The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

21

When Tod told Claude Estee about the cock fight, he wanted to go with him. They drove to Homer’s place together.

It was one of those blue and lavender nights when the luminous color seems to have been blown over the scene with an air brush. Even the darkest shadows held some purple.

A car stood in the driveway of the garage with its headlights on. They could see several men in the corner of the building and could hear their voices. Someone laughed, using only two notes, ha-ha and ha-ha, over and over again.

Tod stepped ahead, to make himself known, in case they were taking precautions against the police. When he entered the light, Abe Kusich and Miguel greeted him, but Earle didn’t.

“The fights are off,” Abe said. “That stinkola from Diego didn’t get here.”

Claude came up and Tod introduced him to the three men. The dwarf was arrogant, Miguel gracious and Earle his usual wooden, surly self.

Most of the garage floor had been converted into a pit, an oval space about nine feet long and seven or eight wide. It was floored with an old carpet and walled by a low, ragged fence made of odd pieces of lath and wire. Faye’s coupe stood in the driveway, placed so that its headlights flooded the arena.

Claude and Tod followed Abe out of the glare and sat down with him on an old trunk in the back of the garage. Earle and Miguel came in and squatted on their heels facing them. They were both wearing blue denims, polka-dot shirts, big hats and high-heeled boots. They looked very handsome and picturesque.

They sat smoking silently, all of them calm except the dwarf, who was fidgety. Although he had plenty of room, he suddenly gave Tod a shove.

“Get over, lard-ass,” he snarled.

Tod moved, crowding against Claude, without saying anything. Earle laughed at Tod rather than the dwarf, but the dwarf turned on him anyway.

“Why, you punkola! Who you laughing at?”

“You,” Earle said.

“That so, hah? Well, listen to me, you pee-hole bandit, for two cents I’d knock you out of them prop boots.” Earle reached into his shirt pocket and threw a coin on the ground.

“There’s a nickel,” he said.

The dwarf started to get off the trunk, but Tod caught him by the collar. He didn’t try to get loose, but leaned forward against his coat, like a terrier in a harness, and wagged his great head from side to side.

“Go on,” he sputtered, “you fugitive from the Western Costume Company, you . . . you louse in a fright-wig, you.”

Earle would have been much less angry if he could have thought of a snappy comeback. He mumbled something about a half-pint bastard, then spat. He hit the instep of the dwarf’s shoe with a big gob of spittle.

“Nice shot,” Miguel said.

This was apparently enough for Earle to consider himself the winner, for he smiled and became quiet. The dwarf slapped Tod’s hand away from his collar with a curse and settled down on the trunk again.

“He ought to wear gaffs,” Miguel said.

“I don’t need them for a punk like that.”

They all laughed and everything was fine again. Abe leaned across Tod to speak to Claude.

“It would have been a swell main,” he said. “There was more than a dozen guys here before you come and some of them with real dough. I was going to make book.” He took out his wallet and gave him one of his business cards.

“It was in the bag,” Miguel said. “I got five birds that would of won easy and two sure losers. We would of made a killing.”

“I’ve never seen a chicken fight,” Claude said. “In fact, I’ve never even seen a game chicken.”

Miguel offered to show him one of his birds and left to get it. Tod went down to the car for the bottle of whiskey they had left In a side pocket. When he got back, Miguel was holding Jujutala in the light. They all examined the bird.

Miguel held the cock firmly with both hands, somewhat in the manner that a basketball is held, for an underhand toss. The bird had short, oval wings and a heart-shaped tail that stood at right angles to its body. It had a triangular head, like a snake’s, terminating in a slightly curved beak, thick at the base and fine at the point. All its feathers were so tight and hard that they looked as though they had been varnished. They had been thinned out for fighting and the lines of its body, which was like a truncated wedge, stood out plainly. From between Miguel’s fingers dangled its long, bright orange legs and its slightly darker feet with their horn nails.

“Juju was bred by John R. Bowes of Lindale, Texas,” Miguel said proudly. “He’s a six times winner. I give fifty dollars and a shotgun for him.”

