The train was set to leave the station at midnight, full to the brim with merchandise and passengers travelling from Omaha, West to the California coast. The engineer, Tommy, let out a slow breath and watched it crystalize in the air. It was going to be a cold night and a long quiet ride. He pulled his parka closer around his face and felt the warm fur tickle his nose. Shivering, he pulled himself into the engine, and with one last wave to Fred the stationmaster, he released the brakes and headed out into the night.
Back in the last train car, Chuck shivered too. He watched as his own breath filled the air and wished he had a warm parka like Tommy’s to keep him warm. Feathers were ok but they were only good down to a certain temperature. The cold metal bars pressing in close on his shivering frame added to his misery.
Chuck looked around the train car. All around him, his friends were also jailed and shivering. They had no idea where this train was headed. They had not eaten in hours, and no rations had been provided. Chuck didn’t know if that meant the ride would be a short one, or if their jailers were just especially cruel.
“It’s time,” Chuck said aloud, watching the word puff visibly out of his mouth and into the car.
Chuck looked over to the cage across and three down from him. He nodded his head at Tuck, and Tuck nodded back. Tuck closed his eyes and then, extending his neck, made a gagging sound. Twenty-eight pairs of glowing eyes watched Tuck, willing him success. Tuck gagged again and then regurgitated a large, mucus-coated, silver key onto the floor of his cage.
“Well, done, Tuck,” Nancy said, patting him on the back through the cage bars. She then scooped up the key and unlocked her cage.
The chickens were free!
Once all twenty-nine inmates had been released, they gathered in the center of the car for warmth and to come up with a plan. They all turned to Chuck, who was their leader, but before he could relay the rest of their escape plan, little Eddie piped up.
“I’m hungy, Unca Chuck,” the little bird said, shivering wildly and pressing deeper into Nancy’s feathers.
Little Daisy also joined in: “Unca Chuck, I’m ccccold too.” She peered up at him with her bright blue eyes, a small tear slipping down her beak.
Chuck looked around at all the shivering birds and quickly decided they were probably better off waiting to jump off the train until it made its way further south. At least, he hoped it was headed south. North wouldn’t do at all.
“Let’s explore some of the other train cars,” he announced loudly to be heard above all the nervous clucking. “See what we can find before we depart.”
“A little lootin,” said Lester with a grin, rubbing his wings together. “We can’t be the only valuable commodity on this train.”
Lester pushed through the other birds to the forward door. With a precision born of much practice, Lester, Tuck and Nancy formed a chicken-ladder that Eddie quickly climbed to open the door. Frigid air blasted into the car, knocking over the chicken-ladder and causing a loud squawk from the huddling flock. All the birds ran for cover behind the cages and each other.
Chuck bravely pushed forward and leaned his neck out the door. He shivered wildly as cold air blasted his beak, but looking down, he spied a small platform outside the door of the chicken car, which was only a short distance away from the next car platform. Luckily, it was an easy jump, even for the littles.
“Lester, Tuck, Nancy!” Chuck called against the wind, and his fearless friends appeared at his side, pushing an empty cage, which they proceeded to use to bridge the gap. In quick order, they all scrambled over the divide and created the ladder again. Chuck picked up Eddie and hoisted him toward Nancy’s waiting wings. Unfortunately, Chuck didn’t account for the wind whipping against a bird in the air, and Eddie fell back into Chuck’s face. The two birds fell backwards onto the cage-bridge which wobbled precariously, but Chuck held on tight to the little chick, so no bird was lost.
Their second attempt yielded results, and before long all twenty-nine chickens huddled in the new car as Lester slammed the door behind them. Though the new car was no warmer than their chicken car, it was filled in two long floor-to-ceiling rows with boxes. Wasting no time, Lester and Tuck pecked and ripped a hole in one of the boxes to discover winter hats, gloves and scarves.
“Jackpot!” shouted Lester. While Nancy distributed the goods, Lester and Tuck continued to rip open box after box until everyone was outfitted in a colorful cap with a fluffy white ball on the end and wrapped securely in the folds of a woolen scarf.
Chuck happily noted the cessation of shivering among his crew. “Good work,” he told Lester.
“Onward?” the plucky thief asked, motioning to the forward door at the end of the row.
“I’m still hungy, Unca Chuck,” Eddie said, making sad chicken eyes at anyone who would look his way long enough to make eye contact.
