They were always there, though there was no reason
To notice them—gray grunting creatures
Whose entire existence was spent underground
Hauling carts full to the brim and then some
With what we’d pulled from rock walls
With pick-axe and profanity.
Kindred spirits of a sort, really,
The biggest difference between them and us
Being they walked on four legs.
One day, one of the mules slipped out of a bridle
Which had finally succumbed to age and disrepair
And, before he could be corralled,
Slipped through a scrubby woodlot and into an open field.
It was right about the time the shifts changed,
So a foreman was able to press-gang a dozen or so of the boys
To head after the beast, who was running, bucking,
And rolling on his back like a colt or puppy
Or some other of God’s newborn creatures
Just delivered of the realization
That there was a world of sunshine and dandelions
Of which he was a fully-endowed citizen.
Eventually the boys were able to corner the animal
And grab hold of him—but once that happened
He apparently took possession of the notion
That he was going to be the very Platonic image of his species
And go absolutely nowhere; indeed, a goodly bunch
Of strong and stubborn men could not budge the beast an inch,
As he remained rooted to the spot like he’d driven pilings
Twenty feet deep into the ground, and eventually the boys,
Dinners and soft beds waiting, came to the conclusion
That the damn fool mule was the company’s problem
And if they wanted it back underground,
Let them find a way a do so.
They never did get the mule back down in the pit
(One or two of the foremen made an attempt
To bring the mule to justice, as it were,
But neither man nor beast had much of a stomach
For it), and so he carried on above ground,
Often in sight of the mine entrance,
Living on grass and the occasional carrot or potato
Tossed his way by sympathetic miners.
After a while we didn’t see the mule anymore;
It turned out he’d been shot clean between the eyes.
We never found out who took down the poor animal;
Most likely kids, some said, or some damn fool hunter
Who decided that a rustle in the brush had to be a deer,
Though one day Joey Raitis, listening to the theorizing
As to the mule’s demise, stopped swinging his pick for a moment
And, looking thoughtful as he leaned on the handle,
Spoke up—No, I’m thinking the company did it.
I suspect some of the animals saw him
Havin’ big fun above ground, and decided they had rights too.
Hell, they probably started talking union.
Company ain’t about to have that,
And with that he went back to pickin’ at the wall.
It is a possibility that there’s something to what Joey said,
Though the mules have remained silent on the question.