Mules, Drenching, Colic
Swill O’ Sweet Spirits
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Of the mule, William Faulkner once said, “ … he labors six days without reward for one creature, whom he hates, bound with chains to another, whom he despises, and spends the seventh day kicking or being kicked by his fellows.”
My friend Hal can attest to the great writer’s observations, having spent many days bound with chains to mules that despised him. He had no choice: Hal’s father, Garfield Lewis, an Arkansas cotton farmer, tended 5,000 acres with mules, sharecroppers, and sons.
Back then, when mules fell ill, the treatment was “drenching.” Hal, who considered becoming a veterinarian, says drenching was almost always effective in ending mule maladies because it was almost always effective in killing them. The medicine administered in drenching was sweet spirits of niter — five percent potassium nitrate mixed with 95 percent anhydrous alcohol.
To get the medication into a mule, the vet first rendered him temporarily tractable with a nose twister. With the dose in a long-necked bottle, the animal doctor and his assistant climbed into the barn’s loft and pulled the patient’s head upward with the twister. While the assistant held the mule’s tongue to one side, the vet shoved the bottle down its throat, dispensing as many glug-glugs as possible before the enraged beast went ballistic.
Hal categorized post-dosed mules as one-round, two-round, and three-round. The weakest galloped once around the barn, bucking and braying, before dying; average mules, twice; possible survivors, thrice.
My friend’s veterinarian aspirations ended after an incident involving his favorite mule. Hal named him after mythological Tantalus, whose punishment for offending the gods was an eternal stretch in Hades, with cool water at his feet and juicy grapes above his head, neither within reach. Having plowed mules on Hades-hot days up and down rows with unreachable ends, Hal felt Tantalus was the ideal mule moniker.
Among the farm’s herd of unmannered ungulates, Tantalus was the biggest, strongest and orneriest. Because he loathed all two-legged and four-legged co-workers except his pal Hal, he and the young man spent many days in Mr. Garfield’s fields, until Tantalus came down with colic.
Not wanting to torment his chain-mate, Hal fitted him with a halter instead of a nose twister. Joining the vet in the loft, he gently pulled on the halter rope, coaxing the mule into the drenching position. Tantalus didn’t seem to mind when Hal pulled his tongue sideways, but when the vet shoved the bottle down his throat and the evil elixir entered his innards, Tantalus bolted backward, jerking Hal from the loft. The terrified lad landed astraddle the mule and off the two flew.
Just as Hal was fixing to eject himself, his mount vomited into the slipstream, and a disgusting dollop of the regurgitated remedy spattered all over Hal’s face.
Dousing his head in the water trough, the gagging youngster wasn’t comforted by what the vet said: “Garfield, Tantalus is cured, but we’ll have to wait and see if Hal survives his swill o’ sweet spirits.”