We paired off randomly. My first partner was Keith Newton from Martin, Tenn. Everyone called him Newt. He was 22 and looked as hard as a tire iron. He told me he used to ride bulls but gave it up when he was 20. He'd broken his neck, he said. How? I wondered.
"Bull stepped on it."
Our first bull was a dark brindle-colored Brahma with a white face and horns downturned like a ram's. Bull horns, I'd noticed, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short, some long, some pointed, some blunt, some crooked and some broken off. The school had a Watusi bull with a pair of horns that looked as long as elk antlers—cowboy catchers, the bullfighters called them. A few bulls, called mulies, were hornless. All the horns were filthy. Ronny told us about the time a bull gored him in the calf, and he said it took "something like 26 bags of penicillin" to clean up the resulting infection.
The soil in the arena was damp, deep and sandy. Cowboys lined the six-foot fence. It was hot and Louisiana humid. Newt and I stepped out toward the middle, one on each side of the gate. As the rider wrapped his hand in the bullrope, I tried moving in a swanlike fashion. I felt surprisingly relaxed, even confident. The chute opened, and the bull spun out to its left—my direction—with the bell tied to the bullrope clanging ominously. The cowboy fell off, and the bull wheeled around to hit him.
What I did next was quite instinctive. I was nearer to the bull than Newt, and I darted between the beast and the fallen cowboy, as we'd been instructed to do. The bull, moving much more quickly than the wheelbarrow, instantly swung its horns in my direction, missing me as I glided prettily in front of it and then, swan-like, circled behind. I was now in the middle of the arena. The bull, I was relieved to see, stopped near the fence to snort at the cowboys sitting up there. Then it turned around, head held disconcertingly high—my eye level, in fact—looking for a fight, until....
It spied me.
I was frozen, square to the beast, trying to appear as innocuous as I could. I did not taunt the bull or wave my arms. I ignored the Sparkses' entreaties to "Take him, fella." I held my breath, waiting for the bull to move on to bigger fish. But he was not in the mood for bigger fish. The bull charged.
I had a moment to think about this. I remembered Ronny telling us to wait on the bulls, that the closer they got, the better off we were. Things, I reckoned, were looking rosier by the second. And I remembered Donny telling me to lift my leg like a dog. It took maybe a 30th of a second for all that to race through my mind. The bull, splotchy with anger, its hump huge on its withers, suddenly took up my entire field of vision. I threw my right leg out, selling it for all I was worth, then ducked back left. It had worked with the wheelbarrow. But I had waited a moment too long, and the bull, going faster than I'd figured, lowered its horns. It was going to crush my right hip. I closed my eyes and, swanlike, went limp. The bull ran past so close that I felt a wind. I ran to the fence and hopped up, thrilled to be alive.
"I wish you'd seen your face from my angle," said Pierce. "He was so close, you didn't know you got away."