Kyle Sullivan leaned against the railing on the second floor of the chief of police’s home in Chicago, Illinois, holding in his hand a glass of champagne. He stared down at the rest of the guests, mostly co-workers and other acquaintances of the chief. The occasion was the chief’s annual Christmas party. The only reason Sully, as Kyle was called by his friends, had shown up was because he felt it was his duty as part of the force. He was not the biggest holiday person.
The house had been decorated from top to bottom. Christmas trees in every room, huge wreaths with red satin bows over all the mantels. A miniature Santa complete with a packed sleigh and reindeer circled the floor to ceiling fireplace that separated the great room from the dining room. Even the outside was decorated as well. Winter bare trees in the front yard were strung with fairy lights. The walk way leading up to the house was lined with pine trees, whose red and green lights flashed off and on merrily. The entire three story Victorian was adorned in white icicle lights. The chief was a Christmas nut, to put it mildly.
As Sully made his way to the buffet table, he past the magnificent front door. It was made of mahogany and had been rounded out to look like a cathedral door. Two silver bells hung above it tied together with another red satin bow.
The lobster and shrimp in their ice bowls looked watery. The turkey and roast beef looked dry. Sully decided to pass. He would just make himself a peanut butter sandwich when he got to his apartment.
When he had about as much holiday cheer as he could stand, Sully glanced down at his watch. Forty minutes to go. Two thousand four hundred seconds before the chief would start handing out Christmas bonuses, dressed in a Santa suit. Finally, the chief and his wife were wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and it was time to leave. Thank God.
A hot shower and two peanut butter sandwiches later, Sully made his way over to the couch. He sat down and leaned forward, looking through the day’s mail that had been tossed there earlier and forgotten. He laid his Christmas bonus aside for he knew exactly how much the check was for. The same amount as last year and the year before that. He picked up the next envelope and was surprised to see the return address. It was from his hometown of Sugar Creek, Wyoming. The only relatives he had out there were his grandparents, who were in their eighties and didn’t usually send Christmas cards. Curiosity was getting the better of him so he ripped open the envelope. Little did he know this one action was about to change his whole life.
Sugar Creek was just a little country community, more commonly known as Redneckville or Hick Town, in southeast Wyoming. It was nestled between two towns, New Valley and Meadow Brook, twenty miles in either direction. Making a trip to town only happened once every couple of months. The next-door neighbor could be anywhere from five to ten miles away. The population was around 1300. There was one gas station, one post office and one traffic light. A coffee shop, a couple of little restaurants and other whatnot shops lined Third Street, which ran from west to east in the middle of downtown. Four Church Corners lived up to its name. At each one of the four corners there was a church: Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Lutheran. They were all in operation every Sunday except Christmas Eve. All the people gathered in one church on Christmas Eve so they didn’t have to worry about heating all four churches.
There was plenty of clean air and sunshine. Foxgloves, azaleas, zinnias, lilacs, lilies, tulips, roses, hostas, cora bells and irises bloomed throughout the spring and summer, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. Daffodils bloomed first and announced the first signs of spring, usually around Easter time, which is why lots of people called them Easter lilies when in fact they’re not.
The weather can change in the blink of an eye. One day there can be a downpour and the next it will be as dry as dust. It could rain at one end of the street and be completely dry at the other end. Some windstorms are so strong, they rattled the walls and you would think we were having a hurricane. In the winter, you could have thirty inches of snow and the next year you won’t see as much as the first snowflake. Blizzards usually hit between January and March. Also when the schools have used up all their snow days. They can close for a dusting of snow and then cry when the blizzard hits because they now have to make up days. But all in all, the snow transforms the rugged terrain into a winter wonderland.
Black bears, grizzly bears, Canada lynxes and mountain lions roam the higher slopes. Mountain sheep live among the rocky crags. Moose may be seen around mountain lakes. Herds of elk and mule deer are common on lower slopes especially in the winter. Pronghorn antelope bound over the plains. Other animals include: coyotes, foxes and jackrabbits. It is not uncommon to find masses of wild turkeys or deer in an open field. Coyotes howl in the distance at night. Bird songs draw you out of a restful sleep in the morning. Unless you are a couple miles outside of town then you wake up to deer snorts, rooster crows, oils wells and if you are lucky the beautiful bellow of someone pet jackass.
The people of Sugar Creek are your typical country folk. Mama baking in the kitchen. Daddy chopping firewood. Reaching out to help a neighbor, that’s the way it always was around here. They knew Jesus as their savior. They would go knock on the door just to see who was at home. They brought over food to any newcomers. They talk about the weather, are the apples going to be any good, the price of corn and when the county is going to get to fixing that big pot hole. Many peoples’ relatives still lived around the area so you got to see your aunts, uncles and cousins on a regular basis especially during the holidays. Everyone knows everybody and everything that happens.
Sully turned his Crown Vic onto a gravel road that had cornfields lining both sides. If you were just driving past, you would never know there was a house back there. Even when you got half way back, all you could see was trees. You couldn’t see the old style, two and a half story, log cabin until you were almost right on top of it. It was a big house with all kinds of rooms. There was one room just for guests. Another one for the books and his grandfather’s old black and white television. There was even a sun porch just for plants. Sully’s mother had always criticized if it was her house, she’d put those plants outside where they belonged and make more room for people. In the attic there was all sorts of interesting stuff.
Sully stepped out of the vehicle and stood there for a moment as memories of his childhood came flooding back into his head. He had spent most every summer out here until he was eighteen. His grandfather took him fishing in a special spot only he knew about and every Friday they would have a fish fry and cooked what they caught. Usually catfish, but sometimes they would catch walleye. He made a special pole just for Sully and another one for himself. They went to dirty places to look for worms. When Sully was ten and eleven, he loved to put the worms on the hooks and the bigger the better. They used to catch carp with them.
His grandfather also took him mushroom hunting. He would get Sully up at 6:00am before his grandmother was awake. It was better to go early in the morning so the other mushroom hunters didn’t get there before they did. Grandpa used to tell him if they were late not to worry because their mushrooms would hide from the other people until they came. Sully believed him to be right because they always found them. There is an old proverb that says once a mushroom come under the gaze of a human eye, it will cease to grow. Grandpa wouldn’t carry a basket or a knife because if the mushrooms saw this, they would know what you intended and would hide in the grass and not show their faces until you had passed. Grandpa would hide a plastic bag in the leg of Sully’s pants and hide another one in his pocket and then the mushrooms would let them come near. His grandfather was tall with long legs so Sully had to try hard to keep up with him so next time Grandpa would let him come.
After they had filled their bags, they would take them back to the house and Grandma would make nice dishes with their mushrooms. One dish she would cut them up, blend them with onions, eggs and spices, then make them into patties and fry them in butter. Sometimes, she would make mushroom soup or pickle them. Sully liked them pickled so his grandmother would always pickle a jar of the smallest mushrooms just for him. Unfortunately, he hated mushroom soup. He always preferred picking mushrooms with his grandfather rather than eating them.
Sully helped his grandmother feed all the birds. There were more kinds than Sully had ever seen in one place and Grandma knew all their names. Just because he was a guest, that didn’t mean he could just lounge around all summer. They expected him to help out with the chores just like any hired hand.
Being April, he saw his grandmother’s purple magnolia bush was in full bloom. In just a couple of weeks, the flowers would be gone and green oval shaped leaves would take their place. It had been there ever since Sully could remember. The weeping willow tree was still in the backyard. He remembered playing underneath its branches. It was his own private hideout because no one could see him and he would spend hours just sitting out there. He found it funny. He had spent his teenage years trying to escape his hometown and planning a career in law enforcement and now he was back.
He walked into the house. Everything inside was just like he had remembered it also. The furniture was outdated. The oak staircase had the same old treads. The furniture looked comfortable, but worn. He crossed the family room to his grandmother’s rocking chair. It was made out of cherry. The cushioned seat was even made of red velvet. He let his gaze sweep over the room. His grandfather’s boots were in the corner. His grandmother’s yellow scarf and mittens still hung on the coat rack along with her navy ski jacket with gold buttons.
All the bedroom and bathroom doors were closed. One by one, Sully opened them. The spare bedroom had a red and white patchwork quilt on the four-poster bed and vertical blinds hung at the windows. A moss green, brown and tan afghan was at the foot of the bed incase of a cool night. On the wall were framed pictures of the places his grandparents had visited. When he opened the door to the bathroom, he thought he could almost still smell the perfume and talcum powder his grandmother used.
Down in the kitchen, his grandmother’s old placemats were on the table and cloth napkins were in little plastic holders. His grandmother had been a schoolteacher so he figured that was why she was always trying to figure out a way to make things better. He had eaten lunch here many times and his grandmother would sit with him and talk about grown up things. There was also the same silverware with green handles. The silver sugar bowl and creamer were still in the middle of the table. His grandparents always drank coffee, even at lunchtime. His grandmother was always baking or cooking something. No matter what she was making on that particular day, she always had a plate of his favorite chocolate chip, macadamia nut cookies.
Being back here it was almost like nothing had changed. But things do change. And now his grandparents were gone. That was the news the envelope had held that fateful night back in December. His grandfather had passed away at the age of 83. His grandmother was already in pretty poor health and passed away just a month or so later at the age of 81. In a way, Sully was glad his grandmother didn’t have to live a very long time without her husband. It reminded him of when his father died and his mother had slipped into what he recognized now as deep clinical depression. She had then packed up what was left of their family and moved them to back to her hometown of Springfield.
Back in February, Sully learned from his grandparents attorney the money had been divided between the rest of their grandchildren. They had a total of eleven grandchildren and Sully was the only boy. Being the only grandson, they had left Sully the seventy-five acre farm, the house and the livestock. He could do with it as he pleased. Considering the weather, he had decided to wait until spring to come out and tackle his inheritance.
He went back out to the vehicle and unloaded the groceries he had bought on the way through town. Everywhere he stopped, everyone said how good it was to see him again and how sorry they were to hear about his grandparents.
Right now all he was thinking about was a hot shower, some dinner and maybe a little television before he turned in for the night. He produced a frozen TV dinner from one of the bags and popped it in the oven. Then he uncorked a bottle of wine so it could breathe while he put away the rest of the groceries. Sully had bought a lot of canned goods because he knew they wouldn’t spoil. Canned peaches, pears, green beans, corn, peas and ravioli. A couple boxes of macaroni and cheese, bread, peanut butter and milk.
After dinner, he walked into the living room with a glass of wine and sat down in his grandfather’s old armchair and put his feet up on the ottoman. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He didn’t realize how tired he was until he opened his eyes and found it was morning.
The morning dawned gray and misty with just a touch of moisture in the air. Standing on the front porch sipping his coffee, Sully noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He saw movement off to his right side, near the horse stables. He decided to go over and investigate. A man dressed in faded blue jeans and a light blue work shirt was petting one of the horses. He had a full head of white hair and snappy blue eyes. Sully knew him as Matthew, the hired hand. He had been working at the farm as long as Sully could remember.
“Matty, you old goat. I didn’t think you would still be here.”
“Kyle? Kyle Sullivan? Is that you?”
“In the flesh.”
“Last time I saw you, you were knee high to a grasshopper.” Matty came over and gave Sully a hearty hand shake and patted his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here. I was thinking I was going to have to take care of this place myself.” Matty pushed his glasses up and scratched his nose. “I’ve been keeping an eye on this place even though I have retired, twice. But after next week, I’ll be off.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back home. To Ireland.”
“Wow. After all these years?”
“I was born there I’ve a mind to die there; though I have life left in me make no mistake. I’ve had a yearning to spending the last years of it at home. In the clean air and rolling hills.”
“What will you do there?”
“ Oh, go to the pub and tell lies,” Matty said with a twinkle in his eye. “There’s little farm in the south of Dublin. Do you know that place?”
“I’ve heard it’s pretty.”
“Sloping streets, painted doorways,” Matty said with a dreamy look in his eyes. “The farm’s a bit of a ways from that pretty town. My Jenny was born there.” Jenny was Matty’s daughter.
“So that’s where you’re going? To be a farmer?”
“That’s where I’m going, but I don’t think I’ll make much of a farmer. I’ll have myself a few animals to keep me company. I’ll miss my Jenny, her husband and children. The friends I’ve made here. But I have a need to go. An itch. Can you understand that?”
“I do,” Sully replied. And he did understand. Only too well.
“I imagine I’ll be flying back and forth quite a bit and they’ll come to see me. I’ve seen Jenny married to a man I respect. I’ve seen their children grow into fine men and women. I am a fortunate man.”
They stood in silence for a moment then Matty said, “I was just coming out here to check on Goldie. She hasn’t been acting right.”
Goldie was a little six-month-old, palomino foal with a white stripe down her face and blonde mane. Every animal on that farm had a name, thanks to Sully’s grandmother. His grandfather had always warned never to turn farm animals into pets. It just makes it even harder when they have to be sold. But Sully knew his grandmother couldn’t help it.
“Her mother died of some disease and she hasn’t been eating,” Matty explained. “I thought maybe you could do something.”
Sully was no horse expert, but he decided to give it a try. When Goldie refused to take food from him, he looked at Matty and shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” Sully replied.
“Well, I’ll have the vet come out and take a look at her anyway.”
Sully heard the sound of an engine and a vehicle door slam. He saw a woman walking toward the barn dressed in jeans with a hole in the right knee; a white t-shirt and lavender pull over sweater. The sun highlighted the gold glints in her thick, amber hair. It shone like a new penny. She had large, doe brown eyes.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“I knew it was you. You have your grandfather’s eyes.”
“And my grandmother’s ears, but the rest belongs to you.”
“Looks like the best parts have already been spoken for. Also Matty doesn’t drive a fancy car like that.” She was referring to the Crown Vic. “The police department must pay you pretty well.”
“Excuse me, but am I supposed know you?”
Instead of answering she said, “I hear you have a sick foal.”
“Yeah, the vet’s supposed to come out and look at it.”
“I am the vet.”
“You mean you’re…I thought…”
“Dr. Cricket Kaplin, DVM.” She offered him her hand.
“Doctor of veterinary medicine.”
“I know what it stands for. Just the way you say it sounds like you work for general motors. What’s with the name Cricket?” She was the first person Sully had heard of being named after an insect.
“It’s my nickname. The first time my grandfather saw me, I was a day old and he told my parents, “She‘s as pert as a cricket,” whatever that means. They also tell me when I started crawling, I would push my legs out to the side and it looked just like a cricket. The name just stuck.”
“What is your real name?”
“Does it really matter? I have been called Cricket all my life. The only things that have my given name are legal documents and my birth certificate. I probably wouldn’t even respond if someone called me that.”
“Why? Is your name Eunice or something?”
“No, it not Eunice. Now, Matty said you have a sick foal?”
“Yeah.” Sully led her over to the foal’s stall. “It’s this one. Her name is Goldie.“
“Oh, so this is Goldie. I heard about her being born. I just hadn’t had a chance to come out and see her yet. She’s beautiful. I have always loved palominos.”
Cricket walked over to the stall and opened the door. Sully watched at she stroked Goldie’s face and talked in a low, soothing voice. She shone a penlight in Goldie’s eyes and examined her teeth and hooves. She ran her hands down Goldie’s coat, checking for abnormalities.
“Well?” Sully asked when her survey was complete.
“From what I can tell, she’s suffering from malnutrition. Do you have a blender?”
“Do you have a blender?”
“Yeah. It’s inside, but…” Sully followed Cricket, who was already heading toward the house.
In the kitchen, Cricket put some corn, oats and grain into the blender.
“Do you have any jell-o?” she asked.
Even though Sully was completely confused, he searched through the cupboards until he found a box.
“Is tropical punch all right?”
Cricket dumped in the contents and blended it all together. Then she got an ice cube tray and poured the mixture into it and stuck it in the fridge. When she saw the look Sully was giving her, she just smiled.
“It’s sort of a horse health shake. Smoothie if you will. Since Goldie hasn’t been eating, she needs something that will go down easy and contains the nutrition she isn’t getting.”
After the jell-o set, they were back out in the barn. Cricket went into the stall and stroked Goldie’s face. She held out her hand and Sully handed her one of the jell-o blocks. She put her hand up to Goldie’s mouth.
“Come on, sweetheart. You have to eat.”
Goldie touched the jell-o block with her nose, but then turned away. After a couple more attempts, Cricket turned to Sully and said, “I am going to have to force feed her. You’ll have to hold her.”
Sully wrapped one arm across Goldie’s chest and draped his other arm over her back. Cricket held the jell-o block in one hand and tried to pry Goldie’s mouth open with the other hand. Goldie jerked and started kicking out.
“Hold her still!”
“I’m trying!” Sully answered.
He grabbed the kicking legs and wrestled Goldie into a down position. He straddled the foal. When Goldie cried out, Cricket stuffed the jell-o block down her throat.
“Let her up,” she told Sully. “I don’t want to force her anymore tonight.”
Sully stood up and realized Goldie had torn the whole front of his t-shirt. He stripped it off. Even though she didn’t mean to, Cricket found herself gazing at his chest. His had a tan, smooth chest with a little trail of dark hair right down the middle and chiseled abs that had come from all his police training.
“By the way, I’m…” he started.
“Kyle, isn‘t it?”
“Yeah, but call me Sully.”
“Do I have to?” Cricket smiled. “I saw your picture in your grandparents house. I must say you are more handsome in person. I knew your grandparents. They were really nice people. They spoke very highly of you.”
“I see. You seem to know a lot about me, but I don’t remember you.”
“That’s because my family moved here right after your family moved to Springfield.”
“Oh, right.” Sully found it hard to believe in all the summers he had spent here, he never knew Cricket was in the same town. “Can I ask your advice on another horse?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
Sully led her over to another stall where a big, jet-black gelding stood.
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something different about him.”
“Of course there’s something different about him,” Cricket replied. “Midnight’s blind. You really must be from out of town.”
Just what I need, Sully thought. Now I have a sick horse and a blind one.
“You’ll need to find some way of communicating with him,” Cricket said.
“Through touch and sound. He needs to know you’re there. Do you mind if I try?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Cricket slowly approached Midnight. She stepped loudly on the barn floor. She spoke again in a low, soothing voice. She reached into her pocket and pulled a small piece of an apple. Cricket held it in front of Midnight’s nose and let him smell it first. Only when he started nibbling at it with his thick upper lip did she start to pet him. Then she started humming. Sully recognized the tune as “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
“How did you know to do that?”
“Song soothes the savage beast. I also heard your grandmother hum to him.” “Somewhere Over The Rainbow had been Sully’s grandmother’s favorite song.
“Is there anything special I need to do for him?”
“No, not really. Lady has pretty much got it covered.”
“Lady.” Cricket gestured to the reddish brown mare in the next stall. “When Midnight first came here, she basically adopted him and took it upon herself to be his guide horse. See that little silver bell on her bridle?”
“That lets Midnight know where she is. If she gets too far away, she’ll stop and wait for him to catch up. From the road they just look like two regular horses. You would never know one is leading the other. She’s pretty special.”
“Well, I have to get back. I have some afternoon appointments.” Cricket looked at her watch. “Just keep trying to give Goldie the jell-o blocks. As much as she’ll take. I’ll come by tomorrow and check on her. Give me a call if anything happens.” She handed him her card.
“Willow Tree Ranch thanks you for your help.” Sully held out some bills.
“Money. You do get paid for your services.”
“Sorry. I’m just not used to getting money. People around here usually pay me in apples or potatoes. Sometimes eggs.”
“I have some canned peaches in the house.”
“Oh, no. I can always use the money to stock up on supplies and medication. I’ve always wondered. Why is called Willow Tree? It ’s a lovely name, but I figured it would have been called Sullivan.”
“The ranch belonged to my grandmother‘s side of the family. She was a Willows before she married my grandfather.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense.”
As she walked past him, Sully caught a whiff of something that smelled like vanilla. Even after she pulled out of the driveway, he found himself still thinking about her. Although it didn’t make a lot of sense, considering he had just met her and everything, Sully suddenly found he wanted to know more about her. Her favorite food, her favorite color. Whether she was a morning person or a night owl. Whether she liked her sex hot and fast or slow and dreamy. Although he didn’t figure that was an option since he didn’t plan on being here long enough to find out.
Cricket drove through the misty morning back to her ranch house. It had belonged to her parents. Even in the spring the lawn remained golf course green. Yellow and white daffodils lined the sidewalk. Concrete steps led up to the front porch, which ran the length of the front of the house. Aluminum lawn chairs leaned against a corner. Empty terra-cotta planters were stacked in a row against the house. The hammock swing still hung from a heavy-duty hook in the ceiling of the porch. Many of hot summer nights, Cricket and her sister used to play rock, paper, scissors to see who would get the privilege of sleeping in the hammock. Inside the over stuffed furniture had crocheted doilies over the arms and the backs. Starched lace curtains hung at the windows. The living room and dining room were combined and made one big room. There was a large rough-cut oak table with mismatched chairs. Conformity never mattered to her parents. The kitchen, which resembled a small hallway, was at the back of the house. The walls were bare and beige. There was a laundry basket filled with folded clothes sitting at the bottom of the imitation oak staircase. There was a sliding glass door that led to a screened in patio off the dining room, which Cricket used as an examining room.
She loved her job. If she was able to help only one animal a day, she considered the day to be a success.
If you like animals and science, you might want to consider being a veterinarian. Veterinarians provide medical services for animals. They also give advice to pet owners about the care and breeding their pets. What many people don’t know is that veterinarians also protect people from diseases that animals may carry. They must be in tune to the animal’s discomfort. They must be able to calm and reassure frightened animals. If some animals are scared or hurt, they may try and bite, kick or scratch their vets. Because animals cannot communicate their symptoms, the vet must depend on their own observation to make their diagnosis. They look for clues in the way the animal acts and smells. If an animal is walking in a strange way, it could be because it has a hurt leg. Vets also give blood tests, x-rays, and other tests looking for clues to the animal’s illness. Often, they help when animals give birth. Since they perform surgery and treat wounds, they need to be ready to see blood, organs and bones.
Veterinarians must have a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and be licensed by the state. It takes six to eight years to complete a DVM. The first two years of the program consist of general science studies at the college level. Most aspiring vets complete a four-year program in biological or physiological sciences. In their senior year, they apply to four-year veterinary programs.
Getting into Vet College is very competitive. Students who get in usually have very good grades. In the veterinary program the students get experience from working in clinics and assisting in performing surgery. During the last two years, they do clinical rounds. Then they have to complete three years of residency. Only then are they eligible to take the licensing exam. Only about 85 percent pass it. Cricket just happened to be one of the lucky ones.
There was no time to sit around and do nothing. The farm still needed tending. After spending all his summers here, Sully knew the chores and what needed to be done. It was his place now and his responsibility.
The barn was very large and very old. It smelled of hay and manure. It smelled of the perspiration of sleepy horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It smelled of grain, harness dressing, axle grease, rubber boots and new rope. The barn was pleasantly warm in the winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors. It was pleasantly cool in the summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze.
It was full of all sorts of things you would find in a barn. Ladders, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, grindstones, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks and rusty rat raps. It was the kind of barn that swallows liked to build their nests in and children like to play in.
Barns are divided into spaces according to use. Individual compartments are called stalls and they are made for horses and dairy cows. Beef cattle are kept in large pens and smaller ones are provided, each one large enough for a horse, a cow or several calves or sheep. Barns may also contain cribs for corn, bins for grain and lofts for hay.
In the barn, the horses were awake and waiting impatiently to eat. Sully climbed up to the haymow on the top floor of the barn and pitched forkfuls of hay down a chute to the hungry horses in their stalls below. In the manger box of each horse, Sully put eight ears of corn and a half-gallon of oats. There is also another pile of hay in the manger for the horses to munch on. While the horses ate, Sully carried shelled corn from the granary to feed the cows. His grandparents usually fed shelled corn because there is less waste than in feeding corn from the cob. He measured out the meal from a sack near the cows’ stall and fed some to each cow. The silage was made from corn, alfalfa and other green forage.
Then Sully turn on the electric current that operated the milking machines. His grandfather liked to milk by hand, but Sully couldn’t waste time. He had other things to do. While the cows were being milked, he cleaned out the horses’ stalls and put in fresh straw for their bedding. When the milking was done, he took the buckets of milk to the milk house. There the warm milk is poured into a bowl of an electric cream separator. Rich yellow cream streams out of a spout into a container and pale skim milk pours from another spout.
One bucket of milk had been left in the barn. There Sully was teaching the hungry calf how to drink from the bucket. This had been one of his main jobs as a boy was feeding the baby animals. He pushed the calf’s nose down into the warm milk and the calf would blow and sneeze until it finally learned to drink. If the calf kept feeding from its mother, she would give only as much milk as it might need and then there would be none left for the people. A good dairy cow gives several times as much milk as one calf can drink.
Then he carried another bucket of skim milk out to the hog lot, where the pigs had been squealing for their breakfast. He took along some scraps of food he had found in the refrigerator. There were automatic feeders, which had large hoppers full of grain and other feed that was distributed into the troughs. The feed comes down into the trough as fast as it was eaten. Sully knew the pigs would not stuff themselves on one kind of feed and eat too little of another. In fact, a hog is the only farm animal that will not “eat like a hog” if given the chance. Sully always found that interesting.
He tossed out some grain for the chickens and then collapsed on the front porch swing. He had forgotten how strenuous farm work could be. Police work never tired him out in this way. Busting criminals and bank robber was beginning to look like a walk in the park. He would have to do this all over again in the evening, except for the fact he would have to gather the eggs from the chicken house. He was very thankful his grandparents didn’t work the fields anymore.
“Well, take care, Maggie. See you next month.” Cricket bid farewell to one of her favorite patients. Maggie was a Lab/Australian Shepherd mix. She had a Lab’s square head and floppy ears as well as the tail and personality. She liked everyone. Maggie was a blue merle, which was part of the Aussie in her. The Newcomb family had adopted her from the shelter. Cricket often wondered under what circumstances Maggie had been brought to the shelter. She also wondered which one of her parents had been the Lab and the Australian Shepherd. She had warned the Newcomb’s not to breed Maggie with another merle because her puppies could end up being deaf or blind or both. Cricket rarely went to the shelter herself. She knew if she went she would want to take every animal there home with her. It was just too much to bear. Maggie had been one of the lucky ones.
