by Jim Smith of Erin, TN
Numerous famous authors have recorded gut wrenching accounts of the loss of beloved animals. Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and Rawlings’ The Yearling come to mind, but there are many others. Those writings were required reading as I experienced secondary English education. Form, content, personification, and symbolism swept over us like a tidal wave. However, living the event of the loss is far more grievous than reading about it.
In the middle 90’s, I purchased a 12 year old mare mule from a neighbor in Jackson County, Georgia. This critter weighed 1200 pounds, and she had the classic angular head and long ears of her sire and the big, muscular frame of her Belgian mother – flaxen mane and tail. We brought her home and immediately hitched her to a Georgia ratchet with a 5” bull tongue and a 12 inch sweep. She knew everything – nice slow steps – pulling straight and through the end of the patch. The more I worked her, the more I liked her. We named her Ruth from the Holy Bible as is the custom with all of the horses and mules on our farm.
Ruth, although she was too big to be a kitchen garden mule, was a sweet and willing helper in all of the homestead chores. Everything we discovered about her was simply the best it could be. Her innate ability to walk plumb straight enabled us to lay off garden rows that appeared to be flawless. From time to time, I made announcements about our work.
“Pam, look at them rows I drawed off – why they’s as straight as a strang. It was mostly Ruthie.”
The grandchildren rode on her back and she pulled them about in a one horse wagon. When hoof trimming and shoeing came around, she lifted her feet and didn’t move a muscle. This female mule, which could not have a foal, as you know, wasn’t athletic enough to keep the evener straight when I hitched her three-abreast with the gelded horse mules. I took her out and tied her in the shade with her bridle removed and hung on a hame. She brayed in protest – “Give me one more chance!” I didn’t. In January when fire wood hauling was on the agenda, I always took her bridle inside with me. Ruth never experienced a 10 degree snaffle bit slid into her mouth of an early morning.
Each time I hitched my special partner, I personally inspected her shoulders where the collar made contact. No pebbles, dirt, nor twisted hair ever existed between her and the collar. When the flood came in May of 2010 and blew out $6,500 of fencing, it was Ruth who led 6 horses and mules and 10 Jersey cows out the gap and up Salmon Branch Road to the front yard of our neighbor’s half million dollar home up on the ridge. A friend of mine observed it – “The mare mule is the one done it!” All of the other equines were jealous of her and they were mean to her – that’s why she lived with the Jersey cows. She got a little more grain than she should have had, particularly in the winter. One needed only to call Ruthie; she would come right to you even if your shoulders were adorned with collar, bridle, and harness.
Virtually every time I hitch my horses and mules, I think of my Owens, Bates, Smith and Bowen ancestors of Aiken County, South Carolina and Ben Hill County, Georgia. I muse that they would be proud of my continuing commitment to the agrarian life that they lived. Of all my siblings, cousins and relatives, I’m sure they would love me the most for I am a lot like them. There is some small chance that some of these beautiful kinfolk will scold me about such a statement.
About the middle of last week, I noticed that our beloved mule was not following her normal routine. She lay about and was somewhat aloof: although, she continued to eat and drink. I went to her and pressed my hands into her abdomen, chest, and flank. Nothing seemed to be painful. I looked at her mouth and tongue – all pink and healthy looking. Her digestive process was normal as well as her temperature.
On Saturday morning, I found her lying on her side, unable to lift her head off the ground. Her tongue protruded out of her mouth and had hay and dirt all over it. Even precious critters that you trust can flail and lurch in a way that endangers you. I approached from her top line so that her feet were on the opposite side. Kneeling close to her head, I rubbed and patted her neck and mane. She recoiled in terror and made unforgettable choking sounds as she tried to breathe. Her nostrils flared full open and she laid her ears back on her mane.
I knew the time had come.
From my desk, I got my 45 pistol and chambered a round while still in the office so she could not hear the lethal metallic slide “zig-zag”. My approach was far back and behind her – she did not see nor hear me. I got close and fired three rounds through her brain – she died in a millisecond.
Then I cleared the pistol, hid myself, and wept a spell.
Ruth was almost 30 years old.
I eased my skid steer bucket under Ruthie and took her to a red cedar thicket by the hay field – near where she protested being taken out. My neighbor buried her with a back hoe before the buzzards violated her.
I wonder if the Lord needs straight rows “drawed off” in Heaven.