Chapter One, Old Hickory Lane, a Novel

Chapter 1

Old Hickory Lane

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[infopopup:OHLImgBuyLinks]ACCORDING TO THE CLINIC MAP, Jameson Keller’s farm was the next to the last place on a long, winding road called Old Hickory Lane.  ‘Lane’—the word made Warren cringe.  He hated long, bumpy drives that took him way up hell and gone in this remote northern country, but Keller’s cow hadn’t cleaned, and it was Warren’s job to take the open ranch calls—the ones where the client hadn’t specified a doctor.

Most of the heavy work, the dirty jobs, were open calls, and most were with clients who were, at best, inhospitable, sometimes downright hostile.  A look at the notes in the Keller file showed the telling innuendos slipped in here and there, not so much in the minority partner’s notes, but in those of the clinic’s majority owners, Doctors Bill Lewis and Jim Clark.  A quick check in the receptionist’s log confirmed that Keller’s was an open call.  In her neat, loopy hand-writing, Marcia had noted, ‘Said just send a vet when one can get there.  Not emergency.’  The ‘not’ was underlined.  Twice.

Just send a vet.  In other words, what Keller wanted was an animal mechanic, not a doctor.

Graduating top of his class and newly board certified as specialist, Warren Jeffreys, D.V.M., Ph.D., was reduced to vaccinating heifer calves and cutting up dead lambs inside bawling ewes on farms where animals were just one more commodity to be used up and discarded.  This was not the future he’d paid for with the last of his trust and two student loans.  And the small animal side of the practice was no better—the pampered Pekes and Poodles, the temperamental Persians, the spoiled pot-bellied pigs—animals their owners loved with deadly indulgence. But when their darling died, regardless of cause, it would be ‘the vet’ they blamed.  Not always, not even mostly, but often enough that it rankled.

Stowing his cell, his laptop, and the clinic’s electronic clipboard in the cubby between the seats, he checked the mobile clinic one final time for supplies.  Assured he had everything, he climbed in and turned the key in the brand new, pride-of-the-clinic hybrid Dodge RAM 3500.  The four-wheel-drive rumbled to life. Forty-three miles up a still icy highway, he turned at the road sign that said ‘Old Hickory Lane.’

It was early—just quarter past six in the morning—but Warren had an entire sheet to get through by three.  Hopefully, Keller’s cow would be a quick look, then tell the client to give her time.  He’d pop her a shot of hormone, maybe give her some calcium and a preventive shot of antibiotics just to be on the safe side, but most placentas slipped all by themselves within four or five days.  Those which didn’t, rotted gone, antibiotics covering potential complications.

THE FIRST COUPLE OF MILES were paved, the icy surface sanded.  A sign warned ‘End of Pavement’, and the road turned rough and slippery with hard-packed snow and ice as it climbed elevation, meandering through tracks alternating between pastures and woods. Morning sunlight dappled the road.  Warren rolled the window down, enjoying the crisp, cold scent of pine and cedar so different, so much richer, than the dryer bitterness of either Kansas or northwestern Montana.  In a matter of hours, the morning cold would be history, replaced by what Jim, his boss, called a heat wave—fifty-degrees, daytime temperatures that crested with the sun, though it was only mid-March.

On a tight downhill curve, a particularly nasty washboard set the truck chattering sideways. Letting off the gas, he felt the four-wheel drive kick in and hung tight to the wheel as the front end threatened to take him over the side and down into the trees.  Bracing, a grim-faced Warren swore softly as the ground disappeared in front of the hood.  Then, as suddenly as the tires had lost their traction, they grabbed, and he was just able to steer clear, the passenger side wheel dipping ominously into the ditch before he got the rig back on level road. Warren kept his foot easy on the accelerator the rest of the way.

KELLER’S WAS A RAMSHACKLE place surrounded by sagging barbed wire fences.  Typical of the old homesteads that dotted this county, it sported a run-down house and weathered outbuildings, their steel roofs sagging from years of high country snows.  As ever, a collection of rusting vintage cars and abandoned, antique farm implements dotted the snowy pastures at a ratio of at least one piece of junk for every two to three cows.

Turning in the narrow, dirt drive, Warren avoided frozen ruts, aiming his wheels at the center ridge and the verge.  Within moments, two lean Black Labs raced toward him, barking furiously.  Surprised by their uncharacteristic aggressiveness, Warren slowed—a mistake.  Both dogs jumped at the driver’s side door, their barking, froth-mouthed heads mere inches from his open window, their claws raking at the truck’s door panel.

Warren hit the switch and let the rising glass do its work just as they jumped again.  Flailing wildly, one dog fell back, but the other hit the window hard enough to flip him.  Warren cringed as much at the sound of gouged paint as the yelps, visions bright in his mind of the animal crushed beneath the left rear tire. He eased to a stop, and both dogs leapt again, their barking frenzied as noses hit glass repeatedly at the height of their jumps.

Easing forward, Warren suffered the Labs peeling more paint and signage off the truck the rest of the way up the drive to the house, a good three-hundred feet.  When he got to the yard, he saw a short, heavyset man just standing there watching him. The man didn’t open his mouth—not once—nor raise a hand to belay the dogs.  He just looked on as they continued to bound at the truck, their claws raking its sides with Warren trapped inside.

Not until Warren had parked and shut down the engine did the man finally call the savages off, the piercing shrill of his whistle easily audible inside the closed cab.  Dogs sitting quietly beside him, now, he motioned, and Warren got out, wincing at the damage done to the truck’s pristine paint job.  Lewis and Clark Veterinary Service’s brand new, crystal-black-cherry truck was now striped with roughened white grooves all the way from window to running board.  The side panel hadn’t fared much better.

“Took you long enough to get here,” the man drawled, his hands pushing deep inside the pockets of his insulated bibs.  “Thought you’d come last night.”

“Are you Jameson Keller?”

“Yep.  One and the same.”

“Yesterday you told Marcia it wasn’t an emergency,” Warren said, pulling on a pair of coveralls and rubber overboots.  He got his ranch kit and a drug pack out of the box, along with a brand new, stainless steel bucket.

“I said there was a hurry to that gal you got answering your phones.  The cow ain’t chewing her cud, and she’s got no milk to speak of, not that I can get her up to get some.  I gotta feed the calf by hand.”

Warning bells went off inside Warren’s head as he filled the bucket with hot water from the truck’s onboard tank.  This wasn’t a simple retained placenta.  As his mind whirled with possible complications, Warren nodded and made sympathetic noises that seemed to mollify the man.  “The receptionist must have misunderstood, Mr.  Keller.  Where’s the cow?”

“This way,” Keller said, turning to lead off.

They took a slippery, narrow pathway through a side yard littered with broken plastic toys, a couple cheap sleds, and a rusting swing set made of chains, pipe, and old tires.  A few yards farther on, Keller opened a wire gate, the only thing that seemed relatively solid and well-kept on the place.  “Watch the hole,” Keller said as Warren stepped through, his foot breaking through ice to find it. Frigid water sloshed into his boot, soaking his sock.  Keller waved him on. “She’s up at the barn.”

Sidling passed a dead tractor stuck in a snow berm, Warren headed toward the listing, weathered building, its corrugated metal roof bent over at the eves.

“So where’s Bill?” Keller asked, coming up behind, his voice a little breathless.  “I didn’t expect no skinny, girl-haired, too tall Injun.”

“He had another call,” Warren lied, ignoring the insult.

“Expected Bill or Jim,” Keller said, again.  When Warren didn’t answer, the man said, “Bill’s the one who usually comes,” his voice accusing.

It was always the same.  First they just wanted a vet—any vet.  Then they asked why Bill or Jim hadn’t come.  Every farm he’d been to in the two weeks he’d been with Lewis and Clark had been the same.  Clients never asked for Dave, the minority partner, a man Warren had yet to meet.  Nor did they want Lynda, who, like Warren, was a hired gun.  They always wanted one of the principals.

“Well, then, just so you know,” Keller continued.  “I don’t want no fancy stuff.  Just get the job done.  You boys are too expensive for us poor folk.”

Inside, the old barn had gaping holes in the walls and a roof that let in daylight along with lots of rain and snow.  Underfoot, years of accumulated hay littered the floor. Surprisingly, the barn didn’t smell of molds or mildew, though everything was coated in layers of dust and years of cobwebs.  Over in one corner was a pen—metal panels anchored to uprights with baling twine.  A dull-eyed, listless cow lay inside, no calf in sight.  A small Guernsey, she was upright, lying on her brisket, not so bad off that she was flat out on her side.  But she wasn’t pulling at the hay beside her, either, and it was obvious by the bedding that she hadn’t tried to rise—all trouble signs.

A bright, ferric smell of fresh blood assailed his nostrils as Warren approached.  “When did she calve, Mr. Keller?”

“Yesterday mornin’, early.  A nice, tidy little heifer calf, spittin’ image of her mother.”

Talking softly, a habit from years of working with his father’s horses, Warren went around to the backside, blanching at the bright, red blood leaking out the cow’s swollen vulva.  More blood littered the straw around her.  This wasn’t placental blood.  “Mr. Keller?” he said, a swift frown clouding his ‘client face.’ “Have you been working on this cow?  She’s bleeding.”

“Well, of course she’s bleeding!  She’s got that calf bag in her.”  The man glowered at him. “You stupid, or something, boy?”

Throttling his anger, Warren checked the cow’s temperature—104.5°F—and fought a sudden onset of nausea and headache, a hot, aching pain in his lower abdomen almost making him retch.  Fighting for calm and distance, he pinched a bit of skin, watching as the fold took a full two seconds and more to meld back level.  Temper controlled and the effects lessening, he looked back at Keller.  “No.  You don’t understand.  This isn’t placental—”

Warren stopped himself.  This was an under-educated man he was speaking to.  “This is serious,” he said, starting again and trying his best to keep his tone mild as he pulled on a sleeve-long plastic glove, liberally squirting lube jelly.

Keller gave him an odd look, then coughed and shuffled his feet a bit.  To Warren, he looked very much like when Tye, his cousin’s boy, had been caught at some naughty.  “Well,” Keller said, “when you didn’t come, I had a go at her myself.”

Warren squatted down, then stretched out half on his belly, half sideways and worked a hand in, keeping the other on the cow’s hip to telegraph her any intention to move.  He didn’t need a broken arm.  “With what?”

“With a wire,” the man said.  “Just reached inside her like I seen Bill do, a loop of wire in my hand to try and hook the thing.”

A wire!  Bill would never use a wire!  Why not just his hand?  …Though Warren doubted Keller even had gloves.

Inside, sure enough, not only was the cow hot, but the uterine lining was thickened, both symptoms of infection.  His fingers found a big rip in the vaginal wall. Exploring it, he found that it didn’t penetrate into the surrounding tissue…hadn’t touched the bladder.  “Your cow has metritis, Mr. Keller,” he said, purposely using the big word to put some fear in the fellow.

He was into her up to his shoulder now, and, still, the cow didn’t move.  She just lay still, though, occasionally, her muscles would spasm as he worked the placenta off button after button.  “Don’t you go dying, little sissy,” he whispered to her tail.

Usually, local treatment of the uterus was a thing of the past, but, having felt the rip in her vagina from Keller’s wire job, he shuddered to think what he would find in the uterus itself.  He would have to get the placenta out by hand to know the full extent of the damage.  Luckily, as he explored, though, he found no rips in the uterine wall—bless Keller’s short arms.  Why the caruncle-cotyledons hadn’t relaxed their hold was a mystery.  Almost every one was still gripping tight.  “She ever retained her placenta before?” he asked.

“Nope.”

Working the farthest adhesions free proved its usual exasperation, even with Warren’s long arms.  Done finally, Warren gathered as much of the placenta as he could and began to slowly draw it out, stopping and exploring to free one and another button he’d missed when he felt tension.  He got the majority of it out in one go, then went back in and cleaned up the largest of the bits and pieces.

Though small vaginal tears usually healed on their own with no problem, the largest would require stitches and was positioned in such a way that, to do it in the field, the cow needed to be on her feet.  “I’ll need you to help me get her up and into a squeeze,” he said.  Then, “You do have a squeeze?”

“Yep, but I got a bad heart,” was Keller’s response.

“Get the calf,” Warren said, looking up to find that, sometime during the last few minutes, a woman (wife?) and a boy (grandson?) had appeared to stand and silently watch from a distance.  “Mrs. Keller,” he said, nodding toward her.

Keller rounded on the woman.  “What are you two doing in here?  This ain’t no place for that boy.”

“The chickens are gone again,” the woman said.  “You said to tell you.”

“You didn’t lock the coop last night!” Keller snapped.

The boy stiffened, and the woman’s hand went to her hip, her head tilting with that certain twist that meant argument.  “Yes, I did!” she said.

Keller’s mouth opened, then he paused, his eyes sliding sideways toward Warren.  An odd, quirky smile crossed his lips.  “Happens just about every morning, now.  Can’t figure it,” he said.  “I’ve fixed every durn hole and gap in the wire I can find.”  Turning back to his wife, he said, “Just leave the coop open.  They’ll probably mosey back as usual, come evening.”

The woman nodded and, taking the boy by the hand, withdrew.

“The calf?” Warren asked.

“I’ll get her.”

“And a halter and lead for the cow,” Warren added, stripping the used gloves onto the pile of afterbirth.

THE GUERNSEY WAS ONLY MILDLY interested in her calf, but it was enough to get her up and moving with a bit of tail wringing.  With Keller pulling the halter lead and Warren urging from the hind-end, the calf tangling between the struggling cow’s legs, they got her through the snow over to an old wooden squeeze that sat jammed under the eaves between two smaller, sagging outbuildings.  Keller locked her head in, then slid boards in place behind her and under her belly, “Now what?”

“Now you take this bucket and get me more hot water,” Warren answered, dumping the waste water.

“Right.”

Going back into the barn for his kit, Warren found two sawhorses and a board, then set up his tray of surgical tools, needles, needle holder, sutures, and some anesthetic.  He pulled out two more sets of disposable gloves when Keller came around the corner with the sloshing bucket.  “Didn’t put no soap in it,” the man said.

“I have some.”

“Thought so.  Bill always does.”

“Put these on,” Warren said, hearing in his own voice as terse—not conducive for good client-doctor rapport.

“What fer?” Keller snapped, eyeing the limp plastic tubes.

“You have to assist.  I need you to hand me what I need as I stitch her up inside.”

“She got a rip?”

“Several.  Your wire job.  You tore her up with it.”

“Oh.”

Warren watched what he could only describe as a battle with temper redden the man’s face.  “I don’t want no ten-dollar-a-stitch bill,” Keller said.

It was thirty-per-stitch at reduced ranch rates, but Warren didn’t mention that.  “You’ll lose your cow if I don’t.”

“How much this gonna cost over what you already done?”

Warren looked at the cow, looked at the man—his worn shoes, the signs of pending heart attack written all over him—then said softly, “About a hundred-eighty dollars more.”

There was a long pause, a breath, the steam of it whisking off toward the morning sun.  “Fine, then.  Go on ahead, I reckon.”

One hour and an aching arm later, Warren took his leave of the Keller property, the same two dogs barking him back down the rutted drive.  He’d done his best.  He’d done more than he’d put down on the bill, handing over a slightly corrugated client copy to Keller once he got it unjammed from the onboard printer.  “I’ll be back tonight to check on her,” he’d said.  He hadn’t included that in the bill, either.  He’d come back on his own time, in his own rig.  The cow worried him.

Keller hadn’t said a thing, but, for the first time, the man’s eyes had softened…just a little.

WARREN WAS HALF-AN-HOUR late for the next call on his schedule.  He hit the quick dial on his cell, the clinic’s receptionist answering immediately with a stream of rapid-fire questions.  “Where have you been?!  I’ve been trying your phone for fifteen minutes.  You’re supposed to keep it on you at all times.  There’s an emergency at the Danby’s—a horse with colic.  Get over there as fast as you can.”  Then, “…Where are you?”

“On Old Hickory Lane.  Just left the Keller place,” he said.  It was just nine-thirty.  It was a good thing he’d started two hours early.

“Oh, good!  Danby’s is south of you about twelve miles if you take Come-Back Road, and—”

“Where’s that?” Warren interrupted.

“About a mile west of Keller’s is a road.  Turn left and, the next road you come to, turn right. Danby’s is on the corner of the highway and Twelve Mile, the road you’ll be on.  You can’t miss it.  White fences, big barns.  Call when you get there.” The phone went dead.

He redialed. “Lewis and Clark—  Oh, it’s you.  Sorry,” she said.  “It’s crazy here.  I forgot to tell you that Bill is on his way, too.  Sounds like a real bad case.”

“I need you to call the Wilson’s, and tell them I’m running late, Marcia.”  The phone was dead in his ear, though.  Looking at it, he saw the connection had terminated again. With a sigh, Warren pulled over and took out his laptop.  Finding Wilson’s in the client listings, he dialed.  A soft, pleasant female voice answered.  It was the kind of voice that would tame a summer storm.  “Mrs. Wilson?  I’m running late.  I have an emergency, so I don’t know when I will be there.”

“All right.  I’ll tell Richard.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Closing the connection, he pulled out, putting his foot into it as much as he dared.  Colic was a drop everything, red alert, especially at the Danby’s, not so much because it was actually an emergency, which it probably wasn’t, but because the Danbys were at the top of the clinic’s priority list.  While he’d never been there, never seen their horses, it was for the Danby’s world class Hanoverians and Holsteiners that Warren had been dragged to the wilds of North Idaho, hand-picked by Lewis and Clark specifically for this and four other big, nationally prominent horse farms—Ricoco’s, Kreagan’s, Foulkner’s, and Johassen’s—none of which he’d yet had the chance to visit.  Today, right now, he was finally going to get to use what he’d trained twelve long years for at Cornell and KSU.  This was his first horse call as a private practice veterinarian.

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