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When the legends die, p.8
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       When the Legends Die, p.8

           Hal Borland
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  “Why not? I know it will not be easy, but that is why I sent for you.”

  “I am an old man. It will take time.”

  The agent knew Blue Elk was not giving the real reason. He never did. “You are always glad to give your time for your people. You will do this for the boy.”

  “I cannot take the bear back to Bald Mountain.”

  “You don’t have to take it that fat. Hotse Mountain will be far enough. The other side of Horse Mountain.”

  Blue Elk seemed to relax somewhat.” That is a long journey.”

  “Five days, no more than that. All you have to do is take them out in the mountains, get rid of the bear, and bring the boy back here. I’ll pay you ten dollars, silver. That’s two dollars a day.”

  Blue Elk shook his head. “Fifteen dollars.”


  “Twelve dollars.”


  Blue Elk sighed. “I have no money. I need this money now.”

  “When the job is done. When you bring the boy back.”

  “I do not like this job,” Blue Elk said. Then, “You will give me food for the journey.”

  “I will give you supper tonight and enough food for the trip.”

  The deal was made. Blue Elk ate supper in the dining room, a double portion, and, when he had finished, Benny Grayback gave him the keys to the padlocks on the bear’s chain and took him to the little room to talk to the boy.

  Blue Elk sat down on the cot and said to the boy, “I have come to take you back to the mountains where you came from.”

  “I will not go without my brother,” the boy said.

  “Your brother will go with us. He is going to stay in the mountains.”

  “I do not need you to take us back. I can find the way.”

  “The agent said I should go with you.”


  “Because I brought you here.” Blue Elk knew that was a mistake as soon as he said it, but it was said.

  “Your mouth,” the boy said bitterly, “is like Benny Gray-back’s mouth. It is full of lies.”

  “I talk straight, Thomas Black Bull.”

  “I am Bear’s Brother. I do not know this other name you speak.” And the boy began to chant his sorrow song.

  “Be quiet,” Blue Elk ordered. But the boy went on chanting. Then he chanted the old songs, and before long Blue Elk was swaying to the rhythm of the chants. The boy chanted for an hour, and Blue Elk was humming and saying words that he remembered.

  Dusk came, and darkness. The boy became hoarse from the chanting, and Blue Elk forced the old memories away from him.

  “Stop this,” he ordered. And after a little time the boy’s hoarse voice died away. Blue Elk tried to talk to him about the school, and the boy began chanting again. And again he was so hoarse he had to stop. And Blue Elk talked about the new ways. Then the boy was chanting again.

  They talked and chanted through most of the night. Then, at last, Blue Elk fell asleep, there on the cot. When the boy heard him snoring he tried to take the keys to the door and the padlocks out of Blue Elk’s pockets. But Blue Elk roused, and the boy did not get the keys. Then the dawn began to come, and the boy chanted a sorrow song again because he could not find his song for this new day. When he had finished, Blue Elk yawned and said, “Now we will go.” He unlocked the door and they went down the long, deserted hallway and outside into the coolness of morning.

  They went to the horse-breaking pen and Blue Elk gave the boy the key to the padlock on the post. He kept the other key, the one to the padlock on the bear’s neck. He would need that key later. The boy unfastened the chain from the post, and he and the bear came from the pen, the bear dragging the chain still locked around its neck, and they started up the road toward Bayfield. Blue Elk got on his pony and followed close behind them.

  They traveled all that day, going back the way they had come when Blue Elk brought them to the agency. That night they made camp and ate from the food the agent had provided for the journey. When they had eaten, Blue Elk took the end of the bear’s chain and padlocked it around a tree. Then he said, “Now we will sleep.” The boy, he knew, would not go away without the bear.

  They traveled all the next day, and again they slept with the bear chained to a tree. The third morning they came to the foot of Horse Mountain. Blue Elk said, “We will stop here and rest.” He chained the bear to a tree. Then he said, “We are going to leave the bear here.”

  “I do not like this,” the boy said. “My brother wants to go home, back to my lodge.”

  “The bear can go home,” Blue Elk said. “Tell the bear he must go home.”

