Paul Charman: Cowboy yarn caps epic train journey

By Paul Charman

It’s amazing what stays with you following a trip — my fondest travel memory doesn’t have to do with scenery, food or entertainment.

It was hearing a cowboy yarn in the very Western setting of Amtrak’s cross-country
California Zephyr train a couple of years back.

This tale concerned legendary Afro-American cowboy Bill Pickett, who became the hero of Mexico’s toughest bull ring in 1908.

With only his bare hands, Pickett put the sword-wielding bull fighters of the day to shame, wrestling “the most deadly bull in all Mexico”, in the world’s largest bullfighting stadium.

My wife and I heard the saga from the lips of mysterious middle-aged cowboy chap, who was sitting across a table from us in the train’s viewing car.

The stranger’s tale (how I wish I knew his name), delivered in a broad Oklahoma accent, has become my fondest-ever travel memory.

Now I wonder if the simple pleasure of a great story does it for others also?

Can this kind of low-tech pass time — the kind humans have entertained themselves with around-the-camp-fire for millennia — still hold the ultimate power?

I mean, a really good story, delivered face-to-face.

In this age of electronic media, does one of these “Stone Age Podcasts”, still boot the other forms of entertainment to the sidelines?

I can’t help my enthusiasm on this subject.

It’s from having been raised on stories of wandering minstrels who turn up at Kings’ feasts keen to recite their epic tales from memory.

At Devon Intermediate, my old teacher Mr Taylor fascinated us kids with his classic rhyming ballads, and I’d always hoped to meet a real-life “Ancient Mariner” . . . a mysterious stranger burdened with some great tale to get off his chest.

Well, that’s what happened on the California Zephyr — allow me to set the scene.

Our three-day-journey took us some 3400km, crossing California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan . . .

Mexican bookies had given him four minutes to live; Pickett held on for an amazing seven-and-a-half minutes — with the bull eventually tiring to the disgust of the crowd.

Pickett and his colleagues needed protection of armed cavalry to avoid being torn apart by the angry spectators, who’d wanted to see the “Gringo Cowboy” killed.

But when the clamour died down Pickett saw that his horse had been badly gored.

And though suffering badly broken ribs himself, he wept and refused to leave the stadium.

Fortunately an old Mexican with arcane veterinarian knowledge was on hand.

A boy was sent to buy red bananas from the market place, which the old man then applied to the animal’s open wounds, after which it made a remarkable recovery.

It’s said the horse could eventually walk without the trace of a limp.

Pickett returned to his minimum wage work with the 101, where coloured cowboys earned eight-dollars-a-week, while their white colleagues earned $10.

Meanwhile, the Miller Brothers took away tens of thousands of dollars from the successful event . . .

But I can’t really the story the way the Oklahoma Cowboy did — I guess you just had to be there.

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