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When the Legends Die

Hal Borland

Part III: The Arena: Chapters 34–36

Part III: The Arena: Chapters 31–33

Part III: The Arena: Chapters 37–39

Summary

Chapter 34

During the first two rounds at Wolf Point, Tom suffers from painful jolts through his arm and torso. He perseveres, determined to succeed, and in the final round, bloody foam comes from the horse nose, while the crowd applauds Tom's brutal and skilled performance. Continuing on the circuit, Tom leaves for the next competition, convinced that the pain will subside with time and practice. Despite his presence at countless rodeos during the year, he does not win the championship. Soon, however, he develops a reputation as a silent and hostile bronco rider. Crowds everywhere come to know him as "Killer Tom Black" and boast excitedly about the number of horses he has killed in his brutal rides. Although riding provides the most meaningful element of his existence, Tom still finds himself in constant search of a lasting happiness. One night in Chicago, Tom has had a particularly difficult day. Drinking to excess to relieve himself of his oppressive sense of hopelessness, he soon becomes involved in a fight that ends with a trip to the hospital and thirty-seven stitches in his shoulder. Recalling Red's advice about taking his frustrations out on the broncos rather than expressing them through bar brawls, Tom determines to stop drinking and to ride harder in the arena. His performances become increasingly brutal and his behavior increasingly reclusive.

Chapter 35

Having ridden in rodeos for fourteen years, Tom finds little meaning in the sameness of the various rodeo scenes. Although Tom has never won a championship, he has become a living legend. Spectators everywhere recognize his name and associate it with the most brutal and vicious riding style imaginable. Some spectators even compare Tom to the devil. Time passes without meaning as Tom continues his routine of riding, packing, and traveling.

Chapter 36

Because Tom spends every night in a different city, he often fails to recognize his surroundings until, lying in his hotel bed, he identifies the city by its sounds. On this particularly morning, he recognizes New York City by the sounds of construction outside his window. Wandering the streets, he comes upon a newspaper whose headline reads, "The Killer Rides Again"—the article describes Tom's riding style and his participation in the competition at the Garden. His past continues to plague him through his dreams and thoughts. The rodeo provides his only escape from these memories.

Analysis

In the description of Tom's ride at Wolf Point in Chapter 34, Borland employs the commentary of the announcer to accentuate the festive spirit of the rodeos that encourages and supports the cruelty of the bronco riders. In these descriptions, Tom's brutal rides both horrify and entertain the spectators. Borland emphasizes the sick appeal of these events, as well as the nature of Tom's reputation, through the voice of the announcer. For example, in the final round, he announces, "Is he still out for blood? My guess is yes! So here he comes, the old devil-killer himself, out of Chute Number Four on Red Devil—Tom Black!" The dramatic rhetoric of his introduction is designed to ignite the crowd's enthusiasm and encourage their rowdy cruelty.

Tom's reputation as a bronco rider shifts in emphasis during the course of career. Soon the spectators become more interested in his brutal behavior than in his skill. As Borland observes, the spectators do not concern themselves with the pain that Tom's cruelty represents but simply revel in the excitement they derive from such displays of cruelty. Borland writes, "He didn't win the championship that year. He didn't even come close. But he left no doubt that the glib announcer at Wolf Point was right—he rode for revenge, though nobody was quite sure why. He was the devil-killer, and nobody worried or wondered about who was the real devil he was trying to kill."

Of Tom's thoughts while lying in his hotel room, Borland writes, "He stared at the ceiling of the room. It was sky blue. The drapes were a darker blue, the furniture still darker. Blue, the female color. He was surprised to think of that. He hadn't thought in the old way in a long time. Blue for the south, the gentle, the female. Black for the north, the harsh, the male…. He put the thought away from him. Blue was blue." This passage hints at some important elements in Tom's life as well as in the novel as a whole. First, it marks yet another intrusion of memories into Tom's consciousness, particularly of "the old ways" and his Ute heritage. Second, it reflects his continual tendency toward repression of his memories. Third, it touches upon the symbolic role of color in the novel. Earlier in the novel, Tom's mother Bessie gives him a big red blanket she has purchased from Jim Thatcher. Upon doing so, she alludes to the symbolic significance of red as a protective color. Here Tom thinks of blue as representative of "the female" and of black as representative of "the male." Later on, as well, Tom associates the color white with the "All-Mother."

As Tom continues to live his itinerant lifestyle, his sense of homelessness and a lack of belonging, family, or heritage becomes increasingly evident. Traveling has lost its appeal for him as one city blurs into another and as the hotels in which he stays become indistinguishable. When Tom has free moments outside of the arena, he becomes aimless and lonely. At these times his memories figure most prominently in his thoughts, as he struggles to understand his life and its meaning.

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