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2. The Yellow Hen
A strange noise awoke Dorothy, who opened her eyes to find that day had dawned and the sun was shining brightly in a clear sky. She had been dreaming that she was back in Kansas again, and playing in the old barn-yard with the calves and pigs and chickens all around her; and at first, as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, she really imagined she was there.
"Kut-kut-kut, ka-daw-kut! Kut-kut-kut, ka-daw-kut!"
Ah; here again was the strange noise that had awakened her. Surely it was a hen cackling! But her wide-open eyes first saw, through the slats of the coop, the blue waves of the ocean, now calm and placid, and her thoughts flew back to the past night, so full of danger and discomfort. Also she began to remember that she was a waif of the storm, adrift upon a treacherous and unknown sea.
"Kut-kut-kut, ka-daw-w-w - kut!"
"What's that?" cried Dorothy, starting to her feet.
"Why, I've just laid an egg, that's all," replied a small, but sharp and distinct voice, and looking around her the little girl discovered a yellow hen squatting in the opposite corner of the coop.
"Dear me!" she exclaimed, in surprise; "have YOU been here all night, too?"
"Of course," answered the hen, fluttering her wings and yawning. "When the coop blew away from the ship I clung fast to this corner, with claws and beak, for I knew if I fell into the water I'd surely be drowned. Indeed, I nearly drowned, as it was, with all that water washing over me. I never was so wet before in my life!"
"Yes," agreed Dorothy, "it was pretty wet, for a time, I know. But do you feel comfor'ble now?"
"Not very. The sun has helped to dry my feathers, as it has your dress, and I feel better since I laid my morning egg. But what's to become of us, I should like to know, afloat on this big pond?"
"I'd like to know that, too," said Dorothy. "But, tell me; how does it happen that you are able to talk? I thought hens could only cluck and cackle."
"Why, as for that," answered the yellow hen thoughtfully, "I've clucked and cackled all my life, and never spoken a word before this morning, that I can remember. But when you asked a question, a minute ago, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to answer you. So I spoke, and I seem to keep on speaking, just as you and other human beings do. Strange, isn't it?"
"Very," replied Dorothy. "If we were in the Land of Oz, I wouldn't think it so queer, because many of the animals can talk in that fairy country. But out here in the ocean must be a good long way from Oz."
"How is my grammar?" asked the yellow hen, anxiously. "Do I speak quite properly, in your judgment?"
"Yes," said Dorothy, "you do very well, for a beginner."
"I'm glad to know that," continued the yellow hen, in a confidential tone; "because, if one is going to talk, it's best to talk correctly. The red rooster has often said that my cluck and my cackle were quite perfect; and now it's a comfort to know I am talking properly."
"I'm beginning to get hungry," remarked Dorothy. "It's breakfast time; but there's no breakfast."
"You may have my egg," said the yellow hen. "I don't care for it, you know."
"Don't you want to hatch it?" asked the little girl, in surprise.
"No, indeed; I never care to hatch eggs unless I've a nice snug nest, in some quiet place, with a baker's dozen of eggs under me. That's thirteen, you know, and it's a lucky number for hens. So you may as well eat this egg."
"Oh, I couldn't POSS'BLY eat it, unless it was cooked," exclaimed Dorothy. "But I'm much obliged for your kindness, just the same."
"Don't mention it, my dear," answered the hen, calmly, and began pruning her feathers.
For a moment Dorothy stood looking out over the wide sea. She was still thinking of the egg, though; so presently she asked:
"Why do you lay eggs, when you don't expect to hatch them?"
"It's a habit I have," replied the yellow hen. "It has always been my pride to lay a fresh egg every morning, except when I'm moulting. I never feel like having my morning cackle till the egg is properly laid, and without the chance to cackle I would not be happy."
"It's strange," said the girl, reflectively; "but as I'm not a hen I can't be 'spected to understand that."
"Certainly not, my dear."
Then Dorothy fell silent again. The yellow hen was some company, and a bit of comfort, too; but it was dreadfully lonely out on the big ocean, nevertheless.
After a time the hen flew up and perched upon the topmost slat of the coop, which was a little above Dorothy's head when she was sitting upon the bottom, as she had been doing for some moments past.
"Why, we are not far from land!" exclaimed the hen.
"Where? Where is it?" cried Dorothy, jumping up in great excitement.
"Over there a little way," answered the hen, nodding her head in a certain direction. "We seem to be drifting toward it, so that before noon we ought to find ourselves upon dry land again."
"I shall like that!" said Dorothy, with a little sigh, for her feet and legs were still wetted now and then by the sea-water that came through the open slats.
"So shall I," answered her companion. "There is nothing in the world so miserable as a wet hen."
The land, which they seemed to be rapidly approaching, since it grew more distinct every minute, was quite beautiful as viewed by the little girl in the floating hen-coop. Next to the water was a broad beach of white sand and gravel, and farther back were several rocky hills, while beyond these appeared a strip of green trees that marked the edge of a forest. But there were no houses to be seen, nor any sign of people who might inhabit this unknown land.
"I hope we shall find something to eat," said Dorothy, looking eagerly at the pretty beach toward which they drifted. "It's long past breakfast time, now."
"I'm a trifle hungry, myself," declared the yellow hen.
"Why don't you eat the egg?" asked the child. "You don't need to have your food cooked, as I do."
