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When the legends die, p.11
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       When the Legends Die, p.11

           Hal Borland
 
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  Red shook his head. “But my luck’s changed. Me and Tom are going to Aztec and take their shirts.”

  “Maybe,” Meo said, and he turned and went back to the garden.

  The cabin was one long room with a fireplace across the far end. In front of the fireplace was a plank table with two benches. Several bunks were built against one wall, and on pegs on the other wall were rawhide lariats, bridles, spare cinches, two pairs of sleek-leather chaps, assorted riding gear. There was a pile of firewood beside the fireplace, a string of red chilis hung from a beam, and on the white ashes stood a black coffeepot and a slowly simmering iron kettle.

  Red tossed the bedroll on a bunk, picked up a mug and a bowl from the table and poured coffee. “Help yourself,” he said as he spooned beans and chili from the kettle. Tom got himself a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee while Red found the tortillas in the Dutch oven.

  They ate in silence until Red had finished his chili and beans. He filled his bowl again and sat back to let it cool.

  “Well, Tom,” he said, “the agent asked would I see to it that you had a home and learned a trade. I don’t know what he’d say about this place, but it’s a roof over your head when it rains. A cut better than a sheepherder’s tent, isn’t it?”

  Tom nodded agreement and went on eating.

  “And if you never have less to eat,” Red said, “I guess you won’t starve. So you’ve got a home. As for a trade, he must have meant being able to turn your hand to something that would keep you out of the poorhouse. Well, I never been in the poorhouse, and I don’t plan to be. You stick with me and I guess you’ll make out.” His eyes went to the chaps and bridles and cinches hanging on the wall. “We’ll both make out.” He smiled to himself, then saw that Tom had finished his chili. “Help yourself to some more, fiat up. Put some gristle in your gut. You’ll need it, because you’re going to start learning that trade tomorrow.”

  The next morning Tom got his first lesson as a bronc rider.

  Besides the two saddle horses, Red had nine others, all buckers. “Anybody’s got an outlaw he’ll sell for five dollars, I take him. You get so you can ride my rough string and you can ride any horse you’ll likely draw in a rodeo. The kind of shows we’ll work, anyway.”

  So they brought in the rough string, roped one horse, blindfolded it, cinched on the bronc saddle. Red handed Tom a pair of slick-leather chaps he had soaked in the horse trough, told him to put them on. Then he led the saddled horse from the corral out onto the open grass. Meo twisted its ears and held its head while Tom mounted, adjusted the rein in his left hand and settled himself in the saddle. Meo turned the horse loose and Tom rode only four jumps before he was thrown.

  Red caught the horse, said, “Too much rein. Try again,” and Tom mounted once more. He rode a few jumps longer that time but was thrown again. “Not enough rein,” Red announced. “Now do it right this time.” And Tom got into the saddle again, bruised and angry. By then the horse was tiring and Tom had begun to know its rhythm. He was loosened in the saddle twice, but the wet chaps clung to the saddle and he recovered both times. He rode the horse to a standstill. “That’s better,” Red said grudgingly, while Meo brought a fresh horse from the corral. Tom caught his breath while they saddled it. Then he rode again, and was thrown again.

  He was thrown five times the first day. But he began to learn how to fall as well as how to ride. The second day the lessons he had learned riding the agency ponies began to come back. He found his sense of timing and rhythm, began to gauge a horse in its first few jumps. These horses were bigger and stronger than the Indian ponies, and each had its own pattern of bucking. He learned the patterns, and he learned to anticipate the horse’s next move, be set for it. By the end of the week he rode two horses in succession to a standstill.

  Then they moved into the corral and he began riding out of the chute. They built a chute in the corral like a rodeo arena chute, a plank pen with walls just wide enough apart to take a horse and with gates at each end that crowded a horse so it could neither lunge nor buck. There was a narrow runway on each side where he stood to saddle the horse and from which he mounted.

  The first horse Tom rode out of the chute was a big roan as mean as a tomcat with its tail on fire. It made such a fuss that Meo had not only to ear its head down but bite the tip of one ear while Red saddled it. Then Tom straddled the chute, let himself down easy into the saddle, got set, and Meo opened the gate. The horse lunged out, bucking, side-jumping, fighting like a fiend. Tom, riding in dry chaps, felt the rein slip in his sweaty hands, tried to recover the slack, lost a stirrup and went head over heels.

  As he slowly picked himself up from the hard-packed corral, Red shouted, “Come on back and ride him right this time!” He caught the roan and put him in the chute again. Tom recovered his breath, dried his hands on his shirt, got into the saddle again, adjusted the rein, and Meo opened the gate. The roan went out bucking just as viciously as before. But Tom rode him, for ages it seemed. Twice he was loose in the saddle, and each time he recovered. Once he had to grab the saddle with his free right hand and he heard Red yell something, but he wasn’t listening. The roan fought the rein. It reared and came down with a jolt that made Tom’s teeth hurt. But he rode it until it was gasping for breath, until it slowed to a crow-hop. Then it stopped, and he eased out of the saddle. His legs were quivering, his belly was drum-tight, his head was ringing, but he led it back to the chute.

  “You pulled leather,” Red accused.

  “I rode him.”

  “You didn’t ride him clean.”

  “I rode him.”

  Then Tom knew he was going to be sick. He started for the corral fence but couldn’t make it before he threw up. Then he went to the fence and leaned on it till his head began to clear.

  “Come on,” Red ordered. “You’ve done your puking. Now you’re going to ride like I tell you to.” He had a fresh horse in the chute.

  Two more weeks and Tom had ridden every horse in Red’s rough string to a standstill. He ached from head to foot every night, but he had learned to ride. Red admitted he was doing pretty well. “We’re almost ready for Aztec,” he said. “But there’s still a thing or two you’ve got to learn.”

  “What?” Tom asked.

  “I’ll show you, maybe tomorrow.”

  The next morning they put a gray mare in the chute. She was a ducker and a dodger. Give her two inches of slack and she would jump right out from under you. But Tom knew her tricks.

  He was buckling on his chaps when Red asked, “How does the saddle suit you? Cinches tight enough?”

  He didn’t usually ask. Tom shook the saddle. It seemed right, front cinch tight, back cinch just snug enough to keep the saddle from rocking. “It’ll do,” he said, and straddled the chute, let himself down and found the stirrups. He took the rein, threaded it between his fingers, adjusted it for length. He braced his stirrups, set his spurs at the base of the horse’s neck.

  “Sure you’re all set?” Red asked.

  Tom looked at him, thought he saw a trace of a smile. “I’m ready,” he said, and Meo swung the gate open.

  The gray lunged out. She bucked twice and started her ducking and dodging. Tom kept the rein taut, rode without trouble for several seconds. Then she side-jumped and he felt something give under him. The saddle began to turn. He saw a loose cinch dangling and kicked free of the stirrups just in time to be thrown clear.

  He landed hard, and as he slowly got up he saw Red laughing. Red didn’t catch the mare, as he usually did. Tom caught her, led her back to the saddle, which she had kicked free. He looked at the saddle and saw that both latigos, the straps that held the cinches, were broken. Both were old latigos instead of the good new ones that had been on the saddle the day before, and both had been cut halfway through with a knife.

  Tom picked up the saddle, carried it back to the chute and dropped it to the ground in front of Red. “You did that!” he said.

  “Sure I did,” Red said, still laughing
.

  Tom was two inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than Red Dillon, but he lunged at him with both fists. Red dodged back and hit him one quick blow, knocked him down. Tom got to his knees, but Red pushed his shoulder, held him down. “Stay down there and cool off. I’ve been in a lot more brawls than you have. I’ll knock you down as fast as you get up.”

  Tom crouched there, furious. “You cut those latigos!”

  “I said I did. I told you yesterday you still had to learn a thing or two. First one is, don’t trust anybody when it comes to your saddle and your gear. Not even me. Check everything yourself before you say you’re ready. I asked you twice if you was all set, and you didn’t even look at the cinches or latigos.”

  Tom slowly got to feet, still glowering.

  “Second thing you just learned,” Red said, “is not to jump somebody bigger than you unless you’ve got an evener, knucks or a club or a gun. And when you get mad like that, don’t try to take it out on me. Take it out on a horse, where you’ve got a chance to win.” He turned and walked away.

  Tom watched him go, then caught the gray mare, tied a rope around her for a surcingle, and mounted her and rode her to a standstill as he had ridden the ponies on the reservation. When she finally came to a stop, snorting bloody foam, he got off and went to the house.

  Red was at the table, drinking coffee. “Get it out of your system?” he asked.

  “I rode her,” Tom said.

  “Sure. I knew you could.” Red stirred his coffee and watched him for a moment. “You can ride the horses they’ll have at Aztec, too. But you’re going to lose, just the same.”

  “No, I’m not.”

  “I say you are.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I say so. You’re just another Indian kid that thinks he can ride. That’s what they’ll think, and that’s what I’ll tell them. So you enter the bronc riding, and if you draw good horses you’ll score high, may even win the number-two go-round. But you lose the final. Understand?”

  “No.”

  “You damn well better understand, because that’s what you’re going to do. You lose the final go-round. After that you ride again. Never mind how come. You ride again, and you ride that horse right into the ground.”

  “But—“

  “Don’t but me! I say that’s what you’re going to do! You didn’t think I just wanted to make a goddam hero out of you, did you? Not with that Aztec bunch just faunching to bet! I’m setting up the deadfall, and you’re riding the way I tell you to. Now do you understand?”

  Tom hesitated.

  Red rubbed his knuckles. “You’ve got one beauty of a shiner. No need getting another one like it, but you sure as hell will if you get stubborn. You’re going to do what I say. Aren’t you?”

  Tom nodded. “Yes,” he said.

  23

  AZTEC, AS RED PUT IT, was just a wide place in the road, but its rodeo drew ranch folk from the whole area, people eager after a long, hot summer to meet old friends, roister a bit and have fun. The contestants were mostly ranch hands who had learned to ride and rope on the range and in Sunday afternoon show-offs in some ranch corral. The spectators came to see an exciting show, to bet on friends and neighbors, and to cheer any special event that might be offered. Purses were small but betting was freehanded.

  Red Dillon had ridden at Aztec the year before and knew enough local people to rouse mild interest by saying he wasn’t a contestant this time around. “I just came to see the show,” he said, then added, “And to see if the boy, here, can ride. He thinks he can, and I guess this is as good a time as any to find out.” His listeners looked at Tom, who was just another Indian boy in faded Levi’s, work shirt and scuffed boots and whose hair looked as though it had been cut with dull sheep shears. Several men grinned and asked Red if he’d like to lay a few bets on the kid. Red laughed. “I said he thinks he can ride. Let’s wait for the first go-round and see if he’s good, or just lucky.”

  It was a two-day show with a parade the first morning, a barbecue at noon, and the first round—go-round, in rodeo parlance—in all events that afternoon. The second day there would be two programs, the semifinals in the morning, the final go-round in the afternoon. The arena was the local baseball field, where pens and chutes had been built of bright new planks in the infield and corrals had been thrown up in the outfield for the bucking horses, the wild steers and the calves. Like most small rodeos, the program consisted of calf roping, steer riding, bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding, with a wild-horse race and a wild-cow milking contest thrown in for laughs. Bigger rodeos added steer wrestling to the program and brightened it up with pretty girls doing trick riding; and big circuit rodeo, especially when playing in major cities, was beginning to add horse-show events for glitter and style. But little Aztec’s minor show was built around the heart and core of rodeo, men riding unbroken broncs and men roping untamed calves. And the classic event was the historic reason for rodeo itself, the saddle bronc riding.

  Fundamentally, it was man against horse, cowboy trying to master an unbroken bronco. It was the same thing Tom had done when he rode a drunken cowboy’s fractious horse in the dusty street of Bayfield to win a dollar. But here he would ride out of a chute, just as he had at Red’s place on the San Juan, and he would ride according to standard rodeo rules. He must hold the rein in one hand, not touch saddle or horse with the other hand, must rake with his spurs, keep his feet moving, and he must ride ten seconds. Then a horn would blow, a mounted pickup man would come alongside, take the rein from the rider and let the rider pivot out of the saddle, off the bucking bronc, and swing down to the ground. The ride was scored on points based on skill in the saddle and the worse the horse, the more difficult to ride, the higher the successful rider’s score. If a rider was thrown or committed a foul he lost the go-round. If the horse refused to buck, the rider got another chance on the same horse or, if he chose, a different horse. In bigger rodeos all the riders rode in all three go-rounds, their points were totaled and prizes were awarded on each man’s totals, but at Aztec, as in most small rodeos, each go-round was an elimination contest, leaving only the five top riders for the finals. As Red put it, this was a sudden-death show. You had to place well up in every go-round to stay in competition. “So start right out riding rough and tough,” he told Tom. “Take the first two go-rounds.”

  The first day Tom drew a snaky, wide-winding black that bucked in a tight circle. Tom had no special trouble with him and was surprised when the ten-second horn blew. The pickup man rode alongside, Tom handed him the rein, grabbed his shoulder and swung out of the saddle as Red had taught him. He was almost back to the chutes before he realized that the crowd was applauding him. Red said he had made a good ride and when the score was announced, Tom placed second.

  That evening there was a good deal of talk about this new kid, the Indian who didn’t look more than twelve or thirteen but rode like a man. Red had put down a few small bets on him at the last minute, and he made a few more bets on him for the second go-round. But when pressed to bet on the finals Red shook his head. “Let’s take it round by round. Tom’s luck may run out tomorrow.”

  To Tom he said, “Now they’ve weeded out the Sunday riders. Tomorrow morning you’ll just have the good ones and the lucky ones to beat. Give them hell. Ride your draw high, wide and handsome.”

  And that’s what Tom did. He drew a big roan that tried to tear down the chute while they were saddling him. When the gate swung open the roan went out with a series of spectacular lunges that brought an instant roar from the crowd. They recognized Tom and they knew a vicious bucker when they saw one. After two jumps Tom knew he could ride the roan, so he raked and gouged with his spurs, the roan bellowed and fought, and Tom punished him every legal way he knew. He rode all-out and, when the horn blew, the crowd was in an uproar. They cheered him all the way back to the chutes.

  Red praised him extravagantly, and when Tom was announced as winner of the round Red collected his
bets. He offered to bet on the finals, jeered at those who refused to wager, but he kept his bets small.

  When the morning program was over and they went to eat dinner, Red had several drinks and began to talk as though had had one too many. The betting crowd listened to his brag and winked at each other. A few of them placed bets with him on the finals, but again Red kept the bets low. And when he and Tom started back to the rodeo grounds Red sobered up the minute they were alone.

  “Well, Tom,” he said, “you’ve been a hero. Like it?”

  “Yes,” Tom said.

  “I thought so. Well, that’s all over now. You’re going to be a bum in the finals. You’re going to lose, and lose big.”

  “No I’m not. I can—”

  “Shut up! I say you’re going to lose the finals! I’m giving the orders! I’ve got the deadfall all set up. You’ll lose the finals and they’ll think they’ve got me on the hip. Then I’ll really take them. In the finals you’re going to give your horse slack in the rein after the first few jumps and look for a soft place to land. Hear me?”

  “I hear,” Tom said reluctantly.

  “You do like I say, or I’ll break your goddam neck! You get thrown. Then, after the final go-round is over, you’re going to ride again. A special event. And then you’d better be a hero or start running. Now do you understand?”

  “I guess so.”

  “You know so, you damn well know so!”

  Then they were back in the arena and Red acted the part of a drunken braggart again.

  Tom had drawn the number-three ride in the finals, and his horse was a big black. Red, still playing his drunken role, let Tom do the saddling, but before he mounted Red said, “You know what I told you,” and there was both threat and warning in his eyes. Tom said, “I know,” and settled himself in the saddle, adjusted the rein, jerked his hat tight, set his spurs. The announcer bellowed, “Coming out of Chute Number Three, on Tar Baby, Tom Black Bull!” and the crowd began to roar. Tom signaled the gateman, the gate swung open and the black lunged out bucking. It ducked, side-jumped and Tom raked with his spurs. He could ride this horse, he knew he could. But after the first few bucks he let the rein slip as the black ducked its head. It got six inches of slack, came up in another buck and Tom had lost his leverage. As he went back in the saddle the next lunge drove the cantle into his kidneys. Then the pommel jabbed his lower gut and he was loose in the saddle, the pain seeming to cut him in two. Another side-jump and he knew it was all over. As the black bucked again he instinctively kicked his feet free and went sprawling, thrown clean and hard.

 
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