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The Brave Bulls

The Brave Bulls
New foreword by John Graves

A suspenseful novel about bullfighting in Mexico.

Series: Southwestern Writers Collection Series, The Wittliff Collections, Steven L. Davis, editor

Sales restrictions: Not for sale in British Commonwealth (except Canada) or Europe
January 2002
This book is out of print and no longer available.
296 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 | illus. |

One of Texas's true renaissance men, Tom Lea (1907-2001) was already a noted artist, muralist, and book illustrator when he published his first novel, The Brave Bulls, in 1949. This suspenseful story of bullfighting in Mexico, elegantly illustrated by the author, spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was hailed by Time magazine as the best first novel of the year. It also won the Carr P. Collins Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, went through numerous reprints and translations, and became a 1951 movie starring Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn.

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • The Brave Bulls

Tom Lea's other books include both fiction (The Wonderful Country, The Primal Yoke, and The Hands of Cantú) and nonfiction (The King Ranch, A Picture Gallery, and In the Crucible of the Sun). He also served as a correspondent for Life magazine in the South Pacific during World War II. At the end of his life, he became friends with soon-to-be President George W. Bush, who used Lea's sunrise side of the mountain image in his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention.


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The city of Cuenca is rimmed around three sides by blue mountains. It sits down in a valley cup, mellow in the sunshine of Mexican December. The wind blew this morning and a lot of us were worried, when we went by to get our tickets at the Plaza Club, for fear the wind might last and spoil the fight, but it died down a while ago and left just a touch of breeze and perfect weather for the men with the capes.

During the week the curved wall of the bullring is dead and lonesome, a big cement circle around nothing at all, with only the wind to rattle the red gate under the sunbleached letters that say PLAZA DE TOROS CUENCA 1889. But on Sunday afternoons during the season the curve of the wall comes to life. It reaches around in a big sweep like a magnet and pulls into itself something alive, full of juice and strong feeling.

The day of a bullfight there are pennants alternating red and yellow around the top of the wall so you'll know there's a corrida even if you can't read, and on a pole over the main gate that day they hoist a yellow flag lettered with one red word—TOROS. That's alive too when the breeze lifts it and it moves in the sunlight.

It's a quarter to four when you come down the street to the ring. The minute you get out of the cab you can feel something in the air, with the crowd milling toward the entrance there in the bright sun, and the hubbub of all the voices.

You walk past the lines at the ticket windows into the crowd with the hawkers all yelling; smoke from the frying tacos on the push wagons by the gate and smoke from cornhusk cigarros put the real Mexican twist to the flavor of the air.

The souvenir banderillas the vendors carry above their heads make gaudy clusters of color bobbing through the crowd. You notice the yellow card hooked on the barbed end of each banderilla. A matador's face is printed on the card and under the face there's the name LUIS BELLO. That's who you came to see this afternoon. Luis Bello.

A brass band perched on the outside balcony above the main gate strikes up the "March of Zacatecas." It fits your feeling of being glad you're there with the noise and the color and the expectation moving all over you as you pass from the sunlight into the blue shade cast on the big wall. For a moment you're guilty about feeling so good when the kid with skimmed milk eyeballs holds out his hand at the moving crowd, and you pass the man who can't move because he hasn't got any legs, and even with the brass band going hear the old lady with the sores whining for pennies.

At the bottleneck entrance to the stairs leading up to your section of the stands you lose the beat of the band and get past all the beggars, and then the ticket takers, and scuff up the concrete steps pinned in the crowd to the top where the bottleneck opens out suddenly and there you are high up in the curve of seats that look down on the circle of sand.

You rent a cushion for fifty centavos and carry it under your arm, following the man who has your ticket stub down the aisle and through the gate in the rail that marks off general admission from ringside, to where you climb over the pipe-iron back of your first-row seat and settle down on your cushion.

The life of Cuenca, high and low, has poured with you into the plaza, filling it to the brim. As you take your seat, the crowd is in the last moments of savoring the flavor of itself and its rich expectation before impatience sets in.

On the shady side where seats are more expensive the crowd is genial, but more genteel than on the sunny side where people have louder fun cracking peanuts and drinking beer. Over there a raucous gang of regulars high in the stands gives each flashy babe it spots entering the plaza a chant of Ole-Ole-Ole! timed with every step she takes in getting to her seat. If her skirt is tight going up steps, and she smiles, the Oles are deafening, followed by applause.

Some joker over there brought an old sock half full of dry calcimine powder, and you see him wing it into the next section for a laugh. A thick puff of green dust flowers up over the hit; the outraged target, marked with green, grabs the sock and slams it back into the crowd. It flies back and forth, ending each flight with a green explosion while the crowd roars, until somebody hides the thing where it falls.

The management sends out one of its handy men carrying a tall sign. It says that throwing bottles or cushions into the ring is punishable by a fine of ninety-nine pesos and ninety-nine centavos by order of the police, and it brings a great hoot of applause while it wobbles solemnly all around the ring. During its exit the rooster imitators—there are hundreds at a bullfight—begin crowing until the stands are one big barnyard.

Out of this rooster medley grows the first impatient round of applause and shouting for the show to begin. It dies down with people looking at their watches and shifting in their seats. The wags who stay awake nights thinking up cracks to yell in the plaza on Sunday warm up with a few bellowing openers about what they paid their money to see this afternoon.

In front of you a concrete parapet bumps your knees; its other side drops straight down eight feet to the level of the ring. An armspread out from the wall is the barrera, the red wooden fence built all around the plaza. Inside the shoulder-high barrera is the bullring proper. The passageway between it and the wall of the stands is the callejon, the alley, just below you, where all the extra personnel serving the corrida will keep out of the way, and where now they are making certain final preparations for the show.

You notice the four narrow openings in the barrera. In front of each one is a wooden shield built parallel to the fence and out from it about the thickness of your body, so that a man can squeeze around it, but not a bull. These shielded openings are called burladeros, and each one is in a different quadrant of the ring. As you look over the parapet you're almost directly above the important one where the matadors will stand when they're not working with the bulls, and where they'll exchange their fighting capes for muletas and swords before they go in to kill.

Swordhandlers and their assistants carrying fancy leather sword cases, wicker baskets full of folded capes and muletas, towels and clay water jugs, come walking around the callejon and put down their loads behind the burladero below. Carefully folded lengthwise, the stiff rose-colored capes with their bright yellow linings are hung over the barrera. The heart-shaped pieces of scarlet woolen serge are shaken out. You watch the experts fold each cloth over the notched stick that forms the muleta handle, fastening it by impaling the serge on a metal point at one end of the stick, then pulling the cloth tight to the other end of the handle where a thumbscrew is set in to hold it. Folded around their handles the ready muletas are laid back into the baskets, and the swords are taken from their tooled cases. The handlers pull them by their red hilts from their limp leather scabbards, give them a final check, push them back into the thin sheathes, and set them against the back side of the barrera, ready.

These servants of the matadors are taking no chances on being unready if the wind comes up again: they're filling their mouths from the water jugs and spewing the lower parts of some of the capes, to make them heavier and less likely to swing the wrong way in a breeze. And so that the cloth will pick up some sand and a little extra stiffness and weight, the handlers use their feet to scuff the lower margins of the capes upon the ground.A bullring official has tied a string along the back of the barrera farther to your right, and over the string he's hooking the barbs of the approved pairs of matched banderillas for the afternoon's performance. They're bright against the blood-red planking, each pair colored with a different combination of gaudy tissue-paper frills.

New faces are showing above the barrera all around the callejon. Soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders and policemen wearing big badges and pistols are taking their posts behind the fence, to keep enthusiasm or protest within certain bounds this afternoon. Two photographers have their loaded cameras propped on the top plank of the barrera. Behind one of the shields built in the callejon radio technicians with headphones are setting up equipment for a broadcast. There are a lot of drifting observers, too, mostly in snappy sport suits and sunglasses, who for reasons known or unknown to the management have been allowed into the callejon to rub shoulders with the workings of the corrida. These ground-floor show-offs, waving to their friends in the stands, will be moving much less calmly later if a bull jumps the barrera and gets into the callejon with them. Then they'll be crowding the cops right out of the burladeros.

In the sun over on the opposite side of the ring there are some sections of the barrera that are really gates when they're pushed open on their hinges at certain times during the corrida. They're all in front of passageways leading under the stands to the patios and corrals attached to the ring. The largest is lettered CUADRILLAS on the arch over its entrance, where the matadors and their cuadrillas, their troupes of assistant toreros, form up for the parade at the beginning of the corrida and enter the ring. One of the double gates under the archway is partly open now, and for the first time you catch a glimpse of the bullfighters in their silks gathered in the shady passageway, waiting.

Over to the left there's a big-bolted red door marked TORILES. Bullfighters call it the Gate of the Fright. It's where the bulls come out. A man is hanging a handful of green and gold ribbons high on the wall by the side of the door; another is tacking a paper sign on the door itself. Those ribbons are divisas, silk streamers fitted on a barb the man will jab into each bull's shoulder, from above, as it comes out of the toril. Every breeder has his own colors to show off proudly, as racing stables have silks. Green and gold are the ribbons of old Don Tiburcio Balbuena of Las Astas. When the man with the tack hammer moves away, the sign on the door says 74 TRAMILLERO. That's the number and the name of the first Las Astas bull that will come tearing out of the toril in a few minutes now.

There are two more openings into the ring. The one marked PICADORES is for the mounted men with their lances; the other is the ARRASTRE where the dead bulls leave the plaza. The picadors' lances are propped against the wall by their gate now, steel points shining in the sun. Between them and the arrastre the callejon is crowded with monos sabios, bullring servants in red shirts and caps, waiting for their chores when the corrida begins.All these details of the bullring of Cuenca, this sunlit and shaded stage for a drama no one can foretell, are touched now with a kind of magic color and hum from the crowd.

A wave of applause rises up, and you turn to see the President of the Plaza, with his two technical advisers and his bugler, taking his place in the central box marked AUTORIDAD high in the stands at your back. The crowd is not applauding the officials for their popularity: it's cheering because now the referees have come and the show can start.

"O say Mister Judge where have you been?" a fan bawls from the sunny side.

"He overslept," squawks an enthusiast waving a tequila bottle.

And then the band comes in from the balcony, the sun shining on its big brass horns high up there on the rim, of the plaza, and it starts to play, play "La Virgen de la Macarena," paso doble of the ancient bull festivals of Sevilla, the old Andaluz song of bravado in the minor key that brings a roar from the throats of the crowd and sinks into the hearts of bullfighters.

The cuadrilla gate is wide open now and there are the three matadors in their silks and gold, lined up in front of their men, three abreast, ready to march out into the ring. The embroidered capes draped over their left shoulders are all gathered about their waists and held tight with their left hands and they stand very still now listening to what the Macarena says with the sun in their eyes.

The first bars are like the strides of a proud man stepping out to accept a challenge. As he walks the music weaves a hollow echo into his steps and doubt takes hold of his heart hearing that echo mock him as he goes. The drumbeats measure his footfalls then on some darkening lonesome road where the music casts a black shape against the sky, and he is afraid. In the silence a trumpet speaks out all alone.

The trumpet player tilts the horn high over the rim of the plaza up there in the sun and the notes he makes come from far beyond a humble trumpeter of Cuenca. They arch out into the air like hope, clear and sweet, to climb and turn and fall at last into the quietness encircled by the big curved wall.

You do not escape the portent says the trumpet. There is no way I know of walking past the end of the road or sing. ing past the final silence. There's only the way to walk while the light lasts and the road lasts and the song lasts. Walking bravely is the glory. The black shape itself may be a glory when a man is not afraid and can let his heart reach up and up with the trumpet until it reaches the last highest and clearest long note, clean and perfect above the bullring of Cuenca, above the rim of the sierras.

And the trumpet having spoken, the music takes up the steps of the man walking out to meet a challenge straight and proud on the road still lit with sunlight, the challenge yet unmet, the footfalls unfinished in the final measures of the song of "La Virgen de la Macarena."

Half heard in the applause, the president's bugler blows the five fanfare notes that signal the corrida to begin. Redshirted monos run pushing open the hinged barrera in front of the cuadrilla gate, the band strikes up a march, and here come the toreros in step with the music, left arms wrapped in the capes they hold about their waists with their left hands, right arms swinging out in time to their easy level-eyed swagger, stepping as if they were reaching out with their toes to find and feel the smooth sand through the soft soles of their slippers.

The three matadors come first in line, cuadrillas following in file after their masters. Three picadors on their padded nags ride abreast behind the twelve men marching, and bringing up the rear are gaily harnessed mules, their driver afoot with the reins and a whip. Against the sunlit sand and red barrera the color of the parade sings out in gold and sky blue, lilac and silver, crimson, green, orange, pink and purple. The scarlet pompons on the wide beaver hats of the picadors ride like high notes over the brilliance and even the black mules have fluttering flags set in the tops of their polished collars.

That's Luis Bello to the right there in front, and the welcome he gets is louder than the music. With waves of sound pounding down on him, Bello looks up from his level-eyed march, and smiles. The crowd stands and roars.

Out of the sunlight into the shadow they cross the ring straight toward you. A step from the barrera the matadors stop, the-parade halts. The bullfighters make their bows to the Judge, inclining their heads forward gravely, touching their hats before they straighten up, setting the black monteras firmly over their brows again. The mules swing out to the left to leave the plaza by the arrastre and the picadors spur the nags for their gate.

The embroidered capes are handed over the barrera to swordhandlers who toss them up for friends in the first row seats to spread for display on the parapet wall above the callejon. Toreros take up the plain fighting capes from the barrera, swinging them open going to their places. Two men from the cuadrillas walk with capes across their arms to their stations in the burladeros at the sides of the ring.

When the matadors have taken a bow, acknowledging the applause that encircles them, and stepped back behind the barrera, they wet their mouths from the water jugs, take up their capes, and stand together in the burladero just below. You try to read their faces by the lines of their glittering backs as they wait, peering across the ring toward the red door of the toril.

The men with the smoothers finish erasing the last mark of the parade from the sand of the ring, leaving the tan circle empty and untracked. The only noise in the plaza is a hushed hum. The man by the toril is ready with the divisa. There's sweat in the palms of your hands. Then the bugle blows and they unbolt the red door.

At every bullfight in Cuenca, Eladio Gomez stood behind a plank shield built by the toril door where the bulls came out. He always wore a brown fedora hat and a brown leather jacket and he always stood there in the same place, a solemn brown fixture unnoticed in the drama that surged around him. Leaning against the planks with his hat brim pulled down over his eyes, Eladio Gomez looked considerably less than an implement of fate. Yet he was. He owned the bullring.

As its sole impresario Eladio Gomez built all the bullfights there out of his own brain and cashbox. In so doing he was a weaver of destinies, a promoter of triumphs, an agent of calamities, a contractor in the blood of bulls and men. Yet Gomez certainly did not think of himself in a dramatic role. His thoughts were usually practical.

He enjoyed certain other features of living, especially in his earlier years, but now in middle age he had only two real passions, money and the bulls. If asked, he would surely say he loved the bulls the best, but that would hardly be true. In Gomez the two passions had merged so that they were intermixed and blended for him into a calling. He devoted himself to keeping the blend of his two passions balanced; whatever he accomplished as a promoter of brave spectacles, he did at the lowest possible cash cost to Eladio Gomez, in hope of the highest profit. The figures old Lara totted up in the account book at the box office on Monday were as stirring to Gomez as the figures he had watched in his plaza the day before. A happy man in his calling, Eladio Gomez liked to complain of its difficulties, its risks, the hardships it worked upon his health and his state of mind. The frightful specter of losing money was of course the hardship; the rest of it he loved.

The elements that go into an afternoon of bullfighting share many of the complicated and mystical elements of a work of art. Such an afternoon may be anything from a riotous fiasco to a poignant drama of great symbolic portent. There's no predicting. There are, however, simple safeguards that reduce the chances of a fiasco: as with any art form, the materials that go into a bullfight have much to do with the shaping of its final quality.

