Since it is Christmas...
I'd barely entered the stable when I felt it. A sense of dread so palpable, so oppressive, that even the warmth of being indoors seemed too faint a compensation. It was the sound of his breathing mostly, that uneasy pant, quick and shallow, that is the sure sign of an animal in distress. The others heard it too - they stood in their stalls with their heads raised and their bodies held rigid, as though seeking the scent of the predator, Death.
He was in the last stall on the right. He didn't look good. He was trembling, his head was drooping low, he could barely stand. I went through the usual checks - temperature, reflexes, heartbeat - looking for some chance of recovery, some sign of hope. There was none. He was done for. I patted him gently on the flank, to reassure him, then stepped out to meet his owner.
"I'm sorry, sir. There's nothing more I can do."
"You mean it's too late?"
"I'm afraid so."
"I see. It's my fault for not calling you sooner, isn't it?"
"Not really, sir. I doubt it would have helped."
"Only we're so busy this time of the year."
"I understand, sir. It's no one's fault."
"So there's really nothing you can do?"
"I'm afraid not, sir. The best thing now is put him out of his misery. As you can see, he's in a lot of pain."
"Yes, yes, of course. It's just....well, I'm going to miss him, you know. We've been together such a long time, been through so much together. I guess I just never thought it would come to this. I suppose I knew it would happen, but I just didn't think about it."
He turned away from me then, stepped over to the stall, cradled that triangular face against his own. They stood there like that for a moment, master and beast, his hands running over the floppy ears, the wide brow, the red, red nose.
Then he stepped back.
"You'll do it now?"
"And you'll make sure it's painless?"
"Of course. He won't feel a thing."
"All right then. Go ahead. Only, I'm going to go back to the house, if you don't mind. I don't think I can bear to watch."
"I understand, sir. I'll join you when it's done. It won't take long. And sir? I'm truly sorry."
I watched him walk away then, his body half bent as though under some invisible weight. I waited till the door shut behind him before I took the spike and hammer from my bag, placed the point of the spike between those two limpid eyes. "It's okay, boy", I said, as the deer stirred in panic, "it's okay."
Then I drove the spike home.