When the Legends Die, p.15Hal Borland
“I’m going to ride this one clean and for keeps.”
“Why, you dirty, lousy, double-crossing little Indian bastard!” Red made a lunge at him.
Tom sidestepped the blow and knocked Red down. He scrambled to his feet and Tom knocked him down again. Red was slower getting up that time and Tom turned and left the room. Red didn’t follow. Tom went downstairs, through the lobby and out onto the street where he walked for half an hour, letting his anger cool. Then it was almost noon so he went into a cafe and had a bowl of chili. When he had eaten he went back to the hotel room.
Red wasn’t there. Tom waited ten minutes, then went out to the rodeo grounds, got his gear, checked the saddle and took it out to the chutes. Red was nowhere in sight.
He had drawn the number-four ride so he sat down in the shade of the chutes and waited. Then his horse was in the chute, a short-coupled black with rolling eyes and quick movements. There still was no sign of Red, and when an old man with a gimpy leg asked if he wanted help saddling up, Tom said, “Yes, I can use some help.”
The old man held the horse’s head down while Tom set the saddle in place. He tightened the cinches, shook the saddle, let off a notch on the back cinch, took up a notch on the front one. “He’s a fast bucker,” the old man said. “Don’t give him too much rein.” Tom nodded and hitched up his chaps. He let himself down into the saddle and the old man handed him the rein. The first two rides were over and the third rider got the signal and went out on a hard-bucking bay. Tom glanced up, then looked for Red once more. Still no sight of him. He laced the rein through his fingers.
The third rider was over. Tom saw the rider limping back to the chutes, slapping at the dust on his shirt, and knew he had been thrown. Then the announcer bellowed, “Coming out of Chute Number Three, on Black Star—Tom Black!” The bucking strap was jerked tight, Tom set his spurs and braced himself. The gate swung open and the bronc lunged into the arena.
For the first few jumps Tom didn’t know whether he could make it or not. Then something happened inside. He wasn’t riding a bronc. He was riding a hurt, a hate. He had walked away from Red Dillon this morning because, though he hated him, he didn’t want to kill him. Now he wanted to hurt and maim. All his tiredness was gone. His timing came back, all his skill. He raked and gouged with his spurs. He fought every pitch and lunge, punished the horse every way he could. And the horse fought back.
The stands roared, but Tom didn’t hear them. He didn’t even hear the ten-second horn. His spurs kept gouging and the horse kept fighting. Then the pickup man was yelling, “Time! Time, you damn fool!” He grabbed the rein and Tom automatically reached for his shoulder, swung out of the saddle and pivoted off the pickup man’s horse onto the ground.
He unbuckled and stepped out of his chaps and went back to the chutes. A waiting rider asked, “What are you trying to do? Kill off the livestock?” Then he saw the look in Tom’s eyes and turned away, silent.
They brought his saddle and Tom left the arena, not waiting to hear the score for the round. He had made his ride. The score didn’t matter.
He went back to the hotel. Red was there on the bed, deep in a drunken sleep. Tom started to leave the room, then turned back and went through Red’s pockets. He found more than seven hundred dollars. He took all but ten dollars, then went back downstairs. He walked along the street and came to a candy store. On impulse, he went in, bought a bag of gumdrops, and went on up the street, his mouth full of candy. He came to a clothing store, its windows full of bright shirts, neckerchiefs, Levi’s, jackets, boots. He stared at the display. He started to walk on, then saw himself in a corner mirror in the window. He stopped and stared, unbelieving, as though seeing himself for the first time. With his beat-up old hat, his long, ragged hair down on his shirt collar, his faded work shirt and his worn Levi’s, he looked like an overgrown reservation kid. He stared for several minutes, then looked at the clothes in the window again.
He went inside and he bought a whole new outfit, cream-colored hat, pink-striped silk shirt, purple neckerchief, copper-riveted Levi’s, fancy-stitched boots. He put everything on, left his old clothes in the fitting room, and paid the clerk. As he started to leave, the clerk said, “If those boots pinch, come back and—“
Tom dashed back into the fitting room and salvaged his old boots, the one thing a bronc rider never throws away. You feel the horse, sense every move he makes, through your feet in the stirrups, through your old, soft, worn boots. New boots are stiff, hard, slick in the stirrups.
