by D. L. Keur writing as E. J. Ruek
The howl of a dog or, maybe, a wolf drifted in the eerie stillness. It was just after 2:00 A.M. with a late moon still visible through the trees.
Dr. Warren Jeffreys started his assigned clinic truck, Lewis and Clark’s newest RAM 3500, then headed back inside for his parka. Though the temperature on Marti’s outdoor thermometer read 30° F., he had a bad feeling niggling at the back of his brain. And a touch of the start of a migraine.
Mares always chose the most inconvenient times to foal, and early morning was one of their favorites. It took him half-an-hour to reach the Menlows’, but, by the time he got there, the foal, a beautiful little Morgan colt, had suffocated.
The owners were hysterical, then grief-stricken. Warren did what he had to and took the body with him for cremation. He was on his way to the clinic when he got the second call, this one at Annie Lane’s.
Dread filled him. The last foaling there had been a nightmare, the old woman refusing Caesarian on a bad presentation. Then there was the problem of Elise.
But when he got there, Elise’s truck wasn’t parked in the drive, and the mare didn’t need a c-section, just a little help getting one of the fetus’s legs repositioned. After that, a shot of oxytocin got things moving again.
A spry filly, the animal would be a light dun, the faint stripes and spots of Annie Lane’s mysterious blood stock already suggesting themselves on the still wet hide. “Nice,” was Warren’s comment.
“She is,” Annie agreed. “Could have come a day earlier when we weren’t heading into a storm. …Or, maybe better, a week from now.”
So it wasn’t just him. Old Annie felt it, too. He watched her rub the filly down with a soft piece of flannel, marvelling still at the woman’s agility and strength. Annie was, at last count, in her late eighties, though she looked sixty and moved like she was two decades less than that. “Weather Channel isn’t predicting one,” he said. “I checked.”
“Never do, even with that fancy satellite tracking. They’ll be a storm come roaring by daylight. Mark my words.”
Annie turned to look at him. “Glad you’re back, Jeffreys. This country needs you.”
Warren felt himself flush. It was the first time Annie Lane had ever said a welcoming word or made him feel more than some second class citizen, though she still had yet to call him ‘doctor’, at least to his face. “Thanks. I’m glad to be back.” …I think.
“Coffee at the house?”
This was also a first. Annie had never invited him in, not even into her barn office.
“El’ isn’t here, if that’s what you’re worried about,” the old woman muttered.
El’—the reason he’d left Lewis and Clark’s and what had actually looked, until last September, like the fulfillment of his dreams. El’—Elliot who’d turned himself into Elise—a…person Warren had courted and planned to marry. Until the man had come clean in a nightmare confession, a confession forced by Annie’s threat to expose the truth herself.
Uncomfortable, Warren hesitated, then, with a glance toward the old woman who watched him, said, “I’d love some.”
ANNIE GAVE HIM HOMEMADE coffee cake and steaming brew, Ed, her pet, one-winged bantam rooster, joining them at the kitchen table to his own bowl of crumbs from the same coffee cake. “El’ is teaching down in Baker City, Oregon, so you don’t need frettin’ running into her here or in town.”
Always forthright, Annie Lane could tear you down with a single word. This side of her—civil, almost charitable—was new to Warren. “Thank you,” was all he could think to say.
A long pause, Annie serving him up another hunk of cake, then getting up to grab the pot and refill their cups. Then, “It isn’t as if I didn’t try to warn you off.”
He grimaced into his mug. Annie Lane had worked very hard to do just that. Caustically so. He’d assumed it was him she’d objected to. He said that to her, now, and watched her nod. “You would think that, I guess, you bein’ so damned sure the world’s out to get you just cuz you’re Injun.”
Warren swallowed hard. He’d probably never get used to Annie’s bluntness. “Half,” he said softly. “Half Cree.”
“Have it your way—half Cree, then. …You look full blood. Especially with that long, black hair. Mine used to be long,” she said wistfully. Then, “Where you livin’?” She swung her head toward the door. “Not out back, I hope.”
So, she’d known he’d been camping out by the creek last summer.
