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When the legends die, p.17
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       When the Legends Die, p.17

           Hal Borland
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  Tom put a hand on his shoulder. “ Boys grow up. Come help bring in the groceries, Meo.”

  Meo went with him to the car and they carried the cartons into the cabin. Tom set the jars and boxes on the table and Meo examined the label on each one, just as though he could read, before he put them carefully on the shelves beside the fireplace. When they had finished he said, “Get the cups,” and he poured coffee and they sat down and looked at each other.

  Finally Meo said, “You have been gone a long time. Too long. Tomorrow we finish harvesting the frijoles.”

  Tom tried to tell him about the big circuit, where he had been, what he had done, and especially about Albuquerque, which he was sure Meo would understand. But Meo only waited for a pause long enough to say, “And next week we harvest the chilies.”

  Before he went to bed that night Tom went out and hid all his money but ten dollars in his car. Sometime during the night he wakened and saw Meo going through the pockets of his pants, but the ten dollars was still there the next morning.

  Tom helped with the beans for three days and they got them all harvested and threshed. The third evening Tom said he was leaving the next morning. Meo seemed to pay no attention, but at breakfast the next morning he said, “You come, you go, just like him.” He smiled, wryly. Tom finished eating, put on his coat and hat, and said, “I’ll be back late in November, Meo.” And the old man said, “Vaya con Dios,” then added, “y el diablo.” It was his farewell, “Go with God, and the devil,” and Tom didn’t know, or much care, whether it was a blessing or a curse.

  He caught up with the circuit, rode it through, week by week, till the last week in November, then called it a season and went home. He felt entitled to a month’s rest.

  Meo made no pretense of not knowing him. He gloated over the groceries, as before, then set out the coffee. “Now you come back to stay?” he asked.

  “For a month or so.”


  “Then I go back, ride some more.”

  “You win this time?”

  “Sometimes I won, sometimes I didn’t. It was a pretty good season.” There was no reason to tell Meo that he had been named the best first-year man on the circuit.

  Meo peered at him, speculating. “You bring a bottle?”

  Tom knew what Meo was thinking. He had stopped out on the flats, before he came down to the cabin, and hidden most of his money in the car. “No bottle,” he said. Then he reached in his pocket and drew out two hundred dollars in tens. He spread them on the table, divided then into two equal piles and pushed one pile over to Meo. Meo counted it, then asked, “This is what you win?”

  “That’s your share. And,” he added, “you don’t have to roll me for it.”

  Meo folded the money carefully and put it into his pocket. He shrugged, smiling to himself. “We do not tell all we know, eh? We are of the old people, you and me.” He chuckled, then got up and set out bowls and dished out beans and chili. “Eat,” he ordered. “The frijoles are good, big and strong. They make a big rumble, bigger than you make.”

  Tom stayed a month, then packed his gear and was on his way again, back to Odessa and the big circuit. He was a second-year man now. He took up where he had left off, won the number-two purse in the first show, then took top money in the next one. Nobody could win them all, but if his luck held he would break the tradition that a good first year is always followed by a poor second season.

  For three months he was in the money in every show, and rodeo people began to say that Tom Black was on his way to the championship, something practically unheard of for a second-year man. Then in May he began to override the horses, pressing too hard. He finished out of the money in one show, took fifth place in the next, then was thrown for the first time that season. And realized that he had been playing to the crowd, trying to overpower every horse he straddled. He eased off and began to win again.

  Then it was June, hot, sweaty June. The heat never bothered Tom, but it seemed either to slow down the horses or make them extra mean, depending on the horse. His first go-round horse was the mean kind, but he rode it clean and hard. For the second go-round he drew a horse he knew, one he had ridden six weeks before. It was a ducker and dodger that bucked a tight pattern close to the chutes.

  As he saddled up he decided to power it from the start, try to work it out away from the chutes, then give it its head and let it give him the worst it had. He resined his chaps, dried his hands, eased into the saddle and measured his rein. The announcement blared. “Coming out of Number Two Chute, on Nightmare, Tom Black!”

