The Last Rattlesnake Throw and Other Stories
short story from: The Last Rattlesnake Throw and Other Stories
My brother Jack a year older than me and big for his age and fair-skinned, guess who had the say about Who would be What, when--scarcely aware of family graves near our house--we played cowboy and Indian. School hadn't taught that the rich land between our hard clay hill farm and the town beside the river had once been our family's, and, though school had made us remember President Andrew Jackson, it had not taught that "Old Hickory" had anything to do with Dad's stories of some ancestors death-marched west, midwinter, on "The Trail of Tears"--anything to do with some dates on our family gravestones.
Our sister and our brother--two and four years younger than me--stuck chicken feathers under rubber bands stretched around their heads, warwhooped when I warwhooped, attacked when I attacked and fell down when I fell down--when Cowboy Jack yelled, "BANG! You're dead!"
Playing Doughboy, Jack wore what the army still calls an "Overseas Cap", what Dad called, a "Go to Hell Cap", and, instead of chicken feathers, I wore the newspaper-stuffed, spear-tip-topped "Hun" helmet Dad kept in our attic, with his medals and his eagle-button coat.
Jack was big like our father but blue-eyed like our mother. I was small like our mother but dark like Dad. "That cute little, blackeyed Presley," mothers giggled at school programs and hugged me--"cute little pickaninnys", something they giggled about classmates who sat at the back of the room. Jack already seated alphabetically, I was placed beside him, in the middle of the room--and saved from disgrace.
Jack had gotten into the habit of saving me. Taught, himself, by our dad, Jack taught me to fight, primarily by fighting me himself during our growing up time. Uncoordinated during one of his growth surges, he endured the humiliation of losing our fights for so long I felt cocky. "The bigger they come the harder they fall," was Dad's war-tested cliche, which I was proving in pinning Jack to the pine-cone-covered earth, among family names chiselled on limestone--formed, Teacher somehow knew, from "billions of living shellfish compressed by billions of tons of ocean which once covered the land".
Just as the sea had surged and receded--and just as our family's time of owning fine horses and numerous Black slaves had come and gone--my days of victory came and went. I charged my big brother again and again and again and again got to my feet and tried the fighting tricks which had worked so well so long and hit as hard as I could, but, my Cherokee people had learned that the bigger they come the harder you fall, and my brother Jack taught me the same while also teaching me to fight like the Viking berserkers who had given my mother and him blue eyes.
"A man who's crazy has got twice the strength of a man who ain't," our father had said, a shell-shocked buddy having tried to choke him and everyone else in their trench. Five and a half feet tall, weight 130 pounds, my craziness half Dad's warrior ethic, half the craziness of pre-puberty belligerence, I'd charge anybody who called me "Nigger" or "nig", and, like the welterweight boxer "Hurricane Henry Armstrong"--my hero even though he was black--I'd frantically batter big bodies and did not lose a fight, though I always quit when an opponent--unwilling to suffer more, while gaining the dubious fame of defeating someone as small as myself--backed off.
Dad's dad's dad's dad's told-told-and-re-told stories were of warriors who charged, wielding spears against cannon, but, in fact, our Cherokee people had had to accept defeat, injustice and humiliation or die, and they had chosen to live.
Glittering stethoscope a rattlesnake which had uncoiled from black medicine case to strike my muscular chest, the town doctor said I should quit baseball and leave the heaviest farm work to my dad and brother. No more Hurricane-Henry-Armstrong-Black-Berserker-Cherokee-Warrior glory for me. Like my Cherokee ancestors, I had to quit fighting or die.
In our highschool days together, Jack was the defender of family honor, and, if I was in danger of a beating after I'd persuaded some athlete's girl into accompanying me to movies depicting soft-spoken Englishmen as winning in love and winning in war against unpleasant-voiced Nazis, my brother would threaten my big antagonist, "Knock it off, the kid has got a bad heart."
"A career in teaching," teachers suggested, because of my "way with words", but, except for Coach, the only men teachers were mild, and boys scorned them as "fruits". "Or, perhaps, newspaper work."
Dad had been drafted to fight "Huns" in "The World War, the Great War, The War to End All Wars," and, "The Four Freedoms War" now begun, Jack was drafted to fight "Japs", men with skins and eyes as dark as my own. I won a scholarship, and, in college, I drank beer with Indians, who--missing legs, arms or eyes--were back from the war early and attending college with tuition money the government awarded former soldiers.
Though from many different tribes, we called ourselves brothers, and when a big blond guy from one of the college officer-training classes challenged me to fight, one of my two companions, a big, one-armed Klallam, said what Jack had always said, "The kid has a bad heart."
"He's just chicken like all you Indniuns," the blond guy sneered. He was from Georgia, he was drunk and he didn't like the fact that I had been dancing with white women.
