When the Legends Die, p.22Hal Borland
“They are. Up on summer range. But I lost a herder last week. Damn fool shot himself in the foot. Had gangrene when my supply man found him. May lose his leg.”
“Where is this flock?”
“On the Piedra, up on Horse Mountain.”
“Good grass up there. Used to be, anyway.”
“Still is. You know that country?”
“I’ve been there.”
“Your face is familiar. Do I know you? My name’s Jim Woodward.”
“I’m Tom Black Bull.” He said the name without thinking.
Woodward shook his head. “No, I guess not.” He turned to the clerk. “You know a herder looking for a job, Henry?”
Tom left them, went out and started down the street. Then, on impulse, he turned back and met Jim Woodward as he was leaving the clothing store. “I’ll take that flock for you,” Tom said.
“What!” Jim Woodward stared at him, unbelieving. Then he asked, “You mean that?”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Woodward laughed. “In the cafe, a little while ago, I said you probably were an actor from that movie crowd over at Durango. If you don’t mind my asking, what do you want to herd sheep for? The job is yours, but I’m just plain damn curious.”
“I’ve been laid up a while, sick. I want to get out in the hills doing something that’s not too hard work for a while.”
“How soon can you go?”
“Any time. Right now.”
“Well, come on! I’ve got a man from the home ranch up there holding the flock, but I need him in the hay field. Throw your things in the pickup over there while I get a couple boxes of .30-30 shells. I’ll be right with you.”
THEY HEADED WEST ON the highway. Woodward asked only a few questions, and Tom gave short answers.
“I’ve been back East. … A broken leg. But they pinned it and it’s all right now to walk on, the doctor says. … I’m Ute, not Navaho.”
Tom asked questions and Woodward said the home ranch was in the San Luis Valley, over near Antonito. He ran twelve to fifteen thousand head of sheep, parceled them out in flocks of two thousand head or so and sent them into the high country for summer range. Fed out his own lambs in the fall, wintered his ewes on the home ranch. He had three flocks between Pagosa and Durango. “Trail them out to summer range, back in the fall. My supply man makes the rounds once a week. If a good herder wants to stay on, I’ve got work for him at the home ranch all winter. If you know that Horse Mountain country, you’ll make out. Only, for God’s sake, if you got to shoot yourself, do it in the head and make a clean job of it.” Woodward laughed wryly. “God, how gangrene stinks! Just like a flyblown sheep carcass.”
At Piedra Town they turned north, up the river and into the hills, following a track that couldn’t even be called a wagon trail. Woodward was so busy driving he had no time to talk. The track crossed the shadow Piedra half a dozen times and zigzagged up the valley, much of the way slow going for the pickup. Remembering his own trips up and down the valley long ago, Tom thought they made incredibly fast time. Before he could believe it they were at the foot of Horse Mountain, making their way around it. Then they climbed a sharp slope, topped out on a flat shoulder and came to a big natural meadow edged half a mile away by aspens and scattered pines. The flock was grazing at the far edge, just this side of the timber. The herder wasn’t in sight, but a saddled horse lifted its head from grazing and watched them.
Woodward drove past a gray pyramid tent beside a small creek, gave it a nod, and drove slowly out across the meadow toward the sheep. A man got to his feet, waved, and two dogs barked. The man walked toward them and Woodward drew up beside him. “Dave,” Woodward shouted above the roar of the motor, “this is Tom. He’s going to take the flock. Come on in and show him where things are and we’ll head for home.”
Dave nodded to Tom. He was a tall, sinewy farm boy in his late twenties. He went to catch up the saddle horse, and Woodward drove slowly along the edge of the flock, appraising, then turned and drove back to the tent. They got out and Tom saw that Dave kept a neat camp. The Dutch oven beside the flat stones at the cooking fireplace was clean, the coffeepot was airing, the skillet had been scoured. Dave rode up, the dogs with him, and showed Tom the tin-covered grub box, the cooler in the creek with meat and butter, the kerosene can for the lantern. He flipped open the tent flaps, pointed to the blankets neatly drawn up on the folding canvas cot. “ No bugs. Anything I hate is a lousy bed. I finally got them all cleaned out.” He turned to the dogs. “Shep and Spot know the hand signals, good dogs. And old Mac—” nodding toward the bay gelding—“is a lazy old plug, but he doesn’t wander. You don’t have to hobble him.”
