by Jody Vitek
Can Catherine accept the consequences of a great-aunt's dying wish without losing her heart or independence?
Taking in stray, injured or needy animals, veterinarian doctor Catherine Mornelli opens the Four Hooves and Paws Rescue program. But the land where the animals are kept is being sold. She approaches her Great-Aunt Elaine about possibly using her barn. However, visiting her aunt and checking out the barn also means seeing her ex-boyfriend.
Josef Garrison farms land that once belonged to his family for generations but went to his neighbor Elaine after his great-grandfather lost it in a poker game to Catherine's great-grandfather. When Catherine returns, he sees a way to win back her heart and the land at the same time.
“Aunt Elaine, how are you?” Catherine Mornelli twisted a section of her black hair around a finger as she sat at her workspace. Elaine, her great-aunt, had something she could use. Money was tight, what with paying off student loans and her own living expenses. And she had the expenses of her rescue operation.
“Catherine, what a pleasant surprise. Is everything okay?” The concern in her aunt’s voice couldn’t be missed.
“Fine. Nothing to worry about,” Catherine assured her. “I have a question, or better yet, a favor to ask of you.” Two weeks ago, she had started the search to locate a new home for her rescue horses. Their current location in Pinedale, Minnesota was up for sale.
“Anything for you, dear. You know that.”
Sincerity sounded in Elaine’s voice and filled Catherine’s chest with warmth. “Are you using your barn?”
“No. I have no use for that thing. Although, Joe’s using the hayloft for storage.”
“Okay, that shouldn’t be a problem.” Her love for animals stemmed from the summer months spent on the farm throughout her younger years.
“What do you need a barn for? Is this for the horses your mother’s been telling me about?” Aunt Elaine’s excitement traveled through the phone line, and although Catherine wasn’t in front of her, she envisioned her aunt’s dentured smile and crinkled eyes, hiding behind large plastic framed glasses.
“That’s exactly the reason. The place where I’m now boarding the horses is for sale, and I don’t know how long I have until it sells. I’ve been looking around and then thought of you.” Property sold quickly in the southern suburbs of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Housing sprawled out and popped up in place of farmland.
“Consider it yours.” No hesitation.
Exhilarated, her heart beat like a horse jumping a combination—pole after pole after pole. Relief washed over tense shoulders, and she released the strand of twisted hair. “Great! I’m going to plan a trip up to see you. I want to take a look at the barn.”
“I’ll get the room ready for you. Joe was over today.” The last bit of information rolled off her aunt’s tongue slow but dangerous like a steamroller.
“Really?” The word escaped her lips in a more snotty tone than intended. She wasn’t interested in Josef despite what her aunt might think. He was a part of her past.
“He comes to visit every now and then to check on me and see if I need any help.”
“Huh.” Disinterested in hearing about Josef, Catherine perused the papers sitting on the desk.
“He looked at my water heater.”
“I was hoping this weekend would work for you.” She changed the ex-boyfriend topic. Although he was history, her memory brought forth a picture of him, twenty-one with shaggy black hair and brown caring eyes.
“That’d be fine, Catherine. I’ll see you Saturday.”
“Actually, I was planning on being there Friday night. Will that work for you?”
“Of course. Will you be here for dinner? I could see if Joe’s available.”
“Sorry, no. I have to work and then go home before hitting the road.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I’ll see him while I’m there, Aunt Elaine,” she said to satisfy the woman’s pushing about Josef. When Catherine and Josef ended their relationship eleven years ago, it pained her aunt. Elaine had big plans for the two of them and was never afraid to voice them.
“I’m sure you will. Now don’t forget to pack your Sunday clothes. Mass is at nine o’clock.”
“Dr. Mornelli, you’re needed in Room Two-D stat,” her assistant rattled at her while Elaine spoke of church. “Someone brought in a dog that was hit by a car.”
Catherine put a finger up in acknowledgement and shook her head. “Aunt Elaine, I’ve got to go. We have an emergency here at the clinic. See you Friday night.”
Not giving her aunt a chance to say goodbye, she hung up and hustled to Room Two-D.
“The man who brought the dog in said he couldn’t avoid hitting him,” the assistant informed her. “He saw a car clip the dog, which flung the animal into the front side of his truck. He pulled over and loaded the dog into the back of his pickup.”
“What kind of dog?” Catherine asked.
“Appears to be a mix. Big. One-forty.”
They stepped into the room, and a remorseful-looking man paced the small confines of the exam room.
“Sir, do you know whose dog this is?” Catherine inquired, approaching the dog lying on the exam table.
“No. I was driving and ... I’m so sorry.” Sorrow etched his face.
“There’s no need to be sorry. You’ve done the right thing by bringing him here.” With tender fingers, she examined the dog. As she touched his hind leg, he yelped.
“Can you help him even if he’s not mine?” The man’s voice quavered.
“Yes. We’ll take great care of him.” The dog’s back right hindquarter had lacerations, and the leg appeared to be broken. “Sir, if you wouldn’t mind stepping from the room, we need to take care of this big fella. The receptionist will talk to you.”
“Okay.” Visibly distraught, the man left. Catherine knew the staff would reassure him about the dog’s well-being.
The room cleared, she ordered an x-ray for confirmation and to catch anything she couldn’t see. The surgery room was sterile and cool. Goose bumps congregated on her arms regardless of the long sleeves covering them. Catherine didn’t like music played in the operating room while working on a patient. The barking, squawking, and other animal vocalization in the background was her soundtrack. They were the driving purpose of her life’s work.
“What’s the chance of the dog making it, Catherine?” Her assistant asked once surgery was completed.
“He should make a full recovery.” Catherine walked through the operating room doors and removed her surgical gloves, disposing of them into the hazard bin. “But like every surgery, we’ll have to wait and see.”
