from The American Boy Anthology
Too Much Horse
by Ellis Parker Butler
We were going camping for two weeks on Big Tree Island, six miles above town in the Mississippi River. We had rented Joe Hegger's john-boat, fifteen feet long with a motor in the stern, and Jibby Jones and Wampus Smale and Tad Willing and I were down at Joe's dock putting the tents and duffel aboard.
We were going to have a fine time. Nobody lives on the upper end of Big Tree Island and nobody lives on the lower end but old Jobe Coffin. He has a shack up there. He's an old darky and he grows some corn and raises some chickens but mostly he fishes and loafs.
We were about half loaded when Stoopid came in sight, legging it down to the dock as hard as a fat boy could pelter, panting like a sick cow. Stoopid's real name is William Telker.
"Wait!" he shouted. "I can go! Mother says I can go!"
Well, we didn't want him. He always gets us into some sort of trouble. Wampus threw a tent stake into the boat. He was sore.
"Aw, shucks!" he said. "Have we got to take that nuisance? For two cents I won't go."
But Jibby Jones is always fair and square.
"We promised William last winter that if his parents would permit it we would take him camping," he said in his drawling way. "A promise is a promise, Wampus. William, if we let you go with us will you keep out of trouble?"
"Sure I will," Stoopid said. "Honest I will, Jibby."
"And will you mind what I tell you and do what I say, William?"
"Uh-huh," Stoopid said. "Cross my heart I will, Jibby."
"Very well, then, William," Jibby said, "you may come with us."
"Darn!" Wampus growled. "That spoils it!"
But we had to let Stoopid go with us. Jibby took his bag of stuff and stowed it in the john-boat, and Stoopid handed him a gun.
"What is this, William?" Jibby asked.
"It's my shotgun," Stoopid said. "My father said I could bring it. He taught me how to shoot it, and he said I could take it. My father gave it to me."
Well, the rest of us all had rifles for target shooting; so we couldn't say much. We finished loading the john-boat and started for Big Tree Island, and right away Stoopid began to talk.
"I'm going to have a horse," he said. "My father says I can have a horse to ride, and when I save up enough money he's going to let me have a horse. I can keep it in our stable, my father says."
"You'll be a hundred years old by the time you have enough money to buy a horse," Wampus said, "So I guess we won't have to worry about that for a while."
"If I save a dollar a year I can have a horse in ten years," Stoopid came back.
"That'll be a good horse," Wampus snickered.
"That's the kind of horse I want," Stoopid said. "I want a good horse. One that will jump and gallop."
"You'd better get one that will stop," Tad suggested. "A good stopping horse is the kind you want."
Well, all the way up to the island Stoopid kept talking about the horse he was going to have. He didn't let up until Jibby ran the bow of the john-boat against the island and we all piled out and began to unload. Stoopid, as soon as he was ashore, took his shotgun and started toward the thicket of trees.
"Here, William! Where are you going?" Jibby called at him.
"I'm going to shoot a rabbit," Stoopid said.
"Let him go," Wampus said. "We'll be rid of him until we get our tents up, anyway."
"Very well, William," Jibby said. "But don't go far, and be careful with that gun, and come back as soon as you hear me blow my whistle."
"All right," Stoopid said, and off he went into the thicket of trees, and we unloaded the john-boat and had just started to put up the tents when we heard the shotgun fired.
"Another rabbit bites the dust!" Tad Willing laughed, but the next minute we heard Stoopid come thrashing toward us through the underbrush. He came rushing out into the open, his face as red as fire. He was so frightened he could hardly speak.
"Jibby! Jibby!" he panted. "I sh-shot a ho-horse! I kuk-killed a ho-horse!"
Well, we all dropped whatever we were doing and crowded around Stoopid, and Jibby took the gun away from him. And then Jibby began to think.
"Old Jobe's horse," he said, looking mighty serious. "That's the only horse on the island. How did you come to shoot it, William?"
"I-I th-thought it was a ra-rabbit," wailed Stoopid. "I was gug-going along and I s-saw it, and I th-thought it was a ra-rabbit, and I kuk-killed it."
"Gosh!" said Wampus. "If that was old Jobe Coffin's horse we'd better get off this island mighty quick. When old Jobe gets mad he don't care what he does. He'll come after us with that old squirrel rifle of his."
With that Stoopid began to cry and Wampus began throwing our stuff back into the john-boat, but Jibby kept calm.
"What made you think the horse was a rabbit, William?" he asked.
"It was ly-lying down and I th-thought it was a log," Stoopid sort of sobbed. "I saw its ears and I th-thought they were ra-rabbit's ears. There were a lo-lot of weeds --"
"Nobody would think that a horse's ears were rabbit's ears," Tad said. "That horse has white ears."
