Hard Ride 

Bulls, broncs and the blunt wisdom of Ray Cox challenge the cowboys and weekend warriors of the Lazy C Rodeo School

The pretty blonde sitting in the dusty bleachers with her wide-eyed two-year-old remembers her boyfriend's first rodeo ride. Scott Schwer had been the terror of the Cadillac Ranch, a country & western bar in Skokie, Illinois. "He loves the mechanical bull," Rebecca says. "He'll be on all night long."

Schwer, a sheet-metal worker in Skokie, was champion bull rider at the Cadillac. You don't have to stretch the logic far to know that he'd eventually be in a chute on the back of a real bull, waiting for the gate to open at an outdoor rodeo. "It was so scary I was shaking," Rebecca says. "I couldn't even take pictures."

"Soon as the gate opened, I was scared to death," Schwer says, recalling his first time on a real live bull. Scott, whose ranching life consists of visits to his grandfather's farm when he was a boy, has the good sense -- and lack of cowboy machismo -- to admit his fears at the time. He flashes a bright, straight-toothed smile, further evidence he hasn't been rodeoin' too long.

Keep your chin tucked in, your elbows to your sides, your heels against the bull, your toes out: All the quick tutelage he'd received before that first ride vanished as the bull exploded from the gate.

Arms and legs flying out, with a face full of dust, his eyes wild, he was a scared city boy running hellbent for the fence.

But he actually managed to stay on for three seconds -- more than any of his friends managed that night.

Not too long after that, a friend told him about Ray Cox and the Lazy C Rodeo School near Jacksonville, Illinois, and not too long after that, he and Rebecca and two-year-old McKenzie were making the four-and-a-half-hour drive on a Friday night. "We get a motel and stay the weekend," says Rebecca. "Those days are awesome," she says of Saturdays and Sundays at the Lazy C, where as many as 80 cowboys, or weekend cowboys, find the turnoff at a bend in a curvy, dusty road to get a chance on a bull or a bucking horse and receive a concise analysis from Cox: "Not chargin' enough." "Not enough drag." "Your chin came up."

Young men look into the old man's face, intent on every word.

"Me and my buddies were just watchin' the PBR," explains Eric Barnett. In his early twenties, he's fresh-faced, tall and lanky, with strong arms and legs. He tapes his right hand. "I blew my hand open the last two weekends, ripped off all the calluses."

Barnett's been making the drive from Shipman, near Alton, for a year and a half. Shipman's even smaller than Alton, Barnett says. His high school's nicknamed Cornfield High because it sits smack-dab in the middle of one.

Those buddies, the ones with whom he sat watching the Professional Bull Riders tour on TNN, found other distractions. But since riding bulls for the first time at the Lazy C, Barnett's stuck around. Last summer, he rode in rodeos nearly every weekend. This summer, he slowed down.

He and Bill Shufflebothom stand in a small waiting area, where visitors sit and talk and gossip outside the indoor arena. Shufflebothom's a few years older than Barnett, a muscular, tan, jocular cowboy in a black hat. They swap stories about bulls they came to know this summer:

"I thought for sure he was gonna pull me to the right."

"I rode him over in the finals."

After every sentence, Barnett spits on the ground, the pinch of Skoal snug in his cheek:

"When he comes out, he's quick."


"Man, that guy came over the top of his head and his ass was above him."

"That guy went wham!"


"He ain't gonna hurt ya. He's a nice bull."

"That bull in Troy, I thought he was gonna eat me alive. I was crawlin.'"


A scratched and battered sign hangs from the gate between the waiting area and the arena, a sign no one takes notice of, meaning that it is required by the state: "Warning. Under the Equine Liability Act, each participant who engages in an equine activity expressly assumes the risks of engaging in and legal responsibility for injury, loss, or damage to person or property resulting from equine activities."

