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One Muleheaded Horse

by Fred Baker

Jeremiah Clancy couldn’t believe the size of this crowbait.  In the predawn darkness, he could swear the animal looked a whole lot more like one of them desert camels from Arabia than anything else.  He was seventeen hands at the withers if he was an inch.

He hoped the green-broke young gelding would look a mite better come daylight.  If not, there was one young drover who was going to be helping Jackson move his herd across the river with his eyes closed, afraid he’d be struck permanently blind by the pure ugly of the critter.

Clancy was eighteen that summer.  He was small for his age but wiry and rattlesnake-quick with his fists.  Growing up in the orphanage had learned him that.  Learned him good, too.

Big Henry’d said it best after losing a scuffle to the smaller man:  “It’s true that Jeremiah Clancy barely come up to my chin.  Trouble is, he come up there way too often.”

Climbing into his A-fork saddle took some doing, him being barely five foot six, but he wasn’t complaining.  Uncle Judd was letting him use the tall gelding for the day.  Wouldn’t take anything for it, either.  Judd was just like that, blood uncle to nobody in Mississippi as far as folks knew, yet willing to help out anybody he could.

Jeremiah’s pay for today’s work was to be one full dollar.  He couldn’t of took the job without a horse, and Uncle Judd couldn’t let that happen.

“It’ll do that barn-sour jughead good, getting rode for a day, doing some actual work.  You’re doing me a favor.  He’s in the corral behind the lefthand tobacco shed.  Just be sure and get some work out of ‘im.  He can be more’n a little lazy when he wants to.”

Jeremiah didn’t much believe he was truly doing the old man a favor, but he did appreciate the loan of the horse, even as mule-stubborn and hard to turn as this jughead appeared to be.

By the time he rode into Jackson’s yard, Mrs. Jackson had breakfast on the table.  Eggs sunny side up, thick bacon straight from the smokehouse, and a pile of flapjacks fit to fill ol’ Paul Bunyan’s belly.  They all dug in, hurried down one last cup of black coffee, and headed out.

Jackson was glad to have Clancy along.  The boy was a good hand.  He tended to sometimes avoid admitting when he didn’t know how do to something, but he was a good hand all the same.

The giant gelding turned out to be even uglier in full daylight.  His ears were short and ragged at the ends.  They looked like they’d been chewed off.  Maybe a painter had jumped him and mostly missed, chewing on the tips of the ears and nothing else.  His head was awful long for a saddle nag, ending in a Roman nose and oversized, rubbery lips.  Worst of all, both front legs come out of the same hole with no chest between ’em at all.

Didn’t neck rein all that good, neither.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers.  Clancy knew not to look a free-rent gift horse in the mouth.

The four of ’em rode single file across the river, Mr. Jackson in the lead, then his two daughters riding astraddle like men, with Jeremiah pulling up the rear.  Camel – he’d taken to calling his borrowed nag Camel – fair pitched a fit when he seen all that running water.  Being corral-raised, he’d probably never eyeballed any body of water bigger’n the frog pond Uncle Judd used to water his stock.

It was working out okay, though, until they hit the deep part of the ford where the water finally got up high enough to tickle that throwback’s underbelly.  Camel reared up, up, and crashed over backwards, smashing into four feet of water with his rider trapped underneath.

The Jacksons all turned in their saddles when they heard that big splash.  When he didn’t pop up right away, they figgered their hired hand for the day was one dead orphan.  But they underestimated the fella.  He wasn’t hurt.  He was just too smart to raise his head till he could scramble around on all fours on them riverbed rocks, making sure he come up under that cursed critter’s head instead of under his hind hooves.

When he did get vertical again, the horse was back on its feet, too.  And Clancy still had hold of the reins.

“You okay, Clancy?” Jackson asked calmly.


He led Camel the rest of the way across.  He wasn’t about to try mounting up in the middle of that river.

By the time they’d rounded up the ninety-three cow-calf pairs from pasture and started the herd back toward the river crossing, he was about half dried out.  Dumb horse didn’t know one end of a cow from the other, naturally.  Looked like Jeremiah was going to surefire earn his dollar that day.

Now, historians would be wise to remember:  Young Jeremiah Clancy had been hankering to head out West from the time he was big enough to spell wagon train.  Nor had he give up on the idea.  But he’d been talking without doing for so long, most folks had gotten to hearing nothing but wind when he spoke.

There was a train circled out west of town that very day, matter of fact.  Just half a dozen wagons with as many families mending harness and greasing wheel hubs, getting ready to push on for Oregon.  None of the local folks knew Clancy had already been out to see those people but had been turned away by the wagon master.

Nobody wanted a penniless kid tagging along, dragging them down, eating their supplies and getting evil ideas about their girls.

Jeremiah had still been burning with rage and shame over that rejection when he’d started his day.  Getting dunked in the water by fourteen hundred pounds of horse had pretty well washed that out of him, though.  Now it was a matter of getting these cows to cross the danged river.

Which none of ’em wanted to do.  They’d been on the south side pasture for more than four months, and every last idjit bovine seen that running water pretty much the way idjit Camel did, as an absolute barrier to progress.

The four drovers battled the herd until close to noon without any success whatsoever.  They finally got the lead cow to take to the water just above the main ford, but that just drew the whole bunch to Jackson Island, no more than five acres of dry land and not one bit closer to the north side.

Jackson thought about that for a while.  Then he said, “Clancy, you stay out here on the point.  The girls and I will cross over to the island and push the herd back this way.  You holler ’em out away from the point.  Once they get to swimmin’, they should angle across jist about right.”

The younger man nodded, got off his horse, and tied that dinosaur freak off to the nearest bush.  The critter weren’t no cow horse.  A man yelling at them cows from the shore could likely do better on foot than he could forking a danged Camel.

But yelling at the herd didn’t work.  The lead cows were veering back toward the #$&!! south bank yet again.

Nothing for it.  It was now or never.

Clancy took a flying leap, jumped into the river, and swam out right alongside the lead cow, bellowing into her left eye:


It worked.  The lead critters shied away from this in-their-faces crazy-assed human.  Their feet found the shallower ford, and – thankfully – the entire herd followed.

He’d done it.

But he was in trouble.  The cows had found the ford, but in getting them there, Jeremiah himself had been washed down below the ford, into a section of river where the water ran too swiftly over rounded stones for a man to stand erect against the current.  He was being washed rapidly downstream.  Straight toward Dead Man’s Bend.

The Bend was a sharp curve where the bottom dropped out of the river and suddenly changed from three feet of fast water to a somewhat slower but infinitely more dangerous eight feet of depth.  Well over even a tall man’s head.

And Jeremiah Clancy was no tall man.

A pair of western-style leather chaps added to his peril.  He had acquired the chaps, seldom seen in Mississippi, from a retired mule skinner against the day he could live his dream under those big western skies.  He never got on a horse without them.

Now his dream was about to kill him.  He could swim, but not well.  The leather on his legs would drag him under, if not at Dead Man’s Bend itself, then somewhere in the next half mile of equally over-his-head river.

Not that he’d go down easy.  Unable to stand but keeping his head facing upstream, he began rolling toward the nearer shore, over and over.  He was making progress.

It was going to be close.

Mr. Jackson saw his predicament.  Came galloping down the shore on his beautiful black Saddlebred.  Threw him a rope.

Missed by a hair.

Roll, roll, roll.

It was going to be very close.  The Bend loomed dead ahead but Jeremiah’s feet suddenly found shallower water.  Two feet deep now, one foot . . .

. . . made it.  Forty feet farther downstream, it would have been all over but the drowning.

Not that the workday was over.  One late calf, mere days old, hadn’t made it across with its mother.  Mr. Jackson might could have balanced the little guy across the saddle in front of him, but Jeremiah, still dripping wet yet determined to earn his dollar in full, volunteered.  Camel, utterly worthless anyway, was led across the ford behind the boss’s mount.

Clancy clutched the calf to his chest and walked across.

Mama was waiting for her baby on the other side.  The job was done.

They all rode back on up to the house then.  The half-drowned, would-be drover shivered uncontrollably in eighty-five degree sunshine until, along with that precious silver dollar, Mr. Jackson handed his top hand for the day a double shot of hundred proof whiskey.

“That should fix you right up,” he advised.  And it did.

Back at Uncle Judd’s tobacco sheds, Clancy pulled his tack from the poorest excuse for a cow horse ever seen on God’s green Earth and forked a bit more hay into the manger.  Shouldering his saddle, he was turning to head back down toward town when something caught his eye.  There was still plenty of sun time.  He figgered he’d go have a looksee.

Behind the other tobacco shed was another corral.  Jeremiah stood there for several minutes.  He stared through the rails, turned back toward Camel’s enclosure, and turned back to peer through the rails once again as realization crept over him.

There was nothing for it.  He would have to leave Mississippi now.  Today.  That wagon train had rebuffed him, but he’d tail ’em and find a way to make himself useful.  He could hunt, he could shoot, he could sleep alone away from the wagons if he had to until he could prove his worth to ’em.  There was no other option.  The humiliation would be just too much, otherwise.

Because the Jacksons would talk.  They’d mean nothing by it.  They’d just be sharing with their neighbors and friends, telling how young Jeremiah Clancy had been a hero today, danged near got himself killed trying to turn the herd, carried that baby calf across when he was already worn to a frazzle from fighting the river, took that whiskey down like a man . . .

Yep, they would talk all right, and the truth would come out.  Folks might not ever figger he just never could be sure which was his right hand and which was his left, but no matter.  They’d know the worst of it.

Because in the dark, not knowing his left from his right and fearing to admit as much to Uncle Judd, he’d gone before daylight to the wrong corral behind the wrong tobacco shed.  He’d saddled up the wrong critter.  Camel truly wasn’t a sorry excuse for a green-broke young cow horse.  Truth, he wasn’t any horse at all.

Jeremiah Clancy had ridden out to do a full day’s droving work on Uncle Judd’s old plow mule.


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