The Critter in the Hen House
Everyone has that one instance in their childhood that sticks with them all their life. When I say “it sticks with them,” I mean every detail can be remembered in such clarity, you would think you had been on a peyote trip (although I use it in reference only, as I have no experience with this). The details, colors, environment—everything is remembered, the colors are vivid, the atmospheric conditions are extreme….you know the drill.
This is a story about my grandparents, specifically my grandfather, who had a small farm on the outskirts of San Angelo, Texas. My grandparents raised every kind of vegetable, fruit, bird, fowl, beef, horse, etc. If they didn’t raise it, they didn’t have it. The only reason they went to town was for “staples” like coffee, sugar, salt, flour—stuff like that.
They had a huge chicken house that served to shelter all the fowl at night—you know, chickens, turkeys, guineas, quail, pigeons, etc. Now this chicken house was about a hundred yards from the house but my grandfather could hear if the chickens and things were upset, for any reason. The man knew his castle and all of his realm.
If any of y’all were raised in the “desert” of west Texas, you know that there are a LOT of critters out there that like to raid the hen houses. Foxes, bobcats, coyotes, an occasional mountain lion, and even a bear every twenty years or so.
This particular night, my brothers, sister and I were spending the Christmas holidays with them. We ranged in ages from three to eight (there were four of us kids and we were no more than about fifteen months between one to the next…no wonder my mother’s hair turned gray; go figure). We spent just about every holiday, anytime school was out, long weekends, etc. with these particular grandparents because it was cool to go to the farm and do country stuff with them. Not only that but they actually seemed to enjoy having us around. I have no idea why; we were not the most laid-back children. We were well-mannered but leaned toward the mischievous. Idle hands are the devil’s playground is what they used to say but more on that in another story.
My grandfather rose from bed every morning at four a.m., whether it was a work day or the Sabbath. You could set your clock by it. As a matter of fact, I think some people did. This particular morning, he rose at about two-thirty in the morning, shook me awake, and told me to get the shotgun.
“There’s something in the hen house,” he said in a whisper.
I wasn’t sure if he whispered to keep from waking the others in the house or if he thought the “critter” could hear him.
At any rate, I went to the corner where he kept his shotgun and ammunition, took out the old “Greener” shotgun, fished around in the dark and got a pair of shotgun shells, broke open the shotgun, and loaded them. This shotgun was the old “thumb buster” type with double cocking hammers and front and back triggers.
Now, for some unknown reason, my grandfather was notorious about feeling up both triggers at the same time, which anyone who has shot a double barrel shotgun with front/back triggers knows is a “no-no,” but I digress. On with the story.
After loading the gun, I handed it to my grandpa, who had a huge four D-cell flashlight that would throw a beam of light probably to the moon. I slipped on my coat and shoes and followed him out the backdoor. It was clear and below freezing this particular night. The back porch was built up to the same height as the floor in the house and there were three steps down to the ground. Attached to this porch was the dog house and pen for Shep, my grandparents’ dog. I never knew what breed Shep was but he may have been a cross between a German shepherd and a Shetland pony. He was huge. I was probably about six years old and the dogs back came about even with my chest. He was a friendly dog with those of us he knew, not so friendly to those he didn’t. My grandparents penned him at night because he had a habit of roaming the countryside and dragging home an occasional deer or small hog to munch on and leaving the remains by the porch, which one of us would have to drag off and bury. He was particular about the parts he ate and not particular about where he left the parts he didn’t. Hence, he was penned next to the back porch at night.
My grandfather took the lead and began the trek to the chicken house, Shep and I bringing up the rear. One thing about my grandfather—he was what they call “old school.” He wore the old “long handle” type of undergarments with the “trap door” in the back. This was the clothes he had on this particular night and, as usual, the “trap door” was not fastened and his “shiny hiney” was hanging out in all its “never seen the sun” white wonder, all with his Brogan work boots. A fashion statement, to say the least. All the kids would giggle about Grandpa’s “shiny hiney” because it was almost like saying a cuss word but not quite.
As mentioned before, it was cold and below freezing that night and there was a full moon. The moon was huge and so bright everything could be seen except in the darkest of shadows. My breath fogged from the cold and, as I looked up at my grandfather, his breath billowed away from his face in small clouds. The ground had a slight crackle to it from the frost being crushed beneath our feet and paws. I noticed an owl sitting on top of the power pole to the water pump house, who turned his head to watch us as we passed. I wondered if he was the one that disturbed the chickens. The fruit trees my grandparents had planted over the years had shed their leaves for the winter and looked barren and almost spooky with their limbs bare and appearing to reach for the sky. I was glad to be with my grandpa in case they twisted those tendrils down to snatch me away and gobble me up. I inched a little closer to Grandpa just in case. A child’s mind at work…..we make our own demons and devils.
When we reached the gate to the chicken yard, Grandpa leaned the gun up against the fence to slip the latch and open the gate so the hinges wouldn’t squeak and alarm whatever was, evidently, still in the hen house. The chickens were cackling and restless and we could tell something wasn’t right in the old hen house tonight. Grandpa retrieved the shotgun and leaned it on the inside of the fence to close the gate, taking the same care as before. When he retrieved the shotgun, he placed the club of a flashlight in between the barrels and held it in place so the beam would be in line with the blast of the gun, in the event it was needed quickly.
We inched up to the hen house door and Grandpa flipped the switch for the flashlight on, shining the light through the open door (the door stayed open so the chickens would go to roost on their own. I guess you would call them “free range” these days.)
Shep and I stood almost directly behind him at this point, trying to look around him to see what creature had so upset the hens. Grandpa’s “shiny hiney” was almost in our faces. I happened to look over at Shep the horse/dog and he was staring directly at my grandfather’s butt crack and, you guessed it, reached up and “cold nosed” him right between the butt cheeks. Now, this was a tense moment, as nobody knew what monster might lay in wait for us in the chicken house, and my grandfather (always ready for any event) pulled both triggers on the Greener at once. I neglected to tell you that the shells I had put in the gun were High Power Goose loads. The heavy loads, combined with the surprise of being “cold nosed” and the fact that Grandpa was holding the gun about hip level, caused the gun to kick back and smack him in the head and knock him back several steps before he planted his “shiny hiney” on the frosted dirt in the chicken yard, losing control of the gun and the flashlight. The gun flew back about ten feet behind him and the flashlight flew head over heels and came down directly on his groin. Grandpa grabbed his “man berries” and gagged a few times, me thinking the whole time that “that must have hurt.”
This all happened in a split second and Shep and I had neatly stepped to the left side about the time both triggers were pulled so Grandpa cleanly missed us when he was vaulted backwards. About that time, a fox came barreling out of the hen house, stopped just outside the door, looked both ways like “what the hell was that???” then ran off toward the back pasture. Shep stood there and just watched him run off, totally unconcerned, then had the audacity to sit down and roll his enormous tongue out, panting and then yawning hugely. I heard my grandfather mutter something about “If I had another shell, I would shoot that damned dog, yes you, you worthless piece of “*&%#.” Wow, I had never heard my grandfather cuss before so I stood there beside the dog with my mouth open.
Fast forward about twenty minutes, when Grandpa was able to stand, stopped gagging from the twelve pound flashlight smacking him in his “nads,” my grandmother showing up to see what the shooting was about, Shep going back to the house as his services were no longer needed, and me collecting the errant flashlight. We surveyed the damage.
About twenty chickens lay dead, another half dozen were wounded and would have to be put out of their misery, and several of the dead ones on the ground had taken the full brunt of the “goose loads” and there would be very little usable meat on them.
That’s how we spent most of the next day, cleaning the casualties from Shep’s “nose job.” We ate so much chicken the next week, the pastor begged off coming to dinner for two nights that week and would only come back if we were having pork or beef (without the lead shot).
So that is one of my “memorable moments” from my youth, so vivid I can feel the frost pinch my nose when I think about it.