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


Their late unpleasantness had made the young people unusually polite to each other. Irritating subjects were carefully avoided the next day. When they set out for the Captain’s, Sherm gallantly handed Katy in to the front seat to sit beside Ernest, while he sandwiched himself between Jane and Gertie. The boys had finally concluded that the real joke was on them and were trying to make up.

The Captain received them at the gate.

“I can’t be grateful enough for that bread. I haven’t had such bread since I was a boy at home. I believe I am indebted to both Chicken Little and Gertie for the treat. Wing Fan is consumed with envy and asked me to-day if I would ask the honorable miss to tell him how she make the so wonderful bread.”

“I’d be delighted to,” replied Chicken Little, “only it took more than telling for Gertie and me. We tried ever so many times before we got it just right, but, of course, Wing understands more about cooking than we did.”

“Well, judging by the bread, you seem to know a good deal about cooking.”

Sherm could not resist. “Yes, and the girls are first rate at sewing, too!”

This was too much for them all. They laughed until the Captain begged to be let in on the fun.

Their host had an unexpected treat for them. “You are to help me christen my new row boat. It came four days ago, but I have been saving it until you could all go with me.”

He led the way down the creek to a long, deep pool, where a blue and white skiff floated gaily at anchor. A piece of white cardboard was tacked over the name so they could not see it.

“I covered it up to see if you could guess it. I’ll give one of those Siamese elephants to the one who gets it first.”

A lively contest followed. The girls suggested all the poetical names they could think of from Sea Rover to Bounding Billow. The boys, after a few wild guesses, settled down to the names of places in the neighborhood, and women’s names.

The Captain laughed at their wild hazards.

“It isn’t the name of any ship or famous naval hero?” Ernest asked this question for the second time.

The Captain shook his head. “Some of your neighborhood guessers were the nearest. There’s one thing I’m sure of, Chicken Little won’t guess it.”

This was hint enough for Sherm. “Chicken Little,” he sang out instantly.

“Bright boy, the elephant is yours.”

“Did you really?” Chicken Little eyed the long strip of cardboard that concealed the name, incredulously.

The Captain took out his penknife and deftly ripped the covering off. There it was the letters an inch tall in white paint: “Chicken Little.”

“I think we should have a proper christening ceremony while we are at it. Ernest, would you mind stepping up to the house and asking Wing for a bottle of ginger ale?”

When Ernest returned with the bottle of amber-colored liquid, Captain Clarke turned to Gertie.

“We must divide the honors, will you break the bottle over the bow while Sherm pushes off? Champagne is customary, but this is better for a prohibition state, and for young folks in any state.”

Gertie took the bottle and waited for directions. The others looked on curiously. Sherm untied the boat, and, holding the cord in his hand, also waited.

“Perhaps we’d better consider Ernest the crew; that cord is hardly long enough to permit the Chicken Little to float off in style, and we don’t want to have to swim, to bring her back. Jump in, Ernest; you know how to handle an oar in fresh water, don’t you?”

“I think I can manage it.”

Captain Clarke explained to Gertie exactly how to strike the blow that should send the ginger ale foaming over the bow, and repeated the formal words of christening until she knew them by heart. Gertie was so interested she forgot to be shy, and performed her office with much spirit, repeating the “I christen thee, Chicken Little,” as solemnly as if she were standing beside a battleship instead of a blue-and-white row boat. It was a pretty ceremony, but it took so long that Wing Fan came to announce supper before they were all fairly packed away in the boat for their promised ride. The six were a snug fit.

Supper was served on the uncovered veranda. A stream of late afternoon sunshine filtered through the trees, and, with the lengthening shadows, cast a sunflecked pattern of branch and foliage on the white linen tablecloth and shining glass and silver. Some of Chicken Little’s own clove pinks, mingled with feathery larkspur and ribbon grass, filled a silver bowl in the center of the table.

“How did you keep them fresh so long?” Chicken Little asked curiously.

“Wing Fan performed some kind of an incantation over them. You’ll have to ask him.”

Wing was delighted to have Jane notice them. “Velly easy keep put some away in box with ice all same butter.”

Captain Clarke had been the first person on the creek to put up ice for summer use and Wing was the proud possessor of a roomy ice box.

“It seems like home to have ice again.” Katy was stirring the sugar in her tea for the sheer satisfaction of hearing the ice tinkle against the sides of the glass. A sudden thought disturbed her. “Though there couldn’t be anything nicer than your spring house for keeping things. I don’t believe our melons at home ever got so nice and cold all through as yours do down in the spring stream.”

“That’s a wonderful spring you have over on the place.” Captain Clarke came to Katy’s rescue. “And that big oak above it is the finest tree in this part of the country. I’ll venture it has a history if we only knew it.”

“Yes, Father is very proud of the old oak. He says it is at least two hundred years old. He wouldn’t take anything for it,” Ernest replied.

“Everybody calls Kansas a new country,” said Sherm, “but I guess it is pretty old in some ways. Kansas had a lot of history during the war.”

“Yes, and lots of the people who helped make the history are living down at Garland now. The old Santa Fe trail runs clear across our ranch. You can tell it still though it hasn’t been traveled for almost twenty years by the ruts and washouts. And even where the ground wasn’t cut up by the countless wheels, it was packed so hard the blue stem has never grown there since. It is all covered with that fuzzy buffalo grass. In winter this turns a lighter brown than the prairie grass and you can see the trail for miles, distinctly.” Ernest loved history and politics.

“What was the Santa Fe trail? I have heard you speak of the trail so much and I never knew what you meant.” Katy asked eagerly.

The Captain answered: “The old trans-continental wagon road to the gold fields of California. You know there was a time when Kansas didn’t have anything so civilized as a railroad and people traveled by wagon and horseback even on foot, all the way to the coast.”

“Yes,” added Ernest, “and lots of them died on the way or got killed by Indians.”

“Indians?” said Katy, “why, we haven’t seen a single Indian and Cousin May said she’d be afraid to come out here because there were lots of them still about.”

“Not in this part of Kansas you needn’t lose any sleep. The Kaw reservation isn’t so very far away and parties sometimes come this way to revisit their old hunting grounds, but the Kaws were a peaceable tribe even in their free days.”

“There are lots of Indian mounds and relics around here,” put in Chicken Little. “Father got those arrow heads, and that stone to pound corn, and his tomahawk heads out of a mound over on Little John.”

“Yes, and there’s a tree on the main street in town that used to be a famous meeting place for the Indians. Oh, we must take you all to see the old Indian Mission. It was used as a fort, too, more than once, they say. The walls are fully two feet thick.”

“Whew, I didn’t know you had so many interesting things round here!” exclaimed Sherm.

“We are so used to them we hardly think of them as being interesting. Have I ever told you about the hermit’s cave?”

“Hermit’s cave? No, where is it?”

“On the side of that big bluff just west of town. Oh, that’s some story. The hermit lived there until about ten years ago. Some said he was a Jesuit priest who lived a hermit’s life to become more holy, and others that he was an Italian Noble who had fled from Italy to escape punishment for a crime. Nobody ever really knew much about him except that he was highly educated and read books in several different languages. But the cave is still there, in the ledge of rocks near the top of the bluff.”

“Oh, I’d love to see it.” Gertie liked romantic things.

“So would I,” Katy added.

“Me too,” echoed Sherm.

“Count me in,” said the Captain, “or rather let me take you all to town some day to explore these marvels.”

“They really aren’t much to see they’re more interesting to tell about. But I’d be glad to see them all again myself,” Ernest replied.

Wing Fan had prepared so many good things for them that none of the party felt energetic enough for rowing immediately after supper. They were glad to linger over the peach ice cream which was Wing’s crowning triumph, and nibble at the Chinese sweetmeats about which they were rather doubtful.

“I don’t believe I ever tasted such good ice cream,” exclaimed Katy.

“I think Wing Fan must say magical words over everything he cooks his things are so different and taste so good. I never thought I liked rice before, but his was delicious.”

“Wing Fan knows all about the family history of rice. He talks to each grain separately,” laughed the Captain.

The boys didn’t praise Wing’s efforts in words, but their appetites kept Wing on the broad grin. He could not resist looking proudly at his employer when Sherm accepted his third saucer of cream.

The Captain invited them into the library to pick out Sherm’s elephant. They were all so interested in the curios and asked so many questions they came near forgetting the boat ride. Ernest picked out a ship’s cutlass the first thing. The Captain took it down for him to examine and he brandished it fiercely.

Captain Clarke smiled. “I fear you wouldn’t do much execution if you handled it that way, Ernest. A cutlass has tricks of its own. Here, this is the way.” He showed the boy how to get the proper hold and how to swing it.

Ernest struck an attitude. “Behold your sailor brother as he skims the briny deep, Chicken Little.”

“Pooh, naval officers don’t carry cutlasses, do they, Captain Clarke?”

“No, I believe the sword used now is straight. But this cutlass has a history I think might interest you.”

“Tell us.”

“If you like. It won’t take long. Boys, will you draw up chairs for the girls?” Captain Clarke reached out his hand for a big easy chair nearby at the same moment that Sherm laid his hand upon it to draw it nearer for their host himself. The two hands rested in almost the same position on the opposite arms of the chair. They were singularly alike. Katy, the observing, noticed this instantly.

Captain Clarke studied Sherm’s hand for a minute, then his gaze shifted to his own.

“I doubt if my hand was ever as good looking as Sherm’s,” he said easily. “You have a hand that denotes unusual strength and will power, according to ‘palmology.’ You will have to live up to it.”

But Katy was persistent. “It’s almost exactly like yours, Captain Clarke, only yours isn’t so smooth and has more lines. Don’t you see it’s a square hand with unusually long fingers. The thumbs are shaped just the same, too.”

“You should be an artist, Katy, you are such a close observer,” replied the Captain.

They settled down comfortably for the story. Chicken Little noticed Sherm regarding his own hand rather critically and glancing from it to the Captain’s, who used frequent gestures as he warmed with his talk.

Gertie could not take her eyes from the cruel steel blade of the cutlass. “I wish there were no awful things to kill people with. I don’t believe God meant people to kill each other in battle any more than to kill each other when they get mad.”

Captain Clarke smiled at her disturbed look. “That is one of the most terrible questions human beings have ever had to answer, little girl. I thought as you do once, Gertie, before the Civil War broke out. I loathed the histories and pictures of fighting. My schoolmates used to dub me a sissy because I hated the sight of blood. But when President Lincoln called for volunteers to save our country, when I realized that it was a choice between having one great free country with liberty in it for both blacks and whites, or letting our own race and kin leave us in hatred to continue the wickedness of human slavery right at our doors, it didn’t take me long to decide. War and all unnecessary suffering inflicted by human beings upon each other, are hideous. But have you ever thought how much more of such suffering there would be if parents didn’t inflict suffering upon their children to make them control their ugly passions? If our courts didn’t punish people for being cruel to other people? And when it isn’t a child or one or two grown men or women who try to be cruel or unjust, but a whole nation, what then? Surely other nations should come to the rescue of the right, even if it means war. You wouldn’t let a big dog kill a little one without trying to save it, would you, Gertie?”

Gertie mutely shook her head.

“Neither should Christian nations allow weaker peoples nor any part of their own people to be unjustly treated, when it is in their power to prevent it. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ will some day be a question every nation must answer as well as every individual.”

“But most of the world’s wars have been to take other nations’ rights away from them, not to protect them,” objected Ernest.

“Yes, on one side, but in every war there has always been the side that fought to protect its loved ones and its homes from the brutality of conquerors. There is hideous wrong in every war, but the wrong is in the hearts of those who would rob and oppress those weaker than themselves, not in the patriots and heroes who resist. But I didn’t mean to deliver a lecture. I’d rather tell you about the brave boy who wielded this cutlass.”

Chicken Little drew her chair closer.

“It was in ’65 soon after I was mustered out of service at the close of the war, I was offered the command of a freighter going round The Horn to the Orient. I hated to leave my wife and little boy for a year’s voyage, especially after being away so long during the war, but it was the only opening worth while I could find. I guess I had the get-rich-quick idea, too, but never mind, that has nothing to do with the story. We had a terrible voyage. Storms and bad luck of every kind. The rigging was shrouded with ice for weeks two men were frozen to death on watch. I don’t know that I blame the men as I look back. I had been so hardened myself by the terrible discipline and sights of war, I guess I didn’t take much trouble to make my crew see the necessity of some of our hardships. At any rate, they mutinied and would have killed me while I slept, but for my cabin boy. He was only sixteen, but he discovered the conspiracy and roused me. With the help of the other officers and a few loyal sailors we stood them off. Hot work it was.” The Captain stopped an instant, musing.

The young people waited, expectant. Captain Clarke held up the cutlass reverently. “Charlie used this to good purpose after he had fired his last round of ammunition. I was wounded had propped myself against the rail and was aiming my last precious bits of lead at the ring-leader, when some one jabbed a bayonet at me from the side. Charlie knocked it up, cutting the dastard down with a second blow that was a marvel. Those two strokes saved my life and saved the ship. Do you wonder this ugly thing looks beautiful to me?”

“And the boy?” Katy asked softly.

“Commands a vessel of his own in the Pacific trade. I had a letter and a Satsuma jar from him a few weeks ago. But we are neglecting the Chicken Little! That will never do.”

A crescent moon was visible in the sky as they came back to the place where the boat was moored.

“I fear I detained you longer than I intended with my yarn,” said the Captain. “It will soon be dark and that moon is too young to be very useful.”

“Oh, it will give a good deal of light for two or three hours. I know every inch of the road, and even if I didn’t, the horses do,” Ernest replied.

“Will you boys take the oars together or one at a time? Chicken Little, you girls may take turns in the bow and the rest of us will make a nice tight fit here in the stern.”

The boys preferred to try their luck singly. Ernest picked up the oars awkwardly. He had had little experience in rowing and he felt self-conscious under the Captain’s eye. His first stroke sent a shower of drops flying over them.

“Here,” called Sherm, “that isn’t a hose you’re handling!”

“Anyhow, the drops feel lovely and cool.” Katy was inclined to defend Ernest.

“A longer, slower stroke will do the work better and not blister your hands so quickly,” admonished Captain Clarke. “Our future admiral must learn to row a boat skillfully. You boys are welcome to use it whenever you see fit.”

Ernest set his lips together firmly and soon had the boat skimming along rapidly, though still rather jerkily, his strokes being more energetic than regular. The woods were already echoing with soft night noises, frogs croaked; the clicking notes of the katydids mingled with the whining of the wind through the boughs overhead. Part of the pool disappeared in the shadows; the rest broke into shimmering ripples with every stroke of the oars.

“Oh, I love the night time!” exclaimed Chicken Little. “Seems as if everything in the world had done its day’s work and was sitting down to talk it over even the frogs. Don’t you s’pose they’re glad or sorry about things when night comes, just as we are?”

Sherm looked at Chicken Little, who was leaning over the side of the boat, trailing her hand in the water.

“Chicken Little, you work your imagination overtime it will wear out if you aren’t careful.”

She rewarded him with a grimace.

“You are getting a much evener stroke, Ernest,” observed the Captain.

“I bet he’s getting a blister on his hand, too,” said Katy.

“Yes, Ernest, you’d better let me have a turn.” Sherm slid over to the rower’s seat and reached his hand for the oars, which Ernest yielded reluctantly.

Sherm had spent one summer near Lake Michigan and was a better oarsman than Ernest. The boat skimmed along smoothly. “Good for you, Sherm, you have a strong, even stroke,” the Captain praised.

Presently the girls began to sing, Ernest and Sherm joining in. Captain Clarke listened happily to the young voices until they struck up “Soft and Low over the Western Sea.” They all loved it and were crooning it sweetly, but the Captain’s face went white as they sang: “Father will come to his babe in the nest.” “Don’t!” he exclaimed involuntarily.

They all looked at him in surprise. He regained his self-possession instantly, saying with a smile: “Go on don’t mind my twinge of rheumatism I slept in a draught last night. That is one of the loveliest things Tennyson has ever written.”

The young people finished the song and began another, but they wondered. The spell of the evening was broken. Soon after, they started home.