Surefooted Sweethearts

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

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.

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.

"Will he live to be old?" I asked, following Jonathan over to the fence. "I hope so," Jonathan said. "Mules live a long time. My wife's brother's mule is 30 years old."

I couldn't imagine an animal being that old. "Can he work?"

" 'Course he can work," said Jonathan. "When he can't, he'll quit. Mules is jest naturally smart that way. Can't run 'em too hard, can't work 'em too hard. That's why they got a bad reputation 'bout being stubborn. All that means is that they can figure out if something's gonna hurt, and they won't do it. Mule gets caught in barbed wire, he'll stay still 'til somebody come to help. A horse will get hisself all tangled up and cut up.

"Folks that can't work mules don't give mules credit," he said. A mule ain't gonna cross a bridge less'n he figures he's safe. And he ain't gonna work so hard in hot weather that he gets sick. Folks that try to make 'em are the same folks than can't figure 'em out."

"Well, if George Washington didn't bring 'em over here, where did they come from?"

"Do you mean where do they hail from or where do they come from?" asked Jonathan. He'd tried to explain about mules being born a dozen times before, but I still didn't understand it.

"Tell me again," I said. I had a reason for needing to know. I wanted my own mule.

"Mules don't reproduce themselves. So, if you cross a male jackass with a female horse, you get a mule, or a John mule. If you cross a male horse with a female jackass, called a Jenny, you get a female mule called a Hinny." He walked down to where he'd stopped plowing and I followed him.

"Sometimes, you can't tell much difference between a Hinny and a Jenny. Some mules look more like horses, and some more like mules. Remember, a male donkey is a jackass and a female donkey is a Jenny. What'd I tell you?"

"That only a ninny can't tell the difference between a Hinny and a Jenny." I repeated.

My name was being called from the back porch. "Judge isn't down there, is he?" Aunt Bardie asked.

"No'm," I replied. "He knows better."

Judge was my uncle's liver-and-white Brittany spaniel, and he wasn't called Judge for nothing. He was a smart dog, and once he'd made Joshua's acquaintance, gave him a wide berth.

It's a known fact that mules do not like dogs. Sometimes they get used to them, but Joshua visited a lot of places and whenever he came, most folks knew to put up the dogs. Judge never came near. Once was enough for him. As Jonathan said, "A horse kicks. A mule aims and then kicks."

Joshua's feet were unshod. Unlike a horse, a mule's feet are not so brittle, and mules that work on soft ground don't need shoes. Regular trimming keeps their feet just fine. Their feet are boxy and small, which is why they are so surefooted. Their legs are short and sturdy.

Joshua whuffled.

"We'd best get back to work," said Jonathan, going over to put the harness back on his mule. He always took it off at noon and evening to let Joshua feed and take water.

"I guess I better go up to the house," I said.

"If you don't, my wife Virgie'll be down here to get you," Jonathan said.

At the dinner table, I decided to approach the subject of mules.

"How come we don't have any mules?" I asked.

Uncle Doyle was buttering a corn bread muffin. " `Cause I lack two of the qualities necessary for working mules," he said. "Patience and fortitude."

"Well," I said, "I think they're beautiful."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said my uncle.

"Jonathan said that mules helped win the war. He said that we sent mules to England and that without 'em, Hitler would have won."

"He's probably right," said my uncle. "I do know that the Army's been using mules since the Revolutionary War. Draft mules can do what a truck can't do. Why all this interest in mules?"

"That's what I want for my birthday," I said.

"A mule?" said Uncle Doyle, helping himself to blackberry cobbler.

"Yessir," I replied. "A mule."

"How old will you be on your birthday?" he asked.

"Eleven," I replied. "In November."

"Well, I'll tell you what," he said. "If you still want one in 10 years, I'll give you one."

"Ten years? I'll be old in 10 years."

"I kind of doubt that," he said. "But I don't think you'll be wantin' to go to proms behind a mule. Think about that."

I didn't want to think about that. I wanted to think about mules. I wanted to think about their soft, floppy ears and beautiful eyes. I wanted a mule of my own.

"How about if I save my allowance?" I asked.

"You can't save that much money," said my aunt. "Besides, you won't be here all the time. What would you do with a mule back in Savannah?"

She was right. I hadn't thought about that part. I don't think they let you keep mules in courtyards. "I reckon that's a no, huh?"

"I reckon so," said Uncle Doyle.

BUT I never got over my love of mules. And evidently, a lot of other people feel the same way.

Melvin Bradley wrote in "Jack Stock and Mules in Missouri," "Mules farmed our land, harvested our timber, drained our swamps, and built our roads. Mules took us to church and to war."

The mule population peaked in the United States in 1920 when there were an estimated 5.4 million mules at work, mostly on farms. They have decreased every year since. But mules are still a much-loved animal. They work in state parks, on farms, in Amish country, and in the South and West.

Some interest in mules has waned as people try to forget their rural roots or are uninterested or embarrassed by what appears to be an animal connected with rural poverty.

Yet today there are some 150 mule clubs across the country. There is an American Donkey and Mule Society located in Texas. Mule shows and races bring mule lovers together to promote these wonderful animals.

The father of our country imported animals that were known as "an excellent race of mules ... a race of extraordinary goodness." The best mules in the world descended from the Andalusian Ass, and up until the time of George Washington, their export had been prohibited. But Washington knew the right people and was given two fine Spanish Jacks by Charles III, "King of Castile, Leon, Aragon, and Navarre."

The first mule, named "Royal Jack," arrived in December of 1785. That year, the estate livestock inventory at Mount Vernon listed 130 working horses and no mule. By 1799, the year that Washington died, the count was 25 horses and 58 mules.

Over time, mules have become as American as apple pie. They have truly taken us to church and to war. And back home. `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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