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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 3: Stubborn as a mule February 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
Tags: ,

Boer War mule postcard. They were often used for carrying sections of artillery.

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, who lives in St. Louis. The time: early 1900. The serial starts here.

Jack had been by the mule yard in East St. Louis and seen British agents inspecting and purchasing mules. The animals were barged to New Orleans and transferred to ocean vessels headed for Cape Town. He spoke with one of the mule handlers and learned that the British army was hiring muleteers at $15 for the trip over and $0.75 a day coming back. He had no experience with mules, but he was comfortable with horses, and the fellow seemed to think the British weren’t very fussy about people’s backgrounds. All they needed was a crew to take the mules up to the deck once a day and walk them around for a bit. Once he got to Cape Town, he would find a way to get to the front.

He quizzed one of the British mule buyers about it and found out that the H.M.S. Bacchante would be departing with its cargo of 500 mules in New Orleans on January 10. The buyer was sure they were looking for muleteers. That meant Jack needed to get moving pretty quickly.

He had to break it to Sarah that he was going. He was curious how she would react to the preposterous idea of his going over to South Africa and joining the Boers. If she supported the idea, that would show that she was truly in harmony with him, that she understood something essential about himand that would make it harder to leave her. But she made the task easier by being completely incredulous. “You’re joking, aren’t you?” she said. When he assured her he was dead earnest about it, she said, “This is some childish thing that’s taken hold of you. You’re trying to prove something, aren’t you? Well, you needn’t prove it to me.” He said, “Well, I guess I’m trying to prove I’m a fool, and it looks like I’ve already succeeded.”

Mother cried when he told her, and Dad shook his head, but he had a funny little smile at the same time. Then Jack had to turn in his resignation at the Post Dispatch. Of course he’d floated the notion of the paper making him a correspondent, but old George didn’t warm up to the idea. A couple of New York papers had men over there, and Scribners did too, but George seemed to think the citizens of St. Louis weren’t all that interested in the subject. They left it that if Jack stumbled upon a “really big” story, he could cable it over, but otherwise he shouldn’t bother. Perhaps it was just as well. He was going over there to fight, and he wanted his relationship with the Boers to be simple and straightforward.

Howard Hillegas of the New York World on a Basuto pony at Sanna's Post

On January 8 Jack took the train to New Orleans. It wasn’t hard to find the Bacchante. It was as high as a five-story building and as long as a city block. Mules were being driven up the gangplank, although some that weren’t cooperating with the procedure were being led off to a pen. Jack wondered how they would be dealt with. He asked one of the handlers if the ship was hiring. “Oh yes, just go to the brick building over there and ask for Mr. Bates.”

Mr. Bates was a grimy-looking fellow with what looked suspiciously like a bit of mule dung stuck to the side of his hat. “Got experience with mules?” he asked Jack. “Oh yes, lots of experience,” Jack lied. “Okay, we can use you right away. We need some help with the crating.” “Sure thing,” said Jack. Mr. Bates led him over to the pen where the uncooperative mules were being held. A tall man, even grimier than Mr. Bates, was leading a mule from the pen over to another part of the dock. “Take this mule right here and lead him over to where Wilbur is. Here’s a lead rope for you.” Jack found himself staring into the big brown eyes of a beautiful velvety-looking mule. He fastened the clasp to the mule’s halter and pulled. Nothing happened. The animal wouldn’t budge. “Going to be that way, are you? Let’s try this.” He pulled the rope to the side until the mule’s neck was bent around and it was forced to take a step. Jack pulled it around in a couple of tight circles. “We’ll just keep going in circles until you feel like going forward.” The trick had always worked with horses, and it worked this time, too. The mule followed him out of the pen and over to a spot where several large wooden crates were stacked.

Jack arrived in time to see a mule disappearing into a crate as Wilbur gave it a good slap on the rump. “”You make it look easy,” he said.  “It helps to bribe them with a lump of sugar,” said Wilbur. “You give them a lump to whet their appetite and then you put a second lump into the far end of the crate.” Wilbur handed him a couple of sugar cubes from a big glass jar. Jack put one into the center of his outstretched palm and felt the whiskers of the mule tickle him as it gulped down the sugar. Wilbur said, “Now make like you’re going to give him the second lump and then pull your hand back gradually and put the sugar into that crate right there.” It worked! The mule vanished into the crate.

(To be continued)



1. brian - March 2, 2011

I’ll have to try that trick next time I deal with a mule. My only previous experience was with a borrowed Tibetan animal that totally owned me. He left the road and headed up a mountainside to a village where the residents came running up and started laughing at me. I had his head pulled sideways the whole way but the stubborn thing walked like that till he got to a lady mule tied to a post. I finally gave up and pulled him all the way back.

I like the word “muleskinner” over muleteer. Sounds a little edgier.

Jenny - March 3, 2011

The trick is to pull the way he wants to go—really hard! Then that will get him going in circles. Then you let go, but every time he goes off course, get the circles going again. Problem is, this battle could easily take a half hour or so. Worth it if you are working with a certain animal over a long period of time—not worth it for a one-time ride.

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