He Took The Bull By The Horns


Bill Pickett had a rough ride. His antagonist raced across the arena, head high and tossing. Bill jammed his heels into the ground—it had always slowed longhorns—to no avail. The bull, now throwing the cowboy against a wall, now on its knees trying to impale him against the arena’s dirt floor, made Pickett abandon all thoughts of fancy, aggressive bulldogging. He just wanted to hang on. The bull whipsawed him like a rag doll.

Kurt Reynolds, leaning over the barricade, winced. “He can’t last long,” he shouted. “He’s being murdered! How long has he been on?”

Zack glanced at his watch. “Two minutes.”

Somehow, Pickett wrapped his arms around the bull’s neck, locking his wrists under its throat. He pulled his legs up and squeexed his knees against the animal’s nostrils. “The hold was Pickett’s favorite,” a member of the 101 said later, “and never before had a four-footed creature withstood it.” The bull was weakening.

This was not at all what the crowd had come to see. A bottle glinted in the sunlight as it arched through the air, landing a few feet from the combatants. The crowd surged to its feet, screaming for blood. Bottles, cushions, and fruit cascaded down.

“Time!” cried Zack.

Chiquito Frijole pirouetted and whirled. Pickett, hugging the bull’s head as if welded to it, was still choking off the animal’s breath. The rain of debris continued.

“They re not going to ring that bell, Joe,” yelled Zack to his brother. “The sons of bitches aim to let that bull kill Bill Pickett!”

The next few minutes were so tense, so confused, that afterward everyone had his own version of just what had happened. Zack Miller’s memory was that Joe shouted to an arena attendant to open the gate; Zack and some of his hands spurred through to rescue Pickett, two of them lassoing the bull’s legs immediately. Someone else remembered that a cowboy ripped off his red shirt to distract the animal while Bill slipped off. Still another is said to have whipped out a skinning knife and sunk it in the bull’s flank. At any rate, Pickett got away while the crowd raged murderously. President Díaz, fearful of mob action, ordered a troop of rurales to guard the cowboys; in fact, the 101 crew had a twenty-four-hour guard for its remaining few days in Mexico. Incredibly, Pickett’s most serious injuries were three broken ribs and severe skin lacerations. Perhaps more incredible was the fact that the Millers collected on their bet.

The 101 Ranch and its wild West show became a part of the nation’s vocabulary in the following decade. Zack and his cowboys performed coast to coast, from Canada to the Rio Grande. In 1914 the Millers received an invitation to the Anglo-American Exposition in London. The show was split, and Zack, with the prime half, stepped onto British soil on April 29. They played to record crowds, and one night had the honor of performing before King George V and Queen Mary. At one point, his Majesty became so excited that he broke into applause all by himself; the Queen, shocked at so flagrant a breach of royal etiquette, slapped the King’s hands. Pickett’s act was as popular in England as it was at home, and brought him an invitation to dine at the castle of an earl. Bill had a tough time figuring out when to use which pieces of flatware, and was just as happy to wind up the evening eating leftovers in the show’s mess tent.

In October of 1914—some three months after Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was murdered at Sarejevo—the first peal of the show’s death knell sounded. A royal courier delivered an official letter to Zack. In the top left corner were the words “National Emergency"; in the right, “Impressment Order Under Section 115 of the Army Act.” The first paragraph began: “His Majesty having declared that a national emergency has arisen, the horses and vehicles of the 101 Ranch Show are to be impressed for the public service.”

By the following week the show’s animals, wagons, and stable gear had been confiscated for the British Army. Zack and his performers booked passage on the overloaded American mail ship St. Paul, along with seven hundred other Americans fleeing the war. The better part of the show had been left in England, and the possibility of America’s entering the conflict diminished the popularity of the stateside remainder. After two straight years of losses, the show was sold.

Bill Pickett was now fifty-five years old. Many of his old friends were gone, and the ranch itself had changed its personality, had grown too big and unwieldy. But when the war was over and good times followed, the Millers decided to try once more, and in April of 1925 a new and lavish 101 Touring Show opened in Oklahoma City with a roster of new stars like California Frank, Cotton Ashley, Buck Lucas, and Buff Brady. But, for all its color, it was doomed—by such formidable competition as Ringling Brothers and Sells-Floto, by top performers’ demands for top salaries, by income taxes and lawsuits, by the deaths of George and Joe Miller in the late twenties, and finally by the Depression.