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When the legends die, p.24
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       When the Legends Die, p.24

           Hal Borland
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  He shouldered his pack, picked up his rifle, went out and up to the end of the street. There he turned to the hillside and followed the winding goat trails through the brush. He traveled northward almost an hour before he heard the flock in the valley below him. He sat down under a pine and waited, resting his shoulders from the unaccustomed pack, till the last straggling ewe and the last herder had passed. Then he shouldered his pack again, went down the hillside to the trail along the Piedra River and resumed his journey back to Horse Mountain.


  HE STAYED AT THE old camp site the first night, but even with the sheep gone their smell persisted. He had been so used to it all summer that he hadn’t noticed, but now it seemed to taint the air. Sitting by his fire that evening, smelling the light breeze that came to him over the old bedground, he had the wry thought that a good many things were like the sheep. You got free of them, or thought you did, but the smell of them kept coming back. Well, he told himself, that’s why he was here. He had got rid of those memory smells, all but one, and he had come back to get rid of it. He had put off his return to the arena for a week or two just to get this done, to wipe the slate clean. He was going to run that bear down, and if it was a grizzly he was going to kill it.

  He drank a last cup of coffee, ignored the sheep smell, rolled up in his blanket, and slept soundly. But the sheep smell was still strong on the damp air the next morning, so, after a quick breakfast, he packed his gear and moved to the little meadow. He had seen a seep spring there a few days ago, enough water for a one-man camp. He went there, slung his pack in a tree, safe from prowlers, and set out with only his belt knife and his rifle.

  He climbed the old trail through the tongue of brush to the little opening where he had seen the bear track and began to range the mountainside. The trail was cold and the mountainside was a maze of rocky ledges and talus slopes with a scattering of scrub oak and twisted pine. He climbed and he looked and half a mile farther on he found the remains of the lamb, two hoofs, a scattering of splintered bones, several patches of skin that had been gnawed by mice and pecked by magpies.

  He went on, circling, and in early afternoon he found a big pine with claw marks. The gouges were high on the trunk, as high as he could reach, but that proved nothing. A rock that had been at the foot of the tree had been rolled aside, probably for the bear to get at the ants and grubs beneath it. The bear could have stood on the rock and put its claw marks on the tree before it heaved the rock aside.

  He completed his circle, came back to where he started. He hadn’t found another sign, hadn’t seen one clear track. It was late afternoon. He went down to the seep spring, made camp. As he ate supper he tried to figure it. If it had been a big cinnamon it should have left more signs. A cinnamon is just a black bear in a cinnamon color phase. All bears are wanderers, but the blacks and cinnamons keep to a smaller range than grizzlies, especially if they have a convenient source of food. An old grizzly will travel ten miles overnight, stop for a light meal, then go on another ten miles or more. A cinnamon will eat, sleep, then go back to where it got the first meal. If this had been a cinnamon, Tom reasoned, it would have come back for another lamb. At least, it would have stayed around for a few days, hopeful. If it was a grizzly it probably would travel until it made a big kill, such as a deer. Then it would eat, hide its kill, sleep, then gorge again before moving on.

  It didn’t add up either way. Tom had kept telling himself he had seen a grizzly. But he had had only two brief looks, first when the bear killed the lamb, then when it turned and threatened to charge him at the little clearing. He had been so excited that he followed it into the brush unarmed. Could he believe his own eyes? He had found that one track, but couldn’t he have exaggerated its size?

  Woodward said, and his men agreed, that the last grizzly had been killed four years ago. Woodward could be wrong, of course. There might still be a grizzly around, a wise old bear that had outwitted them all. But the chances that it was the cub Tom had known were less than one in a hundred. A grizzly cub doesn’t reach full growth till it is six or seven years old, and there would be hazards all along the way, special hazards for a cub that had once been a pet. Some grizzlies live to be thirty, maybe even more, but even if that cub lived to grow up, its chances of survival this long were slim, with persistent hunters and bear-hating ranchmen. All the odds said that the bear Tom saw kill a lamb was a big cinnamon.

  But he had come back to run that bear down, identify it if possible, put an end to that last nagging hurt. This hunt had only begun. He finished his meal, cleaned his utensils, and slept.

  The next morning he went halfway up the mountainside, made a big circle. Late in the day, down near the river not far from the forks, he found a patch of pines that had been taken down a few years before by a rock slide. Poking around in the tangle he found where a bear had rolled two rotting logs aside to get at the beetles, then had dug out a den of marmots or chipmunks. It must have been a big bear to have moved those big logs. It had been there several days before and the tracks it had left were all smudged.

  He went up West Fork a little way and found a rotten stump that had been ripped apart, more of the bear’s work. But again there were no recognizable tracks. By all the signs, the bear was going northwest, away from Horse Mountain where he had left his gear. He was two hours from his camp, and as he worked his way wearily back up Horse Mountain he decided that if he didn’t want to spend half his time coming and going he had better move. Then he thought that if he was doing this the old way he would forget about camp, just take his rifle and his knife and maybe a small packet of food and stay with the trail till he caught up with the bear, sleeping wherever night found him. And, he thought with a bitter laugh, sing the bear chant! That’s why he had come back, he told himself—to be free of such things, to kill those memories, that last remnant of the past.

  The next morning he packed his gear and took it down to the Forks, went up West Fork a little way and set up a new camp beside the stream. That afternoon he worked on up the creek and found where the bear had dug quamash—camas roots—in a grassy opening. It had ripped up quite an area, flinging big chunks of sod aside, tearing them apart to get at the quamash in them. It had been there only two days ago, three at most.

  He spent two more days working the lower end of West Fork, but all he found was another place, upstream, where the bear had dug quamash. The second afternoon a chill wind blew up and the sky clouded over, and when the rain began that evening he remembered several signs of bad weather coming that he had ignored. The rain was cold, probably was falling as snow on the peaks. From the look of things it could continue all night, perhaps for several days. He got soaked finding dry wood, and before he had eaten his supper the drainage from the slope began to seep through his camp. The place he had picked was all right in dry weather, but would be miserable in the rain. He moved up the hillside to the partial shelter of a clump of spruces, rigged an inadequate roof with his small tarp, finally got a new fire going in front of it and rolled up in his damp blanket. He spent a cold, uncomfortable night.

  He wakened to a gray, chill, rainy day and got soaked looking for a standing dead tree with dry wood. With a fire going at last, he cooked breakfast and tried to dry his blanket. But the gusty wind whipped the fire and blew rain into his shelter. He spent a miserable day, feeding the fire and trying to dry his gear. And trying to make sense of what he was doing. He had been here a week on this bear hunt and as far as he could see he was no closer to the bear than when he started. Why, if it was a cinnamon, didn’t it stay in one place? Why, if it was a grizzly, didn’t it either move out or make a big kill?’ There were deer around. He hadn’t seen a deer, but he hadn’t been looking for one. There were tracks.

  Thinking of deer, he was hungry for venison. For a week he had been living on pancakes, bacon and trout, and his bacon was almost gone. Thinking of the soggy, half-cooked pancakes he had eaten today, his mouth watered at the very thought of venison. He told himself that
he would take a deer tomorrow, if it stopped raining. Butcher out a loin and live high for the few days he would be here. One loin, that’s all he needed.

  Then something deep inside said that it wasn’t right to waste meat. It wasn’t even right to take meat unless you needed it. Waste meat, and what you take to use will soon begin to stink.

  He shook his head angrily at the thought. Superstition! Who was he, anyway? A clout Indian?

  He felt the chill of water trickling under him and moved to a drier place and put more wood on the fire, wet wood that smoldered and smoked. No, he decided wryly, he wasn’t a clout Indian or he would have picked a better camp site when he had the chance. And seen to it that he had plenty of dry wood. And watched the weather signs. Instead of squatting on a creek bank with bad weather coming, like a fool on his first camping trip! All right, so he made a mistake. Another mistake. His first mistake was in coming back here instead of going to Albuquerque.

