He Took The Bull By The Horns

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Ask nearly any American today to define the word bulldogging and he’ll do a pretty fair job. So, for that matter, will many Europeans. But even as recently as the late 1800s, rodeo was still not much more than a Spanish word meaning roundup , and bulldogging was a term familiar only to a select group—people who knew Bill Pickett.

Pickett was a lonely man whose dark skin came from a Choctaw mother and a white-Negro-Indian father. Long a footloose cowhand, he had worked ranches in South America and in the American Southwest; he was nearing forty when just before the turn of the century he met Zack Miller in Fort Worth, Texas. Miller was one of three brothers who owned the sprawling, burgeoning 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, situated on the Ponca Indian reservation at the confluence of the Salt Fork and Arkansas rivers.

Miller was a good judge of horses and cattle and of the men who worked them. He signed Pickett on. It was the beginning of a friendship that spanned more than thirty years; Zack came to regard Pickett as “the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived—bar none,” and those who saw him in action as a bulldogger came to regard him as a living legend.

The 101 had more than its share of top hands. Johnny Brewer could ride the saltiest of broncos; Jim Hopkins was a roper par excellence (once—dead drunk—he won a $500 steer-roping bet using a loop and casting style he had never tried before); Kurt Reynolds was a fine all-around cowboy. Pickett would have to prove himself, and he did so by bulldogging steers.

Pickett claimed to have originated the sport, and few have disputed it. Versions differ on how he learned and perfected his stunt, but there is little mystery about his technique. “The way Bill went at it,” runs an account in one history of the 101 and its men, “he piled out of his saddle onto the head of a running steer, sometimes jumping five or six feet to tie on. He’d grab a horn in each hand [digging in with his boot heels to slow the animal down] and twist them till the steer’s nose came up. Then he’d reach in and grab the steer’s upper lip with his strong white teeth, throw up his hands to show he wasn’t holding on any more, and fall to one side of the steer, dragging along beside him until the animal went down.

“Sometimes Bill would miss getting that tooth-hold. When he did, he’d just peg his steer by shoving the left horn into the ground, letting him roll, rump-over-head.” But it was the biting of the steer’s tender upper lip that turned the trick—and gave the sport its name.

Zack Miller recalled that he never saw a steer go after Pickett, once the animal had regained its feet. All Bill had to do, said Miller, was to stand his ground, it was all most impressive.

Pickett soon was putting his talent to good use. On some days there was time to spare, and cowpunchers from two or three outfits would get together to compete for small purses or personal bets. It was at these informal range meets that, thanks to Pickett, the sport of bulldogging began to spread. The 101 hands promoted many winning bets on Pickett; moreover, his specialty was irresistibly exciting. Others began hurling themselves onto the backs of half-wild Texas longhorns; there were several cases of broken bones, but few of diminished enthusiasm. The meets grew in popularity and were soon scheduled regularly. The purses increased—and so did the distances men would ride to vie for them.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Zack Miller staked his men to entrance fees and travel money—all he asked was fifty per cent of whatever prize money they pulled down. The 101 boys won so consistently that by 1900, hands from other spreads were branding the Miller employees professionals, outlawing them from the competitions. Zack shrugged, and his cowboys went back to the routine of running the ranch.

And the ranch was prospering. The 101 had attracted the eyes of dudes and easterners, and was fast becoming a favorite spot for western holidays. The booming tourist trade was mainly attributable, of course, to the 101’s stuntmen-in-residence. Doubtless many a tenderfoot returned to the East with spellbinding accounts of how a Negro cowboy, right before his very eyes, had barehandedly wrestled to earth a mean steer with a horn-spread—well, it was this big!

Pickett by this time was an integral part of the ranch. He no longer carried with him the vague sense of emptiness that had been so constant a companion in his peripatetic earlier days. The 101’s crew comprised men much like himself, men who understood and respected each other. He had a home now, he had friends, and he liked it.

One of Pickett’s pals was an easygoing young fellow named Will Rogers. Rogers was never a regular hand at the 101. He’d drift in, work for as long as he liked, and then drift on again, but he was an exceptionally good worker, and the arrangement suited Zack. At the 101, Rogers perfected a number of rope-twirling tricks that shortly earned him a trip to New York.