Woodward was getting restless. He handed Tom his clothes bag from the pickup, then picked up the boxes of .30-30 shells. “Almost forgot these. You may need them.”
Dave nodded. “There’s a bear or two around. I haven’t seen one, but Manual said he did. The rifle’s in the saddle boot. She’s sighted in at a hundred yards and shoots good and flat.” He, too, was eager to be off. “That about cover things?”
“I think so.”
Dave and Woodward got into the truck. “Anything comes up, ask Charley, the supply man. He’ll be around Thursday,” Woodward said. “Or is it Wednesday up here, Dave?”
“Thursday.” Woodward was gunning the motor. “Good luck!” Dave shouted as Woodward swung the pickup around, headed toward the valley.
Tom watched them out of sight, heard the motor a few minutes longer, then just stood and listened to the silence. It was unbelievable. He had forgotten. Then he heard the burbling of the creek, the whispering of the aspens just across the creek, but those sounds were like a part of the silence, the peace.
One of the dogs nosed his hand. He rubbed its ear, then looked at the flock, beginning to loosen up, scatter into the edge of the timber. He ordered the dogs to go pull the flock together, but they were baffled by his words. Without thinking, he remembered the hand signals Albert Left Hand used, made them, and the dogs raced across the meadow toward the sheep. He looked at the saddle horse, was tempted to mount and follow the dogs, but decided against riding. He walked, leading the horse, and the grass underfoot felt strangely soft. It had been a long time since he walked on grass. His legs were stiff and his hips were sore from the pickup ride, but he walked all the way to the flock. The dogs had pulled them together again. He looped the reins loosely over the saddle horn, let the horse graze, and sat down to rest. He was breathing fast, unused to the thin air. It would take a few days to get acclimated again.
He sat, savoring the pine-scented air, resting his eyes on the nearby green, the distant blue. Then he looked at his Levi’s, still new and stiff, and at his plain work boots, and knew he was an outlander, a stranger. He heard lambs bleating for their mothers, ewes blatting their answer, and he smiled at the irony. He had come west to rest, to start over. But he hadn’t expected to go all the way back to his beginnings. He was a sheepherder again, right back where he started.
He plucked a blade of grass, chewed it, watched the sheep and welcomed the warmth of the sun on his back. Midafternoon passed and the sun began to slip down toward the peaks to the west. The sheep were working back across the meadow toward the creek. When the long shadows reached him he caught the horse, reached for the stirrup and swung into the saddle without thinking. Then he felt a twinge in his right leg and an ache across his hips, but there was no real pain. He reined the horse around toward the sheep, thinking it had been almost two months since he had been in a saddle, years since he had been on a gentle horse. He rode along the edge of the flock, the horse at a walk, following the sheep toward the creek. They took their time and when they reached the water they scattered along it and drank their fill, then turned back onto the grass. They would graze for another hour, until late dusk, before they bedded down.
He rode over to his camp, unsaddled the horse and hung the saddle from a rope over a low branch of
He sat for another half hour before the chill deepened the aches in his tired muscles and complaining joints. He got up, tempted to bring out a blanket and roll up in it under the stars, the night close around him. But he knew that was foolish. He went into the tent, undressed in the dark, got into bed and was asleep in five minutes.
It was dawn when he wakened. He pushed back the blankets, pulled on his pants and his boots, went outside. The dogs, sleeping curled up beside the stones of the fireplace, stretched and yawned and whined a greeting. He went to the creek, washed in the icy water and noticed the night’s dew dripping from the bushes. He had forgotten how wet everything was in a mountain dawn, and how chilly. He filled the coffeepot, built a fire, set bacon to fry. The sheep had begun to leave their bedground. They would graze contentedly where they were for another hour.
