Sweet Annie Finnegan was the sole relative on my mother's side whose lips didn't purse when she visited our humble farm.
During our clan's frequent get-togethers at "Chez McClung," it was Annie who invited a cat on her lap, tucked sugar cubes in her pocket for the horses, and, on one memorable occasion, clad in lilac suede pants and a silk blouse, spent half an hour blissfully riding my eldest mare around the small paddock.
Although she made her request to mount up for her "adventure" after two cups of hard cider, Annie forever recalled, "It was the most exciting experience of my life."
Not only did she ride, but she also, immediately upon dismounting, picked up a broom and swept out the tack room.
"Not that it really needed a sweeping. It was so clean you could eat off the floor," Annie confided to her sisters, whose lips collectively disappeared.
"Unlike her kitchen, if you'd notice," my mother retorted, scooping a petrified chewy toy out of the refrigerator.
Annie, a kindred spirit in every way, vigorously defended my horse/dog/cat/deranged goat lifestyle to her citified sisters, extolling the virtues of rural living versus "the stifling boredom of suburbia."
Which is why I could hardly refuse the reciprocal "adventure" she'd arranged during my first visit to her southern home en route to visiting friends in a neighboring state.
"Oh, do plan to stay at least two days," Annie pleaded.
"My little place is in a pretty spot of country where you'll feel right at home. And haven't I found the perfect thing to repay you for that grand ride I'll cherish forever?" she added, pointing to an elaborate gilt-framed photo of her astride my ancient mare.
Quite A Reputation
Annie's return favor was arranging for me to go out with a local hunt club for a day's sport.
"I met the members a month ago, when they politely inquired if they could ride through my meadow, and now they stop to say hello every week. When I told them you were visiting, and how you loved to hunt, nothing would do but that you join them tomorrow morning," said Annie, her eyes shining with excitement.
"They're fine folk, but understand they don't have a fancy dress-up club like yours, just good friends who love the chase," she explained. "And I've been told they have quite a reputation in this part of the South."
"That's really lovely of you, and very tempting, Annie. But you see, I've only brought a pair of old boots and britches to go hacking with my friends next week, so I don't have anything appropriate for hunting, especially as a guest. And I wouldn't want to embarrass you," I responded.
"Ah! Don't you be worrying," Annie assured me in her soft Irish lilt. "It's not a'tal what you'd be calling formal. I've watched them coming through for a while now and have taken notice most of the riders wear some very plain kind of outfits. Truth be told, the woman on a kind of dotted horse just wears those little shoes where your toes show—flippity-flops I think they call them."
"And the leader is ever so accommodating. He said they never stand on ceremony. They just want guests to enjoy themselves. He also made it quite clear you were not to worry yourself about bringing lunch, because he always has an extra flask or two."
"They'll be around tomorrow morning about 7, and they promised to bring a mount that's familiar with the countryside and will give you a lovely ride," Annie finished, with a smile.
Unable to formulate a reasonable excuse outside of insanity—which might have been considered an asset—I thanked Annie for arranging a payback "adventure" and prayed for predicted rain.
As if reading my mind, she added, "Don't worry yourself about bad weather either. Why, just last week they rode through in the midst of a genuine monsoon, so a wee bit of thunder and lightning wouldn't slow them down."
My luck running true to form, morning dawned brilliant, with azure skies and a crisp hint of autumn. And, true to their word, the group trotted up Annie's lane on the dot of 7.
Several things became immediately apparent:
There were only six riders.
The hounds were (best guess) foxhound-bloodhound-lurcher-pedigree unknown.
The horse being ponied up to the porch had the biggest ears I'd ever seen.
I was grossly overdressed.
"Mornin', ma'am. We're just tickled pink you're going to come along with us this morning," boomed a very large man in bib overalls and monogrammed cowboy boots, a snake tattoo curling around the arm that reined in a probably 32-hand horse with one blue eye and no tail.
"Just call me Coots," he announced, politely tipping his John Deere cap. "And, this here's Thelma Jean," (Angora sweater, toreador pants, purple tennis shoes, riding an Appaloosa, i.e. dotted horse) "who helps me keep all these doggies on track.
"Back there is Buck," he added. (Think Willy Nelson meets Beetlejuice, wearing a turquoise flannel shirt, denim vest and camouflage pants, and riding a possible Paint-Percheron.)
"And yonder is Jimmy W. and Jimmy T.; they's twins." (Think matching green work pants, 'We Haul Y'All Moving and Storage' sweatshirts, and matching chestnut Tennessee Walking horses.)
"And, holdin' onto your ride there is Darlene." (Confetti t-shirt, stretch jeans and what could have been tap-dancing shoes, riding a Mustang that, if human, would have had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve.)
"I guess she knows as much about hunting critters as anyone in these parts," Coots said proudly.
Not a hairnet in sight, even for the women.
Smiling broadly, Darlene ponied a really big buckskin mule up to the porch steps—really big.
"I know you might 'a been expectin' a horse, but bein's you're our guest, we wanted you to have the best, and Crunchy here's the finest we got," said Darlene proudly.
"He's kind of attached to my old Sparky here, so you can be sure he won't go off somewheres and get you lost. Come on, just hop right up," she invited.
"Uh, I've never ridden a mule before," I blathered, scrabbling across what appeared to be a Confederate Army saddle.
"Oh, nothin' much different a'tall—'cept maybe the steerin,' " Coots assured me.
Then, sounding a blast on his horn, he headed across Annie's field at a gallop, shouting, "You're in for a real treat with Crunchy. You'll think you're on a Mercedes-Benz!"
"Or a refrigerator with hooves," I thought, as Crunchy lurched forward, full-tilt behind Sparky.
Gathering up my leather/baling twine reins while attempting to adjust to Crunchy's springboard gait, I'd barely finished my first "Hail, Mary," when hounds opened up and headed after a yellowish red fox streaking toward a rock-covered hillside.
"Well, it don't usually take this long, but we're in gear now. That old mule's been at this longer than you been around, so best you just hang on and leave him figure out where to go," Darlene advised.
As if I had a choice.
Surrender All Control
Coots in the lead, Sparky and Crunchy in hot pursuit, and Thelma Jean and the interchangeable twins a scarce hoof beat behind, the field gathered momentum as they shadowed the musical pack streaming full speed ahead up a rough, gorse-covered bank that dropped down sharply on the other side.
Fortunately, the precipitous dip that briefly stopped my heart was old hat for Crunchy, who half-slid to the bottom, pogo-sticked over a crumbling stone wall, and popped back into gear for the steep climb up the other side.
(Rule #1 of Mule Riding: Those long ears have more than one purpose.)
With Reynard still in sight, hounds were hollering at top decibel as they disappeared into a spooky, primeval forest. Zigzagging through the trees, I surrendered total control of the steering mechanism and let Crunchy navigate the tricky terrain on automatic pilot.
(Rule #2 of Mule Riding: Closing your eyes causes you to tilt sideways.)
With all on, hounds hurtled down yet another impossibly narrow, rugged path, the field still close behind. While Crunchy's pie-plate feet handled the treacherous terrain like four suction cups, Sparky misjudged an uneven log that brought him to his knees and deposited Darlene into a sticker bush.
"That blind eye of his trips him up sometimes," said Darlene, calmly picking barbs out of her eyebrow. "But we're fine. Y'all go on or you might miss it. I'll catch up," she shouted to the already disappearing riders.
"Well, I'm certainly not going to leave you 'til you're back on," I announced, confident Crunchy would wait for his fallen comrade.
But the thrill of the chase trumped loyalty, and braying something that sounded very much like, "Sorry 'bout your luck, pal," Crunchy snatched the bit, spun with Nureyev-like grace, and shot after the rapidly disappearing field while I clung with everything that would cling.
Following the sound of music, I viewed our quarry flattening out across an endless sweep of pastureland. But rather than leading hounds on a straight merry chase, Mr. Smarty Fox laughed up his furry sleeve and hung a quick left, scampering across a rickety footbridge spanning a fast-running stream that was clearly unfit for his pursuers.
"Oh, well, I guess that's it," I thought at the same instant Crunchy leaped from the steep bank into deep water, with the rest of the field following.
"Don't pay to dress up," shouted Darlene, who'd managed to catch up via a death-defying shortcut.
For the next two hours, I did little more than grab hold of Crunchy's spiky mane and learn the true meaning of hanging on for dear life as the fox led us over every kind of terrain imaginable before being run to ground by that incredible pack.
Fortunately, since his den edged Annie's field, I was able to get home before paramedics were required, and I spent the rest of the afternoon with my new hunting buddies enjoying sumptuous food, drink and stories that needed no embellishment.
As they mounted up to leave, I thanked each member for the rare privilege of joining in on that remarkable chase, kissed Crunchy on both ears, and then wobbled off for a three-hour nap.
And, the next time someone calls me mule-headed, I'll be sure to thank them.
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