Plains Folk

Who Would Win If

There is a question game I used to play on road trips with my kids, and still do now with grandkids. So far as I know, this is our game alone. The game is, “Who would win if?”

It begins with someone posing a question pitting one animal against another, for instance, “Who would win if a badger fought with a raccoon?” The others players answer, justify their answers, and argue about them until a consensus is reached—yes, the badger would win. Then the game proceeds to “Who would win if a badger fought with a goat?”, and so on until exhaustion.

The trick to the game was to reverse its progression by introducing animals that might win through attributes other than strength or fierceness. Put a skunk into the mix, or a rattlesnake (which we sometimes referred to, for additional venom, as a “copperheaded rattle-moccasin”).

I don’t recall that we ever posed it, but the question for today is, “Who would win if a buffalo fought with a Mexican fighting bull?” Thanks to a nifty new book from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, I know the answer.

The book, Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Philip, is another of those cowboy memoirs wherein the author recalls the old days on the open range, tells favorite stories, and pines for the days before fences. Except that in this one, the stories are exceptionally good and the writer unusually perceptive. The stories come from West River South Dakota in the first years of the 20th century, when it was still open range under Indian lease. The writer is George Philip, who after his cowboy years became a successful attorney.

George Philip grew up in Scotland, but came to the West River to work for his uncle, Scotty Philip, the trader and rancher and father of mixed-blood children who already was becoming historically famous as one of the saviors of the buffalo. He kept a great herd of the beasts.

George recounts what happened when, during the winter of 1906-07, a saloon keeper named Bob Yokum made arrangements to match a couple of the Philip buffalo against fighting bulls in Mexican arenas. George was one of the cronies roped into managing the venture. So they loaded two buffalo bulls, an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old, onto sledges, dragged them across the Missouri River ice, and loaded them into a specially-fortified boxcar in Pierre.

After various misadventures, the party got their wooly cargo to Juarez, where the older buffalo entered the arena, followed by a red Mexican bull full of fight.

I’ll end the suspense: the buffalo, despite a hind-leg injury sustained in transit, ended up standing in the arena, and the fighting bull became a running bull. The key to the fight was unexpected defense skills possessed by the buffalo.

Buffalo have evolved for both forward speed and a peculiar type of mobility through the situation of body weight in the hump, over the front legs. This means a buffalo pivots on its front quarters, and can swing its hind quarters around with amazing agility.

Every time the fighting bull charged what appeared to be an exposed flank of the buffalo, he found himself smacking hard into the thick skull of the buffalo, which was unfazed by the blow. The buffalo only defended himself, but after four head butts, the fighting bull tried to climb the fence. After that, the same buffalo defeated four fighting bulls simultaneously.

So, should the question ever come up, there is no doubt who would win if a buffalo fought with a Mexican fighting bull.

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