In the gathering of materials for the dramas of which he was proprietor, Eladio Gomez partook of the attributes of an artist himself. Into his bullring he mixed certain ingredients, brought together certain men and certain bulls, and a crowd of a certain attitude and spirit which he tried to shape, and from these ingredients he created the atmosphere out of which the success or failure of his dramas grew. The motives of Eladio Gomez as an artist were passionately commercial. But the end result of his creative efforts at times passionately transcended commercialism; it was this that fascinated Eladio Gomez with the bulls.

The chain of events that led him to the creation of the corrida of December Fourth had their beginnings on Hidalgo Street in Cuenca on a hazy November morning. Upon that morning, finding the bottle in his desk drawer empty, Gomez left his office and walked a block to the Plaza Club for his ten o'clock tequila. It is in such completely ordinary and explainable actions that the weavers of destiny begin their unseen patterns.

Gomez's walk to the Plaza Club that morning was a mystic occurrence. At the precise moment he stepped up to the Plaza bar, Luis Bello, a matador with a hangover, took two aspirin tablets before he went to his uncle's funeral in Guerreras four hundred and thirty kilometers from Cuenca; and a black bull with the tassel missing from his tail licked up the last grain of cracked corn in his stone trough, tossed his head to dislodge a blackbird sitting on his shoulder, and moved to the shade of a giant nopal cactus in a stone-fenced pasture almost seven hundred kilometers from the Plaza Club. It is remarkable that such an unremarkable man as Eladio Gomez should, in going after a drink of tequila, begin to assume the role of an implement of fate for a famous man and a black bull utterly unaware of each other's existence.

Rufino Vega and old Alberto Iriarte were standing at the bar when Gomez walked up and put his foot on the rail.

"Good morning, Eladio. We were speaking of you."

"Good morning, gentlemen. What were you saying?"

"Naturally we were wondering what you are confecting for us these coming Sundays."

"The situation is difficult," said Gomez, shaking his head. He turned to Carlos behind the bar and ordered a tequila. The first swallow burned a sharp trail down his throat, and the heat spread down through his middle, right out to the silver buckle on his belt. "It is hard to get bulls, gentlemen. And a number of toreros are not eager to sign this early for any appearance in Cuenca until their richer contracts are scheduled. It is our misfortune here in Cuenca to take what is left."

"We have misfortune in the matter of the bulls, all right," boomed old Alberto. "It is painful to remember recent scandals. I may tell you it is the general feeling that our friend Eladio Gomez might improve his cards."

Gomez's stiff face gave no indication that the Spaniard's words were as hot to his insides as the tequila.

"Just how do you propose this improvement, Don Alberto?"

"Our city of Cuenca should be enabled to witness, occasionally, a real corrida of bulls. The truth is that when we have good bulls we watch cowards and incompetents kill them; and when we have a brave man in Cuenca he finds himself waving his cloth across the face of a cart ox. It is the ancient complaint. You must complain to yourself about it."

"May I ask, Don Alberto, if you believe it possible to put a clause in a contract that will make a man brave? That will give him style? And may I also ask if you believe it possible for me, owner of one of the modest rings out in the states of the Republic, to compete in price with the immense plazas that pay criminal sums to get all the first class bulls?"

In his heat Eladio Gomez asked Carlos for another tequila.

"My friend," said Iriarte, "it is unjust to blame an impresario for everything. But he gets the blame. As a penalty of his position, his financial interest in the brave festival. Now, it is no personal criticism against you when I say I hope to see a real man against a real bull when I attend your plaza."

"My effort is to provide that spectacle. Bookings are going forward. They promise well."

"Who will lead off on the Day of Santa Barbara?" asked Rufino Vega.

It had worried Eladio Gomez for some time. He did not know. The date of the opening of the real season in Cuenca was still blank, December Fourth, just twenty days ahead.

"I'm working on it. It will be good." The impresario finished his second tequila with a gulp, and wiped his mouth.

"But who?"

For no reason at all, then, when his mind reached out for a name, any good name, Eladio Gomez said, "I'm trying to sign Luis Bello."

"Good for you!" snorted old Iriarte. "Can you get him?"

"I don't know yet," said Gomez, truthfully. He hadn't tried.

"Get him. And what bulls?" pursued the rich old Spaniard.

"Maybe Tierra Negra, or Buenpaso," said Gomez, again truthfully. He had contracted for such bulls.

"Bello deserves better than that," declared the fat Rufino.

Gomez scowled. "It's not all settled yet."

Iriarte put his hand on Gomez's shoulder. "We remember Bello killing his second bull here last February, eh, Eladio? That was one of Bello's afternoons!"

"May I mention it was also one of ours?" Gomez asked.

"Ai, Eladio. Of course we give you thanks!" He showed his false teeth under his white mustaches. "Have another drink."

Gomez touched his empty glass. "I seldom take even a second, before noon. Thank you. I have to get back to the office."

He paid Carlos for his own two tequilas and walked out into Hidalgo Street where the sun had burned away the morning haze, and he stepped through strips of cool shade and warm light along the sidewalk back to the sign that read EMPRESA DE TOROS CUENCA.

He opened the door and walked past blurred rotogravure portraits of smiling matadors into the dimness of the big room. Behind a railing and a box office window sat old Lara on his high stool at his high desk, his bald head and spectacles shining in the light of one unshaded bulb hang ing on a thin wire from the ceiling over him. He was sorting books of tickets. Gomez went through a swinging gate in the railing and walked over to his desk where a man in overalls stood waiting.

"Listen Sanchez, the ring needs paint. I am offering you the work because you will go easy on the price. Here is a list of what is necessary. You got a man for sign lettering?"

"Yes senor."

"The box offices need lettering and the signs on the cuadrillas and so forth look bad. But nothing doing unless you give me your best consideration. It may be too expensive to paint in front of the ringside rail. Anyway bring me your figures. We got to start."

"Yes senor," said Sanchez. He left.

Gomez sat down at his desk and turned on the lamp. It threw a queer light into the dusty glass eyes of the stuffed bull's head that loomed out from the wall over the desk, the bull that killed Cayetano Chavez in '36. Gomez looked like a gnome sitting there with his brown hat on in the dim light under the bull's head. He leaned back in his chair, nursing his feelings against fools like Iriarte and that fat Vega. A belch from the two tequilas broke the silence.

"Anybody want me, Lara?"

"The bills of lading for the Buenpaso bulls are here. And Santana was on the phone. Said he would call later."

That Santana coyote that gobbles money, thought Eladio Gomez. He eats my money and makes my propaganda but he eats better than he makes. He better make some propa. ganda soon. To be just, there was something to what that rich old Spanish son of—

The battered nickel-plated French phone on his desk jangled, and he picked it up.

"Yes, Senor Colonel! Clearly. I am always attentive. Exactly. Exactly as you wish. Your co-operation is magnificent. Of course I will send them. It is a pleasure, an honor. Until I see you, Senor Colonel."

And that army coyote that eats my tickets, thought Gomez. Eats my tickets and makes my "military protection"—such protection—at the plaza. That coyote with the big bite.

"Lara, fix up twelve front-row season passes for Colonel Villalobos and put them in an envelope with his name on it." Gomez leaned back in his chair again, clasped his hands on the back of his neck under his hat brim, and sighed.

Why this morning did I happen to say Luis Bello, that high-priced bastard, thought Gomez. They reached for it like candy, those two grandstand Senecas that know so much sitting up there where there are no horns but the kind that grow on cuckolds' heads.

That Bello was something the last time he was here, all right. He lays that sword in like he was killing the Antichrist. But too expensive. Too goddamned expensive.

He sat silent for several minutes, while money and the bulls fought a battle. Maybe the double ten o'clock tequila upset the balance, and carried the field of battle. Some unaccustomed element that morning brought up reinforcements for the bulls. With his face solemnly set as if nothing had happened, Eladio Gomez reached for the phone, reluctantly.

"Young lady, get me long distance. Mexico City."



“This is bullfighting from the inside, the way it looks to the people who make it a profession, and not even Ernest Hemingway at his best has ever done a better job of getting the whole thing on paper.”
New York Times Book Review

“The Brave Bulls has long been considered a classic of Southwestern literature. The writing is intensely visual and precise, the narrative stirring, and the characters both quirky and engaging. . . . Tom Lea writes with a painter’s eye and a deep affection for Mexican culture.”
James Magnuson, Director, James A. Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas at Austin