"We're losing more chickens than we used to," Shelly said.
All of the Selah Ranch residents relaxed in the living room of the main house as the thunder cracked against the mountains outside, rattling the windows. A fire sparked in the large stone fireplace, reflecting heat and a flickering sense of companionship into the room.
Maddie smiled at Ted and moved a checker on the checkerboard sitting on the table between them. "That happens. Owls and hawks always get some chickens, though they roost high under the trees, to stay away from foxes and bobcats. Still, we expect some losses."
"We were talking to some Texas groups about getting yard dogs to protect the chickens." Jed scratched the top of his head absently. "I'm hoping we can make that happen."
Dozing on the small couch, Fae perked up. "I'd like a dog! I used to play with the strays back home."
Sam grinned at her. "How do you play with strays, Fae?"
Fae grinned mischievously. "You grab a chunk of meat or something and wave it at them. Then you climb the buildings and play keep away. It's a lot of fun."
Everyone stared at Fae and Sam exploded with laughter. "Oh, my goodness, girl! Didn't you have anybody to play with that didn't want to eat you?"
Fae's face fell, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Linda glared at Sam and sat next to Fae, drawing her close and stroking her hair.
"Leave her alone, Sam," growled August, sitting on the end of the long couch, his feet up on a footrest. "Dogs probably didn't even play with you."
"You'd be surprised, big guy." Sam's face reflected contrition, though his eyes seemed to grow darker. "I'm sorry, Fae. I didn't mean anything by it. It struck me as funny, that's all."
Fae snuffled forgiveness as she nestled her face in Linda's shoulder.
"Hey, I thought I saw someone out in the woods this morning. Out of the corner of my eye…" Sam looked toward Jed.
"It was Lone Wolf," said Shelly. She grinned and put three tens down on the little table between her and Nancy. Nancy grinned wickedly, put a ten down, dropped three twos and discarded her final card. "Doggone it." Shelly tallied the cards in her hand and wrote a number down on the small notepad with the stub of a wooden pencil.
Linda looked around, puzzled. "Who's Lone Wolf?"
"Member of the family," grunted August.
"August's brother," said Fae, lifting her head. "He's always in the woods."
"We don't see much of him," said Maddie, glancing at the checkerboard. "You sure you want to make that move, Ted?"
Ted looked at Maddie sternly. "I am perfectly capable of playing checkers, Maddie." Maddie smiled.
Jed, in his big chair by the fireplace, didn't even look up from reading his book. "We don't see much of Lone Wolf because he's quite content, but maybe he'll come in for a few weeks when the coldest part of the winter hits."
"Don't you mean a few months?" Linda shivered and pulled a blanket tighter around her shoulders as lighting lit the falling rain outdoors.
Nancy looked out the window. "Shouldn't Lone Wolf come in from the rain?"
August grunted. "Lone Wolf doesn't like civilization and considers me too soft. I've seen him walk through a downpour like this, steam rising from his naked chest. I've seen sheets of ice cover the trees and Lone Wolf walking across the snow barefoot looking for rabbits."
Jed laughed. "You say that all the time." He looked at Nancy. "He's a member of the family and he has a complete set of survival gear, as well as a small cabin about two miles away. We might see him if he runs out of reading materials or he starts feeling lonely, but we might not." He grinned at August. "And he knows he's always welcome here."
"He knows." August opened a small book. "If he thought otherwise, I guess we'd move again." Claire thumbed through an ancient, worn book while she sat next to him.
Sam looked at August. "So you're travelers? Me, too. Traveled a lot before the Zs, been travelling ever since. Vegas was a great hub for airlines. I traveled the world." Sam grinned, his white teeth gleaming in the firelight. "I can blend in, though. A big guy like you would have a harder time doing that, right?"
August crossed his arms across his massive chest, the flannel of his shirt straining around his biceps. He didn't say anything, but stared at Sam for a moment, his book held loosely in his right hand.
Sam grinned wider. "Man, I'd give anything to have those guns," said Sam, flexing his right bicep, looking from his arm to August's. "How old are you anyway?"
August grunted and Claire nudged him, smiling. "That's a good question, August."
"Older than you," he said to Claire.
"You might be surprised," Claire grinned.
Jed looked up from his book. "Nobody knows how old he is. We don't ask any more."
"Your father knew," Claire pointed out.
"It's not one of the things he shared with me," Jed said.
"I asked him not to," grunted August.
"You could still tell us, August." Claire said. "We're family."
August looked from one face to another and shrugged. "Lone Wolf might visit if we had some venison for dinner." Maddie laughed. August chuckled. "I'm just sayin'."
Jed closed his book. "You know what? That's not a bad idea. We've had quite a bit of beef lately, but nothing fresh for a while. I think I'll head into the hills and look for venison." He looked around the room. "A quick hunting trip then a nice venison dinner. Who's up for it?"
"I'm in," said Maddie. "I need a nice long hike in the woods."
"I'm in," said August.
"I'd like to go." Sam said. "What kind of rifles do you have?"
"Oh," grinned August, "we use bows."
"That was damned cold and wet, August." Maddie stamped the mud from her boots on the wet wooden boards of the front porch.
"Sam, can you take those haunches to the meat shack? One of us will be there shortly to help." Jed smiled at Sam, who grinned back.
"Yeah, sure." Sam's face flushed and his eyes sparkled. "That was awesome, guys. Thanks for letting me come." With no apparent effort, Sam lifted a haunch of meat in each hand and headed for the far shack.
"No problem." Maddie grinned and called after him. "We would have lost him if you hadn't tracked him over those rocks. Good job, by the way."
"Go get warm, honey. August and I will clean the weapons and put them away. I'll be in pretty soon."
"You don't have to tell me twice." Maddie stood on her toes and kissed Jed's wind-reddened cheek. "I'll find someone to help Sam. You boys need to get in here and get warm, too." The door opened and closed and Maddie disappeared.
August and Jed carried the bows toward the end of the main house. "You made a nice shot, August. Dropped him with one arrow."
August didn't even grunt this time.
Jed smiled. "Of course, you always use one arrow. None of us have your hunting skill."
When he still received no response, Jed patted the big guy's shoulder. "I was pretty surprised that Sam could track better than you could, though. I was sure we lost the trail over those rocks."
"He didn't track the buck, Jed. I could have followed the sign eventually, but Sam didn't do any tracking."
"Okay, those are the first words you've said in over two hours. What's bothering you?"
In the small anteroom of the house, they shed their outer coats and cleaned the bows, the arrows and the knives as they talked.
"He didn't track them, Jed. I'm not sure what he did, but I think he smelled the deer. He followed the buck's scent."
Jed frowned. "How is that possible, August? Can you do that?"
"No, Jed, I can't. Neither can Lone Wolf. Well, I won't say for sure what my brother can and cannot do, but I don't think he can follow prey by scent." He paused. "Well, not often."
"What makes you think Sam did?"
"I watched him, Jed. I watched his nostrils flare. I've seen dogs track that way, but never humans."
Jed stopped. "He's pretty strong, too - maybe stronger than I am. He sure handled the carcass easily."
August shrugged. "The buck was less than a hundred-fifty pounds, so we hauled back a bit over a hundred, minus the entrails and the bit I left for the wolves." August wiped his hands on a towel and lightly punched Jed's shoulder. "Even your Dad could handle a hundred pounds of meat."
"After five miles, even a hundred pounds feels heavy."
"So he's strong. Is he one of you?" asked August.
"No, we'd know that," said Jed.
"So you've said." August crossed his arms and leaned back against the stainless steel sink, now dry with a few towels hanging on the edge.
Jed shrugged and looked at August. "There's a sense, a feeling we get from other Transformed. I don't get that from Sam and Maddie doesn't, or she'd tell me."
August didn't move for a few seconds, staring back at Jed. He sighed. "You don't get that feeling from me, either."
"You're not a Transformed, August." Jed stepped back, his eyebrows raised. "Are you? Is that what Dad knew about you?"
"It's time we had a personal talk, Jed. You, me and Maddie." He opened the inner door and started removing his cold weather gear. "Why don't you go get her and meet me in the small study?" Without saying another word, August hung his gear on the pegs and walked off into the house.
Jed removed the rest of his winter gear and pulled on some soft, thick wool socks. In stocking feet, he hurried to find Maddie.