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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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The Light at the End of the Tunnel - 2. Chapter 2

OK, now we get to see what happens to Caleb.

Asa whistled along to the country tune flowing out of the truck’s speakers. His Sunday morning had been a breeze so far. The Robson farm’s four horses were an easy trim. Only one needed new shoes, which made his job more manageable. Two of the mares were pregnant and getting close to delivery, spending their days in the nearest paddock before being brought into the big barn at night. He’d left them barefoot, as it was safer for the foals once they were born. He was sure his next visit to the farm would include meeting two new additions to the herd.

Running Creek Ranch was his next stop. Chad Byers, the foreman, asked him to look at one of their geldings who’d come up lame. A preliminary look hadn’t turned up anything, so he called Asa.

The truck bounced over a few potholes when he made the turn, his work trailer rattling behind as he passed through the open gate that led to the ranch. The barn was straight ahead, with several horses grazing in the pastures on either side of the lane. Once in the yard, he parked the truck near the wide-open double doors, allowing fresh air to circulate through the building.

A big man came out to greet him. “Asa!” he called, walking over and extending his hand.

Asa grasped it firmly and returned the sentiment. “Good to see you, Chad!”

“I reckon it’s been a while. Come on in. Leonard’s in the first stall.

Asa pocketed his keys and walked into the airy barn. The scent of hay and manure was pungent but not overwhelming, a sign of a well-maintained farm. Chad led him to where a chestnut gelding was sticking his head out over the open portion of the stall. Stepping into the box, he saw the animal favoring his right front leg.

“Easy boy, what do you say we find out what’s going on with you?” Asa said softly. He stroked the horse’s velvety nose before running his hands gently down the affected leg, feeling for any swelling. The leg felt fine, but Leonard favored the toe area, shifting his weight on that hoof to the heel instead. It was never a good sign. Asa carefully picked up the foot, brushing away the debris, looking for any visible signs of injury or damage. Sometimes, stones lodged into the sole might cause lameness. He carefully trimmed some of the hoof horn using his hoof knife, trying to detect any underlying issues. After examining as much as he could and not seeing anything, he shook his head before setting the hoof down cautiously and stood up.

Turning to Chad, he said, “I’m afraid you should call your vet. I hope I’m wrong, but I think it might be laminitis. You’ll need a professional opinion.”

“Aw, shit. I was afraid of that. He’s a good horse, it’ll suck to have him out of commission for a few months, but if it’s the case, I hope we caught it early enough.”

Asa agreed. Laminitis was a severe issue that could sideline a horse for two to six months, sometimes longer. Left untreated, it could lead to more dire consequences, including the need to euthanize the horse. With proper treatment and diet, Leonard should be as good as new in a few months, although he would need frequent monitoring as laminitis tended to be a recurring issue.

“I think so. You said you only noticed the lameness a couple of days ago?”

“Yeah, we put him on box rest Thursday and have been watching him ever since. I hoped it was just some bruising or a slight strain that would improve with rest. I’ll call Doc Cooper and see if he can come out today.”

“Sorry I didn’t have better news,” Asa said, his voice sympathetic. He gave Leonard a good scratch behind both ears before exiting the stall and securely pulling the latch into place.

Chad walked him back to his truck. Asa took a moment to admire the man’s ass, nicely packaged in well-fitting jeans. Too bad he had a wife and three kids.

He was done for the day and in need of a shower. Wishing Chad good luck with Leonard, Asa turned his truck around and headed back down the lane. At the end, he debated for a moment before turning left onto the main road. A mile later, he made another turn onto an unpaved road heading toward the state grasslands. The shortcut would knock nearly ten miles off his trip home. The tradeoff is that it would be a slower and much bumpier ride.

A trail of dust swirled up behind the truck and trailer, rising in a cloud before settling back down again. This particular road wasn’t too bad, requiring him to slow down only for a few larger ruts and potholes. He tapped his phone several times to listen to a podcast on true crimes with which he recently became obsessed. The newest one recanted the kidnapping of a young boy from New Mexico. It baffled him why anyone would be so depraved as to snatch a youngster from, in this case, his own home.

