They say that the devil has many guises, but I've seen the devil, with my own two eyes. He walks the earth every day. His form is that of a chicken.
Everyone called the old red rooster Bub. I didn't realize until the very end that night in that sleazy motel room in Arizona that it was short for Beezlebub, king of the devils, but even from the start I knew there was something bad about Bub. Every day I would walk into that chicken pen to feed and pick eggs, and every day that red rooster would come a chargin' at me with blood in his eye.
Me and Frank tried everything with that damn chicken. When Frank went in to feed, he'd carry a galvanized tub with him and toss it over ol' Bub to keep him occupied while he got to feedin' the hens. You could hear ol' Bub under the tub, bangin' away at the sides for all he was worth. If the wife was usin' the tub for her washin', then Frank would carry a garbage can lid and try to fend Bub off with it, jus' like he was some kind of gladiator, or one them Christians as the Romans were always throwin' into pits with lions in 'em. Course now, thinkin' back on it, I imagine ol' Bub remembered those days with a certain fondness. If the devil can create such a fuss as a chicken, he must have wreaked some mighty havoc as a Christian-eatin' lion in the old days. As for me, I had a secret weapon. My wooden leg. That rooster would see me open the gate to the pen, puff himself up, and come a-runnin', tryin' to sink his leg spurs into me. He'd a-layed open Frank's calf more than once with them spurs. Not me. I'd just wait with my wooden leg. He'd come a-runnin' up and I'd wait til just the right moment, then I'd haul back and kick that chicken clear across the pen. I'd have about sixty seconds of feedin' before he'd hit the ground, get his bearings and then come a-runnin' back for more. Got to say this for Satan - he sure is tenacious.
We had gone out behind the hay with a bottle of whiskey where the missus couldn't see us, to sit and have ourselves a time. We propped ourselves up on a couple of bales. "There's got to be something better than this," sighed Frank, taking another big swallow and passing the bottle back to me. "I ain't sure I like the idea of spending the rest of my life cleaning hog pens and catchin' cattle."
I took a swallow of my own. "I don't see that life gets much better than this, myself." Yep, the afternoon heat, the sweet smell of the hay, the warm fuzz of the whiskey. Couldn't ask for a lot more than this. "Just what do you see yourself doin', Frank?"
"You know, Mike. Bright lights. Fancy dinners. Women in slinky dresses. That sort of thing." He went on to paint some pretty fine pictures of the highlife. The wild parties. The adoring crowds. Pretty women smilin' at you all the time, and more whiskey than you could drink on a hundred afternoons like this one.
"I guess that sounds all right," says me, drowsily. "But is there room in those colorful dreams of yours for a summer afternoon nap?"
"I bet there is," smiled Frank, and we both watched the cows flick flies off their arses with their tails until we dozed off.
A finer lazy dream you never had, full of ice cream sundaes and secret fishin' holes full of fat, hungry bass. I was dreamin' about bein' lazy, sittin' on a fine hill watchin' the clouds go by and soakin' in the sunshine when suddenly a cloud passed in front of the sun. I had a feelin' something was wrong, so I sat myself up and had a look around. There, at the bottom of the hill, was the chicken.
"Mike," called that old red rooster up the hill, lookin' at me with those beady little eyes. "Mike, I can make you a deal."
"What the hell kind of deal can a chicken make?" I demanded.
"I can make you rich and famous, Mike. Just like Frank was talking about."
"How do you propose goin' about that? Can you shit gold?"
That red rooster, he ruffled his feathers a little and cocked his head, that fine red comb flopping over to one side a little. "You leave the details to me, Mike."
"So go ahead then. You ain't goin' to get a fight out of me over it."
"You're a real smart man, Mike. When the time comes, I'll collect my fee. Until then, you enjoy all the wealth, women and whiskey you can handle."
I sat up a little straighter. "Well here, now. What kind of fee are we talkin' about?"
"Just the standard. Your soul." He kind of laughed and bobbed his head a bit at my response. "If I did that on any kind of regular basis, I wouldn't make much of a rooster, now would I? You don't need to decide now, Mike. I'll tell you what - I'll just set things in motion, and if you like what you see, you go ahead and take advantage of my offer. After a while, I'll be by to collect. You decide against it, just pass my offer by, no obligation, Only pay for what you buy, as it were."
"Begone, demon chicken!" I shook my fist at him and woke up, Bub's laughter still ringing in my ears. Frank was rubbin' his eyes, sittin' up from his bale of hay and givin' me a dirty look.
"What the hell are you talkin' about, Mike? I don't see no chickens loose. You woke me up."
I picked up that bottle of whiskey and peered inside it suspiciously. "Must've had a rat fall in the vat on this batch," I decided and hucked the bottle out into the cow pasture.
"What did you do that for?" Frank whined.
"Bad whiskey," I told him and climbed down out of the hay to get some work done. I was through nappin' for one afternoon.
The next morning I had my reservations about going in to feed the chickens, but it was my turn. As soon as I lifted the latch, the hens came flockin' over and that rooster looked up with a blaze of hate in his eyes. After that strange dream, I was more than ready to do what I had to. He came a runnin' and I hauled back with my wooden leg and prepared to send him to the moon. That ain't what happened, though.
What happened was that that little red sonofabitch sunk both his spurs deep into my wooden leg. Such pecking and a-flappin' you have never seen in your life. Might as I tried to kick him loose, Bub was with me like he was nailed there, which he was, sort of. Frank and the missus came over to see what all the hollerin' and cussin' was about and got laughin' fit to burst. As for me and Bub, neither of us was happy campers.
"Looks like you two are stuck together for life," Frank laughed. I didn't think It was very funny, and neither did Bub.
Mad as a hornet, I stomped into the garage, Bub squallin' away on my leg, and got my truck keys. I drove fifteen miles to the vet with a pissed off chicken on my leg. I sat in the vet's waiting room for most of the mornin', makin' a spectacle of myself for the amusement of everyone there. And I paid seventy-five dollars to have Doc Turnindale cut a chicken off my wooden leg. By the time I got home late that afternoon, I was mighty steamed.
"Ethel!" I shouted to the missus. "Get my hatchet! We're havin' stewed chicken tonight!"
I had Frank do the honors. Below average on almost every other count, that boy did have a singular way with a hatchet. Also, he hated that red rooster almost as much as I did. After today, nobody could hate that chicken as much as me, but if there was someone else who did, it would be Frank. Chopping off the rooster's head was the only job I can remember ever seeing him approach with relish.
All of us gathered around the stump. Me, Ethel, our dog Lucky, and Pablo, the boy who drove the feed truck. When Frank raised that hatchet high and then felled it with kind of a little flourish and a whack, why we all cheered. But wouldn't you know it, nothin' ever goes quite right when the Prince of Darkness is involved.
"Look at that, the body's done got away without the head," sighed Ethel. "Lucky, you leave it be! Pablo, catch-ar el gallo, por fay-vor. Cussed thing. I do declare, I don't care how bad it tastes, I will still enjoy eating it tonight."
Frank grinned as the boy ran off to try to catch the headless body, tipping the head off the chopping block with the blade of the hatchet and then kicking it over to me to stare balefully up at me with clouding beady eyes. Even dead it looked hateful. "Guess his spurrin' days are over."
"The dirty sonofabitch," I agreed.
Pablo looked for a good thirty minutes, until it was past time for him to go home. I didn't really want to pay him extra on account of that damn chicken, so we sent him home. "Let the coyotes have him," I spit on the ground. "He'd have like as not given us the heaves anyway."
The next morning was Frank's morning to feed the chickens and he was whistlin' the whole way, sweet talkin' our little flock of Rhode Island Reds and just as cheerful as he could be. "Yes indeedy, it sure is nice feedin' these here chickens without old red-ass Bub to come a-gunnin' for my leg."
Pablo walked by, grinning at him, then disappeared around the corner of the chicken coop, off to change the oil on one of the tractors. All of the sudden, he set up an awful racket.
"Senores, senora, mira! Come see!" Pablo called to us. Exchanging puzzled looks, Frank and I wandered over to take a peek at whatever it was the boy had to show us.
"Well, what do you know. Pablo found ol' Bub's remains before the coyotes did." Frank did not seem impressed as we came over to where the boys was standing with a headless red feathered body, sitting between his dusty sneakers.
Neither did I. "It's a dead chicken, boy. Calm yourself."
"Mira," the boy insisted, pointing. Abruptly, one of the legs lifted to scratch at the headless neck. Both Frank and I screamed as if with one girly voice.
"Oh, lordy, Mike, it's still alive!"
After a few minutes of the heebie jeebies, where Frank and I danced around a bit and clutched at each other, we calmed ourselves down enough to get down and have a bit of a peek at that chicken. The three of us knelt down around the headless bird and ran us some tests. It was breathin', sure enough. You could put your hand on its chest and feel its little heart a-beatin' away in its little warm body. And as Pablo and Frank are my witnesses, it passed a healthy little pile of warm birdshit right in front of us. In every respect besides the havin' of a head, we were in the presence of a live chicken.
"Well, don't that beat all?" Frank murmured in amazement.
Pablo was not as keen on the idea. "Es el trabajo del Diablo."
"What'd he say?" I asked.
"Somethin' about the devil." Frank took off his ball cap and waved it dismissively at the boy. "Damn superstitious Mexicans. Go find an image of the Virgin Mary in a potato, will ye?" Insulted, Pablo picked himself up and stomped off, making sure to cross himself deliberately in a warding gesture.
