OF MICE AND MEN by John Steinbeck (read online)

OF MICE AND MEN by John Steinbeck

ONE

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to
the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too,
for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight
before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden
foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains,
but on the valley side the water is lined with trees- willows fresh
and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures
the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled,
white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the
sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a
lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come
out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats
are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread
pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer
that come to drink in the dark.
There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a
path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the
deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the
highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low
horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by
many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.

Evening of a hot day started the little wind to moving among the
leaves. The shade climbed up the hills toward the top. On the sand
banks the rabbits sat as quietly as little gray sculptured stones. And
then from the direction of the state highway came the sound of
footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves. The rabbits hurried noiselessly
for cover. A stilted heron labored up into the air and pounded down
river. For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged
from the path and came into the opening by the green pool.
They had walked in single file down the path, and even in the open
one stayed behind the other. Both were dressed in denim trousers and
in denim coats with brass buttons. Both wore black, shapeless hats and
both carried tight blanket rolls slung over their shoulders. The first
man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp,
strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands,
slender arms, a thin and bony nose. Behind him walked his opposite,
a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide,
sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a
little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his
sides, but hung loosely.
The first man stopped short in the clearing, and the follower nearly
ran over him. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat-band with his
forefinger and snapped the moisture off. His huge companion dropped
his blankets and flung himself down and drank from the surface of
the green pool; drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like
a horse. The small man stepped nervously beside him.
“Lennie!” he said sharply. “Lennie, for God’ sakes don’t drink so
much.” Lennie continued to snort into the pool. The small man leaned
over and shook him by the shoulder. “Lennie. You gonna be sick like
you was last night.”
Lennie dipped his whole head under, hat and all, and then he sat
up on the bank and his hat dripped down on his blue coat and ran
down his back. “That’s good,” he said. “You drink some, George. You
take a good big drink.” He smiled happily.
George unslung his bindle and dropped it gently on the bank. “I
ain’t sure it’s good water,” he said. “Looks kinda scummy.”
Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water and wiggled his fingers so
the water arose in little splashes; rings widened across the pool to
the other side and came back again. Lennie watched them go. “Look,
George. Look what I done.”
George knelt beside the pool and drank from his hand with quick
scoops. “Tastes all right,” he admitted. “Don’t really seem to be
running, though. You never oughta drink water when it ain’t running,
Lennie,” he said hopelessly. “You’d drink out of a gutter if you was
thirsty.” He threw a scoop of water into his face and rubbed it
about with his hand, under his chin and around the back of his neck.
Then he replaced his hat, pushed himself back from the river, drew
up his knees and embraced them. Lennie, who had been watching,
imitated George exactly. He pushed himself back, drew up his knees,
embraced them, looked over to George to see whether he had it just
right. He pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way
George’s hat was.
George stared morosely at the water. The rims of his eyes were red
with sun glare. He said angrily, “We could just as well of rode
clear to the ranch if that bastard bus driver knew what he was talkin’
about. ‘Jes’ a little stretch down the highway,’ he says. ‘Jes’ a
little stretch.’ God damn near four miles, that’s what it was!
Didn’t wanta stop at the ranch gate, that’s what. Too God damn lazy to
pull up. Wonder he isn’t too damn good to stop in Soledad at all.
Kicks us out and says ‘Jes’ a little stretch down the road.’ I bet
it was more than four miles. Damn hot day.”
Lennie looked timidly over to him. “George?”
“Yeah, what ya want?”
“Where we goin’, George?”
The little man jerked down the brim of his hat and scowled over at
Lennie. “So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you
again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard!”
“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to
God I did, George.”
“O.K.- O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might
jus’ as well spen’ all my time tellin’ you things and then you
forget ’em, and I tell you again.”
“Tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it didn’t do no good. I
remember about the rabbits, George.”
“The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them
rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so
we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on
Howard Street and watchin’ that blackboard?”
Lennie’s face broke into a delighted smile. “Why sure, George. I
remember that… but… what’d we do then? I remember some girls
come by and you says… you says…”
“The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ in to Murray
and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?”
“Oh, sure, George. I remember that now.” His hands went quickly into
his side coat pockets. He said gently, “George… I ain’t got mine.
I musta lost it.” He looked down at the ground in despair.
“You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ’em here.
Think I’d let you carry your own work card?”
Lennie grinned with relief. “I… I thought I put it in my side
pocket.” His hand went into the pocket again.
George looked sharply at him. “What’d you take outa that pocket?”
“Ain’t a thing in my pocket,” Lennie said cleverly.
“I know there ain’t. You got it in your hand. What you got in your
hand- hidin’ it?”
“I ain’t got nothin’, George. Honest.”
“Come on, give it here.”
Lennie held his closed hand away from George’s direction. “It’s on’y
a mouse, George.”
“A mouse? A live mouse?”
“Uh-uh. Jus’ a dead mouse, George. I didn’t kill it. Honest! I found
it. I found it dead.”
“Give it here!” said George.
“Aw, leave me have it, George.”
“Give it here!”
Lennie’s closed hand slowly obeyed. George took the mouse and
threw it across the pool to the other side, among the brush. “What you
want of a dead mouse, anyways?”
“I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along,” said Lennie.
“Well, you ain’t petting no mice while you walk with me. You
remember where we’re goin’ now?”
Lennie looked startled and then in embarrassment hid his face
against his knees. “I forgot again.”
“Jesus Christ,” George said resignedly. “Well- look, we’re gonna
work on a ranch like the one we come from up north.”
“Up north?”
“In Weed.”
“Oh, sure. I remember. In Weed.”
“That ranch we’re goin’ to is right down there about a quarter mile.
We’re gonna go in an’ see the boss. Now, look- I’ll give him the
work tickets, but you ain’t gonna say a word. You jus’ stand there and
don’t say nothing. If he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we
won’t get no job, but if he sees ya work before he hears ya talk,
we’re set. Ya got that?”
“Sure, George. Sure I got it.”
“O.K. Now when we go in to see the boss, what you gonna do?”
“I… I…” Lennie thought. His face grew tight with thought.
“I… ain’t gonna say nothin’. Jus’ gonna stan’ there.”
“Good boy. That’s swell. You say that over two, three times so you
sure won’t forget it.”
Lennie droned to himself softly, “I ain’t gonna say nothin’… I
ain’t gonna say nothin’… I ain’t gonna say nothin’.”
“O.K.,” said George. “An’ you ain’t gonna do no bad things like
you done in Weed, neither.”
Lennie looked puzzled. “Like I done in Weed?”
“Oh, so ya forgot that too, did ya? Well, I ain’t gonna remind ya,
fear ya do it again.”
A light of understanding broke on Lennie’s face. “They run us outa
Weed,” he exploded triumphantly.
“Run us out, hell,” said George disgustedly. “We run. They was
lookin’ for us, but they didn’t catch us.”
Lennie giggled happily. “I didn’t forget that, you bet.”
George lay back on the sand and crossed his hands under his head,
and Lennie imitated him, raising his head to see whether he was
doing it right. “God, you’re a lot of trouble,” said George. “I
could get along so easy and so nice if I didn’t have you on my tail. I
could live so easy and maybe have a girl.”
For a moment Lennie lay quiet, and then he said hopefully, “We gonna
work on a ranch, George.”
“Awright. You got that. But we’re gonna sleep here because I got a
reason.”
The day was going fast now. Only the tops of the Gabilan Mountains
flamed with the light of the sun that had gone from the valley. A
water snake slipped along on the pool, its head held up like a
little periscope. The reeds jerked slightly in the current. Far off
toward the highway a man shouted something, and another man shouted
back. The sycamore limbs rustled under a little wind that died
immediately.
