Jack, the family’s big white horse had been acting very erratically all morning long. Bob, his heavy brown companion was acting a little peculiar too. Even though Bob was too old now to be pulling much weight he got all the same benefits that Jack, the younger horse, did— a grassy pasture to graze in, a big old cement water trough to drink from, lots of hay and a warm shelter from the sleet and snow in winter, and the affection of Jim who was old like him too, and Billy his son, who had grown into a man now, and Billy’s son Keith. There were other boys on the farm now too. They were small and curious and had golden hair as fair and beautiful as a little mare Bob still remembered fondly from days long ago. Those were the days when his blood pounded a little more fiercely with that kind of thought than it did over the approach of the oat bucket that was generously offered by the biggest fair-haired boy Keith.
Keith was as gentle as Bill or Jim ever were, just as Bob was just as gentle as he remembered his own sire had been, and that noble brown horse before him who had shown Bob’s own sire what it was to be strong and useful and dignified in his behaviour. Bob was feeling very odd today, sleepy and dreamy and a little off-kilter— all caught up in his remembrances as he leaned against the white board fence that surrounded the orchard where he was standing. He had a wonderful life, he thought, and he didn’t feel the least bit guilty about all the bounty of good things that were showered upon him in just the same way as they were allotted to Jack. Even though Jack often came in from the fields with Keith riding his strong wide back, and looking as hot and exhausted as Bob himself could ever remember being on his worst day of pulling stumps or hauling enormous wagon loads of hay, Bob did not feel guilty. After all, it was not as if Jack had to work every day as Bob had been expected to do when he was young. What he wouldn’t have given in exchange for a single undisturbed day to just laze in the sun or rest in the shade in those years.
Well, he had plenty of those kinds of days now. He distantly remembered that noisy black buggy arriving and how it didn’t need to be pulled around by him or by Gracey, who had now gone to the place he would one day know, if there was any knowing there at all. At least after that thing took over he never had to take people away to the frightening places again— the places where all the other noisy buggies were. He was glad about that!
But he was never again needed to take the family that Jim once had when Billy was young, to the place with the beautiful sounds. It was like a hundred birds singing all at the same time, and the other sounds coming out of the building were always happy— as happy as old and young ones always were on days when they gathered apples, and plums and peaches and cherries and pears together. The smell coming from their aprons then, and their baskets, and even their straw hats, was full of sweetness! It seemed to make them feel as light and warm as sunshine. When Jack arrived at the farm, the work that Bob had been doing on the other five days of the week had come to an end as well. That was because another even louder thing had come to the farm, than the buggy that went by itself. It was all shiny and hard too, but it only moved when someone sat on its back as if it was a horse. It wasn’t alive though, Bob had decided, because it never ever chose to do a single thing itself. It never moved out of the sun on a hot day, it never moved around the pasture by itself, and it never went to the fence between the orchard and the pasture where the soft fruit fell. It wasn’t even curious enough to turn and look at the long line of children following their father and mother as they got into bigger newer more colourful buggies that needed no horse to pull them, as the years passed quickly by.
Bob was already retired, and very old, and lonely enough to appreciate even the likes of Jack, when the big young broad-backed beast arrived. He wondered what on earth Jim and Billy could be thinking of— bringing another horse to a place where the noisy things had taken over all the work that there was for a horse to do! And then one day he saw Billy take down the dusty old collar, the harness and the whiffle tree from their pegs on the horse shed wall. The next morning he and Jack were out in the pasture for a drink from the water trough and their day of lazing around in the sun had begun as usual. Suddenly, he heard Billy whistle; he ran towards him as he always did. He saw the bridle in Billy’s hand and he bowed his head down gently towards him, but Billy said softly, “No Bob, it’s not for you that I’ve come. The bridle is for Jack today.”… “For Jack?” he asked plaintively with his big brown eyes, and then tried to force the newly oiled bridle in Billy’s hand to make contact with his old greying head. He longed to feel again the crowning of his head with newly softened leather. He would gladly take the bit into his mouth for Billy, and have him put on the old collar and harness, his affection was so great! But Billy laughed, and tousled his mane and whistled again for Jack. Stupid Jack! who didn’t even know what a whistle meant! He turned and ran back to where Jack was still standing, preoccupied with a particularly inviting clump of grass. He ran around him to get his attention and then ran again towards Billy; Jack, out of curiosity followed.
It was to be Jack’s first day as a tobacco horse, something Bob had never had to do himself. He had never seen anyone doing the kind of work that Jack was taught to do, hauling big rectangular boxes on steel runners between the rows of tall green plants in the fields around the farm. On none of his travels up and down the gravel roads in and out of town had he ever seen fields like these before, or horses doing work like this, dragging heavy loads of green leaves across the sandy fields up and down the hills on sled runners. The leaves were being put into, and even heaped up above long deep wooden boxes by young men with skin burned red on the back of their necks from bending over as they picked them. They carried them in huge bundles under their arms. Poor Jack, the rows in the fields were so hot all day long, all closed in by the tall green plants, he almost felt sorry for him. But then he saw the biggest boy in the family, Keith, on Jack’s back riding him in to the barnyard as the day’s work ended, and he saw him gently brushing him down to get the black tobacco tar and the sweat off his coat, and he thought “How lucky you are! You are useful and you are young and you are strong— even if you only do work when the corn is ripe, and the fruit is falling, and the sun is hot on our backs.”
When the work Jack had to do was finished for the year, he and Bob were put into the orchard under the tall peach tree, and the cherry trees where the big girls hid from their mother. They did this a lot when she called for them to come and play with the little ones, but they were not in any of the trees today— the bees were though. There were great hordes of them buzzing all over the fallen pears and plums that littered the ground at Bob and Jack’s feet. The mother, and her big girls, had taken all the peaches up to the porch behind the house and done something with all of them a few days before. They dropped buckets and buckets of peelings and pits in the tall orchard grass just over the fence later, but they hadn’t done anything with the pears.
That morning Bob had seen a very short round lady, that the mother of the children called ‘‘Mum’’, carry an apron full of plums to the fence and then yell some strange words that he had never heard the likes of before. Soon a middle-sized girl came running out to her with a basket and climbed over the fence. Later, the best smell Bob had ever smelled in all his long life hung in the air— like plums, only ten times more sweet. It made both Bob and Jack hungry, hungrier than they had ever felt before. Not hungry for grass, that was for certain, but for these purple fruits which had fallen under the tree that they were lolling under. They had been eating them all afternoon. In fact they could not stop themselves. When they finished all that they could gobble up out of the long grass under one tree, they moved to the next, and then the next.
Finally, Bob had had enough; he was too tired to move anymore, but Jack had moved on to the mushy brown and yellow pears, on the ground near the fence— the fence that Bob had for the last hour been leaning against for support. Suddenly he heard a frightening thump, just like the one when the snow load slid off the horse shed roof last winter. It frightened him. He turned abruptly to look behind him, but then he startled and turned back as someone screamed from the porch “Bill! Come quick! Something’s happened to Jack!” Jack was lying on the ground on his side, where he apparently had fallen. When he attempted to rise he got part way up and then fell again, rolling over onto his other side. Billy came running! Jack attempted to rise yet again, and then resigned himself to whatever fate awaits a tobacco horse that cannot move. Billy started to laugh. He laughed so hard he could hardly get his words out. “He’s drunk Jeannie! He’s three sheets to the wind! He’s falling down drunk!” Jack laid down his head, in what Bob assumed could only be shame, and then he fell fast asleep— his overbite jauntily positioned, quite appropriately, next to the last uneaten pear.