Lilly wanted undemanding companionship and found it with her two chickens—Patti and Wendy. They provide the best eggs and entertainment watching them running around the yard.
When Patti disappears in the woods she suspects the local cats in her disappearance and sets out to discover the truth.
She never imagined the story appearing on the front page of the Deschutes Valley News!
A story for fans of cozy mysteries and free-range chickens.
Chicken Cracks Case, the headline read across the front page of the Deschutes Valley News. Lilly liked that one the best, it even had a good picture of Patti, and decided then and there in the line at the Foodmart that she would find a frame and put it up on the wall in the front room. The girl at the register hardly looked old enough to run a register with her black braids forming loops around her ears.
Lilly put the paper down on the little table thing with that machine people used for credit cards. She’d even seen people use those cards to pay for something like a newspaper, ridiculous. “How much is that, dear?”
“Fifty cents, ma’am.”
Ma’am. When had that happened? Lilly clucked her tongue softly and pulled out the small beaded change purse she had made down at the classes they held at the library. The black and clear beads sparkled, but it was the small red beads on the comb of the chicken that really caught the light.
“That’s pretty,” the girl said. “Where’d you get it?”
“I made it.” Lilly stroked the front of the purse. “That’s my girl, that’s Patti.”
“You named your chicken patty?” The girl smiled. “Really?”
“Why? I like the name, it was my dear aunt’s name.”
The smile vanished as quick as a snake into a hole. “Oh, sorry.”
Lilly waved a hand, then snapped the purse open. “Don’t worry about it dear.” She dug out two quarters, a Delaware and a Texas, and held them out. She nodded at the paper. “That’s my Patti too.”
The girl took the coins and looked at the paper. Her smile flickered back to life. “Oh, I saw that. It must have been so scary! How did it happen?”
Lilly looked around. No one in line, it wouldn’t take long to tell anyway. “Well, the reporter didn’t get the whole story, you know. This is what happened.
Patti’s a barred rock hen, or a Plymouth hen, but she’s called barred rock on account of her black and white feathers. I have a little place just out of town, past the railroad tracks. It isn’t much, only a couple bedrooms but since I live by myself that’s one more bedroom than I need. But sometimes my son comes for a visit and brings my grandson, so it’s nice to have then. My house sits on a little more than an acre of land but all along one side and the back it is wooded and overgrown. I pay a kid to mow the rest of it.
I don’t do much with all that space. I’ve never had a green thumb. I thought about getting a pet but I can’t stand dogs with their running around and jumping and barking all the time. Plus you know what dogs will get into, disgusting animals. Cats aren’t much better and the way they look at you, sometimes I feel like they’re imagining that they are lions and are curious how we might taste. So I decided that a chicken or two would be about perfect. They’re pretty easy to take care of and unlike dogs or cats they’d actually do something useful and provide eggs. Those so-called free range eggs you’ve got here go for almost four dollars a dozen! I can’t afford that much and they aren’t much better than the cheap eggs that have almost no color to them at all.
Over at Mike’s Feed and Seed I picked out two little barred rock chicks. Nothing but little balls of mostly black fluff back then. I named them Patti and Wendy, from Peter Pan. The feed store sold me everything I needed to raise them up, even a coop with a little fenced in yard.
Right off the bat I could tell them apart. For one thing Patti was always the smartest. She jumped on top of the feeder first, she came when I called her first and pretty soon it was clear that she was the boss. Wendy, poor thing, is about as bright as an earthworm.
We got along fine, three hens living on my little place. The girls grew up and started laying me the nicest eggs you’ve seen. The coop has a little door at the back where I can get the eggs out and most mornings that’s my breakfast. You can’t get fresher eggs than eggs fried up in a skillet the very morning that the chicken laid them!
But all this trouble started a few weeks back. I let the girls roam my property during the day, but they always come back to the coop at night and they always lay their eggs in the nest box, usually before I let them out. Then all of a sudden there was only one egg in the nest box and I noticed that Patti had run off somewhere.
Of course I thought right away that she must have gone into the woods, usually the girls did go into the woods during the day. Cooler there, I suppose. I wouldn’t have worried except she didn’t come running when I went out the back door. Most of the time if I went out the back door they come and then I throw them some scratch corn. They tear up the grass some but I don’t worry much about that.
When Patti didn’t come I went looking for her. Wendy, poor dear, was in the coop’s fenced yard but she hadn’t found her way out the little door yet. That first day I found Patti under their favorite apple tree right at the edge of the woods. She’d made herself a little nest there beneath the tree in the grass. Chickens can get broody, so I took her egg and carried her back to the coop. I kept them both locked up for two days so that she’d give up on the idea of making a nest in the woods.
At first that seemed to work fine but two days later she disappeared into the woods again.
I looked but Patti wasn’t back under the apple tree and she didn’t come when I called. I did see the big ginger tom cat from Mr. Aiken’s house next door. He slinked off quick when he saw me coming until he got over the fence. I never liked that cat, always strutting around like he owned the block. Mr. Aiken walks like that sometimes too, thinks he’s something important working at the bank. I don’t know about him, but that tom cat probably fathered most of the unwanted kittens in the neighborhood. I’d suggested before to Mr. Aiken that he get the tom fixed and the way he looked at me, you’d think that I’d suggested he get his own parts snipped!
I worried that maybe the tom had gone after my Patti, and when she didn’t come back that night I was scared he’d killed her. The next morning I put on my yard boots and went out to look for her. Poor Wendy was fussing in the coop, I could tell she was worried too, especially being all alone.
I went up the hill first past my fruit trees. It isn’t much of an orchard, mostly apple with a few pear and cherry trees thrown in bit I usually get a few pies out of it all. There’s a path back up there into the woods and I few times I’d seen the girls go up that far from the house.
I called out, here chick, chick, but she didn’t come. I didn’t hear a peep out of her. The only thing I did hear was a soft meow and the slinky black and white female from the house on the other side of the woods came strolling out of the trees as if she owned the whole place. She had that self-satisfied look that cats get when they think they’re being especially clever. She sat right down there and started licking her paws clean. I couldn’t see if there was any blood on them, but it made me terribly worried. I tried getting into the woods but those blackberry vines grow all over there and I couldn’t get through. The whole time that cat watched me as if mocking me. I became convinced that she had killed Patti. So convinced, I’m ashamed to say, that I picked up a stone and threw it at her.
Of course I didn’t hit her, my aim isn’t that good. It didn’t even scare her. She sat and watched the rock fly past and then several seconds later she picked herself up and strolled off through the blackberry brambles as if she didn’t have any care in the world!
I was of a half-a-mind to go around the front to my neighbor’s yard but the people that live over there, they never seemed like the friendly types. Some nights I’d heard them scream at one another, the husband and his wife. He’s a whip thin guy with sunken eyes. Every morning he’s out running past my house down the street, wears shorts no matter what the temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything else. The first few times that I saw him go past when I was outside I called out a friendly hello. You know what? He never even so much as looked at me, just grunted and kept going. His wife was such a frail looking thing, all pale skin and even skinnier than her husband. She liked to wear lots of jewelry, but you could tell it wasn’t anything special. Anything bright must have caught her eyes the way bright things attract crows.
It was the fact that they weren’t all that friendly that stopped me from going around that day. After I couldn’t get through the berry brambles I decided to wait and see if Patti’d come back on her own that night.
Even when it got dark she didn’t come back. I was just about convinced that one of those cats had gotten her. I could tell Wendy was worried to, in her own dim way. That night it rained and then I felt really bad, because if she wasn’t dead that meant she was sitting out there in the rain somewhere. She might have gotten up in a tree and gotten some shelter, but I couldn’t hardly sleep for all my worrying.
The next day I got up early and drove into town. I bought myself a pair of pruning shears, the little ones, over at the feed and seed. I also got myself a pair of gardening gloves. Then I went straight home and went up the hill to those berry brambles. I had my cell phone with me in case I fell or twisted an ankle, the shears and I dressed in sweats that I didn’t mind getting dirty. I snipped and snipped those berry canes out of my way. They were good gloves I had gotten at the store, for twelve ninety-nine they had better be, and I didn’t get stuck at all but sometimes the thorns did catch on my sleeves. After I got past the canes to the trees it was a little easier. I snipped little branches and was able to get back into the woods for the first time.
There was a path of sorts but it was dark back under there and rain still dripped from the branches above. Now and then small branches or brambles blocked my way and each time I snipped and shoved them out of the way. I called for Patti but she didn’t answer. Pretty soon the path started down the hill. It went around two boulders almost as large as me and a big cedar tree that leaned over them. I almost didn’t even see it but as I went past the shape of the eggs caught my eye.
Patti! Except she wasn’t there. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the low-hanging boughs of that tree, breathing that rich cedar smell and a sort of musty smell beneath that. Right between the rocks, beneath the tree was a small nest and three eggs. I recognized the eggs, those definitely came from Patti. There were even a few of her feathers in her nest.
But not my girl. That convinced me that the cat must have gotten her and left nothing but a couple feathers. I picked up her eggs and slipped them into the pouch on the sweat shirt I was wearing. I was about to leave when I looked up and there, deeper between the rocks beneath that tree I saw a human skull looking back at me!
That gave me a fright! I almost screamed it scared me so much. I think in situations like that you discover what you’re made of and I looked at that poor unfortunate woman’s skull. One side was all bashed in and the critters hadn’t left but a few scraps of meat on her bones. Her head had fallen forward but I could just see beneath the leaves and needles heaped on her a bit of a necklace catching what little light there was. I didn’t touch it, I know better than that, but it made me think. It looked like something the neighbor’s wife might fancy and I hadn’t seen her in a good while. Him, I saw every day, out running. But I usually saw her coming or going in that little Nissan she drove.
Well, just thinking that was enough for me to crawl out of there very carefully. When I got out I took out my cell phones and called the police.
“This is Mrs. Burges, I’d like to report a murder, please,” I told the dispatcher.
“Ma’am, are you in danger?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I told him. “Not unless my neighbor finds out I found his wife.”
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m in the woods behind my house. I was looking for my chicken but I’ve found a body instead. I did find a nest near the body, and I’m sorry, I took the eggs before I saw the body. It looks like it has been covered up but I could see the skull and it is all bashed in. There’s a necklace like she wore. That’s how I recognized her.”
“Can you give me your full name and address?” he asked.
So I gave him all of my information and told them what I knew, that I hadn’t seen my neighbor’s wife in some time and that she liked cheap jewelry. I only had to see those delicate cheek bones and I knew it had to be her body. The police dispatcher told me he’d have units out right away to my property.
“Well, you should send them to my neighbor’s property too, or how else are you going to arrest him?”
“The officers will take care of everything when they get there Mrs. Burges. You should go home and wait for them,” he said.
I agreed. I was sure that the cat I’d seen was just as murderous as its owner. It must have killed Patti and ate her. At least he didn’t eat his wife. And I planned on going home. I didn’t want to get any more mixed up in that business than I already was, but as I started back I heard a chicken squawk.
I recognized Patti’s squawk right off, plus Wendy was back home safe in her coop and this was much closer. I picked my way on down the path and realized that this part of the path was much easier to walk. The branches didn’t block it. At one point I stepped to the side to avoid stepping in a muddy section and saw a well-formed sneaker print in the fresh mud. I felt a shiver run through my limbs. It had to have been made that morning, because the rain last night would have ruined the print!
I hurried on and in a short distance I reached my fence only to find a gap had been snipped through the wire. On the other side was my neighbor’s property and the woods soon gave way to clear ground. I stepped through and went right to the edge of the woods, hiding behind a clump of hazelnuts. You know what I saw?
Him! My neighbor, the runner, carrying Patti upside back toward his house! He’d killed his wife and now he was going to kill Patti too!
Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen.
I marched right out there after him but he was fast. Must come from all that running. I lost sight of him when I had to detour around an old rusted heap on his property. When I made it around that I saw him down the hill, behind his house with Patti dangling upside down. Worse than that he pulled out a knife!
I yelled at him. “Hey! That’s my chicken!”
He jumped but he didn’t drop Patti or the knife. He scowled at me. “I found it on my property. I don’t see a collar on it.”
“Who puts a collar on a chicken? Point is, that’s my chicken,” I told him and marched right down there into his yard.
Now, that might not seem real smart but I couldn’t let him kill Patti and I didn’t think he’d go and do something stupid like killing me over a chicken. I stuck out my hand.
“Now hand her over!”
He looked at Patti and then looked at me and then he shook his head. “Even if she was your chicken you shouldn’t let her go on other people’s property. Seems to me that you forfeited any right to her when she came over here. And you’re trespassing.”
“She only came over here because you cut my fence,” I said. I knew right then that wasn’t the right thing to say. He hadn’t put it together where I’d come from until I said that.
His eyes narrowed and he pointed that knife at me!
I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. My heart beat so fast that I thought it’d burst. But I was also plenty mad.
“How dare you! How dare you point a knife at me! You’re nothing but a chicken thief and a bully!”
Things might have gone really bad right then but my cell phone rang. He lowered the knife when I took out my phone. He couldn’t know who was calling, but it made him rethink what he was doing I expect.
“Mrs. Burges, this is the police dispatch. I wanted to let you know that the police are nearly to your house.”
“Don’t come to my house,” I said. I looked at my neighbor. “I’m at the neighbor’s house, that’s 423, and he’s threatening me with a knife.”
“Hey!” He shoved the knife in his belt. “Don’t say that!”
“Please hurry,” I told the police. I covered the phone with my free hand. “That’s the police, I’d recommend you hand over my chicken now.”
“You called the police over a chicken?” he asked.
I didn’t answer, I just held out my hand, and when he gave me Patti back I cradled her in my arm. Poor dear, her beak was wide open as she panted. She must have been so terrified to be hanging upside down and threatened with a knife.
“Tell them I gave you your chicken back,” he said.
It was about right then that the police cars pulled up in front of his house. I didn’t answer him. I just walked around his house out into the front. The dispatcher was still on the phone. “I see them now, they just pulled up.”
“Are you still in danger?”
My neighbor had followed me into the front, he had a sullen look on his face but he wasn’t threatening anyone with the police right there. “I don’t think so, no. Thank you.”
He spread his hands out when the police came through the gate with their guns drawn. “Hey, I gave her back her fucking chicken!”
I looked back then and smiled at him. “Oh, I didn’t call them about my chicken. I called them about your dead wife up the hill on my property.”
I think they call that expression dumbstruck.
Lilly shrugged. “There wasn’t much to say after that, the paper got the other details correct. It looks like he killed his wife after she threatened to leave him. He didn’t want her body on his property, but he wanted it close by. I think he figured no one would find her there and he was probably right, I wouldn’t have found her if it hadn’t been for Patti.”
There were other people in line now but they all had smiles. Lilly picked up her paper and held it up so that everyone could see her chicken that had led her to the body. Maybe not on purpose, but without her his wife wouldn’t have been found at all.
The girl at the register shook her head. “That’s amazing.”
“Of course since then Patti won’t go near the woods,” Lilly said. “I think getting grabbed by a murderer scared her too much. But she’s laying her eggs again.”
Lilly looked at the picture again on her way out. Yep, before she went home she was going to go over to Target. They’d have some affordable picture frames there and then the front page of the paper was going right up on the wall.
This story is the 58th weekly short story release, written in February 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Candle’s Bridge.