"Come on, Luke. Come on, buddy. Hang in there."
Her wipers beat back the sleet and snow as Caidy Bowman drove through the streets of Pine Gulch, Idaho, on a stormy December afternoon. Only a few inches had fallen but the roads were still dangerous, slick as spit. For only a moment, she risked lifting one hand off the steering wheel of her truck and patting the furry shape whimpering on the seat beside her.
"We're almost there. We'll get you fixed up, I swear it. Just hang on, bud. A few more minutes. That's all."
The young border collie looked at her with a trust she didn't deserve in his black eyes and she frowned, her guilt as bitter and salty as the solution the snowplows had put down on the roads.
Luke's injuries were her fault. She should have been watching him. She knew the half-grown pup had a curious streak a mile wideand a tendency not to listen to her when he had an itch to investigate something.
She was working on that obedience issue and they had made good strides the past few weeks, but one moment of inattention could be disastrous, as the past hour had amply demonstrated. She didn't know if it was arrogance on her part, thinking her training of him was enough, or just irresponsibility. Either way, she should have kept him far away from Festus's pen. The bull was ornery as a rattlesnake on a hot skillet and didn't take kindly to curious young border collies nosing around his turf.
Alerted by Luke's barking and then the bull's angry snort, she had raced to old Festus's pen just in time to watch Luke jig the wrong way and the bull stomp down hard on his haunches with a sickening crunch of bone.
Her hands tightened on the steering wheel and she cursed under her breath as the last light before the vet's office turned yellow when she was still too far away to gun through it. She was almost tempted to keep going. Even if she were nabbed for running a red light by Pine Gulch's finest, she could probably talk her way out of a ticket, considering her brother was the police chief and would certainly understand this was an emergency. If she were pulled over, though, it would mean an inevitable delay and she just didn't have time for that.
The light finally changed and she took off fast, the back tires fishtailing on the icy road. She would just have to trust the salt bags she carried for traction in the bed of the pickup would do the job. Even the four-wheel drive of the truck was useless against black ice.
Finally, she reached the small square building that held the Pine Gulch Veterinary Clinic and pulled the pickup to the side doors where she knew it was only a short transfer inside to the treatment area.
She briefly considered carrying him in by herself, but it had taken the careful efforts of both her and her brother Ridge to slide a blanket under Luke and lift him into the seat of her pickup. They could bring out the stretcher and cart, she decided.
She rubbed Luke's white neck. "I'm going to go get some help, okay? You just hold tight."
He made a small whimper of pain and she bit down hard on her lip as her insides clenched with fear. She loved the little guy, even if he was nosy as a crow and even smarter, which was probably why his stubbornness was such a frustration.
He trusted her to take care of him and she refused to let him die.
She hurried to the front door, barely noticing the wind-driven sleet that gouged at her even under her Stetson.
Warm air washed over her when she opened the door, familiar with the scent of animals and antiseptic mixed in a stomach-churning sort of way with new paint.
"Hey, Caidy." A woman in green scrubs rushed to the door. "You made good time from the River Bow."
"Hi, Joni. I may have broken a few traffic laws, but this is an emergency."
"After you called, I warned Ben you were on your way and what the situation was. He's been getting ready for you. I'll let him know you've arrived."
Caidy waited, feeling the weight of each second ticking away. The new vet had only been in town a few weeks and already he had made changes to the clinic. Maybe she was just being contrary, but she had liked things better when Doc Harris ran the place. The whole reception area looked different. The cheerful yellow walls had been painted over with a boring white and the weathered, comfortable, old eightiesera couch and chairs were gone, replaced by modern benches covered in a slate vinyl that probably deflected anything a veterinarian's patients could leak on it. A display of Christmas gifts appropriate for pets, including a massive stocking filled to the top with toys and a giant rawhide bone that looked as if it came from a dinosaur, hung in one corner.
Most significant, the reception area used to sit out in the open but it was now stuck behind a solid half wall topped with a glass partition.
It made sense to modernize from an efficiency point of view, but she had found the comfortably worn look of the office before more appealing.