  The gate swung open. The crowd roared. The horse lunged out in the pattern Tom remembered, three quick jumps, then a duck and a dodge. He powered its head around to the left, to prevent its spin to the right and back toward the chutes. It made another lunge, tried to duck, and he powered it again, and it seemed to go crazy. It reared, danced, squealed wildly, then lunged right, toward the chutes, lunged again.

  Number One Chute was empty, its gate swung back, a helper holding it. As the horse lunged toward the chutes, the helpers scattered. The horse plunged against the open gate, struck it with its shoulder. There was a crash and a splintering of planks and the broken gate swung loose. Tom tried to power the horse into the open, but it lunged wildly, reared, plowed into the broken gate and struck the chute full force. Tom, fighting the rein, was thrown heavily against the chute.

  The horse screamed, kicked madly. Men shouted. The crowd groaned. Tom, on the ground inside the empty chute, saw blood spurting. In the lunge that threw him, the horse had impaled itself on a splintered plank. A sliver broad as a man’s hand had pierced the horse’s chest like a huge bayonet, then broken off. Still screaming, the horse went down, hoofs flailing, frantic head pounding the ground.

  Pain stabbed through Tom’s chest and he was gasping for breath, but he pulled himself to his feet and reached for the chute to steady himself. A new stab shot up his right arm. Then an official pushed through the milling riders and helpers and held a pistol to the doomed horse’s head. The roar of the mercy shot was like a jagged prong through Tom’s chest. The horse let out all its breath in one last long gasp, then relaxed, dead.

  Someone was shouting in Tom’s ear, “You hurt?” He turned and saw a youngish sandy-haired man with a black bag, the arena doctor.

  Tom said, “No. Just… shook up.”

  The doctor watched his face, saw his quick gasps for breath. “Can you walk, or shall I call a stretcher?”

  “I’ll walk.”

  They went to the first-aid room and the doctor stripped back Tom’s shirt and made a quick examination. He loaded a syringe, jabbed it in Tom’s left arm. “This will ease the pain. Your right arm’s broken and probably a few ribs.” He turned to an older man. “ I want X rays of his right arm and his chest. I’ll be at the hospital by the time they’ve got the pictures.”

  Half an hour later Tom was in a hospital bed and the doctor was splinting his arm. “The radius is broken,” he said, “the big bone. But the ulna’s all right.” He reached for the tape. “And you’ve got four broken ribs. I’ll have to tape you. That’s all I can do for them. But you’re going to lie here a few days till we see how your guts are.” He gave him another shot. “You’re through riding for a while. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  The next day they took more X rays, and they kept him quiet with sedatives for three days. The fourth morning he refused all medication, and, when the doctor came in, Tom had his pants and his boots on and was trying to get into his shirt. “ What do you think you’re doing?” the doctor demanded.

  “I’m getting out of here.”

  “All right. I came in to tell you you’re all right inside, no internal injuries. But you can’t go back to rodeoing till that arm knits. A couple of months or so. Where are you going?”

  “I’m going home.”

  “Where do you live?”

  “New Mexico.”

  “How are you going to get there?”


  “Who’s going with you?”


  “You’re going to drive to New Mexico with one arm?”

  “Why not?”

  “Tough as rawhide, aren’t you, and stubborn as all hell.” The doctor stripped the tape from Tom’s chest. “These ribs will be sore for a while and it will hurt to take a deep breath. But they’re knitting. I’m telling you, though, stay off a horse for two months. Understand? And have a doctor look at that arm when you get home.”

  So Tom left the hospital. He got his car and his gear and headed west.


  IT WAS MIDAFTERNOON WHEN he came to the bluff and looked down at the cabin. In that first look he had the uneasy feeling that something was wrong. He drove on down the slope, parked the car and went to the cabin. He pushed open the door and saw that no one was there. He went out to the garden, found the beans and chilies choked by knee-high weeds, and returned to the cabin. Meo’s bunk was made, the cooking pots were empty and clean, the dishes washed and in their places. Whatever happened, Meo had left the cabin in order. He went out to the barn. It was empty and Meo’s saddle was missing.

