The Stick of Candy
Fellows: A fool, a drunkard, and a worthless dog
WILLIAM MERRIAM ROUSE
AT A battered hitching post in front of the general store, Joe waited for the one-horse load of feed which he would shortly draw through a half-mile of mud. To that, he looked forward with pleasure; for although he had been born in the form of a man it was his pride that he could move a load as well as one of his friends who had four legs to stand on. In Dunder Falls, where he had ahvays lived, they called him Joe the Horse.
Joe would have been quite happy if it had not been for the loafers on the store porch. The spring drive of logs was coming down the Dunder River and now, at the edge of the evening, dozens of idle river drivers swaggered about the village. Whole-hearted men, but sometimes rough and thick of feeling. Although Joe understood few of the remarks that were hurled at him, he felt the ridicule in them, and in the gusts of laughter that sw'ept the porch. This, to Joe, was like all the rest of that strange world in which he found himself living. Why should they be unfriendly to him because he was strong enough to do the work of a horse?
Most of Joe was magnificently beautiful, even in the blue denim jumper and overalls which he wore. He stood upon the earth solidly, like a well shaped mountain; his great thighs and shoulders filled the coarse cloth that covered him and stretched it to such lines as artists draw when they idealize human strength. His neck was a smooth, thick column; but the head that topped that neck had gone awry. From the ears upward, Joe’s head was like a cone with the point rounded off.
“Flies bother you, Horsey?” called one of the loafers, drawing a mild snicker.
Joe understood that. He was capable of articulate speech and he could have answered in words, but his ideas were so few and so simple that he seldom talked. His world was one of feeling. So nov he shook his head and stamped, as he had seen horses stamp at a hitching post when they were annoyed. The light box-wagon behind him shook and the wheels turned slightly, for a homemade harness that fitted about his shoulders held up the shafts.
“Whoa, Joe!” Jonathan Gaines came out of the store, carrying a bag of feed over his shoulder; he dumped it into the wagon and went back for another.
Gaines was a tall, thin-lipped, and very pious man, who gave Joe the Horse a living in return for what work he could do. The mud was too deep for a truck and so he had driven Joe up from his farm on the flats below Dunder Falls. A careful man does not like to take a team of real horses out of the barn after they have worked all day, and Gaines was a careful man. Ordinarily, he used Joe for hauling only on the farm, because of the looks of the thing.
Joe did not like to go where so many people were.
Nobody ever tried to harm him but he knew that he was not of the human1 fellowship.
Norman, or woman, or child had ever loved Joe the Horse. The beasts greeted him as brother; dogs, horses, all the farm animals and even those in the woods, treated him as one of themselves but Joe longed always and in vain to have some human being look at him with the light and warmth which he sometimes saw them have for each other. As things were, they looked at him once and then they spoke as they spoke to dogs and horses. Joe’s face was not repulsive but the stare in his blue eyes and the rugged incoherence of his features revealed that he was not as other men; even without sight of that strangely shaped head.
Joe rested his mighty hands upon the gnawed hitching post and waited while Gaines filled the wagon with sacks which brought grunts from out of the middle of him as he
swung them up. Soon Joe would have the fun of pitting his own strength against the hub deep mud that dragged at the wheels.
Unload and take off rubber boots in woodshed. He had been taught that by Matilda Gaines, whose floors were always clean.
Supper and bed. Warm sleep was good.
They let him stay in the attic over the kitchen wing and gave him enough old comfortables to keep warm. Gaines saw to it that all his animals had what they needed to eat, and tight shelter from the weather.
They worked better for it.
The chuckles and the guffaws broke out from time to time and if Joe could have understood some of the things that brought laughter to the porch he might have got angry. However, he never had been angry at man or beast. It was because of this, and of his ability to work, that he was given a degree of liberty; with a man to tell him what to do he was valuable help, and his patience was never-ending. Once a boy had thrown mud in his face. He had wiped it away puzzled. Why? Joe had known sorrow but not anger.
