BUFFALO, MINN. — They waited for young Josh Reuter now, the hundreds of fans who crowded ascending rows of bleachers across the arena. The two pickup cowboys, Billy Jo Weeger from Turkey Ridge, S.D., and Jeff Rector of Kansas City, Mo., waited also, as did the cowboy who would swing the chute gate open when Reuter nodded his head, signaling he was ready to ride.

A bareback rider, Reuter, 21, had drawn the good bucking gelding Dodge Hills, and before he climbed over the chute and onto him, he adjusted the few yards of tape he had self-administered to his right arm in an attempt to strengthen it.

Then he smacked his bare left hand a final time against his gloved right hand. 

Ready, he thought. 

And he climbed down onto Dodge Hills.

Laser-focused, Reuter saw nothing of his surroundings -- not the gate man, the pickup riders, the fans, the beer drinkers hanging on the arena rails in the distance, the kids munching their funnel cakes, the ambulance a stone's throw away, or even the darkening sky above.

This occurred on a recent night at the 56th Buffalo Championship Rodeo, site of the first professional sports venue in Minnesota.

In addition to Reuter, whose home is in Potosi, Wis., but who attends college in Texas, where he also rodeos, the three-day event attracted scores of good cowboys -- bareback riders to steer wrestlers, bull riders to saddle bronc riders.

Each needed a winner's check to stuff into the back pocket of timeworn Wranglers, or the pocket of a snap-button shirt. No less, each needed to boost his (or her) rankings in records kept by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in an attempt to qualify for circuit-finals competitions at year's end.

Nodding his head quickly now, ratta-tat-tat, like a metronome on speed, Reuter felt the pressure release from his left leg as the chute gate opened.

In time nearly too short to measure, the gelding bucked and twisted, generating the torque of a cavalcade of carnival thrill machines -- Tilt-A-Whirls, bumper cars, speeding rollercoasters.

Reuter wanted an 8-second ride, 8 seconds on a quality gelding who in his bucking career had catapulted multiple posses of good cowboys face-down into dusty Cheyenne, humid Houston and a slew of backwater burgs in between.

To earn a check, Reuter needed to show the judges he was in control of his body, while also spurring (with dulled rowels) Dodge Hills rhythmically ahead of his shoulders -- in many ways a circus act accomplished seemingly in defiance of various laws of physics, if not also those of good sense.

Fully recumbent at times on the gelding's back as he sprang, first, off his forelegs, Reuter in the next instant swung like a trapeze artist face-down over the dusty arena as Dodge Hills swapped ends, hocks higher than his ears.

Then ... the horn. Eight seconds. And Reuter dismounted, or rather was dismounted, sent packing like a mannequin tossed from a speeding bus.

Nice ride. But his score of 74 wouldn't earn him a trip to the pay window.

"The horse was great," he would say. "But I didn't ride well. I should have stayed square with the horse, more centered."

But there was good news: This is America, and down the road there would be another rodeo and another bucking horse.

"I'll rodeo in Ponca, Nebraska, tomorrow night, Clear Lake, South Dakota, the night after that, and Strasburg, North Dakota, the night after that," Reuter said.

• • •

At a rodeo, count on Old Glory to fly, a prayer to be said, skill to be celebrated and courage to be honored.

A two-bit entertainment diversion for some, the modern rodeo is considered by many cowboys and cowgirls to be a lifeline to an American past much revered -- a counterpoint, some believe, to a devolutionary nation in which, sheep-like, everyone is cubical-bound, noses buried in their team-building handbooks.

"What's not to like?" said 19-year-old Bryan Paul Boyle, a saddle bronc rider from Correctionville, Iowa. "When it's going good, it's great. When it's not going good, it's still fun."

When Boyle isn't farming in summer, he's crisscrossing the Midwest and Great Plains, rodeo to rodeo. With three other cowboys, he travels not in a pickup truck, as did cowboys of a generation or two ago, but in a gas-sipping Chevy Malibu.

Among Boyle's travelmates is Tanner Aus, 20, of Granite Falls, Minn. Aus won the bareback event the first night at Buffalo, marking a 77.

"My dad rode bareback horses and took me to rodeos as a kid," Aus said. "I just started riding, competing in high school rodeo, then I went to a community college in Iowa, rodeoed there, and this fall I'll attend Missouri Valley College and rodeo there."

A half-century ago, for kids who were tough enough or star-struck enough to straddle Brahma bulls that would just as soon kill them as look at them, rodeo was a ticket away from dryland farms and ranches.

That's less true today, though rodeo remains in many instances a haven for kids who grow up thinking, and perhaps looking, different than their peers.

A kid who's too small, for instance, to excel at basketball might have the perfect body type to ride bulls. And a kid who shies from the collective mindset required to succeed in organized sports might more readily excel on his own, with only a bull or bronc to beat, or a steer to bulldog.

"I need to quit this and just stick with roping," said Branden West, 35, smiling.

A saddle bronc rider from Philip, S.D., thin and fit, West in Buffalo drew the great bucking mare Cat Power, a horse that, West knew, could earn him a check.

"I've ridden her twice before, and both times won the rodeo," he said. "But it's been four years since I've been on her, and things change."

At one time, West rode in 100 rodeos a year. Now, with age and other responsibilities, he's down to 15 or 20.

In Buffalo, his 8 seconds on Cat Power earned him an 80, perhaps good enough for a check. But the ride could have been better.

"The horse was a little slower out of the chute than I expected, and scooted a bit," he said. "It took me a moment to catch up, and that cost me."

• • •

Bob Barnes is a famous octogenarian cowboy and stock provider, and if you have the money, his company, Barnes Rodeo of Peterson, Iowa, will deliver a complete slice of Americana, including enough bulls and other bucking stock to challenge the riders who will descend upon your town to compete, while -- importantly -- thrilling all who attend.

As long as anyone can remember, Barnes has supplied Buffalo with its rodeo, and he operates a fast-paced show. Following the bareback riders are the tie-down ropers, then the team ropers, the mutton-bustin' kids, the saddle bronc riders, the steer wrestlers, the barrel racers and, finally, the bull riders.

"We've got other rodeos going on this weekend, too," he said. "It's a big operation."

As Barnes spoke, not far away, Jeff Rector, the Kansas City pickup rider, helped run bulls into their bucking chutes for the evening's final event.

A black man, Rector to outsiders might appear counter to the cowboy stereotype. But that's less true among rodeo participants themselves, who recognize that "cowboy" is, at its heart, more a state of mind than a particular look.

"My grandfather raised horses, and he introduced me to riding," Rector said. "From the moment I attended my first rodeo, all I ever wanted to be was a pickup rider."

Known by saddle bronc and bareback riders as "cowboy lifesavers," pickup men ride alongside bucking horses and their riders the instant the 8-second bell rings, allowing the competing cowboy to leap onto the back of the pickup rider's horse.

"I live on the road, rodeo to rodeo," Rector said. "I have a live-in horse trailer and haul six horses with me. I'll use four horses on a night like this. What we do is a lot of work, and they get tired."

Nightfall descended on Buffalo, and the only event remaining was the most dangerous of all, bull riding.

Dressed like clowns, but deadly serious, two bull fighters entered the arena. With them was the rodeo's barrel man, Hippie Engelkes, 31, of Steamboat Rock, Iowa, outwardly also looking every bit the clown.

A one-time bull rider and bull fighter, Engelkes now gets paid to tell rodeo jokes and, alternately, to crouch in an aluminum barrel wrapped with inner tubes and duct tape while being batted about by angry bulls.

"This is what I do to make a living," he said. "You can't ride bulls forever. But I can do rodeo comedy a long time."

Beneath the arena's bright lights, most bull riders in Buffalo were sent packing, dumped ignominiously in a flurry of arms, legs and dust.

Aboard a fearsome-looking beast named E. Hawk, John Andersen of Viborg, S.D., had better luck.

"I've been riding since I was 8; I'm 22 now," Andersen said. "Dad took me to rodeos when I was a kid, and my brothers put me on calves to start me out."

On bulls, and under them, Andersen has broken both wrists -- one three times -- and a leg. He's been thrown, stomped on, kicked and run over.

"In high school I calf-roped, team-roped and steer-wrestled," he said. "But I like bull riding best."

When Andersen jumped off E. Hawk after the 8-second bell rang, the bleachers erupted with cheers.

This was hours after the national anthem had been sung to kick off the rodeo, and a cowboy prayer intoned.

"Hopefully I'll get a check," Andersen said.

Then, soon, he too was down the road, packed into a sedan with two other bull riders.

They would ride the next night in Granite Falls, and after that, in Dickinson and Strasburg.

One rodeo after another.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com