CHICKEN LITTLE JANE ON THE BIG JOHN
CHICKEN LITTLE JANE
LILY MUNSELL RITCHIE
New York Britton Publishing Company
Copyright, 1919, by Britton Publishing Company, Inc.
Made in U. S. A.
All rights reserved.
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
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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 naivete 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.
"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.
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?"
"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?"
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.