By Stephenie Slahor
“Them mules—they got a bad rep’tation, but they’re smart. They’ll getcha where we’re goin’ and bring y’all back safe,” our guide Dean said, shuffling his feet in his well-worn boots and jingly spurs as our group of hunters gathered around him at the lodge’s corral.
My uncle was there; husband and wife Terry and Emmy were out for deer for their freezer; and Warton, a guy by himself, seemed to be only politely received by our group. Instinct at work?
“They’re surefooted ’cuz their eyes are farther apart than a horse and see all four feet at the same time,” Dean continued as those far-apart mule eyes eyed us. “Them mules is strong. Don’t need a lot of water or food. They got narrow ribs so y’all will have comfortable ridin’. They can jump from a standin’ start, sit like a dog, or stand on one front hoof and the opposite back foot. Agile! Them mules have a horse mom and a dad donkey.”
“So they’re Half Ass?” Warton laughed at his own joke. The look on Dean’s face made us wince. He’d heard that one before and didn’t laugh the first time either.
Don’t rile the guide. Don’t insult the mules, we all registered.
“To move ‘em, ya hafta plow rein. Pull on the right rein to go right, left rein to go left.”
“Pull back to stop?” Uncle asked.
“Yes, sir, but if ya pull back, and keep squeezin’ yer legs, you’ll back up.”
“So there’s a reverse gear. And they’ve got an exhaust system, too,” Warton tried a joke again.
Dean barely nodded and we all figured Warton would be the Smart Ass of the group. One in every crowd.
“Keep your hands low over the saddle horn, lean back on the downhills and lean forward uphill,” Dean advised. “Get on and off on their left, and make a little noise around ‘em—so you don’t come up on ‘em sudden-like. Don’t leave nothin’ of value on your saddle when you dismount. Mules love to roll, saddled or not. Take your rifle, camera, binoculars with you.”
This was Uncle’s long-awaited bucket list trip, and he went from green around the gills to dusty rose, once used to riding.
Dean fulfilled our hopes as guide and cook. He promised he’d “whomp up somethin’ good” for meals, and he did.
We headed to our tents for rest and stretching our legs, but the unmistakable sound of a “hee-haw” came up in the night.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?” Warton screamed louder than the mule.
“The mules!” we chorused. Smart Ass struck again.
Next day, Terry and Emmy got their venison. Uncle rode close to Dean, talking trip, mules and terrain. Dean loaded the carcass on a pack mule and taught Uncle how to throw a diamond hitch to tie it on. Uncle would probably never need that skill again, but he reveled in it.
Warton? He missed his shot and, in true Smart Ass fashion, blamed his rifle.
When Uncle and I met our chance to bag our trophies, Warton bailed off his mule to glass the area with his binoculars. His mule promptly dropped to roll, and a loud “SONOFABITCH!” echoed off the cliffs as Warton saw the mule atop his rifle and scabbard.
“Not Smart Ass,” Uncle whispered. “Make it Dumb Ass.”
It’s been years now, but we still hear from Terry and Emmy. And uncle can still throw that diamond hitch—a skill to intrigue his grand-nephews and grand-nieces.