by Bruce Northridge
|Published in a ???? Issue of Anvil Magazine
People are always asking me about mules. They always ask with a grin if I've ever been kicked by a mule, or they ask if a mule is as stubborn or as mean or as good for nothing as legend has him made out to be. I couldn't have said ten years ago -- in fact, I couldn't have said at all if it hadn't been for Monk.
I had been out of horseshoeing school about six months and things were going well, but not as profitably as I wanted. There were still stretches when the phone didn't ring, stretches that made me think about getting a job in a gas station.
I was eating, though barely, when Monk called. He caught me in the middle of a slow time so I was more receptive to his proposition than I would normally have been. I was still having trouble forgiving him for the Great Arizona Bull-Shoeing Incident.
"Three-hundred head of pack horses. Ten bucks a head. Cold shoeing. Take about ten days. What do you say?"
"That's a lot of horses."
"I've got a friend I'll be bringing along. Name's John."
"He any good?"
"He's good. Been with me a year now. He'll pull his weight."
"I get paid for what I do?"
"Only fair way."
"This might turn into a horse race."
"Hope so. Get it done quicker."
I went to the bank. I figured four-hundred dollars would just make it. Three hundred for shoes, nails, and not starve this time. That left me with seventeen dollars and forty-two cents to my name. What the hell! I was going to make one thousand in just ten days.
It took a day to drive from Petaluma to the Sequoias. The worst part was the last 25 miles, from Springville to Mad Dog. The road twists and turns and snakes, and is populated with logging trucks driven by maniacs. There are sightseeing campers and mobile homes puttering along like moving roadblocks. All the campgrounds are full or overflowing, and people are everywhere.
I arrived at the cocktail lounge of the Mad Dog Resort an hour before the agreed time, so I hunched over the bar and sipped a beer. I was nervous; I wanted to get started, and I hoped Monk would get here soon.
Monk was late. I'd finished four beers and had pretty much forgotten shoeing by the time he and John walked into the bar.
"Had trouble with my rig overheating up this hill," was all he said. Monk and John sat with me and drank beer. The sun was going down and there was no point in trying to shoe any horses. Tomorrow would be soon enough. Monk told us about the deal he had made. He was really proud of it.
"We get free room and board at the resort. Any booze is extra. We shoe the pack string here, then there's a pack station up the road. These people are desperate for horseshoers up here."
I looked around the bar with its low-beamed ceiling and rich carpeting and then out the big plate-glass windows to the sculpted gardens and varnished cabins. Yes, they had to be desperate to foot the bill for three men for ten days at the beginning of the season in a place like this.
"Kind of makes you wonder why, doesn't it?" John said.
"What's the matter with you guys? You don't like this deal?"
"I like it, I like it!" John and I chorused.
"Did Monk tell you about the last good deal he got me into?" I ask, grinning at John.
"That was a good deal! You were just too slow with the iron." It was pretty obvious Monk wanted to drop that subject.
"What good deal?" John pushed.
"Did you ever hear about all those bulls he lined up?
"You mean you went along with him? I turned him down when he asked me," John said, really smiling now, and suddenly I wanted to drop the whole thing, too.
The cooks fed us breakfast in the kitchen the next morning because we were up before the dining room opened. We ate heartily and had a good time with the cooks; a big, round lady and a skinny Greek who loved to talk. They said it was funny how there was always a different team of horseshoers every year. Monk allowed as to how we were going to change all that.
The first day was easy. We set up our anvils in the shade of two redwood trees and put shoes on thirteen horses before lunch. I turned into a machine. I honed down all my moves until there was no wasted effort. My tools were laid out and replaced meticulously, the new shoes were arranged in a particular array. I didn't have to search for anything. I rarely even had to look at what I needed next. I only had to reach. At first it took an hour to shoe a horse; by lunch I was down to 45 minutes -- by late afternoon, half an hour.
And there was no lessening of quality. With the repetition came habit, and with habit came a backing away from thought. When one has to think about this work he slows down. At the end of the first day I was hard pressed to remember how many horses I had shod. The next day I began to put tally marks on the hitching rail.
By dark that first day I had done sixteen horses to Monk's seventeen. John had managed nine. He was depressed. We told him not to worry, that he would be just as fast as we were by the time we'd finished the three-hundred head.
At four o'clock the next afternoon we finished the resort's dude string. Sixty-five horses shod in two days. We took the rest of the day off, sharpened our hoof knives, organized our boxes of horseshoes, and drank a few beers. We were treated like kings the next morning at the pack station. There was hot coffee and doughnuts waiting for us, and two wranglers who were to get us anything we wanted anytime, all day. We felt great until five that afternoon when they brought us the first mule.
"That's it for the horses," one wrangler said. I had worked on burros before, but had never shod a mule. My first dismay was the size of their feet. Small. I hadn't brought any small shoes. Now I'd have to use my forge to cut down the larger shoes. I would have to slow down. I looked over to Monk and John; they were in the same boat.
"You didn't tell me there'd be mules," I called.
"Didn't know myself."
My second dismay was discovering that the stories about mules are all true. Mules ARE sneaky, cagey, stupid, and nasty. They can kick the hat off your head with a hind foot while you're shoeing a front. You can think you have a nice, sweet, docile one, and suddenly you're on the ground with hoofprints all over your body.
The first mules that first afternoon weren't bad. The only trouble was getting used to the differently shaped feet. The second, third, and fourth days the mules got progressively worse. At the end of the fifth day, over bourbon with beer chasers, we began to understand why we were getting the VIP treatment from the resort people and the packers. Monk knew tricks to get mules to stand quietly, and John stopped shoeing to handle for us. Monk showed him how to twist an ear -- twist until it broke, and thus achieve absolute attention from the mule. This made the mule stand very still. It also made the mule very mad. And a mule that is mad does not act mad; he waits.
And, I learned, a mule always gets revenge. Once it discovers that fighting gets nothing but pain, it quiets down; the head droops, ears flop, eyes close halfway. Then you relax, figure you've won, and that's when the mule will blow. It'll line you up and take aim.
We slowed down with our shoeing. Our schedule was blown.
What was supposed to take ten days was getting into the third week with 50 more mules to go.
Some days we were lucky to finish seven between us. Perhaps I was just getting more cautious and Monk and John were losing their nerve, but the mules seemed to be getting harder and harder to do. We suspected the packers of saving the worst for last.
A big Missouri draft mule kicked John in the upper right arm and broke the bone in two places. Monk drove him down the hill. Two days later, a similar mule kicked me in the back, breaking the ribs on my left side and cracking my sternum. I told Monk to stay put, that I could take care of myself. (I was much given to extreme acts of bravery in those days.) The resort gave me a bottle of bourbon, and I drove myself down the mountain to the hospital in Springville.
I don't know how I got there; it was agony negotiating the curves. When I tried to turn the steering wheel and downshift I would almost black out. And then there were the deathwish truck drivers and all the tourists. The bourbon, however, helped enormously.
At the hospital they told me I was lucky. They x-rayed me from five different angles, gave me a shot, a thorough bath, pain pills, sleeping pills, took away my clothes, and put me to bed.
The next morning a svelte-looking nurse, dressed in white, brought me my clothes all washed and folded and pressed.
"We just couldn't have them the way they were," she said, putting them in a drawer.
"You got a John Morales here?"
"Down the hall to your left. Room 107."
I carefully got up and dressed just as soon as she was gone. I eased down the hall and found John all wired to the bed and ceiling with his arm cemented into a half-salute.
"You ready?" I asked him.
"What are you doing here?" He was a little pale, but I assumed it was the hospital lighting.
"Broke some ribs, so don't make me laugh. Where are your clothes?" I had to cut him loose with my pocket knife, and getting him dressed was almost impossible with the cast. I finally took some of the cut wire and laced his shirt over his cemented shoulder. He looked vaguely like a Russian Hussar -- very dashing with a hairy chest.
The people behind the main desk made quite a fuss when we walked out. They were hysterical about the release forms, insurance companies, and what the hell did we think we were doing?
John really was pale and couldn't get into my truck with his arm the way it was. We had to roll the window down, use the window sill for a support, and lever him onto the seat by closing the door. There was still two-thirds of the bourbon left and John and I finished it as we rode back up the mountain.
Monk was glad to see us. He said he was worried we'd never come back.
There were still forty mules to go. I couldn't bend over, so I did the iron work. John assisted as best he could. The mules got worse and worse.
We made a belly band, put a pulley in a tree, and hiked those mules a foot off the ground. It was a sight to see; the mule, forlorn, hung like a cat over an arm, slowly swinging in the breeze. Hanging like that, though, if they kick or strike out, there is little force in their blows.
Some mules were so bad we couldn't get them into the sling. We took those down to a stream where the water was six inches deep, and stood them in it. If a mule can't see his feet he becomes exceedingly cautious and stops fighting. The only problem with the stream system is the water. It is miserable handling freezing wet feet and legs. And, with tools and shoeing apron, it's miserable having to wade back and forth to fit and cut the shoes. But it worked.
We finished in the middle of the fifth week and split the money three ways, equally.
I had been smart and given the hospital the resort as my address. The bill was $530.63. If I paid it, I would have little to show for a month's work. They didn't know where I really lived, so I figured they could charge twice on their next patient.
I drove slowly back to Petaluma and arrived just in time to pay the month's bills and make excuses to my clients for not showing up to shoeing appointments in the last three weeks. Six months later, Monk called. He had lined up two-hundred head of movie horses near Coalinga at twelve dollars a head. We could be done in ten days, easily.
About the Author:
Bruce Northridge passed away in 2000. Telling lies most of his life, Bruce finally had to write some down to keep track of the details. "Funny how people tell you what you've said and you know they're dead wrong!" He shod his first horse at age 14 with a claw hammer and a piece of 90-lb. track. He attended Porterville Horseshoeing School in the late '60s, winning his only frameable diploma. He worked in the San Francisco area and taught horseshoeing in Santa Rosa for 15 years. One of Bruce's skills was "fooling people" for most of his life. In 1987 he retired from horses to become a full-time blacksmith and part-time writer.