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One Armed & Dangerous
A life-threatening accident couldn’t keep this cowboy from charging through the gate—and into the hearts of rodeo fans everywhere.
By Tom Lindley
Photography by Tom Luker
Published July/August 2015
When he’s not traveling the rodeo circuit as the One Arm Bandit, John Payne spends time at his Shidler-area ranch. The Watusi-longhorn cattle in the background, with horns that span up to 7.5 feet, frequently are a part of the One Arm Bandit’s act.
A metal gate swings open, and a lone rider races out of the shadows. Tall and thin in the saddle, he crisscrosses the oval, stopping to twirl his horse on a dime and pop a bullwhip. All the Stetsons in the arena have tilted forward to see what happens next. Back and forth he goes, stirring up dust and amazement.
But there isn’t time for spectators to fully grasp why John Payne is known as “the One Arm Bandit.” Their attention already has shifted to a pair of bison that have bulldozed their way into the act. Payne corners them after a brief chase, and somehow they end up on the roof of a horse trailer, where they wait for Payne, now riding a sure-footed mule.
With only a few feet to maneuver on the roof of the trailer, Payne, quick as a cat, stands on top of his saddle seat and doffs his hat as the mule spins him in circles. One misstep and the pair could tumble ten feet over the side—like that night in Reno, when Payne’s horse landed on him, injuring his back. By now, the audience is standing, too.
Lights flashing, the trailer eases forward, and the bison rush down the ramp, followed by Payne, who circles the arena one last time to more applause. On this Saturday afternoon in Lexington, Kentucky, the cowboy from Shidler has delivered the impossible yet again.
“Start fast and end strong,” Payne says afterward of his performance, which requires him to be a trick rider, wild animal trainer, and daredevil in boots. “I take a few chances and lead a dangerous life.”
The volatile nature of the act and Payne’s ability to mesmerize a crowd have distinguished him from other rodeo entertainers for twenty-eight years, earning him honors as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Specialty Act of the Year thirteen times since 1989.
Hall of Fame rodeo announcer Bob Tallman of Poolville, Texas, likens the One Arm Bandit to a skydiver. Everyone knows he is going to jump out of an airplane and eventually reach the ground. It’s what he does in between that captivates the crowd. In Payne’s case, he also has to stick the landing in the company of two unruly bison and a cantankerous mule.
“Nobody ever did what he does before he came along,” Tallman says. “Everything that happens in his show is so fast and so raw.”
Payne has taken the basic component of a cowboy’s livelihood—herding cattle—and turned it into an art form. Coaxing cattle to go where they don’t want to is harder than it appears.
Training bison to jump on a trailer, walk up an eight-foot ramp, and not hook the mule standing next to them and send the rider sprawling? That’s another matter.
And the fact that Payne does it with one arm—courtesy of 7,200 volts of electricity more than forty years ago—makes it all the more unbelievable.
Payne, for his part, is stoic about a tragedy that might have reduced another man to a lifetime of disability checks. “I’m not handicapped,” he says. “I’ve just got one arm.”
He grins before throwing out a disclaimer. “But, hey, you have to remember that if I don’t want to do something, at least I’ve got a darn good excuse.”
For nearly 30 years, John Payne, who got his start at the 101 Wild West Rodeo in Ponca City in 1987, has entertained rodeo fans across the country with his high-energy act.
Rawboned, straight-talking, and intimidating, Payne bears the presence and scars of a mountain range. Now sixty-two years old, he has broken more than twenty bones—including his jaw, nose, ribs, leg, ankle, and four vertebrae—and been kicked, stomped, and gouged too many times to count. None of it made him blink.
Some of his toughness comes from growing up on his parents’ place on Beaver Creek northeast of Ponca City. Some of his determination comes with the family name. Of the five Payne boys, John, second-youngest, has the gumption of his great-grandfather Hiram Holton Payne, who walked 350 miles from Missouri to Oklahoma to stake a claim in the Sac and Fox Land Run of 1891. All he carried with him was the gun he used to kill the food he ate.
Payne’s father Holton H. Payne, eighty-eight, won’t play favorites when it comes to his sons, but he says this of John: “He was a little more active than the others.”
At four, John mounted his stick horse to corral some steers before they escaped too far down the draw. The only trouble was when they reached the edge of the creek: The cattle got spooked and did an abrupt about-face, trampling him.
“One of them stepped right on his face, but it didn’t slow him down a bit,” says his oldest brother, Harvey, former director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska.
It seemed John could always outdo everyone else. He rode fast horses, drove fast cars, owned the best dogs (black mouth curs are his favorite breed), and had a special knack for animals—the wilder, the better.
By the time he was nine, he was breaking horses. That spring, his dad’s partner in the cattle business, Warren Custer, left an unbroken mare in John’s charge.
“She bucked me off ten times, but when Warren came to get her in the fall, she and I were roping and working cattle,” Payne says.
“It keeps me in good shape,” John Payne says of his act. “I’ll do it until I quit. When that is, I do not know. I might get killed in the next show. What I do is dangerous.”
Payne travels less these days but hasn’t really slowed down. His compound on the east side of Shidler is home to horses, mules, Watusi-longhorn and Corriente cattle, twenty dogs, and the equipment he uses in his show.
And when he’s not on the rodeo circuit, he’s taking care of his place, building fences, pens, and shelters for his animals.
But when Tallman or some other rodeo announcer calls his name, the One Arm Bandit is ready.
“I’m a hardcore redneck Okie cowboy,” he says. “I’ve been stepped on, kicked, and stomped.”
It’s a plain statement by a bold man, who, with one exception, never allowed a missing arm to rattle his confidence.
“One day in the burn unit, it hit me how screwed up my life was,” Payne says. “I think I realized that this was real. And for about thirty minutes, I felt sorry for myself. I even managed to muster up one tear that ran down the side of my face. I wiped it off and said, ‘You damn sissy. You ain’t dead.’ I have never looked back after that.”
For more information about John Payne, visit theonearmbandit.net or call (580) 761-3940.