Copyright notice: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and all others from the television show
Xena: Warrior Princess belong to Renaissance Pictures/StudiosUSA, and whatever other
powers that be in the Xenaverse; no infringement is intended. All other characters belong to
the authors and their imaginations; any resemblance to characters in the Xenaverse is
almost but not quite entirely not coincidental. Other Disclaimers: Subtext - only the slightest of innuendo in the Xena and Gabrielle
vignettes; none in the main story. This is the fifth Fable in the warrior chicken saga. Reading the earlier ones will make the
authors happy but is not necessary to understand this one. Please note the new address for feedback, comments, constructive criticism -
email@example.com Xena and Gabrielle were walking along a road; Xena was leading Argo by her reins. All
three were silent for the moment. Xena had an unaccustomed frown on her brow. She
gave a quick sideways look at her blonde companion, who had a quiet smile on her face.
The dark-haired warrior bit her lip. "I know; that was the first time we came across ambrosia," Xena said triumphantly. Gabrielle's smile got bigger. "Well, yes, but you can't just describe what happened. You
have to say the title of the adventure. That's why I call it Name that Scroll." Xena kicked a pebble that had made the mistake of being in her path. "If I guess which one
you described, that should count even if I don't know it's name. Besides you change the
names sometimes. How am I supposed to keep track of all of them?" She was almost
pouting, almost. Warriors don't pout, and anyone who says otherwise doesn't say it more
than once. "Ha!" the bard cried. "I finally came up with a game I can win. It's about time after all
those who-am-Is of yours that I can never guess. So do you give up?" Gabrielle was
practically dancing in the knowledge that she had finally beaten the Warrior Princess, even
if it was only a guessing game. Being a former warlord, Xena was reluctant to surrender under any circumstances. She
knew if she just thought harder she could come up with the name of that particular scroll.
Then she looked into the sparkling eyes of her partner. Suddenly it didn't matter any more
who won these guessing games. She smiled. "Yes, Gabrielle, I surrender. But only to you." Xena had to make a quick grab to keep the surprised winner from tripping over her own
feet. She had been walking backwards to better enjoy Xena's baffled look, and the sudden
smile and surrender by the invincible warrior had thrown her off balance. They stood in
the middle of the road for a few moments, just staring into each other's eyes. How long they would have stayed like that we will never know because Argo nudged
Xena's back to get her attention. Then she nodded her head down the road and whinnied
as if to say that all this standing around was not getting them any closer to their destination
where there were oats waiting for her. With the spell broken, both Xena and Gabrielle laughed. Xena reached up and rubbed
Argo's head. "Okay, girl, I get the message." They started walking again.
Copyright notice: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and all others from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess belong to Renaissance Pictures/StudiosUSA, and whatever other powers that be in the Xenaverse; no infringement is intended. All other characters belong to the authors and their imaginations; any resemblance to characters in the Xenaverse is almost but not quite entirely not coincidental.
Other Disclaimers: Subtext - only the slightest of innuendo in the Xena and Gabrielle vignettes; none in the main story.
This is the fifth Fable in the warrior chicken saga. Reading the earlier ones will make the authors happy but is not necessary to understand this one.
Please note the new address for feedback, comments, constructive criticism - firstname.lastname@example.org
Xena and Gabrielle were walking along a road; Xena was leading Argo by her reins. All three were silent for the moment. Xena had an unaccustomed frown on her brow. She gave a quick sideways look at her blonde companion, who had a quiet smile on her face. The dark-haired warrior bit her lip.
"I know; that was the first time we came across ambrosia," Xena said triumphantly.
Gabrielle's smile got bigger. "Well, yes, but you can't just describe what happened. You have to say the title of the adventure. That's why I call it Name that Scroll."
Xena kicked a pebble that had made the mistake of being in her path. "If I guess which one you described, that should count even if I don't know it's name. Besides you change the names sometimes. How am I supposed to keep track of all of them?" She was almost pouting, almost. Warriors don't pout, and anyone who says otherwise doesn't say it more than once.
"Ha!" the bard cried. "I finally came up with a game I can win. It's about time after all those who-am-Is of yours that I can never guess. So do you give up?" Gabrielle was practically dancing in the knowledge that she had finally beaten the Warrior Princess, even if it was only a guessing game.
Being a former warlord, Xena was reluctant to surrender under any circumstances. She knew if she just thought harder she could come up with the name of that particular scroll. Then she looked into the sparkling eyes of her partner. Suddenly it didn't matter any more who won these guessing games. She smiled.
"Yes, Gabrielle, I surrender. But only to you."
Xena had to make a quick grab to keep the surprised winner from tripping over her own feet. She had been walking backwards to better enjoy Xena's baffled look, and the sudden smile and surrender by the invincible warrior had thrown her off balance. They stood in the middle of the road for a few moments, just staring into each other's eyes.
How long they would have stayed like that we will never know because Argo nudged Xena's back to get her attention. Then she nodded her head down the road and whinnied as if to say that all this standing around was not getting them any closer to their destination where there were oats waiting for her.
With the spell broken, both Xena and Gabrielle laughed. Xena reached up and rubbed Argo's head. "Okay, girl, I get the message." They started walking again.
Billie had fully recovered from her too close encounter with berry juice and dancing chickens. For the most part she was enjoying her travels with Aquila, the dark-feathered warrior chicken, and Ergo, the former farm horse. She was learning things about the world and its inhabitants that she never would have if she had stayed home in the chicken coop.
The three companions were walking along a dusty road. As usual, Billie was exercising her lungs and her imagination. Ergo had a smile on her face as she listened to the yellow chick's voice. Aquila was only half-listening to her young friend; she was keeping half an ear peeled for any sounds of danger.
"This is such a beautiful day!" she exclaimed, and hopped a few steps in her joy. "Not like the last couple of days when it was dark and rainy and the thunder and lightning scared me a little even though I knew nothing bad could happen while we were all together and I'm glad we found a cave we could all get in and be dry my feathers just droop when I get wet and you didn't look very happy, Ergo, when you were getting rained on either." She paused for a second, not to breathe but to chuckle. "I'm sorry I laughed when you slipped in the mud pulling me into the cave, Aquila, but you should have seen your face!" The little chicken laughed, not realizing the danger she was in from the free-range chicken.