“I’m staying at Marti Ryan’s place in her spare room until I can find a rental.”
She nodded. “That workin’ out?”
He chuckled. “Sort of. I just feel like I’m…well, in her space. She’s putting me up in what’s supposed to be her work-out room.”
“Marti was always big on fitness, even as a kid. Well, if you need a place to roost, I’ve got a shack over on Come-Back Road you can let.”
He thanked her, and, after a moment’s pause, asked after the terms and if he could see it.
“After the comin’ storm, sure. It ain’t much, but it’s warm and sound.”
5:45 A.M., AND THE SKY wasn’t even hinting at dawn, though sunrise was technically only three-quarters of an hour away. There should have been some morning twilight by now.
The truck’s road temperature indicator still hovered at thirty, so maybe the storm both he and Annie felt coming had stalled, or maybe the weather service was right—there was no incoming storm, at all.
Warren got to the highway and turned south, pushing his speed up to just over legal. He’d be late for his first breakfast as a full working partner of Lewis and Clark’s Veterinary Service, but, if his luck held, he wouldn’t be that late—five minutes, maybe—just enough to give Doctors Jim Clark and Bill Lewis the ammunition they needed to rib him. He looked forward to it, memories of their animated discussions over hot eggs and bacon, their camaraderie, warm in his mind.
When he got there, though, the partners abruptly stopped talking, stood up, each of them formally shaking his hand. When they sat back down, they were stiff-faced and silent.
The waitress came, and they ordered. Jim—the man Warren considered “first boss”—handed him an envelope with a company card and another with his health insurance paperwork.
Warren tried breaking the ice with a report of his first two days on the job over the weekend—of Dr. Haber’s difficulty with a lambing case, the dogs and cats that had come in after hours on Saturday and the loss of the Menlow’s Morgan foal. He mentioned Annie Lane’s filly, expecting Bill—Warren’s idea of “second boss”—to utter some happy, better-thee-than-me comeback, especially considering last year’s near disaster.
None of that happened. Nothing happened. Even the FedEx man noticed the difference. His usual chattiness stalled. Silently, he handed over the parcels, got Jim’s signature, then beat a hasty retreat.
“Time to go,” Bill muttered, rising. Jim nodded and stood, got his coat on, then led out. Trailing behind them, Warren left the café completely confused.
Back in the truck, he figured it out, though. They were setting him up. He’d get to the clinic, and there’d be some surprise staff party waiting. He grinned, shook his head, happy to finally be back where he really belonged.
But, when he got there, there wasn’t a party, not even doughnuts. There wasn’t even the cordial “good morning, Dr. Jeffreys” he’d gotten so used to in the months prior to his decision to take a job back east. It was “Dr. Jeffreys” with a curt nod…from Marcia in reception to the attendants and groomers—two groomers, now, and both new to him.
Even the techs were reserved, especially Head Tech, Denise. “Your first call is at the Faulkner’s,” she said, handing him a hardcopy printout after they’d finished morning rounds. “Preg checks on three mares, removal of wolf teeth in a yearling colt, a handful of Coggins, and a sperm check on their premier stallion. Call when you’re done, so I can meet you over at Bergen’s for the brucellosis vaccinations.”
For Warren, Denise had been the biggest surprise. In the few months he’d been gone, she’d dropped weight—a lot of it—fifty pounds, at least. And she’d had her brown, curly hair styled. She was beginning to look like a girl instead of a frumpy blimp.
Done with the run-down, she walked off with not so much as a by-your-leave. Not even a nod. Warren watched her disappear through the walk-through to the clinic’s small animal side, confusion and hurt turning to anger by the time he’d grabbed his gear and shrugged himself into his coat.
Outside, a sudden wind hit him. It was bitter cold. Annie’s prediction and that of his migraine had proven themselves. The barameter had to be plummeting.
Reaching the truck, he didn’t stop to check the vet box, just jumped in and slammed the door against fresh swirling gusts that were blowing up ice crystals. His breath was a fog in his face. Any residual warmth in the cab from his drive over from Panner’s Café was gone. He turned the key.
Cussing, his fingers tingling in the frigid air, he tried again with the same result. Opening the door, he noticed the dome light didn’t come on; the irritating ding, ding, ding that always accompanied door-open, butt-in-seat-without-belt was silent. He should have spotted those clues immediately.
Pulling gloves from his pocket, he headed for the utility shed that stored, among other things, a jump starter for just this problem. He slid his ID card through the slot—nothing. The security light stayed red.
He groaned and started back to the clinic, then thought better of it. He had jumper cables in his Outlander. That would be quick and a lot less painfull than dealing with Jim trying to troubleshoot the security system.
Fifteen frozen minutes later, his nose burning off his face, he was heading down the highway to Faulkner’s, the truck’s road temp indicator reading ten degrees, ambient. With the wind, it had to be twenty degrees colder than that. Happy April Fool’s Day.
* * *
FAULKNERS BRED, RAISED, RACED, and showed Thoroughbreds. Those horses that failed on the track as two-year-olds were destined for a life as sport horses—dressage or jumping, maybe both. The farm’s premier herd sire was a grandson of Northern Dancer. Old—twenty-six—his sperm count and viability didn’t show the normal drop that occurred in aging stallions.
“He’s like his grandsire—hot and horny to the end,” Mr. Faulkner chuckled, patting the relatively small, fifteen-three-hand animal.
The horse reached his head around, teeth snapping in a play at savaging.
“Quit, you old gun,” was the man’s grinning response, a pop of hand on the horse’s shoulder accompanying the words. “Onto the mares, then. The missus thinks that Sherry didn’t take.”
Sure enough, an ultrasound showed Mrs. Faulkner right about the mare they called Sherry. “It’s not the stallion’s fault,” Warren said. “She’s got a cystic ovary.” Warren pointed to the image on the screen.
He turned and saw stricken looks on the faces of the owners. “Chances are it’s benign,” he assured. “If we remove it, the remaining ovary will resume fertility in about six to eight months.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Mrs. Faulkner muttered. A mannish woman with a hawk nose and pointed chin, she was tall, emaciated, and pale to the point of looking anemic, strong contrast to her portly, robust husband.
“Has she been showing any stallion behavior?” Warren asked.
The woman shook her head. “No.”
Warren nodded, but frowned. “I’d like to draw some blood before we schedule her for surgery.”
The mare objected, but Warren got his blood sample once they got a twitch on her. “She’s never been easy,” Mrs. Faulkner said with a hiss of disgust. “Just like her mother.”
After pulling blood from a handful of horses headed for the track or the spring shows, it was time for the yearling’s wolf teeth removal. That wound up being the easiest job, the Faulkners’ confinement stocks, the use of a speculum, and expert help from both Mr. and Mrs. Faulkner making it so. It was rare for both partners in a family-owned operation to be equally skilled. The Faulkners were the exception. Warren sedated the colt and, within minutes, the offending teeth were removed.
“He’s destined for the track next year, and he seemed really bothered when we tried bitting him.”
“I’d let his mouth heal for a couple weeks before trying again,” Warren advised.
“Well, that’s it, then,” Mr. Faulkner said, handing off care of the still woozy animal to an employee. “Coffee or cocoa at the house?”
“Thank you, but no. I’ve got to meet a tech over at a dairy, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.”
“Well, just so you know, we’re very glad you’re back.”
“I’ll open the doors for you,” Mrs. Faulkner said, pointing a remote she took from her jean pocket. The big barn doors behind where Warren had been invited to park in the heated barn’s broad central aisle slid open. Cold came roaring in. The wind was worse. And it was snowing.
NORTH IDAHO IN SPRING could be balmy one day, then plunge fifty degrees to turn into arctic hell the next. Unfortunately, the arctic blasts usually lasted at least three days. A check on his Smartphone showed the weather service now predicting that this one would last the week. They had no estimate of expected snow accumulation, yet. Warren groaned. “Day late, dollar short, NOAA.”
A week was a scary thought, considering the number of calvings and lambings common this time of year, and Warren would likely be handling most of them, despite the fact that he was a board certified equine specialist, top in his field, with a Ph.D. on top of his D.V.M. to prove it. He dialed the clinic.
And got the answering service.
“Power is out,” the woman said. “The phones have switched over to us.”
The wind buffeted the truck, making it tilt side-to-side with each gust. Visibility was bad—very.
Warren accepted the woman’s offer to call Denise. “Tell her I’ve left Faulkner’s and am headed to Bergen’s.”
A twenty minute drive later found Bergen’s dairy starting to drift in. They were running back-up generators to finish a morning milking that should have been done hours ago. “You’ll have to start on your own,” Parker Bergen snapped. “The heifers are in the loafing shed next door.”
Warren waited fifteen minutes, then another ten, but Denise’s truck didn’t appear. Reluctantly, he pulled on insulated coveralls, then disposable whites over that and trudged into a black hole of a barn.
Rustling and the occasional bawls of young bovines greeted him. At least it was warmer in here, but how the hell was he supposed to vaccinate heifer calves if he couldn’t even see them?
“I’ll get set up,” Denise’s voice said behind him, making him jump. A light came on—a portable floodlight she’d brought with her. “As soon as the Bergens are done with milking, they’ll switch the generators over to run the lights in here.”
“That would be nice.”
“Sarcasm won’t make this any easier, Dr. Jeffreys.”
His eye roll got lost on her back as she headed back outside. At least, she’d left the light.
Two miserable hours later, his fingers, feet, and knees stiff with the cold, he was headed for his next call. There, the drifts in the drive were already two feet deep at their crest. They defeated the big four-wheel-drive with its all-season radials, and Warren didn’t want to chain up. He wound up walking in, carrying his kit.
“Didn’t expect you with the power out, or I’d have cleared the driveway,” a late thirties, sandy-haired man called Rob Littlefield drawled. Affectations of ‘Texan’ were on proud display in his fake accent, the block of his Stetson, and his too fancy cowboy boots. “Stallion’s in the barn. So are the mares.”
Another set of preg checks showed all but one mare bred. A look at Rob’s over-muscled, palomino Quarter Horse stud showed him tender on both forelegs. Warren knew the cause—the start of navicular disease, despite the fact the horse was only three years old. It was common now in Quarter Horses like Littlefield’s who carried an obscene amount of muscle tissue and large bone on delicate, even puny, lower legs and feet.
“Can you fix it?” Littlefield asked, his drawl suddenly gone, when, after another trip back to the truck, X-rays confirmed Warren’s initial diagnosis.
Warren shook his head. “I can try some interarticular injections, but the long term prognosis isn’t good. I’m going to x-ray his hind feet and check them, too, if that’s alright?”
The man eyed him. “He’s not showing lame in the back.”
“I still think we should check.”
“You’re the vet.”
Two more X-rays showed what Warren already knew from his hands-on assessment. The hind feet were also compromised. Warren gave the owner instructions on the corrective shoeing the horse would need. “Sheldon Murphy is who I suggest,” Warren said.
“I’ll call him.”
“And the horse needs to lose weight. As much as possible.”
The man stared at him. Finally, he said, “You mean starve him.”
“No. Just get him down to a nice, healthy lean…take some weight off those small feet.”
“Ah…I’ve got halter classes coming up, and he starts reining trials in May. He’s in training, plus he needs that weight to look good.”
“Any kind of athletic training and trials are completely out of the question. Sorry.” Warren didn’t address the ‘look good’ comment.
“Can’t we bute him up?”
Fighting to school his tone, Warren said, “No.” Normal treatment included pain inhibitors and steroids, but Warren wasn’t about to administer them. Short, young, and cocky, Rob Littlefield had a mercenary reputation when it came to his horses. There were notes all over his client file—both Jim’s and Bill’s.
“How the hell am I supposed to get him to cover that last mare, then?”
Warren felt like saying, “You don’t. He should be gelded and his get sterilized,” but didn’t. He also didn’t offer artificial insemination. He just said, “Sorry,” again, and handed over a hand-written copy of the charges. “Marsha will invoice you.”
The man stalked off, and Warren let himself out of the barn to struggle back down the drive, juggling his kit, his tablet, and the portable X-ray, no help from Rob. It was after one, and he still had five calls left on his day list. The lot of a country vet, and to think he’d signed up for a lifetime of this misery when he could have accepted the better offer and been warm, welcomed, and worshipped at WSU. What was he thinking?! His third day back in, and he was regretting his choice.
“We’ve got a horse here with a nasty-looking, abscessed wound on the hip. When can you be here?”
That was the message left on his voicemail by Denise. He groaned as he hit the speed dial for the clinic. He’d left his phone in the truck. Again. Marcia would be furious.
But she wasn’t. Surprised, he assured her he’d stop by on his way south. She acknowledged—barely—and rang off.
He had to chain up to get the truck free from where it was stuck. He left it chained up till he got to the highway, more and growing drifts beginning to bury the county road. Ambient temperature now down to minus six, with the wind chill it had to be nigh on thirty below. “Kill weather” his father called it. Warren pitied the stock stranded in the fields without any shed or shelter of trees. He pitied the dogs stuck on chains. If this wind kept up, the mortality rate was going to be high.
THE DRONE OF GENERATORS greeted him back at Lewis and Clark’s. “Power’s going to be out for awhile, they say,” Tech Sonya Meyers told him. “Dr. Clark thinks you’d better hunker down here tonight. He’s going to, too. Expects a rash of late night emergencies. Always happens during these storms. Oh, and Dr. Haber is stuck over on Corduroy Road. She’s got at least a four hour wait for a tow truck. The horse Denise called about is in stall four.”
Denise was with the mare. She’d put a battery-run warming blanket on her and was taking her temperature.
Warren took a breath and stepped in…touched the animal’s shoulder. Immediately, his body began shaking, savage pain in his hip almost buckling him. He let go.
Hands on his knees for support, three huge breaths later, he nodded.
“Looks like she’s been shot. Months ago.”
He knew that.
“Sheriff’s Office brought her down this morning. Snowshoers found her tied to a tree up on the High Drive yesterday. She’d eaten all the bark off as high as she could reach on all the trees she could get to. The S.O. wants to know when you think she was shot, and they want the bullet that’s in her.”
Unable to stop himself, he retched, vomiting bile.
“You’re not okay.”
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Then, with another huge breath, he forced himself upright and stepped up to the mare, again. “I’ll be fine,” he snapped.
Denise looked skeptical.
Ignoring her, he ran his hands over the mare’s emaciated body, a body so lacking fat of any kind that it was a wonder she was alive. He approached the horror on her near-side quarter. A tentative touch told him that, though ugly and painful, this wasn’t the critical need.
He went to her head. There, dull eyes stared through him—no hope. Luckily, she was tame.
“Increase the temperature of the warming blanket to maximum. Get me five liters of Ringer’s, also warm, and an I.V. set-up. …And a couple of thin slices of apple from my lunch box. It’s in the break room.”
“You’re going to try to save her?”
Warren turned to look at the girl…woman. “…And five milliliters of molasses.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and trotted off.
Alone with the mare, now, he started crooning to her, gently running his hands along her neck till he reached her withers. Plying stethoscope, he was surprised to find that the lungs were clear, the heartbeat very slow, but steady. “You’ve been through hell, but you’re body’s not giving up, is it?” he whispered. Her spirit was dead, though—no hope. She was maybe six years old.
“You think you can save her?” came the question.
Warren turned to see Jim standing there. “I’d like to try.”
“The S.O. thinks she belongs to Old Man Reeves. He disappeared up on the High Drive day after Thanksgiving. Hunting. He was never found.”
Denise had returned and stood just beside and a little behind. Her face was stone. Her blue eye matched it. Her brown one betrayed her sympathies, though. “So, do I try?” Warren asked.
Jim nodded. “Denise, note on the file that Dr. Jeffreys has assumed her care and has full responsibility. You’re her assigned tech.”
“Yes, Dr. Clark.”
“Get on with it, then, people. I’ll help with the surgery if…when the time comes.”
So Jim believed he could save her and was willing to help.
Warren looked to Denise. “Let’s get her out of the cold.”
* * *