It was almost evening and Alec was still as hot as he has ever been in all his young life. He floated on his back in the sea and sweltered. Above him the sun shimmered in a haze of heat; the sky was a burning bronze bowl cupping the ocean from end to end. The Black stood beside him, the water lapping at his massive chest, the tips of his heavy mane and the length of his tail fanning around him like mermaid hair. If the heat bothered him, he gave no sign of it.
Finally, the sun lowered a little, turning the sand of the beach to a dull red and outlining The Black's shining coat in blood. His head dropped from the far line of the horizon, great hooves shifting impatiently, startling a shoal of small fish and sending up spurts and eddies of white sand. Alec heaved himself upright with a sigh. A light breeze stroked over his streaming shoulders, raising the barest suggestion of gooseflesh. He half swam, half slithered onto the slippery back of the waiting horse; with the heat draining out of the evening air the body beneath him seemed to boil with power.
One ear was pricked towards the island, the other turned back toward Alec, loosely bound to the will of the pink shrimp on his back. He never needed urging and waited only for permission - and that only barely.
Alec steadied himself as best he could, little waves pushing and slapping at his thighs. Water squeezed from beneath his fingers as he gripped lengths of soaking mane.
“Go on then,” he whispered, “go on.”
* * *
The Black was a valuable animal now and that value came with a price. Alec did not regret this exactly, a horse's lifespan is measured in dollars and a horse with the Black's temperament, no matter how beautiful or loved, would always be at risk unless he could be proved useful. A thousand cheering people had seem him outrun Cyclone and Sun Raider, the fastest horse in America and everyone knew it. There would always be someone now ready to risk the Black's unrelenting ferocity for the prestige of owning the greatest living horse, or for the possibility of his siring gentler, swifter children.
Alec could die tomorrow, the Dailey barn burn to the ground and the Black would find a home.
So he did not regret it, but the price he paid hurt them both. The Black nuzzled disconsolately at Alec's empty pockets. Sugar was how he had first bonded with The Black, all those months ago on the doomed ship. A nightmare of an animal, he would have shattered any man who went into his stall but he came for the sugar Alec left on the sill, and smelled the boy-smell on it. Alec had watched him, delighting in the contrast between the tentative velvet of his muzzle and the merciless, wild eyes that gleamed out of the dark. But now the Black was to have a strictly regulated diet, formulated to protect the priceless ivory of his teeth and the delicate workings of his insides.
Gone too were the terrible, splendid gallops down the racetrack at Belmont, that left Alec exhausted almost past bearing and half choked on the speed of the magnificent creature beneath him, barely in control and barely wanting it. Alec had thought of The Black as an animal made for running and for kingship and would not have believed either could have hurt him, but Henry had chilling tales of horses whose legs had snapped under the strain of their training, the crack of the breaking bone like a rifle shot. And then there was Chang, Chang who was so like the Black and who had loved to run so much he had done it till his heart burst and his brave, striving body was reduced to so many pounds of dog meat.
He gave the Black a final pat and left, trailing guilt and feeling absurd for it. The Black was in splendid condition, his every movement a proclamation of his health and energy. Alec had groomed him that morning until his coat shone slick as motor oil and the muscles that rippled under it were as hard as solid iron. The stupidity of worrying over the Black, who had grazed freely in the paddock all morning and got a bran mash every Sunday, when there were horses who lived and died between a pair of shafts and knew the hand of man only by the whip that it held. Not to mention the implied insult to Henry, that he, who loved the Black second only to Alex and knew as much about horses as any man alive, would design for him a life he could not be happy living. Alec was being ridiculously sentimental and he knew it.
He slouched disconsolately into the kitchen of the Dailey house. Mrs Dailey was at the stove, boiling something thick and mysterious in a copper kettle. Alec peered in – it smelled like heaven and looked like hot tar.
“What is it?” he asked, thoroughly at a loss.
“Blackstrap molasses and a little mint and brown sugar” She replied absentmindedly, gazing at the thick bubbles with a practised eye. She spooned up a little of it and dropped it into a glass of cold water, where it left a comet trail of sweetness before coming to rest with a hard clink on the bottom. Giving a satisfied nod, as if this foretold some pleasant future, she wrapped a tea towel round the handle of the kettle and with one decisive movement, dumped the whole lot onto the kitchen counter where it instantly started to congeal into a sticky mass.
Alec gaped. He had eaten homecooked meals at least once a day for almost all his life and in a long procession of pies, puddings and roasts he had never seen anything that looked like this.
