The Old Bachelor, the Old Maid and the Bull
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
I was 15 years old when one warm October evening, the bull killed the Old Bachelor. Life and death were everyday realities for those of us who grew up in the rural Midwest. Farm boys all knew where calves, and foals, and piglets, and human infants came from. We knew, too, where our food came from, that pigs were generally raised and fattened up, only to be shot on New Years Day and processed into hams, pork shoulders, “side meat,” stuffed sausage, “cracklins” and tenderloin. Those of us who hunted and fished supplemented the family diet with catfish, bluegills, cottontail rabbits and fox squirrels.
It was all taken for granted. No one seemed to give it a thought. Small subsistence farmers added precious dollars to meager incomes by trapping muskrat, raccoon, and, when fortune favored them, mink.
But, the violent death of the Old Bachelor was an exception. The images remain indelibly etched in my memory yet, nearly 60 years later.
All the neighbors knew the couple that owned the small dairy farm as The Old Bachelor and the Old Maid. No one seemed know why. Perhaps they had married late in life. The titles would be considered pejorative and incorrect today. They had no off-spring, probably a blessing given that their frequent shouting matches out in the barn and the milk house reverberated across the neighborhood.
As a boy, I felt empathy for the Old Bachelor, a quiet, gentle soul who wrote poetry and who always seemed to be attempting to quiet the Old Maid’s tirades. Among the couple’s small herd of dairy cattle was a Guernsey bull, a magnificent animal that spent his days quietly grazing in the pasture behind my parents’ house. In truth, the bull had never behaved in any but a peaceable manner. Never bellowed, pawed the ground or engaged in any activity that one might associate with an angry, aggressive bull.
One evening, while visiting the Old Bachelor in his barn, my dad suggested that he not trust the bull. Males of that species can turn on a person without warning. The Old Bachelor chuckled and answered that the bull was a gentle beast, a “big pet,” as he scratched behind the animal’s ears and gave him a pat on the head.
Everything changed dramatically on one summer evening. As the Old Bachelor was mucking out the stall, the bull pinned him in a corner and gored him to death, eviscerated him, as it turned out. Death must have been instant, for there was later found to be a loud gash from his groin to the tip of his forehead. One can only hope that it was instant.
Well, what else can one do under such circumstances but call the police? As darkness fell, police cruisers, an ambulance and a truck from a local meatpacking firm arrived. Bright lights flooded the farmyard, as the Old Bachelor’s remains, draped in a white sheet, were transported to the waiting emergency vehicle and carted off. The bull, meanwhile, grazed unconcerned amidst all the noise and turmoil. In fact, it is most likely that the animal had meant the Old Bachelor no harm, that it was simply being playful, frisky, and did not know its own strength.
Be that as it may, the contorted reasoning of that day required that the animal, now a man- killer, had to go. A man from the meat packing facility mounted a hay wagon with his .22 rifle and took aim at the nonchalantly grazing bull. His trigger pull resounded with a loud “click.”
Nothing. Either the ammunition had grown old and outdated or perhaps had drawn moisture. It could be that the rifle itself was malfunctioning. I only know that multiple trigger pulls were answered only by multiple clicks.
Somewhat bedazzled by the bright lights and all the excitement, the bull took notice and rose up, placing his front hooves on the hay wagon. This caused the panicked shooter to seek safety by scaling the hay rack.
More trigger pulls. More clicks. A police officer, hoping to address what was becoming an ever more perilous situation, opened up with his .38. I heard the slugs smack into the side of a neighbor’s barn across the field.
With the man on the hayrack unable to fire his rifle, and the marksmanship of the police sadly insufficient, a neighbor ran home and returned with his deer rifle. There followed a scene of unanticipated cruelty and horror. It took several rounds to dispatch the unfortunate bull. Each round caused the bull to sag a little more, until it finally crashed to the ground dead.
The bull was carried off in the back of the meatpacker’s truck. Parts of the Old Bachelor remained behind. While milking the Old Maid’s cows the next evening, my dad found the Old Bachelor’s eyeball staring up at him from the straw covered stable floor.
I later learned that the Old Maid had the bull processed and brought the meat home to her freezer. Over a period of time, she consumed the steak and burgers that had once been the bull. Whether this was a manifestation simple rural, Midwestern pragmatism or some vague and macabre form of revenge, no one ever knew.
Years passed. The Old Maid would be seen most nights, wandering among her dairy herd by the dim light of a kerosene lantern. I have never known any other farmer to do that, but her presence would be evident late on the blackest of nights from then on. On foggy nights, she presented a somewhat haunting specter. On occasion, she would let loose with a sneeze that would echo back and forth across the neighborhood.
I was told that toward the end of her days, she sequestered herself in her basement and avoided the light of day. She finally passed away unnoticed and, one can only suspect, un-mourned. The cows, by now aging and long unproductive, lived on, untended. My dad used to toss apples over the fence to them. He said that they seemed appreciative.
It is all gone now. The milk house is in ruins, the fences rusted and collapsing, and of the old barn only the skeleton, the aged, weathered frame, remains, the shingles and siding blown away by gales of winter blizzards and summer thunderstorms.
For sixty years, I have pondered the meaning of this story. Perhaps there is no meaning. Perhaps it simply is what it is.