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When the legends die, p.10
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       When the Legends Die, p.10

           Hal Borland
 
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  And that was the end of Thomas Black Bull’s horse herding.

  Classes started again, and because he seemed useless at any other craft they sent him back to Ed Porter to plait rawhide and horsehair into quirts and riatas and bridles and reins. He still worked morning and evening in the cow barn, and when the corn was ripe he helped shuck corn.

  Then it was winter, and when the winter began to thin away Neil Swanson said, “It’s almost lambing season,” and Benny Grayback said, “Albert Left Hand needs a helper.” Neil said, “Why not? That boy isn’t good for anything else. He might make a sheepherder.” The agent said, “It’s worth a try.”

  20

  THEY TOOK HIM TO Albert Left Hand, who ran a little band of sheep on the sage flats at the northern edge of the reservation.

  Albert Left Hand was a short, fat man who smelled of rancid mutton tallow. He had a rib-thin team of horses, a rickety wagon, a tent, and range rights. He seemed to eat nothing but prairie dog stew. His range was pock-marked with prairie dog towns and when he was not napping or sitting in sullen silence beside his tent he hunted prairie dogs with a single-shot .22 rifle. He had been without a helper for more than a month, so for the first few days he was grudgingly grateful to have a boy to tend the sheep.

  He was a surly old man of few words, and those words usually were abusive. But for those first few days, hungry for company, he complained to Thomas Black Bull about his wife’s death two years ago and about the way all eight of his children had grown up and left him. Then he relapsed into his usual silence except when he was berating Thomas for being lazy.

  Despite Albert Left Hand, Thomas found a degree of peace and contentment. Spring was at hand, and even the arid sage flats soon came to life. Only a few of the flowers were old friends, from his life at Bald Mountain, but the desert plants were soon familiar. Ground plum came to purple flower, then bore fleshy, grapelike pods. Prairie onions sent up green shoots from their pungent bulbs and bloomed in white and rosy heads. Bird’s-next cactus, prickly balls the size of his fist, put forth intricate starry purple blossoms. The white stars of sand lilies, the white spikes of larkspur, the snowy balls of sand verbena delighted his eye. In the evening there was the gold of pucker-petaled sundrops and the fragrant moon glow of golden primroses.

  Meadow larks greeted the sunrise and cheered the evening. Horned larks spilled song all day in their spiraling flight. In the prairie dog towns grotesque burrowing owls tilted on their long, slim legs and hissed and screeched. Prairie falcons with wings like curved knives coursed the flats, hunting ground squirrels and young prairie dogs. Long-tailed magpies jeered among the cottonwoods in dry watercourses, and bull-bats boomed in the dusk and peeped plaintively as they winged the sky.

  For a little time he sensed a kinship with all these. Then the ewes began to drop their lambs. Albert Left Hand stirred himself away from his tent and showed Thomas how to help a ewe struggling in the throes of birth, how to get a lamb on its feet and sucking at its mother’s teats. For two weeks they worked together. They saved almost sixty of the seventy-odd lambs dropped. When a lamb failed to survive, Albert Left Hand skinned it, pegged out the pelt to dry. “Worth a quarter,” he said.

  Then the lambs were born and Albert Left Hand went back to hunting prairie dogs and sitting beside his tent. Thomas was busier than ever, for the lambs had even less sense than their foolish mothers. They strayed, they fell off cutbanks and into canyons, they thrust stupid noses at buzzing rattlesnakes. And, especially at dusk, the coyotes got one now and then.

  June came, and they had saved forty-five lambs, which were growing swiftly. The ewes, recovered from their lambing, had begun to put on fat and show prime fleeces. Albert Left Hand had a pile of dry, stinking pelts, not only of the dead lambs but also of those ewes that had died in lambing or in the difficult weeks soon after.

  Then it was July, and one morning Albert Left Hand said, “Come. Now we will take them to the shear pens.” He caught up his horses, patched his makeshift harness and hitched them to his paintless lumber wagon. He and Thomas loaded in the pelts, the tent, the dirty blankets from their beds, and Albert Left Hand got in and led the way across the flats. Thomas gathered the flock and herded them behind the wagon.

