When the Legends Die, p.23Hal Borland
“One bronc rider,” Woodward said, “was a dead ringer for you. His name was Tom Black. Ever know him?”
“Quite a rider, I judge.”
“That’s what they say.”
“What ever happened to him?” Woodward asked with a smile.
“He’s still around.”
Woodward seemed pleased with his discovery and didn’t press Tom for more information. He finished his coffee, set his plate aside. “Well, come on, let’s have a look at the sheep. I’m going to move them down in another couple of weeks.”
They got in the pickup and drove out to the flock, went slowly around them, Woodward stopping from time to time to look and appraise. “Let them get all the grass they can before the drive,” he said. “I like to start them in good shape. I’ll bring men up from the home ranch to help move them.”
They drove back toward the camp and Woodward said, “I told you when I hired you that I keep good herders on for the winter. Want to stay?”
“I’ve got other plans.”
Woodward smiled. “Think you’re ready to ride again?”
“Huh! I knew when I hired you that you weren’t a sheep-herder. But I needed a man, and you seemed to know sheep and you knew this part of the country, so I took a gamble. I will say you’ve done a damn good job, at that.”
Tom got out at the tent. Woodward said, “See you in a couple of weeks,” and drove back down the valley.
NOW THAT HE HAD committed himself, Tom began to plan. He had the rodeo schedule in his clothes bag, but he hadn’t looked at it since he left the hospital. He got it out and decided Albuquerque was the place to start. He’d always had good luck there, and it was close by.
Two more weeks. He would pick up his summer’s pay, buy a used car, have enough to carry him a few weeks, and get going. He wished he had a string of horses to tune up with. But he hadn’t, so he would have to start cold. You don’t forget, though. The skills and reflexes are still there. After all, it was his reflexes and his sense of balance that got him walking again. And even with old Mac, the plug, he had the feel of the saddle. It would all come back, just as soon as he straddled a bronc.
But he increased his walking, to strengthen his legs, and he chopped wood to loosen his shoulders and back. He forced old Mac to a lope and a gallop, to know that his hips and that thighbone could take it. And he reminded himself that he had no pain, hadn’t even felt a twinge of the deep aches for several weeks.
A week passed. He counted the days, impatient for Woodward to come and take the flock.
The second day of the final week he took the flock to a small meadow just north of the camp meadow, where the grass was specially lush. From the far edge of the little meadow he could see both Granite Peak and Bald Mountain, and he sat there in the grass looking at them, wishing he had time to go and see them close up again. In the fall, with aspen gold and scrub oak red. Another month or six weeks and they would be beautiful. Then the leaves would fall and you would be able to see forty miles in the clear autumn air. Those perfect fall days when you felt that the whole world was yours and you had been here forever. Mountains did that to you, these mountains. Then winter would come, snow and silence, and the deep, deep green of pine and spruce. He’d like to know winter here again, too.
Then he thought: I’ll be in California by then. Winding up the season, taking a rest, getting ready to open the circuit again in January.
He turned from the mountains and looked at the sheep, scattered over the little meadow. It was past midafternoon and they would soon begin to move back toward the camp meadow. To water at the creek, graze another hour, then bed down. Another day almost over. Another day nearer the circuit.
He was looking at the sheep, not really seeing them, when old Mac snorted. The horse was a hundred yards away. It jerked up its head, pointed its ears and began to dance sideways, watching a tongue of brush that spilled out of the timber from a shallow gully that washed into the meadow from the uphill side. The dogs leaped up, bristling and growling, and Tom started to get to his feet. He was still on his knees when the bear lunged out of the brush. It moved with deceptive speed, sweeping into a little band of sheep. It slapped with one big paw. The sheep blatted and ran in every direction, but a fat lamb lay there quivering, its neck broken.
Tom was on his feet, shouting. The bear lifted its head, heaved itself up onto its hind legs for a better look, then dropped to all fours again and nosed the lamb. Tom ran toward it, a scant two hundred yards away, the dogs just ahead of him. The bear hesitated an instant, then picked up the lamb in its jaws, turned and went back into the brush.