Nearly everything, except food, work, and sleep, puzzled Joe the Horse. Life seemed no more real than his dreams. At night, he went through strange experiences without leaving his bed; saw Jonathan Gaines drive a horse at breakneck speed with a girl beside him in the Sunday carriage—a girl with bright hair and very red cheeks. In the morning, there was Gaines at the breakfast table, drinking skim milk and saying no word as he looked at his wife; a woman whose hair was drawn back into a prim knot and whose eyes smouldered black in a pale face. To Joe this breakfast table was as unreal as the things he saw while he was asleep.
He felt as though something he could not see held him back, as the harness did, and would not let him get near the inside of anything. The men on the porch were like men in a dream. Would he wake up, sometime, out of this dream, just as he woke up in the morning and found himself looking at the rafters of the attic? He hoped so. It might be, then, that some human being would treat him as the horses did. They nickered at his step on the barn floor, and when he went into their stalls they
rubbed soft noses against his face and made playful bites with their lips.
A great roar of delight from the river drivers made him bring down his gaze from the far sky, at which he had been staring. It was a matter of seconds before he understood that this time another man was involved with him in the joke. Slush Peabody, who was
either drunk or sick most of the time, was coming, on legs that let him swing from side to side. Joe knew him only as a man who was very tired, neither friend nor enemy. Slush was holding something in his hand, and looking at Joe with a grin. It was a red and white striped stick of candy, rich with the odor of peppermint.
The loose mouth of Slush quirked; he glanced over his shoulder, seeking approval of the audience. Sober, he would have known that nobody gave him approval, but now he was lifted out of his normal gray self-dislike into a belief that he stood shoulder to shoulder with those strong and confident men who watched him.
“Wash me make ’im bus’ loose, boys!” he cried.
“Look out he don’t bite, Slush!”
“He’ll get poisoned if he bites Peabody!”
The candy wavered in the uncertain grasp of Slush. Joe the Horse loved sweets, and in the plain fare of the Gaines family there was seldom enough for his giant body. He wanted that candy but he did not immediately reach for it, for he was not able to reconcile two conflicting feelings; the gift of something good and the mocking unfriendliness which had increased with the coming of Peabody. Sometimes, people pretended to give him things and then snatched them away. So he waited, blinking.
The candy advanced, teasingly. Suddenly the semiquiet was broken. A man on the porch drew back his arm and threw something that hit the cheek of Slush. An outworn chew of tobacco dropped into the mud. Slush winced and swung half around; into his face and into the depths of his blurry eyes came a message which Joe the Horse could understand as he could not understand spoken language. Pain that was not of the body. They had hurt Slush inside of him; they were making fun of him.
Slush turned again and looked full at Joe the Horse. While a man could count ten they saw each other’s thoughts. Slush put a hand up to the wet stain upon his cheek and slowly scrubbed at it. A sad kindliness wiped away the evil lines; a warmth of pity shone in his eyes
“You art’ me, Joe!” he muttered. “You an’ me!”
He put the stick of candy into the now confidently outstretched hand of Joe; and went uncertainly away along the board sidewalk. A few disappointed gibes followed him.
Joe the Horse snapped the candy with his white teeth and crunched, happily. This was a treat such as he rarely had. Gaines did not seem to know that he wanted candy. The people who had had Joe before Jonathan Gaines had known it, and shared with him whenever they had any, but they had not been able to feed and clothe him, and one day a man with an air of authority had come and taken Joe to the Gaines farm.
THE heart of Joe warmed toward Peabody; all the unfriendliness in the air forgotten. There had been more than the stick of candy. With animal instinct, Joe had seen real fellowship in the eyes of Slush: for a moment they had stood and looked at each other as brothers. It would have pleased Joe to have Slush stay near him. The unwholesome smell of bad whiskey gone stale had not mattered. That was part of the bad dream, like the ridicule. What had mattered was the look upon the face of Slush and the feeling that went with the gift.
