The merry chase was on. Around and around they went, with Miguel teasing the bull and letting the horns nearly graze his saddle before he galloped on. Every narrow escape would boost his confidence, and he would push himself a little further, leaning back to brush the bull's massive head with his fingertips. His riding was fluid and exemplary. He could turn on a dime, and he placed three pairs of banderillas with amazing accuracy. When he was done, the forcados jumped in and subdued the weary bull, while Miguel took a lap around the ring to wild applause. He would be a hard act to follow, as Vitor Mendes surely knew.
Mendes, alas, drew a terrible bull. The animal was clumsy and dull, so the matador, who was a veteran of such trials, did what he could to make things interesting. He offered exquisite capework at close range, for instance, but there were still problems. The bull kept stopping halfway through each pass, forcing Mendes to move even closer as he tried to produce a thrill. His frustration was evident, and perhaps it caused him to be careless, allowing the bull to lash out in a fury and catch him with a horn between his legs.
Down went Mendes in a heap. He lay motionless. The bull continued its attack, butting and trampling him until the cuadrilleros provided a distraction. A team of paramedics assisted Mendes to the sideline and tended to his injuries. This was the first sign that the damage wasn't serious. In a short time Mendes reappeared in the ring, as his code of honor dictated. His forehead was bruised, and he walked with a limp.
He was determined to finish with a flourish, but his trousers were in tatters, and his genitals popped into view. Poor Mendes had to work the muleta while his nether parts flopped about in the open air. Some spectators laughed at his plight, but most were impressed by his nerve and tenacity, and they applauded him as loudly as they had Miguel.
On Monday, Joe Correia woke before dawn at the ranch in Madera and began preparing for the show in Thornton. He had a case of butterflies, as he usually did before a fight. "Let's go to Las Vegas," he joked, suggesting he'd rather be anywhere than in a bullring. He put in eight hours of honest toil before he left, making his own banderillas and grooming the three horses he'd ride, braiding their tails and threading ribbons through their manes until they looked ready for a parade. The drive north took another three hours. Joe pulled into town at twilight and dressed inside his father's RV. The surroundings were scarcely elegant, but he was upbeat. "I don't do this for the money," said Joe. He would earn about $2,500, a pittance compared to the fees of Mendes and Miguel.
Again the Azores Band struck up a paso doble, and Joe joined the formal procession into the ring. He did not ride Temperal, his favorite stallion, who is black and strong and has a stormy disposition. He chose a lesser mount instead, in case the bull inflicted harm. The first horse was his designated stalker, used to test the bull's fortitude and its mode of attack. Once Joe had established those factors, he would switch from stallion to stallion depending on his purpose, asking for speed or toughness or a superior ability to maneuver.
In the saddle Joe lacked the feathery finesse of Miguel. He was much older, 33, and bigger and heavier, but he demonstrated the same fearlessness when his bull erupted from the corral. It was a decent bull for a change, too. The charge was straight and true, with no surprises. Joe spun his stallion with a sharp cry and forced the bull to pursue him. At the appropriate time he placed the banderillas with pinpoint accuracy, then followed with another pair as he worked dangerously close to the horns.
He had just one disturbing moment. It came while he was basking in adulation, paying more attention to the crowd than to his job. The bull appeared to be defeated, gasping and dribbling urine, but all at once the animal roared back to life and crashed toward horse and rider. Only at the last instant did Joe wake up with a start, booting his stallion to safety. He grinned and shook his head, as though the mistake amused him—as though no one could ever learn all the lessons of the ring—and broke two banderillas in half, in a crowd-pleasing gesture that would force him to work still lower in the saddle and nearer the horns.
The stunt went without a hitch, and Joe let the cheers wash over him. Astride his horse, he cut a heroic figure, his transformation complete. Manuel was happy for him, and Joe's mother, who'd been very anxious and had sometimes looked away from the action, was overjoyed. Her boy had survived! Joe stayed around to watch the other fights on the card and didn't load his van until midnight. He wasn't the slightest bit tired, though he knew he'd be exhausted the minute he hit the road. That was a small price to pay, because his good performance had moved him a step closer to his goal of the alternativa.
He would keep working at the ranch until then, schooling his horses and doing the usual chores. The Correias had a new crop of calves to brand, about 40 between six and eight months old. You might imagine that it would be a rough business to round them all up, scattered as they were over 516 acres, but Joe made it sound easy. "We'll be done before noon," he said, "unless somebody breaks out a jug of Portuguese red too early."