The farmer acted as if he didn’t hear the question. Just stared at Mauro with a kind of loathing. “Your uncle really loves his nephews, that’s for sure, eh?” Troyer said.

“We love him very much. He’s like a second father to most of us,” Mauro said.

Seeing the expression on the farmer’s face, Mauro felt the skeeves, so he walked quickly to the Cherokee. Esther Troyer stood on the porch, a serious look on her doughy face. Her lips curled into a little grin and her double chins heaved as she watched them approach. Mauro stared at her.

“Hello, Mrs. Troyer,” he said. “How are you?”

“Now aren’t I some kind of host? This is my Esther. Esther, this here’s Aldo’s nephew, Mauro. I told you about him.” She held a look on her husband before acknowledging Mauro.

“Of course. I’m fine young man. Edward, I did as you asked. Now I got my canning to do if you’ll excuse me. Be needing your help Ed, so hurry on. Good day young man.” She was rushing now and her hand went to her mouth, abruptly, “Oh! I’m sorry—” She opened the door and shut it behind her before Mauro had a chance to say goodbye. He looked at the farmer. Troyer bit his lip and shrugged.

Esther let out a loud belly laugh, then cut it short, as if stifling a sneeze. Mauro looked at Troyer, who again seemed as if his mind was in another place, and he also seemed to be holding something back.

“Don’t mind her, she’s still sore about Lightning. Have to be honest with you,” Troyer got really close to Mauro as he opened the driver’s side door. “She’s sure it was you who shot him. Between you and me, I could give two craps who shot that goddamn mangy cat.” Mauro flinched at the man’s sudden use of profanity. Troyer caught himself. “Forgive my language. Esther, her cats mean the world to her. But I told her it wasn’t you or your cousin, because you gave your word to your uncle. And your uncle, he gave me his word. Aldo gave me his word on all that, see?”

Mauro looked at Troyer’s eyes, trying to read what the hell was happening. The man’s demeanor hadn’t changed much since he met him that first morning with Don, and he couldn’t be sure if it was just his guilty conscience pricking at him or if this was a test, maybe a last chance. They stared at each other a moment.

“I appreciate that,” Mauro said.

He held out his hand. The farmer studied it, and then he took it, shaking it just as solidly as he had before, with just a little more on it. Mauro didn’t let on how much his fingers ached. Troyer finally let go, and Mauro got into his Cherokee.

“Aldo is special. It’s like he’s lived up here his entire life. Go to the mat for anyone. I’ve seen him help folks up here, never say two words about it, you see? He ain’t typical of most city folks move up this way; all brash talkers, putting themselves on folks, forcing their opinions. You understand what I’m telling you?”

“I do. He’s special. Like I said, we love him, too.”

“Maybe next year, you and your cousin can come back, try and bag the Ghost’s kin if you like. Nothing but rats with horns … ”

“Right; rats, you’ve mentioned that. Thanks again,” Mauro said.

The farmer snapped his fingers, startling Mauro. He walked over, leaning his lanky frame against the window ledge. Mauro’s face was a foot away from Troyer’s, so close he could see the pores on his cheeks and his eyelashes. His breath reeked of coffee.

“I collected a bushel of apples for you. That grove of mine still manages to produce some nice Granny Smiths. Had Esther load them up in your trunk while we was yapping away in the barn. You like apples, son?”

Mauro looked at the door on the porch. He swore he saw Esther Troyer’s face looking at him from behind the lace curtains.

“Huh? Uh, sure, yeah. Thanks,” Mauro said. “Goodbye, Mr. Troyer.”

Mauro looked at him one last time. Troyer backed away, and stood there. Mauro started down the driveway and turned, speeding away from the farm. In his side mirror he saw the farmer waving, so he threw his hand out the window in return.

Photo(s) by Illustration by Joe Borri,