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When the legends die, p.20
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       When the Legends Die, p.20

           Hal Borland
 
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  “Of course I do. You’re the man who rode ten horses to death.” She made a face. “But you aren’t proud of being cruel, are you?”

  “Why not?” Then he asked, “So they say it’s ten now?”

  “Yes, ten, counting the one you killed in the Garden, the one that put you in here. That’s what the papers say, anyway.”

  “So that one’s dead too? I didn’t know.”

  “Well, now you know.” She said it sharply. He didn’t seem to be sorry at all, and suddenly she was angry at him, not only for his callousness about the horse but because he didn’t appreciate anything that was being done for him, by her or anyone else. “Now,” she said, “you can cut another notch in your saddle, or whatever you do to keep score!”

  But he wasn’t listening. He was thinking about the big roan bronc, the one they said brought his score up to ten. Even with that one, the tally was only seven, really, and all but one or two of those seven had killed themselves. Seven or ten, though, what did it matter? He didn’t want to think about them, put the thought away from him.

  But that night he had the nightmare again and wakened in the cold sweat. Lying there in the darkness, for the first time he remembered the ride from the moment the chute gate opened right through to the end. He remembered the bronc’s pattern, how he shifted his weight, how the stab of pain in his knee numbed his whole leg. He remembered his anger, then his fear, the fear that made him so desperate he yanked the roans head around and jerked it off balance. He remembered the fall, the crushing blow on his hips, the agony just before his head struck, just before the knockout.

  And now he knew why he hadn’t been able to remember anything of the ride but that sensation of falling. He had refused to face the fact that he had panicked, that he had forced the fall. Now he faced it, and the nightmare came at last to its conclusion. Coldly analyzing it, he knew his own fear had forced him to fall. And there it was. Fear. Facing it, admitting it, he could start from that point and think straight. But he had to start there because, according to the code of the arena, a bronc rider wasn’t afraid of man, beast or devil. Especially Tom Black, Killer Tom Black. But you don’t ride as long as he had ridden without knowing a few times when fear does share the saddle. You don’t admit it, even to yourself. You get up off the ground and back in the saddle, and you ride the bronc to a standstill, and the fear with it.

  Well, now he would go back and ride again. He would be better than ever, with all his skills and experience and with the knowledge that he had panicked in the saddle, forced the fall that almost killed him. Knowing that, he would never do it again. It was as simple as that. He had known he had to go back and ride again, but until now he hadn’t known why, hadn’t admitted it. Now he did.

  He slept, free of the nightmare at last.

  Mary Redmond did not appear the next day, or the next. He wondered why, but he didn’t ask. It wasn’t important, and he had plans to make. He had to heal himself and get back on his feet. He had to get out of here. He would go somewhere for a while, take it easy, rest up, get himself back in shape. Then catch up with the circuit. It would take a while, he knew that, but he would be back in the saddle by the end of the summer.

  He thought of the place on the San Juan. If the cabin was still there, that’s where he would go. But that was out. The cabin was gone and some sheepman probably had moved in by now and taken over the whole canyon. He wondered how Red and Meo found it in the first place, if Meo went there to recover and rest up after his smashup, planning to go back to the arena. He never went back. He stayed there, puttering in his garden, talking to his beans and chilies, even to himself, an old man with a hump on his broken back who once was a rodeo rider.

  Red’s words came to him now: “Meo was a hero once. Now look at him! Just another broken-down old chili-eater.” And then Red’s comment: “Heroes wind up broke. Especially if they are Mexes or Indians.”

  Tom hadn’t tried to figure it before, and even now he could only guess, but he wouldn’t have much left when he got out of here and paid his bills. He had never saved his money. He lived it up when he had it, spent it on hotels and clothes and expensive cars. And these past few years a good deal of it had gone for doctors and hospitals. He wouldn’t be flat broke, but he knew there wouldn’t be much left this time.

