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  • Writer's pictureWilliam F. Stratton

The Black Mule Mine.

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

By Frank N. Stratton

Munsey’s Magazine, June 1905.

Thomas Jefferson Baxter, standing with feet far apart, glared down at William Henry Bisbee; and William Henry Bisbee, seated on a boulder at the intersection of two gulches, scowled up at Thomas Jefferson Baxter. The gray mule flattened her flopping ears and threatened the black mule with two rows of jagged, yellow teeth. The black mule twitched her unshorn tail, and launched an ineffective kick at the gray with a vicious earnestness that rattled the pans, picks, and shovels cinched to her scrawny back. Unquestionably the spirit of strife hovered over the camp.

"You can’t bulldoze me for a cent’s worth, Bill Bisbee,” growled Thomas Jefferson. "I say we’re goin’ straight north—right up this gulch.”

"Don’t try your bluff on me, Jeff Baxter,” snarled William Henry. "I’ve stood all I can. Up this side-gulch we go—due west.”

"Anybody that knew pay-ore from alkali dust wouldn’t squint twice up that gulch,” Mr. Baxter sneered.

"Nobody but a natural born idiot would keep on prospectin’ over ground like this,” rejoined the undaunted Bisbee.

Mr. Baxter bristled pugnaciously.

"North we go—or bust the pardnership right here,” he proclaimed.

Mr. Bisbee rose to his feet.

"The firm of Bisbee & Baxter is dissolved by mutual consent,” he announced. "Assets to be equally divided; the liabilities are big enough to take care of themselves.”

“Suits me!” declared Thomas Jefferson. "It won’t take long to divide the assets. I reckon I git the gray mule.”

"You reckon wrong,” snapped William Henry. "You can’t shove that black demon off onto me that way; we'll toss a dollar for the gray.”

"We'll find the dollar first,” observed Mr. Baxter sagely and gloomily. “If there’s a dollar in this outfit, you can take both mules.”

Mr. Bisbee drew from his hip pocket a section of plug tobacco.

"Tag side is heads.” he announced laconically. "Say which.”

"Tails is mine,” said Mr. Baxter, and the plug spun upward, descended, and raised a tiny cloud of alkali dust as it smote the earth.

"Tails it is,” admitted Mr. Bisbee sullenly.

With silent celerity various articles were shifted from mule to mule, and Thomas Jefferson, preceded by the coveted gray, turned his bronzed face northward, while William Henry led the despised black into the lateral gulch and smote her with a ponderous foot.

“I never thought you’d treat me like this, Jeff Baxter,” he protested. "Guess you’ve forgot them fifty dollars I loaned you two years ago.”

Mr. Baxter, striding northward, turned to emit a hoarse cackle intended for a scornful laugh.

"I figger that I squared that by nursin’ you through that spell of smallpox when nobody else would come within a mile of you,” he shouted back.

The retort that quivered on Mr. Bisbee’s tongue was never spoken, for at that moment the black mule, carelessly permitted to wander beyond the reach of corporal reproof, seized the opportunity to add another jewel to her crown. With a joyous squeal and a flourish of spavined legs, she bounded high in air, and when she struck the earth she was galloping westward up the gulch with an energy that threatened demolition of Mr. Bisbee’s clattering chattels.

After her, lumbered the alarmed Bisbee, between whose apostrophic comments upon mules generally, and the black mule individually, were sandwiched emphatic observations about Mr. Baxter not conducive to the ultimate restoration of the entente cordiale.

Having merrily ambled a half mile up the gulch, the black mule whirled squarely to the right and charged straight up its steep and rugged side. A shower of stones and little lumps of soil rolled downward from beneath her clawing hoofs. When she finally gained the summit she halted, gazed down upon the perspiring Bisbee, and voiced her victory in a rasping, shrieking paean that elicited a sympathetic and congratulatory response from the distant gray. Then she whisked her unshorn tail contemptuously, and disappeared from her owner’s vision.

"I wouldn’t have thought she could do it,” panted the enraged William Henry, as he laboriously followed the fugitive’s trail up the steep incline. "I’ll bet she can climb a tree. Just wait till I catch––”

He stopped short to stare with dilated eyes at a mass of crumbling rock shattered and denuded of its thin soil by the struggling hoofs of the black mule. With a gurgle of delight he fell upon the exposed ledge; tore at it with knife and finger-nails; dug and gouged for many minutes; and when at length he clambered to the summit his face was radiant.

"And I’d have walked right past it if it hadn’t been for that mule!” he soliloquized, as he cast himself upon the ground and laughed hysterically.

After a while he sat up, hugged his knees, and meditated.

"Wonder what Jeff ’ll say when he hears about it,” he muttered. "Guess he’ll wish he hadn’t been so brash. Pity he’s so bull-headed, for he did stick to me like a man when I was sick. But it's his own fault!”

Presently he drew a dog-eared book from his pocket, scribbled therein long and laboriously with the stub of a pencil, and rose slowly to his feet. Carefully and securely he impaled the page upon a splinter of a blasted pine, backed away to scrutinize the inscription, grinned broadly, and once more took up the trail of the fleeing mule.

Northeastward it led, straight to where Mr. Baxter, pausing occasionally to contemplate with grim pleasure a black mule and a gray grazing side by side, was encouraging a sputtering fire over which sizzled two meager slices of bacon.

"Lookin’ for somethin’?” inquired Mr. Baxter impassively as his former partner approached.

“Not now,” replied William Henry; "I’ve found it.”

Mr. Baxter grunted, and a silence broken only by the sputter of the fire and the sizzle of the bacon fell upon the assemblage.

“Jeff.” ventured Mr. Bisbee, “do you think that’s enough bacon for two?”

"I don’t,” answered Mr. Baxter, without looking up. "There’s more in your pack. You’re welcome to the fire—when I’m done with it.”

"Kind of crabbed with your old pardner ain’t you Jeff?”

Thomas Jefferson lifted his face to frown across the fire.

"Your blarney don’t go this time. Bill,” he growled. "I knowed you’d come sneakin’ back, but the pardnership’s busted—and it’s goin’ to stay busted.”

Something left Mr. Bisbee’s hand and caromed from Mr. Baxter’s boot. Mr. Baxter eyed the object suspiciously, pounced upon it voraciously, turned it over and about in his calloused hands, and stared at the smiling Bisbee.

"Bill,” he stammered, "where— where’d you git it?”

"Picked it up off the ground. Did you think I’d shot it on the wing?”

"But where?” insisted Mr. Baxter excitedly.

"Would you like to see?”

"I would!” shouted Thomas Jefferson, abandoning the bacon to a fiery fate. "You can’t show me too quick!”

The expression of incredulity on his hard face fled like a flash when he had followed Mr. Bisbee up the gulch and had cast one searching glance upon the exposed ledge.

"Bill,” he ejaculated, "we’re millionaires this minute!”

“We?” snorted Mr. Bisbee. “Ain’t the pardnership busted—and goin’ to stay busted?”

"Billy,” pleaded Thomas Jefferson, "you surely wouldn’t go back on an old pardner! We’ve prospected together, and starved together, and fought together, and––”

“You ought to have remembered all that before you busted the pardnership,” Mr. Bisbee interrupted. “It’s too late now; I’ve made up my mind. And I’ve put it down in black and white. Come up and read it.”

They climbed to the summit, and Thomas Jefferson, turning his mournful gaze to the paper on the pine stump, threw his arms about the grinning William Henry and emitted a whoop that startled the distant mules; for he read:

"The Black Mewl Mine, Located by William Henry Bisbee and Tomas Jefferson Baxter, Pardners, Haf and Haf.”

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William F. Stratton
William F. Stratton
18 jun 2021

Great story.

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