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BELLE FOURCHE, S.D.—A long career in law enforcement failed to prepare Capt. Larry Roberdeau for what he encountered outside a mobile home here one morning in September.
"I never saw anything like this," he says. "I came on the scene, and there was a reindeer trying to kill Santa."
The man known here as Santa survived unscathed. His reindeer didn't, though. And neither did the popular Christmas image of reindeer cheerfully carrying Santa Claus in his sleigh. Here in Belle Fourche, the reigning image is that of a reindeer furiously stomping around with Santa caught up in its antlers.
The Santa in question is James Emery, 40 years old. He owns a backhoe business that digs ditches for septic tanks and such. But he is better known in Belle Fourche (pronounced foosh) for his hobby. Ever since he graduated from high school here in 1975, he has played Santa, and not just at Christmas. This year, he won "Best Float" in the Belle Fourche Fourth of July parade for an entry called "Santa on Vacation."
Mr. Emery takes the role of Santa so seriously that much of the year he bleaches white his long red hair and beard. Just last week, he spent $160 getting his hair done at the Mane Attraction beauty parlor in nearby Spearfish. That was to prepare for today, his first official appearance of the season. He stands six feet tall, weighs 370 pounds, and has the gregarious nature of St. Nick. "He's Santa to everybody in town," resident Terry Arpan says.
Two years ago, Mr. Emery took his act a step further and, for $6,500, bought three reindeer. Last Christmas, he parked them in a corral outside the empty storefront on Main Street he used as Santa's headquarters, attracting lots of shoppers downtown. This was a blessing for local shops, many of which are struggling. Mr. Emery didn't charge anyone a cent. "Jim touches on one of the true meanings of Christmas, which is about giving your time to people," says Bill Davis, a town councilor.
"There were kids he restored the belief in Santa in," adds Verlyn Hespe, whose wife's jewelry store benefited from the crowds.
Nobody foresaw any reindeer hostilities. His largest beast, a 550-pound bull, was so shy that Mr. Emery's ex-wife named him Casper, after the Friendly Ghost. During last summer's Fourth of July parade, Casper rode calmly atop Mr. Emery's float. "Tame as a kitten," Mr. Emery says.
But in early September, Mr. Emery introduced two year-old females to the reindeer herd he keeps in the pasture beside his mobile home. It was mating season, and it didn't occur to him that love would drive Casper mad. As Mr. Emery entered the pasture to put grain in the trough at 6:30 one morning, the big bull snorted and attacked. Casper, Mr. Emery now theorizes, feared "I was going to take his two women."
To avoid impalement, Mr. Emery grabbed hold of Casper's four-foot-high, 31-point rack of antlers. The animal lifted his head and for 45 minutes marched around with the big man in his antlers. Then Casper lowered his head and pinned Mr. Emery to the ground.
Eventually, Debbie Johnson stepped out of the mobile home next door to get her son's shoes. "I heard Jim yell: 'Help! Can anybody hear me?'" she recalls. She ran down for a closer look, saw what was happening and went into Mr. Emery's place to call 911.
Capt. Roberdeau was first to arrive. Thinking Mr. Emery was being gored, he got ready to shoot Casper. Mr. Emery said, "No. That would be a $10,000 bullet."
Capt. Roberdeau grabbed Casper's antlers, but the animal didn't budge. Next to arrive was Rocky Millis, Butte County deputy sheriff, who grabbed hold too. "I never realized reindeer were that strong," he says.
Even after two more men arrived, Casper could not be pulled off Mr. Emery. The beast began dragging him and his four would-be rescuers toward a water hole. Mr. Emery told Capt. Roberdeau to go ahead and shoot if Casper pulled them into the water.
Just then, local rancher Merlin Porterfield showed up and could hardly believe that Mr. Emery was unhurt. The antlers pinning him to the ground gave him the appearance of "one of those guys they stick in a box and put swords through," Mr. Porterfield recalls.
Mr. Porterfield lassoed Casper's hind legs and pulled him down, allowing Mr. Emery to escape essentially uninjured.
Casper, however, had had enough. He gasped and fell dead on the spot. "He had a heart attack," Capt. Roberdeau says.
The battle with the bull made news as far away as Rapid City, about 70 miles southeast of Belle Fourche. "Bell Fourche man rescued from love-struck reindeer," ran the headline in the Rapid City Journal.
But the publicity hasn't diminished demand for Santa and his reindeer. Mr. Emery will make as many local appearances as ever this holiday season with his remaining reindeer, which now include two young ones fathered by Casper. Mr. Emery aspires to the big time; he wants someday to be in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
Here in Belle Fourche, however, the Casper story has assumed mythic proportions, and townsfolk rib Mr. Emery wherever he goes.
"Hey Santa, like the way you ride those reindeer," says Cleve Schmidt as he saunters into the Circle Lounge. Mr. Schmidt is a rodeo star who ranks ninth nationally for riding broncos bareback.
"At least I can last more than eight seconds," Mr. Emery shoots back as he drinks a rum and Diet Coke.
Jokes aren't all that have been made of Casper. Last Saturday, a gathering at the home of Mr. Emery's parents found his father, Chuck, at the stove.
"It's not bad, Chuck," said Mr. Emery's mother, Leota, as she bit into a piece of fried Casper. "But I would rather have beef."
This is excerpted from Herd on the Street, edited by Ken Wells. Copyright © 2003 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Wall Street Journal Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. You can buy Herd on the Street at Amazon.com.