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From the July 1948 issue of Jewish Currents (then Jewish Life), reprinted from our Sid Resnick ArchiveTo see a scanned copy of the article as originally published, click here.

WHERE ARE YOUR GUNS?

by Howard Fast

IN THE LAND of the goyim, my father traded with the Indians. We traded for beaver, and my father’s word was as good as his bond, and we never carried a weapon except for our knives. From the lakes in the north to the canebrake in the south and as far west as the great river — there we traded and we never carried a weapon, never a musket or a rifle or a pistol, for these are weapons of death; and if you deal with death, what else can you expect in return? Is it not said in the Book, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart”? And is it not also said, “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles”?

Among the Mingoes, we dwelt and traded, and among the Delawares, too, and among the Wyandottes and the Shawnees and the Eries and the Miamis and the Kickapoos, and even among the Menomini, where only the French have been, and never did we carry a weapon. “Men do not kill for the sake of killing,” my father answered once to a hunter who could not understand why we didn’t walk in fear of the red savage. “My people walked in fear for too long,” my father said. “I don’t fear what is different.”

The hunter was one who slew his meat and ate it, even as the red men do, but our law is different. We kept the law. Would you understand if I told you how we suffered to keep the law? The law says that when a beast is slain, it must be with the hand of a holy man, so that the life blood will run out as an offering to God rather than as a wanton slaughter of one of His creatures — with God’s will and God’s blessing.

Long, long ago, when I was only nine, my father said, “The high holy days are coming, and we have not sat down with our own people since your mother’s death three years ago,” speaking in the old tongue, which he taught me so carefully, being a man of learning. “I would have you pray for your mother’s soul, and I would be with my own people for a little while, there is such a hunger in me.” So we saddled our horses and made the long journey eastward to Philadelphia, where were a handful of our own people. Not that they welcomed us so well, we were two such wild buckskin folk, my father’s great black beard falling to his waist; but we prayed with them and we ate meat with them.

You would have thought that we were unclean, they were such fine people there in Philadelphia, and when they talked about certain things, politics and who ruled over whom, indeed we sat as silent as the red men in their own woods. What does a man who trades with the Indians know of politics, my father thought? And what is it to a Jew who rules over a land? A Jew is a Jew, whether it be the old world or this new world, where the forest rolls like the sea. But when they talked of the law and of holy things, then it was different, for my father was a man of learning, and when he lifted the meat to his mouth, he pointed out that this was the first meat he or I had eaten in years — and even since that day in Philadelphia, no unclean meat passed our lips.

I speak of this because I must make you understand my father, the man who traded with the Indians, so you will not judge me too harshly. I am not my father. My father fared forth to a wild land from far-off Poland, and of Poland I know no more than a dream and a legend, nor do I care. With his own hands he buried his wife in the wilderness, and he was mother and father to me, even though he left me with the Indians when I was small, and I lived in their lodges and learned their tongue. I am not like my father. He had a dream, which was to trade with the Indians until there was enough money to buy freedom, peace, security — all those things which, so it goes, only money can buy for a Jew; and because he had that dream, he never knew any comfort and the taste of meat was a strange thing to him. A stream of beaver skins went back to the company on the donkeys and the flat-boats that were owned by the company, and all of it went to a place called London, and in this place there was a thing called an account.

Those were names and words and without meaning to me. I cared nothing of the beaver skins and nothing of the account, but if my father said that these things were of such importance, then indeed they were, even as the law was. I knew other things; I knew the talk of the Shawnees, and Algonquin talk, and I could make palaver with the men of the Six Nations, too, if need be. I knew Yankee talk, the talk of those long-boned hunters of the East, and I knew the French talk and the high-pitched nasal talk of the British, who claimed to own the land, but knew nothing of it and stayed huddled in their outposts and stockades. I spoke the old language of the book and I knew the law, and I could catch trout with my bare hands and steal the eggs from under the nesting bird never disturbing it. I knew the step and the stride of nineteen moccasins, and where the wild parsnip grows and the wild turnip too, and with only a knife I could live the year round in the dark woods, where never the sky is seen. By heart in the old Hebrew, I knew the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s, and I knew forty psalms. And from the time I was 13, I prayed twice a day.

