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Moving his muleta a little too fast, perhaps deliberately risking control over the bull in order to encourage it to charge well, Fermin Rivera performs a right-hand pass in a picture that catches bullfighting's tense excitement


The bullfight proper starts with the appearance of everybody's enemy, the picador. To the novice fan he is evil itself—a brawny-armed bravo who rides a well-padded, blindfolded but pathetic old horse and lures the bull into charging it. Then, while the bull is snorting and straining, he sticks an inch and a half of steel at the end of a nine-foot pole into its back, producing the afternoon's first shocking sight of blood. To veteran fans the-picador is even more sinister. His job is to "pic" the lifting (or goring) muscle atop the neck, slowing the bull without ruining its will to attack. But most pic farther back, making the bull less belligerent—and drawing boos from the aficionados. Bullfighters afoot are in the ring to take the bull away from the horse after the picing. But the one in picture at left is risking a fine by being out of his appointed place at the left of the horse.


After the picing and rival demonstrations of cape work by the matadors, banderillas, barbed sticks, are sunk into the bull to help wear down its strength. Here Carlos (Little Canes) Vera, a better banderillero than he is a matador, places a pair in the manner called "force to force." At left he calls the bull. As it charges (second picture from left) Vera runs toward it, lifting his arms with the banderillas high, and leaves the ground. Bull and man come together (third picture) and Vera sinks the sticks where they belong: high on the shoulders, close together and well back of the neck. The shock stops the bull for a split second; his head comes down seeking something to strike, and Vera, using the banderillas as levers, twists away from the horns, throwing his arms up (fourth picture) in the traditional signal that he, for one, thinks (correctly) that the job was well done.


The final act before the death of the bull is the faena, a series of linked passes by the matador. He comes to the bull alone, armed only with his courage, his sword and the muleta, a small red cloth draped over a stick. There, to the limits of his skill and spirit, he tries to mold sudden violence into slow grace; to bring the charging bull's horns closer and closer, slower and slower, until the spectators catch fire and the plaza shakes with short, breathless growls of "ole" that stop in the air as the bull whirls to charge again. It isn't easy; it doesn't always come off; desperately reaching for it, matadors often mix such ornamental frivolities as the Lacernista, a pass named for the Spanish bullfighter who invented it and which the Mexican Carlos Vera is doing at right, with more fundamental passes. These bring the bull in, head low, horns outreaching, close on the right or, more dangerous, closer on the left of the bullfighter. But even in the heat of the faena, the matador must study his bull—which horn it hooks with and how fast its eyes move—for in a few moments his life will depend on this knowledge.


The matador is in most danger just as he kills his bull. Some of history's greatest—Antonio Montes, Joselito, Manolete—suffered their own death wounds in this moment. Here Rafael Rodriguez, best of the current crop of Mexican matadors, kills in the classic 18th century style called valopié, flight afoot. Above, having made certain that the bull's eyes are following the muleta in his left hand rather than the sword in his right, that its front feet are close together, thus opening wider the gap between its shoulder bones on top where the sword must go in to strike the vital organs, he starts his charge from a position in profile to the bull. He moves out the muleta (below, left), drawing the horns down and to his right. As the sword goes in (below, right) in what bullfight fans call "the moment of truth" he is directly over the horns. The bull, wounded unto death, has but to lift its head to drive a horn into Rodriguez's groin or stomach. But Rafael pivots around the horn (next page), and the bull, vomiting blood, falls down and dies.