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Their Own Brand of Misery.

You can drive completely around the town of Circleville, Kansas, at ten miles an hour in five minutes. Two spokes of that wheel, Circleville's two business streets, connect, forming an L. On one leg of the L stands a two-story limestone building now boarded up. Next is the town cafe, a brick rectangle fronted by curtained windows. Beyond that a few homes rest in the shade of silver maples and hackberries, with tomato vines climbing wire fences in the side yards.

On the corner of the other leg of the L stands a building constructed of a hodgepodge of bricks, cinder blocks, and limestone, as if they didn't have enough of any one building material when they put the place up. To give it some uniformity, they've whitewashed it all and hung a sign: City Hall. A rusted awning casts a little shade over cracked and crumbling limestone window sills. There's no one there.

Beside the city hall stands a small, square post office and a small grocery store. The August sun is hot, the day still. No one walks the streets. I can hear a weed whip whirring like distant locusts somewhere down the cafe leg of the L. As I step out of my pickup, a red squirrel with half a tail scampers across the dusty tarmac toward the lone grocery store, scrambles up a telephone pole and high wires along the electric cable past the Methodist church, slashing its half tail this way and that way for balance.

I walk over to the market. Someone has chalked a small blackboard that hangs next to a dusty screen door: "CLOSE OUT SALE: Everything 15% Off! Except beer and pizza"--the only products they are confident they can sell out at full price. The sale must be over and the market gone,-the place is silent, empty.

Two blocks down a slight hill, the street runs into a flat field of soybeans, beyond that, green rolling hills absorb the afternoon sun. It's been an exceptional year for rain and the hills haven't yet dried into their usual August colors of pale yellow, ochre, and burnt sienna. It's good cattle country. Cowboys in the nineteenth century used to pasture their herds of longhorn range cattle in these hills of bluestem and grama and Indian grasses after the long hard cattle drive from Texas. The tough, lean cattle would settle down to feeding and load on the pounds, readying them for transportation east on the new railroads that were then reaching into Kansas.

I walk back to the front door of the Country Cafe.

Locked. It's 3:00 P.M. on a summer afternoon. I notice the colored poster on the window advertising the Circleville Rodeo. On the poster a cowboy kicks back on a bull pitching steeply forward. His hand flails the air for balance.

The door of the cafe opens and a little dark-haired girl looks up at me. She's maybe seven. "May I help you?" she asks.

"Just wanted to grab a bite to eat," I say.

She turns to someone behind her looking for directions. Then she looks up brightly and announces, "We close at two!"

I smile, nod, and turn away.

"Remember, two!" she calls after me.

Circleville once might have been a busy little cowtown. Now it sleeps through another quiet afternoon. But once a year on a Friday and Saturday night, the little town swings round hard into violence.

Mounted cowboys with vests of neon orange and yellow, like highway workers, guide my pickup past horses fully saddled, bridled, and tied to horse trailers. I try to pull in behind a horse trailer but one of the mounted cowboys cuts me out like a straying steer and guides me on down the line of pickups and cars. He leans down to explain: "Some of these boys got to get out of here before things wrap up. Got a long road to the next rodeo." Lines of parked cars and pickup trucks fill an acre or two of pasture and the cowboys herd me into a slot next to a barbed wire fence. I park and step out. I am greeted by the warm air and the strong smell of what writer Robert Penn Warren elegantly called "the bold, compelling effluvium of great brutes," but which all the locals would simply call "shit." It's not a bad smell, the right accompaniment for a high-riding rodeo.

I grew up an hour-and-a half's drive from here. As boys, my brother and I took to the hills, hunting, fishing, and enacting dramas of cowboys and Indians. Almost every evening cowboys rode into our home in our black-and-white television to capture our imaginations and our radio was haunted by memories of the old West. On the drive up to Circleville I had pushed in a Willie Nelson CD: "I grew up a-dreamin' of bein' a cowboy,/ And lovin' the cowboy ways./Pursuin' the life of my high-ridin' heroes,/I burned out my childhood days." Willie and I must be of an age.

As my pickup rose and fell through these hills, the sun was going down behind a distant thunderhead that looked remarkably like the head of a huge horse backlighted in gold. But nasal Willie's song isn't backlighting his cowboys in gold. It's a melancholy song: "Cowboys are special with their own brand of misery,/From being alone too long./Sadly in search of but one step in back of,/Themselves and their slow-moving dreams."

A full round moon is riding high above Circleville as I walk through the car pasture toward the lights. A teenage girl steps out of an old car. She wears a black vest over a see-through black brocade blouse and skinny blue jeans cinched tight by a wide belt with a big silver buckle--rodeo cowboys call her kind buckle bunnies. She checks her smart, sharp, very pretty face in a side mirror, places a black cowboy hat on her blond hair, then, without a glance my way, moves off toward the low bleachers that flank the small rodeo arena.

