You can always tell when the days are getting shorter around Apache Flats. The informal, irregular meetings of the Rio Rojo Cattlemen's Association at Jackson's War Wagon Saloon and Billiards Emporium become more frequent, begin earlier and last longer. The topic of conversation has been known to veer a might, too.
“Anybody hear that Lubbock weather man talking about an Arctic Express? Said it might even make it this far,” mumbled Izzie Franklin as he eviscerated another peanut and placed the shell neatly in the growing stack in front of him.
“I don't know about any Arctic Express,” said Lonnie Johnson. “All I know is if these are still the dog days of summer, they're fairly well howling. Lord, it's been hot.”
“You don't know hot,” growled Fuzzy Johnson at his cousin. “You kicked back in that feed store. I was fixing windmills today, and I swear those new cotter pins were limp.”
“I think the weatherman may be right,” said Whizzer Burkhart. “I've put together a little program that accounts for historic high-pressure patterns, cross-references them by year and season, then adjusts for relative humidity. According to it, we may be in for a record change.” Whizzer wasn't really part of the group, but being Claude Burkhart's nephew, he was an honorary member of sorts. Whizzer also happened to be a computer geek extraordinaire—thus the name—who had helped the boys give some animal activists a taste of their own medicine in the past.
“Whizzer, ain't nobody in this group going to question your way around an electronic typewriter, but it's clear as a bell,” said Hooter.
“Besides that, the bees were buzzing around like their wings were on fire when I was out today,” said Fuzzy. “Everybody knows they don't do that before a storm.”
Peetie Womack had returned with another glass of sweet tea. “Plus, that band of mares by my house? They were lazing around when I left, not a care in the world. Still smooth-coated I might add. Not only isn't that Arctic Express on its way, that tells me we're in for a mild winter.”
“Hate to go against you nephew, but I'd have to agree,” said Claude. “The corn husks have been thinner than a spider's eyelash, same for the onions. It should be a mild one.”
Delmar Jacobs raised his hand. “I'll sec-sec-second that. Wool—wool—wooly pillars say mild.”
“We don't have any wooly bear caterpillars around here if that's what you're referring to,” said Fuzzy.
Delmar smiled knowingly, “I got a frien—frien—pal in Kansas.”
“What's that got to do with a frost here,” demanded Fuzzy. Delmar just took another drink.
Cousin Charlie made a show of flipping a coin. “No offense Whizzer, or any of the rest of you, but anybody's got as much chance of being right about the weather as this,” he said, slapping the coin down on the back of his hand. “I will say this, though, if you go in for those old wivey tales. When I was in Lubbock yesterday, the squirrels were thicker than wallflowers at a punch bowl, and their tails were bushier than Hooter's mustache. That would make it a hard winter on the way.”
Hooter had been absent-mindedly building a small fort on the table out of sugar packets. He perked up. “Since it's anybody's best bet, like Charlie says, maybe we should have us a little contest, see who can get closest to predicting the first frost.”
“Yeah,” said Izzie, immediately warming up to the notion. “Closest one to the right date wins.”
“I'm game,” said Charlie. The rest nodded in agreement.
“I'll even put up the prize,” offered Lonnie. “Two bags of pig feed.”
“None of us have got any pigs,” said Claude. “Sounds to me like you're trying to get rid of some unwanted inventory.” He said the last with a chuckle, but Lonnie aimed an angry stream of Mail Pouch into his paper cup and glared at Claude.
“Now, don't go looking a gift horse in the mouth,” said Hooter. “That's right nice of you, Lonnie. I'll throw in a set of my braided roping reins for sport.”
“And, I—I—I'll put in some squeezin's,” slurred Delmar.
Jackson was passing by the table, back from his outdoor storeroom. “Tell you what, I'll add in all the Pearl and pool the winner can handle for one night.”
By the time the gang was finished the pot also included a legal dove hunt at Peetie's, a tune-up from Claude, and some accounting help from Whizzer.
Place Your Bets
Everyone thought a spell, then one by one they wrote their guesses on napkins and shoved them over to Whizzer who announced the date. Everyone that is except Izzie.
“C'mon Izzie, hurry up,” said Hooter.
“What do you mean you can't. Just pick a date.”
“But I know when the first frost will be, I just won't know until two days before.”
“Well, remember when I busted my ankle?” Izzie asked sheepishly.
“Back when we were in school?”
“Oh yeah,” chortled Charlie. “If memory serves you were trying to figure out a way to get into the girl's locker room and you fell off the roof in the process.” The rest nodded and chuckled.
Izzie looked stricken. “I told you then and I say now that Mr. Pinkerton had asked me to go up there to see if there'd been any hail damage.”
“Only Mr. Pinkerton said he never told you that,” remembered Hooter. “And there hadn't been any hail in a coon's age.”
“Yeah, if anything, he told you to go jump off a roof,” said Fuzzy. “Now, that I'd believe.”
Izzie plucked another peanut from its home. “Anyway, my ankle never healed quite right.”
“Might have something to do with the way you kept knocking that cast around. Remember that?” asked Claude.
“Yeah,” said Hooter, “Every time I saw you, that cast of yours was in pieces. It was like a plaster flip-flop.”
“Well, I was pulling a feed wagon for someone at the time who had a tractor with a clutch that you had to stand on,” said Izzie defensively. He shot a severe look at Peetie.
“I told you, Izzie, that clutch worked fine if you knew how to use it,” said Peetie.
Jackson grabbed a chair, wipe towel draped across a shoulder. He had an odd sort of gleam in his eye, almost a rare smile on his face. “Boys, back to the contest. Izzie, what is it about your ankle and frost?”
“Well, ever since then, it will get to aching some when the weather is going to change. But two days before the first frost it stiffens up like wet rope.”
“So, you want to wait until your ankle tells you it's going to frost two days later?” asked Jackson. “That's fine by me. If the frost comes sooner or later than two days after you say, you lose.”
The boys eyed Jackson suspiciously, wondering why he was so interested in the contest all of a sudden.
“What's your prediction, Jackson?”
“Now let me make sure I've got this right. We don't have to predict the exact date, just be closest to it, right?”
“And the soonest anyone is predicting so far is two weeks from today, that right Peetie?”
“And your ankle ain't spoke to you yet, that right, Izzie?”
“Well then, I predict tonight.”
“You can't be serious,” they chimed in together. “You've been sniffing too much of that ammonia stuff you wipe down the bar with. Lord, it's still like summer.”
“If any of you rocket scientists had cared to pay attention to how long you've been sitting here, or stopped to listen to something besides you own chatter you might have detected a change in the air.”
Everybody stopped and listened. The wind was howling with a cold moan.
Peetie, ambled over to the door and threw it open only to have the wind slam it back in his face. It was open long enough for him to see it, though.
“Snow,” said Peetie incredulously. “I'll be jiggered. That Arctic Express.”
Everyone else hurried over to the plate glass window and hauled the heavy drapes back. Sure enough, it looked like a hard storm in the North Pole.
“But…” tried Hooter.
“How…” stammered Fuzzie.
“Been a while since one blew in like that,” said Lonnie matter of factly. “When you want me to deliver your feed, Jackson?”
“I'll be jiggered,” said Peetie again, gazing in wonder.
Charlie smiled at Izzie. “What's your ankle say now?”