The dusty miles rolled past, his small trailer jouncing behind the truck. He pulled to the right as another vehicle approached from the opposite direction. Nodding at the two men in a gray F-150 as it rumbled by, he continued. The road angled downhill as it followed the path of a dry riverbed, which would soon fill with runoff from the mountains to the west and spring rainfall.

Movement off to the east caught his attention. Scanning the horizon, he finally focused on what had caught his eye. Roughly half a mile away, a coyote, or maybe a wolf, was loping along the gully's edge. Squinting, he tried to make out more details. Judging by the size at this distance, it had to be a wolf. Seeing them in this area wasn’t unheard of, but seeing them during the day was unusual.

He slowed down, letting his vision track the creature briefly. As he was about to pick up speed, the wolf spun, toppling end over end as though hit by something. Several heartbeats later, he heard the report of gunfire, delayed by distance. Two sharp cracks rent the air. The sound dragged out across the open expanse.

Immediately, he spun the wheel and gunned the engine. In the distance, the gray Ford truck sped away, kicking up a dusty wake—goddamn hunters. Using your guns to hunt game during the season was one thing. It was something else to shoot at an animal blindly and not check to ensure it had been a kill shot. He couldn’t stand the thought of any poor creature suffering because of an idiot human.

The truck was long gone by the time he approached the area where he saw the wolf go down. Grabbing his rifle from the rack mounted on the back window, Asa mentally prepared himself for whatever he might find.

Jogging toward where he thought he’d seen the wolf last, Asa pulled up short at seeing a massive gray beast lying on its side, a pool of crimson blood flowing from its neck, getting larger by the second. He pulled off his jacket and stripped off his chambray shirt, quickly folded it, and pressed it over the gaping wound with one hand, trying to staunch the flow.

Asa had enough knowledge to realize this was a life-threatening wound. He was even more surprised when the wolf’s body twitched; for a moment, it looked like he was trying to turn back into a human. Great, a shifter. He must be part of Giles’ pack.

Not long after he started working with Giles’ horses, he unwittingly witnessed a few pack members shifting behind the main house one evening when he had stayed late. They never noticed him, and several months passed before he felt comfortable enough to bring it up to Giles. The Alpha was just as surprised to discover that Asa was familiar with the supernatural world. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, he was part of it. He kept that knowledge to himself, even though he knew he could trust Giles.

Looking down at the injured wolf bleeding out beneath his hand, he pressed down harder. His free hand buried itself in the animal’s thick fur. He was barely aware of the bright light surrounding them. Slowly, the flow of blood ebbed until it became a trickle. The wolf’s eyes fluttered but shut again as the creature’s healing ability finally took hold.

C’mon, he thought. Something deep within him tried to will the wolf to live. Taking a moment to assess the animal, he realized he was gorgeous. Rich, dark gray fur mixed with pewter and warm brown and bright white specks covered his body. The wolf was large and even unconscious; his muscles were solid. For some reason, Asa felt drawn to the creature. An unexpected wave of protectiveness washed over him.

Carefully, he slid his hands underneath the thick fur and hefted the animal off the ground. Damn, he was a giant beast. His size alone made Asa stagger a few steps before gaining his footing. He picked his way over the uneven terrain, carefully placing each foot on the ground. Reaching his truck, he maneuvered the wolf onto the bed, heaving a sigh of relief when the animal didn’t flinch. He grabbed a couple of clean blankets from the cab and covered him up for the ride.

As soon as he was behind the wheel, he grabbed his phone, scrolled down to find Giles’ name, and tapped it.

The Alpha answered on the third ring. “Asa?”

“Hey Giles, I’m on the old access road bordering the grasslands park. I came across one of your pack mates. He was shot. I’ve slowed the bleeding and managed to get him in the truck, and I’m heading to your place now. I just thought I should give you a heads-up.”

“Jesus Christ. It’s probably Caleb. A big gray wolf, a little bit of brown and white mixed in?”

Asa didn’t need to look out the back window before confirming, “Yep, that’s him.”

“Okay, I’ll call our doc, and we’ll be waiting for you.”

“Great, I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes. I don’t want to go too fast and open up the bleeding again.”

