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


“Golly, I sha’n’t have any fingers left by the time I finish this needle case! King’s excuse, Katy, you needn’t mind. I know I said it, but if you tried to push a needle through this awful leather and pricked yourself every other stitch you’d say Golly, too.” Chicken Little edged off as she saw Katy approaching.

Katy was not to be deterred. “You said to pinch you every single time, Jane Morton, and you’ve said it twice. Besides, your mother said she hoped I could cure you.” Katy gave Chicken Little’s arm two vigorous pinches to emphasize this statement.

Chicken Little did not take this kindly office in the spirit in which it was intended. She hated to sew and she had been toiling all morning on a little bronze leather case to hold needles, buttons, and pins a parting gift to Ernest.

“Katy Halford, I told you not to! I think you are real mean to do it when I’m having such a hard time. I’ll thank you not to any more, if I do say it.”

“You don’t need to go and get mad! You told me to.”

“Yes, and I just now told you not to!”

“I guess you’d say King’s excuse every time if I’d let you. A lot of good it’s going to do, if you sneak out of it whenever you want to.”

“I don’t sneak out of it this is the very first time, and you know it!”

“I don’t know any such thing, but I don’t think it’s very good manners to be telling your guests they’re saying something that isn’t so! The day before they’re going home, too!” Katy forgot the dignity of her fifteen years.

“Well, I think it’s quite as good manners as to tell your friends they’re sneaks!” Jane’s tone was icy.

Gertie came between the belligerents. “Please don’t quarrel, girls. It’d be dreadful the very last day, after we have had such a beautiful summer. I never did have such a good time in all my life. I most wish I could live on a ranch always.”

“I shouldn’t like to live on a ranch, but we have had a jolly time, Chicken Little,” Katy recovered herself enough to say graciously.

Chicken Little was not to be outdone. “I suppose I was ugly, Katy. It always makes me cross to sew. I wish nobody had ever invented needles. O dear, I shall be as lonesome as pie when you are gone. It isn’t much fun being the only girl on the ranch, I tell you. Sometimes, I don’t even see another girl for weeks.”

“But your school begins soon, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, and I’ll have Sherm. I just don’t believe I could bear to have Ernest go if Sherm wasn’t going to stay.”

“I’m awful glad Mr. Lenox put off coming for another day so we can go on the same train with Ernest.” Katy had been exulting over this for the past twenty-four hours.

“Ernest will be on the train for three days. I feel as if he would be as far away as if he were going to China.”

Their conversation was interrupted by Mrs. Morton’s entrance.

“Would you rather have chocolate or cocoanut cake for your lunch, girls? Annie has killed three chickens, and I thought you could take a basket of those big yellow peaches; I only wish I could send some to your mother. And I’ll put in cheese and cold-boiled ham and a glass of current jelly. Mr. Lenox may want to get a meal or two at the stations, but you are so hurried at these and it’s always well to have plenty of lunch in traveling. Dr. Morton told Ernest that he’d better get all his breakfasts at the eating houses to have something hot. And by the third day his lunch will be too stale even if there is any left.”

Ernest was creepy with excitement between joy at going and his haunting fear that he might disgrace the family by failing to pass the examinations.

“Buck up, old chap,” Frank admonished, “you’ve got facts enough in your head if you can only get them out at the right time. My advice is to forget all about exams and enjoy your trip. One doesn’t go to Washington and Baltimore every day. You ought to have several hours in St. Louis if your train is on time. Be sure to eat three square meals every day and keep yourself as fresh as you can and I’ll back you to pass any fair test.”

“If you have time in St. Louis I want you to be sure to go and see Shaw’s Gardens. They used to be wonderful and they must have been greatly improved since I saw them,” said Mrs. Morton.

Each individual member of the Morton family, except Jilly and Huz and Buz, took Ernest aside for a parting chat with advice and remembrances. Jilly and the dogs secured their share by getting in the way as often as possible.

Chicken Little had her turn first. She tendered the needle case doubtfully.

“Mother said you would have to sew on your own buttons at the Academy and that you’d find this mighty handy, but I’d loathe to have anybody give me such a present. And, Ernest, here’s the five dollars I got last birthday. You take it and buy something you really want.”

Ernest demurred about accepting the money, but Jane insisted.

“Little Sis, you’re sure a dear ” Ernest found himself choking up most unaccountably. He gave her a good old-fashioned hug in conclusion to save himself the embarrassment of words.

Dr. Morton took his son into the parlor and closed the door immediately after dinner. They stayed an hour, during which time the Doctor gave Ernest much practical advice about his conduct and sundry warnings not to be extravagant or careless in handling his money. No sooner had they emerged, Ernest looking important and rather dazed, when his mother laid her hand upon his arm, saying: “My son, I also wish to have a little talk with you. We shall be hurried in the morning so perhaps we would better have it now.”

