“So much for spreading joy,” thought Hooter when he spotted 1-year-old Alvin Rodriguez, who was gleefully crawling through the fence to get a closer look at the camel that had incited the riot that was supposed to be a historic Christmas celebration in Apache Flats.
As Hooter's short legs carried him as fast as they were capable toward the little boy, his mind was moving so fast that his jumbled thoughts appeared as if in slow motion.
“No Alvin, go back, easy does it…Maybe if I grab that two-humped flea bag around the head. Nah, poke him in both eyes maybe…Bugsy, oh no, where's Bugsy…When I get my hands on that counterfeit camel trainer, I'll skin him alive… Hold on, Alvin, I'm coming, I'm coming…Where's Bugsy at…Lord, that animal stinks…Almost there Alvin, that's it, stop and play in the dirt a while…You wouldn't have this problem with pigs…Alvin…Alvin…”
A Simple Plan for Disaster
The notion was certainly noble. The congregations of the Rio Rojo County Methodist Church and Apache Flats First Baptist agreed to work together to present the community's first living nativity.
The strategy seemed logical, too. Put the matriarchs of each church in charge of the event as co-chair-people. Recognizing that this meant forcing lifelong rivals—Nelda Isselfrick (Baptist) and Hooter's Aunt Pinky (Methodist)—to endure one another in the name of Christian love, the congregations appointed Hooter as administrative assistant (referee) because he was the only one who could so thoroughly frustrate both ladies that they would cooperate in the name of self-defense.
Neither Aunt Pinky nor Nelda relished the idea, but declining would be not only in bad taste, it would give the other ammunition in their perpetual war of insults. While Hooter was no stranger to playing go-between in the ongoing battle, he was less than keen on his civic assignment.
“It could be worse,” said Lonnie Johnson hoisting a sack of feed into Hooter's pickup. “I'm not sure how it could be worse, exactly, but I reckon it could be, so you've got that going for you.”
Hooter wasn't so sure. He'd chosen the War Wagon Saloon and Billiards Emporium as neutral ground for the first meeting because it was the only place in Apache Flats you could buy a cup of coffee, and it was the only place both ladies would have refused to enter under any other circumstances.
“Give them a mutual enemy right from the get-go,” was Hooter's plan. But the sparring began immediately.
“Even without your snow machine this year, I see you've managed to cause quite a stir with your display,” tried Aunt Pinky.
“I'm glad you like it,” simpered Nelda, knowing fully well that Pinky didn't mean a word of it. “It's amazing what decorations they have these days.”
“Isn't that the truth? Who would have ever thought of 12-foot tall inflatable snow globes with Tigger and Snoopy inside them,” chided Aunt Pinky. “That certainly gets at the heart of Christmas, doesn't it?”
“Surely as much as fuzzy gingerbread men that light up and squawk Christmas carols,” responded Nelda with more than a little ice, referring to Aunt Pinky's newest yard decorations. “And just what is that?”
Nelda was looking at the tiny black kitten that had picked this moment to emerge from within Hooter's down vest. The kitten was blacker than a cave at midnight with piercing green eyes. “I call him Spot,” grinned Hooter, knowing that Nelda disapproved of pets in general, especially any that ventured indoors.
Truth be told, Hooter would never go looking for a cat to own. Bugsy had presented him with Spot as an early Christmas present, though, red bow and all. Even with the ribbing he took from his pals, Hooter had to admit he was getting attached to the scrawny orphan.
Once they finally decided to get down to business Hooter was surprised at how much ground Apache Flats' grand-matrons could cover. Quick as a wink, Hooter and the rest of the county cattlemen's association were appointed to procure and manage the stock for the display.
“Now make sure we have some sheep, at least one donkey and at least one cow,” demanded Nelda.
“And a couple of pigs,” grinned Hooter.
“There were no pigs there,” gasped Nelda. “Of course there won't be pigs. Oh my goodness, no. Now, Hooter, if you aren't up to the task, we'll have to find someone else.”
If they'd been alone, Hooter knew his porcine suggestion would have generated a similar response from Aunt Pinky. As it was, she leaned across the table toward Nelda, “Hooter is certainly up to the task. Maybe it's you we should wonder about. After all, how do you know there weren't any pigs there?”
“Well, there just weren't. Everyone knows that. I'd think even you would know that if you'd been reading your Bible,” huffed Nelda.
“I don't know what Bible you and your people study, but if you can find an inventory of livestock in any of the Gospels, I'll hand over that taffy recipe you've always coveted and I'll let you put those snow globe freaks on my front lawn,” seethed Aunt Pinky.
“Just what do you mean by ‘you people,'” shrieked Nelda, wrapping her hand around the stem of her cane in an overhand grip. “Everyone knows you Methodists are just Baptists who couldn't cut the mustard. If there's anyone who should…”
“Ladies, ladies,” interjected Hooter. “I believe what Aunt Pinky was saying is that there's no record in the Bible of just what stock were present. And, Aunt Pinky, I believe what miss Nelda was attempting to explain is that while no such record exists, Christian tradition about the nativity scene commonly includes sheep, donkeys and cattle.”
Both ladies glared at one another. Hooter continued, “As for your denominational inferences, I'm no scholar, but I believe the only place I've even seen the term religion referenced in the Bible is in the book of James. And I can't recollect ever seeing Baptists or Methodists mentioned as such.”
Finally, dates were set, coordinators for refreshments and advertising were chosen. Without even asking him, the two octogenarians also chose Peetie Womack's pasture bordering the frontage road south of town as the site.
“And don't forget the camel,” said both ladies as they got up to leave. “We want this to be the real thing, you know.”
Hooter grinned. Spot hissed.
A Camelid By Any Other Name
Hooter wouldn't have even tried to locate a camel for anyone else. However, the prospects of having both Nelda and Aunt Pinky on the warpath for him provided extra incentive. Not to mention their incessant harping on the subject over the next several weeks.
Hooter asked around to folks he knew. After they'd get done laughing they'd tell him the obvious: “Don't know of anyone who owns a camel or anyone who would.”
“Didn't they try using some of them to control brush, either here or in New Mexico?” wondered Hooter when he called a state extension agent.
“Yep, all experiments. I don't know of anyone who has any for rent, though. Good luck.”
Hooter did uncover a treasure trove of trivia as he searched. For instance, he never knew that the U.S. government ponied up $30,000 to buy camels for the U.S. Army Camel Corps in 1855. The idea was that they could be used as pack animals in the arid Southwest. Hooter also didn't know that a two-humped camel is known as a Bactrian and a single-humper is called a Dromedary. He didn't much care that he hadn't known, either. What he did know was that he was running out of time.
The friend of a friend of a friend, etc. eventually called to say there was a man by the name of Lefty Bumbleton who had a camel that he made available for educational exhibits. Icing on the cake was that Lefty and his camel were within 300 miles. A deal was struck. “We'll be there by 5 the day of,” said Lefty brightly before hanging up.
The Beginning of the End
Problem was, the crowd started to gather at 2 p.m. for the six o'clock show. There hadn't been a pageant of this magnitude attempted in Rio Rojo County since the unfortunate 1982 production of Peter Pan, which had been directed by Mildred Mugwamp, the high school's aged drill team instructor. Folks still talked about how the flying contraption malfunctioned, catapulting the Peter Pan mannequin into the fifth row, knocking out Margaret Atbomb's false teeth.
Fortunately, Hooter had told Lefty to pull into the pasture through Peetie Womack's pens, far from the crowd's view. Having no previous experience with camels, Hooter wasn't taking any chances. If there was going to be a problem, he wanted it to happen inside a pipe fence and far from the manger scene. He figured he could make some excuse for the camel showing up late. Maybe, Hooter reckoned, he could throw on a sheet for a turban and lead the camel into sight like a tardy Wise Man.
When Lefty rolled in, Hooter's heart sank. The camel had his head hanging out of the open-topped trailer. His eyes were closed, and for all the world, it sounded like the mangy camelid was snoring.
“Don't mind ol' Thirsty,” announced Lefty, sticking out his hand in greeting. “He's developed a taste for the brandy, which seems to keep him calmer for travel. I call it camel candy.”
“Calmer?” wondered Hooter. “I thought you told me he didn't have a disposition problem.”
“And he doesn't, as you can plainly see,” replied Lefty with a wave of the hand. “Now, let's get him unloaded.”
“Is that how he's supposed to look?” Hooter asked, as the camel stumbled down the ramp.
“Of course, that's how he's supposed to look. He's a top specimen,” replied Lefty with some irritation. “Oh, you mean his hair. You've just caught him in the midst of a shed.”
The beast looked like he'd been on the wrong side of a blind barber. Big splotches of hair were missing here and there, while bushes of extra long hair were sprinkled haphazardly across Thirsty's hide. The rest of his coat looked dirty and course.
As he watched Thirsty contentedly rubbing his backside on Peetie's chute, Hooter wondered, “No disrespect, but when's the last time that critter had a good worming?”
“A good what?”
“He seems calm enough,” said Hooter flatly. Let's lead him across that hill over there. That's where we're set up. You can either hold him or tie him to the snub post, whatever you think best.”
Lefty looked more indignant than a politician accused of cronyism. “My dear sir, this fine animal is fully trained. Tell me where you want him stationed, and I'll put him there. And, there he will stay until I give the word. We have no need for such artificial contrivances as chains and shackles.”
Never Trust A New Camel
In retrospect, Hooter had to admit that the crowd seemed duly impressed when he and Lefty topped the hill with Thirsty in tow. For an instant Hooter even believed it was going to work. Then the livestock grazing contentedly around the manger caught wind of Thirsty.
The donkey started to bray like a mountain cat was on his tail. The three sheep ran into each other trying to find higher ground, only to be flipped over backwards when they hit the end of lead ropes that were staked to the ground. And the cow—one of Peetie's finest he said—took one look at the approaching beast, tore apart the makeshift wooden pen she was standing in and hightailed it after the two horses that were already beating a retreat.
Something about the commotion seemed to intrigue the sleepy-eyed camel who began a sort of loping stagger toward the crowd, which was scattering away from the fence like ball bearings dropped on a cement floor. Turn's out, Thirsty smelled the water in the refreshment tank and he aimed to get him a long swallow.
That's when Hooter saw Alvin Rodriquez, the little tyke dressed up to play the baby Jesus, crawling through the fence. Hooter could see Alvin's mama, Maria, trying to fight through the crowd to get to her son.
In actuality, Alvin was a long ways from the camel's path, and even further from catching up to him, but as his mama scooped up the giggling child, it all seemed too close for comfort.
Hooter grabbed a piece of splintered board from the wrecked pen and headed straight for Thirsty who had all but drained the refreshment tank. The camel took one look at Hooter and spit water and camel goo down his front.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” said Hooter, raising the board in his hand. But Spot suddenly leapt from inside Hooter's vest like a hissing missile and sunk his tiny claws into the camel's muzzle. Thirsty's eyes rolled back in his head as he fairly well shrieked, fell back on his haunches, flung his head from side to side and took off like a shot…for a ways.
Peetie Womack's cow had returned and she was madder than a caged badger. She stopped, bellowed, pawed the ground twice and charged at Thirsty. The camel slid to a stop, spit again, then took off in a new direction, straight toward a wheezing Lefty Bumbleton, who had yet to catch up with the commotion.
“…and a little child shall lead them…”
Nelda emerged from the dust, sticking her cane in Hooter's chest. “I knew we couldn't count on you. Someone could have been killed for Heaven's sake. What were you thinking? A camel! You've ruined everything.”
Just like that, Aunt Pinky had Nelda's cane in her hand. “Shut up, Nelda. If you'll remember, it was you and I who instructed Hooter to get that worm trap in the first place.”
“And, rather than being ruined, I'd say everything is just right,” came a calm voice from the crowd. It was Alvin's mama. She was holding Alvin and stroking his head. Her other boy, Hector, had an arm wrapped around her leg.
“When everyone saw Alvin on the other side of the fence, everyone's heart sank. You could feel it,” she continued. “Many of you tried to get to him once you knew what was happening. You wanted to save him, and no one wanted to protect him more than I did.”
There were nods and mumbles, no one quite sure what she was driving at.
“Well, isn't that the Christmas story? Isn't that what we were here to present tonight? Imagine how much more Jesus wants to save us. Imagine how much more God wants to save us by sending us His Son.”
“Amen!” came some voices from the crowd.
“Now if you'll excuse me,” said Hooter, “There's a man in the distance in sore need of a pistol whipping.”