Artwork by Ira Joel Haber
It was a good business, breeding prize bulls for the corrida, caring for them at his ranch. Pedro was well-known, and people would bow when they saw him, maybe with less admiration than in front of the toreador, but with more respect. After all, the courage of youth waned or was killed, whereas cunning in business would only grow. Pedro glowed and smiled amiably. He loved to care for his bulls—he had planted for them the best grass, seeds imported especially from Argentina, and he would come every day and watch over them, pat them between brick-muscled shoulders when they were drowsy in the afternoon, tell them of the greatness waiting in the arena. This is how, in 15 years, he had come from nothing to being the best bull breeder in the region. "In the region?" people would ask, when he visited the tavern. "No, senor Diaz, don't be modest. You are the best in the country. Even in Madrid they haven't seen bulls like yours!" So Pedro would buy another round, and the wine and talking flowed until late.
When he was told, on one of these nights, a new toreador wanted to see him, he wasn't surprised. They came all the time, all trying to make a name, all imploring him to let them fight against one of his best bulls. Stupid kids, Pedro thought. As if he would just let anyone fight these bulls. It wasn't that the kids could get maimed or killed, hey, that was the business, but what about the show? Who would want to see a weak toreador being given the run-around? It would be funny the first time, people would boo the second time they watched it, and who would lose face? No one knew the youngsters; they would be forgotten in a week. It was himself, Pedro, whose reputation would plunge. He wasn't about to let that happen. But then the messenger said, "His name is Juan Roberto. He said I should tell it to you," and Pedro fell silent.
"I'll see him tomorrow morning," he announced, "not too early. An hour before midday."
He regretted it from the moment he woke up. He didn't really want to see Juan Roberto. Yes, they had spent time together in the past, they had been friends for several years—best friends, Pedro admitted to himself—but that was a long time ago. Those things had died when Pedro wouldn't leave with Juan, wouldn't follow his dreams of sailing, of foreign countries. Still, he had said he would see him. Everyone had heard. He couldn't go back on his word.
At 11:00 sharp, he saw him in the courtyard. He did look young, Pedro admitted, all his hair and no paunch, and somehow taller than he used to be.
"Welcome," he said, and opened his arms, and Juan Roberto kissed him on the cheeks and hugged him like a man, but Pedro moved back slightly. "It's been a long time, friend. You should tell me the story."
And Juan started, and spoke of other countries, and other customs, and of women with hair like fire and loins of velvet, until Pedro glanced at the clock in the dining hall and said, "You must forgive me, dear friend. I am somewhat busy tonight—business, what can I do?"
"Ah," Juan said. "Well, I... I have come back here a year ago, to try my luck. I think I can be a great toreador. It's in the blood, have I ever told you about my grandfather? Best toreador in Segovia. I've trained for this last year, and I am ready. But no one would let me try. And then I found out about you. I said to myself, "You've always been lucky, Juan Roberto, and look, your best friend can now help you."
"This is madness," Pedro said. "You've hardly learnt anything. You're going to get mauled. Look if it's about the money..." he added, but stopped quickly when he saw Juan's eyes narrowing. "No, no, forget I said that," he said. He knew Juan's temper, and how he had always been insulted by the mention of money.
This is how it started. Pedro agreed—he had to agree, how could he say no to Juan? He had only managed it once, and he hadn't seen him for 15 years. He tried hard to find the weakest bull, the one that knew least how to fight the smart way, how to conserve its wild energy. He crossed his fingers, quietly, when the fight started and the hundreds and thousands of people shouted Juan Roberto's name. He didn't want to see his friend harmed, almost didn't want to see it. But then he couldn't look away, couldn't take his eyes off the flowing body of the toreador, how he slid with ease past the charging bull, two inches from him, how he bowed at the public. From the first five minutes, he knew who would win, but Juan Roberto did it in style, bringing explosions of Ole! from the crowd, and Pedro was forced to admit, perhaps, it was in the blood, that his friend would be a great toreador.
And then one evening, after Juan Roberto had killed his second bull, and his third, Pedro went home without talking to anyone and went behind his house and spat on the grass and asked for Almajo. Almajo, who was at least a third bigger than his second biggest bull, who had thrown out of the arena the famous Madajar from Madrid. Almajo, whom he was saving for the day when he would fight the best toreador in the country.
But there was no other way. Pedro saw clearly. These had been 15 good years to him, and he was not about to let Juan Roberto come back from nowhere and steal them away. He would show him, and maybe later, when Juan Roberto lay in a hospital, he would help him with some money. They had been good friends, after all.