Rodeo Madness

There's a new generation in this ragged sport, from champion Larry Mahan's challengers to city-folk whose new cult hero is the cowboy

March 1974By Comments

Tentatively fingering the purple bump on his forehead and positioning the fruit cake on the coffee shop counter in such a way that he was certain to put his elbow in it, Jerry Jeff Walker ordered his first hot meal in five days, a bowl of Love Field soup. The author of “Mr. Bojangles” had flown from a performance in Atlanta to see the last day of the National Finals rodeo in Oklahoma City.

It had been necessary to get out of Oklahoma City fast. Jerry Jeff and his traveling companion, composer-musician Gary P. Nunn, had escaped with their lives, two guitars, and one Irish fruit cake molded in the shape of the state of Texas. Except for a slice in the cellophane packaging where a bull rider had pinned it to the wall with his frog sticker, the fruit cake was undamaged. It was about the only thing that was. There had been two sets of parties the night before, a Cowboy Hall of Fame banquet honoring (among others) a rank Brahma bull named Tornado who in 200 times out of the chute had never been ridden, and of course the assorted victory parties in the hotel. When Jerry Jeff staggered out of his hotel room that morning clutching his guitar and his fruit cake, he tipped the maid five dollars and advised her to abandon her broom and mop and find a plow. The room gave every indication that Tornado and several of his younger brothers who had also never been ridden had dropped by for cocktails; Jerry Jeff himself was a pitifully-wasted, semi-demented figure in a soiled beaver hat, sheeplined coat, Charlie Dunn boots, and whiskers too short to qualify as a beard and too long to be what you would call unkempt. In cowboy talk, he looked like he had been rode hard and put up wet.

The fruit cake had caused considerable uneasiness on the part of the bomb patrol at the Oklahoma City airport, and Jerry Jeff hadn’t facilitated matters by pulling a yellow plastic watergun from his pocket and shooting himself in the mouth with tequila. Now, in the Dallas airport coffee shop, waiting to change planes for the final leg home to Austin, the fruit cake caused more comment.

“If that thing had legs I’d shoot it,” said Dixie, the counter waitress.

“That happens to be the Larry Mahan Memorial Fruitcake presented annually to the craziest cowboy at the National Finals,” Jerry Jeff told Dixie as she served his soup.

“That’s a real prize, honey,” Dixie said. “What are you gonna do with it?”

“I’m gonna have it made into a belt buckle,” he said.

He wasn’t lying: The fruitcake truly was a gift from Larry Mahan, the world’s best all-around cowboy. For the worst part of an hour the night before Jerry Jeff also had in his possession another trophy, Larry Mahan’s bull riding rope which he intended to place in his private museum along with Bobby Orr’s hockey stick. But it had been necessary to use the rope in effecting his incredible escape, and now his only memento of those lost desperate hours was the fruit cake—and of course the purple knot on his forehead, and a bruised back and some unexplained sharp pains in the area of his rib cage.

He couldn’t remember how it started, or even how it ended except the part about waiting at the hotel elevator which took forever to arrive. All the while, he was being pummeled by bull riders who, fortunately, are almost uniformly five-foot-eight, and besides, that being the night after the final go-round of the National Finals, were uniformly drunk as Tooter’s goat.

“I can’t say I was impressed,” Jerry Jeff told Dixie. “I got beat up worse than that by a motorcycle gang in New Orleans last New Year’s Eve.”

“And you can’t remember how it happened?” asked Gary Nunn. “The last I saw of you before you came back and wrecked the room was when you and Mahan went upstairs to get the rope.”

“The rope,” Jerry Jeff said.

“His bull riding rope. You wanted it for your museum.”

“Yes, the rope, I remember now, we went to Mahan’s room for the rope. Then I stopped by Bobby Steiner’s room wearing the rope around my neck, which was probably a mistake and explains these rope burns on my neck and wrists. That’s right, the beds were made and there were these bull riders and their wives sitting around. Yes, it’s coming back now: Bobby Steiner either wanted me to sing ‘Charlie Dunn’ or didn’t want me to sing ‘Charlie Dunn,’ and I either sang it or didn’t sing it, I don’t remember which, but whichever, it was wrong.”

“Who’s Charlie Dunn?” Dixie asked.

“He works for Buck Steiner…Bobby Steiner’s grandpa. At the Capitol Saddle Shop in Austin,” Gary Nunn told her. “Jerry Jeff wrote a song about him.”

“Now it’s coming back,” Jerry Jeff said. “I was struggling to make the elevator, cowboys all around me, pushing, shoving, elbowing, calling me things I can’t repeat. And how long the elevator took. And then…I’m not sure… I think I threw the rope at them like maybe it was Wonder Woman’s lasso.”

“Honey,” Dixie said, “singing ’em a little song, that’s no reason to punch you up like that. Is there something you haven’t told us?”

Jerry Jeff closed one eye and attempted to focus the other one on the fruit cake under his elbow. A voice of long ago washed in his ear. A lonely and sad-eyed picker passed among the pecans and blue-eyed candy; red faces got redder. “I think I sang them our new song called ‘Black Hole’ about the universe and all this density that sucks the juice out of light and…”

“Did you sing the line about pubic hair?” Gary Nunn asked.

“I’ll bet I did.”

“That was your mistake, honey,” Dixie said. “Cowboys may cuss a lot but there’s one thing a cowboy won’t stand for, that’s somebody cussing in front of his wife.”

Jerry Jeff rubbed ice on his forehead. It proved one thing: rodeo cowboys weren’t ready for a song about pubic hair.

The 1973 National Finals, the world series of rodeos began the same way as any other rodeo. Announcer Clem McSpadden, a silver-suited, string-tied Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma, warmed up the crowd with his stock speech about how you won’t find any hippies at the rodeo because cowboys believe in hard work and being able to tell their men from their women. This was followed by an abbreviated grand entry—a parade of flags representing the United States, Canada, Oklahoma, the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA), and Winston cigarettes. The crowd came to its feet when Larry Mahan galloped in with the Winston flag. Winston enriches the RCA prize money by $105,000 annually.

Mahan was wearing his beaver hat and his single-minded stage smile, but the smile vanished as soon as he rode out of the arena. These are aspects of the sport that do not appeal to Mahan—the pandering to middle American bigotry and to tobacco empire patriotism. At 30, approaching the twilight of a brilliant career that has rewarded him with a record six best all-around titles, Mahan is definitely a maverick. He wears loud shirts and psychedelic chaps and hair longer than necessary. He pilots his own twin-engine Cessna, chauffeurs his own black Cadillac limousine at unbelievable speeds, skis with Billy Kidd, hangs out with Craig Morton and makes compulsive credit-card calls anytime he is near a telephone, which is constantly.

“I used to be just about the straightest guy on the tour,” Mahan told Bud Shrake of Sports Illustrated. “I don’t know when it started or what caused it, but I’ve loosened up. Some of my values have changed. Things are funny and enjoyable to me now that I might have taken a different way a few years ago.” For example, last Halloween night in San Francisco Mahan and some friends were sitting in a North Beach bar when this incredible creature in furs, feathers, eye shadow and lipstick strutted in, limp-wristed, one hand on his hip, crying: “I’m Larry Mahan! I’m not afraid of anyone in this whole wretched place!” A few years ago this performance would have been the signal for blood-letting, but now Mahan only smiled.

Whatever Mahan’s contemporaries may think of his lifestyle, nobody denies that he is the best thing that has happened to the sport in 20 years. “I’ve been rodeoing since 1946,” says Neal Gay of Mesquite, “and in all that time we’ve had only two superstars—Mahan and Jim Shoulders.” Though Mahan compiled $64,000 in prize money last year (and at least that much again for such odd jobs as caddying the Winston flag), rodeo performers are still the poor relations of the sports world. Jack Nicklaus, who could be Mahan’s equivalent on the golf circuit, earned $278,124.

Larry Mahan is not necessarily the best bull rider, or the best bareback rider, or the best saddle bronc rider, but he is the best cowboy. Some of the younger cowboys, those who can afford it, prefer to specialize in one or two events, but Mahan rides anything that bucks. He came out of the chute 30 times in the National Finals, a record that none of his challengers came close to approaching. Clem McSpadden doesn’t like to think about it, but rodeo cowboys work less than probably any other profession. If you don’t count thousands of miles of travel, or the time a rider spends preparing himself and his equipment, or the trips to and from the hospital, if you figure only the time he is actually performing it works out to about an hour a year. Mahan has had his jaw smashed, three vertebrae cracked and his foot broken: when he broke his foot in 1967, Mahan put on a plaster cast and, in the best tradition of the rodeo, continued to ride.

“I think most of the guys are out here because they love to be around animals, love to compete, love the life,” Mahan says. “They don’t want to be stuck in some town all their lives at some dull job. The adrenalin flows pretty fast out here. Plenty of guys get hurt, but you worry about a good ride more than about your safety. I figure, if I ride three more years, I’ll be up on 1500 head of bucking stock. Now it’s not reasonable to think you can ride 1500 head of bucking stock without going to the hospital, so you just put that idea out of your mind and think about riding and winning and loving the life.”

“Most of the boys out here don’t make enough money to get by,” Neal Gay admits.” Almost all of them have side jobs. I’m not complaining: that’s the way it is in our sport. It’s not a sport that too many kids learn, not like football or baseball. We don’t get the glory in the press. How many reporters are here covering the Finals? Damn few. There’s a nothing football game on TV today (Minnesota vs. Green Bay). I’ll bet there’s 30 or 40 reporters covering it.”

When Neal’s sons, Pete, 22, and Donny, 20, joined the rodeo, he told them: “Boys, if you can stay healthy it’s better than working for wages. But don’t expect any drastic changes. You gotta love what you got right now.” Gay also told his boys, “If you get out there and go broke, don’t write home for money. You set down your gear and go to work.”

Such drastic measures have not proved necessary. In 1972, his first year out of Mesquite High School, Donny earned nearly $15,000 in prize money. Both of the brothers finished among the top 15 bull riders, which qualified them for the National Finals. A year later Pete and Donny and two other young bull riders, Bobby Steiner and Marvin Shoulders (son of the former world champion), were seriously challenging Mahan for the bull riding buckle.

There was a sameness about the young challengers, almost as though they had been machine made. They wore size 141/2 shirts and size 32-30 jeans, they were smooth and self-sufficient and cocky as middleweight boxers, all in their early twenties, all sons and sometimes grandsons of well-known rodeo performers who long ago turned in their rigging bags for the permanent, affluent life of ranching and rodeo promotion. Unlike the man they chased—unlike Larry Mahan—they were born into their profession.

“There might of been a time when Pete would of gone another direction,” says Neal Gay. “But Donny never had any other idea except to be a rodeo cowboy. From the time he was six Donny knew the only reason he wasn’t world champion was his daddy wouldn’t let him quit school. I’ll say this, neither one of my boys ever asked for or got one cent from me: what they did, they did on their own.”

Neal Gay gave up saddle tramping when his first wife died. Pete and Donny were babies at the time. Neal met his second wife, the only mother Pete and Donny remember, in church. She had never seen a rodeo. Now she’s a barrel racer. For the past 16 years Neal has raised stock and operated the weekly Mesquite Rodeo, just outside of Dallas. “You might say rodeoing is a way of life in our family,” Neal Gay says.

The Steiner family owns several ranches around Austin. Old Buck Steiner, the arch-grouch patriarch of the family, owns more than 90 pieces of property in choice locations around Austin’s booming Highland Lake region. Bobby’s dad, Tommy, is one of the nation’s leading rodeo promoters.

“My granddad is 73 and still works all day, every day,” says Bobby Steiner. “He works his stock in the morning and his shop in the afternoon. He works harder than anyone I ever saw. When he speaks, we all listen. He’s the old master as far as I’m concerned.” You can’t see it with the naked eye but there is a lot of old Buck in his grandson. Bobby has that bull rider currency that time will erode: thin, cool, cynical, impatient, frequently bored, a droopy mustache on a frail, almost poetic face, small by street standards but obviously tough and capable, more businesslike than intense but intensely businesslike and afraid of nothing that walks on four legs. When he quit school and ran away from home at 16, Bobby was already a seasoned rider.

He recalls that Mahan told him one night (as they were carrying Mahan to a hospital in Fort Worth): “You’re better than most of these guys already. Why don’t you get your [RCA] card and join the circuit?” Not long after that, in the dead of night, Bobby packed his gear and wrote his family this plaintive note of farewell: “If you need me, get in touch. If I need you, I’ll do the same.” Bobby never returned. Six years later, at 22, he would be the bun riding champion of the world.

Marvin Shoulders really had a tough act to follow-being the son of, you might say, the Babe Ruth of Rodeo. Jim Shoulders, who still looks as though he has no age at all, like a highly polished rock, claims that he did not influence Marvin’s decision. “Heck,” Jim tells interviewers, “I told him he ought to be a reporter so he don’t have to work hard.” Nevertheless, at 22, Marvin Shoulders is earning better than $20,000 a year. “His bank account is usually bigger than mine,” Jim laughs proudly.

Pete and Donny Gay, Bobby Steiner and Marvin Shoulders have something else in common—they all grew up wanting to be better than Larry Mahan. Mahan was the bridge. He was the best man when they were boys, and he still is: Mahan had already cinched his sixth all-around (breaking Jim Shoulders’ record) before the start of the National Finals, and having won the war was still in the thick of the skirmish for the relatively minor title of best bun rider. “For as long as I can remember,” says Bobby Steiner, “I’ve known that someday I would be competing against Mahan, or whoever was on top.”

“It makes you realize how long you’ve been around,” Larry Mahan is saying as he helps another cowboy adjust his cinch strap. “I think I probably put both Donny Gay and Bobby Steiner on their first buns. Now here they are, competing in the toughtest event there is.” Mahan won his first bun riding championship in 1965, when he was 22. It was his break with obscurity. A year later he won his first world championship.

Mahan watches without comment as Donny Gay rides his bull to the buzzer. When Gay slips neatly to the ground while a clown distracts the beast, Mahan nods approval at the escape.

“They’ve handled the pressure better than I did,” Mahan says. “In ’65 I got an early lead, then suddenly I was falling off of everything. I pressured up. Remember, I grew up on two acres in Western Oregon. I had a horse when I was a kid, and that’s all. These boys grew up with the rodeo. They were old hands when they were teenagers.”

Clem McSpadden and his sidekicks, the clowns, are having a hard time keeping the audience amused. Their hippie jokes are dying a quick, natural death. (Sample: the definition of a hippie is someone who talks like Jack, 1ooks 1ike Jill and smells like john). Instinctively, they switch to Nixon jokes.

McSPADDEN (to clowns): You say you’ve found a job for Nixon? What is it?

CLOWN NO. 1: We’re gonna put him on TV.

(McSpadden repeats the clown’s line so that everyone in the coliseum can hear.)

McSPADDEN: What sort of TV shows?

CLOWN NO.2: I’ve Got a Secret…(McSpadden repeats it, to scattered titters from the audience)…The Price Is Right. ..(more, sharper laughter)…To Catch a Thief…(etc.)

A veteran politician, McSpadden realizes that two years ago or even a year ago telling bum jokes about the president would get him drawn and quartered at any rodeo in Oklahoma, but tonight he feels his audience, and when the self-conscious laughter slides again into boredom, McSpadden reminds them that this is still the best country of all. “It’s been years since we’ve had anything like this (ie: like Watergate),” he says over the PA. “There’s not many places on earth that can make that claim!”

Now there is general applause as rodeo fans honor themselves.

If the creator invented a meaner, ranker beast than the Brahma bull he forgot to tell the cowboy. A bull wants nothing more than to kill the man on his back, which is the reason cowboys ride bulls-the only reason. The sport has no correlation to the vanishing world of the true working cowboy. A roper, a dogger, a saddlebronc rider, these are men whose traditional daring and skill date back to and partially explain the beginning of the American West, but riding a bull is like climbing a mountain; it is its own excuse. Jim Shoulders used to say that it was simple—all a cowboy had to do was keep one leg on each side of the bull and his mind in the middle.

There is nothing capricious in the fact that the bull riding competition is always the final event of the rodeo. That is what the fans come to see.

Rodeo fans, especially those rugged individuals who travel hundreds and even thousands of miles to attend the National Finals, are elitists, like tennis fans only more fervid. They see themselves as nothing less than the True Descendants of the Heroic American Experience. There were no blacks and no freaks at the Finals, but there was an oblique collection of adventurers, including ex-Dallas Cowboy Lance Rentzel, Jerry Jeff Walker, and actor James Caan, whose hobby is calf roping.

There is a phenomenon loose on the land. The same force that sends children of bank presidents back to the cornfields and makes song writers like Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, and Jerry Jeff Walker almost as popular in New York City as they are in Texas has come to roost at the rodeo. The cowboy has replaced the Indian and the spaceman as the symbol of defiance and the safety-valve of individual expression. God help us, the cowboy has become a cause.

Austin radio station KOKE (the acronym is unintentional though appropriate) plays what is now called “progressive country music,” bills itself as the rodeo station, and sells Super Roper t-shirts that make you strong.

“There’s less mares than there are stud horses in this business,” says Faylene, a sometime barrel racer in ermine eyelashes and amazingly tight black satin jeans. “There are women that just follow rodeos around to watch the cowboys in action, not even knowing them personally. It’s really romantic…it’s almost like knighthood when they go out there to win their buckles. Rodeo cowboys are pretty young, you know. They wear nice shiny cowboy shirts and supertight jeans with their buns sticking out like two donuts.”

