Chicken Man

On the way to Galveston, Santa Fe is little more than a clearing in the woods. The few streets bear letters of the alphabet but seem to proceed at random, and Jimbo Bradshaw is pretty sure "the goddamn town was laid out by drunks on a napkin."

Jimbo's particular pasture is reverting to wilderness. On the side of the road, he lives in an old trailer, surrounded by all he holds dear: the four pickups, the two refrigerators, some cans and tools and mechanical parts, everything in an advanced state of decay. His companions are six dogs of vague origin, 18 inbred cows and roughly 300 chickens. Jimbo is proudest of the chickens but says it takes everything he's got to keep them alive.

He vaccinates them and administers antibiotics. After 20 drowned in a heavy rain, he rearranged the cow manure to raise the level of the land. When the Spanish rooster collapsed in the heat, Jimbo ran with the bird into the air-conditioning. He held it under a fan and even soaked its feet in ice water. "I did everything but kiss his ass," Jimbo rued, "and the sumbitch still died."

All of this he does before dealing with the predators. "Chickens are the mullet of the land," he explained. They were put here to be eaten, and nearly everything eats them. Because fire ants will kill a hatchling before it's out of the shell, Jimbo poisons the fire ants monthly. Mosquitoes can bleed a chick dry, so three times this year, Jimbo has mixed malathion with his lawn-mower fuel. But he can do nothing to prevent nightfall. The rats come then to eat the eggs, and the owls arrive with the raccoons, coyotes and wolves to devour everything else. Jimbo cannot calculate how many predawn mornings he has rushed out "into that wet-ass grass in my underwear," carrying a rifle. Often he has left the problem to his dogs; more than once the problem has been too large. He shakes his head remembering the discovery of a dead dog, and how "the goddamn buzzards already ate everything but her head."

When the predators eat his chickens, Jimbo knows it is in accord with the law of the jungle, which may be the only law he has never questioned. "It's always been the strong who survive," he says. "That's just the way of the world." But Jimbo and his chickens have worked a deal on the law of the jungle. He is not breeding chickens to become anyone's meal, but to do what a chicken does least well of all, which is fight. Jimbo Bradshaw claims to have some of the meanest killer chickens around, and there are people who will pay for such things. The deal is this: If the chickens will fight for Jimbo, Jimbo will fight for the chickens. In this way, they may both survive a little longer.

He is 55 years old but looks 70. Jimbo's eyes assess you without betraying emotion, and the weight of everything he has ever eaten seems to hang from his stomach.

It was not Jimbo's fault that his mother and father were poor and "bighearted," in a country where strength is money. A long time ago, his father was a painter in Galveston, and Jimbo explained that all painters back then were alcoholics: The lead in the paint would damage their brains, and the brain damage would lead them to drink. His father supplemented the family income by hunting and selling raccoons. Jimbo recalls a primary diet of red beans and baked raccoon and the most delicious tomatoes grown in the waste of his father's 27 dogs.

He was physically a sound human specimen. As proof of that, he says he was captain of his football team in junior high. Academics, however, failed to hold his interest, and in the tenth grade Jimbo dropped out. He had a painting job to work that paid $1.50 an hour and "never thought I'd see a poor day."

Jimbo painted the Lipton Tea Building. He painted the Shriner Burn Center and the Flagship Hotel, the Galveston Daily News and quite a few buildings at NASA. But his claim to fame, he believes, is the brush he had with Bum Phillips's house. Jimbo speaks of the soft carpet there in tones others reserve for the Taj Mahal.

Painting was a contract job, and it was hard and often not steady work. Jimbo learned to get by on "wit and grit -- what I begged, borrowed or stole." At one point, like his daddy, he turned to the woods for his living. He spent a season up on Gator Lake, trapping raccoons and otters and bobcats. The coonskins he sold for $1.50, the heads for $1 and the "Arkansas toothpicks" for 50 cents. "A lot of people don't know a coon has a bone for a peter," but Jimbo did.  

Jimbo lived with relatives and borrowed from neighbors. He found deals everywhere. He bought a "damn good refrigerator" for $30, and found a friend who would sell his employer's gas allotment for half price. Jimbo liked to tell people that he ate only steak. What he didn't always say was that the steak was marked down and on the verge of spoiling.

He walked a narrow line, and sometimes fell. There were a few drug charges along the way, and most seriously, an indiscretion involving a wig, a shotgun and a supermarket. In all, Jimbo spent nine years in prison. Three women married him, and three women walked away. Jimbo claims not to know what happened to his marriages. "What happens to any of them?" he says.

Over time, he developed political views, most of them concerning people who try to make life difficult for Jimbo. If the responsibility of caring for the poor is returned to the churches, Jimbo knows from experience the poor will be in trouble. As for the Lotto, "let me tell you what that is: All that is is a rich man's way to get the poor man to pay his income tax." And you know what game laws are about, don't you. Those game wardens just want to make money to hire more game wardens.

"It's flusterating," says Jimbo. If he were a chicken, he would probably be dead by now, he figures. "Probably would have stuck my neck out, you know, and had my head pecked off."

Jimbo's interest in chickens began with John Kelso, who seems the nearest approximation to a friend that Jimbo has ever had. Jimbo produced a photograph of the old man grinning toothlessly beneath a cowboy hat, "the last picture Kelso took before they removed his ear." Kelso had skin cancer, and perhaps realizing that he was nearing conclusion, he used to sit out past dark, swatting mosquitoes under an oak tree on his farm, telling Jimbo stories of his life -- how it was he who grew the last bale of Egyptian cotton in Galveston County, and he who had driven the last wild horses across the Galveston causeway, and he who had been savvy enough to sell diseased hogs to the meatpacker, who had dropped them into a giant blender and whipped them, hair, hoof and all, into dog food.

Jimbo moved his trailer onto the old man's land, agreeing in return to feed Kelso's inbred cows. Jimbo began feeding them old bread and ham sandwiches, doughnuts and even candy. Opening the wrappers was the hardest part. It was Kelso's idea:Why should cows eat better than men? The food was only the leftovers from meals Jimbo and Kelso had begun sharing in the closeness of a Dumpster. Jimbo would quail before a specific item of garbage, and Kelso would offer moral support. Go on, try it, the old man would say. "I've been eating garbage for 50 years, and it ain't killed me yet."

At the time, Jimbo had scrounged up an old boat and was gigging flounder in the Galveston tidelands. A restaurant bought his fish for about $2 a pound, and Jimbo figured he was doing all right until the Fish and Wildlife Commission reduced his limit, and he lost a finger in the motor.

He thought he might enjoy working at home, but it was only out of kindness, he claims, that he became the owner of chickens. An alcoholic he knew was neglecting his birds, and Jimbo was suddenly seized with pity. "Man, this is terrible," he said. Five years ago Jimbo brought the chickens home to Kelso's farm, having paid a chicken-fighter's widow $100 for the pens.

It was only coincidence, he also insists, that these chickens were the famed Kelso gamecocks. Jimbo had found them running around loose, but he was sure they were the direct descendants of the chickens bred 70 years before by Walter Kelso, the Galveston cement contractor. Jimbo went to his friend, John, and convinced him to pose for an ad. John Kelso had nothing to do with gamecocks, but there he is in The Feathered Warrior, smiling with a chicken in his arms. "Pure Kelso Cocks For Sale," the ad reads. "First Time in U.S. By John Kelso, Nephew of W.A. (Walter) Kelso."

Jimbo quickly developed an interest in cockfighting. He began subscribing to both The Feathered Warrior and Grit & Steel. He collected cockfighting accounts from a half-century ago, in which the twitches of chickens were recorded like the left hooks of Joe Louis. "They slammed together in an awful furious first, so fast and short we couldn't tell who was in….It went beak to beak in the 14th, as Red slowly chopped Grey's head off."  

He knew nothing about the care of gamecocks, and to learn, Jimbo bought Charlie Carr's how-to video, The Modern Keep. He tried to follow Charlie's chief advice: "Use your head. It hurts. It's hard to do. It ain't fun. But think."

Chickens lack that capacity, Jimbo realized. They live by instinct, and so what you desire in a chicken, you must get in the breeding. You want big bones, a small head and long wings. You want a chicken that will jump up, keep his head back, hit what he aims for and be ready to hit again. You want a bird, in short, that will stand up for you, a brave and noble warrior who will die pecking. If, in the face of death, your bird should fly the pen, you will have suffered the cockfighter's worst defeat. "It ain't never happened to me," Jimbo says quietly, "but I know it's embarrassing."

The Kelsos bestowed on Jimbo a sense of pedigree he had never had. He worked to improve the line. What weaklings were not naturally selected, Jimbo chose and fed to the albino python. Since he had begun with only 20 chickens, he soon realized inbreeding was the only option. Jimbo learned the dos and don'ts of that. Do breed father to daughter, but never brother to sister. Your chickens will get too small. Do try to introduce fresh genes when you can, but be careful. Should your line be corrupted by a coward, you can try and try, but inbreeding will never make you pure.

The flock grew. Shipping gamecocks across the country, Jimbo eventually began grossing about $10,000 a year. After expenses he was left with a "good living" of $4,000. Jimbo became invested in his chickens, and the deeper he got, the more ardent he became about another political view. It was the "humaniacs" who drew his wrath now.

The Humane Society and people like them have outlawed cockfighting in 47 states. They are trying to outlaw it in all 50, but cock breeders are most alarmed about a bill in Congress to prohibit the transport of game chickens across state lines. "We are talking about the planned destruction of a life form on this planet -- American Gamefowl: Americanus Kickassus -- and the destruction of many people's livelihoods," one cockfighter wrote on-line. The cockfighters argue whether they should march to the White House with roosters in their arms, or go on as they always have, fighting behind the barn. The debate goes back and forth on the cockfighting Web site, among the cockfighting elite who know what a Web site is. Jimbo isn't one of them. He rantsalone.

"It don't make no goddamn sense," he says, that so many people are opposed to cockfighting in a country where every citizen consumes upward of 30 pounds of chicken a year. Gamecocks live longer and better than broiler chickens and have their fighting chance to survive. Jimbo goes on and on about the leather-wearing, chicken-eating anti-chicken-fighters.

"Them people got too much time on their hands," he concludes. "Need to get them some chickens."

A rooster's tail feathers grow in by the age of two, at which point he is judged fully mature and able to defend his "manhood." In his rusting, cracked-up van, Jimbo set off with five such chickens one Sunday for the fights in Louisiana.

Traveling with chickens is "an extremely difficult thing to do," according to Charlie Carr. A rooster must have fresh air at all times. You should not fuel up the car with chickens aboard, or back up into your exhaust, or wear perfume, or God forbid, smoke.

Carr suggests arriving a day early. Jimbo embarked the morning of, with the radio blasting the latest news about fishing and Jimbo chain-smoking all the way. The Bayou Club was just across the border, near the casinos -- so large and modern to be devoted to something so primitive and small. In places like Mexico, cockfights are usually held outside and end when the bird's beak touches the ground. At the Bayou Club, the birds are revived until one of them ceases to peck. Reviving birds is a cockfighting specialty involving the pulling of beaks, the withdrawing of knives and the sucking of blood from chicken heads. For this, Jimbo had engaged Javier Pinones, a young tattooist acquaintance, who would get 20 percent of whatever Jimbo won. Jimbo would win nothing unless four of his roosters emerged victorious.

The last time Jimbo was here, he arrived with sick chickens who were all duly slain. This time, his birds were merely out of shape, none of them having worn the lug nuts around their spurs or been made to run. Jimbo and Javier shoved the birds into their stalls.  

"We're just taking potluck on these," said Jimbo.

"Sometimes that's all you need," said Javier. "Good bird luck."

Inside, the Bayou Club was air-conditioned. You could get a chicken sandwich at the concession stand, and you could watch the action unmoderated, or via closed-circuit television. In the main arena, the cockfighting fans looked a lot like Jimbo, with caps and clenched jaws that lacked teeth. They were, in general, the kind of men who would consider sucking the heads of chickens, and the kind of women who would kiss those men. Their seats were angled as for a boxing match toward a square of dirt enclosed by glass. All rose for the national anthem, and then sat to watch clashing feathers.

The first thing you understand is that chickens are not graceful animals, and there is no grace in a chicken fight. With knives strapped to their spurs, the chickens collide and collapse. Men come into the pit cradling their chickens, and depart carrying corpses by the feet. They slam them with disgust into a trash can, and a red path forms between the pit and the can, and the whole experience, to someone who doesn't gamble but who does eat chicken, is just profoundly dull.

Chicken experts say you want a "sharp" chicken going into a fight. Sharpness is said to result from sexual and nervous tension, and a reduction in feed. Jimbo seemed very sharp. He confessed to a case of the butterflies.

When at last one of his chickens was summoned, he hurried to his bird. It was a four-pound, four-ounce bird whose droppings had been wet all morning -- a sure sign of a sharpness deficit. Jimbo goosed the chicken up with strychnine and adrenaline. Javier took the bird in his arms then, and the moment of judgment had come for Jimbo and his chicken.

Flap flap flap. A chicken died. It was the other chicken! Jimbo won!

"With a little bit of luck," he calculated, "we might be all right."

The life of a chicken is of such little value that even cockfighters couldn't seem to watch a fight without raising the stakes with a wager. Jimbo's stakes were huge.

His friend, John Kelso, had lost the ear, and the doctors had put some shoulder muscle up there and covered it over with leg skin, said Jimbo. Still, the cancer "went mobile." Last April, Kelso died.

The keeper of the Kelso cock was presented with a problem. Kelso's heirs would soon be wanting the land. Aside from any personal grief Jimbo may suffer but doesn't express, he and his chickens would have to endure the hardship of finding a new home.

And everything grew more complicated recently when Jimbo discovered that he, too, has skin cancer. It goes without saying, perhaps, that he has no health insurance. The doctors bored a dozen tumors out of Jimbo, before asking himif he would be financially responsible. "Hell, no!" said Jimbo. He complains now that he could have stitched up a chicken better than the doctors stitched him. Jimbo has added doctors to his long list of persecutors.

He figures what he needs is money. If he had money, he could find a new home and get better care. At that moment Jimbo's greatest hope for money was a red rooster with two combs sticking up like horns. Diablo Rojo, the Mexican cockfighters had named it, for Diablo had won four backyard fights. He had nearly lost a wing in the last one, but the wing was healed now, and Jimbo's bird was back. He was only a mongrel, but Jimbo liked his style. He planned to breed Diablo after one more fight.

Diablo's brother was called for the second fight. "Keep him breathing, Javier. Keep him warm," said Jimbo, but Jimbo's chicken was hemorrhaging from the neck. All of Javier's sucking could do nothing to stop it.

The rooster's demise put Jimbo out of contention for the prize money. The rules required that losers keep their birds available to fight the winners, and so two more of Jimbo's birds were carried forth and slaughtered. As they lost blood, Jimbo lost $400, a month's income, betting on the side.

He would not go home this way, with his best weapon undrawn. When the derby was over, Jimbo stood and announced that he still wanted to fight. Was there anyone out there man enough to fightchickenswith Jimbo?

Another man in a cap mutely nodded. Jimbo had $200 left and bet it on Diablo. He strapped the knife on his bird and injected it with the adrenaline. Javier was soon in the pit, standing face-to-face with the foe. Three times the men waved their chickens at each other. When the birds seemed truly angry, the men stepped back and let them go.  

"Come on, stupid!" Jimbo shouted from his seat.

There was a flurry. Diablo was certainly aggressive. There was another flurry. Diablo, dear Diablo, staggered. He looked positively Shakespearean as he walked slowly to the glass and stared quietly out.

Javier would not let Diablo die alone. He picked the rooster up and cradled it out, the blood gushing down his arm. "Do you see that?" he said, parting the feathers. It was a view of the warrior's still beating heart. Javier was fascinated. Jimbo told him to put the bird in the trash.

"Damn," said Jimbo. "I thought we were going to beat that chicken."

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