All the lights in the dining room sparkled as the evening outside deepened into blackness.
"... and then the wolves left and Lone Wolf came in and we spent last night and today cooking everything and making it a nice dinner." Fae's face lit up as she told the story of the wolves for the second or third time, depending on whom you asked. Everyone sat at the large table in the dining area where steaming food waited to be devoured. The smell of roasted meat drifted up from the huge plate of sliced venison in the middle of the table, the centerpiece of the meal. Herbs and spices tickled their noses. The Selah Ranch residents each had a chair and a sparkling glass of water, though there was no ice. An empty place sat at the head of the table, as was tradition, the knife and fork crossed in the center where a plate would normally sit. Jed sat to the right of the head, with Maddie next to him. The others sat around the table, with two empty seats at the foot of the table.
"Hey, I helped with the dessert!" Sam objected.
Fae flipped stray strands of her long red hair from her forehead and rolled her eyes. "Oh, puh-leese… You helped for like an hour before dinner and all you did was stick your hands in the cake batter. Like that counts."
"Okay," said Sam, raising his hands in mock surrender. He didn't mention that he helped put the drinks on the table. "I give. So where is the mysterious Lone Wolf?" Sam grinned to his left at Fae. "After that story, I'm excited to meet him. Sort of the last Indian native, maybe in the whole world!"
"Well, except for August. They are brothers," Linda chimed in. She sat immediately to Sam's left, Fae next to her.
"I helped mash the potatoes. And I helped find and dig up the sweet potatoes, too!" Fae still chattered happily. She paused, a slight frown crossing her features. "I'm not sure I like sweet potatoes," she added, then grinned again."But I'll sure give them a try."
Maddie turned to Jed and smiled sweetly. "And what did you do to prepare dinner, my dear?" She grinned at him.
"Well, it sounds like I didn't do much of anything, but I distinctly recall being pretty busy for two days." Jed laughed and squeezed Maddie's right hand with his left.
"Oh. Oh. And I helped to marinate the venison. Lone Wolf showed me how. He had these herbs and stuff and we mixed it with water and some sort of vinegar stuff that we had in the cellar and I had to rub it into the meat with my hands..." Fae mimicked the motions, but jumped as the front door opened and closed with a solid thump.
Claire and Shelly smiled as the newcomer walked into the dining area, coming toward the table from behind Sam. Lone Wolf, clean and wearing spotless buckskins, moved to the chair at the foot of the table and looked at everyone seated. He gave a slight bow.
"I apologize for being tardy. I dozed off this afternoon and overslept," said Lone Wolf.
Jed stood and introduced each seated person. "Lone Wolf. Sitting next to Maddie is Ted." Ted nodded his head in greeting. Jed indicated Claire and Shelly with his hands. "You know the ladies, of course." Lone Wolf offered a slight bow to both of them and a bright smile to Shelly. "Across from me," continued Jed, "is Nancy. You know Fae and Linda." Jed pointed at Sam. "This is Sam, an amazing mechanic with copious skills that I'm sure he will regale you with when he gets a chance."
Lone Wolf bowed at Nancy and looked at Sam, who stared at Lone Wolf, his face pale. "Is something wrong, Sam?" asked Lone Wolf. "Do I have something on my chin?"
Sam shook his head and grinned, as if coming out of a daze. "No, no, I'm sorry," he laughed. "I guess I've never seen a real American Indian in deer clothing before." He shook his head. "It's a little amazing."
Lone Wolf smiled. "Buckskins, Sam, and much softer than regular deer hide. Takes some work to make them, but they are worth it. This is my preferred outfit, and has been for a long time."
Jed sat when Lone Wolf did. Now he spoke up. "Let's say grace and then we can eat from this bounty. Then we can get your stories of the trip to Pueblo and we'll be caught up." He laughed. "You've already been caught up on our tale." He grinned at Fae.
They bowed their heads and prayed. For the next two hours they ate and talked, each interjecting comments and thoughts about the events of the last two days.
"Can we do anything about the new virus, the one that infected the rats, Claire?" asked Jed.
Claire sat back in her chair, an empty plate in front of her. "No, Jed. If the virus mutated enough to cause other animals to be carriers, that's a real problem, but I don't know what to do about it. I'm hoping it is an isolated incident, but we'll have to be on our guard."
Sam grimaced. "I hate rats anyway. Is there any way to tell if other mammals are also affected by the new virus?"
Claire looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Good question, Sam. The answer is that I don't think we can predict anything without a lot of testing, and I doubt we'll get that chance. We'll have to see how it plays out in nature, and that means keeping our eyes open, especially when scavenging."
After a brief moment of quiet, Nancy looked at Jed. "What do we do about Tomás?"
