Hannah watched as Brian, Daniel and Evan each added second helpings to their lunch plates. "You boys gonna be gone all day?" she asked.
"Probably," Brian answered around a mouthful of a sandwich. "Bob Carver called a little while ago; found two of our cows on his property. Figure there's a break in the fencing up that way."
"It'll take us a couple hours just to get to his place to get the cows back; then we gotta find the break and fix it, too," Daniel added.
"Can't you just drive to the Carver place?" Hannah asked.
"Not if Adam's got the truck…" Evan added this time.
"And besides, it's actually easier and faster to ride to his place and back," Daniel said.
Hannah nodded, but looked confused. She was still new to the family and how it, and the farm, worked.
"You'll get the hang of things, Hannah," Brian said, picking up on his sister-in-law's feelings. "Don't worry if we're out late, though. May take longer than we think to find the break."
"I guess I'll make and pack you some more sandwiches, then," Hannah offered. "And a jug of juice and a thermos of coffee."
"Sounds great, Hannah. Thanks," Daniel said.
The three McFaddens rode easily, following the fence along the northern part of the family's property. The pack horse carrying supplies to mend the fences trailed along after Brian and his horse. Today, depending upon what they found, they would most probably just do a temporary repair, if they could. Once they knew if more needed to be done on a more permanent basis, they could plan out a trip back and bring specific needed supplies for any repairs. Already they had done some minor repairs – tightening some of the wires between posts, marking a rail that had started to rot so they'd find it easier when they returned… As they got closer to the border area near Bob Carver's property, they found the break they were looking for, where the cows had probably gotten through to the other side.
"This rail's broken right in half, Bri," Daniel remarked. "They didn't just find it and go through, though, they broke it; break's fresh," he added.
"That doesn't sound right," Evan remarked, looking at the broken rail.
"Maybe something spooked them," Brian suggested. "Between the wolves and the cougars out here, I wouldn't blame 'em."
Daniel unconsciously glanced at the rifle attached to his saddle as he nodded in agreement to Brian's statement.
"Well, we've got a full rail to replace here," Evan started, moving to the pack horse, picking out one of the short boards they'd brought with them to use as a temporary patch. He made short work of hammering some nails into the board and the two pieces of rail, making one long piece again.
Before putting the patched rail up, though, the three brought their horses and the pack horse through the break, to the Carver side of the fence. Evan put the rail up, setting it up temporarily, knowing they'd be crossing through there again in a few hours, with the stray cows in tow.
The three brothers were soon riding again, following the fence a little further before turning east, toward the Carver Ranch.
By four in the afternoon, the Carver's barn came into sight. Bob himself was working outside and waved to the trio as they got closer.
"Good to see you, boys," Bob greeted them as they approached.
Brian, Daniel and Evan dismounted and shook Bob's hand in turn, greeting him in return.
"So a couple of our cows decided to defect, huh, Bob?" Brian asked with a laugh.
"You know what they say, 'the pasture's always greener' and all that," Bob replied with a smile.
"Where'd you find them," Daniel asked. "Up the same way we came, near Crooked Creek?"
"We found a broken rail up there," Evan added. "Broke clean through. Figure maybe they got spooked."
Bob took off his hat and ran a sweaty hand through his hair. "Don't doubt it, Evan. Lost a couple of my sheep last week out that way. Found some wolf tracks. Don't know where your girls came through, though; I found them right back here, following the sheep into their pen!"
The boys laughed out loud at that, shaking their heads.
"Hey, you boys want anything to eat or drink before heading back?" Bob asked, pointing to the house.
"Your daughters at home?" Daniel asked, waggling his eyebrows, only to get the back of his head slapped by Brian's hat. "Hey!"
Bob laughed at the antics, but shook his head. "Nope, sorry, Daniel, they're still off at school. Maybe you can come calling next weekend, when they'll be home for break."
"We'd love to, Bob," Brian replied to Bob's original offer. "But it's already getting late."
Bob saw the sincerity in Brian's words and nodded his head. "Yeah. Let's get you your girls and get you on your way, then," he said, walking toward a paddock on the other side of the barn.
Evan and Daniel each grabbed a rope off their saddles and followed Brian and Bob to the paddock. They easily identified the stray cows as belonging to their family and, tying loose tethers of rope around them, led them back to their horses.
"Thanks, Bob," Brian said, shaking his fellow rancher's hand. "Appreciate you taking care of them for us.
"Yeah, thanks, Mr. Carver," Evan added, shaking his hand as well.
"Nothing you boys wouldn't do for me," Bob replied with a smile. "Give my regards to the rest of the boys, and to that pretty little wife of Adam's, too!"
Brian laughed, saying, "We will," as he mounted his horse and turned it.
The three men, four horses and two cows slowly walked away from Bob, heading for home.
The ride back to the broken fence was uneventful. When they reached it, Brian dismounted first, removing the rail they'd put up temporarily and waited while Daniel and Evan crossed with their horses and the cows before bringing his horse and the pack horse across.
"Might as well let them loose," Brian told Daniel, motioning to the cows. "They'll probably just follow us the rest of the way, anyway."
Daniel and Evan both nodded, and after dismounting their horses and went about letting the cows loose from their tethers. While Evan then went to help Brian secure the fence rail more permanently, nailing the rail to the posts, Daniel stopped to watch as the cows hurriedly went on their way.
Daniel, suddenly feeling somewhat off, grabbed the rifle from his saddle. "Brian. Evan," he called to his brothers. They turned to look at him and Brian, especially, got his guard up, seeing the weapon in Daniel's hand. "They're spooked again," Daniel said, jacking a thumb in the direction of the retreating cows.
"Let's look around," Brian suggested.
The three brothers looked around, noting the area they were in. The fencing bordered a rough open pasture. There was a small creek, Crooked Creek, which ran along the border – sometimes on McFadden property, sometimes on Carver property – and the occasional groupings of wooded areas that covered most of the northern McFadden property. The brothers knew there were predators in those woods. They'd dealt with wolves and the occasional cougar, just like Bob Carver had mentioned just hours ago.
They spread out a bit, each one carrying a weapon now, searching for the source of Daniel's discomfort.
It was Evan who shouted first, calling out his brothers' names. Daniel and Brian each ran toward his voice.
"Whatcha got, Evan?" Brian asked coming through the low brush, worry in his voice.
Daniel let out a low whistle. "Looks like we found out what spooked them cows," he said.
Evan stood up from where he had been crouched down next to the ravaged deer corpse. "Looks like wolf. Maybe the cows were around when the deer was killed."
"Nah, more likely just scared by the smell," Brian countered. "This is old. Wolf's long gone by now."
"Yeah," Daniel agreed. He patted Evan's shoulder. "Come on, it's getting dark. I wanna go home."
Evan nodded and the three turned away from the deer's remains. It didn't take long to get back to their horses. They finished up with the fence, stowed the tools and mounted up. Evan led the way home.
And while they knew that deer kill wasn't recent, they still knew the predator could be near.
It had become full dark and the brothers were still about an hour's ride from their ranch. They decided to continue, knowing they could stay along the fence line without too much trouble. They had flashlights if they needed light. Daniel had just about said the same, when Brian told them to hold up.
"What's up, Bri?" Daniel asked.
"Think my horse picked up a rock or something," he replied. "Hang on a minute," he added, dismounting.
Daniel and Evan stopped and turned their horses, trying to see what Brian was doing. Evan pointed a flashlight beam Brian's way.
Brian whispered to his horse, reassuring her as he moved from hoof to hoof, trying to discern which one was bothering her. "Easy, easy," he said a little louder when he found the offending rock and tried scraping it loose.
"Brian?" Daniel called quietly.
Evan sat straighter in his saddle. Something about the tone of Daniel's voice bothered him. He took the flashlight beam off Brian and circled it around the trio while is other hand reached for his rifle.
Brian was unprepared for what happened next, though, as the pack horse screeched and jumped, pulling and shoving at Brian's horse in front of it. Soon Brian found himself underneath eight flailing hooves and he scrambled to move back away from them.
"Brian!" Evan and Daniel both shouted, each now trying to control their own horses underneath them, not knowing what caused the ruckus to begin with, but knowing that atop their horses, they were at least safer than Brian.
Brian cried out when the first hoof landed a hit to his left leg. It was only natural for his hands to reach for the source of pain and grab his thigh. The second blow glanced across his cheek and he rolled away, and over, realizing that he needed to cover his head. The last thing he remembered was the sharp pain emanating from his spine as a heavy weight came crashing down on him.