Authors: Patricia Davids
Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Romance, #General
“I’m sorry, Lindsey, but I have to get back to the clinic. I have an emergency coming.”
“Don’t worry, I totally understand. I’ll call a cab or get a friend to pick me up at the hospital.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. It will give me a chance to spend a little time with Dakota.”
He pulled onto a side street to turn around and in a few minutes they were heading back the way they had come. At the clinic, he hurried inside and met with several young men and one young woman. Lindsey knew they were the senior students on call for that day. As they walked toward the surgical suites, Lindsey found herself standing in the reception area where a young girl in a colorful Western costume sat with an older man dressed in jeans and boots. His cowboy hat rested on the chair beside him. The young girl was sniffling into a tissue. The man put his arm around her shaking shoulders and spoke to her softly. Lindsey couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was obvious that these were the people with the injured horse.
Pulling her cell phone from her back pocket, Lindsey punched in Shane’s number. If he wasn’t free to give her a ride, she’d try Avery next. Shane answered on the third ring. She could hear the sounds of laughter and cheering in the background. “It sounds like you’re having a party.”
“I’m watching a football game with some of the guys. What’s up?”
“I’m looking for someone to give me a ride back to post.”
“I thought Karen was driving you.”
“She had a nasty headache so I sent her home early. I thought I had a ride, but it fell through.”
“Bummer.” He groaned loudly. A chorus of groans from his friends was followed by one lone cheer.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Lee’s team just made the tying touchdown. If they make this extra point, they’ll move ahead at the half.”
“Are Avery and Lee both there?”
“All right, never mind. I’ll find another way back.”
“Are you sure? Wow! Did you see that block? That’s the way we Texas boys play ball!”
“Thanks, Shane. Enjoy your game.” She hung up without waiting for his reply. It was obvious she was going to have to take a cab.
She walked up to the reception desk and asked the young man seated there for the use of a phone book. He had just handed it to her when Brian came back into the room. His face looked grimmer than she had ever seen it.
He walked up to the tearful young girl and sat down beside her. Lindsey tried not to listen in, but she couldn’t help overhearing his words.
“I’m sorry. There isn’t anything we can do for Storm. He is suffering a lot of pain. The kindest thing we can do is to put him to sleep.”
The young girl’s heartfelt cry tore at Lindsey’s heart. Tears of sympathy pricked her eyes.
Brian awkwardly patted the weeping girl’s shoulder, then rose to his feet. “You can come and say goodbye first, if you like.”
As the pair went down the hallway, Brian stopped beside Lindsey. “Is someone coming to pick you up?”
“I was just about to call a cab.”
“If you don’t mind waiting a few more minutes, I can take you. I won’t be needed here, after all.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. Why don’t you wait in my office?”
“I think I’d rather visit with Dakota. Whenever you’re ready. Don’t hurry on my account.”
“This is the one part of my job I hate.” He turned away and followed Storm’s grieving family.
Lindsey walked down the hall and out into the large room that housed Dakota’s stall along with eight others. Opening the gate, she slipped in and circled his neck with her good arm. He swung his head around and nuzzled her side briefly before lowering his head and closing his eyes. Leaning against his warm coat, she breathed deeply, drawing solace from his familiar scent.
“Dear Lord, offer Your comfort to those people and to Brian at this sad time. Let them know that You will wash away every tear and heal every heart.”
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there before she heard Brian’s voice behind her. “There’s something about the smell of a horse that makes you think of hot summer days and shady rests under the spreading branches of a tall cottonwood tree.”
“I love the feel of them,” she said softly, not looking up. “They feel like living silk over powerful muscles.”
With each breath Dakota took, she listened to air rushing and rattling in and out of his lungs. His heartbeat was like a muffled drum, steady and strong, and yet so vulnerable.
Brian stepped closer. As if he were reading her mind, he said, “They are so powerful. It’s always a shock when we see one get hurt.”
She turned her face to look at him without letting go of Dakota. “Is it over?”
Brian nodded. “He was a four-year-old quarter horse and according to his young owner, he had the makings of a barrel-racing champion. It was such a shame.”
“What happened to him?”
Brian moved up beside her and began to stroke Dakota’s face. “He suffered a fracture of the pastern much like this fellow’s. We see a lot of breaks like that in horses who make quick turns and sliding stops.”
“Why couldn’t you do surgery on him?”
“He started out with a simple break, but by the time the family got him here, he had done so much damage to the leg trying to stand in the trailer that we couldn’t do anything for him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There was irreparable damage done to the soft tissue and blood supply by the broken bone fragments. If he could have been brought to us in an equine ambulance, we might have been able to save him.”
“Do you have one?”
“Not at present, but I haven’t given up hope. For the most part, you’ll only see them at big racetracks like Belmont Park or Santa Anita. However, I’m trying to persuade the company that makes them to loan us one to have on display during our conference here on January twenty-first.”
“I remember seeing one on television when that Kentucky Derby winner broke his leg.”
“They’re quite expensive. It seems that the board forgot to add the money for one to my budget,” he joked.
“We could hold another bake sale. I would contribute more cookies.”
“Another burnt offering?”
Delighted to see the ghost of a smile on his face, she grinned. “I don’t always singe them. The oven in my apartment is fickle. Some days it gets hotter than others.”
“I’m sure that is totally true.”
“Speaking of hot things, Dakota feels warm to me.”
“Now that you mention it, he does. I see that he hasn’t eaten much today. There’s still feed in his bucket.”
“That’s not like him. He’s always ready to eat. Do you think he’s sick?”
Dakota coughed deeply. Alarm raced through Lindsey’s body and her gaze shot to Brian’s face. He pulled his stethoscope from the pocket of his lab coat and moved to examine the animal. After listening to the horse’s chest, he stepped back. The frown she hated seeing was etched between his brows.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I’ll need an X-ray to confirm, but I’m afraid he’s developed pneumonia.”
“That’s bad, isn’t it?” She knew it was a stupid question the second the words were out of her mouth. Of course it was bad. Brian’s look of deep concern only confirmed it.
ver the next days Dakota’s life hung in a delicate balance. With his head held low he wheezed and coughed until Brian thought he couldn’t possibly draw another ragged breath. It hurt just to watch him try. Brian knew minimizing the animal’s distress was just as important as keeping him warm and well hydrated. Lindsey rarely left his side. Her presence seemed to bring the horse comfort. Somehow, her presence was a comfort to Brian, as well.
On the second night, a traffic accident with an overturned horse trailer brought in three more injured horses and the hospital’s staff was stretched to the limit. With Brian’s permission, Shane and Avery brought in a cot and placed it in an empty adjacent stall. All the unit members, Karen and numerous students took turns staying to help care for the animal. Their dedicated presence seemed to be all that was keeping the tired horse from slipping away.
Brian gave up going home and slept fitfully on the sofa in his office at night. During the daylight hours, the clinic operated normally and his surgery and teaching schedule kept him busy. At night, he rose every two hours to take vital signs and temperature readings looking for the least sign of improvement in Dakota. He could have left the horse’s care to the senior students on duty, but he didn’t. Dakota had become a special patient. Every four hours he gave the horse pain medication and every six hours he gave the massive doses of antibiotics needed to help stem the infection. In spite of all they were doing for him, Brian knew that it was Dakota’s will to live that would ultimately be the deciding factor.
By the middle of the third night, he had given up urging Lindsey to rest. Instead, they worked side by side. While he administered the intravenous drugs, Lindsey held an inhaler over Dakota’s nose to make sure he breathed in all the medicine designed to ease his labored respirations.
A few hours before dawn on the fourth night, Brian stifled a yawn as he leaned on the gate to Dakota’s stall.
“You should go and rest,” Lindsey suggested as she came to stand beside him.
“I’m all right, but I think your sister is out for the count.” He nodded toward the cot in the next stall.
Lindsey looked over to see Karen had fallen asleep. “I can’t say that I blame her. I feel like taking a nap myself.”
“You’re welcome to use the couch in my office.”
“I may when I’m sure Dakota is doing better. What is his temperature now?”
Brian entered the stall and took a quick reading. “A hundred and five down from one hundred and six point five. His fever looks like it’s breaking.”
“Still, it isn’t normal.”
“No, it’s not a hundred and one, but it’s a definite improvement.”
“Thanks to you.” She entered the stall and held out a slice of apple. She was happy to see Dakota nibble it up.
“You’re the one who has managed to coax him to eat. Nutrition is really important when a horse runs a fever.” He gave a weary sigh as he sank onto a bale of straw in the corner.
“He’s just used to me, that’s all. Besides, apples are his favorite treat.”
“I’ve noticed you slipping in horse chow and vitamins along with those slices.”
“Do you think he is out of the woods?” She came over and sat on the bale beside him.
“In my professional opinion, I think he is.”
“Are you ever wrong?” she asked.
“Frequently when it comes to people, but rarely about horses.”
She managed a tired smile. “Are you saying you lack people skills?”
He called up a smile to match hers. “Why do you think I’m a vet?”
“You have been a blessing for us, that’s for sure. I hate to think of Danny facing Dakota’s loss on top of everything else he has been through.”
Brian heard the catch in her voice and saw such pain on her face that he hesitated to ask any more questions. As if sensing his scrutiny, she glanced up and gave him a sad, sweet smile.
He reached out and covered her hand with his own. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Danny was wounded while serving in Afghanistan. He singled-handedly saved the lives of two men in his unit when they were ambushed in a roadside attack. He risked heavy fire to pull those men to safety. Then, when a mortar exploded nearby, a piece of shrapnel hit him in the back of the neck and severed his spine.”
“He sounds like a very brave man.”
She looked toward the ceiling. “He is very brave. He’s facing his disability with a determination that’s amazing.”
“It’s all about having the will to live.”
She studied him for a moment and then asked, “What happened to your wife?”
The question caught him off guard. He had never told anyone the details of the accident. For years he had kept those terrible hours and days locked away in his mind. He met Lindsey’s gaze and saw only compassion looking back at him.
Sitting beside her in the dim building, he discovered a need to share his pain and his loss. “I had been working a lot of long hours that winter. I had only been out of school a year and I was intent on building up my practice. The Sunday before Valentine’s Day, Emily planned to go visit her family. She wanted to share the news about the baby in person. I should have let her go alone. I was dead tired. If only I had let her drive...” His voice trailed off into silence.
“While we were visiting her parents, the weather started to turn bad. She wanted to spend the night, but I wanted to get back. I thought my practice couldn’t do without me for another day. I insisted we leave.” He grew silent as the memory of the terrible night fanned the guilt he always carried.
“You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t remember much about the accident itself. I do remember how hard it was to keep my eyes open looking into the snow. I must have fallen asleep at the wheel.”
He patted his leg. “When I woke up rescue workers were cutting me out of what was left of our car. I reached for Emily. I found her hand in the darkness and then I felt her leave me. I felt her spirit touch mine and then she was gone.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Instead of answering, Brian rose and took another temperature reading on his patient. He had exposed enough of his soul for one night. “The fever is definitely going down.”
“Thank the Lord for answering our prayers.”
“I would say it is thanks to modern medicine.”
“Perhaps the Lord’s plan called for both medicine and prayers.”
“I doubt it. I’m sorry. It’s just that I gave up praying a long time ago.”
“Because of Emily?”
He wanted to say yes, but he wasn’t sure the words would make it past the lump in his throat.
She laid a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. God will be there when you are ready to pray again.”
“I don’t think much of a God who allows terrible things to happen to good people.”
“The Lord never promised that we wouldn’t suffer. He did promise that He will always be with us.”
“You surprise me.”
“Religion and a military life don’t seem to go together.”
She smiled slightly. “Maybe not to you, but to most of us serving our country, it makes perfect sense. If I’m called to put my life on the line, I know that God has my back.”
“Didn’t your brother’s injury leave you with doubts about that?”
“My brother’s injury left me with the same anger and grief that everyone feels at a time like that. What God gives me is comfort, and the sure and certain knowledge that He is with me. My strength comes from Him.”
Deciding it was time to change the subject, he asked, “Whatever possessed a woman like you to enlist in the army in the first place?”
She looked at him askew. “Why shouldn’t a woman join the army?”
“I not saying a woman can’t do the job. I’m just wondering why a woman would want to. You could be sent into a combat zone.”
“You mean people might shoot at me?”
“Here’s a news flash. I’ve been trained to shoot back. I even have a gun.”
“Would you? Shoot back, I mean?”
“Yes. Does that make me a bad person in your eyes?”
“Of course not. Do you plan to make it a career?”
Leaning against the wall, she stretched her legs out and stared at her feet. “You have to understand that I come from a military family. The Mandels have served with distinction since the Civil War. Growing up, I always knew that I would enlist when I was old enough. I don’t think my father would have approved of any other choice. He certainly wasn’t happy when Karen started talking about becoming a teacher instead of a soldier.”
“Teaching is an admirable profession.”
“Not for a Mandel.”
“So will Karen enlist, too?”
“Not for all the tea in China. She has stated categorically that she has no interest in wearing fatigues or taking orders from strangers.”
“What does your mother think about your career choice?”
It was the first time Brian had seen uncertainty and regret in her eyes. She looked down and plucked a piece of straw from the bale. “My mother doesn’t care one way or the other.”
Brian sat down beside her. “What makes you say that?”
Fighting back ugly memories, Lindsey wrapped the piece of straw around her finger like a wedding ring. When she realized what she was doing, she pulled it off and threw it aside. “My mother left my father when I was ten. Two days before my birthday, actually. We never heard from her again.”
“That must have been rough,” he said gently.
“We managed.” Only because she, Danny and Karen had had each other. Their father had retreated into his work, the work their mother had hated. He spent long hours away from home, and it wasn’t long before he was transferred to a new post. After that, Lindsey gave up watching for her mother to come back.
It was at the new post that they met a wonderful man by the name of Chaplain Carson. A kind and generous man, he always made time for the lonely kids who lived next door. In more ways than one, he helped all of them through that terrible time as he taught them about God’s love.
“Does your father still feel the same way about the service after your brother was wounded?”
Brian’s question jerked Lindsey out of the past. “I’m sure my father suffers as any man must suffer to see his son injured and hurting. But Dad is as proud as I am of what Danny did.”
“Of course. I just thought that he might want you out of harm’s way.”
“He worries, but he knows I’ll do my duty. It’s up to me to carry on the family tradition. My father doesn’t have to tell me that. It’s understood.”
“What would you do if there wasn’t an army?”
She scowled at him. “What kind of question is that? There will always be an army. ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’ Thomas Jefferson said that and he was right.”
“But what if you couldn’t stay in the service for some reason? What would you do?”
The question was so foreign that Lindsey wasn’t sure how to answer it. It had always been the army or nothing.
“Come on,” he coaxed. “Think outside the box.”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“What did your father do after he retired?”
“Drove us nuts.”
Brian chuckled and Lindsey found to her surprise that she adored the sound. Still, she wanted to change the subject, so she asked, “What do your parents do?”
“They’re ranchers. My family owns a spread outside of Missoula, Montana. They both still work as hard as they ever did, according to my older brother. He ranches with them.”
“Why didn’t you stay in the family business?”
“That’s a long story.”
She glanced at her watch. “Looks like I have time to listen.”
“Okay. Long story short. As a kid, I was reckless. I thought more about impressing my friends than my own safety. One day, on a dare, I tried to ride my horse down the side of a steep embankment the way they do in the movies. We fell. How I wasn’t killed outright I’ll never know, but my mare broke both her front legs. When my friends brought my father to the scene, Dad gave me the rifle and told me to put her down because it was obvious her life didn’t mean anything to me.”
“What a cruel thing to say.”
“Maybe it was, but he was right.”
“Did you do it?”
“I couldn’t, so my father did. But that day I vowed I’d never be the cause of another horse’s suffering. I knew then that I’d be a vet.”
“And you never wanted to be anything else?”
“Occasionally, I have this recurring desire to work in a movie theater and make popcorn.”
“You’re kidding, right?” She stared at him in amazement.
“Think about it. The smell of buttery popcorn all day long. Can’t you just imagine it?”
Lindsey closed her eyes. “The sound of the popper and the sight of fluffy white kernels pouring out from under a silver lid.”
“Can you think of a better job?”
“Driving a tank,” she stated without hesitation. “You’d never be caught in another traffic jam. You could roll over anything in your way.”
“Parking on campus might be a problem, though.”
“Not a bit. Find the space you want and park on top of the car that’s there.” She glanced at him trying to control the laughter building inside. “After all, who is going to argue with a woman in a tank?”
“Good point. Can I rent one from you?”
She giggled and he began to laugh outright. His laugh had a wonderful, deep timbre. One she wanted to hear over and over again.
His smile slowly faded. “Since it looks like Dakota is through the worst of it, I’d better get home for a few hours and make up with Isabella.”
The name was like a douse of cold water on Lindsey’s joy. Did he have another woman in his life? The thought was a sobering one. Then the realization hit her. It mattered. It mattered more than she cared to admit. She swallowed hard. “Who is Isabella?”
She wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him correctly. “Your bunny. As in rabbit?”
He looked at her sharply. “Yes. Why is that so odd?”
She grinned, almost giddy with relief. “I’m not sure. I guess I pictured you as the kind of guy who kept a bulldog or maybe a python.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. All I have is a domineering French Lop.”