It’s the time of year when our thoughts turn more frequently to ancestors and family stories and lore. Here is one of mine.
My great grandfather on my dad’s side was born in 1880, in the same rural county in south-Central Illinois where my parents still live. The land on which my parent’s house sits is part of the original (now much reduced) parcel of land that my family originally purchased, back before the county was a county; probably in the early days of Illinois’ statehood. This stretch of land, a low, oak forested ridge between river bottoms to the West and creek bottoms to the East, is called Fiddler’s Ridge.
This is just far enough South in Illinois that the land is starting to fold. (The flat corn blanketed acres that were formerly seas of grass are farther north). Far enough south that traces of Ozark English can be heard in the local dialect. My grandmother on my dad’s side said Worsh instead of Wash, and Deef instead of Deaf, like many people did, and do.
My great Grandfather, E.W., was well known to everyone in the neighborhood. At the mention of his name, even years after he had passed away, people who still remembered him (so my dad tells me) would frown, and shake their heads. “Ol’ E., he sure had a temper. Boy, you didn’t want to get on his bad side.” They would say. His raging, furious anger and hair trigger temper were well known.
One winter day around the turn of the Twentieth Century, a neighbor was building a fence through some woodland. E. W. was out riding, and saw the man from afar. He rode up on a dapple grey mare, wearing a long oilcoat. The argument between my great grandfather and his fence-building neighbor was seen, it is said, by two people who were working at some little distance: another neighbor, and the fence-builder’s wife.
My great grandfather claimed that the neighbor had overstepped his bounds, and was fencing across his land. No, the neighbor said, I looked at the Platte maps, the border is right here. None of the witnesses were close enough to hear exactly what was said.
My great grandfather, still on his horse, shot his neighbor dead in sight of two distant onlookers and rode away. Or so the story goes.
But, it turns out, he was never convicted. Was it really him? Was the murdered man’s wife close enough to tell for sure? Maybe he wasn’t the only farmer in possession of a grey horse, or an oilcoat. Nobody could agree on what kind of gun was used to commit the crime, anyway. It was a pistol, said the dead man’s wife. No, I know I saw a rifle, said the neighbor.
So Maybe it wasn’t him after all. Maybe people just though it was him because of his reputation for being such a violent tempered man.
When my dad (the youngest of three siblings) was a teenager, (this would have been sometime in the late 1960’s; he and my mom married as soon as the ink was dry on their high school diplomas, in late 1972), his father gave his next-oldest-brother, R, a bit of land. It happened to contain my great grandfather’s old cabin, long since abandoned and dilapidated.
My dad and his brother were out at the cabin, tearing it down. When they pried up the floorboards over which the old Franklin stove had sat (you could still see the iron stains on the weathered wood), they found, hung on two nails from one of the floor joists, an old over/under shotgun. The barrel and body were rusted into uselessness, and the fine cherry stock was nothing but dust and wormholes.
They brought the remnants of the gun to their father, who wordlessly took it into the barn, clamped the barrel in a vice, and hammered it nearly double.
“What should we do with it?” my dad’s brother asked. “It’s just a piece of shit.” His father replied. “Find an old deep well somewhere* and throw it in.”
So they did.
*my parent’s property has two old stone lined wells on it, and there are a couple others that I know of in the surrounding countryside, so the order to throw it down a well wasn’t that far fetched.