White Mule, Spotted Pig
Frank's papa, the summer of nineteen hundred and nine, told him right before he died that he had a good chance to win the annual Camp Rapture mule race. He told Frank this ‘cause he needed money to keep getting drunk, and he wasn't about to ride no mule himself, fat as he was. If the old man had known he was about to die, Frank figured he would have saved his breath on the race talk and asked for whisky instead, maybe a chaw. But as it was, he said it, and it planted in Frank's head the desire to ride and win.
Frank hated that about himself. Once a thing got into his head he couldn't derail it. He was on the track then, and had to see it to the end. Course, that could be a good trait, but problem was, and Frank knew it, the only things that normally caught up in his head like that and pushed him were bad ideas. Even if he could sense their badness, he couldn't seem to stop their running forward and dragging him with them. He also thought his mama had been right when she told him once that their family was like shit on shoes, the stink of it followed them wherever they went.
But this idea. Winning a mule race. Well, that had some good sides to it. Mainly money.
He thought about what his papa said, and how he said it, and then how, within a few moments, the old man grabbed the bed sheets, moaned once, dribbled some drool, and was gone to where ever it was he was supposed to go, probably a stool next to the devil at fireside.
He didn't leave Frank nothing but an old run down place with a bit of dried out corn crop, a mule, a horse with one foot in the grave and the other on a slick spot. And his very own shit to clean out of the sheets, cause when the old man let go and departed, he left Frank that present, which was the only kind he had ever given. Something dirty. Something painful. Something shitty.
Frank had to burn the mattress and set fire to the bedclothes, so there really wasn't any really cleaning about it. Then he dug a big hole, and cut roots to do it. Next he had to wrap the old man's naked body in a dirty canvas and put him down and cover him up. It took some work, cause the old man must have weighed three hundred pounds, and he wasn't one inch taller than five three if he was wearing boots with dried cow shit on the heels and paper tucked inside them to jack his height. Dragging him along on his dead ass from the house had damn near caused one of Frank's balls to swell up and pop out.
Finished with the burying, Frank leaned against a sickly sweet gum tree and rolled himself a smoke, and thought: Shit, I should have dragged the old man over here on the tarp. Or maybe hitched him up to the mule and dragged his naked ass face down through the dirt. That would have been the way to go, not pulling his guts out.
But, it was done now, and as always, he had used his brain late in the game.
It was shortly after that she decamped with the good horse, a bag of corn meal, some dried meat and a butcher knife. She also managed, with what Frank thought must have been incredible aim, to piss in one of his old man's liquor jugs. This was discovered by the old man after he took a good strong bolt of the liquor. Cheap as the stuff was he drank, Frank was surprised he could tell the difference, that he had turned out to be such a fine judge of shit liquor.
Papa had ridden out after her on the mule but hadn't found her, which wasn't a surprise, because the only thing Papa had been good at tracking was a whisky bottle or some whore, provided she was practically tied down and didn't cost much. He probably tracked the whores he messed with by the stench.
Back from the hunt, drunk and pissed and empty handed, Papa had said it was bad enough Frank's mama was a horse and meal thief, but at least she hadn't taken the mule, and frankly, she wasn't that good a cook anyhow.
The mule's name was Rupert, and he could run like his tail was on fire. Papa had actually thought about the mule as a contender for a while, and had put out a little money to have him trained by Leroy, who though short in many departments, and known for having been caught fucking a goat by a half dozen hunters, was pretty good with mules and horses. Perhaps, it could be said he had a way with goats as well. One thing was certain, none of Leroy's stock had testified to the contrary, and only the nanny goats were known to be nervous.
The night after Frank buried his pa, he got in some corn squeezings, and got drunk enough to imagine weasels crawling out from under the floorboards. To clear his head and to relieve his bladder, he went out to do something on his father's grave that would never pass for flowers. He stood there watering, thinking about the prize money and what he would do with it. He looked at the house and the barn and the lot, out to where he could see the dead corn standing in rows like dehydrated soldiers. The house leaned to the left, and one of the windowsills was near on the ground. When he slept at night, he slept on a bed with one side jacked up with flat rocks so that it was high enough and even enough he wouldn't roll out of bed. The barn had one side missing and the land was all rutted from run off, and had never been terraced.
With the exception of the hill where they grazed their bit of stock, the place was void of grass, and all it brought to mind was brown things and dead things, though there were a few bedraggled chickens who wandered the yard like wild Indians, taking what they could find, even eating one another should one of them keel over dead from starvation or exhaustion. Frank had seen a half dozen chickens go at a weak one lying on the ground, tearing him apart with the chicken still cawing, kicking a leg. It hadn't lasted long. About like a dozen miners at a free lunch table.
Frank smoked his cigarette and thought if he could win that race, he would move away from this shit pile. Sell it to some fool. Move into town and get a job that would keep him. Never again would he look up a mule's ass or fit his hands around the handles on a plow. He was thinking on this while looking up the hill at his mule, Rupert.
The hill was surrounded by a rickety rail fence within which the mule resided primarily on the honor system. At the top of the hill was a bunch of oaks and pines and assorted survivor trees. As Frank watched the sun fall down behind the hill, it seemed as if the limbs of the trees wadded together into a crawling shadow, way the wind blew them and mixed them up. Rupert was clearly outlined near a pathetic persimmon tree from which the mule had stripped the persimmons and much of the leaves.
Frank thought Rupert looked quite noble up there, his mule ears standing high in outline against the redness of the sun behind the dark trees. The world seemed strange and beautiful, as if just created. In that moment Frank felt much older than his years and not so fresh as the world seemed, but ancient and worn like the old Indian pottery he had found while plowing through what had once been great Indian mounds. And now, even as he watched, he noted the sun seemed to darken, as if it were a hot wound turning black from infection. The wind cooled and began to whistle. Frank turned his head to the North and watched as clouds pushed across the fading sky. In instants, all the light was gone and there were just shadows, spitting and twisting in the heavens and filling the hard-blowing wind with the aroma of wet dirt.
When Frank turned again to note Rupert, the mule was still there, but was now little more than a peculiar shape next to the ragged persimmon tree. Had Frank not known it was the mule, he might well have mistaken it for a peculiar rise in the terrain, or a fallen tree lying at an odd angle.
The storm was from the north and blowing west. Thunder boomed and lighting cracked in the dirty sky like snap beans, popped and fizzled like a pissed on campfire. In that moment, the shadow Frank knew to be Rupert, lifted its head, and pointed its dark snout toward the sky, as if in defiance. A bolt of lighting, crooked as a dog's hind leg, and accompanied by a bass drum blow of thunder, jumped from the heavens and dove for the mule, striking him a perfect white-hot blow on the tip of his nose, making him glow, causing Frank to think that he had in fact seen the inside of the mule light up with all its bones in a row. Then Rupert's head exploded, his body blazed, the persimmon leaped to flames, and the mule fell over in a swirl of heavenly fire and a cannon shot of flying mule shit. The corpse caught a patch of dried grass a blaze. The flames burned in a perfect circle around the corpse and blinked out, leaving a circle of smoke rising skyward.
"Goddamn," Frank said. "Shit."
The clouds split open, let loose of its bladder, pissed all over the hill side and the mule, and not a drop, not one goddamn drop, was thrown away from the hill. The rain just covered that spot, put out the mule and the persimmon tree with a sizzling sound, then passed on, taking darkness, rain, and cool wind with it.
Frank stood there for a long time, looking up the hill, watching his hundred dollars crackle and smoke. Pretty soon the smell from the grilled mule floated down the hill and filled his nostrils.
"Shit," Frank said. "Shit. Shit. Shit."
Late morning, when Frank could finally
drag himself out of bed, he went out and caught up the horse, Dobbin, hitched
him to a single tree and some chains, drove him
After that, he moped around for a few days, drank enough to see weasels again, and then had an idea. His idea was to seek out Leroy, who had been used to train Rupert. See if he could work a deal with him.
Frank rode Dobbin over to Leroy's place, which was as nasty as his own. More so, due to the yard being full not only of chickens and goats, but children. He had five of them, and when Frank rode up, he saw them right away, running about, raising hell in the yard, one of them minus pants, his little johnson flopping about like a grub worm on a hot griddle. He could see Leroy's old lady on the porch, fat and nasty with her hair tied up. She was yelling at the kids and telling them how she was going to kill them and feed them to the chickens. One of the boys, the ten year old, ran by the porch whooping, and the Mrs., moving deftly for such a big woman, scrambled to the edge of the porch, stuck her foot out, caught him one just above the waist and sent him tumbling. He went down hard. She laughed like a lunatic. The boy got up with a bloody nose and ran off across the yard and into the woods, screaming.
Frank climbed down from Dobbin and went over to Leroy who was sitting on a bucket in the front yard whittling a green limb with a knife big enough to sword fight. Leroy was watching his son retreat into the greenery. As Frank came up, leading Dobbin, Leroy said, "Does that all the time. Sometimes, though, she'll throw something at him. Good thing wasn't nothing lying about. She's got a pretty good throwin' arm on her. Seen her hit a seed salesman with a tossed frying pan from the porch there to about where the road meets the property. Knocked him down and knocked his hat off. Scattered his seed samples, which the chickens ate. Must have laid there for an hour afore he got up and wandered off. Forgot his hat. Got it on my head right now, though I had to put me some newspaper in the band to make it fit."
