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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



AFTER several other early commuters had informed the maid that a horse had passed out on the lawn Mrs. Lamb decided to look upon the gratifying sight herself. But when she reached the veranda the horse was no longer there, and the good lady was just as glad.

Lamb had awakened dizzily and made a tour of the ruins he had created. Vaguely only did he remember the events of the night. The little he did recall was sufficient to make him wish to forget.

"I'd better get to hell out of here," he said to himself. " There'll be no living within a mile of Tilly for some time to come."

He cantered off to the station and hung about there for a while, getting in the way of hurrying commuters and keeping an eye out for Sandra. When that young lady undulated into view he trotted up to her and stopped. So did Sandy. She put her arms round his neck and gave him a good morning kiss. Lamb became a horse of stone. Dimly he heard an insistent honking of horns, but paid little attention to them. He had lost all traces of his headache. Sandy had kissed them away. He glanced about him and discovered he was blocking the way of two motors, the drivers of which were far from resigned. Steppingaside politely, he looked after the retreating figure of the girl.

"She shouldn't have done that," thought Lamb, "but I'm not altogether sorry she did."

At this point a state trooper tried to do things about the horse. Lamb reared back on his hind legs and pawed at the air. The trooper hurried elsewhere and returned with a long noose rope.

"Thinks he's Will Rogers," said Lamb to himself, as he watched the trooper out of the tail of his eye.

Craftily anticipating the man's fell purpose, he took immediate steps to outwit him. Carelessly Mr. Lamb manœuvred himself alongside one of the town's most revered citizens, Mr. Robert Bates, fat, fifty, and influential—a factor in local politics. As the noose came swishing through the air Lamb crouched close to the ground and observed the rope neatly pinion Mr. Robert Bates's arms to his sides. Feeling the rope grow taut, the trooper tugged with a mighty effort and succeeded in pulling Mr. Bates completely over the back of the crouching horse. After that there were no impediments to bar the rapid progress of Mr. Robert Bates across the road.

The trooper wound the rope round a telegraph pole, secured it firmly, and turned to survey his prize. His prize lay struggling at his feet, emitting a long succession of unpleasant sounds terminating with, "I'll break you for this, my man."

Naturally this little episode had neither gone unnoticed nor unappreciated. It was a pleasure to many to see Mr. Bates thus handled. It was no pleasure to the state trooper. The humour of the situation escaped him; but Mr. Bates did not escape. He would be with him always, the trooper feared. Mr. Lamb with a triumphant neigh left the poor fellow explaining to the sizzling first citizen that the unfortunate occurrence was entirely due to the horse, and thunderingly cleared the town. Thereafter all that remained of the horse was a not unblemished reputation.

Mr Lamb was next discovered straining his neck to reach a particularly delectable blackberry on the edge of the woods. Several children, shepherded by an elder sister, were regarding the enterprising horse. They had never seen a horse pick blackberries. The children decided that he was a "funny horse," and made a jubilant noise about it. Mr. Lamb, with a start of surprise, beheld his admiring audience and immediately fell to cropping grass in the conventionally accepted manner. The children then drew near the horse and patted him with small adventurous hands. The horse did tricks to amuse them, and they brought him a wild flower to smell. Amazingly the horse smelled it, rolling his eyes to show his appreciation. He was enjoying himself more than he had for years. Presently the horse took leave of the children and once more sought the road. The children returned home to hamper their mother's activities by telling about the funny horse.

After this pastoral interlude, Mr. Lamb continued cheerfully on his way. Many miles now separated him from Sapho. He regretted the absence of Hebe. A pity she, too, could not have turned into a horse. The little russet man was responsible for it all. Had Lamb only realised it at the time of their last conversation he would have arranged things differently—introduced an element of order. However, the little russet man had given him no chance. Now Lamb did not know how things stood, whether he was to be a horse permanently, or when he would stop being a horse. All such details should have been considered.

Mr. Lamb had taken to the more unfrequented roads and was now in a territory unknown to him. He was decidedly on the loose. He came to a meadow in which several sleek-looking mares were grazing. To Mr. Lamb they seemed quite girlish. Without further ado he leaped the fence and swaggered up to the mares. His unexpected arrival created quite a sensation. The mares were all a-twitter. One began to tremble nervously from an excess of sex consciousness. The stouter of her girl friends merely gazed at Mr. Lamb with an expressively submissive look. The third, however, was a mare of another colour. She looked at Mr. Lamb for a long moment with a bold, appraising eye and seemingly found him to her liking. Then she trotted off to a secluded part of the meadow, occasion-ally glancing back at Mr. Lamb and tossing her head prettily.

This mare interested Mr. Lamb strangely. At the same time something urged him to proceed with caution. There was no good in that mare. Mr. Lamb followed her. There was something on his mind. He was trying to remember the image the mare evoked. Something about the eyes. Whose eyes were they?

When he reached the mare's side he peered into her eyes thoughtfully. The mare returned his gaze languorously and rubbed her nose against his. Mr. Lamb started back offended. Then he remembered.

This passionate creature had the eyes of Sapho when she was developing her art in the arms of Leonard Gray. Undeterred by the rebuff of her first effort, the mare circled round Mr. Lamb, gradually closing until she again stood at his side. Suddenly she turned and bit his neck, then sped away.

"Well, if she thinks I'm going to follow her," thought Mr. Lamb, " she has another think coming. They're all alike the world over. This mare is determined to get me into some compromising situation."

He spent the remainder of the afternoon alternately grazing and repulsing the mare's advances. Her two friends looked at him hopefully from time to time, but were ladylike enough to leave him to his own devices. Finally the mare, disgusted with this aloof, dignified, and apparently unemotional stallion, abandoned her attempts to seduce him, and contented herself with gazing at him scornfully. She joined her companions, and the three of them put their heads close together. Occasionally they would lift them for a moment and look steadily at Mr. Lamb, then resume once more their intimate conversation. Lamb, growing uncomfortable under the continual scrutiny of the horses, sought another section of the meadow, but the mares, as if fascinated, followed him at a respectful distance and discussed his every move.

The situation was becoming intolerable, and Mr. Lamb was heartily thankful when at sunset the three mares trotted off to one end of the meadow and waited there expectantly. Lamb followed them at a casual amble, and when a sleepy-looking farm-hand presently plodded up to the fence and opened a gate, Mr. Lambslipped by unnoticed with the other horses and continued with them across the field to the stable.

"This is what might be termed crashing the gate," he said to himself, as he entered the stable and sought refuge in an empty stall.

He would have been perfectly satisfied with the oats the farm-hand had provided had not the shameless mare kept thrusting her head over the partition in order the better to observe him crunch. Eating oats was a new experience to Lamb. He would have preferred to have practised it alone, but every time he glanced up, the mare's large eyes were fixed upon him with such unabashed curiosity, that Lamb immediately suspended action and pretended he had finished.

Apparently the acquistion of a strapping new stallion meant nothing in the life of the sleepy farm-hand. He closed the stable doors and went his way, and Lamb, to escape the prying eyes of the abandoned animal in the next stall, lay down, placed his head on a bucket, and prepared to sleep. After the indulgence of the previous night, he was too tired to ponder over the radically altered circumstances of his existence. But before he took leave of consciousness Mr. Lamb once for all washed his hands of the inquisitive mare, who was moving restlessly about in the next stall.

Mr. Burnham was not quite so unobservant as his handyman, the name being in this instance strictly a courtesy title. When he discovered the sleeping stallion the next morning his heart was filled with wonder and admiration.

"Why didn't you tell me of this, Sam?" he demanded of the farm-hand.

"Didn't rightly notice it myself," replied that individual. "He acted so natural-like, seemed he must belong."

"And if a cavalry regiment had quartered here last night," observed Burnham, "I dare say it would have meant the same thing to you."

He looked at the three mares suspiciously and hummed under his breath.

"I wonder" he continued as if to himself, then catching the look of disgust in the brazen mare's eyes, he shook his head and returned once more to the sleeping stallion.

"Funny way for a horse to sleep," Mr. Burnham drew his right arm's attention to the horse's head resting on the bucket. The right arm also had failed to notice this. He agreed, however. It was a funny way for a horse to sleep.