Asa ended the call after Giles agreed it was better to take things slow. He turned the truck around and backtracked to the main road. It felt excruciatingly slow, keeping his speed under twenty miles per hour. Any faster and the bumps could aggravate the open wound, and heavy bleeding could start again. He hoped the wolf’s natural healing abilities were enough to negate any further damage by this point.

Twenty minutes later, he turned onto the paved main road, which allowed him to pick up speed. It took another twenty minutes before he reached the road leading to Giles’ ranch.

Pulling into the yard, he drove up as close to the porch as possible. Giles and Doc were waiting and were at the tailgate by the time he got out.

“What happened?” Giles asked.

Asa shrugged. “I’m not sure. I was taking the shortcut road to get home when I noticed a wolf running in the distance. I didn’t think anything of it until I saw him go down. A couple of hunters in an F-150 sped off. I was pissed thinking they’d left a poor animal to die. I found your pack-mate with a big ol’ hole in his neck.”

Doc swore as he uncovered the wound to assess it. “Dammit, it’s good they missed the artery, or Caleb would have bled out. Thank goodness you were around to put pressure on it.”

Asa remained silent, remembering how the blood pulsed out with every beat of the wolf’s heart. Giles and the doc didn’t need to know how bad it’d been. Instead, he said, “I’ll help you get him inside.”

Jorge, the pack Beta, came out, and between them, they moved Caleb inside to a guest room off the kitchen without jostling him too much. The wolf softly whined as they laid him on the bed, then fell silent again.

Giles addressed his Beta. “Take a trailer and see if you can find Eclipse. Check by the riverbed adjacent to the grasslands. That’s where Caleb usually ties him up when he lets his wolf roam.”

Asa’s head shot up. “Eclipse? The buckskin Palomino?”

Giles nodded. “Yeah, he belongs to Caleb.”

Huh. That was news to him. He’d assumed the stallion belonged to Giles. Caleb was never around when Eclipse had his routine trims. Asa had to admit the horse was a great example of how to care for such a beautiful creature. Worry gnawed at him, knowing the magnificent animal could be in danger.

“I can go with you. The horse probably isn’t very far from where I found your guy. It’ll save you covering unnecessary ground.”

A look of relief crossed Giles’ face. Asa was sure he was worried about the stallion, too.

“Thank you, we appreciate the help,” the Alpha replied, then added, “I’m grateful you were there. You saved his life. Although I’m not sure he would agree.”

That last statement was barely audible, as if Giles didn’t mean to say it out loud.

He pretended he didn’t hear the declaration as he followed Jorge outside. It wasn’t in his nature to pry into someone else’s business. As he left, he had an odd feeling that he was leaving something behind. He checked his pockets for his keys and wallet, finding both right where they should be.

“You got everything?” Jorge asked when he caught him patting down his jacket.

“Yeah, just making sure I have my keys.”

He guided the Beta as he backed one of the ranch’s work trucks up to a double trailer. It didn’t take long to secure the hitch and ensure the lights were plugged in. As they drove away from the main house, another pang of something he didn’t recognize tugged at him, almost as if his stomach dropped out, like on a roller coaster.

Shaking off the weird sensation, he told Jorge which way to head. Soon enough, they bumped down the dirt road toward where he found Caleb. Jorge left the road, slowing down even more. If the horse weren’t close to the dry riverbed, they’d have to unhook the trailer before the terrain got rough and rocky.

Asa scanned the horizon to make out any distant shape that might look equine. Jorge drove carefully through the scrub brush, alert for any movement, too.

Just as Jorge was considering leaving the trailer, Asa spotted the distinct shape of a horse on the other side of the dry bed.

“There!” he exclaimed, pointing to the northeast. “Drive up to that big rock over there. I’ll go get him while you open up the trailer.”

Jorge stopped the truck at the spot indicated. Asa got out and gingerly picked his way over the loose stones deposited by the last flow of water cascading across the terrain. Eclipse was still tied up, with plenty of line for him to move freely, but not so much that he would get tangled up in anything.

