The patrol around the rest of Ponyville’s borders went quickly enough, so it wasn’t long before Graves arrived at Fluttershy’s cottage. However, the usually quiet and tranquil atmosphere was disturbed by a combination of frantic cries and loud squawking.
“Elizabeak! Come back!” a visibly flustered Fluttershy cried out just as a mass of white feathers rocketed between Graves’s legs.
“Problems?” he asked, turning around to watch as the small chicken – the aforementioned Elizabeak, he presumed – scampered around the meadow to join several other freely roaming birds.
“Oh, good afternoon, Mr. Graves,” Fluttershy said with a little bow, “I’m so sorry but I really don’t have time to talk now.”
“What happened?” Graves asked, though he could probably guess the situation.
“It’s the chickens,” she answered with a frustrated little sigh. “I didn’t notice that there was a hole in the fencing, and when I woke up this morning, they were all loose.”
“So, you’ve been chasing chickens all morning,” the marshal asked, though it was more of a statement than a question, really.
“It just never seems to stop. When I do manage to catch one, it seems like it just get right back out.”
“You did patch the hole, right?”
The timid girl was about to answer, but paused and turned to look back at the chicken coop where her eyes widened in alarm: the hole was still there.
“Oh, pony feathers, no wonder they keep getting out,” Fluttershy huffed, even going as far as stamping a foot in irritation. The tiny puff of dust was clear indication that she didn’t stamp very hard.
“Need some help?” Graves asked in a low, gravelly rumble to make doubly sure that the chuckle threatening to break out never saw the light of day. Fluttershy was probably upset enough as it was without someone laughing at her silly, and quite endearing, mistake.
“Would you?” she replied with a smile of relief. “I would really appreciate that.”
“No problem,” the marshal nodded as he set his spell gun down. “Now let’s get to work.”
The hole actually wasn’t a very big issue. A corner of the wire mesh had simply peeled away, creating just enough space for the birds to get through: a little folding plus some fresh ties on the post, and the fence was as good as new. But once that little task was done, then came the hard part: actually getting the birds back in the coop.
Graves had seen some strange things in his day, but never had he come across anything quite devilishly tricksome as that flock of chickens: it was as if they were making a concerted effort to antagonize their captors. Just when Fluttershy and Graves were about to corner one chicken, another would run around their feet, pecking at their shoes and tripping them up just enough for its feathery brethren to run away. After twenty such instances of what could only be described as avian terrorist tactics, Graves seriously started thinking about bringing out his spell gun and blasting the little nuisances to kingdom come.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to resort to the big guns as Fluttershy soon caught one. Well, it was technically more like Graves was chasing one and the chicken happened to run into Fluttershy’s long skirt where it was quickly snagged up, but hey, a catch is a catch. Now with the discovery of this nifty little trick, the fowl liberation alliance soon crumbled. Graves would chase the chickens right into his quiet companion who would then use her long skirt to trap the offending escapee. In this way, they managed to round up the remaining birds and return them safely to their coop.
Finally finished, Graves and Fluttershy flopped down on the grass, heaving sighs of relief as they took a moment to catch their breaths.
“Didn’t know chickens were such hard work,” Graves said, taking his hat off and fanning himself with it. “How do you manage it?”
“It’s usually not this bad,” Fluttershy said with a smile that soon turned into a giggle. “Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun with the chickens before.”
“Fun?” the grey-eyed soldier asked incredulously, “With ornery poultry?”
“Oh no, they’re not like that,” Fluttershy remarked as eyes grew wide in alarm, probably from taking the marshal’s words a little too seriously. “I think they were just so excited to be able to run around like that that they turned it into a game of tag." Graves blinked.
“So, I was just playing tag with a bunch of chickens?” he asked in disbelief. When Fluttershy simply smiled at him, the marshal didn't know what to do except sigh and fall back to the ground with his hat now pulled low over his eyes.
“Well thank you very much for the help, Mr. Graves,” Fluttershy beamed as she stood and brushed a strand of cherry blossom hair from her face. “It was very nice of you.”
“Don’t mention it,” he replied, casually waving his hand from where he lay. It was pretty nice, just lying there in an open field and soaking up the afternoon sun. So nice, in fact, that he didn't notice that a certain demure young lady was working up the nerve for something truly daring.
“So, um, I was thinking…” Fluttershy began, her usual shy uncertainty returning as she absently scuffed at the ground where she stood. “Since the weather is so nice out, I thought i'd be nice to take Angel Bunny to visit some of the forest animals after we have afternoon tea, and… I was wondering if–”
Fluttershy's words abruptly cut off with a startled squeak as Graves shot up and peered at the sun. It was considerably farther down on the horizon than when he’d left Sweet Apple Acres, and the shadows were already beginning to lengthen as evening approached. If Fluttershy was already planning for an afternoon tea session, then once again, he had delayed far too long.
“Sorry Miss Fluttershy,” Graves called as he leaped to his feet and strode over to where his rifle lay. “Can’t help with any more animals today.”
“Oh? Are you sure?” she asked, her tone clearly surprised.
“Have to finish my rounds: got all of Ponyville to cover,” he grimaced. “I’ll, ah... stop by another time.”
“Oh. Well, alright then, have fun on your rounds.” Fluttershy smiled along with her words, but the expression faltered a tad even as she made her reply. With a tip of his hat, Graves turned and quickly trotting off.
As he left though, he mentally kicked himself for being so stupid. He’d spent too long picking apples, so he couldn’t help with the barn, and here, he’d spent too much time on the chickens so he couldn’t help with the animals. No wonder Fluttershy had the same look of disappointment that Applejack had on earlier.
This wasn’t how a marshal was supposed to behave. He was supposed to help the people, not offer a hand only to withdraw it at the last second. Frustration at his own ineptitude mounting, Graves picked up the pace as he practically ran towards the center of town. He was going to be helpful to these people, and properly. In the name of Celestia, he promised he would.