  Why had he come back, anyway? Because he saw a bear that he thought was a grizzly and got the idea that he had to kill it. Why? Because he was Killer Tom Black and wanted to forget that he was an Indian, that’s why!

  He laughed at that, a snorting laugh of derision. Killer Tom Black, the Indian who was a devil-killer, was just newspaper stuff, publicity. All right, so he had killed a horse or two. So he had a grudge—a lot of gravel in his craw, as Dr. Ferguson put it—and he took it out on the broncs. He made a reputation and he lived up to it, gave the crowds what they wanted. But that was all over now, over and past. He had got that out of his system. Now he was going back and ride for points, for money, and wind up his career in a few more seasons with a record they would be shooting at for a long time to come.

  He felt the rain trickling under him again, and the smoke in his eyes, and he reminded himself that he wasn’t in the arena or anywhere near it. He was right here, in this miserable camp, waiting for the cold rain to let up so he could go looking for that bear again. And the whole thing seemed very stupid. The more he thought about it, the more he felt like a fool. He had lived with everything that bear represented for a long time. He could go on living with it, he decided. As soon as this rain stopped he would dry his gear, pack up, and get out of here.

  With that thought, a decision made, he felt more at ease. He built up the fire again, found a dry spot to sit, and dozed in the warmth. When he wakened in midafternoon the rain had begun to slacken. Another hour and it had eased to a drizzle and the sky had begun to clear.

  He needed more wood. He picked up his ax and started to leave his shelter, and his eye was caught by a movement down at the stream. He stopped, looked again, saw a doe and two fawns come out of the brush. The doe sniffed the air, swiveled her big ears, curious. She was looking upstream. He carefully laid down the ax and picked up the rifle, got the doe in the sights. She was not fifty yards away. He fired, killed her with one clean shot. The fawns whirled, lunged into the brush, and he took his knife and hurried down the slope to bleed the doe, smiling to himself. He had been hungry for red meat, for venison, and here it was, practically in his frying pan.

  He bled the doe clean, then butchered out one loin and took it back to his camp, exulting. He chopped dry wood from the dead pine, built up his fire, cut a slice of venison and set it to cook. He hung his blanket where it would catch some of the fire’s heat, hoping to dry it out before he tried to sleep in it.

  The venison cooked with a tantalizing odor. It had been a long time since he had eaten venison. Finally it was done enough. He put it on his tin plate, cut another slice and set it to cook, and began to eat. The first few mouthfuls tasted wonderful. Then the taste began to change, he didn’t know why. He put more salt on it, and that helped. He finished the first slice. The second slice was ready, but he left it in the frying pan. Something was bothering him, and he was angry at himself for being bothered. Finally he exclaimed aloud, “I didn’t sing the deer chant, either!” He said it defiantly, then was silent, abashed and somehow sorry he had said it. He took the second slice onto his plate, cut into it. It was too done, but he ate it, telling himself that at least he wasn’t wasting cooked meat.

  When he had finished he looked at the rest of the loin and decided to cook enough of it to last him on the trip out. It wouldn’t spoil if it was cooked. Not so quickly, anyway. So he fed the fire and cooked several panfuls of slices and wrapped them and stowed them with his other supplies. By then the drizzle had stopped and the first stars were out in an open patch of sky off to the north. His blanket was still damp, but he rolled up in it and went to sleep, knowing he was going to get out of here in the morning.

  He had a restless night with bad dreams, mostly about his mother and the old tales, that he refused to remember the next morning. He got up, shivering in the chilly dawn, cooked a breakfast of pancakes and the last of his bacon, closed his pack and was ready to go. He looked at the venison hanging in the tree, more than half the loin he had taken from the doe, and he took it down and left it on the ground, where the carrion eaters would soon dispose of it. Then he went along the hillside half a mile before he turned and followed the easy trail beside the creek, not even allowing himself to look at the doe’s carcass.

