The day my mother called me to come home and “do something with your father” I was twenty-five years old, fresh out of law school, living in the county seat of Carpenter with a high dollar woman from Lexington who had made a bet against the better judgment of her family that I would become the next Democratic Congressman from our district. I was practicing for the bar, and the woman and I had almost jointly convinced me that I was justified to forget that I had grown up in a four room wood frame house in the head of Hog Trough Hollow. I told my mother that I would get there as fast as I could, sat down to have lunch with the woman in question, lingered over her poorly cooked hamburgers and arrived at my childhood home a bit too late to conduct the intervention my mother wished for.
Mother met me in the dirt driveway between the house and barn lot. “You need to get out there in the far corner of the pasture under that big oak tree and make your Daddy quit. Old Buck died last night and Daddy drug him out of the barn all the way to the oak tree and is actually digging that brute a grave. Get out there and make him quit digging. He’ll have another heart attack and die for sure if he does. If you can’t make him quit, then you need to do the digging. Get out there! I’ll talk to you later.”
I had no desire to spend the afternoon digging a grave for a mule so I walked into the barn before I went to the far corner of the pasture. I could discern where Daddy had obviously brought some kind of sled into the barn and dragged the mule out. But I couldn’t see any tire tracks. “Now how did he get that mule out of here?”, I asked myself. Then I began to meander to the oak where I could see my father standing next to a pile of dirt and rock.
“Why didn’t you just hook the truck to him and drag him to the head of the hollow and roll him over the hill?”, I asked.
Daddy stopped covering up the last of the grave and turned to look me in the eye with the same look I had seen on his face the day I got caught stealing watermelons from the preacher down the creek and the day I told him I wasn’t interested in staying in Wide Spot and working on the county road crew. “Boy, you are almost a lawyer I guess but you still ain’t got a lick of sense. Set down on that stump over there in the shade and I’ll explain this to you while I finish giving Old Buck a decent burial.” Then he turned to the pile of dirt and continued to shovel slowly, stopping now and then to catch his breath and say a few sentences before resuming work again. I offered to run to the barn for another shovel to help and he informed me that this was a personal job and he didn’t need the help. Finally, as the dirt over the grave grew nearly knee high, he stopped and began to talk more steadily.
“Son, when me and your mother got married and started renting this place, we didn’t have much but we hoed and dug a garden and I worked in the log woods until I got a job in the mines. We saved every dollar we could rake and scrape to get until finally we had two hundred dollars to spend on something we needed and hoped would help us change our lives. Your mother wanted a Maytag wringer washer and I wanted a better truck than the old International I was driving. We went to bed every night for a month, talking till we went to sleep about what would be the best thing we could spend that money on. Finally, one night your mother rolled over and whispered in my ear, ‘I think we need a mule.’ I didn’t know what to say but she told me all the things we could do with a mule, plow a garden, cut and haul firewood so we wouldn’t have to work so hard in the fall, cut a few trees for logs to sell when I had the time. She showed me how we would be better off with a mule than a washing machine. I bought Old Buck but he was just Buck in them days, three years old and green broke. And the man that said he broke Buck wasn’t a whole lot smarter than Buck. While I was working to figure out how to get him over one or two bad habits, your mother kept washing clothes in a three-bushel tub by hand and hanging them on a line.”
Daddy turned back to the dirt and rock, shoveled a few more shovels full of dirt on the pile and began carrying rocks to pile on top. I offered to help but once again he told me to sit down and listen. Then he resumed talking. “While I was retraining Buck, I reckon he retrained me some too. By the time we were both used to each other, I had come to respect that mule, son, and he had come to respect me. When I got done with him, he would come to the gate when I whistled, walk to the end of a row and turn around like he was the one in charge, and never ate a blade of corn unless I pulled it and gave it to him. He would work all day and never balk. Me and that mule must have made the money together for about half of what it took to pay the bank for this place. There were a lot of days I spent more time with him than I did your mother.” He kept carrying rocks to the grave and laying them on the pile of dirt. It was obvious he intended to cover the entire grave with rocks large enough to prevent dogs and coyotes from digging in to the mule as he decomposed. Finally, he stopped to rest and talk again.
“Son, you don’t know this, but when your oldest sister, Hazel, was about two years old she come down with pneumonia in the middle of the worst blizzard we had seen around here in fifty years. She woke me and your mother up about midnight and her fever must have been a hundred and five. She was burning up, couldn’t breathe, and we both thought she might be dead before daylight. I took what little money we had and saddled up Old Buck. I left here in a gallop because the road was too rough with snow and ice to drive a car. I loped that mule all twelve miles from here to Doc Dempsey’s house at the edge of Wide Spot. I thought sure I had killed him. He was heaving and blowing and I thought sure he might be dead before daylight too. Doc left home in that old Jeep he always had and I followed him back on Buck. I never loped him all the way home but I never slowed below a fast trot. That mule carried me twenty-four miles in zero weather on snow and ice and I just got home and unsaddled him and turned him on the pasture. But he was standing at the gate when I looked out the kitchen door at daylight. Your sister wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Old Buck. That mule saved that girl’s life.” Then Daddy resumed piling rocks on the grave, slowly, steadily, lovingly.
Finally, he stopped, took a drink of water from his old mine water jug and sat down to talk. “Son, you and every one of your brothers and sisters learned to ride on that mule. I could put a baby on that mule and he knew it was a baby. He would walk around the barn lot like he was walking on eggs when he had a young’un on his back. You all learned to ride on that mule and none of you ever got hurt. We worked that mule for thirty years and all he ever got out of it was some fodder, a little hay and corn, and a good rub down now and then. That ain’t much pay for buying a farm and raising a family.”
After that speech, Daddy went back to piling on rocks and I finally sat down, shut up, and started listening just about as closely as I had to my professor in my first torts course. Daddy would select a rock, carry it to the grave, place it, and stop to breathe and then say a few sentences. “The winter before you were born, my old truck blew the engine, and I had six children, a mortgage, and no money to spare. I was working on Black Log in a punch mine seventeen miles from here. I had to be at the drift mouth at six in the morning six days a week. I’d climb on Old Buck at three thirty in the morning and ride that seventeen miles and put him on a hobble in a patch of grass my foreman let me use. I’d work eight or ten hours, saddle Old Buck and ride home. I usually went to sleep on the way but that didn’t matter to Buck. He’d get me home asleep or awake and stop in the yard and I’d climb off and your mother would unsaddle him and put him in the barn lot while I went to bed. That mule brought me home every night for six months till I had enough money to buy that old 1951 Ford Pickup you learned to drive in. Don’t you ever forget Old Buck, boy.” Then he just turned back to piling rocks.
At last, when the last flat rock was on the grave and no fresh dirt showed through, Daddy took another drink of water, stood at the head of that grave and bowed his head. After a couple of minutes of silent prayer, he sat down and finished talking. “When your grandmother died, it was in the middle of the biggest snow storm we ever had on this creek. The snow was two feet deep on level ground and drifts were four feet in a lot of places. The neighbors helped me get her grave dug but the undertaker said he couldn’t risk his vehicles climbing to the top of the ridge to the cemetery. I hooked Old Buck to the corn sled and drove him to the church at the mouth of the creek. After the funeral, we loaded your grandmother’s casket on that sled and Buck carried her to her final resting place. He walked up that hillside like he knew who was in that casket. He never lifted a hoof until he knew the other three were all on solid ground. He pulled up beside her grave and I swear to you, boy, that mule lowered his head almost to the ground and never raised it until the preacher was done and the dirt was in the grave. I owe that mule an awful lot, son. I may not owe him as much as I owe your mother but I know what I owe Old Buck. I may not love that mule as much as I love your mother and you and your brothers and sisters. But I love that mule more than a lot of men love their wives and he earned it. That mule is family, boy. The least I can do for that mule is to give him a decent burial in a well dug grave just like I would if anybody else in this family died. Don’t you ever forget Old Buck.”
Roger D. Hicks,Roger D. Hicks is an Appalachian writer, blogger, and auctioneer living in West Liberty, KY. Roger has previously published work in Now And Then, Section 8, Creativity Webzine, Orpheus, What’s A Nice Hillbilly Like You…, and VISTAS 2005 Compelling Approaches In Counseling.