Tom shouted to the dogs, “Bring them in! Gather them!” They hesitated, and he gave the hand signals, shouted again, “Gather them, you damn fools!” and the dogs raced to pull the panicky flock together. Tom hurried on.
He came to the tongue of brush, heard the bear crashing through the underbrush up the mountainside. The trail was easy to follow. He went up the slope a hundred yards and came to a little opening in the timber, and there, not fifty yards away, he saw die bear. It had stopped, the lamb still in its jaws, and faced him across the little clearing.
He stepped into the open and paused. The bear peered at him, dropped the lamb and rumbled a deep growl that ended in a hoarse, coughing grunt. It took a few steps toward him and he shouted, “Stop! Stop that! Get out of here!” It stopped, seemed to bunch its muscles for a rush. He shouted at it again. It swung its head from side to side, backed away a few steps. Then it growled once more, picked up the lamb and turned and went on up the mountain.
Tom watched it go, then wiped his face as though wiping away cobwebs. He felt the sweat flowing down his neck, down his belly under his shirt. His legs were so weak he had to sit down. Then he heard the sheep blatting and the dogs barking, and he went back down the slope. He thought what a fool he had been, following a bear into the brush without a weapon, not even a belt knife. The rifle was still in the saddle boot, and the horse was all the way across the meadow.
The sheep were charging about and the dogs were trying desperately to bunch them, almost as frantic as the sheep. He called the dogs, signaled them to ease up, let the sheep quiet down, and he went across the meadow and caught old Mac. The horse was still so skittish it side-jumped and bucked a couple of times when he mounted, catching him by surprise and making him grab the saddle horn for an instant. Then the leaders of the flock began to move toward the gap and back toward the camp meadow. He circled to help the dogs gather the stragglers, but the horse wouldn’t go near the place where the bear had been. Tom sent the dogs, but they too smelled the bear and the blood and forgot the sheep until he shouted them back to business.
Finally he had the whole flock lining through the gap. But even on the home meadow they continued to mill and run from their own shadows for another hour before they quieted down. Then, the sun already set, he went in, made a quick meal of bacon and eggs, and mounted again and rode around the bedded flock several times. The sheep reasonably quiet at last, he went back to the fire, picketed the horse still saddled, threw a blanket over his shoulders and sat sipping coffee and going over the afternoon’s events. The whole incident now seemed like an outlandish dream. Even his own actions were incredible. The more he thought about them, the more annoyed he was at himself. He had acted like a damned fool, charging up the hillside barehanded after a bear that had just made a kill. Then walking right out into the open with the bear not fifty yards away and hollering at it. It was all very stupid.
He looked out across the meadow. The sheep were bedded quietly, like a vast gray rug shimmering in the moonlight. Here and there a nervous old ewe got to her feet, blatted, then lay down again. It was like almost any other night. The air was chill, the aspens whispered, there was the soft sigh of air moving among the pines. Everything was peaceful. Even the dogs were asleep. He should go to sleep himself.
But something nagged at h
He rode slowly around the meadow until he approached the tongue of brush. Then the horse began to snort and fight the rein. He tried to force it close, but it shied and danced sideways, refused. The bear smell was still there. He gave up, let the horse have its way, and rode back the way he had come, back to the fire. At least, he had proved that it wasn’t something he had imagined.
He picketed the horse again, took the rifle from the saddle boot, built the fire up and rolled up in the blanket beside it, the rifle close at hand. If there was any disturbance in the night he would hear the sheep, or the dogs would waken him.
But he didn’t go to sleep at once. He went over the incident of the bear again, recalling details. It was a big bear, and it stood high in the shoulders. Its head was broad and he was sure its face was dished. It had a grizzled look, almost frosty.
