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When the legends die, p.6
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       When the Legends Die, p.6

           Hal Borland
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  The bear cub came inside, sniffing warily. It came to where they sat. It nosed Blue Elk, who sat quietly and let it know his smell. It bristled and turned to the boy. The boy said, “Now you know. Come, lie beside me. I shall tell this grandfather about you.” The cub went to him and lay down between the boy and Blue Elk.

  The boy told about the she-bear and her cubs, about the man who came with the burro, about how this man killed the she-bear and one cub. He told how the man went away, afraid the she-bear he had killed was killing him. He sang the song for a dead bear, and Blue Elk remembered a part of that song and sang with him.

  They sat in silence after that. Then the boy told about his mother again, how they went on the hunt, how she sickened and died. He told about his father, how he died in the snow-slide and they found him and gave him burial.

  He told these things, and Blue Elk heard them. Blue Elk was a boy again as he heard. This was the story of his own people.

  By then the boy had told what he had to tell. He got up and moved about the lodge, touching the bow that had been his father’s, touching the knife his mother had used. He walked about the lodge, and Blue Elk stretched his legs. He was cramped from sitting so long. His joints were old. He watched the boy, and his eyes were full of years. He moved his toes in the boots he wore, and his toes tingled with thorns in them. His legs were asleep.

  The light in the sky above the smoke hole was dimming. The day had passed while the boy talked.

  The boy left the lodge, and the bear cub followed him. Blue Elk got to his feet. He could scarcely walk, his legs were so cramped. He made his way to the door and stood there until his feet would move again. Then he went outside.

  The boy stood in the open, his face lifted to the sun, which was down near the peaks. He was singing a song softly to himself. Blue Elk knew it was the song to the setting sun, to the coming night. He had not sung that song for so long that not even his tongue remembered the words, but he stood silently until the boy had finished. Then he went to the boy, and together they went down to the stream. They drank, and they washed themselves, and Blue Elk went to where his pony was grazing and took off the saddle and the bridle and hobbled the pony for the night. Then they returned to the lodge and they ate.

  The boy built up the fire, so there was light in the lodge. He turned the meat on the rack, so that it would cure another side in the warm smoke. Blue Elk said, “The winter is coming.”

  The boy said, “That is the way it is.”

  Blue Elk said, “The old days are gone.”

  “The short white days come,” the boy said firmly.

  “That is true. I have seen many short white days. Our people have known the white days—” and he made the sign for no end, forever—“Your mother told you this. I tell you the old days are gone. There is an end to the old days.”

  The boy shook his head. “How can there be an end?” he asked. “There is the roundness.” He made the gesture for the circle, the no-end.

  Blue Elk said, “There is the roundness. But today is gone. The day before today is gone.”

  The boy made the no-end sign again. “It is like the sun, and the darkness. It is like the trunk of the aspen. It is like the basket,” and his finger made the circle, the coil of the basket.

  Blue Elk stared at the fire. Finally he said, “We know these things. You know. I know.” He glanced at the boy, whose face was intent. “Some of our people do not know. They have forgotten.”

  The boy made no answer.

  Blue Elk said, “There is a song for remembering. Do you know that song?”

  “I know that song.” The boy began to sing it. His voice was young, but the song was old, old as his people. He sang it, and it was a part of him.

  He finished that song, and Blue Elk said, after a moment, “You are going with me to sing that song for remembering to those who have forgotten. We will go tomorrow, to our people down at Ignacio. You will tell them these things, and they will tell you what they know.”

  The boy sat silent for a time. Then he said, “You will go and tell them. I will stay here.”

  “I said I would be a grandfather to you. We will go together.”

  “I will stay here.”

  “They should hear these songs.” Blue Elk believed this as he said it. It is good for a people to change but it is not good for them to forget. He said this to himself, believing it, but he did not say this aloud. Then he remembered the agent, who might give him five dollars if he brought the boy to Ignacio. It had been a long journey here to the lodge. It was worth more than the five dollars the preacher had given him. Then he remembered that the preacher had said he felt responsible for the boy because he had baptized him. He told himself he must do this thing. He said, “Tomorrow we will go to Ignacio.”

  The boy put a robe on the floor of the lodge. He made the sign that Blue Elk should have the bed. He said, “Tomorrow I will talk of this. Now I shall sleep.” He lay down on the robe and drew it around him, and the bear cub lay down close beside him.

  Blue Elk went to the bed and lay down and drew the red blanket over him. Sleep was not long in coming. He was weary from the journey and from the long talk with the boy. He had dreams of his grandmother’s lodge. He went back to the old days in his sleep, and he sang those songs the boy had sung.

  The boy wakened him the next morning and they went together down to the pool at the stream. The boy took off his moccasins and his clout and bathed himself in the pool, and when he asked why Blue Elk did not bathe, Blue Elk said, “I am an old man.”

  The boy said, “If you are a grandfather and truly one of the people, you will bathe and sing the song to the sun and the morning.”

  Blue Elk stripped and went into the pool. It was so cold it numbed his legs and took all the breath out of him. Then he bathed in that water and he was warm inside as he had not been warm in a long time. He gasped for breath and every part of him shrank at the icy coldness, but the warmth inside was good to know. He remembered this from the time when he was a boy.

  When they had bathed, they sat on the big rock at the head of the pool and faced the sun rising over the far mountain. The boy sang the song to the sun and the morning, and Blue Elk’s tongue remembered. He, too, sang that song.

  When they had finished, Blue Elk said, “It is good to sing this song.”’ Then, remembering why he had come, he added, “Our people should not forget this song.”

  “It is a good song,” the boy said, and he sang another song, to the mountains when they are cool with morning and wet with dew.

  “That song,” Blue Elk asked; “it is your song?”

  “That is my song. I made that song.”

  “You are a good singer. You make good songs,” Blue Elk said. And he urged, “You should not keep these songs to yourself. Our people should hear them.”

  The boy did not answer. He put on his clout and Blue Elk put on his clothes and they returned to the lodge. They ate, Blue Elk silent, the boy thinking. He put away the food. He put away the robe on which he had slept. He asked, “How long is it to Ignacio?” and Blue Elk said, “Less than three days’ journey. It is not long.”

  Still thinking, considering, the boy put away the robes and folded the blanket on the bed where Blue Elk had slept. Then he went to the door and called the jay. When it came and sat on his shoulder he whispered a question and it pecked his ear. He called the squirrels and they came and one sat in his hand. He held it close to his face and asked the question, and it seemed to answer.

  Blue Elk was looking around the lodge with appraising eyes, at the robes, the blanket, the food baskets, all the things worth silver dollars. Now that he had found the lodge, he could return. Even if the agent did not pay him five dollars, as the preacher had said he might, Blue Elk could be well paid for the journey. Then he put that thought away and told himself that winter is long and cold and hungry. This boy should not be here alone in the winter. That was why he had come, he told himself, to see that the boy was not cold and hungry
and alone. I came for the boy’s good, he told himself, for the good of my people.

  The boy turned from the doorway, his decision made. “I will sing the songs and tell the stories,” he said, and he put on leggings to protect his legs in the brush. The bear cub came and licked his hand and whined, and he said, “The jay and the squirrels will stay here and watch for strangers till I return, but you will go with me, Brother.” Then he turned to Blue Elk and said, “Come. We will go with you to Ignacio.”

  That is how it happened.

  II. The School


  LIKE ALL HORSES, BLUE Elk’s pony was afraid of bears. He had to send the boy and the cub ahead and walk and lead the pony that first morning. The next day was easier until they approached Piedra Town and Blue Elk realized that the bear would create an uproar and possibly shooting in the town. So he went around the town, through the rugged hills, and reached the road to Bayfield. They traveled that road until they met a horseman who fired several shots at the bear from his revolver. But his horse was dancing all over the road and the shots were wild, and before the man could hit the bear the horse bolted with him.

  Blue Elk led the way into the hills again, and on the third day they came to the road south from Bayfield to the agency on the reservation. Few people were on that road, so they followed it. The Utes, even reservation Utes, respected bears. They would shrug off such unexpected things as the sight of a boy in a clout with a bear cub at his heels.

  But when they came in sight of the agency Blue Elk wondered why he had done things this way. He wished he could do things over again and be rid of the bear, which made everything hard to manage. But things were as they were. They could not be changed now.

  He said, “The bear must stay with you until I tell these people about him. Our people will not make trouble, but the others do not understand these things.”

  The boy did not understand either, but he nodded.

  There were many buildings at the agency, the headquarters and the school and the dormitory and the barns and stables and the pens and corrals. A flagpole stood in front of the headquarters, with a red, white and blue flag at the top. The boy watched the flag, wondering what it meant. Then he looked at the people hurrying from one building to another. Besides the men, who were all dressed in white man’s clothes, there were boys and girls, Indians but also wearing white man’s clothing. There were more boys and girls than he had ever seen. Only the girls wore their hair in braids, which was a strange thing to see.

  Blue Elk said, “We are going to talk to the agent, the head man. He will ask questions and you must not make lies to him. He will want to hear what you have to say, but first you must do as he says. Do you understand what I say?”

  The boy understood Blue Elk’s words, but he did not know what Blue Elk meant by those words. He said to the bear, “We will talk to the head man in this big lodge.”

  Blue Elk said, “If the bear makes trouble, the head man will not listen to what you have to say.”

  The boy nodded and they went on.

  Outside the headquarters were half a dozen Indians in blue pants and blue shirts and black shoes. They all had short hair. When they saw the boy and the bear with Blue Elk they talked among themselves, and when Blue Elk and the boy and the bear went up the sidewalk to the doorway the men there moved back and made plenty of room. They did not talk and they did not try to stop the bear.

  They went inside and Blue Elk led the way to a white man seated behind a desk. The man looked up and said, “Hello, Blue Elk.” Then he saw the boy and the bear. ‘What’s that bear doing here?” he demanded sharply.

  “The bear belongs to the boy,” Blue Elk said uneasily. “I have brought the boy to talk to the agent. He should be in school.”

  “Get that damned bear out of here!” the man ordered.

