The morning sun peeked over the distant trees, stretching its rays through the top half of the open barn doors. It wasn’t long before Pancho felt the relaxing warmth work its way through his shaggy golden coat, all the way down to his skin. He sighed with pleasure and stretched out on his bed of fresh shavings.
Ponies like Pancho – all horses, really – don’t lie down very often. They sleep standing up, since they need to be ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. But Pancho got tired easily, and he had learned that lying down was a respite from the pain he felt in his left front hoof when he stood for long periods of time.
He was just thinking about how lovely the sunshine felt on his neck when the warmth suddenly disappeared. He had a feeling someone was watching him, and he was right. As he opened an eye, a small black and white blob came into view. It was a cat, perched on the lip of Pancho’s Dutch stall door – and this cat was deliberately hogging up his sunspot!
Pancho snorted and gingerly raised himself up. “Hey”! he called out. “Hey, you.”
The cat was languidly licking a paw, which he then wiped across his ear — blatantly ignoring him.
Pancho wasn’t used to being ignored. He was a show pony, after all. So now Pancho was really angry. It wasn’t bad enough that he landed at this dump in the middle of nowhere late last night. Now this rude cat had ruined his morning sun nap.
“I said, ‘Hey!’” Pancho cried again, only more petulantly this time. “I’m talking to you!”
As Pancho painfully, slowly got to his hooves, the cat stopped his cleaning to observe him. He was clearly unimpressed with Pancho’s temper tantrum.
“Hullo,” the cat said. “I’m Al. Aloisius Ferdinand, but everybody calls me Al. What’s your name?”
Pancho faced Al and squinted. It was his fiercest look, used with great success on small children who thought they could tell him what to do — and everybody knew nobody tells ponies what to do. Well, that’s how it used to be, anyway. He heaved a sigh. “You,” he stopped to snort for emphasis. “Stole. My. Sunspot.”
Al looked at Pancho nonchalantly. “Well, you interrupted my cleaning routine, so we’re even.” He then returned to licking his paw, yawning just wide enough to show Pancho his canine teeth, which he knew were far more ferocious than this silly pony’s flat grinders. It also had the added benefit of conveying how unimpressed he was with this new edition to the farm.
Pancho was furious. “I was in the sunspot first! This is my stall! Mine! Get out!” He stamped his hoof in frustration, only to grimace with intense pain. When would he feel better?
Al slowly put his paw down and stood up to stretch, carefully balancing himself in the process. “Nobody owns a sunspot,” he said disdainfully, as if it was obvious to anyone who gave it a moment’s thought. Then, as he turned to jump off the door, he called over his shoulder, “But everybody knows that cats have first dibs on sun spots. Ha-ha!” And then he was gone.
Pancho groaned as he carefully made his way over to the door, aware of the pain that shot up his left front leg with every step. Good riddance, he thought. Well, now that I’m up, I might as well see what’s what.
What’s what turned out to be more difficult to discern than Pancho had anticipated. The bottom of the Dutch door at the back of his stall was too tall for him to put his head over, even when he stretched his neck as far as he was able. All he could see was a blue sky, his precious sun, and the tops of trees – lots and lots of trees.
Well, at least let me check out my stall, he thought, turning around to survey his domain. He was so tired last night when he arrived that he didn’t notice much of anything. Besides, he didn’t want to remember. Pancho had fallen asleep almost right away, and even snoozed through the early morning routine found at every farm: flakes of hay, fresh water, and maybe some grain.
“Roomy,” he said to himself. Then again, pretty much everything was roomy for Pancho. He was a small pony – but only just, as he often liked to point out to whomever was within earshot. At twelve hands high, he was on the tall side of small. In any case, he liked what he saw: the walls of the stall were banked at least two-and-a-half feet, which created a cozy, nest-like environment.
He was pretty sure that this wasn’t the reason for the way the shavings created a hill up against each wall. He had heard from his friend, Barney, that it was to keep ponies like him from lying down with his legs facing the stall wall.
