When he was 14 years old, Casey Tibbs made the hard day’s ride out of the lonely, Cheyenne River country of his birth to Fort Pierre, South Dakota.
There, he did just what his daddy had told him to never do … he entered the bronc riding. And he won it.
Other great riders in the Bronc Riding Class of ’44; Bud LaRoche, Jim Aplan, Tommy Tibbitts, Scott Hall and Jim Hannum never forgot the day the skinny kid in the gaudy purple clothes came to town to ride his rough, rank bronc like they’d been practicing for that dance contest all week.
He won their respect and soon swept most of them along in the tidal wave of fame and national adoration that was to be the life of Casey Tibbs.
Others, like Billy Kelly, were still too young for their mama’s to turn loose on the world.
Those cowboys who rode with Casey and the kid who followed in his heroes footsteps gathered in Ft. Pierre on May 31, 2014.
Ranging in age from 89 to 76, they drank stout coffee in Billy’s kitchen while their brides listened to their stories.
They shared their recollections, filling in details about this horse, that ride, one of those old rodeos, the long road they’d shared.
A few of the stories were shushed with a lifted eyebrow, to be carried on in the code of the road because of the presence of those ladies. Not many, but a few secret memories these men still share.
When the national anthem was sung to open the 26th Annual Casey Tibbs Match of Champions, those who could still stand did proudly. Then, from the V.I.P section, they rode and scored every one of the 40 or so good broncs they’d watch go that night, laughing like the carefree cowboys they once were. Once again … feeling in bones gone brittle with wisdom and the passing of years, but truly feeling the great bucking horses exploding under them and their own catlike reflexes countering and balancing, dancing, with every jump.
They were still riding the ghosts of great horses later at the coffee shop.
“Do you know what the most hotly contested event at the Tooke Ranch rodeos was? Well, I’ll tell ya. I was entered in the bronc and bull riding, fighting bulls, too. I’d drawn General Custer. He was a huge horse, didn’t quite fit in the wooden chutes. All of a sudden there’s boards flying everywhere and the announcer is calling for ‘Carpenters to the bucking chutes!’ Half the grandstands would empty out, beat and bang and hang ‘em back together. By the time General Custer was caught, my saddle was shredded to ribbons and my reride horse was Sunset Strip!”
Jim Aplan’s eyes have seen 88 years, but that night in Perkin’s Pancake House, they were seeing only the feather footed broncs of Feek Tooke’s. In those moments, those eyes were young. His old traveling partners’ were, too.
Bronc riding is an strong brotherhood who’s brilliance won’t be dimmed by Father Time. The same fire that burned then burns now. The flame carriers are just younger these days.
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