 

I ALSO KNEW what it is to be a Jew.

But not like my father, whom you would have remembered, had you seen him come into Fort Pitt on that day. My father was six feet and two inches tall; fifteen stone he scaled, and never an ounce of fat, but hard as rock, with a black beard that fell to his waist. All through the woods, in those times, which are the old times now, the half-forgotten times, were Jews who traded with the Indians and went where no other white man had ever trod, but there was no one like my father, you may believe me. No one so tall or so wide or so heavy — or so sweet of speech and gentle of mien, yet I remember so well a cart and horse mired belly-deep, and my father heaved the horse out and the cart too. Or the time a year ago at the company post of Elizabeth, where two Delawares were crazed with drink; they would have been slain, for what is better sport for a redcoat than to slay a drunken Indian? But my father lifted them from the ground like puppies and shook them until the drink went out of them, and instead of going to their deaths they went home to their lodges and were grateful.

I am not like my father, believe me. No man touches my forehead, unless he kill me first; but when a hunter met my father and saw that he was a Jew and begged to feel for the two horns nestling in his hair, my father would smile and agree, and then kindly commiserate with the man when he discovered that the old wives’ tale was no more than that. Nor did my father sign for surety — ever, be it old MacTavish, who fended for the company in the north, or Ben Zion, who provided trade goods in Philadelphia, or Pontiac, whom my father told me to look at and heed, so I would know what was best in my own people in the ancient time when they followed the way of war and not of peace.

That was my father, who bound the phylacteries on his head faithfully every morning, and kept the law, and did justice to all who knew him. That was my father who came into Fort Pitt with me on this day. We drove seven donkeys and they carried eleven hundred skins, and for a month I had listened to my father plan how now we would go to New York and demand an accounting from the company, and there we would live with our own people and roam the woods no more. He was filled with it. A mile from the fort, we had stopped to drink water at the outhouse and mill of MacIntyre, and my father told him.

“No more this way, Angus” my father said, “but eastward and the boy will wear woven cloth on his back.”

“Ye been a woodsey man these twenty year,” MacIntyre said somberly.

“I’ll be woodsey no more. And young Reuben here will make a company of his own, the good Lord willing.”

“Heed the new commandant. He has no love for Jews, or for Scots either. I am glad to see you safe, because there is war with the Mingoes.”

My father laughed because we had bought two hundred skins from the Mingoes, and there was no war talk in their cities. But when we came to the fort, there was a new guard at the gate. The doors were closed, and the men on the walls wore yellow facings and shakos I had not seen before. It was a new regiment for the woods.

“Who goes there?” a sergeant called.

“Two traders with skins.”

“And where are your guns?”

“We bear no guns,” my father said. “We are Jews who trade with the Indians.”

Then the doors opened, and we entered with our donkeys, but there was never a smile or a nod. I looked at my father and he looked at me, but there was nothing to make out of his face; and when we looked around us, we saw that these were new men. Their cloth clothes were still fresh with the east, and they stared at us as if we were creatures; were we not Jews, they would have stared at us too, but there was that in their eyes that was singular for Jews.

 

WHERE, I WONDERED, were the Yankee folk, Benson, the smith, Bryan, the Cooper, Wheelbury, the harness maker? Where were the Indians, who were always a crowd in the fort? Where were the woodsey folk, the hunters, the French, in their green buckskin and red hats? Where were Stuart and Stevenson, the storekeepers? That too was in my father’s mind, as I could see, but his broad face was calm, and he smiled at me as we prodded our donkeys into the low town. As if this were the first time we had come to old Duquesne, soldiers barred our way and a British subaltern demanded of us:

“Who are you and what are your names?”

“We are Jews who trade with the Indians,” my father said. “My name is David, and this is my son, Reuben. Twelve years I have been in and out of this place, even when it was Duquesne, and I am known in the forest country.”

“I don’t know you,” the young man said, as if we were dirt and less than dirt.

“Then I be sorry,” my father said. “Stevenson knows me, for I have always traded with him and paid my loanings. Benson knows we, for he shod my beasts, and Bryan knows me, for he boxed my goods. I am not a stranger here.”

