When the Legends Die, p.21Hal Borland
“Where is White Plains?” he asked.
“Out in Westchester. Why?”
“Connecticut.” She looked over his shoulder, saw the list and said, “Oh, those places.” Then she said. “You won’t want to walk this morning, I guess. There won’t be time after you’ve eaten your breakfast. You are scheduled for X rays at a quarter of ten.”
“I had breakfast early so I would have time. Bring the chair and I’ll go out on the sun porch while you straighten things up in here.”
“You can’t rush things that way. Maybe this afternoon—”
“Go get the chair,” he ordered.
She brought the chair and would have gone to the porch with him, but he said firmly, “I’m going alone.”
“You heard Dr. Ferguson say you’d fall on your face in ten minutes.”
“If I do, I’ll get up again.” He wheeled the chair into the corridor and went to the sun porch alone. He alternately walked and rested for twenty minutes before Mary Redmond returned. When he sat down again she said, “Those homes on that list—some of them are pretty terrible. And the really good ones have long waiting lists.”
He didn’t answer.
“What you really need,” she said, “is just a quiet place and somebody to look after you and see that you get good meals and plenty of rest. And you should continue the massages. That’s what really got you on your feet this soon. I hope you realize that.”
He wheeled his chair back to the windows and resumed his walking, slowly, carefully. He still had to concentrate on every step. He had never tried it, but he imagined walking a tight wire was something like this, demanding almost as sure a sense of balance. He walked and he rested again, and Mary Redmond said, as though there had been no interruption, “You need a place where you can walk several times a day, too. Oh, I wish you had a place like my apartment! It’s just two blocks from the Drive. Did you ever walk along the river and look at the water and watch the gulls?”
“Gulls? Those birds that never sing, just squawk and fight over garbage?”
“They don’t squawk. They cry, like lonely children.” She looked at her watch. “It’s after nine and you’d better rest before your X rays.”
“One more walk,” he said, and went back to the windows and walked to the end of the room and back. Then they returned to his room, she helped him into bed and gave him the daily massage. Her hands seemed even more deft and gentle than usual and she gave him a long, thorough rub before the orderly came and took him to the X ray laboratory. That afternoon, after Mary Redmond had gone off duty, he called for the chair, and a strange nurse took him to the sun porch. He walked, rested, and walked again for almost an hour.
The next morning Mary Redmond came in triumphant about something, but she kept it to herself till they were on the sun porch and he had walked his first round. Then she said, “I’ve found just the place for you.”
“What’s Nyack? It sounds like a fish or a disease.”
“It’s a town, just up the Hudson. This place is out in the country and you’ll love it. I know the woman who runs it. I used to work for her. I called her last night and she has a room she’ll save for you.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?”
“I’ll have to think about it.” He wheeled the chair away and started walking again. Something in this situation added up wrong. He tried to puzzle it out, forgot to concentrate on his walking, lost his balance and would have fallen if he hadn’t caught hold of a window frame. Mary Redmond was watching and ran to take his arm, steady him. He shrugged her off and snapped, “Leave me alone. I’m all right.” He was angry at himself, not at her; but when she said, “You’re tired. You’d better rest,” he flared, “Leave me alone, I said. I know what I’m doing.”
He walked, and rested, and refused to talk, and walked again, driving himself. And finally he sat down in the chair and ordered, “Take me back to my room.”
She took him to his room, but before she had a chance to massage him an orderly came to take him for the other tests.
It was noon before they finished with the tests. He ate a late lunch. Then, worn out, he slept. He had just awakened when Mary Redmond came in, about to go off duty. “I have to call my friend in Nyack this evening,” she said. “Do you want me to tell her to hold that room for you?”
He had to think for a moment to remember what she was talking about. When he didn’t answer she said, “I’m not trying to talk you into anything. It’s just for your own good.” She hesitated, then hurried on. “When I mentioned my apartment yesterday I didn’t mean a tiling. I was just thinking of you and a nice place to walk. So don’t get any wrong ideas. If you go to Nyack I may go up there on a day off to see that you are getting the right kind of massage. But beyond that—“
Then he remembered and the whole pattern fell into place. Blue Elk, Benny Grayback, Rowena Ellis, Red Dillon—they had trapped him, every one of them, tried to run his life, make him do things their way. And now Mary Redmond.
“Tell your friend,” he said, “I’ve made other plans.”
“But—but what happened?” She stared at him, then asked, “Did Dr. Ferguson find a place for you?”
“No. I found it all by myself.”
“Oh. … Well, I hope it’s what you need.”
There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. She turned and left the room.
When she had gone, he got pencil and paper and set down figures and added them up. He knew how much he had in the safe at the hotel, the money he had left with the clerk for safekeeping. He estimated the surgeon’s bill and the hospital charges. He made a guess at what he could get for his car. He hated to sell the car, but he had to pay the bills, and he could get another car when he was in the money again.
He added and subtracted and decided that after he had paid train fare and bus fare he would have a hundred and fifty, maybe even two hundred dollars. Enough for a while. At least, he wouldn’t be flat broke. Then he smiled wryly. “Heroes die broke.” Well, he wasn’t dead, and he wasn’t broke. Not quite.
That evening he sat for a long time in the chair beside the window and he remembered another night, long ago, when he sat beside the window in a shabby little Texas hotel, waiting for Red. Red didn’t come in. Red was drunk. And the next day, when Red tried to tell him what to do, how to ride, he had knocked Red down, twice, then walked out because he knew he would kill Red if he had to, to get free. He had only one regret now, about Red. Red never saw him ride on the big circuit.
He sat there a long time before he finally went to bed and to sleep.
The next morning Mary Redmond came in almost as gay as ever. She made his bed, straightened his room, and though she looked at him from time to time she didn’t say a word about the place in Nyack or ask where he was going. She chattered impersonally and when she wasn’t talking she was humming to herself as though afraid of silence between them. Then she brought the wheel chair and let him get into it alone.
“I’ll bet you could walk to the sun porch this morning,” she said. “But you’d better not try. You’re still listed as a chair patient, and if the supervisor saw you we’d both catch hell.”
He went to the porch and she left him there alone for almost an hour. Then she came back and waited for him to say he was ready to go to his room. She gave him a thorough, efficient massage, but she seemed as impersonal about it as though he were someone who had just walked in off the street. She made him feel like an absolute stranger.
When she had finished and left him alone in his room he was tempted to call her back and say he had changed his mind. That he would go to that place in Nyack, that he wanted to be taken care of, comforted, eased, protected. Then he said to himself, angrily and aloud, “You fool! You damned fool! You’ve been taken care of for almost six weeks.”
He pushed Mary Redmond ou
That afternoon, just before she went off duty, Mary came to his room again. He was sitting in the chair beside the window and he started to get to his feet as she came in.
“Don’t get up,” she said. “I just stopped in to say good-bye.”
“I do with all my patients before they go.”
“I’m not leaving till tomorrow.”
“I’ll be off duty tomorrow. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Remember?”
“That’s right.” He had forgotten.
“Well—“ She hesitated. “Well, good-bye. And good luck.”
He was still listening to her footsteps down the hall when Dr. Ferguson came in. He had the reports on the X rays and the tests. Everything, he said, was all right. “I’ll sign your release and check you out before I leave. You can go any time tomorrow. Where did you decide to go, by the way?”
“I’m going back home.”
“Good! Get out in the open air. Eat and sleep and walk. Best exercise you can get, walking. Check in with a doctor out there once a month or so. By the end of summer he’ll probably let you ride again, if it’s a gentle horse. Gentle, I said.”
Tom made no comment. He asked what he owed, and Dr. Ferguson said the records were at his office, but he gave an approximate figure. Tom took the office address. The doctor wished him luck and they shook hands and said good-bye.
Alone, Tom looked around the room and knew he was a stranger here. A total stranger. He didn’t belong here. So he was getting out, going back to the life he did belong to. All he had to do now was close this out and get ready to take up where he left off. By this time tomorrow he would be on the train heading west.
He turned to the window and stared out at the patch of sky beyond the buildings. Blue sky, the calm, gentle, comforting female color. Then he thought of his own name, Tom Black. Black, the harsh, ruthless male color.
He went out into the corridor and walked toward the sun porch, without the wheel chair and with no one at his elbow. He almost wished the supervisor, or someone, would try to stop him. But nobody did.
IV. The Mountains
HE WAS THE ONLY passenger for Pagosa. The bus stopped, he got off and the bus roared and went on toward Bayfield and Durango. He stood for a long minute looking up and down the street, which wound along the valley with its shops and stores on only the one side, facing the sharp slope at the foot of which flowed the San Juan. It was a tumbling mountain stream here, not really a river; it didn’t become a river till it was joined by the Piedra, down at Arboles at the southern edge of the reservation, and began to canyon its way into New Mexico. He looked up and down the street, wondering why he had come. It was only vaguely familiar, like a place in a long forgotten dream. It wasn’t home. But he had to come somewhere.
He picked up his clothes bag and walked up the street, limping slightly. He was stiff and full of dull aches from the long ride in the bus. He wondered if he should have stayed another week in Denver, shrugged and dismissed that thought. Four days had been long enough, four days to recover from the train ride. He couldn’t afford to stay in Denver, even if he had wanted to.
He looked for a restaurant, saw the sign and mentally corrected himself. The Cafe. He went in, set his clothes bag against the wall, hung his hat on the peg above it, and chose a stool at the counter, well away from the four men already there. The waitress, middle-aged, plain, friendly, and with obviously aching feet, brought a glass of water and a menu. He glanced at the menu, ordered coffee and a hot roast beef sandwich. She started toward the kitchen and he called her back. “Cancel the sandwich. Make it a bowl of chili.”
She gave the order and brought a spoon and a paper napkin. He glanced down the counter at the other four men. They were watching him. All were in Levi’s, work clothes. He was conscious of his own clothes, the tan sport jacket, the brown-striped shirt, the tailored gabardines, the fancy-stitched boots. For years he had been stared at, on the street, in hotels and restaurants, and it hadn’t mattered. It was part of being what he was. Now he felt self-conscious.
