by: Wes Ishmael

No one in Apache Flats needed a T.V., computer or radio to know when college basketball's March Madness was at hand. All they had to do was look at pockets.

Every member of the Apache Cattlemen's Association (ACA) would have a tattered copy of Monday's Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. It might be blooming forth from a shirt pocket or peering out from the back of Levis or Wranglers, but it was there, like clockwork every year after selection Sunday.

Except for Delmar Jacobs, you could also see it in the faces and actions of ACA members making their rounds in and out of town: the forgotten stubble of a sleepless night, the furtive whispers of strategy and ink-stained fingers of possibility.

This was more than an annual basketball pool—winner take all—it was the basis for one of the organization's primary fundraisers. Participating ACA members filled out their tournament brackets on Monday night at Jackson's War Wagon Saloon. Brackets had to be notarized by Maude Higgins and then deposited in the official bracket box.

Maude had worked in area banks for four decades. She maintained her notary license for this one occasion. Maude would knit quietly at the back of room, also serving as a contest monitor.

No talking was allowed, no exceptions. Izzy Franklin found that out a few years back when he wondered out loud where Old Dominion was located. Maude rapped his knuckles with her knitting needles, ripped his bracket from under his nose and pointed to the door. Then she leveled an icy gaze at anyone else who dared to look up.

Jackson—the saloon proprietor and part-time CPA—served as the official contest auditor and scorekeeper. He'd make copies of the official brackets, which would be auctioned off the next evening during the annual ACA Calf Fry and Round-ball Calcutta. They even brought in Phinneas “Slick” Watson every year. Depending on your particular leanings, Slick was one of the most famous or notorious auctioneers in the country.

The Calcutta paid five places. Side bets were encouraged.

The ACA member submitting the winning bracket received a host of prizes donated by local businesses. That's how Hooter acquired a second-hand power washer a decade ago.

The annual pool had come to shape the organization's personality over the years—the creativity and willingness to take a chance; the belief that ingenuity and homework could alter odds; the focus on the bigger picture and cooperation.

Consequently, for participating ACA members, the contest was about lots more than personal prizes or even raising money for their organization.

There was the unsubstantiated, unsaid notion that whoever ran the 64-team gauntlet most successfully, amassing the most points by selecting most accurately, was the one who most embodied the ethos of the organization.

That's why Delmar Jacobs was so infuriating.

Delmar didn't care a whit about the tournament, didn't understand basketball or know anything about any of the college teams. As such, he'd won the pool for five years straight by simply flipping a coin. To be fair, there wasn't much simple about the process. Depending on how deep into the shine he was, or the strength of the particular batch, flipping the coin and catching it became more a game of chance than which way it landed. Then, Delmar would forget which team was supposed to be heads or tails and have to start the whole process again.

By rule, no one could help Delmar with the coin flipping. By rule, no one could leave Jackson's War Wagon Saloon until all the brackets were completed, notarized and deposited in the official box…unless you got yourself disqualified in the meantime.

So, those participating looked forward to the event a whole lot like someone awaiting a tooth pulling—excited by the prospects but dreading the process.

Picking Poison

As was the pre-selection custom, most of those participating gathered at Lonnie Johnson's feed store before walking across the street to Jackson's.

“We might think about having a fall Calcutta, too,” Charlie said to no one in particular. “We could do it based on the presidential election, not the electoral votes but the popular vote by party.”

“Ain't nobody to vote for,” growled Hooter.

“Now you know that's not true Peetie said. “There's going to be a Republican candidate, a Democratic candidate, the prospects of a new third party and its candidate, along with all of other usual suspects, including the candidate of the Prohibition Part, at least in some states.”

“Prohibition was a while back,” Izzy said.

“But, they still have a party,” Peetie said.



Hooter interjected. “What I'm saying is that if all the judge has to pick from are fat, bad-footed steers, the champion is going to end up being bad-footed and fat.”

“So, you're equating the presidential election to a steer show?” asked Lonnie. He'd pulled a pristine copy of the newspaper from inside his bibs to have one last look at the brackets.

“That's exactly what I'm saying,” said Hooter. “When all you've got to choose from is counterfeits, that's what you end up with.”

“You may have a point Cuz,” said Charlie. “Lord, I never thought I'd think this, much less say it, but there's reason to hope Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination.”

“Exactly my point,” Hooter said. “When you have to dig that deep to find the least of the worst on one side, you got problems. And, when you'd even entertain such a thought because one way or the other the Republicans seem bent on splitting the vote in their party, you've got even bigger problems. Never seen so much mud slinging in my life.”

There was silence for a while.

Delmar shifted in his chair. “Has any…anybody seen one of those brack…brack….braaaaaack …one of those lists of teams,” he slurred.

Izzy rolled his eyes and tossed his copy to Delmar, who looked at it for a second before beginning to snore.

“Well, history says we've had presidential elections with lots more nonsense than this one,” said Peetie.

“Name one.”

“The election of 1828 between incumbent John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson,” Peetie said. “It was the election before, also pitting those same two men against one another, when party partisanship really got started as we know it today. In 1828, each party attacked the character of the other's candidate. Adams supporters brought up all kinds of thinks about Jackson, everything from killing a man in a duel, to ordering the execution of deserters, to marrying someone while she was still married to someone else.

“Jackson's supporters pointed out that Adams was a lifetime politician and accused him of everything from being a high-class pimp to misappropriating government funds,” Peetie continued. “And they still had a bone to pick over the previous election when the winner was decided by the House of Representatives.”

More silence.

Delmar raised his hand and the newspaper and asked, “When did three teams start playing each game?”

Izzy snatched the paper from him.

“It ain't the candidates you have to worry about, boys, it's the folks voting for them,” Peetie said.

Lonnie headed to the door, calling over his shoulder, “Might as well get on it with it, no telling how long it's going to take.”

All eyes turned to Delmar.

He lifted a heavy cotton bag. “Don't worry, I got a ho…ho…hooooo…lot of pennies.”

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