Jeopardy Is My Job
Jeopardy Is My Job
It takes an expert to tell the work of a superb matador from the work of a merely adequate one who knows his limitations and is in there to punch his time clock and collect his pesetas, but you don't have to be an afficionado with a seat in the sun and a Hemingway beard and a wineskin slung over your shoulder to separate the men from the boys when it comes to the dangerous skill of charging at a tangent into the path of a galloping bull and planting a pair of barbed spikes called banderillas in the ridge of muscle behind its huge head.
Ruy Fuentes was a banderillero. I first saw him plying his deadly trade the next afternoon in the bull ring at Fuengirola. His job, like that of the picador who sat astride a padded and blindfolded nag and wore armor from the waist down, was to weaken the bull, and particularly the ridge of muscle on the bull's neck, for the sword of the matador. Ruy Fuentes wore an Andalucian costume-dark gray suit with cutaway jacket, frilly shirt and narrow-legged trousers, cowboy boots and a broad-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat.
Four times that hot June afternoon I saw him work. He would stand across the ring from twelve-hundred pounds of enraged bull, shout, beckon imperiously and sprint across the sand with a ribboned banderilla held in each hand as daintily as a fairy holds her wand. The bull would snort, and paw, and gallop to meet him, head down, curving horns gleaming in the sunlight. There was a point in the ring where animal and slim gray figure seemed destined to meet. Then Fuentes' arms went up and the bull's head went even lower, and then for an instant they hung together, the bull ready to toss its head and gore with those savage horns, the man ready to plant his banderillas. If he did it right, and each time Fuentes did it exactly right, there was a split-second when Fuentes hung poised, high on his toes, arms up-stretched, between the bull's horns. Then his arms blurred down, the bull bellowed, Fuentes ran clear and the two banderillas, their ribbons fluttering, their barbed hooks trickling blood, hung an inch apart in the center of the ridge of muscle on the bull's neck.
There were four matadors and four fighting bulls to dispose of. Two of the matadors were proficient and two were butchers, and Ruy Fuentes, a contemptuous look on his grave, handsome face because he knew the glory belonged to the matadors and he would win no ears or tail or zapata for his work, stole the show. Each time he came out the crowd would sigh to silence as he rushed headlong to meet his destiny between the bull's horns, and each time they would respond to his work with shouts of "Olé!" and even "Torero!" though young Ruy Fuentes' bullfighting days already were behind him. He never acknowledged the acclaim with so much as a bow. He just stalked off, a solitary figure in the sun, as the trumpet sounded for the matador.
At twenty-two he was a has-been, a torero who'd been trampled and had to settle for a secondary role in the fiesta brava. But at twenty-two he had more pride and dignity than you'd expect under those or any circumstances. I found myself hoping he wouldn't be involved in Robbie Hartshorn's disappearance even though that would mean my one and only lead had petered out.
Long late-afternoon shadows were dark under the iron-pipe and wooden slat scaffolding of Fuengirola's makeshift bull ring when I went below the grandstand and watched a yellow jeep haul the carcass of the final bull out with two urchins dressed in rags riding proudly on its bloody flank and trying to remove the banderillas. A knot of people had gathered around the four matadors whose teeth gleamed in wide smiles. Aficionados mirrored those smiles. They said a word or two, they laughed nervously, their hands reached out to touch the matadors, their heads nodded like corks bobbing on water whenever the matadors deigned to answer them.
Ruy Fuentes stood off to one side, alon