From The Killing Hills, which will be published in June by Grove Press.
A few miles down the blacktop, Mick slowed for a man walking, then steered around him and stopped. Nobody hitchhiked in the hills. If a man was walking it meant he needed a ride because the journey was too long to cut through the woods. The man opened the door and climbed into the truck. He was a few years younger than Mick, wearing boots, jeans, and a work shirt buttoned at the cuff. The man kept his head turned, looking out the window as if shy.
“I’m Mick Hardin.”
“I’ve knowed Hardins,” the man said. “Went to school with one, Linda.”
“That’s my sister.”
“Heard she’s the sheriff now.”
“I’m a Mullins.”
“Where you headed?”
“Up the road a piece. Third holler down, make a right.” The man lifted his chin to point at the dirt lane that entered a holler and Mick slowed to make the turn. The road flattened through a stand of poplars that had been snapped by wind.
“Never did see an old poplar,” Mick said.
“Worst tree in the woods. No good for burning or building.”
“Other trees must like them. Or birds, one.”
“Yeah, everything’s got a reason if God put it here. Thing I think about is ticks. What are they good for?”
“Well,” Mick said, “possums eat ticks. But I don’t reckon they live on them.”
“I like possums,” Mullins said. “They’re a funny animal. They got a pecker that splits in two at the end. I heard they fuck in the nose and sneeze out babies in their pouch.”
Mick nodded. He’d loved that story as a kid and still did, despite knowing it wasn’t true. He didn’t want to get into it with Mullins. Disagreements like that had a way of getting out of hand in the hills, leading to a fistfight or gunplay.
He drove through a creek bed that was wet from the recent rains, rounded a curve up a hill, and came to a house with a low front porch. One corner had a hickory post that supported the tin roof. The post on the opposite corner was missing. In its place was a mule with all four legs tightly tied to eyebolts screwed into the porch floor. A chain latched to the bridle kept the mule’s head immobile. On its back was a wooden chair held in an upright position by a flank cinch. The chair’s top rail supported the end of the porch.
Mick stopped the truck to prevent spooking the mule. “Well,” he said. “Never seen nothing like that.”
“My sister’s got a boy courting her who likes to drink. Last night he run his car onto the porch and knocked the strut off. His daddy brought the mule over this morning. The chair was already on him. He said he’d bring a new post later.”
“What’s its name?”
“Give you any trouble?”
“No, I reckon he thinks it’s better than working.”
Mick chuckled and Mullins joined in as if seeing the mule for the first time. They sat in the truck cab laughing like teenagers. Mullins opened the door and climbed out.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said.
“That mule don’t look too comfortable.”
“I’d say not.”
“Maybe you can fix the porch.”
“I’m a logger,” Mullins said, “not a carpenter.”
“Got any tools?”
“Hammer and nails, couple of screwdrivers and wrenches, same as any man.”
“Naw, it broke.”
“Can you find me a piece of rope?” Mick said. “Maybe ten feet long or more. And something to stand on.”
Mullins went into the house and brought out a coiled length of cotton rope. In his other hand he carried an old wooden milk crate from Spring Grove Dairy.
Mick placed the crate beside the mule and stood on it. He held one end of the rope to the porch ceiling and let the rest slowly uncoil. The mule quivered, its hooves stubbing the oak slats. Mick knew he was in a vulnerable position but believed the restraints would hold.
“Hey,” Mick said softly. “Get that rope and hold it where it touches the floor.”
Mullins squatted to follow instructions. Mick climbed off the crate, opened his pocketknife, and cut the rope at the edge of the porch.
“Go get your chain saw.”
Mullins stood, his face brightening under the familiarity of the task. He left and returned carrying a McCulloch chain saw with a twenty-inch bar, oil glistening on the chain.
“Gassed up and sharp,” he said. “But I ain’t butchering that mule.”
“Good to hear. Let’s get in the truck.”
They drove through the creek and along the dirt road to the line of broken poplar. Mick eyeballed several trees, settling on one that was straight and not too stout. He used the rope to measure the appropriate length, then told Mullins to trim the small branches and cut both ends flat. Mullins went to work, handling the chain saw as if it weighed no more than a pencil. Mullins finished, pleased with himself. Mick rechecked the length with the rope and they loaded the denuded tree in the bed of his pickup and went back to the house. Jo-Jo hadn’t moved.
“Porch time,” Mick said.
They carried the tree to the porch and positioned it behind the mule, out of kick range. Mick tipped it to the bottom of the two-by-six that supported the ceiling.
Mick was looking over the peculiarities of the mule harnessed to the porch, trying to decide on a sequence of action. Each had the risk of getting kicked. He unstrapped the hobble below the fetlocks on the front legs. The mule shifted, spreading its legs, and tried to rear its head, but the chain held. Its back hooves shifted on the scarred slats, leaving fresh gouges.
“Easy now, Jo-Jo,” he said. “Won’t be long now.”
“Hope he don’t piss,” Mullins said. “He’ll about drown me.”
Mick moved to the side of the porch and squatted. A steel clip held the harness chained to an eyebolt on the porch foundation. Mick leaned forward and released the chain. The mule whipped its head sideways and bit Mick in the forearm. He fell backward off the porch and rolled across the grass, smearing blood on his shirt. He stood and inspected the wound. It wasn’t that bad, but not that good, either.
Mullins was laughing.
“That thing get vaccinated?” Mick said.
“I don’t know. It ain’t mine.”
“I’ll need to know. They carry rabies.”
The specter of rabies halted Mullins’s laugh like a door slammed shut. He nodded rapidly.
“Get some coal oil and duct tape,” Mick said. Mullins went to a shed and returned with a gallon jug lacking a label, half filled with orange liquid. Mick poured kerosene over the wound to clean it, then wrapped his T-shirt around his forearm, and secured it with duct tape. At least it didn’t need stitches. Mick had been shot and stabbed, sustained a broken nose and cracked ribs, and carried shrapnel in his leg, but a mule bite was a first.
He stood at the edge of the porch beside the mule’s back legs. The shackled pasterns were strapped to the floor with thick leather that was tied in a knot.
“I need a corn knife,” he said.
Mullins hurried away and returned with the two-foot blade.
“Get back,” Mick said. “I ain’t sure what’ll happen, and I don’t want to fight a mule.”
He lifted the corn knife and chopped the hobble strap in two. The mule stood for a moment as if not quite comprehending its own freedom, then kicked each leg backward and leaped off the porch. The chair tipped sideways and shattered against a tree. Jo-Jo ran across the yard, jumped a rail fence, and disappeared into the woods. The roof sagged but the new poplar post kept it in place. Mick toenailed the poplar post in place with eight-penny nails, the best Mullins could offer.
“I thank you,” Mullins said. “Why’d you do all this? Feel sorry for Jo-Jo?”
“Look at it this way. If that mule had stayed hooked up to your porch too long, it wouldn’t be no good for work. The father would blame his boy. Then the boy would come back around here mad at you. Likely to do something nobody wants. You’d have to do something back to him. Then my sister would get mixed up and somebody’s setting in the jail house. So, no, it ain’t necessarily for Jo-Jo, but the good of everybody.”
“You think all them thoughts out when you seen the mule?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Damn, son, you’re smart, ain’t you?”
“Not smart enough to not get bit.”
Mick drove to the house of the man who owned the mule, surprised to learn that he lived in the next holler down. Jo-Jo was already in his own yard, and Mick decided to stay in the truck. The neighbor man was short-waisted with powerful arms, and walked with a limp. He had vaccination papers from the vet, which relieved both of them.
Mick drove out of the holler. A crow in a sycamore tracked his progress as if on recon for the other birds. The road wove through the lush woods beside milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace bent from the heat. Aside from his throbbing arm, it was a pretty good morning in the hills.