A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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Chapter 2 Summary

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Chapter 2: "The Mouse in the Milk—1930"

When Joey and Mary Alice are sent to Grandma Dowdel's for the second year in a row, they begin to see that this is going to be an annual event. Mary Alice in particular is not happy about this and "pitch[es] a fit." Having no choice, however, the children dutifully go. As they sit in Grandma's house one long, uneventful evening soon after their arrival, they hear a horse come by; it stops briefly, then gallops off. Moments later, there is a flash of light and a deafening explosion. Grandma goes out to investigate and discovers that her mailbox has been blown "sky high." Surveying the ruin, she mutters an ominous word: "Cowgills."

During breakfast the next morning, Mrs. Effie Wilcox comes to the door, asking to use Grandma's privy. The one at her house has been wrenched from its foundation and flung into the yard by vandals. Grandma gives her permission, then settles back into her chair, again muttering thoughtfully, "Cowgills."

Joey and Mary Alice find Grandma's Winchester Model 21 prominently displayed on the kitchen table next to a box of shells when they come down for breakfast the next morning. Grandma herself is talking to Ernie Cowgill, a hulking, dim-witted sixteen-year-old whose family runs the local dairy. Ernie has come to deliver milk, and Grandma complains to him that she found a dead mouse in one of the bottles delivered the day before. She then mentions to Ernie that she will not need anything the next day, as she will be going away.

The children know that Grandma is telling another one of her whoppers. When Joey asks what the shotgun is for, she responds cryptically, "Bait." Later that day, she catches a "good-sized mouse" in a trap, slips the grisly body into an empty bottle, then covers it with milk. After supper, when night falls, Grandma locks the door and will not allow the children to turn on the lights. The children know that some plot is afoot, but Grandma offers no explanation. All they can do is sit with her in the darkness and wait.

Much later, there is a noise outside and then the sound of someone slicing through the screen door with a file. Whispering to Joey and Mary Alice to stay behind her, Grandma creeps over to the kitchen, strikes a match, and touches it to something in her hand. She rolls the object into the kitchen, and a few seconds later, the room erupts in sound and light. Joey turns on the ceiling light, exposing all four Cowgill brothers, quaking in the corner before Grandma, who is aiming at them with the shotgun they have come to steal.

When he comes upon the ludicrous sight of his sons cowering before Grandma and her shotgun, Mr. Cowgill is conciliatory, making excuses for his sons and agreeing to pay for the damages they have caused. Surprisingly, Grandma amiably agrees, but as the smirking boys are about to leave with their parents, she calls them back and shows them the milk bottle filled with the dead mouse and pink-tinged liquid. She hints that Ernie and his brothers are the culprits in this latest mischief, suggesting slyly, "a bunch of worthless boys who'd ransack the town every night is apt to drop a mouse in the milk just before delivering to my door." Mr. Cowgill, fearful that his business will be impacted if Grandma spreads the news about the spoiled milk, asks her what she wants, and she replies, "Justice." Understanding her meaning, he takes his sons outside, lines them up against the milk wagon according to age, and "whale[s] the tar out of every one of them."

The Cowgills depart, and Mrs. Wilcox, who has tagged along with the group from the church, takes her leave shortly thereafter. With uncharacteristic civility, Grandma calls out, "'Night, Effie," as the woman she seems to so clearly dislike crosses the yard and heads down the road. Joey notes that, having taken justice into her own hands and "returned law and order to the town she claim[s] she [doesn't] give two hoots about," Grandma Dowdel looks "pretty satisfied."

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Prologue and Chapter 1 Summary

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Chapter 3 Summary