Since Maggie had been her last patient to leave, Cricket didn’t have any animals left to feed, take outside or give medication to. She cleaned and disinfected Maggie’s cage. In all her years as a vet, she had never had an animal bite her. She tossed an armload of towels into the washer and started to dismantle the operating table in order to clean it. She cleaned all the instruments and then wrapped them in a paper cloth and put them in the steamer to disinfect them.
Cricket sat in front of her computer in the narrow, little breezeway she used as her office. There was wood paneling on the walls giving it more of a rustic look and worn out blue carpet on the floor. A wood-burning stove was at one end and her desk was at the other. Her veterinary diploma hung above it along with a couple diagrams, one of a dog and the other of a horse. Even her diploma displayed her nickname. On her lap a fat, red tabby cat napped. A little fawn lay in a box next to her desk. She never could turn away any animal that needed her. Maybe that was why she was so good at her job. Her father had always said if you felt guilty about being paid then you had found the right job.
Cricket hated computers. Scowling, she stared at the screen of her frozen desktop. Why did the bloody thing work fine when she didn’t have any important data to input and the completely freeze when she did? Although this time she could blame her computer failure on the storm. Then the screen unlocked and gave two hopeful flickers and then Microsoft Windows crashed. Muttering a few choice words, she rebooted the computer and went through the many steps of a successful reboot.
She leaned back slowly so she wouldn’t disturb her sleeping cat and stretched. She glanced over at the little digital clock on the corner of her desk. It read 2:30am. It didn’t feel like it was that late. Even though she wasn’t a bit tired, she set the cat on the floor and went to change into gray sweatpants and a white V-necked t-shirt, her pajamas. Then she went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. Rained pounded on the roof and wind rattled the sides. Cricket shuddered even though she knew she was quite safe inside her ranch home.
She had just settled back into her desk chair when she heard a vehicle engine. It sounded close and she wondered what an animal could have done this late that required an emergency trip to the vet. Especially in this weather. A frantic knocking came to her back door. As soon as she opened it, Sully came bursting through, nearly knocking her over, dressed in a wet black slicker. For a split second Sully’s gaze skimmed over her. Even though she was wearing sweats and a t-shirt she looked as beautiful as if she was wearing an evening gown. That woman could make a potato sack look sexy. Her thick hair was loose and cascaded down her back. The front of her shirt was damp from his slicker and he could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“It’s Goldie,” he said breathlessly. “I don’ know what it is, but something’s wrong. I think she’s getting worse.”
“And you couldn’t call me?”
“The house phone has been disconnected and I can’t get any reception on my cell out here.”
“Well, come on. We’ll take my truck.” Cricket picked up her black bag she always kept under her desk and grabbed her red windbreaker. “I don’t know what the main roads are like with the storm. We’ll have to take the back roads. Don’t worry, I know them like the back of my hand.”
Next thing Sully knew, they were plowing their way through the frigging rain. The tires sloshed through the water, the radio reporting road closures and accidents through out the mountains. Cricket’s eyes burned from trying to focus on the road as she doggedly made her way in near washout conditions. She maneuvered her way around a particularly nasty S-curve. She fishtailed causing a huge hydroplane. Sully felt like his stomach had been left somewhere back down the road by the time they pulled into Willow Tree.
Cricket jumped out from behind the wheel and dodging the rains drops, they both sprinted into the barn. She went right to Goldie’s stall. Sully paced back and forth beside the stall where Goldie lay listless. Cricket gently tested the horse’s neck and abdomen, a frown between her eyes.
“How is she? Is it a virus or digestive problem? Don’t tell me it’s distemper because I know I gave Goldie the jell-o you…”
“Please, shut up.” Cricket shone a penlight in Goldie’s eyes and watched the response. She ran a hand through her hair.
“Is it a fever? You don’t think Goldie has…”
“Kyle, let me work.”
Sully was speechless for a moment. No one ever called him by his first name.
“Right. Sorry. Very sorry.” He took a deep breath and shut up. If anyone could help Goldie, it would be Cricket.
After what felt like hours, which was probably only five minutes, Cricket gave Goldie a gentle scratch behind the ears.
“Has she been acting odd?” she asked him.
“She stares off into space sometimes, whinnying, almost like she’s in pain.”
“When did it start?”
“Four or five hours ago. It was so subtle I didn’t notice it at first.”
“I need to run more tests. Goldie is sick. She could have a number of different illnesses,” Cricket explained.
Goldie was awake, but still listless. Her eyes were glassy. Cricket noticed some pussy nasal discharge come from Goldie’s nose. Her coat was hot to the touch and her glands were swollen. After completing her examination, Cricket closed her eyes.
“What is it?” Sully asked. He was instantly concerned when he saw Cricket’s reaction.
“I thought her weight loss was from not eating. She appears to have all the signs and symptoms of Glanders.”
“Glanders is a severe horse disease. The bacteria can lodge in almost any organ of the body. It spreads through nasal discharge and breaks in the skin. Glanders causes fever, loss of weight, swollen lymph glands and pussy nasal discharge. Ulcers form in the lining of the nose and in the lymph nodes. I’ll have to perform a mallein test just to be sure.”
“Anything I can do?” Even though Sully didn’t understand all the medical terms she was using, he knew it wasn’t good.
“No. In this test, products of the Glanders bacteria have to be injected into the animal’s eye. I hate to do it, but it’s the only way. An inflammation of the eye covering with a pussy discharge will occur of Goldie’s infected.”
After injecting Goldie’s eye, Cricket looked at her watch and timed the correct amount for the virus to take effect. And it was confirmed. Goldie had Glanders.
“How bad is it?” Sully asked.
“There is very little immunity. Few infected animals recover and many may die in a matter of weeks.”
“Matty said her mother died of some disease.”
“Could have very well been Glanders. It’s just not fair. She’s only a baby for God’s sake.” Cricket took Goldie’s pulse. “She looks better. Her breathing isn’t labored and her pulse has settled down nicely. But I want to stay here for the night.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I can watch over her,” Sully said.
“ You don’t want her to have an episode in the night. We don’t want her throat to swell if she has a reaction. Don’t you want someone here who can give her immediate treatment?”
“Of course. You’re right.”
“I have a sleeping bag behind the seat of my truck. If you could get me pillow I’d really appreciate it.”
“You don’t mean to tell me you are going to sleep out here?”
“I need to be close so I can keep an eye on Goldie. Don’t worry. My family was really into camping. It’s not the first time I have slept on the ground.”
Sully figured there was no use arguing. Especially when a woman has made up her mind. No one can make her see reason. He returned with a pillow from the loveseat, an extra blanket and two cups of coffee.
“I thought you could use something warm. It appears it is going to be a long night.”
“Thanks. But you don’t have to stay out here. I’ll be fine,” she answered when Sully sat down across from her.
“That’s okay. I don’t mind.” He stretched out his legs and crossed one foot over the other.
“Suit yourself.” Cricket took a sip of coffee.
“So what made you decide to specialize in farm animals?”
“Nothing. When you are the only vet in the town the size of Sugar Creek, you have to know as much about livestock as you do about dogs and cats.”
“Look, I want to apologize.”
“For earlier. I just assumed the vet Matty was referring to was…”
“A man? You think I don’t get that a lot?”
Sully just shrugged.
“Just because a person has doctor in front of their name people automatically think they’re male. It’s not the 1800s anymore. Women are allowed in medical school.”
“Oh, I know that. You probably think I am a sexist pig.”
“No, but you are a sexy one.” She had to admit Sully was quite attractive with his black hair and pewter gray eyes.
“Are you flirting with me, Ms. Kaplin?”
“Maybe. What would you say if I were?”
“I would say maybe I’d have to kiss you.”
“And maybe I’d slap your face.”
“I take it you’re not the kind that kisses on the first date.”
“What date? This isn’t a date. This is strictly business. And I make a point of never mixing business with pleasure.”
“So what would you say if I were to ask you on a date, not that I am asking mind you, but what would you say if I was?”
“That’s your favorite word, isn’t it?”
“Before you start maybeing around, you ought to know my animals always come first. And that’s never going to change.”
“Hey, I love animals just as much as the next man.”
“That’s what all the past guys I’ve dated have said. And we’ve have always broken up over it.”
“I am not like most men.”
“They have said that, too. So you can understand why I am timid, maybe even skeptical about saying yes.”
“Have you ever been serious about anyone?”
“Getting kind of personal aren’t we?”
“Just trying to make conversation.”
Well, in that case, not serious enough to get a proposal out one of them.”
“So you’ve never been married?”
“No, but I was sort of engaged at one point.”
“How can you be sort of engaged?”
“There was this one guy. He hadn’t officially popped the question yet, but we had talked about it. But when I told him I was going to vet school and didn’t want to get married until after I graduated. And it takes a long time to become a vet and he didn’t want to wait that long. So that added another guy to list of those who didn’t understand. How about you?”
“Now, look who’s getting personal.”
“Hey, turn about is fair play.”
“Then no. I mean I have dated, but never been serious. Lots of women like the idea of dating a police officer. Gives them a sense of security, I guess. But then when it comes right down to it, they don’t understand the sacrifice that line of work requires.”
