Driving to Troyer’s property, the weight of the lie would leave Mauro momentarily, only to rush back like a fever into his stomach. He passed gas that was so pungent he had to roll down the windows. He watched the turns and forks go by and saw the rusty pair of wagon wheels. He looked upon the scene where Aldo had crashed into the Ghost. Debris from the truck was pushed in a small pile to the side of the two-track. He tried to ignore it and kept driving. He saw the farmhouse ahead, and there was Troyer at his truck. Mauro pulled up beside him.

“How’s it going?” Mauro said as he got out of his vehicle, his voice masking the discomfort of the meeting.

Troyer walked over and extended his right hand, the huge fingers grappling Mauro’s own like some sea creature intent on devouring it.

“Where’s your hunting partner?” Troyer asked, looking past Mauro.

“Went back home to Detroit.”

“Oh. Well then. You I really wanted to see, eh? Just wanted to make sure you both knew I was a man of my word,” Troyer said, his face absent of anything but sincerity. Mauro’s throat went dry but he swallowed hard and nodded through it.

“Please, it’s you who should get the thanks. We appreciate how you took care of my uncle, and well, your consideration with the … misunderstanding of things. How’s your cat doing anyway? What’s her name?”

“Lightning. And it’s a he. Esther’s Lightning. Turned out to be one tough customer. He’s going to pull through it looks like, eh. Probably have stiff legs the rest of his days. That’s the life of an animal, I guess. I still need to get the police involved with that rapscallion who shot him. Just can’t believe he wasn’t man enough to talk to me face-to-face.”

“The police. Oh. Well, I’m glad he’s going to recover,” Mauro said, and the farmer looked at him hard.

“I’m sure you are. Come to the barn … want you to see something.”

Mauro hesitated and watched Troyer walk, feeling as though his own feet were stuck in a bog. A wave of panic and bizarre thoughts swirled around him, and an image of the farmer sticking him in the heart with a pitchfork flickered there. He dismissed all of it as foolishness and guilt and followed him inside.

Troyer slid open the large wood doors and Mauro stood at the entrance, his face breaking into a look of wonderment. It smelled of hay. Inside, a single shaft of buttery sunlight shone through a high loft window, cutting through the dull atmosphere. Specks of dust swam lazily as the light pointed to a startling image; the regal, silver stag, slowly twisting in the air. It was dressed out, a wooden stake spreading apart the grotto of its formidable chest, which was now gutted and raw.

The buck was headless, which seemed somehow inappropriate, a violation. The carcass hung above them from a large beam, impaled on a meat hook that was stuck high through its spine. The body cavity was big enough for a ten-year-old child to hide within. Wavy heat from a standing woodstove made Mauro’s face feel sunburned.

“He was a big-un. Maybe next year you’ll get a shot at one just like him, eh?” Troyer said, standing close behind him.

Photo(s) by Illustration by Joe Borri, www.skidmorestudio.com