In the Footsteps of Robert Running Bear

Ana’s Pick
Ron Arnold


Jimmy, my cousin, is lanky for a twelve-year-old, but not awkward. Once he clobbered a baseball so hard it sailed clear over the fence in the park. He always says, You’re a scrawny runt for ten. I’ve never hit a home run or come close. Our mothers like to dump us off at Grandpa’s farm on weekends ’cause it’s a convenient way to get rid of us. Whenever Aunt Betty sees me, she squeezes my cheek to put a dimple in it. Then Grandpa hangs onto both of them ’til I look like a bloodhound. I don’t like being called cute or being squeezed and poked, but I guess that’s the way relatives are.

Today Grandpa is riding the tractor to break up and turn over soil. Worms and bugs are everywhere. A swarm of seagulls has flown in from the coast and follows the tractor wherever it goes. The birds squawk and dive down to pick up the quivering insects in their beaks. A red pickup turns off the road and kicks up a stream of dust as it heads toward the barn. Grandpa stops the chugging tractor and climbs off. He says, “That must be Robert Running Bear.”

We walk across the field to greet him. Robert Running Bear has high cheekbones, a broad nose, long black hair, and the sunburnt complexion of an American Indian. Another Indian, Daniel Black Swan, starts loading sacks of Sweet Silver corn seed from a stall in the barn to the back of the pickup. Sweet Silver is Grandpa’s cash crop ’cause he can plant it in early spring and harvest it in the middle of July, which is a good three weeks before anybody else does. Robert Running Bear pulls his hair together in a ponytail and knots a leather band around it that has two feathers hanging down.

“Are those eagle feathers?” I ask.

“Eagle, no. Falcon, yes. Never the eagle! That is a sacred bird.”

“What’s so special about eagles?”

He studies me closely before speaking, “At one time the earth was covered by an immense, dark cloud. The eagle gathered the lightning during a storm and soared high into the sky and flew in a circle to form the sun. Then a lightning bolt came loose and spun off to form the moon. With its work done, the eagle glided back to earth and built a nest in the highest treetop.”

I imagine the bird gliding in triumph on wings turned gold by the sunshine.

Robert Running Bear goes over to help Daniel Black Swan load the sacks of corn.

Jimmy snickers.

“What are you laughing about?” I ask.

“That Indian is loco. Everyone knows eagles can’t fly that high.”

“He says they can.”

Jimmy scrapes a stick in the dirt. “My father told me Indians are drunks. He says most of them have a stash of liquor in their living room.”

“Robert Running Bear is not like that,” I insist.

“How do you know?”

“How do you know he isn’t?”

Jimmy throws dirt balls that splatter against the tires of the pickup. Grandpa shouts at him to stop and invites the Indians into the house for coffee. Only Robert Running Bear accepts the offer. Daniel Black Swan stands guard by the pickup and Jimmy sits outside on the porch. So I find myself in the kitchen with Grandpa and the Indian.

Grandpa tinkers with the coffee pot on the stove, “Tell him how you got your name.”

“It happened when I was fifteen,” says Robert Running Bear. “I was fishing with my older brother at a creek near our village. We were catching striped bass and cleaning them. I walked back up the path toward my home. That’s when I crossed paths with a crazed black bear.” He looks over my head as though he’s seeing something.

“The bear was crazy?” I blurt out. “How did you know?”

He looks into my eyes. “Most of the time they stand up and huff. That means leave them alone. Or sometimes they turn and tramp through the woods to get away. But this one was foaming at the mouth and charged toward me.”

Grandpa pours the coffee into several cups and sets a pitcher of cream and a jar of honey on the table.

“I tried to move out of the way,” explains Robert Running Bear, “before I could, it was towering over me.”

“Those bears out in the backwoods are really big,” says Grandpa. “I’ve seen them myself.”

“I left my hunting knife down by the creek.” The Indian sips his coffee. “Luckily, my elders taught me to keep a clear head in times of danger.”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out the round flint stone I used to sharpen the knife with. I delivered it like a hammer blow. I killed the bear right there. That day I became Robert Running Bear.”