Ergo whinnied in amusement at the memory, then quickly looked off into the distance, not wanting to catch Aquila's eye. Aquila glared at the storyteller hopping beside her. But when Billie continued walking, totally oblivious to the threat next to her, Aquila realized that it was a waste of time being angry with Billie. She decided to save her glare for someone who could be intimidated by it. One lip twitched in what might generously be called a smile, and she said, "I'm glad I could make you laugh."
Billie started talking again. "I know it wasn't funny and I shouldn't have laughed but it had been such a lousy day with the rain and we had walked a long way and the thunder scared me and I just couldn't help it." She smiled and touched the dark chicken with her wing. "Am I forgiven?"
Aquila had suddenly stood up straight and was listening. "Yes, you're forgiven. Now be quiet for a minute; I think someone's following us."
When she heard this, Ergo stopped to listen, too. They heard what sounded like footsteps and an occasional hop.
"What is it?" Billie whispered.
"I don't know," Aquila said, quietly. "Let's hide in those bushes. We can see whoever it is when he comes around the bend in the road."
They got into their hiding place as quickly and quietly as they could. Then they all looked at the road, wondering who would be following them.
A few minutes later a dusty rabbit with a small bag over his shoulder limped into view. Every few steps he would hop on one leg, as if the other leg hurt to walk on.
Billie was both relieved that it wasn't any threat to them and concerned. "He looks like he could use some help," she whispered to Aquila.
"Yeah, he does," she replied. Stepping out of the bushes, she called to the rabbit. "Hi! Can we do something for you?" She kept one wing on the metal ring at her waist, just in case.
When he heard this voice out of the blue, the rabbit nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around to see who was talking to him. What he saw didn't reassure him much - a dark-feathered chicken who looked ready to attack. He thought to himself, 'First I hurt my foot, then I run into the free-range chicken. Could my day get any worse?' Aloud he stuttered, "No, no, I'm fine; don't trouble yourself. I'll just go on down da road, if dat's all right wit' youse." He smiled feebly.
Billie came hopping out from around Aquila. She smiled at the rabbit. "You look tired. It's late and we were going to make camp for the night why don't you stay with us and rest you'll feel better in the morning."
Aquila looked at Billie, then back at the rabbit. "Let's get farther away from the road. Ergo," she called over her shoulder, "we're going to make camp for the night." She turned and walked away from the road. Ergo followed her.
Billie went up to the rabbit. "C'mon, let me help you. How did you hurt your foot maybe Aquila can give you something for it she's good at fixing folks up. Where are you going maybe we can travel together for a while I've only been with Aquila a little while but we've already had lots of adventures but mostly we walk a lot. That's Aquila, the dark chicken, and the horse is Ergo and I'm Billie. What's your name?"
"T'anks," the rabbit said as he leaned on Billie and they followed the others. He had remembered that chickens don't eat rabbits, but he couldn't remember about horses. He wished now that he had paid more attention to all the boring things the older rabbits were always trying to teach him.
"What's your name?" Billie asked again. The rabbit was going to have to learn that she wouldn't be ignored.
"Oh, sorry. It's Hoplea."
By the time they arrived at the spot Aquila had picked out for their camp, Billie saw that Aquila already had everything set up and was getting out oats for Ergo and corn for their dinner. Billie called out, "Aquila, Ergo, this is Hoplea. He's our guest so don't try to scare him." She directed this at Aquila who got a 'who, me?' look on her face.
Billie got Hoplea settled comfortably, leaning his back against a log. Then she started to walk over to Aquila, but paused and turned back to the rabbit. "All we have are oats and corn; can you eat that?" Billie was a little hazy on the eating habits of other creatures, too.
Hoplea reached into his bag and brought out some carrots. "Dat's okay, I got my own food. T'anks for offerin'." He was relieved to realize that Ergo was content to eat oats and leave poor travelling rabbits alone.
Billie began eating the corn her dark-feathered companion had got out for her. She had a puzzled look on her face. Aquila was wondering what trouble Billie would get them into once she offered their help to the rabbit; she had been around her young friend long enough to know she had to help solve other's problems. Ergo was industriously eating her oats; she could read the signs, too, and they all pointed to another adventure. She figured she had better keep up her strength.
The silence was soon broken by the chatty chick. "Aquila, you need to take a look at Hoplea's foot maybe you can give him something to make it better it can't be good for him walking on it and why does he talk that way?"
"Why don't you ask him," Aquila replied to the last question.
Meanwhile Ergo had ambled over to get acquainted with their visitor. The wary rabbit looked up from his dinner of carrots when he saw the big horse coming toward him. He was slightly reassured when he saw that she was smiling.
"Hello," she said in greeting. "You look like you've been travelling quite a while. Are you going some place particular?" She paused, but before the rabbit could answer her eyes had wandered to his foot. "Aquila," the mare called over her shoulder, "come look at this foot."
Aquila came over to them, with Billie trailing along beside her. At her approach, Hoplea tried to make himself small. He had heard stories about Aquila, the free-range chicken; he didn't know that Billie was working hard to reform her. The dark chicken had a slight scowl on her face; after all, she had a reputation to maintain. When she stopped in front of the jackrabbit, she gave him a quick smile which unnerved him even more. Then she looked at the unlucky rabbit's foot.
"How did you hurt this?" she asked as she held it gently.
Hoplea shifted uncomfortably. "I wuz walkin' down dis path in da forest yesterday when I almost steps in a trap. I sees it and jumps back but it grazed my foot. I got somet'ing important to do so I couldn't stop and rest. But it sure has slowed me down."
Aquila looked around at the different bushes and trees in the area. She said abruptly, "I'll be back in a minute." She didn't have to add 'stay here;' she knew they would.
