Ted’s Tender Trophy
by Kristen Caven
A yellow October moon rose enormous over the high Rockies and gazed on the parking lot of the Shooting Star Saloon, where trucks lined up like saddled horses dozing at the rail. Tex, a tall drink of water type, got out of one of them trucks and scanned the twilit horizon, ready for a new adventure.
He stepped inside the dark bar, where a hundred expressionless eyes glinted from the walls around the room, from the stuffed heads of every variety of hunted mammal. “How ya doin tonight, honey?” A waitress smiled and cut in front of him, balancing a tray of drinks on her sunburned hand. Fifty years ago she had been the owner’s proudest trophy. Tex slowed his pace behind her limping form, admiring the deer, elk, buffalo, antelope, fox, bear, and even the few rabbits and tattered prairie dogs that hung above the dark booths. Tex had once shot a pigeon in his youth. But he could shoot beer cans like nobody’s business, and that’s why Bingo’d invited him tonight.
“Here ya go, honeys.” The waitress slid two mugs of beer onto the table of a booth tucked away in an alcove.
“Take those away,” the flannelshirted man in the corner growled, his eyes shadowed by the bill of his grubby Winchester logo cap. “Ain’t gonna be business as usual tonight.”
“Really.” The waitress scooped the beer back on her tray.
“Yeah, it ain’t Miller Time yet,” laughed the other, a hulk of a man with a fiveo’clock shadow. On his cap was a Mack Truck logo.
“When we come back later, it’ll be…. Löwenbrau,” said the first, mysteriously, tipping his head back so Tex could get a good look at the squint in his eyes. “Tonight is kinda special.”
“I see,” the old lady said patiently, shifting her weight to yet another hip. “Hunting tonight, are we?”
“Bring us a few cups of coffee, we’re gonna need the caffeine. One for that guy behind you, too.” Tex slid past her into the booth, nodding politely and touching his cap in a polite, redneckerly gesture. “And put some milk in ‘em!” The two men laughed overloudly. Tex finally got the joke and joined in.
“Tex,” the large man nodded.
“Bingo,” said Tex.
“Clem,” said the man with the squint, touching the brim of his cap with a finger. “Bingo says you’re a good shot.”
“Got my first gun when I was five.” Tex pursed his lips modestly.
“Well, ya ain’t never shot anything like this,” said Clem, and the laughter started up again.
Bingo jerked his head toward Clem, then upwards to indicate the unusual creature on the wall above. Tex lifted his face to meet the enormous, longlashed eyes of an unseeing veal head trophy, mounted in a section of its crate. Neurons fired in his brain stem. He’d never hunted before, and certainly not something this exotic… this dangerous…this adorable. A rabid veal has no regard for human life. Still, Tex’s mouth watered. He dropped his gaze to the smuglooking Clem, rearranging his expression to look tough and approving, which helped him ignore his jumbled feelings.
Clem lifted his leathery index finger and whispered, “One shot.” The other men nodded admiringly.
“Trophy’s here ‘cause he ain’t got room in his trailer,” said Bingo, pointing his thumb upwards. “But me, I got a big house.”
“And tonight we’re gonna get you a veal,” Tex suggested. His suggestion was met with grunts of approval.
The waitress returned with three steaming mugs and slapped them on the table. “We ran outa milk and had to open a box of soy. Can’t remember which one.” The three men stared in horror until Clem barked a harsh laugh, and slapped the table. “Well, damned if those vegetarians ain’t got to every last corner of the earth!” He grabbed a cup and the other men followed, but watched each other take the first sip as if it were a game of Russian Roulette.
Bingo parked his truck on a slant a quarter mile from the dirt road. The men unloaded their weapons from the rack. Down below, the meadow sloped into a silent forest that lay like a black stain between the moonlit hills. Bingo shook some slugs from a box to load his shotgun, and one dropped from his hand with a ‘clang’ into the bed of the truck. “Shhh,” hissed Clem, silently slipping bullets into the barrel of his own. “Gotta keep it low. They’re skittish. And you know.”
“I know,” muttered Bingo. “You can’t even get a license anymore. Damn vegetarians and animal rights activists got the business wrapped up tight.”