“Onward,” Chuck agreed, and the process started all over again. Ladder, door, blast of cold air, cage, ladder, door.
Behind door number two, they discovered another car full of boxes. Upon inspection, these boxes were full of plastic items, packaged in even thicker plastic coverings. Although most chickens would attempt to peck anything, Chuck’s crew was smart and quickly pressed on. Only Tuck lagged behind in an attempt to liberate the mysterious items.
“Tuck, leave it,” Chuck called over the whipping wind.
“What if it is a cellphone?” Tuck hollered back.
“What are you going to do?” Chuck scoffed. “Call for a pizza delivery to the train?”
Without waiting for Tuck, Chuck scrambled across the cage into the next compartment. His brother could catch up when he was ready.
In car number four, Lester had hit the jackpot again: boxes of boxes.
“Boxes of boxes?” Chuck asked. “How is that the jackpot?”
“Because inside the smaller boxes are pumpkin spiced oats!” Lester said before scooping up a full mouthful from the growing pile of leaking boxes.
The entire car became a pandemonium of feathers, happy clucks, and flying oats. Before long, the entire flock lay spread-chicken on the floor, bellies full, heads warm, ready for a long winter’s nap.
“Don’t get comfortable,” Chuck told them, tilting his head to give them the stink eye. “We still need to escape from this train or come morning we will be back in our cages.”
No one stirred or even uttered a cluck.
“Is that what you want?” he asked, stretching his neck up high and bobbing from side to side.
Still no response. The entire flock was in an oat-coma.
Chuck scowled. He knew the remedy for that. He stomped over to the forward door, and using several boxes climbed up to the handle. With a self-satisfied cluck, Chuck opened the door and let the cold air blast them from their slumbers.
“Unca Chuck!” bellowed Daisy and Eddie as all the other birds squawked and ran for cover.
“Move out!” Chuck ordered and no complaints were filed. All twenty-nine chickens, including Tuck, whose hat seemed to lean heavily to the left, waddled over the gap to train car number five.
Cars five through eight contained more merchandise sealed in plastic, and the chickens quickly moved on. In car number nine, the boxes were full of plastic snow saucers, which Nancy noted might be useful in their escape.
“So noted,” Chuck told her. “Now, move out.”
Ladder, door, blast of cold air, cage, ladder… However, this time before the door to car number ten could be opened, Lester heard a sound that gave him pause.
“Chuck!” he called back. “Come listen to this!”
Chuck pressed his head against the door, but he didn’t hear anything. He gave Lester an odd glare. Lester motioned towards the window up top, so Chuck scaled the ladder to take a look inside. What he saw made him cook-a-doodle-doo with delight.
“Back to car number nine,” he told his friends. They all quickly returned to the car and closed the door.
“Jackpot!” Chuck clucked, strutting around in circles and doing his victory head strut.
“What did you see?” asked Lester.
“A car full of human passengers!” Chuck said continuing to strut. Lester, Tuck and Nancy all started strutting too.
“How does dat hep us, Unca Chuck?” Daisy asked.
“You see,” Nancy told her and the others. “We can create a stir in the human car. If we can freak out enough passengers, one of them will pull the emergency cord, causing the train to stop. Then in the commotion that will ensue, we slip off the train unnoticed and hide in the surrounding area.”
“Won’t dey come wooking for us?” Daisy and Eddie asked again.
“Trust me,” Lester practically snickered. “They won’t delay a whole train full of passengers for a few lost chickens.”
“All right, crew,” Chuck said, ending his strut and getting down to business. “Who wants to brave the humans to cause the ruckus?”
Several wings shot up. Willard and Judy were notorious rousers, so it was decided that with Lester’s help they would get the train stopped while everyone else prepared to jump train as soon as they reached a reasonable speed.
Once the door was opened, Willard, Judy and Lester slipped into the car and under the closest seat.
“Close that door!” someone hollered, and the door was quickly shut.
Willard moved up the right side of the train, while Judy made for the left. Lester stayed by the door, eyeing a small pooch in a purse two rows up. Willard found a traveler typing on a very expensive looking computer, and Judy prepared to surprise a woman applying eyeshadow in a deep shade of blue.
