When the Legends Die, p.18Hal Borland
Then the flames began to die down. They slowly subsided into a great bed of coals that winked and hissed and spurted in sudden, angry life. The darkness crept back, now twice as dark as before, with the huge torch burning out. The valley was gray with acrid smoke, held close by the night’s damp air, the smolder of old hay adding its sour stink to the woodsmoke and the smell of charred green cottonwoods.
At last Tom got to his feet and went inside and to bed.
It was midmorning when he wakened. The cabin smelled of smoke and smoldering hay, and the ashes of the barn still fumed and sent up curls of white smoke. He cooked and ate breakfast, then packed his gear. He brought the car to the door, loaded it and took it back and left it at the foot of the bluff. Then he returned to the cabin, split a big armload of kindling and piled it carefully in the middle of the floor. He moved the table and benches over beside it, then set fire to it and went back to his car and sat down in the shade and waited.
The windows began to glow with the flames inside. Then the smoke threaded out through the cracks and began to billow out the doorway. A window fell in and flames reached out and licked at the eaves. The flames burst through die roof and towered, hissing and crackling. When the roof fell in, a great shower of fine white ash was carried high into the air by the blast of heat and, drifting on the breath of a breeze, fell like fine snow around him and on the car, harmless white ashes, fine as dust.
The big cottonwoods beside the house withered and seemed to shrink and curl, and flames crept up their big limbs like hungry red tongues. The trees hissed and spat, then began to pop like gunfire. The weedy garden withered as though under a sudden frost, and the tall weeds crumpled and fell and the whole garden disappeared, leaving only a patch of charred ground. The grass seemed to melt away in a spreading circle that met the circle scorched last night in the moonlight, and flaming embers fell there and blossomed briefly—red flowers that bloomed and faded in a few minutes. Then one wall tottered, sagged, fell with a fresh showering of embers and a new surge of flame.
Tom waited almost an hour, watching the flames consume the cabin, log by log. Then the fire subsided into a great, smoldering heap of ashes with the chimney thrusting up like a stubborn black thumb. He got to his feet, brushed the fine white ash from his clothes and was aware for the first time of the deep, dull ache in his arm. he kneaded the muscles, accepting the pain almost gratefully. Then he got into his car, found the circuit schedule, saw that he had missed four shows. He had been here two days over a month. The next show was at Wolf Point, on the Missouri River up in the northeast corner of Montana. He had four days to get there, find a place to sleep, make his entry.
He took one more look at the dying fire that had been the cabin and at the scatter of char and white ashes that had been the barn. Then he started the motor and drove away.
BEFORE TOM’S RIDE IN the first go-round at Wolf Point the announcer said, “The next man out is just back in business after a month out with an assortment of broken bones. A bronc put him in the hospital, and could be he’s out for revenge. Anyway, here he comes, out of Chute Number Two, on High Tension—Tom Black!”
The crowd applauded as High Tension came lunging out. Three jumps and Tom was dizzy with the streaking pain. Every jolt drove the pain deeper, but he fought it down with raking spurs. He made a hard-driving ride all the way, then stumbled back to the chutes, rested ten minutes and went to his hotel room. The throbbing arm and the pains that racked his ribs kept him awake most of the night, but the next day he made the most punishing ride the Wolf Point crowd had ever seen.
He spent another sleepless night and went to the arena for the finals dizzy and blear-eyed, queasy and stumbling with weariness. But he steeled himself, saddled his horse, grimly waited out the riders ahead of him. Then he eased into the saddle, measured his rein, set his spurs and watched for the signal.
The announcer bellowed, “Well, folks, this is it. I said before the first go-round that the next man might be riding for revenge. I didn’t tell you that the horse that put him in the hospital a month ago had to kill itself to do it. But it did! You’ve seen him make two all-out rides, and now he’s set for his final. Is he still out for blood? My guess is yes! So here he comes, the old devil-killer himself, out of Chute Number Four on Red Devil—Tom Black!”
