A little while before sundown the men lounging about the gallery of the store saw, coming up the road from the south, a covered wagon drawn by mules and followed by a considerable string of obviously alive objects which in the levelling sun resembled vari-sized and -colored tatters torn at random from large billboards-circus posters, say -attached to the rear of the wagon and inherent with its own separate and collective motion, like the tail of a kite.
“What in the hell is that?” one said.
“It’s a circus,” Quick said. They began to rise, watching the wagon. Now they could see that the animals behind the wagon were horses. Two men rode in the wagon.
“Hell fire,” the first man – his name was Freeman – said “It’s Flem Snopes.’ They were all standing when the wagon came up and stopped and Snopes got down and approached the steps. He might have departed only this morning. He wore the same cloth cap, the minute bow tie against the white shirt, the same gray trousers. He mounted the steps.
“Howdy, Flem,” Quick said. The other looked briefly at all of them and none of them, mounting the steps. “Starting you a circus?”
“Gentlemen,” he said. He crossed the gallery; they made way for him. Then they descended the steps and approached the wagon, at the tail of which the horses stood in a restive clump, larger than rabbits and gaudy as parrots and shackled to one another and to the wagon itself with sections of barbed wire. Calico-coated, small-bodied, with delicate legs and pink faces in which their mismatched eyes rolled wild and subdued, they huddled, gaudy, motionless, and alert, wild as deer, deadly as rattle snakes, quiet as doves. The men stood at a respectful distance, looking at them. At that moment Jody Varner came through the group, shouldering himself to the front of it.
“Watch yourself, doc,” a voice said from the rear. But it was already too late. The nearest animal rose on its hind legs with lightning rapidity and struck twice with its forefeet at Varner’s face, faster than a boxer, the movement of its surge against the wire which held it travelling backward among the rest of the band in a wave of thuds and lunges. “Hup, you broom-tailed, hay-burning sidewinders,” the same voice said. This was the second man who had arrived in the wagon. He was a stranger. He wore a heavy, densely black moustache, a wide pale hat. When he thrust himself through and turned to herd them back from the horses they saw, thrust into the hip pockets of his tight jeans pants, the butt of a heavy pearl-handled pistol and a florid carton such as small cakes come in. “Keep away from them, boys,” he said. “They’ve got kind of skittish, they ain’t been rode in so long.”
“Since when have they been rode?” Quick said. The stranger looked at Quick. He had a broad, quite cold, wind-gnawed face and bleak, cold eyes. His belly fitted neat and smooth as a peg into the tight trousers.
“I reckon that was when they were rode on the harry to get across the Mississippi River,” Varner said. The stranger looked at him. “My name’s Varner,” Jody said.
“Hipps,” the other said. “Call me Buck.” Across the left side of his head, obliterating the tip of that ear, was a savage and recent gash gummed over with a blackish sub stance like axle-grease. They looked at the scar. Then they watched him remove the carton from his pocket and tilt a gingersnap into his hand and put the gingersnap into his mouth, beneath the moustache.
“You and Flem have some trouble back yonder?” Quick said. The stranger ceased chewing. When he looked directly at anyone, his eyes became like two pieces of flint turned suddenly up in dug earth.
“Back where?” he said.
“Your nigh ear,” Quick said.
“Oh,” the other said. “That.” He touched his ear. “That was my mistake. I was absent-minded one night when I was staking them out. Studying about something else and forgot how long the wire was.” He chewed. They looked at his ear. “Happen to any man careless around a horse. Put a little axle-dope on it and you won’t notice it tomorrow though. They’re pretty lively now, lazing along all day doing nothing. It’ll work out of them in a couple of days.” He put another gingersnap into his mouth, chewing, “Don’t you believe they’ll gentle?” No one answered. They looked at the ponies, grave and noncommittal. Jody turned and went back into the store. “Them’s good, gentle ponies,” the stranger said. “Watch now.” He put the carton back into his pocket and approached the horses, his hand extended. The nearest one was standing on three legs now. It appeared to be asleep. Its eyelid drooped over the cerulean eye; its head was shaped like an ironingboard. Without even raising the eyelid it flicked its head, the yellow teeth cropped. For an instant it and the man appeared to be inextricable in one violence. Then they became motionless, the stranger’s high heels dug into the earth, one hand gripping the animal’s nostrils, holding the horse’s head wrenched half around while it breathed in hoarse, smothered groans. “See?” the stranger said in a panting voice, the veins standing white and rigid in his neck and along his jaw. “See? All you got to do is handle them a little and work hell out of them for a couple of days. Now look out. Give me room back there.” They gave back a little. The stranger gathered- himself then sprang away. As he did so, a second horse slashed at his back, severing his vest from collar to hem down the back exactly as the trick swordsman severs a floating veil with one stroke.
“Sho now,” Quick said. “But suppose a man don’t happen to own a vest.”
At that moment Jody Varner, followed by the blacksmith, thrust through them again. “All right, Buck,” he said. “Better get them on into the lot. Eck here will help you.” The stranger, the severed halves of the vest swinging from either shoulder, mounted to the wagon seat, the blacksmith following.
“Get up, you transmogrified hallucinations of Job and Jezebel,” the stranger said. The wagon moved on, the tethered ponies coming gaudily into motion behind it, behind which in turn the men followed at a respectful distance, on up the road and into the lane and so to the lot gate behind Mrs. Littlejohn’s. Eck got down and opened the gate. The wagon passed through but when the ponies saw the fence the herd surged backward against the wire which attached it to the wagon, standing on its collective hind legs and then trying to turn within itself, so that the wagon moved backward for a few feet until the Texan, cursing, managed to saw the mules about and so lock the wheels. The men following had already fallen rapidly back. “Here, Eck,” the Texan said. “Get up here and take the reins.” The blacksmith got back in the wagon and took the reins. Then they watched the Texan descend, carrying a looped-up blacksnake whip, and go around to I the rear of the herd and drive it through the gate, the whip snaking about the harlequin rumps in methodical and pistol-like reports. Then the watchers hurried across Mrs. Littlejohn’s yard and mounted to the veranda, one end of which overlooked the lot.
“How you reckon he ever got them tied together?” Freeman said.
“I’d a heap rather watch how he aims to turn them loose,” Quick said. The Texan had climbed back into the halted wagon. Presently he and Eck both appeared at the rear end of the open hood. The Texan grasped the wire and began to draw the first horse up to the wagon, the animal plunging and surging back against the wire as though trying to hang itself, the contagion passing back through the herd from animal to animal until they were rearing and plunging again against the wire.
“Come on, grab a holt,” the Texan said. Eck grasped the wire also. The horses laid back against it, the pink faces tossing above the back-surging mass. “Pull him up, pull him up,” the Texan said sharply. “They couldn’t get up here in the wagon even if they wanted to.” The wagon moved gradually backward until the head of the first horse was snubbed up to the tail-gate. The Texan took a turn of the wire quickly about one of the wagon stakes. “Keep the slack out of it,” he said. He vanished and reappeared, almost in the same second, with a pair of heavy wire-cutters. “Hold them like that,” he said, and leaped. He vanished, broad hat, flapping vest, wire-cutters and all, into a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of long teeth and wild eyes and slashing feet, from which presently the horses began to burst one by one like partridges flushing, each wearing a necklace of barbed wire. The first one crossed the lot at top speed, on a straight line. It galloped into the fence without any diminution whatever. The wire gave, recovered, and slammed the horse to earth where it lay for a moment, glaring, its legs still galloping in air. It scrambled up without having ceased to gallop and crossed the lot and galloped into the opposite fence and was slammed again to earth. The others were now freed. They whipped and whirled about the lot like dizzy fish in a bowl. It had seemed like a big lot until now, but now the very idea that all that fury and motion should be transpiring inside any one fence was something to be repudiated with contempt, like a mirror trick. From the ultimate dust the stranger, carrying the wire-cutters and his vest completely gone now, emerged. He was not running, he merely moved with a light-poised and watchful celerity, weaving among the calico rushes of the animals, feinting and dodging like a boxer until he reached the gate and crossed the yard and mounted to the veranda. One sleeve of his shirt hung only at one point from his shoulder. He ripped it off and wiped his face with it and threw it away and took out the paper carton and shook a gingersnap into his hand. He was breathing only a little heavily. “Pretty lively now,” he said. “But it’ll work out of them in a couple of days.” The ponies still streaked back and forth through the growing dusk like hysterical fish, but not so violently now.
“What’ll you give a man to reduce them odds a little for you?” Quick said. The Texan looked at him, the eyes bleak, pleasant and hard above the chewing jaw, the heavy moustache. “To take one of them off your hands?” Quick said.
At that moment the little periwinkle-eyed boy came along the veranda, saying, “Papa, papa; where’s papa?”
“Who you looking for, sonny?” one said.
“It’s Eck’s boy,” Quick said. “He’s still out yonder in the wagon. Helping Mr. Buck here.” The boy went on to the end of the veranda, in diminutive overalls-a miniature replica of the men themselves.
“Papa,” he said. “Papa.” The blacksmith was still leaning from the rear of the wagon, still holding the end of the severed wire.
The ponies, bunched for the moment, now slid past the wagon, flowing, stringing out again so that they appeared to have doubled in number, rushing on; the hard, rapid, light patter of unshod hooves came out of the dust. “Mamma says to come on to supper,” the boy said.
The moon was almost full then. When supper was over and they had gathered again along the veranda the alteration was hardly one of visibility even. It was merely a translation from the lapidary-dimensional of day to the treacherous and silver receptivity in which the horses huddled in mazy camouflage, or singly or in pairs rushed, fluid, phantom, and unceasing, to huddle again in mirage-like clumps from which came high, abrupt squeals and the vicious thudding of hooves.
Ratliff was among them now. He had returned just before supper. He had not dared to take his team into the lot at all. They were now in Bookwright’s stable a half mile from the store. “So Flem has come home again,” he said. “Well, well, well. Will Varner paid to get him to Texas, so I reckon it ain’t no more than fair for you fellows to pay the freight on him back.” From the lot there came a high, thin squeal. One of the animals emerged. It seemed not to gallop but to flow, bodiless, without dimension. Yet there was the rapid light beat of hard hooves on the packed earth.
“He ain’t said they was his yet,” Quick said.
“He ain’t said they ain’t neither,” Freeman said.
“I see,” Ratliff said. “That’s what you are holding back on. Until he tells you whether they are his or not. Or maybe you can wait until the auction’s over and split up and some can follow Flem and some can follow that Texas fellow and watch to see which one spends the money. But then, when a man’s done got trimmed, I don’t reckon he cares who’s got the money.”
“Maybe if Ratliff would leave here tonight, they wouldn’t make him buy one of them ponies tomorrow,” a third said.
“That’s fact,” Ratliff said. “A fellow can dodge a Snopes if he just starts lively enough. In fact, I don’t believe he would have to pass more than two folks before he would have another victim intervened betwixt them. You folks ain’t going to buy them things sho enough, are you?” Nobody answered. They sat on the steps, their backs against the veranda posts, or on the railing itself. Only Ratliff and Quick sat in chairs, so that to them the others were black silhouettes against the dreaming lambence of the moon-light beyond the veranda. The pear tree across the road opposite was now in full and frosty bloom, the twigs and branches springing not outward from the limbs but standing motionless and perpendicular above the horizontal boughs like the separate and upstreaming hair of a drowned woman sleeping upon the uttermost floor of the windless and tideless sea.
“Anse McCallum brought two of them horses back from Texas once,” one of the men on the steps said. He did not move to speak. He was not speaking to anyone. “It was a good team. A little light. He worked it for ten years. Light work, it was.”
“I mind it,” another said. “Anse claimed he traded fourteen rifle cartridges for both of them, didn’t he?”
“It was the rifle too, I heard,” a third said.
“No, it was just the shells,” the first said. “The fellow wanted to swap him four more for the rifle too, but Anse said he never needed them. Cost too much to get six of them back to Mississippi.”
“Sho,” the second said. “When a man don’t have to invest so much into a horse or a team, he don’t need to expect so much from it.” The three of them were not talking any louder, they were merely talking among themselves, to one another, as if they sat there alone. Ratliff, invisible in the shadow against the wall, made a sound, harsh, sardonic, not loud.
“Ratliff’s laughing,” a fourth said.
“Don’t mind me,” Ratliff said. The three speakers had not moved. They did not move now, yet there seemed to gather about the three silhouettes something stubborn convinced, and passive, like children who have been chidden. A bird, a shadow, fleet and dark and swift, curved across the moonlight, upward into the pear tree ant began to sing; a mockingbird.
“First one I’ve noticed this year,” Freeman said.
“You can hear them along Whiteleaf every night,” the first man said. “I heard one in February. In that snow. Singing in a gum.”
“Gum is the first tree to put out,” the third said. “That was why. It made it feel like singing, fixing to put out that way. That was why it taken a gum.”
“Gum first to put out?” Quick said. “What about willow?”
“Willow ain’t a tree,” Freeman said. “It’s a weed.”
“Well, I don’t know what it is,” the fourth said. “But it ain’t no weed. Because you can grub up a weed and you are done with it. I been grubbing up a clump of willows out in my spring pasture for fifteen years. They are the same size every year. Only difference is, it’s just two or three more trees every time.”
