Robby Stanton stared through the fence of the chicken pen. His eyes following the rooster. The road island red seemed almost as tall as he. Consisted small for his age, seven-year-old Robby felt as if he would never grow. Last night at his insistence, his mother measured him and then again, this morning. Pushing his back to the kitchen wall, he stretched his body as far as he could without standing on his tiptoes.
“Three foot eight.” His mother said, smiling at him. Robby’s face fell. He had hoped that he would have gained at least a quarter of an inch overnight. “Come eat your breakfast. It will make you feel better.” She placed a bowl of steaming oatmeal on the table in front of him.
“Isn’t oatmeal sopst to make you big and strong?” He asks, following her dutifully. He hadn’t grown a bit in the last six months. He was the smallest kid in his class, including the girls.
His mother patted him on the head. He hated it when she did that. It made him feel like a little kid. “Don’t worry,” she said, “it’ll happen.” He spooned a few bits of the oatmeal into his mouth. He ate it down to the last spoonful, but as far as he could see, it did him no good.
Finishing his breakfast, he walked out onto the back porch and took the wire basket down from the nail. He stood back and looked at the nail. His father had pounded it into the 2×4 just at the right height for him to reach. At that minute, he hated that nail.
Wondering out behind the house, he swung the basket around his head. He could do that when it was empty. Slowly, he made his way to the chicken pen to gather the eggs. This was one of the few tasks he could perform around the farm without help. Now he stood looking at the new rooster his father brought home yesterday afternoon. The sharp beak and claws terrified him. He doodled around, hoping the rooster would move away from the gate. Instead, the fowl came closer. In truth, the rooster was curious about this small human. Robby stepped back as the fowl named Rascal came to the gate. The small boy stood gawking at the rooster. The foul’s red and black feathers gleamed like a warrior’s armor in the sunlight. Spotting a worm, the rooster dug at the ground. Its claws appeared to Robby to be as sharp as knifes. Sweat popped out on the boy’s forehead. He glanced at the house, hoping his mother didn’t see his hesitation.
Robby tried to be brave, but other things frightened him. Noises in the night caused him to shiver. Surprisingly, thunderstorms comforted him. In them, he pretended he could hear the voice of God. Each night after, his mother tucked him in. After she left, he climbed out of bed to check under it and inspect the closet. Then there were the shadows, and in each one, he saw an intruder. To Robbie’s imagination, there were murderers and pirates crawling all over his room. Many a night, he pulled the covers up over his head and prayed for morning. His parents brought him a nightlight, which helped greatly.
“Don’t you think you should go out there?” Robby’s mother said, standing back from the kitchen window so her son wouldn’t see her. “Yeah, I suppose I should. You know he’s gonna have to buck up. That rooster just needs to know who’s boss.” Ernest Stanton Said.
“He’s one of the biggest roosters I ever saw.” His mother said, her heart going out to her son.
“Yup, he’s a big’en alright.” Ernest said, putting on his hat.
“Be patient with him, dear.”
“Of course.” He said, going out. Ernest tried to think back to when he was Robby’s age. He smiled and almost laughed. He thought of the time the old white rooster set him to flight. He vaguely remembered tugging on his gumboots so he could gather the eggs. That day, the old rooster came at him again, really to run him out of the chicken yard as he had before. Instead of running, Ernest stood his ground. When the rooster charged him, he kicked the fowl in the head. The rooster stopped as if he had hit a brick wall, fell to the ground, and began flopping around. Ernest’s heart rose to his throat, sure he had killed the rooster. He saw his mother killing hens for Sunday dinner. They acted the same way before they died. After a few seconds, the rooster lay still. Tears coursed down Ernest’s cheeks. His parents would understand, but the chicken was the first thing he had killed. Gingerly, he approached the dead bird. To the young boy, it seemed the rooster’s eyes had already glazed over. His Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Young’s lesson this last week, was about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Would he do the same with a chicken? Ernest nudged the rooster with the toe of his boot. The boy spring back as the rooster jumped to his feet, looked at the boy then turning, he wobbled back to the chicken house. That night, Ernest told his father about the incident. His father laughed and said the boy had probably just stunned the bird. The offshoot was the rooster never bothered Ernest again. He thought of Robby. No with his size, the boy could barely walk in gumboots. They would come all the way up his thighs.
