She watched the dim light from the lamp glowing in his tawny hair and thought, as she often did, that he was quietly handsome, sturdy and reliable. When he’d shown up that day, she had been glad for the comfort of his company. She sighed, sad that after all that had gone on, Saint and Bender simply could not just hang up their grievances and be friends. Because sooner or later, the two of them would part ways and Bender would take Swagman and there was no telling when she’d see him again. She wondered if she ever would.
And the thought of never seeing Swagman again was nearly too much for Jersey to bear.
barn was dark, dimly lit by the lamp Bender had left. He’d be back. He
never left the lantern burning all night. He’d be back later to check
the gash in Mercury’s flank, and to reapply some soothing salve.
winter air was icy and smelled of snow. She was glad to have been
tucked warmly into her blanket. She had already decided she would stay
awake tonight. She knew tonight was the night of the Gift. And she didn’t
want to fall asleep and miss it. Especially since Swagman happened to
be visiting here in the barn on Christmas Eve, as Bender was staying
here for a few days.
raised her head, looking over the wall into Swagman’s stall and huffed
softly, her breath ruffling his forelock. He raised his head, and she
saw his vision clear, the sleep in his brown eyes withdraw. Shaking her
head, she whickered quietly. Wake up, wake up. Sleep later. Remember the Gift.
Bonnet’s pale, ghostly eyes peered over the top of the opposite wall,
his black ears flicking expectantly over his long, white face. It’s tonight? Tonight? It’s coming. I feel it. He stamped his feet impatiently.
could feel it, too. Something in the air, crackling like ice breaking
deep below the surface of a frozen pond. Something shifting. She
the big coach horse moved heavily in his stall on the other side of the
barn, his big feet scraping on the packed earth. What’s the fuss, tribe? He snuffled, sleepy in his blanket. Too noisy. Sleep.
The Gift. The Gift is tonight. War Bonnet whinnied, giving his stall a light knock with his foot. Soon, soon. Can’t you feel it? Wake now. Sleep later.
opened her mouth, trying her tongue. It felt thick, clumsy against her
teeth. She uttered a soft, broken sigh, and suddenly the mystery came
over her. She tried again, her mouth full of air and fluttering sound.
She said, thrilling with the sound of her voice, the sudden dexterity
of her tongue. “The Gift is here.” So much to say, so little time. Of
course, Jersey could communicate with the other horses, as horses do.
They talked among themselves all the time. But on this night, once a
year when it was silent and icy and the hour was balanced precisely
between yesterday and tomorrow, they could express things their quiet,
earthy language was too simple to say.
Swagman lifted his head, his voice deep and steady and deliberate. “Jersey.”
heard Yellow Sky startle awake, banging a hip against his stall. He
uttered something strange and musical in his half-sleep, the native
tongue of the Absaroka rolling like falling water from his mouth. His
eyes flew open, and he switched haltingly to the language of the white
men. “I almost forgot!” He uttered, shaking off his sleep. “It’s
nodded, tossing her head and banging on the boards of her stall. “Wake
up, tribe! The Gift is here!” She looked over at Swagman, and met his
face with her lips over the wall separating them. “I’m so glad you’re
here tonight, my friend. How long will you be here this time?”
He leaned his face against hers, closing his eyes and sighing. “Probably until the weather improves.”
“Will you be back?”
“Probably. In a couple months, most likely. Unless the company decides to put us somewhere permanently.”
felt a surge of worry. If that happened, her fears would be realized.
At the moment, Bender and Swagman traveled the string of stations
within a hundred miles or so of the Green. So she and Swagman could
visit every few months. If the farrier ended up being permanently
assigned, their chances of being together would be slim to none.
“Jersey, that was a crazy stunt you pulled last time.”
felt a flush of embarrassment...and a little jolt of pleasure at
Swagman shaking his big brown head in a kind of disapproving admiration.
She hadn’t meant to knock Saint out cold with her head. In fact, seeing
him lying in the dust at her feet had made her wish she could take back
her actions. But Saint and Bender had, once again, ruined her goodbyes
with Swagman by bickering. In a fit of temper, she’d thrown back her
head hard in an effort to shut him up.
her skull had connected with Saint’s jaw and he’d fallen from the
saddle like a half-empty sack of potatoes, she’d actually felt deep
worry and remorse. However, that remorse was short-lived when Mrs. Lynch
had ordered Bender... and Swagman... to stay on another day to make sure
Saint was alright.
justified it by speculating that perhaps there was lesson about bad
tempers in there. And she particularly hoped that lesson was not lost on
“I didn’t mean to hurt him, you know.” She said, somewhat defensively. “I love him very much.”
“I know.” Swagman’s eyes twinkled in amusement.
“I didn’t want to hear their harsh chatter. And...I didn’t want you to go.”
face grew serious. “I didn’t want to go, either. I wanted to stay here.
With you.” He nuzzled her ears and her forehead.
could feel the magic withdrawing as the moment of midnight slipped away
and the door to Eden began to creak shut again. Her tongue became
clumsy, and she felt the sounds coming from her lips become familiar,
simpler, once again equine. Complex thoughts became more difficult, more
faraway and dreamlike. She’d had one more thing to say. But it was the
simplest thought, the easiest word. And the language of the horses could
express it more than adequately.
rested her cheek warmly against Swagman’s, her lips uttering the
primitive sound that anyone else would hear as an equine sigh. I love you.
is a Christmas legend that say that the animals, who were the first to
see the Christ Child when he came into the world, are given the Gift of
Speech on Christmas Eve. I’ve always loved this legend, and when I had
pets, always took special care to leave them alone at midnight on
Christmas Eve so they could talk among themselves, and tell each other
Merry Christmas, tribe. Or Solstice or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule or whatever. I wish for all you peace and comfort, no matter how you spend your holidays.