“And if I was you,” Ratliff said, “that’s just exactly where I would be come sunup tomorrow. Which of course you ain’t going to do. I reckon there ain’t nothing under the sun or in Frenchman’s Bend neither that can keep you folks from giving Flem Snopes and that Texas man your money. But I’d sholy like to know just exactly who I was giving my money to. Seems like Eck here would tell yours Seems like he’d do that for his neighbors, don’t it? Besides being Flem’s cousin, him and that boy of his, Wallstreet, helped that Texas man tote water for them tonight and Eck’s going to help him feed them in the morning too. Why, maybe Eck will be the one that will catch them and lead them up one at a time for you folks to bid on them. Ain’t that right, Eck?”
The other man sitting on the steps with his back against the post was the blacksmith. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Boys,” Ratliff said, “Eck knows all about them horses. Them’s told him, how much they cost and how much him and that Texas man aim to get for them, make off of them. Come on, Eck. Tell us.” The other did not move, sitting on the top step, not quite facing them, sitting there bees neath the successive layers of their quiet and intent concentrated listening and waiting.
“I don’t know,” he said. Ratliff began to laugh. He sat in the chair, laughing while the others sat or lounged upon the steps and the railing, sitting beneath his laughing as Eck had sat beneath their listening and waiting. Ratliff ceased laughing. He rose. He yawned, quite loud.
“All right. You folks can buy them critters if you want to. But me, I’d just as soon buy a tiger or a rattlesnake And if Flem Snopes offered me either one of them, I would be afraid to touch it for fear it would turn out to be a painted dog or a piece of garden hose when I went up to take possession of it. I bid you one and all goodnight.” He entered the house. They did not look after him, though after a while they all shifted a little and looked down into the lot, upon the splotchy, sporadic surge and flow of the horses, from among which from time to time came an abrupt squeal, a thudding blow. In the pear tree the mockingbird’s idiot reiteration pulsed and purled.
“Anse McCallum made a good team outen them two of his,” the first man said.”They was a little light. That was all.”
When the sun rose the next Coming a wagon and three saddled mules stood in Mrs. Littlejohn’s lane and six men and Eck Snopes’ son were already leaning on the fence, looking at the horses which huddled in a quiet clump before the barn door, watching the men in their turn. A second wagon came up the road and into the lane and stopped, and then there were eight men beside the boy standing at the fence, beyond which the horses stood, their blue-and-brown eyeballs rolling alerdy in their gaudy faces. “So this here is the Snopes circus, is it?” one of the newcomers said. He glanced at the faces, then he went to the end of the row and stood beside the blacksmith and the little boy. “Are them Flem’s horses?” he said to the blacksmith.
“Eck don’t know who them horses belong to any more than we do,” one of the others said. “He knows that Flem come here on the same wagon with them, because he saw him. But that’s all.”
“And all he will know,” a second said. “His own kin will be the last man in the world to find out anything about Flem Snopes business.”
“No,” the first said. “He wouldn’t even be that. The first man Flem would tell his business to would be the man that was left after the last man died. Flem Snopes don’t even tell himself what he is up to. Not if he was laying in bed with himself in a empty house in the dark of the moon.”
“That’s a fact,” a third said. “Flem would trim Eck or any other of his kin quick as he would us. Ain’t that right, Eck?”
“I don’t know,” Eck said. They were watching the horses, which at that moment broke into a high-eared, stiff-kneed swirl and flowed in a patchwork wave across the lot and brought up again, facing the men along the fence, so they did not hear the Texan until he was among them. He wore a new shirt and another vest a little too small for him and he was just putting the paper carton back into his hip pocket.
“Morning, morning,” he said. “Come to get an early pick, have you? Want to make me an offer for one or two before the bidding starts and runs the prices up.” They had not looked at the stranger long. They were not looking at him now, but at the horses in the lot, which had lowered their heads, snuffing into the dust.
“I reckon well look a while first,” one said.
“You are in time to look at them eating breakfast, anyhow,” the Texan said. “Which is more than they done without they staid up all night.” He opened the gate and entered it. At once the horses jerked their heads up, watching him. “Here, Eck,” the Texan said over his shoulder, “two or three of you boys help me drive them into the barn.” After a moment Eck and two others approached the gate, the little boy at his father’s heels, though the other did not see him until he turned to shut the gate.
“You stay out of here,” Eck said. “One of them things will snap your head off same as an acorn before you even know it.” He shut the gate and went on after the others, whom the Texan had now waved fanwise outward as he approached the horses which now drew into a restive huddle, beginning to mill slightly, watching the men. Mrs. Littlejohn came out of the kitchen and crossed the yard to the woodpile, watching the lot. She picked up two or three sticks of wood and paused, watching the lot again Now there were two more men standing at the fence.
“Come on, come on,” the Texan said. “They won’t hurt you. They just ain’t never been in under a roof before.”
“I just as lief let them stay out here, if that’s what they want to do,” Eck said.
“Get yourself a stick-there’s a bunch of wagon stakes against the fence yonder-and when one of them tries to rush you, bust him over the head so he will understand what you mean.” one of the men went to the fence and got three of the stakes and returned and distributed them. Mrs. Littlejohn, her armful of wood complete now, paused again halfway back to the house, looking into the lot. The little boy was directly behind his father again, though this time the father had not discovered him yet. The men advanced toward the horses, the huddle of which began to break into gaudy units turning inward upon themselves. The Texan was cursing them in a loud steady cheerful voice. “Get in there, you banjo-faced jack rabbits. Don’t hurry them, now. Let them take their time. Hi! Get in there. What do you think that barn is-a law court maybe Or maybe a church and somebody is going to take up a collection on you?” The animals fell slowly back. Now and then one feinted to break from the huddle, the Texan driving it back each time with skillfully thrown bits of dirt. Then one at the rear saw the barn door just behind it hut before the herd could break the Texan snatched the wagon stake from Eck and, followed by one of the other men, rushed at the horses and began to lay about the heads and shoulders, choosing by unerring instinct the point animal and striking it first square in the face then on the withers as it turned and then on the rump as it turned further, so that when the break came it was reversed and the entire herd rushed into the long open hallway and brought up against the further wall with a hollow, thunderous sound like that of a collapsing mine-shaft. “Seems to have held all right,” the Texan said. He and the other man slammed the half-length doors and looked over them into the tunnel of the barn, at the far end of which the ponies were now a splotchy, phantom moiling punctuated by crackings of wooden partitions and the dry reports of hooves which gradually died away. “Yep, it held all right,” the Texan said. The other two came to the doors and looked over them. The little boy came up beside his father now, trying to see through a crack, and Eck saw him.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay out of here?” Eck said. “Don’t you know them things will kill you quicker than you can say scat? You go and get outside of that fence and stay there.”
“Why don’t you get your paw to buy you one of them, Wall?” one of the men said.
“Me buy one of them things?” Eck said. “When I can go to the river anytime and catch me a snapping turtle or a moccasin for nothing? You go on, now. Get out of here and stay out.” The Texan had entered the barn. one of the men closed the doors after him and put the bar up again and over the top of the doors they watched the Texan go on down the hallway, toward the ponies which now huddled like gaudy phantoms in the gloom, quiet now and already beginning to snuff experimentally into the long lip-worn trough fastened against the rear wall. The little boy had merely gone around behind his father, to the other side, where he stood peering now through a knot hole in a plank. The Texan opened a smaller door in the wall and entered it, though almost immediately he reappeared.
“I don’t see nothing but shelled corn in here,” he said “Snopes said he would send some hay up here last night.”
“Won’t they eat corn either?” one of the men said.
“I don’t know,” the Texan said. “They ain’t never seen any that I know of. We’ll find out in a minute though.” He disappeared, though they could still hear him in the crib. Then he emerged once more, carrying a big double-ended feed-basket, and retreated into the gloom where the parti-colored rumps of the horses were now ranged quietly along the feeding-trough. Mrs. Littlejohn appeared once more, on the veranda this time, carrying a big brass dinner bell. She raised it to make the first stroke. A small commotion set up among the ponies as the Texan approached but he began to speak to them at once, in a brisk loud unemphatic mixture of cursing and cajolery, disappearing among them. The men at the door heard the dry rattling of the corn-pellets into the trough, a sound broken by a single snort of amazed horror. A plank cracked with a loud report; before their eyes the depths of the hallway dissolved in loud fury, and while they stared over the doors, unable yet to begin to move, the entire interior exploded into mad tossing shapes like a downrush of flames.
“Hell fire,” one of them said. “Jump!” he shouted. The three turned and ran frantically for the wagon, Eck last. Several voices from the fence were now shouting something but Eck did not even hear them until, in the act of scrambling madly at the tail-gate, he looked behind him and saw the little boy still leaning to the knot-hole in the door which in the next instant vanished into matchwood, the knot-hole itself exploding from his eye and leaving him, motionless in the diminutive overalls and still leaning forward a little until he vanished utterly beneath the towering parti-colored wave full of feet and glaring eyes and wild teeth which, overtopping, burst into scattering units, revealing at last the gaping orifice and the little boy still standing, unscratched, his eye still leaned to the vanished knot-hole.
“Wall,” Eck roared. The little boy turned and ran for the wagon. The horses were whipping back and forth across the lot, as if while in the barn they had once more doubled their number; two of them rushed up quattering and galloped all over the boy again without touching him as he ran, earnest and diminutive and seemingly without progress, though he reached the wagon at last, from which Eck, his sunburned skin now a sickly white, reached down and snatched the boy into the wagon by the straps of his overalls and slammed him face down across his knees and caught up a coiled itching-rope from the bed of the wagon.
“Didn’t I tell you to get out of here?” Eck said in a shaking voice. “Didn t I tell you?”
“If You’re going to whip him, you better whip the rest of us too and then one of us can frail hell out of you,” one of the others said.
“Or better still, take the rope and hang that durn fellow yonder,” the second said. The Texan was now standing in the wrecked door of the barn, taking the gingersnap carton from his hip pocket. “Before he kills the rest of Frenchman’s Bend too.”
“You mean Flem Snopes,” the first said. The Texan tilted the carton above his other open palm. The horses still rushed and swirled back and forth but they were beginning to slow now, trotting on high, stiff legs, although their eyes were still rolling whitely and various.
“I misdoubted that damn shell corn all along,” the Texan said. “But at least they have seen what it looks like. They can’t claim they ain’t got nothing out of this trip.” He shook the carton over his open hand. Nothing came hi out of it Mrs. Littlejohn on the veranda made the first stroke with the dinner bell; at the sound the horses rushed again, the earth of the lot becoming vibrant with the light dry clatter of hooves. The Texan crumpled the carton and threw it aside. “Chuck wagon,” he said. There were three more wagons in the lane now and there were twenty or more men at the fence when the Texan, followed by his three assistants and the little boy, passed through the gate. The bright cloudless early sun gleamed upon the pearl butt of the pistol in his hip pocket and upon the bell which Mrs. Littlejohn still rang, peremptory, strong, and loud.
When the Texan, picking his teeth with a splintered kitchen match, emerged from the house twenty minutes later, the tethered wagons and raiding horses and mules extended from the lot gate to Varner’s store, and there were more than fifty men now standing along the fence beside the gate, watching him quietly, a little covertly, as he approached, rolling a little, slightly bowlegged, the high heels of his carved boots painting neatly into the dust “Morning, gents,” he said. “Here, Bud,” he said to the little boy, who stood slightly behind him, looking at the protruding butt of the pistol. He took a coin from his pocket and gave it to the boy. “Run to the store and get me a box of gingersnaps.” He looked about at the quiet faces, protuberant, sucking his teeth. He rolled the match from one side of his mouth to the other without touching it. “You boys done made your picks, have you? Ready to start her off, hah?” They did not answer. They were not looking at him now. That is, he began to have the feeling that each face had stopped looking at him the second before his gaze reached it. After a moment Freeman said:
“Ain’t you going to wait for Flem?”
“Why?” the Texan said. Then Freeman stopped looking at him too. There was nothing in Freeman’s face either. There was nothing, no alteration, in the Texan’s voice. “Eck, you done already picked out yours. So we can start her off when you are ready.”
“I reckon not,” Eck said. “I wouldn’t buy nothing I was afraid to walk up and touch.”
“Them little ponies?” the Texan said. “You helped water and feed them. I bet that boy of yours could walk up to any one of them.”
“He better not let me catch him,” Eck said.
The Texan looked about at the quiet faces, his gaze at once abstract and alert, with an impenetrable surface quality like flint, as though the surface were impervious or perhaps there was nothing behind it.
“Them ponies is gentle as a dove, boys. The man that buys them will get the best piece of horseflesh he ever forked or drew for the money. Naturally they got spirit; I ain’t selling crowbait. Besides, who’d want Texas crowbait anyway, with Mississippi full of it?”
His stare was still absent and unwinking; there was no mirth or humor in his voice and there was neither mirth nor humor in the single guffaw which came from the rear of the group. Two wagons were now drawing out of the road at the same time, up to the fence. The men got down from them and tied them to the fence and approached.
“Come up, boys,” the Texan said. “You’re just in time to buy a good gentle horse cheap.”
“How about that one that cut your vest off last night?” a voice said. This time three or four guffawed. The Texan looked toward the sound, bleak and unwinking.
“What about it?” he said.
