Of Mules And Men: Lessons In Acceptance


“Sandy” set her ears and planted her mule shoes.

Mountain on my right, cliff on my left — nowhere to go but forward.

“Hehhah,” I yelled.


“Forward, you mangy, mule-headed, can of dog chow,” I hollered, slapping Sandy across the haunches with the reins, my poise finally shattered after a long, frustrating day trying to convince Sandy to help me herd a bunch of cattle up and down some hellaciously rough hillsides.

This I did not need. Life harbored enough frustrations — what with demanding publishers, stubborn reporters and crotchety councilors.

So I didn’t need this mule giving me no trouble.

I jerked the reins, and thunked her with my heels.

Abruptly, she half turned and backed rapidly downslope toward disaster.

My mind grew wondrously clear — several overlooked details came forcefully to mind. For instance, Sandy outweighed me 10 to one — and could outmuscle a whole platoon of Marines. Moreover, if ejected from this altitude the only thing likely to stop me from rolling over the cliff was that downslope clump of cholla — assuming that Sandy didn’t land on top of me and embed me in the earth.

At just this moment, I recalled a story recently imparted to me by photographer Gary Johnson — a man with an uncommon understanding of mules, horses and other forces of nature.

Once upon a time, Gary undertook a 100-mile ride atop a mule of wonderful endurance and awful disposition named Dixie. Built of brick and barbed wire, she could climb anything and haul anyone. However, she was also half wild ass and half Spawn of the Devil. She could bite like thunder and kick quicker than a rattlesnake can bite. Captain of her own, thoroughly doomed soul, she did pretty much as she pleased. Malice lurked behind her placid brown eyes, like a ripple of piranhas in the turbid Amazon. She was as unpredictable as a teenager in the grip of hormones.

Gary waged a contest of wills with this singular beast, riding across terrain spewed out of the inside of a volcano. He cajoled, spurred, bribed — and failed.

One night — after a day-long exercise in frustration — she allowed him to remove the bit, then stretched out her neck and bit him experimentally on the forearm.

Gary responded with a stream of obscenities sufficient to wilt a mesquite down to the taproot.

And then he did a very foolish thing.

He wrapped the reins around his forearm, reared back, and kicked Dixie in the chest as hard as he could.

Not a good idea.

The Satan side of Dixie’s nature immediately asserted itself. She jerked back, lifting Gary’s not inconsiderable mass off the ground. Then she bolted straight through the center of a large Palo Verde tree, trailing Gary like a semi dragging a crumpled Volkswagen. Gary and Dixie left a perfect, mule/man hole through that tree, decorated around the edges with bits of Gary’s flesh. Dixie dragged Gary along the ground for another 10 feet, before she stopped, turned and stared down at her prostrate foe.

Dazed, Gary unwrapped the reins, staggered to his feet, stumbled toward his gear, and pulled out his .45 caliber automatic.

Up strolled Jed, the head wrangler.

“Whatcha doing?” asked Jed casually.

“I’m gonna shoot that mule,” said Gary, wiping a trickle of blood from his cheek.

Jed nodded sagely.

“I’m gonna shoot that mule right between the eyes,” said Gary.

“Simple justice,” Jed observed.

“You’re not going to try to stop me?” asked Gary, eyes narrowed.

“Nope,” Jed said, staring speculatively at Dixie, who in turn watched Gary with self-satisfied contempt. “Of course, you’ll have to pay for her.”

“That’s all right,” Gary said.

“About eight hundred dollars.”

Gary paused. “It’s worth it,” he concluded.

“Of course, there’s one other thing.”

“What’s that.”

“It’s another 120 miles to Phoenix. You’ll have to walk it.”

Gary’s shoulders slumped. He walked back to his pack, put away his gun and pulled out a granola bar. Sighing, he returned to Dixie with his peace offer.

“Friends, Dixie?” he said, offering her the granola bar.

She gathered it in with her dexterous lips, savored it a moment. Then in a motion too quick to follow with the naked eye, she flicked out her right front hoof and kicked Gary in the knee.

He howled, hopped twice and crumpled.

Dixie chewed her granola bar in perfect satisfaction.

I reviewed this story carefully in my mind, sitting motionless atop Sandy.

Then I loosened the reins, patted her on the neck, and clicked my tongue experimentally.

She cast a glance over her shoulder, to be sure that I’d been broken. Then she ambled forward — while I resolved to enjoy the view.

Somewhere near the top, I decided publishers with high standards were a blessing, reporters determined to write their own stories a necessity — and unhappy council members were, well, just going to have to seek their own path to happiness.


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