The Song of the Cardinal by Gene Stratton-Porter
"Wet year! Wet year!" prophesied the Cardinal
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 first.
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 two opinions.
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' to look."
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 the river."
"Wet year! Wet year!" rolled the Cardinal's prediction.
"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.
"Lord A'mighty!" 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, by gum!"
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 ole 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 jumpin', too.
"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 am?"
"Here! Here! Here!" whistled the Cardinal.
"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 ever.
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 sapphire sky.
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 my mate?"
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 him.
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 nature.
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!"