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Something was amiss in Road’s End.
My wife Melanie and I sensed it about twenty minutes after we moved into our new home. There’s something about a flock of pillaging poultry strutting through a house you’ve just bought that doesn’t seem right. Trust me on this. We watched, jaws dropped, as a dozen chickens bobbled through the front door of our home, clucked up a ruckus, and scattered to every hidey-hole they could find.
We called our new home The Inn at Road’s End. Prior to the surprise attack, we were supervising the removal of our furniture and boxed possessions from the moving van. The Inn, a six-bedroom, three-story house was original eighteenth century; the chickens, as far as I could tell, were just run-of-the-mill twenty-first century.
Come to find out, they belonged across the street at Sadie Simms’ Coffee House and Egg Plant, and she was genuinely apologetic about her wayward fowl. “Can’t keep ’em in their coop,” she said to me after she stomped across the street hollering for her hens. She was waving what looked like a white flag but turned out to be her apron draped over the end of her broom. For a minute there, I thought she was stopping by to surrender.
“Every time I fix the fence, one of ’em tears it down again.” Tears it down? What’s she raising over there?
“No harm done,” Mel said, extending her hand to Sadie. “I’m Melanie Foster. This is my husband, Hugh. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. …”
“Simms. Sadie Simms. Glad you folks bought this old place. Been empty for a few months. Would’ve been a shame to let it go to ruin.” She lunged at a hen who had moseyed back outdoors. Sadie pounced, the chicken squawked, and I thought she was going to miss. But Sadie proved more adept at chicken-grabbing than the hen was at Sadie-dodging. I could tell they’d been down this road before. Five seconds later, the hen dangled from her hand, its scrawny legs caught in the vice-like grip of a woman who looked old enough to have fought the British. “So, you folks retired from the military, I hear?”
The chicken squawked.
“Shut up, Francine.”
“Yes, Air Force,” I said. I couldn’t take my eyes from the chicken. “I was a chaplain. Say, is that chicken okay? It’s Francine, right?”
Sadie raised her arm and looked the frustrated chicken in the face—one beady eye to another. Sadie just missed getting hers poked out. Francine was a feisty one. Sadie extended her arm a little farther and watched the hen squirm. “Yep, she’s fine. Just mad. So what brings you to Road’s End?”
Melanie cringed. She didn’t think much of animal cruelty and even less of eye-gouging. Mel’s sweet that way. At any rate, she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. “Well, Sadie, we’ve always wanted to buy—” she ducked as Francine made a valiant effort to disengage herself from Sadie’s clutch—“an inn and this one seemed perfect for us. Are you sure Francine isn’t hurting?”
Sadie shook her head and gave the hen an extra little shake just to rile her. “Nope, she’s fine. We go through this all the time. She just needs to learn her place.” She held Francine up to eye level again, something I wouldn’t have done, but then I’m not a chicken-wrangler. “I’m the human, you’re the hen,” she said. “I make the rules. You follow ’em. Got that?” She gave Francine another little shake, and she squawked—Francine, not Sadie. That must have signified understanding on the part of Francine, because Sadie smiled and Francine continued to dangle. “Well, I’ve gotta go, folks. Got some baking to do. Nice meeting you. Sorry ’bout the chickens. Just send ’em on over when you’re done with ’em.” And she was gone.
Done with them?
Mel grinned at me and shrugged, then turned to go back inside to finish doing whatever she was going to do with the remaining eleven or so renegades.
Sadie crossed the road and flung her captive over the fence. Francine crash-landed and went into a skid— squawking and scattering dust and feathers every which way—then turned and gave Sadie a final scolding. How does that woman sleep at night with a henhouse full of chickens itching to peck her eyes out? Since the fence was still broken, I wondered how long it would be before that furious, flung chicken found her way right back here. I made sure the front door was shut.
Road’s End is home to only 147 souls—149, counting Mel and me—and most of them haven’t ventured outside Road’s End since Truman was in office. With few exceptions, Mel and I are the only ones not yet collecting Social Security. Folks seem mesmerized by us. As a result of our youthful vigor, we’re pressed into duty for everything from chasing chickens out of our house, mending their fence repeatedly—more of an act of self-defense than kindness—to mediating between residents who think former Road’s Ender Bill Manning died from natural causes and those who are sure he was murdered by his sister Winnie Wyandotte. And that was just the first week.
I hadn’t met Emma River, either. That came during the second week, which made me yearn for the good old days when chasing petulant poultry from my house seemed the worst thing that could befall me.