ALL I CAN SAY IS it's a good thing I put an orange scarf on Skippy the mule. Because it will be easier to spot a mule dressed in orange. We are standing high on the ridge overlooking the valley, and we have our hands on our brows, as if to help with long-distance viewing. We see sheep. We see cows. No mule.
Skippy was last seen at 6 p.m. yesterday, when I fed him his oats, and when I got the orange scarf idea. Because it's hunting season, and he's light tan, and should there be any doubt in a hunter's mind, well, blaze orange would be a helpful hint.
When I awoke this morning, I looked outside and did my usual equine roll call, which is: "Horse, horse, pony, mule." Except this morning I said, "Horse, horse, pony . . . mule?" So then I woke up Alex and put on my mud boots, and we headed out to see where Skippy might have wandered off to. Apparently, a frightened deer came bounding through our fields and ripped the electric fence down, and Skippy took advantage of the opportunity. Our horses are not intelligent enough to figure something like this out. But Skippy, like most mules, is gifted.
"Well, it looks like he didn't head north," Alex says, squinting in the morning sun.
"Not unless he went really north," I say.
We've never lost a mule before, and we don't know what to do. We are up on this ridge, high above civilization, or at least without much use for what civilization has to offer.
"I wish Skippy had a cell phone," I say.
"Or at least a beeper," Alex says.
We are decidedly and uncomfortably low-tech. We are two people with a lead rope and a bag of carrots.
Just then, from up over the rise, two hunters appear. Joe and his son Joe. "Hey!" we say, waving to them, and we tell them our problem.
"Well, I did see something peculiar this morning," the elder Joe says. "Around daybreak." He says it was foggy, far away, hard to see. But it looked to him like a man in orange chasing a school bus. "But then I noticed it couldn't have been a man, because it had four legs."
"A mule wearing an orange scarf, perhaps?" I say.
"Could be!" he says. And then he points. "He went thataway."
We hike back home, get in our truck, head thataway on Spring Valley Road, which is where we spot Debbie, our mail lady, coming toward us in her little white car with the flashing light on top. Her car is roaring loud as a Harley. We wave her down, tell her our problem. "They were just talking about that up at the hardware store!" she yells over the motor, explaining that her muffler dropped loose and she stopped at the hardware store to get some wire to hold it up. "They were talking about a mule wearing orange," she says. "I didn't get the whole story."
We head to the store, wondering why on earth Skippy would go to the hardware store, let alone chase a school bus.
Jim, the hardware guy, says, "Oh, is that your mule?" He says Joe the trapper, no relation to Joe and Joe the hunters, was just in buying parts for his coyote traps, and he talked about seeing a loose mule down at Sam's sheep farm. "Those coyotes killed two of Sam's sheep this week," he says. "Damn coyotes . . ."
We thank Jim, and then head down to Sam's, and we are beginning to feel like characters in a Winnie the Pooh story, yanked this way and that. When we pull up to the sheep farm, we see Skippy standing there with Sam, who has him on a rope. "That's our mule," I say.
"Well, here you go," Sam says. "He was eating the corn I had stored up."
"Sorry about that."
"Well, he might have a bellyache," he says.
Alex and I walk Skippy the three miles home together. It's funny to think how circular this all is. If it weren't for the hunters scaring the deer, the deer wouldn't have knocked down the fence, and Skippy wouldn't have gotten out. And if it weren't for the coyotes, which were introduced to the area to control the deer population, Joe the trapper wouldn't have been up at the hardware store buying traps on behalf of Sam. Well, if it weren't for the fact that coyotes long ago figured out that sheep are a heck of a lot easier to catch than deer, which is why we still have so many deer, which is why the hunters are allowed to hunt. And if it weren't for Debbie's muffler dropping off . . .
A community isn't something people invent. A community is more like spontaneous combustion, or the big bang, or some other of God's more mysterious works.
"It's probably easier to send a satellite into space than to work all that out on purpose," I say to Alex.
"It's probably easier to teach a mule how to use a cell phone," he says.
When we finally reach our driveway, we see Glen, the guy who delivers our hay. "You seen any cows around?" Glen says, explaining that the UPS guy forgot to shut the gate when he delivered a package, and now two of his ladies are loose.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.