Four-up and a borrowed mule
October 26, 2014
If I were a horse, I'd be the one you could catch on foot. Our editor informed me of the upcoming wagon train some time ago; I emailed her back and said I'd do a story on it and promptly forgot about it. She reminded me about two weeks ago.
Having ridden the entire Ft. Pierre to Deadwood Trail six years ago, I knew wagon master Gerald Kessler pretty well. So I called him up. The first thing I said was "I'm not going on your wagon train, but I need to interview you for an article about it." He replied "well I really need a bus driver," and my mouth said, "Fine, I'm going on your wagon train."
I figured I'd go down, drive the bus, and either work on my article or nap in a wagon during the ride. Gerald gave me an outrider vest and put me on his saddle mule, Shorty.
I had ridden one other mule about a hundred yards, but I had seen Shorty move heaven and earth for an 8-year-old kid six years ago on the Ft. Pierre Ride. I knew there was a good mule in there; the challenge would be finding it. Gerald warned me right up front that he would be a handful at first.
So I left Yankton on a short white mule that I had absolutely no control over. I will say that I knew in my heart that I was the safest person on the wagon train, up there on Shorty's back, but that made the ride just slightly more tolerable. Far be it from me to disparage Gerald Kessler's mule in public, but suffice it to say that we didn't get along that well. I think me and Shorty were both glad that he sored up on the second day and we had to part ways on the third.
I had seen a man with four well-behaved blue roans on the trail while I tussled with Shorty. He brought all four in harness every day, but the first two days, he pulled two and lead two, switching at noon. When I found out he was going to drive them four-up starting the third day, I went to him and told him I'd always wanted to try driving four-up. He said "come find me tomorrow and I'll put them lines in your hands."
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I spent the next two days with D.W. Koss of West Salem, Wis., and he did indeed put them lines in my hands. D.W. runs a stagecoach business in Wisconsin, and although he's pretty modest about his ability, he's pretty handy with horses. Of the four he had with him, only one was three years old, and the other three were two year olds, and that day was the first that those four had been in a four horse hitch, and the off-leader had never been in a lead team before. I would classify myself as a novice teamster, so I was very honored and quite proud when he handed me the lines about three miles out the third day. The proud wore off pretty fast; driving four is a lot of work for a honyocker like me, but I guess I managed okay.
It seemed like we camped every night beside a cemetery, and there was usually a church nearby as well. I visited some of the churches, including the beautiful St. Wenceslaus' Catholic Church in Tabor, and strolled through the cemeteries. When I wasn't warring with a mule or trying to keep my lead team ahead of my wheel team, I thought a lot about those forgotten people in those cemeteries, who put their time and treasure into those beautiful churches and their land and became a small part of South Dakota history.
Circumstances forced me to return home, but I kind of wish I was still there. I'd like to drive the aquamarine YMCA bus again, and get a few more miles driving a four horse hitch. Me being me, if Shorty healed up, they could probably talk me into riding him again.
For what it's worth, I can now say I rode into Tabor, S.D. on a borrowed mule.