Self-Rescue: Riding Bulls at the County Fair

Last night, I got a phone call from Cutler (brother-in-arms and degenerate ski-towner for more than 30 years). He was in the stands at the Hailey (Id.) Days of the Old West Rodeo, where the bull riding was starting. This year, his granddaughter is the Junior Rodeo Queen.

He, perfectly aware of the ironic déjà vu, called because, in 1975, I was a rodeo contestant and he was in the stands then, too.

I appreciated him remembering, I’m grateful that some mountain town things never seem to change. Here’s the real story. I realize that this blog series, Point Last Seen, is about search-and-rescue, but maybe this fits as a story of self-rescue, in a manner of speaking.

By all accounts, the Plains Indian of North America was probably the best guerilla soldier in the history of our continent — lean, mean, highly motivated, a master of the hit-and-run. The eventual loss of his land and culture, through innumerable battles with later arrivals, may be due in part to a single small-but-perverse quirk of strategy — one that caused him to buck the odds again and again. It has to do with “counting coup.”

At its finest expression, coup counting means touching an enemy or hitting him with a hand-held “coup stick” while he is alive and, presumably, trying to kill you. When done correctly, counting coup is the highest form of a proud people’s military art. It is not as effective as, say, napalm.

If the Indian wars were to start again, though, the Indians would inevitably ride up to a tank and slap it with a coup stick. Something like this actually happened, reportedly, at the American Indian Movement (AIM) Wounded Knee standoff in 1973. The target was an armored personnel carrier, the Indian’s pony reportedly a battered Volkswagen sedan. But with no homeland wars in the immediate offing, today’s Indians still participate as best they can.

Sometimes they count coup on each other in reservation bars, with knives. Sometimes, by mistake or design, they count coup on themselves with Chevy pickup trucks. Other times, the coup stick is an empty wine bottle, the victim a deserted back-street alley wall. But these are perversions of what is basically a courageous and honorable act.

For would-be Indian warriors (most guys between 18-35), one of the best ways to count coup is to enter a rodeo. There, you can rent a faux buffalo for eight seconds, and he is a guaranteed worthy adversary. You have no choice as to make, model or color, but you can be sure he is a sport model, that he’ll weigh nearly a ton, and that he’ll have amazing acceleration.

The rules are simple — stay on the bull for eight seconds and you win. Maybe. If you’re bucked off or even if you do win, bos indicus is entitled to the option of re-counting coup on you. Hopefully, you’ll have drawn a bull that is not a coup fanatic, or at least a bull without two-foot-long horns. I lost on both counts at Hailey, Idaho, when the nice lady (rodeo secretaries are always nice ladies; it’s in the job description) reached into her hat and matched my name with Two Bits. Two Bits is a 1,700-pound black “Brangus” (Brahma-Angus cross) with horns like something you’d see on a West Texas truck stop wall. Unridden at the time, he’d scored a lot of coup points against bull riders.

On rodeo day, the bulls lumber noisily into the bucking chutes, tossing their massive heads, offering vicious, gratuitous broadsides to the gates and metal chutes. Ill-tempered, rear ends plastered with green slime, they seem, to my spinning imagination, hostile to everything in sight. Outside the First Security Bank chute, somebody is yelling my name. The stage is set. Inside, I’ve got an appointment with this seemingly evil black hulk. The hump between his broad shoulders looks, for all the world to me, like an oversized chip. I cannot quite bring myself to melt back into the shadows.

As I gingerly lower myself down onto The Hulk in the chute, the stock contractor (his owner and manager) leans over my shoulder and says, “Now, don’t freeze up on me out there. Hit the ground running.” He doesn’t mention my chances of counting coup.

“Yessir,” I reply.

Three seconds out of the chute, Two Bits blows me off his back, one huge rear hoof coming down like a jackhammer on my left knee, which, two weeks later, still looks like a double cantaloupe. Instantly, from long habit, he turns to look for those lifesavers-of-the-cowboy, the rodeo clowns. They are standing by the fence about 50 feet away, their hands in their pockets. Somewhere, in the back of his homicidal black bull heart, Two Bits senses that the day is entirely his if he can just mop up the survivors. The lone survivor is sprawled in the center of the arena, face down.

Then the crowd is on its feet with an ugly roar, bringing the first ironic flash of cognition — this is going to be the Little Big Horn in reverse — General George Armstrong Baldridge, lying defiantly in the dirt with a gimpy knee and a brace of smoking bull bells, hears the approaching thunder of hooves that can only mean the final charge — led by none other than the notorious Two Bits, brandishing a two-foot-long coup stick over each ear. Fifteen feet away, coming fast, bent on bovine manslaughter, his eyes are glittering, black.

That’s when time stopped. Rock climbers know that time can stop, so do downhill ski racers. Time probably stops for anyone who has gone too far and suddenly sees that they are going to lose, and lose big. Anyway, the time stopped and the noise stopped and there was suddenly nothing — nothing at all in the whole world — except for a lone swimmer somewhere off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, looking at the razor-sharp coup sticks in the mouth of the Great Black Shark who is going to bite him in half. And, seeing, oddly and dispassionately, that the shark is beautiful.

Then the Brahma/shark is doing his best Ray Lewis blitz impersonation and the pilgrim is Thurman Thomas in chaps, carrying the honor of the Buffalo Bills now that all the buffalo are gone, except for this black one with the coup sticks.

For an instant, a surge of overwhelming elation. The nuts and bolts of counting coup — pure and simple exhilaration, a real metaphysical kick in the ass. But Lewis has split the block and is closing with murderous intent, still wearing those damn coup sticks on his helmet. Get your shit together, T.T.

Little hip fake to the left, sprint for a quick-pitch right away from the flow, which suddenly consists of one grease-painted clown who’s finally decided to join the game. It is beautifully executed, a play gaining the final 20 yards before tripping on the Buffalo Bill chaps and sliding under the fence on my nose. This to the delight of my three partisan fans, including my wife, who missed most of the action by hiding her face in her hands; Brian, his mind addled by drugs and seven months of excess on the pro ski tour; and Cutler, who was far too drunk to tear any goal posts down.

I truly believe the rest of those 3,000 mountain-town philistines were for the Lewis bull, which was probably a pretty solid bet at the time. But then nobody ever counted coup by making solid bets.