When the Legends Die, p.14Hal Borland
Another winter and, when spring came, Red said he guessed they’d better try north Texas this time around. It was a long ride there and rodeos were far apart, bettors cautious. Red became sullen and surly. “No profit in this,” he said. “We got to find some way to cover more ground.” But Tom was riding well when he rode, and by early June Red decided to make a killing in one of the better shows up near the Oklahoma line. He picked up a fair-sized stake of winnings along the way and they moved in on the show Red had marked.
Red sized things up and decided on a final go-round win with big stakes. Tom made his routine rides in the first two go-rounds and was all set for the finals, when he would not only win Red’s bets but would have the satisfaction of a really top-form ride.
When he went to the chutes before the finals, Tom wondered why Red was so pleased with the world. Finally Red said, “ I’ve got a surprise for you.” Tom asked what it was, but all Red would say was, “You just go out there and do your stuff and we’ll go home in style!”
Tom had drawn a big roan that had thrown the best of the local riders in six seconds on the first go-round. It looked like the worst horse Tom had drawn all spring. Red said it was a tight bucker to the right, and fast. “Keep a short rein, power the bastard all you can, and you can ride him till hell-and-gone.”
Tom settled himself in the saddle, dried his hands, measured a short rein and threaded it between his fingers. He set his spurs. The judges signaled ready and Tom gave the signal to the gateman. The bucking strap was jerked tight around the bronc’s flanks, the gate swung open and the roan lunged out, bucking viciously. Tom powered the rein, hauled the horse’s head around, and it went hog-wild. It bucked twice, then ran straight across the arena and slammed into the fence as though it were stone-blind.
Tom didn’t even have time to kick free of the stirrups. His right leg was caught against a fence stringer and the stab of pain was like a lightning bolt through him. But he kicked free as the bronc went down and he sprawled on hands and knees. He got up, took three steps and fell, just out of reach of the bronc’s thrashing hoofs. The horse had broken its neck.
The crowd groaned. The pickup men galloped up, swung out of the saddle and helped Tom to his feet. He tried to step on that right leg and would have fallen again if the men hadn’t held him up. Red came running from the chutes, cursing like a devil, and helped Tom hop back to the chutes and sit down, dizzy with pain. A doctor came, a tall, leathery man, and after a quick probe with his fingers he said, “I think your leg’s broken, son.” He looked up at Red, standing by and still damning everything in sight. “Are you this boy’s father?”
“Hell no!” Red said. “He’s an Indian.”
“ I didn’t ask the color of his skin,” the doctor snapped. “Are you responsible for him?”
“I run things, if that’s what you mean.”
By then they had brought the stretcher. “Get him over to my office,” the doctor said, “where I can make a proper examination.”
The office was only a block down the street. The doctor gave Tom a shot to ease the pain, made a thorough examination and said, “The tibia’s broken. That’s the big bone in your lower leg. You’re through riding for a couple of months, son.”
Red, who was scowling and muttering to himself, exclaimed, “That’s a hell of a thing to do to me!”
The doctor swung around, furious. “Whose leg is this, his or yours? Get out of here, you damn fool, and get a pair of crutches for this boy. There’s a drugstore down at the corner. Now git!”
Red snorted, “I had close to fifteen hundred dollars on that ride!” But when the doctor turned on him again, Red left.
The doctor fitted splints and bandages. When he had finished he said to Tom, “I want you to stay out of the saddle till next fall. Understand?”
“How am I going to get home?”
“Where do you live?”
“In New Mexico, over near Aztec. I’ve got to ride home.”
Just then Red came back, with the crutches. The doctor adjusted them, then asked Red, “How is this boy going to get home? He can’t ride a horse.”
“He’ll get home all right,” Red said.
“I said he’ll get home all right. Come on, Tom.”
“Just a minute,” the doctor said. “There’s a little matter you are forgetting. My bill.”
“That,” Red said angrily, “is on the rodeo!”
“No, that’s on you.”
Red tried to argue, got nowhere. Finally he paid the doctor’s bill and they left. Out on the street, Red demanded, “Why in hell, if you had to do something like this, couldn’t you do it yesterday, before I put my money on you?”
Tom didn’t answer. He was still dizzy and he was having trouble with the crutches. He hoped Red had left the horses in front of the arena. He didn’t know how he could get into the saddle, but he figured he could ride, once he got on.
They went up the street to the arena’s main gate, Red still snorting and snarling. Tom looked for their horses. They weren’t anywhere in sight. Then Red cut across the street toward a battered green pickup truck with a two-horse trailer. He turned and shouted to Tom, waiting uncertainly at the curb, “Come on over here.”
Tom hobbled across to where Red stood beside the truck, a half grin on his face. “Where are the horses?” Tom asked.
“In the trailer.” Red gave a short, bitter laugh. “I said we’d go home in style, but I didn’t figure I’d go home broke.” He was both proud and angry. Pride won, for the moment. “I bought this outfit this morning, off of that calf-roper that broke his leg yesterday. He was hard up for doctor money. Get in.” And he turned away.
