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


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 naïveté 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.