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


Thanksgiving came and went its turkey-lined way rather lonesomely. Christmas preparations also lacked their usual zest.

“Everything seems to have caved in round where Ernest was,” Chicken Little confided to Marian. “You see, we always talked everything over and planned our Christmas together. Sherm takes Ernest’s place in lots of ways, but, of course, he isn’t interested in what I’m making for Mother, or in helping me make $5.25 go clear round the family and piece out for Katy and Gertie besides.”

“If sympathy is all you need, Jane, I can lend you a listening ear.” Marian crocheted another scallop.

“I’d be thankful for a few suggestions, too, I can’t think of anything to send Ernest. When he has to have everything regulation, and the government furnishes him with every single thing it wants him to have, why it’s awful.”

“Yes, I agree with you I’ve been racking my brains for Ernest, too. Mother is patiently knitting him a muffler, which I know he won’t be permitted to wear, but I haven’t the heart to discourage her she gets so much comfort out of it. Uncle Sam should be more considerate of fond female relatives. He might at least tolerate a few tidies and hand-painted shovels or a home-made necktie.”

“Or a throw or a plush table cover with chenille embroidery. Mamie Jenkins is making one for Mr. Clay. He will be too cross for words. He loathes Mamie, though he tries not to show it, and plush is his special abomination. He says it reminds him of caterpillar’s fuzz.” Chicken Little’s eyes danced maliciously.

Marian looked at her young sister-in-law meditatively.

“Mamie doesn’t seem to be dear to your heart just now. Is she too popular or too affected or too dressy?”

“Oh, she’s just too utterly too too all around. I do have lots of fun with her she can be awfully nice when she wants to be, but ”


“Oh, I don’t know she swells up so, lots of times over things I’d be ashamed to tell they’re so silly.”

“Yes, I guess Mamie’s pretty cheap, but as long as you make friends with her, don’t rap her behind her back. It was all right to tell me I quizzed you anyhow. I wish you didn’t see so much of her.”

“Why, she’s the only girl at school I can go with, who is anywhere near my own age. The Kearns twins aren’t even clean I don’t like to go near them.”

“I shouldn’t think you would. Our public school system has its drawbacks as well as its virtues. Well, Jane, be nice to Mamie, but don’t don’t be like her.”

“You needn’t worry; she’s going to town to school after Christmas, so I sha’n’t see much more of her.”

Mrs. Morton was still far from well, and she hung on Ernest’s letters almost pathetically. Ernest, boy fashion, was inclined to write long letters when he had something interesting to tell and preserve a stony silence when he didn’t. Life at the academy was monotonous and he had to work hard to keep up with his studies. Further, his father and Frank suspected he was having many disagreeable experiences which he kept from his family. These were still the days of rough hazing at the academy and Ernest, being a western boy, big and strong and independent, was likely to attract his full share of this unpleasant nagging. He revealed something of his experiences in a letter to Sherm. Sherm showed the letter to Chicken Little and Chicken Little, vaguely worried, told her father. Dr. Morton talked it over with Frank.

“There isn’t a thing you can do about it, Father. Most of it does the boys more good than harm anyway. I talked to a West Pointer once about the hazing there. He said some of it was pretty annoying and at times decidedly rough, but that if a fellow behaved himself and took it good-naturedly they soon let him alone. He said it was the best training he had ever known for curing a growing boy of the big head. Don’t worry Ernest has sense he’s all right.”

To Chicken Little, Ernest confided, two weeks before Christmas, that he was getting confoundedly tired of having the same things to eat week after week. “Say, Sis, if you and Mother would cook me up a lot of goodies for Christmas, I’d like it better than anything you could do. Send lots, so I can treat a turkey and fixings.”

This letter did more for Mrs. Morton’s health than the doctor’s tonic. She tied on her apron and set to making fruit cake and cookies and every delicious and indigestible compound she could think of that would stand packing and a four-days’ journey. Chicken Little and Sherm spent their evenings making candy and picking out walnut meats to send. Dr. Morton made the nine-mile trip to town on the coldest day of the season to insure Ernest’s getting the box on the very day before Christmas.

The family at the ranch had a quiet holiday week. The day after New Year’s, Jane was invited to come to town and stay over night to attend an amateur performance of Fatinitza, a light opera the young people had staged for the benefit of a struggling musical society. Chicken Little was excitedly eager to go. Mrs. Morton deliberated for some time before she gave her consent. Marian and Frank and Sherm all teased in her behalf, before it was won.

Sherm drove her in, and Frank, having business in town the following day with a cattle buyer from Kansas City, volunteered to bring her home. Jane wore her Christmas present, a crimson cashmere with fine knife plaitings of crimson satin for its adorning. Frank lent her his sealskin cap and she felt very grand, and looked piquantly radiant, as she revolved for her mother’s inspection before slipping into her big coat. Sherm, standing waiting, inspected her, too.

“Scrumptious, Lady Jane, you look like that red bird I’ve been trying to catch out in the evergreen by the gate.”

Mrs. Morton shook her head disapprovingly. “No compliments, Sherm, Jane is just a little girl and she must remember that pretty is as pretty does. Don’t forget, dear, to thank Mrs. Webb for her hospitality when you come away. Are you sure your ears are clean?”

“Oh, Mother, I’m not a baby!” Chicken Little protested indignantly. “You talk as if I were about five years old.”

“My dear daughter, your mother will speak to you as she sees fit. Have you got the high overshoes? I think, perhaps, you’d better take Father’s muffler. Sherm, have you both buffalo robes?”

Chicken Little relieved her feelings by making a little moue at Sherm. He winked discreetly in return.

“Why,” she said disgustedly after they were started, “won’t mothers ever let you grow up? I am a whole inch taller than Mother now, and half the time she treats me as if I didn’t have the sense of a chicken.”

“Well, you see you’re the only girl in the family, and you’ve been the littlest chicken so long your mother kind of likes to shut her eyes to all those extra inches you’ve been collecting. By the way, Miss Morton, I don’t notice that muffler your mother mentioned, and I think you’ll be cold enough before we get to town to wish you had it.”

“You don’t suppose I was going to wear that clumsy thing? I can snuggle down under the robes if I get cold.”

“No, I didn’t suppose, so I brought the red scarf Mother gave me Christmas, for your ears. They’d be frosted sure without anything. Did you think your pride would keep you warm, Chicken Little?”

Chicken Little was inclined to resent this delicate attention; Sherm seemed to be putting her in the same class her mother had. But her ears were already beginning to tingle as they left the timber and got the full force of the wind on the open prairie. Sherm was swinging the bays along at a good pace. The cutter glided smoothly over the frozen snow. She submitted meekly while he awkwardly wrapped the muffler over her cap with his free hand. The soft wool was deliciously comfortable. She neglected, however, to mention this fact to him.

“Too stubborn to own up, Lady Jane?”

Jane stole a glance at the quizzical face turned in her direction. Then she evaded shamelessly.

“Sherm, don’t you just adore to skate?”

Chicken Little was in a pulsing state of excitement that evening as she listened to the pretty, lilting music and watched gorgeously clad young people, many of whom she recognized, moving demurely about the little stage. To others it was merely a very creditable amateur performance; to Chicken Little, it opened a whole new world of ideas and imagining. She had been to a theatre but twice in her whole life, once to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and once to a horrible presentation of Hamlet, which resulted in her disliking the play to the day of her death. She loved the light and color and harmony of it all. She delighted in it so much that she sighed because it would be so soon over.

“What are you sighing for, Jane? Don’t you like it?” her hostess inquired.

Chicken Little gave a little wriggle of joy. “Like it? I just love it it’s like butterflies keeping house. Don’t you wish everything was like that pretty and gay, with all the lovers getting things straightened out right?”

“Dear me, Jane, do you get all that out of this poor little comic opera? I must have you come in to all our amateur things if you love music so.”

“I don’t love music so very much I hate to practice. I shouldn’t care for their singing very much by itself, it’s seeing the actors and thinking how they feel and their pretty clothes and ”

Mrs. Webb laughed.

“Chicken Little, I envy you you are going to see so many things that most people shut their eyes to.”

Jane studied about this, but she hardly liked to ask what things Mrs. Webb meant, because that lady seemed to expect her to know, and she felt she would appear stupid not to. She lay awake a long time that night; the music seemed to be splashing over her in little waves of melody. Even after she had once fallen asleep, she awakened to find her brain still humming the insistent measures. The next morning she went downtown with her hostess and met Mamie Jenkins in a store.

“Why, Chicken Little, I didn’t know you were in town? Your brother didn’t say anything about your being here.”

“Frank? Is he in already?”

“Yes, I just saw him. Say, did you know a crowd of us are going out to his house to-night to an oyster supper?”

“No, who’s going?”

“Oh, a lot of the town boys and girls, and Grant Stowe and me. John Hardy asked him if a crowd of us couldn’t come out to-night and surprise your sister, and Frank said come along, he’d have some hot oysters for us. The boys have got a big bobsled from the livery stable. I bet we have a lovely time. Why don’t you and Sherm stay in and go out with us I guess there’ll be room. Anyhow, you can always crowd more into a bobsled, it’s more fun when you’re packed in.”

Mamie giggled expressively.

Jane was surprised to learn that Sherm had come in with Frank and she was also extremely doubtful whether her mother would approve of her waiting to come out with the party. John Hardy’s crowd was one of the gayest in town and they were very much grown up. But her outing the previous evening had given her a taste for grown-up things; she was eager for the lark and resolved to tease Frank to let her stay in.

Frank studied the matter for several minutes, but finally consented rather reluctantly. He saw Sherm was also keen for the fun.

“All right, Sis, that set are pretty old for a kid like you and I’ll have a time squaring myself with Mother. But you don’t have many good times and Sherm’s steady enough to look after you. They are planning to start early. I guess you’ll get home by eight.”

Frank left for the ranch about three o’clock to warn Marian of her surprise party. Mrs. Webb had insisted that Sherm stay with them for an early supper. The party had arranged to start at six. With a good team they should reach the ranch easily by eight, have two hours for merry-making, and get back to town by midnight.

The cold had moderated through the day; by five o’clock, the sky was leaden gray and it looked like snow. Some of the fathers and mothers were doubtful as to whether they ought to risk so long a drive. But the weather was ideal, if it only didn’t snow, and there might not be another night during the holidays when they could all go.

The expedition had bad luck from the start. The livery man, disliking the weather prospects, had had an inferior team harnessed to the big sled. John Hardy and the other young men stood for their rights and after a long wrangle, succeeded in getting what they wanted. But this had consumed precious time. They drove out of the livery barn at six-thirty instead of six, as they had intended. Then two or three of the girls were not ready. One of the last called for, having sat with her wraps on for over three-quarters of an hour, had finally removed them and her party frock as well, in disgust, thinking the jaunt had been given up on account of the weather. By the time she had dressed herself afresh it was a quarter past seven. There was still one young man to be picked up at the hotel. He, too, had grown tired of waiting and had started out to hunt the sleigh. Ten minutes more were consumed searching for him. The clock in the schoolhouse tower was striking the half hour as the sleigh load passed the last house in the little town, and turned into the country road leading to the ranch.

Sherm pulled out his watch. “Whew, Frank and Marian will have a nice wait for us! We can’t possibly make it till after nine.”

The next two miles went with a dash. The moonlight was a dim gray half light instead of the silvery radiance they had counted upon.

“Those clouds must be beastly heavy there is scarcely a star to be seen,” ejaculated John Hardy, who was on the driver’s seat with a sprightly girl of nineteen for his companion. “What’ll you bet the snow catches us before we get home to-night?”

“I’ll bet you it catches us before we get out to Morton’s,” retorted one of the other young men.

“Well, I’m glad I am taking my turn at driving going out, if that’s the case. I shouldn’t like the job of keeping the road on these prairies in a nice blinding snowstorm.”

“Oh, that’s just because you’re a town dude,” said Grant Stowe boastfully. “It is just as easy to follow a country road as a street in town if you only know the country.”

“All right, Grant, if it snows, we’ll let you drive home.”

“If it snows?” exclaimed one of the girls. “I felt a flake on my nose this very minute.”

The party surveyed the sky.

“Oh, you are just dreaming, Kate.”

“Somebody blew you a kiss and it cooled off on the way,” teased another.

“Just wait a minute, smarties. There there was another!”

“Yes, I felt one, too!” exclaimed Mamie.

“You’re right, it’s coming.” Sherm stared at the sky in some concern.

“Better whoop it right along, John,” advised one of the young men thoughtfully.

“I am not so sure that we shouldn’t be sensible to turn round and call this frolic off for to-night,” John Hardy replied.

There was a chorus of No’s.

“Nonsense, who’s afraid of a little snow? Besides, we’d disappoint the Mortons and Jane’s mother would be frantic if she didn’t come. Don’t crawfish, John Hardy.”

“I’m equal to anything the rest of you are. I merely thought it might be rough on the girls, and occasion some alarm to other fond relatives in town, if we failed to get back to-night.”

“Oh, stop your croaking!”

“There will be no trouble getting back.”

“Of course not, the horses can find the way if we can’t.”

“Here, start something to sing and shut off these ravens!”

The crowd sang lustily for the next twenty minutes, then the snow began coming down steadily and the majority of the young people commenced to disappear under the robes and blankets.

“The pesky stuff is getting inside my collar!” exclaimed one of the men who had insisted upon keeping his head out.

“Why don’t you tear yourself from the scenery and come under cover?” asked Mamie pertly.

“Yes, Smith, I’m only holding one of Mamie’s hands. You may keep the other warm.”

“He’s not either. Don’t you believe him, Mr. Smith,” Mamie protested.

John Hardy spoke to the girl beside him. He had been watching the road ahead too closely for several minutes to do any talking.

“Hadn’t you better go back with the others there’s no need for you to get wet and cold.”

“Oh, I am all right it isn’t cold very.”

“I am afraid it is going to be the wind is rising and it’s coming right in our faces. We’re a pack of fools to go!”

“We must be nearly half way there, aren’t we?”

“I think so I have never been out to the Morton ranch. Well, if worst comes to worst, I guess they’ll keep us all night.”

The crowd was beginning to quiet down. By the time they had covered two more miles the wind was blowing the snow in their faces with stinging force. John Hardy was having trouble to keep the horses in the road. They, too, recoiled from the snow drifting in their faces. He finally persuaded his companion to go back under the robes. Sherm volunteered to take her place.

“I don’t like the look of things,” said Hardy in a low tone as Sherm climbed up beside him. “Can you tell where we are?”

Sherm stared at the snow-covered waste ahead and tried to recognize some familiar land mark in the white gloom.

“Yes, I think so. That was Elm Creek you crossed some time back. We must be about half way from Elm to Big John.”

“How far now?”

“Three miles.”

“Can you see the time?”


“The dickens, we ought to be there!”

“It oughtn’t to be long now. Let me take the reins your hands must be cold.”

“Just a minute till I start the circulation. I feel sort of responsible for this gang, because I got up this fool enterprise.” Hardy clapped his hands together vigorously.

“It wouldn’t be bad except for the wind!” Hardy said presently.

“That’s the worst of Kansas, there always is a wind!” Sherm had not yet been entirely converted to the charms of the sunflower state.

When Hardy took the reins again, Sherm still peered ahead, watching the road. He had been finding something vaguely unfamiliar about the landscape, though this was not strange since neither house nor tree nor haystack was visible through the storm until they were almost upon it. Then it loomed up suddenly shrouded and spectral. This feeling of strangeness grew upon him and he felt uneasy.

“Stop the team a minute, Hardy.” Sherm got down and went to the horses’ heads, peering all about. He scraped the snow away with his foot and examined the ground.

He let out a shrill whistle of dismay, as he uncovered grass spears instead of the hard-trodden road bed.

“Say, Hardy, we’re off the road. I thought so from the way the sled was dragging.”

Hardy climbed hastily down with an exclamation that sounded profane. The boys in the sleigh also piled hurriedly out. They soon assured themselves of the sorrowful fact.

“What can we do?”

“Isn’t there a house somewhere near where we can inquire?”

“What did you fellows go to sleep for when you were driving, anyhow?”

“You’ll have to go back on your tracks till you find the road again.”

Questions and offers of advice were numerous.

Sherm had walked a short distance back, exploring. He returned in time to hear this last remark.

“The trouble is, Grant, the snow hasn’t left us any tracks. Two hundred yards back you can hardly see where we came.”

The others began to wake to the seriousness of the situation.

“Haven’t you any idea where we are, Dart?”

“Not the faintest notion, except that we are somewhere between Elm and Big John. Perhaps Jane might know. She usually has a sixth sense for direction.

“Chicken Little,” he called, “do you mind getting out and seeing if you can tell us where we are?”

Chicken Little was on the ground with a spring before Sherm could help her. She strained her eyes through the gloom. She, too, examined the ground, then, accompanied by Sherm and Hardy, waded through the snow for several hundred yards in each direction, the men kicking the snow in the hope of finding the track. Finally, Chicken Little gave it up.

“I don’t know a blessed thing more than the rest of you. But I have the feeling we must be near Charlie Wattles’ place you know that old darkey. You see the wind was right in our faces most of the way, and it isn’t now. It’s coming obliquely course the wind may have changed. Let’s try heading west a while and see if we can find the road. Let me sit up there with you and Sherm; I might see something I’d recognize.”

“Chicken Little, you’d freeze,” objected Sherm.

“Not any sooner than you will, Sherman Dart.”

“We can wrap her up in a blanket and she might help us we have got to get out of this some way. It’s ten o’clock.”

They drove about slowly for half an hour, but they could find nothing that looked like a road. Some of the sleigh load were openly apprehensive and inclined to blame Hardy for their plight, but for the most part they were plucky and good-natured, trying to turn off their growing fear with jests.

Chicken Little glued her eyes to the dimness ahead.

Sherm suggested that they give the horses their head.

“They’ll try to go back to town if we do, and I don’t believe they could hold out that off one is blowing pretty badly now. This snow is heavy as mud to pull through.” Hardy looked dubious.

“Turn due west, Mr. Hardy we can’t be far from Big John.”

Hardy obeyed and they drove another half hour, seeing nothing save the fluttering snowflakes and the snowy wastes opening out a few feet ahead as they advanced.

“Chicken Little, your theory is all right, but it doesn’t seem to work,” Sherm remarked regretfully.

In the meanwhile, time had also been moving along at the ranch. The big sitting room at the cottage was brightly lighted and glowingly warm from an open wood fire. By eight o’clock, coffee was steaming on the back of the kitchen stove, the extension table pulled out to its full length, was set with soup plates and cups and silver. Piles of doughnuts and baskets of apples and walnuts stood awaiting the sharp appetites the Mortons knew the cold ride would bring to them. Marian had the milk and oysters ready for the stew and sat down to rest a moment before the arrival of the guests. She hardly noticed the clock until the hand pointed to half-past eight.

“My, they’re late!” she exclaimed.

Frank got up and went to the door. He encountered Dr. Morton just coming in.

“When did you say those youngsters were coming? It’s snowing like fury.” He paused on the porch to give himself another shake.

“I don’t believe they’ll try to come out to-night. I guess you’ve had all your trouble for nothing. I only wish Chicken Little and Sherm had come home with you.”

Frank, being a good many years nearer to understanding the rashness of youth than his father, disagreed with him.

“I bet they tried all right, but they may have had to give it up. I wonder how long it’s been snowing this way. I haven’t been out since supper.”

Dr. Morton sat and visited for a half hour, then said he guessed he’d better go back to Mother. She was worrying a little about her baby being out such a night.

“She needn’t,” he concluded, “even a child like Jane would have sense enough not to start on a nine-mile ride in such weather.”

After his father had gone, Frank put on his coat and went down the lane with a lantern. He came back presently and sat down by the fire without saying anything.

Marian saw he was worried. “You don’t think they’ve got lost, do you, Frank?”

“I don’t know what to think. I hope Father is right and they had sense enough not to start. But I wish to goodness I hadn’t let Jane stay in.”

They sat there listening for every sound until the clock struck ten. Frank had twice gone to the door, imagining he heard sleigh bells. He got to his feet again at the sound of the clock.

“You might as well go to bed, dear. We sha’n’t see them to-night, but I’ll sit up till eleven myself to make sure.”

Marian waited a little while longer, then took his advice. Frank sat by the fire and pretended to read until five minutes of twelve, then he, too, gave up the vigil as hopeless.

At ten minutes past two they both sat up with a start at the sound of sleigh bells. An instant later there was a vigorous pounding on the door.

Frank stared into the darkness for one confused instant, then leaped out of bed, and wrapping a dressing gown about him, flung open the door.

Twelve numbed and snow-covered figures stumbled into the room. Two of the men were half carrying one of the girls.

“Fire up quick, Frank, we’re most frozen! And get some hot water!” Sherm exclaimed, suiting the action to the word by stirring up the coals of the dying fire and piling on wood.

It was not until a half hour later when they were warmed and fed, that the Mortons had time to listen to any connected account of the night’s adventures. Frank had speedily summoned his father to prescribe for frosted cheeks and fingers and toes. Later, it was discovered that John Hardy had a badly sprained wrist. Marian and Mrs. Morton made the girls comfortable and finished preparing the belated oyster supper.

“I am glad we didn’t lose this oyster supper altogether,” said Grant Stowe feelingly. “I never tasted anything better.”

“Same here,” a half dozen laughing voices echoed.

“I wasn’t so darned sure an hour ago that some of us were ever going to taste anything again,” said John Hardy soberly.

“Things didn’t look exactly rosy, specially when we got spilled out,” one of the girls added.

“What, did you have an upset?” Dr. Morton looked as if this were the last straw.

“Yes, that’s how Hardy sprained his wrist!”

“Chicken Little had just assured us that if we would drive a little farther west, we should surely find something, when we struck the sidehill and went over as neat as you please.” Mamie enjoyed this thrust at Jane.

“Well, we found something, didn’t we?” defended Sherm.

“I should say we found out how deep the snow was.”

“Yes, and the sidehill made Jane sure we were near the creek, and then she saw the trees and ”

“Yes, and then she found it wasn’t the creek at all, but the Wattles’ place.”

“Whew!” exclaimed Frank, “you didn’t get over to black Charlie’s? Why, that was three miles out of your road!”

“Yes, Frank, and you ought to have seen him. He was scared to death when we came pounding on his door in the middle of the night.” Chicken Little giggled at the recollection.

“And there was a trundle bed full of pickanninies and they kept popping their heads up. They were so ridiculous with their little pigtails sticking up all over their heads, and their bead eyes.”

“Well, old Charlie warmed us up all right and started us back on the road again,” said John Hardy gratefully.

“And there’s another thing sure,” said Marian, interrupting this flow of reminiscence, “you can’t go back to town to-night, and you must be tired to death, all of you. Mother Morton, if you will take the girls over with you, Frank and I will make some pallets by the fire for these boys, and let them get some sleep.”

The real sport of this excursion came the next day when Frank Morton hitched an extra team on in front of the livery horses and drove the party back to town himself, to make sure they did not come to grief again in the piled-up drifts. But Chicken Little and Sherm were not along. They watched them drive off with never a pang of envy.

“I have had enough bobsled riding to do me for this winter,” said Jane wearily. Her evening at Fatinitza seemed a thousand years away.

“Ditto, yours truly!” And Sherm yawned luxuriously.