Stickball (similar to lacrosse) was know as the "Little Brother of War". It was the game where boys and young men learned the skills of war and how to move as one in battle. The best players could communicate without words. Willow and Loon are thrown into a game with their Algonquin hosts and put on opposite teams. The People of the Lakes were excited to see how well they could play.
Click through the gallery below to see photos and illustrations by artist Tom McNeely featured in Enemy Arrows by Will O’Hara
Excerpt from the book
Late in the morning, after sacred chants by the elders, the stickball game began. The playing field took up the entire beach—from the water’s edge to the rocks and huts behind the sandy meadow. The canoes had been moved to the shore beyond the goal posts planted at each end. A cool breeze blew off the lake.
Falcon gave Willow and Loon two battered sticks to play with. Their moose-hide netting was tough and hard and they showed the marks of many years of hard play, but they were light and well balanced.
“You be on my side,” Falcon said to Willow. “Your friend will be on their side.” He looked at Loon and pointed to a knot of players at the far end of the beach.
“I always play with Willow when we’re at home,” said Loon.
“You’re in our home now,” said Falcon with his piercing stare.
Willow gave Loon a nudge. “Play well, Loon—but not too well. Remember we’re the guests.”
“No, no. Don’t hold back because you’re guests!” Falcon protested.
“You say you’re the best. We want to see for ourselves.”
A pair of old women put out the breakfast fires on the beach and cleared away any loose branches. Then they joined the other women sitting on the rocks overlooking the beach with the children and elders, who were waiting excitedly for the game to start, yelling and clapping their hands.
It was going to be a small game with only twelve players on each team. Willow was introduced to his teammates—men and youths of every shape and size and age. Falcon spoke loudly to them, getting more and more boisterous, until finally he raised his stick and yelled wildly at the sky. The others raised their sticks and yelled even louder.
At the far end of the beach the players on Loon’s team yelled back, brandishing their sticks above their heads. The spectators joined in the cheering, whacking broken branches against the rocks to add to the noise.
Grackle, the chief, stood at the water’s edge, midway between the two posts, holding the ball. When he raised his hand above his head, the game was on—and both teams ran toward him at full speed. Just before they collided he threw the ball high. It arced near the sparkling blue sky and came down toward Loon. He raised his stick above his head to make the catch, but a heavy player from the other team knocked him to the ground before he could touch the ball. Then a mob of players ran over him while he lay face down in the sand.
Willow charged to the far end of the beach after Falcon and the rest of his team. Although he was a fast runner, he wasn’t used to playing on sand. The other players darted from side to side across the beach, but he couldn’t keep up until he moved onto the grassy area near the huts.
“I’m in the open!” he cried to his teammates. “Pass it to me!” No one did. Instead, the ball whizzed back and forth among the other players on the beach.
Loon attempted to intercept the passes without success. At one point the ball flew past his head and splashed into the lake behind him. He raced to scoop it out of the water, but another player landed on him with full force—and then another—and another. He was buried under water with the wind knocked out of him. Finally, someone grasped the wet ball and hurled it toward the post at the far end of the beach. The mass of players lifted themselves off Loon’s flattened body and sped after it.
Falcon caught the soaked ball, twisted in mid-air, and passed it to Willow before he touched the ground. Willow made the catch, but the force of the wet, heavy deerskin surprised him. The ball pushed his stick aside and kept going until it was caught by an opposing player, who raced down the beach and slammed it at the post. It left a dark blotch before falling on the sand with a thud. The spectators screamed and beat their branches on the rocks. Willow looked down the length of the beach at Loon’s teammates and noticed Loon vomiting in the lake nearby.
Lynx sat beside the chief on the rocks above the beach with a smile on his face. He wasn’t cheering for either team.
Falcon came up behind Willow and slapped him hard on the shoulder, pushing him forward. “Good try for that catch,” he said, as he dashed off in the direction of the ball. Willow ran after him, trying desperately to follow the play.
Out of nowhere, a long pass came from the knot of players at the end of the beach. The ball hit the ground at Willow’s feet, spraying him with sand. He scooped it up and ran toward the post. Two opponents stood between him and the goal and there was no one on his team nearby. Instantly the two players charged him. As Willow lifted his stick to hurl the ball over their heads, his stick was hit from behind. He turned around to see Loon’s stick raised above him. The ball flew into the air and was snatched by one of Willow’s opponents who headed down the beach—with Willow and Loon on his heels.
Willow turned to see the ball hurtling past his head toward Loon. This time it was his turn to knock it away from his friend. He swung at Loon’s stick, but missed, so Loon kept running ahead—right into the path of Falcon. When he dodged to his left Falcon followed. When he leapt back to his right, Falcon jumped in front of him again. With nowhere to go, Loon held the ball above his head and ran straight at Falcon with Willow on his tail. Falcon crouched low like a tree stump and sent Loon tumbling over him.
Willow and Falcon bolted after the ball toward the far end of the beach, leaving Loon gasping for breath in the sand. An old man sitting on the rocks turned to Lynx and smiled the toothless smile of a seasoned stickball player.
As hard as he tried, Willow couldn’t catch up to the passes of the opposing team. The ball seemed to go all around him, but he was never close enough to intercept it. He was getting dizzy from running and was having trouble telling the teams apart. Then the ball rolled past him into the water. He scooped it up with his stick and paused ready to throw, trying first to read the play and observe the position of the players.
His nearest opponent was charging toward him. Falcon and two others on his team were racing toward the post at the far end of the beach with sticks held high, ready to catch a long, long pass. They were in the clear. The rest of the opposing players were approaching him with looks of glee on their faces. He could tell they wanted to shove him under the water as they had done to Loon.
In a flash he recalled what Moose had said about running from memory. He thought of the time he had raced through the forest with his eyes closed, trying to remember where the trees were. In the instant before the opposing players landed on him, he hurled the ball high into the sky, so it would land behind the thundering mob.
To his relief they stopped and looked up for the ball—but they couldn’t see it beside the blinding sun.
He lowered his head like a buck and charged through the squinting, staggering group. Most of the players were heavier than he was, but catching them off guard he sent them rolling in different directions, all the time keeping the path of the ball in his memory. Without looking, he pictured the ball arcing beside the sun and falling toward the beach somewhere close to him.
Then he saw the shadow of the ball on the sand ahead. It fell directly on its shadow with a thump. Willow scooped it up and hurled it to the far end of the beach where Falcon had been standing—but Falcon had moved. The ball was caught by an opposing player who leaned back and hurled it with all his force to the other end of the beach, where one of his teammates caught it and slammed it against the post. Willow saw his brilliant play go up in smoke.
Whoops of joy came from the spectators on the rocks.
“Good play!” shouted Falcon to Willow as he flashed past. Willow saw Loon struggling to walk toward the far end of the beach and ran toward him.
“You took a bad fall,” said Willow.
“I didn’t fall,” he replied, breathing heavily and shaking his head.
“I was ambushed.”
“Are you hurt?”
Loon stopped walking and leaned close to Willow’s ear. “I’m having trouble keeping the teams straight,” he said, gasping for breath and spitting sand as he spoke. “I know you and I are on opposite sides, but I have a feeling all the other players are against us. Something isn’t right.”
“They are against us. We’re from a different team. We know it and they know it.”
“They want to kill us!” yelled Loon over the cheering.
“I think they just want to injure us,” answered Willow. “Play your best.”
The ball whizzed past Loon’s head at the speed of an arrow. “They’re going to kill us!” he shrieked, as he shot after the ball with Willow following close behind him.
“Your warriors play with determination,” said the chief to Lynx.
“Yes, they do. And they will learn from your warriors,” replied Lynx. “Soon they’ll have the skills to match their determination. When they return home they’ll be unbeatable.”
The chief received the compliment with a satisfied sigh. “There’s much they can teach us as well.”