As white monsoon billows of clouds towered overhead, three riders who symbolized the laconic, tough virtues of this transformed cow town slopped out into the deep, sucking mud in the rodeo grounds arena.
The happy, cornball announcer who’d all afternoon been half laughing, half sympathizing with some of the muddiest, toughest, most determined cowboys in the country, called out three special guests — the riders who earlier in the week followed a hunch to rescue a lost 4-year-old boy in the thick brush of an overlooked canyon.
Turns out, Gary Chitwood plus Beth and Wyman Kindall are all three among the record 300 people on the Pro-Rodeo Committee, charged with saving the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo from the lawyers — and returning it to its place at the heart of Payson’s sense of itself.
So the three cowboy rescuers slopped out into the mud, tipped their hats, then got out of the way of some of the most crazy big bulls ever unleashed on Payson. On Sunday afternoon, the massive bulls supplied by the Salt River Rodeo Company hurled every single bull rider off into the mud — making some of the most daring rodeo clowns ever to get their boots sucked off in the mud earn their paltry pay.
Right before Gary Chitwood’s hurried bow, his son turned out to be the only kid on the Sunday afternoon lineup who rode his steer until the buzzer sounded — then hit the ground on two feet with the grace of an Olympic gymnast nailing his dismount.
Despite the conflicting lawsuits, late starts, gushing thunderstorms and feuding factions, Rodeo Boss Bill Armstrong said the 126th running of the Payson Rodeo drew three world champion cowboys, good crowds and generous sponsors. The event will finish well in the black, said Armstrong — which is good news for the host of local charities the Pro-Rodeo Committee supports with the proceeds.
“We are in the black — and put an exclamation point on that,” said Armstrong. “As hard-pressed as the economy is, these people that stepped up and sponsored us. We probably tripled tripled our banner sales. The community rallied. The sponsors rallied. I know one of the heavy sponsors is having a hard time paying his electricity and he jumped up and said ‘I want to support the rodeo.’”
Organizers said they sold at least half of the seats — but were still trying to separate sodden stacks of tickets that got rained on Saturday.
The thunderstorms seemed like the final bad break, for what had seemed like a hard luck rodeo this year. The storms dumped close to a quarter of an inch of rain on Payson on Saturday — but the show went on.
“Saturday night, we probably had three inches of water and six inches of mud out there,” said Armstrong. “But it was beautiful: It was the most fun watching ever. Those bulldoggers were out there just sliding forever,” laughed Armstrong.
The organizers had to call off events involving mere engines and tires — like a motorcycle race and car acts.
“You’d have had to get a tractor out there to pull them loose,” said Armstrong, shaking his head.
But that won’t stop a cowboy.
“It’s like horse racing,” said Armstrong, “some of those mudders will just run like hell in the mud.”
The arena conditions affected many events, especially barrel racing, where some of the headlong contestants nearly went into a slide on their $40,000 horses going around the barrels.
“Barrel racing’s dangerous in the mud — you can slip sideways and break a horse’s leg real easy. But we had no animal injuries at all,” said Armstrong.
The turnout, sponsorships and participation provided a happy ending for a worrisome western cliffhanger — with a final twist of irony connected to the contract for the stock.
The Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce sold the rights to the rodeo last year to the Pro-Rodeo Committee, which promptly changed the longtime stock contractor — awarding the contract to Salt River.
The jilted Rodeo Preservation Alliance then sued on the grounds the chamber had violated a contract when it ignored a bid to buy the rodeo from the Alliance and the old stock contractor.
The two sides eventually settled the lawsuit out of court. Reportedly, the Pro-Rodeo Committee entered into a new contract to buy the rights and pay off the purchase with gate receipts over the next several years, leaving the chamber free to use the $20,000 the Committee had already paid to settle with the Alliance and all the lawyers.
The lawyer stampede put the Pro-Rodeo Committee two or three months behind in planning the August Doin’s.
But it all worked out over the weekend —even though the broncs and bulls won almost every match — with cowboys flying off every which way and the crazy brave clowns running circles around the twisting, bucking bulls — throwing mud balls the size of vultures in every direction.
Armstrong noted that Salt River provided especially tough bulls and broncs, which proved hard on the weekend’s contestants — but which should attract top cowboys to future events. The prize money mounts up quickly for the best bull riders if the bulls prove especially tough to stay on. The toughest, most demented bucking bulls cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each and a stock contractor needs 40 or 50 good bulls to stage a rodeo.
The quality of the bucking broncos also matters a lot to the top cowboys, since they’re scored not only on the fine style points of their ride, but on the toughness of the horse as measured by judges on each side of the arena.
In the end, the bulls and the mud and the grinning cowboys captured the same sense grit and guts that prompts a whole town to turn out to look for a lost boy and three cowboys to ignore sensible advice and ride down into the thick brush on a hot day.
The rodeo drew reporters from Phoenix and camera crews from Korea, piggy backing on the extensive coverage the town got for the happy story of the lost boy.
“Payson’s finally getting its due,” said Armstrong. “Everybody had a wonderful time. I don’t want to compare this to any other year — It’s the first year of the next 125. We paid our bills and put on one heck of a rodeo — I think it’s going to beat all records.”