Grass Dancer


Everything went white. The blast was so bright, it left its image etched on the inside of Roger’s eyelids. The heat singed his hair and the force knocked him to the bottom of the trench.

Artillery round. Didn’t hear it coming. Was it ours, or one of theirs?

He sat up and shook his head to clear his vision, but his left eye refused to clear. Wiping a hand across his face, he discovered that he had been wounded. Roger stared in disbelief at the blood smeared on his palm.

Further examination with his fingertips showed the wound to be a minor one. A small cut ran across his forehead, directly above his left eyebrow. At the most, it might require a couple of stitches to mend.

He was lucky. The artillery round had come close to being a direct hit. Fortunately, his flak jacket and helmet had taken most of the shrapnel. Roger started to get back up when he noticed Lt. McGee lying in the bottom of the trench with him.

Roger felt for a pulse in McGee’s neck, but his fingers slipped into a bloody gash. He fumbled a pack of matches out of his shirt pocket and lit one. The tiny flame showed that the artillery blast had ripped away the right side of McGee’s neck and a good portion of his face. Roger shuddered and extinguished the match.

He pushed himself away from Lt. McGee’s body and stood up. Smitty still fired away with his M-60, apparently unaware they’d even been hit. But as Roger stepped beside him, he noticed that Smitty operated the gun with his left hand. His right arm hung useless at his side. Bone showed where shrapnel had torn away the upper third of Smitty’s bicep.

“Hell of a blast, eh, Chief?” Smitty grinned.

“Jesus!” Roger said. He took off his belt and tied it around Smitty’s right arm to stop the flow of blood. “You stupid idiot. You want to bleed to death?”

“Don’t much matter one way or another,” Smitty answered. “We’re all gonna die anyway.” He nodded toward the fence line. Roger looked, and felt his stomach knot in terror.

The North Vietnamese had already reached the last barricade. In a few seconds they would be over it and down in the trenches. There were hundreds of them. Too many to fight.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Roger grabbed Smitty by his shirt and tried to pull him back.

“Ain’t going nowhere,” Smitty said, tearing free from Roger’s grasp. He turned back to his M-60 and fired away.

“We’re going hand-to-hand. You can’t fight with that arm!”

Smitty ignored him.

“You’ll be killed!” Roger shouted as he scrambled along the trench to take up a new position farther back. He wasn’t sure if Smitty heard him. Seconds later, a grenade exploded where the big man stood. Roger turned away and didn’t look back.

As he hurried along the trench, Roger realized that there was nowhere to run. The North Vietnamese had broken through the defenses and were about to overrun the base. Everywhere he looked, he saw the enemy. In the trenches along the south side of the base, the marines had thrown away their guns and fought with bayonets and knives.

Movement to his left caught his attention. Roger turned and saw a VC toss a satchel charge into a bunker. Before the VC could get clear of the blast, Roger cut him in half with a burst of automatic fire. No sooner had he killed the Viet Cong than two NVA regulars jumped into the trench in front of him, weapons firing.

He threw himself to the ground. The deadly spray of bullets kicked up dirt all around him. Roger shot back. One soldier went down, the top of his head blown off. The other, though wounded, continued to fire his weapon.

Roger rolled to his right to get out of the way. A pain ripped through his left thigh.

I’m hit!

He emptied his clip into the enemy soldier, skimming the bullets along the ground. He tried to stand up, but his leg crumpled beneath him like an accordion.

Get up! Get up! Get up!

Though Roger’s brain screamed the command, his body refused to listen. He looked at his left leg and saw that he had taken several rounds in the thigh. Blood spurted from the wound.

Oh, God. He hit an artery.

Roger knew he would bleed to death if he didn’t get medical attention right away. He would put a tourniquet on his leg, but he had used his belt to put one on Smitty’s arm. Unless...

He pushed himself up on his elbows and looked around. His M-16 was only a few feet away from him. The rifle was equipped with a sling that could be used as a tourniquet.

Got to get to it. It’s my only chance.

He gritted his teeth, rolled over on his stomach and crawled toward the rifle. He only had a few feet to crawl, but it seemed like a mile. His body broke out in a cold sweat as pain shot through his left leg. He stopped and took several deep breaths.

Come on. Come on. You can do it.

Roger reached out and grabbed the M-16 and dragged it to him. He unhooked the sling and tied it tight around his leg. The effort made him dizzy and it was all he could do to keep from passing out. He had just gotten the tourniquet tied when he heard voices approaching him. They were not speaking English.

Panic flared through him. He fumbled to get the empty clip out of the magazine and replace it with a full one. As he slipped a full clip into the rifle, three North Vietnamese soldiers came around a corner ahead of him. All three of them were armed with AK-47s. Seeing Roger, they raised their weapons and fired. Roger did the same. It was a good day to die.