Robbie was still staring at the rooster when his father came up behind him. Ernest laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. Robbie jumped, convinced the bird had somehow reached through the fence and touched him. He dropped the wire basket he was holding. His father seemed not to notice.
“Come on, let’s get those eggs. I’ll give you a hand.” His father said, picking up the basket and opening the gate. Fearfully, Robby hung back. Patiently, his father held the gate open. Finally, Robby stepped into the pen. Staying on the opposite side of his father, he watched the rooster with a wary eye. Walking into the chicken house, his father shooed the hens off the nest. Robby had learned the first time he gathered the eggs: if the hen didn’t want the nest disturbed, she would peck your hand. A peck from their beak was painful and could draw blood. The first time it happened, he ran back to the house screaming. His mother dubbed Mercurochrome on the back of his hand while comforting him in soothing tones. For the next few days, she went with him as he collected the eggs.
When he was young, Rascal fought to establish himself with the flock. In a short while, he became the top rooster in the barnyard. Under his feathers, he had the scars to prove his status. Almost in the third year of his life, Rascal was now more interested in food than fighting.
To him, humans meant food and protection from varmints. He followed the boy and man, watching their every move. He didn’t see any chicken feed in the small wire basket the man carried, but that meant nothing. As far as Rascal was concerned, humans could produce food out of thin air.
After collecting the eggs, Robby and his father started for the gate. Surely, they wouldn’t be leaving without scattering at least some shelled corn on the ground. Rascal ran at them. All Robby saw was a charging rooster. He ran screaming through the gate his father held open. Ernest slammed it shut in the rooster’s face. Ashamed of his crowdedness, Robbie followed his father, his head hung low.
Inwardly, his father smiled. Bravery would come in time, however, not today. He went to repair some equipment, leaving Robby to his other chores.
All day long, Robby watched the rooster. Helping his mother beat the rugs sweeping the porch playing in the yard. Rascal was never far from his thoughts, or if he could help it in his sight. Each time he looked at him, the rooster seemed bigger.
To Robby, Rascal was weird. Their old rooster Buster only crowed at sunrise. Rascal crowed any time he felt like it. His cries sent a sharp edge straight through the boy. He could have attributed that to Buster’s age. He was old when Robbie was born. Last week, his father come in and said the old rooster was on his last legs. He saw him in the chicken pen, barely moving. Later in the evening, he watched his father pick up the rooster by his legs. Buster was already stiff.
They buried him out behind the barn. Ernest even set up a little cross with the rooster’s name on it. Buster never challenged Robbie. He ignored the boy as he gathered eggs or any other activity, which required his presence in the chicken yard. Not so Rascal. He watched every move the boy made. The rooster’s crowing unnerved Robby. At first, he heard the sound, as bragging. Then it seemed the tone changed to a challenge.
As he did his chores or played, it seemed Rascal’s eyes never left him. One time, he dared step up to the fence, trying to conquer his fears. His fingers curled in the openings of the wire. He stared at him. Suddenly the rooster rushed the fence. Jumping back, the boy turned and ran for the house. Rascal unconcerned plucked up the worm he had seen at Robbie’s feet and gobbled it down.
Robbie’s fear went beyond the rooster to snakes and spiders. He barely used the outhouse for weeks last year after his father killed a big black snake hanging from the ceiling of the small building. Then he took his mother’s old umbrella and kept it extended all the time he was in the building’s confines. He stole glances around its edges, sure that there were multitudes of the reptiles hanging from the two by fours.
At night, his mother read stories to him from the old family Bible. He listened to the brave men and women challenging kings and others in authority. Daniel in the lion’s den. Elijah speaking to Ahab.
A week later, he woke in the middle of the night, hearing a sound. Something was after the chickens. Leaping out of bed, he ran to his parent’s bedroom. His father set on the edge of the bed pulling on his boots. “Be careful, dear.” His mother said, setting up in bed.
“Keep him in the house.” Ernest said, indicating Robby. He grabbed his flashlight and his rifle. Checking to make sure it was loaded, he hurried out of the house.
“Come with me.” his mother said. Together, Robby and his mother watched from the back porch.
Ernest shined his light on the chicken yard. Rascal, his feathers bloody, stood blocking the door to the coop. Two coyotes faced him, one on either side. Each time one of them advanced, the rooster ran at the coyote screeching like a banshee. When the animal backed off, Rascal returned to guard the door.
Ernest turned on the flashlight, catching the coyotes in its beam. They turned their attention to this new threat. Their eyes bright with fear, they searched for a way to escape. One bounded to the top of the wire. Taking aim, Ernest sent a bullet through its brain. It fell to the ground outside, the pen dead. The other one ran frantically along the fence, searching for a hole to escape. It took two bullets to end its life. The first crippled it, making it limp crazily.
Rascal staggered over to the dead coyote, pecked at it. Then, turning, he took up position before the door to the chicken coop. He stood there for a few seconds, then collapsed. The din of the hens calmed down. Protected and safe, they returned to sleep.
Leaning the rifle against the fence, Ernest entered the chicken yard. Tenderly, he picked up the rooster and closing the gate, carrying him to the house.
Hurrying into the other room, Robbie’s mother returned with a blanket and spread it on the floor. For the next few minutes, Robbie watched his father and mother tenderly care for the wounded rooster.
“Is he dead? Robby asks, leaning over from his seated position.
“Just about.” His father said. He saw tears in his mother’s eyes.
“He sure fought them coyotes.” Robbie said, feeling ashamed of the way he treated Rascal.
Setting a bowl of warm water on the floor, his mother gently washed the rooster’s wounds.
“He sure did. Hadn’t been for him, those coyotes would have killed all the hens.” His father said, lifting a wing so his mother could wash under it.
“You go back to bed. Your father and I will care for Rascal.”
Tears pricked Robby’s eyes. “I’ll pray for him.” He said, looking at the rooster. Lying on the floor, Rascal seemed smaller than before.
“That would be nice.” His mother said with a sad smile.
As the small boy left the room, Ernest said. “It’ll have to be The Lord that brings him through. He’s hurt pretty bad. Rascal showed no reaction when his mother poured Hydrogen Peroxide on his wounds.
In bed, Robby thought of Rascal and his bravery standing and protecting his hens against certain death. He knew the coyotes would have killed them. As sleep took him, he prayed for the rooster and himself to be as brave as Rascal. He wanted to stay awake but after a few minutes his eyes lids became heavy.
In his dream, Robby heard something. A dozen, then hundreds, and hundreds of coyotes attack the farm. Rascal grew to giant size, protecting not just the chicken coop but the house barn, and all the livestock. Wounded and bloody, he fought them all. They retreated with him still standing guard, ready for their next attack. He crowed, a weak sound coming from his wounded throat. Robby fought against sleep, opening his eyes. In the doorway to his bedroom. Stood the rooster. Rascal wobbled, almost going down. Staggering like a drunken man, he approached the bed. The boy felt no fear. He smiled at the rooster. His mother stood in the doorway.
“He turned the corner just after midnight.” She said, smiling. “We’ll keep him in the house for the next few days until he becomes stronger.”
“That’ll give us time to become friends.” Robby said. Reaching out his right hand, he smoothed the feathers on the back of Rascal’s neck. The rooster closed his eyes, enjoying the attention.
In the next week, while Rascal recovered, Robby and the rooster became friends. For the first day or two, the Rascal did more sleeping than anything. On the third morning, Robby came into the kitchen, struggling to carry the rooster. Turning around from the stove, his mother smiled. “I’m going to take him out on the back porch if you think that would be alright.” Robby said, shifting the weight of the rooster. Stepping to the door, his mother opened it for them.
“I think that would be just fine.” She said. “Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m going to feed him and get him some water.”
A few minutes later, Ernest entered the kitchen. “Come look at this.” He said, indicating the boy on the porch. Together, husband and wife watched as the rooster gently pecked the chicken feed out of Robby’s hand.
This was the turning point in Robby’s life no longer was he afraid to enter the chicken yard. He slept at night, aware that God was watching over him.
Rascal lived a long-contented life. Many days Robby let him out. The rooster followed Robby around like a dog while the boy performed his chores or played in the shade on hot summer days.
Twelve years later, as Robby stood on the battlefield, he thought of Rascal. The rooster had died of old age. They buried him in a special place on the hill overlooking the farm.
Yet the lesson he taught a young boy of standing for what was right still resonated in Robby’s heart and would for generations to come.