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On rodeo nights, this pickup artist is cowboy's best friend

With roots in the early days of saddling wild horses, the pickup man is the last safety valve for rodeo cowboys.

Kevin Robbins

The cowboy starts his workday with a bucket of sweet feed and the promise of saved lives.

Shandon Stalls wakes in his stock trailer, where he sleeps for the eight months he chases the rodeo. In the morning, Stalls never knows. Will he and his horses ease through their evening in the company of bucking horses and spitting bulls?

Some nights seem like a lazy trail ride in a soft breeze. Others, a gallop to the edge of calamity.

To that edge — not over. Stalls, 30, is what rodeo people call a pickup man, and he's the last level of well-being between a cowboy hung up on a bareback rigging and a consultation with an orthopedist.

At the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo — which ends its two-week run Saturday night at the Travis County Exposition Center — and other rodeos, Stalls guides one of his seven quarter horses into havoc, where his job then ranges from rescuing a cowboy from a runaway bronco to making sure the animal exits without injury to being ready, in mind and heart and soul, to rope a bucking horse if a cowboy snags a hand after an 8-second ride.

In the world of roughstock , Stalls is this: an angel of assurance in a dusty felt hat.

"It's a cowboy job," Stalls said last week. "I love doing it. I love bucking horses. I get a high when it goes right."

Born into a horse family on a Panhandle ranch, Stalls graduated with a class of nine in McLean and left for college rodeo at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs. The cowboys needed pickup men in the practice pen. Stalls volunteered himself and his old horse from home, a quarter named Matt.

"We learned a lot from each other," Stalls said of old Matt.

Stalls was well-suited for the job of a pickup man. Tall and sturdy, he'd been roping and riding since he was a boy. Matt minded him in the ring.

But something made him different from other cowboys. Stalls seemed to possess a kind of quiet radar tuned to the mysterious frequencies of a bucking horse.

"He's got what we call the cowboy savvy," said Bennie Beutler , whose company provides livestock — and pickup men — to large rodeos such as Austin's.

Beutler hired Stalls for the first time nine years ago. Stalls has been getting work from him ever since.

"He knows where to be at the right time," Beutler said. "You can't teach that. It's like the God-given gift."

Stalls eventually graduated with a degree in agricultural education from Texas Tech University. His mother teaches school, as does his wife, Larenda , but the idea of spending days in a classroom when he could be chasing a bucking horse carried no appeal to Stalls.

So he bought the trailer — 32 feet long, with room for a bed and a convection oven and his horses — and set out for the dirt rings of the rodeo. He became a valued pickup man. He's never made it to the National Finals Rodeo , but Stalls has picked up cowboys in big events such as the Texas and Prairie circuit finals .

He still competes in rodeo events such as steer roping. But the money is good for a pickup man, who can earn $250 to $500 a night. And it's reliable.

The origins of the Western pickup man can be traced to rodeo's original and most romanticized event, saddle-bronc riding. Early cowboys, saddling wild horses for the first time, needed friends near to help if the effort went awry, or when the cowboy simply got too tired to keep riding.

Those friends needed to do it all. Rope. Ride. Work livestock.

Maybe save a life.

"They're probably the best cowboys in the arena," saddle-bronco cowboy Chet Johnson said of modern pickup men.

Stalls has worked every night of the rodeo in Austin, where his morning starts with feedings for his horses at half past 7. He bathes them at 10, saddles them at 1, unloads livestock at 2:30, leads cattle to their pens at 4, showers at 5 and escorts his pickup horses to the arena at 6. An hour later, he trots into the ring.

Stalls said he recites little prayers throughout the night, many from his saddle as the gate swings open for another bucking horse.

"Can't do too much of that," he said.

Most nights end without incident.

"You hardly ever get hurt if you're in the right spot."

Some nights include the most terrifying moment in bronco riding — a hung-up and helpless cowboy.

"Your heart stops. You can't panic. You've got to do your job. And do it fast," Stalls said.

Stalls picked up 24 cowboys Wednesday. He helped the bullfighters with 12 riders.

There was no trouble. It was a gentle ride in a nice breeze on a level trail, where danger awaits at every bend.

Rodeo Austin

When: 7 p.m. today and Saturday

Where: Travis County Exposition Center

Tickets: $20, $25 and $37, available at RodeoAustin.com, TexasBoxOffice.com or at the arena

krobbins@statesman.com; 445-3602