In the year that Francie turns thirteen, war breaks out in Europe and Uncle Willie Flittman’s horse, Drummer, falls in love with Aunt Evy. Drummer drives Uncle Willie’s milk wagon. The horse doesn’t like Uncle Willie. He refuses to cooperate with him and sometimes pees on him. In revenge for the latter, Willie washes the horse in the cold of winter, despite protests from Evy. One day, while Willie leans under the horse’s belly to wash him, Drummer tenses up. Willie thinks that the horse is going to pee on him again and punches him. The horse then lifts a leg and kicks Willie in the head, making Willie unconscious.
Though it will become clearer later in the novel, when Willie leaves his family to pursue music, he resents Drummer because the horse represents Willie’s feeling of being trapped in a life that he doesn’t want. His behavior toward Drummer is cruel because this is the only means, it seems, by which Willie can exact his revenge on a world that won’t respect him or let him live according to his own wishes.
As a result of his concussion, Uncle Willie cannot make his milk deliveries. Aunt Evy has never before driven a horse, but the milk must be delivered, so she gives it a try. She puts on one of her husband’s overcoats, wraps a shawl around her head, and sits in the driver’s seat. She orders Drummer to “git for home.” The horse swings his head back, gives her a loving look, and trots to the stable. When he reaches intersections, he stops and waits for instructions to move on. At the stable, other drivers, washing their wagons, are surprised to see a lady driver. Uncle Willie’s boss tells Evy that he isn’t surprised that the horse kicked Willie, given their relationship. The man figures he’ll have to replace Willie.
At the time, women weren’t normally employed outside of textile mills and driving a horse wagon was solely a man’s work. For this reason, it doesn’t occur to Willie’s boss that he should keep Evy as a driver, though she maintains a good relationship with Drummer and has no difficulty with making the milk deliveries.
Not wanting her husband to lose his job, Evy offers to take over his route while Willie recovers. She argues that, since the milk is delivered in the dark, no one will ever know that a woman is driving the wagon. The boss initially laughs at her request but eventually agrees. He tells her to take along a stable dog for protection against milk thieves. Evy is to report at the stables at 2:00 AM. Aunt Evy becomes the first milkwoman on the route.
Evy unintentionally makes history. She isn’t interested in proving to Willie’s boss that she’s as capable as a man of performing the same job. For her, it’s simply a matter of maintaining her household income, which her family cannot afford to lose.
Aunt Evy does well at the job. The other drivers like her and even say that she is a better worker than Uncle Willie. Like Willie, Evy brings Drummer to the house at dinner time. She takes his oats and warms them because she doesn’t think that cold oats would be appetizing. She also gives Drummer half an apple and a lump of sugar. She washes him at the stable because she thinks it is too cold in the street. When Evy washes Drummer’s chest, the horse rests “his tremendous head on her small shoulder.”
When the other milk wagon drivers see how well Evy makes the deliveries and witness her friendly relationship with Drummer, they are able to look past her gender and see her simply as a competent worker. Unlike Willie, she’s kind to the horse and the horse reciprocates, feeling that he’s safe with Evy.
When Uncle Willie recovers and goes back to work, Drummer refuses to leave the stable with Willie or any other driver. The boss thinks about selling Drummer until he gets the idea of assigning him to an effeminate male driver with a lisp. Drummer is satisfied with this change and goes back out on the milk route. Yet, every day at noon, Drummer turns onto the street where Evy lives and stands in front of her door. Drummer will not go back to the stables until Evy comes out, gives him an apple or a lump of sugar, strokes his nose and calls him a good boy.
The description of the “effeminate male driver with a lisp” may be Smith’s way of describing a homosexual man without identifying him as such directly, given how such things were neither discussed at the time that the book takes place nor in Smith’s own time. The suggestion of the horse being “in love” with Evy isn’t literal; though, it is meant to demonstrate that animals have an awareness of kindness and cruelty, just as people do.