Along, long way off, right away in the west of America, there once lived an old man who had one son. The country round was covered with forests, in which dwelt all kinds of wild beasts, and the young man and his companions used to spend whole days in hunting them, and he was the finest hunter of all the tribe.
One morning, when winter was coming on, the youth and his companions set off as usual to bring back some of the mountain goats and deer to be salted down, as he was afraid of a snow-storm; and if the wind blew and the snow drifted the forest might be impassable for some weeks. The old man and the wife, however, would not go out, but remained in the wigwam making bows and arrows.
It soon grew so cold in the forest that at last one of the men declared they could walk no more, unless they could manage to warm themselves.
‘That is easily done,’ said the leader, giving a kick to a large tree. Flames broke out in the trunk, and before it had burnt up they were as hot as if it had been summer. Then they started off to the place where the goats and deer were to be found in the greatest numbers, and soon had killed as many as they wanted. But the leader killed most, as he was the best shot.
‘Now we must cut up the game and divide it,’ said he; and so they did, each one taking his own share; and, walking one behind the other, set out for the village. But when they reached a great river the young man did not want the trouble of carrying his pack any further, and left it on the bank.
‘I am going home another way,’ he told his companions. And taking another road he reached the village long before they did.
‘Have you returned with empty hands?’ asked the old man, as his son opened the door.
‘Have I ever done that, that you put me such a question?’ asked the youth. ‘No; I have slain enough to feast us for many moons, but it was heavy, and I left the pack on the bank of the great river. Give me the arrows, I will finish making them, and you can go to the river and bring home the pack!’
So the old man rose and went, and strapped the meat on his shoulder; but as he was crossing the ford the strap broke and the pack fell into the river. He stooped to catch it, but it swirled past him. He clutched again; but in doing so he over- balanced himself and was hurried into some rapids, where he was knocked against some rocks, and he sank and was drowned, and his body was carried down the stream into smoother water when it rose to the surface again. But by this time it had lost all likeness to a man, and was changed into a piece of wood.
The wood floated on, and the river got bigger and bigger and entered a new country. There it was borne by the current close to the shore, and a woman who was down there washing her clothes caught it as it passed, and drew it out, saying to herself: ‘What a nice smooth plank! I will use it as a table to put my food upon.’ And gathering up her clothes she took the plank with her into her hut.
When her supper time came she stretched the board across two strings which hung from the roof, and set upon it the pot containing a stew that smelt very good. The woman had been working hard all day and was very hungry, so she took her biggest spoon and plunged it into the pot. But what was her astonishment and disgust when both pot and food vanished instantly before her!
‘Oh, you horrid plank, you have brought me ill-luck!’ she cried. And taking it up she flung it away from her.
The woman had been surprised before at the disappearance of her food, but she was more astonished still when, instead of the plank, she beheld a baby. However, she was fond of children and had none of her own, so she made up her mind that she would keep it and take care of it. The baby grew and throve as no baby in that country had ever done, and in four days he was a man, and as tall and strong as any brave of the tribe.
‘You have treated me well,’ he said, ‘and meat shall never fail to your house. But now I must go, for I have much work to do.’
Then he set out for his home.
It took him many days to get there, and when he saw his son sitting in his place his anger was kindled, and his heart was stirred to take vengeance upon him. So he went out quickly into the forest and shed tears, and each tear became a bird. ‘Stay there till I want you,’ said he; and he returned to the hut.
‘I saw some pretty new birds, high up in a tree yonder,’ he remarked. And the son answered: ‘Show me the way and I will get them for dinner.’
The two went out together, and after walking for about half an hour they old man stopped. ‘That is the tree,’ he said. And the son began to climb it.
Now a strange thing happened. The higher the young man climbed the higher the birds seemed to be, and when he looked down the earth below appeared no bigger than a star. Sill he tried to go back, but he could not, and though he could not see the birds any longer he felt as if something were dragging him up and up.
He thought that he had been climbing that tree for days, and perhaps he had, for suddenly a beautiful country, yellow with fields of maize, stretched before him, and he gladly left the top of the tree and entered it. He walked through the maize without knowing where he was going, when he heard a sound of knocking, and saw two old blind women crushing their food between two stones. He crept up to them on tiptoe, and when one old woman passed her dinner to the other he held out his hand and took it and ate if for himself.
‘How slow you are kneading that cake,’ cried the other old woman at last.
‘Why, I have given you your dinner, and what more do you want?’ replied the second.
‘You didn’t; at least I never got it,’ said the other.
‘I certainly thought you took it from me; but here is some more.’ And again the young man stretched out his hand; and the two old women fell to quarrelling afresh. But when it happened for the third time the old women suspected some trick, and one of them exclaimed:
‘I am sure there is a man here; tell me, are you not my grandson?’
‘Yes,’ answered the young man, who wished to please her, ‘and in return for your good dinner I will see if I cannot restore your sight; for I was taught in the art of healing by the best medicine man in the tribe.’ And with that he left them, and wandered about till he found the herb which he wanted. Then he hastened back to the old women, and begging them to boil him some water, he threw the herb in. As soon as the pot began to sing he took off the lid, and sprinkled the eyes of the women, and sight came back to them once more.
There was no night in that country, so, instead of going to bed very early, as he would have done in his own hut, the young man took another walk. A splashing noise near by drew him down to a valley through which ran a large river, and up a waterfall some salmon were leaping. How their silver sides glistened in the light, and how he longed to catch some of the great fellows! But how could he do it? He had beheld no one except the old women, and it was not very likely that they would be able to help him. So with a sigh he turned away and went back to them, but, as he walked, a thought struck him. He pulled out one of his hairs which hung nearly to his waist, and it instantly became a strong line, nearly a mile in length.
‘Weave me a net that I may catch some salmon,’ said he. And they wove him the net he asked for, and for many weeks he watched by the river, only going back to the old women when he wanted a fish cooked.
At last, one day, when he was eating his dinner, the old woman who always spoke first, said to him:
‘We have been very glad to see you, grandson, but now it is time that you went home.’ And pushing aside a rock, he saw a deep hole, so deep that he could not see to the bottom. Then they dragged a basket out of the house, and tied a rope to it. ‘Get in, and wrap this blanket round your head,’ said they; ‘and, whatever happens, don’t uncover it till you get to the bottom.’ Then they bade him farewell, and he curled himself up in the basket.
Down, down, down he went; would he ever stop going? But when the basket did stop, the young man forgot what he had been told, and put his head out to see what was the matter. In an instant the basket moved, but, to his horror, instead of going down, he felt himself being drawn upwards, and shortly after he beheld the faces of the old women.
‘You will never see your wife and son if you will not do as you are bid,’ said they. ‘Now get in, and do not stir till you hear a crow calling.’
This time the young man was wiser, and though the basket often stopped, and strange creatures seemed to rest on him and to pluck at his blanket, he held it tight till he heard the crow calling. Then he flung off the blanket and sprang out, while the basket vanished in the sky.
He walked on quickly down the track that led to the hut, when, before him, he saw his wife with his little son on her back.
‘Oh! there is father at last,’ cried the boy; but the mother bade him cease from idle talking.
‘But, mother, it is true; father is coming!’ repeated the child. And, to satisfy him, the woman turned round and perceived her husband.
Oh, how glad they all were to be together again! And when the wind whistled through the forest, and the snow stood in great banks round the door, the father used to take the little boy on his knee and tell him how he caught salmon in the Land of the Sun.