They crossed the footbridge over the creek that ran along the boundary of what, years ago, had been one of the nation's, some said the world's, largest chicken ranches. Now much of it had reverted to sage brush and other desert plants. Today, reduced to a small farm, only one of the chicken coops remained standing, next to the large barn. That was where they found the man they were looking for.
Sitting on a barrel in the shade of that barn, the old farmer pulled out his pipe and invited the two young reporters to sit while he told them what they had come to hear. He reckoned no one knew the tale any better than he did, but he warned them that a lot of what he was bout to tell them was anecdotal, that he hadn't seen all of it first hand.
"You're here to put the Chicken Little story to roost." He didn't even smile, continuing to spin his yarn. "You want to know if there really was a relationship between Chicken Little and The Little Red Hen. In short, the answer is yes. There was a time when they were very close, or so it seemed to those of us around the barnyard. But that was a long time ago, memories are hazy, and much of what is told is hearsay.
"You may be wondering why I asked you to approach my farm by crossing the footbridge over the creek instead of coming up the main road. The Chicken Little story ends there, and I thought we should begin there as well.
"First, you have to understand that the confusion over Chicken Little's gender was largely the result of fowl-mouthed rumors spread by Henny Penny. Despite his diminutive stature, Chicken Little was all rooster, not a hen, as you may have thought because of the similarity of his name with that of a female chicken in the fairy tale. Henny Penny was upset because Chicken Little ignored her. In a spiteful fit, she first started the rumor that Chicken Little was born out of wedlock. In a sense, he was an unintentional fowl with the demeaning status that went with that condition. Then she said Chicken Little was transgender. That's why when a pronoun is used to refer to Chicken Little you'll find the writer normally uses 'it.'
"Some began to refer to him as a technical fowl, claiming he was not hatched but was created in a lab, a test tube chick. They also mocked his unruly comb, which flopped to one side instead of standing straight up, like combs on the other young roosters. I'm sure those old biddies caused Chicken Little no end of grief, but he never showed it. He was a very deliberate fowl, and the hen pecking, while it may have hurt, was not evident in his actions.
"Frankly, those hens criticizing Chicken Little wouldn't admit it but most of them would have considered him to be a great fowl catch. Even as a young chick the hens in his age group flocked around him when the farmer punished him for some infraction. As a grounded fowl, he sat there while one hen after another came up to keep him company.
"Anyway, Chicken Little and The Little Red Hen first met when they were just reaching adulthood, at the Fowl Ball, which was held in an abandoned chicken coop. That was the biggest shindig the flock had in those days - remember, this was a long time ago. Most of the chickens came as couples but it was okay for those without dates to come on their own. And that's why Chicken Little and The Little Red Hen showed up on the fowl lines, he with the other young roosters and she with the unattached hens. At some point during the evening, I don't know when, they danced with each other, and at the end of the dance he took her wing with his.
"Whether they wanted privacy or did it simply to escape the fowl odor of the old coop, they 'flew' - and I use that term loosely; did you ever see a fowl fly? - atop a fence rail surrounding the coop. I guess they hit it off pretty well that night, for Chicken Little was seen quite often scratching for seeds or whatever chickens scratch for and then offering whatever he found to her.
"Not every chicken in the barnyard smiled when they saw these two together. The uppity hens from Massachusetts, the Plymouth Rocks, were very offensive fowls, especially disparaging of The Little Red Hen. They disliked her socialist tendencies, expressed in her agitation for a cooperative hen house, where every hen helped every other one with various tasks, such as planting seeds or harvesting food. In fowl language, they disparagingly referred to her as the Rhode Island 'Red.' And because Chicken Little was her bosom buddy they shunned him too.
"The end of their romance came suddenly one day. The chicken farmer was shooing all the fowl out of one coop and into another so a clean-up man could sanitize the nests and roosting areas. The uppity Plymouth Rocks momentarily threatened a fowl strike, but finally joined the exodus. As the chickens fled from one area to another, the sheriff arrived, and when the fowl had been called together, he announced that when they all reached the new coop there would be a rooster race, with the winner getting a new nest for a hen of the winner's choice.
"Chicken Little immediately signed up for the race, but when the sheriff also announced that his personal fowl would be in the race, The Little Red Hen suspected some shenanigans and urged Chicken Little not to enter. 'You can't win if they run a fowl of the law,' she pleaded. But Chicken Little, with a chance to give The Little Red Hen a new nest, refused to withdraw. The same nagging fears that bothered The Little Red Hen concerned the other possible contestants and, one by one, drove all the other fowl out, however. So it was Chicken Little against the sheriff's rooster.
"What happened was without question a fowl deed. As the sheriff readied his personal fowl for the race, The Little Red Hen told Chicken Little that while she didn't want him to run, she admired what he was doing in trying to win a new nest for her. It was then she told him that she had been sitting the past few days, when he thought she was avoiding him, on a clutch of fertile eggs. A friend was keeping them warm while she watched the race, but she would go back to their eggs after the race was over. She gave him a peck, and perched on a fence rail to watch her hero do his best.
"Had you taken a fowl poll, you would have found most of the hens, except maybe the Plymouth Rocks, were rooting for Chicken Little. Deep inside, most of them admired him and thought they were as worthy of his attention as The Little Red Hen.
"Just before the race was to start, another fowl tipped off Chicken Little about a hazard that the sheriff had placed on the course they were to run. The hazard was in lane one, so when the sheriff selflessly allowed Chicken Little to choose his lane, our hero chose lane two. Not until the race was underway did Chicken Little realize that he had been duped. Lane two was full of weeds and other hazards. At the start, the sheriff's fowl shot quickly to the front as Chicken Little floundered through the debris
Despite all the obstacles in lane two, as the contestants neared the finish line Chicken Little was ahead by a beak. At that point the sheriff's rooster deliberately stepped on Chicken Little's left foot, throwing him to the ground as the villain sped across the finish line. While spectators - even the Plymouth Rocks - chanted 'flagrant, fowl' in unison, Chicken Little hobbled across the finish line, a loser. But Chicken Little thought he had fallen on his own and refused to accuse his opponent of fowl play.
"Dejected and embarrassed by his loss, and believing he had disgraced himself before The Little Red Hen, Chicken Little left the coop without a final goodbye to her. If only he hadn't fallen, he would have won and he could forever hold his head high. Instead, disgraced, he left. The Little Red Hen's last glimpse of him was as he crossed the footbridge over the creek bordering the ranch. Then he was gone.
"Over the years, rumors spread that he had been seen watching, from a distance, his and her chicks scratching in the barnyard. The Little Red Hen never had a brood of chicks again, and the Plymouth Rocks faulted her for being so protective of the ones she had hatched. And as her chicks had chicks of their own, she noted how this one or that one had that peculiar floppy comb that seemed to resemble Chicken Little's.
"There is a moral to this tale," the old farmer said: "Downed fowls are for the birds. If Chicken Little had just stayed on his feet the moral would have been: A fowl up is better."
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona. firstname.lastname@example.org