My Favourite Stories #71

Tommy Plays Mother.

The summer that Tommy turned 9 his parents let him spend the summer holidays at Uncle Mark and Aunty Becky’s farm. There he had three cousins – George, Gary, and Henny (Short for Henrietta). It promised to be a wonderful holiday, especially since he was getting away from his city apartment.

At tea, a few nights after he arrived his cousin George said, “Let’s teach him how to use a slingshot.” George was proud of his own skill at hitting targets. “Please dad, make him a good slingshot like mine,” Gary begged.

               “You remember the rule, I hope,” Uncle mark said as he looked carefully at his younger son.

               “Yes dad,” Gary assured him hastily.” I’m remembering the rule. I wouldn’t do that for anything.”

               “What rule? You wouldn’t do what?” Tommy wanted to know.

               “We have a rule,” George explained, “that we don’t use our sling shots on any living thing.”

               Uncle Mark reminded them, “A slingshot must be used with intelligence.”

               “I think I could use one with intelligence,” Tommy commented. “I’d sure like to learn how. What do you use for a target?”

               “We put a tin can on a fence post,” George explained. “Then we see who can hit the can the most times out of ten tries.”

“I’ll help you make a good slingshot,” Uncle Mark assured Tommy. “But first you must solemnly promise never to use it on any living thing.”

               “I solemnly promise,” Tommy pledged earnestly. “When do we start making it?”

               “Right now,” Uncle Mark answered. “We boys will go out to the wood pile and find the kind of forked stick we need to begin working on.”

The boys and Henny started coaching Tommy in target practice using large empty tins, then as he got better smaller ones. Soon his skill at hitting soup cans was almost as good as his cousins. From then on Tommy and his cousins spent some time each day perfecting their skills with the slingshot. Aunt Becky told the children they would have to eat more soup to fill the demand for cans!

Tommy began to look around for other targets for his slingshot. There were fences, trees, rocks, the creek bank, and even the side of the old cowshed down in the paddock.

Henny discovered a cardinal sitting on her eggs. The bird had cleverly hidden the nest in the rosebush that climbed over the edge of the garage. When she stood on tiptoe, Henny could see in the nest, and she visited it once a day to see the progress of the hatching. Then one day Aunt Becky saw the mother cardinal carrying an insect to the nest. “Come Henrietta,” she called excitedly. “Your baby cardinals must have hatched. The mother is feeding them.”

As Henny rushed outside to look, the male cardinal appeared with insect legs poking out of his beak. Both parents had begun the job of feeding their little family. From time to time the father cardinal stopped insect hunting long enough to whistle a song of love from the top of a young tree.

Tommy looked at the cardinal and remarked, “A perfect target.” George, his oldest cousin, looked at him sternly. “Remember the rule,” he said sharply. “Never aim at any living thing.”

               “I remember,” Tommy answered sheepishly. “I was only fooling.” But when George was gone, Gary teased, “You couldn’t hit him if you tried.”

               “I don’t want to hit him,” Tommy countered, “But I could come close enough to curl his tail feathers, I believe.”

“You couldn’t either,” protested Gary. “And you hadn’t better try either.”

Tommy didn’t like having little Gary tell him what to do. “This is my slingshot, isn’t it?” he retorted hotly, as he fitted a small stone into the leather. Before he took a careful second thought, Tommy aimed and let the stone fly. He really didn’t try to hit the cardinal, but to the astonishment of both boys the cardinal stopped in the middle of his song and plummeted to the ground at their feet.

               “He’s dead,” Gary said in an awed whisper. “You got him right in the head.”

Henny had just come outside, and she saw the whole thing. “You horrid cousin!” she screamed. “How could you do it?” she rushed over to the lifeless cardinal and started to cry. Tommy felt like crying to. He certainly hadn’t intended to hit the bird. In fact, he hadn’t really aimed for it. He felt sick all over.

When Uncle Mark heard the story, he got a determined, almost-angry look on his face. He took Tommy’s sling shot and put it on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard.

               “You knew the rule, Tommy,” he said sternly.

               “But, Uncle Mark, I didn’t mean…?” Tommy defended himself.

               “What you meant can’t bring life to a dead bird,” Uncle mark Sternly remined him. He could see how badly Tommy felt about it, but a rule had been broken, and punishment was necessary.

               “You may go and bury the bird,” Uncle Mark told Tommy.

But burying the bird did not end the episode. The grief-stricken mother cardinal was so frantic over the death of her mate that she deserted her babies. After fluttering around and calling piteously for a few hours, she disappeared, never to return to the scene of the tragedy.

“Something will have to be done about feeding and caring for those cardinals now,” Aunt Becky decreed when she knew for certain that the mother bird would not be coming back.

“I’ll feed them,” Tommy volunteered, anxious to atone for his thoughtless cruelty. He went at once to dig for worms. He spent hours every day catching grasshoppers, flies, and other insects. Henny helped him with a will, for she enjoyed mothering the baby birds.

As day after day went by, the constant hunger cries of the baby cardinals kept Tommy busy hunting food almost every waking hour. He got tired of worms. He got tired of insects. He got tired of poking into open mouths the mush of bread and warm milk that Aunt Becky mixed up for them. But he couldn’t stop. He had to keep on feeding the fledglings, or they would die.

One day other cousins from a distance came to spend the day, and Tommy was planning to play by the creek with the rest of them. “Come, Tom, let’s go fishing,” one of the cousins suggested. Tommy started to get his fishing pole when someone reminded him of his responsibility.

               “Tommy can’t go,” George informed the visitors. “He has to play mother to some cardinals.” All his cousins laughed at that.

               “I’ll help you,” Henny offered gently; “Then we can both go fishing with the boys later. The birds will fly soon, and they can hunt their own food.”

Tommy, along with Henny, continued to care for his obligation until the birds began to feed for themselves. The summer ended in a flurry of fun and play and the time arrived for Tommy to return home for the beginning of school. The cousins joined in the excitement of helping him pack his two suitcases.

               “Don’t forget your slingshot,” George reminded him. He went to the kitchen to get it for him from the top shelf. Where’s your sling shot? George asked. “Do you have it packed already?”

               “No,” Tommy told him. Then he laughed. “The day the young cardinals left the nest, your father gave the slingshot back to me,” he said. “Then I threw it in the rubbish bin.”

               “How come?” asked George. “You got to be a pretty good shot.”

               “Yes,” Tommy answered, “But I don’t want to run the chance again of being mother to a batch of birds.

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