Agrarian Life

a story

by J. Orlin Grabbe

Sometimes we would go down to the creek where the root of the mulberry tree grew out of the side of the bank and slunk along the surface before plunging again underground. There was nothing remarkable about the root, except it was the one Teacher Hines said he tripped over when he blew his brother away with a twelve-gauge shotgun.

The unfortunate incident was complicated by the fact the gun Teacher Hines was carrying while he and his brother were hunting only held two shells, or three if one was already pumped into the chamber, and the medical examiner said there had been at least four shots discharged into the body of the deceased. They put Teacher Hines on trial for murder, which caused considerable excitement in the town, and in our family, because Hines was my oldest brother's agricultural teacher in high school, and Hines' wife taught my other brother in seventh grade.

At the trial Teacher Hines admitted he had reloaded and shot his brother again, but he said he had only done so to put the poor creature out of his misery. But by then town gossips had come forth to testify that Hines had been doing his brother's wife on the side, and the wife in question was pregnant. None of us knew what all this meant for a time, and my brother would go to his seventh grade class and join in on the collective scrutiny of the sad lines on the teacher's face, wondering what she thought about her husband diddling her sister-in-law, and wondering why he hadn't been diddling her instead.

Gradually we came to understand that Hines had been doing his brother's wife because his brother hadn't been, and when she became pregnant they knew it was Teacher Hines' baby for sure, so Teacher Hines had shot his brother to allow the baby to be born without the brother raising a fuss. Well, everyone said Teacher Hines would get the chair for sure, but then the lawyer put the brother's wife on the stand, and she told how lonely she was and how awful she had been treated, until some of the jurors decided maybe the son- of-a-bitch needed to be shot anyway, and they only gave Teacher Hines twenty years.

We sometimes talked about Teacher Hines, my brother and I, as we carried our hoes across the pasture and then across the road into my grandfather's property where Daddy had planted sorghum. There was a stray dog who had come to the house that year, and we had named him Hugo, and he went with us wherever we went. He would run back and forth between the rows of sorghum while we were hoeing weeds, and would chase rabbits, and then return to see how we were getting along. We carried water with us, in mason jars, and when we stopped at the end of a row for a drink in the hot sun, Hugo would come and drink out of the jars with us. My brother and I said Hugo was the best dog and best companion one could have.

Then one day Hugo killed a couple of chickens, and I saw him do it. So we watched him all the time, after that, and when we went away we would tie him up. But sometimes we would forget, and one day when we arrived home in the pickup, Hugo met us with feathers hanging out of his mouth, and the feathers were stuck to blood on his lips. Out in the chicken house there had been a massacre, with about twenty chickens dead. Their bodies lay on the floor, and on the roost, and out on the ground around the chicken yard.

"You better get a rope and tie up Hugo," Mother said, "or Daddy might shoot him." So I went and got a rope, and made a loop in one end, and called Hugo over to the fence beside the house. Hugo came running up, friendly and excited, and then I saw Daddy with the .22 rifle. "Stay back," he said, and he shot Hugo twice in the side of the head.

Blood ran out of the two small holes, and Hugo fell on the ground and twitched for a while. My brother came running around the porch at that moment, laughing and yelling about something, and then he saw Hugo and stopped, standing up straight very suddenly, like he had run into an invisible wall. "Daddy shot Hugo," I said. And I saw the look on his face as he turned and ran away, and even though I didn't like my brother much in those days--we had been fighting a lot--I felt sorry for him, maybe even sorrier than I did for Hugo or for myself.

After a while I realized I was still holding the rope. So I went ahead and slipped the one end around the upper part of Hugo's body, and dropped the rest of it on the ground, because I knew someone would have to drag him off into the pasture. And after that I got tired of having dogs, and never wanted to have them around anymore, or have to put up with a kind of animal that thought nothing of just coming up and slobbering on your face.

Sooner or later Hugo would have been bitten by a rattlesnake, for it was the same year my brother and I were having the big contest, to see who could kill the most rattlers. There was no cheating because you had to display the body for proof, and my brother would cut off all the rattles and put them on a string. But I didn't because I couldn't stand the way they sounded, and I hated everything about rattlesnakes.

I would be shocking feed and pick up a bundle and there would be a rattlesnake, lying coiled, buzzing its tail at me, and it would give me a start, and I would be jumping at things the rest of the day. But I would always be watching, anyway, and when I picked up a bundle I made sure one end stayed on the ground to shield me from what was underneath, and when I walked through the grass, I kept the legs of my levis pulled over the outside of my boots, because rattlers usually went for the lowest piece of exposed cloth.

Each of us worked with a length of stiff rope tied around his waist. The length was about five feet long and had a knot in each end, and it was your snake rope. If the rattlesnake was coiled, you would bother it and tease it, giving it room, until it would straighten out to slither away, then you would whack it across the back with one of the knots, breaking the back. And you would keep doing that, taking care the snake didn't bite into the rope and cause you to sling the snake back at yourself, until the back was broken in enough places you could step on the snake's head--right side up--with your boot, and cut off the body with your pocketknife, and bury the head with the fangs and venom underground so some other poor fool wouldn't step on the fangs by accident. Then you would usually throw the the body into an ant bed, so the ants would quickly strip off the meat and it wouldn't smell, except that my father would hang the body on a barbed wire fence with its belly up to the sun to make it rain.

That year, though, I had to keep the body as proof of kill, until I showed it to my brother, and as the year went on my brother's body count began to exceed mine, and I began to go over into a neighbor's pasture to find rattlesnakes there, too, and to kill them and to bring back the bodies. My brother was angry and said that wasn't fair, but I pointed out the rules we had agreed on didn't specify that all the rattlesnakes had to be found on our own property. Still, my brother stayed angry until the day he decided he wanted to catch one alive, to take to school, and needed my help. We took a half-gallon mason jar and a stick and twine each day we went to work in the field, until we came across a rattlesnake of decent size. And it took us a couple hours to get that snake into the jar without injuring it.

My father saw the rattlesnake and said we were damned fools to pull a stunt like that, and he wouldn't let us keep it overnight in the house, but we sneaked it in anyway. And the next day we walked to the school bus stop, a quarter mile from the house where the railroad track crossed the highway, and my brother stuck the jar under his jacket so the bus driver wouldn't see it, though later the kids at the back of the bus made such a fuss the driver pulled over and walked back and saw the rattlesnake. We were almost to town then, and there was nothing he could do, but he yelled at my brother and made him come up front and sit on the steps in front of the door, holding the jar between his knees. At school my brother took the snake up to the second floor to the science teacher, who also grumbled and scolded while he got the chloroform out of the cabinet. My brother didn't mind any of this, because no one had ever brought a live rattler to school before, and he knew he had a perfect specimen, and would get an `A' on his biology project.

Much as I hated rattlesnakes, I liked them better than pigs. Mother had joined a religious group that in later years I would call Christians for Moses. And Daddy thought it was pure foolishness, intended to make him the laughing stock of the countryside, but my oldest brother sided with Mother, and my brother and I did too, because we always did what our oldest brother did. And we kept all the Jewish holidays, only we called them God's holidays, and for Passover would make unleavened corn bread, and we observed the Old Testament rules on the clean and unclean meats, and wouldn't eat pork.

So Daddy decided to butcher a hog, and we had to do it ourselves, as we couldn't afford to have it done in town. And I knew from the start it was a test to see if us kids would insist on such foolishness after having to work that hard, and when pig meat was the only meat around. So we boiled hot water in an open fire, and hung the scalded hog from a pipe laid between two tall posts, and scraped all the hair off, and butchered it there, and took the pieces to the smoke house to be wrapped in sugar cure. And we took one piece to the house for dinner, which Mother cooked in the skillet she kept aside to cook Daddy's unclean meat.

Well, my oldest brother and my brother knew what was coming, and didn't tell me their plan, and when Daddy came in for dinner they said they had already eaten, and so I was stuck with having dinner with him alone, and he forked me a big piece of pork. And I kept trying to talk about what I thought were all Daddy's favorite subjects, but he kept ignoring the talk, and looking more angry, and saying, "Eat your meat." So finally, when he was not looking, I took it off my plate and stuck it in my pocket, and Daddy saw that the meat was gone, but I don't think he believed I had eaten it. So he told Mother she had turned all the kids against him, and poisoned their minds, and shoved her across the kitchen, and he said to us, "If you kids don't want to eat the food in this household, you can pack up your bags and leave." And shortly afterward I saw my oldest brother going upstairs, which was a provocative act when there was still work to be done, and I said, "You're not going upstairs, are you?" And he smiled at me with that ironic, sad smile of his, and said, "My bags are upstairs."

Well, a few weeks later maggots showed up in all the meat, because the sugar cure hadn't worked, and Daddy said to my brother and me it was our fault, because we wouldn't eat the meat. And since my oldest brother had left, my brother and I had to help Daddy pull the calves, and I hated it. We had had a young bull who was kept separate from the rest of the herd, because young bulls went after young heifers, and young heifers who were bred too early would have calves they can't properly deliver. But the bull had broken through the fence, and bred a lot of young heifers, and the calves being born would stick in the heifers when the calves were only half way out, and there was nothing a heifer could do to push a calf on out, without someone to pull on it and help. Even so, the calf would often die, or have a broken leg, and sometimes the heifer's womb would turn inside out, and we would have to tuck it back in and sew her up. The worst ones, though, were the ones where there was no way to get the calf out whole without killing the heifer, so it was better to kill the calf and cut it out of her in pieces, and after doing that a couple of times I didn't care if I ever saw anything being born again.

Other than hunting rattlesnakes the only fun I was having that year was shooting rabbits. I had quit shooting rabbits with a .22 rifle about that time, because I didn't think it was sporting and didn't enjoy it anymore. But I was still stalking them with bow and arrow, and on foot because they were mostly cottontails, which had taken over the countryside from the jack rabbits. But one day while I was out riding I came across the biggest jack I had ever seen. And he was a beauty and looked like a small antelope bounding through the yucca. So I went back for my bow, and went out each day for the next several days, and when I spotted him I would follow him on horseback.

Even so he kept out of arrow range, until one day he seemed to think he was hidden and I hadn't seen him, and I kept the horse headed in a direction that would pass about fifty feet to one side, and kept my eyes looking everywhere but at that jack. Then I stopped the horse, facing east, and drew the bow all the way back, and suddenly turned my body sideways to the north in the saddle looking directly at the jack, and I shot him in the neck. But the elation of the perfect shot lasted only a second before I was already missing him, knowing I would never again see him loping his way through the yucca and past the prickly pears.

I drew out the arrow, and wiped the blade and shaft off on the grass, and stood there for a while. And then I gathered that old jack up in my arms, not minding the blood on my clothes and on the saddle, and I rode with him several miles down to the creek, where I tied the horse and found a sharp stick to dig with. And I buried him there by the mulberry root, the one Teacher Hines said he tripped over when he blew his brother away with a twelve-gauge shotgun.


from The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 2, No 35, October 26, 1998