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When the legends die, p.25
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       When the Legends Die, p.25

           Hal Borland
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  Then it was dusk, and he made a cold camp, ate some of the meat. He didn’t like the taste, or the smell of it, but he ate. Then he found a clump of low-hung spruce and crawled in among them and spent the night. The next morning he ate more of the meat, and went on. The trail led down across the valley to Los Pinos Creek. Following the bear’s trail up the creek he began to have stomach cramps. Then his head felt light and he began to sweat. He had to stop and rest, and when he started on again the cramps were worse. He retched and vomited twice, cleaning out his stomach, and felt better. But before he went on he opened the packet of meat. It had begun to stink. He retched at the smell, and he threw the meat away. Then he found a serviceberry bush and chewed a few twigs. The taste cleaned out his mouth enough and cleared his nose so that he could go on.

  Half a mile upstream and he found a mud wallow the bear had used the day before. From there the trail left the stream, and that afternoon it led him to the lower reaches of Bald Mountain. He thought he had lost it there, but just before dark he found a big pine where the bear had torn off strips of the outer bark to get at the sweetish cambium layer beneath. The tooth marks were still clear and the scar oozed fresh resiny sap.

  He made another cold camp that night, going without food. The next morning the trail led him onto Bald Mountain’s first bench. There, just before midday, he found where the bear had waited beside a deer run. It had made no kill, but it was hungry for red meat. Near by he found where it had slept, and there he found fresh scat it had made that morning. He knew he was getting close.

  Early afternoon and he found where it had made the kill. It had hidden in the brush beside a deer run until four deer came along—a big doe, a smaller doe and two last spring fawns. They came to where the bear was waiting and the bear made its rush and struck down the big doe. The whole story was written unmistakably in frantic hoofprints, broken brush, a gout of blood still drying into the dust, in spatters of blood and loose deer hair on leaves and brush where the bear had dragged its kill up the mountainside.

  He followed the trail, wary now, every sense alert. It was only a few hours old. Less than a hundred yards up the mountainside he came to an opening among the trees and saw the cache. The bear had eaten its fill, then crudely hid- den the rest of the carcass under a heap of scratched-up dirt and leaves.

  Cautiously he made his way around the edge of the clearing, feeling every step, making no sound. The bear was sleeping not far away, gorged. When it had slept off its first big meal it would return and eat again. Halfway around the clearing was a tumbled heap of huge boulders that had lodged there in some ancient slide. Moving like a shadow, he searched among them, making sure the bear wasn’t there. Then he chose a hiding place among the rocks and settled down to wait. The cache was in clear sight, nor thirty yards from the rocks. His rifle would be deadly at that range.


  AT FIRST THE SUN felt comfortably warm, but as the rocks caught and reflected the heat he began to feel scorched. His head began to ache and his eyes to burn, and his mouth felt parched. Thirst became a torture. He kept thinking of a small creek he had passed just before he found the place where the bear had made its kill. He should have drunk his fill then, but he didn’t. He was hungry, too, but his belly didn’t really demand food. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, when his stomach had refused to keep the bad meat, but he had chewed twigs and a few dry berries, sucking but not swallowing them. He could fast, but thirst was a torture. He put a few pebbles in his mouth to suck on, but that was little help.

  Then he began to feel the cramping of his muscles, the tension of lying in one position. He tried to stretch his legs and made a noise among the dry twigs that had lodged among the rocks, and lay still again, enduring the aches.

  The afternoon slowly passed. Nothing came to the cache but a few magpies. They ate and squawked and flew away. Then the shadows crept across the opening, the sun slid down behind the shoulder of the mountain and the quick chill of early autumn evening began to make itself felt. The rocks still held the midday heat, but as the first stars appeared a cold breeze flowed down the mountainside like a chilly mist. He edged closer to the rocks to share their warmth.

  Night came, full darkness. He tried to remember where the moon stood in its cycle, whether it was early or late, and knew that he hadn’t really seen the moon in a long time, didn’t even know when it came to the full. And knew that was wrong, since a man should have a sense of time, a friendship with die moon, the sun, the earth. He looked up and saw familiar stars. At least he hadn’t forgotten the stars he once knew.

  He waited, staring at the dark, shadowy mound of the cache. Nothing was there, nothing that moved. Staring at it, his eyes wearied, lost their focus. He looked at the trees, the clear line between earth and sky, at the stars beyond, forcing his eyes to see. The chill made him shiver and he hugged the rocks, and the warmth soothed him. He was very tired. He dozed, jerked himself awake and fought the drowsiness. He tried to shift his position, crackled the dry twigs and lay still again. He drifted into sleep.

  He didn’t know how long he slept, but when he wakened and stared at the cache he could see it clearly. Now there were shadows in the clearing, dim shadows. Then he saw the moon, a starved, irregular half-moon. Reaching back, he knew that such a moon didn’t rise till around midnight, and it was now at least an hour high so it must be one o’clock or soon after. He looked at the cache again. It was undisturbed. The bear hadn’t been there.

  He looked around the clearing, shifting his focus to ease his eyes. He waited, eyes open, senses alert. But nothing came, and he drifted into weary half-sleep again. And thought he saw something move, knew it was an illusion. Only the moon shadows were there, moving inch by inch as the moon climbed the sky.

  Then something was there, just beyond him in the moonlight. He tensed, gripped his rifle. And knew it was not the bear. It was a woman. He couldn’t quite make out her face, though he forced his eyes wide open to look. He still couldn’t see her features, but he knew, something deep inside him knew, who she was. She was the mother, not his own mother but the All-Mother, the mothers and the grandmothers all the way back to beginning. She was chanting, and her voice was both sad and pleading. Before he knew, he was chanting with her. But time after time he forgot the words of the chant before he came to the meaningful parts. He was singing softly, as she sang, and at last he knew he was singing the bear chant. He closed his eyes and chanted, his voice now remembering all the words, and when he had finished the chant he opened his eyes and she was gone. Only the moon was there, directly overhead. And his voice went on singing as though apart from him.

  Then he saw the bear.

  It came out of the shadows among the trees and it slowly crossed the opening, a few steps at a time, pausing to look and listen and nose the air. It was frosty in the moonlight. It was high in the shoulders and its face was dished, not long and straight like a cinnamon bear’s face. It came slowly toward the cache, then stopped and stared at the rocks where he was hidden. It lifted its massive head and smelled the air and uttered a throaty growl and shifted its forefeet, lifting one, then the other.

  He paused in his humming song and the bear’s ears stiffened, alert. It rumbled the deep growl again, took two steps toward the rocks. He sang the low, humming song again, came to the meaningful part, sang it. The bear stopped, waited.

  Still humming the bear chant, he carefully raised the rifle, rested it against the rocks. His eyes tried to sight it, but the light was dim. Wait, he told himself. Wait for more light. And, still humming the chant, he waited, and the bear turned away and went to the cache. It tossed leaves and dirt aside with sweeps of its powerful paws and dragged the carcass into the open. It began to eat.

  He watched, and his humming slowly died away. But the beat was still in him like his own pulse. The bear paused in its eating from time to time and looked at the rocks, now accepting his silence as a part of the night. His pulse drummed the beat of the chant and time passed. First
light of dawn dimmed the stars overhead. The moon began to fade. And at last he knew he could see the rifle’s sights clearly. It was time to kill. He pressed his cheek to the rifle’s stock, aimed low in the shoulder where the heart lay close to the ribs. He tried to squeeze the trigger, but his finger refused.

  He closed his eyes, fighting with himself. I came to kill the bear! His throbbing pulse asked, Why? He answered, I must! And again his pulse beat, Why? He answered, To be myself! And the pulse asked, Who … are… you? He had no answer. The pulse kept beating the question at him. Angrily he said, This bear has made trouble! The question beat back, To … whom? And his own bitter answer, To me! Then the question, as before, Who … are … you? And he, having no answer he could face, said, whispering the words aloud, “This bear did not make trouble. The trouble is in me.” And he lowered the rifle.