The crowd roared, the chute gate swung open, and the big bay called Red Devil lunged out, fighting. Tom was swaying in the saddle as they left the chute, but he summoned strength from somewhere and he rode Red Devil like a fiend. It was an even more brutal ride than the one the day before. Tom demanded the worst the horse could give, got it, took it, and demanded more. The horse was in a bawling frenzy and snorting bloody foam when the horn blew, and Tom was so spent that he could scarcely pivot out of the saddle and off the pickup man’s horse. He stumbled and went to his knees twice on the way back to the chutes. The crowd was in a turmoil of applause.
He sat for half an hour before the pains eased enough that he could go to his hotel room. There he fell into bed and stayed till the next afternoon, utterly exhausted. Then he went down and ate and went back and slept another twelve hours. On the second day he got his car and took off for the next show on the circuit.
He rode the next show, and the next, and the physical pain eased off. But his riding style had changed since that month off. He was still the slick, skillful rider who could pile up the points when he wanted to, but now he wasn’t riding for points. He was riding for the ride, for the punishment he could give a horse. He still won enough purse money to pay his expenses, but if it was a choice between a clean, high-scoring ride and a rule-defying ride that brought out the worst in a horse, he ignored the rules. The rule book forbade a rider to touch horse or saddle with his free hand, but if he drew a horse that reared and danced instead of bucking he slapped it across the ears until it fought back. If he drew a quitter he asked for a reride on the same horse and came out of the chute raking and gouging in defiance of the rules, goading the horse to violent, malevolent action. He knew a dozen ways to drive a horse into a frenzy, and in show after show he let the points fall as they might and made the most racking, punishing rides ever seen on the circuit.
He didn’t win the championship that year. He didn’t even come close. But he left no doubt that the glib announcer at Wolf Point was right—he rode for revenge, though nobody was quite sure why. He was the devil-killer, and nobody worried or wondered about who was the real devil he was trying to kill.
He finished the season in California, spent a few weeks waiting, restless and resentful of the inactivity, then was on his way to Odessa again. The next season passed, and the next one. Wherever there was big-time rodeo, Tom Black’s name was known, Killer Tom Black. The crowds waited for his name to be announced, applauded wildly at the announcement, then sat in tense silence while he made his ride. They cheered some riders in the arena, and now and then they booed a rider, but they neither cheered nor booed Tom Black when he was fighting it out with a bronc there in the arena. He rode in a silence so tense, so profound, that those in the far bleachers could hear the grunt and wheeze of the horse at every frantic lunge. Some even said they could hear Tom Black cursing the horse he rode, but that wasn’t true. Tom Black rode in tight-lipped silence, even more quietly venomous in the saddle than he was on foot. And he was known as a hostile, silent man at the chutes, on the street, in the hotel lobbies. He had no friends, wanted none, needed none. He lived for only one thing—the violence of his rides in the arena—and the crowds sensed it. They sat silent when he rode because they were awed and morbidly fascinated. Tom Black was more than a rider. He was a kind of elemental force, a primitive scourge and a raw challenge that summoned diabolic violence from every horse he rode.
Tom Black didn’t always master the horse; but that, too, was an element in the fascination. His losses were as viciously spectacular as his brutal winning rides. In Calgary one season he was not only thrown but stomped by a horse and carried unconscious f
His worst accident was the one at Nampa, when his horse lunged over a pickup man’s mount just as the horn blew. In the melee of men and horses, one horse broke a leg and had to be destroyed, and Tom’s left shoulder was smashed by a flailing hoof. The shoulder healed so stiff he couldn’t trust the rein in his left hand. But even before it had healed, he was riding again, an unorthodox right-handed rider. The combination of the forced change in style and the wrenching pain in his left shoulder made him awkward and off balance for almost two months. In anger at himself and to ease the pain, he began drinking. But the liquor slowed his reflexes as well as dulling the pain, and it made him more moody and truculent than ever. After half a dozen brawls in which the worst he got was a broken nose, he got into a Chicago saloon fight that sent him to the hospital with a concussion from a blow with a bottle and a knife slash across his shoulders that required thirty-seven stitches. After that he recalled Red Dillon’s advice of long ago: “Take it out on a horse, where you’ve got a chance to win.” He stopped drinking, became more of a recluse than ever, and rode with cold and ruthless fury.