“You are a Jew and damned insolent,” the young man replied. “As for the scum of this place, they know the dregs of the woods. Where are your arms?”

“We bear no arms but our knives.”

“And how did you come through the Mingoes? There is war with the Mingoes.”

A mass of soldiers were around us now, and now I could see Benson and some of the others, but keeping off. I am not like my father. I would have made a story then, but it was not in him to speak anything but the truth. He was going to New York, but I knew of a sudden that he would be lonely and forsaken in such a place. The green woods was his home, and it was not in him to speak anything but the truth.

“There is no war with the Mingoes,” he said slowly. “I traded two hundred skins with the Mingoes, and I lay in their lodges this fortnight past. There is no war with the Mingoes.”

The young officer said, “You’re a damned liar, a filthy Jew, and a spy as well.”

My father’s face was sad and hard and woeful. I moved, but he moved quicker, and he struck the officer a blow that would fell an ox. Then we fought a little, but there were too many of them.

They put us in a cell and they gave us no food and no water. We were bleeding and bruised, but it was not hard to go without food. It was hard for my father to go without his phylacteries, but after the second day I didn’t care. They came every few hours and asked us to tell what we knew of the Mingoes, but what we knew was of no interest to them.

The colonel came finally. It is so different now that you cannot know what a colonel was in those days in a place like Fort Pitt. He was an English gentleman and he was God too, and he prodded us with his stick.

“How old are you?” he asked me.

“I am fifteen,” I croaked.

“You are large for fifteen,” he lisped, holding a lace handkerchief over his nose. “The Yankees come large, but I should not think it would be so with a Jew. I shall hang your father tomorrow, but if you will tell me what you know of the Mingoes, you may go free and take your seven beasts with the skins.”

“I know nothing of the Mingoes.”

“And how do you travel in the woods without guns? I am very curious.”

“That you could never know,” my father said, almost sadly.

 

EVEN THESE DAYS you will hear things said of Jews; it is that way; but once my father found a robin with a broken wing, and made splints for the wing and a sling, so that we would carry the bird with us, and he nursed it until it flew away. So I will remember until I die how the British drums rolled as they hanged my father, who traded with the Indians in the land of the goyim, and whose word was as good as his bond. And then they gave me thirty lashes until I bled like a pig, and they drove me from the fort to die in the forest.

A Jew dies hard, they say. l crawled a mile to Angus Maclntyre’s mill, and he washed my back and cared for me until I returned to my senses and could walk again.

“Weep for your father,” he said, “for you are only a laddie, and he was much of a man.”

“I weep no more and pray no more. My father is dead, and I am not like him.”

“You will be like him, lad.”

“I will never be like him, Angus, but I will make my word like my bond. I give you my word I will bring you forty beaver skins if you give me a musket and powder and shot.”

A long time the old Scot looked at me, measuring me and weighing me. “Go to the land of the Yankees, lad,” he said, “and wear woven clothes on your back.”

“The Yankees stood by while my father was hanged. When that redcoat filth drove the Mingoes from the fort, the Yankees stood by. When two Mingoes came back for the little they left behind and were slain at the gate, the Yankees said nothing.”

“How many of them were there?” the Scot said quietly: “They are a strange folk, dirty and bragging and mean and sometimes, in a most curious way, a little noble. Will they be silent forever?”

“Will you give me the gun?”

“You are one of them,” the Scot said.

“When they are no longer silent — I will be one of them. When they strike, I will strike with them.”

“And your father traded in the woods with never more than a knife. For the company. Are you for the company?”

“I am against any man in a uniform.”

“I will give you the gun, lad,” the Scot said sadly, “and you will slay your meat and eat it.”

“And other things.”

“Then put no price on it, for what you seek has no price but a man’s blood. You are one of them.”

He gave me the gun, and I left him and walked eastward.

 

Howard Fast (1914-2003) was the bestselling author of Citizen Tom Paine, Spartacus, My Glorious Brothers, Freedom Road, The Unvanquished, and numerous other historical dramas and sagas. He was an activist Communist and was blacklisted shortly after this story was published in 1948; Spartacus, which he began writing while imprisoned for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was self-published in 1951 and sold nearly 50,000 copies within four months.