How I come to watch Smoker Mankiller die is like this . . .
* * *
âFort Smith!â My brother whispers across the room.
On Sundays we usually go on picnics after church out on the Barren Fork if the sun comes out and the wind donât
blow. Fort Smith is a place I only heard about. Us youngâns ainât been there before.
Daylight is coming through the window and my brother jumps out of bed and goes to dancing around the room. Heâs still
got the pink eye and I figure we ainât going anywhere today.
âI aim to go,â he says and fixes me with his good eye.
Outside the whippoorwills are calling and in the fuzzy blue light, here comes our neighbor Chicken Willie in his wagon.
Itâs piled sky high with a bunch of things covered with a blanket, and when the coast is clear my brother and I sneak out the window.
Effie has got all kinds of food hidden in that wagon bed. Itâs our Uncle Dreck who spends his time in Fort Smith. He is a peace
officer for the Cherokee Nation and Effie has made him a good wife.
* * *
Jars of molasses, loaves of bean bread, and baskets of fruit. It is hard to find a good spot in the wagon bed. I tip over a basket
of peaches and my brother puts his hand over my mouth and pulls that blanket down over us.
We hear them coming, Chicken Willie, Effie, and Pa.
The mules start to trot and up in front Effie sits fretting about Dreck cause Lighthorses like him got shiny silver badges and they
spend all their time over in Fort Smith.
âHope I got enough bean bread for everyone.â Effie goes on to say, âDreck donât get to eat right when heâs way over yonder. Just salt pork and some wild onions, maybe.â
âThey got Choctaw beer over there in Fort Smith,â Pa says.
And Chicken Willie says âAll kinds of tobacco, too.â
Then they comence to talking about the corn and the cotton and that Dominicker hen of ours that disappeared last Sunday.
After a spell they get quiet again and Effie says, âDreck aims to set Smoker free.â
They been talking about Smoker Mankiller for days now. Used to be a neighbor of ours. I only seen him once or twice. They say he killed a man.
âDreck ainât got nothing to do with it no more.â Pa says and Pa, heâs always right.
We get over into Arkansas and when me and my brother poke our heads out of the blanket, no one, not even Effie is
glad to see us. And Pa tells us he is going to wear us out when we get back over to Indian Territory. I donât put
no stock in it. He ainât never laid a hand on me in my whole life.
* * *
The big yellow sun is on my shoulders and Effie just keeps on saying oh, dear, oh dear, on account of little
children ainât meant to see things they got going on in Fort Smith.
I look around and see this big old river and on it is a ferry boat coming our way. I ainât never seen so many strangers
standing around in one place waiting for a boat.
âThis ainât nothing,â Chicken Willie says to my brother. âWait till we get over there to the courthouse.â
I am squeezed in between white women with umbrellas and bonnets on and all these men with their hats and moustaches. They
got their newspapers and theyâre all smoking and talking. I donât see no other youngâuns like me and my brother.
âSix of âemâ a man says looking up from his paper heâs reading. âAnd they all got it cominâ. Hope they got enough nooses.â
âHow far is the drop?â
âSix, maybe seven feet.â
âThey say he he oils them loops on those nooses just so so . . . â
A big white woman with a real skinny mouth and little round blue eyes drops her head like sheâs sad and she dabs her nose
with her hankie. âThere ought to be another way to handle these things. Thatâs all I got to say.â
My brother grabs his throat with both his hands and rolls his eyes back in his head.
âNow, Mildred,â the man next to her says, âThey got it cominâ. You didnât have to tag along, you know.â And Mildred, she
turns to the lady next to her and she says, âNo way on earth Iâd let my husband loose over in this wicked place on a day
like this.â The woman next to her clicks her tongue.
Then Mildred fixes her little blue eyes on me like she donât like the idea of me and my brother being there at all. I want
to get back under that blanket and hide and long about then this ferry boat comes all the way up to the bank to take us all
across the river to the courthouse.
I hear his spurs jingling when Dreck comes over to us to kiss Effie and help us unload the wagon. His badge sparkles in the
sun. Effie says he spends half his life over in Fort Smith and she donât cotton to it. Sheâs said it time and time again, but it donât do her any good.
* * *
âMust be a million people here,â some man I donât know says to Dreck and he starts in asking questions about someone named Sam Fooey.
Dreckâs badge is all shiny in the sunlight, and he sticks his chest out big like he always does and says âI never had nothing much
to do with Sam, and Smoker, well, you know how that story goes. No,â Dreck shakes his head, âit sure donât look good for Smoker. I done what I could. I done what I could.â
He looks down at his wide, flat feet. And all the while my brotherâs rubbing the handle of Dreckâs peacemaker heâs got in his holster and asking if he can hold it.
âCome on here,â a man with a camera says, staring at Dreckâs badge. âBring that family of yours and let me take your picture. I wonât charge you nothing.â
Dreck waves him away.
Effie starts to spreading out a blanket and lays out all that bean bread and fruit baskets and my brother licks his
lips and starts cutting up. He likes picnics.
âIâm with the St. Louis Dispatch,â says a white man with black hair oiled down behind his ears. âI thought you might have
something to say about this fella, Smoker Mankiller?â He takes out his writting pen and a piece of paper. âNot a person here can get a word out of him.â
Dreck motions him away, too, and Pa whoâs standing off by hisself all the while, he spits on the ground and he says
to the man from the St. Louis Dispatch, âYou go to Hell.â
Now here comes the six men everyoneâs been talking about and they line up together at the foot of that tall porch.
You canât really see their faces cause they stand in the middle of a bunch of guards. My brother and I got to
crane our necks to pick out Smoker Mankiller.
On one side of all of the prisoners is the hangman that Paâs been talking about.
He donât look like he could do nothing mean. He ainât very tall and heâs not very thick, but he donât smile none and he
is grooming his long beard with his hand. Long about then one of the prisoners holds back like he is a horse that is about
to start bucking. The hangman has to lay a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
Over yonder a white woman on a blanket jumps up and starts running at the prisoner who is now stumbling on his feet.
Sheâs saying, âThatâs my son, my son! Lord God, donât hang my son!â
And a couple of men get up off the same blanket and they wrestle her around and start dragging her away.
It gets quiet again and I begin to understand what we really come here for.
These men, all six of them, is going to die.
We watch the prisoners with the guards behind them going up the steps. They get on that big porch where they all sit down on a bench together.
Chicken Willie tells us they are fixing to say their last words, these six men that is going to die right in front of us.
Two of them are Indian. Smoker Mankiller wears his black hair chopped off and got on this calico shirt. Looks like
he has a necklace with a pouch, the kind that our medicine man out at the Barron Fork uses to keep the evil spirits away. The other Indian is Sam Fooey.
Next to them is three white men, and one colored.
Pa donât take notice. He is worrying over my brother cause heâs run off way over yonder where he is talking to some stranger selling
souvenirs. Then my brother comes a-running back with this big grin on his face and he shows me what heâs got in his hand. Donât amount
to much. Just a little old piece of rope and he give two bits for it.
Effie is looking all around for that fortune teller everyone says is here reading folksâ hands. Thatâs when Pa puts his foot down and
he tells her to take me and my brother off somewhere so we canât see.
Long about then, here comes this white lady over to my pa just like she knows him. Sheâs got the reddest hair you ever saw and her face is all painted up.
âCome to my place the day after the killing,â she tells him. âDrunker than a hoot owl! Oh, he done it all right. Bashed the brains
out of that poor man, and hardly remembered doing it.â She points to this little dried-up white man sitting next to Smoker Mankiller and shakes her finger.
The hangman stands on the porch with his arms crossed in front of him like he is important. He reaches up and strokes that long beard of his with his hand.
After a spell, a big, white man starts to reading the things these six prisoners done. And, well, they sound like awful mean men to me if
they done them. When he gets through telling on them, one of the prisoners, a white man, stands up in front of us and swears up and down
he ainât done nothing wrong and when he gets that off his chest the one next to him stands up and says he done everything he was accused of.
âI shot that man deader than a doornail,â he brags. âAnd that ainât all, I killed five other men, too and one of âem was a Mexican.â
His eyes go to searching all our faces like he is looking for someone else to kill and he goes on to tell us all that thereâs even meaner men
than he is right here in Fort Smith today.
His eyes settle on Pa, and everyone in front of us turns around and looks at him.
Then when he sits down, the next prisoner stands up on wobbly feet and talks about the lord walking next to him. He ainât afeared to die, he
tells us. He goes on and on like he wonât ever get it all said, and the hangman has had enough. He walks over and tugs on his shirt tail.
âSit down, now,â the hangman tells him, âYouâve done said enough.â
Well, someone behinds us hoots and hollers and everyone turns and glares at him.
The next prisoner is too sick to make his talk. So the preacher who has taken his place on the porch reads us a long letter he wrote out,
then the colored man, he says his piece and it donât take him long.
Smoker Mankiller is the last one. He stands up straight, holds his chin in the air and donât say a thing, just rubs that medicine pouch at
his neck round and round in his fingers . . . and you know something? He seemed bigger than the other ones when he done
that even though he werenât very big at all.
When the time comes, we all sing together In the Sweet Bye and Bye for the six prisoners going to die and the preacher tells us to
bow our heads and pray with him. Lots of the womenfolk takes out their hankies and blow their noses.
I bury my face in Effieâs lap and she holds me there real tight but I hear the sound. I hear the bump when they take that floor out from under them six bad men.
We come here all the way from Indian Territory and been waiting all day for this to happen. They told us it would be over before you could say Jack
Robinson but it wasnât. I donât know how long I kept my head buried in Effieâs lap.
Me and my brother ride back home in the wagon with pert near a million stars coming out over our heads. Up front they donât talk much.
Everyoneâs wore out âcept my brother who plays with that little old piece of rope he bought for two bits. He keeps making knots and
loops and showing out like that till its too dark to see.
Finally Chicken Willie says, âWell, it was done quick.â
âBut not quick enough,â Effies says. âDidnât you see him twist around and twitch? And that other fella . . . Lord! I
canât abide it,â she says blowing her nose. âNo, I canât!â
âDreck couldnât do nothinâ anyway,â Pa says to Effie and his voice is soft. âIt was all out of his hands.â
How come I want to say. How come Indians got to go all the way over to Fort Smith to get whatâs comin' to them? We got a jailhouse
over in Tahlequah. It ainât very big but sometimes they hang folks there.
Effie keeps on fretting. âI just hate that judge now. I hate him!â
What judge and How come, I want to say. How come when thereâs this hunk of bean bread left, itâs my brother who gets told divy
it up and he gives himself a piece of it thatâs a lot bigger than the one he gives me? He knows all his multiplication tables but my brother,
he donât know the first thing about divying. I can tell you that.
No. I donât ask how come. I donât ask how come Smoker Mankiller had to die like that over there in Fort Smith in front of some
of us folks who knowd him and could do nothing about it?
When the hangman slipped that noose around Smokerâs head, he donât got nothing to say. He donât say he didnât kill that man. He donât brag
about it and he donât talk to us about whiskey and the Lord. He donât say nothing. He just keeps on looking at me like I had a whole bag of
candy and wouldnât give him none of it, till they put that black hood down over his face and tied the rope around his neck. Looked at me
just like my dog done when he finally come out from under the porch. (Had those two big hunks of flesh taken out of his sides. It was a wolf
that got him but he got away.) Pa says when he got his gun and took my dog out to the field where they hunted rabbits, he got down low and
knew what Pa was fixinâ to do.
My dog. I couldnât do nothing about that then, and I canât do nothing now.
âThings like this, they come to pass,â Effie says and, me, I ainât big enough to keep them from going on and coming to pass.
So, I donât ask how come.
It ainât right is all I know and it puts me clean out of the notion of going to any more picnics. My brother ate up all the peaches, too,
over there in Fort Smith just like he always does.