“Wet year! Wet year!” prophesied
The sumac seemed to fill his idea
of a perfect location from the very first. He
perched on a limb, and between dressing his plumage
and pecking at last year’s sour dried berries,
he sent abroad his prediction. Old Mother Nature
verified his wisdom by sending a dashing shower, but
he cared not at all for a wetting. He knew how
to turn his crimson suit into the most perfect of
water-proof coats; so he flattened his crest, sleeked
his feathers, and breasting the April downpour, kept
on calling for rain. He knew he would appear
brighter when it was past, and he seemed to know,
too, that every day of sunshine and shower would bring
nearer his heart’s desire.
He was a very Beau Brummel while he
waited. From morning until night he bathed,
dressed his feathers, sunned himself, fluffed and flirted.
He strutted and “chipped” incessantly.
He claimed that sumac for his very own, and stoutly
battled for possession with many intruders. It
grew on a densely wooded slope, and the shining river
went singing between grassy banks, whitened with spring
beauties, below it. Crowded around it were thickets
of papaw, wild grape-vines, thorn, dogwood, and red
haw, that attracted bug and insect; and just across
the old snake fence was a field of mellow mould sloping
to the river, that soon would be plowed for corn,
turning out numberless big fat grubs.
He was compelled almost hourly to
wage battles for his location, for there was something
fine about the old stag sumac that attracted homestead
seekers. A sober pair of robins began laying
their foundations there the morning the Cardinal arrived,
and a couple of blackbirds tried to take possession
before the day had passed. He had little trouble
with the robins. They were easily conquered,
and with small protest settled a rod up the bank in
a wild-plum tree; but the air was thick with “chips,”
chatter, and red and black feathers, before the blackbirds
acknowledged defeat. They were old-timers, and
knew about the grubs and the young corn; but they
also knew when they were beaten, so they moved down
stream to a scrub oak, trying to assure each other
that it was the place they really had wanted from the
The Cardinal was left boasting and
strutting in the sumac, but in his heart he found
it lonesome business. Being the son of a king,
he was much too dignified to beg for a mate, and besides,
it took all his time to guard the sumac; but his eyes
were wide open to all that went on around him, and
he envied the blackbird his glossy, devoted little
sweetheart, with all his might. He almost strained
his voice trying to rival the love-song of a skylark
that hung among the clouds above a meadow across the
river, and poured down to his mate a story of adoring
love and sympathy. He screamed a “Chip”
of such savage jealousy at a pair of killdeer lovers
that he sent them scampering down the river bank without
knowing that the crime of which they stood convicted
was that of being mated when he was not. As
for the doves that were already brooding on the line
fence beneath the maples, the Cardinal was torn between
He was alone, he was love-sick, and
he was holding the finest building location beside
the shining river for his mate, and her slowness in
coming made their devotion difficult to endure when
he coveted a true love; but it seemed to the Cardinal
that he never could so forget himself as to emulate
the example of that dove lover. The dove had
no dignity; he was so effusive he was a nuisance.
He kept his dignified Quaker mate stuffed to discomfort;
he clung to the side of the nest trying to help brood
until he almost crowded her from the eggs. He
pestered her with caresses and cooed over his love-song
until every chipmunk on the line fence was familiar
with his story. The Cardinal’s temper
was worn to such a fine edge that he darted at the
dove one day and pulled a big tuft of feathers from
his back. When he had returned to the sumac,
he was compelled to admit that his anger lay quite
as much in that he had no one to love as because the
dove was disgustingly devoted.
Every morning brought new arrivals trim
young females fresh from their long holiday, and big
boastful males appearing their brightest and bravest,
each singer almost splitting his throat in the effort
to captivate the mate he coveted. They came
flashing down the river bank, like rockets of scarlet,
gold, blue, and black; rocking on the willows, splashing
in the water, bursting into jets of melody, making
every possible display of their beauty and music;
and at times fighting fiercely when they discovered
that the females they were wooing favoured their rivals
and desired only to be friendly with them.
