"Torneo de Gallos"
David A. Ross
In the copious moonlight, Cyrus Ek saw the outline of the Santa Rita Mountains to the northeast, and the craggy tips of the Sierra Madre to the south. Silhouettes of Great Saguaros and ocotillos loomed on the desert floor below him. He saw the outlines of giant yuccas and joshua trees, jumping cacti, chollas, and prickly pear cacti. The Mexicans ate those damn things, Cyrus thought to himself.
The nocturnal chiaroscuro of the desert surrounding Nogales Pass always seemed to sharpen his senses. A dozen different pairs of eyes watched him, though he could see none of them: a wildcat, a coyote, a chuckwalla; a cactus wren, a sidewinder, a tarantula. The hot wind moaned, and the scent of greasewood permeated the night air. Antares rose in the southwestern sky as the temperature hovered at eighty-five degrees. “What brings you up here tonight, dad?” Cyrus turned to see his son Carlton coming out of the door of his trailer-house. Carlton’s features were as sharply defined as his personality: hair the color of anthracite, an angular frame, and long limbs. He was sunburned to his soul by a young lifetime spent on poor Sister Sonora’s doorstep. His eyes were yellow-green, opaque and insular: cat’s eyes. One sensed, upon meeting Carlton for the first time, that he could see in the dark better than in full daylight. Cyrus approached his son. “I just got back from Tucson. I saw your mother today.”
Carlton’s face showed surprise. He had not seen his mother in over three years—not since she’d divorced his father and moved north to Tucson. Carlton was every bit his father’s son. Bitterness remained in his heart for his mother. “How is she?” he finally asked.
“Apparently she’s getting married.” “You don’t say. Who is she marrying?” Cyrus cleared his throat. “Do you remember her lawyer?” “Can’t say that I do,” said Carlton. “A real crusader from Tucson. His name is Ruben Cordova.” Cyrus pronounced the name with disdain. A look of recognition came to Carlton’s face. “How could she do this to you?” he asked his father. “Beats hell out of me,” mumbled Cyrus. He shrugged his bulky shoulders. Carlton could no more measure his father’s feelings than he could understand his mother’s motives. His father was not normally a man of resignation; he was a man of action. He kept things under control—most of the time anyway. “Maybe I had this coming,” said Cyrus bitterly, not for one minute believing it was really true. “I have no control over her now. I probably never did. If she wants to marry a beaner, I doubt the Lord himself could stand in her way.” “You’re not going to the wedding, are you?” “Shit! They ain’t gonna invite me,” said Cyrus. “But I’m sure she’ll ask you to be there.” “Not me,” said Carlton shaking his head. “Suit yourself,” said Cyrus, actually quite pleased by his son’s favoritism. “But you know as well as I do that our absence won’t stop her.” “Well, at least we won’t be part of it.” The unpleasant task of informing his son about Charlotte’s marriage now done, Cyrus’ expression brightened a little. Cyrus poked his head inside the pickup’s camper shell. “Chickens!” he proclaimed. “No, dad. Not chickens. Roosters! Look at them. Ain’t they beauties?” Cyrus examined the six caged cocks. “You planning to fight them?” he asked. “Damn right I’m gonna fight ’em,” confirmed Carlton. “When?” asked Cyrus. “I’m going across the border a little later tonight. I’ve arranged a match-up with a Mexican cock-fighter out of Nuevo Laredo.” “How do you expect to get those birds across the line?” Cyrus asked. “Mordida. It’s all taken care of.” Cyrus inspected the gallos closely. They were handsome birds, red and white plumage with yellow tail feathers. They looked to be a strong lot, worthy of betting a peso or two. “So you’re taking up cockfighting,” said Cyrus. “Honorable sport. In Mexico, that is…” Recognizing the opportunity to cheer up his father, Carlton suggested, “Why don’t you come along tonight?” “I’d never last the night,” said Cyrus. “Admitting your age, huh?” said Carlton. “Just who are you trying to fool? A couple of shots of Mexican tequila and you’ll be chasing the señoritas. C’mon, it’ll do you good.”
The look in Cyrus’ eyes turned devilish. Maybe he did need a night out. The news of Charlotte’s upcoming marriage had left him feeling a bit sour. “What the hell,” he said. “Throw down a few shots of tequila. Spend a few pesos, maybe win a few. Sing a corrido. Dance with a señorita. I haven’t been to a feria for years, and I haven’t been good and drunk in at least a week.”
As lifelong residents of the region, Cyrus and Carlton knew the twins at the northernmost edge of the Primeria Alta: Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona. They both knew that when Nogales, Arizona dimmed her lights for the evening, then it was time for the nocturnal sister, Nogales, Sonora, to open her eyes. Along with the fragrant scent of bougainvillea and rose trees, la musica—ever present in the streets and cantinas of Old Mexico—filled the warm night air. Mellow, Spanish-sounding guitars, brassy trumpets, and harmonious voices could be heard around any corner. And from the bawdier saloons along Obregon Street came the sounds of American Rock music. On this night, the night before Cinqo de Mayo, fiesta lights, carnival rides, fireworks, and street vendors filled the boulevards.
Together they drove down Morely Street in Carlton’s Ford pickup, the gallos, confined in their cages. Carlton headed straight for the border station. As many Nogalences were crossing into Sonora for the fiesta, there was a wait. When they reached the crossing, the agent looked at them placidly. “Entering Mexico for the fiesta,” he presumed. “Si, señor,” said Carlton. “Driver’s license and Customs Declaration, por favor,” he said. Carlton handed the agent his Arizona license and customs card. Cyrus handed his license to Carlton, who in turn handed it to the agent. “No problem with your I.D., Señor Ek.” “Never has been before,” said Carlton smugly. The Mexican agent raised his eyebrows. “And what are you carrying in the back of your truck, señor?” “Gallos. Like the paper says,” replied Carlton seeing no reason to lie, for according to Señor Navares the mordida had been paid in advance. “Señor,” said the border agent, “I’m afraid you cannot bring those gallos into Mexico.” “I thought everything was fixed,” protested Carlton. “Uno momento, señor.” The agent then turned his back on Carlton, neither authorizing his entry into Mexico nor denying it. Neither did he have the birds removed from the back of the truck. Carlton turned to his father. “I think he wants more mordida,” he said. “Are you going to give it to him?” Lowering his voice, Carlton said, “I’d like to give it to him right in his fat mouth. Let’s see how much he wants. I’ll win it all back at the torneo anyway. He turned back to the agent. “Señor, I’m sure that if you check your papers again, you’ll see that a mistake has been made.” Demurely, he slipped the agent two twenty-dollar bills. “Uno momento,” said the agent routinely. He made it look as though he were rifling through a stack of official papers. Then, without so much as another word exchanged between them, he stamped the Customs Declaration and motioned the pickup through the checkpoint. Pedestrian traffic on Obregon Street was profuse. The hissing of sparklers and the cracking of exploding fireworks could be heard throughout the city. Merriment filled the streets and walkways, and animated conversations took place in Spanish and English. Cyrus observed a young, scruffy boy soliciting money from American visitors in return for a promise to guard their cars. “The little buitre will pick their pockets clean before they know what hit them,” Cyrus laughed. “The little vulture ought to have his ass kicked.” On a hillside just outside Nogales a circus tent had been put up in preparation for the Cinqo de Mayo celebration. The event being held inside the makeshift arena had not been well publicized by the local newspaper. Here publicity was unwanted; and further, it was unneeded. For anyone who wished to take part in the cockfights, whether Mexican or gringo, knew exactly where they were to be staged. This was the Torneo de Gallos. Though strictly unlawful in the States, once in Mexico the sport was perfectly legal. The government, however, did not run the betting, so if a promoter wanted to stage a torneo without the ‘help’ of the Federales, then he dutifully paid his mordida. The system was simple. When Carlton and Cyrus pulled up in front of the tent and began unloading the gallos, two Mexicanos immediately rushed out to hustle the cages into the arena. Obviously not tournament officials, they were simply spectators anxious for the combat, and the betting, to begin. As the porters spoke rapidly in Spanish, it was obvious to Carlton and Cyrus that they were delighted and relieved to see them. For whenever an American contestant was involved in the torneo, some doubt remained until the last minute whether the gallos would make it across the border. But regardless of the inconvenience, it was the matches with the Americanos that attracted the largest crowds and the heaviest betting. Entering the tent, the Americans could see that the festivities were already well underway, though the actual cockfighting had not yet begun. This was an event of pageantry as well as raw brutality, and several other events led up to the main offering. Encouraged by a bleacher full of fans drinking tequila from paper cups, the famous Mexican balladeer Pedro de Vasquez sang corridos as he strummed his oversized guitar. After each song the crowd cheered with drunken zealousness. “Otro! Otro!” they cried. Most had been celebrating the fiesta all day long. Finally, de Vasquez began his final song, a corrido entitled, Tres Mojados, literally, Three Wetbacks. It was the story of three Mexicanos illegally working in the Arizona fruit orchards. They did their work well. They were loyal. But when it came time to collect their pay, the grower had called Emigracion. The tres mojados were badly mistreated by la migra: they were brutally beaten and the soles of their feet were burned with red-hot pokers. They returned to Mexico barely alive. As their story was learned they became National heroes. Neither Carlton nor Cyrus understood Spanish well enough to comprehend the full meaning of the corrido. Nor did they care. The corredor moved through the crowd of perhaps two hundred drunken torneo fans. When he approached Cyrus, the father of the contestant wagered twenty-five hundred pesos on his son’s entry. “Take it from me, señor,” said the corredor, “your loyalty may be with your son, but your pesos should be with the gallos of Señor Navares.” Cyrus grunted indignantly. “We’ll soon see about that,” he said. The gallos were summoned to the palenque and were outfitted with navajas—sharp, steel gaffs that looked similar to rodeo spurs. Each rooster wore the navaja on its left leg. “Do you think I should fight my strongest bird first?” Carlton asked his father. “No, you should save him for last. Just in case we have to win back some of our money.” “Navares’ birds are no match for mine,” said Carlton. And to underscore his confidence, Carlton selected his weakest cock to fight first. It was matched against a bird of obviously superior strength and size, a handsome bird with green and yellow plumage, fiery eyes, and a bright red comb. The cocks were brought into the ring and placed in opposite corners. For a moment they seemed not to notice one another. Suddenly, Carlton’s bird leaped a full three feet in the air, apparently recognizing the enemy at the other side of the ring. This brought a roar of approval from the crowd of bettors. The noise from the spectators seemed to motivate the two birds. Navares’ cock lashed out at Carlton’s, catching it full force with a blow to the chest. Red and white feathers floated lazily to the ground, while the American bird scurried to avoid a second assault. “Fight!” screamed Carlton, as if the bird might somehow understand him. With the steel gaff, Carlton’s rooster retaliated, drawing the first blood of the match from Navares’ gallo. The mood of the crowd grew more anticipatory, and the bettors screamed for this rooster or that to make waste of its opponent. “Fight!” Carlton bellowed at the bird. Vainly, the American rooster strutted about the ring, apparently proud of the blow it had delivered to the Mexican cock. But in its stupid coxcombry, it left itself wide open for a forceful, crushing blow from Navares’ rooster, the assault leaving the American cock stunned and injured. Like the color of the feria queen’s nail polish, blood poured from the wound on Carlton’s bird, while the Mexican entry pecked mercilessly at the neck and head of the American cock. As Carlton’s bird lowered its beak to the tarpaulin, Navares’ bird was declared the winner. Cursing under his breath, Carlton lifted the dying rooster out of the ring by its tail. He handed it to a Mexican boy, who rushed away with the fowl to sell it to a restaurant for tomorrow’s enchiladas. The corredors rushed through the crowd paying off bets. Navares’ bird had been a heavy favorite by virtue of nationality, and it had not disappointed the two-thirds Mexican audience. The second contest was hardly as competitive as the first. Carlton’s entry succumbed in less than a minute, as Navares’ bird delivered a staggering blow immediately, sending the American bird spiraling into a dilapidated heap at the center of the ring. Carlton and Cyrus had now each lost five thousand pesos, and to drown their sorrows they slugged cupful after cupful of clear, strong tequila. By the time the sixth and final contest was about to begin it was nearly two in the morning, and Carlton’s birds had lost four out of five matches. With the progression of the matches the betting had naturally escalated, and now Carlton was in the red twenty-five thousand pesos. Cyrus had not been quite so foolhardy with his money. Señor Navares was on a winning streak; it was senseless throwing good money after bad. In fact, the elder Ek had disappeared altogether after the fourth disgusting defeat of his son’s fighting cocks. Preparing for the final match, Carlton noticed his father’s absence and asked the tournament judge as to his whereabouts.
“Señor, your padre grew tired of losing his money. He said he was going to Boy’s Town where at least he would get something for his pesos.”
José Lopez Navares had also saved his best fighting cock for the torneo finale. Carlton held his bird in his arms, caressing its fine feathers, whispering to it, coaxing it. “Don’t you let old Carlton down,” he implored. “You can do it. You can whip the bastard. Tear that scrawny bird to shreds!” By now the tournament had degenerated into a vile, rancid spectacle—an orgy of chicken blood and human bodies sweating tequila and beer. Cigar smoke permeated the already foul atmosphere. Money flowed as freely as the liquor. For Carlton, the match was a disaster from the beginning. Señor Navares’ bird landed the first blow with the navaja, slicing the right leg of Carlton’s finest entry. The blow had partially crippled the rooster, severely limiting its ability to defend itself. Nevertheless, it gamely delivered a blow to the Mexican cock, drawing blood from its neck. “Come on, that’s it!” shouted Carlton. “Take its head off! Kill him!” The blow from Carlton’s bird, however, only seemed to infuriate Navares’ cock, and it moved upon the American rooster with a vengeance. It pecked savagely at the bird’s head. It flapped its clipped wings furiously, wildly, sending feathers in all directions. It crowed its superiority. Alternately lashing out with the navaja and pecking at its opponent with its sharp beak, it eventually killed the American bird. Frustrated, humiliated, outraged, and liberated from his betting pesos, Carlton stared indignantly at Señor Navares. Surrounded by friends, the Mexican only laughed at his rage. “Shut up!” Carlton screamed at him. Glory-struck, Señor José Lopez Navares dismissed Carlton’s imperative by turning his back. Carlton’s fiery gaze was trained on the torneo’s winner as he threatened, “If I ever see you again, Navares, I’ll kill you where you stand.”
Carlton Ek was slobbering drunk on tequila as he stormed out of the tent. Once outside, he pissed on the ground. Then he stumbled to his pickup. He slammed the door of the truck and started the engine. Gunning the motor and spinning the truck’s wheels in the sand and gravel, he raced from the site of the arena, trouble searching for a place to happen.
Next morning, Cyrus Ek woke up in a small, dirty room in Boy’s Town with a señorita who had somehow looked a lot prettier the night before. All his money was gone as well, and having abandoned Carlton at the torneo, he was left with no choice but to walk back to the border crossing at the center of town. Once over the border, he knew he would be able to hitch a ride home.
The morning sun was already hot as he walked through the streets of Nogales, Sonora. The pastel- colored, adobe homes adorned the tree-covered hillsides like so many faux bijoux mounted on a voluptuous brooch. Their tile roofs reflected the silver sun. Wash lines burdened with linen shirts and pantalones boasted of the morning’s labor. Fat mamacitas scolded their brown, barefoot children for playing in flower gardens. Dogs chased sparrows and dragonflies, as well as their own shadows. Furtive geckos gutted their insect prey. It was five miles from Boy’s Town to the center of Nogales, and a man in poorer condition might have collapsed midway from the combined effects of sun, fatigue, and hangover. Cyrus stopped to rest at the top of a long hill. His lower back hurt, his neck was stiff, and he felt a bruise on his thigh for which he had no explanation. He took a bandanna from his pocket and wiped perspiration from his forehead. He squinted to minimize the effects of the brightness on his headache. He swallowed his bile. As he sat at curbside, Carton’s pickup pulled up alongside him. “You look like shit,” the son called to his father. “That’s because I feel like shit,” said Cyrus. “Hop in,” said Carlton. Cyrus opened the door of the pickup but stopped short of climbing into the cab. Carlton’s white western shirt was covered with blood. “What the hell happened to you?” asked the father.
The son looked at his shirt. “Oh, this… It’s just dried chicken blood. The final match last night was a little gory.”
Puffing, Cyrus crawled into the cab. And as Carlton pulled the truck away from the curb, he asked his father, “Why didn’t you take a taxi?”
Cyrus’ face turned sanguine. For an older man that had lived on the border his entire life, he should have known better. “No money,” he confessed. Carlton laughed. He understood. In the past, he’d been in the same predicament himself. “So,” said Cyrus, changing the subject, “did you win the finale last night?” “Fat chance. Navares kicked my ass in five out of six matches.” “Where did you go after the torneo last night?” Cyrus asked. Carlton winced. “I had business after the matches.” They turned up Obregon Street and made their way toward the American Port of Entry. When Carlton stopped the truck at the checkpoint, the agent looked at him curiously. “What happened to your clothes," he asked. Carlton regarded him superciliously. “Oh, you mean the blood? I was at the cockfights last night,” he explained. “This is chicken blood.” Furiously, he chewed a stick of gum. For a moment the agent said nothing: he simply stood there sizing up the two Americanos. “Identification, please,” said the guard. Carlton handed him both driver’s licenses. “Anything to declare?” asked the agent. “No,” sneered Carlton. “Nothing to declare.” “No liquor?” “Only what’s still in our blood streams,” called Cyrus across the cab. The agent handed back the I.D.’s and waved them through the crossing into Arizona. They were headed home now, father and son. Cyrus closed his eyes for a much-needed catnap, as his son steered the pickup northward. And surely Carlton Ek did not understand the true and subtle spirit of Mexican justice, for the ghost of José Lopez Navares would undoubtedly haunt the border at Nogales forever.