The first cockfight of the night was announced by a gruff voice over the barn loudspeaker to a boisterous crowd of 150 bettors and breeders. It pitted a red gamecock owned by a man known as Bowie Ray against a Filipino New Yorker's white speckled rooster.
The legs of both birds were outfitted with stainless steel spurs an inch and a half long. When the referee hollered, "Let em loose!" the cocks tore into each other in the dirt pit, their neck feathers stiff with rage.
Wings flapping, spurs flashing and beaks hammering into each other's heads, the birds fought claw to claw for five minutes amid a maelstrom of flying feathers and chunks of dirt.
Suddenly, as the fans roared, the red cock's leg spike pierced the white's breast, barely missing its heart. A time-out was called while the New Yorker attended to the wounds of his bird, rubbing its breast with water and blowing gently into its mouth.
Then the referee cried, "Let em loose!" and the gamecocks charged once more. But this time the wounded white cock cunningly leaped over his opponent at the last instant, turned and rapidly struck him from behind. With one quick and devastating kick, he killed the red by thrusting a spur through its head.
"I told you!" a spectator shouted to a friend, as the white bird crowed its gallantry to the rafters. "I told you that cock was game!"
Here in Cecil County, cockfighting is king. To some it's a full-time way of life with its own vernacular: "Blanked" means a bird has been blinded; "shot" means a cock has been stabbed by a spur.
It's also a small industry in which prized fowl sell from $100 to $1,000 each, and an age-old sport in which the loser often dies and the winner is often maimed.
To its detractors cockfighting is a brutal blood sport that has no place in a civilized society. In fact, it's specifically prohibited in 43 states, including Virginia, and the District.
But in Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine, Louisiana and Maryland, the sport is not illegal. And to the people who come to the Pleasant View Stables here every other Saturday night between December and July, who call themselves "cockers" and breed gamecocks with as much care and attention to lineage as horsemen breed racehorses, cockfighting is an art form, a rural tradition and a morality play full of symbolism in which courage and tenacity rule.
"My husband and I learned this sport together and now we're teaching the kids. Gamecocks are just natural fighters. Put two of them together and you can't prevent them from fighting," said Dale Roussey, of Darlington in Harford County, who has been breeding gamecocks for several years with her husband, Jody, owner of a farm fencing company.
"Patience, discipline, fair play--the sport has lessons for everyone. It's the finest thing we've ever done as a family."
Paying $10 a head to enter, the crowd came from as far away as Pennsylvania and Connecticut to the smoke-filled barn in rural Cecil County to enter their birds in the contests, watch the fights, eat cheeseburgers, and bet. As much as $100 changes hands on each fight.
The bouts went on from 7 p.m. until after midnight--more than 20 contests in all--and when it was over the fans, including half a dozen women and several teen-agers, had seen 12 gamecocks killed and at least eight others suffer broken wings and legs or puncture wounds.
"Cockfighting is as old as time," said Reed Hart, a retired, 70-year-old miner and bird breeder from nearby Charlestown. "It's not only an American tradition, but in a lot of other countries it's the national sport."
These, however, are anxious times for the cockers of Cecil County.
Last August, after an undercover investigation of cockfighting at Pleasant View, Maryland State Police arrested Hart and Robert L. Jackson, 58, owner of the farm, on misdemeanor charges of operating a gambling house and cruelty to animals.
It was to be the first major court test of whether the state's animal cruelty laws effectively prohibit cockfighting.
In September, Cecil County District Court Judge L. Edgar Brown came back with the answer: He threw out the charges against the two men, saying cockfighting is legal in Maryland under common law, which is based on custom rather than legislation.
He said that if the General Assembly had wanted to make cockfighting illegal, it should have specifically banned the sport when the state's animal cruelty laws were rewritten in 1972.
The cockers were jubilant, for the decision seemed to vindicate the sport.
Now, however, in the wake of Brown's ruling, the legislature is gearing up to do just what the judge said it should have done before, and the cockfighters are under more fire than ever.
"It's beastly and utterly revolting," said State Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), author of one of five bills under study in the assembly that would outlaw cockfighting. "I was shocked when I heard people were still doing such things in Maryland and allowing children to witness it. As far as I'm concerned the sport was designed for killing. It's saying killing is okay."
Del. Idamae Garrott (D-Montgomery), sponsor of a different anticockfighting bill in the House of Delegates, added, "It's absolutely barbaric. What does it say about us that Maryland is one of only seven states where cockfighting is not strictly illegal? I certainly don't think that's the impression we want people to have of this state."
During a hearing on three of the bills last month, the committee room was filled. On one side were the animal-rights advocates, including investigators for the U.S. Humane Society, brimming with facts and figures to support their charges that cockfighting, in the words of one Humane Society investigator, "is a mindless activity conducted by sick people."
The advocates trundled in boxes of evidence, including steel leg spurs, feathers, stuffed birds, and copies of the sport's trade magazines, Grit and Steel and The Gamecock, to illustrate their point.
The cockers, meantime, put together an impressive lobbying effort of their own. Ordinarily a secretive and elusive group, the cockfighters, spearheaded by Hart, Jackson and Joseph Zamino, a Baltimore funeral home owner, united last month to form a 200-member trade organization called the Northeastern Game Fowl Breeders Association.
They also hired an ex-crony and aide to former governor Marvin Mandel, Frank Harris, to lobby for them. During the last weeks Harris, a self-described "arm-twister," prowled the halls of the State House touting the sport and its participants.
"Thomas Jefferson was a cocker. So was George Washington," Harris said. "Cockfighting made America great."
The debate in Annapolis is over everything from whether chickens feel pain to whether the fighting spirit of roosters is instinctive or man-induced.
But mainly the talk is of history and the illustrious figures of the past--from the ancient Athenian warrior Themistocles to Abraham Lincoln--who participated in the sport.
"History," said Bruce Dice, a Gaithersburg roofer and breeder of game fowl, "is totally on our side."
Cockfighting predates Christ by at least 500 years and is one of the most universal sports known to man. In the Library of Congress there are more than a dozen books about the sport, most of them extolling its glory and symbolism.
In one tome, entitled "The Chicken Book," and subtitled "Being an Inquiry into the Rise and Fall, Use and Abuse, Triumph and Tragedy of Gallus Domesticus," academics Page Smith and Charles Daniel assert that the fighting cock was identified in ancient Greece with Ares, the god of war, and later in Rome with Eros, the god of erotic love. In time the macho bird came to symbolize bravery in battle, individual freedom and sexual virility.
Carried to Europe by the Romans, cockfighting enjoyed its greatest popularity in England and France during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, when it became the diversion of choice for monarchs and commoners alike. It was finally declared illegal in England during a reform movement in 1849, but even today there are occasional tales of Englishmen being nabbed for cockfighting.
The fighting cock accompanied Spanish conquerors to the New World and in several countries today, such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico and other islands of the Caribbean, it is virtually a national pastime.
Nowadays the gamecock is the national symbol of France, the state bird of South Carolina, and the nickname for University of South Carolina athletic teams. From 1842 to 1874, the cock was the emblem of the Democratic Party.
And, according to numerous scholarly works, the origins of many English words can be traced to cockfighting--cocky, cocksure, cockpit and cocktail, to mention just a few.
Recently Cecil County's cockers called on Clifton D. Bryant, a sociology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and an expert in cockfighting history, to testify on their behalf in Annapolis. The balding, bespectacled scholar astonished the delegates with footnoted tales of cockfighting's American past.
As Schweinhaut put it, "Never have I witnessed such a parade of ancestors."
As the Cecil County cockers sat back, proudly nodding their heads, Bryant proclaimed that American cockfighting goes as far back as the 1600s and that Washington and Jefferson often met at each other's farms for Sunday afternoon cockfights.
Andrew Jackson was also an enthusiast and actually held a cockfight or two at the White House when he was president.
And, Bryant declared, forget everything you might have heard about the popular origins of Lincoln's nickname "Honest Abe." Citing chapter and verse from William H. Herndon's 1896 biography, "Life of Lincoln," Bryant said he was called Honest Abe not because of his persistence in returning a borrowed book, but because of his honesty in arbitrating Illinois cockfights.
He said the sport offers an outlet for man's aggressions. And as far as family entertainment is concerned, Bryant said cockfighting "is certainly no more harmful than watching television."
The legislators appeared dumbfounded by Bryant's testimony. "It's difficult to go up against people like Washington and Lincoln," Schweinhaut said. "But it still doesn't make it right. Just because they didn't have indoor plumbing, is that any reason why we shouldn't?"
Added Robert Baker, a Humane Society investigator, "The United States used to allow slavery, had no child labor laws and didn't permit women to vote. Old does not necessarily mean good . . . . "
A State Senate committee vote is scheduled next week on a bill that would ban cockfighting, but Schweinhaut is not optimistic about its passage.
She said Sen. Walter Baker (D-Cecil), a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which that will consider the bill, told her, " 'Peg, I just couldn't go home if I didn't do everything in my power to kill this thing.' "
"I think most people see this as small potatoes," Schweinhaut continued, "especially compared to world hunger or the possiblity of nuclear war."
Meantime, the fights at Pleasant View Stables go on and some cockers say that even if the sport is banned they will continue to fight their birds.
"It'd be just like Prohibition," said one cocker on a recent Saturday night, as he chewed a slice of pizza at the barn's concession stand. "We may have to go a little more underground, but we will go on."