Billie hopped up to the rabbit and patted him on the back. "Don't worry Aquila will find something to make your foot well I guess you were lucky not to walk into that trap it must be really important whatever you have to do since you were walking on your hurt foot maybe we can help you ... can I ask you a question why do you talk that way I've never heard that kind of an accent before of course I haven't travelled as much as Aquila so I don't know everything like she does and I suppose folks in other places do talk differently from us and there's nothing wrong about that." She stopped talking to give Hoplea a chance to answer.
The poor rabbit was overwhelmed by the little chick's lung capacity. He just stared at her for a minute. Then he managed to say, "Whadda ya mean da way I talk. You're da one what don't have to stop for breath!"
Ergo laughed and stamped her feet at this remark.
Billie smiled absently at all this commotion. She had always considered her lung capacity as a good thing - she had managed to win all her arguments with her sister, after all. She politely asked the indignant rabbit again, "So why do you talk that way?"
"I don't know what you mean," he sounded defensive. Like all creatures, he thought everybody talked just like he did. "When I wuz a kid, I hung out wit' a bunch of Joisey cows. Dey all talk like dis; don't everybody?"
Before this linguistics discussion could get more muddled, Aquila returned from her natural pharmacy foray. She was carrying some leaves. When she stopped at the group, they could see that the leaves held some kind of moderately smelly goop. She started to smear the goop on the wounded foot.
Hoplea wrinkled his nose. "What is dat stuff. It stinks."
Aquila kept smearing it on the foot. "Of course it stinks; that's how you know it's good for you." She gave Hoplea another one of her unsettling smiles.
When Billie saw the smile and Hoplea's shiver, she poked Aquila in the back. "Don't do that; you're scaring him. Be friendly." She turned to the rabbit, "Aquila likes to try to intimidate folks and I know it's hard to believe sometimes but she's really nice."
The unmasked warrior chicken just grunted at this compliment. She wrapped the foot with leaves and stood up. "That should heal in a couple of days, but you'll have to stay off of it. No walking for a while."
Hoplea protested, "I can't sit around for a coupla days. Dere's somebody I got to find; I know he's in dis area somewheres but he could leave anytime. I gotta catch him."
Billie beamed at him, "Who are you looking for we can help you it's not like we have anything better to do."
"I knew it! As soon as I saw this limping rabbit I knew you were going to want to help him." Aquila was trying hard to look upset but not doing a very good job of it. The smile she wasn't able to keep off her face sort of gave her away.
Ergo softly nuzzled the resigned warrior. "We knew this was coming; that's the way Billie is - wanting to help others. Besides we haven't had an adventure in a while; it will be fun. You'll see."
Ergo was getting into the spirit of their travels, too. She had spent all her life as a farm horse, pulling wagons and hauling things.(1) But since she had teamed up with Aquila and Billie, she realized how boring that life had been and that she really enjoyed the more exciting life she was leading now. Even if she did do most of the walking.
Since Billie's offer of help was no surprise, the moody chicken decided to stop acting upset and get the most out of whatever the future held for them. She turned to the angry rabbit. "So who are you looking for and why?"
Hoplea looked around, not wanting to make eye contact with the intimidating chicken.
Aquila sighed. In the past she was pleased to see this reaction; but now that she was trying to help, it bothered her. "Look, I'm not going to hurt you. Obviously you've heard stories about me, but you can't believe everything you hear. I've heard some stories about me, too, and a lot of it is stuff I never did. You need to stay off that foot for a few days, so let us help you."
Billie chimed in, "We're good at helping folks we saved my family and freed a performing bear and helped a town get rid of a crooked mayor and met these really strange dancing chickens and it's been fun most of the time ... Aquila takes some getting to know her then you'll see she's really nice and just puts on a front of being tough and she does like helping folks but she'll never admit it." Her happy grin took in all of them.
The free-range chicken sighed again. She could see her reputation lying shattered at Billie's feet. Ergo just looked amused at the situation.
The hobbled rabbit took a deep breath. The little chicken was so innocent and open and she liked the dark chicken so maybe some of the stories he had heard weren't true. Anyway it didn't look like he had much choice; and whatever that smelly goop was, it did make his foot feel better.
"Okay," he began, "it's like dis. I came home for a visit, and my ma wuz all upset 'cause she had given her savings - all twenty-four carrots - to dis fast-talkin' squirrel character who said he represented Hawk Enterprises. He wuz sellin' retirement homes in some pyramids in Egypt. He told her it was hot and dry dere and would be good for her when she got tired of da winters here. She never did like da cold so she gave him her savings. Lots of her friends in da warren did too." He had to pause because telling the story always upset him. He was wise in the ways of the world but didn't understand how folks could take advantage and cheat others.
When Billie saw that he was getting mad, she gave him a brief hug. "What was wrong with it? It sounds like a good idea the winters here can be bad and when you get older you would like to be in a nice, warm climate didn't she like the pyramid?"
"Dat's just it," Hoplea said. "When nobody heard anyt'ing for a while, dey sent somebody to check it out. He found da pyramids but dey ain't retirement homes, at least not for live folks. And when dey tried to get in touch wit' da guy what sold dem, dere ain't any Hawk Enterprises. Anyways, when my ma told me about dis pyramid scheme, she wuz cryin' and it took me a while to unnerstand what she wuz talkin' about, I told her I would get her savings back for her. Nobody takes advantage of my ma and gets away wit' it!" He looked around defiantly.
Aquila had figured that it was something like this when the rabbit started to tell his tale. She had seen plenty of con games in her travels and had never liked the folks who did them. "How do you know the one you're looking for is in this area?"
Hoplea looked at her. The look on her face made him glad that she was on his side. "I talked wit' everybody he cheated at my ma's warren; den I tracked him - I'm good at dat. He'd hit all da warrens for a coupla miles. I found out who his boss is, some hawk. And I found out da hawk hangs out somewhere in dis area. Dat's da guy I want to get my paws on."