The laughter, if it had been daughters ceased. The Texan turned to the nearest gatepost and climbed to the top of it, his alternate thighs deliberate and bulging in the tight trousers, the butt of the pistol catching and losing the sun in pearly gleams. Sitting on the post, he looked down at the faces along the fence which were attentive, grave, reserved and not looking at him.
“All right,” he said. “Who’s going to start her off with a bid? Step right up; take your pick and make your bid, and when the last one is sold, walk in that lot and put your rope on the best piece of horseflesh you ever forked or druv for the money. There ain’t a pony there that ain’t worth fifteen dollars. Young, sound, good for saddle or work stock, guaranteed to outlast four ordinary horses; you couldn’t kill one of them with a axle-tree-” There was a small violent commotion at the rear of the group. The little boy appeared, burrowing among the motionless overalls. He approached the post, the new and unbroken paper carton lifted. The Texan leaned down and took it and tore the end from it and shook three or four of the cakes into the boy’s hand, a hand as small and almost as black as that of a coon. He held the carton in his hand while he talked, pointing out the horses with it as he indicated them. “Look at that one with the three stockingfeet and the frost-bit ear; watch him now when they pass again. Look at that shoulder-action; that horse is worth twenty dollars of any man’s money. Who’ll make me a bid on him to start her off?” His voice was harsh, ready, forensic. Along the fence below him the men stood with, buttoned close in their overalls, the tobacco-sacks and worn purses the sparse silver and frayed bills hoarded a coin at a time in the cracks of chimneys or chinked into the logs of walls. From time to time the horses broke and rushed with purposeless violence and huddled again, watching the faces along the fence with wild mismatched eyes. The lane was full of wagons now. As the others arrived they would have to stop in the road beyond it and the occupants came up the lane on foot. Mrs. Littlejohn came out of her kitchen. She crossed the yard, looking toward the lot gate. There was a blackened wash pot set on four bricks in the corner of the yard. She built a fire beneath the pot and came to the fence and stood there for a time, her hands on her hips and the smoke from the fire drifting blue and slow behind her. Then she turned and went back into the house. “Come on, boys,” the Texan said. “Who’ll make me a bid?”
“Four bits,” a voice said. The Texan did not even glance toward it.
“Or, if he don’t suit you, how about that fiddle-head horse without no mane to speak of? For a saddle pony, I’d rather have him than that stocking-foot. I heard somebody say fifty cents just now. I reckon he meant five dollars, didn’t he? Do I hear five dollars?”
“Four bits for the lot,” the same voice said. This time there were no guffaws. It was the Texan who laughed, harshly, with only his lower face, as if he were reciting a multiplication table.
“Fifty cents for the dried mud offen them, he means,” he said. “Who’ll give a dollar more for the genuine Texas cockle-burrs?” Mrs. Littlejohn came out of the kitchen, carrying the sawn half of a wooden hogshead which she set on a stump beside the smoking pot, and stood with her hands on her hips, looking into the lot for a while without coming to the fence this time. Then she went back into the house. “What’s the matter with you boys?” the Texan said. “Here, Eck, you been helping me and you know them horses. How about making me a bid on that walleyed one you picked out last night? Here. Wait a minute.” He thrust the paper carton into his other hip pocket and swung his feet inward and dropped, cat-light, into the lot. The ponies, huddled, watched him. Then they broke before him and slid stiffly along the fence. He turned them and they whirled and rushed back across the lot; whereupon, as though he had been waiting his chance when they should have turned their backs on him, the Texan began to run too, so that when they reached the opposite side of the lot and turned, slowing to huddle again, he was almost upon them. The earth became thunderous; dust arose, out of which the animals began to burst like flushed quail and into which, with that apparently unflagging faith in his own invulnerability, the Texan rushed. For an instant the watchers could see them in the dust-the pony backed into the angle of the fence and the stable, the man facing it, reaching toward his hip. Then the beast rushed at him in a sort of fatal and hopeless desperation and he struck it between the eyes with the pistol-butt and felled it and leaped onto its prone head. The pony recovered almost at once and pawed itself to its knees and heaved at its prisoned head and fought itself up, dragging the man with it; for an instant in the dust the watchers saw the man free of the earth and in violent lateral motion like a rag attached to the horse’s head. Then the Texan’s feet came back to earth and the dust blew aside and revealed them, motionless, the Texan’s sharp heels braced into the ground, one hand gripping the pony’s forelock and the other its nostrils, the long evil muzzle wrung backward over its scarred shoulder while it breathed in labored and hollow groans. Mrs. Littlejohn was in the yard again. No one had seen her emerge this time. She carried an armful of clothing and a metal-ridged washboard and she was standing motionless at the kitchen steps, looking into the lot. Then she moved across the yard, still looking into the lot, and dumped the garments into the tub, still looking into the lot. “Look him over, boys,” the Texan panted, turning his own suffused face and the protuberant glare of his eyes toward the fence. “Look him over quick. Them shoulders and-” He had relaxed for an instant apparently. The animal exploded again; again for an instant the Texan was free of the earth, though he was still talking: “-and legs you whoa I’ll tear your face right look him over quick boys worth fifteen dollars of let me get a holt of who’ll make me a bid whoa you blare-eyed jack rabbit, whoa!” They were moving now-a kaleidoscope of inextricable and incredible violence on the periphery of which the metal clasps of the Texan’s suspenders sun-glinted in ceaseless orbit, with terrific slowness across the lot. Then the broad clay-colored hat soared deliberately outward; an instant later the Texan followed it, though still on his feet, and the pony shot free in mad, staglike bounds. The Texan picked up the hat and struck the dust from it against his leg, and returned to the fence and mounted the post again He was breathing heavily. Still the faces did not look at him as he took the carton from his hip and shook a cake from it and put the cake into his mouth, chewing breathing harshly. Mrs. Littlejohn turned away and began to bail water from the pot into the tub, though after each bucketful she turned her head and looked into the lot again. “Now, boys,” the Texan said. “Who says that pony ain’t worth fifteen dollars? You couldn’t buy that much dynamite for just fifteen dollars. There ain’t one of them can’t do a mile in three minutes; turn them into pasture and they will board themselves; work them like hell all day and every time you think about it, lay them over the head with a single-tree and after a couple of days every jack rabbit one of them will be so tame you will have to put them out of the house at night like a cat.” He shook another cake from the carton and ate it. “Come on, Eck,” he said. “Start her off. How about ten dollars for that horse, Eck?”
“What need I got for a horse I would need a bear-trap to catch?” Eck said.
“Didn’t you just see me catch him?”
“I seen you,” Eck said. “And I don’t want nothing as big as a horse if I got to wrastle with it every time it finds me on the same side of a fence its on.”
“All right,” the Texan said. He was still breathing harshly, but now there was nothing of fatigue or breathlessness in it. He shook another cake into his palm and inserted it beneath his moustache. “All right. I want to get this auction started. I ain’t come here to live, no matter how good a country you folks claim you got. I’m going to give you that horse.” For a moment there was no sound, not even that of breathing except the Texan’s.
“You going to give it to me?” Eck said.
“Yes. Provided you will start the bidding on the next one” Again there was no sound save the Texan’s breathing, and then the clash of Mrs. Littlejohn’s pail against the rim of the pot.
“I just start the bidding,” Eck said. “I don’t have to buy it lessen I ain’t over-topped.” Another wagon had come up the lane. It was battered and paintless. One wheel had been repaired by crossed planks bound to the spokes with baling wire and the two underfed mules wore a battered harness patched with bits of cotton rope; the reins were ordinary cotton plowlines, not new. It contained a woman in a shapeless gray garment and a faded sunbonnet, and a man in faded and patched though clean overalls. Where was not room for the wagon to draw out of the lane so the man left it standing where it was and got down and came forward-a thin man, not large, with something about his eyes, something strained and washed out, at once vague and intense, who shoved into the crowd at the rear, saying,
“What? What’s that? Did he give him that horse?”
“All right,” the Texan said. “That wall-eyed horse with the scarred neck belongs to you. Now. That one that looks like he’s had his head in a flour barrel. What do you say? Ten dollars?”
“Did he give him that horse?” the newcomer said.
“A dollar,” Eck said. The Texan’s mouth was still open for speech; for an instant his face died so behind the hard eyes.
“A dollar?” he said. “One dollar? Did I actually hear that?”
“Durn it,” Eck said. “Two dollars then. But I ain’t-
“Wait,” the newcomer said. “You, up there on the post.” The Texan looked at him. When the others turned, they saw that the woman had left the wagon too, though they had not known she was there since they had not seen the wagon drive up. He came among them behind the man, gaunt in the gray shapeless garment and the sunbonnet, wearing stained canvas gymnasium shoes. She overtook the man but she did not touch him, standing just behind him, her hands rolled before her into the gray dress.
“Henry,” she said in a Bat voice. The man looked over his shoulder.
“Get back to that wagon,” he said.
“Here, missus,” the Texan said. “Henry’s going to get the bargain of his life in about a minute. Here, boys, let the missus come up close where she can see. Henry’s going to pick out that saddle-horse the missus has been wanting. Who says ten-” “Henry,” the woman said. She did not raise her voice. She had not once looked at the Texan. She touched the man’s arm. He turned and struck her hand down.
“Get back to that wagon like I told you.” The woman stood behind him, her hands rolled again into her dress. She was not looking at anything, speaking to anyone.
“He ain’t no more despair than to buy one of them things,” she said. “And us not but five dollars away from the poorhouse, he ain’t no more despair.” The man turned upon her with that curious air of leashed, of dreamlike fury. The others lounged along the fence in attitudes gravely inattentive, almost oblivious. Mrs. Littlejohn had been washing for some time now, pumping rhythmically up and down above the washboard in the sud-foamed tub. She now stood erect again, her soap-raw hands on her hips, looking into the lot.
“Shut your mouth and get back in that wagon,” the man said. “Do you want me to take a wagon stake to you?” He turned and looked up at the Texan. “Did you give him that horse?” he said. The Texan was looking at the woman. Then he looked at the man; still watching him, he tilted die paper carton over his open palm. A single cake came out of it.
“Yes,” he said.
“Is the fellow that bids in this next horse going to get that first one too?”
“No,” the Texan said.
“All right” the other said. “Are you going horse to the man that makes the first bid on the next one?”
“No,” the Texan said.
“Then if you were just starting the auction off by giving away a horse, why didn’t you wait till we were all here?” The Texan stopped looking at the other. He raised the empty carton and squinted carefully into it, as if it might contain a precious jewel or perhaps a deadly insect. Then he crumpled it and dropped it carefully beside the post on which he sat
“Eck bids two dollars,” he said. “I believe he still thinks he’s bidding on them scraps of bob-wire they come here in instead of on one of the horses. But I got to accept it. But are you boys-“
“So Eck’s going to get two horses at a dollar a head,” the newcomer said. “Three dollars.” The woman touched him again. He flung her hand off without turning and she stood again, her hands rolled into her dress across her Bat stomach, not looking at anything.
“Misters,” she said, “We got chaps in the house that never had shoes last winter. We ain’t got corn to feed the stock we got five dollars I earned weaving by firelight after dark. And he ain’t no more despair.”
“Henry bids three dollars,” the Texan said. “Raise him a dollar, Eck, and the horse is yours.” Beyond the fence the horses rushed suddenly and for no reason and as suddenly stopped, staring at the faces along the fence.
“Henry,” the woman said. The man was watching Eck. His stained and broken teeth showed a little beneath his lip. His wrists dangled into fists below the faded sleeves of his shirt too short from many washings.
“Four dollars,” Eck said.
“Five dollars!” the husband said, raising one clenched hand. He shouldered himself forward toward the gatepost. The woman did not follow him. She now looked at the Texan for the first time. Her eyes were a washed gray also, as though they had faded too like-the dress and the sunbonnet.
“Mister,” she said, “If you take that five dollars I earned my chaps a-weaving for one of them things, I’ll be a curse on you and yours during all the time of man.”
“Five dollars!” the husband shouted. He thrust himself up to the post, his clenched hand on a level with the Texan’s knees. He opened it upon a wad of frayed banknotes and silver “Five dollars! And the man that raises it will have to beat my head off or Ill beat hisn.”
“All right,” the Texan said. “Five dollars is bid. But don’t you shake your hand at me.”
At five o’clock that afternoon the Texan crumpled the third paper carton and dropped it to the earth beneath him. In the copper slant of the levelling sun which fell also upon the line of limp garments in Mrs. Littlejohn’s backyard and which cast his shadow and that of the post on which he sat long across the lot where now and then the ponies still rushed in purposeless and tireless surges, the Texan straightened his leg and thrust his hand into his pocket and took out a coin and leaned down to the little boy. His voice was now hoarse, spent. “Here, bud,” he said. “Run to the store and get me a box of gingersnaps.” The men still stood along the fence, tireless, in their overalls and faded shirts. Flem Snopes was there now, appeared suddenly from nowhere, standing beside the fence with a space the width of three or four men on either side of him, standing there in his small yet definite isolation, chewing tobacco, in the same gray trousers and minute bow tie in which he had departed last summer but in a new cap, gray too like the other, but new, and overlaid with a bright golfer’s plaid, looking also at the horses in the lot. All of them save two had been sold for sums ranging from three dollars and a half to eleven and twelve dollars. The purchasers, as they had bid them in, had gathered as though by instinct into a separate group on the other side of the gate, where they stood with their hands lying upon the top strand of the fence, watching with a still more sober intensity the animals which some of them had owned for seven and eight hours now but had not yet laid hands upon. The husband, Henry, stood beside the post on which the Texan sat. The wife had gone bade to the wagon, where she sat gray in the gray garment, motionless, looking at nothing, still, she might have been something inanimate which he had loaded into the wagon to move it somewhere, waiting now in the wagon until he should be ready to go on again, patient, insensate, timeless.
