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Title: Chicken Little Jane on the Big John
Author: Ritchie, Lily Munsell
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Chicken Little Jane on the Big John" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.

JOHN***


CHICKEN LITTLE JANE ON THE BIG JOHN


[Illustration: Came half way across and held out his hand.]


CHICKEN LITTLE JANE

by

LILY MUNSELL RITCHIE



New York
Britton Publishing Company

Copyright, 1919, by Britton Publishing Company, Inc.

Made in U. S. A.

All rights reserved.



CONTENTS

   CHAPTER                                         PAGE
         I  With Huz and Baby Jill in the Pasture    11
        II  Harking Back To Centerville              27
       III  Chicken Little Pays a Visit              43
        IV  A Cherry Penance                         62
         V  The Guests Arrive                        81
        VI  A Hunting Party                         100
       VII  Pigs                                    123
      VIII  A Party and a Picnic                    141
        IX  Bread and Polliwogs                     161
         X  Supper at the Captain's                 179
        XI  Calico and Company                      195
       XII Dick and Alice Go On Alone               215
      XIII Chicken Little and Ernest                238
       XIV Off to Annapolis                         255
        XV School                                   273
       XVI The Prairie Fire                         295
      XVII The Lost Oyster Supper                   315
     XVIII An April Fool Frolic                     338
       XIX Sherm Hears Bad News                     355
        XX The Captain Finds His Own                373



CHAPTER I

WITH HUZ AND BABY JILL IN THE PASTURE


"Chicken Little--Chicken Little!"

Mrs. Morton's face was flushed with the heat. She was frying doughnuts
over a hot stove and had been calling Chicken Little at intervals for
the past ten minutes. Providence did not seem to have designed Mrs.
Morton for frying doughnuts. She was very sensitive to heat and had
little taste for cooking. She had laid aside her silks and laces on
coming to the ranch, but the poise and dignity that come from years of
gentle living were still hers. Her formal manner always seemed a trifle
out of place in the old farm kitchen. On this particular morning she was
both annoyed and indignant.

"She is the most provoking child!" she exclaimed in exasperation as Dr.
Morton stepped into the kitchen.

"Provoking--who?--Chicken Little? What's the matter now?"

"That child is a perfect fly-away. I can no more lay my hands on her
when I need her than I could on a flea. She is off to the pasture, or
out watching the men plow, or trotting away, no one knows where, with
the two pups. And the worst of it is you encourage her in it, Father.
You forget she is thirteen years old--almost a woman in size! She is too
old to be such a tomboy. She should be spending her time on her music
and sewing, or learning to cook--now that school's out for the summer."

Dr. Morton laughed.

"Oh, let up on the music for a year or two, Mother. Chicken Little's
developing finely. She's a first rate little cook already. You couldn't
have prepared a better breakfast yourself than she gave us that morning
you were sick. You don't realize how much she does help you, and as to
running about the farm, that will be the making of her. She is growing
tall and strong and rosy. You don't want to make her into an old woman."

"It is all very well to talk, Father, but I intend to have my only
daughter an accomplished lady, and I think you ought to help me. She is
too old to be wasting her time this way. But have you any idea where she
is? I want to send her over to Benton's after eggs. I have used all mine
up for settings, and I can't make the custard pies you are so fond of,
till I get some."

Dr. Morton laughed again.

"Yes, I have an exact idea where she is. Set your kettle back on the
stove a moment and come and see."

Mrs. Morton followed him, leaving her doughnuts rather reluctantly.
Ranch life had proved full of hardships to her. The hardships had been
intensified because it was almost impossible to secure competent
servants, or, indeed, servants of any kind. The farmer's daughters were
proud--too proud to work in a neighbor's kitchen even if they went
shabby or, as often happened among the poorer ones, barefoot, for lack
of the money they might easily have earned. Mrs. Morton was not a strong
woman and the unaccustomed drudgery was telling on her health and
spirits. Dr. Morton, on the other hand, enjoyed the open-air life and
the freedom from conventional dress and other hampering niceties.

Mrs. Morton followed her husband through the long dining room and little
hall to the square parlor beyond. He stopped in the doorway and motioned
her to come quietly. Jane sat curled up in a big chair with two fat,
limp collie pups fast asleep in her lap. She was so lost in a book that
she scarcely seemed to breathe in the minute or two they stood and
watched her.

"Well, I declare, why didn't she answer me when I called?"

"Chicken Little," Dr. Morton called softly. Chicken Little read placidly
on.

"Chicken Little,"--a little louder. Still no response.

"Chicken Little," her father raised his voice. Chicken Little never
batted an eyelash. One of the dogs looked up with an inquiring
expression, but apparently satisfying himself that he was not to be
disturbed, dozed off again.

"Chicken Little--Chick-en Lit-tle!"

"Ye-es," the girl came to life enough to reply absently. Dr. Morton
turned to his wife with a triumphant grin.

"Now, do you see why she didn't answer? She is several thousand miles
and some hundreds of years away, and she can't get back in a
hurry--blest be the concentration of childhood!"

"What is it she's reading?"

"Kennilworth. Amy Robsart is probably waiting for Leicester at this
identical moment. Why return to prosaic errands and eggs when you can
revel in a world of romance so easily?"

"Father, you will ruin that child with your indulgence!"

Mrs. Morton walked deliberately across the room and removed the book
from her daughter's hands.

Jane came to herself with a start.

"Why, Mother!"

"How many times have I told you, little daughter, that there is to be no
novel-reading until your work and your practising are both done? Here I
have been calling you for several minutes and you don't heed any more
than if you were miles away. I shall put this book away till evening.
Come, I want you to go over to Benton's and get me four dozen eggs."

Jane got up inwardly protesting, and in so doing, tumbled the two
surprised and grumbling pups upon the floor. She didn't mind doing the
errand. She was unusually willing to be helpful though often very
heedless about noticing that help was needed.

"Can I go by the pasture, Father? It's a lot shorter than round by the
road."

"Yes, I think it's perfectly safe. There are only about thirty head of
steers there now, and they won't pay any attention to you. Well, I must
be off. Do you want anything from town, Mother?"

"Yes, I have a list."

"Get it ready, will you, while I go across and see what Marian's
commissions are."

"Across" meant across the road to the white cottage where Frank and
Marian and their beloved baby daughter, Jill, lived. Little Jill was two
and a half years old and everybody's pet, from Jim Bart, the hired man,
to "Anjen," which was Jilly's rendering of Auntie Jane. Even Huz and
Buz, the two collie pups, followed her about adoringly, licking her
hands and face when opportunity offered, to her great indignation.

"Do way, Huz, do way, Buz," was frequently heard, followed by a wail if
their attentions persisted.

The family watched Dr. Morton drive away in the spring wagon down the
long tree-bordered lane. When he was out of sight, Jane picked up the
egg basket and started off toward the pasture gate.

"Where are you going, Chicken Little?" Marian called after her.

"To Benton's for eggs."

"To Benton's? Let me see, that's less than a quarter of a mile, isn't
it? I wonder if you'd mind taking Jilly along. She could walk that far
if you'd go slow, and it's such a lovely day, I'd like to have her out
in the sunshine--and I'm horribly busy this morning."

"Of course, I'll take her. Come on, Jilly, you lump of sweetness, we'll
pick some pretty flowers. You aren't in a great hurry for the eggs, are
you, Mother?"

"Oh, if you get back by eleven it will be all right. I have to finish
the doughnuts and do several other things before I will be ready for the
pies."

"That's a whole hour--we can get back easy in an hour--can't we,
Jilly-Dilly?"

Marian in spite of her busy morning watched them till they entered the
pasture, the sturdy little baby figure pattering along importantly
beside the tall slim girl.

"How fast they're both growing," she thought. "Jane's always so sweet
with Jilly--I feel safe when she's with her."

"O Jane," she called a moment later, "I wouldn't take the pups along if
you are going through the pasture. The cattle don't like small dogs."

Huz and Buz, after lazily watching the children walk off, had apparently
decided to join them, and were bringing up the rear a few yards behind.
They were fat, rollicking pups, too young and clumsy to be very firm on
their legs as yet. Jane turned round and ordered the rascals home.
Marian called them back also, and after deliberating a moment
uncertainly, they obeyed. They were encouraged to make a choice by a
small stick Chicken Little hurled at them.

"Go on," said Marian, "I'll see that they don't follow you."

She coaxed the dogs round to the back of the house and saw them greedily
lapping a saucer of milk before she went back to her work.

Buz settled down contentedly in the sunshine after the repast was over,
but Huz, who was more adventurous, hadn't forgotten that his beloved
Jane and Jilly were starting off some place without him. He gave the
saucer a parting lick around its outer edge to make sure he wasn't
missing anything, then watched the kitchen door for some fifty seconds
with ears perked up, to see whether any further refreshments or commands
might be expected from that quarter. Marian was singing gaily about her
work in a remote part of the cottage, and Huz presently trotted off
round the corner of the house after the children.

They had gone some distance into the pasture, but he tagged along as
fast as his wobbling legs would carry him, whining occasionally because
he was getting tired and felt lonesome so far behind. Huz had never gone
out into the world alone before.

Jane and Jilly were enjoying themselves. It was late May and the
prairies were billowy with soft waving grasses and gaily tinted with
myriads of wild flowers.

"Aren't they lovely, Jilly?"

Chicken Little filled one tiny moist hand with bright blossoms.

"And see, dear, here's a sensitive plant! Look close and see what the
baby leaves do when Anjen touches them. See, they all lie down close to
the mamma stem--isn't that funny?. Now watch, after a little they'll all
open up again. Here's another. Jilly, touch this one."

Jilly poked out one fat finger doubtfully, and after some coaxing, gave
the pert green leaves a quick dab. They drooped and the child laughed
gleefully.

"Do, Mamma, 'eaves do, Mamma!" she shouted. She insisted on touching
every spray in sight. So absorbed were they in this pretty sport they
did not notice that a group of steers off to the right had lifted their
heads from their grazing and were looking in their direction. Neither
did they see a small black and white pup, whose pink ribbon of a tongue
was lolling out of his mouth as he, panting from his unusual exertions,
approached them.

Huz had been game. Having set out to come, he had come, but Huz was
intuitive. He realized in his doggish consciousness that he wasn't
wanted and he deemed it wise not to make his presence known.

While Chicken Little and Jilly loitered, he stretched himself out for a
much-needed rest, keeping one eye on them and the other on the grazing
steers, who stopped frequently to cast curious glances at the intruders.

Presently the children walked on and Huz softly pattered along a few
paces in the rear. All went well until they came abreast of the steers.
Chicken Little was amazed to see the foremost one lift his head, then
start slowly toward them.

"Oh, dear," she thought, "perhaps he thinks we've got salt for him."

Huz saw the movement, too, and some instinct of his shepherd blood
asserted itself. He evidently considered the approach of the steer
menacing and felt it his duty to interfere. With a sharp little staccato
bark he dashed off in the direction of the herd as fast as his fat legs
would carry him. His dash had much the effect of a pebble thrown into a
pool, which gradually sets the whole surface of the water in motion. One
by one the steers stopped grazing and faced in his direction, snuffing
and hesitant. Huz yapped and continued to approach them boldly.

Chicken Little saw the culprit with a shiver of dismay.

"O Huz--you rascal! Oh, dear, and cattle hate a little dog! Come back
here, Huz--Huz! Huz--shut up, you scamp!"

But Huz, like many misguided human beings, thought he saw his duty and
was doing it, regardless of possible consequences. He heeded Chicken
Little to the extent of stopping in his tracks but persisted in his
sharp yapping. The nearest steer began to move toward him, the others,
one by one, gradually following.

Chicken Little was frightened, though at first, only for poor foolish
little Huz.

"Oh, they'll kill him if he doesn't stop! He can't drive cattle, the
silly goose! Huz! Huz! Come here! Hush up!"

Huz retreated slowly as the steers approached. The many pairs of hostile
eyes and the long horns pointed in his direction were beginning to
strike terror into his doggish heart, but his nerve was still good and
he barked to the limit of his lungs.

The steers came on faster.

Jane's breath grew quick and short as she watched them. The children
were too far from either fence to escape the steers by flight. Even if
she were alone, she could not hope to outrun them, and with Jilly, the
case would be hopeless. There was only one thing to be done. She had
seen enough of cattle during the past three years to know exactly what
that was--she must drive them back. Putting Jilly behind her, she
gathered up some loose stones and commenced to hurl them at the
advancing steers.

"Hi there! Hi, hi!" she yelled fiercely, starting toward them
brandishing her arms. The cattle paused, wavered, might have turned, but
Huz, being thus reinforced, barked lustily again. The steers edged
forward as if fascinated by this small, noisy object.

"Huz, Huz, why can't you be still?"

Gathering up Jilly in her arms and bidding her hold tight and be very
quiet, Chicken Little started on the run to Huz and speedily cuffed him
into silence. But the steers were still curious and resentful. As she
started to walk on, with Huz slinking crestfallen at her heels, the
cattle moved after them.

"I'll have to get him out of sight!"

She picked him up by the scruff of his neck and put him into Jilly's
chubby arms.

"Here, Honey, you hold Huz, and slap him hard if he barks. Bad Huz to
bark!"

Jilly hugged the dog tight. "Huz bark, Jilly sap," she remarked
complacently.

The cattle stopped when the dog disappeared from the ground. Chicken
Little started toward them carrying her double burden and yelling "Hi,
hi!" until they gave back a little. She persisted until she succeeded in
heading them away from the road. Then she started on across the pasture
still carrying Jilly and Huz, afraid to set either of them down lest
they should attract the cattle.

But the herd's curiosity had been thoroughly aroused. They were uneasy,
and by the time Chicken Little had walked a hundred yards further on,
they had faced toward her again and stood with heads up and tails
waving, watching her. She began to walk rapidly, not daring to run lest
she should give out under the child's weight. Another twenty yards and
the steers were following slowly after her. She quickened her pace; the
herd also came faster. Chicken Little knew cattle were often stampeded
by mere trifles. Jilly, seeing the bristling horns approaching,
commenced to whimper.

"Do home, Anjen, do home--Jilly's 'faid!"

Jane soothed the child in a voice that was fast growing shaky with
terror. "I mustn't get scared and lose my head," she argued with
herself. "Father says that's the worst thing you can do in danger. I
must keep them back! Marian trusted me with Jilly--I must be brave!"

Turning resolutely she confronted the herd, yelling and waving till with
great exertion she headed them about once more. This time she gained a
couple of hundred yards before they followed. Jilly, peeping fearfully
over her shoulder, gave her warning. When she looked back and saw those
thirty pair of sharp horns turned again in their direction, the girl
gave a sob of despair.

There was not another human being in sight.

The soft, undulating green of the prairie seemed to sweep around them
like a sea. Jane looked up into the warm, blue sky overhead and prayed
out loud.

"O Lord, please keep them back. I'm doing the best I can, God,
but--but--it's so far to the fence! I truly am, Lord, and Jilly's so
little!" "Hi there, hi, hi! Yes, Jilly, yes, course Anjen'll take care
of you!"

Her panic-stricken tones were hardly reassuring, the child wailed
louder, casting frightened glances at the steers, then burying her face
on Jane's shoulder. The cattle were approaching on the trot, their great
bodies swinging and jostling beneath that thicket of horns as the
animals in the rear pushed and crowded against the leaders. The steady
thud of their hoofs seemed to shake the ground rhythmically. Jilly could
hear even when she couldn't see, and clung convulsively to Anjen with
one arm while the other squeezed tight the chastened Huz. Chicken Little
sent up a last petition, as gathering up her remaining shreds of
courage, she charged once more.

"O God, please, please, help a little!"

She never knew exactly what happened after that. Jilly was past all
control. She was screaming steadily but her anguished howls were almost
providential for they helped out Jane's weakening shouts. Again and
again Jane turned the steers, her voice growing fainter and hoarser. The
cattle seemed to gather impetus with each rush--the distance between
them was fast lessening and the beasts became more and more unruly about
going back. But in some miraculous way she kept them off until Mr.
Benton, plowing in a field near the fence, was attracted by Jilly's
screams and rushed to their rescue. Driving away the steers, he lifted
Jilly and Huz from Chicken Little's aching arms, and took them all in to
his wife to be comforted.

It was some little time before Chicken Little could give the Benton's an
intelligible account of what had excited the steers. Mr. Benton's
astonishment was unbounded.

"Well, Chicken Little, I'll never say another word 'bout city folks
being skeery. You ain't so bad for a tenderfoot. How'd you know enough
to face them that way instead of running? If you'd run they'd trampled
you all into mince meat! Steers are the terablist critters!"

Chicken Little was too shaky to answer with anything but a smile.

Mrs. Benton refreshed them with milk and cookies and after the children
had recovered from their fright, Mr. Benton drove them home.

Frank came to lift Jilly from the buggy and Mr. Benton related their
adventure with a relish.

"Clean grit, that sister of yours!" he ended. "She never even let go of
that plaguey dog. The tears was a streamin' down her face and I low
she'd pray one minute and let out a yell at them blasted steers the
next."

The tears stood in Frank's eyes as he hugged both Jane and Jilly close
after Mr. Benton drove away.

"I'll never forget this, little sister."

"Why, Frank, it was the only thing I could do. Marian trusted Jilly to
me and I couldn't let poor little Huz be killed!"

Huz evidently approved this last sentiment, for he gambolled around the
group, doing his doggish best to please.

Chicken Little's modesty, however, was destined to be short-lived. By
the time her mother and Marian and Ernest had all praised and made much
of her exploit, she felt herself a real heroine. She was a natural-born
dreamer, and she spent the remainder of the day in misty visions of
wondrous adventures in which she always played the leading part.



CHAPTER II

HARKING BACK TO CENTERVILLE


Mrs. Morton was sitting by the dining room window one afternoon about a
week later, busily knitting.

"Here comes Father, Jane. Run out and get the mail. There should be a
letter from Alice telling about the wedding and when they are coming."

"Oh, I do hope there is!" Chicken Little flew out the door and down the
path to the road where Father was unloading bundles before he drove on
to the stables.

"From Alice? Yes, and one from Katy and Gertie, and three for Marian.
She's the popular lady this time." Dr. Morton handed out the treasures.

"Hurry, Mother," Chicken Little fairly wriggled with eagerness as she
tossed the letters into her mother's lap.

"Don't be so impatient, child! Little ladies should cultivate repose of
manner. Where are my spectacles? I was sure I laid them on the desk."

Mrs. Morton was peering around anxiously on desk and table and mantel,
when Chicken Little suddenly began to laugh.

"On your head, Mumsey, on your head! Hurry up and read the letter--I
just can't wait."

Her mother carefully unfolded the sheets and read them to herself
deliberately before satisfying Jane's curiosity.

"They are not coming until the last of June," she said finally. "Dick
has an important case set for the tenth and they would have to make a
hurried trip if they came before that, so they have settled down in the
old home till the law suit is over. Then they are coming for a nice long
visit. Alice says if Dick wins the case they are going clear to San
Francisco, but if he doesn't, they'll go only as far as Denver. Oh,
here's a note for you, Chicken Little, from Dick. And Alice says,
perhaps they'll bring Katy and Gertie with them, if it is convenient for
us to entertain so many, and leave them here while they go on out West.
Dear me, I don't know! Gertie hasn't been very well, it seems, and Mrs.
Halford is anxious to have her go to the country somewhere. Why,
child----"

Jane had paused with Dick's cherished note half-opened to skip and jump
deliriously till she was almost breathless.

"O Mother, wouldn't that be glorious? You could put another bed in my
room, and, maybe, they'd stay all summer. Oh, goody-goody, goody, goody,
goody!"

Dr. Morton coming in, caught her in the midst of her war dance and gave
her a resounding kiss.

"Here, Mother, where did you get this teetotum? We might sell her for a
mechanical top--warranted perpetual motion. When the legs give out, the
tongue still wags."

"I don't care, Father, Katy and Gertie are coming. I just can't wait!"

Jane hugged her father and did her best to spin his two hundred pounds
avoirdupois around with her.

When she had sobered down a little she remarked doubtfully: "But,
Mother, Katy and Gertie didn't say a single word about coming, in their
letter."

"Probably Mrs. Halford hasn't told them. She would naturally write to me
first, to find out if it is perfectly convenient for us before she
roused their expectations. I presume Alice's letter is only a
suggestion, and if I reply to it favorably, Mrs. Halford will write. I
shall think it over."

"Think it over? Why, Mother, you're going to ask them to come, aren't
you?" Chicken Little's eyes were big with pained surprise.

"My dear, I think it likely that I shall invite them--it would be good
for you to have companions of your own class once more. But it will mean
a great deal of extra work, and unless I can get someone to help me, I
do not see how I can manage it."

"Mother, I'll help, and Katy and Gertie won't mind washing dishes."

"Now, little daughter, we will let the matter rest for a day or two.
Don't you want to hear about Alice's wedding?"

"Read it aloud, Mother Morton." It was Marian speaking. She was standing
in the door with Jilly fresh and rosey from a long nap.

Mrs. Morton looked up.

"Jilly doesn't seem any the worse for her bump this morning, does she?"

"No, that's the blessed thing about children, they get over things so
easily. By the way, Father, Frank told me to tell you that he had taken
Ernest with him over to the Captain's after a load of hay. They'll
probably have supper there and be late getting home--that is if Captain
Clarke asks them to stay--he is such a queer old duck."

"He doesn't seem very neighborly, according to reports. I've found him
pleasant the few times I have met him," said Dr. Morton, "but let's have
Alice's letter."

Mrs. Morton adjusted her spectacles and began to read.

"Dear, Dear Mrs. Morton:

"If we could only have had all the Morton family, great and small,
present, the Harding-Fletcher Nuptials, as Dick insists upon calling our
wedding--he quotes from the Cincinnati paper--would have been absolutely
perfect. Uncle Joseph and Aunt Clara couldn't have done more for me if I
had been their very own. Aunt Clara insisted upon having the big church
wedding, which I fear your quiet taste would not approve, but it was
very lovely. And I do think the atmosphere of a big church and the
beautiful music are wonderfully impressive. Dick says it's the proper
thing to tie the bridal knot with all the kinks you can invent--it makes
it more secure. He said it was miles from the vestry to the chancel and
his knees got mighty wobbly before he arrived, but after thinking it
over, he concluded I was worth the walk--the heathen! Oh, I almost
forgot to tell you that the sun shone on the bride most gloriously and
the old church was a perfect bower of apple-blossoms and white lilacs.
My wedding dress was white satin with a train. I wore Aunt Clara's
wedding veil. It was real Brussels lace and I was scared to death for
fear something would happen to it. I warned Dick off until he declared
that the next time he got married the bride should either be out in the
open, or have a mosquito net that wasn't perishable. I'm not going to
tell you about my trousseau because I intend to bring it along to show
you. I want you to be surprised, and oh! and ah! over every single
thing, because it is so wonderful for Alice Fletcher to have such
beautiful clothes. Dick is looking over my shoulder and he says he
thinks it's time I learned that my name is Alice Harding. He says he's
going to have a half-dozen mottoes printed with----

                   'My name is Harding.
                  On the Cincinnati hills
                   I lost the Fletcher!'

on them, and hang them about our happy home. Tell Chicken Little I've
saved a big chunk of bride's cake for her, and I'm dying to see her. It
doesn't seem possible that she is almost as tall as Marian."

The letter ran on with much pleasant chatter of the new home, which was
the same dear old one where Alice had been born, and where the Morton
family had spent the two happy years that were already beginning to seem
a long way off.

Alice had graduated the preceding year, but Uncle Joseph would not
listen either to her plea that she should pay the money back from her
little inheritance, or that she should carry out her plan of teaching.
He said it would be bad enough to give her up to Dick just as they had
all learned to love her--she must stay with them as long as possible.

Dick's letter was as full of nonsense as Dick himself. It was written
with many flourishes to:

    "Miss Chicken Little Jane Morton,
      Big John Creek,
        Morris County, Kansas.

    "Dear Miss Morton,

    "I would respectfully inform you that your dear friend Alice
    Fletcher is no more--there ain't no such person. She made a noble
    end in white satin covered with sticky out things, and her stylish
    aunt's lace curtain. She looked very lovely, what I could see of her
    through the curtain. My dear Miss Morton, I beseech you when you get
    married, don't wear a window curtain. Because if you do the groom
    and the sympathizing friends can't see how hard you are taking it.
    Alice didn't look mournful when the plaguey thing was removed, but
    her aunt wept copiously at the train and took all the starch out of
    Alice's fresh linen collar. And Alice said it would be a sight, if I
    mussed it. I don't see the connection, do you? Dear Chicken Little,
    I thought about you all the time I wasn't thinking about Alice,
    because I remembered a certain other wedding where the dearest small
    girl in the world introduced me to the dearest big girl in the
    world. I thought also of the little partner who wrote a certain
    letter and of many other things--I didn't even forget the baby mice,
    Chicken Little! Alice says she would like to have your name on her
    diploma along with the president's because--well, you know why. And
    they tell us you are Chicken Big now. Thirteen going on, is a
    frightful age! The worst of it is you can never stop 'going on.' I
    suppose I need not expect to be asked to any doll parties, but,
    Jane, wouldn't you--couldn't you, take me fishing when we come? I
    will promise to be as grown up as possible.

                                                  "Yours,

                                                            "Dick."

    "P. S. Do you still read Mary Jane Holmes?"

"Well, it is evident Dick Harding is the same old Dick, all right. Three
years and getting married don't seem to have changed him a particle,"
laughed Marian.

"Three years isn't a lifetime," retorted Dr. Morton, "if it does seem
'quite a spell' to young people. Thank heaven, it has changed you,
Marian, from a fragile, pale invalid to a hearty, rosy woman! Dr.
Allerton knew what he was about when he sent you to a farm to get well."

"Yes, I can't be thankful enough, Father Morton, and I don't forget how
kind it was of you all to come out so far with us."

"Mother is the only one who deserves any thanks--the rest of us were
crazy to come. We were tickled to death to have an excuse, eh, Chicken
Little?" He tweaked her ear for emphasis.

"Oh, I love the farm, Father, only I wish Ernest could go away to
school. He's awfully worried for fear you won't feel able to send him to
college this fall. He studies every minute when he isn't too tired." Dr.
Morton's face grew grave.

"Yes, it's time for the boy to have a better chance. I wanted him to go
last year, but the drought and the low price of cattle made it
impossible. And I don't quite know how it will be this fall yet."

"There mustn't be any if about it this fall, Father. Ernest is working
too hard here and now is the time for his education if he is ever to
have one," Mrs. Morton spoke decidedly.

"I know all that, Mother, but college takes ready money, and money is
mighty scarce these days. He's pretty well prepared for college. I've
seen to that, if we do live on a Kansas ranch."

"It isn't just the studies, though, Father Morton," said Marian. "Ernest
needs companionship. He doesn't take to most of the boys around here,
and I don't blame him. They're a coarse lot, most of them. The McBroom
boys are all right, but they live so far off and are kept so busy with
farm work, he never sees them except after church once a month or at the
lyceums in winter."

"Marian's just right, Father. The boy needs the right kind of
associations; his manners and his English have both deteriorated here,"
added Mrs. Morton.

"Perhaps, Mother, but the boy is sturdy and well and his eyes are strong
once more, and he is going to make a more worth while man on account of
this very farm life you despise. But he does need companions. I wonder
if we couldn't get Carol or Sherm out here for the summer along with the
rest."

"Father, do have some mercy on me. I can't care for such a family!" Mrs.
Morton gasped at this further adding to her burdens.

Marian studied for a moment.

"Mother, if you want to ask him, I'll take Sherm, and Ernest, too, while
Dick and Alice are here. I'd rather have Sherm than Carol, and Mother
said in her letter that the Dart's were having a sad time this year. Mr.
Dart has been ill for so long."

Chicken Little had listened in tense silence to this conversation, but
she couldn't keep still any longer.

"You are going to ask Katy and Gertie, aren't you, Mother?"

Mrs. Morton smiled but made no reply.

"You'll have to go to work and help Mother if you want any favors,
Jane," her father admonished.

The following week apparently wrought an amazing change in Chicken
Little. She let novels severely alone--even her precious set of Waverly
beckoned in vain from the bookcase shelves. She waited upon her mother
hand and foot. She set the table without being asked, and brought up the
milk and butter from the spring house before Mrs. Morton was half ready
for them. Indeed, she was so unnecessarily prompt that the butter was
usually soft and messy before the meal was ready. She even practiced
five minutes over the hour every day for good measure, conscientiously
informing her mother each time.

"Bet you can't hold out much longer, Sis," scoffed Ernest, amused at her
efforts to be virtuous. "You're just doing it to coax Mother into
inviting Katy and Gertie."

"I just bet I can, Ernest Morton. Of course I want her to invite Katy
and Gertie, but I'm no old cheat, I thank you, I'm going to help the
best I can all summer if she asks 'em."

"And if she doesn't?"

"Don't you dare hint such a thing--she's going to--I think you're real
hateful! I just don't care whether you get to go to college or not."

"Maybe I don't want to."

Something in Ernest's tone made Jane glance up in surprise.

"Don't want to? Why, you've been daffy about it--you haven't thought
about anything else for a year!"

"That's so, too, but I guess I can change my mind, can't I?"

Ernest lounged on the edge of the table and looked at his sister
teasingly.

He was almost six feet tall, slim and muscular, with the unruly lock of
hair sticking up in defiance of all brushing as of old, and a skin that
was still girlishly smooth though he shaved religiously every Sunday
morning to the family's secret amusement. The results of this rite were
painfully meager. Both Chicken Little and Frank chaffed him unmercifully
about it. Jane loved to pass her hands over his chin and shriek
fiendishly:

"Ernest, I believe I felt one. I think--really, I think you'll cut 'em
by Christmas!" A lively race usually followed this insult.

Frank was even meaner. He came into Ernest's room one morning while he
was shaving and gravely pretending to pick up a hog's stiff bristle from
the carpet, held it out to him.

"Why Ernest, you're really growing quite a beard!"

But Ernest was a man in many ways if he had but little need of a razor.
Seeing other boys so seldom and being thrown so much with men had made
him rather old for his years and more than ordinarily capable and
self-reliant. He loved horses and was clever in managing them, breaking
in many a colt that had tried the patience and courage of his elders.
But his day dream for the past twelve months had been college. He had
confided all his hopes and fears to Chicken Little. The love between the
two was very tender, the more so that they had so few companions of
their own ages.

So Chicken Little, knowing that he had fairly lived and breathed and
slept and eaten college during many months, might be pardoned for her
amazement at his mysterious words.

"Ernest, tell me--what's the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter--I've got a new idea, that's all."

"What is it? Where'd you get it?"

"From the old captain. Say, you just ought to see his place--it's the
queerest lay-out. Snug and neat as a pin. He's tried to arrange
everything the way it is on shipboard. He's got a Chinaman or a Jap, I
don't know which, for a servant. He is the first one I ever saw, though
they say there are lots of them in Kansas City. This chap can work all
right. We had the best supper the evening Frank and I went over for
hay."

"My, I wish I could see it. Do you suppose Father would take me over
some time?"

"I don't know. They say he hates women--won't have one around."

"Pshaw, you're making that up, but what's the idea? Oh, you old hateful,
you're just teasing--I can tell by your eyes!"

"Honest Injun, I'm not any such thing, only you interrupt so you don't
give me a chance. You know the Captain has been at sea for twenty-five
years--never'd quit only his asthma got so bad the doctor told him he'd
have to go to a dry climate, and bundled him off here to Kansas. Well,
he seemed to take a shine to me, and he asked me a lot of questions
about what I was going to do. Finally, he wanted to know why I didn't
try to get into the Naval Academy instead of going to college. Said if
he had a son--and do you know, he turned kind of white when he said
that, perhaps he's lost a boy or something--he'd send him there."

"O Ernest, and be an officer? I saw a picture of one at Mrs.
Wilcox's--her nephew--and his uniform was perfectly grand."

"Just like a girl--always thinking of clothes! But I've been thinking
perhaps I should like the life. I always like to read about naval
fights, and our navy's always been some pumpkins, if it has been small.
And the captain says a naval officer has a chance to go all over the
world. Think of your beloved brother, who has never been on a train but
six times, sailing away for China or Australia!"

Chicken Little gave a gasp, "Ernest Morton, it wouldn't be a bit fair
for you to go without me!"

"Don't worry, I don't suppose there's one chance in a hundred that I
could get the appointment. Father knows Senator Pratt, and the Captain
said he didn't think there was as much competition for Annapolis out
here as for West Point. It's so far from the sea. But mind, Jane, not a
word to anybody till I think it over some more. I'm going to see the
Captain again."

"O Ernest, what if you should go clear round the world?"

"'Twouldn't hurt my feelings a bit. But mum's the word, Sis."



CHAPTER III

CHICKEN LITTLE PAYS A VISIT


Mrs. Morton was sitting at her desk writing a letter. Jane hovered
about inquisitively. She was almost sure it was to Mrs. Halford. And if
so, she must surely be inviting Katie and Gertie. If she could only be
sure. She tried in vain to get a glimpse of the heading, but her
mother's hand rested on the paper in such a way as to effectually
conceal it. Mrs. Morton did not believe in encouraging curious young
daughters. But opportunity was kind; some one called her mother away.
She left the letter lying there partly finished. Chicken Little started
joyfully across the room, but before she had reached the desk, something
held her back. She had been most carefully trained as to what was
honorable; sneaking was not tolerated in the Morton family.

"No," she said to herself regretfully, "I mustn't peep behind her back!
I couldn't look anybody in the face if I did."

She slowly turned away. When her mother returned, she glanced sharply at
Chicken Little quietly reading on the opposite side of the room. The
girl did not realize that her face proved her innocence. It was so sober
that her mother felt sure she had not meddled with the letter. Jane had
not learned to conceal her emotions.

Dr. and Mrs. Morton were both going to town that day. Mrs. Morton drove
away without satisfying Chicken Little's curiosity, which was probably
largely responsible for what happened. Jane felt injured. She thought
her mother might tell her whether she could have the girls or not. Ten
days was enough time for anybody to make up her mind.

Frank and Ernest were out in the fields harrowing; Marian, busy sewing.
Chicken Little soon finished the few tasks her mother had left for her
and time began to hang heavy on her hands. She couldn't seem to fix her
thought on a book because she kept wondering every minute if that letter
was to Mrs. Halford. She wandered out into the June sunshine and wished
she could have gone to town, too. Presently she began to feel aggrieved
because her parents hadn't taken her with them.

Across the fields she could see the men at work and could occasionally
hear them calling to the horses. She wished she had a horse to ride. The
pony that was called hers by courtesy was the mainstay for the herding
and she could seldom use him at this season. Finally, after digging her
heels into some loose earth beside the path, she had an inspiration. She
debated it a moment with herself, then slipped back into the house,
combed her hair over carefully, tied it with her best ribbon, and
arrayed herself in her new blue lawn which her mother had distinctly
told her was to be her second best for the summer.

She smoothed it down complacently--pale blue was becoming to her clear,
rosy skin--but her conscience pricked. She succeeded in lulling this
annoying mentor by reasoning that her mother wouldn't want her to go
visiting in an old dress. She tried to ignore the fact that her mother
hadn't given her permission to go visiting at all.

Slipping out the back way to avoid disturbing Marian, in case she should
be looking out her window or Jilly should be on the watch, Chicken
Little whistled softly to Huz and Buz. The puppies were three weeks
older and stronger than when Huz so nearly caused disaster, and trotted
after Jane on all her tramps. She was seldom lonesome when she had them
rolling and tumbling along beside her.

Making a wide detour around the white cottage, she struck into a faint
track skirting the upper fields. There was a nearer way through the
lower fields along the slough, but Frank had killed several big bull
snakes there the preceding week. To be sure, these were usually
harmless, but they were frightful enough to be unpleasant company.
Besides, Frank or Ernest might see her and ask her where she was going.

But the fates speeded her undertaking. No one saw her save a few quail
and nesting plover that whirred up at her approach and tried to lure her
and the dogs away from their nests by pretending to be hurt and running
a few paces ahead on the ground. Chicken Little had seen this bird ruse
too often to be fooled by it, but Huz and Buz pursued each bird
hopefully only to come sneaking back, when the mother bird suddenly
soared off as soon as they had left the nest safely behind.

"You sillies," Jane admonished them each time. "Won't you ever learn not
to be fooled?"

She found it delightful to loiter herself. The whole day was before her.
The wild blackberry bushes along the fence still hid bunches of bloom
among the half-formed berries. Clumps of white elderberry blossoms
spilled their fragrance, and the wind rustling through the long stems of
the weeds and prairie grass droned monotonous tunes. She found tufts of
crisp sour sheep sorrel which she liked to nibble, while she made ladies
out of the flowers, and the pups snapped at the grasshoppers and
butterflies. Chicken Little was taking her time for this expedition. She
knew her parents would not return before evening, and if Marian hunted
her up, she would think she had gone down to eat her lunch with Frank
and Ernest.

It was almost noon before she entered the belt of timber along the creek
at the southern boundary of their ranch. Across the stream, she knew,
lay the Clarke ranch, and she had heard the house and stables were close
to the timber. Jane had resolved to call on the Captain, and going on
foot, had selected the shortest route. It was over two miles between
houses by the road. Further, Chicken Little, preferred that her visit
should seem accidental--at least to the Captain. She hardly expected to
convince her family that she had wandered over there without intending
to. But she felt sure the Captain would receive her more kindly if he
thought she were taking a walk and got lost. She would be very hot and
tired when she arrived, and ask for a drink so politely that not even a
woman-hater would have the heart to let her go on without asking her in
and offering her some refreshment.

She had never been in this part of the woods before. It was very
different from the timber and groves near the ford where they often
picnicked in summer or went nutting in the fall. There, the cattle and
hogs had been allowed to range, at certain seasons of the year, until
most of the thick undergrowth was nicely cleared away. But the wood,
here, was dark and shadowy. Dead branches and tree trunks lay where they
had fallen or been torn down by storms. Weeds and flowers had grown up
among these, and the wild cucumber vines and clematis festooned the
rotting logs with feathery green. It was a wood full of creepy
noises--noises that made one keep still and listen. The coarse grass and
herbage were so rank you could scarcely see the ground. It looked
decidedly snaky, Chicken Little reflected dubiously. And water moccasins
were abundant along the creek, and poisonous, as her father had often
warned her. Chicken Little was usually plucky when she actually saw a
snake, but the snakes she feared she might see always made her panicky.

Still she hated to give up anything she had undertaken. She stood
staring into the thickets for some minutes. Huz sat on his haunches
beside her and stared too, whining occasionally as if he didn't quite
like the prospect either. Buz had found a gopher hole and was having a
merry time trying to dig it out. She could hear the creek singing over
the stones a few rods away.

"It can't be so awfully far," she said aloud, "and I guess the dogs
would scare away the snakes."

Something stirred among the weeds near her. Chicken Little gave a little
scream. But it was only a squirrel, as Huz immediately discovered. He
barked loudly and started in pursuit, which sent Mr. Squirrel flying up
a tree. Jane set her lips together firmly and started forward.

"There's no sense in being so scary!" she admonished Huz. "Snakes most
always run away as fast as ever they can, anyway."

Nevertheless, she picked her way daintily and gave a cry of delight when
after pushing a short distance into the thicket, she found an old rail
fence apparently leading off in the direction she wished to go. She
climbed it promptly and worked slowly along its zig zag course--a means
of locomotion that was comfortingly safe, if somewhat slow. The pups
complained over this desertion for they had to worm through the tangle
of weeds and brambles below.

They soon reached the creek only to be confronted by a new problem.
There were neither stepping stones nor a fallen log to cross upon.
Chicken Little had to hunt for a shallow place, strip off her shoes and
stockings, and wade. She wore good old-fashioned high laced shoes and
lacing up was a tedious process. The woods were a little more open
beyond. She had no further need of the fence--it had indolently stopped
at the creek anyhow. But, alas, she had gone but a short way farther
when she came to the creek again.

Chicken Little sputtered volubly to the dogs but the stream flowed
placidly on. There was nothing for it, but to take off her shoes and
stockings a second time, and wade. By the time she had laced them, she
remembered having heard Frank say that the creek was very winding here
and kept doubling back on its tracks. She was in for it, now, she
decided, and might as well go ahead. It was long past noon. She was
getting hungry. She did hope the woman-hater would offer her something
to eat. She felt a little doubtful about her looks. Sitting down on the
damp earth had left sundry grass stains and one long black streak on the
dainty blue lawn, and her hair was wind blown, and mussed where some
twigs had caught and pulled it.

Once more Jane unlaced those exasperating shoes, drying her feet on a
woefully limp and dirty handkerchief. This time she lazily wound the
lacings around her ankles until she could be sure the creek was safely
behind her. Presently she heard the cackling of hens and the grunting of
pigs that assured her she was nearing somebody's farmyard.

"Gee, but I'm glad!" she muttered thankfully. She sat down and laced her
boots neatly, then smoothing her hair and ironing out her rumpled dress
with nimble fingers, she struck off joyfully in the direction of the
sounds. She was approaching the house from the rear and the barn and
out-buildings were soon visible through the trees. She hurried forward
joyfully only to be confronted by that horrible creek flowing once more
between her and her goal.

Chicken Little didn't often lose her temper completely, but this was the
last straw. "Darn," she exclaimed spitefully, "darn you, you old creek,
I'd like to beat you. I won't take my shoes off again! I just won't!"

She scanned the bank carefully to see if she could find any rock or log
to help her out. Nothing available could be seen, but help appeared from
a most unlooked for quarter. A tall, severe-looking man rose from a
rustic seat behind a tree which had hidden him.

"Can I be of any service, Miss?" he asked courteously.

With an awful sinking of the heart she realized this must be Captain
Clarke himself. Oh! and he must have heard her swear. Chicken Little
turned the color of a very ripe strawberry and stared at him in horror.

A faint flicker of amusement lighted the man's face.

"Just wait an instant and I will put a board over for you, if you wish
to cross."

Jane distinctly did not wish to cross this particular moment. She wished
to run home.

"Oh, I--I--please don't go to any trouble, I oughtn't to be here, and
please I didn't mean to swear but--but--Mother would be dreadfully
ashamed of me if she knew."

She was telling the whole truth most unexpectedly to herself. Captain
Clarke surveyed her sharply but his voice seemed kind.

"You must be Dr. Morton's daughter. Did you get lost?"

This was an embarrassing question. Jane looked at him doubtfully before
replying. If she said "yes" she would be telling a lie, and if she said
"no," he would know she came on purpose. She compromised.

"I wanted to see your house awfully," she faltered. "Ernest said it was
most like a ship and I've never seen a ship," a sudden remorseful
thought crept into her mind. "But you mustn't blame Mother; she didn't
know I was coming."

The Captain's eyes lost their severe look--the suspicion of a twinkle
lurked in their blue depths.

"I see, you didn't wish to embarrass Mother, so you came without leave.
I am honored by your visit, Miss----"

"Jane, but people don't call me Miss, except Dick Harding, and he does
it for a joke. I'm only thirteen."

The Captain was sliding a stout plank across a narrow part of the
stream. This accomplished, he came half way across and held out his
hand. "Come, I'll help you over."

Chicken Little didn't in the least need assistance. She was as
sure-footed as a young goat, but she was too much overcome by this
delicate attention to refuse. Placing her hand gingerly in his, she let
him lead her across, then followed meekly up to the low white house. It
was a one-story structure, divided in the middle by a roofed gallery.
The entire building was surrounded by a broad veranda, open to the sky,
and enclosed by a rope railing run through stout oak posts. The Captain
gravely assisted her up the steps.

"I call this my quarter-deck," he explained, seeing the question in her
eyes. "I have been accustomed to pacing a deck for so many years that I
didn't feel at home without a stretch of planking to walk on."

"Oh, isn't it nice? I've seen pictures of people on ships. My mother
came from England on a sailing vessel. I'm sure I'd just love the
ocean!"

Captain Clarke smiled at her encouragingly but made no reply.

Chicken Little rambled on nervously. She was decidedly in awe of her
host but having begun to talk, it seemed easier to keep on than to stop.

"I guess it must be wonderful out at sea when the sun is coming up.
Sometimes I get up early and go out on the prairie to watch it. It just
keeps on getting lighter and lighter till finally the sun bobs up like a
great smiling face. I always feel as if it were saying 'Good morning,
Jane.' I suppose it's a lot grander at sea where you can't see a single
thing but miles and miles of waves. Why, I should think you'd feel as if
there wasn't anybody in the world but you and God. I always feel a lot
more religious outdoors than I do in church. But Mother says that's just
a notion. But, you know, the people are always so funny and solemn in
church and the ministers most all talk through their noses or say 'Hm-n'
to fill in when they don't know what to say next. But, oh dear, I guess
you'll think I'm dreadful! And please don't think I swear that way
often. I haven't for ever so long before."

The Captain's face twitched, but he replied gravely:

"Don't worry about the 'Darn,' child, I've heard worse oaths, though I
believe young girls are not supposed to use strong language. I feel as
you do about church and the outdoors. I find it irksome to be cooped up
anywhere. But come in, and I will have Wing Fan give you some pigeon
pot-pie. We had a famous one for dinner and you surely must be hungry.
Afterwards, I'll show you through The Prairie Maid as I sometimes call
this craft."

Chicken Little began to feel at home. "And to think Ernest said he
didn't like women and girls! Pooh, I knew he was just fooling."

Wing Fan found other things beside the pot-pie, and Chicken Little was
soon feasting luxuriously with the Chinaman waiting on her most
deferentially. Her host watched her with a keener interest, had she but
known it, than he had shown in any human being for many months.

He was a man of fifty odd. Naturally reticent, his long voyages in
command of merchant vessels had fostered an aloofness and love of
solitude, which had later been intensified by a great grief. His stern
bearing had repelled his country neighbors in the year he had lived on
Big John. He was satisfied that it should be so, yet he was intensely
lonely.

But Chicken Little knew nothing of all this. The thick sprinkling of
white in his black hair and the deep lines in his face, made her
entirely comfortable--they were just like Father's. She was too curious
to verify Ernest's tales of the queer house, to give much attention to
her host at first. She stared around her with wide eyes. Yes, there were
the funny little built-in cupboards and window seats, and the plate
racks, and the shelves that let down with gilt chains. Every single
thing was painted white. "My, how lovely and clean it all looked!" And
the blue Chinese panels; she had never seen anything like them. And
there were five pictures of ships.

Even the dishes were a marvel to her. Jane had seen plenty of fine china
but never any so curious as this old Blue Canton with its landscapes and
quaint figures. The Captain was pleased with her ingenuous admiration.

When she had finished her dinner, he took her across the gallery to his
library, a room seldom shown to the residents of the creek. Even Ernest
and Frank hadn't seen it, Jane learned later. This apartment was quite
as marvellous as the dining-room. A long, low room it was, with many
lacquered and carved cabinets and tables. The wall space above these was
pictureless, but two great ivory tusks were crossed over a doorway.
Above the fireplace rows of weapons were ranged--queer swords and
daggers with gold and mother-of-pearl on their hilts, a ship's cutlass,
several scimitars, and the strangest guns and pistols. Chicken Little
was fascinated with the frightful array. A huge bearskin lay on the
floor among strange, beautifully colored rugs, which reminded her of her
mother's India shawl. Rugs where queer stiff little men and animals that
looked as if a child had drawn them, wandered about among curlicues and
odd geometrical patterns. A tiger-skin, head and dangling claws
distressingly lifelike, hung in the middle of one wall. She was
spell-bound for a few minutes with the strangeness of it all.

Her host seemed to enjoy her wonder. He explained most patiently a great
compass set on a tripod in one corner. After she had roamed and gazed to
her heart's content, he opened the locked cabinets, and let her take
miniature ebony elephants from Siam into her hands. He had her look
through a reading glass at intricate ivory carvings, so tiny, it did not
seem that human fingers could ever have wrought them. There were boxes
of sandalwood and ugly heathen idols with leering faces. The drawers
were crowded with prints and embroideries. The Captain pulled one out
that had girl's things in it. She caught a glimpse of a spangled scarf,
and fans and laces, even gay-colored beads. But he shut this drawer
hastily. She did not have time to wonder much about this incident just
then, but she thought about it a good deal afterwards. The things looked
quite new as if they had never been used.

Chicken Little had natural taste and had read more than most girls of
her age. She handled the Captain's curios reverently, drinking in
eagerly his explanations and the strange tales of where he had found
these wonders.

So absorbed were they both, that the shadows were lengthening before
Captain Clarke realized the afternoon was slipping away, and that home
folk might be disturbed if he kept his young guest too long. Chicken
Little was distressed too.

"Oh, I'm afraid Father and Mother will get home before I do. They'll be
awfully worried!"

"You mustn't try to go back through the woods. They are too dense to be
a very safe route for a child, and it would be dark before you could
reach home. I'll have one of the men hitch up, and I'll drive you over."

Chicken Little commenced to fidget. It would not make her coming
scolding any lighter, if her parents learned that the Captain had felt
in duty bound to bring her home. But she did not wish to be rude and it
was a long walk by the road.

Captain Clarke saw she was disturbed and began to laugh. Her naïvete
charmed him.

"If my program doesn't suit you, won't you tell me what is wrong? I
haven't enjoyed anything so much in years as your visit, my dear. I
should like to pay my debt by doing whatever you would like."

Jane was radiant by the time he had finished.

"Didn't you truly mind my coming? You aren't just being polite?"

"Mind? Child, if you ever come to be as lonesome and as old as I am, you
will know what a comfort it has been to have anyone as young and sweet
and fresh as you are, around. Just a moment, I want to show you one
thing more."

He went into his bedroom and returned with an old photograph. It was a
likeness of a two-year-old child.

She took a good look at it, then turned to her host.

"It is the picture of the little boy I--I--lost. He was my only one.
He--he would be seventeen now."

"Why that's just Ernest's age!"

"Your brother? The one who was here the other evening?"

"Yes, he was seventeen his last birthday. I'm so sorry you lost your
little boy." Chicken Little slipped her hand into his to express her
sympathy.

The Captain did not reply except with an answering pressure. She laid
the picture down gently.

"He was a beautiful baby--it almost seems to me I've seen someone who
looks like him--especially the eyes. And that merry little twist to his
mouth. I can't seem to think who it is." Jane puckered her forehead and
the Captain observed her closely.

"Was it some boy?" He seemed interested in this resemblance.

"Yes, how silly of me not to remember. It's Sherman Dart, one of
Ernest's old friends back in Centerville."

"Centerville? That is in Illinois, is it not?"

"Yes, where we used to live. And the eyes are exactly like Sherm's and
Sherm always twisted his mouth crooked like that when he smiled."

"This boy, he wasn't an orphan, was he?"

"Oh no, Mr. and Mrs. Dart are both living though Mr. Dart's been sick a
long time."

The Captain seemed to have lost interest.

"Well, my dear, am I to have the pleasure of driving you home--I'm
afraid your parents will be distressed about you."

Jane had a bright idea.

"Captain Clarke," she spoke rather hesitatingly.

"Yes?"

"Would you mind--of course it sounds awful of me to ask you--but--it'd
be so much easier for me with Mother if you'd just tell her, oh, what
you said about my being a comfort and not bothering."

Chicken Little was both ashamed and eager.

The Captain threw back his head and laughed until the tears came into
his eyes.

"My dear, I'll make this call all right with your mother, never fear,
for I want you to come again. I am going to ask her if you and Ernest
can't both honor me by coming to dinner next Sunday."

He was as good as his word but when Chicken Little went to bed her
mother said sorrowfully: "Chicken Little, I shan't scold you because I
promised Captain Clarke I would let you off this time--but I didn't
think you would do such a thing--behind my back, too."

And her mother had asked Katy and Gertie! She had told her after she
came home that evening.



CHAPTER IV

A CHERRY PENANCE


Chicken Little awoke the next morning with a bad taste in her mouth.
She was ashamed to have grieved her mother by her escapade the day
before, especially when Mother was undertaking all this extra trouble
for her happiness. But she just couldn't be sorry she had gone to the
Captain's! It would be something to remember all her life. She gave a
skip of delight every time she thought of all the lovely things--and the
Captain's stories. No, she simply couldn't be sorry, but she knew Mother
expected her to be sorry. Of course, she might have got acquainted with
him some other way, but her father wouldn't promise ever to take her.
"Little girls have too much curiosity for their own good, Humbug," was
all she had been able to get from him.

She could see at breakfast that Mother expected an apology right away.
She could feel disapproval in her good morning and in the way she kissed
her. Mother seemed to have the power to make her feel mean and guilty
all over. But she wasn't sorry.

While they were doing the dishes she told her mother all about the
wonderful things she had seen. Mrs. Morton listened in silence. She was
waiting. Chicken Little heaved a deep sigh and did her best.

"I know it was wrong for me to go without permission, Mother, and I
won't ever do it again, and I think you're just beautiful to ask Katy
and Gertie. I'll help every single bit I can; you see if I don't."

"I am glad you realize you did very wrong, little daughter, is that all
you have to say to me?"

Chicken Little looked at her Mother and fidgeted. Her Mother returned
her look gravely. Still she couldn't--it would be fibbing if she did.
The silence became oppressive.

"You may go and pick a couple of quarts of cherries, Jane." Mrs. Morton
handed her the tin lard pail, searching her face once more.

It was a glorious June morning and Jane enjoyed picking cherries. Marian
saw her and came too, establishing Jilly comfortably at the foot of the
tree with a rubber doll and the two pups as companions. Jilly was
usually a placid baby and she settled down contentedly to trimming up
her doll with dandelions. Buz, the indolent, curled himself at her feet
and was asleep inside of five minutes, but Huz looked up longingly into
the tree at Jane. He seemed to be racking his doggish brain as to the
best method of reaching her. He kept making little futile leaps, whining
impatiently. Finally, he stood up on his hind legs, planted his fore
paws against the tree trunk, and barked dolefully. Jane bent down and
mischievously dropped a cherry into his open mouth. Huz choked,
sputtered, and after a first rapturous crunch, hastily deposited the
acid fruit upon the ground. He looked reproachfully at Chicken Little.

"There now," said Marian, "he'll never trust you again." Marian raced
Chicken Little with the cherry picking and the pails were filled far too
soon.

"Jane," said Marian as she started reluctantly back to the house, "if
Mother Morton can spare you this morning to help me pick them, I believe
I'll get some cherries to put up--there are loads ripe this morning."

"I'd love to, Marian, I'll take these in and find out if she'll let me."

She came flying back in a jiffy with two big milk pails. "All right,
Mother says I may help you till noon."

They had a merry morning. The cherry trees lined the lane which was also
a public road, and several neighbors going by, stopped to exchange a few
words. Mr. Benton had his joke, for he discovered Jane swinging up in
the topmost boughs and reaching still higher for certain unusually
luscious ones that eluded her covetous fingers.

"Well, Mrs. Morton," he said, addressing Marian and ignoring Chicken
Little, "that's the largest variety of robin I've ever seen in these
parts. I 'low you must have brought the seed from the east with you. You
wouldn't mind if I took a shot at it, I 'spose. 'Pears like birds of
that size must be mighty destructive to cherries."

"Why Mr. Benton, we shouldn't like to have you kill our birds; we're
attached to them. But you are mistaken, that isn't a robin, it's a Jane
bird--they're rare around here."

Mr. Benton laughed and Chicken Little got even by hurling a big cluster
of cherries at him. She aimed them at his lap, but they struck him full
in the face to her great glee.

"Well now, them Jane birds ain't so bad." Mr. Benton remarked eating the
fruit with a relish.

The morning sped by briskly. Jilly created a diversion by getting her
small self into trouble. Marian noticed that she was picking something
off the tree trunk and putting it into the pocket of her little ruffled
apron.

"What's Jilly getting there? Can you see, Chicken Little?"

Chicken Little twisted and peered until she could take a good look.

"Why--Marian, I do believe it's ants! The silly baby--they'll bite her!"

Marian hurried down the tree to rescue her offspring, but not before
Jilly set up a wail of anguish.

"Naughty sings bite Jilly!" she moaned, as her Mother picked the small
tormentors off her arms and bare legs. But Jilly was a sunny child, and
as soon as the pain eased, found a smile and remarked complacently:
"Ants bite Jilly, too bad, too bad!"

Jane braced herself firmly in a crotch where the red fruit was thickest
and picked mechanically while she unburdened her mind of the previous
day's doings. She chattered about her adventures till Marian could have
repeated every word of her conversation with the Captain off by heart,
and might have given a pretty accurate inventory of his possessions, or
at least the portion of them that Jane had seen.

Marian was genuinely interested and liked to hear Chicken Little tell it
all, but she wondered what Mrs. Morton had thought about the junketing.

"But what did your Mother say, dear?" she asked finally.

"She didn't like it."

"You didn't suppose she would, did you?"

"N-o-o, but----"

"Yes?"

"I'd never have got to go if I'd waited for permission. And, Marian,"
Chicken Little thought it was time to change the subject, "how do you
make yourself be sorry, when you ought to be and aren't?"

Marian wanted to laugh but she saw her young sister had not intended to
be funny. She half guessed the situation.

"Why Jane, I hardly know, the old monks used to set themselves penances
to atone for their sins."

"Did it make them really sorry? Do you think?"

"Well, yes, I should think it must have or they would never have had the
courage to persist in them. Some of their penances were terribly severe
such as beating themselves with knotted ropes, but I shouldn't advise
anything of that kind for you. You might try to make up for your fault
in some way. Perhaps you might give up something you like very much."

Jane didn't say anything more, and it was a day or two later before
Marian learned the effect of her words.

The cherry trees seemed full as ever after they had gathered all Marian
wanted, and in the evening Mrs. Morton sent Chicken Little out to gather
more for her. Marian offered to help her, and they were once more aloft
in the trees when Mr. Benton returned from town.

Marian began to chuckle.

"He'll think we have been here all day, Jane. Let's pretend we have."

"Dear me, Mr. Benton, back so soon. How fast the day has gone by. Jane,
you must be awfully hungry, I hadn't realized it was so late!"

"Well now, time does beat everything for speed, but I 'lowed it was only
our ancestors as lived in trees all the time, Mrs. Morton. But then I've
heard they're gettin' a lot of new-fangled ways down east. You're not
calculatin' to take up your residence permanent like in them cherry
trees, are you? In case you don't want the cottage any more, we might
move it over to our place just by way of being neighborly."

"Thank you, Mr. Benton, I'll remember your kind offer if it ever gets in
our way."

It was not many days before the mail brought a grateful letter from Mrs.
Halford, and ecstatic ones from the girls, in reply to Mrs. Morton's
invitation. They would arrive with Alice and Dick and Sherm--for Sherm
was coming, too--on the twentieth.

"Not quite two weeks. That means we must begin getting ready at once,
and you mustn't think because we have a servant coming, that you won't
need to help, Jane. One girl can't do all the work for so many."

Chicken Little had not yet said she was sorry and her Mother was
inclined to be severe with her in consequence. Mrs. Morton was rather
worried, too, because she had seemed pale and listless for two or three
days past. But when she asked if she were not feeling well, Chicken
Little had replied carelessly:

"Why, I'm all right, Mother."

They were hurrying to get the cherry crop cared for before the guests
arrived. There would be enough to do after they came to keep them all
busy without preserving, Mrs. Morton declared. One day when they were
seeding cherries, Marian noticed that Jane was eating only half ripe
ones.

"What on earth are you eating those green things for, child?"

"Oh, just for fun."

"Well, it won't be funny if you eat many of them. I don't know anything
that'll make you sick quicker than green cherries. They're acid enough
when they're ripe."

In the hurry of preparing for the guests, Marian thought nothing further
about it. Three nights later, Dr. Morton wakened them at midnight to
know if they had any calomel. "The Chicken's mighty sick," he said. "And
I gave the last I had to Mrs. Benton for Mary."

"I haven't any calomel, Father, but I've got some castor oil," Marian
announced after some rummaging.

"That will go hard with Jane, she loathes it. But she'll have to take it
down I guess. I can't imagine what ails her, she's vomiting and has a
high fever."

A sudden recollection struck Marian.

"Maybe she has been eating too many cherries."

"Ripe cherries oughtn't to hurt her and they have been plentiful so
long, I shouldn't think she would overeat."

"But I have seen her eating them when they weren't ripe. I believe
that's what is the matter."

"I hope so, I have been a little afraid of scarlet fever from her
symptoms." Dr. Morton seemed relieved.

When he had gone, Marian turned to Frank. She had been recalling several
things and putting them together.

"Frank Morton, I verily believe that sister of yours has been eating
half-ripe cherries for a penance."

"Penance? Penance for what?"

"I don't exactly know, but it has something to do with her running off
to the Captain's."

"Well, if she's as big a fool as all that, she deserves to have a
stomach ache. Come, stop worrying."

"But Frank, I'm afraid I'm the guilty one who suggested the idea to her.
Goodness knows, I hadn't the slightest intention of doing so." Marian
related the whole story.

"Well, Sis certainly gets queer notions into her head, but it may not be
that at all. Anyhow, you can't do anything to-night."

A very pallid forlorn girl sat propped up in bed about noon the
following day. The family, having discovered that it was nothing
serious, and that she had probably brought it on by her own folly, were
not sympathetic.

"What in the dickens did you want to go and eat green cherries for, when
there were pounds and pounds of ripe ones going to waste on the trees?"
Ernest's look of utter disgust was hard to bear.

Frank came over with a handful of minute green walnuts interspersed with
a choice assortment of gooseberries and green plums. He handed them to
her with a mocking bow.

"In case you get hungry, Jane dear, I thought you might like to have a
supply of your favorite food on hand."

Chicken Little thanked him spunkily, but when the door closed behind
him, she buried her face in the pillow and mourned over her woes.

"I'll never try to be good again, so there, and I think they're all just
as mean as can be."

Her pillow was getting wetter and wetter and her spirits closer and
closer to zero, when the door gently opened and her father came in.

"Why Chicken Little, crying? This won't do. Come, tell Father what's the
matter. You aren't feeling worse, are you?"

Chicken Little swallowed hard and did her best to choke back the tears,
but the tears having been distinctly encouraged for the past ten minutes
had too good a start to be easily checked. Dr. Morton gathered her into
his arms and patted and soothed her till she was able to summon a moist
smile.

"Hurry up and tell me now--a trouble shared is a trouble half cured, you
know."

But Jane was beginning to be ashamed of herself.

"'Tisn't anything really, Father, only I feel so miserable and the boys
have been making fun of me."

"Making fun, what about?"

"Oh, just because."

"Because what, out with it!"

"Because I ate green cherries, I suppose."

"How long have you been eating green cherries, Jane?"

Jane considered. "Most a week."

"And don't you think you deserve to be laughed at, for doing anything so
foolish?"

"They didn't laugh at the monks--and they were grown-up men."

"Monks? What do you mean?"

"Well, I just guess they did things that made them sicker than eating
green cherries, and I didn't intend to eat enough to make me sick, but I
didn't seem to feel any sorrier and----"

Chicken Little was stopped suddenly by the expression of her Father's
face. He tried to control himself but the laugh would come.

When they had finally got the atmosphere cleared a bit, he inquired,
still smiling: "Well, are you sorry now you went to the Captain's?"

Chicken Little smiled back. "No, I'm just sorry I grieved Mother."

"Then suppose we vote this penance idea a failure and don't try it
again."

The next few days were so full of the bustle of preparation that Jane
soon forgot she had ever been sick. Further, there was a mystery on
foot. She and Ernest had not been permitted to accept the Captain's
invitation to dinner for reasons that Mrs. Morton explained with great
care to that gentleman. But he had been invited over to dine with them.
He was so reserved and silent on this occasion that both Mrs. Morton and
Marian wondered at Jane's devotion. After dinner he had a long
conversation with Dr. Morton and Ernest, and no teasing on Jane's part
could extract the faintest hint from either as to what it had been
about.

"It was about your going to Annapolis, I bet."

"Nope, you're a long way off. We didn't say anything more than what you
and Mother heard. Father's written to the Senator. Captain Clarke got
him all enthused; the Captain promised to write, too. But you'll never
guess the other, and it has something to do with you."

She had been obliged to give it up. Ernest had at length reached an age
where he could keep a secret. The exasperating part of it was that
Ernest was going over to Captain Clarke's every evening and she wasn't
asked once. Her pride was so hurt that she came near being sorry she had
gone to see the Captain.

The evening before the fateful twentieth, Mrs. Morton and Jane were
putting the last touches on the guest room and on Chicken Little's own
chamber, which Katy and Gertie were to share with her. The fresh fluted
muslin curtains were looped back primly. The guest room had been freshly
papered with a dainty floral design, in which corn flowers and wheat
ears clustered with faint hued impossible blossoms, known only to
designers. Both rooms looked fresh and cool and summery, and the windows
opening out upon the garden and orchard revealed also wide stretches of
the prairie beyond.

Chicken Little had re-arranged the furniture in her room at least six
times in a resolute endeavor to get the best possible effect. Marian had
given her a picture of some long stemmed pink roses that exactly matched
the buds in her paper, and she had begged an old Japanese fan from her
Mother. This was decorated with a remarkably healthy pink sunset on a
gray green ground, and she tacked it up as a finishing touch above the
bed lounge, which was destined to be a bone of contention among the
three little girls for the remainder of the summer. At first, not one of
the three was willing to be cast upon this desert island of a bed, while
the other two were whispering secrets in the big walnut four-poster. But
as the weather grew hotter, the advantages of sleeping alone became more
obvious, and they had to settle the matter by taking turns. Chicken
Little did her very best to make her room look like the Captain's, but
except for her Mother's concession of fresh white paint, a few books on
a shelf, and the foreign fan, it was hard to detect any very marked
resemblance. Nevertheless, both Jane and her Mother gazed upon their
handiwork with deep satisfaction.

"If Annie will only stay through the summer," sighed Mrs. Morton, "she
is doing so beautifully I'm afraid she is too good to last. But I
mustn't borrow trouble. If she deserts me, our guests will simply have
to turn in and help, much as I should dislike to have them."

Ernest came in to supper so excited he could scarcely eat. And Dr.
Morton seemed almost as interested as Ernest. They were both provokingly
mysterious during the entire meal, talking over Jane's head in a way
that was maddening.

"Does Mother know?" she demanded finally.

"Yes, Mother knows. I tell Mother when I go over to the Captain's."

"Come now, Ernest, that's been harped on enough," said Dr. Morton, then
turning to Jane, "If you will hurry and get into your riding habit, you
shall know the secret inside of an hour."

It is needless to say that Chicken Little hurried. The black
brilliantine skirt fairly flew over her head, the border of shot in its
hem rapping her rudely as it slid to the floor with a thud.

"Oh dear, I don't see why girls have to wear such long, silly skirts and
ride sidewise. It's so much easier to ride man fashion."

Chicken Little had been permitted to ride man fashion since she had been
on the ranch, for safety. But this year her Mother had decided she was
too big to be playing the boy any longer, and had made her a woman's
habit, in spite of the Doctor's protests. Jane was proud of the smart
basque with its long tails and glittering rows of steel buttons, but she
loathed the skirt.

Hastily fastening the black velvet band with its dangling jet fringe
below her stiff linen collar, she cast a parting glance at the oval
mirror and skurried down the stairs, not stopping for such small matters
as gloves or cap or even her beloved riding whip. Ordinarily, she would
not have budged without the whip. It had been a Christmas present from
Ernest and was her special pride. Her haste was in vain. After one look,
her Mother sent her back for cap and gloves. "I do not wish my daughter
riding around bareheaded like some half wild thing. I don't mind on the
ranch, but when you go abroad I wish you to look like a lady."

Jane reluctantly obeyed and did not forget the whip this time. She had a
fresh rebuff when she reached the road. Instead of the saddle horses she
expected to see, Dr. Morton and Ernest were awaiting her in the spring
wagon.

"Why, Father, I thought you said to put on my riding habit."

"Maybe I did. But never mind, jump in just as you are--it's getting a
little late."

Chicken Little tried to hide her disappointment. She maintained a
dignified silence until they had crossed the ford and Ernest turned the
horses toward Captain Clarke's.

"Oh, it's at the Captain's."

Her Father nodded and began talking carelessly to Ernest about putting
the orchard in clover another year. She saw there was no information to
be had, until he was good and ready. Ernest took pity on her, however,
just as they turned in the Captain's gate.

"In exactly six minutes you will see the surprise, even if you don't
recognize it."

Chicken Little strained her eyes half expecting to see Katy or Gertie
appear miraculously from nowhere. But they drove into the door yard
without seeing anything or anybody that could possibly interest her.

The Captain was evidently watching for them. He helped her down from the
high wagon in his most courtly manner.

"I am consumed with curiosity to know whether you have pried the secret
from that brother of yours. I infer you have from your habit."

"Habit?" Jane glanced swiftly from her host's quizzical face to her
father and Ernest. They were both smiling broadly.

"Oh, it has something to do with horses--but----"

She never finished the sentence for at that moment one of the Captain's
hands appeared leading two Indian ponies, one a red and white piebald
with a red blanket and side saddle; the other a black, with a blue
blanket and a Mexican cowboy's equipment.

She stared at the horses and she stared at the Captain, not daring to
even hope what had come into her mind. Captain Clarke took the bridle
off the piebald and held down his hand for her foot.

"Up with you, I have persuaded your Father to share his children with me
to the extent of letting me add something to your pleasure and that of
your guests this summer. Ernest, however, has left me his debtor in
advance, for he has not only finished breaking these in to the saddle
but he has tamed the worst-tempered colt on the place as well."

Chicken Little was surprised to see Ernest flush up and stammer.

"Why I--I don't want any pay--I was glad to help out a neighbor."

"That's exactly what I am going to ask you to do, my boy, to help me out
by letting me feel that I can still give somebody pleasure. The ponies
are part of a large herd I bought in Texas and cost me very little. I
have argued this all out with your Father and he understands my feeling.
Won't you be as generous?"

Before Ernest could answer, Chicken Little reached up both arms and gave
the speaker a hug and a kiss that were warm enough to satisfy the
loneliest heart. Before she had released him, Ernest had hold of his
hand and was trying to make up by the vigor of his hand shake for the
embarrassing dumbness which had seized him.

Dr. Morton relieved the situation by remarking mischievously:

"Ask Ernest who's surprised now, Chicken Little?"



CHAPTER V

THE GUESTS ARRIVE


The Morton family were up early the next morning. Jane was in a state
of prickly excitement between her delight over her wonderful pony, all
her very own, and the expected pleasure of seeing Katy and Gertie.

"If the others have grown as much as you kids, we shan't recognize
them," said Frank.

"Anyhow, we can tell which bunch to cut out by Alice and Dick," Ernest
answered.

Mrs. Morton was horrified. "Ernest, the idea of your talking about our
friends as if they were cattle! I do trust you children will not mortify
me before our guests by using such vulgar expressions."

"Never mind, Mother," Frank consoled her, "Alice and Dick will revel in
these vulgar westernisms. See if they don't. Why Mother, it's by slang
that a language is enriched, didn't you know that?"

"That will do, Frank. I should think you would try to help me keep up
correct standards instead of hindering. You will feel very differently
when Jilly is a little older."

The train was due at two-thirty at the neighboring town of Garland--the
neighboring town being some nine miles distant. They decided to have an
early dinner at home, then Dr. Morton would drive the spring wagon in
for the guests, Frank would take the farm wagon for the trunks, while
Jane and Ernest formed a sort of ornamental body guard on their new
ponies.

"My, but you present an imposing appearance!" laughed Marian coming out
to the road with Jilly to see them off.

"We do look rather patriarchal," said Frank, glancing around at the
impressive array. "If we only had you and Mother mounted on donkeys, the
reception committee would be complete. I will do my best to apologize
for your absence."

"If you are late, send Jane on ahead, they can see her a mile off on
that calico pony."

"The piebald is conspicuous," said the Doctor, "I guess Captain Clarke
picked him out for the Chicken so her mother could see her from afar."

Chicken Little ignored this pleasantry. "Thank you for saying calico,
Marian. I was just wondering what to call him and that will do
beautifully."

"Oh, have some mercy on the poor beast," put in Ernest. "Think of his
having to answer to the name of Calico. Why don't you call him gingham
apron or something really choice?"

"Allee samee, his name's Calico. If you want to call yours, Star of the
Night or Aladdin or something high falutin, you just can." Jane set her
lips firmly. She didn't specially care for Calico but she wasn't going
to be laughed out of it.

"That will do, children, it's time to be off." Dr. Morton suited the
action to the word by clucking to the team of bays he drove, and the
procession started.

They reached the station in good time. Both Ernest and Chicken Little
wanted to stay on their mounts and dash up beside the train, but their
father forbade it.

"Those ponies have never been properly introduced to an engine, and I
don't wish to take you back in baskets. You can show off sufficiently
going home."

So the ponies were left with the teams at a safe distance from the
railroad.

The train was twenty minutes late and it seemed an age to Chicken
Little. "I don't see why you always have to wait for nice things, while
the unpleasant ones come along without ever being asked," she
complained.

"What about the ponies? Do you class them with the unpleasant things?"
queried her father. "But here comes the train."

Jane watched it puff in with a roar and a rattle and sundry bangs, her
eyes strained for the first glimpse of Katy and Gertie, Alice and Dick.
She really didn't know which one she wanted to see worst.

"Bet Sherm will be the first one out," said Ernest.

"Bet you Katy will!"

But it was Dick who hailed them first, before he turned to help down the
little girls. Alice came next, with Sherm who was still rather bashful,
bringing up the rear loaded down with satchels and lunch baskets. Katy
and Gertie fell upon Chicken Little instantly and Alice had to embrace
the whole bunch, because they kept on hugging and kissing Jane, laughing
hysterically.

"Here, where do I come in?" Dick rescued Jane from her friends and gave
her a resounding smack himself. After which he held up his hands and
exclaimed: "Say, Doctor Morton, what do you feed these infants on to
make them grow so fast? Jane's a half head taller than either Katie or
Gertie and we thought Sherm would surely top Ernest. In fact, we had our
money on him to beat any of your mushroom Kansas effects, but Holy
Smoke, I have to look up to Ernest myself."

Alice and Katie and Gertie were looking at Jane's riding habit, Gertie
in considerable alarm.

"We don't have to ride to the ranch on horseback, do we?"

Before the doctor could reassure them, Frank replied gravely:

"Of course, what did you expect in Kansas? We've brought six horses and
we thought two of the girls could ride in front of Dick and myself. It's
only nine miles and the horses don't gallop all the way."

The girls looked panic-stricken, even Alice seemed a little dazed, Frank
was so very plausible. Dick helped him on delightfully.

"I told you, Alice, you'd better put your riding habit in your satchel.
I suppose the horses are gentle, Frank."

"Oh, they don't often throw anyone that's used to them. Naturally,
they're a little gayer in summer when they're in the pasture so much."

Ernest could not resist adding his bit. "I was thrown three times last
week, would you like to try my pony, Katy?"

This revealed the game to Alice.

"You awful fibbers, don't you believe a word they say, girls."

"Honest Injun," said Ernest, "I was."

"It's the truth," Frank confirmed.

Poor little Gertie, who was already beginning to realize that she was
very far from home and in a strange land besides, commenced to cry.

Dr. Morton came promptly to the rescue.

"That'll do, boys. Save your joking till our guests are rested from
their journey at least. Frank, you and Dick look up the trunks while
Ernest and Sherm help me bring up the wagons. It's all right, dear," he
put his arm reassuringly around Gertie, "you shall ride in one of the
most comfortable of vehicles if we haven't a carriage to offer you. You
mustn't pay any attention to their teasing."

After the first two miles of their homeward journey, Chicken Little gave
up her pony to Sherm and climbed in with the girls. Ernest offered to
change saddles, but Sherm declared he didn't mind the side saddle and
cheerfully bore all the jokes the party cut at his expense. Dr. Morton
watched him approvingly. "Good stuff," he said to himself, as Sherm
returned the sallies without wincing. The boy's long legs dangling from
the side saddle were a comical sight. Sherm, if not quite so tall as
Ernest, was rather better proportioned and delightfully supple and
muscular. He was the same matter-of-fact, straight-forward boy he had
always been, but his father's long illness had sobered him, though he
could be hilarious, as he was proving now.

"Say, Sherm," Katy prodded, "why don't you borrow Jane's riding skirt
too?"

"Yes, Sherm, go the lengths--you'd make a beautiful girl," teased Alice.

Sherm laughed. "Chicken Little may have something to say to that!"

"I thought you'd be making excuses."

Sherm was not to be bluffed. "Not much, hand it over, Chicken Little."

"You never can get into it, Sherm."

"What'll you bet?"

"It'll be too small around the waist."

Dr. Morton stopped and Jane hastily slipped off the skirt, presenting
rather a funny appearance herself with her habit basque and the blue
lawn dress showing beneath. Sherm dismounted, turning Calico over to
Ernest to hold. The entire party shouted when Jane reached up on tiptoe
to throw the clumsy skirt over his head. Sherm neglected to hold it, and
the shot in the hem promptly dropped it to the ground.

"Gee," exclaimed Sherm, "the cranky thing seems to have a mind of its
own."

"I don't know what the girls want to wear the pesky things for,"
grumbled Ernest.

"They don't want to wear them--but their pernickety brothers and fathers
and husbands consider them modest," Alice hit back promptly.

"I consider them very dangerous," said Dr. Morton.

While this bantering was going on, Chicken Little was vainly endeavoring
to fasten the band around Sherm's waist.

"You'll just have to squeeze in, Sherm. I can never make it meet," she
giggled.

"I'm squeezing in, I tell you."

With a triumphant pull, Jane got the band buttoned and Sherm heaved a
sigh of relief--a disastrous sigh--it sent the button flying and the
weighted skirt once more slid to the ground.

"Drat it!" Sherm groaned.

"Now, you said you'd wear it. Don't let him back out, Chicken Little,"
Katy urged.

"Who said anything about backing out?"

"You'll have to get a string, Jane. Haven't you a piece in your pocket,
Frank?"

Frank produced the string and by dint of using it generously, the skirt
was finally secured and Sherm still allowed some breathing room.

But the girls were not yet satisfied. Katy insisted upon lending him her
leghorn hat and Alice contributed a veil. Gertie offered a hair ribbon
which Chicken Little slyly pinned to the collar of Sherm's coat.

He was a sight for the gods when he finally remounted. But he carried it
off with a dash, assuming various kittenish airs and coquetries, even
waving saucily at two cowboys who passed them and turned to stare in
bewilderment at his bizarre costume.

The ride home passed quickly with all this fun. Gertie cheered up and
enjoyed the prairie sights as much as the others. Gertie seemed the same
little girl of three years before except for her added inches, but Katy
had many little grown-up airs and graces and evidently felt the
importance of her fourteen years.

"Almost fifteen," she answered Dr. Morton when he inquired her age. The
two girls were dressed alike still, but Katy managed in some subtle way
to give her clothes a different air from Gertie's. "I don't know just
what the difference is," Marian remarked to Alice a day or two after
their coming, "but Katy is stylish and Gertie demurely sweet in the
self-same dress."

"Personality will out, even in children," Alice replied. "They are both
unusually bright and well brought up, but Katy is ambitious and likes to
cut a bit of a dash, and Gertie doesn't. She is a home and mother girl.
I am amazed that she screwed up her courage to come so far without her
mother. I fear she is already a trifle homesick, though she is enjoying
every minute, and is enchanted with the chickens and pups and all this
outdoor life."

Chicken Little found out these things more gradually. On the long ride
home from the station they chattered busily. All three felt a little shy
for the first minutes but there was so much to tell. Katy had finished
her freshman year in the High School and spun great tales of their
doings. Carol had graduated the week before.

"He is awfully handsome, Chicken Little. All the girls are mashed on
him."

"Are what, Katy?" demanded Alice who had been listening to Dick and Dr.
Morton with one ear open for the girl's confidences. She felt rather
responsible to Mrs. Halford for Katy and Gertie.

Katy colored. "I don't care, Alice, that's what all the girls say, and I
can't be goody-goody and proper all the time."

"All right, Katy, if you think Mother likes that kind of slang, I don't
mind."

Katy didn't say anything further to Alice, but when she resumed her
story to Jane, she said: "Well, I don't care what you call it, but they
all are! And he just smiles in that lazy way of his and doesn't put
himself out for anybody. He didn't even take a girl to the senior party,
and lots of the Senior girls had to go in a bunch because they didn't
have an escort."

"But he had awfully good marks," added Gertie, "and Prof. Slocum said he
could have been Valedictorian just as well as not if he had tried a
little harder."

"That's the trouble--he's too lazy to try. I guess if he goes to the
Naval Academy as he wants to, he'll have to get over being lazy." Katy
evidently wasted no sympathy on Carol.

The mention of the Naval Academy fired Jane. She shouted the news to
Ernest who was some distance ahead with Sherm.

"Yes, Sherm's just told me," he called back, "wouldn't it be scrumptious
if we both got to go?"

"Oh, is Ernest going?" Katy and Alice and Dick all exclaimed nearly in
unison.

Chicken Little told them all about Ernest's plans and about the Captain.
Katy wished to call on this fascinating individual immediately. But Dr.
Morton suggested that he thought they would all be tired enough to rest
for the remainder of the day by the time they arrived at the ranch. They
were, but not too tired to enjoy Mrs. Morton's hearty country supper.

Dick ate hot biscuit and creamed potatoes and fried chicken till Alice
declared she shouldn't have the face to stay a month, if he gorged like
that all the time.

"You'll stop keeping tab on his appetite before you have been here many
days, Alice. You'll be busy satisfying your own. You will find country
air a marvellous tonic," Dr. Morton assured her.

They were all amused to see Katy looking in shocked amazement at Gertie
who had just been persuaded to have a second heaping saucer of
raspberries and cream. To be sure, Katy herself had had two drumsticks
and a breast. But she considered being served twice to dessert away from
home highly improper.

"I wish it were a little later in the season so Ernest could bring us in
quail for you," said Mrs. Morton.

"Quail?" Dick's face lighted. "Is the hunting still good around here?"

"Excellent for quail and prairie chicken, and the plover are plentiful
at certain seasons," Dr. Morton replied.

"They found two deer on the creek last winter," added Ernest.

"Yes, there are a few strays left but the day for them has practically
gone by."

"Dick, if you go hunting you've got to take me." Alice put her hands on
her husband's shoulders and rested her chin on his hair.

"Barkus is willing if you can stand the tramp."

"We don't tramp, we drive. It's a trifle too early for hunting, but by
the latter part of next week, you might try it. You can take the boys
and spring wagon and have an all-day picnic. I can spare them, and
Ernest for a guide."

"Can we all go?" Katy started up excitedly.

"Of course, I can shoot a little," Chicken Little sounded patronizing.

"Yes, Chicken Little can shoot but she never hits anything--she always
shuts her eyes before she pulls the trigger," Ernest called her down
promptly.

"It's no such thing, Ernest Morton, I killed a quail once, didn't I,
Father?"

"Dick, if you'll come and unrope our trunks, I think we'd better be
getting our things out," said Alice an hour later.

"Yours to command, Captain. I am perishing to have Chicken Little see my
present."

"Yes, Jane, what do you think? Dick had to go and pick you out a gift
all by himself--he wasn't satisfied with my efforts. And he has the
impudence to insist that you will like his best."

"We've got a package for you, too, but I don't know what's in it. Mother
wouldn't let us see. Let's go unpack quick, Gertie, and find out."

"And I want to show my trousseau! Shall I get it out to-night, Mrs.
Morton, or wait till morning?"

"To-night, Alice," spoke up Marian, "I want to see it and I'll be busy
in the morning. I am pining to see some pretty clothes."

Dick had already vanished into the upper regions and he called down
airily: "Doors open, ladies. World renowned aggregation of feminine
wearing apparel, including one pair of the very latest hoops and the
youngest thing in bustles, now on exhibition."

Mrs. Morton looked shocked, and Marian and Alice tried to control their
amusement. "The heathen, I warned him to be good." Alice laughed in
spite of herself with an apologetic glance at Mrs. Morton. The girls had
bolted upstairs at the first words of Dick's invitation.

"Come on, Mother, don't mind Dick's nonsense," said Marian, linking her
arm in hers and gently drawing her up. "It will do you good to see
Alice's pretty things."

Dick held the door open for them with a deep salaam. Alice held up a
finger warningly with an imperceptible gesture in Mrs. Morton's
direction. He shrugged his shoulders repentantly.

"Now, Alice, if you'll just dig out my particular parcel I'll vamoose.
Women complain that men never take an interest in their affairs and then
if a misguided chap tries to act intelligent, he is snubbed." Dick's
tone sounded injured.

Alice kissed the tip of his ear and shoved him out of the way. "You're
so big, Dick, there's never room for anyone else when you're around."

Alice deftly opened trays and lids, pulling out protecting papers; she
handed Dick a large flat parcel.

Dick received it with his hand on his heart, then striking an oratorical
attitude, addressed Jane in the formal tone he used in court.

"Ladies, Miss Chicken Little Jane Morton, I have the great honor on this
suspicious occasion to present to you on behalf of my unworthy self, a
slight testimonial of my deep respect and undying affection--Alice, stop
winking at Marian--Mrs. Morton, is it fitting for a wife to stop the
flow of her husband's eloquence by winking? I wish you'd take Alice in
hand. I think she needs some lessons in the proprieties. As I was
saying, I wish to present this trifle to you, and the only expression of
gratitude I desire in return, is thirty kisses to be delivered one
daily, on or before the twelfth hour of each day, to which witness my
seal and hand."

With another bow, he resigned the parcel to Chicken Little.

She promptly tendered one kiss in advance. Then stripped off the papers
with eager fingers. A charming white leghorn hat appeared. It was faced
with pale blue and trimmed with knots of apple blossoms and black velvet
ribbon.

"How charming!" exclaimed Mrs. Morton.

"Dick, I didn't suppose you had such good taste!" added Marian.

"Try it on quick, Chicken Little."

Chicken Little's shining eyes and clear, fair skin fitted like a charm
under the pale blue.

Dick was jubilant. "I saw that hat in a shop window and I thought it
looked exactly like Chicken Little. Who says a man can't pick out a
hat?"

He departed without waiting for any disparaging remarks.

Alice's present came next, a charming muslin with sash and hair ribbons
the exact shade of the blue hat facing.

"If it only fits, Jane. I left some to let out in the hem, but you are
bigger every way than I thought. I tried it on Katie."

"Changing it a little at the waist will make it perfect," Marian
reassured her.

"Oh, I am so glad it is snug, and just the right length, Alice.
Mother--" Chicken Little stopped suddenly, she couldn't be criticising
mother before company. "You see I grow so dreadfully fast that Mother
has to make everything too big so it'll last a while."

Marian supplemented this explanation later to Alice.

"Poor child, Mother Morton does make her clothes too big! And it doesn't
do a bit of good for they hang on her the whole season and by the next
they're either worn or faded--and she generally manages to out-grow
them, in spite of their bigness."

The girl's parcel was found to contain candy and a duck of a fan.

But Alice's wedding things soon put everything else in the shade. The
dainty sets of underwear with their complicated puffs and insertings,
frilled petticoats, silk and muslin and poplin gowns, hats and parasols,
lay in a rainbow colored heap on the bed and chairs.

"Alice," said Marian, caressing some of the dainty lingerie, "who is
going to iron all these puffs and ruffles? It would take hours to do
them right, especially the petticoats."

"I know, Marian--I asked Aunt Clara the same question. And do you know
what I have done?"

Her audience looked interested.

"I just went down town the minute I got to Centerville and got some nice
strong muslin and I've been making it up perfectly plain except for a
tiny edge. They are heaps more comfortable--and I wear these others for
best. Why, I couldn't keep a maid and hurl all that stuff at her every
week!"

"Are they wearing hoops pretty generally?" Mrs. Morton inquired as Alice
laughingly held a pair up for inspection.

"Yes, and bustles too. See this buff poplin with the panniers just has
to have a bustle. Thank goodness they're young yet, as Dick says, but I
suppose they'll keep on getting bigger."

"Oh, I should think they'd be so hot and horrid."

"They are, but the hoops are delightfully cool, only you have to be on
your guard with the treacherous things or they swing up in front when
you sit down, in a most mortifying fashion."

"I have a pair to wear with my muslin dresses--it makes them stand out
beautifully," said Katy complacently. "But Mother wouldn't let Gertie
have any. She said she was too young."

"I didn't want the old things," Gertie protested. "And you wouldn't have
got yours if you hadn't teased perfectly awful, and I heard Mother say
she guessed you'd soon be sick enough of them."

"I agree entirely with your mother, Gertie, I consider them unsuitable
for little girls. But they do set off a handsome dress to advantage. I
remember during the war we used to wear such large ones we could hardly
get through a door with them."

"Mother Morton, I bet you were a lot more frivolous than we are now."
Marian put her hand lovingly on the wrinkled one that was smoothing the
folds of a rich silk.

Mrs. Morton smiled. "Well, we had our pretty things. Alice's dresses are
lovely, but she hasn't anything more elegant than my second day dress.
It was a brown and silver silk brocade with thread lace chemisette and
under sleeves. And my next best was apple green and pink changeable,
trimmed in yards and yards of narrow black velvet ribbon all sewed on by
hand."

"How I should love to have seen them!" Alice smiled wistfully. "You know
I didn't have any of my mother's things."

"Come on, girls, it's getting late, let's help Alice put her treasures
away. They couldn't be nicer, Alice, and I think you are going to be a
very happy woman to make up for that desolate girlhood of yours."

Marian was already folding the garments. They were soon laid away snugly
in trunk and closet and drawers, and the whole family packed off to bed
to be ready for the early farm breakfast on the morrow.



CHAPTER VI

A HUNTING PARTY


The day following the arrival of the guests was spent in resting and
seeing the ranch. Katy and Gertie had never been on a large farm before,
and the thousand acres of field and prairie and woodland, seemed as
marvellous as the tales they had read of the big English estates. Alice
and Dick were also fascinated by all this space and freedom, but they
saw deeper than the little girls.

"It's a wonderful place," said Dick, "and I don't wonder the Doctor is
proud of it. But he is too well along in years to handle such a big
undertaking. I doubt if the ranch pays for ten years to come, and it
means hard work and a lonely life for all of them. It's all right for
Frank and Marian, but I'm sorry for the rest of the family."

"Mrs. Morton is growing old fast with all this unaccustomed drudgery,
and she is worried about the children's education, I can see," replied
Alice.

"Yes, there are two sides to it. I guess we'll stick to the law and
little old Centerville; we may not die rich, but we'll be a lot more
comfortable as we go along."

Sherm took to the farm like the proverbial duck to the pond. He donned
overalls that first morning and was off with Frank and Ernest to the
fields before the little girls were out of bed. After breakfast Jane
took Katie and Gertie to see the sights of the ranch. First to the
spring under the old oak where the cold, clear water gushed from the
rocks into a little basin, and then tumbled down a rocky channel under
the springhouse and on for some hundred of yards farther before it
widened out into the pond.

"We can go swimming in the pond but there is a nicer place in the creek
above the ford."

"Oh, I'd love to learn to swim but we haven't any bathing suits."

"Pooh, that doesn't matter, we just take some old dresses--there isn't
anybody to see you, especially down at the creek. You know it's private
ground and the trees hang over the pool all around so the sun only comes
in a little bit. We'll get Marian to go with us."

"I should think you could skate, too."

"We do. I had a great time once last winter--Father told me the ice was
too thin, but I saw a yearling calf go over all right and I thought the
ice would bear me. But I guess calfie had more sense about the weak
places. At any rate, I went through, near the middle. The water was up
to my shoulders. Gee, it was cold and the ice kept breaking when I tried
to climb out--and the men were all away. I most froze before I got to
the bank, and then my skate straps were so wet I couldn't loosen them,
besides my fingers were too numb to bend. I had to walk on the skates
all the way to the house. My teeth chattered till they almost played
tunes by the time I got to the door." Chicken Little shivered at the
recollection.

"What's the cunning little stone house for?" Gertie's attention was
caught by a tiny hut without windows on the edge of the pond.

"Oh, that's the smokehouse. We're so far from town that we put away a
lot of meat every winter. The hams and sides of bacon are smoked there."

"And that wooden building over yonder?"

"The granary--for the wheat and rye. Those open log houses are the corn
cribs."

"My, it takes a lot of buildings to make a ranch." Katy was impressed in
spite of herself.

"We haven't been to the barns and corrals yet. I love the hay mow."

Chicken Little had not forgotten lumps of sugar for Calico and Caliph.
Ernest had given his pony a high-sounding name. The intelligent beast
was proud and dainty enough to deserve it. He was shy about coming for
his lump, but when he once got the taste, he nosed around Chicken Little
for more.

They ended the morning's wanderings in Jane's own particular bower,
known to the family as the Weeping Willows because she had once retired
there to cry out her troubles, and had been discovered in a very moist
state by Frank, who was a merciless tease.

There were two rows of the old willows. They formed a long leafy room on
the edge of one of the orchards, out of sight both of the house and
road. Chicken Little had been known to flee thither on more than one
occasion when she did not wish to be disturbed in the thrilling place in
a novel. For you really couldn't hear any one calling from the house in
this leafy fastness. Ernest had made her two or three rustic seats, and
a little cupboard where she could keep her treasures sheltered from the
sun and rain.

Katy and Gertie were charmed with this retreat.

"If there was only a table, I could write all my letters home out here.
Wouldn't it be romantic?" Katy loved the unusual.

"It's lovely, Jane, let's stay out here lots." Gertie settled down on
one of the seats with a little sigh. "I wish I had my old doll here; it
would make such a dandy playhouse."

"Gertie Halford, the idea of a great, big girl like you wanting to play
with dolls."

"I get Victoria out sometimes and dress her up," confessed Jane. "It
isn't much fun all alone, but I like to see her sometimes. If you'd like
to, Gertie, we'll have a doll sewing bee this afternoon and you can be
Victoria's mother and Katie and I will be dressmaker's though I never
could sew decently. Mother's about given me up in despair."

Chicken Little had noticed a little far-away look in Gertie's eyes ever
since she came. Marian had warned her the night before that she had
better keep Gertie pretty busy for a day or two, or she would be
homesick.

Unfortunately, Chicken Little's kindness precipitated the catastrophe
she was trying to avoid. She was so motherly she reminded Gertie afresh
of the dear little mother she had left so many miles behind and the
tears came in spite of her.

Chicken Little coaxed and comforted, and Katy coaxed and scolded,
but Gertie's tears were apparently turned on for keeps and the
Weeping Willows was earning its name again. Gertie cried till she
got all shivery, declaring solemnly whenever she could command
her voice sufficiently to talk, that there wasn't a thing the
matter--only--only--she--was a little bit homesick.

She wouldn't hear to Jane's going to fetch Alice or Mrs. Morton or
Marian. "She'd be all right in a minute, if they'd just let her alone."

But the minutes went by and she still cried, and in spite of the warm
June sunshine, her hands felt cold and her shoulders shook as if with an
ague. Chicken Little and Katy were both getting worried when help came
in the shape of Marian and Jilly.

Marian understood at a glance, and dropping to the ground beside her,
drew her into her lap and chafed the cold hands while she bade Jilly hug
poor Gertie. Jilly was a born comforter and she half smothered the
patient with her energetic hugs and moist, warm kisses.

"Too bad, too bad--ants bite Gertie, too bad! Jilly fine 'em."

Jilly had not forgotten her own sad experience with the ants and not
seeing any visible cause for Gertie's woes, evidently thought they were
the guilty ones again.

Jilly was irresistible. Gertie had to laugh, even if the tears running
down her face, did leave a salty taste in her mouth. She hugged the
small comforter. Jilly, however, was not to be turned from her hunt. She
insisted upon pulling down Gertie's stockings and making a minute search
for the culprits. Her little tickling fingers and earnest air completed
Gertie's cure, and Jilly adopted her as her own particular property from
that day on, seeming to consider her in need of protection.

Marian declared they must all come and have dinner with her. Ernest and
Sherm were already there and they had a merry meal in the little
cottage, for Marian made them all help--even the big boys. She tied a
blue apron around Sherm and set him to stirring gravy while Ernest
watched four cherry pies almost ready to come out of the oven. She had
despatched Katy and Jane to the springhouse after milk and butter.
Gertie, assisted by Jilly, set the table.

Sherm had burned a nice fiery red during his morning's plowing. He was
immensely proud of his efforts.

"I tell you Sherm's some farmer for a tenderfoot," said Ernest, telling
about the number of corn rows he had done.

"Better come stay with us, Sherm."

"Haven't I come--I love the ranch. But I suppose I've got four years of
college ahead of me."

"You'll have time enough after that, Sherm," said Frank, "but if you
should want to try ranching, you'd better come out this way."

"No ranching for me." Ernest thumped the table with his fork
emphatically. "You can have my berth, Sherm, and welcome. The only thing
I care for here, is the hunting. By the way, Frank, are you and Marian
going hunting with us?"

"I'd like to. What do you say, Marian?"

"Why, if there's room for so many."

"I wish we could ask Captain Clarke," Chicken Little spoke up.

"My, you are daffy about the Captain, Jane. He wouldn't go--you couldn't
hire him to if he knew Alice and I were to be of the party. Queer he is
so charming with Jane, and with the men and boys, and so very reserved
and stiff with women."