  Tom got in his car again and drove to Aztec. He went to Dr. Wilson’s house, banged on the door and walked into the empty waiting room. The doctor came out of his office and exclaimed, “Tom Black!” and reached out to shake hands, then saw the splinted arm. “What happened to you?”

  “Just a broken bone or two. Where’s Meo? Have you see him? That’s what I came about.”

  “Come on into the office.”

  They went in and sat down, and the doctor said, “Meo is dead.”

  “When?” Tom asked. “What happened?”

  “About a month ago. He rode into town one afternoon and came to the office and sat out there in the waiting room for an hour, I guess, before I saw him. I brought him in here and asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘I am going to die.’ He didn’t look sick to me, but I took his pulse and blood pressure. They were normal. I couldn’t find anything wrong.”

  “How was his mind?”

  “Clear as a bell. I told him to go home and forget it, that he’d live another twenty years. But he just shook his head and said, ‘No. Tonight,’ like that, just as if he knew all about it. And he gave me a roll of bills and said I should see that he was buried right, with a coffin and a priest. Then I asked him if he had seen the priest, and he said no, so I took him over to the rectory and Father Gomez said he would take care of him. He sent a boy back to get the old man’s horse and I figured Father Gomez would listen to him, put him up for the night, and the next morning he would stop in, pick up his money and go on home, satisfied.”

  The doctor paused for a moment. Then he went on. “The next morning, while I was eating breakfast, a boy came and said Father Gomez wanted me to come right over, so I went. Meo was dead. Father Gomez had put him up for the night and he’d died quietly in his sleep.” He looked at Tom, frowning, baffled. “That’s the story. I wish now I’d done an autopsy, but I’d swear there wasn’t anything wrong with him. His heart was as good as mine!”

  “He knew,” Tom said.

  “What do you mean, he knew?”

  Tom shrugged.

  “I’ve known some of these old people to wish themselves to death, but that was when they were dying anyway. He wasn’t sick! I’m telling you, he wasn’t sick.”

  Tom made no comment. Dr. Wilson shifted uneasily in his chair. “Anyway, I gave the money to Father Gomez and he arranged the funeral. Did it up right. So,” he concluded, “that’s what happened. … Now, let’s have a look at that arm of yours.”

  He examined the arm, said it was knitting nicely, and readjusted the splints and bandages. He probed Tom’s chest with his fingers, listened to it, and said as he put away his stethoscope, “Young bones knit fast. What are you going to do now?”

  “Go out to the place till this arm’s all right.”

  “That’ll be another month. Better let me have a look at it again next week. You all through rodeoing?”


  The doctor looked at him, speculating. “I’d think you’d want to settle down. You could buy that place cheap, I imagine. Put a little herd of sheep out there, or a few cattle—”

  But Tom was shaking his head.

  “Look,” the doctor said, “I know you’re a reservation boy, but you’re smart and you could make something of yourself. You saw what happened to Dillon and old Meo. Dillon was a tinhorn gambler who drank himself to death. Meo Martinez was an illiterate Mexican just two steps away from ajacal. He still believed in espiritn. But you’ve got a chance, if you’ll take it.”

  He stopped, wondering if he had said too much. Tom seemed to have retreated into himself. You talk to a Mexican that way and he smiles and nods and seems to agree, even though he goes out and does things the way he always has. But time after time he had seen an Indian just sort of draw the curtains and retreat, as though he was slipping back into the remote past, into a kind of pride that was all mixed up with hurt and resentment. Tom Black was doing that right now, retreating into an emotional cave. When that happened there wasn’t a thing you could do. You could talk yourself blue in the face and get nowhere.

  The doctor shrugged. “Well,” he said, “it’s your life. As George Herbert said, ‘The wearer knows where the shoe wrings.’ We’ve got our own demons and our own necessities, I suppose. There may even be a pattern all laid out for us. Who knows?” He got to his feet. “Come back to see me next week?”

  Tom thanked him and left. What the doctor had said made him remember the agent at the reservation. But he shrugged it off. It was of no consequence. He didn’t want to think about those things.

  He went back to the cabin on the river, aired it out and tried to settle in. But the cabin, for all its familiar corners, was a strange place, alien. For two days he sat in the sun, going inside only to cook his meals and sleep. Then he looked at the garden, at the bean plants and the chilies being choked by the weeds. He was tempted to pull the weeds, as Meo would have done. Then he thought: Meo is gone. His sweat and his footsteps are almost forgotten. If the beans and the chilies cannot live with the weeds, they do not belong here. I do not hate those weeds. I do not belong here either, and now Meo is gone.

  Instead of weeding the garden, he walked, to keep his legs strong. He walked upstream, and five miles up the canyon he saw four of Reds old rough string, the broncs. They were wild as deer, snorted, tossed their heads and ran at sight of him. He walked a few more miles, then went back to the cabin. Neither then nor in the next few days did he see the other broncs or the second saddle horse. They had either wandered off and joined some other horse herd, or a mountain lion had come down the canyon and made a few meals of horse meat. It didn’t matter any more than the garden mattered. They had been Red Dillon’s horses, and Red was gone.

  Two weeks passed before he remembered the doctor. It didn’t seem important to go and see him. His bones would heal. They were his bones, not the doctor’s. He flexed his arm to keep the joints from stiffening, and he took off the bandages and the splints and massaged the muscles, forced the circulation to help the healing. He began using the arm, carefully.

  Then he walked out onto the flats. He saw an occasional jack rabbit and a few pronghorns, and almost every day he saw a prairie falcon hunting ground squirrels. Then he found a small prairie dog town and he sat and watched the prairie dogs and the burrowing owls. He sat there, not thinking, feeling the sun on his back and the strength of the earth beneath him, and vague, cobwebbed memories came back, memories of Albert Left Hand. They drifted through his mind, like shadows, and they left a dull ache that brought back memories of Benny Grayback and Blue Elk. He pushed the memories away and got to his feet and walked back toward the cabin.

  He was a stranger here. He had always been a stranger. All he had here was a hatful of memories. And what did the memories mean? Nothing. Less than nothing. They were like scars. You looked at th
em and remembered old hurts that had healed over.

  He went back to the cabin, and it was a place full of strangeness. He knew every corner, and yet he didn’t belong there. He cooked his supper and ate, and he went outside and sat in the dusk. Bullbats “peened” overhead and dived on roaring wings. The first stars came out and the cool dampness crept in from the river. The afternoon’s memories came back, and he put them away again, and he looked at the corral, its poles now tumbling down, unused, neglected. He looked at the barn, empty, meaningless. Then he saw himself in the corral, learning to ride, to match and master the violence of the fighting, squealing broncs. Learning to punish with raking spurs, a vicious rein, a brutal ride.

  He sat, and the late moon rose, and the shifting shadows and the thin moonlight seemed to set the rails in place again and he saw a deep-set snubbing post and a bear cub chained to it. And in the vague tree-shadowed light the barn became a barn where a boy who hated the smell of cows was forced to clean the stinking stalls, where a tormented boy was flogged for turning on his tormentors.

  He sat there a long time. It was almost midnight. He shifted his legs and felt the cramps in them, and the ache was in his arm. He got to his feet, eased the cramps and rubbed the ache, and then he went to his car, got in and drove it over to the foot of the bluff and left it there. He came back to the cabin and got an ax and a handful of matches and went out to the corral. He carried the fallen rails and piled them against the barn and he loosened the other rails with the ax and added them to the pile. Then he went into the barn, started at the far end and set a series of fires in the litter of old hay, and went back and sat down in front of the cabin.

  The barn was tinder dry. Within fifteen minutes the flames were leaping through the roof. Then the roof fell in with a roar and a great billowing of embers. Some of the embers came all the way to the cabin and hissed and smoldered on the roof and died in the night dampness there. The grass, midsummer green and wet with river dew, steamed like fog in the blast of heat and shriveled and charred in a great circle around the barn and halfway to the cabin. The big cottonwoods rustled, and those near the barn sizzled and spat and set up little spurts of flame all along their coarse-barked branches.

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