A Tragedy of Trifles


AN orange-tinted sky heralded the sun’s coming; but as yet he lingered behind the dark-blue mountains, and the boy who drove the water tank in the threshing-outfit shivered as he led his team down to the pond fed by the stream that came, cool, from the mountain that hid the sun.

A young muskrat, sitting on a bit of turf-island, dove into the pond as the boy and his horses approached; but soon he reappeared and clambered up on the low bank, where he sat nibbling greens, holding them in his front feet, and glancing quickly from side to side between bites. But he was n’t tall enough to see the gray barn-cat creeping toward him, without noise, through the meadow grass, ears strained forward, tail lashing slowly. The boy saw; and he watched and waited. The horses finished drinking and stood there with lowered heads — threshing-time meant hard work to them; even after a night of rest their spirits were low, and they drooped. Stealthily the cat moved closer, his belly along the moist ground; but the muskrat nibbled away, and the boy waited.

Up in the kitchen the young ranchwoman, washing her dishes, glanced out through the window and saw the boy waiting. She came to the window; standing there watching the immobile boy, she fell to musing, and the dishwater grew cold.

Far out in the field the engineer waited to start his engine until he should see the water tank coming. Two men had their loads of bundles on, from the day before, and were pulled up at the separator. They lay back on the wheat, with their arms under their heads. Three other men loading up saw that the engine did not start, so they came together and talked, leaning on their fork handles. And in the granary a youth waiting for grain to shovel was tying knots in a throw rope.

The cat, worming ever closer and closer, was now only a yard from the muskrat, who chewed his greens unaware of his danger. The boy, watching the little game of life and death, had an impulse to frighten the muskrat and so save him, but he overcame it and merely waited. Once the muskrat lowered himself to all fours, and the cat raised his head an inch or so. Then the muskrat sat up again, and the cat pressed close to the earth.

The sun rose up magnificently over the mountains and bathed the valley with his rays, and the boy felt them warm on the back of his neck. A meadow lark flew to the top of a little pine and sent out his clear sweet notes. Three canvasbacks came coasting over the top of a cottonwood grove, intent on landing in the pond, but when they saw the boy they veered and flew with speedy strokes far down the creek.

But the muskrat nibbled away, and the cat pushed closer, and the boy waited, and up in the kitchen the woman stood musing, and out in the field the engineer lit his pipe, sat down on the coal bin, and waited; and the bundlepitchers on the loads had closed their eyes and lay daydreaming; and those in the field had fallen silent and, still leaning on their three-tined forks, were watching the color changes of the sunrise.

Then the cat struck — and the boy heard the muskrat’s back snap as the cat jerked it. A big frog, which had been sitting at the water’s edge, jumped far into the little pond, smashing its perfect surface with a heavy splash. The boy climbed on one of his horses, forded the stream above the pond, and rode up the bank on the other side. The woman in the kitchen sighed and turned slowly back to her work, but soon she began singing and her song mingled with the clanking of dishes.

The engineer, seeing the boy coming, started up his engine, and all the hundreds of wheels in the separator began to turn, first with disconcerted knocks and clicks; then, as they gathered speed, the noises blended into a harmonious humming that rose and fell in pitch. The men began throwing bundles into the grabbing knives, and almost instantly the straw belched forth from the stacker. The pitchers in the field separated, with jocose remarks, and began loading the racks. The boy in the granary caught the first trip on his scoop and flung it far back in the bin.

And where the frog had leaped into the pond circles of tiny waves were growing ever larger and larger until they bumped against the opposite shore, where the sunshine lay warm on the yellow clay bank, and flashed blue and bronze and silver and gold on the back of a blackbird that waded with a cocky bearing in the water’s edge.

When the boy had pumped the water into the tank on the engine, he told the story about the cat and the muskrat to the engineer, who incidentally was the owner of the outfit and of the ranch, and the husband of the woman who was washing dishes and singing. At first the man listened with little interest, but as the boy unfurled the picture before him, with remarkable ability, he stopped fussing with the injector valve and, taking his pipe out of his mouth and holding it between enormous flat and deeply lined thumb and forefinger, sat looking intently at the boy, who was a little puzzled at the frown that slowly deepened on the man’s face. When he came to the point where the cat had killed the rat, the man suddenly reached out with his big hand and slapped the boy—hard. ‘Take that for not scarin’ the cat away,’ he said.

Such is often the reward of the artist.