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The Finest in Crime and Suspense Short Fiction

Story Excerpts

The Moment of Truth
by John F. Dobbyn 

I remember waking in a drench of sweat, fear, and chills. That’s not unusual. It was Sunday morning. I slipped into the routine that was more like a sacred ritual to drive away the demons. Breakfast in my hotel room alone. A call from my manager, Miguel, to see that I could push through the fear yet another Sunday.

It was time to dress. My faithful Angelito appeared to see that every fold of my “suit of lights” was aligned to perfection.

Then a prayer to the Mother of God before the small icon in a tiny side room.

On time as always, my quadrilla arrived—the five who would each perform a role in my dance with death in the bullring that afternoon. We drove together to the great Plaza de Toros in Madrid.

We rode in silence, each of us in his own thoughts. That day, my mind was deluged with memories of what made this Sunday like no other.

I closed my eyes. I was again six, perhaps seven years old. I was living with my grandfather on the sprawling Rancho Huertes, where the bravest and fiercest bulls were bred to face matadors in the greatest plazas in Spain.

When I recall my grandfather, I silently say his name, Manuel Benites, with a respect and love beyond what any words could tell. In the corridas of his day, he wore the suit of lights with a courage and skill that was celebrated by true aficionados from one end of Spain to the other. He faced the bulls over three hundred times. Without fail, he brought to their feet, not just tourists and dilettantes, but the old men in the front row who could separate flair and trickery from true courage.

When he was gored by his three hundred and first bull, and he could no longer meet the physical demands on a matador, he was given a position of authority by the owner of the Rancho Huertes. I was no more than ten when he put the cape in my hands and took me into the rancho bullring. He let me work with the youngest bull calves, while he taught me what no other could.

I was seventeen when I first tasted the fear of standing alone, looking into the steaming eyes of
a four-year-old bull with one passion—to impale me on the points of his horns. Six months later, on my grandfather’s assurance that I would not be an embarrassment, I was signed to fight in a novillada, a bullfight for apprentice matadors, in the Plaza de Toros in Madrid. It is an honor that must ordinarily be earned over several years. Only my grandfather’s word could have won me the chance. The question that burned in all of our minds, my own as well, was whether or not I had that untested element of raw courage that would keep my feet planted motionless when only my skill with the cape could keep the horns of a five-year-old bull from piercing my flesh.

Every sound of the crowd faded from my ears on that first charge of the bull. The horns were wider and sharper than any I’d faced, but my feet held firm. I took the second pass with the cape. And the third. I’d survived the test. With each pass thereafter I brought the horns closer to my flesh. By the fifth pass, the bloody flank of the bull painted my suit with a crimson streak of honor. I saw the crowd on its feet. The shouts of “Olé!,” even from the old men in the first row, echoed through the plaza. But my eyes sought only one. My grandfather was smiling. He nodded to me, and my heart nearly burst.

I mention all of this, because during all of my learning years, my grandfather held one matador up to me as his successor in the hearts of the afficionados. When he spoke of the great Manetes, he had but one word. He always said quietly, “He is true.”

Whenever Manetes was appearing within a hundred miles of us, we were there in the front row. My grandfather would whisper, “Watch his eyes, watch his wrists, but most of all, watch his feet.”

In the four years from my novillada in Madrid, I met and killed over two hundred bulls in every major plaza in Spain, always with the respect for the courage of the bull my grandfather ingrained in me. By the grace of God, I moved up in the rankings until, on this very Sunday, I would share the corrida for the first time with just one other matador, my icon, Manetes.

My own schedule in the bullring had prevented me from seeing him for the previous two years. I had waited for this day for what seemed like

Our representatives drew two five-year-old bulls for each of us. By tradition, the senior matador, Manetes, would face the first bull.

The trumpet sounded. The far gate swung open. The largest bull I had ever seen thundered into the arena, filling the sudden silence with his snorting.

From behind a small wooden barrier in the bullring, I studied his fiery charges in every direction that drew his attention. I was sure that Manetes picked up on his tendency to hook with the right horn.

The first two phases of the death ritual were accomplished without incident. Manetes’ picador on horseback drove the long spiked lance into the high muscle on the back of the bull to lower the bull’s head. Next his banderillero planted six short barbed sticks in different parts of the massive muscle to correct the bull’s tendency to hook to one side.

Finally it arrived, what is known as the moment of truth. The bull was now at its most dangerous. The random fury would now be fully focused on the man standing alone in front of him, the matador, Manetes. Every charge, every thrust of the horns would be aimed at this one prey.

Manetes took the small scarlet cape in his left hand, and the sword in his right. He walked slowly, deliberately, defiantly to within ten feet of the black eyes blazing with fire. If he felt the fear that each matador must conquer at that moment, there was no sign of it.

He stood, taunting the bull with steeled calm. He held the cape low, beckoning the bull to penetrate his flesh. The charge came. As fluid as liquid, Manetes swept the horns past him with a glide of the cape. My heartbeat nearly ceased. It was as close to perfection as anything I’d seen on earth.

The second pass was even more breathtaking. I looked back at my grandfather’s face. He caught my eye with a smile. There were no words.

And then the third pass. Something jarred me to the base of my stomach. I thought I must be wrong, but the fourth pass only confirmed it. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. The Moment of Truth by John F. Dobbyn 

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