“I bought a horse and I paid cash for it,” he said. His voice was harsh and spent too, the mad look in his eyes had a quality glazed now and even sightless. “And yet you expect me to stand around here till they are all sold before I can get my horse. Well, you can do all the expecting you want. I’m going to take my horse out of there and go home.” The Texan looked down at him. The Texan’s shirt was blotched with sweat. His big face was cold and still, his voice level.
“Take your horse then.” After a moment Henry looked away. He stood with his head bent a little, swallowing from time to time.
“Ain’t you going to catch him for me?”
“It ain’t my horse,” the Texan said in that flat still voice After a while Henry raised his head. He did not look at the Texan.
“Who’ll help me catch my horse?” he said. Nobody answered. They stood along the fence, looking quietly into the lot where the ponies huddled, already beginning to fade a little where the long shadow of the house lay upon them, deepening. From Mrs. Littlejohn’s kitchen the smell of frying ham came. A noisy cloud of sparrows swept across the lot and into a chinaberry tree beside the house, and in the high soft vague blue swallows stooped and whirled in erratic indecision, their cries like strings plucked at random. Without looking back, Henry raised his voice: “Bring that ere plowline.” After a time the wife moved She got down from the wagon and took a coil of new cotton rope from it and moved toward the gate. The Texan began to descend from the post, stiffly, as Henry put his hand on the latch. “Come on here,” he said. The wife had stopped when he took the rope from her. She moved again, obediently, her hands rolled into the dress across her stomach, passing the Texan without looking at him.
“Don’t go in there, missus,” he said. She stopped, not looking at him, not looking at anything. The husband opened the gate and entered the lot and turned, holding the gate open but without raising his eyes.
“Come on here,” he said.
“Don’t you go in there, missus,” the Texan said. The wife stood motionless between them, her face almost concealed by the sunbonnets her hands folded across her stomach.
“I reckon I better,” she said. The other men did not look at her at all, at her or Henry either. They stood along the fence, grave and quiet and inattentive, almost bemused. Then the wife passed through the gate; the husband shut it behind them and turned and began to move toward the huddled ponies, the wife following in the gray and shapeless garment within which she moved without inference of locomotion, like something on a moving platform, a float. The horses were watching them. They clotted and blended and shifted among themselves, on the point of breaking though not breaking yet. The husband shouted at them. He began to curse them, advancing, the wife following. Then the huddle broke, the animals moving with high, stiff knees, circling the two people who turned and followed again as the herd flowed and huddled again at the opposite side of the lot.
“There he is,” the husband said. “Get him into that corner.” The herd divided; the horse which the husband had bought jolted on stiff legs. The wife shouted at it; it spun and poised, plunging, then the husband struck it across the face with the coiled rope and it whirled and slammed into the corner of the fence. “Keep him there now,” the husband said. He shook out the rope, advancing. The horse watched him with wild, glaring eyes; it rushed again, straight toward the wife. She shouted at it and waved her arms but it soared past her in a long bound and rushed again into the huddle of its fellows. They followed and hemmed it again into another corner; again the wife failed to stop its rush for freedom and the husband turned and struck her with the coiled rope. “Why didn’t you head him?” he said. “Why didn’t you?” He struck her again; she did not move, not even to fend the rope with a raised arm. The men along the fence stood quietly, their faces lowered as though brooding upon the earth at their feet. Only Flem Snopes was still watching-if he ever had been looking into the lot at all, standing in his little island of isolation, chewing with his characteristic faint sidewise thrust beneath the new plaid cap.
The Texan said something, not loud, harsh and short. He entered the lot and went to the husband and jerked the uplifted rope from his hand. The husband whirled as though he were about to spring at the Texan, crouched slightly, his knees bent and his arms held slightly away from his sides, though his gaze never mounted higher than the Texan’s carved and dusty boots. Then the Texan took the husband by the arm and led him back toward the gate, the wife following, and through the gate which he held open for the woman and then closed. He took a wad of banknotes from his trousers and removed a bill from it and put it into the woman’s hand. “Get him into the wagon and get him on home,” he said. “What’s that for?” Flem Snopes said. He had approached. He now stood beside the post on which the Texan had been sitting. The Texan did not look at him.
“Thinks he bought one of them ponies,” the Texan said. He spoke in a flat still voice, like that of a man after a sharp run. “Get him on away, missus.”
“Give him back that money,” the husband said, in his lifeless, spent tone. “I bought that horse and I aim to have him if I got to shoot him before I can put a rope on him.” The Texan did not even look at him.
“Get him on away from here, missus,” he said.
“You take your money and I take my horse,” the husband said. He was shaking slowly and steadily now, as though he were cold. His hands open and shut below the frayed cuffs of his shirt. “Give it back to him,” he said.
“You don’t own no horse of mine,” the Texan said. “Get him on home, missus.” The husband raised his spent face, his mad glazed eyes. He reached out his hand. The woman held the banknote in her folded hands across her stomach. For a while the husband’s shaking hand merely fumbled at it. Then he drew the banknote free.
“It’s my horse,” he said. “I bought it. These fellows saw me. I paid for it. It’s my horse. Here.” He turned and extended the banknote toward Snopes. “You got something to do with these horses. I bought one. Here’s the money for it. I bought one. Ask him.” Snopes took the banknote. The others stood, gravely inattentive, in relaxed attitudes along the fence. The sun had gone now; there was nothing save violet shadow upon them and upon the lot where once more and for no reason the ponies rushed and flowed. At that moment the little boy came up, tireless and indefatigable still, with the new paper carton. The Texan took it, though he did not open it at once. He had dropped the rope and now the husband stooped for it, fumbling at it for some time before he lifted it from the ground. Then he stood with his head bent, his knuckles whitening on the rope. The woman had not moved. Twilight was coming fast now; there was a last mazy swirl of swallows against the high and changing azure. Then the Texan tore the end from the carton and tilted one of the cakes into his hand; he seemed to be watching the hand as it shut slowly upon the cake until a fine powder of snuff-colored dust began to rain from his fingers. He rubbed the hand carefully on his thigh and raised his head and glanced about until he saw the little boy and handed the carton back to him.
“Here, Bud,” he said. Then he looked at the woman, his voice flat, quiet again. “Mr. Snopes will have your money for you tomorrow. Better get him in the wagon and get him on home. He don’t own no horse. You can get your money tomorrow from Mr. Snopes.” The wife turned and went back to the wagon and got into it. No one watched her, nor the husband who still stood, his head bent, passing the rope from one hand to the other. They leaned along the fence, grave and quiet, as though the fence were in another land, another time.
“How many you got left?” Snopes said. The Texan roused; they all seemed to rouse then, returning, listening again.
“Got three now,” the Texan said. “Swap all three of them for a buggy or a-“
“It’s out in the road,” Snopes said, a little shortly, a little quickly, turning away. “Get your mules.” He went on up the lane. They watched the Texan enter the lot and cross it, the horses flowing before him but without the old irrational violence, as if they too were spent, vitiated with the long day, and enter the barn and then emerge, leading the two harnessed mules. The wagon had been backed under the shed beside the barn. The Texan entered this and came out a moment later, carrying a bedding-roll and his coat, and led the mules back toward the gate, the ponies huddled again and watching him with their various unmatching eyes, quietly now, as if they too realized there was not only an armistice between them at last but that they would never look upon each other again in both their lives. Someone opened the gate. The Texan led the mules through it and they followed in a body, leaving the husband standing beside the closed gate, his head still bent and the coiled rope in his hand. They passed the wagon in which the wife sat, her gray garment fading into the dusk, almost the same color and as still, looking at nothing; they passed the clothesline with its limp and unwinded drying garments, walking through the hot vivid smell of ham from Mrs. Littlejohn’s kitchen. When they reached the end of the lane they could see the moon, almost full, tremendous and pale and still lightless in the sky from which day had not quite gone. Snopes was standing at the end of the lane beside an empty buggy. It was the one with the glittering wheels and the fringed parasol top in which he and Will Varner had used to drive. The Texan was motionless too, looking at it.
“Well well well,” he said. “So this is it.”
“If it don’t suit you, you can ride one of the mules back to Texas,” Snopes said.
“You bet,” the Texan said. “Only I ought to have a powder puff or at least a mandolin to ride it with.” He backed the mules onto the tongue and lifted the breastyoke. Two of them came forward and fastened the traces for him. Then they watched him get into the buggy and raise the reins.
“Where you heading for?” one said. “Back to Texas?”
“In this?” the Texan said. “I wouldn’t get past the first Texas saloon without starting the vigilance committee. Besides, I ain’t going to waste all this here lace-trimmed top and these spindle wheels just on Texas. Long as I am this far, I reckon I’ll go on a day or two and look-see them Northern towns. Washington and New York and Baltimore. What’s the short way to New York from here?” They didn’t know. But they told him how to reach Jefferson.
“You’re already headed right,” Freeman said. “Just keep right on up the road past the schoolhouse.”
“All right,” the Texan said. “Well, remember about busting them ponies over the head now and then until they get used to you. You won’t have any trouble with them then.” He lifted the reins again. As he did so Snopes stepped forward and got into the buggy.
“I’ll ride as far as Varner’s with you,” he said.
“I didn’t know I was going past Varner’s,” the Texan said.
“You can go to town that way,” Snopes said. “Drive on.”
The Texan shook the reins. Then he said,
“Whoa.” He straightened his leg and put his hand into his pocket. “Here, Bud,” he said to the little boy, “run to the store and-Never mind. I’ll stop and get it myself, long as I am going back that way.” “Well, boys,” he said. “Take care of yourselves.” He swung the team around The buggy went on. They looked after it.
“I reckon he aims to kind of come up on Jefferson from behind,” Quick said.
“He’ll be lighter when he gets there,” Freeman said.
“He can come up to it easy from any side he wants.”
“Yes,” Bookwright said. “His pockets won’t rattle.” They went back to the lot; they passed on through the narrow way between the two lines of patient and motionless wagons, which at the end was completely closed by the one in which the woman sat. The husband was still standing beside the gate with his coiled rope, and now night had completely come. The light itself had not changed so much; if anything, it was brighter but with that other-worldly quality of moonlight, so that when they stood once more looking into the lot, the splotchy bodies of the ponies had a distinctness, almost a brilliance, but without individual shape and without depth-no longer horses, no longer flesh and bone directed by a principle capable of calculated violence, no longer inherent with the capacity to hurt and harm.
“Well what are we waiting for?” Freeman said. “For them to go to roost?”
“We better all get our ropes first,” Quick said. “Get you ropes everybody.” Some of them did not have ropes. When they left home that morning, they had not heard about the horses, the auction. They had merely happened through the village by chance and learned of it arid stopped.
“Go to the store and get some then,” Freeman said.
“The store will be closed now,” Quick said.
“No it won’t,” Freeman said. “If it was closed, Lump Snopes would a been up here.” So while the ones who had come prepared got their ropes from the wagons, the others went down to the store. The clerk was just closing it.
“You all ain’t started catching them yet, have you?” he said. “Good; I was afraid I wouldn’t get there in time.” He opened the door again and amid the old strong sunless smells of cheese and leather and molasses he measured and cut off sections of plow-line for them and in a body and the clerk in the center and still talking, voluble and unlistened to, they returned up the road. The pear tree before Mrs. Littlejohn’s was like drowned silver now in the moon. The mockingbird of last night, or another one, was already singing in it, and they now saw, tied to the fence, Ratliff’s buckboard and team.
“I thought something was wrong all day,” one said. “Ratliff wasn’t there to give nobody advice.” When they passed down the lane, Mrs. Littlejohn was in her backyard, gathering the garments from the clothesline; they could still smell the ham. The others were waiting at the gate, beyond which the ponies, huddled again, were like phantom fish, suspended apparently without legs now in the brilliant treachery of the moon.
“I reckon the best way will be for us all to take and catch them one at a time,” Freeman said.
“One at a time,” the husband, Henry, said. Apparently he had not moved since the Texan had led his mules through the gate, save to lift his hands to the top of the gate, one of them still clutching the coiled rope. “One at a time,” he said. He began to curse in a harsh, spent monotone. “After I’ve stood around here all day, waiting for that-” He cursed. He began to jerk at the gate, shaking it with spent violence until one of the others slid the latch back and it swung open and Henry entered it, the others following, the little boy pressing close behind his father until Eck became aware of him and turned.
“Here,” he said. “Give me that rope. You stay out of here.”
“Aw, paw,” the boy said.
“No sir. Them things will kill you. They almost done it this morning. You stay out of here.”
“But we got two to catch.” For a moment Eck stood looking down at the boy.
“That’s right,” he said. “I’ve got two. But you stay close to me now. And when I holler run, you run. You hear me?”