Barney and Pancho had been best friends until Pancho got hurt. They had traveled together to all the important competitions, and they shared a turnout paddock at home. He hadn’t seen Barney since the accident, and the thought made him sad. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking of his stable mate, who competed in the medium pony division with great success.
Pancho had always looked up to him — and not just literally. Barney was older, and he had everything — looks, talent, smarts. He was put together so well that he often won the conformation classes, he always used his shoulders well and kept his knees square when he jumped, and he knew how to make his rider look much better than she was. Yes, Barney was the whole package. Not surprisingly, Pancho had also been a little jealous. His coat never quite got the rich dapples that Barney’s dark bay achieved. Pancho also didn’t have Barney’s character. He wasn’t above planting himself in front of a jump if his rider didn’t judge the right distance. It was a side benefit to see the kid go flying over his head and land on her backside.
Pancho wondered what Barney was doing now. Probably in our paddock getting a good sunning. But why aren’t I with him? He sighed and looked back at the shavings-banked walls, which reminded him once again of his fiend.
Barney had once said to him with grave seriousness, “You gotta be careful, man. If you get too close,” he nodded his head in the direction of the stall wall, “you won’t be able to stretch your legs out to get up. Dude, you’d be trapped. It’s called getting cast. These banks of shavings up against stall walls make a sort of buffer so you never get stuck. Pretty cool, huh.”
Pancho had shrugged. “Sure, whatever you say, so long as it works. I can’t be a top show pony if I’m stuck against a wall, can I.”
“You got that right,” Barney had responded, his glossy dark forelock flopping as he nodded his head. “Of course,” Barney added carefully, “you’ve got a bit of an uphill climb. You know that, right?”
“What? What are you talking about?” Pancho had responded indignantly. “Just because people say I’m a Palomino doesn’t mean I can’t be a famous show pony. Besides, I’m not that light. And anyway, they’re stupid if they think a Palomino isn’t as good as a gray. Those guys get white when they get older.”
“Hey, man, calm down,” Barney replied. “Don’t blame me. It’s just how things are. I don’t know why.”
“Well,” Pancho said haughtily, stretching himself up to his full height. “There just aren’t as many of us as there are of your type, or chestnuts or the grays. And we jump just as good as you!”
Barney had been unruffled. “You mean ‘well.’ You jump just as well as I do.” Then he smiled at his friend. “It’s true, though. You’re a scopey little guy. You could win at the nationals one day.”
“Whatever,” Pancho had responded, tossing his head. Then he’d walked off to the opposite end of their paddock.
Pancho shook his head, trying to dislodge memory, but was soon jolted out of it at the sight of a flake of hay in the corner by the main door. “Oh, goody!” he said to no one in particular. He usually didn’t get a whole flake. Usually, he only got half of one. Until that moment, he hadn’t realized he was hungry, and he was reminded of just how tired he must have been to have slept through the morning feeding. “A nice bucket of warm bran would go great with this,” he commented, again to no one in particular, and limped over to start eating.
A disembodied voice rumbled out of nowhere. “You’re greedy, aren’t you?”
Pancho practically jumped out of his skin, stopping only because of the pain that felt like it shot straight up from his left front hoof. He winced. The voice, vaguely familiar, irritated him. Pancho snorted and looked up. Now he knew why he was irritated. “Oh, it’s you again.”
Al was sitting in between the stall’s bars, where the top of the plank wood wall ended and the bars began. He was looking intently at Pancho. “You won’t get any bran today,” Al said matter-of-factly. “So don’t even think about it. It will only make you more unhappy than you already are.”
“I can think about it all I want.” Pancho declared, pinning his ears back in an attempt at conveying ferocity. “You can’t control what I think.”
Al blinked in that blasé way cats do, as if they could care less what anyone thought, let alone whether or not he could control it.
“Anyway,” Pancho said, flicking his overgrown forelock out of his eyes, “what are you doing here? I’m trying to eat. Go away.”
“I just thought you should know that it’s not bran day,” Al sniffed. “I know everything that goes on around here. You might want to keep that in mind, Pancho.”
Pancho narrowed his eyes. “Wait a second. I didn’t tell you my name.”
Al didn’t say anything. He just cocked his head and grinned.
