The bull rider's eight-second song

For most people, eight seconds goes by pretty fast. For a hope-to-be rodeo cowboy, eight seconds is an eternity when he's trying to stay on the back of 1,500 pounds of bone, muscle, hooves and horns in the form of an angry bull.

It's a law of nature that man is not meant to ride a bull. If it's not, it ought to be. Down in Grays Creek, south of Fayetteville, hope-to-be cowboys from all walks of life have put down good money to attend the Sankey Rodeo School with the dream of learning how to break that law.

The 30 or so students come from up and down the East Coast. There's Martin Brown who frames houses down in South Carolina, and "Alaska" Gentry, a Marine sergeant who hopes to compete in rodeos. Over by the pen of snorting bulls, 9-year-old Frank Bush naps in the shade of his huge cowboy hat as he waits for his turn to ride.

All have their own reasons for coming. Some, like the well-spoken business consultant from up north, are intrigued by the cowboy mystique. Others are quiet farm boys who hanker for a taste of adventure.

All morning long, bulls come bucking and thrashing out of the gates, copper cowbells on their ropes playing the short song of the bull rider again and again. "Jangle, jangle, jangle. Thud." The song, sometimes longer, often shorter, always ends on the flat downbeat thud of the student cowboy hitting the dirt.

Bullfighters, once known as rodeo clowns, distract the bull, teasing it into chasing them and ignoring the fallen rider. They dart and twist away from the horns just as they make the transition from predator to prey. In one of those "takes one to know one" moments, a student mutters, "Those bullfighter boys are crazy."

By lunchtime, most of the riders are sore in just about every spot that can be associated with sitting, not to mention all of those places that have come in sudden contact with the ground. Some move stiffly, others gently, as if being careful not to shake loose any loose or broken body parts.

All know the dangers and are quick to quote the bull rider's motto: "It's not a question of if or when you'll get hurt, it's a question of how bad."

During the afternoon class, the business consultant is thrown hard, and the bull rolls over on him, then flings his limp body through the air. The students grow silent in their own thoughts as he is tended to by the staff. Even the bulls in the pens become quiet.

Paramedics are called, and the injured rider exits the ring on a stretcher after regaining consciousness. The laws of nature have been enforced. Bulls are not a mode of transportation, unless you're talking about a trip to the hospital.

The students return to the bulls. The bells clang and the students thud. Eight seconds and eternity now seem even longer.

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