P ETER RABBIT sat in a thicket of young trees on the edge of the Green Forest. It was warm and Peter was feeling lazy. He had nothing in particular to do, and as he knew of no cooler place he had squatted there to doze a bit and dream a bit. So far as he knew, Peter was all alone. He hadn't seen anybody when he entered that little thicket, and though he had listened he hadn't heard a sound to indicate that he didn't have that thicket quite to himself. It was very quiet there, and though when he first entered he hadn't the least intention in the world of going to sleep, it wasn't long before he was dozing.
Now Peter is a light sleeper, as all little people who never know when they may have to run for their lives must be. By and by he awoke with a start, and he was very wide awake indeed. Something had wakened him, though just what it was he couldn't say. His long ears stood straight up as he listened with all his might for some little sound which might mean danger. His wobbly little nose wobbled very fast indeed as it tested the air for the scent of a possible enemy. Very alert was Peter as he waited.
For a few minutes he heard nothing and saw nothing. Then, near the outer edge of the thicket, he heard a great rustling of dry leaves. It must have been this that had wakened him. For just an instant Peter was startled, but only for an instant. His long ears told him at once that that noise was made by some one scratching among the leaves, and he knew that no one who did not wear feathers could scratch like that.
"Now who can that be?" thought Peter, and stole forward very softly towards the place from which the sound came. Presently, as he peeped between the stems of the young trees, he saw the brown leaves which carpeted the ground fly this way and that, and in the midst of them was an exceedingly busy person, a little smaller than Welcome Robin, scratching away for dear life. Every now and then he picked up something.
His head, throat, back and breast were black. Beneath he was white. His sides were reddish-brown. His tail was black and white, and the longer feathers of his wings were edged with white. It was Chewink the Towhee, sometimes called Ground Robin.
Peter chuckled, but it was a noiseless chuckle. He kept perfectly still, for it was fun to watch some one who hadn't the least idea that he was being watched. It was quite clear that Chewink was hungry and that under those dry leaves he was finding a good meal. His feet were made for scratching and he certainly knew how to use them. For some time Peter sat there watching. He had just about made up his mind that he would make his presence known and have a bit of morning gossip when, happening to look out beyond the edge of the little thicket, he saw something red. It was something alive, for it was moving very slowly and cautiously towards the place where Chewink was so busy and forgetful of everything but his breakfast. Peter knew that there was only one person with a coat of that color. It was Reddy Fox, and quite plainly Reddy was hoping to catch Chewink.
For a second or two Peter was quite undecided what to do. He couldn't warn Chewink without making his own presence known to Reddy Fox. Of course he could sit perfectly still and let Chewink be caught, but that was such a dreadful thought that Peter didn't consider it for more than a second or two. He suddenly thumped the ground with his feet. It was his danger signal which all his friends know. Then he turned and scampered lipperty-lipperty-lip to a thick bramble-tangle not far behind him.
At the sound of that thump Chewink instantly flew up in a little tree. Then he saw Reddy Fox and began to scold. As for Reddy, he looked over towards the bramble-tangle and snarled. "I'll get you one of these days, Peter Rabbit," said he. "I'll get you one of these days and pay you up for cheating me out of a breakfast." Without so much as a glance at Chewink, Reddy turned and trotted off, trying his best to look dignified and as if he had never entertained such a thought as trying to catch Chewink.
From his perch Chewink watched until he was sure that Reddy Fox had gone away for good. Then he called softly, "Towhee! Towhee! Chewink! Chewink! All is safe now, Peter Rabbit. Come out and talk with me and let me tell you how grateful to you I am for saving my life."
Chewink flew down to the ground and Peter crept out of the bramble-tangle. "It wasn't anything," declared Peter. "I saw Reddy and I knew you didn't, so of course I gave the alarm. You would have done the same thing for me. Do you know, Chewink, I've wondered a great deal about you."
"What have you wondered about me?" asked Chewink.
"I've wondered what family you belong to," replied Peter.
Chewink chuckled. "I belong to a big family," said he. "I belong to the biggest family among the birds. It is the Finch and Sparrow family. There are a lot of us and a good many of us don't look much alike, but still we belong to the same family. I suppose you know that Rosebreast the Grosbeak and Glory the Cardinal are members of my family."
"I didn't know it," replied Peter, "but if you say it is so I suppose it must be so. It is easier to believe than it is to believe that you are related to the Sparrows."
"Nevertheless I am," retorted Chewink.
"What were you scratching for when I first saw you?" asked Peter.
"Oh, worms and bugs that hide under the leaves," replied Chewink carelessly. "You have no idea how many of them hide under dead leaves."
"Do you eat anything else?" asked Peter.
"Berries and wild fruits in season," replied Chewink. "I'm very fond of them. They make a variety in the bill of fare."
"I've noticed that I seldom see you up in the tree tops," remarked Peter.
"I like the ground better," replied Chewink. "I spend more of my time on the ground than anywhere else."
"I suppose that means that you nest on the ground," ventured Peter.
Chewink nodded. "Of course," said he. "As a matter of fact, I've got a nest in this very thicket. Mrs. Towhee is on it right now, and I suspect she's worrying and anxious to know what happened over here when you warned me about Reddy Fox. I think I must go over and set her mind at rest."
Peter was just about to ask if he might go along and see that nest when a new voice broke in.
"What are you fellows talking about?" it demanded, and there flitted just in front of Peter a little bird the size of a Sparrow but lovelier than any Sparrow of Peter's acquaintance. At first glance he seemed to be all blue, and such a lovely bright blue. But as he paused for an instant Peter saw that his wings and tail were mostly black and that the lovely blue was brightest on his head and back. It was Indigo the Bunting.
"We were talking about our family," replied Chewink. "I was telling Peter that we belong to the largest family among the birds."
"But you didn't say anything about Indigo," interrupted Peter. "Do you mean to say that he belongs to the same family?"
"I surely do," replied Indigo. "I'm rather closely related to the Sparrow branch. Don't I look like a Sparrow?"
Peter looked at Indigo closely. "In size and shape you do," he confessed, "but just the same I should never in the world have thought of connecting you with the Sparrows."
"How about me?" asked another voice, and a little brown bird flew up beside Indigo, twitching her tail nervously. She looked very Sparrow-like indeed, so much so, that if Peter had not seen her with her handsome mate, for she was Mrs. Indigo, he certainly would have taken her for a Sparrow.
Only on her wings and tail was there any of the blue which made Indigo's coat so beautiful, and this was only a faint tinge.
"I'll have to confess that so far as you are concerned it isn't hard to think of you as related to the Sparrows," declared Peter. "Don't you sometimes wish you were as handsomely dressed as Indigo?"
Mrs. Indigo shook her head in a most decided way. "Never!" she declared. "I have worries enough raising a family as it is, but if I had a coat like his I wouldn't have a moment of peace. You have no idea how I worry about him sometimes. You ought to be thankful, Peter Rabbit, that you haven't a coat like his. It attracts altogether too much attention."
Peter tried to picture himself in a bright blue coat and laughed right out at the mere thought, and the others joined with him. Then Indigo flew up to the top of a tall tree not far away and began to sing. It was a lively song and Peter enjoyed it thoroughly. Mrs. Indigo took this opportunity to slip away unobserved, and when Peter looked around for Chewink, he too had disappeared. He had gone to tell Mrs. Chewink that he was quite safe and that she had nothing to worry about.