  They went to the shearing pens near the agency. While Thomas penned the sheep, Albert Left Hand talked to the man in charge. Then he called Thomas. “Now we will go to Bayfield. I will sell the skins. I will buy you a bottle of pop.”

  Thomas got into the wagon and Albert Left Hand drove up the road to Bayfield.

  21

  DROWSY BAYFIELD HAD ITS Saturday afternoon crowd. A dozen saddle horses were hitched at the long rack in front of the general store, and wagon teams and a few saddle horses were in the cottonwood grove at the end of the street. The two saloons spilled loud talk and laughter onto the board sidewalk. Cowhands loafed in doorways and at the edge of the walk. They glanced up as Albert Left Hand drove up the dusty street and stopped his team in front of the big store. Thomas sat in the wagon, holding the reins, while Albert went in and talked with the trader. He made his deal, then came out and ordered, “Go around back and unload.”

  Thomas drove the team up to the corner and around and back down the alley to an open shed where Albert Left Hand was waiting. Thomas unloaded the stinking pelts and piled them as Albert Left Hand directed. Then Albert Left Hand gave him a nickel. “For the pop,” he said. He took charge of the team and Thomas went back the way he had come, to the main street.

  He didn’t know where to get the pop. Looking, he came to the saddlery shop. In the window was the most beautiful saddle he had ever seen, ornately tooled and polished till it shone. He stared at it, admiring with all his heart. Then he saw the bridle hanging from the saddle horn. It was a black and white horsehair bridle with long round-braided reins. He recognized that bridle. It was a bridle he had made, with a pattern he had thought up. It had a price tag. Five dollars. He gasped. Five dollars! He hadn’t got anything for it because it was work he was assigned to do, schoolwork, and when it was sold to a trader the money went to pay for his keep.

  He stared at the bridle and the price tag, and his eyes returned to the saddle. There was no price tag on the saddle. It cost too much to say, he decided. But if the bridle was worth five dollars, and if he could make bridles and sell them, then some day he could buy that saddle. He didn’t have a pony for the saddle, but some day he could buy a pony, too.

  He was still there in front of the window, staring at the saddle, when two cowhands came out of the nearest saloon. They talked loud and laughed. They saw the boy and the tall, slim one jabbed a thumb into Thomas’s ribs and demanded, “What’s your name?”

  Thomas stepped back and tried to hurry away, but the cowhand caught his arm. “I asked what’s your name?”

  “Thomas.”

  “All right, Tom. Want to earn a quarter?” He winked at his dark-haired companion.

  Thomas didn’t answer.

  “Know how to ride a horse?” the cowhand asked. “Sure you do. All Indian kids do.” He drew a quarter from his pocket. “Look, Tom. You go get my horse and ride it back here and I’ll give you this quarter.”

  Tom stared at the quarter. He had never owned a quarter. This man was offering him a quarter just to ride a horse. He looked at the cowhand again, wide-eyed, and started to leave.

  The cowhand caught his arm again. “Just a minute! Get the right horse or you don’t get the quarter. The black gelding with a one-ear bridle and a red and white saddle blanket. He’s hitched right down there in the cottonwoods.”

  Again Thomas started to leave, and again the cowhand caught his arm. “Ride him. Don’t try to lead him. Understand? He don’t lead very well.” His companion laughed.

  Free at last, Thomas hurried down the street. He found the horse, hitched by a neck rope. It was so skittish he had to drive it around the tree until the rope was wound tight. Then he snubbed the reins to the saddle horn, untied the rope, got his foot in the stirrup. The hor
se danced away, but he swung into die saddle as it began buck-jumping. With the reins snubbed it couldn’t get its head down, but it buck-jumped in a circle among the trees before he knew he could ride it, knew he had its rhythm and his own balance. Then he gave it a little slack in the reins and it bucked viciously a time or two before he got it headed up the street. Still holding its head high with the snubbed reins, he rode it to the waiting cowhands. He got off and handed the reins to the one who had sent him on the errand.

  The cowhand growled, “You snubbed the reins. You didn’t let him buck.”

