The Finish of Patsy Barnes
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
His name was Patsy Barnes, and he was a denizen of Little Africa. In
fact, he lived on Douglass Street. By all the laws governing the
relations between people and their names, he should have been
Irish—but he was not. He was colored, and very much so. That was the
reason he lived on Douglass Street. The negro has very strong within
him the instinct of colonization and it was in accordance with this
that Patsy's mother had found her way to Little Africa when she had
come North from Kentucky.
Patsy was incorrigible. Even into the confines of Little Africa had
penetrated the truant officer and the terrible penalty of the
compulsory education law. Time and time again had poor Eliza Barnes
been brought up on account of the shortcomings of that son of hers.
She was a hard-working, honest woman, and day by day bent over her
tub, scrubbing away to keep Patsy in shoes and jackets, that would
wear out so much faster than they could be bought. But she never
murmured, for she loved the boy with a deep affection, though his
misdeeds were a sore thorn in her side.
She wanted him to go to school. She wanted him to learn. She had the
notion that he might become something better, something higher than
she had been. But for him school had no charms; his school was the
cool stalls in the big livery stable near at hand; the arena of his
pursuits its sawdust floor; the height of his ambition, to be a
horseman. Either here or in the racing stables at the Fair-grounds he
spent his truant hours. It was a school that taught much, and Patsy
was as apt a pupil as he was a constant attendant. He learned strange
things about horses, and fine, sonorous oaths that sounded eerie on
his young lips, for he had only turned into his fourteenth year.
A man goes where he is appreciated; then could this slim black boy be
blamed for doing the same thing? He was a great favorite with the
horsemen, and picked up many a dime or nickel for dancing or singing,
or even a quarter for warming up a horse for its owner. He was not to
be blamed for this, for, first of all, he was born in Kentucky, and
had spent the very days of his infancy about the paddocks near
Lexington, where his father had sacrificed his life on account of his
love for horses. The little fellow had shed no tears when he looked at
his father's bleeding body, bruised and broken by the fiery young
two-year-old he was trying to subdue. Patsy did not sob or whimper,
though his heart ached, for over all the feeling of his grief was a
mad, burning desire to ride that horse.
His tears were shed, however, when, actuated by the idea that times
would be easier up North, they moved to Dalesford. Then, when he
learned that he must leave his old friends, the horses and their
masters, whom he had known, he wept. The comparatively meagre
appointments of the Fair-grounds at Dalesford proved a poor
compensation for all these. For the first few weeks Patsy had dreams
of running away—back to Kentucky and the horses and stables. Then
after a while he settled himself with heroic resolution to make the
best of what he had, and with a mighty effort took up the burden of
life away from his beloved home.
Eliza Barnes, older and more experienced though she was, took up her
burden with a less cheerful philosophy than her son. She worked hard,
and made a scanty livelihood, it is true, but she did not make the
best of what she had. Her complainings were loud in the land, and her
wailings for her old home smote the ears of any who would listen to
They had been living in Dalesford for a year nearly, when hard work
and exposure brought the woman down to bed with pneumonia. They were
very poor—too poor even to call in a doctor, so there was nothing to
do but to call in the city physician. Now this medical man had too
frequent calls into Little Africa, and he did not like to go there. So
he was very gruff when any of its denizens called him, and it was even
said that he was careless of his patients.
Patsy's heart bled as he heard the doctor talking to his mother:
"Now, there can't be any foolishness about this," he said. "You've got
to stay in bed and not get yourself damp."
"How long you think I got to lay hyeah, doctah?" she asked.
"I'm a doctor, not a fortune-teller," was the reply. "You'll lie there
as long as the disease holds you."
"But I can't lay hyeah long, doctah, case I ain't got nuffin' to go
"Well, take your choice: the bed or the boneyard."
Eliza began to cry.
"You needn't sniffle," said the doctor; "I don't see what you people
want to come up here for anyhow. Why don't you stay down South where
you belong? You come up here and you're just a burden and a trouble to
the city. The South deals with all of you better, both in poverty and
crime." He knew that these people did not understand him, but he
wanted an outlet for the heat within him.
