"Old Bill"

By Henry C. Wallace

We buried Old Bill to-day. As we came back to the house it seemed almost as if we had laid away a member of the family. All afternoon I have been thinking of him, and this evening I want to tell you the story.

Old Bill was a horse, and he was owned by four generations of our family. He was forty-one years old when he died, so you will understand that for many years he was what some might call a "dead-beat boarder." But long ago he had paid in advance for his board as long as he might stay with us. In winter a warm corner of the stable was his as a matter of right, and not a day went by but a lump of sugar, an apple, or some other tidbit found its way to him from the hands of those who loved him. Old Bill was never in the slightest danger of meeting the sad fate of many a faithful old horse in the hands of the huckster or trader.

My grandfather liked a good horse. He loved to draw the lines over a team that trotted up into the bits as if they enjoyed it. He had such a team in a span of eleven-hundred pound mares, full sisters, and well matched both as to appearance and disposition. The old gentleman said they were Morgan bred. Whether they were or not, they had a lot of warm blood in them. He raised several colts from these mares by light horses, but none of them had either the spirit or the quality of their dams. One year a neighbor brought in a Percheron horse, a rangy fellow weighing about seventeen hundred and fifty pounds, clean of limb, and with plenty of life, as were most of the earlier horses of that breed, and grandfather bred these mares to him. The colts foaled the next spring, developed into a fine span, weighing about twelve hundred and fifty each, sound as nuts, willing workers and free movers. Grandfather gave this team to my father the spring he started to farm for himself. They were then three years old, and one of them was Old Bill.

In those days the young farmer's capital was not very large: a team of horses, a cow, two or three pigs, and a few farm implements, the horses being by far the most important part of it. I shall not try to tell of the part these horses played in helping father win out. They were never sick; they were always ready for work. And well do I remember father's grief when Bill's mate slipped on the ice in the barnyard one cold winter day and had to be shot. It was that evening that my father talked of the important part a good horse plays in the life of a farmer, and gave us a little lecture on the treatment of horses and other animals. I was but a lad of ten at that time, but something father said, or the way he said it, made a deep impression on me, and from that time forward I looked upon horses as my friends and treated them as such. What a fine thing it would be if all parents would teach the youngsters at an early age the right way to treat our dumb animals.

Bill was already "Old Bill" when he became mine. He was four years older than I when we started courting together, and my success must have been due in large part to his age and experience. We had but a mile and a half to go, and of a summer evening Bill would trot this off at a pace equal to a much younger horse. When the girl of my affection was snugly seated in the buggy, he would move off briskly for half a mile, after which he dropped to a dignified walk, understanding full well the importance of the business in hand. He knew where it was safe to leave the beaten track and walk quietly along the turf at the side, and he had a positive genius for finding nice shady places where he could browse the overhanging branches, looking back once in a while to see that everything was going along as it should be. I suppose I am old-fashioned, but I don't see how a really first-class job of courting can be done without such a horse as Old Bill. He seemed to take just about as much interest in the matter as I did. One night Jennie brought out a couple of lumps of sugar for him (a hopeful sign to me, by the way), and after that there was no time lost in getting to her house, where Bill very promptly announced our arrival by two or three nickers.

One time I jokingly said to my wife that evidently she married Bill as much as she did me. That remark was a mistake. She admitted it more cheerfully than seemed necessary, and on sundry occasions afterward made free to remind me of it. Sometimes she drew comparisons to my discredit, and if Old Bill could have understood them, he would have enjoyed a real horse laugh. Jennie always said Bill knew more than some real folks.

After the wedding, Old Bill took us on our honeymoon trip—not a very long one, you may be sure—and the three of us settled down to the steady grind of farm life. We asked nothing hard of Old Bill, but he helped chore around, and took Jennie safely where she wanted to go. I felt perfectly at ease when she was driving him. I wish I had a picture of the three of them when she brought out the boy to show to Old Bill. I can close my eyes and see her standing in front of the old horse, with the boy cuddled up in a blanket in her arms. I can see the proud light in her eyes, and I can see Old Bill's sensitive upper lip nuzzling at the blanket. He evidently understood Jennie perfectly, and seemed just as proud as she was.

The youngster learned to ride Old Bill at the age most children are riding broomsticks. Jennie used to put him on Old Bill's back and lead him around, but Old Bill seemed so careful that before a great while she would trust him alone with the boy in the front yard, she sitting on the porch. I remember a scare I had one summer evening. Old Bill did not have much hair left on his withers, but he had a long mane lock just in front of the collar mark, and the youngster held onto this. I was walking up toward the house, where Bill was marching the youngster around in front, Jennie sitting on the porch. Evidently a botfly was bothering Bill's front legs, for he threw his head down quickly, whereupon the youngster, holding tightly to this mane lock, slid down his neck and flopped to the ground. You may be sure I got there in a hurry, almost as quickly as Jennie, who was but a few steps away, calling as I ran: "Did he step on him?" You should have seen the look of scorn Jennie gave me. Such an insult to Old Bill deserved no answer. The old horse seemed as much concerned as we were and Jennie promptly replaced the boy on his back and the ride was resumed, with me relegated to the corner of the porch in disgrace. As if Old Bill would hurt her boy!

Old Bill's later years were full of contentment and happiness, if I know what constitutes horse happiness. In the winter he had the best corner in the stable. In the summer he was the autocrat of the small pasture where we kept the colts. He taught the boy to ride properly and with due respect for his steed. He would give him a gallop now and then, but as a rule he insisted upon a dignified walk, and if the youngster armed himself with a switch and tried to have his way about it, the old fellow would quickly show who was boss by nipping his little legs just hard enough to serve as a warning of what he could do.

Bill had a lot of fun with the mares and colts. We never allowed the colts to follow the mares in the fields, but kept them in the five-acre pasture with Bill for company. At noon, we would lead the mares in after they had cooled off, and let the colts suck, and at night we turned the mares into the pasture with them. Bill had a keen sense of humor. He would fool around until the colts had finished, and then gallop off with all the colts in full tilt after him. Naturally the mares resented this. They followed around in great indignation, but it did them no good. We used to walk over to the pasture fence and watch this little byplay, and I think Bill enjoyed having us there, for he kept up the fun as long as we would watch. He surely was not popular with the mares. They regarded him about as the proud mother regards grandfather when he entices away her darling boy and teaches him tricks of which she does not approve.

Although Bill took delight in teaching the colts mean little tricks during their days of irresponsibility, when they reached the proper age he enjoyed the part he had to play in their training with a grim satisfaction. For more than twenty-five years he was our main reliance in breaking the colts to work. It was amusing to watch a colt the first time he was harnessed and hooked up to the wagon alongside Bill, his halter strap being tied back to the hames on Bill's collar.

Our colts were always handled more or less from infancy, and we had little trouble in harnessing them. When led out to the wagon with Bill, the colt invariably assumed he was out for a good time. But the Bill he found now was not the Bill he had known in the pasture, and he very quickly learned that he was in for real business.

Bill was a very strict disciplinarian; he tolerated no familiarities; with his teeth he promptly suppressed any undue exuberance of spirit; he was kind but firm. As he grew older, he would lose patience now and then with the colts that persisted in their unruly ways. When they lunged forward, he settled back against their plunges with a bored air, as much as to say: "Take it easy, my young friend; you surely don't think you can run away with Old Bill!" When they sulked, he pulled them along for a bit. But if they continued obstreperous he turned upon them with his teeth in an almost savage manner, and the way he would bring them out of the sulky spell was a joy to see.

Finally, when the tired and bewildered colt had settled down to an orderly walk, and had learned to respond to the guiding reins, Bill would reward him with a caress on the neck and other evidences of his esteem.

Old Bill knew the game thoroughly, and was invaluable in this work of training the young ones. But after the first round at the wagon with him, the colts always seemed to feel as if they had lost a boon companion; they kept their friendship for him, but they maintained a very respectful attitude, and never after took liberties unless assured by his manner that they would be tolerated.

I got a collie dog for the youngster when he was about three years old. When he was riding Old Bill, Jack would rush back and forth, in front and behind, barking joyously. Old Bill disliked such frivolity. To him it was a serious occasion. I think he never forgot the time the boy fell off, for nothing could tempt him out of a steady walk until the youngster got to an age when his seat was reasonably secure. When the ride was over, Old Bill would lay back his ears and go after Jack so viciously that the collie would seek refuge under the porch. Except when the boy was about, however, Old Bill and Jack were good friends, and in very cold weather Jack would beg a place in Bill's stall, curling up between his legs, to the apparent satisfaction of both. There was a very real friendship between them, but just as real jealousy for the favors of the little fellow. They were much like human beings in this respect.

Until the last year of his life Bill was a most useful member of the family. Jennie liked a good garden and used to say before we were married that when we had our own home, she would have a garden that was a garden, and that she did not propose to wear herself out with a hoe as her mother had done. She laid out her garden in a long, narrow strip of ground between the pasture and the windbreak, just back of the house, and with Bill's help she had the garden she talked about. Bill plowed the ground and cultivated it, and the care with which he walked the long narrow rows was astonishing. This was another place where he did not want to be bothered with Jack. He was willing Jack should sit at one end and watch the proceedings, but he must keep out of the way.

During the school season Bill's regular job was to take the children to school, a mile away. They rode him, turning him loose to come home alone. He learned to go back for them in the afternoon, and he delivered them at the porch with an air as much as to say: "There are your little folks, safe and sound, thanks to Old Bill." Jennie always met him with an apple or a lump of sugar. She and Old Bill seemed to be in partnership in about everything he could have a part in. They understood each other perfectly, and I don't mind confessing now that once in a great while I felt rather jealous of Old Bill.

Well, as I said in the beginning, we buried Old Bill to-day. He died peacefully, and, as we say of some esteemed citizen, "full of honors." He was buried on the farm he helped pay for; and, foolish as it may seem to some folks, before long a modest stone will mark his last resting place. And sometimes, of a summer afternoon, if I find Jennie sitting with her needlework in the shade of the big oak tree under which Old Bill rests, I will know that tender memories of a faithful servant are being woven into her neat stitches.