In the silver moonlight, the dogs appeared as a dark mass moving down the hill and across the pasture. They headed straight toward three dozen sheep huddled on a carpet of autumn leaves under an oak.
Tom Bridger aimed his shotgun at the sky and fired.
The blast stopped the dogs for a second. The startled sheep jerked apart, turned and ran.
The largest dog broke from the pack and streaked after the sheep. The rest followed, yelping and baying.
Tom fired into the air again, and again. The dogs didn’t stop until his fourth shot. They milled about in the pasture as if trying to make up their minds whether to stay or go.
Another shotgun blast decided the issue for them. They wheeled around and took off over the hill.
Lying in the dark, with Tom’s space in the bed growing cold beside her, Rachel tensed at the sound of gunshots in the distance. She clutched the blanket, bunching it in both fists. She knew Tom wouldn’t shoot to kill, but she also knew he was losing patience after going out night after night to protect his sheep from the feral dog pack.
At the third shot, Rachel’s cat Frank stirred from his spot against her legs and dropped off the bed to hide underneath. From his bed near the door, Tom’s bulldog Billy Bob gave a low growl.
Rachel sat up, hugging her knees. A fourth, then a fifth shot rang out. She waited, but heard no more.
The feral dogs weren’t Rachel’s problem, weren’t her responsibility, but she was a veterinarian and couldn’t be indifferent to their fate. Mason County, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, had become a dumping ground for pet dogs as unemployment soared in the state and many people lost their homes. They probably thought they’d done the dogs a favor by turning them loose in a rural area, but the animals were hungry and desperate. Struggling to survive, they had formed a pack, and for the last few months they’d roamed the county, stealing eggs and killing chickens in farmyards. Lately they’d attacked a couple of lambs and a calf. If left on their own, they would starve or the farmers would exterminate them.
The ringing telephone jolted Rachel. For a moment she hesitated. She’d moved into Tom’s house a month ago, but the situation still felt tentative, and she was reluctant to answer his home telephone. She had no choice, though. A call at midnight was an emergency, usually a summons from the Sheriff’s Department. As chief deputy and second in command, Tom had to respond. Nobody ever summoned the aging, frail sheriff anymore when trouble arose.
Stretching across the bed, Rachel switched on the lamp and grabbed the receiver.
“Hi, is this Dr. Goddard?” a young female voice asked. “I’m sorry if I woke you up. This is Gail, the dispatcher, calling for Captain Bridger.”
Rachel knew she shouldn’t be surprised that every employee at the department knew she and Tom were living together, but it still made her feel as if she were doing something disreputable in this small, conservative community. “Captain Bridger’s outside right now.” She caught sight of Tom’s cell phone on the bedside table. “And he doesn’t have his phone with him. I can run out and get him, but it’ll take a few minutes. Can I tell him what it’s about?”
“Well, I don’t have a lot of information and I’m not real sure what happened, but Dr. Hall—you know, from the hospital?—he’s dead. Somebody attacked him.”
Rachel gasped when she heard the name. Dr. Gordon Hall, one of Mason County’s most prominent citizens, owned Tri-County General Hospital. The family’s German shepherd was one of Rachel’s patients. “Dr. Hall was attacked? You’re sure he’s dead?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am, he’s definitely dead. His wife called it in, and she doesn’t know how it happened. Their kids went looking for him and found him laying in the yard. She’s just about going crazy, screaming and crying. I already sent a couple of deputies to secure the scene, but Captain Bridger needs to get out there.”
“I’ll find him and tell him right away.” Rachel hung up and rushed to get dressed, yanking on jeans, sweater, shoes, raking her thick auburn hair out of her eyes with her fingers. She could imagine Dr. Hall’s wife waiting for the police, probably with her children around her yet feeling suddenly alone in the world.
Billy Bob trotted after Rachel down the stairs and along the hallway. “Sorry, boy,” she said at the back door. “You can’t go this time. Stay.”
She snatched a flashlight from a hook by the door and ran out in search of Tom.