At some point along a narrow country road which appeared no different than any other point, Vara abruptly turned the car off the rutted pavement to bump over the verge and out across the uneven surface of an empty field. Ahead, a darker line resolved itself into towering, ancient trees that appeared to line a watercourse of some sort. Vara pulled into the shadow of the first of these, braked, set the emergency, killed the lights, and cut the ignition. He smacked the steering wheel with satisfaction. "You remember the place, Rusito?"
"You were, perhaps, a little too drunk. Over there," he gestured to the trees across what had turned out to be a sizeable stream, "is where you had your baptism. It should serve as well for Senor...for Napoleone, no?"
Vara was already on his way out of the car. Without looking at Solo, Illya slid after him. Curious, perplexed, Solo opened the door on his side and followed. He found Vara rummaging around in the big car's capacious trunk. He seemed to be fighting with large swaths of cloth that shone pink and gold in the trunk light, rolling them into a smaller bundle. When he was satisfied, he slammed the trunk lid down, tucked the bundled cloth under his arm, and said again, "Vamanos," and headed toward the stream.
At the water's edge, Solo was startled to see both Vara and Illya begin to remove their shoes. "What is it we're going to do?" he asked, reaching for his own.
"Swim," Illya said simply. Piece by piece, he shed everything he was wearing, as Vara did, making a neat small pile on the grass. Illya's holstered U.N.C.L.E. Special was tucked out of sight in the middle of his clothes. Shrugging, Solo followed suit.
"You know," he said, "we really ought to stay in touch..."
He stopped. Illya was holding up his pen/communicator, that irritating "I already thought of that" look on his face. He opened his mouth, settled the communicator firmly between his teeth, and turned toward the stream.
Naked, their bodies a pale glimmer in the darkness under the trees, they slid down the steep bank and into the water. It was heart-stoppingly cold, and deep enough even at the edge that Solo found himself sliding entirely underwater. Surfacing, gasping at the sudden bone- deep chill, he shook his hair out of his eyes and saw Illya and Vara already out away from the bank, pushing strongly for the far shore. Vara was guiding the floating cloth bundle ahead of him.
Solo caught up with a few strokes. The current was strong. This was a mountain stream, which accounted for the iciness of its water, rushing down to join the Rio Guadalaquivir on the plain below. But all three men swam strongly enough to avoid being swept more than a hundred yards or so downstream before they reached the opposite bank. Emerging from the water, shaking their bodies like sodden puppies, they were grateful for the caress of the warm spring air against their goose-pimpled skin.
"There," Vara said suddenly. "Mira, Rusito. Do you see?"
Solo followed the man's pointing finger and froze in his tracks. Less than fifty yards from where they were standing, heads lowered as they grazed on the lush grass of their pasture, was a herd of large, ominous black bodies, moving slowly over the grass, giving off a combined heat Solo would have sworn he could feel across the intervening distance.
He grabbed Illya's wet-slick arm. "You're crazy," he said.
"Keep your voice down, Napoleon," Illya said calmly. "They seldom attack when they're in a herd, but it's probably not a good idea to attract too much attention to yourself."
"Those are fighting bulls."
"Actually," Illya said patiently, "they're cows."
"Am I supposed to be comforted by that?"
"Probably not. A fighting bull gets his size and his endurance from his sire. He gets his fighting instincts from his dam. These are very dangerous animals, Napoleon."
Vara was moving quietly back in the direction from which they'd come, keeping close to the riverbank. As he followed, with Illya, Napoleon Solo soon discovered what the Spaniard was doing. There would be a path, well-worn, to a gentler slope to the water, where the animals would come to drink. Vara, finding a path through the grass, checked it out, shook his head, and continued to explore. Eventually, he ran into the right one. Here, the grassless path dipped down to the water on a very gentle incline. "Aqui," Vara said, satisfied.
He looked up, casting his eyes around, and settled on a large tree with thick, wide- spreading branches that overhung the trail a little way from the river. "There," he said, and started toward it.
Climbing trees had never been one of Solo's favorite pastimes. Climbing trees when he was naked, wet, and shaking with cold had, not too surprisingly, even less appeal. And skills learned in childhood of shinning up the rough-barked trunks of Long Island trees were made useless by his nakedness. In the interests of preserving the possibility of future progeny, as well as a much-favored pastime, entirely new methods were called for. Solo watched the odd, practiced-looking, hand-and-foot ascent of Vara and Illya and did his best, not without the occasional painful failure, to follow suit.