I’m not sure whether to believe him, but he has a proud look on his face. He unbuttons his shirt and shows me the scars scratched across his chest.

I scramble outside to tell Jimmy. “Robert Running Bear was in a fight with a bear. I saw the claw marks on his chest.”

“It’s probably a knife mark from a barroom brawl.”

“There’s a lot of them.”

“He’s been to a lot of bars.”

“How can you say that?” I complain. “You don’t even know him.”

“My father told me what I need to know about Indians.”

“Your father doesn’t know Robert Running Bear.”

Jimmy walks over to a stack of tools and pulls one out. “Do I have to hit you over the head with this rake?”

“Why can’t you believe him?”

*

Summer seems to drag on except on rainy days when Jimmy asks Grandpa if we can play in Uncle Bucky’s room. Grandpa thinks we admire Uncle Bucky ’cause he has gone to Agriculture School and shows up at family gatherings sporting clean overalls and speaking in scientific lingo. But me and Jimmy like the room ’cause a trap door is hidden underneath the rug, allowing us to sneak outside by climbing down a wood ladder and scooting underneath the house. Sometimes Jimmy takes along a slingshot to shoot stones at squirrels. Lately, he has an urge to go snooping in the woods leading to Peterson’s house.

Last night’s rain has tailed off to a drizzle. Black pools of water dot the ground as we jog across an open field. “No trespassing” signs are posted on either side of Peterson’s gravel driveway. We ignore them and slip into the woods. The upper side of branches and leaves are wet but underneath the ground is dry. Jimmy tugs on the collar of my shirt and stops me.

“David,” he says, “You might not know this, but there are spooks in these woods from John Bonner’s graveyard.”

I creep forward. The closer we get to Peterson’s house, the more eerie it feels. We spot a fence that is at least ten feet high. My heart is racing faster than the clogging of a thoroughbred as I follow Jimmy. I see a pair of black eyes and a toothy grin behind the fence. Then a dog comes roaring out, snapping its fangs.

I scream and flee for my life. I stumble over a bush and fall into a big puddle.

Jimmy stands by the fence and laughs.

He torments me for weeks by calling me a coward and teasing me with wolf howls. He says that Peterson makes his living by breeding watchdogs for city folks stuck in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods and always keeps a pair around to scare suckers like me.

I can’t sleep for weeks, causing dark circles to form underneath my eyes.

One day, Grandpa shows us the vegetables growing on his farm. He can recognize each type by the shape of its leaves which he holds in his thick, leathery hands. He kneels down along a row and digs up a purple beet. I detect a sharp odor. He breaks open a pea pod. I can smell a sweet green flavor.

Then Jimmy charges toward me with a garden snake dangling from a stick.

“Argh!” I run away.

Jimmy doubles over with laughter and stomps the ground.

When Grandpa comes over, I hang my head and almost cry. I tell him I’ve been having nightmares about the dogs.

“Robert Running Bear might have a prescription for that,” says Grandpa. “We’ll call him this afternoon.” He picks a few ripe vegetables and puts them in a cardboard box. He tells me he’s going to play the role of a Good Samaritan and dole them out to the neighbors.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Because you can do something extra that is easy for you to do and in return they will help you. It makes you wealthy like having money in the bank.”

Our first stop is Grandpa’s next-door neighbor, Clara, who has brown hair rolled on top her head like a cinnamon bun. She talks to us while hanging up clothes on a rope strung from the back porch to a pole in the middle of the yard. She starts with a light syrupy gossip—Jean’s daughter has chicken pox. Becky is engaged to a boy in another town.—and ends up with a story at least six months old about the time the tractor rolled over onto Roy Tillman and crushed his leg. She lets us use her phone.

We call Robert Running Bear’s village. He has just come back from a hunting trip for white-tailed deer. Grandpa tells him about my situation and puts me on the phone.

“If you put a man into the right situation,” says Robert Running Bear, “like planting a seed in fertile soil, courage will sprout and grow.”

I doubt it.

