It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.
Wendell Berry, from “Rising”
1902 ON THE RUN
The boy slumped, forehead resting against the grimy window of the train. Leo removed his spectacles and put them in his shirt pocket. He couldn’t see much without them but that was how he wanted it today. He was too ashamed to look anyone in the eye. The past two weeks had been tense with accusations and threats. Now – all because of his younger brother – his family had been run out of town. He was furious at Albert, humiliated about being forced to leave his home in Montana. Leo had found a seat as far as possible from his family and pretended he didn’t even know them. His brother had a problem with violence. It was a form of madness, Leo thought. Albert’s madness had already caused more heartache than he could bear.
The last glimpses of home made his belly ache. After Dad announced they’d be settling in Oregon, starting over, Leo already hated it there, just as he had begun to hate it here. He kept his back to the aisle, shrugged Mother’s hand off when she touched his shoulder and ignored her until she went away. Tears rose, threatening to spill over. Leo tightened his throat, forcing back the tears, clamping his jaw so hard it made his molars ache.
“Bull.” That’s what Dad called his younger brother, sounding proud. “Loner,” he called Leo, sounding mean. He hated it when they made fun of him. Sheriff Bowen had said “solitary.” Leo rolled the word around in his mouth. Solitary tasted better than loner.
“You and I are a lot alike, son. We both tend to be solitary,” the sheriff had told him on that awful evening. “Yes,” he’d repeated, “we have something in common. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to get right with what you’ve done.”
Tears filled his eyes again. Remembering the sheriff’s gentle tone made his nose run. Leo wiped his coat sleeve across his face and hoped no one noticed. Mother told him to use a handkerchief but he didn’t have one now. Dad told him boys don’t cry and his younger brother didn’t. Albert – who told everyone to call him Bull – hadn’t shed a tear since he was in diapers, at least not that Leo had seen. They had to share a room but that was no place to let his feelings out. Leo went into the woods whenever he had to cry. Will there be any woods in Oregon? What if I can’t find any woods?
Alongside the tracks Leo spotted a railroad storage shed painted the same dried-blood color as the one he’d vomited behind a few weeks back. He shuddered in his seat, remembering what he’d heard on his way home from school that afternoon. Slugger, Albert’s buddy, was showing a second-grader what they’d done to a stray dog in the rail yard. “Bull said this here dog is shivering, let’s get it warm. You shoulda seen that dumb dog dance.” And I shoulda told Dad, Leo thought, except he woulda told me to quit making up awful stories. And to quit trying to get my brother in trouble. The bile rose in his throat again. He had to swallow hard to keep his breakfast from coming up.
Leo gazed unseeing at the rough terrain as the Great Northern labored into Idaho. His thoughts were in Billings, on what he’d been doing before Sunday turned bloody. His mother made him go to Mass but she didn’t care what he did the rest of the day as long as he was home for supper. Leo liked to ramble in the woods, moving up mountain trails and down steep ravines. Sometimes he sat on a rock, breathing the pine-scented air. Sometimes he’d see a shy animal go by. Occasionally he caught sight of a doe with her fawn or a buck with a great rack of antlers. Once he’d even spotted a mountain lion, the most elusive of creatures.
On that terrible Sunday, two weeks after his thirteenth birthday, he’d paused at the top of a ridge to look around. He picked up a pine knot, turned it this way and that, looking for the face hidden in it. He thought of pretty Alice, who sat in front of him in history class. Leo’s face flushed, remembering how embarrassed he’d been after splattering egg yolks on her pretty green dress. Maybe he’d carve a gnome for Alice, something to make up for his clumsiness.
He balanced the pine knot on his left palm and had just slipped the blade of his jack-knife into a seam when he heard something that made his ears stand straight out. It sounded like an animal in pain. Leo heard it again. The scream split the afternoon. Oh no, only a wounded creature makes a noise like that. Just yesterday he’d heard a customer tell Mrs. Mac that her beagle had disappeared. “I can’t imagine what happened to my little Buddy,” the woman said. She’d looked so sad.
He snapped his jack-knife shut and headed toward the trouble. Dodging branches on the ridge and sliding feet-first down a rocky chute, Leo gave no care to his britches. They were old, already torn at one knee, now ripping in the seat. The closer he got to the shriek, the faster and higher it came. Not just caught in a bear trap, he figured, but tortured somehow. The more the screams increased in pitch and intensity, the more frantic Leo felt.
Bursting into a clearing, he gasped to see his brother bent over a small dog, one boot on its hindquarters. He saw the flash of a knife and a quick spurt of blood. “Stop!” Leo shrieked in a high, girlish voice. But Bull did not stop. He slashed again, carving deep into the dog’s belly. Leo kicked the Bowie knife away and slammed his body against Albert’s, powered by adrenalin beyond the strength of his medium frame. Leo pummeled his huskier brother until Slugger pulled him off. By this time the dog had shuddered and gone quiet.
“What is the name of this boy, your brother’s friend?” Sheriff Bowen asked the night he picked Leo up. He spoke in a calm, even tone despite the gory details he’d just heard. To Leo, his words felt like boulders cracking the sidewalk.
“Sam Tucker, but he tells everyone to call him Slugger.”
“Ah yes, the Tucker tribe. Time to make another visit out to their place.”
“You won’t say it was me that told, will you?” Leo’s voice trembled.
“No, son, I protect my sources. But I will be coming to see your folks. I need to have a little talk with Albert.”
“I was afraid of that.” Leo blinked back tears. He suddenly knew that nothing would ever be the same. My life will never be the same.