When the Legends Die, p.2Hal Borland
The preacher said he must have another name now, and he said Thomas was a good name. They could call him Tom, he said. And Bessie said it didn’t matter because Little Black Bull would pick his own name when the time came. So the preacher sprinkled water on the boy’s head and Bessie laughed when it ran into his eyes and down his nose. The preacher said, “I christen this child Thomas Black Bull, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” So Bessie and George were married and the boy was baptized when he was two years old, almost three. George got no pay at all at the desk the next week because he had gotten that five dollars to pay Blue Elk for the marriage and the baptism.
They were in Pagosa all that winter. When the aspens came to leaf the next spring Bessie said she wanted to go back to the reservation. George told the man at the sawmill he was going to quit. The man looked in the book and said George owed forty-two dollars at the company store and he must pay that money before he could quit. George said he did not have that money. The man said it was less than four weeks’ pay and if George worked four more weeks and paid that money he could quit. George told Bessie this and she said they would stay four weeks. She could wait that long. But when George went to the pay desk the next week the man gave him only seven dollars because they kept part of his wages for rent and the furniture. And the next week the man gave him only five dollars because the sawmill broke down and didn’t run for one day that week.
In four weeks George saved fifteen dollars. But that was not enough to pay the company store, so they could not go back to the reservation. It would take longer, George said. But he would save that money. He hid it in his lunch pail. But someone stole his lunch pail. Nobody saw the thief; but Frank No Deer, who was a mixed-blood from the Jicarilla Apache reservation in New Mexico, bought a new hat and new boots that cost exactly fifteen dollars. George accused Frank No Deer of stealing his money and Frank laughed at him and said he had won that money in a dice game. Nobody knew of a dice game where Frank No Deer or anyone else had won fifteen dollars, but George could not prove this thing. So he started again to save his money to pay the company store.
It was August before he had saved fifteen dollars again. He put the money in a bean can and buried it in the back yard and did not even tell Bessie where he had buried it. One morning he found holes where someone had dug in the back yard in the night and the money in the bean can was gone. He went to Frank No Deer and said he had stolen that money, and Frank No Deer laughed at him again. There was nothing George could do about it. But Frank No Deer had bought a suit of clothes, the coat as well as the pants, and the man at the store said it cost exactly fifteen dollars. George had a fight with Frank No Deer and tore the coat off his back, and Frank said, “You will buy me another coat.”
They did not go back to the reservation that summer, and that fall they did not go back either because now they owed fifty dollars at the company store. But all that winter George saved money again. This time he saved it in green paper money because the paper did not make a noise like silver. He kept his green paper money in his pocket where he could feel it with his hand and nobody could steal it from him. He saved forty dollars that way, and two days ago he had told Bessie that in another two weeks, maybe three, he would pay the company store and they would go back to the reservation. They would go back even if they were hungry next winter. Bessie said that would be a happy time.
That money was in his pocket when he had gone to work yesterday. It was there when he quit work to eat his lunch. He went to get his lunch pail and someone had taken it. He went out to where the other men were eating and Frank No Deer had that lunch pail. George went to Frank No Deer and said, “You are a thief. But this time you did not steal my money because it was not in my lunch pail and it was not in a bean can. It is here in my pocket.”
Frank No Deer said, “I took your lunch pail because you did not buy me a new coat for the one you tore.”
George said, “ I did not buy you a new coat because you stole my money to buy that coat,” and he took his lunch pail. Frank No Deer tried to take it back and they had a fight. They fought and wrestled on the ground. The other men said George should give Frank No Deer a good beating, but George did not want to make bad trouble. He sat on Frank No Deer and pounded his head on the ground. Then he let him up and Frank No Deer went away. He did not come back to work all afternoon. After Frank No Deer had gone, George felt his pocket and his money was gone. Frank No Deer had taken it from his pocket while they wrestled on the ground.
George had told this to Bessie last night. He said, “I am going to kill Frank No Deer for this. Three times he has stolen my money and tomorrow I am going to kill him.”
Bessie remembered all these things. She looked at the boy and thought it would be good to go away from here. The boy should know the old ways.
In her mind was one of the old songs that her mother had sung when Bessie was the age of the boy. It was a song about the roundness of things, of the grass stems and the aspens and the sun and the days and the years. Bessie sang it now, softly, and she added words of her own about the roundness of a little boy’s eyes and arms and legs. The boy smiled as he heard it, this old song about the roundness of life. And Bessie sang about the roundness of a bird’s nest and a basket, which was coiled and woven and complete, a part of the roundness of the whole.
She thought of the peeled willow twigs and shook her head. There were willows and there were black-stem ferns on Horse Mountain. She would leave the willow twigs here, as though she was coming back.
The meat was cooked. She smelled it. They went inside. She said to the boy, “You will eat well. Then you will sleep before we go.” They ate, and it was sunset. She put the boy to bed and he put his head against her and touched her cheek with his hand. Then he went to sleep and she waited for the deep darkness, saying thanks that there would be no moon.
THE STAR THAT WAS a hunter with a pack on his back was halfway down the sky in the northwest when she went out on the step and listened. Everything was quiet. She had made no light in the house, so her eyes could see in this darkness. As she waited, listening, she saw the horseweeds in the starlight and the shadowy trees and brush on the hillside beyond the valley. She went down the path to the alley, and nobody was there. As she came back she saw the ax beside the kindling pile. She had forgotten the ax. She set it on the step, then went around the house. Nobody was in the street. There was a light in the house where Fred Badger and his woman, Sally, lived, and there was another light down the street. But nobody was watching. She knew this.
She went inside and wakened the boy. She smoothed the bed, then whispered to the boy, “Do not talk. Stay close to me. When I let go your hand, hold to my skirt and walk where I walk. We will make a game.” She picked up the pack, put it on her shoulders, and they went out and closed the door behind them. She took the ax.
They went to the alley and turned left, not the way her man had gone. After a little way she let go the boy’s hand and he held to her skirt and they followed a path up the hillside. They came to a street and crossed where there was no light and followed the path through the brush again. Her feet knew the way. She had gathered wood for the fire from this hillside for almost two years.
They came to the top of the hill and waited to catch their breath. In the starlight she could see the road at the foot of the hill. The road led west, toward Piedra Town. If she followed the road seventeen miles she would come to the road that came up from Arboles, on the reservation. There she would turn north. But tonight she would go only half that far, to the stream for which she had no name. That would be as far as the boy should walk tonight.
They went on, keeping to the hillside above the road, following the paths the goats had made first, then the women used when they went to gather wood. In the starlight her eyes saw an owl, two rabbits, a striped cat from town, a jay sleeping on a branch. She wanted to tell the boy, tell him how to see these things in the starlight. But not tonight. Later, other ni
They walked for an hour and she felt the boy’s tiredness as he walked behind her, holding to her skirt. She put down the pack and held him in her arms while they rested. They went on again. The star that was the hunter with a pack on his back was down near the horizon, making the big circle the stars made every night, the circle, the roundness. It was good to know the roundness, the completeness again, not the sharp squareness of houses and streets.
Twice more they stopped to rest. The boy’s legs were weary. She carried him in her arms for a little way but he protested. He was not a baby. She put him down and they walked together again, and they came to the hill at the bottom of which was the stream for which she had no name. They went down to the stream and drank and rested, then went up the stream to a grove of spruces with a deep mat of needles. She pushed the drooping branches aside and they went into that green spruce lodge and she spread the blankets and they slept.
She wakened soon after sunrise and lay listening. The jays were scolding. A squirrel cried at them and she knew it was only jays and squirrels. She tucked the blankets around the boy, who had half wakened, and told him to sleep, and she took a fishhook and the spool of line and went through the dew-heavy bushes to a grassy place beside the stream. She caught four grasshoppers still stiff with the night chill and went to a pool below a rapid in the stream. She put a grasshopper on the hook and tossed it out onto the quiet water. The grasshopper struggled on the water, went this way and that, and there was a rush and a swish of water as a trout grabbed it. She caught four fish and went back past the grassy place and thanked the grasshoppers before she returned to the spruces for the knife to clean the fish. She gathered dry aspen wood and built a fire beside a rock near the stream, where the thin smoke would rise with the morning mist from the water, and she put green sticks inside the fish to hold them open and set them against the rock beside the fire to cook. When they were cooked she took them back to the spruces and wakened the boy and they ate. Then they went down to the pool and washed themselves and they sat naked on a rock, clean and rested and fed, and watched the sun rise over the mountain on the other side of the road, half a mile away. She sang the song to the sun rising, the song for washing yourself in the morning when the sun is rising. She sang it softly, and the boy sang a part of it with her. He did not know all the words. She said he would learn the words another morning, as she had learned them from her own mother, as those words had come down from the mothers and grandmothers since long ago. They put on their clothes and went back to the spruces and packed their things. Then they went on again.
That afternoon they came to the place where the road from Arboles met the road from Pagosa to Piedra Town. They sat in the scrub oak on the hillside and rested and she watched the roads. Nobody came along either road. Then they went north where there was no road but only the game trails and before sunset they came to the east branch of the Piedra River. There she caught fish before she and the boy followed a small stream up a rocky hillside and found a cave in which to spend the night.
The next afternoon they came to the foot of Horse Mountain.
She did not go to the place where the black-stem ferns grow. She turned the other way and went for almost an hour up a valley with a stream so small she could step across it. But there were fish in that water. She caught enough for supper and built a fire of dry wood and cooked them but did not eat them. She wrapped them in leaves and climbed the mountainside, being sure they left no tracks, and went back down the valley half as far as they had come. There she found a place to watch the valley, and they ate the fish and watched the valley until the sun sank behind the mountain. Nobody came. They went to a big spruce whose branches came down to the ground like the walls of a lodge and there they slept that night.
