The black horse had stolen what little sleep the bullets hadn’t.
A fist hammered against the skewed wooden door, and Joe slowly pulled his coat from where it had covered him for the last few hours, and shrugged it onto his thin arms.
His stomach growled, and he balled a fist into it, mud tattooed into the creases of his hand. Never had he been so thin, not even in the approach to the National. His dad would’ve been proud. Joe grimaced as he ignored the spasms flickering through his body.
Stepping out into the open, the mud snatched at Joe’s feet, fighting his legs for the third-hand boots trying to keep him dry. His patrol were taking the evening watch, and as the light began to dim, Joe leant into his position against the wet trench walls.
“Still dreamin’ about your ‘orse Joey?” His neighbour, Tom, grinned at him, revealing rows of black teeth.
“It was real y’know. I know youse lot don’t believe me, but it was real.”
“Yeah course it was boyo, jus’ like that gal who came to visit me last night was as well.” Tom winked, staring back out towards no-man’s land.
Joe wished he’d kept his mouth shut. There was a horse, it was big and black, and it had been running for its life out there, same as them all.
“Attention lads, MOVING.” His officer’s voice crackled in his constantly ringing ears.
Joe clutched his rifle and slipped out from the crack he had been sheltering in. Following Mills, he marched, swinging his arms like toy soldiers, counting the strides to blot out the exhaustion.
He felt like the horses in the last furlong of a trying race, pushing their bodies to the extreme for a bucket of oats, a hot wash and ringing applause. His own exhaustion, however, would be met by the cold, steel kiss of shrapnel, a bullet to the head if he was one of the lucky ones.
He trudged on, his eyes scanning the ground to his left, obscured by reels of barbed wire, obliterated bodies and lone planks of wood, jutting out of the mud like wreckage in stormy waters. The smell was worse during the middle of the day, but now evening was falling, the gathering cold kept it at bay.
More painful than the blisters, the lice, the ill-fitting clothes, the rotting wounds and the hunger, was the throbbing ache to return home. He longed for clear fields and endless hills, trees still intact and ground that wasn’t pitted and pock-marked. The desperation to be back on his horses brought tears to his eyes, a visceral rawness that surged through his stomach when his energy was too low to fight it.
Joe wanted the churned ground of the take-off point, not the chewed-up mud from endless advances and retreats. The weariness after a day of taking horses to the gallops or riding a full card at Aintree, not from marching towards a shiny, metal death. The dirt covering him wasn’t the splatter of mud from the horse in front, but from burying himself in the mud to stay alive.
The officer led them through the winding trench passages, passing the damaged boys waiting to go home. Joe averted his eyes. Horses with lesser injuries would be shot.
A volley of shouts erupted from further down the trench, followed by a rattling crack, and a current of vibrations spiralling through the ground under their feet. Joe went into autopilot as his officer began screaming instructions, the men sticking themselves to the cold walls.
Pressing his cheek into the sticky mud, Joe closed his eyes briefly, imagining the vibrations were the thunder of hooves as they coursed down the home straight. The more he drifted away, the more he recognised the rhythmic drumming of hoof-beats.
He opened his eyes. Unmistakably, heading towards him was a black horse. Its head was high, nostrils flared, and Joe could see the vicious redness of its membranes and the whites of its eyes.
It was in panic mode, like them all really. Joe saw his officer slowly raise his rifle, and his heart raced.
He was going to be killed by something scared out of its wits, what did it matter whether it was horse or human?
Leaping out in front of the horse, his arms outstretched, Joe waited for half a ton of animal to career through him. Instead, the horse’s sweaty, slimy shoulders slid into his hands, warmth and wetness instantly flooding through his fingers, stinging as heat crackled to life under his skin. Its breath exhaled in giant clouds of steam, like the residue following an exploded bomb. Its heartbeat pulsed against Joe’s hand, rattling like machine-gun fire.
The smell was overwhelming. Not even the blood and mud caked over the horse’s coat could dilute it. It began to draw out Joe’s pain and terror, smoking it out like they did to men down trenches.
Joe pulled his belt off, looping it around the horse’s neck, the animal calming under his touch.
His officer grabbed Joe’s shoulder. “We had a hunter like this,” his officer paused, rubbing a hand over his face, a face aged far beyond its years. “Take it to the medics, get it out of the trenches. Find a farm, find a field. It doesn’t belong here.” He shook his head, turned away and strode to the front of the clamouring men.
“It’s yer ‘orse Joe,” Tom grinned, “one to win the National on?”
Joe smiled, and tugged on the belt, the horse slowly moving next to him.
He’d ridden many a spectacular finish, winning on the long shots, claiming the trophy by a whisker, but here, trundling along the final home straight, was the only race he’d wanted to finish quite so desperately, and all in one piece.