Once upon a time, when the earth was young and the sky was old, when animals had picked out their names but had not yet chosen their colors, none but the gods had fire. They used it to warm their mighty homes and to cook their foods and to forge the lightning. Sometimes they unleashed it upon a part of the earth, and thus created their own sacrifices.
All the creatures of the earth feared the flames and longed for the power of them, but those who were clever enough to steal them were not foolish enough to try, and those who were foolish enough to try were not clever enough to succeed.
One day, three silky white fox brothers who were old enough to be clever and young enough to be foolish devised a plan to trick fire away from the gods. They had seen how the lightning set the trees ablaze, and so they each made a coat of treebark to carry the fire with them when they had stolen it.
“Now,” said the first fox, “I will find a hollowed tree stump.”
“And I,” said the second fox, “will dig a burrow beneath it.”
“And I,” said the third fox, “will stand upon the stump and trick the lightning-bringer.”
The first fox searched the woods until he found a hollowed tree stump. The second fox dug and dug and dug until the hollow of the tree stump opened into a burrow safe inside the ground. The first and second foxes hid themselves in the burrow, and the third fox jumped onto the top of the stump. There he began to dance around and make all manner of rude gestures.
“Lightning-bringer, lightning bringer,” said he, “I do not fear your aim. The bright shine of the bolts must have blinded you. The searing heat of the bolts must have lamed you. You could never strike me.” He continued to dance and taunt and gesture at the lightning-bringer until the skies grew dark and roiling with the lightning-bringer’s rage. At the first sign of the white-hot light from above, the fox zipped down the hollow of the tree stump and joined his brothers in the deep, safe burrow. At the crack of the thunder, the three brothers raced out of the burrow and through the flaming stump, their treebark coats catching fire.
As they ran blazing through the woods, the flames began to scorch them and blacken their fur. They yelped in pain.
The first fox cried “The fire burns too hotly!”
The second fox cried “We must be rid of it!”
The third fox cried “Let us take it to the den of Man, for Man has clever fingers to remove our treebark coats.”
And so they ran to the den of Man, where the people were huddled together and shivering from the cold, for they had no fur to warm them. The yelping of the foxes disturbed them, but the heat of the fire was comforting and they desired it strongly. They asked the foxes the price of the fire they carried on their backs, and the foxes just cried “Simply take it! It is too hot for us!”
The people dug a pit to hold the fire captive and used their clever fingers to remove the treebark coats from the backs of the foxes. They threw the flaming coats into the pit and fed their new blaze with twigs and logs to keep it strong.
Man thanked the foxes for their bravery and generosity, and said “In honor of your gift, all of your kin will carry in their fur the color of fire so that we may remember who brought it to us.” All the foxes of the forest were granted coats of orange and white, with singe-colored feet to remember the run of the three fox brothers. But the fox brothers’ coats could not be turned from the charred black color, as punishment from the lightning-bringer for tricking him. And that is why to this day we still see foxes that are orange and foxes that are all black like charcoal.