Life in these Kentucky hills is not now nor can I remember it ever having been quite what can be called "contemporary" as the rest of the world sees society. Coming here is a little like walking through a wavering time warp, where things are normal one moment and then, unexpectedly, you've gone back in time in the next. Quaint old-timey courtesy often is alternated with more modern rush and rude, and the very ways of life people follow can remind one of the ways of the Amish -- low tech, high efficiency -- yet it is often done with a cell phone, Blackberry, or iPod sticking out of a shirt pocket.
Small-timers still take out pine posts from the woods on occasion using mules and horses to do the heavy labor, rather than a more expensive Skidder, a piece of heavy equipment designed for logging, or a more common farm tractor. At the area stock yards, every description of animal is sold, and often, resold. Tack -- harness and related items -- is sold and repaired at mobile shops outside the stockyards. The lowing of cattle, the clatter of goats, and the saw-saw-saw of a jackass or mule or whinny of a horse is underlaid with the rumble of human conversation in that dusty musty place. Manure and clean leather, the smell of animals, and the smell of the resident greasy spoon restaurant all combine for a, to say the least, interesting olfactory experience. (One not recommended for those who have a well-developed "city nose".)
From there goeth the laborers, two legs or four, into the forests to fight dehydration, the wicked bite of deer flies and horse flies, and the risk of broken bones from the downed or standing trees. It's not an easy life by any means, but more than one family pays its bills through such means. It's job security for the animals too, who without use such as this would only end up in a dog food can -- or worse, starving on some bare mud lot. At least this way, everyone eats.
It was in such a small operation that I met both Bob, a tough little pony mule, and Cash, his driver. They were a formidable team, both of them small and knotty by comparison to the rest of the people and animals. Workers outside the initial family came and went, but Cash stayed. Much bigger horses and mules came and went, and Bob stayed. They did the work of two larger teams -- on a bad day. On a good day, they could triple the goods hauled out, and those still-green pine posts aren't by any means lightweight.
I drove Bob up and down the trail a couple of times; Cash was no longer young, and back then I was. Bob was in his hybrid* prime, about six years old. Bob worked well for me, though he eyed me carefully, his long, expressive ears taking in and giving out radio signals of faint worry about dealing with a new person.
Cash would meet us at the bottom of the drag line, unhooking the singletree from the log chain I'd hooked around the end of the pine log. Refreshed by water and a short rest, he'd insist on going back for the next run up the winding path to the hilltop. Bob, grateful to see him, would sing out in his rusty gate hawhaw. I was always surprised to see that they both still had the wind to waste; it was hard on me to breathe, even then, in that humid summer air.
Cash and I would talk sometimes, between his paid labors and my volunteer help, and it never failed to be enlightening. He'd feed slices of his lunchtime apple to Bob, and loosen the scarred harness, giving a long drink of cool water to the little animal in his shady resting spot. I'd watch them, seeing with new eyes each time the quiet understanding that the two shared, learning that there was no way I was going to ever be a part of something similar in quite the same way. I respected old Cash and little Bob more and more every day.
Bob would work well for Cash, fairly well for me or the wife of the main logging team. He flat refused to work for the man in charge, himself. Talking to Bob would get you all he had to give, but the faint whistle of the tiniest limber switch from a nearby tree, and he was gone. He'd wind those long reins around and around his neck, doing a wildly funny dance around his protesting, cursing handler, and then take off, once he was free of human encumbrances, for the far woods.
They found him once a good thirty miles away from where he'd started on my parents' property. He'd gone up and down hills, through barbed wire fences (no harm done at all; not a scratch on him), and across people's very front yards, to get away. He ended up on the roadside up on Furnace Mountain, grazing beside the road. Cash, on finding him, slipped all of the tattered harness off and into the truck for later repair, then climbed up on Bob's back with no trouble, and rode the little mule back to work.
Whirly (the man Bob hated most) once bought a pretty brown molly** mule. She was sweet tempered and kindly, with a glossy hide anyone would admire. The trouble was, that sleek hide was thin-skinned. The molly never did gain callouses; the harness simply wore through her hide and into the raw, tender meat below. She was in misery, the flies driving her crazy. I took it upon myself to bring some of my own horse remedies over and treat her. Whirly wasn't going to do it, and no one else cared, I figured.
It ended up with Cash helping me, once he saw what I was about. His hands, no larger than my own, were knotty with arthritis and age, and more. One ear was squashy with cauliflower scarring, and the scar lines on his knuckles spoke of many a fight in his youth. He talked as he worked, and I listened closely, only murmuring short encouragements to keep him going.
"I reckon don't man nor beast ever know the number of its days. This moll here, this mule, she ain't gonna make it here in these woods. I reckon Whirly'll sell her straight off this weekend. She ain't gonna bring much with runnin' sores on her. A man what'll treat an animal like this will treat his people worse, I reckon, only I won't take it no more. Not from anyone."
The molly, soothed by our attentions, slept in the sunny dapples of light beside the dirt road we stood beside. Her sores had been blisters once, and they were raw, draining sores that the flies ripped and tore at like wolves. I had sprayed her with fly spray, and the rest from those pests must have been heavenly.
"I ain't much anymore, but when I's a young man, I'd fight a runnin' sawmill." His hands gently picked off rough scabs and dangling bits of dried flesh; the molly scarcely moved all that while.
I wiped a damp rag over the padded collar of the work harness, wiping away the drainage from those blisters and sores and the salty sweat that rimed it. The harness badly needed cleaning and oiling. I did what I could to improve the working conditions of this animal or the next. "I prefer not to fight. If I have to, I will."
"Ain't no good reason to fight, I reckon. I just done it. I's young and stupid, back then. I ain't so willin' to crack up these old bones anymore. Just wanna work a plain day's work and get a plain day's honest wage." Cash looked away, toward the deep green of the hills around us, then at the sparkling waters of the lake. "A body's got to live, after all. Ain't no easy way out." He swallowed hard, glancing at me, then away again. "I done been young all I need to be."
I watched him smooth the mule's short, silky mane away from a sore high on her withers***. Those hands had seen hard times, yet they were gentle on her, despite the fact that she had, by her own frailty, made his plain day's work harder... and Bob's. The little number one work team had to make up the difference as a matter of course.
The molly was sold off within two days, traded for a big mule that flatly refused to work at all, though Whirly literally tore strips of flesh off the animal's hind end with a bullwhip. Cash said nothing, only made sure that Whirly didn't touch Bob for any reason. He stayed between the little mule and the boss, without fail.
When I asked what he meant by there "ain't no good use in fightin'", he changed the subject. All he was interested in, suddenly, was the day's work for he and little Bob. He took up that work with a vengeance that made me careful what I said. The old man even grasped the log chain, attempting to help Bob pull, and I feared he'd hurt himself.
Days later, on a day I sat alone with a book on an old, dried log in the shade, Cash came over and sat a few feet away and started talking again. I closed the book to listen.
"I reckon I got a word of advice for all young people. Ye'll be old soon enough. Don't rush it," he said. "There'll be time enough later for what ye might call success." He twisted off a bit of bark from the old log. His hands, still quick and accurate in motion despite his age, were more swollen than usual, the fingers looking twisted in the dancing light and shadow of the young red oak we sat under. "I done made all of my mistakes, I hope, and I wouldn't go back there and do it again, to save my life."
I later found out that the cauliflower ear and the scars on his knuckles were hard-earned. In his youth, he'd been a champion flyweight boxer.
He'd killed a man in the ring, and left it forever. He'd served time for it, reports said. From there, even if he'd wanted to, he could never go back home. The ghost of a fair opponent, dead from his hands, would be with him for the rest of his life.
Those same hands that had killed had also healed and commited random acts, as it is said, of a rare brand of humane kindness. I'd seen it with my own eyes and knew he'd beaten forever the demon that rode him from the moment he'd left that ring. His compassion for his fellow creatures and friends had shown that his life was not wasted as he thought, but redirected into something both simpler and more complex.
They worked the hills all that summer, until the last sizable post log was sold off and Dad had his paycheck for the shares he'd bargained for. Cash and Bob went on to the next job with the same family as a matter of course, and I never got a chance to speak with him again. I later heard that he'd died of a massive heart attack after a long day's work.
Just last week, I learned from Whirly's widow (Whirly was shot dead during an argument with a like-minded individual), who now has a better life, that from the day that Cash died, Bob had refused to work at all. No punishment, no reward, was large enough to make up for a friend, a friend and coworker, who was gone from his company forever.
* A mule is the offspring of a mare (female horse) and a "jack" (male) ass, or donkey. A hybrid, often sterile -- but not always. (Bob was a male, but he'd been castrated as is common practice. After all, there is not much use dealing with possibly dangerous "stud" behavior from an animal not likely to reproduce at all.)
** A "molly" mule is simply a female mule.
*** Withers: the highest point on a horse's, mule's, or donkey's/ass's shoulders.