“You’ve never been to Colorado, have you?” A tour guide rested his hands on his duty belt.
Jared turned his attention from the pasture and the milking houses to wipe his forehead with his sleeve. “How’d you know?”
The tour guide laughed. “You’re sunburnt after a rainstorm, and there’s a chance of snow tonight, and it’s the beginning of June. Two and two, kid. You and your family decided to come down for a vacation?”
“Nope. Just me.”
“Uh-huh.” The tour guide of Four Mile Dairy Farm studied Jared from down his nose. “And so you decided to tour a prison fishery? What exactly prompted this decision?”
Jared looked around, partly to take in the tall greenhouses and array of animals. Men in green jumpsuits attended the few hundred water buffalo that peered over the thousands of goats in the pastures, and partly to make sure no one was paying attention. “I’m looking for jackalopes.”
“Jackalopes?” A thick accent cut in. Both Jared and the tour guide turned to see an Asian family of four, wearing plastic visors and holding a gaudy yellow umbrella. “What are jackalopes?”
“Oh, just an American tall tale. We just like inventing creatures.”
“You mean they are not real?” The father of the group asked.
“They’re just like faeries and hobgoblins.” The tour guide smiled, but Jared thought he saw something that could have maybe possibly passed for a wink. “The stuff of bedtime stories.”
“Cool!” The little boy shouted from under his blue plastic visor. “Are they like kappa?”
Jared laughed. “No, kappa are slimy, amphibians from the o-” He was cut short by the tour guide’s elbow suddenly appearing in his ribs.
“Folks out west like to tell stories about them. They look like larger jackrabbits, ’bout the size of a dog, but they’ve got horns like a deer that curl in towards each other,” the tour guide placed his hands on top of his head with the pointers hooked, “and they’ve got a voice that’d make an angel weep. Ol’ cowboys say that you can hear them singin’ on clear nights.”
The daughter in the group nudged the mother and held out a phone for the group to see.
The tour guide craned his neck. “Yep, that’s them, sure enough. But they’re just stories, though I’m sure if you ask one of the artists in the gift shop they’d draw something on a slice of wood for you.”
The group looked at each other, murmuring in their native language, then bustled off in the direction of the gift shop.
Jared scratched at the three day’s growth that covered his cheeks. “Yeah, so I heard there were jackalopes here.”
“There are, but you best be keeping your voice down. The warden doesn’t like the muggles getting word of our… additional industries.” The tour guide coughed into his fist. “But, you stick around after the tour, grab you something to eat, and I’ll let you take a look.”
Jared nodded. Beside the gift shop was a small building with a vinyl sign that read The Water Buffalo Grill. A white board offered the day’s specials in slope-y handwriting. Today it was something called a truck driver burger. It certainly sounded better than the fruit and sandwiches he had stored in his backpack. So, he tucked his hands into the pocket of his hoodie and ventured in.
A few men were laughing about something with a porter in a green jumpsuit who stood scribbling on a notepad. The porter looked up when Jared walked in, and the conversation died down.
“Hey, what can I get for you?” The porter turned moved over to him.
“Uhh, what’s that truck driver burger? What’s all on that?” Jared smiled.
The porter returned the smile laced with sarcasm. “It’s got just about everything you like on a burger and a fried egg. That way you can have it for any meal.”
“Let’s just go with that, then.”
“All right, my man. Just keep it simple.” The porter scribbled some notes and went back to the kitchen.
The burger ended up being amazing. When the guide came in to find him, Jared had put the last bite in his mouth with a very satisfied grin and a dribble of cheese down his lip.
“Excellent choice, my friend. But next time, I’d get the slopper. There’s not much better than pork green chili from Colorado.”
“Well, I don’t think there’ll be much of a next time. On a mission right now.” Jared swallowed and wiped his hands on a napkin, then on the thighs of his jeans.
“An’ that involves jackalopes?”
“Jackalope horns more like. If they’re anything like deer or antelope, they shed their horns, right?”
“They do, but that usually happens the end of February. You’re a couple of months late. But, I’ll take you down and we’ll see what we can do.”
“This place is amazing.” Jared had to keep himself from falling on his knees when he saw the sprawl of shrubs interspersed with the jackalopes bounding between them. None of them shied away as he and the tour guide walked through. “This is even better than I could have imagined it.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. So, what’s your mission, if you don’t mind me asking?” The tour guide knelt down to pet a jackalope that had approached the two of them. The animal nuzzled his hands with the nubs of his horns and cooed.
“I’m going to try and make a wand with jackalope horn at the core.” Jared held out his hand, but the animal only gave it a cursory sniff before nearly head-butting the tour guide’s knee.
“Really? What’s that going to do for the wand?” The train guide scratched the animal between the horns.
“I’m not entirely sure, but I’ve been working on a theory about that. It takes some of the type of strength of the core and filters and focuses it through the parameters of the wood. So a jackalope is going to be gentle to a point, but from my research, they can hold their own in a fight.”
The tour guide laughed. “You bet they can. I saw two of them fight off a pack of goblins that had gotten on the farm. Nastiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“So they’re not outright aggressive, but they’re solid. So, if it works, I’m predicting that it’ll be good for charms and defensive spells.” Jared tried again to get a jackalope’s attention.
“Have you thought of using the horn as the core? People’re always thinking it’s got to be wood, but if you find a way to cut a good core well I think you might get something new.”
Jared paused. “I hadn’t. I always assumed it had to be wood because I could create solid halves for the wand.” He completely missed the smaller jackalope nuzzling up to him. He didn’t when it butted him with its horns.
“Oh, geez.” The tour guide pulled the animal into the air. “I have never seen Miss Claire do that.”
“Miss Claire? I thought only the males had horns.” Jared pulled his pant leg up to see the four perfect holes just above his shin.
“No, the women have the bigger horns. For defending their young.”
“Can you walk? We’ve got a first aid kit in the nesting house.” The tour guide held out a hand and nearly lifted Jared off the ground as soon as he nodded.
The nesting house sweltered. Jared had to wonder how the men in the green pants could handle it. And then he saw the litters of young jackalopes. Some were barely bigger than his fist and hid behind their mother. Others were in small, fenced crates. While the tour guide cleaned and bandaged his shin, one of the workers pulled a pup from the litter and proffered it to Jared. It watched him from his hands, watching him with an intelligence Jared had never seen in an animal, magical or otherwise. He wished he could see when the eyes moved so he could see what it was understanding about him. It’s black fur moved at the slightest breeze, and Jared swore even with the movement of his hand. He had never felt anything softer.
“Well, nothing too serious. Might get an impressive scar out of it.” The tour guide laughed. “Let’s get you a horn or two. I’ll even give you a discount since one of them decided to attack you.”
“A discount?” Jared looked up from the bunny jackalope.
“Yeah. You think we hand these out for free? We got people that carve the antlers into jewelry, some of them get made into magnets, heck, I got one who slices them into buttons. But, I’ll have Montroy see if we got two we can part with.”
Montroy was already looking for the second when the two met him in the warehouse part of the farm. “This one’s only got a single curve, no protrusions. You could probably make a good wand as is.” He held out the antler for Jared to examine. “I could even find the match for you if you need a back up.”
Three antlers cost thirty two dollars after the discount, but Jared happily accepted the bag and walked out from the farm back into Canon City. Outside of a grocery store, Jared assessed both his money and his list.
“No more nice meals for me.” He sighed, shoving the money back into the tin and in his bag. But, there was a new item to add to the list, and one to cross off. And that, he figured, would be worth it in the end.