Blacktop Cowboys

Riders on the Run for Rodeo Gold

Ty Phillips

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One 

The Road to Denver
 
Norco, California
Sunday, January 18
 
Luke Branquinho unzipped his pants and began pissing into a fresh pile of horse manure. A bubbling green liquid oozed atop the parking lot dirt in small streams, a spent mixture of alfalfa hay and countless Coors Lights. The bleary-eyed cowboy stood beside a Ford F350 pickup in a halfhearted bid for privacy. He steadied himself by gripping the truck’s bed with his right hand. His left arm hung limp by his side.
 
A couple hundred yards away, small groups of people made their way from the grandstands at Ingalls Arena. The remnants of the California Circuit Finals rodeo crowd followed a strip of asphalt that snaked its way down a steep hill and led to their cars. Children, many dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, talked to their parents in excited tones about the wondrous things they’d just seen, far too young to have any idea what cowboy life really meant.
 
As Casey Branquinho sat in the driver’s seat of his truck, waiting on his brother, a woman walked over to the rig. Her son, Levi Rosser, had just won the bulldogging event and twenty-six hundred dollars. Still pissing, Luke turned his head toward her and smiled.
 
“Hey,” he called out, “tell your son congratulations for finally getting some this weekend.”
 
“He didn’t get some this weekend,” she said.
 
“Well, maybe he’s a queer.”
 
“He’s not a queer,” she said. “He’s just kind of private.”
 
“Maybe he needs me to come over and counsel him.”
 
“No, Luke, that’s really the last thing he needs,” she said, touching Casey on the arm before turning to walk away. “Good luck in Denver, guys.”
 
Luke finished his business, wiped his hands on his jeans, and walked to the passenger side. He opened the door and poured himself into the rig. He leaned back into his seat, winced a bit, and began massaging the flesh behind his left shoulder with his right hand. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his last silver can of pain relief. He popped it open, took a long drink, and then set the can in a cup holder and resumed the massage.
 
A few hours earlier, Luke had been in prime position to win several thousand dollars. He had bolted into the arena, slid off his horse, and grabbed his steer’s horns. But when he reached out for the animal’s nose, he felt his left shoulder give and he let go of the steer. The pin from a surgery years earlier was all that kept the shoulder from coming out completely.
 
Casey shifted the truck into gear and looked over at his brother.
 
“How’s the shoulder?”
 
“Sore.”
 
“Yeah,” Casey said, nodding as he guided his truck and a forty-foot trailer through the parking lot.
 
Before long, the dirt and gravel gave way to city streets that emptied into the endless hum of Interstate 15. Outside, the setting sun struggled to push light through the smoggy air that hung above the mountains east of Los Angeles.
 
Ontario. Victorville. Barstow.
 
The brothers spoke sparingly. Dark circles of exhaustion hung beneath their eyes. The 2003 rodeo season officially ended that January afternoon in Norco. And the off-season lasted all of about two hours: long enough for Luke to get drunk and for Casey to ready his horses for a long drive. The 2004 Wrangler ProRodeo Tour winter opener was set to begin in Denver the following day.
 
Settling in for the trip, both men reached out for their cell phones. Luke’s rang before he could dial a number. He looked down to see who was calling: It was his old buddy and traveling partner, Travis Cadwell.
 
“Hey Trav. . . . Just out here rodeoin’ buddy. How ’bout you? . . . That’s good. . . . No, we’re just leavin’ Norco now. . . . Well, I was fixin’ to win the steer wrestling, but my fuckin’ shoulder came out. . . . Yes it did. . . . You’re a dumb skinny fucker, you know that? . . . Yeah, exactly. Whatever. . . . No, Levi won it. . . . I don’t know. . . . When you gonna break out, at San Antonio? . . . Tucson? . . . All right. Hey, I got another call, I’ll talk to you later.”
 
Luke pushed the wrong button and lost the call. He gave up, leaned back in the seat, and closed his eyes. Casey turned up the volume on the radio to hear the Carolina Panthers put the finishing touches on their NFC Championship Game upset over the Philadelphia Eagles.
 
“This is the deepest penetration for the Eagles today,” the announcer said.
 