Then he thought maybe it wasn’t really grizzled. It might have been the light that made it look that way. Maybe its face wasn’t dished. And he thought: You fool! What are you trying to do? Tell yourself crazy stories? The herder who shot himself in the foot said there were bears around. Bears, not grizzlies. You made enough of a fool of yourself this afternoon. Forget it.
And finally he went to sleep. But he slept fitfully, waking several times, once with such a start that he grabbed the rifle and leaped to his feet, only to see the sheep sleeping quietly.
Then it was dawn, and he got up for the day, washed himself awake, put the rifle in the saddle boot, and cooked and ate breakfast. And told himself he had been jumpy, seeing ghosts, imagining things. So he had seen a bear. The bear got a lamb. He had been so jumpy he hadn’t even got one shot at the bear. It probably wouldn’t come back, but if it did he would shoot it, and that would be that. Tom Black, he jeered at himself, Killer Tom Black, who sees a bear and runs after it empty-handed and hollers, “Boo!”
The sheep left their bedground, began to graze. He rode out to them, sat in the sun for an hour. Just a few more days and he would be through with the sheep, through with this stupid job. But it had been a good summer, in a way. He’d got over the smashup, which was the important thing. Now he could go back and pick up where he left off. He had got a few things in place, too. Old Blue Elk, for instance. He wished he knew what had happened to Blue Elk, though it didn’t really matter. The old buzzard was dead by now, must be. And seeing Luther Spotted Dog, there on the curb in Pagosa the day he arrived, had been a kind of satisfaction. Luther obviously wasn’t worth a damn, not even to himself. He did hope Luther recognized him, knew who he was and what he had done. But that didn’t matter either. None of them mattered.
He sat for an hour, knowing that he was putting something off. Something he had to do, something he had to know before he left here. And finally he caught old Mac, mounted and rode to the little meadow of the afternoon before. He didn’t try to force the horse all the way to the tongue of brush, but got off and let him graze and went on foot. He took the rifle, just in case, telling himself that a fool’s luck might not be repeated. If he saw the bear again it might charge him.
He went on foot to the brush and he searched for tracks. There wasn’t a track, so he pushed his way cautiously through the brush and began to climb the slope. He reached the little clearing, and there he found what he was looking for. In a patch of soft earth he found a paw print, the mark of a bear’s hind paw. There was the long triangular sole print, the mark of five toes, and four claw marks. One claw had left no mark. The print was six inches across and at least ten inches long. The claw marks were well ahead of the toes. He looked at it a long time. Then he looked for more tracks, found two, both smudged and indistinct. And at last he went back down the slope, caught the horse and rode back to the flock. That, he told himself, was that.
But that evening, sitting beside the fire with his last cup of coffee, he admitted that he wished he hadn’t found the track. Now things kept coming back, things he had thought were disposed of long ago. And he knew why he hadn’t gone into Thatcher’s Market. Jim Thatcher might still be there, and he might remember. Why rake up the old memories? Sure, he was an Indian. A Ute, as he had made it clear to Woodward. But he wasn’t a clout Indian, or a reservation Indian. He’d made something of himself, forced them to accept him. He was Tom Black, the bronc rider they would remember a long time. Killer Tom Black, by God! He told Woodward his name was Tom Black Bull, but that was like telling the clerk in the clothing store he used to herd sheep, a kind of backhanded brag. If you said it first they couldn’t say it back with a nasty twist.
Well, he had found the track, and he had gone over the memories, and that was that. He was sorry he had acted like a fool instead of killing the damned bear, but it was too late to do anything about the now.
He put the whole thing out of his head, called it a day, went into the tent and to bed. And dreamed about his mother and the lodge and the winter she died. And chanted the death chant and waked himself up. He went outside and looked at the peaceful night, talked to the dogs till the chill got to him, then went back to bed.
WOODWARD ARRIVED IN the pickup with two men from the home ranch. They would herd the flock on foot, Woodward said, five miles or so down the valley today. The big truck would meet them there with the horse trailer and mounts for the herders, and the crew would have camp set up. They would go ahead and set up camp each night along the way. The trip would take about ten days.