Pancho sighed and considered whether or not he wanted to ask Al when bran day was. He loved bran day, when everyone got a warm mixture of bran and grain. Nothing tasted better, and Pancho was bursting with curiosity about when bran day was in this place. But asking Al might come with a price. If Pancho did ask, then Al would know something he didn’t, and that didn’t sit well. Pancho didn’t like anyone, apart from Barney, having the upper hand. Besides, this Al character was confusing enough as it was. Pancho had never dealt with cats before — at least, not directly. They were never really part of his life. He was too busy training as a show pony to bother with those creatures. All he ever knew about them was that they chased field mice out of the barn. That wasn’t very important.
At that moment, a very small barn mouse emerged from a corner of the barn where Pancho’s stall connected with another. The mouse scampered along, threading its way through the separation bars, and stopped in front of Al. “Excuse me, Al,” the mouse said. “You’re in my way.”
“Sorry, Charlie,” Al responded. “I didn’t hear you come up.”
Charlie gave a squeaky little chuckle. “Quiet as a mouse, they say, right?”
“I believe they do.” Al carefully stepped over Charlie, who didn’t so much as glance in Pancho’s direction.
“Thanks, Al. See you later.” Charlie trotted off toward the feed room.
A dumbfounded Pancho stared at Al, his eyes wide and lower lip hanging in disbelief. Finally, he said. “That was a mouse.”
“Aren’t we observant,” Al said. “Fair play to you.”
Al turned to jump off the wall when Pancho shouted, “You just had a friendly exchange WITH A MOUSE!”
“Actually, that was Charlene, but everyone calls her Char—”
“What is wrong with you?” Pancho demanded. “Charles, Charlene, Chuckles. Doesn’t matter. That was a mouse. You’re a cat. Do the math.”
“Oh! You are so frustrating! First you steal a pony’s sunspot and then I catch you talking to a mouse. Don’t you know what your job is? Cats don’t have conversations with mice. They chase them! They eat them! They leave their guts on door mats as offerings. Everybody knows that!”
Al sat down, elegantly curling his tail around his feet. The only sign of his annoyance was the twitching of his white-tipped tail. “Wow,” Al shook his head. “It’s worse than I thought. You have some real anger issues.”
“This isn’t about me! Listen, you, you, Al,” Pancho said through clenched teeth. “I know what my job is. I am a show pony. Do you know what that is? I win ribbons. Blue ribbons. Championships. What do you do? Oh, let me guess. Nothing important. You sit around and tell people what to do instead of chasing mice like you’re supposed to!”
Al slowly shook his head. “You’ve got problems, man. Then again, you just got here, which is why I’m cutting you some slack. It’s a lot to process.”
“Well, you look like a raccoon!” Pancho couldn’t think of anything else to say. He was too angry — and still hungry.
Al, suddenly distracted by this terrific compliment, reached up to touch his face, which indeed looked like he was wearing a black mask. “I know. It’s cool, huh.”
“It wasn’t meant as a compliment!” Pancho shouted.
Al twitched his tail and replied, “Truth be told, you’re not looking very show pony-ish yourself right now.” He stood up and arched his back. “Pot, kettle, my friend. Word to the wise.” Then he jumped down onto the barn floor. As he trotted away, he called over his shoulder. “For the record, Pancho, I am doing my job. Ask anybody!”
“‘Friend?’ You’re not my friend. You don’t even know me!” A furious Pancho was fit to be tied. Who was this horrible cat that stole sunspots and spoke to mice? And besides that mouse, where were all the other animals? A barn this big should be brimming with nickers and swishing tails… And while he was at it, where was he, anyway? Suddenly, Pancho wasn’t angry anymore, he was very sad. Most of the past week was a blur, and the months before that were best forgotten. In fact, Pancho hardly remembered any of it, and every time he tried, he was filled with fear.
Pancho heaved a big sigh and slowly tore off a mouthful of hay. He chewed thoughtfully, trying to pull himself together. I hope I learn what the heck is going on with this crazy place, he thought sadly. What am I doing here, anyway? Don’t they know I’m a show pony? I don’t belong here.