*

Grandpa can’t resist doing a favor. So when Peterson asks for help taking the dogs to the vet, he can’t say No! I tell Grandpa that I’m scared. He says Peterson sometimes allows the dogs to stay in the house and eat dinner in the kitchen. They like spaghetti. I picture them sitting up at the table with a plate set in front of them. “Do they know how to use a knife and fork?”

Grandpa laughs in his easy way.

That Saturday Jimmy is nowhere around. I guess he died of fright and his ghost is looking over my shoulder as we walk on the driveway of crushed gravel which dips down and rises again. My hopes soar in a strange way. Maybe I’ll get along great with the dogs and handle them like a pro. I expect to see a break in the trees any moment. We round a bend. An old Chevy sits at the end of the driveway next to a pale yellow house. An oak tree with crooked branches reaches out for us from the front yard and an oval pond with a rock wall gazes upward at the lazy blue sky. I stand over the clear water and see goldfish wagging their tails and darting around. Grandpa knocks on the front door. Peterson has white hair like Grandpa’s, but a stern face. He looks mean enough to raise killer attack dogs. He lets us inside the house. I hear the dogs growling from their pen in the backyard.

When we walk out the back door, my spine tingles with fear from the sheer size of the dogs. Both are German shepherds with a blend of black and brown fur. Rex leans against the wire and stretches out to six feet in length. Sheba, the female, stands behind him and is slightly smaller. Peterson pulls Sheba out of the cage. They slip a muzzle over her snout and led her to the car. Next, Peterson grabs Rex by the collar and slowly walks the dog toward Grandpa. Grandpa tries to hold the dog still, but Rex twists out of his grip. As Peterson brings the muzzle to its face, his right hand, which is clenched into a fist, comes falling down and bops Rex on the nose. The dog recoils backwards like a stallion rearing up on its hind legs and knocks Peterson to the ground. The old man lies there motionless. Then with a fury born of a million years of instinct, the dog lunges at Grandpa. Grandpa falls to his knees and yells, “Go get help!”

I spin around and sprint like the devil. When I get into the house, I look back. Grandpa has slipped off his jacket and wrapped it around his forearm for protection, shielding himself from the dog’s gnashing fangs. I don’t know what to do. I can’t find a phone anywhere. I knock over a dining room chair on my way out the front door. I begin to run down the long driveway toward Clara’s house. I stop. My clothes are wet with sweat. What would Robert Running Bear do?

I turn around. I race back to the front yard and kneel by the pond. Water trickles over my hand as I pull out a flat rock from the wall. I hurry back through the house.

Grandpa is lying on his back. His jacket has been ripped to shreds and blood covers his face and shirt. The dog swirls madly above him.

I step outside and heave the rock like a shot put. “Grandpa!” The rock lands with a thud about two feet away.

Grandpa crawls on his back toward it. He wraps his hand around the rock.

I pray. Then I hear a clap of thunder and an ungodly squeal. It is over. I rush to Grandpa’s side. The dog has marbles for eyes and is crumpled into a ball. I take off my belt and wrap it around Grandpa’s bicep like he tells me to. His forearm is mangled. Peterson is still out cold. I calm down and run to Clara’s house for help.

*

In the hospital Grandpa has a white bandage covering his forearm. After two days, they are ready to let him go. He puts the arm into a sling and laughs, “The doctor says when they take this off, it’s going to be a real shiner.”

Back at the farm the Indians are in the field clearing the rows of corn with a combine. Robert Running Bear drives the machine while Daniel Black Swan and another Indian pick up stray ears of corn and toss them into the back. “Those are Good Samaritans,” says Grandpa. “That’s what they are. A group of Good Samaritans returning a favor.”

Robert Running Bear stops the combine and walks over. He plucks a falcon feather from his leather band. Then he ties a knot in my hair and tightens it around the quill. “From now on, you are David Running Dog.”

Grandpa smiles.

Jimmy stomps the ground in a rage. “I could have done that. I could have.” He looks in awe at Robert Running Bear and the other Indians.

They go back to work all sweaty and dirty.
pencil

“I am a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. My short stories have been published in the following magazines: The Funny Paper, Penny-A-Liner, Northwoods Journal, Creative With Words Publications, and Tale Spinners. I am also a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.” E-mail: rraflw[at]aol.com

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