NOBODY KNEW WHAT DROVE Tom Black, but he became a living legend. When rodeo folk gathered to swap stories, in hotel rooms, in hotel lobbies, or at the arena waiting for a program to start, the conversation always came around to saddle broncs, which always have been and always will be the heart of rodeo. So, when they gathered and talk began, during Tom Black’s spectacular years, somebody would mention Steamboat or Midnight. Somebody else would speak of other legendary broncs—Iron Mountain, War Paint, Tipperary. And as the names were mentioned everyone—steer wrestlers, bull riders, calf ropers, even the acrobatic girls who were trick riders—paused to listen. Only the oldest of the old-timers had ever seen any of those fabulous broncs in action, but their names were as firmly embedded in the lore of the arena as are the centaurs and the Minotaur in Greek mythology.
They would talk of the horses, and they would mention the great riders. And before more than three names were said someone would say, “Well, for my money, Tom Black… .” And there would be a pause. Men would lift their heads and look around. Tom Black was never there in person, since he avoided such gatherings, but his presence was. And his name was always spoken with respect that verged on awe.
A first-year man, brash in his ignorance, might ask, “What year did Black win the championship?” And one of the veterans would say quietly but with rebuke in his voice, “Tom Black never won the championship. He never went after it.” And if the first-year man was brash enough to persist, “Why not, if he’s so good?” the answer would be, “Old Man Satan never had to win a title to prove how good he was.”
The comment was ambiguous, and intended so, and the reference to Satan was inevitable. Tom Black was sometimes called Devil Tom, and a kind of demonology, a Satanic folklore of fantastic stories, had grown up around him. One such story said that Tom Black and the Devil were first cousins, but that they had a quarrel and a fight and the Devil chopped off Tom Black’s tail. Tom Black was so enraged that the devil had to turn himself into a bronc to get away. And, so the story went, Tom Black became a bronc rider and tried to kill or maim every bronc he rode, just to be sure he got the right one, since nobody knew which bronc was the Devil.
Another story said that Tom Black and the Devil once were partners, joint owners of Hell. The Devil wanted the place all to himself, so he challenged Tom Black to a pitch game with Hell as the stake. Tom wasn’t a pitch player, as everybody knew, but he learned fast. He matched the Devil, trick for trick, three days and three nights. Finally the Devil fell asleep, worn out, and Tom stacked the deck, but when the Devil woke up for the final hand he switched decks and dealt himself the winning cards. The Devil won clear title to Hell. But he told Tom he’d take him in as partner again after he’d ridden five thousand broncs. Then, to make a devilish joke of it, he said he would knock off five hundred for every horse Tom Black rode to death. That, the story went, was why Tom Black rode the way he did.
That story always led to speculation. Working a full season, the way he did, Tom Black rode at least a hundred and fifty broncs a year, a full thousand every seven years. At that rate, it would take him thirty-five years, give or take a year or two, to ride five thousand. Take off five hundred for every bronc that had died under him, and where did you come out? The tallies didn’t agree, but the veterans said Tom had killed at least five broncs, six if you counted that one in Denver the time Tom Black’s shoulder was smashed.
“Call it six, then. Take off three thousand for the dead broncs. That still leaves two thousand he has to ride.”
“Fourteen years of riding.”
“How long has Tom Black been up?”
“I couldn’t say. He was here when I came up, six years ago.”
“Hell, I saw him ride at Odessa eight years ago! And he’d been around a while, even then.”
“Well, all I can say is that Tom Black hasn’t found the right bronc yet. If you ask me, he’ll outlast all of us.”
