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 he 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 gray coyote.
They sat down again by their fire and paid Coyote no
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
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
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 gray coyote hunting among the
bushes. So they sat down again and paid him no more
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
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
tailpipes 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
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.