Black Otter beached his canoe and stepped ashore. He pulled the boat under some low branches of willow trees that lined the riverbank and tied it fast. The fragile craft would not be easily noticed and the spot was protected from pounding waves. This was desolate country. He would not like to be stranded here.
Perspiration streamed from the youth’s bare chest as he moved away from the river with its cooling wind. The hot air was stifling to breathe and a shimmering curtain of heat moved ahead of him, distorting the shapes of giant boulders. Black Otter walked slowly, conserving his strength as he searched for what he now considered a treasure cave. He had not seen it for two years. Can I find it again? he wondered.
The youth veered to avoid a large rattlesnake dozing in the sun. His tribe did not take life unless it were unavoidable. Except for a lizard that darted into a crevice and a soaring giant bird of prey, the reptile was the only live thing he had seen. He felt very uneasy here.
Black Otter’s heart leaped with hope when he saw the cave entrance. He had feared that he could not find it again, because he had been with his uncles and cousins when they stumbled across the cave and took refuge there from a raging blizzard two winters ago. Without its protection they might have died in the storm.
During the days they had been stranded, Black Otter became bored with waiting and decided to go exploring. He had taken a torch and crawled into a narrow tunnel at the back of the cave. At the other end he discovered an even larger cavern. He gasped at the eerie beauty of it. Imbedded in the walls and ceiling were pockets of glistening crystals that reflected thousands of torches. Everything shimmered with dancing light. The floor was littered with chunks of stone that had fallen and shattered. Black Otter placed three of them in his pouch.
Until the white man came and explained that he was a collector of fossils, agates, and semiprecious stones for an eastern museum, Black Otter had not realized that these colorful rocks might have value. The man laid out many rock specimens to show the various stones he was seeking. “I have not come to cheat you,” he said. “These samples are not as valuable as diamonds and rubies, but I have brought brass and iron pots, good hunting knives, and metal fishhooks to trade.”
The man looked disappointed when nothing was offered. The tribe was very poor. The people wore many necklaces but they were fashioned of drilled bone, claws, or hard seeds, not colorful stones. The specimen hunter saw how the Indians admired the trade goods when he began to pack up. Their fishhooks were thick bone ones that allowed many fish to escape. Now he selected a large and small metal fishhook for each brave and presented them as gifts.
Black Otter had stayed back in the crowd, timid about approaching the white man. But he had watched his mother’s eyes that kept returning to the largest cooking pot. It was made of black iron with legs and a hook for hanging over a fire. Hesitantly, he stepped forward and laid the smallest of his three rocks near a similar specimen. Black Otter’s rock was clearer and gave off more colors in the sunlight.
The man examined the stone, then he smiled and offered a skinning knife and a small mound of fishhooks in trade. His smile faded and he sighed regretfully when Black Otter pointed to the iron pot. “I’m sorry, but your crystal is not worth that much,” he said. The youth felt that the man was being honest. He obviously wanted the rock.
The white man caught his breath when the Indian boy pulled out the two larger stones. When the deal was finished, Black Otter owned the pot, a razor-sharp hatchet, two fine knives, one for hunting and the other with many blades that folded into the handle, and a mound of fishhooks. Such sudden wealth stunned his parents. They’d never expected to own such things.
Black Otter was disturbed by the envious looks on the faces of his tribesmen. The youth did not want envy to set his family apart from the rest of the tribe. The price of jealousy could mean the loss of their friendship. “If I bring many stones, will you return with tools and utensils for all my people?” Black Otter quietly asked. The man agreed to return with a larger supply of trade goods, and so the youth had set out to search for the beautiful cavern.
But now that he had found the cave, Black Otter felt dismay. He had grown taller and wider in the past two years and the tunnel seemed much smaller! No one knew where he had gone, for he had waited until everyone was asleep and then slipped away. If he became wedged in the narrow opening, he might never be found!
Black Otter squirmed along like a worm, trying to make his shoulders narrow. Several times he became wedged and almost panicked. He trembled with relief when he finally reached the inner cavern and could stand upright again. He shuddered and tried to forget that he must return through the tunnel. He lit his torch and watched the rainbows of color streak across the rough walls and the roof of the secret place. Have any other eyes seen it? he wondered.
This time Black Otter had brought a knife to pry out larger crystals. And he would try to select as many different colored stones as possible. Since he would probably not be able to enter the cavern again, he must take many rocks this time. The youth wedged his torch between stones and set to work.
When he had lit the last of his three torches, Black Otter prepared to leave the inner cavern. He was grateful that the tunnel sloped downward. This allowed him to roll the large stones down to the outer cave. He hoped they would not shatter. It was the only way to remove the large pile he had collected, since he could not carry so many. He had choice stones of many colors. The white man would get full value for his trade goods.
The torch began to sputter, and Black Otter scooped up a handful of small deep red stones and placed them in his pouch. He sensed these were more valuable because he had found so few of them.
Black Otter’s body stung from many small cuts and scratches when he emerged from the tunnel. He discovered that he had rolled down many more crystals than he could take back without sinking the canoe. But perhaps I can return for them someday, he told himself. After selecting what he felt would be a safe load, he hid piles of the shimmering stones behind boulders in the back of the cave. Then he packed the others in leather carrying bags he had brought along. It took two trips to carry the heavy stones to the river.
The sun was low and it was cooler when the youth began to paddle upstream with strong, silent strokes. There would be a full moon to light his nightlong journey; and he could stay near the shore, where the sluggish current would not endanger his hard-won cargo.
Black Otter smiled with pride. Now every family will have fine cooking pots, axes, and hunting knives, he thought. The rock trader had promised to bring needles, nails, and even the biting barbed wire that would keep their sheep and horses from straying. His hard work would make life better for all his people.