Billie was angry, too. She had led a sheltered life until she met Aquila and had her horizons expanded greatly. She didn't understand how folks could do mean things like cheat others out of their life savings. "Don't worry, Hoplea, we'll help you get your ma's carrots back." She gave him an encouraging smile. "Won't we, guys?" She looked at Aquila and Ergo. "It won't be that hard we can find out where this hawk lives and go and tell him he shouldn't cheat others and to give back what he stole that'll be easy for us right?"
Aquila and Ergo exchanged a look. The horse lost the contest to tell Billie some of the facts of life. "Uh, Billie," Ergo began hesitantly, "have you ever seen a hawk in action?"
"Once, when I was real little everybody was yelling that there was a hawk flying around but my mama shooed me and Liza - that's my little sister" she said this for Hoplea's benefit -"inside so I didn't see much why he's just a bird and we didn't have any trouble handling the crows and blue jays in Epah you can handle one hawk can't you Aquila?" Billie had complete confidence in her older friend.
Aquila smiled; she had hero-worship to live up to. "Yes, I could handle the hawk, but I think we should check out the situation first. There may be more than one to deal with; he may have a gang with him. Besides what we want is to get everybody's savings back and put him out of business. Isn't that right, Hoplea?"
The rabbit nodded. "Yeah, beating him up would feel good but I gotta get my ma's carrots back. She needs dem what wit' winter comin' on."
"We need a plan," Aquila was back in warrior chicken mode. "Until we know where the hawk lives, and if he has any followers with him, and where he keeps his loot," she smiled as she said this, "we really can't do anything. Tomorrow Ergo and I will scout around and find out as much as we can." She quickly held up a wing to stop Billie who was about to protest. "I need you to stay here with Hoplea, Billie. He has to rest his foot, and I don't want to leave him here alone. The hawk may know someone's looking for him, and he might come looking for whoever is after him. I don't want to take a chance. Okay?"
The little chick thought for a minute, then nodded her head. "I guess you're right but will you two be okay without me it could be dangerous."
"We'll be careful," Aquila managed to say without smiling. "Now we need to get some sleep." She moved to the other side of the clearing.
Ergo bent her head and smiled at their guest. "Don't worry, Aquila is not like the stories about her. And she will take care of the hawk somehow. Good night."
She walked up to Aquila and whispered, "Is that the real reason you want Billie to stay here tomorrow?"
Aquila gave the horse an expressionless look. "It's one reason."
"And the other reason?"
The warrior chicken relaxed slightly. "We both know it could be dangerous. I don't want her there until we know what we're up against. Don't tell her, though, or she'll come after us!" Aquila smiled.
Ergo nodded. "That's what I thought. Since we are going to have fun tomorrow, I had better get some sleep." She found a comfortable spot for the night.
Meanwhile, Billie had got Hoplea settled comfortably so he wouldn't hurt his foot in his sleep. She came over to where Aquila was already lying down and lay down beside her.
"Thank you for helping him; you'll be glad you did." She snuggled down and was immediately asleep.
Aquila stared up at the stars for several minutes, thinking of schemes to con the hawk.
The next morning Aquila and Ergo set out to find the hawk's lair, after making sure that Billie and Hoplea had everything they needed for the day. Billie had to assure her dark-feathered friend several times that they would be fine. This was the first time Aquila had left her young companion behind, and she was surprised at how protective she felt.
Based on what the jersey rabbit had told them and on the warrior chicken's extensive knowledge of natural history, they headed toward some nearby woods that seemed a likely hangout for a conning hawk. They stayed under cover most of the time since they wanted to see as much as they could without being seen themselves.
Once they were well into the woods, they began to see several squirrels all going in the same direction. The two trackers followed stealthily. Soon they saw the biggest nest either of them had ever seen high in a tree. In fact it looked like it extended across several trees, using the thick branches as walls. Aquila and Ergo exchanged looks; a frontal assault on the hawk was out.
When the group of squirrels came to the base of the center tree, they stopped and waited. Our silent watchers waited, too, to see what would happen next. A few minutes later they saw a large hawk gracefully swoop down from his perch and land in front of his helpers. Ergo and Aquila were too far away to hear what was said, but after several minutes the hawk smiled. He seemed pleased with the reports he was getting. He flew back up to his nest, and the hawk's helpers left in different directions.
Seeing that the show was over for the day, they cautiously backed out of their hiding place and started back to their camp. Once they were far enough away from the hawk's hideout, Ergo broke the silence.
"This isn't going to be easy. We can't just go in and knock heads. I don't see how that rabbit thought he was going to get his mother's carrots back. It is a good thing he ran into us; otherwise he would have ended up as dinner."
Aquila nodded thoughtfully. "We'll have to come up with some scheme to get everybody's savings back and put Hawk Enterprises out of business. Let me think."
They walked for several minutes in silence. At least they were silent, but some other creature wasn't. A sound of snapping twigs and lumbering footsteps kept getting closer. Our intrepid heroes stopped and waited to see what was approaching. Suddenly a big brown bear burst into view. Aquila quickly snatched her metal ring and held it ready; Ergo shied and looked for an escape route.
"Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya!" the bear called with a big grin on his face. "Am I glad to see some friendly faces." Either the bear had very bad eyesight or he was willfully deceiving himself. Aquila had her most intimidating look on, and Ergo had turned pale. "Maybe you can tell me the way out of these woods. I'm not from around here, and I don't know about you but I always get turned around in the woods. It's all these trees; they all look alike."
Aquila realized the bear was no threat to them; she put her ring back on the belt at her waist. She looked up at the bear. "What kind of a bear are you that gets lost in the woods?"
"I'm a travelling bear, selling whatever is popular at the moment. But the folks that live in woods are hard sells so I avoid them as much as possible. The folks that live in open country are better customers."
When he mentioned his occupation, both Aquila and Ergo went on the alert again.
"You don't happen to work for a hawk, do you?" Aquila asked quietly.
Something about her tone seemed to unsettle the bear. He lost some of his jauntiness. "The hawk? I've heard about him, but I wouldn't work for him. I'm strictly legitimate in all my business dealings. You can ask any of my many satisfied customers. Later."