"I don't know, Frank, the boy might have something there." I couldn't quite forget my dream, and the image of ol' Bub with his beady little eyes, laughin' at me.
"Mike, I swear, you were the last person on earth I thought would get their shorts in a twist seein' the devil in every shadow. What we have here is a scientific ay-nomoly. I bet those boys over at the University ag department would love to take a peek at this. Why, this may very well be an important scientific advancement! They's always cuttin' the beaks off the chickens in those big establishments so they don't peck each other to death. Think how much better it would be if they could have de-headed chickens! Why, the savings in the cost of preparing for slaughter alone would be worth their while!"
Well, I wasn't entirely convinced, but I did let Frank talk me into taking ol' Bub to the university ag office. They spent two days poking, prodding, weighing and analyzing that chicken. At the end of it, they called us back into a room of amazed looking young men in white lab coats.
"Your chicken, Mr. Wales, is still alive."
"We knowed that before we brought 'im," I pointed out. Book learnin' has yet to impress me.
"Right here, you can see this dark mass," the fellow pointed at the gory severed stump of Bub's neck. "This is the chicken's jugular. We believe that this blood clot prevented your chicken from bleeding to death."
"How can it survive without its head?" I asked.
The men glanced at each other slightly apprehensively. "Um. We don't know for certain. Apparently, there's still enough of the central nervous system functioning along the spinal cord. We'd have to do more research to know for sure. We've been feeding it slightly ground chicken feed and water through the throat," he pointed, "via an eyedropper."
"Pure ornery-ness, that's how it's survivin'," Frank declared, scooping the chicken into a box. "Thank you kindly, gentlemen."
"Would you consider donating the chicken to the university for research purposes, Mr. Wales?" the young man asked me.
I opened my mouth to say "Sure," but Frank cut me off, herding me out the door as he said, "Thank you, but no thank you, gentlemen. Mr. Wale's Headless Wonder-Chicken is not for sale."
"What are you talkin' about, Frank?" I whispered as we walked through the air-conditioned halls out toward the parking lot. The occasional scrabble of chicken toenails on cardboard was the only creepy signal the thing was still alive. "What's this Headless Wonder-Chicken bullshit?"
"Don't you see, Mike? This is our chance! We're goin' to take ol' Bub here on the road!"
Well, I wasn't too convinced about that either, but over the next two months, Frank and I spent every spare minute of the day working on our chicken presentation. Frank perfected his technique with a hatchet and was getting so he was pretty darn accurate at beheading a chicken without killin' it. As for me, I started trainin' our little headless flock, tappin' their little feet with a stick and then givin' em a little eyedropper reward when they took a step. Soon I had those chickens marching along on command and even doing a kind of little dance, depending on where I tapped my stick. At night, I would sneak out of the house and meet Frank behind his mobile home and he would tell me his big plans.
"This is goin' to make us rich, Mike, you watch. From the commercial aspect to the entertainment value, you and I are going to be wealthy beyond our wildest dreams."
"Well, I guess that sounds fine..."
"What do you mean 'you guess'? It's an amazing opportunity!"
"But don't it seem just a little... unnatural to you?"
"Them boys at the university didn't seem to think it was unnatural. Just lucky, Mike. Just lucky."
"But I had this dream, Frank, that the old red rooster was the devil and that he was after my soul."
Frank set down the whiskey bottle and just looked at me. "Mike," says he. "Don't make me slap you."
When he put it like that, I guess it did sound kinda silly.
So it was that when the year's batch of calves was auctioned off, Frank and I packed our bags, bid goodbye to the missus and set off on the road with a trailer full of headless chickens. My, what a time we had! At first, people didn't believe it and we had a hard time getting booked. But after we got into the first few places, then all of a sudden offers came floodin' in. We did county fairs and carnivals and presentations at grade schools. Then we got interviewed by newspapers and big time chicken processing plants and universities. I was in charge of putting on the headless wonder-chicken shows and having talks with the big corporations about the advantages of our techniques. Frank was in charge of teaching his hatchet technique to the big companies that were willing to pay well for it and doing public interviews.
There was money, all right. Plenty of it. We sent some back to the missus and put a little away from a rainy day, but there were also clothes to buy for the shows and interviews, little spangly outfits for my headless wonder-flock, and then of course there was the RV we bought to make ourselves more comfortable since we was always on the road. We didn't have much more time for whiskey than we did when we was just ourselves back on the farm, sneakin' off into the hay barn to get away from the missus long enough to get comfortable with a bottle of whiskey, but there sure was a lot more whiskey when we did have time for it. And I guess there were some women, too. More for Frank than for me, but it had been a long time since the missus and I was friendly in that way, and them wholesome lookin' young vo-tech co-eds can put a powerful spin on a man's head and his sense of right and wrong. Simply put, we was livin' the high life, just like Frank had said.
