The Atavism Of John Tom Little Bear
[O. Henry thought this the best of the Jeff Peters stories, all the rest of which are included
in "The Gentle Grafter," except "Cupid à la Carte" in the "Heart of the West." "The
Atavism of John Tom Little Bear" appeared in Everybody's Magazine for July, 1903.]
I saw a light in Jeff Peters's room over the Red Front Drug Store. I hastened toward it, for
I had not known that Jeff was in town. He is a man of the Hadji breed, of a hundred
occupations, with a story to tell (when he will) of each one.
I found Jeff repacking his grip for a run down to Florida to look at an orange grove for
which he had traded, a month before, his mining claim on the Yukon. He kicked me a
chair, with the same old humorous, profound smile on his seasoned countenance. It had
been eight months since we had met, but his greeting was such as men pass from day to
day. Time is Jeff's servant, and the continent is a big lot across which he cuts to his many
For a while we skirmished along the edges of unprofitable talk which culminated in that
unquiet problem of the Philippines.
"All them tropical races," said Jeff, "could be run out better with their own jockeys up.
The tropical man knows what he wants. All he wants is a season ticket to the cock-fights
and a pair of Western Union climbers to go up the bread-fruit tree. The Anglo-Saxon man
wants him to learn to conjugate and wear suspenders. He'll be happiest in his own way."
I was shocked.
"Education, man," I said, "is the watchword. In time they will rise to our standard of
civilization. Look at what education has done for the Indian."
"O-ho!" sang Jeff, lighting his pipe (which was a good sign). "Yes, the Indian! I'm
looking. I hasten to contemplate the redman as a standard bearer of progress. He's the
same as the other brown boys. You can't make an Anglo-Saxon of him. Did I ever tell
you about the time my friend John Tom Little Bear bit off the right ear of the arts of
culture and education and spun the teetotum back round to where it was when Columbus
was a little boy? I did not?
"John Tom Little Bear was an educated Cherokee Indian and an old friend of mine when
I was in the Territories. He was a graduate of one of them Eastern football colleges that
have been so successful in teaching the Indian to use the gridiron instead of burning his
victims at the stake. As an Anglo-Saxon, John Tom was copper-colored in spots. As an
Indian, he was one of the whitest men I ever knew. As a Cherokee, he was a gentleman
on the first ballot. As a ward of the nation, he was mighty hard to carry at the primaries.