Ergo entered the conversation. "We're glad to hear that because we're going to put that bird out of business."
"And you're going to help us," the warrior chicken said, with a sweet smile that didn't fool anybody.
The bear was not happy at this turn of events. "What do you mean? The only reason I'm even in these woods is I'm on my way to my sister's place; it's over that way, I think." He waved one paw in a vaguely southerly direction. "That hawk is bad news. I think we should just avoid him."
"You do want to get out of these woods, don't you?" Aquila asked.
The defeated bear nodded.
"Good. Let's go back to camp and make some plans. Ergo, stay behind our friend to make sure he doesn't get lost." She turned and headed out of the woods.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, Billie and the rabbit were getting better acquainted.
"How's your foot today?" Billie asked, as she hopped around straightening things up.
Hoplea wiggled his injured foot. "It feels a lot better. Whatever dat smelly stuff is, it woiks. My ma'll never believe it when I tell her dat Aquila, da free-range chicken, fixed my foot and helped get her savings back."
Billie frowned a little when she heard how he talked about her friend. Of course, she was still having a little trouble understanding everything he said. "Why won't she believe you? Aquila helps folks all the time ... she acts tough but she's really nice once you get to know her of course she's not the easiest chicken to get to know I still don't understand all her moods but she helped me when I got lost ... I know folks say she did bad things in her past, but I don't think they know what they're talking about because if she was bad she wouldn't help folks now, would she?"
Hoplea had tried several times to break into Billie's verbal flow; he hadn't learned that you just had to let her wind down. When she finally paused, he said "I'd heard she'd changed, but I didn't believe it. All I knew about da free-range chicken wuz what everybody knew, and some o' da stories ain't very pretty."
Billie was skeptical. "Parents probably made them up to get their children to behave. Let me tell you about what we've done since I teamed up with Aquila and Ergo."
When Aquila and Ergo returned to their camp with their reluctant helper, they heard Billie finishing up telling about how they had saved her family and the other chickens. The little chick looked up happily when she saw them coming back. Hoplea, who had been revising his opinion of the notorious free-range chicken, began to smile in welcome until he saw who they had with them.
"Look out, it's a bear!" he yelled as he started to get up to make a run for it. He did know something about the eating habits of bears.
"Relax," the dark-feathered chicken said, "we brought him along to help us. Besides I don't think he's much of a threat to anybody."
Billie had grabbed the frightened rabbit who had not been able to move very fast on his injured foot. "Don't worry; if Aquila says it's okay, it's okay besides bears are friendly once you get to know them. So introduce us, Aquila." Billie never gave up in her attempts to instill some social graces in her friend.
Aquila looked blank for a second; then she turned to the bear. "What's your name?"
Billie frowned; it looked like her work was cut out for her. She walked over to the bear, giving the dark chicken a slight poke in the back as she passed her; she held out a wing to him. "Hi, my name is Billie, and that's Ergo behind you and Hoplea is the limping rabbit and that," she waved a wing in her direction, "is Aquila." Her tone implied that the name was apology enough.
Aquila looked on, expressionlessly. She couldn't tell Billie that the reason she never asked folks' names was that then she would have to tell them hers; and conversation and acquaintance always died at that point. Except with Billie; she smiled when she remembered that.
The big brown bear was slightly confused by this odd bunch of animals he had gotten mixed up with. He figured he was disoriented by being lost in the woods and would be his old self again once he got out in the open. He got a big smile on his face as he reached a paw down to shake the yellow chicken's wing. You never know, she might want to buy something from him someday.
"Hi y, hi ya, hi ya! My name is Falstaff. Anything you want to buy, just let me know, and I'll get it for you. And for special friends of Aquila, there is always a good discount." He winked at her.
Ergo muttered, "Yeah, you'll only charge twice as much instead of three times."
The bear tried to look righteous when he heard this comment but didn't quite make it.
"So what did you guys find out?" Billie asked. "Hoplea and I had a good time talking and getting to know each other he's travelled all over, maybe even more than you, Aquila, and he was telling me about these high mountains he saw that had snow on them even in the summer I'd like to see that do you think we could go there sometime maybe when we need a rest from having adventures."
Aquila and Ergo had learned, and Hoplea was fast learning, that you couldn't let yourself get sidetracked by all the topics Billie could cram into one sentence.
Since Aquila was still being stoic over her failure to be the gracious hostess, Ergo told how they had followed the squirrels to the hawk's hideout. "It is the biggest nest I've ever seen. The main part is high up in an oak tree, but it looks like it spreads into a couple of trees on either side. There's no way for any of us to get close to it," she finished, hoping she didn't sound too discouraging. She knew they were going to do something to help the rabbit, no matter what the odds against them.
Aquila said with a sneer, "Hawks! They always go in for promiscuous fortification."
When they heard this, the others all acted stunned -- like they had walked into a wall they didn't know was there. Aquila seemed unaware of this reaction as she walked over to the rabbit to see how his foot was healing. Hoplea was the first to recover.
"You sure do know some big woids," was all he could get out.
The warrior chicken shrugged. Folks always assumed that fighters didn't have any brains. She said to Hoplea, "Your foot is healing nicely; you should be able to walk normally in another day or two." She turned to the others. "Now we have to come up with a plan to put that hawk out of business and get folks' savings back. Any ideas, Falstaff? This is why I brought you along, you know about selling folks things they don't really want."
"That's not quite how I'd phrase it," the bear protested. "Besides I only sell quality goods; folks get their money's worth. I still think we should just leave the hawk alone."
"I can't do dat," Hoplea said forcefully. Since nobody else seemed afraid of the bear, he guessed he was harmless. "I gotta get my ma's carrots back; she'll need 'em to get t'rough da winter."
Billie patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. "We'll come up with a plan, won't we, Aquila?"
The intimidating chicken turned to look at the bear. "Tell me, Falstaff, what is a con game based on? And don't tell me your business is legitimate and you don't know."
