I expected that there'd be a dead mule, or two, in the near future: As I Lay Dying is the gold standard where dead mules are concerned, and As I Lay Dying contains the first published mention of the story of the spotted horses:
"Then we saw him. He came up along the ditch and then turned straight across the field, riding the horse. Its mane and tale were going, as though in motion they were carrying out the splotchy pattern of its coat: he looked like he was riding on a a big pinwheel, barebacked, with a rope bridle, and no hat on his head. It was a descendant of those Texas ponies Flem Snopes brought here twenty-five years ago and auctioned off for two dollars a head and nobody but old Lon Quick ever caught his and still owned some of the blood because he could never give it away."
As I Lay Dying, with its passing reference to the auction of Texas ponies 25 years earlier, was published in 1930. The first published version of "Spotted Horses"followed in 1931. Described by its Scribner editor as "a tall tale with implications of tragedy," it was narrated by Suratt, a sewing machine agent. The story would be further expanded, switched into third person narration, and incorporated into The Hamlet, published in 1940, the first novel in the Snopes Trilogy. The version of "Spotted Horses" that's bundled these days with "The Bear" and "Old Man" is the longer, third person, account. Suratt's had his name changed to Ratliff. (And I haven't even mentioned the earliest mention of these spotted horses in "Father Abraham," written around 1926-27, but not published till 1983.)
So this is a story of Flem Snopes, who returns to Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, riding in a mule-drawn covered wagon with a stranger from Texas, bringing along a string of wild, pinto horses, "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 rattlesnakes, quiet as doves."
|1989 Boyd Saunders illustration
Besides, they don't really know if Flem Snopes owns the horses. Ratliff tells them, "when a man's done got trimmed, I don't reckon he cares who's got the money," but the men don't seem convinced. If Snopes isn't involved, the risk of being conned might be low.
"A fellow can dodge a Snopes if he just starts lively enough," Ratliff tells them. "In face, I don't believe he would have to pass more than two folks before he would have another victim intervened betwixt them."
Grown a little wary overnight, they're not anxious to start the bidding the next morning, even when Flem Snopes doesn't make an appearance and the Texan starts without him. To start off the bidding, the Texan actually gives a horse to Eck the blacksmith, angering Henry Armstid. Despite his wife's pleas, Henry will bid all the money he has, five dollars that she's earned weaving to buy shoes for their children, feed for their stock, to secure a wild horse. By sunset the Texan will have sold the herd, hitched the mules to a buggy with a fringed parasol top, and claimed he's off to visit "Northern towns." Flem Snopes will ride with him as far as Varner's house, presumably to get his share of the money.
And that's when the story gets very lively.
No one had been permitted to catch their horse while the auction was going on and no man can catch their horse now: "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 chest which overtook 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."
One horse, the one that was given to Eck, will "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 little 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."
Eventually the horse will break free of the house, soar "outward, hobgoblin and floating, in the moon." There will be an incident on a bridge, involving a wagon and mules; injuries, both long-term and -short; conjectures about and issues with Flem Snopes; longsuffering and attempts to get her five dollars back by Mrs. Armsted; and the story will end in a makeshift court of law, trying to work out who owned what and who's responsible for what.
Flem Snopes will refuse to attend, refuse the court summons, maintaining "They wasn't none of my horses."
And twenty-five years later Jewel Bundren will have him one of these gaudy pintos, and it will be as rattlesnake-deadly as the first spotted horses brought to Yoknapatawpha County by Flem Snopes.
If you're a fan of Mark Twain, or of Southern humor, don't miss "Spotted Horses." The only disappointment in store is in the dead mule department--there's a mention of an Armsted mule having died three or four plowing seasons back, but none within the story itself.