The Great Chicken Drive

Recently, we took our first batch of chickens in for slaughter.  It was pretty uneventful for once, so here is a somewhat fictionalized account of rounding up chickens.

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I squinted my eyes against the setting Western sun, scanning the short-grass prairie for a sign. They were out there, somewhere, amid the vetch and the timothy, the clover and the buttercups. I raised my binoculars up, pushing the brim of my hat back with my hand at the same time. Slowly I moved my head from right to left looking for a sign. There! Movement! I had spotted them; silhouetted against the Western sky, they were more tightly grouped than normal, our presence obviously making them uneasy. Their movements were more cautious and deliberate and always two or three of them would act as sentry, keeping watch for any change in our actions.

I put my binoculars down on my pack, pulled my hat down, then off, and wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I looked to my partner. “They’re getting ready to bed down for the night. We should think about setting up camp – things’ll start early tomorrow.” My partner nodded and began to unpack her kit for the night while I took one last look at the animals and then set about unpacking my kit as well. Off in the distance, the chickens scratched and pecked until, one by one, their heads drooped with sleep and the entire group was still. Now would have been the best time to sneak in and round them up, but should a noise alert them to our intentions, they would all awake and scatter and the last thing we needed was a poultry stampede in the middle of the night.

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Chickens.  On the prairie.

With our bedrolls laid out on the ground and a pot of chili finished between the two of us, we sat by the fire. I poked absentmindedly at the coals with a stick – a rare thing to find on the prairie – while I thought about the day we’d just had. It had been a long and uncomfortable ride to get here. We had assembled our kits, saddled the goats and ambled out of the corral at first light this morning. All day long we ambled a jagged path along the nearly mile-wide Markstay Trail as our goats moved along the trail with the least amount of urgency as is possible, driven more by the quest for tender shoots than the imperative of our boot-heels. And so, with my feet just inches off of the ground, we rode out. Every so often my feet would scrape the tops of any high spots as we plodded out in search of our employer’s chickens.

We had been hired to find these free-range birds, round them up into a group and drive them back towards the CN line in three days to an awaiting livestock car. From there, they were to be taken into the big city for slaughter and sale, but I didn’t care about that: once they were in the rail car, our job was done. I’d be happy to see that day. I looked away from the fire and over to Jenn. She had already fallen asleep: her hat was pulled down over her face and her arms were folded across her chest. She leaned against her pack, her feet stretched out towards the fire. “I guess that’s as comfortable a position as any” I thought to myself as I slouched down against my pack, pulled my hat down and crossed my arms over my chest, too. After the day we’d had, sleep came fast.

A heavy dew had settled on us over night and the temperature had dropped considerably, so when I awoke the next morning – and I call it morning only because I could see that the Eastern sky was slightly lighter than the rest of the starless sky – I was starting to shiver under a damp wool blanket. I scraped together the ashes from last night’s fire, hoping I could coax a few embers to life. I blew gently on the pile and from deep within a small orange glow started to appear. I added the last of our firewood to the pile and waited until it caught before looking for the goats. The goats had wandered farther than I would have liked over night so I had to chase them down and bring them back so that we could have milk for our coffee which was, at present, boiling and perched atop a precarious arrangement of stones. Out on the trail, coffee is made by boiling water, throwing in a handful of grounds and boiling it some more. Then a little cold water is added to drag the grounds to the bottom of the pot. This never works, though, so I always end up with a lot of grounds in my coffee. The milk from the goats doesn’t do so much to help the flavour but it does provide a distraction from the fact that the coffee has to be chewed. The goats had wandered off again while we broke camp, so we had to go and round them up once more. This took forever because they had found a delicious patch of grass and every time I came within a lunge of grabbing them, the pair of them just sauntered a few feet away.

Saddled up, we were finally underway. We rode to the crest of the hill where the chickens had bedded down for the night. They had already moved on, the trampled grass and the odd feather the only clue that they had ever been there. We rode out in hopes of catching up to the flock by noon at the latest. Fortunately, the only thing that moves slower, more erratically and with less purpose than a pair of goats out here on the prairie is a flock of chickens.

The sun was getting to be mighty high in the sky before we caught sight of some stragglers from the flock. We rode closer hoping to encourage the chickens to move in tight with the others. Things were going well until one hen did an abrupt turn and started to make a break for it, running back the way we had come. I couldn’t let her escape – our pay was counting on a full flock returned – so I spun my goat around and spurred it to greater speeds, all the while reaching down for my lasso. A chicken lasso isn’t like an ordinary lasso: they have to be smaller and lighter. Mine just happened to be made out of braided silk. It was light, strong and well tied. I whirled it above my head while my goat sauntered up beside the rogue hen. Leaning to the side of my saddle, I aimed, threw and tightened the lasso, quickly tying it off to the horn of the saddle. In one swift motion I leapt from my goat and landed just beside the hen and rolled her over, pinning her to the ground by kneeling on her wings. With the piggin string I had clenched in my teeth – I had put it there at some point during the chase, I just don’t remember when, but, when a person does as much hen-roping as I do, it just becomes habit, – with the piggin string, I wrapped the hens legs and tied it off in a knot. There: she was immobilized. My last task was to remove the lasso and load her over the back of my goat so we could rejoin the flock and our procession to the awaiting train.

By now, Jenn had caught up with the main flock. They were scratching the ground, picking insects and seeds off plants as they moved along; our riding in from behind the flock had bunched them up nicely and they were moving well. Up ahead was the Veuve River Valley, a narrow slice through an otherwise flat land. Steering the chickens towards the valley, it was our intent to use the steep cliffs as a guide. With me riding behind the flock and Jenn to the side, the only direction the flock could go was ahead and if we kept this pace up, we might just make the rail line by nightfall.

Everything was going fine when I unshouldered my pack and rooted through it for some jerky. I brushed off the the bit of lint and trail dust it had accumulated and stuck the dried slab of meat in my mouth. When I looked up, all around me was confusion. There were chickens everywhere. The squawking and flapping of hundreds of chickens going in thousands of directions was deafening. We were being rustled! I could scarcely believe it, In the dust kicked up by the chickens I could see the Valley Boys, a fast moving, slow thinking trio of chimpanzee brothers who were known to operate around these parts. They each wore a black and yellow shirt with a wide lapel, blue short pants and a straw Western hat held on by an elasticized string tied under their chins. They half walked, half hopped through the flock of chickens with their arms held over their heads and they were chattering and “ooo-ooo-ooo”ing the whole time. The swath they cut through the flock was aimless – almost as aimless as their life out here on the range had been. They had signed on as ranch hands years ago with an outfit to the west of here. When it became evident that the only thing the chimp brothers were competent at was creating mischief and havoc, the rancher fired them, sending them out into the prairie on a llama as ill-tempered as he could find. Even the llama couldn’t abide the chimps and it took its first opportunity to cut out on the trio. It is said to be wandering the plains alone, stewing in its own foul mood and spitting at any traveler unlucky enough to encounter it. The chimps had since quit trying to be ranch hands and now made their living as the dim-witted henchmen of any outlaw desperate enough to need their services. We had heard that the chimp brothers were working for Farley ‘Short-tail’ Fox (so called because of his narrow escape from a flock-guarding dog a few years back.) Short-tail was the dirtiest, meanest, and slickest chicken rustler there was and now here were his half-wit henchmen running amid our flock. He was sure to be around somewhere. In anticipation, I slid my carbine out of its leather case and held it cocked over my shoulder, trying at the same time to restore some order to the flock but it was no use with the chimps terrorizing the flock.

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“We must be close to the rail line,” I thought. “Short-tail can’t drive the rustled chickens himself.” From his past attempts at rustling I knew Short-tail would have a bunch of his own chickens awaiting transport and he’d add to that with the stolen ones. He’d get his flunkies to drive the flock into the already gathered and corralled chickens that were awaiting transport to the city and he’d get his money from the buyer who wouldn’t be able to tell the chickens apart. If we could just keep the group together until we reached the rail depot…

We still had the advantage of the river valley on the one side so we continued to head towards the depot. The chimps were tiring from their lunacy and found themselves more or less caught up in the sea of moving feathers and beaks. I knew I had only one chance at this and that my timing had to be pretty much perfect. As soon as I could make out the depot, its awaiting train cars and the corrals, I had to make my move. I knew that Short-tail would be waiting, so I had to be ready and I had to be vigilant. Once again I spurred my goat for more speed and eventually caught up to Jenn. I outlined my plan and fell back to driving the flock from behind. On the horizon was a wisp of smoke; the train was waiting.

I kept my eyes out for that dastardly fox. Out here amid the short grasses, there were not a lot of places to hide, but he would find a place. Of that I was certain. I could see the train now, its shape a dark grey against the hazy blue of the prairie sky. Reaching into my saddle bag, I pulled out my coffee pot and a handful of chicken scratch. I let the scratch flow through my hands into the pot and it made a subtle ting-ing noise as it did so. Immediately, those chickens close enough to hear stopped what they were doing and looked at me. They started to move towards the coffee pot, anxious for the treat. It was now or never – I had to make my move. For the third time, I spurred my goat and we picked up speed, riding through the middle of the flock. I held the reins tight with one hand and shook the coffee pot with the other. The familiar sound caught the attention of the chickens and they began to follow me. The trail I left behind was like that of sand through an hourglass, as the birds abandoned their loose formation and concentrated on following me. I was now in front of the flock and they were following me intently. I shook the coffee pot to keep their focus up. We were now a mile out from the train – I could see the awaiting corral, empty with its door open. I made straight for it. Lifting up the pot for a shake, I heard a shot, muffled by distance, and the pot was suddenly torn from hand. It landed on the ground several feet to the side and behind me, spilling its contents. The few chickens in the lead ran to the spilled contents and the rest of the flock followed. There was no time to pick up the pot and with the chickens milling around the few spilled grains, I would not be able to move them. I looked to where the shot seemed to have come from and thought I detected some movement.

I threw my pack on the ground and lay behind it, resting my carbine on it. I aimed at where I thought the shot came from and fired. A puff of dirt arose from the impact. Another shot in the distance and the grass beside me rustled. And again. But this time, I caught sight of the muzzle flash off to my left. I returned fire. Once. Twice. Then the hollow click of an empty chamber. I had to reload. I fumbled in my pocket for more ammunition and jammed it in the receiver, cocked the rifle and fired again.

“Throw me your lasso!” I heard Jenn yell over the commotion. “Busy!” I called back. Dirt exploded in front of my pack from the impact of another shot. “‘Throw me your lasso'” I repeated in my head, “Like I even know where my goat is right now.” More dirt showered down on me. I returned the favour. I took a quick look behind me and there was my goat, eating grass, not caring at all about the recent developments. I could see my lasso hanging from the horn of the saddle. I jammed more ammo into the rifle and fired off three quick shots to give me some cover. Jumping to the goat, I grabbed the lasso and, without looking, flung it in the direction of Jenn’s voice. I dove once more behind my pack and reloaded.

Behind me, I could hear the flock in some agitation. There was much clucking, squawking and the ooo-ooo-ooo-ing coming from the chimpanzee brothers. Then I heard a slap and a loud ‘baa-aa-aa!’ and caught sight of the trio of chimps being dragged behind a running scared goat. It turns out that Jenn had rounded up the brothers and had hog-tied them together, using her lasso and mine, which she secured to the horn of her goat’s saddle. The goat didn’t stop running as it made for the horizon, initially scared by the slap on its flank but then spooked by the continued chattering and hooting of the chimps behind it. It ran like a cat with tin cans tied to its tail.

Jenn’s pack landed beside me and she behind it. Her rifle was out and aimed at where I was shooting. “When are we going to stop this craziness?” she asked. “It seems that every year it’s something different.”

“You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if we did quit.” I said

“Yeah,” she replied, “I guess you’re right.” She took aim and fired, just as I did, and from the tuft of grass beyond, we heard a yelp. Running now through the grass, we both had our guns out and ready. We neared the tuft of grass and slowed to a cautious walk. Laying in the grass was Short-tail himself, bleeding from a wound in the shoulder and missing an ear. Jenn kicked away his rifle and I bent over him, binding his hands and feet with my last piggin string. Making a ‘chk-chk-chk’ sound, I called over my goat and we loaded Short-tail over the saddle. Jenn took the reins while I collected my coffee pot, now ruined with a .30 caliber drain hole, and poured in the last of my chicken scratch.

Our packs loaded on our backs, the goat reins in Jenn’s hand and my coffee pot full of scratch in mine, we rounded up the chickens again and began to walk the last mile to the awaiting train car and, with any luck, our money.

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Recently, our two rabbits had a litter – or whatever rabbits have – in the cavernous warren they dug.  This is the female pokin’ her head out to see if the coast was clear.

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Hunter and her cousin, Abbie, helping Jenn move some of the chickens to the tractors in the lower field.  The goats watched intently.  The covered wagon was Jenn’s idea and it’s these sorts of things that make me wonder what I’m going to come home to from work.

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Most people have flies that come in through open doors in the summer.  We have goats.  I’m currently looking for sticky goat tape.

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The turkeys have taken to roosting along our garden fence.  It makes me a bit worried because they seem to be staring at the tomatoes, waiting for them to ripen.  They kind of remind me of that photo taken of the ironworkers having lunch on a suspended beam high above the city.

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Lately, Jenn has been having fun painting kids’ faces.  Hunter loves it and fell asleep while Jenn was doing this one.  The funny thing is watching Hunter take on the personality of whatever Jenn paints.  This one was a take on the traditional sad-faced clown.

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7 Responses

  1. Quite the tale Evan. Next time don’t forget to take some pics of you and Jenn riding the range on your goats, I’d like to see that 😉

    You know….your prairie chickens look a little different than your covered wagon chickens…are you certain that your flock didn’t get changed up for some of Short-tail’s? I do hope you got the better end of the deal if there was a switcheroo.

    • Next time. Promise.

      Our covered wagon flock didn’t have the redness of the setting Western sun to give them that tinge of colour. That’s what happened. Honest.

  2. Uh-huh, sure…tell that to someone who don’t know chickens. 😉

  3. I know an illustrator for your series if you’re interested.
    Thanks for that Evan that was fun!

    • Yeah… I never even thought of that. I sort of wanted to have ‘cheap’ and corny illustrations – to match the story y’know? – and I think I know the illustrator you are talking about. Their work is too good for my little stories.

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