Jed looked back. "I know what I want to do about him." Jed's voice was tight, his mouth grim.
"Well, he tried to kidnap me for one thing," said Maddie, looking at Jed. Nancy frowned.
"Yes, and we need to have a discussion with him on that, but what else did you have in mind?" Claire interjected, looking at Maddie with concern and staring at Jed's hardened face. "Tomás runs a small city-state, an independent entity." Claire waved her hand around the room. "And there are ten of us right now. We can't declare war. You know our ammunition levels are low as it is."
Maddie pursed her lips and glared at the table. "I know you're right, but I want us to do something."
"Revenge, Maddie? Kill the father of three Transformed children? Make them orphans?" Claire smiled sadly at Maddie, her face determined. "What he did was wrong. At some point we'll need to make an issue of it, but with a clear head." She aimed the last part of the sentence to Jed.
"I don't like it, but you're right. Our independence relies on boundaries and discussions, not force." They could see his jaw tighten. "Although I think I'm inclined to lean toward force in this case."
Maddie jerked her head up when Jed said that, tears in her eyes. "I wouldn't want the children to go through that."
"In the meantime I think we need to keep an eye open for intruders and strangers. Maddie might not be safe from him." Nancy took a sip of her water.
"Maddie?" Sam laughed shortly. "You're the one who shot him, Nancy. I think you'd be worried about yourself."
Nancy smiled. "I didn't hurt anything that won't heal." She paused. "Except his pride. I don't know what to do about that."
Lone Wolf, quiet until now, spoke in his deep voice. "His leg will heal with time. Not so his pride. In my experience, pride can cause many problems."
"What about the blood wine that Tomás gave to Maddie?" Nancy looked sharply at Maddie's face as she asked the question.
"You do look a little pale." Claire looked at Maddie. "I can give you a checkup if you'd like."
Maddie agreed. "Yes, that would be a good idea, but I think I'm fine."
Sam chuckled. "I think this Tomás character was trying to psych you out, Maddie. I think the entire thing was a fabrication designed to make you think he had some hold on you."
"That makes sense. He didn't have any other way to coerce you," said Jed.
"Telling you that about the children, though, that was pretty mean of him." Fae said to Maddie. "I'm glad I didn't go on the trip."
Lone Wolf smiled at the young woman. "And I am glad you were here, Fae. I don't think the dinner would be nearly as nice without your assistance."
Fae blushed as red as her hair.
"Hey!" said Sam, a hurt look in his eyes. "I helped with dessert!" Everyone groaned.
Nancy looked at Jed, smiling. "What was it you did for the last two days?"
Jed sighed dramatically and stood up. "I guess I volunteered to do the dishes!"
Everyone went to bed with full stomachs and vivid dreams. Nobody noticed Sam staring at Lone Wolf, except, perhaps, Lone Wolf.
"You're very quiet." Maddie curled up against Jed, who was on his back in the large bed, staring at the wooden ceiling.
"I'm not sure what to say." He pulled her to him and Maddie put her head on his shoulder. "On the one hand, we built Selah Ranch on fairness and equality. We make group decisions on things that matter. I don't play judge and jury, and I certainly don't play executioner." Jed ground his teeth and Maddie reached up to stroke his face, trying to calm him. "On the other hand, I think I should visit Tomás and put a permanent end to his tyranny. Just the thought that he would use you that way…"
"But he didn't." Maddie was silent, her hand patting Jed on his bare chest. "Part of me wishes that Nancy shot him in the head, but then we wouldn't have escaped New Pueblo. His children adore him, and he seems to adore them."
"What about their mothers? Where are they?" Jed asked.
"I don't know. The old man said they ran off, but that didn't ring true to me. Something there isn't right, and I can't put my finger on it."
"What about that thing with having children?" Jed tilted his head to look at Maddie softly. "You still want children, don't you?"
Maddie smiled back at him then snuggled closer. "I think so, if it's possible. But that's not something we have definitive information on."
"So there's a couple mysteries. Aside from asking Tomás, I don't have any idea how to get more information."
"He mentioned that he knew Holden and Hemanth. August will get more information on his trip to Fort Collins."
"He won't know what questions to ask."
"But part of his trip is to get the radio working then you can ask."
"Maybe. I don't want the entire world listening in, though." Jed growled. "I'd still like to kill Tomás."
Maddie moved back and looked at Jed. He turned his head to look in her eyes. "You're pretty mad about this, aren't you?" she asked.
"I am." Jed's mouth tightened. "And I get madder the more I think about it."
"I'm still angry, too, but I'll get over it. I need to think about something else for a while." Maddie got up on her elbow and looked down into Jed's face. "I can help you think about something else, too…" She kissed him.
Jed quit thinking about Tomás.