Roundabout, 2021 Second Place and Judge’s Choice

By Eric E. Wallace

The mules were the first to notice.

Just beyond the northwest corner of the Callaway property, three unfamiliar men in yellow hardhats, dirty brown boots and orange vests were clumping about, wielding sticks and chattering into walkie-talkies. Not what the mules were used to outside their gathering favorite spot.

Years ago, Betsy Callaway had named that part of the west pasture Mule Corner. Out there was where the Callaway mules, usually ten or more, most liked to congregate of an afternoon.

The mules would stand on their little knoll, gazing over the intersection of the two roadways, maybe looking at the smudgy haze above the Treasure Valley, or peering toward Oregon, or studying the clouds, or watching the hawks, or just being, as Herb Callaway put it, “lost in plain old mule thought, likely doin’ more profound thinking than most of us do.”

Sometimes, especially on cooler days, the mules moved back a bit and turned their rumps to the sun, standing together in a close, precise line like a row of military recruits awaiting the least thrilling part of an induction physical. But mostly, after grazing in the pasture for hours, the mules liked spending time in their cogitations right at the fence. Their fence.

When traffic came through the intersection, which these days it did more and more, the mules might give a small grunt or a derisive bray suggesting they didn’t care much for the noise or the distraction. Once in a while they got to watch a car sideswiping a wayward deer, a pickup fricasseeing a daydreaming rabbit or scalping a greedy crow, or they even might get to witness two dumb vehicles scrunching or smashing into each other, sometimes with interesting ambulance or sheriff action to follow.

In days long past—and with earlier sets of Callaway mules looking over them—the two roads at that corner were plain old Idaho volcanic dirt. Back then, if vehicles happened to meet at the intersection, generally there was an instinctive gentleman’s agreement as to who went through first and got to kick up the dust into the other’s radiator. Eventually, along came more traffic and real paving, later on stop signs on the north-south road, more traffic on both roads, later still a four-way stop. The motto out there seemed to have become: Do a California-style stop at your own peril.

But on this particular summer Tuesday, all fifteen of the current mules, their ears twitching, lined up at Mule Corner, stuck their heads over the fences and took note of the men with the long poles and the sprawling tripods and the squawking radios. Something unusual was going on.

“Surveyors,” said Herb at supper, his mouth happily full of ham and corn fritters. “What’s the county up to now?”

He and Betsy found out soon enough. Posted notices. Two public hearings. An official letter from the Highway District suggesting—no, insisting on—a little bit of polite eminent domain.

“A roundabout? Way out here? Are they kidding? And lopping off a chunk of our land? Are they kidding?” This became Herb’s new mantra as he did those few chores he still assigned to himself, what with their kids and hired help doing most of the work these days.

“Are they kidding?” he’d mutter. The tractor he was clearing the paddock with would misfire in disapproval, the barn cats prowling around the hay he was stacking would yowl in annoyance, the fence wire he was tightening with a come-along would twang in disgust.

“It comes down to this,” Betsy said to the mules as she was treating them to a little extra feed. “They wanta move your corner back a bit so they can fit in another darn roundabout. They call that progress.”

She got no response but a lot of crunching, heads bobbing, tails flicking nonchalantly.

Herb, on the other hand, had plenty to say. “If we’d wanted progress, we could just have slapped the name Progress on one of the critters. Your new mare, for instance.”

“Hell, Herb, one look at her, she’s a Delilah for sure. Keep your Progress.”

Betsy and Herb had been bantering, Burns and Allen style, since the 1950’s when, as teens, they met in the stands at the Caldwell Night Rodeo, fate having put plunked them down into adjoining seats out in the infamous Rowdies section. Their sun-squinting, manure-breezed, uppity-beer-drinking-crowd-jostled meeting was always good for a retelling.

“Who was the rowdiest of us two, Bets?” Herb would grin, poking Betsy in the ribs.

“Him, naturally,” she’d tell any listener. “Back then, Herb was a bronco, hooves flying every whichaway, and snorting too. I had to tame him some.”

Herb would flash his polished-silver-beltbuckle smile. “But I ain’t busted yet.”

“Maybe,” Betsy, said. “But look at us now, really. Not much rowdy left. We’re still just nimble enough to beat the youngest grandkids to chasin’ a lizard, but these days Herb is generally as placid as an old, well-fed draft horse.”

“Since we’re trading compliments,” Herb would say, “Bets here is a like our barn cat Parma. She’s plump enough and sweet enough, but testy when needed, and watch out for those claws.”

For over 100 years, the Callaway family had owned and worked these 40 acres, ranching and farming.  Much of the land, thanks to generations of hard work and care, was still nicely arable. Some now was used for pastures, a little for poultry, an acre or so to the south given over to scrub and sage.

“Like a tithe to the landlord, Nature,” Betsy liked to say of that acreage.

Briefly, after the Great War, the family had tried starting a vineyard, but Prohibition and pressures from religious groups put the brakes on Idaho’s fledgling wine industry, and the idea was scuttled.

“Sour grapes,” Herb would say.

“What do you mean, Herb?”

“Dunno, but it sounds good, Bets.”

They had their little whimsical routines.

They also had their favorite animals. Herb was fond of the goats and liked the sheep they’d tried raising for a while. He’d groused a bit when they decided to sell off the little flock. Meantime Betsy was partial to the mules, naming each of them after an Idaho locale.

The biggest and oldest mule was Emmett, standing at almost sixteen hands, his long brown ears sometimes seeming to reach the clouds. Thatcher was the laziest, one-eyed Quigley the most vocal. Wilder, the youngest mule, tried to live up to his name, but Emmett usually kept him in check. In general, the little herd met what humans expected of mules: they were strong, stubborn, ornery, independent and, at times, a smidge crazy.

Through the years the Callaways had used their mules for packing, plowing, riding, showing, and just for the pure pleasure of watching them, seeing the big ears stiffen and turn to listen to the world, admiring their chocolatey hides glistening with sweat or dew, or watching them rolling and thumping about in the dirt then rising to shake off, flinging dust into the air like carpets beaten on the clothesline.

But now, it appeared that the highway people were gearing up to take away the mules’ favorite spot.

“A roundabout.” Betsy said, folding a large towel. “Seems like we’re having a sudden surge of roundabouts in the valley. It’s like another virus. Keeps spreading. What’s the darn county thinking?”

Herb scratched his nose.  “Just one more way to keep taxpayers running in circles, I guess.”

She laughed. “Reckon so. But the mules aren’t going to be happy, that’s for sure.” She held up a faded blue sheet. “Can you help with this?”

He took an edge of the sheet and they folded it, stepping together in the familiar do-si-do of marriage. “So what’re we going to do about it? On behalf of the mules, I mean.”

“Go to the damn meetings, I suppose, speak up, be a squeaky wheel.” Betsy put the sheet on the pile. “But you know, Herb, if I hear anyone say ‘it’s all in the name of progress,’ I’ll…” She stood there, thinking.  

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll get darn rowdy again, that’s what.”

In the laundry basket, the tidy stack of sheets and towels settled, sighing.

At the meetings, Betsy and Herb protested to no avail. Their argument that the roundabout would ‘spoil the mules’ corner’ brought a nice round of laughter to the hall.

They were told they’d be paid fairly for the small triangular wedge of land they’d have to give up and that the county would take care of installing the replacement fencing.

As she and Herb left the last meeting, Betsy fired her parting shot. “At least can you explain to old Emmett and Dingle and the other thirteen what you’re up to, messing with their corner?” That got her some blank stares. “Just what I thought,” she said. “These days there’s no one left who can talk mule.”

When they signed the papers, beneath Herbert R. Callaway, Herb scribbled under protest. After Elizabeth J. Callaway, Betsy wrote God save our mules. The clerk raised an eyebrow, looked at the couple, shrugged, filed the documents as signed.

And so, later into the summer it began. For a few days—what Herb called ‘the fence-killing time’—the fifteen mules paced around in the east pasture as crews took out sections of the north and west fences, erected a long diagonal of replacement fencing and generally demolished the original Mule Corner. Betsy promptly dubbed the new space as Mule Tangent, featuring a long line of fence crossing above the impending circle.

From this fresh vantage point, the puzzled mules—and the exasperated Callaways—were treated to weeks of hullaballoo, dust-filled air and a churn of excavators, backhoes, dump trucks, forklifts, graders, bulldozers, asphalt mixers and paving machines, the area decorated with piles of pipe, culverts, stone, gravel, sod, long rows of orange cones, red porta-potties and bored flagmen in fluorescent vests.

Above all that chaos, standing yards back from what had been their favorite space, it was impossible for the mules to rest, to gaze over peaceful fields, never mind to dream.

Eventually, the big equipment moved away, sign-setters, roadway painters and landscapers moved in, moved about, moved on, the grit and dust settled and once again you could hear the meadowlarks singing.

“So this is what they call a ‘modest little traffic circle?’” Betsy said, looking down from Mule Tangent at the finished roundabout. “I’d hate to see a big ‘un.”

Herb swatted at a fly. “The thing looks like a humongous hubcap lying in the middle of the road.”

Betsy shaded her eyes. “Wonder what the mules think of it.”

This was Quigley’s cue to raise his long brown head, bare his teeth and bray, soon sliding the sound into a whimper.

“Well, said Betsy, “that kinda says it all.” She looked at Quigley then at the other mules. “Hm, but I reckon we still can make another little statement.”

A few days later, Betsy carefully brushed and combed Emmett, saddled him up, rode him out the north gate and onto the road and clattered down to the roundabout.

With the rest of the mules and Herb watching from Mule Tangent, Betsy rode Emmett proudly round and round in a nice legal counterclockwise direction. Round and around again. And again. The various motorized vehicles which showed up all had to wait to make their maneuvers.

“That was great, Bets,” Herb said later. “Got it out of your system?”

“Not in a coon’s age.”

The next day she put a pack saddle on Melba, tied her close behind Emmett, tickled both sets of ears, rode to the roundabout and went, well, round and about. Round and about. Many times.

She went out again the next day, riding Emmett and putting Ada behind Melba.

“Let me guess,” Herb said at dinner. “We got fifteen mules. You’re thinking of…” His grin spread like sunlight chasing wind-blown cloud shadows across fields of alfalfa.

“You nailed it, Herb.”

Each day around noon, Betsy rode Emmett to the roundabout, each day with one more animal tied on to her mule train. When anyone asked, she referred to the mules as her ‘four-legged protesters.’

Word had quickly gotten around, and people came to watch and to laugh. Drivers who encountered the circling mules were good-natured and waited their turn to enter the roundabout, then needing to move slowly until they’d reached their departure point, often honking as they took off.

The daily audience kept growing. Inevitably, along came a sheriff’s deputy, who parked back a bit, got out, leaned against his patrol car, watched for a time, scratched his close-shaved head, talked into his radio, drove away.

The pack train increased by one mule every day. After Emmett came Melba, Ada, Stanley, Quigley, Dingle, Notus, Onaway, Syringa, Thatcher, Murphy, Bonner, Curry, and Gem. Wilder, as the most high-spirited, brought up the rear, free to kick the air instead of into another mule’s face. Herb said it looked as though Wilder was doing a can-can back there.

When the full complement of fifteen animals was circumnavigating the roundabout, there was just room enough behind them for a couple of vehicles to safely join in.

The county official who came out took a look, smiled some—if a little thinly—and sauntered over to Betsy. Even though it was about 90 degrees, he wore a dark suit. His little metal badge told the world his name was Chet. Speaking politely as he dabbed sweat from his forehead, he announced that enough was enough. In essence: “Animals on the roadway. You can’t do this.”

“Yep, I can, Chet.”  Betsy had done her homework. “My mules are not running at large. They’re fully-harnessed and under control as per Code chapter 5, section 03-15-15, paragraph 2(b). I’m merely moving them from one pasture to another as allowed.” She smiled down from her high perch on Emmett, who clearly was itching to circle some more.

“But…” The official looked up at her, squinting in the sun. “But…but you’re in the traffic circle for multiple passes. You’re going round and round.”

“It takes a while to figure these newfangled things out,” Betsy said sweetly. “I suppose that’s why they’re called roundabouts.”

“OK,” Herb said, serving some of the barbecued ribs he’d just fixed. “You’ve had your fun, Bets. We’ve loved every minute of it, the mules and I have. But is there a point to all this?”

“Oh, the point is enjoying ourselves and maybe drawing a little attention. Or maybe my real point is that roundabouts shouldn’t be sprinkled all over like cow patties.”

“Bets, you’re as stubborn as any of those critters…”

Betsy smiled as she buttered a fat piece of corn. “Stubbornness ain’t just a mule’s prerogative, Herb. And anyway, someone’s gotta slow down this so-called progress just a little, don’tcha think?”

Shaking his head, Herb looked fondly at her. “Yep, one thing’s for sure. I married a Rowdy.”

Copyright © Eric E. Wallace, 2021