by: Wes Ishmael

Pending Spring often brings out the best in stock and people. Hooter's Aunt Pinky and her lifelong rival, Nelda Isselfrick, were not among them.

Across the seasons, and going on 70 years, the feud between the ladies simmered between legendary dust-ups. But there was something about the first blush of green grass and new life that always seemed to add fuel to the proverbial fire.

“My Mama always said it was because of prom and the way they used to fight over the same dates,” said Lonnie.

“I think it goes back way before that,” explained Peetie, who had been a couple of years behind them in school. “I don't know exactly what it was, but ever since I remember them in 4-H, they were always out to get the other one.”

“Mom just says it stems from Nelda trying to boss her around when they were kids,” Charlie explained.

“Which is whole lot like a banker complaining about interest,” Hooter added with a chuckle.

Lonnie spat a stream of Mail Pouch. “All I know is that it's fixing to get serious again. First, Pinky comes in two days ago, wondering whether or not cement dissolves in gasoline, and do I have some; I wouldn't sell her any. The next day, Nelda wanders in wondering how much rat poison do I reckon it would take to kill a big bird. I asked her, ‘You mean a bird about the size of Pinky's parrot?' She banged that cane of hers on the floor and stomped out. I bet there's a dimple there if you look.”

The Binds that Tie

Best as anyone could figure, the latest chapter began when Doc Bulger, the best and only veterinarian for miles around, started to court Aunt Pinky again after a decades-long hiatus. Truth be told, Doc wasn't Pinky's pick of the litter. But, she encouraged his attention because she knew it drove Nelda nuts.

That was back in the Fall, just before Aunt Pinky's pumpkin patch endured what must have been an isolated hail storm. In turn, that was just before Nelda grabbed her cane one day to find that it had shrunk by about six inches.

“I swear, she looks more hunched over every time I see her,” Pinky had told Hooter after watching Nelda hobbling down the street, bent almost in two in order to use the shortened implement until a new one arrived.

And that was just before Aunt Pinky discovered two flat tires on her Lincoln one night as she tried to leave the church parking lot.

“You'd think she'd take better care of her things,” Nelda had told Hooter when he returned the purse-sized tool kit to her a couple of days later after finding it in the same parking lot. “I'll bet it slipped out when we were getting that float ready for the Christmas parade,” she said seriously.

It was a week after that, when Nelda was forced to bed rest for a few days in the wake of the catastrophe that was the Christmas pageant. As the self-appointed director of the annual event, Nelda was always a wreck by the time the Wise Men showed up to gaze at the Messiah. She never made it that far this time around. The angel had barely appeared to the shepherds when the crowd heard Nelda shrieking off stage, “Where is Baby Jesus! Someone took Baby Jesus!” A doll wrapped in swaddling clothes was supposed to be the stand-in for the youngest son of Hector Rodriguez, who had come down with strep throat.

About a week later, Hooter was rifling through his aunt's attic, looking for some replacement Christmas lights, when he spied what looked an awful lot like the missing prop, right down to some straw still dangling from the blanket.

“You don't mean to say you honestly think that's what's-her-name's precious doll,” Aunt Pinky said when Hooter showed it to her. “You can find that very one at every Wal-Mart between here and Fort Worth. She never was very original.”

Consequently, no one was much surprised when calamity reigned at the annual Apache Flats bake-off the middle of February. At least Hooter and the boys knew it should have reigned.

Aunt Pinky and Nelda, one or the other, always won the contest. It was no different this year, with Nelda's Chokecherry tarts claiming the top spot. What was unusual was that Aunt Pinky's Double-chocolate Fudge Delight was disqualified.

“I'm guessing there was some mistake you couldn't account for,” Peetie told her; he was one of the judges. “But, take a bite. There's just too much grit to it.”

In fact, the texture would have scared the stoutest set of false chompers. Unless Hooter missed his guess, Nelda had spiked Pinky's sugar jar with sand.

What made Hooter's blood run cold was that Pinky merely replied, “There's no telling what could have happened. Can't win them all.”

Even when Hooter pressed her, just short of suggesting that Nelda sabotaged the dessert, Aunt Pinky just smiled with surreal calm.

The Ring to Revenge

That was almost a month ago, and here was Hooter accompanying Aunt Pinky to the annual charity Hand-bell Cantata, directed by none other than Nelda Isselfrick.

Hooter was surprised when his aunt asked him to take her. He knew Charlie couldn't break away; he was just surprised she wanted to go at all, since Nelda was also one of the ringers.

“It's for a good cause. Don't be such a stick in the mud,” Pinky said.

So, here they were, on the front row, which Hooter also thought was a bit odd. And there was Nelda and her fellow bell ringers decked out in their Sunday finest, instrument glistening in gloved hands.

Now, Hooter didn't know anything about music, other than listening to it. In other words, he didn't know how to read notes or play instruments. But he knew when something didn't sound right.

As the Cantata began, Hooter knew something sounded different than it ought to. It wasn't that the notes were wrong, it was that there seemed to be something missing, too much space between notes from time to time. Judging by the murmur among the crowd, others were thinking the same thing.

They soon discovered the problem, helped along in no small part by Nelda Isselfrick frantically flicking the bells in her hand, turning the bells over to peer inside, and then frantically flicking them again.

Finally, red-faced, she announced, “Someone has stolen my clappers!” Not knowing what else to do, folks cheered as she stalked from the stage.

Pinky leaned into Hooter with a satisfied smile: “Just between us, that old hag never could carry a tune even with hay hooks and a fork lift.”

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