– Gameness til the End
Feathers fly on Saturdays In the chicken-fighting capital of Kansas
March 24, 1970
By Dick Russell
Satanta, Kansas, population 2,000, former home of the Kiowa Indian tribe, is no man’s land. The wind blows across its plains with a winter fury that seems to equate the lonely railroad tracks with the Trans-Siberian. Indeed, Moscow is just 14 miles away, deep in the southwestern corner of a state best known for its milers and its milo. Satanta, though, has something special.
There are Saturdays when maybe a hundred cars from places like Amarillo and Borger will make their way the 150 miles up the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle. Or they will rumble down Highway 56 through legendary Dodge City, past fields of pumping oil derricks and aimless cows. They will look for the sign that says MILLER’S FEED LOT, and they will park on all sides of a large graying barn. No weather will stop them, and neither will it deter the local residents, who bide their time at the Pic Theater or the Wigwam tavern on less auspicious nights. Saturdays belong to the Riverside Game Club.
The specialty at the Riverside Game Club is cockfighting, a pastime once favored by such regal personages as Julius Caesar and Henry VIII. But those were supposedly less civilized times, and today the sport is a very esoteric thing. Within the U.S. it is technically legal only in Arizona and Hawaii, but Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas have no laws against it (except on Sundays). So wealthy country gentlemen and farm kids from those bleak plains bring their birds to Satanta. They lay a bundle of cash on the line and get down in the pit to coach their charges and usually leave by midnight. And they come back Saturday after Saturday because, as they say, “It gets in your blood.”
Jim Simons, a wholesale fruit-and-vegetable dealer from Amarillo, has a ringside seat, and his eyes are fixed on the main pit, a fenced 20-by-20-foot square. “Hey, what you want to lay me, Sherrill?” he yells across. “I’ll take the white, somebody give me 10 to 8.” Sherrill Davis, who is in his early 20s and once won $3,700 in this barn his dad built, knows his gamecocks; the white is stronger, and he is taking no bets.
The main pit is bordered on both sides by smaller drag pits, to which a fight will move when the gamecocks wear down. But it is early in this match, and two fresh fowl are high in the air, wings pirouetting as they lash at each other with 21 inch artificial gaffs attached to each spur. Long beaks whiplash toward the foe as the needle-sharp gaffs curve treacherously toward a sandy brown softness. When a gaff becomes embedded the referee will holler, “Handle,” and the owners, who lean intensely over their gamecocks, will separate them and place them eight feet apart. And the sequence, opening with that midair pirouette, will start anew.
Hardrock Davis is sitting high in the south bleachers, watching about 100 people file through the doors at $2 a head. Hardrock stands 5’9″ and weighs 230 pounds, and it is primarily because of him that 14 chicken-fighters from four states have paid $100 apiece to send five cocks after a $1,500 pot. Hardrock himself has contributed $100.
Hardrock took over the Satanta operation in 1968 when it was in almost total disarray. It was not long before he had erected a new set of bleachers, added a couple dozen old Beechnut-wadded seats donated by the Sublette theater, painted everything a new white and even set up a refreshment room. Then there were the handbills—500 of them posted at Elks Lodges and VFW sites and downtown cafes and 140 weekly bulletins, mailed all over Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and New Mexico.
Hardrock is watching his 14-year-old son Chuck, who tied for the money on the previous weekend, move toward the pit. “Guess it all started here around 1959, when Wad and Floyd Brown, old Pick Forgay and Andy Jones—those two are dead now—came in with a carbon plant,” he says. “Now you get all classes of people. Be a guy here later from Texas who’s worth several million dollars and just watches. Art Kimball, down there, has fought chickens for 55 years.”
The sport, of course, goes back much farther than Art Kimball. The original gamecock, the Bankiba, lived thousands of years ago in the jungles of India. Cock-fighting came to England in the 12th century and flourished around the courts of Jameses and Henrys until an act of Parliament abolished it in 1849. By then it had found a niche in the U.S., and gamecock historians note with pride that George Washington indulged, Andrew Jackson had his own pit in the White House and Abe Lincoln was a referee. When it came time to choose our national bird, they claim, the eagle beat the gamecock by one vote.
But the days when the cultural elite could participate in cockfighting are gone forever.
“This sport is really looked down on, I mean bad,” admits Clarence Davis, no relation to Hardrock but the man who built the barn in 1960. “A lot of people get the impression we’re trash fighting chickens. But some of the finest people that walk are here tonight. I’ve raised my kids around the pit.”
