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When the legends die, p.3
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       When the Legends Die, p.3

           Hal Borland
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  The aspen leaves fell. The scrub oak turned blood-red. The wind sang a song of wide skies and far mountaintops. Ice came to the quiet pools along the stream. First snow came, six inches of it in the night, fluffy as cotton grass in bloom. It melted in one day of sun that was warm as June. Then the days were mild, the night frost sharp, from one full moon to the next. And one evening he looked about the lodge, neat and stocked with food they had gathered, snug and safe; and he said, “This is not like having a cornfield on the reservation or the company store at the sawmill.” She smiled at him and did not need to say that this was the way it should be. He was content. She was happy. She sang the song of the lodge safe for the winter. The boy sang most of the words with her. He was learning the old ways.

  Then the snow came and stayed.


  WINTER IS LONG IN the high country and the short white days can bring black hunger. But the Ute people have lived many generations, many grandmothers, in that land. They speak its language.

  Before ice locked the valleys, Bessie and the boy gathered willow shoots and black-stem ferns and inner bark and ripe grasses for her winter basketry. She made rawhide, and her man cut ironwood and shaped frames on which she wove the thongs, the webs for snowshoes. He made a new bow and he shaped and feathered arrows. Before the snow had built its depths in the valleys he went to the thickets where the deer were feeding and took fresh meat while the deer still had their fat. He taught the boy to set snares for rabbits. Then, when the drifts lay deep and the cold shriveled the rocks and shrank the days, she kept the stewpot full and simmering. She made winter moccasins and winter leggings and shirts, and when she had done these things she wove baskets. And she told the old tales and sang the old songs.

  Winter passed. New leaves came again, to the aspens, then to the oaks, and the surging streams quieted and spring was upon them. They fished. They picked serviceberries, then chokecherries. They made meat and dried it. And the boy was big enough to help with all these things. Then the leaves fell and ice came, and snow whitened Pagosa Peak once more. Another winter passed, with its wailing storms, its roaring snow-slides, its shrunken days. And no one came, neither Blue Elk nor the sheriff nor anyone looking for them.

  Again the aspens were in leaf. The Mariposa lilies bloomed and the cotton grass came to blossom in damp, cool meadows on the high benches. They gathered food. They lived as their people had lived in the old days. And a third time the aspens turned to gold and showered leaves on the lodge he had made as she wanted it, round like the year. He looked at the boy, now almost as tall as his mother, and he said, “One more winter and he can go with me and kill deer in the thickets.” She said, “He sings the song for taking deer. He helps you now, with the songs. And”—she smiled—“he takes rabbits.” She was proud of her son.

  The winter was half over. It was a winter of much snow, more snow than usual, even for that country. The snow had driven the deer to still lower valleys, and for some days there had been little meat in the lodge. Then he said, “Tomorrow I must go and find the deer.” She said, “Tonight we will sing the song,” and they did that.

  The next morning he put on his snowshoes and took his heaviest bow and best arrows and set out. He said he was going over the ridge, into the valley beyond, and that he might be gone overnight because it was a long trip and because he would be loaded with meat when he came back. He went up the slope to cross the gully an hour’s travel from the lodge, then to cross the next ridge. It was a hot-sun morning after a brittle cold night.

  He had been gone the space of an hour when she heard the thunder sound. It was the voice of an avalanche, a big snow-slide. She went outside and saw the plume of fine snow that is like a cloud over a big slide, and she knew that the night’s freeze had loosened the ice on the high ledges and the morning’s sun had started a trickle somewhere, a trickle that was like wet mud under a moccasin. A slide came lunging down the mountainside.

  She saw where it was coming, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. She cried out once in horror, and the boy heard and came and stood beside her, watching, as the snow plume floated all the way down the slope and the thunder of the slide echoed into silence. It had gone down the gully an hour’s travel from the lodge.

  She moaned with grief known as clearly as though she had been there and seen what happened. She said to the boy, “Now we must make mourning. But first we must go and find him.”

  They returned to the lodge and dressed for the journey. They put on snowshoes, and they went up the slope, following her man’s tracks. They went to the top of the slope, and there was the gully, swept as clean as the floor of the lodge. Not one tree was left standing. It was a giant furrow, plowed by the slide as her man once plowed furrows in the soil for his cornfield on the reservation. Far down in the valley they saw the great heap of snow and rocks and broken trees where the slide had run itself out, piled upon itself.

  They had followed his tracks here, to the edge of this great furrow. Now she and the boy went down into that slide-furrow and crossed to the other side, and they looked for his tracks. There were no tracks. They searched, and he had not been there. He had not crossed the gully. He had come into it, but he had not crossed it.

  They went down to the place where the slide had run itself out. They went along the jumbled face of it, looking. They found nothing. At last she said, “Come,” and they started back toward the ridge to return to the lodge. They were almost at the foot of the ridge when the boy shouted and pointed to something in the snow. He ran and stood beside it till she came up to him. It was an arrow, a handsbreadth of its shaft sticking from the snow as though it had been shot from the air. It was one of his arrows.

  They dug in the snow and found another arrow. Finally they found him. He had been caught by the slide, crushed by it, then thrown up by its convulsions until he was near the surface when it came to a halt. They found his body and they stood beside it, crying for him; and the boy sang the wailing song for the dead. She had not taught him that song. He had that song in his heart, and he sang it. Then she got the broken body over her shoulders and they went up out of that great furrow and climbed the slope, step by heavy step, and carried him home to the lodge. And all that night they made mourning.

  The next day she dressed him in new leggings and a new shirt. They wrapped him in a blanket and a deerskin. She chose her best baskets and filled them with dried berries and smoked fish and cured meat. She made a drag out of a deerskin, looped long thongs to it, and on that skin drag they hauled him up the mountain to a cave among the rocks. They put him in the cave and set the baskets of food beside him, that he might eat on his long journey.

  They gave him burial in the old way. They sang the death songs for him, in the darkness with the stars watching them. Then they went down the mountain and back to the lodge. She said to the boy, “Now you are the man.”


  IT WAS A LONG winter. Some days his snares had no rabbits and they went hungry. Each day she told him the old tales and sang with him the old songs. He watched how she wove baskets, since her hands must be busy, and he learned those things she knew. Each day he strung an old bow of his father’s and drew the bowstring as far as he could. Each day he could draw it a little farther. His arms grew strong. When there were leaves on the aspens again he could draw one of his father’s arrows almost to the point. Then the deer came back up the valleys and he made his first big meat. He killed a deer with his father’s arrows. The meat was tough and stringy, the fat and juice sucked out of it by the winter, but it was food, it was meat.

  She said, “Soon you will know a name for yourself.” He said, “This morning, before I made meat, I met a she-bear and she was not afraid of me. I was not afraid of her. We talked to each other. Then I killed the deer and I left a part of the meat for that she-bear. I shall call myself Bear’s Brother. That is a good name.”

  And that was his name. They sang the songs for finding a name.

  They dried berries. They smoked fish. The
y made meat. Summer passed like a white cloud drifting over the mountain. One day when she was cutting wood for the cooking fire the ax caught in a knot and she tried to drive it loose, using a stone for a hammer. The axhead broke, through the eye, and there was no way to use it except as a fist-ax. She knew they could not cut firewood for the winter with a fist-ax.

  She looked around the lodge, and she said to the boy. “We must go to Pagosa. We must have a new ax.” Then she said, “They cannot want him now for killing Frank No Deer.”

  So she took two of her best baskets and they went down to the road from Piedra Town to Pagosa. But she did not go to Pagosa by the road. She was not sure what she had told the boy was true. Maybe they still did want her man. She was tempted to go back, do without a new ax. They camped there beside the road, on the slope where no one could see them, for two days. Then she knew she had to go on.

  They kept to the hills, to the game trails, and they went to Pagosa. But when they came to the last hill and saw Pagosa there in the valley she was tempted to go back again, back to the lodge. They spent the night on that last hill, in the brush, and she knew she had to go on.

  The next morning they went down to Pagosa and along the street to Jim Thatcher’s store. People turned to look at them, because they wore the clothes she had made from deerskins. But nobody stopped them. Nobody said, “Where is your man? We want your man because he killed Frank No Deer.”

  They went to the store, and Jim Thatcher was there behind the counter. Jim Thatcher was a tall, thin man who had been in that store many years, and his father there before him. He knew Indians. He traded with Indians, for robes and leatherwork and baskets. He traded salt and sugar and knives and axes and tin cans of beans for those things the Indians had made. He sold those things to people who liked robes and baskets, and sometimes he sold them to other traders.

  They went to Jim Thatcher’s store and she set the two baskets on the counter. Jim Thatcher looked at the baskets and he looked at her, and then he said, “You want to trade these?”

  She said, “How much?”

  Jim Thatcher looked at her again, and he looked at the boy. He said, “You used to live here, didn’t you?”

  She shook her head, made the sign that she did not understand, and asked again, “How much?”

  “Do you want cash or trade?” he asked.

  She looked around the store, went over to the rack of axes and chose one. She laid it on the counter beside the baskets. She went to the shelf of rifle ammunition, chose a box that would fit the rifle. She put it beside the ax. She beckoned to the boy, and together they looked about the store. His eyes were all eagerness and careful excitement. They looked at the clothing, the work gloves, the shoes. He stopped at a case with hunting knives in it. He stared at a knife in that case. Then he turned away and looked at granite cooking kettles, and at calico for skirts, and at blue denim overalls. She asked what he would like. He said, in the tongue, “There is nothing.” But his eyes went back to the case of hunting knives.

  Jim Thatcher saw this. He went to the case and took out a knife, laid it on the counter. “How do you like this one?” he asked. They came back and looked at that knife. The boy closed his eyes and turned away. He said to his mother, again in the tongue, “There is nothing.”

  She turned to Jim Thatcher and said, “Candy,” and nodded toward the boy. Jim Thatcher filled a small bag with chocolate drops and red and yellow hard candies and set it on the counter with the ax and the ammunition. He started to put the knife back in the case, but she made a quick gesture. She wanted the knife for the boy. Jim Thatcher mentally added up the prices, two dollars for the ax, a dollar for the ammunition, a dollar and a half for the knife, a nickel for the candy. Four dollars and fifty-five cents. He glanced at the baskets. Good work, some of the best Ute basketwork he had ever seen. If somebody came along who knew baskets he might get four or five dollars apiece for them. Even Mike Lawson would give him three and a half apiece.

  He put the knife back on the counter with the other things and she nodded, apparently satisfied. He asked, “Where’s your man?”

  She looked at him, a flash of fear in her eyes. Then she shook her head, shrugged, made the sign of not understanding.

  “I remember you,” he said. “Your man is George Black Bull.”

  She wouldn’t admit it. She put the ammunition, the knife, the candy in her pack, picked up the ax, motioned to the boy, and started to leave. Jim Thatcher stopped her before she reached the door. “There’s no need to run,” he said. “They don’t want your man. He doesn’t have to hide out. That case is all cleared up. Self-defense, they called it. Do you understand?”

  She looked at him, bewildered.

  “Your man can come back,” Jim Thatcher said. “He doesn’t have to hide out. This thing is all over, finished.” He made the gesture with his hands for wiping clean, making an end.

  She stared at him.

  “You understand English, don’t you? Of course you do.”

  She didn’t answer. She stared at him, searching his face.

  “Tell George he can come back. They’re not looking for him any more. Tell him—”

  She shook her head.

  “Why not?”

  She spoke to the boy in Ute and they left the store.