Working with the confidence of an expert, Mrs Dailey peeled the mass from the counter and cut it in uneven halves with a rather gummy pair of kitchen shears. Tossing the small piece back on the surface (which Alec now noticed had a distinctly buttery appearance) she stretched the remaining half into a long rope, then slapped the ends back together again, before repeating the process. The muscles on her heavy forearms stood out with the effort and her red face dripped sweat. As Alec watched, the stuff she was working changed from a treacly brown only a shade lighter than The Black's coat, all the way through to a rich cream. Working very quickly now, she prised the unworked lump from the counter and twisted it with the creamy stuff till she had another long rope, only this time it was coloured in long stripes like a garter snake. It wasn't until she had started snipping off little pillow-like squares, banded in buff and black like a bumblebee that Alec realised what she'd been making.
“They're humbugs!” he exclaimed, in astonishment, having always vaguely supposed such things could only be made in a large factory by an interestingly complicated machine.
“Mmmhmmm” Mrs Dailey agreed, reaching into a cupboard under the sink and taking out an old and rather dented coffee tin and sweeping the humbugs into it with a glassy clatter.
She presented Alec with the tin triumphantly and he took it, wondering a little nervously if this was some bizarre attempt at fattening him up and he was expected to consume the lot of them on the spot.
“For your horse” she clarified, “I used to make them all the time when Henry was working, so he'd have something nice to give the horses. He was smuggling them sugar lumps in his socks.”
Alec remembered the photograph of the grinning imp, hardly older than himself yet perfectly at home on Chang's red back and found he wasn't surprised. Mrs Dailey was already busy over the sink, swishing a soap shaker in a basin of hot water to build up a lather and rattling the gummy pans about in it.
"It's real swell of you," he said to her broad, cotton-print back. She shrugged.
"I've missed them, you know, the horses. They were so fine, even the scrubs who never won a race had a sort of air to them, like they knew they were special and some of the winners were so beautiful you'd never know they hadn't been bred just for the look of them. Henry used to groom Chang till he had a better polish than a mahogany sideboard and he always whinnied when he saw me. The Black doesn't think much of me I know, but I like knowing he's here and happy."
“Oh” said Alec, pleased. He'd always imagined Mrs Dailey as more of a martyr to Henry's passion with horses than as an active participant but it explained her easy acceptance of the Black's ferocious presence. It had been her, after all, who had given him the use of the spare stall. He clutched the tin to his chest, overwhelmed with sudden gratitude and the humbugs clinked inside, as enticing as silver dollars.
The smell of mint filled the inside of the barn as soon as the lid was taken off. The Black, who was new to it, folded his upper lip back, tasting the air suspiciously. But Napoleon, long familiar with Mrs Dailey's humbugs, snorted with eagerness, his eyes white rimmed with greed. Alec took one out and eyed it critically, it was satiny in texture, rather than sticky as he had been expecting and had a fat, wholesome look to it.
He presented one to Napoleon who thrust out his hoary old head and blowing with longing but too polite to snatch, hoovered it up with whiskery gentleness leaving an enthusiastic smear of green slime on Alec's sweater in gratitude. The Black put his ears back with a squeal, suddenly jealous and Alec wiped his hand on his thigh and hastened to offer him one. He lipped it delicately from the flat of Alec's palm and crunched it contentedly, hooking up a back leg in lazy comfort.
Alec took one himself to be companionable. He had eaten raw fish and thought it a treat and still felt his mouth puckering around the sour, almost burnt taste of blackstrap. He rolled it on his tongue a little, till the sweetness of the brown sugar had a chance to come through and decided he rather liked it. And that he would never eat another one unless someone made him.
He turned to go home, easier in his mind at the thought of the full coffee tin and the Black's contended crunching but when he paused in the barn door and looked over his shoulder the Black was staring past Alec into the gathering night and his eyes seemed full of restlessness and longing.
* * *
That night Alec dreamed he was back on the island, white sand gritty beneath his toes, the sky as frenziedly blue as the breast of a peacock. There was a bridle made all of roses in his hands. He heard a whistle, high as a tea kettle and turned to see the Black, made small as a child's toy by the distance, tearing up the turf at the cliffs edge. Then the sun got in his eyes and he blinked, and when he opened them he was leading the Black by the rose bridle, taking him through an ever narrowing corridor, that grew so close they were forced to walk in single file and with a ceiling so low that the Black had to stretch out his neck like a fighting stallion's. He wanted to go back, but by then the walls were pressing against them both and they could not turn, only go on into the squeezing dark.
He woke, gasping and guilt ridden, tangled in his blankets like a human pupae. He tried to imagine the Black, snuggly comfortable in his warm stable, his nose to Napoleon's as they shared drowsy confidences but all he could think of were his restless, shivering muscles and how his polished hooves, glossy with oil, had scraped long tracks in the hock deep straw of his stall.
It was 3am, which was the middle of the night for most people, but almost morning for Alec who was long accustomed to early rising. He bore with his bed of frustration for another few minutes, so he could tell himself he had at least tried to go back to sleep, then slipped from beneath the covers and started tugging on his jeans. He felt suffused with the sense of excitement that comes from doing something forbidden which has no real harm in it. Thick socks and a stout jersey completed his adventurer's attire. Padding softly down the stairs with the easy silence of long practice, Alec eased the bolt back on the front door and slipped out into the frosted night.
