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When the legends die, p.19
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       When the Legends Die, p.19

           Hal Borland
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  He finished his meal, paid his check and went out onto the street. He walked aimlessly until his right knee began to throb. Then he caught a bus and rode to the end of the line, far uptown. He got off, found a bench at the edge of a tiny patch of fenced grass, and watched the pigeons. Two small boys were chasing the pigeons, and when they flew they made a whistling sound that reminded Tom of the doves that used to pick up waste grain in the corrals and sit on the ridge of the barn at the place on the San Juan. Red used to try to shoot those doves with his .30-30 rifle, but so far as Tom knew Red never killed a dove. Meo used to say Red couldn’t hit a horse inside the barn with the door shut, and Meo probably was right. Red wasn’t much of a marksman.

  The pigeons flew and circled and came back, and the boys chased them again. Finally the boys tired of that game and came and gawked at Tom. One shouted, “He is too! He’s that Indian that kills horses in the rodeo!” The other one shouted, “That’s a lie! If he’s an Indian, where’s his bow and arrow?” The first one cried, “Stupid! Indians use guns, just like anybody else! If I had my gun I’d shoot him right now! Bang-bang! Powie!” And the other one came up to Tom and demanded, “What’s your name? Are you an Indian?”

  Tom ignored him. The pigeons came back and the boys went to chase them again. Tom got up and went over to the bus stop and took the next bus downtown. He could have gone to the arena, like the other riders, but he preferred to be alone. The others spent the whole afternoon at the arena, just talking. Talking business, talking horses, talking women. He had heard all their talk, long ago.

  He got off the bus, walked back to the hotel and sat in the lobby for an hour. A hotel lobby was the only place you could be alone in a crowd, alone and unnoticed. Then it was almost suppertime, his suppertime, since he always ate early. He went to the dining room and ate another steak. Then he left a call at the desk, went to his room and lay down and slept. When the phone call roused him and the girl said it was seven-thirty, he got up, showered again to ease the aches and the stiffness in that right knee, and sat relaxing for another half hour. Then he went over to the Garden.


  THE NIGHT SHOW WAS getting under way. He got his gear and made his way out to the chutes. The bull riding was going on. Bull riding left him cold. Brahma bulls were mean buckers, but the rider had a surcingle to hold on to. Even at that, bull riding was at least half a matter of luck. And that cowbell on the surcingle made the whole thing seem absurd to him. He began checking his gear, cinches, stirrups, rein, boots and chaps.

  The bull riding clamored and clanked to a conclusion. The announcer made his spiel, and the trick riding started. The girls who did the trick riding might just as well have been Broadway showgirls, except that they had learned to ride a horse and do stunts on a special saddle. He had seen all their stunts, and he knew all their faces, whether he had ever seen them before or not.

  Finally the last of the girls left the arena and the bronc riding was the next event. The broncs were in the chutes. Riders and helpers were saddling them in a babble of talk, laughter and good-natured curses. Tom had drawn tonight’s number-three ride, two others ahead of him.

  He always took his time about saddling, not liking to wait too long before he rode. He went over to Chute Number Three as the number-one rider was announced. A helper was there, holding the big roans head. Tom stepped up onto the chute runway, saddle in hand, and let it down easily, cinches dangling. The roan flinched, but didn’t even try to hunch its back. Saving its strength. Some broncs tried to fight the saddle. Others saved their fight for the rider.

  The helper reached between the chute’s planks with the wire and fished for the front cinch, got it, handed it to Tom. He snugged the front cinch while the helper fished for the other ring, on the back cinch. Tom took it, jerked the back cinch tight to force the roan to let out its breath. It wheezed, eased for an instant, and Tom hauled up the front cinch a couple of notches before the roan could catch another breath. Then he let off on the back cinch, kept it just tight enough so the saddle wouldn’t rock.

