The Fire Bringer
By Mary Austin

The Fire Bringer

They ranged together by wood and open swale, the boy who was to be called Fire Bringer and the keen gray dog of the wilderness, and say the tribesmen catching fish in the creeks with their hands, and women digging roots with sharp stones. This they did in Summer, and fared well; but when Winter came they ran nakedly in the snow, or huddled in caves of the rocks, and were very miserable. When the boy saw this he was very unhappy, and brooded over it until the coyote noticed it.

"It is because my people suffer and have no way to escape the cold," said the boy.

"I do not feel it," said the coyote.

"That is because of your coat of good fur, which my people have not, except they take it in the chase, and it is hard to come by."

"Let them run about, then," said the counselor, "and keep warm."

"They run till they are weary," said the boy, "and there are the young children and the very old. Is there no way for them?"

"Come," said the coyote, "let us go to the hunt."

"I will hunt no more," the boy answered him, "until I have found a way to save my people from the cold. Help me, O counselor!"

But the coyote had run away. After a time he came back and found the boy still troubled in his mind.

"There is a way, O Man Friend," said the coyote, "and you and I must take it together, but it is very hard."

"I will not fail to do my part," said the boy.

"We will need a hundred men and women, strong and swift runners."

"I will find them," the boy insisted, "only tell me."

"We must go," said the coyote, "to the Burning Mountain by the Big Water and bring fire to our people."

Said the boy: "What is fire?"

Then the coyote considered a long time how he should tell the boy what fire is. "It is," said he, "red like a flower, yet is no flower; neither is it a beast, though it runs in the grass and rages in the wood and devours all. It is very fierce and hurtful, and stays not for asking; yet if it is kept among stones and fed with small sticks, it will serve the people well and keep them warm."

"How is it to be come at?"

"It has its lair in the Burning Mountain, and the Fire Spirits guard it night and day. It is a hundred days' journey from this place, and because of the jealousy of the Fire Spirits no mare dare go near it. But I because beasts are known to fear it much, may approach it without hurt, and, it may be, bring you a brand from the burning. Then you must have strong runners for every one of the hundred days to bring it safely home."

"I will go and get them," said the boy. But it was not so easily done as said. Many there were who were slothful, and many were afraid; but the most disbelieved it wholly.

"For," they said, "how should this boy tell us of a thing of which we have never heard!" But at last the boy and their own misery persuaded them.

The coyote advised them how the march should begin. The boy and the counselor went foremost; next to them the swiftest runners, with the others following in the order of their strength and speed. They left the place of their home and went over the high mountains where great jagged peaks stand up above the snow, and down the way the streams led through a long stretch of giant wood where the somber shade and the sound of the wind made them afraid.

At nightfall, where they rested, one stayed in that place, and the next night another dropped behind; and so it was at the end of each day's journey. They crossed a great plain where waters of mirage rolled over a cracked and parching earth, and the rim of the world was hidden in a bluish mist. So they came at last to another range of hills not so high, but tumbled thickly together; and beyond these at the end of the hundred days, to the Big Water, waking along the sand at the foot of the Burning Mountain.

It stood up in a high and peaked cone, and the smoke of its burning rooled out and broke along the sky. By night the glare of it reddened the waves far out on the Big Water when the Fire Spirits began their dance.

Then said the counselor to the boy who was soon to be called the Fire Bringer: "Do you stand here until I bring you a brand from the burning; be ready and right for running, and lose no time, for I shall be far spent when I come again, and the Fire Spirits will pursue me."

Then he went up the mountain, and the Fire Spirits, when they saw him come, where laughing and very merry, for his appearance was much against him. Lean he was, and his coat much worse for the long way he had come. So the Fire Spirits only laughed and paid him no heed.

Along in the night, when they came out to begin their dance about the mountain, the coyote stole the fire and began to run away with it down the slope of the Burning Mountain. When the Fire Spirits saw what he had done, they streamed out after him red and angry in pursuit, sounding like a swarm of bees.

The boy saw them come, and stood up in his place clean-limbed and taut for running. He saw the sparks of the brand stream back along the coyote's flanks as he carried it in his mouth, and stretched forward on the trail, bright against the dark bulk of the mountain like a falling star. He head the singing sound of the Fire Spirits behind, and the labored breath of the counselor nearing through the dark. Then the good beast panted down besided him and the brand dropped from his jaws.

The boy caught it up, standing bent for the running as a bow to speeding arrow. Out he shot on the homeward path, and the Fire Spirits snapped and sang behind him. Fast as they pursued he fled faster, until he saw the next runner stand up for his place to receive the brand.

So it passed from hand to hand, and the Fire Spirits tore after it through the scrub until they came to the mountains of the snows. These they could not pass; and the dark sleek runners with the backward-streaming brand bore it forward, shining like a star in the night, glowing red through the sultry noons, violet pale in twilight glooms, until they came in safety to their own land. Here they kept it among the stones, fed it with small sticks, as the coyote had advised, until it warmed them and cooked their food.

As for the boy by whom fire came to the tribes, he was called the Fire Bringer while he lived; and after that, since there was no other with so good a right to the name, it fell to the coyote. And this is the sign that the tail is true, for all along his lean flanks the fur is singed and yellow as it was made by the flames that blew backward from the brand when he brought it down from the Burning Mountain.

As for the fire, that went on broadening and brightening and giving out cheer until it broadened into the light of day.

  • The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls
    Volume III: Folk and Fairy Tales
    The University Society, Inc. New York © 1955
    pp. 338-341.

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