People everywhere. The town must have tripled in population for this rodeo. I walk toward the circle of pole lights that surround the rectangular dirt arena: thirteen single lamps mounted on thirteen poles--not a large arena. The dark earth within has been well raked to provide a little cushion for the cowboy bodies that will soon be thumping down on wrists, shoulders, hips, ankles, backs, and heads. Americans are attracted to violent sports.

Recently there's been a lot of controversy in this country over what they call contact sports, especially American football. A writer named Steve Almond has just published a book called Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto. In a recent NPR interview, he called football not a contact sport, but "a collision sport." He said football's been violent for a hundred years. In 1905 president Teddy Roosevelt summoned coaches and athletic advisers from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House "to discuss how to improve the game of football, 'especially by reducing the element of brutality in play.'" In 1905 alone, eighteen had died and 150 were injured playing the game: The Washington Post reports forty-five football players died from 1900 to 1905 "many from internal injuries, broken necks, concussions or broken backs." That began a long line of reforms that has evidently made football considerably safer--though not safe enough according to Steve Almond and some retired NFL players who now are advocating even more safeguards.

If there ever was a collision sport, it's rodeo, particularly steer wrestling (called bulldogging), bronco busting, and bull riding. More serious injuries are sustained per capita in this sport than in boxing or cage fighting. Bull riders especially suffer. Writer Barry Lopez interviewed a bull rider who admitted to thirty broken bones. Thirty! They had all healed and he was ready to ride again. Bulls jump on bull riders, gore them, toss them, smash them against fences, their lithe cowboy bodies are flung, bashed, ripped, crushed, wrenched, dislocated, and squashed. But they do volunteer for the sport, and you don't hear them complaining.

I find myself respecting them for their clear courage. I'm glad we have airbags in our cars, building inspectors walking through highrises, and (much as we hate them) traffic cops. But there are places where airbags and protective rules have little place. Safety is sometimes overrated. I have long sided with that bearded wanderer and ascerbic commentator Edward Abbey when he says, "A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches--that is the right and privilege of any free American." So that's my bias, but I want to see a rodeo in person.

Two young boys riding double on a Shetland pony jog by me. They're not wearing seatbelts. The boy in back kicks the ribs of the little pony and they go bouncing away through the crowd of assembling ranchers, farmers, their wives and sons and daughters. No tourists. I'm the only one I can see who resembles a tourist in my shorts and sandals. Everyone else walks toward the head-high bleachers in jeans and work boots. I saw no signs advertising this rodeo in the larger town of Holton ten miles east nor in the state capital of Topeka thirty miles south. Everyone here seems to be a local--except for some of the competing cowboys and cowgirls who've arrived from Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa--though most competitors come from the surrounding hills and valleys.

I hand my ten bucks entry fee to a cowboy who folds it into a wad of bills, then I make my way past a shelter house where the younger members of the crowd will whirl and swing, two-step and twerk to loud country music after the rodeo. Far to the southwest the sun has gone down and the storm cloud lifts its horsehead into stars as lightning flares and kicks along the horizon.

I find a seat in the low bleachers just as a team of fifteen or twenty red-shirted cowgirls holding flags (American, Kansas, National Guard, the Marine Corps) turn their brown horses in unison, then ride a choreographed routine up and around and back through the black-dirt arena. It's a patriotic crowd that seems to have little use for distant Washington politics. The rodeo announcer introduces the main rodeo clown who waddles across the dirt in baggy pants, a colorful shirt, painted face, and white cowboy hat. The clown has his own microphone clipped to his shirt and announces he's going to run for president of the "You-nited States. Why not? There's plenty of clowns had that job." A cowboy in front of me mutters, "You kin say thet agin." The clown and the announcer will keep up an ongoing repartee throughout the rodeo.

One of the first events is head-heeling calves. This is a contest that focuses on skill, not violence--at least not violence directed at the cowboys. The calves might have a different opinion. Two mounted cowboys break out of a gate on both sides of a running calf, whipping their lariats over their heads. The first cowboy swings his loop over the calf's head, jerking the calf sideways. Almost simultaneously, the second cowboy rolls his loop, what they call a trap, between the front and rear legs, with the loop standing, hoping the big-eyed calf will step into the rope so the cowboy can jerk its back legs up, dally his rope--make quick turns around the saddle horn--sprawling the calf into the dirt. It's a skill once picked up at work on the open range. Many cowboys still brand calves this way: two men on horseback keep the ropes tight, another runs over and sits down on the calf's head while a fourth applies the scalding iron to the hair and hide. Cattle these days are sometimes ear clipped, freeze branded, or even micro-chipped, though red-hot branding with irons heated in wood or gas fires, or electric branding irons and ear clipping, is still the most common protection against modern cattle rustlers. The male calves then have their scrotums cut and their testicles cut out. A tough way to begin life at home on the range.

The first two cowboys out of the gate are Troy and J.D. They make it look deceptively simple: the brown calf's head snaps sideways as the second loop rolls under the calf and in an instant the calf slams down, both hind legs caught: the announcer calls out a score. If either cowboy misses, there's no score. If either cowboy leaves the gate too early, there's a five-second penalty. If only one calf leg is caught, they tack on five seconds.

The second pair gallops out of the chutes, the lead cowboy makes an expert throw, the second rider ropes one leg of the calf and is penalized. The third pair misses both legs. The timing has to be perfect. The next six pairs of cowboys all miss head or legs and receive no scores. The ninth gets the one-leg penalty, and the tenth men are both penalized for leaving the chute too soon: ten added seconds. It seems Troy and J.D. have won in 5.5 seconds, though strangely, the winners aren't announced. Two cowboys on horses, the pick-up men, guide the loosed calves to a far gate where they join twenty-five or thirty calves in a long, four-foot-wide pen that half circles the circumference of the bull pens. There the calves lean together or lie down, occasionally opening their mouths and bawling plaintively for their mothers.

Calf roping has attracted some controversy so studies of injuries to calves have ensued. Statistically, the rate of injuries to the calves is quite low. A 1994 survey conducted by independent veterinarians reviewing 33,991 calf runs found an injury rate of less than five-hundredths of one percent. Injuries serious enough to require medical attention came in at much less--which included injuries incurred in transport and herding. A further study by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association of 60,971 runs found almost identical stats. The only state that bans calf roping is Rhode Island--not a state known for its cowboy population.

Steer wrestling (bulldogging) follows, but tonight the steers are clever. Two mounted cowboys break from the chutes on either side of a galloping steer, but the steers keep cutting hard left out of the gate and the galloping horses can't turn quickly enough and are left riding across the empty arena with no steer to throw down. After several misses, a cowboy from nearby Meridian, Kansas, manages to drop onto the horns of a running steer, plants his boot heels and twists the big head hard. The steer's legs fly up and it thumps down on its side: 5-1 seconds, a pretty good time. Next, Troy Calloway, from nearby Maple Hill, limps away with a 6.8. The next cowboy follows a black-and-white steer that cuts left, but he's ready for the maneuver. His horse dodges with the steer, he leans away from his running horse and drops, catching hold of the horns, but the steer fights back, twisting away and the man loses his grip. No score. This is dangerous work, but of course that's the attraction. Cowboys don't wrestle steers as part of their occupational responsibilities; it's a risky challenge that attracts the praise of their fellows and long looks from young women.

I get up from my flatboard seat for a look around. A boy walks by me lugging a bucket of water with both hands toward the horse trailers. A toddler follows her mother in sparkling, multicolored boots. She stops to show them off to a tall, slim, curly redhead in a turquoise brocaded blouse. "I've got two socks in there!" she tells the redhead. The redhead leans down. "Why is that?" "The boots are too big," says the little girl and struts away.

The big bulls are munching hay sedately in several large pens to my left, one black bull, a Brahma-Angus cross called a Brahngus is missing part of one horn. A massive wooly white, looking like a Charolais-Hereford cross, scrapes dirt with a huge hoof while a big brindled, loose-skinned Brahma-mix stands staring off into the night, perhaps contemplating murder. The announcer calls out, "Who's waiting for the bull riding?" Whoops and hollers from the crowd. "It's cornin', folks. Just hold on. Hey, get those kids there away from the fence. They cain't be havin' their hands on the fence." Two little boys have been taking turns tying each other to the metal arena fence.

Calf roping follows. One mounted cowboy with a tie rope called a piggin' string clenched in his teeth, pursues a galloping calf and slings his lariat. As the trap settles over the calf's head and neck, the horse slides to a stop and quick as a blink the cowboy glides off his horse and scrambles to the calf. He grabs its neck and belly, lifts, and slams it to the ground, snatches the piggin' string from his teeth, whips it around three legs and flashes his hands to the judge.

Between runs, the announcer is trying to keep the audience engaged: He tells the clown to pull up his baggy pants, "We're tired of lookin' at yer butt crack." The clown starts cracking jokes about going out with the announcer's wife and the announcer responds in kind.

Barrel racing. Young women with flowing hair whip their horses to the first barrel, turn close around it and gallop to the next, turn it, head for the third, turn hard, the hooves digging deep into dirt, then run all out for the finish line scattering clumps of dirt horsehead high and pulling up hard before they hit the metal fence at the end of the arena. If they knock down a barrel, they're penalized five seconds. One rider is a local girl named Alex Rawlins. She's only eight years old so the crowd cheers her on, but her horse turns the wrong way around the second barrel and she's out of the running.

