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   Chapter 13 THE HEN OF WUN SING

Dorothy on a Ranch By Evelyn Raymond Characters: 18378

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


But whatever wild schemes were hatching in the heads of the three lads nothing seemed to come of them.

Days followed one another in such peaceful routine that Dorothy felt ashamed of her fears, as well as ashamed of her composure regarding Jim Barlow. The longer he was absent the less they spoke of him. That he was alive, somewhere, all were sure, and that he would return sometime or "when he gets good and ready," as Alfaretta coolly observed.

"He seemed like a very odd chap, the little I saw of him," said Leslie, and did not regret the stranger's absence.

Herbert was loyal and insisted that "Jim was a royal chap-once he shook off his awkward shyness a bit. Why, the yarns Jim Barlow could spin about woodsy things and habits of wild creatures would make you sit right up and take notice. Oh, Jim's all right-only bashful."

"That's so. Why, that fellow, don't you know, that fellow really plans to go sometime, to Africa, or some other place and live with monkeys just to hear them talk. He-"

"He might have stayed right here with us-or you, Monty dear," said Molly, sweetly.

Monty merely frowned at her but continued:

"There is a man did that. True. Went into the woods and lived in a cage-"

"All that trouble and expense for nothing," again remarked Molly; and this time Monty changed the subject, asking:

"Have you heard about Wun Sing and his hen?"

"Oh! never mind hens. What do you say, folks? Suppose we get old Lem to go with us into the mountains yonder and look for Jim?" said Herbert.

"You needn't do that. You'd not find him. He's hidden himself on purpose, I believe, and only sent back Netty to let us know he was alive and well. Even Molly thinks that," said Helena; "and I, for one don't care to hunt up boys who don't want to be found. I think Jim's shyness is at the bottom of the matter. It's kindness to let him alone and-"

Dolly looked serious and shook her head while Monty again demanded:

"Have you heard about Wun Sing's hen?"

"I wonder what he's going to give us for supper! I'm nearly starved. There never was such a place for appetites-eating doesn't stop that hollow, all-gone feeling a bit!" calmly stated Alfy, with a tragic air.

"Alfy, you little pig! It isn't more than an hour since we finished dinner," reproved Molly, laughing.

"Well, I can't help that. I wish 'twas supper-time. Let's go in the kitchen and ask for a piece-like the children home do, bless 'em!"

"I say, you better not! Wun Sing's hen-"

"Monty-quit! Let's all go ask for a 'piece'!" cried Leslie, throwing his arm around the "fat boy's" shoulder and forcing him along with the others.

Herbert pulled out a jew's-harp-procured nobody knew where-and headed the procession with a vain attempt to render "Yankee Doodle" so that it could be recognized for itself. Then all fell into line, with the laughter and nonsense natural to a company of care free "youngsters" as they were now known all over the premises.

But as they passed a room just beyond Leslie's own, he poked his head through the window, to demand of Mateo, lying within:

"Any better, boy?"

"Gracias, Se?or Leslie. Much better. Only, the hen of Wun Sing; the omelette-Ah! I suffer, si. I groan-I am on fire. The heathen creature and his foul fowl!"

"What's the matter, Les? Is that your pert valet laid up in yon? What's up?"

"Rather-what's down? The boy hasn't been well, or says he hasn't these three days. That's why I had to put off the bear-"

"Mum! Dorothy's just behind us and she has ears all round her head! But we'll do it, yet; either with or without him. It'll be rippin' fun, but if that girl gets wind of it she'll stop it, sure."

"I wonder if we'll see Wun Sing's hen!" said Monty again.

"Stark! I tell you if you mention that fowl again I'll stuff her down your throat!" cried Herbert, dropping his jew's-harp and engaging with Monty. But the latter was round and easily slipped through Bert's fingers, and the scrimmage was playful, anyway.

Resuming their march they entered the great kitchen, now wholly deserted save by the Chinaman, who cowered in a corner, praying lustily to his honorable forefathers and burning some sort of stuff before a little image on the floor beside him. Like a good many others of his race, Wun Sing was "good Chlistian" when it suited him to be, but a much better devotee of his ancient gods when real trouble overtook him.