  “I will go home with him.”

  “No. You will come back with me.”

  Then the boy knew what they had done to him. Without a word, he came at Blue Elk, kicking, clawing, trying to knock him down and take the key to the padlock from him. But Blue Elk, old though he was, was still able to defend himself. The boy struck him in the face and made him grunt with blows in the belly, and he knocked off Blue Elk’s derby hat and punched a hole in it. But in the end Blue Elk had him by the arms and dragged him over to his pony. He took a rope from the saddle and tied the boy’s arms to his sides, then tied his ankles together. After that Blue Elk sat down to rest. When he had caught his breath he said, “ Let us have no more trouble about this. The bear must go away. You must go back with me.”


  Blue Elk sat and waited. The bear—which had lunged at the chain, trying to get loose, while Blue Elk and the boy were struggling—quieted down. Finally Blue Elk said, “Tell the bear he must go away. Then I will let him loose.”


  Blue Elk waited again. Then he said, “If you do not tell the bear to go away, we will go back and leave him chained to that tree. If that is the way you want it to be—” He shrugged.

  The boy did not answer. And finally Blue Elk got to his feet. He went to the boy and loosened the rope around his ankles. “Come,” he said. “We will go back now.” He lifted the boy to his feet, took the end of the rope that still bound his arms, and led him to the pony. He tied the end of the rope to the saddle horn and got into the saddle. “Are you ready to go?” he asked.

  The boy looked at the bear, and he looked at Blue Elk, and he said, “I will tell my brother to go home.”

  Blue Elk got off his pony and freed one of the boy’s hands. He gave him the keys to both padlocks and they went back to where the bear was chained. Blue Elk still held the end of the rope.

  The boy went to the bear. He said, “They have made me do this, brother. They have made me tell you to go away.” And he unlocked the chain from the bear’s neck. Suddenly he hugged the bear’s head to him and buried his face in its neck fur. Then he stepped back away from it. “Go home,” he ordered. “Go! Go!” And he turned away.

  The bear stood for a moment, then took a step toward him. He turned and cried, “Go! Go before they put the chain on you again!” And the bear turned, uncertain, and walked away from him. The boy went to Blue Elk and said, “I wish you were dead for this thing you have done.”

  “Unlock the chain from the tree,” Blue Elk ordered. And when the chain had been loosened from the tree Blue Elk and the boy went back to the pony. Blue Elk took the keys and put them in his pocket, and he looped the chain and fastened it on his saddle. He freed the boy’s arms but kept the rope around his waist, and he got on his pony and they started back the way they had come.

  That night he chained the boy to a tree, and late the next afternoon they returned to the agency. Blue Elk took the boy to Benny Grayback, who took him to the little room with bars at the window. The boy did not talk, and lie walked as though he was in a daze.

  Blue Elk was grim. He had a dark bruise under one eye and his hands were scarred and scratched. He walked with a limp. He didn’t stop at Fred’s desk. He went directly into the agent’s orifice.

  The agent looked up, annoyed, then said, “Well, Blue Elk! Back already? A
little battered, but all in one piece. You got the job done?”

  “It is done.”

  “You brought the boy back?”

  “The boy is here.”

  “Fine. And the bear?”

  “The bear is the other side of Horse Mountain.”

  “I can count on that, depend on it?”

  “I do not tell lies.”

  “Not unless there’s a dollar in it.” The agent opened a drawer and counted out ten silver dollars.

  “It was a hard trip.” Blue Elk felt of the bruise under his eye.

  The agent made no comment. He stacked the dollars on the desk in front of him. Blue Elk looked at the money, then took off his derby hat and pointed to the hole in it.

  The agent smiled and slowly shook his head. “A new hat wasn’t in the bargain, Blue Elk. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you really took that bear all the way to Horse Mountain, it won’t come back here, not for a while anyway. And maybe it will meet a ranchman or a hunter meanwhile. If that bear doesn’t come back here in the next two weeks, I’ll see you get a new hat. How’s that?”

  Blue Elk sighed. “Two weeks is a long time.”