By the time he had found a secure, if decidedly uncomfortable, perch that would hold his weight, Vara and Illya were already clinging like monkeys to nearby branches, gently shaking out the folds of the cloth bundle Vara had carried with him. As they did, the reason for the cloth's ability to float became apparent; the half-empty wine bottle had been wrapped inside. Solo watched Illya pull the cork of this, upend it for a moment into his mouth, and then toss it without warning in Solo's direction.
He caught it, barely. Feeling Illya's contemplative eyes on him, he drank deeply and tossed it back. Illya snagged it out of the air with ease and settled it into the fork of a tree branch beside him. Solo could see the silver gleam of Illya's communicator already nestled in the same place.
"Napoleone!" It was a hissed command from Diego Vara. Solo looked over at him, perched on his own branch, and saw a ball of bunched cloth hurtling toward him. He caught it, and let it unroll. He was, he realized, holding one of the stiff, wide-collared, pink-and-gold silk capes that were used in the first part of a bullfight. He looked across at Illya. "You're serious, aren't you?" he said. "You really think I'm going to do this."
"We could always go back to the hotel and go to sleep," Illya suggested, unperturbed, and ignored the disgusted expression on Solo's face.
"Rusito." Vara touched Illya's arm and got everyone's attention. "Viene una bonita."
Bonita? Solo thought, not entirely sure that was the word he'd heard. There was nothing remotely little or pretty about the massive animal that had detached itself from the small herd and was now ambling peacefully toward the tree, following the path to the river. It was shiny black in the moonlight, its muscular withers a good five feet off the ground, and there was quiet menace in every inch of it, from it's wickedly dull-gleaming horns to the absurd twitching of its short, brush-ended tail.
Solo knew a little about fighting cattle, enough to know that what Illya and Vara were getting him into had to be one of the stupidest things he'd ever done. There is no more resemblance between fighting cattle and domestic cattle than there is between tigers and housecats. This was an entirely wild and incredibly savage animal approaching their tree, an animal born from a line that had been carefully bred for centuries to preserve that savagery. Fighting cattle, male or female, will attack and try determinedly to destroy anything that moves and attracts their attention. They are animals so inherently dangerous that they would have been hunted to extinction long ago, except for the singular attraction of the Spanish soul to the many facets of death. In this country where death is not shunned as it is in most other Western cultures but studied with almost loving fascination, the natural instincts of fighting cattle to kill had actually been heightened by selective breeding to produce animals that had easily, in long- outlawed spectator contests, killed lions, tigers, and even the odd rhinoceros. And, in spectacles that still took place all over the country every summer Sunday, they killed men. Many men.
"I will smooth her for you," Vara said to Illya, and dropped lightly from the tree into the cow's path.
The animal came to a sudden halt, head jerking up abruptly. Vara had appeared in front of her, not more than six feet away. Any other wild animal in the world would have been startled and fled, no matter how dangerous it might be in other circumstances. But fighting cattle do not flee.
The cow lowered her head, snorting angrily. What she saw in front of her was what appeared to be a large, spreading object, swaying tantalizingly in the light breeze. Vara was statue-still, and her eyes followed the slight swing of the cape he held up before him, his right hand clutching the folds at the top of the cape and raised in a punching position, almost like a boxer's leading right, his left hand down and to the side, spreading the folds of cloth and shaking it a little to keep the cow's attention riveted.
"Whuh-hey, bonita!" Vara said. His voice had deepened, almost crooning. "Ven, muchachita!" He took a few, shuffling steps forward.
The cow launched herself with unbelievable suddenness. One moment, she was standing still, watching, head lowered, horns curved and gleaming. The next, she was buried in the folds of the cape as Vara swung the cloth down and around, leading her past his body in a half-circle. When the cloth stilled, he and the animal were in exactly the same positions as before, but facing opposite directions, and Vara's feet were making those little, sliding steps again, closing the distance between them and crossing in front of her. Obligingly, the cow threw herself at the cape once more.
Solo was unaware that Illya was moving until he felt his branch sag precariously as it took Illya's weight, too. Illya settled beside him, unconcerned with the ominous creaking sounds the branch made beneath them. "The idea," he said, "is to let her believe that it is the cape that is alive." He might have been discussing the weather. "She already thinks this, because it is the cape that moves. But she is confused because she knows her horns hit it, and there was nothing solid there. Cattle are not intelligent. She will keep trying, so long as no one lets her know that the man is alive instead of the cape."
"I take it you've done this before," Solo said. Below, Vara was guiding the cow back and forth as she charged the cape with increasing anger. With each pass, she was breathing harder, rage building on top of her natural savagery.
"When I first knew Diego, this was how he practiced fighting...only it was the bulls he fought then. Very irresponsible, of course. Fighting bulls aren't smart, but they have excellent memories. And a bull that has been fought in the fields remembers when he is sold to the ring. If the boy who fought him, like this, in the fields at night, made a mistake...and they usually do...the bull will know, when he finally goes into the ring, that it is the man behind the cape that is his enemy. And he will attack the man."
If it struck Illya at all, as it did Solo, that there was something insane about this calm discussion, perched naked in a tree above the peculiar spectacle of another naked man passing a ton of bovine fury back and forth around him with nothing more than a swath of pink and gold silk, he gave no sign of it. "And this is how you and Diego spent your evenings in the old days?" Solo asked.
"Sometimes. Diego was very poor, Napoleon. There is no other country in Europe where 'poor' means quite what it does in Spain. He wanted to be a matador with a passion that drove him worse than drugs or alcohol. But for him, for his family, there was not even food to eat, very often. And Spain is full of poor boys who dream of becoming rich matadores. So the only way to learn, the only way to acquire the skills he needed, was to sneak into the fields, at night, and practice with whatever bulls he could."
"How did you get involved?"
Illya turned to look at him briefly, then swung his eyes back down to Vara. "I was bored," he said. "As you were, tonight."
Below, Vara brought the cow around him, one last time...but this time, he pulled his left hand in close to his hip as she passed and swung quickly around, wrapping the folds of the cape tight against his body. The cow, trying to follow, turned too quickly, within her own length, and stopped dead, breathing hard. Arrogantly, Vara turned his back on her, the cape bunched under his arm, and walked slowly away. She made no attempt to follow.
"The last pass was called a media, or half, veronica," Illya said. "It makes the animal turn too sharply, and wrenches the back a little. Whenever you see the man walk away like this, with the animal just watching, it is because he has just forced it to make this sharp turn, and it will wait for a moment before attacking again. Usually."
Vara stopped directly beneath them, looking up. "Illya? Are you ready?"
Without another word to Solo, Illya slid off the branch and dropped, cat-silent, to stand beside Vara. "She's a real nun," Vara said. "On rails, Rusito. And she favors the right horn. She will make a good baptism for your friend."
Vara faded in carefully against the trunk of the tree, holding his cape close against his body to prevent the slightest movement from distracting the cow. Illya, holding his own cape up before his body as Vara had done, was approaching the cow with those same little half- steps. Solo could hear Illya's voice, quieter than Vara's had been, crooning little nonsense words at the cow to keep her attention.
Rested now, but not one bit less angry, the cow lowered her massive head and launched herself at Illya. Incredibly, she seemed to slide right by him, close enough so that Illya had to sway slightly backward to avoid being knocked down. The cape swung, with a professional ease and assurance that amazed Solo, and brought the cow out and around, lined up for the next pass.
It wasn't the fact that Illya could stand so serenely in front of a fighting cow that Solo found so unbelievable. He'd seen Illya's coolness in the face of danger too many times in the past. What startled him was the obvious practiced skill of what Illya was doing, passing the huge cow back and forth on her small, cat-quick feet as if it was something he'd been doing all his life, as Vara had. His body ghost-pale in the moonlight, his damp hair silvered, Illya was fighting the cow with what seemed to Solo's untutored eyes as genuine artistry.
Vara must have agreed. From his place beside the tree, he was singing out, "Ole!" each time the cow passed Illya's rigid body. When, at last, Illya performed the wrenching half- pass that rooted the animal momentarily in place so that he could walk away from her, Vara's delighted, "Vaya, torero!" was obvious approval.
Illya cocked his head to one side and looked up into the tree. "Napoleon?" he said.
This was where common sense should have warned Solo to stay exactly where he was. It didn't. If Illya could do it, he thought...and let himself down from the tree branch.
"Do you think our health insurance covers this?" he asked, as Illya showed him how to position his hands on the cape and where to place it in front of his body.
Vara had moved away from the tree and was keeping the cow distracted with little, non-threatening flaps of his cape. "Probably not," Illya said. "Of course, the idea is to do one's best to avoid the problem altogether. Let me see you swing the cape."
Solo did, trying to copy the maneuver he'd watched Vara and Illya perform. Illya nodded approvingly. "Very good, Napoleon. Let's see if the cow thinks so, too."
Which is how Napoleon Solo found himself six feet in front of an enraged fighting cow a moment later, with nothing between him and her unpleasantly sharp horns except the insubstantial folds of what now seemed like a pathetically small and thin silk cape.
The cow lowered her head, watching the silk. But she didn't charge. That was fine with Solo. If she was willing to quit, he would be the last to complain.
"Step toward her," Illya said quietly, behind him.
Uh...sure. Solo took a half-step forward. The cow's head lowered a fraction more. She seemed perplexed, as if she was aware that the thing in front of her now didn't belong there. She would probably have been surprised at how heartily Solo agreed with her.
"Another step," Illya said. Damn him.
Solo took another half-step. The cow charged. It happened so quickly that he didn't have time to follow the natural instinct to drop the damned cape and run like hell. The cow was suddenly swathed in the folds of cloth and then just as suddenly gone, past him and away. He turned, expecting her to be right on top of him, facing him, as she had been each time Vara and Illya passed her.
She wasn't. She was moving away in a straight line, shaking her head. Whether this was irritation or amazement at his ineptitude, Solo couldn't imagine. "You have to turn with her," Illya said as Vara went after the cow. "She follows the cape when you turn and it brings her back around. If you don't turn, she comes out from under the cape and just keeps going."
That seemed like an excellent idea to Solo, but he could see that Vara had captured the cow's attention again and was leading her back, with little half-passes, toward him. "When she hits the cape," Illya said, "let your right hand drop and pivot on your feet. It keeps her nose in the cloth and turns her, ready for the next pass."
Apparently, neither Illya nor Vara was going to give it up until Solo got it right. He tried again, and let the cow go trotting off again. He'd turned, but he hadn't lowered his hand, and the silk cape rode up over the cow's back as she passed and out of her line of sight.
Solo was beginning to get frustrated. Damn it, it looked so simple when Vara and Illya did it. Forgetting that he was terrified of the huge animal, he moved in on her again, determined to remember to drop his right hand as she reached the cloth, determined to spin expertly as she passed....
He didn't know what the hell happened. He was doing it right, pivoting in place, his hand dropping just the way it was supposed to, when suddenly he was flying through the air, ass over teakettle, lifted and flung with astonishing power. He landed with incredible force and felt every ounce of breath driven from his body. The cow had spun like a top and was after him with terrifying enthusiasm, head lowered even more to catch the solid form she'd finally found with her horns.
Illya and Vara were there immediately, dashing between Solo and the cow, capes flapping vigorously. Obediently, the cow turned to explore these more interesting targets. Vara led her away while Illya ran back and dropped to his knees beside Solo. "Napoleon?"
Solo couldn't have spoken if he'd wanted to. Painfully, he was trying to get some air back into his body. He lifted one hand and wagged it at Illya, the best he could do to indicate that he wasn't hurt. Vara came back, laughing. Beyond him, the cow was trotting back toward her herd, head and stiff little tail raised triumphantly, blowing satisfied snorts of steam through her lifted nostrils.
Vara bent down and made a small cross-like motion with his thumb on Solo's forehead. "I christen thee Torero," he said happily. "You flew almost as far as I did, the first time."
There was, it seemed, no hurry about crossing the river again. Illya went up the tree to retrieve the wine bottle and his communicator, and all three of them settled against the base of the trunk to share the little wine that was left. Finally able to talk, Solo said, "What did I do wrong?"
"You let her get too close," Vara said. "You have to keep her eyes on the cloth by moving the outside edge. She hit the center instead, and there you were. The instant she feels her horns touch something solid, she hooks and tosses her head. If you are lucky, she tosses you. If you aren't, you get the horn."
"I want to try that again." Solo blurted the words without thinking. No one but him seemed surprised that he'd said it.
"Por supuesto," Vara agreed. "But not tonight. You cannot feel it, but your reflexes will not be good now. The church-bell turn is not kind to the nerves, amigo." He slapped Solo's upraised knee companionably. "Vaya un hombre! Like the little Russian, you are a little crazy, yes?"
Solo turned to look at Illya. "I must be," he said.
"Tonight, you will stay with me, at the ranch," Vara was saying contentedly. "Tomorrow, I will take you to the airport, if you must go."
"This." Vara made a motion with one hand that included the moonlit fields all around them. "My ranch. The house is not far."
"That was your cow?"
Vara looked slightly offended. "Of course. I would not invade someone else's fields, nor fight someone else's cattle, Napoleone. Now that I can afford not to."
Illya smiled slightly, drained the wine bottle, and said nothing.