Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1827
Part I: Bessie
When the Legends Die begins in the company town of Pagosa, Colorado, where the protagonist’s father, George Black Bull, a Native American of the Ute tribe, works at a sawmill. George enters the scene running. He is being sought after because he has killed Frank No Deer, a common thief. George is afraid that he will be put in jail, so he tells his wife where he is going in the wilderness and tells her to follow him after dark. His wife, Bessie, when asked by the sheriff if she knows where her husband is, denies knowing. As she waits for nightfall, Bessie thinks back on how she and her husband and son ended up in Pagosa. Then, in the middle of the night, she packs a few belongings, wakes her young son, and takes a circuitous route to the location of the planned rendezvous with her husband.
In the wilderness, George and Bessie return to their traditional ways, capturing meat, finding seeds, and picking berries for food. They make clothes and a shelter from the natural materials that they gather. They sing songs and tell stories that their grandparents had taught them. At the end of the first year, before the winter has ended, George is trapped and killed in an avalanche.
Before the next winter, Bessie takes Thomas back to Pagosa to buy supplies. Bessie is an expert basket maker and trades her wares for the winter clothing and the utility items that she needs. She worries that the sheriff is still looking for her husband and might take her son away from her. A while later, when she returns to town, she feels more confident and asks the shopkeeper for details about the sheriff. Jim Thatcher tells her that the sheriff has decided that her husband acted in self-defense and that her family is free to return to the town.
Another winter comes, and Bessie becomes sick and dies. Thomas befriends the animals around him, including a small, orphaned grizzly bear cub. He becomes what he believes to be the bear’s brother. One summer, Thomas ventures back into Pagosa, with the bear trailing behind him. When some of the citizens of the town threaten to shoot the bear, Jim Thatcher stops them.
Blue Elk, a man who one character states would sell anything to make a profit, including his own grandmother, befriends Thomas, who does not speak English, only to betray him. Blue Elk strikes a deal with the local minister, who believes that Thomas is not fit to live on his own and must be taken to the nearby Indian school, a place where Thomas can learn the ways of the white men. To get Thomas to agree to leave his wilderness lodge, Blue Elk tells Thomas that the other Native American children at the school need to learn the traditional songs and old ways of the Ute people. He suggests that Thomas go with him to Ignacio, the center of the Ute reservation, to teach the children the things that Thomas has learned. The bear cub tags along.
Part II: The School
Once he arrives at the school, Thomas quickly discovers that he has been tricked. His bear is chained and caged. Thomas is roomed with Luther Spotted Dog, a boy close to his age but who lives in world totally different from the one that Thomas is used to. Thomas dislikes the bed he is told to sleep on, the clothes he is told to wear, and the food he must eat. He lashes out in anger at almost everyone who demands that he must change.
The bear must be gotten rid of, so once again it is Blue Elk who schemes to get Thomas to return the bear to its natural surroundings. Thomas, who believes Blue Elk is taking him home, agrees to go with Blue Elk. However, once they arrive in the vicinity where Thomas used to live, Blue Elk blackmails Thomas by threatening to leave the bear chained to a tree to starve unless Thomas returns to the school.
Upon his return, Thomas does not fare much better than he had before. After a fight, he is put on restriction and locked in a small room. One night, he escapes and returns on his own to the lodge in the wilderness. When he arrives, little remains of his former dwelling. Blue Elk has ransacked his home, taking everything he can use or sell and burning the rest. Thomas, after discovering that Benny Grayback, one of the counselors from the school, has followed his trail, returns to the school, resigned to his fate.
In the next episodes, Thomas dons the white man’s clothes, has his braids cut off, and tries to learn the skills of farming and the language of his oppressors. He learns to ride horses and herd and sheer sheep, skills that will be of benefit to him in the future. One day, while visiting a nearby city to sell sheepskins, a cowboy tries to tease Thomas by promising to give him money if he can find his horse and ride it into town, knowing that his horse does not like strange riders. Thomas, thinking that the moneymaking proposition sounds easy, follows the man’s instructions and rides the horse. Disbelieving that the boy can repeat his success, the cowboy offers Thomas more money to bring yet another horse to him. The next horse is even meaner than the first, but Thomas is successful.
Red Dillon, an old bronco cowboy who has followed the rodeo circuit, sees a promising financial future in Thomas. Red promises to teach the boy to ride bronco style and takes him to his cabin in New Mexico.
Part III: The Arena
Once they arrive at the cabin, Red introduces Thomas to Meo, a Mexican cowboy who has been somewhat crippled by his rodeo-riding days. The two men teach Thomas everything he has to know about riding wildly erratic horses. Soon, Red believes that Thomas is ready to go to the small rodeo held in the nearby town of Aztec.
Red has big plans for Thomas, but those plans do not always match the ideas that Thomas has conceived. For instance, Red tells Thomas when he is to win certain matches and when he is to lose them. Red knows that Thomas is good enough to win almost all of the events in which he participates, but, to increase the gambling odds in Red’s favor, he has Thomas purposefully foul out of certain matches. Although their winnings are small, Red is encouraged by Thomas’s potential. Meanwhile, Thomas learns how to cheat. Some of their plans do not always meet Red’s expectations: Thomas is tired and loses matches because he cannot concentrate; sometimes the people who lose money on their bets suspect that Red has cheated them, and Red and Thomas must quickly run out of town.
Thomas often wins, and at one point he rides one horse so hard that the horse dies in the arena. This makes Thomas feel sick. Red offers Thomas alcohol to ease his pain. Most of Red’s winnings are spent on alcohol. The little money left over buys food and cheap hotel rooms.
The pace increases, and Thomas ends up riding in a rodeo at least once a week and then riding his own horse to the next town. He gets hurt and feels exhausted. After one big win, Red and Thomas decide to go home and rest until the following spring.
Two years down the road, Red sets Thomas up for a big rodeo event. The stakes are high, and Red is anticipating taking home pockets full of money. In the final round of this rodeo, however, Thomas’s horse breaks its neck and then falls, trapping Thomas beneath him. Thomas’s leg is broken. Having anticipated winning, Red has bought an old Cadillac. Drunk, Red drives Thomas home. In the fall, Thomas and Red are at it again.
During this time, Thomas has grown into a young man. He quarrels with Red more often, unafraid of the repercussions because he knows he can take care of himself. He decides that he is no longer going to throw any rides. He is going to ride them clean and win all that he can. He and Red part.
Thomas does well on his own, but he gains a reputation for riding his horses so hard that he often kills them. When he rides, Thomas feels like he wants to punish the horses, trying to seek revenge for some unrealized pain. One day when he returns to the cabin, Meo tells Thomas that Red is in town, sick and almost dead. Thomas goes to get him, but it is too late. A few rodeos later, Thomas again returns to find out that Meo, too, has died.
Thomas’s reputation as a mean rodeo rider grows. He is known by several different nicknames. One of them is Killer Tom; another is Devil Tom. All of them refer to his vicious riding. During a rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Thomas is crushed by his horse and ends up in the hospital. He has a broken pelvis, several cracked ribs, a broken thighbone, punctured lungs, and a concussion. He spends six weeks in the hospital convalescing. His nurse, Mary Redmond, pays special attention to Thomas, half hoping that he will come home with her to complete his recovery. Thomas heals faster than expected and leaves New York, Nurse Redmond, and the hospital behind. He decides to gain his strength back in the Colorado mountains.
Part IV: The Mountains
Thomas travels back to Pagosa. While eating lunch at a cafe, he coincidentally runs into a man who needs someone to herd his sheep. The sheep are grazing in the mountains where Thomas used to live. Thomas needs time, fresh air, and some way to earn a living while he is recuperating, so he and the man strike a deal.
While in the mountains, memories slowly creep back into Thomas’s consciousness. When a grizzly bear attacks his sheep, Thomas’s anger builds, and he is driven to hunt the grizzly down and kill it. Thomas waits for the bear to reappear, and when he sees it and raises his rifle to shoot it, something happens inside of Thomas that makes him stop. Through a series of dreams, Thomas realizes that all along the thing that has driven him to kill horses and try to kill this bear is really a subconscious urge to kill something inside of him. He goes on a fast and a vision quest. Finally, he recognizes that it is the pain and anger inside of him of which he wants to rid himself. With this new vision, he realizes that he has come home, not only to the land and to his beginnings but to himself.