Get Behind the Mule in the Morning and Plow by  Dominique Simmons; for more information, visit

Get Behind the Mule in the Morning and Plow by Dominique Simmons; for more information, visit

Clegg’s Nickel Mule

by John Grabski



A Failed Escape – A Man of Mules

The year 1927 ushered in the greatest flood on record in Mississippi, a year that 12-year-old Avery would look back on as the year that most shaped his life. But it was the year leading up to the flood that was hardest on him, beginning with six months of retribution, owing to his attempt to run away. The torrid days of endless hours and humid southern nights dragged on like the turning of a gristmill, each starting where the other left off, one revolution same as the next, and no different than the one before. Finally, having paid for his crime as a runaway, Avery was allowed to care for the mules.

No one on the farm was better with the mules than Avery. It was as though he could look into their hearts and minds, sensing hunger, thirst, fatigue or a harness sore as if he had experienced the pain himself and he could relate and respond like no other man. And so he looked after the mules with care and love that transcended any spoken word and the mules trusted, obeyed and loved him in return.

But Avery’s new responsibility came with a cost for he was ordered to take direction from the foreman. Cal Burdock was an egg-shaped imposing man, pockmarked ugly and boisterously loud. Middle-aged and clean shaven, he stood six-feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds.

Unlike Avery, Burdock hated the mules. For no matter how formidable his presence, how loud his voice, or how grave his threats, he was unable to elicit the same response from the stubborn beasts. As much as they obeyed and loved Avery, they disobeyed and hated the foreman.

Keenly aware of his abilities and equally aware of the foreman’s disabilities, Avery did nothing to make Burdock feel like less of a man. Even still, Burdock was filled with envious despise.


The Auction—A Tobacco Mule

Hank, as he became known to Avery, was a rangy old mule that was purchased from a horse trader in Kentucky named Schmidt. Hank had spent most of his life as a tobacco mule, pulling a planter in the spring and hauling tobacco leaves to the curing sheds throughout summer until one day, for reasons unknown, he broke free, running blind through creeks, a bog, and a half-dozen fences, scattering the sled in matchstick size pieces everywhere he went. Never to be trusted again, the farmer sold the mule to Schmidt for five dollars. The following day, Schmidt matched the mule with a hinny named Sallie to sell as a team. The week after, he drove the pair to the Bowling Green Auction where he struck up a conversation with Burdock behind the loading docks, a place where traders like Schmidt gathered to strike private deals with those less savvy. Burdock had arrived minutes before with intentions to purchase mules for a new group of sharecroppers expected on the farm that spring.

“Fine-looking old mule you’ve got there, Skinner,” barked Burdock with a slap to Schmidt’s shoulder. “What’ll ya take for him and the thin cripple?”

“Sixty for the pair and not a dime less. And she ain’t no crip neither—honest pair, these two. Work all day and never balk or quit. And you can set your watch by this big ole son-of-a-jack here, you betcha. Breaks my heart to sell him after all these years,” said Schmidt with his hand on the old mule’s neck, his eyes squinting and shifting side-to-side, awaiting Burdock’s reply.

“I’ll give you forty clean. That’s twenty a piece, and more than fair,” said Burdock.

“Fifty cash on the barrel and that’s final Mississippi,” Schmidt said, biting hard on his fat cigar.

“Done,” answered Burdock, reaching for his pocket, smiling like he’d won a hand.

Schmidt turned to a group of bystanders and winked while counting Burdock’s money.

“’N’-one more thing,” Schmidt said. “Anytime I sell a backer-mue, I thow in one of my hand-made lucky halters.”

Schmidt stuffed the bills in his pocket with one hand and lifted a heavy, oiled halter high in the air with the other.

“Well, why looky here, boys,” Schmidt said. “This is what makes it so special – an inlaid Injun-head nickel sewed inta the side of the halter for inn-surance. How ya like at?”

Schmidt paused and set his jaw, sucked his unlit cigar and spit against the wooden rail that anchored the mules. Then, looking square at a passerby, continued with his high pitch rant.

