I must be out of my mind.
Why I let my receptionist squeeze in a veterinary house call the morning of the wedding, I had no idea. As maid of honor I needed to be dressed and in place for a last-minute rehearsal at one o’clock. Instead of relaxing, I’m in an old pair of scrubs rushing to see a dog with a lump on his back.
I’d graduated from veterinary school with a degree and a massive amount of student loans—about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth. Because of those debts I didn’t have the luxury of turning down work. That’s how I ended up in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley running the Oak Falls Animal Hospital for absentee owner, Doc Anderson. While Doc enjoyed his round-the-world cruise, I held down the fort. As a relief vet, my job was to make money, not waves. After a bumpy start, things had settled down and I found I enjoyed meeting his pet-loving, and sometimes eccentric, clients. On the downside, as the only veterinarian, I survived on a steady diet of stress, lack of sleep, and frequent helpings of pie.
“Let’s go, Mari.” My veterinary assistant had run back into the hospital for some last-minute supplies plus her emergency bag of potato chips. I gunned the animal hospital truck engine and draped my stethoscope on the rearview mirror. Eight o’clock Saturday morning in Oak Falls and I was already behind schedule.
“Got it, Doc.” Mari slammed the passenger door, pulled on her seat belt, and gave me a thumbs-up. She’d already programmed our destination into the GPS, so with any luck we’d be at our appointment in about forty minutes. In case of delay, however, my maid of honor dress, swathed in plastic, swung back and forth from a hook directly behind me. We zipped along on a two-lane secondary road that paralleled the highway. Flashes of russet and gold foliage punctuated the stands of trees lining the road. Few people ventured out this early on Saturday morning. Even though Halloween was around the corner, today’s weather prediction called for sunshine and a high of sixty degrees—a glorious Indian summer day to be enjoyed to the fullest before winter hit.
“Right turn in five hundred feet.” I slowed down the battered F-150. Our GPS spoke in a clipped British accent. Whenever I heard it I felt like offering him a cup of tea.
Our appointment was in a very rural area outside of town. Here the homes were separated by several acres, interspersed with farmland. I noticed all the properties along this stretch of road bordered New York State Park land. Dense stands of evergreens reached for the sky, creating puddles of green at the base of the gray-blue Catskill Mountains.
“Destination on the left.”
A long gravel driveway dotted with pine trees brought us to a modern log cabin home, complete with soaring roof and oversized glass windows, nestled in a slight valley.
Mari’s big brown eyes opened wide. “Very nice.”
I had to agree with my technician. This place was stunning.
The builder had cleared a strategic part of the wooded property, exposing the killer mountain view. Off in the distance a narrow dirt road ran parallel to a crumbling stacked stone wall that separated the adjacent fields before it disappeared into the parkland—probably a service access trail of some sort.
I slid the stethoscope out from behind the mirror, retrieved my doctor’s bag from the crowded backseat, and followed Mari to the front door.
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Before I could ring the doorbell we heard a menacing growl from inside. A human eyeball stared at us through a round peephole cut into the massive entry door.
Knowing some people out in the country were a little skittish about strangers appearing on their doorstep, I waved a greeting. “Hi. I’m Dr. Kate Turner from the Oak Falls Animal Hospital.”
Before I got most of the words out the heavy alder door opened and a slim young woman in jeans and a sweater greeted us over the barking of a large gray and white Malamute.
“Samantha Miller. Come in, please. Stand down, Jack.” Obviously well trained, the dog immediately quieted down, although a suspicious rise of hair along his hackles remained.
We pushed past the big dog who was intent on sniffing us and vigorously poking at various private parts through our coats.
“Cut that out, Jack.” Samantha held her dog’s muzzle for a moment, then let go. An apologetic look rose in his dark doggie eyes. “You have to forgive him. We don’t get a lot of visitors.” The cozy smell of freshly brewed coffee perked me up. Jack stayed close to his mistress, the top of his head coming up to her waist.
As we moved into the kitchen area I was struck by how beautiful the inside of the cabin was. The ceiling rose to a crazy height, with gigantic peeled logs spanning the entire length of the house from one end to another. A two-sided stacked fieldstone fireplace soared up to the roof. The open kitchen gleamed with stainless steel appliances and polished gray granite. White walls and dark wood floors unified the spaces. A vision of the chipped laminate countertops and old yellowed appliances in my rental apartment flashed into my mind—along with my student loan payment schedule. Oh well, someday.
