Brave Hearts

By: Phoenix Sullivan



“Doctor Nic!”

I settled the handful of resumes I was reviewing and raised my brows at Melea’s frantic cry. She’d only been my clinic assistant for a month, although she’d been here at the sanctuary longer, but already I knew that everything to her was an emergency. By her voice and gestures alone there was no way to tell if a patient had just been brought in with a deadly cobra bite or whether we’d run out of disinfectant.

“It’s a kudu calf. Its mum was killed. One of the leopards, we think. It’s got scratches, maybe a broken leg. Abasi’s bringing it in.”

Outside, an engine growled as a vehicle pulled up. My 11 o’clock interview.

I sighed, wishing to hell they hadn’t brought the calf here. “Where is it?”

“In the Land Rover. Abasi found it on patrol. He’s getting a blanket under it now. I’ll help him carry it in if you’re ready.” She looked at me expectantly.

Well, what was I going to do if they’d come this far with it? Turn it away? I nodded, pushed the thin stack of resumes aside, and followed her out of my office into the thatched and brick-sided waiting room beyond.

Two big men, a blanket slung between them, were maneuvering through the narrow doorway. One was Abasi, my jumbe, the chief ranger for Kulinda Sanctuary, and the other—

“Peter Lawson?”

He turned a disarming smile on me before returning his attention to coordinating efforts with Abasi to move the calf into the single adjoining exam room. They laid their bundle on the steel table, then stood guard to either side. Melea took up a position at the baby’s rear to prevent it scooting off that way, and I approached the frightened youngster from the front. There was no denying its—her, I noted—appeal when it turned those big brown antelope eyes my way. My heart tugged too. Whose wouldn’t? But—

“Abasi, you know the rules.”

He ducked his head, clearly abashed. “She’s still a mtoto,” he said, and I easily translated one of the Swahili words I knew—baby. “You should have heard her pitiful bleating, calling after her mum. But,” he bowed his head, “no more mum to answer.”

I nodded toward the calf’s hind leg, angled out and needing no x-rays to tell that the strong but almost impossibly thin bones had been snapped cleanly in two. “It wouldn’t survive in the wild, would it?”

Lips pouting, brow furrowed, he shook his head.

“And now the wild dogs or leopards will find a healthy calf to kill instead. One who might otherwise have grown into a great bull. And what of that calf’s mother? How great will her grief be?”

In the wild, there were always consequences.

“Shall I take the calf back?” Abasi asked, clearly wanting to do no such thing.

Of course, he should. How many calves such as this one were orphaned each year? How many sick and wounded perished? We couldn’t save them all. Nor should we even try. Who were we to outwit a natural cycle eons old?

That, though, was my brain thinking. And while it often had some very good points to make, I had to admit it was rarely the thing in charge. The golden calf before me was a beautiful, living creature, hurting in both body and soul. My deepest, most fatal flaw was the empathy I shared with every beast I touched. This was no theory of the natural world trembling in pain and fright before me. It was mtoto, a baby—in need of help and love and the comfort of a warm bottle.

“Bring me a vial of medetomidine, then warm up a bag of Ringers,” I instructed Melea. “Let’s make her comfortable.” The sedative would calm her, and allow me to dress the claw wounds that, without probing, looked fairly superficial. Infection would be their greatest concern. The Lactated Ringers would provide an electrolyte boost and fluids to help counter shock. We’d blend our own kudu milk replacement later, when she was willing and able to take a bottle.

“You’re treating her, then?”

I had almost forgotten my interview, Peter, was there. Already he had two points in his favor—his willingness to help and his ability to not interfere. Three points if I included the leg-melting jut of his jaw coupled with those amazingly expressive deep brown eyes.

“What would you do?” I watched him carefully. I didn’t mean the question to be rhetorical, but rather as a test. He’d applied to be a ranger here in the sanctuary, and I liked to know the mettle of the men and women who worked for me.

He shrugged. “Lately, those decisions have been made for me.”

He’d been an army man, according to his resume. Special ops. The way his eyes hooded and his voice lowered, it was clear he hadn’t agreed with all the decisions that had been made on his behalf.

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