Peter Rabbit just couldn't go back to the dear Old Briar-patch. He just had to know if Mrs. Quack would come back to the Smiling Pool. He had seen Farmer Brown's boy come there a second time and scatter wheat and corn among the brown stalks of last summer's rushes, and he had guessed why Farmer Brown's boy had done this. He had guessed that they had been put there especially for Mrs. Quack, and if she should come back as she had promised to do, he wanted to be on hand when she found those good things to eat and hear what she would say.
So Peter stayed over near the Smiling Pool and hoped with all his might that Reddy Fox or Old Man Coyote would not take it into his head to come hunting over there. As luck would have it, neither of them did, and Peter had a very pleasant time gossiping with Jerry Muskrat, listening to the sweet voices of unseen singers in the Smiling Pool,--the Hylas, which some people call peepers,--and eating the carrot which Farmer Brown's boy had left for him.
Jolly, round, red Mr. Sun was just getting ready to go to bed behind the Purple Hills when Mrs. Quack returned. The first Peter knew of her coming was the whistle of her wings as she passed over him. Several times she circled around, high over the Smiling Pool, and Peter simply stared in open-mouthed admiration at the speed with which she flew. It didn't seem possible that one so big could move through the air so fast. Twice she set her wings and seemed to just slide down almost to the surface of the Smiling Pool, only to start her stout wings in motion once more and circle around again. It was very clear that she was terribly nervous and suspicious. The third time she landed in the water with a splash and sat perfectly still with her head stretched up, looking and listening with all her might.
"It's all right. There's nothing to be afraid of," said Jerry Muskrat.
"Are you sure?" asked Mrs. Quack anxiously. "I've been fooled too often by men with their terrible guns to ever feel absolutely sure that one isn't hiding and waiting to shoot me." As she spoke she swam about nervously. "Peter Rabbit and I have been here ever since you left, and I guess we ought to know," replied Jerry Muskrat rather shortly. "There hasn't been anybody near here excepting Farmer Brown's boy, and we told you he wouldn't hurt you."
"He brought us each a carrot," Peter Rabbit broke in eagerly.
"Just the same, I wouldn't trust him," replied Mrs. Quack. "Where is he now?"
"He left ever so long ago, and he won't be back to-night," declared Peter confidently.
"I hope not," said Mrs. Quack, with a sigh. "Did you hear the bang of that terrible gun just after I left here?"
"Yes," replied Jerry Muskrat. "Was it fired at you?"
Mrs. Quack nodded and held up one wing. Peter and Jerry could see that one of the long feathers was missing. "I thought I was flying high enough to be safe," said she, "but when I reached the Big River there was a bang from the bushes on the bank, and something cut that feather out of my wing, and I felt a sharp pain in my side. It made me feel quite ill for a while, and the place is very sore now, but I guess I'm lucky that it was no worse. It is very hard work to know just how far those terrible guns can throw things at you. Next time I will fly higher."
"Where have you been since you left us?" asked Peter.
"Eight in the middle of the Big River," replied Mrs. Quack. "It was the only safe place. I didn't dare go near either shore, and I'm nearly starved. I haven't had a mouthful to eat to-day."
Peter opened his mouth to tell her of the wheat and corn left by Farmer Brown's boy and then closed it again. He would let her find it for herself. If he told her about it, she might suspect a trick and refuse to go near the place. He never had seen any one so suspicious, not even Old Man Coyote. But he couldn't blame her, after all she had been through. So he kept still and waited. He was learning, was Peter Rabbit. He was learning a great deal about Mrs. Quack.
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