  Then he had a wry thought. Red, who had called Meo a hero who wound up broke, was the one who died penniless. Meo paid for his burial. Meo, who rolled Red every time he came home drunk, accumulated enough not only to give Red a decent burial but eventually to shrive and bury old Meo himself.

  Life plays strange tricks. Tom, too, was a hero of a sort. Not the kind the crowds come to cheer, but the kind they watch with morbid fascination, hoping to see him kill a horse—or a horse kill him. A dark-souled hero. He knew that. And after this brush with death the crowds would be more than ever fascinated, more morbidly curious. That was another reason to go back. To defy the cruelty and the death wish of the crowd. After all, he was Killer Tom Black, wasn’t he, the devil-hero?

  But first he had to get back on his feet, get out of here.

  Mary Redmond was there again the third morning. She came in with her ready smile and asked, “How are we this fine morning?”

  He wasn’t in a fine morning mood. “Where have you been?” he demanded.

  “Why, Chief!” she exclaimed. “Don’t tell me you missed me. The last time I saw you, you hated everybody in sight.”

  “I still do.”

  “Then we can start right where we left off.” She put the thermometer into his mouth. “Maybe if patients had two days off each week, like nurses, it would improve their disposition.” She took his pulse, then read the thermometer. “I guess,” she said with a smile, “you’re going to get well after all. You’re looking better.”

  “What do you do on your days off? Go around patting little kids on the head, just to keep in practice?”

  “Some folks,” she said as she began to make the bed, “are just too mean to die. On that basis you’ll live a long, long time.”

  Now she knew who he reminded her of—Bart Huntley. Bart was taller and slimmer, but he had the same dark, resentful eyes. Maybe the fear of never being able to walk again had something to do with it. Women were afraid of being disfigured, but men were afraid of being crippled, dependent. Bart was terribly mangled in the auto accident, but they saved both his legs. And it was her massaging that got him walking again. She could have got him off the crutches, too, in time. But she saw him only twice after he left the hospital, once when he took her out to dinner, once when she asked him up to her apartment and cooked dinner for him. He was arrogant and defensive at the restaurant, and at her apartment he was bitter and resentful. She finally came right out and told him what she could do for him, and he accused her of wanting to marry him for his money. That was the thanks she got. She never saw him again, never even heard from him.

  She decided Tom didn’t look like Bart Huntley at all, except for his eyes. He had a crooked nose and high cheekbones and a broad, square jaw. He’s mad at life, she thought, not at me. She finished making the bed and said, “If I had time I’d give you a massage. But this is one of those days. Maybe tomorrow.”

  He didn’t answer.

  “A massage will do your legs a world of good.”

  Then he looked at her, frowning. “Massage? No, I don’t want a massage. Leave me alone.”

  “You didn’t hear a word I said.” She laughed at him. “I said I didn’t have time to give you a massage today… . Well, ring if you need anything. I’ve got to run. We’re shorthanded today.”

  The next morning she gave him the massage. Her hands were firm but gentle and knew instinctively where the deep aches lay and how to ease the bed-stiff muscles. He made no comment, but she knew from the way he relaxed that it did him good.

  That afternoon, Dr. Ferguson came in with a strange nurse and took the stitches from the incision they had made to insert the intermedullary nail in Tom’s femur. When the n
urse had left, Dr. Ferguson said, “You’re healing nicely. In a few more weeks you can go back home and rest a while. I understand you’re from Colorado.”

  “I was born there.”

  “Nice country. I’d like to retire there myself some day.”

  “Retire? I’m not retiring!”

  The surgeon smiled at Tom’s resentful tone. “Still got a lot of gravel in your craw, haven’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, maybe that’s to the good, too. The will to get well. Keep on at this rate and we’ll have you up in a wheel chair by the end of the week. Then, after you’ve toned up your muscles a bit in the chair, we’ll let you try the walker. Get your legs under you and see how you manage. I said we’d get you out of here on your own two feet. You didn’t believe it, did you?

  “I told you I’d walk out of here,” Tom snapped.

  “That’s right, you did.”

