Muleskinner Blues

CB Bassity, © 1990, All Rights Reserved

Mr. Jansen, thinking out loud and searching for a writing topic, threw out the word muleskinner. "Does anyone in here know anything about mules?" he asked.

"I drove a mule," I said, although really, nearly the opposite was true. In 1976 in the hills of Rossie, N.Y., a town so small that they closed our post office--we didn't generate enough mail--I decided that a mule would be just the thing. Having long been captivated by horses--I had one at the time--and needing something I could harness for farm and general work purposes, I became intrigued with a neighbor across town who owned a team of mules. Phil extolled the virtues of mules, explaining their greater stamina and intelligence compared to horses. Sure they're known to be a little stubborn, but the trick is to harness that obstinacy, and you've got an animal that will go anywhere and do anything despite all obstacles. That proved partially true for me. I bought an animal that went anywhere and did anything--but mostly without me.

There are mules and then there are mules. I bought one with a streak of fierce independence that was further fired by my lack of experience. But she was an outlaw to begin with. Blondie was a tall, handsome, buckskin mare. She had a brown cross on her withers, the long line extending from the end of her mane to her mid-back, the short perpendicular line going down each shoulder. I think that cross helped convince me to buy her. A word or two by a good horse-trader attaching significance to the mark probably sealed our fate. For $300 she was mine.

I suppose someone more astute than myself might have recognized and taken heed of the first experience I had with Blondie, as an omen of what was to come. But I possessed exactly the same dogged nature as she, so I immediately put it behind me to focus on our future together as a team. On the day I bought her, when she'd been tied in my barn for only an hour or two, one of my goats ran by and startled Blondie, just as I was passing behind her to leave the barn. My skittish mule reacted instinctively, sending a rear hoof at lightning speed in the direction of the noise behind her. That hoof crashed into my knee with a sound like a baseball bat hitting a pop fly. Thinking myself stoic, rather than a fool, I didn't break stride, although I modified it some as I hobbled to the house to pour myself a small glass of bourbon in celebration of my latest venture. I would conquer new worlds with harnessed mule-power at my disposal.

During the first few days of my time with Blondie, I did little work with her. Having nothing to hitch her to, I merely practiced putting on her harness, and driving her around the yard at a walk. We established no rapport. Whenever I came near, Blondie flattened her long ears back against her head and watched me warily. Her rebellious attitude never wavered. Any attempts on my part to win her trust and affection with extra grain, soothing words, and liberal use of a curry-comb were met with unrelenting contempt. Each time I harnessed her, those ears laid back and her cold eyes spoke of war.

Despite Blondie's complete lack of enthusiasm, mine, in contrast, could not be contained. I envisioned many a productive workday, hauling timber out of the woods and such, so the practice of harnessing her held great promise. Once the collar was settled in front of her shoulders, I would hoist the bulky weight of oily leather harness onto her back and fasten it, beginning with the brass-plated hames, which buckled to the collar. The last step was pulling her tail through the breeching--if she hated being touched, she absolutely despised having her tail handled, as if that were some ultimate indignity. After the harness, I would slip the bridle, which hung separately, over her head. Then the lines, some twenty feet of reins that lay coiled on the body of the harness, would have to be clipped to the bridle bit.

One morning, several days after I bought Blondie, our friends Rob and Beverly, came to visit. We talked weather and gossip, but I had only one thing in mind--my excellent new draft animal. Rob was skeptical of my claims that my mule could do it all. He kept laughing and saying, "A mule!?" I realized the only thing left was to demonstrate the control I had over Blondie, to parade her around, and show him that here was a fine animal, a valuable asset.

"Come on," I said, "I'll harness her and drive her around the yard."

So out to the barn we went, Rob chuckling derisively at the ungainly blonde creature I brought out. Blondie looked at me and my intrusive company and flattened her ears back, and kept them there as I harnessed her. She stamped and snorted her usual diatribe.

It was winter and we had a foot or more of snow on the ground. I led Blondie into the snowy yard and took my place behind her, holding the lines. Strangely, when I snapped the lines, she didn't respond. I snapped them again--nothing. I told Rob, "That's odd, usually she's very responsive." He wasn't surprised; this was exactly what he expected of a mule.

But this was not stubbornness. Something wasn't right. No matter what I did with the lines, Blondie ignored me. She had a sensitive mouth, and usually any movement of my lines caused a begrudging reaction.

Then Blondie began moving, slowly at first. Then lifting her head high, she walked toward the road in front of the house. I yanked on one line and then the other, but she wouldn't turn. What the hell's come over her, I wondered; how can she ignore all my tugging at her bit?

Then it hit me; I knew what the problem was. Busy talking to Rob while harnessing her, I had forgotten to clip the lines to her bridle; they were fastened to the hames on her collar, the part of the harness that pulls the load. Blondie had her head free to do as she pleased, and rather than driving her, I was hitched behind as a load. I had no control over her. I dropped one line and hurried forward to grab Blondie's bridle, but she turned in the other direction, and I could only grab the line and follow. "Whoa!" I called, but my commotion behind her only urged her on.

I glanced back over my shoulder at Rob, who was enjoying the show. "Hey, she really does a nice job for you," he called out, between bursts of laughter. I wanted to explain the problem, but Blondie picked up her pace, and I was forced to trot along behind her.

Once she found she could go where she wanted, Blondie headed up the road. She moved at an easy run now. Dressed in a bulky, wool plaid jacket and heavy black work boots, I lumbered along behind her the best I could. Never graceful under any circumstances, I made quite a scene, clomping through the snow behind my liberated mule. Out on the road, with it's solid, snow-packed surface, I leaned back, set my legs, and began to ski on my size-twelve, five-pound pair of logger's-style work boots. It was an effort on my part to save my strength and wear down my mule. Blondie, however, was in excellent condition, and considering that she was born and bred for this kind of activity, I hardly slowed her down. I was a light load for an animal her size.

I looked back one last time at Rob, who was nearly disabled with laughter at the end of my driveway. Who could blame him? The scene in his eyes was that of a runaway mule pulling an arctic water skier--there were even two little rooster tails of snow shooting up behind my big, flat boot-heels. Money can't buy better entertainment than that.

As we started around a curve in the road, I tightened both my grip on the lines and my resolve. They say it takes a mule drive a mule, and I was determined to stay with Blondie. I would not let her triumph over me, which would teach her to defy me even more--training she hardly needed. I could easily have dropped the lines and let her run, but I wanted to be there when she stopped, to show her: there's no escaping this guy; you might as well give in and work for him.

We lived at the end of a little-traveled dirt road, so there was no likelihood of meeting a car or pickup. Traffic was rare in the winter, maybe five or ten vehicles in a week - and half of them were lost. (At the sound of a motor or the dog barking, my wife and I would jump to the window to witness the event. The earnest watchword--traffic!-- would alert either of us who might otherwise miss the snow-muffled sound of an approaching vehicle.)

Skiing over the rough road soon wore down my legs, so I dropped down and skidded along on my back and sides, like some red plaid sack of potatoes, alternately rolling from one side to the other to relieve my shoulders as they bumped and pounded the snowy road. We traveled almost a mile--possibly the longest mile I've ever known--the mule enjoying a brisk run and me determined to hang on. But the effort became too much, and, exhausted, I had to let her go.

I shook and brushed the snow off my clothes, turned, and trudged homeward, disgusted. Had I been a cartoon character just then, the thought balloon over my head would have been a dark puff of smoke filled with the upper case symbols on the top row of a keyboard.

I hadn't gone far toward home when Rob and Beverly and my wife Marcia met me with the pickup. We found Blondie about two miles from home at the neighbor's place. (I was destined to find Blondie many a time at various neighbors' places.) Our neighbor, Frank, on seeing a harnessed mule ambling toward town, trailing her lines, walked out to the road to investigate. Blondie, who by this time had run out her defiance, put up little resistance. She was standing quietly, tied to a tree when we arrived. I wasn't eager to explain the situation to Frank, so I brushed it off, alluding to Blondie's skittish nature and pretending she had bolted while being harnessed.

There was no hope of impressing Rob at this point and I was weary enough not to see any appeal in walking Blondie home, so I hitched her to the back of my pickup and led her back to the barn. There was no celebrating with bourbon this day. The months to come, about twelve of them, brought many more opportunities for me to cuss that beast before I finally sold her. If it's true that adversity builds character, I grew to a mighty stature that year.

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