When the Legends Die, p.5Hal Borland
He stepped out onto the sidewalk and couldn’t believe his eyes. There in the street was a grizzly cub, hunkered back in the dust, with three dogs yelping and dancing around it. One dog darted in, the bear whipped a paw, and the dog went end over end, howling in pain. Then Jim heard the boy shouting, in Ute. The boy was standing at the curb, and he was as incredible as the bear cub. He was just a youngster, ten or eleven years old, and he was dressed in the old way, moccasins, leggings, clout, no shirt, and braids. He was shouting at the cub, and the cub looked at him, started to go to him, only to be attacked by the dogs again. It snarled, slapped another dog and knocked it sprawling with a gash along its ribs.
Men were running up from all directions. Someone shouted, “Kill it! Jim, kill that damned bear before it kills all the dogs in town!”
The cub, having momentarily disposed of the dogs, went to the boy and licked his hand, then faced the crowd, frightening by the uproar, growling, ready to fight.
Jim said to the excited men, “Take it easy! Can’t you see it’s a pet cub? For God’s sake, don’t start anything!” He turned to the boy. “Tell your friend to behave himself, son.”
The boy looked at him, as bewildered as the bear cub. He said something in Ute, then caught the bear’s scruff in one hand, picked up a pack that was on the street beside him, and walked away. The crowd fell back, stumbling over one another’s feet. The boy and the cub went to Jim Thatcher’s store and walked in, both of them.
Two men came running up the street, rifles in their hands. “Where’s the bear?” one shouted.
“In Thatcher’s store!” someone answered.
The two armed men started to the store, but Jim Thatcher stepped in front of them. “Keep your shirts on, both of you,” he said firmly. “The bear’s just a cub and a pet. I’ll handle this. If anybody starts shooting, I’ll finish it! Understand?” Then he turned and went into the store, closing the door behind him. The crowd stayed outside in the street, watching through the windows.
The boy was at the counter, the cub sitting like a big shaggy dog beside him. Jim went back of the counter and the boy opened his pack, took out three baskets, and set them on the counter. Then he turned and looked around the store.
Jim said, “You want to trade?”
The boy looked at him, still not understanding a word he said. He went over to the knife case, glanced into it, moved to the case of fishing tackle, then to the shelves of canned goods. He paused at the bolts of cloth and the piles of overalls. Finally he found what he was looking for, the blankets. He went down through the pile until he found a red one exactly like the one Bessie had traded for the last time she was here. He pulled it from the pile and brought it back to the counter. The cub had been at his side everywhere he went. Now it stood beside him, watching the crowd outside the windows and lifting its forefeet nervously.
Jim asked again, “You want to trade?” and still the boy did not answer. Jim picked up one of the baskets and examined it. It was identical with the last ones Bessie had brought in, though of slightly better workmanship. He looked at the boy and asked, “Where is your mother? What are you doing here alone?”
There was no answer. The boy pushed the three baskets toward Jim and drew the red blanket toward himself.
“Your mother brought four baskets for a blanket the last time,” Jim said, then shook his head at himself. No use talking English to this boy. He was a throwback, right out of the old, old days. Either that or Bessie was trying a trick so clever Jim couldn’t believe it. She could be hiding in the brush. She could have sent the boy in with these three baskets and have told him to act dumb but to get another blanket. It could happen, but—well, it just didn’t make sense. The boy wasn’t dickering. He couldn’t dicker, not without at least a few words of English.
Jim looked at the other baskets. All of them were of superior workmanship, the best Bessie ever made. Actually, they more than covered the price of the blanket. But if he let the boy have the blanket for three baskets this time, next time he would come in and try to get a blanket for two baskets.
He asked, “Don’t you know any English at all?”
The blank look in the boy’s eyes said, truthfully, that he didn’t.
Jim glanced toward the street and saw Blue Elk, who had just arrived. Blue Elk seemed to be asking what had happened. Someone told him. Blue Elk approached the door, hesitated, looked in through the glass. Jim motioned to him, beckoned him in. Blue Elk opened the door and several others started to come in with him. “Just Blue Elk!” Jim ordered. “The rest of you stay outside.”
Blue Elk came in and closed the door behind him, beaming with importance at being so singled out. Then he saw the boy and the bear cub, which looked at him and raised its hackles. Blue Elk hesitated, his hand still on the knob. He was puffing as though he had hurried. Now he caught his breath in fear and surprise.
“Come on in,” Jim said, “but don’t come too close. And for God’s sake don’t touch the boy or the cub or there’ll be all hell to pay.”
Blue Elk came a few steps toward the counter. His shoes squeaked and the cub’s ears stiffened. Blue Elk stopped, took off his derby hat and wiped his forehead.
“This is Bessie Black Bull’s boy,” Jim said. “He came in here alone and he doesn’t savvy English. Find out why he came alone.”
Blue Elk spoke to the boy in the tongue. “We are of the people, we two. I am your friend. The man wants to know where is your mother.”
The boy said, “My mother is where I left her.” He lifted his chin in pride.
“Why did you come here alone?”
“I came to trade the baskets for the blanket.”
“What does he say?” Jim asked.
“He says his mother is at home. He says he came to trade for a blanket.”
“Why did he come alone? Why didn’t Bessie come?”
Blue Elk put the question. The boy shrugged and did not answer.
“Why did not your mother come to trade for the blanket?” Blue Elk asked again, his voice sharp this time.
The cub bristled at his tone. The boy put his hand on the cub’s head and it turned and licked his hand, then lifted its lip at Blue Elk. The boy said, “My mother—“ He made the cut-off sign. It could have meant that he was through with talk. He folded the blanket and put it in his pack.
Blue Elk said, “I speak of your mother, not your father. I know your father is dead. Where is your mother?”
The boy impatiently made the cut-off sign again.
“She is dead?”
The boy scowled and nodded his head.
“Where do you live, if she is dead?”
“I live in my lodge.”
“Where is your lodge?”
The boy shrugged off the question.
“What does he say?” Jim asked.
“He says his mother is dead.”
“Dead? I don’t believe it!”
“My people do not lie. He says she is dead.”
“But she made these baskets he just brought in! They are the best baskets she ever made. When did she die, anyway?”
Blue Elk turned to the boy again. “The man does not believe your mother is dead. Who do you live with?”
The boy said, “I will not talk of this thing,” and he made die cut-off sign, sharply, incisively.
“Boys do not speak to the old men of their people in this way!” Blue Elk said impatiently. And he asked again, “Who do you live with?”
The boy said, “ I live with my brother.” He shouldered his pack, then put his hand on the cub’s scruff. They started toward the door.
Blue Elk stepped aside to let them pass. The crowd at the doorway pushed back, making room. The boy opened the door, went out into the street and turned toward the hills and the road to Piedra Town, the cub trotting beside him.
Nobody tried to stop them, but before they reached the end of the street someone shouted, “I’m going to get that bear! Who’s coming with me?” Several shouted, “I’ll g
Jim Thatcher came out of the store into the street. “Let that boy alone,” he ordered. “And leave his bear alone. Understand?”
Then the sheriff appeared. He wanted to know what had happened, what the crowd was doing. Jim said, “They want to go kill an Indian kid’s pet bear. Put a stop to it, George. Right now!”
The sheriff said, “I don’t know what this is all about, but I’ll go along with Jim Thatcher. If anybody starts a posse, the whole posse will land in jail!”
The crowd began to break up. Jim started to tell the sheriff what had happened, and Blue Elk went down the street, puzzling over this matter. He had gone only a little way when the preacher caught up with him. “Who was that boy, Blue Elk?” he asked.
Blue Elk glanced at him. “Bessie Black Bull’s boy.”
“Bessie Black Bull? George Black Bull’s woman? He was the one who killed Frank No Deer, wasn’t he?”
“Then that’s the boy you brought to me to have baptized.”
Blue Elk nodded.
“What’s he doing, running around in a clout like a savage? He should be in school.”
Blue Elk glanced at him again. “Yes,” he said.
“Where is he living?”
“Back in the mountains.”
“Have his parents got a permit to live off the reservation and keep him out of school?”
“His parents are dead.”
“Who is he living with, then?”
Blue Elk looked around. Several men were watching, listening. He motioned to the preacher and they crossed the street and walked down toward the river bridge where they could be alone.
“That boy,” the preacher said again, “should be in school. If he is left running around like this, with that bear, somebody is going to get hurt. Where did you say he lives?”
“Back in the mountains.”
“His brother, he said.”
“I didn’t know he had a brother. Or does he mean an uncle?”
Blue Elk looked at him shrewdly. “I could find out these things,” he said.
“ I wish you would. I baptized that boy and I feel responsible for him.”
“I worry for my people,” Blue Elk said. “1 could find out these things, but it is a hard trip and I am an old man. I have no money for this trip.”
The preacher felt in his pocket. Blue Elk heard the clink of silver dollars. The preacher drew out one dollar and offered it to him.
Blue Elk shook his head. “This will be a very hard trip.”
“I haven’t got ten dollars. All I have is the mission money.” Then the preacher said, “I might make it five. And if you bring the boy in to the school the agent might give you five more.”
“I am a poor old man,” Blue Elk said, holding out his hand. “I do this for my people.”
The preacher gave him the dollar, produced two more, then drew out a handful of change and counted out two dollars in dimes and quarters. Blue Elk put the money in his pocket and walked away.
He went along the back streets to his house. There he made a packet of food, then went to the open shed behind the house and saddled his pony. He rode down the alleys and side streets until he was out of town, then cut through the brush to the road to Piedra Town. He stopped there and looked for tracks in the dust, and found none. The boy had taken the paths through the brush on the hillside. But Blue Elk knew that a traveler must drink. He rode down the road toward Piedra until he came to the first creek, then left the road and went up the creek. His eyes were not as good as they had been twenty years before, but they still knew a boy’s moccasin track and a cub bears paw print when he saw them, half a mile from the road, in the creekbank mud. After that he followed those tracks along the game trails. The boy, knowing those trails, could travel faster than Blue Elk. But Blue Elk knew that eventually the boy would lead him to his hideout.
IT WAS MIDMORNING OF the third day when Blue Elk came to the hollow and the small stream below the lodge. He sensed that he was near the place, but it took him half an hour to unravel the maze of trails from the stream and come to the tangle of down trees that hid the lodge itself. There he smelled a trace of smoke from a cooking fire, smoke with the faint odor of drying meat. Then a jay screamed at him, and continued screaming as he went on. A squirrel chattered at him.
Blue Elk found the path, found the boys moccasin prints. But, remembering the bear cub, he did not follow it among the trees. He waited, letting the jay and the squirrel say he was there.
Soon the boy appeared. He stopped a little away from Blue Elk and said, “Why did you come here?”
“I came here to talk with you.”
“We have talked.”
“I have come to help you. I have come a long way. I am tired and I am hungry.”
“I did not ask you to come.”
“I am here.”
The boy looked at him a long time. The jay perched on his shoulder and talked in his ear. The squirrel came and leaped into his hand and sat there, staring at Blue Elk. The boy said, “You may rest and you may eat. Then you must go away. Come.” He led the way among the trees to the door of the hidden lodge. Blue Elk followed.
It was cool and dark inside the lodge. As his eyes accustomed themselves to the dimness, Blue Elk remembered his own boyhood and his grandmother’s lodge. The boy set fresh berries and dried meat in front of him, and when he tasted the meat Blue Elk remembered again. It had the taste of meat he had eaten in the lodge of his grandmother.
His eyes searched the lodge as he ate. He saw the bed, the peeled rods with the robes, and the new red blanket. He saw the tanned robes hung along the walls, the new buckskin folded carefully, the sewing basket with its coil of dry sinew and its bone awls. He saw the white smoulder of the fire on the floor beneath the smoke hole in the roof and the drying rack above the fire. Long, thin slices of venison hung on the rack, drying and curing in the smoke and slow heat. He saw Bessie’s basket materials, the bundle of willow twigs, the black-stem ferns, the strips thin as a fingernail. There was a coil of strips in a bowl of water, pliant for weaving, and there was a partly finished blanket, its coiled twigs white as though freshly peeled. He saw two ironwood bows, sinew backed, and a quiver of arrows feathered with grouse feathers. He saw a lodge such as only the old people remembered.
He ate, and then he asked, “Where is your brother?”
“My brother,” the boy said, “will return when it is time to return.”
Blue Elk looked at the unfinished basket. “How long is it since your mother went away?”
The boy did not answer.
“Your mother was here a few days past.” He nodded toward the fresh coils of the basket.
“She is gone a long time,” the boy said.
“It is not right to tell lies to the old men of your people.”
“I tell the truth.”
Blue Elk said, “When I was young I knew a lodge such as this. My mother and my grandmother dried fish and cured meat, but when the short white days came we were hungry.”
“That is the way it is.”
“That is the way it was. The grandmothers said this thing. Now the grandmothers are gone on the long journey and now it is different. The old days are gone.”
The boy did not answer.
“Your father is gone.”
The boy nodded.
“When your father had trouble, I settled that trouble for him. Your father was my friend. I knew when I settled that trouble for him that I would be a grandfather to you when you needed a grandfather. I knew I must tell you what to do.”
“My mother told me what to do.”
“Your mother is gone. And your father is gone.”
The boy stared at the white ashes of the fire. He whispered the beginning of the mourning song. He stopped and looked at Blue Elk. “If you are a grandfather,” he said, “you will sing the
“I sing the song inside.”
“My mother will not know if you sing the song inside. My father will not know.” He sang the song again, and Blue Elk closed his eyes and sang with him. His memory did not know the words, but his tongue remembered.
They sang the mourning song, and tears came to Blue Elk’s eyes. It was a song not only for Bessie Black Bull and George Black Bull, but for Blue Elk’s own mother, and his own grandmother, and all the grandmothers. It was a song for the old people and the old days.
They sang that song, and they sat in silence. Blue Elk opened his eyes, and he saw the boy and forgot the old people. He knew why he had come here. He said to the boy, “When did your mother go away?”
The boy said, “She went away in the short white days.”
“In the winter that is past,” Blue Elk said.
“In the winter before the winter that is past,” the boy said. He made the sign that it was a year and a half ago.
Blue Elk stared at him, unbelieving. He saw that the boy was telling the truth. He said, “I did not know. I should have come before this. You have been alone too many days.”
The boy made no answer.
“I am here,” Blue Elk said. “My ears are listening. It is good to talk of what happened.”
The boy stared at the ashes, struggling with himself. It was a long time since he had talked to anyone except the bear cub and the jay and the squirrels. He was a boy, with things to tell, not a man who can contain all the things that happen. At last he said, “I will tell of these things.” He began to tell of the winter when his mother died. He was telling of their trip to the low valleys to take fresh meat when there was a whine at the doorway. He stopped his talk. He said, “Come in, Brother. We have one of the grandfathers with us. Come in and sit with us.”
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes