Cowardly Cagancho in a Deadly Bullfight
A bullfighter in the ring with el terrible Ratón


They say that Cagancho is a gypsy. They say Cagancho is a coward, that he is sly, that he is without integrity or decency. They say Cagancho is without pundonor, that special Spaniard brand of honor that would rather die first.

Fine. Let men in cheap seats talk. But I fought a five-year bull that had just gored four men, killing three, before me.

That bull was called el terrible Ratón when people had the time, Ratón otherwise. Ratón was also called practically unkillable by the folks down in Bilbao. Rick Selecho the breeder once said that Ratón was so smart that it watched for the fighter's feet, not the cape. But I didn't know this at the time.

Ratón was something that shouldn't exist. Something that is banned from all respectable bullfighting rings: a bull that has fought before.

Normally, a bullfight only ends one way, with a dead bull. That's the only thing that keeps the bullfighting industry intact and bullfighters alive. No bull is allowed to re-enter the gauntlet. Ever. From the first moment a bull enters the ring, he is learning how the little circus works. All of the bull's instincts are commanding it to charge, indeed it's bred for that brave charging instinct, but every time the cape swirls and the bull misses, its brain starts to get more cynical about that little red cape. Even the bulls who "win", by defeating the matador and leaving the arena alive, are led straight to the slaughter. It's illegal to let them survive the night.

(A brief metaphor here may help induct those Westerners who've never been to a Spanish bullfight: Given a few field-goal attempts, Charlie Brown would get wise to the ways of Lucy and the pulled football joke, and Charlie might start kicking Lucy instead. So, to keep people laughing, you kill Charlie Brown off-panel. Next comic you draw a new, credulous Charlie Brown who wants nothing more than to kick a football. In this way, you control the game.)

The day I saw Ratón for the first time, we were pulling straws to decide who got first bull pick. Each fighter picks two bulls. I had avoided Ratón, who was described to us by the Texan Rick Selecho briefly as, "Brave as ten, but he do take more goading than usual. Hooks to the right."

Sounded to me like trouble. Looked like it too, older than usual. Most bulls fight at four-years old. This one was at least five years, and at that age they're bigger, more violent, and less predictable.

Well, Jose Bueno drew last and was stuck with Ratón. He cursed. Then, in a swagger of bravado he walked right up to the caged bull. He pantomimed the Final Stab (a sword thrust down between the shoulder blades). Ratón didn't blink.

We entered the sandy ring, circled by the familiar rusty-colored fence. The customs in Spanish bullfighting are complicated to go into and not necessary, so let's just say that you know them, or you got the Peanuts reference and are just along for the ride. The first fight was mine, as the most senior matador. I took the bull on with easy-going relish, warming up the crowd. The show was expected to have six bulls, so the first need be entertaining but not flashy. Leave some space for the young gallants to prove their mettle. Let them come centimetres from retirement.

The audience clapped for me and my kill, but they stood and cheered for Luis de la Rosa. He hardly got any help from his banderilleros (the team of assistants who have capes and taunt the bull away as needed), and he dominated the bull so completely that near the end Luis walked up and caressed its horns.

Then it was Jose Bueno's turn and the monster bull, Ratón. Some in the crowd cheered when the bull came out, just the sight of it promised greatness. Ratón charged to the middle and spun around at the sight of the approaching banderilleros. The bull was led around by the capes for one round, and that's when the carnage began. One of the banderilleros was dancing the cape, except Ratón cut right when he did, and the poor hombre was too slow. The horns gored him and lifted him five feet into the air. The other banderilleros rushed in, all flapping their capes and coaxing Ratón away from the body while medical rushed over. Ratón looked around and charged one of the cape-flappers, and the man pulled his cape, but the bull just turned and charged again. The man bolted while the others flapped, but they couldn't draw the bull off. Ratón was too fast and too focused, and this second banderillero was gored.

The third was Jose Bueno himself, a seasoned matador. He rushed on-field to draw it off with a few cape swings. Now, one of the most difficult and most important things is to face down the bull until the last moment. I think Jose must've been unnerved by the size of Ratón, or maybe the double-goring. When Ratón charged, Jose Bueno went early, his feet betraying him and stepping off just a moment too soon. In the ring, timing is a matter of blinks. Ratón read his step and bucked that way, taking him in the side, piercing deep into both abdomen and thigh.

The last hit was one of the medics. Right in the pants as a medic tried to pickup Jose Bueno, he himself was picked up and launched into the air (the medic ironically was the only to survive), and Ratón trampled Jose Bueno.

Now, the crowd in bullfighting is seasoned through blood, they expect it as a matter of course (though usually it came more from the animals). They howled and whistled in amazement. When the field had been cleared, the Presidente of the arena was consulted. It's a common enough happenstance for a matador to be unable to finish off a bull. Ordinarily the unfinished bull would fall to the senior matador (me) to slay, but this was no ordinary bull. Four gorings was a catastrophe.

I hoped for him to call the bull forfeit, but I had a suspicion that this ring's Presidente did not like me. Many Presidente's around Spain don't like me, on account of the earlier epithets that trail my cape.

I chalk it up to my unwillingness to die for honor, that terrible Americanism. Though my given name is Joaquín Rodríguez Ortega and my Spanish accent impeccable, I did grow up for a decade in America and find its influence hard to shake. I moved with emigrated parents to Chicago for ten years, until I returned for a career as "Cagancho" the Matador. You might think an ex-expatriate would feel at home in either country, be fluent in their cultures as a duo- if not cosmo-politan. But the opposite is true in some ways, I find home to be in somewhere in the twixt, perhaps somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. I blended the Spanish red and United blue, and I've turned out a disappointing purple.

Well, the Presidente decided that he esteemed me so much that Ratón would be little challenge for a matador of my stature. The caller announced his decision, declaring the words, "The bull Ratón is worn out by Jose Bueno's valiant sacrifice. The Courageous Cagancho will not allow it to be in vain."

Ratón snorted agreement. He stamped and galloped around the ring, looking like a warmed-up prizefighter.

I consulted with my own banderilleros. They each had found some toe injury or otherwise contracted a debilitating sickness that disqualified them. I heartily agreed with their sensible cowardice, but I was the man-on-the-spot, I had liked Jose Bueno, and I didn't like the Presidente's turn of phrase: "in vain". I asked for my sword.

Ordinarily, the bullfight is a three-act play that roughly falls out this way: bull is let loose, bull is carefully wounded, bull is executed by the Final Stab from the matador. Well, it was the first-act, but I didn't have any of my first-act helpers. I took the third-act short sword and left my cape behind. The bull obviously knew that trick. I walked out alone, sword naked in my hand, and the crowd fell silent. Despite the scrambling nature of the show, Spanish bullfighting is actually highly regularized; a missed step in the starting parades will be booed and criticized, but now a solemn hush greeted my irregular entrance. Even the Presidente didn't raise a word. If I had gone out there with a gun or a lance, the whole thing would have been tossed, but as I suspected, the crowd's anticipation was razor-sharp now. No one knew what was coming, but it looked promisingly chancy.

I pointed my sword at the bull. Ratón saw my challenge and charged, head high. My heels stayed together at ten yards, posture perfectly erect. When the bull closed it to three yards I took a long step to the left, putting weight there. The bull hooked that way, and I pushed off at the last moment, spinning away opposite to the right. My sword spun with me, and as the bull passed my arm lashed out, slicing its broadside. It was a good long cut drawing blood, and the bull bucked in rage. It came again, and I let it pass, sidestepping fast. Bulls have dynamite for temper, but their anger is spent just as quick. The next charge was slower. I stepped by that one too with no frills. The crowd began booing, judging the dodges as too boring. I judged they wouldn't like the next one either.

I took out a red bandana from my pocket. I flourished it with my left hand, catching Ratón's eye. It was basically a tiny cape, but I was betting that it hadn't become callous to a smaller pop of red. Ratón charged again. As it got close, I waved the bandana low and the bull's head followed. I pulled my hand around, spinning it on a tight turn. The bull followed the bandana, its head turning too quick for the body. Its body was caught bunched up for a moment, ill-footed mid-turn. I drew my sword upwards in a diagonal and cut Ratón's throat.

Ratón found the end of his rampage after taking five more steps. It collapsed, and the sand was soaked red.

The crowd's reactions were mixed, but they settled basically across fundamentalist/newcomer lines. The newer attendees, mostly tourists, thought it a great ("really awesome") spectacle, and there were enough of them in the crowd to applaud. The fundamentalists regarded the upwards slice as a dishonorable killing ("for a dishonorable bull", I'd answer), and they gave an equally loud booing in the stadium, but the naysayers found their true solace in the Spanish cigar dens where bullfighting and soccer are considered the only worthy summer pasttimes. In those places, the name of Cagancho is forever stained.

But, the man lives on.


It wasn't until much later that I learned the scoop on ol' terrible himself. Ratón had been put through a few amateur bullfights in Bilbao, won, and then Rick had paid off the efficiency man at the end of the bull's exit. Rick Selecho was prosecuted in Spain, but he escaped to Texas where I heard he is breeding steers for rodeos.

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