  “And I said I’d ride again!”

  The surgeon slowly shook his head. “Damned and determined, aren’t you?” Then he chuckled. “A lot of rough gravel in your craw,” he said, and he left the room.

  40

  LOOKING FORWARD TO THE wheel chair, to something beyond the imprisoning bed and the confines of the room, eased the next few days. Then the morning came when Mary Redmond triumphantly brought the chair and said he was going for a ride. She helped him out of bed, gentle as with a child, settled him in the chair and took him down the long corridor to the sun porch, deserted at that time of day. She showed him how to manage the chair, and he wheeled himself up and down the room for ten minutes, rested and did it again. She said he learned faster than any other patient she ever had. Finally, aching from the unaccustomed exercise, he let her take him back to his room. She helped him into bed and massaged his complaining, unused muscles and told him again what a wonderful patient he was.

  It was easier the next morning, still easier the next. She exclaimed at his determination, his growing strength, and his quick skill with the chair. “You’ve still got a long way to go, but you just don’t know what it is to give up, do you?”

  “I never did. Why should I start now?”

  She laughed. “I suppose you’ve always been this way, tough and determined. But you would have to be. It takes courage and determination to ride a bucking horse, doesn’t it? Did you always know how, or is it something, like learning to walk again, that you have to learn?”

  He was resting between sessions with the chair. “Look,” he said; “broncs are mean. They’re outlaws. You either learn how to ride or you get hurt. I learned by riding broncs.”

  “Oh. Didn’t you ever have a pet bronc, as you call them?”

  “A pet bronc?” He laughed at her. “I just told you broncs are mean. They’re not like dogs. Give them half a chance, they’ll kill you.”

  “I had a dog once. I was just a little girl and it followed me home and I had it all afternoon and I wanted to keep it and take care of it, but my mother said it was just a dirty mongrel. And when my father came home he called the dog warden to come take it away. I cried all night.”

  “Over a stray dog?”

  “Don’t you know what it’s like to grow up without anything or anyone to love and take care of? No, I guess not. I guess only girls feel that way.”

  “Didn’t you ever have another dog?”

  She shook her head. “I finished school and went into training, and—“ She shrugged. “Some get married, some turn into sour, cat-loving old maids, and some just try to help people. I guess I’m that kind.” She laughed self-consciously. “Besides, I don’t like cats. They’re too independent.”

  He wheeled the chair away, down the room, and resumed his exercise. He was going to walk out of here, and he wasn’t going to wait too long. He wheeled himself up and down the room, making plans.

  Tuesday came, Mary Redmond was off duty, and he called another nurse to bring the chair and help him into it. They went to the sun porch and he dismissed her, said he would be all right alone. When she had gone he moved the chair to a place where he could grasp a window frame and lift himself out of the chair and onto his feet. He stood there for several minutes, then sat down and rested and did it again. His legs were weak and his hip joints stiff and painful, but he took a few tentative steps, holding to the window frames. He rested again, then made his way with halting steps halfway down the room and back. He almost fell twice, but caught himself, holding to the window frames. Then he returned to the chair, sweating with the effort, and was staring out the window when the nurse returned.

  The next morning he managed a dozen steps without holding on to anything, balancing carefully on his weak legs. He could walk again.

  Mary Redmond came back after her days off and said, “You look pleased with life today, Chief. As though something nice happened.”

  “I’m getting well.”

  “Of course you are.” She gave him a frowning look and started making his bed. “You begin to get well and you get impatient. You feel better and you think you’re all well. Even though you’re not.”

  “I’m going to walk again,” he said. “And ride again.”

  “Not right away. You will need taking care of for a while, even after you leave here. You know that, don’t you?”

  He didn’t answer and she asked. “Was Dr. Ferguson in to see you yesterday?”

  “No.”

