Lucía lay in the dark before the morning looking up at nothing. She would go to the fight. Vicente had talked her into it, but in truth she did not need much convincing. A grizzly against two Spanish bulls—it was exciting. It would be a big fight, and she would see a lot of people. And besides, it was an excuse to get away from working for an afternoon.
She sat up in her bed. The inkling of light came through the window. She dressed quickly, halfway underneath the blankets, trying to stay warm. At the door she slipped the milk pail from its hook and went out into the field.
The morning was misty and dim and the grass squelched underfoot. She tread carefully, swinging the empty pail by its wire handle and listening to her own breathing. Downhill a short ways, in her pen, was the milk cow. Her flank was dark but her pale eyes shone white. She acknowledged Lucía with a snort and a step backwards.
"Ay, páralo," said Lucía. "Ven aquí."
She squatted, set the pail out, and started tugging at the udders in an easy rhythm. Slowly the light brightened and the mist began to clear, revealing in the near distance the white adobe front of the Mission Dolores, and behind it many acres of pasture on the hills. She turned her head the other way, laying her ear to the cow's side. The sound of the milk hitting the pail—sip, sip, sip, sip—and the birds were all she could hear before a pair of ducks made a frenetic honking exit from the marsh down the hill.
Light was streaming through the window when Vicente finally got up from the chair in the main room where he had fallen asleep. Lucía stood at the stove cooking, and her father sat at the table drinking coffee.
"Buenas Vicente," he said.
Vicente came around to the stove and slipped his arm around Lucía's waist.
"Me duele la cabeza," he said, rubbing his temple with one hand while he bent down to kiss her neck.
"A, qué sorpresa," she said.
She knocked her wooden spoon on his stomach and he laughed and moved away. Holding her hand over the pan, she sent a knob of lard skiddling across the hot iron. Out the window she could see the city. It sprawled outwards in a ramshackle grid—redwood and canvas against mud and sand. Steam shot up into the air from the distillery on the creek, where it hung in the sky for a moment before encountering a breeze. Sometimes it seemed as if, in the interval between one look out the window and the next, the buildings all took one step closer. She picked up the cutting board and sent onions and beef tongue sizzling into the pan.
Lucía let Vicente pull her close as they squeezed in with the crowd heading for the gate to the arena. She held her ticket tightly in her hand. The excited babble of the masses was chaotic with a mix of languages and voices, and the force of the people all around compelled them slowly forward towards the entrance. The crush reached its acme when they got to the front. She held out her ticket and a man tore it in half and handed one piece back. Then she stepped clear, and found herself in a dark corridor with the murmur of the crowd at her back. Vicente took her hand and led her through an archway into the light. They climbed the stands and settled at a good spot, not too low down, with the sun at their backs. She set their blanket down on the bench and sat down beside him.
As the seats filled, two hustlers came in leading the bear by iron chains. He had a dark coat, with powerful haunches and a mean face, and he fought against the men compelling him forward by digging his hind legs into the dirt. But slowly, inexorably, they dragged him into the center of the ring.
A nervous chatter spread through the stands. There were quite a few white men sitting in large groups, with their formless red shirts, and blue shirts, and felt hats. A line of chilenas near Lucía and Vicente gossiped among themselves, waving handkerchiefs and fanning themselves with fluttering, birdlike motions. The people kept coming, the benches filling with faces, all peering down at the huge bear. He stumbled halfway around the ring at the end of his chain, howling plaintively. Then he retreated, and commenced to tear at the earth with his claws.
Two white men came up to Lucía.
"Bwenos dee-yas, miss," one of them said. "These seats taken?"
She looked away from them, pretending not to understand. Vicente looked straight forward.
"I s'pose she doesn't mind, Jack. Pretty one, isn't she?" said the other.
They sat down next to her. Vicente slapped her thigh and pointed.
"Mira allí," he said. "El toro."
Between the bars of a cage built into the far side of the arena she could see the purple flank of one of the bulls.
"He's a beauty," said one of the white men. "I have five dollars staked on that bull."
"Well, Jack, you always were a sucker," said the other.
The brown of the bear's haunch rippled as he kicked out more dirt from his hole. He let out a deep, murmuring growl that fetched scattered cheers from the spectators. The sun beat down on all the people, who formed a wavering mass of color against the redwood boards of the arena. From behind the bars the bull stuck out his horns, and the crowd erupted, cheering and flapping their hats wildly in the air.
A man dressed like a torero, as if this were a real Spanish bullfight, came out into the ring. Walking in a big circle around the bear, he shouted through a trumpet up to the tiers of seats.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "Señoras y señores, we are here to witness the legendary grizzly General Scott, estamos aquí para ver a esta bestia legendaria, in deadly battle against a vicious foe, en una batalla mortal contra un enemigo despiadado. Let us begin!"
The crowd howled, and Lucía felt her blood quicken. One of the hustlers slid back the gate and the bull took a few tentative steps into the open. The gate slid shut on a spring.
His purple hide was spotted with white and his long horns glinted fiercely in the sun as he turned in a slow, bewildered circle surveying the arena. He took a clattering leap towards his enclosure, but only smashed his flank against the bars. The crowd hissed and jeered, and the bull again took a few steps into the open. It was clear he would not charge. He shifted his weight from side to side and scratched at the ground. The announcer motioned to the two hustlers, who descended into the arena on ropes.
"Look away Jack, they're fixing to cut him."
"Tell the little lady, don't tell me."
Each man had a long, thin knife, and the two danced back and forth, alternately sticking the bull. He tossed from side to side, bucking furiously while the men ran to safety. He went in circles, roaring in frustration, and then lowered his horns, and charged towards the mass of brown fur slunk down in the dirt.
Lucía leaned forward. The arena was momentarily silent as the bull charged. His haunches rippled with each thudding step against the packed earth. And then, at the last possible moment, the bear with an explosive release sprang forward to meet him, clamping down on his nose, and wrapping his neck with huge paws. The bear twisted savagely, throwing him to the ground.
The crowd erupted. Vicente and the white men on either side of Lucía shot to their feet, adding their cheers to the general roar. She stood up to see. The bull shook his head, retreating unevenly. His nose was pulpy and disfigured, blood dripping from his snout.
"There goes your favorite, Jack."
"Aw, shut up."
The bull lowered his horns and the savage steps were repeated, as the bear again leaped, seizing the bull by the snout and again twisting him to the ground. But this time, as the bull retreated, the bear lurched out of his hole, and seized him by one of his feet. The chain on the bear's hind paw raised up tense off the ground and then relaxed to the dirt again as he dragged the bull, lowing and shaking, around the ring.
"Matalo! Matalo!" cried Vicente.
Lucía sat down. The white men followed suit, but Vicente remained standing. When she looked again the bull was lying down out of reach of the bear, blood dripping from his mangled snout, defeated. The two hustlers again descended, and began to prick his flanks with the tips of their knives, until he staggered to his feet and they deserted the ring. The bull was tired, and had lost a lot of blood. He could hardly stand. He took a last halfhearted charge. The bear easily diverted him, and sent his spent body tumbling to the side of the arena, where he collapsed, legs splayed, near the wall.
The announcer again appeared, circling his hands upward, raising the pitch of the crowd, until they were nearly screaming. He picked up his trumpet.
"Ladies and gentlemen, señoras y señores, has not the bull received fair play? Un juego justo, no? Un juego limpio. Have we not left him his sharp horns, left him free in the arena? Los cuernos intactos, el cuerpo libre?" The crowd roared in affirmation.
The announcer swept his arm out, and another bull entered the ring. He was a little larger than the first, and did not hesitate. Seeming instantly to perceive how things stood, he lowered his horns and barreled at the bear. The first bull perked up his head. Although the whole arena heard the crack of horns against the bear's ribs, nothing came of it. The bear's hide was too thick. Soon he had his massive jaws clamped on the bull's snout and was again twisting down.
The bull strained against the weight of his adversary. Furiously he kicked and shook, straining to get free. And then, unexpectedly, his hoof landed a blow on the bear's haunch. The first bull, seeing his chance, struggled to his feet. He took a short run at his fallen enemy, sticking him in the side with his horns. At this double provocation the bear was outraged, striking out in blind fury with his front paws.
"Just look at that fool flounder!" said one white man.
"Only had one trick, didn't he?" said the other.
"Oh no, wait just a minute."
The bear regained his footing, wound up a little, and then with the side of his body he knocked the first bull over. Then he turned to the other, who seemed almost not to resist as his snout disappeared into the bear's jaw, and he was twisted by the neck down to the earth.
The crowd seemed to know that it was over. The white men got to their feet.
"Let's get a whiskey," said one.
"Fine," said the other.
Vicente turned to Lucía, smiling and satisfied.
"Estupendo," he said.
They stood up. Even before a man with a rifle came out and shot the two bulls they had begun to migrate out of their seats with the crowd. Lucía found, unexpectedly, that she was very hungry. She wanted a big plate of meat, and for someone else to cook it. Perhaps they could have dinner at the new tavern near the creek. She took Vicente's hand.
The announcer stepped into the ring, and shouted through his trumpet.
"The greatest fight ever fought in California, una lucha épica, and you were here ladies and gentlemen, señoras y señores, to see the victory, la victoria espléndida, of that magnificent grizzly, ese oso magnífico, el General."
Copyright © 2016 Henry Cordes - All rights reserved