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"Dr. Sullivan?” George Tyler called out as he knelt in front of the filing cabinet. He’d only been working for the country veterinarian for a few weeks now, and thankfully he hadn’t had to ask for help too often. But there had to be a first time for everything he decided.
“What is it George?” Dr. Sullivan stepped into their back room and visibly stiffened as he stood in the doorway staring down at his assistant. He blinked several times, his posture relaxing slowly. “What’s wrong?”
George tapped one of the folders with his thumb. “Are you sure that you are the only one who takes care of Sheriff Atkins’s horses?”
Sullivan nodded slowly, stepping into the room. He was a tall man, aging fairly rapidly, bald except for the grey over his ears, and he was not yet fifty. “Of course. I have for twenty years. Why?”
He pulled the folder out a bit more. It was fairly thick with a large number of papers stuffed inside. “I was trying to clean up your filing cabinets, get all the dates in order. I noticed something strange while I was going through this one. According to your records, Dr. Sullivan, Sheriff Atkins has a mare that has given birth five times in two years.”
The veterinarian blinked at that, mouth falling agape and then closing again. He finally shook his head, eyes clouded behind the thick glasses. “No, that cannot be right. You must have read them wrong.”
“I thought so too, but unless he has three or four mares with the same name, it all checks out.” George took the folder out and laid it on the small oaken table next to the metal cabinets. He sorted and laid out the five papers, pointing his fingers at the dates and the mare’s name. Five different dates within the last two years. The same name for each of them. “Or that’s really 1901 and you are a hundred years old.”
Sullivan’s eyes narrowed waspishly. “I do not look that old.” His face fell though, almost resignedly as he examined the papers. “But it looks as if you are right. I don’t know how that happened. I must have written it down wrong. I suppose I should call Sheriff Atkins and see if he can better explain this.”
For some reason, George felt like he’d just done something wrong. Would Dr. Sullivan be in trouble for this? Would he get in trouble? George certainly hoped not on both counts. He was only working as an assistant to earn enough money to attend a proper veterinary college. He was paid enough here that he’d likely be able to go to school next year. He didn’t want any of that jeopardized.
Dr. Sullivan took the records in his hands and walked back to the front room to make the call. George shuffled through the remaining papers, but didn’t really see them. He was enjoying his work here. Just the other day he’d helped the vet remove a growth from Mrs Kitch’s Pekinese. The poor thing was terribly old, but also exceedingly sweet. Seeing the look of blissful relief on Mrs. Kitch’s face had stayed with him until just now.
He could hear Sullivan talking on the phone. His voice was low, and slightly anxious. George did not think it a crime to have papers get messed up, but he was new in the business. Perhaps it was more serious then he’d imagined? George found himself imagining a set of cast iron bars being slammed in front of him, while behind him a big burly man who had not been outside for ten years was rubbing his hands together and making cooing noises.
George shuddered at that thought, assuring himself that it couldn’t be that bad. He looked up towards the door to see if Sullivan was still on the phone, but he was just then walking back into the doorway. He looked strangely tired, and for a moment leaned against the doorjamb with one arm. “I’ve talked with the Sheriff, and he says that we can bring the papers by his place tomorrow morning and he’ll take a look at them. He thinks it sounds crazy too.”
“You aren’t in any trouble are you?”
Sullivan blinked, appearing genuinely surprised at the question, and then shook his head. “No, not at all. Try not to worry about it. Just meet me here tomorrow morning, and we’ll go over first thing. We don’t have anything on the schedule do we?”
George shook his head. “No, tomorrow morning is clear.”
“Good. I’ll keep my pager in case of an emergency though.” Sullivan looked past him for a moment at the wall, appearing distracted. He then returned his focus on his assistant. “Do you want to close up or should I?”
“I can do it,” George said. “Are you feeling all right, doctor? You don’t look very good.”
Sullivan waved him off with one hand. “I’m fine, it’s just been a long day is all. Seems like it anyway.” He then turned around and walked around the corner.
George blinked and bit his lip. He wondered if he might have received some bad news recently. There had been a few phone calls while George was sorting through the filing cabinets after all. Could one of Sullivan’s relatives passed away, ro be terminally ill? Could there have been an accident? He’d seemed awfully distracted from the moment he’d come in to see what was wrong after all.
Sighing heavily, George put the folder back where it belonged. He could finish sorting through them tomorrow. He didn’t feel like doing it right then. Not anymore.
Dr. Sullivan had an old Ford pickup that he used. It was red, the paint chipped around the edges, with his name and the words “Country Veterinarian” printed on the driver’s door. Sheriff Atkins was the county sheriff, though with as sparsely a populated as theirs was, he did not have a great deal to do most of the time, and so instead he raised his horses. He lived alone on a small ranch set amidst rolling hills, flanked on either side by strands of fir and beech.