"I th-thought it was a wh-white rabbit," sobbed Stoopid. "And I kuk-killed it."
With that he let out a wail and dropped down flat on the ground and cried into his arms. He said his father would take his gun away, and that his father would never let him have a horse now because he shot horses.
"Stop crying," Jibby Jones said. "If you had known that was a horse you wouldn't have shot it. Anyone can make mistakes. When my father was in Australia hunting kangaroos he thought he saw a kangaroo and shot at it, but it was a native chief."
"Did your father kill the chief?" Tad Willing asked.
"No," said Jibby. "My father was not a very good shot. He missed the chief and killed a kangaroo."
"Anyway," said Wampus, "he wouldn't have thought a horse was a rabbit."
"I am not so sure about that, Wampus," Jibby said. "I don't think he would mistake a horse for a rabbit if the horse was on Main Street and hitched to a wagon, but if the horse was lying down in tall weeds and my father saw only its ears, I think my father would have shot it."
Well, that quieted Stoopid some. But Wampus was urging us to get it the john-boat and beat it away from the island.
I wouldn't do that. I said we had let Stoopid use the shotgun and the only thing to do was to go to old Jobe Coffin and tell him we had killed his horse and pay him for it.
"No, George," Jibby said. "I think we had better not do that. A dead horse is always an expensive horse. As soon as you admit you have killed a horse -- or a cow -- it becomes the finest animal in the world very suddenly. It's cheaper to buy a live horse, especially when it is such an aged, played-out horse as Jobe Coffin's horse."
"That's right," Tad Willing agreed. "I don't believe Jobe's horse was worth ten dollars. He hasn't worked it for two years, and he's had it twenty years, and it must have been twenty years old when he got it or somebody would have claimed it."
"Ten dollars would be a lot to pay for that horse," Wampus said. "Old Jobe got it for nothing in the first place. He saw it floating down when the river was in flood and he pulled it ashore. That's how he got it."
So we all dug into our pockets to see how much money we had. We had sixteen dollars and forty cents, and we started down along the shore toward old Jobe Coffin's shack, to buy the horse. Old Jobe was sitting out in front of his shack, smoking a corncob pipe and watching the river flow by. When he saw us he turned his bloodshot eyes and looked at us.
"Whut you boys want?" he asked. "Is you jus' speculatin' round or does you want aigs? Cause ef you wants aigs, I ain't got no aigs today. I et mah aigs."
"No, Uncle Jobe," Jibby said, "we don't want to buy eggs -- we want to buy a horse. How much will you take for your horse?"
As soon as he heard "horse" Uncle Jobe brightened up.
"Yas, sah," he said, "I got a hoss. I got a mighty fine boss. He don't run away an' he don't kick up no ruckus. I mighty fond ob dat horse, I is. But I'll sell him -- yas, sah."
"How much do you want for him?" Jibby asked.
"Fo'ty dollars," said Uncle Jobe. "Fo'ty dollars -- I want to git me a mule."
Jibby Jones just stood and looked at Uncle Jobe through his shell-rimmed spectacles as if Uncle Jobe were some sort of queer curiosity, and Uncle Jobe sort of squirmed.
"Twenty dollars," he said. "Gimme twenty dollars, 'cause I want to git me a mule."
That was a big comedown, and I was just going to say we did not have twenty dollars and that sixteen dollars and forty cents was all we had, but Jibby Jones did not give me a chance to say anything.
"Can the horse run?" he asked.
"I reckon he could," old Jobe replied. "But he don' have to. He ain't scared of nothin'."
"Can he jump?" Jibby asked.
"Sho' he can," Jobe replied. "He's a regular rabbit, dat hoss is."
We all sort of gulped when Jobe said "Rabbit," but Jibby went right on.
"We will give you twenty-five cents for that horse."
That did make old Jobe squirm. He knew the old horse was not worth a cent, but he had to bargain with us.
"Fi' dollars," he said. "Ain't no hoss wuth less'n fi' dollars nohow."
"I'll give you half a dollar for the horse," Jibby said, but before Uncle Jobe could speak, Stoopid did.
"I'll give you a dollar for him," Stoopid said and old Jobe turned to look at him. He eyed the big silver dollar Stoopid pulled from his pocket.
"You's bought a hoss, son," he said, reaching for the dollar, "but you got to take dat hoss off'n dis island. I ain't gwine have yo' boss come trampin' down mah vegitubbles an' eatin' mah corn. No, sah! Eff'n you buys dat hoss you got to take it off'n dis island. Yas, sah!"
"That's all right," Jibby said, and it was all right -- as far as we knew then. We could drag a dead horse to the river and dump it in without much trouble, Jibby thought. And we knew what old Jobe had in mind -- the horse would die before long, and to dump it in the river was too big a job for him. It would take him weeks to bury the horse, too, and a dead horse on an island in summer time is not what anybody wants. It is too rich.