The clerk wrapped the old boots for him. “Throw everything else away?” he asked. Tom nodded. “Now,” the clerk said with a smile, “all you need is a barber.”
Out on the street, Tom saw a barber’s striped pole. He went in and sat in a barber chair for the first time in his life. When the man in the white coat had finished, Tom just sat there, staring at himself in the mirror. The barber grinned at him in the mirror. “You sure needed a shearing,” he said with a laugh.
Tom looked at the man, then at himself in the mirror again. He was no longer a boy. He was a man. He looked like a ranch hand fresh in town, shorn, slicked, and with two months’ wages on his back. He looked to be eighteen or nineteen years old.
Still marveling, he went out on the street again. But he had to get used to this new self. He found a pool hall, went in and chose a stool opposite a big wall mirror. He sat there an hour, vaguely watching the players but mostly looking at himself in the mirror. Then it was suppertime.
He went to a restaurant. The waitress smiled at him. He couldn’t understand why. Waitresses usually gave him one look and turned away, sniffing. The girls back of the counter watched him, talked among themselves, laughed, tried to catch his eye. When he had eaten, the girl at the cash register asked if he had enjoyed his meal, trying to get him to talk, to keep him there at the desk a little longer. But he paid his check and went out.
It was late dusk. As he walked along the street toward the hotel he saw two girls watching him. Wondering what was wrong with him, he paused at a store window, looking for a mirror. One of the girls came and stood beside him, making a show of looking in the window. He glanced at her and she smiled, asked, “Don’t I know you? Isn’t your name—” She paused, her eyes inviting.
He didn’t know what to say. He wanted to run, and yet he wanted to stay.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Tom,” he said, but his tongue was slow and thick. “Tom Black.”
“Tom! Of course! Don’t you remember! I’m Kitty.”
He didn’t know anybody named Kitty.
She put a hand on his arm. “My,” she said softly, “you are sure good-looking. I’ll bet you’re here with the rodeo.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“I just love rodeo men!” She smiled. “And I’m not busy tonight.”
He looked at her again and his sensitive nose caught the scent of strong perfume, a musky smell. His pulse throbbed in his temples. Then he saw the crow’s-feet around her eyes, the slight pouchiness under her chin, the little blotches beneath the make-up on her face. He saw the hard, calculating look in her eyes, the provocative smile on her lips. And he knew what she was. He turned away.
She caught his arm again, pressed her body against him. “Tom, honey, don’t go away. I’ve got a room—”
He pushed her from him and hurried up the street to the hotel. He got the key at the desk, went up to the room, hoping Red would be there. The room was empty.
He went to the window, looked out, then turned off the light and stood at the window a long time, letting his pulse throb and slowly ebb. There was only one thing that mattered to him-—the arena, the battle with the broncs. Deliberately he went back over his ride today. It was a good ride, clean, skillful, with perfect timing. He was tired now, very tired. But tomorrow he would ride again. His draw was a leggy bay called Sleepwalker. A big horse, probably as mean as they come. Which suited him right down to the ground. Mean horse, spectacular ride.
And after a little while, dog-tired, he went to bed.
HE SLEPT LATE, AND when he wakened there still was no sign of Red. He went down and ate a leisurely breakfast, went out to the arena and killed the morning doing nothing. He ate the noon meal near the arena, then got his gear and went out to the chutes for the second go-round.
The old man who had helped him the day before came looking for Tom again, didn’t recognize him at first with the haircut and the new clothes. Then he grinned, whistled softly, hunkered down beside Tom and watched the calf ropers. “What happened to your redheaded sidekick?” he asked. Tom shrugged and made no answer. The old man asked no more questions.
Tom had drawn next to the last ride for the go-round. Even in the chute, while he was being saddled, Sleepwalker was just as mean as Tom had thought. When the gate swung open Sleepwalker put on a spectacular battle, and Tom made one of the best, most brutal rides of his life—rough, hard and punishing. The crowd didn’t recognize him at first, then remembered his ride of the day before and began to applaud. Then it fell silent, awed at the cold viciousness and superb skill Tom showed. The horn blew and the crowd exploded in a roar of cheers. The horse was snorting bloody foam as the pickup men rode up and Tom pivoted out of the saddle. He kicked out of his chaps and went back to the chutes, the crowd still roaring, and the men at the chutes stepped back, making way, watching him in silence. Even the old man with the gimpy leg said nothing.
Then the last ride made his ride and the day’s totals were announced. Tom Black was top man again. He was packing his gear when the head judge, a gaunt old-timer with a white mustache, came over and said, “You’ve got a crawful of cockle-burs, son. Any special reason?”
Tom looked at him and shrugged.
“What are you trying to do? Kill yourself, or kill every horse you straddle?”
“ I rode clean, didn’t I ?” Tom demanded.
The judge sucked his teeth a moment. “Look, son, forget it, whatever it is. Yes, you rode clean. You could be a champion in the big time, maybe. But if you keep on the way you’re going you won’t live to see the day.”
“Does it matter?” Tom asked.
The judge saw the look in his eyes and walked away.
Late that night, around midnight, there was a banging at the door. Tom roused slowly, went to the door expecting Red to lurch in. Instead, there stood the gimpy-legged old man. “Your redheaded partner,” he said, “is in the hoosegow.”
“Drunk as a fiddler’s bitch.”
“You going to leave him there?”
Tom closed the door and went back to bed.
The next morning he went to the stable and looked at the two saddle horses, debated for several minutes, then went out to the truck and trailer. He unhitched the trailer and drove the truck downtown to a garage. He traded it in on a secondhand black Buick convertible, paying the difference from the money he had taken from Red’s pockets. He had them put the trailer hitch on the Buick, loaded the saddles and bedrolls in the car’s trunk, and drove back to the livery stable. He hitched on the trailer and left the outfit parked there while he ate lunch. Then he went to the arena for the final go-round.
He won the finals with the same kind of all-out horse- killing ride he had made twice before, and he clinched top spot in the averages by a big margin. The old man helped him pack his gear, then went with him to the office to get his purse money. He gave the old man twenty-five dollars; then they went to the livery stable, loaded the horses in the trailer, and Tom drove downtown and parked at the jail. The jailer sent him to a justice of the peace and Tom paid Red’s fine and got an order for his release. Red was still in a drunken stupor in a cell, but the jailer helped Tom wrap him in a blanket and load him into the back seat of the Buick. Then Tom headed for home.
He drove till about ten o’clock that night, then pulled off die road, got a blanket for himself, and slept in the front seat till dawn. Red was still dead to the world when Tom took to the road again. It was late morning before Tom heard him groaning and glanced back to see him hunched on the back seat, holding his head in both hands. Another half hour and Red tried to climb over into the front seat. He almost fell out, and Tom stopped the car long enough to let Red get in beside him.
Red’s hands were shaky and his face was the color of an old gray blanket with two smoldering spark holes for eyes. He licked his dry lips and asked, his eyes shut, “Where are we?”
“We passed Fort Stockton a little way back.”
Red opened his eyes and looked at Tom, then closed them tight before he looked again. His mouth fell open. “My God! Who are you?” He stared and licked his lips again. “You are Tom, aren’t you?” Then he grinned, a silly grin. “You got a haircut. And a pink shirt. You goddam dude!”
Tom drove in silence.
Finally Red asked, “What happened?”
“I paid your fine and got you out of jail.”
“That’s right. They locked me up. Got to fighting, I guess.”
Another silence. Then Red looked around, felt the upholstery, put his hand on the dash, and asked, “Whose car is this?”
Red tried to turn and look behind, but winced and held his head between his hands. “What’d you do? Sell the horses and the trailer?”
