Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rufus

As a kid, it is hard to imagine anything as cute as a soft downy chick and when one hundred show up in a small crate, it can be down right overwhelming. My father had purchased them to raise for their eggs and meat. But for me, they were just another diversion along the path of my life.

Those cute chicks didn’t last long and soon they were developing into chickens, which I wouldn’t describe as cute at all. Some grew up into mottled red hens with red combs and the rest into white roosters with waddles on their necks and spurs on their legs. But one rooster in particular was a little bit bigger and his spurs were just a little bit longer than all the others. It was this rooster who would become an integral part of my life and for reasons not remembered, was given the name of Rufus.

It wasn’t easy retaining a healthy population of chickens in rural southeast Iowa due to the large coyote population, so for the safety of the chickens, we dutifully locked them up in the chicken house every night when they went inside roost. Every morning, one of the first chores done was to go out to the chicken house and open the door to let them out. Rufus would always be standing in front of all the other chickens when the door was opened, waiting to lead his flock out for the day’s pecking of food.

My father was the person responsible for unknowingly starting a tradition that would cause much fear in my life and much terror in my younger brother’s. When my father would go out and release the chickens in the morning, he would antagonize Rufus a little bit and get him to ruffle his feathers by acting like a chicken and pretending to charge after Rufus. Soon my father would take off at a run with Rufus angrily tearing along behind him trying to protect his flock from my father by chasing him away. The problem was that Rufus couldn’t distinguish my brother or I from our father.

When my brother and I had to open up that chicken house door in the morning, we had a well practiced ritual. Stealthy as Indians, we would creep up to the door and while one person removed the cinder block used to keep the door closed, the other would press as hard as he could to keep any demonized roosters from rushing out and eating us whole. Then quick as we could, the door would be thrown open, the block thrown in front of it to keep it from flying shut again, and off we would go flying across the lawn at the speed of light. If there was a record for running from the chicken house back to the safety of the front lawn, we set a new one every morning.

My father on the other hand, refined his technique over the months and soon had a very set tradition. Once he was able to get Rufus to start chasing him, he would run through the yard around the house to see how long he could keep Rufus chasing him. He would run just slow enough to maintain Rufus’s interest in catching him but fast enough that he never got caught, except for one memorable occasion.

My brother and I would often watch in delight from the relative safety of the kitchen stoop as Rufus chased our father. Then one day, our father decided to include the stoop in the morning chase and ran up the steps with Rufus on his heels in hot pursuit. My brother and I jumped for our lives over the side while our father went running by and jumped off the back of the stoop. That is when the event became memorable and will forever remain etched in my mind.

After hitting the ground on the backside of the stoop, my father crouched down where he was and Rufus jumped off of the back of the stoop and landed right in the center of my father’s back. For a split second, I think I saw fear in both their eyes as my father hurriedly jumped up out of his crouched position and Rufus fell to the ground. My father briefly afraid that Rufus might use his long spurs on his back and Rufus afraid that he had actually caught this person after all this time and didn’t know what to do next. But once they had separated, their pride took over and both acted like they had meant for it to happen but the chase was over for that morning.

As Rufus reached his prime, he got a little bit more aggressive in protecting his hens. If we were to get too close to him for his liking, he would ruffle his feathers and if we weren’t on the run in short order, he would take to chasing us until he was convinced that we were no longer a threat.

My brother and I were very respectful of this fact and gave Rufus a wide berth while playing outside, but occasionally we pushed it too far. One day while playing out in the front yard near where my mother was hanging up laundry, I heard a blood-curdling scream come from the vicinity of the chicken house. Like a fire engine siren that gets louder as it approaches, my brother’s scream kept getting louder until he rounded the corner of the garage and went running towards my mother’s protection at full steam.

I was to the side and could immediately see what was happening, but my mother was in the line of sight and didn’t know what was wrong until she bent down to gather my brother in her arms fearing that he had hurt himself and he kept on running right on past her. Only then did she see Rufus running for all he was worth, chasing my brother so close that he was in the shadows of my brother’s footsteps. My mother ran for the broom and soon had the chase broken up but it was a while longer before my brother would go anywhere near Rufus.

There was one person in our family whom Rufus never chased and that was my grandfather. My grandfather had developed a large spare tire around his middle in his old age and didn’t move very fast anymore. One evening when he came over to our house for dinner and got out of his truck, Rufus decided that he was a threat and proceeded to ruffle his feathers and strut around much to everyone’s amusement. When Rufus felt that my grandfather wasn’t leaving fast enough, that rooster charged him only to be sent flying backwards in an arc ten feet high by a well-placed kick from my grandfather. Rufus hit the ground dazed and confused much to my grandfather’s delight and finally strutted off as if he had planned it that way the whole time. But in all the rest of Rufus’s years, he never ruffled a feather towards my grandfather again.

Eventually, my brother and I grew big enough where we weren’t afraid of Rufus anymore and during that time he grew less aggressive, or at least he wasn’t able to chase us like he used to anymore. It was also during these days, that my father showed us how if you placed a chicken’s head under their wing and slowly rubbed it that you could put the chicken to sleep.

One Thanksgiving celebration after every one had eaten, my brother and I decided the time had come to fight our fears and we went outside to look for Rufus. He must have new the gig was up, for when he saw us coming for he immediately started running away. But taking turns, my brother and I chased him all over the farm until Rufus, worn out and cornered; finally allowed us to catch him. Poor Rufus never had a chance and soon he was sitting fast asleep out on the kitchen stoop for everyone to see much to our delight.

Over the years, coyotes had thinned down our chicken population by catching those who failed to roost in the chicken house at night. More casualties were suffered among their ranks at the hands of vehicles running them over on the nearby gravel road as they went by and yet still others were killed for the meat. As a result, our chicken flock of one hundred chickens was reduced down to a dozen hens and Rufus.

Although our parents told us they were giving the chickens to our neighbor to watch for us while we went on a vacation, in reality they were giving the remainder to him because it was no longer worth raising so few chickens. Our neighbor, who had purchased the other half of the chickens my father ordered, added them to his flock that hadn’t been so thinned out by coyotes and cars. And so when we got home from the vacation, the chickens just stayed over at our neighbors place never to set foot on our farm again.

It was about this time that we adopted a stray dog by the name of Ted who showed up one day at my grandfather’s farm. Ted was only a year old at the time and liked to roam, so he soon found our neighbor’s chicken flock and proceeded to kill several of them before being caught by our neighbor. When my father arrived, he tied a couple of the dead chickens to Ted’s collar and proceeded to scold him to let Ted know that killing chickens was wrong. Ted showed his remorse by hanging his head and putting his tail between his legs and we thought that was the end of it. But Rufus would come into my life one last time by a sort of passing of the torch.

Ted showed up one afternoon bleeding profusely from numerous deep wounds all over his face and body. It looked as if he had fought the mother of all battles and had barely won. We cleaned and treated Ted’s wounds but it wasn’t until that evening that we learned the full story. Our neighbor called to say that Ted had been over in our his chickens again and killed some more hens and one rooster, Rufus.

Hens don’t have spurs so I knew that the inflictor of all those wounds had been Rufus. I knew Rufus had fought to the death protecting his flock of hens from Ted, and in the end, Rufus had succeeded. We never punished Ted for the incident, because he was too sick at the time. But in all the years following that fight, Ted never killed another chicken again. I was devastated knowing that the rooster that I had loved had been killed by a dog I was only beginning to love and it wasn’t until I was older that I found peace in the incident. Rufus was getting older and no one likes seeing a loved one grow old before your eyes and eventually die. So it was fitting that Rufus died as he lived his life, brave and protecting his flock.

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