The crowd cheers as a table and chairs are carried into the dusty arena.
Then they wait, rapt, as four cowboys seat themselves, take off their hats and bow their heads in prayer. The men might well pray - seconds later, a bull will be released into the ring for a suicidal game of chicken known as cowboy poker. There's just one rule: The last cowboy seated wins.
"I want to give you guys some advice right now," announcer Chip Ridgely says, safely elevated in a box well above the ground. "Don't look."
They don't. The gates are opened and the bull heads straight for the foursome, knocking one of the cowboys out of his chair with the effort it would take to toss a rag doll. A second swipe upends the table. In a few seconds, it's all over, no one's hurt and a cowboy named Scruff emerges victorious.
It's all part of the entertainment at the J Bar W Ranch in Johnsville, about an hour's drive - but worlds away - from downtown Baltimore. On most days, life plods along at a tranquil pace in this tiny Frederick County community on Route 75, between Union Bridge and Libertytown.
But on this Saturday night, trucks, cars and a multitude of cowboy hats stream through the gates of the ranch for opening night of Battle of the Beast, a summer rodeo that attracts about 2,000 people from Maryland and surrounding states.
"We get all kinds up here, but it's not just the event itself -- it's the atmosphere, the food, the noise, the people," says the 34-year-old Ridgely, a livestock breeder who lives on a 167-acre ranch in Union Bridge. "It's good people-watching at rodeos."
Ridgely, a former bull rider, says the danger of the rodeo is the real draw. Even with cowboy poker on the agenda, the rodeo's main attraction and the one most people come to see is the high-risk thrill of professional bull riding.
"Good evening, ladies and gentleman," Ridgely booms from the booth, pumping up the crowd as the show gets under way. "Y'all ready for some bull riding tonight?"
The country music turns to rock 'n' roll as one after another, 32 cowboys come flying out of the chutes, tossed wildly on the backs of bulls with names like Armageddon, Little Twister and Crazy Train. Most are disqualified for touching the bull with their free hand or letting go of the rope before the required eight seconds are up. Only 10 move to the second round, reserved for the most ornery bulls.
The excitement rises with each second a rider stays on. Arizona cowboy Kevin Henley takes his turn on a fearsome bull named Demolition Man, who looks like he wants nothing more than a piece of cowboy. The audience roars as Ridgely introduces Pennsylvania cowboy Joe Stoltzfus, who won with a polished, impressive performance on a cream and brown bull angrily trying to throw him off.
Andrea and Michael Lacasse of Jefferson have been coming to the rodeo since it started in 1997 and look forward to watching the bull riders every year.
"This rodeo's good. They really get the audience involved and there's a lot of good bull riding," says Andrea Lacasse, decked out in black boots and jeans, a fringed leather jacket and black cowboy hat. Laughing, she adds, "We secretly want to be bull riders."
Bull riding may be the highlight for Garry Kester and his 71-year-old mother, Virginia Kester, but they had another reason to travel from Martinsburg, W.Va., for the night. Glenn Kester, Garry's younger brother, is the rodeo clown.
Barrel of laughs
Perched on a brightly colored barrel in the middle of the arena, Glenn Kester cracks one-liners throughout the show, but also serves a more serious purpose - to help distract bulls from fallen riders.
The Kesters have been going to rodeos for decades. Garry Kester says Battle of the Beast has one of the most critical ingredients for a quality event: well-bred rough- stock.
A former breeder, Garry Kester says the trick is to cross-breed bulls with the desired characteristics -- longhorns for their horns and colors, Brahman for their humps, Angus and Hereford for their aggressive temperaments. The best bulls, he says, will twist from side to side and spin as if they're trying to bore a hole in the ground.
Earlier in the day, more than an hour before the event starts, the bleachers quickly fill and lines grow at the booths selling lemonade, french fries, pit beef and rib-eye sandwiches. There are funnel cakes piled with fruit and displays of toy gun sets and T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Rodeo Rug Rat" and "Cowboy Attitude." The festive atmosphere feels like a summer night on the midway, but over behind the announcer's booth, it's all business.
For the love of the sport
About 20 cowboys are gathered near the bullpens, checking gear and stretching their muscles in preparation for the rough ride ahead.
Jim Robinson, a 27-year-old from Essex, slouches in a chair, swigging from a water bottle. Robinson, who juggles his weekend rodeo schedule with a job making airplane parts, has wanted to ride bulls since his parents took him to a New Jersey rodeo when he was age 5.
"The first time I saw it, I fell in love," he says.
Bull riders typically cut their teeth as children riding on the backs of sheep, but Robinson jumped in with both feet. He rode bulls at "jackpots," minor league competitions that give novices a chance to practice, and quickly moved on to rodeos.
It's the rush of bull riding, he says, the camaraderie and the travel that keep him coming back. The macho pursuit attracts its share of groupies -"buckle bunnies," as they're known among rodeo folk - but Robinson dismisses any notion that he's there for the girls.
"It's all for the sport," he says. "If you don't do it for the love of it, it makes no sense."
Nearby, Eddie Winfield, 27, who owns a concrete business in Middletown, straightens out a rope that will later be tied around a bull, with one end wrapped tightly around Winfield's hand to attach him to the animal. "The most important thing about bull riding is the rope," says Winfield, who started riding six years ago. "Ain't got a good rope, it's more difficult."
Like Robinson, Winfield says he's attracted to the "awesome" feeling of being atop about 1,600 pounds of thrashing bull. Unlike Robinson, he admits it terrifies him. "I'm scared to death all the time," says Winfield, who's riding for the third time since dislocating a hip three months ago. "You just get used to it. If you ain't hurt, you're riding."
Putting on a rodeo
That's a philosophy J Bar W Ranch owner Johnny Williams understands. A longtime rodeo devotee, Williams started buying and breeding bulls about a decade ago and a few years later, decided it was time to fulfill a dream of starting a rodeo.
"We was always going to rodeos and involved in it one way or another," says Williams, an affable, soft-spoken cowboy with a rich drawl. "It's something I wanted to do all my life."
Williams built a wood stadium on his 47-acre property in 1985 and began holding Saturday night competitions in team penning, a timed event requiring teams to separate cattle from a herd.
Three years ago, the wood structure was replaced with steel stands, a set-up Williams estimates cost upward of $100,000. More than 3,000 people turned out for the first Battle of the Beast in 1997. Held once monthly throughout the summer, the event is a huge undertaking for Williams, his daughter Lisa and son Sonny, a professional bull rider. There are gates to paint, vendors to line up, a program to put together and endless phone calls to answer.
Williams says there are usually five to 10 rodeo-related inquiries daily on the family's answering machine. He credits televised bull riding for the growing popularity of rodeo.
"Without a doubt, more and more people are seeing rodeos and bull-riding competitions all the time," Williams says.
Standard rodeos, which date to the 1800s, include bull riding, steer wrestling, saddle and bareback bronc-riding, barrel racing and calf roping. Other events were added over the years - steer decorating, wild cow milking and mutton bustin', a pint-sized version of bull riding.
"Some of these might be rodeo champions one day," Ridgely says, introducing the 4- to 7-year-old mutton busters. "They get their start here."
The next generation
The mini-cowboys try valiantly to hold on as the sheep bolt across the stadium.
Twin brothers Tyler and Travis Cross, 7, of New Windsor each take a spill. Cory Bauerlien, 4, from Westminster almost changes his mind, then goes for it at the last minute. Dillon Thomas from Hanover, Pa., his arms clasped firmly around the sheep's neck, manages to hang on longer than the others before hitting the ground, taking a faceful of dirt in the process.
With the dignity and aplomb of a pro, the blond boy picks himself up, strides over and retrieves his dusty hat. A winner is born.
"Hey, Dillon!" Ridgely announces to the crowd. "That wasn't dirt."