Mule Headed Girls


Somewhere over in France or maybe Germany, during the first great war, grandpa is hit with mustard gas which almost kills him and damages his lungs. This slows him down a bit, he takes to farming after his war. During winter, grandpa suffers fits of coughing because of his mustard gas damage. Doesn't stop him from singing his French love songs while working. He won't tell me what those words mean, "Ain't fittin' for a girl to hear such language."

Grandpa has both Kitt and Belle all harnessed up with a double yoke across necks of his mules to help keep Belle in place. He is working at hooking up the traces which are chains running from a collar back to a single tree or a double tree. A "tree" is a long stout stick made of seasoned and fired oak. There are steel eyeholes and hooks mounted on a tree which are used to hook up chains either side, and to hook up a plow with chain running back from center of a tree. A single tree is used when narrow plowing with one mule down between rows of crops. A single tree has trace chains running up the right side and the left side of a mule. A double tree is longer and used with two mules for broad fallow plowing a field. This is simply plowing under corn stalks, bean bushes and such after harvest. A double tree has trace chains running up both sides of a left mule, and running up both sides of a right mule. There is a need to keep those chains straight and not twisted round, and a need to keep chains and two pairs of reins sorted out and not tangled together. All must be just right for plowing with a team of mules.


Kitt is content to stand there with her eyelids drooping, almost closed, she is dozing for a time. Belle is wide-eyed young mule nervous. This is her first time to be fully harnessed for plowing and she can't stand still, she is fidgeting, stomping a hoof and looking around best she can with her blinders on. Belle cannot see what is going on behind her, something is happening back there but her blinders keep her from seeing. She tries to look right but Kitt is standing there dozing and unconcerned. Belle tries looking to her left but those blinders do their job and about all she can see is a bunch of kids standing and sitting around looking at her while talking and pointing. Belle becomes increasingly nervous knowing grandpa is doing something behind her and she can't look to see.

Coming around from a safe kicking distance behind, walking up alongside Belle, grandpa talks to her, brushes at her flank then her neck, "Alright, alright, whoa, whoa," he works at soothing her with soft words, soothes her by rubbing on her neck. She does calm down a bit, then Cecil gets back to his task of preparing to fallow plow. Grandpa has her reins looped and hanging on her collar horn. Belle's gee side chain is stretched out between those mules, laying on the ground ready to be hooked up. Earlier Belle stomped around on this chain getting it twisted up and crooked like a slithering snake. Grandpa squeezed down between his mules to straighten out this chain. Belle starts up nervous fidgeting again. Grandpa knows not to step behind a mule within kicking distance, he gets this chain straightened out then slings the slack over his double tree. This jingling and noise of slinging her chain has Belle start a bit and, sure enough, she kicks with a hind leg. If grandpa was back there behind her, this kick probably would have killed him, or at least staved in his ribs. Cecil walks back up front while brushing, patting and talking to Belle. Out front, grandpa talks soft and face-to-face with Belle while stroking her neck. Belle calms down again but remains wide-eyed, she is afraid.

Without looking away from Belle, grandpa says loud enough for me to hear but no louder, "Taha, girl, go fetch a bag of sweet oats, hurry-up now." I leap from atop my fence post sitting place, I can feel my cousins' eyes watching my every move; grandpa chose me, I have to do this right. Quick as I can I run to our barn and fetch a feed bag off a hanging nail then run outside to our feed bin. With the heavy lid up, I toss my bag down in there then use both hands to scoop a bunch of sweet oats into this bag. I make sure to close the lid to keep those rats out, this is more important than a fidgeting young mule. So far, I'm doing right. I run like crazy back to grandpa, step in some wet mule manure with my barefeet but this doesn't slow me down. Grandpa holds Belle's bridle to keep her still, I hook up her feed bag quickly and easily. Right off I know this is worse, this ain't going to work, Belle takes to shaking her head instead of tonguing up sweet oats. She doesn't like having her nose and mouth covered.

I'm responsible to say something, I'm raised to speak my mind, to speak truthfully. In a quiet voice so those other kids won't hear me, "Grandpa, best I take her feed bag off, she doesn't want sweet oats, Belle is snorting and panting, she's scared, she can't breath." Grandpa works at soothing her, "OK, OK, whoa, whoa now," then says, "Take her feed bag off, child, then toss it over there towards the fence so Kitt can't see it." Only takes me a second to get her bag off and I toss it as far as I can towards our corral fence. I glance, the boys are watching me with narrowed eyes, they think I will mess up, I'm a girl, a red skinned girl, I can't do anything right except cook and wash clothes. Those lazy boys from up north of town poke at each other and point, say some words and grin. Makes me a little mad, they're just standing over there gossiping about me and I'm doing the work.


"Grandpa, let me talk to her." Cecil doesn't say a word but moves over little towards Kitt to make room for me. I get up there right under Belle's head, reach up and stroke her neck, "There, there, you're a good girl, I love you, Belle," and I go on like I do when feeding Belle and Kitt. She calms right down, looks at me like she does when I feed her blackberries, "Good, good, good girl, whoa, whoa, good girl, I really love you, girl." I truly do love our mules, they are my friends.

Belle stands still, stands there looking at me while I talk to her and rub her neck. I also love my grandpa, love him more than anything except grandma and Billyray, suppose I love all three the same, a lot. Maybe Billyray a little more, one of these days I'm going to marry the boy, I'm going to make him my husband. While soothing Belle I get to thinking, "Wish Billyray were here to help." He is off other side of Grassy Lake helping a farmer fall a couple of pine trees, he is making a clearing shoreline for a small paddle boat for fishing and frog gigging. In exchange our neighbor farmer is going to help Billy nail a new tin roof on an old rain leaky barn at Sookie's house. She is my best friend and just old enough to be my mother. She is widow needing some help, her husband is killed logging. I have to wait about a year until I'm thirteen or so to marry that handsome boy, least wait until the curse comes to me so we can make babies.

Grandpa treats me special, I think he loves me extra, "You're doing good, Taha, I said you'll make a good mule skinner. Keep her still, I need to walk down there between them and straighten out that chain again." He does, all goes well. Grandpa instructs me, "Girl, you go on back over there by the fence, don't you come back over here unless I tell you, hear me, girl?" I tell him, "Yes, sir, I do," and I run back near the fence but stay inside our corral in case I need to run back to help grandpa whether he tells me so or not. I said I heard him, I didn't say I would do what he tells me. I remember our feed bag, fetch this and toss it over by a post so the boys won't kick it over. Boys are stupid like that.


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