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Two traveling laborers, George Milton and Lennie Small, are on their way to a job loading barley at a California ranch. It is a Friday evening, and they decide to spend the night out in the open along the banks of the Salinas River before reporting to the ranch the next morning.
As the two men begin discussing their plans, the contrasts between them become apparent. George is small and quick and does all of the thinking and talking for the pair. Lennie is big and slow witted. Lennie follows George's words and actions like a younger brother or a faithful dog.
The two men have been traveling together for some time, and Lennie seems always to get them into trouble. Lennie likes to pet soft things. These things range from the dead mouse George takes away from Lennie in the first scene of the book, to the soft dresses of young women. We learn that Lennie's touching a girl's dress forced them to flee from their last job in the town of Weed.
Over a dinner of canned beans, George fills Lennie in on their new jobs and sets down some rules. Lennie is not to say anything; he is to avoid trouble; and he is to come back to the riverbank, hide, and wait for George should trouble arise. Lennie then asks George to repeat his explanation of why the two men are different from other migrant workers and how they will have a farm of their own someday on which Lennie will get to tend rabbits. George starts out his explanation in a bored tone, but little by little his enthusiasm grows with Lennie's. The two men go to sleep in a happy mood within a peaceful natural setting.
The next morning they appear at the ranch where they are greeted by an old man named Candy and his old dog. Candy fills them in on the ranch and its personalities. Then their boss comes into the bunk house. He is angry that George and Lennie weren't around for the morning work shift. George lies that they were given wrong directions by a bus driver. George continues to answer all of the questions the boss asks, even those directed toward Lennie. The boss is suspicious. When Lennie does repeat one of George's comments in his unintelligent way, George glares at him and later scolds him.
The boss' son Curley, a quick-tempered bully, comes into the bunk house looking for his father. Curley questions the new men and tries to pick a fight with Lennie. George is nervous about the potential dangers that Curley presents and warns Lennie to stay away from him. He repeats his instructions for Lennie to hide in the brush along the riverbank if there should be any trouble.
In walks Curley's wife, supposedly looking for her husband but really attempting to greet the new men and show off her good looks. George and Candy put her down, but Lennie defends her. George warns Lennie to avoid her totally. Lennie also seems apprehensive now and wants to leave right away. "It's mean here," he says. George tells him they will leave as soon as they have a little more of a stake together with which to purchase their own farm.
Slim, the authority figure of the bunk house, walks in next. He is interested in the fact that George and Lennie travel together, a rare situation among ranch hands. Slim also announces that his dog has had a litter of puppies. Slim and another ranch hand, Carlson, discuss the idea of killing Candy's old dog and giving him one of the new puppies instead. George agrees to ask Slim if Lennie can have one of the puppies.