Pain danced down Jimmy’s spine as he pulled himself out of the wheelchair. He held onto the car door for support and used the outside rearview mirror to look at his face. Aunt Ruth had braided his hair for him before they left the house, tying a hawk feather to the left braid. His request had surprised her, for he had never bothered to fix his hair for a powwow before. With a steady hand, he drew a line across his cheeks with a stick of red greasepaint. A line of black went just below the red.

Whey they arrived at the fairgrounds, Jimmy had waited until after his aunt went to speak with the head singer before returning to the car. He had left the back door unlocked so he wouldn’t have to ask her for the key. She hadn’t noticed the items hidden beneath the blanket on the back floorboard.

The leggings and breechcloth had been a pain to put on by himself, but he finally managed to get everything tied in place. The leggings were too long and had to be pinned up, and he had to stuff the moccasins with newspaper to keep them from falling off his feet. The ribbon shirt went on easily, though it was two sizes too big, and the porcupine hair roach was only cocked a little to the left. He also had to struggle to get the bells on, but he was able to bend over far enough to tie them just above his calves. Wiping his fingers off on a paper napkin, Jimmy reached into the car for the final piece of regalia.

He leaned his weight against the car door and tied the leather thongs around his waist. Once they were tied, he adjusted the bustle so that it hung in the small of his back. He had to hurry. It was almost time. He could hear the arena announcer call for everyone’s attention. Aunt Ruth would be with the announcer. In her purse was the letter that had arrived at the house the day before.

Jimmy double-checked to make sure the bustle was secure. Satisfied, he picked up the eagle-feather fan and dance stick in his right hand. He held his breath as he let go of the door long enough to slip a crutch off the back seat and under his left arm. A crutch was sheer agony to use, but this was one time when a wheelchair just wouldn’t do. Closing the car door, he made his way slowly toward the arena.

The crowd around the arena stood, many with their heads bowed. Jimmy moved carefully so as not to make his bells jingle too loudly. He didn’t want to be noticed. Not yet anyway.

The drum was set up in the center of the dance arena. A dozen or so singers sat around it on folding metal chairs. Jimmy noticed that several of the singers held their hands in front of their eyes, as if to hold back tears, as they listened to what was being said. The arena announcer stood and faced the audience, his left arm around Aunt Ruth’s waist. His voice echoed across the fairgrounds as he spoke into the microphone.

“Roger Thunder Horse was known by many of you. He was a fine young man, a skilled dancer, a loving son, nephew and brother. When the government called on Roger, he didn’t run away, like a lot of young men have done. He went to serve his country, the best he could, in that far-off place called Vietnam.

“A month ago Roger wrote to his aunt, Ruth, telling her how bad things were over there. He wanted her to ask the drum to sing a special song for him so that he might come home safely. Roger sent Ruth some money to lay on the drum to pay for the song, which she did.

“Well, this is the first powwow since Roger’s letter and the drum was going to sing that song for him.” The announcer paused and swallowed hard, trying to control the quiver in his voice.

“Yesterday, Ruth got a letter from the United States Government. Roger Thunder Horse died in combat while defending his base from the Viet Cong.”

A heavy silence fell over the grounds.

“At this time the drum asks that you remain standing as we sing a special veteran’s song for Roger Thunder Horse. We also sing it for all the young men and women still serving their country in Vietnam. May they come home safely.”

The head singer struck the drum with his drumstick. His voice lifted in song. The other men seated around the drum joined in.

As the song began, the head man dancer moved away from the bench to lead the dance. The other dancers — those who were veterans — waited until he passed where they stood and then followed him. The head lady dancer took Ruth by the arm and led her around the arena so that she, too, could dance to honor her nephew.

Jimmy pushed his way through the crowd and positioned himself at the eastern entrance to the arena. The regalia he wore had belonged to one of the finest dancers in the state. Wearing the regalia was one way of paying tribute to Roger’s memory. Dancing in it was another.

As the head man dancer passed in front of where he stood, Jimmy took an agonizing step forward. He stepped again, leaned his weight on the crutch, rolled his hips, and dragged his back leg. He bit his lower lip to keep from crying out in pain. He would not cry out. His brother had been a warrior. He would be one too.

As he moved out into the arena, Jimmy saw an image of Roger in his mind — proud, dancing like the wind — and knew that his brother’s spirit went with him. A few more steps brought him into plain view of everyone.

One of the singers looked up and saw him, a surprised expression on his face. He nudged the singer seated next to him, who also looked up. Just then the head singer — a large, powerful man named Henry Strong Bear — spotted Jimmy in the arena. Henry smiled, raised his drumstick high into the air and struck the drum a powerful blow.