Willard gave the signal, a small guttural bok that would have been mistaken by anyone as a human clearing its throat, and the three agitators jumped into action. Judy leaped into the lap of the makeup artist, causing the girl to poke herself in the eye and scream a glass-shattering wail. The two ladies accompanying her swung wildly with their purses, trying to bat Judy away, but Judy was too quick for them causing their swings to miss the mark and hit nearby passengers instead.
Meanwhile, Willard jumped up onto the traveler’s keyboard, causing him to swear and jump to his feet. This threw Willard forward into the lap of an unsuspecting newspaper devotee, whose elbow knocked into the drink of the human on his left. Coffee flew into the aisle, splattering on the polished shoes of several important businessmen and society ladies.
Seizing the perfect moment, Lester leapt into the seat beside the pocket-pooch and began to peck its head. This added barking to the human shouts, curses and screams.
Willard and Judy fled under the seats back to Lester, and the three eagerly awaited the sudden jarring stop that would occur once someone pulled the emergency cord. However, the pandemonium continued, and no one pulled the cord. Desperate to not lose the moment, Willard started biting the ankles nearest to him, and Judy, quickly catching on to his plan, did the same. Once Lester joined in, passengers were falling left and right on top of other passengers until finally the make-up artist, still blinded by the stinging blue eyeshadow in her eye, fell and pulled the emergency stop.
The entire car full of people fell forward with a howl, and the three agitators took their chance to duck out the rear door.
On the platform, Willard, Judy and Lester met Chuck and Nancy who each stood ready with a plastic sled in hand. Lester looked down to see that the train was crossing the side of a mountain. A snowy drop of immeasurable distance stood between them and freedom.
“The good news is: if this works,” Nancy said. “They will never find us!”
Lester eyed the sleds and the drop. It looked smooth enough, and the sleds were brand new.
Before Lester could voice any concerns, Chuck called out: “It’s time!”
First Chuck, then Nancy, and then a procession of twenty-six other chickens wearing ski caps and scarves, jumped off the moving train and proceeded to sled down the steep slope below. Lester watched from above as Chuck swished left and right to avoid the trees. He heard the cackles of laughter from Judy and Nancy, and the squeals of Daisy and Eddie. Finally, Willard jumped, and only Lester remained.
He eyed his purple saucer warily, but when the passenger car door opened, he hesitated no longer and flung himself off the side of the train and into the snow. He landed with a hard thunk, but his fear helped him cling for life to his purple life raft. As he moved left and right, mimicking the movements of Chuck and the others before him, he thought better of all those pumpkin spice oats from earlier. He could feel them rising up in his throat, but he chewed them back, refusing to humiliate himself in front of the others.
After what seemed like an hour-long descent, the hillside flattened out and the snow thinned. Lester realized he was going to run out of snow on which to sled. A short distance to his left, he saw a group of chickens standing and motioning for him to do something. Lester, quickly gathering their meaning, bailed out of his sled and rolled to a stop. Shaking himself off and stretching his neck, he finally took in the scene of all the other chickens strutting and clucking, celebrating their victorious escape from the train.
Off to the side, Tuck stood playing with something in his wing.
“What are you doing, Tuck,” Lester asked.
Tuck turned around to show Lester the plastic phone he had liberated from car two. “I am trying to determine our location.”
“Uh, Tuck,” said Lester. “I don’t think that will just work straight out of the package.”
Tuck ignored Lester and continued to move around the forest searching for a signal. While Lester, Chuck and the others debated their next move, Tuck discovered something far more helpful than a signal. “Hey, Chuck,” he called. “I found our next move.”
The other chickens quickly waddled over to find Tuck standing in the stern of a motorboat. “Wanna ride?” he asked. The chicken’s desperate pushing and shoving to come aboard voiced their unanimous approval of Tuck’s plan.
“Where are we headed?” Lester asked Chuck.
“Downstream, of course,” Chuck told him as they motored away from the shore.
Back on the train, Tommy struggled to understand the various complaints of the passengers headed to California. Something about chickens and make-up and coffee. Why would chickens wear makeup and drink coffee? So much for his quiet ride. Without bothering to get the story straight, Tommy returned to the engine and put the train back into motion. As the train climbed out of the mountains into the valley below, he removed his parka, anticipating the warm air soon to come with their arrival into Salt Lake City. Gazing off into the distance, he spied a small boat moving down river and smiled. Boats were a much more peaceful way to travel than trains. He blew his whistle in salute and then sped off into the night.