Wasn't nothing Frank could say to that, so he said, "Leroy, Rupert got hit by lightning. Right in the head."
"Wouldn't have mattered had it been the ass. It killed him deader than a post and burned him up."
"Damn. That there is a shame," Leroy said, and stopped whittling. He pushed the seed salesman's hat up on his forehead to reveal some forks of greasy brown hair. Leroy studied Frank. "Is there something I can do for you? Or you come around to visit?"
"I'm thinking you might could help me get a mule and get back in the race."
"I know. Thought we might could come up with something. And if we could, and we won, I'd give you a quarter of the prize money."
"I get a quarter for grooming folks critters in town."
"I mean a quarter of a hundred. Twenty-five dollars."
"I see. Well, I am your man for animals. I got a knack. I can talk to them like I was one of them. Except for chickens. Ain't no one can talk to chickens."
"That there is the problem. They ain't animal enough."
Frank thought about Leroy and the fucked goat. Wondered what Leroy had said to the goat as way of wooing it. Had he told her something special? I think you got a good-looking face? I love the way your tail wiggles when you walk. It was a mystery that Frank actually wasn't all that anxious to unravel. . . .
"I know you run in the circles of them that own or know about mules," Frank said. "Why I thought you maybe could help me."
Leroy took off the seed salesman's hat, put it on his knee, threw his knife in the dirt, let the whittling stick fall from his hand. "I could sneak up on an idea or two. Old man Torrence, he's got a mule he's looking to sale. And by his claim, it's a runner. He ain't never ridden it himself, but he's had it ridden. Says it can run."
"There's that buying stuff again. I ain't got no real money."
"Takes money to make money."
"Takes money to have money."
Leroy put the seed salesman's hat back on. "You know, we might could ask him if he'd rent out his mule. Race is a ways off yet, so we could get some good practice in. You being about a hundred and twenty-five pounds, you'd make a good rider."
"I've ridden a lot. I was ready on Rupert, reckon I can get ready on another mule."
"Deal we might have to make is, we won the race, we bought the mule afterwards. That might be the way he'd do it."
"Buy the mule?"
"At a fair price."
"Say twenty-five dollars."
"That's a big slice of the prize money. And a mule for twenty-five, that's cheap."
"I know Torrence got the mule cheap. Fella that owed him made a deal. Besides, times is hard. So they're selling cheap. Cost more, we can make extra money on side bets. Bet on ourselves. Or if we don't think we got a chance, we bet against ourselves."
"I don't know. We lose, it could be said we did it on purpose."
"I can get someone to bet for us."
"Only if we bet to win. I ain't never won nothing or done nothing right in my life, and I figure this here might be my chance."
"You gettin' Jesus?"
"I'm gettin' tired," Frank said.
There are no real mountains in East Texas,
and only a few hills of consequence, but Old Man Torrence lived at the top of a
big hill that was called with a kind of braggarts lie, Barrow Dog Mountain. Frank
had no idea who Barrow or Dog were, but that was what the big hill had been
called for as long as he remembered, probably well before he
It was pretty on top of the hill too. The air smelled good, and flowers grew all about in red, blue and yellow blooms, and the cloudless sky was so blue you felt as if a great lake were falling down from the heavens. Trees fanned out bright green on either side of the path, and near the top, on a flat section, was Old Man Torrence's place. It was made of cured logs, and he had a fine chicken coop that was built straight and true. There were hog pens and a nice barn of thick cured logs with a roof that had all of its roofing slats. There was a sizable garden that rolled along the top of the hill, full of tall bright green corn stalks, so tall they shaded the rows between them. There was no grass between the rows, and the dirt there looked freshly laid by. Squash and all manner of vegetables exploded out of the ground alongside the corn, and there were little clumps of beans and peas growing in long pretty rows.
In a large pen next to the barn was a fifteen hands high chocolate colored mule, prettiest thing Frank had ever seen in the mule flesh department. Its ears stood up straight, and it gave Frank and Leroy a snort as they rode in.
"He's a big one," Leroy said.
"Won't he be slow, being that big?" Frank asked.
"Big mule's also got big muscles, he's worked right. And he looks to have been worked right. Got enough muscles, he can haul some freight. Might be fast as Rupert."
"Sure faster right now," Frank said.
As they rode up, they saw Old Man Torrence on the front porch with his wife and three kids, two boys and a girl. Torrence was a fat, ruddy-faced man. His wife was a little plump, but pretty. His kids were all nice looking and they had their hair combed and unlike Leroy's kids, looked clean. As if they might bathe daily. As they got closer, Frank could see that none of the kids looked whacked on. They seemed to be laughing at something the mother was saying. It certainly was different than from his own upbringing, different from Leroy's place. Wasn't anyone tripping anyone, cussing, tossing frying pans, threatening to cripple one another or put out an eye. Thinking on this, Frank felt something twist around inside of him like some kind of serpent looking for a rock to slide under.
He and Leroy got off Dobbin and tied him to a little hitching post that was built out front of the house, took off their hats, and walked up to the steps.
After being offered lemonade, which they turned down, Old Man Torrence came off the porch, ruffling one of his kid's hair as he did. He smiled back at his wife, and then walked with Frank and Leroy out toward the mule pen, Leroy explaining what they had in mind.
"You want to rent my mule? What if I wanted to run him?"
"Well, I don't know," Leroy said. "It hadn't occurred to me you might. You ain't never before, though I heard tell he was a mule could be run."
"It's a good mule," Torrence said. " Real fast."
"You've ridden him?" Frank asked.
"No. I haven't had the pleasure. But my brother and his boys have. They borrow him from time to time, and they thought on running him this year. Nothing serious. Just a thought. They say he can really cover ground."
"Frank here," Leroy said, "he plans on entering, and we would rent your mule. If we win, we could give you a bit of the prize money. What say we rent him for ten, and if he wins, we give you another fifteen. That way you pick up twenty-five dollars."
Frank was listening to all this, thinking: and then I owe Leroy his share; this purse I haven't won is getting smaller and smaller.
"And what if you don't win?" Torrence said.
"You've made ten dollars," Leroy said.
"And I got to take the chance my mule might go lame or get hurt or some such. I don't know. Ten dollars, that's not a lot of money for what you're asking. It ain't even your mule."
"Which is why we're offering the ten dollars," Leroy said.
They went over and leaned on the fence and looked at the great mule, watched his muscles roll beneath his chocolate flesh as he trotted nervously about the pen.
"He looks excitable," Frank said.
"Robert E. Lee has just got a lot of energy is all," Torrence said.
"He's named Robert E. Lee?" Frank asked.
"Best damn general ever lived. Tell you boys what. You give me twenty-five, and another twenty-five if he wins, and you got a deal."
"But I give you that, and Leroy his share, I don't have nothing hardly left."
"You ain't got nothing at all right now," Torrence said.
"How's about," Leroy said, "we do it this way. We give you fifteen, and another fifteen if he wins. That's thirty. Now that's fair for a rented mule. Hell, we might could go shopping, buy a mule for twenty-five, and even if he don't win, we got a mule. He don't race worth a damn, we could put him to plow."
Old Man Torrence pursed his lips. "That sounds good. All right," he said sticking out his hand, "deal."
"Well, now," Frank said, not taking the hand. "Before I shake on that, I'd like to make sure he can run. Let me ride him."
Old Man Torrence withdrew his hand and wiped it on his pants as if something had gotten on his palm. "I reckon I could do that, but seeing how we don't have a deal yet, and ain't no fifteen dollars has changed hands, how's about I ride him for you. So you can see."
Frank and Leroy agreed, and watched from the fence as Torrence got the equipment and saddled up Robert E. Lee. Torrence walked Robert E. Lee out of the lot, and onto a pasture atop the hill, where the overhang was. The pasture was huge and the grass was as green as Ireland. It was all fenced in with barb wire strung tight between deeply planted posts.
"I'll ride him around in a loop. Once slow, and then real fast toward the edge of the overhang there, then cut back before we get there. I ain't got a pocket watch, so you'll have to be your own judge."
Torrence swung into the saddle. "You boys ready."
"Let'er rip," Leroy said.
Old Man Torrence gave Robert E. Lee his heels. The mule shot off so fast that Old Man Torrence's hat flew off, and Leroy in sympathy, took hold of the brim of the seed salesman's hat, as if Robert E. Lee's lunge might blow it off his head.
"Goddamn," Leroy said. "Look how low that mule is to the ground. He's gonna have the grass touching his belly."
And so the mule ran, and as it neared the barb wire fence, Old Man Torrence gave him a tug, to turn him. But, Robert E. Lee wasn't having any. His speed picked up, and the barbwire fence came closer.
Leroy said, "Uh oh."
Robert E. Lee hit the fence hard. So hard it caused his head to dip over the top wire and his ass to rise up as if he might be planning a headstand. Over the mule flipped, tearing loose the fence, causing a strand of wire to snap and strike Old Man Torrence, and then Torrence was thrown ahead of the tumbling mule. . . . Over the overhang. Out of sight. The mule did in fact do a headstand, landed hard that way, its hind legs high in the air, wiggling. For a moment, it seemed as if he might hang there, and then, Robert E. Lee lost his headstand and went over after his owner.