Mari stood thunderstruck. “Do you live here alone?”
“Only on weekdays. My husband works in the city but he’s here late Friday through Monday morning.” Samantha didn’t seem to resent my assistant’s rather personal question. “I work for a software company, so all I need is the Internet and my computer.”
I glanced again at the Malamute and observed a clump of fur sticking up along his back. “So, is Jack my patient? He looks pretty healthy.” At the sound of his name the handsome dog turned toward me, the black mask of his face expectant.
“Yes, I feel horrible.” His owner reached out and immediately Jack nuzzled her hand. “I didn’t notice anything until last night when I touched his back right there.” She made a gesture toward the spot I’d noted.
“Well, let me take a look.” Mari stepped in and held the approximately eighty-five-pound dog while I began my exam. After quickly determining his general health, I started walking my gloved fingers through his thick coat. As soon as I separated the sticky hairs I knew we had a problem.
“He’s got a jagged laceration here that’s infected.”
“Oh, no.” His owner sounded guilty.
“Are there any barbed-wire fences around that he could have slipped under?” Malamutes and huskies are breeds notorious for taking off and exploring, often without their owners.
“There’s a whole length of it up by the forestry trail leading into the state land. He got away from me a few days ago and disappeared for almost a half an hour. He wouldn’t come when I called and I got frantic. Finally, I gave up and decided to call my husband, but that’s when I saw him running down the hill toward me.”
“I’m going to clean it and start him on an antibiotic. Can you give him pills?”
“No problem, as long as it’s in a wad of cream cheese.” Her warm smile suggested she’d been down that route with him before.
“Cream cheese? Lucky boy, Jack.” His plume-like tail wagged on hearing his name.
With my clipper blade I carefully trimmed around the wound to expose the cut, scrubbed it with betadine solution, and followed with a saline lavage. After I disposed of my gloves I put Jack under house arrest—leash walks only and close observation for any change of mood or odd symptoms. Although tetanus is rare in dogs, it was still on my radar.
“Does it need stitches?”
“It’s infected now so we can’t suture it. That would trap the bacteria inside and make it worse. It should heal fine in about two weeks and when the fur grows in you won’t even be able to find it. I’m going to give him a long-acting shot of an antibiotic to get a jump start on the infection.”
“Jack doesn’t have any problem growing hair, that’s for sure.” To prove her point Samantha pulled a tuft of grey fur off her black sweater.
The sturdy guy had been a great patient. He’d barely moved as long as someone scratched his ears.
Our work done, we began to say our good-byes. Mari e-mailed Samantha the wound instructions and scheduled a recheck in one week. Thanks to Jack’s cooperation and Mari’s efficiency, we were now right on schedule. As I pulled on my coat I asked, “How long have you had him?”
“Since he was a puppy. We named him Jack for Jack London, the writer of Call of the Wild. He’s always been adventurous, digging up stuff, and bringing all kinds of things home.” She tucked a random strand of dark hair behind her ear. “I think he got hurt while fetching me a present.”
“What kind of present?” Mari momentarily put down our laptop to button her coat.
“Let me show you.” She walked over to the fireplace and picked something out of a wicker basket by the woodpile. “This is his latest. I guess it’s from a deer.”
She placed a bone in my hand.
I felt a jolt in my stomach. The bone I held didn’t come from a deer. It was human.
My simple house call had suddenly morphed into something way more complicated.
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After I confessed my suspicions about Jack’s present, Samantha freaked and immediately began phoning everyone from 9-1-1 to the local forest rangers. Mari tried to reassure her that the bone probably was from an old Indian burial site. As a local she’d heard of several grisly discoveries made by unsuspecting homeowners. I wasn’t so sure.
In my freshman year in college I’d taken several anthropology courses, and even gone on a dig with other students in my class. One of our assignments was to catalogue a cache of bones from a large Native American burial mound.
The arm bone Jack the dog found felt heavy and much thicker than any of the bones I’d handled. My instinct told me this was no ancient artifact.
Who had died and been buried in those deep dark woods?