Old Jobe bit the dollar to see that it was good, and rung it on the arm of his chair, and put it in his pocket. He was all grins now. He thought he had played a slick trick on us. He had got a dollar for an old horse that was not worth a cent. So we left him happy.
"Show us where the dead horse is, William," Jibby said to Stoopid, and after Stoopid had stood a moment to get his bearings he started off among the trees. We followed him to a weed patch that had once been water-flooded, and as Stoopid came out into the open he stopped short.
"Why -- why!" he said in a frightened voice. "It's alive!"
There stood the old horse on its own four legs, its head down and its eyes shut, asleep standing up. And I never saw such a wreck. It was so thin you could see every rib. It hadn't been cleaned or curried for twenty years and its tail and mane were solid with burs. It was big and moth-eaten and bony and it looked as if it would fall over and never get up again if a bee hit it.
"I almost think it is alive," said Jibby, and he turned to Stoopid. "Where was the horse lying when you shot it?" he asked.
"Right there," Stoopid said. "Right where it is."
"And where were you standing?" Jibby asked.
"Over there," Stoopid said. "Over by that tree with the grapevine on it."
"That accounts for it," said Jibby solemnly. "You couldn't have killed a horse from that distance. You couldn't have killed a jellyfish. Why did you think it was dead, William?"
"Why -- why -- it looked dead," said Stoopid. "I shot, and its head dropped down, and it looked dead."
"The next time you kill a horse, William," Jibby said, "you had better go up to it and feel its pulse. Although," he added, "I don't believe this horse has much pulse. Wampus, go down to the boat and get a rope."
"What for?" Wampus asked.
"For a halter rope," Jibby said. "William has bought a horse and we have promised to take it off the island."
"It will drown," Wampus said. "You can't tow that horse. It will sink. It hasn't enough meat on it to float it. You can't swim that horse down to town -- it couldn't swim ten feet."
"It's my horse," Stoopid said. "I don't want it to drown. My father said I could have a horse."
"Don't get excited again, William," Jibby said. "We're not going to try to swim this horse -- we will take it in the john-boat."
At that Wampus howled. He pounded on his knees and I thought he was going to choke with laughter, but Jibby sent him for a halter rope and he came back looking sober.
"Look here, Jibby," he said, "you can't take that horse in the john-boat It will be top-heavy and turn turtle. If the horse falls down it will crush us."
Jibby was making a halter of the rope, tying it on the horse's head.
"The horse won't be top-heavy, Wampus," he said, "and it will not fall down, because it will be lying down to begin with. And I don't think it will try to get up. Not this horse. If you are ready please push, and I will steer it."
Well, the horse wouldn't move. Jibby pulled and the horse's neck stretched and stretched until I thought its head would pull off, and Tad and Wampus and Stoopid and I pushed and whacked at the other end of the horse, but it wouldn't move an inch.
"I fear there is only one way to start this horse," Jibby said. "I have heard that in the southern part of this country a fire is sometimes built under a stubborn mule when it balks. We must build a fire under this horse."
We got dead wood and made a pile under the horse and Wampus put a match to it, and as soon as the wood blazed up the horse started. It started at a stiff-legged lope, and Jibby grabbed the halter rope, and we ran behind pushing, and we didn't let the old nag stop. It wobbled along, dodging the trees, and down the bank it went, and into the shore mud.
"Whoa! Stop him! Brakes!" Jibby yelled, and we grabbed the tail and pulled back, but Jibby was already in the river up to his knees, with the horse beside him. We stopped that horse just in time, or he would have gone right out into the deep water and that would have been the last of him.
"Now we've done it!" said Wampus. "We'll never get him to move again. You can't build a fire on the water."
"Yes, Wampus," Jibby said. "We could float a board under him and build a fire on it, but I think the horse is just where we want him. If you and William will float the john-boat down we'll see."
Wampus and Stoopid floated the john-boat down until it was against the horse's legs, and then Jibby made us chuck all the soft duffel -- tents and blankets and so on -- into the john-boat and spread them out. We saw what he wanted -- a soft bed for the old horse to fall on.
When we had done all we could in that way we went to the downstream side of the horse and pushed. It was less than knee deep and the horse had a weak foundation. It ought to be easy.
"Keep away from his legs," Jibby called. "He'll kick when he goes over."
But he wouldn't go over. We pushed and pushed but he was like a rock wall. Now and then he looked around at us as if he thought we were the craziest lot of fellows he had ever seen.
Finally we took the halter rope and tied his hind legs close together and that helped. We gave another push and over he went into the john-boat with a whop that made the john-boat jump. Then we took off the halter rope, put it back on his neck, and took a turn around a thwart.
The old horse lay there like a log. Its four legs stuck out over the side of the boat but the horse never made one kick. If we hadn't seen it breathing we would have thought it was dead.
Jibby started the kicker. The boat didn't balance because there was so much horse on one side of it, and Tad and Wampus and Stoopid and I had to sit up on the other edge. We must have looked like a row of vultures, perched there waiting for the old horse to die.
But the boat didn't sink. We made the six miles down to Joe Hegger's dock, and I went into Joe's houseboat.
"Joe," I said, "come out and help us. We've got a horse in your john-boat."
"A what?" he asked, and he came out and looked over the side of the dock. "A horse?" he said. "That ain't no horse, that's a bone yard."
"This is William's horse," Jibby said. "He bought it from old Jobe Coffin, on the island and we're bringing it home."
"Humph!" said Joe Hegger. "What did you pay for it?"
"I paid a dollar," Stoopid said.
"You got cheated," said Joe Hegger. "Horses like that sell for a dime a dozen. Why, that horse is thirty years old."
"Then you are ten years better off than we thought you were, William," Jibby said to Stoopid. "I thought the horse was forty years old."
But we had to get the horse out of the john-boat. Wampus wanted to get a derrick, but Joe Hegger said he guessed we could manage without one. We pulled the john-boat around the end of the dock to the shore and Joe got half a dozen planks and laid them down from the boat to the shore. Four or five of the levee loafers came to help us. Jibby untied the ropes and we rolled the horse over onto the planks.
The minute we rolled the old horse over, it scrambled to its feet and walked ashore. The boat ride seemed to have done the horse some good. Maybe what it needed was travel and foreign scenes. Stoopid grabbed the halter.
"It's my horse," he said. "I want to lead it."
So we let Stoopid lead the horse. Jibby and I walked on one side to hold it up if it fell our way, and Tad and Wampus walked on the other to hold it up if it fell that way, and before we reached Front Street we had a string of kids following us, yelling, "Shoot the horse!" and "Crow-bait!" When we turned into Grand Avenue we saw Stoopid's father. He came right over to us.
"What's the meaning of this?" he asked. "William, what are you doing with that horse?"
"I bought it," Stoopid said, looking mighty scared. "You said I could have a horse, Pa."
Well, Mr. Telker had been a farmer and he knew horses. He gave the bony old horse one more look.
"If you bought that horse," he said, "you can take it back to whoever sold it to you. I won't have any such bag of bones in my stable. How did you come to buy such an old wreck?"
"Why I -- I thought it was a rabbit --" Stoopid began, starting to cry again, and Mr. Telker looked at him as if he thought Stoopid was a rabbit himself.
"I shot it," Stoopid said, blubbering. "So I had to buy it -- and you said I could have a horse."
Well, there was quite a crowd there by that time -- a dozen kids and ten or twelve men -- and they were standing around the horse and shaking their heads or laughing, and Mr. Telker was getting madder every minute.
"Jones," he said to Jibby, "you ought to know better than this. You should have some sense if my boy hasn't. What do you mean by letting him buy it?"
So Jibby started to tell him how he had been on the island and Stoopid had fired the shotgun, but he had hardly got that far when an automobile stopped beside us and the man in it leaned over and looked at the horse. He got out of the car and walked around the horse, studying it.
"Whose horse is this?" he asked.
"It's mi-mine," Stoopid said.
"Where did you get it?" the man asked.
"I bub-bought it," said Stoopid.
"He bought it from old Jobe Coffin, up on Big Tree Island," Jibby said.
"And where did he get it?" the man asked, turning to Jibby.
"Out of the river," Jibby said.
"How long ago was that?"
"Twenty years ago," Jibby said. "That's what everybody says."
"Twenty years, hey?" said the man, putting his hand on the horse's nose and stroking it. "Do you remember me, White-top, old fellow?" he asked the horse. "Boys," he said to us, "I never thought to see this horse again. This used to be my wife's horse -- I gave it to her when we were married, and she thought the world and all of this horse. It nearly broke her heart when we lost it. There was a flood and this horse got swept down the river. What are you going to do with this horse, son?"
"I don't know," said Stoopid, giving his father a look.
"You sell him to me," said the man. "No horse I own ever got into this condition. I'll take him up to my farm and give him a good pasture and let him live out his days in comfort. I'll give you five dollars -- will you take it?"
"Yes, sir," said Jibby Jones without waiting for Stoopid to speak. "We will accept five dollars for this horse."
Stoopid took the five dollars and we went back to the john-boat and started up the river again for our two-week camping trip.
"And I hope this will be a lesson to you, William," Jibby said when we were kicking along up the river.
"The next time you shoot at a rabbit and it is a horse you had better be sure you kill the horse or --"
"Yes, Jibby?" Stoopid asked. "Or what?"
"Or you'll be a rich man before you know it," said Jibby.