He pauses, as if his mind is searching for a more concrete rationale. “You know, this is the only sport I know where the animal does not have to stand out there and fight. You take a jockey on a racehorse. He’ll whip him, use an electric shocker on him, anything to make him go on. But if a rooster gets all he wants he can leave the pit.”
Such an event does not take place in Satanta on this night. Most of the struggles are to the death, though occasionally a gamecock will become too exhausted to respond, and the match will be called under a complicated TKO system. And the guys in their Stetsons and blue jeans will leave their wives up high in the bleachers, pour another shot of bourbon out in the car and talk money along the front-row theater seats.
They are talking now about Harry Heape, a 50ish fellow in blue coveralls who in profile is a dead ringer for Spiro Agnew. He runs Harry’s Garage in Satanta and raises gamecocks for a hobby with his neighbor, Jim Cullison. Tonight Heape has won four straight matches, a feat nobody else has equaled. If he beats Junior Dewey he will be $1,500 richer.
Harry has been thinking about this night for a long time. He has been working hard the last two months on proper conditioning—feeding his roosters oats to make their plumage glossy and maybe some dog food or even dried blood. He has been building their wing power by throwing them up in the air and having them land on a foam-rubber work table and sparring them together with little handmade boxing gloves over their spurs, but never to the point of fatigue.
Finally Harry needed to choose for his season opener, and he picked five brothers, all clarets, speedy, furious fighters that needed to hit early if they were to have a chance against the more powerful hatch breed. If they survived each would have at least two weeks to recuperate before fighting again.
The weigh-in had been at 5 o’clock, and the gamecocks, which average between four and six pounds, had been matched within two ounces of each other. Nobody knew which birds would face off until the entries were brought to the pit, but Harry had already beaten some of the best. Young Chuck Davis, blood spattered all over his white jeans, had lost a long match. A Jim Simons entry had died within the first minute. Junior Dewey of Colby, Kans., who is out of the running tonight but who learned the ropes at Mike Ratliff‘s gamecock school in Texas and always fights tough, is Harry’s final obstacle.
In the pit Harry has set his gamecock down behind the eight-foot dividing line, and he stands in front of it, hands on his hips, staring hard at the light-colored bird that controls his evening’s destiny. The referee yells, “Pit!” and the two cocks move toward each other, suddenly lunging and coming together in a piston-driving impact of flying feathers. “Fifty dollars one time on Dewey,” somebody yells.
Fifteen minutes elapse. The cocks have been trading stunning blows, and each is battered, stalemated. One cock will peck, and then they will rest on or under each other as the referee counts to 10. The bird that pecked last now has the advantage; they will be separated for 20 seconds, and if the other does not respond within two more 10-counts and a final 20-count the match will end. The 10-counts become like rounds in boxing, as the cocks continue to trade brief pecks.
Harry takes water from a can and eases it onto his bird’s beak. He massages its legs gently. He breathes down its mouth, forcing air past the blood that is now clogging its lungs. You envision Angelo Dundee in a corner, working relentlessly on a bruised heavyweight champion.
“There he is, find him,” Harry implores. “Go in now, find him. Move him.” Jim Griff of Borger, who has been betting 50 to 20 on Junior Dewey, gets a quick report from the pit. “Lay me that 50-20,” says Harry. Griff nods.
More minutes pass, and the faltering gamecocks begin to resemble beleaguered marathon dancers. Jim Simons, still in his ringside seat, spies an opening. “Ain’t no way Dewey’s rooster can win,” he says. “He’s completely exhausted, comes in every time while the other is saving his energy.”
“Harry, he’s sinking fast,” somebody yells.
“Wait till he gets ahold of him where he wants him,” Harry fires back.
“I’m as give out as that rooster,” says Hardrock Davis.
And then it is over. Shortly after 11 o’clock and half an hour after he entered the pit, Harry’s fifth claret has scored a technical knockout. Junior Dewey’s gamecock is no longer able to mount an attack.
“Boy, they’re speed roosters, but they had a little of that power tonight,” Harry is saying. “The pressure was really on that last one.”
Opal Heape, who admits she doesn’t know much about gamecocks, has been watching her husband Harry tonight, and she is very proud. Phyllis, the family’s eldest daughter, is there with her 16-month-old son, Michael, and now Michael is in his grandma’s arms and watching Harry take his winning gamecock toward the cock houses in the back of the barn.
“He loves ’em,” says Opal, nodding toward the baby. “He saw his grandpa down there, and I was afraid he was gonna jump right into that pit. You know, I think he’s gonna be a chicken-fighter.”
Michael, future chicken-fighter, who understands only with a child’s eye, has become very quiet.