When the Legends Die, p.9Hal Borland
He went to Bald Mountain. He drank at the stream where he had drunk many times, washed in the pool where so many mornings he had sung the song to a new day. He started up the path his own moccasins had helped to make. It was no longer a clear path. The bushes already were beginning to overgrow it.
He watched for the jay, thought he saw it. He called to it, but it sat silent in a tall aspen, watching him, them screamed and flew away. He watched for the squirrels and the chipmunks, called to them. The chipmunks chattered at him and ran and hid among the rocks. The squirrels scurried up the pines, peered at him from the high branches, scolded at his intrusion.
He came to the last turn in the path, the place where he could see the lodge. He stopped and put a hand to his mouth to stop the cry of pain. There was no lodge. Where the lodge had been was a charred place, a circle of ashes. Not a post or a beam remained. Nothing.
He went to the charred circle and poked among the ashes. He found nothing there, not even a knife blade. And then he knew. It was no accident, no hidden coal that flared into hungry flame soon after he went away with Blue Elk that morning. Someone had come and taken everything, even the worn-down knife, even the battered cooking pot, and burned the lodge.
He stood among the ashes and whispered his sorrow chant, not even saying it aloud. For small griefs you shout, but for big griefs you whisper or say nothing. The big griefs must be borne alone, inside.
When he had finished he looked up the mountainside, thinking of his father and his mother. He did not climb to the cave among the rocks, for his father and his mother were not there. They had gone on the long journey many days, many moons ago. He looked up the mountainside for a long time. Then he went back down the overgrown path to the stream and made his camp there. He killed a spruce grouse and made a fire and ate. And that afternoon he sang his bear song. He sang it as loudly as he could sing. There was no answer. At dusk he sang it again. There was no answer.
That night he thought of his footsteps in the path, which would be completely wiped out soon, when the snow came. He thought of the lodge, now a circle of leaching ashes. He thought of the jay that had sat silent when he called to it. He thought of the chipmunks that hid among the rocks and of the squirrels that fled and scolded. He thought of his brother, the bear.
It was as though he had never been here.
He was very tired. He put out his fire and slept.
The next morning the clouds hung low over the mountain and the valley was filled with mist as cold as sleet. He bathed at the pool, but he sang no song for a new day. He did not even whisper the sorrow song. There was no song in him. Only a numbness, a nothing.
He ate the rest of the grouse from the night before and he put out his fire and scattered the ashes, removed all trace of his presence there. Then he folded the blanket and drew it around his shoulders and started back down the valley. There were spits of snow in the mist and the dead leaves in the oak brush whispered of winter.
HE MET THEM AT the foot of Horse Mountain. There were only two of them, Benny Grayback and an old man called Fish. Fish was known as a tracker because he sometimes found lost horses by following their footprints, especially after a rain when the ground was muddy. The agent had said the boy probably would go to Horse Mountain, so that is where they went to look for him.
They were just starting to circle Horse Mountain when the boy came down the valley and saw them. He stopped and waited, and they saw him, and Benny said, “There he is!” Fish said, “I have found him, as I said I would.”
The boy came up to them and Benny said, “We came after you, Thomas Black Bull, to take you back to the reservation.”
Thomas shrugged. “I will go back,” he said, in English.
They had a pack horse. Benny told Fish to divide the pack, put part of it on their saddle horses, so the boy could ride on the pack horse. “I should make you walk,” he said to Thomas, “but you would walk slow and I am in a hurry to get back. Shall I tie you on the horse, or will you promise not to try to run away?”
“I will go back,” the boy said again.
Fish helped him up onto the pack horse and they went back down the valley. To Piedra Town, and the agency, and the school. They were two days going back, and the boy did not try once to run away.
The next day after he returned to the school, Thomas Black Bull went to the barber and had his braids cut off. The next morning he put on his shoes instead of his moccasins. And not once after he returned did he speak Ute. He spoke to no one except when he was spoken to, but when he did speak it was in English. Within a month Miss Ellis told him that if he kept on as well as he was doing he would speak English as well as any boy in the school by next spring.
Because of the trouble over the basket, they did not send him back to Dolly Beaverfoot’s class. Instead, Ed Porter took him back into the cobbler’s shop, but now that he knew about the boy’s skill with his fingers he gave him rawhide and horsehair and started him plaiting quirts and fancy bridles. As he had expected, the boy was almost as skillful at this as he had been at basketry. He even made up his own designs for the horsehair work.
He still made no friends, however. Several of the girls admired him and would have liked to be friends, but he was, as they said, “always somewhere else.” He seemed unaware of their existence. The boys who had taunted him now left him alone. They knew what a beating he had given Luther Spotted Dog and that other boy in the horse barn. Besides, he often carried one of the rawhide quirts he made in the leather shop.
So the winter passed, and when he got the periodic reports about Thomas the agent said, “That boy has settled down. We’ll make a farmer out of him yet. Or something.”
The winter passed and late March came. There were catkins on the willows and tassels on the aspens. Spring was coming to the lowlands and the snow was beginning to melt in the mountain valleys. Bears would soon be coming out of hibernation. It was the time for the Bear Dance, the traditional ceremony at which the Utes used to gather and dance and visit after the winter’s isolation. In the old days it was a time for courtship among the young folk as well as for singing the old songs to the bears. But now only the old people remembered the Bear Dance in late March. It interrupted spring work on the farms, so the agency people had persuaded the young folk to change the old ways and wait for May, after the corn was planted, to hold the Bear Dance.
Thomas Black Bull, seeing the tassels on the aspens and the spears of new grass and the change in the days, sunrise to sunset, knew what time it was in the year. He knew the bears would soon be leaving their winter dens, to travel, to claim their old ranges, to challenge intruders and fight their fearful battles among themselves. He felt these things in his blood.
Then a moonlit night came and he sat in his room and knew what was going to happen. He hoped it would happen, and he wished it would not happen. He waited, and the cattle bawled in their pens. The horses snorted and raced about their corrals. He opened his window, and in the moonlight he saw the bear beside the horse-breaking pen. It stood there nosing the air, then shuffled its feet like a great shaggy dog and nosed the air again. It whined softly.
Other windows opened. Someone shouted an alarm.
Thomas picked up a heavy quirt and hurried from his room. He went down the hallway, down the stairs and out into the moonlight. He ran toward the corral, and he began singing the bear song.
The bear came to meet him.
He stopped singing and shouted warning words, then angry words. The bear stopped and growled, then came on, whining again. The boy screamed at the bear in Ute. It stopped again and the boy went up to it, swished the quirt in its face and shouted, “Go away! Go back home, to the mountains!”
The bear rose on its hind legs and spread its forepaws as though to tear the boy to pieces. Its teeth were white in the moonlight. It was a two-year-old now and stood taller than the boy. The boy lashed it across the face with the quirt, again and again, screaming, “Go! Go! Go!”
The boy backed away. “I do not know you!” he cried. “You are no longer my brother. I have no brother! I have no friends!” Then he said, “I had a brother. But when I went to find him and sang my song to my brother he would not listen. Now there is nobody.”
He stood silent in die moonlight, his head bowed, and the bear swayed from side to side, from foot to foot, moaning.
“Go away,” the boy said. “Go, or they will kill you. They do not need guns to kill. They kill without guns. Listen! I speak truth. They will kill you. Go away!”
The bear still stood swaying, moaning.
He put a hand in the fur on the bear’s neck and he said, “Come. I will go a little way with you.” And they slowly walked away from the horse-breaking pen, the boy and the bear in the moonlight. They walked across the grounds toward the aspens with catkins like chipmunk tails. They walked among the trees and into the shadows, and after a little while there was the sound of the sorrow song. It was a song so desolate that the coyotes answered it from the gullies beyond. But the coyote cries were not so full of wailing as that song. The coyotes have brothers.
After another little while the boy came back out of the shadows of the trees, walking alone. He walked with the weariness of one who sings the going-away song for the only other person in the world. But he sang no song.
Men and boys were standing beside the doorway, but he seemed not to see them. They stepped aside, made way for him, and later they said it was like seeing a strange man, a remote and terrible man, not a boy.
He walked past them and along the hallway and upstairs to his room.
The next day he went to his classes as though nothing had happened, but those who looked into his eyes saw something there that made them afraid to talk to him. Nobody spoke of what had happened in the moonlight.
THE AGENT SAID THEY would make a farmer out of him yet, and that spring they tried. He learned, readily enough, to harness a team of work horses, and he learned how to hitch the team to a plow. They showed him how to hold the plow handles and turn a furrow. Then they took him to a field that was soon to be planted with corn and set him to work. They hoped to make a plowboy of him.
But plowing seemed stupid to him. Why should anyone rip up the grass, even if it was sparse grass, and make the earth grow something else? If left to itself, the earth would grow grass and many other good things. When you plowed up the grass you were making the earth into something it did not want to be.
And plowing one furrow after another, side by side, was like walking in a room if you walked only on one board, then on the next, and the next, and the next. You went nowhere. The world was a big place. Why should you stay in one little field and make all your footsteps side by side?
The horses knew what to do. They followed each furrow to the end, then turned and followed the next furrow back again, and all he had to do was to hold the plow handles and keep the plowshare in the ground at an even depth. But he kept thinking of how senseless it all was and he let the plowshare drift up and down and make a deep furrow here, a shallow furrow there, no furrow at all in many places.
Neil Swanson came and looked. “Maybe you could do a worse job if you tried,” he said, “but I doubt it.” He took the team and showed Thomas Black Bull how to hold the plow handles steady and turn a clean, uniform furrow. He plowed to the end of the field and back, Thomas walking beside him. “Nothing to it,” Neil said. “Now you do it.” And while Neil watched, Thomas turned a perfect furrow. Neil said, “That’s it. All you have to do is keep a steady hand and pay attention.” He went back to the barns, and Thomas plowed just as he had before, deep and shallow and no furrow at all.
After two weeks Neil said, “We can’t plant corn in a field like that.” He brought another boy and set him to plowing the field all over again, and he took Thomas back to the cow barn. “Since you won’t learn to plow,” he said, “you’ll have to clean the cow barn and learn to milk.”
Thomas knew this was punishment for not becoming a good plowboy. But punishment no longer mattered. The smell of the cow barn nauseated him, but he cleaned it. The smell of warm milk made him feel sick, but he learned to milk a cow. He had to work in the cow barn only a few hours a day, morning and evening. And in a few more weeks most of his classes ended for the summer and he became a herd boy. After the morning milking and the barn cleaning he took the cows to pasture on the grass two miles from the barns. He stayed with the cows, seeing that they did not wander too far, until late afternoon. Then he brought them back and helped with the evening milking.
For a herd horse he had a stringhalted old nag with a saw-toothed backbone. He hated the horse and its limping gait, which kept his bottom raw, but he learned to ride after a fashion. And the long hours in the open, even though it was a land of sagebrush, cactus and scattered grass, were a relief from the cow barn. The open country smelled clean, even when the wind blew and the dust rose with its acrid alkaline smell. There was sunshine, there was sky, there was distance and a degree of freedom. He didn’t mind being a herd boy.
Then it was June and the cornfields were green. The cows, with only sparse grass to eat, smelled the corn, and one afternoon when Thomas was watching a meadow lark’s nest the whole herd broke through a fence and got into a field of corn. It was an hour before he could get them out again, and that night three of the cows were sick from eating green corn. Neil Swanson found out what had happened, and as punishment he kept Thomas at die barns all day and put another boy out as cowherd.
When he had been punished in this way for two weeks, Neil Swanson said, “You should have learned your lesson by now. We’ll see if you can herd the horses.” So, though he still had to help clean the cow barns and milk the cows morning and night, he was sent out for the day with the horse herd. The horses were pastured five miles from the barns and well away from the cornfields.
Half the horses in the herd were still unbroken and, after the first week or so, Thomas wondered what it would be like to ride an unbroken horse. So he took a rope with him when he took the horses out to their pastureland, and that afternoon he roped a two-year-old colt and got on its back and tried to ride it. He was thrown after the first two jumps. He caught the colt and tried again. He was thrown, as before, and that time he landed in a bed of cactus. He spent the rest of the afternoon pulling out cactus thorns. But the next day he caught another colt and tried to ride again. It was a tamer colt. He rode it for several minutes before it bucked him off.
For two weeks he tried to ride the colts in the herd, and he found that he could stay on three of the tamer ones. He began to learn how to ride. Then one afternoon, trying to get the rope on a particularly wild buckskin, he drove it into a dry creek bed and there in loose sand hock deep on the horse he looped the rope around its nose, got on its back and rode it to a standstill. He had discovered something—no horse can be a vicious bucker in deep sand. After that, when he wanted to ride a horse that was too wild to ride on hard ground he drove it into the creek bed and rode it there in the sand.
He learned that each horse has its own rhythm, not only in its walk and trot and lope, but in the way it bucks and pitches. He found that if he rode the horse with its own rhythm, and if he gripped with his knees and thighs and kept his sense of balance, he could ride every horse in the herd in the sand.
When he had ridden them all, he looped a rope around a horse’s belly and made a kind of surcingle to which he could hold and help keep his balance. With the rope, he found that he could ride some of the unbroken horses out on the hard flats. He still was thrown from time to time, but he began to know a sense of mastery, something he hadn’t known since the day he stood in front of the burned lodge on Bald Mountain and knew that everything tha
One afternoon toward the end of August he was riding a particularly mean two-year-old pinto when Benny Grayback rode out to the grazing ground. He was so intent on riding the pinto that he rode it to a standstill before he knew that Benny was there, watching. He slid off the exhausted horse, removed the surcingle and nose rein, and waited for Benny to speak.
Benny glared at him and asked, “How long has this been going on?”
Thomas didn’t know what to answer. He said, “ I rode till he stopped bucking. I don’t know how long.”
“How long have you been riding the colts?”
“You are supposed to let them graze, not ride them and make them thin. Neil Swanson says the horses are all too thin. I came to find out why.”
“The grass is poor,” Thomas said.
“You give them no time to eat what grass there is,” Benny said sharply.
“I was taming them to ride.”
“When they are needed, they will be tamed,” Benny said. “By those who know how to break horses.”
Which was true. Each year the horses were broken to harness or the saddle, usually in the spring. They were driven into the breaking pen, roped, choked and water-starved until they could be saddled or harnessed. If they still had the strength to fight, they were beaten and choked again, until there was no fight in them. In the old days the people had respected their horses, tamed them. But the old days were gone. Now they broke the horses, broke their spirit.
“Come,” Benny Grayback ordered. “Bring the horses.”
Thomas Black Bull caught his listless herd horse and gathered the herd, and he and Benny took them back to the agency. Thomas penned them and Benny went to the barn and talked to Neil Swanson. Then Thomas went to the barn, and Neil shook his head and said, “You never learn, do you? If there are a hundred ways to do a thing right and one way to do it wrong, you always find that one wrong way.” He shook his head. “Lickings do no good. Nothing does any good. Well, classes start next week. Then you’ll be out of my hair till it’s time to pick corn. Go on over to the cow barn and get to work.”
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes