A couple of boys found it shading under the schoolhouse. They threw rocks at it till it reared up and started rattling. Then that Twillich boy went and found a big stick and got it to strike, which was when the girls saw it and started screaming. Mr. Dorfbruder came strutting out of the schoolhouse with his round bottom and his small feet. When he saw what the trouble was his eyes got all big and his face blotched red.
He called all the children back into the schoolhouse though they'd just begun recess. And he closed the door, something they never do in September. After a while Katie Haley raised her hand and asked could they open the door. You can just imagine how hot it was. But he said no, they needed it shut for a little while longer.
He kept the three boys late, writing out some Latin quote one hundred times. But when they asked him what it meant, he declined to tell them.
"You would not heed it if I told you," he said. "But one day, I trust, you will understand."
Word got back to the parents about the snake and the closed door and all. Next Sunday Henry Keirn, one of the boys' father, saw Dorfbruder after church and asked what the Latin phrase meant.
"They are our enemies only because we make them so," Mr. Dorfbruder said. "Seneca the Younger."
"Was he talking about rattlesnakes?" Keirn asked.
Mr. Dorfbruder had a sort of milky face that blotched up red whenever he was feeling something. He was growing a goatee, maybe to help him hide this, but you could still always tell.
"Anyway, teacher," Keirn said, "next time couldn't you just whip them boys?"
"The world is already consumed with brute force," Mr. Dorfbruder said. "One of the few occupations that does not rely on it is the teacher's. I, for my part, intend to keep it so."
"Well, I'm pretty sure them Romans just whipped folks when they got out of line."
* * *
When young Tom Van Hout had married Theresa Carlisle the town had written off to her teacher"s college in Youngstown, OH, asking for a replacement at the schoolhouse. When the teacher's college replied that they were sending Matthais James Dorfbruder folks were surprised.
They'd always assumed that teacher's college was for young women who were smart or spirited or maybe just biding their time. Still, they said, a man with a name like that ought to be six feet tall and have some money. Then Dorfbruder had stepped off the train with one suit of clothes and a damp handshake, and folks had just swallowed and hoped for the best.
Among the first thing he'd mentioned was that his people were Anabaptists. He himself had left the Amish religion to pursue learning, he explained, but he remained a strict pacifist. Because of this, he assured them their children would not be whipped or subjected to competitive games.
Everyone was respectful, but Dorfbruder had a way of talking that made people not know what to say. Missie Burton had asked him how was his room.
"Oh, about the midparts of fortune," Dorfbruder said.
"That's good?" Missie asked.
"Yes, neither Spartan nor Epicurean for me."
Missie had smiled as if she'd understood. There was a lot of that with Dorfbruder.
After he'd been had to dinner folks didn't mind much about him. The children didn't speak ill of him and he sang loud at church.
Then there was Blanche Miller. She was Walt Miller's widow. After he'd passed, she'd sold their place and we all thought she'd move back east, but she'd moved into town and worked with the mail at the depot.
I guess she didn't have much family. She was taller than Dorfbruder and heavier too, by her looks. She was smart and read books and smiled a lot and always had a kind word.
She was the only person, man or woman, who seemed to be able to hold her own with him and what was more he looked happy around her. They were seen at the Sunday school picnic and again at a dance—Dorfbruder didn't dance himself, but had attended. Then one Sunday afternoon they were seen walking together. We all thought there was a wedding not far, then there was that business with the snake.
One Sunday around then Joe Bolson showed up at church with his hair combed back. He was a top hand on the Gossett place, a young man just shy of thirty. Joe was tall and lean and all the young girls sitting up front blushed and looked down when he walked by to take a seat.
After church he was outside talking with Blanche. He'd known her husband, and stood there smiling and conversing modestly, holding his hat in his hands.
About six that same day I was on my way somewhere.
"Good evening," said a thick voice behind me. I turned around and saw Dorfbruder. He was sitting on Ma Edel's back porch. His face was all blotched and his eyes were as dark as a snared rabbit's.
"Nice evening to be out," I said.
"Drunk," he said a little loudly.
"Well, it might be a nice evening for that too."
He looked at me as if waiting for me to say something.
"How's Miss Blanche?" I asked.
