“You reckon this is where they want it?” asked Izzy Franklin of no one in particular, as he prepared to tack a white bed sheet to the South wall of the War Wagon Saloon.
Hooter looked up from arranging the refreshment table, which included some of Jackson's—the War Wagon proprietor—legendary jalapeno corn fritters. “That'll be swell, Izzy. They just said they needed somewhere to shine some pictures. It ain't the ritz, but it'll do.”
Lonnie Johnson was setting up chairs for the meeting and grousing. “I still don't see why you went and invited them, Hooter. We've got enough business to take care of without bringing in a bunch of outsiders.”
“Lonnie, your hermit tendencies are showing,” chimed in Peetie Womac. “They asked for a spot on the program. Besides, I'll betcha' a sack of your sweet feed that it's a might more interesting presentation than that fellow last year who told us about the impending signs of a lightening strike.” Snickers all around.
Hooter bristled slightly. “Anytime any of you mange rats want to replace me as chairman of the education committee, you're welcome to the job.” Then a grin spread over his face, eyes twinkling like a possum's beneath the full moon, and he added, “Besides, it never hurts to listen to what folks have to say, even if they're wrong.”
The subject of discussion was representatives from the R-LAFF organization who had called Hooter to ask if they couldn't have a little time to describe what they perceived to be the ills of the cattle industry, namely free trade, what they referred to as the dastardly cattle tax known as the check-off, and basically any other national cattlemen's organization other than their own.
“Hey?” shouted Denny Bratton from across the room, “What's R-LAFF stand for anyway?”
“You know, I asked them that and it seemed like it took them a while to remember. Supposed to be something like the Ranchers Legal Assistance Fund and Foundation,” said Hooter.
“Whoa—Lookooooout!” hollered Izzy as he tumbled off the milk crates he was standing on, carrying the makeshift picture screen with him. Muffled cursing leaked out of the tangled heap; it looked like someone was wrestling with a ghost and losing badly.
“Quit your messin',” said Peetie crossly. “That's one of the wife's best sheets.”
“Lord, Izzy, you're about as handy as the plague,” snickered Denny as he and Claude Burkhart helped Izzy free himself of the cotton assassin.
“Ya'all be quick about it,” said Hooter. I think I hear them pulling up.”
The Problem With Facts
Out of the rented Lincoln rolled Milo Talltale, who the boys would discover was none other than the founder and president of R-LAFF. The other side of the car seemed to more or less eject Jennifer Potburn, R-LAFF staffer into the Apache Flats twilight.
Introductions were made, small talk exchanged, fritters and sweet tea passed out, then the Rio Rojo Cattlemen—about 14 of them—took their seats while Jackson glared over the top of his bar, arms crossed, daring anyone to cause trouble.
“Thank you so much for having us,” squeaked Jennifer Potburn. “I'm sure you'll be amazed and glad that you've given yourselves the opportunity to hear about some of the industry facts that never quite seem to make it into popular press. And, we're so very fortunate to have with us this evening, R-LAFF's own founder and president, Milo Tall-Tale.” She said this with a flourish of her hand aimed at the rotund, pasty-faced gentlemen beside her who had all but devoured the chair with half of his ample seat. After an awkward moment of silence, expecting some applause, she sat down and busied herself with a laptop computer while Milo struggled out of the chair.
“Thank-you, Jennifer,” wheezed Milo, hooking his thumbs in his suspenders, trying in vain to cross his hands across the ponderous belly. “And, thank you gentlemen for having us…not everyone will.” He said the last with a humble smile and waited for the response that never came to what was supposed to have been a joke.
Milo Talltale cleared his throat and looked around the room. “I'm here tonight to share with you some of the startling facts we've come across since starting this organization, facts that threaten each of our livelihoods in this great cattle business of ours. In fact, I don't think I'd be stepping beyond the lines of decorum to say crimes is what we have uncovered, dastardly skullduggery and fraud committed by our own government agencies and by the very national organization supposedly representing cattlemen in this country.”
“You know,” interjected Leon Jones, “I'd be all for putting the kibosh on whatever idgits it was that made creosote illegal. Life ain't been the same since.”
“You're just upset because you still can't clean up that homemade concoction of yours that's eating the floor out of your shop,” said Denny.
Amid the chuckles, Hooter stood up. “Now boys, Mr. Talltale has the floor. Let's hear what he has to say. Mr. Talltale…”
“Thank you. As I was saying, our industry and all of us who are a part of it are under attack by our own government whose own foreign trade policies allow truckloads of cattle to roll freely up out of Mexico and down from Canada, flooding our markets with millions and millions of head of cattle, inferior ones besides, that are produced at sub-dollar prices then sold to us on the dollar. Why just last week—I'm from Montana, you know—on Interstate 15 out of Alberta, it was bumper to bumper with cattle trucks filled to the brim.”
As he finished his emotional plea, Talltale smashed an open hand down upon the table, which was serving as a lectern, splashing a wave of sweet tea out of his glass and onto the keyboard of the laptop computer Jennifer Potburn was madly pecking at. All at the same time, Potburn shrieked, there was a puff of smoke, then a sickening fizzling sound. Potburn looked as though she'd skipped right over the impending signs to the lightening strike itself.
Hooter and the boys hurried to her aid. She was speechless and dazed, her makeup singed and her pageboy haircut standing at attention, but otherwise seemed unharmed.
“So,” continued Talltale, once the dust had cleared and his assistant was hibernating in the back corner. “Millions of cattle from other countries that we're supposed to compete with…Yes?”
Claude Burkhart had raised his hand. “Excuse me, sir. Did you say millions of cattle?”
“Yes I did,” said Talltale, peering over the top of some half-moon spectacles, pleased to know someone was actually paying attention. “Millions, destroying the market. I tell you boys, if we don't…”
“Pardon the interruption,” said Burkhart, “But that can't be right. The numbers I mean. I was looking at some reports the other day. Last year we imported about 235 metric tons of beef from Canada and about 3 metric tons from Mexico, that's live, froze, everything. I don't see how that could be millions of cattle unless they're itty-bitty, about the size of a Skoal can.”
A couple of snickers.
“Well, millions, thousands, I know it's a lot,” said Talltale gruffly. “The point is these numbers are ruining our market, adding supplies to already record levels of domestic beef production and capsizing the prices.”
“But what about exports?” wondered Peetie Womac. “I thought beef was about the only product that we export more of than import.”
Claude stood up. “It's huge, Peetie. All told we brought in about 770 metric tons last year and sold about 760, and that's in a down market. All things considered, it added to the price of every head of fat cattle I sold.”
Talltale was smiling the satisfied grin of the falsely accused who has at last been vindicated. “Ahhh, exports. Thank you so much for bringing that up,” he rattled. “One of the great lies that our government and your national cattle organization continue to spout. If we sell tons of our product to people who can't pay as much for it, dollar for dollar as our consumers do here, consumers by the way who have supposedly proven they will buy more of the product because of the beef we're importing, if that's the case, then how can exports be making us money rather than costing us money…I ask you.”
“Well, because of demand for different parts of the animal,” said Claude, still standing.
“I beg your pardon?” said Talltale crossly.
“Look, Mr…whatever your name is, I was never the sharpest dart on the board, but have you ever really studied what it is we import and export?”
“Of course I have.”
“Well, then, you know there's lots more demand in other countries for some of the lower value products like variety meats than there is here. And, you'd also know from an import standpoint, if it wasn't for the lean trimmings we bring in, we couldn't sell near the hamburger we do, and about half of all the beef is ground.”
“No kiddin',” said Izzy. “That makes sense. And here we thought all you used that Internet hookup for was to look up sports scores.”
Talltale cleared his throat. “Young man, I appreciate your sincerity, but I think if you'll go back and study those figures they don't paint the rosy picture you portray.”
“I've got it all in a file I keep at home. I'll go get it if you want me to,” said Claude.
“That won't be necessary,” said Talltale. “Perhaps we should move on to another subject that's wreaking havoc on our market. I'm sure you've all heard of captive supplies…”
To be continued.