Temperatures dropped, but no matter. Our house was warm as toast. I put finishing touches on the holiday decorations. Jackson, our Yorkshire terrier, watched me hang my stocking, then Bill’s. He cocked his head.
“Do you think I’d forget you on Christmas Eve?” I pulled out the plaid stocking with Jackson embroidered at the top and hung it next to ours. Jackson wagged his tail. He might not have been able to read his name, but after 15 years he knew his stocking.
I snaked some garland into the hallway. A pile of Christmas cards lay on the side table by the door. Several of them were addressed to Jackson. “To one of my favorite customers,” wrote Jan from the grooming salon. “Merry Christmas!” He also got cards from all of our grandchildren.
Anybody who found it silly for a dog to get this much attention didn’t know Jackson. That dog had personality. When I took him for walks, neighbors bent down to talk to him. “You look very handsome in your yellow slicker,” a friend told Jackson one rainy day. Jackson ran around in a circle, showing off. Even four-legged neighbors weren’t immune to his charms. Our backyard bordered a pasture where horses grazed. They came right up to the wire fence and put their massive heads down low. Jackson wasn’t intimidated. He ran over to say hello, barking, jumping, begging to be noticed.
I arranged Jackson’s Christmas cards so Bill would see them when he got home from work. Taking care of our little dog was a big focus. But we couldn’t protect Jackson from everything. He was getting older. His eyesight was almost gone. He could barely hear. Sometimes he got confused outside and couldn’t find his way back to the house. What if something happened when Bill and I weren’t home? Who would protect him then?
Jackson barked and hurried into the living room. “You always know the time. Don’t you, boy?” I laughed. Right on schedule Jackson climbed up on the couch and watched for Bill. “Somebody got a lot of cards,” I sang when he came in, “and it wasn’t you or me.” Bill chuckled at each one.
We had a quiet evening, just the three of us. After dinner, Bill and Jackson played fetch with a crocheted jingle ball. We turned in early. “Santa won’t come till you’re fast asleep,” I teased Jackson. Bill and I slipped underneath the covers. Jackson curled up at our feet with his stuffed lamb. “Night, Jackson,” I said before I drifted off.
My eyes darted to Jackson’s usual spot on the bed. Only his stuffed lamb was there.Bill was shivering in his pajamas. “I thought he’d stick close to the porch. I just ran in for my robe.”
I pulled on some sweatpants. Bill grabbed a flashlight. We headed for the back door. “Jackson!” I called from the porch. “Jackson!” No answer. An icy wind whipped through my hair. It’s freezing. That old dog won’t last out here.
“Let’s ride around,” Bill suggested. We went to the car. Bill drove and I searched out the windows. Jackson was nowhere to be found. Bill and I returned home. “Jackson!” we yelled in the yard. I panned a flashlight beam across the bushes. “Here, boy!”What was that? A faint bark in the distance. Bill and I looked past the fence. “It came from the pasture!” I cried.
Bill helped me over the fence that separated our yard from the field. I hadn’t climbed a fence in I don't know how long, but I would have climbed Mount Everest for Jackson. Bill was right behind me. Searching wasn’t easy in the dark. The barking—if that’s what it was—had stopped. Which way to go? My fingers and toes ached from the cold. “We’ll come back in the morning,” Bill said finally, sweeping the grass with the flashlight one more time.
Heartbroken, we trudged back to the house. Jackson was cold and alone. No one to protect him. Not even his stuffed lamb for comfort. I wrapped my coat around my shoulders. Lord, keep Jackson safe and warm. It seemed like an impossible prayer on a night like this. But anything was possible on Christmas, wasn’t it?
It was close to 5:00 A.M. Bill and I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for first light. We never said what we both were thinking: We probably wouldn’t find Jackson alive. After what seemed like forever the first rays of dawn appeared through the window. “Merry Christmas,” said Bill. “Let’s go find our boy.”
We headed back to the pasture, empty save for four majestic horses. I’d never noticed how beautiful they were until now. The soft light caught their smooth coats and settled around them like a fleece blanket. “Look, Bill. They know how to protect themselves from this cold.” Heads bent toward the ground, the horses stood together in a huddle, warmed by the breaths of one another. It was an almost heavenly scene. Peaceful as it was, though, it only brought tears to my eyes. If those big, strong animals felt the cold there was no way Jackson could have survived it. My throat was sore from calling. “Maybe we should take the car out again,” Bill said.I called once more. “Jackson!” A high-pitched whine answered. I looked at Bill--he’d heard it too. It came from over where the horses stood. We rushed to them. I squeezed my body into the center of their circle.
“What’s going on here?” I asked the gentle creatures. Something was there on the ground between their feet. A furry animal, curled up tight. I swept aside the tall grass with my hand. A tiny tongue licked my finger. Jackson!
One of the horses tossed its head and snorted proudly. “We took care of him. We kept him safe,” the great beast seemed to say. The other horses crowded their large bodies close, blocking Jackson from the wind and warming him with their breath. I gathered our little dog up in my arms and wrapped him in my scarf, rocking him like a baby. Jackson whimpered and licked my nose. “You scared us there, Jackson,” Bill said, ruffling his ears.
The horses slowly backed away. They swished their tails and munched the grass, hungry after their night’s work. We had quite a story to tell the kids and grandkids over Christmas dinner. Jackson’s angels had manes instead of wings!
I didn’t worry so much about Jackson after that. I knew in my heart he was watched over. When he died Bill and I were by his side. I believe angels huddled around us too, comforting our baby like the horses had that peaceful Christmas morning. But this time Jackson’s angels had wings.