“George- why ain’t we goin’ on to the ranch and get some supper?
They got supper at the ranch.”
George rolled on his side. “No reason at all for you. I like it
here. Tomorra we’re gonna go to work. I seen thrashin’ machines on the
way down. That means we’ll be buckin’ grain bags, bustin’ a gut.
Tonight I’m gonna lay right here and look up. I like it.”
Lennie got up on his knees and looked down at George. “Ain’t we
gonna have no supper?”
“Sure we are, if you gather up some dead willow sticks. I got
three cans of beans in my bindle. You get a fire ready. I’ll give
you a match when you get the sticks together. Then we’ll heat the
beans and have supper.”
Lennie said, “I like beans with ketchup.”
“Well, we ain’t got no ketchup. You go get wood. An’ don’t you
fool around. It’ll be dark before long.”
Lennie lumbered to his feet and disappeared in the brush. George lay
where he was and whistled softly to himself. There were sounds of
splashings down the river in the direction Lennie had taken. George
stopped whistling and listened. “Poor bastard,” he said softly, and
then went on whistling again.
In a moment Lennie came crashing back through the brush. He
carried one small willow stick in his hand. George sat up.
“Awright,” he said brusquely. “Gi’me that mouse!”
But Lennie made an elaborate pantomime of innocence. “What mouse,
George? I ain’t got no mouse.”
George held out his hand. “Come on. Give it to me. You ain’t puttin’
nothing over.”
Lennie hesitated, backed away, looked wildly at the brush line as
though he contemplated running for his freedom. George said coldly,
“You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?”
“Give you what, George?”
“You know God damn well what. I want that mouse.”
Lennie reluctantly reached into his pocket. His voice broke a
little. “I don’t know why I can’t keep it. It ain’t nobody’s mouse.
I didn’t steal it. I found it lyin’ right beside the road.”
George’s hand remained outstretched imperiously. Slowly, like a
terrier who doesn’t want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie
approached, drew back, approached again. George snapped his fingers
sharply, and at the sound Lennie laid the mouse in his hand.
“I wasn’t doin’ nothing bad with it, George. Jus’ strokin’ it.”
George stood up and threw the mouse as far as he could into the
darkening brush, and then he stepped to the pool and washed his hands.
“You crazy fool. Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where
you went acrost the river to get it?” He heard Lennie’s whimpering cry
and wheeled about. “Blubberin’ like a baby! Jesus Christ! A big guy
like you.” Lennie’s lip quivered and tears started in his eyes. “Aw,
Lennie!” George put his hand on Lennie’s shoulder. “I ain’t takin’
it away jus’ for meanness. That mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and
besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s
fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.”
Lennie sat down on the ground and hung his head dejectedly. “I don’t
know where there is no other mouse. I remember a lady used to give ’em
to me- ever’ one she got. But that lady ain’t here.”
George scoffed. “Lady, huh? Don’t even remember who that lady was.
That was your own Aunt Clara. An’ she stopped givin’ ’em to ya. You
always killed ’em.”
Lennie looked sadly up at him. “They was so little,” he said,
apologetically. “I’d pet ’em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers
and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead- because
they was so little.
“I wisht we’d get the rabbits pretty soon, George. They ain’t so
little.”
“The hell with the rabbits. An’ you ain’t to be trusted with no live
mice. Your Aunt Clara give you a rubber mouse and you wouldn’t have
nothing to do with it.”
“It wasn’t no good to pet,” said Lennie.
The flame of the sunset lifted from the mountaintops and dusk came
into the valley, and a half darkness came in among the willows and the
sycamores. A big carp rose to the surface of the pool, gulped air
and then sank mysteriously into the dark water again, leaving widening
rings on the water. Overhead the leaves whisked again and little puffs
of willow cotton blew down and landed on the pool’s surface.
“You gonna get that wood?” George demanded. “There’s plenty right up
against the back of that sycamore. Floodwater wood. Now you get it.”
