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Tales from Red Clay Country

October 5, 2009

In May of 2005, the first issue of H-J Weekly was published. From the beginning the editor, Landy Timms, invited me to write this column, “By the Way.”
With encouragement from the Herald-Journal, fifty of these stories have been collected in A Good Mule Is Hard to Find and Other Tales From Red Clay Country.

Betsy Teter, editor of The Hub City Writers Project, has done her usual masterful job putting the book together. The striking pen and ink drawings by my nephew, Kirk Emory Cash, will keep you turning the pages.

A Good Mule Is Hard to Find is available from Hub City, local bookstores, all the usual places, and at events where I will be signing books and speaking.

I have written about the ordinary – casseroles and sweet tea, black bears and beagle dogs, WD-40 and duct tape, Tabasco sauce and fatback. These tales are about our neck of the woods. They are from red clay country, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rivers of the Piedmont, the cotton mills, and the lumberyard.

Storytelling is a treasured part of my heritage. I have dedicated this book to the original Kirk Neely, my dad. Now in his eighty-ninth year, Dad is master storyteller.
My grandfather Pappy had a tale suitable for every occasion. Mammy, my grandmother, told stories from her girlhood but tended to put the punch line first.
Mama and her mother, Granny, shared their own wisdom through stories, usually read aloud, one of the reasons that I value books as I do.

My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, was a delightful storyteller.

Are these stories true? All stories tell the truth, even those that are fiction. In the best storytelling tradition, the truth is far more important than fact. In fact, fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth.

Allow me to share a little of the title story from the book.

Dick spent most of his life working on the chain gang. In 1930 during The Great

Depression, my grandfather Pappy bought him at auction for fifteen dollars. Dick was a mule that had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. He had been in harness so many times that the trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides.

Pappy got a jar of Bluestone Salve to put on the mule’s sores. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Pappy used to tell the story about a farmer who was left in dire straits after his mule died. He was having trouble making ends meet. He tried to cut corners every way that he could. He owned no farm equipment other than a mule and a plow. The mule, Humphrey, was a fine, strong animal, essential to the making and harvesting of crops.

One of the farmer’s cost-saving measures was to mix a little sawdust into the oats that he fed Humphrey. At first it seemed to be a workable plan. When he told his neighbors about it, they thought it an odd way to take care of a good mule, but Humphrey seemed to hold up.

The months passed and times got worse. The farmer mixed more sawdust with the oats he fed Humphrey. The mule grew weaker but still worked as hard as he could.

One day a neighbor asked, “How are things going?”

“Not good. Not good at all. Just about the time I got Humphrey on all sawdust and no oats, that mule up and died.”

Humphrey died just before spring planting. The farmer had to buy another mule. He scraped together $30. He couldn’t buy a mule as good as Humphrey, but he was satisfied with the animal. He made arrangements to return the next day with a borrowed truck to pick up the mule. The dealer agreed to keep the animal overnight.

When the farmer returned, he was greeted with more bad news.

The mule dealer said, “I’m real sorry to have to tell you this. I know you were countin’ on that mule for your spring planting, but he died last night.”

The dealer didn’t offer to refund his money because a deal was a deal. The farmer loaded the dead mule on the truck and left.

A couple of months later, the mule dealer happened to drive by the farmer’s place. He was astonished to see him working his garden on a Ford tractor. He called the farmer over to ask how in the world he had managed to buy a tractor when, not too long ago, all he had was $30 to spend on the dead mule.

“Well,” the farmer explained, “after leaving with the dead mule, I stopped off at the local print shop. I had some $2 raffle tickets printed up to say, ‘Grand prize: Used Gardening Equipment.’ I sold the raffle tickets to people around town.”

“Okay, but where did you get the gardening equipment?”

“From you.”

“But all you got from me was a dead mule.”

“I know. That’s what I raffled off.”

“You raffled off a dead mule? I’ll bet it really ticked ’em off when they realized the mule was dead.”

“Nope. Not really. The only one that got mad was the winner, and I gave him his $2 back.”

Kirk H. Neely
© October 2009

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