“Spread out, boys,” Freeman said. “Keep them in front of us.” They began to advance across the lot in a ragged crescent-shaped line, each one with his rope. The ponies were now at the far side of the lot. One of them snorted; the mass shifted within itself but without breaking. Freeman, glancing back, saw the little boy. “Get that boy out of here,” he said.
“I reckon you better,” Eck said to the boy. “You go and get in the wagon yonder. You can see us catch them from there.” The little boy turned and trotted toward the shed beneath which the wagon stood. The line of men advanced, Henry a little in front.
“Watch them close now,” Freeman said. “Maybe we better try to get them into the barn first-” At that moment the huddle broke. It parted and flowed in both directions along the fence. The men at the ends of the line began to run, waving their arms and shouting. “Head them,” Freeman said tensely. “Turn them back.” They turned them, driving them back upon themselves again; the animals merged and spun in short, huddling rushes, phantom and inextricable. “Hold them now,” Freeman said. “Don’t let them get by us.” The line advanced again. Eck turned; he did not know why-whether a sound, what. The little boy was just behind him again.
“Didn’t I tell you to get in that wagon and stay there?” Eck said.
“Watch out, paw!” the boy said. “There he is! There’s ourn!” It was the one the Texan had given Eck. “Catch him, paw!”
“Get out of my way,” Eck said. “Get back to that wagon.” The line was still advancing. The ponies milled, M clotting, forced gradually backward toward the open door of the barn. Henry was still slightly in front, crouched slightly, his thin figure, even in the mazy moonlight, emanating something of that spent fury. The splotchy huddle of animals seemed to be moving before the advancing line of men like a snowball which they might have been pushing before them by some invisible means, gradually nearer and nearer to the black yawn of the barn door. Later it was obvious that the ponies were so intent upon the men that they did not realize the barn was even behind them until they backed into the shadow of it. Then an indescribable sound, a movement desperate and despairing, arose among them; for an instant of static horror men and animals faced one another, then the men whirled and ran before a gaudy vomit of long wild faces and splotched chests which over took and scattered them and flung them sprawling aside and completely obliterated from sight Henry and the little boy, neither of whom had moved though Henry had flung up both arms, still holding his coiled rope, the herd sweeping on across the lot, to crash through the gate which the last man through it had neglected to close, leaving it slightly ajar, carrying all of the gate save the upright to which the hinges were nailed with them, and so among the teams and wagons which choked the lane, the teams springing and lunging too, snapping hitch-reins and tongues. Then the whole inextricable mass crashed among the wagons and eddied and divided about the one in which the woman sat, and rushed on down the lane and into the road, dividing, one half going one way and one half the other.
The men in the lot extant Henry, got to their feet and ran toward the gate. The little boy once more had not been touched, not even thrown off his feet; for a while his father held him clear of the ground in one hand, shaking him like a rag doll. “Didn’t I tell you to stay in that wagon?” Eck cried. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Look out, paw!” the boy chattered out of the violent shaking, “There’s ourn! There he goes!” It was the horse the Texan had given them again. It was as if they owned no other, the other one did not exist; as if by some absolute and instantaneous rapport of blood they had relegated to oblivion the one for which they had paid money. They ran to the gate and down the lane where the other men had disappeared. They saw the horse the Texan had given them whirl and dash back and rush through the gate into Mrs. Littlejohn’s yard and run up the front steps and crash once on the wooden veranda and vanish through the front door. Eck and the boy ran up onto the veranda. A lamp sat on a table just inside the door. In its mellow light they saw the horse fill the long hallway like a pinwheel, gaudy, furious and thunderous. A like further down the hall there was a varnished yellow melodeon. The horse crashed into it; it produced a single note, almost a chord, in bass, resonant and grave, of deep and sober astonishment; the horse with its monstrous and antic shadow whirled again and vanished through another door. It was a bedroom; Ratliff, in his underclothes and one sock and with the other sock in his hand and his back to the door, was leaning out the open window facing the lane, the lot. He looked back over his shoulder. For an instant he and the horse glared at one another. Then he sprang through the window as the horse backed out of the room and into the hall again and whirled and saw Eck and the little boy just entering the front door, Eck still carrying his rope. It whirled again and rushed on down the hall and onto the back porch just as Mrs. Littlejohn, carrying an armful of clothes from the line and the washboard, mounted the steps.
“Get out of here, you son of a bitch,” she said. She struck with the washboard; it divided neatly on the long mad face and the horse whirled and rushed back up the hall, where Eck and the boy now stood.
“Get to hell out of here, Wall!” Eck roared. He dropped to the floor, covering his head with his arms. The boy did not move, and for the third time the horse soared above the unwinking eyes and the unbowed and untouched head and onto the front veranda again just as Ratliff, still carrying the sock, ran around the corner of the N house and up the steps. The horse whirled without breaking or pausing. It galloped to the end of the veranda and $ took the railing and soared outward, hobgoblin and floating, in the moon. It landed in the lot still running and crossed the lot and galloped through the wrecked gate and among the overturned wagons and the still intact one in which Henry’s wife still sat, and on down the lane and into the road.
A quarter of a mile further on, the road gashed pallid and moony between the moony shadows of the bordering trees, the horse still galloping, galloping its shadow into the dust, the road descending now toward the creek and the bridge. It was of wood, just wide enough for a single vehicle. When the horse reached it, it was occupied by a wagon coming from the opposite direction and drawn by two mules already asleep in the harness and the soporific motion. On the seat was Tull and his wife, in splint chairs in the wagon behind them sat their four daughters, all returning belated from an all-day visit with some of Mrs. Tull’s kin. The horse neither checked nor swerved. It crashed once on the wooden bridge and rushed between the two mules which waked lunging in opposite directions in the traces, the horse now apparently scrambling along the wagon-tongue itself like a mad squirrel and scrabbling at the end-gate of the wagon while Tull shouted at it and struck at its face with his whip. The mules were now trying to turn the wagon around in the middle of the bridge. It slewed and tilted, the bridge-rail cracked with a sharp report above the shrieks of the women; the horse scrambled at last across the back of one of the mules and Tull stood up in the wagon and kicked at its face. Then the front end of the wagon rose, flinging Tull, the reins now wrapped several times about his wrist, backward into the wagon bed among the overturned chairs and the exposed stockings and undergarments of his women. The pony scrambled free and crashed again on the wooden planking, galloping again. The wagon lurched again; the mules had finally turned it on the bridge where there was not room for it to turn and were now kicking themselves free of the traces. When they came free, they snatched Tull bodily out of the wagon. He struck the bridge on his face and was dragged for several feet before the wristwrapped reins broke. Far up the road now, distancing the frantic mules, the pony faded on. While the five women still shrieked above Tull’s unconscious body, Eck and the little boy came up, trotting, Eck still carrying his rope. He was panting. “Which way’d he go?” he said.
In the now empty and moon-drenched lot, his wife and Mrs. Littlejohn and Ratliff and Lump Snopes, the clerk and three other men raised Henry out of the trampled dust and carried him into Mrs. Littlejohn’s back yard His face was blanched and stony, his eyes were closed; the weight of his head tautened his throat across the protruding larynx; his teeth glinted dully beneath his lifted lip. They carried him on toward the house, through the dappled shade of the chinaberry trees. Across the dreaming and silver night a faint sound like remote thunder came and ceased. “There’s one of them on the creek bridge,” one of the men said.
“It’s that one of Eck Snopes,” another said. “The one that was in the house.” Mrs. Littlejohn had preceded them into the hall. When they entered with Henry, she had already taken the lamp from the table and she stood beside an open door, holding the lamp high.
“Bring him in here,” she said. She entered the room first and set the lamp on the dresser. They followed with clumsy scufflings and pantings and laid Henry on the bed and Mrs. Littlejohn came to the bed and stood looking down at Henry’s peaceful and bloodless face. “I’ll declare,” she said. “You men.” They had drawn back a little, clumped, shifting from one foot to another, not looking at her nor at his wife either, who stood at the foot of the bed, motionless, her hands folded into her dress. “You all get out of here, V. K.,” she said to Ratliff. “Go outside. See if you can’t find something else to play with that will kill some more of you.”
“All right,” Ratliff said. “Come on, boys. Ain’t no more horses to catch in here.” They followed him toward the door, on tiptoe, their shoes scuffling, their shadows monstrous on the wall.
“Go get Will Varner,” Mrs. Littlejohn said. “I reckon you can tell him it’s still a mule.” They went out; they didn’t look back. They tiptoed up the hall and crossed the veranda and descended into the moonlight. Now that they could pay attention to it, the silver air seemed to be filled with faint and sourceless sounds shouts, thin and distant, again a brief thunder of hooves on a wooden bridge, more shouts faint and thin and earnest and clear as bells; once they even distinguished the words: “Whooey. Head him.”
“He went through that house quick,” Ratliff said. “He must have found another woman at home.” Then Henry screamed in the house behind them. They looked back into the dark hall where a square of light fell through the bedroom door, listening while the scream sank into a harsh respiration: “Ah. Ah. Ah” on a rising note about to become screaming again. “Come on,” Ratliff said. “We better get Varner.” They went up the road in a body, treading the moon-blanched dust in the tremulous April night murmurous with the moving of sap and the wet busting of burgeoning leaf and bud and constant with the thin and urgent cries and the brief and fading bursts of galloping hooves. Varner’s house was dark blank and without depth in the moonlight They stood, clumped darkly in the silver yard and called up at the blank windows until suddenly someone was standing in one of them. It was Flem Snopes’ wife. She was in a white garment; the heavy braided club of her hair looked almost black against it. She did not lean out, she merely stood there, full in the moon, apparently blank-eyed or certainly not looking downward at them-the heavy gold hair, the mask not tragic and perhaps not even doomed: just damned, the strong faint lift of breasts beneath marblelike fall of the garment; to those below what Brunhilde, what Rhinemaiden on what spurious river-rock of papier-mache, what Helen returned to what topless and shoddy Argos, waiting for no one. “Evening, Mrs. Snopes,” Ratliff said. “We want Uncle Will. Henry Armstid is hurt at Mrs. Littlejohn’s.” She vanished from the window. They waited in the moonlight, listening to the faint remote shouts and cries, until Varner emerged, sooner than they had actually expected, hunching into his coat and buttoning his trousers over the tail of his nightshirt, his suspenders still dangling in twin loops below the coat. He was carrying the battered bag which contained the plumber-like tools with which he drenched and wormed and blistered and floated or drew the teeth of horses and mules; he came down the steps, lean and loosejointed, his shrewd ruthless head cocked a little as he listened also to the faint bell-like cries and shouts with which the silver air was full.
“Are they still trying to catch them rabbits?” he said.
“All of them except Henry Armstid,” Ratliff said. “He caught his.”
“Hah,” Varner said. “That you, V. K.? How many did you buy?”
“I was too late,” Ratliff said. “I never got back in time.”
“Hah,” Varner said. They moved on to the gate and into the road again. “Well it’s a good bright cool night for running them.” The moon was now high overhead, a pearled and mazy yawn in the soft sky, the ultimate ends of which rolled onward, whorl on whorl, beyond the pale stars and by pale stars surrounded. They walked in a chose clump, tramping their shadows into the road’s mild dust, blotting the shadows of the burgeoning trees which soared, trunk branch and twig against the pale sky, delicate and finely thinned. They passed the dark store. Then the pear tree came in sight. It rose in mazed and silver immobility like exploding snow; the mockingbird still sang in it. “Look at that tree,” Varner said. “It ought to make this year, sho.”
“Corn’ll make this year too,” one said.
“A moon like this is good for every growing thing outen earth,” Varner said. “I mind when me and Mrs. Varner was expecting Eula. Already had a mess of children and maybe we ought to quit then. But I wanted some more gals. Others had done married and moved away, and a passel of boys, soon as they get big enough to be worth anything, they ain’t got time to work. Got to set around the store and talk. But a gal will stay home and work until she does get married. So there was a old woman told my mammy once that if a woman showed her belly to the full moon after she had done caught, it would be a gal. So Mrs. Varner taken and laid every night with the moon on her nekid belly, until it fulled and after. I could lay my ear to her belly and hear Eula kicking and scrouging like all get-out, feeling the moon.”
“You mean it actually worked sho enough, Uncle Will?” the other said.
“Hah,” Varner said. “You might try it. You get enough women showing their nekid bellies to the moon or the sun. Either or even just to your hand fumbling around often enough and more than likely after a while there will be something in it you can lay your ear and listen to, provided something come up and you ain’t got away by that time. Hah, V. K.?” Someone guffawed.
“Don’t ask me,” Ratliff said. “I can’t even get nowhere in time to buy a cheap horse.” Two or three guffawed this time Then they began to hear Henry’s respirations from the house: “Ah. Ah. Ah” and they ceased abruptly, as if they had not been aware of their closeness to it. Varner walked on in front, lean, shambling, yet moving quite rapidly, though his head was still slanted with listening as the faint, urgent, indomitable cries murmured in the silver lambence, sourceless, at times almost musical, like fading bell-notes; again there was a brief rapid thunder of hooves on wooden planking.
“There’s another one on the creek bridge,” one said.