The drum, like a heartbeat — God’s heartbeat — echoed across the land. The vibrations entered Jimmy, filled him. For the first time he felt what Roger had felt, knew what it was like to dance. The feeling took his breath, made tears roll down his face. He threw his head back and yelled. The other dancers yelled too, answering his war cry.

Jimmy threw his crutch away in anger. He expected to fall, but didn’t. If anything, as he shuffled along, his steps grew stronger.

He turned his head and moved his body, imitating the movements he had seen Roger do so many times before. He screamed again, in pain this time, as the bones in his spine straightened and realigned themselves. The drum sounded an honoring beat. Jimmy turned toward it and raised his eagle fan high.

Louder beat the drum. Louder sang the singers. Their voices lifted up to the heavens. Jimmy’s body burned like it was on fire, but he felt strength and flexibility he had never known before. He twisted and turned, lifted his legs high, and brought his foot down with each beat of the drum. He circled the dance arena once. Twice. Three times. As he did, a strange and wonderful thing happened.

Where Jimmy stepped on the bare earth, grass suddenly appeared. The tiny blades of grass sprouted from the ground and grew several inches in a single heartbeat. They appeared in the shape of a footprint, but quickly spread to form a thick carpet of green.

The other dancers stopped and stared in amazement at what was happening beneath Jimmy’s feet. A hush fell over the spectators as they, too, noticed. Some pointed. Others prayed. And then the crowd cheered as they realized that what they were witnessing could only be a miracle.

Jimmy danced faster. Gone was the pain that had crippled his body. His back straight, his head held proud, he danced like no one had ever seen before. And with each step he took, more grass sprang up. Thick. Green. Alive. The arena, once bare dirt, was soon covered with grass. New life to replace the life that was lost.

The song changed from a veteran’s song to a sneak-up dance. Jimmy dropped to one knee and shielded his eyes, searching for an imaginary enemy as he had often seen Roger do. He shook his bustle and rolled his shoulders, rising to charge the drum when the tempo picked up.

Singers from the audience ran to join those already in the arena. Leaping over benches and folding chairs, they raced each other to the drum. Thirty. Forty. Maybe even fifty. They stood eight rows deep. Their voices echoed across the fairgrounds.

And in the arena, Jimmy danced alone. Sweat poured off his tiny body as he twisted and turned. He saw neither the singers nor those who watched him. He saw only Roger.

Basked in a brilliant white light, Jimmy’s brother danced beside him in full regalia. Roger smiled as he challenged him, tried to outdo him, pushed him to dance even harder. Together they circled the arena. Side by side they danced the war dances, the sneak-ups and the crow hop. Together they moved. Side by side. As one.

The songs finally came to an end. The last drumbeat fell. Jimmy stopped and closed his eyes. He felt the pounding of his heart, and the wetness of tears on his cheeks. He didn’t want to open his eyes again, afraid of what he would see, but knew he had to. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked up. He was alone. Roger was gone.

“Bye, Roger. I love you.”

He turned and saw the singers by the drum, and the crowd outside the arena. He also saw the blades of grass stirring gently in the wind and knew that something special had happened. Last, he looked down at his legs and realized that not only had he walked, he had danced.

Jimmy’s body trembled as he lifted his face toward the sky and said a prayer of thanks. As he finished his prayer, someone touched his arm. He turned. Aunt Ruth stood beside him.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She wiped the tears from his cheeks with a damp handkerchief. She had also been crying.

Jimmy nodded. He took a deep breath and swallowed, choking back a sob. He didn’t want Aunt Ruth to see him cry. Crying was for children. He was the man of the house now. He had to be a warrior, like his brother.

“He was here, you know,” Jimmy said. “Roger. He danced with me. Did you see him?”

Ruth nodded. “Yes, Jimmy, I saw him. We all saw him. He was in the the grass.”

She looked into his eyes, and smiled. “And he was in you, Jimmy. I saw Roger’s spirit in you when you danced. In your movements, in the way you held your head. They were the same. His spirit will be with you always...”

“It’s in the regalia,” Jimmy whispered. “His spirit is in the bustle.”

“Not just in the bustle,” Ruth corrected. She placed her hand on his chest. “Roger’s spirit is here. In your heart. It will always be here. Forever.”

She took Jimmy’s hand and led him slowly out of the arena. The dancing was over for now. Behind them the grass continued to grow.

Part 1 |

Owl Goingback’s Books at

Copyright © 1995 by Owl Goingback
First published in Excalibur (Warner Books, 1995)

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Updated Monday, 13-Mar-2017 14:59:39 PDT