The new moon was a bare silver thread of light in the night sky, but Alec jogged comfortably along under the anaemic glow of the few street lights. He had made this journey a hundred times and was pretty sure he could do it with no eyes in his head at all.
There was no sign of life at the Dailey place when he reached it and Alec was both glad and not, glad to avoid any confrontation with what he was about to do, but not wanting to be furtive as if he were doing something wrong.
The Black heard his footsteps from inside the barn and shrilled a welcome, sending Alec hurrying for the door, thinking nervously of sleeping neighbours
There was no electricity in the barn yet, Napoleon's rough coat gleamed like a pool of spilt milk in the forgiving dark but the Black was a horror of an animal, his sloe coloured body sucking in what little light there was so that he seemed the shadow of some great Stygian beast.
“Hello boy,” said Alex, cheerfully, and then, seeing a third silhouette “Hey Henry, you're up early.”
Henry was perched on a hay bale, wearing thick flannel pyjamas and a slightly guilty expression, the tin of humbugs open beside him. Napoleon was watching him with the eager interest of a devoted lover, his rubbery lips stretched outward like a grasping hand, breath heavily redolent of peppermint.
“Come to take him for a ride, have you?” It was hardly a question, even the Black knew, coming to the front of his stall and striking at it with an imperious, impatient hoof. Alec took the bridle down from it's nail on the wall, noting the supple leather and the shining silver of the bit. The barn was airy and sweet smelling, warm even in the bitter night of a New York Autumn; linen stable rubbers were neatly folded next to tins of saddle soap and thick bristled body brushes. Alec sat on an oat bin and sighed. He could go over the whole city with a flea comb and not find a better place than the Dailey barn. The Black was watching him intently, ears pitched forward, his nostrils distended with eagerness.
"Henry..." he began, then stopped. He knew next to nothing about horses and Henry had worked with them his whole life.
Henry offered him the humbug tin, Alec declined, not entirely sure he couldn't still taste the last one. Henry put one in his mouth distractedly and sucked it with nostalgic sounds of regret.
“Most horses” he said, wafting mint, “run because we ask them to, or because the other horses are running. But the Black's one of the few who runs because he has to.”
They looked at him in silence for a few moments, taking in the arching crest of the neck and the pluming banner of his tail, the wildness that flared in his eyes; softened now that Alec was here, but never quite extinguished. He was as out of place in the homey stable as a dragon curled upon a hearthrug.
“Figures that a horse like the Black would need treating a little different. There's a farmer a few miles up the road with two dozen acres lying fallow, says he doesn't mind if you want to exercise the Black in there. Should be large enough to let him stretch out a bit.”
Alec had a bridle on the Black and was mounted almost before Henry had finished speaking. Sensing that there was something more in store than endlessly circling the familiar restrictions of the paddock, the Black snorted and rattled his bit, mane rippling like spurts of black fire. Henry took a step back, the knotted scar on his arm an aching reminder of the damage the steel shod hooves could do. High above him, Alec sat the towering animal, easy and fearless, his hands relaxed on the leather reins.
“And take him out in the daylight next time or your mother will-” Henry trailed off, boy and horse had already vanished.
* * *
It was still too early for much traffic and they only encountered one car, the driver boggling behind his windshield at the sudden apparition of horse and rider, waiting on the verge like an omen of the apocalypse. The Black was used to cars by now and only snorted disdainfully as it passed, secure in his domination over the squat metal creatures that never offered him a challenge.
The field was down a muddy track, hard and glittery with the morning frost. The sun had not yet risen, but the sky had lightened to cobalt, foamy with clouds and still pocked with fading stars. The twisted wire moon lent a white gloss to the cropped grass, grazed low by absent cattle. The Black stood and backed and turned so Alec could open the gate, as obedient as any riding school hack but Alec could feel his teeth reaching for the bit and the muscles fretting on his bare, hot back. The space lay before them vast and flat, spackled here and there with treacherous little hollows and pits which would be the downfall of many a horse at the gallop, but Alec trusted the Black, as he had trusted him on the Island over the rock-toothed gape of the ravine on their first mad ride.
The Black's great head was turned now to the glowing line of the horizon, the sharp wind that tossed Alec's hair into tangles barely stirring the heavy mane, the heat of his body flushing up into the boy and keeping him warm. Alec, a fragile wisp of humanity perched precariously atop a titan, felt the whole magnitude of the Black's frustrated strength thrumming though his own body.
Indomitable and untiring he waited, Alec knew, not for his urging but only his permission and that, only barely. His numb fingers gripped the reins with steely determination.
“Go on then,” he whispered, “Go on.”