Bonnie, another rodeo enthusiast, says, “Cowboys are very unusual people. They live for today. They have very little regard for tomorrow—or for taking people with them tomorrow. Sure, some of your older cowboys will settle down. Calf ropers or clowns will settle down with women. But your bronc riders and bull riders are almost suicidal in their efforts to rodeo. They travel alone, and there’s not much can stop them.”

With two go-rounds remaining, one Saturday night and one Sunday afternoon, Mahan has slipped to third place in bull riding. Now it’s a two-man race between Bobby Steiner, the leader, and Donny Gay.

“At this point,” says Mahan, “I’m just riding for the average. Like I’ve said all along, it’s good for the sport to have these young dudes coming on. It’s just another buckle to me.”

Mahan is in the tack room behind the chute area, surrounded as always by writers, photographers, adventurers, and hangers-on. He works from his rigging bag and a doeskin pouch of photographs which he autographs on request. Doug Wilson of ARC’s Wide World of Sports has wired him for sound. Mahan tucks his pant legs into his well-worn lizardskin boots, blousing his pants so that he has plenty of leg room. Using a piece of bent wire he locks the rowels of his spurs so they will grab the bull’s side without rolling up. A yellow steerhide riding glove that smells of burnt resin is tied loosely to the strap closing the front of his psychedelic chaps—Mahan has a fetish about his riding glove; he won’t slip it over his right hand until he is ready to ease down on the bull’s back.

“What does this bull do?” Mahan asks another cowboy who is filling his mouth with Copenhagen chewing tobacco. Cowboys keep book on their animals and trade information worse than gossips.

“He spins flat and fast,” the cowboy tells him.

Mahan makes a bad face. Spinning bulls are the toughest kind because a cowboy instinctively has to adjust his body to the motion of the animal—if he leans out the centrifugal force will sling him off, an if he leans in he will be sucked into a whirlpool of tromping hooves.

“If he spins flat,” Mahan says hopefully, “he probably doesn’t have all that much power. Powerful bulls jump and kick in the spin.” Either way, it is not the bull he would have chosen for himself. The other cowboy says something about spurring him out of the chute, but Mahan grins; no thanks. “I’m just on this one for the average,” he says.

Donny Gay has escaped the pandemonium of the tack room and is alone behind the chutes. He takes a roll of tape from his rigging bag and tightly binds his elbow which has been hyperextended by an earlier ride. It’s his left elbow, his riding arm. It’s going to be a difficult and dangerous trip. He won’t notice the pain while he is moving and hustling to stay on the bull, but when it’s time to bailout, he’ll need to “get into his hand”; that is, exit to the left. If his left hand gets hung in the rope, even for a fraction of a second, he’ll be upside down looking at 1,800 pounds of bad meat. “All I can do is try it,” he says. “If I can’t take it, I’ll look for a soft spot.” Seasoned riders will tell you this: if you see that you’re in a bad storm out there on a horse or bull and about to get upside down, it’s better to bail out. There is always another rodeo, they tell you. Only now it ain’t so. This is the Finals: the End of the Accounting. Donny Gay trails Steiner by $518, which means that Gay can’t afford to get thrown again.

Bobby Steiner has been doing warmup exercises behind the corral. When it is time for Donny Gay’s ride, Steiner climbs the fence and drops down into the arena with the cowboys, clowns, and photographers. Gay rides his bull cleanly and aggressively, locking his bad arm to the rope while his free arm and his head jerk violently in the opposite direction of the way the beast is spinning. Gay times his escape perfectly, and Steiner is the first one over to congratulate him.

Now it is Steiner’s turn. Through the slats of the chute he can see one wide pink eye and a rope of slobber. Steiner leans down and stares at the bull eyeball to eyeball, riddling the beast with a mixture of hate, fear and determination—all of which goes unappreciated but helps Steiner prepare for what is coming. The bull’s name is White Lightning. Steiner has ridden him to the whistle before, he just wishes it were earlier in the week. His legs ache. His right foot is swollen. He just hopes the foot holds up for one…no, make that two more rides. If he can stay up for two more rides there is no way Gay can catch him.

Steiner lowers himself on the bull’s back, taking care to keep his spurs away from the animal but pressing firmly with his knees to let the bull know he is coming. When the rope is tight against the hard palm of his glove and the arena is clear and he is sure the judges are watching, Steiner inches forward until he is almost sitting on his hand, and then he does a foolish thing: he positions his feet so that he can spur the bull as the gate opens. He licks his lips one last time and sets his teeth: a look of pure dementia passes over his face. Then he shouts: Go!

There is no rule that a bull rider has to spur his animal out of the chute, but that’s what Steiner does, apparently figuring that if it is ever time to take a chance that time is now.

It is not your classic ride, but Steiner somehow stays up for the whistle. At this stage, that is all that counts.

There was an interesting story on the late news wrapup. Parties unnamed were accused of smuggling $1 million worth of bull semen from Canada to Oklahoma City. Jerry Jeff Walker and his friends speculated that they probably brought it over in a thermos bottle, sprinkled with nutmeg. After the item about the swimming meet, and the 30-second sound-on-film of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State wrestling meet, Jerry Jeff said: “I wonder if they’ll ever get around to the rodeo.” They wouldn’t. This particular Oklahoma City TV station either didn’t know or didn’t care that the rodeo championship of the whole world was taking place right under its nose.

Jerry Jeff turned the TV set to the wall.

The rodeo was over and the parties were beginning. Minutes after the Hall of Fame banquet honoring Tornado et al., the hotel came alive. Almost every door was open and men in hats and boots and boogie mamas [as rodeo groupies are called] in tight pants spilled into hallways and chocked the lobby and jammed the elevators.

The rodeo itself was almost an anticlimax. Steiner won it. He won it sitting on the fence watching his last rival, Donny Gay, get thrown. The 22-year-old from Austin reacted understandably to Gay’s misfortune: he ripped off another cowboy’s hat, threw it across the arena and hugged one of the clowns. Old Buck wasn’t here to see it, but he would have been about half proud.

Over all the ice cubes and spilling whiskey you could hear Jerry Jeff and his pals singing: “Up against the wall, redneck mother…” A bent-nosed calf roper and his lady passed by the open door, looked in and hurried away. The room was impossibly crowded. Mahan and his wife Darlene were there, along with James Caan, the ABC crew, Dallas gourmet chef Frank (Gonzo) Bailey, Skipper Lofting of the RCA, a Las Vegas gambler, several cowboys, several boogie mamas, a wife or two, several writers, and a generous sampling of assorted riff-raff. All was cool for the moment.

In one pocket of the room a group of free-thinkers was making plans for a Neo-Rodeo. Something new. Something challenging and updated. “The Crazed Pigeon Scramble” and the “Slightly-Hobbled Horse Elimination High Jump” were rejected as being too true to life and therefore lacking the traditional, indispensable element of competition: surprise.

Finally, the group settled on an event which they called “Pigs in the Popcorn.” It would work like this: First, the cowboy is pinned in the chute. Strobe lights flash around him. He is prodded and teased. Then the gate opens and the cowboy races out into the center of a brilliant spot of light and makes ready to meet whatever. The Whatever, that is the beauty of the event. He might get a rank bull, a mutated goat, a rabid wolverine, a timid armadillo, a blind goose, an egg sandwich, there’s just no telling. It’s the luck of the draw. The judges will take into consideration the look on the cowboy’s face when he first confronts his adversary.

As a variation, Jerry Jeff suggested an event called “Boar in the Fire.” It would have the same buildup, but when the cowboy raced into the arena this time he would be confronted by a 2000-pound wild boar inside a ring of fire. The cowboy’s job is to wrestle the boar from the fire, and then decide: what next? This is the crucial moment.

“What would you do?” someone asked Mahan.

Mahan thought a minute, then said: “I’d put him on a bus and send him to Waco.”

“Perfect,” Jerry Jeff said, squirting Mahan in the mouth with the tequila watergun. “Small wonder you’re the champion.”

Somewhere in there Jerry Jeff and Mahan disappeared upstairs to get Mahan’s bull riding rope for Jerry Jeff’s museum. And somewhere in there the trouble started. With Mahan’s rope coiled around his neck, never dreaming for a moment that he wasn’t the champion of of the rodeo, Jerry Jeff wandered into Bobby Steiner’s room and got himself tattooed by the finest bull riders in the world.

But he wasn’t complaining. Mahan apologized to him on behalf of the RCA and presented Jerry Jeff with the fruit cake. Several days later Skipper Lofting telephoned and said: “I want to congratulate you. When you can win the Hotel Wrecking Event in a hotel full of rodeo cowboys you have done something.”

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