“Boys lemme tell ya what! That-a-away, you kin never come back here saying this here mule ain’t worth a plug nickel. I’m a giving you the nickel right up front and wishing you a mighty fine trip back to Mississippi! And if the mule won’t work, now don’t you spend your nickel all in one place.” Schmidt clenched his wet cigar between his teeth. With his eyes wide, he slapped his knee and bellowed, “You betcha boys! Whisky’s on ole Schmiddy!”

Laughter erupted from the circle of traders and bystanders that had gathered to witness the fleecing. Laughing along to mask his confusion, Burdock seemed to be the only man unaware of the shellacking.


Getting the Mules to High Ground—Burdock is Burned—Malice

Avery loved the sultry Mississippi mornings and feeding the mules long before the laggards in the main house awakened and the mules knew too that he loved it for it was the happiest few moments of the day. But the mood would change as it did each day when they set off to work—sweating it seemed without purpose, for reasons lost on him and the mules.

Hank and Avery grew close during the year of the flood. Building trust between them meant extra oats for the mule when Clegg could steal them. When the rain started its great pouring and the flood began violently threatening, it was decided in haste to move the mules to higher ground, requiring they cross a washed-out ditch on the boundary of the barnyard. In the frantic confusion brought by wind and rising water, Burdock, leading two young mules up to their knees in water was unable to move, frozen to the ground as if anchored. The mules stood locked in distrust at the boundary, unwilling to move forward or back.

Anyone familiar with the mind of a mule knows that when they learn a boundary or a routine, that it is no small feat to unlearn or rewind the mule’s brain without a well thought strategy and a patient hand. Watching the impending disaster, Avery bolted to the barn to fetch Hank, afraid Burdock might shoot the young mules rather than face the embarrassment of letting them go.

When he reached barn, Avery snapped blinders to a bridle and threw the harness over Hank. With Hank following close behind, they trotted out to Burdock and the two young mules. Avery spun Hank around to face Burdock and his mules, head to head—Hank’s back to the boundary. He pulled the young mule’s ropes out of Burdock’s hands, secured them to Hank’s harness and then clucked twice, Hank’s signal to walk backwards—the blinders blocking the rear view of the boundary. The young mules followed, comforted by the presence of Hank and the promise of higher ground. If not for Avery’s instincts, all, including Hank, may have drowned. A better man might have acknowledged Avery’s skill under pressure and his way with the mules, but that was an order too tall for Burdock.

Hadley O’Connor, otherwise known as the Big Boss, had been watching the scene from the hill and was struck by the quick thinking of Avery Clegg. He summoned the two to the main house at once. No matter his skill with the mules, that Avery had the presence of mind to use blinders and walk the mule backwards was impressive if not brilliant, O’Connor thought.

“Good work young man—in spite of the big lummox here,” he said, glaring at Burdock. “Come on in, and Burdock, wipe your big clumsy feet on the mat and fetch Clegg a tea.”

Burdock grumbled beneath his breath and scraped the mud from his boots. Avery soaked in the grandeur of the house but then let his eyes fall to the floor as though he was not fit to be in the presence of such comfort. Having lived only in a sharecropper’s shed – it was his first time to witness such class.

Unlike Burdock, O’Connor was small with the walleyed-face of a pie – his hair, orange and thin was combed forward out of step with the style of the time. Despite the heat, he wore a pinstriped jacket with wide lapels over a shirt yellowed with sweat. O’Connor had made his fortune peddling confounding sharecropper leases to fallen men – some illiterate, occasionally ignorant but always desperate men in the most desperate of times.

After tea and plans for the following morning, O’Connor bid them goodnight. Avery and Burdock walked to the barn to turn down the lights. Burdock threatened Avery at once.

“I’ll get you for this you little bastard. Don’t forget who’s boss around here. I promise one way or another you’ll pay for making me look like a fool.”

“I didn’t mean it. What I meant was, I didn’t mean to make you look like a fool and it wasn’t on purpose – honest,” said Avery. “It was on account of I couldn’t let the mules run off, or drown.”

“They wasn’t gonna run off and they weren’t gonna drown, Clegg. You should’ve asked me to help stead a making me out a fool.”

“But the creek was rising. The mules were scared. They would’ve run blind through the fence, there was no time!”

“You’ll pay, you shit bastard,” said Burdock between breaths and a grind of his teeth.

What a simple man. Avery kicked a pebble that just missed Burdock as he walked ahead. An imbecile thinking only of himself. He watched Burdock swagger, his face aglow with malice. Avery looked to the night sky and the yellow lights of the barn. The air was heavy and the purple sky grew silent and still as though waiting and building steam.


The Flood—Burdock’s Revenge

What little was left of the town was marred with mud, and the air reeked, heavy with rotting fish. Mud and sand flowed in through doors and windows. The mercantile, pharmacy, blacksmith and harness shop all closed. The doctor, making house calls, traversed fields and lanes for the roads were closed.

On the fifth morning after the flood, Burdock stood splay legged in front of Avery’s cabin cradling the dead weight of O’Connor’s fifty-caliber Hawken in the crook of his arm. At his side stood one of Mrs. O’Connor’s dogs squinting his eyes, growling slow and uneasy.

“Let’s go, Clegg—get a move on, boy. Lady Boss needs us on the main house porch in five minutes,” he said with a malicious smile.

O’Connor and his wife stood motionless on the porch, their backs turned to each other when Avery and Burdock arrived.

“Bad news, Clegg,” said O’Connor, casting a dire look at his wife as she fanned herself cool. “We are out of dries and out of supplies. We’re out of food, and Mrs. O’Connor’s dogs’ plates have been clean for two days now. And there’s no telling when the road re-opens.”

Silence followed, interrupted only by the whirring of Mrs. O’Connor’s fan.Avery shuffled his feet.

Burdock broke the silence first.“We’re gonna have to kill the old mule.”

“We must!” blurted Mrs. O’Connor.

A buzzing sensation sizzled in the pit of Avery’s stomach and was now humming at such a frequency that other than his fingers which were tingling, the rest of his body grew numb.

Locked in this vapory realm of horror, this dreadful nightmare of terror, unable to speak or jolt awake, Avery Clegg stood silent. His hands and knees trembled in helpless denial. Vision and sound combined to form a new unfamiliar consciousness, floating as if watching from the outside through a wavy windowpane, that distorted his mind dizzily, their words repeating in circles, elongated in some low sickening motion.

“I’m sorry, Avery, it’s settled,” said O’Connor. “You’ll help Burdock see the job through this morning. That’s all there is to say. I’m sorry, boy. I’m sorry for the mule.”

“You watch that boy close now and I mean real close, Cal Burdock, do you hear me?” insisted Mrs. O’Connor, eyes wide and shifting between Avery and Burdock. “Never know what’s on his clever little pickaninny mind. He’s a bad apple—ya’ll know that for certain—and if the ‘lil bastard makes a run for it this time you’ve got my approval to shoot ’em in the back.”

Burdock nodded twice, applauding chin to chest. Hadley O’Connor, bitter and impotent, fell silent, his eyes averted.

Burdock pinched Avery’s shirtsleeve between his finger and thumb, tugged twice, and motioned with his chin to the stairs. Avery looked across his shoulder at O’Connor as if casting a final plea but there would be no answer. He stepped down the stairs and walked in the direction of the barn.

“Get the mule, Cleggy boy,” Burdock bellowed, pointing the Hawken forward as he lumbered through the barn door. “Meet me round back on the side-hill where it’s dry. Under the oak next to the icehouse. I’ll get the block and tackle. We’ll hang him from the oak.”

He stepped inside the door and stopped, numb, his eyes fixed on the dusty inlaid nickel as he lifted Hank’s halter from the nail that held it along with two others, shiny from years of use. Halter in hand, Avery stood to face the old mule. He reached under Hank’s jaw and pressed their two faces together in order to smell the mule’s warm muzzle. Hank blinked his eyes slowly with a soft gentle kindness as tears streaked down Avery’s cheek and dripped to the floor.

Avery knew there was no running, not for him or the mule and definitely not on this day. If he ran, Burdock would kill him with a single shot. That much he knew.

When they reached the oak, Burdock jerked the mule’s rope out of Avery’s hand. Looking around to be sure they were without company, Burdock smiled, his lips shining with tobacco.

“Finally pay day for you, you little vermin. Now you’re going to see firsthand where cleverin gets you,” Burdock said, spitting as he spoke, shoving the butt of the Hawken to bruise Avery’s ribcage blue. “You…boy, gonna be the one shooting the mule.”

Quaking weak-kneed, guts crawling high to his throat, Avery cried out, “No Mister, no I cannot, no I could never, please.”

Savoring his ill moment of conquest, Burdock snapped, “You ain’t got no choice now do you boy? You heard the lady-boss. ‘Shoot him if he tries to run.’ Well now lemme see here, Cleggy … you’re not running, are you boy?” He slapped his hands together with a crack while spitting a yellow stream of tobacco between Avery’s shoes.

Avery’s mind raced. Burdock would kill him if he could and he knew too that on this particular day, in the aftermath and chaos of the flood, even a fool like Burdock could make off with killing a sharecropper’s boy that no one save the mules would miss. Worse, Clegg was sure Mrs. O’Connor would jump to Burdock’s defense and Hadley would bow to his wife. There was no hope for his or the mule’s escape.

As if some force of nature came calling, Avery pulled the hammer back two clicks—and, whispering goodbye, he leveled the gun and closed his eyes to unleash the Hawken’s irrevocable concussion of death.

“Now that’s how ya talk to a mule!” Burdock bellowed with arms outstretched skyward. “That’s how ya talk to a mule, Cleggy Boy!”

Late that night, unable to sleep, Avery slipped from bed and made his way to the barn. Inside, he slid his hands against the wall across the familiar tangle of harnesses, ropes and bridles. He lifted Hank’s halter from its nail and twisted the flat leather in his hands until the Indian nickel broke free. He pushed the coin deep in his pocket, closed his eyes and made a vow to keep it forever.


The Break—Then Another

It would be two years before he made his escape. Unlike the first time he tried to run, Avery made the railroad tracks with ease. As he sat alone in the boxcar bound for Santa Fe, he pulled the nickel from his pocket and rubbed it against his shirt until the coin revealed a new and brilliant sheen. For the next twelve years, on any idle occasion, Avery would retrieve the nickel from his pocket, press it to his lips and think about Hank.

Once in Santa Fe, Avery found work in the Olde Tavern Inn for wages that included room and board. Though made to sleep and wash in the stable, Avery lived with newfound purpose and saved every penny that he made. Each night, he studied behind the stairwell in the library in exchange for brushing the librarian’s horse and gathering wood for her stove.

At night, books piled high on the floor, Avery poured over the great tragedies of history and compared them to his own. Of his sharecropper father and his Indian wife, Avery’s mother and beloved teacher. He toiled over manuals of every discipline and every trade until late one night he happened upon the Journal of Medicine. Words from those of principled minds and capable hands, bespoke actions gentle and kind. Men and women with knowledge and tools to ease great suffering and pain.


Gunfire, a Doctor and a New Beginning

The Olde Tavern was run by a tall angular man named Walter Key, a meticulous gentleman of sixty whose reputation for kindness was matched only by his striking looks and formidable physical presence. His brother, Dr. Chester Key, a practicing physician from New York, was on a trip west to visit Walter when a squabble in the tavern ended in blood.

Two men fell limp to the floor, one from a bullet to the jaw—the other stabbed deep in the chest. Walter Key, had leapt across the bar to stop the gunman, and was shot. The gunman was still shooting wildly as he escaped through the door to the street. When Avery heard the gunfire, he rushed into the room to find Walter lying on the floor, blood pulsing from his arm and rapidly bleeding to death. Dr. Chester Key, exhausted from the long trip from New York, was asleep in a room upstairs.

Avery leapt to Walter’s side and tore his shirt to ribbons, scattering buttons helter-skelter, and made a tourniquet midstride—something he had committed to memory from his journal and his late-night studies. Using just the right pressure to occlude the blood flow, he applied a makeshift bandage to encourage clotting. In less than a minute, most of the bleeding had stopped.

Awakened by the gunfire, Dr. Key bounded from bed and hurried down the stairs to find his blood-soaked brother unconscious, but alive. “In the name of Christ, what happened here?” he said, his voice trembling as he knelt beside his brother.

Avery and Dr. Key lifted Walter from the floor to a table and after they had him stretched out comfortably, Dr. Key looked out at the group standing by. “Will the man that applied this tourniquet please step forth?” Dr. Key asked in a loud voice while casting a wide-eyed glance at the group.

Eyes trained to his feet, Avery spoke. “I did, sir. It was me. My name is Avery Clegg.”

Key spun on his heel and turned to Avery. Though the young man’s shirt was in shreds and spattered with blood, it had never occurred to the Doctor that he could have seen to the tourniquet.

“Without a doubt, this is the finest tourniquet I have ever seen. The knot, the tension, and most importantly, its placement between the wound and his heart. There is no question—no question at all—that you saved my brother’s life, young man. He would be dead now, sure as I stand here. He would have been dead as a nail in just minutes had you not applied the tourniquet so quickly and with such skill. Where did you receive your training at such an age, young man?”

Avery shifted his weight from foot to foot and, struggled to find words. “I—well—I’ve been borrowing medical books and journals from the library each night for some time now. I study and record diseases and cures, potions and poisons, and I redraw—I mean, I sketch—illustrations in my notebooks so that I might continue my studies after returning the book.”

“Tell me, young Avery, the artery to which you applied the tourniquet: to which vessel does it flow?” Dr. Key asked.

“You are referring to the right Brachial Artery,” said Avery confidently. “It flows not to one, but two vessels: the right radial and the ulnar.”

Dr. Key, placed his gentle healer’s hands on the boy’s shoulder and smiled but said not a word.

Later that week, Dr. Key and Walter summoned Avery to join them for dinner.

“I’ve a proposition for you, Avery,” Dr. Key said. “I’m prepared to offer you a job in New York as my assistant. You will work in the lab where you will earn enough to pay tuition to medical school. There, you will attend evening classes at the university where I hold the position as Director of Research.”


Graduation—Back Home to Mississippi

His performance at the university was stellar. Though students in number were large, Avery emerged at the top of his class. With the brilliance of a statesman, he delivered a speech to his graduating class. Lucid in presentation, logical and compassionate his conclusions, Avery Clegg touched the hearts and minds of everyone in attendance. Though he loved the university and splendor of New York, Avery longed for his home in the South. With nickel in hand and magnolias on his mind, he boarded a train for old Miss.

At age twenty-nine, with head held high, he hung up his sign street side in the small Mississippi town of his birthplace: Dr. Avery Clegg. In no time, his services were in demand for he eagerly made house calls to out-of-the-way places and was willing to treat the poor or those befallen hard times. He built a modest home on the river’s edge with a chestnut grey barn to house two mules. One, a rangy old sorrel called Henry, the other, a pretty-eyed brindle named Etta. Along with Mable, the three-teated cow, lived a calico cat with floppy ears and a small flock of chickens that laid baskets of eggs to feed a growing young band of bright Cleggs.


The Reckoning

The humidity soaked branches hung limp under the weight of the ichorous air. Avery unhitched his mule and moved uncharacteristically slow so that he might savor each moment, reminiscing in order to let the heavy stillness and the sweet floral smell of the morning take him back to the day before the great flood. He had thought of the flood many times, but something about the thick, almost syrupy stillness of the air made the memory seem all too real.

The quiet was broken by the pounding of hooves as a boy of about twelve riding bareback galloped up the dirt road to Avery, his horse lathered and slippery.

“You—you Doc Clegg?” The boy asked.

“Yes, I am,” he answered. “What’s your name, son? Has there been an accident?”

“Name’s Monroe and yes-sir, yes-sir it’s a bad’n. Mule kicked the boss upside the head and bloods spilt and covering him and the flow slick. Big Boss a ways outta town and the Lady Boss in her sleeping room—can’t wake her no how.”

The words Lady Boss made Avery hesitate, but just for a moment. He harnessed the fresh mule, restocked his bag and leaped into the cart. The mule, sensing excitement, was in a full trot by the time he gathered the reins.

“Show the way,” Avery called out. His suspicions were confirmed a mile from O’Connor’s weed ridden field when he recognized the road leading up to the dilapidated sharecropper sheds. Recalling the conversation, he reasoned the out-of-town Big Boss to be Hadley O’Connor and to the fact that the boy had mentioned the Lady Boss lay asleep in her room, presumably her head full of brandy, meant Lady Boss was none other than Mrs. O’Connor. Further reckoning meant the injured man was to be Cal Burdock.

In the same way the heavy stillness of the air evoked memories of the flood, the thought of coming to Burdock’s aid imparted on the Hippocratic Oath a new sense of reality, but in a context he had never imagined. He would be tested today, and his answer to this test would define him forever.

Avery dallied the mule fast to a post, and with bag clenched tight in his hand, rushed through the door of the barn. A thin brown mule with kind sleepy eyes stood patiently tied to the wall opposite the stalls, at his back was his wretched maimed master. Burdock lay sprawled on his back, eyes clenched tight with pain. The fifty caliber Hawken leaned in waiting against the wall just below the halters hanging two to a nail. The door leading out to the oak next to the ice house was open but there was no breeze, and the air burned with urine.

“Go check Mrs. O’Connor while I get underway,” Avery said to Monroe.

But the boy stood motionless, eyes fixed to Burdock.

“Run along!” Avery scolded.

Startled, Burdock cranked his neck which revealed an inch-long gash on his head. The parietal bone, thought Avery, two inches behind his ear and slanted toward the top of his head. The bleeding had stopped enough that a small portion of his brain was visible, shiny and pulsating with each beat of his heart.

“That you, Monroe?” said Burdock, his words elongated and slow as he strained to make out the man hovering over him. “A doctor—gimme a doctor,” he said as he struggled to lift his arm. After each word, Burdock paused. Blood pulsed from the hole with each new breath.

Never had Avery attended to a fractured skull, let alone one that was perforated. He recalled the open skull protocol in medical school: disinfect, inspect, remove floating bone, loosen and clean beneath scalp, install metal plate over perforation, carefully slide under scalp, apply gentle pressure for three minutes, stretch tight and suture. Avery had everything but the metal plate, roughly the size of a nickel, he calculated. He pulled the Indian head coin from his pocket. This, he thought, looking at his keepsake, might do.

Avery pressed Hank’s nickel between his finger and thumb and paused to reflect on the irony. Not that he would save the life of a man that hated both he and his beloved mule with the mule’s nickel but of the insidious mockery implicit in the nickel’s design. On its face was the word Liberty accompanied by the striking portrait of a gaunt-faced warrior, feather in hair, nose of a hawk and eyes of an eagle. That the word Liberty and the gallant Indian shared the same side of the coin after having been denounced and stripped of his freedom, his bison obliterated, families forced from their homes to live forever within the confines of the reservation, seemed anything but Liberty to Clegg.

Burdock, surprised by Avery’s presence, scowled. “That you, Clegg? Avery Clegg?”

“Yes Mr. Burdock, I’ve come to help.”

“I’m in need of a doc! Bring me a doc,” he hissed.

“I am a doctor, Mr. Burdock, a physician. I can help you.”

“No, Clegg. A doc, a real doc.”

“But I can assure you I—”

Burdock moaned, slipping in and out of consciousness. “Damn you, Clegg,” he mumbled. “You black son-of-a-bitch. I’d rather die, die than have you lay a hand on me. A doc.”

“I am a doctor,” repeated Avery, “A licensed doctor. I can help you. You must allow me to help you, Cal Burdock.” He studied the Hawken, leaning against the wall as if beckoning.“If I send for another doctor, Cal Burdock, you will die before he arrives. You will surely die, and if you don’t die today you’ll die tomorrow.”

Burdock fell silent, his eyes searching to find Clegg’s. When their eyes finally met, Burdock motioned with his chin to the Hawken.

The obstinate Burdock was every bit a mule, every bit as narrow minded and stubborn as any mule. And Clegg, though vexed and dubious, knew just how to talk to a mule.


About John Grabski

John Grabski is a runner, writer and poet that lives in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the The Tishman Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Unbroken Journal, Eclectica Literary Mag,The Harpoon Review, Ash & Bones, Crack the Spine Literary, Cyclamens & Swords, Foliate Oak Literary Mag and others. For more information, visit


2 Responses to “Story”

  1. Luke Wilson

    Love the imagery and great capture of a time long gone. Good, solid characters and dialog, and a tale that leaves the reader wanting a bit more of the story, but enjoying relying on his imagination as well. Thanks for sharing this.


      Thank you for the kind words, Luke. Honored to share ‘Clegg’s Nickel Mule’ in such a wonderful magazine.


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