"He probably has some reason for disliking your sex. Perhaps, if we'd
let him go with the children and the boys, he might be persuaded to
come. He'd only see you at luncheon time. What's the matter, Katie?"

"I'm not a child," said Katy with dignity.

"All right, you may come with us grown-ups and let the Captain have the
children and the boys."

"You'd better find out whether the Captain is willing before you plan so
definitely, Frank."

"We'll send Chicken Little and Sherm over on the ponies as a special
deputation to invite him. You must coax your prettiest, Sis."

"I'd love to. I just know I can get him to come. Will you go with me,
Sherm?"

"Nothing I'd like better," responded Sherm heartily.

The next few days fairly twinkled by. The girls roamed the woods and the
fields with Dick and Alice, and went in bathing, and fed chickens, and
even made little pats of butter down in the cool springhouse. Gertie
mourned because she could not send hers home straightway to Mother.
Chicken Little and Sherm waited until Sunday to go over to the
Captain's.

Sherm found Caliph and the Mexican saddle rather more to his taste than
Chicken Little's outfit had been on the ride from town. He had about all
he could do for the first five minutes to manage Caliph for he had had
little opportunity for riding at home. But he had a cool head, and with
a few suggestions from Jane, he soon convinced Caliph that he had a new
master as determined as Ernest, if not quite so skilful a horseman. They
did not talk much. Sherm considered Jane a little girl and Jane stood
rather in awe of Sherm. But they enjoyed the brisk ride none the less.
The swift motion with the wind in their faces, the wide stretches of
prairie bounded on the distant horizon by a faint line of timber, were
novel and delightful to Sherm. To Jane, they were familiar and dearly
loved. Besides, she liked having Sherm with her.

He glanced at her from time to time. Chicken Little glanced back with
sweet, friendly eyes. It was she who finally broke the ice.

"I do hope the Captain will go. I'm most sure he'll like you, because
his little boy looked a lot like you. He showed me the picture."

"He seems to like you all right from what they say."

Chicken Little laughed merrily.

Sherm couldn't quite see the connection.

"Well, what's so funny about that?"

"Will you cross your heart never to tell, Sherm? Frank and Ernest would
tease the life out of me if they knew."

"Cut my heart out and eat it, if I ever breathe a word."

Chicken Little related the swearing episode which she had not seen fit
to trouble even Marian with, at home. "I guess," she concluded, "he felt
sort of sorry for me right at the start and that made him like me."

"'Twouldn't be such a hard job as you seem to think, Jane," Sherm
surprised himself by saying.

Chicken Little flushed and looked up hastily at Sherm who also felt his
face getting warm to his great disgust. Sherm hated softies of any kind.

"Oh, I believe there's the Captain now over by the pasture fence."

Captain Clarke was riding round the pastures inspecting the barbed wire
fencing. He soon hailed them.

"Hello, Little Neighbor, is the piebald behaving himself?"

Jane introduced Sherm as soon as they came abreast.

"Captain Clarke, this is Ernest's friend, the Sherman Dart I told you
about."

Captain Clarke scanned the boy's face curiously. His own went a little
white after an instant's inspection.

"You are right--he is marvellously like what my boy might be to-day. I
beg your pardon for my rude scrutiny. Possibly Jane has told you of the
resemblance. You will come up to the house and let Wing give you some
lemonade. It is hot this afternoon."

Chicken Little declined to take him from his course and told him their
errand. He hesitated. "You say Mr. and Mrs. Harding and your brother and
his wife are going. Would you think me very rude and unappreciative if I
declined, dear? I am poor company for anyone these days and----"

Chicken Little looked so disappointed that he paused ruefully.

"Please, just this once, Katie and Gertie want to see you dreadfully and
you could go with us. Pretty please."

She thought she saw signs of weakening. Sherm also noticed the Captain's
hesitation.

"We've all sort of set our hearts on having you, Sir. Chicken Little and
Ernest have talked so much about you we feel acquainted, and Dr. Morton
says you're a dead shot. I've never hunted anything but squirrels
myself."

Captain Clarke stared at Sherm as if in a dream for a minute. The boy
was embarrassed by his silence and smiled his little crooked smile to
cover it. Their host passed his hand over his eyes and sighed. Then he
smiled.

"It's no disgrace to surrender to a superior force. I am yours to
command. But I stipulate that you two stand by me."

Chicken Little gave a bounce in her saddle to emphasize her delight and
Calico took this as a hint to go on.

"Whoa, Calico! Thank you--bushels! Oh, I just know we'll have the best
time! Would you mind if we children all went with you because nobody's
going to be willing to be left out?"

"I can take five nicely and have plenty of room for guns and lunch
baskets besides. By the way, please tell your mother that Wing Fan will
never forgive me if he is not permitted to get up the lunch for all the
young people at the very least."

"Have you a gun with you?" he asked Sherm as they were going.

"No, but Ernest said I might take his."

"I have a new shotgun. I should be glad if you would share it with me."

They found Alice and Dick, Marian, Katie, Gertie and Jilly, not to
mention Huz and Buz, waiting for them on the Morton side of the ford.

"What luck?"

Sherm didn't give Jane a chance to reply.

"Oh, Chicken Little just put on her company smile and the Captain held
out his hands and said: 'Handcuffs, please.'" He was meeker than Buz.

"Sherman Dart, you old--" Chicken Little flicked Caliph lightly by way
of revenge, and Sherm had his hands full for several seconds, for Caliph
resented the indignity.

It was arranged to start early the following Saturday morning. Mrs.
Morton and Annie were up soon after daylight busy with the mysteries of
fried chicken and fresh rolls. The men of the party were equally busy
cleaning guns and routing out all sorts of hunting toggery. The girls
tried to help everybody impartially, succeeding for the most part in
making a general nuisance of themselves.

At exactly seven-thirty Captain Clarke drove up with a wonderful team of
blacks. His hunting jacket was belted in with a formidable looking
cartridge belt, two shotguns were slid in on the floor of the spring
wagon, and lunch baskets and a great earthenware jug of lemonade were
wedged in under the seats. He gave a shrill hunting halloo as he drew up
at the gate.

Mrs. Morton was a little disturbed at the gay looking team.

"Are you quite sure they are safe with the guns? You know young people
are often reckless and this is a very precious load."

"My dear madam, I think I can answer for Jim and Jerry. I took them out
for an hour yesterday and used the gun over their heads to make sure
they hadn't forgotten their manners."

The Captain met the strangers of the party in his usual courteous
reserved fashion, but his eyes lighted when Chicken Little ran down the
walk. He established Ernest and Katie and Gertie on the back seat and
swung Jane up in front to the driver's seat with Sherm on her left.

"Ernest, I'll handle the ribbons going, if it suits you, and you can
drive us back. I have an idea you will have the sharpest eye for game of
any of this crowd. We ought to do our best work the next two hours for
snipe. We probably won't find many prairie chickens until we get over on
Little John. By the way, boys, be careful not to disturb the mother
birds--there are still some on the nests. I really don't like to hunt
quite so early in the season as this, although a good many of the young
birds are shifting for themselves already--bird parents have a beautiful
faith in Providence. They don't worry long about their young."

A light shower had fallen the night before and the air was fresh and
fragrant with the smell of wet grasses and moist earth.

The rattle of wheels close behind assured them that Frank and his load
were near.

"Kansas certainly takes the cake for climate," Dick called to them,
happily reckless about corrupting the young folk with his slang. Alice
promptly reproached him.

"Mrs. Morton would send you home by the first train if she heard you."

Dick assumed an air of mock woe. "Oh, I say there, Chicken Little, don't
mention that little matter of the cake--that particular cake isn't
respectable, Alice says."

It was Frank who got the first shot.

"Here, Marian, take the lines quick. Hold them tight--they may jump when
I fire. Turn out of the road--to the right--slowly now. Stop!"

Frank drew the gun to his shoulder and took careful aim while the others
were still vainly trying to see something to shoot at. A snap, a flash,
and a bird whirred up a hundred paces away, flew a few feet from the
ground, and fell.

Frank ran to the spot and held up a good-sized plover. Marian and Alice
examined it pitifully.

"What a slender delicate thing it is! It seems a shame to kill it. I
like the excitement of hunting but I always want to cry over the
victims," said Alice with a sigh.

Sherm caught sight of a covey soon after. He and Ernest slipped out of
the wagon and stole up as close as possible. Ernest got two with the
scattering bird shot, but Sherm missed.

"You were too anxious, lad. Stop an instant always before you fire to
make sure your hand is steady," the Captain consoled him kindly.

Sherm profited by this advice and brought down his next bird. Captain
Clarke left the game to the boys until their first zest for the sport
was satisfied. Chicken Little frequently discovered the birds before
either of the boys, and was eager to have a turn herself, as was also
Katy. Gertie put her hands to her ears every time a gun was fired and
openly hoped they wouldn't find any more game to shoot at. Captain
Clarke advised the girls to wait a little, and watch the boys carefully
to see exactly how they aimed and rested their guns, and he would help
them both a little later. But Ernest soon undertook Katie's education
and was surprised to find he had a very apt pupil. Katy had as steady a
nerve and as true an eye as either of the boys. Ernest began to be
alarmed lest his pupil win his honors away from him.

"You must have shot before, Katy."

"I have with a revolver. Uncle Sim used to let me shoot at a target. And
he had an archery club last summer."

The Captain did his best for Chicken Little but she did not do nearly so
well as Katy, though she made one shot the Captain considered quite
extraordinary.

"It's a pretty long range for a novice, little neighbor, but you can try
it."

Two birds flew up where she had seen one. "Oh, dear, I missed," she
lamented.

"I'm not so sure," said Sherm. "Let's go see."

He helped her down and they made a brisk run toward the spot where the
grouse had risen. After a few minutes, Sherm stooped and picked up a
bird considerably to the right of where Chicken Little had aimed.

"Well, I'll be jiggered!" he exclaimed with a puzzled expression. "You
did get one."

He stood looking down thoughtfully at the ground. Chicken Little hurried
to him elated, but her joy was short-lived. Snuggled among the grasses
was an empty nest.

"Oh, do you 'spose she was on the nest? But I couldn't have seen her if
she had been--and it's empty."

By way of reply, Sherm stooped again and picked up a baby grouse from a
clump of weeds. Fear had frozen it into a motionless wee brown image.

"Oh, the poor little darling! I took its mother." Chicken Little looked
ready to cry.

Bending down Sherm parted the weeds and grasses cautiously.

"Here's another--and another. We must hunt them, Chicken Little, and
take them home or they will all starve. Gee, what can we put them in?"

Jane slipped her hat elastic from under her braid, and taking a handful
of long grass to line it with, soon made a snug nest. They tucked the
mottled downy bunches into it.

"What in Sam Hill are you people doing over there?" called Ernest.

"Little grouse--come help us find them," Sherm called back. "Be careful
now or you'll step on them," he warned as Ernest and the girls came
running up. "They are the slyest little codgers--you don't see them
until you are right on them."

Gertie was on her knees peering before the words were out of his mouth.
She lifted a fourth mite from its hiding place, and a fifth, and a
sixth, almost as fast as she could pick them up. "Oh, aren't they dear?
May I hold them, Jane, when we get back to the wagon?" Gertie was
caressing them with hands and eyes.

There were ten chicks cuddled in the hat, when after a thorough search
of the weeds, Ernest announced that they must surely have them all. But
to make sure they went over the ground in all directions once more.

Jane was very sober. Sherm tried to cheer her.

"You couldn't help it, Chicken Little. You didn't mean to." Sherm smiled
his funny smile as he said this.

"Why are you smiling? Oh, I know--I believe so, too."

"What secrets are you talking?" Katy was curious.

"Yes, speak United States, it isn't polite to leave your guests in the
dark this way," growled Ernest.

Jane haughtily declined to explain just then. When they returned to the
wagon, they found the Captain as much interested in the shot, as he was
in the prairie chicks.

"That was really a wonderful hit, little girl. I congratulate you."

Jane stole a glance at Sherm. He wasn't looking at her, but he was
smiling. Jane smiled, too.

"Yes, Captain Clarke," she replied demurely, "it was rather
astonishing."

This was too much for Sherm who chuckled openly. Captain Clarke looked
from one to the other inquiringly. The others were completely mystified.

"Well, I'd just like to know what you two are up to." Katy wrinkled her
nose in disgust.

"Can't a fellow laugh without having to give an account of himself?"
Sherm parried, still trying to stave off the mirth that possessed him.

Chicken Little's face was sweetly sober. "He's appreciating
my--skill--the rest of you don't seem to realize what a feat----" A
sound, something between a crow and a suppressed steam whistle
interrupted her. Sherm whooped until he was red in the face. Chicken
Little regarded him reproachfully, but continued: "You see most anybody
can hit the chicken they aim at, but it takes a fine shot to hit one you
didn't know was there." She grinned mischievously up at the Captain who
grinned back delightedly.

"Really, Chicken Little?"

"Really." She joined in the general laugh.

"What did you want to tell for?" Sherm had enjoyed having the joke to
himself.

She didn't answer then, but later she whispered: "Because the Captain--I
didn't want him praising me that way!"

Noon found them fifteen miles from home with a bag of six snipe and ten
prairie chickens, and appetites that fairly clamored. Frank found an
ideal camping place in a grove of walnut trees beside a small creek.

"I camped here once two years ago and there's a fine spring somewhere
near. Come along, Katie, we'll go hunt it. Ernest, picket the
horses--there's oats under the back seat. And Sherm, if you'll just
start a fire for the coffee."

Marian and Alice spread the luncheon out on a long tablecloth laid over
the dust robes on the ground. Gertie and Chicken Little fed the little
grouse with some moistened bread crumbs, finding it difficult at first
to induce them to eat. But they would swallow, when the girls pried open
their tiny beaks and stuck a crumb inside. Captain Clarke showed them
how, and patiently helped them until each tiny craw was at least partly
filled.

Marian and Alice watched him furtively.

"He is gentle as a woman," Alice whispered, "and his face lights up
wonderfully when he smiles, though it is stern usually."

"Yes, I can see now why Jane is so fascinated. Do you know his smile is
very much like Sherm's? See--no, just wait a minute. Now--watch his
upper lip--his mouth twists crooked exactly like Sherm's. Chicken Little
spoke of his baby's picture having the same smile." Marian dropped her
eyes hastily as the Captain chanced to turn in their direction.

"I imagine lots of people have that kind of a smile only we never
noticed them," replied Alice.

"Of course, I didn't mean to suggest anything. Will you cut the lemon
cake?"

After the luncheon was eaten, the shady grove tempted them to linger on
with its woodsy coolness. The younger folk dragging the Captain, a
willing victim, along with them, went off on an exploring expedition
while the others stretched out luxuriously on the coarse grass that grew
rank along the slope.

It was four o'clock before they could tear themselves away for the
homeward ride.

"You'd better hurry," Frank called to the stragglers, "it will be almost
dark before we get home even if we don't stop to shoot."

They picked up a few quail on the divide soon after they started, but
their zest for the sport seemed to have waned. Chicken Little declined
to try any further.

"I know, it's the baby grouse," said Katy.

"Yes," said Captain Clarke, "I think the baby grouse have rather taken
the zip out of it for all of us."

The moon was just peeping above the tree tops as they crossed the home
ford. A huge grotesque shadow of the horses and wagon with its load, was
reflected upon the silvered surface of a deep pool just beyond the
ripples where they had stopped to let the horses drink. The blacks
having satisfied their thirst, began to dash the water about with their
hoofs.

"They love it, don't they?" Katy watched them.

"Yes," said the Captain thoughtfully, "I guess every living thing enjoys
this beautiful world of ours--when it is given the chance."



CHAPTER VII

PIGS


"Take a hand to a wooster? Take a hand to a wooster!"

Dick Harding was standing out in the road near the white cottage one
morning about two weeks after the hunting party, trying to decide
whether he would take a walk or a ride to settle his breakfast. He
glanced down into Jilly's sober little face lifted to his appealingly.

"Take a hand to a wooster? Charmed, I'm sure. Point out the rooster. But
what has his rooster-ship done, and how can I make him keep still long
enough to lay hands on him, Jilly Dilly?"

Jilly clasped five fat fingers around two of his, smiled confidingly and
made her plea once more: "Take a hand to a wooster."

Dick looked puzzled, but Jilly was pulling and he meekly followed her
guidance. "I haven't the faintest idea what you are getting me into,
young lady, but go ahead, I'm at your service."

Jilly pattered along not deigning to reply to his remarks. Jilly
considered words as something to be reserved for business purposes only.

She led him to the chicken yard, pressed her small face against the wire
netting that enclosed it, and contemplated the fowls ecstatically. Dick
contemplated also, trying to pick out the offending rooster.

"Which rooster, Jilly?"

But Jilly only smiled vaguely. "Feed a wooster," she commanded after
another season of gazing.

"Yes, to be sure, but what would you suggest that I offer him? There
doesn't seem to be anything edible round here."

The chickens seconded Jilly's suggestion, coming to the fence and
clucking excitedly.

Jilly looked pained at Dick's indolence and, taking his hand, led him
over to a covered wooden box, which was found to contain shelled corn.
The chickens were duly fed, but Dick still puzzled over the unchastized
rooster until Marian enlightened him later.

"I shall have to give you a key to Jilly's dialect," Marian
laughed--"she merely wanted you to go with her to see the chickens."

Chicken Little was enjoying her guests. Her resolve to help mother was
carried out only semi-occasionally when there were raspberries or
currants to be picked or peas to be shelled, under the grape arbor so
they wouldn't be in Annie's way in the kitchen. At first, Mrs. Morton
had counted on having the girls help with the breakfast dishes, but they
developed such a genius for disappearing immediately after breakfast
that she gave it up as more bother than it was worth.

They tramped and rode, and waded and splashed and finally swam, in the
bathing hole down at the creek, under Marian's or Alice's supervision,
till Katie and Gertie were brown and hearty.

"Mrs. Halford wouldn't know Gertie--she's fairly made over," Alice
observed one morning.

Gertie was fast losing her timidity and had so much persistence in
learning to ride that she bade fair to have a more graceful seat in the
saddle than Jane herself. Sherm was deep in farm work and the girls saw
little either of him or of Ernest, except in the evenings and on
Sundays. Dick ran the reaper in the harvest field for Dr. Morton for
three days, but his zeal waned as the weather got hotter.

"This is my vacation and I don't want to sweat my sweet self entirely
away 'in little drops of water.' Think how pained you'd be, dearest," he
told Alice.

"I never dreamed there was so much farming to a ranch," Alice remarked
to Dr. Morton one day. "I thought you attended to the cattle----"

"And rode around in chaps and sombreros, looking picturesque, the rest
of the time," interrupted Dick. "My precious wife is disappointed
because she hasn't seen any cowboys cavorting about the place shooting
each other up or gambling with nice picturesque bags of gold dust."

"Dick Harding! I didn't. But we'd hardly know there were any cattle
round if we didn't go through the pasture occasionally."

"Our big pastures take them off our hands pretty well in summer, but in
winter they have to be fed and herded and looked after generally, don't
they, Chicken Little? Humbug has played herd boy herself more than once.
You are thinking of the big cattle ranges in Colorado and Montana and
Wyoming, Alice. This country is cut up into farms and the ranges are
gone. And we have to raise our corn and wheat and rye, not to mention
fruits and vegetables. It's a busy life, but I love its independence."

A day or two after this conversation, Ernest came in late to dinner,
exclaiming: "Father, the white sow and all her thirteen pigs are out."

"The Dickens, have you any idea where she's gone?" Dr. Morton looked
decidedly annoyed. "I told Jim Bart that pen wasn't strong enough to
hold her--she's the meanest animal on the place."

"One of the harvest hands said he thought he saw her down along the
slough. I am sorry for the porkers if she is--they aren't a week old
yet."

"Go down right after dinner and see if you can see anything of her. The
old fool will lose them all in that marshy ground. And I don't see how
we can spare a man to look after them. It looks like rain and that wheat
must be in the barns by night."

Ernest came back from his search to report that the sow and one lone pig
had wandered back to the barnyard and Jim Bart had got them into the
pen.

"One pig! You don't mean she has lost the other twelve? That's costly
business!"

"Looks that way. They're such little fellows--I suppose they're
squealing down there in the slough in that swamp grass--it's a regular
jungle three or four feet high."

Dr. Morton studied a moment, perplexed. "Well, the grain is worth more
than the pigs. I guess they'll have to go until evening and then we'll
all go down and see how many we can find. They won't suffer greatly
before night unless they find enough water to drown themselves in."

"Oh, the poor piggies!" exclaimed Chicken Little. "Why, they'll be most
starved and maybe the bull snakes might get them."

"I hardly think they could manage a pig. But I can't help it, unless you
think you could rescue them, daughter." Dr. Morton said this last in
fun, but Chicken Little took it seriously.

"What could I put them in, Father?"

"Oh, you might take a small chicken coop," replied her father
carelessly. The wagons coming from the barn were already rattling into
the road and he was in a hurry to catch one and save himself the hot
walk to the fields.

Chicken Little was thinking. She sat twisting a corner of her apron into
a tight roll. "I believe we could do it," she said presently, "and the
bull snakes are perfectly harmless if they are big, ugly-looking things.
Will you help me, Katie?"

"Ugh, are there really snakes there, Jane?"

"Yes, but we've never seen any poisonous ones along there, though I saw
a water moccasin once right down by the spring, so you never can tell.
But snakes sound a lot worse than they really are, 'cause they're such
cowards they always run."

Katy considered. The task did not sound attractive, but Katy was plucky.
"I guess, if you can do it, I can."

Jane had not thought of asking Gertie and she was surprised to hear her
say: "I'm coming, too."

"Oh, Gertie, won't you be afraid?"

"Yes, I'm afraid, but I don't want the little piggies killed--just think
how you'd feel if you were lost in such a dreadful place and there were
snakes and awful things. If I see a snake I'll yell bloody murder, and I
guess it'll let me alone."

Jane threw herself on Gertie and hugged her. "Gertie Halford, I think
you'd make a real, sure enough book heroine, because you do things when
you think you ought to, whether you're scared or not."

"I wish Dick hadn't gone to town to-day," said Katy.

Chicken Little had her campaign already planned. "I'm going to get
Ernest's and Frank's and Sherm's rubber boots for us. They'll be lots
too big, but we can tie them around the legs to make them stick on. They
will be fine in the mud and water if we have to wade in the slough. Yes,
and they will protect us from the snakes, too. We won't put them on till
we get down there; they will be too hard to walk in. And we can take
Jilly's red wagon and put the smallest chicken coop on it. It isn't
heavy."

Mrs. Morton had gone to town with Dick and Alice for the day or the
girls would probably not have been permitted to carry out their unusual
undertaking. They quickly made their preparations with much joking about
the boots, and twenty minutes later came to the banks of the slough. The
slough was in reality a continuation of the spring stream, which spread
out in the meadows below the pond until it lost all semblance of a
stream and became merely a marshy stretch, whose waters finally found
their way into the creek. In the meadows adjoining, the finest hay on
the place was cut each year.

The girls sat down on the grass and fastened on the boots. The effect
was somewhat startling, for they reached well above the knee on Chicken
Little, who was the tallest of the three, while poor Gertie seemed to be
divided into two equal parts.

Both Katy and Jane giggled when she got laboriously to her feet.

"There's more boots than girl, Gertie," laughed Jane.

"You don't need to be afraid, Sis, you'll scare anything, even a snake!"
Katy remarked unfeelingly, though her words reassured Gertie
wonderfully.

"I don't feel so afraid in these," she said.

Chicken Little was slowly making her way in to the slough. "Jim found
the mother pig near here, Ernest said, but the little scamps may be most
anywhere. Let's listen and see if we can hear any squeals or grunts."

"Yes, I did--I'm most sure, but it didn't sound very close by," Gertie
answered.

Chicken Little listened. "Which way did the sound come from?"

"Toward the creek, but I don't hear it any more."

[Illustration: They had a pretty chase.]

"We'd better search pretty carefully as we go along so we won't have to
come back over the same ground," remarked Katy, who had a genius for
organizing--even a pig hunt. "You are the tallest, Jane, so you take the
tallest grass next the water, and I'll come along half way up the bank
and Gertie can walk through the meadow grass--that way we can't miss
them."

"No, for they must be on this side of the slough: they're too little to
wade across it."

Chicken Little made the first find, two discouraged little porkers,
hopelessly mired and grunting feebly when disturbed. They had no trouble
in catching these, but holding their wet, miry little bodies was a
different matter. They were slippery as eels. Chicken Little and Katy,
who each had one, found them a handful.

"Oh, mine most got away! And I'm all over mud--we'll be a sight!" Katy
giggled hysterically. "I wonder what mother would think if she could see
me now."

"Well, it will all wash off. It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so hard
to clump along in these old boots. It takes forever to get any place."

They had sent Gertie on ahead to open the coop door. With a sigh of
relief, Katy shoved hers into it. Jane was not so lucky. Instead of
going in, as a well-regulated pig should, the small, black-and-white
sinner shot off to one side and made for the slough again. They had a
pretty chase before he finally tangled himself up in the grass and was
captured once more.

They plodded back to take up the search where they had left off, going
through the shorter grass till they should reach the point where they
had found the pigs. They were clumping along, chattering gaily, when
Katy jumped and let out a yell that could have been heard a block away.

"Oh, there's the biggest snake I ever saw--over there near that
rock--don't you see?"

Gertie turned white, but Chicken Little encouraged her by starting
toward the monster, which was indeed a huge bull snake fully five feet
long, as Ernest and Sherm found by actual measurement that evening.

"Pooh," said Chicken Little, "it looks dreadful, but it won't hurt you.
If I can find some stones I'm going to try to kill it."

"Don't you dare go near it." Katy grabbed her dress and held on tight.

"But we'll all be scared to death all the time, for fear we come across
it again, if I don't. There are some rocks over there big enough, if I
can get them out of the ground."

She went resolutely over and, prying with a stick, secured two
good-sized rocks. Armed with these, she started toward the snake coiled
up asleep in the hot July sunshine. Katy and Gertie watched her
breathlessly. Chicken Little advanced with caution. She didn't like the
job herself, though she was sure the snake wouldn't do anything worse
than run. She had seen her elders kill them more than once, and they had
always been cowardly. Nevertheless, her heart thumped and her breath
came fast, as she crept nearer. She must go close and aim at the head if
she hoped to do any execution. Step by step she crept forward till she
was within four feet of that ugly coil. Stopping, she raised the heavy
stone and took careful aim. At this instant her presence disturbed the
snake. It raised its oval head, fixing her with its beady, bright eyes.
A thrill of horror shot through her. What if it should fascinate her so
she couldn't move? She had heard of such things. She heaved the stone,
shutting her eyes tight as it left her hand.

Katy and Gertie both screamed and jumped back. Jane opened her eyes
quickly to see the snake uncoil and start to glide away. She saw
something else, too. She saw that her stone had wounded it just behind
the head. Her courage flowed back in a trice. She raised the other stone
and moved forward. The snake was slipping over the ground at a swift
pace. She had to run, catching up with it as it came to its hole, a few
feet distant. She smashed down the second rock almost in the same place
she had hit before. The reptile moved feebly about six inches farther
till its ugly head was hidden inside the hole, then thrashed its heavy
body through another undulation, and lay still.

Chicken Little stood looking at it in dazed surprise for several
seconds. She was white and trembling with excitement. Seeing that it did
not move, Katy and Gertie crept a little closer. No one said a word for
a full minute, then Chicken Little came to life, her face convulsed with
loathing.

"Ugh, the nasty thing--I hate them. I don't see what God wanted to make
such horrid, wicked things for!"

"Well, the Bible says they weren't wicked till Eve ate the apple," Katy
replied, staring curiously down at the snake. She had never seen such a
big one outside of a circus. "But I think they must have always looked
wicked, anyhow. How did you ever dare, Chicken Little, to tackle it? I
was expecting it to wind right round you like that picture of Laocoon in
our mythology."

"I shouldn't have dared if I hadn't seen so many of them before. I guess
being brave is mostly being used to things. But I hate snakes worse than
anything in the world--I don't feel a bit sorry about killing them!"

"Oh, dear," said Gertie, shuddering, "I s'pose we have got to find the
rest of the pigs."

Katy and Chicken Little each echoed the sigh. They all started ahead
resolutely. But they kept closer together for a time. They went some
little distance without finding any further signs of the lost animals.

"You don't suppose we could have passed them, do you?" Katy inquired
anxiously.

"We couldn't, if they are on this side of the slough."

A few rods farther on something moved in the swamp grass. All three
jumped and screamed: their nerve had been sadly weakened by the bull
snake.

A squeal and chorus of grunts reassured them.

"Here they are--a lot of them. Oh, dear, I wish we'd brought the coop
along so we wouldn't have to go back." Jane parted the tall grass and
discovered five of the fugitives huddled together. They were much
livelier than the first ones and showed symptoms of bolting if the girls
approached nearer.

"I'll go back for it," said Katy. "I'll go through the short grass and I
won't be afraid."

Chicken Little and Gertie watched and waited.

"Isn't that little white one with the pink ears and curly tail cunning?
I didn't suppose pigs could be so pretty."

"They are only pretty when they are weenties. As soon as they grow old
enough to root in the mud, they are horrid."

When Katy returned they anchored the red wagon with the chicken coop and
the two captured piglets as close to the slough as possible. All three
crept upon the pig cache cautiously.

"Pick out which one you'll grab, for they are going to run sure,"
Chicken Little admonished.

They made a dash and each got a pig, but, alas, the two free ones made a
dash also--a break for liberty worthy of an Indian. They selected routes
immediately in front of, and immediately behind Chicken Little, whose
attention was absorbed with trying to hold a squealing, squirming pig.
The result was disastrous to all concerned. Pig No. 1 tripped her up
neatly and she sat down hastily and unexpectedly upon Pig No. 2, who
gave one agonized squeal, in which the pig in her arms joined.
Fortunately, her victim did not get her whole weight or there would have
been one pig the less in this vale of tears. Chicken Little squashed him
down gently into some two inches of oozy mud and water. It splashed in
all directions, baptizing Katy and Gertie and the fleeing pig as well as
completing the ruin of Jane's pink gingham frock, fresh that morning.

The sight of her amazed and disgusted face generously decorated with
mud, was too much for Katy. She giggled till the tears stood in her
eyes. Chicken Little was indignant.

"I guess you wouldn't think it was so funny, if it was you," she replied
with dignity. Dignity did not become her tout ensemble. Katy went off
into fresh screams of mirth. Chicken Little had stood about all she
could that afternoon. Her face flamed with wrath, and, gathering up the
struggling pig in her arms, she hurled it at Katy, as the only missile
within reach. Piggy just missed Katy's head, tumbling harmlessly into
the ooze. Chicken Little was instantly remorseful, not on Katy's account
but on Piggy's.

Katy was furious. She didn't say a word, but walked deliberately over to
the coop, deposited her pig very gently and started toward the house.

Gertie tried to stop her, but she shook her off. Chicken Little, too
angry to care what happened, relieved herself of the rest of her
ill-temper.

"Go off and be hateful if you want to--a lot I care, Miss Katy Halford.
I should think you'd be ashamed to act so when you are most fifteen."

A swift retort rose to Katy's lips, but she decided it would be more
impressive to remain dignifiedly silent. She stalked on. Gertie
hesitated as to which of the belligerents she should follow, but finally
decided in favor of the one who needed her worst. She put her pig in the
coop and came to help Jane up. The latter was already ashamed of her
outburst, but was far from being ready to acknowledge it. The other
three pigs had not gone far and they soon had them safely in the coop.
They were debating as to whether they should give up hunting for the
others, when a hail from the road brought aid and comfort. Katy had met
Dr. Morton coming from the field on an errand and had told him what they
were trying to do. He was delighted and surprised to see the seven
rescued pigs.

"Why, Chicken Little, I didn't really suppose you were in earnest
or----" Dr. Morton stopped suddenly, he had just taken a good look at
his only daughter--the look was effective. He threw back his head and
roared.

"Oh, if you could just see yourself, Jane!"

This was adding insult to injury and Chicken Little burst into tears.
"You can just hunt your old pigs yourself--I don't think it's nice of
you to laugh when I tried so hard!"

"Come, come, I beg your pardon, but you are enough to make an owl laugh,
Humbug. It was fine of you to try to rescue the pigs. You girls deserve
a great deal of credit, for it is a disagreeable, muddy job. I guess
I'll have to make it up to you. I'll tell you what I'll do. You may have
this litter for your very own, and we'll send the little girls their
share over the cost of keeping, when the pigs are sold. How will that
do?"

Chicken Little was not in the mood to be easily appeased.

"Yes, but you say things are mine till you want to sell them, and then I
never see the money."

This was touching a sore point. The Doctor had been a little remiss on
the subject of the children's ownership of their pets. He was nettled by
this accusation.

"My dear, when I say a thing I mean it. I was about to add, though, that
if I give you the entire proceeds of the pigs I shall expect you to
attend to feeding them until they are big enough to be turned in with
the drove."

"I thought the mother fed them."

"Well, the mother pig has to be fed."

"Do you really, truly, mean it, Father?"

"Truly."

Chicken Little forgot the late unpleasantness. "Oh, goody, let's call
Katy back and tell her!"

Katy was not so far away as might have been anticipated. Her wrath was
dissipating also.

Dr. Morton lingered to help them a few moments and to satisfy himself
that they could not do themselves any damage that a bath and the wash
tub could not repair, then left them once more to their own resources.

By four o'clock they had all but one of the missing pigs safely stowed
in the coop. They were very tired and hot, and decided to save the joy
of hunting for the last pig for Ernest and Sherm in the evening.

It was well they did. The wee stray would have led them a chase. He had
found his way almost to the creek, and it took the boys a good hour of
wading and beating the swamp grass to discover him.

Just as Chicken Little was dropping off to sleep that night, Katy roused
her.

"Do you suppose we'll get as much as five dollars apiece from those
pigs?"



CHAPTER VIII

A PARTY AND A PICNIC


Gertie looked wistful. Dick and Alice were going on to Denver that
morning to return a month later for the little girls. All three were to
drive into town with Dr. Morton to see them off. The mere thought of
anyone going away made Gertie a little homesick. She went out to the
chicken yard, where nine of the young prairie chickens were flourishing
under the care of a much-deceived hen, who had adopted them with the
mistaken notion that they were her own egg kin. The little mottled
things seemed very much out of place among the domestic fowls. They were
wild and shy and astonishingly fleet on their reed-like legs. Gertie
loved to watch them. Two of the chicks had died the first night, and
one, two days later. But the rest survived, and, in the course of time,
flew away to join their wild mates.

"Dear me, I wonder what we can do next?" said Chicken Little, as they
watched the train pull out with Dick waving from the rear platform.

Dick's and Alice's going seemed to have finished things, at least for
the time being. Her question was answered as soon as she got home.

"Jane," said her mother, "I have just received an invitation for you and
the girls that I am a little doubtful about. Ernest and Sherm are
invited, too, but not to remain for the night."

"Stay all night? Where, Mother, where?"

"With Mamie Jenkins. The Jenkins family are hardly as refined as I could
wish for your associates; still they are good religious people, if they
are plain, and Katy and Gertie might enjoy going to a country party."

"A party? O Mother, please let us go."

"I don't mind so much your coming to the party, but they want to have
you stay overnight and attend a picnic some of the young people are
getting up for the next afternoon."

Katy was as eager as Jane for the festivity and Mrs. Morton was at
length persuaded to pocket her scruples and permit the girls to accept
Mamie's invitation. Ernest and Sherm were also delighted at the prospect
of a frolic. They were to take the girls over and leave them for the
night, returning the next afternoon for the picnic, which was to start
from the Jenkin's farm.

But when the day of the party arrived, Gertie backed out, begging to be
left at home with Mrs. Morton. The thought of meeting so many strangers
frightened her.

"I doubt if she would enjoy it. She would be the youngest one
there--most of them will be from fourteen to twenty. The neighbors live
so far apart, they have to combine different ages in order to find
guests enough for a party."

At first, Chicken Little would not hear to Gertie's remaining behind,
but finding that she would really be happier at home, stopped urging
her. Jane and Katy were soon joyfully planning what they should wear.
They were to go in their party frocks, each taking another dress along
for the morning and the picnic. Jane was to wear Alice's gift. Katy had
a dainty ruffled muslin with cherry-colored sash and hair ribbons.

"I was afraid I wasn't going to have a single chance to wear it here,"
she remarked naïvely.

The boys were busy shining their shoes, and performing certain mysteries
of shaving with very little perceptible change in their appearance.
Ernest felt that he could not possibly go without a new necktie, but as
no one was going to town before the event, he had to content himself
with borrowing one from Frank.

It took the combined efforts of Marian and Gertie and Mrs. Morton to get
the revellers dressed to their satisfaction. Gertie waited on the two
girls as patiently as any maid. Marian was in great demand by the boys
to coax in refractory cuff buttons and give a "tony" twist to the ties.

"Is tony the very latest, Ernest?"

"That's what Sherm says. Just make the bow a little more perky, can't
you, Marian? I don't want to look like a country Jake."

"Ernest, you are just the boy to go to Annapolis; you are so fussy about
your clothes."

"Golly, I hope I do get to go. Father hasn't heard from the Senator yet,
but he may be away from home."

Sherm was struggling with his tie, getting red and hot in the process.
He had just tied it nearly to his satisfaction, when he carelessly gave
it a jerk and had it all to do over again.

"Cæsar's Ghost!" he exclaimed vengefully, "what do they make these
things so pesky slippery for?"

Marian laughed and Sherm colored in embarrassment over his outburst.

"Please excuse me, but this is the fifth time I've tied the critter."

"Let me try." Marian turned him to the light and had the bow nicely
exact in no time.

The girls found their source of woe in their hair. Katy, having learned
that most of the young people would be older than themselves, decided to
put her hair up, and look grown up, too. Mrs. Morton was horrified and
made Katy take it down. Katy, though rebellious, dared not oppose her
hostess openly. She contented herself with taking a handful of hair pins
along and putting it up after she reached Mamie's. To be sure the heavy
braids piled upon her small head looked rather queer, especially with
her short skirts, which she could not contrive to lengthen. But Katy
made up for this defect by an unwonted dignity, and actually persuaded a
majority of the people she met that she was sixteen at the very least.

Country folk gather early and they found the fun well started when they
arrived. The Jenkins family had come to the neighborhood about a year
before from Iowa.

The farmhouse was new and rather more pretentious than most on the
creek. Lace curtains with robust patterns draped the windows in
fresh-starched folds. A green and red ingrain carpet covered the floor,
while the entire Jenkins family--there were four olive branches--done in
crayon by a local photographer, adorned the walls. It would be more
truthful to say, adorned three walls. The fourth was sacred to a real
oil painting in an unlimited gilt frame, which had come as a prize for
extra subscriptions to the St. Louis _Globe-Democrat_. Mrs. Jenkins
regarded this treasure almost with reverence. "I do think it is real
uplifting to have a work of art in the house, don't you, Mrs. Brown?"
she had been heard to remark to a neighbor who failed to notice this
gem. The family bible and a red plush photograph album rested on the
marble-topped table, usually placed in the exact center of the room.
To-night, it was pushed back against the wall to make more room for the
games.

Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins were rigid Methodists and would not tolerate any
such worldly amusement as dancing. Kissing games were substituted, and
if, as the Jenkins believed, these were more elevating, they were
certainly coarser and rougher than the dancing would have been.

Mamie had attended the Garland High School for one year and had acquired
different ideas. She would have much preferred the dancing, but her
parents were firm. Mamie deemed herself a full-fledged young lady at
fifteen. Her highest ambitions were to have "style" and plenty of beaux.

Ernest and Sherm had to find a place to tie the horses. They lingered
also a moment at the pump to wash the leathery smell of the harness from
their hands--a fastidious touch that would have subjected them to much
guying if the other boys had seen them.

So Chicken Little led Katy into the crowded room, unsupported. There was
no hall or entry and they were plunged directly into the thick of the
party. Many of the country lads and lasses were her mates at the
district school and greeted her cordially, eyeing Katy, however, with
frankly curious stares. Mrs. Jenkins relieved her embarrassment by
taking them upstairs to remove their wraps. She introduced herself to
Katy before Jane could get out the little speech of presentation her
mother had urged her not to forget, since Katy, being a stranger, should
be made to feel at home as quickly as possible. Chicken Little hated
introducing people and had been dreading the ordeal, but kindly Mrs.
Jenkins took Katy by the hand and presented her to the whole roomful at
one fell swoop.

"This is Miss Katy Halford, young folks, and I want you all to introduce
yourselves and see that she has a good time or she'll think you are a
lot of green country jays who haven't any manners."

"King William was King James's son" was in full swing. The young folks
made places for the two girls in the ring and promptly drew in Ernest
and Sherm as soon as they entered. The lilting tune was sung lustily
while the supposed victim in the center, a handsome lad of sixteen with
bold, black eyes and dark curls, surveyed the girls, big and little,
with an evident enjoyment of his privileges.

Several of the older boys interrupted their singing to give him advice.

"Take the city girl, Grant, buck up and show your manners." "Bet you
knew who you'd choose before you left home." "Don't let on that you
don't know which girl you want--Mamie's biting her lips already to wash
off that kiss."

The boy returned or ignored this badinage as he saw fit.

Mamie, however, was indignantly protesting that he needn't try to kiss
her. Grant looked in her direction and smiled as the fateful instant
arrived. Indeed, he started toward her, then mischievously whirled
around and seizing Chicken Little, who was whispering to Katy that Grant
was Mamie's beau, kissed her with a resounding smack.

Chicken Little was taken so unawares that she had time neither to blush
nor to protest or struggle, as was considered etiquette on such
occasions. She didn't even try to rub it off, as was also customary. She
just looked at him with such a funny mixture of surprise and dismay that
everybody roared, including Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins and some of the older
neighbors who had come in to see the fun.

"Here, Chicken Little, you need practice," and "Chicken Little acts as
if she didn't know what kisses were. You'll have to have a rehearsal
beforehand next time, Grant!" "Why, Grant? What's the matter with the
rest of us?" These comments were open and noisy.

Ernest took all this coarse bantering at his young sister's expense
good-naturedly. He knew no offence was intended. He had been present at
a number of these rural frolics. But Sherm, town-bred and unaccustomed
to this form of amusement, was distinctly displeased both at the kiss
and the talk. He got Chicken Little off to one side as soon as he could.

"Say, Chicken Little, don't let the boys kiss you."

Chicken Little looked concerned. "I don't like them to, Sherm, but I
can't help it if I play--and they'd think I was awfully stuck up and
rude if I refused."

"Does your mother know they have this sort of games?"

Chicken Little made a little grimace. "Don't go and be grown-up and
horrid, Sherm. Everybody does it here. They'll stop this pretty soon and
play clap in and clap out or forfeits."

Her big brown eyes were lifted so innocently and sweetly that Sherm
couldn't say any more, but he felt a curious desire to fight every time
a big boy so much as stared at Jane.

"She's such a kid!" he explained the feeling to himself, "and Ernest
isn't looking after her at all."

Katy entered into the romping heart and soul. Katy was playing young
lady. Her pink cheeks and laughing eyes and little flirtatious ways were
very popular with the boys--so popular that Mamie was vexed because many
of her mates seemed to have eyes only for the city girl, as she called
her behind her back.

Mamie eased her mind by treating her special friends haughtily. She got
even with the recreant Grant by choosing Ernest the very first time in
Post Office. She even put some of the girls up to boycotting the boys
who were hanging round Katy, for one entire game, persuading them to
choose Ernest and Sherm alternately till the others were jealously
wrathful without being quite sure whether it was accident or conspiracy.
Considering his scruples about kissing, Sherm submitted most meekly. He
had the grace to color when Chicken Little remarked carelessly: "It
wasn't so bad as you thought it would be, was it, Sherm?"

"Oh, it's different with boys," he retorted loftily. "Little girls like
you don't understand."

"Little girls! I suppose you think yourself a man grown. You needn't
feel so big because you're most seventeen. I heard Dick say a boy of
seventeen wasn't really any older than a girl of fifteen, because girls
grow up quicker. So there, you're not much more than a year older than I
am!"

Sherm's "little girl" rankled not only that evening but for weeks
afterwards. She told Katy and Mamie in strict confidence after they had
gone upstairs that night.

"I'd show him if I were you, Jane," advised Mamie the experienced.

Chicken Little needed no urging, but she was in doubt how to proceed.

"My, I wish I was awfully beautiful and grown up. I'd make him fall so
many billions deep in love with me he couldn't squeak." Jane felt
positively vindictive whenever she thought of Sherm's patronizing tone.
She had neglected to mention to the girls the little conversation that
had preceded her remark to Sherm. She didn't consider it necessary to
tell everything she knew.

Mamie tittered. "Pooh, you sound as if you had been reading Sir Walter
Scott. They don't do things that way nowadays. When I was in town last
winter at school I had lots of boys gone on me, and I'm not a raving,
tearing beauty either."

Mamie looked as if she expected her guests to contradict her, but they
were too much impressed with her conquests to do anything so rude. A
little disappointed, but finding their absorbed expressions encouraging,
Mamie preceded to retail her adventures. Boiled down, these were mainly
a box of candy and various walks taken at recesses and noons, with an
occasional escort to a party. They were sufficiently thrilling to the
others, who had never been permitted even such mild forms of
dissipation.

"My, wouldn't I catch it if Papa ever caught me walking with a boy!"

Katy painted the paternal wrath with a real relish. It seemed to furnish
an adequate excuse for her having nothing to relate and put her on a
little pinnacle of superior breeding as well. Her parents looked after
her. It was only more ordinary people who permitted their daughters to
run about at fifteen.

Mamie was keen enough to realize this and she promptly resented Katy's
patronizing tone.

"Oh, Pa would have been mad, too, if he had known. But I was staying
with my aunt. She didn't care what I did, just so I was on time to meals
and didn't run around after dark."

Katy was determined to keep up her end. "We used to have wonderful times
at the church oyster suppers. One night last winter Dr. Wade--you don't
remember him, Chicken Little, he's only been in Centerville about a
year. Well, he took me in for oysters and bought me candy and three
turns at the grab bag. And he is a grown-up man--he's been a doctor for
over two years."

Katy would hardly have told this story if Gertie had been there. She
neglected to mention that Dr. Wade had kindly included Gertie and five
other young girls in these courtesies. Or that he had remarked to Mrs.
Halford that he loved to be with children because he missed his own
brothers and sisters sadly. But Gertie was not present to mar the effect
of this story with further particulars. Mamie began to rack her brain
for forgotten attentions worthy to be classed with this superb
generosity. Poor Chicken Little was hopelessly out-classed. Nothing more
thrilling than being singled out in games and Blackman at school had
happened to her.

"Grant Stowe said you had the prettiest eyes of any girl here to-night.
I heard him tell Jennie Brown so when she asked him whether he liked
blue eyes or brown best. She is the awfulest thing--always fishing for
compliments."

This was generous of Mamie, for Grant was the one who had passed her by
so recently. But Katy's eyes were also distanced and Mamie had been very
much thrilled by hearing that Ernest might go to Annapolis. Further, he
had chosen her twice that evening. She felt amiably disposed toward
Ernest's sister.

When the tales of past glories were exhausted, the conversation grew
intermittent, being punctuated by frequent yawns. They were just on the
point of dropping off to sleep when Mamie suddenly opened her eyes and
sat up in bed with a jerk.

"Music! Don't you hear it? I shouldn't wonder if some of the boys were
out serenading. Oh, I do hope they'll come here."

Katy and Chicken Little listened breathlessly.

"It is!"

"Yes, and it's coming nearer."

All three hopped out of bed and crouched down by the window. The moon
was setting, but there was still a faint radiance. The strains were
growing more distinct.

"I bet it's Grant Stowe and his two cousins from the Prairie Hill
district. They are staying all night with him and are going to the
picnic to-morrow. Don't you remember that red-headed boy?"

"It sounds like a banjo and guitar," said Katy. "Oh, I do love a guitar.
It always makes me think of 'Gaily the troubadour.'" Katy gave a wriggle
of delight at this romantic ending to the night's festivities. She was
already planning to tell the girls at home about the wonderful serenade.

The tinkle tinkle of the thin notes grew stronger and clearer and they
found that a third instrument, which had puzzled them, was a mouth
organ.

"I didn't suppose anybody could really make music with a mouth organ,
but it goes nicely with the others." Chicken Little, like Katy, was more
excited over the serenade than the party. It seemed so delightfully
young ladyfied.

The trio had one awful moment, for the music seemed to be dying away and
still there was no human in sight. Suddenly it stopped altogether. They
listened and waited--not a sound rewarded them.

"I think it's downright mean if they've gone by." Mamie's tone was more
than injured.

The words were hardly out of her mouth when a stealthy foot-fall came
directly beneath their window, and guitar, mandolin, and mouth organ
burst forth into "My Bonnie," supported after the opening strains by
half a dozen boyish voices.

The boys had crept in so close to the wall of the house that the girls
had not discovered them. The young ladies ducked at the first sound, and
hastily slipped their dresses over their night gowns so they could look
out again.

"O dear," said Mamie, "I almost forgot my curl papers."

They were arrayed in time to reward the serenaders with a vigorous
clapping of hands, Father and Mother Jenkins joining in from the window
of their bedroom downstairs.

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" floated up next, followed by "Over the Garden
Wall," which, if not choice, had the distinction of being sung in New
York, as Grant Stowe proudly informed them.

It was three o'clock past, before they finally settled down in bed once
more. Faint suggestions of dawn were already apparent.

"It's not much use to go to bed, Father always gets up at six," mourned
Mamie.

A brilliant idea struck Katy. "Suppose we stay up all night. Grace Dart
said she did once when her father was so sick, and she said it was the
most wonderful thing to see the sun rise when you hadn't been to bed at
all."

This proposal met with instant favor. They clambered out of bed and lit
the small oil lamp, wrapping themselves in quilts and petticoats
impartially, for the air was growing chilly. The next three hours were
the longest any of the three had ever known. In spite of fortune
telling, and a thrilling story which Mamie read in tragic whispers, the
minutes shuffled along like hours. Yawns interrupted almost every
sentence and much mutual prodding and sharp reproaches were necessary to
keep their heavy eyes open. They were too sleepy to care whether the sun
rose in the usual sedate way or pirouetted up chasing a star. In fact,
they forgot all about the expected sunrise. They wanted just two
things--sleep and something to eat.

The call to breakfast was even sweeter than the serenade had been.
Father and Mother Jenkins were concerned at their jaded appearance.

"Seems like parties don't agree with you young ones none too well. I
reckon we won't have them very often," Father Jenkins remarked tartly.
His own eyes smarted from loss of sleep.

"I don't believe you ought to go to the picnic this afternoon if you are
feeling so played out," Mother Jenkins added. "Your Ma will think I
haven't taken good care of you. It was them good-for-nothing boys
a-coming that wore you plumb out."

Generous cups of strong coffee--a luxury not permitted to either Chicken
Little or Katy at home--woke them up and they got through the morning
nicely. Not for worlds would they have missed that picnic.

But even the coffee could not carry them through the afternoon. They
were the butts of the entire party on account of their dullness and
heavy eyes.

Ernest expressed his disgust with his sister openly. "Well, I think
Mother'd better keep you at home till you're old enough not to be such a
baby." Jane had been nodding in spite of herself.

"Looks to me as if you girls had stayed up all night!" exclaimed Grant
Stowe.

Mamie roused enough to retort: "Well, I guess you didn't get any too
much sleep yourself."

"We can keep awake if we didn't. But if it has this kind of effect on
you, we'll leave you out the next time we go serenading."

It had been arranged that they should catch fish for the picnic supper.
The girls had brought a huge frying pan and the butter and corn meal to
cook them in. As soon as the teams were cared for, the boys got out
fishing tackle and bait and the party broke up into small groups for the
fishing. Grant Stowe offered to help Chicken Little with her line. She
found this courtesy on his part embarrassing, for Katy and Mamie
exchanged looks, and she was so utterly sleepy, that she would have
preferred Ernest or Sherm so she wouldn't be expected to talk. Chicken
Little had gone to school with Grant the preceding winter. He was always
a leader in their school games and a great favorite.

Grant found a snug place beside a deep pool that promised catfish at the
very least, and might be expected to yield a few trout. He made her
comfortable on the spreading roots of an elm growing upward with
difficulty from a steep bank. Grant smiled at her as he handed her the
rod and tossed the baited hook into the stillest part of the pool.

"There, you ought to get a bite soon. This is one of the best places on
the creek for catfish. Say, what did you girls do to yourselves that you
are so used up to-day? You didn't take a five-mile walk or anything
after we left, did you?"

Jane laughed. "Don't you wish you knew?"

"Oh, I'll find out, but I wish you'd tell me." Grant looked at her from
under his long black lashes. His tone was distinctly wheedling.

Chicken Little laughed again and shook her head.

Grant threw his own line in, seating himself a little lower down on the
bank; and quiet reigned for several minutes.

But the boy was determined to get the secret from her. After a tedious
silence, he began in a low tone so that he would not disturb the fish:
"You know, Chicken Little, I always did think you were the prettiest
girl in school, but you were such a kid you never took the trouble to
look at a fellow. Seems to me you might be nice now and tell me what you
did."

He neglected to mention the fact that he had bet Mamie a silk
handkerchief against a plate of taffy that he would find out what they
had been up to before night. He received no response.

"Oh, come now, be a trump and tell a fellow."

He glanced around this time with a tenderly reproachful look. This
tenderness speedily vanished. Jane was peacefully asleep, her head
supported against the tree trunk.

The boy's face flushed wrathfully for an instant, but he had a saving
sense of humor. "Serves me right for trying to get the best of a kid, I
guess," he said to himself. He let her sleep on undisturbed until the
sound of voices announced the approach of some of the others, when he
hastily wakened her. He did not intend to be laughed at for the rest of
the day.

Chicken Little found it hard to wake up and was heavy-eyed and stupid
the remainder of the afternoon. Fortunately for her and Katy, Ernest had
orders from his mother to be home by dark.

Patient Gertie was waiting expectantly to hear about the good times, but
she could hardly extract three words from either of the revellers.
Parties and boys and finery were all stale, but their neatly made bed
looked like heaven.



Chapter IX

BREAD AND POLLIWOGS


Three days elapsed before Katy and Jane could settle down to the quiet,
daily life of the ranch. If Gertie had found them disappointingly mute
that first evening, she never had to complain again. They went over and
over the thrilling events of the night and the picnic the next
afternoon, till Gertie got sick of hearing what "Mamie said" and how
_he_ looked and how wonderful the serenade had been. Indeed, these
events seemed to grow in importance the farther off they were. Gertie
was seldom pettish, but Katy's seventeenth repetition of what Grant
Stowe's cousin said to her while they were fishing left her cold.

"Shut up, Katy, I'm sick of hearing about it. I don't care what he said
and I just know he thought you were a silly little girl trying to seem
grown up when you aren't! You know Mother wouldn't like you to act so,
and I guess Mrs. Morton'd be ashamed of you, too, if she knew."

"Gertie Halford, if you dare tell!"

"Thank you, I'm no tattle tale! I intend to forget all about it as soon
as ever I can. But I know Sherm thought you were silly from something he
said."

Chicken Little related the most presentable of their doings to Marian.
Marian didn't say much at the time, but some days afterwards she told
them tales of the adventures of her own early teens. She ended a little
meaningly: "Do you know, I believe girls can be sillier from thirteen to
sixteen than at any other age? They're exactly like that little buff
cochin rooster you laugh at, because he tries to crow and strut before
he knows how. I hope you girls won't be in a hurry to grow up. There are
so many nice things you can do now that you will have to give up after a
while."

July was growing unpleasantly hot. The mornings were dewy and fresh, but
by noon they were glad to hunt a shady place. The apple orchard was a
favorite haunt, and the Weeping Willows when the wind was from the right
direction. They took books and crochetting, sometimes the checker board
or dominoes, and spent the long summer afternoons there, with Jilly
tumbling over their feet and Huz and Buz dozing alongside or lazily
snapping at the plaguing flies.

They had been picking blackberries mornings for Mrs. Morton's
preserving. The rescued litter of pigs was also taking much time. The
mother pig had developed an appetite that was truly appalling. It seemed
to take endless gallon pails of sour milk and baskets of fruit parings
to satisfy her. Dr. Morton would not let them feed corn in summer.

"Dear me," said Katy, "how big do little pigs have to be before they can
be turned into the corral with the others?"

"Oh, six or eight weeks, I guess."

"They are getting awfully smelly!" remarked Gertie, holding her nose,
"and they aren't a bit pretty any more."

"I know and Father said last night we'd have to begin and feed the pigs
some, too, before long." Chicken Little sighed. This speculation in pigs
had its unpleasant side.

"I guess we'd have to bring a lot more stuff if Ernest and Sherm didn't
help us out. They give them things to eat lots of times. But I think Jim
Bart might keep the pen a little cleaner," Katy observed.

"He's so busy he doesn't have time."

Another morning occupation was bread-making. Dr. Morton had offered a
brand new dollar to the girl who would bring him the first perfect loaf
of bread. They were taking turns under Mrs. Morton's teaching, but it
did seem as if more things could happen to bread. Katy would have had
her perfect loaf, if she hadn't let the dough rise too long. The loaves
were beautiful to look at, but slightly sour, alas! Chicken Little
spoiled her prize batch by sitting down to read and letting it burn.

Gertie's first and second were very good, but a trifle too solid. Katy
won out on her third, and produced a loaf so light and crisply brown
that Marian said she was envious.

The others wanted to stop when Katy secured the dollar, but Mrs. Morton
persuaded them to persist until they could equal Katy's.

"You may send one to Captain Clarke, if you wish."

This stimulated their waning interest and they tried to produce that
perfect loaf. A week went by before Mrs. Morton nodded approval, saying:
"Yes, that is nice enough for a present. I am sure the Captain will like
it."

The girls had planned to take it over on the ponies, but Mrs. Morton
wanted to send over two gallons of blackberries also, which was more
than they could manage.

"I am sending Ernest and Sherm down the creek this evening on an
errand," said Dr. Morton, "and they can stop at Captain Clarke's and
leave the things. You girls can go some other time."

Chicken Little decided to send some of her spare pinks. She came in with
a great handful just as the boys were ready to start.

"Where is your loaf, Chicken Little?" asked her mother.

"O dear, I forgot to wrap it up. It won't take a minute."

"Take one of the fringed napkins to wrap it in, then put paper around
that," called her mother.

"Where did you put the bread, Mother?"

"In the bread box, of course, child, where did you suppose?"

"There isn't anything but old bread in the box."

"Well, ask Annie."

"She's gone to Benton's."

"Well, I think you're old enough to find four loaves of bread in a small
pantry." Mrs. Morton got up, disgusted.

Sherm stood waiting with the tin pail of berries and the bunch of
flowers in his hands. Ernest was holding the team out at the road.

When Mrs. Morton disappeared Sherm remarked placidly: "Well, I guess I
might as well take these things out. I'll come back for the bread."

Mrs. Morton could be heard exclaiming about something in the kitchen.
Sherm smiled a fleeting smile and departed.

Sounds of hurried footfalls, of boxes and pans being moved, came from
the kitchen. Somebody ran hastily down cellar. "It isn't here, Mother."
Jane's tone was emphatic.

"What do you suppose is the matter?" exclaimed Katy. She departed to
see, followed by Gertie. The sound of fresh disturbances floated in from
the cuisine. Dr. Morton grew curious and went out to investigate. Sherm
came back as far as the front door and stood waiting.

Presently, Mrs. Morton entered, flushed and annoyed.

"It's the queerest thing I ever heard of--that entire baking of bread
has vanished. Annie is perfectly honest and she knew we were expecting
to send a loaf to the Captain. You haven't seen any tramps about, have
you, Sherm? You don't suppose the dogs could----" Mrs. Morton glanced
suspiciously at Buz asleep on the path outside.

"Nonsense, Mother, the dogs couldn't get away with whole loaves of bread
and leave no trace. They are not overly fond of bread, anyhow."

"Possibly Annie may have put it in some unheard-of place--girls are so
exasperating. I'll go look again."

A third search was no more successful than the previous ones had been.
They were obliged to send the boys on without the bread.

Both Chicken Little and Gertie mourned, for they had combined forces in
this baking and were immensely proud of their effort.

"We never can get it so nice again--I just know!"

Mrs. Morton had been studying. "You don't suppose the boys could have
meddled with it, do you?"

Katy looked up with a gleam in her eye. "They were laughing about
something fit to kill just before supper and they wouldn't tell what it
was."

"But why--I don't see." Mrs. Morton was puzzled.

"To tease the girls, possibly. But I don't see how they could make away
with four big loaves without being noticed."

"If Ernest Morton took that bread, I'll never forgive him as long as I
live!" Chicken Little's jaw set ominously. "You just watch me get even."

"Come now, Chicken Little, we're merely guessing the boys took it. Annie
may have put it away in a new place, forgetting that you would want it
to-night," her father tried to pacify her.

Gertie didn't say much, but it was plain that she sympathized with Jane.
An hour later the three girls went out to the road to watch for the
boys' return. The lads were evidently taking their time. Nine o'clock
came--half-past nine--still no boys! Mrs. Morton came out and sent the
girls in to bed. They were just dropping off to sleep when the lads
drove up.

At breakfast the next morning the entire family fell upon Ernest and
Sherm and demanded news of the bread. Annie had returned and assured
Mrs. Morton that it had been safely stored in the bread box before she
left the house the evening before.

"Bread? What bread?" asked Ernest, rather too innocently.

"Ernest Morton, you did something with that bread I was going to send
the Captain. You have got to tell me where you hid it."

"Chicken Little Jane Morton, I give you my word of honor I didn't touch
your old bread and I don't know where it is."

Ernest assumed a highly injured air. Sherm took a hasty swallow of water
and nearly choked.

The family had come near believing Ernest, but Sherm's convulsed face
roused their suspicion afresh.

"If you didn't, you got Sherm to," said Katy shrewdly. "That's what you
were laughing about last night--I know it was."

"That's like a girl always suspecting a fellow of being up to some
deviltry. Maybe you think we'll keep on feeding your old pigs if you
treat us this way."

Dr. Morton scanned the boys closely, but did not say anything.

Jane and Katy turned on Sherm.

"Did you take the bread?" Chicken Little had fire in her eye.

Sherm tried guile. "Chicken Little, do I look hungry enough to steal
your bread? Mrs. Morton has been feeding me on good things ever since I
came, why should I want to make away with four loaves of bread?" Sherm
was almost eloquent.

"Nevertheless," observed Katy, "you don't deny that you took it."

Try as they would, they could get no satisfaction from the boys.

"Well, I know they did and I'm going to make 'em wish they hadn't."
Chicken Little puckered up her brow to think hard.

"Of course they did or Sherm would have denied it instanter. Let's think
up something real mean." Katy stood ready to second any effort.

Gertie had been in a brown study. "The boys are going off some place
to-night. I heard Ernest ask your mother if she had cleaned that spot
off his Sunday suit, where somebody spilled ice cream on him at the
party."

"I bet they're going to see Mamie Jenkins ... they're trying to sneak
off without our knowing it." Jane's indignation was not lessened by this
news.

Katy leaned forward and whispered something.

Jane and Gertie clapped their hands.

"All right, the very thing."

At dinner the boys were rather surprised to find that the young ladies
had dropped the subject of the bread. They were inclined to take it up
again, but nobody seemed interested. Ernest was a little vexed to have
his father say before them all: "It will be all right about Sherm's
riding the bay, only don't stay out late, boys."

The girls went upstairs soon after dinner and there was much giggling
from their room for the next two hours.

"Where ever can we put the clothes where they can't find them? They make
such a big bundle."

"O Chicken Little, I've thought of something that will be better than
hiding!" Katy's eyes sparkled with mischief as she unfolded her scheme.
"Let's hurry and fix a cord."

"There's a hook there already we can use. Mother had a hanging basket
outside the window one summer."

"We can pretend to take a walk," added Katy.

"Pshaw, I want to hear them--it will be half the fun," Gertie objected.

"I said pretend--we will sneak back through the orchard. Of course, we'd
have to be here to do it, Goosie."

That night Mrs. Morton had an early supper at the request of the boys.
Immediately after, they armed themselves with sundry pitchers of hot
water and retired upstairs. The girls also disappeared.

All went well for some minutes except that Ernest cut himself in his
haste to shave. Presently, a call for mother floated downstairs. Mrs.
Morton had gone across the road to visit with Marian. Receiving no
reply, Ernest called again lustily. Dr. Morton, coming in just then,
replied:

"Your mother is not here, what do you want?"

"Send Chicken Little then."

"She's gone for a walk with Katy and Gertie."

"Thunderation! I've got to have somebody. Won't you please call Mother?"

At this moment three girlish forms slipped into the grape arbor
immediately below the boys' window, and concealed themselves in its
deepest shadow.

Mrs. Morton came patiently home to attend to the needs of her favorite
son.

"What is it, Ernest?"

"Where did you put our Sunday clothes?"

"Dear me, aren't they in the closet?"

"In the closet? Do you suppose I'd call you home if they were in the
closet? They aren't anywhere!" Ernest's tone verged on the
disrespectful.

Mrs. Morton toiled upstairs with a sigh. Was there to be a repetition of
the bread episode?

Ernest had spoken the truth, the aforesaid clothes were not anywhere.
The boys exchanged glances both wrathful and sheepish. Ernest had
already exhausted every swear word that his mother's presence permitted.
Sherm, also restrained by her presence--he had retired to bed while she
searched their room and closet--thought all the exclamations he
hesitated to utter. Three young young ladies in the arbor beneath
listened to such fragments of conversation as floated down to them with
unholy glee.

"Well, Ernest, they're certainly not here; I'll go look in Chicken
Little's room."

Ernest accompanied her. Sherm scrambled out of bed and speedily resumed
his ordinary wearing apparel. He was startled to perceive a bulky object
suddenly darken their window. It was a peculiar-looking bundle from
which coat sleeves and trousers' legs dangled indiscriminately. He had
no difficulty in recognizing their missing clothes. He rushed to the
window and raised the screen, calling to Ernest excitedly. He half
expected to see the things disappear as mysteriously as they had come,
but the bundle remained stationary. It had been raised to the window by
means of a pulley contrived from an old clothes line and the hanging
basket hook. The end of the cord was hidden in the arbor.

The boys secured their possessions, hastily assuring themselves that
they were all there. Mrs. Morton started thankfully downstairs, but had
barely reached the foot when a vigorous exclamation and a loud "Mother!"
recalled her.

Mrs. Morton had never seen Ernest so furious. Sherm didn't say much, but
his face was wrathfully red.

"What now?"

"Look at this!" Ernest's voice was tragic as he held the garment up to
view. His trousers' legs had been neatly stitched across twice on the
sewing machine. Sherm's, ditto. All four pair of sleeves were also
carefully stitched with a tight tension, so they could not be readily
ripped out.

Mrs. Morton looked aghast. "It will take an hour to get that out!"

"Confound those kids! Mother, you can just make those smarties come rip
that stitching out!"

"My son, whom are you addressing?"

"Well, Mother, I didn't mean to be disrespectful, but this is a little
more than I can stand! Wait till I get my hands on Jane!"

"You would do well to remember, Ernest, that you started this practical
joking yourself. I hope it will be a lesson to you to refrain from such
pranks in future."

"We didn't do anything but carry the bread over to the Captain without
telling them. That's where they wanted it to go."

Mrs. Morton gasped. "Did you take the whole baking?"

"Sure, wasn't that what you wanted?"

Mrs. Morton considered a moment before replying.

"Well, Ernest, you boys have brought this annoyance upon yourselves--I
think you will have to accept the consequences. I am too tired to fuss
with the stitching to-night. If you go to Jenkinses you will have to
wear your every day suits."

"But Mother!"

Mrs. Morton was already descending the stairs; she did not respond.

Ernest turned in despair to Sherm, who was examining the neat stitching
ruefully.

Sherm grinned; "Guess we might as well take our medicine. Score one for
the kids!"

"I think they might take a joke the way it was intended."

"They seem to have taken the joke and a few other things besides."

Sherm chuckled. Ernest laughed, too, a little sulkily.

"We're elected to stay at home all right, but I'll get ahead of them if
it takes a month!"

By the time the boys had rearrayed themselves and come downstairs, the
occupants of the grape arbor had vanished. They didn't return until the
enemy had departed for a ride to soothe its ruffled feelings.

The girls retired to bed early, as innocent young people should.

"Did you have a good time at Mamie's last night?" asked Chicken Little
at breakfast the next morning.

"Mamie's? We didn't go to Mamie's."

"No? I thought you intended to." This from Katy.

"You girls do get the queerest notions in your heads," observed Ernest
loftily.

Gertie giggled. The boys looked at Gertie; they hadn't suspected Gertie.
Katy also giggled, likewise Chicken Little. There is something
exceedingly contagious about giggling.

Ernest became even loftier.

"You girls seem to spend about half your time cackling--I hope you know
what you are cackling about."

"We do," retorted Chicken Little, still sweetly.

Ernest and Sherm exchanged glances. After breakfast Ernest asked his
mother if she had told the girls what happened the night before.

"Not a word. They didn't ask me."

"Humph!" The boy was puzzled.

At noon they took another tack.

"I forgot to tell you that Mamie sent her regards to you and Katy,"
Ernest remarked casually.

"She said she was sorry you didn't come, too," added Sherm.

Jane lifted her eyebrows at Katy. Katy shook her head.

"By the way, Sis, I forgot to tell you that Captain Clarke invited us
all to come over to supper to-morrow night. He said to tell you he
appreciated that bread very much. And while I think of it, if you can
spare a little of your valuable time, I'd thank you to rip that
stitching out of our clothes. I want to wear mine to the Captain's."

"All right, we'll rip out the stitching if you'll bake us a batch of
bread as good as the one you took."

"Not much, Mary Ann! We took the bread to the Captain, all right."

"Yes, but we only intended to send one loaf--and, besides, you made us a
lot of trouble."

"Mother, haven't the girls got to take out that stitching?"

"I think Jane's proposition is a fair one, Ernest," observed Dr. Morton
dryly.

The boys retired to their room early that night where they worked most
industriously with scissors and penknife and clothes brush. They had
paid a hurried visit to Chicken Little's room when they first came
upstairs. This visit did much to sweeten their hour of labor.

The girls were spending the evening at Frank's. They were late in
getting home. The night was hot and they hated to go to bed until it
began to cool off. Dr. and Mrs. Morton were sitting on the front porch.

"Go to bed, children. Father was just starting over to call you." Mrs.
Morton kissed them each goodnight.

Dr. and Mrs. Morton followed them in and had barely settled themselves
for the night, when an unearthly shriek rent the air, followed by
another and yet another.

"What in thunder are those children up to now?" Dr. Morton spoke in the
tone of one who considered that patience had ceased to be a virtue.

"O Mother, come quick--there's snakes or frogs or something in our bed
and we haven't any light!"

Mrs. Morton hurriedly lit a lamp and went to the rescue, followed by the
doctor armed with a stick.

Holding the lamp aloft they went into the room, the three girls, who had
retired in a panic to the head of the stairs, bringing up the rear. Katy
had scrambled into bed and out again in haste, dragging the coverlet and
sheet half off on the floor. The interior of the bed was fully exposed
to view. It was already occupied--not by snakes, but by a handful of
fat, squirming, little polliwogs.

"Ugh, I thought it was a snake--they were so slimy and cold!" Katy
shivered at the recollection.

Dr. Morton grimly gathered up the polliwogs, then, leaving his wife to
restore order, went into the boys' room and held a conversation behind
closed doors. No report of what was said ever reached the girls, but the
practical jokes ended then and there.



CHAPTER X

SUPPER AT THE CAPTAIN'S


Their late unpleasantness had made the young people unusually polite to
each other. Irritating subjects were carefully avoided the next day.
When they set out for the Captain's, Sherm gallantly handed Katy in to
the front seat to sit beside Ernest, while he sandwiched himself between
Jane and Gertie. The boys had finally concluded that the real joke was
on them and were trying to make up.

The Captain received them at the gate.

"I can't be grateful enough for that bread. I haven't had such bread
since I was a boy at home. I believe I am indebted to both Chicken
Little and Gertie for the treat. Wing Fan is consumed with envy and
asked me to-day if I would ask the honorable miss to tell him how she
make the so wonderful bread."

"I'd be delighted to," replied Chicken Little, "only it took more than
telling for Gertie and me. We tried ever so many times before we got it
just right, but, of course, Wing understands more about cooking than we
did."

"Well, judging by the bread, you seem to know a good deal about
cooking."

Sherm could not resist. "Yes, and the girls are first rate at sewing,
too!"

This was too much for them all. They laughed until the Captain begged to
be let in on the fun.

Their host had an unexpected treat for them. "You are to help me
christen my new row boat. It came four days ago, but I have been saving
it until you could all go with me."

He led the way down the creek to a long, deep pool, where a blue and
white skiff floated gaily at anchor. A piece of white cardboard was
tacked over the name so they could not see it.

"I covered it up to see if you could guess it. I'll give one of those
Siamese elephants to the one who gets it first."

A lively contest followed. The girls suggested all the poetical names
they could think of from Sea Rover to Bounding Billow. The boys, after a
few wild guesses, settled down to the names of places in the
neighborhood, and women's names.

The Captain laughed at their wild hazards.

"It isn't the name of any ship or famous naval hero?" Ernest asked this
question for the second time.

The Captain shook his head. "Some of your neighborhood guessers were the
nearest. There's one thing I'm sure of, Chicken Little won't guess it."

This was hint enough for Sherm. "Chicken Little," he sang out instantly.

"Bright boy, the elephant is yours."

"Did you really?" Chicken Little eyed the long strip of cardboard that
concealed the name, incredulously.

The Captain took out his penknife and deftly ripped the covering off.
There it was--the letters an inch tall in white paint: "Chicken Little."

"I think we should have a proper christening ceremony while we are at
it. Ernest, would you mind stepping up to the house and asking Wing for
a bottle of ginger ale?"

When Ernest returned with the bottle of amber-colored liquid, Captain
Clarke turned to Gertie.

"We must divide the honors, will you break the bottle over the bow while
Sherm pushes off? Champagne is customary, but this is better for a
prohibition state, and for young folks in any state."

Gertie took the bottle and waited for directions. The others looked on
curiously. Sherm untied the boat, and, holding the cord in his hand,
also waited.

"Perhaps we'd better consider Ernest the crew; that cord is hardly long
enough to permit the _Chicken Little_ to float off in style, and we
don't want to have to swim, to bring her back. Jump in, Ernest; you know
how to handle an oar in fresh water, don't you?"

"I think I can manage it."

Captain Clarke explained to Gertie exactly how to strike the blow that
should send the ginger ale foaming over the bow, and repeated the formal
words of christening until she knew them by heart. Gertie was so
interested she forgot to be shy, and performed her office with much
spirit, repeating the "I christen thee, _Chicken Little_," as
solemnly as if she were standing beside a battleship instead of a
blue-and-white row boat. It was a pretty ceremony, but it took so long
that Wing Fan came to announce supper before they were all fairly packed
away in the boat for their promised ride. The six were a snug fit.

Supper was served on the uncovered veranda. A stream of late afternoon
sunshine filtered through the trees, and, with the lengthening shadows,
cast a sunflecked pattern of branch and foliage on the white linen
tablecloth and shining glass and silver. Some of Chicken Little's own
clove pinks, mingled with feathery larkspur and ribbon grass, filled a
silver bowl in the center of the table.

"How did you keep them fresh so long?" Chicken Little asked curiously.

"Wing Fan performed some kind of an incantation over them. You'll have
to ask him."

Wing was delighted to have Jane notice them. "Velly easy keep--put some
away in box with ice all same butter."

Captain Clarke had been the first person on the creek to put up ice for
summer use and Wing was the proud possessor of a roomy ice box.

"It seems like home to have ice again." Katy was stirring the sugar in
her tea for the sheer satisfaction of hearing the ice tinkle against the
sides of the glass. A sudden thought disturbed her. "Though there
couldn't be anything nicer than your spring house for keeping things. I
don't believe our melons at home ever got so nice and cold all through
as yours do down in the spring stream."

"That's a wonderful spring you have over on the place." Captain Clarke
came to Katy's rescue. "And that big oak above it is the finest tree in
this part of the country. I'll venture it has a history if we only knew
it."

"Yes, Father is very proud of the old oak. He says it is at least two
hundred years old. He wouldn't take anything for it," Ernest replied.

"Everybody calls Kansas a new country," said Sherm, "but I guess it is
pretty old in some ways. Kansas had a lot of history during the war."

"Yes, and lots of the people who helped make the history are living down
at Garland now. The old Santa Fe trail runs clear across our ranch. You
can tell it still--though it hasn't been traveled for almost twenty
years--by the ruts and washouts. And even where the ground wasn't cut up
by the countless wheels, it was packed so hard the blue stem has never
grown there since. It is all covered with that fuzzy buffalo grass. In
winter this turns a lighter brown than the prairie grass and you can see
the trail for miles, distinctly." Ernest loved history and politics.

"What was the Santa Fe trail? I have heard you speak of the trail so
much and I never knew what you meant." Katy asked eagerly.

The Captain answered: "The old trans-continental wagon road to the gold
fields of California. You know there was a time when Kansas didn't have
anything so civilized as a railroad and people traveled by wagon and
horseback--even on foot, all the way to the coast."

"Yes," added Ernest, "and lots of them died on the way or got killed by
Indians."

"Indians?" said Katy, "why, we haven't seen a single Indian and Cousin
May said she'd be afraid to come out here because there were lots of
them still about."

"Not in this part of Kansas--you needn't lose any sleep. The Kaw
reservation isn't so very far away and parties sometimes come this way
to revisit their old hunting grounds, but the Kaws were a peaceable
tribe even in their free days."

"There are lots of Indian mounds and relics around here," put in Chicken
Little. "Father got those arrow heads, and that stone to pound corn, and
his tomahawk heads out of a mound over on Little John."

"Yes, and there's a tree on the main street in town that used to be a
famous meeting place for the Indians. Oh, we must take you all to see
the old Indian Mission. It was used as a fort, too, more than once, they
say. The walls are fully two feet thick."

"Whew, I didn't know you had so many interesting things round here!"
exclaimed Sherm.

"We are so used to them we hardly think of them as being interesting.
Have I ever told you about the hermit's cave?"

"Hermit's cave? No, where is it?"

"On the side of that big bluff just west of town. Oh, that's some story.
The hermit lived there until about ten years ago. Some said he was a
Jesuit priest who lived a hermit's life to become more holy, and others
that he was an Italian Noble who had fled from Italy to escape
punishment for a crime. Nobody ever really knew much about him except
that he was highly educated and read books in several different
languages. But the cave is still there, in the ledge of rocks near the
top of the bluff."

"Oh, I'd love to see it." Gertie liked romantic things.

"So would I," Katy added.

"Me too," echoed Sherm.

"Count me in," said the Captain, "or rather let me take you all to town
some day to explore these marvels."

"They really aren't much to see--they're more interesting to tell about.
But I'd be glad to see them all again myself," Ernest replied.

Wing Fan had prepared so many good things for them that none of the
party felt energetic enough for rowing immediately after supper. They
were glad to linger over the peach ice cream which was Wing's crowning
triumph, and nibble at the Chinese sweetmeats about which they were
rather doubtful.

"I don't believe I ever tasted such good ice cream," exclaimed Katy.

"I think Wing Fan must say magical words over everything he cooks--his
things are so different and taste so good. I never thought I liked rice
before, but his was delicious."

[Illustration: And he brandished it fiercely.]

"Wing Fan knows all about the family history of rice. He talks to each
grain separately," laughed the Captain.

The boys didn't praise Wing's efforts in words, but their appetites kept
Wing on the broad grin. He could not resist looking proudly at his
employer when Sherm accepted his third saucer of cream.

The Captain invited them into the library to pick out Sherm's elephant.
They were all so interested in the curios and asked so many questions
they came near forgetting the boat ride. Ernest picked out a ship's
cutlass the first thing. The Captain took it down for him to examine and
he brandished it fiercely.

Captain Clarke smiled. "I fear you wouldn't do much execution if you
handled it that way, Ernest. A cutlass has tricks of its own. Here, this
is the way." He showed the boy how to get the proper hold and how to
swing it.

Ernest struck an attitude. "Behold your sailor brother as he skims the
briny deep, Chicken Little."

"Pooh, naval officers don't carry cutlasses, do they, Captain Clarke?"

"No, I believe the sword used now is straight. But this cutlass has a
history I think might interest you."

"Tell us."

"If you like. It won't take long. Boys, will you draw up chairs for the
girls?" Captain Clarke reached out his hand for a big easy chair nearby
at the same moment that Sherm laid his hand upon it to draw it nearer
for their host himself. The two hands rested in almost the same position
on the opposite arms of the chair. They were singularly alike. Katy, the
observing, noticed this instantly.

Captain Clarke studied Sherm's hand for a minute, then his gaze shifted
to his own.

"I doubt if my hand was ever as good looking as Sherm's," he said
easily. "You have a hand that denotes unusual strength and will power,
according to 'palmology.' You will have to live up to it."

But Katy was persistent. "It's almost exactly like yours, Captain
Clarke, only yours isn't so smooth and has more lines. Don't you see
it's a square hand with unusually long fingers. The thumbs are shaped
just the same, too."

"You should be an artist, Katy, you are such a close observer," replied
the Captain.

They settled down comfortably for the story. Chicken Little noticed
Sherm regarding his own hand rather critically and glancing from it to
the Captain's, who used frequent gestures as he warmed with his talk.

Gertie could not take her eyes from the cruel steel blade of the
cutlass. "I wish there were no awful things to kill people with. I don't
believe God meant people to kill each other in battle any more than to
kill each other when they get mad."

Captain Clarke smiled at her disturbed look. "That is one of the most
terrible questions human beings have ever had to answer, little girl. I
thought as you do once, Gertie, before the Civil War broke out. I
loathed the histories and pictures of fighting. My schoolmates used to
dub me a sissy because I hated the sight of blood. But when President
Lincoln called for volunteers to save our country, when I realized that
it was a choice between having one great free country with liberty in it
for both blacks and whites, or letting our own race and kin leave us in
hatred to continue the wickedness of human slavery right at our doors,
it didn't take me long to decide. War and all unnecessary suffering
inflicted by human beings upon each other, are hideous. But have you
ever thought how much more of such suffering there would be if parents
didn't inflict suffering upon their children to make them control their
ugly passions? If our courts didn't punish people for being cruel to
other people? And when it isn't a child or one or two grown men or women
who try to be cruel or unjust, but a whole nation, what then? Surely
other nations should come to the rescue of the right, even if it means
war. You wouldn't let a big dog kill a little one without trying to save
it, would you, Gertie?"

Gertie mutely shook her head.

"Neither should Christian nations allow weaker peoples nor any part of
their own people to be unjustly treated, when it is in their power to
prevent it. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' will some day be a question
every nation must answer as well as every individual."

"But most of the world's wars have been to take other nations' rights
away from them, not to protect them," objected Ernest.

"Yes, on one side, but in every war there has always been the side that
fought to protect its loved ones and its homes from the brutality of
conquerors. There is hideous wrong in every war, but the wrong is in the
hearts of those who would rob and oppress those weaker than themselves,
not in the patriots and heroes who resist. But I didn't mean to deliver
a lecture. I'd rather tell you about the brave boy who wielded this
cutlass."

Chicken Little drew her chair closer.

"It was in '65--soon after I was mustered out of service at the close of
the war, I was offered the command of a freighter going round The Horn
to the Orient. I hated to leave my wife and little boy for a year's
voyage, especially after being away so long during the war, but it was
the only opening worth while I could find. I guess I had the
get-rich-quick idea, too, but never mind, that has nothing to do with
the story. We had a terrible voyage. Storms and bad luck of every kind.
The rigging was shrouded with ice for weeks--two men were frozen to
death on watch. I don't know that I blame the men as I look back. I had
been so hardened myself by the terrible discipline and sights of war, I
guess I didn't take much trouble to make my crew see the necessity of
some of our hardships. At any rate, they mutinied and would have killed
me while I slept, but for my cabin boy. He was only sixteen, but he
discovered the conspiracy and roused me. With the help of the other
officers and a few loyal sailors we stood them off. Hot work it was."
The Captain stopped an instant, musing.

The young people waited, expectant. Captain Clarke held up the cutlass
reverently. "Charlie used this to good purpose after he had fired his
last round of ammunition. I was wounded--had propped myself against the
rail and was aiming my last precious bits of lead at the ring-leader,
when some one jabbed a bayonet at me from the side. Charlie knocked it
up, cutting the dastard down with a second blow that was a marvel. Those
two strokes saved my life and saved the ship. Do you wonder this ugly
thing looks beautiful to me?"

"And the boy?" Katy asked softly.

"Commands a vessel of his own in the Pacific trade. I had a letter and a
Satsuma jar from him a few weeks ago. But we are neglecting the
_Chicken Little_! That will never do."

A crescent moon was visible in the sky as they came back to the place
where the boat was moored.

"I fear I detained you longer than I intended with my yarn," said the
Captain. "It will soon be dark and that moon is too young to be very
useful."

"Oh, it will give a good deal of light for two or three hours. I know
every inch of the road, and even if I didn't, the horses do," Ernest
replied.

"Will you boys take the oars together or one at a time? Chicken Little,
you girls may take turns in the bow and the rest of us will make a nice
tight fit here in the stern."

The boys preferred to try their luck singly. Ernest picked up the oars
awkwardly. He had had little experience in rowing and he felt
self-conscious under the Captain's eye. His first stroke sent a shower
of drops flying over them.

"Here," called Sherm, "that isn't a hose you're handling!"

"Anyhow, the drops feel lovely and cool." Katy was inclined to defend
Ernest.

"A longer, slower stroke will do the work better and not blister your
hands so quickly," admonished Captain Clarke. "Our future admiral must
learn to row a boat skillfully. You boys are welcome to use it whenever
you see fit."

Ernest set his lips together firmly and soon had the boat skimming along
rapidly, though still rather jerkily, his strokes being more energetic
than regular. The woods were already echoing with soft night noises,
frogs croaked; the clicking notes of the katydids mingled with the
whining of the wind through the boughs overhead. Part of the pool
disappeared in the shadows; the rest broke into shimmering ripples with
every stroke of the oars.

"Oh, I love the night time!" exclaimed Chicken Little. "Seems as if
everything in the world had done its day's work and was sitting down to
talk it over--even the frogs. Don't you s'pose they're glad or sorry
about things when night comes, just as we are?"

Sherm looked at Chicken Little, who was leaning over the side of the
boat, trailing her hand in the water.

"Chicken Little, you work your imagination overtime--it will wear out if
you aren't careful."

She rewarded him with a grimace.

"You are getting a much evener stroke, Ernest," observed the Captain.

"I bet he's getting a blister on his hand, too," said Katy.

"Yes, Ernest, you'd better let me have a turn." Sherm slid over to the
rower's seat and reached his hand for the oars, which Ernest yielded
reluctantly.

Sherm had spent one summer near Lake Michigan and was a better oarsman
than Ernest. The boat skimmed along smoothly. "Good for you, Sherm, you
have a strong, even stroke," the Captain praised.

Presently the girls began to sing, Ernest and Sherm joining in. Captain
Clarke listened happily to the young voices until they struck up "Soft
and Low over the Western Sea." They all loved it and were crooning it
sweetly, but the Captain's face went white as they sang: "Father will
come to his babe in the nest." "Don't!" he exclaimed involuntarily.

They all looked at him in surprise. He regained his self-possession
instantly, saying with a smile: "Go on--don't mind my twinge of
rheumatism--I slept in a draught last night. That is one of the
loveliest things Tennyson has ever written."

The young people finished the song and began another, but they wondered.
The spell of the evening was broken. Soon after, they started home.



CHAPTER XI

CALICO AND COMPANY


Mrs. Morton passed the muffins for the fifth time to Ernest. Ernest's
appetite for muffins was prodigious. Sherm was also ready for another.
Chicken Little hadn't quite finished hers, but at the rate they were
disappearing--she thought she'd better. Katy said: "Yes, thank you," and
Gertie, who ate more slowly than the others, had only had one. Dr.
Morton was merely waiting to be urged. Mrs. Morton rang the bell
doubtfully. Annie had filled the plate three times already. Annie
appeared with a questioning grin.

"Shall I bring some bread, Ma'am? They ain't no more muffins."

Dr. Morton laughed. "Our appetites do credit to your cooking, Annie."

Mrs. Morton sighed, then smiled as she surveyed the rosy, tanned faces.

"There is certainly nothing like country air to make people eat. I
wonder when Alice and Dick will be getting back. Dick said the first
week in August probably."

"Oh, dear," said Chicken Little, "I want to see Alice and Dick again,
but I don't want Katy and Gertie and Sherm to go home. They can only
stay a few days this time, Alice said so."

"I don't want to go home a bit," replied Katy.

"There's nothing to do at home till school begins."

"I'd like to go home and see Mother, and then come back." Gertie looked
a little wistful. She did want Mother within reach.

"I wish we could keep you all till September." Dr. Morton liked to have
the clatter of the young people about. "If we only knew some one going
back to Illinois at that time to look after you. I don't suppose Mrs.
Halford would like to have you girls travel so far without some grown
person along. But I don't see why Sherm can't just as well stay till
time to get ready for college."

"I'd like nothing better, and I'm not dead sure I'm going to college
this fall. Father seemed a little doubtful when I left, and the folks
haven't said anything about it in their letters. If I can't, I guess
I'll try for a clerkship in the post-office when I go back."

Dr. Morton studied a moment. "How would you like to work here on the
ranch if you don't go to college, Sherm?"

"Do you mean it, Dr. Morton?"

"I surely do. Of course, Ernest's going is not quite settled yet, but I
have practically made up my mind that he must go off to school
somewhere. We shall need some one to take his place and it would be very
pleasant to have you. Chicken Little here wouldn't be quite so homesick
for Ernest, perhaps, if you would let her adopt you in his place."

Jane jumped up and down in an ecstasy.

"Oh, Sherm, please do--I thought I'd just die with lonesomeness this
winter with all of you gone, and Ernest, too."

Sherm looked pleased at her eagerness. His news from home was still
depressing and Sherm, if not homesick, had his lonely hours.

"I would pay you regular wages--whatever is customary for boys of your
age. I should have to make some inquiries," continued Dr. Morton.

"Yes, and we could go to the lyceums--they most always have one every
winter over at the Fair View Schoolhouse. It's heaps of fun when there's
snow on the ground. Frank puts the big wagon bed on runners and we fill
the bottom with straw and buffalo robes and all snuggle down together.
You just must stay, Sherm!"

"Perhaps he will, if you don't talk him to death, Chicken Little. You
haven't given him a chance to get in a word edgeways." Ernest reproved
his sister sharply after the manner of brothers slightly older.

"What about you?" retorted Chicken Little. "Sherm, we'll all keep quiet
and let you have a chance."

"I'd like to, if college is ruled out, and Mother and Father will let
me. They may want me at home, especially if Father grows worse." Sherm
gave a little gulp. He was very fond of his father.

"I'll write to him to-day, Sherm, and you might write, too, for I'm
going in to town about noon. Any commissions, Mother? Why don't you drop
things and come along? A change will do you good--you haven't been off
the place for two weeks or more."

"I don't know but I will. Chicken Little, you girls might get up a
little picnic lunch for yourselves and the boys, and have it out in the
orchard. Annie has a big ironing to-day and it would help her out not to
have a dinner to get. Then we'll have a hearty supper this evening."

"Yes, and Chicken Little, did you girls feed the porkers last evening? I
heard them squealing and grunting in the night."

"Golly!" said Chicken Little, sitting up with a start and looking at
Katy. Katy looked guilty, and Gertie concerned.

Dr. Morton did not need any further answer. "Well, you'd better run
right out. Remember dumb beasts must never be neglected, daughter."

"And Jane, I don't want to hear you say Golly again. By-words of any
kind are objectionable for young girls, and that is particularly rough
and coarse," Mrs. Morton added severely.

"You never say it is coarse when Ernest says it--and he uses it an awful
lot."

"My dear, you are not a boy," Mrs. Morton replied with a dignity that
was final.

"I don't care," said Chicken Little when the trio got out doors, "it's
not one bit fair to let boys do so many more things than girls! You just
wait, if I ever have a daughter she's going to do every single thing her
brother does. So there!"

Sherm overheard and later in the day when he and Jane were talking
together, he remarked: "Chicken Little, I don't think it is exactly fair
either to hold the girls in so much tighter than boys, but your mother
is right, allee samee. I have heard the fellows talk often enough to
know they think a lot more of a girl who isn't slangy, than of one who
is. Of course, mild ones like 'Oh dear' don't matter, but you see a man
kind of likes to have a girl, well--different." Sherm was getting in a
little beyond his depth.

The girls carried two pails of sour milk and a great basket of parings
to their greedy pigs and watched them feed without interest.

"The only reason I'm glad to go home is I won't have to feed these
horrid pigs any more. I never saw anything grow and eat like they do.
They ought to be worth a lot of money after all the stuff they've
eaten." Katy kicked her toe against the log pen to emphasize her
remarks.

"I don't think they're worth so very much yet." Chicken Little was
regarding them with no very friendly eye.

"I wouldn't mind so much if they weren't getting so ugly and smelly,"
said Gertie plaintively.

Frank, happening by just then, was amused to see their disgusted
expressions.

"Say, Frank, how soon will these pigs be big enough to go in the corral
with the others?"

Frank's eyes twinkled. He came up and scanned the ten muddy, impudent
pigs, who were already coming up to the sides of the pen, grunting for
more. "Well," he said judicially, "I think perhaps you will be rid of
them inside of two or three months, but they'll eat a lot more from now
on."

The three set up a united protest.

"Father said it would only be a few weeks when we caught them, and it's
been five already," Chicken Little remonstrated hotly.

"Well, don't go for me. You asked for my opinion and I gave it to you."

Frank grinned so broadly that Jane grew suspicious. "Pooh, you're
teasing, I'll ask Father to-night."

The girls scoured the pantry and spring house for provender for the
picnic. Sherm and Ernest would be in from the meadow where they were
cutting down thistles about half-past twelve. Bread and butter and cold
ham were flanked with cookies, pie, and musk melons. Annie wanted them
out of her road as speedily as possible, so they took their stuff all
down to the orchard and stowed it away in the shade.

"Now what?" demanded Katy.

"I don't know. Wish we could think of something new." Chicken Little
stared up and down the rows of apple trees, seeking an inspiration.

Her glance fell upon a lone apple tree standing in the center of an open
space, apart from all its fellows. Katy's glance followed hers.

"Why is that old tree all by itself that way?"

"I don't know--they were all big trees when we came here. It is a
bell-flower and we call it Old King Bee. Say, I've got an idea. Let's
get Calico and Caliph and play riding school--you remember that article
in 'The Harper's' about a riding school in New York, and you said you
wished you could go."

"Would Ernest let us take Caliph?"

"I don't know, but I know I could ride him if I tucked my skirts up and
used the man's saddle. There can't a soul see us here; it's so shut in
by the trees."

"It would be fun. Let's try to ride bare back and do stunts to surprise
the boys. I wish we could take our skirts clear off--they catch so on
the saddle horn and in the stirrup buckles."

"I tell you what we'll do." Chicken Little's eyes danced impishly.
"There are lots of Ernest's old trousers in the lumber-room closet that
he outgrew ever so long ago. I believe we could find some to fit all of
us. Let's go see."

A swift rummage of the dusty closet set them all sneezing, but they
triumphantly brought forth an armful of defunct trousers and carried
them up to their room. For the next fifteen minutes such giggles and
exclamations and shrieks of laughter escaped from their room that Annie
left her ironing to see what was up. An astonishing sight met her gaze.
Once started upon the dressing-up craze, the girls had not been content
with one garment. Chicken Little had daringly ransacked not only
Ernest's bureau, but Sherm's possessions, in quest of shirts and ties.

She had decked herself in a blue checked cheviot shirt, tucked into blue
serge trousers, liberally patched at the knees. Sherm's best red tie was
neatly knotted at her throat, and an old straw hat adorned with a red
hair ribbon, topped her brown braids. Katy was resplendent in a tan
colored shirt, with a bright green tie popularly supposed to belong to
Ernest. Her own black sailor finished her off nicely. Gertie had a faded
pink shirt, which dated back to Centerville days--all Ernest's more
recent garments being too big for her slim little figure.

Annie threw up her hands. "You're a pretty-looking lot. I'd just like to
have the Missus see you now. I bet you'd catch it."

But Annie had troubles of her own and retired to her ironing.

The trio slipped out the back way--they didn't care to have Marian see
them, and they didn't wish to bother with Jilly. The stable was
deserted. They quickly saddled Caliph after making friends--with sundry
lumps of sugar. Calico was equipped only with a saddle blanket and
girth. Gertie decided that she would let the others experiment first, so
she walked back to the orchard.

"Let's try them down the lane first. They will be easier to manage on a
straight road than in among the trees, if they are fractious."

Jane helped Katy upon Calico's back and showed her how to press her
knees against the sides to secure her seat in the place of stirrups.

"You can put your hand under the girth if you begin to slip."