"Spurnful," he said. "Inaccessible," he added. "Unattained."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Your sorrow makes no difference to my lot."
I thought that was pretty frank for a pacifist. So I said, "Why can't you get Miss Blanche? You're a young fellow with an education."
"Tell me," he said. "Do you think all pacifists are cowards?"
"I knew some cowards in the Army," I said. "Not many. But you're the only pacifist I've met to date."
"And what is your opinion of us, knowing me?"
"Oh, it's not mine to judge, Mr. Dorfbruder," I said.
He looked down at his shoes.
"I am not a coward, sir," he said without looking up. "I am small for a man and uncomely. I understand that. I love the noble Greeks and Romans. I love the learning of the pagans and I spared myself no pains in pursuit of them. Yet I retain my peoples' disdain for war." He looked up at me. "Violence begets only more violence."
I nodded. When you said it that way it wasn't difficult to think of examples.
"I have no money" he said. "And my manner makes people uneasy. In spite of all this, I am sometimes vain and I am ambitious. All of these things I grant, but I do not believe that I am a coward."
"No," I said.
"There was no need for anyone to kill that snake."
"No," I said. "I don't suppose there was."
He looked down, "But I am afraid of snakes."
"I always have been," he said. "My brothers used to taunt me with them, used to pick them up by the tail. But does that make me a coward?"
That depends, I wanted to say but didn't. I nodded a couple of times, as if thinking.
"Goodnight, Mr. Dorfbruder," I said, thinking about that letter we'd be writing to Youngstown Teacher's College.
He didn't respond.
* * *
The next day, after he'd sent the children home for lunch, Dorfbruder was sitting on the schoolhouse steps, reading, when two horsemen walked into the yard and stood their horses. Dorfbruder looked up when their shadows crossed him. It was Joe Bolson and another hand. Joe had been in town on business. He had dressed well and made a point to stop by the depot and speak to Miss Blanche.
"Howdy," he said, smiling.
Dorfbruder sniffed and went back to his book.
"I hear you got a real troublesome snake living round here," Joe said.
Dorfbruder flipped a page.
"Well," Joe said, friendly as could be, "I'm here take care of it for you."
"It's over there," Dorfburder said without looking up.
The cowboys looked and sure enough under the corner of the building lay the rattler, stretched three and a half feet in the warm sand.
"You two like to take the air together?" the other hand said.
Dorfbruder's face had started to blotch red and Joe chuckled. "No need to goad the schoolteacher here," he said. "He's had enough trouble and we're just here to kill that snake. We don't want to drive the man to drink."
The other cowboy snorted at this last line and Dorfbruder slammed his book closed.
He came off the step in big strides and made the corner of the schoolhouse before the horsemen could see quite what was happening.
Dorfbruder swung down in one motion and came up holding the rattler by its tail. Then he turned and walked towards the horses.
The snake writhed and spit, but it couldn't get Dorfbruder's right hand and every time it struck it fell back helpless. He walked at the horses.
"Here it is," he said. "You come to kill it. Here it is."
The horses whinnied and stamped.
"Whoa," Bolson said. "Now just hold on there, schoolteacher."
"Here it is," said Dorfbruder.
The horses strained, their mouths opened and their eyes rolled back.
"Are you crazy?" the cowboy shouted.
"Do what you've come to do, friend," said the schoolteacher.
"What're you—" the cowboy started but his horse threw him and bolted into the brush with a scream.
Bolson shouted something and took off after her. The cowboy scrambled to his feet and hobbled into the brush, cradling one arm. Dorfbruder stood there watching them go, still holding that snake like a shaman.
Then he swung it twice around his head like a boy playing a game with a bucket and let it go. He watched it land and when he turned back to the schoolhouse he saw that Josie Morritt and several of the older girls were already coming back from lunch.
After that, things changed. Folks couldn't help but love that story.
And though Dorfbruder never told it himself, he smiled and blotched up whenever they mentioned it. He and Blanche were married and lived here till he took a job at the teacher's college in Santa Fe. For his going away we bought him a copy of one of those philosophers he loved, Ovid, I think. Anyway, Not Walsh wrapped the book in a dried rattler skin for a joke.
"Leather bound," Dorfbruder said when they handed it to him.