He wasn't riding for time or for the crowd. He was riding for himself. And he wasn't riding the bay. He was riding a hurt and a hate, deep inside. The blood drummed in his ears, his teeth ached with the pounding, but he held his rhythm.
In Chapter 23, Borland writes of Tom's thoughts during a particularly rough bronco ride. Tom's treatment of the broncos he rides represents the classic defense mechanism of projection. Projection occurs when a frustrated individual channels his anger in a way that society finds acceptable. In fact, Freud believed that individual frustration arises when external or internal barriers prevent the type of behavior that might directly remedy the frustration. In Tom's case, his Ute heritage provides an internal barrier: discouraged from living in the old Ute ways, he desires acceptance from his peers. People like Blue Elk, Benny, Albert Left Hand, and Red provide external barriers and take advantage of Tom because of low self-confidence.
He looked at the sky, the blue roundness of the sky, and he looked at the roundness of the aspen trunks. He closed his eyes and sang a silent chant to the roundness of all things, the great roundness of life.
The cyclical nature of the novel and of Tom's life becomes clear in Chapter 48, when Tom not only returns to the environment in which he was born, but also in his emotional return to the beliefs of his childhood. He once again remarks on the "roundness" of which his mother had taught him, which signifies the continuity of the Ute tradition as well as the spiritual sense of eternity.
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, had tried to run his life, make him do things their way. And now Mary Redmond.
Through the author's description of Tom's thoughts in Chapter 41, it becomes clear why Tom resents Mary and fears her control of him. Because his last, violent ride has so seriously injured him, he feels vulnerable and exposed by his weakness. While Mary has the best intentions for Tom's well being, the circumstances of his past skew his perspective and convince him that she intends to control him rather than help him. Having struggled for years to gain his independence, Tom remains exceedingly wary of once again becoming dependent on another person.
Now he faced it, and the nightmare came at last to its conclusion. Coldly analyzing it, he knew his own fear had force 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 bronco rider wasn't afraid of man, beast or devil. Especially Tom Black, Killer Tom Black. But you don't rise 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 bronco to a standstill, and the fear with it.
In Chapter 39, as Tom lies in his hospital bed, he attempts to analyze his fall at the Garden in the New York City rodeo. In a rare moment, Tom recognizes his fear, but soon pushes it from his thoughts once again. His struggles deal with man's fundamental relationship with nature and with animals. Traditional Ute belief dictates that man, at least at times, must fear animals and, thereby, respect them. Rodeo culture, however, values brutality and fearlessness over respect, and Tom feels the pressure to overcome this fear accordingly.
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.
The quote from the end of Chapter 43 speaks to Tom's feelings of renewal and rebirth. When Tom returns to native environment, he resumes the activities of his Ute upbringing. His interaction with the creatures of the wilderness represents a renewed communion with the natural world. The environment and the renewal of the rituals of his heritage create a connection to his youth that he has not felt for decades.