The sky was navy and because of the absolute purity and crispness of the fall air, revealed the faint outline of the moon’s dark side. It looked as though God had cleaned the remnants of silver pigment from a paintbrush against an infinite bolt of blue fabric, the Milky Way practically lost amongst infinite stars.

Don knocked on the window of the wood door, louder than he’d wanted. He looked back sheepishly at Mauro.

“Smooth move, Ex-Lax,” Mauro whispered.

Clad in full camouflage, both had their faces made up like Mayan warriors, bold green and black markings drawn on. The door opened, and Ed Troyer’s lean body filled the frame.

“Good morning. Aldo’s nephews, eh? Welcome,” Troyer said.

His long, heart-shaped face sat underneath thick white hair, combed neatly, giving him the appearance of an accountant, spoiled only by a Lincoln-esque beard. His tan Carhartt overalls were worn pale. He had enormous hands that engulfed theirs. They entered the house. The spring in his step seemed unattainable at such an early hour.

A fat, caramel-colored tabby sat on a red and white quilt draped over a lounge chair. Mauro reached down and petted the animal’s striped fur, and it purred.

“Coffee. Just brewed.” When he spoke, even statements sounded like a question.

“No thanks. I’ll have to piss too much if I do,” Mauro said. “Sorry—I meant, uh, urinate.”

“Plenty of trees out there,” Troyer said, “for pissin’ and such.”

The cousins looked at each other as Troyer sipped his coffee.

“Pretty cat,” Mauro said, looking down at the large feline.

“Butternut rules the roost, eh,” he said. He leaned against the counter and stirred cream into his coffee, staring at the cat. “If you fellas walk back three hundred yards due south, you’ll cross that same road you came in on. Cut in from there. That’s the forty. Put two tree seats in there. You won’t miss the trees, ’count of I flagged them, eh. One’s in a big scrub oak, other in a dead maple, only a hundred yards from each other. Hordes of deer in there. Rats with horns. Need to keep my bean fields intact, so I’m counting on ya. There’s deer in there. Shoot ten all I care.”

“We just saw an absolute—” Don started to speak before Mauro stopped him with a glare. Don felt his armpits moisten for spilling such sacred information. The farmer snickered.

“You saw him. Huge, ain’t he?” Troyer asked. He took a long drink of his coffee and licked his lips. “Had a trespasser a year ago went after him. Man got nasty with me,” he stopped in the act of recollection, fingering the mug. “So, I had to get nasty with him.” He stared directly at Mauro, and it made him self-aware. “Anyways … my Esther calls him the ‘Grey Ghost,’ ’count of his coat. She thinks he’s beautiful. Well, kill him, too. Thing’s been rutting them does and ruining my beans, my corn. All he’s doing is passing on that size to his heirs. Rats with horns. That’s what they are, rats with horns.” The farmer drank the rest of his coffee in one gulp.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Mauro said.

“Don’t get me wrong; love animals. Don’t like seeing suffering. Not against hunting, eh. Just that Esther, she—”

Mauro looked at Don, and suddenly Troyer’s face turned shy, and he looked away, as if he’d just admitted some great foible. He started to rinse his coffee mug.

“Have to get to my barn, burning daylight yapping away, nothing personal, see. If you’re gonna kill any deer, make sure you got a good shot first, all I ask, ’count of Esther. Got to get to my barn.”

“Mauro’s a killer, a real dead-eye. You don’t have to worry about him,” Don said.

Mauro’s chin rose up. Troyer placed his mug in the dryer rack.

“Esther’s down south of Bay City, shopping for my grandkids at one of them malls. Spoils those kids, she does. When you finish up, don’t worry ’bout coming by, not necessary. Now that you’re situated, tomorrow morning you can head straight to the woods.” He pulled his beard hair. “Maybe Aldo can send over some steaks if you bag one. Esther ain’t much for hunting, but the woman can eat two pounds of venison in one sitting.”

“If we’re so lucky, you bet. We really appreciate this, Mr. Troyer,” Don said.

“Yeah, this is really generous of you,” Mauro added.

The farmer tsked them and shook their hands once again.

“Do anything for Aldo. He gave me his word on you two. He’s a good man, eh. Good friend. Welcome back anytime.”

They followed him out and watched as he strode to the barn, his quick steps equal to two of theirs. Mauro opened the hatch and grabbed his compound bow. Don unzipped his case, removing the powerful weapon. They were graceful, wooden-handled killing machines, made contemporary by titanium wheels with steel cables on top and bottom that aided the archer to draw the forceful string back with little effort.

Each bow had a quiver of eight arrows attached to it.

“Pretty folksy. Son of a bitch was tall, huh?” Mauro said.

“See the hands on that guy?” Don remarked.

Their flashlights created darting beams in the fog as they headed to the blinds. The darkness was lifting slightly. A great horned owl flew undetected over their heads, causing them to seek the source of the drumbeat its wings made. Crunching leaves prompted both to stop.

“Squirrel. Come on. We have to get in the stands before dawn,” Mauro said, pointing at the thick woods they were about to enter.

Photo(s) by Illustration by Joe Borri,