The drought in the Southwest was this serious: Hooter had relented to follow up on a lead from Uncas Binglemeyer in hopes of finding some spring pasture closer to home than the original Mason-Dixon Line.
Longtime followers of Hooter may recall that Uncas was a 4-H pal of Hooter's who had a vision of the world and business only slightly more skewed than a corkscrew. Things were getting desperate in Rio Rojo County, though. Feed was sure enough cheap by historical standards, but the freight wasn't. Plus, Hooter had history on his side.
“You remember that little patch of ground I found in New Mexico last time,” said Hooter to cousin Charlie. “It was a needle in a haystack, an oasis in the desert of drought, but I found it.”
“Yep. But, getting the cattle back out and the horses in past those wind turbines was almost chore-like,” replied Charlie.
“The point being there was some pasture to be had where you and the rest of the boys were sure none existed,” said Hooter. “And the time before that, remember that?”
It was tough for Charlie to forget. During the dry spell that engulfed the Southwest just a few years before the last one, Hooter ended up shipping cows on a cross-country odyssey that made Christopher Columbus seem like a homebody.
“It's kind of like the old days and ways,” reckoned Hooter at the time. “Only instead of starting in Texas and driving the cattle to market like Goodnight and Loving did, we'll start with the cattle somewhere else and drive them back to Texas.”
In reality, he and Charlie just did a lot of driving…up from Texas to the last place to go dry and barren, on to another patch of ground too far up the road, back down to Texas, and so on and so on. By the time Hooter's cows saw the right side of the Red River again they had more miles under them than a veteran NASCAR driver.
“If you're going to get something, you've got to be prepared to give something up,” said Hooter.
Sizing Up the Game
As usual with Uncas Binglemeyer, it all sounded too good to be true. According to Uncas, a longtime friend by the name of Ralph Prattleman had too much ground and too little time to manage it. “He's got more stockpiled forage on that place than three counties in a good year,” Uncas had said. “Hasn't had cattle on it in forever. It is a tad brushy, though.”
As the story went, Ralph was something of a trust-fund baby who never cared much for the daily rigors of chasing cattle, fixing tanks and whatnot like his forebears. He wasn't lazy, mind you; far from it. Ralph had labored long and hard to build up a small but lucrative sausage business. From whacking them to hanging them up, Ralph did it all himself.
“You've heard of heirloom genetics,” said Uncas. “Well Ralph has built quite a clientele based on heirloom processing.”
“Do tell,” muttered Hooter.
“You name it, crawling, walking or stone cold dead, Ralph can mix it with his sausage and make it sell,” said Uncas merrily.
Hooter's innards did a flip-flop.
“Plus,” said Uncas, herding his Lincoln down the highway. “Ralphie and I are partners in a new line of gourmet sausages.”
When they arrived, the festive sign on the front door didn't boost Hooter's confidence any more than the last tidbit of information had. “Happy Ground Hogs Day!” announced the neon greeting.
Opening the door for them, Ralph Prattleman pointed at the sign and beamed, “We celebrate it every day of the year here. Ground Hogs Day, get it?”
“Yeah, catchy,” said Hooter.
Ralph looked a whole lot like Hooter imagined a blue collar sausage king should look, which gave him a sliver of hope. Ralph was round as a beach ball with bags under his eyes and an apron splashed with grease, blood and goo. However, noticing the tips missing from a couple of Ralph's fingers, Hooter couldn't help but recall the comment Uncas had made about the sausage maker's penchant for mixing anything and everything with his Ground Hogs.
“We even have tee-shirts with that on them,” said Ralph, pointing to the sign once more. “…for our regular customers.” He said this with a tone of accusation and he stared at Hooter as if expecting him to admit he'd shoplifted a package of bacon and hid it under his hat.
Faster than a hummingbird blinks, Ralph switched gears again, shoving a catalogue into Hooter's hand. “We do mail order, too.”
“I'll have to give it a look,” said Hooter warily. “I know you're awful busy, though. As far as the pasture that Uncas was telling me—”
“Here's a sample tray!” said Ralph excitedly. “This one is brand new, Uncas. I call it Irish Cherry Bomb; can you guess what's in it?”
Like some sort of wine connoisseur, Uncas held a fried meat ball beneath his nose, sniffed, popped it into his mouth, closed his eyes and chewed slowly. All the while, Ralph looked like a bulldog waiting for someone to toss the ball.
“You've outdone yourself,” announced Uncas. “I can make out the hint of cherries, but more tart. That creamy taste, though, what is it?”
Ralph leaned against his sales counter with a broad grin. “Well, you'd never guess—” He seemed to remember that Hooter was there. “Of course you understand I'll have to ask that you hold what you're about to hear in the strictest confidence.”
Hooter nodded, not caring what was in the concoction one way or the other.
“Well,” brightened Ralph. “the cherry taste is actually from a mash of chokecherries and bings. As for the creamy taste, would you believe it's some Baileys Irish Cream?”
“No!” cried Uncas. “It's wonderful, but how do you get that through the labeling and inspection stuff?”
“As you always say…” chuckled Ralph.
“What they don't know…” said the friends in unison.
“Anyway, about this pasture you're looking to get cleaned—” tried Hooter.
“Now it's your turn,” interrupted Ralph, indicating another sample on the tray.
“That's right tasty,” said Hooter, barely chewing it. “Now—”
Hooter felt like his lungs had been rabbit-punched from the inside out. The air went out of him and his throat was trying to tie itself into a knot. His eyes were bulging as he flailed his arms about, trying to get either Ralph of Uncas to slap him on the back, give him a glass of water, shoot him, anything to take the pain away.
“Isn't that something?” said Ralph as he casually offered Hooter a glass of water. “I call that one Nectar of Napalm. Want to know the secret?”
If Hooter could have talked, he would have reckoned how all he really wanted was to put some distance between him and Ralph. As it was he could only stick out his glass for more water.
“Habanero?” suggested Uncas excitedly.
“Oh no, those are too timid for what I had in mind with this,” gloated Ralph. “Tepin flakes, made into a lime paste, dusted with cayenne pepper.”
“Genius, pure genius,” said Uncas with genuine admiration.
After yet another glass of water, Hooter was finally able to squeak, “That's swell and all, but about that pasture.”
“But I haven't even told you about our most exciting new product,” said Ralph. “Are you ready? Kosher Pork.”
“Kosher what?” burbled Hooter.
“Beyond genius,” glowed Uncas.
“I believe it is the next frontier,” said Ralph smugly. Seeing Hooter's look of astonishment, he continued. “I know, it's so simple and so powerful, why hasn't anyone thought of it before?”
Of course, that's not what Hooter was thinking at all.
“Well, that's it, Uncas,” said Ralph with faux humility. “I've shown you all of our cards. Now, we'll just have to wait and see where the chips fall. As for that pasture you're so eager about, Mr. McCormick, we can drive out to have a look right now if you'd like.”
“I appreciate your time,” said Hooter, pushing Uncas toward the door. “But you know, all things considered, it could rain.”