Wherever Medallion went, Blankie went. Medallion was a world-class jumping horse, and whatever kept her calm and working was going to happen, even if it meant shipping an old tabby around with her. The gray mare dozed in her stall with her head touching the cat, ate with him purring
by her ears. A groom held Blankie at the rail of the show ring when she jumped, and handed him to John Stewart, her rider, when they emerged, usually victorious. Medallion would reach around and blow explosively into the cat's fur, ruffling it. It was a real crowd-pleaser, the gray champion and her tabby friend. Stewart would get another silver plate, but Medallion always had her Blankie, something that stayed the same from show to show. Blankie was her security.
In the big vans that shipped the horses from show to show, Medallion always got two hay nets. One of them held just hay. In the other, Blankie napped, on a few old quilted legwraps atop some hay. She would nudge him, and he would reach through the mesh to lazily pat her blazed muzzle. His indolence was one of his more valuable assets: he was willing to spend long hours just keeping company with Medallion, who paced restlessly in her stall whenever he disappeared.
# # #
"John, why don't you sell me that mare?" Sam Tenon was short, blond, and round. His daughter was tall and lean, though, and she coveted the gray mare.
"Because I can't clear six feet by myself. That mare's the best horse I've ever had. Why would I want to sell her?"
"A lot of money?"
"That mare's got three good years, yet. Then she's going to have sky-splitting babies. I've got a sire all picked out. Sorry, Sam. No can do." Stewart had told him before that the mare wasn't for sale, but every time she beat out Sandy Tenoh's big chestnut, he had to say it again. He also didn't think that Sandy could get along with the mare. He'd seen her take out a few losses on her gelding's mouth, and Medallion would unload a rider on far less provocation. This wasn't generally known, because he handled her very lightly, steadying her into the jumps and easing her around the course.
They made it look effortless, her agility in turns and rocket-launch lifts shearing seconds off course times. Her finicky reluctance to touch a rail saved them faults, too. As long as he could keep her healthy and happy, the trophies --and the checks-- kept coming in.
"Hey, Blankie. How's your girlfriend doing tonight?" He offered to chuck the cat's chin in affection, but the tabby just stared at him with indifference. People came, took care of the horse, and went away. Medallion was actually Blankie's horse. He was sure of it. He couldn't remember time before her, but Stewart could. It had been impossible to keep weight on her, and he was half ashamed to take her into the ring, ribby as she was. She was always on the edge of disaster, because she had no extra resources to call upon.
One cold morning he'd fished a kitten out of her water bucket. It had fallen in trying to get a drink, and couldn't quite pull itself out, although its front claws were dug into the rim. Stewart had dried off the sodden little lump of fur, wrapped it in a towel, and laid the package on a bale of hay. When he came back in from riding, it was still lying there, too weak to wriggle its way out.
Muttering to himself that he was being a softie, he finished up, got a fresh dry towel, and
wrapped the kitten again, more loosely. He laid the new bundle on the floor of the passenger side of his car, turned on the heater, and drove to a market. He got canned milk and ground meat, picked up a newspaper, and drove home. He mixed a couple teaspoons of the milk with warm water, drew the mix into a syringe, and worked the dripping end into the kitten's mouth. Slowly, the warm milk and the warm lap lulled the kitten into sleep.
Being dry and full made a big difference to the kitten. By the evening feeding, he was much more lively, and by morning, Stewart found evidence of a good digestive system working. "1 don't have time to housebreak a cat," he said, tucking it into his anorak pocket. "You are going to be a barn cat."
The blanket he pulled off the gray mare was still warm from her, and he heaped it on a bale, tucking the kitten deep into its folds. As he groomed the mare, saddled her, and got her ready to ride, the little cat snuggled out of sight, falling soundly asleep. After her workout, when she was ready to go back to her stall, he had a problem: what to do with the kitten? Well, Medallion had eaten her breakfast. He lined her feed tub with towels, and the kitten had a nest. Stewart went off to work.
The kitten and the mare worked it out. The towels smelled faintly of liniment which wasn't supposed to be in her feed tub, and there wasn't supposed to be a furry thing there, either. She nuzzled it. Her warm breath felt wonderful to the little cat. She turned in her stall, nervously, but came back to the feed tub. Warm and full, the kitten purred, and the sound soothed the nervous mare. Her head dropped into the tub beside the kitten, and they slept.
Gradually, Medallion put on weight. Her unpleasant habit of folding in half and bouncing like a piledriver faded away. Best of all, she developed from a pretty good horse to a truly scopy jumper, able to soar over daunting barriers. The young cat spent most of his time in her stall, and crawled into the heap of her sheets or blankets when she was taken out. He was her cat. She was his horse. By the next season on the circuit, she ruled.
# # #
The routine at shows was different from that at home, but it didn't matter because Blankie was there. Every two hours at night, security guards came around with penlights, looked in at each valuable creature, and made a check on the placard on the stall. They were quiet, the horses were used to it, and it didn't matter. After the 2 A.M. check, Medallion and Blankie went back to sleep. At 2:15, after the guards had moved on, another gray mare with a blaze face was brought into the barn. Her sheet was changed with Medallion's. Medallion was haltered and brought out of the stall, the new mare was put in, stripped of her halter, and stood there quietly. Curious, she poked her nose at Blankie, who arched, hissed, and shot out of the stall into the silent night.
Medallion was not in the barn aisle. It was night, and she never went out of her stall in the night. The tanbark in the aisle had muffled the sounds of her walk and covered the scent of her hoofs. She was gone, gone! Miserable, he hunched up by her stall door, not daring to go in with the strange horse. When Stewart found him in the morning, he was still there.
"Blankie?" Stewart spoke to the cat, who didn't even look up. He haltered the mare, brought her out to crossties, stripped off the blanket, and laid it on a bale. The cat didn't stir. He didn't burrow into the discarded blanket. Wondering if the cat was sick, Stewart began to groom the mare. Something... then he stood back, and really looked at her. It was a nice, full-bodied gray mare, but... He shrugged, saddled the horse, and mounted outside the barn. He knew, warming up, that things were going very wrong. This mare's canter wasn't as elastic as it should be, the trot lacked the proper spring. Please, Medallion, not right before the Bender Cup! After the first jump, he stopped, shaking his head. She must be very sick. It felt like a different horse.
As he unsaddled the mare, he saw Blankie resolutely sitting on a bale. He picked up the cat, put him in the stall by the feed tub, and watched him jump down to march right back out. As he led the mare back to the stall, he encouraged her to sniff the cat. Amiably, she put her head down to nuzzle him, and jerked back as he scratched her nose.
"Blankie! What's wrong with you? She nearly pulled my arm off?" The man stared at the cat, dawning suspicion hardening his eyes. Medallion felt like a different horse: well, maybe she
was. Certainly the cat didn't think she was his old friend. But no trailer, no van could leave the grounds while the show was in session without a release from the stewards, and the gate guards wouldn't pass anything at night. If Medallion wasn't in this stall, she had to be in some other one.
The show catalog listed every exhibitor's name and address, with the name, color, gender and height of each horse being shown. How many gray mares were here? It was a big show, and there were twenty-five gray horses, ten of them mares. Five of them were listed as being 16.3 hands, including Medallion. It was going to be a long morning. Armed with the tabby cat, John Stewart set out to find his own horse. Medallion has never been raced, he thought with despair, and she's not tattooed. This is going to be interesting. Blankie lay sullen in his arms.
Who's going to take identification by cat for proof? Her Jockey Club papers with the whorl marks are at home. If the mare gets off the grounds as some other horse, I'll never get her back. The first gray mare he found had no blaze, and the second only a star. He complimented the owners on their horses, and moved on to the next one, in barn "D." This mare had a blaze, but was angular and long-backed. Down at the corner of the barn, he heard a monotonous kicking.
He ambled down the aisle, smiled at the girl with the muck basket, and asked, "What's happening
"I don't know. That mare's usually an old cow. She's been going at the wall and stallwalking ever since I got in this morning. She won't eat. I've called for the vet. She's starting
to break a sweat." The girl looked harried and upset.
"Could I look at her?"
"You're John Stewart, aren't you? Hey, have a go. You know more about this than I do." He stood in front of the stall, looking at the mare. Blankie seemed to wake up, and stared intently into the stall. Then he pulled himself out of Stewart's arms by his claws, and jumped between the bars. The mare snorted at him, hard, at first, then gently blew on his fur. She shoved her muzzle under his midriff, lifting him off his paws. He landed on the straw. He arched his back and rubbed the mare's ankles. She nuzzled him, sighed contentedly, and began to eat.
"Wow! Magic cat!"
"I think we have a mix-up." Stewart was wondering what, exactly, to do next. "What's this mare's name?" he asked the groom.
"Witch Hazel. She's one of Sandy Tenon's horses. She's out on Jacob's Ladder now."
"Tell ya what. How much work do you have left to do here?"
"Two more stalls. Then I have to braid that liver chestnut."
"Is it just you?"
The girl laughed, ruefully. "Yeah. Sandy pitched a fit over something, yesterday, and Bill took his pay. Five horses at a show is a lot of hides."
"How do you feel about just one?"
"Let's do these stalls real quick. We have a couple of horses to hand-walk." Stewart looked at the horse as he picked over the stall. Good coat, well cared-for. Maybe it was time to give Medallion a groom of her own, stop using the travelling grooms from the barn he rode with. Yeah. She deserved her own groom. She already had her own cat.
The cooler sheet covered her from ears to tail, and she was an anonymous gray head and hoofs..The same cooler covered another anonymous gray horse on the return trip, and Helen the groom left a very apologetic note of resignation in the tack room.
Stewart was wondering if Sandy Tenon knew how to braid a horse. More likely, someone else would do it. Medallion was saddled for her morning work, and Blankie was curled up in her sheet. In the practice ring, he thought she'd left some of her spring back in that strange stall, but she'd be back to normal by tomorrow. The Bender Cup should look nice in his trophy case, and the check would pay Helen for quite a while. Sandy Tenon would have to wait a few years for her shot at it. Meanwhile, he planned to sleep in a cot in front of Medallion's stall door. He really couldn't clear six feet by himself.