Luke looked over at Casey with the dumb grin drunk people wear.
 
“I got some deep penetration last night.”
 
“With who?”
 
“I can’t remember,” Luke said. “I think I drank too much.”
 
Luke’s phone rang again. Recognizing the number, he quickly took another drink of his beer and put the phone to his ear.
 
“Hey there. . . . What? . . . Fuck! You’re naked? . . . I want to see you naked. . . . Can I see you naked tomorrow night? . . . Well, that sounds good to me, too. . . .”
 
Suddenly, Luke dropped the phone to his waist and exhaled in frustration.
 
“These fucking phones!” he screamed.
 
He looked over at Casey again. “She was, fuck, she was about to talk dirty to me, too.”
 
“Who is that?” Casey said.
 
“Lindsay,” Luke said, dialing her number.
 
“Lindsay?”
 
“Arizona.”
 
“Oh, yes,” Casey said, smiling and picturing the pretty young brunette woman.
 
Luke put the phone back to his ear.
 
“So, I get to see you naked? . . . You’ll do a little dance for me? . . . You will? . . . Yeah, we’ll dance. Well, you’ll dance and I’ll watch. . . . Stay naked ’til I get there. . . .”
 
Casey shook his head and laughed. Then he looked at Luke.
 
“Her nipples would be hard if she was naked in Denver,” Casey said.
 
Luke looked over at his brother, paused for a moment to imagine the sight, then returned to the phone call.
 
“Casey says your nipples would be hard if you were naked in Denver. . . . They are? . . . Goddamn it! . . . We’re about fifteen hours away. . . . Okay. . . . I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
 
 
Mountain Pass. Las Vegas. Cedar City.
 
As the cowboys rode north, the temperature moved south. By 2:15 a.m., it had dropped to eighteen degrees. The edges of I-15 disappeared beneath the banks of blackened snow. Roadside sagebrush fluttered in a frozen wind. Skeleton trees, their fallen leaves long covered by snow, glimmered in the dim light of a setting moon.
 
Casey spotted the neon sign of JR’s Truck Stop and pulled off the freeway. After filling his tanks with $150 worth of diesel, he parked in a vacant field, near a parking lot of truckers sleeping in their rigs. Another truckload of cowboys—Brad McGilchrist, Levi Rosser, and Austin Manning—pulled in and parked behind Casey’s rig. The men unloaded their horses, covered them in blankets, and led them around in circles to walk off the miles. The early-morning soundtrack alternated between hooves digging into gravel and men spitting Copenhagen juice onto the ground. Every minute or so, the distant headlights of a freeway car threw light on the lonesome silhouette of a cowboy walking his horse at night.
 
Casey’s trailer door swung open and Luke stood in the doorway, scratching his head and rubbing his eyes like a miner emerging from a hole in the ground. He’d managed some sleep in one of the trailer’s beds, but every bump in the road had ravaged his sore shoulder and jarred him awake. Sober and somewhat rested, it was his turn to drive. He climbed into the driver’s seat and the insulin-dependent diabetic checked his blood sugar numbers. They were fine. So he chewed up a couple of Rolaids tablets to fix a problem created with the previous night’s dinner at Chili’s. Then he swallowed an aspirin to ease the throbbing in his shoulder. Now he was good to go.
 
As he drove Casey’s rig back to the freeway, Luke reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a cell phone, and called Levi, whose rig was nowhere in sight.
 
“Hey, what the hell are you doing? . . . Well, hurry up. . . . All right, all right. Are you driving? . . . Good, we can roll on. . . . Huh? . . . I don’t know, eighty or so. . . . You just keep up.”
 
Luke hung up the phone and flipped it onto the dashboard. He pushed the gas pedal farther down, the landscape blur quickened, and twenty-five thousand pounds of bat out of hell roared up the base of a mountain pass at 85mph.
 
 
Beaver. Cove Fort. Richfield.
 