He had a first cup of coffee, then he mixed batter and fried pancakes in the bacon grease. He fed the dogs and ate his own breakfast, and the sun came up over the range to the east and shimmered the morning mist that hung over the meadow. Jays began to scream and one came close to the fire, expecting a handout. He tossed it a piece of pancake. A long-tailed magpie scolded but didn’t come near.
He fried the last of the batter in one big cake and flipped it onto the stones to cool for the birds and the chipmunks. When he had washed his dishes he got the packet of stew meat from the cooler and set it to cook with onions and potatoes in the Dutch oven. By the time he had made his bed old Mac came up expecting to be saddled. Tom obliged him, mounted, called the dogs and went out to gather the sheep, which had scattered all over the meadow. Once they were bunched, he rode a slow circle of the meadow, orienting himself.
He couldn’t remember ever being here, in this particular meadow, though he was sure he had been in the valley just below. On the way up in the pickup he had seen a dozen places that looked familiar, but distances were distorted, the pickup at its slowest traveling two or three times as fast as a man would on foot. He was sure there were other places he would recognize, once he let the layers of time slip off. Time, he thought, was like the onions he had just peeled. Layer on layer, and to get down to the heart of things you let the layers peel off, one by one.
He circled the meadow, finding hidden gaps among the trees that led to other, smaller, meadows which he marked in his mind to graze when the sheep had grazed down the big meadow. Then he came to a place where the timbered slope fell away steeply and a wide vista opened to the north and the west. The mountains stood in deceptive ranks, scattered but looking like successive ranges, each with its own degree of shadow and distance. Two peaks, well apart, loomed above the others, the gray bulk of one perhaps fifteen miles to the northwest, the bald upthrust of the other half again as far directly north. He smiled, recognizing them. Granite Peak, the closer one, to the northwest, and Bald Mountain to the north. He sat in the saddle a long time, just looking. Then he rode back to the flock, sat in the grass, let the horse graze, and felt another layer of time slowly peeling off.
Noon, the sun overhead, and he walked back to camp and ate a plateful of stew. And all afternoon he sat in the sun or walked and let the peace and the silence soak into him. Evening, supper, a last walk around the bedded flock.
“Eat, and sleep, and walk,” Dr. Ferguson had ordered. Remembering, he smiled. There wasn’t much else for a sheepherder to do, even if he wanted to.
CHARLEY, THE SUPPLY MAN, came on schedule. He was wiry, curly-haired, in his late thirties. He was talkative full of gossip and stories, profane, vulgar and friendly. He stayed almost an hour, cursing the rocks and the difficult trail, talking of women and liquor. He said that Manuel, the herder who shot himself in the foot, had been operated on. “Took his leg off, right up to the knee, the poor bastard. He’ll have a hell of a time chasing the women now.” But the curses, the woman talk, even the sympathy for Manuel, were conversational, nothing more. At last he asked, “Got any problems I should report to the boss?” Tom shook his head. “See you next week,” Charley said, and he got into the truck and went back the way he had come.
Tom put the fresh meat and the butter into the cooler, stowed the groceries, and was glad to be alone. But that night he dreamed about Blue Elk. The old man came to him in his dreams, with his derby hat and his well-oiled braids and his squeaky shoes and his insistent talk. “The old songs have been sung,” Blue Elk said. “The old ways are gone.”
In the dream Tom was no longer a boy. He was a man, come back after the long years. But Blue Elk talked as though he was still a boy. “You must learn the new ways,” Blue Elk said. “You must learn to read the white man’s reading and write his writing. You must learn to plow and plant the field as he says.”
And Tom asked, “Did you learn to plow and plant, Blue Elk? Did you learn to read and write?”
“I am an old man,” Blue Elk said. “I speak for your own good.”