"Do you take me for a cannibal?" cried the hen, indignantly. "I do not know what I have said or done that leads you to insult me!"
"I beg your pardon, I'm sure Mrs. - Mrs. - by the way, may I inquire your name, ma'am?" asked the little girl.
"My name is Bill," said the yellow hen, somewhat gruffly.
"Bill! Why, that's a boy's name."
"What difference does that make?"
"You're a lady hen, aren't you?"
"Of course. But when I was first hatched out no one could tell whether I was going to be a hen or a rooster; so the little boy at the farm where I was born called me Bill, and made a pet of me because I was the only yellow chicken in the whole brood. When I grew up, and he found that I didn't crow and fight, as all the roosters do, he did not think to change my name, and every creature in the barn-yard, as well as the people in the house, knew me as 'Bill.' So Bill I've always been called, and Bill is my name."
"But it's all wrong, you know," declared Dorothy, earnestly; "and, if you don't mind, I shall call you 'Billina.' Putting the 'eena' on the end makes it a girl's name, you see."
"Oh, I don't mind it in the least," returned the yellow hen. "It doesn't matter at all what you call me, so long as I know the name means ME."
"Very well, Billina. MY name is Dorothy Gale - just Dorothy to my friends and Miss Gale to strangers. You may call me Dorothy, if you like. We're getting very near the shore. Do you suppose it is too deep for me to wade the rest of the way?"
"Wait a few minutes longer. The sunshine is warm and pleasant, and we are in no hurry."
"But my feet are all wet and soggy," said the girl. "My dress is dry enough, but I won't feel real comfor'ble till I get my feet dried."
She waited, however, as the hen advised, and before long the big wooden coop grated gently on the sandy beach and the dangerous voyage was over.
It did not take the castaways long to reach the shore, you may be sure. The yellow hen flew to the sands at once, but Dorothy had to climb over the high slats. Still, for a country girl, that was not much of a feat, and as soon as she was safe ashore Dorothy drew off her wet shoes and stockings and spread them upon the sun-warmed beach to dry.
Then she sat down and watched Billina, who was pick-pecking away with her sharp bill in the sand and gravel, which she scratched up and turned over with her strong claws.
"What are you doing?" asked Dorothy.
"Getting my breakfast, of course," murmured the hen, busily pecking away.
"What do you find?" inquired the girl, curiously.
"Oh, some fat red ants, and some sand-bugs, and once in a while a tiny crab. They are very sweet and nice, I assure you."
"How dreadful!" exclaimed Dorothy, in a shocked voice.
"What is dreadful?" asked the hen, lifting her head to gaze with one bright eye at her companion.
"Why, eating live things, and horrid bugs, and crawly ants. You ought to be 'SHAMED of yourself!"
"Goodness me!" returned the hen, in a puzzled tone; "how queer you are, Dorothy! Live things are much fresher and more wholesome than dead ones, and you humans eat all sorts of dead creatures."
"We don't!" said Dorothy.
"You do, indeed," answered Billina. "You eat lambs and sheep and cows and pigs and even chickens."
"But we cook 'em," said Dorothy, triumphantly.
"What difference does that make?"
"A good deal," said the girl, in a graver tone. "I can't just 'splain the diff'rence, but it's there. And, anyhow, we never eat such dreadful things as BUGS."
"But you eat the chickens that eat the bugs," retorted the yellow hen, with an odd cackle. "So you are just as bad as we chickens are."
This made Dorothy thoughtful. What Billina said was true enough, and it almost took away her appetite for breakfast. As for the yellow hen, she continued to peck away at the sand busily, and seemed quite contented with her bill-of-fare.
Finally, down near the water's edge, Billina stuck her bill deep into the sand, and then drew back and shivered.
"Ow!" she cried. "I struck metal, that time, and it nearly broke my beak."
"It prob'bly was a rock," said Dorothy, carelessly.
"Nonsense. I know a rock from metal, I guess," said the hen. "There's a different feel to it."
"But there couldn't be any metal on this wild, deserted seashore," persisted the girl. "Where's the place? I'll dig it up, and prove to you I'm right,"
Billina showed her the place where she had "stubbed her bill," as she expressed it, and Dorothy dug away the sand until she felt something hard. Then, thrusting in her hand, she pulled the thing out, and discovered it to be a large sized golden key - rather old, but still bright and of perfect shape.
"What did I tell you?" cried the hen, with a cackle of triumph. "Can I tell metal when I bump into it, or is the thing a rock?"
"It's metal, sure enough," answered the child, gazing thoughtfully at the curious thing she had found. "I think it is pure gold, and it must have lain hidden in the sand for a long time. How do you suppose it came there, Billina? And what do you suppose this mysterious key unlocks?"
"I can't say," replied the hen. "You ought to know more about locks and keys than I do."
Dorothy glanced around. There was no sign of any house in that part of the country, and she reasoned that every key must fit a lock and every lock must have a purpose. Perhaps the key had been lost by somebody who lived far away, but had wandered on this very shore.
Musing on these things the girl put the key in the pocket of her dress and then slowly drew on her shoes and stockings, which the sun had fully dried.
"I b'lieve, Billina," she said, "I'll have a look 'round, and see if I can find some breakfast."
Turn to the next chapter: 3. Letters in the Sand