Annie McKenzie didn’t pass through Virgin River very often. It was out of her way when driving from Fortuna, where she lived, to her parents’ farm near Alder Point. It was a cute little town and she liked it there, especially the bar and grill owned by Jack Sheridan. People there met you once, maybe twice, and from that point on, treated you like an old friend.
She was on her way to her folks’ place when, at the last moment, she decided to detour through Virgin River. Since it was the week after Thanksgiving, she hoped they’d started on the tree. It was a calm and sunny Monday afternoon and very cold, but her heart warmed when she pulled into town and saw that the tree was up and decorated. Jack was up on an A-frame ladder straightening out some trimmings, and standing at the foot of the ladder, looking up, was Christopher, the six-year-old son of Jack’s cook, Preacher.
Annie got out of her truck and walked over. “Hey, Jack,” she yelled up. “Looking good!”
“Annie! Haven’t seen you in a while. How are your folks?”
“They’re great. And your family?”
“Good.” He looked around. “Uh-oh. David?” he called. Then he looked at Christopher as he climbed down the ladder. “Chris, you were going to help keep an eye on him. Where did he go? David?” he called again.
Then Chris called, “David! David!”
They both walked around the tree, checked the bar porch and the backyard, calling his name. Annie stood there, not sure whether to help or just stay out of their way, when the lowest boughs of the great tree moved and a little tyke about three years old crawled out.
“David?” Annie asked. He was holding something furry in his mittened hands and she got down on her knees. “Whatcha got there, buddy?” she asked. And then she yelled, “Found him, Jack!”
The child was holding a baby animal of some kind, and it looked awfully young and listless. Its fur was black and white, its eyes were closed, and it hung limply in little David’s hands. She just hoped the boy hadn’t squeezed the life out of it; boys were not known for gentleness. “Let me have a look, honey,” she said, taking the creature out of his hands. She held it up and its little head lolled. Unmistakably a puppy. A brand-new puppy.
Jack came running around the tree. “Where was he?”
“Under the tree. And he came out with this,” she said, showing him the animal very briefly before stuffing it under her sweater between her T-shirt and her wool sweater, up against the warmth of her body. Then she pulled her down vest around herself to hold him in place. “Poor little thing might be frozen, or almost frozen.”
“Aw, David, where’d you find him?”
David just pointed at Annie. “My boppie!” he said.
“Yeah, he’s right,” Annie said. “It’s a boppie…..er, puppy. But it’s not very old. Not old enough to have gotten out of a house or a yard. This little guy should’ve been in a box with his mom.”
“David, hold Chris’s hand,” Jack ordered.
And David said something in his language that could be translated into I want my puppy! But Jack was on his belly on the cold ground, crawling under the tree. And from under there Annie heard a muffled “Aw, crap!” And then he backed out, pulling a box full of black-and-white puppies.
Annie and Jack just stared at each other for a moment. Then Annie said, “Better get ’em inside by the fire. Puppies this young can die in the cold real fast. This could turn out badly.”
Jack hefted the box. “Yeah, it’s gonna turn out badly! I’m gonna find out who would do something so awful and take him apart!” Then he turned to the boys and said, “Let’s go, guys.” He carried the box to the bar porch and Annie rushed past him to hold the door open. “I mean, there are animal shelters, for God’s sake!”
The fire was ablaze in the hearth and there were a couple of guys dressed like hunters at the bar, sharing a pitcher of beer and playing cribbage. She patted the place by the hearth and Jack put down the box. Annie immediately began checking out the puppies. “I’m gonna need a little help here, Jack. Can you warm up some towels in the clothes dryer? I could use a couple more warm hands. There’s not enough wriggling around in this box to give me peace of mind.” Then suddenly, she herself began wriggling. She smiled a big smile. “Mine’s coming around,” she said, patting the lump under her sweater.
Annie kneeled before the box, and David and Chris squeezed in right beside her. She took the wriggling puppy out from under her sweater, put him in the box and picked up another one. At least there was a blanket under them and they had their shared warmth, she thought. She put another one under her sweater.
“Whatcha got there?” someone asked.
She looked over her shoulder. The hunters from the bar had wandered over to the hearth, peering into the box. “Someone left a box of newborn puppies under the Christmas tree. They’re half-frozen.” She picked up two more, made sure they were moving and handed them over. “Here, put these two inside your shirt, warm ’em up, see if they come around.” She picked up two more, checked them and handed them to the other man. The men did exactly as she told them, and she stuffed one more under her sweater.
Then she picked up a puppy that went limp in her palm. “Uh-oh,” she muttered. She jostled him a little, but he didn’t move. She covered his tiny mouth and nose with her mouth and pushed a gentle breath into him. She massaged his little chest gently. Rubbed his extremities, breathed into him again and he curled up in her palm. “Better,” she murmured, stuffing him under her shirt.
“Did you just resuscitate that puppy?” one of the hunters asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “I did that to an orphaned kitten once and it worked, so what the heck, huh? Man, there are eight of these little guys,” she said. “Big litter. At least they have fur, but they are so young. Couple of weeks, I bet. And puppies are so vulnerable to the cold. They have to be kept warm.”
“Boppie!” David cried, trying to get his little hands into the box.
“Yup, you found a box full of boppies, David,” Annie said. She picked up the last puppy—the first one she’d warmed—and held it up to the hunters. “Can anyone fit one more in a warm place?”
One of the men took the puppy and put it under his arm. “You a vet or something?”
She laughed. “I’m a farm girl. I grew up not too far from here. Every once in a while we’d have a litter or a foal or a calf the mother couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of. Rare, but it happens. Usually you better not get between a mother and her babies, but sometimes…..Well, the first thing is body temperature, and at least these guys have some good fur. The next thing is food.” She stuck her hand into the box and felt the blanket they’d been snuggled on. “Hmm, it’s dry. No urine or scat—which is not so good. Besides being really cold, they’re probably starving by now. Maybe getting dehydrated. Puppies nurse a lot and they were obviously taken from the mother’s whelp box.”
Jack reappeared, Preacher close on his heels. Preacher was tall enough that he was looking over Jack’s shoulder into the empty box. “What’s up?” Preacher asked.
“Dad! David found a box full of puppies under the tree! They’re freezing cold! They could be dying!” Christopher informed him desperately.
“We’re warming ’em up,” Annie said, indicating her and the hunters’ lumpy shirts. “About half of them are wriggling and we’ll know about the other half in a little bit. Meanwhile, we need to get some fluids and nourishment into them. They shouldn’t be off the tit this young. Infant formula and cereal would be ideal, but we can make due with some warm milk and watered-down oatmeal.”
“Formula?” Jack asked. “I bet I can manage that. You remember my wife, Mel. She’s the midwife. She’ll have some infant formula on hand.”
“That’s perfect. And if she has a little rice cereal or baby oatmeal, better still.”
“Do we need bottles?” he asked.
“Nah,” Annie said. “A couple of shallow bowls will work. They’re young, but I bet they’re awful hungry. They’ll catch on real quick.”
“Whoa,” one of the hunters said. “Got me a wiggler!”
“Me, too!” the other one said.
“Keep ’em next to your body for a while,” Annie ordered. “At least until we get those warm towels in the box.”
Because of a box full of cold, hungry, barely moving puppies, Annie had all but forgotten the reason she’d ended up in Virgin River. It was three weeks till Christmas and her three older brothers, their wives and their kids would descend on her parents’ farm for the holiday. Today was one of her two days off a week from the beauty shop. Yesterday, Sunday, she’d baked with her mom all day and today she’d gotten up early to make a couple of big casseroles her mom could freeze for the holiday company. Today, she’d planned to cook with her mom, maybe take one of her two horses out for a ride and say hello to Erasmus, her blue-ribbon bull. Erasmus was very old now and every hello could be the last. Then she’d planned to stay for dinner with her folks, something she did at least once a week. Being the youngest and only unmarried one of the McKenzie kids and also the only one who lived nearby, the task of looking in on Mom and Dad fell to her.
But here she was, hearthside, managing a box of newborn puppies. Jack rustled up the formula and cereal and a couple of warm towels from the dryer. Preacher provided the shallow bowls and mixed up the formula. She and Chris fed a couple of puppies at a time, coaxing them to lap up the food. She requisitioned an eyedropper from the medical clinic across the street for the pups who didn’t catch on to lapping up dinner.
Jack put in a call to a fellow he knew who was a veterinarian, and it turned out Annie knew him, too. Old Doc Jensen had put in regular appearances out at the farm since before she was born. Back in her dad’s younger days, he’d kept a thriving but small dairy farm. Lots of cows, a few horses, dogs and cats, goats and one ornery old bull. Jensen was a large-animal vet, but he’d be able to at least check out these puppies.
Annie asked Jack to also give her mom a call and explain what was holding her up. Her mom would laugh, knowing her daughter so well. Nothing would pry Annie away from a box of needy newborn puppies.
As the dinner hour approached, she couldn’t help but notice that the puppies were drawing a crowd. People stopped by where she sat at the hearth, asked for the story, reached into the box to ruffle the soft fur or even pick up a puppy. Annie wasn’t sure so much handling was a good idea, but as long as she could keep the little kids, particularly David, from mishandling them, she felt she’d at least won the battle if not the war.
“This bar has needed mascots for a long time,” someone said.
“Eight of ’em. Donner, Prancer, Comet, Vixen, and…..whoever.”
“Which one is Comet?” Chris asked. “Dad? Can I have Comet?”