“Are you paying for this one?”
“I’ll cover the costs. You know me.” She untied and removed her gown, tossing it into the laundry hamper. Un-owned animals brought into the clinic were a rarity. In cases like this though, Catherine couldn’t help but treat and take care of the animal.
“Are you going to take him in, too?” The assistant removed her gown and turned toward the operating area where other assistants finished cleaning the dog and room.
“I can’t save him to leave him without a home. He doesn’t have a microchip, so we’ll wait to see if he has an owner. If no owner shows up in a week, I’ll take him home with me until we can find him a place.” Catherine sat at her desk. “It’s been a long day. Let’s finish things so we can leave.”
“Sounds good. Any plans for tonight?”
“I need to run to the farm and take care of the horses.”
“The girls and I are going out for drinks. Why don’t you join us?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass. You have fun.” Girl’s night out would be nice, but the horses came first. She could hook up with her friends later. But not tonight.
“Fun? Oh, we will.” The assistant wriggled her eyebrows before going to the front office.
Catherine filled out the necessary paperwork for the surgery and, before leaving, checked on the patient.
“How you doing, big guy?” She squatted to the floor and looked in the cage. He appeared to be a Newfoundland mix. “I think I’ll call you Fritz.” His eyes opened enough to show off his beautiful brown irises, and he whined.
The dog sniffed the hand she placed in front of the cage, but kept his head still, eyes fixed on her.
“I’ll check on you tomorrow morning. You’ll be off your feet for a while.” She stood, peering through the top of the enclosure at his hindquarter. Minor blood soaked through the bandage. After being struck by multiple cars, he was lucky to survive.
Saying good night to the remaining staff before leaving, she hopped into her silver pickup and made the twenty-minute drive to her townhouse. If Fritz moved in and joined the furry family, she would be over the limit of two animals per unit. There was a possibility of a fine by the city if caught, but a risk worth taking—the cats added to the dog count. It worked to her advantage to have the cats remain indoors. No one could see them, unless spotted sitting in a window.
She opened the door leading from the garage to the house. “Hey, Fuzzy.” She picked the dog up and nuzzled her face into his black and white fluffy fur. Fuzzy was the first dog she adopted from a shelter when she started working at Lake View Animal Clinic. A puppy then, he had grown and dealt with her schedule and the animals she brought home. He was a true companion.
A paw touched her thigh. “Well hello, Darby,” she said, acknowledging the yellow lab. “Give Mom a chance to change clothes, and I’ll let you out.”
In the bedroom, she pulled on jeans and a different shirt. “Hello, Mr. T. Where’s your counterpart?” she questioned the black and white longhaired cat. A meow and rub on the shin, she picked up the multi-colored calico cat and gave her a little loving. “Buddy, where have you been hiding?” The cat jumped to the bed, and Catherine left the cats to themselves.
“Come on, boys. Let’s go out.” Through the open sliding door, she clipped the dogs to their chains.
She ate a quick ham sandwich with chips and fruit before letting the dogs back inside. She tugged on Army green barn boots, grabbed the keys and held the door to the garage open. “Come on, guys. Let’s go.”
The dogs barked, and tails wagged. She opened the door to the pickup and waited for the “boys” to jump in the back of the cab.
Catherine drove south on I-35 headed for the farm where she boarded the four rescue horses. Pinedale was a forty-five-minute drive from her place. She decelerated approaching the driveway to the farm. The real estate sign was a massive commercial size, not the small reality yard sign you normally saw. You could probably see this one from space.
She parked close to the barn and let Fuzzy and Darby loose to tear around the open space. The owner’s dog, Rufus, joined the ruckus.
She unlatched the white barn door with black trim and greeted the horses—Steel, Rusty, Magnolia and Churchill—before leading them to pasture. Pitchfork, shovel and wheelbarrow ready to clean the stalls, she welcomed the distracting pungent smell of the manure as it stung her eyes and nostrils. She worked days at the clinic and cared for the horses at night. Locating a new place for them took time. Time she didn’t have.
“Catherine,” Warren’s voice came from behind as she worked to clean the last stall. “Any luck with finding a new boarding facility?” the sixty-two year old asked with heartfelt sadness.
Warren, the current owner of the property and a widower, made the decision to put the property up for sale a month ago. Whenever Catherine couldn’t make the trip to the farm, he helped care for the horses since he no longer had farm animals of his own.
“I might’ve. I’m going to my aunt’s this weekend to check the condition of her barn. Will you be around to help with the horses, or should I find someone else?”
“I’ll be around. I’m not going anywhere.” He reached out and gave Rusty, who waited at the fence line, a pat on the neck and ran his hand down the horse’s back. “Where’s your aunt’s place?”
“North. Oak City.” She continued to shovel muck from the stall into the wheelbarrow. “I’m not sure though. With the drive, I may have to move and find a new job.” She turned to face Warren. “This place will sell quickly, and I want a good handle on things before it does.” She rested the shovel against the wall, grabbed the wheelbarrow handles and exited the barn.
“I’ll figure it out. Thanks, Warren.” The manure and used shavings were added to the heap beyond the barn along the tree line.
“You’re doing a good thing for these animals, Catherine. I hope the barn works out.”
“Me, too.” She pushed the wheelbarrow into the barn and spread fresh wood shavings in the stalls before leading the horses back in. “Keep me posted, and let me know if you sell.”
“I’m sorry for putting it up for sale, Catherine.” He wandered toward the barn doors.
“You need to quit apologizing, Warren. The time’s come for you to move on with your life. You’ve been such a great help to me and the horses. I’ll never forget that.” Tears stung, and she wiped them away. “Damn manure.”