“He’s a nice bird,” the dwarf said grudgingly, “but looks ain’t everything.”

Claude took out his wallet.

“I’d like to see him fight,” he said. “Suppose you sell me one of your other birds and I put it against him.”

Miguel thought a while and looked at Earle, who told him to go ahead.

“I’ve ‘got a bird I’ll sell you for fifteen bucks,” he said. The dwarf interfered.

“Let me pick the bird.”

“Oh, I don’t care,” Claude said, “I just want to see a fight. Here’s your fifteen.”

Earle took the money and Miguel told him to get Hermano, the big red.

“That red’ll go over eight pounds,” he said, “while Juju won’t go more than six.”

Earle came back carrying a large rooster that had a silver shawl. He looked like an ordinary barnyard fowl. When the dwarf saw him, he became indignant. “What do you call that, a goose?”

“That’s one of Street’s Butcher Boys,” Miguel said. “I wouldn’t bait a hook with him,” the dwarf said. “You don’t have to bet,” Earle mumbled.

The dwarf eyed the bird and the bird eyed him. He turned to Claude.

“Let me handle him for you, mister,” he said. Miguel spoke quickly.

“Earle’ll do it. He knows the cock.”

The dwarf exploded at this.

“It’s a frame-up!” he yelled.

He tried to take the red, but Earle held the bird high in the air out of the little man’s reach.

Miguel opened the trunk and took out a small wooden box, the kind chessmen are kept in. It was full of curved gaffs, small squares of chamois with holes in their centers and bits of waxed string like that used by a shoemaker. They crowded around to watch him arm. Juju. First he wiped the short stubs on the cock’s legs to make sure they were clean and then placed a leather square over one of them so that the stub came through the hole. He then fitted a gaff over it and fastened it with a bit of the soft string, wrapping very carefully. He did the same to the other leg.

When he had finished, Earle started on the big red. “That’s a bird with lots of cojones,” Miguel said. “He’s won plenty fights. He don’t look fast maybe, but he’s fast all right and he packs an awful wallop.”

“Strictly for the cook stove, if you ask me,” the dwarf said.

Earle took out a pair of shears and started to lighten the red’s plumage. The dwarf watched him cut away most of the bird’s tail, but when he began to work on the breast, he caught his hand.

“Leave him be!” he barked. “You’ll kill him fast that way. He needs that stuff for protection.”

He turned to Claude again.

“Please, mister, let me handle him.”

“Make him buy a share in the bird,” Miguel said.

Claude laughed and motioned for Earle to give Abe the bird. Earle didn’t want to and looked meaningly at Miguel. The dwarf began to dance with rage.

“You’re trying to cold-deck us!” he screamed.

“Aw, give it to him,” Miguel said.

The little man tucked the bird under his left arm so that his hands were free and began to look over the gaffs in the box. They were all the same length, three inches, but some had more pronounced curves than the others. He selected a pair and explained his strategy to Claude.

“He’s going to do most of his fighting on his back. This pair’ll hit right that way. If he could get over the other bird, I wouldn’t use them.”

He got down on his knees and honed the gaffs on the cement floor until they were like needles.

“Have we a chance?” Tod asked.

“You can’t ever tell,” he said, shaking his extra large head. “He feels almost like a dead bird.”

After adjusting the gaffs with great care, he looked the bird over, stretching its wings and blowing its feathers in order to see its skin.

“The comb ain’t bright enough for fighting condition,” he said, pinching it, “but he looks strong. He may have been a good one once.”

He held the bird in the light and looked at its head. When Miguel saw him examining its beak, he told him anxiously to quit stalling. But the dwarf paid no attention ‘and went on muttering to himself. He motioned for Tod and Claude to look.

“What’d I tell you!” he said, puffing with indignation. “We’ve been cold-decked.”

He pointed to a hair line running across the top of the bird’s beak.

“That’s not a crack,” Miguel protested, “it’s just a mark.” He reached for the bird as though to rub its beak and the bird pecked savagely at him. This pleased the dwarf. “We’ll fight,” he said, “but we won’t bet.”

Earle was to referee. He took a piece of chalk and drew three lines in the center of the pit, a long one in the middle and two shorter ones parallel to it and about three feet away.

“Pit your cocks,” he called.

“No, bill them first,” the dwarf protested.

He and Miguel stood at arm’s length and thrust their birds together to anger them. Juju caught the big red by the comb and held on viciously until Miguel jerked him away. The red, who had been rather apathetic, came to life and the dwarf had trouble holding him. The two men thrust their birds together again, and again Juju caught the red’s comb. The big cock became frantic with rage and struggled to get at the smaller bird.

“We’re ready,” the dwarf said.

He and Miguel climbed into the pit and set their birds down on the short lines so that they faced each other. They held them by the tails and waited for Earle to give the signal to let go.

“Pit them,” he ordered.

The dwarf had been watching Earle’s lips and he had his bird off first, but Juju rose straight in the air and sank one spur in the red’s breast. It went through the feathers into the flesh. The red turned with the gaff still stuck in him and pecked twice at his opponent’s head.

They separated the birds and held them to the lines again.

“Pit ’em!” Earle shouted.

Again Juju got above the other bird, but this time he missed with his spurs. The red tried to get above him, but couldn’t. He was too clumsy and heavy to fight in the air. Juju climbed again, cutting and hitting so rapidly that his legs were a golden blur. The red met him by going back on his tail and hooking upward like a cat. Juju landed again and again. He broke one of the red’s wings, then practically severed a leg.

“Handle them,” Earle called.

When the dwarf gathered the red up, its neck had begun to droop and it was a mass of blood and matted feathers. The little man moaned over the bird, then set to work. He spit into its gaping beak and took the comb between his lips and sucked the blood back into it. The red began to regain its fury, but not its strength. Its beak closed and its neck straightened. The dwarf smoothed and shaped its plumage. He could no nothing to help the broken wing or the dangling leg.

“Pit ’em,” Earle said.

The dwarf insisted that the birds be put down beak to beak on the center line, so that the red would not have to move to get at his opponent. Miguel agreed.

The red was very gallant. When Abe let go of its tail, it made a great effort to get off the ground and meet Juju in the air, but it could only thrust with one leg and fell over on its side. Juju sailed above it, half turned and came down on its back, driving in both spurs. The red twisted free, throwing Juju, and made a terrific effort to hook with its good leg, but fell sideways again.

Before Juju could get into the air, the red managed to drive a hard blow with its beak to Juju’s head. This slowed the smaller bird down and he fought on the ground. In the pecking match, the red’s greater weight and strength evened up for his lack of a leg and a wing. He managed to give as good as he got. But suddenly his cracked beak broke off, leaving only the lower half. A large bubble of blood rose where the beak had been. The red didn’t retreat an inch, but made a great effort to get into the air once more. Using its one leg skillfully, it managed to rise six or seven inches from the ground, not enough, however, to get its spurs into play. Juju went up with him and got well above, then drove both gaffs into the red’s breast. Again one of the steel needles stuck.

“Handle them,” Earle shouted.

Miguel freed his bird and gave the other back to the dwarf. Abe, moaning softly, smoothed its feathers and licked its eyes clean, then took its whole head in his mouth. The red was finished, however. It couldn’t even hold its neck straight. The dwarf blew away the feathers from under its tail and pressed the lips of its vent together hard. When that didn’t seem to help, he inserted his little finger and scratched the bird’s testicles. It fluttered and made a gallant effort to straighten its neck.

“Pit birds.”

Once more the red tried to rise with Juju, pushing hard with its remaining leg, but it only spun crazily. Juju rose, but missed. The red thrust weakly with its broken bill. Juju went into the air again and this time drove a gaff through one of the red’s eyes into its brain. The red fell over stone dead.

The dwarf groaned with anguish, but no one else said anything. Juju pecked at the dead bird’s remaining eye.

“Take off that stinking cannibal!” the dwarf screamed.

Miguel laughed, then caught Juju and removed its gaffs. Earle did the same for the red. He handled the dead cock gently and with respect.

Tod passed the whiskey.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30