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An essay by Morley Roberts

My Friend El Toro

Title:     My Friend El Toro
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

It is not everyone who can make friends with a bull, and it is not every bull that one can make friends with. Yet next to one or two horses, about which I could spin long yarns, El Toro, the big brindled bull of Los Guilucos Ranch, Sonoma County, California, is certainly nearest my heart. He was my friend, and sometimes my companion; he had a noble character for fighting, and in spite of his pugnacity he was amiability itself to most human beings. His final end, too, fills me with a sense of pathos, and enrages me against those who owned him. They were obviously incapable of understanding him as I did.

When I went up to Los Guilucos from San Francisco to take up the position of stableman on that ranche, I had little notion of the full extent of my duties. What these were is perhaps irrelevant in the present connection. And yet it was because I had to work so incredibly hard, being often at it from six in the morning to eight or nine o'clock at night, that I made particular friends with El Toro, to give him his Spanish name. In all that western and south-western part of the United States there are remnants of Spanish or Mexican in the common talk. For California was once part of Mexico. El Toro became my friend and my refuge: when I was driven half-desperate by having ten important things to do at once he often came in and helped me to preserve an equal mind. I have little doubt that I should have discovered how to work this by myself, but as a matter of fact I was put up to some of his uses by the man whose place I took. He showed me all I had to do, and lectured me on the character of the hard-working lady who owned the place; and when I was dazed and stood wondering how one man could do all the stableman was supposed to accomplish between sunrise and sundown, Jack said, "And besides all this there is a bull!" He said it so oddly and so significantly that my heart sank. I imagined a very fierce and ferocious animal fit for a Spanish bull-ring, a sharp-horned Murcian good enough to try the nerve of the best matador who ever faced horns and a vicious charge. Then he took me round the barn and opened a stable. In it El Toro was tied to a manger by a rope and ring through his nose: he greeted us with a strangled whistle as he still lay down. "When you are hard driven good old El Toro will help you," said Jack, as he sat down on the bull's big shoulders and started to scratch his curl with a little piece of wood which had a blunt nail in it. As I stood El Toro chewed the cud and was obviously delighted at having his curl combed.

The departing Jack delivered me another lecture on the uses of a mild and amiable but fighting bull on a ranche where a man was likely to be worried to death by a lady who had no notion of how much a man ought to do in a day. When he had finished he invited me to make friends with El Toro by also sitting on his back and scratching him with the blunt nail. I did as I was told, and though El Toro twisted his huge head round to inspect me he lay otherwise perfectly calm while I went on with his toilet. He evidently felt that I was an amiable character, and one well adapted to act as his own man. His views of me were confirmed when I brought him half a bucket of pears from the big orchard. With a parting slap and a sigh of regret which spoke well both for him and the bull, Jack went away to "fix" himself for travel. I was left in charge.

How hard I worked on that Sonoma County ranch I can hardly say. I had horses in the stable and horses outside. The cattle outside were mine. Three hundred sheep I was responsible for. Some young motherless foals I nursed. I milked six cows. I chopped wood. I cleaned buggies. I drove wagons and carriages and cleaned and greased them. Sometimes I stood in the middle of the great barn-lot or barnyard and tore my hair in desperation. I had so much to attend to that only the strictest method enabled me to get through it. And, as Jack had told me would happen, my method was knocked endways by the requirements of the lady who was my "boss." What a woman wants done is always the most important thing on earth. She used to ask me to do up her acre of a garden in between times when the sheep wanted water or twenty horses required hay. She was amiable, kindly, but she never understood. At such times who could blame me if I went to the bull's stable when I saw her coming. Though the bull was the sweetest character on the ranch, she went in mortal terror of him. She would try to find me in the horse stable, but she would not come near El Toro for her very life. It was better to sit quietly with him and recover my equanimity while she called. I knew her well enough to know that in a quarter of an hour something else of the vastest importance would engage her attention and I should be free to attend more coolly to my own work.

Yet sometimes she stuck to my track so closely that there was nothing for me to do but to turn El Toro loose. Then I could say, "Very well, madam, but in the meantime I must go after the bull." She knew what the bull being loose meant; he carried devastation wherever he went. He was the greatest fighter in the whole county. I had to get my whip and my fastest horse to try and catch him. I can hardly be blamed if I did not catch him till the evening. For in that way I got a wild kind of holiday on horseback and was saved from insanity. Certainly, when El Toro got away on the loose and was looking for other bulls to have a row with I could think of nothing else. Sometimes he got free by the rope rotting close up to his ring. In that case he went headlong. If he took the rope with him he sometimes trod on it and gave himself a nasty check. Usually, however, he got it across his big neck and kept it from falling to the ground. He never stopped for any gate. When he saw one he gave a bellow, charged it and went through the fragments with me after him. If I was really anxious to get him back at once I usually caught him within a mile. When I wanted a rest I only succeeded in turning him five or six miles away, after he had thrashed a bull or two belonging to other ranchers. No fence was any use to keep him out or in. On one occasion he broke into a barn in which a rash young bull was kept. When the row was over that barn stood sadly in need of repair: and so did the young pedigree bull. I may say that on this particular occasion El Toro got away entirely by himself, and I only knew he was free when I found the door of his stable in splinters.

