I swear, I ain’t never seen a more ornery, no-good hog than that Horace. “Prize winner my eye,” I muttered under my breath as I retied the rope that fastened the gate closed for what felt like the hundredth time. Every time I closed him in, he’d find some way to get hisself loose again, and I’d have to go chase him and catch him and throw him back in there. It seemed like a daily occurrence, and half the time I couldn’t even see how he got out to begin with.
I finally figured that he must’ve stretched the rope just enough to shove his squirmy self through the opening, even though I’d tied it best I could. So I set about tying it again, this time with renewed energy, determined to keep that danged hog where he belonged, looping the rope around the post several times and yanking it tighter’n a lid on Grandmama’s twenty-year-old pickle jars.
Next day, I slogged out to the pen with a bucket of swill to feed him, and that blasted hog was out again, rootin’ through the potato patch and eating all the ‘taters he could find. I chased that hog all ‘round creation and back again, and when I finally caught him I had to wrassle with him to get him back into his pen. When I finished with him, I leaned against the gate, huffin’ and puffin’ and covered in mud. I still ain’t quite sure which of us was a sorrier sight at that moment.
Pop, he was across the barn forking hay to the horses; he took one look and doubled up laughing. I guess looking back on it, it was a pretty funny sight, but I was feelin’ just about as ornery as that hog at the time, and I fixed him with a look that plainly stated I didn’t think it was funny a-tall. He stopped laughing and went back to work, but every time I looked back at him, his shoulders was shaking from laughing inside, and that was nearly as bad.
Not in what you would call a good mood, I grabbed that rope, and as I set about tying the gate shut one more time, I quietly called the hog every name in the book. And then when I was running out of names for the hog, I started going down the list again with the rope. When I reached the end of that list and still didn’t have the rope tight enough to suit me, I started to make up my own, and I was getting pretty creative about it, too. I didn’t notice that Pop was standing right behind me, ‘til he spoke.
“Don’t cuss the rope, son,” he drawled gravely. “If it wasn’t for ropes like them, you wouldn’t be with us today.”
I stared at him, trying to make sense of those words, when he pulled hisself up a milking stool and motioned for me to take the other.
“Reckon I never told you that story, son. It ain’t a purty tale, no fit bedtime story for younguns. But seein’s how you’re all grown up now, I figger you got the right to hear it. You done with that gate?”
I nodded mutely.
“Well then, I s’pose now’s as good a time as any to tell you the story of Joseph Samuel Bemble, your great-great-grandpappy.”
I leaned closer. Pop took out his corncob pipe, knocked it against a beam to empty what remnants was in it, filled it from his ever-present tobacco pouch, and puffed at it as he lit it off. I let him take his time; I knew that he would get to the story when he was ready. He took a long draw, blew the smoke up into the rafters and watched it disappear, and then with a sigh of contentment he began.
“’Twas back in the fall of 1803 when it happened. Joseph Samuel… but everybody just called him Sam then… was hauled off to prison for murder. Everybody who knew him was a little shocked when they heard tell about it. After all, he was only twenty-two, and a regular nice feller who told jokes and bought everybody drinks when he had enough coins in his poke to do so. Well, Sam had hisself a gal named Lucy Ellen Hoolihan, and he hadn’t said the words yet, but everybody knowed they was good as engaged. One day, he stomps into the bar, and he grabs a man by the throat, and he tells him to stay away from his gal or he’d be diggin’ lead from his gizzard, and he socks him one right in the jaw. Now, one thing you should know about Sam. Sam was a big man. His shoulders was wide as an ox, his arms was thicker than your thighs, and his torso looked like one of them pickle barrels at Bartholomew’s Drug Store and Emporium. So when he punched that man in the bar, it messed his jaw up real bad, knocked him out, and he was sent sprawlin’ across the floor.
“The next day, the town wakes up to gunfire. It weren’t like in those Western movies, where there’s so much shootin’ everywhere all the time that nobody bothers to look up and see what’s going on out there. No indeed, half the town comes out to see who started all the racket. And what do they see? They see old Bloody-Jaw layin’ in the street diggin’ lead from his gizzard, and Sam runnin’ in the other direction. It looked like a fair fight. They’d both got off some shots. Ever’body would’ve understood, except that ol’ Bloody-Jaw just happened to be the son of a wealthy rancher who owned the town and had the sheriff in his back pocket, an’ this man, he don’t take the killin’ too kindly. He goes out and rounds up a posse of his chums, an’ they rides out to the ranch Sam’s father owns and start shootin’ cattle until Sam’s pop tells them where his son is. They go out and round up Sam, truss him up like a pig to slaughter, and drag him all the way back to town behind the horses. The sheriff locks ‘im up, and a date is set for the trial.”
I ain’t never heard nuthin’ like this tale before, and I reckon my eyes was big as saucers as I asked, “What happened next?”
Pop gave me a look fit to spit, and I didn’t say no more to interrupt him none. He’d get to it in his own sweet time. After a pause, he continued.
“Like I been sayin’, there was s’posed to be a trial for young Sam. But the rancher, he got to thinkin’, and the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea of there not being no trial a-tall. And in the dark of night, they goes sneakin’ up to the jail, and bursts in the door, and they drags poor Sam out to the nearest tree, puts him on an old mule, and throws a noose ‘round his neck. They asks him if he had any last requests. And Sam, he’s afraid, but he didn’t show it ’cause he knew it wouldn’t do no good. He cocks his head, and he says, yeah, I got one. They told him to say it now, and he says he requests the rope to break. Ever’body found that right funny, and the rancher was bustin’ a gut laughin’ as he walked up behind the mule an’ gave ‘er a slap on the rump.
“The mule goes out from under ‘im, and Sam’s hangin’ there by his neck, and then they all gasp as there’s a loud snap, an’ Sam goes tumblin’ to the ground. That rope broke clean through. Well, they find themselves another rope, and this time they’re not laughing as they put it ‘round his neck. An’ they don’t give Sam no last requests this time, neither. They’s some in the crowd who are whispering, sayin’ it had to be an act of God, and that maybe Sam ain’t deserving to hang after all. Before people could change their minds, the rancher slaps that mule, and Sam’s hangin’ again. And the rancher grins as he watches Sam twisting at the end of the rope, and starts to walk away, when he hears a thump behind him and he turns around to find the rope broken with Sam layin’ in a heap on the ground, gaspin’ for breath.
“People’s really startin’ to talk now, saying this was all wrong and to just let him go. The rancher’s all angry now, and he goes and hunts up the strongest rope he can find, and he comes back, makes a noose, and puts it over Sam’s head hisself. He tells everybody to back off, and fires a shot into the ground to make sure they know he means business. He slaps that mule hard, makin’ the poor critter jump, and watches closely to make sure nobody tampers with the rope. This time, the rope don’t break. The crowd, still talking and shaking their heads, begins to leave. The rancher stays a mite, to make sure the rope ain’t breakin’, and when he’s satisfied, he starts to leave, too. He mounts his horse, takes one last look, and rides away.
“A spell later, as the sun’s coming o’er the ridge, a youngun outside fetchin’ water comes runnin’ back into his house. Ma, ma, he’s screamin’. They’s a man out there hangin’ from a tree, and he’s still alive! Purty soon near half the town is gathered ‘round that tree, lookin’ at a man standin’ on his tip-toes under a rope that had stretched right-near to the ground. Well, they cut him down, and he became something of the town legend after that. He couldn’t pay for his own drinks if he wanted to; somebody was always buying. He went and married Miss Lucy, and they started a little spread off the edge of town, and had three little ones all their own. The rancher eventually got over his grudge, and didn’t cause the hero of the town no more trouble after that. They lived happily ever after.”
Well, that story really stuck with me, and I wanted to learn more about this ancestor of mine. I decided the attic was as good a place to start as any, so’s I went up there, and after crawling ‘round in the dust and cobwebs for nigh an hour, I found what I was looking for. I blew the dust off this old wooden box, and opened the lid. Inside the box was scraps of paper cut from magazines and newspapers, some fairly new, others dating back more than a hundred years. Every time a member of the family wound up in the press for any reason, out came the scissors, or knife, or whatever in tarnation they used a hundred years ago, and into the box with it. I pushed aside some nauseatin’ glossy clippings with pictures of a smug-looking Horace with a ribbon ‘round his fat neck, dug down past the engagement notices, shoved around some articles about family members I’d never even heard of before, and then I struck gold.
Sure enough, down at the bottom of the heap was some yellowed articles from papers like The Cowtown Gazette and Cowtown Quarterly. I pulled these out and took ‘em downstairs, where I could get a mite more light to read them by. I read about the “miracle” of the rope snapping, and about the stir it caused in that little town. That’s what most of the articles was about from that time period. I also read about the wedding, and how Harry Hoolihan led his daughter down the aisle into Joseph Samuel Bemble’s waiting arms. After gleaning all I could from the articles, I returned them to their box, and went about my day as usual.
The next day, Horace was at it again. I’d had about all I could take of him, and after telling him so on no uncertain terms and finally chasing that filthy critter back where he belonged, I went to town for a good piece of rope that he’d have a tough time gnawing through or stretching out. I went to Bartholomew’s Drug Store and Emporium first. Old Bartholomew may not always have what you need, but he has everything else, as sure as eggs in the mornin’.
I asked him, and he showed me where some ropes hung in coils on the wall.
“Whatcha need a rope for, son?”
“I need something that won’t stretch and that ain’t easy to chew through. Horace keeps breaking loose.”
“Well, I reckon you’ll find somethin’ there that suits your purposes. I’d check the brands, if I was you. Don’t get nothin’ imported or foreign-sounding.”
I immediately passed over two that said that they was made in China, and then when I couldn’t even pronounce the brand name of the third, I skipped that one as well. One of the others didn’t say where it was made, but it looked sturdy enough. I looked at the brand: H. H. Rope Co.
“Hey,” I called over my shoulder, “how about H. H. Rope Company? What do you know about them?”
“Well, they been around a long time, I know that.”
I walked up to the counter, holding the coil in my hands. “American made?” I asked.
“I think so,” he drawled, scratching his balding head. “On second thought, maybe Irish.”
“Irish?” I replied, surprised. “Why Irish?”
“I’m tryin’ to recall what the H. H. stands for. It was somethin’ Hoolihan. Henry, Hank…”
“That’s the one.”
I grinned. “Well, I’ll be hornswaggled. God does work in mysterious ways. On second thought, do you happen to have any nice, sturdy chain on hand?”