His house was two stories in an older prairie style, while the stables were set off from the house, a garage between them. The red and blue police wagon was parked before the garage on the gravel drive, while inside the garage Sheriff Atkins was working on the inside of a Ford truck that looked older than Dr. Sullivan’s own.
George had not yet met the Sheriff, but he had seen his photograph hanging in one of the local diners. He was a large man, his hair also graying, though he still had some on top of his head. It was clear that it had once been a fiery red, but the years had drained it and his face of colour. He turned around as they came to a stop just behind the wagon, wiping his hands on a rag. “Frank!” Atkins called out in a boisterous voice. He smiled widely and held his arms wide, tossing the rag back on the truck’s hood.
Dr. Sullivan killed the engine and climbed out of his pickup, the folder in his hand. George got out as well, looking around rather sheepishly. His eyes stayed on the veterinarian. He’d barely said two words all morning, obviously stressed out over something. George had asked once while on the way, but Sullivan wouldn’t tell him anything.
“Wayne,” Sullivan said, shaking the Sheriff’s thick hand with his own thin ones. Despite the Sheriff’s cheery demeanour, they both seemed unnaturally reserved.
Atkins turned in his direction then and smiled, holding out his hand. “And you must Frank’s new assistant, George Tyler?”
George nodded and smiled a bit, shaking the hand. It was warm and thick, though ever so slightly hesitant. “That’s me. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sheriff.”
“I understand you want to become a vet yourself someday.” It was more a statement than a question.
George nodded and smiled. “Yes, sir. I’m working as Dr. Sullivan’s assistant now to earn enough money to go to veterinary school.”
“You’re from Clarkstown, right?” Atkins asked, his face curious. “How did you hear about the job?”
Clarkstown was two counties over, and just as sparsely populated. It was where the veterinary college was though. “I saw it in the want ads. Dr. Sullivan lets me sleep on his couch for now.” George felt embarrassed about it, but Sullivan had been most insistent that he accept his generosity.
“Well, Frank is rather nice like that. Right Frank?”
Sullivan was thumbing through the papers he’d brought with him. He looked up in surprise at the mention of his name. “What? Oh yes, I suppose.” He did not look at George, but only the Sheriff.
“So, you like animals?” the Sheriff asked then, turning back to George. He smelled of oil, but not badly.
“Of course! I love them! It’s why I want to be a vet, because I like seeing them so much. I love those James Herriot books. Have you ever read them, Sheriff? ‘All Creatures Great and Small’?”
“Don’t suppose I have,” Atkins said, rubbing his chin with one hand. He glanced back over his shoulder at his stables. “You ever work with horses, kid?” George saw Sullivan’s hands shake ever so slightly then. What had happened to him?
“My uncle owned a few before he passed away,” George admitted. “He let me ride them whenever we visited with him.”
Atkins put his hand on George’s shoulder and guided him towards the stables. “Let me show you my horses. I’ve got quite a few you know. It is why you are here after all.”
“Yes, the records said one of your mares gave birth five times in two years.”
Atkins nodded, eyes narrowing. “Now if that ain’t the darndest thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is. I’ll sort that out with Frank over there, while you go say hello to my horses. Don’t worry, they’re plenty friendly enough. They shouldn’t bite. And if they do I’ll box their ears in for you.”
George nodded and smiled. Whatever was troubling Dr. Sullivan was probably something that the Sheriff could handle. After all, they were old friends, at least that was what Sullivan had always said. Why would he confide something so important to his assistant when he had somebody far closer to share it with? George did feel a bit bad that he was being left out, but what could he expect? He was young enough to be Sullivan’s kid.
Atkins pulled open the stable doors, and the thick scent of horse came to him. It was familiar from his uncle’s barn, and he rather enjoyed it. The stables were not very long, a hayloft up top, while three hanging lights illuminated everything. Tack and harnesses were arrayed on the near wall. On either side heading down towards the other end were six stalls each. Only a few of the stalls were filled though, three on left, and a fourth larger one on the right.
George looked back over his shoulder and saw that Sullivan was still standing next to the cars. His focus was on the folders in his hands, and nothing else. George grimaced, but then turned back to the horses, and the Sheriff.
Atkins pointed his finger to the left first and went down the line. “That’s Cindy, Mandy, and Sammy. That last one’s the real productive one.” He laughed at that, and so did George. “Now over on the right is the sire, Thunder. Don’t let his name scare you though, he’s very friendly.”
In fact, Thunder was already prancing a bit in his stall, snorting, eyes focussed on them intently. Yet there was nothing in them that brought George any fear. He was a beautiful thoroughbred with a rich mahogany coat. He stood at least eighteen hands high, his dark black mane silky as it flowed down his neck. George blinked as he realized he was staring at the stallion, and returned his attention to the Sheriff. Yet Atkins was already moving out of the stables.
“Now, do be friendly, this should not take too long.” He then pulled the doors shut behind him. George shrugged and walked across the floor, covered as it was in hay. He smiled and waved his hand to the horses, “Hello everyone,” he said by way of greeting, feeling strangely content.
Sheriff Atkins found that Sullivan was leaning against the wagon, his hands shaking. “Come on inside, I’ll get you something to drink.” Atkins said, putting one hand at his elbow. The vet allowed himself to be guided to the front door. Atkins pulled it open, and ushered him inside, closing it after him.
Sullivan went instinctively to the table in the kitchen, collapsing in one of the wooden chairs, his legs splaying out before him. The folder with papers lay before him, still gripped between his fingers. His eyes focussed upon the chipped lacquer.
Atkins crossed to one of the cupboards and pulled out two small glasses. “What’ll it be, Frank?” His voice was low and heavy.
“Scotch,” Sullivan whispered, his voice barely audible.
The Sheriff nodded at that, his face bereft of all cheer. He stepped to the fridge, several news clippings held to the door by magnets. Reaching just behind it, he pulled out a bottle. Giving the top a twist, he pulled the cork out, and began to pour both glasses. He gave himself only a little bit, but filled Sullivan’s glass half-way.
He held it out, but Sullivan was still staring at the lacquer. “That’s three this year you know,” Sullivan finally said.
“Frank, take your drink,” Atkins chided lightly. Sullivan finally reached up and took the glass from the Sheriff’s hand. He set it on the folder before him, but did not drink it. Atkins sat down across from him and finally sighed, nodding heavily. “I know. You shouldn’t have listed Sammy as the mother five times you know.”
Sullivan sighed heavily then and sipped the scotch. “What else was I supposed to do? You keep selling the others.”
Atkins grimaced, and sipped at his as well. “Well, there’s nothing for it now.” He glanced down at the folder and let out his breath heavily. “I suppose we should think of a name.”
He did not expect an answer right away, and Sullivan did not provide it either. Several seconds went by with both of them sitting in silence, staring down at their glasses of scotch. Finally, Sullivan shook his head, sipping a bit more. “Not until it’s done.”
Atkins breathed heavily and nodded, finishing off the rest of his drink. It went down his throat warm, though he barely could taste it. “Yeah.”
George drank in the scent of the hay and the horses, smiling as he looked between them all. The mares were all deferential, each reaching out to be petted or given a treat, but otherwise, they did not push. Thunder was a different story altogether. After greeting the mares, George had ventured closer to the stallion’s stall, and found himself watching as the massive equine head leaned forward and started to lip at the handle keeping it closed.
“You want out, Thunder?” George asked, even as he stepped closer. A part of him knew it should be afraid of such a forceful creature, but for some reason, he remained calm and perfectly comfortable. There was an assurance in the power he saw displayed before him, one that put him at ease.
The great thoroughbred nodded his head, and stomped his hooves upon the ground, whinnying to him firmly. It was not in supplication he understood, but an order. George reached his hands out, and he pulled the heavy metal latch up, opening the stall door. Thunder pressed his way out, his scent even thicker than before suddenly. George stepped back, dazed as the massive equine turned about, dark black hooves shining against the hay-strewn floor boards. Thunder snorted and sniffed at his face.
George stood there, transfixed. His hand rose up, and he gently touched Thunder’s cheek, feeling the muscles and flesh twitch at the press of his hand. He heard the stomp of a hoof, saw the swish of the long black tail out of the corner of one eye. The hot breath passed over his cheeks, blowing his hair back from his eyes. He could never recall having seen a more beautiful horse.
All thoughts of Dr. Sullivan and the strange papers were washed from his mind as he stood there, the massive animal standing before him, muzzle rubbing against either side of his face. He leaned into the touch, his whole body glowing as his hands stroked over the horse’s neck. Thunder’s lips opened and he felt a gentle yet insistent bite upon his shoulder. It did not hurt him, and so George did not pull away.
Instead, he stood there, allowing Thunder to continue his attentions. George’s eyes fell closed as he leaned his head then against Thunder’s thick neck, feeling the coursing of breath through that body, the pounding of the stallion’s heart rocking his ears. The biting continued, pinching his flesh, making it tingle as the horse moved from his shoulder to the back of his neck. Those powerful jaws could have snapped his neck if they so chose, but George felt nothing but comfort at their touch, a strange somnolence that shut out all but contentment.
