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Now, they just pick up the occasional side gig to tide themselves over in lean times. "When I get thrown a lot or I'm not riding well, sometimes I'll take time off and shoe horses for a couple of days," Wagner explains. He also supplements his income by working as a "pickup man" for the stock contractors. Pickup men ride alongside the contestants during bareback and saddle-bronc competitions, assisting cowboys in their dismounts and then corralling the loose animals. It can be tough work, Wagner says, but the hundred bucks or so for a night's work helps defray his costs.
Those costs add up. Wagner figures he spends at least $640 a year just on athletic tape to wrap the bum elbow he got at a rodeo down in North Carolina a few years back. The arm--the one he uses to hold on to the rope while riding--still pops out of joint from time to time, he explains, but mostly the tape does the job.
There are other expenses. Gas for the muffler-less '87 Celebrity. Diner tabs. And entry fees. Bull riders on the Upper Midwest circuit shell out anywhere from $45 to $250 for the opportunity to participate in a rodeo, in essence betting their money against that of their fellow riders--an old-school arrangement that heightens the hard-luck spectacle of a cowboy in defeat. Prizes typically range from $500 to $2,000, depending on how much money the stock contractors add to the pot. A rider on a winning streak can build up a nest egg in a hurry; losers go broke fast, and sometimes a long way from home. Stories about stranded cowboys abound on the circuit--one Minnesota kid, it is said, ran out of gas in Iowa awhile back, so he stole into a farmer's field, picked field corn, and sold it to some suckers as sweet corn. But Wagner says he's always managed to stay afloat.
In his busiest year, 1996, he figures he pulled in maybe 25 grand from rodeo. That was back when he was humping hard on the national circuit, putting 40,000 miles on his truck and entering every IPRA event he could find between North Carolina and Arizona, in hopes of making the national finals. He had a chance, too.
"Josh, in my opinion, is one of the three best riders in the state," says Billy Don Cash, a traveling rodeo announcer from Arkansas who has watched Wagner's career over the years and flops at the Kimball apartment on Minnesota visits. "These guys are for real. They live it. To finish 16th in the world, you've got to go to a lot of rodeos--and that takes a toll."
Wagner insists that his current, more low-key approach to the sport is mostly a result of travel ennui, not the heartbreak of missing out on the nationals. Nowadays his goals are to stay close to home and enter rodeos where the money, and his odds, are good. "Last year I had a three-week run where I won, oh, $1,900, $1,700, $1,300," he says, rattling off the numbers with satisfaction.
"When you cut through the shit," he adds, "I'm here to not get hurt and to make money. That's what it comes down to."
Wagner and Koenig concede that other things keep drawing them to the life, though what those are, they can't quite say. They like the camaraderie and enjoy the after-show bar trips, even if they don't party as much as they did before reaching the mature age of 24. Eventually, stumped for a rationale, Koenig resorts to a quote from an old cowboy friend: "For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't understand, no explanation is possible.
"This is living the way you dream of," he adds. "I couldn't see doing anything different."
Like most bull riders, Wagner talks about his accomplishments in a taciturn mélange of confidence and modesty that echoes the old rodeo truism: "Never was a bull that couldn't be rode, never was a cowboy that couldn't be throwed." He doesn't keep diligent records of his exploits much anymore, though back in '96 he filled his notebooks with details of the season--mileage, prizes, capsule reviews of the bulls he rode: "One-horn piece of shit"; "good bull"; "piece of shit brindle." These days, he guesses, he fails to finish the ride maybe 35 to 40 percent of the time. But that number comes to him only after a long pause--and, he is quick to add, "I like to think I can ride any bull, anywhere."
On a mid-August night in Farmington, about 25 miles south of St. Paul, Wagner is about to put that credo to the test once again. The stock contractor hired him for pickup, but he has also plunked down the entry fees for the team-roping competitions (with brother Jordan and dad Dale) and the bull riding. The pickup side of the evening goes smoothly enough, but the Wagner team craps out in the roping competition. Then, just as the eight contestants line up for the main event, a large thunderhead appears in the western sky.
Koenig, in his second rodeo since he got hurt at a show in Hinckley, puts in a strong performance, taking a wild bull named Double Trouble to the whistle and racking up a 74-point ride--good enough to place. Wagner is the final rider of the night, looking to beat the top score, a 77.