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The Hen Of Wun Sing








From: Dorothy On A Ranch

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, Senor 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, senor, 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.





Next: The Grizzly And The Indians

Previous: Play That Was Work And Work That Was Play



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