A grueling year on the rodeo circuit with the bronc busters and bull riders who keep alive what Johnson calls America's ``most powerful myth.'' Joe Wimberley of Cool, Tex., is typical of the rodeo riders of the new Old West, says Johnson, Denver bureau chief of the New York Times. Wimberley was born and raised a cowboy, but his family lost the ranch when he was a teenager. He took to the rodeo at 18 and began winning in the 1980s, earning as much as $40,000 in a season, one-third of which went to entry fees and travel expenses. Kicked in the head by a bull and nearly killed, Wimberley hung up his spurs at 30. As the author notes, ``Cowboys do not wonder if they will become badly hurt, but when.'' Debt-ridden and injury-plagued, they spend the season sleeping in the backs of pickup trucks and in cheap motels. They accumulate points for remaining on the back of a wild, bucking horse for eight seconds; they get no grade or points if they are thrown. The top 15 riders in each category compete in Las Vegas in December for the $2 million purse in the National Finals Rodeo. The ``All-Around Cowboy'' (top vote-getter in three events) can make as much as $250,000, but most earn far less. Johnson offers welcome historical background, tidbits, and profiles of cowboys such as Turk Greenough, a star in the 1920s and '30s who went on to become a Hollywood stuntman. Today's stars, such as Ty Murray, the King of the Cowboys, who has won four consecutive national championships, and the Etbauer brothers, all three of whom qualified for the finals, represent what Johnson believes is a dying cowboy tradition, in spite of rodeo's growing popularity. Johnson sees through the noisy gaudiness of modern rodeo without offering a shrill exposÇ. He depicts tough, hard-working men living with privation and pain for the sake of eight seconds of furious heroics.