both by the lovely and talented knight_tracer
Sid stops – halfway down the drive, his truck behind him and the front entrance of WinHaven before him. The wind kicking up from the north tastes like rain, and Sid hesitates. He shifts his weight, gravel crunching under his boots. He eyes the tall windows, with their faux-plantation styling and their filigree trim, and the flagstones, and the ivy, the hedges hacked into neat, merciless submission – and then turns on his heel and changes course.
There’s no point in going to the front office. There’s nothing in the office that’s going to tell Sid if he’s taking the job. And he doesn’t need to venture in to know the inside will match the out: there’ll be nothing but mahogany wood and polished silver, photo finishes on the walls and dried flowers under glass. Sentimental bullshit, all of it. Designed to appeal to people who know money, but not horses.
Sid needs to see the barn.
And, indeed, Sid is unsurprised to find the barn is everything you’d expect from such an organization as GB’s. Pristine paddocks roll away in every direction, cordoned off by acres of perfectly maintained fence. Sid walks inside – the structure opens at either end, and the broad doors are propped to catch cross-breeze and daylight. The stalls are enormous, lit by row after row of artificial lights. The entire front side of each is made of coated wire mesh – ventilated, every inch of the beasts inside visible and subject to careful, vigilant watch. The air is filled with the clean, woody scent of shavings and sweet like hay, not a whiff of manure. A couple of the horses pause as Sid goes past, looking up from their midday meal or cocking a lazy ear in his direction. He glances at them only long enough to take in the glow of health in their coat, the heavy muscle under their skin, the general state of relaxation that says: This is a good place. This is a safe place. They feel home.
You don’t stay in this business long without learning that a barn full of nervous horses is no place you want to be.
Regardless, barns are a strange way to keep horses. Backwards, if you’ve given it any thought – placing herd animals designed to roam in individual, isolated cages. And that’s what they are. Even the poshest ones. Even ones like this. Sid looks in on a leggy chestnut, a narrow gray – hair still dark and two-year-old frame still unfilled, and confirms, although he hardly needs to, via the brass nameplates that hang on the stall doors that none of these creatures are the horse he is here to see.
The barn waits in that midday lull, still except where at the far end of the aisle, a groom stands at the entrance of a stall, about to lead out the animal inside. For a moment, everything stands at rest, the dust motes hang in the air, the only sounds those of horses quietly chewing, shuffling hay. Sid breathes in the stillness.
The horse shatters the quiet, charges through the door, spinning, feet clattering and sliding against the cement, killing the stillness in one violent lurch. The stallion hits the end of his lead, stud chain pulling tight, and comes to sudden, sharp stop. Sid watches them, man and horse. The groom at one end of the lead braced, and the stallion, his eyes indignant and startled, comes up slightly, getting light in the front end.
Heads pop up and chewing pauses, up and down the aisle.
The groom, no rookie, and, Sid imagines, expecting this, had stepped neatly out of the way. He gives the lead one sharp yank and the horse shifts his weight back to all fours, stands trembling. Snorting and wide-eyed. The horse is a dark bay, so dark he’s almost black; the shoulder is all Storm Cat, but the head is delicate. The ears, flicking madly bad and forth, are small and well set. His face tapers, almost dished in a way that belies how many generations removed he is from his Darley Arab forebear. The horse twists his long neck, and the head looking back at Sid is high and vigilant. A crooked white strip cuts across his face, not another white hair on him. He lifts a forefoot, paws at the air. And even in a barn, even standing still, his presence warps the air, as if greatness itself had an aura.
There is no mistaking this horse for any other. That is Tuxedo Bird.
The groom leads him out. The rushing performance at the stall door is repeated to a lesser degree as the groom takes him through the barn entrance. The winter sun picks out dapples in his coat, the shining picture of an athlete in his prime. Outside, Tuxedo Bird drops his head, leads easily up the path back towards the front office building. And at a safe distance, Sid follows.
As they come up the path, Sid can pick out two figures waiting in the yard. One he recognizes, a familiar face given how often he’s on TV, or plastered across the front of the Form, and identifiable even at a distance, by the distinctive, diminutive stature of a former jockey. The other he doesn’t – but given the suit and what look like $800 sunglasses, Sid’s pretty comfortable in his assumption that the second figure must be the owner.
GB spots him, and he’s looking at Sid with something that might be confusion, but he covers it quick. “Sidney!” he calls, tone familiar, even though they’ve only met once. He smiles at Sid like they’re old friends, even though GB had given Sid no more than a brief sideways glance right up until the moment he thought Sid could be useful. “Sidney, we were just bringing the horse up to meet you. But perhaps you’ve already met?”
“I wanted to see the barn,” Sid says.
GB blinks, smile frozen in place. “Yes, yes of course. Have you met Mr. Malkin?”
Sid shakes his head. “No.” Or at least, not in person.
The man, who is tall and broad-shouldered, dark curls gelled carefully into place, pushes his sunglasses back on top of his head. His eyes are very dark. “Sidney Crosby,” he says, with the same faint trace of an accent that he’d had on the phone. “It is very nice to finally meet you.” He holds out a hand.
Sid shakes it. “Mr. Malkin.”
“Evgeni, please.” He shrugs lightly. “Or Geno, if that is easier.”
GB coughs. “And this, of course, is Tuxedo Bird.”
The animal in question flicks an ear. He takes a step, looming over his groom. Sid pegs him at 16.3.
“We’re very excited to have you as part of WinHaven,” GB continues. “Even on a temporary basis.”
Ever since the Derby win, there have been plenty of people who were suddenly excited to have Sid as part of their organization. Or eager to just slap his name on something and call it a day. Sid frowns. “I haven’t said yes yet.”
GB glares, just for a second, before that tight smile falls back into place.
“Well that,” Evgeni Malkin interjects smoothly, one broad hand going to GB’s shoulder, “Is what we’re here to discuss.”
“He had a good two-year-old season,” Sid says. GB and Malkin are seated behind him, at last glance GB’s hands folded tightly in his lap, Malkin’s long legs sprawled in front of him. Sid stands by the window with his back to them, where through the glass he can watch the groom turn Tuxedo Bird loose in the paddock just below. The horse trots the length of his field, tail flagged, head snaking in front of him.
“He had a great two-year-old season,” GB corrects. He glances over at Malkin, who nods pleasantly.
“So what’s the problem?” Tuxedo Bird freezes, head up, still as a statue. Sid looks from the window to GB.
GB’s smile is more wince than anything. His hands twist over themselves. “He’s had some setbacks in his training.” He looks up at Sid. “He’s an… opinionated horse.”
“He doesn’t much seem to like doors,” Sid says, dry.
“No,” GB lets the word fall off his lips, like a horse letting go a bitter weed. They both watch Tuxedo Bird for a minute, head still in the air, neck arched, ears pointed at some unknown distant object he’s deemed worthy of his attention.
Sid takes advantage of his stillness to study his profile. Good slope to his shoulder, deep chest. Neck set on in the right place. Not too long in the back, but not too short. Clean legs. Good bone. “How’s he out of the blocks?”
“About as you’d imagine.” GB sounds sour. “Given how he feels about doors.”
On the other side of the glass, Tuxedo Bird snorts and sets off at a brisk trot for the far fence line. “I’d be working for you.” Sid turns around, looks at Malkin, who, for a brief moment, seems startled to be addressed. Malkin nods. “Not,” Sid clarifies, “for WinHaven?”
“You’d be an independent contractor, working under the auspices of my barn.” GB sounds like Sid had just announced his intentions to burn and pillage the whole place. And really – fair enough. For all GB knows, Sid might be here to do just exactly that. Maybe he thinks Sid wants his own barn. Maybe GB thinks Sid’s here to poach all his clients.
All his rich, stupid clients with their bourbon-addled dreams of the Derby. Sid does not roll his eyes, but it’s a near thing. Sid looks over at Malkin, who’s watching this exchange with seemingly lofty disinterest. He’s undone the buttons of his jacket to sit down, revealing a sweater underneath made of the sort of material that would grab dust like a magnet. Sid notes the careful pleat of his trousers, the pocket square, the shine on his leather shoes, one leg crossed casually and resting against his knee. Sid wonders if he’s even been in the barn at all, or if this leather-and-oak office, with its plush seating and softly backlit trophies is as close as he’s ever felt the need to come. Sid wonders what extraordinary amount he pays GB, that GB would rather allow him to bring in Sid than cut ties entirely.
“I don’t compromise,” Sid warns.
Malkin’s eyes narrow, but there’s a hint of amusement there, like this statement pleases him.
But it’s GB who answers. “Trust me, Sidney.” GB smirks. “Your reputation precedes you.”
Malkin ignores this comment. “Is that a yes? You’ll work with the horse?”
“I’ll work with the horse,” Sid says, and then he nods at both of them and turns to leave.
Malkin catches up with him just outside the office, as Sid is headed down the hall. “Mr. Crosby – wait.”
Malkin shakes his head, eyebrows climbing. “Where are you going?”
“To work with the horse.” Obviously, Sid doesn’t add, but Malkin still makes a face at his tone.
There are horse people , Sid’s father always used to say, and Sid can picture him now, one hand rubbing circles into the neck of the dozing horse next to him, soft and easy as he always was with horses, as he was with nothing else. And then there are people people. And you, Sidney, are definitely not the latter. His look at Sid had been sharp, as if Sid couldn’t’ve spit those same words back in his face and had it been equally true.
Sid nods at Malkin again, the kind of short, sharp gesture that is supposed to tell him that they’re done, and keeps walking.
But Malkin follows him out the door. “I like this horse a lot.” He doesn’t slow down when Sid swerves off the path, just matches him with his long-legged stride, not even glancing down at the wet grass.
Sid shoves his hands down into his pockets. “Everyone likes their horse.”
“I want my horse to win.”
Sid ducks his head and rolls his eyes. “Everyone wants their horse to win, Mr. Malkin.”
They’ve reached the paddock now, and Sid rests his hands along the top board. Malkin settles next to him, sunglasses still atop his head, jacket fluttering in the breeze, no sign that he intends to get out of Sid’s way any time soon. “Yes, but my horse was winning. He was winning and then he stopped winning.”
Across the paddock, Tuxedo Bird has finally dropped his head to graze. Sid trails his eyes over the lines of his back, the curve and dip of muscle. An engine designed to perform. All that potential. For a moment, Malkin might as well be a million miles away. “Maybe your horse just isn’t very fast,” Sid says absently.
That’s bullshit and they both know it; Malkin snorts. He leans across the fencing, interrupting Sid’s view. His mouth curves in a playful expression, but his voice books no argument. “My horse is very fast.”
As if to prove him right, Tuxedo Bird’s head pops up; he stares at both of them, one ear riveted, the other flicking back and forth. And then he launches. The paddock’s too small for him to build up any real speed but he coils and springs, ground disappearing under that enormous stride. For one heart-stopping moment Sid thinks he won’t stop, can’t stop – but he does. He wheels at the fence line, turns a neat corner and drops back into a lazy trot. “Alright,” Sid agrees. “Your horse is fast.”
Malkin grins, but the expression falters. “He is fast enough to win, but he is not winning.”
True enough. Sid knows the numbers as well as anyone. Better – given that he had poured over Tuxedo Bird’s starts and splits from the moment he hung up after Malkin’s first phone call. Sid knows all about how he burned track records at the start of his two-year-old season, undefeated through his first four starts, and already the heavy favorite for the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile by September. Sid knows how he’d gone into Keeneland’s Breeder’s Futurity on a clear day in the first week of October, the crowd ready to hand him the trophy before the race was even run. And how he’d trailed in sixth. Out of the money for the first time in his young career.
He was scratched from the Juvenile.
Something is wrong, and if GB had any idea how to fix it, he would have done so by now. The horse would be back on the track by now. But here is Tuxedo Bird, sitting in a paddock at the farm.
And here is Sid.
And here is Evgeni Malkin. All the resources in the world, but to Sid he’s just a man with a horse. And all men with horses are just different shades of desperate. Malkin clears his throat. “I want you to figure out why he no longer wins.”
As though wins could be bought and sold with the same mathematical precision that stocks are traded, or shares sold, or risk divested, or whatever it is Malkin does in his day to day life that keeps him in thousand dollar suits and king’s hobbies. As if racing wasn’t one part strategy to nine parts luck. Sid watches the horse in question drop down to a walk; he circles once then looks back at them. “Yes,” Sid says. “We talked about this on the phone.”
Malkin nods. “Yes.” He is, at least, watching the horse now. “Can you do that?” Malkin asks.
Sid looks at Tuxedo Bird. Tuxedo Bird looks back. A thousand plus pounds of muscle, and even heavier than that, the weight of all the dreams each one of these beasts carries. A dark, sharp look in his eye that is either intelligence or haughty pride, or maybe just the arrogance of his human creators reflecting back at them. Sid shrugs. “Of course.”
There’s wood smoke in the air in the more, a distant hint that comes in on a sharp breeze, layered under hay and leather and horse. The same wind sets the flags at the quarter and the half poles snapping. They keep catching Sid’s eye, and he keeps having to drag his attention back to GB.
GB’s personally curated tour hasn’t taken them to the track yet. They’ve been through the guesthouse. “It’s quite near the barn,” GB said. “And I think you’ll find it quite well appointed.”
“Fine,” Sid said. “This’ll be fine.”
“And this,” GB says, one hand extended in front of him as though continuously sweeping back a curtain. “This is the main barn, of course. The mares are kept over – ” He points at another building, safely across the expanse of brilliant green. “ – there.” Next he waves a hand at a branching aisleway. “Tack. Wash rack. Wash rack. There are five hotwalkers through there. The theraplate – ”
Sid tunes him out. Sid grew up on a spread that held nothing more than a pipe corral and ten thousand acres of range. Sid grew up where riding the fence-line took days, and where the horses spent their youth naked under the sky and as untouched as the wily descendants of the horses the Conquistadors had turned loose to wander and roam the face of a new continent. Just show me where they live, he thinks. Show me where they eat. Show me where they run.
“Sidney?” GB stops, mid-monologue, perhaps disappointed Sid isn’t more impressed with the gleaming wood or the wrought iron or the observation deck, or the million and one other things Sid doesn’t need to see. Not to mention the million and one people Sid doesn’t need to know. All morning it’s been, “This is So-and-So, the yearling trainer. This is the rehab trainer. This is one of my assistant trainers.”
At each meeting, Sid had ducked his head, cap low, shaken hands, and immediately forgotten names.
Sid shrugs. “You’re a busy man, GB. I can figure the rest out on my own.”
“Right.” GB’s hand drops to his side, and then he motions to one of the men pushing a wheelbarrow down the aisle. “I’ll leave you with Umberto.” He puts his hand on Umberto’s shoulder. “Sid, this is Umberto, Tuxedo Bird’s groom. Umberto, this is Sidney, he’s going to be working for us, training Bird.”
Sid doesn’t correct him.
Umberto stands quietly under Sid’s gaze, eyes dropped even after GB smiles his tight little smile and retreats. He has the knack that so many grooms do: able to swarm all over the barn and be invisible all at the same time. “You’ve been taking care of Bird?” Sid asks.
Umberto nods. “Yes. Ever since he came in November.”
“How is he in the barn?”
“Quiet.” Umberto shrugs. “He’s a good horse. Not mean like some stallions.”
Sid nods at this. “Has he always had the door thing?”
Umberto looks away. Looking, Sid thinks, at the stall doorway Bird make such a fuss over yesterday. “Yes,” he says, after a pause. “Since he got here in November.” He smiles, a small, nervous curve. “Otherwise he’s a very good horse.”
“I’m going to be spending a lot of time with him next few days.”
“Yes.” And now Umberto looks up at him, smiling. “Yes, we’ve heard about how you do your work.”
No doubt they have. No doubt GB had called him a few choice names before he got here, too.
Sid spends the rest of the morning with Tuxedo Bird, who has a bright, airy stall at the end of the row. Bird likes to stand at the door and watch the world, but he doesn’t pace, Sid notes. He doesn’t call or paw. He just watches.
“This place is alright by you, huh?” Sid asks him.
Bird flicks an ear. He approaches Sidney, noses carefully at his hands, his pockets.
Sid laughs. Someone has fed this horse by hand; someone has given this horse treats.
Sid holds still for this close inspection, Bird’s warm breath first against his hands, then against his cheek. “I don’t have anything for you. But I could bring you lunch.” Sid can feel the prickle of Bird’s whiskers sweeping across his skin. “I bet that would get me on your good side, yeah?”
The horse breathes, near Sid’s ear and loud against the quiet. His dad always said: don’t talk to horses too much. Spend most of your time listening. But right now, Bird is listening to him, in that close, close way that only horses can. There’s nothing for him in Sid’s words, but he’s learning Sid nonetheless. Probably knows Sid better now after these few moments together than GB will in his whole life. Sid steps back and lets himself out of the stall.
He grabs a couple of flakes from the feed room and collects a bucket of soaked pellets from Umberto, who hands them over with a mild raised eyebrow, but no argument. There are people bustling up and down the barn aisles, but Sid keeps his eyes down on the hay, leafy, green alfalfa, and his thoughts are already back with the horse, what they’ll do, how they’ll start.
He turns the corner, and he’s knocked into – sent suddenly stumbling by someone he neither heard nor saw.
Sid lunges to save the bucket, but the hay goes flying, and as he’s off balance he trips over whatever the idiot who ran into him dropped. Sid stumbles, arms searching for balance –
“Fuck. Sorry. Sorry.” The man who knocked into him grabs him, steadies him, and he’s close – close enough for Sid to smell pine and sweat, and he’s abruptly face to face with a very tall, blond man. “Sorry, are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Sid tugs his arm free of the man’s grasp, takes a step back.
The stranger’s hand drops. “You’re Sidney Crosby.”
“Yes.” Sid doesn’t bother trying to hid his irritation. Hay all over the floor. It’s a fucking waste.
“You’re here to fix Tuxedo Bird.”
That makes Sid stop and look up. “Tuxedo Bird’s not broken.” Sid’s seen broken horses before. They look a lot worse than Bird.
The man’s mouth opens and shuts. “Right.” He stares at Sid. “Anyway. I’m Jeff Carter. I’m an assistant trainer.”
Sid goes back to looking at the hay. It might be too dusty to feed, or it might still be salvageable. It’s still a fucking mess.
“I work mostly in GB’s other barn,” Carter continues, as if Sid cared. “But I have a couple Stakes horses, so they’re up here.”
Fuck it, Sid decides. It’s not like GB doesn’t have the money to burn. He glances around for the nearest muck tub.
“Rubbing shoulders with the fancy crowd. I guess.” Carter shrugs as he drifts to the end of his sentence, an uncertain, awkward expression on his face.
Sid rolls his eyes at the idea of horses caring who runs in Stakes races verses the lesser realms of Claimers and Allowance races. Carter twists the bridle he’s holding between his fingers. Sid watches him swallow. Nervous, he decides. Carter is nervous.
Sid frowns. If they were horses this would all be very simple. Sid would simply shove Carter back. Pin his ears and bare his teeth until Carter backed down. And then everything would be fine. Everyone would know their place, and everything would be settled.
Horses do not suffer fools. At least, not among their own kind.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to work. Sid has to say something.
“Okay,” Sid says and turns to go.
“Wait – ”
Sid stops and turns around, but Carter just stands there. He finally shakes his head a little. “I just – I wanted to say I was really impressed with what you did with Ocean Liner. I watched him break his maiden, and then I watched him after you started working with him, and it was just – really impressive.” He rubs the back of his neck. “I’m pretty new at this to be honest. I used to be an eventer.”
It is entirely unclear what Carter expects him to say. Ocean Liner was a gelding owned by an asshole named Mercier. He’d had a wonky stride – fixing that had been as simple as finding a decent farrier and yelling at the jockey until he rode the way Sid wanted. Allergic to fly spray, too. That had been a real pain.
Carter’s still staring at him.
“Why’d you quit eventing?” Sid asks. He does not add, “And is it too late for you to go back to it?” He congratulates himself on his tact.
“Not a lot of money in eventing.” Carter pauses. “And once you go through a couple of those fences rather than over they start looking awful big.”
The last part slips out, as though it’s something Carter hadn’t intended to say. He drops his eyes, and Sid watches his fingers, twisting the leather in his hands. Human beings are strange things, Always asking questions that aren’t questions. Never, ever saying what they mean. Sid clears his throat. “Well. I have to see to the horse.”
“Right.” Carter nods. His eyes are still down. “Right, of course.”
Tuxedo Bird twitches when Sid lays hands on him, but doesn’t look up from the food Sid placed in front of him. He’s not sore – just thoroughbred-typical thin skin. Sid runs his hands down Bird’s legs. Bird lifts each foot for him, patient. Polite. He also has thoroughbred-typical shitty feet. Sid brushes the shavings away. Thin soles. Too flat. Underrun heels. Typical racer. Best to get the farrier out to start drawing the toe back into something approximating what Sid considers healthy.
He drops the foot. The joints flex cleanly. Bird doesn’t react to Sid pressing on his withers or back. His eyes are clear and bright. He blinks on both sides when Sid waves his hand nearby. The picture of health.
He does have scars. A matching set, one on the point of each shoulder. Hidden by his hair, but revealed upon touch. Sid runs his hand over the hide, over the rough line on either side that interrupts the otherwise velvet-smooth hair. Bird shifts under his hands, blows out an impatient sigh. Sid looks up at him. “Let’s go for a walk.”
In the open, Bird is proud but not rude. He doesn’t barge into Sid’s space, or pull ahead, or lag behind. He is alert but not panicky. Doorways, though, he ducks through – dives quick and without regard for his handler. Sid let him – the first time. He stepped aside and let Bird bolt through the doorway that leads from the barn out into the open, watched him eye the looming structure overhead, watched his stride shorten and footsteps go skittery. But once is enough.
On the way back to the stall, Sid stands just inside the barn, holding the lead rope. At the other end, Bird stands braced and breathing hard. He rolls his eye at Sid, head as high as he can get away with. He takes a step back; Sid feels the rope go taut. “Right. This has to stop.”
Sid moves to stand at his shoulder. He touches the stud chain where it runs over the thin skin of his muzzle. “You make it worse for yourself, you know.”
Bird shakes his head.
Sometimes, his father used to say, the only way to go forward is to go back. Sid draws himself up, squares his shoulders. They’ve had three days now to get to know each other; long enough for Bird to know who’s in charge. Sid presses a hand into Bird’s shoulder, steadily increasing pressure, and waits.
Bird leans into him first, and then, finally, he moves away, shifts his weight and takes one small step away from Sid’s hand. “Good,” Sid croons. He strokes the shoulder, scratches at the base of Bird’s mane. “Good.” He moves to Bird’s hip, pressing on his flank until the sideways movement is repeated. Quicker, this time, Bird swinging his haunches away from Sid’s touch. “Excellent. Good work.”
That’s all they do, for a long time. Out of the corner of his eye, Sid can see the barn workers moving around them, coming in and out of the barn for their daily routines. He sees other horses led out, and put away, and he can sense more than see other people staring. Watching him.
But Sid is working his horse. And if standing just outside the barn entrance, stepping in small circles is what they need to do, than that’s what they’ll do, for however long it takes. Everyone else can just go around.
The sun climbs higher. Sid trains. Bird moves his feet.
Bird sighs heavily. Sid strokes his neck. Distantly, he is aware of his own stomach growling. Bird’s head drops, he rests his nose on Sid’s shoulder. And for a minute, they both just stand, breathing.
Sid asks him to move his back end again. Bird does, crossing left foot over right. They stand again, and Sid smiles. Bird’s back half is inside the shade of the barn, his front still in the bright overhead sun outside. He stands quietly in the entrance, waiting. “Good,” Sid says, soft. His fingers stroke down Bird’s neck. He looks up.
Umberto is standing with a couple of the other grooms, watching. “Bring out some hay,” Sid calls. “So he can eat something out here.”
Umberto brings the hay out and stands shaking his head while Bird eats it quietly, standing on a slack line in the barn entrance.
Sid watches him chew and nose his way through the pile looking for choice bits. “I want the farrier to come out and see him.”
Umberto frowns. “He had his feet done last week.”
“I don’t care.” Sid looks down at him. “I want him out again, and I want to be here when he works on Bird.”
“The farrier’s coming out tomorrow,” Umberto says. “I’ll make sure he’s on the list.”
One thing and then the next. Sid wipes sweat off his brow. Soon they start the real work.
That night, Sid lies on his back and stares up at the ceiling of GB’s guesthouse. Standing half in the shade of the barn, Bird had been half blue-black, half lit up where the sun picked out red and gold highlights in his neck and shoulders. Sid has met a lot of horses. Sid has run his eyes and his hands over champions. Hundreds from afar, and dozens up close. War Emblem, Curlin. Even A.P. Indy, though he’d been long retired by that time. And of course, Sid had been standing next to Gold Leaf when the Churchill stewards draped the roses around his neck. Sid remembers how the bright red chestnut had rolled his eye, looked back at Sid like he knew the two of them found this gesture equally ridiculous. Sid remembers his broad white stripe, mud-splattered but still bright under the May sun.
Tuxedo Bird could outrun them all.
It’s all potential, it’s all a dream now – but Sid can see it. The speed, the strength in every line of his frame. All they need now is that maddeningly particular combination of luck and opportunity.
Sid closes his eyes and dreams about what he’s going to look like when he goes flat out, stretches into a run.
The next morning, he’s back with Bird. Bird is eating breakfast in his stall: the grain long gone, he takes two bites of hay then swings his head to check on Sid, presses his nose into Sid’s shoulder. Then back to the hay, cycle and repeat.
From out in the aisle, Sid can hear voices yelling back and forth.
“You out at the other place?”
“Yeah, I just came from there.”
“Micky sound yet?”
“Naw – he’s still off.”
Sid hears the clanking of iron tools.
“Oh, hey – you’re supposed to do Bird today.”
“I just did Bird last week. What the hell?”
“Yeah, well, you’re supposed to do him again.”
There’s a muffled noise of irritation, and then someone is at the front of Bird’s stall, pulling the door open. He looks at Bird, and Sid waits the half-beat it takes for him to realize Sid is also in the stall.
“Jesus fuck.” The man catches his breath. “What, are you just hiding in here for fun? What the hell?”
Bird is dancing a bit, breakfast abandoned. Sid watches him sling his head up, out of reach, white of his eye showing.
Sid looks back at the man. Burn mark on the back of his hand. Leather apron. “You’re the farrier.”
“Yes.” He glares pointedly at Sid. “Also I have a name. Which is Mike Richards. You could call me that.”
They regard each other steadily. “Mike Richards,” Sid says, which generates a pointed, expectant shrug. “I’m Sidney Crosby.”
“Oh,” Richards says. “Oh.” He scowls. “Well in that case, you want me to do his feet or not?”
“Yeah.” Sid holds his hand out for Bird’s halter. “Let me lead him out.”
“Sure.” Richards pitches it at him like he can’t get rid of it fast enough. “Knock yourself out.” He walks back out into the aisle.
Sid looks at Bird. Bird eyes him, then he drops his head, chewing idly. Sid slips the halter into place. He looks at the stall door and then back at Bird. Bird blinks back, placid. Sid squares his shoulders, clucks once, and heads out.
Bird walks calmly through, just one loud snort to let Sid know he still doesn’t like it.
“Well that’s an improvement, anyway,” Richards says.
Sid leads the horse over to where Richards is set up. Richards dusts his hands across his apron and reaches for a foot. Bird pins his ears, shifts away.
Sid moves with him. “You don’t want to see him move first?”
Richards looks up at him, blank. “I’ve been watching this horse move for a year and a half.”
Sid lifts an eyebrow. “You haven’t seen him move today.”
“I haven’t – ” Richards glares. “Look, I’m supposed to get through thirty horses today, what do you want from me?”
Competence. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Sid’s mouth twists, apparently even GB’s not immune to cutting corners. Sid hands the lead off to Umberto and they both watch as he jogs Bird down and back, Richards with his hands on his hips, still glaring. When Bird is back, standing in front of them, Sid ducks down next to Richards; he taps the hoof wall. “What I really want is for you to bring the toe back.”
Richards stares at him, both of them squatting next Bird’s leg, dust floating in the air between them. “You want me to change the angle of his foot?”
“You want me to fuck with his feet? Which have been fine. Which, for a thoroughbred, have been fucking great all year?”
Sid stays quiet, waits.
“You’re fucking nuts.” Richards stands up, shakes his head.
Sid follows him. “He’s got a big stride. Less toe, less chance of nicking himself. And less likely to trip.”
“His feet,” Richards says again, “are fine.”
“This isn’t a conversation,” Sid says. “I’m telling you how I want his feet done.”
Richards’ expression darkens. “And I’m telling you it’s fucking stupid to mess with something that’s working.”
Sid bites the inside of his cheek and counts to ten. “Less toe, better balance. Better balance, less likely to trip. Surely you’re not too stupid to understand that?”
Richards’ mouth works. “That’s not how GB wants his horses’ feet done.”
“GB’s not in charge of his feet anymore.”
Richards doesn’t move.
Sid raises an eyebrow. “You care more about what GB thinks than what’s best for the horse?”
Richards’ whole body is rigid. For a second, Sid thinks he’s about to get punched.
Richards swallows. “I just do what I’m paid to do.”
If he just did what he was paid to, they wouldn’t still be standing here. Sid gestures at the hoof. “Well, then?”
Richards glares at him again but doesn’t say anything as bends down, reaches for the foot. Sid watches Bird shift his weight onto the leg Richards’ reaching for. He pins his ears again.
When the foot doesn’t budge, Richards smacks the horses shoulder once, sharp. Sid can hear him muttering under his breath. Bird bites the air, teeth clacking.
Sid touches the near side of his neck. “Don’t make it harder than it has to be,” he says, low. Bird’s ear twitches. His weight shifts.
Richards is flushed, his hairline damp by the time Sid is satisfied. He drops his rasp back into its place on the truck, runs a hand through his hair. “You’re finished,” he tells the horse. Then he looks at Sid. “And you, are a fucking asshole.”
Only after Bird seems comfortable, is striding easy in his new shoes, and is fed and bedded down for the night does Sid retreat back to the guesthouse. He opens the window, even though it’s cold, so that he can hear, or at least imagine, the sounds of the horses nosing through their mangers, chasing one last stray mouth of grain, or just the quiet rustle they make shifting in their stalls. Quiet horses, content. Sid lies down and closes his eyes.
He calls up in his mind the drumbeat of their racing steps, the shimmer of their hides in the sun, draped in bright silks. He thinks about the crafty, quick-off-the-gun quarter horses of his teenage years and about the shaggy ponies of his youth. He thinks about his father, one broad hand splayed across the lathered neck of a frightened yearling fresh off the range. The way he spoke low, easy words until the horse dropped his head, heaved great, relieved breaths, and pressed his face into Sid’s father’s chest.
“Horse’ll make a mountain out of any molehill you give it,” he said. “They’re reactionary, but not without reason.” He had turned then to look at Sid, his skinny frame hanging on the outside of the pipe corral fence, and the horse had turned with him, shoulder glued to his father’s hip, as obedient a heel as any dog could give. “Don’t give them molehills.”
Sid kicks the blanket down despite the chill, the fabric too rough against his skin. Tuxedo Bird, in his two years and change on the planet, comes with all his molehills built in. And there’s the rub of it, the consequences of not knowing a horse since it was a wet, unfolding thing, all spindly legs and untried hopes.
Such a strange business, to build all your dreams, to place all your hopes on those fragile backs.
Sid changes Bird’s routine. He works the horse in the gray, half-light of morning, when the practice track is quieter, barns still empty of all but their residents and their dark-eyed, near-silent caretakers. Clouds hang thick overhead when he gives a leg up to the exercise rider – one of a gaggle of tiny, interchangeable girls, all with huge eyes and blonde ponytails and arms of iron.
There’s a bite in the air, and Bird is up this morning, dancing in place, slinging his head. Sid grabs the reins tight, holding just below the bit. “Take him out to the half mile marker and breeze back, yeah?” She nods, and Sid lets go.
Bird dances away from him, quick lateral steps, but the girl bobs and balances above him, easy as a float on the water. Sid watches them head out, shrinking as the distance grows, Bird’s springy steps making her blond ponytail swing. He watches them circle as she works to keep him in a trot. They turn at the marker, Bird’s ears pointed ahead like two straight arrows.
He’d match a quarter horse in acceleration, Sid thinks. Two quick strides of canter, and then Bird lunges, body one long, streaming leap as they come flying back, reaching and running with the single-minded purpose of something bred for countless generations to fly.
He watches them argue the end of the exercise, weaving slightly as she wrests him down, his neck curling and arching as he drops into a sideways canter and finally a trot. “That all?” She asks when they pull up to Sid.
“It’s early yet,” Sid says. He and Malkin haven’t discussed when Bird’s first start will be. Sid will know when he’s ready.
“You want me to walk him out?”
“No, I got it.” He takes the reins.
She watches him a moment longer, looking down at him from Bird’s back. “Anna,” she says. “By the way, my name is Anna.”
Sid touches the brim of his cap, and she smiles and hops off to find her next ride.
Bird is still amped, hardly fatigued at all from the breeze work. He shakes his head as they walk, pulls and twists, ears back on the track as it slowly comes to life, more horses being led out, more thunder of hooves as they stretch their legs. “We’re done for now,” Sid tells him.
Bird slings a forefoot. Sids tsks. He rubs a hand across the sweaty neck. Bird shivers. Back at the barn, he stands politely enough for Umberto to strip his tack but protests again at the looming arch of the barn entrance, and again at the doorway to the hot walker.
Sid growls, fingers tightening on the lead. Bird slings his head and threatens to go up.
Two steps forward, Sid thinks. One step back. He eyes the doorway, plenty wide, plenty well lit. Nothing frightening. “Making mountains out of molehills,” he tells the horse with mock dismay.
Bird tries to back and then goes light in front again, weight shifting back to his haunches. Sid eyes the ceiling, trying to calculate how quickly this could escalate.
Somewhere in the barn, a door slams or a horse kicks out – and at the resounding bang Bird’s hooves skitter across the cement; he braces against the lead.
Quickly, is the answer.
Sid wrests him to the side rather than down, works him in a tight circle, once, twice around until Bird stands with his neck curved, his sides heaving. “I’ll cut you a deal,” Sid says, very quiet, very low. “You stand quiet, and we don’t have to go in. No going forward, but no going back, either.” He eyes the ceiling again. “And no going up.”
Bird stands rigid, unmoving. And then finally, he relaxes. The muscles of his back and neck slowly release. He noses against Sid’s sleeve, heaves a sigh. “There we go,” Sid says. “No need to panic.” Bird’s neck is warm again, blood close to the surface. Sid smoothes a hand across his skin, rubs his withers, scratches his chest. He pauses, fingers trailing again over the scars marring each shoulder. “We’ll walk outside, all right?”
He walks a lap around the barn with Bird, the horse still dancing and snorting at shadows, looking for dragons. Watching him, Sid imagines that if he asked GB, GB would say this was just Bird being Bird. A horse being a horse. A hot-blooded thoroughbred being its own capricious and high-strung self.
But Bird isn’t unreasonable or unpredictable. Bird has been very clear about his likes and dislikes. The sky overhead, no close walls around him, telegraphed to Sid as clearly as if it had been in the Queen’s English. Bird is healthy. Bird runs with free, easy strides. But a horse that can’t enter the starting gate can’t race. “What are you worried about?” Sid asks him. “What scared you?”
Bird just blinks back at him, dark eye tracking Sid’s every move.
He hands the horse off to Umberto to finish cooling out, and then he takes off on his own. He starts in Bird’s stall, touches each corner, checks each mat, runs his hands across the manger looking for stray bolts or edges, but everything is coated and smooth, as horse-safe as money can buy. There’s nothing in the barn, either. No unfinished surface, nothing lurking at horse shoulder-height ready to grab or cut. Sid walks every foot of fence line in Bird’s paddock, but nothing juts or sticks out.
Every inch of the track is pristine and groomed. He lets himself into the shed where extra equipment is stored. The light filters in dim and dusty. He walks past the tractors to where the practice starting gate lies dormant. Sid ducks under the metal bar and wanders down the structure, dragging his hand over the cool surface. Each gate swings quietly open when he presses.
Not even a squeak.
His father would say that ultimately the why of the thing doesn’t matter. That Sid’s job now is to lessen the damage, and so Sid praises Bird elaborately under each doorway he passes through quietly, until the horse stands and preens, seemingly pleased with himself and glad Sid recognizes his worth. Sid pats his side. “We don’t always understand the world we move through, horse. But we move through it anyway. Good job.” Bird catches hold of Sid’s sleeve in his teeth, holding it delicately. Sid smiles.
Bird’s ears flick and then flatten as he catches notice of something behind them. He stamps a foot, and Sid glances over his shoulder.
Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are walking up the aisle, Carter laden down with tack, Richards next to him, laughing. Their voices are loud, then soft, then loud again.
They grate. Sid doesn’t have much use for people. And people don’t seem to have much use for him.
Richards looks at him as they go past, frowns as if he could tell what Sid was thinking. “Most trainers want their horses to run. You still teaching yours to stand still?”
Sid keeps his eyes on the horse. “Given how incompetent you are your job, Richards, I wouldn’t be offering advice about how to do anyone else’s.”
“Fuck you, Crosby,” Richards says.
Bird shifts away from the two of them. “Likewise, Richards.” Sid pats the horse’s shoulder. Bird snorts. The hair under Sid’s fingers is a sleek, glossy almost-black. “I don’t like them, either,” he tells the horse He watches Carter and Richards trail out of sight, disappearing around the corner, and turns his attention back to the horse. “Once again?” Bird leads quietly into his stall and out again, and Sid positions himself at Bird’s shoulder. “Perfect,” he says. “Extraordinary beast. Well done.” Bird draws himself up tall, eye bright.
Sid grins. And if it were just this – just always Sid and the horse and none of the nonsense that comes with it – that would be perfect. His job would be easy.
Sid hears laughter behind him, and his little bubble bursts. He’s preparing to tell Richards he can fuck right off, but it’s a lightly accented, warm voice that says, “He looks so pleased with himself.”
Sid’s still scowling when he turns around, but Bird is stretching his neck out, ears pricked toward Malkin. When he nears, Malkin holds out one hand, palm carefully flat, which Bird breathes into. “Hello, Tuxedo Bird,” Malkin says, very quiet, very soft. He watches Bird drag his muzzle across his fingers, and then looks up. “Hello, Mr. Crosby.”
Sid tries to remember what day it is, if it’s the weekend and thus a slightly more likely time for owners to drop by – if weekends even mean anything to men like Malkin. Or maybe this is just some predetermined interval set up for Malkin to check on his investment. “Mr. Malkin.”
Malkin strokes Bird’s cheek, runs careful fingers down the horse’s blaze, smiling. In response, Bird reaches out and rubs his face against Malkin’s chest. Sid waits for the cry of dismay, for Malkin to jump back – he’s wearing a spotless, lightweight jacket of some kind, blue so pale it’s almost white.
“Your – jacket,” Sid warns, in case he hasn’t noticed.
“Mmm, yes,” Malkin agrees absently, hand still stroking across the horse’s face. “He must like silk.”
Bird’s still rubbing his face on Malkin as though there is, in fact, something about the texture he likes. Sid arrests an idle pulse of curiosity. It must be soft.
Malkin smiles, first down at the horse and then at Sid. “I’d like to watch you work with him.”
There’s only an idle curiosity in his voice, if he’s here to check up on Sid, he’s hiding it well. Sid frowns. “We’re not doing anything very exciting.” If Malkin thinks Sid’s going to put Bird through an unscheduled full work just to show off, he’s dead wrong.
“That’s alright.” Malkin’s attention is back on the horse, scratching along the line of his jaw. Bird’s lip droops. And Sid is – surprised. Almost, just for second, jealous.
Malkin glances up again. “I’m sure whatever you have planned will be interesting.”
Malkin’s presence puts everyone just a touch on edge. Even Sid can see it – in the extra hurry the grooms have to get out of sight, in the glances Anna the exercise rider casts over her shoulder at him. He’s not doing anything – lanky frame leaning against the fence, arms folded along the top rail, eyes on Bird. But all the same, he’s fucking with Sid’s routine. If Malkin makes the rider nervous, the horse will be nervous. If the horse is nervous, he’ll burn his calories worrying, not running. Owners in the barn are like throwing a rock into a pond. Sid hates ripples.
Anna looks over at Malkin again, and Bird dances under her. Sid tightens his hold on the reins. “Once around at a hand gallop, then let him go at the end. See what he’s got left.”
She nods, attention still mostly on Malkin. Bird jigs. “Hey.” Sid wheels the horse around him, bending him in a tight circle. “Pay attention.” Both horse and rider look at him. She nods, more focused this time.
Sid takes his place at the rail, next to Malkin. They both watch her take Bird out, stride stretching from a trot to a canter, from a canter to a gallop, his rider perched over his neck.
“Why this length?” Malkin asks. “Why this speed?”
Sid bristles. “Do you trust me to train this horse or not?”
Malkin takes off his sunglasses, stowing them carefully in his pocket. He looks at Sid dead on. “Of course I trust you,” he says mildly. “That doesn’t mean I’m not curious as to how it works.”
He has wide, curious eyes, and he’s looking at Sid with a clear, placid gaze. Sid looks away, back out where Bird is nearing the far turn. He shrugs. “We’re building his wind. He’ll have to run longer distances at three than he did as a two year old. And race more frequently if we want to qualify for the Derby.” He steals a glance at Malkin, who nods and gestures for him to continue. “Technique – that we’ll tune up later. Closer to the start of the season.”
This makes Malkin lift an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware you could teach technique to a horse.”
“A good start,” Sid says. “Breaking from the gate. Running on the rail. Running on the outside.” He waits for Malkin’s face to take on that dull, blank look that owners get, but it doesn’t. If anything, he looks more focused, mind churning through some internal, unknown calculations.
“Then it’s not all genetics?”
On the far stretch, Sid can see Bird fighting for his head. “I mean, a big part of it is – ” Sid shrugs again, searching for the words, “ – athleticism, wind. But, you can get an inside post or an outside post. See, most people just train their horses to run – to run fast. But they don’t teach their horses to race. They say, ‘oh – you can’t teach competiveness’ – but what you can do is give them tools. Show them how to win when they break in the front. How to win when they break in the back. How to win in mud. It’s just laziness, that most people don’t. Most people don’t want to put the work in. Or they have too many horses. Or they’re not good enough to put the work in. Like – ” Sid glances around; his eyes fall on Carter, prepping one of his own horses for work. “ – Like Carter. He’ll build the horse’s muscle. Build his wind. But that horse, the gray – you see him? He likes to run on the rail. He’ll be fine as long as he gets an inside post. But to the outside?” Sid shrugs. “He’s unbalanced. He’ll drift wide, game over. And Carter hasn’t corrected that. Anyway – ”
Sid looks over; Malkin is smiling broadly at him.
He breaks off. “You think I’m crazy.”
Malkin’s smile falls away. “No, no. I just don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak at such length before. You sound very – ” He won’t stop looking at Sid with that intent, dark-eyed gaze. “Passionate. You sound very sure. I like that.”
“I am sure,” Sid keeps his eyes fixed on Bird, so he can sound sure, instead of twitchy, which is how all Malkin’s staring makes him feel. “Very sure. I know horses.”
At the far side of the track, Anna finally lets Bird out – Sid can see his neck stretch down and low and his body grow long. His legs become an invisible blur – down, then ricocheting off the track, then all aloft, suspended for that one curled instant before striking the earth again.
“I read a lot about you.” Malkin has followed his gaze, and he doesn’t take his eyes off the horse. “After you won the Derby. The youngest trainer – ”
“Second youngest,” Sid interjects.
“ – since 1881 to win. I talked to a lot of people about you too.”
Bird is flying: muscles bunching and firing, running like the wind blows, running like water over a cliff, running like a thing born to run. “They tell you I was an asshole?” It seems the most likely feedback.
“Some of them.” Malkin smiles. “Most of them.” Bird flies past them and the rider starts to pull him up, Bird curling and dancing beneath her. Malkin looks over at Sid. “But they said you knew horses. They said, ‘he will treat your horse like the only thing in the world that matters. He will care about your horse more than anything in the universe. And if even the slightest chance exists – he will make your horse win.”
Sid can feel warmth rising in his cheeks. He looks down. He starts to run a nervous hand through his hair, but catches himself. He straightens. “I could win the Derby every year. If I had the right horse.”
“Yes.” Malkin grins. “They said you’d say that too.”
Sid doesn’t look at him, just keeps his eyes on the track, watching the other horses at work.
Malkin chuckles under his breath. “And now what about Carter?”
“Carter?” Sid glances at Malkin and then out to where Carter’s watching his horse. “What about him?”
“Are you going to tell him how to make his horse win?” Quiet, banked mirth in his expression.
Sid frowns. “I don’t – ” He stops. “People don’t like it when I give them advice. Really, people don’t like talking to me in general.”
The grin leaves Malkin’s face, and for a moment he looks very serious. “I like talking to you.”
Sid says, “That’s because we haven’t talked much.”
“I doubt that.” Malkin’s head tips, thoughtful. “Have dinner with me.”
Sid fires off “Why?” Before the question has even really registered.
Malkin ducks his head, and when he looks up, his face is amused. He shrugs. “It’ll be fun?”
That surprises a laugh out of Sid, and Malkin grins wider. But, “I can’t,” Sid says. And when Malkin keeps looking at him, “I have the horse to take care of.”
“After,” Malkin says. “You can tell me more about your – philosophy.” He grins, a smile like firelight at the edge of the dark, and Sid can feel the heat in his cheeks, feel it creep across his face.
Whatever Malkin does or does not want, none of the possibilities are simple. Nothing is uncomplicated. Sid hides his hands in his pockets. He looks away. “I really can’t.”
Malkin accepts this wordlessly with a small shrug. He walks back up to the barn with Sid, Bird walking between them, looking sweaty and pleased with his accomplishments. “Thank you for letting me tag along.” He pulls his sunglasses back out. He has dirt across the front of his jacket, a stray piece of hay caught in his hair.
Malkin smiles at him, then turns to the horse, “Until next time, Tuxedo Bird.”
Sid watches his back as he retreats toward the parking lot. Watches until Bird stamps his foot in a reminder that he’s done his work, and that means food is waiting. “Right,” Sid says. “Right.”
The grooms leave as a pack that night, professional reticence finally slipping away – arms slung around each other and laughing in the cool air, in the dark. Their shuffling dance steps kick up dust in the parking lot as they move in and out of pools of yellow lamp light. And the moment is loud with laughter and cat calls, before they roll out into the night.
Bird listens to them go, ears pricked, chewing paused for a moment before he dives back into his food, no concerns in the world but chasing the last stray grains. Sid smiles at him, amused at his single-minded focus. He reaches across the space to bury one hand in Bird’s mane. Bird pauses again, brings his head over to touch Sid’s chest in acknowledgment before turning once again to his food.
The barn settles around them, growing more still as the light fades, just the low sounds of horses eating, moving in their stalls, the last few quiet sets of footsteps leaving. Sid can see Richards idling at the barn entrance, hands shoved in pockets and waiting, breath white in the air. Richards catches him watching and gives him a look. Sid scowls back.
Carter appears then, moving quickly up the aisle, a hasty nod for Sid as he passes and a broad grin as he approaches Richards. “Alright, alright. I’m done,” he says. “We can go.”
Richards glances back one last time at Sid, holding a hand up and flipping him off as they walk away, until Carter knocks his hand down with a muffled snort and a shake of his head.
Then it’s just Sid and horses, and Sid exhales. The night watchman will be by if Sid hangs around long enough, but for now Sid can watch the row of their heads bent low, and breathe in the particular stillness of a place with horses and no people. The night grows darker around them. Dark enough for Sid to pick out the headlights of cars on the distant highway, people spilling out into the night, towards brighter lights, towards their towns or homes, children or nightlife. Sid imagines them breaking off in groups or pairs, branching like a river into smaller and smaller tributaries. Sid’s eyes the doorframe of the now empty barn entrance. Maybe even Mike Richards had someone waiting for him.
Sid should go back to the guesthouse. It’s cold, and Bird has finished eating. He stands with one leg cocked, already dozing. Sid should try to sleep. He’s out of excuses to stay.
In his room, Sid wraps a quilt around his shoulders and opens the window, looking for the sound of the horses or the dream of the sound of horses. But the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, and it brings nothing but a chill. Sid pulls the blanket tighter. The room feels very empty.
Sid wonders what particular piece of the night Malkin has wandered into. If he is still close, or if by now he is quite far away. He thinks about Malkin’s face watching the horse, and his eyes on the horse and on the horse’s movements, and that close, careful attention. The look of a man not watching an investment, but something precious. Something treasured.
The wind comes in again, makes ghosts of the curtains, stirs the papers on the desk, carrying in the clear, sharp taste of winter.
But even the shortest days of the year in Kentucky have nothing on the long, cold march of winter up in the northern plains, where the sky and the snow were mirror reflections of each other that stretched on for miles. Where Sid used a shovel to break up the ice that in the troughs would be four inches thick, and where he stood on the back of his father’s truck and threw hay for the cattle and for the bands of wild horses who roamed the same prairies, shaggy coats hanging heavy with frost. Sid remembers the way sounds would echo through that empty country, every bird cry and gunshot magnified and coming from all directions at once, and he remembers staring out at that uninterrupted sweep behind the barn, squinting to see if he could pick out where the distant hills finally met the sky.
And every spring, Sid remembers the skittery, anxious horses who would be driven in, until they flowed like water from one end of the corral to other, brown and black, buckskin and pinto. The young ones wild as any living thing ever was. Sid would hang on the pipe fence and watch them until they watched him back with curiosity rather than fear, until he could walk in with them, turn with them, read their direction as effortless as a bird mid-flock.
It was the only thing that was ever effortless. Sid as a boy had said, “I don’t understand.” They were fresh home from the Fair – which to Sid was a chance to see horses: to see old man Gonch’s great feathered Belgians. The exotic arabs in their bells and bejeweled halters. The eye-rolling brocs. Mustangs ridden bridleless. The sturdy young quarter horses that would grow up to be cowhorses and their taller, leaner cousins that would pound out the short, all-or-nothing sprints of quarter horse racing.
To Sid’s father it was a place to pick up new clients, and sell horses, and exchange gossip with other men who wore the long oilskin jackets and their hats pulled down low, about the state of the land, or the state of the men who ran it, or the beasts who ran across its endless surface.
Sid would duck away when his father sat with these spitting cowboys, not wanting to be saturated with the sickly-sweet smell of tobacco smoke that clung to them and make their horses snort and stamp. But he avoided the swarms of children, too. The ones who were there on their ponies to run poles or barrels, and were loud and startling and unpredictable. None of them rode right. Or handled right, or even spoke to their horses right. “I don’t understand,” Sid would complain after, on the long drive home. “The other kids do it wrong.”
His father shot him a look that meant Sid should stop whining.
Sid dropped his eyes, muttered, “well, they do.” The other kids were first silent then suddenly loud, prone to jumping or crying out, arms and legs flailing, or asking for a turn but leaning the wrong way, throwing everything off balance and slapping reins to shoulder when the horse under them stuttered and faltered.
Miles of freshly green prairie passed before his father sighed, and reached out to lay a hand on Sid’s shoulder. “They can’t read their horses,” he said. “They can’t read horses like you.”
Sid had been picking out the different types of grasses he could see, but at that he stopped. Looked over startled. His father kept his eyes on the road, his face relaxed, like he hadn’t just announced that everyone else was blind and deaf in this impossible way, like they couldn’t see the sky was blue, like they couldn’t feel gravity, like they’d been out every night of their lives, but had never seen stars.
It’s too cloudy in Kentucky for stars tonight. They’ve had a stretch of sun, but the weather’s starting to turn. Sid comes away from the window and climbs into bed, but rolls so he’s facing the fragment of sky. He watches the curtains move, wind picking out gooseflesh across any exposed skin. He watches the moon climb out from behind the barn, pulled across the sky.
It’s too dark to sleep. Or maybe it’s too still to sleep. He thinks about all the horses he’d seen today. He thinks about Carter’s horse, leaning on the rail. He thinks about a mare in her pasture that he passed today, the one who’s too-cautious step says she’s brewing an abscess. And he thinks about Bird. He thinks about Bird’s thudding heart, and how he flies when he runs.
Malkin had watched the horse very closely today. Sid wonders if he saw it – if he saw that instant when his stride flattened out, when he stretched and sprang. He wonders if Malkin recognized that instant for what is was: the moment Bird believed no one could ever catch him.
Sid’s thoughts wander over Malkin’s face, that intent, quiet attention, and his hands resting on the rail. He spares a thought for the fate of Malkin’s jacket. He wonders if Malkin would have worn it, had they gone out to dinner. Or maybe it would have been discarded in the back of Malkin’s flashy car. Maybe he was the sort of man who kept spare dinner jackets in his vehicles. Sid imagines that there are rich men who probably do. He wonders what dinner would have been like. If Malkin would have struggled to make conversation once he realized what Sid was really like. And for one brief moment Sid thinks about his easy grin earlier that day, and he thinks, maybe they wouldn’t have struggled at all.
Sid frowns and turns over in bed, shoving the pillow into something resembling comfort. He thinks about the grooms, with their arms slung around each other. He thinks about the broad smile that had broken across Carter’s face at the sight of Richards waiting. He thinks about the lights of the distant town. Sid turns over again and sits up. He pulls his clothes back on, pulls on a wool cap against the chill and heads back out into the night.
The stallion barn is sparsely lit and very still. Cold. Sid slips inside, lets the doors fall shut as quietly as possible behind him. A couple of the horses are down, but Bird is standing, one leg cocked. His ears swivel when Sid enters the stall, a short head toss that seems designed to get Sid to acknowledge the oddness of the hour.
“I know it’s late.” Sid stretches out a hand.
After a second, Bird gives a low nicker, and reaches back.
The starting gate looms. Not just across Sid’s training plans, but across the track itself, bright green metal bars glinting in the weak morning light. Bird eyes the thing as they walk past, his whole body curving away from it. “Not today,” Sid says. But they can’t put it off forever, and although Bird has no way of knowing, he needs to start racing again. Soon, if they’re going to rack up the points they need to gain entry to the Derby. Sid makes him stop and stand in the shadow of the thing, waiting for the horse to settle with a deliberate nonchalance. Nothing to see here, horse. Nothing to worry about here.
From where they’re planted, Sid can see Carter working his gray, and even at a distance Sid can tell the gray is leaning worse than before. His stride is off-balance; his splits will be slower. Sid frowns.
By the time Sid brings Bird back to the barn, Carter is sitting in the sunshine, outside the barn entrance, frowning over his log books. Bird is wearing a thick cooler, and Sid focuses on straightening it before he sets them to walking laps around the barn. He twists the lead rope in his hand, sliding the cotton between his palms. Bird flicks an ear at him. Malkin had seemed to think Carter would want his help. They turn the corner that puts Carter out of sight and Sid sighs. Malkin had seemed to think Sid could help. That that sort of interaction might not only be possible but expected. Sid supposes they are colleagues, in a way, even if he’s never thought of GB’s assistant trainers like that before.
He might be able to help. He doesn’t have to do it for Carter, he could do it for the horse. Everyone would win.
They turn again, walking up the barn’s far side. Provided, of course, that Sid can find the right thing to say. He could make things worse. And anyway, Carter is no doubt long gone, and tracking him down for such a conversation seems ridiculous, so it’s fine, and better not to have said anything anyway.
When they turn the corner, Carter is still sitting on the bench, legs stretched in front of him. Still staring down at his logs.
Sid slows their steps, dragging his feet until Bird is outdistancing him, pulling on the lead. He points an ear back at Sid in a silent question. Sid halts him in front of Carter. The horse snorts once at the overhanging shadow of the barn entrance, but otherwise stands quietly.
Carter looks up at them, blinking into the sun, mild look of confusion on his face.
Bird prods Sid’s shoulder. They’re close to the barn. Close to his stall. Close to lunch. Caught off-guard, Sid stumbles a step.
Carter laughs. “He likes you.” He stands and reaches out to run a hand down Bird’s neck.
Bird’s ears pin flat against his head and his eyes roll back, wary.
“Ah, and he still doesn’t like me.” Carter lets his hand fall away.
Horses, Sid thinks, are not the arbitrary creatures we take them for. They have all the reason in the world to hate us and yet their tolerance is vast, their graciousness unappreciated. When they could strike us down, they merely warn. When they have reason to hate, they merely endure. Sid watches the way Bird’s nostrils flare as he shakes his head, the glare of the sun blinking off that startling white blaze. Bird raises a foot to paw the air and Sid gives the lead a light shake.
“Sidney?” Carter asks. “Did you want something?”
Sid studies his boots carefully. “Yesterday – ” he starts.
“Oh.” Carter shrugs, embarrassed. “About that. Mike’s really not so bad once you get to know him – ”
“No.” Sid shakes his head and hesitates again. “When you were working that gray? The gelding?”
Carter blinks at him. “Mick Miller?”
Sid shrugs, because he’s never bothered to learn the gray’s name. “Sure.” He fights down a shiver of anxiety, which is ridiculous, because he’s right. He knows he’s right about this. And Malkin’s right too, Carter should want to know. He keeps his eyes locked on the ground near Bird’s feet anyway. “You’re gonna – he’s not gonna run right if you work him like that. He leans on the rails. Choppy stride. You have to work him on the straight, on the outside. You aren’t paying attention to the right things.” That sounded bad. Sid winces. He trails off.
Carter’s face is dark, mouth set in a tight, hard line.
Sid focuses his gaze over Carter’s shoulder, at the barn. “His first start is what, six furlongs?”
Sid shakes his head. “That’s a waste. He doesn’t have the wind yet. Enter him at six furlongs. It’s not as much money, but he’ll have a chance.” He risks another look at Carter’s face.
Carter’s looking down, mouth working, line of his shoulder tight. When he looks up at Sid, his face is flushed. “Right,” he says, swallowing. “Well. I have to go.”
Sid watches him as he walks away. “I think that went well,” he tells the horse. He glances up at Bird.
Bird still looks remarkably irritated. Antsy. Sid looks again. No, not irritated. Not impatient. On edge. Another head shake and the tiniest tremor along his back. Sid frowns, a thought poking at him, as irresistible as a loose thread. He turns towards Carter’s retreating back. “Carter!”
Carter stops, turns around. “What?” He sounds upset.
“You said you work mostly in GB’s other barn?”
“Yeah?” Now he just sounds confused.
“Were you there today?”
Carter’s mouth works for a second. “Yes? This morning.”
Sid chews on this piece of information, turning it over in his head.
Carter shrugs. “What about it?”
Sid refocuses. “Where is it?”
“You want to know – you want the address?” Carter frowns at him. “Why?”
“Just tell me.”
Carter shakes his head, staring at Sid like he’s crazy. But he does give him the address.
GB’s other place has no fancy granite sign marking its entrance, no sign at all as far as Sid can tell. The morning sky is a solid, heavy gray as he turns up an unmarked drive. The whole place is hidden off the main road, sheltered from sight by a multitude of pine trees. Sid drives past a row of dirt paddocks and parks his truck next to the barn. He gets out. Horses are squeezed into small, mud-filled runs. At least fifty horses, Sid guesses, in a space meant for ten. They watch him approach with a muted exhaustion, too apathetic to be afraid. Sid studies them back. Pin-fired legs. Dull coats. Some with an auction tag still super-glued to their tails.
There are no other trucks in the lot, and no one challenges him as he walks out between the pens and makes his way over to the practice track.
The track is set even farther back in the woods. Dim light filters in through the trees and the ground is slippery with fallen pine needles on the walk over. Sid toes the dirt of the track itself, groomed at least, but uneven, hard base material showing though in spots. Long dead farm equipment lounges in the center of the track, rusting away into nothingness. He listens to the regular squall of hinges as the wind catches hold of a broken fence panel, pushing it back and forth. Sid sets his eyes on the practice gate, at rest now, pulled off to the side of track.
It powers up readily enough under his touch, and Sid sits still and waits, expecting someone to emerge from the distant barn and yell at this trespass, but no one does. In the quiet, he can hear the hum of the electric circuit that controls the gates’ opening.
The gates themselves are three abreast. Sid’s hand hovers over the button – and then he drops it. All the three doors spring open, not silent, but instant in their response. Sid hops down, boots sending up small clouds of dust, and resets all three. Back at the control panel, he pushes the button again.
Once again, all three gates respond by instantly springing open, and in his mind Sid can hear the phantom bell and the waterfall of hoof beats pounding the track. The rig seems to work fine. He resets the gates again, and hops back up to shut the thing down.
The wind has picked up again, somewhere in the distance the rhythmic, metallic cry of the fence panel comes back to life. The air is heavy with the smell of pine. Sid stops, hand hovering. And instead of shutting it down, he presses the button to trigger the gates one third and final time.
The first two swing open. The third springs halfway and catches, sticks. Frowning, Sid hops down. He yanks on the door, hard enough that the emergency release should trigger, and then harder, with all his weight behind it. The metal doors don’t budge. They stick, on warped hinges, leaving only the narrowest gap between them. Not nearly enough space for a horse to escape.
You poor trapped beast . And he can imagine – the adrenaline of being in the blocks and waiting, primed like a bullet in the chamber, and the bell would have sounded and the horses next to him would have sprung forth – and all that energy, all two thousand pounds of acceleration – with nowhere to go.
Bird shouldn’t have been here at all, not with what Malkin’s paying for his care. There would have been no reason for GB to bring him to his shoddy, second-tier property. And yet, this is what happened. Sid is sure of it. His heart pounds in his chest, mouth suddenly dry and throat thick with his own adrenaline. Oh, you must have been so frightened.
Sid powers the gates down and walks back to the barn slow, dragging his feet, still imagining a horse in a metal box not much bigger than his body. The panic of finding no forward release. How he would have tried to force his way out and failed. In his head, Sid can hear the rider screaming and sound of hooves striking steel. And finding no escape, he would have gone up –
Sid pauses on the path, closes his eyes, and breathes for a moment. The air is strong with the smell of horses and mud and the pine trees that surround him. He exhales, long and slow, and shakes off the lingering edge of panic.
Up ahead, near the barn, his truck has been joined by one other. One he recognizes – Jeff Carter’s truck. He pauses – Jeff Carter might know what Bird was doing here. Jeff Carter might have been here to see the accident that no one’s talking about. Sid ducks inside. The stalls are packed in claustrophobically close compared to Bird’s current environs, dark, and the hallway meanders, as if extra additions had been added without a plan, without order. The cement holds in the cold; he blows into his hands.
But up ahead, he can hear low, amused voices and the warm sound of laughter.
He turns the corner.
Carter stands at the end of the row, Richards next to him, both of them looking into a stall. Richards is playing with the horse in front of them – a bright orange, fuzzy thing. He nods his head with exaggerated movement, and the horse nods back, ears pricked forward. Carter laughs, and when Richards steps back, Carter rests a hand on his shoulder. A moment later, his fingers slide up to rub the nape of Richards’ neck. An easy, casual touch, honest for its privacy. A touch that speaks of habit. A touch that speaks in a clear and quiet voice of long affection.
Sid blinks. He re-evaluates. The pieces of the relationship in front of him shifting and reforming in his mind. These two go to bed together. More than that, they wake up together. Are the first and last things in each other’s day.
Richards leans in close again, holding the horse’s face with unexpected gentleness. “Attaboy, Bully,” he says. There’s real warmth in his voice.
“You gonna teach him to count next?” Carter’s hand has dropped, but it lingers at the small of Richards’ back.
Richards looks up, clear and simple grin on his face. He laughs. “Why not?”
Sid clears his throat.
Carter’s hand comes away immediately, and Richards steps back quick enough that the horse shies, snorts. When he faces Sid, his expression is guarded, his smile gone. Carter stares at him, eyes wide and unblinking as any spooked colt.
Upon closer inspection, the horse’s nameplate, not Winhaven’s refined bronze, but rather a simple, functional white board, reads, Takeaflyeronme. “Bully?” Sid asks.
“It’s just a barn name.” Richards’ voice is stretched tight, words clipped.
Sid nods carefully. The horse reemerges, peers over the stall door to inspect Sid. He’s got a great, blocky head, withers like a shark fin, but good, solid bone. Bright, clear eyes. “What’s his story?”
Richards and Carter exchange quick glances, but it’s Carter who answers. “He’s just an old claimer. He’s eight. Makes just enough to keep himself in a stall.”
“Eight’s getting up there.” Sid looks from Carter to the horse in question. “For a racehorse, I mean.”
Carter shrugs back at him. “Yeah. He’s slowing down.” He looks back at the horse and his mouth tips in a smile. “His owner says he’ll sell him to me at the end of the season for cheap.”
“You’re such a sucker,” Richards says. “He oughta be giving him away.”
Carter doesn’t look at him, just looks at the horse and hums what might be absent agreement. This pulls small smile from Richards, who stretches a hand out to touch the end of the horse’s blaze. He trails his fingers over the end of his muzzle and the horse lips at his fingers.
“What are you going to do with him?”
They both look up. “Oh.” Carter shrugs. “Throw him out in a field for a few months, let him be a horse.” He scratches the horse’s face lightly and Bully presses his head into the touch. “Then toss a saddle on him. Have something to ride when Mike takes Arnold out on the trails. Maybe even see what he looks like over fences. Just for fun.”
Richards’ face has gone soft again, over this ugly, blockheaded horse of all things. He looks away from the horse, and away from Carter, and even looking at Sid, it seems to take him a moment to remember he’s supposed to be scowling. “What are you doing here, anyway? Felt like slumming it this morning?”
As though Sid had been born into the tiers of million dollar purses, as though he had lucked into his wins, as though he hadn’t slept in barns and foaling stalls and mucked endless pens and carried water. As though he thinks Sid might care less about these horses because they’ll never wear roses, and for a moment, Sid hates him. He glares back. “Bird was here, wasn’t he?”
Carter and Richards exchange looks. They don’t say anything, but their gazes flicker in that quick telepathy of a matched set.
“In October,” Sid adds. “Or early November.”
Carter’s hand on the horse has stopped moving, resting lightly on a whorl on Bully’s cheek. “I was mostly at the track then. Churchill’s winter meet.” Words picked out slow and hesitant, and he looks at Richards.
Richards holds his gaze for a long moment, and then he looks at the horse. “I was too.”
They look nervous. They won’t meet Sid’s gaze.
A cold wind shakes the trees outside and spills through the barn, Sid feels it as a shiver down his back. There’s only one reason you take a million dollar horse to a shit property set back in the woods. There’s only one reason why you take him to a place where there are no nosy owners, or visiting trainers, or track officials making calls. You only take him there if you’re doing something you don’t want anybody to see.
Outside, the squawk of rusted metal starts up again. A solo rhythm laid over no other sound. Nothing but carefully maintained silence. “His last start – he didn’t run well.” Sid picks his works slow. Sid’s watched that race two dozen times, three, and he can see in his mind even as he speaks. Bird lazy off the start, drifting wide, and fighting the jockey for his head. “GB thought he could motivate him,” Sid says, voice slowing down even more, the last revolutions of a spinning top. He locks eyes with Carter. “GB thought he could teach him a lesson?”
“Maybe he did start running better. Or maybe he didn’t, but there was an accident – ” Sid doesn’t bother to make it sound like a question.
The muscles of Carter’s throat work. “I wasn’t here,” he starts, “but – ”
“Jeff.” Richards cuts him off, voice one sharp, warning note.
Carter stops. His eyes are wide looking at Sid. “I don’t want to lose my job.” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
Sid strips his jacket off, quick jerky movements. His clothes follow, wadded and thrown straight into the wash. Stripped to his shorts, he sits bent over the edge of the tub and scrubs the soles of his boots in a few inches of water and bleach. He brings them up to his face, breathes deep, and keeps going until there’s nothing but the smell of bleach and soap and leather. Not even a trace of faded pine.
Sid stares at the wet leather, breathing hard. Tuxedo Bird had been so quick to come around, so easy in the way he handed his trust to Sid. Gracious, even. Sid is frozen, bent over the tub, hands in the water, clenching around the brush. He closes his eyes. He breathes.
At seven, Sid had run away.
He no longer remembers the reason. Perhaps it had been the back of his father’s hand, delivered once too often. Or his mother, so suddenly and freshly gone that his chest felt turned inside out, heart offered up to the night sky like the bloody sacrifice of an old Indian story. Or maybe it was the threat of school, down in Whitecourt, which had seemed a world away.
What he does remember is his pony between his legs, his thick fur, and Sid digging his fingers into his mane and holding on as they rode all the afternoon, and all the evening, and all the night through, listening to the sound of owls and lonely coyotes, mile after mile under star-flecked sky. He remembers tramping through the tall grass, studded with end-of-summer flowers, and heather, and the smell of the mountain sage all around them as they crossed the flinty foothills of the Northern Rockies. He remembers he thought he could make Grand Prairie or even Peace River.
He made it to neither, of course. Dawn limned him out of the dark at the edge of the Peterson spread. And two of Peterson’s working men had spotted him riding the fence line, and they rode over, and they called him by name.
They sat with him and gave him chewing gum and sips from a thermos of bitter black coffee, that was more comforting for its warmth rather its flavor, and they waited with him, smoking the cheap, quick-burning cigarettes you could buy by the handful on the reservation and watching the road, until his father had driven up in his truck and stock trailer.
Sid remembers his father went to the pony first. He ran his hands down his legs and picked up his feathered feet. His face when he turned back to look at Sid was black with anger. “You rode him half to founder.”
And Sid had looked at his faithful companion – looked at his lowered head and dull eyes and the legs spread wide to lessen the weight on sore and tired feet – and sobbed. He buried his face against that soft shoulder and cried into his hair and apologized over and over, until the words were lost and he just keened his sorrow.
“He didn’t ever stop,” Sid said. “He didn’t ever stop.” Because he hadn’t. Had never stopped or turned or asked to go home. Had only followed Sid’s guide up into the mountains and carried Sid without question or complaint.
The pony limped, coming off the trailer at home, and Sid cried again. His father bent low. “Sidney,” he said. “A horse will give you everything he has, and then he’ll give more. He’ll give without holding anything back, give until it hurts. And that is why it’s your job to take care of him first. Always first.” He curled one hand around the back of Sid’s neck and cupped his bowed head. “Go bed a stall for him. I’ll show you how to make a poultice.”
Sid thinks about the pony, and the boy he was at seven, and GB, who is no boy at all, but a man grown, and Sid is furious.
How do you take something that looks like that, how do you take something that moves like that – and break it? What particular combination of stupidity and malice –
Sid rests his head in his hands. The room is tight and too close and full of the smell of bleach. He wants to be in the barn, but he’s too agitated to be in the barn, in the sort of mood that would get him chased away from the corral when he was teenager. His father shouting after him, “Get the hell away from the horses until you get yourself under control.”
The desire to call GB and scream is like a fiery, burning thing in his chest. He closes his eyes. He breathes into cupped hands. Calling GB to yell would almost certainly do nothing but get him blackballed in this part of Kentucky – and maybe keep him from ever working with Bird again.
Or – he could call Malkin. He thinks about saying, “Your horse was not kept where you left him. And the people you left him with, they didn’t keep him safe.” Sid rubs at his temples. Malkin could already know. He could not care. Or he could care – but Malkin is no horseman. Perhaps GB’s told him it’s all a part of the process.
GB’s got decades in this business. A wall of trophies. A list of references as long as Sid’s arm. Why shouldn’t Malkin trust him?
Malkin seems like a nice man, but lots of people seem like nice men. Maybe GB seems like a nice man to some people.
Sid abandons his boots and walks into the bedroom and stretches out across his bed. He studies the ceiling like it might hold some wisdom. Malkin said, “Figure out what is wrong with the horse.” He said, “Figure out why he isn’t winning.” Sid said he could do that. Surely he at least owes Malkin that much.
“Mr. Malkin,” he says, when Malkin picks up. “I’d like to see you. As soon as possible.”
There’s a beat before Malkin answers. “Sidney? Is everything alright?”
Sid asks the ceiling how he should answer that, but the ceiling holds its own counsel. “Fine, but – ”
“I’m in New York.”
“Oh.” Sid falters.
“I can – ” Muffled sounds come across the line, the faded sound of Malkin speaking to someone else. He comes back on. “I can be in Lexington this evening,” he says. “If that works?”
In four beats, Sid has skipped from anger to disappointment to pleasure to sudden anxiety. He draws a breath.
“I – yes,” Sid says. “That’s fine.”
“Good. I’ll call you when I get in.” He thinks Malkin sounds like he’s smiling.
Malkin meets him in the diner down the road from GB’s. It’s late enough that Sid’s in one of just three occupied booths, courting teenagers in one of the others, and old men bent over dominos in the last. He watches the waitress, leaning against the counter, no cigarette in her hand, but her fingertips are stained yellow from a lifetime of habit. Sid sips his coffee and turns the empty sugar packet in front of him into a pile of increasingly small pieces.
Malkin enters, dressed in a suit: dark wool and tie still done up, as out of place under the fluorescent diner lights as a duck in a desert. Sid stands when he enters and takes his cap off.
Malkin smiles. He takes his coat off and folds it neatly on the seat next to him. He order tea and a plate of fruit from the waitress, who wanders over. He smiles at her, polite, and then he turns and looks at Sid, and his dark eyes travel over Sid’s face. “Now. What can I help you with, Mr. Crosby?”
Sid thinks: it is not a handsome face, but it is intelligent and attentive and not unkind, and maybe it is handsome – who is he to judge? He looks down, and asks his coffee instead, “Tell me about Bird’s schedule in October.”
Malkin blinks, surprised. The waitress arrives with his tea and Malkin smiles at her again, the kind of smile that says he is used to being served, and used to being gracious. He stirs the tea carefully, as if it were housed in fine china rather than battered ceramic. “He raced at Keenland on the fourth. He took sixth. Disappointing.” Malkin shrugs lightly. “GB said perhaps he needed rest, so we agreed to rest him for three weeks, and then we were to go to California for the Juvenile.”
“Were you here for that?”
“For the Juvenile?”
“No,” Sid says. “For the rest.”
Malkin studies him with close, careful attention. “No.” His head tips. “I had to go to Moscow, on business.” He pauses, another searching expression. “Why do you ask?”
Sid can feel his nervousness crawling just under his skin. He wishes he could twitch and shake free of it, like a horse removing a fly.
“Mr. Crosby, although this may surprise you, I do not leave shareholder meetings early for just anything.” His eyes are very dark, and very clear.
Sid looks away. He looks instead at the reflection of Malkin’s face in the glass. “Why did you leave the shareholder meeting early?”
Malkin smiles, but very small. He sighs and reaches up to loosen the knot in his tie, his head tipping back and forth as he stretches. One long finger traces the rim of his mug. “Tuxedo Bird was supposed to be my mother’s horse. She was the one who loved racing. She was the one who commissioned the breeding.” His hand gestures loosely in the air. “I knew nothing of horses at the time.” He stops and looks at Sid. “Perhaps you think I still know nothing of horses.”
Sid feels color in his cheeks and ducks his head.
Malkin laughs. “Yes. You are not so hard to read as you might think, Mr. Crosby. But I do know something about horses. And I know something about Tuxedo Bird that you do not know.” There’s a playful spark in his eye. “On his father’s side he is royalty. The last son of the last son of Unbridled.”
Malkin pauses, and Sid gives a short, sharp shake of his head. “I’m aware of his breeding.” Even if wasn’t a matter of public record, Bird’s lineage is written in every line of his body.
“Ah, but his dam – Lemagnifique. Do you know her?” Malkin settles back against the booth.
Sid thinks. He combs through all the horses he’s known in his mind, thoroughbred bloodlines, major rivers and minor tributaries. And in his head, he can call up generations and generations of Bird’s ancestors. Unbridled, by Fappiano. He by Mr. Prospector. He in turn by Raise A Native, and him of course, the son, like so many of them were, of that near-undefeated brute, Native Dancer.
In contrast, Bird’s dam line is plain. Noticeably lacking in black type. The mare herself conjures no recollections of all, and Sid is forced to shake his head.
Malkin smiles. “That is because she never won anything.”
Sid frowns. “Then why – ”
“Why pay tens of thousands of dollars to breed a nothing-mare to royalty?”
Sid himself couldn’t have put it any plainer. “Yes.”
“She was a homebred. She was my mother’s favorite mare. My mother said she loved to run more than any horse she had ever seen. She said she had the greatest heart of any horse she had ever met.” For a moment, Malkin looks very far away. Not in a diner on the outskirts of Lexington at all, but come unmoored in space and time. The warmth on his face is something Sid recognizes, that generations stretching all the way back to Xenophon would have recognized: the expression of a horseman admiring his charge. “I believe that is why Tuxedo Bird is special. That is why he’s great. I believe that very much.”
The noise of the diner around them feels faded, girlish laugh of one half of the young couple seems to come from quite far away, and the click of dominos against Formica is muted, muffled somehow by the thickness of the air, as though it had suddenly grown dense around them. Sid watches the rise and fall of Malkin’s chest. The steam rise from his tea, all marks that time is passing normally, is passing as it always has, that dreams and reality are different, even when they feel the same. “Has she, did she – ” Sid stutters over the question. “Was she pleased with him?”
Malkin blinks very quickly, another small smile that comes and fades before it can reach his eyes. “She passed before – she never met him.”
His face seems cracked open; the hurting echoes and calls out to Sid, who hears it as clear as if Malkin were not an insufferably opaque human at all, but rather a horse Sid was riding across the plain. Two bodies, one set of movements, one set of thoughts. And Sid could say,let me tell you about my mother, who is also lost to this life. He could say,let me tell about my father, so bent and broken he might as well be. He could say, let me tell you how I am also walking alone in this world.
He says, “I’m sorry.”
“I was with her. She was never alone. And at the end, there was no pain.” Malkin shrugs. He tips his hand, as though balancing some invisible scale. “Perhaps that is all any of us can ask for.”
Sid swallows. The diner seems very bright, like a beacon in the dark, and Malkin so close like they were the only ones left alive in a world gone perfectly silent, perfectly still. Horses will press against each other for comfort, hip to shoulder, body to body, against cold or stress or fear, and they need no words because they have this contact. And this contact is all they need for reassurance. Sid has no such simple gesture to offer. And he has no words. But in the brutal, fluorescent light of this diner, he will not add any burdens to this man. He swallows, and he chases one stray scrap of packet wrapper, herding it away from its flock. “I want to take Bird to Gulfstream. For the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Mile and a sixteenth on dirt. Four hundred thousand purse.”
A fleeting expression of surprise crosses Malkin’s face. “He’s ready?”
If anyone had asked before tonight, Sid would have said he had no firm plans for Bird’s first start. Would have hedged and said he hadn’t made up his mind, and it would have been true. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth, the matter settles in his mind. This is where Bird is supposed to race. This is when. “Yes, Sid says. “He can win. He will win.”
Malkin settles back against the booth, and he looks out the window, gaze focused beyond, as if he could see that far south. As if he could see anything at all but their reflections captured in the dark glass. “Alright then. Florida it is.”
Racing means they have to tackle the iron monster that is the starting gate. The days trickle down quickly now and they have only so much time before Bird is scheduled to be shipped south. Sid walks him from the barn to the track, and he stuffs his own tension down inside himself, as far down as possible, so as not to upset the horse. But Bird is up anyway, he dances all the way to the track, neck arched, and snorting at shadows, at familiar sights, at nothing. When they get to the track, Sid tells Anna, “From the gate today.”
Her eyes grow big, but she nods, and swings aboard, as game as ever.
Umberto and a couple of the other grooms have trailed out to watch the production from the fence line. They watch each day, each day hoping that this will be the one Sid faces down the starting gate and puts on a show. Every day Sid ignores them. But today, today they’ll get their show. “Circle the thing once, and just walk him straight through.”
She swallows, hands curling on the reins. “And if he balks?”
Sid shrugs. “Keep him forward. Stay off his face.”
Sid walks with them, stretching his stride to match Bird’s, a spiraling path that takes them closer with each step to the starting gate. He can hear the rider’s breathing, nervous and stuttered over the creak of leather and the light patter of Bird’s feet in the dirt. And if he can hear her nerves, Bird can hear them too. His steps dance sideways; he shakes his head.
Distantly, Sid grows aware that other activity on the track has ground to a halt, all eyes on him and the big black bay, and his rider, and their circling.
Anna swallows. “The last time we did this,” Sid can tell she’s fighting to keep a tremor out of her voice, “it didn’t go well.”
Sid walks them in another circle, because a thoroughbred is a thing built to be in motion, their nerves worst in stillness. “This time it’ll be fine.”
She nods without looking at him.
They circle again. “Just walk him in, straight through, and right out.” And this time, when horse and rider face the gate, Sid lets go.
Bird takes two steps forward, a pause where he seems to register Sid’s absence, and without warning he takes a great twisting leap to the side. The rider sways but steadies, and she’s fighting to keep him straight, to keep him facing the right direction. Sid sees Bird’s mouth gape, the bit saw – “Stay off his face!”
Bird threatens, humps his back, and the sound of his panicked steps are loud, quick and staccato, even in the soft track dirt, and everything is frozen, perfectly still around them, everything but the horse and the rider, and Bird slings his head and goes up –
Sid can hear the gasps behind him, and the rider’s cry, and Bird is nearly vertical in the air, high and trembling, and he’s going to go over – he has go over – feet helpless, striking out at air for balance – Sid’s heart leaps, blood cold. He can see loose reins, the rider’s hand’s buried in Bird’s mane as she clings.
Bird catches himself. One, great, heaving step, the tremendous power of his hindquarters rebalancing underneath him and he returns to earth, all four feet planted. Still just a second before he twists again, whirling, searching for a clear line of retreat.
Sid darts in and grabs the reins, and that great dark eye turns on him. Bird’s breath steaming out white and visible in the cold air, his neck sweat-slick, his mouth foaming, and for a second Bird is no domestic animal at all but a thousand plus pounds of muscle and teeth and steel-clad feet, and he could strike Sid down, bowl him over on a whim with no more than a glancing blow. Sid can feel his vibrant, heady panic and his terrible pride, and that fear that would be violence –
And he can see it settle, that dark energy searching, like a ship casting about for a port in a storm. His body held rigid, ready to shatter and leap again. “I swear,” Sid says. “I will not let anything happen to you.” And Sid lays his hand on the horse’s neck.
Bird trembles next to him. But he holds, motionless. No sound in the world but the horse’s snorting breaths, and Sid’s own rasps, and the rider crying softly. He can feel more than see his audience of grooms and trainers, half-standing at the fence line, ready to spring into action.
He looks only at the horse, and he waits, until the horse looks only at him. He has no language, but he can hear Sid’s tone, and he can feel Sid’s pulse in his hand. And his response is there, in his eye, as clear as if Bird did have words and had spoken them aloud: I don’t want to. But because you asked me to, I will.
Sid lets go. “Walk him in.”
Anna emits one dismayed, swallowed sob, looking to Sid like he must not be serious. Sid nods at her. “Walk him in. He’ll go.”
He watches as they walk into the starting gate, without so much as an errant footfall or a tossed head. He watches them stand, Bird in the starting gate, motionless and ready for that one brief, explosive moment. Ready for that one thing he has been bred for generations to do.
Ready to run.
Gulfstream buzzes and hums. The backside’s like any other, if encased by a somewhat muggier heat: a small village of horses in their tight stalls, and the swarms of grooms and riders and trainers and owners milling up and down the shedrows, chattering and darting like the starlings in the rafters or the grackles in the palms outside. The sound of hooves on rubber matting is near constant, and the periodic rise and fall of the crowd’s voice filters in from the distance, the words of the announcer laid over top, familiar enough to be fade into the background, even during his most fervent invocations.
Sid himself holds very still, an eye in the middle of this storm, held tight and apart, back resting against the wall. Umberto sits across from him.
They look at each other, but each holds his own counsel. They wait in silence, both of them sweating. Sid watches a bead of sweat roll down the side of Umberto’s face. Umberto dabs himself with a handkerchief. He looks slightly dull, sedated by the heat, by the thickness of the air, and Sid agrees. But if you need Derby points in February, Florida is the place to be.
Quick footsteps come pounding down the dim-lit aisle, breaking their tiny pool of stillness. Sid looks up in time to see one of the grooms round the corner. “Ha llegado!” He calls.
Sid stands. He swipes his hands against his thighs. He pulls his cap down closer, but still has to squint as he walks out into bright sun. Umberto follows him.
Bird unloads from the shipping van without incident. He stands with head high, while Umberto and the shippers swarm around him, removing the padded gear that covers him from head to hoof. He looks around and freezes. He calls once, loudly, and somewhere another equine voice answers.
Bird stamps a foot, nostrils wide to take in the heavy marine air.
“Bird,” Sid says.
Bird looks at him, eye imperious. Sid thinks he sees it all well: sees and knows the shedrow for what it is. Recognizes a track backside for what it means. His head goes higher still and his tail lifts, and that, Sid thinks, is Bird hearing the thousand and one challenges carried in by the sound of unfamiliar cries and the smell of unfamiliar peers.
All of them, Sid thinks. We’re going to beat all of them.
They go out for their first public work the next morning. Sid would prefer privacy, but there’s no privacy at the track. And certainly not at Gulfstream, not the week of a Derby prep race. That morning, Bird had eaten well enough, and he walks out to the track easy enough, although he stares at the palms, and at the strange sea-birds overhead, and the light reflecting off the infield lake in shimmering, shattered bolts and flashes. He steps lightly, springy in the track dirt while watching all these new things, all limber ears and twitching limbs.
Sid watches from the fence line, eyes hidden behind dark glasses that are a defense half against tropical sun and half against the Gulfstream maelstrom. Eight in the morning and his shirt’s already sticking to him. Eight in the morning and the fence line’s already crowded with trainers and staff and handicappers and anyone else looking to get a leg up on the week’s betting.
John, who has the ride on Saturday, is up on Bird. His first time aboard the horse, and Sid watches him bob easy on his back.
Someone settles against the fence next to Sid. “Crosby .”
Sid spares a glance. “Pletcher.” And he thinks, didn’t take him long to come sniffing around.
“I heard you were training Tuxedo Bird.” He’s got a stopwatch bundled up in his hand, which means he’s got at least one horse working this morning. Sid thinks, if he were to look, he could probably pick out a Pletcher horse by how it runs alone.
Sid nods, and keeps his eyes on the subject in question.
“Hell of a horse you got there.”
“How’s he like dirt?”
“He likes it fine.” In front of them, Bird is at the far turn, and John is just starting to let him out.
Pletcher braces one foot against the rail. “Bit of rough finish on his last out.”
Horsemen, Sid thinks, have a gift for understatement. “Well,” Sid says.
“I was at Keenland, you know. He threw a hell of a fit. Thought he was gonna kill Jack Mendes.”
“Well,” Sid says again.
Pletcher squints into the sunlight. “Gonna run him in May?”
Pletcher doesn’t need to say anything else, there’s only the one race he can mean. Sid shrugs. They both know he wouldn’t be here if that weren’t the plan, but given the capricious and fragile nature of horseflesh, it’s always better not to announce those plans out loud. “You taking anyone?”
Pletcher grins and goes shifty himself. “Maybe.”
“Oh, you know Lukas’ll have at least two.” Bird flashes by in front of them and Pletcher nods at the receding blur. “What’s he going off at?”
“Twelve to one.”
Pletcher looks down at the stopwatch in his hand and his eyebrows creep up. “That’ll come down. Once his workout times get out.”
“Well,” Sid says.
Pletcher laughs. “Always good talking to you, Sidney. Good luck.”
“Likewise,” Sid calls after him.
Sid spends the morning with Bird, both of them breathing in the thick coastal air, watching the hint of sea fog burn off. Sid watches him eat. Watches him raise his head at the sounds of the track – at the tractors grooming the dirt and the PA crying and crackling and the rows and rows of horses calling and kicking, unseen in their own individual stalls, but throwing connections like invisible ropes to each other with their voices. Bird’s eyes are huge, and he paces the stall, every few moments stopping and fixing his attention on the distance, so focused he seems to see beyond the shedrow, beyond the track and the infield, and to the marina beyond and the turquoise water, and the frothing edge of the sea his ancestors had crossed in the dark holds of ships. Sid can feel his energy like a vibration, and he imagines he can see Bird’s heart thudding away under that thin, thin skin.
Bird raises an anxious, hovering foot, and his eyes are rimmed in white. But he is sound. He is ready. So Sid swallows all those pre-race nerves for both of them.
That afternoon, he hands the lead line to Umberto, and in a perfectly flat voice, says, “See you in the paddock.”
Just minutes before post, Sid stands in the paddock, looking down the track. He’s holding the saddle and the silks in his arms. GB’s silks are all black, white piping. Their only decoration a small shield crest with his initials. The black flares iridescent under the Florida sun. Sid swallows and watches the horses approach.
When Bird arrives, Sid drapes his silks over him and slides his slip of a saddle into place. Bird has the fourth post. Middle inside. Good position.
Sid checks the girth.
He checks the bit.
He checks the girth again.
He nods at Umberto, in his #4 apron, his dark eyes serious but calm, and tells him, “Go.”
The sunshine in the paddock lights Bird up, brings out all the hidden gold in his coat. Sid watches him circle the paddock once, listens to the sound his feet make on the brick. Even steps. No hesitation. No reason to scratch. He ignores the other horses, and the blur of railbirds against the fence, all in their Saturday finery, hands clasped around their programs as if in prayer. Sid follows them out into the light, and walking quick next to Bird he makes a step for John and tosses him up.
And now, minutes to post, minutes to Bird’s first three year old start, Sid looks up at John. On the ground, John barely clears five feet, but on the horse he towers. John, who has both the small frame and the ice-cold blood that mark a jockey, looks back, placid.
“He’s got one and a sixteenth in him, easy,” Sid tells him. “Keep him clear off the start and let him go.”
John nods once. “Yeah, boss.“
And then Sid steps back and gets the hell out of the way.
He watches their progress towards the starting gate, heart caught in his throat. Energy spills across the crowd, a building roar, a celebration of the finest flesh and the finest hearts horses have to offer. Each glows in the sun, Bird’s black following a fiery chestnut draped in blue, and ahead of a bright red bay in purple and green, and each of the others follows, each for this one moment perfect and undefeated.
Sid closes his eyes
Sid is startled into opening his eyes again. Malkin smiles at him, curious. He’s dressed in a white suit, and a hat, a dapper contrasting pocket square – black to match Bird’s silks. “I trust it is tradition for the trainer to look so solemn before the start?”
Sid wonders if it’s worth telling Malkin that the track is where beautiful things go to break. “It’s one of horse racing’s most universal traditions, yes,” Sid says. “It’s my job to worry.”
“And it is my job to dream.” He watches Bird through binoculars with careful attention. Sid watches the line of his jaw as he swallows, and the flex of his hand on the rail. Sid watches him, and in all the lines of him, imagines Malkin is watching not a string of numbers and fluctuating odds and the chasing of a win, but rather watching his own heart flung free of his chest. Sid’s throat goes tight, and he feels the absurd desire to call the horses back, for Bird not to be placed at risk in this tremendous and torturous way. Keep him safe, keep him near – the words are so close to falling from his lips, when Malkin lowers the binoculars and looks at Sid, and his face is not fearful, but warm and certain.
He lays a hand on Sid’s shoulder, a firm, steady touch. “He will win.”
Sid looks back out over the track. The horses pace and mill, and they slot one by one into the gate, and then they hold for just a moment, a half-breath of stillness before the bell screams. Sid watches Bird run as if he himself were running. Snorting breath, pull and bunch of muscle, burning lungs, and the terror and the drive and absolute necessity of running.
The fury of their unceasing footfalls draws closer, rounds the bend, and the sounds bleed together until they make one sound, until they may as well all be drops in a hard spring rain, and it blends with the roar of the grandstand, all fervent prayers and curses and exaltations to make pure, wordless noise.
Bird wins by four full lengths.
GB throws them a triumphant homecoming party – the whole of WinHaven decked in streamers and filled with the greatest members of Kentucky horse society GB has the sway to draw. Sid retreats from these gray-haired bluebloods as soon as possible. He ducks up the stairs that lead to the smaller offices on the second floor and into the staff lounge.
He is not alone in this shirking of company, though. Richards and Carter are already there, sitting close on the couch. Sid wonders for a moment why they’ve ditched the food and the booze and the company downstairs, and then he sees how they’re sitting, with a proximity that they couldn’t get away with downstairs, not in front of that particular crowd. For all the supposed injection of new blood and new money in the Kentucky horse scene, Sid thinks, some things haven’t changed.
Richards rolls his eyes at Sid’s entrance and shifts away.
Carter tips his beer towards Sid. “Congratulations.”
Sid nods his acknowledgement. “How about you? How they running for you?”
Carter shrugs. “Mick Miller had a third this weekend.” He pauses, looks at Sid. “The gray?”
“Right.” Sid remembers now – the leaner. “Six furlongs?”
Sid frowns. “I did tell you he’d do better shorter.”
Carter sighs. “Yeah.” He taps his beer against the table. “Turns out, I don’t really get a say over that. GB wanted him in the mile.” His voice is flat, laced with frustration. He sits back and runs a hand through his hair. “At least when I was eventing I had control over when I competed.”
Richards darts a glance over at him, line of his jaw going tight.
Sid lifts an eyebrow. “Then why’d you switch over to racing?”
“Do you care?” Carter’s looking at him, skepticism clear on his face.
Fair enough. Sid sits on the chair opposite them, cautious. “Rather listen to you then the blowhards downstairs.”
Carter cracks a smile at that. He sighs. “You travel constantly. Never in one place very long, especially when I was catch-riding. I wanted to be here more, and I – ” He stops, shoulders lifting in a resigned shrug. “And I fell.”
Richards has gone very still next to him.
Sid looks down at the beer in his hands. “Bad?”
Richards still hasn’t moved, and now he glares, first at Sid and then at Carter.
“Shit, if you ever want to see what a femur with an extra joint in it looks like, just google ‘Carter Rolex crash’ – ”
“Don’t joke about it,” Richards snaps.
“ – probably the closest I’ll ever get to Youtube stardom – ”
Richards stands up. He walks out of the room without a backward glance.
Carter stares after him. “Mike!”
Richards doesn’t respond, and for a moment the silence stretches out. Carter finally sighs. He looks back at Sid. “Anyway. Now we’re – I’m here. And, just trying to make it work.”
March, they’re out at Turfway, which clings to the northernmost tip of Kentucky, spitting distance from Cincinnati, but really isn’t even a two hour haul. Sid insists they head up early in the week anyway, so Bird can get a work in and still have fresh legs for the race. Bird comes out of the van fractious, pinning his ears at the stable hands and balking, as though after Gulfstream the flat concrete slab of Turfway isn’t worth his time.
“This is your homeland,” Sid chastises. “You’re a Kentucky-bred.”
Bird snaps at the air with his teeth.
“Sport of Kings,” Sid reminds him, and leads him down the rutted road.
When Sid had proposed the race, Malkin had sniffed, too polite to even act properly offended. “Well,” he said.
A perfect echo of Sid and Sid’s tone when faced with questions he didn’t like.
Sid considered the possibility that Malkin was mocking him and shifted the phone to his other ear. “It’s a $550,000 purse.” Turfway’s not much to look at, and Sid’ll come out of there smelling like cigarettes for a week, but she does have this one jewel left.
“Sidney, for me, that is a good Tuesday. Tell me how it will benefit the horse.”
Sid surprised himself by smiling, and surprised himself again by laughing. “It’s a mile and an eighth. Be good to keep him thinking longer each outing.”
“Alright then, do it.” His tone had a note of teasing imperiousness and Sid could picture him twirling his hand in the air in his particular, extravagant way, and the small smile he would get that said Malkin was in on the joke. That said he was aware of how very little say over the matter Sid was prepared to give him.
Even over the phone, Sid’s hand crept up to his face to hide the grin. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Carter’s got a few horses up at the meet and a couple of GB’s other trainers do as well. Sid recognizes the gray, Mick, and the blockheaded orange chestnut, Bully, and a few of the other names hanging on the empty stalls of the horses out working or racing.
Richards is in front of Bully’s stall. His gaze cuts over to Sid as Sid walks past, disdain clear on his face.
Sid thinks, if he could have racing without the people – without the meddling owners and bosses and the incompetent peers and the screaming, messy crowds – if it were just horses, the sport would be perfect.
“Too good to talk to people now?” Richards asks.
Knowing more about what Richards’ been through still doesn’t make him particularly likable, and the whole thing just feels like the school yard. Just another face of the snowy playgrounds of Whitecourt where Sid had bloodied and been bloodied by organized society for the first time. Just exactly the same thing, but done up in the guise of adulthood, right down to the stupidity of it, and the deep, lizard-level of his desire to knock Richards to the ground. Sid stops and turns. “Can’t you go be a menace to the health and safety of horses somewhere else?”
Richards bristles, but Sid’s already walking away.
Two days before the race, Bird puts in a fast but distracted work under a flat, gray sky. He stops and spins on the way to the track, almost upsetting his rider. Sid can feel the irritation radiating off him. He runs hot. The air is threatening rain, but the track is still fast, and Bird glides over it. Sid watches the mechanical precision of his enormous stride. There’s no hitch – no imperfection – but the four-beat cadence never quite opens up, the sound never quite becomes the indistinguishable white-noise rush of rain. Sid frowns, and he stays with Bird after he’s cooled out, watching him in his stall while he stamps and flips his hay net around, as though searching for something better.
The day’s races start up around them. The PA crackles to life and horses and their attendants bustle about, flooding in and out of the barn in regularly staggered waves. But Sid ignores all of it.
If Sid were a better businessman, he would be up in the owners’ lounge scrounging for new clients. Or at the rail with the other trainers swapping tips. If Sid were good at this life, he would find a way to live in both worlds, would take as much joy in the moments after a race as he does during the endless, fleeting two minutes of the race itself. But Sid is no businessman, all of those things strike him only as necessary evils.
He looks at Bird. They have three weeks until his next planned start in the Wood Memorial, six until the Derby. Sid contemplates whether they’ll have time to put Bird through a course of ulcerguard between this start and his next. He thinks he knows exactly what his father would say – that medication would be a bandaid that would do more to hide the problem than any progress towards fixing it. He pushes his father’s voice out of his mind.
He pushes everything else outside his mind and tries to narrow his world and his senses to the horse in front of him. Bird’s legs are firm and cool. His coat is glossy. Muscle ripples under skin, the picture of health. In front of him, Bird goes perfectly still. His eyes and his ears are fixed out the stall window, and he calls, loud and long, and stands fixated on the distance, as if waiting for a response that never comes.
The next wave of horses and grooms leaves for the paddock as usual, but the previous wave’s return is stuttered and broken up as a tide hitting rocks. A groom comes in first, running flat out, fast enough to cause nervous racehorses to startle in their stalls and eye his trajectory with wide eyes and heads turned sideways for a better view.
Sid ignores these perturbations in favor of watching Bird, who has abandoned eating to instead pace the narrow confines of his stall and stop and call periodically. Sid lays a hand on his side, but the horse doesn’t settle, even as the noise around them fades, and the shedrow goes still.
Sid doesn’t emerge from the stall until the shadows stretch long and the sun bloodies the western sky. He looks around and for a moment, even Turfway, with her chipped statues and her bald carpets and the concrete steps worn down to the rebar, is lovely, is lit up, is golden.
And quiet – quieter than a racing barn should be. Sid wanders up and down the aisle frowning, and In the stillness, he finds Umberto. “Bert,” Sid says. “Where is everybody?”
Umberto lowers the pail he is holding. Slowly, he blinks at the pail like he is surprised to find it in his hands and even more uncertain of what it’s purpose might be. He looks at Sid. “Most everyone went home.”
Umberto looks at him, his face goes still as the evening around them; his head tilts, as if Sid had stopped speaking English, had stopped making sense at all. His lips move, but there’s no air behind them to drive sound. He swallows. “They euth’d Bully today.”
“He tripped,” Umberto says. “Shattered his – ” Umberto taps his own leg, high on the shin. “There wasn’t anything – there was nothing to do.”
Sid calls Malkin – better for him to hear it from Sid than some anonymous source, calls him while walking circuits of the shedrow in the gathering dark, with the shadows growing long and clawing over the tops of his boots as he walks, and the whole backside filled with that particular edginess of a quiet place that should be loud.
“That is horrible,” Malkin says, and there’s genuine grief in his voice.
And normal, Sid doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, It isn’t always yours, but you’re always going to lose some. He doesn’t say, You can’t send flesh and blood and heart out against earth and steel and the unforgiving limits of their own bodies and expect everyone to always come home safe.
He doesn’t say any of these things, although he can’t imagine why not. He hasn’t thought of owners as needing to be sheltered before.
He says, “Do you still want to run him on Saturday?”
Malkin sighs. “You said a mile and an eighth would be good for him?”
“It will be,” Sid says.
Malkin sighs again. “Was it the track? Is there something wrong with the track?”
“It was the track,” Sid says. “It was the track and the horse and his legs and his feet and the pack and weather and the shoes and the tack and the jockey and the crowd. It was all of those things, and it was none of those things, and you’ll never know which one mattered most, and which hardly mattered at all.” He breathes into the phone. “It was luck. It was just bad luck.”
The other side of the line is quiet for a long time. “Could we skip this race and still make it into the Derby?”
Bird has points from his Florida win, and from his win in the Iroquis Stakes last year. Enough for them to have an outside chance but no guarantee. “We’d need to place in the Memorial, and the competition will be tougher there. And once we run in the Memorial, there won’t be any other chances. It’s too close to the Derby.”
“The competition will be tougher, but still beatable?”
Sid watches the last of the sun, tucking itself behind the horizon. “Bird can be beat anybody. On the right day, with the right luck. Bird could beat any horse in the world.”
Malkin smiles, Sid can hear it through the phone. Malkin clears his throat. “Does he want to run?”
Sid frowns. He tucks the phone against his ear and walks back towards the barn. Towards Bird’s stall. “What do you mean?”
“Does he want to run on Saturday? Don’t tell me you can’t tell, Mr. Crosby. I won’t believe you.”
Sid reaches Bird’s stall, and he stops. He looks at the horse. At his lines and his eye and his posture. And he touches the horse’s neck to feel the soft hair and the heat of his blood. Bird turns his head to look at him, with that dark, liquid, endless eye. Sid looks at him and says, “No.”
He gets off the line with Malkin, and a moment later he calls the scratch into the track office.
For the moment, in the near dark, Bird stands still, although his eye still smolders. He spent the evening calling and pacing. Sid knows it’s foolishness to believe he was calling and pacing for Bully. Horses move up and down, shuffled and reshuffled all the time, and Bird has no way of knowing that his absence this time is any more permanent. And he would not mourn him if he did. He cannot mourn as people mourn, and Sid will not put that on him.
There are stories, though. Myths. That all horses are one horse, one consciousness split into many fragile frames, and that this is why they move together, and seek each other, and follow each other blind. And why they have no names for each other, not because they have no language, but because why give individual names to the many parts of the same being?
And maybe, if that were true, Sid thinks, maybe Bird can feel an absence where there was once a presence, and maybe that is enough.
With the horse fed and watered and set for the night, there’s nothing for Sid to do but get in his truck and drive back to GB’s. He runs his hands over the steering wheel. He closes his eyes.
The horse is settled, but Sid is not. Still in the parking lot, he replays the day again and again in his head, and in every fractioning, every interpretation of the day’s events, Sid still comes up short. He’s left something unfinished.
He gets a number and the address from Umberto, although in the end, he’s too chicken shit to call.
He spends the drive into Lexington thinking about the naming of things, and how maybe things can only be properly mourned if they bear a name. And maybe this is why the Jockey Club demands uniquity in the naming of horses, and why so often people name those horses for things both natural and disastrous, and by definition, ephemeral. Eclipse and Storm Cat. Cyclone and Thunder Gulch. Sid speaks each name aloud, and he listens to the way the silence after sounds when the name is extinguished.
Richards’ apartment complex hangs on the very at the edge of Frankfort. It’s full dark by the time Sid knocks on the door. Sid stands on the run of cement that connects Richards’ apartment with all his neighbors and looks at the lights in the complex windows and imagines the people and the families, perhaps getting up from dinner, or gathered in front of the TV, sitting with arms around each other, or distant from each other, but still networked and webbed together.
He draws his coat closer around him, Kentucky hasn’t fully fought herself into spring.
He can hear Richards moving in the apartment, and he hears his voice before he answers the door. “Thank Christ. It’s about time. Please tell me you brought booze, because – ” The door swings open, and Richards stops, mouth still framed to speak, but gone silent. He looks at Sid. “What are you doing here?”
Sid takes his hat off, like some kind of penitent, which he is, but then he thinks maybe the gesture looks contrived and thinks about putting his hat back on, and his hands flutter, and the moment stretches on too long. He clears his throat. “I heard about Bully, and I came by to say I’m sorry.”
Richards doesn’t say anything. He looks like he doesn’t know what to say.
“And,” Sid continues, “I wanted to say, whatever I said before, it’s not your fault. I don’t think it’s your fault.”
Richards’ whole body goes still, his hand frozen on the doorknob, his body in the doorway, making no move to step aside. His face faded by the shadows and the fluorescent light, eyes hollow as any statue. All awareness pulled inward, as if guarding some hurt so sharp, so crystalline it requires the whole of his attention to prevent it breaking free.
And Sid, with his finger on the bruise.
It was a mistake coming here, Sid thinks. He should not have come. He nods at Richards’ still face and starts to retreat, but the sound of footsteps echoes up the stairwell, and he turns to see Carter appear, a handle of whiskey in his hand.
Carter looks from Richards to Sid, and his movements grind to a cautious halt. “Oh.”
Richards recovers, unbends enough to pull in air, to say, “Crosby came by to say – about the horse.” He stops again, and the porch light picks out the way the muscles of his throat work.
He won’t say his name, Sid thinks. Because to say his name is to mourn. And like all warm-blooded creatures, he’ll do that in the privacy of his home. With Carter, who will last the night. And the whiskey, most of which will not.
Carter nods. He looks at Sid, a gesture which seems to be less about looking at Sid and more about making himself look away from Richards. “Will you come in?” He asks, as though it were his apartment, his place to do so, and he lifts the bottle so that it catches the light, voice all forced Southern politeness. “Have a drink?”
His words are asking one thing, Sid thinks, but his face begs for the opposite, aching and exhausted, and in this one moment, Sid can feel Carter’s own pain with perfect clarity, as though they were members of the same herd and somehow carried each other’s burdens. The ache arises in him anew, fresh and sharp, and he shakes his head. “I’ll go now,” Sid tells them. “Goodnight.”
Listening from the backside in New York, the distant crowd is a low roar, the sound muffled as if Sid and Bird were walking underwater. Sid holds the lead, twists it in his hand. He looks at the horse, who in the half-dark of the shedrow barn is blue-black and moves out of the shadows like Leviathan emerging from the depths.
They’ve spent the last three weeks at home. Sid worked him lightly, didn’t push. But over and over again Bird gave him nothing but the same short, staccato stride. Regular and metronomic and textbook perfect. Sid keep waiting for the moment, the instant of fluidity, when his stride would stretch and flatten into that easy grace that said he could keep running, would keep running long past the wire simply because it was in him to do so – but that moment never came.
They push out of the barn and out under the spread of a gray sky. New York is brewing a late spring storm, and the crowd noise comes whipped in on the wind in pieces and snippets, growing louder with each forward stride. The tree tops are bending, and the flags flip and snap.
Sid breathes in the threat of rain on the wind and gasoline and horse and dirt, and the faint marshy smell of the bay. And next to him, Bird’s wide nostrils say he breathes it all in too.
This is the Memorial. This is their last dress rehearsal. Their last chance to secure the points to guarantee a place in the greatest horse race ever run. The last time Bird will test himself against his peers before the first Saturday in May. “I need you to run,” Sid says, in their last moments of quiet. “I need you to win.”
Sid hands the lead to Umberto and walks on Bird’s offside, at his shoulder. He looks at the line of horses they’ve joined, their whippet-leanness and their thin skin shining, veins standing out, their bodies curving around their handlers, dancing on spring-loaded limbs.
They draw closer to the grandstand and the noise is louder still, churning and funneling through the air. The horses’ mouths gape and drip foam and they fling their heads and prance.
The long, clean lines of the grandstand tiers are sharp against sky. Her green flags fill and billow, and even the gray and geriatric Aqueduct has brushed herself off for the Memorial.
The horses’ steel-clad feet ring against the brick, their eyes wide, breathing quick, snorting breaths. But Bird’s eye is distant. Bird’s eye is focused on the horizon, as if he had more pressing matters than carrying one hundred pounds and change a mile and an eighth.
Sid watches the post parade, watches John bobbing over Bird’s back as he picks up an easy canter, heading out into rain so light it’s more a change in the density of the air. Sid watches him mill among the other horses behind the gates, bright silks flashing like fireflies through the haze. He watches him slot into place.
The crowd noise dips, the lull all the more quiet for contrast, and for a moment they are all frozen, all motionless, all waiting.
The bell shatters the quiet. The gates snap open and release their burden, and the horses spring forward, hooves digging into dirt, muscles bunching, their legs churning and pressing in wild release. Their jockeys are a floating rainbow above them. And against the gray, against the dreary sky, against the faded, unexpected green of the trees and the half-hidden cityscape in the distance, the horses run. The horses run like color bleeding out of unfinished selvage. Like a wave bleeding off the beach.
Bird is stalking. Stalking, just off the outside of the pack as the leaders come into the final straight. The noise is so loud around Sid it becomes a whitewash blur. He hears none of it. He runs with the horse. He runs under the gray sky and in the mud, and his own muscles tense and his own breath comes quick.
He joins the leaders. Three of them running abreast, matching strides. Eight lengths left and the inside horse falls away. Bird and his last challenger run as if two halves of one single creature, matching stride for stride, beat for beat.
At six lengths out, they are so close, to look at them from the side would be to look at one horse.
At four lengths, Sid sees Bird lower and stretch, as if to say, he will not be beaten. Not today.
At two, his nose is clear. At one, his neck. At the wire, the photo flash goes off. Sid doesn’t need to see the picture.
Malkin comes to the barn after, carefully pressed suit clashing with the mud and the dirt and the rain that patters on the roof. Sid is damp, and the horse is still flecked with gray-brown mud, in the midst of being hosed down. “Congratulations, Sidney.”
Sid glances up. “Horse did the work.”
“Congratulations, Tuxedo Bird.” He digs in his pocket and pulls something free. Something small, that crinkles and causes Bird to prick his ears. A mint. Malkin unwraps it carefully and offers it to the house on a perfectly flat hand. Bird stretches out his long neck and takes the mint with great care. His eyes bright and untroubled for the first time that day.
“Is that what it takes, horse?” Sid asks Bird. “Bribery?”
Bird crunches the mint, unconcerned. He has eyes only for Malkin.
Malkin transfers his look from the horse to Sid, and he looks no less fond. “Sidney, you snuck off after the win at Gulfstream. Today you must stay and have a celebratory drink with me.”
