Behind the arena, a man reached down and picked up a small pile of hay out of the dirt.
Inside the arena, the Clovis Rodeo was rocking at the usual decibels. The clown, Crash Cooper, was doing some sort of Irish jig. A bull they call Death Warrant tried to take out a rider, and then a fighter, and then a fence, and also a horse. A couple different AC/DC songs blared through the night air.
After the rodeo, the event's emcee chuckled and watched from his perch as concert fans rushed for the stage where Easton Corbin would sing. He had warned them a few times not to enter the arena too early, but you know how that goes.
Outside, though, a man picked up a pile of hay and a woman nodded.
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"That there is gold," she said.
Rodeo is one of those habits that never did pay for itself. Don't fool yourself. Horses definitely don't pay for themselves. Or trucks and trailers and saddles and entry fees. Country songs don't exaggerate. You always seem to be putting in more than you're withdrawing.
These days, though, you can't even pretend it's a good idea. Cowboy is the most expensive job title on the planet. Running a presidential campaign would be cheaper than dragging horses around the country using $4.20 gas.
Right now hay is $17.95 a bale, and that's at the cheaper places. A year ago, it was one-third of that. It's almost cheaper to send a kid to college than have a horse.
"It's killing all of us," said Beth Eva, the woman who watched a man pick up a $3 handful of hay that probably fell off somebody's truck at the Clovis Rodeo on Friday night.
The Clovis Rodeo might be 97 years old and fans might still be packing the stands every night. (They were still counting ticket sales long into Friday night, more than 10,000 for that day alone.) But the future of cowboys is a little uncertain.
Parked in the participant lots at the Clovis Rodeo were $300,000 and $400,000 trailer and truck rigs, and inside they were fighting for a few thousand bucks. One man, Trevor Brazile, made a half-million dollars in rodeo last year, but he's one out of 5,000 men and women who did.
Everybody in Clovis still has a cowboy hat. Not many have spurs, though.
It gets harder and harder to find local talent to compete in the Clovis Rodeo. Cody Robbins of Fresno and H.P. Evetts of Hanford rode in the team roping contest Friday, but there aren't many these days.
Instead they try to get locals involved any way they can, like when they called Beth Eva, who has a place called Heartland Ranch east of Clovis she bought with her now ex-husband years ago. She brought in a couple horses and painted her face black and white and red to play one of the Native Americans in a skit during a break.
She is going through what a lot of San Joaquin Valley people are going through, especially in agriculture.
"You be careful about what trips you take," she said. "You can't just zip and rip wherever you want to go."
She wasn't just talking about hauling horses to someone else's arena, or running to the coast, she was also talking about the grocery store. She runs a day-care center out of her house during the day and trains horses for other people at night, and mostly stays at home.
She still drives the white Ford pickup she bought in 1990 and pulls the horse trailer she bought the same year because buying new ones would involve selling vital organs.
"Why get rid of 'em?" she asked.
For now, she makes it work. A lot of people do. A lot of rodeo cowboys do. But you wonder for how long. It doesn't make a lot of financial sense, but love rarely does.
At this rate, we are a generation or two away from having a full rodeo arena and no one to perform in it.