"I did have one calf I bought for $10, and I'd rope that on Sundays. Any oftener and it would have gotten too tame. It wasn't till some time that I made enough money to buy 10 or 15 of my own."
Because he lacked the good horse needed for roping or bulldogging, Oliver started rodeo competition in bronc-riding. He could practice that on the horse he did have, a mean old mare who habitually bit and kicked anyway. At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, however, Oliver was bigger than most bronc-busters (who run around 150 pounds) and made a terrible sound whenever he hit the ground, which was often. Wisely returning to timed events, he used the same horse for roping. "She wasn't much good," he says, "but by having to watch her all the time I sure learned a lot."
When he did venture out on the big circuit, times were hard. "I couldn't afford a spare tire for my trailer," Dean says. "If I got a flat I had to unhook it and go into the next town. And for two winters I had to go out and shoot deer to put meat on the table. We lived on that."
Oliver had acquired a family by that time. "I met Dean when he was working for my father on his sugar-beet farm," says Martha, a characteristically western woman with strong but pretty features, light-brown hair and eyes nearly the same shade of blue-gray as her husband's. "Beets were still plowed up with teams and topped by hand then. Dean was driving the team, and every time he came back with a load of beets we would talk." There is a strong suggestion that Oliver turned up a near-record number of sugar beets.
The Olivers have three daughters. The older girls, Sheryl, 14, and DeAnn, 10, were left at home in Boise during the Casper rodeo, but the youngest, Nikki, 3, was very much present to entertain clowns, enrich concessionaires and terrorize playmates. Shortly before the opening ceremonies, in fact, Dean had watched with mingled amusement and disapproval as Nikki squared off with a 5-year-old boy who had incurred her anger. And why, his wife wanted to know, had he not firmly removed his daughter? "I didn't want nobody to know it was mine," Dean said. "She's kinda spoiled, I guess." "Kinda!" Martha mocked. "And why do you suppose that is?"
It was time to get ready for the rodeo. Rolling up a pants leg, Oliver set to work taping his right knee. "I hurt it once," he explained. "This is just a Band-Aid I wrap it with." Then he removed his lariats from their airtight container, kneaded them slightly and spun a few experimental loops above his head. He watched closely to see that they twisted off flat and steady when he rolled his wrist. "The container—I used to use five-gallon lard cans—keeps ropes from getting too damp or too raggy," Dean explained. "I use ropes pretty soft myself, and if they get too stiff I put 'em in the car motor to warm up a little." Oliver carefully looped one lariat onto the saddle horn and another onto the side, soberly thanked Nikki for soberly bringing him bit and bridle and buckled spurs on his own heels and skid boots on his horse's fetlocks.
His horse, named Nancy, is the third used by Oliver since a stifle injury to Mickey, the sorrel gelding on which he won some $150,000 in seven years. "Mickey was the biggest thing in my winnin' a lot," Oliver says. "He had a lot of try in him, just wouldn't let you up. Nancy's a good horse—maybe a little too gentle—but Mickey worked a little better rope, pulled a little more. A horse has got to pull just enough to keep the calf's head down while you tie its feet."
None of that soppy boy-and-his-horse operetta for Oliver. He upholds the real, traditional cowboy attitude toward a horse, which is respect—a craftsman's respect for his tools, a decent respect for a creature that has to eat and work for a living just as he does.
"You can put a good man on an average horse and he won't win but a little," Dean maintains. "And good horses are scarce. You could look at a hundred and not find more than two or three you like. Of course, that's partly because every man looks for something different. For me, a horse that sets up too quick would be bad. I want it to stop exactly when I'm pitching the rope forward, and not before."
The night's roping had begun, and the starting judge came forward to warn Oliver that he was now second in line. Dean repinned his contest number more loosely to the back of his shirt, so that he would not be hampered by even that much restriction to free movement. Moments later, piggin' string in his teeth, he sat tautly in the ropers' gangway, so far back in the enclosure that the haunches of his horse pressed hard against the rear fence. The horse waited even more tensely, muscles bunched and twitching, for the calf to trip its self-opening chute door. Fifteen cowboys, perched along the arena fence like so many crows on a rail, leaned forward expectantly.