by Charles Bane, Jr.
I was born on the birthdate of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and when my father, a coal miner, remembered it to his friends, these men, innocent of the world but for what they read in the newspapers, looked on me as some sort of talisman. But I had no childhood; the day gaped open for work, and closed for rest. I scythed what stood waiting, from the age of ten. My body moved to the wind and I chased after it with long strokes that cut the summer wheat. It is true that the disinherited do the world’s work, and when the sun dropped, it was from the left hand of a rich man who bent over the court where he would fire a volley.
One Sunday, my father gave me fifteen cents to see Wild Bill’s West, which had come to our prairie town, and its fairgrounds. I was speechless, and left the house that morning at dawn to roam the grounds and feel the freedom of the place. I watched the broad outside amphitheatre and leaned on a post. Men were hosing the dirt, fixing banners. A man, on a mangy horse, appeared, and trotted sleepily to where I stood. It was Buffalo Bill.
“You, boy,” he said.
“I need someone to fetch a pitcher of beer. Are you my pard?” he asked.
“Good.” He handed me a nickel. “You see that far tent, with the black horse outside?”
“Fetch a pitcher there for Old Geronimo.”
My mouth fell open.
“Scat,” Bill said, and I hurried off.
It was never too early on the Lord’s Day for drink from the Irish, and I ran to the saloon overseen by the widow who sold beer by the pitcher, and greater spirits, and who my mother never mentioned in the house.
“Is this for your father, then?” she lilted.
“No, for a player, ma’am, in the Wild West.”
Her eyes widened. “Tell them over there that we have free salted beef on our bar today,” she said insistently.
I raced back to the fairgrounds, found my way through the labyrinth city enclosed there to a tent, a little apart, with a well- cared for black horse, a gelding. I heard nothing inside, and drew back the flap. It was dim. A figure lay fast asleep, and I stepped inside.
“Sir,” I said quietly.
There was a stir. “Sir,” I said, “I’ve brung you beer.”
Geronimo sat slowly up on his cot. He was as dark as a colored man. He reached, drank from the pitcher, studying me.
“Do you want to buy my autograph?” he asked. “I can sign my name for twenty five cents.”
“No, Sir; I don’t earn money like that.”
“What work do you do?” he asked. “Your body is hard.”
“I scythe fields, yonder.”
“What is your name?”
“I am Geronimo.” He offered his hand. I took the hand of the worst Indian who had ever lived.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“No,” I said truthfully.
“I do not hate Americans,” Geronimo said, standing, “I hate Mexicans.”
He searched in the dark for his chair. His broad face was hard as iron. He found a seat. “The morning,” he said distractedly. ”I returned to my village from the town. The Mexicans had come, and killed my family. I stood like you stand now. I was silent as you. Our chief sent me to Cochise for help.”
I was dumb, then, “Do you like the Wild West Show?”
He looked at me like a wolf. “Have you worked since you were small?” he asked.
He reached into a knapsack, by the bed. He withdrew a knife, with an elk handle.
“Do you have a knife?” he asked.
He held the blade, giving me the handle. “You go to your work tomorrow?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir, to cut wheat.” I thought of the prairie, waiting to be labored into eternity.
“Take the knife,” he said.
“I can’t accept this. My father would not like it.”
“Tomorrow, you go to the field, and cut the heads from all the wheat. Then, you run.”
Charles Bane, Jr. is the American author of The Chapbook (Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems (Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by the Huffington Post as “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” Creator of The Meaning Of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida.