The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Sam and Toby

By Mary Mungar © 1989

Issue: September, 1989

It was 1936 and the economy of the United States was slowly making a comeback. Our country was fighting its way back to normal from the depression years. I was six years old with my mind free of the worries of the world and too young to realize that my father was also fighting a battle of survival.

My father was a tenant farmer, farming my grandmother's land in western Tennessee. Our home was a clean little three room house setting on the corner of two dirt roads. Behind the house was a small field of cotton and behind that field was a deep gully, winding its way through the property like a monstrous snake.

That spring my father had bought two magnificent gray mules, which he named Sam and Toby. It's hard to think of mules as being beautiful, but Sam and Toby were gentle, obedient, and strong and their coats looked like rich gray velvet. They had all the qualities that it took to make mules beautiful. I loved Sam and Toby and sometimes my father would let me ride on the big broad back of Sam, a fantastic treat for a little girl!

One day while my father was plowing the field of cotton behind the house and I was playing in the yard enjoying my make believe world, I heard my father calling me. He sounded so urgent and far away. I looked toward the field but I didn't see him anywhere. I ran into the field and with panic filling my voice I cried out several times, "Where is you daddy? Where is you daddy?" His far away answer came, "I'm down here, in the gully." I ran to the edge of the gully and in the bottom of the ditch were my father, Sam, Toby and the cultivator. My father was covered with mud, but seemed to be all right. Sam and Toby were lying down, almost buried in mud. My heart skipped a beat; I just knew they were hurt. My father told me to get Mr. Sawyer and so I ran across the bridge to the neighbor's to get help.

With Mr. Sawyer's help, my father got Sam and Toby to their feet and led them down the gully until they came to a shallow place where they could be led out to solid ground. I was a happy little girl. My father, whom I loved very much, was unharmed and Sam and Toby would be fine just as soon as the mud was washed from their exquisite grey coats. Little did I know then that the real tragedy was yet to come!

Sam and Toby worked so well together that they were a perfect team for plowing small confined areas, so sometimes my grandfather would borrow them to plow his garden. Later that year, my grandfather was using Sam and Toby and at lunch he decided to give them a treat. He cut some green corn and fed it to them. That night, Toby got very sick. My father went for the veterinarian and he informed my father that Toby had the colic. The veterinarian did everything he could and was with Toby far into the night, but nothing helped. Before morning, Toby was on his way to animal heaven.

Fortunately, my father had finished his crop and wouldn't need a team of mules until harvest time. Sam couldn't do the job alone and my father couldn't afford to buy another mule because he still owed for Sam and Toby. My father decided to return Sam to the man that he had bought him from. With tears in my eyes, I watched Sam trod slowly down the dirt road toward town with my father astride his wide back.

With the help of the neighbors, who always seemed to have an extra team of mules, our corn and cotton was harvested and sold. My first experience with the death and loss of something I loved has never faded. Over fifty years have gone by since that terrible loss, but the memory of Sam and Toby and that heartbroken little girl remain with me.