The sun was high, though the clouds had covered it all morning. Mauro couldn’t believe he’d seen mostly does, two of which had trotted into his area from Don’s direction. Ignoring Troyer’s pleas, he wanted to wait for a shot at that silver giant they’d seen earlier. Mauro’s head lifted at the quiet sound of something like drumsticks being smacked together. He listened to the clacking compete with the chattering of a red squirrel.
His head swung, searching. It was antlers rattling, which to a deer hunter was as lovely as classical music to a socialite.
And it was getting closer.
A loud snort preceded three big does, exploding through the aspens bordering the field leading to Troyer’s home. They ran like gazelles, hopping and leaping with no rhyme or reason, tails raised high like white flags. A large eight-point trailed, chasing ten yards behind them, but the buck moved too fast, scared even, a wash of blood between its eyes. And though Mauro could have taken a chance, he paused, visualizing a nasty gut shot—Troyer’s words resonating in his head.
His legs shook as he waited for what he hoped would be chasing the eight-point. It had to be the monster—the “Grey Ghost” Troyer had called it. He heard a thunderous snort fifty yards away, and his mouth went dry. The eight-point had been thick in the neck with that blood spot the size of a half-dollar on its forehead. Experience from killing many bucks in his young life told him a much larger deer had inflicted that damage, and he was counting on it being the Ghost. Then bleating snorts trumpeted. He looked deep into the tangle of trees and swore he saw the monochromatic body of their giant.
Soft, rustling leaves countered the snorts. But it seemed too quiet for such a titanic animal. Sometimes the biggest deer walk quietly amongst their domain, he remembered reading. He pulled the string halfway back. The weapon quavered, shaking. Settle down, he thought. He steadied the bow, fighting off the buck fever. Mauro pinpointed the sound with his ears. But instead of the heavy-beamed, basket rack emerging from the aspens, this was something else.
Are you kidding me? he thought.
A lean, black cat sauntered toward him from the aspens. The cat was relatively small compared to the Jabba-the-Hutt-sized Butternut belonging to Troyer. Other than wild dogs, feral cats were among the worst thing for a hunter to happen upon. They made game run scared, and the squirrels and other rodents they chased had a disquieting effect on the woods around them. Deer were skittish and wary enough. And big deer grew big because they were survivors, wise to warning sounds. The last thing he wanted was some wild cat messing up their chance at that trophy.
A selfish thought overtook him; he hoped it would be him or nobody to bag the Ghost. He loved Don like the brother he never had, but the competition in his family was too fierce for Mauro to live with if anyone but him brought the head of that deer to Lombardi, the taxidermist. That giant would cement Mauro’s legacy as the superior hunter in their huge family. Why this farmer allowed them a crack at such a trophy was really of no importance to him. It was just happenstance relevant to what fueled him: to be better than any of them, no matter what it took.
Some acorns lay scattered at his feet. Against his better judgment, he picked one up and chucked it at the cat. Instead of bolting, the thing kept walking toward him. Looking like a miniature panther, it approached twenty-five yards from his tree and showed no sign of leaving. The cat stopped to lick its paws.
Careful here, don’t want to make things worse, he thought.
He looked at the quiver on his bow handle. His arrows were carbon fiber, the shafts thirty-two inches in length and finished in a flat, olive camo with three plastic vanes—two orange and a single white—at the ends. The one nocked on his bowstring had a razor-tipped broadhead screwed into the end. He removed the deadly looking arrow, returning it into the empty slot in the quiver in exchange for the single smooth, tapered target-point. He always carried one if he felt like trying for a squirrel or a meandering grouse. Mauro nocked the new arrow, and pulled back slowly, the white vane horizontal from the taut string. He held the release point at the corner of his mouth as he’d done thousands of times while honing his skill.
Maybe I’ll just scare him, he thought.
The Ghost flashed in his mind, its head and huge antlers mounted on his den wall.
“Yeah, screw that,” he whispered, making the slightest adjustment, zeroing in on the cat’s heart.
Something on the animal sparkled—metallic, perhaps—but it was too late to stop. The arrow flew, springing off his bowstring like a cheetah being freed from a cage. At the sound of the string’s twang, the cat jumped slightly, and the arrow, which was set to pass right through the kill zone, instead entered the cat’s hindquarters, slicing into the muscle of its haunches. It leapt straight in the air and did a complete flip. Mauro was stunned to see his arrow sticking through its rear end.
“Oh, son of a—” he said, startled at the sound of his voice.