By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He gingerly walks outside, with me and Hurst in tow. Riding the scooter he uses to get around his farm, we drive out to a row of holding pens where he once kept roosters that were in training. He points to a panel of sheet metal that separates two of the cages. There's a crude hole in the middle. The other day, he says, he came out here to find one rooster had pecked his way through the sheet metal to get to a rooster on the other side. By the time he found them, one rooster was dead and the other had lost its eye.
"See, we don't make them fight," he says. "It's what God put them on this earth to do."
He drives into the field and stops in front of one of the roosters. "This rooster will be 16 years old next spring," he says, pointing to the bird. "Now he'll hit you because he's miserable. When they get old, they don't want to be picked up." He steps from his scooter and reaches down to pick up the bird. "Come here buddy. I know you know me."
The rooster pecks at him, drawing blood, but Ratliff doesn't flinch. Instead, he cradles the bird and begins stroking its head. Before long, it's as calm as a cat in his arms. "I pick him up just to be ornery once a week or once a month because he's been a favorite. He'll die in my yard. I fought him one time 15 years ago."
He looks down at the rooster, which has closed its eyes. "He loves that petting. He's just like a woman, he loves to be rubbed.
"These birds are like my babies," he says, looking out across his yard. "I love them like they were my children."
Ratliff is done with his school, but his legacy will live on. He's got an instructional video that sells for $500. He suggests I attend a cockfight sometime, maybe at the Bayou Club of Louisiana, where they fight in an arena with glass walls. Or I could try the Legion Club of Jal, the pit he built so many years ago. There are illegal brush fights all the time here in Texas, and he hears about them, but I never will.
"If you ever do go to a cockfight, it will be unlike anything you've ever seen," he says. "Who knows—you might even like it."
On this cool January morning, a hundred men are gathered inside, talking bloodlines and chicken feed. They are oil field workers from Midland and flea market merchants from up the road in Hobbs. They wear coveralls and camo, steel-toed shitkickers and alligator-skinned cowboy boots. Chatting above the din of the crowing roosters, they lean on the waist-high railing of the drag pits, where the fights end and the chickens finally bow their heads in the dirt and die. At the big metal door, where trespassers are warned to stay out, a little Mexican man sits hunched over a whirring machine, sharpening the blades that will be attached to the roosters' legs. Cigarette smoke hangs above it all.
A man with watery eyes and a perpetual frown waddles over to me and fishes two black-and-white photos from his pocket. "These are from when this pit was first built," he tells me. Like so many men here, he says Ratliff taught him the secrets of chicken fighting.
"To tell you the truth, I wish he wouldn't have said anything about retiring," says a man in coveralls. "The Humane Society had a field day with that one."
A little man named Eliseo Lopez nods. "The Humane Society, they're trying to kill us."
"They're liars," someone else says.
"Your ancestors fought chickens," Lopez tells me, pointing his stubby finger into my chest. "George Washington was a cockfighter. Abraham Lincoln was a referee. It's a part of your heritage."
"You're eventually going to have the biggest revolution the United States has ever seen because people are tired of their freedoms being taken away," someone else says. "Before you know it, hunting will be illegal."
It's nearly 2 p.m., and the fights are about to start. But first, the president of the New Mexico Game Fowl Breeders Association, Ronnie Barron, has something to say. He mounts the steps of a small platform and takes a microphone. Standing a few feet above the crowd, he lays out their plight. The last year was a bad one for the organization, he says. The New Mexico legislature nearly banned cockfighting. Governor Bill Richardson, once the friend of cockfighters, is now against us, Anderson says.
"The son of a bitch," the little man says through gritted teeth. "I don't even consider him Hispanic."