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Dime novels and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show stirred in audiences more than a century ago a nostalgia for a West that never was.

The reality lived by today's rodeo cowboys is more grim - broken bones, a grueling road schedule and the knowledge that if they don't win, they don't get paid.But notwithstanding the wear and tear, the thrill of a wild ride and the chance to make a bundle still lure young men into the chutes.

"Rodeo's probably the roughest sport there is," said Steve Washington, a 24-year-old cowboy from Dallas, Texas. A four-year veteran of the pro rodeo circuit, he ranks among the top winners this year in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the oldest and largest pro rodeo organization.

Midway through the Days of '47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City, Washington led the bull riding competition.

"The schedule is tough," said Washington, a bit sore from the previous night's ride. "There are no coaches. And if your attitude gets bad, it's up to you to get it back together.

"Sometimes, although it's probably bad to say this, it's a do-or-die situation. You don't ride that bull, you don't eat the next day."

While cheap western novels later became grist for melodramatic renderings of the mythic cowboy, real cowboys were finding rodeo a way to pick up a little extra cash.

But in recent years rodeo has become big business.

In 1971, the PRCA sanctioned more than 500 rodeos offering a total of $4 million in prize money. By 1992, the number of rodeos had grown to 770 and winnings topped $20 million.

Lewis Feild, 36, was the PRCA's world all-around champion three times, 1985-87. He semiretired in December 1991 and now competes only occasionally in team-roping events. Rodeo, he said, has become more specialized. It's also a full-time job.

"It's become a better deal for the cowboy," Feild said from his ranch in Elk Ridge, Utah, where he raises rodeo stock.

"People are looking at rodeo as a sport with a legitimate future," he said. "Before, it was more of a passing lifestyle for the cowboys. Guys weren't in it for the long haul like they are now. Guys now are intending on it being a livelihood."

But there's not a lot of job security. Rodeo is a young man's sport, with most competitors - particularly those in the rough stock or bucking events - in their 20s.

PRCA spokeswoman Terri Greer said that in the early days, most rodeo cowboys came straight off the ranch. Many still come from rural backgrounds, but most attend college and compete there before entering the pros.

Feild said that because the number of rodeos has increased, cowboys now train harder and are better athletes. One reason, he said, is money.

It took Field 10 years to win $1.2 million. Rodeo's current superstar, Ty Murray, has won that much in half the time.

The 23-year-old Murray, of Stephenville, Texas, is the PRCA's youngest-ever winner of more than $1 million.

Murray says money alone didn't lure him to the sport.

"My dad rode in rodeo. When I was little, all the men who I looked up to rode," Murray said. "I like being my own boss - and riding's a real thrill."

Murray ranks number one in bull-riding earnings this year, but failed to place at the Days of '47 competition. Success, he said, depends partly on luck.

Clint Robinson of Tooele, rode rodeo for seven years before he broke his neck riding a saddle bronc in Colorado at age 23.

Now 29, he sits in a wheelchair by the chutes to watch his brother, Clel Robinson, 27, compete in the Days of '47 bull riding.

"I've done everything except bulldogging and bareback riding," he said. "I just couldn't see jumping off a good horse."

Feild laughs when asked whether rodeo is harder on the animals than the cowboys. "It's harder on the cowboys," he said.

A cowboy's athletic ability has to include a good measure of endurance. The days spent traveling can be as exhausting as the nights in the arena. Most will compete in approximately 125 rodeos a year and spend about 300 days on the road.

Both Washington and Murray said they planned to hit four rodeos during the week of the Days of '47 rodeo.

"Ogden's next," Washington said. "Then Helena.

"Hey, how far is it to Ogden?"