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When the legends die, p.13
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       When the Legends Die, p.13

           Hal Borland
 
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  It was slow work and Meo never hurried. “The frijole,” he said, “takes its own time. It waits for the sun and the rain, then grows one day at a time. Why should I tell it to hurry now? If I do not eat this frijole, it will wait and grow again. It does not need me to tell it what to do.” He scooped another basketful and poured the beans slowly, watching the broken pods drift away and the dry, hard beans flow in a pattering stream onto the tarp. “We know these things, you and I. Our people were not born last year. We are of the old people.”

  They threshed the beans and winnowed them. Then they sat on the ground and sorted them, handful by handful, picking out the bits of stem and the small brown pebbles before they put the beans into storage bags. The sun was warm, the air was mild, and even the magpies in the cottonwoods had ceased their noisy scolding. Life seemed as unhurried as the day, or as the beans.

  Tom asked, “Why did you come here, Meo?”

  “One must live somewhere.” For a minute Meo was silent as he sorted another handful of beans, then he asked, “Why did you come?”

  Tom answered in Meo’s own words: “One must live somewhere.”

  “Where did you live before?”

  “On the reservation. I herded sheep.”

  “Before that?”

  “I lived in the mountains, in the old way.”

  “Why did you leave the mountains?”

  “They came and took me away.”

  “Your father and mother?”

  “They are dead.”

  They sorted beans in silence for a time. Then Meo said, “The mountains are still there.”

  “The old way is finished.” Unconsciously Tom made the cut-off sign. “I have no one,” he added.

  Meo poured a handful of beans into the bag, picked up another handful and began to sort them. “So you came here, with him.” He pointed with his chin toward the cabin. “Why?”

  “To be a rider.”

  Meo grunted. “Why?” he asked again.

  Tom wondered how to tell him what he had felt when he was riding the big bay at Aztec. But the words wouldn’t come. It was something deeper than words. At last he said, knowing it was not the whole truth, but still a part of it, “To be the boss.”

  Meo slowly shook his head, then glanced toward the cabin again. “He is the boss.”

  “I am the boss, on the horse.”

  “Sometimes. When he tells you to be.”

  Tom shrugged. “That is the way it is. I ride, I eat. What else is there?”

  Meo poured another handful of beans into the bag. It was almost full. He got to his knees, grunting at the stiffness in his joints, and tied the bag with a string. He got to his feet, motioned to Tom, who took one end of the bag. They carried it to the cabin, stowed it in a corner by the fireplace.

  Red lay on his bunk, two empty bottles on the floor beside him. He heard them, half opened his eyes, and muttered, “Get out. Leave me alone.”

  They went back to sorting beans. After a few minutes Meo picked up a single bean and held it in his gnarled fingers. “Frijole,” he said to it, “our young friend thinks he is the boss. He will eat you, Frijole. But you have a rumble to make, so you will make that rumble in his belly.” He shook his head. “Our young friend will be eaten, too. We are all eaten. If he has a rumble to make, where will he make it? In the belly of the one who eats him.” He dropped the bean into the bag and picked up another handful, began to sort them.

  Tom shrugged, then picked up a bean, held it between his fingers as Meo had done. “Frijole,” he said, “maybe Meo will eat you, not me. Then where will you make your rumble? Is Meo the boss, to tell you what to do?”

  Meo went on sorting beans. Finally he said, “Life is the boss. We do what we can. Then we are old. We creep off in a corner and sit, and the tongue makes the rumble. But it is only noise, talk, talk, talk.” He sighed and was silent.

  They harvested the beans. Then they picked the chilies and made long strings of them and hung them from the roof beams to finish drying. But after that one afternoon of talk, Meo was his taciturn self again, saying little, keeping his thoughts to himself.

  The fourth afternoon Red came out of the cabin, pale, weak-kneed and weaving. He made his way to the horse trough, doused his head in the icy water, then sat in the sun for an hour. At last he shouted, “Hey, Meo, make me some fresh coffee.”

  When Meo told him the coffee was ready, Red went back to the cabin. He was there at the table, silent and disheveled, holding his cup of strong, black coffee in both hands, when Tom and Meo went in to eat supper. Red made a nauseated face at the sight of their food. He left the table, threw the empty bottles out the door, and went back to bed.

  He still had a hangover, but he was sober, the next morning. After breakfast he told Meo to bring the horses in, and when Meo had left he said to Tom, “You’re going to ride, get the kinks out of you. Next week—what day is this, anyway?”

  “Friday,” Tom told him.

  “Week after next we’re going to hit the road. But before we go you’re going to learn how to lose a go-round without getting thrown. Let a horse throw you, you may break an arm or something. Then we’re out of business for a month.”

  Tom was staring at him, his mouth set angrily.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Red flared. “You got ideas? If you have, get rid of them. We’re not in the hero business. You’re going to lose a lot of go-rounds. Understand?”

  Tom didn’t answer.

  “I said, do you understand?”

  Tom nodded reluctantly.

  “Heroes,” Red said, “are a dime a dozen. Little two-bit heroes everywhere you go. And they all wind up broke. Especially if they are Indians or Mexes. Meo was a hero once.” He laughed. “Now take a look at him. Just another broken-down old chili-eater.”

  Tom made no comment.

  After a moment Red said, “There’s a dozen ways to lose a go-round. You’re going to learn them all. And you’re going to learn how to look good doing it, look like you’re doing your damnedest not to lose. Understand?”

  Tom nodded.

  “We’re going down south,” Red said. “They hold a lot of little rodeos down there, and they’re awful proud of their heroes.” He grinned. “Proud enough to back them with betting money. It’d be a shame to let that money burn holes in their pockets, wouldn’t it? When we can take it away from them so easy.” Then he saw the look in Tom’s eyes, and he said, “And if you ever get any ideas about double-crossing me, get rid of them, too. Just remember who’s the boss around here.”

  “ I’ll remember,” Tom said.

  “You forget it, I’ll break your goddam neck… . Better put new latigos on the saddle. I’ll be out as soon as I finish eating.”

  26

  SO TOM ENTERED THE world of small-time rodeo, a world of hot, dusty little cow-country towns, makeshift arenas, vicious, unpredictable horses, ambitious country riders and jealous third-rate professionals. And, with Red Dillon, a world of noisy saloons, smoky pool halls, ratty little hotels, fly-specked chili parlors, conniving bettors.

  They went all the way to Bernalillo for their first stop. It was a four-day ride, but Red wanted to be sure they were out of range of anyone who might have been at Aztec. They traveled light, with only their bedrolls, and didn’t even take the bronc saddle. “ It’s a dead giveaway,” Red said. “They see that saddle and they know one of us has done a lot of rodeoing. If the competition’s fast and the horses specially bad, we can always borrow a bronc saddle. Sometimes,” he added with a grin, “it’s healthier not to wait around and get your own saddle after a ride.”

  They rode into Bernalillo two days before the rodeo and went to the livery stable. Red, looking like just another trail-worn saddle bum, asked what all the excitement was about. The liveryman was eager to talk about the rodeo. Finally Red said, “Hear that, Tom? The man says they’re having a rodeo. Want to stay and have a go at it?”

  “You ride, or rope?” the liveryman asked.

&
nbsp; “A stove-up puncher like me?” Red laughed. “No, sirree! I’m an old man. I like my women wild but my horses gentle. But the boy, here, thinks he can ride. Maybe this is his chance to find out.”

  The liveryman looked at Tom. With his ragged haircut, faded work shirt and Levi’s and his battered boots Tom looked like just another Indian kid. The liveryman smiled. “They aren’t running any juvenile events this year.”

  Red grinned. “Tom talks big, almost man-size.” And he made a deal with the liveryman to put up their horses and let them spread their bedrolls in the hay.

  They stalled their horses, left their gear in the hayloft, then went out to size up the situation. They made the rounds of the saloons, pool halls and cafes, and Red told the same story he had told in Aztec. By the next morning the word had got around. The Indian kid thought he could ride. And as though that wasn’t enough of a joke, the saddle bum seemed to think the boy could, too, and apparently had a little money to back him. The trap practically laid itself.

  The night before the rodeo opened Red summed it up and gave Tom his orders. “These wise guys have got it all figured. So we’ll just play along with them. You’re going to make a fair to middling ride in the first go-round. Then in the second go-round you’re going to foul out. Understand? We’ll play them fair and square, give them what they expect. But in die finals you’re going to go to town, and we’ll give them the works. We’ll take their shirts.” He grinned. “Fair and square. Can’t ask more than that, can they?”

  Tom followed orders. Red placed a scattering of small, cautious bets on the first go-round and Tom made an awkward, amateurish ride. Red paid off his bets, got odds on the second go-round, but still kept his bets small. And Tom pulled leather, fouled out. Then Red played the drunken braggart. He still thought Tom could ride, thought he was the best damn rider of them all. Tom had just had bad luck up to now. Bet on the final go-round? Damn right he would! And when he got the odds he wanted he made half a dozen big bets. So Tom made a spectacular final ride, clean and clear all the way, and Red collected his winnings. They got out of town before the bettors knew what hit them. It was, as Red said, as easy as falling out of bed dead-drunk.

  That set the pattern. For the next two months they shuttled back and forth across the state, Red picking only the little rodeos that offered purses too small to lure even the third-rate professionals from any distance. The system wasn’t foolproof. Once Tom made such a flagrant foul-out that the judges barred him from the finals. Red ranted at him for two days after that one. And once Red tried to set up the deadfall, only to have the local betting crowd catch him in it by refusing to go for the extra ride. But it averaged out, as Red said. They worked seven rodeos and Red cashed in at five of them.

  Then they went to Carrizozo, and everything went wrong. Trying to make a losing ride look honest in the first go-round, Tom was thrown and landed heavily on his left shoulder. His arm was so lame he had to ride right-handed in the second go-round. Off balanced, he grabbed the saddle and fouled out to spare himself another fall. The situation was hopeless, and Red agreed that there was no use even trying to ride in the finals. And to cap it all, Red got roaring drunk that night, started a brawl and landed in jail. It took him a week after he sobered up to argue himself out of jail by paying a fine and promising to get out of town.

  By then, Tom’s arm had begun to heal. But he was ready to call it quits. Tom was tired. He had averaged one rodeo a week all fall, with long, hard rides between. He was young and strong, but the beating he took in the saddle was beginning to tell on him. And he wasn’t even getting the satisfaction of winning on horses he knew he could ride. There were a dozen ways to lose a round, and he knew them all by now. But every one of them took something out of him. When he rode loose in the saddle, his spine took a beating. When he broke rhythm, his neck was jerked. And his arm still throbbed and his whole shoulder ached night and day. He wanted to quit and go home.

  Red, however, had been rolled and robbed of better than a thousand dollars during the big drunk in Carrizozo. Red wasn’t quitting. “There’s a little jerkwater called Felice,” Red growled, “down the road a piece. They’re putting on a show next week. Probably some of the riders at Carrizozo will be there, but that’ll just help the setup. We’re going to work Felice. And I mean work it!”

  Felice was a hard-bitten little alkali-water town with equally hard-bitten bettors. As Red had suspected, they had heard about what happened to Tom at Carrizozo. And, as he had said, that helped rather than hurt. Red began working toward a deadfall.

  Everything went according to plan for the first two go-rounds. With his lame arm, Tom couldn’t be a power rider. He couldn’t keep pressure on the rein. So he had to be a rhythm rider, giving the horse its head. It didn’t take much faking to lose the number-one ride, and he was glad to grab the saddle and foul out on the second go-round. Red’s plans couldn’t have worked out better.

  But before the finals Red said, “We’ll just saddle our horses and tie them in those cottonwoods back of the stands. Just in case. There’s a couple of loudmouth know-it-alls that may start trouble. You ride like I told you in the finals, and then I’ll set up the extra. And when you’ve rode the extra horse into the ground, get ready to run. Things start popping, like they may, you get the hell out and bring the horses to the main gate. I’ll meet you there.”

  So Tom made his final go-round ride, and lost it as Red had ordered him to. Then Red put on his drunken braggart act, set up the extra ride and got the bets he wanted.

  The horse the bettors chose was big and mean, but Tom knew after the first few seconds that he could ride him even with that sore arm. There were horses in the bucking string that could have given him plenty of trouble, horses that kept shifting rhythm. But this one was a pattern bucker, full of fight and meanness but predictable. Tom rode him clean for the first ten seconds, then raked and roweled and loosened up with all his tricks. It wasn’t the best ride he ever made, but it was good enough. He rode the horse to a standstill.