Then comes mutton busting. Children as young as three climb onto a black-headed, wooly sheep, the gate swings open and they're off. The first boy clamps his legs around the sheep's belly, his arms are tight around its skinny black neck, his cheeks clamped between his shoulder and neck wool. The terrified sheep runs hard out of the gate heading for the far fence. The boy won't budge and the six-second horn goes off. The clown yells, "Jump!" and the announcer calls out a score of eighty as the boy drops off the sheep and rolls away to the applause of the crowd. The lone sheep begins bleating, wandering this way and that, confused.

The next sheep and boy both pitch headfirst into the dirt and the ride is instantly over. The sheep scrambles to its feet and heads for its companion near the far fence. The next boy sits upright with one arm raised like a real cowboy. But within a single second he hits the ground hard and rolls to his feet disappointed as the sheep runs away bleating loudly for help. The two sheep already near the fence hear its cry and gallop toward it, the three joining up and moving away from the action. The fourth sheep leaps high out of the gate immediately throwing her rider. The announcer remarks, "Nothin' like strappin' your kids to farm animals and callin' it entertainment." Girls ride the sheep too, with no more success than the line of boys who pitch sideways, tumble over, fall backwards, roll under the slashing hooves. One ten-year-old is too heavy for his sheep and it jog-walks out of the chute and comes to a stop. He gets a seventy-two. Another boy, his arms clamped around the sheep's neck, begins sliding to the side as the sheep beelines across the arena,-he slides slowly, slowly under the belly of the running sheep. The clown yells, "Let go! Let go! Let go!" But the boy won't until the horn goes off. A three-year-old rides his sheep like a bronc buster, one hand clutched in wool, the other swinging for balance on the running sheep. He miraculously makes it through the six seconds, but only garners seventy-four points and I'm thinking that's a much more difficult ride than the boy who rode horizontally gripping the sheep's neck with both arms. The little boy strides away and throws his white hat down in disgust. One of the last sheep charges straight toward the loudly ba-a-a-a-ing, milling flock. The clown is yelling, "Let go, kid! Let go!" But the boy doesn't till his sheep slams hard into the flock and knocks him off: seventy-seven points. These kids are tough. They learn early what it takes to compete in these circles.

The distant rain storm seems to be holding off and the night is still. Teens herd together: boys with boys, girls with girls, and wander the crowd, a tiny boy in electronically flashing shoes follows his mother toward the concession stand. I wait in line as behind me the announcer asks how many in the crowd are University of Kansas fans. There's a whoop or two across the crowd, then asks how many are Kansas State fans (the state agricultural university) and the crowd erupts with whistles and shouting.

A three-foot-high boy is telling a stocky woman next to me, "Grandma, yer goin't to have to do a little sewin' on my blue shirt." "Why is that?" He smiles proudly, "Cause I hit the ground so hard I tore it." One of the mutton busters.

I pick up a mild-tasting sloppy joe and a Dr. Pepper. A long stock trailer is parked behind the bull pens. Beside it, a ten-year-old boy in a wide-brimmed hat is talking to three girls his age. "Bulls ain't nothin'. I been hooked before. It ain't nothin'." The girls look at him skeptically.

Bull riding, which always comes last, is the key attraction. Jim Bainbridge, a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) spokesman has said that concussions, broken legs, shattered knees, shoulders, and neck problems are common: "The injuries just come with the territory."

Bull riding has got to be the most dangerous and violent legal sport in America. A 160-pound cowboy climbs on the back of a 2000-pound bull. He wraps the rope twice around his gloved hand, pounds the rosined glove fingers down over the rope, raises the off hand (it can't touch the bull or the rider) nods to the gatekeeper, and leaps into chaos. For several long, heart-pounding seconds he rides into madness. From an ordered and rational life of daily chores or maybe from the regular rows of desks in a college classroom and the long lectures on animal husbandry and genetics, his life explodes into eight long ticks of a clock. He is given into the care of a raging monster and its irrational hatred and his young body is slung into the spin-jerk-pounding of a bull ride, yanked into the valley of the shadow of death. A U.S. National Library of Medicine study in 2011 reported catastrophic injuries from 1989 to 2009 were 9.45 per 100,000 bull rides with 4.05 deaths per 100,000. For some reason, 2007 to 2009 were particularly dangerous years: almost twenty catastrophic injuries per 100,000 rides with 7.29 deaths. Your chances of surviving are pretty good at first, but the more you ride, the more your good luck gets jerked apart and any rational man will hear the ominous approach of the pounding statistics.

