Army/Navy (mm tf)

It was the eve of the Army/Navy game and Jake Connelly, the Navy quarterback, had already been in bed for hours.  Most of his teammates were out enjoying the hospitality of the City of Brotherly Love and blowing off steam before the big game, but Jake always hit the sack before curfew, especially before such an important game.  The hotel was quiet, and no one noticed the group of young men sneaking onto the Navy team’s floor, and into the quarterback’s room. 

Jake was awakened suddenly.  It was dark, so he couldn’t really see what was going on.  Before he even had a chance to put up a fight, someone punched him in the gut and knocked the wind out of him.  He gasped for breath, and struggled against the unseen hands that restrained his arms and legs.  Jake felt someone grab him by his balls.

“Not my nuts!” Jake yelped.  A hand clamped over his mouth, muffling any cry for help.

“Make another sound,” whispered a deep, Midwestern voice, “and we’ll give you something to really scream about.”  Jake, still disoriented from being roused so violently from his deep slumber, was terrified by the vice-like grip on his balls.  In any case, he barely resisted as he was bound, gagged, and shoved into a canvas sack.

The assailants spirited Jake out into the night, threw him into a trunk, and drove him who-knows-where.  Jake tried to figure where they were going, noting all the turns the car was making, but he was not familiar enough with the streets of Philadelphia, and after a few minutes, he was totally lost anyway.  The car stopped, and Jake felt himself lifted from the trunk and carried again, before being dumped heavily out of the sack onto the hard floor.   He jumped to his feet, ready to defend himself, only to find himself surrounded by a group of about six big Army cadets, all wearing their trademark grey topcoats over their uniforms. 

Even standing there in his pajamas, Jake presented an imposing figure.   He was 6'-4” and 240 pounds, with dark hair and eyes.  His square jaw and athletic good looks made him the veritable poster boy for the Naval Academy.  He was everybody's picture of the perfect all-American boy. 

Jake shivered and looked around at the cavernous structure.   He had no idea where the Army guys had taken him, but he was standing in what was clearly some sort of livestock stall, with rough wooden partitions and straw spread across the concrete floor.  The cadets pulled back, leaving Jake alone in the otherwise empty stall.  They didn't look particularly threatening individually, but together, they presented an impenetrable barrier between Jake and his freedom.

One of the cadets stepped forward from the group.  He was clearly the ringleader, and the insignia on the sleeves of his cloak identified him as the cadet captain.  He tipped his cap back, and Jake could see his face clearly.  He was big – bigger than Jake even – and had the look of one of those big, corn-fed Iowa farm boys, with his close-cropped blond hair, blue eyes, and bull neck.  ‘Christ,’ Jake thought, ‘this guy’s as big as a lineman.’ 

“Somebody took Trooper,” the cadet said flatly.

Jake laughed.  The rivalry between Army and Navy was longstanding, and this wasn’t the first time one or the other team’s mascot had been kidnapped before the big game.  It had happened so often that it was almost a cliché.  But it had always been sort of good-natured.

“Look, fellas – I don’t know anything about any Trooper,” Jake said.

The cadet remained stone faced.  “Doesn’t matter.  Navy stole Trooper; Navy’s gotta pay.”

“Go out and steal a goat then,” Jake said, getting a bit exasperated with the situation.  “This has got nothing to do with me.”

“Not gonna cut it this time.  Navy’s gotta learn not to do this again…”

Jake was tired and cold, and enough was enough.  “Look guys, we got a game in the morning, in case you forgot.  You’d better cut this shit right now, otherwise you’re looking at a lot more trouble than just stealing a mule.  Take me back to my hotel, and nobody has to find out about this, okay?  Hell, I'll even make a few calls and see if I can get you your mascot back.”

“Too late for that now,” the cadet said.  “We can’t take any chances.  Team’s real superstitious, so one way or the other, there’s gotta be an Army mule on the sideline tomorrow.  Besides, nobody is ever going to know about any of this.”

“That's where you're wrong,” Jake shouted, “because if you don't let me go right now, I’ll tell everyone that you guys kidnapped me and made me miss the game, then you’re all gonna be in a world of shit.  I can see your faces, for Christ’s sake!  You’ll be court-martialed!”

The cadet smiled.  “You'll be at the game – that's the whole damned point.  But like I said, you won’t be telling nobody nothing.”

With that he produced a large leather-bound book, and began reading from it.  It sounded like Greek or Latin or something – Jake couldn't tell what it was – but the rest of the cadets all chanted along in response.  Jake couldn’t believe how corny it all was.  He knew that Army guys were weird, but this was way over-the-top. 

Then, Jake started to get a headache.  It was deep, deep, down, and worse than any he’d ever had before.  He was surprised by how suddenly it came on, and how quickly it was getting worse.  He raised a hand to his forehead, and could almost feel the throbbing. 

The pain, the weird chanting, the cold – it was all too much for him.  His heart hammering in his chest, Jake bolted toward the opening in the stall, finally making his break for it.  But he was already feeling lightheaded, and there were too many cadets blocking his path.   He hit them like a brick wall, and they easily shoved him back into the stall.  His head hurt worse than ever now.  He stood there, dumbly rocking on his feet, nearly paralyzed with disorientation and fear.  Finally, the chanting stopped.

“Listen guys, please…” Jake slurred, “I don't know what sort of fucked up shit this is, but if you don't let me Hee-Hawww…” 

Jake froze.  Did he make that sound?  He instinctively covered his mouth with his hand, frightened by the inhuman noise that had just escaped his throat.  The ringleader looked up from the book and fixed Jake with a smile.  “What did you say, Swabby?  I couldn’t quite make that out.”

Jake cleared his throat and tried to speak again.  “I said, I don’t think Hee-HAWWW…” 

Jake was stunned.  ‘What the fuck is going on,’ he wondered.  He actually felt his ears twitch at the sound of the bray-like noise he had just made.  He reached up to feel them, but they weren’t the ears he expected.  They were longer – way too long – and pointy.  And covered with soft hair.  Panic set in as he cried out in horror.  “Hee-Haw!  Hee-Haw!  Heeee-HAWWWW!!!”

Blinding pain suddenly flashed behind his eyes.  It was like nothing he ever experienced, or even imagined.  It was like his head was coming apart.  Jake brayed loudly in agony and fear – ‘brayed’ was the only word for it – and raised his hand to his head again.  Too quickly, he realized, as he hit himself squarely in the center of his forehead.  It felt like he had been hit with a sledgehammer, and the blow knocked him off his feet.  He crashed to the floor in a daze.  With darkness drifting over him, he slowly raised his hand in front of him.  His vision was blurred from the blow, and seemed to be split by some dark mass between his eyes.  But it was still clear enough for him to see the hard, misshapen stump, feathered lightly with dark hair about the wrist.  At the same time, Jake felt a sharp pain at the base of his spine.  Mingled with it was a sensation not unlike a coiled snake trying to uncurl itself and escape from the seat of his pajama bottoms.

‘Oh Jesus help me,’ he thought as unconsciousness overcame him.  But the only sound he could manage was a weak, frightened, whimper.  Then blackness…


Jake awoke lying in the straw on the floor of the stall.  He pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, and slowly shook his head.  He tried to remember where he was and what had happened to him, but everything was so hazy.  The cavernous quiet of the night before had given way to a constant buzz of activity all around him.  Golf carts zipped past Jake’s little stall carrying supplies.  People rushed by him in every direction, seeming to pay him no attention at all.  He brayed quietly.  An Army cadet standing at attention nearby turned his head briefly, smiled, and then faced forward again without a word.

Jake couldn’t understand why he felt so confused.  He had an overwhelming feeling that everything was somehow wrong, but he couldn’t figure out why.  He knew he was supposed to be somewhere, but couldn’t remember where.  All he knew for sure was that he was hungry, and thirsty, and scared.

A group of Army cadets approached out of the milling crowd.  They joked with the cadet standing guard about someone called “Trooper,” but Jake couldn’t really follow what they were saying.  The cadets descended on him then, and he brayed nervously at them while they went to work.  One of the cadets brushed him with a stiff brush, while another polished his hooves.  Still another combed the long hair of his mane and tail, as well as the little tuft of hair that fell across his forehead.  Someone else was messing about behind him with paint and a stencil, but he couldn’t see what he was doing.  None of this made any sense to Jake.  Why would all these Army guys be grooming him like this?  It wasn’t as if he couldn’t do it himself.

Jake stood there, dumbly pondering all this activity, as the cadets outfitted him with a collar and leggings, and then laid a grey blanket over his shoulders and across his back.  As the activity around him reached fever pitch, the cadets pulled a leather halter over his head and attached a lead rope.

The cadets left him them.  The halter was uncomfortable, and Jake shook his head trying to loosen it.  Somewhere deep in his mind he knew there was something radically wrong with this picture, but his thoughts were just too unfocused.  When the cadets returned a short while later, they were all spit-polished like an honor guard.  The cadet captain stood before Jake and looked into his eyes.

“Looking good!” he said.  Jake had to sort of turn his head a bit so he could fix an eye on him.  The cadet captain was big and blond and Jake was sure that he was supposed to know him from somewhere.  But again, he just couldn’t think clearly enough to remember.

The captain took Jake’s rope and gave a gentle tug.  “C’mon, Trooper,” he said.  “We’ve got to get you moving now.”

Jake was puzzled.  Who was this “Trooper” they kept talking about?  He felt another tug on the rope, but didn’t move.  The cadet captain made a crack about a “stubborn old mule” that Jake didn’t understand, and all the cadets laughed. Then one of the cadets got behind Jake and started to push him while the other pulled on the rope.  Jake still resisted – he didn’t want to go anyplace with these Army guys, especially not at the end of a rope.  Suddenly, Jake felt a fiery pain on his backside like an electric shock.  As he screamed in shock and pain, he saw that the one of the cadets was holding a cattle prod.  He brayed loudly in protest, but he did start moving.

“There you go, Trooper,” said the cadet captain as he led Jake firmly by the rope.  “That’s a good boy!”

Jake snorted angrily in response.  He didn’t like the cadet’s patronizing tone, but now that he was moving, it felt sort of natural for him to follow along as the cadets led him through a maze of corridors and tunnels.  All the while he was dimly aware of a dull roar somewhere in the background, growing louder and louder with every turn.  They rounded a final corner, and Jake was led through a portal and out into blinding light and deafening roar.  He blinked and shook his head in surprise. 

‘The Game!’ he thought.  ‘That’s where I’m supposed to be!’  And there he was, at the Army/Navy game in Philadelphia.  But somehow, everything felt wrong.  The cadets led Jake out onto the grass, careful to avoid the playing field.  They stopped as Jake heard the stadium announcer introduce the Navy squad, and brayed excitedly.

‘That’s me,’ he thought, but as the Midshipmen ran out of the tunnel, the cadets led him to the opposite sideline.  ‘Hey,’ he thought, ‘I’m supposed to be over there with my team, aren’t I?’  He brayed again and pulled against his rope. 

The cadet captain tugged back hard.  “Easy there, Trooper!” he said, “We’re up next.”

Just then, the announcer introduced the Army squad.  A canon fired behind Jake, and the loud boom made his ears twitch violently.  The Army Black Knights charged out of the tunnel and onto the field, where they met the rival squad midfield for the traditional handshake.  Then, as the Army players returned to their sideline, they filed past Jake.  As the first player passed, he laid his hand momentarily on Jake’s nose, giving it a gentle rub.  He snorted.  It tickled, and he was totally clueless as to why the hell an Army player would do something like that.  Then, the next player did the same thing, and Jake could see that the whole team seemed to be lining up to do the same thing.  The whole thing made no sense.  All he wanted was to dash across the field to be with his own team, but the cadet captain held his rope tightly while each of the Navy players took his turn.

As Jake stood there, he became aware of an image on the Supervision screen above the stadium.  It was the image of the West Point mascot getting a good luck pat on the snout from the Army team.  Jake could see very clearly “Trooper” embroidered on the mule’s blanket, as well as the Army “A” emblazoned across its rump with paint.  As Jake felt the next player lay a hand on his nose, he saw the same thing happening to the mule on the big screen – at the same time.  ‘What the hell is going on,’ Jake wondered.  And suddenly, he knew…

Jake reared back in horror, nearly pulling his rope free from the cadet’s hands.  “Hee-HAW!  Hee-HAWWW!” he brayed.  ‘This isn’t real,’ he thought.  ‘This can’t be happening to me!’  But at the same time, as he watched the mule on the Supervision screen bucking and braying and struggling against its handlers, he knew.  It was him.  He was Trooper!  He – Jake Connelly, Navy’s star quarterback – was the Army Mule!

As the cadets regained control of their charge, and the captain tightened his grip on Jake’s rope, one of them said, “I guess he figured out who he is.”

“Yeah,” the captain replied, “took him long enough, though!”  Jake brayed miserably and struggled against the cadets as they dragged him down the Army sideline.  ‘This isn’t happening,’ he said to himself over and over.  But the truth was undeniable.  It was all too real.  He was a mule – with hooves and a tail and long, pointy ears and everything.  How could he have stood there all morning in a fucking stall while the Army guys brushed his tail and polished his hooves?  How could he not have seen it then?  How could he have been so fucking stupid?

Jake was bucking and braying so violently that the cadets had to drag him off towards the far corner of the field.  As the cadets paused for a moment as they passed the Army bench, Jake felt his tail lift up and his bowels let go.  It wasn’t as if he could have helped it or anything – it just sort of happened without a thought. 

The cadets all laughed as he dumped a steaming load of manure right there by the Army bench.  “Hey – that’s good luck for us!” shouted one of the Army players.  Jake let out a long, pathetic bray.  The cadet captain grabbed him by the halter, and gave his head a hard shake to get his attention.   “You must not be too bright,” the cadet captain said.  “The others always figured it out a lot sooner.”  The other cadets all roared with laughter, and the sad little mule, head down and long ears drooping, continued braying miserably. Jake couldn’t have felt any lower

“Calm down now, dammit!” the cadet shouted into Jakes ear.  “Can you hear me?  Nod your head if you can understand me.”

Jake shook his head up and down, and the cadet continued.  “Now listen carefully.  You do what I tell you, and everything is gonna be alright.  The guys – they’re real superstitious, see?  We had to have a mascot on the sideline for this game, no question.  That’s why you’re here.  You do a good job during the game – we give you back your life.  Then you can go back to your team and make sure that you fucking Navy assholes never screw with our mascot again.  Okay?  But you fuck up today…”  The cadet just shrugged.

He let go of Jake’s halter and stepped back and fixed his eyes on the mule.  “Do you understand me, Swabby?”

Jake nodded.  He understood.  The Navy guys had stolen the Army’s mascot, and now he – the Navy quarterback – was going to have to fill in.  If he cooperated, they’d change him back.  It was all he needed to know.

The cadets led Jake from one corner of the field to the next.  He was forced to do all sorts of humiliating stuff.  The made him wear a special football helmet with holes for his long floppy ears.  They made him kick at a dummy dressed in a sailor suit.  They made him bray tauntingly at the Navy fans after every Army score (and they seemed to be piling up).  You name it; Jake did it. 

As the second half started, the cadets led Jake over near the Navy sideline and paraded him back and forth.  While Jake taunted the despondent Navy players, they glared back at him resentfully.  ‘I have to do this,’ he thought.  But he hated it nonetheless.  They were his team, his friends, and the game was getting away from them.  He felt like a traitor – taunting them, distracting them, and doing everything he could to be a good mascot for Army. 

The Midshipmen put up a good fight, but they never really had a chance without their star quarterback.  Army seemed particularly pumped for the game, and simply took Navy apart.  The Navy sideline was quiet, but the Army players were already celebrating as the clock ticked off the final seconds.  The coach took a Gator-Ade shower, a canon fired, and the game ended.  One of the Army players ran up and grabbed Jake by the halter, shaking his head roughly.  “You’ve been a fucking awesome good luck charm today!” he shouted at Jake’s face.

Army had won a huge upset with a final score of 42-3, and the corps of cadets rushed the field as the dejected midshipmen sulked on their sideline.

“C’mon, Trooper – we gotta get you out on the field!” the cadet captain said cheerfully.  “This is fucking awesome, man!”

As they dragged Jake out to midfield, the roar of the crowd became deafening.  Jake cringed as his image flashed across the big screen.  ‘A mascot,’ he thought, ‘a fucking mule.’  The Army fans surrounded him like he was some kind of hero, touching him, stroking him, petting him.  They led him over to the Navy sideline, for the traditional singing of the losing side’s alma mater.  The Army players lined up facing the Navy stands.  Jake was braying miserably near the center, when he caught sight of Ben Lockman, his roommate and best friend.  Ben and Jake had been buds since day one, and Jake was overcome with guilt at the sight of Ben sitting disconsolately on the Navy bench, tearfully singing the Naval Academy alma mate.

Jake had finally had enough, and reared back angrily, pulling free from the cadet holding his rope.  He made a dash for his buddy on the Navy sideline, and brayed excitedly as the cadets struggled to get hold of him again.  To the Navy squad, it seemed like the braying mule was taunting them yet again, and they glared back at him resentfully.  Jake wanted to tell Ben how sorry he was, not just for missing the game but all the taunting he had done on behalf of the Black Nights.  But of course all he could do was bray in his buddy’s face.  “Hee-Haw!  Hee-HAWWW!!!”

Ben scrunched up his nose and recoiled from the mule in disgust.  He gave Jake a hard smack across his nose.  “Get that smelly jackass the hell away from me!” he shouted angrily.  Jake cowered from the swat, and whimpered miserably.  All he wanted to do was make Ben feel better, but he couldn’t even do that.  

As he grabbed Jake’s rope and pulled him back from the Navy player, the cadet captain said, “Don’t take it out on a dumb animal just because your team sucks.”

“Yeah right,” Ben snapped.  “Like you guys would have had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating us if our fucking quarterback hadn’t gone AWOL!”

Jake cried out again as the cadet dragged him back toward Army’s sideline.  ‘I’m not AWOL,’ he tried to shout.  ‘I’m right here!  This is me!  I’m Jake!!!’  But Ben had already turned away from the desperately braying mule.

Jake was the center of attention when the cadets took him into the Army locker room.  It was crowded with players and reporters and camera crews, and Jake felt claustrophobic and skittish in the enclosed space.  It somehow felt wrong for him to be inside a room like that.  The players were still hooting and hollering, and spraying each other with champagne.  The Army quarterback was talking to a reporter, standing there in just a towel, cocky as ever.  When he spotted the mule, the quarterback sprinted across the tile floor, losing his towel along the way.  With a loud whoop, the big jock vaulted himself, naked, onto Jake’s back.

“YAH MULE!” he shouted gleefully, as he kicked Jake’s sides with his bare feet and smacked him hard across the rump.  Jake brayed in protest, and struggled under the big jock’s weight, not to mention the humiliation of being ridden by his one-time nemesis.  As the big jock rode him around and around the locker room to everyone’s amusement, Jake saw the cadet captain in a heated discussion with the coach – it almost looked as if like they are arguing.  In all the excitement, however, he couldn’t hear a word of it.

Players kept coming up to Jake and petting him, telling him what a good job he’d done.  “We couldn’t have done it without you,” the Army quarterback said as he hopped off Jake’s back.  “You’re our good luck charm now!”

“Yeah!” shouted another player.  “Trooper’s taking us all the way to a bowl game!”

But it all went in one ear and out the other.  All Jake was interested in was getting the hell out of that locker room so they could change him back.  The cadet captain was suddenly back at his side, and while he couldn’t be sure how, Jake detected a nervousness about him for the first time. 

The celebration quieted down, and the cadet captain gave Jake’s rope a tug telling him it was time to go.  The players all gathered around Jake as they led him out, rubbing his nose and giving his rump a final swat.  Before he made it out of the locker room, Jake felt his bowels rumble again, and he dropped another load of manure on the floor.  The Army guys roared with laughter, and gave their new mascot a rousing cheer as he was led out of the locker room.  “That’s the best damned mascot ever!” they yelled after him.

It was just him and the cadet captain now, walking through the again quiet subterranean corridors of the stadium.  “You were great today, boy – really awesome,” the cadet said, running his hand through the hair on the back of Jake’s neck.  “You really made a difference today.  Big time!  And I could tell the guys really liked you.  You did just what you promised.”

The cadet fished around in the pocket of his uniform and held out an open hand to Jake.  He sniffed suspiciously, but grabbed the lump of sugar from the cadet’s palm and pulled the treat into his mouth with his thick lips.  They stopped then, and the cadet looked straight into one of Jake’s eyes.  “That’s what makes this so hard…”

Jake turned his head comically, and fixed an eye on the cadet.  ‘What the hell does he mean by that?’ Jake wondered.  Then he saw that they were standing beside a horse trailer.  Painted on the back was the inscription “Go Army!  Beat Navy!” and the words “Caution – ARMY MULES.”  On the side was a cartoon of the bucking Army mascot. 

Jake stared at the trailer in disbelief.  ‘Why put me into some trailer and take me all the way back to West Point?’ he thought.  ‘Why not just change me back?’  Then he noticed the freshly painted Roman numeral “II” next to the name “Trooper” on the side of the trailer.  Why would they do that if they were getting the real Trooper back from Navy anyway?  The answer hit Jake like a ton of bricks, and the bellow that escaped him was nothing but shear, animal pain. 

“I’m sorry, boy – really I am.”  The cadet held firmly onto Jake’s halter as he spoke.   “But plans have changed.  The guys – the team, I mean – they’re way superstitious, you know?  They loved what you did out there today, and they want you to be the permanent mascot.”

Jake was shaking all over and whimpering at the horror of it.  “Sssshh – easy, boy...” the cadet said gently as he stroked Jake’s snout.  “I tried.  I swear I tried, but the coach…  He just wouldn’t listen to me, man.  I tried to tell him that you weren't really ours - that we just kind of borrowed you until we could get the real Trooper back from the Navy guys.  I told him that we had to give you back. But he wouldn’t listen at all.  ‘This one is Trooper now,’ he said.  ‘Do whatever you have to, but we’re keeping him.’  So you see, don’t you?  We don’t have a choice.  I’m sorry, Trooper, but there’s just no way we can change you back…” 

The possibility had never even occurred to Jake, and the realization dawned on him that the nightmare he had thus far endured was only the barest beginning of it for him.  Everything that had happened to him – the pain, the humiliation, the loss – it was nothing compared to this.  He was a mule – and he was going to stay a mule.  He was going to have to live as a mule for the rest of his life.  ‘It isn’t fair!  It isn’t fair!’ Jake’s mind screamed.  “Hee-Haw!  HEE-HAWWW!!!” he brayed sadly, and backed away from the trailer.

“Easy there, boy,” said the cadet, tugging firmly on the rope.  “I know you must be pretty upset and confused about everything right now, but it’s gonna be okay.  You’re gonna be a great mascot, and the guys really connected with you today.  You felt that too, didn’t you?  That’s real important, ‘cause if the guys don’t like you, it’s off to the farm with you, and believe me you wouldn’t want that!”

He ruffled the hair of Trooper’s forelock.  “But you won’t have to worry about that – you’ll be great.  I can tell.  And you’ll have a pretty cushy life, too.  We’ll take real good care of you – that’s a promise.  We take care of our own, and well – you’re ours now.  Property of the US Army.  And you won’t have to worry about those Navy jerks trying to kidnap you or anything.  I can guarantee that.  You’re gonna get better treatment than just about any mule anywhere in the world!” 

The cadet paused thoughtfully.  “Although – um, you are, you know, just an animal now.  You’ll have to get used to that, I guess.  And mules are sterile, which has got to suck.  Anyhow, it could be a lot worse…”

Jake was startled when another man suddenly approached from the other side of the trailer.  He wore overalls, and his smell made Jake nervous.  “Where’s the other one?” he asked.

The cadet shrugged.  “I dunno – this one is our new mascot,” he said.  “If the Navy assholes bring the other one back, I guess they’ll just send it off to the farm.  It hasn’t really been good for much since you cut its balls off, anyway…”  Both men laughed loudly, and Jake felt his big balls retract. 

The cadet swore to himself, as if he had just remembered something.  “Owen – you wanna go grab a smoke before I take off?” he asked.  “I can watch Trooper for you for a couple of minutes.”   Owen was only too happy to take a break, and grabbed a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and jogged off out of sight.  Jake brayed nervously.

“Okay, Trooper,” the cadet said to Jake “Owen’s gonna take you home to West Point now.  He’ll take good care of you, if you don’t give him too much trouble.  Be careful, though – he likes to geld mules when they’re too ornery.”  At that, Jake felt his nuts practically pull up inside of him.

“I know I should probably ride up with you or something, but – you know – I got some serious partying to do tonight.”  The cadet pulled out the leather-bound book again, and gave Jake a pat on his muzzle.  “Anyhow – like I said, I’m real sorry about this.  I just gotta do one more thing before Owen gets back.  I know you aren’t gonna like it too much, but you gotta believe me – it’s for the best.”  He opened the book and began reading aloud.  It was the same Greek and Latin stuff again.  Jake tried to follow the words, but soon found himself zoning out.  ‘Something’s wrong,’ he thought, feeling suddenly rather thick-witted.  It wasn’t just that the words were in another language – he was having trouble recognizing them even as words.  They just sort of ran together.  And when he looked at the writing on the side of the trailer, it seemed to drift in and out of focus.  The meaning of the words seemed to melt away right in front of his eyes.  He blinked his eyes and the words suddenly looked unfamiliar.  He shook his head and tried to focus, but they were unrecognizable to him as words at all.  He stared at the side of the trailer, but there were no words anymore – just meaningless lines and squiggles.

THE MAN closed the book and looked Trooper in the eye.  He stroked his forehead and began making sounds with his mouth.  The mule struggled to understand, but aside from their calming tones, the sounds meant nothing to him.  It was just meaningless noise. 

In horror, Trooper realized that he couldn’t understand THE MAN at all.  He brayed loudly, nostrils flaring, his flanks wet with sweat, but THE MAN just smiled and continued to make the comforting sounds.  Trooper felt a blind panic rising.  Then he thought he heard something lost in the string of babble coming from THE MAN’s mouth.

He froze.  It was a word – he recognized it.  “Trooper.”  He knew it. 

The panic receded, but Trooper still struggled clear his head. He couldn’t focus his thoughts, and it was difficult for him to cut through the fog.  He knew he was supposed to be a person like THE MAN.  He knew he had had a human name, but it was as if it had been erased.  ‘Trooper,’ he thought, ‘That sound means me.’  And he felt comforted by the thought.  He knew who he was at least.

THE MAN continued to make sounds, and every time the mule heard the sound “Trooper,” his ears flicked in recognition.  THE MAN tugged on Trooper’s lead rope, but the mule didn’t want to budge.  ‘Oh no,’ he thought as he was pulled toward the trailer.  ‘Don’t make me go,’ his mind cried out.  ‘Please I wanna go home.  I want my mother…’ 

THE MAN made some more noises.  Trooper turned his head and saw that the other man had returned, and was brandishing a cattle prod.  He gestured toward the mule with it, and made some angry noises.  Trooper remembered the pain that the cattle prod had inflicted on him earlier in the day, and his brain screamed for him to avoid it.  His ears down, and tail tight against his asshole, Trooper bolted up into the trailer before the thing could hurt him again. 

THE MAN was back at Trooper’s side again, stroking his neck and making soft noises.  The other man roughly removed the whimpering mule’s fine wool blanket and leggings, and threw a smelly old moth-eaten blanket across his back.  THE MAN gave him a sad look, made some noises with his mouth, and stroked Trooper’s muzzle a final time before stepping back to leave.  The mule brayed miserably as THE MAN climbed down from the trailer and slammed the tailgate shut behind him.  A few minutes later, Trooper heard the engine turn over, and felt the bumping and swaying as the trailer started to move.  When they pulled out of the tunnel into the light, Trooper could see through the small window that the celebrations were still going on in the parking lots surrounding the stadium:  cadets celebrating their big win, Navy fans drowning their sorrows. 

As the trailer bumped out of the stadium and onto the highway, Trooper struggled to understand why this was happening to him. What had he done to deserve this?  Hadn’t he had done everything the cadets had asked?  He did the best he could for them, and turned the game against his own team. He had been the perfect mascot.  And this was his reward – never again to lead his team on the field of play, or lead men into battle, or marry, or toss a ball with his son, or taste his mom's home cooking, or to ever again feel the embrace of his girl.

Trooper thought about everything he would be leaving behind:  his girlfriend, his new pickup, his friends, his family back home.  He thought about the future – the heroic one that was now lost to him, but also the one that awaited him when he arrived at his new “home.”  No matter how “cushy” his life as the Army mascot was going to be, it was still going to be the life of a mule, whose sole purpose was to be paraded around for the amusement of the cadets, making a fool of himself like some pathetic circus animal. That is, until they found another good luck charm, and he was put out to pasture as a tired old mule, or shipped off to end his years as a beast of burden on some farm.  Or until they cut off his balls…

Even through the mind-numbing haze, Trooper could still appreciate the irony of it all. Army hadn’t won because Navy lost their quarterback – they won because they had Trooper II. So of course they wouldn't want to give up their new “secret weapon.”   Trooper hadn't betrayed Navy – he had betrayed himself.

As the sad little mule headed up I-95 to his uncertain future, braying miserably to himself in the dim trailer, he realized that THE MAN was right.  It could always be worse.  He just couldn’t for the life of him imagine how.