"Damn," Leroy said.
"Damn," Frank said.
They both ran toward the broken fence. When they got there Frank hesitated, not able to look. He glanced away, back across the bright green field.
Leroy scooted up to the cliff's edge and took a gander, studied what he saw for a long time.
"Well?" Frank said, finally turning his head back to Leroy.
"Robert E. Lee just met his Gettysburg. And Old Man Torrence is somewhere between Gettysburg and Robert E. Lee. . . . Actually, you can't tell which is which. Mule, Gettysburg, or Old Man Torrence. It's all kind of bunched up."
When Frank and Leroy got down there, which took some considerable time, as they worked their way down a little trail on foot, they discovered that Old Man Torrence had been lucky in a fashion. He had landed in sand, and the force of Robert E. Lee's body had driven him down deep into it, his nose poking up and out enough to take in air. Robert E. Lee was as dead as a three penny nail, and his tail was stuck up in the air and bent over like a flag that had been broken at the staff. The wind moved the hairs on it a little.
Frank and Leroy went about digging Old Man Torrence out, starting first with his head so he could really breath well. When Torrence spat enough sand out of his mouth, he looked up and said, "You sonsofbitches. This is your fault."
"Our fault?" Leroy said. "You was riding him."
"You goat fucking sonofabitch, get me out of here."
Leroy's body sagged a little. "I knew that was gonna get around good. Ain't nobody keeps a secret. There was only that one time too, and them hunters had to come up on me."
They dug Torrence out from under the mule, and Frank went up the trail and got Old Dobbin and rode to the doctor. When Frank got back with the sawbones, Torrence was none the happier to see him. Leroy had gone off to the side to sit by himself, which to Frank meant the goat had come up again.
Old Man Torrence was mostly all right, but he blamed Frank and Leroy, especially Leroy, from then on. And he walked in a way that when he stepped with his right leg, it always looked as if he were about to bend over and tie his shoe. Even in later years, when Frank saw him, he went out of his way to avoid him, and Leroy dodged him like the small pox, not wanting to hear reference to the goat.
But in that moment in time, the important thing to Frank was simply that he was still without a mule. And the race was coming closer.
That night, as Frank lay in his sagging bed, looking out from it at the angled wall of the room, listening to the crickets saw their fiddles outside and inside the house, he closed his eyes and remembered how Old Man Torrence's place had looked. He saw himself sitting with the pretty plump wife and the clean, polite kids. Then he saw himself with the wife inside that pretty house, on the bed, and he imagined that for a long time.
It was a pleasant thought, the wife and the bed, but even more pleasant was imagining Torrence's place as his. All that greenery and high growing corn and blooming squash and thick pea and bean vines dripping with vegetables. The house and the barn and the pasture. And in his dream, the big mule, alive, not yet a confusion of bones and flesh and fur, the tail a broken flag.
He thought then of his mother, and the only way he could remember her was with her hair tied back and her face sweaty and both of her eyes blacked. That was how she had looked the last time he had seen her, right before she run off with a horse and some corn meal and a butcher knife. He wondered where she was, and if she now lived in a place where the buildings were straight and the grass was green and the corn was tall.
After a while he got up and peed out the window, and smelled the aroma of other nights drifting up from the ground he had poisoned with his water, and thought: I am better than Papa. He just peed in the corner of the room and shit out the window, splattering it all down the side of the house. I don't do that. I pee out the window, but I don't shit, and I don't pee in the corner. That's a step up. I go out side for the messy business. And if I had a good house, I wouldn't do this. I'd use the slop jar. I'd go to the privy.
That didn't stop him from finishing his pee, thinking about what he would do or ought to do as far as his toilet habits went. Besides, peeing was the one thing he was really good at. He could piss like a horse and from a goodly distance… He had even won money on his ability. It was the one thing his father had been proud of. "My son, Frank. He can piss like a racehorse. Get it out, Frank. Show them."
And he would.
But, compared to what he wanted out of life, his ability to throw water from his johnson didn't seem all that wonderful right then.
Frank thought he ought to call a halt to his racing plans, but like so many of his ideas, he couldn't let it go. It blossomed inside of him until he was filled with it. Then he was obsessed with an even wilder plan. A story he had heard came back to him, and ran round inside his head like a greased pig.
He would find the White Mule and capture it and run it. It was a mule he could have for free, and it was known to be fast, if wild. And, of course, he would have to capture its companion, The Spotted Pig. Though, he figured, by now, the pig was no longer a pig, but a hog, and the mule would be three, maybe four years old.
If they really existed.
It was a story he had heard for the last three years or so, and it was told for the truth by them who told him, his Papa among them. But if drinking made him see weasels oozing out of the floorboards, it might have made Papa see white mules and spotted pigs on parade. But the story wasn't just Papa's story. He had heard it from others, and it went like this:
Once upon a time, there was this pretty white mule with pink eyes, and the mule was fine and strong and set to the plow early on, but he didn't take to it. Not at all. But the odder part of the story was that the mule took up with a farm pig, and they became friends. There was no explaining it. It happened now and then, a horse or mule adopting their own pet, and that was what had happened with the white mule and the spotted pig.
When Frank had asked his Papa, why would a mule take up with a pig, his father had said: "Ain't no explaining. Why the hell did I take up with your mother?"
Frank thought the question went the other way, but the tale fascinated him, and his Papa was just drunk enough to be in a good mood. Another pint swallowed, he'd be kicking his ass or his mama's. But he pushed while he could, trying to get the goods on the tale, since outside of worrying about dying corn and sagging barns, there wasn't that much in life that thrilled him.
The story his papa told him was the farmer who owned the mule, and no one could ever put a name to who that farmer was, had supposedly found the mule wouldn't work if the pig wasn't around, leading him between the rows. The pig was in front, the mule plowed fine. The pig wasn't there, the mule wouldn't plow.
This caused the farmer to come up with an even better idea. What would the mule do if the pig was made to run? So the farmer got the mule all saddled, and had one of his boys put the pig out front of the mule and swat it with a knotted plow line, and away went the pig and away went the white mule. The pig pretty soon veered off, but the mule, once set to run, couldn't stop, and would race so fast that the only way it halted was when it was tuckered out. Then it would go back to the start, and look for its pig. Never failed.
One night the mule broke loose, kicked the pig's pen down, and he and the pig, like Jesse and Frank James, headed for the hills. Went into the East Texas greenery and wound in amongst the trees, and were lost to the farmer. Only to be seen after that in glimpses and in stories that might or might not be true. Stories about how they raided cornfields and ate the corn and how the mule kicked down pens and let hogs and goats and cattle go free.
The White Mule and The Spotted Pig. Out there. On the run. Doing whatever it was that white mules and spotted pigs did when they weren't raiding crops and freeing critters.
Frank thought on this for a long time, saddled up Dobbin and rode over to Leroy's place. When Frank arrived, Leroy was out in the yard on his back, unconscious, the seed sales man hat spun off to the side and was being moved around by a curious chicken. Finding Leroy like this didn't frighten Frank any. He often found Leroy that way, cold as a wedge from drink, or the missus having snuck up behind him with a stick of stove wood. They were rowdy, Leroy's bunch.
The missus came out on the porch and shook her fist at Frank, and not knowing anything else to do, he waved. She spat a stream of brown tobacco off the porch in his direction and went inside. A moment later one of the kids bellowed from being whapped, and there was a sound like someone slamming a big fish on flat ground. Then silence.
Frank bent down and shook Leroy awake. Leroy cursed, and Frank dragged him over to an overturned bucket and sat him up on it, asked him, "What happened?"
"Missus come up behind me. I've got so I don't watch my back enough."
"Why'd she do it?"
"Just her way. She has spells."
"You all right?"
"I got a headache."
Frank went straight to business. "I come to say maybe we ain't out of the mule business."
"What you mean?"
Frank told him about the mule and the pig, about his idea.
"Oh, yeah. Mule and pig are real. I've seen em once myself. Out hunting. I looked up, and there they were at the end of a trail, just watching. I was so startled, I just stood there looking at them."
"What did they do?"
"Well, Frank, they ran off. What do
you think? But it was kind of funny. They didn't get in no hurry, just turned
and went around the trail, showing me their ass,
"Was the mule really white?"
"Dirty a bit, but white. Even from where I was standing, just bits of light coming in through the trees, I could see he had pink eyes. Story is, that's why he don't like to come out in day much, likes to stay in the trees, and do his crop raiding at night. Say the sun hurts his skin."
"That could be a drawback."
"You act like you got him in a pen somewhere."
"I'd like to see if I could get hold of him. Story is, he can run, and he needs the pig to do it."
"That's the story. But stories ain't always true. I even heard stories about how the pig rides the mule, and that the mule is stump broke, and the pig climbs up on a stump and diddles the mule in the ass. I've heard all manner of tale, and ain't maybe none of it got so much as a nut of truth in it. Still, it's one of them ideas that kind of appeals to me. Course, you know, we might catch that mule and he might not can run at all. Maybe all he can do is sneak around in the woods and eat corn crops."
"Well, it's all the idea I got, " Frank said, and the thought of that worried Frank more than a little. He considered on his knack for clinging to bad notions like a rutting dog hanging onto a fella's leg. But, like the dog, he was determined to finish what he started.
"So what you're saying here," Leroy said, "is you want to capture the mule, and the pig, so the mule has got his help mate. And you want to ride the mule in the race?"
"That's what I said."
Leroy paused for a moment, rubbed the knot on the back of his noggin. "I think we should get Nigger Joe to help us track him. We want him, that's the way we do it. Nigger Joe catches him, and we'll break him, and you can ride him."
Nigger Joe was part Indian and part Irish and part Negro. His skin was somewhere between brown and red and he had a red cast to his kinky hair and strawberry freckles and bright green eyes. But the black blood named him, and he himself went by the name, Nigger Joe.
He was supposed to be able to track a bird across the sky, a fart across the yard. He had two women that lived with him and he called them his wives. One of them was a Negro, and the other one was part Negro and Cherokee. He called the black one Sweetie, the red and black one Pie.
When Frank and Leroy rode up double on Dobbin, and stopped in Nigger Joe's yard, a rooster was fucking one of the hens. It was a quick matter, and a moment later the rooster was strutting across the yard like he was ten foot tall and bullet proof.
They got off Dobbin, and no sooner had they hit the ground, then Nigger Joe was beside them, tall and broad shouldered with his freckled face.
"Damn, man," Frank said, "where did you come from?"
Nigger Joe pointed in an easterly direction.
"Shit," Leroy said, "coming up on a man like that could make him bust a heart."
"Want something?" Nigger Joe asked.
"Yeah," Leroy said. "We want you to help track the White Mule and the Spotted Pig, cause Frank here, he's going to race him."
"Pig or mule?" Nigger Joe asked.
"The mule," Leroy said. "He's gonna ride the mule."
"Eat the pig?"
"Well," Leroy said, continuing his role as spokesman, "not right away. But there could come a point."
"He eats the pig, I get half of pig," Nigger Joe said.
"If he eats it, yeah," Leroy said. "Shit, he eats the mule, he'll give you half of that."
"My women like mule meat," Nigger Joe said. "I've eat it, but it don't agree with me. Horse is better," and to strengthen his statement, he gave Dobbin a look over.
"We was thinking," Leroy said, "we could hire you to find the mule and the pig, capture them with us."
"What was you thinking of giving me, besides half the critters if you eat them?"
"How about ten dollars?"
"How about twelve?"
Leroy looked at Frank. Frank sighed and nodded, stuck out his hand. Nigger Joe shook it, then shook Leroy's hand.
Nigger Joe said, "Now, mule runs like the rock, that ain't my fault. I get the eleven-fifty anyway."
"Okay, tomorrow morning," Nigger Joe said, "just before light, we'll go look for him real serious and then some."
"Thing does come to me," Frank said, "is haven't other folks tried to get hold of this mule and pig before? Why are you so confident."
Nigger Joe nodded. "They weren't Nigger Joe."
"You could have tracked them before on your own," Frank said. "Why now?"
Nigger Joe looked at Frank. "Eleven-fifty."
In the pre-dawn light, down in the swamp, the fog moved through the trees like someone slow-pulling strands of cotton from cotton boles. It wound its way amongst the limbs that were low down, along the ground. There were wisps of it on the water, right near the bank, and as Frank and Leroy and Nigger Joe stood there, they saw what looked like dozens of sticks rise up in the swamp water and move along briskly.
Nigger Jim said, "Cottonmouth snakes. They going with they heads up, looking for anything foolish enough to get out there. You swimming out there now, pretty quick you be bit good and plenty and swole up like old tick. Only you burst all over and spill green poison, and die. Seen it happen."
"Ain't planning on swimming," Frank said.
"Watch your feet," Nigger Joe said. "Them snakes is thick this year. Them cottons and them copperheads. Cottons, they always mad."
"We've seen snakes," Leroy said.
"I know it," Nigger Joe said, "but where we go, they are more than a few, that's what I'm trying to tell you. Back there where mule and pig hides, it's thick in snakes and blackberry vines. And the trees thick like the wool on a sheep. It a goat or a sheep you fucked?"
"For Christsakes," Leroy said. "You heard that too?"
"Wives talk about it when they see you yesterday. There the man who fuck a sheep, or a goat, or some such. Say you ain't a man can get pussy."
"Oh, hell," Leroy said.
"So, tell me some," Nigger Joe said. "Which was it, now."
"Goat," Leroy said.
"That is big nasty," Nigger Joe said, and started walking, leading them along a narrow trail by the water. Frank watched the cottonmouth snakes swim on ahead, their evil heads sticking up like some sort of water devil erections.
The day grew hot and the trees held the hot and made it hotter and made it hard to breathe, like sucking down wool and chunks of flannel. Frank and Leroy sweated their clothes through and their hair turned to wet strings. Nigger Joe, though sweaty, appeared as fresh as a virgin in spring.
"Where you get your hat?" Nigger Joe asked Leroy suddenly, when they stopped for a swig from canteens.
"Seed salesman. My wife knocked him out and I kept the hat."
"Huh, no shit?" Nigger Joe took off his big old hat and waved around. "Bible salesman. He told me I was gonna go to hell, so I beat him up, kept his hat. I shit in his bible case."
"Wow, that's mean," Frank said.
"Him telling me I'm going to hell, that make me real mad. I tell you that to tell you not to forget my eleven-fifty. I'm big on payment."
"You can count on us, we win," Frank said.
"No. You owe me eleven-fifty win or lose." Nigger Joe said this, putting his hat back carefully on his head, looking at the two smaller men like a man about to pick a hen for neck wringing and Sunday dinner.
"Sure," Frank said. "Eleven-fifty, win or lose. Eleven-fifty when we get the pig and the mule."
"Now that's the deal as I see it," Nigger Joe said. "I tell women it's eight dollars, that way I make some whisky money. Nigger Joe didn't get up yesterday. No he didn't. And when he gets up, he got bible salesman's hat on."
They waded through the swamp and through the woods for sometime, and just before dark, Nigger Joe picked up on the mule's unshod tracks. He bent down and looked at them. He said, "We catch him, he's gonna need trimming and shoes. Not enough rock to wear them down. Soft sand and swamp. And here's the pig's tracks. Hell, he's big. Tracks say, three hundred pounds. Maybe more."
"That's no pig," Leroy said. "That's a full blown hog."
"Damn," Frank said. "They're real."
"But can he race?" Leroy said. "And will the pig co-operate?"
They followed the tracks until it turned dark. They threw up a camp, made a fire, and made it big so the smoke was strong, as the mosquitoes were everywhere and hungry and the smoke kept them off a little. They sat there in the night before the fire, the smoke making them cough, watching it churn up above them, through the trees. And up there, as if resting on a limb, was a piece of the moon.
They built the fire up big one last time, turned into their covers, and tried to sleep. Finally, they did, but before morning, Frank awoke, his bladder full, his mind as sharp as if he had slept well. He got up and stoked up the fire, and walked out a few paces in the dark and let it fly. When he looked up to button his pants, he saw through the trees, across a stretch of swamp water, something moving.
He looked carefully, because whatever it was had stopped. He stood very still for a long time, and finally what he had seen moved again. He thought at first it was a deer, but no. There was enough light from the early rising sun knifing through the trees that he could now see clearly what it was.
The White Mule. It stood between two large trees, just looking at him, its head held high, its tall ears alert. The mule was big. Fifteen hands high, like Robert E. Lee, and it was big-chested, and its legs were long. Something moved beside it.
The Spotted Pig. It was big and ugly, with one ear turned up and one ear turned down. It grunted once, and the mule snorted, but neither moved.
Frank wasn't sure what to do. He couldn't
go tearing across the stretch of swamp after them, since he didn't know how
deep it was, and what might be waiting for
My God, thought Frank. The mule is beautiful. And the hog, he's a pistol. He could tell that from the way it had grunted at him. He had some strange feelings inside of him that he couldn't explain. Some sensation of having had a moment that was greater than any moment he had had before.
He thought it strange these thoughts came to him, but he knew it was the sight of the mule and the hog that had stirred them. As he walked back to the fire and lay down on his blankets, he tried to figure the reason behind that, and only came up with a headache and more mosquito bites.
He closed his eyes and slept a little while longer, thinking of the mule and the hog, and the way they were free and beautiful. And then he thought of the race, and all of that went away, and when he awoke, it was to the toe of Nigger Joe's boot in his ribs.
"Time to do it," Nigger Joe said.
Frank sat up. "I saw them."
"What?" Leroy said, stirring out of his blankets.
Frank told them what he had seen, and how there was nothing he could do then. Told them all this, but didn't tell them how the mule and the hog had made him feel.
"Shit," Leroy said. "You should have woke us."
Nigger Joe shook his head. "No matter. We see over there where they stood. See what tracks they leave us. Then we do the sneak on them."
They worked their way to the other side of the swamp, swatting mosquitoes and killing a cottonmouth in the process, and when they got to where the mule and the hog stood, they found tracks and mule droppings.
"You not full of shit, like Nigger Joe thinking," Nigger Joe said. "You really see them."
"Yep," Frank said.
Nigger Joe bent down and rubbed some of the mule shit between his fingers, and smelled it. "Not more than a couple hours old."
"Should have got us up," Leroy said.