Perhaps the most famous rodeo fatality came in July 1989 when Professional Bull Riders Association national champion Lane Frost walked away after riding a bull named Takin' Care of Business. The great bull turned on him and charged his back, smashing him from behind, snapping ribs that pierced his heart. A movie called 8 Seconds, starring Luke Perry, tells the story. According to PRCA statistics, the last fatality in professional rodeo came in 2005 in a county fair rodeo in Grace, Idaho, but that doesn't include college rodeos where they don't keep statistics or high school rodeos. A cowboy was recently stomped and killed during a college practice session in New Mexico. And injuries happen all the time. Top bull rider Ardie Maier's Facebook page reported in 2013: "Please pray for my buddy Beau Schroeder in a bull riding wreck 2 collapsed lungs air flighted him to Vegas this after noon!" Schroeder's throat had also been ripped. Then on February 25 of this year Ardie reports his own injuries: "Received bi-lateral broken mandible (jaw) bones, fractured nasal St fractured chin Saturday night at Lufkin, Texas CBR event." Later his Facebook page reported, "Ardie just out of surgery was in over 4 hours: plate and screws in chin and plate in both jaws. Doctor said it went as well as expected." He was back riding bulls in May. But then came the news that he would not be competing this year in the national finals in Cheyenne, Wyoming: "St Paul OR last week bull step on my chest several broken ribs and bruised lungs has me on the mend for some time."

Bull riders accept the inevitable. In a YouTube set of interviews of top bull riders, they run down the toll: "broke my left arm about here, this left wrist here" ... "both knees" ... "broke ribs on both sides" ... "lacerated my liver" ... "hit me square in the sternum with his horn and popped my clavicle out of the front of my sternum" ... "broke my neck" ... "tore all the tendons in my knee" ... "he went sideways over me and I thought he was steppin' on me but he was squishin' me" [You can see this one on YouTube: the huge bull's whole body goes sideways and slams down on the cowboy] ... "had my nose ripped off about three times" ... "tore ACL ligaments in both knees."

Jerome Davis rode straight to the top of his profession. He was a country boy from North Carolina who went west to ride bulls. Within a year he had won the national collegiate bull riding championship. He had a knack for keeping his balance: knees close together, toes pointed out. He became the first rider east of the Mississippi to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championship, making more than $ i million in his first five years of professional riding. He was a stunt double for actor Luke Perry in the movie 8 Seconds. He was famous, rich, and planning to get married in 1998. In that year he had ridden fourteen out of his first seventeen bulls and was sitting atop the Professional Bull Riders' (PBR) rankings. "Everything was in balance," says writer Michael Graff. "What happened then was almost inconceivable." But of course it is quite conceivable and every bull rider knows it. On March 14, 1998, in Fort Worth, Texas, Jerome Davis (by that time they were calling him Jerome Danger) rode a bull called Knock 'Em Out John. "The main rule," writes Graff, "for your arm is that you keep it bent and flexed for mobility." But when the big black bull dropped its nose and kicked its hind legs high, it jerked Davis's arm straight which yanked his head forward just as the gigantic head of Knock 'Em Out John swung back up, colliding with Davis's head. Davis was knocked senseless and his body flew forward headfirst into the dirt, his arms flopping limply behind him. Vertebrae smashed. He was paralyzed from the chest down. Years later, Davis is still in a wheelchair. But bull riding's in the blood. He can't ride them anymore, so he breeds them, feeds them, and trucks them to rodeos working hand-operated brakes and accelerator.

Davis had been warned. In his first professional rodeo after winning the collegiate championship, a one-ton monster named Orange Pop threw him and Stomped his chest. He couldn't breathe for some time without a tube stuck down his throat and his mother begged him to stop. But he told her he couldn't live without his dreams. "Pain goes with the territory," he says. "You play a man's sport, you pay a man's price."

I walk round to the far side of the arena and stop to watch. Saddle bronc riding. Not as dangerous as bull riding, but still a tough ride. A black-shirted cowboy from Iowa has drawn a horse called Frostbite. The horse comes bounding out of the chute, spinning, rearing, leaping, jarring down on its front hooves then jumping for the moon. The horn goes off and the cowboy slips off and drops to one knee crossing himself quickly several times as the announcer calls out eighty-two points, a pretty good score. The two pick-up men, one a bony man with sunken cheeks and gray hair wears a red shirt, the other a young stocky cowboy in a white shirt rides a strong appaloosa. They circle the still bucking horse, and guide it to the exit gate. After several riders are thrown, a cowboy named Leeper on a horse called Foxhen tumbles off just as the horn blows. They give the tie to the rider: seventy-nine points. Few riders last the eight seconds, some bucked headfirst, some whirled left, some slung right, all of them landing hard and rolling to their feet, throwing quick glances at the still-bucking horse as they jog over to the arena fence and climb out of danger.

Before the bull riding, eight mounted riders in red shirts do another choreographed riding routine to music coming over the loudspeakers. All eight hold military service flags or the American flag. I notice that all the men in the crowd have stood up and placed their cowboy hats over their hearts, the women standing beside them. It's a remembrance for fallen soldiers. This is the heart of America. Hardworking, hands-on capitalists who want to keep America the way it is if not take it back several decades. They own cell phones but nobody's checking them. They love rodeos: the skill, the speed, the danger,-young men risking their lives on leaping broncs and high-kicking bulls, so it's not surprising they have a particular sympathy for men and women willing to shoot their way into danger in the armed forces. It's the cowboy ethic.

I make my way behind the crowds and among the horse trailers where saddled horses are quietly munching bundles of hay. I find a bull rider named T. J. Simmons. He's a quiet cowboy in a white shirt who looks to be in his late twenties. A strong jaw, handsome face, and sad eyes. I ask him how long he's been bull riding.

"Well, I started on the sheep when I was three, I guess. Then it was junior rodeo, high school, college, then on into the pros--twenty-five years I guess."

"Ever been hurt?"

"Well, I got me a metal plate in the back of my head here, a titanium cheek, all the teeth on my bottom jaw are false. Don't know how many times I broke my nose. Thirteen confirmed concussions."

"Did you wear a helmet?" (Many cowboys wear protective helmets with face cages.)

"Naw, never did. Most of 'em don't."

He takes a hand through short dark hair, replaces his hat, and goes on: "All of us here, rodeo's been our life. It gets in the blood, but I had three surgeries on my back and I ain't ridin' bulls no more, but I still truck 'em around and work the chutes at these rodeos." He takes a deep breath and looks out into the night. "I got beat up pretty good down in Texas on one of H. D. Page's bulls, one called Little Satan. He wasn't that big, just 1100 pounds, but my hand didn't pull loose and he drug me around for some time. Broke number three and number four vertebraes. Paralyzed me. Doctors said I wouldn't walk again, but here I am." He pauses. "But I can't ride no more." He looks away and is quiet for a moment. "My best buddy got stepped on down in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and killed. Fact is, four of my buddies been stepped on and killed over the years."

How is it that they won't quit? That a three-to-eight-second adrenalin rush becomes the high point of their lives? Where riding a raging beast is the dream they cannot leave? Haven't they traded a dream for a nightmare? Is life down on the farm so very lifeless that it takes a regular brush with death to keep them going? Are they so world weary, so absorbed in the heavy haze of everydayness that they demand the electrostatic discharge of a bull ride to zap the weather within? Isn't the redhead across the highway pretty enough? family close enough? work satisfying enough? to keep them away from the hot tornadic roar of a bull ride? Apparently not. For many it is an addiction. A body-breaking addiction. Like meth. Like heroine. Like cocaine, "it's in the blood." Novelist Walker Percy writes of a moment when things seem "to turn white and dense and time itself [becomes] freighted with an unspeakable emotion." Maybe that's the attraction, what writer Annie Proulx describes as "the dark lightning" in the gut, "a feeling of blazing real existence." If so, you'll be paying a lifetime for eight seconds of transcendence.

I leave T. J.

The bull riding is about to start.

A white sheet tacked to the announcer's stand reports that only one bull rider rode out the eight seconds the night before, scoring seventy-eight points. He's a cowboy from Yates Center and he's drawn a 1500-pound bull named Stone Cold (which of course is short for Stone Cold Killer). The crowd starts clapping in time and music blasts from the speakers as the gate swings open and the monster swings out. It's over in three seconds and the Yates Center cowboy is scrambling for the fences as the three rodeo clowns (or bullfighters as they're sometimes called) try to distract the bull and the two pick-up riders herd it toward the exit gate.

Then it's Tyler White on M. C. Hammer. White hits the ground hard and the big, wooly bull bucks and gallops to the far fence. The pick-up men give chase but the bull won't be shepherded back to the gate. He takes a brooding stand and glares at the mounted cowboys as they ride by slapping him with their ropes. He won't move. The white-shirted pick-up man on the big appaloosa swings his lariat and ropes the horns, then tries to drag the bull across the arena. It sets its legs and won't budge. The announcer remarks, "Ropin' that bull is like ropin' a bulldozer with dental floss." The gray-haired pick-up man in the red shirt leans over and spanks its butt. Nothing doing. He then drops another rope around its horns and their two horses dig in to pull the bull across the arena. It grudgingly gives way and eventually the gatekeeper swings open the metal gate and the bull trots into the pens.

The announcer calls out the name of the next rider and chants, "He's lookin' for eight when they pull that gate and he hopes the judges ain't blind!"

The bulls are bred for bucking and, at professionally sanctioned rodeos, the bulls are given scores along with the cowboys. In fact the cowboy's score is dependent on how well his bull kicks and twists and spins. Barry Lopez interviewed a bucking bull contractor: "You have to look for something crossbred, something that's been out in the swamps down there and people only see once a year when they go to round 'em up. I like to have a little Mexican fighting bull in 'em too, so they hook and go for the clowns. Something like a purebred Brahma isn't worth a shit. They don't have a heart as big as this match. They won't buck, they lay down in the chutes, don't want to do nothing. You've got to get a Charolais or Brahngus, maybe a quarter Brahma, a little Brown Swiss. You want a bull with heart."

The third bull out of the chutes has heart and his name is River Monster. He's an Angus mix missing most of one horn, and he's incredibly athletic.

The music kicks in and the crowd roars as the black bull springs high out of the gate, hits hard and whirls toward the near fence, leaping and twisting simultaneously; it's something bulls can do that horses can't, they call it belly rolling. The cowboy leans back as the bull slams down, his hand flailing the air as the bull goes airborne and kicks midair. In a split second the cowboy flies cartwheeling twelve feet into the air and hits hard. The River Monster keeps madly bucking and a blue-shirted clown jumps in front of him grabbing at the bull's head to draw him away from the scrambling cowboy. The heavy head swings round and hooks the clown, flipping him high in the air. The galvanized voice of the announcer yells out, "Clown down! Clown down!" The black bull lowers its head and rams into the downed clown again, shoving the crumpled body through the dirt. "Clown down!" Another clown runs for the bull just as its head comes up and it begins bucking right over the top of the downed clown. The bull's hind legs slam down on the clown's body as the second bullfighter wheels in front of the bull's head to draw him away. "Clown down!" Several cowboys jump down from the fences to haul the injured clown away. It all happens in seconds and the black bull goes on bucking its way to the middle of the arena where the pick-up men corral him and guide him to the gate. The gatekeeper is lighting a cigarette as the bull flashes by him and then--the unexpected:

The black bull, testosterone still coursing through its veins, takes a look at freedom. Beyond the shoulder-high fence beside him, and the equally tall fence on the other side of the braying calves lies a way out. From a standing start he squats and leaps, somehow clearing both fences and landing among shocked spectators. People throw their lawn chairs aside and scramble to escape as he charges up a rise. One cowboy, seeing him coming, clambers straight up the side of his aluminum horse trailer as the bull brushes by. A cowboy down in the chutes in a pink shirt and straw hat has already climbed the fence and chases the bull yelling for people to get the heck out of the way. A ten-year-old girl on a skittish horse reins her prancing horse to the side. A seventeen-year-old cowgirl named Madeleine is holding a baby. She jumps into the open cab of a pick-up, slams the door, and watches black death pass on by. The running cowboy in the pink shirt turns the corner of a horse trailer and the bull is right there looking straight at him. The cowboy leaps backwards into the bed of the pickup truck as the bull goes for him.

Meanwhile the announcer has been shouting, "Bull out! Bull out! You people over by the concession stand need to take your drinks and move this way." A man in the stands says, "We need to fetch our ropes," and a number of men stand up and hurry toward their trucks.

When the two pick-up riders hear the announcer call "Bull out!" they spur their horses to the far gate. The big appaloosa gets there first, skidding to a stop. The white-shirted pick-up man, a local cowboy named Scotty Hewitt, yells at the tall, gangly boy who is fumbling with the gate lock. "Open it! Open it, God damn it! Open it!" The boy bends his head to his task and somehow the lock releases, the gate swings open and the two riders are off around the far side of the arena and its wooden bleachers.

Scotty Hewitt's dad told me what happens next. They find the black bull moving among parked trucks and trailers. Scotty whirls his lariat and throws it clear over a parked car and the loop settles on the head of the bull. He pulls it tight and dallies his rope but sees that it's caught the nose and one horn of the bull and might release. "Get another rope on him! Get another rope on him! I've only got him halfway!" Hewitt yells as his partner Jim circles the car.

Jim slings his rope and the River Monster is caught, at least for now, but the big bull twists and balks. The two cowhorses lean into their work, dragging the big bull back along the far side of the cars and bleachers.

Later, I found a truckload of teenage boys squatting around their beer cooler and sitting on a pickup. One of them, a husky boy in a sleeveless T-shirt, said, "You want the whole story?" He rolled his shoulders and straightened up. "This is the way it was." (He was a bit drunk and all his buddies were grinning at his antics.) "See that dude down there at the gate in the red shirt? Well, he's supposed to be watchin' the gate, but he says to hisself, I need a cigarette. So he pops his Marlboro Reds, Marlboros in the hard box, you understand, out of his shirt pocket and lights one up just as that big sumbitch runs at him. He looks up and says, 'Hell!' And that big black bull from a standing start jumps two fences!"

"How'd they catch it?"

"That Scotty Hewitt's an idiot! He's got that bull by the horns and that bull's sayin', I got you! And I'll drag you straight to hell!"'

"But he did catch the bull," I said.

"That other rider got ahold of him too."

