They sped along in V formation, kings of the aerial highway. Any jaywalker plucky enough to cross them was flattened. Dale was riding near the front, when the leader honked loudly. "There's a nice hole-in-the-wall up ahead. We're stopping for drinks." They’d been traveling since sunup so the gang honked back their overwhelming approval.
The smooth surface was icy on Dale's underside as he settled into the water. He shivered. Then, after a moment, began to guzzle lake water. He'd been needing a drink for hours.
His gullet full, Dale started to think of food. He made his way to the bank where a few of his brothers had gathered to complain about their old ladies between sips of lake water.
"How's the eats?" asked Dale.
"Not bad," said Jack, a one-eyed goose that was the head of their V. "Some grasshoppers and frogs here in the shallows."
"Nah, I'd better not," mused Dale. "I ate a cigar butt off a sidewalk yesterday. Plus, I swallowed a diamond ring that I found on a park bench. My stomach needs something lighter.”
"Suit yourself, Brother," Jack returned.
Dale found a creek and followed it into the nearby forest. He had just found a nice spot and was about to dive to the bottom for minnows when a piercing cry for help rang out from farther up the creek.
Out of curiosity, Dale paddled upstream where the creek became wide and deep. There was an island of sand in the middle of the creek, and perched on top was a small rooster with a large red comb.
"Could you help me out?" asked the rooster when he saw Dale.
"Why should I?" asked Dale as he swam up to the sandbar.
"I—I'll owe you a favor!" said the rooster. "A big one."
"Why would I need a favor from a clucker?" Dale laughed.
"Is there nothing I could trade for a ride across this creek?" asked the rooster.
Dale hesitated. The rooster was clearly a local, so he would know the area.
"I had a bad cigar the other day,” said Dale. “So I'll be requiring minnows."
"Sure thing," nodded the rooster. "Get me across this creek, and I'll do you one better."
His interest peaked, Dale allowed the little rooster to climb onto his back and ride him to the far shore.
"I owe you my life!" said the rooster.
"I'll settle for minnows," said Dale. "Do you know a good spot?"
"I've got something better," whispered the rooster.
Dale followed the rooster until the woods opened up to a small marshy field. "Here we are," said the rooster. "But you must not be seen, and you must promise not to reveal this place to anyone."
"This place!" Dale's eyes went wide. "Is this a rice field?"
"Yup," said the rooster. "But if Farmer John spots you, you'll be shot, so stay low to the ground."
The rooster led Dale to an inconspicuous corner of the rice field, and pointed his feathers invitingly. "There's plenty, so please eat your fill."
Dale hadn't been this excited since that corn field in Indiana. He dove into the shallow water and began to gobble rice.
"Is it true that migrators are scared of snow?” asked the rooster.
"What do you mean?" asked Dale.
"You run away from the snow every year,” said the rooster. “Everyone says you’re scared.”
Dale spit out a mouthful of rice. "We aren't running away from the snow, we’re running toward the sun!”
“Winter is scary for locals too,” sighed the rooster. “But in different ways.” The rooster plopped down on the bank of the rice field. "I actually tried to migrate. Almost made it across the stream, but I was washed down to that sandbar."
"Why'd you leave?" asked Dale. "I didn’t think locals ever became migrators.”
“I had to. The chickens on my farm have gone completely insane," said the rooster.
Dale chuckled. "Yeah, I'm sure they're wild. A real dangerous bunch of cluckers."
"If you only knew," the rooster shook his head.
Dale ate his fill, then climbed up beside the rooster. "You know," he said, "for a local, you aren’t bad. What's your name, friend?"
"I'm Red," said the rooster.
"Well Red, thanks for the meal.” Dale flapped his wings. “I've gotta get back to my V,"
"You won't tell anyone about this rice field, will you?" asked Red. "If a lot of rice goes missing, Farmer John will kill more chickens this winter."
Dale pitied the rooster. Stuck in one place, just waiting to die. "No, I won't tell anyone," said Dale. "I give you my word."
"Good-bye," said Red. "And believe me, I will pay you back for saving me. I give you my word."
Dale flew back to the lake. As his brothers came into sight, he felt his rice coming back up. There was a row of repulsive creatures encircling his friends along the bank. "Mallards!" Dale scoffed.
"This is our turf!" the mallards were quacking angrily as Dale landed. "We stopped here last fall and marked it as our territory." A mallard pointed to a nearby tree, which had a small pile of rocks against its trunk. "We took those rocks from the bottom of the lake and put them there last year, clearly marking this as mallard territory."
"Clearly!" said One-eyed Jack, the leader of the geese.
Dale pushed through the wall of mallards and stood between the two groups. "It's a big lake," he said. "Big enough for both geese and mallards."
"It's a lake, not an ocean!" said Jack.
"It's not big enough for the two of us!" agreed Marco, the mallard leader.
"How about we settle this in the morning?" suggested Dale. "All of us need a place to stay for the night."
"Nothing doing!" honked an old goose as he strode toward the mallards.
"Never!" quacked a young mallard, as he strutted toward the geese.
Peace was never an option. Dale realized that now.
Cluck. Cluck. Cluck.
The goose and mallard war-cries were interrupted by the din of interlopers.
"Locals?" The pecking and wing-beating halted as the mallards and geese stopped to stare.
Dale saw a flock of chickens edging around the lake, pecking at rocks and grass as they went. They were led by a shriveled looking rooster with a faded comb.
"Get lost!" Marco mallard quacked at the chickens.
The chickens stared blankly at the two groups. They glanced from the geese to the mallards, then back to the geese. The old rooster in the lead suddenly stumbled backward. "Where'd y’all come from?" The flock of chickens clumped together and shrieked in unison at the sudden appearance of a threat.
"We've been here this whole time, you dumb cluck," said Marco mallard. "Shoo! This is our territory!"
The chickens' terror passed momentarily, and they became curious.
The geese became increasingly annoyed as the chickens gathered around them, scrutinizing their bills and feathers.
"Are you aliens?" asked the old rooster. "I've heard tell of your kind."
"It's best that you leave," said One-eyed Jack to the rooster, flapping his powerful wings in warning.
The mallards were not so kind. Using their powerful wings and bills, they bludgeoned the chickens into a full retreat.
"We don't want to leave!" squawked the chickens as they gathered behind the old rooster. “The grasshoppers and worms here are tasty,” whined a young rooster. “I’m so tired of eating rice,” grumbled a young hen. “It has no flavor.”
"We’re leaving," said the old rooster.
"Rice?” Both the mallards and geese perked up at the same time.
"Pay Henrietta no mind," said the old rooster. "She's just a picky eater."
He turned to the young hen. "It doesn’t matter how tasty the bugs are around the lake, this territory belongs to these gentlemen. When we get back to our rice field, you will finish your rice before eating bugs, or you can just go to bed hungry."
The old rooster bowed his head to the geese and mallards, apologizing for the intrusion. The chickens turned dejectedly and started down a well worn path leading into the woods.
This situation suddenly struck Dale as strange. However, before he could voice this opinion, a fresh tumult erupted.
"Wait just a minute!" quacked Marco mallard.
"Yeah, wait!" echoed One-eyed Jack. "What's this about a rice field?"
The old rooster turned and looked at his pursuers blankly, then he stumbled back. "Who're you?" he squawked. The other chickens clustered together and began to shriek once more at the sudden appearance of a threat.
"We were just speaking a moment ago," said One-eyed Jack.
"Ah! You were by the lake earlier," the rooster pointed a wing at One-eyed Jack, recognition dawning on him. "That's how I know you!"
"That..." Jack hesitated. "Is correct."
The old rooster nodded as if greeting an old friend. "What can I do you for?"