  The crowd was roaring. The number-one rider, a newcomer who had made a spectacular ride last night, apparently was doing all right for himself again. Tom didn’t even look up, but he could hear the stomp of the bronc’s hoofs, the grunting wheezes, the slap of the rider’s chaps. Then the horn blew and the crowd cheered and whistled. Tom glanced up then and saw the rider pivot off the pickup man’s horse, grin at the crowd and wave his hat. Then he unbuckled his chaps, stepped out, slung the chaps over his arm and came back toward the chutes, almost strutting. He was good, and he knew it, a boy on his way up. The pickup men chivied the bronc toward the exit and the announcer started his spiel about the number-two rider.

  Tom shook his saddle, testing it, and took up the front cinch another notch. He resined his chaps, remembering when he was a boy on his way up. When the crowds cheered and whistled and stomped for him. When he was riding for points. A long time ago. He checked his spurs, dried his hands on his shirt and got ready to ease himself down into the saddle.

  The gate opened at Number Two Chute and out went a hammerheaded black with a rider in a yellow shirt. The crowd began to roar.

  Tom let himself down into the saddle and the roan didn’t even hump its back. He felt for the stirrups, felt the hard curve of the metal through the thin soles of his boots. He sensed the taut muscles of the bronc beneath his calves— hard, tense, ready to explode into action. He dried his hands again and glanced at the number-two rider. The hammer-headed black was ducking and side-jumping, and the rider had too short a rein and couldn’t seem to slip it.

  A helper laid the bucking strap across Tom’s horse’s back, fished the buckle and fastened it loosely, ready to jerk tight. He handed up the rein, on the left side.

  “No.” Tom snapped. “The other side.”

  “I forgot,” the helper apologized, and brought the rein around for Tom’s unorthodox right hand.

  The crowd groaned. The number-two rider was in trouble. His short rein had jerked him loose in the saddle. The bronc knew it, lunged viciously, side-jumped, and the rider was thrown. The pickup men closed in, drove the bronc toward the exit, and the unlucky rider slowly got to his feet, shaking his head. He dusted himself and walked unhappily back toward the chutes.

  The announcer was bellowing, “And now, ladies and gentleman, here comes a rider you all know, at least by reputation. Some call him the Killer, some call him Black Death—he has a whole string of names like that. And he’s earned every one of them!” The crowd had begun to cheer. The announcer waited for the cheers to ease off, then went on. “I don’t have to tell you any more about him, I see. Anyway, here he is, coming out of Chute Number Three—I give you Tom Black, on Sky Rocket!”

  The crowd roared again, louder than before, then tensed into silence.

  Tom got the signal. The bucking strap was jerked tight around the roan’s flanks. Tom set his spurs well forward, leaned back against the rein, took a deep breath and let it out. He nodded to the gateman, and the gate swung open. The roan called Sky Rocket went out with a lunge and a bellow. Rein taut, spurs raking, Tom Black began his ride.

  He had made that ride a thousand times. Sky Rocket was a pattern bucker, three lunges, a side jump, a half spin, then three lunges again.

  Tom rode with the rhythm, concentrating on punishment with his spurs and being brutal with the rein at every side jump and spin. Three times the roan followed the pattern, lunge, lunge, lunge, side jump, spin. Then the punishment made it frantic. It tried to duck left, shaking its head, bellowing. Tom hauled its head around, and it lunged again, then tried to duck again. Tom shifted his weight for leverage, and a stab of pain shot through his right knee and streaked to his ankle. In fury at the pain, Tom jerked the bronc’s head up and around by sheer strength. The ankle went numb, and to keep from losing the stirrup he jabbed his foot deeper. The roan squealed and came up, pawing the air. It reared, danced, still trying to spin left, and again he jerked its head around to t
he right. Neck bowed, it came down fighting, bunched for another lunge.

  His right leg now numb from knee to ankle, Tom was jerked forward as the roan struck the ground, head down. It lunged, and he powered its head around as it left the ground. Off balance, it seemed to tangle its feet in the air. Tom felt it begin to fall, still fighting for its feet. He knew it was going, knew he had to get clear. He kicked his left foot free of the stirrup, but his right foot didn’t respond. He grabbed the pommel of the saddle with his left hand, tried to thrust himself clear, but he was still in the saddle as the roan came down with a crash on its right side, rolling with its own momentum.

