The farmhand who worked like a mule

Fitz and Startz were the mules that pulled the surrey ride at the little fun farm I ran. The mules did not like pulling the surrey; perhaps it offended their sense of dignity. They appeared bitterly resentful toward anyone who would have anything to do with such a thing, which included me and every one of the teenage kids who worked at the farm.

Cleaning the mules' pen was the only really unpleasant job on the place. The mules bit - arms, hands, legs, anything they could get at. If you turned your back to them it was unlikely that you would enjoy sitting down anytime soon.

It took four of us to get the harnesses and bridles on the mules each morning since they apparently spent each night devising new strategies to discourage it. It took four of us to walk them to the surrey: one at each mule's head and one at the rump. Each mule could drag a single person wherever it cared to, and would, and had.

Fitz and Startz would allow their collars to be clipped to the singletree at the front, but then would swing their rear ends around until they faced the surrey in a tangle of harness straps. At this point we could have used some extra help. In case you are ever asked, mules can grin.

Such was the state of things on the day I ran a help-wanted ad to replace an employee who had found a better-paying gig elsewhere. Only 16-year-old Bobby showed up. Small and slim, he simply nodded and remained impassively silent when I said good morning. I soon learned that he never spoke when a nod would do, and that he generally considered nodding to be chatty.

There was nothing surly or slow-witted in his odd manner. In fact there was a pleasantness about him, and real intelligence showed in his eyes. It's just that he seemed to be somewhere else, as though he saw things the rest of us didn't, and liked what he saw better. I wondered whether he allowed enough of himself to remain in the here-and-now to keep the animal pens clean, which, as the newest employee, would be his job.

I showed him where the push brooms and scoop shovels were stored, and he walked off. I wasn't sure if he intended to clean pens or leave, until I actually saw him ambling along with broom and scoop at his only speed: deliberate. There were a lot of pens, and it didn't look as though he would get to all of them in a week, much less the several times a day that were needed. The pens were cleaned often because the families who came out from the city to feed the baby animals were not interested in the rest of the digestive process. So I was not encouraged when I saw that Bobby swept and scooped at the same adagio tempo he used when walking.

As my lumberjack grandfather would have said, "I couldn't have been wronger if I'd burned my shirt." The pens were never so clean. Within a couple of hours it was evident that Bobby got more done, and twice as well, than anyone else had in the same job. Though I'd kept an eye on him, I had no idea how or when it had happened. I decided there were certain mysteries I was never to understand.

Then I remembered that I had neglected to warn him of the mules' attitude problem.

I hustled down the hill to tell him, but I was too late. He was scooping their pen with his back to them. I could imagine the mules' teeth just an inch away from delivering a patented double backside whammy.

Instead, they raised their big heads, one on each side of Bobby, and ... nuzzled him.

Other impossible things happened around Bobby. From the day he started at the farm, anything he got near that needed attention was taken care of. I can only assume he took care of them himself, though I seldom caught him in the act.

Came the day when four of us were getting pumped up to hitch the mules, and Bobby took it upon himself to do it. I happened to be looking at the right time and watched as he led Fitz and Startz out of the pen by their halters, with their harness draped over his shoulders. I had tried that once; but the mules had grinned, gotten on opposite sides of me, and yanked the leads away so fast that I'd gotten rope burns.

Bobby wasn't even gripping the leads, but had them draped over the palms of his open hands. Incredibly, the mules followed him with their heads cocked forward as though in happy anticipation. Bobby turned at the surrey and just stood.

Finally, Fitz tilted his head questioningly. Bobby seemed to give two almost imperceptible nods, and the mules backed into place. They stood there untethered, as though the whole thing was their idea, until Bobby had them harnessed and hitched.

When he was done, he strolled back to his broom and shovel, eyes focused out somewhere past Mars. Although not a word passed between us about it, he was our lone mule-skinner for the rest of the season.

After that summer I did not see Bobby for 22 years. I was remodeling my house and ran into him at the only lumber yard that had the specialty item I needed. I'd never visited that yard before. Way down at the other end of an aisle, where the lumber was stacked in bins 50 feet high, stood an unmoving figure, eyes focused on infinity. When I got to him, I said, "Bobby?"

He nodded. Or not. It was Bobby, all right. I asked questions and learned that he was in charge of the yard, enjoyed the work, was married, and had two kids. This took less than two minutes and seemed to take place without his saying a word.

Two men walked up. "Stair treads," one of them said to Bobby. "We don't want that splintery thin stuff, but oak's too expensive. Any suggestions?" He waited for Bobby to answer, then tilted his head questioningly.

Bobby turned and ambled off. The men followed, their heads cocked forward in anticipation. Bobby stopped and faced the bins that held the five varieties of stair tread the yard handled. He gave two almost imperceptible nods. One of the men climbed a ladder to the second level of bins and began handing down five-fourths roundnose yellow pine as though the whole thing was their idea, while Bobby strolled away.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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