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When the legends die, p.16
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       When the Legends Die, p.16

           Hal Borland
 
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  October came, and first frost. Tom brought in the horses and spent a week working with them in the corral. Red, Meo said, was still malo, meaning either sick or mean, or both, but he came out to the corral and growled, “Damn shame, you doing this when you could be riding for money and both of us having fun.” Tom paid no attention to Red. When he felt that he was doing something wrong he asked Meo. Meo said, “You work too hard. Save your arm,” and when Tom asked what he meant, Meo pointed out that he tended to power the rhythm horses. It was a shrewd observation. You powered the duckers and dodgers that kept changing rhythm, but the pattern buckers didn’t need all that pressure on the rein. You rode with them, not against them.

  He rode the rough string until he had satisfied himself. Then, the last week in October, Red rode off again. At dusk a week later a stranger rode down to the cabin, a little dark man on a scrawny mouse-colored horse. Tom went out to see what he wanted, but the man spoke little English. Tom called Meo. They talked in Spanish and Tom heard Red’s name several times. Finally Tom asked, “What’s the matter with Red? Trouble?”

  “He is sick, this man says,” Meo told him.

  “Did he get shot, or carved up?”

  Meo shook his head. “Sick.” He patted his belly. “Very sick.”

  “Where is he?”

  “Aztec. In the hotel there.”

  Tom went back into the cabin, got his hat and coat. When he came out, Meo and the stranger were at the barn saddling a horse for him. “No, Meo,” Tom said. “I’ll take the car. It’s quicker.”

  “I forgot,” Meo said. Then he said, “Wait!” and hurried to the cabin. Tom started the car’s motor, and Meo came back and handed him a roll of bills. “Get the doctor,” he said.

  It was dusk and the road was only a trail, but Tom knew every turn, every gully. He made the thirty miles to Aztec in less than an hour, parked in front of the hotel and went in to the desk. A little, bald man was there. “Where’s Red Dillon?” Tom asked.

  The man looked up, frowning. “You come to get him out of here?”

  “Where is he?” Tom demanded.

  The man’s white eyebrows jumped. He jerked his head toward the stairway and then came around the counter. “I don’t like them to die in my beds. It’s bad for business. You going to pay his bill?”

  “I’ll pay what he owes.”

  They went upstairs and along the hallway and the man jerked a thumb toward a door. Then he turned and hurried off.

  The room was dark, but by the faint glow from its one window Tom saw a bed and someone in it. He moved toward it and stumbled over a chair.

  “Who’s there?” It was Red’s voice, hoarse and rasping.

  “Me. Tom. Where’s the lamp?”

  “On the dresser, over there.”

  Tom found the lamp, lighted it, and in the glow saw the chipped iron bed, the grayish sheet, the worn brown blanket, the streaked yellow wallpaper. And Red, his face gaunt and dark with a week’s stubble, his eyes deep-sunken, red-rimmed. His hands lay listless.

  “What happened to you?”

  “I’m a sick man, Tom. Doc Wilson—“ He gasped, caught a shallow breath. “Take me home. Don’t let me die in this rat hole.”

  Tom took one of Red’s hands. The fingers gripped his with desperate strength. They felt hot. “How long have you been sick?”

  “I lost track.” Red tried to sit up, sank back on the dirty pillow. “Help me put on my pants and take me home.”

  “Pretty soon. After I see the doctor.”

  Red’s eyes lighted in anger. He pushed Tom’s hand away. “Just like the rest of them!” He tried for a jeering snarl, managed only a whine. “God damn all of you!” Then he reached for Tom’s hand again and his fingers worked convulsively. “I didn’t mean that, Tom. I didn’t mean it.” He pushed Tom’s hand away again and growled, “Go on. Get the hell out. I don’t need you, or anybody else!” He lay wheezing for a moment, frowning in pain. Then he whispered, “But come back, Tom. Come back and take me home.”

  Tom went downstairs. The man at the desk said Doc Wilson lived two blocks down, in the white house. Tom found the house, went in the door marked “Office” without knocking.

  A thin, dark man with a florid face sat in his shirt sleeves at a rolltop desk littered with pill bottles, rolls of bandage and adhesive tape, bottles of dark medicine. He was smoking a handmade cigarette and flakes of tobacco polka-dotted his shirt front. He looked up, scowling. “Who are you? What do you want?” His voice was a tired growl.

  “I’m Tom Black. I want to find out how sick Red Dillon is?”

  The doctor took a deep puff on the cigarette, slowly let out the smoke, then dropped the butt into a cracked soup bowl already overflowing. He stamped out the coal with his thumb and wiped it on his blue serge pants. “Dillon,” he said, “has a bad heart, his kidneys are riddled, his liver is shot to hell, and he’s got a double hernia. That answer your question?”

  “Is he going to die?”

  “Yes.”

  “How soon?”

  The doctor shrugged. “I saw him three hours ago and figured he’d be dead by dark. He’s still alive, I take it.”

  “Yes. I’m going to take him home.”

  “You’ll have a corpse before you get halfway there.”

  But Tom had turned toward the door.

  “Wait a minute, son,” the doctor said.

  Tom paused. Doctor Wilson got up, wearily shouldered into his coat and put on his hat. “I’ll go with you, have another look.” He picked up his black bag, tucked in the dangling stethoscope and snapped it shut.

  They went back to the hotel, ignored the man at the desk and went up to Red’s room.

  Only Red’s eyes moved as they came in. He watched them a moment, his eyes vague, then rasped, “Where’s Meo? Tell the old chili-eater to make a fresh pot of coffee. Got a hell of a hangover.” He lifted one hand, let it fall limply and licked his lips.

  Tom glanced at the doctor, who took the stethoscope from his bag, thrust the ends into his ears and held the diaphragm to Red’s chest. “Leave me alone,” Red growled, gasping. He lifted a hand, tried to push the stethoscope away. The doctor stepped back, slowly shaking his head.

  Tom took Red s hand. It clutched desperately. Then Red’s eyes seemed to clear. “Take me home, Tom,” he ordered. He tried to sit up. Tom put an arm around him, supporting him, and Red stared at him and whispered, “Better luck next time.” He swallowed hard and his eyes closed, then opened again as with a great effort. His lips moved, whispering again, and Tom leaned close. “Game’s over,” Red said. Then Tom couldn’t catch the words until Red gasped, “… dirty deal.” Then the breath seemed to ease out of him.

  Tom let him back gently onto the pillow. He glanced at the doctor, who held the stethoscope to Red’s chest a moment, waited, listened again. “That’s it,” he said. “He’s gone.” And he drew the sheet up over the lifeless face.

  They went downstairs. The man at the desk looked up, questioning. “He’s dead,” the doctor said.

  “Goddam it!” the man cried. “Another bed ruined, and—“

  “Shut your foul mouth,” the doctor snapped. “Isn’t there any decency in you?”

  “Where’s the room key?” the man asked sullenly.

  “In my pocket. And if anybody goes in that room before the undertaker comes, you’ll answer to me.” He turned to the door. “Come on,” he said to Tom, and they went out into the street.

  Tom hesitated. “I’d better go back and pay for the room.”

  Dr. Wilson put a hand on his arm. “Let the damn fool wait. I’m the coroner, and I’m running things now. Where’s your horse?”

  “I drove in.” Tom nodded toward his car.

  The doctor got in and they drove back to his house. “Come on in,” he ordered.

  They went into the doctor’s office and he got a bottle and two glasses from a cabinet, poured two drinks. He handed one to Tom, said, “You can use this,” then lifted his glass and said
, “A los muertos, as they say.” He took a gulp, then glanced at Tom. “But you’re not Mexican, are you? No. Well, anyway, to the dead. Just like the rest of us, he didn’t want to die. And, like the rest of us, he was mortal.” He sat down at his desk and deliberately rolled a cigarette, brushed the spilled tobacco from his shirt front and struck a match. He smoked for a moment, then said, “Weren’t you the kid Dillon used to take the gambling crowd to a cleaning at the rodeo here a few years back?”

  “Yes.”

  “What do you do now?”

  “I’m a bronc rider.”

  “You any good?”

  “I’m a good rider.”

  The doctor nodded, then sighed and took another gulp from his glass. “At your age, we’re all good. Or think we are. Then life catches up with us, no matter who we are.” He sat silent a long moment, then said, “I suppose Dillon didn’t leave a dime.”

  “I guess not.”

  “Just that hideout of his, out on the river. He didn’t even own that. Or didn’t you know? Just a squatter. He have any livestock out there?”

  “A few bad horses, buckers. That’s all.” Then Tom realized what the doctor was saying. “I’ll pay to bury him,” he said.

  The doctor looked at him, surprised, but all he said was, “I guess he deserves a coffin and a prayer. He was a human being, no matter what else. Want me to notify the undertaker?”

  “Yes.”

  “What are you going to do now?”

  “Go home and tell Meo.”

  “I mean from here on. Get a job as a cowhand, or a wrangler?”

  “I’m going down to Odessa the first of the year, to ride.”

  “Rodeo?”

  Tom nodded, and die doctor glanced at him and said,

  “ ‘Time is the rider that breaks youth.’ ” He slowly shook his head. “A man named George Herbert said that almost three hundred years ago, and it’s still true. Most of us are a long time learning it.” He sat silent, considering, as though wanting to say more. Then he said again, softly, “A long time learning,” and he sat staring at the glass in his hand.

  Tom set down his glass, half finished, and got to his feet. The doctor looked up, and Tom felt that he was a lonely man, reluctant to see him go. But he got up and went to the door with Tom and out onto the porch. He said, “I’ll get the undertaker.”

  Tom got in his car and started the motor. The doctor was still there on the porch, his head tilted back a little, staring up at the stars. He was still there as Tom drove away.

  Tom drove home, wondering whether Red would care whether he was buried in the graveyard, or out on the flats, or wrapped in a blanket and left in a cave somewhere in the bluffs along the river. Probably the graveyard was best. With a coffin and a prayer, as the doctor said. Maybe Red would be at peace there.

  He went home and found the stranger, the man who had brought the message, still there, asleep in Red’s bunk. He didn’t rouse, but Meo did when Tom went in. Tom told Meo that Red was dead.

  Meo sat up and crossed himself. “So,” he said. He asked no questions. He sat there on his bunk for several minutes, then lay down again, turned his face to the wall and went back to sleep.

  Two days later they buried Red in the dusty little graveyard, just Tom and Meo and the undertaker and his helper and the preacher. The preacher, a tired little pinched-face man in a shabby black suit, said the service by rote and read a short, impersonal prayer. Meo crossed himself and muttered something in Spanish, and Tom whispered part of an old chant in words he had almost forgotten. Then the undertaker’s helper began shoveling the dirt into the grave, the clods thumping hollowly on the black coffin.

  Tom gave the preacher five dollars and would have given him a ride back to town if he had as much as said thank you. He didn’t, so Tom left him to walk or go back with the undertaker. He and Meo drove back into town, paid the doctor and the bill at the hotel. The undertaker had already been paid, before the funeral, so that closed matters. They headed for home.

  Meo sat silent for a long time. Then he said, “It costs money to die.”

  Tom nodded. Most of the money had come from the roll of bills Meo had given him the night they got word Red was sick. Red’s own money, in a way, money that Meo had taken from Red’s pockets. And he thought of Red’s words: “I never could save a dime. Somebody always took it off me.” Well, some of Red’s money went to give him a decent burial.”

  A little later Meo said, “Now it is my place.”

  “Yes,” Tom said. “It’s your place now, Meo.”

  Meo gave him a quick glance, as though surprised at having no argument about it. “When my time comes,” he said, “then it is your place.”

  “Don’t worry about that, Meo. I won’t be here long.”

  “You going away?”

  “I’m going to Odessa in a few more weeks.”

  “Odessa?” The name seemed to mean nothing to Meo.

  “Odessa, Texas. That’s where the big rodeos start the year.”

  “So. You make the big rumble.”

  “I’m going to make the big rumble, yes. Do you want to come along?”

  Meo shook his head. “I rode my horses. I am an old man.”

  It didn’t matter to Tom whether Meo went along or not. Nobody else can live your life for you. You have to ride your own furies.

  He said, more to himself than to Meo, “I’ve got a lot of riding to do.”

  “What?” Meo asked.

  “I’ve got a lot of horses to ride,” Tom said.

  32

  ODESSA WAS JUST A small southwestern Texas town, but because its rodeo opened the season it drew big crowds and long rolls of contestants. Veteran riders and ropers went to Odessa to test their skills and reflexes and weigh them against the inevitability of time. Newcomers went there to see if youth and hunger for glory could outweigh experience in the arena. Many newcomers were weeded out at Odessa. Some persisted a few more weeks, as the circuit moved across the Southwest and crept slowly northward with spring. A few, the fortunate, skillful few, stayed and rode to glory.

  Tom Black was one of the newcomers, and at first he was lost in the detail and the routine. But he found a hotel room, paid his entry fees, studied his draws and had time to appraise the horses and listen to the talk. He had heard most of the talk before, but the horses were new, trained buckers, big, mean, and natural outlaws whose violence was fostered and encouraged. The veteran riders discussed them and swapped stories about them. Tom listened and looked and drew his own conclusions, knowing that all talk ends when you are astraddle a bronc and the chute gate opens.

  He had ridden enough horses, heard enough crowds, been in enough arenas, that he thought he wouldn’t be tense or nervous when his turn came. But his hands were sweating and his legs were quivering as he sat in the saddle awaiting the signal for his first go-round ride. The signal came, the bucking strap was jerked tight, the gate swung open. The horse lunged twice, ducked, the rein slipped and Tom was almost thrown. Fortunately, the horse was a rhythm bucker. Tom recovered and finished the ride clean, but as he walked back to the chutes he knew it was a mediocre ride. He hadn’t been thrown; that was all he could say for himself. But his first ride was over, his first ride in the big time.

  He lay awake that night going over every wrong move he had made, and he did better the next day in the second go-round. But he still was too tense, trying too hard, and he knew it.

  Then in the finals he drew a horse so mean and full of fight that he had no time to think of anything or do anything but ride. For the first time at Odessa, he rode the way he knew he could. When the scores were announced he placed second in the final round, won enough place money to pay his hotel bill. The money mattered little. He had begun to find himself. That did matter.

  The Odessa show closed and he went on to the next show, and the next, and the next. The lists began to thin out as the newcomers dropped out. But Tom Black was still there, doing better in each show. Then, in Fort Worth, he made t
wo spectacular rides and knew the glow of satisfaction, the triumph of mastery. That was the turning point.

  In the next two months he rode eight shows and finished in the money in six of them. The crowds began to know him by name, to watch for him. He was talked of as the best first-year man on the circuit. Then, before he realized it, he began to lose. He finished out of the money in three shows in a row before he remembered Red Dillon’s bitter words: “You start riding for the crowd and you forget what you’re there for.” He was no longer riding to Red’s orders, but he was riding for the crowds, trying to be a hero. He stopped listening for the cheers and became a rider, a man fighting it out with a horse. He began to win again.

  The weeks settled into a pattern. There was the long drive to a strange city, the strange hotel room, the strange arena. There were the events that meant nothing to him, the bull riding, the calf roping, the steer wrestling, the trick riding, sometimes the inconsequentials of a horse show. There was the waiting, the long, dull hours of waiting. Then the one thing that mattered, the bronc riding, the battle between man and horse. Three rides, three brief moments when he came fully to life. Then the pattern started all over again.

  The weeks became months. Summer passed. The circuit reached Albuquerque and for some reason, he didn’t know why, everything went right for him. He drew the worst horses he had drawn all season. His timing was perfect. He made three all-out rides, and he won every go-round, placed top in the averages, took the big purse.

  The night the show ended he decided to skip the next show, drive home and see Meo, take a few days off. The break, he decided, would do him good. The next morning he bought a new car. Then he bought two cartons of groceries and headed for home.

  He reached the cabin in midafternoon. Meo was in the garden, pulling bean vines. When Tom went to greet him the old man peered at him and said, “Who are you? You bring news about Tom?”

  “I am Tom, Meo,” Tom said.

  The old man shook his head. “Tom,” he said, “is a boy, like this,” and he held his hand at shoulder height. Then he bent to pull another bean vine.

 
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