Tony Vagneur: There’s a certain type of mule that touches your heart; Molly was it
She came to spend the summer with us. I knew her from years ago, a fleeting experience we had on a road trip, helping her family and her move to the area around the Spanish Peaks. A beautiful area, hip-deep in history. That was in 2006.
Her home place had been sold, she had no voice in the decision, and as so often happens after such a sale, she moved around a bit, from here to the Spanish Peaks, to Hotchkiss, and eventually back to the Sopris Creek area, where her life’s journey had begun. There aren’t many who can say a lifetime’s journey ended where it began, but she could.
Molly was a mule; a pack mule to be exact. She was a specialist; you couldn’t ride her, you couldn’t catch her, but she knew how to pack salt for the cattle, chainsaws and whatever else needed hauled through the mountains. Oh, how well she knew her job. A consummate professional, you might say. She faithfully followed the horse in front of her, never pulling back on the lead, and when the day was done, you could throw the lead rope over the sawbuck and head for home, knowing she’d follow right behind.
“How’d you catch her,” you might ask? Just back the horse trailer up close to the pasture or corral where she was and if she didn’t jump in first, she’d follow the horses in directly. Put a halter on her and that was that. Saddle her when you got to the trailhead.
There were no illusions about her visit to my pasture. No thoughts of throwing salt blocks on her and heading out for Buzzard Basin, or just taking her along for the exercise. Going in, we knew it was most likely her last summer and there were no conditions on it. She’d put in more than her share; did her job without complaint for umpteen years, and nobody was going to begrudge her the retirement she’d earned.
How long do mules live? Most of them don’t live as long as Molly, who was at least 39 and maybe even older. Forty would be a good age, I reckon, which in human years is about equivalent to 115. That’s a long life.
There was the triumvirate of them, three old-timers who moved to the Spanish Peaks area when the main ranch was sold, pushing cows from one area to another. Pie, 220 and Molly. That was around 2006 and was likely the year Molly got retired. Pie and 220 hung in there (I was privileged to ride 220 on a drive back in 2008 or so), and after that, they moved to Hotchkiss, along with Molly, the three of them still united.
You have to give the owner credit: after the move to Hotchkiss, the cattle herd diminished and there was no need to keep two horses and a mule around, but there’s a devotion some horse owners have, a loyalty to the animals that have stuck with them through thick and thin.
Pie and 220 went their way across the great divide several years ago, and Molly, the lone survivor of the triad, was also the last animal with ties to a preceding ranching generation.
But it can’t go on forever. We show kindness to our animals by providing them a gentle death when the time comes. The cold wind of winter was making itself known, Molly’s ribs were already becoming more prominent, and her fastest gait was a hurried walk. Was it better to let her go now when she could still walk with pride and wait for a treat or should we try to nurse her through another winter, feeding her warm grain, hoping the below zero days or the surprise blizzards of deep winter wouldn’t take the last remnant of survival from her heart and we found her beyond saving once the storm subsided?
Molly, your physical presence is now gone, but your memory will live forever in our hearts.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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