“I know what you mean. Both of our jobs involve saving lives.” And by the look in her eyes, Sully knew she did understand. Better than anyone woman ever had.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come back to the house? There are plenty of guest rooms.”
“I want to be out here with Goldie. I would be up every hour checking on her anyway. I don’t plan to get a lot of sleep tonight.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. When Cricket glanced back over at him, she saw he was asleep. He snored gently. She smiled, got up and draped a blanket over his shoulders. She snuggled down into her sleeping bag and the sound of Sully’s peaceful breathing finally lulled her to sleep.
A cool, gentle breeze blew through the barn. Cricket stirred, but didn’t wake up. It wasn’t until she felt something fuzzy touch her hand that she opened her eyes. Goldie was on her feet and her lips were nuzzling Cricket’s hand as she nibbled at the straw. Cricket jumped to her feet and ran her hands down Goldie’s face and neck. She did a quick check over. Then Goldie stretched her neck forward and nibbled at the flap of Cricket’s windbreaker where there was an old stale butter mint. When Cricket saw this, she screamed, “Kyle!”
When he heard her scream his name, he dropped the feed bucket and ran to the barn.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Cricket turned around with this big Cheshire cat grin. “Goldie’s going to be okay! She‘s not going to die!”
“But I thought you said Glanders…”
“It must have just been farcy.”
“Farcy is a mild form of Glanders and can also cause ulcers in the skins, but sores may also form in the nose and lungs.”
“That doesn’t sound very good.”
“But animals with farcy can live for years.”
She threw her arms around Sully’s neck in a fierce hug. He felt her breasts press against him like two pomegranates. Although he knew it had to do more with her being thankful and relieved than it did with romantic feelings.
“Well.” She pulled away from him. “I guess I’ll take you back so you can get your vehicle.”
“Okay, but I am driving this time.”
“Do you have a problem with my driving?”
“Not if you’re Dale Earnhart Junior,” Sully answered under his breath.
“Ha, ha.” Apparently, she had picked up on his sarcasm.
When they pulled up outside her house, she slid out of the truck and went to unlock the door. Then she turned back around.
“Are you hungry? I am not much of a cook, but I do know how to scramble eggs and make coffee.”
“Sure,” Sully answered. “Sounds good.”
He followed her into the breezeway where he noticed the red tabby laying stretched out on a bench.
“Is this a patient or one of the residents?”
“Tiger was a stray. She sort of adopted me. She started by sleeping outside. Eventually, I was able to coax her in and now she either sleeps on my lap or on the bed with me.”
“And you just couldn’t turn her away.”
Sully looked at her.
“Stupid question deserves a stupid answer. Actually, she’s quite a good mouser. A lot of times I find birds and gophers on my front step. Maybe she thinks I am not getting enough protein in my diet.” Cricket laughed.
“Well, it appears she gets plenty to eat,” Sully observed.
“Well, I should hope so. She’s expecting kittens pretty soon.”
“Are you going to keep the babies?”
“Only if I could. I’ll most likely try and give them away when they are old enough. One little girl at the end of the street has been begging her mother to let her have one of Tiger’s kittens. Whether her mother will give in, I don’t know. Even if she does, I’ll still have to find homes for the rest. It’s very unlikely Tiger will have only one or two kittens. And I will not take them to the shelter. It’s too bad I will be so attached to them by then it will be hard to let them go.”
“I know some people who raise animals to sell and they don’t socialize with the babies because they don’t want to get too attached. I am attached to them as soon as they are born even though I know very well I’ll have to let them go sooner or later.”
“What about this one?” Sully went over stood by the box that housed the little fawn. “I have seen deer and fawns in the field before, but never up close.”
“Her mother was hit by a car and still alive. The guy brought the doe in. There was nothing I could do for her so I had to put her down. She was suffering, but at least I was able to save the fawn. I guess that should count for something.” Cricket didn’t sound very happy.
“That should count for a lot.”
I guess it should, but it still doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when I have to put an animal down. Although I could never let an animal suffer. I know in my brain I am doing the right thing, but try and tell that to my heart.”
“So what’s his name?”
“It’s a doe. I call her Daisy. You can pet her, you know.” So far Sully had been standing with his hands behind his back. “She’s as tame as they come. I’ve been raising her on a bottle just like a baby.”
Sully slowly stretched a couple of fingers forward and stroked the fawn’s head. The fawn stood up and stretched.
“She’s all legs,” Sully laughed.
“Don’t worry. She’ll grow into them eventually,” Cricket responded from the kitchen.
“She’s softer than I expected.”
“She’ll stay that way until she gets her winter coat. Would you like to bottle feed her?” Cricket came back to the breezeway carrying a baby bottle.
“Will I have to open her mouth or anything?”
Cricket laughed so hard tears came to her eyes.
“Did I say something funny?”
“Just go ahead.”
Sully crouched down and as soon as Daisy saw what he was holding, she was climbing all over him trying to get the bottle. When she had downed the entire bottle within minutes, she started making little bleeping noises.
“I didn’t know fawns made any sounds.”
“Every animal makes a sound,” Cricket replied taking the bottle from his hand.
Sully leaned down a little closer to Daisy and she started licking at his face.
“What are you? A deer or a puppy?”
“She’s giving you kisses. It’s the salt on your skin.”
“So what’s going to happen to her when she grows up? Are you going to turn her loose?”
“Being raised and around people, I don’t know if she could fend for herself or not. She’s never seen another deer. I don’t know how she would react. This life is the only one she has ever known. By the time she big enough to stay outside it will be her choice whether to stay or go. But by that time, she will think she’s human.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“I know some people, who raise goats. One year they had some baby sheep, but the mother wouldn’t nurse them. So they put them in with the goats and the goats nursed them. So they grew up thinking they were goats. You could be driving down the road and see a sheep standing the middle of a herd of goats.”
“But what about crop damage?”
“If worst comes to worst, I know a couple of people who raise deer. I also know people who run a wildlife sanctuary. I suppose I could take her there. But she‘s still a baby so I am not going to worry about it.” Sully thought that was smart.
Ten minutes later, Cricket came back out of the kitchen with two plates of eggs. She set them down on the dining room table and poured two cups of coffee.
“So what do you call this?” Sully asked.
“I call it breakfast.”
“Just making sure we weren’t on a date.”
“We’re just friends having breakfast.”
So she considered him a friend.
Just as they were finishing up a knock came to the door. Without a second thought, Cricket got up and crossed the living room to answer it. A woman and little boy walked in. The woman was carrying a small Cocker Spaniel. Cricket led them through the living room, right passed Sully to the back porch. Even though Sully had seen Cricket work before, it still amazed him For the first five minutes all Cricket did was pet the puppy and talk softly. Then she ran her hands behinds its ears, smoothed over its head and pretty soon the puppy started frisking up and its tail started to wag. Then it was licking Cricket’s hands and she laughed. It turned out just to be a routine check up. The woman had just gotten the puppy for a family pet. They just wanted to make sure everything was okay. Sully listened to Cricket explain not to give the puppy bones, make sure it had clean water, to clean its food dish every day and what to do for fleas. Then she handed the woman a packet of heartworm medication along with some pamphlets about worms and rabies.
Sully cringed when he saw the woman pay Cricket with some cloth napkins she had embroidered.
“Sorry about that,” Cricket said after the woman and her son left.
“That’s okay,” Sully answered. “Doesn’t it ever bother you that people don’t pay you in cash?”
“You have to understand something. The people around here are just simple farmers. They don’t have a lot of money. The main source of their income comes from selling their crops in the fall. If their crops fail then it’s even less. Besides I would still do what I do regardless. I have a duty to these animals. They give us unconditional loyalty and love and that’s something no amount of money can buy. It’s the least I can do for them.”
Sully lifted the bails of straw and stacked them in the corner of the horse stables. The horses stood silently, lazily chewing their hay and watched him. Then he went over and undid the other bails getting ready spread it down. He carried one bail into an empty corner stall and then without turning around reached for the pitchfork he had laid on top of the other bails. All of a sudden he felt pain shoot up his arm. He looked and saw the pitchfork stabbing in the palm of his hand. The slight alone made him wince in pain. He gritted his teeth, then gave a loud yell as he pulled the pitchfork out of his hand. Blood poured out staining the straw a bright crimson. Sully ripped the sleeve off his shirt with his good hand and wrapped the fabric around his wound. Then he did the only thing he could think of. He got into his vehicle and sped down the road.
Cricket stood in the kitchen staring out the window, sipping her cup of coffee. She stared at the dark jagged outline of the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Looking at the backyard reminded her of growing up here. Always sneaking pancakes when her mother wasn’t looking, her dad building a tree house for her and her sister, dancing in her red sneakers on that ugly old picnic table that always rocked. Trying to sneak a kitten in and up to her room by hiding it in her coat. The grassy slope led down to the river beside the old picnic table. There had been many days of water fights, double dare, long walks and laughter. A knock at her door woke her from her daydream.
“Oh my God. What happened?”
“I sort of stabbed myself with a pitchfork,” Sully replied sheepishly.
“Well then why are you here? You need to go to the hospital.”
“You’re the only doctor I know.”
“But I’m a vet. I am not a medical doctor.”
“What would you do if I were a dog?”
“Well, first I would scratch you behind the ears,” Cricket answered sarcastically.
“Not that it wouldn’t be totally unpleasant, it can’t be all that different.”
“That shows you how much you know.”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“Well, I can’t have you bleeding all over my carpet.” Cricket gingerly peeled away the blood soak cloth.
“That’s look bad,” she said.
“It’s not deep. There’s just a lot of blood.”
“Even though, I think you are going to need stitches. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the emergency room?”
“I trust you.”
“First, I am going to have to clean it. You don’t want it to get infected.”
She placed a hand on his chest and guided him into the kitchen and up against the refrigerator where the light was better. His heart beat faster just from that one simple touch. He was trying hard not to notice the warm brush of her fingers and how her breast pushed against his shoulder. She reached in the cabinets and placed a handful of bottles on the counter.
“It’s really not that bad,” Sully reiterated.
“Don’t be such a baby.”
Cricket dabbed disinfectant on a cotton ball and pressed it against his palm. Then she put on some numbing solution that stung like hell. Sully gritted his teeth until she began to blow on it gently. When his hand felt like someone had placed a mud pie on it, Cricket got a long needle and thread out of her black bag.
“You might feel little prick of pain and a tugging sensation. I‘ll tuck the stitches under as much as I can. That will minimize the appearance of a scar.”
She carefully inserted the needle into the soft flesh of his palm. She talked about this that and the other while she stitched and it was over before Sully knew it. He gently flexed it.
“It’s not bad if I do say so myself.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“Please, don’t start with money issue again.”
“Then at least accompany me to the barn bash tonight.”
“Oh, I don’t….”
“7:00pm all right?”
“You won’t take no for an answer, will you?”
“You like to dance?”
“See you then.” And Sully walked out before she had a chance to respond.
The barn bash was held in an old style renovated red barn with white trim. The floor was made of natural wood and there were straw bails stacked along the walls where people could sit if they got tired or didn’t want to dance. A stereo system and speakers had been set up on the front. There were folding tables with drinks and snacks in the back corner. Bridles, saddles and horseshoes hung on the wall. People who wanted a western, non-traditional themed wedding had also used the barn for weddings.
“I wasn’t sure if you were going to show up,” Sully said when Cricket walked in. She was wearing a denim dress that came a couple inches above her knees and red cowboy boots. She had done her hair in two braids. On her head was a straw cowboy hat. She looked exactly like a farmer’s daughter.
“I figured if I didn’t, you would hunt me down. You know where I live. Besides, I am a woman of my word.”
The music began to play.
“Would you like to…I mean, would you care to…”
Cricket thought it was so cute the way Sully was stammering, trying to get enough courage up to ask her to dance.
She though she would save him the trouble and answered, “I’d love to.”
He offered Cricket his arm and they walked on to the floor.
The square dance began.
“Doe see ladies, doe see doe, come down heavy on your heel and toe,” called the square dance caller. “Swing your partner round and round, pick that girl right off the ground. If your woman starts to roam, promenade that lady home. Each gent bow to the lady on your left. You’ve got to shimmy and shake, make an earthquake. Kick, turn, stomp, stomp. And then you jump and heel to toe and doe see doe. Till your boots gonna break and your feet and your back ache. Keep it moving till you just can’t take any more. Come on everybody I want to go. One, two a three four. Hup two, hup…”
Sully tried to follow the instructions, but he wasn’t doing a very good job. Despite all his mistakes, Cricket was laughing. The little circles and the big circles went round and round and the skirts swirled and the boots stamped and partners bowed and separated and met then bowed again. By the end Sully was out of breath.
“It’s time for The Electric Slide.” Then they started to play Achy Breaky Heart, by Billy Ray Cyrus and the guests broke out into a line dance.
Sully hung back. He didn’t know this dance.
“Come on,” Cricket took his hand and started to lead him to the dance floor.
“But I don’t know how,” he started to protest.
“Don’t worry. I’ll show you. You’ll get the hang of it. Just follow me. Now, start with a grapevine to the left, then a grapevine to the right, then four steps back, up hitch kick, down hitch and then turn and start all over again.”
It sure sounded complicated, but he surprisingly picked it up pretty quickly. Cricket held his hand and danced along side him just in case he forgot a step. By the last chorus, Sully was in sink with everyone else and even added a turn in the middle of doing the grapevine.
“And you said you couldn’t dance, “ Cricket said.
“No, I said I didn’t know how to line dance. There‘s a big difference.”
They had started to play a very sweet waltz.
“Do you know how to waltz?” Sully asked softly.
“I think I remember.”
She awkwardly placed her left hand on Sully’s shoulder and he took her right hand in his. She felt his other hand press against the small of her back. It was like they were almost afraid to touch each other. But by the end of the song, Sully was holding her close and she rested her head against his shoulder.
“Look, I am not going to hold you to this whole date thing,” Sully said later that night when they arrived back at Willow Tree and he had invited her in for a nightcap. “I know your career comes first and you just want to be friends…”
“Actually, “ Cricket interrupted him. “I was thinking maybe we should make this a date.”
“I don’t know. But when I saw you dancing with Beth Jenkins, something happened to me.”
“Jealous were you?” Sully grinned.
“I wanted to claw her eyes out.”
“I know. I mean you and I only met a few weeks ago and I really don’t know you that well. I can’t explain it, I just had this feeling and maybe you should just shut me up.”
Sully tilted her chin and gave her a soft, gentle kiss on the lips.
Their eyes locked for a moment as if playing with the idea. Desire flashed in her brown eyes.
Sully slowly moved toward her. The fingers of his left hand combed through her amber hair. He lowered his mouth and his lips plucked at hers with a feather soft touch that was more erotic than if he had fully kissed her. The hand on her back was both gentle and confident as it pressed her even closer against him. His lips continued to drift over hers in a slow, lazy seduction. His mouth was amazingly clever. Cricket tasted something that made her head spin and set every nerve in her body on fire. She felt giddy. Sully’s hands moved to the hair ties at the end of her braids. As her hair tumbled free, he entwined his fingers in it and kissed her harder.
Her eyes flew open and desire arrowed threw her as he took her mouth hard and fast and it literally had her rocking back on her heels. His tongue was in her mouth. He surprised her with the force of his kiss. She wrapped her arms around him as he gave her another kiss that was soon filled with heat, passion and sensuality. Then she felt him kiss the most sensitive spot on her neck, causing her to tingle all over. Sully smiled as he heard her drag in a shaky breath.
“Do you want me to stop?” he whispered huskily in her ear.
Her mouth was too dry to answer vocally. She exhaled and shook her head.
“Good,” he replied.
He kissed her again as he maneuvered her over to the couch in the middle of the living room. He slid his sports jacket he had placed there earlier, from her shoulders. Her hands undid the buttons of his shirt. She pressed her lips to his throat, feeling him swallow. This action nearly took his head off. She moved her fingers, tracing circles down his chest. She shoved his shirt aside and ran her hands up his chest, around his neck and into his hair. He brought his mouth down to find hers again. Then she felt the warm brush of his tongue, the wet friction of his mouth and both of them were dragging her straight into delirium.
He worked on the buckles at her shoulder straps and she felt one slide free. Then the other one and her dress coasted down her shoulders, to her waist and across her hips. His rough callused hands ran up her back. When she reached for the button of his pants, he parried her hands in one smooth movement. She ran her tongue over her lips. Her body was already flushed and aching for his touch. With one swift move, he had her arms pinned to her sides.
He leaned forward and kissed the hollow of her chest and worked his way down to kiss the tender flesh of her stomach. He loved the way her stomach convulsed at the slightest touch. He felt her body tense up and he delivered unbearable waves of pleasure and desire. Cricket had read some romance novels, but they didn’t do justice to the sensations he had shooting through her body.
“You were incredible,” she whispered.
“You were pretty incredible yourself.” He looked at her funny.
“What’s your real name, Cricket?”
She smiled. “Payton.”
“Payton. That’s a different name. I mean I have heard of it, but I never knew anyone with that name before.”
“It was my mother’s maiden name.”
“Would you mind if I called you that instead?”
Her eyes opened in surprise. “Really? You would call me that?”
“You sound surprised.”
“It’s just everyone has always called me Cricket and it never occurred to me to mind. No one’s ever asked me before.”
“May I call you Payton?”
“Oh, yes. And a thanks for saying it was different instead of weird or strange. It sounds nice especially coming from your lips.”
Then they were swept up, caught in the heat of passion all over again.
Cricket woke groggily the next morning. As she rolled over, she noticed she was alone. She ran her hand over Sully’s side of the bed and found it was still warm. She got up and sort of staggered in the direction of the bathroom. The bathroom door was slightly ajar. She peered inside.
Through the steam she saw Sully naked taking a shower. She heard him groan in satisfaction as the water ran over his shoulders and down his body. She watched as his broad shoulders moved back and forth under the steady stream of hot water. As Sully moved, she got a better view of his narrow waist and sculpted thighs. He had the sculpted shoulders of an athlete in top condition and abs to bounce a dime off. As he ran his hands over his face, drops of water clung to the dark hair on his chest. There was no avoiding the fact the man had excellent muscles. He lathered shampoo into his hair while the hot water pounded over his shoulders. Through the steam and haze on the glass shower door, Cricket could tell Sully had strong legs and his butt looked pretty nice too, if she did say so herself. The water stopped and the shower door opened. With every movement, his towel hitched up giving her and excellent view of long legs and wet, gleaming skin.
Before she could leave, Sully grabbed her by the arm, drug her inside and closed the door. Then he pulled her against him and lowered his mouth to hers. Cricket kissed him back, wrapping her arms around his neck as tendrils of damp hair tickled her face. Sully smelled of soap and shampoo. When Cricket felt the warm brush of his tongue, she tasted mouthwash. He kissed her deeper this time, pushing her up against the vanity. She hands slide up his damp chest. He mouth found her as his hands slipped underneath her t-shirt. His fingers traced up her sides. So much for the morning after awkwardness.
There was a knock at Cricket’s door early a couple of mornings later. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes with her knuckles, she padded in sock clad feet and opened the front door. She found herself staring up at Sully’s face. Before she had a chance to ask what he was doing here so early in the morning, he enveloped her in his arms.
“I thought about doing this all night,” he said. “Holding you again.” He brushed his lips across her temple. “About tasting you again.” His mouth skimmed down her cheek and nuzzled her neck. “You smell like peaches in the morning.”
“I’ve dreamed of this, too. You and me. Together.”
Sully’s mouth swept down and took hers hard and fast warming all the cold, empty places inside her. She could feel this amazing kiss in every cell of her body. Shooting out her fingertips, her toes, curling in her stomach and making her tingle all over. Somehow he dragged her into heat and made love to her mouth using his lips, teeth and tongue.
After their kiss ended many minutes later, Cricket said, “Well, as long as you’re here, I want to show you something.”
She led him back to her breezeway office. She pointed underneath her desk. He bent down and looked. There was Tiger and with her were four little balls of fur. Two yellow, one calico and a pure black one.
“She had them in the middle of the night,” Cricket said. She reached in and gently picked up one of the kittens. Its pink mouth opened in a silent mew. “Their eyes aren’t even open yet.”
“Have you found anyone to take them yet?”
“No. They won’t be ready for a couple months yet. I’m sure I won’t have much trouble giving away the yellows ones or this little girl.” She stroked the calico with a fingertip.
“How do you know that one is a female?” Sully asked.
“Only female calico’s have the black along with the orange and white. I just hope I can find someone who isn’t superstitious to take the black one.”
The phone rang. Sully watched Cricket’s face, but couldn’t tell what was being said on the other end.
“I’ll be right there,” she said and hung up.
“For the moment.”
“What does that mean?”
“That was Mrs. Novak. She and her husband own a sheep farm. One of their ewes has gone into labor. Her husband is out of town and she has never assisted on an animal birth before. I told her to call me if she needed anything. Would you mind coming with me? If there are complications, I may need back up.”
“Are you expecting any?”
“I hope not. But this particular ewe has already had two sets of stillborn triplets.”
“Then let’s go.”
Ten minutes later they pulled into the farm. Mrs. Novak met them in the driveway.
“How’s she doing?” Cricket asked as she climbed out of her truck.
“I checked on them about an hour ago and she seemed fine,” Mrs. Novak replied. She followed Cricket and Sully out to the barn.
In the far back corner of the barn, Cricket saw the ewe lying on her side in the hay. She was moaning and straining as her feet paddled the air. Cricket could tell something was wrong. Sully waited in the doorway while Cricket went in and knelt beside the distressed mother. After a couple minutes, she looked at Sully.
“Come here and hold her for me.”
Sully went in, knelt down and pinned the sheep to the floor. Cricket slipped her hands inside. It was like plunging her hands into a bowl of warm oatmeal. She wiggled her fingers around. She knew how many ways lambing could go wrong. Finally, she touched what felt like two knobby legs folded backwards. The lamb was facing forward.
“I have to get a finger around one of its front knees and straighten it out.”
She slid her hand along a wet, wooly leg until she found the crook of an elbow. Then she eased a finger behind the joint and tugged. It was kind of like fishing. She gave another gentle tug even though she knew if she really pulled she couldn’t hurt the lamb.
Soon a little white hoof appeared. Now she had to do the same thing to the other one. It was better if both feet came out together. In a short time both hooves were out. Cricket grabbed one and told Sully to grab the other. On the count of three they pulled the baby lamb into the world. At least that was what they had intended. What really happened was they had pulled two legs into the world. Sully stared at the two legs. Then he turned and ran out of the barn. He leaned over, his hands on his knees, taking in big gulps of air, feeling like he was going to throw up. Cricket stayed inside and finished the delivery. He heard the barn door slide open behind him. Cricket walked out and joined him in the silence.
“There’s nothing you could have done different,” she said gently laying a hand on his back. “Sometimes, a lamb dies before birth and it disintegrates when you pull it out.”
Sully turned to face her. It was then he noticed she had a burlap bundle tucked in the crook of her arm. She unwrapped it and showed Sully a small, wet lamb.
“I wanted to you to see. There was a live one in there, too.”
Sully had never seen anything so beautiful as that sopping wet lamb, bawling for its mama. All the blood and guts in the police world couldn‘t have prepared him for something like this. His view of life and death had only been two-dimensional until now.
Cricket was sitting in her breezeway office updating some paperwork when there was a knock on her door. Expecting it to be Sully, she smiled and shook her head. That man couldn’t go one day without a kiss. She got up and opened the door.
“Look, Kyle. I said…” She stopped short. It wasn’t Sully who was standing at her back door. “Mr. Fielding,” she replied carefully. He was one of the most annoying and irritating clients she had. He didn’t think being a vet was real job. He called it “just playing with animals.”
“You checked my horse over last month,” he said.
“That’s right, I did.”
“Well, that horse just died.”
“I’m sorry. But there isn’t anything I can do now.”
“Seeing you were the one who looked at him, I am holding you responsible.”
Cricket moved toward the door, but Mr. Fielding blocked her and locked the door.
“What are you doing? Unlock the door now.”
“There’s no need to go anywhere.”
“I’m not joking.”
“Neither am I. “ He picked up her silk scarf and pulled it through his fingers. “I’ve got plans for tonight. First, we’re going to have a little chat. Then we’ll find a nice, private little spot and get real comfortable.”
“Get out of my way.”
“You’re not in any position to be making demands. I can get your license suspended. And I will personally see to it you never practice veterinary medicine again.”
“Over my dead body. What do you want? I don’t have any money.”
“No, but you have something I want a lot more.”
“You disgust me.”
Cricket darted to the side then cut toward the door, but Mr. Fielding caught her with one foot sending her face first against the paneling. She hit hard and fell sideways. Through the wave of pain, she felt a movement behind her. As he moved closer, she could smell alcohol on him.
“You’ll do everything I tell you tonight.” Her hands jerked, caught behind her, knotted tightly by her scarf. He pushed her against the paneling. His voice was calm, almost without emotion. “That’s all you have to know, Cricket.”
A callused hand shot around her shoulders from behind. Unable to break free, she pivoted and drove the heel of her shoe down against her captor’s instep. She fought to stay calm to wait for her moment. A second arm locked around her waist. She turned and tried to jam her elbow into his solar plexus, but he was too fast and constantly moving out of range. Her captor slammed her forward and pinned her against the wall, driving her cheek into the rough stucco. She blinked back tears, refusing to show weakness and pain to this scum bucket. She kicked viciously and felt her shoe strike bone.
He shoved her again, holding her against the heavy wall. She had to distract him, free the lock and kick the door open. He gripped her hands and pushed her against the other wall. Cricket kicked out, slashing at his knee. When the pressure left her hands, she staggered sideways, running to into the living room. She hit the next door with her shoulder, banging it open with a crack and then jumped into the shadows with Mr. Fielding right behind her, cursing in the darkness.
She slid out of sight and tried to catch her breath. Twenty feet left to go. Mr. Fielding went passed and she stayed hidden, trying to free her hands. As his curses grew dimmer, Cricket bolted for the door on her left, which led to the side of the house. From there she could circle around to the back door and vanish before Mr. Fielding realized it. Suddenly, the scarf bit into her wrists, pulling her backwards.
“You’re still not doing what I told you, Cricket.”
He jerked the scarf, drawing her toward him and she stumbled and then managed a wild kick that struck his shin. His palm cracked against her cheek, sending her back against the wall. In her haste, she saw the scarf drop to the floor. Blood trickled from her mouth and the wind howled outside, but she focused on the big clay bowl beside the door. She inched toward it.