Levi’s truck flew up alongside Luke’s. Luke looked to his left to see Brad, Levi, and Austin—all young cowboys making their first real run at full-time rodeo life—rocking out to music and fingering holes in their hands to simulate intercourse. Luke nodded back at them, shaking his fist and sticking his tongue in his cheek in a mock blowjob. The windows between them muted the late-night party unfolding inside Levi’s truck. Luke shook his head and smiled as Levi surged ahead and rode off in the fast lane.
 
“I remember when I was out for the first time,” Luke said to himself.
 
Even at twenty-three years old, Luke was no rookie. In 1998, he won the California High School all-around, steer wrestling, and team roping titles. He joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 2000 and missed the National Finals Rodeo that year by about six hundred dollars—a tenth of a second at some rodeos—before making rodeo’s grand stage each of the next three years. Entering the 2004 season, he’d racked up more than four hundred thousand dollars in four years, an unheard-of amount for a young steer wrestler. Yet his success came as no surprise to those around him.
 
Long as anyone can remember, any time there was a group of kids playing together, Luke was the one bossing the others around; even older kids listened to him. As he grew up, he seemed ready for new stages of life before others his age. Before he was in kindergarten, he drove tractors around the family’s fourteen-thousand-acre cattle ranch outside Los Alamos, California; his father, John, laughed as heavy equipment appeared to move around without a driver until it hit a large bump and Luke’s head popped into view over the dash. Luke was five when he leaned a shotgun over the side of a moving pickup and shot his first wild boar.
 
All his life, he’s won at everything he’s set his mind to: Baseball. Blackjack. Bulldogging. The game never mattered, just the winning. While most cowboys ride into an arena hoping for a victory, Luke parades in believing he cannot lose. And it’s that cocksure attitude that allows him to concentrate on his life’s other true passion: being a smart-ass. His face usually wears a good-natured smile; serious comments rarely leave his lips; anyone hanging around him for the first time quickly could become convinced he views life as one long joke.
 
His friends started calling him Fatty after seeing the six-foot, 260-pound cowboy without a shirt on. The nickname stuck, and today more rodeo people call him Fatty than Luke. His bulky frame—the result of weight-lifting sessions and bad eating habits—has done little to hamper his sex life. His early years as a professional cowboy established him both as a powerhouse steer wrestler and a prolific playboy. The latter is hardly unusual for cowboys and cowgirls on the PRCA circuit, where sexual scouting reports are a frequent topic of mealtime discussion. Asked how a night with Luke went, one barrel racer bragged to one of Luke’s friends that Fatty was a champion outside the arena, too.
 
Both he and Casey still spend a good deal of time at their parents’ cattle ranch, and neither has bothered buying a house because essentially they live on the road. It’s an E-ticket lifestyle that offers little in the way of reflection, mostly because there’s always someone around. But that changes in the sleepy hours of the dying night. When everyone else in the rig is asleep, and you’re sharing the darkened interstate with tired truckers, cowboys, and other restless souls hyped on coffee, energy drinks, and God knows what else.
 
As the clock neared 4 a.m., Luke flipped through his CDs, looking for something that fit the mood. Moments later, a saxophone wailed through the speakers at the opening of Bob Seger’s weary road song, “Turn the Page.” Luke leaned back into his seat, stretched his shoulder, and stared into the distance. The odometer rolled, and the pavement kept coming. When the vocals started, he sang along in a scratchy whisper to a tune that seemed to capture the soundtrack of his life:
 
On a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha,
You can listen to the engine moanin’ out as one long song.
You can think about the woman or the girl you knew the night before,
But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do.
When you’re riding sixteen hours and there’s nothing much to do,
And you don’t feel much like riding, you just wish the trip was through.
 
Say here I am, on the road again.
There I am, up on the stage.
Here I go, playing the star again.
There I go, turn the page. . . .
 
 
Green River. Crescent Junction. Fruita.
 
Casey lay in a bed and stared at the ceiling, his body shaking with every bump in the road. Alone in the darkened trailer, he’d spent several hours trying to cast the saddest memory from his mind. This wasn’t about a woman; not one he knew, anyway. A couple years back there had been love, but there was no one now. A man gets his fingers burned and pulls back from the fire. Hell, even the puppy that was tearing up Casey’s bed seemed like a pretty big commitment to him. But this memory had nothing to do with loneliness and broken hearts. This was about that terrible summer night last year in Wyoming. Finally, Casey gave up on sleep, and began working through it again in his mind.
 
