Dr. Josephine Barrett had just flipped off the lights in her triage area when a low, heavy pounding thundered at the clinic’s back door. So much for the novel experience of eating her pizza while it was still hot.
For a split second, she debated hiding behind the ultrasound cart and pretending the office was already closed, locked, and deserted; but that was just cowardly, not to mention irresponsible. No one would be trying to knock down the door on a Saturday night unless they had a genuine emergency. And it wasn’t like this was Portland, where the next clinic down the road could take the case. In the tiny, rural town of Stone Creek, Oregon, Josie was the only veterinarian in twenty miles, and there was no way she could turn her back on a patient in need.
No matter how strong the urge.
Sighing, she flipped the light switch back up. Fine, but if this is Mrs. Cowlitz’s Persian with Dentu-Creme matted in its coat again, I swear to God I will not be responsible for the size of my bill.
Grabbing her stethoscope, Josie strode to the rear of the clinic and pushed open the heavy security door. “The office is closed right now. Is this an emergency?”
The second sentence bounced off the back of a large and fast-moving male form that hadn’t bothered waiting for her to step aside and let it in. The intruder shouldered straight past her and over to one of two surgical-steel exam tables at the far side of the room. Her subconscious barely had time to register recognition of the local sheriff in time to choke off an irritated threat about calling the police.
“Sheriff Pace, I’m not sure if you realize this, but it’s after nine o’clock, and I’ve been—”
Whatever she’d been about to say died in her throat as the uniformed figure stepped to the side to reveal the ragged bundle he’d just deposited on the table.
Josie bolted forward, shoved the sheriff out of the way, and peeled aside a corner of the reflective silver survival blanket. She pressed her palm hard against the bloody, matted fur beneath a limp forelimb. The beat she felt there was weak, but discernible.
“What the hell happened?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” the deep voice answered, sounding taut and . . . displeased, “as long as it involves at least one round from a .50-caliber hunting rifle.”
“Where?” Now intently focused, she ran her hands over the rest of a shockingly still gray body, searching for wounds.
Josie grunted, shoved the blanket entirely aside, and began probing the heavy muscle he’d indicated. Or rather, where that muscle should have been. Right now there was more blood than meat. A long, ragged trough of flesh had been carved out of the animal’s leg just below the hip.
She swore again and grabbed a packet of sterile packing from the counter just behind the table. While she tore it open, she ran an educated eye over the rest of the still form. “Any others?”
“Bullet wounds? Not that I saw, but she’s a mess. I didn’t waste a lot of time checking her over. I thought I’d leave that to you.”
Pressing the wad of cloth against the top of the wound where it bled sluggishly, Josie applied pressure and jerked her chin in the sheriff’s direction. “I need to hold this in place for a minute, so I’ll need your hands. You’re going to take her rear paws in one hand and the front in the other and gently roll her over so I can check her other side. But first, you’re going to grab that blue muzzle on the counter and slip it over her nose. When it’s in place, you can tie it off at the back of her head.”
“She’s unconscious. I don’t think she’s in any condition to take a chunk out of me—”
“I don’t care,” Josie cut in. “You just brought me a critically injured adult female timber wolf. She might be too weak to fight, but I’m not taking the chance. And more importantly, you’re not taking the chance in my hospital. Pain makes us all do strange things, and it’s not like she’s wearing a rabies tag.” She scowled and nodded toward the counter. “Muzzle.”
The sheriff obeyed, and since she didn’t have time to wonder how he felt about it, Josie couldn’t have cared less whether or not his macho sensibilities had tinged his movements with reluctance. She just concentrated on applying pressure to the bullet graze and waited for him to turn the injured wolf onto her other side. A quick assessment when he did revealed a few scratches, but nothing that looked nearly as serious as the wound she’d already seen.
She nodded. “Okay. Back over.” When he had the animal resettled, she grabbed his right hand and pressed it down on the gauze packing. “Hold this. Firmly.”
He didn’t bother to protest, and Josie didn’t bother to mention that she didn’t care for being stared at, especially not when the injured animal opened her eyes and fixed Josie with a steady, amber gaze. That was an observer she’d deal with happily.
Josie’s hands were already moving to the hole at the front of the muzzle and lifting the animal’s lips to peer into her mouth. The fact that the wolf didn’t even blink was making her nervous. As was the pale, pale sticky surface of the animal’s gums.
“I’m sorry, girl,” she murmured, her voice pitched soft and soothing even while her movements remained briskly efficient. “I know it hurts, but you’re being so good. Just be good for a few more minutes, and I promise I’m going to do everything I can to help you.”
The wolf didn’t move, but she whined and the tip of her tongue flicked out the end of the muzzle, almost as if she understood. Josie repeated the promise to herself and shrugged her stethoscope into place, positioning the chest piece behind the animal’s elbow and listening intently. Then she frowned.
Her hand went automatically to her pocket and pulled out her ophthalmoscope. When she peered into the wolf’s dark golden eyes, she nearly dropped the instrument on the poor thing’s nose.
“This is not a wolf,” she blurted out.
The wolf whined.
The sheriff frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that this”—Josie pointed, pointedly—“this is not a timber wolf. It’s a human being.”
The sheriff lifted an eyebrow.
“Okay, she looks like a wolf,” Josie conceded, “but she’s not. Or at least, that’s not all she is. She’s Lupine.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because I went to school for four years and did another six months of internship and three years of residency to learn how to identify and treat members of canine species. This”—she pointed again, for emphasis—“is not canine. She only has a partial tapetum lucidum.”
“A reflective layer of tissue behind the retina that helps to reflect light and enhance night vision. In canines, the tapetum lucidum lines the entire back of the eye’s lens. Hers is concentrated just around the fovea. If she were a wolf, that would be really, really not natural.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Okay, I’ll take your word for it. But I don’t think it matters all that much. She’s still hurt, and you’re still a doctor, so how about you give a comparative anatomy lesson later and just patch her up right now?”
“Didn’t you hear me? She’s human. I’m an animal doctor. I can’t treat a human being.”
“No, she’s not. She’s Lupine, but at the moment she’s got more physically in common with Mr. Potter’s springer spaniel than with Mr. Potter.” He spoke slowly, as if she needed extra time for comprehension. As if she hadn’t graduated at the top of her class from both Reed College and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “Not to mention that Dr. Shad’s office is closed until Monday, and I don’t think it would be in her best interest to wait for an appointment. So what do you say? Why don’t you take a shot at it? You know, as long as we’re here.”
Although the impulse to inject the man with a horse laxative tugged at her seductively, Josie’s sense of responsibility and medical ethics won out. Turning her back on the sheriff, she placed her stethoscope against the wolf’s belly and tried to hear any important sounds over the angry throbbing of blood in her ears. A soft whoosh immediately caught her attention.
Frowning, she shifted the scope a few inches caudally and listened again. Then she straightened up and pressed the tips of her fingers gently against the wolf’s abdomen.
“Grab that phone and press the button next to the name andrea,” she ordered, looking back up at the sheriff. “There’s internal bleeding. She’s going to need surgery.”
“And tell her to hurry. Otherwise I’m going to have to teach you how to tube and anesthetize an injured Lupine.”
Without a word, the sheriff turned and strode for the phone. Apparently he approved of Josie’s decision to go into private practice rather than teaching.
Eli waited in the clinic for almost three hours, despite Dr. Barrett’s warning that the surgery would be a long one and she’d be happy to call him with an update when it was finished. His shift was over, had been over before he’d stumbled on the still, bleeding form of the injured Lupine a little before nine o’clock. So he had nowhere else he had to be. At least, not for another seven or eight hours.
He supposed he could have gone home and tried to sleep—Gods knew his gritty eyeballs and the headache pounding at the back of his skull indicated a need for the unfamiliar stuff—but sleep wasn’t going to cure the restlessness that had been crawling along his hide for the past couple of weeks. What he needed was the good solid prowl he’d had planned for the end of his shift, the one he’d had to abandon in order to get the wolf to the vet.
After nearly three weeks of double and triple shifts for himself and the two deputies he employed who hadn’t succumbed to the latest flu that was going around, Eli thought he deserved a few hours to cut loose, shed his human skin, and let the beast inside him out to run. Instead, he’d barely gotten his uniform collar unbuttoned before he’d scented the blood.
He hadn’t heard the shot, which was strange, but between the growl of his SUV’s engine, the crackle of his police scanner, and the voice on the cell phone he’d held to his ear, he supposed there was a chance he’d just missed it. It had been another long shift, after all, at the end of another long week of them, and he’d been on the phone with Ramsey when he pulled into the gravel parking area at the edge of the forest, so he supposed he should forgive himself for his distraction. He hadn’t realized anything was wrong until he’d stepped out of the truck and taken his first deep breath of the crisp spring air.
The sweet tang of fresh blood had filled his head and sent hunger momentarily stretching through him. Then he’d sniffed again and realized he wasn’t smelling a fresh deer carcass or the remains of some coyote’s rabbit dinner. The blood smelled heavier than that, with the curious bitterness of a predatory animal and the peculiar thickness of a large spill.
Something had been near death. Some Lupine had been near death.
It hadn’t taken him long to find her. All he’d needed to do was follow his nose, and since he hadn’t known precisely what he would find, he’d tracked the odor on two feet instead of four, with his radio in one hand and the other on the holster of his service revolver. His flashlight had stayed in his belt. After all, in the darkness he had the eyes of a cat.
She had fallen near the base of a huge pine tree, the kind of old growth that had always made the logging companies just a little bit nervous. A sniff and a quick touch had confirmed that she was still alive, so Eli had wasted no time in scooping her up and carrying her back to his truck, but he’d made note of where he’d found her so he could return in the daylight and go over the scene. Cat’s eyes or no, some things could still be overlooked in the dark.
Now that he’d deposited the Lupine safely in the doctor’s care, Eli couldn’t stop thinking about the incongruity of the situation. Hunters rarely roamed the area around Stone Creek. The town’s reputation reached too far for most people to feel real comfortable about shooting something that might or might not have passed them in the Home Depot a few hours earlier. Even the fundamentalists who liked to talk big about how Others were abominations who should be hunted down and killed tended not to like the odds of getting away with taking that kind of action in a place where two-thirds of the local population was something other than human.
Which meant that only locals tended to hunt in the local forests, and most of them did so the old-fashioned way—on all fours with their fur flying. The few who went out with rifles from time to time tended to respect the state-outlined game seasons, and right now the only things a body could legally shoot at were coyotes, cougars, and waterfowl. No one in Stone Creek hunted cougars or coyotes, and the middle of a dry pine forest wasn’t exactly prime grounds for goose or duck.
So who had taken the shot that injured the Lupine currently stretched out on the vet’s operating table, and what exactly had he been aiming at? Eli didn’t imagine sleep would get any more appealing to him until he figured that out.
He rose from the doctor’s stool he’d perched on when the door to the operating room opened at the other end of the short hall. When Dr. Barrett emerged in her stained green scrubs, Eli was watching.
“How did it go?”
She braced one hand against the small of her back and stretched wearily. “About as well as it could, all things considered. The bullet wound was the easy part. We got that cleaned out and stitched, but the internal bleeding was what had us worried. Thankfully, we caught it before she lost enough to require a transfusion, because I’m not sure how to go about finding a donor match for a Lupine. The bleeding was in her spleen, which we had to take out, but theoretically, she should do fine without it.”
“Canines and humans can both live fairly normal lives after splenectomy, and I’ve never heard differently about Lupines, but I’m far from an expert on their anatomy and physiology.”
Eli heard both the doctor’s words and the hesitation behind them. He could also see a certain shadow in her serious brown eyes that told him there was more to the story than she’d already revealed.
Excerpted from Born to be Wild by .
Copyright © 2010 by Christine Warren.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.