Another time Murray was turtled up inside an overturned barrel after the bullfighter jumped over the fence. Unaware that he'd been abandoned, Murray occasionally noticed the bull's feet trotting past one end of the barrel or the other. There was nothing he could do. A barrel-man is supposed to stay in an overturned barrel until the bullfighter rights him. Suddenly things became eerily quiet. Murray looked up and was eyeball-to-eyeball with the bull peering into his barrel. "He knew he had me," Murray recalls. "He put his horn in there and dotted my eye slick as a whistle."
Most horribly, sometimes an enraged bull bucks its hind hooves inside the barrel, directly on top of the clown. That, too, has happened to Murray, cutting him on the head and shoulders as if he had been attacked with an ax. "It's not choreographed," he says. "You can't tell the bulls what to do. And if you're in the thing long enough, you will get hurt."
Why, then, does he do it? Murray, who works 11 months and some 150 performances a year, earning a few thousand dollars a week, still gets an adrenaline rush when a bull charges his barrel. And he likes to make people laugh. What other profession combines those two elements? Says Murray, "Let's see a circus clown try to be funny knowing any minute he could get his neck broke."
Fortunately, I would not have to try to be funny. Murray agreed to keep his wireless mike and handle the joke-telling responsibilities on Saturday. Nervous as I felt, I could not, frankly, imagine attempting his Flintstone bull joke—always a hit with the kids. "That's a Flintstone bull," Murray would yell when a bull with a particularly messy backside trotted into the arena. "Yabba-dabba doo-doo."
The barrel was heavier, with more room inside, than I'd expected. The foam padding wasn't particularly thick, and it had been torn in several places where bulls had managed to stick their horns. At the bottom of the barrel was the little ledge for my feet. "Make sure your feet are on that ledge and not on the ground when the bull hits it, or you'll snap both your ankles," Murray warned. "And keep your teeth clenched. Then you won't bite through your tongue."
I hunkered down to get the feel. It was hot in there. I asked Murray to tip the barrel over so I would land facedown. He did it, and I nearly broke my nose on impact. I was rattling around in there like a bean in a maraca. "Brace yourself against the sides as hard as you can," he said. I curled up, pressing against the padding with the top of my hat. "If he shakes you out of there, your butt's his." He chuckled. "Course, it might be his anyway."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, it's possible for a bull to stick his horn in the bottom of the barrel. Happened to me last year. Hooked me for four stitches up the ol' geezeroo."
A half hour before the rodeo, Murray made up my clown face. Every clown face is different, and it's considered bad luck to imitate another clown's persona. I requested that Murray give me a tear in my eye, in honor of the old Bobby Goldsboro song about the funny little clown. The rest was Murray's invention. At the end he dusted my face with baby powder so the greasepaint wouldn't smear.
I felt queasy. And hot. It was a very hot day in Santa Fe. The greasepaint began to feel like tarmac. I went to sit in the stands to await the bullriding and was mildly surprised when children nodded and waved as I went past. I had forgotten I was made up like a clown. About a minute after I sat down, a little girl came up beside me.