Wun Sing was in trouble now. Bottomless trouble, he feared, and so wholly engaged in his devotions that he didn't take any notice of the noisy youngsters foraging his stores. Until, from the corner of his eye, he saw Alfy poking into a little wall-cupboard that was his own property and used to shelter his dearest treasures.

"No, no, Missee Alfaletta! No, no. Wun Sing's chalm no wolkee if lill gels meddle!"

He rose from his prostration on the floor and fairly flew to the girl's side, pushing her hand aside from the key she had almost turned, his whole manner expressing great agitation.

Of course, she desisted at once, even apologized for her action, but her old co-worker in Mrs. Calvert's kitchen begged pardon in his own turn and after his foreign fashion. In his broken English he eagerly explained that he and his belongings had been bewitched.

His hen-the so beloved hen of Wun Sing, that he had brought from far away California, along with some garden seeds and roots, the hen had been entered by an evil spirit and the days of Wun Sing were numbered. Already he felt the dread sickness stealing over him, as it had already stolen upon his old neighbor of San Diego-the so afflicted Mateo. He had been praying and offering gifts to his little clay god but so far no good had come. Within the cupboard on the wall he had placed a "charm"-a terrible charm, in his opinion and if that failed not only he but all at San Leon were doomed. Would that he had never heard of the place, even for the extra big wages the rich owner had offered. He-

When he had reached this point, Alfy shook him demanding:

"What makes you such a fool, Wunny? That little old image on the floor is enough to make you sick, course, it's so filthy dirty. I hope you'll scrub your hands good with soap before you touch any food for other folks to eat. What's the matter with the hen, anyway?"

Having put this question, Alfaretta walked to the sink and turned the spigot over her own hand, which suddenly felt soiled by contact with the Chinaman's shoulder. Then she remarked:

"We're all hungry. Tell us where we can find something to eat."

The cook shook his head and Alfy foraged for herself: presently securing from the pantry a box of crackers and a jar of cheese. Armed with these refreshments she felt she would be sustained until the regular supper time, and invited her mates to accompany her on a visit to this wonderful hen whose name was in everybody's mouth.

Wun Sing protested; but when they were determined, he tremblingly presented each of the youngsters with a bit of red paper, inscribed in black with a few Chinese characters. Laughingly, they pinned these on and so protected from "evil chalms" sought the little wire enclosure which the Chinaman had made for his petted fowl, upon his first coming to San Leon.

The hen had been the gift of his opulent kinsman, Der Doo, and was far too precious to its new owner to be allowed with the other poultry. It had lived in state within its little wire-covered yard, supplied with fresh grass each day and fattening upon the best of food. For its night accommodation, Wun Sing had constructed a tiny pagoda-like house imitating a temple of his native land. Here the pampered fowl slept luxuriously, and for a time had been the delight of its owner's eyes.

"Let's sit down on the grass and watch it awhile. We can eat our crackers here, first rate, 'cause if we get thirsty we can drink out of the spigot o' running water that cooky has fixed for the hen," suggested Alfy.

So they ranged themselves in a semi-circle, with the crackers and cheese in the centre and awaited developments.

"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" crowed Herbert, in excellent imitation of a rooster.

"Oh! hush! Hens don't do that; they just say-cut-cut-cut-cut-cut-tarket!" corrected Molly.

Immediately the rest took up the mocking cries, to the evident distress of poor Wun Sing, who stood in the background, his face yellower than common and his hands clasping and unclasping nervously.

But neither cat-calls, crowings, nor cacklings, coaxed the invisible fowl from her palace-like retreat. So, soon tiring of this, they fell to talking of other things and forgot the creature; till, suddenly, from within the temple came a crow that beat even Herbert's noisy ones. It was so loud and so sudden, and was so closely followed by a jubilant cackle, that all of them were a trifle startled while Wun Sing threw himself down in real terror.

The cackling continued a longer time than is usual and ended in another masculine crow. Then there solemnly stalked into the little yard a very handsome fowl, of the Plymouth Rock species, who strutted about as if she were the queen of all hens.

"Huh! Nothing the

matter with that biddy, Wun Sing! I wish 't Ma Babcock had her in our hennery, up-mounting. What's wrong with her, you think, Wunny?"

"Missee Alfletta-eggs!"

"Well, what's a hen's business in life but to lay eggs?" demanded Herbert, laughing at the Chinaman's curious expression.

Then it came out. That hen did lay eggs-such eggs! She was a big hen and her eggs so small, and so many! Ah! she was bewitched. She was bewitching Wun Sing. She had already bewitched Mateo, yes. It began the very day the master left. On that sorrowful, august occasion that pent up, solitary fowl deposited two eggs in her softly lined nest.

"That might be. Ma's hens do that, sometimes, good breeds," said Alfy, in answer to the Chinaman's impressive statement.

With all this company of doubters around him Wun Sing felt secure enough to go on and state that on the day following there had been four eggs! Then one-then again seven-the mystic number. Latterly there had been eight, nine, as high as ten! All in one twenty-four hours! Could a fowl, free from an evil spirit, so conduct itself? No. No, indeed. Wun Sing knew what he knew. Disaster was coming. There was trouble on the wing. It would light upon San Leon. They were doomed-doomed-doomed!

"I don't believe it!" declared Leslie. "But a hen of that character ought to crow as well as cackle. How much'll you take for her, cooky? I'll buy and start a hennery to stump the world. Anybody want to go in with me on this deal? San Leon Chinese Poultry-Warranted to Make Possessors Rich! The Egg Trust of San Leon! I say, boys, the thing's just rippin'!"

"Undo that little gate, Wunny. I'm going in to collect the eggs. Come on, Alfy, or anybody," cried Dorothy, laughing. "That empty cracker box to hold them in. By the way, Wunny, when did you empty the nest?"

He assured her that he had done so the last thing before retiring on the night before. He had already taken two from it this day. Now by the cackle-there must be-Ah! he finished his speech with a wild flourish of his hands, then put them before his eyes to shield them from an uncanny sight.

Those outside the little poultry yard waited in curiosity for the others to come back. The two girls within it had their heads close together peering into the hen-temple, while Monty had squeezed his plump body through its little door with the cracker box in hand.

"Oh! I say, come out of there! How many have you found?" called Herbert. "Hurry up! Nell and Molly are getting scared. Fact!"

"I'm not," denied Molly, but Helena said nothing. It was absurd, but she was actually catching some of the Chinaman's nervousness over this most uncanny fowl. And a moment later, she was relieved to see the egg-hunters turn around and Monty emerge from that "heathen temple," the cracker box held tightly in his hand. He carried it as if it were heavy and his face was almost as solemn as the Chinaman's. The box contained eleven eggs!

Wun Sing gave one glance and fled, and trying to take the box into his own hands, Leslie dropped it-with the natural result.

"Well, they may be bewitched eggs but they can break 'allee samee!' I'm sorry, Wun Sing, but I'll pay for them! And say, did anybody ever hear of such a thing before?" asked Leslie, astonished.

Nobody had; and seeing Dr. Jones crossing the grounds at a little distance they ran to him with the marvellous tale. He listened attentively and even walked back with them to see the hen for himself. His decision put bewitchment out of the question.

"The bird is a freak of nature. I have read of such before, but they are rare. Either that-or-are you quite sure that no practical joke has been played by any of the boys-or by yourselves?"

His keen study of their faces revealed nothing mischievous on any. They were all as honestly surprised as himself, and he then made a close inspection of the little place. The pagoda stood exactly in the centre of the yard, so far from the wire-netting on every side that no arm would be long enough to reach it and drop eggs into the nest at the back. Wun Sing always kept the key of the Chinese padlock on the wire gate and entrance through it without his consent could not be made.

"It doesn't look like a hoax, and it's not to be wondered at that the Chinaman was scared. We all are-at the unusual and unexplainable. But this is simple. It is a freak of nature and the hen will probably die soon, of exhaustion."

The Doctor walked away and Molly made a funny little face behind his back.

"I call that real mean, to take the mystery out of it in that way! I've been getting delightfully goose-fleshy and creepy, just to find the spook is nothing but a silly old hen that's outdone herself. I hate to be disappointed like that. I wish something would happen, real hair-raising, as Indians, or bears, or even a few catamounts!"

"If they did, I'd like to be on the spot. I bet you, Molly Breckenridge, you'd run faster than anybody if those things did happen," teased Monty.

Saying that, he exchanged an odd glance with Leslie, who nodded and said:

"Come along, boys, let's visit Mateo in a body. Force of numbers you know. He lays it to eggs-Wunny's bewitched eggs, but I lay it to cowardice. There's nothing the matter with my valiant valet but downright scare. After proposing the thing, too, and being the best figure of all to do it. Ta, ta, ladies! We shall meet again-at feeding time. Eh, Alfy? I mean Miss Babcock!"

"Huh! Don't you think I didn't notice 't you ate more 'n anybody else of the crackers and cheese. Good-by!"

They separated, the girls to their own rooms to freshen themselves for the evening and for a long talk over the delights of this wonderful summer; yet in all their happiness, a deep regret was in their warm hearts for Jim Barlow's absence and the wish that they might know where he was and that he was well.

The lads sought Mateo in his room, and though the valet pretended slumber he was promptly roused by the energetic attentions of his visitors.

"Look here, Mateo, we know you're shamming. The fact is that after getting us all wrought up to this bear business and agreeing to take the chief part, you're afraid. Either you think the 'boys'll' get lively with their shooting-irons and hunt the bear too well, or else-I don't know what else. Only this, you can't pretend to be hoodooed or 'bewitched' with any of Wun Sing's omelettes. That's all up. The doctor's taken a hand in that and I know it isn't indigestion you're bewitched with-it's plain sneak. Now, boy, get up!"

After Leslie's long speech, that ended in the terse command, Mateo raised himself on elbow and protested:

"But it is of the illness, I, se?or, en verdad. The omelette of Wun Sing-"

"May have been a little too rich for you, Matty lad, but don't worry. That wonderful fowl has shortened her life by her own ambition. I suppose she had a certain number of eggs to lay during her earthly career and she concluded to get the job over with. She's an all right Chinee hen, but she's the one that'll die, not you nor Wunny Sing. Doctor Jones said so. We've interviewed him on the subject. Doctors know a lot. So, be decent! Get up and practise a bit."

Thus adjured by Herbert, for whom the valet had a great admiration, Mateo threw off the light covers and rose to his feet-fully dressed. He had only lain down, professing himself ill, whenever there was danger of his young master appearing.

With a swift change of front, he now fell in with the lads' notions, and thereafter followed an hour of "practice," accompanied by curious sounds and growlings. All this behind locked door and tightly shuttered windows-something almost unknown at peaceful San Leon.

At supper time there was a subdued air of mystery about the three lads, which Dorothy noticed, if none of the other girls did. Also, they were so extremely courteous and thoughtful that it was rather overdone. However, politeness was agreeable, and there followed the happiest evening the young guests had spent since the departure of Gray Lady for the east.

The fading moonlight was now supplemented by the electric lights, making the wide lawns brilliant as day, save where the deep shadows fell, black in contrast. At midnight, Dorothy awoke. Something had startled her and she sat up in bed, shivering in fear. How queer! she thought and peered through the window as if expecting some unwelcome sight. There was nothing unusual visible and, except for a curious creeping sound, as of some large body moving stealthily on the veranda floor, nothing to hear.

Strange that brave Dorothy's heart should beat so fast and she turn so cold. She wished Alfy would awake. She wanted to hear somebody speak. Then she scorned herself for her foolishness, wondering if she, too, had caught the Chinaman's terror of "bewitchment." Oh! this was horrid! Alfy would go right to sleep again, even if she were awakened, and she must, she must hear somebody human!

She opened her trembling lips to call: "Alfy! Alfy dear, please wake up!"

But the words were never uttered. Something had come into view at her open window which froze them on her lips.

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