June 10, 2024

Good Friends, Best Friends, Good Times, the Beat of Times. 

I found the wagon train to be a good place for training mules. Mules are naturally cautious creatures. Some called it stubborn, but it was just caution. Just like horses, you teach a mule with kindness. You don't break them like you see in the movies. You teach them that they can trust you, starting from the moment the mare drops the foal. The sooner you get hands-on the easier it will be later in life. 

The old skinners would tell you that every mule should be born eight years old, because it takes that long before you get the fear out of them. I found that to not be true if I got that early hands-on time. In the photo, you see two of my mules. The one on your left is Odis, being ridden by a fellow named Grady Cunningham. On the right is me sitting the saddle on the finest muleI ever met. Old Red was an older brother to Odis. I didn't get him until he was about a year old and wild as a cat. It took cunning to finally trap him in a pen. You weren't going to get close enough to him to throw a loop, and he could flat-foot jump a five-foot fence. He was the orneriest, most hardheaded cuss I ever tried to ride. It took over a year just to get a saddle on him, and more years to get him to trust me, but when it went, it did so quickly. He had learned that I was not going to harm him, and over the years, he taught me that he was not going to let me get hurt either.

Old Red became known in the wagon train circles as a mule that could do just about anything, unless he perceived danger. Anyone could ride him. Put a kid on his back and he would be the most careful babysitter you could ask for. But when he perceived danger, he wouldn't take another step. And he was always right.

Once while riding a rocky cedar break out west of Waco, my friend, who was riding a horse, was following me through a narrow, winding trail. We busted out into an opening and found a dry pond surrounded by cattails. It was rocky on all sides but you could see the trail disappearing into the cedars on the other side. So, I nudged Red on. He took a couple steps into the reeds and froze. No way could I get him to go on. 

My friend road around me, thinking he could show Red the way, but one step past where Red had stopped that horse sunk to his belly in the mire and fell on his side. My friend crawled out, covered in muck, but the horse was stuck. I unfurled my rope, built a loop, and snagged the saddle horn. I dallied up and nudged Red backwards. It almost pulled both saddles off, but we were successful, but there in front of me stood a couple of very muddy critters. I road and he led his horse as we turned back to the trough that we'd parked our rig next to. 

Then there was that time up in the panhandle when I was trying to find a way out of an arroyo. I credit him with saving my life in this adventure. It was red sand country, and the further I rode the higher the walls got. I spotted a gap that wasn't so steep that I figured Red could climb out. Red seemed to agree since he ducked his head and lurched into the task. I stood in the stirrups to put my weight up high as he churned up that sand, and up that wall we went.

Red had his feet just over the lip when the whole cliff wall just let go. The sand was falling in huge clods, pushing Red backwards. He started to tumble and all I saw was that saddle horn inches from my sternum. I just knew that I was about to be crushed under a thousand-pound mule, over a hundred miles from the nearest hospital. But then Red did something that amazed me. He lurched up with everything he had and ducked his head down. Doing that stopped the fall for only a second or so, but it was enough for me to roll off the saddle. Red and I tumbled to the canyon floor side by side.

Both of us got up and started shaking the sand out of our ears, then I looked over at that magnificent animal, still in disbelief at what he'd done. I walked over and just hugged that big old head of his. I told him then and there that he would never need to worry about grazing anyone else's pasture, because he was going to live his life with me.

We rode together for many more years. On one of the trains down in the Hill Country we had pulled into the spot where we would overnight. As I rode in, I spotted one of my old timer friends sitting on the tailgate of his pickup. I figured I could use a rest before unsaddling, so I stepped offf and sat next to him, letting Red graze on the short grass. 

His name was Tom Scott. There's a story in him that I will save for later, but suffice it to say that we were very good friends. He was one of the good ones, but you'd never know it when he jutted that jaw out, pursed his lips and stared at you. He was a sucker for kids. He'd do anything to help a kid. 

We sat and chatted a bit before Ray Brown, a wealthy oilman who rode on our trains often, rode up to us. Soon as I saw him coming, I knew what was coming. We'd been through it several times before.

Ray didn't dismount. He just rode up and joined the conversation, chatting casually at first. Then sure enough, that talk turned to that familiar subject. Ray had wanted to buy Red from me for several years, and each time we talked he offered me an escalating sum, and each time I told him no. Red had saved my life and he would not be sold. Then uninvited, he spit out his latest offer anyway. I just looked at him and shook my head. He shook his too, then silently rode away.

You'd need to know Tom Scott to understand what came next. Tom could have been a comedian if he had wanted to, but it would be a comic sort of like Lewis Black. I don't think he was ever actually angry, but he could sure strip the hide off somebody with just a few quips.

"Never thought I'd see it, but there it just was," said Tom. I knew something was coming so I kinda steeled myself for it. What ya mean, Tom?" I asked. "I'd heard of it before," but never thought I'd witness a time when two fools met," Tom said, "but I just saw it."

How do you reply to that? I just asked him what he meant. He said, "Ray was a fool to offer that much for an old mule (Red was in his 20s by then) and if there ever was a fool, it was you for turning it down."

Twelve oir fifteen years earlier, Ray had started his bidding at $500. That day, the offer was $20,000. I never did sell Red. He's long gone now, buried out there on that pasture I had promised him all those years ago. My best friends have always been animals, and Red was the best of the best. Elvis the hound dog with the funny hips and no sense of smell, another best of the best, rests near Red. 

Anyway, this is a story about wagon trains, and one train in particular. Sorry, I got sidelined by nostalgia. In Texas at least, nothing like it had happened before and it's never been duplicated. It was the Texas Sesquicentennial Wagon Train, now memorialized in the Stockyards Museum in Fort Worth. With a little luck someone will do something similar in 2036 when Texas turns 200.