"I'm not superstitious," Mahan said as the dancers shuffled around, "but I try to put bad thoughts out of my mind. If you only think about good things, maybe good things are all that will happen."
Just about then Dennis the bartender decided he had listened to enough mouth from a cowboy standing a few feet from Mahan. Dennis leaned across the bar and punched the cowboy in the face. Then Dennis leaped up on his knees on the bar and pounded the cowboy three or four more splats before some other cowboys pushed in and got in the way.
"Nice going," Mahan said to his neighbor. "You didn't spill a drop."
The cowboy with the bloody face walked right back up to the bar and ordered another drink as if nothing out of order had happened. Dennis fixed it for him, rang up the dollar and not another word was said about the incident.
In the alley beside the chutes on the final night of the Cow Palace rodeo, Mahan was fretting. He was already $16,000 ahead in the all-around for the year and couldn't be caught no matter what happens at the National Finals, but he wanted to finish at the Cow Palace with a good ride. His first bareback horse the previous week had been a rough one named Necklace. Mahan had phoned ahead to find out what horse he had drawn. "When I heard it was Necklace, I got that sick, empty feeling in my stomach," he said. "I spent four days psyching myself up for that ride. I rode Necklace in my mind hundreds of times. In my mind I went through every trick Necklace could possibly pull on me, so when he came out of the chute I was ready."
But his last bareback horse this week, Blue Sky, had a reputation for taking three jumps and bolting. A cowboy can't make a good score on a horse like that. The two judges each can give 25 points to the horse and 25 to the rider. If the horse doesn't buck it doesn't matter how well the rider performs for his eight seconds; the score will be low.
"This horse shouldn't be in the finals of a big rodeo," Mahan said, looking at the big white horse waiting in the chute. "It's three jumps and whoopee-ki-yi, head for Tulsa."
Bareback riding is the most punishing event in rodeo, according to Mahan. "Your hand in the rigging is the only point of control between you and the horse," he said. "The jerk and strain through the hand and arm to your body are tremendous, and you keep spurring as wildly as you can. You look like a big flying bird that's hooked onto the horse."
Mahan was digging through his bag and preparing his equipment while other cowboys paced up and down in the alley, nervously smoking and doing knee bends and checking their rigging. There was the warm smell of dung and fear. Mahan was trying to work up that sick, empty feeling in his stomach, but Blue Sky had not inspired him. He pulled out his rigging. A bareback rigging is a curved piece of leather with a handle. Mahan powdered rosin on the rigging and on a goatskin glove that he cinched to his right wrist with a leather strap he pulled tight with his teeth. He tucked in his pants and tied a leather strap around his boots to keep them from flying off. He checked the rowels of his two-inch spurs. The rowels have to be dull, but they need to spin. He put on a pair of chaps that fit snug around the thighs, and then he walked over to another rider. Rusty Riddle, to ask again about Blue Sky. Riders keep book on horses and bulls like pitchers do on hitters.
"He's bucked good before. I've seen people get upside down on him," Riddle said.