They stayed there two days, eating berries, building no fire to make smoke or smell. And nobody came, neither the sheriff nor Blue Elk nor anyone. Then they went back down the valley and around the foot of the mountain to the place where the black-stem ferns grow. She went to the spring beyond the ferns and found the sign that he had left for her, a leafless willow twig that stood in a mossy place. She pulled it from the moss and found that it had been peeled at the bottom. She put it back and chose two more willow twigs and peeled them at the bottom and thrust them into the moss beside it. Then she and the boy went up the slope to a sheltered place among the rocks and waited. From that place she could see the spring.
He came to the spring that evening. It was dusk, but she saw him. He stepped out of the deep shadows and took the three willow twigs from the moss, and then he was gone. She said her thanks to the earth and sky and the quarters of the earth, and when she had done that she drew the blankets around herself and the boy and they slept. He knew they had come.
It was not until the second day afterward that he came for them. He came where they were and he held her hand and he smiled at the boy. He said, “They have not yet come here.” And she knew he had gone back the way she came, all the way to the road from Arboles, and made sure nobody had followed her.
That afternoon they went over the shoulder of Horse Mountain to an old bear den under a down tree. They saw four spruce grouse sitting on a low branch and while she walked in front of them to keep them watching her he went around behind them and killed two with a stick. When it was dark he built a fire inside the old bear den and she cooked the grouse and they ate. They were together. It was a happy time.
The next day they went down to the Piedra River and followed it to the big fork. They followed the big fork till they were at the foot of Bald Mountain. It was three days, and he carried the boy all the third afternoon. There at the foot of Bald Mountain they camped for two more days while he went back to the big fork to be sure neither Blue Elk nor the sheriff was coming after them. Then they went to the far side of the mountain and he chose a spot close beside a spring and built a shelter. It was the first week of August.
A MOUNTAIN LION KILLED the deer. They heard the lion’s kill-cry in the night and the next morning he went up the mountain to look for the carcass. He found it in a patch of oak brush, partly covered with leaves, where the lion had dragged it after eating a forequarter and the soft belly meat. He searched the brush for the lion, hoping that if he roused it he would not have to use the rifle. But it had gone back to a den on a high ledge and would sleep, sated, all that day. He butchered out the meat and big sinews and took what was left of the skin, and he packed them down to the shelter. They had meat, and she had skin to make leather and sinew for sewing. She built a drying rack, sliced the meat thin to dry and cure. And that night he kept a fire going and sat watching for the lion, which came and prowled the nearby darkness, growling but fire-wary.
She said that if he would get more deer she could make meat for the winter. He said, “The rifle makes too big a noise.”
She said, “In the old days they had no guns.”
He said, “When I was a boy no bigger than he is I killed birds with arrows.” And the next day he cut a scrub oak and split a strip from it and shaped it with a knife. He cured it by the fire and in the sun and he split straight-grain dead pine and made arrow shafts and feathered them with grouse feathers and hardened their points in the fire. He hid where the deer came to a pool at dusk to drink and he shot all his arrows and did not kill one deer.
She said, “We did not sing the song for hunting deer.”
He did not remember that song. He said that a rifle was better than a song for killing deer, but he didn’t dare use the rifle yet. “People did not starve before they had rifles,” she said. And that night she taught him the song for hunting deer. The next afternoon when the sun was near setting they sang the song. Then he took his bow and the arrows and went to the pool, and that night he killed a fat doe with the arrows. He said it was good to know that song, and he made a small bow and blunt bird arrows and taught the boy to use them.
She made meat. She made leather.
One morning they saw that Pagosa Peak to the east was white with snow. He said, “Soon the leaves will fall. I am going to make a place where we will be warm this winter.” He went over to the south side of the mountain and came back and said, “We are going to go to that place.” So they made packs of their things and they moved to the south side of the mountain where the sun would shine when the short days came. He had found where an old slide had taken down a whole grove of lodgepole pines. He said, “I am going to make a house of those poles.”
She said, “I do not want a house. I want a lodge that is round like the day and the sun and the path of the stars. I want a lodge that is like the good things that have no end.”
He said, “You still think of the old days.”
She said, “I still think of Pagosa.” Then she chanted the old song of the lodge, which is round like the day and the year and the seasons.
He cut poles and made a lodge of the kind she wanted, and he piled other poles around it, and brush; and when the aspen leaves fell and littered the earth with gold you could not see that lodge even when you knew where to look. It was a part of the earth itself.
He built the lodge, and she and the boy gathered seeds of the wild white peas and dug roots of the elk thistle. They gathered acorns. They went to a grove of nut pines and gathered the small brown nuts. She shaped a grinding stone and ground acorn meal and she wove a basket from willow stems and filled it with the meal and leached it sweet with water from the stream. They caught fish and dried them on a rack set over the lodge fire, where the smoke would cure them on its way to the smoke hole in the roof.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes