THE WORLD ACCORDING HOOTER MCCORMICK -- BREAKING POINT

by: Wes Ishmael

There's no telling what spooks a steer, heifer, cow or bull, draped with a halter and drug from the pasture to the unnatural confines of a show barn and arena.

Sometimes you can make an educated guess after the dust has settled, like loud noises and fast action from equipment or people they've never seen. Other times, guessing is the closest thing to an explanation.

Consider the black pie-bald steer Bugsy showed at the Rio Rojo County Fair this summer. His name was Trigger, because Bugsy liked the name. It was her first 4-H steer, and represented a seismic philosophical shift for Hooter who thought showing cattle was a waste of hard-earned pounds. By nature, Trigger was the opposite of his name, more laid back than a dead armadillo.

Hooter bought the steer from his old judging teammate, Uncas Binglemeyer, who fancied himself a master crafter of genes and seedstock. Despite that, Hooter reckoned the calf could be competitive locally. The white face meant Uncas wasn't holding him back as a bull prospect, so the price was right, too.

“It breaks my heart to think of you castrating him,” Uncas had said. “That calf represents the fifth generation in my line of Binglemeyer Composites. He's a grandson of Sir Loin-A-Lot himself. You remember him?”

Sir Lean-a-lot was more like it, thought Hooter. The bull in question was the oddest collection of misaligned cattle parts he ever remembered. Binglemeyer's super sire was a home-brewed concoction of Angus, Hereford, Maine Anjou, Simmental, Watusi and Nellore. “And a secret ingredient,” Uncas would chortle to anyone who would listen to his breeding scheme. Hooter always suspected the secret ingredient was Peruvian Warthog.

To see this calf and think that bull had anything to do with him made Hooter appreciate the fact that genetic dice can fall exactly opposite of the intent.

After the purchase, Trigger spent his first few months with a package of calves Hooter had out on wheat. There was never a sniffle or cough. Best as Hooter could tell, Trigger was out-gaining his peers.

Hooter never told Bugsy about the purchase. When she decided she wanted to show a steer, Hooter simply carried her out to the pasture and told her to pick one. Whether it was pride, relief or a mixture of the two, Hooter grinned inside and out when Bugsy chose Trigger.

When it was time for Bugsy to manage the steer closer to home, Trigger plodded into his new grass trap like he'd been born there. He took to a halter with a single shake of his head.

That's one reason Hooter hadn't considered the prospects of Trigger going off. The other was Hooter's own inexperience with holding and moving cattle with a lead rope.

It's not like Hooter took the new experience for granted. He'd taken Bugsy and Trigger to the county's rickety fair grounds several times leading up to the show so they could get a feel for the place. Peetie Womack, whose own kids had been tough state competitors coached Bugsy in the basics of showmanship. When fair time came, Hooter took them to the grounds early so they could pick the stall they wanted.

Harbinger of Chaos

Admittedly, Hooter was enjoying the attention Trigger and Bugsy were receiving.

“Bugsy, judging from that steer, you've got an eye on you,” said Izzy Franklin, “And, you've got him looking 12 O'clock.”

Shooting a stream of Mail Pouch into the wood shavings as he cast a critical eye, Lonnie Johnson told her, “In spite of Hooter here, you've got the best steer in the barn.”

Even Bob Houston from Apache Feeders had stopped to tell Bugsy that Trigger was the best steer he'd seen at Rio Rojo County Fair in some years.

Of course, Claire—Bugsy's Mom—and Aunt Pinky were beside themselves with how well Bugsy was handling her project.

Possibly no one was more elated than Uncas Binglemeyer.

“I don't care if you do say no,” Uncas had informed Hooter a week before the show. “As the breeder of that steer, I feel it's my responsibility to come and support Bugsy.”

“Really, Uncas, we'll call you just as soon as…”

“No sir, I'm coming and that's the end of it. Lord knows with you at the helm that young lady will need any professional help she can get.”

“But…”

Click.

Hooter knew better than to try to head Uncas off at the pass. Uncas making up his mind was like unleashing a flash flood; the best you could hope for was managing the damage.

In this case, Hooter let the fair board know that an unbiased, third-party visitor would be on hand who would make an excellent taste tester for the edible projects if they'd only ask. He knew they would. He also knew there was no way that Uncas would say no after his ego had been stroked. Hooter also knew that Aunt Pinky got a bang out of Uncas and visa versa. As part of the Board, she'd keep him busy.

Hooter was thinking about all that as he led Trigger to tie-outs. Bugsy had her interview for leather craft, and Hooter wanted to keep the steer on schedule. He was about halfway there when it dawned on him this was the first time he'd led the steer when Bugsy wasn't there. It could be that it dawned on Trigger at the same time.     

When Letting Go is Holding On

In one fluid instant, Trigger bawled like someone had put a hot iron to him, planted his feet and jerked his head hard high and to the right. Hooter felt and heard the rope sizzle through his hands up to the knot at the end; later on Hooter would swear he smelled the burning flesh.

In the next instant, Trigger had rolled back over his hocks and was running hard back toward the barn. For some reason and by some act of Divine providence, Hooter remained attached to the end of the lead rope, running to keep up with Trigger at first, then being dragged a few steps later.

Trigger headed toward his stall but then veered left down the alley in front of it, fishtailing Hooter into support poles and careening him off the scale chute. By the time they got to the gravel separating the barn from the exhibit building, Hooter had a vague notion that he'd run into or under at least three different people. He heard shouts, screams and obscenities, but from far away like another age in time.

The gravel was sharp-edged caliches, but at least it was deep, thought Hooter. The town brought in a new load for the fair every year.

Looking in between Trigger's flying hooves for just an instant, Hooter could see they were headed straight for Nelda Isselfrick who was carrying some fancy multi-layer cake. Hooter would always remember there was a blue ribbon taped to the cellophane around that cake, just fluttering so peacefully in the late afternoon breeze.

When Hooter struggled to look back he couldn't see Nelda, but he saw her cake smashed into the gravel and a crowd of people gathering behind him and Trigger, whether to help them or lynch them was anybody's guess.

“Not the sand burrs, not the sand burrs…” thought Hooter.

Yep.

Trigger charged out to the grass parking lot, which had more sand burrs and soap weed than blue stem. More screams. Hooter looked back to see two empty halters swinging from a trailer where there had been horses a moment before.

Then, everything stopped. In the daze that comes with shock and pain, Hooter was trying to make sense of that as he noted that Trigger was running past him going the other direction.

When Trigger jerked the slack in the lead rope, it spun Hooter up in the air high enough to land on the left corner of somebody's pick-up hood. Hooter was vaguely aware of seeing the toes of his boots knife through the bug screen. But still, he held on.

They were back on the gravel, but faster this time, right through what was left of Nelda's cake, into one side of the barn and out the other, past the tie rack and toward the flag pole.

Then everything stopped again. Hooter saw Trigger running by in the opposite direction and he braced himself for the slingshot. Nothing. Trigger ran by the opposite direction, but closer this time. Hooter braced. Nothing. This went on until Hooter felt hot breath on his neck and heard snorting. He rolled over onto his belly and was staring directly into Trigger's eyes.

It turned out, completely on his own, the steer had dallied the lead rope around the flag pole.

Hooter kept holding on to the lead rope. He heard voices behind him. When he rolled over on his back he thought he could make out the faces of Bugsy and Uncas, both screaming, “What have you done to my steer, what have you done to my steer.”

Someone was prying his fingers from the lead rope. It was Peetie.

“Why didn't you just let him go?” said Peetie in disgust. “Someone could have gotten killed.”

“I didn't want to hurt Trigger,” said Hooter.







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