He was only dimly aware that he was unbuttoning his shirt. There was a part of him trying to ask why he was doing this, but the rest of him was so overwhelmed by the dreamlike state the scent of Thunder had left him in that he could not even acknowledge the question. Instead, he just continued to unbutton his shirt. When the last button was undone, Thunder gripped the collar between his teeth and yanked it backwards, pulling the shirt free from his body.
Similarly, George felt his pants fall down to his ankles. His shoes he stepped out of, socks pulled free with his toes. And then his underwear fell amongst the pile of clothing that had developed beneath him. He could not understand it, he could only feel the gentle bite of Thunder’s teeth against the back of his neck. Heavy breath wafted across him, his whole body alive, floating and yet heavy at the same time. He pressed his hands once more over the horse’s flesh, feeling the hide rub across his stubby fingers, coarse and biting.
Wobbling about, George found himself suddenly leaning against one of the stalls instead. His eyesight was spinning about the room, his mind a cloud of strange feeling, emotions and concepts. Vague flashes of familiar faces came to him, but they were gone as quickly as they came. More and more he saw that stallion. No, smelled him, full and fresh and thick. The power of his body pulsed with each slow deliberate beat of his massive equine heart. George felt his mind falling into the rhythm of that beat, that ever present metre.
The feel of Thunder’s teeth upon the back of his neck was about the only thing that George was certain of at that point. Strange sensations of heaviness and of being gangly came to him, of a heat he’d never before felt touching all parts of his body. Of his fists pressing firmly into the hay, smoother than he’d ever thought possible. Of warm scents drifting about him and up into his nose. His own scent, rich in musk and flavour. Of Thunder’s scent, undeniable and irresistible.
George tried to blink away the fog enveloping him, but found that he did not want to. No sensation he’d ever encountered in his entire life could compare to this one moment of true bliss. The heavy weight of the stallion overtop of him, the firm clench of his teeth upon his neck, was all that remained within George’s mind. And then not even the name was left.
The bottle of scotch was empty by the time that Atkins and Sullivan finally were able to leave the house and check on the stables. Sullivan was quite inebriated, but a temporary bout of strength had allowed him to walk there unaided. His face was empty of expression though, as was the Sheriff’s own. Though it had been done many times before, it was never easy.
Atkins took a deep breath, the liquor the only strength he had left in him as well. With a heave he pushed the doors open, and stared in resignation. In the centre of the stables were two horses, Thunder, and a mare he had never seen before. A pile of clothes lay next to Thunder’s open stall door. It was the only visible remains of George Tyler.
Sullivan collapsed on his rear outside the stable, his head crumpled into his hands. Gritting his teeth, Atkins entered the stables, his hands held out cautiously. Thunder glanced at him speculatively, and then reared, neighing triumphantly. Atkins shivered at the sound, for he had heard it many times before. Slowly, he began to pet the massive stallion along his neck, and gently pushed him back into the stall. Thunder went willingly, sated.
Turning, Atkins slowly approached the new mare. She looked up at him without recognition, but no fear in her chestnut brown eyes. He moved along her side, and gave her a gentle push, and she trotted along. He opened one of the stalls on the left and ushered her inside. She went without complaint.
Atkins then stumbled out of the stables, unable to touch the pile of clothes just yet. He’d burn them later. He just managed to close the stable doors when he too collapsed upon the ground next to Sullivan. It was midmorning already, they’d need to sober up soon.
“I hate this,” Sullivan murmured, having collapsed on his side, face planted firmly in the dirt.
Atkins nodded absently. “Until that damn thing dies, we have no choice.”
“You’ve been saying that for twenty years!” Sullivan cried out, his voice breaking.
The Sheriff gulped heavily and rested his head against his knees. “I know.”
“I cannot do this anymore. I can’t...” Sullivan stammered.
“Frank,” Atkins said, his voice as level as he could make it. “We have no choice. Now come on, I need you to fill out the paperwork.”
But Sullivan shook his head. “No, I can’t do it.”
“Frank,” Atkins growled, and edge coming into his voice. “We’ve been friends for even longer than we’ve known that horse. Please don’t ruin it now.”
“I wish you’d never bought the damn thing,” Sullivan spat, tears streaming down his face.
“So do I.” Atkins finally managed to get to his feet, though he was still unsteady. He held out his hand to his friend, and offered a weak smile. “Now come on. We’ve got some paperwork to do. I’ll make the coffee.”
Numbly, Sullivan nodded and took the hand. “Black.”