When the Legends Die
Part III: The Arena: Chapters 28–30
In the fall, Tom and Red travel to various competitions in Colorado, where Tom's skill in the saddle becomes clear to all spectators. As a result, the two become unable to fool the crowd with Tom's contrived losses. Refusing to stay in an environment where he cannot win bets, Red forces Tom to travel on to Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, where Red succeeds in winning countless bets before the end of the fall circuit. Red and Tom travel home to spend the winter in anticipation of the spring competitions, the first of which takes place in late February in southern Arizona. Finding a lack of opportunities there, they proceed to Red's hometown of Crockett, Texas, but again find few rodeos. Tom has significant difficulties riding during this particular spring, unable to win even when Red tells him he must. Having lost many bets, Red becomes furious and curses Tom, who futilely begs Red to head home. Red demands, rather, that they travel to a competition in Uvalde County. In Uvalde, while Red sleeps off his drunkenness, Tom visits the arena alone and realizes that he has become bored with the rodeo scene and the sameness of the conversations, atmosphere, and people. Reminiscing about his childhood, Tom ponders his future and begins to question his identity and his profession.
When Tom returns to the hotel, Red, in his customary way, insists that Tom lose the final round of competition. However, Tom reacts differently this time, refusing to lose the competition on purpose. The argument escalates into a physical fight in which Tom knocks Red down, storming out of the hotel to head to the final round of competition. While Tom succeeds in riding the bronco to a standstill, he does it with anger, frustration, hatred, and a sense of vengeance. When Tom returns to the hotel after his victory, he finds Red passed out; Red has stayed at the hotel to drink during the competition. Finding seven hundred dollars in his pockets, he leaves ten dollars for Red and takes the remainder. Having purchased some candy and some new clothes, he stops for a haircut. On his way back to the hotel to sleep, he ignores the prostitutes who attempt to lure him.
The following morning, Tom, alone, heads for the arena, where he completes a stellar ride on a particularly mean and unruly bronco, "Sleepwalker." His performance, with its brutality, strength, and grit, astounds the crowd into virtual speechlessness. Relieved that he has now freed himself of Red's overbearing and greedy presence, Tom celebrates his victory. Around town he learns that Red has been arrested and jailed. After Tom trades in the old truck for a second-hand black Buick convertible, he wins yet another round of finals at the rodeo. Proceeding to the jail to pay the fine to release Red, he finds that he has not yet emerged from his drunken stupor. He piles Red into the car and begins the long drive home.
Tom has many difficulties with his riding during the spring. These problems, however, do not result from any lack of skill on Tom's part but rather from his lack of emotional investment in his recent riding and his sense of disillusionment. Because of Red's strict controls on his entire approach to the rodeo competitions, Tom has been able to determine his own fate. Although Tom has been long aware of Red's manipulation, he only comes to terms with this problem when he reaches Uvalde County. There, observing the goings-on of the rodeo scene, he becomes absorbed in thought. Borland writes: "Back in his memory, like a dream, he saw a boy he once knew, a boy called Bear's Brother. A boy who lived in the mountains, in the old way, a way that was now past, gone, cut off. Then, also far back in his memory, there was another boy, Thomas Black Bull. A boy who lived on the reservation, braided hair ropes and bridles, rode ponies in the creek-bed sand, herded sheep for Albert Left Hand. He had known those boys. He remembered them. But he wasn't Bear's Brother, and he wasn't Thomas Black Bull. Then he saw another boy, in the corral at Red Dillon's place, learning how to be a bronco rider. Learning how a bucking horse acted, how to ride clean, how to ride dirty, how to win, how to foul out. Learning to do what he was told to do. That boy was partly himself, but still a stranger." This passage alludes to the multiple identities Tom has adopted in his lifetime. Tom has repeatedly abandoned these identities, always as a result of circumstances beyond his control. He grows tired and frustrated with this sense of powerlessness and determines to actively seek the means to take his life into his own hands.
Following his fight with Red, Tom decides to get a haircut. Upon noticing his mature reflection in the mirror, he contemplates his future. Borland writes, "He was no longer a boy. He was a man." This thought relates not only to Tom's older physical appearance, but also to his emotional state. The establishment of his independence from Red marks one component of his definition of himself as a man and a pivotal point in his development that allows him a greater degree of success and happiness. Now he also considers his future plans and seeks to formulate a more acute sense of identity.
Throughout the novel, the author characterizes Tom by "the look in his eyes." Tom's vicious, antisocial nature manifests itself in this look, which repeatedly repels and scares those who fall upon it. Tom often uses this powerful look as a substitute for words, as it conveys the bitterness and intimidation he wishes to convey. For example, when a local judge warns him that his riding style may someday kill him, Borland writes: "'Does it matter?' Tom asked. The judge saw the look in his eyes and walked away."
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