Lennie went behind the tree and brought out a litter of dried leaves
and twigs. He threw them in a heap on the old ash pile and went back
for more and more. It was almost night now. A dove’s wings whistled
over the water. George walked to the fire pile and lighted the dry
leaves. The flame cracked up among the twigs and fell to work.
George undid his bindle and brought out three cans of beans. He
stood them about the fire, close in against the blaze, but not quite
touching the flame.
“There’s enough beans for four men,” George said.
Lennie watched him from over the fire. He said patiently, “I like
’em with ketchup.”
“Well, we ain’t got any,” George exploded. “Whatever we ain’t got,
that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so
easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all,
and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and
go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house
all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order
any damn thing I could think of. An’ I could do all that every damn
month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or
shoot pool.” Lennie knelt and looked over the fire at the angry
George. And Lennie’s face was drawn with terror. “An’ whatta I got,”
George went on furiously. “I got you! You can’t keep a job and you
lose me ever’ job I get. Jus’ keep me shovin’ all over the country all
the time. An’ that ain’t the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad
things and I got to get you out.” His voice rose nearly to a shout.
“You crazy son-of-a-bitch. You keep me in hot water all the time.”
He took on the elaborate manner of little girls when they are
mimicking one another. “Jus’ wanted to feel that girl’s dress- jus’
wanted to pet it like it was a mouse- Well, how the hell did she
know you jus’ wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on
like it was a mouse. She yells and we got to hide in a irrigation
ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us, and we got to sneak out in the
dark and get outa the country. All the time somethin’ like that- all
the time. I wisht I could put you in a cage with about a million
mice an’ let you have fun.” His anger left him suddenly. He looked
across the fire at Lennie’s anguished face, and then he looked
ashamedly at the flames.
It was quite dark now, but the fire lighted the trunks of the
trees and the curving branches overhead. Lennie crawled slowly and
cautiously around the fire until he was close to George. He sat back
on his heels. George turned the bean cans so that another side faced
the fire. He pretended to be unaware of Lennie so close beside him.
“George,” very softly. No answer. “George!”
“Whatta you want?”
“I was only foolin’, George. I don’t want no ketchup. I wouldn’t eat
no ketchup if it was right here beside me.”
“If it was here, you could have some.”
“But I wouldn’t eat none, George. I’d leave it all for you. You
could cover your beans with it and I wouldn’t touch none of it.”
George still stared morosely at the fire. “When I think of the swell
time I could have without you, I go nuts. I never get no peace.”
Lennie still knelt. He looked off into the darkness across the
river. “George, you want I should go away and leave you alone?”
“Where the hell could you go?”
“Well, I could. I could go off in the hills there. Some place I’d
find a cave.”
“Yeah? How’d you eat? You ain’t got sense enough to find nothing
to eat.”
“I’d find things, George. I don’t need no nice food with ketchup.
I’d lay out in the sun and nobody’d hurt me. An’ if I foun’ a mouse, I
could keep it. Nobody’d take it away from me.”
George looked quickly and searchingly at him. “I been mean, ain’t
I?”
“If you don’ want me I can go off in the hills an’ find a cave. I
can go away any time.”
“No- look! I was jus’ foolin’, Lennie. ‘Cause I want you to stay
with me. Trouble with mice is you always kill ’em.” He paused. “Tell
you what I’ll do, Lennie. First chance I get I’ll give you a pup.
Maybe you wouldn’t kill it. That’d be better than mice. And you
could pet it harder.”
Lennie avoided the bait. He had sensed his advantage. “If you
don’t want me, you only jus’ got to say so, and I’ll go off in those
hills right there- right up in those hills and live by myself. An’ I
won’t get no mice stole from me.”
George said, “I want you to stay with me, Lennie. Jesus Christ,
somebody’d shoot you for a coyote if you was by yourself. No, you stay
with me. Your Aunt Clara wouldn’t like you running off by yourself,
even if she is dead.”
Lennie spoke craftily, “Tell me- like you done before.”
“Tell you what?”
“About the rabbits.”
George snapped, “You ain’t gonna put nothing over on me.”
Lennie pleaded, “Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George. Like
you done before.”
“You get a kick outa that, don’t you? Awright, I’ll tell you, and
then we’ll eat our supper….”
George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically
as though he had said them many times before. “Guys like us, that work
on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no fambly.
They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake
and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing
you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t
got nothing to look ahead to.”
Lennie was delighted. “That’s it- that’s it. Now tell how it is with
us.”
George went on. “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got
somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit
in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else
to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody
gives a damn. But not us.”
Lennie broke in. “But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you
to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s
why.” He laughed delightedly. “Go on now, George!”
“You got it by heart. You can do it yourself.”
“No, you. I forget some a’ the things. Tell about how it’s gonna
be.”
“O.K. Someday- we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna
have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs
and-”
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted. “An’ have
rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the
garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the
winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like
you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.”
“Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it.”
“No… you tell it. It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on… George.
How I get to tend the rabbits.”
“Well,” said George, “we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a
rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we’ll just
say the hell with goin’ to work, and we’ll build up a fire in the
stove and set around it an’ listen to the rain comin’ down on the
roof- Nuts!” He took out his pocket knife. “I ain’t got time for no
more.” He drove his knife through the top of one of the bean cans,
sawed out the top and passed the can to Lennie. Then he opened a
second can. From his side pocket he brought out two spoons and
passed one of them to Lennie.
They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans and chewed
mightily. A few beans slipped out of the side of Lennie’s mouth.
George gestured with his spoon. “What you gonna say tomorrow when
the boss asks you questions?”
Lennie stopped chewing and swallowed. His face was concentrated.
“I… I ain’t gonna… say a word.”
“Good boy! That’s fine, Lennie! Maybe you’re gettin’ better. When we
get the coupla acres I can let you tend the rabbits all right.
‘Specially if you remember as good as that.”
Lennie choked with pride. “I can remember,” he said.
George motioned with his spoon again. “Look, Lennie. I want you to
look around here. You can remember this place, can’t you? The ranch is
about a quarter mile up that way. Just follow the river?”
“Sure,” said Lennie. “I can remember this. Di’n’t I remember about
not gonna say a word?”
“‘Course you did. Well, look. Lennie- if you jus’ happen to get in
trouble like you always done before, I want you to come right here an’
hide in the brush.”
“Hide in the brush,” said Lennie slowly.
“Hide in the brush till I come for you. Can you remember that?”
“Sure I can, George. Hide in the brush till you come.”
“But you ain’t gonna get in no trouble, because if you do, I won’t
let you tend the rabbits.” He threw his empty bean can off into the
brush.
“I won’t get in no trouble, George. I ain’t gonna say a word.”
“O.K. Bring your bindle over here by the fire. It’s gonna be nice
sleepin’ here. Lookin’ up, and the leaves. Don’t build up no more
fire. We’ll let her die down.”
They made their beds on the sand, and as the blaze dropped from
the fire the sphere of light grew smaller; the curling branches
disappeared and only a faint glimmer showed where the tree trunks
were. From the darkness Lennie called, “George- you asleep?”
“No. Whatta you want?”
“Let’s have different color rabbits, George.”
“Sure we will,” George said sleepily. “Red and blue and green
rabbits, Lennie. Millions of ’em.”
“Furry ones, George, like I seen in the fair in Sacramento.”
“Sure, furry ones.”
“‘Cause I can jus’ as well go away, George, an’ live in a cave.”
“You can jus’ as well go to hell,” said George. “Shut up now.”
The red light dimmed on the coals. Up the hill from the river a
coyote yammered, and a dog answered from the other side of the stream.
The sycamore leaves whispered in a little night breeze.

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