Mules

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Then men and mules returned to the fields. If the crop was behind, the day ended not at sundown but at dark. (“Dark is different from sundown. We never let them stop until sundown. If they start stopping a little ahead it will be a longer little the next time.”) Similarly, if the day was excessively hot, the nooning was extended and the time made up byworking until dark. At the summer solstice a day was fourteen hours. A work week was usually five days unless rain brought up an excessive amount of grass. (“We wanted the mules to rest over the weekend.”)

Hostlers as well as field workers had to be on the alert for early signs of heat prostration in the mules. A whistling, sniffly sound meant that the mule would never be as good again. The treatment was ice applied to the animal’s head and several days of rest. The hostler also checked the animals for galled shoulders and applied blue lotion or asked the Boss Man to call the veterinarian.

March 1 was Limit Day, the end oi old dreams and the beginning of new for the people on the plantation. If the past year had been a failure, it meant food finally for the hungry. Tenant and cropper drew the new year’s first advance, or furnish, consisting of a dollar per acre per month. With this he bought the foodstuffs to supplement his garden patch. A man and wife usually worked ten acres, with a few extra thrown in for children big enough to help in the fields. On Limit Day a tenant who owned his own mules might deck them out in leather harness to drive his family in a wagon to the company store for his furnish. For so special an occasion he would have polished the brass rings on the haines and the studs on the blinders and added bright tassels and brass balls to the mules’ collars.

By Limit Day it was time to break the lighter lands and knock down the rows to flatten them to receive the seed. As soon as the fields were dry enough, the mules, two-up or threeup, would break the land and then draw the heavy section harrow, weighted with iron along the tops, working in and through until a single whole field was finished.

Not until the ground had been opened in the spring was the cropper assigned “his” mule, his to use and come to know, as the mule would come to know him. The intimacy might be one in which a whistle brought the animal from the feed trough and right into the outstretched bridle, or one that the cropper could demonstrate by attaching only one of the two lines to the bridle or, best of all, by exerting control by calls of “Gee,” “Haw,” and “Whoa” to turn the animal to right or left or to stop.

For some mules it was the beginning of a hell that scarred more than the hide. (“I’d see mules with sores the size of my hand. They’d put pads on them and keep them working. And I’d see men take the leather lines and hit them ’til the hide popped open. You could kill them with the leather line—hit him under the chest. Some folks are just cruel.”) Such mules were subsequently called stubborn, mean, dangerous.

At the same time the cropper got his mule he was assigned his implements to keep at his cabin: the fivetooth cultivator—five little plows assembled as one—which was used to break the soil, gently, around young plants; the double shovel, whose two sweeps on one plow stock cut weeds out of the furrows and rows when the plants were safely larger; hoes for the hoe hands; and a file to sharpen the hoes.

Just before the rows were planted, man and mule and five-tooth cultivator traveled the tops of the fertilized rows to crumble the soil and make the seedbed just right. Then, in turn, each cropper got the use of the planter, and man and mule walked along the top of the rows, one pulling, the other steadying the planter. Out of the hopper and into the nozzle, which cut into the soil, the seed would fall in beadlike flow. Buried then in the earth was the purpose of it all, the only reason for a cotton mule’s life. From that day on a mule would not willingly walk on top of the row. (“When, in 1933, Mr. Wallace—the secretary of agriculture—came to watch the plowing-up, mules balked. We had to bring out the tractors to do the job.”)

 

Eight days after the seed was planted, the young plants would break through to form a stand. (“Sometimes it’s a stand; sometimes it makes you sick to your stomach.”)

From then on until the crop was laid by, man and mule were in the field daily. First through the field came mule and cultivator or double shovel. The hoe hands—members of the family, women, and extra men—followed to flat weed, that is, to cut finer the grass and weeds shaken loose by cultivator or double shovel. The next time through the hands thinned the six-inch-high stand of cotton, blocking it down to three or four sturdy stalks to a hill and just so far apart. By chopping time children could help as hoe hands. (“School was always out by chopping time.”) And still the mules and cultivators traveled the rows. Behind them the hoe hands cut vines and grasses that stubbornly persisted until just before the cotton’s own thick foliage shaded out lifegiving sunlight from the weeds.