Satanta, Kansas, population 2,000, former home of the Kiowa Indian tribe, is no man's land. The wind blows across its plains with a winter fury that seems to equate the lonely railroad tracks with the Trans-Siberian. Indeed, Moscow is just 14 miles away, deep in the southwestern corner of a state best known for its milers and its milo. Satanta, though, has something special.
There are Saturdays when maybe a hundred cars from places like Amarillo and Borger will make their way the 150 miles up the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle. Or they will rumble down Highway 56 through legendary Dodge City, past fields of pumping oil derricks and aimless cows. They will look for the sign that says MILLER'S FEED LOT, and they will park on all sides of a large graying barn. No weather will stop them, and neither will it deter the local residents, who bide their time at the Pic Theater or the Wigwam tavern on less auspicious nights. Saturdays belong to the Riverside Game Club.
The specialty at the Riverside Game Club is cockfighting, a pastime once favored by such regal personages as Julius Caesar and Henry VIII. But those were supposedly less civilized times, and today the sport is a very esoteric thing. Within the U.S. it is technically legal only in Arizona and Hawaii, but Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas have no laws against it (except on Sundays). So wealthy country gentlemen and farm kids from those bleak plains bring their birds to Satanta. They lay a bundle of cash on the line and get down in the pit to coach their charges and usually leave by midnight. And they come back Saturday after Saturday because, as they say, "It gets in your blood."
Jim Simons, a wholesale fruit-and-vegetable dealer from Amarillo, has a ringside seat, and his eyes are fixed on the main pit, a fenced 20-by-20-foot square. "Hey, what you want to lay me, Sherrill?" he yells across. "I'll take the white, somebody give me 10 to 8." Sherrill Davis, who is in his early 20s and once won $3,700 in this barn his dad built, knows his gamecocks; the white is stronger, and he is taking no bets.
The main pit is bordered on both sides by smaller drag pits, to which a fight will move when the gamecocks wear down. But it is early in this match, and two fresh fowl are high in the air, wings pirouetting as they lash at each other with 21�-inch artificial gaffs attached to each spur. Long beaks whiplash toward the foe as the needle-sharp gaffs curve treacherously toward a sandy brown softness. When a gaff becomes embedded the referee will holler, "Handle," and the owners, who lean intensely over their gamecocks, will separate them and place them eight feet apart. And the sequence, opening with that midair pirouette, will start anew.
Hardrock Davis is sitting high in the south bleachers, watching about 100 people file through the doors at $2 a head. Hardrock stands 5'9" and weighs 230 pounds, and it is primarily because of him that 14 chicken-fighters from four states have paid $100 apiece to send five cocks after a $1,500 pot. Hardrock himself has contributed $100.
Hardrock took over the Satanta operation in 1968 when it was in almost total disarray. It was not long before he had erected a new set of bleachers, added a couple dozen old Beechnut-wadded seats donated by the Sublette theater, painted everything a new white and even set up a refreshment room. Then there were the handbills—500 of them posted at Elks Lodges and VFW sites and downtown caf�s—and 140 weekly bulletins, mailed all over Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and New Mexico.
Hardrock is watching his 14-year-old son Chuck, who tied for the money on the previous weekend, move toward the pit. "Guess it all started here around 1959, when Wad and Floyd Brown, old Pick Forgay and Andy Jones—those two are dead now—came in with a carbon plant," he says. "Now you get all classes of people. Be a guy here later from Texas who's worth several million dollars and just watches. Art Kimball, down there, has fought chickens for 55 years."
The sport, of course, goes back much farther than Art Kimball. The original gamecock, the Bankiba, lived thousands of years ago in the jungles of India. Cock-fighting came to England in the 12th century and flourished around the courts of Jameses and Henrys until an act of Parliament abolished it in 1849. By then it had found a niche in the U.S., and gamecock historians note with pride that George Washington indulged, Andrew Jackson had his own pit in the White House and Abe Lincoln was a referee. When it came time to choose our national bird, they claim, the eagle beat the gamecock by one vote.
But the days when the cultural elite could participate in cockfighting are gone forever.