The arena is layered in decades of dust. Even though the ground is watered to keep the dust down, a few hours inside the arena and a jean jacket has clouded with dust. The arena is rimmed with stalls for horses and cattle. A mare and her foal stand together prettily in one. On this evening, the red sun glimmers through the open end of the building. A pale horse in the foreground swishes its tail and watches the young men near the chutes.

"That horse walks like a queer."

"He put those chaps on to look sexy."

"He called you everything but a white man."

Amid all the bluster and chatter that young men bandy about, the arena gets quiet as a cowboy descends onto the back of a bull. The knees touch the back of the bull first, to let the animal knows he's going to have a man on him. The hands are placed on the small of the bull's back, although it sounds absurd that this 1,200-pound animal would have a small of the back. The cowboy locates a shallow spot where the knuckles go and rests his little finger along the backbone. He sets one hand snugly between rope and bull.

At least one cowboy stands above the chute, helping the rider settle in. Most injuries happen in the chute, often because the chute is too wide. Give a bull room to turn his head or shift his weight back and forth, and he will. Cowboys' legs get broken in the chutes.

One cowboy stands to unlatch the gate. Another holds a rope to pull the gate open quickly so the bull can bust out cleanly.

As soon as the bull's out, there's nothing but noise: the men hollering, "Get up front, get up front"; cowbells jangling from the rider's chaps.

Barnett's off in a few seconds, but he's hooked up, his hand caught in the rope around the bull's body.

A rider caught on a bucking bull is a vision of desperation. The moment is interminable. Barnett strains, pulls at the trapped hand with the other. He's learned to keep his feet moving as the bull keeps bucking. If he stops, he's liable to be dragged and kicked along the ground.

A cowboy runs swiftly at the bucking bull and pulls Barnett's arm hard. Barnett's released, but the hand he taped so carefully is torn again.

"You stayed on long enough to get a picture," someone says. Barnett laughs heartily, his face pale.

Ray Cox doesn't advertise, yet his name's known around the rodeo world. "All those cowboys know me," he says. "They've all been here one time or another."

And they truly come from all over the world: from around the Midwest -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa (which Cox pronounces "I-o-way"), Illinois, Indiana, Missouri -- as well as North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee. "Had guys from Sweden and Switzerland and Finland," says Cox, "a lot of boys out of Canada."

Word of mouth crosses international borders, oceans and the Baltic Sea, leading sheet-metal workers and roofers and math teachers and high-school students to come in contact with wildness and to be watched and guided by someone who knows a thing or two about the risks and pleasures of wildness.

"He's always there making sure I'm comfortable with myself," says Schwer. A ride on the back of a bull, whether it lasts one buck out of the chute or eight seconds, is pure adrenaline rush. Both experienced and inexperienced riders run on that energy and overextend themselves. "Thing is, you think you're not tired," says Scott, "but he knows when you're tired."

Cox is rumpled and gray-haired, with a Lazy C Rodeo School cap perched on his head. His bifocals hide the cataract over one eye. He dresses in a checked flannel shirt, faded jeans with a leather belt stamped with "Lazy C" and worn boots.

You would be hard pressed to pick out this rodeo Bodhisattva out of a group of rangy ranch hands huddled around the back fender of a pickup truck. But then, stories are told of how Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who with Crazy Horse annihilated Custer at the Little Big Horn, failed to conform to the stereotype of the great leader. There was nothing statuesque or noble about Sitting Bull. An army general would walk right past him, thinking the chief to be of no account.

Cox doesn't give the standard bone-breaking handshake that's the norm of the cowboy code. He usually looks distracted, as if there's something else of moderate importance to be concerned with in a far pasture. Cox speaks softly, in sentences that don't meander too far from subject and verb.

He's traveled all over the country as a rodeo rider and stock contractor throughout his life. A stock contractor raises and provides the livestock that break the cowboys' bones and fill the bleachers. Cox used to put on 25 to 30 "shows" a year, but at 69 he's slowing down.

"I'd like to quit now," Cox says in that voice, soft as a foal's tail, "but I like helpin' these kids out."

The kids keep coming to him. They sit at home in Mom's basement and watch PBR and see Ty Murray win the big money. Someone pops 8 Seconds into the DVD player -- the rodeo cowboys' all-time favorite movie. Lane Frost was a world-champion bullrider who died in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the horns of a bull. 8 Seconds presents his story like a holy martyrdom, and any number of young men tear up watching the story of a young man who died. They hear about the Lazy C and make the trip because they figure they want a taste of that glory. They come from Alton and Skokie and North Carolina and Finland. They've ranched all their life or they've never been near a bale of hay.

"We get a lot of green kids," says Cox. "We start them on a real easy spotted bull the girls ride. Once they get them rode, we move them up to a better one."

From there, they might never ride again or they might spend one wild-ass summer on the rodeo circuit. Some become good enough for the big money and television stardom of PBR. Cox has tutored Dustin Hall and Spud Whitman, who show up riding nearly every weekend on the small screen. He's worked with Cory Montana Davis, rookie of the year with the Bullriders of America tour in 2002. He's also worked with Lisa Stipp, who won world-champion bull rider in 1998, although, says Cox, "I don't like to teach the women. I don't like to see them get hurt. I don't know how to talk to some of them. Some of them get mad if you tell them they're sitting on their butts too much -- can't ride on your pockets. Tell them to stick their chest out, they think you're coming on to them. It's different."

Some also come who have nowhere else to go. "I raised a lot of boys," he says, "a lot of troubled boys.

"My folks raised a lot of kids who've been in trouble. I don't know how many I've had and straightened out.

"I took those kids to learn 'em how to work. I rule things with an iron hand. I do. People hear about it. We get 'em."

Somehow, from all over, men and women find the turnoff north of Jacksonville. Whatever it is they may be looking for -- fame, glory, an eight-second thrill, a decent life -- they pass by the fallen-down entry gate to the Lazy C.

Early on a Wednesday evening, men lean against the back end of a faded yellow pickup truck. The chaos and clutter of the Lazy C is all around them: sheds and barns and trailers and farm machinery and pickup trucks and rusting autos in fabulous disarray, an idea of order as complex as a Mexican shanty town.

Cox says that most of the cowboys come up on the weekends, but the Wednesday-night class brings together a group of regulars who drive the miles after work to get a few rides in on a bull or bronc. Barnett's up from Alton, Shufflebothom from Murryville; Bill Zahm arrives later in the evening, having driven the 45 minutes from Springfield.

Mary Lou Blackburn offers her hand in greeting. She has the features of a ranch woman -- prematurely white hair swept back, face reddened by the sun. Blackburn came here 21 years ago: "I had a horse I was messin' up. He was hard to bridle, and I brought him up here for Ray." She's 42 now, and she's stayed, living in a trailer near the entrance to the compound, breeding dachshunds, feeding animals, doing custom leather work (a pair of two-color chaps runs $250, $300 for three-color) and offering no explanation as to how this became her life and home.

In the sitting area adjacent to the arena, Vern Boker rests impassively in a metal chair, the world's largest Big Gulp cup in his hand. Boker, who at first appears as formidable and disquieting as a Duane Hansen sculpture, lives and works at the Lazy C as well. His trailer is to the south of Blackburn's, although it's doubly hard to pick out whose is whose because there is never just one trailer alone in the weeds. A trailer that grew worn or uncomfortable or confining and then abandoned remains in place. The difference between habitation and decay is sometimes hard to figure.

Boker, a Vietnam vet, traveled all over the country with Cox back when they were contracting 25 to 30 rodeos a year. He also drove a truck for eighteen years, and he and his family have been helping Cox get the hay in for a lifetime. When he rises, the arthritis that hobbles him is painful to watch.

Six bulls are driven into the arena by two barking, nipping blue heelers. Cox communicates to the dogs with gestures as subtle as a cock of his head or a turn of his hand. When the bulls stall, failing to go through a gate into a corral behind the chutes, Cox directs the lead dog, Dog, to "bite 'em. Bite those bulls."

"Look at his teeth," one cowboy laughs. The bulls ramble swiftly to where they belong.

Men huddle around the chutes in the arena. Lee Hargis, a dust-covered character in his early thirties who also has a trailer on the premises, calls to Cox, "Who you want in?"

Cox has sized up the riders. Young bulls, or novice bulls, which are not fully grown, are used for practice. Cox knows the bucking abilities, as well as the proclivities, of each: which bull will turn which way; which bull will leap and when; which will spin. He matches bull with man according to the degree of difficulty the man can handle.

"We'll put Willie in," he tells Hargis. "That red bull will be all right." Four bulls enter the stalls, one after the other.

Matt Fee is a short, strongly built, handsome eighteen-year-old in a black cowboy hat. He walks, stiff-legged, near the chutes. Cox describes Fee as "a pretty good cowboy," which is about as fine a compliment as he gives, that and saying a rider is "real sticky."

Fee's been coming to the Lazy C since he was fifteen. "I practice here a lot," he says. "I help ..." He shyly saunters off before describing just how he helps. Getting a laconic cowboy to utter more than eight words about himself is about as tough as sticking to a bull for an eight-second ride.

Fee made it to the national finals in high-school rodeo but "got his leg broke," says Cox. "Just got his cast off a week ago."

Rodeo, or staying with rodeo, means living hurt. "I broke everything but my ears," Cox laughs. "I broke my tailbone real bad when I was fourteen. I kept ridin' and ridin'. I asked if they'd take it out." Years after he retired from riding in rodeos, Cox underwent arthroscopic surgery, but, he says, "All that was there was mush. They had to scrape it all out."

Shufflebothom rides a black bull around the arena impressively. He bounds off, only to get a face full of dust. And that was a good ride.

Cox says veterans come to the Lazy C to shake off bad habits: "They get to hold their elbow out or don't have their chin down. If you raise your head up, you'll go over the fence. You've got to keep your eyes right over the rope."

Psychology comes into play in teaching rodeo riding. "Some of them are slow learners, slow puttin' it together," says Cox. "They get on horses and don't have balance. You put them on bulls to put it together.

"Some kids, you got to get on them hard to get more try. Then, when they get down on themselves, you really got to work on them."

"Try" is a word used often around rodeo arenas. In the parlance of sports, it's akin to "extra effort," but in rodeo it also refers to attitude, to a sense of never-quit, to a firm denial of the absurdity of the enterprise -- and defiance.

Tell somebody at the Lazy C that this place is beautiful, and he'll look at you funny.

In the fields that stretch from the county road to the buildings, peacocks and peahens strut and pick through the soil. They're out here and everywhere, most remarkably as they perch in the rafters of the arena, peculiar, colorful shapes above the ruckus of bulls and horses and dogs and men. They're here because Cox isn't quite fearless: "I'm kind of scared of snakes, and they say peacocks and peahens keep them out of here."

No snakes are in evidence on the Lazy C, but just about every other critter on two or four legs can be encountered here. Everything barks but nothing bites. The business of feeding beast and fowl is constant and costly, and the few two-legged beings who make a home here are usually engaged with keeping hay and feed available to cattle and horses and chickens and turkeys and ducks and geese and peacocks and dogs and a complaining burro named Milton Berle. Cox says his feed bill runs around $90,000 a year.

Dachshunds appear just about everywhere, inquisitive and appreciative of attention. Chickens are plentiful as well. Horses circle a round bale of hay or come to the edge of the fence, curious and watchful. One bucking horse, Oscar, stands alone. Despite his reputation as being a terror to anyone who tries to stay on his back, he leans into whomever comes along to stroke his side, warm in the afternoon sun.

Young bulls feed in one pen, including a calf sired by Bodacious, a legendary bucking bull who has injured many riders, including Tuff Hedeman, three-time world champion and the Horatio to Lane Frost's Hamlet. In 8 Seconds, Luke Perry plays Frost and Steven Baldwin plays Hedeman. After the death of his friend Frost, Hedeman went on to become a rodeo legend, winning the world and starting the PBR series. But before his handsome smile appeared regularly on TNN, Hedeman endured complete reconstructive surgery on his face because Bodacious caved it in.

"Acts like he's gonna buck," Cox says of the Bodacious calf. "Bred him artificially -- they thought the semen was too old. We're not crowdin' him too much because he's not very old. It's best to buck them when they're a year and a half. Not really good until he's five. Then he's matured."

For now, the calf is small beside the others in the pen, light brown with wide ears, a nightmare growing.

In a larger pen fenced with electric wire are the mature bulls. Cox points out a couple ready for PBR. Bulls, for all their fierce mythology, appear as complacent and shapely as clouds.

Geese forage beside the bulls. A pond, where all manner of geese and ducks linger, further gentles the scene.

Contrasting the sublimity of the animals is the ramshackle chaos of the buildings. It's hard to discern each structure's current purpose or to calculate when it may collapse and dissolve into the weeds.

Cox is no gentleman rancher with a grand house set a distance from the feed pens and corrals. His trailer is set in the middle of the work to be done; it's just a couple of steps out the front door to where cattle are nosing in the feed bins.

Between Cox's trailer and the enclosed arena, there's firewood stacked in at least four untidy piles, small coops for pullets, a couple of tractors, a couple of pickup trucks and a dilapidated old Eurosport with a dented roof, its windows gone and the trunk open.

Feathers of all kinds lie on the ground. A peacock paces back and forth in a pen made of old metal crates.

A blue Ford tractor with one wheel missing is held up by blocks; one of the remaining tires is flat. A rusted Coca-Cola-bottle dispenser -- "Pause and Refresh" written in inviting script -- stands empty, the business end of a pitchfork left on its roof.

A glimpse into a two-bay garage reveals numerous gas cans and heaps of metal junk that could make for a study of the archaeology of cars.

Tires, plastic buckets, old metal chairs, a wooden bench swing, a camper, metal posts and a mechanical bull lie where they were left.

A two-story building of corrugated metal colored white and rust is the only building that was here when Cox bought the spread in 1954, when he was 21 years old. Curtains remain in the windows. A lamp can be seen on the second floor. Cox doesn't know why he's left the place standing: "Maybe it's just sentimental."

A few steps out of this mess, past another barn where two draft horses lean against one another in the shade, the eye expands toward gentle hills Grant Wood might have painted, ambling meadows, scrub and tall trees turning their fall colors. The air is clear and clean and the earth soft.

Hargis' whip cracks, sending the bucking horses swirling in the corral.

"Got your gun yet?" Cox asks Josh Jacobs, a Carlyle, Indiana, math teacher in his midtwenties who has driven four hours to ride a saddle bronc today.

"Got my pearl-handled six shooter," Jacobs says, grinning from his unusual pose, squatting on a saddle on the ground and rocking himself back and forth, miming the action he will encounter on the horse.

"His dad came here before Josh was born," Cox says fondly of the young man in the saddle.

"The family's been going down ever since," another young man chides Jacobs.

"Josh got a big goat farm down in Carlyle," says another, and the young men around the chutes laugh hard at their friend's expense. Jacobs grins and blushes at the rough affection.

Cox keeps his eyes on the big white horse in the chute. "Open that gate pretty fast," he says. "Don't let that horse slide out of it."

This horse appeared in a segment of Hard Copy, says Cox, an edition that exposed the cruelty of rodeo. Apparently the horse was filmed in rodeo action coming down hard and twisting on its front legs.

Cox talks about the easy life of bucking horses and bulls, as most in the rodeo business do. The livestock might "work" a total of eighty seconds in a year if you figure ten rodeos and ten eight-second rides, Cox calculates.