The two pick-up men get River Monster over to the back gates and on into the arena where he passes in a final review of the partly vacated but reassembling crowd.

I hear a man say, "Them pick-up riders are the unsung heroes of rodeo."

Another nearby cowboy says, "You kin say thet agin."

Later I find Scotty Hewitt, who, in spite of the envious teenager's comments, really did brave and expert work. He is standing near a sunburned, heavyset man in a white shirt. This is Brent Larreau, the owner of Rodeo Rose Productions out of Hershey, Nebraska, the contractor for this rodeo. He's standing near the back fence with Scotty and Jim the other pick-up man, and Scotty's father.

Larreau says, "Well, I'm pretty relieved. But it comes with the territory. Scotty here did a nice job."

Scotty Hewitt wears a Fu-Manchu mustache. He looks down and says, "Well, it's not a one man deal, and I feel kinda bad for that boy down at the gate. I did cuss him some."

Scotty's father says, "The good Lord was lookin' out for everyone, but it happens quite a bit. Animals get out."

"That's just rodeo shit," says lean, gray-haired Jim. "We all seen animals get out."

By this time the rodeo is over. Not a single rider has lasted eight seconds on the bulls tonight. Stone Cold, M. C. Hammer, River Monster, Hellion, Arena Dragon, James Bond, Bad Black, and Razor Back have won the night. Cowboy Michael Jeffries who stayed his eight seconds on Friday night will go home the winner with $780.20, which is more than the winners often get in these small-town rodeos. The winner this same night in Allendale, Missouri, wins only $315. 20. Normally they split a portion of the money with other riders who rode out the eight seconds. Either way, it's not much money for facing down catastrophic injury and death.

As I walk past the covered dance floor, a pretty girl in a black brocaded blouse is swinging with her handsome cowboy partner to the music. Young couples at first, then the teenagers, move out onto the dance floor. People gather to watch while others are filing away into the night. The bulls are all back peacefully chewing hay in the pens. I never hear what happened to the brave crushed clown. Which is strange. Neither the victors nor the victims are mentioned at the end of an event nor at the close of the rodeo. It's the act itself that draws the crowd, not whether they win or lose. It's the sight of a high-riding hero facing down death.

It is a brutal sport. Far more dangerous to the humans than to the animals they ride and rope and bulldog. But it's also a declaration of hardworking courage and a tribute to young men who still love danger. Is it an addiction? It seems to be a serious addiction, but in these circles it's an honorable addiction, which changes perceptions--at least for the spectators. I expect it's different for mothers. In Proulx's rodeo story "The Mud Below," a mother cries out, "My god, what you've cost me!" to her bull-rider son. "What! What have I cost you?" says the son. "You hard little man," says the mother, "everything." I expect Jerome Davis's mother may have felt that way when her son insisted on his dream.

Once, when I was a boy, I heard a man compliment a friend. He said, "You're a gentleman and a scholar and a wild bull rider." I was a kid and I thought that had to be just about the best combination of traits a man could ever assemble. I've tried to collect the first two over the years, but never acquired what then seemed to me the best of the three. Maybe these cowboys are addicted not to an adrenalin rush but to courage, thirsty for respect. Respect means a lot to cowboys and clowns.

And there's something more. We live in a culture where experience increasingly comes second hand by way of video screens. Not much "blazing real existence" in that. The owner of Walkin' M Bull Co., Kris Martin, who provided the bulls for this competition, told me, "I really think there isn't the adrenalin in the younger generation of contestants. They spend too much time watching videos instead of getting on bulls." But then, maybe Martin has a bias in favor of his bucking bulls. All I know is that on both a Friday and a Saturday night in tiny Circleville, Kansas, eleven young men were willing to strap themselves to a wild animal of enormous size and take their chances with violence. Only one cowboy didn't show up and I expect he had a flat tire.

The music is still playing beneath the roof of the dance stand as I drive slowly out of little Circleville. Teenagers are swinging their partners to "I want to be a cowboy, baby!" or "This is how you do the watermelon crawl!"--which seems to represent the two polarities of bull riding. Six and seven year olds are jumping to the electric music and a sixty-year-old man has bravely stepped out to encounter the tall redheaded beauty. He leans forward at the waist and pumps his arms and shuffles his boots in an approximation of dancing and the lovely redhead steps right up and whirls and two-steps before him.

I turn out of town, past the dark soybean fields and my headlights pick up an owl as it sweeps down over the roadside ditch and swoops up to rest its talons on a telephone pole. It may be the very predator who snipped off half of that unbalanced red squirrel's tail. I turn onto the two-lane blacktop. The full-circle moon is easing slowly down the western sky, and far out over dark hills to the west, a bright bolt of lightning stands up between earth and heaven, instantly shakes itself and vanishes.
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Author:Faulkner, Steven
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U4KS
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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