Mules

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No single mule was strong enough to cut out the cotton roots and open the heavier black lands. Four-up, they drew the middlebuster, with sixteen-inch flanges, down the middle of last year’s row, throwing the dirt to right and left and so creating halves of two rows. Ten teams or more in a single field worked in and through before moving on to complete a second cut of land. Then, while rains fell and the croppers scrapped cotton as they could, the heavy mules rested in the pasture or lot where the lighter ones had already been placed to await the coming of spring and the new crop’s work. Thirty days before resumption of plowing, their hay diet would be augmented with grain.

Day came not with the sun but with the rising of the hostler. It was he who got up by habit, without alarm clock, and pulled on his blue-denim overalls long before light.

An hour before the sun’s rising he rang the bell by the Boss Man’s house to waken croppers, tenants, and hands. Utilitarian as New England’s factory whistle, the bell spoke little of romance then; it conjured up, rather, cold darkness, sweat, and blinding sun, not magnolias and sweet-smelling jasmine.

Approaching the mule lot, the hostler could hear the chomping of the fifty or a hundred mules lined up along the trough of corn or pulling hay through the slatted sides of the barn. Perhaps the mules had lain down to sleep or had slept standing up for two or three hours. The hostler didn’t believe it. Working mules, he thought, ate the whole night through, storing energy for the day. From feed trough to water trough, a drink and back, they beat a hard path into the ground. Clean creatures, they were careful to foul only one corner of the lot, the privy spot of their choosing.

 

Lawyer Phillips, a hostler then, remembers: It took a long time to fill those long water troughs and every chance you had you had to pump. A small plantation would carry 50 to 60 mules easy. A mule would drink four to five gallons of water, keep his head down. When he’d pick up his head he’d walk away. Then he’d go to eating.

When the men went to the fields and I had milked the cows—my Boss Man had cows and I looked after them too—I’d fork the grain into the wagon at the corn house and bring it over and fill the troughs. You’d push the hay through the slats so the mule could pull hay. Whenever he didn’t have anything else to do he’d eat hay.

A mule that was hungry, thirsty or lonesome hollered like a hungry child. When he hollers it’s like a jack—a coarse hee haw once or twice if he sees you coming. Everything hollers at the hostler—mules, cows, everything.

Through the lot’s heavy gate the croppers soon followed the hostler, each to get his mule or mules, assigned to him for the crop year or for the special task that day. In the shadowed light from a single kerosene lamp the men removed from pairs of pegs driven into the gear-room wall the equipment the hostler assigned for their particular animal: the collar, bit, and bridle adjusted by the hostler to fit.

All those black hulks, all those thin legs—who could say for sure in the dark which mule was which? To make identification possible the men had tied pieces of cloth or rope in their mule’s tail and knotted it just so in their own particular way. Feeling, a man claimed his mule.

No knowing man approached a mule from the rear, A suspicious creature that not even blinders could always keep from envisioning danger, he would kick out at threats sensed but unseen. Hence the mule was always approached from the front, and during currying the man worked reassuringly from front to back, brushing the shoulders first and only at the end removing caked mud from the dangerous hind legs.

While it was coming light the cropper headed for his own cabin, where he kept the plow or cultivator charged to him by the plantation. ("Most mules,” one cropper recalled, “would let the man ride and these were the popular ones. Some never would.”)

The hostler rang the bell for the second time just as the sun came up.

By then the teams were in place in the field, to remain there from sunup to sundown, with two breaks in the day. The first was at nine, when the women brought their men a breakfast snack to be eaten in the shade of a tree or in the shadow from the mule’s body. The second was the “nooning,” when the hostler rang men and mules back to the barn.

 

During the noon hour the men rested and talked. The mules, freed of their gear, wallowed in the barnyard’s mud or dust, rolling, legs up, from side to side, then struggled awkwardly to their feet and shivered their skin as clean as they could. They then took long drafts of water before beginning on the grain in the feed trough. (“Grain at midday, not hay.”)