  Tom felt one crushing blow across his hips before his head struck the arena. Then the whole world seemed to explode in a burst of light and pain. Then darkness, nothing.

  He had a brief span of semiconsciousness before they moved him, enough to know the sensation of floating in a choppy sea of pain and hear voices all around him. His head was a throbbing balloon and his vision was blurred. Spasms of nausea wrenched at him. Then they gave him injections and the sea of pain began to quiet, even the pain in his chest that almost stopped his breathing. Then he was unconscious again. He never knew how they got him on the stretcher, put the stretcher in the ambulance, took him to the hospital. He never knew how thin was his thread of life for a night and a day and another night.


  MOST OF THE FIRST week he existed in the half-world of the critically hurt where there is neither night nor day, time nor reality, but only the overlapping periods of confused consciousness and dreams and nightmares. His body fought its battles quite apart from his mind; the transfusions, the injections, the X rays and the merciful surgery were performed on flesh and blood and bone temporarily cut off from the normal processes of awareness. He roused enough from time to time to sense his hospital surroundings and feel the deep, insistent throb of pain in his head and the dull, remote pain elsewhere, but reality never quite overcame the dreams and nightmares. Dreams of boyhood, of his mother and the mountains, of the reservation, Red Dillon’s place and the back-country rodeos. And always the dreams came to a chilling nightmare of falling, of being trapped in the saddle on a bronc that was forever falling but never landing.

  Slowly his vitality reasserted itself. As his awareness increased he was restless and resentful. The stir and activity of the ward rasped at his nerves, and when he was lucid enough to enforce his demands they moved him to a private room six floors above the street. There, the first morning of his second week, he wakened at dawn and saw the flame of sunrise in the small patch of sky beyond his window. He watched it, and the memory of another dawn came to him, the dawn when he and his mother, on the flight from Pagosa, bathed in the icy pool of a brook, then sat naked on the rocks and sang the chant to a new day. The rhythm of that chant throbbed in his memory like his own heartbeat for a few moments. Then he tried to move and pain stabbed at his chest and hips and bitterness rose in his throat like his own gorge. He was no longer a boy or a breechclout Indian. He was a grown man in another world, a bronc rider trapped by his own injuries in a world of pain and helplessness.

  He was still rankling when a nurse came in. She was plump and had coppery hair and blue eyes and looked to be in her mid-30s. She said, “Good morning! How are we today?” and he immediately resented her ready smile and bubbly air. He frowned at her and did not answer. She lowered the window shade and started to put a thermometer into his mouth.

  “Put up that shade,” he ordered.

  “But the sun is right in your eyes.”

  “I like the sun. Put it up!”

  She laughed at him, raised the shade again, then took his temperature and his pulse. She straightened his bed, deft and efficient, then said, “You must be starved. What would taste good for breakfast?”

  “I’m not hungry.”

  “How about poached eggs?”

  “I said I’m not hungry.”

  “You will be. Nothing tastes good in a hospital, but you have to eat. And poached eggs go down easy.” She filled his water glass and left the room. A little later she came back with a tray of toast, poached eggs and coffee, arranged them on the bed table, saw that he took two capsules—“Happy pills, to sweeten your disposition”—and went away.

  The coffee tasted the way burning hay smelled, and he had a flash of memory of the night he burned the barn. Then he remembered the strong, bitter coffee Meo used to make, and the bite of Meo’s chili, and the whole remembrance of the place on the San Juan came back to him. He thrust the memories away and ate the toast and the eggs, hungry as the nurse had said he would be. Then he slept.

  The next morning when the copper-haired nurse came in and asked him how he was, he demanded, “What’s your name?”

  “Mary Redmond.” She moved to lower the window shade.

  “Leave that shade alone! Where are you from?”

  “Massachusetts.” She came back to his bedside.

  “That’s New England, isn’t it.” It was an accusation.

