XXII. The Minister's Chickens
 

Mr. Tisbett was right. And before he left, Joel was sitting on his knee, and hearing various accounts of Black Bill; how he ran away once when he was a colt, and Mr. Tisbett never caught him till he'd chased him over into Hillsbury; and how once, when the pole broke going down a hill, Black Bill had held Jerry from kicking and plunging loose, and brought 'em all down in safety to the bottom.

"I tell you, sir," declared Mr. Tisbett, bringing his big fist down on his knee, "that's a horse for you, ef ever there was one. And you shall go along of me sometime, Joe, and have a ride in th' stage-coach again, if your Ma'll let you."

"Hooray!" cried Joel, hugely pleased. "When I'm a man, Mr. Tisbett, I'm goin' to have a stage just like yours, and two horses just exactly like Black Bill."

"Take my advice," said the stage-driver, "an don't try to get two horses exactly alike, 'cause you're bound to be disappointed. Now there's Jerry; ain't a mite like Black Bill, but he's awful good to run along with him."

"Then I shall have one like Jerry, instead," decided Joel, folding his hands in great satisfaction, since Mr. Tisbett advised it so. "Now I'm going to finish my circus, and be monkey." And he began to get down from the stage-driver's knee.

"You hold on there," said Mr. Tisbett, firmly; "you've been monkey long enough, and scart your Ma and all on us nigh almost to death. Don't you go up that tree again, Joel Pepper! If you do, I won't take you on no more stage rides with me. You hear me, now."

Yes, Joel did hear, so although he whimpered and teased, and declared he hadn't played monkey more than a half a minute, and he'd lost most all his circus, Mr. Tisbett sat up stiff and straight, holding him tightly, and said, "If I hear of you goin' up that ere tree again, you don't go with me." So Joel promised he would be very good, and then he hopped down and got into Mamsie's lap, and let himself be cuddled to his heart's content.

"My land!" exploded Mrs. Beebe, when quiet was restored. "I declare, I'm all beat out. You could knock me down with a feather," she confided to Polly. "Well, well, well, that boy's saved for something. Now, Joel, why don't you have the animals now? Did you like 'em?" and she settled her glasses to get a good look at him, and assure herself that he was really uninjured. "It's a miracle," she kept saying to Grandma, who bobbed her cap all the while, as if she heard every word.

"They were awful good," said Joel, in satisfaction. "Give me the rest of 'em, Polly," and he held out his hand.

"So you shall have 'em, Joel," cried Polly, glad to think there was something she could do, and she ran and brought the little sugar cooky animals where she had fixed them in some large leaves ready for Joel to pass them around among the company at the close of the performance.

"Mamsie must have the first one," said Joel, picking out the biggest and best, with the largest currant eyes, to force it between Mrs. Pepper's pale lips, "then Polly next."

"Oh, no, Joe," said Polly, "I'm not company. Give one to Grandma and to Mrs. Beebe first."

"Oh, you pretty creature you!" exclaimed Grandma. "So you want me to have a cake?" as Joel turned to her with one in his hand.

"Tisn't a cake--it's an animal," corrected Joel, irritably.

"Yes, yes--so 'tis a cake," repeated Grandma Bascom, taking the animal.

"'Tisn't," said Joel. "Mamsie, make her stop saying things that aren't so, over and over."

"Joel," said Polly, quickly, "Mrs. Beebe hasn't any animal. Why don't you give her a--let me see," and she considered deeply. "I'd give her a bird, Joel, here's a lovely one," and she pounced on a most remarkable specimen in the bird line one would wish to see. "Mrs. Beebe, wouldn't you like that?" she asked.

"Oh, I should so," replied Mrs. Beebe, smiling all over her face to see how well Joel was, and putting out her hand. "Bless your heart, Joel, I'd rather have the bird than any other."

"Had you?" asked Joel, greatly pleased.

"Yes, indeed I had. I always set dreadfully by birds," said Mrs. Beebe. So Joel gave her the bird, then he leaned over and picked out a horse, very much baked on one side, and with one leg shorter than the other "That's for you, Mr. Tisbett," he said.

"That suits me," said Mr. Tisbett, heartily. "Well, now I never! Seems to me I can't eat it, 'twould be almost like chewing up a critter, but I'll keep it to remember you by," and he slipped it into his big pocket. Then he got up and shook himself. "And now I must be a-goin'. Don't you be a mite worried, Mrs. Pepper, take my advice; that boy'll scare you more times than you can count. So you might as well get used to it. Now look sharp, Joe, and remember what you promised."

"Phronsie must have the--"

"Oh, Joey, I want the piggie, I do," cried Phronsie, whose eyes had been fastened on the cooky animals ever since Polly had brought them up on the beautiful green leaves. "May I, Joel?" she begged.

"Hoh, that isn't good!" said Joel, disdainfully. "He's a horrid old pig."

"Hush, Joey," said Polly, and her face turned rosy red, remembering Mrs. Beebe. But old Mrs. Beebe only laughed, and said she knew the pig wasn't baked good, he would whirl over on one side in the pan. And sometime she would bake Joel a good nice one. But Phronsie kept on pleading for this particular pig. "Do, Joel, please," she begged, "give me the dear, sweet piggie." So Joel put it in her hand, when she cuddled it lovingly up against her fat little neck, not thinking of such a thing as eating it.

And then David must pick out the one he wanted, and then Ben. And then all over again, around and around, till there wasn't another cooky animal left. And when he saw that, Joel hopped down from Mamsie's lap and marched up to Mrs. Beebe. "Your animals were better'n mine," he said.

"They don't tumble out of trees," said Mrs. Beebe, laughing. And then everybody got very merry, and Polly said, Could they play a game? and Mrs. Pepper looked at Joel hopping about, and she said, Yes, with a glad thrill that her boy was safe. "It will help him to forget his accident," she said to Polly. So after all, the circus wound up with a fine ending.

And in the midst of it Mrs. Brown came panting over, having run nearly every step of the way. When she saw Joel spinning around in The Barberry Bush, she leaned against the side of the little brown house, and said, "O my!"

Mrs. Pepper hurried over to her. "Sally ran home and said Joel had tumbled from a tree, so I brought these over as soon's I could," panted Mrs. Brown, opening her apron, and there were ever so many bottles of medicine.

"O dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Pepper, with a thankful throb to think they were not wanted, and, "You are so good, Mrs. Brown."

"So we go round the barberry bush," sang Joel, piping out the loudest of any one, and kicking up his heels as he danced.

"Dear me!" said Mrs. Brown, "I never did, in all my life! Just hear that boy!"

And she hadn't been gone but a moment or two, carrying her apron full of medicines with her, before Mrs. Henderson came hurrying along down the dusty road. Her face was flushed, and she looked anxious enough. Mrs. Pepper said, "Run, Polly, and meet her, and tell her Joel is all right. Bless her! She is a parson's wife!"

So Polly ran with all her might, and stood before Mrs. Henderson, flushed and almost breathless.

"Joey's all well," she managed to say.

"Thank you, Polly," said Mrs. Henderson, smiling down into the flushed face. "And I am so glad to know it, for Peletiah came home very frightened. Well, take your mother this. Stay, I better go and see her, I guess." So she went up to the little group back in the orchard, and heard all about Joel's accident from himself, as he wanted to tell it all, up to the time when they picked him up.

Mrs. Henderson wiped her eyes many times during the recital, then she drew Joel to her. "You must come over to see my new chickens some day."

"I'll go to-morrow," said Joel, sociably, "if Mamsie'll let me."

"Oh, Joey!" reproved Mrs. Pepper. "Please excuse him," to Mrs. Henderson, "he doesn't think what he is saying."

"So you shall, Joey," said the parson's wife, with a pleasant smile, "and bring the others with you. Let them come, Mrs. Pepper, do."

"Ben can't go, of course," said Mrs. Pepper, "and Polly can't, either," and her face grew sober, "for Mr. Atkins says I may get some more coats to-morrow morning, and she's getting so she helps me a good deal."

"Never mind," said Polly, trying to laugh. How she would love to see those new chickens!

"Polly shall come some other time," said Mrs. Henderson, with a kindly smile on her face. "To-morrow afternoon, Mrs. Pepper, at three o'clock, please let them come over."

So the next afternoon Joel, with many injunctions to be good, escorted the other two children to Parson Henderson's, Mrs. Pepper and Polly watching them from the door stone as they trudged off down the road, Phronsie clinging to Joel's hand, and David on the other side.

"She's a parson's wife, now!" said Mrs. Pepper for the fiftieth time, as the children turned the bend in the road, and wiping her eyes she went back into the house to pick up her sewing and go to work. "Well, Polly, you and I will have a fine time to fly at this now."

The two needles clicked away busily enough as Polly sat down on the cricket at Mrs. Pepper's feet. "Whatever should we do without Mr. Atkins, too, Mamsie?" she said.

"Polly," said Mother Pepper, suddenly, and she laid down her work a moment, although time was precious enough, "Mother's sorry you couldn't go, too. But a nice time will come for you sometime, I hope," though she sighed.

"Never mind me, Mammy," said Polly, cheerily.

"But I can't help minding, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, sadly, "when I think how few nice times you have. But I'll try all the harder." And she picked up her work again, and made the needle fly faster than ever.

"And it's so very nice that Joel can go and see those new chickens," said Polly, suppressing a sigh, "after he fell yesterday, and Phronsie, oh, you can't think, Mamsie! how she runs on about the chickens she saw there once."

"Yes, it is nice," said Mrs. Pepper, but she sighed again.

Meantime Joel was in a state of supreme delight. Kneeling down in front of the coop, with his face pressed close to the bars, he was watching every movement of the fluffy little things, counting them over and over, and speculating what he would do if they were his, Phronsie crouching down by one side, while David was as close on the other, and all three children speechless with delight.

Presently Joel broke the silence. "I'm going to take out one," he said.

"Oh, no, Joe!" cried Davie, in alarm, and tumbling backward from the coop.

"Yes, I am," said Joel, obstinately, who never could brook interference. "It won't hurt it a bit, and I'll put it right back."

Phronsie didn't hear him, her whole attention being absorbed by the wonderful chickens. So Joel cautiously pulled up one slat of the coop a very little way. "There, you see," he cried in exultation, "I can do it just as easy as not;" when a bee, humming its way along, stung him smartly on the arm, and Joel twitched so suddenly that up went the slat quite high, and before he could stop them, out walked the old mother hen, and two of her children.

"Oh, Joe, Joe! they're out!" screamed David. Phronsie rolled over on the grass in a little ball, as Joel knocked against her, and nobody thought for a moment of shutting the bar down. So three more chickens stepped out and hopped away over the grass.

"Oh, Joe, Joe, they're all coming out!" cried David, quite beside himself with horror.

"Shut the bar! shut the bar!" screamed Joel, running hither and thither, and only making the mother frantic, in her efforts to get away from him, and to protect her brood.

"I can't," mourned Davie, tugging bravely at it. So Joel stopped chasing the hen and the chickens, and rushed up to slam down the bar, and two more chickens having hopped out in the meantime, there they were--seven downy little balls, hurrying about in a great state of excitement to reach mother, who was clucking noisily for them to hurry and come under her wing.

"Oh, Joe! see what you've done," cried Davie, in distress, trying to help in every direction, but only succeeding in getting in the way. "O dear me! You can't ever get 'em back in the coop, in all this world." Phronsie, meanwhile, picked herself up, and eagerly entered into the chase, gurgling in delight as she pattered first after one little fluffy ball, and then another.

"Yes, I can," said Joel, confidently, rushing here and there. "You stand still, Dave, and don't let 'em get by you. Then I'll drive 'em up."

But after about five minutes of this sort of work, Joel found that he couldn't do it very well, for as fast as he got one chicken headed for David, the others all scattered in every direction, while Mistress Biddy scampered and waddled and clacked to her children, till the parsonage garden seemed full of hens and chickens. At last Joel stopped and wiped his hot face, David looking at him from a distance in despair.

"You stay there, Dave, I'm going to tell 'em," and Joel marched off with an awful feeling at his heart. But he didn't dare to stop to think about it, but mounted the steps of the parsonage and went down the wide hall. There was nobody to be seen, and Joel was just going to run out to the kitchen, if, perhaps, Mrs. Henderson could be found there. Suddenly the study door opened, and there stood the minister himself in the doorway.

"Well, Joel," said Parson Henderson, kindly, "I'm glad to see you. Do you want anything, my boy?"

Joel's knees knocked together, but he answered, "I've let all the hens and chickens out."

"You've let all the hens and chickens out?" repeated the minister, but he only half understood, and stood staring down into Joel's black eyes.

"Yes, sir," said Joel, twisting his brown hands together tightly. If he should cry now, before his story was told, maybe the minister would never get those chickens into the coop. He must make him understand. "They're all running everywhere in the grass," he added miserably.

"Do you mean Mrs. Henderson's new chickens?" asked the minister, starting a bit. Then he added composedly, "Oh, no, Joel, they're quite safe. She is very particular about looking after the coop herself."

"But they are," gasped Joel. Then he forgot that it was the minister, and seized his hand. "Please--they're running awfully, and they'll die, maybe."

Parson Henderson bestowed on him a long searching gaze. "How did they get out?" he asked.

"I let 'em out," blurted Joel, "and they're all running. Do come, sir." And he fairly tugged at the minister's hand as if it had been David's.

The parson went swiftly down the long hall, Joel hanging to his hand. Just then a voice called down the winding stairs, "Jotham! Jotham!"

It was Miss Jerusha. Joel gave one glance up the stairs, and held tighter than ever to the minister's hand. "Do come," he cried, in an agony. "Oh, please! sir."

"Mehitable's chickens are out!" screamed Miss Jerusha, now appearing at the top of the stairs. She was in a short gown and petticoat, and had been doing up her hair, having just taken the ends of the side wisps out of her mouth, where she had conveyed them for the easier combing of the back locks.

"I know it," said Parson Henderson, quietly; "Joel has just told me." With that he pressed the little brown hand that was in his own.

"Go back to your room, Jerusha," he said. "I'll see to the chickens."

"And there's those other two Pepper children," cried Miss Jerusha after him, with a tart look at Joel, "all over the place. And Mehitable is baking a cake for 'em--think of it!"

"Is she baking a cake for us?" cried Joel, finding his tongue, as the minister, still holding his hand, went out toward the garden.

"Yes," said Parson Henderson, "she is, Joel."

"And I've let out all her hens and chickens!" cried Joel. "O dear, dear!" and the tears he couldn't hold back any longer rained all down his chubby face.

"See here," Parson Henderson stopped a minute, "if you're going to help me, Joel, you can't cry, that's very certain. Why, I expect you and I will have every one of those chickens safe and sound in that coop in--well, in next to no time."

"I'll help you!" cried Joel, dashing off the tears at once, and swallowing hard. "Oh, do hurry, please, Mr. Henderson," pulling hard at the kind hand.

"Softly--softly there, Joel, my boy," said the minister. "If we're going to get those chickens into that coop, we mustn't scare them to begin with. Now, you run into the barn, and get a little corn in the quart measure."

So Joel, glad of something to do, dropped the minister's hand, and ran off at lightning speed, and soon raced back again with the quart measure half full of corn.

"That's well," said Parson Henderson, approvingly. "Now then, the first thing to do is to make the mother go back into the coop. Here, Mrs. Biddy, take a bit of this nice corn." He flung out a kernel or two to the hen, whose feathers that had started up in a ruffle and fluff, at sight of Joel, now drooped, and her excited clacking stopped.

"Keep perfectly still, Joel," said Parson Henderson, over his shoulder.

All this time, Phronsie and David, at sight of Parson Henderson's approach, had stood as if frozen to the ground, never taking their eyes from his face, except to look at Joel. The parson then went along a few steps nearer to the coop, scattering one or two kernels as he went. Mistress Biddy eyed them all wistfully. "Come on," said the minister, gently.

"Cluck--cluck," said the mother hen, sociably, and she waddled slowly, and picked up the first kernels. These were so good that she came readily after the next, and so followed the parson, as he let fall two more. The little fluffy balls, when they saw their mother so employed, all scampered like mad after her, to surround her. At last, she was so busily employed, that she didn't notice that she was running into an angle formed by the coop and the end of the barn. There was a rush. A sudden squawk, and the parson emerged from this corner, with Mistress Biddy in his hands.

"Now, Joel, you can help me so much," he said cheerily. "Run and push up the bar to the coop. Be careful not to let any more chickens out. There, that's right!" In went Mistress Biddy, who gave an indignant fluff to her gray feathers, and then cackled crossly, and the bar flew down into place.

"That's fine!" exclaimed the minister in great satisfaction, getting up straight again. "Now, Joel, it won't be such a task to catch the little chickens. Come away from the coop, and they'll run up when they hear her call," which was indeed the fact. They soon began to scamper as hard as they could from all directions as Mistress Biddy set up a smart "cluck, cluck," until all of the seven were swarming over each other to get into the coop to mother.

It was surprising, then, to see the minister's hands; they seemed to be here, there, and everywhere, and to pounce upon those little fluffy balls with unerring aim, and presently, there they were, Joel lifting the bar when bidden, in the coop, "peeping" away and huddling up to the dear gray feathery nest. The chickens who hadn't run out came up, as if wanting to hear the story, and what it was like to be out in the world.

Mr. Henderson sat down on the long grass. "That's a very good job done, Joel," he said.

Just then the kitchen door opened, and a pleasant voice called, "Come, Joel and David and Phronsie Pepper, I've got a new baked cake for you."