The heart of the Cardinal sank as
he watched. There was not a member of his immediate
family among them. He pitied himself as he wondered
if fate had in store for him the trials he saw others
suffering. Those dreadful feathered females!
How they coquetted! How they flirted! How
they sleeked and flattened their plumage, and with
half-open beaks and sparkling eyes, hopped closer
and closer as if charmed. The eager singers,
with swelling throats, sang and sang in a very frenzy
of extravagant pleading, but just when they felt sure
their little loves were on the point of surrender,
a rod distant above the bushes would go streaks of
feathers, and there was nothing left but to endure
the bitter disappointment, follow them, and begin
all over. For the last three days the Cardinal
had been watching his cousin, rose-breasted Grosbeak,
make violent love to the most exquisite little female,
who apparently encouraged his advances, only to see
him left sitting as blue and disconsolate as any human
lover, when he discovers that the maid who has coquetted
with him for a season belongs to another man.
The Cardinal flew to the very top
of the highest sycamore and looked across country
toward the Limberlost. Should he go there seeking
a swamp mate among his kindred? It was not an
endurable thought. To be sure, matters were
becoming serious. No bird beside the shining
river had plumed, paraded, or made more music than
he. Was it all to be wasted? By this time
he confidently had expected results. Only that
morning he had swelled with pride as he heard Mrs.
Jay tell her quarrelsome husband that she wished she
could exchange him for the Cardinal. Did not
the gentle dove pause by the sumac, when she left
brooding to take her morning dip in the dust, and gaze
at him with unconcealed admiration? No doubt
she devoutly wished her plain pudgy husband wore a
scarlet coat. But it is praise from one’s
own sex that is praise indeed, and only an hour ago
the lark had reported that from his lookout above
cloud he saw no other singer anywhere so splendid as
the Cardinal of the sumac. Because of these things
he held fast to his conviction that he was a prince
indeed; and he decided to remain in his chosen location
and with his physical and vocal attractions compel
the finest little cardinal in the fields to seek him.
He planned it all very carefully:
how she would hear his splendid music and come to
take a peep at him; how she would be captivated by
his size and beauty; how she would come timidly, but
come, of course, for his approval; how he would condescend
to accept her if she pleased him in all particulars;
how she would be devoted to him; and how she would
approve his choice of a home, for the sumac was in
a lovely spot for scenery, as well as nest-building.
For several days he had boasted, he
had bantered, he had challenged, he had on this last
day almost condescended to coaxing, but not one little
bright-eyed cardinal female had come to offer herself.
The performance of a brown thrush
drove him wild with envy. The thrush came gliding
up the river bank, a rusty-coated, sneaking thing of
the underbrush, and taking possession of a thorn bush
just opposite the sumac, he sang for an hour in the
open. There was no way to improve that music.
It was woven fresh from the warp and woof of his fancy.
It was a song so filled with the joy and gladness of
spring, notes so thrilled with love’s pleading
and passion’s tender pulsing pain, that at its
close there were a half-dozen admiring thrush females
gathered around. With care and deliberation
the brown thrush selected the most attractive, and
she followed him to the thicket as if charmed.
It was the Cardinal’s dream
materialized for another before his very eyes, and
it filled him with envy. If that plain brown
bird that slinked as if he had a theft to account
for, could, by showing himself and singing for an
hour, win a mate, why should not he, the most gorgeous
bird of the woods, openly flaunting his charms and
discoursing his music, have at least equal success?
Should he, the proudest, most magnificent of cardinals,
be compelled to go seeking a mate like any common
bird? Perish the thought!
He went to the river to bathe.
After finding a spot where the water flowed crystal-clear
over a bed of white limestone, he washed until he
felt that he could be no cleaner. Then the Cardinal
went to his favourite sun-parlour, and stretching
on a limb, he stood his feathers on end, and sunned,
fluffed and prinked until he was immaculate.
On the tip-top antler of the old stag
sumac, he perched and strained until his jetty whiskers
appeared stubby. He poured out a tumultuous
cry vibrant with every passion raging in him.
He caught up his own rolling echoes and changed and
varied them. He improvised, and set the shining
river ringing, “Wet year! Wet year!”
He whistled and whistled until all
birdland and even mankind heard, for the farmer paused
at his kitchen door, with his pails of foaming milk,
and called to his wife:
“Hear that, Maria! Jest
hear it! I swanny, if that bird doesn’t
stop predictin’ wet weather, I’ll get
so scared I won’t durst put in my corn afore
June. They’s some birds like killdeers
an’ bobwhites ’at can make things pretty
plain, but I never heard a bird ’at could jest
speak words out clear an’ distinct like that
fellow. Seems to come from the river bottom.
B’lieve I’ll jest step down that way an’
see if the lower field is ready for the plow yet.”
“Abram Johnson,” said
his wife, “bein’s you set up for an honest
man, if you want to trapse through slush an’
drizzle a half-mile to see a bird, why say so, but
don’t for land’s sake lay it on to plowin’
’at you know in all conscience won’t be
ready for a week yet ’thout pretendin’
Abram grinned sheepishly. “I’m
willin’ to call it the bird if you are, Maria.
I’ve been hearin’ him from the barn all
day, an’ there’s somethin’ kind
o’ human in his notes ’at takes me jest
a little diffrunt from any other bird I ever noticed.
I’m really curious to set eyes on him.
Seemed to me from his singin’ out to the barn,
it ’ud be mighty near like meetin’ folks.”
“Bosh!” exclaimed Maria.
“I don’t s’pose he sings a mite
better ’an any other bird. It’s
jest the old Wabash rollin’ up the echoes.
A bird singin’ beside the river always sounds
twicet as fine as one on the hills. I’ve
knowed that for forty year. Chances are ’at
he’ll be gone ’fore you get there.”
As Abram opened the door, “Wet
year! Wet year!” pealed the flaming prophet.
He went out, closing the door softly,
and with an utter disregard for the corn field, made
a bee line for the musician.
“I don’t know as this
is the best for twinges o’ rheumatiz,”
he muttered, as he turned up his collar and drew his
old hat lower to keep the splashing drops from his
face. “I don’t jest rightly s’pose
I should go; but I’m free to admit I’d
as lief be dead as not to answer when I get a call,
an’ the fact is, I’m called down beside
“Wet year! Wet year!” rolled the
“Thanky, old fellow! Glad
to hear you! Didn’t jest need the information,
but I got my bearin’s rightly from it! I
can about pick out your bush, an’ it’s
well along towards evenin’, too, an’ must
be mighty near your bedtime. Looks as if you
might be stayin’ round these parts! I’d
like it powerful well if you’d settle right here,
say ’bout where you are. An’ where
are you, anyway?”
Abram went peering and dodging beside
the fence, peeping into the bushes, searching for
the bird. Suddenly there was a whir of wings
and a streak of crimson.
“Scared you into the next county,
I s’pose,” he muttered.
But it came nearer being a scared
man than a frightened bird, for the Cardinal flashed
straight toward him until only a few yards away, and
then, swaying on a bush, it chipped, cheered, peeked,
whistled broken notes, and manifested perfect delight
at the sight of the white-haired old man. Abram
stared in astonishment.
he gasped. “Big as a blackbird, red as
a live coal, an’ a-comin’ right at me.
You are somebody’s pet, that’s what you
are! An’ no, you ain’t either.
Settin’ on a sawed stick in a little wire house
takes all the ginger out of any bird, an’ their
feathers are always mussy. Inside o’ a
cage never saw you, for they ain’t a feather
out o’ place on you. You are finer’n
a piece o’ red satin. An’ you got
that way o’ swingin’ an’ dancin’
an’ high-steppin’ right out in God A’mighty’s
big woods, a teeterin’ in the wind, an’
a dartin’ ’crost the water. Cage
never touched you! But you are somebody’s
pet jest the same. An’ I look like the
man, an’ you are tryin’ to tell me so,
Leaning toward Abram, the Cardinal
turned his head from side to side, and peered, “chipped,”
and waited for an answering “Chip” from
a little golden-haired child, but there was no way
for the man to know that.
“It’s jest as sure as
fate,” he said. “You think you know
me, an’ you are tryin’ to tell me somethin’.
Wish to land I knowed what you want! Are you
tryin’ to tell me `Howdy’? Well,
I don’t ’low nobody to be politer ’an
I am, so far as I know.”
Abram lifted his old hat, and the
raindrops glistened on his white hair. He squared
his shoulders and stood very erect.
“Howdy, Mr. Redbird!
How d’ye find yerself this evenin’?
I don’t jest riccolict ever seein’ you
before, but I’ll never meet you agin ‘thout
knowin’ you. When d’you arrive?
Come through by the special midnight flyer, did you?
Well, you never was more welcome any place in your
life. I’d give a right smart sum this minnit
if you’d say you came to settle on this river
bank. How do you like it? To my mind it’s
jest as near Paradise as you’ll strike on earth.
“Old Wabash is a twister for
curvin’ and windin’ round, an’ it’s
limestone bed half the way, an’ the water’s
as pretty an’ clear as in Maria’s springhouse.
An’ as for trimmin’, why say, Mr. Redbird,
I’ll jest leave it to you if she ain’t
all trimmed up like a woman’s spring bunnit.
Look at the grass a-creepin’ right down till
it’s a trailin’ in the water! Did
you ever see jest quite such fine fringy willers?
An’ you wait a little, an’ the flowerin’
mallows ’at grows long the shinin’ old
river are fine as garden hollyhocks. Maria says
’at thy’d be purtier ’an hers if
they were only double; but, Lord, Mr. Redbird, they
are! See ’em once on the bank, an’
agin in the water! An’ back a little an’
there’s jest thickets of papaw, an’ thorns,
an’ wild grape-vines, an’ crab, an’
red an’ black haw, an’ dogwood, an’
sumac, an’ spicebush, an’ trees!
Lord! Mr. Redbird, the sycamores, an’ maples,
an’ tulip, an’ ash, an’ elm trees
are so bustin’ fine ’long the old Wabash
they put ’em into poetry books an’ sing
songs about ’em. What do you think o’
that? Jest back o’ you a little there’s
a sycamore split into five trunks, any one o’
them a famous big tree, tops up ‘mong the clouds,
an’ roots diggin’ under the old river;
an’ over a little farther’s a maple ’at’s
eight big trees in one. Most anything you can
name, you can find it ’long this olé Wabash,
if you only know where to hunt for it.
“They’s mighty few white
men takes the trouble to look, but the Indians used
to know. They’d come canoein’ an’
fishin’ down the river an’ camp under
these very trees, an’ Ma ’ud git so mad
at the old squaws. Settlers wasn’t
so thick then, an’ you had to be mighty careful
not to rile ’em, an’ they’d come
a-trapesin’ with their wild berries. Woods
full o’ berries! Anybody could get ’em
by the bushel for the pickin’, an’ we
hadn’t got on to raisin’ much wheat, an’
had to carry it on horses over into Ohio to get it
milled. Took Pa five days to make the trip;
an’ then the blame old squaws ‘ud
come, an’ Ma ’ud be compelled to hand
over to ’em her big white loaves. Jest
about set her plumb crazy. Used to get up in
the night, an’ fix her yeast, an’ bake,
an’ let the oven cool, an’ hide the bread
out in the wheat bin, an’ get the smell of it
all out o’ the house by good daylight, so’s
’at she could say there wasn’t a loaf
in the cabin. Oh! if it’s good pickin’
you’re after, they’s berries for all creation
‘long the river yet; an’ jest wait a few
days till old April gets done showerin’ an’
I plow this corn field!”
