Thursday, March 8, 2012
They called it The Great Critter Roundup, and people laughed no matter how many times they heard about it. With the spring head built and holding water, it was just a matter of routing and gluing pipe, and Cody was more than equal to supervising that. Johnny, Tim, Jennifer, and Janet pulled trailers, riding slowly to let the kids keep up. All five kids came along, all a little uncertain about what they could do but excited to be outside Laurel for the first time since October. All were armed against dog attacks — adults with firearms, kids with ammonia-filled Super Soakers — but they had no problems.
Crossing the freeway, they picked up Old Peachtree Road and followed it to Braselton Highway, continuing east through outer suburbia and exurbia through the morning. Finally, the houses and subdivisions thinned out and began to give way to pastureland. Several cows grazed in one pasture, and Johnny waved them all to a halt to look them over.
“They don’t look too bad off,” said Johnny, peering through a pair of binoculars. “I’m guessing a lot of their fellows died out through the winter, though.”
“So are we gonna try getting them?” Jennifer looked dubious. A white pickup rolled by, slowed. You need wheels to catch them. Let us help.
“Probably not. Meat cows like those, they liked to keep their distance even from the farmers back Before. We’ll have to get lucky, maybe find a couple calves that have been weaned but would still be young enough to get used to people.” Johnny made a shooing gesture at the truck, and it rolled away. “I figure we’ll be out here more than once, especially after we get the pipeline finished. This trip, we’ll call a success if we catch us a dozen chickens or so.”
“So what are we gonna do?” asked Caitlin.
“Look for a place with chicken houses. Maybe someone opened the doors before they drove off… or whatever. Most of the birds would be dead, but a few probably survived the winter. Those are the ones we want anyway — the ones that made it through the winter by foraging. They’ve figured out how to avoid predators and won’t need a lot of attention.”
“How are we gonna catch ’em?” Sheldon asked.
“If we find any live birds, we’re probably gonna find ’em in or between the chicken houses. It’s shelter, but it’s also a bottleneck. And we brought nets.”
They rode another half hour before spotting the first chicken farm. Both houses were closed up tight, and only insects and rats were to be found alive inside. Johnny led them to the farm house, and they had lunch on the spacious porch before riding on.
The next set of chicken houses they found by spotting the chicken first — it walked in the ditch on the side of the road, pecking at an unseen lunch. When they got too close, it waddled up the bank and through a screen of trees. Johnny called a halt and followed the chicken, finding four open chicken houses. He slid back down the bank. “We’re in luck,” he said, looking up and down the road. “I think that’s the entrance. We rode right past it.”
They stopped at the top of the driveway, looking over the chicken houses and an equipment shed off to one side. Several dozen chickens milled about, inside and outside the houses, pecking at the ground and occasionally flapping their wings.
“What do we do? How do we catch ’em?” Ben asked, wide-eyed.
“We’ll have to do a bunch of stuff to get ready before we even try grabbing any,” said Johnny. “The ones inside will be easiest, as long as we have the cages set up and waiting for them. But we’ll have to go way around to not spook the others.”
Johnny, Jennifer, and the boys carried nets and cages around to the back of the chicken houses, and set up the traps Johnny built over the last few days: nets, roughly six feet high and set in a triangle, between the houses. Where the apex of the netting met the ground, a short piece of culvert pipe led into a cage. “With this setup, they only have one place to go,” Johnny explained. “We’ll be carrying nets as we drive ’em toward the cages, so they can’t slip between us and get back the other way.” At the back end of each house, Johnny left the doors open just wide enough to place the culvert in between. He found some tarp in the equipment shed and tacked it up to discourage chickens from jumping over the culvert. With their traps set, they made their circuitous way back.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” said Tim as the others rejoined the girls and him at the equipment shed. “A little calf just wandered up in between two of the houses.”
“Great,” said Johnny, not at all pleased. “If he gets spooked, he’ll take down the nets at the back! We’ll have to shoo him out of there before we start. We’ll probably scatter a few chickens too.” He turned around and stomped back around the side of the last house — now that the nets were set, there was no worry about spooking the birds.
Ben and Sheldon slipped down to peer around the corner. Johnny came around the back, slipped through the net, and started waving his arms. “Hyah! Get outta here! Hyah!” The calf munched grass, unconcerned, until Johnny drew closer. As Johnny took two quick steps and shouted again, the calf turned and trotted toward the front. The boys watched it approach.
“Bet you can’t catch it,” Ben whispered to Sheldon.
“I could if I wanted too.”
“I’ll give you a dollar if you catch it.”
“Money ain’t worth anything, stupid! But watch this.” As the calf neared the corner closest to the boys, Sheldon rushed out and launched a flying tackle — and was nearly as surprised as Ben and Johnny when he landed on top of the calf! He wrapped his arms around its neck and his legs around its body as it bellowed for help, then he jerked to one side and landed in the gravel on one hip, still wrapped around the thrashing calf.
“Ben!” Johnny yelled, rushing toward them, scattering chickens on either side. “Use your shirt! Sit on its back legs and tie ’em together!” He pulled off his own shirt as he ran. Ben shucked his t-shirt and got it around the calf’s legs as Johnny arrived, wrapping his own shirt around the calf’s front legs. Immobilized, it stopped struggling and lay huffing on the gravel, eyes rolling.
“Get it off me!” Sheldon yelled, and Johnny and Ben pulled it away. Sheldon stood, brushing dirt off his clothes, as Ashley ran up.
“You guys okay?” She probed Sheldon’s side and leg.
“Yeah, yeah — ow!” Sheldon flinched as she pressed on his hip.
“Probably just bruising. You need to walk around a little so it doesn’t get stiff.”
“I know.” Sheldon limped back toward the equipment shed, then stopped. “You owe me a dollar, Ben,” he said.
“That was a dam-fool stunt you just pulled,” Johnny grinned. “But hey, it worked. You might be cut out to be a cowboy. If you’re up to it, go look in the shed and see if they have any sweet feed. It’ll have a picture of a calf on the bag.”
They ended up catching over twenty chickens, but after the calf even Lily’s dive to catch a loose chicken was anti-climatic. Johnny found a bridle and a feed bag in the equipment shed and gave the calf something to eat after hobbling it much like Cleve and Tim had hobbled Joseph so long ago. With a bag of sweet feed in its face, the calf decided to allow Johnny to lead it home the next morning. At a walking pace, they left at dawn and were not home until dusk.