Not that she cared about any of that right now, with Luke lying out in her truck, cold and hurt and probably afraid.
She shifted impatiently. Where was the man? Trimming his blasted nails? Only a few moments had passed but every second delay was too much. Just when she was about call out to Joni to see what was taking so long, the door into the treatment area opened and the new vet appeared.
"Where's the dog?" he asked abruptly, and she had only a vague impression of a frowning dark-haired man in blue scrubs.
"Still out in my truck."
He narrowed his gaze. "Why? I can't treat him out there."
She wanted to take that giant rawhide bone out of that stocking and bean him with it. "Yes, I'm aware of that," she said, fighting down her frustration. "I didn't want to move him. I'm afraid something might be broken."
"I thought he was gored."
She wasn't sure what, exactly, she had said in that frantic call to let Joni know she was on her way.
"He did end up on the business end of a bull at some point. I'm not sure if that was before or after that bull stepped on him."
His mouth tightened. "A young dog has no business running wild in the same vicinity as a dangerous bull."
His criticism stung far too close to her own guilt for comfort. "We're a working ranch at the River Bow, Dr. Caldwell. Accidents like this can happen."
"They shouldn't," he snapped before turning around and heading back through the treatment area. She followed him, heartily wishing for Doc Harris right now. The grizzled old vet had taken care of every dog she had ever owned, from her very first border collie and best friend, Sadie, whom she still had.
Doc Harris was her friend and mentor. If he had been here, he would have wrapped her in a warm hug that smelled of liniment and cherry Life Savers and promised her everything would be all right.
Dr. Ben Caldwell was nothing like Dr. Harris. He was abrasive and arrogant and she already heartily disliked him.
His eyes narrowed with surprise and displeasure when he saw she had followed him from the waiting room to the clinic area.
"This way is quicker," she explained. "I'm parked by the side door. I thought it would be easier to transport him on the stretcher from there."
He didn't say anything, only charged through the side door she indicated. She trotted after him, wondering how the Pine Gulch animal kingdom would get along without the kindness and compassion Dr. Harris had been renowned for.
Without waiting for her, he opened the door of the truck. As she watched, it was as if a different man had suddenly taken over. His harsh, set features seemed to ease and even the stiff set of his shoulders relaxed.
"Hello there," he crooned from the open vehicle door to the dog. "You've got yourself into a mess, haven't you?"
Even through his pain, Luke responded to the gentle-sounding stranger by trying hard to wag his tail. There was no room for both of them on the passenger side, so she went around to the driver's side and opened that door, intent on helping to lift the dog from there. By the time she made it that short distance, Dr. Caldwell had already slipped a transfer sheet under the dog and was gripping the edges.
His hands were big, she noticed, with a little light area of skin where a wedding ring once had been.
She knew a little about him from the gossip around town. It was hard to miss it when he was currently staying at the Cold Creek Innowned and operated by her sister-in-law Laura, married to Caidy's brother Taft.
Though Laura usually didn't gossip about her guests, over dinner last week her other brother, Tracewho made it his business as police chief to find out about everyone moving into Pine Gulchhad interrogated her so skillfully, Laura probably didn't realize what she had revealed.
From that conversation, Caidy had learned Ben Caldwell had two children, a girl and a boy, ages nine and five, respectively, and he had been a widower for two years.
Why on earth he had suddenly pulled up stakes to settle in a quiet town like Pine Gulch was a mystery to everyone. In her experience, people who came to this little corner of Idaho in the shadow of the Tetons were either looking for something or running away.
None of that was her business, she reminded herself. The only thing she cared about was the way he treated her dogs. Judging by how carefully he moved his hands over Luke's injuries, he appeared competent and even kind, at least to animalssomething she generally considered a far more important character indicator than how a man treated other people.
"Okay, Luke. Just lie still, there's a good boy." He spoke in a low, calm voice. "We're going to move you now. Easy. Easy."
He handed the stretcher across the cab to her and then reached for the transfer sheet. "I'm going to lift him slightly and then you can slide...