They huddled in a circle, five somber bull riders.
There were supposed to be 10, said Shirley Cox, the 49-year-standing rodeo promoter and owner of the Bad Girls Rodeo Company. However, a car accident on their way from Anchorage had waylaid them.
“I’m not big on prayers,” William Fry, 46, of Palmer, said, “but anyone want to say one before we get this show on the road?”
They knelt down in the arena and prayed.
They prayed for the safety of the bulls.
They prayed for the safety of the riders.
And they prayed for the country.
The 70-some people in the stands watched them, and a wind blew down the arena.
After the prayer, the riders drew for their bulls from a black cowboy hat.
Fry drew Weed Eater. Tim Nicholson: Monkey Bones. Warren Simpson: Calico Kid. Mike Sunderland: Snubbin’ Post. And Jesse Kilson: Frost Bite.
The riders walked to the chutes where bulls whipped their tails and clanked their horns against the metal bars.
“Just take him jump for jump,” Fry said to Kilson, and they climbed to wait beside their bulls.
Earlier that Friday, before the rodeo at this year’s Kenai Peninsula Fair in Ninilchik, children clambered up a portable climbing wall. People sifted through rainbow-colored jackets, pants and hats and jewelry, feather earrings and silver bracelets.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better day for the fair,” Fairgrounds Coordinator Lara McGinnis said. “It was phenomenal. The sun was shining; people were smiling; the acts were phenomenal. It was a slam dunk.”
Kids cast wax molds of their hands from the edge of a tent, and a Joe Rizzo version of a Chuck Berry song drifted through the crowds and tents.
From the stage, “Go Johnny, go, go” spilled out on 40 people.
“Our acts were just tremendous,” McGinnis said. “I don’t know if you got to see Issak and his juggling act, but he juggles on a unicycle that puts him about four feet above the ground. It’s amazing.”
Hundreds of people were watching him, she said.
Not far from the stage, five kids stood before a row of five steering wheels, yanking and twisting their cars around an oval remote control car track.
The cars spun and crashed against the walls, often only three or four at once. In the center of the track a man worked on the wrecks.
Then the game ended and the kids left.
“Who won?” a boy said.
“Me,” a girl said and poked a finger firmly into her chest.
By 6 p.m., 19 riders kicked about on their horses in the arena. Their hooves shot up gravel when they cut hard and the sun was low, burning through plumes of dust.
When the barrel riders finished practice, a tractor spun around the arena, combing out the gravel and dirt.
The bleachers were now at about 70 people and country western crackled over the speakers as they were adjusted.
Jacob Fowler, 22, of Soldotna walked around his camper behind the arena, preparing for barrel racing.
“My mom, she’s been into it since she was 13,” he said. “So it was kind of a family thing. We all do it.”
Down past the bull pens, his sister Mellissa Fowler, 26, of Soldotna, trotted her horse, Boo, towards her brother.
“He’s very good,” she said about Boo. “We hold the arena record down in Soldotna; we just got that about two weeks ago.”
Last year she placed second on the Peninsula for barrel riding, she said.
“It’ll be down to the hundredth of a second,” she said. “It’s pretty crazy.”
She continued down the road.
Her brother said the sunny weather was rare. Last year it rained he said.
“We usually have sump pumps out in the arena, so it’s pretty sweet that it’s holding out,” he said.
Inside the arena alongside the bulls, Cox dashed about, her dog always behind her.
She was checking the gates. If the big one did not swing open, the bulls would rage around, a dangerous situation for everyone in the arena. But they all worked and she and her dog stood by the big one, waiting for the riders to ready themselves.
Fry mounted his bull.
The other riders stood behind the chutes, some strapped on their vests, others swiped their gloved hands down a rope for better grip.
Fry had on a hockey helmet and a thick protective vest.
He was still on his bull.
Then the gate dropped and Weed Eater thrashed out. Bucking and writhing.
When Fry fell, he landed on his head and his helmet peeled off.
Weed Eater kicked about, then Cox’s dog harassed it through the big gate Cox had swung open.
By the end of the rodeo, Palmer’s Sunderland would win first, and Wasilla’s Simpson second.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.