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Surefooted Sweethearts

To me, mules were nothing like their reputation, and I wanted one for my own

By Sara Harrel Banks / January 12, 1993

JONATHAN'S mule-drawn wagon arriving at the house was as sure a sign of spring as the first robins. He'd come to plow on a day when the wild plum trees showed tiny white blossoms and "seven sisters" narcissus honeyed the air. Jonathan, who owned the finest mule in Wilcox County, Alabama, plowed small fields for folks who had a bit of property but were not really farmers. The day he arrived at my uncle's house was special and one to be enjoyed.

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First you'd hear the rumble of the cattle gap at the foot of the drive. Then the wagon would climb the graveled drive through the pecan orchard, past the house, and down into the meadow that was on the far side of the scuppernong arbor.

Each spring, Jonathan showed up driving Joshua, the mule that everybody else said was the "stubbornest mule in the entire county." But according to Jonathan, there was no such thing as a stubborn mule. Just smart ones that refused to do things that didn't come naturally to them.

Before the sun was high, Jonathan was walking behind Joshua, the plow cutting into the rich Alabama soil that was the color of heart pine. Mockingbirds followed in the wake of the plow, searching for the earthworms newly exposed to the air. I watched from the wagon that was parked in the shade of the big oak tree.

"How come you named him Joshua?" I once asked.

"Cause Joshua fought the battle of Jericho," replied Jonathan. "And I fight it every time I plows a field."

Jonathan knew everything there was to know about mules and how they worked. Or didn't.

"The father of our country brought mules to the United States of America," I told Jonathan one day, proud of my newly gained knowledge of mules.

"So they say," he said, sitting next to me in the wagon while we ate cat-head biscuits filled with syrup. "But it ain't so. They was mules here before that."

"Well, I read it in a book," I said righteously. "So it must be true."

"Should be," said Jonathan softly. His voice seemed to come from somewhere low in his throat and kind of vibrated. "I expect mules was here before the president, though. How you think folks plowed before all those folks signed the Declaration?"

I hadn't given it much thought. "I don't know."

"Well, folks was raisin' cotton for a long time even before that and I don't reckon they was using horses, do you?" He unwrapped a piece of caramel cake with the sweet, creamy icing sticking to the waxed paper. "I didn't know I was eatin' for two when Virgie packed this lunch for me in your kitchen."

"I don't have to have any cake," I said quickly. I didn't want him to make me go home. If my folks thought I was in the way, they'd make me leave. I loved sitting in the wagon under the trees while Joshua made patterns in the earth.

Unhitched from the wagon, Joshua was cropping hay nearby. Jonathan never worried about Joshua eating too much while he was working. Unlike a horse, a mule knows when to quit eating and drinking. Joshua flicked a long ear as if he knew we were talking about him. His coat shone in the sun, and in the bright spring light you could see the darker stripe that made a cross on his shoulder.

"How old is Joshua?" I asked. Jonathan had told me, but I'd forgotten.

"Younger than me and older than you, but younger than you and me," Jonathan replied. Well, that didn't mean much. I knew Jonathan was old; he was at least as old as my daddy and that seemed ancient.