"A fight might give him a heart attack," my Klallam buddy said softly. He'd survived a Japanese banzai attack. He was a real warrior, though missing one arm, but he knew how to talk, and he was learning diplomacy.
Standing over me and my two friends, as we sat, drinking beer and munching the corn our Indian people had taught white people to pop into soft whiteness--drunk and defending whatever holding from Manifest Destiny he felt to be his by right of birth, the big guy was insisting that I accept his challenge to "step outside and fight like a man" in the University Student Union parking lot.
I was drunk. I was insulted. I was as mad as hell. All of my life, up to the last three years, I had been tough enough to respect myself and to get respect.
"Hero," I taunted. "You're only here studying to be a supply officer so you won't have to fight." Way with words, dissolved by too many beers or clouded by hate, I delivered my schooldays playground warrior-challenge insult, "Sissy-britches."
His school playground days doubtless like mine, the big future officer knew he had to fight, right there, since I wasn't obliging him by stepping outside, away from the dance crowd's eyes, so he could pound, to his heart's content, at my small body, with its bum heart.
One hand grabbed my shirtfront and jerked me into whisky breath, other hand drawn back, knuckles clenched, bloodless, white, tensed to smash dark cheek against hidden white bone.
"Wait," my Klallam buddy shouted at my attacker or at me, my hand already swinging the catsup bottle, nearby white faces turning to the shout.
The bottle struck white jaw, cap popping off, tomato sauce arcing, a red rainbow. Knuckles, barely reaching my face, only pushed me backward, my shirtfront tearing free from loosening fingers. Before the big, blond guy could set himself to strike a better blow, my big, Klallam buddy, his white shirt diagonalled by catsup, swung the only fist a cannon had left him, knocking my big opponent backward, two arms like huge, white wings, flapping, not fast enough to fly but fast enough to keep the big body from losing balance and falling.
Except for surging, unused adrenalin and a violently pounding heart, I was as I had been before the fight, seated at a table, empty catsup bottle clutched in the hand which had held beer after beer.
My opponent was sitting beside me, groggily fingering his jaw, when a campus cop shoved through a ring of onlookers.
"The little guy has a bad heart," my Sioux buddy explained. Though drunk, like me, like me, he had a way with words. He was studying to be a teacher. "The big guy almost killed him."
"He tried to kill him?"
"Did not." The big guy had been starting to get to his feet, but he decided to remain sitting awhile longer and to mumble again, "Did not." It was like "He started it...No, he started it..." on a grammar-school playground.
The cop was looking at my unbruised, dark face and looking at my big attacker's pale, bruised face and pale, unbruised knuckles, trying to decide. "You're sure the big guy threatened to kill the little guy?"
"Yes," both of my buddies said.
"Did not," the future officer mumbled, getting to his feet, to distance himself from my criminal Redskin presence, dusting the seat of his navy cadet white pants, a reminder to the cop, a former combat marine, that he was looking at a college boy, whose orders he'd have had to obey one war back.
Big hand lightly squeezing my Klallam buddy's armless shoulder, the cop asked, eyeing the empty bottles of beer, "The threat was to Kill?"
"Yes. And our friend has a bad heart."
"K-i-l-l," the cop spelled, for his college-educated disturbers of campus peace, and my two buddies chanted:
Europe, Africa, Asia--you could read it in any newspaper, millions of people were killing millions of people.
"And did he shoot all your buffalo and put you on reservations?"
"Yes,"--"Yes," my two friends said, catching on too late to stop themselves.
The cop was moving a pen inside a book, with the University's golden hawk insignia on the black cover. He was doing the deciding. He was doing the writing. He was telling the story the way it would be read.
"Go on back to your barracks and get some sleep," was my attacker's fate.
"You Indians come with me out the back door," began our final chapter, and it concluded, "I could arrest you for drunk and disorderly, but this time I won't." That was it, the combat veteran marine keeping faith with his lower class status by sending the snobbish future officer and gentleman, like a naughty little boy, to bed and keeping faith with his race by putting three troublesome Indians into their place--the Indians gratefully accepting their treaty. Happy ending. This time.
My brother Jack lost one of his blue eyes but survived America's liberating, from Japanese, British Hong Kong.
My sister's husband and my younger brother were killed in the Korean War.
Jack's two sons fought in Vietnam. One survived.
I am a teacher. History is my subject, and, since the 60's struggles for justice, I find some favorable mentions of Indians in the textbook from which I'm required to teach.
"Did he massacre millions and take your land and kill your buffalo and rape your women and teach your--ever and ever more pale--children to thank him for Progress and for Civilized Religion?"
Yes, thank you. Yes, thank you. Yes, thank you.
He had the black book emblazoned with golden hawk, he had the pen, and he wrote the story. We lived it, and, whatever we try to say, as long as we're alive, we'll live it.
- Paula Gunn Allen