Tom said “I learned. Don’t you know who I am, Blue Elk? I am Devil Tom Black, the Killer. I killed you, Blue Elk, and I killed Benny Grayback and the others. I would have killed Red Dillon, but he killed himself. Do you know that, Blue Elk?”
And the man in front of him wasn’t Blue Elk at all. It was Red Dillon, and Red was laughing at him. “When you feel that way,” Red said, “don’t try to take it out on me. Take it out on the horses, where you’ve got a chance.”
“I took it out on the horses!” Tom cried.
And Red laughed at him again and tilted a bottle and drank and wiped the bottle on his sleeve and offered it to Tom. Tom took a swallow and his head reeled, and Red was gone, and there was Blue Elk again. And Tom was a boy chanting an old song, a song long forgotten, of the earth rhythm and the water rhythm and the rhythm of the days and the seasons. He chanted and Blue Elk began to sway in the white man’s highbacked chair, to sway and chant, humming the words he couldn’t remember. His voice rose to a mournful pitch, a howl that swelled and faded and swelled again.
Tom wakened, roused by his own voice and the howling, and after a moment he knew he had been dreaming. The light of the late moon shone through the tent with dull radiance and one of the dogs was howling just outside. Tom got up, flung back the tent flap and spoke sharply to the dog. It wagged its tail, cringing at his voice, and came low-bellied to him and licked his hand. He rubbed its ears and spoke to it and it went back and curled up beside the fireplace. He went back to bed and, after a time, to untroubled sleep.
The next morning he went naked to the creek and bathed in the icy water. As he got out and rubbed warmth into his legs and body he wondered why he had done it. It was sheer punishment to bathe in the creek at dawn. He usually took his bath in late afternoon, when the air was warm. But when he hurried back and got into his clothes he felt the glow all over his body and was glad he had done it. He built a fire, cooked his breakfast and set his camp in order. Then he saddled the horse and rode out to the flock, remembering the dream and the howling dog. He knew why he had that dream. The supply man reminded him of Red, and thinking of Red he had thought back to Blue Elk. Nothing mysterious about that.
He rode out to the flock, and he walked and sat in the sun and came in for his noon meal, and went back and told himself it was just another day, another day of waiting. Getting paid for waiting and healing himself, to be ready to get back to the arena. Then he smelled the smells of the arena, heard the sounds. He felt the remembered jolt of a bronc as it lunged out of the chute. He sensed the pattern, lunge-lunge-lunge, half spin, sid
And caught himself. He had made that ride on the big roan in the Garden plenty of times. No need to go over it again. He stretched his right leg, tensed his thigh, felt the soreness still there. Not much, but some. He got to his feet, walked along the edge of the flock. He still had a slight limp. He was entitled to that. It was as much a part of him as that stiff left shoulder. The gimps, the scars, they were the marks of his trade. He was a bronc rider.
Then he laughed at himself. Tom Black, Killer Tom, herding sheep!
The days passed, and weeks marked only by the arrival of Charley, the supply man. Jays came to share his breakfast each morning and chipmunks sat on his knee and ate crumbs from his hand at the noon meal. Then one afternoon he plucked grass stems and wove a basket half the size of his fist, his fingers remembering a forgotten skill. Having done it, he knew it was silly, childish. But he hung it in a bush where a field mouse looking for an abandoned bird nest might find it and line it with fluff for a winter haven.
He grazed the flock in the smaller meadows near by, and coming back one evening to the bedground he surprised two does and their four fawns watering at the creek close by the tent. Seeing that the fawns were losing their spots, he realized how swiftly the season was passing. The sun was moving south, the days shortening. And a few mornings later he saw a white cap of snow on Pagosa Peak, far off to the northeast.
Then Woodward arrived again.
Tom was eating his noon meal when Woodward drove up. He got out the other tin plate and cup, poured coffee and told Woodward to help himself to the stew. Woodward asked the expected questions, about the sheep, the supplies, the grass. He kept watching Tom, and finally he said, “Found some rodeo pictures the other day in an old magazine.”
Tom went on eating, made no comment.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes