Maxie Rodner loved the moose head that hung on the back wall of his bar. Where it had come from, he had no idea. It had been there when he’d first purchased Bottum’s Up Café four years ago. All he knew was that he enjoyed sitting and staring up at it – as though he had been the one who’d gone up into the wild north and bagged the beast. It never really mattered to him how the thing had got there in the first place.
For the third straight year, Rodner hosted the local Fourth of July road race – a grueling five-miler that started and finished in the parking lot of his café. All the local runners crammed the field because Maxie Rodner not only put together a crack race, he also threw one hell of a bash afterward. Beer and hot dogs and partying into the night always followed the post-race formalities. When it came to having a good time, Maxie was the best!
Standing now on the small stage directly under his prized moose head, he looked comically out of place passing out awards to the joyous runners who had just finished the annual five. Maxie had never been an athlete himself, but he admired those who possessed the Spartan discipline to whip themselves into shape. When it came to his own fitness he was good for a short dash to the bar where he settled into the one exercise he knew best … twisting caps off of cold beers.
“Ain’t no losers in this crowd!” Rodner crowed as he tossed up a wad of running caps, gaudy neckties and plastic kazoos as fair game for anyone who felt like scrambling after them. With a wave he stepped down from the stage and sidled on over to the bar. Perched on one of the stools, his short, plump body looked far more at home there than it had amongst the lean runners. Maxie signaled the bartender to bring him another tequila sunrise then leaned comfortably onto the bar and stared at the snarl of revelers gathered round the band stage.
Damn he envied them! Flat stomachs, nice firm muscle … and every one of them bubbling with the energy of a friggin’ teenager, even the ones old enough to be on Social Security. Guess you gotta pay to look like that, he thought, patting his middle-aged belly.
He took another sip of his tequila and closed his eyes for a second, trying to picture himself lean and taut, running freely out in some open field. A gust of laughter from the stage brought him back to reality.
A sensuous young thing all of twenty years old had embraced the massive snout of the huge moose head, then kissed it firmly with mock passion. Watching the skimpily clad girl, Maxie felt his loins stir. Kiss me like that anytime sweetheart, he thought. Mhh!
A tall fellow in a racing cap staggered over and wrapped a long, thin arm around the girl, then reached up and slipped one of Rodner’s giveaway caps atop the moose’s head between its broad, flat antlers. “Let’s dress ol’ Boris up!” someone chortled, draping a long, polka-dot tie over the moose’s snout.
“Boris,” Rodner half-chuckled, smiling crookedly and shaking his head. Who in the hell ever came up with such a screwball name for that moose? He was used to people getting a little goony over the head now and then, but so long as they didn’t damage it he didn’t really care. After all, the thing was dead.
Another rocky celebrant stumbled over and stuffed one of the plastic kazoos in the moose’s nose, then stood back to admire his work, giggling gleefully. “Crazy bastards,” Rodner laughed then drained his glass and signaled the bartender for another. He’d had plenty already and that last one hit him just hard enough to let him know he was best to stay right on his stool for a while. He blinked several times then looked up at the stage again. His eyes met the piercing dark orbs of the moose.
In all the time he had sat gazing up at the enormous head, Maxie had never given much notice to its baleful stare. He squinted his eyes and shook his head. Kevin the bartender pushed a tall tequila sunrise in front of him and Maxie eyed the drink suspiciously before glancing back up at the moose. The huge, dark eyes met the man’s again. Maxie nudged his drink away. Damn thing couldn’t be staring back at him?
The party roared on around him. The stage, barely fifteen-feet away, was crammed with people dancing and drinking. Maxie saw only the moose. The coal black eyes peered out mournfully from the majestic face decorated obscenely with the necktie and racing cap and the kazoo poking out from one nostril.“Is this necessary?” the bestial head seemed to say. “Is it not enough that I am dead?”
Rodner tried to blink but could not. He licked his lips and, with one hand wiped at the sweat drizzling over his brow. He stared in cold awe at the enormous furry head that virtually eclipsed the back wall of the stage. The eyes of the beast stared back. Maxie did not look away. He fell into the ashy depths of the creature’s primal gaze.
Rodner raced across the frozen plain. The chill air whipped into his face as he sped freely and tirelessly over the snowy turf, the muscles in his legs strong and loose. His
body fairly rippled with coiled fury. His large hooves punched through the ice hard snow, echoing loudly in the Canadian air as all four legs carried him in great bounds over the vast waste. His huge trunk-like head shook side-to-side, the massive antlers — jagged and flat — creaking like the timbers of a great ship as they swayed this way and that. Snorting with pleasure, Rodner reveled in the unleashed majesty of his run across the primordial tundra. A long, whining howl disrupted his bliss.
Forever the natural enemy of moose and elk and the rest of the deer brethren, the wolves were feared by all. Cunning and fierce, the fanged hunters roamed the snowy waste in great packs, seeking victims among the weak and the sick.
The large bull moose, though confident in his ability to outdistance the nearby pack (or outfight them if need be), felt the innate fear their dreary howl invoked in his kind. He snorted angrily, rankled by this disturbance of his haven and resentful of the silent fears that nipped away at him; he was incapable of comprehending that such fears were implanted in him long before he had first walked the Earth.
Rodner increased his gait, the huge dark eyes on either side of his head scouring the surrounding meadows and hillocks for telltale signs of the interlopers. Before long a cluster of specks appeared on the east horizon, increasing rapidly in size and shape. Rodner grunted and veered west, knowing already that the distance was too great for the wolves to overtake him. In great bounds he easily widened the gap. Despite the danger the speed and intensity of the chase filled his bestial senses with a euphoria that was both frightening and exhilarating. The pack fell farther back until fading into the specks he had first seen.
Ahead now was a grove of trees, a forest he had often romped looming on the rim of the plain. Rodner galloped on until finally he bounded into the thick of the woods, mindless of the peril that had stalked him earlier. He loved the scent of the pleasant evergreens and he enjoyed the chance to gallop along the narrow paths, ducking now and then under low-hanging branches and veering side-to-side with the many twists in the winding trails. The sound of his own hooves clacking over the hard turf gave him an added delight and his senses filled with the mysterious bliss that always overwhelmed him on such runs.
A sharp crack sounding like a large branch breaking off a tree rang out from somewhere. Rodner found it disquieting. Not in the way the distant wolf’s howl had checked him earlier, for that sound was common to the wild. This noise was alien. It held a queer sort of menace. The sound came again and this time fear gripped the moose. The noise was out of place in this domain. It contained an evil he had never before sensed. Rodner quickened his gait, wanting to depart from the woods which had grown abruptly hostile. Another loud crack and a fire exploded in his right flank!
Two more bounds and his right leg faltered pathetically under the searing pain that came from nowhere. Now there came another noise – sounds he recognized as those made by the two-legged creatures he had sometimes seen trekking the plains.
The odd creatures had never bothered Rodner, for they did nothing more than point and shout excitedly whenever he happened to wander into view. But the sounds they made now were harsh and unpleasantly triumphant. It frightened him.
Stifling the harsh pain in his right flank, Rodner urged his hind leg to perform as he struggled into a forced gallop. The voices of the yelping creatures fell farther back as he half-dragged his rear leg in a panicky flight. Finally he broke out of the forest and, still dragging his bleeding hindquarter, staggered out onto the frozen turf, dizzy and exhausted … but safe.
A mournful howl in the distance broke his respite.
Rodner reeled painfully, his senses in disarray. To return to the forest would deliver him into the waiting grasp of an evil he had never faced; but to go limping out onto the plain and face the cunning wolves …
Yet, the wolves he understood. The Evil in the Forest, linked in some way to the odd two-legged creatures, was unclean. He wanted to be away from it.
Rodner veered out toward the center of the plain, the crippled rear leg now a useless piece dragged along by the other three. Within moments the first specks appeared on the horizon. Drawing closer they took on shapes and Rodner felt a surge of terror the presence of wolves had never before invoked in him. In the depth of his primal mind the bull moose sensed a grim truth: he had joined the ranks of those defective beings nature had marked for execution. Now, Nature’s Chosen came to perform the task for which they were superbly groomed.
The first leaped in at him, tearing instinctively at the wounded flank. The moose wheeled and tried lashing out with one of his front hooves, but the wolf dodged easily.
Blurry eyed and fatigued, Rodner lacked the blinding speed and agility that would normally have left the wolf with a fractured skull. Another came hurtling in and caught the great bull just under the left foreleg. Rodner bellowed and tried to gore the wolf, but again was too slow. No sooner than he had turned, then another darted in and slashed at his underbelly.
Finally the entire hungry pack of ten was upon him, zipping in and out, some feigning attacks while others sailed in for a quick slash then darted back out of harm’s way before the weakened bull could counter. Before long they maneuvered him into deeper snow which rose halfway up his legs and further hampered his movements. He bellowed in rage at having been trapped so easily, his enfeebled efforts a parody of the mastery with which he had dominated such predators in the past..
A loud crack split the air! The same he had heard in the woods. The same that had sounded when the terrible pain had exploded in his flank. Another loud crack and the pack vanished.
Both hindquarters resting awkwardly in the bloodstained snow, the gasping moose peered out through clouded vision at the approaching men. He recognized their upright shapes and for a moment felt they might have driven the pack off to help him. Then he heard the same obscene noise he had heard in the woods – the triumphant yelping that had filled the air shortly after the pain had entered his rear leg.
Rodner tried vainly to rise but could not. He snorted a weak challenge at the advancing hunters, but his ailing body would not comply with his urgent commands to rise and do battle. The men yelled and several shots rang out! Rodner felt something hot and heavy enter his chest and all went black.
He ran through a world of utter darkness. It was peaceful and quiet. Though he saw nothing and could not feel his own body, the ethereal nature of his being was one of … comfort. And then the tranquil world of darkness was gone.
Lights flared everywhere and he peered silently at a scene unlike any his eyes had ever beheld. Swarms of the two-legged creatures were everywhere, staggering and swaying about – some sitting, others standing – all making coarse, vulgar noises. Rodner saw them through a cold haze, their voices coming from some distant void … He knew not where he was, nor if he were alive or dead. But he could neither shut his eyes nor gallop away. Something held him stock still. He felt empty and impotent. What had become of the peaceful dark he had known so briefly?
Banished into a horrid limbo where he held vigil over the treacherous creatures who had destroyed him, the spirit of the proud young bull fell into a mire of despair. Respite came only when the queer world was deserted and he stared sullenly into a dreary night. It went on: the lights … the crowds … the noise … and the worst of times when the creatures even mocked him. Would it ever end … ?
“Max … Hey … Maxie! C’mon!”
Rodner sat bolt upright. He blinked. “Wha — ?”
“Hey man, you gonna stare at that head all night?”
Maxie Rodner blinked his eyes again and shook his head. He was facing Kevin his young bartender. The blonde youth smiled and shook his head back at his employer.
“What’s going on with you, Maxie?” said Kevin. “You been staring at ol’ Boris for damn near a half-hour now. You ain’t even touched that last drink I gave you.”
Maxie reached up and felt his face, then ran his hand over the top of his head, feeling the thinning brown hair. He looked down at his chubby form still resting on the stool. He tried to speak but made only a few incoherent sounds.
Kevin eyed him, puzzled. “Hey, uh, tell you what boss … Why don’t you call it a night and let me finish up with all these clowns? You ain’t looking too good.”
Rodner nodded. He breathed a long sigh. “Yeah … sure.” He cleared his eyes with his fingers. Kevin nodded to him then turned again to his duties.
“Uh … Kev,” Rodner said suddenly. Kevin turned back to him. “Look … tomorrow we’re gonna take down that head,” Rodner said, gesturing up at the wall without looking at it. “It ain’t right. Y’know? I mean the thing don’t really belong up there …”Kevin nodded at Rodner strangely then smiled, giving his boss another puzzled look.
“Sure Maxie. Whatever you say.” He paused. “But, uh, what do we do with it?”
Rodner drew a breath then finally gazed back up at the moose head, meeting its eyes only briefly, then turned back to face Kevin. “Bury it, man. It’s dead.”