By Dave Hanks
Montana in summer is alive with rodeo fever. It’s cow country and every little community has its own arena where the faithful gather religiously each Sunday. They arrive with their pick-up trucks, horse trailers, and that favorite Quarter Horse, one that means more to each cowboy than possibly his wife. However, she has one of her own – a barrel racing variety. Anyway, every Sunday the competition is on, bets are placed and money changes hands as the roping progresses.
Charlie was one of the faithful. A crusty old cowboy chiseled out of rock and rawhide. He really wasn’t old, just a couple of years more than me, but somehow he seemed ageless. If I were to return today, I would expect no change in him. Charlie was a close friend and colleague in the Registered Angus business. We spent many hours discussing the merits of various herd bulls in different breeding programs. These discussions were spiced with much laughter as he was a happy man with a dry, “down-home” type sense of humor. He worked at it and never let up. A day with Charlie was a day of holding your sides from continual merriment. However, he still looked forward to his Sundays when he could release some stress by roping a steer or two. His wife was a cowgirl from way back and rodeo was bred into their family’s soul.
One of the special events of our county’s annual rodeo was the wild-cow milking contest. Two people were involved. One on a horse to rope the cow and one on foot to race in and hold her by the head. The roper would then dismount with a pop bottle and milk enough to enable the milk to pour out of the bottle. Then he would dash to the finish line while the head-holder removed the rope from the cow. The rope must be removed or the team would be disqualified. The man with the assignment of holding the cow was called the “mugger.”
Being of large frame, somewhat stronger than average and a former collegiate wrestler, I was constantly beleaguered to be someone’s mugger. Charlie was no exception. He was always coaxing me to team up with him. After five years of finding excuses, I could think of no new ones. I consented to be his mugger in the upcoming annual rodeo. I had watched my neighbor’s son mug the previous year. He had a difficult time holding onto the cow and she had walked all over him. These were not your usual run-of-the-mill cows. They came straight off the range: rank, snotty-nosed and breathing fire. It was decided to be a wise move to practice some before actually entering the ring so out we went to a private arena to try it with a group of Mexican steers that were kept for roping purposes. However, those steers were much tamer and really didn’t prepare me for what was to come. The only benefit was in learning how to run in from the right-hand side of the horse and along the rope to position myself between rope and cow.
The day arrived and I had prepared myself mentally. Adrenaline was running and I was chomping at the bit to get at it. I didn’t know it then, but I was destined to become a legend among the local rodeo fans that day. It was a nice, temperate day with moderate cloud cover. A perfect day for sitting in the stands to watch an event and the stands were packed for the biggest event of the year in those parts.
The rodeo started and each segment passed until it was time for the wild-cow milking. I was in regular work shoes and a checkered, short sleeved shirt without a hat – hardly regulation rodeo uniform. As such, I was dutifully informed by the professional cowboys on the sideline. Because the cow contest wasn’t one of the major events, they decided that I could get by with the way I was dressed. The announcer made a big “to-do” about me as I positioned myself in the arena’s center. It seemed that I appeared quite large as he made much of that fact along with how he had never seen me before and was, therefore, an unknown quantity.
Well, so much for that. The cow was out of the chute and Charlie and his horse were off. Away I raced doing the 50 yard dash, trying to match strides with the horse. Must be in position to rush in quickly when the animal was seized! Old Charlie missed on the first loop, much to my chagrin because I had expended a good deal of energy in that first dash. The cow rounded the bend of the fence at the other end and Charlie was able to snag her on the second come-around. Once more a run, but with less vigor, to where the beast was straining at the end of the lariat. I was hoping for a small, better-natured cow, but this one was middle sized and very active.
Down the rope to grab the head and the horse slacked off. She was all mine. The head tossing and jumping began and all I could do was to hang on, which I did with bulldog tenacity. Finally I got my heels thrust forward and planted and she paused long enough to allow some milk to be obtained. But then she went wild like someone had “goosed” her with an electric prod. My partner would be disqualified if I didn’t get that rope off. That’s when problems began. I couldn’t let go long enough to grab the rope because of the wild, jerky movements of that bovine. She jumped high and came down with both front legs over my shoulders. A strange scene – man with cow on back! The crowd was loving it and cheered madly. I continued to hold on to her through it all but dropped to my knees, pulling on the neck as I went. The cow did a complete somersault over my back with all four feet pointing skyward. My body was full of endorphins, so I felt no pain, only exhilaration as I scrambled to my feet to grab the noose and pull. The cow came up, the rope came free, and I was vindicated. Everyone was surprised that the rope actuallycame off and noisily voiced their appreciation. Many shouts followed me to the end of the arena where a whole passel of cowboys greeted me. They immediately badgered me to mug for them when their turn came. I declined all but two. Those two I mugged for on the second day with much more success but less fanfare. It was gratifying to see people’s eyes light up and hear them chuckle when I reappeared in the arena.
Thinking it wise to quit when ahead, I declined more offers for my services although I had won some prize money. That decision gained credence as I sat in the bathtub a week later. Bruises on my thighs and back with strange shapes like cattle hooves forced that point home.
The next week the tales began to fly. Each getting bigger and more impressive with each telling. A superman legend had started. It was reported that I had grabbed that cow and threw her over my shoulder to her back, almost breaking her neck in the process. People passing in town would stop to ask if I were going to do anymore rodeoing. They would then recount my past feats to me. My renown had spread. It had even affected my banker. He was ecstatic, bragging to all – “Why, it was the best part of the whole damn rodeo!”