“They are going to come out even on them things, after all,” Varner said. “They’ll get the money back in exercise and relaxation. You take a man that ain’t got no other relaxation all year long except dodging mule-dung up and down a field furrow. And a night like this one, when a man ain’t old enough yet to lay still and sleep, and yet he ain’t young enough anymore to be tomcatting in and out of other folks’ back windows, something like this is good for him. It’ll make him sleep tomorrow night anyhow, provided he gets back home by then. If we had just knowed about this in time, we could have trained up a pack of horse-dogs. Then we could have held one of these field trials.”
“That’s one way to look at it, I reckon,” Ratliff said. “In fact, it might be a considerable comfort to Bookwright and Quick and Freeman and Eck Snopes and them other new horse-owners if that side of it could be brought to their attention, because the chances are ain’t none of them thought to look at it in that light yet. Probably there ain’t a one of them that believes now there’s any cure a tall for that Texas disease Flem Snopes and that Dead-eye Dick brought here.”
“Hah,” Varner said. He opened Mrs. Littlejohn’s gate. The dim light still fell outward across the hall from the bedroom door; beyond it, Armstid was saying “Ah. Ah. Ah” steadily. “There’s a pill for every ill but the last one.”
“Even if there was always time to take it,” Ratliff said.
“Shah,” Varner said again. He glanced back at Ratliff for an instant, pausing. But the little hard bright eyes were invisible now; it was orgy the bushy overhang of the brows which seemed to concentrate downward toward him in writhen immobility, not frowning but with a sort of fierce risibility. “Even if there was time to take it. Breathing is a sight-draft dated yesterday.”
At nine o’clock on the second morning after that, five men were sitting or squatting along the gallery of the store. The sixth was Ratliff. He was standing up, and talking: Maybe there wasn’t but one of them things in Mrs. Littlejohn’s house that night, like Eck says. But it was the biggest drove of just one horse I ever seen. It was in my rooms and it was on the front porch and I could hear Mrs. Littlejohn hitting it over the head with that washboard in the back yard all at the same time. And still it was missing everybody every time. I reckon that’s what that Texas man meant by calling them bargains: that a man would need to be powerful unlucky to ever get close enough to one of them to get hurt.” They laughed, all except Eck himself. He and the little boy were eating. When they mounted the steps, Eck had gone on into the store and emerged with a paper sack, from which he took a segment of cheese and with his pocket knife divided it carefully into two exact halves and gave one to the boy and took a handful of crackers from the sack and gave them to the boy, and now they squatted against the wall, side by side and, save for the difference in size, identical, eating. “I wonder what that horse thought Ratliff was,” one said. He held a spray of peach bloom between his teeth It bore four blossoms like miniature ballet skirts of pink tulle. Jumping out windows and running indoors in his shirt-tail? I wonder how many Ratliffs that horse thought he saw.”
“I don’t know,” Ratliff said. “But if he saw just half as many of me as I saw of him, he was sholy surrounded. Everytime I turned my head, that thing was just running over me or just swirling to run back over that boy again. And that boy there, he stayed right under it one time to my certain knowledge for a full one-and-one-half minutes without ducking his head or even batting his eyes. Yes sir, when I looked around and seen that varmint in the door behind me blaring its eyes at me, I’d a made sho Flem Snopes had brought a tiger back from Texas except I knowed that couldn’t no just one tiger completely fill a entire room.” They laughed again, quietly. Lump Snopes, the clerk, sitting in the only chair tilted back against the door-facing and partly blocking the entrance, cackled suddenly.
“If Flem had knowed how quick you fellows was going to snap them horses up, he’d a probably brought some tigers,” he said. “Monkeys too.”
“So they was Flem’s horses,” Ratliff said. The laughter stopped. The other three had open knives in their hands, with which they had been trimming idly at chips and slivers of wood. Now they sat apparently absorbed in the delicate and almost tedious movements of the knife blades. The clerk had looked quickly up and found Ratliff watching him. His constant expression of incorrigible and mirthful disbelief had left him now; only the empty wrinkles of it remained about his mouth and eyes.
“Has Flem ever said they was?” he said. “But you town fellows are smarter than us country folks. Likely you done already read Flem’s mind.” But Ratliff was not looking at him now.
“And I reckon we’d a bought them,” he said. He stood above them again, easy, intelligent, perhaps a little sombre but still perfectly impenetrable. “Eck here, for instance With a wife and family to support. He owns two of them, though to be sho he never had to pay money for but one. I heard folks chasing them things up until midnight last night, but Eck and that boy ain’t been home at all in two days.” They laughed again, except Eck. He pared off a bit of cheese and speared it on the knife-point and put it into his mouth.
“Eck caught one of his,” the second man said.
“That so?” Ratliff said. “Which one was it, Eck? The one he give you or the one you bought?”
“The one he give me,” Eck said, chewing.
“Well, well,” Ratliff said. “I hadn’t heard about that. But Eck’s still one horse short. And the one he had to pay money for. Which is pure proof enough that them horses wasn’t Flem’s because wouldn’t no man even give his own blood kin something he couldn’t even catch.” They laughed again, but they stopped when the clerk spoke. There was no mirth in his voice at all.
“Listen,” he said. “All right. We done all admitted you are too smart for anybody to get ahead of. You never bought no horse from Flem or nobody else, so maybe it ain’t none of your business and maybe you better just leave it at that.”
“Sholy,” Ratliff said. “It’s done already been left at that two nights ago. The fellow that forgot to shut that lot gate done that. With the exception of Eck’s horse. And we know that wasn’t Flem’s, because that horse was give to Eck for nothing.”
“There’s others besides Eck that ain’t got back home yet,” the man with the peach spray said. “Bookwright and Quick are still chasing theirs. They was reported three miles west of Burtsboro Old Town at eight o’clock last night. They ain’t got close enough to it yet to tell which one it belongs to.”
“Sholy,” Ratliff said. “The only new horse-owner in this country that could a been found without bloodhounds since whoever it was left that gate open two nights ago, is Henry Armstid. He’s laying right there in Mrs. Little john’s bedroom where he can watch the lot so that any time the one he bought happens to run back into it, all he’s got to do is to holler at his wife to run out with the rope and catch it-” He ceased, though he said, “Morning, Flem,” so immediately afterward and with no change whatever in tone, that the pause was not even discernible. Judith the exception of the clerk, who sprang up, vacated the chair with a sort of servile alacrity, and Eck and the little boy who continued to eat, they watched above their stilled hands as Snopes in the gray trousers and the minute tie and the new cap with its bright overplaid mounted the steps. He was chewing; he already carried a piece of white pine board; he jerked his head at them, looking at nobody, and took the vacated chair and opened his knife and began to whittle. The clerk now leaned in the opposite side of the door, rubbing his back against the facing. The expression of merry and invincible disbelief had returned to his face, with a quality watchful and secret.
“You’re just in time,” he said. “Ratliff here seems to be in a considerable sweat about who actually owned them horses.” Snopes drew his knife-blade neatly along the board, the neat, surgeon-like sliver curling before it. The others were whittling again, looking carefully at nothing, except Eck and the boy, who were still eating, and the clerk rubbing his back against the door-facing and watching Snopes with that secret and alert intensity. “Maybe you could put his mind at rest.” Snopes turned his head slightly and spat, across the gallery and the steps and into the dust beyond them. He drew the knife back and began another curling sliver.
“He was there too,” Snopes said. “He knows as much as anybody else.” This time the clerk guffawed, chortling. His Matures gathering toward the center of his face as Slough plucked there by a hand. He slapped his leg, cackling.
“You might as well to quit,” he said. “You can’t beat him.”
“I reckon not,” Ratliff said. He stood above them, not looking at any of them, his gaze fixed apparently on the empty road beyond Mrs. Littlejohn’s house, impenetrable, brooding even. A hulking, half-grown boy in overalls too small for him, appeared suddenly from nowhere in particular. He stood for a while in the road, just beyond spitting-range of the gallery, with the air of having come from nowhere in particular and of not knowing where he would go next when he should move again and of not being troubled by that fact. He was looking at nothing, certainly not toward the gallery, and no one on the gallery so much as looked at him except the little boy, who now watched the boy in the road, his periwinkle eyes grave and steady above the bitten cracker in his halted hand. The boy in the road moved on, thickly undulant in the tight overalls, and vanished beyond the corner of the store, the round head and the unwinking eyes of the little boy on the gallery turning steadily to watch him out of sight. Then the little boy bit the cracker again, chewing. “Of course there’s Mrs. Tull,” Ratliff said. “But that’s Eck she’s going to sue for damaging Tull against that bridge. And as for Henry Armstid.
“If a man ain’t got gumption enough to protect himself, it’s his own look-out,” the clerk said.
“Sholy,” Ratliff said, still in that dreamy, abstracted tone, actually speaking over his shoulder even. Mind Henry Armstid, that’s all right because from what I hear of the conversation that taken place, Henry had already stopped owning that horse he thought was his before that Texas man left. And as for that broke leg, that won’t put him out none because his wife can make his crop.” The clerk had ceased to rub his back against the door. He watched the back of Ratliff~s head, unwinking too, sober and intent; he glanced at Snopes who, chewing, was watching another sliver curl away from the advancing knife-blade then he watched the back of Ratliff’s head again.
“It won’t be the first time she has made their crop,” the man with the peach spray said. Ratliff glanced at him. “You ought to know. This won’t be the first time I ever saw you in their field, doing plowing Henry never got around to. How many days have you already given them this year?” The man with the peach spray removed it and spat carefully and put the spray back between his teeth.
“She can run a furrow straight as I can,” the second said.
“They’re unlucky,” the third said. “When you are unlucky, it don’t matter much what you do.”
“Sholy,” Ratliff said. “I’ve heard laziness called bad luck so much that maybe it is.”
“He ain’t lazy,” the third said. “When their mule died three or four years ago, him and her broke their land working time about in the traces with the other mule. They ain’t lazy.”
“So that’s all right,” Ratliff said, gazing up the empty road again. “Likely she will begin right away to finish the plowing; the oldest gal is pretty near big enough to work with a mule, ain’t she? or at least to hold the plow steady while Mrs. Armstid helps the mule?” He glanced again toward the man with the peach spray as though for an answer, but he was not looking at the other and he went on talking without any pause. The clerk stood with his rump and back pressed against the door-facing as if he had paused in the act of scratching, watching Ratliff quite hard now, unwinking. If Ratliff had looked at Flem Snopes, he would have seen nothing below the downslanted peak of the cap save the steady motion of his jaws Another sliver was curling with neat deliberation before the moving knife. “Plenty of time now because all shells got to do after she finishes washing Mrs. Littlejohn’s dishes and sweeping out the house to pay hers and Henry’s board, is to go out home and milk and cook up enough vittles to last the children until tomorrow and feed them and get the littlest ones to sleep and wait outside the door until that biggest gal gets the bar up and gets into bed herself with the axe.”
“The axe?” the man with the peach spray said.
“She takes it to bed with her. She’s just twelve, and what with this country still more or less full of them uncaught horses that never belonged to Flem Snopes, likely she feels maybe she can’t swing a mere washboard like Mrs. Littlejohn can-and then come back and wash up the supper dishes. And after that, not nothing to do until morning except to stay close enough where Henry can call her until it’s light enough to chop the wood to cook breakfast and then help Mrs. Littlejohn wash the dishes and make the beds and sweep while watching the road. Because likely any time now Flem Snopes will get bade from wherever he has been since the auction, which of course is to town naturally to see about his cousin that’s got into a little legal trouble, and so get that five dollars. ‘Only maybe he won’t give it back to me,’ she says, and maybe that’s what Mrs. Littlejohn thought too, because she never said nothing. I could hear her-“
“And where did you happen to be during all this?” the clerk said.
“Listening,” Ratliff said. He glanced back at the clerk, then he was looking away again, almost standing with his back to them. “I could hear her dumping the dishes into the pan like she was throwing them at it. ‘Do you reckon he will give it back to me?’ Mrs. Armstid says. What Texas man give it to him and said he would. All the folks there saw him give Mr. Snopes the money and heard him say I could get it from Mr. Snopes tomorrow.’ Mrs. Littlejohn was washing the dishes now, washing them like a man would, like they was made out of iron. ‘No,’ she says. ‘But asking him won’t do no hurt.’- ‘If he wouldn’t give it back, it ain’t no use to ask,’ Mrs. Artmstid says.-‘Suit yourself,’ Mrs. Littlejohn says. ‘It’s your money.’ Then I couldn’t hear nothing but the dishes for a while. ‘Do you reckon he might give it back to me?’ Mrs. Armstid says. ‘That Texas man said he would. They all heard him say it.’-‘Then go and ask him for it,’ Mrs. Littlejohn says. Then I couldn’t hear nothing but the dishes again. ‘He won’t give it back to me,’ Mrs. Armstid says.-‘All right,’ Mrs. Littlejohn says. ‘Don’t ask him, then.’ Then I just heard the dishes. They would have two pans, both washing. ‘You don’t reckon he would, do you?’ Mrs. Armstid says. Mrs. Littlejohn never said nothing. It sounded like she was throwing the dishes at one another. ‘Maybe I better go and talk to Henry,’ Mrs. Armstid says -‘I would,’ Mrs. Littlejohn says. And I be dog if it didn’t sound exactly like she had two plates in her hands, beating them together like these here brass bucket-lids in a band. ‘Then Henry can buy another five-dollar horse with it. Maybe he’ll buy one next time that will out and out kill him. If I just thought he would, I’d give him back that money, myself.’-‘I reckon I better talk to him first,’ Mrs. Armstid says. And then it sounded just lice Mrs. Littlejohn taken up the dishes and pans and all and throwed the whole business at the cookstove-” Ratliff ceased. Behind him the clerk was hissing “Psst! Psst! Flem. Flem!” Then he stopped, and all of them watched Mrs. Armstid approach and mount the steps, gaunt in the shapeless gray garment, the stained tennis shoes hissing faintly on the boards. She came among them and stood, facing Snopes but not looking at anyone, her hands rolled into her apron.
“He said that day he wouldn’t sell Henry that horse,” she said in a Bat toneless voice. “He said you had the money and I could get it from you.” Snopes raised his head and turned it slightly again and spat neatly past the woman across the gallery and into the road.
“He took all the money with him when he left,” he said Motionless, the gray garment hanging in rigid, almost formal folds like drapery in bronze, Mrs. Armstid appeared to be watching something near Snopes’ feet, as though she had not heard him, or as if she had quitted her body as soon as she finished speaking and although her body, hearing, had received the words, they would have no life nor meaning until she returned. The clerk was rubbing his back steadily against the door-facing again, watching her. The little boy was watching her too with his unwinking ineffable gaze, but nobody else was. The man with the peach spray removed it and spat and put the twig back into his mouth.
“He said Henry hadn’t bought no horse,” she said. “He said I could get the money from you.”
“I reckon he forgot it,” Snopes said. Ode took all the money away with him when he left.” He watched her a moment longer, then he trimmed again at the stick. The clerk rubbed his back gently against the door, watching her. After a time Mrs. Armstid raised her head and looked up the road where it went on, mild with spring dust, past Mrs. Littlejohn’s, beginning to rise, on past the not-yet bloomed (that would be in June) locust grove across the way, on past the schoolhouse, the weathered roof of which, rising beyond an orchard of peach and pear trees, resembled a hive swarmed about by a cloud of pink and-white bees, ascending, mounting toward the crest of the hill where the church stood among its sparse gleam of marble headstones in the sombre cedar grove where during the long afternoons of summer the constant mourning doves called back and forth. She moved; once more the rubber soles hissed on the gnawed boards.
“I reckon it’s about time to get dinner started,” she said.
“How’s Henry this morning, Mrs. Armstid?” Ratliff said. She looked at him, pausing, the blank eyes waking for an instant.
“He’s resting, I thank you kindly,” she said. Then the eyes died again and she moved again. Snopes rose from the chair, closing his knife with his thumb and brushing a litter of minute shavings from his lap.
“Wait a minute,” he said. Mrs. Armstid paused again, half-turnings though still not looking at Snopes nor at any of them. Because she can’t possibly actually believe it, Ratliff told himself, any more than I do. Snopes entered the store, the clerk, motionless again, his back and rump pressed against the door-facing as though waiting to start rubbing again, watched him enter, his head turning as the other passed him like the head of an owl, the little eyes blinking rapidly now. Jody Varner came up the road on his horse. He did not pass but instead turned in beside the store, toward the mulberry tree behind it where he was in the habit of hitching his horse. A wagon came up the road, creaking past. The man driving it lifted his hand; one or two of the men on the gallery lifted theirs in response. The wagon went on. Mrs. Armstid looked after it. Snopes came out of the door, carrying a small striped paper bag and approached Mrs. Armstid. “Here,” he said. Her hand turned just enough to receive it. “A little sweetening for the chaps,” he said. His other hand was already in his pocket, and as he turned back to the chair, he drew something from his pocket and handed it to the clerk, who took it. It was a five-cent piece. He sat down in the chair and tilted it back against the door again. He now had the knife in his hand again, already open. He turned his head slightly and spat again, neatly past the gray garment, into the road. The little boy was watching the sack in Mrs. Armstid’s hand. Then she seemed to discover it also, rousing. “You’re right kind,” she said. She rolled the sack into the apron, the little bobs unwinking gaze fixed upon the lump her hands made beneath the cloth. She moved again. “I reckon I better get on and help with dinner,” she said. she descended the steps, though as soon as she reached the level earth and began to retreat, the gray folds of the garment once more lost all inference and intimation of locomotion, so that she seemed to progress with out motion like a figure on a retreating and diminishing float; a gray and blasted tree-trunk moving, somehow in tact and upright, upon an unhurried flood. The clerk in the doorway cackled suddenly, explosively, chortling. He slapped his thigh. “By God,” he said, “You can’t beat him.” Jody Varner, entering the store from the rear, paused in midstride like a pointing bird-dog. Then, on tiptoe, in complete silence and with astonishing speed, he darted behind the counter and sped up the gloomy tunnel, at the end of which a hulking, bear-shaped figure stooped, its entire head and shoulders wedged into the glass case which contained the needles and thread and snuff and tobacco and the stale gaudy candy. He snatched the boy savagely and viciously out; the boy gave a choked cry and struggled flabbily, cramming a final handful of something into his mouth, chewing. But he ceased to struggle almost at once and became slack and inert save for his jaws. Varner dragged him around the counter as the clerk entered, seemed to bounce suddenly into the store with a sort of alert concern.
“You, Saint Elmo?” he said.
“Ain’t I told you and told you to keep him out of here?” Varner demanded, shaking the boy. “He’s damn near eaten that candy-case clean. Stand up!” The boy hung like a half-filled sack from Varner’s hand, chewing with a kind of fatalistic desperation, the eyes shut tight in the vast flaccid colorless face, the ears moving steadily and faintly to the chewing. Save for the jaw and the ears, he ape Seared to have gone to sleep chewing.
“You, Saint Elmo!” the clerk said. “Stand up!” The boy assumed his own weight, though he did not open his eyes yet nor cease to chew. Varner released him. “Git on home,” the clerk said. The boy turned obediently to reenter the store. Varner jerked him about again.
“Not that way,” he said. The boy crossed the gallery and descended the steps, the tight overalls undulant ant reluctant across his flabby thighs. Before he reached the ground his hand rose from his pocket to his mouth; again his ears moved faintly to the motion of chewing.
“He’s worse than a rat, ain’t he?” the clerk said.
“Rat, hell,” Varner said, breathing harshly. “He’s worse than a goat. First thing I know, he’ll graze on back and work through that lace leather and them ham-strings and lap-links and ring-bolts and eat me and you and him all three clean out the back door. And then be damned if I wouldn’t be afraid to turn my back for fear he would cross the road and start in on the gin and the blacksmith shop Now you mind what I say. If I catch him hanging around here one more time, I’m going to set a bear-trap for him “
He went out onto the gallery, the clerk following. “Well, Eck,” he said, “I hear you caught one of your horses.”
“That’s right,” Eck said. He and the little boy had finished the crackers and cheese and he had sat for some time now, holding the empty bag.
“It was the one he give you, wasn’t it?” Varner said.
“That’s right,” Eck said.
“Give the other one to me, paw,” the little boy said.
“What happened?” Varner said.
“He broke his neck,” Eck said.
“I know,” Varner said. “But how?” Eck did not move Watching him, they could almost see him visibly gathering and arranging words, speech. Varner, looking down at him, began to laugh steadily and harshly, sucking his teeth. “I’ll tell you what happened. Eck and that boy finally run it into that blind lane of Freeman’s, after a chase of about twenty-four hours. They figured it couldn’t possibly climb them eight-foot fences of Freeman’s so him and the boy tied their rope across the end of the lane, about three feet off the ground. And sho enough, soon as the horse come to the end of the lane and seen Freeman-s barn, it whirled just like Eck figured it would and come helling back up that lane like a scared hen-hawk. It probably never even seen the rope at all. Mrs. Freeman was watching from where she had run up onto the porch She said that when it hit that rope, it looked just like one of these here great big Christmas pinwheels. But the one you bought got clean away, didn’t it?”
“That’s right,” Eck said. “I never had time to see which way the other one went.”
“Give him to me, paw,” the little boy said. “You wait till we catch him,” Eck said. “We’ll see about it then.”
The two actions of Armstid pl. vs. Snopes, and Tull pl. vs. Eckrum Snopes (and anyone else named Snopes or Varner either which Tull’s irate wife could contrive to involve, as the village well knew) were accorded a change of venue by mutual agreement and arrangement among the litigants. Three of the parties did, that is, because Flem Snopes flatly refused to recognise the existence of the suit against himself, stating once and without heat and first turning his head slightly aside to spit, “They wasn’t none of my horses ‘ then fell to whittling again while the baffled and helpless bailiff stood before the tilted chair with the papers he was trying to serve.
So the Varner surrey was not among the wagons, the buggies, and the saddled horses and mules which moved out of the village on that May Saturday morning, to converge upon Whiteleaf store eight miles away, coming not only from Frenchman’s Bend but from other directions too, since by that time what Ratliff had called ‘that Texas sickness that spotted corruption of frantic and uncatchable horses, had spread as far as twenty and thirty miles. By the time the Frenchman’s Bend people began to arrive there were two dozen wagons, the teams reversed and eased of harness and tied to the rear wheels in order to pass the day, and twice that many saddled animals already standing about the locust grove beside the store and the site of the hearing had already been transferred from the store to an adjacent shed where in the fall cotton would be stored. But by nine o’clock it was seen that even the shed would not hold them all, so the palladium was moved again, from the shed to the grove itself. The horses and mules and wagons were cleared from it; the single chair, the gnawed table bearing a thick Bible which had the appearance of loving and constant use of a piece of old and perfectly kept machinery and an almanac and a copy of Mississippi Reports dated 1881 and bearing along its opening edge a single thread-thin line of soilure, as if during all the time of his possession its owner (or user) had opened it at only one page though that quite often, were fetched from the shed to the grove; a wagon and four men were dispatched and returned presently from the church a mile away with four wooden pews for the litigants and their clansmen and witnesses; behind these in turn the spectators stood-the men, the women, the children, sober, attentive, and neat, not in their Sunday clothes to be sure, but in the clean working garments donned that morning for the Saturday’s diversion of sitting about the country stores or trips into the county seat, and in which they would return to the field on Monday morning and would wear all that week until Friday night came round again.
The Justice of the Peace was a neat, small, plump old man resembling a tender caricature of all grandfathers who ever breathed, in a beautifully laundered though collarless white shirt with immaculate starch-gleaming cuffs and bosom, and steel-framed spectacles and neat, faintly curling white hair. He sat behind the table and looked at them-at the gray woman in the gray sunbonnet and dress, her clasped and motionless hands on her lap resembling a gnarl of pallid and drowned roots from a drained swamp; at Tull in his faded but absolutely clean shirt and the overalls which his womenfolks not only kept immaculately washed but starched and ironed also, and not creased through the legs but flat across them from seam to seam, so that on each Saturday morning they resembled the short pants of a small boy, and the sedate and innocent blue of his eyes above the month-old corn-silk beard which concealed most of his abraded face and which gave him an air of incredible and paradoxical dissoluteness, not as though at last and without warning he had appeared in the sight of his fellowmen in his true character, but as if an old Italian portrait of a child saint had been defaced by a vicious and idle boy; at Mrs. Tull, a strong, full-bosomed though slightly dumpy woman with an expression of grim and seething outrage which the elapsed four weeks had apparently neither increased nor diminished but had merely set, an outrage which curiously and almost at once began to give the impression of being directed not at any Snopes or at any other man in particular but at all men, all males, and of which Tull himself was not at all the victim but the subject, who sat on one side of her husband while the biggest of the four daughters sat on the other as if they (or Mrs. Tull at least) were not so much convinced that Tull might leap up and flee, as determined that he would not; and at Eck and the lithe boy, identical save for size, and Lump, the clerk, in a gray cap which someone actually recognized as being the one which Flem Snopes had worn when he went to Texas last year, who between spells of rapid blinking would sit staring at the Justice with the lidless intensity of a rat-and into the lens-distorted and irisless old-man’s eyes of the Justice there grew an expression not only of amazement and bewilderment but, as in Ratliff’s eyes while he stood on the store gallery four weeks ago, something very like terror.
“This,” he said. ‘I didn’t expect-I didn’t look to see-. I’m going to pray,” he said. “I ain’t going to pray aloud. But I hope-” He looked at them. “I wish…. Maybe some of you all anyway had better do the same.” He bowed his head. They watched him, quiet and grave, while he sat motionless behind the table, the light morning wind moving faintly in his thin hair and the shadowstipple of windy leaves gliding and flowing across the starched bulge of bosom and the gleaming bone-buttoned cuffs, as rigid and almost as large as sections of six-inch stovepipe, at his joined hands. He raised his head. “Armstid against Snopes,” he said. Mrs. Armstid spoke. She did not move, she looked at nothing, her hands clasped in her lap, speaking in that flat, toneless and hopeless voice:
“That Texan man said-“
“Wait,” the Justice said. He looked about at the faces, the blurred eyes fleeing behind the thick lenses. “Where is the defendant? I don’t see him.”
“He wouldn’t come,” the bailiff said.
“Wouldn’t come?” the Justice said. “Didn’t you serve the papers on him.”
“He wouldn’t take them,” the bailiff said. “He said.”
“Then he is in contempt the Justice cried.
“What for?” Lump Snopes said. “Ain’t nobody proved yet they was his horses.” The Justice looked at him.
“Are you representing the defendant?” he said. Snopes blinked at him for a moment.
“What’s that mean?” he said. “That you aim for me to pay whatever fine you think you can clap onto him?”
“So he refuses to defend himself,” the Justice said. “Don’t he know that I can find against him for that reason, even if pure justice and decency ain’t enough.” “It’ll be pure something,” Snopes said. “It don’t take no mind-reader to see how your mind is-“
“Shut up, Snopes,” the bailiff said. “If you ain’t in this case, you keep out of it.” He turned back to the Justice what you want me to do: go over to the Bend and fetch Snopes here anyway? I reckon I can do it.”
“No,” the Justice said. “Wait.” He looked about at the sober faces again with that bafflement, that dread. “Does anybody here know for sho who them horses belonged to? Anybody?” They looked back at him, sober, attentive at the neat immaculate old man sitting with his hands locked together on the table before him to still the trembling
“All right, Mrs. Armstid,” he said. “Tell the court what happened.” She told it, unmoving, in the flat, inflectionless voice, looking at nodding, while they listened quietly, coming to the end and ceasing without even any fall of voice, as though the tale mattered nodding and came to nothing. The Justice was looking down at his hands. When she ceased, he looked up at her. “But you haven’t showed yet that Snopes owned the horses. The one you want to sue is that Texas man. And he’s gone. If you got a judgment against him, you couldn’t collect the money. Don’t you see?”
“Mr. Snopes brought him here,” Mrs. Armstid said. “Likely that Texas man wouldn’t have knowed where Frenchman’s Bend was if Mr. Snopes hadn’t showed him.”
“But it was the Texas man that sold She horses and collected the money for them.” The Justice looked about again at the faces. “Is that right? You, Bookwright, is that what happened?”
“Yes,” Bookwright said. The Justice looked at Mrs. Armstid again, with that pity and grief. As the morning increased the wind had risen, so that from time to time gusts of it ran through the branches overhead, bringing a faint snow of petals, prematurely bloomed as the spring itself had condensed with spendthrift speed after the hard winter, and the heavy and drowsing scent of them, about the motionless heads.
“He give Mr. Snopes Henry’s money. He said Henry hadn’t bought no horse. He said I could get the money from Mr. Snopes tomorrow.” “And you have witnesses that saw and heard him?”
“Yes, sir. The other men that was there saw him give Mr. Snopes the money and say that I could get it-“
“And you asked Snopes for the money?”
“Yes, sir. He said that Texas man taken it away with him when he left. But I would….” She ceased again, perhaps looking down at her hands also. Certainly she was not looking at anyone.
“Yes?” the Justice said. “You would what?”
“I would know them five dollars. I earned them myself, weaving at night after Henry and the chaps was asleep. Some of the ladies in Jefferson would save up string and such and give it to me and I would weave things and sell them. I earned that money a little at a time and I would know it when I saw it because I would take the can outen the chimney and count it now and then while it was making up to enough to buy my chaps some shoes for next winter. I would know it if I was to see it again. If Mr. Snopes would just let.”
“Suppose there was somebody seen Flem give that money back to that Texas fellow,” Lump Snopes said suddenly.
“Did anybody here see that?” the Justice said.
“Yes,” Snopes said, harshly and violently. “Eck here did.” He looked at Eck. “Go on. Tell him.” The Justice looked at Eck; the four Tull girls turned their heads as one head and looked at him, and Mrs. Tull leaned forward to look past her husband, her face cold, furious, and contemptuous, and those standing shifted to look past one another’s heads at Eck sitting motionless on the bench. “Did you see Snopes give Armstid’s money back to the Texas man, Eck?” the Justice said. Still Eck did not answer nor move, Lump Snopes made a gross violent sound through the side of his mouth.
“By God, I ain’t afraid to say it if Eck is. I seen him do it.”
“Will you swear that as testimony?” Snopes looked at the Justice. He did not blink now. “So you won’t take my word,” he said. “I want the truth,” the Justice said. “If I can’t find that, I got to have sworn evidence of what I will have to accept as truth.” He lifted the Bible from the two other books.
“All right,” the bailiff said. “Step up here.” Snopes rose from the bench and approached. They watched him, though now there was no shifting nor craning, no movement at all among the faces, the still eyes. Snopes at the table looked back at them once, his gaze traversing swiftly the crescent-shaped rank; he looked at the Justice again. The bailiff grasped the Bible; though the Justice did not release it yet.
“You are ready to swear you saw Snopes give that Texas man back the money he took from Henry Armstid for that horse?” he said.
“I said I was didn’t I?” Snopes said. The Justice released the Bible.
“Swear him,” he said. “Put your left hand on the Book raise your right hand you solemnly swear and affirm-” the bailiff said rapidly. But Snopes had already done so, his left hand raised and his head turned away as once more his gaze went rapidly along the circle of expressionless and intent faces, saying in that harsh and snarling voice:
“Yes. I saw Flem Snopes give back to that Texas man whatever money Henry Armstid or anybody else thinks Henry Armstid or anybody else paid Flem for any of them horses. Does that suit you?”
“Yes,” the Justice said. Then there was no movement, no sound anywhere among them. The bailiff placed the Bible quietly on the table beside the Justice’s locked hands, and there was no movement save the flow and recover of the windy shadows and the drift of the locust petals. Then Mrs. Armstid rose; she stood once more (or still) looking at nothing, her hands clasped across her middle.
“I reckon I can go now, can’t I?” she said.
“Yes,” the Justice said, rousing. “Unless you would like-“
“I better get started,” she said. “It’s a right far piece.” She had not come in the wagon, but on one of the gaunt and underfed mules. One of the men followed her across the grove and untied the mule for her and led it up to a wagon, from one hub of which she mounted. Then they looked at the Justice again. He sat behind the table, his hands still joined before him, though his head was not bowed now. yet he did not move until the bailiff leaned and spoke to him, when he roused, came suddenly awake without starting, as an old man wakes from an old man’s light sleep. He removed his hands from the table and, looking down, he spoke exactly as if he were reading from a paper:
“Tull against Snopes. Assault and-” “Yes!” Mrs. Tull said. “I’m going to say a word before you start.” She leaned, looking past Tull at Lump Snopes again. “If you think you are going to lie and perjure Flem and Eck Snopes out of-“
“Now, mamma,” Tull said. Now she spoke to Tull, without changing her position or her tone or even any break or pause in her speech:
“Don’t you say hush to me! You’ll let Eck Snopes or Flem Snopes or that whole Varner tube snatch you out of the wagon and beat you half to death against a wooden budge. But when it comes to suing them for your just rights and a punishment, oh no. Because that wouldn’t be neighborly. What’s neighborly got to do with you lying flat on your back in the middle of planting time while we pick splinters out of your face?” By this time the bailiff was shouting,
“Order! Order! This here’s a law court!” Mrs. Tull ceased. She sat back, breathing hard, staring at the Justice, who sat and spoke again as if he were reading aloud:
“Assault and battery on the person of Vernon Tull, through the agency and instrument of one horse, unnamed, belonging to Eckrum Snopes. Evidence of physical detriment and suffering, defendant himself witnesses Mrs. Tull and daughters-“
“Eck Snopes saw it too,” Mrs. Tull said, though with less violence now. “He was there. He got there in plenty of time to see it. Let him deny it. Let him look me in the face and deny it if he-“
“If you please, ma’am,” the Justice said. He said it so quietly that Mrs. Tull hushed and became quite calm, almost a rational and composed being. “The injury to your husband ain’t disputed. And the agency of the horse ain’t disputed. The law says that when a man owns a creature which he knows to be dangerous and if that creature is restrained and restricted from the public commons by a pen or enclosure capable of restraining and restricting it, if a man enter that pen or enclosure, whether he knows the creature in it is dangerous or not dangerous, then that man has committed trespass and the owner of that creature is not liable. But if that creature known to him to be dangerous ceases to be restrained by that suitable pen or enclosure, either by accident or design and either with or without the owner’s knowledge, then that owner is liable. That’s the law. All necessary now is to establish first, the ownership of the horse, and second, that the horse was a dangerous creature within the definition of the law as provided.”
“Hah,” Mrs. Tull said. She said it exactly as Bookwright would have. “Dangerous. Ask Vernon Tull. Ask Henry Armstid if them things was pets.”
“If you please, ma’am,” the Justice said. He was looking at Eck. “What is the defendant’s position? Denial of ownership?”
“What?” Eck said.
“Was that your horse that ran over Mr. Tull”
“Yes,” Eck said. “It was mine. How much do I have to p-“
“Hah,” Mrs. Tull said again. “Denial of ownership. When there were at least forty men-fools too, or they wouldn’t have been there. But even a fool’s word is good about what he saw and heard-at least forty men heard that Texas murderer give that horse to Eck Snopes. Not sell it to him, mind; give it to him.”
“What?” the Justice said. “Gave it to him?”
“Yes,” Eck said. “He give it to me. I’m sorry Tull happened to be using that bridge too at the same time. How much do I-“
“Wait,” the Justice said. “What did you give him? a note? a swap of some kind?”
“No,” Eck said. “He just pointed to it in the lot and told me it belonged to me.”
“And he didn’t give you a bill of sale or a deed or anything in writing?” “I reckon he never had time,” Eck said. “And after Lon Quick forgot and left that gate open, never nobody had time to do no writing even if we had a thought of it.” “What’s all this?” Mrs. Tull said. “Eck Snopes has just told you he owned that horse. And if you won’t take his word, there were forty men standing at that gate all day long doing nothing, that heard that murdering card-playing whiskey-drinking antichrist-” This time the Justice raised one hand, in its enormous pristine cuff, toward her He did not look at her. “Wait,” he said. “Then what did he do?” he said to Eck. “Just lead the horse up and put the rope in your hand?”
“No,” Eck said. “Him nor nobody else never got no ropes on none of them. He just pointed to the horse in the lot and said it was mine and auctioned off the rest of them and got into the buggy and said good-bye and drove off. And we got our ropes and went into the lot, only Lon Quick forgot to shut the gate. I’m sorry it made Tull’s mules snatch him outen the wagon. How much do I owe him?” Then he stopped, because the Justice was no longer looking at him and, as he realized a moment later, no longer listening either. Instead, he was sitting back in the chair, actually leaning back in it for the first time, his head bent slightly and his hands resting on the table before him, the fingers lightly overlapped. They watched him quietly for almost a half-minute before anyone realized that he was looking quietly and steadily at Mrs. Tull.
“Well, Mrs. Tull,” he said, “by your own testimony, Eck never owned that horse.”
“What?” Mrs. Tull said. “It was not loud at all. What did you say?”
“In the law, ownership can’t be conferred or invested by word-of-mouth. It must be established either by recorded or authentic document, or by possession or occupation. By your testimony and his both, he never gave that Texan anything in exchange for that horse, and by his testimony the Texas man never gave him any paper to prove he owned it, and by his testimony and by what I know myself from these last four weeks, nobody yet has ever laid hand or rope either on any one of them. So that horse never came into Eck’s possession at all. That Texas man could have given that same horse to a dozen other men standing around that gate that day, without even needing to tell Eck he had done it; and Eck himself could have transferred all his title and equity in it to Mr. Tull right there while Mr. Tull was lying unconscious on that bridge just by thinking it to himself, and Mr. Tull’s title would be just as legal as Eck’s.”
“So I get nothing?” Mrs. Tull said. Her voice was still calm, quiet, though probably no one but Tull realized that it was too calm and quiet. “My team is made to run away by a wild spotted mad dog, my wagon is wrecked; my husband is jerked out of it and knocked unconscious and unable to work for a whole week with less than half of our seed in the ground, and I get nothing.”
“Wait,” the Justice said. “The law-“
“The law,” Mrs. Tull said. She stood suddenly up- a short, broad, strong woman, balanced on the balls of her planted feet.
“Now, mamma,” Tull said.
“Yes, ma’am,” the Justice said. Your damages are fixed by statute. The law says that when a suit for damages is brought against the owner of an animal which has corn witted damage or injury, if the owner of the animal either can’t or won’t assume liability, the injured or damaged t party shall find recompense in the body of the animal. And since Eck Snopes never owned that horse at all, and since you just heard a case here this morning that faded to prove that Flem Snopes had any equity in any of them, that horse still belongs to that Texas man. Or did belong. Because now that horse that made your team run away and snatch your husband out of the wagon, belongs to you and Mr. Tull.
“Now, mamma!” Tull said. He rose quickly. But Mrs. i Tull was still quiet, only quite rigid and breathing hard, It until Tull spoke. Then she turned on him, not screaming: shouting; presently the bailiff was banging the table-top with his hand-polished hickory cane and roaring “Order! Order! While the neat old man, thrust backward in his chair as though about to dodge and trembling with an old man’s palsy, looked on with amazed unbelief.
“The horse!” Mrs. Tull shouted. “We see it for five seconds, while it is climbing into the wagon with us and then out again. Then it’s gone, God don’t know where and thank the Lord He don’t! And the mules gone with it and the wagon wrecked and you laying there on the budge with your face full of kindling-wood and bleeding like a hog and dead for all we knew. And he gives us the horse! Don’t hush me! Get on to that wagon, fool that would sit there behind a pair of young mules with reins tied around his wrist! Get on to that wagon, all of you!”
“I can’t stand no more!” the old Justice cried. “I won’t! This court’s adjourned! Adjourned!”