“What things have come to,” sighed Tex, pulling a black ski mask over his head. He slung Ol’ Purdey over his shoulder, and followed the others through the sloping field. His senses were alive with adrenaline and his lungs filled with the crisp autumn air. The moon followed them like a veal’s baleful eye, casting shadows in front of their trudging bodies. It was not just the thought of doing’ something sneaky, Tex thought, but the thrill of enjoying a centuries old sport that great men of the past had enjoyed for centuries. Tex remembered sitting’ at his grandfather’s knee and hearin’ stories of the great veal hunts of Europe—once the favorite sport of the aristocracy, then simply the favorite sport of the filthy rich.
As a child, his grandpa would rise early to polish leather and water the hounds, then watch the hunting party arrive. Cheeks and fingers rosy from cold, the beautiful people would gallop off on their thoroughbreds through the mornin’ mist, leather squeaking and stallions snorting. A cry would go up when the dogs caught the scent of the crate, and the hunt would swing into action for a lively chase over picturesque logs and fences until most of the riders had fallen off and limped home. The winners would retrieve the exhausted veal, its wooden crate suspended between the saddles of two nervous steeds, and the celebrations would begin. Tex’s grandpa would help the cook as the fine ladies and men would drink absinthe and smoke cigars and tell stories of the hunt. The old man would drool when he described the sumptuous breakfast of cutlets and schnitzel he’d help serve on his master’s best china, and Tex would run and get a tissue. The cook would save parts for souvenirs, so the hunt master could pass out ears and feet, pin the tail on his sweetheart’s bosom, and present the succulent, bulging forehead to the master of the house.
Bingo stopped abruptly and Tex, lost in thought, trod on the back of his boot. “Dangit, Tex, watch where you’re goin’,” cursed Bingo.
“Keep it down back there,” growled Clem. “Thought I saw somethin’. You want your white meat or not, Bingo?” By now the men had reached the edge of the forest and began moving through the trees, clinging to the shadows. Tex’s head was sweaty, under the woolen cap. Up ahead, a twig snapped and the men froze. Silently, Clem pulled out a chain from under his flannel shirt and breathed into the veal call. A soft bleating sounded, then hung in the air, haunting the still woods. Then came the lonesome, squeaky reply. Tex felt a pang in his gubbins. Clem silently held up that one leathery finger, pointing from one man to the next, and Tex inferred his meaning: One shot. Each. A moment later they skulked into the blackness of the barn.
A loud snort behind them startled the group, and Tex felt his sweat grow cold under the woolen mask. Bingo whispered in his ear, with barely a breath to carry the words, “The mother is nearby.” Bingo’s hand clutching Tex’s arm warned him there could be danger.
A beam of moonlight slanted through the open door, and fell on the corner of a steel cage across the barn. “It’s awake,’ gasped Tex, his hand gripping Bingo’s. A large, curious eye peered out at them from between the slats, and when Tex saw it, a warm spot spread inside him. He noted with mixed relief and annoyance that it was of a spiritual—not physical—nature.
“Shhh,” hissed squinty Clem, and in the moonlight the others could see him nod and raise his gun. They all followed his example. But Tex found himself with a problem: the dangblasted warm spot didn’t want him to pull the trigger! Curse those damn animal rights activists and vegetarians. But when Clem whispered, “NOW,” three explosions sounded anyway.
A bullet whizzed by his ear, straight from the cage of the milkfed monster. Bingo shouted, “Ricochet!” and hit the ground.
“Shit, it’s hardened steel,” cursed Clem as the stray bullet clanged on plowshare and horseshoe. It doubled back and hit him square in the buttock. The barn erupted in a cacophony of animal sounds as Clem collapsed and grunted in pain. The ranch house porch light came on. Tex and Bingo hauled Clem to his feet and dragged him into the forest. A screen door slammed.
“Hank! We got veal rustlers again!”
Ten years later, the sun was rising over the Canadian Rockies, lighting up the craggy rock face of Whiteknuckle Cliff, which loomed over the DeBleau Game Preserve. A rusty Ford truck pulled up to the ranger’s station below it, and a tall man got out. He scanned the misty horizon, unsure of his adventure. Far across the high mountain plain, he could see a small herd of wild veal milling about at the foot of the mountains.
A hulk of a man stepped out of the ranger’s station and gestured with a cup off coffee. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” The tall man nodded and peered through his field glasses. “What kind are they? Scallopini? Picatta?”
“Breaded, if you can believe it. Very rare.”
When the binoculars came down, the big male peered at the tall one, incredulous. “Tex?”
“It’s Bodhi now,” grinned the former Bingo. “Guess you could say I’m one of ‘them’ now. Ain’t had meat in years.”
Tex grinned. “I’ve always been Ted. Used to change the ‘d’ to an ‘x’ because it sounded better, you know, down in redneck country.”
“I hear you, brother,” Bodhi nodded. “Ain’t been back there for some time.” Ted could tell. Bodhi’s beard grew down to his chest now, and his wizened knees above his wool socks and hiking boots showed he’d been wearing shorts for years. The crusher hat on his head looked as grubby and natural as his trucker cap once did.
The two men stood there, nodding at one another awkwardly for a few moments, then Ted spoke. “Guess you finally got yourself that veal.”
“A herd of them.” Bodhi laughed. “Well, the paperworks in order.” They got into the Park Service truck and drove across the prairie, blooming with wildflowers.
Minutes passed before either one of them could think of what to say. Finally, Ted asked, “Ever hear from Clem?”
“I was gonna ask you the same thing,” said Bodhi. “After he got out of jail he just wasn’t the same.”
“I saw him once in Denver, eating a steak, called his name. He just squinted. Didn’t seem to recognize me,” said Ted. The truck kicked up dust behind them. The veal herd was getting closer. “We shouldn’t’a left him,” said Bodhi. “I been thinkin’ about it for years.”
“I know,” said Ted, a vivid image of Clem in his mind, squinting at the pain, waving the both of them to leave him and run. Damn, that guy was tough.
“I should have stayed. He was out there for me,” said Bingo.
But for years, Ted had known, deep inside, that the stray bullet had been his. That if that warm gooey spot hadn’t caused him to misfire, they all could have run out of that barn when that dangblasted porchlight went on.
He opened his mouth to confess this to the former Bingo, who asked, just then, “You still a good shot?” Bodhi jerked his head at the rifle hanging in the back window of the cab.
“Beer bottles never feel safe around me, you know that,” grinned Ted, thankful but chagrined.
“Here’s to good friends,” laughed Bodhi.
The truck pulled up a hundred yards from the herd, as the shadows of the peaks retreated and the sun lit up the spotted hides of the wobbly bovine infants. Both men got out and pulled out their field glasses. Ted adjusted his lenses and caught his breath. “They look so naked and helpless without their crates,” he whispered. As if it had heard him, the veal in his sights raised its bulbous head and looked directly at him, the heavy lashes on its enormous eyes batting away spots of sparkling morning dew. The warm spot that Ted had discovered in his spiritual insides that fateful night returned, and radiated through every fiber of his humbled being. Ted knew he’d found what he was looking for. A flood of emotion poured through him, the release of every repressed feeling he’d been storing up since his redneck days. He turned to Bodhi with tears in his eyes, and cried out. “Bodhi, it was my fault, I misfired.”
Bodhi studied his boots. It seemed an eternity hung in the moment. Finally, he spoke quietly.
“’Course it was, Ted. Clem and I was shootin’ blanks. Why do you think we asked you along?” Ted gaped, astonished, his years of guilt suddenly spun by this betrayal.
Bodhi pleaded. “Ya can’t shoot a veal, Tex, they’re just too cute.” Without looking at him, he handed Ted the tranquilizer gun. “The one with the extra crumbs needs an ear tag.” Ted glared at Bodhi, then raised the gun. For a moment, he didn’t know where to point it. He took a deep breath.
“One shot,” Tedx growled. “For Clem.”
Kristen Caven is a Blogger, author, storyteller, ma’am of mystery; doodler, drama princess, timetraveler, cowgirl; mover, shaker, poet philosopher; reader, leader, renaissance woman, mom. Her most recent novel is The Souls of Her Feet.