As a child, my grandfather inspired in me both a love and fear of two things: the Lord and mules. Having been born into an old family in the “Little Dixie” part of Missouri, the importance of loving reverence for both the Lord and his mules (seemingly His agents on Earth) were exceedingly important, and, according to Grandpa, both played a role in saving one’s soul. Not to be sacrilegious or irreverent, but in my grandfather’s worldview, the Bible (as read and understood by a devout Southern Baptist (with Calvinist leanings)) provided life, and afterlife, guidance in written form – the Lord’s direct word – while mules provided examples of how best to execute this guidance: how to live and get along while working towards one’s salvation and great reward in Heaven.
One of my favorite stories involved a nine- or ten-year-old Grandpa being instructed by his no-nonsense father (a farmer trying to feed his family in the midst of the Great Depression) to take one of the mules and ride the four or five miles to the nearest store to trade some farm produce for coffee (or sugar – Grandpa couldn’t remember – it was some luxury that rarely graced the table of their poor mid-Missouri farm). Upon being provided with these instructions (from whom one would never sass or back-talk, lest they meet the Lord sooner than expected), Grandpa went to get Katie – his favorite mule – and head off so as to be back before dark. Katie was, according to Grandpa (who described her in a way that revealed his deep affection for her), a sorrel mule with the sweetest, gentlest disposition of all the equine creatures on the farm. They had a connection, and even well into his last years, Grandpa’s face brightened and step (such as it was) quickened whenever he mentioned Katie’s name.
Once properly bridled, Grandpa, Katie, and their produce set out towards town. They reached the store with no issues, and Grandpa was able to make the trade as per his instructions from my great-grandfather. It was the return leg of the voyage that Grandpa used as a means to demonstrate why mules – and Katie in particular – were agents of the Lord, sent to do good amongst us mere mortals, who, if most of the stories are to be believed, are unworthy of their efforts on our behalf.
Not long into the trek home, a number of boys from the neighboring farms, who, according to Grandpa, were more-often-than-not up to mischief, happened upon Grandpa and Katie making their way along the dirt road. When challenged by the ringleader, Grandpa tried to maintain course and speed, hoping that his determined gaze would deter any potential altercations. To Grandpa’s great surprise, when all their taunts were met with no response or reaction, the chief bully stepped aside and allowed Grandpa to pass with not so much as a comment. After muttering a small prayer of thanks, Grandpa rubbed his heels on Katie’s sides to let her know that increased speed would be much appreciated.
Just as Katie got the hint and started to accelerate, she shuddered, let out a squeal, and reared up, and my grandfather, clutching a bag in each arm of containing the precious cargo for which he had been sent, slid right off of Katie (he generally rode sans saddle). Landing square in the middle of the lane, he was more than a bit shocked and couldn’t comprehend what had just happened, although he proudly declared many decades later that he never let go of the bags.
It turns out that one of the boys had a slingshot, and as Grandpa and Katie passed through their ranks, took aim directly at Katie’s hindquarters with a sharp stone and let it fly. Katie, receiving what I can only imagine to be quite a painful sting, naturally reacted and after regaining the ground with all four legs, took off running into the field next to the dirt road. Grandpa now found himself sitting in the middle of the road, grocery bags in each arm, surrounded by the hoots and hollers of the local ruffians. With what dignity he could muster Grandpa, ever mindful of the bags, regained his footing and began to trudge towards home. Grandpa said that he knew that Katie would meet him there once she recovered from the shock of the awful assault.
But, having gone just a few steps, Grandpa said the boys went abruptly silent, their taunting laughter ceasing. Not wanting to turn around for fear that he would receive a stone between the eyes (which would likely cause him to drop the grocery bags – he feared my great-grandfather more that the local toughs or potential blindness), he maintained a fixed gaze on the way ahead. It was the low growl, however, that finally caused him to stop and turn around. Unbelieving what he was seeing, Grandpa was struck dumb. Katie had reappeared; she had apparently made a loop in the fields and came up behind the boys, ready to exact her revenge.
Screeching in a way that only mules can, it was apparent to all present that Katie meant business. Katie was, according to Grandpa’s adolescent reasoning, an angel sent to deliver God’s own justice and rain vengeance upon the wicked. Katie began biting and kicking and in a blaze of dust, tears, slobber, and a modicum of blood, the once-mighty kings of mischief were sent running in various directions as they sought safety in whatever form was readily available. The one advantage they had was their numbers, as even Katie, sent on what Grandpa deemed a heavenly-endorsed mission, could not deliver the Lord’s justice to all the miscreants. One of the hoodlums, however, was either not fast enough, or was singled out by Providence for a special lesson. As Grandpa told it, Katie stared him down and every time he moved to one side or the other in an attempt to run, she blocked his way. Still snarling and braying, Katie locked eyes with him, and I am sure that this young man began to contemplate his pending destruction.
Grandpa took special delight in relaying what happened next, as this boy, much older, bigger, and meaner than my grandfather, utterly lost control of his bladder and bowels. Katie’s demeaner had caused this urchin to completely release in the middle of the lane – made all the more humbling by the deluge of tears. To Katie’s credit, she never did anything more than threaten, and upon seeing this boy’s complete breakdown, simply walked around him to where my grandfather was still standing, mouth wide open in disbelief.
Katie positioned herself next to my grandfather, patiently waiting for him to remount, which took a moment, as my grandfather’s ability to move from one emotional state to another was not as well tuned as Katie’s. Once Grandpa was able to fully comprehend what had just happened, he remounted (again being uber careful with the bags) and the pair headed back to the farm.
Listening to this story as a child, I was convinced, through more than implication, as Grandpa would, at times, be more explicit, that mules are simply angels in equine form who look out for poor farm kids and provide examples for how to navigate this complex world. The lesson that Grandpa took from this particular encounter (and he had many, many stories as to how Katie or one of her kind had intervened or mastered different situations) was that you didn’t necessarily have to fight to achieve justice; it was the demonstration that you are willing to do so that achieved the end goal. And, being the good Southern Baptist that he was, Grandpa was able to tie it back to scripture, relating Proverbs 21:15, stating “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (ESV).
Even though I am a now a middle-aged man, whenever I find myself back in the rural parts of Missouri’s “Little Dixie,” I always make a point to carry carrots in my pockets, in the event I come across a mule. Given the sheer number of stories related by my grandfather, there has to be a modicum of truth in these creatures being equine angels, and you never know when you will need them to intercede on your behalf, so I want to stay in their good graces. For the cost of a carrot, that is a cheap insurance policy!