I was out on a midsummer skulk in classic thief's habit, head-to-toe black and making no more impression on the night than the shadow of a knife. Throughout the lanes and byways of the little seaside village I slunk, oozing like oiled quicksilver into cracks and seams when necessary to avoid detection.
A skulk, if you don't know, is a nocturnal foray conducted in the wee hours, an exploratory incursion into the night without specific felonious intent but encompassing all possibilities from casual observation through outright pillage. I was more inclined toward the former on this particular night, enjoying my anonymity as I traversed the streets and alleys of Fort Bragg with the speed and stealth of an egg-stealing stoat. I had made myself a little lost, and when a nascent glow from the east signaled the impending dawn, I shed the alley-cat persona and sat down on a bus bench to gather my bearings and present as a chipper, early-rising citizen rather than the rapacious noctivigant I actually was.
I struck an expansive pose on the bench, stretching out with my hands behind my head and legs outstretched. In the distance I heard a faint metronomic clicking, like a ferret in tap shoes. I looked down the road in the direction of the sound and saw, about a block distant, a creature of indeterminate species headed toward me. It was still mostly dark and I couldn't yet make out any distinguishing details save it was about knee-high and approaching at a good clip.
The human brain is a very busy and complex organ, and in analyzing sensory input from the environment will often take time-saving shortcuts to fill in details based on existing knowledge. For instance, if I am out on a boat and I detect a disturbance on the water surface and visibility is limited, my mind is going to fill in the necessary fins or flippers related to aquatic life because my past experience with the ocean tells it I’m not likely to see a camel or astronaut out there a-floundering. So, based on my knowledge about the comings and goings of wildlife in Fort Bragg, I expected nothing more exotic than a raccoon, more likely a cat, and certainly something with fur and four legs. I therefore experienced a bit of a jolt when a chicken hove into view, compounded by the manner in which this bird was traveling.
Another way we identify unknown beings when visibility is low is by observing their style of ambulation. Ducks waddle, snakes undulate, cattle plod, and chickens are usually seen either calmly high-stepping and pecking around the yard or, having been startled or otherwise molested, flapping and squawking excitedly. Not so this bird. She was trotting like a harness racer negotiating the final straight at Churchill Downs and just as fixed and purposeful in her mission, not giving me so much as a glance as she zoomed past. "That's something you don't see every day," I said aloud, watching as her tailfeathers receded into the distance.
I hadn't time to give the incident much thought before I heard steps again approaching, these ones definitely those of a running human. I turned to see the blocky figure of a stout 40-ish woman in full timberman kit puffing down the sidewalk. Seeing me, she slowed and said, "You seen a chicken come this way?" I jerked a thumb in the direction the restless fowl had gone and she lit out after it.
I took a few moments to consider the chicken's appearance in a semiotic light before remembering that I was not a character in a novel, and then it hit me like a ton of delayed bricks: of course that chicken was hustling like its distant desert cousin, Coyoteus Flustrateus, She was running for her very life! That woman in the plaid shirt and Carhartts could not have looked more carnivorous if she were outfitted in fangs and fir. Now that I thought about it, I wasn't entirely certain she didn't run past with a cleaver in her hand.
I made a deal with the animal kingdom long ago: you don't eat me, I don't eat you. So far we've both kept up our respective sides of the bargain, so I assume that the cows, pigs, chickens, etc. have transmitted the information to the relevant predators regarding my non-combatant status. I'm not going to test the theory by jumping in the tiger habitat at the zoo, but I feel pretty safe in most environments.
My position vis-a-vis my fellow humans regarding their eating habits is generally laissez faire; I'm not an activist but simply choose not to pollute my own system with the decayed and putrescent flesh of my animal brothers and sisters. I was damned if I’d stand idly by and leave that brave and noble bird to the vile depredations which appeared to be in store for her, though.
The lumberjack had a good head start on me and was probably the rightful owner of the chicken, but I had on felony shoes, a bloodstream singing with stimulants, and righteous herbivorean indignation on my side. Thus armed, I leapt to my feet and hied off chickenward. After traveling several blocks linearly with no sign of either chicken or pursuer, I began making random turns in hopes of lucking into an encounter with my quarry. Sure enough, several turns in I spilled out onto a vacant lot where the would-be chicken wrangler was standing at the base of a walnut tree, cursing and throwing rocks. I approached carefully and said, "Found her?"
She turned and looked at me distastefully. "It's up the damn tree," she said, firing another rock up into the branches.
"Please don't do that," I said.
"What damn business is it of yours? It's my damn chicken."
"It's unnecessarily cruel. What do you plan on doing with her?"
"Wring her damn neck is all. This is the third time it's got out and made me chase it, and the last."
"Well, there's no need to torment her," I said. "I'll shinny up that tree and get her for you."
I don't know if you've ever tried to catch a chicken that didn't want to get got, but it's a difficult proposition. They're quick, they're wily, and they seem to be able to anticipate about three moves ahead of you. Not only that, but I expect that the events of the morning had caused this particular chicken to take a dim view of humanity in general and convincing it of my helpful intentions would not be easy.
Nevertheless, I did have a plan. I climbed up the tree slowly, making reassuring clucking noises all the while to avoid scaring the chicken. I got up to her level and parked myself on a branch.
She was perched about five feet away and eying me warily, doing a little rocking motion by clenching and unclenching each talon in turn, now and then intoning a worried-sounding interrogatory cluck.
"Alright, lady," I said. "I’m not gonna sugar-coat this. You're in deep doo-doo. That bruiser down there plans on taking your head. I don't expect you to trust me, and anyway if I did manage to carry you down we'd both be in for it. So what I plan to do is speak calmly to you here for a minute, to soothe you in order to make your shock and surprise that much more genuine when I scream and lunge at you suddenly. Get the picture? You fly out of the tree — I realize you're about as aerodynamic as a frozen turkey, but you do have wings and I'll do my best to distract Yon Yonson's wife down there. Okay? … Ready?"
She blinked and cocked her little chickenhead, which I took as a yes, and I gave out with a bloodcurdling scream and lurched forward as if to grab her. That chicken shot off the branch and into the ether like a feathered rocket, and if she did not that day set the record for unassisted chicken flight, then I demand a blood test for the chicken who did. Her hang time was plenty enough for me to line up my abrupt descent from the tree and onto the shoulders of Paula Bunyan. Down she (and I) tumbled into the dirt, and once I was able to disentangle from her thrashing, cursing form, I lit out after the chicken. By the time she extended her landing gear and bounced back to earth, I was right behind her and shouting further encouragement. "HI-YAH!" I shouted. "Yip! Yip! Git along, there!"
That bird was a competitor. Flight reserves apparently used up, she lowered her head like a charging goose, spread her wings and turned on the afterburners. Her feet barely touched the ground as she skimmed down the street like a hovercraft, me racing along behind, waving my arms and yelling out cowboy cant.
No dummy, the chicken espied an escape route in the form of an open backyard fence door. She zipped through it and into a backyard filled with children's toys. Perfect, I thought as I closed and latched the gate. If I know kids, that bird will have a name and its own bed by 10:00 am. I ran quickly away from the house in case the murderous hag was in the vicinity, but she'd either given up or taken a wrong turn somewhere.
The sun may have been full up by that time, but it was nothing to the glow of satisfaction I felt at having saved the neck of that valiant, peripatetic bird. She was a free spirit, is all, unsuited to the rigors of egg production and trying to make her own way. Fortune placed her in the way of my nighttime meanderings and gave me an opportunity for heroism, at which I don't mind saying I acquitted myself admirably. I don't know if the species already has a patron saint, but I'm available.