  “Yes,” Blue Elk said. “The bear should be put in a strong pen. But you will have to do this.” Then he added, “The boy does not understand your talk. He speaks only Ute.”

  The man said, “Tell him to stay right there with his bear,” and he hurried away. He came back with a strong collar and a chain. He handed them to Blue Elk. “Put the collar on the bear.” The bear was watching him, wrinkling its nose as though it did not like his smell. But it stood quietly, the boy’s hand on its neck.

  Blue Elk turned to the boy. “The man wants you to put this collar on the bear.”

  “My brother does not need this collar,” the boy said.

  “Put it on him. It is so he will not be hurt. These people do not understand bears. They are afraid of bears, and they cannot listen to you when they are afraid. Put it on him.”

  Reluctantly, the boy fastened the collar on the bear cub.

  “Come on,” the man from the desk said. “Bring the bear.”

  They followed the man outside. He led the way to the log pen where they kept wild horses while they were being broken. In the middle of the pen a strong post was set in the ground. Watching the bear and staying carefully away from him, the man took the end of the chain and fastened it to the post. “Now,” he said, “I’ll see if the agent wants to talk to you. Come on.”

  “Come,” Blue Elk said to the boy. “The bear must stay here.”

  “I do not like this thing.”

  “Come. The head man cannot hear what you have to say unless the bear stays here.”

  “My brother will not like this thing.”

  “That is the way it must be. Come!”

  The boy spoke into the bear’s ear, then reluctantly went with Blue Elk. The man from the desk locked the gate and they went back into the headquarters building. “You were a fool to bring that bear here, Blue Elk,” the man said sharply. “A cub that size can be dangerous. Don’t you know that?”

  “The boy would not come without him,” Blue Elk said. “The preacher told me to bring him in. I did this the only way I could do it.”

  The man left them at the desk and went to a door down the hallway. After a few minutes he came out and motioned to them. Blue Elk led the way. They went into the office and the man at the desk there said, “Well, Blue Elk, what have you got up your sleeve this time?”

  The agent was a red-faced man with patches of freckles on his face and hands. He had thin sand-colored hair and eyebrows and his eyes were so light blue they looked milky. He wore a dark gray suit with a closely buttoned vest, a white shirt and a blue necktie. His neck was fat; it bulged over his collar.

  “I brought this boy,” Blue Elk said. “The preacher in Pagosa said he should be in school.”

  The agent looked at the boy. He smiled, then frowned and said to Blue Elk, “Who is he? What is he doing running around in a clout? I understand you were stupid enough to bring a bear cub, too. But that’s taken care of. Who is this boy?”

  “His name is Thomas Black Bull. He was baptized with that name. He has been living by himself, off the reservation.”

  The agent looked at the boy again. “Is this true?” he asked. “Is Blue Elk telling the truth?”

  The boy stared at him, bewildered, then looked at Blue Elk.

  “He speaks only Ute,” Blue Elk said.

  “How does that happen? These kids pick up at least a smattering of English, no matter where they live.”

  “He has no English,” Blue Elk said. “He has no mother. They are dead. He has been living alone, in the old way.”

  “That doesn’t make sense.” The agent frowned again. “Do you mean to tell me—” He broke off, then asked, “How old is he?”

  Blue Elk shrugged. “Eleven years, maybe. I do not know.”

  “Go tell Fred to send Benny Grayback in. You wait outside, Blue Elk. I want to talk to this boy alone.”

  Blue Elk said to the boy, “This man wants to hear what you have to say. He says I should bring another person who speaks the tongue.” And he left the office.

  A few minutes later Benny Grayback came in. He was stocky like most of the Utes, perhaps thirty years old. He wore blue work
pants and black shoes, like the Indians the boy had seen outside the building, but he had a white shirt and a blue necktie like the agent. His hair was short and parted on one side. Benny Grayback was a vocational instructor in charge of the carpenter shop.

  The agent said, “Benny, I want to talk to this boy. Blue Elk says he speaks no English. Is that true?”

  Benny asked the question. The boy answered, and Benny said, “That is true. He knows only Ute.”

  The agent asked questions, then, and the boy gave answers, and Benny Grayback translated.

  “What is your name?”

  “My name is Bear’s Brother.”

  “Blue Elk says your name is Thomas Black Bull.”

  “I do not know that name.”

  “Who is your father?”

  “My father is dead.”

  “Who is your mother?”

  “My mother is dead.”

  “Where do you live?”

  “I live in my lodge.”

  “Who lives with you in your lodge?”

  The boy answered at some length. When he had finished, Benny Grayback said, “He says he lives with his brother. He says his brother is a bear. He says his friends, a jay and the squirrels and chipmunks, also live with him.” Benny smiled. “No other person lives with him, he says.”

  “How long has he lived alone?”

  “He says he has lived alone since his mother died. He says she died the winter before last. I think he must be wrong, but that is what he says.”

  “ Tell him he will live here now, with the other boys and girls. He will go to school here and learn the things he should know.”

  “He says he did not come here to live. He does not understand school. He says he came to tell us of the old ways.” Benny smiled at the agent again. “ Blue Elk told him we would want to know these things and he should come and tell us. That is what he says.”

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