  It was almost sunrise. The bear nosed the carcass, looked at the rocks, sniffed the air, lifted its lip and sniffed again. Then it turned and crossed the clearing to the trees whence it had come in the moonlight.

  He watched it go, and when it was gone he asked himself if he had seen a bear at all. Then he saw the open cache, the white bones of the carcass gleaming in the first sunlight. But as he looked at the rocks and trees and sky and earth he felt like a stranger here. He waited, expecting the feeling to pass, but when he touched the rocks with his hand they were cold and unfriendly. When he moved his cramped legs the dry twigs made a harsh, rasping sound. When he got to his feet a jay screamed at him, said he did not belong here.

  He rubbed life into his numb legs, left his hiding place and went down the slope to the game trail. The bushes resented him. He went to the creek and the rocks bruised his knees as he knelt to drink. The water was refreshing until he stood up again. Then it made him feel sick, weak. Weak from hunger, he told himself. He needed food. He would go back to the carcass, find scraps the bear had left. But his stomach knotted at the thought of meat that had lain in the sun all yesterday. “ I will kill my own meat,” he said aloud.

  He sat and watched the deer run for a time but nothing came. He got to his feet, started down the mountainside, hunting, and heard the noise of his stumbling footsteps but was unable to silence them. He saw nothing to kill, found nothing to eat, not even dried berries he could suck for their scant juice. Even the twigs he plucked and chewed were bitter in his mouth.

  He went down the slope and across the valley, stumbling like a drunken man, knowing only that he must return to his own camp. He came to a creek and drank and rested among the unfriendly trees. Then it was afternoon and he went on, knowing he was a stranger but knowing, too, that he must keep going.

  Dusk came. Darkness deepened and the stars appeared. He tried to find a star that he could guide by, and the stars wavered in the sky. He waited for them to settle into place again, and he heard the All-Mother singing the star chant, the chant to the night. He began to sing the chant with her and after a little while the stars were clear again and steady in their places. He chose one to guide by, and he went on, chanting the night chant.

  And at last he was going up the long slope of Granite Peak, climbing through the brush and among the aspens and the pines that said silently that he was a stranger there. But he was still singing the star chant, though his voice was only a hoarse whisper, and the stars stayed in their places.

  It was almost morning when he came to his camp. He saw the sheltering tarp in the thin moonlight and he heard the sound of the creek. He drank, and he opened his pack and lay down and wrapped his blanket around him. He rested, dozing, only half sleeping, and when the flush of dawn lightened the sky he sat up, knowing what he must do. He put the blanket aside, stripped himself naked and went to a place where the creek made a pool among the rocks.

  He stepped into the pool and the cold, black water drove fiery needles into his legs. He scooped handfuls of water and splashed it on his belly and chest, then sat down in the knee-deep pool. The cold was like knives at his testicles and knotted his whole belly, and as the current piled against his shoulders the pain sliced at his very vitals. Then the pain began to ease and he scrubbed himself with handfuls of sand from the pools bottom. He bathed, and as the sun was about to rise he got out and rubbed life back into his legs. Then he sat on a rock facing the east and as the sun rose he chanted the song to a new day, chanting to the sun and the earth and everything between. Then, naked and unarmed, he started up the mountain.

  All morning he made his way through the brush and timber, over the rocks and ledges and gravelly slopes. Noon came and he stopped to rest, and he looked up at the sun and thought how round it is and how round is the path it follows. He looked at the sky, the blue roundness of the sky, and he looked at the roundness of the aspen trunks. He closed his eyes and sang a silent chant to the roundness of all things, the great roundness of life. When he had finished he lay on his belly, close to the earth, and let the sun beat on his back. He lay there a long time, the earth and the sun holding him between them. Then he went on.

