Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cairn

Three strangers they were. Walking down the narrow road, eating the grass, and closing in behind them was a county sheriff patrol car. They came to be known as Nicodemus, Gandalf and Henney. We stopped the car in surprise; it isn’t every day the two mules and a donkey come strolling down the drive with a police escort. They were shaggy and rough, the poor condition of their hooves apparent even from a hundred yards away.

“These belong to you?” The sheriff asked. They didn’t of course. He looked a bit perplexed. It seems they had been wandering about, getting into yards and otherwise inconveniencing the locals for a day or so. I spoke with the officer and, after hearing the situation, offered to contain them in a makeshift corral until their origins and disposition could be determined. My wife would tell you that this was my first mistake. I may agree, but I am better for the choice. It was thus that I came to be the legal custodian of three rather unwanted chunks of livestock.
I took some long saplings that I had cut for other purposes and threw together a small corral, attached to the little shed built on the property. I had straw left over from the house still, stored a few miles away in my uncle’s barn, so I spread a thick layer of it on the floor of the shed and brought the mules over. The two big ones had to be herded in, the little gray donkey spent the whole time I was building the fence tagging along on my heels. Once, he tried to steal my hammer but dropped it as he turned to run. It was the beginning of a friendship. A manly kind of friendship that involved biting, kicking and a few smacks upside the head with a feed bucket. The corral complete I herded the beasts in and pondered the options. I knew they needed a vet to look them over but money wasn’t exactly flowing from my ears. They had serious hoof trouble. The two mules had obviously foundered, a serious condition that occurs when a equine animal is given a high carbohydrate diet over a period of time. Aside from liver damage, it screws up their ability to process proteins in the body. A horses hooves are almost all protein so this is one area that it manifests itself. The hoof changes shape and grows very fast as the body tries to rid itself of the excess protein synthesized by the body. This growth is not consistent across the hoof and it grows in a strange shape as well. The big jack mule’s hooves were cracked and misshapen but the little mule was really bad. Her front hooves were curled around
and looked like a funky upside down candy- cane on the end of each leg. The only one who looked fairly spunky was the little donkey who, aside from being incredibly fat, was the picture of ornery donkeyness.
I called a local Ferrier and he came out the next day. We had to give the little mule some kind of sedative and he went to work. Her back hooves were alright, just a little chipped. The front, on the other hand, were a lost cause. The adept gentleman had to trim them with a hacksaw and, though he did his best, he still got into the quick a bit and the mule shuddered with each stroke of the saw. The smell of the blood did little to calm the others. Her hooves never healed and split mercilessly.
I called the local branch of the Humane Society. They had a large animal farm nearby. I figured since I was being so kind as to keep the animals while local law enforcement sorted out their ownership, perhaps they could send out a vet to just look them over for me. Boy was I wrong. The conversation was somewhat enlightening. It seems they had a pretty good idea where the animals came from. There was a gentleman nearby who had been in legal trouble before for abusing livestock. He was under court order to no longer keep any large animals but had violated the order. Missouri law will only allow prosecution, however, if the animals are found to be neglected while in his pasture. The simple fix was, he opened the gate. Lovely.
At this point the conversation took a colder turn. I mentioned the desire to have a vet look at them and the funding issues involved. I was informed that, as they had been in my custody for more than three days I was now legally obligated to give them proper veterinary care. More lovely. In the end, I paid a local vet eighty bucks to come out and verify that they were indeed mules and a donkey. The sheriff’s department was pretty happy to have them out of their hair though, so they let it be.
Now let me tell you. There is no sound quite like that of the chorus of two mules and a donkey braying as you pull in the driveway… and when you walk by a window…and when you leave for work…and at 4:00am every morning. You could set your watch by it and I do not exaggerate. If you have not stood in close proximity to one of these animals vocalizing, it is something like a mix of a phlemy sneeze and a maraca at the volume of a freight train horn. It will change your perspective and scare the holy hell out of you if you aren’t expecting it!
Their coming brought sadness as well. I had two dogs. Kida, the old girl. She is an Akita/Sheppard mix and Roxy, an American Bulldog. Roxy was the sweetest, most gentle creature you have ever met. She had earlier that spring lost a litter of pups when she survived an attack by coyotes. When one of the cats had kittens and Kida killed one, Roxy, easily a hundred pounds of pure muscle, had gently picked the kittens up and carried them to a sheltered place and lay with them.
I had found a source to purchase some square bales of pretty good hay nearby so I had been running by every week or so to pick a few up until I could source some larger round bales. I left out that day with the two kids in the old Ford pickup, off to get a few more bales. Up the little double track to the road, I turned the big vehicle wide onto the gravel and took off. As I accelerated I was thinking on the week and the plans for the summer and such when I felt an impact. It was as if I hit a log or a large rock in the road. I hadn’t seen anything so, in a confused state, I slowed and looked in the mirror. There, slowly struggling off the road, blood already beginning to drip from her sagging and open jaw, was Roxy. I went numb. I pulled down the road a ways and called my wife on my cell. We agreed that I should continue on to town and she would come up and look after Roxy rather than have the children have to see her. We continued on, the children none the wiser, me trying to act normal and fight back tears.
When I got home, we sent the kids inside to play in their room. It seems the dog was nowhere to be found when Crystal when to look for her. After searching and trying to follow the blood trail she came back to the house, where she found her. Nestled in the straw inside the little converted barn, lay Roxy. Her breath was a raspy and whistled, like a bad pipe organ pumped too hard. Her ribs were obviously shattered and blood spilled out of her mouth with each ragged breath. There she lay and there stood Nicodemus, the jack mule. My wife told me he had stood by her, reaching his head down and nuzzling her, the whole time I had been gone. I told Crystal to gather the kids and take them on a drive, I didn’t want them to be there.
Many will look at me and find me barbaric. They will see my actions as horrid and uncivilized and perhaps they are right. I am not terribly impressed with our civilization on most days so I don’t mind. You see, I was raised with certain ideas about things and, though I sometimes don’t like it, they stuck. I believe that if I take on the responsibility for a domesticated animal I take on certain obligations as well. I am responsible for its condition in life and I will not buy in to the modern denial of the reality of life. I will not (and have never) take an animal to a vet to be whisked away in a sanitized container and disappear from my life. Death is a part of life and it is a sacred and profound duty to see the circle out. If you have to ask, you probably won’t understand.
After the kids and wife said their goodbyes, I went and got down the .22. When I got home, Roxy had tried to come to me, she walked over to the sidewalk and simply couldn’t go any further. She lay there, her feeble breaths bubbling up and foaming at the corners of her mouth. I knelt beside her, stroking her ears. Words are not needed, the feeling was enough. I said goodbye and tried to convey how sorry I was. With a squeeze of a finger, her pain ended.
On the hill opposite the house there is a ridge. It is a meandering place, a small path winds down the descent into a shallow valley that borders the land until it abruptly stops for no particular reason at all. Partway down the ridge, beneath a small stand of dogwood trees, I buried Roxy. The grave was shallow and, after placing her head on her paws and scooping a small hand full of sand and clay over her, I covered her and raised a rock mound over her repose. Finished and glistening sweat, I sat down on the earth and, on an overcast and lonely Missouri hill, I wept.


  1. Great story. Sorry for your loss of Roxy. Sounds like she was an awesome dog.

  2. When you live close to nature you come to see the intricate connection between life and death.

  3. I am very sorry for your loss, for what little a stranger on the interwebs opinion may mean, I feel you did the right thing. I for one thank you for shareing your story with the world