A mud fight and the

Adobe Chicken Mansion

“I ordered some Cochins yesterday,” Mom announced at breakfast one morning. “They’ll be here in about a week. Since you boys have finished the fencing, would you mind building me a small brooder coop for the Cochins?” Mom asked, in Will’s direction.

“What’s a Cochin?” Daniel asked me quietly, to avoid interrupting Will.

Daniel had spent most of the last week out in the pasture with the boys, finishing the fences. I’d only seen him at meal times and in the evening.

“It’s a kind of chicken. They sit on eggs and raise chicks.”

“And they’re so cute and fluffy!” Susanna added. Will was talking and I wanted to listen.

“ . . . adobe bricks,” he was saying. “I’m thinking about building with them someday. But I’d like to make something small for my test project. If those Cochins can wait a few weeks, I’ll just make them a makeshift brooder in the barn for now and we’ll work on making them an adobe mansion in the meantime. Would that be all right?”

“Sure!” Mom said. “That would be great. It would keep the chicks warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And it would be beautiful, I’m sure.”

After clean up and dishes, Susanna and I hurried to the shop where we found Will just finishing a frame for making the adobes. Jake and Daniel were not there. Will put in the last screw and then turned the frame around and held it out for us to look at.

“They’re typically a 10 x 14 inch rectangle and 4 inches thick.” Will told us, “But for the chicken coop, we don’t need the walls to be 10 inches thick.”

“What size are these?” I asked, sticking my hand through one of the holes in the frame.

“6x10,” Will said, shouldering the frame and heading for the door.

“Aren’t you supposed to grease it?” I asked, lifting a container of motor oil from the floor near the door.

“Right. But outside. How did you know that?” Will questioned, angling the frame through the door. Sue and I followed him out.

“I don’t know . . . maybe I read it.” I handed the oil to Will and started helping him rub the oil on the inside of each frame. The sun was hot and bright on my back and I was glad I decided to wear shorts and a T-shirt today.

“Why are you oiling it?” Susanna asked.

“It keeps the mud from sticking to the frame,” Will explained, “And helps the bricks slide out.”

“Oh. Where are the boys?” Susanna asked, and I was glad she had asked so I didn’t have to.

“They’re getting the sand and clay for the adobe. We’re going to make the bricks over near the gate, where we’ll be making the new coop. That way, we don’t have to carry them when they’re done.” Will stood up and turned his frame over and began to oil the other side.

I was counting the spaces. His frame would allow us to make twenty bricks at a time. Jake came around the corner of the shop with a shovel over his shoulder.

“How much do we need?” he shouted, as though we were still a mile away from him. Will pulled a ragged handkerchief out of his back pocket and started wiping his hands clean and then tossed the kerchief to me.

“Just a couple of buckets of each will be enough for today. We have to make some test bricks first to see what kind of mix we’re going to need,” Will answered.

Daniel came around the corner behind Jake and winked at us as he silently put a large clump of dirt on the upturned scoop of Jake’s shovel, which was still propped on Jake’s shoulder. Then he continued to walk up next to Jake, smiling innocently as he came.

Jake turned to glance at Daniel and inadvertently pulled downward on the handle of his shovel. As he did so, the clump of dirt rolled forward and off of the shovel blade, landing on his head.

“Wha-a-at the—!” he exclaimed, shaking his head to get the dirt out of his hair.

“You forgot to knock the dirt off your shovel, man,” Daniel said, with a perfectly straight face.

“Yeah.” Jake gave a suspicious scowl that darted from Daniel to Susanna, who was laughing too hard.

“Sue,” Will interjected, before Jake could get really riled, “would you pull the hose over to the chicken coop for us please and turn the water on a low trickle for me? And Jake, would you go grab a wheelbarrow load of loose straw from the barn, please?”

Jake and Susanna both trotted away obligingly to fulfill Will’s requests and I found myself walking beside Daniel as we followed Will around the shop. He grinned at me slyly to see if I had appreciated his joke on Jake.

“If he knew you did that, you’d be dodging dirt clods for the rest of the day,” I told him.

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know,” Daniel chuckled.

“Sue will tell him,” I said.

“No I won’t!” Susanna exclaimed, coming around the corner, dragging the hose.

“Won’t what?” asked Jake, arriving a few seconds behind her with the straw.

“Let’s focus, guys,” Will said, preempting a fight. “I need two of you to take your shoes off and mix the mud with your feet while I add the clay and sand until it looks right.”

“What! We get to play in the mud?” Daniel exclaimed, pulling off one boot while hopping around on the other foot. Will had two muck tubs near the metal gate to the lower pasture and was putting water in them.

“Sue, I want you to add the straw when I tell you.” He looked at Jake and I knew Will was thinking that having Jake in the mud was not a good idea. “Jake,” he continued, “you can help me actually make the bricks.”

“Okay,” Jake appeared satisfied that he’d scored the most important job. He put his boots back on and leaned against the gate to wait. I took off my sandals and approached one of the tubs. They were about three or four times as big around as a five gallon bucket and a little deeper.

“I want yours to be half sand and half clay,” Will said, shoveling sand into the water in my tub and then clay. “Go ahead and get in and mix it with your feet. I’ll add more clay and sand in a minute.” He turned and started shoveling clay and sand into Daniel’s tub as I gingerly stepped into the muddy water and started stepping up and down, smashing the clumps of clay with my feet.

“Your mix is going to be two parts sand to one part clay,” Will was saying to Daniel as he finished rolling up his jeans. “And I suspect your mix is the one we’ll end up going with, so I’m going to put a little more in yours, Daniel.”

“Why are you doing two different mixes?” Daniel asked, stepping into his tub and starting to tread the mixture. We both held onto the gate and I realized that was exactly why Will had put the tubs there. It would have been hard to keep my balance with my feet stuck down in the gooey clay.

“I don’t know for sure how sandy our sand is, or if our clay is pure clay. If a brick has too much sand, it will crumble and if it has too much clay, it will crack when it dries. I need the right ratio of sand to clay in order to get a good brick. So we’re going to make two different batches, let them dry and then run them through some tests to find out which mix is closest to the perfect clay and sand ratio.”

“What’s the straw for?” Susanna asked, looking down into my tub as Will added another shovel full of sand.

“It increases the tensile strength of the mud by holding it together.” Will explained as he turned to add more clay and sand to Daniel’s tub.

I looked over at Daniel, who was just a couple feet away from me, hanging onto the gate. He grinned at me and for a moment, his expression was so much like Jake’s I caught my breath in surprise.

“Wanna have a mud fight?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows up and down.

“No way,” Will and I said, at the exact same moment.

“You owe me a Coke,” I said to Will.

“After we’re done, I’ll owe you all a Coke.” Will agreed. “Thanks for helping me out with this experiment.”

“Hey! That doesn’t sound healthy,” Daniel said in a reproving voice.

“True,” Will grimaced. “But, I was referring to our refreshing, flavor-bursting, fantastic, home-brewed root beer.”

“Will,” I interrupted, “mine is getting pretty thick. How thick do you want it?”

“Thicker than that.” Will said, adding a shovel full of clay and another of sand. “But it’s getting close. Once you mix that in, Susanna can throw in some straw.”

“How’s mine?” Daniel asked, and Will went over to inspect Daniel’s mud mixture.

I bent over to break up some hard chunks of clay with my hands. It was tempting to smear some mud on Daniel’s back but I restrained myself, knowing the mud fight that would surely follow would leave Will’s experiment short on adobe mud.

“I’m ready for the straw,” I told Susanna and she sprinkled the straw around my legs on top of the mud. I smashed it in and she added more. The straw made the mud get thicker and stiffer and some of the biggest pieces of straw poked my legs and feet as I smashed them into the mud.

“Yours looks ready,” Will announced, scooping a handful of mud out of my tub.

“How can you tell?” I asked, slowly pulling one leg at a time out of the tub.

“Well, I don’t know for sure but it looks pretty good. Here’s what you’re supposed to do. . . ” Will said, shaping a ball of mud into a foot long rope as thick as my arm. He held one end of it, letting the other dangle. To my surprise, the rope of adobe mud did not break. He shook it from side to side and still, it did not break.

“Yours has a lot of clay in it. Probably too much,” Will said, as he broke off part of the mud and began to roll it into a ball the size of a grapefruit. I scooped out some mud and started making a ball of my own. There were a few pieces of straw sticking out of it but it was mostly mud. Will held his ball up shoulder height and let it drop to the ground. The ball did not splatter or break when it hit the ground, it just flattened a little.

“Pretty good,” Will commented. “Okay Jake, you can take Mona’s mud and smash it into the brick molds on one end of the frame. Try to make sure there are no air pockets.”

Will bent over to check Daniel’s mixture again. Daniel’s tub had more mud in it than mine and I could tell by his slow treading that it was harder to mix than my tub of mud had been. Susanna started adding straw to his mixture while I rinsed my legs off with the water hose. It was amazing how well the adobe mud stuck to my legs. It was hard to get it all off.

I wandered over to look at Jake’s work. Will had laid the frame on a tarp under the shade of a tree where the ground was fairly flat and smooth. T-Rex and Miner were laying down in the shade next to the frame watching us work.

“Wouldn’t they dry faster in the sun?” I asked.

“Too fast,” Jake replied, sternly and with authority. “If they dry too fast, they’ll crack.” Then he admitted, “I just asked Will the same question.”

Daniel’s tub was ready for the frame as well and he was rinsing his legs off with the hose. I watched Will scoop out a pile of mud and carry it over to the frame where he threw it forcefully into one of the molds. Jake exclaimed and jumped away as Will laughed.

“I’m getting all the air out and making sure the mud goes into the corners,” Will explained, and went back for more mud.

I felt water sprinkling down on my head and wheeled around to see Daniel absorbed in scrubbing the mud off of his legs. His expression was entirely innocent but I had seen it before.

“You never look innocent except when you’re not,” I told him.

“Huh? What?” he said, blinking at me with a puckered, questioning brow. I laughed.

“Can I have the hose for a sec?” I asked, holding out my hand, mimicking his innocent expression.

“Uh. . .” Daniel hesitated, holding on to the hose a little tighter as I reached for it. He started to laugh as I grabbed the hose. Then he turned the end of it toward me but I put the palm of my hand halfway over the flow, directing the spray back at him.

“Hey!” he shouted, and wrenched the hose away.

Suddenly a large, wet clump of adobe hit him right in the chest and stuck there like knot on a tree trunk. We stopped fighting over the water hose and turned around to see Will standing near the adobe tubs, making another ball of mud.

“Will!” I exclaimed, in sheer amazement.

“We had more than enough,” Will explained sheepishly. “All the forms are full.”

Daniel and Jake were staring at Will in surprise but their lack of action didn’t last long. Within seconds, Will found himself matched against all four of us and the last few inches of adobe mud in the bottom of the tubs was gone. Jake got a clump stuck to his butt when he leaned over the tub and Will nailed him. I escaped mud-free.

“You look too clean,” Will said, glancing over at me when we’d stopped fighting and were all sagging against the gate to catch our breath. He reached out and patted my face before I knew what he was doing. The result was an adobe handprint on my cheek.

“Nice petraglyph,” Daniel commented.

“Petraglyphs are pictures on stone,” I corrected.

“Handprint on a stone maiden,” Daniel replied blandly and added, “How long until the bricks are done drying?”

“In this weather—just a couple of days,” Will answered, “Then we’ll run our tests and start making the bricks we’ll use to make the brooder coop. Let’s clean up and I’ll make a journey down to the cellar to retrieve those root beers I owe you.”