We was campin' out in a parking lot at Texas A and M one night, on account of us doin' a bunch of lectures and demonstrations at the college that week, when Frank came burstin' in the trailer door. "Mike!" he cried in a terrible voice, all full of pride and urgency. "I done it!"
I crawled out from under the bag of potato chips that I had taken to bed with me that night, choosin' to have my way with it and consuming the entire contents thereof right there in the bed, crumbs bedamned, and no one to nag at me about my eatin' habits nor my hygiene. "Done what?" I asked, staggerin' a bit due to the amount of whiskey I had washed down the chips with. The fact that Frank was wearing a white, bloodstained butcher's apron and holdin' his hatchet in his hand was not completely lost on me, but Frank spent an awful lot of time done up like that nowadays. It was getting to the point where unless he had a girl in his lap, he had that hatchet in his hand, but it was makin' us money, so who cared?
"Come lookit," he said with solemn importance and led me out to the big fancy horse trailer we had bought for the wonder-flock and for Frank to practice in. Sure enough, there in the back of the trailer was a bloody chopping block, but there weren't no severed chickens millin' about. Instead, there was a goat. Without no head. Hangin' out just as fine as you please.
"It's all in the way you come down," Frank bragged, showin' me the jugular. "Mike, my friend, get ready for the big time."
Headless wonder-chickens weren't nothin' compared to headless wonder-goats, -pigs and even -cows. Frank managed to produce 'em all successfully. He whittled it down to where nine times out of ten, when the head hit the floor, the body was left standin' happy as a lark and without a care in the world. If you thought we were big before, you shoulda seen us now.
"You know who that was?" Frank got off the phone not long after that, lookin' pleased as punch.
"Better. Hollywood. We got us an interview on Sixty Minutes." Afore I knew it, I was makin' headless chickens dance on every late night talk show there was, showin' feedin' techniques for headless cows on PBS and the Discovery Channel, and sharin' how it all began with that one red rooster to Oprah, Rosie and Regis. We even went on Jerry Springer; Frank came out of that one with a tooth knocked out by an angry PETA hippie.
We was bigger than big. We sold the RV and bought ourselves a fully outfitted tour bus with our own logo on the side. We had our own business cards, t-shirts, personalized leather jackets and coffee mugs as souvenirs. Me and the wonder-flock had ourselves our own fan club. Frank had hisself his own interns who traveled along with us in their own vehicles just to learn from him.
Yes, indeed, things were goin' mighty fine up until that night out in the parkin' lot of some sleazy Arizona motel. I was workin' on the last couple of swallows on a bottle of whisky and was almost done feedin' the wonder-flock. Ol' Bub, he was still doin' mighty fine. Getting downright fat on an eyedropper diet. Frank come into the trailer with that otherworldly gleam he gets to his eye when he's all-afire with some new important idea.
"What's the news, Frank?"
"I just met a man, Mike. An important man."
I swayed over to stand a little closer, offering him the last drag from the bottle. "Who's that?"
"Mike, they want to offer us a military contract."
Ain't a man alive as has ever been truthfully helped out in the intellect department by that much whiskey. "I don't want to be in the army, Frank."
"That's not what I mean. A research grant. This could be worth millions, Mike. Millions upon millions."
"They want us to research headless livestock?"
"Troops, Mike! Think of it! Squads of headless troops all marchin' along, not afeared in the face of enemy fire! They'd be invincible."
"If you say so, I guess." Do admit, Frank had yet to be wrong with his harebrained notions.
Frank was looking at me like he wanted a certain response from me. "Mike, I'm ready to do this. I know jes' how I'm going to have to come down with the hatchet."
"Well, them army boys are sure goin' to be pleased when you tell 'em that."
"All I need is a test subject, Mike."
"Who you goin' to get to volunteer for that?"
"Ain't it obvious, Mike? You and me have been in this together from the very start. Headless demonstration have been your half of the deal right from the get go. I just chop the heads off."
"Don't worry, Mike. You take care of the headless critters day in and day out," Frank was leading me over to the chopping block. "You know they don't feel no discomfort at all. Why, they all get plenty fat and content without no heads."
"Well, I guess you're right..."
"Mike! Have I been wrong yet?"
"I guess not."
That's how I find myself with no head, an exhibit in a private show I presume no one but Frank and the military men see. And ol' Beezelbub the chicken. Because even though I can't see nor hear no more, still I know he's laughing, sure as I knew my lunch would be poured down my throat at the same time every day. Cause he came and got his payment when the time came, sure enough. Sure as I can feel myself choking and unable to call for help. It's not so much that the room is growing dim, but there's a feeling of doom nonetheless. Even a man without a head can feel the devil chicken coming for his soul.
I always did hate that chicken.