Now and Then
by David Kirkland
Grandfather John continued past the telling I knew, continued until his voice quavered. In all my life I'd not seen him so but once before, brought like now to the edge of tears.
"My father Virgil was always swapping stock," he'd begun earlier, a story trunk sporting branches that might lead to Snowball or other horses treasured in memory. ANo wonder the trader sold that little mule cheap. Scrawny and poor enough we called him Bones. But that wasn't the worst of itBturned out he was balky, and it wouldn't take much for a critter like that to ruin others."
* * *
Virgil stopped the team near his sons. "John," he called, "go harness Rusty and bring him here."
John wondered why. The white-footed mare and Bones were well matched for plowing, but even so the young man didn't hesitate. The task did not take long.
Virgil held Bones while John released the mare and substituted Rusty, a much larger horse. "Problem with her?" the young man asked, knowing horses with white stockings were often tender-footed.
"Nope, nary a bit. And I'm not expecting much more trouble from this mule either. G'up."
Bones made the mistake of balking again. Rusty—never tolerant of such foolishness—drew back his lips, leaned over, and commenced to gnawing on the astonished and suddenly less recalcitrant mule.
Virgil grinned. "Let that be a lesson to you, you son of a bitch."
* * *
"I don't recall," Grandfather said, "that we ever sold Rusty. Dad generally kept six or seven head, many staying with us only a season or two, but Rusty was right handy to have around. That big horse cured more than a few others of contrariness."
"I was curious," he continued, "about how Bones would work alone. The next time Dad left for town my brother Harlan and I took him timbering, and set the wagon to creaking with a load of logs. He pulled okay until it lurched into a low spot. Then he just quit."
I'd heard this story many times, heard how gentle suasion failed and less gentle prodding did no better. I knew how my grandfather tired of it, set the brake, seized his hand axe, and trimmed up a brushy thorn tree. You can imagine the rest, how he wore the sapling to flinders, dappling the mule with crimson blotches until it was plumb eager to move on.
I never enjoyed that tale, though I understood well enough that a mule which wouldn't work wasn't fit to keep, not when food sometimes grew scarce at the family table. Curing problem animals bought cheap provided one more harvest beyond what the ground yielded.
"Even after that lesson," Grandfather concluded, "Bones balked from time to time, but merely cutting the smallest switch and touching it to him worked an instant cure."
* * *
"You can," Virgin told the hired man, pick any of the stock. Whatever two suit you. But you might avoid the mule."
Perhaps it sounded like a challenge. "Really? Why's that?"
"He's mean sometimes."
Not that day. Teamed with Rusty, there was no trouble, and Virgil never repeated his warning. Come that Saturday, however, the man bragged in town about how he worked a mule that'd put the fear to Virgil. Word came back to his two sons. Knowing the mule's habits, they waited.
Not long after, while John and Harlan walked down from the tenant house in the upper field, a commotion at the barn shattered the morning quiet.
Harlan grinned. "Let's go. Hope he's not dead."
He wasn't. The hired man was already off in the house telling Virgil that Bones had gone plumb loco, had tried to kill him.
"That right?" Virgil said, seeing no injury. "Well, let's go take a look. Might be I won't have such a problem."
"You won't be able to get near him," the man insisted, "and I'll not work him ever again."
"Never said you had to," Virgil answered, picking up his hat just before he went out the door. The hired man skulked along behind, not seeing John and Harlan duck out the back of the barn, their remedy already complete.
As soon as they'd entered, one look had told Harlan and John the whole story. Harness lay abandoned, and the mule, his ears pinned back, stood stiff-legged and white-eyed. John laughed. "Guess he won't be talking about Dad like that again." He paused. Grinned. "You fetch the harness. I'll settle Bones down."
Hooves crashed against the gate as John approached, but he hadn't gone empty-handed. A hefty length of oak visited the mule above the ears and walloped the nonsense from between them. Harlan got Bones ready for a day's work as John stood guard, and then both slipped out of the barn.
"Hell," Virgil said after he went inside, "you've been funning me." Saying no more, but not letting on how alert he kept himself against danger, Virgil patted the mule.
"I'm telling you, he went crazy."
"Use other stock if you want," Virgil answered. "Put Bones back in his stall first if you do. Don't leave him harnessed."
* * *
I knew the hired man never worked Bones again. But then Grandfather continued.
"We kept that ornery beast a while longer. Had to be careful, cause sometimes he'd pitch a fit. There was this one time we were harvesting corn. Only need a single hitch for thatCHarlan and me picking ears on either side and Dad following to work the middle stalks as they passed under the wagon. Harlan got closer than he ought, not watching like he should, and Bones kicked him under the wagon."
I'd never heard this.
"Went crazy, coming back around, raring and pawing the air, his hooves flailing at Harlan. Dad couldn't see if his boy was hurt. Twice more hooves slashed while Dad raced forward."
Grandfather was no longer sitting in the room with me—he'd moved back in time. His left arm lifted, the gnarled hand clenching as if seizing a mule's ear, his forearm knotting with the imagined effort of dragging its head down.
Frozen like that, Grandfather spoke. "Dad always carried a cutting knife, one kept sharp for castrating. One cut, and done." Grandfather's expression contorted as his right hand lifted, eyes tightening, twisting. "Laid that blade tight against the mule's neck, not knowing if his son was bad hurt, not even knowing if he still lived."
Tears glistened in his eyes, both arms tensed, ready to force the imagined blade death deep into flesh.
"He'd have killed Bones. If it so much as twitched," he repeated, his voice breaking, "he'd have killed it right then."
His arms collapsed. I waited, letting the image of him as a young man pass, seeing him again as he was, eighty-eight and frail.
"Harlan was fine." He paused. "That mule did work good most of the time. Had to watch him careful, that was all."
I wasn't sure what to say. "You okay?"
"Just hard, sometimes, remembering like that."
In the way of men, nothing further was said. We both knew his unshed tears weren't for Harlan, or Virgil, or the mule.
David Kirkland lives in Saint Charles, though he claims to harken back to the Ozarks and before that to Appalachia. His work has appeared in numberous publications including The Roanocke Review, Skyline Literary Review, New American Review, Kudzu Monthly , and Nuvein Magazine. He is presently completing a Civil War novel set in the mountains of East Tennessee.
Copyright © 2006. Do not reproduce without permission.