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Tall Tornado Tails


By Pam Gamble
Yet another tornado warning set off the sirens in Fayette County during the spring tornado season. As the Mid-South Horse Review staff sat huddled in the hallway, the strongest area of the building, as we have been told by the weathermen,  I was reminded of a particular summer during my college tween years.

My roommate Choya, named after the Cholla cactus, usually invited me to visit her mother while she made her annual trek to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  Her mom Chris was one quarter Native American and she liked to spend her vacation time reconnecting with the traditions of the Lakota people.  As a free spirited art student, I was always willing to try new cultural things, especially if they involved tee-pees and sweat lodges. 

One particular year, Chris’ uncle Gilbert, a full-blooded Lakota man, and his wife Star needed to move a small herd of cattle from one pasture to another one, miles away.  Choya and I were the only horse people there, so we were asked to ride the borrowed horses.  Even though I had zero cattle experience, at this age I thought I could do anything if it involved a horse. Cows aren’t very difficult, are they?   Choya (did I mention she was named after a cactus?) agreed. 
When the two borrowed horses were unloaded from the stock trailer, I got a good look at the one who would be my companion for the next few days.  He was a 15.2h or so, a sunburned bay, quarter horse type who was missing one eye and had the ironic name of “Lucky.”   Choya’s horse would be a dun named “Chip.”  Not only was Lucky not the nimble cutting horse that I was hoping for, he didn’t seem to know any more about the cattle than I did. 

Nevertheless, we managed to get the herd moving.  At the last minute I learned that we had to drive them down the side of a highway.  In one way it was actually a positive thing.  A friend was able to drive his car along side of us and act as an additional drover to the cattle.  On the other hand, the occasional tractor trailer passing us added a heightened level of terror. I held my breath each time one passed us!  Luckily, we were on a very rural highway and traffic was at a minimum.

The first afternoon, we were unexpectedly stopped by the tribal police.  It seems that there was a misunderstanding with the land owner of the place we were leaving.  Star left us to work things out, and the police told us to “stay where you are.”  It seemed an easy command for us to follow, but the cows did not seem to understand.  Maybe they needed to be told in Lakota?   The next few hours the herding proved as difficult as if the cows were a herd of cats.  The cattle had an agenda of their own!

To make matters MUCH more complicated, a wayward dark cloud billowed, trailing a large tail, which it deposited it on the ground heading straight towards us!  As the tornado tracked toward us, Lucky turned his one good eye toward me as if asking if it were OK to run.  He mistook the fear that was paralyzing me for the supreme confidence of the leader that he was looking for, so he stood quietly. We were on the plains and there was nowhere to run to anyway.
The tornado was only one field away and showed no signs of changing course. Gilbert stepped toward it and began singing a Lakota prayer.  Believe me; we were all praying to the God of our chosen denomination!  The tornado lifted back up into the cloud, and we could see the tail pass over us.  Then it reached toward the ground again and continued on its original path.  The tornado had literally skipped over us!  We all sat quietly, dumbfounded, as there was no need to talk.  We knew we had been spared by a power greater than our own.

After a few days the cattle reached their destination, and Lucky and I parted ways.  In such a short time I had become quite fond of him.  My one and only cattle herding experience became one of the most difficult, terrifying, enlightening, and most satisfying experiences of my life!  I just hope I am never closer than that to a tornado!

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