Chief Sitting Bull

Each weekend night the Mesquite Championship Rodeo is interrupted by a short drama, the script of which reads something like this:

Act I: Bull.

Act II: Shiiiiit!!!

"Those guys have a screw loose," says Darren Robertson, taking a sip of Monster energy drink while taking a shot at kamikaze cowboys who invite slobbering, stinking 1,000-pound dealers to their poker table. "It's like being told you're going to get punched in the face. And all you can do about it is put your hands in your pockets. It's crazy."

Robertson, you should know, has been a rodeo bull fighter (see: clown) for 12 years. His work attire includes knee braces, taped wrists and red bandanas. With the help of partner Kenny Petet, who wears a black top hat and purple wig, his job is generally to flirt with large, livid livestock.

So when he labels you crazy, it's akin to Bill Parcells calling you grumpy.

"It's very, very dangerous," says Jason Williams, a 30-year-old from Lewisville who, aside from his passion for playing chicken with bulls, seems relatively sane. "But the adrenaline rush is better than drugs. And it's totally legal."

Cowboy poker, of course, is also totally loony.

The want ad sounds appealing: Work as little as six minutes a weekend and earn as much as $800 sitting on your ass with your buddies! But don't be fooled, this game of cards is more dangerous than a bag of spinach.

A radical rodeo diversion since 1996, cowboy poker is the most fascinating, frightening game you've probably never seen. Though the premise is preposterous, the rules are plain. Four cowboys--accenting their typical jeans-and-boots garb with flak jackets--mosey to the middle of Resistol Arena's dirt stage and sit in plastic chairs around a makeshift table of PVC pipe and duct tape. Last man to leave his seat wins the $400 pot.

Oh, did I mention the fifth player? A rotating stable of Mexican fighting bulls, answering to names such as Black Pearl, Sputnik and, on this sultry September Friday night, Snidely Whiplash.

"Some nights," says veteran player Brett Tidmore, "it feels like the longest three minutes of your life."

Having bungee-jumped, skydived, cut those annoying tags off my pillows and gotten married a second time, I consider myself a bit of a thrill-seeker. For a moment I even entertained thoughts of playing cowboy poker because--really, now--when's the last time you did something for the first time?

But after watching the action and hearing the stories, no thanks. Running with the bulls? Maybe. Sitting with the bulls? Never.

Petet tells the gruesome story of a cowboy poker rookie who learned the hard way to always respect an opponent outweighing you by 800 pounds. The cowboy mockingly yelped at a bull, which violently whipped around its head and stuck a horn right in the guy's kisser.

"It knocked all his front teeth right down his throat," says Petet. "He said the only thing worse than swallowing his teeth was how he had to get them back."

As if that image isn't enough to make you squirm in your saddle, Williams offers the tale of being hooked and thrown by Black Pearl on a June night five years ago. Despite severe pain and a slight limp, he never missed a game and finished the season before seeing a doctor, who discovered two torn knee ligaments.

Sorry T.O., but these players are the toughest cowboys in Dallas.

"I knew my knee felt kinda weird," Williams says. "But I didn't expect that."

The most horrific injury this year came in April, when Brazilian player Fernando Magal was picked up and taken for a 15-yard joy ride by Sputnik. "It just freight-trained him," Robertson says.

Despite an incident that would prompt most of us to take up crocheting, Magal recently returned from the two broken ribs vowing to resume playing.

"Of course, it's easy money," Magal says, lifting his shirt to show off two bulging calcium deposits from the injury. "Usually I sit very still, because bulls, they don't see color or shapes, just movement. But that night I moved right as they opened the gate, and he ran straight at me from 50 yards. Not good."

Only two weekends remain in the rodeo's 49th season of blue jeans, red necks and big belt buckles hidden by bigger beer bellies. Considering that vanishing window, the Crocodile Hunter's recent animal accident and the fact that--crikey!--the only way to practice this perversion is to eat your lunch in the middle of Central Expressway, it should be easy to resist joining the nutjobs playing cowboy poker.

"People think I'm crazy," Williams says. "But I wouldn't skydive or ride a motorcycle 180 mph and pop a wheelie. This game is really just about sitting down and holding on."

Funny, it looks a lot more like 0-card duck than 5-card draw.

"It's half-mental," says Tidmore, 24, a Waxahachie native with a wife and two kids. "The trick is to know the bull, kind of like a batter gets a scouting report on a pitcher. And you have to have nerve, be able to sit still."

On this night Williams and Tidmore are joined at the testosterone table by their regular partners: 30-year-old Greg Jester of Mesquite and 23-year-old Cody Wortham from Midlothian. As their particularly pissed-off pit boss approaches it's clear that, like it or not, they are indeed all in. Sure, World Series champ Jamie Gold can wait patiently for a card on the river, but let's see his poker face when Snidely Whiplash paws angrily at the dirt and sizes up his human buffet with a guttural bellow.

Uncharacteristically, Snidely stands menacingly still, daring the party to come to him. Unbelievably, that's exactly what the quartet does. The cowboys sit-walk their chairs and table within 10 feet of the behemoth. After a short pause, Snidely snorts, charges and...

Garage sale.

Two black hats over here. A straw one next to the pile of PVC pipe. And under there, scrambling to avoid being crushed by the belly of the beast, is a wide-eyed Williams. While Snidely attempts to trounce and gore the collapsed cowboy, Robertson grabs the back of Williams' protective vest and, in the most heroic game of Texas Hold 'Em you ever did see, helps pull him to safety.

Wortham walked away with the money, Williams with his life.

"I was trapped underneath, and he stepped on me pretty good," Williams said, sporting ugly bruises on his leg and arm. "But that's how this game goes. Tonight was pretty much standard operating procedure. It'll be just as scary tomorrow night."

How 'bout them cowboys?