Jalapeno was on their minds, and so was peril.
They did not speak of this before the rodeo boss arrived.
Jimmy Lee Walker, the oldest bullfighter, got there last, at almost 7:30. By then, the grassy parking lot beyond the van was nearly filled and gaunt men wearing big buckles, and boys with hat brims wider than their sloped shoulders, and limping cowboys and women who loved them had gone up to the stadium. Jimmy Lee, in his tight jeans and his polished boots, his tailored gray shirt and crisp white hat, came to the old red Ford van, where three women stood by the open side door.
"Girls, girls, girls," Walker sighed wistfully. He climbed into the passenger's seat, unbuttoned his cuffs and began reading the schedule for the evening, a Saturday night in early August. There, below the bareback riding and the calf roping, the saddle bronc riding and the steer wrestling, under the first bull-riding event, was Jalapeno, Number 117.
Walker read this and said little.
T.J. Hawkins, the funny clown, an 18-year veteran at Cowtown Rodeo, was making the noise. It started when, the first to arrive, he backed his van into his usual spot, backed over a huge inflated inner tube and flattened it.
Ed Workman, the other bullfighter, stringbean tall and just 22, got there next. When Walker arrived, the kid talked to him about women. Walker said little.
The rodeo's traditional Grand Entry was still minutes away when the boss, Grant Harris, in heavy chaps with "Dodge Trucks" in big letters, rode down
from the arena on his big quarterhorse called Spook to give instructions to the clowns.
T.J. Hawkins, already in his clown makeup and his baggy cutoff jeans, looked up at the boss, smiled a clown smile and remarked on Bull Number 117.
"I'm scared of him," Hawkins sang in the musical language of deep West Virginia, the grin still on his face.
"If you're scared, stay out of the goddamn arena," the boss said, wheeling his horse around.
"I ain't scared. I respect him!" Hawkins cried.
The boss, riding off, again offered: Stay out of the arena if you're scared.
Jimmy Lee Walker was smearing white paint around his eyes, concentrating on a mirror, when Hawkins came to the van door. "If you're scared of the bulls, stay out of the arena, OK," the clown crooned to the bullfighter, calling him by his nickname, "Skimmer."
"Fear is not in my vocabulary," the bullfighter replied, and he painted neon lightning bolts on his cheeks.
Beyond his mirror, up by the arena, the Grand Entry parade of rodeo participants began, flags waving, the crowd of 3,400 cash customers screaming. Then only the boss was left outside the gate. Dusty Cleveland, the announcer, spiked his voice up a notch to introduce Grant Harris. Spook's haunches lowered and his hind legs dug in and he galloped with the boss in the saddle into the arena. Behind the van windshield, Skimmer Walker powdered his face.
Alone now in the van, the bullfighter, making a comeback at age 44, a decade after most bullfighters have quit the most hazardous rodeo trade, peeled off his shirt as he sang along with the National Anthem. Walker missed words here and there. Grunting to take his boots off as the anthem ended, he managed to sing the final word, "brave."
Bullfighters need nerve. Their job is to protect the cowboys, who, for eight seconds, ride 2,000 pounds of bucking Brahma bull. If the bull attacks a fallen rider, the bullfighter must throw himself before the one-ton animal. If a rider gets tangled in the bull's ropes, the bullfighter must save him.
If a bull isn't mad enough, a bullfighter has to taunt him. Cowboys get points not only for skill, but for the degree of difficulty of the bull. A bullfighter will tease a docile animal, running him in circles to help the rider gain points.
There are about 200 rodeo bullfighters working nationally, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Bullfighters "are most at risk," said Don Andrews, program director of the Justin Sportsmedicine Program in Fort Worth, Texas, which is sponsored by a cowboy boot company to treat rodeo participants free of charge.
"It is (the bullfighters') job to go into a very violent circumstance," Andrews said. "He enters into peril by virtue of his job description."
A bullfighter at 44 "needs a new occupation. That is a young man's game," Andrews said. "They need to be the youngest."
Jimmy Lee Walker had quit bullfighting and bull-riding after he broke his neck in a car accident in 1987. Even then, he was an old bullfighter.
In a rodeo career riding bareback horses and bulls, Walker had earned $37,714 and a couple of regional titles. The sport was in his blood, and he liked nothing better than to pit himself against the bull, one on one. He had been a professional bullfighter since 1969.
Bullfighting had long since become instinct for Walker. The trick to evading a bull is to keep him turning in a circle. In his every cell, Walker carried the knowledge that bulls can't turn as fast as a person, but in a straight line, they'd take you down in a heartbeat.
In the years after the car accident, Walker missed the sport, the athleticism, the adrenalin of getting as close as it takes, of psyching
himself, getting himself, as he would say, "into the moment" with bulls that, if offered a cape, would choose to attack the matador instead.
Last season, Walker filled in when the regular bullfighter missed a couple of nights. The boss saw that Skimmer still had the old moves, the ability to
cut and run, the cat-like reflexes of a football linebacker. When the 1994 season - Memorial Day to the last Saturday in September - began, Grant Harris needed a bullfighter.
Harris will tell you: "Jim Lee is probably as good a bullfighter as there is in the country. Age has not been a major factor. I don't know if he's lost a whole step but he's lost half a step. (But) he's probably seen every situation that there is to see. With that experience in his favor, you'd go an awful long way to find a better bullfighter."
Harris saw that Skimmer, at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, still had the nerve. For $275 a night, he coaxed Walker out of retirement.
The rest of the clowns had left the van. Tony Licciardello, the barrel man, had dressed in his own car. Only Jimmy Lee Walker was left. In the silence of the windowless rear of the van, he pulled neon tights over his skivvies, then blue orlon socks and white Nike football spikes with orange laces.
