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A DEAD MULE

June 15, 2014

My book A Good Mule Is Hard to Find was selected as a 2010 finalist for the best in Southern literature by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.  My book finished second in the non-fiction division. Rick Bragg’s book The Prince of Frogtown finished first.

I don’t mind one bit coming in second to Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Bragg. He speaks my language. I have enjoyed reading his “Southern Journal” column published each month in Southern Living.

Bragg wrote in the April 2011 issue, “Scholars have long debated the defining element of great Southern literature. Is it a sense of place? Fealty to lost causes? A struggle to transcend the boundaries of class and race? No. According to the experts, it’s all about a mule. And not just any old mule – only the dead ones count. Ask the experts.”

Rick Bragg goes on to explain that the demise of mules has permeated Southern literature.  “They have been worked to death, bludgeoned, asphyxiated, bitten by rabid dogs, stabbed, starved, frozen,…perished of thirst,… murdered on the blind curve of a train track, and in [Truman]Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, hung from a chandelier.”

Bragg offers an impressive list of authors who have told stories about a dead mule. Richard Wright, Reynolds Price, Larry Brown, Robert Morgan, Jack Farris, and Clyde Edgerton made the list. While my name was not on the list, and I didn’t expect it to be, I somehow felt included because I, too, have written a dead mule story.

Not all Southern storytellers have a tale about a dead mule. In Run with the Horsemen, Ferrol Sams told a marvelous mule story, and though some might have thought of killing the animal, that didn’t happen.

Recently I read the Larry McMurtry novel Telegraph Days. A stout woman, Hroswitha Jubb, rides a white mule across the open prairie.   Aunt Ros, as she is known by Nellie Courtright, the main character in the novel, is the most popular travel writer in the West. Though we are not told of the four-legged albino’s demise, the unusual mule and his ample rider mysteriously disappear.

I recall William Faulkner’s account of the Bundren family’s difficults at a river crossing. Strong currents wash away the coffin of a deceased relative they are transporting for burial.  Furthermore, their entire team of mules is drowned in the swirling Yoknapatawpha.

Rick Bragg is a Southern writer who also tells a dead mule story. Uncle Jimbo wins a bet by eating a sandwich while sitting astride a mule. The mule was already dead when Uncle Jimbo climbed aboard.

Since the publication of A Good Mule is Hard to Find, I have discovered that a surprising number of people don’t know the difference between a donkey and a mule.

Mules are crossbred between a donkey and a horse, and may be male or female. Both genders are sterile and cannot reproduce.

Though they have a reputation for being stubborn, they are generally smarter than a horse. They also have more stamina and are better able to adapt to the climate of the South than are horses.

Many a poor dirt farmer tilling the Southern landscape found a hard-working mule an indispensible commodity. My grandfather, K. E. Neely, was no exception. Pappy, as I called him, his wife, and their nine children would not have survived the Great Depression without a mule. Here is the story I have heard since I was a boy.

Pappy bought old Dick at auction down near Dutchman’s Creek for a mere fifteen dollars. Having spent most of his life working on the chain gang old Dick had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. He had been harnessed 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.

Though good at plowing, Dick never liked to be ridden. If a person tried to mount him like a horse, the mule would kick and bite.

As boys, my dad and his brothers would lead old Dick underneath a Chinaberry tree. They’d drop a pillow on his back to get him used to carrying a little weight. Then, from a limb above, they would ease onto the mule’s back. If they rode him down to the highway, Dick would balk, refusing to go out into the road. All those years on the chain gang made him leery.

Pappy used to tell the story about a farmer who found himself in dire straits. 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.”

“I want my money back,” demanded the farmer.

“Nope. You agreed to buy the mule as is, and there he is. A deal is a deal”

After the dealer refused to refund the money, 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 land 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.”

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