Sid’s mouth twists, scowling before he can think better of it. A drink means the bar in the owners’ lounge.
“I won’t make you talk to anyone else,” Malkin offers.
“They’ll want to talk to me.” The owners’ lounge is a toxic cocktail of martinis and hairspray and misguided money changing hands.
“Is that really so bad?”
Sid looks at him.
Malkin hums to himself. “Perhaps when you spend as much time talking to lawyers as I do, you lose a bit of perspective on the matter of company.” He leans in. “Tell you what. Anyone you don’t want to talk to, I won’t let them talk to you.”
Sid raises an eyebrow, skeptical, but Malkin’s already got a firm grip on his arm.
Promises or no, Sid gets cornered quick, by a man who may or may not be some sort of prince. He’s prattling on about sending horses to stud in Australia. “Double the length of the breeding season,” he says, “double the profit.”
Sid nods because he’s working hard at finding something to say that won’t sound like he’s calling the man stupid or greedy. “Well,” Sid hedges, and downs his champagne faster than he should. There’s an itch settling between his shoulder blades – all these people, pressed in too tight.
The princeling seems to believe Sid is impressed. “I picked him up at the Fall sale in Keeneland, for quite a steal, I think. Another two seasons at stud and he’ll be in the black.”
Sid is impressed that he hasn’t burned through everything he owns. Impressed that someone who seems so driven by the bottom line should be in horses at all, and what he would really like to do is tell this man what an idiot he is. That’d he’d make more spending the millions on lottery tickets for all he knows about horses.
But in the stiff and tiny pond of horse racing, the princeling isn’t the sort of man you can piss off. Sid nods again and swallows the last of his champagne in much the same manner his father used to take shots. His father wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in here. Too stuffy, too hot. Too many fools. Sid’s eyes dart around the room, looking for a clear line to the door.
Quite without warning, Malkin slides bodily between Sid and might-be-prince. He smiles graciously at the man, his hand on Sid’s elbow. “If you’ll excuse us. Terribly sorry.” So smooth and so quick he might have been a cutting horse working a cow, or a stallion stepping in front of a mare. That thought almost makes Sid laugh out loud. That thought brings color up to his cheeks. Or that could be the champagne. He looks at Malkin, and the alcohol gives his thoughts a tingly, effervescent edge.
Malkin looks back at him and smiles, a sly look. One with mischief in it. A look, Sid thinks, that is just for him. Malkin walks, one hand on the small of Sid’s back, and keeps walking, until they’ve cleared the crowd, left the room entirely in favor of a service hallway.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be back here,” Sid says.
“You just won the Wood Memorial, Sidney, with a horse that is the current favorite going into the Kentucky Derby. And I have a great deal of money. I think we can be wherever we like.” He still has a hand on Sid, now slipped around to his hip, and he hasn’t stepped away, hasn’t put any space between them.
Sid looks down to find his own hand on Malkin, resting on his arm. Keeping him close.
Sid’s heart rate kicks up, second adrenaline surge of the day, or maybe he’s still riding the tails of the first. Malkin is tall and broad in front of him, demanding so much of Sid’s attention. His face is too hot and his hands are too hot and the air in between them is thick with unsaid words. Malkin’s hand moves, slides just an inch across Sid’s hip, and Sid feels every fraction of the heat and the pressure of that touch. He swallows. “What if we left?”
Malkin’s eyes are very dark. “What if we did?”
Sid thinks about something teetering on edge, caught by gravity, about the inevitability of a fall. Sid looks at his mouth.
Malkin pushes him up against the wall, and his mouth is on Sid’s, is on Sid’s throat. His breath hissing, and the threat of teeth, and all of him fiery hot where he’s pressed to Sid. “Malkin – ”
“Geno –” He corrects, right up against Sid.
Rain is hitting the windows, and glasses clink in the other room, near and far, far away all at the same time. Sid’s hands are on his face and stroking the breadth of his shoulder and rucking the perfect, pressed creases of that pristine suit. He can’t quite get enough air. “You have a place – in New York?”
Geno’s mouth moves along his jaw, his throat, turning and shifting Sid as he wants. He makes a small frustrated sound. “It’ll take us an hour to get into the city.” His teeth scrape Sid’s skin. “But I can get us to the Hilton in ten minutes?”
Geno touches him soft but unrelenting, the way a river shapes canyon walls. Geno’s touch is cool against flushed skin, a relief. And Sid changes under that touch, reformed and reshaped. The loneliness in him winds tight, winds tighter still, and breaks like a dam before a flood, its traces fading away like tracks in a hard rain.
Sid sits up in the quiet. The sort of quiet afforded by luxury, the artificial dark of blackout curtains. Sid pushes the covers back. Geno breathes slow and deep and undisturbed. Sid crosses the room in the dark. A stripe of light escapes the edge of the curtain and falls across one of the chairs and he sits in it so that he can see outside. The landscape reduced to a narrow stripe of buildings the color of wet concrete and bleached white sky. Even money can’t change the view.
Sid’s lips are chapped. He runs his hands over his legs, touches a bruise on the inside of his thigh. Sid thinks, how many miles beyond the Aqueduct before you hit open space? How many miles before you hit anything truly wild? Or maybe there is no more untouched earth. Maybe every footfall has been trod.
“It’s too early for melancholy, Sidney.”
Sid looks away from the window. Geno is sitting up, white sheets rucked and bunched against his skin and the muscle, the lines of him – normally hidden, are all laid bare. His hair is mussed and falling in his face. He looks very honest. He looks like something soft and strong. A first year birch. An untried colt.
This is him, Sid thinks, and everything else is a disguise built to navigate the world. This is a man who feeds his racehorse mints. This is a man who believes in greatness.
Sid goes back to the bed.
This morning, Geno’s hands warm his skin. Sid shivers under the feeling of something settling. And for the first time he is not a wandering pilgrim, not like wind through the trees, not an exile, but like something that can be captured and held. Like something that would want to be.
“So sad.” Geno touches his face. The accent is thicker in his sleep-rough voice. “You and my horse, both.”
Sid goes very still.
Geno taps a finger against the center of Sid’s lip. “You think you are the only one who sees these things.” Geno shakes his head. His eyes are very dark. “You are not.”
Geno is waiting for him to say something; Sid can feel it in the silence. His chest grows heavier with words pressing to get out, and the fear of saying things he has tried for too long to keep unsaid. “It’s a hard business,” Sid says. “I love the horses, I love working with them, but – ” His hand gestures, falls. “Too many people who care more about winning and money than they do about – about anything else.” Sid shakes his head. “And working for men like GB, who – ”
Sid thinks about the tired horses at GB’s other property with their heads down and their used-up look. About the squalling gate and the smell of pine. About the scars Tuxedo Bird now wears. He swallows.
Geno’s eyes narrow. “Who what, Sidney?”
The line of tension winds tighter around Sid’s chest. “Who use horses. Who throw them away. Who don’t care if they hurt.”
Geno has gone very still next to him. “Why are you working with GB? If he is this kind of man?”
“It’s not – ” Sid sighs. “It’s not that he’s so much worse than anyone else.” They’re all just different shades of the same gray. “And you have to work with men like GB to work around here at all.”
“And the horse – ” Geno’s tone is very careful.
“Bird loves to run,” Sid says. “He loves to run. But if he keeps running, sooner or later he’ll break. He’s already – stressed. Racing wears them out. And if he’s very, very lucky he’ll retire to a life in a stall. Too valuable to ever be at liberty, making money for men like GB – ”
Geno’s face is thoughtful. “Why are you here, Sidney? Why are you training racehorses at all, if you feel like this?”
“I’m good at this,” Sid says. The words catch, stick in his throat. “I’m great.”
“You could be great at other things.”
Sid shakes his head, all his words used up, something lodging sharp in his throat.
Geno’s hand drifts across his shoulder, cups the back of his neck. “What if he doesn’t race?”
Sid searches for a response. “You mean – you want to scratch the favorite? From the biggest horse race in the world? You can’t do that. Why would you do that?”
“I would do that if I thought it would make him happy.” He waits until Sid is looking at him, until Sid’s eyes on his. “But what I meant was, what if he didn’t race at all?”
Sid is frozen.
Geno smiles at him. “Go ask my horse. Go ask my horse what he would like to do.”
People work their whole lives to get into the Derby, their whole lives for two minutes of breathlessness and the faintest chance of seeing the roses laid across their horse’s neck. More than that, horses not only spend their whole lives training, but are created, for generations and generations back for this one purpose. To scratch is not to give up on a lifetime’s dream, but rather a thousand lifetimes’ dreams. A bloodline’s dreams.
Sid leaves New York under gray skies and travels with his eyes shut, thinking about what it would mean to turn his back and walk away. About how he would leave behind this chance at glory – but one that pulls and twists at his stomach. About how before him lies nothing but the gaping opening of possibility.
Back in Kentucky, in his guesthouse, Sid sleeps and doesn’t sleep and rises in dark and goes to the barn, low burning lamps in the corners unnecessary, since his feet would know the way deaf and blind. Sid goes to Bird’s stall. The horse is quiet, flicks an ear at him then ignores him except for to sigh and make space for Sid to stand.
Sid stares out the window in the stall, watching the eastern sky go gray, as if giving himself Bird’s view could make deciding Bird’s fate any easier. From the stall he can see the practice track, and beyond that the rolling paddocks, and beyond that the great unfenced pasture. Fog clings low, and the sun gives off fractured, crystalline light that makes diamonds of the dew on that broad, endless green.
Sid’s heart beats a just little faster thinking of what the landscape must looks like to a horse, how it must blur; the thrill as the earth spills open and limitless and curves and twists, no rail, no track at all and impossible to predict.
Sid’s fingers curl into a tighter grip on the edge of the window. He turns and looks back at the horse.
Tuxedo Bird looks directly at him and then past him at that green expanse. Bird’s too precious to waste on racing, Sid thinks, but fearless in a way that deserves to be rewarded.
What do you do with something that precious? What do you do with something that brave?
Sid slips out of the barn, near sprinting back to the guesthouse to collect his phone. His fingers make a mess of dialing, not moving fast enough to keep up with his thoughts.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end is groggy, sleep-rough.
“Richards?” Sid’s heart is beating quick inside his chest, the thrill of the idea powering its speed.
“Crosby, is that you?” Richards clears his throat. “Jesus fuck, it’s – not even six yet, what the fuck do you want? How do you even have this number?”
“Listen,” Sid waves his objections away. “Is Carter there?”
There’s dead silence from the other end of the line.
Sid rubs his face, frustrated. “I don’t – fuck – I don’t care. You don’t have to say if you don’t want to. Just tell him to meet me at the barn. Soon.”
“What – ”
Sid presses on, over him. “And don’t go to GB’s other barn first. You need to come here first. You know, you should just come now. I need a favor.”
Richards and Carter show up with matching large Starbucks cups and nobody makes eye contact.
“Okay,” Carter says. “What’s going on?”
Carter keeps very quiet while Sid explains. And then he squints in the early morning sun, and looks past Sid at the pastureland behind him, and back at the barn, and finally back at Sid, brows drawn together and head cocked. “You want me to ride Bird?”
Sid nods. “I want to know if he’ll make an eventer.”
“No,” Richards says, voice flat. “No, absolutely not.”
Carter’s face is thoughtful. “Let me go get my saddle.”
“Jeff – ” Richards calls after him but Carter’s already moving.
Bird gives Carter’s jump saddle a long sniff and then cocks a foot and stands, unconcerned. Carter sets it lightly into place. “I’m almost twice as heavy as anyone he’s had up,” he warns.
“I know,” Sid says.
“This is terrible idea,” Richards says. “This horse is three. He’s never had anybody but a jockey up. And you want Jeff to ride him in the pasture?” His voice rises with each word. Bird twitches an ear.
“Richie.” Carter frowns, sliding his hand under the pommel, checking the clearance. “You’re upsetting the horse.”
“And jump him over something,” Sid says.
They both look at him at that. Carter frowns. “Sid, he is three.”
“Something small,” Sid clarifies. “Once isn’t going to hurt him. I need to know if he feels like he can do it. I need to know if he likes it.”
“Jeff,” Richards says again.
“It’s gonna be fine,” Carter says, eyes still on the saddle.
“You weren’t the one who had to take care of you when you broke half the bones in your body.”
Carter stops and turns around. “Mike. It’s going to be fine.” He touches Mike’s jaw. His temple. “I want to ride. I really want to ride.”
Richards closes his eyes. The muscles of his throat work. Sid looks away.
Carter says something to him, his voice dropping too low for Sid to hear, and then he turns back to Sid. They finish tacking up the horse, and they lead him out to the pasture and once there Carter stands on a bucket and leans across Bird’s back. Bird takes one step to the side and then rebalances and stands. Carter swings aboard; he nods at Sid. Sid lets go.
Bird’s ears dance, pointing at Sid then Richards then out at the pastureland then back towards Carter. Carter speaks soothingly to him, gives him plenty of rein. He drums his heels lightly against Bird’s side. Bird hesitates and then moves forward, each step cautious, as if asking, This? This?
Carter guides him in a loose circle. Bird picks up a trot, and then a canter, and then he seems to realize there’s no rail running along his side, no fence line in sight – and he runs.
In an instant they become a dot, almost lost to the distance. Next to Sid, Richards swallows, folds his arms tight to his chest.
In seconds, the dot grows larger again as they swing into view. Sid can see his stride, fluid and easy, and full of mindless joy, feet appearing and disappearing through the grass. Carter brings him down, or lets Bird bring himself down. The horse snorting in a regular rhythm, pleased with himself.
Sid sets up a homemade cross rail, and he stands with Richards. They watch Carter align Bird to the fence.
Bird’s ears point ahead, straight as shadows in the evening. He tucks his feet, neat, even though he doesn’t need to, and Carter brings him to a halt in front of them. He’s grinning, and the horse’s eye is bright.
Carter says, “This horse has springs.” He hasn’t stopped smiling, and looking at him, even Richards starts to grin.
Sid looks at the horse, whose dark eye is on him, lit from within as though a new challenge had only stoked his fire. Sid thinks about that stride, fearless over open ground, that mind as sharp as any Sid has known, and that heart more full and forgiving and proud that anyone could dare to ask for.
Sid lays his hand on the horse’s neck. The blood and the spirit and the heat all pounding close to his skin. All the answer Sid needs.
Epilogue, many years in the future
Richie swipes a cloth over Jeff’s boot, chasing nonexistent scuff marks. Jeff frowns down at him. “It’s fine. This isn’t dressage.”
Richie ignores him, reaches in again.
“Shoo.” Jeff kicks at him lightly and Bird shifts under him. “You’re making us nervous.”
Richie glares up at him. “I’m nervous.”
“Mike,” Geno calls to him and waves him over. He puts a hand on Richie’s shoulder. “We shall practice supportive silence together, yes?”
Sid smiles at him and lays a hand on the horse’s neck. He looks up at Jeff. “You’re due in the start box in about forty-five seconds.”
Jeff rolls his neck. He tugs on his gloves, pulls at the collar of his shirt. “I forgot what a pain in the ass these vests are.” He looks down at Sid and winks. “We’re ready, Sid. Right, Bird?”
Bird flicks an ear. He’s standing quietly, but Sid can feel his pulse under his skin, the energy gathering and crackling around him.
“You look good,” Sid says, mostly to the horse.
Jeff pats Bird’s neck. He picks up the reins and settles, back straight, eyes forward.
They’re about to head out – not with a pack, not from a gate, but rather a horse and rider alone on a jet way of green. A course in front of them and each fence like a puzzle to be solved. And in this new challenge, and in the image of the horse with his ears pricked forward, and in the weight of Geno’s arm around his shoulders, Sid can feel new life soak into all of them, like a spring rush of snowmelt through old riverbeds, the twists and the forks of their lives made vibrant again by white foam and the cool, dark tongue of the water, seeding new richness into desert soil.
Bird approaches the soaring straightaways and each fence focused and with joy, soaring like a weightless creature.
The possibility of flight the deserving reward for a fearless heart.