  “About as New England as you can get.” She put the thermometer into his mouth and counted his pulse. When she took the thermometer again he said, “I used to have a mealy-mouthed school teacher who looked a little like you, and talked like you. She was from New England.”

  She laughed. “You’re talkative this morning. You must be feeling better.” She began making his bed. When she had finished and folded the blanket across the foot of the bed she asked, “Where did you know this charming school teacher from New England?”

  “In Colorado, on the reservation.”

  “Oh?” She went to get him a fresh glass of water.

  When she came back he repeated sharply, “On the reservation.”

  “ I heard you the first time.”


  “Look, Chief, you’d just as well put away your tomahawk and take the feathers out of your hair. This is a hospital, not a reservation, and you’re just another man to me… . Anything else I can do for you?”

  “No. Leave me alone.”

  That afternoon Dr. Ferguson, the surgeon, came in to see him. Dr. Ferguson was a tall, lean man with a lean face and a clipped voice that Tom remembered vaguely, but this was the first time he had been well enough to ask questions. While the surgeon was taking his pulse Tom asked, “Ribs?”

  The surgeon nodded.

  “How many?”

  “Several… . Follow my hand.” He moved his hand from side to side in front of Tom’s face. Tom followed it with his eyes for a moment, then closed them, dizzy.

  “How’s the nausea? Thrown up today?”

  “No… . What else besides the ribs?”

  The surgeon watched him for a moment, then said, “A lung puncture, a deep concussion, a broken femur and a broken pelvis.”

  “Is that all?”

  “Isn’t that enough? Do you want a broken back too?”

  “How long will I be laid up?”

  “Till your pelvis knits. Six weeks or so. We’ve pinned your femur—that’s the big bone in your thigh. You can walk again as soon as your pelvis knits.”

  “How soon can I ride again?”

  “Never, if you take my advice.”

  “I didn’t ask for advice.”

  “Well, you got it. As far as the injuries go, the lung puncture is healing properly. You’re almost over the effects of the concussion. But broken bones don’t knit overnight, as you must know. I see from the X rays that you’ve had quite a few in the past. But you seem to heal fast and your bones probably knit fast.”

  “They do.”

  “Well, in another six weeks you should be able to walk out of here. Beyond that, it’s up to you.”

  “I’ll walk out and I’ll ride again.”

  Dr. Ferguson shrugged and left the room.

  That night Tom had the dreams and nightmares again. He wakened and tried to remember that last ride. All he could remember was right there in the nightmare, being trapped in the saddle and the big roan fallin
g, falling, never coming down.


  WHEN MARY REDMOND CAME in the next morning, cheerful as always, he watched her with rising resentment. She was the most skillful of the nurses, the most solicitous and helpful, the most friendly. But her very efficiency and gentleness emphasized his helplessness, his need for care. She represented this whole infuriating situation, the fact that he was trapped in the hospital, unable even to get out of bed, let alone stand on his feet and walk. And the fact that her voice reminded him of Rowena Ellis brought back all the bitterness of his memories of the reservation and the school.

  Finally she said, “So you’re from Colorado. I hear it’s beautiful out there.”

  “You wouldn’t like it. Where I came from it’s all mountains and trees and rocks.”

  “I like mountains and trees.”

  But he wasn’t talking. The other nurses had told her that he was grumpy as an old bear and didn’t appreciate anything you did for him. But most men were that way when they were sick. Then they began to get well and they saw how much you were doing for them. Some of them appreciated it, or seemed to, even though they did forget you as soon as they left the hospital. She filled his water glass, made his bed, fluffed his pillow, humming softly to herself. She adjusted the ventilator in the window and came back to the bed and asked, “Now, what more can I do for you?”

  “Get me a glass of fresh water.”

  “I just filled your glass. See?”

  He reached for the glass, drank the water and held out the empty glass. “I said I wanted fresh water.” His voice was testy.

  She took the glass, filled it again and set it on his bedside table. “There you are. Anything else?”

  “Don’t you know who I am?” he demanded.

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