author: John Denison / illustrator: Bill Slavin
Spirit of Christmas
Ethan and Trudy met Jenny in the driveway.
“They’re taking Spirit!” Tears were streaming down Jenny’s face.
“Mr. Hearn! He’s taking Spirit to the auction.”
“Dad says Spirit’s too old. He can’t afford to keep him.”
“What’s the auction?” Trudy asked.
Ethan watched as the school bus drove by without stopping. Now how were they going to get to school on time?
“Ethan, what’s the auction?” Trudy, Ethan’s little sister, wasn’t giving up without an answer.
“Somebody will buy Spirit and they’ll ship him to Europe or Asia.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They eat horses there.”
The kids started running up the driveway but they hadn’t gone far when Mr. Hearn’s truck with the livestock trailer drove by. Ethan stopped but Jenny kept running.
“We’ll never catch him!” Ethan shouted. Jenny spun around.
“He’s going to Stoddermeyer’s to pick up another horse!”
Stoddermeyer’s farm was just around the corner. Ethan started running again.
They all loved Spirit. He was this wonderful old workhorse, a huge chestnut-brown Clydesdale with a white blaze and white feathered hooves. In the good weather, they would ride him bareback through the fields and in the winter, Spirit pulled them on the toboggan.
“We can’t let Spirit go to the auction!”
“We need a plan!”
Mr. Hearn pulled out of Stoddermeyer’s driveway and was heading down the road when suddenly Ethan came sprinting out of the trees waving his hands. Mr. Hearn stopped and rolled down his window. “What’s the trouble, son?”
“A wolf grabbed my sister!”
“A wolf?” Mr. Hearn got out of his truck and followed Ethan into the woods. “There aren’t any wolves around here – coyotes maybe.”
Right on cue Trudy let out a loud scream and came bounding out from behind a spruce tree. She ran into Ethan’s arms.
“Are you okay?”
“The wolf let go of me.”
Mr. Hearn was shaking his head. All of this made about as much sense as a trout in a rain barrel. “What are you kids doing out here anyway?”
“We missed the bus.”
“I could give you a ride.”
“No, no, we’re fine, but thanks.”
As soon as Mr. Hearn drove off, Ethan and Trudy ran into the trees on the other side of the road where Jenny and Spirit were waiting for them. But so was another horse, a big black Percheron almost as gigantic as Spirit.
“Jenny! You were just supposed to grab Spirit!”
“I couldn’t leave her Ethan! You want her to be stir-fry or something? Look at her, Ethan, she’s like – beyond beautiful.”
Ethan, Trudy and Jenny were up on Spirit. The black horse was following along behind.
“We are in so much trouble,” Trudy said.
“Mr. Hearn gave my dad $350 for Spirit,” Jenny said. “Maybe we could buy him back. I’ve got $80 saved.”
“I’ve got $77.16,” Trudy said.
Ethan said “I’ve got a hundred in the bank and if I win the contest I’ll have another hundred.”
“So that makes –” Trudy wrote the numbers in the air. “$357.16! It’s just enough. But what if you don’t win Ethan?”
Ethan thought about that. There was no way he wanted to talk to his parents about this. At the moment he was a horse thief and that wasn’t a good thing to be.
“What about the black horse?” Jenny asked.
“We don’t have the money for two. We’re going to have to give her back.” This brought tears to the girls’ eyes but they knew Ethan was right.
“We gotta get going or we’ll miss the contest.”
Spirit might be older but he could still motor when he wanted to. With the kids hanging on for dear life, he was now galloping through the forest like he was winning the Kentucky Derby. The black horse was right behind. They came to a fence and Spirit didn’t slow down – over he soared.
“I didn’t know he could jump!” yelled Ethan.
“I don’t think he knew either! What about the river?”
“What about it?”
“It’s full of water!”
“Whoa!” Ethan shouted but Spirit ignored him and splashed across the water soaking Ethan’s pants. The girls tried not to laugh but it was hopeless.
Mrs. Thompson, the principal, was addressing the school.
“As you know on the last day of class before Christmas we hold the Annual Boswell Public School General Knowledge Contest. This competition is to encourage you to read newspapers and magazines and books, to watch the news, to go online, to talk to your parents about all the things that are going on in the world. In my opinion, the student who wins this contest is the smartest girl or boy in the school. So here we go.”
For the first round all the kids had to answer 25 multiple choice questions. In no time the teachers marked the tests and Mrs. Thompson made her way back to the microphone.
“Here are our ten finalists.” Ethan’s name was on the list but so was Sally’s, last year’s champion. “Now I’m going to ask ten questions. If you know the answer stick your hand up. If you get it right move over here, if you get it wrong, sit down. Here’s the first question. How many men have walked on the moon?”
Ethan’s hand shot up. “Twelve.”
“As you can see we have three students still standing. Sally, last year’s champ, Ethan and Max. We have three overhead projectors set up. I’m going to ask five questions. Each of you will write your answers so the other students can see. Ready? What do the five Olympic Rings stand for?”
In no time at all Mrs. Thompson had asked her five questions. “I think this a first. All three of you have answered every question correctly. Now we’ll go to sudden death. If you answer incorrectly you have to sit down.”
It was at this point that Ethan made the mistake of looking out the window. His heart jumped. Mr. Hearn’s truck was pulling into the school parking lot.
“Ah, Mrs. Thompson, would it be okay if we took a short break? I really need to use the washroom.”
“To be honest Ethan, it looks like you could have used a break some time ago.”
Ethan looked down at his wet jeans. “I fell in the river on the way to school.”
Ethan then signalled Jenny and the two of them slipped out the side door just as Mr. Hearn entered the auditorium. “Mr. Hearn’s here. Take the horses down to the river,” Ethan said. “I’ll come and get you when he’s gone.”
Ethan waited as long as he could. When he went back into the auditorium Mr. Hearn wasn’t standing in the doorway.
“What do the initials DOB stand for?”
Ethan wrote Date of Birth but so did Sally and Max.
“How many colours are in a rainbow?”
Ethan and Sally wrote 7. Max wrote 6 and had to sit down. Sally looked over at Ethan and smiled sweetly – too sweetly.
“Mumbai is the new name for what city?”
Ethan and Sally each wrote Bombay.
“What do Darwin and Dickens have in common?”
Ethan wrote same first name. Sally wrote Charles.”
“In what movie is Aramis the right answer?”
Sally wrote The Three Musketeers. Ethan wrote Slum Dog Millionaire.
“Ethan Lowendowski is this year’s champ. Congratulations Ethan and here’s your hundred dollars.”
All the kids cheered and Ethan smiled sweetly at Sally but not for long. Mr. Hearn was back in the doorway staring at him. Ethan watched as Mr. Hearn made his hand into a gun, pointed it at Ethan, pulled the trigger and then left the auditorium.
Ethan expected Mr. Hearn would wait in the hallway to talk to him but he’d driven off instead. Probably going to talk to Dad, thought Ethan not liking that thought. He went to get Jenny.
When school was finally over Jenny, Trudy and Ethan met at the horses.
“We need to get home so I can phone Mr. Hearn and tell him we have the money to buy Spirit.”
Trudy muttered something. She had her head down.
“What did you say, Trudy?”
“I said I don’t have $77.16. I forgot I spent some.” She’d bought a Christmas present for Ethan but she didn’t say that.
“How much do you have?”
“So how much more do we need?”
Jenny and Ethan stared at each other thinking. Finally Trudy said, “Grandma will give it to us.”
It took them twenty-five minutes to reach town. Jenny stayed in the park across the road with the two horses while Ethan and Trudy dashed into the hospital.
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise. Your mom and dad just left.”
“We need $33.76!” blurted out Trudy.
“You do, do you? Tell me all about it.”
Trudy told her Grandmother everything except about the black horse. Ethan said to leave that part out because it was too much money.
“That miserable Hank Martin. After all the good years Spirit has given him.” Grandma was as worked up as Trudy. “Horse like that should be allowed to die in his field.”
“He’s just being sensible.” Ethan knew that’s what his father would say.
“Ethan, there are times when sensible just doesn’t cut it. Now where’s my purse? Oh dear, I’ve only got twenty dollars. We’ll have to go to the bank.”
“Grandma, you just had your hip replaced. You can’t leave.”
“Ethan what did I just say?”
“You said there are times when sensible just doesn’t cut it.”
Ethan pushed Grandma out the side door. She had her winter coat and hat on. They made it through the parking lot without anybody stopping them. The bank was just down the road. Ethan pushed Grandma’s hospital bed into the drive-thru. The young woman teller slid open her window and started to laugh.
“Mrs. Hopkins, you are the coolest old lady ever.”
“Thank you Laura. We need $133.76. We’re saving a wonderful old workhorse named Spirit.”
“Grandma, just $33.76,” said Trudy.
“No dear, I want Ethan to keep his prize money. It’s not every day you’re the smartest kid in school.”
When Laura came back with the money she also brought Mary Cunningham, the bank manager, and the other tellers. They were all laughing at Grandma in her hospital bed. “Merry Christmas!” they shouted and Grandma waved back.
In no time at all the kids had Grandma back in her room.
“Get going you two. Your parents will be worried.”
Ethan and Trudy ran back into the park but only Spirit was waiting for them.
“There she is!” Jenny was crossing the busy street pulling the black horse behind her.
“Where did you go?”
“She got loose! Omigod, I was pulling on her rope and she was backing up and she just dropped a pile of road apples on Mr. Rose’s fancy car. We gotta get out of here, now!”
Ethan rode Spirit into the woods at the back of the farm. An old sugar shack stood amongst the trees and attached to it was an enclosed lean-to for holding firewood. It was mostly empty at this time of year. There was room inside for Spirit and his new friend.
The kids ran to the house. Ethan’s parents weren’t home yet. “You two load the four-wheeler. We need hay, straw and water. I’ll call Mr. Hearn.” Ethan raced inside.
“This is Ethan Lowendowski.”
“I thought I’d be hearing from you.”
“We want to buy Spirit. We’ve got the $350.”
“Now son, that’s what I paid for the horse. I was thinking more like $600. That’s what I’d get at the auction. I’ll take $500 each if you want to buy the other horse too and that’s a bargain.”
Ethan didn’t know what to say.
“Now son, you don’t think I drive my truck around for free, do you?”
“Can you give me a few days?”
“I’ll be by tomorrow at two to pick up the money or the horses. Take your pick. And no more funny business.”
“Mr. Hearn, do you know the black horse’s name?”
Ethan told the girls what Mr. Hearn had said. Jenny stroked the black horse’s muzzle. “Noelle, what a pretty name for such a pretty horse.”
The next day Ethan had Spirit and Noelle waiting for Mr. Hearn. His parents had driven into town again to see Grandma. They’d never know about the horses. Jenny said goodbye to Spirit and Noelle. Then she walked home crying. Trudy was upstairs bawling her eyes out. Ethan patted Spirit one last time and Mr. Hearn drove away. Then it was Ethan’s turn to cry.
It was Christmas day and new snow was sparkling like diamonds. Ethan’s dad drove into town to pick up Grandma. She’d told the doctor if he didn’t let her out for Christmas she was going to jump out the window naked. As soon as Grandma arrived Ethan’s mom handed out the presents. Ethan got the computer game he wanted and a new hockey sweater from Trudy. Trudy said she couldn’t wait to try her new toboggan. Ethan gave her a complete set of the Harry Potter books. Old Larry the golden lab got reindeer ears. He seemed to hear better which didn’t make much sense.
Ethan and Trudy tried their best to be happy but there was a sadness inside so big Ethan didn’t think it would ever go away.
When Ethan’s dad wandered outside and his mom was checking on the turkey, Ethan handed Grandma an envelope. “Here’s your money back Grandma. Things didn’t work out but thanks for helping. I think you’re the best Grandma ever.”
“You tried Ethan. That’s what counts.”
Just as Christmas dinner ended there was a knock at the door. It was Jenny. Ethan was surprised. “I don’t know what’s going on,” whispered Jenny. “Your mom called and said to come over.”
Ethan’s dad got Jenny a chair and a glass of ginger ale. “I’m glad you’re here Jenny. I’ve got a story to tell and you’re in it. But before I start I’m going to fill everybody’s glass up because we’re going to have a toast at the end of this.
“Yesterday, I was sitting in Effie’s coffee shop and Mary Cunningham, the bank manager, came in and starts telling me this funny story about Grandma showing up at the bank’s drive-thru window in her hospital bed. I would’ve liked to have seen that.
“Then Bob Stoddermeyer says he’s got a funny story Jake Hearn told him about two kids stopping his truck on the road. Apparently the boy was waving his hands yelling something about a wolf dragging his sister off into the woods. So Jake goes to have a look and the little girl is fine. Jake can’t figure out what’s going on but when he gets to his next stop the two horses he had in his trailer aren’t there anymore.”
Ethan’s dad stopped here and stared at Jenny who blushed.
“By this time everybody in Effie’s is listening in, enjoying the stories. Then Sheriff Riley says old man Rose came into his office yesterday madder than a wet hen because some giant horse had left a pile of poop on the hood of his Jaguar. I would’ve liked to have seen that too. Then Bill Sherk says a certain boy called offering to sell him his Wayne Gretzky rookie card. Bill said he’d give $100 for it. Boy said he’d get back to him.
“Anyway, one thing led to another and before you know it the folks at Effie’s have got me on the phone talking to Jake Hearn and he says he wants $1000 for the two horses and I said I thought that was a little steep. So he says because it’s Christmas and all, he’ll take $900. And you know before I can say anything money starts falling onto the table including two hundred bucks from Bob Stoddermeyer who says he hasn’t been sleeping at night thinking about Noelle. Then Sheriff Riley suggests I call old man Rose and see if he wants to contribute and that pretty much brought the house down.
“So, Ethan and Trudy and Jenny, here’s an envelope with $700 in it courtesy of your mom and me and the kind folks at Effie’s. I understand your crazy Grandma has agreed to kick in a hundred and Ethan you’ve got your contest money.
“Now we’re going to have that toast.”
Ethan’s dad stood up and raised his glass.
“Sometimes adults have to be reminded to do the right thing. I’m very proud of all three of you. Here’s to three great kids and the Spirit of Christmas.
“Now I suggest you get on your coats and boots and hightail it down to the sugar shack where the two luckiest horses in the world are waiting to go tobogganing.”