Brian Deon ≈ The Chicken Thief (excerpt)

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I’ve just completed my novel Big Ledge, which tells the tale of the murder at the Bluebell Mine back in 1885.   The story is told from the viewpoint of three principal  characters in the saga. First and foremost, however, is the viewpoint of Robert Sproule, American miner, and the man convicted of the murder of Thomas Hammill.  The novel begins with a memory from early in Sproule’s childhood, long before he was a miner, and long before he ventured into the wilds of the Kootenay.

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Weeks Mills, Maine

Summer; 1851

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Both boys stood at the edge of the cliff, looking down, Robert E. Sproule with a chicken under his arm.

“Come on, Bobbie, we gotta jump!”

The water was twenty feet below and roiling.  Bobbie wasn’t much of a swimmer. “How do you know it’s deep enough?”

“I’ve jumped down there lots of times. It’s plenty deep.” The chicken thief wasn’t convinced. “Besides old man Palmer’s gonna be along any moment with his dog. We don’t wanna be around for that.”

Bobbie didn’t care for old man Palmer’s dog, but for jumping into unknown waters, he cared even less. He glared at Theodore Patterson with all the scepticism his eight-year-old eyes could muster. Theo was nine, almost a foot taller, and his face and back full of freckles. “This your idea of a shortcut?”

“Well, it is! Just one with a river in between.”

“And a cliff.”

“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

“Never said I was.”

Then they heard Buster.

“He’s just a dog,” Theo kept reassuring him, “and an old one at that.” But how old, Bobbie was wondering. Last time Bobbie saw Buster, he was chasing down a rabbit. It could be his days of ‘busting’ things weren’t over yet.

“What’re you waitin’ for?”

Bobbie almost didn’t answer. “If you’re so hot on jumping, why don’t you go first?”

“We’re blood brothers, ain’t we? We should jump together.”

It’s true, they’d used Theo’s knife and each boy had scratched a little cut into his palm and then they’d shaken hands.

“Damn!” Bobbie cried out. “That chicken just pecked me!” In spit of the fact that, as a mark of respect, Bobbie had christened the creature. He had named it ‘Charlie’, not taking into consideration its gender.

Theo rolled his eyes at this diminutive companion in crime. “It probably don’t like the idea of meeting up with Buster any more than we do.”

Bobbie continued to wrestle with his charge. “How come I had to carry it?”

“It’s part of the initiation. I’m already in the club and you ain’t. You can’t get in unless you steal a chicken. We already discussed all that.”  Theo began to take off his shoes, intent on tying them around his neck.

“Damn it! It pecked me again! What are we gonna do with it anyway?”

Theo looked up, sighing and getting nervous. Buster and old man Palmer were getting close. “Eat it, what else? Now let’s go.”

“What if it don’t wanna be eaten?”

Theo put his hands on his hips. This was getting ridiculous. “You just gotta wring his neck is all… like my papa says he’s always gonna do to me!” Theo was bossy and unreasonable but had the heart of a lion when it came to jumping off cliffs. “Are you comin’ or not?”

“What am I supposed to do with Charlie?”

“Who?”

“The chicken!”

“How am I supposed to know?”

In the distance they could hear old man Palmer’s wobbly voice. “They got no place to go, Buster. After them, boy! Bring ‘em down!”

“You jumpin’ in like that, Bobbie Sproule? You’re gonna get your shoes all wet.”

Bobbie had no idea what was down there nor how deep it was. He had only Theo’s word and Theo was known to get his facts muddled. There might be piranhas down there, for all Bobbie knew, and it might be only a puddle, not a pool. At best it was gonna be freezing cold and the chicken might peck his eyes out on the way down. Obviously Theo had considered none of this.

“Here we go then… One…”

Bobbie clutched Charlie harder. The dog barked louder. Old man Palmer cursed as he tripped on a root.

“Two…” Theo stepped right to the cliff’s edge and lifted a foot. The idiot was actually smiling. “Three!”

There was a pause; nothing happened… So much for jumping ‘together’. All along, it had been Theo’s intention to make Bobbie jump first, but now that it was clear he had chickened out, Theo shook his head in profound disappointment. His protegé had failed to thrive. “You can forget about being in the club, Bobbie.”

There was a final rustle in the bush. A great black dog was suddenly upon them, growling and slobbering. All that was between Bobbie and a painful mauling was old man Palmer with one hand on the dog’s collar.

“So… you’re the thief who stole my chicken.”

Like a deer, Bobbie froze, knowing neither what to say or do. He knew only that he liked open places way more than closed. All his senses were keen, and he could hear the sound of Theo’s splash behind him and the insane clucking of his feathered hostage.

Gasping, Bobbie called upon his last reserves and stepped towards the cliff and empty air. At the same moment a huge wrinkled hand grasped his shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Then, to Bobbie’s utter astonishment, the tormented chicken broke free. Instead of plummeting into the flood below, like a resurrected creature, Charlie scrambled up into the branch of the nearest tree

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