"Easier to track in the day," Nigger Joe said. "They got their place they stay. They got some hide out."
The mosquitoes were not so bad now, and finally they came to some clear areas, marshy, but clear, and they lost the tracks there, but Nigger Joe said, "The two of them, they probably cross here. It's a good spot. Pick their tracks up in the trees over there, on the soft ground."
When the crossed the marshy stretch, they came to a batch of willows and looked around there. Nigger Joe was the one who found their tracks.
"Here they go," he said. "Here they go."
They traveled through woods and more swamp, and from time to time they lost the tracks, but Nigger Joe always found them. Sometimes Frank couldn't even see what Nigger Joe saw. But Nigger Joe saw something, because he kept looking at the ground, stopping to stretch out on the earth, his face close to it. Sometimes he would pinch the earth between finger and thumb, rub it about. Frank wasn't sure why he did that, and he didn't ask. Like Leroy, he just followed.
Mid-day, they came to a place that amazed Frank. Out there in the middle of what should have been swamp, there was a great clear area, at least a hundred acres. They found it when they came out of a stretch of shady oaks. The air was sweeter there, in the trees, and the shadows were cooling, and at the far edge was a drop of about fifty feet. Down below was the great and natural pasture. A fire, brought on by heat or lightning, might have cleared the place at some point in time. It had grown back without trees, just tall green grass amongst a few rotting, ant-infested stumps. It was surrounded by the oaks, high up on their side, and low down on the other. The oaks on the far side stretched out and blended with sweetgums and black jack and hickory and bursts of pines. From their vantage point they could see all of this, and see the cool shadow on the other side amongst the trees.
A hawk sailed over it all, and Frank saw there was a snake in its beak. Something stirred again inside of Frank, and he was sure it wasn't his last meal. "You're part Indian," Frank said to Nigger Joe. "That hawk and that snake, does it mean something?"
"Means that snake is gonna get et," Nigger Joe said. "Damn trees. Don't you know that make a lot of good hard lumber…? Go quiet. Look there."
Coming out of the trees into the great pasture was the mule and the hog. The hog lead the way, and the mule followed close behind. They came out into the sunlight, and pretty soon the hog began to root and the mule began to graze.
"Got their own paradise," Frank said.
"We'll fix that," Leroy said.
They waited there, sitting amongst the oaks, watching, and late in the day the hog and the mule wandered off into the trees across the way.
"Ain't we gonna do something besides watch?" Leroy said.
"They leave, tomorrow they come back," Nigger Joe said. "Got their spot. Be back tomorrow. We'll be ready for them."
Just before dark they came down from their place on a little trail and crossed the pasture and walked over to where the mule and the hog had come out of the trees. Nigger Joe looked around for some time, said, "Got a path. Worked it out. Always the same. Same spot. Come through here, out into the pasture. What we do is we get up in a tree. Or I get in tree with my rope, and I rope the mule and tie him off and let him wear himself down."
"He could kill himself, thrashing," Frank said.
"Could kill myself, him thrashing. I think it best tie him to a tree, folks."
Frank translated Nigger Joe's strange way of talking in his head, said, "He dies, you don't get the eleven fifty."
"Not how I understand it," Nigger Joe said.
"That's how it is," Frank said, feeling as if he might be asking for a knife in his belly, his guts spilled. Out here, no one would ever know. Nigger Joe might think he could do that, kill Leroy too, take their money. Course, they didn't have any money. Not here. There was fifteen dollars buried in a jar out back of the house, eleven fifty of which would go to Nigger Joe, if he didn't kill them.
Nigger Joe studied Frank for a long moment. Frank shifted from one foot to the other, trying not to do it, but unable to stop. "Okay," Nigger Joe said. "That will work up good enough."
"What about Mr. Porky?" Leroy asked.
"That gonna be you two's job. I rope damn mule, and you two, you gonna rope damn pig. First, we got to smell like dirt."
"What?" Frank said.
Nigger Joe rubbed himself down with dark
soil. He had Frank and Leroy rub themselves down with
it. Leroy hated it and complained, but Frank found the earth smelled
They slept for a while, then Nigger Joe kicked him and Leroy awake. It was still dark when they rolled dirty out of their bedclothes.
"Couldn't we have waited on the dirt," Leroy said, climbing out of his blankets. "It's all in my bed roll."
"Need time for dirt to like you good, so you smell like it," Nigger Joe said. "We put some more on now, rub in the hair good, then get ready."
"It's still dark," Frank said. "They gonna come in the dark? How you know when they're gonna come?"
"They come. But we gotta be ready. They have a good night in farmer's corn fields, they might come real soon, full bellies. Way ground reads, they come here to stand and to wallow. Hog wallows all time, way ground looks. And they shit all over. This their spot. They don't get corn and peas and such, they'll be back here. Water not far from spot, and they got good grass. Under the trees, hog has some acorns. Hogs like acorns. Wife, Sweetie, makes sometimes coffee from acorns."
"How about I make some regular coffee, made from coffee?" Leroy said.
"Nope. We don't want a smoke smell. Don't want our smell. Need to piss or shit, don't let free here. Go across pasture there. Far side. Dump over there. Piss over there. Use the heel of your shoe to cover it all. Give it lots of dirt."
"Walk all the way across?" Leroy said.
"Want hog and mule," Nigger Joe said. "Walk all the way across. Now, eat some jerky, do your shit over on other side. Put more dirt on. And wait."
The sun rose up and it got hot, and the dirt on their skins itched, or at least Frank itched, and he could tell Leroy itched, but Nigger Joe, he didn't seem to. Sat silent. And when the early morning was eaten up by the heat, Nigger Joe showed them places to be, and Nigger Joe, with his lasso, climbed up into an oak and sat on a fat limb, his feet stretched along it, his back against the trunk, the rope in his lap.
The place for Frank and Leroy to be was terrible. The dirt they smeared on themselves came from long scoops they made. Then they lay down in the scoops with their ropes, and Nigger Joe, before he climbed the tree, tossed leaves and sticks and dirt and bits of mule and hog shit over them. The way they lay, Frank and Leroy were twenty feet apart, on either side of what Nigger Joe said was a trail the hog and mule traveled. It wasn't much of a trail. A bit of ruffled oak leaves, some wallows the hog had made.
The day crawled forward and so did the worms. They were all around Frank, and it was all he could do not to jump up screaming. It wasn't that he was afraid of them. He had put a many of them on hooks for fishing. But to just lay there and have them squirm against your arm, your neck. And there was something that bit. Something in the hog shit was Frank's thought.
Frank heard a sound. A different sound. Being close to the ground it seemed to move the earth. It was the slow careful plodding of the mule's hooves, and another sound. The hog, maybe.
They listened and waited and the sounds came closer, and then Frank, lying there, trying not to tremble with anticipation, heard a whizzing sound. The rope. And then there was a bray, and a scuffle sound.
Frank lifted his head slightly.
Not ten feet from him was the great white mule, the rope around its neck, the length of it stretching up into the tree. Frank could see Nigger Joe. He had wrapped the rope around the limb and was holding onto it, tugging, waiting for the mule to wear itself out.
The hog was bounding about near the mule, as if it might jump up and grab the rope and chew it in two. It actually went up on its hind legs once.
Frank knew it was time. He burst out of his hiding place, and Leroy came out of his. The hog went straight for Leroy. Frank darted in front of the leaping mule and threw his rope and caught the hog around the neck. It turned instantly and went for him.
Leroy dove and grabbed the hog's hind leg. The hog kicked him in the face, but Leroy hung on. The hog dragged Leroy across the ground, going for Frank, and as his rope become more slack, Frank darted for a tree.
By the time Frank arrived at the tree trunk, Leroy had managed to put his rope around the hog's hind leg, and now Frank and Leroy had the hog in a kind of tug of war.
"Don't hurt him now some," Nigger Joe yelled from the tree. "Got to keep him up for it. He's the mule leader. Makes him run."
"What the hell did he say?" Frank said.
"Don't hurt the goddamn pig," Leroy said.
"Ha," Frank said, tying off his end of the rope to a tree trunk. Leroy stretched his end, giving the hog a little slack, and tied off to another tree. Nearby the mule leaped and kicked.
Leroy made a move to try and grab the rope on the mule up short, but the mule whipped as if on a Yankee dollar, and kicked Leroy smooth in the chest, launching him over the hog and into the brush. The hog would have had him then, but the rope around its neck and back leg held it just short of Leroy, but close enough a string of hog spittle and snot was flung across Leroy's face.
"Goddamn," Leroy said, as he inched farther away from the hog.
For a long while, they watched the mule kick and buck and snort and snap its large teeth.
It was near nightfall when the mule, exhausted, settled down on its front knees first, then rolled over on its side. The hog scooted across the dirt and came to rest near the great mule, its snout resting on the mule's flank.
"I'll be damned," Leroy said. "The hogs girlie or something."
It took three days to get back, because the mule wasn't co-operating, and the hog was no pushover either. They had to tie logs on either side of the hog, so that he had to drag them. It wore the hog down, but it wore the men down too, because the logs would tangle in vines and roughs, and constantly had to be removed. The mule was hobbled loosely, so that it could walk, but couldn't bolt. The mule was lead by Nigger Joe, and fastened around the mule's waist was a rope with two rope lines leading off to the rear. They were in turn fastened to a heavy log that kept the mule from bolting forward to have a taste of Nigger Joe, and to keep him, like the hog, worn down.
At night they left the logs on the critters, and built make-do corrals of vines and limbs and bits of leather straps.
By the time they were out of the woods and the swamp, the mule and the hog were covered in dirt and mud and such. The animals heaved as they walked, and Frank feared they might keel over and die.
They made it though, and they took the mule up to Nigger Joe's. He had a corral there. It wasn't much, but it was solid and it held the mule in. The hog they put in a small pen. There was hardly room for the hog to turn around. Now that the hog was well placed, Frank stood by the pen and studied the animal. It looked at him with a feral eye. This wasn't a hog who had been slopped and watered. This was an animal who early on had escaped into the wild, as a pig, and had made his way to adulthood. His spotted hide was covered in scars, and though he had a coating of fat on him, his body was long and muscular, and when the hog flexed its shoulders to startle a fly, those muscles rolled beneath its skin like snakes beneath a tight-stretched blanket.
The mule, after the first day, began to perk up. But he didn't do much. Stood around mostly, and when they walked away for a distance, it began to trot the corral, stopping often to look out at the hog pen, at his friend. The mule made a sound, and the hog made a sound back.
"Damn, if I don't think they're talking to one another," Leroy said.
"Oh yeah. You can bet. They do that all right," Nigger Joe said.
The race was coming closer, and within the week, Leroy and Nigger Joe had the mule's hooves trimmed, but no shoes. Decided he didn't need them, as the ground was soft this time of year. They got him saddled. Leroy got bucked off and kicked and bitten once, a big plug was out of his right elbow.
"Mean one," Nigger Joe said. "Real bastard, this mule. Strong. He got the time, he eat Leroy."
"Do you think he can run?" Frank asked.
"Time to see soon," Nigger Joe said.
That night, when the saddling and bucking was done, the mule began to wear down, let Nigger Joe stay on his back. As a reward, Nigger Joe fed the mule well, but with only a little water. He fed the hog some pulled up weeds, a bit of corn, watered him.
"Want mule strong, but hog weak," Nigger Joe said. "Don't want hog strong enough to do digging out of pen that's for some sure."
Frank listened to this, wondering where Nigger Joe had learned his American.
Nigger Joe went in for the night, his two
wives calling him to supper. Leroy walked home. Frank saddled up Dobbin, but
before he left, he led the horse out to the
Frank led Dobbin over to the hog pen. There was nothing beautiful about the spotted hog. It stared up at him, and the starlight filled its eyes and made them sharp and bright as shrapnel.
As Frank was riding away, he heard the mule make a sound, then the hog. They did it more than once, and were still doing it when he rode out of earshot.
It took some doing, and it took some time, and Frank, though he did little but watch, felt as if he were going to work every day. It was a new feeling for him. His Old Man often made him work, but as he grew older he had quit, just like his father. The fields rarely got attention, and being drunk became more important than hoeing corn and digging taters. But here he was not only showing up early, but staying all day, handing harness and such to Nigger Joe and Leroy, bringing out feed and pouring water.
In time Nigger Joe was able to saddle up the mule with no more than a snort from the beast, and he could ride about the pen without the mule turning to try and bite him or buck him. He even stopped kicking at Nigger Joe and Leroy, who he hated, when they first entered the pen.
The hog watched all of this through the slats of his pen, his beady eyes slanting tight, its battle torn ears flicking at flies, its curly tail curled even tighter. Frank wondered what the hog was thinking. He was certain, whatever it was, was not good.
Soon enough, Nigger Joe had Frank enter the pen, climb up in the saddle. Sensing a new rider, the mule threw him. But the second time he was on board, the mule trotted him around the corral, running lightly with that kind of rolling barrel run mules have.
"He's about ready for a run, he is," Nigger Joe said.
Frank led the mule out of the pen and out to the road, Leroy following. Nigger Joe led Dobbin. "See he'll run that way. Not so fast at first," Nigger Joe said. "Me and this almost dead horse, we follow and find you, you ain't neck broke in some ditch somewheres."
Cautiously, Frank climbed on the white mule's back. He took a deep breath, then settling himself in the saddle, he gave the mule a kick.
The mule didn't move.
He kicked again.
The mule trotted down the road about twenty feet, then turned, dipped its head into the grass that grew alongside the red clay road, and took a mouthful.
Frank kicked at the mule some more, but the mule wasn't having any. He did move, but just a bit. A few feet down the road, then across the road and into the grass, amongst the trees, biting leaves off of them with a sharp snap of his head, a smack of his teeth.
Nigger Joe trotted up on Dobbin.
"You ain't going so fast."
"Way I see it too," Frank said. "He ain't worth a shit."
"We not bring the hog in on some business yet."
"How's that gonna work? I mean, how's he gonna stay around and not run off."
"Maybe hog run off in goddamn woods and not see again, how it may work. But, nothing else, hitch mule to plow or sell. You done paid me eleven fifty."
"Your job isn't done," Frank said.
"You say, and may be right, but we got the one card, the hog, you see. He don't deal out with an ace, we got to call him a joker, and call us assholes, and the mule, we got to make what we can. We have to, shoot and eat the hog. Best, keep him up a few more days, put some corn in him, make him better than what he is. Fatter. The mule, I told you ideas. Hell, eat mule too if nothing other works out."
They let the hog out of the pen.
Or rather Leroy did. Just picked up the gate, and out came the hog. The hog didn't bolt. It bounded over to the mule, on which Frank was mounted. The mule dipped its head, touched noses with the hog.
"I'll be damn," Frank said, thinking, he had never had a friend like that. Leroy was as close as it got, and he had to watch Leroy. He'd cheat you. And if you had a goat, he might fuck it. Leroy was no real friend. Frank felt lonesome.
Nigger Joe took the bridle on the mule away from Frank, and led them out to the road. The hog trotted beside the mule.
"Now, story is, hog likes to run," Nigger Joe said. "And when he run, mule follows. And then hog, he falls off, not keeping up, and mule, he got the arrow-sight then, run like someone put turpentine on his nut sack. Or that the story as I hear it. You?"
"Pretty close," Frank said.
Frank took the reins back, and the hog stood beside the mule. Nothing happened.
"Gonna say go, is what I'm to do here now. And when I say, you kick mule real goddamn hard. Me, I'm gonna stick boot in hog's big ass. Hear me now, Frank?"
"Signal will be me shouting when kick the hog's ass, okay?"
Nigger Joe yelled, "Git, hog," and kicked the hog in the ass with all his might. The hog did a kind of hop, and bolted. A hog can move quick for its size for a short distance, haul some serious freight, and the old spotted hog, he was really fast, hauling the whole freight line. Frank expected the hog to dart into the woods, and be long gone. But it didn't. The hog bounded down the road running for all it was worth, and before Frank could put his heels to the mule, the mule leaped. That was the only way to describe it. The mule did not seemed cocked to fire, but suddenly it was a white bullet, lunging forward so fast Frank nearly flew out of the saddle. But he clung, and the mule ran, and the hog ran, and after a bit, the mule ducked its head and the hog began to fade. But the mule was no longer following the hog. Not even close. It snorted, and its nose appeared to get long and the ears laid back flat. The mule jetted by the fat porker and stretched its legs wider, and Frank could feel the wind whipping cool on his face. The body of the mule rolled like a barrel, but man, my God, thought Frank, this sonofabitch can run.
There was one problem. Frank couldn't turn him. When he felt the mule had gone far enough, it just kept running, and no amount of tugging led to response. That booger was gone. Frank just leaned forward over the mule's neck, hung on, and let him run.
Eventually the mule quit, just stopped, dipped its head to the ground, then looked left and right. Trying to find the hog, Frank figured. It was like the mule had gone into a kind of spell, and now he was out of it and wanted his friend.
He could turn the mule then. He trotted it back down the road, not trying to get it to run anymore, just letting it trot, and when it came upon Nigger Joe and Leroy, standing in the road, the hog came out of the woods and moseyed up beside the mule.
As Nigger Joe reached up and took the mule's reins, he said, "See that there. Hog and him are buddies. He stays around. He don't want to run off. Wants to be with mule. Hog a goddamn fool. Could be long gone, out in the woods. Find some other wild hog and fuck it. Eat acorns. Die of old age. Now he gonna get et sometime."
"Dumb shit hog," Leroy said.
The mule tugged at the reins, dipped its head. The hog and the mule's noses came together. The mule snorted. The hog made a kind of squealing sound.
They trained for several days the same way. The hog would start, and then the mule would run. Fast. They put the mule up at night in the corral, hobbled, and the hog, they didn't have to pen him anymore. He stayed with the mule by choice.
One day, after practice, Frank said, "He seems pretty fast."
"Never have seen so fast," Nigger Joe said. "He's moving way good."
"Do you think he can win?" Leroy said.
"He can win, they let us bring hog in. No hog. Not much on the run. Got to have hog. But there's one mule give him trouble. Dynamite. He runs fast too. Might can run faster."
"Could be. I hear he can go lickity split. Tomorrow, we find out, hey?"
