The Mule on the Farm

On mules we find two legs behind,
and two we find before.
We stand behind before we find
what the two behind be for.
When we’re behind the two behind
We find what these be for;
So stand before the two behind
and behind the two before.

The mule, that hybrid product derived from a cross of a horse mare with a male donkey or jackass (jack for short), played a tremendous role in the building of this country. I will not go into the genetic background of the mule, nor will I delve in to the family history of this most loved, and yet the most maligned, reviled, derived, abused and castigated of animals. No domesticated, if one may stretch the point a bit, animal was ever born with such a malicious temper or carried spite to the utmost. Talk about the memory of an elephant. I have known mules that waited a dozen years and more for just the right time and the right spot and keer-bang, he got even.

The mule is the biteous, the kickeous, the butteous of any creature known to man. Yet he can be the most docile, the meekest, the most submissive and complacent of any creature.

This apparent bullheaded, stubborn-as-a-mule character is in fact a scheming, insidious, shrewd and intelligent worker which will go for weeks working like a “horse” and then, for no apparent reason, literally lie down and all the persuasive tactics possible will not make him move – that is, until he is darn well good and ready to move. You can tug, whip, coax, cajole, beat and cuss. There have been more swear words coined by mule drivers than by any other vocation, and with good reason.

Seemingly all the powers of Hades itself will not prevail against him (or her, as the case might be). You see, the gender of the mule is immaterial, since both are born sterile. Perhaps the lack of a future heir may account for a part of the animal’s nature.

Mules have played a major part in furnishing “horse power” for the building of this country. The traditional wizened, dried-up prospector with his worldly possessions all tied in a diamond hitch on his mule (or on its cousin, the burro) and Marshall Bat Masterson, who was said to prefer the plodding staying power of his bay mule to any horse alive, are typical examples of the mule’s place in history. The image of a 20-mule team hauling borax through Death Valley has graced the kitchen shelves for a hundred years and more.

The army mule which saw yeoman’s service in every war this country has fought up to and including the Korean Conflict, the hundreds of mules that pulled the mine cars deep in the bowels of the earth, bringing coal to the smelters to make the steel rails that would put the wagon trains out of business, the sharecropper’s estate with a lame mule and two old hens, and the “show me” Missouri mule have all overshadowed the vital part the mule played on the early Little Egyptian farms like those on Muddy Creek.

I am a graduate of the mule training school. I am fluent in muleness. I am not proud of the vocabulary I still retain after my years growing up on the farm with five mules – Kate, Jude, Jack, Jake and Esther. And I must confess I have been, at various times, provoked into running through every word of it for a full 12 minutes without repeating a single expletive.

Jack was the senior member of the crew. He was the product of Old Doll and Dan Judy’s jack. A scrawny, long-legged creature whose ears were nearly as long as his legs, he was born a cute, puppy-like pet, child tolerant. At the age of one month, he was being haltered and led around the barnyard. By six months he was carrying one or more of the Piper brood around with perfect safety. Dad would say “Watch that mule; don’t let him get behind you, or you may lose the seat of your pants.” For some reason, he seemed to sense the trust the kids had in him, and never, but never, did he bite or kick me or one of my siblings.

Uncle Walter was not so lucky. Jack seemed to have an inborn hatred of him. He could not come into the barn without Jack starting to squirm and dance. It was perhaps because Uncle Walter believed there was no such thing as a tame mule, and let Jack know that he didn’t trust him. They tolerated each other, but barely. Uncle Walter would say that you first had to get a mule’s attention by hitting him between the eyes with a two-by-four and then treat him kindly. It might be that shrewd old Jack knew of this feeling, and perhaps even harbored a like feeling.

When Jack was about 2 years old, Dad traded with Bill McCalley for a young mare mule which we named Kate for some reason. They made a good team, especially for plowing corn, since their hooves are much smaller than those of a horse and so tramp down fewer corn plants in making the turns at the ends.

I learned to plow with an old bay mare and one mule. Dad thought such a combination would be easier for me to handle. The plow was a one-bottom walking plow, and the field was the new ground across the creek where Clyde Camp and Vane Stoltz had been cutting firewood on the shares. The stumps were there – I found every one of them. At night, my rib cage would be black and blue from plow handles hitting them when we snagged a stump. The larger stumps were visible and later on, Dad “blew” them with dynamite, but the ones below ground stayed and the roots got me.

The plow had a special blade on it, so when a stump was hit, the plow was then turned on its side and the blade supposedly cut the roots off. This constant “whoa” and “get dap” and “gee and haw” mingled with a few not-so-nice words when a stump was hit, which gave my voice a great deal of volume and practice. Several years later, an army captain made me a sergeant because I could call out orders. If I remember rightly, Dad later traded one pair of mules for a 1924 Star on which brother Lewis Clark promptly broke his arm, trying to crank it.

A mule has two distinguishing features: His ears and his hair cut. The ears he is born with and has over the generations developed them into revolving radar antennae, independently in motion. To touch a mule’s ear is a no-no, that is, unless you are a gambler, and if so, I doubt you will like the odds of escaping both his teeth and his hooves. The second feature that sets a mule apart is the shingled, crew cut mane and the closely clipped tail base. I have not the remotest idea as to why mules are shorn that way.

Some things one just cannot find the words to describe. For instance, there is that sound of a mule brayin’. If you have ever heard one, let alone five of them sounding off in a concerto, it is a sound that can never be forgotten.

Mules will bray at the most inopportune times – like when you are stalking a big, gray barn rat, and just as you get him in the sights of the .22, old Jack lets out with a Haw Hee Haw and then his fellow critters join him and for 10 minutes, the rafters ring with that harsh, melodious and defiant warning to his fellow second class citizens.

I left the farm to go away to school in 1930 and have no remembrances as to when the mules left the farm, although I do know that as late as 1942, Dad was still keeping a team of horses to supplement the fuel ration coupons. FC

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

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