The saga of Gary the chicken
I had forgotten my own rule: When it comes to the neighbors,
don't get involved.
By Bill Vaughn

THE MORNING AFTER WE MOVED to Dark Acres in 1989 our red heeler crossed the cordon sanitaire separating our new place in the country from the rest of the world, and beat up a chicken. By the time I rushed across this muddylane to the scene of the crime Radish had fled, looking over his shoulder, into a barley field. Although the rooster was lurching around like the survivor of a farm implement demolition derby, it appeared to be functioning—as much as a chicken ever functions.

No one answered my knock on the door of the battered trailer, so I left a note in the mailbox, collected my chagrined and penitent dog, gave him a tongue-lashing, and drove my Bronco twelve miles down the Mullan Road to our office in the city.

When I got home that evening the Backett brothers were waiting at our gate. One of them—Luke, I would soon learn—was cradling the rooster. Rick looked on, skinny arms arcing from greasy muscle shirt as if they’d been deformed by a life of hefting pigs or kegs of beer.

“Yer dawg bit off Gary’s butt hole,” Luke announced. We turned to stare at Radish, who sampled the air apprehensively, and slunk off into a thicket of Russian olives.

“Hey, I’m sorry about this,” I said. “But I had to get to work this morning. The chicken seemed okay.”

Gary made a clucking noise that sounded like a question. 

“What do you mean?” I said. “About the butt hole.”

Luke hoisted the bird so we could examine its business end, which indeed looked gnawed. “He cain’t hold in his turds no more.”

“Is that important to a chicken?”

“It is to this one,” Luke sniffed, a little haughtily, I thought. “This here’s a fightin’ chicken.”

I noticed then that the eyes of the Backetts were of a blue as washed as Windex. And one of Rick’s eyes was wobbling around in a random orbit independent of its mate. Luke was wearing his red flannel K-Mart pajamas backwards and his shoes didn’t match. I found out later through a gossip down the lane that the Backetts were from Arkansas or maybe Missouri, and that they were raising several little boys in that busted trailer without the benefit of a woman’s touch. The children were the get of either two different moms, or one mom with a meth problem who ran off. According to my source, the paternity was equally unclear.

“Well, look,” I said, “if your chicken dies I’ll buy you another.” I deeply regretted this offer as soon as it escaped.

Rick’s face lit up as if he’d found a Mickey Mantle rookie card under his mattress. “We was offert a hunnert dollars.”

Since I’d already lost control of the situation, and it was my first confrontation with neighbors I expected to spend my golden years around, I didn’t argue. I knew Radish had learned his lesson. But I would keep my eye on these yahoos. Just to make sure Gary didn’t have another accident and fall into a stew.

A week after Radish’s attack on Gary I crossed the chicken line with a six-pack of Mexican beer. I was greeted in the yard by three young boys. Although they’d just disembarked the bus after a long day at school their clothes were impeccably clean and oddly pressed, as if soaked in a vat of starch. They knew who I was.

“I’m Lefty,” the smallest one announced in an oddly deep voice that made him sound like the Captain of the Lollypop Brigade. “You can call me Foghorn.” 

The biggest boy grinned through a sea of freckles. “We like your land!”

Then the Backett brothers emerged from their trailer and we sat down in the yard to drink one while the boys changed clothes and set out on their chores.

After a while Luke belched loudly and put down his beer. “Think it’s true what they say about beaners?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That they piss in this stuff before they send it north?”

I drank again and thought for a second. “Yes. How’s Gary?”

“Want to see him?”

I followed them to the lot behind the trailer and there indeed was the famous victim, in a large cage of his own. A dozen or so other fowls pecked at the floor of their cages, as well, or wandered around loose. Although I wouldn’t have a clue about what to look for in a fightin’ chicken, these birds didn’t seem all that tough.

“We been breedin’ for two years now,” Luke explained.

“What are you breeding for?” I asked.

He squinted at me through those washed-out eyes like I was soliciting for the Junior League. “For meanness.”

“Huh. How do you do it?”

“Well, at first we just let ’em all go around and fuck anyone they wanted, but now we’re real see-lective. Only Gary, Cop, and Pecker get to. They’re the meanest.”

I nodded. “You know, I don’t think cock fighting is legal in this state.”

They looked horrified. “It ain’t?”

One thing I learned growing up in the Squalor Zone: When it comes to the neighbors, don’t get involved. Contrary to Jeffersonian notions about the goodness of provinces dominated by small landowners, a lot of the people in these nether-regions are hiding something or running from something or have been convicted of something. And most everyone is armed. A sizable percentage of the addresses of violent offenders and sex perverts published in the morning paper on Mondays lie within two miles of Dark Acres.

Some of our neighbors have a chip on their shoulder because they’ve been priced out of the real estate market in the city. But most of the rabble in the Squalor Zone wouldn’t live in town even if they had the money, preferring the anonymity and the camouflage of these neglected reaches of the county, where the city is just a dirty yellow glow at the foot of Mt. Sentinel.

But of course I forgot all this as soon as the Backetts approached me one day in August some months after the events surrounding Gary the chicken.

“Lefty and them want to go to the Fair,” Luke said, “But we ain’t got the cash.”

I thought he was asking for work. “Well, we could use help shoveling out our corrals,” I said.

“Okay, sure. But I seen you ain’t got no wood in yet and we got some left over from last year.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward a pile of rounds heaved in front of the trailer.

“Then what would you guys do for heat?”

Rick’s googly eye wandered west while his good eye went to the ridges of the Lolo National Forest above us. “We was getting set to go over and cut us some more. We got a cord or so laid in. And it’s good and dry. You kin have it for forty bucks. We’ll even bring it over.”

“Okay. It sounds like a plan.” In fact, I hadn’t had the time to think about kindling for the fireplace, and this was a bargain, so I went to the jar in the cupboard where we kept cash and brought back two twenties.

The next morning the Backetts, their kids, their ratty trucks, and their kindling had vanished. Gary and his pals had flown the coop as well.  No one on the lane knew where they’d gone. And no one ever saw them again.