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Published on December 7, 2021

‘Skunk mule’ raised havoc on Grandpa Ruffo’s Texas farm

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

It was planting time in the mid-1920s on Grandpa Ruffo’s farm in Tennessee Colony, Texas, and he had just purchased a new set of traces.

For non-farmers and younger readers, traces are a set of leather straps and other gear used to hitch an animal to what you wanted it to pull. With slight adjustments, you can fit the traces to mules, horses or oxen.

With a few other adjustments, buckboards, wagons, plows, or other equipment were attached. Traces were expensive, and hard cash was scarce.

An exceptionally smart mule was running loose around the Colony. It was solid jet black and larger than most mules. It could jump any fence, open any gate or any barn or silo door to thieve the grain for the working animals. That mule also reduced many family gardens to bare dirt in a night.

The mule was easily approached, and several farmers caught him and harnessed him to a plow. It would not pull the plow, but when he got a chance, he’d take off on a dead run, breaking the plow and destroying the traces.

One farmer hitched him to a buckboard. After standing motionless for an hour or so, the mule saw his opportunity for freedom and took off. He jumped a 5-foot rail fence and made his escape, but the buckboard was reduced to kindling wood.

Dad and his four brothers decided their farm had suffered enough of the mule’s raids and decided to teach it a lesson. Can you see where this is going? One big smart mule vs. five farm boys with sometimes questionable intelligence.

After Grandpa Ruffo and Grandma Ruby retired for the night, the boys headed for the barn. They grabbed Ruffo’s two-week-old traces and went hunting.

By 11 p.m. or so, they caught and harnessed their quarry and led him back to the barn. They backed him into a narrow stall used to doctor animals and latched the gate. Clyde climbed up the side of the stall and braced himself over the mule’s head - straddling the sides of the stall. Dad handed him a bottle of carbon-tetrachloride.

Like many other chemicals, easily acquired at the general or feed stores 100 years ago, carbon-tet wouldn’t be available today. It evaporates so quickly that it can literally freeze skin. It was used for a time as a branding agent because the hair that regrew where it was applied turned white and stood out as a brand. Carbon-tet burned like hell-fire as it evaporated. I don’t know how the boys planned to use the carbon-tet, but what they planned was not listed on the label.

Clyde unscrewed the lid and tilted the bottle. As the second drop hit the mule between the ears, all heck broke loose.

The mule hunched his back and kicked five boards out of the side of the barn. Clyde lost his balance. Grabbing for a post to keep from landing on the mule’s back, he turned the bottle upside down. The mule went through the stall gate like it wasn’t even there, hit the barn door at full speed and disappeared into the night.

Now the boys had one small problem - they had forgotten to remove Ruffo’s two-week-old traces, and plowing was scheduled to start at daybreak.

Around 4 a.m., they caught the mule. He had tangled the traces around a tree, about five miles from the barn. The boys removed the traces and released the mule. By 5:30 a.m., they were back at the barn and put the traces in the tack room. Grandma Ruby was already calling everyone to breakfast.

When the boys got to the breakfast table, they stood behind their chairs.

“Sit. Nobody stands at my table,” said Grandpa Ruffo.

“We can’t sit down. If we do, we will all fall asleep,” my Dad replied.

“Explain,” ordered Ruffo.

The boys told their story, each adding his own highlights.

“I’m going out to the barn to check on my new traces,” Ruffo said. “They better be in prime condition.”

About 15 minutes later, Ruffo came back to the breakfast table.

“Why are your cheeks wet and your eyes red?” asked Ruby.

“Some snuff blew into my eyes,” he replied.

The boys knew better. Out in the barn, Ruffo had imagined the mule chase and had laughed until he cried.

The mule continued to plague farms for years afterwards. He was easy to spot. He was jet black with a 5-inch-wide white stripe that started between his ears, went down the middle of his back, and ended at the tip of his tail. But the skunk mule never revisited Ruffo’s farm.

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)