The Finish Of Patsy Barnes by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature

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.

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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 her.

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 on.”

“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.

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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 of his.

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 putty soon.”

“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 to exercise.”

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 room.

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 considerable earnings.

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.

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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’, that’s all.”

The crowd looked in at the slim-legged, raw-boned horse, and walked away laughing.

“The fools!” muttered the stranger. “If I could ride myself I’d show ’em!”

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, an’–“

“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 seen before.”

“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.

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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?” he asked.

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 therewith.

“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.

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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.

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