Ernest returned to the parlor with his mother. Chicken Little lay in wait outside in the hall. She and Katy had a beautiful plan for a last boat ride that afternoon. She knew Ernest would be going over to say good-bye to the Captain anyway.

Chicken Little waited and yawned and waited and squirmed for a solid hour and a quarter. The steady hum of her mother’s voice was interrupted occasionally by brief replies from Ernest. At last, Chicken Little heard a movement and roused herself joyously. But her mother began to speak again this time with reverent solemnity. Chicken Little forgot herself and listened a moment.

“Umn, I guess she’s praying they must be most through. Golly, I bet Ernest’s tired!”

When the door opened a moment later there were tears on Mrs. Morton’s lashes and Ernest looked sober. He held a handsome Oxford bible in his hand. Mrs. Morton glanced at Jane suspiciously, but passed on into the sitting room.

Chicken Little surveyed her brother wickedly.

“Did Mother give you a new bible?”


“I thought you had one.”

“Got two Mother forgot, I s’pose.”

“Bet you’d rather have had a new satchel that bible must have cost a lot.”

“Yes, I would, but don’t you dare let on to Mother. I wouldn’t hurt her feelings for a farm! She’s awful good, but she doesn’t understand how a fellow feels about things. I’d rather be licked any day than prayed over. I guess if I attended all the ‘means of grace’ she wants me to, I wouldn’t have any time left for lessons. I’m going to try all-fired hard not to do anything to hurt Mother or make her ashamed of me, but I’m not calculating to wear out the pews at prayer meetings not so you’d notice it.” Ernest grinned at Chicken Little defiantly.

Jane replied soberly:

“A prayer meeting’s a real treat to Mother. She hasn’t had a chance to go to one for so long she is just pining for the privilege, but I bet she didn’t feel that way when she was young! But she thinks she did, so there’s no use fussing.”

Marian’s admonition to Ernest was brief and to the point. She stood him up against the wall and looked him so squarely in the eyes that she could see her own reflection in the pupils. Ernest’s six feet of vigorous youth was good to look at. His hazel eyes gazed back at her steadfastly. Marian smiled up at him.

“Ernest Morton, I’m downright proud to be your sister, and if you can look me in the eye as fearlessly and unashamed when you come home, I shall be still prouder. I want to tell you something I overheard in a store the other day about Father. Some men were evidently discussing him in connection with a business deal, and one remarked emphatically: ’Old man Morton may have his weaknesses like the rest of us humans, but his word’s as good as his bond any day, and there’s precious few men you can say that of.’ It’s worth while to have that sort of a father, Ernest, but it makes the Morton name somewhat of a responsibility to live up to, doesn’t it?”

Marian gave him a pat and pulled his head down to kiss him.

Katy and Gertie had been busy all day with their own preparations for departure. Marian was helping them with their packing, because Mrs. Morton had her hands full with the lunch and Ernest’s clothes and trunk. Chicken Little vibrated between the two centers of interest. Jilly also assisted, contributing articles of her own when she caught the spirit of packing. Her mother rescued a cake of soap and one of her shoes, but after Katy and Gertie arrived at home, they discovered one of Jilly’s nighties reposing on top of their Sunday hats and her rag doll neatly wedged in a corner of their trunk. Ernest was not overlooked either. When he unpacked at Annapolis, his recently acquired New York roommate was decidedly amazed to see him draw forth a small, pink stocking from the upper tray and a little later, a soiled woolly sheep along with his shirts. Ernest found his explanations about a baby niece received rather incredulously until a choice packet containing half a doughnut, a much-mutilated peach, two green apples, and a mud pie appeared. Jilly had evidently prepared a lunch for her uncle. They both went off into rumbles of mirth over this remarkable exhibit and began a friendship which was destined to be enduring.

Jane’s boat ride scheme found favor, but Mrs. Morton declared they must put it off till after supper. They drove over and found the Captain smoking contentedly on the veranda.

“I was hoping you young people would come to-night,” he said, “though I intended going to the train to see you off in any event. I shall miss these young ladies sadly, and Ernest seems to belong to me a little, now that he has decided to be a sailor, too.”

“If I get in, I shall owe it to you, for I should never have thought of Annapolis if you hadn’t suggested it,” Ernest replied.

“Well, I trust I have not influenced you to a decision you will some day regret. You seem to me to have many of the qualifications for a naval officer.”

“Do you think he is sufficiently qualified to row the Chicken Little, Captain Clarke?” asked Jane suggestively.

The Captain’s eyes twinkled. “If he isn’t, I think Sherm is. We might let the one who gets there first prove his skill.”

