Long ago, when man was newly come into the world, there were days when he
was the happiest creature of all. Those were the days when Spring brushed
across the willow tails, or when his children ripened with the blueberries
in the sun of Summer, or when the goldenrod bloomed in the Autumn haze.
But always the mists of Autumn evenings grew more chill, and the Sun's
strokes grew shorter. Then man saw Winter moving near, and he became fearful
and unhappy. He was afraid for his children, and for the grandfathers and
grandmothers who carried in their heads the sacred tales of the tribe. Many
of these, young and old, would die in the long, ice-bitter months of Winter.
Coyote, like the rest of the People, had no need for fire. So he seldom
concerned himself with it, until one Spring day when he was passing a human
village. There the women were singing a song of mourning for the babies and
the old ones who had died in the Winter. Their voices moaned like the west
wind through a buffalo skull, prickling the hairs on Coyote's neck.
"Feel how the Sun is now warm on our backs," one of the men was saying.
"Feel how it warms the earth and makes these stones hot to the touch. If
only we could have had a small piece of the sun in our teepees during the
Coyote, overhearing this, felt sorry for the men and women. He also felt
that there was something he could do to help them. He knew of a faraway
mountain-top where the three Fire Beings lived. These Beings kept fire to
themselves, guarding it carefully for fear that man might somehow acquire it
and become as strong as they. Coyote saw that he could do a good turn for
man at the expense of these selfish Fire Beings.
So Coyote went to the mountain of the Fire Beings and crept to its top,
to watch the way that the Beings guarded their fire. As he came near, the
Beings leaped to their feet and gazed searchingly round their camp. Their
eyes glinted like bloodstones, and their hands were clawed like the talons
of the great black vulture.
"What's that? What's that I hear?" hissed one of the Beings.
"A thief, skulking in the bushes!" screeched another.
The third looked more closely, and saw Coyote. But Coyote had gone to the
mountain-top on all fours, so the Being thought she saw only an ordinary
coyote slinking among the trees.
"It is no one, it is nothing!" she cried, and the other two looked where
she pointed and also saw only a grey coyote. They sat down again by their
fire and paid Coyote no more attention.
So he watched all day and night as the Fire Beings guarded their fire. He
saw how they fed it pine cones and dry branches from the sycamore trees. He
saw how they stamped furiously on runaway rivulets of flame that sometimes
nibbled outwards on edges of dry grass. He saw also how, at night, the
Beings took turns to sit by the fire. Two would sleep while one was on
guard; and at certain times the Being by the fire would get up and go into
their teepee, and another would come out to sit by the fire.
Coyote saw that the Beings were always jealously watchful of their fire
except during one part of the day. That was in the earliest morning, when
the first winds of dawn arose on the mountains. Then the Being by the fire
would hurry, shivering, into the teepee calling, "Sister, sister, go out and
watch the fire." But the next Being would always be slow to go out for her
turn, her head spinning with sleep and the thin dreams of dawn.
Coyote, seeing all this, went down the mountain and spoke to some of his
friends among the People. He told them of hairless man, fearing the cold and
death of winter. And he told them of the Fire Beings, and the warmth and
brightness of the flame. They all agreed that man should have fire, and they
all promised to help Coyote's undertaking.
Then Coyote sped again to the mountain-top. Again the Fire Beings leaped
up when he came close, and one cried out, "What's that? A thief, a thief!"
But again the others looked closely, and saw only a grey coyote hunting
among the bushes. So they sat down again and paid him no more attention.
Coyote waited through the day, and watched as night fell and two of the
Beings went off to the teepee to sleep. He watched as they changed over at
certain times all the night long, until at last the dawn winds rose.
Then the Being on guard called, "Sister, sister, get up and watch the
And the Being whose turn it was climbed slow and sleepy from her bed,
saying, "Yes, yes, I am coming. Do not shout so."
But before she could come out of the teepee, Coyote lunged from the
bushes, snatched up a glowing portion of fire, and sprang away down the
Screaming, the Fire Beings flew after him. Swift as Coyote ran, they
caught up with him, and one of them reached out a clutching hand. Her
fingers touched only the tip of the tail, but the touch was enough to turn
the hairs white, and coyote tail-tips are white still. Coyote shouted, and
flung the fire away from him. But the others of the People had gathered at
the mountain's foot, in case they were needed. Squirrel saw the fire
falling, and caught it, putting it on her back and fleeing away through the
tree-tops. The fire scorched her back so painfully that her tail curled up
and back, as squirrels' tails still do today.
The Fire Beings then pursued Squirrel, who threw the fire to Chipmunk.
Chattering with fear, Chipmunk stood still as if rooted until the Beings
were almost upon her. Then, as she turned to run, one Being clawed at her,
tearing down the length of her back and leaving three stripes that are to be
seen on chipmunks' backs even today. Chipmunk threw the fire to Frog, and
the Beings turned towards him. One of the Beings grasped his tail, but Frog
gave a mighty leap and tore himself free, leaving his tail behind in the
Being's hand–-which is why frogs have had no tails ever since.
As the Beings came after him again, Frog flung the fire on to Wood. And
Wood swallowed it.
The Fire Beings gathered round, but they did not know how to get the fire
out of Wood. They promised it gifts, sang to it and shouted at it. They
twisted it and struck it and tore it with their knives. But Wood did not
give up the fire. In the end, defeated, the Beings went back to their
mountain-top and left the People alone.
But Coyote knew how to get fire out of Wood. And he went to the village
of men and showed them how. He showed them the trick of rubbing two dry
sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made
in another piece of wood. So man was from then on warm and safe through the
killing cold of winter.