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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.