Mr. Burnham then applied a foot with insistent pressure to the stallion's rump, and Mr. Lamb looked up with sleepy indignation. Gazing for a moment at the two strange faces, he replaced his head on the bucket and closed his eyes.

"Get up, sir!" commanded Mr. Burnham, and this time the application of the foot was slightly more vigorous.

"If this sort of thing is going to continue," thought Lamb gloomily, "I might as well abandon all thoughts of sleep."

He rose, stretched his great body, and stepped out of his stall. The two men followed his movements in silence. Lamb walked out into the stable yard and, seeing a large trough full of water under the pump, plunged his head deep into it. Very busily he put inhis front legs and twirled his hoofs around. Picking up an empty flour sack he tossed it about his head until he was partially dry. After this Mr. Lamb felt considerably refreshed. He lifted his head proudly and looked down at the silently watching men. Even the farm-hand had been able to detect something out of the ordinary in the actions of the horse.

"Well, Sam, what do you think of that?" asked Mr. Burnham, inhaling a deep breath.

Thinking was one of Sam's most vulnerable points. He was unable to put into words his confused mental reactions.

"It ain't right," was all he said.

"If nobody claims that stallion," declared Mr. Burnham, "I'm going to enter him in the show this Saturday. He's the finest body of a horse I've seen in years."

At this Mr. Lamb set himself and paced gallantly round the yard. He fully intended to earn his meal ticket. Sam eyed the horse with growing suspicion. His imagination was at last aroused.

"Feed him," said Mr. Burnham, "and keep him well groomed. I'm going to make inquiries. This seems like a gift from heaven. Those mares need entertainment."

Burnham made inquiries throughout the course of the week, but could find no claimant to the stallion. Those who had seen the horse, or who had even heard remotely about it, declared they would have nothing to do with it. They did not want the horse. As a result of his investigations, Mr. Burnham had no scruples in attaching that horse to himself. And Mr. Lamb was well pleased to be attached. He was living on the fat of the land, and Sam, in spite of his mental deficiencies, was proving himself to be an entirely satisfactory valet.

On Saturday Lamb was taken to the show. It was a semi-bucolic affair, a thing of barter and trade, but more than a thousand horse-lovers were present and assembled about the field. Mr Lamb was placed in a shack and carefully guarded by Sam. The stallion seemed greatly elated. Mr Lamb was really anxious to win a prize—to establish a name for himself and Mr. Burnham.

It was a gala day for Sam. Lamb noticed that his valet was not too dumb to indulge copiously in corn whisky, a great bottle of which was reposing on a table in the shack. As time passed, Lamb began to grow nervous. He hated waiting. When Sam stepped outside to view the world, Mr. Lamb quickly elevated the bottle and drained its contents. His nervousness immediately left him. He knew he would win a prize. Nothing now could stop him. Sam returned and looked at the bottle with an injured expression.

"Someone's been in here," he muttered. "Like to catch 'em at it."

He departed again and presently returned with another bottle, which he uncorked and sampled appreciatively.

"Watch that bottle," he told the stallion when he next left to mingle with the throng. "And if anyone tries to get at it kick 'em through the shed."

Mr. Lamb made sure that no one would take liberties with the bottle. He introduced the fiery fluid into his system, and felt even more convinced that he was certain to win practically all the prizes.

A few minutes later, when he was taken out to be judged, the whisky was taking full effect on him. Mr. Burnham was so keyed up himself, he failed to remark the staggering gait of the stallion. However, the judges and spectators noticed it as Mr. Lamb was led thrice past the stand. When he endeavoured to prance bravely he got all tangled up in his legs.

"How many legs have I?" he wondered. "Seem to have grown an extra pair."

"That horse seems to think he's imitating a drunkard," observed the judge. "What on earth does he think he's doing?"

When he was brought up to be looked over at closer range Mr. Lamb almost fell over one of the judges. He succeeded in regaining his balance only by stepping heavily on that shocked dignitary's foot. To make matters worse Lamb was seized with a violent attack of hiccoughs which he was unable to control. There was a strong smell of alcohol in the air. The judge regarded Mr. Burnham suspiciously.

"Got to do something to make up for all this," Mr. Lamb said to himself. "Wonder what I can do—some sort of stunt—something a little different."

An idea grew and flourished in his dizzy brain.

"I'll be a hobby-horse," he said to himself. "That's the very thing. I dare say nobody ever saw a live hobby-horse before."

He thought for a moment, then, stiffening his legs and placing his hoofs close together, he began to rock forward and aft, gaining momentum with each swing. Every eye in the multitude was riveted on Mr. Lamb. The judge stepped back and regarded him indignantly. This animal was making a fool of them—taking their horse show altogether too lightly. Cheers of encouragement broke from the spectators. They went to Mr. Lamb's head. With a gratified expression he redoubled his efforts. Mr. Burnham looked on helplessly, disgust written in every line of his face. He felt as if he had been betrayed. Mr. Lamb turned his head and winked at his owner as if to say, "We'll show these hicks something new in the line of a horse."

He did. Each rock was bringing him nearer to the ground. Finally, in an excess of zeal, Lamb made one supreme effort. He pitched recklessly forward, held his position for one breathless moment, then nose first continued to the ground, where he remained with eyes tightly closed.

"I won't look," he said to himself. " This is the end. I'm disgraced."

"Will you please take that thing away?" asked one of the judges, turning to the humiliated Burnham. " We don't want it at this show."

Burnham tried to raise his crumpled horse—the heaven-sent—but Mr. Lamb refused to budge. One of the judges knelt down beside him and sniffed.

"How crude!" thought Lamb dreamily. "These judges!"

"Why, this horse has been drinking corn whisky," the judge announced, rising. "The animal is actually dead-drunk. Disgraceful, Burnham, I say. Never heard of any such a thing in my life. Take him away."

Burnham, regarding the stallion, wondered exactly how the judge expected him to take his entry away.

He certainly could not carry the besotted horse from the field in his arms. Nothing less than a derrick would be required to lift that body. The judges apparently were of this opinion too, for they removed themselves to another section of the field and continued with the show. Lamb remained recumbent, gently snoring, in the centre of the field. A circle of admiring spectators had gathered round him.

Before the day was done Mr. Burnham had sold the heaven-sent to a fancy truck farmer. The price given had reflected no credit on the value of Mr. Lamb. The truck farmer had turned in his own horse as part payment.

Darkness had fallen by the time Mr. Lamb had recovered sufficiently to be driven away. When he came to his senses he found himself harnessed to a light farm wagon. He was being driven along a country road.

"Sold down the river," he mused to himself. "Parted from family and friends."

Monotonously the fields and trees moved past. Lamb began to recognise the road. He remembered certain landmarks. They were going in the direction of his home. Presently his new master drew rein, and getting down from his seat, began to search in the back part of the wagon. Lamb fell into alight doze. When the farmer returned he found a man clad only in pyjamas standing where just a moment ago his recently acquired horse had stood. The man seemed a bit dazed and was pulling at the shafts. At first the farmer was afraid to approach, then indignation got the better of his timidity. He strode up to the white-dad figure and looked at it wrathfully.

"What are you doing there?" he demanded. Lamb started and looked down at himself.

"By God, I'm back," he said under his breath; then turning to the farmer, he replied, "Just fooling with these shafts."

"And what did you do with my horse?" continued the farmer.

Mr Lamb dropped the shafts and seated himself by the roadside. The farmer followed his example.

"What could I have done with your horse?" asked Mr. Lamb. "Do you suppose that I tore him limb from limb and scattered his parts to the four winds?"

"No," said the man after a thoughtful pause. "You couldn't have done that."

He paused and considered Mr. Lamb with thoughtful eyes.

"Then you were the horse," he announced in positive tones. "You must have been the horse."

"What, me?" exclaimed Mr. Lamb. "You're crazy, sir. Do I faintly resemble a horse?"

"Not now, you don't," replied the man with conviction, "but a minute ago you did, and what's more, you acted like a horse—not a very good horse, but enough of a horse to get along with. Now you're no earthly use to me."

"Well, I'm relieved you recognise that fact," said Mr. Lamb. "What are we going to do about it?"

"Listen," said the man, as if endeavouring to explain the strange occurrence to himself. "This business isn't as simple as it seems to you. This evening at the show I bought you for a horse. You were dead-drunk on the field in front of hundreds of people. In spite of that I bought you and gave you another chance. I was going to give you a nice home and keep you away from drink. I've been over the ropes myself. Don't object to a little fun within reason, but—"

"It's all right about that," put in Mr. Lamb. "Go on with this remarkable yarn."

"It does sound crazy when I hear myself telling it," admitted the man. " But it's true just the same, every word of it. I got you sort of sobered up and started off home with you. Everything was getting along nicely. At this spot I got down from my seat and turned my back on you for a minute. When I turned back—no horse. You were standing between the shafts pulling like the devil. Now answer me this," he continued in a reasonable voice, turning full on Mr. Lamb. "A minute ago there was a horse, or the dead image of a horse, standing between those shafts. If you weren't that horse, who was the horse or what was the horse? Answer me that."

Mr. Lamb did not want to answer him that. He realised that the man—any man—was mentally unequipped to be told the true state of affairs. He himself was reluctant to admit the terrible thing that had happened to him. It was too far removed from the kingdom of God as generally conceived. It was too mythological. Only a pagan would believe and understand. And back of it all, Lamb knew, was the little russet man.

"Well, I'll tell you," said Lamb slowly. "It was like this: When I was a very little boy I just loved to play horse. That's a fact. I played horse so much and so long that I was never able to break myself of the habit. To this day—would you believe it?—I still play horse. It's a weakness—a failing. It's like strong drink to other men."

Lamb halted to see what impression he was making on his erstwhile owner. The man seemed absorbed in the story. Lamb himself was beginning to believe it.

Well, to-night," he continued, "I gave a bit of a party, and I guess we all had a little too much. I remember after going to bed that it struck me as being rather a good idea to get up and play horse. I slipped from my bed, you understand, quiet as anything so as not to wake up my wife, who suffers from insomnia just like her mother, and whose brother has lumbago, poor chap. Without making any noise I crept down-stairs, turned the key in the front-door lock, and ran down the road. I ran and ran and ran. After a while I came to this wagon and crawled in between the shafts, and then you came along. That's how the whole thing happened."

The climax seemed rather smeared for a good story, but it was the best that Lamb could achieve at the moment. He looked at the man hopefully and regretted to see that the farmer's face had fallen considerably. Apparently he had lost interest in the story.

"It's all right," he said, " but it doesn't explain what became of my horse."

"There really wasn't ever any horse at all, was there?" asked Lamb, evasively.

"No," replied the farmer with elaborate sarcasm. "I was dragging this wagon along by myself just for exercise."

There followed an uncomfortable silence.

"Well, I'm sure," said Mr. Lamb at last, as he rose and stretched himself wearily, "I can't imagine what can have happened to your horse. You can see for yourself that I'm not anything like a horse."

"But I'm not so sure," the farmer replied, "that you weren't a horse a little while back. There's something queer about all this."

"All right, have it your way," said Lamb with a yawn. "I'm not your horse now. Have you any old bags in that wagon you don't need?"

The farmer tossed him a couple of sacks which Lamb draped about his long body.

"What am I going to do about the wagon?" demanded the farmer in a gloomy voice.

"Wait here for that horse," said Lamb. "He's sure to come back if he ever existed at all. I begin to fear he was not alone in his cups."

The farmer watched Mr. Lamb trudge off down the road, then seating himself once more on the moist leaves and grass, he thought over the strange events of the day until his head began to swim. Dawn found him still sitting waiting for a horse that would never return.

"Why," Lamb asked himself, as he climbed quietly through one of the lower windows of his own house, "why, if that little russet chap took my silly outburst seriously, does he insist on making a practical joke of it?"

Like a thief he stole upstairs and crawled into bed. Someone was sleeping beside him. Switching on the light he gazed on the face of his neighbour. It was Mr. Leonard Gray. Lamb grinned and quietly got back into bed after turning off the light.

"These rehearsals are getting better and better," he thought as he composed his limbs for slumber.

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