“He’s incredible. A trophy—where’s the—I mean, what’d you do with the head? The antlers?” Mauro asked.

Troyer moved next to Mauro. He rubbed his equine face and fixed a pained look on it.

“Well, that’s a funny story, eh? Some conservation fellow came snoopin’ ’round, wanting to take measurements when word got out ’bout what happened with Aldo. I told him my suspicions, but all he cared about was the antlers. Told me the Ghost was probably a state record in the—what’d he call it now—the typical category. Then he said something about some books, Boone and Pope and what’s that name—like old pioneer names?” Troyer’s lips closed as he reached for the correct titles.

“Crockett. Boone and  Crockett and Pope and  Young,” Mauro said, the color draining from his face.

“Yes! Crockett. Reminded me of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. That all mean something to you—those names, I mean, besides the pioneer part?”

Mauro stared impassively at the man’s ignorance about the magnitude of what he’d just reported. Guilt and the thoughts of what could have been chewed at his conscience.

“Yeah,” Mauro said. “That was a perfect matched set of antlers—that’s called typical. Holy … that rack is the state record, maybe the world, bigger than the Hanson buck. Pope and Young sanctions bow hunting records. A buck registered in both is … ” Troyer listened with amused interest. Mauro let the explanation fade out. “That would be worth a lot to a collector. To have the state record alone, that’s priceless.”

He scanned the barn trying to locate the deer’s giant head.

“I told you; rats with horns, that’s all they are to me. Nothing more. Tasty rats they are. I love venison, but I got no use for the rest of them, eh? So I ground up those horns, fed ’em to my hogs,” Troyer said.

Mauro’s face went slack and the thought of such a trophy being destroyed in so reckless a manner made him physically ill. The farmer’s thin mouth popped open and he unleashed a hearty guffaw.

“You should see your face! I’m just funning. Oh, that’s grand,” the farmer beamed, trying to withhold giggles from his mouth with his long fingers.

Mauro’s face reanimated and the color returned. His ears glowed red, and he laughed in spite of himself, along with the gangly Troyer.

“Oh, you are cruel. Man, I was going to say that was too beautiful a rack to do something like that to. You had me going,” Mauro said.

The farmer chuckled some more, and Mauro let him go on as he tried to formulate a subtle way to ask the farmer the question he’d been wanting to all along.

“I’m not sure if you’d be interested, but if you really don’t want them, I’d love to have the head and antlers. I’d have it mounted, he was just so memorable. You know … beautiful?” Mauro delivered the line with the perfect amount of nonchalance. He felt like he’d just sold a Frigidaire to an Inuit family. “I’ll gladly pay you for them.”

The farmer’s face screwed up like he’d just swallowed a jar of pickle juice.

“I wish I’d known. I ended up putting it up for sale at the Rescue Auction in Fairview. I heard a guy bought the antlers for sixty bucks. Some fellow, he collects all sorts of antlers, makes fancy furniture, lamps and such out of them. Well, he thought he hit the lottery, can you imagine that? For some horns?”

“Sixty dollars,” Mauro said.

“Hard to believe an animal can live that long and grow horns that big and only be worth sixty bucks in the end, eh?” Troyer said, biting his lip hard. “Hmmph!”

Mauro’s stomach cramped up and he felt vomit and the runs trying to decide which would go first. He clenched his buttocks tight and tasted bile on the back of his tongue.

The farmer shook his head again and seemed truly disheartened.

“Wish I would’ve called Aldo beforehand, eh? Dang it to blazes. What can you do though; we were still so … distraught, with Esther’s Lightning and all. People probably think I’m crazy, paying over four hundred dollars to save a farm cat, eh? Four hundred … lot of money. I’ll get it back though, don’t look so concerned. That trespasser will pay, don’t you worry.”

Mauro couldn’t really say anything. He kind of nodded his head, his eyes fixed on the cleanly severed neck of the biggest deer he’d ever seen, now hanging from a hook.

“I just don’t like to see animals suffer. I’m going to have this monster butchered up and make sure Aldo gets plenty of the meat. Some was ruined in the accident, but a lot was salvageable. Give some to that young farmer who lost his arm.”

Ed Troyer patted the haunch that wasn’t hit by Aldo’s truck. The huge carcass yawed in a slow, swaying circle, its front legs bent. Mauro watched it, remembering how it looked when it ran off, silver-haired, yet so powerful and alive.

“Well, I should get going. Thanks again for taking care of my uncle. Don’t know what would’ve happened to him if you hadn’t been there.” Mauro started to leave the barn with the farmer in tow. He saw a squat, chubby woman he assumed was Esther Troyer standing near his Cherokee. He watched her stealthily shuffle back to the porch of the farmhouse.

“That your wife?” Mauro asked, pointing ahead.

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