Chapter One


With her frizzy mane and a shock of grizzled forelock concealing tiny ears, the motionless grey pony looked like the victim of a bad home perm. Rhythmic flaring of velvet nostrils was the only sign of life in the animal’s eerie stillness. The copper tang of blood mingled with the scent of freshly-mown grass.

     "Did you know Wal-Mart has glow-in-the-dark fish?”
     “You mean gummi fish?” said Jack, grunting with effort.
     “Not fish you eat. Live fish. In the pet aisle,” said Teghan.
    “News to me, but I rarely get past the candy bins.” Jack straightened, massaging her back and leaving bloody handprints on her scrub top. Her feet were asleep from sitting on her knees.
     Teghan lifted a towel wrapped around the pony’s face and tapped the inner corner of her eyelid. The soft eye teared, unaware. “Well, this glowing fish thing was news to me. Trevor bought three of them. I went in his room to say goodnight and the lights were off. Those creepy fish were swimming around in the dark.”
     “Sounds disturbing.”
     “You haven’t heard the worst of it. He named them.”
     “What’s wrong with the creepy fish having names?” Jack asked.
     “Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island?”
     Jack laughed between grunts. “Okay, that is disturbing. Hilarious, but disturbing.”
     “Right?” said Teghan.
     “He’s, what, in the third grade? What are they teaching them?”
     “Blame Wikipedia. He Googled nuclear disasters.” 
     “Damn it!” Another barb bit into Jack’s bleeding fingers. Her leather gloves had seen better days. Creases, sweat, and dirt had taken their toll. Underneath, her hands were a roadmap of scratches and punctures. Reflexively, Jack put her finger to her mouth, tasting salty, crusted leather.
     Jack worked methodically, using a pair of stubborn bolt cutters as tired as the gloves. Several feet of rusty barbed wire remained, hopelessly tangled. Cruel tendrils reached out, hooking barb to barb, stabbing and slicing flesh. Sections of wire were embedded so deeply Jack didn’t dare untangle them for fear of doing further damage. Tendons and ligaments were intact, but any miscalculation could cripple the mare for life. The worn hinge complained with each closing and promised a limited number of victories against the decades-old fencing.
     Montana was littered with miles of abandoned fences. Wooden posts lay rotting in the soil, making secrets of forgotten boundaries. Volunteers, hunters and ranchers did their best to remove them, but the task was daunting. Unfortunate elk and deer sported rusty tangles wrapped around their antlers like perverse hood ornaments. Some were rescued, but countless others met a brutal, anonymous fate.
Bitten by an unseen predator, the pony had tried to bolt. Panicked, she kicked and reared at her invisible assailant. In seconds, she was fiercely entangled. Her futile efforts yielding only pain, she laid down, among mangled weeds and wire, patiently awaiting her fate.
     “How’s she doing?” Jack asked, without looking up.
    “Hanging in there. How long was she down before they found her?” Teghan sat cross-legged at the pony’s head. Beside her was a portable IV stand. A fluid bag hung from the pole, scribbled in Sharpie with the letters DKX. The anesthetic ran through an IV line to a catheter concealed under a bandage around the pony’s neck. Periodically, Teghan released the forceps to allow the liquid to flow.
     “Don’t know--I’m guessing not too long,” Jack replied. “Teresa keeps the trailer hooked up and the neighbor who spotted Ashes helped get her loaded, otherwise we might have a colic to go along with this mess.”
     A downed equine was a potential train wreck. Muscles evolved for power and a quick getaway were vulnerable, by their sheer mass, to compression injury. Crushed tissues and smashed blood vessels quickly lead to ischemia and necrotic cell death. The digestive system, a precarious arrangement at best, had well over fifty feet of intestine. Thrashing and stress could twist the gut and knot it like a wrung-out sock. Food would continue to ferment, generating huge amounts of painful gas and allowing toxins to seep into the body. Both scenarios were fatal.
     Jack shivered as the sun moved west and her sweat cooled in the shadow of the clinic building. She saw Teghan shift positions and knew the chilling air would stiffen her bum leg. Her technician’s appearance reflected her ranching youth; a gentle face lined with years of wind and weather. Her dark waves were prematurely gray. She was tall, slightly bow-legged and looked every part the rancher’s daughter she was. In her teens, Teghan had taken a fall from a green colt. The accident left her with a metal rod in her femur, a slight limp and ended her days of barrel racing and working cows. She’d been working at Two Bear Veterinary Clinic ever since. 
     When Jack purchased the clinic, their contrasting appearances caused some confusion with new clients. Although only a few years apart, Jack looked about half Teghan’s age. From her mother, Jack inherited brown eyes and a rich olive complexion. Her hair was light brown, fell carelessly around her shoulders and was usually in need of a trim. It had a mind of its own and was not receptive to styling, even if Jack had been so inclined. Which she was not. By summer’s end, Jack was a ragged bleach blonde and sported a deep farmer’s tan. So much for her mother’s attempted tribute to her idol, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 
     Jack came into the world two weeks early, in a remote part of Greece. With her mother still in recovery in the maternity ward of a small village and her harried father trying to secure a ride from his archeological dig, Jack’s oldest brother, Noah, was handed forms to fill out on the birth of his new sister. Thanks to the meticulous attention to detail typical of a fifteen-year-old boy and Hooked on Phonics, the infant was officially named Jacklin. A fact not discovered until Jack was enrolled in a stateside school. The week before she started, Jack’s other brothers taught her how to write her name. At the risk of being a kindergarten dropout, Jack refused to attend if the teacher made her spell it differently. 
     Jack was close friends with the pony’s owners, Teresa and Grayson Campbell. They rode together on old Stolz Lumber or Forest Service roads on the rare occasions when Jack had time to tear herself away from the clinic. The dirt roads crisscrossed forested areas. Many had been obliterated in federal roadless initiatives, but enough miles remained for much-needed downtime.
     Snapping wires one by one, Jack gingerly removed the short pieces. Ashes’ tough, bushy fetlocks offered little protection. Extracting each barb yielded a fresh stream of blood, coating the gloves and making the already miserable task even more challenging. Jack yanked off the leather gloves and tossed them aside. The sun was dipping below the mountain peaks by the time the job was finished. All four legs were thickly padded with layers of roll cotton and encased with neon pink Vetwrap. A five litre bag of IV fluids had replaced the DKX. The pony was propped between bales of straw to keep her upright on her chest and to keep her from thrashing and injuring herself while she recovered from anesthesia. Jack injected tetanus antitoxin into Ashes’ hindquarter, gathered what supplies she could, and walked to the back door of the clinic. 
    A single patient, an old German shepherd, remained to be examined. He rested, unconcerned, in one of the chain-link runs in the back room of the hospital. 
“Hey, old timer,” Jack greeted him on her way to the sink. She dumped the wet towels and crusted instruments, plugged the drain and blasted the faucet on cold. The items disappeared as the water turned crimson. Jack changed it twice before most of the blood and dirt was rinsed away. Satisfied, she washed and dried her hands, brought up the appropriate patient record on the computer and turned her attention to the dignified old shepherd in the back. It was almost eight o’clock and Teghan’s entry showed the dog had been dropped off by county animal control shortly after three.
     The entry told Jack the dog had been found by a trucker. Teghan had already weighed him, done a TPR—temperature, pulse and respiration—and looked for any obvious injuries. A stool sample revealed tapeworms. Teghan had given praziquantel tablets and applied a topical flea treatment, since the two parasites often went hand in hand. She had given him a small meal of senior diet and offered him water. 
Jack smiled. Teghan’s experience and attention to detail saved Jack countless hours. Teghan had taken time to drag out the egg foam padding they used for geriatric patients and placed it on the bed in his kennel.
     Teghan walked past, toting the last load of instruments and bandaging materials.    “She’s wobbly but standing okay on her own.” she said, separating her discards and tossing the rest in the sink. “She looks like a psychedelic hobby horse.” 
     “Just the look I was going for.”
    “Grayson would be thrilled,” said Teghan. “The neighbors’ll have a field day with this one. They already give him grief about keeping Ashes around. He’s so tight with money, then goes and pays a premium for her at auction to save her from the meat buyers.”
     “Let’s hope she makes it—she still has a long way to go.” Jack grabbed a nylon hospital leash from the wall hook and headed back to the kennel.
The dog rose slowly, stiffly to his feet. His muscles quivered as he stood, matching Jack’s gaze. She stroked his graying ears as she began to look him over. Aside from the unmistakable features of old age, nothing about him appeared out of the ordinary. His coat was dry and had that distinctive yeasty smell of an elderly dog in need of a bath. The atrophy of his muscles revealed a strong frame and sound conformation. He was obviously of quality breeding.
     “Bet you were quite something in your day, weren’t ya?” Jack’s practiced hands moved easily over him, searching for any irregularity. His alert eyes were masked in the characteristic white-blue haze of lenticular schlerosis. It was almost universal in senior dogs, though it seemed to Jack that it bothered owners more than it bothered their dogs. They often thought their pet had cataracts, a totally different condition that did, in fact, affect vision. It didn’t take an expert to tell this dog had arthritis; probably in every major joint from the looks of it. His chest sounded clear and his teeth were unusually clean for a dog of his age, with slight yellowing but little wear.
Jack went back up front to trade her stethoscope for a microchip scanner and a carprofen tablet to relieve his aches and pains. She wasn’t optimistic. The dog’s oily ruff was not matted down as if he’d recently worn a collar. Still, it was worth a try. Jack clicked on the scanner and ran it lengthwise along the dog’s shoulders and down his back. His hips began to buckle as she made a second pass along his ribcage. He carefully maneuvered his hindquarters and, with a weary sigh, adjusted himself into a sitting position. Just then, the scanner beeped.

     Jack knitted her brow. “Well, how ‘bout that, boy?” Somebody must be missing you right about now.” Jack roughed up his head and smiled. She offered him the beef-flavored tablet as a treat. He eyed her suspiciously and looked away. “All right, not your first rodeo—I get it.” She quickly opened his mouth and slipped the tablet on the back of his tongue. “Mine either.” She practically skipped up the hall to make a phone call. She intercepted Teghan in the treatment room. “Guess what? He’s got a chip!” 
     “Oh yeah? David said he checked for one when they picked him up.”
     “It migrated. Right axillary. It would’ve been easy to miss.” 
     Teghan typed the notation in the record as Jack relayed her other exam findings.
    “His name is Quebec,” the thick accent crackled on the other end of the line. “Owner is Levi Phillips.”

     Jack scribbled the information on a dry-erase board they used to list patients in the hospital.

    “Address is 3908 Choteau Lake Road, Cutbank, Montana. We have two phone numbers listed on this account.” Jack copied both.
    “Great,” Jack said, “thanks a lot.” She hesitated. “Oh, wait, how old is he?” She could hear tapping of a keyboard as she waited.  
    “We show a birthdate of March 31st, 2017. Will that be all, doctor?”
     Jack wrote 3/31/ and lifted the marker.
    “Hello?” the voice said.
   “Yes, sorry, I’m still here. Can you hold on a minute? There may be a mistake. I want to double-check this number.”
     Teghan looked up as Jack placed the line on hold. “Problem?” she asked.
     “Maybe.” Jack retrieved the scanner and went back to the kennel armed with a Post-It pad and pen.
     “Thanks—all right, let me read this back to you again to make sure we’re talking about the same dog. “W-K-0-1-3-9-7-7-4. Is that what you’ve got? Male? Black and tan German shepherd?”
     “Yes, Ma’am, that is correct.” The voice paused again. “Will there be anything else?”
     “No, thank you, the rest of it makes sense. Thanks for your help. Good night.” After she hung up, it occurred to Jack the call center might be anywhere—maybe it was lunch hour in his time zone? She let it go.
     “Well?” Teghan had her Carhartt jacket slung over one shoulder, her backpack hitched over the other.
     “Do we know a Levi Phillips?”
     “Doesn’t sound familiar. I can check the computer for you.” Teghan offered, starting to shed her pack.
     “No, thanks for staying late to finish up.” 
     “Again.” They both laughed.
    “What was that about?” Teghan asked, referring to Jack’s return trip to the kennel.
    “Oh, nothing. Probably a clerical error. Unless this dog’s two and a half.”
                                                                    #
     The roads were quiet. Final touches of sun glinted off the lodgepole pines, creating a strobe effect, forcing Jack to squint and slow her Ford Ranger. Whitetail deer grazed along the shoulder but, at least this evening, none were inclined to make a suicidal dash across the road. As she passed a scattering of modest, tidy farmhouses, Jack’s previous commute and her family, or what was left of it, seemed a world away.