The Way of a Horse With a Man

WHEN I came into my farm, among the hereditaments was a pair of horses — huge beasts, of melancholy mien and temperamental behavior. Roy, who worked the farm on shares last year and aspires to work me on a salary next year, broke the news bluntly as soon as the papers were signed.

‘Them horses better be traded off now. They’ve got a way of lying down in snowbanks and mud-puddles. You’ll notice, too, that they can’t get along together or apart. Put ’em in separate fields and they break down the fences getting together, just to tease and pester one another. Like some married folks. Course, I don’t aim to be telling you your business; but if they was mine, I ’d trade ’em sight unseen for anything that walked on eight legs, neighed, and weighed above a ton.’

The more I saw of those horses, the more I valued Roy’s advice. One morning, after we had chased them around the pasture for an hour, I told him to proceed with the deal — any deal. So, a few days later, Roy introduced me to Mr. Northrup. Yes, Mr. Northrup had a team, a young team, a good team, a team which he valued highly — at $500, to be exact. As for my horses, Mr. Northrup thought one of them might be worth our valuation of $100 (that would be Bill). The Tom horse, said Mr. Northrup, did not impress him more than $75 worth. In fact, he had heard stories about the Tom horse not in the least to the Tom horse’s credit.

‘Now this team o’ mine,’ continued Mr. Northrup, ‘is a team I can do anything with. A Ford don’t mean nothing to them. They ’ll follow me anywheres. No, sir, if I could afford to keep them over the winter, they’d never be up for sale. Pets, downright pets!’

This last was not quite convincing, because here was Mr. Northrup contemplating equably the taking in and boarding of Bill and Tom. No young horses, such as his pets, could possibly eat as much as Bill and Tom, after all their years of experience. This flaw in Mr. Northrup’s logic led me to suspect his motive to be gain, and that, perhaps, his last figure would be less than $500. So we drove over to his place.

It was a cold, raw day, so we left the Ford in the barn and traveled in a weatherproof sedan. This was a tactical blunder. It confirmed Mr. Northrup in the belief that I was a plutocrat , and fair game for any honest farmer. On the way, I tried talking him down from his $500, but he clung fast. Such amiable horses were not to be found every day — at least in this part of the country. Yet in a Ford I am sure he would have tumbled within the first mile.

Arrived at his steading, Mr. Northrup let down the bars of his hillside pasture and approached his pets, halters in hand. They made a beautiful picture, dapple-gray against the brown earth, with white manes and tails whipping in the wind. We envied Mr. Northrup his calm bearing as he crossed the field; not so confidently were we wont to march up to Bill and Tom.

But, what’s this? The pets separate and move — away from their master. One up the hill, one down. In vain he clucks and whistles; in vain he soothes and cajoles. He cannot get within six rods of the one or two rods of the other.

Mr. Northrup returned briskly with an explanation — a good one. The animals do not know him because, for the first time this season, he is wearing his overcoat. He removed his garment, hung it on the fence, and went back into the field. Same result. The pets do not recognize him even now — or do they? At any rate, they hold aloof.

Mrs. Northrup, shawl over head, appeared with a suggestion. Oats. Mr. Northrup bowed to the inevitable, took a two-quart measure, filled it with grain, and a third time entered thearena. Discipline, love, and moral suasion having failed, he would try bribery. One of the grays snorted mildly and went on up the hill. The other, more curious, edged along, twenty paces distant from Mr. Northrup, until he saw us standing by the gate. Then he departed with a flourish. Theoretically he was a splendid animal; but, of course, no one buys a horse without inspecting his mouth and feeling his legs. That ritual is always followed. So I did not even condescend to make an offer. The best I could say to Mr. Northrup was that, while he might be able to take his horses anywhere, he would need to put them in a truck first. I fancied that might sink into his mind to my eventual profit.

Two days later, Mr. Northrup reappeared. Whereas our Bill and Tom before had looked to him worth only $175 in trade, he now conceded that they were worth $50 more than we had imagined. It appeared that we had never given Bill and Tom sufficient credit. He would allow us $250 for them, providing his pets held firm at $500. We will let him simmer a bit on that basis, and then suggest that he mark his grays down to $400. That is about where they would have been if I had been smart enough to ride to Mr. Northrup’s Waterloo in the standardized Conveyance of the countryside, instead of in a glass-and-steel box with cushions.