  But even as he dismounted he heard the rumble of trouble at the chutes. He stepped out of his chaps and saw the fighting start. Two men jumped Red, Red knocked one of them down, then began to retreat toward the gate. Then the sideline crowd surged out into the arena, toward the chutes. Tom ducked into the crowd. Nobody paid any attention to him, all intent on the fight. Tom squirmed his way, finally got clear and ran to the gate. He got outside, got the horses and rode back toward the gate. Just as he got there, Red came charging through the crowd. He had reached the gate and was almost in the clear when someone grabbed him by the shirt. Red slid out of the shirt like a snake out of its skin, yelled, “Get going!” and grabbed the horn of his own saddle. He slapped his horse in the flank, pulled himself up and both horses lunged into a run.

  As they raced through Felice’s dusty main street Tom saw Red trying to stuff wads of money deeper into his pockets. Several green bills fluttered free and Red grabbed at them, then began to laugh. He slapped his horse with his rein ends and they went out of town in a cloud of white dust.

  They rode almost a mile and came to a brushy gully. Red led the way into the brush. A few minutes later half a dozen men went pounding past, spurring their horses. Red watched them go and grinned. “They’ll be halfway to Alamogordo before somebody gets the bright idea that maybe we didn’t go that way.” Red had a big bruise under his left eye, his nose was skinned, the knuckles on both hands were bleeding, he had lost his hat, and his naked torso was grotesquely white from his neck to his belt. But he had set up the deadfall, and won it.

  When the posse was out of sight they rode up the gully for a couple of miles, came to a creek and followed it for almost an hour. By then Red’s naked skin was beginning to sun- burn, so they stopped in a grove of box elders till sundown. Then they went on, heading west into the hills.

  Toward midnight they came to a little rancho where the woman, probably tired as well as careless, had left her washing on the line. Levi’s, work shirt
s and underdrawers flapped in the dying moonlight like dismembered ghosts. Red chose a shirt, put it on, then pinned a five-dollar bill to the clothesline. As they rode on he said with a laugh, “That woman will leave her washing out every night for the next six months, figuring some well-heeled saint did this for her and may come back.”

  At dawn they came to a sheep camp just as the Mexican herder was getting up. Red picked up the rifle the herder had carelessly left standing against a tree and ordered him to cook breakfast for them. When they had eaten, Red appropriated the herder’s hat, and when the herder called him vile Spanish names Red took the rifle to the second hilltop, emptied the magazine and jammed the weapon muzzle-down into the sod.

  They worked north, keeping to the hills, eating at sheep camps and little ranches, until the money in Red’s pocket and the thirst in his throat got the better of him. “To hell with this!” he said, and they rode in to Socorro. Red found a saloon and a poker game and Tom waited out his spree in a shabby little hotel room. And at last, haggard with a hangover and his pockets almost empty, Red said, “Let’s go home.”

  27

  THE NEXT SPRING THEY worked the early rodeos in eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma panhandle, and that fall they worked little Colorado towns. It was the same story over and over. Tom won or lost, pretty much as Red told him to. Tom had learned most of the tricks, but now and then a horse outguessed him, and occasionally he was thrown when Red had ordered him to win. Red was furious each time, accused him of the double cross, but in his sober, good-natured intervals he said things evened out pretty well. “We’re still eating, and I always say a man’s doing all right as long as he don’t go hungry or thirsty too long at a stretch.”

  Tom’s life settled into a pattern of long rides between rodeos, when he just drifted and didn’t even think; of days and nights in shabby hotels, third-rate cafes and noisy little towns where he slept, ate and waited; of hot, sweaty, horse-smelling, crowd-noisy arenas; of hard-riding go-rounds when he really lived. Those were the times for which he endured everything else, especially the winning rides that Red eventually ordered at every rodeo. The other riders paid him little attention. Time after time some gay-shirted, arrogant rider mistook him for a stable boy or a gangling kid who had sneaked into the arena and either ordered him out or tried to send him on some errand. That was inevitable. Tom had grown a couple of inches, put on twenty pounds of muscle and sinew and was almost as big as Red, but he still played the part of a back-country Indian kid with ragged hair and shabby work clothes. The other contestants, even the local amateurs, wore gaudy shirts, bright neckerchiefs and fancy-stitched boots. Tom looked like a rusty, bedraggled crow in a pen of peacocks.

 
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