"Bulls are the meanest, rankest creatures on earth," he said. "Horses don't try to step on you when they throw you off. They don't want to trip. Bulls love to step on you, or whip your face into the back of their skull and break your nose and knock out your teeth. Getting your hand hung up in a bull rope is about the most dangerous thing in rodeoing. You have to transform yourself into some kind of a small beast. When I can't reach down and pull up a bunch of want-to out of myself, I'll know it's time to quit."
Mahan moves fast and attacks his time as if it's a sin ever to be caught idle. He might be in San Francisco in the morning. Denver in the afternoon and Tucson at night. Meanwhile he will have ridden in a couple of rodeos, conducted three or four business deals and made 20 phone calls; his phone bill is never less than $500 a month. The first time he flew solo in his Cessna, after being checked out in it for a few hours, he took off from Phoenix and landed in Cabo San Lucas to pose for some Jantzen ads. Skipper Lofting, who works for the RCA, says Mahan's thyroid gland must be the size of a hockey puck. "Here's a hell of a cowboy who carries an American Express card and skis with Billy Kidd," says former bull-riding champion Droopy Brown. "Now what can you say about that?"
Another bull rider had bought several bottles of whiskey and cases of beer and was having a party in a motel room. He asked everybody who came in the door to give him a dollar to help pay for the party. One cowboy said, "That's a cheap blanking trick, making people pay a blanking dollar to go to a blanking party."
"You can't talk like that," the bull rider said. "My wife is here."
The cowboy looked directly into the face of the bull rider's wife and said, "Blank, blank, blank."
The bull rider flailed the weeping dog-meat out of the cowboy and then kicked him in the head to put out his lights. "My wife don't like to hear talk like that, I told you," the bull rider said.
"That kind of thing doesn't happen very much anymore," Mahan said a little later. "It's not like it used to be, with a lot of fighting in honky-tonks. Guys are too busy moving on." We were down in the cowboy bar underneath the Cow Palace. The jukebox was playing both country and rock music. Cowboys were dancing with those sweet young thangs who are always around in those tight pants they wear. They say if a girl gets to running with cowboys, she won't ever have anything to do with anybody else. At least, cowboys say that. Plenty of girls seem to believe it. They'll drive hundreds of miles to see a rodeo and grab hold of a cowboy for a dance, a couple of beers and maybe a little romance. Boogie mamas, Mahan calls them.
Cowboys crowded around the bar to pay a dollar for a shot of whiskey in a plastic cup. The bartender, Dennis, a sometime bull rider, was working hard beneath a painting of a nude woman stretched out on the wall. Droopy Brown and Don Gay were talking about bull riding. Droopy said it was pretty simple: keep your legs on either side of the bull and your mind in the middle, like Jim Shoulders had advised. Don Gay said it is sort of like you are sitting astraddle a chair with a beer in one hand, and a big mean guy you don't want to mess with comes over and starts banging the chair back and forth, and you hang on until the chair falls over, and then you get up and order another beer.
"These people who say we're being cruel to animals don't know what they're talking about," Mahan said. "The animals are treated well. They don't work but a few minutes a year. A cowboy looks at a great bucking animal the way he would at a great athlete. Sometimes a horse will be saddle broke until he's 10 years old, and then all the sudden he'll start throwing everybody. He just got tired of people sitting on his back. So he could be a good bucking horse until he's 20 or 25 years old. A lot more cowboys get hurt than animals. My belief is if you see you're in a bad storm out there on a horse or bull and about to get upside down, it's better to just bail out. There's always another rodeo next week, and you don't want to miss it with a bunch of broken bones. But some cowboys just never will let go."
It is no myth about rodeo cowboys being tough. Mahan has had his jaw smashed, three vertebrae cracked and his foot broken. After he broke his foot in 1967, he put on a plaster cast and kept riding. In 1971 he was $1,500 behind Phil Lyne for the all-around title when he broke his leg in two places during a bareback ride. The night we were down in the basement bar at the Cow Palace, a cowboy had been thrown and knocked cold in the arena. He awoke on a stretcher as he was being carried past a bar upstairs. "I'll get off here, fellows," he said, and went in and ordered a shot of bourbon.