dull red hair that was plagued by a perpetual cowlick in back, and like most redheaded people, he freckled easily. In summer, his face was a rash of splotches. He was self-conscious about his appearance and thought of himself as odd-looking. He tried to make up for it with his intellect. Albert was the smartest kid I knew, the smartest kid anybody at Lincoln School knew. He wasn’t particularly athletic, but he was respected for his brains. And he was honorable to a fault. It wasn’t something in his genes, because me, I didn’t give a crap about what Albert called ethics, and our father had been a bit of a con man. But my brother was stone hard when it came to doing the right thing. Or what he saw as the right thing. I didn’t always agree with him on that point.

			“Where are you working today?” I asked between spoonsful of cereal.

			“Helping Conrad with some machinery.”

			That was another thing about Albert. He was handy. He possessed a mind that could wrap itself around a technical problem that had others scratching their heads. His work assignment was often with Bud Conrad, who was in charge of facility maintenance at Lincoln School. As a result, Albert knew about boilers and pumps and motors. I figured he’d grow up to be an engineer or something. I didn’t know what I wanted to be yet. I just knew whatever it was it would be far away from Lincoln School.

			I’d almost finished my meal when I heard a child’s voice call out, “Odie! Albert!”

			Little Emmy Frost ran toward us across the dining hall, followed by her mother. Cora Frost taught homemaking skills—cooking, sewing, ironing, decorating, cleaning—to the girls at the school, as well as teaching reading to all of us. She was plain and slender. Her hair was reddish blond, but to this day, I can’t recall clearly the color of her eyes. Her nose was long, bent at the end. I always wondered if it had been broken when she was younger and badly set. She was kind, compassionate, and although not what most guys would have called a looker, to me she was as lovely as any angel. I’ve always thought of her in the way I think of a precious gem: The beauty isn’t in the jewel itself, but in the way the light shines through it.

			Emmy, on the other hand, was a cutie, with a thick mop of curls just like Little Orphan Annie in the funny papers, and we all loved her.

			“I’m happy they’ve fed you,” Mrs. Frost said. “You have a very busy day ahead.”

			I reached out to tickle Emmy. She stepped back, giggling. I looked up at her mother and shook my head sadly. “Mr. Volz told me. I’m working Bledsoe’s hayfields.”

			“You were going to work for Mr. Bledsoe. I’ve managed to get your assignment changed. You’ll be working for me today. You and Albert and Moses. My garden and orchard need seeing to. Mr. Brickman just gave me approval to use all three of you. Finish your breakfast and we’ll be off.”

			I gulped down what was left and took my bowl to the kitchen, where I explained to Mr. Volz what was up. He followed me back to the table.

			“You got Brickman to change his mind?” the German said, clearly impressed.

			“A little flutter of the eyelashes, Mr. Volz, and that man melts like butter on a griddle.”

			Which might have been true if she’d been a beauty. I suspected it was the goodness of her heart that had won him over.

			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.


			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.


			“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.

			“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.


			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 had 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.

			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.


			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 Posts and Ladies’ Home Journals. We weren’t supposed to take anything away from the library, but it was easy to sneak a magazine out under my shirt.

			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.


			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.

			Albert responded more soberly: “I think that would work.”

			Mose grinned ear to ear and signed, Lucky us.

			Mrs. Frost cautioned us to say nothing to anyone. She had to put some things together, and until all the arrangements were in place, we should just sit tight and—she eyed me particularly—“Don’t get into any trouble.”

			After she’d left, Albert turned to me. “Don’t get your hopes up, Odie. Remember, she’s dealing with the Black Witch.”

			Back in the dormitory, we changed out of our Sunday clothes. Albert and Mose and I kept looking at one another, and it was clear we could hardly believe our good luck. I wanted to shout hallelujah, but I kept it bottled up. Volz came in and spoke quietly to Albert and the two of them left together. Then Mr. Freiberg came in and took Mose and a couple of the other boys to clean up the baseball field and get it ready for the next game.

			I had some time before lunch, and I lay on my bunk and stared up and imagined what it might be like living with Cora Frost and Emmy.

