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Bugle Song


ISSUE:  Summer 1938

There had been a wind during the night, and all the loneliness of the world had swept up out of the southwest. The boy had heard it wailing through the screens of the sleeping porch where he lay, and he had heard the wash tub bang loose from the outside wall and roll down toward the coulee, and the slam of the screen doors, and his mother’s padding feet after she rose to fasten things down. Through one half-open eye he had peered up from his pillow to see the moon skimming windily in a luminous sky; in his mind he had seen the prairie outside with its woolly grass and cactus white under the moon, and the wind, whining across that endless oceanic land, sang in the screens, and sang him back to sleep.

Now, after breakfast, when he set out through the west pasture on the morning round of his gopher traps, there was no more wind, but the air smelled somehow recently swept and dusted, as the house in town sometimes smelled after his mother’s whirlwind cleaning. The sun was gently warm on the bony shoulder blades of the boy, and he whistled, and whistling turned to see if the Bearpaws were in sight to the south. There they were, a ghostly tenuous outline of white just breaking over the bulge of the world: the Mountains of the Moon, the place of running streams and timber and cool heights that he had never seen—only dreamed of on days when the baked clay of the farmyard cracked in the heat and the sun brought cedar smells from fence posts long since split and dry and odorless, when he lay dreaming on the bed in the sleeping porch with a Sears Roebuck catalogue open before him, picking out the presents he would buy for his mother and his father and his friends next Christmas, or the Christmas after that. On those days he looked often and long at the snowy mountains to the south, while the dreams rose in him like heat waves, blurring the reality of the unfinished shack that was his summer home.

The Bearpaws were there now, and he watched them a moment, walking, his feet dodging cactus clumps automatically, before he turned his attention again to the traps before him, their locations marked by a zigzag line of stakes. He ran the line at a half-trot, whistling.

At the first stake the chain was stretched tightly into the hole. The pull on its lower end had dug a little channel in the soft earth of the mound. Gently, so as not to break the gopher’s leg off, the boy eased the trap out of the burrow, held the chain in his left hand, and loosened the stake with his right. The gopher lunged against the heavy trap, but it did not squeal. They squealed, the boy had noticed, only when at a distance, or when the weasel had them. Otherwise they kept still.

For a moment the boy debated whether to keep this one alive for the weasel or to wait till the last trap so that he wouldn’t have to carry the live one around. Deciding to wait, he held the chain out, measured the rodent for a moment, and swung. The knobbed end of the stake crushed the animal’s skull, and the eyes popped out of the head, round and blue. A trickle of blood started from nose and ears.

Releasing the gopher, the boy lifted it by the tail and snapped its tail-fur off with a dexterous flip. Then he stowed the trophy carefully in the breast pocket of his overalls. For the last two years he had won the grand prize offered by the province of Saskatchewan to the school child who destroyed the most gophers. On the mantel in town were two silver loving cups, and in a shoe box under his bed in the farmhouse there were already eight hundred and forty tails, the catch of three weeks. His whole life on the farm was devoted to the destruction of the rodents. In the wheat fields he distributed poison, but in the pasture, where stock might get the tainted grain, he trapped, snared, or shot them. Any method he preferred to poisoning: that offered no excitement, and he seldom got the tails because the gophers crawled down their holes to die.

Picking up trap and stake, the boy kicked the dead animal down its burrow and scraped dirt over it with his foot. They stunk up the pasture if they weren’t buried, and the bugs got into them. Frequently he had stood to windward of a dead and swollen gopher, watching the body shift and move with the movements of the beetles and crawling things working through it. If such an infested corpse were turned over, the beetles would roar out of it, great orange-colored, hard-shelled, scavenging things that made his blood curdle at the thought of their touching him, and after they were gone and he looked again he would see the little black ones, undisturbed, seething through the rotten flesh. So he always buried his dead, now.

Through the gardens of red and yellow cactus blooms he went whistling, half-trotting, setting the traps anew whenever a gopher shot upright, squeaked, and ducked down its burrow at his approach. All but two of the first seventeen traps held gophers, and he came to the eighteenth confidently, expecting to take this one alive. But this gopher had gone into the trap head first, and the boy put back into his pocket the salt sack he had brought along as a game bag. He would have to snare or trap one down by the dam.

On the way back he stopped with bent head while he counted his day’s catch of tails, mentally adding this lot of sixteen to the eight hundred and forty he already had, trying to remember how many he had had at this time last year. As he finished his mathematics his whistle broke out again, and he galloped down through the pasture, running for very abundance of life, until he came to the chicken house just within the plowed fireguard.

Under the eaves of the chicken house, so close that the hens were constantly pecking up to its very door and then almost losing their wits with fright, was the made-over beer case that contained the weasel. Screen had been tacked tightly under the wooden lid, which latched, and in the screen was cut a tiny wire door. In the front, along the bottom, a single board had been removed and replaced with screen.

The boy lifted the hinged top and looked down into the cage.

“Hello,” he said. “Hungry?”

The weasel crouched, its long snaky body humped, its head thrust forward and its malevolent eyes staring with lidless savagery into the boy’s.

“Tough, ain’t you?” said the boy. “Just wait, you bloodthirsty old stinker, you. Wait’ll you turn into an ermine. Won’t I skin you quick, hah?”

There was no dislike or emotion in his tone. He took the weasel’s malignant ferocity with the same indifference he displayed in his gopher killing. Weasels, if you could keep them long enough, were valuable. He would catch a lot, keep them until they turned white, and sell their hides as ermine. Maybe he could breed them and have an ermine farm. He was the best gopher trapper in Saskatchewan. Once he had even caught a badger. Why not weasels? The trap broke their leg, but nothing could really hurt a weasel permanently. This one, though virtually three-legged, was as savage and lively as ever. Every morning he had a live gopher for his breakfast, in spite of the protests of the boy’s mother that it was cruel. But nothing, she had decided, was cruel to the boy.

When she argued that the gopher had no chance when thrown into the cage, the boy retorted that he didn’t have a chance when the weasel came down the hole after him either. If she said that the real job he should devote himself to was exterminating the weasels, he replied that then the gophers would get so thick they would eat the fields down to stubble. At last she gave up, and the weasel continued to have his warm meals.

For some time the boy stood watching his captive, and then he turned and went into the house, where he opened the oat box in the kitchen and took out a chunk of dried beef. From this he cut a thick slice with the butcher knife, and went munching into the sleeping porch where his mother was making beds.

“Where’s that little double naught?” he asked.

“That what?”

“That little wee trap. The one I use for catching live ones for the weasel.”

“Hanging out by the laundry bench, I think. Are you going out trapping again now?”

“Lucifer hasn’t had his breakfast yet.”

“How about your reading?”

“I’n take the book along and read while I wait,” the boy said. “I’m just goin’ down to the coulee at the edge of the dam.”

“I can, not ‘Ine,’ son.”

“I can,” the boy said. “I am most delighted to comply with your request.”

He grinned at his mother. He could always floor her with a quotation from the Sears Roebuck catalogue.

With the trap swinging from his hand, and under his arm the book—”Narrative and Lyric Poems,” edited by Some-body-or-other—which his mother kept him reading during the summer “so that next year he could be at the head of his class again,” the boy walked out into the growing heat.

From the northwest the coulee angled down through the pasture, a shallow swale dammed just above the house to catch the spring run-off of snow water. In the moist dirt of the dam grew ten-foot willows planted as slips by the boy’s father. They were the only things resembling trees in sixty miles. Below the dam, watered by the slow seepage from above, the coulee bottom was a parterre of flowers, buttercups in broad sheets, wild sweet pea, and “stinkweed.” On the slopes were evening primroses, pale pink and white and delicately fragrant, and on the flats above the yellow and red burgeoning of the cactuses.

Just under the slope of the coulee a female gopher and three half-grown puppies basked on their warm mound. The boy chased them squeaking down their hole and set the trap carefully, embedding it partially in the soft earth. Then he retired back up the shoulder of the swale, where he lay full length on his stomach, opened the book, shifted so that the glare of the sun across the pages was blocked by the shadow of his head and shoulders, and began to read.

From time to time he stopped reading to roll on his side and stare out across the coulee, across the barren plains pimpled with gopher mounds and bitten with fire and haired with dusty woolly grass. Apparently as flat as a table, the land sloped imperceptibly to the south, so that nothing interfered with his view of the ghostly line of mountains, now more plainly visible as the heat increased. Between the boy’s eyes and that smoky outline sixty miles away the heat waves rose writhing like fine wavy hair. He knew that in an hour Pankhurst’s farm would lift above the swelling knoll to the west. Many times he had seen that phenomenon—had seen his friend Jason Pankhurst playing in the yard or watering horses when he knew that the whole farm was out of sight. It was the heat waves that did it, his father said.

The gophers below had been thoroughly scared, and for a long time nothing happened. Idly the boy read through his poetry lesson, dreamfully conscious of the hard ground under him, feeling the gouge of a rock under his stomach without making any effort to remove it. The sun was a hot caress between his shoulder blades, and on the bare flesh where his overalls pulled above his sneakers it bit like a burning glass. Still he was comfortable, supremely relaxed and peaceful, lulled into a half-trance by the heat and the steamy flower smells and the mist of yellow in the buttercup coulee below.

And beyond the coulee was the dim profile of the Bear-paws, the Mountains of the Moon.

The boy’s eyes, pulled out of focus by his tranced state, fixed on the page before him. Here was a poem he knew . . . but it wasn’t a poem, it was a song. His mother sang it often, working at the sewing machine in winter.

It struck him as odd that a poem should also be a song, and because he found it hard to read without bringing in the tune, he lay quietly in the full glare of the sun, singing the page softly to himself. As he sang the trance grew on him again; he lost himself entirely. The bright hard dividing lines between individual senses blurred, and buttercups, smell of primrose, feel of hard gravel under body and elbows, sight of the ghosts of mountains haunting the southern horizon, were one intensely felt experience focused by the song the book had evoked.

And the song was the loveliest thing he had ever known. He felt the words, tasted them, breathed upon them with all the ardor of his captivated senses,

The splendor falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story. . . .

The current of his imagination flowed southward over the strong gentle shoulder of the world to the ghostly outline of the Mountains of the Moon, haunting the heat-distorted horizon.

Oh hark, oh hear, how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going,
Oh, sweet and far, from cliff and scar . . .

In the enchanted forests of his mind the horns of elfland blew, and his breath was held in the slow-falling cadence of their dying. The weight of the sun had been lifted from his back. The empty prairie of his home was castled and pillared with the magnificence of his imagining, and the sound of horns died thinly in the direction of the Mountains of the Moon.

From the coulee below came the sudden metallic clash of the trap, and an explosion of frantic squeals smothered almost immediately in the burrow. The boy leaped up, thrusting the book into the wide pocket of his overalls, and ran down to the mound. The chain, stretched down the hole, jerked convulsively, and when the boy took hold of it he felt the terrified life at the end of it strain to escape. Tugging gently, he forced loose the gopher’s digging claws, and hauled the squirming captive from the hole.

On the way up to the chicken house the dangling gopher with a tremendous muscular effort convulsed itself upward from the broken and imprisoned leg, and bit with a sharp rasp of teeth on the iron. Its eyes, the boy noticed impersonally, were shining black, like the head of a hatpin. He thought it odd that when they popped out of the head after a blow they were blue.

At the cage by the chicken house he lifted the cover and peered through the screen. The weasel, scenting the blood of the gopher’s leg, backed against the far wall of the box, yellow body tense as a spring, teeth showing in a tiny soundless snarl.

Undoing the wire door with his left hand, the boy held the trap over the hole. Then he bore down with all his strength on the spring, releasing the gopher, which dropped on the straw-littered floor and scurried into the corner opposite its enemy.

The weasel’s three good feet gathered under it and it circled, very slowly, around the wall, its lips still lifted to expose that soundless snarl. The abject gopher crowded against the boards, turned once and tried to scramble up the side, fell back on its broken leg, and whirled like lightning to face its executioner again. The weasel moved carefully, circling, its cold eyes never leaving its prey.

Then the gopher screamed, a wild, agonized, despairing squeal that made the watching boy swallow and wet his lips. Another scream, wilder and louder than before, and before the sound had ended the weasel struck. There was a fierce flurry in the straw of the cage before the killer got its hold just back of the gopher’s right ear, and its teeth began tearing ravenously at the still-quivering body. In a few minutes, the boy knew, the gopher’s carcass would be as limp as an empty skin, with all its blood sucked out and a hole as big as the ends of his two thumbs where the weasel had dined.

Still the boy remained staring through the screen top of the cage, face rapt and body completely lost. And after a few minutes he went into the sleeping porch, stretched out on the bed, opened the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and dived so deeply into its fascinating pictures and legends that his mother had to shake him to make him hear her call to lunch.

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