by Terry Wieland
Hickman’s Cafe, Aspermont, Texas, Saturday morning. All the booths are occupied, and most of the tables.
There’s an empty one near the center — a deserted island in a sea of hats. Most are the ubiquitous pseudo-Stetsons of West Texas, but there’s a sprinkling of baseball caps, too. All of the latter are worn with their peaks forward, shading the eyes, even in the low light of a dark December morning. The backwards-cap crowd has not invaded Aspermont.
We’re in town to grab some breakfast and buy a tarp to wrap the semi-frozen quarters and backstraps of two whitetails, a buck and a doe, taken the previous two days. At the next table are four older guys — Stetson-ed, all — nursing cups of coffee and looking like they’d been occupying the chairs since the Nixon administration.
Jennifer, the taller, good-looking one (actually, they’re all good looking; Jennifer’s just taller) moves around tipping more coffee into the cups. She doesn’t need to ask. They nod politely, in turn, as the cups are refilled.
The menu’s basic. A Western omelette looks good.
“Biscuit or toast? The toast’s homemade.”
“You mean you toast it yourself?”
No smile. “The bread’s homemade.” The pen hovered. I ordered. She drifted away.
Ron looked right at home after four years, off and on, eating twice a day at the cafe. He kept his hat on. Not being a hat wearer as a rule, I didn’t have one either to keep on or doff, and felt sort of out of place.
The walls were decorated with egg beaters and muffin tins and the big square cans we used to keep soda crackers in. I recognized many of the things I saw in our kitchen, every day, when I was a kid. Now they’re antiques. How to feel old.
Ron leaned across the table. “The one with the white hat? High-fence operator. Big deer. So’s the one across from him. The town money.”
The pair, and their two companions, looked like standard-issue Texas ranchers. They were talking beef prices. Their boots, which began life many years ago as shiny tooled leather, were now a uniform scuffed and dusty brown, looking more or less like their faces; or maybe the other way around.
Beef prices were down; the trophy fees to shoot a big buck were up. They still kept cattle, partly out of habit, partly to keep the grass in check, but the real money’s spelled Boone & Crockett, not USDA Prime.
Ron’s ranch, a half-dozen miles out of town, is not yet into the B&C category, but he’s working on it. Which is where I came in — an old pal with a non-resident license that allowed me one buck in this “1 Buck” county and as many does, practically speaking, as I could stuff into the passenger’s seat. One was enough.
“We’ve got too many does,” Ron told me, repeating what to me was, from habits of childhood, heresy. Too many does? How is that possible?
As for my buck, he was an older, modest eight-pointer of the type Ron’s trying to weed out — the in-between bucks that are not real trophy size, and whose genes are not wanted.
The weeded-out antlers of four years of effort now decorate the back wall under the lean-to attached to the manufactured house that constitutes the ranch accommodation. The Ponderosa it ain’t.
On the other hand, in a world that is coming to hate cows, a thousand acres of white-tailed deer, Rio Grande turkeys, and the ubiquitous feral hogs of the south — not pretty, but good eating nonetheless — is the direction we’re going. There are a few quail as well, and if we can get the hog numbers down, maybe there will be enough to hunt in a few years. And quail hunters pay big.
The new economics, in the age of global warming, organic foods, and the cow as the root of all evil.
Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland is always happy to help. It’s a trait we admire.