  His companion laughed. “He brought the horse, didn’t he? He rode him. Pay up, Slim. And let’s see you ride him.”

  Slim gave the quarter to Tom. A little knot of men had gathered and someone asked what was going on. The short, dark-haired cowhand grinned. “Slim sent the kid to bring his horse. Now Slim’s going to ride him. Unless he’s afraid to.”

  Slim laughed. “I can ride anything with hair and four legs.”

  “Well, prove it, man. Get in that saddle and prove it.”

  Slim shortened the reins in his left hand, caught the saddle horn and reached for the near stirrup. The horse shied, tossed its head, got slack in the reins. Slim swung into the saddle, but before he hit the seat the horse ducked its head and began to buck. Slim couldn’t find the other stirrup. He didn’t have a chance. Three jumps and he was loose. The fourth jump sent him sprawling.

  Someone caught the horse and brought it back. Slim got to his feet, cursing, dusted himself and picked up his hat. He limped back to the sidewalk. His companion, laughing, asked, “Want another try, or shall I put the boy on again?”

  “Go to hell!”

  The dark-haired one turned to Thomas. “I’ll give you a dollar if you ride that horse again. Without snubbing the reins.”

  Thomas hesitated. But he had ridden the horse once, knew its rhythm. And it had worked off some of its meanness. And a dollar, a whole dollar!

  He took the reins, gave them one turn around his left hand and reached for the saddle horn. He got his left foot in the stirrup and swung up as the horse shied around. He found the other stirrup and held the horse’s head up for one jump while he settled himself. Then he tightened his knees beneath the pommel, let the horse have slack in the reins and rode with the buck. The horse came down stiff-legged and went into a twisting, jolting series of bucks. He rode as he had ridden the unbroken ponies on the sagebrush flats. The horse eased for a moment, then bucked and side-lunged halfway up the block. He kept his seat and it began to subside. Then he put it to a stiff-legged trot. It tossed its head and wanted to run, but he held it in and rode to the end of the block, then turned and came back in a series of short, jolting jumps.

  Thomas got off and handed the reins to die dark-haired cowhand, who gave him a silver dollar. Then, both proud of himself and embarrassed, he squirmed through the crowd to get away.

  At the edge of the crowd a wiry red-haired man in Levi’s and worn fancy-stitched boots stopped him. “You’re quite a rider, son,” he said. He had a crooked nose and a week’s growth of rusty beard. “What’s your name?”

  “Thomas.”

  The man sized him up. “How old are you?”

  “Fourteen, I guess.”

  “From the reservation?”

  “Yes.” Thomas wanted to get away from the crowd. The red-haired man did too. They edged down the street together.

  “How would you like to learn to be a real bronc twister?”

  Thomas hesitated.

  “I’ll teach you. How about working for me?”

  “I haven’t got a permit.”

  “Your pa in town?”

  “My father is dead. I am with Albert Left Hand. I help him with the sheep.”

  “That fat old man that stinks of sheep? The one in the cafe?” The man grinned. “A boy like you herding sheep! It’s time you and me got together. I’ve got a place down in New Mexico, the other side of the reservation. I’ve got a whole string of bad horses that you can ride.” He laughed. “You just throw in with Red Dillon and we’ll both go places.”

  “I haven’t got a permit,” Thomas said again.

  The man winked. “I’ll tend to the permit. The agency’s right on our way. You got a pony?”

  “No.”

  “I’ve got a spare. How’d you get to town? Walk?”

  “I came in the wagon with Albert Left Hand. I have to tell him.”

  “Come on, I’ll tell him.”

  They went to the cafe. Albert Left Hand was alone at the far end of the counter. Nobody wanted to sit near him because of the way he smelled. Red Dillon went to Albert and said he had hired the boy and was taking Thomas home with him. Albert Left Hand didn’t even look up. He took another big bite of raisin pie, chewed for a moment, then growled, “Boys come, boys go. That one’s no good.”

  Red Dillon grinned and they turned away. “We ought to eat before we go,” he said to Thomas. “Me giving you a job, you ought to treat. Money’s no good in your pocket.”

  So they found stools at the near end of the counter, well away from Albert Left Hand, and Red Dillon ordered chili and coffee for both of them. Then they had doughnuts and more coffee, making an even dollar’s worth. Thomas gave Red his dollar and Red paid the man at the end of the counter.

  Red’s horses were on the far side of the Cottonwood grove at the end of the street. Both were saddled, but the saddle on the black had no horn and a tarp-covered bedroll was lashed across it. Red tightened the cinches and tied the bedroll back of the saddle. He saw Thomas puzzling. “Never see a saddle like this?” he asked. “This here’s a bronc saddle, for rodeoing. If a bronc comes over backwards onto you, there’s no horn to punch a hole in your guts. If you get throwed frontwards by a mean bucker there’s no horn to hang you up by your chap strings. That’s why the horn’s sawed off. You’re going to see a lot of this saddle, Tom.” He swung into the saddle on the sorrel, a conventional saddle with a horn. “Let’s go. Let’s get that permit and head for my place.”

  Tom mounted the black and settled himself in the bronc saddle, and they headed down the road south, toward the agency.

  III. The Arena

  22

  RED GOT THE PERMIT without any trouble. It was a formality that the agent was glad to have done with in a hurry. For his records, it solved the whole problem of Thomas Black Bull.

  Then Tom and Red Dillon got on the horses again and rode on south, pushing to get off the reservation that evening. The sun had set before they crossed into New Mexico, but they rode for another hour before they stopped, hobbled the horses, divided the bedroll and made a supperless camp. The next morning they rode on, across rolling flats which were much like the land on the reservation except that there was more grass.

  Early afternoon and Red said, “Now we’re on my range. Another couple of hours and we’ll be home. Some folks might not think it’s much to look at, but it’s a roof and a bed, and old Meo keeps the cook pot going. I will say this,” he laughed, “it don’t stink of sheep!”

  Mirages shimmered and vanished ahead of them and shimmered again on the next rise. “Grass enough here,” Red said, with a sweeping gesture, “for a real layout, if I ever figure it’s worth while. I could put a thousand head of horses out here and still have grass to spare. But if I did, then I’d have to hay them in the winter. Start haying and you’ve got to have help. Help eats up all the profits, so I keep my layout small, so me and Meo can handle it.”

  And a little later he said, “You’ll like Meo. He’s an old chili-eater and he don’t have much to say, but he’s all right. Used to be quite a rider himself, till a bronc fell on him eight, ten years ago. Broke something in his back and he’s got a hump on his shoulders now. You ever ride in a rodeo, Tom?”

  “No.”

  “Ever seen one?”

  “No.”

  “Well, you will. Things go right, we may go to the show in Aztec next month. We’ll go a lot of places, Tom, and we’ll get paid
for it. We’ll make them pay.” He laughed. “I got euchered in Mancos last week, but I’ve got a feeling my luck’s turned. Yes sir, I think my luck has turned.”

  Midafternoon and what looked from a distance like just another wide gully began to spread out ahead of them. It was still two miles away, but Tom could see the dark green of trees. They were coming to the sharp-walled canyon of the San Juan which, picking up the water from half a dozen big creeks after it passed Pagosa, became a river that swept in a great arc down through the corner of New Mexico before it swung north again and plowed its way into Utah and the incredible canyons of the Colorado. Here it looped about like a silvery snake, hiding from the arid flatlands in a bluff-walled shallow canyon of its own.

  They came to the rim of the bluff and looked down on huge old cottonwoods and lush grass where the river oxbowed between die canyon walls. A shelving trail led down the bluff. As they rode down Tom saw a weathered cabin among the trees and an unchinked log barn and a set of old pole corrals. Beyond the cabin was a garden patch, green with rows of beans and pepper plants. A bent man was hoeing in the garden.

  They rode to the barn, unsaddled and turned the horses into the corral, and Red led the way to the cabin. The gnomish, leather-faced old Mexican with a hump on his shoulders put down his hoe and came to meet them.

  “This is Tom, Meo,” Red said. “We’re going to teach Tom to be a bronc twister.”

  Meo looked at Tom, then asked Red, “You win at Mancos?”

 
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