The waitress brought his chili, pushed the bowl of oyster crackers toward him, and the big shaker of coarsely ground red chili peppers. She brought his coffee and asked, “Come in from the east?”
“The washout all fixed, up the canyon?”
“There’s a long detour between Bayfield and Durango.”
“I’m not going any farther.” He smiled at her. “I’m here.”
“I used to live around here.” Unconsciously, he was trying to make contact with somebody, something.
“Come back for a visit?”
“I may stay a while.”
“There’s worse places.” She smiled and moved down the counter.
The chili wasn’t very good. Too bland, even when he doctored it with the ground peppers. He tasted the coffee. Restaurant coffee. No, cafe coffee. But he drank it and he ate the chili. The waitress came back and he ordered more coffee and lemon pie. It was cafe pie, too.
He finished and went to the desk, and the waitress came to take his money. “Is it all right if I leave my clothes bag here awhile?” he asked.
“Nobody will bother it.”
He put on his hat and went out onto the street again. Two men, Indians, were sitting on the curb in front of the hardware store. One glanced up, stared at him for a moment. He glanced at them and walked on past before he thought that the one who had looked up was someone he knew. He reached back, finally found a name. Luther. Luther who? He glanced over his shoulder. They were both watching him, saying something about him to each other. And the name came: Luther Spotted Dog. His one-time roommate, the boy he had thrown out of the room, with all his gear, and later had beaten up in that fight in the cow barn. Luther Spotted Dog! In worn, dirty Levi’s, looking like a skid-row character.
He went on, came to a market, Thatcher’s Market, the sign said. Thatcher? Then he remembered. He stared through the big window. The place was all changed, a market now, not just a store. And another memory came back, of a boy and a bear cub and a crowd of men here in the street, right here, the men threatening to kill the cub. And Jim Thatcher coming out and warning them to leave the two alone, both the boy and the cub.
He was tempted to go in, see if Jim Thatcher was still there. Probably not. It was a long time ago. Even if he were there, Jim Thatcher probably wouldn’t remember. What would it matter, even if he did?
Tom turned away, went on up the street, then came back. Luther Spotted Dog and the other man had gone. He crossed the street to a bench, started to sit down, then went on down the slope a little way toward the stream and sat down on the ground. A startled magpie flew squawking from a nearby aspen, long-tailed and strikingly black and white. He watched the water, glinting in the sun as it splashed along its rocky bed.
He had wondered all the way from Denver to Wolf Creek Pass what it would be like. Then, as the road wound steeply down from the pass through the pines and aspens the smells began to touch the quick of his being, the resinous pine smell, the damp woods smell, the clean smell of fast water, and it was almost painful, the way it cut down through the layers of the years. He finally had to close his eyes and make himself aware of the bus smells to ease it, the odors of people and dust and hot oil and exhaust fumes. Then the bus began to pass small ranches and streamside fishing camps and cabins and he could look again, smell again. Now, sitting here in the sun, watching the flashing stream, he found himself blocking out the sounds and smells of the street behind him.
He sat there half an hour, then decided he’d better find some place to stay. A cheap room somewhere. But first he had to get some other clothes. In these he looked like a millionaire dude. There weren’t any cheap rooms for anybody dressed like this.
He went back across the street to the clothing store. A clerk, dressed like New York or Chicago, g
Tom said, “I need some work clothes.” The clerk looked him over, head to foot, and asked, “What did you have in mind?”
The clerk led him to a counter, showed him a pair of tight-cut, fancy-stitched denim pants. Tom shook his head. “Work clothes,” he repeated, then glanced at himself. “I’ve got the dude kind,” he said with a smile.
Another man came in, a man in dusty Levi’s and a black hat mottled with sweat stains. He stood at the desk while the clerk took Tom toward the back of the store, to a pile of folded Levi’s cut for ease, not style. He chose a pair in Tom’s size, held them up. Tom nodded. “And a couple of shirts and a brush jacket.”
The clerk asked his shirt size, brought the blue work shirts and a short denim jacket. Tom tried it on, asked for more shoulder room. Then asked, “Have you got a place where I can change?”
The clerk took him to a fitting room and Tom put on the work clothes, then came out and told the clerk he wanted a pair of plain work boots. While he was fitting the boots the clerk asked, “You staying around here?” It was a conversational question.
“I used to live around here.” Then, with a smile, “I used to herd sheep, over near Bayfield.”
The clerk chuckled. It was a joke, but he would go along with it. The dress boots Tom had just taken off cost eighty-five dollars a pair, and the clerk knew it. And that mohair jacket must have cost at least a hundred.
They went back to the desk and the clerk carefully folded the mohair jacket, the gabardine slacks, the striped shirt, and packed them with the spare blue work shirt in a box. He wrapped the eighty-five-dollar boots. Tom paid his bill and turned to leave.
The man who had come in while Tom was choosing the Levi’s said, “Did I hear you say you used to herd sheep?”
“That’s right.” Tom smiled, sharing the joke with him.
“You wouldn’t know where I could find a good herder, would you?”
Tom shook his head. Then, following the same impulse that made him talk to the waitress, he asked, “What do you need a herder for at this time of year? Your flocks must all be out on grass by now.”
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes