When the Legends Die, p.4Hal Borland
She put the purchases in her pack and left the store. She went down the street, and at the corner by the bank, with its big windows and brick front, she met Blue Elk.
Blue Elk saw her, and stopped, his mouth shaped in surprise. He said, “I have waited a long time to see you.”
She said, “I am here. You see me.” Her voice was cold.
“We must talk,” Blue Elk said.
She said, “I will listen.”
They went across the street and down toward the bridge where there was a vacant lot. There she sat down and put the pack beside her. Blue Elk sat awkwardly. He was used to sitting on a chair. He took off his derby hat and she saw streaks of gray in his hair though his braids were still black. His cheeks hung down like the cheeks of an old dog and his belly was even fatter than she remembered.
He said, “Where is your man? And the boy?”
“He can come back,” he said. “I settled that thing. I took care of it. He can come back and work in the sawmill again.”
“No,” she said.
He glanced at her pack, then at her clothes. “You are living in the old way,” he said.
She didn’t answer.
“Where?” he asked.
Still she didn’t answer.
He sat silent a long moment, then said, “I settled this thing for your man.”
She said, “It is settled.”
“I did it. I said I would do it for the cost of two horses. You owe me the cost of two horses.”
“I told you I did not have the cost of one goat. I have no horses. I do not even have one goat.” And she made the cut-off sign. She said with the sign that it was finished.
He said, “They did not follow you when you left.”
She did not answer.
“They did not follow you to find him,” he insisted.
“They did not find him,” she said.
“It is as I said. I told them he killed Frank No Deer because Frank tried to kill him. That is the way it was settled.”
“Frank No Deer stole his money. Three times he stole it. That was enough.”
Blue Elk shook his head. “That was not enough. To be a thief is not enough.”
“This is a strange thing you say,” she told him angrily. “You say it is not bad to steal my man’s money three times, but it is bad to kill Frank No Deer for that.”
“I say it is the law. That is the way it is.”
“I do not like this law.”
“I settled this. You owe to me for settling this.”
“My man will pay you.”
“Where is your man?”
She looked at him and she made the cut-off sign.
“Dead?” he asked, and he unconsciously put his hand to his mouth for saying it.
He shook his head, sat silent for a time. Then he said, “The boy?”
She did not answer.
“The boy should be in the school at Ignacio.”
“That is where he should be.”
He stretched his legs, stiff from sitting on the ground. He reached for her pack. She held it from him. He grabbed it, pulled it open. The cloth for the skirt and the cloth for the blouse and the blue coat with brass buttons fell out. He reached for them. She caught up the blue coat and held it away from him. He took the cloth. He said, “You owe me for settling this thing for your man. I will keep this cloth. Give the coat.”
“No.” She tried to take the empty pack from him.
He was on his knees, holding to the pack, holding the cloth in his other hand. She had the coat. She turned and ran from him, to the street and up the hill away from the bridge. There she ran down the street and out of Pagosa. She went a little way along the road, then left it and went up the hillside, where she knew her way. She started back to Bald Mountain, with no pack, no food. But with the blue coat with brass buttons. And with the knowledge that it was settled, this thing about her man and Frank No Deer. It was three days back to the lodge, but there were berries to eat, and there were roots.
IT WAS ANOTHER SUMMER before she went to Pagosa again. She went alone, as before. This time she took four baskets to trade.
She was no longer afraid of the sheriff or the sawmill man, but when she came to two Indian women gathering firewood on the hill near Pagosa she stopped to talk to them. She did not know these women. They seemed not to know her, for they looked at her with curious eyes and smiled at her clothes and looked at her pack. She made the sign of greeting and she asked if Blue Elk was in Pagosa. The one with a purple blouse pointed with her chin toward Bessie’s pack and said to the other, “This one has a gift for Blue Elk.” The other one laughed. She said, “No. This one thinks Blue Elk has a gift for her. That is why she brings the big pack, to carry it in.” They both laughed.
Bessie said, “I have come to trade with Jim Thatcher. Blue Elk stole skirt cloth and blouse cloth from me last summer.”
They said, “Oh-oh.” Then the one with a purple blouse said, “ Fat Belly is not here. He is at the reservation.”
Bessie said, “This is true?”
They both said, “This is true. He is not here to steal from you. We know that one.”
She helped them gather wood for a little time, to pay them for this. Then she went on to Pagosa.
She went to Jim Thatcher’s store and she traded the four baskets for a red blanket. Not the Navaho kind, which were black and white and gray as well as red, but the white man’s kind, which was all red. When she had finished trading and put the red blanket in her pack Jim Thatcher said, “Watch out for Blue Elk this time, Bessie.”
“That one!” She said it like a curse.
“He tried to sell that skirt cloth back to me last summer. I wouldn’t take it and he made quite a fuss. What happened?”
“He stole that cloth from me.”
“Here. In Pagosa.”
“Why didn’t you make a fuss?”
She shrugged. “He said I owed him the cost of two horses.”
“For settling that thing about my man.”
“Why, the old scoundrel! He wasn’t even a witness at the inquest. Well, he’s out of town today.”
So she went back to Bald Mountain. She gave the red blanket to the boy for his bed. She said she wanted him to sleep warm in the winter. She did not say, even to herself, that red is the rainbow color for protection. The boy knew this. She had told him this when she told him the old tales.
The boy had begun to fill out, to have the stocky frame typical of the Utes. He could drive an arrow all the way through a deer and he could carry the hindquarters of a buck on his shoulders. He had braids almost as long as those of his mother and he kept them wrapped with red wool at their ends. He wore a breechclout and moccasins in the summer and in the winter he wore the winter leggings and the winter shirt. Now he had the red blanket.
That was a bad winter. There was much snow and the deer moved to the lower valleys. Even the rabbits were scarce that winter. Their dried fish and cured meat were gone before the daylight began to lengthen, even though she ate little, saving the meat for the boy. “You must be strong,” she said. “When these storms end you must be strong to go to the lower valleys and get meat.”
At last the storms eased. He prepared to get meat. She said she would go with him and he said she should not do that. She remembered what had happened to her man at such a time. She did not say this thing, but she went with the boy to the lower valleys.
She was weak and could not travel fast. The cold made her cough. But they went all the way to the place where the deer were in the thickets and he took a deer. They ate deer liver and those parts that make strength for a weak body. They made packs of the meat and they went back to the lodge. It was a long journey and she was tired when they returned. She was so weak she could scarcely stand on her feet. He made her lie
She said, “Help me to sit up,” and he helped her. She tried to work at a basket, but her hands would not do what she told them to do. He helped her. He sat beside her and he made the basket for her. She said his hands were better than her hands at this. He said, “My hands have watched your hands many times. My hands are your hands now.”
The pain became worse. She was so hot she could not have even one robe around her shoulders. Then she was cold, so cold that he put his red blanket around her and still she shivered. She said, “I am sick.” He said, “I am singing the songs for making you well.” She said, “I do not hear these songs.” He said, “I am singing them inside.” She said, “Sing them outside. I am very sick.”
He sang the songs all that night. He made soup, but she could not swallow it. She said, “I am not going to get over this sickness, my son.” He said, “I will not sing the song for going away yet.” She said, “No. Not yet.”
All that day he sang the songs for making her well. Late that afternoon she could not hear those songs. She talked about things he did not know. About Pagosa, and the sawmill, and Blue Elk, and Frank No Deer. He heard these things for the first time. Then she did not talk. It was dark, it was night. Then she said, “Sing the song for going away, my son.” She tried to reach up and touch his face. Her arm was too weak. He took her hand and held it to his face. Then she died.
He made mourning all that night. When it was daylight he put her new deerskin dress on her and wrapped her in the red blanket, then in a deerskin robe, so she would be warm on the long journey. He put dried berries and dried meat, the last there was in the lodge, in two baskets. Then he made a drag of a deerskin and he took her up the mountain to the cave in the rocks where they had buried his father. His father was no longer there; only a few bones and a part of a robe and a broken basket. The boy buried his mother there, in the old way, and he sang the old songs. Then he went back down the mountain to the lodge, and he was alone.
SPRING CAME AGAIN. THE snow melted, the streams flooded, the aspens were in catkin, then in leaf. The deer came back to the upper benches and dropped their fawns. Strawberries made the grass white with blossom and red anemones were in bloom. The boy caught trout in the pools, and he watched for his friend, the she-bear.
He saw his friend one morning in a wild meadow, eating grass and strawberries. She had two cubs with her. He watched her and he talked to her, but she did not listen. A she-bear with cubs is not friendly. He talked to her and walked toward her, and she shook her head and growled and told him she did not want to talk. She did not even want to listen. Her cubs listened, curious about this boy, but she cuffed them and hurried them away and into the brush.
For days he watched them. He found where the she-bear ate grass and strawberries, where she caught fish, where she dug for mice and ground squirrels. He found where she slept with her cubs. But she would not listen to him. They were no longer friends. One day he said to the cubs, “I am Bear Brother. You are my brother, and you are my sister.” But the she-bear growled and came toward him and told him to go away.
He went back to the lodge and made friends of the squirrels that lived in a hollow pine tree. He talked to them and they listened to him. They came and sat in his hand and talked to him. Then the chipmunks that lived in the rocks came to him and asked to be friends. They came into the lodge and lived with him. A jay came and said it wanted to be his friend. It ate from his hand and rode on his shoulder and pecked at the lobe of his ear.
Serviceberries ripened and he went to gather them to dry, as he had learned from his mother. Among the berry bushes he met the she-bear again, and her two cubs. He told her he was gathering berries to dry for the winter and she let him gather berries, but she would not listen when he talked to her. When he talked to the cubs she took them with her to another berry patch.
He gathered berries and dried them, and he made meat and smoked it, as he had learned from his mother. Then the man came.
