SLEIGH RIDE

Joan Stephens


Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling too
Come on, itís lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you
Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo-hoo
Come on, itís lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you

Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, letís go
Letís look at the snow
Weíre riding in a wonderland of snow
Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, itís grand
Just holding your hand

Weíre gliding along with a song of a wintery fairyland
Our cheeks are nice and rosy and comfy-cozy are we
Weíre snuggled up together like birds of a feather would be
Letís take the road before us and sing a chorus or two
Come on itís lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you

 

With his hands clasped behind his back, Vincent stood in front of the picture window watching the soft, heavy, fluffy white flakes fall straight down; the wind was quiet tonight. Even if he could see the lake in the darkness, it would be covered with ice and snow creating a flat table-like surface. The trees, bushes, and buildings would be covered with a thick coating of snow by tomorrow morning.

What Catherine called a cottage was to him a palatial palace. Turning from the wintry scene outside, his glance roamed over the immense L-shaped living room filled with well-padded furniture made from natural wood. The highly polished parquet floor reflected the glory of a roaring fire burning in the natural stone fireplace that covered the entire west wall opposite the leg of the L. A large white bear rug was laid casually on the floor in front of the hearth. Along the back wall of the living room a long staircase led to the upstairs, and behind that wall was a fully equipped kitchen. A breakfast nook looked out on the porch that surrounded the cabin on all four sides. The upstairs consisted of a large master bedroom and three smaller rooms. He could hear her moving around up there, preparing the bedrooms. He thought with great happiness that they would share the large master bedroom.

Turning back to gaze once more on the lovely scene outdoors, he thought back to how surprised he had been when Catherine came to him with the idea of spending a winterís weekend in Connecticut at her familyís cabin. And the even greater amazement he had felt when Father readily agreed. Vincent had to wonder in passing if she had bribed his father with something he couldnít refuse. She had taken responsibility for all the details of the trip, and he had been shocked almost past endurance when a limousine pulled up and Elliot Burch stepped out of the driverís side.

"Donít look so surprised, Vincent," Elliot had quipped, as he shook the leonine manís hand, noticing the astounded look on his face. "Cathy needed a driver; Iím not doing anything this weekend, so I volunteered and she accepted."

"I just never pictured you as a chauffeur," had been the reply when Vincent had found his voice.

"First time for everything," Burch had chuckled. "Letís get this stuff packed away."

After depositing the two lovers at the front steps of the house, Elliot had left for his room in a nearby Bed and Breakfast. "Iíll pick you up Sunday night," he said, waving. "Have a good weekend."

Taking Vincentís hand, Catherine had led him up the stairs, across the porch, and into the large log cottage.

"Vincent," her voice floating down from above interrupted his reverie.

"Yes, my love," he responded.

"Everything is ready."

"All right. Iíll be up as soon as I bank the fire."

Finished, he bounded up the stairs, anticipating the delights that awaited him.

**************

The snowstorm had cleared over night, leaving a world of pristine white outside the house that reflected the golden sunlight of early morning in a dazzling array of diamonds. While getting dressed, Catherine asked, "Vincent, have you ever been on a sleigh ride?"

Pulling his head through the neck of the nordic sweater she had given him, he shook his head, "In the city?" He chuckled.

"I didnít think that you had. Would you like to?"

His eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, "Do you think we could?"

"I think I can arrange it," she said.

"When?"

"How about tonight?"

"Wonderful. What have you planned for today? As I said when we left, Iím in your hands." He raised her hands to his lips and kissed each fingertip.

She shivered. "Now stop that or we wonít do anything today but stay in bed."

"I could think of worse things to do." He grinned at her, loving how easy it felt to tease her.

Patting him companionably on the chest, she said, "Later, ok?"

"Promise?"

"Promise," she said with a quick nod of the head, while moving toward the door. "Better let me make the arrangements for the sleigh ride now, then weíll decide what to do for the rest of the day."

"While youíre doing that, Iíll fix breakfast," he offered, following her out of the room.

She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "How did I get so lucky? A man who can cook."

"Iíll give you the rest of your life to figure that out."

"My, how generous of you," she cracked, giggling as she pointed him toward the stairs.

With a laugh, he hurried downstairs to the kitchen. Thank goodness, he had learned to use her kitchen appliances.

Smiling happily to herself, she headed into the living room, picked up the handset of the telephoneĖshe had had it turned on when she was sure that they would be able to come to the cabinĖand made the arrangements for Vincentís first sleigh ride.

********************

During breakfast, they decided to hike through the snowy fields and then to clear a space on the lake to go skating. In between activities they would dash inside for hot cocoa whenever the cold got to them. At last, cold and damp, they called it quits for the day, fixed dinner together, and relaxed in front of a warm fire.

Vincent straightened up, cocking his head. Catherine smiled. She knew he was hearing the bells on the horsesí harnesses. "Theyíre coming," he said excitedly.

Jumping up, they donned their parkas and warm knit caps and mittens. Catherine grabbed an insulated tote that held a large thermos and three thermal cups as they quit the cabin. Vincent had wrapped a scarf around his neck concealing his face, leaving only his eyes uncovered. Catherine spoke with the driver as Vincent clambered into the sleigh. He examined the make and materials of the sleigh, even going so far as to lean out to look at the runners. Every time the horses moved, shook a head, or stamped a foot the bells jingled. Catherine settled beside him, arranging a warm lap blanket over their knees. With a flick of the reins, the horses started up, tossing their heads, misty clouds of vapor issuing from their nostrils.

Vincent leaned back in the seat and carefully lowered the scarf. The smell and feel of the cold night air was intoxicating. "Catherine, this is marvelous. Iíve never smelled such invigorating air."

"Iíve always loved the smell of cold, clean country air." Then she waved her hand at the sky. "Itís the Dark of the Moon, and we should be able to see the Milky Way."

Staring at the myriad of stars blinking brilliantly in the ebony sky, he queried, "Dark of the Moon? Donít you mean the new moon?"

"Yeah," she agreed, "but Iíve always called it the Dark of the Moon. It sounds more romantic that way." She smiled dreamily.

"Then weíll be romantic," he responded.

Affectionately she squeezed his arm and laid her head on his shoulder, looking up into the sky with him.

"Iíve seen pictures of it, but to be able to actually see it all takes my breath away. So much light in the sky." He was mesmerized by the sight.

"Weíll be goiní through the woods soon," the driver announced, interrupting their thoughts.

"Oh yes, please, Caleb. The snowy woods are lovely at night," Catherine said.

"That they are, miss." Caleb clucked at the horses who immediately increased their speed. Abruptly he turned around, catching sight of Vincentís naked face. Vincent quickly covered up. Caleb gasped, but the expression on his face never changed. He continued to smile even if his eyes did widen just the teeniest bit.

"Caleb! I asked you not to turn around," Catherine cried.

"Sorry, miss, I was going to tell you something." He grimaced. "And I forgot." Directing his next words at Vincent, he said, "Hey, you donít have to keep your face covered; Iíve already seen you."

"I donít want to frighten you," Vincent replied.

"I fought in Viet Nam. I donít scare easily," he stated quietly. He pulled the horses to a stop then turned back to his passengers. "Whatís your name, friend?"

"Vincent."

Offering his hand, Caleb said, "Glad to meet you, Vincent. I think you know mine."

Vincent nodded as he shook the proffered hand.

"Thatís not makeup, is it?" the other man inquired.

"No."

"Iíll be damned!" he exclaimed.

"Me, too," Vincent added.

Throwing his head back, the driver laughed heartily. "Well now, Iím really pleased to meet you, Vincent. Anyone who can make a joke like that just has to be a man Iíd like to know." He turned back to the horses and started them up again. "Shall we continue? If I can, Iíll answer any questions you have." He was courteous enough not to ask any questions about Vincent.

"Donít you have any questions for me?" Vincent asked, puzzled.

"Nah. For some reason I donít think you have any answers."

"No, I donít, Caleb. Thank you."

"My pleasure." With a light touch to the reins, Caleb turned the horses onto a long straight road that rolled through the small woods. The camaraderie that developed between the three was a joy to each one. The two men held a lively discussion about horses, sleighs, and sleigh rides. Actually, Caleb did most of the talking, answering Vincentís insightful questions. Catherine just sat back enjoying Vincent totally at ease with the seemingly unflappable Caleb.

He drove them to the top of a small hill that loomed at the end of the road, stopped, and let them gaze again at the stars that completely filled the black velvet heavens. The Milky Way stretched like a bridge from the northeastern to the southeastern horizon.

"Didnít the Indians think that the Milky Way was the bridge to heaven?" Vincent commented.

"Yeah, I think they did," the other man said. "A beautiful idea."

Vincent stepped out of the sleigh and walked a short way across the top of the hill. "Lovely," he breathed, gazing rapturously at the star-filled span and at the dark, mysterious depths of the surrounding countryside.

"Quiet, peaceful, and solitary. Thatís why I moved out here, away from people and all their conveniences. Inconveniences, I call them." Caleb said, standing at Vincentís shoulder.

"I understand how you feel."

"Iíll bet you do, Vincent." Caleb slapped his gloves against his thighs thoughtfully. "Well, itís getting late. Time to get back."

Vincent sighed deeply. "I suppose it is." With a backward yearning look into the night, he reluctantly climbed back into the sleigh and was handed a cup of hot cocoa as he sat down.

"Would you like a cup of cocoa, Caleb?" Catherine asked.

"Donít mind if I do," he replied, "but I have something a little more potent in my coat pocket: brandy. Would you like a drop or two in your drink? Thatíll warm your gizzard, right smartly."

"Thatís a wonderful idea; Iíd love some," Catherine held her cup up to the man who tipped a flask toward her cup.

"Vincent?" Caleb asked.

"Iíd rather not; I prefer to keep all my senses as sharp as possible," he replied.

"No problem. If I was in your shoes, I think Iíd feel the same way." Caleb downed his drink and touched the reins. The horses broke into a trot as if they knew they were headed home for a bucket of oats.

Vincent gathered Catherine into his arms. Arranging the blanket over their knees, she snuggled as closely as she could into the warmth of the man she loved.

"Have you enjoyed your first sleigh ride, love?" Catherine asked.

"Indeed, I have, Catherine."

"I think youíve made a new friend," she whispered.

"I believe youíre right," he replied.

The sleigh pulled to a stop by the house. Caleb got out and handed Catherine from the sleigh. Vincent followed closely behind. "Thank you, Caleb, for the wonderful ride and your understanding." He pumped the manís hand heartily. "I thoroughly enjoyed myself."

"Iím glad you did, Vincent. I imagine that you donít get to do many things like this." The leonine man marveled at the other manís compassion and understanding.

"No, I didnít until Catherine," he placed his arm around Catherine. "She has made many things possible for me."

"Good for you, girl," Caleb said. "Keep it up."

"Oh, I intend too." She planted a kiss on his whiskery cheek. "Thank you so much. Weíll do this again sometime."

"Youíve got my number," the sleigh driver said then climbed into the driverís seat, picked up the reins, and with a jaunty salute, urged the horses on their way.

Hand-in-hand the two lovers entered the cottage. While Vincent stoked the fire, Catherine got them each a glass of wine. Sitting on the large sofa that faced the fireplace, they snuggled together, reliving in their thoughts the wonderful evening they had just had.

Soon, warmed by the wine and the fire, they grew sleepy and by mutual consent they mounted the stairs to their bedroom. Barely awake, they changed into their nightclothes, and in a matter of minutes, they were cuddled together fast asleep.

******************

Vincent never slept past the sunrise when he was Above as he wasnít used to the bright light shining in his eyes and always awoke when it fell on his closed lids. After a highly active and satisfactory interlude, they moseyed downstairs for breakfast. The rest of the morning was lazed away until it was time for lunch.

The afternoon was spent walking, skating, and sledding. Catherine found her old sled in the shed behind the garage and taught Vincent how to belly-flop. The first time he tried it he misjudged the depth of the snow. It was about 8" deep and not the packed snow that he needed. He ran forward, his cloak billowing out behind him, with the sled held tightly against his stomach and chest. He flopped forward, the sled promptly sank into the soft snow, and he continued, plowing onward, until he came to a halt with a face full of snow. Catherine tried so very hard not to giggle, but he looked so funny that she couldnít stop herself. Standing, he brushed the snow from his face, leaving his eyebrows a startling white, and gave her an aggrieved look.

"Iím sorry, love," she gasped contritely, "but you looked so funny with your face buried in the snow and your feet sticking up in the air."

"Humpf!" he puffed. "What did I do wrong?"

"You didnít stick to the hard packed snow. Donít worry, love, Iíve done that myself. Many times. But, oh my . . ." She started to giggle again.

At that he took off once more and this time did a proper belly-flop. "Wahoo! You did it," Catherine cried, leaping up and down like a kid.

Vincent struck a pose with his chest puffed out and the sled held at ready. Catherine collapsed in a fit of laughter that left her coughing in the cold

Concerned he asked, "Are you all right?"

"Yes, Iím fine. The cold air just tickled my throat, thatís all."

When she could pry the sled out of his hands, she took her turns. Before it was getting dark, their playing around deteriorated into a snowball fight that Vincent won handily. Noticing the encroaching night, Catherine said, "We better go in and get something to eat and get packed. Elliot should be here soon."

"How did you get him to drive us here?"

"I didnít; he offered. And Iím going to turn down a free ride? Not on your life."

"He is a complicated man," he commented softly. "I never thought that he would be so accepting of us as he is."

Turning at the kitchen door, she said, "I think he has finally realized that itís a no-win situation for him. There is no way that he even comes close to being able to replace you. No one can."

"Ah, Catherine, do you know how much I love you?" he said as he lowered his lips to her waiting mouth.

"As much as I love you," she replied when they broke apart. "Come on, weíve got to get something to eat before I starve to death."

Elliot drove up at that time and called out, "Hello. Anyone home?"

Vincent opened the front door and Elliot swept in, in a cloud of snow. "How was your weekend?" the leonine man asked.

"You know I thought it would be boring, but the couple that ran the B & B were really very nice. They got me into a game of cribbage where every point was worth a penny and nearly wiped me out. I had more fun playing that simple game than I have had in a long time. Iím coming back just to see them some day."

"Iím glad you didnít find that your time was wasted." Vincent stopped him just outside the door to the kitchen. "I want to thank you for what youíve done for us this weekend."

"Think nothing of it; it was my privilege. My way of trying to be a friend. Itís just a start, but Iím a quick study." Grinning impudently at the other man, he said, "Iíll get this friendship business down pat one of these days."

Vincent chuckled and clapped him on the back. "Youíve made a very good start, my friend."

Sobering, Elliot nodded. He knew how much he owed this strange man, and he always paid his debts.

"Hi, Elliot," Catherine said as the two men entered the kitchen. "Have you had anything to eat?"

"Lord, yes. Thatís all Mrs. Horton did beside beat me in cribbage. There was more food than I knew what to do with. But good! Iíd like to hire her as my cook, but if I did, Iíd weigh 300 pounds in a year."

Laughing, Catherine said, "Well, you can at least drink a cup of coffee while we eat. Weíre all packed and can leave as soon as weíre finished. But I hate to go. Weíve had such a good time."

"Really," Elliot scoffed with a twinkle in his eyes as he sat down at the table. "One would never know by looking at you. You look so sad and blue."

"Ha!" Catherine cried. "Youíre just jealous." She stopped suddenly, knowing she was skating very close to his emotions.

"Youíre right, Cathy, but not of you and Vincent. Iím jealous of the love you have."

"Iím sorry, Elliot. I didnít mean to cause you any unhappiness by my thoughtless remark."

"No, thatís all right. Iím not unhappy, really. Just waiting." He tried to explain how he felt. "As I drove away, I marveled at the equanimity with which I had accepted your marriage and was now driving away, leaving you alone for an entire weekend. I never could have done that at one time. Aw hell, I thought to myself, how can I do anything but wish them all the happiness in the world? They deserve it. Especially Vincent after all he did to help me regain my confidence and belief in myself. They deserve each other. Guess maybe Iíve finally grown up. But it sure took me long enough."

"Elliot, you have always underestimated your ability to find real love and friendship and overestimated the value of your money and charm. Just be yourself, let your true feelings show, and I know that youíll find the one for you someday. Donít give up hope."

"Maybe youíre not looking in the right places," Vincent observed.

"Youíre probably right, my friend. But Iím determined to have what you have and I will find it." Getting up from the table, he said, "Tell me where your luggage is, and Iíll get it in the car while you finish up here."

Half an hour later Elliot was driving them away from one of the most pleasant memories they had ever had. Catherine was wishing that they could have stayed for at least a week. She was covetous of all the time that she could spend with the man she loved but knew that there would be other times that they could be alone. While regretting that they had to leave, Vincent was eager to tell Father of all the wonderful things he had seen and done on this trip: simple things, small things but, nevertheless, of great importance and moment to him. Things he would never have done if Catherine had never entered his life. With Catherine anything was possible.

Fini