"You said you want bugs right?" interjected Marco mallard. "We can give you all you can eat." he gestured at the lake.
"Really! You'd do that?" asked the old rooster in amazement. The flock of chickens began clucking in excitement.
"But in exchange," said One-eyed Jack, "We want rice."
The old rooster looked surprised. "You want to trade bugs for that nasty gruel?" he shook his head. "I can’t take advantage of you.”
"You see," said Jack, "we aren’t normal migrators. We are… we're 'aliens!’ If we don’t eat rice we’ll die.”
The old rooster looked at him with pity.
"We are willing to make a trade,” continued Jack. “We will give you all the bugs you can eat," he looked graciously from one chicken to another. "All we ask for in exchange is your rice field."
The old rooster hesitated, "I don’t know. It seems like we're taking advantage of you.” The young hen, Henrietta, nudged him angrily. "It’s fair. Just accept!"
The old rooster shrugged, then nodded his agreement. "Okay, follow us."
The flock of chickens, geese and mallards formed a caravan along a well worn path leading into the nearby woods.
Dale watched them go. This whole affair seemed very strange. It couldn't be the same rice field he'd just eaten at.
“Ugh!” Dale clutched his stomach. He’d eaten too much earlier, and as he hunched over, he pondered his poor life decisions. If only he hadn't eaten that cigar butt or that stupid ring yesterday. That ring especially. The gold band had simply been too shiny, and the diamond had been too sparkly. It had just been sitting there on that park bench looking delicious.
"Wait!" shouted a distant voice.
Dale spied a small rooster rushing along the bank of the lake. It was Red.
Red caught sight of Dale, and made a bee-line for him.
"Have the chickens been here?" asked Red as he gasped for breath.
"They left a while ago," said Dale. "They led my brothers and some mallards to a rice field.”
"What?" Red’s eyes blazed.
"Wait a minute," Dale held up his wings. "They aren't taking them to your rice field. That rice field is danger—" Dale stopped as the realization suddenly hit him. “But why?"
"I told you!" Red flapped in exasperation. "The chickens around here are devious and evil."
"Devious?" Dale cocked his head, recalling the dimwitted locals. "I don't buy that."
"It’s a con!" said Red. "They’ve done it before.”
"But why?" Dale asked again, starting to worry.
"If Farmer John bags enough game birds, he won't kill any chickens during the winter,” said Red.
Dale stared dumbly. How had he been so stupid?
"I have to warn them!" said Dale. He flapped his wings and flew up. But he'd barely left the ground when his stomach convulsed. He hit the ground with a thud.
Red rushed to his side. "Are you all right?"
Dale staggered up, gazing horror-struck at the path leading into the woods. He couldn’t warn his brothers in time.
"Follow me!" shouted Red. "I know a shortcut."
Dale's stomach was in knots, but he managed to chase Red. They rushed along the edge of the lake, and entered the woods using a game trail.
"Foxes use this trail," grimaced Red, "but we don't have a choice." They pushed through the underbrush, keeping a sharp eye out for predators.
"Why does your farmer need to kill so many migrators?" asked Dale, between gasps. "Doesn't he have plenty of rice?"
"He sells all the rice," said Red. "Farmer John is saving up to marry a lady farmer down the road. He’ll eat chicken this winter, until he saves up enough to buy something called an ‘engagement ring.’
The forest suddenly opened up and Dale could see a farmhouse with a smoking chimney, a big red barn, and a rice field. In the middle of the rice field a flock of birds were fighting bitterly. "They haven't been spotted yet!" Dale exclaimed.
As he spoke, there was a rapping at the farmhouse. To Dale's horror, dozens of chickens were pecking at the farmhouse door.
The door swung inward and a young man in overalls waded amid the chickens. "What’s going on?”
The chickens flapped wildly and turned in unison to the rice field where the geese and mallards were battling.
