After days of traveling, Blue Elk, Tom, and the bear arrive in town, where Tom finds himself unsettled and unaccustomed to his surroundings. The physical appearance of the other students at the school strikes him as particularly strange. When the school officials inform Tom that his bear must stay in a separate place from Tom, he becomes very upset. Blue Elk also becomes frustrated that he cannot have possession of the bear, as he wishes to sell it at a profit. While Tom expresses his eagerness to teach the local Utes about the old ways, as Blue Elk has suggested, the people in town appear more interested in teaching him the ways of civilized living. Benny Grayback, a vocational instructor, serves as an interpreter for Tom, as he speaks only the Ute language.
The school assigns Tom to a room with a fourteen-year-old boy named Luther Spotted Dog, who attempts to convince Tom to dress in "civilized" manner. In turn Tom completely ignores Luther's advice, and, in fact, Tom rejects every aspect of town life, including the food and the countless restrictions. He longs to return to his lodge, but Benny prevents him. Initially reacting with furious silence, Tom soon dissolves into violent fits. When Luther takes Tom to the carpenter shop, the other boys ridicule him. His consequent violence results in his solitary placement in a locked room. The school then sends him to English teacher Rowena Ellis. When he tries to explain to her that he has come to town to teach the locals about the old ways, she insists he must learn the new ways first. Fearing that Tom will rescue the bear and return to the wilderness, the townspeople lock the cub away out of Tom's sight. When Tom learns of the bear's fate, he tells Benny that he will comply with all the rules and demands placed on him, on the condition that the bear is set free.
When the school asks Blue Elk to release the bear cub into the wild, he initially refuses. However, he later agrees when he is offered ten dollars to complete the task. Blue Elk once again tricks Tom by telling him that they will all return to his lodge. Blue Elk, Tom, and the chained bear cub travel to the foot of Horse Mountain. There Blue Elk reveals that the bear will be released but that Tom must return with him to town. When Tom reacts violently to this news, Blue Elk ensures his immobility by tying rope around his body. He then threatens Tom by telling him he will leave the bear cub chained to a tree unless Tom returns to town peacefully. In order to save the bear, Tom resignedly agrees to cooperate.
Borland has divided When the Legends Die into four parts; the titles of the different parts of the novel speak to the dominant element of each respective group of chapters and have a certain significance to the novel's themes. Borland entitled the first part of the novel "Bessie," in fitting with her prominent role both in the plot of the story and in her son's development. This section of the novel, entitled "The School," represents Tom's first lengthy exposure to the civilized world as well as his first significant break from the ways of his parents.
Blue Elk, despite the conflicted emotions he has experienced regarding the Ute lifestyle in previous chapters, returns to his customarily devious and greedy behavior in this section of the novel. He returns to Tom's lodge to shamelessly rob him of his only possessions, selling them for his own profit. He also repeatedly grapples with those for whom he works or completes tasks, negotiating the highest possible price for his efforts in any given area. When he forces Tom's separation from the bear, he shows little sympathy for Tom's emotional connection to the bear. Rather, he callously punishes Tom for the pain he feels at the notion of the separation. Blue Elk uses Tom's compassion for the bear's plight to threaten and manipulate him. Given the depth of Tom's connection to the bear, he refuses to sacrifice its freedom for his own benefit. Thus Tom's sensitivity becomes a disadvantage in the face of civilization, and Blue Elk punishes him for it.
Tom's first encounters with life in Pagosa and at the local school have a tragicomic quality. The school officials send Tom to several different teachers and attempt to engage him in many different activities. However, he shows little interest and significant aggression in response. Because he has spent all of his life in the wilderness, many aspects of town life strike him as strange and unappealing. While his reactions can be comic, the tragic undercurrent ultimately overpowers the humor of the situation.
Throughout the novel, Borland draws comparisons between the fates of Tom and his bear brother. In these chapters, both Tom and the bear become imprisoned by their new lives away from Bald Mountain. Although Benny and Blue Elk both physically imprison him at times, Tom's imprisonment becomes primarily emotional. Ridiculed by his fellow schoolmates and resentful of the unwelcome changes town life presents, Tom longs to return to his old life. Similarly, Benny chains the bear to a fence where he cannot move. The events at the end of Chapter 15 mark a low point in Tom's young life that will forever affect him and reappear in his thoughts and dreams. After Blue Elk forces his separation from the bear, he falls into a deep depressive daze that remains with him for days after his return to the town. We sense that Tom's separation from the bear marks a fundamental change in his character and a significant loss of innocence on his part.