Summary and Analysis: "Spotted Horses"
The opening of this section reveals Mrs. Armstid's inability to act. The contrast between her and Mrs. Littlejohn is significant in that Mrs. Littlejohn has always been in complete control of her life and acts firmly and determinedly. Mrs. Armstid is inconsistent and indecisive, but we cannot severely fault her for this, given the abusive relationship she is in.
The meeting between the two women is comic only in how Ratliff reports it. Mrs. Littlejohn tells Mrs. Armstid that Flem Snopes is back in town, and that she can now ask him for the five dollars, to which Mrs. Armstid asks apprehensively, "You reckon he'll give it to me?" Although Mrs. Littlejohn does not believe that Flem will refund the money, she hopes that Mrs. Armstid's asking for it might shame him.
Throughout this conversation, Ratliff notes that Mrs. Littlejohn washes dishes "like a man, like they was made out of iron." The women's conversation is sprinkled with Ratliff's observations about the dish washing. As Mrs. Armstid whines about whether or not Flem will return her money, Ratliff records Mrs. Littlejohn's impatience by noting how she treats the dishes: "It sounded like she was throwing the dishes at one another," and "Then it sounded like Mrs. Littlejohn taken up all the dishes and throwed them at the cookstove." Finally, Mrs. Littlejohn loses all patience. She tells Mrs. Armstid that she would give the money to Henry to buy another horse-if only she could be sure that this time the horse would kill him.
The scene shifts to the front door of the country store, where Flem sits whittling. The image of him carving wood recalls that Mrs. Armstid has constantly been referred to as being made "outen wood." In this final scene, we will see her being whittled away metaphorically by Flem.
For Flem's last triumph, he is surrounded by other Snopeses, including Eck Snopes, I. O. Snopes, and Ad Snopes. Many of I. O. Snopes' actions resemble animal behavior: "He had been rubbing his back up and down on the door, but he stopped now, watching Flem like a pointing dog"; and "I. O. cackled, like a hen, slapping his legs with both hands." When Ratliff sees Mrs. Armstid coming up the road, he begins to taunt Flem about the transaction with Mrs. Armstid. His comment, "Well, if a man can't take care of himself in a trade, he can't blame the man that trims him," emphasizes one important aspect of literature that deals with con artists: People who allow themselves to be tricked or gypped deserve what they get.
Ratliff, who is sympathetic to Mrs. Armstid's downtrodden state, points out that Henry never bought a horse, and that the Texan told Mrs. Armstid to get her money back from Flem. When the men become aware of the approaching Mrs. Armstid, I. O. Snopes suggests that Flem leave by the back door, but he does not. When she addresses him about the money, "Flem looked up. The knife never stopped. It went on trimming . . ." He tells her that the Texan took the money with him, and that there is nothing he can do. Another pitiful entreaty by Mrs. Armstid elicits the same response.
As Mrs. Armstid turns to leave, Flem tells her to wait a minute. He goes inside the store, and we assume that Flem has had a change of heart and will return the five dollars. However, he returns with a small sack of candy, which he did not pay for, and gives it to her, saying, "A little sweetening for the chaps." Our surprise at his audacious, incorrigible behavior is beyond description.
Ratliff reports that as Mrs. Armstid leaves, she "looked like a old snag still standing up and moving along on a high water." She might be "still standing," but obviously she is a defeated woman. Four times in this section Ratliff characterizes her as "not looking at nothing." Her faded sunbonnet presents an image of a woman whose spirit is worn away.
Meantime, Flem opens his knife, resumes his whittling, and spits after her. The wood imagery, his whittling, and finally his spitting emphasize Flem's despicable and uncaring nature. The Snopes kin, especially I. O. Snopes, are proud of Flem's ability to con people, and V. K. Ratliff is simply puzzled.