chapter 59

Cock Fight on San Miguel Creek

    The following summer found me back on The Atascosa. Johnny was

gone that year. The jailer had got to missing him over the winter, so a

deputy had been sent out to check. They found him there, still in his bed.

    I never learned where he was buried, or what name was placed on his

tombstone. Perhaps he didn't have a tombstone. I never knew.

    The truth is, I never tried to find out. I asked a few people, but nobody

knew. And I planned to try to find out, but by then we were busy, and all

the days were full and hurried. And when the season came to an end, I

had other places I had to go. So I never knew.

    But the truth is, I never really tried to find out.

    So my memory of Johnny is not of his death, but of the summers we

spent together in the dusty fields of Atascosa County. It is not the memory

of a deranged sociopath carrying a switchblade knife, but of a grinning

little Mexican man. I can still see him, gleefully slashing together the ends

of a set of jumper cables and filling the air with wild fire and insane

curses. I can still see him flying his imaginary airplane across the fields of

South Texas, and marching across the dusty Atascosa Strip to the sound of

what was undoubtedly a very different drummer.

    I can still hear the cries of "Buano!, Buano!" ringing out across the

heat-choked air. And I will always remember that happy little man,

dancing his crippled little dances, and licking at a pistachio-almond

ice-cream-cone.

    But we did have a fine adventure that season. Just the sort of

adventure that Johnny would have loved. The very sort of thing he would

probably have gotten all mixed up in had he still been around. It was the

adventure of the cockfight on San Miguel Creek.

    It began one afternoon when we were working off the Pleasanton

Airport. An old Mexican man drove up and wanted to talk to me. He was

wearing a very old, and very large Stetson, and he had on a kind of

quilted vest although it was the hottest part of the summer. He wanted to

know if I could "fly the airplane to kill the boll worm?"

    I told him that I could.

    It had been a particularly bad year for bollworms. There had been late

rains and the cotton was green and rank. I had cotton that needed

spraying all over Atascosa County and as far south as Whitsett. I was also

flying over into the eastern edge of Frio County. I was working off of four

or five different air strips and my four hands were spending as much time

driving trucks all over the countryside as they were flagging fields and

mixing chemicals. I also had milo fields with aphids moving into them, and

peanuts starting to pick up leaf-spot. We were more days behind than I

could remember, and I really wasn't looking for more work. I particularly

wasn't interested in doing small jobs in remote areas for people who were

not my regular customers.

    So when the old time Mexican man came up and wanted me to spray a

small field of cotton way down south nearly 25 miles away, I really wasn't

interested in the job.

    But this old fellow was so polite, and so dignified, and so respectful

looking, that I had to stop and listen to his problem. He would talk to me

in broken English, and then talk to Santos in fluent Spanish. He had one

small field of cotton, "I think about 21 or 22 acres, maybe only 17."

    I didn't want to do the job, but I could tell that Santos really did want to

do it. I reluctantly agreed, but explained that we had several hundred

acres ahead of him, and it would be several days before we could get to it.

This information troubled the old man greatly. "The worms, they are

eating all night, and they are eating all day," he explained gravely. Of

course, I knew that. The worms were eating everybody alive, and I had

farmers all over the countryside begging me to get their fields right away.

    I got out a county map, and the old-timer showed me exactly where his

field was located. I was surprised that he was able to quickly identify

landmarks on the map, and accurately point out his cotton field. It was on

San Miguel Creek.

    I drew it on my map and he gave me very careful instructions as to the

shape of the field, where the tree lines were, where his house and barns

were, etc. I knew I wouldn't have any trouble finding that field. It was so

small I could cover it easily with one load, and wouldn't even need to send

out a flagman.

    A small job like that was one of those things I wouldn't try to put into

my schedule. I would just slip it into the day's work whenever I had an

unexpected delay.

    I promised the old man that the first chance I got I would make a quick

flight down to San Miguel Creek and spray his cotton.

    He agreed to this, and paid me cash on the spot. He peeled it off of a

roll of seemingly ancient 20 dollar bills. He had just one more thing to say.

"Is best to come, not on the Sunday," he said. I nodded my head in

agreement. He then talked some more to Santos, who turned to me and

sternly repeated the instructions, "...is best we do this job, not on the

Sunday."

    I nodded my head some more. I figured that the old gentleman didn't

think that I should work on the Lord's day, and I didn't think much more

about it.

    Later in the day Santos brought up the subject of the little field of

cotton. He suggested that we might actually get to it that same afternoon.

He pointed out that I could make my final flight of the day to that little

cotton field, and then fly directly back to The Atascosa before sundown.