			I barely remembered my mother. She’d died when I was six. Albert told me it was from something inside her that had just eaten her away. I had this final impression of her lying in bed, looking up at me out of a face like a dried and shriveled apple, and I hated that picture of her. I always wished I had a real photograph so that I could hold on to a different image, but when we’d come to Lincoln School, they’d confiscated everything, including a photo that Albert had kept of us all together, him and me and my mother and my father, taken when I was quite small and we lived in Missouri. So, in a way, Mrs. Frost had become the idea of a mother to me, and now it looked as if it might be that way for real. Not that she would adopt me or Albert or anything. But who knew?

			My reverie was interrupted by Mr. Greene, who suddenly loomed over me and asked, “You seen Red Sleeve?”

			• • •

			KIDS RAN AWAY from Lincoln School all the time. If they were off a reservation, they usually headed back that way, so it wasn’t hard for the authorities to locate them trying to hitch a ride. Very few made it to the rez before getting caught. If they did reach home, they just got sent back anyway. The hardest to locate were the kids who had nowhere to go, nothing to return to. There were a lot of those. When they ran, God alone knew what was in their heads.

			Mr. Greene questioned all the boys, but none had seen Billy take a powder. Just out of curiosity, I checked the trunk at the end of his bed. That little corncob doll was gone.

			On Sunday afternoons, one of the most ironic gatherings at Lincoln School took place, our weekly Boy Scout meeting. Our scoutmaster was a man named Seifert, a banker in town. He was round and bald, with a bulldog face and a perpetual sheen of sweat on his pate, but he was a decent guy. He did his best to teach us all kinds of things that might be useful if we ever found ourselves lost and alone in the forest. Which was funny because there weren’t any woods around Lincoln. We met in the gymnasium, where we got demonstrations on how to hone an ax or knife blade to a razor edge, how to identify plants and trees and birds and animal tracks. Outside on the old parade ground, we were shown how to pitch a tent, how to lash together branches into a lean-to for shelter, how to construct a fire and how to start it with flint and steel. In summer, when fewer activities were scheduled because of the reduced student population, all the boys were required to attend. If the situation hadn’t been so tragic, I’d have found it funny, this heavy white man showing a bunch of Indian kids things that, if white people had never interfered, they would have known how to do almost from birth.

			Albert was our troop leader, a position he took seriously. No surprise there. Mr. Seifert had donated two copies of the official Scout handbook to the school library, but I think Albert was the only one who ever read them.

			That afternoon we learned about knots. Which turned out to be interesting. There were all kinds of knots—who knew?—and they all served different purposes. I was pretty quick in picking most of them up, but there was one called a bowline that gave me no end of misery. It involved thinking of the rope end as a rabbit coming out of a hole and around a tree and back into the hole, or something like that. It was a knot favored by sailors, Mr. Seifert had told us, so I finally figured the hell with it. I was never going to sea.

			At the end of the meeting, Mr. Seifert sat us all down and looked at us like he was ready to cry.

			“Boys,” he said, “I’ve got some bad news. This is my last meeting with you as your scoutmaster.”

			He didn’t get much of a response, but he was probably pretty used to that by now. Most of us accepted everything he offered with stone faces.

			“The bank I work for is transferring me to Saint Paul. I leave next week. I’ve been trying to get someone else to act as your new scoutmaster, but I confess I’m having a little trouble in that regard.”

			He took a clean, white handkerchief from his pocket, and I thought he was going to wipe off the shiny coating of sweat on his bald head and brow. But he blew his nose instead and wiped at his eyes.

			“I hope I gave you all a few things you might take with you into the rest of your lives. I’m not talking about knots or putting up tents. I’m talking about a respect for who you are, maybe a sense of what you can accomplish if you set your minds to it.”

			He looked us all over and seemed for a moment too choked up to speak.

			“You are every bit as good as any other kids in this country, and don’t believe anyone who tells you different. The Scout oath is not a bad code to live by. Will you join me in it now, boys?”

			He held up his right hand in the official Boy Scout sign, and we all did the same.

			“On my honor,” we repeated with him, “I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country. To obey the Scout law. To help other people at all times. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

			He let his arm drop to his side.

			“I wish you all the best of luck.”

			He turned to Albert, who stood next to him, and they shook hands. Then Mr. Seifert walked slowly out of the gym, looking like a man who’d lost something he valued greatly.

			We sat in silence after he’d gone.

			Then Albert said, “All right, everybody back to the dorm.”

			Volz and Mr. Greene were waiting at the gym door to escort us. As we filed out, I asked them both, “Any word about Billy?”

