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192 Books and Paula Cooper Gallery presents Robert Slifkin, Elizabeth Smith and Jacob Proctor on 'The New York Tapes'

DATE 2/26/2024

A gorgeous new book on the woodblock virtuosos of the Edo period

DATE 2/24/2024

Save 75–85% at our 2024 LA Showroom Sample Sale!

DATE 2/24/2024

Artbook at Hauser & Wirth LA Bookstore presents 'Exquisite Dreams: The Art and Life of Dorothea Tanning' with Amy Lyford and Amelia Jones

DATE 2/23/2024

In Walter Pfeiffer's 'Chez Walti,' a playful, captivating dream world

DATE 2/20/2024

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DATE 2/17/2024

Artbook at Hauser & Wirth LA Bookstore presents Karen Lofgren & Carmina Escobar launching 'emBRUJAda'

DATE 2/17/2024

Arcana Books presents Yelena Yemchuk signing 'Malanka'

DATE 2/15/2024

Next-level Ellsworth Kelly



PREVIEW: Chapter One of Cockfighter
by Charles Willeford

We are pleased to feature an excerpt from PictureBox's new edition of the classic Charles Willeford novel Cockfighter, which was famously adapted for the big screen in 1974 by Monte Hellman. The book will launch in New York at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater on June 8, together with a double-feature screening of the film and Hellman's latest, Road to Nowhere. The screenings will be followed by a Q&A, then a reception with live music and books for purchase.
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
"First, I closed the windows and bolted the flimsy aluminum door. Then I flicked on the overhead light and snapped the Venetian blinds shut. Without the cross ventilation, it was stifling inside the trailer. Outside, in the Florida sunlight, the temperature was in the high eighties, but inside, now that the door and the windows were locked, it must have been a hundred degrees. I wiped the sweat away from my streaming face and neck with a dishcloth, dried my hands, and tossed the cloth on the floor. After moving Sandspur’s traveling coop onto the couch, I checked the items on the table one more time.
Leather thong. Cotton. Razor blade. Bowl of luke-warm soapy water. Pan of rubbing alcohol. Liquid lead ballpoint pencil. Sponge. All in order.
I lifted the lid of the coop, brought Sandspur out with both hands, turned the cock’s head away from me, and then held him firmly with my left hand under his breast. I looped the noose of leather over his dangling yellow feet, slipped it tight above his sawed off spur stumps, and made a couple of turns to hold it snug. Holding the chicken with both hands again, I lowered him between my legs and squeezed my knees together tight enough to hold him so he couldn’t move his wings. Sandspur didn’t like it. He hit back with both feet four times, making thumping sounds against the plastic couch, but he couldn’t get away.
I pinched off a generous wad of cotton between my left thumb and forefinger and clamped my fingers over his lemon-yellow beak. There was just enough of a downward curve to his short beak so he couldn’t jerk his head out of my fingers. He couldn’t possible hurt himself, as long as the cotton didn’t slip.
Impatient knuckles rapped on the door. Dody again. A vein throbbed in my temple. At that moment I would have given anything to be able to curse.
“How long you gonna be, Frank?” Dody’s petulant voice shrilled through the door. “I gotta go to the bathroom!”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. She rapped impatiently a couple of more times and then she went away. At least she didn’t holler anymore.
My right hand was damp again, and I wiped my fingers on my jeans, still holding Sandspur’s beak with my left thumb and forefinger. I picked up the razor blade and cut a fine hairline groove across his bill as high up as possible. This was ticklish work and I cut a trifle too deep on the right side. I dropped the razor blade back on the table and released the cock’s head. I picked up the ballpoint lead pencil with my left hand and rubbed the point across my right fingertip until it was smeared with liquid lead. Pinching off more cotton with my left hand, I caught Sandspur’s beak again and rubbed the almost invisible groove with my lead-smeared forefinger. I took my time, and Sandspur glared at me malevolently with his shiny yellow eyes.
As soon as I was satisfied, I unloosened the thong around his feet and put the bird on the table, washed his legs with luke-warm soapy water, and rubbed his breast and thighs. I repeated the rubdown with alcohol. I was particularly careful with his head and bill, only using cotton dipped in the pan of alcohol.
Finished, I returned the items to my gaff case and dumped the used soapy water and alcohol into the sink. Sandspur was a fine-looking fighting cock, and after his light rubdown he felt in fine feather. Holding his head high he strutted back and forth on the slick Masonite table. He was a Whitehackle cross in peak condition, a five-time winner, and a real money bird. I knew he would win this afternoon, but I also knew he had to win.
I stepped in close to the table, made a feinting pinch for his doctored beak and he tried to peck me. I examined his beak, and even under the close scrutiny the bill looked cracked. The liquid lead inside the hairline made the manufactured crack look authentic even to my expert eyes. As a longtime professional cocker I knew the crack would fool Mr. Ed Middleton, Jack Burke, and the accordion-necked fruit tramp bettors. I picked Sandspur up and lowered him gently into his coop.
I opened the door, but Dody was nowhere in sight. She was probably visiting inside one of the other trailers in the camp. After sliding up all the windows again I lit a cigarette and sat down. What I had done to Sandspur’s bill wasn’t exactly illegal, but I didn’t feel too proud about it. I only wanted to boost the betting odds and my slender roll.
Although I knew I couldn’t possibly lose, I was apprehensive about the fight coming up. Everything I had, including my old Caddy and my Love-Lee-Mobile Home, was down on this single cockfight. And Sandspur was the only cock I had left. In my mind, I reviewed my impulsive bet. I had been a damned fool to bet the car and trailer.

At four that morning I had slid out of bed without waking Dody and switched on the light. Dody slept like a child, mainly because she was a child. The girl was only sixteen. I had picked her up in Homestead, Florida, three weeks before at a juke joint near the trailer camp where I had been staying. Her parents had their trailer in the Homestead camp, and Dody was only one out of their five children. It was a family of fruit tramps, and I doubt very much if they even missed her when I took her away with me. I wasn’t the first man to sleep with Dody, not by any means. There had been dozens before me, but seeing her asleep and vulnerable that morning made me feel uneasy about our relationship. She was awfully damned young. At thirty-two, I was exactly twice as old as Dody.
It was too hot in Belle Glade to have even a sheet over you, and Dody lay on her back wearing a flimsy cotton shorty nightgown. She slept with her mouth open, her long taffy-colored braids stretched out on the pillow. Her face was flushed with sleep, and she didn’t look twelve years old, much less sixteen. Her body was fully mature, however, with large melon-heavy breasts, and long tapering legs. In her clumsy, uninhibited way she was surprisingly good in bed. She was as strong as a tractor, but not quite as intelligent.
I felt sorry for Dody. She didn’t have much to show for her life so far. With her parents, she had followed crops all over the country—staying locked in a car by a field someplace until she was big enough to carry baskets—and this constant exposure to the itinerant agricultural worker’s lackadaisical code of living had made her wise beyond her age. After spending the night with me in my trailer in Homestead, she had begged to be taken along, and I brought her with me to Belle Glade. Why I weakened I don’t know, but at the time I had been depressed. I had lost four birds in the Homestead fighting, and if Sandspur hadn’t won his fight, the Homestead meet would have been a major disaster. But three weeks is a long time to live with a young, demanding girl—and a stupid, irritating girl, at that.
Anyway, it was four a.m. I dressed and took Sandspur outside and around to the back of the trailer.
It was still dark and I wanted to flirt him for exercise. A cooped bird gets stale in a hurry. I sidestepped the chicken six times, gave him six rolls, and let him drink a half dip of water. He would get no more water until after the fight. When the sky began to lighten I released him. Sandspur lifted his head and crowed twice. I lit my first cigarette of the day. As I watched the cock scratch in the loose sand, a shadow fell across my face. I looked up and there was Jack Burke, a wide grin splitting his homely face. I scooped Sandspur up quickly, dropped him into the coop and closed the lid. Burke had seen him, but there still wasn’t enough light for a close look.
“That the mighty Sandspur?” Burke said.
I nodded.
“He don’t look like no five-time winner to me. Tell you what I’ll do, Mr. Mansfield,” Burke said, as though he were doing me a big favor, “I’ll give you two to one.”
When Burke made this offer, I had just started to get to my feet. But now I decided to remain in my squatting position. Burke is a man of average height, but I am a full head taller than he is, and my eyes are bluer. My blond hair is curly, and his lank blond hair is straight. Looking down on me that way gave him a psychological advantage, a feeling of power, and I wanted him to have it—hoping that his overconfidence would help me get even better odds that afternoon.
Burke had written me a postcard to Homestead, challenging Sandspur to the fight at even money. I had accepted by return mail, glad to get a chance to look at his Ace cock, Little David. Little David wasn’t so little in his reputation. He was an eight-time winner and had had a lot of publicity. When my Sandspur beat Burke’s Little David, his value would be doubled, and my chances for taking the Southern Conference championship would be improved.
On the drive from Homestead to Belle Glade, I had thought of the crack-on-the-bill plan, and now I didn’t want even money or two to one either. After the bettors looked at the birds before pitting, I expected to get odds of four to one, at least. I had eight hundred and fifty dollars in my wallet and I didn’t want to take Burke’s offer, but after accepting an even-money fight by mail, I couldn’t legitimately turn down the new odds.
I snapped my fingers out four times, folded in my thumb, and held up four fingers. I nodded twice.
“You mean you’ve only got a hundred dollars to bet?” Burke said, with a short angry laugh. “I figured on taking you for at least a thousand!”
I pointed to the coop and lifted a forefinger to show Burke I only had the one cock. He knew very well I had lost four birds at Homestead. By this time, everybody in Florida and half of Georgia knew it.
Jack Burke followed the Cocker’s Code of Conduct, and he was honest, but he disliked me. Although my luck had been mostly bad for the last three years, four years before at Biloxi my novice stag, Pinky, had killed his Ace, Pepperpot. He would never be able to forgive or forget that beating. Pinky had won only one fight against five for his cock, and Burke had taken a terrific loss at five-to-one odds. More than the money he had lost, he had resented my winning. A columnist in The Southern Cockfighter had unfairly blamed his conditioning methods for the loss. Actually, Pinky had only made a lucky hit. A man is foolish to fight stags, but I had needed the young bird to fill out my entry for the main—not expecting to clobber Pepperpot.
Burke studied the ground, rubbing his freshly shaven chin. He was in his middle forties, and he wore his pale, yellow hair much too long. He paid considerable attention to his clothes. Even at daybreak he was wearing a blue seersucker suit, white shirt and necktie, and black-and-white shoes. Two-toned shoes indicate an ambivalent personality, a man who can’t make up his mind.
“Okay, Mr. Mansfield,” Burke said at last, slapping his leg. “I’ll take your hundred dollars and give you a two-to-one. I know damned well Sandspur can’t beat Little David, but your cock always has a chance of getting in a lucky hit…the way Pinky did in Biloxi, for instance. So let’s say you really get lucky—what do you have? Two hundred dollars. To give you a fighting chance to get on your feet again after Homestead, I’ll put up eight hundred bucks against your car and trailer. Even money.”
I chewed my lower lip, but the bet was fair. My battered Caddy was worth at least eight hundred, but I didn’t know what the trailer was worth. Secondhand trailers bring in peculiar prices, and mine was fairly small, with only one bedroom and one door. If I unloaded the car and trailer through a newspaper advertisement, I could’ve probably sold them both together for at least a thousand. Burke wanted to beat me so bad he could taste it. And if Little David won, I’d be out on the highway with my thumb out.
I stuck out my right hand and Burke grabbed it eagerly. The bet was made.
“Too bad you haven’t got anything else to lose,” Burke laughed gleefully. “I’d like to make another bet that you just made a bad bet!”
My lips curved into a broad smile as I thought of Dody sleeping peacefully inside the trailer. In the unlikely event that Burke’s cock did win the fight, he would also be stuck with Dody. When I pictured Burke in my mind stopping at every gas station on the road to buy Dody ice cream and Coca-Colas it was impossible to suppress my smile. On the way up from Homestead she had damned near driven me crazy.
But now the bet was made.

I consulted my wristwatch. Two thirty. It was time to go. Bill Sanders was going to meet me outside the pit at three to pick up my betting money. I stashed a hundred dollars in the utensil cupboard to cover my two-to-one bet with Burke, counted the rest of my money, and it came out to an even seven hundred and fifty dollars. That was everything, except for a folded ten-dollar bill in my watch pocket. This was everything, except for a folded ten-dollar bill in my watch pocket. This was my getaway bread—just in case.
I put my straw cowboy hat on my head to protect my face from the Florida sun, picked up the aluminum coop and my gaff case, and stepped outside. There were fourteen trailers in Captain Mack’s Trailer Camp, including mine, and if you had touched any one of them, you would have burned your hand. In the distance, across the flat, desolate country, I could see Belle Glade, three miles away. The heat wave rising off the sandy land resembled great sheets of quivering cellophane. I turned away from the trailers and started toward the hammock clump a mile away where the pit had been set up. As hot as it was, I was in no mood to unhitch my car from the trailer and work up a worse sweat than I had, and the walk was only a mile.
There was a wire gate behind the camp, with an old-timer collecting an entrance fee of three dollars. I raised my coop to show him I was an entrant, and he let me through without collecting a fee. As I passed through the gate, Dody came flying up the trail, pigtails bouncing on her shoulders. She was barefooted, wearing a pair of red silk hot pants and a white sleeveless blouse. Her big unhampered breasts jounced up and down as she ran.
“Frank!” she called out before she reached the gate. “Take me with you! Please, Frank!”
The gateman, a grizzled old man in blue overalls, raised his white brows. I shook my head. He closed and latched the gate as Dody reached it.
“Damn you, frank!” Dody shouted angrily. “You don’t let me do nothin’. You know I’ve never seen you cockfight. Please let me go!”
I ignored her and continued up the trail. I had enough to worry about, without her yammering around the pit and asking questions.
Captain Mack, who had made all the arrangements for the Belle Glade pitting, was talking earnestly to a Florida trooper when I reached the parking area. The trooper’s state patrol car was parked directly behind a new convertible with a Dade County plate. The right door of the convertible was open, and a pretty blonde woman sat in the front seat. Her face was pale, and she had her eyes closed, breathing deeply through her open mouth. There was a wet spot in the sand outside the door. I supposed the girl had watched a couple of fights inside the pit and got sick as a consequence. Not many city women have the same stomach for watching cockfights.
The pit was surrounded on four sides by a green canvas panorama made from army surplus latrine screens. There were about thirty cars in the parking area, not counting the trucks. I set down my gaff case and coop in the sparse shade of a melaleuca tree, and leaned against a parked Plymouth, watching Captain Mack argue with the trooper. Captain Mack shrugged wearily, took his wallet out of his hip pocket, and handed two bills to the trooper. Through a gap in the canvas wall, they went inside the pit. Although cockfighting is legal in Florida, betting is not, so Captain Mack had been forced to pay out some protection money.
There was excited shouting from inside the pit, followed by several coarse curses, and then the voices subsided. Mr. Ed Middleton’s baritone carried well as he announced the winning cock.
“The winner is the Madigan! One minute and thirty-one seconds in the third pitting!”
Again there were curses, followed by the derisive sound of laughter. I lit a cigarette, took my notebook out of my shirt pocket, and wrote the essential information concerning Sandspur on a fresh sheet of paper. A few minutes later Bill Sanders came outside and joined me beneath the tree. I handed him my roll of seven hundred and fifty dollars and he counted it. Bill put the money in his trousers and watched my fingers. I held up four fingers on my left hand and my right forefinger.
“I doubt if I can get you four to one, Frank.” Bill shook his head dubiously. “Your reputation is too damn good. You could show up with a battered dunghill, and if these redneckers thought you fed it, they’d bet on it. But I’ll try.
If anybody could get good odds for me, Sanders could, and I knew he would certainly try. When I was discharged from the Army, I had spent two months in Puerto Rico with Sanders, living in the same hotel; and we had attended mains at all the best game clubs—San Juan, Mayagüez, Ponce, Arecibo, and Aibonito. I had steered Sanders right on the betting, after I had gotten accustomed to the fighting techniques of the Spanish slashers, and both of us had returned to Miami with our wallets full of winnings. Bill Sanders was not a professional cockfighter like myself, he was a professional gambler. He had lost his share of the money he won in Puerto Rico at the Miami horse and dog tracks. A little bald guy with a passion for high living, he lived very well when he had money and even better when he had none. He was that kind of a man, and a good friend.
I took Sandspur out of his coop and pointed out the “cracked” beak. Bill whistled softly and his blue eyes widened.
“If that bill breaks off, you’ve had it, Frank.” He shrugged. “But that mutilated boko should get me the four-to-one odds.”
Sanders hit me lightly on the shoulder with his fist and returned to the pit.
I held Sandspur with my left hand, filled my mouth with smoke, and blew the smoke at his head. He clucked angrily, shaking his head. Blowing tobacco smoke at a cock’s head irritates it to a fighting pitch, and I was smoking a mild, mentholated cigarette. I enveloped the cock’s head with one more cloud of smoke and returned him to his coop. Too much smoke could make a cock dizzy.
I opened my gaff case and removed two sets of heels. I put a pair of short spurs in my left shirt pocket and a pair of long jaggers in my right shirt pocket. After shutting my gaff case, I picked up the coop and case and entered the pit.
There were only about sixty spectators inside, but this was a fairly good crowd for September. The Florida cockfighting season didn’t start officially until Thanksgiving Day, when an opening derby was held in Lake Worth. And Belle Glade isn’t the most accessible town in Florida. The canvas walls successfully prevented any breeze from getting into the pit, and it was as hot inside as a barbecue grill.
I recognized a couple of Dade County fanciers and nodded acknowledgments to them when they greeted me by name. There was a scattering of Belle Glade townspeople, two gamblers from Miami who probably owned the blonde and the convertible, Burke and his two handlers, and two pregnant women I had seen around the trailer camp. The remainder of the crowd was made up from the migrant agricultural workers’ camp on the other side of town.
The cockpit was made of rough boards, sixteen inches high, and about eighteen feet in diameter. The pit was surrounded on three sides by bleachers, four tiers high. Under an open beach umbrella on the fourth side of the pit, Mr. Middleton sat at a card table with Captain Mack. Behind the table there was a blackboard. I noted that Jack Burke had won both of the short-entry derbies, the first, four-one, and the second, three-two. That accounted for the glum expressions on the faces of the two Dade County breeders. Not only had they made a poor showing, their one-hundred-dollar entry fees, less Captain Mack’s ten percent, had wound up in Burke’s pocket as prize money.
Two men in the bleachers I didn’t know called out my name and wished me good luck. I waved an acknowledgment to them, and joined Ed Middleton and Captain Mack. I removed Sandspur from the coop and handed the slip of paper to Mr. Middleton. Jack Burke and his handler, Ralph Hansen, came over. The handler was carrying Little David. Mr. Middleton produced a coin.
“Name it, gentlemen,” he said.
“Let Mr. Mansfield call it,” Burke said indifferently.
I tapped my forehead to indicate “heads.” Mr. Middleton tossed the half dollar into the air and let it land with a thump on the card table. Heads. I reached into my left shirt pocket, pulled out the short gaffs, and held them out in my open palm. They were hand-forged steel gaffs, an inch and a quarter in length. Burke nodded grimly and turned to his handler.
“All right, Ralph,” he said bitterly. “Short spurs, but set ’em low.”
Burke was a long gaff man, but I preferred the short heels. Sandspur was a cutter and fought best with short gaffs. Little David was used to long three-inch heels. Winning the toss had given Sandspur a slight advantage over Little David.
The cockfight between Sandspur and Little David was an extra hack, and I had not, of course, been required to post any entry fee. However, Mr. Middleton examined both cocks with minute attention. He was acting as judge and referee and had received at least a minimum fee of one hundred and fifty dollars, plus expenses, from Captain Mack. The judge of a cockfight has to be good, and Ed Middleton was one of the best referees in the entire South. His word in the pit was law. There is no appeal from a cockfighter judge’s decision. As sole judge-referee, Ed Middleton’s jurisdiction encompassed spectator betting as well. The referee’s job has always been the most important at a cockfight. As every cocker knows, for example, honest Abe Lincoln was once a cockpit referee during his lawyer days in Illinois. Hard and fair in his decisions, and as impersonal as doom, Ed Middleton was fully aware of the traditional responsibilities of the cockpit referee.
After completing his examination of the cocks to see that they were not soaped, peppered or greased and that they were trimmed fairly, Mr. Middleton stepped back to the table.
“Southern Conference rules, gentlemen?” he asked.
“What else?” Burke said.
Captain Mack held Sandspur while Jack Burke examined him, and I took a close look at Little David. Burke’s chicken was a purebred O’Neal Red and as arrogant as a sergeant-major in the Foreign Legion. Although I had never seen Little David fight before, I had followed his previous pittings in The Southern Cockfighter, and I knew that he liked aerial fighting. But so did Sandspur fight high in the air, and my cock was used to short gaffs. The three additional wins Little David had over Sandspur didn’t worry me when I had such an advantage.
Burke tapped me on the shoulder and grinned. “If I’d known your chicken had him a cracked bill, I’d have given you better odds.”
I shrugged indifferently and sat down on the edge of the pit to arm my cock. I opened my gaff case, removed a bottle of typewriter cleaning solvent and cleaned Sandspur’s spur stumps. Most cockers use plain alcohol to clean spurs, but typewriter solvent is fast-drying and, in my opinion, removes the dirt easier. After fitting tight chamois-skin coverings over both spurs, I slipped the metal sockets of the short heels over the covered stumps and tied them with waxed string, setting them low and a trifle to the outside. The points of the tapered heels were as sharp as needles and a man has to be careful when he arms a cock. I had a puckered puncture scar on my right forearm caused by a moment of carelessness seven years before, and I didn’t want another one.
The betting had already started, but the crowd quieted down when Mr. Middleton stepped into the pit. They listened attentively to his announcement.
“This is an extra hack, gentlemen,” he said loudly. “Little David versus Sandspur. Southern Conference rules will prevail. No time limit, and short gaffs. Little David is owned by Mr. Jack Burke of Burke Farms, Kissimmee, Florida. He’s an Ace cock, with eight wins and will be two years old in November. Little David will be handled by Mr. Ralph Hansen of Burke Farms.”
The crowd gave Little David a nice hand, and Mr. Middleton continued.
“Sandspur is owned by Mr. Frank Mansfield of Mansfield Farms, Ocala, Florida, and he will handle his own chicken. Sandspur is a five-time winner and a year and a half old. Both cocks will fight at four pounds even.”
Sandspur got a better hand than Little David, and the applause was sustained by the two Dade County breeders who wanted him to beat Burke’s cock. Mr. Middleton examined Sandspur’s heels and patted me on the shoulder. Many cockers resent the referee’s examination of a cock’s heels, but I never have. A conscientious referee can help you by making a final check. Once the fight has started and your cock loses a metal spur, it cannot be replaced.
As Mr. Middleton crossed the pit to examine Little David, I watched the flying fingers of the bettors. The majority of the betting at cockfights is done by fingers—one finger for one dollar, five for five dollars, and then up into the multiples of five—and I was an expert in this type of betting. I had learned finger betting in the Philippines when I was in the army and didn’t understand Tagalog, and I had also used the same system in Puerto Rico, where I didn’t understand Spanish very well. Little David was the favorite, getting two-to-one, and in some cases three-to-one odds.
Bill Sanders, Jack Burke and the two Miami gamblers were in a huddle next to the canvas wall. Both gamblers were staring across the pit at Sandspur while Sanders and Burke talked at the same time. Sanders had a roll of money in his hand and was talking fast, although I couldn’t hear his voice from where I was sitting beside the pit.
A fistfight broke out on the top tier of seats between two fruit tramps, and one of them was knocked off backward into the stands, the state trooper had an armlock on him and made him sit down on the other side of the pit. When I looked back to Bill Sanders, he was smiling and holding up three fingers.
So Bill had got three-to-one. That was good enough for me. When Sandspur won, I’d be $2,250 ahead from the Miami gamblers, plus $1,000 more from Jack Burke. $3,250. This would be more than enough money to see me through the Southern Conference season, and enough to purchase six badly needed fighting cocks besides.
“Get ready!” Mr. Middleton yelled. I stood up, stepped over the edge of the pit, and put my toes on the back score. The backscore lines placed us eight feet away from each other. Ralph Hansen, holding Little David under the chest with one hand, called impatiently to the referee.
“How about letting us bill them first, Mr. Middleton?”
Billing is an essential prelude to pitting. Ed Middleton didn’t need the reminder. “Bill your cocks,” he growled.
We cradled our fighters over our left arms, holding their feet, and stood sideways on our center scores, two feet apart, so the cocks could peck at each other. These cocks had never seen each other before, but they were mortal enemies. Ed allowed us about thirty seconds for the teasing and then told us to get ready. Ralph backed to his score and I returned to mine. I squatted with his feet on the score. The cocks were exactly eight feet apart.
I watched Mr. Middleton’s lips. This was a trick I had practiced for many hours on end and I was good at it. Before a man can say the letter “P” he must first compress his lips. There isn’t any other way he can say it. The signal to release the cocks is when the referee shouts “Pit” or “Pit your cocks!” the handler who releases the tail of his cock first on the utterance of the letter “P” has a split-second advantage over his rival. And in the South, where “Pit” is often a two-syllable word, “Pee-it,” my timing was perfect.
“Pit!” Mr. Middleton announced, and before the word was out of his mouth Sandspur was in the air and halfway to Little David. The cocks met in midair, both of them shuffling with blurred yellow feet, and then they dropped to the ground. Neither cock had managed to get above the other.
With new respect for each other, the two birds circled, heads held low, watching each other warily. Little David feinted cleverly with a short rush, but Sandspur wasn’t fooled. He held his ground, and Burke’s cock retreated with his wings fluttering at the tips.
As he dropped back, Sandspur rose with a short flight and savagely hooked the gaff of his right leg into Little David’s wing. The point of the heel was banged solidly into the bone and Sandspur couldn’t get it dislodged. He pecked savagely at Little David’s head, and hit the top of the downed cock’s dubbed head hard with his bill open . . . too hard.
The upper section of Sandspur’s bill broke off cleanly at the doctored crack I had made. A bubble of blood formed, and Sandspur stopped pecking. Both cocks struggled to break away from each other, but the right spur was still stuck, and all Sandspur could do was hop up and down in place on his free leg. I looked at Mr. Middleton.
“Handle!” the judge shouted. “Thirty seconds!”
A moment later I disentangled the gaff from Little David’s wing and retreated to my starting line. I put Sandspur’s head in my mouth and sucked the blood from his broken beak. I licked the feathers of his head back into place and spat as much saliva as I could into his open mouth. For the remaining seconds I had left I sucked life into his clipped comb. The comb was much too pale . . .
“Get ready!” I held Sandspur by the tail on the line. “Pit your cocks!”
Instead of flying into the air, Sandspur circled for the right wall. Little David turned in midair, landed running, and chased my cock into the far corner. Sandspur turned to fight, and the cocks met head on, but my injured bird was forced back by the fierceness of Little David’s rush.
On his back, Sandspur hit his opponent twice in the chest, drawing blood both times, and then Little David was above him in the air and cutting at his head with both spurs. A sharp gaff entered Sandspur’s right eye, and he died as the needle point pierced his central nervous system. Little David strutted back and forth, pecked twice at my lifeless cock, and then crowed his victory.
“The winner is Mr. Burke’s Ace,” Mr. Middleton announced, as a formality. “Twenty-eight seconds in the second pitting.”
All I had left was a folded ten-dollar bill in my watch pocket and one dead chicken."

Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Chapter One of Cockfighter by Charles Willeford



Pbk, 5 x 8 in. / 304 pgs.