Every morning for four days at sunrise, I go to the bull pens where the animals are being prepared for the day. In gray light, a soft Montana snow falls on their backs. They flare nostrils big as coffee mugs, heads shoving each other aside. Shoulders push through open gates, hooves clobbering cold ground. Handlers shoo them along with shouts, yips, hands in the air.
Billy Cochrane, a soft-mannered man with a front tooth missing, is in charge of livestock on the ground. He says that some handlers make too much noise, move too fast. Walking through the pens in this light snow, he says he's learned to go slow, not say much. The bulls listen.
"Yeah, you'll get run at sometimes," Cochrane warns. "But you'll know when."
The missing tooth is from when he got a horn in his mouth.
In the pens this morning, the bulls don't move quickly; they mill around as if waiting for work.
"That lil' gray sucker right there, he's kind of mean," Cochrane gestures at one that looks to be about 1,300 pounds. "But he's got room enough. As long as he's got space and you don't crowd him up, he's good."
With pedestrian calmness, Cochrane enters the pen with the same gray bull. No rope, no cattle prod, he culls it out for the day's ride. There isn't much fuss. Another bull in the pen lowers its cinderblock head toward Cochrane, and he just speaks low and stern, "Don't pull that crap."
The bull listens. Cochrane swats the air with one hand and the gray bull does as it is told, jogging toward a chute.
"They all have a different personality," Cochrane says. "You gotta pen them with fellas they like. If not, they'll fight and beat the hell out of each other. The black bull over there, there's a reason he's by himself."
I am struck by Cochrane's relationship with these bulls. He doesn't talk down, doesn't even croon the way some people do over their pets. He speaks as if they are partners, all in this together, him and the bulls.
In a maze of pipe-rail gates and chutes, I step out of the way as Cochrane pulls the day's picks. Bulls pass by me so close I can feel their hot breath, nothing between us but air. They move with the heaviness of boxcars.
In the shuffle, a gate swings open and I am backed into a pen. Cochrane closes the gate to keep animals separated, and I turn around to realize I have been closed in with a bull. I want to ask Cochrane if this is OK, but I keep quiet for fear of embarrassing myself.
Five feet away, the bull looks hulkish, as if he's been dosed with steroids (theoretically possible, considering recent reports of widespread doping among industry bulls). The intimidating muscular knot of his shoulder comes up to my neck; his back is big enough to carry several people at once. I remain very still, trying to act casual, hoping the bull won't notice me. Cochrane had told me bulls pick up on fear, and some of them enjoy taking advantage of it.
Bull behavior changes under different circumstances. Even waiting in a bucking chute as a rider is lowered on, professional bulls like these often stand patiently. Not until the gate flies open do they unleash, as if saving energy for one quick burst. Some even pause for a chilling half-second, giving the rider something to think about before popping back to life.
The bull inhales me with a huff. The dark prickled skin of his nose is wet and shiny. I am expecting a challenge from him, some response, and then I realize the bull does not give a damn about me.
He turns away, giving me his side, a clearly dismissive gesture. It's as if he's saying, "I don't get paid to kill you."
Once the other bulls have passed by, Cochrane opens the gate behind me and I gingerly slip back out.