There aren’t many symbols more emblematic of the rural life than chickens. Stories and pictures depict chickens in every setting and circumstance, posing with homesteaders in front of their “soddies,” in homemade crates riding conestogas up the Oregon trail, gripped tight under the arms of Indians on the run after a raid, hurrying across a dusty railroad-town street, scrambling out of the way of the lead steers of an arriving trail drive. Providing reliable, staple nutrition, they were efficient, compact, and gave two kinds of protein; one was delivered about every day of a chicken’s career, the other just once. Chickens were also good to keep the barnyard’s bug and worm population in balance, including such undesirables as scorpions and bad spiders.
So it was at Chupainas camp. My wife, Georgia, always loved chickens, and usually had a flock of hens that was rather special, like her quiet-natured, Silver Laced Wyandottes, gentle and dignified; or her Buff Orpingtons that added a golden glint of brilliance next to the earth-toned walls of the rock barn and faded red boards of the corral fences. Sometimes she would have a special rooster, a unique feed store discovery or gift from a friend, like the majestic Blue Andalusian that Duke Sundt had given her—a big blue-grey benevolent king that enjoyed a special neighborly relationship with the lady up at the house; or the big, fancy fighting cock that had lost a bout and, in his retirement, was gifted to Georgia, riding to his new home on a spare tire in the bed of Paublin Romero’s little Toyota pickup. For a while there was a flock of Rhode Island Reds, and though their brown eggs were wonderful, they are a rude breed, unattractive with no refinement or manners. Georgia, a beautiful woman of peace and order, required those same qualities of her realm; so, the Buffs or the Wyandottes were her choice, adding quiet attractive dignity to the barn areas of Chupainas.
Anton Chico was not more than 15 or so miles from where we lived, a community nestled among alfalfa fields and scattered adobe and rock houses along the Pecos River. It was a village that time would have forgotten had the paved roads not been constructed connecting it to the evolving world. Even so, and in spite of the sometimes debilitating influences of “progressive” society, life was slower and traditions more sacred here. These were people of the land, whose seasons in life matched the seasons of nature, and whose internal timepieces were more tuned to the cycles of the acequia’s flow, or the churchbells announcing the Mass, or the in-and-out migration of the school children. When they were small, our two daughters attended the Anton Chico school, so we found ourselves linked to some of the same seasonal life of the valley. Every morning, either Georgia or I would load the girls up for the trek to Anton Chico, and that afternoon we would wait at the roadside as children poured from the schoolyard.
Flocks of chickens in barnyards and backyards engaged in their daily bustle all over this little rock and adobe community, and there is little doubt that egg sales at the local store were probably non-existent. They were fowl of every motley description and breeding, including a scattering of warrior blood, evidence of the local popularity of avian pugilistic tradition. The pre-dawn silence was broken every morning by the proclamations of countless roosters announcing a new day as dawn’s rays began to strike paths of light along that farm-lined stretch of the Pecos.
In the spring, the kindergarten teacher at the Anton Chico school had located an old egg incubator, and seeing opportunity for a class project, asked each child to bring two eggs from home. In that world, all eggs were fertile, so it was a safe bet that in a few weeks the kids would be able to see the miracle of life cracking forth in front of their eyes, a worthy and wonderful experience for the little five- and six-year-olds.
Avery, our youngest, picked a couple of eggs from the morning’s bounty, and Georgia packed them safely in a little box with some straw for the trip to school. Three weeks later, the children watched tiny beaks making the way for escape from white and tan shells, downy yellow and mottled chicks busily filling the floor of the incubator. The plan was for the kindergartners to eventually bring two chicks back home, and obviously the odds of a chick returning to point of origin was just about nil, so Avery’s new chicks had begun in some other backyard and would have their own look. When they grew their feathers out that summer, Avery had a colorful, gentle-natured little hen, part bantam, she named Henny Penny. The other was a rooster. Not very big, this pure white male stood slender and proudly erect, with flat comb and iridescent feathers covering neck and back. It was pretty obvious that at least some of this guy’s ancestors spent more time in the ring than in the barnyard. One might have thought Spartacus or Rocky would have been a good moniker, but Avery liked “Ed.”
Sometimes, saddling up at the barn door, I would notice this undersized bully challenging whatever might be moving across his claim, appearing frustrated at the lack of respect paid. The trouble was he wasn’t very big, so animals and people alike saw him as more of an amusement or nuisance than a threat. Ed didn’t relent, refusing the notion that he was anything less than a dangerous force of nature, preferring to identify with the gladiator side of his family tree, rather than the egg-factory clan. Ed grew some that summer, but not nearly in proportion to his attitude.
Summer began hinting at the seasonal cycle toward fall and, before we knew it, the Anton Chico school bell was ringing again, and our routine included getting the girls to and from the village every day. Part of that routine included their morning chores—feeding the chickens, gathering the eggs, and pouring a can of grain to a saddle horse whenever one was kept up. Then they would come back up to the house, eat breakfast, and get ready for the trip to school. The days started early, and sometimes the girls, ages six and eight, would head toward the barn still rubbing sleep from their eyes. Depending on the plans for the day, either Georgia or I would load them up for the short trek to Anton Chico.
I am sure my childrenwill tell you that I wasn’t always a sensitive listener to their problems, and in this case, their complaints about Ed were not getting the protective response they may have deserved.
“Ed is being mean,” they would complain. “He tries to chase us!”
“Just run ’im off.”
“No, Dad! He doesn’t want to leave us alone!”
“Just carry a stick with you, or maybe a broom. He is just a little chicken. He can’t hurt you. Just run ’im off.”
Each morning the conversation would end with the girls frustrated and their father oblivious. One morning, Georgia impatiently asked me to go get the girls at the corrals.
“They’re taking too much time, and we’re going to be late for school.”
I sauntered around the corner of the barn, figuring they had gotten distracted by some discovery, or had lost sense of time playing. Looking up, I saw the two girls all the way up on the top board of the corral fence, crying in frustration, and Ed on the corral floor. He had them treed, and wasn’t going to let them down. The little bully had finally achieved a victory of sorts. I chased him away and helped the girls down, but they didn’t exactly heap praise upon me for the gallant rescue; instead, they admonished me: “See there? See what we’re talking about? Ed is mean!”
I hustled the kids up to the house and Georgia fed them a hurried breakfast.
“I have to go on to the headquarters later this morning, so I’ll take them. See you probably early afternoon.”
“I’ll take care of the chores and feed the horse,” she replied. “You all had better get on down the road.”
We loaded up in my pickup and lit a shuck for the village. The drive was quiet, pouting quiet, except for an occasional subdued, almost hostile, “See I told you so,” from Meredith, with an echo from Avery. Needless to say, they were not interested in acknowledging my heroic role in their liberation from the top of that fence. I did get a kiss, kind-of, from them as they hopped down from the pickup and headed through the school gate.
The work at the ranch headquarters wrapped up pretty quick, so after dinner I drove back to Chupainas Camp to catch up on a few things before getting the girls from school. As I came in the door of our little rock home, Georgia had a sort of determined, “mission accomplished” look on her face, as she sat at the antique dining table sorting pinto beans for supper.
“Ed’s dead. I shot him.”
“That’s Avery’s chicken! What happened?”
She cast a brief, hard glance sideways, as if seeing through the rock walls toward the corral. More astonished and curious than anything else, I again asked what happened, and Georgia laid out the events of the morning.
She had walked down to the barn, taking with her a plastic pail to collect the eggs. Crossing the corral past the barn door, in front of the little rock chicken house, she heard and felt a thump on the bucket. Looking down at the ground, she saw the little white rooster, neck feathers standing up, wings spread near the ground, in a menacing challenge to the lady of the manor. Ed was driving Georgia from his domain. She dropped the bucket and left the corral, but Ed was mistaken if he was thinking a battle had been fought and won. Knowing my wife, I could imagine her purposed march back up to the house, and I could picture the look on her face—that of a mother with blood in her eye.
Mothers of most any species will sometimes have The Look. They say most animals do not have expressions like humans do, because they don’t have enough of the right muscles in their faces. But tell that to the mugger in a branding corral when he sees that high-horned crossbred cow who suddenly realizes the calf being wrestled to the ground is her pride and joy, and that flanker will tell you the whole story is on her face as she looks over the top of the herd, and here she comes! The same can be said for just about any nurturing mother whose baby is under threat, no different for the human species, and no different for the mother of the house at Chupainas Camp.
Entering the house and opening a drawer in the bedroom nightstand, remembrance rose in her mind of an event as a very small child, when an ornery rooster jumped and spurred her in the face, and then the recall of a grandmother, with The Look, turning the rooster’s neck like a Model-T crank. She also recalled the plate of fried chicken on the table for supper that evening.
Georgia stepped back out of the house with The Look on her face, and her Ruger Bearcat six-shooter in her hand. By the pace of her stride back to the barn, she could have easily been pictured walking alongside the Earps toward the OK Corral, and the outlaw that awaited her—just like those in Tombstone—was seriously overestimating his chances of seeing another sunset. Rounding the corner of the barn and entering the corral, her eyes met Ed’s.
There are a few deciding moments in life where the battle of will and intent leaves only one option for existence, and one relegated to purgatory. This was one of those moments. White hackles raised and wings spread low to the ground, Ed readied his attack with arched neck and strutting body, while the only sound in the corral was the ratcheting click of the pistol’s hammer under Georgia’s thumb. Ed viewed the strange object in her hand as it swung its long, orificed extension in his direction. He was planning his leap onto this odd appendage when he saw a blinding flash of light. Then he saw nothing, except for the evil welcoming face of old Beelzebub, beckoning with one hand and pointing downward with the other.
The faint odor of gunpowder hung in the air and a slim, wispy breath of smoke left the gun barrel as Georgia coldly surveyed the villain on the ground, a crimson streak spreading through the lifeless pile of white feathers. With no remorse, Georgia picked the vanquished outlaw up by one taloned foot and slung him into a stand of tall grass outside the premises, to become an unexpected meal for some passing varmint—a fitting outcome for this criminal, in her opinion. Her cool, defiant expression gave wordless confirmation that nobody was going to be a danger to her children and get away with it. She stuck the pistol securely in her belt, picked up the pail, and finished the chores. The saddlehorse, having dashed to the back side of his pen, timidly eased back up to the feed trough, looking worried that he might be next, but then his fears were relieved by sight of the gallon of oats poured out by this gun-wielding heroine.
It was time to pick the girls up from school and I was going to have to break the news to Avery that the pet chicken she had nurtured since before it hatched had fallen in a gunfight. I left the scene of the battle and drove to Anton Chico, in deep thought about how to tell the girls. I finally decided it would not be proper to discuss such a tragedy while driving down the road, so I put it off until we got home.
Sitting on the edge of a living room chair, I called them to me and, bracing for the sorrow of children losing a pet, said, “Girls, I’m afraid I have some bad news.” They looked at me with faces of concern and dread. Without knowing how to sugar coat it I simply said, “Ed ... is dead.”
The girls looked at me in surprise, then at each other, and then at me again, as if they were trying to confirm they’d heard right. Then, suddenly, they broke out in a cheer, dancing with arms waving above their heads, chanting, “Ed is dead! Ed is dead! Ed is dead!”
I was taken aback, observing a scene mindful of the Wizard of Oz with munchkins singing, “the Wicked Witch is dead.” Georgia stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, arms folded, watching the celebration, wearing a subtle, satisfied smile.
Law and order had returned. The gun was put away. Children walked the estate without fear, while peace and calm, reflective of the mistress herself, reigned once again. Georgia’s chickens—and Henny Penny—waited patiently, without bullying interruption, each morning for the girls to trade a little grain tossed on the ground for a basketful of eggs. The Look had long faded from Georgia’s countenance, as tranquility and dignity became the routine each day. She loved her children—and her chickens—and all was well at Chupainas Camp.