  The last part was a difficult climb. It was late afternoon when he reached the top, already deep dusk in the valleys. He stood there and watched the sun sink behind a cloud on the horizon and send flaming colors that raced across the sky, gold, then pink, then purple. He watched, but he sang no song, made no chant. He had come to listen, not to talk.

  When the colors had gone and the first stars appeared he went down the mountainside till he came to a clump of wind-warped junipers with a mat of prickly needles beneath them. He crawled in and lay down, weak with fasting and fatigue. His muscles ached, his joints throbbed, and the night’s chill bit at his flesh. The prickles in his bed bit into his skin like tiny coals of fire. But he slept.

  Dreams came. First came unwanted dreams. He was in the corral at the agency and he was riding a huge, frosty bear. It lunged from the chute and he lashed it with a rawhide quirt and raked it with his spurs. It lunged three times, side-jumped, spun. But now it was no longer a bear but a bronc, the big roan bronc. It fell and he was trapped in the saddle. But he crawled free and stood up, and there was Red Dillon, saying “You double-cross me and I’ll break your goddam neck!” He struck Red Dillon with his fist, knocked him down, and Red Dillon was not there. A horse was struggling on the ground, a big black bronc. It lifted its head, snorting bloody foam, and it said, “A los muertos!” Then its head fell back with a thud and a sigh and it was dead.

  He wakened, so tense his muscles screamed with pain. Then he felt the cold and the fiery bite of the needles and he drew his knees up to his chest to feel his own warmth and he slept again.

  He dreamed he was a boy, lost and crying his loneliness beside the cold char of the lodge. Then the ruins of the lodge were gone and he was sitting in the night, watching the flames of the barn tower toward the stars, and the stink of smoldering hay was in his nostrils. Then it was in his mouth, the taste of hospital coffee, and Mary Redmond was saying, “Put away your tomahawk and take the feathers out of your hair!” And he stared at the white ceiling, which turned to a cloud of fine white ash, then to a cloud of stars and he was awake again. Awake and staring at the starry night sky through the juniper branches.

  Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.

  And at last the mountains voice asked, “Why?”

  He was silent a long time. Then he said, “I had to kill the past. I had to be myself. And now there is nothing left to kill except myself, for I did not kill the bear.”

  Then the four colors, black and blue and yellow and white, were all around him and the wind screamed and the lightning shook the earth. The colors became men and they made gestures to each other, to the four dire
ctions, then to the earth beneath and to the sky above, and they began to dance the bear dance. A deer came and joined them, a deer with a gaping wound and one loin missing. It tried to dance, but its entrails dragged about its legs, and the bear came and wept for the deer. Then everything was gone except the colors, and three of them faded, leaving only the white. And the mountain asked, “Who are you?”

  He could not answer, but a voice answered for him. “He is my son.” It was the voice of the All-Mother.

  Then he wakened, and the white was all around him, the white light of truth and understanding. And he saw frost on all the juniper branches, shining in the light of dawn.

  He lay there, at first not knowing where he was, then remembering. He sat up and crept out from among the junipers, too stiff with the cold to stand on his feet until he had rubbed life into his legs with handfuls of frosty juniper needles. He washed himself with the frosty needles, and when the sun rose he stared at it till his eyes were blinded, then sang the chant to the new day, singing softly to himself. Then he went back down the mountain.

  He went back to his camp, so weak from the fasting that he had to stop often and rest. He went to his camp and opened his pack of supplies, but he did not eat. Having no corn meal, he took a handful of flour, and he went down the creek to a place where deer might come to drink. He crouched beside the water and smoothed a patch of sand with his palm, then took a stick and drew a picture of a deer. He drew the picture and spoke to it, calling it by name, and said he needed its help. He said he had killed its sister and wasted her parts because he had forgotten who he was. He said that a man’s memory is a faltering thing, but that now he had purified himself and now he remembered. He scattered the flour over the picture, his offering to it, and he sang the deer chant. He said, “I will be quick and merciful, Brother Deer, and I will use your parts as I should.” Then he went back to his camp.

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