The boy was fishing and his friend the jay was perched in an aspen near by, watching. The jay called an alarm. It said a stranger was coming. The boy drew in his line, took the fish he had caught, covered his tracks and left the pool. He went up the hillside and sat in the brush and watched. The jay flew down the valley, screaming, and it came back, tree by tree, telling the boy about this stranger. Then the man appeared, with his mouse-colored burro. He came up the creek and stopped at the pool where the boy had been fishing. He drank and his burro drank, and the man picked up a handful of sand from the shallow water and looked at it.
He was a tall man. He had gray whiskers and he wore a black hat and a blue shirt and brown pants and boots. He carried a rifle. His burro wore a packsaddle and a pack covered with gray canvas.
The man looked at the sand in his hand and let the water trickle between his fingers. He shook his head and threw the sand back into the water. Then he spoke to the burro and went on up the creek, the burro following him. The jay flew back to the boy and sat on his shoulder and was silent.
The boy followed the man and watched him all afternoon. The man went slowly, scooping a handful of sand from every pool and looking at it. Toward evening he found a handful of sand that seemed to please him. He took a pan and shovel from the pack on the burro and scooped sand into the pan and put water in it and slowly swished the water and sand out. He rubbed his fingers on the bottom of the pan and put sand in the pan and swished it out again. He did this several times. Then he unpacked the burro and made camp beside the stream. He had found something there that he wanted.
The boy watched until the sun sat on the mountains and the man built a fire and set food to cook. Then the boy started back to his own lodge. On the way he met the she-bear and her cubs. He tried to tell her about this strange man, but she did not want to listen. She told him not to talk to her. The cubs wanted to listen, but she cuffed them and told them not to listen. The jay sat in a scrub oak and told her these things, but she would not listen to the jay either. She took her cubs and went away, and the boy went to his lodge and ate and slept.
The next morning the boy was halfway to his watching place above the man’s camp when he heard the thunder of a gun. He knew that sound because after his mother died he had got out his father’s rifle and fired it by mistake. It made a sound that seemed to lift the roof from the lodge. He put the rifle away and never touched it again. But after that he knew the voice of a gun. He heard it three more times, all from the man’s camp. Then there was silence.
He did not hurry. What had happened had happened and could not be changed. But soon he heard the man shouting anger-words. Then the boy reached his watching place and saw the man at the creek, his left arm red with blood from his neck to his fingers. He was trying to wash the blood away and he was still shouting. The boy knew some of the words. His father had spoken those words when he was angry.
The man washed his arm, but could not stop the blood. He came back to his camp, and then the boy saw the she-bear. She was a grizzled-brown heap beside the man’s fire, which was still burning. She was dead. The man walked around her, afraid even though she was dead. He tore a shirt into strips and wrapped them around his arm, but they were red with blood before he finished the wrapping. The man’s talk became fear-talk. He tied a strip of cloth around his arm and put a stick in it and twisted the stick, but the blood still ran from his fingers.
The man kicked the coffeepot, which sat steaming in the fire, and it rolled on the she-bear, spilling a wet brown stain on her fur. Then he went to his burro, grazing a little way upstream, and tried to lead the burro back to his camp. The burro was afraid of the bear and braced its legs. He went back to the camp and picked up his folded blanket and his rifle. He put the blanket on the burro’s back and he was so weak he almost fell before h
The boy waited, listening to the man’s voice thin away in the distance. He wondered if the man was singing his song for going on the long journey. He knew it was a fear-song. The man had killed the she-bear. Now he was afraid the she-bear was going to kill him.
When the distance had swallowed the man’s voice the boy went down to the camp. He looked at the dead she-bear, and he saw the dead cub beside her. It was the smaller of the two cubs, the female. He said the song for a dead bear. Then he looked at the tracks, the signs, and knew what had happened. The she-bear and her cubs had been on the hillside, near his watching place. They had smelled the food the man was cooking. The cubs had gone down to the camp and the man had tried to drive them away. He had shot one cub. The she-bear had charged him, and he had shot her three times. Before she died she reached him with one angry paw that slashed down his arm. That was what had happened.
He looked for the other cub. It was nowhere in sight. He looked at the gear the man had left. It was of no use to him, the shovel, the battered coffeepot, the frying pan. Then he heard the other bear cub crying in the brush beyond the creek. He went there and found it, and he talked to it until it was not afraid of him. It went with him down to the man’s camp and cried when it nosed at the dead she-bear. He talked to it again, and he fed it the food the man had been cooking. Then he started back to his lodge. He told the bear cub to come with him, and it came.
That is how the boy and the bear cub became brothers and friends. That is how it happened.
After that the boy was not alone.
IT WAS THE NOON hour on a warm July day and Jim Thatcher was alone in the store, both his clerks having gone home for dinner. Jim always ate early and used this slack time to check invoices. He was at his desk when he heard the yelps and howls of a dogfight in the street. He glanced up but paid no more attention until some shouted, “Get a gun! It’s a bear!” Then he jumped to his feet, picked up a .30-30 from the rack, broke open a box of cartridges and jammed three of them into the magazine. He levered one into the chamber as he hurried to the door to the street. Deer and even bobcats, but few bears, had wandered into Pagosa on occasion.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes