Authors: John Grisham
“And that’s illegal, right?”
Noll smiled and raised both hands. “Go talk to my boss, okay? I don’t own the place and I don’t serve drinks. You got me on trial for murder, ain’t that serious enough?”
Several of the male jurors laughed out loud, which caused Noll to start chuckling again. The humor spread instantly and dozens of spectators joined in the fun.
Poor young Pat Graebel stood at the podium, the butt of the
joke, the fool of the hour, the hotshot prosecutor whose case had vanished into thin air.
Two hours later, the jurors filed back into the courtroom. Most appeared to be amused by the process. The trial had turned into a travesty. All twelve voted “not guilty” and Nevin Noll beat his first rap.
Keith was in right field, half asleep, one eye on the fireflies twinkling in the semidarkness, the other on the action far away. The bases were loaded, the pitcher was in trouble, and no one cared. The game meant nothing. It was a meaningless tournament that was intended to draw teams from along the Coast, but most had backed out. The winner would advance to nowhere. The American Legion season was over and the boys were tired of playing. The parents, evidently, were also weary because the stands were empty, with only a few bored girlfriends gossiping and ignoring the game.
A horn honked in the parking lot and Keith waved at his gang. The car was a brand-new 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix, candy-apple red, convertible, perhaps the coolest car in Biloxi at the moment. Its driver was Hugh Malco, and the occasion had been his sixteenth birthday. His father had surprised him with the car, and the boys, all of whom were still driving old family sedans, when they were lucky, had never seen a finer gift. Of course they were envious, but they were also thrilled to be cruising the streets in such style. Hugh seemed determined to wear out the 12,000-mile warranty in the first two months. He always had money for gas, cash he earned working for his father, and also a generous allowance.
And he had plenty of time on his hands. He had given up baseball and the other team sports, and for fun trained in Buster’s Gym three days a week. He boxed in tournaments around the state and lost as many as he won, but he loved the thrill of the fight. He was also proud of the fact that he was in the ring and his friends were
not. They cheered him on, but they didn’t have the guts to put on the gloves.
A lazy pop foul drifted down the right field line and Keith took it in stride for the final out. Ten minutes later, he was in the rear seat of the Grand Prix and they were off to the marina. Hugh was behind the wheel, driving with more caution since his second speeding ticket the week before. Riding shotgun was Denny Smith, who was in charge of the beer cooler. Next to Keith in the back was Joey Grasich, another kid from Point Cadet who had started the first grade with Hugh and Keith. Joey’s father was a charter captain who fished for a living. He owned several boats, including the twenty-five-foot Carolina Skiff the boys were borrowing for the trip. All parents had signed off on the adventure—an overnight camping excursion to Ship Island.
They unloaded the trunk of the Grand Prix and piled their gear and coolers onto the boat. Hugh hated to leave his new car in the lot at the marina but had no choice. He admired it, wiped a smudge of dirt off the rear bumper, then locked it and bounded down the dock and jumped onto the skiff that was pulling away. The harbormaster whistled at Joey and told him to slow down. He did so as they opened another round of canned Schlitz. They were soon in the Mississippi Sound and the lights of the town were fading behind them.
Ship Island was a narrow slice of land thirteen miles away. It was a barrier island that took the brunt of the many hurricanes that hammered the Coast, but between storms it was popular with campers and day-trippers. On the weekends, families boated out for long picnics. Ferries ran excursions for tourists and locals. Teenagers sneaked away for adolescent games and bad behavior. Soldiers were known to spend drunken weekends on the island, parties that constantly drew complaints.
The four friends knew the island well and had fished the waters around it since they were kids. Floating on a Carolina Skiff with a small outboard motor, it was an hour away. They stripped down
to their shorts and relaxed on the deck as they puttered across the water. Each lit a cigarette and sipped a beer. Keith was not a smoker but enjoyed an occasional Marlboro. Other than Hugh and his boxing, Keith was the only serious athlete left. His junior year in high school was approaching and he had a chance to start at quarterback. The dreaded two-a-day practices were just around the corner and he was about to shape up. The beer that was tasting so good would probably ooze through the pores of his skin in the heat and humidity. The thought of a cigarette would make him gag during wind sprints. But for the moment, he was savoring his little vices. The boys were sixteen years old and utterly thrilled to be independent for the weekend, free to do almost anything they wanted.
Joey, the boat captain, had played Little League baseball against Keith and Hugh but never made all-stars. Like his father, he preferred to spend his time on the boat and in the Gulf, preferably stalking game fish. Denny Smith was perhaps the slowest kid at Biloxi High and had never tried team sports. He was a serious musician who could play several instruments. He pulled out his guitar and began strumming as they inched toward the island.
It was well known that Hugh was hanging around the clubs that were strictly off-limits for the others. He was not a braggart, but he let it be known that he had been with some of the girls who worked in the family business. He had never told his friends about Cindy, and would not admit at gunpoint that he had fallen hard for a teenage hooker. She was history now and he had moved on to other girls, with Nevin Noll always watching out for him. The boys joked about sneaking into the clubs with him and watching the strippers. Hugh, though, knew they were serious, and he was determined to one day show his pals the upstairs rooms.
Denny strummed and played “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, one of their favorite singers and a legend who had performed at the Slavonian Lodge several times. He had also been well known in the bars and some of his drinking escapades were legendary. The boys sang along, as loud and as off-key as they
wanted. There was not another boat in sight. The Sound was still. The moon was full. Near the beach, Joey raised the outboard and the Carolina skiff quietly floated ashore. They unloaded their gear, pitched two tents, and built a fire. Four thick rib-eyes hit the grill, and of course each of the campers had plenty of advice on how to cook them. They enjoyed the steaks, washed them down with beer, and when they were stuffed they sat in the surf and talked until midnight as the waves broke gently around them. There was another campfire a hundred yards to the east, more campers, and to the west they heard the laughter of girls.
They slept late and awoke to a hot sun. After a morning swim, they went to explore and found the girls. They were a little older and had boyfriends with them. They were from Pass Christian, a town twenty miles to the west of Biloxi, and they were friendly enough but didn’t want company.
Joey led them around the island to the pier where a ferry was unloading day-trippers. A vendor was selling hot dogs and sodas, and they enjoyed a light lunch watching the boats come and go. Near an old fort, they saw a group of airmen in the middle of a rowdy game of beach volleyball. They had plenty of beer and invited their new guests to join in the fun. They were about twenty years old, from all over the country, and they were rougher and used coarser language. Keith thought it best if they politely declined, but Hugh wanted to play. After an hour in the sun and humidity, the games were suspended for a beer break and a swim in the ocean.
Late in the afternoon, they returned to their campsite and fell into long siestas. They were tired, sunburned, dehydrated from too much beer, and so it made perfect sense to open another round. As the sun set, they built a fire and roasted hot dogs for dinner.
Early Sunday, Hugh roused the gang from their slumbers and said they needed to hurry. Their weekend had one more adventure, one they had heard of but never experienced. They broke camp, shoved the Carolina skiff off the beach, and headed for the Biloxi
lighthouse. An hour later, they docked at the marina and unloaded. Hugh was thrilled to see his shiny new car untouched and waiting.
He drove them out of town, north on Highway 49 for a few miles, then turned onto a county road that led deep into the piney woods. On a gravel trail, they saw other cars and trucks parked haphazardly along the ditches and in the fields. Men were walking toward an old barn with a peeling tin roof. They parked and went with the others until they were stopped by a man with a shotgun. “You boys are too young to be here,” he growled.
Hugh was not intimidated and said, “We’re guests of Nevin Noll.”
He stopped frowning, nodded, and said, “Okay, follow me.”
As they got closer to the barn they heard shouting and the voices of excited men. A line waited to get in. They went around to a side door and were told to wait. The guard disappeared inside.
“This is still illegal, right?” Joey asked.
“Illegal as hell,” Hugh said with a laugh. “Best cockfights on the Coast.”
Nevin appeared and Hugh introduced him to the other three. They knew his name because Hugh had told many stories. Nevin said, “You guys stay in the back, away from the crowd. Got a full house this morning.” They eased through the narrow door and entered another world.
The barn had been converted into a cockfighting arena. A large pit filled with sand, perhaps twenty feet square, was dead center and everything else was built around it. It was bordered by a plank wall two feet high, to keep the roosters from escaping, and on top of the wall was a narrow counter where the men with the front-row seats could lean on their elbows and place their drinks. Behind them were rows of benches elevated one after the other so that the spectators were looking down at the action. Behind the last row of benches and in the aisles and exits there was a hodgepodge of lawn chairs, old theater seats, church pews, stools, upside-down barrels, and anything else a man could possibly sit on. Men only.
The crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder. A thick layer of cigar and cigarette smoke hung above the cockpit and was not disturbed by several large box fans trying vainly to break up the humidity. The temperature outside was at least ninety, but even higher near the pit. Chewing tobacco was widely in use and some of the men in the front seats spat their juice onto the sand. Almost everyone had a tall paper cup with a drink, and bottles were passed around.
The men were boisterous, talking loud, even yelling at each other across the pit in good-natured fun. They were waiting for the next fight, when their moods would change. In one corner, behind a section of seats, two men in white shirts and ties worked behind a counter, taking in cash, recording the bets, trying frantically to keep straight the rush of gambling. In another corner, the voices grew louder and there were more shouts as two handlers emerged from the outside pens and walked toward the pit. Each carried a rooster, and when they stepped into the pit they held them high for the crowd to admire.
The gamecocks were naturally aggressive toward all males of the same species. The good breeders picked the heavier and faster ones and bred them over and over for increased strength and stamina. They trained them by forcing them to run long distances and obstacle courses, and they fed them steroids and adrenaline to enhance performance. Two weeks before the fight, they were kept in small dark boxes to isolate them and jack up their aggressiveness.
Both handlers were extremely careful because their roosters were equipped with razor-sharp steel gaffs tied to their legs, deadly weapons that resembled small curved ice picks.
A gentleman in a black cowboy hat and matching bow tie was yelling here and there, encouraging all bets to be placed. Hugh said, “That’s Phil Arkwright, he owns the place. Makes a lot of money off this racket.”
“And you’ve been here before?” Keith asked, knowing the answer.
“Couple of times,” Hugh said with a smile. “Nevin loves these
“What about your dad? Does he know?”
They were behind the back row, looking down at the pit. Hugh felt at home. The other three could only gawk. The two handlers met in the center of the ring, squatted, allowed the roosters’ beaks to touch, then turned them loose. They attacked with their beaks, squawked fiercely and crowed, rolled around in the sand as feathers flew. One managed to pin the other and unloaded with the gaffs, jabbing away with both feet. The wounded bird scrambled to his feet and there was blood on his chest. They traded attacks and wounds and neither retreated. The one showing the most blood began to fade and the other moved in for the kill. Half the crowd wanted more blood, half wanted a time-out. No one kept quiet.
The rules did not provide for a clock or any stoppages. At Arkwright’s arena, all fights were to the death.
When the loser was motionless, Arkwright entered the pit and beckoned the handler for the winner to come corral his bird. He managed to subdue him without getting slashed and held him high for the crowd to applaud. The gamecock seemed to care nothing for the adulation. He strained to watch the dying bird in the sand and wanted to finish him off. The loser’s handler appeared with a burlap sack, carefully scooped him up, and dragged him away to the jeers of those who’d put good money on him. His owner would eat him for dinner.
Packs of men descended on the gambling desk to collect their winnings. A stable boy raked the sand and tried to cover up the blood. Fresh cigars were lit and bottles were passed around.
Hugh said, “You guys wanna play?”
All three shook their heads. Joey asked, “What do the cops think about this?”
Hugh chuckled and pointed at the pit. “See that first row on the other side, big guy in a striped shirt with a green cap? That’s our beloved sheriff, Fats Bowman. And that’s his reserved seat. He’s
here every Sunday morning, except during election years when he occasionally goes to church.”
“So that’s Fats Bowman?” Denny said. “Never saw him before.”
“Crookedest sheriff in the state,” Hugh said. “Also the richest. Look, it’s time to bet and the next fight is the biggest. There’s a breeder from up around Wiggins who raises the meanest birds in the state. He’s got a new Whitehackle named Elvis who’s supposed to be unbeatable.”
“Whitehackle?” Keith asked.
“Yeah, one of the more popular breeds of gamecocks.”
“Elvis?” asked Joey. “They have names?”
“Some do. Elvis has this black plume thing going, thinks he’s really pretty. He’s fighting a Hatch from Louisiana and is a three-to-one favorite. I’m putting five bucks on the Hatch. That’s fifteen if I win. Anybody want some action?”