"Varmints!" the farmer exclaimed. Shotgun in hand, he waded through the chickens and slinked toward the rice field.
Dale flew up, but thudded to the ground once again. This time his stomach gurgled, and he vomited a mass of lumpy goo onto the ground.
He lay there in the dust, panting. "Have...to warn...them.”
"I'm on it," shouted Red, as he dashed toward the rice field. "I still owe you one, remember."
Red raced down the hill. "It's a trap!" he yelled.
One-eyed Jack and Marco Mallard halted their battle when they heard Red's warning. That was when they finally noticed the farmer slinking toward them. One-eyed Jack instantly recognized the metal stick in the farmer’s hand. Marco did too. They temporarily shelved their differences.
"Fly away!" One-eyed Jack screamed.
"Run for your lives!" said Marco mallard.
The battle screeched to a halt, and in unison, both sides leapt into the air.
The farmer fired off two quick shots, but missed. He reloaded, but when he raised his weapon, the birds were out of range.
Dale saw his brothers fleeing, and sighed in relief. His eyes went to Red, who was now surrounded by an angry flock of chickens.
The old rooster shook his head with disappointment. "Son, do you know what you have just done?"
"I know." Red hung his head. "But this… it just isn’t right.”
The old rooster sighed. "No one disagrees with you Red, but this is the only way." The old rooster gestured for the mob to break their encirclement. "Let him go."
Red plodded back to Dale. "Seems like all your friends got away. I guess we're square now."
Dale gazed at the black dots on the horizon. "Hey Red," he said. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," said Red. "What're friends for."
“You aren’t a friend—or a local,” said Dale. “You’re a brother now—an honorary migrator."
"You're not gonna make me fly are you?" asked Red. "I got on top of the barn once and realized that I'm scared of heights."
Dale grimaced. He suddenly felt something squish beneath his webbed foot. It was vomit.
Amid the half-digested rice, Dale saw a sparkle. It was the ring that he'd swallowed the previous day. Suddenly he had an idea.
He ignored the vomit and pecked out the ring. Rushing to a nearby puddle, he began to clean it vigorously.
Red watched on, bewildered.
Dale rinsed the ring until it shone like new. "Take this.” He dropped the now-sparkling diamond ring in front of Red.
"What is this thing?" asked Red, pecking at it.
"It's an engagement ring," said Dale.
"You mean?" Red looked at the ring with growing excitement.
"Yeah," said Dale. "Give that to the farmer, and your flock will survive the winter.”
“See you next year, Brother!” Red pecked up the ring and rushed to Farmer John.
The farmer plodded along with a flock of dejected chickens trailing behind him. He was still cursing under his breath when he noticed the little rooster barring his path.
"Not now, Red," said the farmer.
Red dropped the ring on Farmer John's boot.
"What's this?" said Farmer John as he stooped and picked up the diamond ring. "Jesus H. Christ!" he exclaimed. He held the ring up to the sunlight. "Lord in heaven,” he whooped! He bent over and scooped Red into his arms. "Red, I'm gonna make you my best man!"
Dale took flight and raced to catch up with his brothers. As the farmyard and rice field faded in the distance, he watched the farmer laugh all the way to his pickup truck. “I’m so getting laid!” he shouted. He stumbled over a chicken every step of the way, but hardly noticed. The chickens were squawking loudly and if the farmer could have understood them, he would have heard them chanting "Red! Red! Red!" with wild excitement.
Dale dropped into V formation. "You guys as hungry as I am?" he groaned. His stomach was empty and all he could think about was finding another rice field, one with fewer chickens.
Before anyone could reply, dozens of quacks sounded and a V formation of mallards pulled alongside. The two groups glared angrily at one another for a long time.
"There's a nice estuary five miles south-west," Dale called. "First ones there get to stay!"
“We marked that one last year!” quacked Marco mallard. “We left a pile of rocks by—”
But the geese ignored him as they beat their wings and sped toward their next meal.