He Took The Bull By The Horns

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In the fall of 1904, Zack hired a good-looking French-Canadian-Italian from behind a bar in Oklahoma City. If they could make a half-decent cowboy out of him, Zack thought, he’d be just the man to entertain the dudes. Some of the hands had to saddle his horse for him a time or two, but soon Tom Mix was handy enough with a rope and horse to convince any tourist he had been at it all his life. Mix took his place next to the other experts at the 101: he was the greatest teller of tall tales they’d ever heard. He could ramble for hours about his crucial part in winning the Boer War, about his exploits as a Texas Ranger, about his childhood as the adopted son of a Comanche chief—and about how he’d taught Bill Pickett the proper way to bulldog a steer. Zack said Mix could color a story redder than a Navajo blanket.

In February of 1905 Zack met J. L. Gue, a promoter for an annual horse fair at Madison Square Garden in New York. Gue was looking for a gimmick to increase gate receipts. Zack handed him a cigar, started talking as Gue was lighting up, and a few hours later walked away with a signed contract.

Zack and two dozen of his best hands—Pickett and Rogers among them—made the trip East. Gue had arranged for them to put up at a swanky Fifth Avenue hotel, but when its manager insisted that they wear coats and ties to dinner, Zack told him, “Why, me ’n’ the boys had rather eat in a stable than dress up like show monkeys for a chance to eat in that damned dining room of yours.”

Gue hastened to smooth the ruffled feathers. Soon he moved the noisy crew into the Putnam House; it was nearer the Garden, and the management turned the whole place over to them. This was more like it: here they could (and did) whoop it up; soon they worked out a room-buzzer code with the bellhops—a hand could get the drink of his choice just by buzzing so many times.

The Garden’s opening-night crowd was small, but none among it ever forgot the performances of Bill Pickett and Will Rogers.

At one end of the arena Pickett was mounted on Spradley, a four-year-old he had nursed back to health when as a colt it had driven a large splinter into its chest. To his right was Rogers, ready to ride haze. Between them was a closed chute.

The chute’s gate banged open, and a large Texas longhorn shot out. Pickett and Rogers shot after it. At full speed the animal headed straight for the high, closed gate at the opposite end of the arena. Spradley couldn’t cut down the distance, and Pickett figured he’d make the catch when the longhorn turned. But it didn’t turn, fnto the air it went, splintering the top boards of the gate, and into an aisle that led up into the first balcony of the grandstand. Spradley cleared the gate without breaking stride; close behind was Rogers, no longer an effective hazer, but a more than interested onlooker.

Spectators scrambled over each other as the bellowing steer, two horses, and two shouting cowboys clattered upward—to the third tier, where Pickett left the saddle and hit the steer just as Rogers snaked his lariat over its hind legs. Pickett hung on to the animal’s horns while Rogers dragged and bumped the protesting renegade back down into the arena.

For the remainder of the engagement the houses were good, although it was said that aisle seats were less in demand than usual. Gue’s show had made money for the first time in years; he hired a special coach with an open bar for the riders’ train trip home.

Early that summer the 101 was the convention site of the National Editorial Association. The climax of the week-long fete was a gala western spectacular—Indians, ropers, marksmen, riders, and a mock attack on a covered-wagon train—all of it open to the public. Regional newspapers had publicized the event months in advance, but still the Millers were astounded—64,000 people showed up for the big day. If people were that hungry for an authentic touch of the West, Zack and his brothers were ready to feed them.

The 101 Wild West Show opened in Kansas City in the spring of 1906, and by the time the seventy-five-man troupe returned to the ranch for the winter, the show was a solidly established success. It netted $30,000 in a single week, playing to record crowds at the Chicago Coliseum in 1907, and from there it went to Jamestown, Virginia, for a 100-day run. Profits soared in 1908, and advance ticket offices were sold out weeks before the troupe arrived. The Millers were riding high.

The wild West show hit Mexico City one night in mid-December, 1908. A few days later Pickett, then forty-seven years old, risked his life in El Toreo, the new steel and concrete bullring, in one of the strangest combats in the chronicles of the West.

The Mexicans were critical of the 101 show, and looked upon the norteamericanos with contempt and distaste. Pickett drew particularly heavy fire. His act was vulgar and disgusting, said an editorial in El Heraldo, and the man himself lacked the dignity, the grace, and the courage of a matador. The Miller brothers responded by offering a thousand pesos for Mexican charity if there was a single bullfighter in the city who could pull off Pickett’s stunt.