When the Legends Die, p.7Hal Borland
The agent nodded. “Sounds like Blue Elk. Tell him we will want to hear what he has to say about the old ways at a proper time. First he must learn the new ways.”
“He says he will go back to his own lodge until you want to listen to him.”
The agent sighed, shook his head. “He must stay here for a while. Put it that way, Benny. Tell him I say he must live here for now. He cannot go back to his lodge.”
George said this. The boy did not answer.
The agent asked, “Do you remember a George Black Bull, Benny? Some years back. He got a permit to go to Pagosa and work in the sawmill. I think that was the name. He got into a scrape, killed another man. Self-defense, if I remember right, but he got scared and ran away and hid back in the hills. Remember?”
Benny shook his head. “It must have been while I was in school at Fort Lewis. I do not remember.”
“He had a woman and, as I remember, he had a small son. When he ran away he took them with him. Blue Elk says this boy’s baptismal name is Thomas Black Bull, so he is probably George Black Bull’s son. Tell him his name from now on is Thomas Black Bull.”
Benny told the boy, who shook his head. “He says he already has his name, Bear’s Brother.”
“He will be Thomas Black Bull here. Go get him some clothes, Benny, then check with Fred. I’ll have him assigned to a room. And look after him a few days, get him started. He looks like a bright boy who can learn if he wants to. And Benny, don’t let him turn that bear cub loose, no matter what happens. I’ll hold you responsible.” The agent turned back to the papers on his desk, then said, “Send Blue Elk in again.”
Benny Grayback spoke to the boy and they left. A moment later Blue Elk came in, all smiles and expectancy.
“This boy,” the agent said, “is George Black Bull’s son. Is that right?”
“That is right.”
“Who told you to bring him in?”
“The preacher in Pagosa. He said you would want him to be in school. He said you would pay me for the trip. It was a hard trip and I am an old man.”
“ I haven’t any funds for that kind of thing. If you had come and told me, I would have sent my own men after him.” He looked at Blue Elk and shook his head. “You would sell your own grandmother, wouldn’t you, Blue Elk?”
“My grandmother,” Blue Elk said, “is dead.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” There was an ironic smile in the agent’s eyes. “I’ll give you the bear for bringing the boy in.”
Blue Elk shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. “It is the boy’s bear. I do not want this bear.”
“You could take it to the Bear Dance next spring.”
“No,” Blue Elk said. “I did not ask for this bear. I did not ask—“
“Very well.” The agent cut him off. He turned back to his desk. Blue Elk waited. “If I need you,” the agent dismissed him, “I’ll send for you.”
Blue Elk went out, hurt and angry. The boy had caused all this trouble by bringing the bear with him. But as he left the building and went to his pony at the hitch rack he knew what he would do. He would go to Johnny No Good’s house down near Tiffany. It was almost eleven miles, but he had got Johnny No Good off when he was charged with stealing a goat last spring. Johnny No Good would feed him and give him a bed, and tomorrow he would borrow Johnny No Good’s pack horse and go back to the hidden lodge on Bald Mountain. If the agent would not pay him for his journey, there were other ways.
He rode past the horse-breaking pen. The bear cub was pacing back and forth, still chained to the snubbing post, grumbling to itself and biting at the chain. Maybe, Blue Elk said to himself, it was better that the bear was here, chained up here, not loose on Bald Mountain, guarding the lodge.
THEY PUT HIM IN a room with Luther Spotted Dog. Luther was fourteen, had been at the school several years and tried to walk and talk and look like Benny Grayback. He helped Thomas Black Bull put on the stiff new agency pants and shirt and told him to put on the heavy black shoes. Thomas put one on his foot, then threw them both aside and put on his moccasins again. Luther urged him to lie down on the cot, see how soft it was. Thomas felt of it, then tore the bed apart and arranged the blankets in a pallet on the floor. Luther shrugged, said, “I will tell you about the things you must learn,” and began to praise the school, the teachers, the classes. Thomas went over and stood at the window, ignoring him.
When the supper bell rang, Luther said, “Now we go and eat.” They went downstairs to the dining room. Thomas made a face at the cooking smells, looked at the boys and girls marching in and taking their places at the tables, and sat down beside Luther, not liking any of this. A plate of food was brought to him. He smelled of it, picked up a piece of meat in his fingers and tasted it, then spat it out. Luther asked what was wrong, and he said, “It stinks,” and got up and left the table and went out of the room.
Benny Grayback had been watching him. He followed Thomas outside and across the grounds to the horse-breaking pen. He caught up with him at the gate and asked, “Where are you going?”
Thomas didn’t answer. He opened the gate and the bear cub ran toward him, was snubbed by the chain and jerked from its feet. Benny caught the boy by the shoulder before he could run to the bear, which was bawling and snapping at the chain.
The boy struggled to get away. “I am going back to my lodge!” he shouted.
“No,” Benny said. “You are staying here.” He pinioned the boy’s arms.
“I shall take my brother and go!” The boy bit Benny’s hand. Benny slapped him, shook him, then closed the gate and tried to haul him back toward the dormitories.
“You are an evil person!” the boy cried, and tried again to wrench free. “I hate you! My brother hates you!”
But Benny twisted his arms behind him and forced him into submission. They went back to the dormitory and up to the room. Benny made him sit down and he talked to him, told him he must stay here, go to classes, learn to live the new way. He talked, and the boy sat in defiant silence, and finally Luther Spotted Dog came upstairs from supper. Benny said, “Thomas is to stay here, in this room, until breakfast time tomorrow. Do you understand? I will hold you responsible for him.”
Luther looked at Thomas, dubious, but he said, “Yes.”
Then Benny left the room and went to find Neil Swan-son, the square-faced Dane who was in charge of the stables and the livestock. “I want to secure the bear,” Benny told Neil, “so nobody can let it loose unless I say so.”
“We will lock him up,” Neil said, and he found two padlocks. Then he took a rope and they went to the breaking pen. Neil lassoed the bear, choked it into submission, and they padlocked the chain around its neck and to the snubbing post. Benny pocketed the keys to the padlocks.
The next morning when they came down to breakfast Luther Spotted Dog had three long scratches down his face and a bruise that almost closed his right eye. Thomas walked with a limp and his wrists were raw. Benny went to the table where they sat and said to Luther, in English, “You had a hard time last night.”
“It was a bad night,” Luther said. “He would have killed me. I had to tie him up. I did not sleep.”
“ Bring him to my class after breakfast,” Benny ordered.
The food came. Thomas smelled the sausage and pancakes and pushed the plate aside. He started to leave the table, but Luther caught him by the arm and forced him back into his chair, and he sat in angry silence till the meal was over. Then Luther took him to the carpenter shop.
There were fifteen boys in the class. Benny introduced Thomas Black Bull to them and Thomas stared at them coldly. The class began and Thomas went to a window and stood with his back to the room. Two boys whispered, in Ute, about his braids. One of them took two long shavings and hung them behind his ears. All the boys laughed except Luther Spotted Dog. Benny told them to be quiet. Then someone whined like a bear, and they laughed again. A boy near Thomas said, in falsetto, “My name is Bear Me
“Stop it!” Benny ordered. “All of you! Get back to work.” He took Thomas by the arm and led him back to his desk in the corner of the room. “Why did you do that?” he demanded in Ute.
Thomas did not answer.
“These boys want to be your friends. Don’t you know that? Don’t you want to have friends?”
“I have no friends here.”
“That is no way to make friends, by trying to hurt them.”
But it was no use. Benny kept him beside his desk until the class ended. Then he took him to Rowena Ellis.
Rowena Ellis taught English and was in charge of the girls’ dormitory. Unmarried, in her forties, a slightly plump woman who wore her graying hair in braids around her head, she was unofficial mother to every shy, homesick boy and girl in the school. She had taught in reservation schools almost twenty years and spoke several Indian tongues, including Ute.
She told Benny the agent had spoken to her about this boy, then dismissed him with a gesture. To the boy she said, in the tongue, “We should know each other. There are many new things here. This place is full of strangeness. I will tell you about it.”
Her Ute was not precise, but he understood what she said. “I came here,” he told her, “to tell of the old ways of my people.”
“I want to hear of the old ways,”” she said. “But first I will tell you of the new ways.” She started to tell him why he must go to school, but he cut her off.
“I do not need these things,” he said.
She smiled. She was a patient woman. Then her next class filed into the room. It was a mixed class of boys and girls. Two of the boys had been in the carpentry class. When all had taken their seats Miss Ellis said, “We have a new boy, Thomas Black Bull. He has had a very interesting life and soon he will tell us about it. But first we are going to teach him more English. We will start today, with a review lesson, an oral drill.”
Two of the boys groaned and several girls giggled. Miss Ellis turned to a simple lesson, saying first a Ute word, then calling on someone in the class for the English word. The class was restless. They had been through this long before. The boys began to whisper. Miss Ellis silenced them, and the girls giggled again. But she kept them at the vocabulary drill for half the period before she told them to open their readers and called on them, in turn, to read aloud.
Thomas Black Bull, bored by it all, went to a window and stood with his back to the room until the class was over. Then Miss Ellis went to him and said, “You see, it is not so hard to learn new things. You learned something today. I know this.”
“I do not need these things,” Thomas said.
“Your mother would tell you to learn these things.”
“My mother—” and he made the cut-off sign.
“Tell me about your mother, Thomas.”
“You would not understand.”
“Who else do you have?”
“I have my brother.”
“Tell me about your brother.”
He turned away from her and left the classroom.
Benny Grayback was waiting outside the door. The boy pushed past him and hurried down the hallway and outside. Benny followed. He went to the breaking pen, opened the gate and ran to the bear. He talked and the bear whined, and he tried to loosen the chain. He found the padlocks, examined them, then tore at them angrily with his fingers. At last he gave up and stood silent while the bear licked his hands. Then he went slowly, deliberately, to Benny Grayback, who was waiting at the gate. He stopped in front of Benny and said, “I will do these things you tell me to do if you will let my brother loose.”
“I am glad to hear this,” Benny said. “But we cannot have this bear running loose and hurting people.”
“He will not hurt people. He will live with me, where I live.”
“Luther Spotted Dog would not be happy with a bear living in his room.”
“Luther Spotted Dog can live in another place.”
“Come. It is time to eat. We will talk of this later.”
So Thomas Black Bull went with Benny to the dining room and Benny put Thomas beside him at his own table. Hungry, Thomas ate two portions of meat, nothing else. When the meal was over, he said to Benny, “Now we will talk about my brother.”
“Tomorrow we will talk,” Benny said. “I am busy this afternoon.”
“I will go to the place where I live,” Thomas said, “until you will talk.”
“To your room?”
“Yes. Then we will talk about this thing.”
“If you will go to your room and stay there until I come, we will talk.”
So Thomas went to the room he shared with Luther Spotted Dog.
Luther did not return to the room until late afternoon, after his last class. He opened the door and saw all his belongings piled in one corner. Thomas was standing at the window. He turned and said to Luther, “Take your things and get out of here.”
“No,” Luther said. “This is my room.”
Without another word, Thomas attacked him, drove him from the room and threw his belongings into the hall. Then he closed the door. Luther hurried away and found Benny Grayback.
They came back and together they forced open the door. “What does this mean?” Benny demanded of Thomas.
“He does not live here any more,” Thomas said, pointing at Luther. “Now there is room here for my brother.”
“But you can’t do this!” Benny exclaimed.
“It is done.”
Benny took him by the arm. “Come with me. There is another room where you are going to live.”
“First we will talk.”
“We will go to this other room. Then we will talk.”
He took Thomas downstairs and along the hall to a room so small there was space for only a cot and a washstand. It had one small window, with bars on the outside, and it had a heavy door with a lock. They went in, and Thomas said, “My brother will not like this place.”
“We will not talk about the bear today,” Benny said firmly.
“Then I will not stay here.”
Benny went out and closed the door and locked it. The boy beat on the door with his fists, then began to chant. It was a sorrow song, a song that Benny had never heard because it was the boy’s own song. Benny did not want to listen but he heard, and although he wanted to go away he stayed there. Without knowing, he began to hum the chant, then to say its words softly, and to sway with its rhythms. It was a song from far back, not only in the boy but in Benny’s own people. Its rhythm was his own heartbeat.
Then he heard his own humming, his own words, and he forced himself to stop. This, he told himself, was nonsense. It was of the old ways, and the old ways were gone. He hurried away.
Benny was still troubled after supper. He went to see the agent. The agent was annoyed. He had enough problems to settle during the day. His evenings should be his own. But he listened as Benny told him what had happened.
Finally the agent said, “Just as I was afraid, this whole thing came about because of that bear cub. We’ll have to get rid of it.”
“That is not easy,” Benny said. “Nobody can touch the bear except the boy.”
The agent smiled. “Nobody has to touch it to shoot it.”
Benny Grayback gasped. “No!” he exclaimed. “You cannot kill the bear!” Then he clapped his hand over his mouth.
The agent frowned. He had worked with these people, lived with them, tried to understand them, for twenty-five years, and there still were things in them that he could not fathom. Emotions and superstitions that he couldn’t reach, somehow, even in one like Benny Grayback, who was civilized and educated.
“I know the feeling about bears,” he said, weighing his words. “But when one is a troublemaker you kill it, don’t you?”
Benny nodded. “When ones makes trouble.”
Benny hesitated. “There is trouble, yes.”
“Because of the bear.”
“I do not know this,” Benny said, falling into the old speech pattern even though he spoke English.
“What don’t you know?”
Benny did not answer the question. “If you kill the bear,” he said, “then you will kill the boy.”
“What makes you think that, Benny?”
“My grandmother—” Benny glanced at the agent and broke off. The boy’s sorrow chant had beaten at him again. He shrugged it away, shrugged away his grandmother and all the old people, the old ways. “I know it,” he said. “That is all.”
The agent sighed. “Very well, Benny. Do the best you can with the boy for another day or two. I’ve got an idea that old Blue Elk can help us solve this. I’ll get in touch with him tomorrow.”
BLUE ELK DID NOT arrive until the third day later. He came in late afternoon and hitched his pony at the rack and went into the agency headquarters and said to Fred, at the desk, “The agent sent for me. I am here.” Fred went and told the agent; who said to send him right in.
“Where have you been?” the agent asked. “I sent for you three days ago.”
Blue Elk shrugged. He looked more smug than the agent had seen him in weeks. “I have been busy,” he said.
“We have to get rid of this bear you brought in with the boy, Thomas Black Bull.”
Blue Elk’s eyes narrowed. He made no answer.
“I want you to take the bear back to the mountains.”
Blue Elk shook his head. “I cannot do this.”
Blue Elk smiled. “It is not my bear. It does not know me.”
The agent smiled grimly. “The boy will take the bear. You will go along and bring the boy back. The bear is to stay in the mountains.”
Blue Elk pondered, worrying something in his mind. “This is not an easy thing to do. No, I cannot do this.”
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes