A Brush Hollow Tale

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This gem of folklore was one that had made a generation of Brush Hollow children afraid to go to bed in the dark. Even as levelheaded a man as my cousin had been briefly a believer. He and Ivan Groves were walking home one pitch-black night from a social affair at Bishop Branch when they heard a terrifying noise as something invisible approached them at high speed. They scrambled up a bank, sure they were about to see the phantom horse and its dreadful burden, but a faint yip as the menace went by identified it as my cousin’s dog. Uninvited, it had attended the party, and some of the other guests had tied a can to its tail and thus implanted in the animal’s soul a desire to get home as soon as possible. There were people, though, who—startled or frightened by some natural event—ascribed the happening to the supernatural and so kept the legend alive.

Terminal’s continuing remarks had aroused too much cumulative curiosity in my uncle for him to remain silent. “What’s pestering you about this horse business, Term?” he asked.

The explanation came at once and was surprisingly simple. Terminal and his four brothers wanted their father to buy a car. The father had vetoed the idea, advancing various arguments that Terminal had reviewed, if not rebutted, in his isolated comments.

Now that he had revealed his secret, the random remarks ceased. Terminal ate in stony and unbroken silence. For anyone intrigued by the mysterious ways of fate, it is an arresting thought that he might have continued a deprived and irate man for years had it not been for the butchering.

The star of this affair had already been selected: a really gigantic hog that promised an ocean of lard when its fat was rendered, and monumental hams and flitches of bacon for treatment in the creosote-scented smokehouse. My uncle had been making preparations for days, getting out the giant iron kettle to heat the water for scalding the animal and suspending it on a sapling resting on two posts. He had gathered cords of wood for the water heating. He had whittled a length of oak into a gambrel that would be inserted in slits between bone and tendon in the animal’s hind legs to suspend it. He had arranged block and tackle, to lift the hog for dressing. And he had leaned a barrel against a convenient bank so that the carcass could be more handily dunked in the scalding water that would loosen the bristles for easier removal.

Each time my uncle passed the pen, he would issue a more expansive bulletin on the probable weight of the animal. It began with a reasonable “That hog will go three hundred pounds if it weighs an ounce” and by the fourth revision had climbed to “Bet that animal would tip the scales at 425 if we could just weigh it.”

When the great day dawned, my uncle was already up and doing, functioning at his executive best and making the welkin ring with orders and exhortations.

“You boys get some more of that firewood. Start filling that kettle—it takes a lot of water to scald a hog that big—must weigh 450 pounds at least. We ain’t just scalding a chicken, you know. Let’s not dawdle—there’s a big job ahead.” By ten thirty he had burned up about a cord of wood and boiled away two kettlesful of water in his eagerness to get things moving.

Finally the moment of truth arrived. My cousin came with a .22 rifle from which so many thousands of rounds had been fired that there was virtually no rifling left to give impact and penetrating power to the bullet. He took careful aim and fired.

His eye was keen, his nerves were steady, and his aim was true. The bullet sped to what should have been a vital spot. But nature, abetted by the philanthropy of the hog raiser, provides domesticated varieties of the genus Sus with a protective layer of fat seemingly almost completely devoid of sensory nerves. As a matter of fact, swine are so well insulated that they can cut a rattlesnake to pieces with their sharp hoofs, taking no notice of, and no harm from, the reptile’s venom. The layer of fat apparently provided similar protection against bullets fired from a smoothbore .22. The hog looked around with the questioning stare of one who has just extended a hand and said, peering up at the sky, “Was that a drop of rain I felt?”

My uncle had small patience with the inefficient and the inadequate. “What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “You mean to say you missed that hog when you were standing three feet away? If that’s the best you can shoot, what you go hunting for is more than I can understand.”

My cousin, stung by this unjust criticism, ejected the empty shell and fired again. This time the target no longer had a questioning look. It was replaced by the look of conviction that accompanies confirmation of the initial supposition, as when one says, “Yes, by George, that was a drop of rain.”