  “I thought maybe he said you could try the walker in another week or so.” She finished the chores and left, and came back half an hour later with the chair. “Now you go for your ride, your daily dozen.” She helped him into the chair, even more solicitous than usual. They went to the sun porch and she sat and waited while he wheeled the chair to the end of the room and back. She wanted to talk, but he shook his head. “Just leave me alone a while. I’ll be all right. Go give somebody an enema, or a massage, or something.”

  Reluctantly she left him. As soon as she was gone he got out of the chair, walked carefully down the room and back. He rested for a few minutes, then walked again. He was halfway down the room, taking his third walk, when Mary Redmond came back.

  “What are you doing?” she exclaimed, running toward him.

  “I’m walking.”

  “You can’t! You’re not supposed to leave the chair!” She tried to take his arm. He shrugged her off, almost lost his careful balance, caught himself and slowly walked back to the chair. She hovered beside him, wanting to take his arm but afraid he would lose his balance and fall if she tried. He reached the chair and let himself down into it.

  “You mustn’t do that! You mustn’t!”

  “I did it.”

  “You,” she said severely, “are going right back to your room. You’re not ready yet to walk. You are still weak. Suppose you had fallen.”

  “I’d have picked myself up.”

  She angrily piloted the chair back down the corridor and ordered him into bed.

  “Who do you think you are, ordering me around?” he demanded. But he let her help him back into bed and lay there, expecting her to calm down, give him a massage and admire his achievement. Instead, she took the chair and left the room, bristling with indignation. Fifteen minutes later she was back, with Dr. Ferguson.

  They came in and the surgeon looked at Tom, appraising. “So,” he said gruffly, “you pulled a Lazarus.” Then he smiled. “Knowing you, I’m not surprised.”

  “But he isn’t—” Mary Redmond started to speak, then bit her lip as Dr. Ferguson glanced at her with a frown. He looked at Tom again. “All right, let’s see you do it again. Think you can get out of bed and walk over to the window?”

  Tom threw back the covers and carefully moved his legs over the edge of the bed. Mary Redmond hurried toward him, but Dr. Ferguson waved her away. “Let him do it alone.” To Tom he said, “Go ahead. If you’ve done any damage to those bones, a few more steps won’t make it any worse.”

  Tom felt for the floor and stood up. He was still tired from his walk on the sun porch, b
ut by watching each step and balancing carefully he crossed the room to the window, turned, and came back to the bed. His forehead was beaded with sweat from the effort, but there was both triumph and defiance in his eyes.

  Dr. Ferguson nodded. “Not bad. Not bad at all. You’re a week ahead of schedule.”

  “How soon can I get out of here?” Tom demanded.

  “That depends. If you tried to walk out of here today you’d fall flat on your face in ten minutes. Your muscles are still weak. Right now you’re walking on sheer will power and your sense of balance. But you are walking, no question about that.” He considered. “Before I can release you I want some X rays and I want to run a few tests. That will take a few days. Meanwhile you can get those muscles toughened up and those legs working a little better. Just being in bed as long as you have takes a lot out of anyone.”

  “How long?” Tom insisted.

  “Well, let’s plan on next Tuesday or Wednesday. Unless die pictures or the tests show something. How does that sound?”

  “All right.”

  “After you leave here, though, you’ll have to take it easy for a while. You’re not well yet. You’ll need a few weeks in some place like a convalescent home. Where you can walk and rest and be well taken care of. We have a list of good places at the office. I’ll tell them to send a list up.” He held out his hand. “Stout fellow.”

  They shook hands and Dr. Ferguson started to leave, then turned back and said, “I’ll set up the X rays for tomorrow. Then we’ll set up the other tests.”

  Mary Redmond was still there after the surgeon left. She looked at Tom almost accusingly, seemed about to say something. Then she changed her mind and left him alone. He lay back in bed and every muscle in his body seemed to scream as the tensions began to let down.

  41

  HE WAS LOOKING AT the list of convalescent homes the next morning when Mary Redmond came in. He didn’t like the sound of any of them. She came in, bright as always, and said, “Well, stout fellow! I expected you’d be up, have your bed made and be out taking a constitutional.”

 
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