William Kent Krueger

Boundary waters


He was a tough old bird, the redskin. Milwaukee allowed himself the dangerous luxury of admiring the old man fully. He was smart, too. But way too trusting. And that, Milwaukee knew, was his undoing.

Milwaukee turned away from the Indian and addressed the two men sitting by the campfire. “I can go on, but the Indian’s not going to talk. I can almost guarantee it.”

“I thought you guaranteed results,” the nervous one said.

“I’ll get what you want, only it won’t be coming from him.”

“Go on,” the nervous man said. He squeezed his hands together and jerked his head toward the Indian. “Do it.”

“Your ball game.” Milwaukee stepped to the campfire and pulled a long beechwood stick from the coals. The end of the stick glowed red, and two licks of flame leaped out on either side like the horns of a devil held in Milwaukee’s hand.

The old Indian hung spread-eagled between two small birch trees, secured to the slender trunks by nylon cords bound about his wrists and ankles. He was naked, although the night was cool and damp enough to make his blood steam as it flowed down his skin over the washboard of his ribs. Behind him, darkness closed like a black curtain over the rest of the deep woods. The campfire lit the old man as if he were a single actor in a command performance.

Or, Milwaukee thought as he approached with the burning stick, a puppet who’d broken his strings.

Milwaukee grasped the long gray hair and lifted the old man’s head. The eyes flickered open. Dark almond eyes. Resigned but not broken.

“See.” Milwaukee brought the angry glow inches from his face. “Your eyes will bubble. Just like stew. First one, then the other.”

The almond eyes looked steadily at Milwaukee, as if there were not at all a flame between them.

“Just tell us how to get to the woman and I won’t hurt you anymore,” Milwaukee offered. Although he meant it, he’d have been disappointed in the Indian if he broke; for he felt a rare companionship with the old man that had nothing to do with the business between them but was something in their spirits, something indomitable, something the nervous man by the fire would never understand. Milwaukee knew about the old man, knew how he was strong deep down, knew the information they were after would never come from him. In the end, the living would still be ignorant and the important answers, as always, would reside with the dead.

The second man at the campfire spoke. “Gone soft?” He was a huge man with a shaved head. He lit a fat Cuban cigar with a stick much like Milwaukee held, and he smiled. He smiled because next to himself, Milwaukee was the hardest man he knew. And like Milwaukee, he tolerated the nervous man only because of the money.

“Go on,” the nervous man commanded. “Do it, for Christ’s sake. I’ve got to know where she is.”

Milwaukee looked deeply into the eyes of the old man, into his soul, and wordlessly, he spoke. Then he tipped the stick. The reflection of the fire filled the old man’s right eye.

The old man did not blink.


Wendell was three days late. The woman’s anger had passed and worry had set in, a heavy stone on all her thinking. Wendell Two Knives had never been late before.

In the early afternoon, she stepped from the cabin and walked along the little creek down to the lake. Like many of the lakes in the Boundary Waters, it was small. Long and narrow-a hundred yards wide and little more than half a mile long-it lay in a deep trough between two ridges of gray stone capped with aspen. A week ago, the aspen leaves had been yellowgold, every tree like a match head struck to flame. Now the branches were mostly bare. The scattered leaves that still hung there shivered in the wind over the ridges, and one by one, they fell away. The water of the lake was very still. Even on days when the wind whipped the aspen trees high above, the narrow slit of water remained calm. Wendell told her the Anishinaabe called the lake Nikidin, which meant vulva. She often looked at that narrow stretch of calm whose surface reflected mostly heaven and smiled at the sensibility of Wendell’s people.

But now she stared down the gray, rocky corridor with concern. Where the hell was Wendell?

He’d come ten days before, bringing her, as always, food and the batteries for her precious tape recorder. He’d told her his next visit should be his last; it was time for her to go. He said if she stayed much longer, she risked a winter storm, and then it would be hell getting out. She’d looked at the aspen, whose leaves had only just turned, and at the clear blue sky, and at the calm water of the lake that was warm enough still for a brief swim in the afternoons, and she’d laughed.

Snow? She’d questioned. But it’s absolutely beautiful, Wendell.

These woods, he’d cautioned darkly, this country. No man can ever say for sure. Better to be safe.

She was almost finished anyway with the work that had brought her to that secret place and so she agreed. On his arrival the following week, she would be ready. She gave him a letter to mail, as she always did, and watched his canoe glide away, silver ripples fanning out behind him like the tail feathers of a great bird.

Now there were thin, white clouds high up in the blue, and along the ridges a constant wind that she couldn’t feel but could plainly see in the waving of the aspens. She pulled her jean jacket close around her and shivered, wondering if the smell in the air, something sharp and clean, was the approach of the winter storm Wendell feared.

For the first time since she’d come to that lost lake and its old cabin, she was tight with a sense of urgency. She turned and followed the thread of the creek back through a stand of red pine that hid the cabin. From its place on the rough-hewn wood table near the potbellied stove, she took her tape recorder and turned it on. There was a red light in the lower right-hand corner that blinked whenever the batteries were getting low. The red light was blinking. She lifted the recorder near her mouth and held it in both hands.

“Saturday, the fifteenth of October. Wendell still hasn’t come.”

She sat in the empty cabin a moment, aware of the silence of the afternoon, terribly aware of her aloneness in the great wilderness.

“He said he would be here and he’s the only man who’s ever kept his promises to me,” she said into the recorder. “Something’s wrong, I know it. Something’s happened to him.”

The red light blinked off. But she left the recorder on, not knowing if it captured at all her final confession: “Jesus Christ, I’m scared.”


Cork was breathing hard and feeling great. He’d been running for an hour and he was nearing home. Each stride landed on a mat of fallen leaves and each breath filled him with the dusty smell of a long, dry autumn. He kept to a gravel road that paralleled the Burlington Northern tracks. The tracks ran through the town of Aurora, Minnesota, and in doing so, shadowed Iron Lake. In the late afternoon of that mid-October day, the lake was dead calm, a perfect mirror of a perfect sky, blue and piercing. The trees along the shoreline were ablaze, bursts of orange and russet that exploded again on the still surface of the water. In boats here and there, solitary fishermen cast their lines, shattering the mirror in brief silver splashes.

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