			“Nothing,” Mr. Greene said.

			“He will turn up,” Volz assured me. “They always do.”

			On the way back, I walked with Albert and Mose.

			“Transferring him, my ass,” Albert said.

			Mose signed, What do you mean?

			“Mr. Seifert refused to foreclose on farmers behind in their mortgage payments. The people in Saint Paul are turning the bank over to someone who’ll do that.”

			“What’s foreclose mean?” I asked.

			“The banks take the farms away.”

			“Can they do that?”

			“They can. They shouldn’t but they can. It’s all because of the Crash.”

			I knew about the Crash on Wall Street but didn’t really know what that meant. When I first heard it, I imagined Wall Street like this giant castle wall, and the banks and all their money were hidden behind it. And then one day—they called it Black Friday, and when I imagined it I saw it happening under a dark, threatening sky—that wall came tumbling down, and all the money the banks had stashed away just kind of went up with the wind and vanished. On the edge of the Great Plains, it didn’t interest or really affect me. Out there, nobody had money.

			That night in bed after lights-out, I listened to one of the younger kids crying. Sometimes a new kid cried at night for months. Even the old-timers occasionally gave in to an overwhelming sense of despair and let the tears flow. Despite the good news of that morning, Cora Frost’s proposal and the prospect of leaving Lincoln School, I was feeling kind of down myself. I was thinking about Mr. Seifert, who was a good man, but it had got him nowhere. Thinking about all the kids who’d been taken from their homes and everything that was familiar to them. And thinking especially about Billy, who was weighing heavily on my mind. I’d vowed to be the shepherd for kids like him, but until Mr. Greene had asked about him, I hadn’t even noticed that Billy had gone missing.

			“Think they’ll find him?” I whispered.

			Albert’s bunk was next to mine. We weren’t allowed to talk after lights-out, but we could get away with it if we spoke quietly enough.

			“Billy Red Sleeve? I don’t know.”

			“I hope he’s okay.”

			I heard Albert turn on his bunk, and even though I couldn’t see him clearly, I knew he was facing me. “Listen, Odie, don’t you go caring too much about other people. In the end, they just get taken from you.”

			“Are you thinking about Pop?”

			“Don’t forget Mom,” he said. Because more and more I did.

			“Are you afraid I’ll get taken from you?” I asked.

			“I’m afraid I’ll get taken from you, and who’d look after you then?”

			“Maybe God?”

			“God?” He said it as if I were joking.

			“Maybe it really is like it says in the Bible,” I offered. “God’s a shepherd and we’re his flock and he watches over us.”

			For a long while, Albert didn’t say anything. I listened to that kid crying in the dark because he felt lost and alone and believed no one cared.

			Finally Albert whispered, “Listen, Odie, what does a shepherd eat?”

			I didn’t know where he was going with that, so I didn’t reply.

			“His flock,” Albert told me. “One by one.”


			MONDAY MORNING, MOSE and I were assigned to work Bledsoe’s hayfields. At breakfast, Volz stopped by our table in the dining hall to give us the word. Albert and several other boys had been assigned to the German to help him slap a new coat of whitewash on the old water tower.

			The water tower was legendary. Long before we came to Lincoln School, a kid named Samuel Kills Many had run away. Before he left, he’d painted across the water tower tank in bold black letters ­WELCOME TO HELL. Kills Many was one of the few kids who’d fled and had never been caught, and he’d become an important part of the mythology at Lincoln. They’d covered his parting sentiment with a coat of whitewash, but over the years the coating had faded and those bold, black words beneath, which resonated in the heart of every kid at Lincoln School, had begun to reemerge, ghostlike.

			The morning was still and already hot, the air so sultry that it was like trying to breathe water. I knew the day would be a bastard, just as Hector Bledsoe had predicted, but I was worried less about that than the whereabouts of Billy.

			“Any word on Red Sleeve?” I asked.

			Volz shook his head. “It’s only been a day. Give it time, Odie.”

			We rode in the bed of Bledsoe’s pickup, Mose and me and the others condemned to baling and bucking hay all day. We were quiet, as befitted a group of boys heading out to work under the control of a heartless farmer who would treat us like beasts. I thought maybe Billy Red Sleeve had the right idea. If I’d bolted with him, when we were caught, my punishment would most likely have been a night in the quiet room, and a pretty good strapping in the bargain, whic