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When the legends die, p.12
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       When the Legends Die, p.12

           Hal Borland
 
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  The crowd groaned. Tom lay for a moment, gasping for breath, aching with pain. And hurting inside, because he knew he could have ridden that horse to a standstill. He rolled over, hunched to his knees till the pain eased and he had his breath again, then got slowly to his feet. He unbuckled his chaps and limped back to the chutes, head bowed in shame as much as in physical pain.

  Red came to meet him. He put an arm around Tom’s shoulders and said loudly, “Tough luck, kid! Goddam tough luck. What happened?”

  Tom looked at him, hating him, and didn’t answer. Red’s fingers pressed into his arm, warning him, and they went back to the chutes. Tom sat down in the shade of the chutes, head in his hands. He heard a chute gate swing open, heard the grunt and pound of hoofs, the cheers of the crowd, the slap of chaps on saddle skirts, as the next rider made his bid for the purse. It didn’t matter. Then the horn blew, the crowd cheered. And a few minutes later the chute opened again and the last rider’s horse was squealing, pounding the ground with that punishing, man-killing dance of desperation. The crowd cheered, gasped, then groaned, and Tom heard the thud of the rider striking the ground. He didn’t even look up. Somebody else had been thrown. Somebody who had tried, who hadn’t been thrown because he was ordered to.

  Then the bronc riding was all over. The judges tallied their score cards. The announcer was bellowing the final results. Tom Black Bull, because of his spectacular rides in the first two go-rounds, was placed fourth, just ahead of the last rider, who was also thrown.

  Red came and helped him to his feet. “Guess that’s it, Tom,” he said. “Your luck just ran out.” He began stuffing the bronc saddle into the gunny sack. The men who had bets with him came to collect, and Red paid them off, one by one. “You took me,” he said. “But I still say the boy is the best rider here. He just had bad luck with that big black.”

  A stocky black-haired ranchman laughed. Two others who had just collected bets from Red joined in the laughter. “So you still think the boy is top man?” the black-haired man asked, winking at the others.

  “Damn right he is!” Red looked around. “I say Tom can ride any horse here, any one of them.”

  “That’s big talk, Dillon.”

  “I still say it.”

  “Maybe we could set up a special event for him,” the black-haired man suggested. “If you care to make it worth while. What odds will you give on him?”

  “Odds?” Red laughed derisively. “The boy just got thrown and you want me to give odds! No, I think we’ll go home.” Then Red turned to Tom. “Think you could ride that black if you had another chance, Tom?”

  “Wait a minute!” the black-haired man said. “You wanted to back him on any horse here. The black’s had a go-round. He’s tired.”

  “Tom’s tired too. He’s ridden two go-rounds today.”

  The announcer had come over to see what was happening. He turned and bellowed to the crowd, “Don’t hurry off, folks! We seem to have a special event in the making. Stick around!”

  Red turned to Tom. “Want to make another ride, Tom?”

  Tom knew the answer he had to make. Anyway, he wanted to ride again, prove himself. “Yes,” he said.

  Red turned to the men around him. “You heard him. He’ll ride. So let’s make it worth while, give me a chance to get back a little of my hard-earned money. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Give me two-to-one odds and the boy’ll try to ride any horse you pick. Not just to the ten-second horn, but all the way. He’ll ride him to a standstill. Maybe he won’t rake with his spurs after the horn, but I say he’ll ride him clean. Now what do you say?”

  “That,” the black-haired man said, “I want to see.”

  A stakeholder was named. Red covered the first few bets, then said, “You boys just about cleaned me out, but I’ve still got a hundred-dollar saddle and a couple of good cutting horses.”

  “I can use another saddle,” the black-haired man said, and handed the stakeholder money enough to cover the bet. Two other men covered the horses.

  Red turned to Tom, “Well, Tom, you either ride now or walk home.” He took the bronc saddle from the gunny sack and handed Tom his chaps.

  The black-haired man and several other bettors went to the corral and picked out the horse. The announcer bellowed to the crowd, “Well, folks, we’ve got it! Tom Black Bull, the boy who made two sensational rides before he was thrown in the finals, is going to ride again in a special event. He’s going to ride that big bay they’re bringing to the chutes right now. And listen to this, folks! Tom is going to try to ride this horse to a standstill! No time limits! This ride will be a showdown, to the finish!”

  There was a roar of approval from the crowd.

  Red and Tom checked the saddle, cinches, latigos, stirrups, while the bay was put in the chute. They checked halter and rein. Then they saddled the bay. It hadn’t been ridden that day, but Red had watched it in action in the first go-round when it threw a rider in six seconds. “He tries to buck right,” he told Tom, “in a tight circle. He’ll duck from the first jump. Don’t, for God’s sake, let him get any slack. Remember the big black at home? This one bucks just like him, same pattern.”

  Tom put on his chaps, tightened his spurs, dried his hands. He straddled the chute, let himself down into the saddle. He adjusted the rein carefully, jammed his hat tight, set his spurs.

  “All set?” Red asked.

  Tom nodded. The gate swung open.

  The bay took two steps and went into the air as the crowd yelled. Tom raked with his spurs and the horse came down, tried to jerk its head. Tom was braced for it. He rode with two twisting jumps, two stiff-legged, spine-jarring bucks. The horse was big and full of fight. It kept trying to get its head around to the right. Unable to, it made zigzag lunges, right, left, right again. It kicked and reared and spun. Tom rode with its rhythm, but at every pounding jump he felt as though his head was being driven right down between his shoulders. His left arm seemed about to be torn from its socket. But he rode, and he rode clean.

  The ten-second horn blew. The crowd was in an uproar. But Tom heard neither horn nor crowd. He wasn’t riding for time or for the crowd. He was riding for himself. And he wasn’t riding the bay. He was riding a hurt and a hate, deep inside. The blood drummed in his ears, his teeth ached with the pounding, but he held his rhythm. Then he began to gouge and punish with his spurs. Dull as the rowels were, they drew blood. He shifted his weight, brought it down with every jump, punishing the horse. He jerked viciously at the rein, giving an inch of slack, then snapping it back as though trying to break the horse’s neck.

  The bay was grunting with every leap. It seemed to ease off for a moment, then bucked in another pattern of fury. It bellowed and came up in a pawing, dancing leap. Tom jerked off his hat and slapped it over the ears, and it came down with a jolt that jarred the earth. Its snorts became gasps of pain and it slacked again. Tom gave it more rein, and it got its head around to the right and bucked in the tight circle Red had warned about. But Tom was still in the saddle, still gouging with his spurs.

  Then the rhythm slowed. The bay stumbled once, caught itself, bucked again. Now it began to come down spraddle-legged, bracing itself. It staggered. He gave it all the rein it wanted, but it merely drooped its head. It began to cough, took a few steps and stood trembling. It tried to buck once more and failed.

  The crowd was clamoring. A pickup man was alongside, shouting to Tom. “Get clear! He’s going down!” And Tom felt the horse sagging under him. He saw the bloody foam for the first time, gobs of it welling from the horse’s mouth. He grabbed the pickup man’s shoulder, kicked free of the stirrups just as the horse fell from under him.

  Tom’s feet struck the ground. He ran a few steps, then his knees buckled. He went down, and looked around and saw the fallen horse thrash, its legs jerking convulsively. It lifted its head and there was a gush of blood from its mouth. Then its head fell back with a thud.

  Tom turned away, half sick, and heard the crowd gasp. He got to h
is feet and walked to the chutes, not looking back. His head was light. He was sweating. He reached the chute, clung to the planks and began to retch.

  Men crowded around. Red was there, pushing at them, ordering, “Leave him alone! Give him air!” The crowd eased back a little and Red asked, “All right?” Tom, so weak he could barely stand, nodded and clung to the chute.

  A man brought the bronc saddle, tossed it on the ground, and someone asked, “How’s the bay?”

  “Dead.” The man stared at Tom in awe. “Dead as a doornail. Ruptured its lungs, or something.”

  Tom began to recover. He stuffed the saddle into the gunny sack. Red had found the stakeholder, was stuffing handfuls of money into his pockets. He came back to Tom. “Come on,” he ordered. “Let’s get out of here.” He pushed his way through the crowd around the chutes and started toward the corrals and their own saddle horses.

  The crowd of men at the chutes followed them as far as the place where the dead horse lay. Tom glanced at it and turned away. Most of the crowd stayed to look, but the black-haired ranchman followed and caught up with them near the corrals. “Just a minute, Dillon,” he said, and Red stopped and faced him.

  “That was a setup, Dillon!” The man was flushed with anger.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You know what I mean!”

  “You picked the horse, and the boy rode him, didn’t he?”

  “Yes, he rode him, and we paid off. But he could have ridden the black in the final go-round, too. Only he had orders not to. Didn’t you, son?”

  “Leave him alone!” Red snapped. “He made his ride! Go get the horses, Tom.”

  The man turned to Tom. “You had your orders to throw the final go-round, didn’t you?”

  Red stepped between them and cocked his fist. “I said leave him alone!”

  The man stepped back. “All right, Dillon. You took us. But don’t you ever try it again! Don’t you ever show up at another rodeo in Aztec! Understand?”

  “Aztec!” Red laughed derisively. “Why, you two-bit tinhorn! We’re going where there’s real money!” He backed away. “Come on, Tom.”

  And they went to the corral, saddled their horses and headed for home.

  24

  IT WAS FOURTEEN MILES to Blanco, the trading post and post office halfway home. They rode at a lope the first five miles and Red kept watching the road behind them. Then, since nobody was following them, they slowed to a trot and Red began gloating over the way he had outsmarted the Aztec betting crowd. He boasted, and he laughed, and he boasted again.

  Tom paid little attention. He was still living the afternoon. He could have ridden the black in the finals. He knew that. He could have ridden it, clear and clean, and been champion, taken top purse money. But Red ordered him to lose and he made that one mistake, made it deliberately, and got thrown. Then he rode the bay, which was a meaner horse than the black, a worse bucker. He rode it to a finish. Rode it to death. He still saw the bloody foam, heard the cough and the final spurt of blood, the thud of its head on the ground, and he felt queasy.

  He looked at Red, heard his braggart voice, his jeering laugh, and remembered the way he had gouged with his spurs, punishing not the horse but something else, something that Red Dillon represented. He had punished it, gouged and fought and mastered it, rode the horse to death. And Red Dillon’s voice and grating laughter were still right here beside him.

  He began to feel queasy again and wished Red would shut up. He was light-headed and sweating. Red sensed something wrong. He turned and looked at Tom and asked, “What’s the matter with you?”

  Tom shook his head and said, “Nothing,” and knew he was going to be sick. He stopped his horse, got off, and fell to his knees and began to retch.

  Red grinned. “You’re kind of shook up, I guess. Feel better now?”

  Tom got to his feet and stood, holding to the saddle, till his head began to clear. Finally he mounted again. They rode on, and Red said, “I’ll stop in Blanco and get a bottle of tonic. That’ll settle your guts.” He laughed.

  Blanco was only a couple of miles ahead. They rode up to the store and Tom waited while Red went in. He came back with three bottles, undid his bedroll and stowed two of them inside. Then he opened the third bottle and took a long drink from it. He wiped the neck on his sleeve and handed it to Tom. “Take a good swig. Clean the dust out of your throat.”

  Tom took a mouthful, swallowed twice and felt the burn of the liquor all the way to his stomach before he even tasted it. He took another mouthful, handed the bottle back to Red and shivered as he swallowed again. It burned all the way down, then seemed to fume back and fill his head. Red took another long drink, corked the bottle and got on his horse. They started on home.

  Tom’s head began to reel. He swayed in the saddle, had to hold on to the pommel. Red laughed at him. “Hold tight, Tom! Don’t start flapping your wings or you’ll fly right out of the saddle! Ain’t used to wings, I guess, are you? Feel better now?

  “No.”

  Red uncorked the bottle and took another drink. “You will.” He offered the bottle to Tom again.

  Tom shook his head, and wondered why it didn’t seem to be fastened to his neck. His body was down there somewhere, and it didn’t ache any more, but his head was floating all by itself. Then he felt his body swaying and ordered his hands to grab the saddle and hold on. They got the order and obeyed. Then he ordered his eyes to look at his horse’s ears and stop his head from spinning. His eyes looked, but the horse had four ears. Why? It didn’t matter. He closed his eyes and let his head spin, and his hands gripped the saddle.

  Darkness came and the horses plodded homeward. Tom slept, his hands still gripping the saddle, his chin on his chest. Red talked to himself, laughed from time to time. He began to sing. Tom woke up, almost fell out of the saddle, recovered and felt the queasiness again. Red’s toneless singing rasped at his ears.

  “Shut up,” Tom shouted, and his own voice echoed in his ears. “Shut your damn big mouth!”

  Red laughed and went on singing, and Tom was asleep again.

  It was almost midnight when the horses picked their way down the trail along the bluff and crossed to the barn. Tom wakened and wondered where he was. The horses stopped. Red bellowed, “Meo! Meo, come here, you damn old chili-eater!”

  A light appeared in the house. The door opened and Meo appeared, lantern in hand. He came to the barn and Red said, “Meo, you old chili-eater, I took ’em!” His words were slurred, thick. He laughed. “Put the horses away. We got to celebrate.” He waved the bottle, now empty, and dismounted. Meo steadied him or he would have fallen. Red tilted up the bottle, said, “All gone. Dead soldier,” and tossed it aside. He tried to untie his bedroll. Meo undid it for him, got it over his shoulder and Red started to the cabin, weaving as he went.

  Tom dismounted carefully, each motion deliberate. His head still swam and he wasn’t sure of his feet. He held to the saddle until he had his equilibrium, then took off his bedroll, put it on the ground and loosened the latigos. He almost fell as he pulled the saddle off, but carried it into the barn and got it onto the pole where it belonged.

  “I’ll finish,” Meo said. “Go get some coffee.”

  Tom almost fell as he leaned over to pick up his bedroll, but he got it into his arms and carried it to the cabin. Red was sprawled in his bunk, already asleep. Tom put the bedroll at the foot of his own bunk, went to the hearth and poured a cupful of hot, black coffee. He sat down at the table, the cup in both hands, and tried to drink. He burned his lips but couldn’t feel the scald inside his mouth. His mouth, his whole gullet, was numb. He set the cup down and was sitting there, staring at it, when Meo came in.

  Meo glanced at Red, then came to the table. He filled a bowl with beans and chili, set it in front of Tom and put half a dozen cold tortillas beside it. “Eat,” he ordered. “Put something in the belly.”

  Tom had no hunger, but he rolled a tortilla and scooped at the beans, took a mouthful.
It felt good, though he could hardly taste it. He scooped another mouthful from the bowl.

  “You won?” Meo said.

  Tom shook his head. “I lost.”

  “Then you rode again?”

  “Yes.” Tom wondered how Meo knew. “I rode again. I rode a horse to death.”

  “Ah-h-h.” Meo nodded. He glanced toward Red, snoring in his bunk, pointed with his chin. “He won.”

  Tom nodded.

  Meo went over to Red and went through his pockets. He took all the money he could find, counted it, then put back a few bills. He folded the rest of it carefully and thrust it into his own pocket. Then he came back to the fireplace and filled Tom’s chili bowl again.

  Tom’s head was beginning to clear. He could taste the bite of the coffee, the flavor of the chili. Meo sat down opposite him with a cup of coffee. “Tell me about it,” he urged.

  Tom told him. Meo listened, nodding, sipping coffee, making no comment. At last he jerked his chin toward Red and said, “Some day they will kill that one. Or he will kill himself.” It was an unemotional statement, his only comment. He finished his coffee. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we will harvest the frijoles, you and I. Go to bed now.”

  25

  THEY HARVESTED THE BEANS in the old way, pulling the vines, piling them on a tarp, flailing them with a stick. Then they took away the broken vines and winnowed the beans, scooping them into a flat basket, holding the basket high and slowly pouring the beans onto a fresh tarp. The wind blew away the broken pods and chaff.

 
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