The promise, as I remember it, happened this way.
A warm August morning, early. Wally Schanno’s already waiting at the landing. His truck’s parked in the lot, his boat’s in the water. He’s drinking coffee from a red thermos big as a fireplug.
Iron Lake is glass. East, it mirrors the peach-colored dawn. West, it still reflects the hard bruise of night. Tall pines, dark in the early morning light, make a black ragged frame around the water.
The dock’s old, weathered, the wood gone fuzzy, flaking gray. The boards sag under my weight, groan a little.
“Coffee?” Schanno offers.
I shake my head, toss my gear into his boat. “Let’s fish.”
We’re far north of Aurora, Minnesota. Among the trees on the shoreline, an occasional light glimmers from one of the cabins hidden there. Schanno motors slowly toward a spot off a rocky point where the bottom falls away quickly. Cuts the engine. Sorts through his tackle box. Pulls out a pearl white minnow flash, a decent clear-water lure for walleye. Clips it on his line. Casts.
Me, I choose a smoky Twister Tail and add a little fish scent. Half a minute after Schanno’s, my lure hits the water.
August isn’t the best time to fish. For one thing, the bugs are awful. Also, the water near the surface is often too warm. The big fish—walleye and bass—dive deep seeking cooler currents. Unless you use sonar, they can be impossible to locate. There are shallows near a half-submerged log off to the north where something smaller—perch or crappies— might be feeding. But I’ve already guessed that fishing isn’t what’s on Schanno’s mind.
The afternoon before, he’d come to Sam’s Place, the burger joint I own on Iron Lake. He’d leaned in the window and asked for a chocolate shake. I couldn’t remember the last time Schanno had actually ordered something from me. He stood with the big Sweetheart cup in his hand, not sipping from the straw, not saying anything, but not leaving either. His wife, Arletta, had died a few months before. A victim of Alzheimer’s, she’d succumbed to a massive stroke. She’d been a fine woman, a teacher. Both my daughters, Jenny and Anne, had passed through her third-grade classroom years before. Loved her. Everybody did. Schanno’s children had moved far away, to Bethesda, Maryland, and Seattle, Washington. Arletta’s death left Wally alone in the house he’d shared with her for over forty years. He’d begun to hang around Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler for hours, drinking coffee, talking with the regulars, other men who’d lost wives, jobs, direction. He walked the streets of town and stood staring a long time at window displays. He was well into his sixties, a big man—shoes specially made from the Red Wing factory—with a strong build, hands like an orangutan. A couple of years earlier, because of Arletta’s illness, he’d retired as sheriff of Tamarack County, which was a job I’d held twice myself. Some men, idle time suits them. Others, it’s a death sentence. Wally Schanno looked like a man condemned.
When he suggested we go fishing in the morning, I’d said sure.
Now we’re alone on the lake—me, Schanno, and a couple of loons fifty yards to our right diving for breakfast. The sun creeps above the trees. Suddenly everything has color. We breathe in the scent of evergreen and clean water and the faint fish odor coming from the bottom of Schanno’s boat. Half an hour and we haven’t said a word. The only sounds are the sizzle of line as we cast, the plop of the lures hitting water, and the occasional cry of the loons.
I’m happy to be there on that August morning. Happy to be fishing, although I hold no hope of catching anything. Happy to be sharing the boat and the moment with a man like Schanno.
“Heard you got yourself a PI license,” Schanno says.
I wind my reel smoothly, jerking the rod back occasionally to make the lure dart in the water like a little fish. There aren’t any walleyes to fool, but it’s what you do when you’re fishing.
“Yep,” I reply.
“Gonna hang out a shingle or something?”
The line as I draw it in leaves the smallest of wakes on the glassy surface, dark wrinkles crawling across the reflected sky. “I haven’t decided.”
“Figure there’s enough business to support a PI here?”
He asks this without looking at me, pretending to watch his line.
“Guess I’ll find out,” I tell him.
“Not happy running Sam’s Place?”
“I like it fine. But I’m closed all winter. Need something to keep me occupied and out of mischief.”
“What’s Jo think?” Talking about my wife.
“So long as I don’t put on a badge again, she’s happy.”
Schanno says, “I feel like I’m dying, Cork.”
“Are you sick?”
“No, no.” He’s quick to wave off my concern. “I’m bored. Bored to death. I’m too old for law enforcement, too young for a rocking chair.”
“They’re always hiring security at the casino.”
Shakes his head. “Sit-on-your-ass kind of job. Not for me.”
“What exactly are you asking, Wally?”
“Just that if something, you know, comes your way that you need help with, something you can’t handle on your own, well, maybe you’ll think about giving me a call.”
“You don’t have a license.”
“I could get one. Or just make me a consultant. Hell, I’ll do it for free.”
The sun’s shooting fire at us across the water. Another boat has appeared half a mile south. The loons take off, flapping north.
“Tell you what, Wally. Anything comes my way I think you could help me with, I promise I’ll let you know.”
He looks satisfied. In fact, he looks damn happy.
We both change lures and make a dozen more casts without a bite. Another boat appears.
“The lake’s getting crowded,” I say. “How ‘bout we call it and have some breakfast at the Broiler.”
“On me,” Schanno offers, beaming.
We reel in our lines. Head back toward the landing. Feeling pretty good.
Nights when I cannot sleep and the demons of my past come to torment me, the promise I made to Wally Schanno that fine August morning is always among them.
Sam’s Place is an old Quonset hut on the shore of Iron Lake just north of Aurora. It’s divided by an interior wall. The back has a small living area—kitchen, bathroom, table, bunk. The front is set up for preparing food and serving it through a couple of windows to customers outside. I’ve got a griddle for burgers and hot dogs and such, a hot-oil well for deep fry, a shake machine, a carbonated-drink dispenser, a large freezer. Pretty simple fare. In season, I do a fine business.
It’s called Sam’s Place after the man who made it what it is—Sam Winter Moon. When my father died, Sam gave me a hand in a lot of unselfish ways. I grew up working summers at Sam’s Place, advised and gently guided by Sam as I stumbled my way into manhood. When Sam died, he passed the place to me.
The Quonset hut houses my livelihood, but it also holds part of my heart. So many good memories from my adolescence involve the smell of a hot griddle coupled with the drumroll of Sam’s easy laugh. Several years into my marriage, when my wife and I were having serious trouble and my life was at its darkest point, I lived at Sam’s Place. It was a haven. In recent years, my children have worked beside me there, earning their spending money, learning lessons about business and people that I believe will serve them well.
I’ve been sheriff of Tamarack County twice. The first time was for seven years, at the end of which the constituency removed me in a recall election that resulted both from my own inadequacies and from things beyond my control. The second time it was for thirteen weeks, and I stepped down of my own accord. People who don’t know me well wonder that I’d give up my badge for an apron, thinking that flipping burgers is a big step down. If they asked me, which they don’t, I would tell them that when a man stumbles on to happiness, he’d be a fool to pass it by. It’s as simple as that. Sam’s Place makes me happy.
North of the Quonset hut is the Bearpaw Brewery. South there’s nothing for a quarter mile except a copse of poplars that hides the ruins of an old iron works. The road to Sam’s Place is a couple hundred yards of gravel that starts just outside town, crosses a big vacant field, then humps over the Burlington Northern tracks. It isn’t particularly easy to get to, but people seem to find their way without any problem.
In season, from mid-May, when tourists begin to flock north, until mid-November, when the fall color is gone, I arrive for work at ten a.m. I spend an hour getting ready for business. Turn on the griddle, heat the fry oil, get the ice-milk machine churning, restock the rack of chips, double-check the serving supplies, put cash in the register drawer. A few minutes before eleven, help arrives. In the summer months, it’s one of my daughters, either Jenny or Anne.
That morning after I fished with Schanno, as I was getting ready to slide open the serving windows, I saw Anne jogging up the road to Sam’s Place. She was sixteen, very Irish with her wild red hair. She was an athlete hoping for a scholarship to Notre Dame.
“Where’s Jenny?” I asked when she came in. “She’s on the schedule this morning.”
“She had kind of a hard night.” She reached into the closet for a serving apron. “She wasn’t feeling well. We traded shifts. She’s coming in this afternoon.”
The night before, Jenny had been out on a date with her boyfriend, Sean. I’d heard her come in. Sean had finished his first year at Macalaster, a small, elite college in St. Paul, and was home for the summer, working in his father’s drugstore. Jenny had graduated from high school in June. Most of the past year, their relationship had been long distance. Sean was a bright kid. Like Jenny, he wanted to be a writer. One of the places, Jenny often said, where their spirits connected. They’d been out a lot together that summer.
“A hard night?” I pressed her. “Something happen between her and Sean?”
She concentrated on tying her apron. “What do I know?”
“You’re answering a question with a question. What’s going on, Annie?”
She gave me the look of a runner caught in a squeeze between third base and home.
“Is it bad?” I asked.
“Define bad.” She caught my scowl. “Not really bad. Worrisome, I’d say.”
“Just tell me, Annie.”
“Dad, I promised.”
“I’m going to find out anyway. The minute Jenny walks in here I’m going to grill her.”
“Talk to mom first.”
“Does she know?”
“You know Mom and Jenny. They talk about everything.”
“So everybody knows what’s going on except me?”
Behind Annie, the window opened onto the parking lot, the long gravel road to Sam’s Place, and the distant town bright in the morning sun. She turned away and watched a car raising dust on the road to the Quonset hut. “We have customers,” she said, sounding greatly relieved.
Just before the lunch rush, Kate Buker, one of Annie’s friends who worked for me part time, arrived. When the rush was over and the girls were handling things up front, I slipped away to call my wife, Jo. It was Saturday, so she was home. When she answered, I could tell by the shuffle of papers on her end that she was working in her office. She’s an attorney.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Quiet. Getting lots done.”
I could see her, black reading glasses perched on her nose, ice blond hair probably roughed from running a hand through it, her blue eyes sharp and focused. On weekends, she usually works at home, overseeing the rights of her clients. She often represents the Iron Lake Ojibwe. Long before they had their own staff of attorneys, she was legal counsel for the reservation, and they still rely on her expertise in a number of areas. “What’s Stevie up to?” I said, asking about our young son.
“Playing with Dumbarton in the backyard.”
Dumbarton was a big sheepdog that belonged to a couple on our block. Sometimes he’d wander down to our yard, much to Stevie’s delight. At our house, the only pet was a turtle named Clyde.
“Jo, is Jenny there?”
“Upstairs getting ready for work,” she said.
“Is there something I should know? Something about Sean and her?”
“What makes you think that?”
There it was again. I was being answered with a question.
“Just tell me, Jo.”
“Look, Cork, it’s not a good time to talk right now. Let’s sit down tonight, okay?”
“How about I just talk to her this afternoon when she comes to work?”
“Don’t do that. Let me talk to you first.”
I hesitated before asking about the concern that came most readily to mind. “She’s not pregnant, is she?”
Jo laughed. “Heavens no.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“Look, we’ll talk this evening. But promise me you won’t say anything to Jenny.”
“Annie says it’s worrisome.”
“Promise me, Cork.”
“All right. I’ll talk to you first.”
.I put the phone down just as Anne stepped into the back of Sam’s Place.
“Dad,” she said. “George LeDuc is outside. He says it’s important.”
George was waiting for me in the parking lot. A big gray bear of a man seventy years old, he was the Iron Lake Ojibwe tribal chairman. He was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with a bolo tie, jeans, boots. He’d been staring intently at the lake, but when I came out he swung his gaze toward me.
“Boozhoo, George,” I greeted him. “What’s up?”
In the Ojibwe fashion, his face betrayed nothing, though the news he brought was deeply troubling. “It’s Henry Meloux, Cork. He’s dying.”
Henry Meloux was the oldest man I knew. He’d had white hair ever since I could remember, which was well over four decades. His face was heavily lined. There were age spots like patches of rust on his skin. His eyes were brown and soft and deep, and you couldn’t look into them without feeling Henry saw all the way down to some dark room in your soul where you kept your worst secrets locked away. And you understood that it was all right that he knew. He was a Mide, one of the Midewiwin, a member of the Grand Medicine Society. He’d spent his life following the path of Ojibwe healing.
When Sam Winter Moon died, Meloux filled the void in my life left by Sam’s passing. I’m part Anishinaabe—what most people know as Ojibwe—on my mother’s side. Not only had Meloux’s good advice guided me during a lot of confusing times, but also, on several occasions, his intervention had actually saved my life.
Now he was dying.
And the Iron Lake Reservation had gathered to keep vigil.
LeDuc and I made our way through the crowd in the lobby of the Aurora Community Hospital, greeting everyone we knew as we went. On the way there, George had explained to me what happened.
LeDuc owned a general store in Allouette, the larger of the two communities on the rez. That morning Henry had walked into the store to buy a few groceries. Meloux lived on Crow Point, an isolated finger of land on Iron Lake far north on the reservation. There was no road to his cabin, and no matter the season, he hiked to town, a good five miles, mostly over forest trails. LeDuc and Meloux passed some time talking, then the old man paid, put his things in a knapsack he carried on his back, and went outside. A few minutes later, LeDuc heard a commotion in the street. He rushed out to find Meloux collapsed on the pavement and people crowding around. LeDuc called 911. The paramedics took Meloux to the hospital. The old man had been conscious when he arrived. He was weak, barely able to speak, but he’d asked for me.
Meloux was in intensive care. They weren’t going to let me see him. Relatives only. But Ernie Champoux, Meloux’s great-nephew, put up a stink, and the doctor in charge, a young resident named Wrigley, finally relented.
“Do you know what’s wrong?” I asked.
“His heart,” Wrigley said. “I suspect an occlusion, but we need to run tests to be sure. Only a few minutes, all right? He needs his strength.”
Meloux lay on the bed, tubes and wires running from him every which way. It made me think of a butterfly in a spider’s web. I’d never seen him looking so frail, so vulnerable. In his day, he’d been a great hunter. Because he’d saved my life, I also knew him as a warrior. It was hard seeing him this way.
His brown eyes tracked me as I came to the bedside.
“Corcoran O’Connor,” he whispered. “I knew you would come.”
I pulled up a chair and sat beside him. “I’m sorry, Henry.”
“The doctor told me.”
He shook his head faintly. “My heart is in pain.”
“The doctor suspects an occlusion. A blockage, I think that means.”
Again he shook his head. “It is sadness, Corcoran O’Connor. Too heavy for my heart.”
“What sadness, Henry?”
“I will tell you, but you must promise to help me.”
“I’ll do what I can, Henry. What’s the sadness?”
Meloux hesitated a moment, gathering strength. “My son.”
Son? In the forty-some years I’d known him, I’d never heard Meloux speak of a son. As far as I knew, no one had.
“You have a son? Where?”
“I do not know. Help me find him, Corcoran O’Connor.”
“What’s his name, Henry?”
Meloux stared up at me. For the first time I could ever recall, he looked lost.
“You don’t know his name?” I didn’t hide my surprise. “Do you know anything about him?”
“His mother’s name. Maria.”
“Maria Lima. How long ago, Henry?”
He closed his eyes and thought a moment. “A lifetime.”
“Thirty years? Forty? Fifty?”
Seventy-three years. My God.
“It’s a big world, Henry. Can you tell me where to begin?”
“Canada,” he whispered. “Ontario.”
I could tell our conversation, spare though it was, was draining him. I had three pieces of information. A mother’s name. An approximate year. And a place to start looking.
“Have you ever seen your son, Henry?”
“In visions,” Meloux replied.
“What does he look like?”
“I have only seen his spirit, not his face.” A faint smile touched his lips. “He will look like his father.”
“He’ll look like his mother, too, Henry. It would be nice to know what she looked like.”
He motioned me nearer. “In my cabin. A box under my bed. A gold watch.”
“And Walleye. He will be alone and hungry.”
“I’ll take care of Walleye, Henry.”
Meloux seemed comforted. “Migwech,” he said. Thank you.
Outside the room, LeDuc was waiting.
“What did he want, Cork?”
“He’s worried about Walleye,” I said. “He wanted me to take care of the dog.”
The rest had been told in confidence, and I couldn’t repeat it. Nor could I say what I really thought. That what Meloux was asking was nothing short of a miracle.
Excerpted from THUNDER BAY © Copyright 2011 by William Kent Krueger. Reprinted with permission by Atria. All rights reserved.