  They walked down the street. People stared at them, smiled at their clothes, but nobody spoke to them, nobody tried to stop them. They walked down the street to the end and started along the road to Piedra Town. They went a way down that road, and she stopped and looked back. Nobody was following them. But she was not sure. It could have been a trick, what Jim Thatcher had said about her man. And even if they did not want her man, now that he was dead, maybe they wanted her, or the boy.

  She walked down the road until they had passed the bend and Pagosa was out of sight. There she and the boy left the road, walking carefully on stones to leave no track. They went up the hillside, through the brush, and there they sat, hidden, watching, for an hour. Nobody came, following them. She opened the pack and got out the bag of candy. They ate the chocolate drops. Then they went on, following the trails through the brush.


  THEY SPENT THAT WINTER as before. Spring came again, and one day when he went to catch fish at a pool in the stream he met the she-bear again. He was not afraid of her. He said to her, “You gave me my name. I am Bear Brother and we are friends.” She listened as he sang a song that came to him, a song of friendship with that bear. Then she went away and he followed her and saw her uproot an old stump and catch three chipmunks and lick up the swarming ants. Then he went to the stream and caught fish and he left half of his fish for the bear.

  He told his mother of this and she said, “It is good to have a friend.” She told him how their people had been friends of everything in the mountains in the old days—the bears, the deer, the mountain lions, the jays, the ravens. She told him these things. Then she was silent. He waited for her to say more, but she could not tell him the things that were in her mind. Ever since they had gone to Pagosa those things had been in her mind, the things Jim Thatcher had said about her man. She had been so startled, so afraid, that she hadn’t really heard what he said except that she should tell her man that the matter of killing Frank No Deer was all settled, over with. She wanted to hear these things again. This time she would listen. She would not be afraid this time.

  Then it was summer. Soon the serviceberries would be ripe for picking and they should smoke fish when the berries were ripe. She said to the boy, “I must go on a journey.”

  He said, “When you say, we shall go.”

  She said, “I must go alone. You will stay here until I come back.” She still worried a little that they might want the boy. If they took her, she could manage to get away, somehow. But the boy might not know how to get away. She said, “You must stay here.”

  That is the way it was. She went to Pagosa again, and the boy stayed there on Bald Mountain.

  She went to Pagosa. She took
two baskets to trade at Jim Thatcher’s store. She did not need an ax or a knife, but she took the baskets to trade so that she would have a reason to listen when Jim Thatcher talked to her, asked questions.

  Jim Thatcher liked the baskets, as before. He asked her what she wanted to trade them for, and she chose calico for a skirt, and cloth for a blouse, and a blue coat with brass buttons for the boy. It was more than he would give her for the baskets. She knew this. She wanted him to talk.

  He said, “This is too much, Bessie.”

  She pretended she did not understand. She took one basket from the counter.

  He said, “ This is too much,” and he put a hand on what she had chosen.

  They haggled. Finally he said, “You are a smart woman, Bessie. But you didn’t tell your man what I said to tell him. He hasn’t been to town.”

  “There is this thing about Frank No Deer,” she said.

  “I told you that was all settled.”

  She shrugged.

  “You didn’t believe me?”

  She smiled, deprecating.

  “Well, it is. All settled.” He made the gesture, cut-off, finished. Then he asked, “Where is George?”

  She made the gesture he had just made. Cut-off, finished. It also meant dead.

  “That’s too bad. What happened?”

  “The slide, the snow-slide.” She unconsciously fell into English. “He was hunting. The slide came. He is dead, two winters gone.”

  He watched her, knew she was telling the truth. “I’m sorry, Bessie. And the boy?”

  She smiled. Then she held out a hand, held it as high as her own head. She put her hand on the blue jacket. “For him,” she said.

  Jim Thatcher went to a rack and got a denim jacket the same size. Something more practical. But she shook her head. She wanted the serge jacket with the brass buttons. He looked at the baskets again, figured that they would just about cover her purchases, and gave in. He was tempted to throw in a bag candy. But she hadn’t asked for it. He let it pass.

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