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[With a nod and salute to William Faulkner . . .]

usadeepsouth.com


Mule's Gold
by Claude Jones


The mule stopped at the edge of the wash where Sunday night’s rain had broken the rows for one hundred and twenty feet carrying the thin layer of top soil from the Yoknapatawpha hillside into Puscus Creek to be rushed to tumble, meet and mix with the hope of some Martintown farmer and some Cotton Plant gardener and hundreds of other hopeless, poor, undefeatable but defeated tillers of the red Mississippi hills, the Tallahatchie gobbled Puscus Creek’s offering pushing on toward the mighty Mississippi River without a pause, thank you or a thought of consequence. With the wafer of tillable dirt absorbed, relocated and transferred through rills strengthening the flow, enabling the muddy water to become its own weapon to pierce each proceeding hilled row, sometimes washing the young cotton plants from the field, leaving some plants standing with little support and root exposed and doomed by the torture of the coming summer sun. Left in the wash was heavy grained sand shining the reflection of the late morning sun, in contrast to the dullness of the small brown sand stones and native rocks with remnants of the once richness of the land clinging to the upstream side of each object heavy enough to not succumb to the gravity driven rain.

Luster, with the plow no longer running within an inch of the life sustaining cotton plants, raised his eyes not in question or curiosity; he believed everything he saw without doubts or complaints. There was no fate – only the reality of the toils of life occasionally interrupted by mules that seemed the only creature in Yoknapatawpha County independent enough to make a difference. Carefully tying the plow lines of mule sweat, man sweat stained hemp to the plow handles, Luster walked to the front of the mule. With no effort he examined the plow, lines, hames, bridle, collar, single tree, the mule’s feet, legs and breathing, while his steps with bare feet had avoided the crushing of the plants that produces the fluff which provides money to sustain life as life was known to Luster.

Luster knew though the mule with the blinder bridle was prevented from seeing him; the mule would sense his movements and with a hook kick inflict damage and bruising if Luster were careless. Luster was not aware of any of the millions of calculations taking place in his journey to the front of the mule or he would have had to step, watching his foot placement, raising his head, examining the single tree – look step stop examine the hame look, step, look, step, but no thought had been necessary for Luster or people like him in the present time or in times past. Tasks were performed, observation made and noted, and it went on and on and on or life ceased. Tomorrow was not the catalyst or drive, but if it came, tomorrow would be done like today, tomorrow was today, as was yesterday.

In the slight crevice lay a buckle, tarnished and dirty – its only shine was of promise as Luster bent and pulled the buckle from the sand using his other brown callused hand, grasping the rotted leather as it escaped its longtime bed. The belt had sewn and bradded compartments filled to humping up and bulging the leather. Luster raised his head and looked all around though no one else had been in the field in years. He even looked the mule in the eye, the mule looked away. Luster with bare foot raked the dirt loosened by the belt’s removal into the gap in the row bed just in case it rained again soon.

Luster carefully carried the heavy puffed belt unopened to the end of the row, walked back to the plow, untied the lines, and clucked up the mule and plowed the rest of the field with the mule seemingly oblivious of the small wash over the next fifty four rows.

Luster drove the mule to the barn with the plow turned sideways to slide on the grass, the belt wrapped around his neck. He took the gear from the mule, placed six shucked ears of corn in the trough as he did everyday, drew a bucket of water and poured it in the stable for the mule to drink, drew water for the hogs, poured shelled corn into the sow’s trough, drew one half bucket of water for the chickens which he poured in the split tire, threw shelled corn on the ground for the rooster and hens, put corn and hay in for the cow, took the milk bucket from the nail on the barn wall, turned over the feed bucket, sat on it and milked the front two teats of the cow, then turned her into the plank fenced lot for the calf to get her share, poured a little milk for the cat and went into the house.

He started a small fire in the wood cook stove, sat his skillet and boiling pan on the eyes to warm, then sat at the table to see what the fat compartments held. With his pocket knife and a corncob handled file, he forced open the rusted snaps. Gold in coins and dust sifted into his hands and overflowed in the china bowl on the table.

The strange print on the coins that he could not read did not intrigue him; he did not care how the gold came to be in his field. He balanced coins or dust in one hand and a pound of lead in the other to determine the weight of the gold. He did not try to calculate the amount of gold in its worth in money, but he must know a quantity to assign the gold. He thought of the money in the purse in the bib of his overalls and the fruit jar of money buried under the edge of his south facing porch. Had he needed anything he assumed he would have already bought it.

He replaced the gold in the belt, carefully wrapping it in oilcloth, stepped out onto the porch, picking up the shovel, leaning against the front wall. He started down the steps to pick out a safe place to rebury the belt and its contents. As Luster looked toward the barn he saw the mule with head hung over the stall door, looking directly at him. Of course all Mississippi people know you bury your valuables on the south side of the house because the enemy always comes from the north. Luster looked at the mule in the last light of day, carried his bundle to the north side of the house out of the mule’s sight, and buried the gold in a carefully noted place.

Lincoln, Grant or even William Tecumseh Sherman were to be trusted more than the mule.

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Claude Jones writes:
"I have lived all my life in Pontotoc, Mississippi -- raised on a farm where we milked cows, raised cotton, corn, and had a peach orchard. I've worked for Pontototc Electric Power for 31 years. My wife Ann and I have two sons, both are pharmacists, and we have two grandchildren."


Want to read more of Claude’s writing at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Who Has The Edge?
Two Poems
Two Poems - II
Mama
Young Dreams and Old Realities

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