When the Legends Die
Part III: The Arena: Chapters 31–33
When September arrives, Red wants Tom to join him in taking a trip, simply to amuse themselves and becomes angry and mean when Tom refuses. Red leaves the ranch in October, and, during his stay at a hotel in Aztec, he becomes ill. A stranger arrives at the ranch to inform Meo about Red's illness, at which point Tom departs on a mission to locate Red and bring him back home. Shocked at the seriousness of Red's condition, he learns about his imminent death from the doctor. Given Red's fear of his death and his desire to return to his ranch, Tom agrees to leave with him. Having paid for the doctor and the hotel, Tom begins carrying Red to the car. Red suddenly dies before he can even reach the car, but Tom still takes his body home in order to bury it on the range. Meo receives Red's assets and property in their entirety, and Tom's lack of desire to dispute his inheritance surprises him. Eager to take advantage of his new independence, Tom informs Meo that he will travel to Odessa, Texas, to compete in the high-level rodeos there.
Having arrived in Odessa, Tom listens carefully to veteran riders' conversations about the competition and the horses, striving to perform well in his first appearance at this particular event. However, Tom's nervousness negatively affects his performances in the first few days. Finally, in the final round, Tom succeeds in riding well, attracting the crowd's attention, and moving to second place. Tom continues to enter rodeos and, as he improves, becomes identifiable to the crowds, who support him with their cheers. However, when he begins to lose he recalls Red's warning that he must not ride for the crowd, but for himself. Tom begins to win again when he follows this advice. When Tom visits Meo at summer's end, Meo seems to act oddly, initially failing to recognize him and lacking interest in Tom's talk of rodeo life on the professional circuit. Ready to leave the ranch after his three-day visit, Tom gives Meo half of his money and promises to return soon. Tom returns to the rodeos, where he must constantly remind himself to ride for himself rather than for the crowds. In June, Tom breaks his right arm and a few ribs during a particularly rough ride. In great pain, he leaves the hospital to visit Meo.
Arriving at Meo's cabin, he finds him absent. In town, he learns from the doctor that Meo has died a month earlier. The doctor, having examined Tom's arm, advises him to stop riding. Tom returns to the cabin, retreating into himself and becoming increasingly resentful toward the world about his poor fortune and his sense of loss, especially given the deaths of Meo and Red. Tom's time outside reminds him of Albert Left Hand, Benny, and Blue Elk, who now seem like strangers to him. Rejecting the past and resenting his present circumstances, Tom falls into a deep self-pity. One day, Tom becomes particularly depressed and sets fire to the cabin. He then leaves for a rodeo at Wolf Point.
In these chapters the author demonstrates to us that Tom, despite the cruel behavior he often displays toward both people and animals, still possesses some redeeming qualities and some sense of a moral code. Despite Red's manipulative and malicious treatment of him, Tom rushes to his aid during his illness. He also arranges for a decent burial for his old boss and instructor. At the funeral, Tom attempts to sing an old Ute chant but has forgotten many of the words. This lapse represents Tom's continued loss of his heritage. Red continues to exert a significant influence on Tom's life and his thoughts even after his death. For example, when Tom begins to lose the rodeo competitions, Red's wise words of advice help him remedy the situation and resume his streak of victories.
At this point, having gained his independence, Tom travels and competes alone. This lifestyle enables him to mature and grow in ways he has been able to explore previously. Physically and emotionally, he continues his growth as a man. Meo hardly recognizes him upon his arrival back on the ranch. Tom also senses that Meo has changed quite dramatically. Melancholy and reserved, Meo has retreated into himself. When Tom later learns of his death, Meo's earlier behavior makes sense, and he believes Meo knew he would soon die, despite any outward signs of illness.
In Chapter 33, the doctor attempts to convince Tom to stop riding. He comments on his strong will and attempts to read his inner thoughts. Of the doctor, Borland writes, "But time after time he had seen an Indian just sort of draw the curtains and retreat, as though he was slipping back into the remote past, into a kind of pride that was all mixed up with hurt and resentment." The doctor's thoughts on Tom strike the reader as remarkably perceptive. Tom's pride often prevents him from exposing his vulnerability to others and his reserved nature makes it difficult for him to connect with others. The hurt and resentment he expresses result from the unfortunate circumstances of his life. The doctor believes Tom has developed this combination of characteristics as a result of his cultural heritage. This observation is partially true, as the poor treatment of the Ute population and other Native American populations has caused those peoples to retreat into themselves and become wary of interaction with others. However, Tom's particular personality has resulted from a combination of his heritage and his individual life events.
Chapter 33 marks a very emotional and difficult time for Tom and a time in which his memories continually haunt him, despite his best efforts to repress them. However, his memories persist throughout the novel and form a major theme in the novel. His memories also become a powerful element in his struggle to define himself. Of Tom's feeling toward Red's old ranch, Borland writes, "He was a stranger here. He had always been a stranger. All he had here was a hatful of memories. And what did the memories mean? Nothing. Less than nothing. They were like scars. You looked at them and remembered the old hurts that had healed over."
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