Abram set a foot on the third rail
and leaned his elbows on the top. The Cardinal
chipped delightedly and hopped and tilted closer.
“I hadn’t jest ’lowed
all winter I’d tackle this field again.
I’ve turned it every spring for forty year.
Bought it when I was a young fellow, jest married
to Maria. Shouldered a big debt on it; but I
always loved these slopin’ fields, an’
my share of this old Wabash hasn’t been for
sale nor tradin’ any time this past forty year.
I’ve hung on to it like grim death, for it’s
jest that much o’ Paradise I’m plumb sure
of. First time I plowed this field, Mr. Redbird,
I only hit the high places. Jest married Maria,
an’ I didn’t touch earth any too frequent
all that summer. I’ve plowed it every year
since, an’ I’ve been ‘lowin’
all this winter, when the rheumatiz was gettin’
in its work, ‘at I’d give it up this spring
an’ turn it to medder; but I don’t know.
Once I got started, b’lieve I could go it all
right an’ not feel it so much, if you’d
stay to cheer me up a little an’ post me on the
weather. Hate the doggondest to own I’m
worsted, an’ if you say it’s stay, b’lieve
I’ll try it. Very sight o’ you kinder
warms the cockles o’ my heart all up, an’
every skip you take sets me a-wantin’ to be
“What on earth are you lookin’
for? Man! I b’lieve it’s grub!
Somebody’s been feedin’ you! An’
you want me to keep it up? Well, you struck
it all right, Mr. Redbird. Feed you? You
bet I will! You needn’t even ’rastle
for grubs if you don’t want to. Like as
not you’re feelin’ hungry right now, pickin’
bein’ so slim these airly days. Land’s
sake! I hope you don’t feel you’ve
come too soon. I’ll fetch you everything
on the place it’s likely a redbird ever teched,
airly in the mornin’ if you’ll say you’ll
stay an’ wave your torch ’long my river
bank this summer. I haven’t a scrap about
me now. Yes, I have, too! Here’s
a handful o’ corn I was takin’ to the banty
rooster; but shucks! he’s fat as a young shoat
now. Corn’s a leetle big an’ hard
for you. Mebby I can split it up a mite.”
Abram took out his jack-knife, and
dotting a row of grains along the top rail, he split
and shaved them down as fine as possible; and as he
reached one end of the rail, the Cardinal, with a spasmodic
“Chip!” dashed down and snatched a particle
from the other, and flashed back to the bush, tested,
approved, and chipped his thanks.
“Pshaw now!” said Abram,
staring wide-eyed. “Doesn’t that
beat you? So you really are a pet? Best
kind of a pet in the whole world, too! Makin’
everybody, at sees you happy, an’ havin’
some chance to be happy yourself. An’
I look like your friend? Well! Well!
I’m monstrous willin’ to adopt you if
you’ll take me; an’, as for feedin’,
from to-morrow on I’ll find time to set your
little table ’long this same rail every day.
I s’pose Maria ’ull say ’at I’m
gone plumb crazy; but, for that matter, if I ever
get her down to see you jest once, the trick’s
done with her, too, for you’re the prettiest
thing God ever made in the shape of a bird, ’at
I ever saw. Look at that topknot a wavin’
in the wind! Maybe praise to the face is open
disgrace; but I’ll take your share an’
mine, too, an’ tell you right here an’
now ’at you’re the blamedest prettiest
thing ’at I ever saw.
“But Lord! You ortn’t
be so careless! Don’t you know you ain’t
nothin’ but jest a target? Why don’t
you keep out o’ sight a little? You come
a-shinneyin’ up to nine out o’ ten men
’long the river like this, an’ your purty,
coaxin’, palaverin’ way won’t save
a feather on you. You’ll get the little
red heart shot plumb outen your little red body, an’
that’s what you’ll get. It’s
a dratted shame! An’ there’s law
to protect you, too. They’s a good big
fine for killin’ such as you, but nobody seems
to push it. Every fool wants to test his aim,
an’ you’re the brightest thing on the river
bank for a mark.
“Well, if you’ll stay
right where you are, it ’ull be a sorry day for
any cuss ’at teches you; ’at I’ll
promise you, Mr. Redbird. This land’s
mine, an’ if you locate on it, you’re mine
till time to go back to that other old fellow ’at
looks like me. Wonder if he’s any willinger
to feed you an’ stand up for you ’an I
“Here! Here! Here!” whistled
“Well, I’m mighty glad
if you’re sayin’ you’ll stay!
Guess it will be all right if you don’t meet
some o’ them Limberlost hens an’ tole off
to the swamp. Lord! the Limberlost ain’t
to be compared with the river, Mr. Redbird.
You’re foolish if you go! Talkin’
‘bout goin’, I must be goin’ myself,
or Maria will be comin’ down the line fence with
the lantern; an’, come to think of it, I’m
a little moist, not to say downright damp. But
then you warned me, didn’t you, old fellow?
Well, I told Maria seein’ you ‘ud be
like meetin’ folks, an’ it has been.
Good deal more’n I counted on, an’ I’ve
talked more’n I have in a whole year.
Hardly think now ‘at I’ve the reputation
o’ being a mighty quiet fellow, would you?”
Abram straightened and touched his
hat brim in a trim half military salute. “Well,
good-bye, Mr. Redbird. Never had more pleasure
meetin’ anybody in my life ’cept first
time I met Maria. You think about the plowin’,
an’, if you say `stay,’ it’s a go!
Good-bye; an’ do be a little more careful o’
yourself. See you in the mornin’, right
after breakfast, no count taken o’ the weather.”
“Wet year! Wet year!”
called the Cardinal after his retreating figure.
Abram turned and gravely saluted the
second time. The Cardinal went to the top rail
and feasted on the sweet grains of corn until his craw
was full, and then nestled in the sumac and went to
sleep. Early next morning he was abroad and
in fine toilet, and with a full voice from the top
of the sumac greeted the day “Wet
year! Wet year!”
Far down the river echoed his voice
until it so closely resembled some member of his family
replying that he followed, searching the banks mile
after mile on either side, until finally he heard voices
of his kind. He located them, but it was only
several staid old couples, a long time mated, and
busy with their nest-building. The Cardinal
returned to the sumac, feeling a degree lonelier than
He decided to prospect in the opposite
direction, and taking wing, he started up the river.
Following the channel, he winged his flight for miles
over the cool sparkling water, between the tangle of
foliage bordering the banks. When he came to
the long cumbrous structures of wood with which men
had bridged the river, where the shuffling feet of
tired farm horses raised clouds of dust and set the
echoes rolling with their thunderous hoof beats, he
was afraid; and rising high, he sailed over them in
short broken curves of flight. But where giant
maple and ash, leaning, locked branches across the
channel in one of old Mother Nature’s bridges
for the squirrels, he knew no fear, and dipped so low
beneath them that his image trailed a wavering shadow
on the silver path he followed.
He rounded curve after curve, and
frequently stopping on a conspicuous perch, flung
a ringing challenge in the face of the morning.
With every mile the way he followed grew more beautiful.
The river bed was limestone, and the swiftly flowing
water, clear and limpid. The banks were precipitate
in some places, gently sloping in others, and always
crowded with a tangle of foliage.
At an abrupt curve in the river he
mounted to the summit of a big ash and made boastful
prophecy, “Wet year! Wet year!” and
on all sides there sprang up the voices of his kind.
Startled, the Cardinal took wing. He followed
the river in a circling flight until he remembered
that here might be the opportunity to win the coveted
river mate, and going slower to select the highest
branch on which to display his charms, he discovered
that he was only a few yards from the ash from which
he had made his prediction. The Cardinal flew
over the narrow neck and sent another call, then without
awaiting a reply, again he flashed up the river and
circled Horseshoe Bend. When he came to the
same ash for the third time, he understood.
The river circled in one great curve.
The Cardinal mounted to the tip-top limb of the ash
and looked around him. There was never a fairer
sight for the eye of man or bird. The mist and
shimmer of early spring were in the air. The
Wabash rounded Horseshoe Bend in a silver circle,
rimmed by a tangle of foliage bordering both its banks;
and inside lay a low open space covered with waving
marsh grass and the blue bloom of sweet calamus.
Scattered around were mighty trees, but conspicuous
above any, in the very center, was a giant sycamore,
split at its base into three large trees, whose waving
branches seemed to sweep the face of heaven, and whose
roots, like miserly fingers, clutched deep into the
black muck of Rainbow Bottom.
It was in this lovely spot that the
rainbow at last materialized, and at its base, free
to all humanity who cared to seek, the Great Alchemist
had left His rarest treasures the gold of
sunshine, diamond water-drops, emerald foliage, and
For good measure, there were added
seeds, berries, and insects for the birds; and wild
flowers, fruit, and nuts for the children. Above
all, the sycamore waved its majestic head.
It made a throne that seemed suitable
for the son of the king; and mounting to its topmost
branch, for miles the river carried his challenge:
“Ho, cardinals! Look this way! Behold
me! Have you seen any other of so great size?
Have you any to equal my grace? Who can whistle
so loud, so clear, so compelling a note? Who will
fly to me for protection? Who will come and be
He flared his crest high, swelled
his throat with rolling notes, and appeared so big
and brilliant that among the many cardinals that had
gathered to hear, there was not one to compare with
Black envy filled their hearts.
Who was this flaming dashing stranger, flaunting
himself in the faces of their females? There were
many unmated cardinals in Rainbow Bottom, and many
jealous males. A second time the Cardinal, rocking
and flashing, proclaimed himself; and there was a
note of feminine approval so strong that he caught
it. Tilting on a twig, his crest flared to full
height, his throat swelled to bursting, his heart
too big for his body, the Cardinal shouted his challenge
for the third time; when clear and sharp arose a cry
in answer, “Here! Here! Here!”
It came from a female that had accepted the caresses
of the brightest cardinal in Rainbow Bottom only the
day before, and had spent the morning carrying twigs
to a thicket of red haws.
The Cardinal, with a royal flourish,
sprang in air to seek her; but her outraged mate was
ahead of him, and with a scream she fled, leaving a
tuft of feathers in her mate’s beak. In
turn the Cardinal struck him like a flashing rocket,
and then red war waged in Rainbow Bottom. The
females scattered for cover with all their might.
The Cardinal worked in a kiss on one poor little
bird, too frightened to escape him; then the males
closed in, and serious business began. The Cardinal
would have enjoyed a fight vastly with two or three
opponents; but a half-dozen made discretion better
than valour. He darted among them, scattering
them right and left, and made for the sycamore.
With all his remaining breath, he insolently repeated
his challenge; and then headed down stream for the
sumac with what grace he could command.
There was an hour of angry recrimination
before sweet peace brooded again in Rainbow Bottom.
The newly mated pair finally made up; the females
speedily resumed their coquetting, and forgot the captivating
stranger all save the poor little one that
had been kissed by accident. She never had been
kissed before, and never had expected that she would
be, for she was a creature of many misfortunes of every
She had been hatched from a fifth
egg to begin with; and every one knows the disadvantage
of beginning life with four sturdy older birds on
top of one. It was a meager egg, and a feeble
baby that pipped its shell. The remainder of
the family stood and took nearly all the food so that
she almost starved in the nest, and she never really
knew the luxury of a hearty meal until her elders
had flown. That lasted only a few days; for
the others went then, and their parents followed them
so far afield that the poor little soul, clamouring
alone in the nest, almost perished. Hunger-driven,
she climbed to the edge and exercised her wings until
she managed some sort of flight to a neighbouring bush.
She missed the twig and fell to the ground, where she
lay cold and shivering.
She cried pitifully, and was almost
dead when a brown-faced, barefoot boy, with a fishing-pole
on his shoulder, passed and heard her.
“Poor little thing, you are
almost dead,” he said. “I know what
I’ll do with you. I’ll take you
over and set you in the bushes where I heard those
other redbirds, and then your ma will feed you.”
The boy turned back and carefully
set her on a limb close to one of her brothers, and
there she got just enough food to keep her alive.
So her troubles continued. Once
a squirrel chased her, and she saved herself by crowding
into a hole so small her pursuer could not follow.
The only reason she escaped a big blue racer when she
went to take her first bath, was that a hawk had his
eye on the snake and snapped it up at just the proper
moment to save the poor, quivering little bird.
She was left so badly frightened that she could not
move for a long time.
All the tribulations of birdland fell
to her lot. She was so frail and weak she lost
her family in migration, and followed with some strangers
that were none too kind. Life in the South had
been full of trouble. Once a bullet grazed her
so closely she lost two of her wing quills, and that
made her more timid than ever. Coming North,
she had given out again and finally had wandered into
Rainbow Bottom, lost and alone.
She was such a shy, fearsome little
body, the females all flouted her; and the males never
seemed to notice that there was material in her for
a very fine mate. Every other female cardinal
in Rainbow Bottom had several males courting her,
but this poor, frightened, lonely one had never a
suitor; and she needed love so badly! Now she
had been kissed by this magnificent stranger!
Of course, she knew it really was
not her kiss. He had intended it for the bold
creature that had answered his challenge, but since
it came to her, it was hers, in a way, after all.
She hid in the underbrush for the remainder of the
day, and was never so frightened in all her life.
She brooded over it constantly, and morning found her
at the down curve of the horseshoe, straining her
ears for the rarest note she ever had heard.
All day she hid and waited, and the following days
were filled with longing, but he never came again.
So one morning, possessed with courage
she did not understand, and filled with longing that
drove her against her will, she started down the river.
For miles she sneaked through the underbrush, and
watched and listened; until at last night came, and
she returned to Rainbow Bottom. The next morning
she set out early and flew to the spot from which
she had turned back the night before. From there
she glided through the bushes and underbrush, trembling
and quaking, yet pushing stoutly onward, straining
her ears for some note of the brilliant stranger’s.
It was mid-forenoon when she reached
the region of the sumac, and as she hopped warily
along, only a short distance from her, full and splendid,
there burst the voice of the singer for whom she was
searching. She sprang into air, and fled a mile
before she realized that she was flying. Then
she stopped and listened, and rolling with the river,
she heard those bold true tones. Close to earth,
she went back again, to see if, unobserved, she could
find a spot where she might watch the stranger that
had kissed her. When at last she reached a place
where she could see him plainly, his beauty was so
bewildering, and his song so enticing that she gradually
hopped closer and closer without knowing she was moving.
High in the sumac the Cardinal had
sung until his throat was parched, and the fountain
of hope was almost dry. There was nothing save
defeat from overwhelming numbers in Rainbow Bottom.
He had paraded, and made all the music he ever had
been taught, and improvised much more. Yet no
one had come to seek him. Was it of necessity
to be the Limberlost then? This one day more
he would retain his dignity and his location.
He tipped, tilted, and flirted. He whistled,
and sang, and trilled. Over the lowland and up
and down the shining river, ringing in every change
he could invent, he sent for the last time his prophetic
message, “Wet year! Wet year!”