"Used to be," the man replied, spitting in the dust. "Got sick of puking blood."
It seemed like a good time to call it a day.
In the morning the Sparkses gathered us around the VCR again for a showing of bullfighting highlight films. Curiously, the bulls were providing the highlights. "Gets your motor running, don't it?" Ronny said after we'd seen about the 30th clown freight-trained by a Brahma.
It had the opposite effect on my motor. It wanted to shut down, preferably inside the sanctuary of a barrel. These were the best bullfighters in the world, and seeing them in action was like watching Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. One clown was butted into the crowd. Another was knocked senseless as he tried to free a cowboy's hand from the bullrope. Ronny and Donny knew most of the bulls and all of the bullfighters. This was their way of scouting the opposition. "If you're in this game long enough, you're going to get your chili cooled," Ronny told us. "Simple as that."
I didn't want my chili cooled. I wanted my chili to remain piping hot.
After stretching and then warming up by dodging the of wheelbarrow a couple of times, we headed back out to the arena.
Early on it became clear that the bulls were not quite as dumb as they'd been the day before. The Sparkses had warned us of this. Bulls remember things, and what works one day will not necessarily work the next. My partner, a strapping 21-year-old named Clint Perodeau, faced off against a short-horned black demon that came at him with fire in its eyes. Clint, on his toes, faked right and stepped left, but not quickly enough. The bull never veered. Its head hit Clint squarely in the chest. He went flying through the air, flipping so that he landed on his stomach. The bull kept running and landed with both its hind legs on Clint's back. Such a blow might have killed him—punctured a lung, broken his back, even ruptured his heart—except Clint was wearing a flak jacket, which helped absorb the weight of the bull. Clint staggered out of the arena under his own power, but he was badly bruised, and everyone knew how lucky he'd been.
I tried to put out of my mind the image of the bull's hind hooves coming down on Clint's back. I wasn't wearing a flak jacket. I wasn't strapping. And I wasn't 21.
The first bull that charged me that day helped restore my confidence, loping after my fake like Marv Throneberry chasing a windblown pop-up. I've since seen the tape of that momentous confrontation, and the bull was no more intent on destruction than a horse is when it swishes its tail at a fly. The moment I pulled off that fake, though, I was imbued with the suspicion that I actually knew what I was doing.
That illusion was dispelled by the next bull I faced, a stout white-faced brindle with upturned horns. It came out of the chutes and bucked the cowboy off its left Hank. By now my movements were somewhat automatic: I jumped in between the cowboy and the bull. But instead of then circling behind the bull, luring it into the middle of the arena, I stopped. I faked to the left, shimmied back right and froze. Why don't you move? I wondered. My brain reacted to the situation by going blank. The bull, moving forward, lowered its horns. I reached out with both hands, trying to spin away from the blow. Now I was on the ground, on my stomach, with the bull above me. Bad spot. The bull stepped on my right hand. The hand sunk deep in the mud. I heard shouting, panicked voices. I had to get out of there. Scooting sideways, I felt sunlight on my back. The bull was off chasing another clown.