“Hey there, boy, look at you waiting all patiently. Are you ready to go home?” Asa spoke soothingly, not wanting to startle the animal. He’d never had problems with him before, but animals could react unexpectedly when faced with someone or something unfamiliar to them. He needn’t have worried. The stallion tossed his head, shaking out his long, flowing mane, and whickered a greeting.

Asa untied the lead and slowly approached Eclipse’s head, gently stroking the velvety nose when he was close enough. He was rewarded with a headbutt to his chest as the gorgeous Palomino tried to sniff out a treat.

Laughing, Asa pushed the horse’s head back. “I didn’t bring anything with me. You’ll have to wait until we get you back to the barn. I promise, a nice rubdown and maybe a carrot or two, okay, big boy?”

This time, the stallion answered with a loud neigh before following along as Asa led him to where Jorge was waiting with the trailer door open. Eclipse hopped up easily, swishing his tail as Jorge pushed on his rump to get him to move forward one more step so they could shut the door.

“He doesn’t seem any worse for wear,” the Beta commented as he checked the latches, making sure everything was secure.

“Yeah, he’s a good horse. I’ll give him a good once over when we get back to the ranch.”

“I’m sure Caleb would appreciate it.”

Asa got another one of those rollercoaster-stomach-dropping feelings, and instead of answering, he merely nodded before getting in the passenger side of the truck.

As they gently bounced over the uneven terrain, with Jorge driving excruciatingly slow, mindful of his cargo, Asa’s mind drifted back to the gray wolf lying unconscious at the ranch. He couldn’t help but wonder what the man was like. After a while, curiosity got the better of him.

“So what’s Caleb like? I don’t think I’ve ever met him.”

Jorge glanced his way before replying, “Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me. He keeps to himself mostly. Giles makes him come for Sunday brunch or dinner.”

“Doesn’t he live at the main house?” Asa asked. He knew most bachelor shifters shared the central accommodations, mainly because they didn’t need to be tracked down in case of an emergency. Mated shifters preferred separate houses for privacy or more room if they had kids.

“No, he’s got the cabin by the north pasture. Technically, he’s not part of the pack. Giles has offered, but he hasn’t accepted. I don’t know the details, and even if I did, I couldn’t tell you, but something happened at his old pack, and he chose to leave. We try to include him, but… I dunno, there’s a big ol’ sense of sadness about him.”

Asa was silent as he digested the information Jorge had dropped on him. Now, it made more sense why he’d never met the man. Caleb didn’t want to be around people. He thought that was pretty sad and wondered what could have happened to drive the shifter away from his pack.

He mulled over the possibilities but was far from figuring it out when Jorge pulled up to a paddock adjacent to a small cabin. A short, squat little donkey he recognized as Hank let out a mighty hee haw as the truck engine rumbled to a stop. Eclipse replied with a neigh of his own.

He helped Jorge get the stallion off the trailer and led him into the small barn. Together, they got him unsaddled and rubbed down. Asa checked him over for any cuts or scratches but found nothing. The only thing he noticed was the horse’s hooves needed a trim. They weren’t too bad, just a little past due from the look of them. Asa found a bag of carrots in a small refrigerator inside the tack room and grabbed a few for the equine companions.

After attending to Eclipse, they let him loose in the paddock with Hank, who seemed happy to have his friend back. Jorge checked the water in the trough and tossed another hay bale over the rail. “I’ll come back later and bring them in if Caleb’s not up for it. That wound looked pretty bad. It might take him a few days to recover, even with his wolf’s help. If so, we’ll bring these two back to the big barn until Caleb’s back on his feet.”

“You guys do take care of your own. Tell Giles I’ll call him tomorrow. I’d like to check on how Caleb is recovering.”

“I’ll do that. Hey, thanks again for your help. Who knows how long Caleb would’ve been out there if you hadn’t stopped to check things out?”

Asa nodded and gave Jorge a modest smile. He had done what he felt was right.

After Jorge drove them back to the main house, Asa got in his truck, waving as he pulled away. His mind immediately focused on the wolf he was leaving behind. It felt wrong, and he couldn’t pinpoint why. The drive home was unsettling. His brain refused to think about anything other than the beautiful wolf. Pulling up to his house, he backed the trailer into its garage, then unhitched it. Parking his truck, he blew out a long breath as he turned off the engine. Somehow, the silence felt misplaced.

His security light came on as he approached the front door. Darkness had descended. Not as early as it did mid-winter, but not as late as it would when the time changed to Daylight Saving Time in a few weeks. He welcomed this time of year. It was getting closer to June, his favorite month, with roughly sixteen hours of daylight. He looked forward to soaking up the rays. It fueled him as much as food did.

His uneasiness followed him into the house. As he opened the fridge to see what he could have for dinner, his skin prickled as if he had an allergic reaction. Mindlessly, he pulled out the fixings for a sandwich. Images of Caleb’s wolf obscured any other thought he tried to focus on. He tried not to think about the different impressions that flashed through him when he touched the wounded animal—glimpses of a man trapped within himself.

Knowing he wouldn’t rest until he knew what was happening with Caleb, Asa grabbed his phone and tapped Giles’ name.

“Hello, Asa.”

“Hi, Giles. I thought I’d check to see how Caleb is doing.”

“He’s still in wolf form, but at least he’s resting comfortably. Doc thinks he’ll be able to shift back tomorrow. We’ll keep an eye on him tonight, just in case. Again, I’d like to thank you. After Doc examined him more closely, we realized the wound was more significant than we first thought. Your quick actions saved his life. There’s no doubt about it. I’m in your debt.”

Asa bit his bottom lip. “There’s no debt to be had, Giles. I did what any other decent person would do. You don’t owe me anything.”

Giles chuckled. “You’re a humble man, Asa. Tell you what. You name the time and place, and I’ll buy you dinner and a few beers.”

Smiling, Asa agreed. “Is it alright if I stop by tomorrow and check on Caleb? I don’t know why, but I feel responsible for making sure he’s okay.”

“Of course! In case you don’t realize it, you’re welcome on my land any time,” Giles assured him. “I consider you a friend. As a matter of fact, Lynn suggested I invite you to our brunch next Sunday. Most of the pack comes, and Caleb is usually there too.”

Lynn was Giles’ mate. The Alpha towered over her by a good ten inches, but despite the difference in size, she was a powerhouse in her own right. Piss her off, and there was no telling how intense her wrath would be.

“Tell Lynn I’ll be there.”

“You can tell her yourself tomorrow when you check on Caleb.”

“Okay. I’ll see you then,” Asa replied.

Giles said goodbye before ending the call. The uncomfortable silence descended again. Asa took his plate with the untouched sandwich into the living room and turned on the television. He wasn’t quite as antsy now that he knew Caleb was stable.

Even with the television streaming a mindless documentary about the evolution of Earth, Asa’s thoughts kept drifting to Caleb. Why the hell was he so obsessed with the reclusive shifter? Why did he feel drawn to him? He didn’t even know what Caleb looked like in his human form, so physical attraction wasn’t the issue. Sure, his wolf was beautiful, but Asa wasn’t into beastiality by any means.

As Pangea started to break apart on the TV screen, Asa grabbed the remote and turned it off. He wasn’t paying attention anyway. Getting up, he stepped out onto the front porch of his house and lowered himself into a wooden glider-rocker. The gentle motion lulled him into a contemplative state.

His thoughts still swirled around Caleb. He couldn’t help it. Logically, it made no sense. He had no idea what the human version of the shifter looked like. For all he knew, the man was the complete opposite of what Asa was attracted to– tall, rugged, built like a lumberjack. Things like hair and eye color weren’t as important, but Asa did prefer his partners to be taller and broader than him.

He found there was something about being held by a larger man that comforted him. Not that he had much experience. In all his thirty-six years, he had had precisely two long-term relationships. He defined long-term as being more than three months.

It was hard to foster any type of commitment when there were things about you that very few people could understand. The wolf shifter community was lucky. They had their pack to support each other. It was in their nature as social creatures. Asa didn’t have that luxury.

After all, it wasn’t as if there was a commune of light shifters he could join.

So the plot thickens. The pieces of the puzzle are on the table. Y'all just need to put them together.
Copyright © 2023 kbois; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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