The young rooster strutted, doing his stuff, two-stepping like a hoochee-coochee dancer in a carnival sideshow, making himself known as the ruler of the yard.
Old Adam, the rooster's new owner, hobbled across sandy, grassless dirt toward the high-fenced pen. For more than 20 years, since Emma died in the winter of '49, he had made his way morningly from the little house to the coops where Rhode Island Reds and Domineckers laid eggs.
Before he opened the gate, he regarded the rooster, who stood first on one leg, then on the other, as if to mock Adam's affliction.
"Damn little sonofabitch," Adam muttered toward the rooster.
The week before, his old rooster had died without a warning of sickness. Billy Ethridge, who raised pullets to sell at the farmers' curb market in Pensacola, let Adam have this new rooster for next to nothing. Adam appreciated Billy's generosity, but ever since he turned the little bastard loose in the yard he had had nothing but trouble.
Last Saturday the biggest fattest hen in the house fell cold dead from her nest while Adam was attempting to rouse her and collect eggs. He found two cut marks across her wide neck. She had apparently bled to death.
On Monday half the chickens escaped through a hole under the southside of the pen. It took him until after dark to round them up, and then he never found one of the best egg producers of the bunch. Examining the hole later, he decided it must have been a varmint trying to sneak himself an early supper.
He fixed the hole and, just for good measure, trimmed the rooster's toenails. He was satisfied that if another catastrophe occurred, the rooster would be stew by Sunday. Old Adam, looking through the mesh wire of the fence, imagined in his mind's eye the feast of the year: boiled rooster with dozens of fist-sized dumplings floating in a greasy broth.
As Adam entered, limping against the short leg, the rooster backed away to the far corner, obviously sensing an aura of hostility in the old man's presence.
When the rooster fluttered his wings and ruffled his tail, cockily putting up a challenge, Adam paid him no mind. He went on about his chores with customary offhandedness.
Adam had come to the Florida panhandle when he was a small boy. Somehow even now he remembered his mother and father speaking of The Piney Woods like it was the promised land, a heaven into which mere mortals did not enter every day. And when they arrived on the flat coastal plain, after zigzagging down and out of the Appalachian foothills of South Carolina, they settled in the dense pine forest which gave up wood for a house, fuel for a fire and sap for a liveable wage. In the springtime, sap was bled from the trees, distilled in a makeshift apparatus and sold to merchants in Florala and Pensacola. In the fall and wintertime, trees were cut and dragged to Hanson's Sawmill where they were sold for future lumber. Adam's father made improvements on the land, and in three years it was his through the Homestead Law. His father loved The Piney Woods, and he passed on his adoration to his son.
Only seldom nowadays did Adam Yarbrough think about bygone times. He had never been one to dwell on the past, and he was damned if he'd let it capture his remaining days. He had to busy himself with chores, and when there weren't enough to fill the time, he would add more.
Within the past week, however, the rooster had become the central antagonist in his world. It was the rooster who became supreme in his mind, gnawed worrisomely at his thoughts.
"Easy now," Old Adam said to the hen, and reached beneath her smooth white broad breast and took away three perfect large eggs. "That's a girl," he said, stroking her gently after placing the eggs in his basket.
He spoke to all the chickens, even the rooster. To the females, his pets, he had kind words. But there was only profanity for the young rooster.
The old rooster had been a different sort. Oh, he was cocky. He liked to prance about and even ruffle his feathers at Adam now and then. But to Adam the old rascal had class, dignity and perhaps even great character. To him, the young rooster lacked such classification.
The rooster did his job, Adam noted, counting the 27 eggs. He had two dozen to sell and three more for tomorrow's breakfast. For a moment he appreciated the rooster keeping the ladies happy and busy. Adam was a Baptist, and he believed that if a man worked hard and steady and paid his bills he couldn't possibly be all bad. In that category, his religious side told him the rooster, while basically evil, was due at least a thimbleful of respect. Old Adam wasn't going to tip his hat to the sonofabitch, but he'd allow him what was due. He put the grain in the feeder, then dropped some whole kernels of corn on the side for the rooster. He knew the rooster would find the corn; he always did.
Old Adam walked back across the yard, carrying the basket in his right hand, dragging his bum left leg, wiping his white hair back as the wind persisted in blowing it over his ears. He put the basket onto the shotgun seat of the pickup he had purchased secondhand back in the late '50s. He stacked wood that he had cut late the day before neatly into the bed. From a small log cabin which had been a smokehouse when he kept hogs he took the last ten gallons of turpentine he had been saving until the prices went up. Adam thought people paid ridiculously high prices for turpentine these days, but as long as they'd pay it he'd take it.
At the store six miles down the road he pulled up next to the gasoline pump. He swung his crippled leg out and hobbled to the front door and propped himself against the Bruton Snuff sign and hollered, "Anybody to home?"
"Be right with you," called out the familiar voice of Wallace Maddox, the old man who had run the store for the past 25 years.
Old Adam rested his bad leg against the round iron fuel-oil container and draped his left arm over the pump handle on its top. "You getting old and slow, ain't you?" said Adam without looking through the screen door. He was as surly with Wallace Maddox as he had been with the rooster.
"What's your hurry?" Wallace Maddox said, pushing the door open, stopping directly in front of Adam Yarbrough. Like Adam, Wallace also had a headful of white hair. But he was taller than Adam by at least four inches, was lean and straight as a long-leaf pine and had thick, wide, powerful shoulders. Adam too was heavy in the shoulders, but he was bent like an old gnarled oak.
The two men looked into each others' eyes for several seconds before Adam said, "You aim to stand there all day?"
"You're in a hurry all of a sudden, ain't you?” Wallace Maddox came back.
"I don't have all the morning to fool with you," said Adam.
Wallace looked around at the truck and shook his head, making a face. "What's your business?"
Adam hesitated, knowing what he would say next and knowing the reply from past experience of morning after morning of routine, but the knowledge in his mind did not move his lips to the accustomed words.
"I want to sell you a rooster," Adam said.
Wallace Maddox frowned. "What's wrong, old man?"
"I want to sell a rooster."
"You just got the rooster a week ago.”
"I'll let you have him for half what I paid."
"You're losing your touch, ain't you?" He laughed quickly. "I thought you were the greatest trader in these parts. You want to sell him for half price?"
"I've gotten my use out of him. Now I'm obliged to sell him."
"He don't know how to love?" He laughed again.
"He can do anything he has to do. I've got the eggs to prove it." Adam hobbled around the truck, opened the door, and brought out the eggs.
Following, Wallace said, "How do I know you didn't buy those eggs from Miz Simmons?"
"These eggs came right out of my chickens," Adam said indignantly.
Wallace looked at the eggs carefully.
"You've been buying eggs from me for a long time, you ought to know what my eggs look like."
"Looks like any other eggs out of any other chickens," the storekeeper said.
"You ought to take my word. They came out of my hens. Now, if you take the rooster for four dollars, I'll throw in these eggs and that firewood in the back end.” As soon as he said it, his sun-reddened forehead wrinkled. He didn't know why he was making such a deal.
He had never offered too much in trade. If there was something that was laying around, that had become useless to him, he'd throw it in just to make a deal better. Never in his life had he started a trade on the subject of something useless or unneeded or hated. He kicked at the dusty, unpainted porch floor and wondered if he was entering senility.
He had not known that he hated the rooster so desperately, but he had always been a man of his word. If he made a deal, he stuck with it. Anybody within a 50-mile radius would swear that Adam Yarbrough always stood solidly behind his word.
Wallace Maddox pondered the sudden change in his neighbor, friend, fellow trader and loyal opponent. They had been involved in intimate bantering for too long for such a change not to be noticed.
"If that rooster is doing his business, what's so bad about him?" asked Wallace Maddox, looking straight into Adam's eyes.
Staring back, Adam said, "I don't like him," then put the eggs back into the cab, closed the door, and walked around the front of the truck.
"Where you heading?" Wallace Maddox asked, trailing.
"Home," the old man said.
"That's right." He opened the door and started to climb inside.
"You haven't made your trade yet."
"Don't need to trade this morning," Adam said stubbornly. He was close to ashamed of the words he had spoken previously.
"It's not a very good morning without a trade," said Wallace Maddox.
Adam looked back at him. He knew exactly what Wallace Maddox meant. Men had to keep themselves alive with some kind of interest in this world. Time was when he'd be out in the woods on a gray, overcast chilly day like this one. He'd handle the bandsaw for Jake Edmonds, and he'd cut more trees down than anyone else in the panhandle, and he'd make every one fall in the exact same direction. Not every sawman in The Piney Woods could do that. He'd leave a path of trees behind him, where Jake and Louis Sims and Tom Christian could hitch the mules to the trimmed logs
and pull them out of the lowlands. That had been work, strong, steady, all day. day-in and day-out. And he'd never taken his mind off of it. One second's loss of concentration and ... To this day he didn't know how the bandsaw slipped and got hung up in the stump of that God damn gum tree and whipped around and caught his hip and buried itself in the marrow of the bone. My Lord, it was painful. He had gone black with the pain and had awakened in the hospital, and the doctor said later he didn't know how Adam kept from losing his life, much less his left leg.
Standing next to the truck, leaning the bad leg against the front fender, Adam said, "I'll let you have the eggs for 35 cents a dozen."
"Thirty-five cents?!" Wallace Maddox said in a shocked tone.
"That's my price."
"I'll give 20, not a cent over."
The old man shook his head sadly. "I can't let 'em go for a penny less than 30 cents a dozen!"
Wallace Maddox said nothing. He turned and paced the hard dirt ground. Turning, he said, "I'll give 25 cents. Take it or leave it."
"That's a total of 50 cents. I'll take it, if you'll throw in two dollars for the firewood."
Wallace Maddox leaned over the top of the truck bed. "What kind of wood do you call that?" he asked.
"That's great wood," Adam said.
"Looks like it's been soaking in a mill stream somewhere."
"That wood's as dry as August. Even got some kindling sticks thrown in to make it better. You ought to be paying double for the kindling."
"I'll give two dollars for the eggs and wood!"
"I'll take the kindling out."
"Without the kindling, I'll give one fifty."
"You're a chiseling old thief," Adam said, looking up at Wallace, keeping his face stern.
"Two dollars for the lot."
"And ten gallons of gasoline for five gallons of turpentine, plus three dollars for the remaining five gallons."
"What am I going to do with ten gallons of turpentine?"
"Sell it! You'll sell it for twice what you give me. That's what they call 100 percent profit."
Wallace Maddox shook his head again. "You're trying to get rich, old man."
"Just keeping my head above water," Adam said.
"I'll swap even. Five gallons of gas for five gallons of turpentine, and three dollars for the other five gallons.”
"That's highway robbery."
"It's an even deal."
The old man hobbled away.
"Tell you what. . ." Wallace said. Adam turned. "What?"
"You go with me to the cockfight tomorrow, bring that silly damn rooster of yours, and I'll give you ten for five, three for the other half, and two for the eggs and wood. That's five dollars and ten gallons of gas."
Adam thought. He'd resisted going to the monthly cockfights since Emma died. He'd promised her he'd never gamble. That had been on the eve of their wedding back in the '30s. She was a church-going woman and was strictly opposed to putting a wager on anything. When they had gotten married he had had two fine fighting roosters, but he gave them up for her. He looked up into the sky that seemed ominously gray, and the two sides of him argued within. But there was truly no need for an argument. He had made up his mind, or at least the picture of that damned rooster in his brain made up his mind for him. He'd look forward to seeing the sonofabitch getting his insides torn out by a trained fighter. Adam agreed. He started unloading the wood while Wallace Maddox put gas into the truck.
The next morning, with the sun peeking from behind winter clouds, he crated the rooster into a small wooden cage and placed him in the back of the truck. It surprised Adam that he didn't put up a fight. He came as calmly as Adam had ever seen an animal enter a cage.
At the store Wallace Maddox crawled in beside him, and they cut down the River Run Road toward The Pasture, a huge hunting reserve and wood plantation. Weaving criss-cross fashion down the old logging road, nothing but two parallel paths, they soon topped a tree-covered hill and came on more than 20 cars and trucks parked in a clearing.
Two men, both tall and heavy, and one which Adam recognized as a deputy sheriff, stood next to a pathway leading through a heavy thicket of saplings. Wallace, nodding to the men, who nodded back, led the way down the slope. Adam let his bad leg drag and carried the rooster.
At least two dozen men of various sizes and shapes were already gathered around a rectangular pit that was more than five feet deep. Mad shouts pierced the air. Uncontrollable screams of agony and delight blasted from the crowd.
Two one-foot tall multi-colored mule-hitters were swinging at each other with inch-long spurs that flashed in the sunlight when they whipped to and fro. Both had already been slashed. The one with the brightest comb was bleeding profusely from his neck, but he didn't slacken his pace. Both were going to the death, which came suddenly for the proud fighter, who collapsed while attempting to catch the other across the face.
As soon as he hit the red clay, a round ball of a man with a heavy mustache squealed like a shot hog and jumped up and down with both fists clinching wads of dollar bills. "Five hundred, dammit! Five hundred!" he screamed. He was throwing his porky hands into the air and hunching his roly-poly body forward. His middle shook humorously over the rope belt that slipped lower and barely held up his khaki trousers.
Wallace Maddox sidled up to a man Adam knew to be a pulpwood dealer from the Mississippi flatlands. He was a man who had made piles of money off cutters like Adam, and Adam regarded him as someone to be in awe and steer clear of.
After several moments, listening to the crawing calls of roosters in cages across the way, Wallace came back and leaned close. "They're going to let that devil bird of yours go next. It'll be up against Thomas Lee Hall's Falcon Red. He's beaten 12 in a row. This'll be his thirteenth fight."
Adam looked down at the rooster, who looked back at Adam. For some reason, the rooster seemed as cocky as he had always been. For some reason, he looked as refreshed and alive as ever. "Damn you, you sonofabitch," said Adam, who handed the cage over to Wallace, who took it to the edge of the pit. Adam had agreed to allow Wallace to tend to the bird. A chitter-chatter started through the kibitzers. "I'll give you ten-to-five on Falcon Red," said one man, and another said, "You're on,” and the fat man across the pit said, "It's three-toone, I'll wager on the Falcon." The men exchanged money right and left, throwing it down onto the dirt, holding it between their fingers, talking all the while.
Wallace worked with the rooster, attaching long, crooked spurs to the boney ankles, twisting a tiny attachment until it was tight.
Across the way another man was doing the same to a bird who was larger than Adam's rooster by almost a pound.
Adam looked into the eyes of the other bird, and suddenly, in the middle of all the chit-chat, Adam got the fever. He stepped into the center of the men on his side of the pit and brought the $76 out of the bib of his overalls. He had stared into the eyes. He had seen something in his own rooster that he did not see in the other one, he told himself.
"Three-to-one?" he asked.
"Your bird, mister?"
"Mine," Adam said.
"Three-to-one he's dead in three minutes. Five-to-one he's dead, period."
"Ten on the three-to-one, 20 on the five-to-one," Adam said. He counted out the money.
"Gimme," the man said, taking the bills from Adam, who tried to grab them back. The man, a cattle farmer from up toward Tallahassee, counted the money in quick fashion. He placed it in a stack on the ground.
"I'd like some of that action," said the fat man who had won all the money during the last fight, talking to Adam, who had $30 waiting.
When a third man asked him, Adam shook his head and pushed the remaining $16 back into his bib. He had worked hard for that money, nearly all autumn, and now he was betting it on a sonofabitch rooster. It was time he came to his senses, he told himself.
Wallace Maddox crouched on one side of the pit, the other man about four feet away on the opposite side. Both roosters fluttered their colorful neck feathers and spat through their bills.
"Go!" shouted the dealer from Mississippi, who appeared to be the boss of the entire operation.
Both Wallace and the other man pitched the roosters toward each other.
The two flapping birds clutched together like wrestlers in a stranglehold and fell to the bottom of the pit. They hissed and cried out, a highpitched, animal, death-dealing cry.
They disconnected and flipped back, away from each other. They stood awkwardly. They stared at each other with hateful black eyes.
"Die, you sonofabitch!" Adam muttered under his breath.
His rooster made a move forward.
Falcon Red did a quick-step dance, shifting his body, pivoting, waiting, picking up his feet, testing his spurs.
Adam was sure his rooster had been injured. Just let the sonofabitch last three minutes, then he can die, Adam thought. Just three minutes, that’ll give me my devil's money back, he told himself.
His rooster hesitated no longer. He lunged forward, diving, flipping his feet around like a woodcutter expertly handling a chainsaw, and in a jet-propelled fraction of a second, with the spurs glimmering brightly in a ray of sunlight that cut through the pines, the rooster had Falcon Red on the floor of the pit. And in another move, the rooster clipped heel against heel as though he had been born doing such a feat. Falcon Red kicked his feet in one last dying effort, then rolled away.
Adam's rooster crowed loudly, high-stepped away from his opponent, held his head high, fanned his tail and fluttered his wings. He was obviously very proud of himself.
Shaking their heads, the fat man and the other one picked the money up from the ground and handed it to Adam, who took his rooster's cage when it was handed him by Wallace Maddox. Adam shoved the money into his bib, nodded and reached into the cage.
The rooster crowed again. He stepped away from Adam's hand. But the hand caught the feet and pulled the bird outside.
With his left hand, Adam gripped the rooster's throat and twisted him through the air angrily. Feathers fell all around. A gasping caw choked against the talk of the men, then became silent.
As Adam pushed the body back into the cage and walked away, the fat man said, "God damn, mister, I'd'a give you $50 for that rooster."
Adam made his way slowly up the hillside through the thicket with Wallace Maddox following.