Silver Star and a Mule Named Vera
Interview with John Bradley, Grand Canyon Mule Wrangler
JL: Can you tell me about your favorite horse?
JB: My first was a little ol’ mare and she could jump a six wire fence. I had come off a doggone hillside sailing over brush, rock piles and gullies, and my mother saw me. She got scared, told my dad about Dolly, the horse’s name was Dolly, and my dad made me quit ridin’ her, mom was afraid I was going to get killed.
So I went to an auction sale with my dad and I bought this two year-old colt. He was wild! He was wild as a rat, and so full of cuckleburrs in his mane and tail he couldn’t hardly carry ‘em. And the doggone auctioneer, as soon as I made a bid on the colt, he just kicked him off for me. He said, ‘Son, just go on in there, put your rope on him and lead him out.’ It took about six guys to catch that sun-of-a-gun and tie him to the wagon! I had to walk behind him the whole way home to make him go. When he came three years-old, I broke him. Boy, I could do anything with him, I could even call him out of the stock.
My mother named him. He was black with a white star on his forehead, and she said call him ‘Silver Star.’ So I called him Silver. I could holler ‘Silver!’ and he’d leave the stock and come right to me.
I done all the ridin’ in my family, and one time I rode all day long in drizzlin’ rain lookin’ for some stock, and I didn’t find ‘em. I come in late and my dad thought I’d been goofin’ off all day. He told me, ‘Get back on that horse and don’t come back without that stock!’
So I went, soakin’ wet, cold -- we didn’t have slickers -- and by golly it was gettin’ dark. We were ridin’ ‘long side of a creek, underneath big willows and tall cattails. And Silver just turned through some brush and right into the middle of the stock. I would have went on by and never knew they was there! He knew what I was lookin’ for, I guess. I went in, rounded ‘em up and brought ‘em in, and the next mornin’ I had pneumonia.
When we moved to California, we had to sell all our goods, including Silver. I left one of the best horses a man ever threw a saddle on there in Oklahoma. I sure hated that. My dad bought a brand new Model-T truck. He built these high sideboards on the truck, put wagon bows over it, covered them with a wagon sheet, and we had all of our last possessions piled on that Model-T. It took us sixteen days from Oklahoma to California in December; fifteen-hundred miles, and there wasn’t a foot of pavement no place. Only when we come through Fort Worth, through town, the main street was made out of brick, but other than that, there wasn’t no pavement nowhere.
When I left for California, I figured I would save all my money, then I’d go back, buy that horse and ride him to California. But I never got that much ahead ‘til I was older, ‘course I figured he was too old by then. He was a good animal. I was young then.
Men and Mules
JB: When I was workin’ at the Grand Canyon as a guide, I had a favorite mule. Her name was Vera. This damn mule saved me from gettin’ bit by a rattlesnake . . . I was leadin’ a one man special party, and I was ridin’ up this trail that was cut out on a bluff, and there was a big overhang rock along the trail. I couldn’t see there was a rattlesnake on the overhang, just above my head. The snake buzzed and in that instant Vera jumped damn near twenty feet across this trail. I looked behind me and the rattler was a’laying there in the trail. I knew he struck, and if Vera hadn’t of jumped, he would have hit me on my back or neck -- but she was just too darn quick for him.
The dude I was leadin’, I told him to hold up, and I got off Vera and killed the rattlesnake with my quirt. After I killed it, I told him to come on up, but he didn’t want to come! He was worried about that snake!
One night I was ridin’ down to Bright Angel, and it was so dark you could put your hand in front of your head and you couldn’t see at’all. And I don’t know what I was going down for, but I was going down the Canyon and it was pitch black. I got about half way but there was a rattlesnake in the trail and there was no place to turn out. I could hear the rattlin’ and Vera stopped. So after waiting a bit, I finally got off and kicked dirt around on that son of a gun to keep him rattlin’.
I felt around and found me a good size rock, took aim at around ‘bound where that snake was rattling and I let go ‘this rock -- and I stopped the rattle! I didn’t know if I chopped his tail off or his head, so I climbed back on the mule, and I sat there for purt near thirty minutes, then rode right on by. I guess that snake must’ve crawled off the trail or something, because Vera wouldn’t have gone if he was still alive.
There is a song written by a long-tall fella by the name of Ed Steele. Ed was always talkin’ about Vera, sayin’ he could go down to the bottom the Canyon and back up and never feel like he’d been anywhere. He talked about her so much, the boys said ‘why don’t you write a song about her if you like her so much,’ and that’s what he did. He called it "Vera, the Queen of the Canyon" and it's a love song about a mule!
The ending is true too. Vera was gettin’ on in years, so they moved her from the Bright Angel Trail to the north rim where the trail was easier. But she kept escapin’ and comin’ back to Bright Angel, the place she’d known most her years. And there there was green grass, shade and a watering hole there too. She escaped about three or four times, and finally the boss said, ‘Leave her be, she’s earned her retirement.’ And on that green grass, that’s where she was found one morning. Just like that.