Monday, June 10, 2013
My Super Sweet Sixteen
Toni looked up from the spreadsheet at the sound of a vehicle rattling up the drive and into the front yard. Customers already? Abe would be pleased. Toni shut down the computer, tugged the wrinkles out of her blouse, and stepped briskly out of the office, formerly the old farmhouse’s guest bedroom.
She and her brother had bought the game farm with the understanding that Toni’s involvement would be temporary. Abe was the one into farming and animal husbandry and the great outdoors. Toni kept an eye on income and expenses and made sure their new venture stayed solvent. Once she was certain Abe stood on firm financial ground, Toni would be off to make her own way in the world.
None of the hands had come forward to see to the visitor’s needs, so Toni added that to her list of jobs as Abe’s support system. She trotted over to the truck, expertly dodging the many chickens pecking around the yard. The game farm had come with a variety of exotic fowl, but the domestic chickens were Toni’s idea. She wanted fresh eggs for baking and breakfast, and as long as they now lived on a farm …. Ditto for the three Guernseys grazing in the field and studiously ignoring the bison, which returned the snub. Toni had never tried to milk a bison, let along make butter and cheese from the milk, and she wasn’t about to start.
The truck’s driver automatically doffed his cowboy hat. His welcoming smile wobbled the closer Toni approached. Pity, because he was cute as all get out. Long dark hair in a ponytail, worn jeans and calloused hands. A working man. Toni liked getting her hands dirty, and couldn’t stomach a man who didn’t feel the same.
“What happened to Turk?” he said bluntly.
“Mr. Turkle retired and sold the spread about three months ago. My brother and I are the new owners. I’m Toni Jenks.” She held out her hand. The man sniffed, like he was trying to take in her scent, then accepted her offering. His dirty paw swallowed hers whole. “What can I do for you, Mr. …?”
“Turk sold the place to a—?” The man shook his head. “That old hound. Who knew? So, were you planning on running it the way he did, ma’am?”
“As in … ?” Toni prompted cautiously.
“As in fresh meat to paying customers. My family’s fond of game.” Belatedly he added, “I’m Elliot Hancock.”
Toni nodded. The Hancock name figured heavily in Mr. Turkle’s ledgers. “What is it you’re looking for today?”
He’d better not ask her to butcher anything. Eggs and milk she could handle, but dressing a carcass was far dirtier than she wanted her hands to get. Flour on the fingers, not blood, was Toni’s motto. Even Abe drew the line at the messy stuff, leaving that to the hands. She’d hoped they could just breed the stock and supply other breeders and maybe petting zoos. But this was Montana, and she was a realist. Just the same, she held her breath.
“My niece is having a birthday in two weeks,” Elliot Hancock said. “Sixteen. The biggie.” Toni smiled in understanding. “We’re going to need venison. Whitetail, not muley. She’s partial to whitetail.” He eyed the distant bison speculatively, then said, “You still have elk?”
“The herd’s a bit small, but they’re all healthy. How many pounds would you like?”
“Not meat. We need a live one. A yearling if you’ve got one. Something small and not too fast or tough. A little, inexperienced bull ought to give her a thrill and not too much of a challenge.”
“Um … excuse me?”
“We’ll be backing her up, of course, but she doesn’t have to know that. It’s important she pulls it down herself. I mean, you’re only sixteen once—”
"You want us to sell you a live elk so you can shoot it?”
“Of course she’s not going to shoot it. What do you think we are? She’s going to hunt it down and take it out the traditional way. It’s the highlight of the party. Then the rest of us get to gorge ourselves and—”
He broke off in the face of Toni’s horrified stare. “Oh. Yeah. Look, we do this for all the pups when they turn sixteen. Didn’t Turk tell you anything?”
“I don’t know what kind of arrangement you had with Mr. Turkle, but we don’t abuse our stock, and we don’t let anyone else abuse them, either.”
“It’s not abuse. It’s tradition. Her parents will make sure the kill is quick and clean.” He muttered something under his breath. It sounded suspiciously like, “I hate dealing with apes.”
“Mr. Hancock, I think you’d better leave.”
“Scat. Look, Miss Jenks? We’re not doing anything kinky. It’s a birthday party. It’s part of the natural order.”
“Killing an elk at a birthday party? What are you, Native Americans or something?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Something like that.”
“Well, no offense to your traditions, but I’m not about to turn a young elk over to you just so you can—”
From the corner of her eye she spotted Andreas charging up at a run. Andreas was part of the staff they’d inherited from Mr. Turkle. Toni liked Andreas. Something about him reminded her of a beaver. Maybe it was the overbite. “It’s okay, Miz Jenks, I got this. Hey, Elliot, lemme guess. Who is it this time? Tobias?”
“Ashley. You got a spare elk? She thinks she’s getting a deer, but her daddy wants to surprise her.”
“Whoa. Sixteen already? I’m starting to feel old. Y’know, we’ve got a two-year-old. Bit of a runt, but he’ll look like a monster to her. I doubt if he’ll live through the rut anyway.”
“Let me take a look at him. Maybe—”
“Absolutely not,” Toni said. “You can have all the meat you want, but no live animals.” Somebody had to draw the line somewhere.
Both the men stared at her. Hancock bent to confer with Andreas. This time she was certain she heard the word “monkey.”
Andreas took her arm respectfully and drew her aside. “It’s okay, Miz Jenks. The Hancocks are regulars. Their alpha—I mean, the old man holds a lot of power here.”
“I don’t care if he’s holding a bazooka. He’s not getting a live elk, or a live anything else.”
“Turk didn’t warn you about Talbot’s Peak, did he?”
Toni shook her head, her belligerent stare trained on Elliot Hancock. Whatever was going on with this crazy backwoods outfit, she figured she could handle it.