    But I didn't want to do that. I intended to fly right off the Pleasanton

Airport till dark, tie the airplane down right there, and get a good early

start in the morning.

    I was surprised that Santos was so concerned about getting that little

job done. Evidently the old gentleman was someone of high regard in the

community, and Santos wanted us to give him the best of service. I

assured Santos that we would get that little cotton field just as quickly as

we could. I knew that if it was important to Santos, it was important to

me.

    But Santos had one more word of caution, "...is best to spray this

cotton field, not on the Sunday."

    It suddenly occurred to me that the old Mexican gentleman must be a

local minister held in high esteem. I made up my mind right then. I would

spray that little cotton field the very first chance I got, and I would go out

of my way to do an extra special good job. After all, the boll weevils were

"eating all night, and eating all day."

    But as was so often the case, my sudden insights into the true nature of

things were all wrong. What I didn't understand was that that old

gentleman was not a minister, but was famous all over South Texas and

Northern Mexico as a breeder of fighting cocks.

    Although it is against the law to fight cocks in Texas, there is no law

against raising them. Throughout that part of the country individuals raise

and trade fighting cocks openly, and no one ever mentions what these

birds are to be used for. It's not that the lawmen are blind to what's going

on, its just that there is plenty of other crime going on in South Texas,

and the local sheriffs often have their hands so full they don't have any

extra time to chase after those citizens who get a kick out of watching two

chickens fight.

    Something else I didn't understand was that one of the biggest

clandestine cock fighting arenas in North America was located on San

Miguel Creek, with only a thin line of live oak trees separating it from that

20 acre cotton patch.

    Nor did I understand that the biggest cock-fighting extravaganza of the

year was to be held in that arena that very Sunday. I later learned that it

was the grand-daddy of all cock-fights, with champion cocks being brought

in for hundreds of miles around, some from as far south as Matamoros,

and even Monterrey. It was kind of "Super Bowl" of cockfights.

    Evidently this event was famous far and wide. I was later accused of

being the only grown man in Atascosa County who had never heard of it.

But I hadn't.

    During those hectic days, cock fighting was the furthest thing in the

world from my mind. I was flying my tail off. My four-man crew was

working night and day. Some days we would fly off three or even four

different airstrips.

    Some mornings I would be loading at one strip while a man was driving

25 miles to set up at a new location. Another man would be racing ahead

to flag me into the next field, while another man would be headed back to

some town for a truckload of water.

    Upon completion in one area, the mix-man would leapfrog to yet

another strip, detouring by some farmer's barn to pick up the required

insecticides. When I would finish my last pass on the first field, the

flagman would know to drive halfway across the county to a new location.

He would know that he had less than an hour to make that trip before the

airplane completed two loads in another area, and caught up to him at the

new field.

    Some days all this flying, and driving, and mixing, and fetching would

work like clockwork. But on some days the whole operation would go to

flinders. All five of us involved were constantly running, and even with

countless delays, breakdowns, and blunders, we still managed to get a

great deal of work done.

    All days were the same to me. It happened to be a Saturday that I

talked to the old Mexican gentleman, but I really didn't know what day it

was, and didn't care. I wouldn't have remembered it for five minutes if

someone had told me.

    The following day we were hard at it. At dawn I was off the Pleasanton

Airport with my first load, and on the way to meet The Kid flagging in a

cotton field several miles to the east. Santos was dropping off another

flagman in another field west of Jourdanton, and then hauling two

55-gallon drums of gasoline out to The Atascosa, where Mike was firing up

his rig and reading his cardboard box tops for the day.

    While I was finishing up with four loads out of the Pleasanton Airport,

the tank truck would be busy hauling two loads of water to The Atascosa,

and hauling a third load to a designated farm road halfway to Bigfoot. The

plan was for me to haul five loads off The Atascosa by mid-morning, and to

be landing on that farm road before noon.

    If all went according to plan, the tank truck would be parked there with

three loads ready and waiting, and The Kid would have made the almost

40 mile trip and be waiting for me in a 50 acre peanut field. By early

afternoon, we would all be meeting back at The Atascosa, and starting in

on several hundred acres of peanuts. If all went according to plan.

    By eleven o'clock I was off The Atascosa with my fifth load, and Santos

headed into the local farm & ranch store to load 30 gallons of fungicide for

the afternoon's work. When I had that load out, I flew directly to the farm

road expecting to find my tank truck ready and waiting. When I got there,

it was nowhere in sight. I flew back down the highway and finally located

the truck parked on the side of the road, and the driver making motions

toward the open hood. It was obvious that he was having some kind of

trouble.

    I flew back to The Atascosa and landed. As luck would have it, the

flagman from my second field of the morning was just then driving up. I

told him to get back in the pickup, head into town, and find Santos and

Mike. He was then to instruct them to go out the Bigfoot highway, find out

what was wrong with the truck, and fix it. Meanwhile, he was to get the 30

gallons of fungicide and return to The Atascosa.

    My new plan was to get started on our big backlog of peanut fields. We

would just skip over the little patch out toward Bigfoot until the tank truck

was back in operation.

    Meanwhile, I would just take a break. I shut down the airplane, found a

little patch of shade, and poured a cup of hot coffee out of a thermos

bottle. I got all comfortable and decided that I would just take me a little

nap.

    I had learned long ago that one problem would often lead to a chain

reaction of problems. It was kind of a crop-duster's domino theory, and

just about the only way to fight this grizzly phenomena was to gather your

wits about you and take a break.

    I had long since abandoned the more conventional plan of attack, which

was to get crazy mad, scream at everybody in sight, and demand that the

lost time be made up before sundown. That response was an absolute

guarantee that before the day was over the mix-man would spill $100

worth of chemicals, the flagman would side-swipe a gate post, and that

pilot would knock the top out of a live oak tree.

    So I sat down in the shade and got comfortable, believing as devoutly

as any African witch doctor every believed in anything that following this

ritual would soon have everything back on track.

    Just about then I remembered the 20 acres of cotton down on San

Miguel Creek. "Ah ha!" I thought. "This will be the perfect time to get that

little job out of the way

    I went over to the mixing rig and put together a batch of insecticide and

about 100 gallons of water. I also pumped on a little extra fuel since I was

going to have to fly over 20 miles to get to that little field.

    That day was a particularly nice summer day. It was not yet overly hot,

and there was a gentle breeze out of the southeast. With that light load

the airplane was flying sweet and smooth, and I felt sure that everything

was going to work out just about right.

    I knew that by the time I got back to The Atascosa the tank truck would

be fixed and on its way, and the rest of the crew would be waiting and

ready to get a fresh start just as soon as we all had a bite to eat. I was

also pleased because I knew that the Mexican gentleman would be happy

to see me spraying his cotton field the very next day after he had asked

me to do it.

    I flew to the southwest and intersected the gravel road that would lead

me almost due south into the heart of the brush country. I was searching

ahead for a little dirt road that would twist back to the east and take me

right to that cotton field. I kept glancing on my map to be sure that I knew

exactly where I was. I knew the field would be easy to find because that

little dirt road made a sharp turn just before it passed over San Miguel

Creek. My field would be on the left about a mile and a half past that

bridge.

    I soon spotted that little road and followed it to the southeast to where

it crossed over San Miguel Creek. I moved my eyes along that little road

till I knew I was looking almost exactly at the point where the field had to

be.

    From the old man's description, I knew that this would be a long narrow

field running north and south. I easily spotted it while I was still over a

mile away. I had never seen this field before, and ordinarily I would have

made a high pass over it to check it out for surprises.

    But everything was falling into place so nicely that morning that I

decided to make my approach to the field directly lined up for my first

pass. As I got closer I would continue to scrutinize the area so that if

something didn't look just right I could fly on over the field and give it a

better inspection.

    But a hundred yards out everything was looking perfectly normal, and I

made the decision to dive in and start spraying without losing any more

time. The little field was even longer and narrower that I had at first

supposed, and I saw that I would be able to cover it by making only six

long passes.

    If a man had to spray little fields, he couldn't have asked for a better

one than that one. I could see that it was free of wires, just as the old

man had promised. As I completed my first pass and pulled up over a little

line of live oak trees, something on the ground caught my eye.

    I pulled the airplane up into a steep bank and looked straight down on a

scene that left me dumb-founded. Not a hundred feet below me, in a big

dusty clearing surrounded by live oak trees, were about three hundred

human beings. There were men and women and children, and everyone of

them was standing motionless, their heads tilted back, their faces shining

around big eyes and wide open mouths. Every living soul was staring

straight at me. They were all staring at me straight in the face, and I was

staring right back at them.

    Ordinarily I would have made my turn back in the opposite direction,

and dove back into the field. But I was so mystified by the scene below I

just continued to circle in a full 360 degree turn and try to take it all in.

There seemed to be one large barn in the middle of the crowd, and many

smaller little buildings scattered all about. There were cars and trucks

parked out in the brush as far as I could see. There were horses and dogs

and mules and kids everywhere. There were several fires going, and a half

a dozen big Bar-B-Q pits.

    By the time I completed that circle I had decided that it was some kind

of big church social, or maybe a barn dance. Anyway, it didn't make any

difference to me. The wind was in the right direction and I knew that none

of my spray would drift back over the crowd. I just dove back into that

field and went on doing my job like there was nobody within miles.

    I got turned around again and headed back for my third pass. When I

pulled up over the crowd again, there seemed to be a lot more activity

than I would have expected. But I just gave it a glance, pulled up hard in

a steep turn, kicked it over, and fell back into the field.

    The next time I pulled up over that crowd things seemed to be getting

even stranger. I just couldn't understand why all those people were

running in every direction, and why some of them were actually running

off into thousands of acres of brush country to the north. There were also

all those cars and pickups. They seemed to be rushing down several little

rut roads, and spinning tires, and getting all mixed up with one another.

    After completing my final pass across that field I climbed on up to about

five  hundred feet and made a big lazy circle over the area. I couldn't

believe all the commotion that was going on. There were mothers with

kids and lawn chairs running pall-mall down dry creek beds. There were

two or three bob-wire fences in the area, and every one of them had

people scrambling through it or climbing over it.

    There were men throwing ice chests and all kind of things into pickup

trucks. Cars were bumper-to-bumper and heading two or three different

ways at once. People were running after cars and jumping into the rear

seats on the go. There was dust and chaos everywhere. Donkeys and dogs

and kids were being chased in every which direction.

    I also noted that there seemed to be an awful lot of chickens

everywhere. They were running, and flying, and fighting, usually with

several men and kids trying to catch them. Other men were running about

swinging chickens by the legs from either hand. It was plain to me that

B-B-Q chicken had been the planned meal for the day. But that was the

only thing plain to me. Something very odd was happening.

    As I headed on back to the north I could see that every road in the area

was a solid stream of cars. Some were headed north toward Charlotte.

Some were on the road to Tilden. Most of them seemed to be headed west,

toward Cotulla, where the interstate highway would take them either

north to San Antonio, or south to Laredo.

    "Well," I thought, "I've seen stranger things than that." But I couldn't

remember when.

    By the time I got back to The Atascosa the whole crew was waiting.

Actually, they weren't waiting, they were all sitting in the shade and

eating tacos. I shut down the airplane and got out. While I was helping

myself to tacos, Santos explained to me that everything was going fine.

The tank truck had been repaired and was even now on its way toward

Bigfoot.

    Just as I had expected, everything was working out right after all.

Between mouthfuls I explained to Santos that we really hadn't wasted any

time because I had gone ahead and flown that little 20-acre block of

cotton down south.

    When I told him that, his head kind of jerked back, and he gave me a

funny sideways look.

    "On San Miguel Creek?", he asked, as if he was somehow real

surprised.

    "Sure," I said, "on San Miguel Creek. You know, that little block of

cotton for that old man we talked to yesterday."

    "Today?" Santos asked again. "Today? You mean today, on Sunday?"

    "Yeah, sure, today. Whatever today is. Today. Right now, not 30

minutes ago."

    "Si," said Santos. And then he thought awhile, and rubbed his chin, and

nodded his head thoughtfully. "Si, today. Today, on Sunday."

    Then he went back to eating his tacos, and I went back to eating mine.

    Several weeks later an eyewitness told me all about it. Evidently there

had been over a hundred participants there from Mexico, most of them in

the country illegally. There was a bunch of gringos there, and a bunch of

blacks. There were Mexicans there from San Antonio, from the coast, and

from the valley. There was a motorcycle gang there, and oil field

roughnecks, maybe even a couple of lawmen on their day off. He even

swore there were two or three Chinamen there.

    Moments before I showed up on the scene, two of the most highly

touted fighting cocks on earth had just drawn first blood. The betters in

the big barn were waving money and screaming for odds like a commodity

broker on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Black

Monday.

    The first time the airplane had circled over the crowd, someone had

yelled that the Border Patrol had surrounded the area and that the

"spotter plane" was directing the whole operation. The man selling the

bootleg whiskey screamed that it was "The Feds!" and headed for the

woods. Every man present who guessed that he might just possibly have a

warrant out for his arrest, automatically assumed that it was the sheriff.

    Throughout all the turmoil a little man in a big Stetson hat rushed

around everywhere frantically trying to explain to everyone that it was "...

only the airplane that flies to kill the boll worm!" But of course, nobody

listened. The word was out, and the rush was on.

    When I finally learned about all this I didn't know whether to get mad

or get scared. "Why didn't you tell me what was going on that Sunday?" I

complained to Santos.

    He just shrugged. I could tell right away that I wasn't going to have any

luck pinning the blame on him.

    I never saw that old Mexican gentleman again. I wanted to see him, but

I was afraid to drive down on San Miguel Creek and look for him. I wanted

to see him because I thought I ought to apologize for spraying his cotton

on the Sabbath.

 

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