“The boys will start moving them right out,” Woodward said. “You pack the gear and stow it in my pickup while I help them get started. They’ll take the dogs but leave the horse, and you can catch up with the flock.”
“You don’t plan on my going all the way in with them?” Tom asked.
“Not if you want to get away. I won’t really need you after we get them down out of here.”
“I’d rather not go all the way in.”
“O.K. I’m going on home tomorrow and you can ride along with me. To Piedra, or Pagosa, or all the way to Antonito, wherever you want to go.”
“That’ll be fine,” Tom started packing and Woodward went to help the herders start the flock down the valley. When he came back Tom had everything stowed. “See you in camp this evening,” Woodward said, and he drove off.
Tom mounted old Mac and started to follow, then turned back. He wanted one more look. He rode across the meadow to the place where he could see Granite Peak and Bald Mountain, and he sat in the saddle for some time, just looking. Then he turned and went back past the camp site and down toward the valley. He caught up with the flock about two miles below, the sheep strung out and grazing their way. He fell in behind them, said he would keep the drags moving, and the two herders on foot moved up to the flanks of the flock to keep the strays out of the deep timber.
They camped that night in a big meadow six miles above Piedra Town, where the rest of the crew had supper ready and bedrolls waiting. Woodward brought his plate and sat beside Tom to eat. “So you’re going back to rodeoing?” he asked.
“Kind of gets in your blood, I guess. If you’re really good. How long you been riding in the big time?”
“Quite a while.” Tom didn’t want to talk about it.
“Maybe I’ll go in to Denver and see you, next time around.”
Tom made no comment. They ate and Woodward went back for a second helping. When he came back he said, “Meant to ask, did you have any bear trouble up there?”
“No trouble. I only saw one bear. It got a lamb.”
“I didn’t even get a shot. It never ca
“Probably the one Manuel was talking about. A big old cinnamon, wasn’t it?”
“It could have been, maybe.”
“What do you mean, maybe?” Woodward laughed. “It was! Had to be. There aren’t any grizzlies left. Jim Boone shot the last one four years ago, out deer hunting over near Granite Peak. Emptied his .30-30 into it before he put it down. A big devil, old as the hills. Right, Charley?” he asked the supply man. “You saw its hide.”
“That grizzly of Jim Boone’s?” Charley asked. “Big as a horse barn! Scared the hell out of me, just looking at the hide.”
“Every now and then,” Woodward said, “somebody still reports a grizzly. Always turns out to be a big cinnamon. See one in the right light, though, he can fool you. Looks downright frosty. You ever see a grizzly?” he asked Tom.
“Dish-faced, high in the shoulder. Leaves tracks that long.” He held his hands a foot apart.
Someone spoke of the flavor of bear meat. The talk turned to wild game in general. Tom paid no attention, was almost unaware of either the talk or the men around him. Everything had changed. He didn’t know why. All he knew was that things had changed and that he had no choice. He had things straight, as he had planned to have them, but they came out at another place. He knew what he had to do. It was all clear now.
Then he heard two of the men arguing over the merits of fat bear meat and fat elk, and he got up and went to his bedroll.
The next morning he told Woodward he would go only as far as Piedra Town. Woodward nodded. “Just as you say.”
So they rode the few miles in to Piedra, Woodward paid him off and as they left the bank Woodward said, “Well, Tom Black, good luck. If things don’t pan out and you ever need a job, look me up. But I’ll plan on watching you ride in Denver.”
They shook hands and Woodward headed east, toward Pagosa and the road over the divide to Antonito and the home ranch. Tom looked around for the grocery and the hardware store. Half an hour later, in the hardware store lashing his pack, he looked out and saw the big Woodward truck, Charley at the wheel and the empty horse trailer behind it, go down the street on its way to the next camp site.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes