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Cyrus Macmillan

The Blackfoot and the Bear

O NE summer long ago, when the Blackfeet Indians roamed freely over the Canadian plains, the son of one of the Chiefs decided to go off alone to seek adventure. He wanted to be a great man like his father, and he thought he could never become great if he always stayed at home. He said to his father, "I am going away far to the West, beyond the mountains. I have heard that our Indian enemies who live there have many fine horses. I will bring some of their horses back to you." His father loved his son well, for he was his only child. He knew that it would be a very dangerous journey, and he tried to persuade his son not to go. But the boy said, "Have no fear for me. If I do not come back before the frost is on the prairies, do not be worried about me. But if I do not come before the snow lies deep on the plains, then you will know that I have gone forever and that I shall never come back." His father knew that only by attempting dangerous deeds and doing hard tasks could his son become great. And although he was loath to see him go, he said good-bye and wished him good luck.

It was summer in the north country when the boy set out. He took a number of companions with him. They travelled towards the Great Water in the West, and in a few days they passed through the foot-hills and then beyond the mountains. Soon they came to a great river. They saw the trail of Indians along the bank. They followed the trail for many days, and at last in the distance they saw the camps of their enemies. Then they stopped where they would be hidden from their enemies' sight. That night a new summer moon was shining in the sky, and by its light they could see many horses around the distant camp. The moon disappeared early. When it had gone and the night was quite dark, the young man went to the camp to get the horses. He went alone and told his comrades to wait for him. Soon he came back driving many horses. But his enemies had heard him driving the horses and they set out in pursuit of him. When he reached his own camp, he called to his comrades to ride for their lives. All night they rode with their horses. When morning broke, the fleeing Blackfeet could see the dust of their pursuers far behind them. For days they rode with their enemies not far away. They passed at last through the mountains and out again into the rolling foothills. The plains were before them, and already they could feel the wind of the prairies. They thought they were now safe.

But their pursuers slowly but surely gained on them. Soon they were close upon them, and a shower of arrows told the Blackfeet that they would have to fight. The Blackfeet saw on the trail ahead of them a lonely pine tree. It was surrounded by scrubby trees and shrubs. To this spot they fled. They dug a pit and tried to defend themselves. But their pursuers surrounded the spot and shot their arrows into it. All the young Chief's comrades were soon killed, and when night came on he alone remained alive. He was wounded and weary, but he lay silent in the pit. Then his pursuers built fires all around the place where he lay to prevent his escape and to drive him out of his hiding place. As the fires crept closer, the young man thought that he must surely die. Then he prayed to the Spirit of the Storm that rain might fall, and he used all the charms he carried with him to try to bring rain. Soon a heavy rain began to fall and the fires were put out. The night became very dark, for the sky was covered with storm clouds. In the darkness the young man crawled through the trees and soon reached the open plain. He crawled north into the foothills and hid in a cave in the hills. He covered the front of the cave with grass and boughs and lay hidden out of sight. For many days and nights he lay there waiting for his wounds to heal. At night he crawled out and gathered berries and roots for food. But his wounds did not heal rapidly. He grew weaker and weaker, and at last he was unable to leave the cave. He waited for death. He thought of his home far away to the south-east, and of his people's fear and worry for him, for the snow would soon be deep on the plains.

One day when the snow was falling and he knew that winter had come, he heard footsteps outside the cave. He thought that an enemy had found him. The footsteps drew nearer, and soon a huge form appeared at the door. It was not an Indian, but a bear. The young man knew then that the cave was the bear's winter home.

He thought that the bear would eat him. But the bear only sniffed and smelled him all over. The man said, "Are you going to kill me or to help me?" The bear said, "I will help you. I will take you home to your people. We will start in a few days." Then the bear licked the man's wounds. The man said he was very hungry, and the bear said he would go out and get food. So he went off and soon came back with a grouse in his mouth. The man ate the grouse and felt better. Each day the bear brought him food, and licked his wounds so that they healed. At last, one morning the bear said, "To-day I must take you home. Get on my back and hold on tight, and I will soon carry you to your people." So the man climbed up on the bear's back and held on tight to his long hair. And the bear trotted off towards the man's home. For many days he ran over the plains. Each night he rested and caught food to feed himself and the man. At last they came one night to the top of a ridge in the plains. From here, as the young man looked, he could see not far away the camps of his people near a broad winding river. The bear said, "Now you see your home-land. We shall camp here to-night. To-morrow you must go on alone, and I shall go back to the hills." So in the morning the bear got ready to go back. He said, "The snow is lying deep on the hills. I must hurry and find a den for the winter." The man was sorry to see him go. He said, "You have been very kind to me. Can I do anything for you in return for your kindness?" And the bear answered, "You can do one thing for me. Tell your people what I have done for you. And tell them never to kill a bear that has gone to its den for the winter. Tell them always to give a bear a chance to fight or to run for his life." Then the bear said good-bye and trotted away towards his winter home in the distant hills, and the man walked on to his people on the plains. He told his people of his adventures and what the bear had done for him. And since that day the Blackfeet of the Canadian plains will not kill a bear that has gone to its den for the winter. They still remember the favour asked by the bear in return for his kindness to their ancestor in the old days.