A Brush Hollow Tale

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Tucked away in rural southwest Wisconsin, where the west branch of the Kickapoo River crosses Route 82, is an area of the state known locally as Brush Hollow. It was there, after the turn of the century, that McGarry Morley spent much of his vacation time as a youngster, for his grandfather owned a local farm. Young Morley “loved the people, and thoroughly enjoyed all the various happenings.” Much time has passed since then, and Mr. Morley, now a retired advertising-agency executive, “hated to think of all the folklore and history being lost,” so he began writing a series of folk stones he calls Brush Hollow Tales. The one recounted here, adapted from a story first published in the magazine Wisconsin Trails , is based on several events that actually occurred in Brush Hollow about 1912. In the tradition of the folklorist, Mr. Morley has woven them together into an amusing and nostalgic reminiscence.

Whenever I am served a portion of today’s ham or bacon, each bite—no matter how tender and pleasant-tasting—kindles a nostalgic wish for some of these same products as produced in the long, long ago. Back when the pig preselected for the ultimate sacrifice was fed a carefully balanced diet of whey and bran, lavishly backed with bushels of golden corn. When the rites leading to its metamorphosis were performed right on the spot by home-talent votaries. And when the hams and bacon, soaked in brine and then exposed to smoldering corncobs and hickory wood in the smokehouse, absorbed the entrancing aromas that were released to enrich and embellish the flavor when the meat was cooked and eaten.

I recall one butchering, however, that did not produce the usual rich and delicious pork roasts, the tasty chops, the savory sausages, and the hams and bacon redolent of smokehouse fumes that enticed the appetite and enchanted the taste buds. Instead it supplied a completely unexpected dividend—a Model T car.

This remarkable happening had its beginning when a neighbor lad was hired to give temporary aid with the fall work.

Ordinarily the presence at my aunt’s table of a hired man or a hired girl provided a stimulus to the feast of reason and the flow of soul that, ideally, accompany and supplement the satisfaction of more earthy appetites. Instead of the usual steady chomping sounds, interrupted only by “I’ll thank you for the chicken” or “More coffee, please,” the conversation was likely to be spirited and continuous, larded with bits of gossip from the west branch of the Kickapoo, or Sugar Grove Ridge, or Harrison Hollow, depending on the point of origin of the employee.

Such, however, was not the case when the youngest of the five Cosgrove brothers came to help out for a couple of weeks with the autumn chores. He had the unlikely name of Terminal Moraine; before his birth his mother had heard the expression, thought it pretty, and conferred it on her offspring when he arrived.

Terminal’s silence had been too extended to be charged to initial shyness or to taciturnity. Rather, it seemed to stamp him as a man obsessed with some festering sorrow, who had looked upon the promised land and seen only a disaster area. This diagnosis received a degree of confirmation when, at long last, he spoke.

“Paw says cars are dangerous,” he said, not lifting his eyes from his plate and directing his remarks at no one in particular. “Look at Buzz-saw Bates. What about him?”

Everyone of course knew Buzz-saw, so called because he had lost a hand in a sawmill accident. He wore a hook on the stump that made him a man of note in the community. Terminal’s query had obviously been rhetorical, and so no one made any attempt to answer.

Terminal amplified his statement that night at supper as though there had been no break in his lines of communication.

“What about Buzz-saw Bates?” he asked again. “Riding along in a buggy with Hank Shore and telling some big story and waving his arms around. So what happened? He snagged the hook on the rim of the buggy wheel, and it pitched him right out on the side of the road on his head. I suppose that wasn’t dangerous?” Again he left the question floating in the air, obviously not expecting an answer.

Two days later at breakfast he spoke again. “Paw says a car is expensive,” he said bitterly. “Five horses in the barn eating their heads off. All us boys got to have one. You mean to say that doesn’t cost more than gas for a car?”

The bitter brew seething within him was apparently coming to a more violent boil, for he again broke silence that noon.

“Paw says we’re like to get ourselves killed with a car,” he said, not as one contributing to the general conversation but with the air of a fair-minded man reviewing all sides of some moot question. “What about his second cousin that got dragged and killed by a horse? Tangled up in the singletree and drug till his clothes was all tore off.”

He paused, then apparently thought of an additional item that would strengthen his stand.

“Not only that—there is folks right today that claim to have seen that horse go by with Paw’s second cousin, naked as a skinned calf and dead as Judas Caesar, dragging along behind.”

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.”

The third shot did not fell the animal, but it struck a more sensitive spot and generated in the victim’s mind a suspicion that the group gathered around its pen did not really wish it well. The hog uttered a sharp squeal, lumped over the fence, and dashed down through the orchard. On its way, as though impelled by a lust for vengeance, it ran under the pole on which the kettle of boiling water was hanging. Its height was just sufficient to lift the pole from one of its supports. The kettle upset, pouring the water over the fire my uncle had been stoking since early morning and extinguishing it. The hog continued its headlong course, taking two fences that were in its path like an Olympic hurdler and heading out the ridge to disappear into the wood lot.

My uncle always found it hard to accept responsibility for any setback. He invariably sought a scapegoat. As my cousin and Terminal were not promising candidates, he went to the house.

“What time is it?” he demanded.

“Eleven o’clock,” replied my aunt.

“Well,” said my uncle, in the manner of a just man who has made a careful judicial investigation, discovered the culprit responsible for some misadventure, and is delivering a well-deserved rebuke, “you’d ought to have had dinner ready.”

The kettle was rehung and refilled, the fire rekindled, and after dinner a three-man posse set out to locate the fugitive. The animal showed a marked disinclination to fraternize with the group, although from its earliest days it had never known anything but amiable and greathearted indulgence from humankind. The appearance of any person near its pen invariably foreshadowed an invigorating drink of slops or a good solid meal of corn on the cob. This had the effect of creating a benignant image of man in the porcine mind—but that image had been destroyed by the sting of the third shot.

Because of this loss of confidence it took some time for my cousin, armed now with a .30-caliber deer rifle, to come near enough for a shot. When the opportunity presented itself, he did not falter. The bullet flew true to its mark, and the prey expired. This solved only part of the problem. It was necessary to bring in a horsedrawn stoneboat to get the victim out. As a consequence of all this it was nearly dusk before the time-consuming butchering operation finally reached the scalding stage.

 

The kettle of boiling water was emptied into the barrel and the carcass brought and lowered into it. Accepted technique called for two men to grasp the ganibrel and lower and raise the body slowly so that the hot water could do its bristle-loosening work. But once the carcass had sunk to the bottom of the barrel, it fitted the container so snugly that the combined strength of my cousin and Terminal could not budge it.

My uncle, of course, chose to regard this failure as evidence that the boys were not bringing proper muscle and spirit to the job. “Stand aside, both of you,” he ordered. “Let a man show you how.”

He strained until Terminal whispered, “His eyes is buggin’ out like a bullfrog’s,” but with no more success than the boys had enjoyed. It was growing dark, and so it was imperative that the problem be solved at once. Horsepower seemed the only answer.

Old Kit, an elderly roan, was harnessed and brought from the barn. The singletree was hooked to the gambrel, my uncle called “Giddap” and slapped Kit with the reins. She surged into the collar, and the pig popped out of the barrel.

Now Kit was known to all for a gentleness that bordered on lethargy. Women and children could safely drive her. She showed no concern when confronted by automobiles, road graders, or even traction engines. But she had never before had a gigantic and fearsome ghostly white body suddenly appear at her heels, and her reaction was immediate. She ran away.

My uncle was jerked off his feet, and while he clung to the reins for a brief time, sliding along on his stomach was too unpleasant a form of locomotion to be continued, and he let go. Kit and the pig vanished into the evening darkness.

It was after midnight when Old Kit finally came back. She had apparently run astraddle of a stump someplace and so had freed herself from the incubus that caused her panic. A search next day discovered the corpus. It had been dragged for two or three miles along a rocky side road, then through a patch of woods, and it had proved a very poor traveller. The carcass was rolled into a gully and covered up. No graveside services were held.

Terminal’s period of employment was finished next day, and he went home. Some weeks later he reappeared. He was in the driver’s seat of a Model T that, although of recent vintage, showed signs of high mileage and hard usage. It was filled to overflowing with six of Terminal’s contemporaries. One was riding astride the hood.

“What do you think of her?” called Terminal. “Ain’t she a daisy? There’s been quite a few arguments about who’d get to drive her, but today George and ArIo and Fred and Wes was all in a fight about it, so I just got in and took off. Right now we’re headed for Lay -crosse. Might as well see the country while we got the means for it.”

“But Term,” said my uncle, “whatever changed your dad’s mind? You didn’t seem to think he’d ever buy a car.”

“He probably never would of,” responded Terminal, “but he was awalking home that night when OF Kit come by with the hog. He could just barely make out the horse, but the hog showed up real white and scary, and Paw was sure it was his second cousin going by. He figured it was a sign sent to show him the dangers of horse transportation, and the first thing next morning he went in town and bought the car.

“Course when I heard about it I knew better, but I wasn’t about to put him right. Well, I promised these boys a ride, so I can’t give you one now. But next time I get the car, look for me. I’ll give you a spin you’ll remember.”

This last was shouted over his shoulder as he drove toward the road. As though to confirm his statement that any ride with him would be memorable, he uprooted a snowball bush and bounced off a gatepost on the way.

Some time later the elder Cosgrove stopped one day to call. He had learned that the “sign” was an unusual but natural phenomenon and not of supernatural origin as he had inferred, but he proved philosophical about the whole affair.

 

“One thing, though,” he said. “This having a car is kind of disruptive. Soon as one boy drives in to eat or sleep, another hops in and away he goes. I never know who will be around to do the milking. I bought that car six weeks ago Saturday, and the radiator’s never stopped boiling since.

“I been reading that little book, and it sounds like it might be easy to run the thing. You just push down on a pedal, and she starts. Let up on the pedal, and away you go, maybe thirty miles an hour. Why, that’s as fast as the harness racers go out at the fairground racetrack.”

He leaned closer and lowered his voice, as one might in confiding some rather embarrassing secret to a friend. “You know what?” he said. “One of these days the boys will get careless or fed up and leave the thing where I can get my hands on it, and I’m going to climb in and give it a whirl. Who knows? By gonnies, I might get to like it.”