“No. They’re hitched on. I didn’t even sell your saddle.”
“Good.” Then Red asked, “You ride?”
“You win?” 1 won.
Red straightened up, felt in his pockets. He searched them, one by one. Finally he said, “Somebody rolled me.”
“After the first go-round.”
“I must have still had a pretty good wad, didn’t I?”
“Quite a bit.”
Red was silent a long time. At last he said, “Meo used to roll me. I don’t know how much that old chili-eater took off of me, but plenty. Now you’re doing it.” He shook his head, winced again, covered his eyes with his hands. “I never could save a dime,” he said. “Somebody always took it off of me. When I was a kid it was my old man. When he didn’t have field work for me he hired me out, then took my wages. Then it was Doc Barlow. He paid me a dollar every Saturday, and if I didn’t spend it before bedtime he stole it out of my pants. Then it was Meo. Now it’s you.” Red wasn’t complaining. He was stating sad, unemotional fact.
They went through Pecos and kept going northwest. The sign said Carlsbad was 85 miles ahead. The Delaware Mountains loomed off to the left, on the skyline, with the Guadalupes beyond, to the north.
Red sat staring ahead, unseeing. Finally he said, “Doc Barlow had billy-goat whiskers and he wore a top hat and a fancy vest and a big gold watch chain across his belly. No watch, just that chain. I ran away from home and was a twelve-year-old squirt working for my keep at the Madisonville livery barn, and Doc Barlow came to town and gave me a job helping him sell Kickapoo Elixir. Great stuff, that elixir. Half raw corn liquor, half branch water and strong coffee, with a handful of quinine in every tubful to make it taste bad. We bottled it and sold it at every crossroads in south Texas.”
He sat in silence several miles, then went on. “We sold Kickapoo Elixir two years hand-running. Then the Doc turned to revivaling. And working cures by laying on hands. He preached the loudest sermons you ever heard, and I passed the hat. But it was laying on of hands he was best at, especially with the women. The young, pretty ones, mostly. Then one night he laid hands on the wrong woman, and her man caught him at it. After that I had to take a job as a cowhand. Till I met up with Meo and took to rodeoing.” He sighed. “If Doc Barlow had just stuck to the elixir
He looked at Tom again. “We’d have made a fortune, back there in Uvalde County, if you hadn’t got so stiff-necked, Tom.”
“You won, you said?” 1 won.
“I guess you’re getting pretty good, Tom.”
Another silence. Then Red said, “We’ll go home and rest up. Then after the hot weather we’ll go to California.”
“We could clean up, out in California.”
“No, Red. I’m through with that. All through.”
“What you got in mind, Tom?”
“I’m riding for keeps, from here on.”
“The big time?”
Red sighed. “Always wanted to see that Odessa show. And Fort Worth, and Texarkana.” He reached for the big names. “Nampa, Torrance, Wolf Point, Calgary, Denver, Albuquerque.” He was silent again. Then he said, “I’m glad you didn’t sell my saddle, Tom. Fellow sells his saddle, he’s just about at the end of his rope.”
The spidery legs of a water tower, sign of a small town, were visible on the skyline eight or ten miles ahead. Red saw the tower and said, “Could you maybe stop up there, Tom, and let me get a bottle of the old elixir? I’ve got a hell of a hangover.”
Red reached in his pocket, found nothing there, glanced at Tom, then sat disconsolate. When they reached the edge of town Tom slowed up and eased down the dusty street till he came to the local bar and grill. He parked and gave Red a five-dollar bill. Red went in, was gone five minutes, and came back with his bottle.
Then they went on home.
JULY PASSED, AND AUGUST, simmering hot. September came and Red wanted to go somewhere, do something, find a rodeo or a poker game, anything for excitement. “Just a couple of shows,” he urged Tom. “Keep you sharp for next spring.” But Tom said no.
Red became surly, then silent. He finally saddled a horse and rode away. He was gone a week, came back with a hangover and was mean as a rabid coyote. Tom and Meo ignored him and harvested the beans and chilies, and September passed.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes