The Adventures of Sport:
The Spirit of the Season
Note: The Sport here is the original one, the one with attitude,
who appeared in the credits and was present on the series until the end of Season Three.
Christmas, Sport decided, was one of the more exasperating human puzzles. Not a conundrum, not anything fancy like that, where your pursuit of an answer only resulted in meeting yourself coming and going. It was just a question mark. What all this fuss at the end of the year meant to the two-legged race was plain old confusing.
Trying to figure it out was probably a waste of his time, but he wasn’t one to settle for ignorance. And, on Christmas Eve, there were plenty of hours to ponder it because nothing else was going on; it was silent in the barn, the lone disturbance the sound of the wind whistling in the cold night outside.
He put his mind to work. The only thing Christmas meant for horses was an extra day’s rest and a ration of hot mash—certainly nothing earth-shaking. Oh, yeah, and lumps of sugar; Chubb’d think he was crazy if he forgot the sugar. He preferred carrots himself, but they weren’t an option in December.
Somehow his thought must have strayed into the next stall, because Chubb roused out of a doze and muttered, “Wonder when they’re gonna bring tha mash?”
Across the aisle, Cochise nibbled at a flake of hay. “Prob’ly not till tomorrow morning. Don’t you figure they’re all in there entertainin’ the kid?”
That was likely, Sport agreed mentally. Hop Sing’s nephew had come out to help his uncle prepare Christmas dinner, but an unexpected snow had precluded his father’s coming to fetch him. It was the six-year-old’s first night away from home, and they all figured he was probably growing more nervous by the moment. Hoss and Joe for sure—and likely Mr. Cartwright and Adam too—would be turning themselves inside out to make sure young Hop Lee got a taste of candlelit trees and presents and singing and so on.
Which brought him back to the question of what it was all about. Hop Lee represented another aspect of the problem; humans didn’t all look at the season the same way. The Chinese didn’t celebrate Christmas, and come to think of it, Sport was pretty sure the Paiutes didn’t either. He’d never seen too many of the people who came in various shades of chocolate, but now he wondered how they felt about December twenty-fifth.
On the whole, he couldn’t help wondering what Adam thought of it all. The Boss had fun like everyone else, and he really got into the singing, but certainly he didn’t swallow the whole mismatched bunch of ideas without a question or two …
“Prob’ly even found a stockin’ for ’im,” Chubb was speculating. Because Buck’s eyes were closed, he kept his voice down, but a sweet pleasure hummed in his words. “Filled it with nuts ’n’ stuff, maybe even that lil’ penknife Hoss bought th’ other day an’ then reckoned was too pretty ta use.”
Sport fought a grin. If Chubb had been a human, he’d have been St. Nicholas.
“’Twas the night before Christmas,” his friend couldn’t resist reciting, forgetting to whisper.
Cochise winked, glanced furtively at the buckskin in the next stall, and continued, “And all through the house …”
“It is late, young man!” Buck’s deep bass resonated with displeasure. “I’m trying to sleep, and it would be a good idea if you did too.”
They all rolled their eyes, but Sport did his part and contributed, “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
“What else is new?” growled the big calico cat curled up on Buck’s rump. He was about as sociable as his host. “Not a rodent alive in that house. I made sure o’ that. Now shut up.”
“Yeah, Mouser, we all know y’er good at yer job,” Chubb placated him hastily. “Where’d them words come from, Sport? I cain’t remember when we didn’ all know ’em. Was it somethin’ Adam wrote?”
“Huh-uh. Someone named Clement Clark Moore. No doubt inspired by the Great Equine In The Sky, as it has a certain amount of panache.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a lot better’n that story with the ghosts.”
“A Christmas Carol,” Sport nodded. “Dickens. Depressing, if you ask me.”
Cochise snickered. “It’s a sure bet Adam didn’t write that one. It’s the one with the kid who can’t do anything wrong.”
Buck abandoned the notion of sleep and cleared his throat. “Are you implying that Dickens patterned Tiny Tim on Little Joe?”
“Well, you know … Tiny Tim … Little Joe. … You gotta admit—”
Sport snorted. “If Charles Dickens said ‘poor Tiny Tim’ once in that yarn, he said it a dozen times. Joe Cartwright’s never been poor in his life—well, except for maybe on Saturday nights after a bad run of luck, but I don’t think that’s what Dickens had in mind.”
“Dickens meant sickly and likely to die soon,” Buck informed him.
“Well, that either. Joe’ll still be shot from a gun long after we’re through the rainbow.”
“Or wherever the Great Equine sends you.”
Sport chose to hear only the wry amusement in Buck’s voice.
Just then the big plank door of the barn wavered open, propelled solely by a small Chinese boy in an overcoat. Allowing the child to do his part, Hoss followed behind, a bucket in each hand. The smell of warm mash floated on the air as he stopped to light a kerosene lantern.
“Bet you fellers thought we’d fergot about ya,” he said jovially. “Hop Lee, you go op’n the door on that buckskin-there’s stall.”
No one thought
it strange that Buck should be served first. Only Hop Lee looked unsure, as he
stopped short and gazed up into the big gelding’s face. Buck’s no pony, Sport thought sympathetically. Probably looks like a Trojan statue to that little kid. First all this Christmas folderol, and now a horse the size of
“Just give ’im a nice rub on the face,” Hoss directed, “’n’ Mouser, you behave yerself. This lil’ shaver’s our guest fer tonight.” He wedged past the boy to scoop steaming mash into the buckskin’s feed tub and then reached over the partition to do the same for the pinto.
“You guys be friendly ta Hop Lee here,” he continued conversationally. “He ain’t had much experience with critters like you, so ya don’ wanta go an’ scare ’im none. … He’s stuck out here, cain’t go home ta his ma an’ pa till tomorrah, an’ he don’t know nothin’ ’bout Christmas. I told ’im it’s tha nicest night o’ the year, but it’s up ta us ta show ’im how it is.”
Show me while you’re at it, Sport thought. He liked to make more progress with his puzzles.
“We done had a nice big dinner, and we sang some Christmas carols—” The sound of a child’s infectious giggle broke off Hoss’ comment, and the big man chuckled. “Okay, maybe I don’t sing so good—”
“You sing loud,” Hop Lee offered.
“Well, somebody’s got to, ya know? Some folks like you don’t hardly squeak out a note.”
The boy grinned and went back to patting Buck’s face.
“But ya like these horses, don’t ya?”
“Yes, Mis-tah Hoss.”
“An’ they like you too, Hop Lee. Ya gotta remember you got all kinds o’ friends out here.”
At that moment, amazingly, Mouser dropped from Buck’s back and strolled over to Hop Lee, closing his eyes to thrust his head against the boy’s legs. Sport caught Chubb’s gaze in surprise; Mouser approached almost no one, but tonight you could hear his loud purr.
Hoss noticed too. “Hey, Hop Lee, looks like ya found yerself another friend—an’ that one’s mighty partic’lar.”
The boy dropped to Mouser’s level and stroked the cat’s head. “Like my dog.”
Sport choked painfully and coughed to clear his breathing. Mouser could turn deadly at the thought of being compared to a dog, but the cat must have understood the child’s intentions, because no mayhem resulted.
“Okay, lil’ buddy, looks like we’re finished here—and somethin’ tells me there’s a present under the tree fer ya, so we’d better get on back. Anybody tell ya we got a Ponderosa tradition? Always open one present on Christmas Eve.”
“I don’ undehstan’, Mis-tah Hoss, but what you tell me to do, I do.”
“Well, now, Hop Lee, there ain’t nothin’ hard ta understand about presents.” Hoss blew out the lantern. A moment later, the barn door closed behind them.
“Presents …” Cochise mumbled, his mouth full of mash. “They make me tired. If it hadn’t been for the snow, Joe’d have been all over the countryside, delivering presents. I hate to even think about when the roads clear.”
Everyone had a good laugh at that, even if they didn’t envy the extra miles Cochise would be putting in. Apparently Joe Cartwright’s list of lady friends hadn’t gotten any shorter this year.
“I cain’t figure what I’d even want if I wuz a human,” Chubb reflected. “Sugar, I reckon, an’ I got that.”
“Horses don’t need gifts,” Buck said.
“Just clutter,” Sport agreed. “Who wants it?”
“Aw, now, Sport, y’er jus’ bein’ silly,” Chubb snickered. “You know fer sure you’d be happy as a pig in—well, you know—if Adam’d give ya a bottle o’ that champagne ya like.”
Sport grunted. In fact, he’d mentioned that to the Boss a few times, and he didn’t like admitting that smart as Adam was, he wasn’t any better at understanding the equine language than any other human. “I’m not gonna hold my breath,” he replied. “Still don’t know why this time of the year should be any different from any other.”
Buck finally raised his head from his feed tub. “Strictly speaking, it isn’t about the presents and the food,” he said. “The actual celebration is of the birth of the human god Jesus, the one who came to earth in a stable.”
“That showed good taste,” Sport wisecracked. In present company, he didn’t need to add that being born in a barn wasn’t any great achievement.
Cochise glanced up with interest. “A stable, huh? The Great Equine must have been involved.”
“Quite possibly,” the buckskin assented.
“How come folks don’ have enuff sense to know ’bout the Great Equine?” Chubb inquired. “Sure would make things easier.”
No one could answer that, but Sport figured it was worth advancing an opinion. “Maybe they do, in their own way. Just last Sunday, I heard Adam talking to the reverend about human gods and the Paiutes and whoever they pray to. Adam said he thought people probably see their god in whatever form they can understand. Or admire or something.”
Chubb’s eyes reflected his concentration. “What’s zat mean?”
“I think it means he sees the Great Equine with two legs,” Sport replied judiciously. Which raised an interesting question: If the humans saw the Great Equine with two legs, was it still the Great Equine? Talk about a conundrum. He had to find a way to get Adam to consider that one.
Cochise couldn’t stifle a high-pitched whinny. “Something they can understand and admire? Then Joe’s god probably has long pretty hair and wears dresses!”
“Boys!” Buck’s admonition silenced them immediately. “I think the Great Equine would demand respect for all gods. It’s not the fault of human beings that they don’t correctly understand the—uh—the organization of the universe.”
“How come the Great Equine don’t demand no big party fer his birthday?” Chubb asked.
Buck raised his head imperially. “I don’t think he needs a celebration. Jesus probably doesn’t either, but the Great Equine can count on us to remember his principles. It’s my opinion that humans need reminding at least once a year of how they’re supposed to live.”
“Okay, so let’s get this straight,” Sport said. His frustration was building. “The humans are still trying to figure out how they’re supposed to be, and for some reason, they think it’ll help if they celebrate the birth of this god in a stable”—he flung his tail impatiently—“which means they go out and get strange stuff probably half of ’em don’t want, wrap it all up and hand it out to each other. And until they pass it around, it lives under a tree that’s been killed and dragged into the house for nothing more than that. Furthermore, they light up the tree with candles, which any moron can see is a fire hazard! They eat a lot, and they sing, and in amongst all this, they somehow mix up ghosts and sick little boys and heaven knows what else. You might say the stuff about Comet and Blitzen and Prancer is kind of fun, but I ask you—have any of you ever seen a reindeer around here, let alone a fat saint?”
Chubb eyed him apprehensively. “What’s got inta you, Sport? Y’er turnin’ inta some kind o’ Scrooge er somethin’.”
“Bah, humbug!” Cochise sniffed helpfully.
“It’s just Christmas,” Sport snapped, and then catching the look on Chubb’s face, he added lamely, “It gets aggravating.”
Cochise giggled. “This is what comes of too much thinking.”
Sport sighed; there was a chance Cochise was right. All of the sudden, the mash didn’t taste as good as it had. “I’m going for a walk.”
He arched his neck over his stall door, lipped up its rope fastener between his teeth and tugged skillfully. In a moment, the big gate drifted outward and he followed it. No one said anything as he pushed open the barn door, strode through it and closed it behind him.
Outside, Sport stood still, filling his lungs with the clean, chilly air and trying to order his thoughts. It was beautiful—dark and silent and majestic in a way that could happen only in nature. Nothing going on inside the big log house could compare to this, he reflected, as the tranquility began to edge out his irritation. The snow was still coming down, landing gently on his chestnut coat and mostly melting in the heat of his body. It gathered on his mane, though, and he enjoyed shaking his head, sending it flying around his eyes. He did it again, wishing his forelock were longer; it was like little butterfly-strokes when it flicked across his face.
If you’re going to celebrate something, he thought, celebrate this. Celebrate being alive in the world, strong and healthy, on a night so pretty that it makes your heart stop.
Across the yard, he could see the yellow glow of the window over Mr. Cartwright’s office, and curious about what was going on inside, he moved toward it, keeping to the shadows along the wing of the house. The snow was powdery and crunched beneath his feet, but it paid to watch out for icy patches, and he was only as far as the big pine tree when he realized that he wasn’t alone. Adam stood on the front porch near the planter, gazing out at the hazy landscape, a cup of coffee in his hand sending off tendrils of steam.
Perfect, Sport thought. Maybe the Boss can explain some of what’s going on here. It was a cinch that Adam would have given some thought to the meaning of Christmas; Adam thought about the meaning of pretty much everything, if he had nothing better to do. And even if there were no great revelations, it would be pleasant to stand around in the night with his human, just kind of getting along without all the answers.
But before he could move closer, he heard the front door open and close, and Ben Cartwright appeared. He too wore a coat and carried a cup of hot liquid—had to be coffee, Sport figured, but he caught a whiff of brandy too.
“I thought I’d find you here,” the Boss’ father was saying.
“Thought I’d let dinner settle; Hop Sing outdid himself,” Adam replied, and chuckled. “It helps if you go into training for a Ponderosa Christmas.”
Mr. Cartwright smiled his agreement and stared out into the yard, where the mist of white had softened the familiar shapes and the dark forest beyond. “It’s not too bad out tonight—not as cold as you’d expect,” he said, his voice hushed. “Night like this … makes you think the whole earth’s at rest. You can almost feel the miracle that began it all.”
“The whole earth slowing down for a night,” Adam mused. “I’d say that’s a miracle.”
Ben looked faintly annoyed for a moment, and then changed to an expression that all the horses, particularly Sport, knew well: the one which said ‘You’re marching to that different drummer again, but I’ve learned not to let it bother me.’
twinkled lazily. “It’s all in the perception of miracles,
“You used to worry the daylights out of me when your brothers were young,” Ben retorted.
“Because you were afraid I’d say the wrong thing and ruin Christmas for them?”
“It was rather obvious that you weren’t very sure about Mary giving birth in a stable.”
Adam shrugged. “I’m not against religion. I’ve just never been able to see why we should get all worked up about where or when a man—or a god—was born. It doesn’t really make a difference.”
Sport nodded to himself. As much mortal coming and going as Adam had seen, he’d probably figured out early on that the special folks were important for more than just their time on earth. It was understandable that he’d think it was the same for a god.
Adam took a sip of his coffee. “But I wouldn’t have spoiled Christmas for Hoss or Joe. Surely you knew that.”
Ben nodded and his voice was reflective. “Yes … yes, after a year or two, I realized that. Marie did too, and we quit worrying. But it was inside you, son—we knew there were so many questions, and sometimes you just couldn’t help asking them.”
They fell silent for a minute, father and son simply taking in the night, and then Ben set down his cup and said, “One thing you can’t deny about Christmas, and that’s the look on a child’s face when he sees a Christmas tree or sings a carol.”
“Like Hop Lee tonight,” Adam smiled. “He seemed pretty impressed with it all.”
“Not so much impressed,” Ben objected. “Don’t you think, more—enchanted? It’s too bad we didn’t know he’d be here. Hoss could have worked up a St. Nicholas costume—”
“Pa,” Adam cut
in, not without humor, “you’re gonna have a big
enough job explaining all of this to his parents. He’ll be the only boy in
“I know, I know.” Ben waved a hand. “I’ll speak to Hop Ling. But it really was just what he needed. Hop Sing took him up to bed a few minutes ago, and you could tell he was getting a little shaky—lonely, I suppose, understandable the first time away from home and with no preparation. Anyway, I think we helped.”
“Yeah.” Adam was thoughtful. Around them, the only sound was the slow rustle of the wind in the trees. Neither spoke, but Sport had a feeling that neither had forgotten what had started their discussion.
“It’s not the actual birth of a man—or a god—that’s important, you know,” Ben finally said quietly.
“It’s who he was, what he started,” Adam responded, his voice low, automatic. “Yeah. And that we live by it.”
Ben nodded. “M’m-h’m.” A gleam of amusement rose in his eyes. “But there’s no shame in enjoying a celebration.”
“Thank God—at least, in this family,” Adam replied dryly.
A full-blown grin lit Ben’s face, and he clapped his son on the shoulder. “Don’t stay out too late.” He was halfway across the porch before Adam’s voice stopped him.
“Pa … was that my answer or yours?”
“The part about it being more than just a child in a manger that’s so important?” Ben gazed at his son for a long moment. “Yours, son. You came to that on your own. If you don’t remember telling me, it was the year Marie died … on a night very much like this one.”
Adam nodded, his eyes returning to the dark yard.
“It so happens that I agree with you,” Ben continued softly, drawing his son’s gaze back with his words. “But you know I’ve never felt it was wrong to believe in more.”
Adam nodded again.
“I’ve also never doubted your beliefs, son. Too many times—when we were alone, and then when Hoss’ mother—your mother—died, it was your faith that got me through.”
“I was a kid.”
“And at the time, you had the simple faith of a child.”
“Boys grow up.”
“Yes, little boys do—but I know my son.” Ben breathed in deeply, gathering a great sigh, but Sport could tell that he wasn’t sad. “Adam, it was the good Lord who gave you the mind and the spirit that drives you, and as far as I can tell, you’ve used them to find your own relationship with Him. I don’t argue with that.” For a moment, his warm gaze spoke even more eloquently. Then he turned to the door. “Good night, son.”
There wasn’t going to be a better time, Sport reckoned. Maybe he could get Adam to discourse a little on what had been said. He hadn’t gotten much beyond the big pine tree when his human looked up and saw him.
“What’re you doing out here?” the Boss asked. Sport ambled forward more quickly to save Adam’s getting off the porch. The snow in the yard was deeper than it looked.
Solving the problems of the world, Boss, he answered with a little whicker. Trying to figure out this Christmas stuff. Good to know you have your reservations too.
Adam ran an affectionate hand over Sport’s face. “Solving the problems of the world, old man?”
Sport nearly fell over; never, not once, ever, had the Boss understood him so perfectly. It had to be a mistake. Either that or Christmas really did sprout miracles. Yeah, Boss. I’m just curious about all this Christmas stuff. Doesn’t make sense why anybody would need anything more than what we’ve got right now.
“Pretty night, isn’t it, fellow?” Adam scratched gently behind Sport’s ears. “Hard to figure why you need any other reason to celebrate when you can look around and see a night like this.”
Sport snuffled to cover his surprise; he and the Boss read each other pretty well for two beings who had to sense what the other was thinking, but this was different. This was like holding a real conversation. Well, I think so too, but I’d still like to know what Tiny Tim has to do with Jesus. And a few other things too.
Adam chuckled. “Yeah, I know, but you’re too smart to get all worked up over Christmas. Just enjoy your warm mash and don’t worry about the rest of it.”
Sport nudged him hard on the chest.
“Okay, so it’s tempting to try to figure it out.” Adam started to sip the last of his coffee, found it cold and tossed it out into the snow. At the same time, his glance fell upon a wooden box, pushed up against the wall, out of the snowfall.
over curiously, and his heart began to pound; this night was getting more
amazing by the second. Branded into the side of the box were the words LOUIS ROEDERER,
“Hop Sing appears to be chilling the wine for dinner tomorrow,” Adam remarked, and then a glint of comprehension showed on his face.
Boss, Sport implored with his eyes. Merry Christmas, Boss.
“Well,” Adam sighed, a little smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “If you insist on discussing philosophy—or, God forbid, religion—I refuse to do it cold sober.” He lifted the loose panel on top of the box, pulled out one of the heavy, dark bottles and tore away the coppery-gold foil at its crown.
Before Sport’s rapt gaze, the fat cork gave way and a little stream of vapor escaped upward in the frosty air. He nearly swooned—and his knees almost gave way entirely when he saw Adam swishing snow through both his cup and the one Ben had left on the table. His human poured two hefty portions of the fizzy liquid and held one out.
“Merry Christmas, boy. If I’m not mistaken, this is a favorite of yours.” Adam’s brows lifted sardonically. “Or at least, it certainly seemed like it back at Colleen Meriweather’s … and I’m not sure it didn’t have something to do with that night you dragged me into the pond, but I’m still working on that one.”
Boss, I underestimated your powers of observation, Sport thought, and considered asking why, if Adam knew so much, his human had failed to provide him with the libation earlier. But then again, it wasn’t smart to look a gift human in the mouth; he should just be glad for special occasions. Making it a habit could come later. He funneled his tongue and sucked up a healthy shot of champagne, delighting in the spiky-cold trail it left as it fled down his throat.
He snorted again, this time with appreciation, and ran his muzzle gratefully up Adam’s arm. Christmas was getting better all the time.
“Sport, look …” Adam’s voice was patient as he refilled Sport’s cup and set it on the table. “If you’re gonna drink this, you have to have a little restraint. You don’t just gulp down fine champagne.”
Sport eyed him. To date, he’d found no fault with his method of inhaling the stuff, but he was open to suggestions. He sipped a little more carefully. Damn. The flavor was even more nuanced than it had been before. It was a perfect example of why he usually listened to the Boss; this way he could get farther on less, which seemed like a good idea, as it was rare that he ran across unlimited champagne.
He was busily licking the last hint of taste from the china cup when he felt Adam’s attention shift elsewhere. “Good heavens, even a floorshow,” the Boss murmured, and Sport looked up to follow his gaze.
Across the clearing, the kitchen door swung open, and an oblong of translucent gold gleamed against the snow as Hoss Cartwright emerged. That, in itself, would not have been remarkable, but he crouched over, stepping daintily as if to avoid the slightest crunch of snow. They were entranced. The footing was uncertain, Sport recognized, but the overall impression was that Hoss didn’t want to be seen or heard.
Not easy for a guy his size, he rumbled softly.
“About like an elephant at the ballet,” Adam agreed in an undertone, and refilled Sport’s cup.
Sport was glad he didn’t have his tongue in the champagne; it would have been a shame to waste it. Adam’s voice was warm with affection, but he couldn’t stifle the humor.
“Now, don’t hold your breath,” the Boss continued languidly, “but our younger brother will be along any time now.”
Sure enough, Hoss was no more than a dozen feet from the door when Joe crept out as well. It was a good thing, Sport reckoned, that the brothers were faced toward the barn and so intent on whatever they were doing that they didn’t notice any movement in the darkness on the far side of the porch.
Adam stepped down into the snow to lean against Sport’s shoulder, settling in comfortably for the performance.
“Gotta be ’round here sumwhere, Joe,” Hoss was saying.
Sport flicked an ear at his human.
“Unless I miss my guess, they’re looking for Mouser,” the Boss said, barely above a whisper. “Pa said Hop Lee was a little lonely when he went up to bed.” He arched an eyebrow at the chestnut gelding. “Do you really think Hoss and Joe are going to let him lie there like a lost puppy? Or, ah, as the case may be … a lost kitten?”
Sport dipped his head to indicate that he understood the situation. But the idea of Mouser being of any use boggled the mind. Humans could be cockeyed dreamers.
“Sort of qualifies as a rock and hard place, don’t you think?” Adam went on. “My brothers versus Mouser?”
The chestnut gelding essayed a prim sip of champagne and checked to make sure Adam noticed his manners, but the Boss was still intent on the snow-covered yard.
“Well, I’ll be …” he breathed.
Sport strangled a whistle of surprise. Sure enough, there was Mouser, strolling the top rail of the corral like a trapeze artist on a high wire.
“Two pounds of
carrots all the way from
Sport shook his head. Two pounds, six pounds; wasn’t any way he was taking that bet.
Hoss caught Joe’s shoulder. “Joe! Joe, look-a there … over on th’ fence.”
“Ssh! Don’t scare ’im …”
The whisper carrying across the yard announced Hoss’ incredulity. “Scare Mouser? What-chu been drinkin’?”
“Nothin’—now just be quiet and go around that way. I’ll go this way. Whichever way he goes, one of us’ll have him.”
“You have to understand,” Adam lectured casually to Sport, “that every great military commander who’s tried a pincer movement such as my brothers are attempting—every one from, oh, say, the ancient Greeks to Wellington at Waterloo—has realized that you have to control where your adversary is going to go. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears to me that Mouser has quite a few choices here.”
Sport squinted toward the corral, noting with satisfaction that the snow had diminished and it was easier to see. The holiday moon cast the rails into high relief against the white background, and Mouser’s orange and black spots stood out like a target. Other options? The gelding counted six at least. He mumbled his agreement to Adam and slurped up a discreet dose of champagne.
“Try callin’ him,” Joe instructed hoarsely.
“Callin’ ’im? Why’d I wanta do that? He’ll jus’ run.”
“Right—and when he jumps off away from you, I’ll grab him.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Even across the yard, they could see Hoss’ face screw up. “Here, Mouser!” he called tentatively in an alarming falsetto. “Kitty, kitty, kitty!”
Sport lost his breath and hiccupped a snort that got by only because he drowned out Adam’s gurgling choke. Fortunately for them both, Hoss and Joe were too involved in their mission to hear the unusual sounds from the general direction of the house.
Mouser viewed Hoss’ approach with disdain, but he didn’t move.
“Joe, he’s even purrin’. I can hear ’im.”
You’re in trouble, Sport thought. He whickered a low warning to Adam.
“Goin’ better than I’d a-thought,” Joe agreed. “Careful … easy now … you may even be able to walk right up to him.”
“Looks that way.” Hoss came closer. Mouser flipped his tail. “Hey, there, ol’ boy … now, you just stay easy … you know lil’ ol’ Hop Lee could use some comp’ny tonight …” He reached out.
decided, might well have been there at
“Oomph!” Hoss rocked backward, gasped for breath and keeled over flat on his back in a cloud of snow.
“Catch him!” Joe screeched.
But Mouser, sending up sprays of white, dodged across the yard as if the dogs of hell were after him.
“How the heck’m I s’pposed ta do that?” Hoss wheezed. “Y’er the one with two feet under ya—you catch ’im!”
Joe scrambled wildly, but he was no match for a cat with purpose, and Mouser was intent on the top of the log pile next to the kitchen. After an athletic display that resembled a windmill on ice, Joe landed hard next to Hoss.
Adam’s droll voice sounded low in his ear. “We haven’t had this much fun since Hoss discovered the Leprechauns.” He stepped back to the porch, careful to make no noise, and extracted another bottle from the wooden box. Sport nuzzled his thanks as Adam refilled his cup. Then the Boss returned to his post, leaning up against Sport’s shoulder, and they both focused on the little tableau now unfolding near the kitchen door.
“Now, dang it, Mouser, ya gotta have a heart,” Hoss was telling the cat as he inched closer to the woodpile. The back of his brown coat was solid white and his ten-gallon hat stood out like a beacon against the dim trees behind him. “We got a real nice lil’ boy upstairs—you know ’im, ya met ’im, and it’d be real kind if you’d just think o’ sumbuddy other’n yerself tonight.”
“Yeah, an’ we’d even make it worth your while,” Joe added practically, warily approaching from another angle. He moved stiffly; his pants were icing up from the fall in the snow.
Mouser surveyed them both indifferently.
“Honest to God, Hoss, if Hop Lee weren’t such a cute kid, I’d think we had rocks in our head,” Joe muttered. The chilly discomfort of his clothes was dampening his enthusiasm. “I can just imagine what Adam’d say if he saw us out here crawling around like a couple of idiots.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes Adam don’t know when he’s missin’ a good time. You jus’ remember what a nice kid Hop Lee is, brother, ’cause I ain’t givin’ up.”
“I’m not sayin’ we quit—well, not yet anyhow. I mean, we’ve given it one good try already, and I wouldn’t wanta think that was a waste o’ time. But you know, worst comes to worst, Hop Lee isn’t a coward. He knows he’s safe.”
“I won’t argue with ya there,” Hoss conceded, “but safe’s a long way from happy.”
“All right, so … one more try.” Joe slapped at his pants and glanced at the stack of logs appraisingly. “Look—there’s only one real escape from the top o’ that pile if Mouser doesn’t want to jump up on the roof. My guess is he’ll head right over us, back to the barn. So you come from that direction”—he waved to indicate his plan—“and I’ll come this way. If we have to grab at him, you reach high and I’ll reach low. That way, whichever way he goes, we’ll have him.”
“That’s what ya said tha last time.”
“Yeah, well, maybe we just needed a little practice. I don’t see you coming up with any big ideas.”
“Gotta point there …”
“A nice piece of chicken from dinner might have worked wonders,” Adam murmured to Sport, and the big gelding nodded.
Across the clearing, Hoss and Joe leapt at the cat. They leapt well—straight, true, high and long. And crashed straight into each other before descending spectacularly into the snow, narrowly missing painful contact with the woodpile. Neither was paying much attention as Mouser soared overhead on his way to the roof.
“Hoss?” Joe’s groan issued from a series of gentle white slopes that looked like a miniature mountain range. “That does it.”
Hoss sat up, swiping his wet face with his hand. Impossibly, his hat still sat squarely on his head, but his wool coat was now a startling white all over. He brushed snow from his cheeks and eyelashes. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Hop Lee’s a real nice kid, but he’s just gonna have to get through the night on his own.”
“Ain’t nothin’ we can do about it.” Hoss’ dissatisfaction was evident in his tone, but a note of resignation was there too. “I’d go after ’im agin, Joe, but you know Mouser. Ain’t no way we’re gonna get him, now that he’s sure we’re after ’im. And I’m sa cold ’n’ wet, it might not be too safe if I got my hands on that bag o’ bones ’n’ fur anyhow, what I might do to ’im.”
Joe giggled. “Yeah, brother, I’m sure Mouser’s real afraid.”
“Joe, I’m warnin’ ya—I ain’t crazy about givin’ up in the first place, and you—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Joe got to his feet first and reached down to help his brother. He rubbed his cheek gingerly.
“What’s a-matter?” Hoss asked worriedly. “I hit ya goin’ down?”
“You didn’t mean to.”
“Nah, but it looks like I got ya a good one, Joe. Y’er like ta have a shiner by mornin’.”
Joe’s eyes glimmered. “Y’know, brother, I prob’ly had it comin’. Only a fool’d go chasin’ around after a barn cat in the middle of the night!”
Hoss finally chuckled. “Well, I reckon it was worth it. I just wish we’d got him fer Hop Lee.” He shook his head. “Strangest thing. I ain’t never seen Mouser go up ta nobody like he did Hop Lee. It was real—aw, you know—kinda sweet ta see.”
Joe was serious for a moment. “I wish we coulda got ’im too, Hoss. You know Mouser—if we coulda got it through his head that he’d be spendin’ the night in a nice warm bed, he’d-a moved in like he owned the place. Hop Lee wouldn’t’ve had a chance to be lonely.” With a sigh, he slapped Hoss’ shoulder. “Let’s get back inside. I don’t know about you, but I could use something hot. Chocolate, maybe, or a shot of Pa’s brandy …”
The kitchen door closed behind them and the yard fell silent.
“That,” Adam observed, “was priceless.”
Sport curled his neck around to nibble at the Boss’ cuff before returning his attention to his cup of champagne. It had turned into quite an enjoyable evening, he reflected. A nice time with the Boss, real nice with the champagne … a little deep thought, a little comedy … and a whole lot of beauty. The snow had stopped and the bright sheen of the moon seemed to glow off of everything.
“Well, that saved us from having to discuss what Christmas is all about,” Adam remarked, massaging behind Sport’s ears.
Oh? The chestnut gelding regarded his human curiously. How d’you figure that?
Adam’s eyes gleamed. “In case you didn’t realize it, you old heathen, what you just saw pretty much summed up the lot of it. Even the ghosts and the reindeer.”
If Sport had had eyebrows, he would have raised them. He nickered his confusion, but realized suddenly that he wasn’t quite as concerned about it as he had been. Maybe it was the champagne, or more likely it was the pleasant evening with the Boss, but nothing seemed quite as urgent as it had before. Christmas being an annual event, perhaps it would not be considered a failure to leave the puzzle’s actual solution until next year.
“Yeah,” Adam replied, sliding his hand along Sport’s neck to scrape deliberately at the gelding’s withers.
Sport lost control, stretched his neck and curled his upper lip in response to the mesmerizing stimulation. Little shivers and warmth and peace and excitement all coursed through his body at once. Withers-scratching ranked right up there with champagne in terms of treats.
“It’s called good will,” the Boss went on. He quit scratching to refill Sport’s cup, and the gelding was able to order his mind enough to follow the line of thought. His attention must have been apparent, because after a bit, Adam continued, “Imagine this night two thousand years ago, and picture angels reassuring shepherds in the fields with their flocks.”
That took quite a bit of imagination, as Sport knew little or nothing about sheep—except that cattle folks hated them—but he did his best.
For a moment, Adam’s voice turned mellow with his thoughts. “Nice image, isn’t it? Divine assurance for some poor fellows out in the country with their herds, starting to get scared over something they couldn’t understand.” He paused and then went on briskly, “Y’see, it was that star in the heavens, which was quite a bit brighter than anything anyone had ever seen before, that upset the shepherds …” And then he stopped again and muttered ruefully, “And this explanation could be as long as the Old Testament. … All right, the best abridged version is a hymn. Consider it a poem, because I’m not gonna stand here and sing to you at this time of night.”
The Boss squared his shoulders and breathed deeply from his diaphragm; he might not sing, Sport thought, but he wasn’t one to pass up an opportunity for declamation. “‘Forthwith appeared a shining throng of angels praising God, who thus addressed their joyful song …” Although subdued, Adam’s rich baritone wrapped around the words like a warm blanket, and Sport felt a strange calm washing over him, rather like how he’d felt when he’d just stepped out of the barn. “‘All glory be to God on high and on the earth be peace; good will henceforth from heav’n to men begin and never cease.’
“Good will,” he repeated. He ran his fingers through Sport’s forelock. “And you have to admit that very few people have more good will than my brothers.”
Sport butted Adam’s chest gently. You too, Boss. It runs in the family.
“And so … for inquiring fellows like you, that’s what the child in the stable, the reindeer and the ghost story all have in common. Simple, huh?”
Sport gazed at him solemnly. Nothing was simple with Adam Cartwright, and he suspected nothing very much was simple about Christmas either. But then, it was kind of nice that apparently this whole Christmas thing could be simple if you wanted it to be. Simple like the plumes of white snow on the tall pines around the house, and the clean taste of the champagne, and the steady, even touch of the Boss’ hand on his neck.
“Come on, boy. Time to get you back in the barn—and time for me to hit the hay.” Adam slipped his hand under the gelding’s chin and gently turned him away from the house.
Sport followed quietly. He was still mulling over the thoughts of shepherds and angels and Cartwrights when the Boss stopped so suddenly that they nearly had a collision right there in the yard.
“I don’t believe it.” Adam’s voice was barely audible—except for the little squeak that indicated he was really surprised—but Sport caught it, and he followed his human’s gaze to the roof.
In the unmarked expanse of white on the slope above the first floor, Mouser was picking his way carefully toward the window, shaking snow from his paws with each step. When he was just below the sill, he rose on his hind legs and slapped hard against the glass pane. Nothing happened.
“Miaow,” Mouser called and rose again, pawing roughly at the unyielding panel. But the clearing remained silent.
Adam and Sport stood like statues, watching as the cat rose a third time on his hind legs and called plaintively, “Miaow.”
And then they heard the scratchy sound of a rising window and saw a small boy’s face, his straight black hair disheveled. And finally, the last flick of Mouser’s tail as the tomcat bounded into the room and the boy closed the window behind him.
“‘And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing,’” Adam quoted softly. Then he stroked Sport’s shoulder and they resumed their walk to the barn.
It was dark inside when they got there. Everyone was dozing; only Chubb roused a little when Adam lit the lantern. The chestnut gelding walked obediently to his stall. He was getting a little sleepy and the prospect of a nice long snooze was appealing.
“All right, old boy, it’s been fun,” Adam murmured.
Sport shook his head and felt the little wispy strokes of his forelock. Wish it didn’t have to end, Boss. He wasn’t sure if the Boss even realized what was happening between them. Sometimes, looking into Adam’s eyes, he was certain his human knew they were speaking the same language, and other times, Sport was pretty sure it was just coincidence. And on top of it all, he hadn’t any idea if they were speaking English or Equine. What a damn puzzle, he thought, and snuffled his concern. With Christmas as special as it was, it was likely that their magical communication was just for tonight—a gift, like all those wrapped-up presents the humans handed out. Or a little miracle.
A low-pitched whuff from the next stall reminded them that Chubb was awake, and Sport realized that he had something left to do before the night ended.
“I’m sorry I was short with you.”
There was a pause as Chubb moved closer to the stall partition, and then his muzzle appeared between the planks. “Don’t think about it. I know how ya git when ya’ve got yer mind fixed on somethin’ and it ain’t comin’ sa easy.”
Sport was touched. “Thanks, old friend.”
“Didja get it all figured out?”
“Most of it. But I left a few questions for next year.” Sport pushed his head gently against Adam.
The Boss scratched him again behind the ears, ran a hand down his face, and even reached out to tickle Chubb’s lip. “All right, boys,” he said. He slipped through Sport’s door and turned out the lantern. “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
© December 2003 as allowed