“He can’t! He’s human, isn’t he?”
“I’ve heard it argued both ways, son. But, like I was saying, when you talk about great bronc riders—well, Tom Black’s name belongs right up near the top.”
That’s the way the talk went.
If anyone had asked Tom Black himself, he would have had to stop and figure before he said how long he had been riding on the big circuit. Even then, he might have been wrong by a year or two. Time no longer mattered to him. Nothing mattered except those intervals in the arena when he, like the broncs themselves, was a fighting creature wholly devoted to punishment and violence. Between shows he merely went through the motions of living, waiting, almost passive. Driving from city to city, moving from hotel room to hotel room, going from one arena to another. Then those brief spans when he came fully to life, when life had meaning. Nothing else mattered because there was nothing else. Ride three times, pack, go. Ride three times, pack, go. Ride three times. … It was a rhythm, almost like the rhythm of a pattern bucker. Someday the pattern might break, but meanwhile he rode with it as he rode the pattern buckers.
Time had no meaning. Put it that way. Forget time.
That’s the way the years passed.
IT WAS ALMOST NOON when he wakened, and for a few minutes he didn’t know where he was. All cities sounded pretty much alike. Especially from a hotel room. Los Angeles and New York had a beat, a throb, that you felt beyond the noises actually heard. Chicago had a confusion of beats. Denver and Dallas lacked the throb.
He lay listening and heard the sounds of construction across the street. This must be New York. Somehow, he always picked a New York hotel just across the street from a new building going up or an old one coming down. In Philadelphia he always seemed to choose a hotel where they were tearing up an old street or putting down a new one.
This was New York. He remembered now. He rode at the Garden last night, a white bronc called Forked Lightning. There weren’t many white horses in the bucking strings, maybe because they weren’t supposed to have the fight, the stamina. Forked Lightning was plenty mean, though. Gave him a battle. And tonight he would ride a bronc they called Sky Rocket. A big roan, maybe the same one they called Lights Out a few months ago. They kept changing names. Sky Rocket tonight, and tomorrow a dun they called Suicide. Then he would pack his gear, get in his car, drive. Sleep in another hotel, ride in another show… .
He stared at the ceiling of the room. It was sky blue. The drapes were a darker blue, the furniture still darker. Blue, the female color. He was surprised to think of that. He hadn’t thought in the old way in a long time. Blue for the south, the gentle, the female. Black for the north, the harsh,
He yawned and stretched, and felt the deep, old aches. His right knee throbbed, the knee that was smashed in Denver six years ago. Or was it seven? No matter. There was a dull ache in his left shoulder, the stiff one. The aches you live with. But neither of his collarbones ached this morning. His right ankle was sore, but a hot shower would loosen it up and somewhat ease the other aches.
He got up, showered, shaved, dressed. He went downstairs, and on his way to the dining room stopped at die newsstand and bought an evening paper. He leafed through it after he had given his order and found the feature story on an inside page. The scowling photograph, with the slit mouth, the crooked nose, the wide cheek bones, the scar across the chin. The headline read, “The Killer Rides Again.”
The first few lines were so familiar he could have read them with his eyes shut:
“Tom Black is back in the Garden with the rodeo, and the crowds are waiting for him to kill another horse. Black, a full-blooded Indian, is known to rodeo buffs as Killer Tom, Devil Tom, and an assortment of other grim nicknames. He has earned them all. A veteran bronc rider, Tom Black has ridden nine horses to death in the rodeo arena, and at every performance the spectators expect him to kill another one.”
The story went on for another half column, full of vivid detail of which the greater part was only half true. Tom had read that story a hundred times. Apparently the rodeo publicity men kept it mimeographed to hand out to reporters.
The waitress brought the steak and eggs he had ordered and he put the paper aside and ate. Actually, he had been involved in the death of only six horses, counting the one at Aztec. And that one wasn’t even in the records. But several other broncs had to be retired, wind broken or spirit broken, after he rode them. He had to admit that, to himself at least.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes