That was true. The bull missed me, but my confidence was flattened.
"You turned plumb white," Ronny said, laughing. "Get any slobber on you?"
I actually looked. Absorbing bull slobber was obviously a passage into manhood. As I was looking down, the fallen rider came by. "Thanks, man," he said.
Pride washed over me. So that's why clowns do it, I understood.
My next bull was a gray brindle whose horns stuck straight out some 18 inches from its head. One horn was significantly lower than the other, however, giving the bull a lopsided, drunken appearance. It bucked off its rider without much ado, then trotted to the far end of the arena as we moved in to protect him. The bull stood there, uninterested, inspecting the adjacent saddle-bronc arena. I was ambling along the fence, just where I was not supposed to be, when the bull suddenly turned. "Watch yourself," I heard Ronny yell. I happened to be the first thing the bull saw. It charged.
This was prickly. My first impulse was to jump onto the fence and risk having my eyeballs mashed out of my skull. I could dart toward the center of the arena, but I was pretty sure I would be run down and trampled. Or I could hold my ground and fake. The problem with the third option was I was so close to the fence that I could fake only one way—toward the center. What if the bull figured that out? Too late now. I stepped toward the center with my right leg, then lunged back to my left, slipping to my knees in the deep sand, slamming helplessly against the fence. The bull's right horn went by inches from my cheek. I climbed out of the arena, trying to mask how unnerved I felt. Pierce came over and smiled. "Now that you got by that bull, I'll let you in on something," he said. "That bull broke Rob Smets's nose."
Smets was a four-time world bullfighting champion.
I started to become more and more cautious. I did not mind putting myself at risk to protect a fallen cowboy. But I would never be a real bullfighter, a guy who would dance and dart in front of the bull for the pure thrill of it. The more I was around bulls, the more respectful I became. The younger guys, meanwhile, took greater and greater chances as they gained experience. They would taunt the bulls, do jumping jacks to get them to charge and run in circles to get the bulls to chase them. Cody Casto, one of the 14-year-old twins, literally threw himself on the horns of a bull that was mauling a fallen cowboy. He ripped his shorts but was otherwise uninjured. Jerrett Farley, 20, who fights bulls in Kissimmee, Fla., for $50 a night, was run down by one bull, which tried its best to bury him. As Farley lay facedown in the dirt, the bull sank a horn in the soil on either side of his head. It was frightening to witness, but Farley bounced up without noticeably adverse effect. Youth is bulletproof. I remembered the feeling. The acceptance of mortality is one of man's inescapable concessions to age, and at some indeterminate point I'd accepted it.
Still, I'd survived the first day of rodeo school unscathed. None of the student clowns had been injured, and there was a great feeling of camaraderie afterward as we watched videotapes of ourselves and compared war stories and ripped clothing. We began to feel like members of a small, terribly elite squadron.
An older cowboy was watching the videotapes with us. "You a clown?" one of the Casto twins asked.