He pictured himself behind the wheel of the rig as it came down from the Black Hills of South Dakota. He and two other cowboys, brothers Tim and Doug Pharr, were on their way from Deadwood to Cheyenne. That put them on Highway 85 at about 10:30 that night, between the tiny eastern Wyoming towns of Lusk and Newcastle where there’s nothing but a rise of blacktop stretching across the wide-open prairie.
 
Once again, in his mind, Casey watched the stocky mule deer as it walked across the road. After it reached the shoulder, it acted like it would keep going. Casey kept the rig at 65mph as he got closer. Then, at the last moment, the deer turned and wandered back onto the road. Casey never hit the brakes. Upon impact, the deer rolled beneath the truck, lifting the front wheels off the ground. Wrestling the steering, Casey fought to keep the rig on the road, swerving from white line to white line. He felt the trailer go over; it skidded on its side along the pavement in a deafening, spark-throwing roar.
 
Once the motion stopped, Casey and Doug got out of the truck and ran to the trailer where Tim had been sleeping. They called out to him, pounding the metal with their hands in the otherwise eerie silence of a pitch-black night. They heard nothing. Moments later, Casey heard the cowboy’s voice through the metal wall, saying he was okay. Casey walked to the back of the trailer to check on the three horses, knowing they probably were in pretty bad shape. He couldn’t open the mangled trailer door. He made his way to the roof, figuring he’d have to cut the horses out. But the roof was gone. And so were the horses.
 
Tim and Doug set out across the prairie to try to find the animals. Casey stayed with the rig where there was little to do but fear the worst. The bad news started coming an hour later when Tim called Casey on a cell phone from the scene of another crash. Three miles from the rig, Tim had seen headlights pointing off the roadway and thought it was someone who stopped after finding the horses. But as he got closer, the destruction began to take shape. The mangled car. The dead horses. All the blood in the world.
 
Casey listened to the details, his stomach sinking with the uneasy pain only guilt can bring. Hours passed before a sheriff drove to Casey for an interview. Casey sat in the patrol car’s passenger seat and told the man what had happened. Then the sheriff got a phone call. Casey listened to one end of the conversation, piecing things together, knowing the worst news was coming. The sheriff hung up the phone, looked at Casey, and told him the woman who had been driving was dead. Her daughter was critically injured. Casey sat there, shaking and crying, alongside a dark Wyoming highway much like he was doing now in the back of this trailer, lost in the sadness of another lonely old night on the road.
 
 
Grand Junction. Glenwood Springs. Denver.
 
(Thirty hours later) As dawn broke, Denver wore a fresh coat of snow. A steady wind blew, and dark gray clouds made the sky above the city look like a raging sea. Heavy snow fell throughout the morning, slowing interstate traffic to a crawl. The lone exception was Luke, who was driving Levi’s new thirty-thousand-dollar truck, blowing past cars in the icy fast lane of Interstate 70.
 
The cowboys had found a greasy breakfast and were headed back to the grounds about an hour before the rodeo started. Luke, driving because he knew the city a little better than the others, pulled off the interstate onto a crowded road a couple blocks from the Denver Coliseum.
 
“So,” Austin said from the backseat. “How’s Lindsay?”
 
“Real good,” Luke said, smiling at Austin in the rearview mirror.
 
“Tell me you showered first,” Levi said.
 
“Yes sir, I did,” Luke said. “Showered, scrubbed, and I even shaved my balls.”
 
Austin’s calm voice interrupted from the backseat: “Red light.”
 
Luke and Levi didn’t hear him. Luke kept driving.
 
“You really shaved your balls?” Levi said.
 
Luke looked over at him and smiled. His expression said yes.
 
Now the voice from the backseat had lost its calm. “RED LIGHT!” Austin shouted. “RED LIGHT!”
 
Luke whipped his head forward to see three lanes of traffic heading his way. He slammed on the brakes and Levi’s shiny new truck slid atop the dirty ice into a crowded intersection. Levi winced as the scene before him unfolded in slow motion. Two drivers trying to turn onto I-70 veered to avoid a crash. A trucker, who had seen Luke coming, stopped his rig in time. Luke missed the collision by about five feet. The trucker, now looking down into the cab of Levi’s truck, started laughing as other drivers began honking their horns.
 
The cab grew quiet. Luke calmly reached down and shifted the truck into reverse. He turned his head and put his arm on the seat, and backed the truck out of the intersection. As he did, he looked over at Levi, who had yet to say a word.
 
“That trucker thought it was funny,” Luke said with a shrug.
 
“Motherfucker,” Levi said, shaking his head from side to side.
 
“These Colorado stoplights are tricky,” Luke said. “What were we talking about, anyway? I can’t even remember what we were talking about.”
 
“Your balls,” Levi said. “We were talking about your shaved balls.”
 
“Oh yeah,” Luke said, laughing to himself.
 
A minute later, Luke pulled into the Coliseum lot and parked. Levi stared straight ahead and stuck out his hand.
 
“Give me the fucking keys,” he said.
 
Luke handed the keys over without saying a word. Then all three cowboys began laughing hysterically. It was time to rodeo.
 
 
A trailer door slammed shut, and tiny piles of snow rained onto the ground. A cowboy buttoned his NFR jacket, grabbed his horse’s reins, and began plodding through the Coliseum lot. Step by step, cowboy boots and horseshoes crushed the powder into ice, carving out a new trail. Horse and rider simultaneously exhaled warm breaths that appeared and vanished like ghosts in the frozen air.
 
The heavy footsteps eased onto a thin path worn to the pavement by hundreds of other cowboys and horses. The path ended at the base of a large wooden door: the back entrance to the Coliseum. A gloved hand reached out for the handle. The door swung open. And the cold white world outside gave way to the warm browns of old wooden stalls and fresh dirt backstage.
 
The man led his horse through a long corridor, plotting his course to avoid scattered piles of horseshit. The ammonia stench of animal urine overpowered all other smells, watering eyes and noses alike. The man pressed on, passing cowboys and cowgirls gathered in loose groups of three, four, and five. He stopped occasionally to wish friends well, continuing only after leaving the group laughing at some self-deprecating statement. Finally, he reached the warm-up area—a circle of dirt about a hundred feet across and located just outside the arena. He climbed onto his horse and blended into a parade of riders getting their horses ready to run.
 
He settled in behind Luke and Bryan Fields, two NFR qualifiers from the previous year who were busy laughing at each other’s jokes. Casey, a short rope hanging around his neck and a longer one curled around his arm, stood and talked to a man across a fence. McGilchrist sat on a bale of hay, took the hat from his head, and prayed. Levi and Austin warmed their horses, looking around and taking it all in.
 
Suddenly, the crowd roared as the lights went out inside the Coliseum. Seconds later, the glow of green lasers and fireworks flashes filtered backstage. As rock music blared, the muffled voice of announcer Boyd Polhamus carried into the warm-up area as the 2004 rodeo season got under way.
 
Denver, like most rodeos, features seven main events. There are four timed competitions—steer wrestling, team roping, calf roping, and barrel racing—and three rough stock events—bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding. Most rodeos begin with bareback riding and steer wrestling, then work through the other events until it comes to bull riding, which usually serves as the finale. Though bull riding clearly holds the most crowd appeal and tension—at least partially because it’s the only event where the animals actually try to kill the competitors and the prospect of death always looms one bad break away—each event has its core of followers.
 
Steer wrestling, revered for its combination of speed and strength, was invented about a century ago by a cowboy named Bill Pickett, who performed the novelty act in a traveling Wild West show. Team roping has built an enormous following as rodeo’s only true team event, a sport that originated on ranches where two men were needed to treat or brand large cattle. Saddle bronc riding is the sport’s classic competition, having evolved from the task of breaking horses on sprawling cattle ranches of the Old West. Barrel racing has its own set of fans, being the only flat-out race as well as the only event that features female competitors. Bareback riding, possibly the most physically demanding event in rodeo, has been compared to riding a jackhammer with one hand.
 
After Denver’s first round of bareback riders had taken their turns, the main gate at the other end of the arena swung open. A couple dozen steer wrestlers made their way in and walked toward the timed-event chutes.
 
Levi and Austin were among the first bulldoggers to go, and both threw their steers to the ground in little more than five seconds: good showings, but not fast enough for any money. Their second runs didn’t win them anything, either.
 
Of the three rookies, McGilchrist had the best opener. Two solid runs earned him a spot in the short round, and he rode away from Denver with a check worth more than five thousand dollars and a top five spot in the early season standings. However, he would spend the next few months in a serious drought that would see his name slip a few spots in the standings each week until it left the top fifty altogether.
 
As Luke rode his horse into the arena before his run, he worked his left shoulder in a slow circular motion, trying to ease the pain. A 600mg dose of ibuprofen helped that somewhat.
 
“This cowboy has been to the NFR three times,” Polhamus announced to the crowd.
 
“How many single ladies do we have in the audience? . . . Okay, how many married ladies do we have who like to look?”
 
The second question drew a rousing response, but Luke seemed not to notice. In fact, at that moment, all signs of the sarcastic playboy disappeared, replaced by the deadeye look of a cowboy locked in concentration. He glanced over the chute to check on his hazer, a man whose job is to ride along the other side of the steer and herd it toward the bulldogger. Looking back at the steer, Luke took a few deliberate breaths and nodded to the gateman. The steer broke from the chute with Luke on its tail. He leaned far right in the saddle as he reached out and touched the steer’s back. He slid his hand up the steer’s back and locked his right arm around one horn, grabbing the other horn with his left. He kicked free of the stirrups and planted his feet on the ground. He skidded to a stop, wrenched the steer’s neck, and the animal flopped onto its side. He looked up to see his time on the scoreboard: 4.5 seconds. A nice beginning.
 
Casey sat on a fence and awaited his turn to rope a calf. The steer wrestlers had finished, but Casey had to wait until rodeo’s true fan favorites—the mutton busters—had their time in the spotlight.
 
Here’s the thing: For cowboys, rodeo is a competition, a battle against beast and time where the easy money always seems within reach but rarely is. For some rodeo fans, watching that competition unfold is mildly interesting at best. In terms of generating crowd attention, it takes a backseat to, say, a bronc rider landing on his head or a man being trampled by a bull. But nothing excites a rodeo crowd quite like a helmeted five-year-old kid holding on for dear life to a galloping sheep.
 
“Yes, ladies and gentlemen,” Polhamus announced, “it’s that time of the evening when we strap small children to farm animals and call it entertainment.”
 
Suddenly, people sat up in their seats. Many yelled encouragement as, one by one, the mutton busters rode into the arena. The crowd groaned as one kid slipped to the side of the sheep, then rolled completely under and still made it another ten feet hanging onto the underbelly of the animal before falling off and getting run over by the back legs. Mutton busting drew the night’s loudest ovations.
 
Next up was calf roping. Casey, with Luke standing by his side, sat atop his horse in the box, awaiting his calf. Casey gave a quick nod and rode into the arena swinging a rope. But his throw missed the calf’s head and, just like that, Denver was a bust.
 
“That’s a California Circuit champion right there,” Polhamus announced. “I know we’re a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, but that’s a talented roper who has had some bad luck.”
 
The crowd cheered politely as Casey rode from the arena. Ten minutes later, he was in his truck, driving alone through the night to Fort Worth, Texas.
 
Luke’s good fortune ended the following night with his second steer. On the dismount, both he and his steer stumbled, and the animal ran off before Luke could recover. There was little time to lament the loss.
 
With the night’s performance less than thirty minutes old, Luke hurried out of the arena, walked quickly through the snow, and climbed into Fields’s idling rig. The two cowboys had about twelve hours to make the twelve-hour drive to northeast Texas. Luke sat in the passenger seat with a can of Red Bull and a can of Copenhagen, headed toward Fort Worth where he would win the average title and more than eight thousand dollars. But, as he looked out the window at the Colorado landscape that night, something was wrong. Something vague. It still didn’t feel right being on the road without Travis.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Ty Phillips. All rights reserved.