The world was made of men and mules and dogs and one hog. There were women too, most of them with parasols. Some sitting in the rows of chairs at the starting line, their legs tucked together primly, their dresses pulled down tight to the ankles. The air smelled of early summer morning and hot mule shit and sweat and perfume, cigar smoke, beer and farts. Down from it all, in tents, were other women who smelled different and wore less clothes. The women with parasols would not catch their eye, but some of the men would, many when their wives or girls were not looking.
Frank was not interested. He couldn't think of anything but the race. Leroy was with him, and of course, Nigger Joe. They brought the mule in, Nigger Joe leading him. Frank on Old Dobbin, Leroy riding double. And the hog, loose, on its own, strutting as if he were the one throwing the whole damn shindig.
The mules at the gathering were not getting along. There were bites and snorts and kicks. The mules could kick backwards, and they could kick out sideways like cattle. You had to watch them.
White Mule was surprisingly docile. It was as if his balls had been clipped. He walked with his head down, the pig trotting beside him.
As they neared the forming line of mules, Frank looked at them. Most were smaller than the white mule, but there was one that was bigger, jet black, and had a roaming eye, as if he might be searching for victims. He had a big hard on and it was throbbing in the sunlight like a fat cottonmouth.
"That mule there, big dicked one, " Nigger Joe said pausing. "He the kind get a hard on he gonna race or fight, maybe quicker than the fuck, you see. He's the one to watch. Anything that like the running or fighting better than pussy, him, you got to keep the eye on."
"That's Dynamite," Leroy said. "Got all kinds of mule muscle, that's for sure."
White Mule saw Dynamite, lifted his head high and threw back his ears and snorted.
"Oh, yeah," said Leroy. "There's some shit between them already."
"Somebody gonna outrun somebody or fuck other in ass, that's what I tell you for sure. Maybe they fight some too. Whole big blanket of business here."
White Mule wanted to trot, and Nigger Joe had to run a little to keep up with him. They went right through a clutch of mules about to be lined up, and moved quickly so that White Mule was standing beside Dynamite. The two mules looked at one another and snorted. In that moment, the owner of Dynamite slipped blinders on Dynamite's head, tossing off the old bridal to a partner.
The spotted hog slid in between the feet of his mule, stood with his head poking out beneath his buddy's legs, looking up with his ugly face, flaring his nostrils, narrowing his cave-dark eyes.
Dynamite's owner was Levi Crone, one big gent in a dirty white shirt with the sleeves ripped out. He had a big red face and big fat muscles and a belly like a big iron wash pot. He wore a hat you could have bathed in. He was as tall as Nigger Joe, six foot two or more. Hands like hams, feet like boats. He looked at the White Mule, said, "That ain't the story mule is it?"
"One and the same," Frank said, as if he had raised the white mule from a colt.
"I heard someone had him. That he had been caught. Catch and train him?"
"Me and my partners."
"You mean Leroy and the nigger?"
"That the hog in the stories, too, I guess?"
"Yep," Frank said.
"What's he for? A step stool?"
"He runs with the mule. For a ways."
"That ain't allowed."
"Where say can't do it, huh?" Nigger Joe asked.
Crone thought. "Nowhere, but it stands to reason."
"What about rule can't run with the dick hard," Nigger Joe said, pointing at Dynamite's member.
"Ain't no rule like that," Crone said. "Mule can't help that."
"Ain't no rule about goddamn hog none either," Nigger Joe said.
"It don't matter," Crone said. "You got this mule from hell, given to you by the goddamn red-assed devil his ownself, and you got the pork chop there too from the same place, it ain't gonna matter. Dynamite here, he's gonna outrun him. Gets finished, he'll fuck your mule in the ass and shit a turd on him."
"Care to make a bet on the side some?" Nigger Joe said.
"Sure," Crone said. "I'll bet you all till my money runs out. That ain't good enough, I'll arm wrestle you or body wrestle you or see which of us can shoot jack-off the farthest. You name it speckled nigger."
Nigger Joe studied Crone as if he might be thinking about where to make all the prime cuts, but he finally just grinned, got out ten of the eleven-fifty he had been paid. "There mine. You got some holders?"
"Ten dollars. I got sight of it, and I got your word, which better be good," Crone said.
"Where's your money?" Leroy said.
Crone pulled out a wad from his front pocket, presented it with open palm as if he might be giving a teacher an apple. He looked at Leroy, said, "You gonna trade a goat? I hear you like goats."
"Okay," Leroy said. "Okay. I fucked a goddamn goat. What of it?"
Crone laughed at him. He shook the money at Nigger Joe. "Good enough?"
"Okay," Nigger Joe said.
"Here's three dollars," Frank said, dug in his pocket, held it so Crone could see.
Frank slipped the money back in his pocket.
"Well," Leroy said. "I ain't got shit, so I just throw out my best wishes."
"You boys could bet the mule," Crone said.
"That could be an idea," Leroy said.
"No," Frank said. "We won't do that."
"Ain't we partners?" Leroy said, taking off his seed salesman hat.
"We got a deal," Frank said, "but I'm the one paid Nigger Joe for catching and training. So, I decide. And that's about as partner as we get."
Leroy shrugged, put the seed salesman's hat back on.
The mules lined up and it was difficult to make them stay the line. Dynamite, still toting serious business on the undercarriage, lined up by White Mule, stood at least a shoulder above him. Both wore blinders now, but they turned their heads and looked at one another. Dynamite snapped at the white mule, who moved quickly, nearly throwing Frank from the saddle. White Mule snapped back at Dynamite's nose, grazing him. He threw a little kick sideways that made Dynamite shuffle to his right.
There was yelling from the judges, threats of disqualification, though no one expected that. The crowd had already figured this race out. White Mule, the forest legend, and Dynamite, of the swinging big dick, they were the two to watch.
Leroy and Nigger Joe had pulled the hog back with a rope, but now they brought him out and let him stand in front of his mule. They had to talk to the judges on the matter, explain. There wasn't any rule for or against it. One judge said he didn't like the idea. One said the hog would get trampled to death anyway. Another said, shit, why not. Final decision, they let the hog stay in the race.
So the mules and the hog and the riders lined up, the hog just slightly to the side of the white mule. The hog looked over its shoulder at Nigger Joe standing behind him. By now the hog knew what was coming. A swift kick in the ass.
Frank climbed up on the white mule, and a little guy with a face like a timber axe, climbed up on Crone's mule, Dynamite.
Out front of the line was a little bald man in a loose shirt and suspenders holding up his high-water pants, showing his scuffed and broken-laced boots. He had a pistol in his hand. He has a voice loud as Nester on the Greek line.
"Now, we got us a mule race today, ladies and gentleman. And there will be no cheatin', or there will be disqualification, and a butt-beating you can count on to be remembered by everyone, 'specially the cheater. What I want now, line of mules and riders, is a clean race. This here path is wide enough for all twenty of you, and you can't fan too much to the right or left, as we got folks all along the run watching. You got to keep up pretty tight. Now, there might be some biting and kicking, and that's to be expected. From the mules. You riders got to be civil. Or mostly. A little out of line is all right, but no knives or guns or such. Everyone understand and ain't got no questions, let up a shout."
A shout came from the line. The mules stirred, stepped back, stepped forward.
"Anybody don't understand what I just said? Anyone not speak Texan or 'Merican here that's gonna race?"
"All right, then. Watch women and children, and try not to run over the men or the whores neither. I'm gonna step over there to the side, and I'm gonna raise this pistol, and when you hear the shot, there you go. May the best mule and the best rider win. Oh, yeah. We got a hog in the race too. He ain't supposed to stay long. Just kind of lead. No problems with that from anybody, is there?"
There were no complaints.
"All right, then."
The judge stepped briskly to the side of the road and raised his old worn .36 Navy at the sky and got an important look on his face. Nigger Joe removed the rope from the pig's neck and found a solid position between mules and behind the hog. He cocked his foot back.
The judge fired his pistol. Nigger Joe kicked the hog in the ass. The mule line charged forward.
The hog, running for all it was worth surged forward as well, taking the lead even. White Mule and Dynamite ran dead even. The mules ran so hard a cloud of dust was thrown up. The mules and the men and the hog were swallowed by it. Frank, seeing nothing but dust, coughed and cursed and lay tight against the white mule's neck, and squinted his eyes. He feared, without the white mule being able to see the hog, he might bolt. Maybe run into another mule, throw him into a stampede, get him stomped flat. But as they ran the cloud moved behind them, and when Frank came coughing out of the cloud, he was amazed to see the hog was well out in front, running as if he could go like that all the way to Mexico.
To his right, Frank saw Dynamite and his little axe-faced rider. The rider looked at him and smiled with gritty teeth. "You gonna get run into a hole, shit breath."
"Shitass," Frank said. It was the best he could come up with, but he threw it out with meaning.
Dynamite was leading the pack now, leaving the white mule and the others behind, throwing dust in their face. White Mule saw Dynamite start to straighten out in front of him, and he moved left, nearly knocking against a mule on that side. Frank figured it was so he could see the hog. The hog was moving his spotted ass on down the line.
"Git him, White Mule," Frank said, and leaned close to the mule's left ear, rubbed the side of the mule's neck, then rested his head close on his mane. The white mule focused on the hog and started hauling some ass. He went lower and his strides got longer and the barrel back and belly rolled. When Frank looked up, the hog was bolting left, across the path of a dozen mules, just making it off the trail before taking a tumble under hooves. He fell, rolled over and over in the grass.
Frank thought: Shit, White Mule, he's gonna bolt, gonna go after the hog. But, nope, he was true to the trail, and closing on Dynamite. The spell was on. And now the other mules were moving up too, taking a whipping, getting their sides slapped hard enough Frank could hear it, thing it sounded like Papa's belt on his back.
"Come on, White Mule. You don't need no hittin', don't need no hard heels. You got to outrun that hard dick for your own sake."
It was as if White Mule understood him.
White Mule dropped lower and his strides got longer yet. Frank clung for all he
was worth, fearing the saddle might twist and
But no, Leroy, for all his goat-fucking and seed salesman hat stealing, could fasten harness and belly bands better than anyone that walked.
The trail became shady as they moved into a line of oaks on either side of the road. For a long moment the shadows were so thick they ran in near darkness. Then there were patches of lights through the leaves and the dust was lying closer to the ground and the road was sun-baked and harder and showing clay the color of a poison-ivy rash.
Scattered here and there along the road were viewers. A few in chairs. Most standing.
Frank ventured a look over his shoulder. The other mules and riders were way back, and some of them were already starting to falter. He noticed a couple of the mules were riderless, and one had broken rank with its rider and was off trail, cutting across the grass, heading toward the creek that twisted down amongst a line of willow trees.
As White Mule closed on Dynamite, the mule took a snapping bite at Dynamite's tail, jerking its head back with teeth full tail hair.
Dynamite tried to turn and look, but his rider pulled his head back into line. White Mule lunged forward, going even lower than before. Lower than Frank had ever seen him go. Lower than he thought he could go. Now White Mule was pulling up on Dynamite's left. Dynamite's rider jerked Dynamite back into the path in front of White Mule. Frank wheeled his mount to the right side of Dynamite. In mid-run, Dynamite wheeled and kicked, hit White Mule in the side hard enough there was an explosion of breath that made Frank think his mule would go down.
Dynamite pulled ahead.
White Mule was not so low now. He was even staggering a little as he ran.
"Easy, boy," Frank said. "You can do it. You're the best goddam mule ever ran a road."
White Mule began to run evenly again, or as even as a mule can run. He began to stretch out again, going low. Frank was surprised to see they were closing on Dynamite again.
Frank looked back.
No one was in sight. Just a few twists of dust, a ripple of heat waves. It was White Mule and Dynamite, all the way.
As Frank and White Mule passed Dynamite, Frank noted Dynamite didn't run with a hard-on anymore. Dynamite's rider let the mule turn its head and snap at White Mule. Frank, without really thinking about it, slipped his foot from the saddle and kicked the mule in the jaw.
"Hey," yelled Dynamite's rider. "Stop that."
"Hey, shitass," Frank said. "You better watch…that limb."
Dynamite and his rider had let White Mule push them to the right side of the road, near the trees, and a low hanging hickory limb was right in line with them. The rider ducked it by a half inch, losing only his cap.
Shouldn't have told him, thought Frank. What he was hoping was to say something smart just as the limb caught the bastard. That would have made it choice, seeing the little axe-faced shit take it in the teeth. But he had outsmarted his own self.
"Fuck," Frank said.
Now they were thundering around a bend, and there were lots of people there, along both sides. There had been a spot of people here and there, along the way, but now they were everywhere.
Must be getting to the end of it, thought Frank.
Dynamite had lost a step for a moment, allowing White Mule to move ahead, but now he was closing again. Frank looked up. He could see that a long red ribbon was stretched across in front of them. It was almost the end.
Dynamite lit a fuse.
He came up hard and on the left, and begin to pass. The axe-faced rider slapped out with the long bride and caught Frank across the face.
"You goddamn turd," Frank said, and slashed out with his own bridal, missing by six inches. Dynamite and axe-face pulled ahead.
Frank turned his attention back to the finish line. Thought: this is it. White Mule was any lower to the ground he'd have a belly full of gravel, stretched out any farther, he'd come apart. He's gonna be second. And no prize.
"You done what you could," Frank said, putting his mouth close to the bobbing head of the mule, rubbing the side of his neck with the tips of his fingers.
White Mule brought out the reinforcements. He was low and he was stretched, but now his legs were moving even faster, and for a long, strange moment, Frank thought the mule had sprung wings, like that horse he had seen on the front of the book so long ago. There didn't feel like there was any ground beneath them.
Frank couldn't believe it. Dynamite was falling behind, snorting and blowing, his body lathering up as if he were soaped.
White Mule leaped through the red ribbon a full three lengths ahead to win.
Frank let White Mule run past the watchers, on until he slowed and began to trot, and then walk. He let the mule go on like that for some time, then he gently pulled the reins and got out of the saddle. He walked the mule a while. Then he stopped and unbuttoned the belly band. He slid the saddle into the dirt. He pulled the bridle off of the mule's head.
The mule turned and looked at him.
"You done your part," Frank said, and swung the bridle gently against the mule's ass. "Go on."
White Mule sort of skipped forward and began running down the road, then turned into the trees. And was gone.
Frank walked all the way back to the beginning of the race, the viewers amazed he was without his mule.
But he was still the winner.
"You let him go?" Leroy said. "After all we went through, you let him go?"
"Yep," Frank said.
Nigger Joe shook his head. "Could have run him again. Plowed him. Ate him."
Frank took his prize money from the judges and side bet from Crone, paid Leroy his money, watched Nigger Joe follow Crone away from the race's starting line, on out to Crone's horse and wagon. Dynamite, his head down, was being led to the wagon by axe-face.
Frank knew what was coming. Nigger Joe had not been paid, and on top of that, he was ill tempered. As Frank watched, Nigger Joe hit Crone and knocked him flat. No one did anything.
Black man or not, you didn't mess with Nigger Joe.
Nigger Joe took his money from Crone's wallet, punched the axe-faced rider in the nose for the hell of it, and walked back in their direction.
Frank didn't wait. He went over to where the hog lay on the grass. His front and back legs had been tied and a kid about thirteen was poking him with a stick. Frank slapped the kid in the back of the head, knocking his hat off. The kid bolted like a deer.
Frank got Dobbin and called Nigger Joe over. "Help me."
Nigger Joe and Frank loaded the hog across the back of Dobbin as if he were a sack of potatoes. Heavy as the porker was, it was accomplished with some difficulty, the hog's head hanging down on one side, his feet on the other. The hog seemed defeated. He hardly even squirmed.
"Misses that mule," Nigger Joe said.
"You and me got our business done, Joe," Frank asked.
Nigger Joe nodded.
Frank took Dobbin's reins and started leading him away.
"Wait," Leroy said.
Frank turned on him. "No. I'm through with you. You and me. We're quits."
"What?" Leroy said.
Frank pulled at the reins and kept walking. He glanced back once to see Leroy standing where they had last spoke, standing in the road looking at him, wearing the seed salesman's hat.
Frank put the hog in the old hog pen at his place and fed him good. Then he ate and poured out all the liquor he had, and waited until dark. When it came he sat on a large rock out back of the house. The wind carried the urine smell of all those out the window pees to his nostrils. He kept his place.
The moon was near full that night and it had risen high above the world and its light was bright and silver. Even the old ugly place looked good under that light.
Frank sat there for a long time, finally dozed. He was awakened by the sound of wood cracking. He snapped his head up and looked out at the hog pen. The mule was there. He was kicking at the slats of the pen, trying to free his friend.
Frank got up and walked out there. The mule saw him, ran back a few paces, stared at him.
"Knew you'd show," Frank said. "Just wanted to see you one more time. Today, buddy, you had wings."
The mule turned its head and snorted.
Frank lifted the gate to the pen and the hog ran out. The hog stopped beside the mule and they both looked at Frank.
"It's all right," Frank said. "I ain't gonna try and stop you."
The mule dipped its nose to the hog's snout and they pressed them together. Frank smiled. The mule and the hog wheeled suddenly, as if by agreed signal, and raced toward the rickety rail fence near the hill.
The mule, with one beautiful leap, jumped the fence, seemed pinned in the air for a long time, held there by the rays of the moon. The way the rays fell, for a strange short instant, it seemed as if he were sprouting gossamer wings.
The hog wiggled under the bottom rail and the two of them ran across the pasture, between the trees and out of sight. Frank didn't have to go look to know that the mule had jumped the other side of the fence as well, that the hog had worked his way under. And that they were gone.
When the sun came up and Frank was sure there was no wind, he put a match to a broom's straw and used it to start the house afire, then the barn and the rotten outbuildings. He kicked the slats on the hog pen until one side of it fell down.
He went out to where Dobbin was tied to a tree, saddled and ready to go. He mounted him and turned his head toward the rail fence and the hill. He looked at it for a long time. He gave a gentle nudge to Dobbin with his heels and started out of there, on down toward the road and town.
"White Mule, Spotted Pig" was originally published in 2007 in The Shadows, Kith and Kin, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published by Subterranean Press. "White Mule, Spotted Pig" © 2007 Joe R. Lansdale.
Head down, full steam ahead! Get back here Thursday, September 03, for another cup of Mojo java from Champion Joe!