Katy took a turn or two and decided she could stick on if Calico didn't
trot. He was a single footer and had a very easy gait except on the rare
occasions when he insisted upon breaking into a hard trot. Chicken
Little led Caliph to the fence. She wanted to be sure that she was well
in her seat before Caliph discovered she was a girl.

But Caliph liked Chicken Little, and not having any skirts to make him
suspicious, seemed inclined to take her for what she seemed. He noticed
only that he had a lighter hand on the reins. He dashed off as lightly
and smoothly as if Ernest or Sherm were on his back, and Chicken Little
was in a transport of pleasure and triumph to think she could ride him.
Katy had a harder time, but she stuck on pluckily for three turns up and
down the lane.

They didn't dare linger too long lest some neighbor come by and see
them. So they presently turned off upon the faint track that led through
the gate into the orchard. Gertie was awaiting them under the big tree.
Katy slipped off Calico to give Gertie her turn. Chicken Little led the
way on Caliph and they went round and round the tree, faster and faster,
till both were ready for a rest. The ponies were fresh and seemed to
enjoy the sport as much as they did.

Katy tried Calico next, enchanted to find she could stick on at a
canter. By this time they were ready for something new.

"Do you suppose we could ride backwards?" Katy was in a daring mood.

They could and they did, though Calico was a little doubtful as to
whether he approved of this innovation. It was not exactly comfortable
for anyone concerned and they soon gave it up. But when Chicken Little
tried to make the intelligent pony dance on his hind legs, Calico waxed
indignant. Instead of rising gracefully, he gave two short, plunging
leaps, descending with forelegs rigid and head down, a maneuver which
sent his mistress flying over his head.

The turf was soft and she was up in a trice, gripping Calico's rein
before he could make use of his freedom. The crowning feat of the
morning was another of Chicken Little's brilliant ideas. They had
tethered the ponies by their bridle reins and were letting them graze on
the orchard grass while they stretched out and rested. Suddenly Jane sat
up with a start and began to take off her shoes.

"What on earth are you going to do now, Jane Morton?" demanded Katy
sharply.

"Wait and see. I'm most sure I can. I want you to lead Calico very
slowly."

Katy obediently followed directions. Chicken Little put her hand on the
girth and vaulted on his back. She rode once around the tree tamely,
then slowly got to her feet on Calico's slim back, bidding Katy steady
her. She succeeded in going about three feet with this precarious
footing before she lost her balance and slid harmlessly down on the
pony's back. Calico did not look specially pleased at the jounce she
gave him as she lit. She persevered until she could go round the tree,
then insisted upon trying it alone. Katy and Gertie both remonstrated.

"You'll get killed! Calico doesn't like it a bit."

"I won't--I tried once all by myself last summer on old Kit, but
Calico's harder, because he isn't so fat. You wouldn't hurt me, would
you, Calico?" She put her arm around his neck and squeezed him hard.

Calico whinnied and began to nose her for sugar. She produced two lumps,
and stroked him, talking to him in whispers while Katy hooted.

"A lot of good that will do."

Chicken Little got up again with Katy's help, then started off slowly by
herself. Calico moved carefully at a snail's pace. She made the entire
circuit of the tree successfully this time. Again she went around,
increasing the speed of Calico's walk. She was so jubilant she grew
reckless and clucked, which was Calico's signal to canter. He responded
promptly and with equal promptness, she slid down on him kerplunck.
Calico laid back his ears in disapproval, and looked around inquiringly.

By this time Katy had plucked up her courage and wished to try it. She
was entirely willing, however, to have Chicken Little at the pony's
head. Katy slipped, too, but she was lighter, and Calico was growing
used to it and did not mind so much. Chicken Little patted him each time
and he soon ceased to notice the bumps. Gertie preferred to be a
spectator at this stunt, but the others persisted until Jane succeeded
in going round the tree once with Calico pacing.

"Golly, I wish Ernest and Sherm could see us!" Chicken Little was
already sighing for new worlds to conquer.

"You said Golly again."

"Golly, I did, didn't I? It's awfully hard to quit anything like that.
Say, I want you girls to pinch me every time I say it, then I'll
remember."

"You'll get mad if we do," replied Gertie, wise beyond her years.

"No, I won't! Honest to goodness I won't. I truly want to stop it."

"All right," said Katy firmly, "but you will get more pinches than you
are expecting."

Katy and Gertie and poor Calico were all ready to settle down for a
rest. But Chicken Little was burning to show off before Ernest and
Sherm. She untied Caliph and took several turns around the tree, going
faster and faster.

"Pooh," she said after a while, "I bet I could ride Caliph anywhere.
Suppose we go meet the boys. You and Gertie can both ride Calico bare
back. I guess they'll be surprised. It's most noon; I can tell by the
sun."

"But Jane, we can't go to meet the boys this way." Gertie looked
distressed.

"Oh, I forgot. What can we do? I'd be afraid to ride Caliph with even a
short skirt--he's never had a woman on him before."

"What if the boys do see us? Nobody else is likely to come along just at
noon. Anyway, your father thinks it's dangerous for girls to wear long
skirts to ride in. I heard him say so." Katy was plausible and Chicken
Little wanted to be persuaded.

"I don't care, if you don't."

"All right, let's do it. I think you look real nice that way, Chicken
Little, honest I do."

"Well, they're heaps more comfortable. I feel so light. You make an
awfully cute boy, Katy, and Gertie is just sweet. And you couldn't ride
bare back half so well sidewise."

It took some persuasion to secure Gertie's consent, but she finally gave
in.

They rode gaily out into the lane. Calico was too tired to make any
protest to his double burden. Once in the lane, they waited in the
shade. But the boys did not come. They waited until Jane was sure it
must be one o'clock and their appetites suggested two at the very
earliest. Calico waited patiently enough, but Caliph was uneasy over the
flies. Finally, they decided to give the boys up and go back and have
their picnic alone.

"We might take one gallop down the line to the creek to make sure
they're not in the meadow," Katy suggested.

"I bet they finished the weeds sooner than they expected and went
fishing." Chicken Little strained her eyes in the direction of the
meadow.

They started the horses off at a smart pace, then faster and faster,
till they broke into a swift gallop.

"Isn't it glorious?" Chicken Little called back. She was several lengths
ahead.

She did not hear Katy's response. A jack rabbit, frightened by the
approaching horses, broke cover from some wild blackberry bushes that
grew over the stone wall, and dashed across the road directly in front
of Caliph. The spirited beast shied violently, then leaped forward,
throwing Chicken Little neatly off into the exact middle of the dusty
lane. Her pride was more hurt than she was. She tried to stop him by
calling "Whoa" lustily. But Caliph seemed to have a pressing engagement
elsewhere. He quickly disappeared around a bend in the lane.

The girls looked at each other in dismay.

Chicken Little got hastily to her feet. There was no time to nurse
bruises. She must catch Caliph somehow.

"Golly, he's got that beautiful Mexican saddle on and he may take a
notion to roll. I knew I hadn't any business to take it, but I wanted to
ride him just as Ernest does."

Katy and Gertie noticed the "Golly," but there seemed to be more
important business on hand.

"Do you suppose you could take Calico and catch him?" asked Katy
anxiously.

"I don't know, but I guess I'll have to try."

Katy and Gertie climbed down and Chicken Little swung herself up.

"Maybe one of you'd better come, too, to hold Calico and ride him home
if I catch Caliph."

"I'll come, and Gertie had better run and change her clothes and go back
to the orchard to give the boys their lunch, if they come before we get
back. Don't tell them where we're gone."

"Nor about Caliph, Gertie, you can say we'll be back in a minute."

Katy had mounted behind Jane while she was giving this last direction
and poor Calico started off at a gallop. They crossed the creek and came
to the place where the road forked just beyond the timber without seeing
hide or hair of Caliph.

"He must have streaked it. I don't think he'd take the road to town--he
must have gone straight home to the Captain's. Oh, dear, I'll have to
tell him I used Ernest's horse without permission, and I've got these
awful clothes on! It just seems as if the Captain has to know every
single bad thing I ever do." Chicken Little heaved a long sigh and
clucked to Calico.

They had almost reached the Captain's gate when they saw Wing Fan
approaching on horseback, leading the truant Caliph. Chicken Little was
immensely relieved to find, as they came near, that neither saddle nor
bridle had suffered from the run away.

Wing Fan was also greatly relieved to find that no one had been hurt.

"Me velly 'fraid honorable brother have bad fall. Captain Clarke no
home. I bring horse, find out."

Wing held Caliph while Jane mounted, and rode a little way with her to
make sure he would not be fractious, but Caliph seemed to have had his
fling and bowled along smoothly.

In the meantime Ernest and Sherm had arrived and were plying Gertie with
questions between mouthfuls. Gertie parried as long as she could,
shutting her lips together tight when they began to press her too hard.

"I'd just like to know what they are up to now. That precious sister of
mine can get into more scrapes than any kid I ever saw."

"And Katy isn't far behind her," added Sherm, hoping Gertie would try to
defend her absent sister and let something out.

Chicken Little and Katy took the horses to the barn, carefully unsaddled
Caliph, and rubbed both horses down and fed them, before going back to
the orchard. They forgot all about their unusual dress.

They arrived there, tired and flushed, in time to help the boys finish
the last melon.

"You mean things to eat the melons all up." Chicken Little almost forgot
her own offense in her disgust over their greediness.

The boys did not waste time defending themselves; their attention was
concentrated on the girls' peculiar costume.

"Well, what in the demnition bow wows have you been doing now, Chicken
Little Jane Morton?" Ernest's gaze wandered from his sister to Katy, who
suddenly became self-conscious and tucked her feet and as much of her
trouser-clad legs as she could manage, underneath her.

Chicken Little gave a start of surprise, then faced Ernest boldly.

"Oh, just having a little fun."

By this time Ernest was beginning to grasp details. "Suppose next time
you start out to have fun you let my things alone. Isn't that Sherm's
best tie you've got on?"

Chicken Little clutched the offending tie and glanced hastily at Sherm.
The boy was regarding her with a peculiar expression, both admiring and
disapproving. There was no denying that Chicken Little made a most
attractive boy.

The swift color swept into the girl's face as she caught Sherm's glance.
"Oh, dear, and he had told her only that morning that girls should be
different!" She liked Sherm--she didn't want him to think she was a
bold, awful girl. Some way their prank seemed to need excusing. She
replied to the look in Sherm's eyes rather than to her brother's
accusation.

"We--I wanted to ride Caliph--I just knew I could if I didn't have a lot
of horrid skirts to frighten him. And we did beautiful stunts and we
couldn't, if we hadn't put on your old things. I bet if you had to wear
cluttering things like skirts all the time you'd be glad to take them
off some times, too." Chicken Little's big brown eyes sought Sherm's
appealingly.

Ernest answered before Sherm could say anything.

"Well, you can settle with Mother about the skirts, but I'll thank you
to let Caliph and my best ties alone."

"Did you ride him?" asked Sherm. "You're welcome to my tie, Chicken
Little. It's very becoming."

Chicken Little felt subtly consoled. "Yes, I rode him, but he threw me
once," she confessed.

"He threw me once, too," said the boy. "You'd better be a little
careful."

Sherm grinned and Chicken Little smiled back happily.



CHAPTER XII

DICK AND ALICE GO ON ALONE


Dr. and Mrs. Morton got home about four o'clock. The girls had studied
some time as to whether they should make a clean breast of the morning's
doings, but Ernest, urged on by Sherm, had discouraged them.

"You needn't be afraid I'll peach, Sis. You're an awful good rider for a
girl and I don't mind your taking Caliph so long as you didn't get hurt.
And I guess it was sensible of you not to try him with skirts. But you'd
better be careful. You're getting most too big for such tom boy
business."

"It wasn't anything really wrong," argued Chicken Little.

"I know my mother wouldn't have cared way off out here in the country."
Katy added her mite to the whitewashing.

"I don't think it was wrong, but I guess your mother wouldn't be pleased
to hear about it," observed Gertie sagely.

"She isn't going to," said Chicken Little with decision. "I shall tell
Father instead."

Father only laughed. Mrs. Morton did not learn of it until the girls had
gone home to Centerville, when Chicken Little, wishing to convince her
that she could ride Caliph safely, let it out, and received the
long-delayed scolding.

Two days after the riding school, a letter came from Dick and Alice,
saying they would arrive Sunday and must leave for Centerville the
following Saturday. The same mail brought a letter for Sherm from his
mother, and another from Mrs. Dart to Dr. Morton. The doctor did not
mention the contents of his until the boy had finished reading his own.
Then he stepped over to his side and laid his hand gently upon his head.
Sherm was looking pretty sober. "Can you be content to be our boy this
winter, Sherm?"

"Thank you, you're mighty good to want me. I--I guess there's no college
for me this winter. Father's no better. I wish--excuse me." Sherm
finished abruptly and bolted out of the house.

Chicken Little looked after him with some concern. She turned
inquiringly to her father.

"Poor lad," he said in response to her look, "his father is no
better--will be a helpless invalid to the end, I judge, more from what
Mrs. Dart doesn't say than from what she does. I'm afraid their affairs
are in bad shape. Dart's illness must have cost enormously and they have
had no man to look after their business. She writes that Sue is to be
married quietly next month. She says they are sadly disappointed not to
have Sherm home for this event, but feel that he will be better off to
stay with us this winter, and she can hardly afford to have him come so
far just for a short visit. There is something sort of queer about the
letter--something mysterious, as if she were keeping the really
important facts to herself. See what you make of it, Frank."

He handed the letter to Frank, who had just walked in with Jilly perched
on his shoulder.

Chicken Little did not wait for Frank's verdict, she slipped out the
door in search of Sherm. Her first guess was the stables and she made a
hurried survey of stalls and hay mow. He was not there. She tried the
orchard next, then the arbor. Perhaps he had taken one of the ponies and
gone for a ride. No, she remembered both Calico and Caliph had whinnied
as she went by their stalls. He might have walked down the lane. She
went clear to the ford and hunted among the trees for a short distance
up and down the bank. He was nowhere in sight. Coming back, she caught
sight of the tops of the Weeping Willows and, remembering that Sherm
sometimes went there Sundays with a book, she stole up quietly. He had
thrown himself down on the ground under the interlacing branches. No, he
was not crying--just lying perfectly still, staring up into the boughs
above him with such misery in his face, it hurt her to see him.

She hardly knew what to do. She knew Ernest generally preferred to be
let alone when things went wrong, but then Ernest had never come up
against any real trouble. She suspected that Sherm's was very real.
Chicken Little watched him for several minutes, undecided. He did not
stir. Finally, she decided she didn't care whether Sherm wanted her
round or not, she wasn't going to go off and leave him to grieve all
alone.

"Sherm," she called softly. The boy raised up on his elbow. "What do you
want?" he asked rather gruffly.

His manner didn't suggest any longing for her society, but she
persevered. "I won't bother you but just a minute, Sherm, but I'm awful
sorry--about your father--and college and everything."

Sherm did not answer or look at her. The tender note of sympathy in her
voice was imperilling his self-control. He didn't mean to play the baby,
especially before a girl. But the braver the boy was, the more Chicken
Little burned to comfort him. She stood for a moment staring at him
helplessly, the tears welling up into her own eyes. Then on a sudden
impulse she dropped down beside him, and before he could protest, began
to stroke his hair. Sherm tolerated the caressing fingers for a few
minutes, but his pride would not let him accept even this comforting. He
dabbed his eyes fiercely. "Don't, Chicken Little, don't! You're a trump
to stand by a fellow this way. I am all right--I just got to thinking
about Father--and Sue's going."

Sherm would have carried it off beautifully if he hadn't attempted a
smile, but his heart was too sore to quite manage that. The smile
vanished in a hasty gulp, and, burying his face on his arm, he had it
out.

Chicken Little's eyes were redder than Sherm's when she got up to go
back to the house. Sherm noticed her tear-stained appearance. "Wait a
minute," he ordered bruskly. He ran down to the spring stream just
beyond the willows and soaking and rinsing out his handkerchief, brought
it dripping to her. "Mop your eyes, Jane, they look awful. There--that's
better. I'll be along pretty soon!"

Mrs. Morton had not considered it necessary to inform Katy and Gertie
that she had also written to their mother, asking if their visit might
be prolonged until the last of August. Mrs. Morton was firm in the
opinion that every detail of children's lives should be settled by their
elders for their best good, and she expected the children to be properly
thankful. Her expectations had not always been realized with her own
children--all three having often very definite ideas of their own as to
what they wanted and what they didn't want. But in this instance she was
not disappointed. The joy was general when Mrs. Halford wrote that the
girls might remain until the twenty-eighth, when a business friend of
Mr. Halford's would be coming through Kansas City, and would meet the
girls there and bring them on home. To be sure, Gertie had a bad half
hour thinking how much longer it would be before she could see Mother,
but she soon forgot all this in the bustle of preparation for Alice and
Dick.

Marian and Frank had arranged several excursions for their last days at
the ranch. They had seen fit to include the young folks in only one of
these--a day in town when they were to go to the old Mission and look up
some interesting Indian Mounds in the neighborhood. Captain Clarke was
to be of the party, and, true to his promise, insisted upon driving the
boys and girls in himself.

The afternoon Alice and Dick were expected, the girls were down the lane
watching for the first glimpse of the bay team, to greet them. They had
arrayed Jilly in white with a wreath of forget-me-nots on her blonde
curls and a small market basket full of hollyhock blooms to scatter in
the pathway of the expected guests. Frank was responsible for the
hollyhocks. Flowers were becoming scarce, it had been so dry, and
Chicken Little was bemoaning the fact that they could hardly find enough
to trim up the house.

"Hollyhocks, sure. There's a whole hedge of them right at your hand.
Nothing could be more appropriate for returning honeymooners. Further,
they're gaudy enough to compete with the two inches of dust in the lane.
If we don't have rain pretty doggoned soon we won't have any crop."

Both Mrs. Morton and Marian looked up anxiously.

"You don't think----?" Marian hesitated. She did not wish to burden Katy
and Gertie with family worries.

"No, I don't think, not being in the weather man's confidence. But a
rain inside of the next three days would mean hundreds of dollars to the
Morton family and the whole Eastern half of Kansas as well."

Chicken Little's mind flew instantly to Ernest's cherished hopes. "Oh,
can't Ernest go to college if we don't have rain?"

"Don't bother your head, Chicken, we'll find some way to take care of
Ernest. Go back to your decorations."

Ernest and Sherm had spent the preceding evening erecting a remarkable
arch over the front gate with "Welcome to Our City" done in charcoal
letters a foot high on a strip of white paper cambric, depending from
it, and an American flag proudly floating above. The girls completed
this modest design by trimming up the gate posts with boughs.

Mrs. Morton's preparations were more practical. Three peach and three
custard pies crowded a chocolate cake and a pan of ginger cookies on the
lowest pantry shelf. The bread box lid would not shut, the box was so
full, and a whole boiled ham was cooling down at the spring house, not
to mention six dismembered spring chickens which had been offered up in
place of the regulation calf.

"I shouldn't mind if they had cooked two of the pigs," groaned Katy.
They were giving their charges an extra big feed, being fearful lest
they should forget them in the excitement of the guests' arrival.

"Neither would I," Chicken Little replied with a sigh. "I'm sick of the
sight of 'em!"

Gertie threw a carrot and hit the one time beauteous white one with the
curly tail, so smart a rap on his snout that he squealed his disapproval
while his relatives bagged the carrot.

"I don't care if I don't get any money for my share of 'em," said Katy
after a pause of disgusted contemplation of the pigs. "I'd have to spend
it for something useful like as not, or give some of it to the heathens.
Let's give them back to your father."

"I'd just as lief, only Frank and the boys would tease us everlastingly
if we backed out now--and we've worked so hard!"

"I don't care. I'd just as lief quit." Gertie's discouraged expression
was so funny that Chicken Little laughed and Gertie, the patient,
flared. She hated to be funny.

"Stop it--I am not going to help you feed those horrid pigs another
time, Chicken Little Jane Morton. I've just been doing it to help you
out. And I don't think it's a suitable occupation for girls--or
company!" Gertie climbed down from her perch on the log pen and departed
with dignity.

"Humph, I guess I never asked you to help me. Besides, you expected to
get as much money as I did. You can just go off and sulk if you want
to."

"Well, I don't think that is a nice way to talk to your guests." Katy
climbed down and departed to soothe her sister.

Chicken Little whacked her heels against the logs and made a face at the
nearest pig to relieve her feelings. She loathed the creatures. She
wished she could wipe them off the face of the earth. Katy was half way
to the house when she had an inspiration. "Katy!" she called eagerly,
"Katy, I've got an idea."

Katy continued her way without glancing 'round.

"It's something you'll like."

Katy wavered and unbent enough to ask: "What is it?"

"Come here and I'll tell you. I'm not going to yell it."

Katy considered and finally returned reluctantly.

When she came back to the pen, Chicken Little glanced round to make sure
that no one was about, to overhear, then, to make sure, whispered
excitedly into Katy's ear.

Katy's face lighted. "All right, let's. Gertie won't care."

They had entirely made up this slight unpleasantness by afternoon.
Perched on rocks under the shade of the cherry trees they waited
impatiently for Dick and Alice. Jilly had been coached in her little
speech so often that there was no doubt at all that she would get it
wrong. She had been told to say, "Welcome, Uncle Dick, welcome Auntie
Alice." She had said it faultlessly three times already when approaching
wheels started them to their feet expectantly. They were disappointed by
seeing a neighbor drive round the bend in the lane. When the familiar
bays did come into view with their swinging trot, Jilly was so enchanted
she started off pell mell to meet them, spilling her blossoms out
generously as she ran. The girls overtook her before she quite got in
the path of the horses and reminded her of her responsibility.

Dr. Morton pulled up and Dick leaped to the ground, punctuating her
attempted "Weecome" by tossing her into the air and kissing her noisily.

Jilly struggled free. Her coaching had not been in vain.

"Oo muttant--I ain't said it, and oo pillin' ve fowers."

Dick set the mite on her feet with exaggerated courtesy. "Of course--to
be sure. I beg your most humble pardon, Miss."

Jilly drew in a long breath and began at the beginning again. She
plunged a fat hand into the market basket and aimed two hollyhock tops
in the general direction of Dick's diaphragm, repeating impressively:
"Wee-come, Unky Dick." She took no notice of his profound bow, but
looking up at Alice, who was leaning out the side of the seat watching
with amused eyes, she showered another handful upon the wheels and
horses hoofs impartially. "Wee-come, An-tee Alish," she said solemnly,
then, with a rapturous look of triumph, turned to the girls for
approval.

She got it, with numerous hugs and kisses for interest.

Dick surveyed the remainder of the reception committee critically.

"Chicken Little, I hate to mention it, but is there anything left on the
ranch to eat? I have been a little nervous all the time we have been
away, remembering the execution Katy and Gertie and Sherm were doing
when we left and now----" He gazed sorrowfully at the girls' plump
cheeks. "I know they have gained ten pounds apiece. Be frank with me,
Jane, is there anything left?"

"If there isn't, Dick, you might commandeer one of Chicken Little &
Co.'s pigs. They are fat enough to sustain you for a few hours," replied
Dr. Morton, glancing at the girls.

Katy and Jane also exchanged glances.

Dick was quite overcome when he caught sight of the triumphal arch and
the flag.

"Support me, Chicken Little, this reception is so, ah, flattering it
makes me faint with emotion. Young ladies, Dr. Morton," he placed one
hand over his heart and bowed low to each, "and esteemed----" he
hesitated, not seeing anyone but Jilly to include in this last
salutation, "esteemed fellows," he bowed once more, including trees,
bushes, and any other objects handy, with a courtly sweep of the arm,
"it is with deepest gratitude I----"

"Heart-felt sounds better, Dick," interrupted Alice, laughing.

Dick gazed at her reproachfully. "'Tis always the way when I try to
soar, my wife seizes my kite by the tail and pulls it down with a jerk.
I thought lovely woman was supposed to inspire a man to higher----"

Dick was interrupted in the middle of his complaining by Mrs. Morton's
coming out to greet them.

The next few days fairly flew by. Each member of both families had
thought of a variety of things that Alice and Dick must do before they
went home. Unfortunately, there were only twenty-four hours in a day and
it seemed necessary to spend part of these in sleep.

"We ought to have at least one more hunting party," declared Chicken
Little.

"We ought--I shall feel the lack of that hunting party for years to
come, Jane. There will be a vacuum in my inner consciousness. I shall
wake up in the middle of the night sighing for that hunting party. But
you see to-day is Wednesday, and we must leave Friday, and Frank and I
have sworn by every fish in the creek to take to-morrow off for a
fishing trip. Chicken Little, there is only one way out of the dilemma.
Painful as it will be for you, you'll have to invite us to come again."

The worst of it was that Frank firmly declined to take a single
petticoat along. Neither Marian nor Alice could move him from this
ungallant resolve.

"My dear wife," Frank replied, "I love you, but I don't love to have you
round when I'm fishing."

"Never mind," said Marian with decision, "if we can't go we won't get
them any lunch. Will we, Mother Morton?"

Mrs. Morton was rather horrified at such a breach of hospitality, Dick
and Sherm being included in the boycott, but Marian and Alice both
urged, and she finally promised neither to get up a lunch herself nor to
permit Annie to.

Marian and Alice looked triumphant. Frank motioned to Dick and the two
promptly disappeared. Marian quickly followed.

"The villain! He's gone over home to confiscate that batch of doughnuts
I baked this morning. I hope he doesn't find them."

Mrs. Morton took the hint and locked up her pies and cake. But the two
boys and Dr. Morton had joined the foraging party and food disappeared
most mysteriously at intervals during the remainder of the day. A
custard pie already cut and served on plates on the kitchen table,
reassembled itself in the pie tin and walked out of the kitchen door
when Annie changed the plates in the dining room. One entire loaf of
bread vanished from the earth while Annie was trying to expel Ernest
from the kitchen with a broom.

The foragers were so capable that even Mrs. Morton ceased to worry about
the men folks going hungry.

But Marian's blood was up. "We've just got to do something to get even.
The best pool for fish on the whole creek is on Captain Clarke's land
and I know they are not going there. Let's take the spring wagon and
drive over and get the Captain to go fishing with us. He'll take us to
his own pool and with him to help, I'd be willing to wager we can beat
these top-lofty fishermen at their own game."

Alice and the girls were instantly enthusiastic, but Mrs. Morton
preferred to stay at home and keep cool.

Marian and Chicken Little left the others to put up the lunch, while
they went out to the stable to hitch up the bays. They were soon on
their way, with a can of bait and a pocket full of fish hooks and stout
cord to rig up impromptu fishing lines, the men having taken all the
poles with them.

The others had gone soon after daybreak. It was nearing ten when Marian
drove up to the Captain's hitching post.

"What if he isn't at home?" said Chicken Little.

"He's got to be," laughed Marian.

Wing Fan came out, grinning. He did not share his master's reputed
dislike for ladies.

He ushered them all into the big library and went off to notify the
Captain, who was down in the meadow superintending the hay cutting.

"I am afraid we are an awful nuisance, but my prophetic soul tells me he
will enjoy the joke and be pleased to have us come to him." Marian was
bolstering up her courage.

"Of course he will. You don't suppose anybody could resist this crowd,
do you?" Alice encouraged.

Captain Clarke was both pleased and amused. They were so excited they
all talked at once, and it took several minutes for him to get command
of the situation.

"They have the advantage in fishing early in the day, but I'll impress
Wing Fan and we'll have more fish, if I have to get out a net and seine
them. We'll go down to the long hole now and see what we can do, and
Wing will come as soon as he gives the men their dinner. If there is a
fish in the creek you can depend on Wing to lure him. He just goes out
and crooks his little finger and they begin to hunt for the hook," he
explained to Gertie.

The Captain proved to be an expert fisherman himself. He showed them all
his little stock of fisherman's tricks and they had a good catch by noon
when Marian and Alice stopped to prepare the lunch. About two o'clock
Wing Fan appeared, his face one broad, yellow smile.

"Big missee and little missee have most," he assured them.

Chicken Little and Katy and Gertie laid off and perched some distance up
the bank behind Wing to watch his methods. He didn't seem to do anything
different, but the fish certainly came to his hook in a most astonishing
manner.

They fished until four, and the catch exceeded their wildest
expectations. They wanted to leave some with the Captain, but he
wouldn't hear of it. "If the men have more than you, you can send me
some of theirs. I should like to see if the flavor is better."

They expected their fishermen to drift in about five, and knew they
would bring their fish to the house to display them before taking them
down to the spring stream. Hurrying home, they put away the team and
took their fish down to the spring house. Captain Clarke had saved a
considerable part of their take alive for them, in a wooden cask, which
Wing carefully loaded into the spring wagon. They got a piece of chicken
wire and fastened it across the opening where the water flowed out
underneath the spring house, and then, removing the milk and butter
crocks from the rock-lined channel, turned all the living fish into the
water. The others they spread out on the rock floor to make the best
showing possible. The spring house seemed alive with fish.

"They'll never beat that!" Alice's eyes were dancing.

"I don't see how they can." Marian chuckled. "My lofty spouse will have
to come down off his high horse this time."

"Don't breathe a word, girls. I don't want them to have the least
inkling of what we have been up to, till they see this array."

The fishermen arrived, hot, dusty, and hungry. After all their efforts,
their supplies had hardly kept pace with their appetites. They displayed
their booty proudly. Frank had three trout and five catfish on his
string. Dick, one trout, and three catfish. Dr. Morton and the boys had
pooled theirs, and boasted twelve altogether. But most of the fish were
small. The ladies obligingly went into ecstasies over their skill.
Chicken Little and Katy admired and ohed and ahed until Marian was
afraid they would rouse suspicion.

"Do you want them all here at the house or shall we put part of them
down at the spring?" Frank asked, with emphasis on the all.

"Oh, since there are so many, perhaps you'd better put some away for
breakfast," Marian replied, after an instant's consideration.

Frank, Dick and the boys started for the spring. The three girls rose to
accompany them. Alice and Marian looked languidly uninterested.

The spring house was very dark and shadowy, coming in from the bright
sunshine outside. Frank was in the lead. He stopped just in time to
avoid stepping on a fish. He and Dick got their eyes focused to take in
the display at almost the same instant.

"Well, I'll be darned!" Frank looked at Dick in wild amaze. Dick stared,
speechless, for fully twenty seconds. Then he broke into a roar. The
boys, a few paces behind them, rushed in to see what the fun was. Ernest
took one good look over Frank's shoulder. "Jumping Jehosaphat!" he
ejaculated, making room for Sherm. Sherm gazed his fill and glanced at
Frank.

Dick came to first and hazarded a guess. "The ladies--God bless
'em--they've been to town and bought out a market."

"Nonsense, there isn't a fish market in the burg--men sometimes peddle
fish round at the houses, but they never get out here. They've been
fishing on their own hook."

Dick turned on Chicken Little, who was watching them demurely. "If you
don't tell us how you worked this I'll----" He advanced threateningly.

"Fished," she replied laconically. And neither coaxing nor threats
extracted any further information from the ladies that evening.

After supper Marian remarked carelessly: "Frank, there are more fish
than we can use, don't you think it would be nice to send some over to
the Captain?"

But it was Marian herself who finally let the cat out of the bag the
following morning just before Alice and Dick left. The train would not
leave until evening, but they were all going in to make a tour of the
Indian remains and to do some shopping. Frank was driving for the guests
and Marian; the youngsters were with the Captain. Marian reached down
under the seat to push a satchel out of the way of her feet, and to her
surprise, came in painful contact with a fish hook. She pulled up a
bunch of line and several hooks.

"Oh, I wondered what became of our lines," she said carelessly. "Wing
must have put them in for us."

She looked up to find both Dick and Frank regarding her with interest
and Alice looking reproachful.

"Methinks," remarked Dick, gazing at the heavens thoughtfully, "I see a
great light."

"I knew they'd let it out," Frank replied meanly. "Women are clever, but
a secret is too many for them every time."

The day was cloudy but sultry. Collars wilted and little damp spots
appeared between their shoulder blades if they ventured to lean against
the backs of the seats.

Leaves were curling in the corn fields; the prairies were parched with
the heat. Frank got out and examined several of the ears of corn just
heading out in a field they passed.

He looked sober when he returned. "Forty-eight hours more like to-day
will finish that field. It's a trifle better on the bottom lands."

Marian and Alice scanned the heavens. "That cloud bank off to the south
looks hopeful," said Marian after several minutes' silence.

Whether it was the weather or their unusual exertions of the preceding
day or the menace of the drouth, that weighed upon them, it would be
hard to say, but their interest in the Old Mission and the Indian mound
on the Cook place was languid. Perhaps Ernest had been right when he
declared that they were more interesting to hear about than to see. "It
looks just like other houses, only the walls are thicker and the stone
chimneys go clear down to the ground outside!" Katy exclaimed,
distinctly disappointed at the appearance of the one-time fort.

"Of course, it was just a schoolhouse. They used it for a fort because
it was stronger than any of the other houses, and, being all of stone,
the Indians couldn't set it on fire so easy."

The Indian mound looked as if somebody had made a nice symmetrical sand
pile about twenty feet high out in the middle of the prairie and then
grassed it over neatly.

"If we could cut into it after the fashion of a birthday cake," said
Captain Clarke, "you would find some very interesting things inside, I
imagine, weapons and iron utensils. I should think Mr. Cook would take
the trouble to explore it some day."

"I guess he isn't interested in anything unless he sees a dollar close
by," Ernest replied.

They had dinner at the one decently kept hotel in Garland, and scattered
along the comfortable veranda afterwards to rest and cool off.

Ernest pointed out the place near the top of the bluff where a dark spot
in the rocky ledge revealed the location of the hermit's cave. "Who is
ready for the climb?" he asked, rejoining the others.

"I pass," said Dick from the depths of a willow porch chair.

"And I," Marian echoed.

"I am just dying to go, Ernest, but it wouldn't be proper for me to
desert my liege Lord." Alice shot a mischievous glance at the occupant
of the willow chair.

"I couldn't think of leaving our guests," Frank stopped smoking long
enough to say.

"Put it to a vote, Ernest, and save us the trouble of inventing
excuses," remarked the Captain dryly.

"Resolved--That we stay right where we are until train time. All in
favor----" He was not permitted to continue. A chorus of "Ayes" drowned
him out, the Captain leading.

And they stayed until train time.

"What is it," queried Ernest as they started homeward, "about a railroad
train that makes one so crazy to go along?"

"Is it the train, or merely your love of adventure?" suggested Captain
Clarke.

"I think it's because a train always seems so--oh, jolly--and exciting,"
ventured Katy.

"That's only part," said Chicken Little, who had been studying; "it's
wondering what's at the other end of the track that tempts you so."

"Pooh, I know what's at the other end of this track and it tempts me
like sixty."

"Home?" Katy and Jane asked together.

"No, supper!"



CHAPTER XIII

CHICKEN LITTLE AND ERNEST


The household was awakened in the middle of the night by peals of
thunder and the rush of rain against the windows. Chicken Little was
drenched before she could get the window down next their bed.

"I don't care," she said, as she hunted out a dry gown, "it's raining
and Ernest can go to college."

They slept late the following morning. The rain was coming down in a
steady, business-like way that gladdened the heart of every farmer on
the creek. Dr. Morton was jubilant.

"This will save the corn and make thousands of dollars difference in the
hay yield in the country," he remarked at the breakfast table.

"That's what I don't like about farming," said Ernest. "So much depends
on things that you can't help. A man can work like a dog, and along
comes a drouth or chinch bugs or too much rain during the haying season
and, presto, all his fond hopes are knocked sky high."

"Well," replied his father, "I guess there are mighty few businesses or
professions where you don't have to take chances. By the way, Son, I'm
beginning to be afraid your hopes of Annapolis may be disappointed. I
don't understand why Senator Pratt ignores my letter this way."

"Oh, I forgot to tell you, Father, Captain Clarke heard at the hotel
yesterday that Senator Pratt has been seriously ill for several weeks,
but they've been keeping it quiet. They say he's just beginning to take
up his affairs again."

"We may hear then in a day or two. I believe I'll go to town
to-day--it's too wet to do any work."

The day dragged for the young people indoors. They tried dominoes and
authors, but the boys soon found these tame and settled down by
themselves to chess as more worthy of a masculine intellect.

The rain ceased and the sun came out about two o'clock. Gertie was in
the midst of a letter home, but Katy and Chicken Little hurried outdoors
into the moist, fresh air joyfully.

"Let's go get some of those summer sweetings. I'm hungry for an apple.
My, doesn't the air taste good?" Chicken Little was taking deep breaths.

They picked their way daintily to avoid the wet weeds and high grass.
The sky once more serene, receded in deep bays above the arches of
foliage. Every now and then a bird, startled by their coming, flew out
from the branches overhead, sending down showers of drops on their hair
and shoulders.

They found the sweeting tree and Chicken Little soon had an apron full.
It was too wet to linger and they had started back, when Chicken Little
stopped still and made a wry face. "Katy Halford, we haven't fed those
pigs!"

"No sir, we haven't!"

"Say, this would be an awful good time to do it--everything's so wet, we
could loosen one of the stones easy. And I guess they'll do the rest
fast enough."

"If we don't give 'em much to eat they'll want to get out worse."

The days since Alice's and Dick's coming had been so full they had found
no opportunity to carry out Jane's scheme for ridding themselves
gracefully of their burdensome boarders. Katy had explained the plan to
Gertie, who heartily endorsed it. She went back to the house after her
now, while Chicken Little began scouting to see if there were anyone
about. The coast seemed clear. Jim Bart had gone to look after the
pasture fences, and Marian told her that Ernest and Sherm had taken the
wheelbarrow and started to the south field after a load of watermelons.
"They'll be back in half an hour if you want them for anything, Jane."

Jane didn't want them for anything: she merely wanted them safely out of
the way.

She sped back to the house. "Hurry, girls, everybody's gone, and
Marian's putting Jilly to sleep in the bedroom on the other side of the
cottage, so she won't see us. I'll go get the milk and those pea pods
Annie saved."

Katy and Gertie undertook the feeding, while Chicken Little went to the
tool house for pick and spade. The log pig pen was merely one corner of
the big hog corral, fenced off for the benefit of the new litters to
protect them from the older hogs. Stones had been securely embedded
underneath the lowest rail to keep the pigs from burrowing out beneath.
Chicken Little went into the corral and inspected these, carefully
trying one or two with the pick.

"Here's one that isn't very big and it's loose at one corner. Let's try
it."

The stone had been put there to stay and did not yield readily. Jane dug
till she was tired, then Katy took a hand. Gertie had been posted as a
sentinel where she could watch the road.

They strained and tugged, but the stone was obstinate. Jane was getting
red in the face.

"The old hateful----I'll get it out or bust!"

"Perhaps I can help you, Chicken Little."

The girls glanced up in dismay. Sherm stood there grinning. He had come
back across lots.

"What you trying to do, anyhow? Have your pets been getting out?"

There was nothing to do but take Sherm into their confidence.

"Please promise you won't tell, Sherm--they'd tease me to death if they
know. But we're sick of those pigs. I never want to lay eyes on a pig
again. So we thought we'd just loosen a stone so they could get into the
corral with the others and Father'd think they'd dug out themselves.
Nobody can ever pick 'em out from the others. They are every bit as big
as old Whity's pigs and Father turned them in two weeks ago."

Sherm chuckled. "Mum's the word. Hand over the pick and we'll do such an
artistic job that the porkers themselves will think they are responsible
for the whole business. I don't blame you. That's not girl's work!"

The pigs rose to the occasion beautifully. The tiny opening called as
loudly as a pile of corn. They continued the excavating so promptly and
expeditiously that by the time Dr. Morton returned from town, every
piglet had deserted its maternal ancestor and was joyously rooting for
itself in the corral.

"I don't see how those pigs got out," said Dr. Morton disgustedly. "I
thought that small pen was secure."

The girls listened attentively.

"They were there at four o'clock, I saw them," Sherm remarked.

"Oh, I suppose the heavy rain loosened the earth and it was easy
rooting."

"Possibly," said Sherm.

The incident might have awakened more interest if the Doctor had not
returned, bringing a fateful letter. The long-expected letter from
Senator Pratt had come. He would be most happy to give Ernest the
appointment immediately, if he thought he could pass the mental
examinations. An extra examination was to be held on the 30th at
Annapolis. He was sending a catalogue and some special literature as to
the ground to be covered, by the same mail. He would, however, recommend
that Ernest go immediately to some reputable physician and see if he
could pass the physical examination. They had a naval surgeon there in
Topeka, if he cared to incur the expense of a visit to the Capital.

Ernest was so busy poring over the catalogue that he could hardly be
induced to stop long enough to eat his supper.

"I'm more afraid of the mathematics than anything else. I wonder if I
couldn't get Prof. Smith to coach me. I could study all week and go in
Saturdays to recite."

"The first thing to do is to get that doctor's certificate. We'll go to
town to-morrow and have Dr. Hardy look you over, and if he doesn't find
anything suspicious, we'll run down to Topeka to see the surgeon and
call on the senator at the same time. I think I could go Monday."

The entire family held its breath or at least tried to, for the next few
days. Mrs. Morton quite forgot how badly she had wanted Ernest to have
an education, when she learned that he could only come home once a year,
and then only for a short month. She sighed so much and was so
distraught, that the family were almost afraid to rejoice with Ernest,
when he came home jubilantly waving his physician's certificate.

"Never mind, Mother, that surgeon may send me packing. Don't worry till
you are sure I'm going. Even if I am vouched for as up to the scratch
physically, I may flunk, alas! Wouldn't that be nice after Father had
put up a lot of money to send me on? You'd be ashamed of me, Mother, you
wouldn't want to see me come home."

"I am not expecting you to fail, son," said Dr. Morton, "though I wish
we could have arranged matters sooner to give you more time for review.
But with the exception of a little extra mathematics, the requirements
are certainly no worse than for college entrance exams. And you've
tested yourself out twice on those. Aren't you glad I insisted on more
geometry?"

"He doesn't need to come home if he does fail. He can visit some of our
friends in Centerville till college opens. It would only be a few days,"
Frank consoled him. "However, I am not expecting you to fail, old boy. I
have always flattered myself that the Morton family are not lacking in
brains, and you know how to study."

"I most wish he would fail so he could come to see us. Mother would love
to have him spend the Christmas vacations with us," put in Katy naïvely.

"Thank you, Katy, I'd enjoy nothing better, but I've kinder set my heart
on showing this naval outfit that a wild and woolly Kansan can measure
up with some of those down-easters."

The naval surgeon confirmed Dr. Hardy's judgment. The senator had been
cordial, and after some questioning, said he would send Ernest's name to
the department immediately. He also gave him some helpful suggestions as
to what subjects to put the emphasis on.

Two weeks seemed a pretty short time for preparation. Ernest thanked his
lucky star that he had done a little studying through the summer in
preparation for his college entrance, and was not rusty. The entire
family waited on him and followed him round till Frank declared they
would ruin the boy, if he didn't get off soon. Chicken Little sadly
neglected her guests whenever it was possible to hang round Ernest. But
Ernest was so busy, she seldom had a word alone with him. The two were
very dear to each other despite their occasional bickering, and Chicken
Little was almost jealous of every one who came near him during those
last few days.

"Ernest," said his father the Saturday before his departure, "will you
take one farewell turn at herding to-morrow? Jim Bart wants to get off
for the day and I'd like to have the cattle clean off that stubble
field. I think I will plow early and put it in winter wheat this year. I
have promised to drive Mother and the girls to town to church in the
morning. We are to have dinner with the parson and won't be home until
evening."

That evening Ernest overtook Chicken Little coming up from the spring
with the butter and cream.

"Say, Sis, don't you want to stay home and help me herd to-morrow? The
girls wouldn't mind this once."

"Oh, I'd love it. We just haven't had a good talk for ages--but I don't
know what Mother'll say."

"I'll fix Mother," he answered confidently.

Later, he whispered: "It's all O. K."

"Gee, I guess Mother'd give you the moon if she could, she feels so bad
about having you go so far away."

"Poor Mother, it's mighty rough on her out here on the ranch. Say, Sis,
I don't mind if you want to wear some of my old truck to-day--we'll just
be down in the field and your riding skirt will be a nuisance in among
the cattle."

This was a mighty concession for Ernest, who had a considerable share of
his mother's respect for the conventions. Chicken Little appreciated it.

She reached up and gave him a big hug.

"It's going to be awful hard to have you go, Ernest."

Ernest didn't say anything in reply, but he squeezed his young sister
tight, as if he were realizing himself that he was about to miss
something precious from his life.

The two were up early the next morning and off with the herd before the
rest of the family were fairly through breakfast. Sherm was going in
with the others to church. Annie had put up a lunch for Ernest and Jane;
they did not expect to get back to the house until late afternoon.

The day was an August masterpiece, warm, but not too warm, with a fresh
breeze blowing and shreds of blue haze lingering over the timber along
the creek.

"It has almost a fall feel," said Chicken Little.

A brisk half-hour's work, in which Huz and Buz took an active part,
hindering rather more than helping in the cattle driving, was sufficient
to transfer the herd from the pasture to the stubble field. Chicken
Little was thankful she had discarded her skirt, for they had many a
chase after refractory animals through the timber and underbrush. Calico
and Caliph, being mustangs, seemed to enjoy the sport as much as their
riders.

"Cricky, Caliph is almost human when it comes to heading off a steer,
and he's never done much cattle driving either. He must have inherited
the range instinct."

"Humph, what about Calico?" retorted Jane. "He turned that roan Father
always says is so mean, three times."

The cattle scattered over the stubble eagerly. Ernest picketed the
ponies so they could graze after their good work and he and Chicken
Little threw themselves down under a red bud tree near the edge of the
field to rest.

"They won't stray much till they get their stomachs full," said Ernest,
"and that won't be before afternoon. I brought a book along--Cooper's
'Naval History.' It's great, though Father says it's better romance than
history. Do you mind if I read you a bit?"

Chicken Little backed up against a tree and settled herself comfortably
and they were soon fighting with Paul Jones, so utterly absorbed that
the herd had drifted down to the farther end of the field before they
realized it. A half dozen adventurous beasts were already disappearing
into the timber, apparently headed for the Captain's cornfield, which
lay just beyond the creek.

"The pesky brutes! Why can't they be content with a good square meal at
home?" Ernest hated to be interrupted.

"Perhaps they like to go visiting as much as we do. Besides, they don't
often have a chance at green corn."

It took some time to recover the truants. By the time they were settled
once more under the tree, the sun was nearing the zenith and they were
growing hungry.

"It's only half past eleven, but I'm starved. Let's eat now." Ernest
eyed the packet of luncheon hungrily.

"All right, go fill the water jug, and I'll get it out."

After lunch they read for awhile, but, presently, the sun seemed to grow
hotter and they commenced to feel drowsy. They decided to take turns
watching the cattle and napping. The cattle also seemed to feel the heat
and were hunting patches of shade, lying down to chew their cuds
contentedly. The air seemed palpitating with the incessant humming and
whirring of insects. Bees, and white and yellow butterflies flittered in
a mat of weeds and wild blackberry vines, which had entirely covered an
angle of the old rail fence near them.

Ernest's nap was a long one. The boy had been studying hard for his
examinations and was thoroughly tired. He was lying on his side, his
face resting on his hand, and his old straw hat drawn over his face to
keep off the flies. But the nagging insects soon discovered his neck and
hands. Chicken Little fished his bandanna out of his pocket to protect
his neck, covering the hand that lay on the grass with her own
handkerchief.

He woke at length with a start, smiling up at Chicken Little when he
discovered the handkerchiefs.

"Thank you, Sis. Whew, I must have slept for keeps," he added, glancing
at the sun. "It's four o'clock. The folks will be along about six."

He sat up and took a survey of the field. The cattle were all quiet.
Chicken Little was braiding little baskets with a handful of cat tail
leaves she had brought from the slough. Ernest reached over and patted
the busy fingers.

"Sis, I'm mighty fond of you--do you know it?"

Chicken Little looked up at him affectionately. "I suspected it,
Ernest," she answered demurely.

The boy was going on with his own thoughts. "I'm mighty glad to get away
from the ranch. I don't believe I'm cut out for this sort of thing.
Guess, maybe, I'm not democratic enough--you remember that party at
Jenkins'? Well, I've been thinking about it a good deal since. I guess
Sherm sort of set me to thinking with his fuss about the kissing games.
At any rate, I've made up my mind I don't intend to be like any of the
boys on this creek, and I don't propose that you shall be like any of
the girls if I can help it. It isn't that they aren't smart enough and
good enough. The people round here are mighty touchy about one person's
being just as good as another. Maybe one person is born just as good as
anybody else, but, thank goodness, they don't all stay alike. I mayn't
be any better than the Craft boys, but I know I'm a sight cleaner, and I
don't murder the king's English quite every other word, and I know
enough to be polite to a lady. And if I take the trouble to make myself
decent, and they don't, I don't see any reason why I should be expected
to pretend they're as good as I am."

Ernest was waxing wroth. The insistent equality of the Creek was on his
nerves.

"I don't care if people do think I'm stuck up--I'm going to try to
associate with the kind of people I like. It isn't money--it's just nice
living. If it wasn't for people like the Captain and one or two others
we'd forget what lady and gentleman meant. And that isn't saying that
there aren't lots of good kind people on the Creek, too. But they're so
dead satisfied with themselves the way they are--they don't seem to know
there is any better way to live."

Chicken Little was listening eagerly.

"I know what you mean. Lots of it's little things. I noticed that night
at the Jenkins'. Mamie's prettier than me and the boys like her better,
but I don't want to be like her all the same."

"I should think not, Chicken Little, and you needn't worry. You're
nothing but a kid yet, but by the time you're eighteen, Mamie Jenkins
won't hold a candle to you. And while I think of it, Sis, the less you
see of Mamie the better. And I don't want you playing any more kissing
games--you're too big."

"Humph, you just said I was nothing but a kid. You're as bad as Mother."

Ernest was not to be diverted. "None of your dodging. I want you to
promise me you won't."

Chicken Little considered.

"It isn't that I want to play them," she argued, "but if I don't, I'll
have to sit and look on and all the old folks'll ask me if I'm not well,
and the girls'll say I'm stuck up. It wasn't as easy as you seem to
think, Ernest Morton, but I'll promise, if you'll promise not to kiss
any girl while you're gone."

"Nonsense, Jane, you don't understand. It's different with a boy."

Chicken Little fixed her brown eyes upon Ernest's face musingly.

"How is it different?"

"Chicken Little Jane Morton, haven't you had any raising? You know as
well as I do it isn't nice for a girl to let boys kiss her."

Chicken Little considered. "You needn't be so toploftical; girls don't
want most boys to kiss 'em."

"Most?"

"That's what I said. I hated it when Grant kissed me at Mamie's party,
but I don't know that I'd mind if Sherm----"

She got no further. Ernest bristled with brotherly indignation.

"Has Sherm ever----"

"Of course not, Sherm wouldn't! I guess it's because I know he wouldn't,
that I shouldn't much mind if he did."

Chicken Little said this soberly, but her face grew a little red.

Ernest's brotherly eyes were observant.

"Oh, Sherm's all right, but Sis, I want that promise."

"I told you I'd promise if you would." Chicken Little drew her lips
together in a firm way.

"But I can't--it would be silly--I might look ridiculous sometime if I
refused. The fellows would guy me if they knew I made such a promise."

"Well, I just told you they'd guy me if I refused to do what the others
do."

"But, Chicken Little, it isn't nice."

"I guess I know that as well as you do. And I don't know that I shall
ever play that kind of games again, but I'm not going to promise if you
won't. Boys don't need to think they can do everything they want to,
just because they're boys. You don't want anybody to kiss me, but I'd
like to know how you are going to kiss a girl without making somebody
else's sister do something that isn't nice, Ernest Morton."

The discussion ended there. Ernest was not very worldly wise himself,
and Chicken Little's reasoning was certainly logical.

They had but little time to talk after that. The cattle began to roam
restlessly once more and they were in the saddle pretty constantly for
the remainder of the afternoon.

Ernest took the trouble to lift her down from Calico when they reached
the stable that evening, an unusual attention. He also gave her a shy
kiss on the cheek and whispered: "I'll promise, Sis. I don't know but
you are about half right."



CHAPTER XIV

OFF TO ANNAPOLIS


"Golly, I sha'n't have any fingers left by the time I finish this
needle case! King's excuse, Katy, you needn't mind. I know I said it,
but if you tried to push a needle through this awful leather and pricked
yourself every other stitch you'd say Golly, too." Chicken Little edged
off as she saw Katy approaching.

Katy was not to be deterred. "You said to pinch you every single time,
Jane Morton, and you've said it twice. Besides, your mother said she
hoped I could cure you." Katy gave Chicken Little's arm two vigorous
pinches to emphasize this statement.

Chicken Little did not take this kindly office in the spirit in which it
was intended. She hated to sew and she had been toiling all morning on a
little bronze leather case to hold needles, buttons, and pins--a parting
gift to Ernest.

"Katy Halford, I told you not to! I think you are real mean to do it
when I'm having such a hard time. I'll thank you not to any more, if I
do say it."

"You don't need to go and get mad! You told me to."

"Yes, and I just now told you not to!"

"I guess you'd say King's excuse every time if I'd let you. A lot of
good it's going to do, if you sneak out of it whenever you want to."

"I don't sneak out of it--this is the very first time, and you know it!"

"I don't know any such thing, but I don't think it's very good manners
to be telling your guests they're saying something that isn't so! The
day before they're going home, too!" Katy forgot the dignity of her
fifteen years.

"Well, I think it's quite as good manners as to tell your friends
they're sneaks!" Jane's tone was icy.

Gertie came between the belligerents. "Please don't quarrel, girls. It'd
be dreadful the very last day, after we have had such a beautiful
summer. I never did have such a good time in all my life. I most wish I
could live on a ranch always."

"I shouldn't like to live on a ranch, but we have had a jolly time,
Chicken Little," Katy recovered herself enough to say graciously.

Chicken Little was not to be outdone. "I suppose I was ugly, Katy. It
always makes me cross to sew. I wish nobody had ever invented needles. O
dear, I shall be as lonesome as pie when you are gone. It isn't much fun
being the only girl on the ranch, I tell you. Sometimes, I don't even
see another girl for weeks."

"But your school begins soon, doesn't it?"

"Yes, and I'll have Sherm. I just don't believe I could bear to have
Ernest go if Sherm wasn't going to stay."

"I'm awful glad Mr. Lenox put off coming for another day so we can go on
the same train with Ernest." Katy had been exulting over this for the
past twenty-four hours.

"Ernest will be on the train for three days. I feel as if he would be as
far away as if he were going to China."

Their conversation was interrupted by Mrs. Morton's entrance.

"Would you rather have chocolate or cocoanut cake for your lunch, girls?
Annie has killed three chickens, and I thought you could take a basket
of those big yellow peaches; I only wish I could send some to your
mother. And I'll put in cheese and cold-boiled ham and a glass of
current jelly. Mr. Lenox may want to get a meal or two at the stations,
but you are so hurried at these--and it's always well to have plenty of
lunch in traveling. Dr. Morton told Ernest that he'd better get all his
breakfasts at the eating houses to have something hot. And by the third
day his lunch will be too stale--even if there is any left."

Ernest was creepy with excitement between joy at going and his haunting
fear that he might disgrace the family by failing to pass the
examinations.

"Buck up, old chap," Frank admonished, "you've got facts enough in your
head if you can only get them out at the right time. My advice is to
forget all about exams and enjoy your trip. One doesn't go to Washington
and Baltimore every day. You ought to have several hours in St. Louis if
your train is on time. Be sure to eat three square meals every day and
keep yourself as fresh as you can and I'll back you to pass any fair
test."

"If you have time in St. Louis I want you to be sure to go and see
Shaw's Gardens. They used to be wonderful and they must have been
greatly improved since I saw them," said Mrs. Morton.

Each individual member of the Morton family, except Jilly and Huz and
Buz, took Ernest aside for a parting chat with advice and remembrances.
Jilly and the dogs secured their share by getting in the way as often as
possible.

Chicken Little had her turn first. She tendered the needle case
doubtfully.

"Mother said you would have to sew on your own buttons at the Academy
and that you'd find this mighty handy, but I'd loathe to have anybody
give me such a present. And, Ernest, here's the five dollars I got last
birthday. You take it and buy something you really want."

Ernest demurred about accepting the money, but Jane insisted.

"Little Sis, you're sure a dear----" Ernest found himself choking up
most unaccountably. He gave her a good old-fashioned hug in conclusion
to save himself the embarrassment of words.

Dr. Morton took his son into the parlor and closed the door immediately
after dinner. They stayed an hour, during which time the Doctor gave
Ernest much practical advice about his conduct and sundry warnings not
to be extravagant or careless in handling his money. No sooner had they
emerged, Ernest looking important and rather dazed, when his mother laid
her hand upon his arm, saying: "My son, I also wish to have a little
talk with you. We shall be hurried in the morning so perhaps we would
better have it now."

Ernest returned to the parlor with his mother. Chicken Little lay in
wait outside in the hall. She and Katy had a beautiful plan for a last
boat ride that afternoon. She knew Ernest would be going over to say
good-bye to the Captain anyway.

Chicken Little waited and yawned and waited and squirmed for a solid
hour and a quarter. The steady hum of her mother's voice was interrupted
occasionally by brief replies from Ernest. At last, Chicken Little heard
a movement and roused herself joyously. But her mother began to speak
again--this time with reverent solemnity. Chicken Little forgot herself
and listened a moment.

"Umn, I guess she's praying--they must be most through. Golly, I bet
Ernest's tired!"

When the door opened a moment later there were tears on Mrs. Morton's
lashes and Ernest looked sober. He held a handsome Oxford bible in his
hand. Mrs. Morton glanced at Jane suspiciously, but passed on into the
sitting room.

Chicken Little surveyed her brother wickedly.

"Did Mother give you a new bible?"

"Yep."

"I thought you had one."

"Got two--Mother forgot, I s'pose."

"Bet you'd rather have had a new satchel--that bible must have cost a
lot."

"Yes, I would, but don't you dare let on to Mother. I wouldn't hurt her
feelings for a farm! She's awful good, but she doesn't understand how a
fellow feels about things. I'd rather be licked any day than prayed
over. I guess if I attended all the 'means of grace' she wants me to, I
wouldn't have any time left for lessons. I'm going to try all-fired hard
not to do anything to hurt Mother or make her ashamed of me, but I'm not
calculating to wear out the pews at prayer meetings--not so you'd notice
it." Ernest grinned at Chicken Little defiantly.

Jane replied soberly:

"A prayer meeting's a real treat to Mother. She hasn't had a chance to
go to one for so long she is just pining for the privilege, but I bet
she didn't feel that way when she was young! But she thinks she did, so
there's no use fussing."

Marian's admonition to Ernest was brief and to the point. She stood him
up against the wall and looked him so squarely in the eyes that she
could see her own reflection in the pupils. Ernest's six feet of
vigorous youth was good to look at. His hazel eyes gazed back at her
steadfastly. Marian smiled up at him.

"Ernest Morton, I'm downright proud to be your sister, and if you can
look me in the eye as fearlessly and unashamed when you come home, I
shall be still prouder. I want to tell you something I overheard in a
store the other day about Father. Some men were evidently discussing him
in connection with a business deal, and one remarked emphatically: 'Old
man Morton may have his weaknesses like the rest of us humans, but his
word's as good as his bond any day, and there's precious few men you can
say that of.' It's worth while to have that sort of a father, Ernest,
but it makes the Morton name somewhat of a responsibility to live up to,
doesn't it?"

Marian gave him a pat and pulled his head down to kiss him.

Katy and Gertie had been busy all day with their own preparations for
departure. Marian was helping them with their packing, because Mrs.
Morton had her hands full with the lunch and Ernest's clothes and trunk.
Chicken Little vibrated between the two centers of interest. Jilly also
assisted, contributing articles of her own when she caught the spirit of
packing. Her mother rescued a cake of soap and one of her shoes, but
after Katy and Gertie arrived at home, they discovered one of Jilly's
nighties reposing on top of their Sunday hats and her rag doll neatly
wedged in a corner of their trunk. Ernest was not overlooked either.
When he unpacked at Annapolis, his recently acquired New York roommate
was decidedly amazed to see him draw forth a small, pink stocking from
the upper tray and a little later, a soiled woolly sheep along with his
shirts. Ernest found his explanations about a baby niece received rather
incredulously until a choice packet containing half a doughnut, a
much-mutilated peach, two green apples, and a mud pie appeared. Jilly
had evidently prepared a lunch for her uncle. They both went off into
rumbles of mirth over this remarkable exhibit and began a friendship
which was destined to be enduring.

Jane's boat ride scheme found favor, but Mrs. Morton declared they must
put it off till after supper. They drove over and found the Captain
smoking contentedly on the veranda.

"I was hoping you young people would come to-night," he said, "though I
intended going to the train to see you off in any event. I shall miss
these young ladies sadly, and Ernest seems to belong to me a little, now
that he has decided to be a sailor, too."

"If I get in, I shall owe it to you, for I should never have thought of
Annapolis if you hadn't suggested it," Ernest replied.

"Well, I trust I have not influenced you to a decision you will some day
regret. You seem to me to have many of the qualifications for a naval
officer."

"Do you think he is sufficiently qualified to row the _Chicken
Little_, Captain Clarke?" asked Jane suggestively.

The Captain's eyes twinkled. "If he isn't, I think Sherm is. We might
let the one who gets there first prove his skill."

The boys were not slow in acting upon this hint. They sprinted their
best without waiting for a starter, and reached the skiff so exactly
together that the question of precedence was still unsettled. The boys
did not wait for an umpire. Ernest untied the boat and both attempted to
fling themselves in with disastrous results. The _Chicken Little_
had not been built for wrestling purposes. She tipped sufficiently to
spill both boys into the creek. The water was shallow, but Sherm was wet
well up to the waist, and Ernest, who had been pitched still farther
out, was soaked from head to foot. They appeared ludicrously surprised
and sheepish.

The girls and the Captain laughed most unfeelingly. But Chicken Little
immediately began to consider the consequences.

"Poor Mother, she'll have to dry that suit out and press it before it
can be packed. It's a blessed thing you didn't wear your new suit as you
wanted to, Ernest Morton."

"My, but you are wet!" exclaimed Katy. "Oughtn't you to go right home
and change?"

"Come with me into the house, boys. I think Wing and I can fix you up."
The Captain cut a laugh in the middle to offer aid.

The lads were so ludicrously crestfallen; they were doubly comical.

Wing, fortunately, had a good fire in the kitchen and soon had their wet
garments steaming before it, while the Captain hunted out dry clothes
for them. Some spirit of mischief prompted him to array Ernest in an old
uniform of his own, with amazing results, for Ernest was considerably
slimmer than the older man, and fully two inches taller. The ample blue
coat with its gold braid hung on him as on a clothes rack. The sleeves
were so short they left a generous expanse of wrist in view, and the
trousers struck him well above the ankle.

The Captain saluted him ceremoniously, chuckling at the boy's absurd
appearance. The girls were openly hilarious.

Chicken Little struck an attitude. "Behold the future admiral! Ladies
and gentlemen, permit me to introduce Admiral Morton, of whose
distinguished exploits you have often heard. His recent feat of
capsizing the enemy's frigate single-handed, has never been equalled in
the annals of our glorious navy."

She was not permitted to finish this speech undisturbed. Ernest had
chased her half way round the house before she got the last words out.

He clapped his hand firmly over her mouth to restrain her from further
eloquence.

Jane struggled helplessly. "Katy--say, Katy, come--help----"

Katy, nothing loath, flung herself on Ernest from the rear and the three
had a joyous tussle, with honors on the side of the future admiral, till
Sherm, who had been a little slower in dressing than Ernest, came out
the front door.

Jane called to him despite the restraining hand and her shortening
breath: "Sherm, he's choking me----"

"Choking nothing--it's Katy who is choking me--just wait till I get hold
of you, Miss Halford!"

Katy had both hands gripped fairly on his coat collar and was tugging
Ernest backward with all her might, while Chicken Little struggled to
get away.

"Come help,--Sherm, please!" Chicken Little loosened herself from the
gagging hand enough to plead again.

"Keep out, Sherm. Three against one is no fair."

Sherm watched the fray a moment, undecided.

"You may have bigger odds than that, Ernest," laughed the Captain. "You
might as well be getting your hand in."

Sherm sauntered leisurely over and helped Chicken Little wrench loose,
then, whispering something hastily, took her by the hand and they both
made for the creek.

Ernest, relieved of his sister, swung quickly round, catching Katy by
the shoulders before she could save herself.

"I've a mind to----" At this moment he detected Sherm's game. "No, you
don't, smarties!"

Katy likewise saw and acted even more quickly than Ernest. She was very
light and swift, and she darted past Sherm and Chicken Little like a
flash, reaching the boat twenty seconds ahead.

"Come on, Ernest!" She slipped the rope deftly from the post, not
waiting to untie it, and, pushing off, leaped lightly into the row boat.

Ernest needed no second invitation. Katy motioned to him to run farther
along the bank and paddled the skiff in close enough for him to climb on
board. Sherm and Chicken Little, dazed by the suddenness of this
maneuver, were still some feet away.

"Katy Halford, you're a pretty one to go back on your own side that
way," Jane scolded.

"Katy, I didn't think it of you--after asking me to come and help you,
too!" Sherm was also reproachful.

"I didn't ask you, Sherman Dart. It was Chicken Little."

"Of course," Ernest encouraged. "Katy's been on my side all the time.
Haven't you, Katy?"

Katy nodded, laughing.

The Captain, who had followed the young people at a more sober gait,
smiled at this outcome of the skirmish.

"When a woman will she will, you may depend upon it," he quoted. "The
trouble is to find out what she wills."

Ernest, secure in the rower's seat, could afford to be generous. He
brought the boat in and took them all on board. Gertie had been a quiet
spectator of the frolic. She had little taste for boisterous fun.

Captain Clarke handed her in with a flourish. "Gertie is my partner."

Sherm had his revenge. Ernest rowed energetically--so energetically that
he was tired enough to be willing to resign the oars before a half hour
had gone by. Under the circumstances he did not quite like to ask Sherm
to relieve him. Sherm seemed to be oblivious to the fact that it
required energy to propel the boat. He was strumming an imaginary banjo
as an accompaniment to the familiar melodies the girls were softly
singing, occasionally joining in himself. Katy did not fail to observe
that Ernest dropped one of his oars to regard a blister ruefully, and
she did her best to help.

"Say, Ernest, let me try one oar. I believe I could row with you if you
would take shorter strokes."

Ernest hadn't much faith in Katy's skill, but the experiment gave him an
excuse to rest a minute. He moved over and handed her the oar with a
little smile of gratitude.

"You're a trump, Katy," he whispered.

Darkness dropped softly in the timber. They heard a distant splash where
a muskrat had taken to the water. Every one wished solemnly by the
evening star. And two of the wishes came true in record time. The
Captain wished that he might find the son so long lost to him. Katy
wished--she didn't quite put the wish into words--but she did want
Ernest to have what he wanted. One by one the other stars twinkled forth
and the darkness deepened till their faces were dim, white blurs, and
the girls' pink-and-blue dresses faded into patches of dusk in the
blackness. Fireflies winked in the gloom. At the Captain's suggestion,
Katy and Ernest rested on their oars. They stopped singing and listened
to the night's silences--silences broken by rustling movements from a
thicket on the farther bank or by eery creakings of the branches
overhead. The little group felt vaguely the bigness of things, though no
one but the Captain knew exactly why.

It was ten o'clock before they went back to the house. Wing had
performed a miracle in the meantime; the boy's suits were not only
dried, but neatly pressed.

Mrs. Morton let them all sleep late the next morning in view of the long
journey ahead for Ernest and the girls.

Poor Sherm found this last day trying. His father's health was not
improving and a fear lay close in his heart that he should never see him
again. It was almost more than he could bear to hear the girls talk
about going home. He eased the ache by keeping at work. Dr. Morton had
already initiated him into Ernest's duties. The others were too busy to
think much about Sherm but Chicken Little, who sat beside him at the
table, noticed that he scarcely tasted his dinner. She started to remark
about it, but a glance at Sherm's drawn face warned her in time.

Presently, she had a gracious thought. "Sherm, let's ride Caliph and
Calico in to the train, then the others won't be so crowded and Marian
and Jilly can go, too."

Sherm somehow felt better immediately. The brisk gallop they took at
starting helped still more. Sunflowers and golden rod lined the roadside
for miles; brown cat tails nodded above the swales. A bobolink, swaying
on a weed stalk near by, answered Sherm's chirrup to the ponies with a
volley of golden notes.

"Chicken Little," he remarked, apropos of nothing, after they had ridden
a few miles, "you are a mighty comfortable person to have 'round."

"Maybe you won't think so in a day or two. I shall be so lonesome I may
be tempted to follow you about like Huz and Buz."

"You can't scare me that way, Chicken Little, I think the ranch is going
to be a pretty loose fit for all of us for a few days. But your school
begins about the middle of September, doesn't it? That will help."

"Yes, I wish you were going to school, too. Say, Sherm, why couldn't you
arrange to take one or two special studies under the new teacher? They
say he only lacks one year of graduating from college and knows a lot.
He's teaching to save the money for his last year. Perhaps you might
take some of your freshman work."

"I wish I could--I hate to get behind the rest of the boys. But your
father is hiring me to work, not to study."

"I know, but when winter comes you won't need to work all the time, and
you'll have all your evenings--Jim Bart does."

"If I could only keep up my mathematics and Latin, I wouldn't be losing
so much." Sherm was considering.

The nine-mile ride to town seemed shorter than usual to most of the
party that afternoon. Ernest, in spite of his joy in actually going away
to school, found home and home folk unexpectedly dear now that he was
leaving them for many months. Poor Mrs. Morton could hardly tear her
eyes from the son who was taking his first step away from her. Chicken
Little was feeling disturbingly sober; no Ernest, no Katy, no
Gertie--how could she ever stand it?

"Sherm, if I start to cry, just wink, will you--that funny way you do
sometimes. Ernest bet I would--and I won't, but I know I'm going to want
to dreadfully."

Chicken Little was as good as her word. She didn't--that is, as long as
Ernest could see her. She kissed him good-bye and gave him a playful box
on the ear. She threw kisses, smiling as the group at the car window
slid by, then the lump in her throat grew startlingly bigger.

"Race you to the horses, Chicken Little," said Sherm. "If it's all right
with you, Mrs. Morton, we'll go straight home."

Chicken Little raced with Sherm and with her tears. She beat Sherm but
the tears won out. She could hardly see to untie Calico's rein. Sherm
took the strap out of her hand, fastened it, and swung her up.

"Shut your eyes and open your mouth," he commanded, as soon as she was
securely seated.

Jane obeyed meekly and Sherm popped a big chocolate drop in.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, smiling through the trickling tears, "was that what
you stopped down town for? My, what a baby you must think me!"

Sherm reached over and patted her hand. "I think you are several
pumpkins and some squash, Chicken Little. Have another?"



CHAPTER XV

SCHOOL


The days crawled by during the next two weeks.

"I hate them so by night, I want to shove them off into to-morrow by
main force," Jane told Marian complainingly, the third day after Ernest
and the girls had gone.

"You'll be all right in a day or two. It's always hardest at first,"
Marian consoled her.

"I suppose it doesn't make any difference whether I'm all right or all
wrong--the folks have gone just the same."

"And you might as well make the best----"

"Oh, yes, I might as well! 'Count your blessings, my brethren, etc.'
I've done counted 'em till I'm sick of hearing about them! Marian, if
you don't find me something new to do I shall bust!"

Marian was particularly busy that morning and not so patient as usual.

She waved her hand around the room ironically. "I shall be charmed,
Chicken Little, will you finish these dishes or sweep the sitting room
or sew on that dress of Jilly's? I can furnish you an endless variety to
choose from."

"I said something new."

"Jilly's dress is brand spanking new."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I know, Jane, I have had the feeling myself, but I don't imagine
the heavens are going to open and shower down something new and choice
on you because you're lonesome and bored. If you can't amuse yourself,
you might as well be useful and have something to show for a tedious
day."

Chicken Little drummed on the window for several minutes without
replying, then swung round with a grimace.

"Hand over the dress--I can run up the seams on the machine all right, I
suppose."

The family waited, excited and expectant, for the report on Ernest's
examinations. They had had a long letter telling of his journey and safe
arrival. Katy and Gertie and Mrs. Halford had each written long letters
full of Centerville news and references to their pleasant summer. Mrs.
Halford could not say enough concerning the girls' improved appearance.
Katy wrote the most interesting item. "What do you think? Carol Brown
left for Annapolis, too. Do you suppose Ernest will know him? P. S. We
showed him your picture and he stared at it awful hard and said--you've
got to get me a trade last for this--'Say, Chicken Little's going to be
a hummer if she keeps on!' Don't you think I'm nice to tell you?"

Jane gave the letter to Sherm to read, forgetting this part. Sherm
snorted when he came to it, glancing up curiously at her.

"Do you like that sort of stuff, Chicken Little?" he asked later.

                   *       *       *       *       *

It was almost two weeks after Ernest went, before Dr. Morton, on his
return from town one September evening, came up the walk excitedly
waving a telegram.

"Oh!" exclaimed Chicken Little.

"He must have passed or Father wouldn't look so pleased," said Mrs.
Morton.

The doctor came in slightly breathless.

"Well, Mother, I'm afraid you have lost your boy."

Mrs. Morton looked startled for a moment, then, reassured by her
husband's smile, fumbled nervously for her glasses to read the yellow
paper he handed her.

She was maddeningly deliberate. Jane, perched upon the arm of her chair,
tried to anticipate her, but her mother held it so she could not see.

"It's Mother's place to see it first, daughter."

Reproving Chicken Little steadied Mrs. Morton's nerves, and she read the
few words aloud with dignity.

"Sworn in to-day--hurrah!" Ernest.

"That means that he----?" She looked inquiringly at her husband.

"That means he has passed both physical and mental examinations and has
been regularly sworn in to Uncle Sam's service."

"But I thought he was just going to the Naval Academy--why does he have
to be sworn in as if he were enlisting?"

"Because he, practically, has enlisted. He enters the government service
when he enters the academy, and he simply takes his oath of allegiance."

Mrs. Morton's questioning was interrupted by the entrance of Sherm,
Frank, and Marian, who came in demanding news.

"Don't worry, Mother," said Frank, patting her shoulder, "your precious
lamb is in good hands. He'll be back next September such a dude the
family won't know how to behave in his presence." Frank couldn't resist
teasing even when he tried to comfort.

Mrs. Morton sighed. "A great many things can happen in a year."

"Yes, Mother dear, they can, but most always they don't. The only things
you can depend on are bad weather and work."

A letter soon followed the telegram, giving details of the examinations,
and a glimpse of Ernest's new life, which comforted his mother, because
he was forming punctual habits and had to go regularly to chapel whether
he wished to or not. He had met Carol unexpectedly, to their mutual joy.
"He's an awfully handsome chap--knows it, too, but I think he has too
much sense to let it spoil him. It's jolly to have some one I know
here," Ernest wrote.

School began for Chicken Little at the little brown schoolhouse a mile
distant, on the fifteenth of September. Chicken Little and the whole
Morton family rejoiced, for she had been a most dissatisfied young
person of late. Her mother watched her walk away down the lane,
immaculate in her new flower-bordered calico, lunch basket in hand, with
positive thankfulness.

"Glad to have her out of the way, aren't you, Mother? Jane is too
restless a girl to be idle," laughed Marian.

Jane had spoken to her father about her plan for Sherm and he had
heartily agreed. But Sherm was not to begin until the first of November
when the most pressing of the farm work would be over.

Chicken Little promptly talked the matter over also with the new
teacher, Mr. Clay, a young man of twenty-one, fresh from his junior year
at college. He was wide awake and attractive, and while ignorant, as
they, of many of the niceties of polite society, seemed a very elegant
being to the majority of his new pupils. Mamie Jenkins had concluded to
stay at home for the fall term instead of going to the Garland High
School. For some reason it took an astonishing number of consultations
with the teacher to arrange Mamie's course satisfactorily, especially
when she learned that Sherm would be coming soon. She quizzed Chicken
Little carefully as to what studies Sherm would take.

"Geometry and Latin, I think. I asked Mr. Clay and he said he could.
Maybe bookkeeping, too."

"I was just thinking I ought to go on with my Latin. I had Beginning
Latin last year, and I really ought to take Cæsar right away before I
forget."

Jane regarded her thoughtfully. She happened to know that Sherm was
planning to study Cicero. How mad Mamie would be if she started Cæsar
all alone! She had half a mind to let her go ahead. Mamie had spent the
entire morning recess telling her how the boys bored her hanging round.
Yes, it would do Mamie good to have to recite alone. Chicken Little shut
her lips firmly for a second. When she opened them, she replied that she
understood Cæsar was a very interesting study.

Mamie bridled and said condescendingly: "It's a pity you haven't had
Latin so you could come into the class, too."

"Oh, I see enough of Sherm at home!" returned Chicken Little
maliciously. Mamie had the faculty of always rubbing her up the wrong
way.

Mamie gave her shoulders a fling. "Of course, I always forget you are
just a little girl, Jane. You're so big and----" Mamie didn't finish her
sentence. She merely glanced expressively at Jane's long legs. "I think
I'll go in and talk to Mr. Clay. He must be sick of having all those
kids hanging round him."

Mamie sailed off in state, leaving Jane feeling as if she had run her
hand into a patch of nettles. She was standing there in the sunshine
looking after Mamie resentfully when Grant Stowe came along.

He nodded toward the schoolhouse door through which Mamie had vanished.
"What's Miss Flirtie been saying to make you so ruffled? She's begun to
sit up nights now fixing her cap for the teacher. Bet you a cookie he's
too slick for her."

Chicken Little laughed, but retorted: "Humph, how many times have you
sat on her front porch this summer?"

Grant reddened. "Oh, we're neighbors, and a fellow has to kill time
summer evenings. Father and mother always go to bed with the chickens
and it's no fun listening to the frogs all by yourself. Suppose your
folks wouldn't let anybody come to see you--I hear they're all-fired
particular."

Jane did not have an opportunity to answer. One of the little girls came
begging her to play Blackman with a group of the younger children. Grant
suggested that she choose up for one side, and he would for the other.
She had just begun to choose when Mr. Clay appeared at her elbow. "May I
play on your side, Jane?"

"Teacher's" entrance into the game acted like magic. The few big boys
who had come on this first day, edged near enough to be seen and were
speedily brought into the sport. Mamie, venturing languidly to the door
to see what had become of Mr. Clay, suddenly decided she was not too big
to play "just this once."

Teacher and Jane were both swift runners and Grant had hard work to make
a showing. Mamie sweetly let herself be caught by teacher the first
rush, to Grant's openly expressed disgust. The big boys warmed into
envious rivalry with Mr. Clay right from the start, but he soon
convinced them that they would have to work, if they worsted him at any
of their games or exercises.

Chicken Little found team work with him very delightful and could
scarcely believe the noon hour was over, when he pulled out his watch
and announced that he must call school. She turned a radiant face up to
him.

"Oh, it's such fun to have you play--I wish you would often."

"Thank you, it's fine exercise, isn't it?"

Mamie began her Cæsar the next day, requiring much help from "Teacher."
She also came to school in her best dress. Mamie had faith in first
impressions. Chicken Little had been tempted the night before to betray
Mamie's schemes to Sherm, but she stopped with the words on the tip of
her tongue. She couldn't exactly have explained the scruple that would
not let her "give Mamie away," as she phrased it.

"Is the teacher any good?" Sherm had asked, meeting her at the ford on
her way home, and taking lunch basket and books with an air of
possession, which was the one trick of Sherm's that annoyed Chicken
Little. He never asked leave or offered to relieve her of burdens; he
merely reached over and took them.

She minded this more than usual to-day; Mr. Clay's manner had been so
delightful. She couldn't even thank Sherm. They trudged along in silence
for a few minutes. Finally, Sherm asked dryly: "Left your tongue at
school, Miss Morton?--you're not very sociable."

Chicken Little responded by making a face at him, which brought an
ominous sparkle into the boy's eyes. Things hadn't gone very well with
him that day and he had waited for Jane for a little companioning.

"Well," he demanded gruffly, "what's the matter? Did Mr. Clay stand you
in a corner the first day or did the handsome Grant neglect you for
Mamie?"

The last thrust put fire in Chicken Little's eye. She turned and looked
at him squarely.

"Sherm, if I slapped you some day would you be surprised?" she demanded
unexpectedly.

Sherm flashed a sidelong glance at her. "Not as surprised as you'll be,
if you ever try it."

Chicken Little considered this remark. Just what did he mean?

Sherm's face was flushed a trifle angrily. He looked as if he might mean
most anything. She replied demurely with a provoking shrug of her
shoulders.

"I didn't say I should--but I wanted to dreadfully a minute ago."

The tall lad beside her seemed genuinely surprised at this statement.

"I suppose you know what you are talking about, Chicken Little, but I'm
blamed if I do."

"It's the way you take my books and----"

"Yes?" Sherm was still more surprised. Then an idea popping into his
mind, "Oh, I presume you'd like to have me take off my hat and make you
a profound reverence as your favorite heroes do in novels. What in
thunder you girls find to like in those trashy novels is more than I can
see!"

Chicken Little bristled. "Hm-n, Walter Scott and Washington Irving,
trashy! Shows how much you know, if you have graduated from High School,
Sherman Dart! Besides, I didn't mean any such thing. Only, you sort of
take my things without asking--as if--as if----" She was getting into
rather deeper water than she had anticipated.

"Yes, as if what?"

"Oh, I don't suppose you mean it that way--but you act as if I was only
a silly little girl--and didn't count!"

Chicken Little was decidedly red in the face by the time she finished.

Sherm didn't say anything for a moment, but he continued to look at her.
He looked at her as if he had found something about her he hadn't
noticed before.

"Who put that idea into your head?--Mamie?"

She shook her head indignantly.

"Grant Stowe?"

"Nobody, thank you, I guess I have a mind of my own."

"New teacher start in by giving you a lecture on deportment?"

Chicken Little stamped her foot. "You're perfectful hateful--and I
sha'n't walk another step with you!"

They were near the gate leading from the lane into the orchard and she
suited the action to the word, by darting through it and running off
under the trees.

Sherm looked after her a moment, undecided whether to stand on his
dignity or to pursue. He had considered Jane a little girl--most of the
time. Some way she was alluringly different to-day. He suddenly resolved
that he would not be flouted in any such fashion. It took him about two
minutes to catch up with Chicken Little and slip his arm through hers.

"No, you don't, Miss. You are going to sit down here under this tree and
tell me exactly what's the matter!"

Chicken Little struggled rebelliously, but Sherm held her firmly.

"I can't--Mother told me to come straight home from school; she wanted
me."

"Fibber! Your mother and Marian went over to Benton's this afternoon.
You needn't try to dodge--you and I are going to have this out right
now. So you might as well be obliging and sit down comfortably."

"It wasn't anything to make such a fuss about."

"Then why are you making such a row?"

Chicken Little flung herself down upon the grass.

Sherm stretched his muscular length on the sward in front of her and
began to chew a grass stem in a leisurely fashion while he watched her.

Chicken Little pulled a handful of long grasses and commenced plaiting
them. Her hair was windblown and her face rose-flushed from her run. She
declined to look at Sherm.

"Chicken Little--O Chicken Little, are you very mad? Chicken Little?"

Chicken Little kept her brown eyes fixed upon the pliant stems.

"Chicken Little," Sherm murmured softly, "you have the prettiest eyes of
any girl I know."

Chicken Little caught the touch of malice in his tone and shot an
indignant glance at him from the aforesaid eyes.

Sherm laughed delightedly. "Chicken Little, you don't need to tell me
what's the matter with you--I know."

Chicken Little shot another indignant glance. "There isn't anything the
matter except what I told you--of course, it wasn't anything
really--only----"

"Yes, there is, Chicken Little, that was only a symptom."

"Stop your fooling."

"Don't you want me to tell you?"

"No!"

"Bet you do--honest, don't you?"

"I haven't the least curiosity--so you can just stop teasing." Jane was
positively dignified.

"Well, I'm going to tell you, whether you want to hear it or not. You're
growing up, Chicken Little, that's what's the matter with our little
feelings. But don't forget you promised to give me part of Ernest's
place this winter. It was a bargain, wasn't it?" Sherm reached over and
took possession of her busy fingers. "Wasn't it? Chicken Little Jane,
wasn't it?"

Jane looked at this new and astonishing Sherm and nodded shyly.

Sherm gathered up her books with a laugh. "Come on, your mother wants
you."

"She does not--and I'm going to sit here till I make a grass basket for
Jilly."

                   *       *       *       *       *

September and October slipped away quietly, their warm, hazy days gay
with turning leaves and spicily fragrant with the drying vegetation and
ripening fruits. Chicken Little found school under Mr. Clay unwontedly
interesting. He departed from the regulation mixture of three parts
study and one part recitation and tried to lead his pupils' thoughts out
into the world a little. Indeed, some of his innovations were regarded
with suspicion by certain fathers and mothers in the district. When he
advised his advanced history class to read historical novels and
Shakespeare in connection with their work, there was much shaking of
heads. But when he took advantage of the coming election to waken an
interest in politics, the district board waited on him. If the visit of
the school board silenced Mr. Clay, it did not discourage his charges,
and partisanship ran high. The favorite method of boosting one's
candidates being to write their names on the blackboard at recesses and
noons, and then stand guard to prevent the opposing faction from erasing
them.

The fun grew furious. The Mortons were staunch Republicans, and Chicken
Little strove valiantly to write "Garfield and Arthur" earlier and
oftener than the Democrats, led by Grant Stowe and Mamie Price, could
replace them with "Hancock and English."

Grant was the biggest and strongest and bossiest lad in school. His
favorite method of settling the enemy was to pick them up bodily and set
them outside the schoolhouse door while he rubbed out their ticket. Or
better still, to hold the door while Mamie or some other democrat turned
the entire front board into a waving sea of "Hancocks and Englishes."

The Republicans were in the lead as to numbers, but they were mostly the
younger children. But few of the older boys could be spared from the
farm work to enter school so early in the fall. So Chicken Little
captained her side, aided by quiet suggestions from Mr. Clay who did not
wish to take sides openly.

Many were the ruses employed to capture the blackboards. Jane stayed one
evening after school to have things ready for the morrow, but, alas,
Grant Stowe was in the habit of waiting to walk a piece home with her.
He waited down the road till he grew suspicious, and, coming back,
caught her in the act.

He took swift revenge, none too generously, by forcing her to erase
every line, then rubbed it in by guiding her hand to make her write the
names of the opposition candidates. Despite all Chicken Little's
struggles, he persisted until the hated names were finished in writing
that decidedly resembled crow tracks, but could be read by anyone having
sufficient patience.

Chicken Little was furious but helpless. Mr. Clay had gone home early in
order to drive into town that evening. Grant treated her anger as a good
joke. She finally wrenched her hand loose and gave him a resounding
smack across the cheek, that made her tormentor's face tingle.

It was Grant's turn to be vexed now. He caught her arm and twisted it
till she winced. "Say you're sorry!"

"I won't!"

Grant turned the supple wrist a twist farther. "Now, will you?"

"No sir, not if you twist till you break it--I won't! I'm not going to
be bullied!"

Grant began to be afraid she meant what she said. But his pride would
not let him give in to a girl. "All right, little stubborn, I'll kiss
you till you do."

As Grant loosened his hold on her wrist, Jane jerked away and fled
toward the door in a panic. She was more than half afraid of Grant in
this humor--and then her promise to Ernest.

"Oh, dear, I knew better than to do that, but he made me so mad!" she
mourned.

Grant was close upon her. She fairly hurled herself out the door and
most unexpectedly bumped into Sherm, who caught her in time to save her
catapulting down the steps.

"Save the pieces, Chicken Little, what's your hurry?"

"O Sherm,--oh, I'm so glad you came--I----"

Before she could finish Grant reached the door, stopping short on seeing
Sherm.

Jane clutched Sherm's arm tight. "Don't let him, please don't let him!"

Her words were not entirely clear, but Sherm promptly shoved her behind
him and confronted Grant angrily.

"Big business you're in, frightening girls--you bully!"

Sherm had taken a dislike to Grant that evening at Mamie's and exulted
in this opportunity to pick a quarrel. Grant was equally ready. He
scorned explanations and replied by pulling off his coat. Sherm swiftly
peeled his also. Chicken Little was alarmed by these warlike
preparations.

"Don't, boys, don't! I guess it was part my fault, Sherm. Grant didn't
mean any harm. We were scrapping over the election and----"

"I don't care whether it was your fault or not, Jane. If Grant doesn't
know enough to be a gentleman, it's time he learned."

Sherm sprang forward and the boys clinched. They were pretty evenly
matched. Grant outweighed Sherm, but the latter was quicker and had had
some training in wrestling. This was the popular method of settling
quarrels, boxing not having come into vogue. Inside of three minutes
both were down, rolling over the ground an indiscriminate, writhing heap
of arms and legs.

Chicken Little was utterly dismayed. She didn't want either of the boys
hurt, but they heeded her remonstrances no more than if she had been a
mosquito. She even tried pulling at the one who came uppermost, but they
both pantingly warned her off. Chicken Little set her jaw firmly. She
flew into the schoolhouse to the water bench, and seizing the water
bucket, flew out. Pausing long enough to take good aim, she dashed its
contents over the boys' heads with all her might.

Grant being underneath at the moment, with lips parted from his
exertions, received the full force of the water in his mouth and nose,
and nearly strangled from the dose. Sherm had to let him up and apply
first aid to help him recover his breath--the lad was purple. When he
began to breathe readily once more, both boys got to their feet, glaring
reproachfully at Chicken Little. Each was restrained by the presence of
the other from expressing forcibly his opinion of the young lady. The
heroine was in wrong with both the villain and the hero. However, the
heroine did not care.

"You boys ought to be ashamed of yourselves, both of you--fighting like
a pair of kids. I wish you could see yourselves! You look exactly like
drowned rats!"

The lads could not not see themselves, but they could see each other,
and the exhibit was convincing. Sherm's mouth puckered into its crooked
smile.

"Well, if that's the way you feel about it, Chicken Little, it's all
right with me. So long, Grant."

Sherm picked up his coat and cap and set off, leaving Jane to follow or
linger as she saw fit. She turned to Grant.

"I didn't mean to get you into trouble, Grant."

"Don't mention it, and, truly--I didn't intend to frighten you, Chicken
Little. I guess you aren't like most of the girls on the Creek--I didn't
suppose you'd take it that way. Good-bye, Sherm," he called. Grant also
picked up his belongings and departed.

Chicken Little rescued the water pail and carried it into the
schoolhouse. She secured her hat and lunch basket, and was starting for
the door when a wonderful idea buzzed in her brain. Slipping to the
window she glanced out. Grant was striding rapidly off up the road. She
ran to the board and hastily erased that hateful "Hancock and English"
and as hastily wrote the names of the other presidential candidates in
letters a foot high across the front board, underlining them heavily and
putting hands pointing toward them on each of the side boards. This
done, she locked the schoolhouse door, as she had promised Mr. Clay,
and, taking the key over to a neighbor's a few rods away, joyously
departed homeward.

Sherm was not in sight when she started. A little farther down the hill
she saw him waiting beside a haystack. He had evidently been watching to
make sure she did not get into further trouble. He walked briskly on as
soon as he caught sight of her.

Young Mr. Dart looked a trifle sulky at supper that evening. Chicken
Little tried to attract his attention in various ways without success.
Sherm was resolved to ignore her. Finally, she addressed him directly.

"Won't you please pass the water, Sherm?" she asked with exaggerated
meekness.

Sherm grinned in spite of himself. The other members of the family
looked at Jane inquiringly. Jane, having received the water, ate her
supper in profound silence.

He came on her unexpectedly down by the spring a little later. It was
growing dark and he did not see her until he was almost beside her. He
hesitated a moment, then joined her. She glanced up demurely.

He regarded her an instant in complete silence. Chicken Little tossed
her head.

Sherm came a step closer and Jane prepared to fly if necessary, but
Sherm contented himself with staring at her till he made her drop her
eyes.

"You mischievous witch, I'd like to shake you hard!"



CHAPTER XVI

THE PRAIRIE FIRE


The prairies were brown--a dead, crisp brown, as if they had been baked
by hot suns through long, rainless days and nipped by a whole winter of
killing frosts.

"I don't understand why the grass is so dry by the middle of November,"
said Dr. Morton. "Of course the summer was pretty dry, but then we had
rains in September."

"Yes, Father," Frank replied, "but there has been less rainfall for the
past two years than Kansas has known for a decade. I imagine the ground
is baked underneath on the prairies, and the rains only helped for a
time."

"Well, whatever caused it, we shall have to feed earlier than usual. I
am afraid we may have some bad fires, too, if we don't have rain or a
snowfall soon."

"There was a fire over on Elm Creek night before last," spoke up Sherm.
"Grant Stowe's cousin was telling us about it at school."

"I saw smoke off to the north yesterday," said Chicken Little.

"Oh, I hope we sha'n't have any bad fires this fall!" exclaimed Mrs.
Morton. "I do think a big prairie fire is one of the most terrifying
sights, especially at night. I couldn't sleep that first fall for
dreading them. I used to get up in the middle of the night and look out
the windows to see if that awful glare was anywhere on the horizon."

"Don't go borrowing trouble, Mother. There hasn't been a bad fire on Big
John for years. The country is so thickly settled a fire doesn't have
the sweep it used to." Dr. Morton tried to reassure her.

"They must be wonderful things to see. I hope there won't be any bad
ones, but if one shows up anywhere within ten miles, I propose to be on
hand," Sherm said eagerly.

"You won't be so keen after you have fought one or two, Sherm." Frank
smiled with the wisdom of the initiated. "Say, Father, I think Jim and I
had better fire round those stacks on the north eighty. It would be hard
to save them if a fire got started on the divide."

"Yes, I don't know but you'd best do it this afternoon. Burn a pretty
wide strip. And we ought to run a guard on the west from that field of
winter wheat to the county road. If a fire ever got in there, it might
come down on the house."

Chicken Little spoke up. "May I go, too, Frank? I love to watch you."

"You will be in school, but you can come home that way if we are still
at work. You can easily see the smoke. We won't try it if the wind
rises, and I believe it is going to."

"Chicken Little, if you see the smoke you may tell Mr. Clay I won't come
for my recitation this afternoon. I am going to find out how this
back-firing business is done."

Sherm had begun his studies some two weeks previous and was making rapid
progress, studying evenings, and going to the school a half hour before
closing time to recite.

Chicken Little found this arrangement extremely pleasant, because Sherm
was always there to walk home with her. They took all sorts of detours
and by-paths through the woods, instead of coming along the road to the
ford. They discovered unexpected stores of walnuts and acorns and wild
rose hips, and scarlet bitter-sweet just opening its gorgeous berries
after the first hard frosts.

Jane helped Sherm press autumn leaves and pack a huge box of nuts to
send home. His mother wrote back that his father hadn't showed as much
interest in anything for weeks, as he did in the nuts. They seemed to
carry him back to his own boyhood.

Mr. Dart seldom left his bed now, and Sherm's mother told but little of
his condition. Sherm understood her silence only too well. Chicken
Little noticed that he always worked hard and late the days he heard
from home. She began to watch for the letters herself, and to mount
guard over the boy when he looked specially downcast, teasing him into
going for a gallop or wheedling him into making taffy or playing a game
of checkers. She got so she recognized Sherm's blue devils as far off as
she could see him.

Sherm did not notice this for some time or suspect she was looking after
him, but one day he remarked carelessly when she thought she had been
specially clever:

"Chicken Little, don't make a mollycoddle of me. A man has to learn to
take what comes his way without squealing."

"Yes, Sherm, but if you get thorns in your hand, it's better to try to
pull them out than to go on pushing them in deeper, isn't it? I know
when I was a kid, it always helped a lot to have Mother kiss it better."

"How'd you get so wise, Chicken Little?" The lad smiled his wry smile.

"Don't make fun of me, please, Sherm."

"Make fun of you? Lady Jane, I've been taking off my hat to you for a
week. How in the dickens you girls find out exactly what's going on
inside a chap beats my time. It's mighty good of you to put up with my
glooming and try to cheer me along. Maybe I don't look grateful, but I
am." Sherm was eager to make this acknowledgment, but found it more
trying than he had anticipated. He revenged himself by starting in to
tease.

"Say, I wish you'd try your hand at this splinter--I can't budge the
critter."

Jane flew for a needle, unsuspecting. The splinter didn't look serious,
but she painstakingly dug it out.

"Is that all right?" she demanded, looking up to encounter a wicked
glint in Sherm's gray eyes.

"Hm-n, aren't you going to put any medicine on it?"

"Medicine?"

"Well, you know you said it helped." Sherm was grinning impishly.

"Sherman Dart, I think you're too mean for words!" She was about to turn
away affronted when she had an inspiration.

"Mother," she called, "O Mother!"

Mrs. Morton had been placidly sewing in the sitting room while the young
people were studying their lessons by the dining-room table. She came to
the door, inquiring.

"Mother, Sherm's had a splinter in his finger and he wants you to kiss
it better."

Sherm started to protest, but Mrs. Morton did not stop to listen.

"Jane, I think that kind of a joke is very ill-timed, making your poor
mother get up and come to you for nothing. You must remember I am not as
young as I once was."

Mrs. Morton departed with dignity.

"Now will you be good?" chuckled Sherm.

"Oh, I guess I'm square," Chicken Little retorted, going back to her
lessons.

Mrs. Morton had said truly that she was not so young as formerly. She
had not been well all fall. Dr. Morton had persuaded her to see another
physician, who, having assured her that she was merely run down, had
prescribed the usual tonic. He had told Dr. Morton, however, that her
heart action was weak and warned him to guard her against shocks of any
kind and to have her rest as much as possible. This had agreed with the
doctor's own diagnosis of her condition, and the family had been trying
to save her from all exertion. So Chicken Little was a tiny bit
conscience-stricken.

High winds and more pressing farm duties had interfered with running the
fire guards. It was not until the week before Thanksgiving that the men
got at it, then they succeeded only in protecting the stacks. They had
intended to finish the job the following morning, but one of the
neighbors, passing through the lane, stopped to tell Dr. Morton of a
sale of yearlings to be held the next afternoon in the neighboring
county.

"It must be part of the Elliott herd. They're three-quarters bred
shorthorn; I'd like mighty well to pick up a bunch of them. We have
plenty of feed for any ordinary winter." Dr. Morton was talking the
matter over with Frank after supper.

"Suppose we ride over, Father, it's only about twenty miles. We can
start early--we don't need to buy unless they are actually a bargain."

They were off at six the following morning, planning to return the same
day. Dr. Morton, however, warned his wife not to be anxious if she did
not see them before the next afternoon. If they bought the steers, they
would not try to drive them home the same day.

The morning was bright and pleasant, but the wind rose toward mid-day
and was blowing a young gale by the time Chicken Little returned from
school at half-past four. Mrs. Morton began worrying lest the doctor and
Frank had not wrapped up sufficiently.

"Why, it isn't cold yet, Mrs. Morton. In fact, it is astonishingly warm
for November. And there's the queerest, yellowish haze I have ever
seen." Sherm said this to reassure her.

"Probably dust," replied Mrs. Morton carelessly, relieved from her
anxiety about her family.

Chicken Little hurried through her supper and went over to see Marian.
Presently Marian threw a shawl over her head and they both climbed the
hill back of the house. The wind was still blowing fiercely. Sherm saw
them on the ridge and followed to see what was tempting them to a stroll
on such a night.

"What's up?"

Marian answered. "Why, Jane thinks all this yellow haze comes from a
prairie fire. We've been trying to see if we could see any trace of it.
It seems to me I do smell smoke--there's a kind of pungent tang to the
air, too." Marian sniffed uneasily.

"Like burning grass or leaves?"

Marian's face paled. "Sherm, that's exactly what it is! What can we do?
And the menfolks all away except Jim Bart, and he's gone to Benton's on
an errand. He'll be back in a few minutes though."

"Don't worry, Marian," said Jane, "if it's a prairie fire it's miles and
miles off. It must be on the other side of Little John. It can never
cross the creek--besides, the wind is blowing the wrong way for it to
sweep down on us."

"That's so--but the wind might change any minute, and in a gale like
this I'm not so sure it might not jump Little John. I do wish Frank had
finished that back-firing."

"I suppose it wouldn't be possible to do it until the wind lulls, but
Mrs. Morton, I'll sit up and watch to-night--at least until the wind
goes down. It often falls about midnight," said Sherm, looking troubled.

"It looks to me as if we were in for a three-days' blow," Marian replied
despondently. "But I'd be much obliged if you would, Sherm, I don't
quite like to ask Jim Bart to, for he's had such a hard day. Do you
think you can keep awake? And, Chicken Little, don't let on to
Mother--we mustn't worry her."

"Sherm," said Jane, after they went into the house, "I'm going to stay
up, too; I'll slip down again after Mother goes to bed. It's a lot
easier for two people to keep awake than one."

"No, Chicken Little, I don't believe you'd better. Your mother wouldn't
like it. And we'd be dead sure to laugh or talk loud enough for her to
hear us. I hope the wind will go down early. If it doesn't and I find I
can't stay awake, I'll call you and let you watch while I doze on the
couch here."

Jane stayed up as late as her mother would let her, and Sherm made the
excuse of having special studying to do, to sit up later. After Mrs.
Morton had retired he made frequent excursions to the hill top. A lurid
glare lit up the horizon to the northwest. He could still catch the tang
of smoke and whiffs of burning grass, but these were not so pungent as
earlier in the evening. The fire seemed farther away. By eleven, the
glare was decidedly fainter and the wind had subsided noticeably. At
twelve, he concluded it was safe to go to bed.

Chicken Little waking about two, stole down stairs and finding
everything dark, made the rounds of the windows, but the distant fire
showed only a faint glow in the night.

When they arose the next morning there was no trace of the fire to be
seen. Sherm hailed some men passing, for news. They reported that it had
swept the north side of Elm Creek and said it had burned up a lot of
hay. There was a rumor that two of the upland farmers had lost
everything they had and that a man and team had been caught in it. But
they hadn't been able to get any details.

"Though it wouldn't be surprising," one of the strangers added, "that
fire was traveling faster than any horse could run."

Chicken Little had come out and was standing beside Sherm. Her eyes grew
big. "Do they really think somebody got burned?"

One of the men nudged the man who had spoken.

"No, Sis, it was just a rumor--I don't 'low it was true. When folks
can't give you any name or place--it most generally ain't so."

The men drove on.

It was Saturday. Jim Bart had gone down to town for the weekly supplies
and Sherm was busy with odd jobs. He asked Jane to go up to the hill top
occasionally to make sure there were no fresh signs of the fire, though
Jim Bart had assured him the danger was over. Sherm noticed that the
wind had changed. It was blowing freshly from the very direction where
they had seen the fire the preceding night.

Chicken Little obediently made trips once an hour until noon; she could
detect nothing to occasion alarm. After dinner her mother set her to
making doughnuts and she forgot all about it.

Mrs. Morton was not so well to-day and Jane persuaded her to go to bed.
Drawing the blinds to, she put a hot iron to her mother's feet and left
her to sleep. The clock striking four attracted Jane's attention as she
came back into the sitting room, the last doughnut was draining in the
collender while Annie mopped the kitchen floor.

She stood irresolute for an instant, undecided whether to read or to
fetch some walnuts from the smokehouse for Sunday. Dr. Morton always
liked to have a basket of walnuts handy on Sunday afternoons. "I guess
I'll get the nuts, and perhaps I'd better run up the hill to be sure
that old fire hasn't had a change of heart. Father says often some
little side fire smolders and burns after the main fire is all out.
Though I guess one would have showed up long before this if there'd been
any this time."

She argued with herself for two or three minutes, finally deciding that
it wasn't much trouble to go take a look, even if it were foolish. Just
outside the door she met Sherm and he walked up to the crest with her.

Half way up the slope Chicken Little suddenly stopped, sniffing
suspiciously. "Sherm, I believe I smell smoke again."

Sherm stopped also to draw in a long breath. He did not wait to announce
his observations, but broke into a run for the top of the hill. Chicken
Little followed him a length in the rear. Sherm took one look and gave
vent to a surprised whistle. Chicken Little stared, fascinated, at a
tiny line of fire burning merrily on a hillside not a mile distant.

"Jumping Jehosophat!" exclaimed Sherm, "how did it ever creep up on us
this way?"

Jane was thinking rapidly. She scarcely noticed what he said.

"Sherm, Frank left the water barrels and the mops and everything on the
wagon, didn't he?"

"Yes--what----"

"Are the barrels filled?"

"Yep, do you think----"

"Sherm, run hitch the bay team to the wagon quick. I'll get Marian and
warn Annie not to tell Mother--she's asleep still. Hurry, Sherm, every
minute's precious!"

Sherm's "All right" drifted from him on the run. He was already on his
way to the stable. He realized that Jane knew more about fire fighting
than he did.

Jane hurried to the cottage. Marian listened to her news, white to the
lips.

"Annie can take Jilly. Perhaps I'd better ride over after Mr. Benton."

"Marian," protested Chicken Little, "there isn't time. And if Mr.
Benton's home, he has probably seen it, too, and is trying to protect
his own place. No, we've got to work fast. Unless we can run a fire
guard before the fire reaches that tall grass on the division line, the
whole place is a goner! It isn't coming very fast yet. Here, I'll run
with Jilly over to the house and you put on a pair of Frank's
trousers--your skirts might catch. I'll get that old pair of Ernest's.
Hurry, Marian, hurry!"

Chicken Little gathered up Jilly and started on the run.

Both Marian and Jane reached the stable yard just as Sherm drove the
heavy farm wagon clattering out of the gate. They hurriedly climbed in
and Sherm lashed the horses into a gallop. As they passed the cottage,
Marian exclaimed: "Did you get matches either of you?"

Sherm slowed up the team and examined his pockets.

"A handful."

"Stop a moment--I'll run fetch a box. It takes a lot." Chicken Little
was over the wheel before the words were fairly out of her mouth.

She was back in a jiffy with the matches, which she proceeded to divide
among them, while the horses leaped forward again.

"Stop on the backbone where the Santa Fe trail strikes the road."

Precisely four minutes later Sherm pulled up the panting team. Chicken
Little promptly took command. She had been out many times with her
father and brothers and knew exactly what to do.

"Wet your mop--take a bucket of water and fire right along the trail,
Marian,--that buffalo grass burns slow. Call if it starts to get away
from you. I'll begin there by the hedge. Drive about fifty yards farther
on, Sherm,--the horses will stand. Fill all the buckets and wet the
extra mops. We're liable to want them in a rush."

"All right, Jane, save your breath--you'll need it. Careful there, Mrs.
Morton, beat out the flames along the trail as you go. Never mind how
fast it whoops the other way. Cæsar's ghost! that fire is getting
close!"

The waving, irregular lines of flame on the hillside were coming
steadily on, now leaping up several feet high as the breeze freshened,
now creeping close to the ground when the gusts died away. The wind was
fitful.

Marian and Sherm both had their trail of fire flickering into a blaze
before Chicken Little got hers kindled. Her hands shook so she could
hardly hold the match. The first flickered and went out, a second, then
a third, blackened, before she could coax the stubbly grass to burn. She
caught up a bunch of weeds, set it blazing in her hand and dragged it
swiftly along the ground. Tiny swirls of yellow flame wavered in her
wake, crackled feebly for an instant in the shorter herbage, then,
reaching out tongues into the longer blue stem beyond, leaped forward
like a frolicsome animal. Sherm's and Marian's lines of fire were eating
their way merrily toward hers on each side.

It was easy to beat out the flame in the Buffalo grass, which formed
their safety line toward the house, and the three soon had several
hundred feet of fire running to meet those menacing flames on the
neighboring hillside. For a while it seemed almost pretty play save for
that haunting dread of disaster. But the dripping mops were heavy for
girls' wrists and arms, the constant stooping and rising and the lifting
of the heavy buckets pulled painfully on aching muscles. They must
backfire for a third of a mile before they dared hope the place was
safe.

A field of winter wheat adjoining the wagon road where they had started,
and extending down to the bank of Big John, was the best of protection
to the lower half of the farm. West from this, there was neither track
nor field to break the tindery sweeps of prairie grass, until the strip
of breaking on the north boundary of the pasture was reached. The old
Santa Fe trail along which they were firing, fortunately extended to
within some two hundred yards of the breaking, and was their safeguard
against the ever-present danger of letting the fire get away from them
to the rear.

Older heads would have selected that hundred yards of high grass as a
starting place, while they were fresh and best able to cope with its
perils. Chicken Little was leaving it to the last. Swiftly as the three
worked, the head fire was rapidly gaining on them. Again and again, one
of them glanced toward the house in the hope that Jim Bart might have
returned, or some neighbor have seen their danger and be on the way to
help. Not a human being was in sight in any direction.

Marian straightened up with a groan and glanced despairingly at the head
fire. Sherm's gaze followed hers anxiously.

"We've got to do better than this, girls. Here, Chicken Little, make a
torch of some of those resinous weeds--those long crackly ones--and fire
just as fast as you can. I'll follow with the mop and yell if I can't
manage it."

The plan worked well for a time--their haven of hope, the brown strip of
breaking, seemed to move steadily nearer. But Chicken Little and Marian
were fast becoming exhausted. The main fire was now so close that its
smoke was beginning to drift in their faces. Prairie chickens and quail,
startled and confused by the double line of flame, whirred above their
heads, uncertain how to seek safety. A terrified jack rabbit leaped up
almost at Sherm's feet. Rabbits, ground squirrels, one lone skunk, and
even an occasional coyote, darted past them. Back at the road where they
had begun, the head fire was already meeting their line of back fire and
dying down in sullen smoke. Still, that hundred yards of blue stem was
untouched.

They paused a moment at its edge in hurried consultation.

"Let's souse all the mops--dripping wet--and trail across first,"
suggested Chicken Little in short, labored gasps. She had been running
for several minutes.

"Yes, and then fire back. Christ!--we must hurry!" Sherm, too, was
breathless. "Can you stick it out a few minutes longer, Marian?"

Marian Morton's face was drawn and colorless. She nodded and rested a
moment, leaning on her mop.

For the next sixty-five yards the blows of the wet mops rained down with
the precision of clock work. Twice the flames started in quick eddies
back of their line, but, panting, the girls almost sobbing, they beat
them back. The smoke was growing stifling. The wind, freshening, blew it
from both fires full in their faces. They could see only a few feet
ahead.

"Light another torch and run, Chicken Little--there's no time to
lose--we must chance it!"

Chicken Little obeyed silently. Half way to the breaking she stumbled
and fell. Her torch of twisted grass flew from her hand, scattering the
burning fragments about her. Before she could get to her feet, the grass
was ablaze all around. Quick-witted Sherm threw her a mop, then beat his
way toward her. Marian, summoning her last remaining strength, ran to
help, but sank to the ground in a faint before she could reach Jane.

Sherm and Chicken Little, beating, stamping madly, did not see her fall.
The flames fairly licked up the long grass. They beat them out around
Jane only to see them spread in an ever-increasing circle. Chicken
Little's legs gave way under her and she sank helplessly down, watching
the rushing fire. Sherm struggled on with parched throat and stinging
eyes, but he, too, was fast becoming exhausted in the unequal fight,
when a strong pair of hands seized the mop from his straining arms and
rained swift blows on the flaming grass. Answering blows resounded from
four other stout pairs of hands and an irregular line of charred
vegetation was soon all that was left to tell the tale of the danger
they had escaped.

"Thank God, we got here in time!" Captain Clarke ejaculated fervently,
raising Marian's head and dashing water in her face to restore her.

"We're so shut in by the timber at our place, I didn't dream the fire
was in this part of the country till one of the hands went up in the
pasture. We mounted and came double quick, I tell you. And we'd have got
here quicker, if I'd known what straits you were in. You're a plucky
lot! Easy there, Mrs. Morton, you are all right, and the fire is safe to
smoke out at its leisure. Here, drink a drop of this whiskey."

Sherm had gathered up Chicken Little and carried her beyond the smoke,
then dropped down beside her with a sigh to recover his breath. He felt
numb and so dazed he hardly heeded what the Captain was saying.

"Pretty well done for, yourself, aren't you, lad?" one of the men
inquired. "You sure knew exactly what to do, if you are a tenderfoot."

Sherm roused himself enough to twist the corners of his mouth into his
wonted smile.

"Me? I didn't do anything--Chicken Little was the boss of this gang."



CHAPTER XVII

THE LOST OYSTER SUPPER


Thanksgiving came and went its turkey-lined way rather lonesomely.
Christmas preparations also lacked their usual zest.

"Everything seems to have caved in round where Ernest was," Chicken
Little confided to Marian. "You see, we always talked everything over
and planned our Christmas together. Sherm takes Ernest's place in lots
of ways, but, of course, he isn't interested in what I'm making for
Mother, or in helping me make $5.25 go clear round the family and piece
out for Katy and Gertie besides."

"If sympathy is all you need, Jane, I can lend you a listening ear."
Marian crocheted another scallop.

"I'd be thankful for a few suggestions, too, I can't think of anything
to send Ernest. When he has to have everything regulation, and the
government furnishes him with every single thing it wants him to have,
why--it's awful."

"Yes, I agree with you--I've been racking my brains for Ernest, too.
Mother is patiently knitting him a muffler, which I know he won't be
permitted to wear, but I haven't the heart to discourage her--she gets
so much comfort out of it. Uncle Sam should be more considerate of fond
female relatives. He might at least tolerate a few tidies and
hand-painted shovels or a home-made necktie."

"Or a throw or a plush table cover with chenille embroidery. Mamie
Jenkins is making one for Mr. Clay. He will be too cross for words. He
loathes Mamie, though he tries not to show it, and plush is his special
abomination. He says it reminds him of caterpillar's fuzz." Chicken
Little's eyes danced maliciously.

Marian looked at her young sister-in-law meditatively.

"Mamie doesn't seem to be dear to your heart just now. Is she too
popular or too affected or too dressy?"

"Oh, she's just too utterly too too all around. I do have lots of fun
with her--she can be awfully nice when she wants to be, but----"

"But?"

"Oh, I don't know--she swells up so, lots of times over things I'd be
ashamed to tell--they're so silly."

"Yes, I guess Mamie's pretty cheap, but as long as you make friends with
her, don't rap her behind her back. It was all right to tell me--I
quizzed you anyhow. I wish you didn't see so much of her."

"Why, she's the only girl at school I can go with, who is anywhere near
my own age. The Kearns twins aren't even clean--I don't like to go near
them."

"I shouldn't think you would. Our public school system has its drawbacks
as well as its virtues. Well, Jane, be nice to Mamie, but don't--don't
be like her."

"You needn't worry; she's going to town to school after Christmas, so I
sha'n't see much more of her."

Mrs. Morton was still far from well, and she hung on Ernest's letters
almost pathetically. Ernest, boy fashion, was inclined to write long
letters when he had something interesting to tell and preserve a stony
silence when he didn't. Life at the academy was monotonous and he had to
work hard to keep up with his studies. Further, his father and Frank
suspected he was having many disagreeable experiences which he kept from
his family. These were still the days of rough hazing at the academy and
Ernest, being a western boy, big and strong and independent, was likely
to attract his full share of this unpleasant nagging. He revealed
something of his experiences in a letter to Sherm. Sherm showed the
letter to Chicken Little and Chicken Little, vaguely worried, told her
father. Dr. Morton talked it over with Frank.

"There isn't a thing you can do about it, Father. Most of it does the
boys more good than harm anyway. I talked to a West Pointer once about
the hazing there. He said some of it was pretty annoying and at times
decidedly rough, but that if a fellow behaved himself and took it
good-naturedly they soon let him alone. He said it was the best training
he had ever known for curing a growing boy of the big head. Don't
worry--Ernest has sense--he's all right."

To Chicken Little, Ernest confided, two weeks before Christmas, that he
was getting confoundedly tired of having the same things to eat week
after week. "Say, Sis, if you and Mother would cook me up a lot of
goodies for Christmas, I'd like it better than anything you could do.
Send lots, so I can treat--a turkey and fixings."

This letter did more for Mrs. Morton's health than the doctor's tonic.
She tied on her apron and set to making fruit cake and cookies and every
delicious and indigestible compound she could think of that would stand
packing and a four-days' journey. Chicken Little and Sherm spent their
evenings making candy and picking out walnut meats to send. Dr. Morton
made the nine-mile trip to town on the coldest day of the season to
insure Ernest's getting the box on the very day before Christmas.

The family at the ranch had a quiet holiday week. The day after New
Year's, Jane was invited to come to town and stay over night to attend
an amateur performance of Fatinitza, a light opera the young people had
staged for the benefit of a struggling musical society. Chicken Little
was excitedly eager to go. Mrs. Morton deliberated for some time before
she gave her consent. Marian and Frank and Sherm all teased in her
behalf, before it was won.

Sherm drove her in, and Frank, having business in town the following day
with a cattle buyer from Kansas City, volunteered to bring her home.
Jane wore her Christmas present, a crimson cashmere with fine knife
plaitings of crimson satin for its adorning. Frank lent her his sealskin
cap and she felt very grand, and looked piquantly radiant, as she
revolved for her mother's inspection before slipping into her big coat.
Sherm, standing waiting, inspected her, too.

"Scrumptious, Lady Jane, you look like that red bird I've been trying to
catch out in the evergreen by the gate."

Mrs. Morton shook her head disapprovingly. "No compliments, Sherm, Jane
is just a little girl and she must remember that pretty is as pretty
does. Don't forget, dear, to thank Mrs. Webb for her hospitality when
you come away. Are you sure your ears are clean?"

"Oh, Mother, I'm not a baby!" Chicken Little protested indignantly. "You
talk as if I were about five years old."

"My dear daughter, your mother will speak to you as she sees fit. Have
you got the high overshoes? I think, perhaps, you'd better take Father's
muffler. Sherm, have you both buffalo robes?"

Chicken Little relieved her feelings by making a little moue at Sherm.
He winked discreetly in return.

"Why," she said disgustedly after they were started, "won't mothers ever
let you grow up? I am a whole inch taller than Mother now, and half the
time she treats me as if I didn't have the sense of a chicken."

"Well, you see you're the only girl in the family, and you've been the
littlest chicken so long your mother kind of likes to shut her eyes to
all those extra inches you've been collecting. By the way, Miss Morton,
I don't notice that muffler your mother mentioned, and I think you'll be
cold enough before we get to town to wish you had it."

"You don't suppose I was going to wear that clumsy thing? I can snuggle
down under the robes if I get cold."

"No, I didn't suppose, so I brought the red scarf Mother gave me
Christmas, for your ears. They'd be frosted sure without anything. Did
you think your pride would keep you warm, Chicken Little?"

Chicken Little was inclined to resent this delicate attention; Sherm
seemed to be putting her in the same class her mother had. But her ears
were already beginning to tingle as they left the timber and got the
full force of the wind on the open prairie. Sherm was swinging the bays
along at a good pace. The cutter glided smoothly over the frozen snow.
She submitted meekly while he awkwardly wrapped the muffler over her cap
with his free hand. The soft wool was deliciously comfortable. She
neglected, however, to mention this fact to him.

"Too stubborn to own up, Lady Jane?"

Jane stole a glance at the quizzical face turned in her direction. Then
she evaded shamelessly.

"Sherm, don't you just adore to skate?"

                   *       *       *       *       *

Chicken Little was in a pulsing state of excitement that evening as she
listened to the pretty, lilting music and watched gorgeously clad young
people, many of whom she recognized, moving demurely about the little
stage. To others it was merely a very creditable amateur performance; to
Chicken Little, it opened a whole new world of ideas and imagining. She
had been to a theatre but twice in her whole life, once to Uncle Tom's
Cabin and once to a horrible presentation of Hamlet, which resulted in
her disliking the play to the day of her death. She loved the light and
color and harmony of it all. She delighted in it so much that she sighed
because it would be so soon over.

"What are you sighing for, Jane? Don't you like it?" her hostess
inquired.

Chicken Little gave a little wriggle of joy. "Like it? I just love
it--it's like butterflies keeping house. Don't you wish everything was
like that--pretty and gay, with all the lovers getting things
straightened out right?"

"Dear me, Jane, do you get all that out of this poor little comic opera?
I must have you come in to all our amateur things if you love music so."

"I don't love music so very much--I hate to practice. I shouldn't care
for their singing very much by itself, it's seeing the actors and
thinking how they feel--and their pretty clothes and----"

Mrs. Webb laughed.

"Chicken Little, I envy you--you are going to see so many things that
most people shut their eyes to."

Jane studied about this, but she hardly liked to ask what things Mrs.
Webb meant, because that lady seemed to expect her to know, and she felt
she would appear stupid not to. She lay awake a long time that night;
the music seemed to be splashing over her in little waves of melody.
Even after she had once fallen asleep, she awakened to find her brain
still humming the insistent measures. The next morning she went downtown
with her hostess and met Mamie Jenkins in a store.

"Why, Chicken Little, I didn't know you were in town? Your brother
didn't say anything about your being here."

"Frank? Is he in already?"

"Yes, I just saw him. Say, did you know a crowd of us are going out to
his house to-night to an oyster supper?"

"No, who's going?"

"Oh, a lot of the town boys and girls, and Grant Stowe and me. John
Hardy asked him if a crowd of us couldn't come out to-night and surprise
your sister, and Frank said come along, he'd have some hot oysters for
us. The boys have got a big bobsled from the livery stable. I bet we
have a lovely time. Why don't you and Sherm stay in and go out with
us--I guess there'll be room. Anyhow, you can always crowd more into a
bobsled, it's more fun when you're packed in."

Mamie giggled expressively.

Jane was surprised to learn that Sherm had come in with Frank and she
was also extremely doubtful whether her mother would approve of her
waiting to come out with the party. John Hardy's crowd was one of the
gayest in town and they were very much grown up. But her outing the
previous evening had given her a taste for grown-up things; she was
eager for the lark and resolved to tease Frank to let her stay in.

Frank studied the matter for several minutes, but finally consented
rather reluctantly. He saw Sherm was also keen for the fun.

"All right, Sis, that set are pretty old for a kid like you and I'll
have a time squaring myself with Mother. But you don't have many good
times and Sherm's steady enough to look after you. They are planning to
start early. I guess you'll get home by eight."

Frank left for the ranch about three o'clock to warn Marian of her
surprise party. Mrs. Webb had insisted that Sherm stay with them for an
early supper. The party had arranged to start at six. With a good team
they should reach the ranch easily by eight, have two hours for
merry-making, and get back to town by midnight.

The cold had moderated through the day; by five o'clock, the sky was
leaden gray and it looked like snow. Some of the fathers and mothers
were doubtful as to whether they ought to risk so long a drive. But the
weather was ideal, if it only didn't snow, and there might not be
another night during the holidays when they could all go.

The expedition had bad luck from the start. The livery man, disliking
the weather prospects, had had an inferior team harnessed to the big
sled. John Hardy and the other young men stood for their rights and
after a long wrangle, succeeded in getting what they wanted. But this
had consumed precious time. They drove out of the livery barn at
six-thirty instead of six, as they had intended. Then two or three of
the girls were not ready. One of the last called for, having sat with
her wraps on for over three-quarters of an hour, had finally removed
them and her party frock as well, in disgust, thinking the jaunt had
been given up on account of the weather. By the time she had dressed
herself afresh it was a quarter past seven. There was still one young
man to be picked up at the hotel. He, too, had grown tired of waiting
and had started out to hunt the sleigh. Ten minutes more were consumed
searching for him. The clock in the schoolhouse tower was striking the
half hour as the sleigh load passed the last house in the little town,
and turned into the country road leading to the ranch.

Sherm pulled out his watch. "Whew, Frank and Marian will have a nice
wait for us! We can't possibly make it till after nine."

The next two miles went with a dash. The moonlight was a dim gray half
light instead of the silvery radiance they had counted upon.

"Those clouds must be beastly heavy--there is scarcely a star to be
seen," ejaculated John Hardy, who was on the driver's seat with a
sprightly girl of nineteen for his companion. "What'll you bet the snow
catches us before we get home to-night?"

"I'll bet you it catches us before we get out to Morton's," retorted one
of the other young men.

"Well, I'm glad I am taking my turn at driving going out, if that's the
case. I shouldn't like the job of keeping the road on these prairies in
a nice blinding snowstorm."

"Oh, that's just because you're a town dude," said Grant Stowe
boastfully. "It is just as easy to follow a country road as a street in
town if you only know the country."

"All right, Grant, if it snows, we'll let you drive home."

"If it snows?" exclaimed one of the girls. "I felt a flake on my nose
this very minute."

The party surveyed the sky.

"Oh, you are just dreaming, Kate."

"Somebody blew you a kiss and it cooled off on the way," teased another.

"Just wait a minute, smarties. There--there was another!"

"Yes, I felt one, too!" exclaimed Mamie.

"You're right, it's coming." Sherm stared at the sky in some concern.

"Better whoop it right along, John," advised one of the young men
thoughtfully.

"I am not so sure that we shouldn't be sensible to turn round and call
this frolic off for to-night," John Hardy replied.

There was a chorus of No's.

"Nonsense, who's afraid of a little snow? Besides, we'd disappoint the
Mortons and Jane's mother would be frantic if she didn't come. Don't
crawfish, John Hardy."

"I'm equal to anything the rest of you are. I merely thought it might be
rough on the girls, and occasion some alarm to other fond relatives in
town, if we failed to get back to-night."

"Oh, stop your croaking!"

"There will be no trouble getting back."

"Of course not, the horses can find the way if we can't."

"Here, start something to sing and shut off these ravens!"

The crowd sang lustily for the next twenty minutes, then the snow began
coming down steadily and the majority of the young people commenced to
disappear under the robes and blankets.

"The pesky stuff is getting inside my collar!" exclaimed one of the men
who had insisted upon keeping his head out.

"Why don't you tear yourself from the scenery and come under cover?"
asked Mamie pertly.

"Yes, Smith, I'm only holding one of Mamie's hands. You may keep the
other warm."

"He's not either. Don't you believe him, Mr. Smith," Mamie protested.

John Hardy spoke to the girl beside him. He had been watching the road
ahead too closely for several minutes to do any talking.

"Hadn't you better go back with the others--there's no need for you to
get wet and cold."

"Oh, I am all right--it isn't cold--very."

"I am afraid it is going to be--the wind is rising and it's coming right
in our faces. We're a pack of fools to go!"

"We must be nearly half way there, aren't we?"

"I think so--I have never been out to the Morton ranch. Well, if worst
comes to worst, I guess they'll keep us all night."

The crowd was beginning to quiet down. By the time they had covered two
more miles the wind was blowing the snow in their faces with stinging
force. John Hardy was having trouble to keep the horses in the road.
They, too, recoiled from the snow drifting in their faces. He finally
persuaded his companion to go back under the robes. Sherm volunteered to
take her place.

"I don't like the look of things," said Hardy in a low tone as Sherm
climbed up beside him. "Can you tell where we are?"

Sherm stared at the snow-covered waste ahead and tried to recognize some
familiar land mark in the white gloom.

"Yes, I think so. That was Elm Creek you crossed some time back. We must
be about half way from Elm to Big John."

"How far now?"

"Three miles."

"Can you see the time?"

"Nine-twenty."

"The dickens, we ought to be there!"

"It oughtn't to be long now. Let me take the reins--your hands must be
cold."

"Just a minute till I start the circulation. I feel sort of responsible
for this gang, because I got up this fool enterprise." Hardy clapped his
hands together vigorously.

"It wouldn't be bad except for the wind!" Hardy said presently.

"That's the worst of Kansas, there always is a wind!" Sherm had not yet
been entirely converted to the charms of the sunflower state.

When Hardy took the reins again, Sherm still peered ahead, watching the
road. He had been finding something vaguely unfamiliar about the
landscape, though this was not strange since neither house nor tree nor
haystack was visible through the storm until they were almost upon it.
Then it loomed up suddenly shrouded and spectral. This feeling of
strangeness grew upon him and he felt uneasy.

"Stop the team a minute, Hardy." Sherm got down and went to the horses'
heads, peering all about. He scraped the snow away with his foot and
examined the ground.

He let out a shrill whistle of dismay, as he uncovered grass spears
instead of the hard-trodden road bed.

"Say, Hardy, we're off the road. I thought so from the way the sled was
dragging."

Hardy climbed hastily down with an exclamation that sounded profane. The
boys in the sleigh also piled hurriedly out. They soon assured
themselves of the sorrowful fact.

"What can we do?"

"Isn't there a house somewhere near where we can inquire?"

"What did you fellows go to sleep for when you were driving, anyhow?"

"You'll have to go back on your tracks till you find the road again."

Questions and offers of advice were numerous.

Sherm had walked a short distance back, exploring. He returned in time
to hear this last remark.

"The trouble is, Grant, the snow hasn't left us any tracks. Two hundred
yards back you can hardly see where we came."

The others began to wake to the seriousness of the situation.

"Haven't you any idea where we are, Dart?"

"Not the faintest notion, except that we are somewhere between Elm and
Big John. Perhaps Jane might know. She usually has a sixth sense for
direction.

"Chicken Little," he called, "do you mind getting out and seeing if you
can tell us where we are?"

Chicken Little was on the ground with a spring before Sherm could help
her. She strained her eyes through the gloom. She, too, examined the
ground, then, accompanied by Sherm and Hardy, waded through the snow for
several hundred yards in each direction, the men kicking the snow in the
hope of finding the track. Finally, Chicken Little gave it up.

"I don't know a blessed thing more than the rest of you. But I have the
feeling we must be near Charlie Wattles' place--you know that old
darkey. You see the wind was right in our faces most of the way, and it
isn't now. It's coming obliquely--course the wind may have changed.
Let's try heading west a while--and see if we can find the road. Let me
sit up there with you and Sherm; I might see something I'd recognize."

"Chicken Little, you'd freeze," objected Sherm.

"Not any sooner than you will, Sherman Dart."

"We can wrap her up in a blanket and she might help us--we have got to
get out of this some way. It's ten o'clock."

They drove about slowly for half an hour, but they could find nothing
that looked like a road. Some of the sleigh load were openly
apprehensive and inclined to blame Hardy for their plight, but for the
most part they were plucky and good-natured, trying to turn off their
growing fear with jests.

Chicken Little glued her eyes to the dimness ahead.

Sherm suggested that they give the horses their head.

"They'll try to go back to town if we do, and I don't believe they could
hold out--that off one is blowing pretty badly now. This snow is heavy
as mud to pull through." Hardy looked dubious.

"Turn due west, Mr. Hardy--we can't be far from Big John."

Hardy obeyed and they drove another half hour, seeing nothing save the
fluttering snowflakes and the snowy wastes opening out a few feet ahead
as they advanced.

"Chicken Little, your theory is all right, but it doesn't seem to work,"
Sherm remarked regretfully.

In the meanwhile, time had also been moving along at the ranch. The big
sitting room at the cottage was brightly lighted and glowingly warm from
an open wood fire. By eight o'clock, coffee was steaming on the back of
the kitchen stove, the extension table pulled out to its full length,
was set with soup plates and cups and silver. Piles of doughnuts and
baskets of apples and walnuts stood awaiting the sharp appetites the
Mortons knew the cold ride would bring to them. Marian had the milk and
oysters ready for the stew and sat down to rest a moment before the
arrival of the guests. She hardly noticed the clock until the hand
pointed to half-past eight.

"My, they're late!" she exclaimed.

Frank got up and went to the door. He encountered Dr. Morton just coming
in.

"When did you say those youngsters were coming? It's snowing like fury."
He paused on the porch to give himself another shake.

"I don't believe they'll try to come out to-night. I guess you've had
all your trouble for nothing. I only wish Chicken Little and Sherm had
come home with you."

Frank, being a good many years nearer to understanding the rashness of
youth than his father, disagreed with him.

"I bet they tried all right, but they may have had to give it up. I
wonder how long it's been snowing this way. I haven't been out since
supper."

Dr. Morton sat and visited for a half hour, then said he guessed he'd
better go back to Mother. She was worrying a little about her baby being
out such a night.

"She needn't," he concluded, "even a child like Jane would have sense
enough not to start on a nine-mile ride in such weather."

After his father had gone, Frank put on his coat and went down the lane
with a lantern. He came back presently and sat down by the fire without
saying anything.

Marian saw he was worried. "You don't think they've got lost, do you,
Frank?"

"I don't know what to think. I hope Father is right and they had sense
enough not to start. But I wish to goodness I hadn't let Jane stay in."

They sat there listening for every sound until the clock struck ten.
Frank had twice gone to the door, imagining he heard sleigh bells. He
got to his feet again at the sound of the clock.

"You might as well go to bed, dear. We sha'n't see them to-night, but
I'll sit up till eleven myself to make sure."

[Illustration: A half hour later when they were warmed]

Marian waited a little while longer, then took his advice. Frank sat by
the fire and pretended to read until five minutes of twelve, then he,
too, gave up the vigil as hopeless.

At ten minutes past two they both sat up with a start at the sound of
sleigh bells. An instant later there was a vigorous pounding on the
door.

Frank stared into the darkness for one confused instant, then leaped out
of bed, and wrapping a dressing gown about him, flung open the door.

Twelve numbed and snow-covered figures stumbled into the room. Two of
the men were half carrying one of the girls.

"Fire up quick, Frank, we're most frozen! And get some hot water!" Sherm
exclaimed, suiting the action to the word by stirring up the coals of
the dying fire and piling on wood.

It was not until a half hour later when they were warmed and fed, that
the Mortons had time to listen to any connected account of the night's
adventures. Frank had speedily summoned his father to prescribe for
frosted cheeks and fingers and toes. Later, it was discovered that John
Hardy had a badly sprained wrist. Marian and Mrs. Morton made the girls
comfortable and finished preparing the belated oyster supper.

"I am glad we didn't lose this oyster supper altogether," said Grant
Stowe feelingly. "I never tasted anything better."

"Same here," a half dozen laughing voices echoed.

"I wasn't so darned sure an hour ago that some of us were ever going to
taste anything again," said John Hardy soberly.

"Things didn't look exactly rosy, specially when we got spilled out,"
one of the girls added.

"What, did you have an upset?" Dr. Morton looked as if this were the
last straw.

"Yes, that's how Hardy sprained his wrist!"

"Chicken Little had just assured us that if we would drive a little
farther west, we should surely find something, when we struck the
sidehill and went over as neat as you please." Mamie enjoyed this thrust
at Jane.

"Well, we found something, didn't we?" defended Sherm.

"I should say we found out how deep the snow was."

"Yes, and the sidehill made Jane sure we were near the creek, and then
she saw the trees and----"

"Yes, and then she found it wasn't the creek at all, but the Wattles'
place."

"Whew!" exclaimed Frank, "you didn't get over to black Charlie's? Why,
that was three miles out of your road!"

"Yes, Frank, and you ought to have seen him. He was scared to death when
we came pounding on his door in the middle of the night." Chicken Little
giggled at the recollection.

"And there was a trundle bed full of pickanninies and they kept popping
their heads up. They were so ridiculous--with their little pigtails
sticking up all over their heads, and their bead eyes."

"Well, old Charlie warmed us up all right and started us back on the
road again," said John Hardy gratefully.

"And there's another thing sure," said Marian, interrupting this flow of
reminiscence, "you can't go back to town to-night, and you must be tired
to death, all of you. Mother Morton, if you will take the girls over
with you, Frank and I will make some pallets by the fire for these boys,
and let them get some sleep."

                   *       *       *       *       *

The real sport of this excursion came the next day when Frank Morton
hitched an extra team on in front of the livery horses and drove the
party back to town himself, to make sure they did not come to grief
again in the piled-up drifts. But Chicken Little and Sherm were not
along. They watched them drive off with never a pang of envy.

"I have had enough bobsled riding to do me for this winter," said Jane
wearily. Her evening at Fatinitza seemed a thousand years away.

"Ditto, yours truly!" And Sherm yawned luxuriously.



CHAPTER XVIII

AN APRIL FOOL FROLIC


Mrs. Morton and Marian were sitting by the great open fire at the
cottage sewing for Jilly. Jilly herself had constructed a wonderful
vehicle of two chairs hitched to the center table, and she was vainly
trying to persuade Huz and Buz to occupy seats in this luxurious
equipage. Lazy Buz, having once been dragged up into a chair, stayed
put, though he looked aggrieved, but Huz had his eye on the braided rag
rug in front of the fireplace. The moment Jilly's gaze was attracted
elsewhere, he would jump softly down and curl up on the rug.

Marian had risen three times to restore him to Jilly because she mourned
so loudly, but she finally began to sympathize with the pup.

"Let him be, Honey, you've got Buz for company. Huz doesn't want to
play."

Jilly opened her mouth to wail. Then she suddenly changed her mind,
climbed down, and going over to Huz began whispering vigorously into his
ear. Her warm breath tickled Huz and he flopped his ear to drive away
the annoying insect. Jilly beamed, calling joyfully to her mother: "Huz
say ess, Mamma, Huz say ess."

"But Jilly, Huz can't talk."

"He nod he's ear, Mamma. Huz nod he's ear."

The unfortunate Huz went up into the chair once more.

Mrs. Morton glanced out the window where the March wind was whipping the
bare branches of the cherry trees into mournful complaining. Eddying
leaves fluttered from the heaps accumulated in fence corners or beneath
the friendly shelter of the evergreens. A huge tumble weed went whirling
down the road, passed on by each succeeding gust. In and out of the
cedars, the robins were flying, prospecting for new nests. She pushed
back her hair and sighed.

"It doesn't seem possible that April is almost here. Ernest has been
gone nearly a school year. I am beginning to realize that I sha'n't see
much more of my boy."

"But, Mother Morton, he is doing so beautifully and he likes the life.
You couldn't keep him with you much longer, even if he were not in the
academy. Besides, you still have Jane."

Mrs. Morton sighed again.

"That is the worst of this ranch life. Jane is growing so fast I shall
soon have to be sending her away to school. If we only lived some place
where she could be right with me till she finished her education."

"Oh, Mother Morton, I am glad she can't. It is the best part of a girl's
education to go away from all the home coddling and have to rely upon
herself. I wouldn't give anything for what I learned by being away from
family and friends, and having to exert myself to make people like me,
instead of taking it for granted."

"I don't doubt what you say is true, Marian, but Ernest is gone, and you
don't know what a wrench it is going to be to send my baby away, too."

"Are you thinking of sending her next year?"

"I think I must, unless I can persuade Father to move to town for the
winter so she can go to the High School. It isn't merely the studies--I
am most dissatisfied with her associations here."

"I know--the Creek is certainly a little crude. Still I think Jane is
pretty sensible. And she is learning a lot about human nature--human
nature without its party clothes. It's good for her, Mother, if she
doesn't get too much of it."

"What's good for whom?" Dr. Morton, coming in, was attracted by Marian's
earnest tone.

"Jane, and the effect District Thirteen is having on her," Marian
explained.

"I was just saying, Father, that she is getting too old to be
associating with Tom, Dick, and Harry the way she is doing up at the
schoolhouse."

"There you go again, Mother. You don't go about enough among the
neighbors to know what good kindly people they are. Of course, they are
plain, but the Tom, Dick, and Harry you complain of, are more wholesome
than lots of more stylish youngsters I know. I wish you'd try to be a
little more neighborly. I am constantly hearing little thrusts about our
family being stuck up. Frank will bear me out in this."

Frank had followed his father and was warming his hands in the blaze.

"Oh, the Creek thinks the Morton family has a good opinion of itself,
all right. But I have been thinking for some time that it wouldn't hurt
us any to have some sort of a merry-making and invite all the neighbors
in." Frank looked at Marian.

"What could we have, Frank?" Marian inquired, her brow puckered a
little.

"Well, April Fool's Day is next Wednesday--why not get up a frolic for
that evening?"

"Just for the young folks?"

"No, men, women, and children. Invite the families. Send out an
invitation to the whole Creek. There will be a lot who can't come. Cook
up plenty of stuff and we can play tricks--they won't need much
entertaining. How would that suit you, Chicken Little?"

Jane had just strayed in to join the family group and was listening with
interest.

"I think it would be bully."

"Jane, where did you pick up such a coarse expression? Father, that's
just what I complain of. How am I to teach my daughter to be a gentle
woman, when she is constantly hearing vulgar language?"

"Chicken Little is old enough to know better than to use such words, but
she probably got that from Ernest or Sherm, if the truth were known."
Frank laughed.

Chicken Little looked injured.

"Why, bully isn't a by-word--or strong language--and Ernest said it a
lot. You never said anything to him about it's being vulgar."

"My dear daughter, can I never make you understand that little ladies
may not do everything their brothers do?"

"I don't care, Mother, I'm sick of hearing about ladies, and if bully is
so vulgar, I don't see why it isn't vulgar when a boy says it. You
expect Ernest to be a gentleman, don't you, just as much as you do me to
be a lady?"

"Come, Chicken Little, don't speak to your mother that way," Dr. Morton
reproved her.

Mrs. Morton was more severe.

"You may go to your room and remain until you can address your mother
respectfully, my daughter."

Frank's plan was carried out. There were no formal invitations issued.
Frank and Dr. Morton and Jim Bart spoke to every neighbor they met for
the next few days, inviting them to come to an April Fool frolic at
seven on the evening of April first, and asking them to pass the
invitation along to the other residents of Big John. Chicken Little and
Sherm rode over to give Captain Clarke a special invitation, fearing he
might not have become sufficiently used to Creek ways to come on the
more general bidding.

The Captain was charmed and begged leave to send Wing over to help that
evening. Wing delighted in every new experience he was having on the
Creek. He grinned joyously at the prospect.

The entire Morton family entered into the preparations for this novel
party with enthusiasm. Even Jilly and Huz and Buz caught the excitement
of something unusual going on, and hung round, and got under everybody's
feet, more successfully than usual. Jilly had the privilege of scraping
icing bowls while Huz and Buz looked enviously on. They licked their
sticky chops ecstatically when Jilly turned the bowl over to them after
she had done her best with the big tin spoon. Her mother reproached her
for letting the pups eat out of one of the family dishes, but Jilly
couldn't see why her mother was so particular.

Mrs. Morton and Annie and Marian baked cakes and doughnuts and cookies
and mince pies and custard pies, and roasted turkeys and whole hams,
until pantry and cellar and spring house were all overflowing. It would
be a never-ending reproach, if there should not be an abundance for all
who might come, and no one could even guess how many would come.

"It looks like enough for a regiment," said Mrs. Morton wearily,
dropping into a rocking chair on the afternoon of the thirty-first day
of March.

"Yes, but country men do have such astonishing appetites. I am sure it
would feed all Centerville for twenty-four hours. Of course, some of the
things are not eatable," Marian replied.

They had carried out the April Fool idea as much as possible without
spoiling the supper. Six nice brown doughnuts had wads of cotton
concealed in their tempting rings. These were to be mixed with the good
ones. Pickles just out of the brine, were to be put in the same dish
with deliciously perfect ones. There was to be just enough of the false
to keep the guests on the alert and make fun.

While they were sitting there resting, Frank and Dr. Morton came in from
a trip to town. Frank tossed a package into Marian's lap with a laugh.

"These ought to do the work for somebody. I'd like to fool old Jake
Schmidt. It would be worth ten dollars to see his face--he is such a
screw about driving a bargain."

Marian untied the string and opened the parcel, revealing a handful of
the most luscious-looking little cucumber pickles that ever lured the
unwary.

"They certainly look all right," said Marian, "what's the matter with
them--salt?"

"Feel them."

Marian picked one up gingerly as if she were afraid it might prick her
or explode in her hand. Then she threw back her head and laughed
merrily.

"Frank, they are just perfect. I never should have guessed it. You can
fetch Jake all right with one of these. Let me know when you do, I'd
like to be round to see the fun."

"Aren't you afraid you will hurt somebody's feelings with all these
pranks? They don't seem quite dignified some way for grown up people."

"That's just why we want to have them, Mother. The Creek thinks the
Morton family is entirely too grown up and stiff. They'll be
good-natured, never fear."

That evening Chicken Little and Sherm put their heads together.

"We just must find some way to fool Frank--I sha'n't be happy if we
don't." Chicken Little bit her lips and studied. "Can't you think of
something, Sherm?"

"Not right off the bat, but if we keep our eyes open, we'll find a way.
It would be jolly if we could do it before the crowd. They would so love
to see Frank have to take his own medicine. Say, this party is going to
be a Jim dandy!"

It had been decided to have the gathering at the cottage, as the big
sitting room and the bedroom adjoining would hold more people than Mrs.
Morton's parlor, sitting room, and dining-room all three. Further, the
parlor, being separated from the other rooms by a short hallway, was of
use only for some little group who wished to be by themselves. Sherm and
Chicken Little were busy all day trimming up the pictures and the
windows with evergreen and bitter sweet berries, mixed with trailers
from the Japanese honeysuckle, which still showed green underneath where
it had escaped the hardest freezes. Marian flitted in occasionally with
suggestions, but the two did most of the work alone. Chicken Little
began by giving Sherm precise directions as to how he was to arrange
each branch and spray, but, presently, he began to try little effects of
his own so much more charming than hers, that she called Marian in to
see.

"You certainly have a knack for decoration, Sherm. I never dreamed you
were artistic. Why didn't you tell us? That spray against the curtain is
exquisite. Have you ever taken drawing lessons?" Marian was both
surprised and interested to discover this unexpected talent in the
self-contained lad.

"No, I have never taken real drawing--I used to copy little geometrical
designs at school along with the rest."

"Well, you surely ought to have lessons. I shouldn't wonder if you had
the making of an artist in you." Marian hurried back to her custards.

Chicken Little went on tying evergreen into ropes, but Marian had put
several new ideas into her head.

"Do you want to be an artist, Sherm?"

"No, I want to be an architect."

"You never said anything about it before."

"What's the use of talking? Doesn't look as if I would ever get the
education to be one now."

"Why, you can't tell. Even if your father can't send you, maybe you
could work your own way--Mr. Clay has." Chicken Little looked troubled;
Sherm's tone revealed a yearning she had not suspected.

"Yes, I could work my way if I had the chance. I guess Father is never
going to be well again and----" He paused for a moment as if it were
hard to go on. "Even if he lives, I may have to keep at work to support
the family. Mother never says anything, and Father never told me much
about his business--I don't know how much we have, but I'm afraid there
isn't a great deal left."

There was a hopeless ring in his voice that hurt Chicken Little. She
wanted to double up her fist and attack somebody or something in Sherm's
behalf.

"I think they--your mother ought to tell you."

"Oh, Mother doesn't realize I am most grown--she--she doesn't think I
amount to much I guess." The boy had been brooding; his manhood
affronted because he had not been permitted to share in the family
councils.

"Don't feel that way--she doesn't mean to leave you out, Sherm. You know
it's awfully hard to write things and you have been away most a year."

"That's just it. I've been away most a year, and Mother doesn't even
hint at my coming back!"

"But Sherm, she's so worried all the time about your father."

"All the same, I bet your mother wouldn't forget about Ernest if your
father was ill. I am the only boy in the family and I know I could help,
if they'd only trust me. It's being left out that hurts, Chicken Little.
But forget everything I've said. I didn't mean to blab this way. I
s'pose Mother's right--I can't even keep my own affairs to myself."
Sherm shut his lips together tightly.

Jane tactfully changed the subject.

"I suppose you'd have to know a lot to be an architect."

"Yes, right smart--I'd need a college education, and then I'd like to go
to Paris and study at the Beaux Arts."

"What's that?"

"Oh, it's a school for architects and artists. I don't know very much
about it myself. The New York architect who designed the new court house
at home told me I ought to go there, if I ever wanted to be a real
honest to goodness architect. I had a talk with him one day. He said if
I ever got ready to go, to write to him, and he would give me some
letters to people in Paris."

"My, wouldn't that be grand to study in Paris? I most wish I was a
boy--they can do such wonderful things."

                   *       *       *       *       *

The neighborhood gatherings began early. By half-past seven, hitching
posts and trees and fence were all in use for the teams. Frank was
pleased.

"If there is anything in numbers, this party is going to be a success.
Sure you have plenty to eat?"

Marian groaned. "Frank, I am dead sure we have all the food we can
possibly serve between now and midnight. I don't see how we are ever to
manage."

"Don't worry, I'll impress about a dozen of the young folks as
waiters--they will like nothing better. The boys each have one more pair
of hands than they know what to do with. Look at the Raddon boys over by
the fireplace. They have put their hands in their pockets, and taken
them out, and dropped them by their sides, and picked up every bit of
bric-a-brac on the mantel, and smoothed back their hair, and Heaven
knows what else, during the last ten minutes. Hands are an awful
responsibility! It will be a Godsend to them to give them something to
do."

Chicken Little came out, after helping with wraps and seating guests, in
a gale of merriment.

"Oh, Marian, do take a peep at Mrs. Brown. She has a purple skirt and a
blue polonaise and a red bow on her hair, and she's got her hair banged
in front and pulled back tight as can be behind."

"Hush, Jane, they're our guests."

"I know, and I didn't mean to be making fun--but Marian, she's a sight!
And Jake Schmidt's wife and sister have the loveliest hand embroidered
caps and aprons, with exquisite lace, that they brought from the old
country, and some of the other women are sort of turning up their noses
at them. I wish you'd go and say something extra nice to them."

Marian found her way to where Christine and Johanna Schmidt were
shrinking into a corner, painfully aware that their festal dress was
very different from their neighbors'. Marian asked after the children
and said one or two pleasant things to make them feel at home, then,
raising her voice a trifle so that the whole room might hear, she lifted
a corner of Johanna's apron, exclaiming: "Where did you get this
exquisite apron? I don't believe I have ever seen such a beautiful one.
May I look at the lace?"

Johanna colored with pleasure. She forgot her shyness and explained
eagerly. Marian did not leave her until she had made every woman in that
part of the room admire both hers and Christine's old country handiwork,
and they had promised to show her how to make the lace. There was no
more smiling at their unusual dress. Others followed Marian's example in
asking to be taught the beautiful craft. Old Jake himself, who had never
before considered his women folk as amounting to much, was so gratified
by the attention they were receiving, that he was more offensive than
usual.

"Never mind," said Frank, "I'll fix Jake."

The early part of the evening passed in visiting and games. Supper was
served at ten. There was a stir when the refreshments appeared. Word had
gone about that there was to be some hoaxing in connection with the
supper and everybody was firmly resolved not to be fooled. Marian
allayed suspicion by starting them off with delicious coffee and rolls
and cold ham and turkey. Having tasted these gingerly, and found them
delicious, both young and old grew less wary. Chicken Little came in
demurely with a great dish of pickles. The Creek loved pickles. It
helped itself plentifully. Captain Clarke got the first taste of brine,
but after one surprised grimace, he went on eating it heroically, while
he watched the others. Old Jake promptly fixed his eye on a nice
firm-looking green one. He lifted the fork awkwardly and attempted to
take the pickle. The pickle slid from under the fork as if it had been
greased. Jake was terribly afraid of being a laughing stock; he glanced
slily around to see if any one had noticed. Frank was watching from the
opposite side of the room, but Jake did not see him. He grasped the fork
firmly in his great fist and speared the pickle as if he had been
harpooning a fish. The pickle resented such violence. It shot out of the
dish and half way across the room with old Jake, the fork still clenched
firmly, gazing stupidly after it.

"April Fool, Jake!" called one of the men who saw the joke. Some one
picked up the pickle and passed it from hand to hand. After that, people
avoided the wooden pickles, but several took liberal bites of
brine-steeped ones.

The fun was well under way by this time. So many people had been
victimized that many refused the dainties they coveted, for fear of
being deceived, only to find their next neighbor enjoying them. The
guests began to try to catch each other, and the young men would get
Marian to point out the traps. But, so far, Frank had escaped, though
Sherm and Chicken Little had been plotting all day. They took Captain
Clarke into their confidence, but even he failed, until he had the happy
thought of getting Wing to help. Wing had been working busily in the
kitchen assisting Annie.

Frank had steadily refused cotton wool doughnuts and sanded pie and
every doubtful delicacy, but he was extremely fond of cup custard. When
Wing approached him, urging that he be served now, Frank hesitated a
moment, then said: "Just bring me a custard, Wing. And Wing, don't let
anybody meddle with it."

Wing came grinning to the conspirators.

"Oh, dear," said Chicken Little, "I think the custards are all right."

Marian overheard. "Trust me, Chicken Little, I have one very special one
for Frank--I didn't intend to have him crowing."

Wing bore in a most tempting custard. Frank inspected it carefully to
make sure it had not been tampered with. In so doing he attracted the
attention of those round him. He took a generous spoonful and made a
hasty dive for the kitchen amid lively applause from the whole room.

"What was in it?" The Captain was still shaking.

"Mustard--Marian made it bad enough so he couldn't hide it!" Chicken
Little was dancing up and down in glee.

"Wing, you rascal, I'd like to choke you." Frank was still sputtering.

Wing assumed a mournful expression. "Me velly sorry--nobody touch, samee
you say."

It was the second of April before the last rattle of wheels died away
down the lane.

"Well, Mother, I think it paid for the trouble," said Dr. Morton, as
they were starting homeward, his arms laden with chairs.

"Yes, I guess, perhaps, I have been inclined to stand too much aloof.
That little Mrs. Anderson is really a cultured woman. She comes from
Maine. I asked her to come and spend the day Tuesday."

Marian's comment was brief.

"Frank, I am dead, but I'm glad we did it."

"So am I--put out the light." Frank was already half asleep.



CHAPTER XIX

SHERM HEARS BAD NEWS


"Sherm, don't you just love this room?" Chicken Little gazed about
Captain Clarke's big library with a real affection. "I don't know why it
is, but this room makes me feel the same way a sunset, or the prairie
when it's all in bloom, does. I can't just tell you, but it makes me so
satisfied with everything ... as if the world was so beautiful it
couldn't possibly be very bad."

"I know--it's the harmony, like in music. The colors all seem to go
together ... everything seems to belong. I like that, too, but it
doesn't mean just that, to me. I see the Captain every time I step in
here. It's a part of him--almost as if he had worked his own bigness and
the kind of things he loves, into furniture and books and--fixings."

"Yes, there's so much room to breathe here--I s'pose being at sea so
much, he had to have that. And he picked up most of these things on his
voyages--he must have wanted them pretty bad or he wouldn't have carried
them half around the world with him."

The young people had come over to the Captain's for supper. School had
closed the day before, and Chicken Little was the proud possessor of an
elaborate autograph album, won as a spelling prize. Captain Clarke had
attended the closing exercises at her request. He had invited them over
to celebrate, this evening. He declared he had never learned to spell
himself and he wanted the honor of entertaining some one who knew how.

Chicken Little had brought the album along for the Captain's signature.
"And write something, too, won't you? Something specially for me," she
had begged winningly.

"Have they all written something--specially for you, Chicken Little? I
should like to read them."

"I haven't asked very many people yet, just Mr. Clay and Grant Stowe and
Mamie Jenkins' little sister--Mamie's in town you know. I asked Sherm,
but he hasn't thought up anything."

The Captain glanced at Sherm and smiled whimsically. "Now, if I were as
young as Sherm, I shouldn't have to think up things--the trouble would
be to restrain my eloquence."

Sherm grinned and looked uncomfortable.

The Captain was merciful; he changed the subject.

"Isn't the middle of May a little early to close school?"

"No, it is the usual time. You see the older children have to help at
home as soon as the weather gets warm."

"Of course. What are you going to do this summer?"

"Wish Ernest was home," Jane answered pertly, but there was a wistful
look in her eyes.

Before the Captain could reply, Wing came to the door to announce a man
to see him. The Captain was gone some time. When he returned, he
explained that it was a buyer from Kansas City after his corn, and he
should have to leave them to entertain themselves for a while.

"I'll tell you what you can do," he paused in the doorway as the idea
occurred to him. "You two may rummage in the drawers of the cabinet.
Take out anything you like the looks of. I think you will find a lot of
interesting stuff there. Make yourselves at home."

They lingered, discussing the room for several minutes after his
departure, then Jane went over to the cabinet.

"Come on--there are heaps of wonderful things here. He showed me some of
them the day I ran off and came to see him on my own hook. That's a year
ago! My, I feel as if it were a dozen--it seems as if I were just a
little girl then."

"And now?" Sherm adored to set Jane off.

"None of your sarcasm, Mr. Dart." Then soberly: "Truly, Sherm, I know
I'm a lot older. Things seem so different to me."

"I know you are, too, Lady Jane. I was only teasing you."

They had a beautiful half hour among the Captain's treasures. Sherm
gloated especially over the prints--their wonderful composition and soft
color.

"Say, the Japs know a thing or two, don't they? That wouldn't be my idea
of what to put into a picture, but it's awfully satisfying." He held the
print off and closed one eye to see the outlines more vividly.

"Sherm, you surely were intended for an artist." Chicken Little had gone
on to the drawer below. "Oh, Sherm, I believe this is the drawer the
Captain didn't show me before. Do you suppose he wants us to go through
it?"

"He said all of them. What's in it?"

"Oh, sashes and scarfs and things. I thought maybe they used to belong
to his wife."

Sherm lifted a Roman scarf of crimson and yellow and rich blue, and
examined it admiringly. "It doesn't look as if this had ever been worn.
I guess he wouldn't have told us to go ahead if there had been anything
here he didn't want us to find. Say, Chicken Little, this would look
dandy on you. Here, I'm going to fix you up for Captain Clarke to see."

Sherm shook out the glowing silken folds and proceeded to wreathe the
scarf around Chicken Little's head, turban fashion. Her brown eyes
glowed and the color in her cheeks grew deeper, as she met the
admiration in Sherm's eyes. He was staring at her, enchanted at the
result of his efforts. Jane moved restlessly.

"Hold still there, can't you? I want to try it another way. Didn't I see
one of those sleeveless jacket affairs in there?"

Jane rummaged and brought to light a crimson silk Turkish jacket
embroidered in gold thread. She noticed that it, too, seemed perfectly
fresh.

"Sherm, I do wonder how Captain Clarke happened to buy all these woman's
things. Do you suppose he bought them for his wife and she was dead when
he got home with them?"

"I wonder. Perhaps we oughtn't to be handling them. See all those queer
beads, and there's a bracelet! Isn't it a beauty? See, it is like silver
lace. I guess those blue stones must be turquoises."

"Isn't it dainty? That must be the filigree work we read about."

Sherm was staring thoughtfully at the contents of the drawer. "One thing
sure," he muttered, "he must have thought a heap of her."

Chicken Little had continued exploring. "Here's a photograph and two
locks of hair in a little frame. Oh, Sherm, it's her! Yes, it must be,
this is the same baby. I wonder why he doesn't have this on his bureau,
too."

Sherm took the picture and stared at it so long that Jane grew
impatient.

"What is it, Sherm? What's the matter?"

Sherm started, passing his hand over his forehead and eyes as if he were
dazed.

"Funny, the face seems sort of familiar. I had such a queer feeling
about it for a minute."

"I know why it looks familiar--there's a tiny bit of resemblance to
you--not as much as in the pictures of the baby. I suppose the baby got
it from the mother. Still, I think it looks like Captain Clarke, too,
don't you?"

"Let's put these things back, Chicken Little. Poor little lady, I wonder
what happened to her." Sherm laid the picture gently back in the bottom
of the drawer and helped Jane fold and lay away the other things. They
had both forgotten the Roman sash which still adorned her dark hair.

Captain Clarke, coming in soon after, started when he saw her and
glanced at the cabinet.

"Dressing up, Chicken Little? That gew gaw was evidently intended by
Providence for you. Won't you accept it as a present to keep that
autograph album company?"

Chicken Little put her hand to her head in dismay. Captain Clarke must
have thought she wanted it. She stammered awkwardly:

"Oh, Captain Clarke--I--couldn't take it. I oughtn't to have put it on."

Sherm calmly took the matter out of her hands.

"She didn't put it on, Captain Clarke. I'm the guilty party. I thought
it would be so becoming to Chicken Little--her dark hair and eyes--you
know. I didn't realize till we came across the picture that it belonged
to your wife--and--you might not like to have us handle it."

"It was never Mrs. Clarke's," the Captain said evenly. "I bought it for
her, but she"--he hesitated an instant--"she--died before my return. I
told you to rummage the drawers, and that scarf is entirely too becoming
to Chicken Little's bright eyes to be wasted in a drawer any longer. You
will be doing me a favor, my dear.

"You seem to have an eye for color, Sherm. Juanita loved color, too,
that is why I picked up so many gay things for her." Captain Clarke
seemed to have formed a sudden resolution. He plunged his hand down
among the rustling silks and brought up the picture. His hand trembled a
little as he handed it to Chicken Little. "I have never shown you her
picture before. She had eyes something like yours."

Chicken Little took the picture and tried to look as if nothing had
happened. She described the scene to Marian afterwards. "O Marian, I
felt as if I were standing in a story book. The Captain's face was as
white, but he went on talking just as if I knew all about his wife,
and--I do wonder! I felt so sorry for him. Sherm said he wanted to kick
himself for being so thoughtless."

"Don't worry about it, Jane, and don't be trying to make a mystery out
of what was merely a big sorrow. It must have been an awful blow to him
to come home and find wife and baby both dead, but it happened years
ago. I expect it did him good to talk to you and Sherm about it."

Chicken Little forgot about it after a few days, except when she went to
the box where she kept the scarf. She always thought of the picture of
the young mother and baby whenever she saw it.

"I don't believe I ever can wear it," she told Sherm.

"Oh, yes, you will, some of these days; the Captain would be hurt if you
didn't."

                   *       *       *       *       *

Sherm hadn't heard from his mother for over a week when a neighbor came
one evening and handed Dr. Morton a yellow envelope. "No bad news, I
hope," he said.

It was addressed to Dr. Morton and read: "My husband died this morning.
Break news to Sherm--he must await letter."

Sherm, too, was older than he had been a year before. He was coming up
the lane whistling, swinging his supple young body along at a good pace,
as if he enjoyed being alive. Dr. Morton watched him, dreading to have
to tell him the bad news and wondering how he would take it. "It's a
pity," he thought, "Sherm's a fine manly fellow and ought to have his
education and a chance at life, and I am afraid this means more than
losing his father."

He waited until the boy came up to him. He was still holding the
telegram in his hand, but Sherm did not notice it until he spoke.

Dr. Morton's voice was very kind. "My boy, I am--afraid----" He got no
farther. Sherm saw the telegram and understood. "Father?" he questioned.
Dr. Morton nodded.

Sherm stood motionless, as if he were trying to realize that the blow he
had so long dreaded, had fallen. Presently he looked up at the Doctor.

"There isn't any train before to-morrow, is there?"

"No, Sherm, and I don't think your mother expects--here, read the
message."

Sherm's hand shook. He read the meager words through twice, then crushed
the paper in his fist.

"I am going home to-morrow," he said doggedly. "I've got enough saved up
for the railroad fare. He was my father--I haven't seen him for a year.
They might have told me! I am not a child any longer!"

Dr. Morton laid his hand on his shoulder. "Don't, Sherm--don't add
bitterness to grief. Your mother may not have known in time. Death often
comes suddenly at the last in such cases. And, my boy, I would think
twice before setting out rashly. Your mother asks you to wait for her
letter--she must have some good reason. The message was sent this
morning. There will probably be a letter to-morrow."

"I don't care whether there's a letter or not, I'm going." There was a
hard look on the boy's face.

Chicken Little came running up, with Jilly panting alongside. "My, we
had a good race, didn't we, Jilly Dilly? Why--what's----" She stopped
short at sight of their grave faces.

Dr. Morton told her.

She stood a moment awestruck; Chicken Little had never had death come so
near her before. Then she turned to Sherm, her face so full of tender
pity that his face softened a trifle.

"Don't worry about me, Chicken Little," he said gruffly, "I am all
right. If you'll help me knock my things together after a while, I'll be
grateful. I guess I'll take a--walk--now." His voice broke a little at
the last.

He did not wait for an answer, but walked hurriedly away. Jane gazed
after him, undecided whether to follow or not. Dr. Morton divined her
thought. "I wouldn't, dear. Let him have it out alone first--you can
comfort him later on. I want you to help me persuade him not to rush off
before he receives his mother's letter. I must say I don't blame Sherm
for resenting his mother's attitude. I think she is making a big
mistake."

Dusk came and the darkness closed round while Chicken Little strained
her eyes in vain for Sherm. It was almost ten before he came back. She
was standing at the gate watching for him. The rest of the family had
gone to bed. "Chicken Little can comfort him better than any of us," Dr.
Morton had told his wife. "He will be glad not to have to face any of
the rest of the family to-night."

"You shouldn't have stayed up, Chicken Little," Sherm called, as soon as
he caught sight of her. "I forgot I asked you to help me--I'd have come
home sooner if I'd remembered. The duds can wait till morning--I can get
up early." He spoke quietly.

"Do you think you ought to go, Sherm?"

Sherm's eyes smouldered. Jane could not see him very distinctly, but she
could fairly feel his determination.

"It's no use talking, I'm going!"

They went up the walk in silence. The lilacs and the white syringia in
the borders were in bloom. She hoped Sherm did not notice the heavy
fragrance--it was so like a funeral. He did not say anything till they
got to the foot of the stairs.

"Thank you, Jane, for--for waiting." His voice broke pitifully.

When Dr. Morton discovered the next morning that Sherm was not to be
moved from his purpose, he decided to go into town early and see if by
any chance there might be another telegram or a letter. Letters from the
east sometimes came down by a branch line from the north. There was
nothing, and he finally resolved to telegraph Mrs. Dart as to Sherm's
state of mind. Sherm was to come later in the day with Frank in time to
catch the evening train, which was the only one that made close
connections at Kansas City. It was late afternoon before he received a
reply. The message was emphatic. "Sherm _must_ await letter."

"Mrs. Dart evidently knows her own mind," thought the Doctor. He drove a
little way out of town and waited for Frank and Sherm. Chicken Little
was with them. He gave the boy this second message, explaining what he
had done. Sherm read it over and over, as if he hoped in some way to
find a reason for his mother's decision lurking between the lines.

At length he said stolidly: "I'll wait till to-morrow. Perhaps the
letter will come to-night."

They talked it over and Sherm and Chicken Little went on to town with
the light buggy to wait for the mail, while Dr. Morton and Frank drove
home.

There was a handful of letters in the box. Sherm took them out hastily.

"I guess this is it," he said, stuffing one into his pocket. "And here's
three for you."

"Three? Whoever from?" Jane held out her hand. "Ernest and Katy--and
here's another with an Annapolis postmark. Who do you suppose?"

Sherm glanced over her shoulder. "That's Carol Brown's handwriting."

"Carol?--writing to me? How funny!"

They hurried out to the team.

"Let me drive while you read your letter, Sherm."

Sherm shook his head. "Read yours first--this will keep."

"The idea--I wouldn't be so piggy selfish."

"Please, Jane, I'd rather get out of town before I tackle it."

"Sherm, I wish I could----" She didn't need to finish. Sherm understood.

"Read Carol's first," he said.

She read it with a beaming face. Sherm was looking at her without seeing
her. She started to tell him the contents of the letter, then suddenly
stopped. She couldn't rejoice over being asked to a hop when Sherm was
in such trouble. Laying the letter in her lap, she took up Ernest's.
Sherm noticed the movement and, remembering, asked her what Carol had to
say.

She handed him the letter. He read it through absently. The houses were
thinning along the road. The prairie stretched ahead of them in solitary
sweeps of tender green, dappled with flowers. Jane reached for the
reins.

"Read your letter, Sherm."

He obeyed in silence. Chicken Little kept her eyes on the road ahead. A
sharp exclamation from Sherm startled her:

"God, it can't be true!"

Sherm swearing? She looked at him in amazement. The boy was not
swearing; he had cried out in utter agony. He dropped the letter on the
floor of the buggy and buried his face in his hands.

"Sherm, Sherm, what is it?" Chicken Little was frightened.

He did not answer. He did not seem to have noticed that she had spoken.
She reached over and touched him. "Sherm! Sherm!" He shook off her hand
impatiently.

Chicken Little hesitated a moment, then flicked the horses into a swift
trot. She must get him home. Perhaps he was going to be ill. The boy did
not move or look up for miles. When the horses splashed through the ford
at Elm Creek, he roused himself and looked dully at Jane.

"Sherm, please tell me. It will make it easier for you to tell somebody,
and I'm worried to death."

He stooped and picked up the letter. Smoothing it out, he thrust it into
her hand. "Read it." He took the reins.

Chicken Little ran over the letter hurriedly. It bore a date some days
previous.

                   *       *       *       *       *

"My Dear Boy:

"Dr. Jones has just told me it can be only a question of days now. I
have been studying whether to send for you or not. Father settled the
question for me. He said he wanted sorrowfully to see you, but in view
of the things that must be told you, it would be too painful an ordeal
for all of us. He said to tell you you were very precious to him--as
precious as if you had really been his own son."

                   *       *       *       *       *

Chicken Little gave a little cry. "Sherm, what does she mean?"

"Read it all."

                   *       *       *       *       *

"For, Sherm, you are not our own. If Father could have lived, we never
intended you to know this--at least not until you were a man and had
made a place for yourself. But Father's illness is leaving us penniless.
Sue's husband has offered Grace and myself a home with them, but he
thinks you must be told the truth--that it is only fair to you. We took
you when you were about two and a half years old under very peculiar
circumstances. It was while we were still living in New York, and Sue
was a tot of five. We were going up to my father's in Albany and were a
little late. Father told the hackman to drive fast; he'd give him an
extra dollar if he'd catch the train. The man had been drinking and
drove recklessly. He was just dashing round the corner to the
station--the train was already whistling--when he knocked down, and ran
over, a woman with a child in her arms. The child was pitched to one
side and escaped with a few bruises. The woman never regained
consciousness. You have probably guessed that you were that child. We
could never find out who she was, though we advertised for several
weeks. We decided to bring you up with Sue, and when we moved to
Centerville, soon after, no one knew you were not our own child. We had
you baptized Sherman after the great general who had just won his way to
notice then. I have saved the clothing you wore, and a brooch and
wedding ring of your mother's. I will send them to you, together with a
hundred dollars, which is all I can give you to start you on your way."
The remainder of the letter was filled with her grief over parting with
her husband, and her separation from Sherm himself.

Chicken Little swallowed hard--something seemed to be gripping her by
the throat.

"And your father isn't your father, Sherm?--or your mother or Sue or
Grace?" The tragic extent of what had happened was dawning slowly upon
Jane.

Sherm's lips trembled.

"No, I--haven't any father--I've never had a father!... I haven't got
anybody.... I haven't even got a name that belongs to me!" Sherm's voice
grew shriller and shriller till it broke with a dry sob.

Chicken Little slipped her hand into his and the boy clung to it
spasmodically, as if that slim, brown hand were all he had in the world
to cling to. The tears were raining down Jane's cheeks, but Sherm's eyes
were dry and burning. The team trotted along evenly. They turned
mechanically into the stable yard when they reached the ranch. It was
growing dusk.

Sherm helped her out, saying: "Will you please tell them, Chicken
Little? I won't come in just yet."

She ran to the house and poured out her tale. Her father hurried to the
stable. Sherm was not there. Jim Bart, who was milking in the corral
near by, said he had saddled Caliph and gone off down the lane. Dr.
Morton talked it over with Frank and they decided that Sherm had done
the wisest thing possible in going for a gallop.

"He doesn't mean to do anything rash or he wouldn't have taken Ernest's
horse," Frank declared.

But as hour after hour went by, the family grew more and more anxious.
At eleven o'clock, Frank saddled Calico and tried to find him. He
returned some time later in despair.

"You might as well try to look for a needle in a haystack. Poor lad, I
have faith he will ride the worst of it off and Caliph is a pretty
steady little beast now. He'll bring him home."

A few moments after his return, a messenger came from Captain Clarke,
saying that he had been wakened by Caliph neighing at the gate and had
gone out to find Sherm dazed and apparently completely exhausted. He had
got him to bed where he was sleeping heavily. Captain Clarke was afraid
they must be worried. He would care for him till morning, but he would
be glad to have some inkling of what had happened so that he might know
what to say to the boy when he waked.

Dr. Morton got out his medicine case and went back with the man.



CHAPTER XX

THE CAPTAIN FINDS HIS OWN


Chicken Little climbed the hill of sleep painfully that night, and
slept late the following morning in consequence. While she was eating
breakfast, Frank came in with two tear-stained, dusty letters, which he
had found in the bottom of the buggy.

"Is this the way you treat your correspondence, Sis?"

"The idea--it's Ernest's and Katy's letters and I never read them.
Sherm's trouble drove them clear out of my mind."

"Evidently, one is torn part way open, and the other hasn't been
touched."

"Hurry up and tell us what Ernest has to say. I was wondering why he
hadn't written." Mrs. Morton paused expectantly.

"He says a lot of things," replied Jane, skimming rapidly through the
letter. "He says they are going to start on their summer cruise next
week and the boys are tickled to death to go, though they're probably
just going to cruise around to Navy yards and see dry docks and
improving things. He says that it's rumored that Superintendent Balch is
going away and Old Rodgers is coming back as superintendent. And this
year's class graduated three Japs--the Japanese government sent them
over. He gives the names, but I can't pronounce them. One is
I-n-o-u-y-e."

"Skip the Japs and give us the rest." Frank was waiting to hear the
news.

"That's about all that would interest you."

"My dear, anything concerning Ernest interests me," protested her
mother.

"But it isn't about Ernest; it's about Carol Brown."

"Well, what is it?"

"Oh, nothing much--he just took a fancy to my picture and asked Ernest a
lot of questions." Chicken Little folded the letter and hastily slipped
it back into the envelope, devoutly hoping her mother wouldn't demand to
see it. She tore open Katy's. Before she had read two lines she gave a
little cry of delight.

"Oh, Mother, do you think I could? Oh, wouldn't it be just too
wonderful? Oh Mother, you must say Yes!"

"Jane, what are you talking about? Calm yourself and tell me." Mrs.
Morton looked up over her spectacles severely.

"Why, she says her mother wants me to come and live with them next year
and go to the High School and that Alice and Dick want me to come there.
And, perhaps, I could stay part of the time at one house and part at the
other, and for me to tell you and let you be thinking about it, and
Alice and Mrs. Halford are both going to write you all about it,
and--oh, Mother, wouldn't it be too wonderful?"

Mrs. Morton looked both surprised and worried. "It is certainly most
kind of them all, but I shall have to think the matter over."

"Well," said Frank, "that doesn't have to be settled to-day. Jane,
Marian wishes to know if you want to go over to the Captain's with her
to see Sherm. She is going to start in a few minutes."

Chicken Little jumped to her feet. "I'll be ready in a jiffy!"

Sherm had still not wakened when they arrived. He had roused once toward
morning; Captain Clarke had spoken to him, telling him where he was,
then he had dropped quietly off to sleep again.

Captain Clarke asked Chicken Little a good many questions.

"I should like to see that letter," he said.

"It's in his coat pocket. I tucked it in--I was afraid he'd lose it."

Dr. Morton, who was still there, sat for several minutes in a brown
study.

"I think," he said presently, "that under the circumstances we should be
justified in reading it without waiting for Sherm's permission." He
looked at Captain Clarke.

The latter nodded assent.

Both read it and discussed it briefly. Still Sherm did not waken.

"I believe I'll drive over to Jake Schmidt's while I am waiting--I have
an errand with him. Marian, don't you want to ride over with me?"

"Captain Clarke," said Jane rather timidly after they had gone, "would
you mind showing me that picture of your baby again?"

Captain Clarke rose and brought the photograph. Chicken Little studied
it carefully, then glanced up at the Captain. Sherm certainly was like
the picture--as much like it as a boy who was almost a man grown could
be. Should she dare to ask him? Chicken Little felt herself growing hot
and cold by turns. Her heart was beating so she thought the Captain must
surely hear it. One minute she was sure she didn't dare, the next, she
remembered Sherm's broken-hearted words about not belonging to anybody,
and she was sure she could screw her courage up--in just a minute.
Captain Clarke helped her out. He had been observing her restless
movements for several minutes and was wondering if she could possibly
have guessed what was in his own mind.

"Out with it, little woman, what's troubling you?"

Chicken Little got up from her seat and went and stood close beside him.
"I want to say something to you awfully, only I am afraid you--won't
like it," she said earnestly.

"My dear child, don't be afraid of me."

Chicken Little summoned up her resolution.

"I wanted to ask--to ask you, if you wouldn't adopt Sherm. You see he
looks like your little boy would have looked, and he hasn't got anybody
or any name, and he isn't going to want to live hardly, I am afraid. And
I thought.... You don't know how fine Sherm is. He's so honorable and
kind--so--so you can trust him. I just know you'd be proud of him after
a while."

Chicken Little was pleading with eyes and voice and trembling hands. The
Captain gazed at her a moment in astonishment, then he tenderly drew her
toward him.

"Chicken Little, I doubt if Sherm would agree to that. But if he is
willing, I should be proud and happy to call him my son. But don't get
your hopes up--I fear Sherm is too proud to let us find any such easy
solution of his troubles. But we'll find a way to put him on his feet,
you and I--we'll find a way, if it takes every cent I have!

"I think perhaps the first thing to do, Chicken Little," he continued
after some pondering, "is to try to find out something about Sherman's
real parentage. It hardly seems possible that a comfortably dressed
woman could have disappeared with her child without making some stir. I
am in hopes, by getting somebody to search through the files of two or
three of the leading New York newspapers immediately following the day
of the accident, we might secure a clue. I shall write to Mrs. Dart at
once for particulars, and then send to a man I know and pay him to make
a thorough investigation."

They were so interested discussing what could be done, that Sherm
entered the room before they knew he was awake. The boy was calm, but
looked years older, and very white and worn. Captain Clarke greeted him
cheerfully.

"I hope you rested. Jane tells me you had a staggering day yesterday.
Chicken Little, would you mind telling Wing to serve Sherm's breakfast?"

As soon as she disappeared, he gripped the boy's hand, saying
confidently, "I don't wish to talk about your trouble just now and I
have no words to comfort you for your loss, lad, but I want to tell you
not to begin to worry yet about your identity. I believe we shall find a
way to get track of your people and that you will find you have an
honorable name, and, possibly, a living father to make up a little for
the kind foster-father you have lost."

"I don't see how we could--after all these years."

"Will you leave the matter to me for a few days? And Sherm, make an
effort to eat something for Chicken Little's sake--she is worrying her
heart out over your trouble. You have some good friends right
here--don't forget that. Dr. Morton watched by you all night. Brace up
and be a man. I know you have it in you, Sherm."

Letters came to Sherm in a short time from Sue Dart, from Dick and Alice
Harding, and from Mrs. Halford, who painstakingly wrote him all the
details of his supposed father's last days. She evidently knew nothing
of his not being the Dart's own son. Sue's letter seemed to comfort him
a little. He did not show it to anyone, even to Chicken Little. He
confided to her, however, that the folks were sending his things to him
the next day. They had already broken up the home and were going back to
Chicago with Sue the following week.

When the express package arrived, Sherm took it straight to Jane.

"You open it," he said.

Chicken Little took his knife and cut the string and folded back the
paper wrappings carefully. It seemed some way as if she were meeting
Sherm's mother.

The quaint little old-fashioned garments were musty and faded. A frock
of blue merino braided in an elaborate pattern in black lay on top.
There was a cape to match, and a little cloth cap. Beside these lay a
funny pair of leather boots with red tops--almost like a man's--only,
oh, so tiny!

Chicken Little hardly knew whether to laugh or cry at these.

"Oh, Sherm, did you ever wear them? How you must have strutted! I can
fairly see you."

Sherm smiled and took them up tenderly. Did he, too, feel as if there
were another presence haunting these relics of his childhood?

The tiny yellowed undergarments came next, all made by hand with minute
even stitches. A pair of blue and white striped knitted stockings was
folded with these, and last, at the bottom, a little pasteboard box
appeared, containing a ring, a brooch, and a flat oval locket on a fine
gold chain.

Sherm examined the ring first. Inside was inscribed William-Juanita. May
1860.

The brooch contained a lock of dark hair under a glass; the whole set in
a twisted rim of gold. The locket held miniatures of a white-haired man
and woman with foreign-looking faces. Both Sherm and Chicken Little
looked these over in silence. Presently Sherm sighed, then laid the
trinkets all back in Chicken Little's lap.

"I don't see anything there that could help much," he said hopelessly.

Chicken Little slowly folded up the little garments and laid them neatly
back in their wrapping. Her brow was puckered into a frown.

"I am trying to think where I have heard that name Juanita--some place
lately. I don't remember ever to have known anybody by that name. It's
Spanish, isn't it?"

"I guess so, but what you're thinking of is the song, 'Juanita.'"

"Oh, I expect it is. Sherm, do you mind if I take these things over and
show them to Captain Clarke? He said he would like to see them when they
came."

"No, take them along. If you'll wait till I get the feeding done, I'll
go with you."

"All right, let's take Calico and Caliph."

Sherm lingered out on the veranda while Chicken Little displayed the
contents of the package to the Captain. He examined each little article
of clothing for some identifying mark.

"There doesn't seem to be anything to help on those," he said,
disappointed. "Let's have a look at the jewelry."

Chicken Little unwrapped the ring from its layers of tissue paper, and
handed it to him. Captain Clarke took it, regarded the flat golden
circle intently for an instant, then turned it to read the inscription.

A pained cry broke from his lips. Chicken Little glanced hastily up to
find him holding the ring in shaking fingers, staring off into vacancy.
"Juanita!" he whispered, "Juanita!"

Chicken Little touched his hands in distress.

"Captain--Captain Clarke, what is it?"

He looked down at her with a start. "I--it is----Excuse me a moment,
Chicken Little."

He walked into his bedroom with the ring still in his hand and closed
the door.

Chicken Little waited and waited, not knowing whether she ought to go
and tell Sherm what she suspected. It seemed too strange to be possible.
And if it were true, surely Captain Clarke would want to tell him
himself. Perhaps she oughtn't to be there. She rose softly and slipped
out to Wing in the kitchen. After a time she heard Sherm get up from his
seat on the veranda step and go into the library. Immediately after, the
bedroom door opened and she heard the murmur of voices. She left a
message with Wing and running quietly out to Calico, untied him, and
rode home in the twilight.

                   *       *       *       *       *

"You needn't ever say again, Ernest Morton," she wrote to her brother
the next evening, "that E. P. Roe's stories are too goody-goody and
fishy to be interesting. He can't hold a candle to what's happened to
the Captain and Sherm. I have to go round pinching myself to believe it
is really so. I am almost afraid I will wake up and find it isn't,
still. Do you remember the picture of the Captain's little boy that
looked like Sherm? Well, it was Sherm. I can hear you say: 'What in the
dickens?' So, I'll put you out of suspense right away. The Captain's boy
was not dead, only lost, and he is Sherm or Sherm is he, whichever way
is right--I'm sure I don't know. You see the Captain went off on a long
voyage and got shipwrecked and was gone ages and ages. And Juanita's
father and mother were way off in California--they used to be Spanish.
That's what made them so foreign-looking in the locket picture. Well,
nobody knows exactly what happened. When the Captain got back to New
York and hunted up the boarding house where she had lived, they said she
had left six months before to go to her parents in California. Captain
Clarke wrote to California and found that her father was dead and her
mother hadn't heard from Juanita for months, and didn't know anything
about her coming home. Wasn't it dreadful? He paid detectives to hunt
her up, but they never found the slightest clue. The Captain thought
she'd gone off and left him on purpose--that's what made him such a
woman-hater--and so sad all the time. You wouldn't know him now. He
looks like Merry Christmas all the year round. You should see him gaze
at Sherm. Marian says it makes her want to cry, and Mother says it is
the most wonderful manifestation of Providence she has ever known. It
seems to me Providence would show more sense not to muddle things up so
in the first place. Sherm is as pleased as can be to find he really is
somebody, and he's awfully fond of the Captain, but you see he'd got so
used to loving the Darts as his own folks that he can't get unused to it
all of a sudden. He choked all up when he tried to call Captain Clarke
'Father,' and the Captain told him not to. There's heaps more to tell,
but Mother has been calling me for the past three minutes."

                   *       *       *       *       *

"No wonder Sherm feels dazed," said Dr. Morton two evenings later,
watching the boy, who was making a vain pretense of playing checkers
with Chicken Little.

He was so heedless that she swept his men off the board at each move, to
Chicken Little's disgust. Sherm usually beat her when he gave his mind
to the game. Presently, she picked up the board and dumped the checkers
off into her lap.

"A penny for your thoughts, Sherm."

"I was just wondering if Captain--Father--would find out anything more
in New York."

"How long will he be gone?"

"I guess that depends on whether he gets track of anything new. After he
comes back we're going to Chicago to see--Mother."

"Oh, I am so glad. It will make you feel a lot better to have a good
visit with them all."

"Yes, and he told me I might buy back the old home for her if she wants
it--if I'd only known last week, she needn't have sold the place. And
the Captain--Father--says he will give me some money to put out at
interest so she'll have enough to live on comfortably. He says he owes
her and Father a debt he can never repay for bringing me up."

Chicken Little was thoughtful. "Sherm, he seems to have plenty of money,
maybe you can go to college and to the Beaux Arts, too."

"He said I could have all the education I wanted."

"Will you go to college next year?"

"Yep."

"O dear, it will be awful here unless Mother lets me go to Centerville."

"Don't fret, she is going to."

"How do you know?"

"She told Marian so last night."

Chicken Little got to her feet and shot two feet into the air with a
whoop of joy. "Goody! Goody!! Goody!!!"

"Save a little breath, Jane. I know something better than that. Promise
you won't tell--your mother would skin me if she knew I were giving away
her cherished plans."

"Don't be afraid, she just wants me to act surprised, and I can do it a
lot better if I know about it before hand."

"Well, she's coming on at Christmas time for a visit in Centerville, and
she's going to take you on to visit Ernest."

"Sherm, truly?"

"That's what she said."

Chicken Little gave an ecstatic hop. "Sherm," she exclaimed presently, a
new idea striking her, "I can go to that hop with Carol!"

"Carol?" Sherm sat up a little straighter. "What do you mean?"

"Don't you remember that letter I got from Carol? You don't remember a
single thing about it, do you? He wrote to ask me if I wouldn't come on
some time and go to a Navy hop with him. He said he was asking me in
time so I couldn't promise anybody else."

"It strikes me Carol is getting mighty fresh."

Chicken Little stole a surprised glance at Sherm.

"I don't see anything fresh about that--I think it nice of him to
remember me so long. My, I used to think Carol was the most wonderful
thing. I hung a May basket to him the last spring we were in
Centerville."

"You did? Why, I thought I got yours. Who hung mine?"

"Gertie. I guess she won't mind if I tell--it's been so long."

Sherm whistled. After a little he inquired rather sheepishly:

"Say, Chicken Little, you don't like Carol best now, do you?"

Chicken Little looked up hastily. She was disgusted to feel her face
growing hot. "Why, Sherm--I haven't seen Carol for four years. I don't
know what I should think of him now." Then, seeing the hurt look in
Sherm's eyes, she added: "I guess I'd have to like him pretty awfully
well, if I did."

                   *       *       *       *       *

Captain Clarke was gone two weeks and he had added only two facts to
those they had been able to piece together. He had accidentally run
across an old friend. This friend had supposed him dead all these years,
and could scarcely believe his own eyes when he saw him. From him, he
learned that his wife had also believed him dead before she would
consent to leave New York. This friend told him he had suspected that
her money was running low and had offered to help her, but she refused.
He thought, after hearing the Captain's story, that she must have had
barely enough left to take her home, and that this explained why she was
walking to the wharf instead of taking a hack, the day she was run down.

Sherm stayed on with the Morton's until the following week when he set
out with his new-found father to visit his adopted family. Youth
recovers readily from its sorrows. It was almost the old Sherm who
raised his cap to Chicken Little as the train got under steam and slid
away from the long wooden platform.

"O dear!" she exclaimed, "seems to me I haven't done anything this whole
year but see somebody off. I think it ought to be my turn pretty soon."

"Have a little patience, Humbug," said her father, "your turn is almost
here. It is hard for me to realize how fast my baby is growing up."

Chicken Little liked the sound of those words--"growing up." There was
something magical about them. They lingered in her mind for days.

One hot Sunday afternoon late in June, she arrayed herself in an old
blue lawn dress of Marian's that trailed a full inch on the floor at
every step. She coiled her hair high on her head and tucked in a rose
coquettishly above her ear. Highly gratified with the result of her
efforts, she swept downstairs in a most dignified manner to astonish the
family. Unfortunately the family--Father and Mother, and both pups, were
taking a siesta. She went over to the cottage; a profound silence
reigned there also. She rambled around restlessly for a few moments,
then, taking "Ivanhoe" and a pocketful of cookies, went out into the
orchard. It was hot even there. The air seemed heavy and the birds
contented themselves with lazy chirpings. She swung herself up into her
favorite tree and began to munch and read.

But she did not read long. The charm of the green world around her was
greater than the pictured world of the book. Chicken Little fell to
making pictures of her own--dream pictures that changed quickly into
other dream pictures, as real dreams sometimes do. As she stared down
the leafy arcades between the rows of apple trees, she saw an immense
ball room hung in red, white, and blue bunting and filled with
astonishingly handsome young men in blue uniforms. Ernest was there. And
a tall, curly-headed Adonis, who looked both like, and unlike, the
good-natured, plump Carol of Old Centerville days, was close beside her.
But when the supposed Carol spoke, it was certainly Sherm's voice she
heard, and it was Sherm's odd, crooked smile that curved the dream
midshipman's lips. Chicken Little recognized the absurdity of this
herself and laughed happily. A bird on a bough nearby took this for a
challenge, and burst into an ecstasy of trills.

"Pshaw," she whispered to herself, "I wonder what it would really be
like." She kept on wondering. She felt as if she and the orchard were
wrapped about with a great cloud, like a veil, and that beyond this, all
the wonderful things that must surely happen when she grew up, were
hidden. The twilight was falling before she stretched her cramped limbs
and slid down the rough tree trunk. She picked up her neglected book,
which had fallen to the ground unnoticed, and said aloud, with a little
mocking curtsey:

"Your pardon, Sir Walter, but I made a romance of my own that
was--nicer."

Then she tucked the slighted author under her arm and flew to the house
before the pursuing shadows. Chicken Little was growing up.

THE END



Every grown-up will remember the time when

"Chicken Little"

was a most wonderful tale with which to open wide the eyes of children.

Many a fond mother will be glad to know of another "Chicken Little" just
brought to light in handsome book form under the alluring title

CHICKEN LITTLE JANE

A DELIGHTFUL STORY BY LILY MUNSELL RITCHIE

Little folk will at once fall in love with this new "Chicken Little" of
the far western prairies--the same being an affectionate nick-name given
to a dear little girl and always used when she was very, very good--but
when she misbehaved it was "Jane"!--just Jane!

This book is illustrated and decorated with unusually attractive
pictures by Charles D. Hubbard. Cloth, $1.25

Britton Publishing Company--New York



Of all the charming books that may come forth this year, none will be
more welcome than

GEORGINA'S SERVICE STARS

By Annie Fellows Johnston

TO BE PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 1st

In it will be found a new story of beloved Georgina whose Rainbow
adventures led into her tenth year. Now she is older--sweet sixteen, if
you please--and Richard, her playmate of childhood days, is a grown man
of seventeen--and as devoted as ever. Of course he got into the great
war enough to give Georgina a second star to her service flag; her
father, being a famous surgeon, his star is rightfully at the top. But
watch out for Richard! (Beautifully illustrated. $1.50 net.)

AS USUAL--FOR ALL THE FAMILY

GEORGINA of the RAINBOWS

Now selling in beautiful popular edition, 60 cts.

Britton Publishing Company--New York



LITTLE STORIES FROM THE SCREEN

By WILLIAM ADDISON LATHROP

Filling a long-felt want of thousands who desire to know the methods of
the top-notch moving picture writer, this celebrated photo-dramatist has
sanctioned the use of eighteen of his best synopses, and one full
scenario, representing a wide range of successful productions
participated in by world-famous stars familiar to millions. Each
Synopsis is accompanied by one or more actual scenes of the finished
play in which twenty-five screen favorites are pictured in their
strongest acts.

Cloth--Highly Illustrated--$1.25 net

UNCLE BILL'S LETTERS TO HIS NIECE

By RAY BROWN

Here's as gay a little gift as any girl could wish. Bright, sparkling
and joyous--letters from a matter-of-fact old uncle who talks to his
young niece straight from the shoulder, exactly as he might to a boy.

Uncle Bill gives facts about moonlight, becomes violent over athletics,
taboos snobbery, takes a fling at heredity, and touches up a few
complexions.

The result is extravagantly and deliciously funny--Just the Book for an
Ingenue.

Cloth Decorative Cover and Jacket--60 cents net

Britton Publishing Company--New York



OVER THE SEAS FOR UNCLE SAM

By ELAINE STERNE, Author of "The Road of Ambition"

Miss Sterne is Senior Lieutenant of the Navy League Honor Guard, which
has charge of entertainment and visitation in behalf of sick and wounded
sailors sent home for hospital treatment. Their experiences, such as may
be published at this time, now appear in book form. This book brings out
many thrilling adventures that have occurred in the war zone of the high
seas--and has official sanction. Miss Sterne's descriptive powers are
equaled by few. She has the dramatic touch which compels interest. Her
book, which contains many photographic scenes, will be warmly welcomed
in navy circles, and particularly by those in active service.

Cloth--Illuminated Jacket--$1.50 Net

AMBULANCING ON THE FRENCH FRONT

By EDWARD P. COYLE

Here is a collection of intensely interesting episodes related by a
Young American who served as a volunteer with the French Army--Red Cross
Division. His book is to the field of mercy what those of Empey, Holmes
and Peat have been in describing the vicissitudes of army life. The
author spent ten months in ambulance work on the Verdun firing line.
What he saw and did is recounted with most graphic clearness. This book
contains many illustrations photographed on the spot showing with vivid
exactitude the terrors of rescue work under the fire of the big guns.

Cloth--16 Full page Illustrations--$1.50 Net

Britton Publishing Company--New York





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