More Than a Mule
Festus needed another Ruth.
He had always ridden a mule instead of a horse, and every mule would be named "Ruth," whether a male, a jack, or female, a jenny, mule.
The first Ruth was faithful, stout, full of heart, and Festus loved her "like my mother." During the War Between the States, Festus Haggen was a muleskinner with the Confederate Army. One night, he and his mule were tasked with the hazardous job of retrieving the bodies of five young soldiers from a battlefield. On the way back, five dead boys atop Ruth's sturdy back, a Union sentry fired at them, followed by a furious rain of bullets from alerted Union soldiers.
The mission had been a success, but grievously wounded Ruth, after valiantly completing her job, had sadly looked at her owner before sliding down into a lifeless shape on the ground. After burying her, Festus made a promise: "While I'm still alive, there'll always be a Ruth."
Since Ruth's death in 1864, Festus had been using borrowed mules until he decided to settle down in Dodge. He was finally ready to search for another Ruth.
Riding a friend's mule, Festus rode out to Elmer Oakton's farm to look at his corral-full of mules for sale.
"Howdy, Elmer! I come like I said. Show me what ya got." Festus was excited about getting his second Ruth, but was trying to not seem too eager.
"Good to see you, Festus, come on over thisaway." The skinny old man in the torn overalls waved his hand towards the faded red barn about one hundred feet south of the ramshackle house with the sagging roof.
Festus dismounted and followed Elmer, leading his borrowed mule by the reins. He wanted to sprint over to the corral like a child running towards a pile of presents on Christmas, but forced himself to slowly saunter, large silver spurs on knee high black boots jingling with each step.
'Wal, let's git a look-see at these there pitiful animals," he drawled, his excitement growing the closer he got to the now-visible corral on the far side of the barn. The growing sound of braying and snuffling mules was music to his ears.
Reaching the corral, Festus looped his rein around the top rail, and climbed up to stand on the lowest rail for a better view of the milling animals. His practiced muleskinner eyes quickly scanned the group, separating the mules into "yes," "no," and "maybe." The only possible problem would be the price. Festus had been scrimping and saving for two years, and had exactly $300 to spend.
"Git on over here!" Old Elmer grinned his bearded, toothless smile. He had entered the corral and walked to the back as Festus was surveying the mules. He was now walking back, leading a tall mule by a lead attached to a red leather bridle. Once he had the mule through the gate, Elmer held out the lead towards Festus.
Trying not to gasp in admiration, Festus jumped down from the rail and slowly approached the finest looking jenny he had ever seen. The mule was tall and sturdy, long-legged, with a glossy, smooth chestnut brown coat, and a deep black muzzle on its perfectly shaped head.
Swallowing hard, Festus cleared his throat, and drawled, "When air you gonna show me a good'un, Elmer? You know I need a strong-hearted one, and not jest a purty face."
Festus had trouble taking his appraising eyes off of the marvelous animal, knowing it had everything a good mule needed.
Elmer disgustedly spat a long stream of tobacco juice into the dust at Festus' feet.
'That there, FESTUS, is the gol-darnest BEST mule you'll ever see…and you know it!" he growled.
Festus took off his stained, decrepit, high domed hat, scratched his close cropped brownish-red hair, and looked down at the tobacco stain in the dirt.
"Wal, Elmer…Oh, foot! I dint mean nuthin," he said in a high-pitched twang. "Sure, that there jenny is prettier than a speckled pup sittin' under a red wagon, but is she sure-footed and strong?"
"Jest you take her out and ride her! You'll see!"
Taking the lead rope, Festus climbed up on the corral fence and jumped onto the mule's broad back, nudging it forward with his knees. The animal responded immediately and galloped out towards the nearby grasslands.
Grinning in joy, the seasoned muleskinner felt the animal respond to his every command, sure-footed and tirelessly.
When he reached the corral again, Festus' scruffy bearded face was expressionless.
"Whaddaya think, Festus? Ain't she like settin' in a rockin' chair?" Elmer grinned at his friend's attempts to control his face,
"I tell ya, Elmer, she sure is a fine animal, but maybe I'd better look 'round at them others." Festus slid off the mule's back and handed the lead back to the farmer.
"Sure thing…but I gotta tell ya that Cobber Steirs over the way has been looking at her, too…"
Feeling his stomach clench up, Festus opened the corral gate, hooked his thumbs in his raggedy faded black vest, and nonchalantly strolled in among the group of mules.
Making himself slowly seem to examine ten of the animals, but not really seeing them, Festus felt a burning need to have that marvelous jenny.
Ten long minutes later, Festus went out to where Elmer was standing with a smirk on his face, holding the lead of the shining mule, certain that he had made a sale.
"Wal, I'll tell ya, Elmer, I kin take this one offa yer hands. I mean, I've already rid her and all…" he drawled, eyes down to hide the yearning in them.
"Festus, I'm asking $350 for her, and that's a real bargain," Elmer said, watching his friend's face fall.
"$350! NO mule is worth that, Elmer, and you know it!" Festus sputtered, his left eye bulging open and right eye squinting almost closed.
"Since it's you, Festus, my rock-bottom price is $300."
Afraid of losing her, Festus sighed and nodded his head, knowing it was a fair price for such a fine mule.
After carefully counting out fifteen, twenty-dollar gold pieces from a small drawstring rawhide bag, Festus proudly ran his hands over his new Ruth's stately neck. The animal stood as still as a statue, or as if posing for one.
Clutching the coins, the old farmer told Festus that he had to go in his house for the paperwork.
That's jest fine, Elmer. Me and Ruth will be right here awaitin'."
Festus proudly leaned back against the corral rails, elbows up on the highest rail, and the boot of his bent left leg resting on the middle rail.
As he gazed admiringly at his purchase, he was suddenly started by a firm shove in his upper back, knocking his elbows and foot off of the rails.
"What the!" Festus whirled around, right hand hovering over his gun. His head almost bumped into the long, brown muzzle of the homeliest mule he had ever seen. The young jack mule was tall and strongly built, but had a dirty brown coat, tall, lopsided ears like a gigantic jackrabbit, and an oddly-shaped, long and narrow head.
"And the durn thing is a GRINNING at me!" Festus realized, as he had to smile back at the mule's expanse of big, white teeth showing beneath a large, rolled-back, rubbery upper lip.
"You are the durnest ugly-on-a-ape jack I ever did saw!"
Festus reached out a hand to pat its muzzle, and the mule moved even closer, gently pushing its large head against the hand touching it, and rubbing up and down against it.
"Whatdaya think ya are-a dang CAT?!" Festus laughed, almost expecting to hear purring.
When Elmer returned with the paperwork, he handed it to Festus, saw the homely mule, and stalked into the corral. He grabbed the rough rope bridle and dragged the mule towards the open door into the barn at the back of the corral. Festus tied off Ruth's lead and followed.
'Sorry if 'Ugly' here was botherin' you, Festus. Musta gotten out of his stall again. Durn mule is young and strong, but no one will give me any money for it 'cause he's so ugly! I'll keep him in his stall forever before I'll let a good plow mule go for less than $150."
Festus followed along as Elmer roughly backed the young mule into a narrow, dirty stall inside the dark barn. A chewed through rope hung from the stall's front gate. Elmer grumbled as he tightly fastened the gate again with another thick rope.
"There! Let's git your 'Ruth' set to go!"
As Festus and Elmer turned to leave the barn, the lopsided eared mule softly nickered. Festus' squinty eyes met the soft, deep brown ones of the jack.
"Wisht I had me an extra $150, son." Festus said softly. He shook his head a little, and strode back out to where Ruth waited in the sunlight.
Ruth and Festus had been together for a month, but something wasn't quite right. At first, Festus would preen like a proud father when everyone praised the glorious jenny. And he couldn't complain about Ruth's endurance and easy ride. But the beautiful animal was as cold in nature as the marble statue she resembled.
She was an efficient machine, but Festus yearned for the special connection he had had with his first, beloved Ruth. That Ruth could sense what Festus was thinking and feeling, he swore, whereas the current Ruth would merely wait and obey any command emotionlessly.
While riding back to Dodge one warm day, Festus suddenly turned the obedient mule towards Elmer's farm.
"Hey, how are ya, Festus?!" Elmer called out as he turned from strewing chicken feed among his clucking flock darting about in front of his house.
"Ain't you and Ruth looking fine!"
Festus got down from the glossy-coated mule, and led it over to Elmer.
"Elmer,…I…er…I…want to swap out this here jenny fer that lopsided eared jack in yer barn."
The tough muleskinner's stubbly face was red as he looked down at the toes of his high, black boots.
"What in the world do ya mean?! Are ya joshing me, Festus? I caint give ya the difference of $150 'cause the $300 ya give me is already spent! And why would you want that plug-ugly jack instead of this fine jenny?" The old rancher had dropped the feed bucket and had grabbed both of Festus' upper arms.
Festus looked up and met Elmer's questioning, faded blue eyes. "Now, look here! Ya can HAVE the whole $300. Jest take this here cold-blooded beast and let me have….THAT one," pointing at the dirty mule who had come trotting over from the dark barn, having heard Festus' voice and promptly chewed through another rope of his stall and mouthed open the corral gate.
The old farmer knew a good deal and didn't really care why his usually canny friend had gone loco.
"It's a deal! Come on by with her papers next week and I'll give you his. And this deal is fer keeps!"
Festus quickly unsaddled the perfectly proportioned mule while Elmer held the lead of the long-headed, drab jack.
"Here's ol' 'Ugly', Elmer said, handing the lead to Festus and taking hold of the jenny's.
"Nah, he's my Ruth" smiled Festus, as the lopsided eared young mule peeled back his rubbery upper lip in a goofy grin.