My mother says we came from Dublin, Ireland, with a bundle of clothes, a well-read Bible, and each other. And in our hearts we brought love and hope.
When I was barely ten, we moved to a small cottage with a plot of land near the junction of the Susquehanna and Juniata canals. Father, who was tall and muscular, pulled our plow. And Mother, small but determined, guided the prong as it turned the soil. They sang as they worked, and I was happy to follow behind and shove potato eyes into the rich black earth. Sometimes we gathered berries by the river in pails.
“I watched the canal boats today, Father,” I said, smiling. “They were full of all manner of goods.”
“Aye, it’s a wondrous land we’ve come to, Michael,” Father agreed.
Although we sold the potatoes and berries in town, we never seemed to have enough money. When I was nearly twelve Father left for a time to look for work. Before he went, he kissed Mother and, smiling at me, led me to my cot where he raised the mattress and pinned a dollar to the ticking. “There,” he said quietly. “I’m off to find work. I don’t want to go, but a man must feed his family. Take care of your mother while I’m gone, and if there’s ever a need, remember the dollar.” Father patted the mattress and asked, “Do you understand what I mean, Michael?”
I swallowed hard and nodded. “I understand, Father.”
Mother and I stood near the fence and waved until father disappeared along Old Post Road. Then she wiped her eyes and turned back to the house. “While your father’s gone, Michael, we’ll plant potatoes and pick berries just as before.”
I nodded and went to the head of the plow, determined to do my part. But no matter how hard I tugged and pulled, the furrows never looked deep enough.
Time passed—mules pulled the canal boats, potatoes sprouted, I picked berries and chopped wood. But Mother no longer sang.
Then one afternoon I saw a canal boat loaded to the brim being slowly pulled along. The mule driver cursed and beat the lead mule, but the mule balked and brayed.
“You lazy mule!” the driver shouted, and he whipped the poor animal till it struggled forward. When they neared a bend, I saw the mule drop to its knees and move its head wearily from side to side. I thought of myself behind the plow and ran to where the driver was unfastening the mule’s harness.
“Lazy, no-good mule! You’ll be sold for glue now! That’s a fact!” the driver roared.
“Oh, no!” I pleaded. “Please don’t sell him for glue. He tried the best he could.”
“Go home, boy!” the driver growled. “I can’t leave a dead mule to block the path!”
“He’s not dead yet!” I cried, “Only tired.”
“He’ll be dead soon!” the driver barked as he reached for his gun.
“Please!” I begged, raising my hands.
“Out of my way, boy!”
“I’ll buy him,” I stammered quickly.
The driver threw back his head and laughed.
“I—I have a dollar.”
The driver stopped laughing and rubbed his chin. “A dollar, huh? I suppose that’s all I’d get from the glue factory. All right,” he nodded. “Done!”
I ran home and lifted my mattress, wondering if Father would think it a foolish waste. I glanced toward the canal and thought of the mule. Surely any life is worth a dollar! I decided.
The driver laughed as he grabbed the dollar, then waved me away as he guided the mule train along the path. “Mind,” he shouted over his shoulder, “he’s your problem now! It’s up to you to get him off the path!”
I watched the canal boat disappear around the bend, then knelt and coaxed, “Come on, boy, you’ve got to come home.”
The mule rolled its big brown eyes up at me and my own eyes clouded as he stood and tried to walk, then fell into the high grass. After dinner I put a few carrots in a gunnysack and hurried back to the weak animal. Looking at me sadly, he ate but one carrot.
“It’s all right,” I sobbed. “Rest, old mule; I’ll not beat you.” I tried to cover his bony back with the sack and hurried home.
A week passed and I tended the mule in secret, praying he wouldn’t die. Then one day as I turned to go home, the mule stood on wobbly legs and brayed. I turned in surprise. “Come on, boy,” I urged. “Come on home.”
The old mule pointed its ears, took a step forward, then stopped. I hugged its neck and whispered, “It’s all right, boy. Rest.”
I hurried home to plow a plot of land, and as I slipped my arms into the traces, Mother stood between the handles. Suddenly I heard the mule braying and looked up to see it coming straight across the field toward me! Gently it shoved me aside with its nose and took my place in front of the plow.
“Well, I never!” Mother said, taken aback. “Whose mule is that, Michael?”
“He’s ours, Mother!” I laughed. “I bought him for a dollar!”
The mule plowed all morning—one straight, deep furrow after another—and never got tired. Mother smiled from the cottage window as she baked bread while the mule and I plowed.
Then one evening as we sat down to supper, we heard a knock at the door. Mother opened it, and the mule driver stood scowling. “You have my mule!” he shouted, wagging a finger at me. “I’ve come to fetch him back!”
“I bought him for a dollar!”
“That’s when he was dying!” the driver growled. “Someone saw him well and plowing! Here’s your dollar!”
“Mother,” I pleaded through my tears.
“My son does not want his dollar back,” Mother declared. “A bargain made is a bargain kept!”
The driver’s face turned purple and he threw the dollar on the porch. “I’m takin’ my mule!” he shouted.
I raced to the shed and latched the door, but the driver shoved me aside and flung it open. He grabbed the mule’s halter and raised his whip, but the mule braced its feet and balked. Then from out of nowhere, I saw a tall shadow come round the house and a powerful hand twisted the whip from the driver’s grasp.
“Who threatens my family and home?” my father’s voice boomed angrily.
The driver looked at my father, then released the harness. “Ah,” the driver mumbled, “that ol’ mule never would work anyhow!”
Father stood with his arm about Mother’s waist as the driver stumbled toward the canal. “Is it a useless mule, Michael?” Father asked.
“No. He’ll work for me,” I explained.
“Then you’ve used the dollar well,” Father assured me. “I worked and have only two weeks’ pay in my pocket, but I sorely missed my little family. I’m home to stay. We’ll make it somehow,” he said, smiling hopefully.
“We’ll make it just fine,” Mother agreed, beaming happily. “The mule does most of the hard work, and the garden’s bigger so there will be more potatoes to sell. I can bake pies with the berries, and you can build a cart for the mule to carry our goods to town.”
“Hold on,” Father laughed. “First I want a hug from my family.”
There was still barely enough money, but we were together again. I knew for sure that all riches aren’t to be laid upon a table for counting, or carted to town for selling and trading. Some riches, like the love and honest work of my parents and the loyal, faithful work of my mule, are not for hire. They are precious gifts, freely given when earned. And if the riches of the heart could be counted, then all the world would know how very prosperous we were as my mother and father sang and as I grew to be a man.