"Two flies land on a wall," he says, "and two men will bet on which one will walk to the top first."

Opponents disagree with the meaning cockfighters attribute to a rooster's natural aggressiveness. While it is true that roosters fight in the wild, animal-rights activists say, such fights are almost never to the death. One rooster usually runs away. But the construction of most cockfight pits, which are surrounded by three-foot walls topped with four to six more feet of chicken-wire screen, makes fleeing impossible. Add breeding and feeding practices that are designed to maximize the birds' aggressiveness, the activists say, and claims that the birds are acting purely from instinct fall apart. Besides, chemicals--including steroids and strychnine and other stimulants--are used to enhance the birds' performance, the activists say.

Hodges denies that gamecocks are given stimulants and other drugs to force them into a killing frenzy. Such substances don't work, he says, and even if they did, they would be completely unnecessary.

"A man can't make a chicken fight, or give up, either," he says. "They do what they do naturally. It's all instinct."

And fighting, he says, is what these birds are bred for. He likens his fighting cocks to the animals children raise for 4-H projects. They feed them, groom them, clean up after them--all the while knowing that eventually the animals will go to the slaughterhouse.

"Chickens are not pets," Hodges says. "They are bred for a purpose."

During the break that comes between pittings, Fontana's bird lies on his stomach. If it's possible for a bird to look dazed, this one does. Fontana knows this is not a good sign, and picks the bird up, cradling him, breathing on the back of his neck to ward off shock. Correct handling by an experienced cocker may make all the difference in the outcome of a fight. In a gaff fight, for instance, it is not unusual for a bird's lung to be punctured, causing him to cough up blood. Cockers call such a wound a "rattle," and the sound of the bird's labored breathing indeed can be heard in the stands.

With careful handling, a rattle will often subside after a few minutes. Also, if the rooster's skull is punctured and his brain damaged by a knife or a gaff, the handler may hold him with his legs in the air and his head pointed down. This increases the flow of blood to the bird's brain, and often restores his equilibrium.

Before pitting his rooster again, Fontana cleans the bird's beak off in his mouth. Cockers are often accused of sucking the blood out of a wounded bird's lungs this way, but most say they do it only to clear debris from his beak, to help him stay warm and resist shock. When the judge gives the command to release the birds again, Fontana's rooster barely moves.

The cheering of the crowd has died down by now, and some spectators are even settling up their bets. The outcome of the match is a foregone conclusion, and doesn't take long to come. The black pounces on Fontana's bird, finally killing him with another slash to his back.

Cockers often say that it's always too early to count a bird out. Tales of roosters with punctured lungs and poked-out eyes--who can do nothing but lay on the ground and peck helplessly--coming back to win the match are common. It is this trait, cockers say, this courage and fortitude, that so attaches them to their sport. They love to root for the underdog, and nothing makes them happier than seeing an outmatched or wounded bird, running on nothing but determination, come back and win.

Fontana holds his dead bird by the feet, and it swings back and forth at his side as Fontana shakes hands with his opponent and walks out of the pit. The other bird is wounded and bleeding, too. He will need a visit to the chicken doctor before going home tonight.

Fontana is on his way back to the cockhouse, where he will remove the knives from the bird's legs before tossing him into a pile with the other dead roosters from tonight's tourney. There will probably be 70 or 80 of them. Sometime tomorrow, someone will take the birds away and bury them in the desert.

RECORDINGS... v1-19-95

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