“Where are you going now?” Tom asked.
“To get your chaps. And see if I can find that stakeholder and get my money back.” Red crossed the street and went into the arena, truculent as a dog looking for a fight.
Tom crutched around the trailer. The horses were restless, nervous on the trailer’s quivering floorboards. He saw the two saddles and the bedrolls in the back of the truck. He knew little about cars, but this outfit looked as though it had been over a lot of roads. And at last he opened the door, pulled himself up and settled himself in the well-worn seat and waited.
Red was gone fifteen minutes. He came back with a stormy look, tossed Tom’s chaps in the back with the saddles, got behind the wheel and started the motor. He ground the gears, jerked to a start and snorted, “Goddamned thieves!” Obviously, he hadn’t recovered his bet money.
Red wasn’t much of a driver, but he did keep the outfit on the road and he avoided other cars and trucks, some of them by inches. Before they got to Albuquerque he stopped and bought a box of groceries for Meo and a case of whiskey for himself. Then he waited till late at night, when the streets were deserted, to drive through Albuquerque. Even at that, he needed several drinks to make it. A few drinks called for more, and by the time they reached Bernalillo, just before dawn, he didn’t care which side of the street he drove on. He got through Bernalillo, though, and out into the open country before he was too drunk to see the roadside fences. There he pulled up and slept till late afternoon. Then they went on home. Red still had enough for a weeklong spree, and when Meo went through his pockets he found almost a hundred dollars.
Meo took over the care of Tom’s leg. He massaged it, urging the circulation, and when the bone began to knit he kept the ankle from going weak and stiff. By midsummer the leg seemed as good as ever. But, despite Red’s objection, Meo insisted that Tom should stay out of the saddle till August. Then, Tom got on one of the gentle horses and rode out on the flats a few hours each day, getting the feel of the saddle again. Two weeks of that and he was ready to ride the broncs. They brought in the rough string, Tom began testing his skills and his timing, and by mid-September he was ready for the fall rodeos.
THEY WENT NORTHEAST, INTO Colorado again, but Red couldn’t get things going his way. When they found a town w
With the truck they could cover more ground, so when they had no luck in Colorado they went up into Wyoming. Red made two good cleanups there. Then they moved into lower Idaho and from there turned south into Utah. Finally Red said, “We’re not getting anywhere, and the season’s about over anyway. We’re going home.”
So they went home, to rest, to eat Meo’s beans and chili, to wait for spring and a new season.
Late February and Red was full of plans again. This time they would go to southern Arizona, where Red said there always was plenty of sucker money. But it was the same old story except that there were fewer rodeos in southern Arizona. They played only four shows between Gila Bend and Bisbee and Red won less than a hundred dollars. “A man could starve to death here,” Red said. “We’re going to Texas.”
They stopped in Deming for a show and Tom picked up enough purse money to buy gas and hamburgers. El Paso, Fort Stockton, Sonora and Fredericksburg treated them little better. Red couldn’t raise a bet. They kept going east, and finally they passed Austin and Red brightened. “Now we’re getting over in God’s country, my old stomping ground. My old man had a cotton patch over east, near Crockett, and when I left home I worked this whole country with Doc Barlow, from Trinity River to Eagle Pass. Now we’ll be eating high on the hog.”
But it turned out to be a scrawny hog. Things had changed, apparently, since Red was there with Doc Barlow. But finally they hit a town where the pool-hall crowd had been winning race-horse money from the bookies, and Red set them up for a final-round killing. Tom did his part and Red collected close to a thousand dollars, his first real triumph that spring. But after that even Tom’s luck began to run out. He couldn’t seem to win even when Red ordered him to.
Finally Red demanded, “What the hell’s going on?”
“I’m getting tired, I guess. My timing’s off.”
“Timing, hell! You can ride, or you can’t. I know you can ride when you want to, and you damn well better ride in this next show.”
They were in Duval County, west of Corpus Christi, and it was June. The show opened and for two go-rounds Tom’s luck seemed to be coming back. He made good, clean rides, scored high. Then in the finals he drew a particularly mean horse and he knew he was going to lose as soon as he got in the saddle. He not only lost, he was thrown for the first time that season.
Red was furious. Tom wondered if Red was going to try to trounce him, and for the first time he wasn’t afraid. He half hoped Red would try because he believed he could at least make a fight of it. But Red didn’t make a pass at him. Instead, he cursed and demanded, “What happened this time?”
“I don’t know. I was going all right in the first two go- rounds. Then I seemed to lose my timing. I don’t know what happened.”
“I was away ahead of you,” Red snapped. “I figured you might throw it, so I laid off, didn’t bet a dime on you. But you should have took the purse.”
“I’m tired, Red. Let’s go home.”
“Home? We’re not going home broke! No sirree! There’s a show up in Uvalde County next week. We’re working it. Understand? If we win, then we’ll go home. But if you lose—“ Red rubbed his fist and laughed, a short, ugly laugh.
So they drove north, to Uvalde County. They took a room at the hotel and Red said, “I’m going out and set things up. You stay here till I get back. Get rested up, if you’re so goddam tired.”
When Red hadn’t come back by suppertime Tom went to a nearby cafe and ate alone. Red still hadn’t come back when Tom returned to the room, so he went to bed early. It was after midnight when Red came in, stumbling and obviously drunk. Tom pretended sleep and Red fell into bed. He was still sleeping the next morning when Tom went out to breakfast. Then Tom went out to the arena to look at the horses and listen to the talk of the riders and hangers-on.
Nobody paid any attention to him. He wandered about the arena, paused at the chutes and listened to the men loafing there. It was the old, familiar talk about horses and women, the same old stories. He listened a little while, then went over and climbed into the empty stands and sat in the sun. And the questions came: Who am I? Where am I? Where do I belong?
Back in his memory, like a dream, he saw a boy he once knew, a boy called Bear’s Brother. A boy who lived in the mountains, in the old way, a way that was now past, gone, cut off. Then, also far back in his memory, there was another boy, Thomas Black Bull. A boy who lived on the reservation, braided hair ropes and bridles, rode ponies in the creek-bed sand, herded sheep for Albert Left Hand.
He had known those boys. He remembered them. But he wasn’t Bear’s Brother, and he wasn’t Thomas Black Bull.
Then he saw another boy, in the corral at Red Dillon’s place, learning to be a bronc rider. Learning how a bucking horse acted, how to ride clean, how to ride dirty, how to win, how to foul out. Learning to do what he was told to do. That boy was partly himself, but still a stranger. That was the boy to whom old Meo once said, “You want to make a rumble in the belly of life.”
He sat there, remembering, and he saw a little whirlwind pick up a puff of dust down in the arena and swirl it past the loafers sitting beside the chutes. The dust hid the men for a moment and he saw a crowd of riders there, shouting to each other, swearing at the horses, laughing, arguing. He heard the horses puffing, grunting, squealing, making the planks of the chutes clatter and groan. Saddles creaked, stirrups rattled, spurs jingled. The pickup men rode into place. The crowd cheered, stamped, whistled. The ten-second horn bellowed. Hoofs drummed, bat-wing chaps slapped like handclaps.
His nose quivered at the smell of horse sweat, man sweat, at the smell of the corrals, fresh pine oozing pitch, fresh hay, manure, urine. The choking alkaline smell of dust churned up in the arena, and the hot, clean smell of sunlight, the cool, clean smell of a cloud shadow. The smell of hot, sweaty leather, the horse smell, the sweat-and-wool smell of saddle blankets. The smell of old boots, dirty Levi’s, sweaty shirts. The leather-and-horse smell of your own hands, the sour smell of your own hatband.
He saw the horses, rolling their dark eyes till the whites showed, baring their yellow teeth, laying back their angry ears, rippling a shoulder or a flank nervously, switching a tense tail. Hunching under the feel of the saddle in the chute, tensing every muscle as you let yourself down into the saddle, felt for the stirrups. The big horses, long-legged, bow-necked. The blocky ones, short-coupled, big in the barrel, hard-muscled in the hips and shoulders. The bawlers, the squealers, the silent ones that saved their wind for the bucking.
He felt the tightness in his belly as he sat in the saddle, braced, just before the gate opened. The quiver in his legs, spurs hooked just ahead of the horse’s shoulders. That first lunge, the jab of the cantle in the small of his back, the thrust of the pommel in his lower guts. The feel of the horse you got through the rein, taut in your left hand. The feel of his ribs beneath your calves, his shoulders beneath your thighs. The feel of the stirrups, the rake of the spurs, die rhythm. The jolt of the ground through the horse’s stiff legs, like a hammer blow at the base of your spine. The way a horse eases off just before the ten-second horn; the way another horse makes a final, desperate lunge just as you relax. The bellow of the horn, the grab for the pickup man, the vault from the saddle. The feel of the ground again, the ride done and over, and the weakness of your knees. The exhilaration, the sense of mastery. The contest won, not over the other riders but over the horse, the violence, the eleme
The sun was beating at him. The arena lay hot and quiet, only the few loafers there at the chutes, still talking, still laughing at the same old woman-jokes. The empty stands around him.
He left the stands, went back to the hotel.
RED WAS UP AND dressed. “Where have you been?” he demanded truculently.
“Out at the arena,” Tom said, “looking at the broncs.”
“They’ve all got four legs, haven’t they?” Red was blear-eyed with a hangover and in an ugly mood.
Tom didn’t answer him.
“Get over being tired? You’d damn well better. I’ve paid your entry fee and we’re going for broke. I’m setting up the deadfall, so start figuring how to lose the first go-round and make it look good.”
Tom shook his head. “No, Red.”
“What did you say?”
“No. Bet it straight.”
Red gasped. “Who the hell’s giving the orders around here? I said I’m setting up the deadfall!”
“No, I’m going to—”
“Don’t you say no to me!”
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes