Blood and Feathers
He was a fighting cock like no other, a proud black-and-white without a lick of fear. He took to the pit as if it were his kingdom, his opponent a lowly servant born merely to lay down his life in combat.
Roy Bingham can't say exactly what made his rooster so "game"--the term cockers reserve for the bravest, strongest, steadiest birds. While most cocks are damn lucky to survive two or three pit fights, this bird won 11 in a row. Its kills were quick and clean. You could credit good feed--which Roy never scrimped on--and strong genes. It sure wasn't steroids, speed, blood-clotting capsules, or any of the other gimmicks young cockers are so enthralled with these days.
"He was just a good old bird. Real pretty, too," Roy says, reminiscing inside his ramshackle three-room house in southwest Fort Worth. "I always believed you raised your chickens natural and just let 'em go. You don't do anything extra, because he knows what to do.
"That rooster fought hard in his life," Roy adds. "And then he got killed outright in his 12th fight. It was over pretty quick."
A cock's death in the pit is nothing to get too emotional about, Roy says. Though, sure, he would have liked to see his prized gamecock survive--to live out his old age among the hens, the way a true champion should. But you really don't want to get too attached to your birds, he says. In 60 years of raising and fighting cocks, he hasn't even given them names. "You wouldn't want to do that. It's like the guys you fight with in the Army. It's better you don't get to know all their names, because a lot of 'em are going to die on you."
Like all of Roy's birds, the champion cock died nameless, not so much loved as respected.
These are noble creatures, cockers like Roy will tell you. These are resilient creatures, whose legacy goes back centuries. Did you know--they'll ask, in their curious manner of blending fact and folklore--that the rooster who crowed when Peter denied Jesus was a fighting cock? A lazy domestic rooster, they say, could not have filled such a noble spot in history.
And Roy's black-and-white, in all its feathered splendor, represented the noblest side of cockfighting. At the makeshift, illegal cockpits hidden in the backyards and barnyards of Texas, or the professional, for-profit arenas in states where the sport is legal, these birds meet in purest combat. They have fed and trained well, and will put to test the endless hours of care and dedication that have been lavished upon them by the cocker's entire family.
When the roosters fight--hackle feathers raised in threat, razor-sharp blades tied to their legs--it is to the death, or until the weaker one collapses, slashed and bleeding, instantly worthless.
On a day more than 20 years ago, Roy's black-and-white finally reached the end of his string of luck. A deep puncture wound to the breast, and it was over. Splendid and brave one moment; limp and lifeless the next. But as game as that cock was, Roy recalls wasting little time on grief. He tossed the ex-champ in an oil drum in the corner of the yard, the final resting place for roosters that fail.
He moved on to the next fight.
The short news item in the April 11 Fort Worth Star-Telegram caught my eye. The Texas chapter of something called the United Gamefowl Breeders Association had sued the Humane Society of North Texas for destroying 78 fighting cocks.
Police had raided a Fort Worth cockfight on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 4 and arrested the owner of the property, Juan Pedraza Jr. Spectators had fled the scene, leaving behind 19 dead birds--the day's casualties. Reed Young, a Humane Society investigator, says he found rooster carcasses stuffed in cracks and cubbyholes all over Pedraza's property. Investigators seized the 78 live chickens.
Cockfighting is a misdemeanor offense in Texas, and carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. "But I've never seen anyone do any time on cockfighting," Young says. The investigation did not yield enough evidence for any criminal charges, but a Tarrant County justice of the peace ruled that the roosters had been mistreated and turned them over to the Humane Society. Ten days later, at the direction of the organization's board of directors, the fighting cocks were put down.
Young figures the birds were spared a far more miserable fate. "They get sold at flea markets, they get sold through the mail," he says. "We knew they'd almost certainly be fighting again. That's against the law, and it's against everything we stand for."
For the most part, the 1,000 or so Texas gamefowl breeders are a shadowy group. They keep a low profile breeding and raising gamecocks--which is legal in Texas--and usually fight them, too, which is not legal. But in February, when the Humane Society euthanized their birds, the breeders suddenly came out of the woodwork. They joined together in the lawsuit, seeking replacement costs and unspecified punitive damages against the Humane Society of North Texas for destroying the birds, which they value at $75 to $100 each.
Young says the lawsuit is specious--and that the Humane Society will continue its support of Texas' ban on cockfighting.
That seems an especially ignorant statement to an old cocker like Roy Bingham, who insists that cockfighting is legal here. He mentions something about former Texas Gov. Bill Clements having vetoed a bill to outlaw cockfighting. "A bunch of us were there when he vetoed it," Bingham says. "It ain't illegal because there's no law on the books making it illegal."
The 68-year-old cocker is mistaken--but I didn't come to his shack to argue the legality of his favorite sport. I came on the advice of the Humane Society's Young, who knows Roy to be the area's expert on cockfighting. "He'll tell you everything you want to know," Young says. Young met Roy after the cocker had called to inquire about the 78 roosters the Humane Society had killed, in its way.
No one had claimed the chickens as his own. But that doesn't matter, Roy explains. "Us cockers are like a big brotherhood. So really, those chickens belonged to all of us," he says. "That's why we're trying to get that money back as a group. Those scumbags at the Humane Society had no right to destroy those roosters."
Today, Roy's quest is to bring cockfighting out in the open--to educate people "who are just plain ignorant."
While many see ugliness in the underground sport, Roy sees beauty--the beauty of two roosters locked in mortal combat, doing what nature destined for them to do. And he sees nothing but hypocrisy in the Human Society's shrill protestations. Either way, he says, the birds end up dead. Better to die on the battlefield--to go down like a man, he says--than live a useless life that leads to the same fate, and the same place: the tip of a stinking rubbish heap.
Roy Bingham's urban spread spans 12 city lots and some two acres, which he bought decades ago. Dozens of hens, a small flock of African sheep, and a beagle dog named Dorothy have the run of the dusty place. Bingham's property backs up to the railroad tracks, and three times in one hour a train screams by, blowing its whistle, engineer waving. Roy has learned to pause in conversation whenever this happens; there's no point in competing with the deafening roar of the freight trains.
He has invited me to his place to show off his 150 birds, his trophies, his mail-order fighting supplies, and the three books he's written on cockfighting. (His Modern Cocker series is the standard textbook, so to speak, for this sport.) But mostly, he wants to prove to me that there's no way a person can write honestly about the sport without witnessing the beauty and simplicity of these single-minded creatures.
"They're good for one thing only, and that's fighting," Roy tells me, as will dozens of other cockers over the next several days. "He's so ready to kill, you hold up a mirror to one of these chickens and he'll attack it."
Twenty or 30 years ago, before he was all stoop-shouldered and beer-bellied, Roy couldn't go to a cockfight in Texas or anywhere else without being recognized. It got so he couldn't even watch the fights, so many people were pestering him, even asking for his autograph. He wasn't the winningest cocker, but he did all right for himself. He won enough bets and derby prizes one year to take his wife and four kids to Hawaii. He fought his birds in secret, at illegal cockpits throughout Texas and in all-night contests in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico--bordering states where cockfighting is legal. When he traveled the world as an inspector for Bell Helicopter, he watched fights in the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Iran. He met cockers who'd read his books, seen his ads in cockfighting trade magazines, and bought his fighting paraphernalia and vitamins. It was a good life.
But these days, it seems only his roosters have any fight left in them.
Roy says he's "burned out" on cockfighting: "After 60 years, I just got tired of it. I'm too old. I can't keep those hours anymore." It's an admission weighted with sadness from a man who has spent his whole life in a sport that symbolizes grit, perseverance, and standing your ground. Retired for 14 years, Roy spends his days in his shoebox of a living room, where roaches scuttle across greasy walls, along kitchen counter tops littered with beer cans, bits of rice, bread crumbs, and smears of butter and jelly. A mammoth Quasar color TV is always on, pouring out Roy's favorite vintage Westerns: The Rifleman, Maverick, High Chaparral.
One grimy window--half of it blocked by an overworked air conditioner--allows a sliver of daylight inside. Roy watches his shows and entertains guests while sitting on the edge of his twin-size bed, its filthy floral sheets knotted up and blankets askew. His hands tremble as he reaches for the juice glass on the wooden box beside his bed--his first glass of Ancient Age for the day. By day's end, Roy says, he'll have drained at least a pint of bourbon. He chases each sip with a bite from a lemon.
"The white man's tequila," he says, lifting the glass to his lips, laughing and baring dark craters of missing teeth. It is a Thursday, 15 minutes past noon.
Roy is happy to regale me with dramatic tales of his time in the world's cockpits. And on just why so many people are "plain ignorant" about his sport, failing to understand that a gamecock's sole purpose is to kill or be killed. Beyond nostalgic musings on the old days, and the boozing, there is little other activity in Roy's life. He doesn't train his chickens himself anymore, doesn't even feed them. A friend does all that. When we stroll past his chicken pens, I ask him to pick up a particularly beautiful scarlet-hued rooster--a breed known as a red hatch. He refuses. "I don't bend over so easy anymore," he says.
Roy's star in cockfighting circles flickered out long ago. If I want to know more--if I really want to see gamecocks locked in combat the way nature intended, I "ought to go to Jal."
That would be Jal, New Mexico, a town of 2,100 in the state's desolate southeastern corner. Hundreds of Texans pour into town on weekends to take in the spectacle of legalized cockfighting in Jal, which is only 15 miles from the state border. "That whole town is built on cockfighting," Roy says. "We stay in their motel, we eat in their restaurants, we're a real shot for their economy. Oh, they love us in Jal."
One-hundred-and-two degrees, late morning on a Saturday in May, and Jal has barely opened its eyes. Named for a cattle brand--a right-leaning "J," connected to an "A," connected to a left-leaning "L"--the town has rolled out the welcome mat for cockfighters and their fans for many years. The one bar in town, the one restaurant, the one motel--all are booming during the weekends of fighting season, roughly January through June.
A knife fight is scheduled for the Jal cockpit, a white aluminum warehouse with no windows at the end of a rutted gravel drive. Knife-fighting, which originated in the Philippines and Mexico, is the quickest and deadliest way to fight cocks. The cockers tie a razor-sharp blade to the bird's left leg, where the natural spur has already been cut off, then pit their roosters against each other. A sudden kick to the breast or neck virtually guarantees death. English-style gaff-fighting is a slower, more stylized method. The gaffs, resembling tiny, curved ice picks, and just as sharp, are tied to each leg. Gaffs deliver puncture wounds and will kill, but not as quickly as knives. The birds are just as likely to tire out during their maximum 15 minutes in the pit, often forcing the referee to call the fight. Gaff-fighting, enthusiasts say, tests the rooster's endurance and stamina. Knives test his aggressiveness, agility, and speed.
When I pull up to the building, the parking lot is all but empty. Two men exit the building's only door and lope toward a jade-colored Chevy pickup. Their names are Sergio--a tall and hulking Hispanic, mid-'20s, with a doughy face and tank top that reads, "When the going gets rough...call me!" and Mike, an Anglo with a blond buzzcut and teeth the color of dirty dishwater. Both are oil workers. They live in Andrews, Texas, halfway between Midland and Jal.
"Nothin' goin' on here," Sergio tells me. "It's over." Adds Mike: "We're going to Hobbs. There's a big fight over there. You can follow us if you want."
Some 35 miles north of Jal, along State Highway 18, a bleak, sun-baked stretch of road, we come across Hobbs. It's a town of 30,000 built on oil and cotton, situated in desert country--bone-dry air and gusty winds whipping over long, flat land dotted with oil pumpers and mesquite trees. Here, big oil is king. Phillips, Conoco, Texaco, Fort Worth's Bass brothers--all have gravel roads leading up to oil fields hard at work.
About eight miles north of Hobbs, Sergio and Mike turn into a parking lot packed with pickup trucks. A flashing electric sign on wheels advertises, "THE TOMMY CLUB. FLEA MARKET AND AUCTIONS ON WEDNESDAYS." No mention of cockfights. The only clue to what's inside are the truck beds--stacked with dozens of tiny chicken pens, some wire with handles on wood lids, others simply cardboard with quarter-size air holes punched in the sides. We approach the building--like Jal's arena, a massive aluminum-sided space with no windows and one main entrance--and a cacophony of crowing greets us. Sergio and Mike, who don't care for the notion of being shadowed by a reporter, enter the building and disappear into the crowd.
Behind a wobbly card table, where club memberships are sold for $10 a year, an official is weighing the next two roosters slated to fight. Their prefight weight must be between four pounds, six ounces, and six pounds, six ounces. A handful of fans are gathered at the weigh station, but the real attraction is at the center of the hall--three cockpits, each 16 feet by 16 feet and separated by chain-link fences. Two matches at a time, 200 people gathered inside. The room smells of the thick cigarette smoke curling up toward the ceiling, hot grease wafting over from a snack bar, and the sweat of bodies working to stay cool. A swamp cooler in the eaves pumps cool air into the room, but it's a near-useless effort. Nothing really works when it's 103 degrees outside.
"Hit him, little gray! Kill him!" The shrill voice rising from the bleachers belongs to a woman in tight Wranglers, a brown braid hanging to her waist and a crisp straw Resistol on her head. Her eyes, like everyone's, are trained on the center pit, where a knife fight is well under way. The match is between a red and a gray rooster. Right now, the gray has a distinct advantage.
The red--his shimmering green tail feathers cloudy with dust--is dragging his right wing, broken seconds earlier by a lightning kick from the gray. The crowd's taunts grow louder; the red rooster stumbles. The bird collapses in a heap, looking from the stands like a rumpled throw pillow. His dark red and green feathers offer effective camouflage; I can see no blood on his weary body. But blood spatters the whitewashed sides of the pit, along with dust and grime and chicken shit.
The red cannot get up. His head--wet with blood and saliva from his foe's well-aimed bites--is nodding toward the floor. His breast barely beating, he shudders and drops his head in the dust.
In a move that cockers have borrowed from boxing, the pit referee slowly counts to 15.
The gray takes the fight.
A scorekeeper across the arena takes his chalk to the board and moves the bird up in the rankings. The victorious cocker cradles the gray to his chest, exits the pit, and strides toward his cockhouse--a small room where competing cockers keep their birds isolated until it's their turn to fight.
The defeated cocker has cupped the ailing red in his big, blood-tinged hands, and shuffles to an isolated bleacher where a friend joins him. His friend clips the leather string that holds the knives in place, while the cocker gently strokes the bird, his breast heaving with short, labored puffs. They, too, walk toward their cockhouse.
Meanwhile, a handful of the winning cocker's friends are jumping from the bleachers and clapping their buddy on the back, their accolades flowing in a steady stream of Spanish.
"A lot of the Mexicans prefer knife fights. It's got a 15-minute time limit, so it's quicker. More of a fight. Gaffs are more of an Anglo thing. No time limit. It's supposed to take more skill, I guess, but I think it's kind of boring," says the man beside me, as he folds a twenty-dollar bill into his pocket. His name is Robert Arreola. He placed a bet with another spectator on the last fight; the little gray did not disappoint.
According to signs posted throughout the club, gambling on fights is strictly forbidden. But no one seems particularly obedient. The bets are informal and small--usually $10 to $20. But they come steady.
Arreola lives due north in Lovington, New Mexico, a slightly smaller town than Hobbs. A striking man with high cheekbones and hard muscles, he takes in a cockfight nearly every weekend. He has a softball game to get to today. He's almost late, but can't drag himself away from the pit. This high-school history teacher and football coach owns a few roosters himself. It's the pride of these birds that gets to him. They want it all. Still, as much as he loves the sport, you couldn't pay him enough to fight them.
"No way," he says, smiling wide. "I'm afraid to get in there. Those knives are sharp enough to cut you open. You see some of these guys, they've got little scars up and down their arms here," he says, brushing the insides of his forearms.
You go around to the tiny towns that dot the vast, flat stretches of New Mexico and West Texas, and many are either raising cocks, fighting them, or watching the fights, Arreola tells me. "My dad had chickens. My brother has some, too. I don't remember a time we didn't have some on our property. You grow up around it, and you don't think twice about it. What are these roosters good for, anyway? You can't eat them. All they want to do is fight."
This bloodlust-as-destiny argument is the cement that binds the world's cockfighting culture together. I will hear it again and again here at the Tommy Club, and in my visits to Roy Bingham's cluttered backyard. The "humaniacs," as cockers call animal-rights supporters, believe birds may indeed be genetically inclined toward aggressiveness, but that the cockers magnify and encourage that behavior through extensive training, diet, and even denial of food and water in the 24 hours prior to a fight.
"They'll tell you these roosters want to go out fighting," says the Humane Society's Young. "But being cut to ribbons and bleeding to death does not seem like a choice any animal would want to make."
And yet even an adolescent gamecock--close to competition age of 18 months to 2 years, but still a stranger to the pit--will strut and crow and wreak havoc if turned loose in the yard among other roosters. The birds are born with natural spurs on the back of each leg that grow like a pointed toe, sharp and potentially lethal. If left to fight in a barnyard, they'll use their spurs to fight over territory, or hens. Often to the death.
The cockpit seems little more than an extension of life for these creatures: They fight. They bleed. They die. For all the protests against cockfighting from the animal-rights camp, you can say this for gamecocks: They were never jammed beak-to-beak into a massive chicken coop, slaughtered en masse, then shrink-wrapped and sold as skinless chicken breasts for Bo Pilgrim.
As I watch my 17th fight of the afternoon, I'm thinking that if only for a flicker of time, at least these birds lived.
San Ysidro, California, 1935. Eight-year-old Roy Bingham and his family landed there after fleeing drought-cursed Texas during the Great Depression. From San Ysidro, you can practically spit across the border into Tijuana, Mexico. And, as Roy recalls, you could take in some great chicken fighting on both sides of the line.
"We moved to California from Texas when I was just a kid," he says. "We were real poor. My dad did whatever he could find. He was a truck driver, a mule skinner. I started going to cockfights when I was 8 years old. You know, everybody had chickens. They were big with the Mexicans."
Roy remembers scrapes with the law, time in reform school for joy riding, stealing. The only way he learned to stay out of trouble was to raise up some roosters. He kept busy building their pens, feeding them, conditioning them for the fights. Cockers run the roosters along a wooden plank situated a few feet off the ground. They'll also fit two cocks with "sparring muffs," tiny leather boxing gloves tied to the spurs, and pit them against each other.
"Hell, a kid doesn't have time to get in trouble when he's raising chickens," Roy says, leaning over a plastic bowl beside his bed and spitting. "I mean, to hell with midnight basketball. Just give a kid some chickens."
Roy fought roosters into his adulthood, and in every spare moment he could find after moving back to Fort Worth and taking a job as an inspector at Bell Helicopter. Forty-five years ago, he married his wife, Robbie, a telephone operator at Southwestern Bell. They live separately now--Roy in his shack, among his chickens, Robbie about a mile away in a little frame bungalow with peeling paint.
"Hey, kid, this is my hideout. I'm a hermit," Roy says. He opens the listing chain-link gate to his tiny front yard, strewn with empty gallon bottles of Mogen David, dust swirling in the May wind. Later, we go into the house, past stacks of shipping crates for the chickens he sells and transports to customers throughout the United States.
With God-only-knows-what splattered on his faded red T-shirt (gravy? tobacco juice? chicken shit?), Roy tells me, "I don't like to bathe. I like my time alone." He professes a deep fondness for Robbie, whom he calls the "Big Swede," but now they simply prefer to live apart. "She's been a good old gal. When we got married, we were poor as church mice. But she got in there and helped me with my chickens. She helped feed 'em and raise 'em."
Another plus cockfighting has going for it, the cockers tell me, is family togetherness. Like Roy, the devoted cockers draw their entire families into the sport. Wives feed and raise the hens; they gather the eggs. Kids pitch in, too; they frequently join their dads at the fights and assist them in the cockhouse. (Despite cockers' claims that more women are participating in fights, most cockpits are strictly male turf. Men in the pit. Women in the bleachers.)
"A woman who's married to a cockfighter knows he's too busy to run around," Roy says. "Really. When she looks out that back window, she's going to see her man out there tending to his chickens. We're just a content bunch, I guess."
Way back in the '60s, Roy got a notion to add to his cockfighting winnings by running a business on the side. Through his work at Bell, he knew of a flat-braid string, made of latex rubber and coated with wax, that was amazingly strong. And it just so happened it worked great at holding a gaff or a knife in place on a rooster's leg. Up until he made that discovery, Roy says, cockers had experimented with fishing line, leather string, dental floss. Seems those materials were forever breaking, or stretching, or slipping, their knots loosening up and letting the gaffs slip. Roy bought up a truckload of the string from a local distributor and went into the mail-order business. The cocker brotherhood nicknamed him "The String King."
At first he sold string only; eventually he added to his inventory--saws for cutting off spurs, sparring muffs, vitamin B-complex capsules, and cleaning pads for wiping blood and dirt from gaffs between fights. In 1972, Roy wrote the first of three books--how-to guides for the beginning, intermediate, and advanced cocker. He called them The Modern Cocker guides, and worked on them in his off-time at Bell. "Cocking has been my life, and it has been a happy one," he wrote in the introduction to The Modern Cocker No. 1. "It is my sincere wish to contribute something to this great sport."
The books, typewritten and self-published, are a strange mix of solid science, backyard business sense, and plain hokum. Texas A&M poultry-science professors offer feeding and breeding tips, including a long-winded description of the three parts of chicken sperm. Roy offers his own advice on rooster care. On the days leading up to a big fight, he suggests, treat your thirsty bird to bottled mineral water. Rub him down with olive oil on fight day. And for heaven's sake, don't smoke in the car while hauling your chickens to the pit!
He is also convinced that chickens talk to each other. "It's not hard to tell whether a cock is calling a hen to get a worm, or a grain of corn, or warning the flock that a snake or a hawk is near," he writes. "And you know when he cuts his wing at the hen, sort of fan dances around her and does his little speech, that he is whispering a few 'sweet nothings,' just like you may have done some 20 or 40 years ago."
At the Burch Bostick Tribute derby in Hobbs on May 17 and 18--named in honor of 87-year-old cocker Burch Bostick, now confined to a wheelchair and taking oxygen for emphysema--every cocker seems to know about Fort Worth's "String King."
At 71, Tommy Booth, owner of The Tommy Club, is a contemporary of Roy's. "Well, how is the old 'String King,' anyway?" he asks. "He knew a lot about cockfighting. And that boy sure could write. And drink. He still drinking a lot?"
Yeah, I tell him. More than you probably remember.
Tommy Booth tells me I can bring a notebook into the arena, but no camera. "People see pictures of cockfighting, and they don't understand," he says. "We take good care of these birds, but all they see is the fight. And these birds are made to fight."
Booth, a retired oil worker from Phillips Petroleum, lives in Odessa and commutes to the Tommy Club, which he opened in February. Before that, he owned the cockpit in Jal. "But I sold it a few years ago," Booth says. "My wife died five years ago. Cancer. I just couldn't keep up with it."
Nice touch, I say, naming the club after yourself. Easy to remember. But Booth just leans back in his bowling-alley chair (he bought three rows of them at an auction, and uses them for cockfight seating), long legs stretched out in front of him, and smiles. "Well," he says, and spits a shot of tobacco juice into a foam cup, "it's really pronounced 'to-my-club.' That's so the old man can tell his wife, 'I'm going to my club, honey,' and she doesn't really know which club. For all she knows, could be the Moose Club. Could be the Country Club."
Booth watches the action in the pit while shifting in his seat to monitor the entrance and his two grandsons--8-year-old Tom and 6-year-old Casey--who are climbing on bleachers and chasing other kids through the arena. It clearly matters who comes into this building. Booth says he wants to attract a "clean crowd. This is a family kind of place, so I watch who gets in the door." Perhaps more importantly, Booth keeps his eyes open for lawmen. The fighting is entirely legal, but the gambling isn't. Quick bets change hands among the audience members, and even bigger wagers--often in the hundreds of dollars--are quietly negotiated among cockers behind the bleachers and in the cockhouses.
From Booth, I learn the rules of the fight. The two cockers stand at opposite corners of the pit, holding their birds to their chests. The men walk to the center of the pit and push the roosters up and at each other, beak-to-beak. The practice, designed to get the birds' blood rushing, is known as "billing them up." They bill the cocks three times. The referee then draws two lines with a pool cue in the soft dirt, 8 to 10 feet apart. The cockers hold their birds to the ground, behind the lines.
"Pit!" the ref calls, and the cockers release their birds, which raise their hackles and charge, hopping, flying, and stabbing at each other in sheer frenzy. They peck, kick, and dive. One cock nearly always stands out immediately, either for his speed or aggressiveness. Each time a bird sinks a gaff into his opponent, the ref breaks for a "handle," in which both cockers must catch and hold their birds while the wounded rooster's handler pulls out the gaff. The fight restarts.
Birds fight to the death, or when injury or exhaustion incapacitates one. As a match progresses, the referee draws the line between the cocks at 18 inches. If a rooster collapses, or simply walks off from the fight (such a cowardly bird is known as a "dunghill" in cocker parlance), the referee will count him out.
The fight Booth and I are now entranced by is between a gray madigan and a claret--a gaff fight and, as it turns out, a long one. Unlike knife matches, gaff fights have no time limit. They can be protracted. The claret takes an early lead, delivering a clean puncture to the gray's gizzard, through his soft belly. I know from reading Roy's book that gizzard blows are seldom fatal, but they do cause temporary paralysis. The gray's handler moves to a dirty pan perched on a corner ledge, draws a handful of cloudy water tinged with blood, and cups the water to his rooster's back. Water--according to the folklore--may stave off paralysis for a few more seconds.
In this case, it appears to have worked. But the gray, back in battle for another round, is weak and wobbly and twice crumples into a heap. His handler, a lanky man wearing a white T-shirt smeared with swipes of chicken blood, picks the bird up, cradles him, rubs his back, and blows a series of quick breaths onto the cock's head.
"He's helping to wake him up," Booth explains. "And maybe trying to get him a little mad, too." I recall Roy Bingham's contempt for such "hocus-pocus." A rooster locked in battle, he told me, needs no extra coaching, or crooning, or kisses about the head. "He will collect himself, he's built to do that," Roy had said. "These guys are supposed to stay 6 feet behind their rooster, but the refs never call it. I wish they'd let the rooster do his job."
The man in the bloody T-shirt is desperately trying to breathe life into his flagging rooster. As its off-white hackle feathers soak with crimson blood, and its punctured breast heaves, the crowd has all but hushed.
The woman seated beside me in a gauzy pantsuit and gold costume jewelry minutes earlier had been all shouts and talk about wagers. Now she simply shakes her head. "That poor bird is dead," she says, leaning close to me. "This is just cruel. Cruel."
In the pit, the ref announces to the gray's handler, "Five seconds with his head down, and I'm gonna call it."
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Fight goes to the claret.
The gray is hanging by his feet from his owner's hands, head flopping, blood dripping, as the man exits the pit. "Is that bird dead?" I ask Booth, for I'm certain I see it moving.
"If not yet, it will be."
The man ambles over to a black, industrial-size rubber trash barrel. Drops the gray into the can, wipes his brow with a paisley bandana, and heads to the cockhouse. Here the bird--once glorious and strutting its brilliant golden wing tips and satiny breast feathers--joins dozens of other discarded carcasses heaped under greasy hamburger wrappers, empty Fritos bags, and styrofoam cups sticky with Coke residue.
Booth tells me he does business with a pet-food company that buys the carcasses and grinds them up for dog and cat kibbles. He also sells the dead birds to local cattle ranchers, who use them to bait coyote traps.
Sometimes, he concedes, the cocks hit the trash barrel still breathing. "Shock," he says. "They probably don't feel anything. And it isn't long before they die."
Richard Livesay is convinced a wounded rooster feels no pain. "It don't hurt him," he says. "He's so pumped up and everything in the pit, that when he gets cut he don't feel it."
Must be the adrenaline, cockers say. It steels the bird. Richard, who is 16, has seen it in hundreds of gamecocks. Some get gashed up pretty good and still come back to fight again. "They can heal up pretty good," he says.
Richard lives in Seminole, Texas, 30 miles from Hobbs. His dad, Bill, raises roosters--mostly blues, Richard tells me. They go to either Jal or Hobbs nearly every weekend, entering derbies right up until molting season begins in early July. During the molt, everything--practicing, pitting--comes to a grinding halt. The birds, feverish and sore to the touch as their plumage falls out, simply rest from July through December.
Bill Livesay is a respected cocker in these parts. His roosters always move up high in the standings. He's a gaff fighter. Been in love with the sport for some 20 years, he reckons.
Bill, lanky and quiet with stiff, curly hair, wears a black T-shirt silkscreened with a drawing of two cocks locked in battle on the back. Beneath the birds is the word "Palenque"--Spanish for "cockpit." His black baseball cap, pulled down close to his eyes, has another pair of fighting roosters above the red brim. Beneath them, it says, "TILL DEATH DO US PART." Chain-smoking between fights, Bill tells about how he went to his first fight at age 16. "I put some money on a chicken and he won. Two weeks later I took my winnings and bought my first rooster over in Pecos. I've been doing this ever since."
It makes Bill proud to see his boy so caught up in the sport. "It keeps him busy, alert. It takes all of us to do this," he says--including his wife and his other son, who is 5 years old. "We do this as a family. And then when I win a derby, my whole family shares in the money."
Moments earlier, Richard, an impish kid with a Tasmanian Devil ball cap, had watched his dad fighting a prized blue against an impressive-looking red hatch. "I'll give you 60 across the pit!" he called out, jumping to his feet on the top row of bleachers, pacing back and forth and trying to stir up a wager. The best Richard could get was a bet with an old man for $20.
"No one would bet me 'cause they know we got good roosters," he says. Watching his dad's fights makes him nervous. As his dad stood in the pit, stroking his bird and waiting for the pit command, Richard squirmed in his seat and beat out a rhythm on his knees.
"Pit!" the referee cried, and Richard began pep-talking his dad's blue: "That's it son! Ke-el that red. Come in tight, son! Come in tight!"
"Blues never quit," he says.
Still, several rounds later, it did not look good for the blue. Blood flowed from his neck and breast. "He got our blue all up in the breast, all up in the breast," Richard said, his voice trailing off.
"I gotta go," he blurted. "My job is to go and open up the cockhouse for my dad and help him cut the gaffs off. I gotta get there before he does, cause he's gonna need me."
Like Richard Livesay, Gary, a 40-year-old cocker who refuses to give his last name, grew up against the backdrop of cockfighting. His daddy fought roosters. And now he raises them himself on his North Fort Worth property. His birds keep him busy, but not so much that he can't stop in and help out Roy with his chickens, too.
Gary is a shirttail relative of Roy's. Learned everything he could about cocking from Roy, hanging around the shack as a kid. They built chicken pens together, taking care to put solid wood planks between each pen so the birds never see each other. That way, Roy's reasoning went, they'll remain quick and aggressive on fight day. And he learned from Roy the best feed mixes--fighting chickens eat well--tons of oats, corn, millet, and fresh fruit a year.
"This used to be a real beautiful place," Gary says, weaving between rusted oil drums in Roy's weed-choked yard. "Roy got old and sick, and it's hard for him to take care of it anymore. Sometimes he gets some of the kids in the neighborhood to help him, but they rip him off," says Gary.
"Thieving little scumbags," grumbles Roy, standing a few feet away in the tiny disc of shade beneath a tree. "I've gotta stand right out here and watch 'em or they rob me blind."
Gary can feed all of Roy's chickens in about 10 minutes. Exercises them, too. He often takes a few of the birds to a neighboring state to fight them in legal contests. Today, he's brought a red-brown of his own to show off. The bird doesn't have a real name, of course. Just call him "Big Boy," Gary says.
The language of this rooster, pacing in his pen and crowing, is easy to understand, Roy says: "Oh, he's just happy." Then Roy, generally unwilling to pick up one of his chickens, reaches into the pen for Big Boy, and demonstrates the proper way to hold a rooster: one hand on his back, the other hand between his legs and firmly gripping his belly.
Perhaps it's the oppressive heat of the 96-degree day, but the rooster is scarcely moving. His breast moves in and out in tiny pulses, and his rich red feathers are velvety, almost oily, to the touch. This subdued, glistening creature will--as early as the coming weekend, perhaps--go nobly into the cockpit, consumed only with fighting. He may very well win. Or he may not live to greet the next sunrise.
But you won't catch Roy Bingham getting too philosophical about this bird's fate.
"What else can he do but fight?" he says. "That's when he's at his best. He dies doing what he's good at. Most of us humans can't make that claim, can we
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Mayor Rawlings Takes a Probably Unconstitutional Stand Against Porn Convention
Thu., Feb. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 12, 8:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 2:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
- Dallas Police Chief David Brown Loses a Right-Hand Man
- Please Don't Kill the Nanny State Yet, at Least Not in Dallas. We Need Our Nanny.