He Took The Bull By The Horns


Bienvenida, a popular matador, accepted the wager and the time was agreed upon. El Heraldo devoted three columns to the event, smugly predicting that Bienvenida would “teach the boasting Americans a lesson in grace and courage.”

The day and time came—and went. The Millers sent a man to Bienvenida’s quarters. The messenger returned with a note from the matador: his backers had advised him that it would be demeaning to participate in such a crude and barbaric spectacle. But they had an alternative proposition. They would pay $5,000 if Pickett, bare-handed, would take on a fighting bull in the arena.

The Millers—and Pickett—quickly accepted this challenge, although there were certain rather ugly stipulations. Pickett was to fight without benefit of picadors, the mounted lancemen who take the bull’s first charges and tire it, or banderilleros, who weaken the bull’s shoulders with barbed shafts. Bill was to remain in the ring for fifteen minutes; although he would not be required to down the bull, he would have to maintain direct physical contact with it for five consecutive minutes.

On the day of combat, 25,000 Mexicans packed El Toreo. Among them were President Porfirio Diaz and other dignitaries who came, as El Heraldo put it, to watch Bill Pickett “sacrifice himself on the altar of American egotism.”

In the pre-performance parade that afternoon, local matadors carried a coffin upon which was inscribed El Pincharino, fairly translated as “one who has been gored through.” There was little question in the minds of the spectators as to what the outcome would be; it was strictly a matter of time. Local bookmakers, it was said, were giving Pickett four minutes.

The bull selected was a tough, experienced fighter that had been spared by an admiring crowd because of his good performance in the ring a week earlier. He was called Chiquito Frijole, “Little Bean,” because of his oddly speckled skin.

The Millers had expected to give their regular wild West show that day, with Pickett’s act as the grand finale. But the mood of the crowd was all too apparent. They were not willing to wait. “El Pincharino!” they shouted. “Chiquito Frijole!” “Viva el toro!

As for Bill Pickett, he was ready. Not that he was unaware of the mortal danger. The night before, Pickett had come to Zack Miller asking for a promise. It he died out there in that Mexican bullring, he said, he wanted his body taken back to the 101 Ranch and buried in good, hard ground where the coyotes could not “scratch out his bones.” Zack had given his word.

Pickett’s heels touched Spradley, and the horse moved forward. At the far side of the arena a gate opened, and into the sunlight charged Chiquito Frijole. A great thunder rolled up from the crowd: “Muerte al Negro de Oklahoma!

The bull did not wait for the fight to come to him: he dug at the sand and snorted, head twisting, and then began his charge. Pickett held the reins loosely; Spradley, well enough versed in mean animals, did a dancing step, marking time, waiting for the bull to come. Chiquito Frijole’s head dropped, his horns ready to disembowel. At the last instant Spradley side-stepped, and the bull rushed past.

The bull refused to maintain a straight line, and as Spradley pursued him, he wheeled—again the horse had to dodge. Spradley’s footwork kept him out of danger, but Pickett had no opportunity to engage the beast. When Chiquito Frijole overshot twice again, Pickett turned and rode to the barricade.

The rider was worried because he now realized he would have to present a stationary target—his horse —to lure the bull into position. “A pony’s gonna die before I can get close enough,” he called to the Miller brothers. “I can’t risk my Spradley horse.”

Cobarde!” screamed the crowd, thinking Pickett was conceding defeat. The impresario rose, reached for his handkerchief, and pointed at Pickett.

“Go back in there, Bill, and get that bull,” urged Zack. “If you don’t, they’re going to get all of us!”

Pickett, face twisted, jerked the reins and galloped out again. Chiquito Frijole barrelled forward, and Pickett drew Spradley up short. The horse screamed as the bull’s horns pierced its hind quarters. As the bull pulled back for another thrust, Pickett left the saddle and slid backward over Spradley’s rump and onto the bloody horns. Dragging Pickett, Chiquito Frijole made straight for Spradley, but the limping pony escaped through a hastily opened gate.