The boys were not slow in acting upon this hint. They sprinted their best without waiting for a starter, and reached the skiff so exactly together that the question of precedence was still unsettled. The boys did not wait for an umpire. Ernest untied the boat and both attempted to fling themselves in with disastrous results. The Chicken Little had not been built for wrestling purposes. She tipped sufficiently to spill both boys into the creek. The water was shallow, but Sherm was wet well up to the waist, and Ernest, who had been pitched still farther out, was soaked from head to foot. They appeared ludicrously surprised and sheepish.

The girls and the Captain laughed most unfeelingly. But Chicken Little immediately began to consider the consequences.

“Poor Mother, she’ll have to dry that suit out and press it before it can be packed. It’s a blessed thing you didn’t wear your new suit as you wanted to, Ernest Morton.”

“My, but you are wet!” exclaimed Katy. “Oughtn’t you to go right home and change?”

“Come with me into the house, boys. I think Wing and I can fix you up.” The Captain cut a laugh in the middle to offer aid.

The lads were so ludicrously crestfallen; they were doubly comical.

Wing, fortunately, had a good fire in the kitchen and soon had their wet garments steaming before it, while the Captain hunted out dry clothes for them. Some spirit of mischief prompted him to array Ernest in an old uniform of his own, with amazing results, for Ernest was considerably slimmer than the older man, and fully two inches taller. The ample blue coat with its gold braid hung on him as on a clothes rack. The sleeves were so short they left a generous expanse of wrist in view, and the trousers struck him well above the ankle.

The Captain saluted him ceremoniously, chuckling at the boy’s absurd appearance. The girls were openly hilarious.

Chicken Little struck an attitude. “Behold the future admiral! Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce Admiral Morton, of whose distinguished exploits you have often heard. His recent feat of capsizing the enemy’s frigate single-handed, has never been equalled in the annals of our glorious navy.”

She was not permitted to finish this speech undisturbed. Ernest had chased her half way round the house before she got the last words out.

He clapped his hand firmly over her mouth to restrain her from further eloquence.

Jane struggled helplessly. “Katy say, Katy, come help ”

Katy, nothing loath, flung herself on Ernest from the rear and the three had a joyous tussle, with honors on the side of the future admiral, till Sherm, who had been a little slower in dressing than Ernest, came out the front door.

Jane called to him despite the restraining hand and her shortening breath: “Sherm, he’s choking me ”

“Choking nothing it’s Katy who is choking me just wait till I get hold of you, Miss Halford!”

Katy had both hands gripped fairly on his coat collar and was tugging Ernest backward with all her might, while Chicken Little struggled to get away.

“Come help, Sherm, please!” Chicken Little loosened herself from the gagging hand enough to plead again.

“Keep out, Sherm. Three against one is no fair.”

Sherm watched the fray a moment, undecided.

“You may have bigger odds than that, Ernest,” laughed the Captain. “You might as well be getting your hand in.”

Sherm sauntered leisurely over and helped Chicken Little wrench loose, then, whispering something hastily, took her by the hand and they both made for the creek.

Ernest, relieved of his sister, swung quickly round, catching Katy by the shoulders before she could save herself.

“I’ve a mind to ” At this moment he detected Sherm’s game. “No, you don’t, smarties!”

Katy likewise saw and acted even more quickly than Ernest. She was very light and swift, and she darted past Sherm and Chicken Little like a flash, reaching the boat twenty seconds ahead.

“Come on, Ernest!” She slipped the rope deftly from the post, not waiting to untie it, and, pushing off, leaped lightly into the row boat.

Ernest needed no second invitation. Katy motioned to him to run farther along the bank and paddled the skiff in close enough for him to climb on board. Sherm and Chicken Little, dazed by the suddenness of this maneuver, were still some feet away.

“Katy Halford, you’re a pretty one to go back on your own side that way,” Jane scolded.

“Katy, I didn’t think it of you after asking me to come and help you, too!” Sherm was also reproachful.

“I didn’t ask you, Sherman Dart. It was Chicken Little.”

“Of course,” Ernest encouraged. “Katy’s been on my side all the time. Haven’t you, Katy?”

Katy nodded, laughing.

The Captain, who had followed the young people at a more sober gait, smiled at this outcome of the skirmish.

“When a woman will she will, you may depend upon it,” he quoted. “The trouble is to find out what she wills.”

Ernest, secure in the rower’s seat, could afford to be generous. He brought the boat in and took them all on board. Gertie had been a quiet spectator of the frolic. She had little taste for boisterous fun.

Captain Clarke handed her in with a flourish. “Gertie is my partner.”

Sherm had his revenge. Ernest rowed energetically so energetically that he was tired enough to be willing to resign the oars before a half hour had gone by. Under the circumstances he did not quite like to ask Sherm to relieve him. Sherm seemed to be oblivious to the fact that it required energy to propel the boat. He was strumming an imaginary banjo as an accompaniment to the familiar melodies the girls were softly singing, occasionally joining in himself. Katy did not fail to observe that Ernest dropped one of his oars to regard a blister ruefully, and she did her best to help.

“Say, Ernest, let me try one oar. I believe I could row with you if you would take shorter strokes.”

Ernest hadn’t much faith in Katy’s skill, but the experiment gave him an excuse to rest a minute. He moved over and handed her the oar with a little smile of gratitude.

“You’re a trump, Katy,” he whispered.

Darkness dropped softly in the timber. They heard a distant splash where a muskrat had taken to the water. Every one wished solemnly by the evening star. And two of the wishes came true in record time. The Captain wished that he might find the son so long lost to him. Katy wished she didn’t quite put the wish into words but she did want Ernest to have what he wanted. One by one the other stars twinkled forth and the darkness deepened till their faces were dim, white blurs, and the girls’ pink-and-blue dresses faded into patches of dusk in the blackness. Fireflies winked in the gloom. At the Captain’s suggestion, Katy and Ernest rested on their oars. They stopped singing and listened to the night’s silences silences broken by rustling movements from a thicket on the farther bank or by eery creakings of the branches overhead. The little group felt vaguely the bigness of things, though no one but the Captain knew exactly why.

It was ten o’clock before they went back to the house. Wing had performed a miracle in the meantime; the boy’s suits were not only dried, but neatly pressed.

Mrs. Morton let them all sleep late the next morning in view of the long journey ahead for Ernest and the girls.

Poor Sherm found this last day trying. His father’s health was not improving and a fear lay close in his heart that he should never see him again. It was almost more than he could bear to hear the girls talk about going home. He eased the ache by keeping at work. Dr. Morton had already initiated him into Ernest’s duties. The others were too busy to think much about Sherm but Chicken Little, who sat beside him at the table, noticed that he scarcely tasted his dinner. She started to remark about it, but a glance at Sherm’s drawn face warned her in time.

Presently, she had a gracious thought. “Sherm, let’s ride Caliph and Calico in to the train, then the others won’t be so crowded and Marian and Jilly can go, too.”

Sherm somehow felt better immediately. The brisk gallop they took at starting helped still more. Sunflowers and golden rod lined the roadside for miles; brown cat tails nodded above the swales. A bobolink, swaying on a weed stalk near by, answered Sherm’s chirrup to the ponies with a volley of golden notes.

“Chicken Little,” he remarked, apropos of nothing, after they had ridden a few miles, “you are a mighty comfortable person to have ’round.”

“Maybe you won’t think so in a day or two. I shall be so lonesome I may be tempted to follow you about like Huz and Buz.”

“You can’t scare me that way, Chicken Little, I think the ranch is going to be a pretty loose fit for all of us for a few days. But your school begins about the middle of September, doesn’t it? That will help.”

“Yes, I wish you were going to school, too. Say, Sherm, why couldn’t you arrange to take one or two special studies under the new teacher? They say he only lacks one year of graduating from college and knows a lot. He’s teaching to save the money for his last year. Perhaps you might take some of your freshman work.”

“I wish I could I hate to get behind the rest of the boys. But your father is hiring me to work, not to study.”

“I know, but when winter comes you won’t need to work all the time, and you’ll have all your evenings Jim Bart does.”

“If I could only keep up my mathematics and Latin, I wouldn’t be losing so much.” Sherm was considering.

The nine-mile ride to town seemed shorter than usual to most of the party that afternoon. Ernest, in spite of his joy in actually going away to school, found home and home folk unexpectedly dear now that he was leaving them for many months. Poor Mrs. Morton could hardly tear her eyes from the son who was taking his first step away from her. Chicken Little was feeling disturbingly sober; no Ernest, no Katy, no Gertie how could she ever stand it?

“Sherm, if I start to cry, just wink, will you that funny way you do sometimes. Ernest bet I would and I won’t, but I know I’m going to want to dreadfully.”

Chicken Little was as good as her word. She didn’t that is, as long as Ernest could see her. She kissed him good-bye and gave him a playful box on the ear. She threw kisses, smiling as the group at the car window slid by, then the lump in her throat grew startlingly bigger.

“Race you to the horses, Chicken Little,” said Sherm. “If it’s all right with you, Mrs. Morton, we’ll go straight home.”

Chicken Little raced with Sherm and with her tears. She beat Sherm but the tears won out. She could hardly see to untie Calico’s rein. Sherm took the strap out of her hand, fastened it, and swung her up.

“Shut your eyes and open your mouth,” he commanded, as soon as she was securely seated.

Jane obeyed meekly and Sherm popped a big chocolate drop in.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, smiling through the trickling tears, “was that what you stopped down town for? My, what a baby you must think me!”

Sherm reached over and patted her hand. “I think you are several pumpkins and some squash, Chicken Little. Have another?”