I asked Harold Murray if that was accurate. Murray, 44, was the barrelman at the Rodeo de Santa Fe, which was held this year from July 6 to July 9. He'd agreed to let me work the Saturday matinee performance. "Feel this," he said, taking off his hat and showing me the golf-ball-sized knot on his balding head. "Lookee here." He held out his hands. His lingers and knuckles were swollen and scraped, as if he'd clawed his way through pricker bushes. "I've had everything that could be broken, broken. I broke my nose four times last year. Broke my left foot seven times. I've bit through my lip any number of times. I've got beat up worse in the barrel than when I was a bullfighter. It's like squeezing yourself into the tightest ball you can, then having someone smack your feet with a two-by-four. I've been knocked unconscious, set back upright, and when I woke up, I thought I was lying in my living room. Heck, you'll have yourself a ball."
I'd watched him work three performances already. Murray's barrel, with him inside it, had been rolled, tipped, kicked and toppled end over end each evening, attacked by a dozen bulls with unbelievable ferocity. Murray emerged from each encounter with a wisecrack, never alluding to how much pain he often was in.
During the bullriding competition, Murray worked in concert with Smets. Smets relied on the barrelman to help him turn back the bulls, to get them spinning, which is the best way for the bullrider to score points. Smets would say where he wanted the barrel, usually in front of the chute, maybe 20 yards out, and Murray would amble over to the anointed spot without ever leaving the can. The barrel had a 12-by-18-inch opening in its bottom for the clown's feet, a ledge for him to stand on and interior handholds so he could lift the entire can. Sometimes Murray told a joke as he was shuffling. He wore a wireless microphone, a terrific little device, except in those instances when a bull thumped the barrel and the microphone became lodged halfway down Murray's throat.
"Bill and Hillary are arguing again," Murray would say.
"What about?" the rodeo announcer and straight man, Dr. Lynn Phillips, would ask.
"He wants to play in the sandbox, and she won't let him." "Why not?"
"Socks, the cat, keeps trying to cover him up."
Murray's barrel is made of heavy-gauge aluminum and padded inside with foam. It weighs about 75 pounds. "I put it on the front bumper of a pickup and drove it into a concrete wall at 25 miles per hour," he told me. "Not even a dent."
Which isn't to say he is safe in there. Far from it. Bulls often stick their horns into the barrels and hoist them off the ground, clown and all. The most famous fighting bull of all time, a monster named Crooked Nose, broke his horn on a barrel when he was two years old. Thereafter, whenever he saw a barrel, Crooked Nose savaged it, often injuring the barrelman inside. A famous clown named Toad Cook gave up being a barrelman for two years after a nasty encounter with Crooked Nose in Billings, Mont., in the early '80s. "He got that one horn in the barrel and wouldn't let up—they had to take poor Toad out of there," recalls Harry Void, the stock contractor who owned Crooked Nose, the only fighting bull in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. "That bull would fight anything that moved. Throw a pack of cigarettes in the arena, he'd fight it."
A Mexican bull put its horns in Murray's barrel last season, so he was trapped inside forehead-to-forehead with the beast. It carried the can all the way around the arena before dropping it.