"Okay, okay. I've never done it myself, but I've seen it done by others." He shuffled his feet for a minute while he thought. "It's based on greed; offering folks a lot if they give you the little they have. You don't get much from any one person, but if you do it to enough folks, it all adds up."
Ergo said eagerly, "Then the one doing the con is greedy, too. Maybe we can appeal to the hawk's greed; offer him so much that he'll give us his loot in order to get it."
"But what do we have to offer him?" Billie asked.
Hoplea chimed in, "Yeah, he's da one wit all da loot. It would hafta be somet'ing really big to get him to hand it over to us."
They all found comfortable spots to sit while they tried to think of what they could offer the hawk. A glum silence reigned in the clearing for some time. Even Billie was thinking too hard to feel like talking.
After a while, the bear's mind and then his eyes began wandering. He looked at each of his new companions. He wondered how such an odd assortment of creatures had ever come together as friends. Then he looked around their campsite and saw the half-empty bags of grain. He stared at them for a minute; then his brain began to function with the glimmering of an idea. He jumped up, startling the others.
"What's in those bags?" he asked excitedly.
"Oats and corn," Aquila said shortly. She didn't want to admit that she had been startled by the bear's sudden activity, too. "Why?"
"I'm beginning to get an idea," Falstaff said. "What do you think of this?" They all gathered around him while he explained his idea.
It took them several hours of talk and arguing to decide on all the details and on who would do what. Aquila wanted to keep Billie out of it, and Billie wanted to be in the middle of everything. It was decided that the little chick, being the young, innocent type she was, would be the best one to lure the hawk into their trap. Aquila privately resolved not to let her friend out of her sight.
Aquila and Falstaff went off to find a suitable spot for their plan. They found a place where the trees made a natural shelter. Then the dark chicken led the bear back to camp; he had got turned around again, being confused by all the trees.
They got everything ready for their big con the next day.
Everyone got up early the next morning. Even Billie was too excited to be able to sleep late. Falstaff put the bags of grain on Ergo's back. Then Hoplea got on top of the bags; his foot was still tender, and he would have to walk some later as part of their plan. Then the band of amateur con artists set off.
When they got to the spot picked out the day before by Aquila and the bear, they got busy setting everything up. Then they all went over their roles one more time to make sure everybody knew what to do. It had been decided that since the hawk might recognize the warrior chicken her part would be to watch from hiding in case the hawk tried any funny business. What Billie didn't know was that Aquila had every intention of following her while she did her bit of acting.
Once they had everything ready, Billie and Hoplea left in different directions in order to meet "accidentally" under the hawk's nest.
"Gosh, this is fun," the yellow chick exclaimed. She couldn't leave without a few parting words. "Even more fun than Epah I didn't get a chance to tell you about that, Hoplea, well we'd better go so we can take care of that hawk you guys be careful we'll see you back at camp." She waved a cheery wing as she hopped away. The rabbit just shook his head and left.
Aquila waited a minute then started to follow Billie. The bear was surprised. "I thought you were going to hide and keep an eye on the hawk."
The black-feathered chicken muttered, "I am," as she followed her friend.
A while later the hawk, from his treetop lair, saw a yellow ball walking along the forest path. He thought to himself, 'it's not much but at least it's an appetizer.' He took off and began slowly circling. Then he noticed a rabbit hopping on the path toward the chick. He smiled; that's more like it - dinner. He saw the two meet and begin talking. The little appetizer was waving her wings and seemed very excited about something. He decided to get closer and overhear what she was saying. Maybe he could turn it to his advantage. If he knew a sucker when he saw one, the tidbit was certainly a prize sucker, he thought.
"Is he close enough to hear?" Billie whispered. The rabbit nodded eagerly, keeping up his part. Billie continued louder, "... yes he just put a few kernels of corn in his magic box said some words I couldn't understand but he said it was Assyrian or maybe Persian he talked fast and I didn't catch everything he said then he opened the box and it was full of corn it was a miracle! I'm going home to tell all my family and neighbors about it and bring more corn so he can do his magic and none of us will ever be hungry again isn't it wonderful!!"
Hoplea acted impressed. "Do ya t'ink it would woik wit' carrots or lettuce? Maybe I should check it out; where'd ya say dis magician is?"
Billie had seen the hawk circling closer while they were talking. She said, "I don't see why it wouldn't work with carrots as well as corn they're all food he might have to say different words for carrots anyway you just follow this path back that way and when you come to a big branch beside the path you'll see a clearing he's on the other side of the clearing it's a bear who does the magic and he has a horse helper the bear said all he wants is to help folks so they'll have enough food."
The hawk had heard enough. He smelled a clever con, and he intended to cut himself in on it. He decided that dinner could wait.
Billie and Hoplea waited until the hawk flew away, then they laughed and congratulated each other on their good performances. "I hope the others do as good as we did," Billie said as they went back to their campsite, the rendezvous point.
Aquila had been watching quietly. When she saw the hawk leave and Billie and Hoplea going back to camp, she made a beeline for the site of the next scene in the drama.
While Billie and Hoplea were playing their part and getting the hawk's attention, Falstaff, the travelling salesbear, was trying to initiate Ergo into the ways of the con artist. He found it hard going. The faded gold horse wasn't a fast enough talker, in the bear's opinion.
"Why do I need to talk so fast?" Ergo asked plaintively. "Folks can't understand you if you talk too fast. Look at Billie; I never know more than about half of what she talks about."
The brown bear sighed. "Ah, the little, innocent chick. If I weren't strictly legit - ask any of my satisfied customers - she would make a great con artist's apprentice. The whole point is not to give folks a chance to figure out what you're really talking about. If they did, they'd never 'invest' in your scheme." He patted Ergo on her back. "Just let me do the talking, and you stand around and look as intimidating as you can. Try to imitate that other chicken."
They were both startled by the sound of a throat clearing. They looked in that direction and saw the other chicken glaring at them. But all she said was, "The hawk should be here any minute. Act busy."
Falstaff hurriedly went over to the magic box they had rigged up and began fiddling with it. Ergo stood nearby, practising looking fierce. In a few minutes they saw the hawk circling, checking out the situation. Then he gracefully landed on the box, right in front of the bear, who jumped back surprised.
Getting his breath quickly, Falstaff started his spiel. "Welcome, my friend," he boomed. "What can we do for you? Are you interested in increasing your stores of food for the winter at little or no cost? Well, you've come to the right place because with a very small, a very, very small investment you can assure yourself of a bountiful supply of food for months to come ..."
"Can it," the hawk interrupted abuptly. Hearing the bear's speech confirmed his idea that they were operating a con game. And in his territory, too! "I'm not one of your suckers. In fact, if you don't tell me all about your little game, I'll put you out of business." The hawk looked down his beak at the suddenly nervous bear.
Falstaff's nervousness was only half acting. He knew they should have steered clear of the hawk. He hoped Aquila wouldn't wait too long before going into action.
Seeing the spokesbear of their team wasn't responding to this threat, Ergo managed to say, "Suckers? I don't know what you mean. We only want to do good and help folks, isn't that right?" she nudged the bear in the back.
"Yes, that's right!" Falstaff put an ingratiating smile on his face. "I studied for years in the mysterious east to learn how to take a little food or grain and increase it fifty fold, and now I and my companion travel the world helping those less fortunate," he finished piously.
The hawk held up a wing. "Stop trying to con me. I can smell a con game a mile away. Just tell me how you work it, and I'll let you keep maybe one percent of the take. Oh, by the way, I'm The Hawk; you may have heard of me?"
Ergo and Falstaff looked at each other, acting their roles of found-out crooks. They looked scared. Falstaff turned back to the menacing bird, bowing. "Yes, Mr. Hawk, we had no idea you were in the area. We'll be happy to share our enterprise with you, won't we?" he glanced at Ergo who nodded sycophantically. "And one percent, that's very generous of you. Thank you, thank you."
The hawk was getting impatient. "Okay, okay, just tell me how you work it. And don't be so long-winded!"
Eager to please, Falstaff began talking. "About a week ago my friend and I were resting behind some bushes when this farm cart goes by on the road. There was a hole in the road and one wheel hit it and a couple of sacks of grain fell off. The farmer didn't notice and kept on going. So we picked them up to keep them safe, you know? We ate our fill for a couple of days. Then we got to thinking that it wouldn't last forever and we'd be back where we were before. So we came up with this idea. Here, let me show you how the box works."
The hawk politely moved away from the box, but stayed where he could see everything that happened. Falstaff pulled up the lid.
"You see, we made a false bottom. We put a few pieces of grain here. I close the lid and say some magic words. Then when I open it, I pull up here and you see the box full of grain. We figured to get enough folks in one area to give us their food and we'd tell them we would do our magic the next day. Then leave before they found out." The bear was getting more enthusiastic as he talked. "We were trying it here, but we didn't know this was your territory, Mr. Hawk. We hope you won't be offended."
The hawk smiled. "I'm not offended. In fact, I'll help you increase my profits. I have a lot of food stored. We can get folks to give us more than just grain. And with my organization, which you two have just joined, I can really clean up." He rubbed his wings in anticipation. "There's a rabbit on his way here; we'll need some carrots to fool him."
"But we don't have any carrots," Falstaff protested.
"I told you, I have plenty." The hawk looked penetratingly at his new recruits. What he saw pleased him. The bear was scared and wouldn't dare cross him. And the horse. She looked big and dumb; she would do whatever her friend the bear told her to do. "Go to my nest. It's that way," he waved a wing, "you can't miss it. At the base of the left tree, brush away the sticks and leaves. You'll see a board; pull it up and go into my storage room. Bring back a basket of carrots; the horse can carry them. Then you can do your 'magic' and fool this rabbit. He'll get all his family to invest, and you know how big rabbit's families are. And this is only the start." He grinned. "Hurry up. That dumb rabbit could be here any time now."
Falstaff nodded. "We'll be back as soon as we can. And thank you for letting us join your organization."
Ergo just barely managed to keep a triumphant smile off her face as they left the confident hawk.
Once they were back on the path and moving briskly, Aquila joined them from her hiding place. "We have to move fast and get his storage area cleaned out before he knows he's been taken," the bear said, nervously.
Ergo whinnied calmly, "Don't worry; we have everything under control. Right, Aquila?"
Not bothering to answer, Aquila said, "Ergo, get to our camp and pick up Billie and dat rabbit - gods! now he has me talking that way - and bring them as fast as you can to the hawk's nest. Falstaff and I will be there doing some housecleaning. Go!" Ergo took off at a gallop for their campsite.
The warrior chicken led the way to the hawk's tree; the open-country bear kept mumbling about how all the trees looked alike and how could folks find their way and he couldn't wait to get out of the woods.
They found the storage area without any problem. It was filled with different grains - oats, wheat, corn, barley; carrots, celery, lettuce, apples, and bales of hay. They looked around, amazed at how much loot had been accumulated.
"How are we going to carry all this?" the bear yelped.
Aquila muttered, "I'll think of something." She had no idea how they were going to manage and hoped that inspiration would strike soon.
Just then Billie came bouncing in, beaming happily. "Hi, guys, everything's worked out great hasn't it we sure fooled that greedy hawk Hoplea and I make a great team too gosh there's so much food here," she paused for a second while she looked around. "Maybe we can use that horse and wagon we saw behind the hawk's tree."
Aquila stared at her for a moment, realizing that her inspiration was standing in front of her. "Horse and wagon?"
Billie nodded, "Yes, we almost walked into them Ergo's talking to him now trying to convince him to leave the hawk and help us but he's afraid that's why he's stayed he doesn't like what he has seen the hawk do and he'd like to leave maybe you should talk to him, Aquila, and tell him you'll protect him that might work."
Before anybody could leave, Hoplea limped in. "Hurry up, youse guys, we gotta get outta here before dat boird wises up dat he's been had. Ergo talked dat horse into helpin' us. Let's get movin'." And he grabbed a bunch of carrots and headed out the door.
The others looked at each other. Sometimes miracles do happen. They all grabbed something and went outside. A nervous horse and wagon were standing in front of the entrance; Ergo was talking softly to him. When the others came out, she stopped talking and looked at them. "My friend has agreed to help us. I told him all about how Aquila, the warrior chicken, helps and protects folks and that she wouldn't let anything bad happen to him." She looked meaningfully at the black-feathered chicken.
Aquila sighed quietly. Between Billie and Ergo her reputation as a fearsome fighter would soon be in tatters. "Don't worry about the hawk; I'll take care of him if he tries anything," she reassured the horse. "Now we have to hurry and get everything loaded and get away from here."
With all of them working as fast as they could, they soon had the wagon loaded. Hoplea, Billie, and Aquila got on the wagon, and they left quickly. Once they were far enough away, Aquila called a halt.
"This is where we split up," she said. "Hoplea, you take the wagon; you'll need it to carry the carrots back to your mother and the others."
"What about all this other stuff? We can't let it go to waste," Falstaff bleated.
Billie piped up, "Maybe Hoplea can give it to other animals on his way home there must be lots of folks who can use extra food this winter especially if the hawk cheated them like he did Hoplea's mother it's only fair they get some of this food."
"Dat's a good idea," the rabbit agreed. "And I'll tell everybody I see about da hawk's schemes so dey don't fall for no pyramid retirement homes or magic food makers. We gotta make sure he stays out of business for good." He looked at Billie and Aquila who were getting ready to jump off the wagon. "I don't know what to say except t'anks for all your help. Wait 'til I tell my ma and everybody dat it wuz da free-range chicken what got dere savings back. It's good to know dere's someone who helps folks in trouble."
Billie reached out a wing and shook his paw. "We were glad to help and it was fun fooling that hawk maybe he'll learn something from this and not cheat folks anymore." Billie was always an optimist.
Aquila was trying to salvage some of her warrior reputation. "No need to thank us; but tell your mother to be more careful in the future."
"Yeah, everybody isn't good like us," Billie put a wing around the warrior chicken's shoulders.
At this point Ergo cleared her throat. "You know, we left all our grain back at that clearing. Could we maybe take some of this to replace it?" She looked hopefully at Aquila.
Hoplea said eagerly, "Take all you want; it's yours as much as anybody's."
They took a sack each of corn and oats and put them on Ergo. Then they all said good-bye to each other and Hoplea left with the horse and wagon.
Falstaff was shuffling his feet. "Well, it's been a real pleasure helping you. If you ever need help with a plan again, find someone else. Now I think I'll be on my way to my sister's; I haven't seen her in a while, and my nephew just got back recently from travelling as a performing bear."
"A performing bear! What's his name?" Billie said quickly.
Aquila closed her eyes; she knew what was coming.
The bear had already taken a couple of steps, and he stopped to answer Billie's question. "Joleo. Why?"
"Aquila, Ergo, didja hear?" She said to Falstaff, "We rescued him! What a coincidence I'd like to see him again he's my friend can we go with Falstaff and visit Joleo for a little while it's not like we have anything important to do right now so can we huh?"
Ergo was grinning, "Sure, why not. I'd like to see him again, too."
They all looked at Aquila, who had opened her eyes. Her beak twitched a little when she saw Billie's eager expression. "If we're going to visit, we'd better get moving."
Billie was walking beside Falstaff. "Let me tell you about how we rescued Joleo it all started when we were taking it easy in this meadow with all sorts of pretty flowers ..."
Aquila wondered again if all of this socializing was really necessary.
Xena was sharpening her sword, even though she hadn't had to use it for a day or two, it being an unusually quiet (boring is the word she would have used) period for the two companions. You can never have too sharp a sword, the warrior said to herself. She cast an occasional glance at her reddish-blonde (or is it blondish-red; she could never decide) partner.
Gabrielle was industriously writing on her latest scroll. She was concentrating so hard that she didn't notice when Xena put her sword and whetstone away and stood up. The writer jumped a little when she became aware of a looming presence looking over her shoulder. She quickly covered her writing and looked up.
"Hi, Xena," she said a little too brightly. "All finished sharpening your sword? Not that it really needed it, but it can never be too sharp, right?"
In her most innocent manner, the great former warlord asked, "What story are you working on? I didn't see any name at the top."
"That's because I haven't given it a name yet," the author said, with a little smirk. "Sometimes the right name for a story doesn't come to me until I've finished writing it. Then I can see what the central theme is and capture it in the title." She had a superior air as she explained the writer's craft to her less literary friend.
"Yeah, whatever. You just don't want me knowing its name so you can win the name that scroll game you made up." Xena went over and started arranging her bedroll. She wasn't sulking. She most definitely was not sulking.
She was trying to think of some way to find out the title of Gabrielle's latest scroll. This would require some sneakiness on her part, not that that would be hard for her. Maybe when Gabrielle was bathing in the lake she could get a peek at her scroll? No, that wouldn't work because they bathed together and neither wanted to be the first to leave. Rats. She would have to think of something else.
Gabrielle had a wicked grin on her face as she carefully put her scroll away in her carrying bag. It wasn't often she got the better of the warrior princess. She went to her bedroll, which just happened to be right next to Xena's. She lay down, making sure her bag with its precious scroll was safely out of reach of her long-armed partner. She rubbed Xena's back for a few minutes. Xena had turned her back to show that she didn't care what Gabrielle called any of her stories.
"Mmmm, that feels good," came a mumble from the warrior.
Gabrielle continued rubbing. After another couple of minutes, Xena stirred and turned to face her.
"Now let me take care of you," Xena said.
(1) [Historical note - the horse collar hadn't been invented yet so horses didn't plow; oxen did that. Just one of the things I learned and remembered from my liberal arts education. And people say a liberal education doesn't prepare you for the real world - HA!]