"I'm not afraid of you," MG said.
Saying it would probably have been more effective if she could have kept that slight tremor out of her voice. They both knew she was lying.
Robespierre regarded her with a malevolent black gaze, his head slightly to the side, as if he were weighing how best to approach her. Slowly, he stalked toward her across the expanse of dirt, his eyes fixed on hers.
"You're a bully," MG said, slightly louder. "Everybody knows that bullies are cowards deep down." She managed to hold her ground, but she rested one hand protectively on the wire fence.
Robespierre took another two stiff steps in her direction, black eyes glittering. He raised his head slightly.
"You think you can lead some kind of freaking rebellion here." She dropped her hands to her sides. "You know damn well I'm going to win. For one thing I'm three times bigger than you are."
Robespierre looked unimpressed. He continued his straight-legged prowl in her direction. In the wooden building behind him, the clucking seemed to increase. She could swear the damn hens were expressing solidarity with the nasty little twerp. Well, they'd probably rather have solidarity with him than with her--at least he didn't steal their eggs.
Hell, maybe he really was inspiring rebellion. Like a true revolutionary.
"Knock it off, you stupid chickens," she snapped, glancing briefly toward the few white shapes moving around the hen yard. "You know you don't really want to keep those eggs."
Robespierre gave a flick of his black tail feathers, his eyes glowing with malice. According to what she'd been able to glean from the Internet, leghorn roosters were more likely to attack other chickens than the people who approached them. Robespierre, however, had developed a deep loathing for her the first moment he'd seen her. For all she knew he'd had the same deep loathing for her grandfather, but frankly she doubted it. If Robespierre had tried pecking Harmon Carmody, the rooster would have been served up the following Sunday with browned potatoes and carrots.
Too bad she hadn't yet developed her grandfather's ability to dispatch a troublesome bird with a minimum of fuss.
"It's because you know I'm not good at this," she muttered. "You're taking advantage of me, you glorified feather duster."
The hens were still clucking in the background, scratching in the dirt around the entrance to the hen house. In all honesty, she wouldn't have known the difference between everyday sounds and chicken cheers for Robespierre. Either way, she was stalling and they both knew it. She had to start raiding the nest boxes in the hen house, or she'd end up with poopy eggs, broken eggs, or a new set of chicks, none of which she wanted.
"Beat it, fricassee," she snapped and advanced toward the hen house, leaving the back of her legs open to rooster attack. If she managed to move quickly, he might not have a clear shot.
In the yard, the hens were still making vaguely distressed sounds. Or vaguely disgruntled sounds. Vague sounds, anyway. Who the hell knew what constituted chicken emotions? They moved out of her way as she approached the door to the house.
The first few hens--Hens One through Eight, troopers all--had already moved off the nest boxes and out into the yard where they were industriously scratching in the dirt. MG moved quickly into the hen house. Some of the other hens were still on the roosts, but at least they'd moved off the boxes. She picked up the eggs and placed them in her basket, feeling, as she always did, like something out of Little House On the Prairie. As she reached for the next nest box, Hen Nine turned her head, clucking ominously.
MG sighed. She might not have been anywhere close to a chicken expert, but she knew exactly what that cluck signified. Just try it, smartass.
She moved closer to the nest box. Never show fear. Never show that you don't know what you're doing. Never show that you wish--oh, how you wish--that Grandpa was still waiting back in the house.
Hen Nine made a few decidedly threatening noises. MG took a deep breath and slid her hand under the plump, feathered body.
The pecks felt like somebody was jabbing at her with a not-particularly-sharp nail. "You stupid fowl," she muttered between her teeth. "You'd make great pillow stuffing. Keep that in mind." She jerked her hand back, careful to hold onto the egg as she did. Hen Nine rose halfway out of the box, flapping her wings as if she could take off.
MG staggered back, dropping the egg into her basket, then moved on to the next row of nest boxes. At least the hens were prolific. She'd managed to collect over two dozen eggs during the last few days. And she'd managed to sell most of them at the battered stand Grandpa had set up near the road in front, which gave her almost enough money to eat something other than eggs herself.
She glanced down at her arm. Fortunately, Hen Nine hadn't managed to break the skin, although she could see a few red dots where she'd apparently done her best. "Pillow stuffing," she muttered again as she stepped back through the hen house door.
Something squawked on her right and she glanced over her shoulder to see Robespierre advancing across the hen yard in her direction at a brisk clip, head down, wings flapping.
"Shit." She began to trot toward the gate to the chicken yard, careful not to trip with her basket of eggs. She could hear Robespierre's squawks issuing from somewhere to the left and increased her pace. "Come on, MG, move it," she muttered to herself. "If you're not faster than a freaking chicken, you deserve to have your legs pecked."
The rooster gave a cackle of triumph as she dove for the gate, fiddling frantically with the latch. Already she could feel the air from his wings. Any second, it would be accompanied by pecks around the ankles and, if she was really unlucky, a few scratches from those talons on his feet. "Shit, shit, shit."
"Allow me." The voice at her side was close to basso profundo.
MG started so violently she almost dropped the basket, which would have been a victory for Robespierre even if he hadn't caused it.
The man standing on the other side of the fence was massive. Or maybe he only seemed massive because he was blocking her path to freedom. His bald head shone with perspiration, along with his forehead and his biceps. Even his short beard and moustache looked damp. Now that she got a good look at him, she could see the sweat marks on his T-shirt stretching down his broad chest. Running shorts. New Balance shoes. Okay, that at least explained what the hell he was doing up and around this early in the morning, although how he came to be standing outside her chicken yard was still a bit of a mystery.
"Who are you?" she blurted.
He gave her a lazy grin. "Darlin' you're being attacked by a rooster. Does it really matter who's getting you out of there?"