There was a magnificent difference between El Toro as I sat on him and scratched him with a nail and as he was when he turned himself loose for a happy day in the country. In the stable he was as mild as milk. I could have almost imagined him purring like a cat. He chewed the cud and made homely sloppy noises with his tongue, and regarded me with a calm, bovine gaze, which was as gentle as that of any pet cow's. I could have fallen asleep beside him. It is reported that my predecessor Jack, on one occasion, came home much the worse for liquor and was found reclining on El Toro. There was not a soul on the ranch who dared disturb the loving couple. But when the rope was parted and El Toro loped down the road to seek a row as keenly as any Irishman on a fair day, he was another guess sort of an animal. He carried his tail in the air and bellowed wildly to the hills. He threw out challenges to all and sundry. He gave it to be understood that the world and the fatness thereof were his. This was no mere braggadocio; it was not the misplaced confidence of a stall-fed bull in his mere weight; he really could fight, and though he was only on the warpath about once a month, there was not a bull in the valley which had not retained in his thick skull and muddy brains some recollection of El Toro's prowess. The only trouble about this, from my pet bull's point of view, was that he could rarely get up a row. Most of his possible enemies fled when he tooted his horn and waltzed into the arena through a smashed fence. He was magnificent and he was war incarnate.

In that country, which is a hard-working country, there is really very little sport. Further south in California, the ease-loving Spanish people who remain among the Americans still love music and the dance. We worked, and worked hard; only Sundays brought us a little surcease from toil. All our notions of sport centred on our bull. I had many Italian co-workers, some Swedes, and an odd citizen of the United States. All alike agreed in being proud of El Toro. We yearned to match him against any bull in the State. Sometimes of a Sunday morning, after he had devastated the country and was back again, he held a kind of _levee_. The Italians brought him pears as I sat on him in triumph and combed him in places where he had not been wounded. He always forgot that I had come behind him and laced his tough hide with my stock-whip. He bore no malice, but took his fruit like a good child. I think he was almost as proud of himself as we were. Certainly we were proud of him. As for me, had I not ridden desperate miles after him: had I not interviewed outraged owners of other bulls and broken fences: had I not played the diplomat or the bully according to the treatment which seemed indicated? He was, properly speaking, my bull; I did not care if I had to spend three days mending our home gates and other's alien fences.

Yes, it was a fine thing to gallop through that warm, bright, Californian air after El Toro, with the brown hills on either side and its patches of green vineyard brightening daily. It was freedom after the toil of axle-greasing and the slow work with sheep. It was better than grinding axes and trying to cut the tough knobs of vine stumps: better than grooming horses and milking cows. It made me think even more of the great Australian plains and of the Texas prairie and the round up. _Ay de mi_, I remember it now, sometimes, and I wish I was on horseback, swinging my whip and uttering diabolic yells, significant of the freedom of the spirit as I rush after the spirit of El Toro. For my pet, my brindled fighter, my own El Toro, whom I combed so delicately with a bent nail, for whom I gathered buckets of bruised but fat Californian pears, is now no more. They told me, when I visited Los Guilucos seven years ago, that he became difficult, morose, hard to handle, and they sold him. They sold this joyous incarnation of the spirit of battle and the pure joy of life for a mean and miserable thirteen dollars! When I think of it I almost fall to tears. So might some coward son of the seas sell a battleship for ten pounds because it was not suitable for a ferry-boat or a river yacht. I would rather a thousand times have paid the thirteen dollars myself and have taken him out to fight his last Armageddon and then have shot him on the lonely hills from which all other bulls had fled. These mean-souled, conscienceless moneymakers, who could not understand so brave, so fine a spirit, sold him to a Santa Rosa butcher! Shame on them, I say. I am sorry I ever revisited the Valley of the Seven Moons to hear such lamentable news. It made me unhappy then, makes me unhappy now. My only consolation is that once, and twice, and thrice, and yet again, I gave El Toro the chance of finding happiness in the conflict. And when I left Los Guilucos, before I returned to England, I sat upon his huge shoulders and scratched him most thoroughly, while ever and again I offered him a juicy and unbruised pear. On that occasion I pulled him the best fruit, and left windfalls for the ranging, greedy hogs. And as I fed and scratched him he lay on his hunkers in great content, and made pleasant noises as he remembered the day before. On that day, owing to the kindly feeling of me, his true and real friend, he had had a great time three miles towards Glenallen, and had beaten a newly-imported bull out of all sense of self-importance. He was pleased with himself, pleased with me, pleased with the world.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: My Friend El Toro