This is the standard line delivered in the rodeo world in response to concerns about the livestock's welfare. No one can argue that rodeo is good for animals, but there's a reason bleachers are set up around the rodeo arena and not at the slaughterhouse. At least Cox admits, as few in the business will, that travel is hard on the animals. However, Cox believes that if an animal is treated right, given feed and rested, it can have a long, pleasant life in the rodeo game.

The white horse rears in the chute, the gate still closed. It falls to its knees horribly, Jacobs still on its back.

Jacobs scrambles precariously to avoid being crushed.

Cox moves quickly to the chute with no wasted motion. He strokes the horse's neck. "Get the saddle off," he says.

Jacobs is out, standing on the back rail behind the chute. T.J. Dodd goes headfirst into the chute to uncinch the saddle, exhibiting no caution for the nervous animal breathing hard beside him.

Jacobs lifts the saddle. The horse, relieved, stands unharmed.

They try to resaddle the horse, but it skitters nervously. Cox tells the man at the horse's head to cover its eyes with his hands, and, just like that, the horse settles down.

Soon the gate is open, and again the horse rears high, which, Cox says, it does every time. The horse does more running than bucking after burning off so much energy in the chute.

A few minutes later, a young man called Paco busts out on his third bronco of the day. He's bucked off quickly and hits the dirt for the third time today.

"Mama said there'd be days like this," he says forlornly, knocking his hat against his leg to shake the dust off it.

"No drag?" he says to Cox. "That's why my hand keeps goin'?"

Cox nods. A cowboy needs to keeps his spurs firm against the side of the animal; if he doesn't, he relies too much on his hand to stay aboard.

Schwer, a novice to all this, asks Paco whether there's any difference between riding a saddle bronc and riding bareback. "That bareback hurts where it works," Paco tells him.

Barnett is up from Alton, but because he twisted his knee badly on a Wednesday-evening session a couple of weeks back, he's not going to be riding again for awhile. He still comes up for the camaraderie, the ease and laughter. He and Blackburn trade gossip about who's moving in with whom.

A Chicago dude in a sharp black hat spends a total of three seconds on three bulls. He's done for the day.

No more riders this afternoon. Schwer took a bad fall on his tailbone earlier in the day and cut short his weekend's study. If he's hurt out here, he doesn't work on Monday.

The bullriding isn't over yet this afternoon. Cox wants to see in action one of the new bulls he purchased recently from a young rancher in northern Alabama. He enlists T.J. to try out a big black-and-white-spotted bull with a wide horn span.

Cox pretty much raised Andy and T.J. Dodd. "He's a pretty good bullrider," he says of T.J. with a glimmer of paternal pride.

As soon as the big bull is out of the chute, it's obvious there's no way T.J. is going to be bucked off. Adriano Morales, the Brazilian bullriding star of PBR, at his best, rides bulls like this. His strong legs clamp onto the bull's sides, and that bull gets rode. With T.J. aboard, the bull stops in the middle of the ring, exasperated.

T.J. dismounts cockily.

"I think that bull's gonna buck," Cox says, appraising his investment.

"I used to be a bad cat," Cox says, shaking his head forlornly, seated on a plastic bucket in the sitting area adjacent to the arena. Boker and Blackburn are sitting around, too, and they all laugh when they think about how Cox has mellowed over the years.

"Just don't make him mad," warns Boker. "I'd always want him on my side. I'd never want him against me."

"If I couldn't whip two or three guys at one time, there was something wrong with me," says Cox, and although he feigns embarrassment about his bad old days, he betrays a wicked smile.

Cox was married once, and that experience, he says, "weaned me off of marriage for life." She had no use for rodeo and wanted to settle in Virginia, Illinois. "I tried to live there, and I couldn't do it," says Cox. "I told my wife I had to get out of town.

"My first bucking chutes were on the edge of town. One time I drove home and the kids got my welding rods out and threw them at each other like darts. I was paddling their butts -- then the mayor's wife drove by and yelled at me. So I turned her over my knee.

"They took me down to jail," he grins sheepishly. Jail is not a place he's unfamiliar with.

Cox lives within fifteen miles of where he was born near Virginia. He's of Scots lineage: "Folks all come from Cumberland, moved from Tennessee to Oklahoma. Starved to death in Oklahoma same as they starved to death in Tennessee."

His father raised dairy cattle. "I said when I was 21 I didn't like to milk any more cows. All the time until I was 21, I said, 'I'm getting out of this deal.'

"I left home when I was 21 and bought this place and built the outside arena. We had shows outside every two or three weeks, advertised in the newspaper and radio. We had a lot of people then.

"Everybody who owned this place starved to death," he says. Years after he'd proved he could make the Lazy C go, Cox says, a skeptical neighbor told him, "You're the only guy to make this pay its way."

"I never did anything that lost money."

All of Cox's uncles -- he has 22 uncles and aunts on his father's side alone -- were in rodeo. Cox started out in rodeo when he was twelve.

His memories of school are those of confrontation: a fifth-grade teacher whom Cox rapped with a ruler after she threatened him with it; a town kid whom Cox waylaid with a chair when he saw the boy had a hose wrapped around Cox's sister. Cox thought it was a snake.

Cox and his brothers and sisters rode horses to school: "If it was raining, we went in horse and buggy. If Dad had all the horses in the field, we rode a cow to school. I never was much on walkin'."

Cox attended a one-room school until high school, when he moved to "a pretty good-size school" in the town of Virginia.

The old cowboy doesn't talk much about his rodeo days. He says he doesn't even remember whether he made any money at it, but it's been the center of his life.

"My uncles were pretty good cowboys," he says. "All my family were pretty good cowboys. I got an uncle who's 80 now is still breaking horses.

"It gets in your blood; you can't get it out. I poured cement to support rodeo, always baled a lot of hay. I always worked hard -- haven't I, Vern? Worked harder than most anybody my age.

"I can do anything, pretty near," he says, without the tone of the braggart.

People start straggling in for the Wednesday-night session. A neighbor Cox's age drops off a bag of tomatoes from his garden.

Shufflebothom and Barnett talk about a rodeo in Cape Girardeau the weekend before. Cox asks whether either of them was in the money. Both shake their heads no.

Bill Zahm -- in his mid-twenties, lean and handsome with close-cropped blond hair -- dons a pair of iridescent red chaps. He's arrived with his girlfriend, Amanda; two-year-old, daughter Ashton; and one-month old baby boy, Robert Jesse.

Zahm's heated up about his workday. He's cussing out his crew for not staying "on the fucking job and getting the fucking roof done" after a nail gun landed on Amanda's head.

She's smiling about it, mostly, talking about all the blood and how much it still hurts.

Cox puts his arm around her: "If you're lookin' for sympathy around here, it's in the dictionary between 'shit' and 'syphilis.'"

Zahm sets himself eagerly on the back of a large Brahma in the chute. After a second of stillness, the gate opens, and Zahm sticks to the bull as it kicks its back legs high, then higher, into the air.

It's a hell of a ride, but no one says much. A cowboy who's dismounted a bull, to paraphrase Mark Twain, may have experience, but it's hard to understand what he's gleaned from it. Pale, gasping for breath, Zahm looks as if every part of him as been shaken, including his psyche: It's a rare moment when a cowboy looks in perilous doubt of what he's just done.

School stays in session late into the evening -- "until they get tired," says Cox.

Blackburn walks outside into the night air. A pair of lights moves slowly up the dirt road to illuminate the debris of the farm yard. A group of high-school girls step out of the van on their way to the arena for a view of Wrangler butts.

Blackburn regards the quiet of the place. Once in a while a car drives along the county road with its radio blaring, but other than that it's the stillness of fields far from paved roads. The sky's overwhelmed with stars.

"Not like the city," she says.

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