Now Jonathan Gaines came out of the store with the last bag of feed. He placed the load carefully, and roped it, before he untied the hitching rope that dangled from the neck of Joe the Horse. No one joked with him; he was, among other things, a justice of the peace.
Joe the Horse, munching slowly on the last delicious fragments, settled his shoulders against the harness and grasped the shafts in hands lumpy with hillocks of muscle. Carefully, and with great pride in this thing which he could do so well, he cramped the wagon so that it would clear the hitching post. He drew that load through the mud with sure and unwavering power. He would show people how well he could draw!
Down the steep, winding street of the village; rubber boots sucking out of the mud with a nice smack. All that weight behind moving just as Joe the Horse wanted it to move. Hold back; or pull and tighten a little and it had to come. Now Joe felt happy again, doing this thing which he liked; and this evening there was a glow like the sunset all through him because of Slush Peabody. At least a man had looked at him, if only for an instant, just as the horses and the dogs did!
The roar of Dunder Falls swept to meet them and the boots of Joe thumped upon the wooden bridge. A great smooth, brown mass of water turning over the dam and breaking to creamy white upon the rocks below. Joe liked the thunder of the waters in the spring but he liked still more the pounding of black logs when they raced and capered among the rocks. Now they were all held back above the dam, and they would come when the river drivers let them. Strong, the water was, and so were the logs.
Joe went on unfalteringly with his load, now and then stealing a glance backward toward the falls. His road went along the river, to the bare white house and the big barns which belonged to Jonathan Gaines. Rich river land, with dashing rapids just below and the falls above. Every spring, the river overflowed its banks. Joe smiled at it in understanding, knowing how strong it felt.
In the woodshed, Joe remembered to take off his boots. Matilda Gaines was watching him as he came into the kitchen; she pointed toward the sink.
Joe scrubbed his face and neck and ears until Matilda stopped him. Then he sat down at the table and waited,
eager but quiet, sniffing like a dog at the odors which drifted from the stove and the food Matilda Gaines brought with a quick, awkward step. Jonathan gave him a reasonably good plateful of salt pork and potatoes; also he had bread and butter and tea and a piece of dried apple pie none too sweet. Matilda was careful with sugar when she cooked; that was one of the ways in which the Gaines family had reached affluence. To-night, Joe did not mind the lack of sweet things so much; the feeling of the candy was still with him.
Jaws moved and knives clicked against plates. Once in a while, Jonathan said, “Pass the butter!” or “More tea!” After a time, Gaines settled back in his chair and began to pick his teeth. He did not smoke. Joe was a little uneasy, for all through the meal he had felt depression from Jonathan Gaines; usually the feeling in the kitchen when they ate a meal was just gray and dull.
“Water’s raisin’ fast,” said Gaines, after a time, in a low voice.
Matilda shivered and her hands moved jerkily as they piled up dishes for the washing.
“It gives me the creeps!” she said. “Every spring I’m afraid of it!”
“It ain’t the water that I’m afraid of,” Gaines growled. “If anything takes the dam out, it’ll be the logs.”
“Oh, Lord!” she groaned, and dropped weakly into a chair. “You don’t mean they think the dam’ll go?”
“The dam’s all right!” snapped Gaines, irritably. “It’s them logs! They’s ten thousand standard backed up the river from the millpond. If the boom that holds ’em busts, they’ll take out the dam, certain sure. That’ll flood us, and them logs’ll batter every building on the place to pieces!”
“Can’t they do nothing? All them cursin’ river drivers? They’re wicked enough to do ’most anything—”
“They’ve done all they can!” Gaines pushed away from the table. “They worked all day putting extry chains on the boom. Two men broke their legs and one was ’most drowned.”