  The agent pushed the silver dollars across the desk and Blue Elk picked them up, one at a time, and put them in his pocket. He put on his battered hat. Then he turned and left, a tired and bruised old man who somehow, the agent couldn’t figure quite how, represented the pride and dignity of a whole race.


  AFTER THE TRIP TO Horse Mountain with Blue Elk, Thomas Black Bull seemed to accept the school and its routine. He ate the food served in the dining room, wore the clothes he had been issued, went to the classes to which he was assigned. After a few days he was moved out of the little room with bars. Benny Grayback wanted to put him in a double dormitory room, with another boy, but Rowena Ellis said, “He is an unusual boy, exceptionally reserved and self-sufficient. He doesn’t need companionship. I think he will be happier and less of a problem if allowed to have a room to himself.” The agent agreed with Miss Ellis, so Thomas was given a single room in the dormitory.

  Two weeks later the agent asked for a report on him. His general conduct, it was agreed, was satisfactory. At least he wasn’t starting trouble. But Benny Grayback said he thought it was time Thomas went to the barber. “His braids should be cut off,” Benny said firmly.

  The agent shook his head. “He will have them cut off eventually. The other kids will shame him into it. All boys want to be like the others. What is his attitude in class? That is much more important than his braids. Is he learning the things he should?”

  Benny said, “No. Thomas has little interest in manual work. He is the slowest pupil in my classes.”

  The agent turned to Neil Swanson. Neil said, “He is worse than useless in the stables. Yesterday I set him to work cleaning the cow barn and, when I went back to see how he was doing, he threw a forkful of manure at me. He said that cows stink.”

  The agent smiled. “I wonder what he would have said if you had put him to work at the pigpens. Try him in the horse barns, Neil.” He turned to Rowena Ellis. “How is he doing with you?”

  “He is doing very well,” Miss Ellis said. “I am sure he has learned far more than he lets on. From all of us,” she added. “He never speaks unless spoken to, but he can make himself understood when he wants to. Thomas is an unhappy boy and hard to reach, but he learns fast.”

  So Thomas was taken out of Benny’s carpentry class and assigned to the cobbler’s shop. He did better there, not only because he had some knowledge of leather but because Ed Porter was in charge. Ed, a half-blood, was an easygoing man with none of Benny’s zeal to cancel Thomas Black Bull’s background and inheritance overnight. It was Ed Porter who noted the boy’s unusual skill with his fingers and suggested that he might be a basketmaker. So Thomas was sent to the basketry class, where Ed’s wife, Dolly Beaverfoot, a Paiute originally from Utah, was the instructor.

  Dolly gave Thomas the conventional basket materials and started to show him how to make a simple meal basket. But he pushed the coarse reeds aside and said, “These are no good.” He left the room, was gone half an hour, and came back with an armful of willow stems. Dolly smiled with pleasure and watched as he chose among the stems and began stripping the bark from them with his teeth, in the old way. When he had the material to suit him he began to weave a basket in a way that not even Dolly could match. It was, Dolly said, one of the best baskets she had ever seen, as good as those the old ones among her own people made.

  Word spread about Thomas Black Bull’s basket. The girls in the basketry class—Thomas was the only boy in the class—had whispered among themselves about how handsome he was in a rather sullen way, but now they came to his bench to admire his work and speak open words of praise. And the school’s boys, of course, heard about this.

  The boys had laughed at his braids, but never openly. Now the began talking about “the new girl” and saying, “She makes better baskets than the teacher,” and “She is really Bear’s Sister. That is her real name.” Thomas heard these things, but he ignored them until one afternoon at the horse barn. He and Luther Spotted Dog and two other boys were cleaning the stalls, and one of the boys said to Luther, “She is the teacher’s pet, you know.”

  Luther grinned. “But she still has to clean the barn.”

  Thomas tightened his lips and said nothing.

  The boy who had spoken first said, “Was she nice to you, Luther, when she lived in your room?”

  Luther grinned even more broadly. “No. She was a very poor squaw.” And he pretended to trip on his pitchfork and threw a forkful of dirty straw at Thomas.

  Thomas said, “Don’t do that again.”

  One of the boys behind him threw another forkful at him, and Luther laughed and said, “Bear’s Sister is getting mad at us!”

  Thomas hit Luther in the face with his fist, and the fight was on. He knocked Luther down, and another boy leaped on his back. He caught the boy by the hair and threw him to the floor. Luther came at him again and he bloodied Luther’s nose before the other boy got to his feet.

  The fourth boy ran to find Neil Swanson. But before Neil got there Thomas had bloodied the noses of both his tormentors and backed them into a corner, where he was pounding their faces in turn.

  Neil caught him by the arm, dragged him away, and ordered the other boys to their rooms. Then he demanded, “Why did you start this fight?”

  Thomas faced him, silent and defiant.

  “I won’t have such goings-on in my barn! Why did you do it?”

  Thomas still refused to answer.

  “All right,” Neil said, “I’ll have to teach you a lesson.” He took Thomas Black Bull to the harness room, got a strap and flogged him. Thomas took it tight-lipped and without a sound. When he had finished, Neil said, “Let this be a lesson to you. Do it again and you’ll get another licking. Now go to your room.”

  Thomas went to the school building instead of the dormitory He went to the basketry room, and before Dolly Beaverfoot could even ask what was the matter he took his partly finished basket and tore it to shreds. Then he went to the dormitory and to his room and locked the door.

  Twenty minutes later Benny Grayback was at the door. “Thomas,” he ordered, “unlock the door. I want to talk to you.

  There was no answer.

  Benny pounded on the door. He ordered, he pleaded. He got no answer at all.

  A little later Rowena Ellis came to the door. She knocked and said, “Thomas, this is Miss Ellis. I want to talk to you, Thomas.”

  No answer.

  “I want to know what happened. You have done something very bad, Thomas, but I am sure it was not all your fault. You can talk to me and tell me about it, can’t you, Thomas?”

  Still no answer.

  She pounded on the door. “Thomas!” she shouted. “Open this door at once!”

  But the door did not open and there was no sound from inside. She waited ten minutes, then said,
Thomas Black Bull, if you do not open this door at once I will not try to keep them from punishing you severely! Do you hear me, Thomas?”


  And finally she went away.

  He stayed in his room all that night and all the next day. Benny Grayback came to the door again the next evening and ordered, then threatened. Rowena Ellis came again and pleaded, then threatened. He answered neither of them. And the agent said, “ Leave him alone. He’ll starve out in another day or two.”


  HE DIDN’T STARVE OUT. The next night he took off his shirt and pants, put on his clout, his leggings and his moccasins, took a blanket from his cot, and climbed out the window. He slid down a drain spout to the ground, forced his way into the kitchen and took a butcher knife, a ball of strong cord and the two-pound remnant of a pot roast. Then he started north, eating the meat as he traveled in the darkness.

  It was October. The valley cottonwoods had shed their leather leaves and the aspens were in full gold. It was mild autumn on the lowlands of the reservation. But the nights were already frosty in the mountains and there were snow caps on the higher peaks.

  He had no trouble finding the way. He had been over it before. And he lived in the old way, striking fire from a piece of flint with the butcher knife, killing spruce grouse with a club, snaring rabbits with the strong cord. He avoided the roads and the traveled trails, and the second day he went around Piedra Town and on up the valley.

  He went to Horse Mountain, to the place where Blue Elk had forced him to send the bear away. He looked for bear sign and he sang the bear song. There was no sign, and there was no answer to his song. Then he went on, hurrying because the season was late. But he went to the foot of Granite Peak on the way, and again he searched for bear sign. The only sign he found was of one big grizzly, and he knew the cub would not be there. Not with Grandfather Bear marking the whole area as his territory. He saw the claw marks high on a dozen big pines.

  He went on to Bald Mountain. He was going home, back to his own lodge. Perhaps his brother, the cub, would be there. If not, it would return next spring, after hibernation. If he did not find his brother now, he would find him later. Now he must go to his lodge, get things in order, make ready for winter. It was late, but he must do what he could.

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