“You’re still not playing by my rules. I don’t like that.”
“What rules?” She was almost there. “The ones that always say you win?” Cricket lunged, digging her fingers into the bowl. She threw a candle and two CD’s at Mr. Fielding, then kicked over the bowl and threw a pillow at his head. He ducked the first three times and caught the pillow.
“You want to go to sleep, Cricket? You want that with me?” he said tauntingly.
He went for her and as he did, she screamed, rolling the bowl at his feet and wildly running for the door. She jerked it open and ran smack dab into a dark object. It took her a second to realize she was pounding Sully’s chest. It took her another moment to stop fighting and to take in a long, shaky breath. She turned back around to see Mr. Fielding twisting and cursing on the floor surrounded by clay fragments. Sully went over and tied Mr. Fielding hands behind him with Cricket’s scarf.
“It was all a misunderstanding,” Mr. Fielding acted all cool and casual. “When she asked me to meet her out here, I assumed she was playing straight. I would have never lifted a finger to touch her otherwise.”
“Save it for the sheriff.” Sully wasn’t buying it.
“What sheriff?” Mr. Fielding asked.
Sully looked over at Cricket.
“There is no sheriff.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Fielding replied. “So if you don’t untie me, I’ll press assault charges against you with the Sweetwater police.”
“It’s okay, Kyle. Let him go.”
Sully resentfully untied him. “Get out of here. You’re not worth it. You mean to tell me you aren’t going to press charges?” Sully asked Cricket after Mr. Fielding left.
“There would be no point. It would be my word against his. I don’t have a solid enough case.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“Not bad. It was all just a game to him. Mainly, he was trying to scare me. He was upset over the death of his horse and who better to blame than the vet? He was drunk anyway and probably didn‘t know what he was saying.”
“You sure are taking this pretty well. But I think Sugar Creek does need a sheriff. Someone might not be as lucky as you.”
“I think you’re right, but I don’t know of anyone around here who is qualified unless…”
“How about you?”
“You would be perfect for the job with all your police training and everything.”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“Please. Will you at least consider it?”
With the way she was looking at him with those large brown eyes, Sully couldn’t say no. His grandfather had been the sheriff/mayor/council member. Sugar Creek wasn’t exactly the crime capital of the world.
As Sully considered the job of sheriff, he thought about his job back in Chicago. In a narrow, rectangle-shaped room with a single, tiny square window was where he began his day. Working in the Crimes Against Persons unit, he was never sure how it would start or how his day would end.
Sully began his day by going through reports to make sure nothing suspicious was overlooked. He usually went through about a dozen such reports a day. The four-member Crimes Against Persons unit predominately worked homicides, but handled other cases of violence or threats of violence. In this unit, cases stay with detectives until they are solved or until they leave the squad. But they investigated any crimes against people.
Detectives are scheduled for ten hours a day, four days a week, but that doesn’t mean those are the only hours they work. Any time a homicide or major case occurs, regardless of day or time, a homicide detective is called to the scene.
But when nothing was going on it was time for report writing. Sully started his day going over reports, and it was how he would end his day. He didn’t mind working the hard streets, burglary, murder that sort of thing. It was the domestic disturbances that really got to him.
But here in Sugar Creek things would be totally different. Up here Sully would mainly be dealing with tourists who didn’t realize that tossing back tequila shooters at mile high elevation has a heck of an effect on your bloodstream than it does at sea level. There was also the usual barking dogs, mailbox bashing and the occasional tree snatching. And after saving Cricket from a man like Mr. Fielding, Sully remembered why he had gone into the law enforcement business in the first place.
When he walked into Cricket’s office, he found her sitting in the living room, tears running down her face.
“What’s the matter, honey? Did someone hurt you?”
Cricket shook her head, wiping the back of her hand across her face.
“It’s the black kitten,” she sniffed. “No one wants him. I just found a home for last yellow one yesterday even though they aren’t old enough to be separated yet. I have had six different people come and as soon as they see him, they leave.”
“I know. It’s not his fault he was all black.”
“Are you sure there is no way you can keep him?”
“Only if there was.”
“I think I might have an idea.”
Cricket’s eyes lit up. “Do you know someone who would take him?”
“I sure do.”
“Me. If he has any of his mother’s qualities, Willow Tree could sure use a good mouser. And you could see him anytime you want.”
“Does that mean you’re going to stay?”
Sully had talked to the town council, the mayor and anyone else who had influence in the town. They were more than happy someone actually volunteered for the job of sheriff. And after hearing Sully’s background and credentials, the job was his if he wanted. He had spent a long time thinking when the last time in his life he had been truly happy. It was then he realized it had been the summers he had spent here in Sugar Creek.
“Ever since I have been out here, I have been thinking I need a change. Back in Chicago, I had to put up with smog filled streets, rush hour traffic, bright lights, something always going on. Out here there is clean air, friendly folk, neighbors who would do anything to help and a very beautiful veterinarian. So I’m going to take the job.”
Sully, that’s wonderful. I am so happy for you.” She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.
“You called me Sully.”
“Well, that’s what you friends call you, isn’t it? Maybe even your girlfriend?”
“Well that just leaves one problem.”
“I have this big house and no one to share it with. You know, I think my grandparents would be happy if I found someone to share my life with. The house is definitely big enough for two people, maybe a couple of animals and however many kids you would want to have.”
“What are you saying?”
“How would you like to be Dr. Payton Sullivan?”
“Well, there is something you ought to know. I will always be Dr. Kaplin, but I wouldn’t mind being Mrs. Payton Sullivan.”
“So you could handle being a sheriff’s wife?”
“If you could handle being a vet’s husband. My animals will still come first mind you.”
“Of course. That’s one of the things I love about you. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t promise I won’t make mistakes. I am in no way a pro at this relationship stuff, but I will…”
“Wait. Don’t say it. My answer is yes.”
“ How about making this official?” He took out a velvet jewelry box. Inside was an antique diamond ring, set in white gold. “It’s my grandmother’s. If you want something more modern that’s fine. This could stand as a promise until…”
She stopped him by kissing him full on the lips. “Why would I want to do that when this is so perfect?” She loved the history behind it. It connected her to Sully’s family in a very personal way. She finally felt like she had a man, who understood her in every way.
Two years later…
Cricket stared and the canine teeth inches from her throat. She pushed up on one elbow and started at the seventy pound Dutch Shepherd pressed against the couch.
The Shepherd dropped and went completely motionless. Because they were smart and very determined Cricket’s dogs usually had the last word. Especially Macy, her younger and slightly crazy puppy. Crazy Macy as she was known by the rest of the Sugar Creek. She was almost a purebred Dutch Shepherd, but she had a little bit of Labrador somewhere in her bloodline. And that little bit had earned her, her name. She was relentless when it was time to play. And playtime was right now.
“What’s all the fuss?“ Cricket stifled a yawn. She reached under the couch for her treat bag and held out a bacon-flavored snack, Diesel’s favorite. Diesel downed the treat and turned his head toward the door.
She ran a hand through her tangled, amber hair. Stretching her arms above my head, she watched sun light flood through the big, bay window.
After doing their business, she tossed a stick across the grass, laughing as the dogs jumped up, changed direction in mid air and tore after their target. Diesel reached the stick first, grabbed it, waving it madly between his teeth. Almost instantly, Macy bumped him with her head, growling playfully. Even though Diesel was twenty pounds heavier and two inches taller, he dropped the stick and stood aside so his companion could pick it up. She trotted back with the stick and waited. She waved the stick close enough to brush Cricket’s hand. She reached down, but somehow the stick was gone and Macy was six feet across the yard, spinning in happy circles. She trotted back and bumped Cricket’s leg with her head. Macy was challenging her. The absolute nerve. She sprinted after Macy. When Macy trotted back across the grass, Cricket could have almost sworn she was smiling. This time Cricket charged straight for Macy, but she turned a split second before Cricket did. Her knee struck fur and muscle. She twisted sideways in the process and hit the ground on one elbow. She plowed into a planter, struck one knee and lay still, seeing stars. Wet and rough, Diesel’s tongue lapped Cricket’s face. When she pushed up onto one elbow, Macy nosed in beside Diesel and started licking her face with excitement. Then she dropped the stick in Cricket’s lap, sat down and barked once…ready for round two.
Then Cricket heard a small cry from inside. Little Kylie Marie Sullivan was awake for the day. She was the spitting image of her father. The same dark hair, the same gray eyes. She had Sully’s wide and ready smile so beautiful to Cricket. There was a picture of Sully as a young boy on the mantle. His face in the picture was Kylie’s face. After all she was his namesake. Cricket went in and picked Kylie up out of her crib smiling. She couldn’t imagine her life any other way. Since she had moved out to Willow Tree, she had been able to convert her old place into a proper clinic. Tiger and Shadow, the black kitten, kept the barn and house free of vermin. Daisy was perfectly happy living out in the barn in her own little stall next to the horses. Cricket had her animals, her daughter and the man she loved, whom would be walking through the door any minute.