As Dusty Cleveland announced the first bareback rider to the crowd, Walker
put on a red and white checked shirt over his muscular torso. The other clowns drifted back, and the skinny kid, Ed Workman, struck up one side of a conversation. Walker absently mumbled acknowledgment and, with an elastic bandage, wrapped an ankle that a bull had stepped on the week before.
Then he pulled on clown's size 54 cut-off Wranglers with yellow suspenders and capped his costume with a white visor.
"Yeah, it feels like rain, Skimmer," the kid said.
"Don't even mention it," Walker replied, staring at the ground beside the van.
Hawkins, in full clown dress, sneaked up behind Walker and squirted his head with a water gun. Walker yowled and scampered into the swale. But soon the horseplay subsided, and the old bullfighter leaned against the van and gazed at the ground, focusing in the shadows on some other place or time.
Jimmy Lee Walker was born at Cowtown, where his father worked as a laborer for Grant Harris' grandfather. At that time, there was a cattle auction and a flea market at Cowtown. The rodeo began in 1953, and when the other kids living in Woodstown were in Little League, Walker was riding calves. He graduated to adult rodeo by the time he turned 18.
He loved being on the road, following the rodeo circuit, and he lived a charmed life, mostly free of major injuries.
But injuries are a significant part of rodeo, both for the cowboys and for the animals.
"In relatively few contact sports do you contend . . . with fatality," but there are about two deaths a year in rodeo, said Andrews of Justin Sportsmedicine. "If you get in the wrong position, you can get kicked or stepped on. If you get stepped on by a bull, something has to give; the head, the neck, the chest."
The calf-roping contest was underway when Walker moved up the gravel to the arena, passing through the crowd of cowboys, shaking a hand there, giving a friendly rib-tickle here, then climbing into the booth to stand behind the announcer, Dusty Cleveland. Out on the tan sand, cowboys on racing horses came
from the arena's far end, chasing calves, roping them, throwing them to the ground and tying three legs together.
One cowboy roped a calf, there was a crack, like a bat breaking. It was the animal's leg. Looking down from his booth, Cleveland praised the cowboy for his sportsmanship in handling the mishap.
Saddle bronc riding was next. A cowboy, thrown to the sand, kneeled and grabbed his forehead, and when he took his hand away, blood spilled from his fingers. A gang of cowboys helped the injured man to his feet and walked him
from the arena as he clutched his head.
In the long, narrow, plank-sided chute along the near end of the arena, bucking horses waited their turns. When a rider was on a bronc's back and ready, a long gate was swung open and the horse vaulted onto the sand. Some horses were impatient. One jumped so violently in the chute that it fell on its back, its nose and feet pointing toward the night sky.
Walker left the announcer's booth and helped for a while with the broncs. Then, as he returned to the van, Cleveland could be heard explaining that the fallen bronc rider suffered a "bad laceration."
The ambulance carrying the bronc rider eased down the gravel from the arena as the bullfighter, now at the van, did deep knee bends. The announcer told the crowd that Joe Bell Sr. had just wrestled a steer to the ground in five seconds flat.
Walker finished stretching. Then, passing weary riders and men with pint bottles or tobacco tins in their hip pockets, he headed to the arena gate. The bull riders gathered along the rear of the chute, which now held the big bulls, bellowing, drooling saliva, smelling of their own wastes.
Cleveland announced the "Wrangler Clowns," and Skimmer Walker, who had been shaking out his leg muscles like a sprinter before a race, trotted with Hawkins and Workman and Licciardello through the arena gate and moved along the side of the chute to where the first bull waited.
Two cowboys stood by the gate, one ready to lift the latch, the other prepared to yank the gate open. Walker faced the left side of the gate, his feet spread like a base-runner preparing to steal second.
The big white gate flew open. The bull came out bucking. The rider flopped
from side to side and the bullfighters held back, letting the bull make his moves until the rider dropped off. Licciardello crouched in a heavily padded barrel, a human target should the bull decide to charge. Hawkins waited near the barrel, holding his big inner tube. A dummy with a George Bush mask stood beside the clown, propped up by a broomstick.
Cowboys in their hats and long-sleeved shirts lined the arena's fences, some sitting on the top rails, some standing right on the sand.
This bull bucked well, needing no prompting from the bullfighters. And when the bull had lost his rider, he made moves toward the fences, sending cowboys scrambling up the fence rails, away from the bull's horns. Each of the first four bulls did about the same, bucking well but choosing not to charge their fallen riders, demanding few of the bullfighters' talents.
The fifth bull was behind the gate ready to go. His rider, O.J. Jones, pumped with adrenalin and, like the other riders, shaking in anticipation, was settling onto the back of Number 117 when, up in the announcer's booth, Dusty Cleveland enunciated the name that demanded respect.
The big white bull with black spots and the foot-long horns came slamming out, looking big as a pickup truck, and Skimmer Walker, his feet spread, his hands out to the side, crouched to make a move.
Jalapeno dispatched his rider before the mandatory eight seconds. Now he stood tall, his head up, looking for something to charge.
T.J. Hawkins rolled out the big inner tube, and the bull lowered his head, shot forward and launched into the tube, sending it bounding down the center of the arena. The crowd cheered. Then the bull saw the George Bush dummy.
He tore into it, sending the rubber mask flying halfway across the sand as he turned toward the fence, sending cowboys scrambling up the fence rails, hooking one with his horn and tossing him off the fence.
But it had been a hot day, and bulls, like men, have moods. Jalapeno, Grant Harris' "excited rascal," called it a night, found the exit gate and, like a locomotive floating on cotton balls, galloped silently over the soft sand and disappeared into the night.
Unchallenged, the brave Jimmy Lee Walker eased through the rest of another rodeo, fit to fight bulls one more night in a career that may never end.