There was another angry being in the room, and that was Patsy. His
eyes were full of tears that scorched him and would not fall. The
memory of many beautiful and appropriate oaths came to him; but he
dared not let his mother hear him swear. Oh! to have a stone—to be
across the street from that man!
When the physician walked out, Patsy went to the bed, took his
mother's hand, and bent over shamefacedly to kiss her. He did not know
that with that act the Recording Angel blotted out many a curious damn
The little mark of affection comforted Eliza unspeakably. The
mother-feeling overwhelmed her in one burst of tears. Then she dried
her eyes and smiled at him.
"Honey," she said; "mammy ain' gwine lay hyeah long. She be all right
"Nevah you min'," said Patsy with a choke in his voice. "I can do
somep'n', an' we'll have anothah doctah."
"La, listen at de chile; what kin you do?"
"I'm goin' down to McCarthy's stable and see if I kin git some horses
A sad look came into Eliza's eyes as she said: "You'd bettah not go,
Patsy; dem hosses'll kill you yit, des lak dey did yo' pappy."
But the boy, used to doing pretty much as he pleased, was obdurate,
and even while she was talking, put on his ragged jacket and left the
Patsy was not wise enough to be diplomatic. He went right to the point
with McCarthy, the liveryman.
The big red-faced fellow slapped him until he spun round and round.
Then he said, "Ye little devil, ye, I've a mind to knock the whole
head off o' ye. Ye want harses to exercise, do ye? Well git on that
'un, an' see what ye kin do with him."
The boy's honest desire to be helpful had tickled the big, generous
Irishman's peculiar sense of humor, and from now on, instead of giving
Patsy a horse to ride now and then as he had formerly done, he put
into his charge all the animals that needed exercise.
It was with a king's pride that Patsy marched home with his first
They were small yet, and would go for food rather than a doctor, but
Eliza was inordinately proud, and it was this pride that gave her
strength and the desire of life to carry her through the days
approaching the crisis of her disease.
As Patsy saw his mother growing worse, saw her gasping for breath,
heard the rattling as she drew in the little air that kept going her
clogged lungs, felt the heat of her burning hands, and saw the pitiful
appeal in her poor eyes, he became convinced that the city doctor was
not helping her. She must have another. But the money?
That afternoon, after his work with McCarthy, found him at the
Fair-grounds. The spring races were on, and he thought he might get a
job warming up the horse of some independent jockey. He hung around
the stables, listening to the talk of men he knew and some he had
never seen before. Among the latter was a tall, lanky man, holding
forth to a group of men.
"No, suh," he was saying to them generally, "I'm goin' to withdraw my
hoss, because thaih ain't nobody to ride him as he ought to be rode. I
haven't brought a jockey along with me, so I've got to depend on
pick-ups. Now, the talent's set agin my hoss, Black Boy, because he's
been losin' regular, but that hoss has lost for the want of ridin',
The crowd looked in at the slim-legged, raw-boned horse, and walked
"The fools!" muttered the stranger. "If I could ride myself I'd show
Patsy was gazing into the stall at the horse.
"What are you doing thaih," called the owner to him.
"Look hyeah, mistah," said Patsy, "ain't that a bluegrass hoss?"
"Of co'se it is, an' one o' the fastest that evah grazed."
"I'll ride that hoss, mistah."
"What do you know 'bout ridin'?"
"I used to gin'ally be' roun' Mistah Boone's paddock in Lexington,
"Aroun' Boone's paddock—what! Look here, little nigger, if you can
ride that hoss to a winnin' I'll give you more money than you ever
"I'll ride him."
Patsy's heart was beating very wildly beneath his jacket. That horse.
He knew that glossy coat. He knew that raw-boned frame and those
flashing nostrils. That black horse there owed something to the orphan
he had made.
The horse was to ride in the race before the last. Somehow out of odds
and ends, his owner scraped together a suit and colors for Patsy. The
colors were maroon and green, a curious combination. But then it was a
curious horse, a curious rider, and a more curious combination that
brought the two together.
Long before the time for the race Patsy went into the stall to become
better acquainted with his horse. The animal turned its wild eyes upon
him and neighed. He patted the long, slender head, and grinned as the
horse stepped aside as gently as a lady.
"He sholy is full o' ginger," he said to the owner, whose name he had
found to be Brackett.
"He'll show 'em a thing or two," laughed Brackett.
"His dam was a fast one," said Patsy, unconsciously.
Brackett whirled on him in a flash. "What do you know about his dam?"
The boy would have retracted, but it was too late. Stammeringly he
told the story of his father's death and the horse's connection
"Well," said Brackett, "if you don't turn out a hoodoo, you're a
winner, sure. But I'll be blessed if this don't sound like a story!
But I've heard that story before. The man I got Black Boy from, no
matter how I got him, you're too young to understand the ins and outs
of poker, told it to me."
When the bell sounded and Patsy went out to warm up, he felt as if he
were riding on air. Some of the jockeys laughed at his get-up, but
there was something in him—or under him, maybe—that made him scorn
their derision. He saw a sea of faces about him, then saw no more.
Only a shining white track loomed ahead of him, and a restless steed
was cantering with him around the curve. Then the bell called him back
to the stand.
They did not get away at first, and back they trooped. A second trial
was a failure. But at the third they were off in a line as straight
as a chalk-mark. There were Essex and Firefly, Queen Bess and
Mosquito, galloping away side by side, and Black Boy a neck ahead.
Patsy knew the family reputation of his horse for endurance as well as
fire, and began riding the race from the first. Black Boy came of
blood that would not be passed, and to this his rider trusted. At the
eighth the line was hardly broken, but as the quarter was reached
Black Boy had forged a length ahead, and Mosquito was at his flank.
Then, like a flash, Essex shot out ahead under whip and spur, his
jockey standing straight in the stirrups.
The crowd in the stand screamed; but Patsy smiled as he lay low over
his horse's neck. He saw that Essex had made her best spurt. His only
fear was for Mosquito, who hugged and hugged his flank. They were
nearing the three-quarter post, and he was tightening his grip on the
black. Essex fell back; his spurt was over. The whip fell unheeded on
his sides. The spurs dug him in vain.
Black Boy's breath touches the leader's ear. They are neck and
neck—nose to nose. The black stallion passes him.
Another cheer from the stand, and again Patsy smiles as they turn into
the stretch. Mosquito has gained a head. The colored boy flashes one
glance at the horse and rider who are so surely gaining upon him, and
his lips close in a grim line. They are half-way down the stretch, and
Mosquito's head is at the stallion's neck.
For a single moment Patsy thinks of the sick woman at home and what
that race will mean to her, and then his knees close against the
horse's sides with a firmer dig. The spurs shoot deeper into the
steaming flanks. Black Boy shall win; he must win. The horse that has
taken away his father shall give him back his mother. The stallion
leaps away like a flash, and goes under the wire—a length ahead.
Then the band thundered, and Patsy was off his horse, very warm and
very happy, following his mount to the stable. There, a little later,
Brackett found him. He rushed to him, and flung his arms around him.
"You little devil," he cried, "you rode like you were kin to that
hoss! We've won! We've won!" And he began sticking banknotes at the
boy. At first Patsy's eyes bulged, and then he seized the money and
got into his clothes.
"Goin' out to spend it?" asked Brackett.
"I'm goin' for a doctah fu' my mother," said Patsy, "she's sick."
"Don't let me lose sight of you."
"Oh, I'll see you again. So long," said the boy.
An hour later he walked into his mother's room with a very big doctor,
the greatest the druggist could direct him to. The doctor left his
medicines and his orders, but, when Patsy told his story, it was
Eliza's pride that started her on the road to recovery. Patsy did not
tell his horse's name.