  The brush was dripping but the air was clear and crisp, as always after a rain. A few degrees lower and it would have been frosty. He thought of frosty mornings at the lodge his father had built, when his mother sang at her work and taught him little songs about the yellow leaves and the hoarding squirrels and the fawns that had lost their spots. Some of the words came back to him now. He could smile at them, remembering, because he was going away from here and probably would never come back. Then he came to a place where he could look off to the southeast and see Horse Mountain, shimmering in the clear morning air, and his mind went back to the frosty morning when he went down the valley from Bald Mountain and the charred ruins of the lodge and met Benny Grayback and the old man called Fish, waiting there at the foot of Horse Mountain to take him back to school. That was a bitter memory. He put it away from him.

  He went down to the creek bank again, pushing that memory from him, and came to a place where the creek made a small mud flat. He went around it and started on, and turned back. His eyes had seen something that his mind had missed. He went back and looked again. It was a bear track there in the mud flat. It was full of water from the rain, but it was a big track. Then he saw other tracks, all of them full of water. They had been made during the rain, yesterday.

  He looked around, crossed the creek, and in the soggy soil of a game trail he found another track, a track clean enough to show the long triangular sole mark, the round prints of the five toes, even the claw marks, all five of them. No, only four claw marks. It was the mark of a hind foot identical with the print he had seen on Horse Mountain.

  He went on up the slope, finding a sign here, another there. A quarter of a mile and he found a stump that had been ripped apart, and beside it was the mark of a forepaw, the rough halfmoon of the palm, the round heel print, the round toe marks and their claws’ prints. There was no doubt now that this bear was not a cinnamon. No cinnamon bear ever had such paws or such claws.

  The trail wandered, zigzagging back up the mountainside, down through the gullies, doubling back on itself. It wasn’t more than thirty-six hours old. He forgot time until it was midafternoon and he was hungry and the pack straps were cutting into his shoulders. He went to a nearby rise and took his bearings. Off to the southeast was Horse Mountain. To the northeast was Bald Mountain. He was on the first bench of Granite Peak, and the only sensible thing to do was to find a camp site, spend the night, leave his pack and pick up the trail again in the morning. Then stay with it till he ran the bear down.

  He worked his way along the bench till he came to a place where a small creek bubbled across an opening with a thicket of lodgepoles pines at the back and a clear view to the east. The kind of camp site he should have chosen in the first place instead of squatting down there on West Fork in the rain. He picked a sp
ot close beside the creek and sheltered by the pines. He cut poles and slung his tarp for a roof, quickly laid up stones for a fireplace, gathered wood and built a fire. He set coffee to cook, opened the packet of cooked venison and put a slice in the frying pan to warm up. It didn’t taste the way it had tasted fresh, but it was meat, food. He ate while his blanket, still damp, steamed in front of the fire. Then he smoothed a place for a bed, rolled up and slept, dog-tired.

  The sun wakened him the next morning. He made a quick breakfast, stowed the remaining venison in a small pack, put everything else except his knife and rifle under the tarp, and went back to where he had left the trail yesterday. It was a cold trail and for the first hour he wondered if he could follow it at all. Then his eyes began to sharpen and he saw little signs that he had missed the day before. A broken bush here, a scuffed patch of gravel there. By afternoon he was able to lay out a line to follow, for the bear had stopped wandering at random and was going somewhere. He forced himself to stop thinking like a man and began to think the way a bear would think. It hadn’t made a big kill since he had been on the trail. It was getting hungry for something more than grubs and squamash and chipmunks. It would go down into the valley and kill a deer. Go where the deer were, anyway. He laid out a line and followed it, and knew he was right. Going down the long slope he came to a pine tree with a low branch where the bear had stopped to scratch its back. A few white-tipped hairs were still caught in the rough bark. He would have missed that sign yesterday. Now he saw it. And a little later he found a small aspen that it had bent down and walked along to scratch its belly, breaking the brittle branches along one side.

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