Read CHAPTER I of Chicken Little Jane on the Big John , free online book, by Lily Munsell Ritchie, on


“Chicken Little Chicken Little!”

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

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

“Provoking who? Chicken Little? What’s the matter now?”

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

Dr. Morton laughed.

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

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

Dr. Morton laughed again.

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

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

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

“Well, I declare, why didn’t she answer me when I called?”

“Chicken Little,” Dr. Morton called softly. Chicken Little read placidly on.

“Chicken Little,” a little louder. Still no response.

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

“Chicken Little Chick-en Lit-tle!”

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

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

“What is it she’s reading?”

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

“Father, you will ruin that child with your indulgence!”

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

Jane came to herself with a start.

“Why, Mother!”

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

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

“Can I go by the pasture, Father? It’s a lot shorter than round by the road.”

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

“Yes, I have a list.”

“Get it ready, will you, while I go across and see what Marian’s commissions are.”

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

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

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

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

“To Benton’s for eggs.”

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

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

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

“That’s a whole hour we can get back easy in an hour can’t we, Jilly-Dilly?”

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

“How fast they’re both growing,” she thought. “Jane’s always so sweet with Jilly I feel safe when she’s with her.”

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

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

“Go on,” said Marian, “I’ll see that they don’t follow you.”

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t they lovely, Jilly?”

Chicken Little filled one tiny moist hand with bright blossoms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, dear,” she thought, “perhaps he thinks we’ve got salt for him.”

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

Chicken Little saw the culprit with a shiver of dismay.

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

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

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

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

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

The steers came on faster.

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

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

“Huz, Huz, why can’t you be still?”

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

“I’ll have to get him out of sight!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do home, Anjen, do home Jilly’s ’faid!”

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

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

There was not another human being in sight.

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

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

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

“O God, please, please, help a little!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll never forget this, little sister.”

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

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

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