He went out of doors, as he often did when his wife
began to worry; and Joe the Horse knew that he would go through the twilight to look at the dark river, which swirled with deep, growling noises. That afternoon, it had flooded the meadow in the bend and crept nearly up to the horse barn. Joe understood that Jonathan and Matilda Gaines were afraid of the river and the logs. Strange. For his part he was not afraid. If the horses needed help, something would tell him; and he and they would go to higher ground. It was plain that there was nothing to fear.
Matilda lighted one kerosene lamp and began to wash dishes with an occasional long, uneasy sigh. After a time, Jonathan came in out of the darkness but he did not take off his coat and hat.
“It’s still raisin’,” he said, grimly. “Guess I’ll set up to-night. Better light the lantern for me, and turn it down low so’s it won’t waste oil.”
Matilda Gaines groaned and with nervous haste brought the lantern from the woodshed. She set it beside the chair of her husband; lighted and turned so low that there was only a tiny glow visible above the burner. Gaines'sat by a window, staring out into the night which his vision could not penetrate.
JOE watched them, with a melancholy caught from them. This was more like a dream than most evenings. Maybe they were awake, and he would understand what made them afraid if he would wake up. Perhaps, he would understand why Matilda brought a big book out of the room where no one except company was allowed to go. It was the same book she always got on the day when he was kept from working.
Matilda opened the book and began to talk in a loud, high voice; something like singing. A little like the sound a dog makes when he puts his nose up in the moonlight and talks. Joe understood the dog but not this talk with the book. He felt that it had something to do with the river and the logs.
The night wore on, while Joe sat immobile and not
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uncomfortable. Now and then, Gaines got up and went out with the lantern; turning it down carefully when he came back, muttering to himself about the river. The woman continued to sit with the book; talking at times. When she talked, the voice of Gaines spoke now and then in an undertone; a single word which seemed to beat a kind of time. “A-men! A-a-aamen!”
It was the middle of the very dark hours, when Matilda began one of her periods of strange talking. Joe watched the dark shadows upon her face idly; the downward twist of her lips.
“God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us—”
A crash at the kitchen door broke through the words. Matilda screamed and Jonathan leaped to his feet. Joe the Horse, however, knew that it was either a human or an animal sound; not the river come up to them. He sat still.
Gaines crossed the room with long strides and flung the door wide open. Joe lifted his head with quick interest. There, in the doorway, stood Slush Peabody; somewhat more drunk and disreputable than he had been the day before. He held to the casing and stared amiably up into the grim face of Jonathan Gaines.
“Shay!” he began. “Water’s raisin'
. . . shay . . . where’s Joe?”
“Get out!” Gaines made an impatient movement and partly closed the door; whereupon Slush stepped halfway inside with insistence.
“Don’t let that miserable critter in here!” cried Matilda. “Put him out, Jonathan!”
“Get drownded!” protested Peabody.
“Be a good thing if you do get drownded!” Gaines gripped him by the neck of hi6 shirt and with á twist and a fling sent him reeling backward. Joe heard the sound of a fall in the mud. Jonathan slammed the door and strode back to his chi ir.
“Good riddance!” Matilda shuddered, and began again to talk at the book.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me . .
Joe the Horse felt bad. The memory of the candy came back to him, deliciously, but more clearly than that, he remembered the sudden look in the eyes of the man who had given it. That look had been not of the dream but of reality, and it had gone straight to whatever was real in Joe, just as the look of the animals did. “You an’ me, Joe!”
The black windows became rectangles
of faint light; the room grew gray and sickly with dawn. Joe could no longer distinguish the glow above the burner of the lantern; the lamp paled and finally Matilda blew it out. Morning had come, and Joe the Horse was glad. He had not liked this night.
Joe got up and went out into the woodshed, where he put on his boots. The voice of Matilda droned after him, singsong, sing-song. It was a relief to take a long, deep breath of the sharp mountain air. Good!
Water had seeped up to the house; the ground made a squashy noise as he stepped upon it. The barn was an island but Joe was not yet worried about the horses. It would be fun to splash out with them. A great, faint roar came down from the falls and another, nearer, but not so mighty in volume, came up the river from the rapids.
Joe pulled the tops of his boots up to his hips and stepped into the thick-looking, brown water. Loose sticks at the bottom of the pile of split wood slowly moved away. He watched them for a moment, interested. He was happy, now that he was out of the sad house and with the river. It was yawning and stretching and waking up. It was strong.
JOE saw a dog wading into the water near the barn. Body deep, the animal stopped and whimpered. It was the dejected looking dog that belonged to Slush Peabody. Skipper was looking for bis master; Joe understood. He also would have been glad to see Slush and now he knew that if Peabody had stayed about the Gaines place, that spotted, shivering hound would find him no matter where he had gone to sleep.
The dog knew where he was going; as soon as his courage mounted high enough, he plunged into the cold water and began to swim toward a corncrib which stood, now empty, a short distance beyond the horse barn. There was not much current in this shallow water; it was dangerous for him, but Skipper could make it by heading a little upstream.
The river had climbed the posts upon which the corncrib sat and was nearly level with the floor. Skipper scrambled in dripping, shook himself and almost instantly turned around in the doorway and looked toward the house. He saw Joe and recognized him with suddenly lifted tail, and a jerky wag. He barked three or four times; short and urgent
barks. Joe knew that talk. It was a call for help. Slush was there.
Peabody appeared in the doorway, soggy with water, rubbing his eyes. He waved a genial hand and yelled.
“Hello, Joe! I’ve gone and lost myself! Got a boat?”
Joe felt danger for Peabody. Skipper could swim back but Slush would have to wade through water breast high. If his legs and arms were as feeble as they had been yesterday he could not swim. If he fell down the water would go into his mouth. Joe the Horse understood what that meant. Once he had seen a calf drown.
A noise made Joe turn. In the doorway behind him he saw Jonathan and Mat'lda Gaines, looking at the water with white faces. Gaines caught sight of Slush and Skipper and his brows drew down fiercely; then just as swiftly the whole expression of his face changed. That tight mouth opened a little and he stared glassily out at the surface of the river.
“The boom’s gone, Matilda!” he grated hoarsely. “We got to save what stuff we can before them logs bust the dam!”
A cry from the woman. Joe followed the gaze of Jonathan. A long, black shape was heaving and rolling as it shot downstream. It swung farther away from shore and took added force as it drew into the more powerful current. Another followed. Another and another. Even while Joe watched they began to come in twos and threes and little groups. The broad surface of the river became spotted with them.
Joe knew how they were pounding at the dam, hitting it with tremendous force, sometimes up-ending clear of the water to swing over with a long fall into the churning white below. It was fine . . . but Slush and Skipper would get hurt. The logs would hit the corncrib. He splashed to Gaines, and gripped his sleeve, and pointed.
“Them!” he cried. “Look!”
The fascination of disaster by which Jonathan and Matilda Gaines had been held was broken. Gaines tore away from the grasp of Joe.
“To hell with ’em!” he panted.
“Don’t swear!” screamed Matilda.
Gaines pushed her aside and dashed into the woodshed; he came out with the familiar harness. In half a minute Joe the Horse was fastened to the box wagon, which had been standing ready at the door. Jonathan and his wife came running out of the house with their arms full of things; clothing, a clock, pictures, dishes. They dumped what they brought into the wagon and ran back for more, tripping, breathing hard.
TOE twisted around and looked at the •J man and the dog in the corncrib. Slush was sitting in the doorway, now, with his legs in the water, hesitating. Skipper huddled close to him. Joe understood that the things in the wagon were to be taken up to higher ground and Slush and Skipper left to die. This seemed foolishness to him. There were more thing? like those in the wagon but there were no more like Slush and Skipper. He moved restlessly in his harness, and groaned.
“Jonathan!” shrieked Matilda. “I’m afraid of that critter, Joe! He’s looking and acting funny!”
Gaines had run to the barn, leaving her to load the wagon. Now he appeared with the pitchfork in his hands, driving the horses before him. They snorted and plunged for dry ground.
“Shut up and go get my Sunday suit!” cried Gaines to his wife. “You’re a bigger fool’n Joe is!”
Joe had turned half way around in the shafts. He must go and get Slush and Skipper, and then he would come back and draw the load. With a fixed purpose in his mind the dream cleared a little.
His great hands reached up and plucked the leather harness away from his shoulders as though it had been made of wrapping twine. The shafts dropped and he began to walk toward the corncrib.
Jonathan Gaines stepped in front of him, shouting and swinging the pitchfork.
For an instant Joe the Horse wavered. Never before had he rebelled against what men told him to do. Now he must. The pull out there across the water was too strong; he felt as though he were going to wake up at last.
Joe took the pitchfork away from Jonathan Gaines and pushed against his chest so that he fell down. Then he moved on, rapidly, watching for logs. He dodged one, shoved another aside with a heave. They would have to come harder than that to knock him over! He was strong!
The river was up to the armpits of Joe the Horse and the floor of the corncrib was flooded when he got there. Skipper licked his face and danced with nervous joy as the giant pulled himself up into the little building.
“Skipper knows his friends!” cried Peabody. He drew a long breath; color came into his face. He took a drink out of a bottle. “Going to gimme a ride ashore on them shoulders, big feller? I come down here las’ night to warn you folks . . . must of gone to sleep. 01’ man Gaines could saved all his stuff but he was sore. Hey, Joe?”
Joe grinned. There was a friendly look, bright and warming to the heart, in the eyes of Slush; he chuckled. Skipper sniffed and wagged. Joe knew that they both liked him. He patted the arm of Peabody; pointed to his own shoulders and nodded.
“Sure!” cried Slush. “I un’erstan’, Joe! I’ll carry the pup!”
Joe took off his boots, which had filled and become a hindrance. He started to let himself down into the water so that he could take on his load. Then he felt a sudden thrill and stopped, lifting his head, quickly, like a startled animal. Danger!
There it came, down the river! A swelling wall of water, black with logs. A brown, rolling deluge with power enough to sweep everything before it; house and barns and corncrib. The dam had broken.
In a few, quick beating seconds that followed many things happened. Joe heard a splash. Slush had dropped the dog into the water.
“Try it alone, Skippy!” he choked. “I can’t make it!”
Instantly Skipper was back in the corncrib, trying to clamber up the leg of his master, pleading with devoted eyes.
“Go on, Joe!” Slush tried to push him out. “Mebbe you can make it, swimmin’ downstream or ridin’ log! Never mind me!”
TOE THE HORSE knew that death
was coming. If he fought for shore alone he might get there ahead of death but there was no longer any hope of taking the others with him. He looked into the eyes of Slush; he looked down into the upturned gaze of Skipper. Warmth and fellowship, and the stick of candy look in the eyes of both of them.
His lifelong dream seemed to fade away from Joe. That warm thing that he saw shining in those two pairs of eyes was real. Now at last, he had found something that was eternal; stronger than his own mighty body, stronger than the logs, for it made him want to stay here in the face of death. It held his soul with gentle fingers. He would rather have the water come in at his mouth than to leave Slush and Skipper. They loved him.
He picked Skipper up and put a muscle banded arm around the shoulders of Slush, who did not draw away from him as others always had done. Man and dog huddled close. Fool, and drunkard, and worthless dog, scorned and rejected of men, stood in a quiet brotherhood.
Joe took one more glance into the kindness of the eyes of Slush. After the first panic, fear had gone out of them. Joe saw the real man in him who stood beside him, and knew that he himself was real. He was awake at last, and still smiling as he turned to meet the logs.