Dark Night, Black Horse

Andalucía, Spain, 1936.

The mule snorted and the black horse skittered sideways. Diego woke with a start. He listened. Both mule and horse were sniffing the air, ears twisting and turning. The skin on the back of Diego’s neck prickled. He took up the stallion’s reins and untied the mule’s tether from his saddle. Tucking the lead rein into his right hand, he turned to look at the old pack-mule behind him.

The mule was staring down the incline. In the silence Diego could hear its breathing and just make out its nostrils flaring open, shut, open, shut. Further than that, he could see nothing. He tried to calculate the drop to the deep valley floor. It was nothing but blackness, but it was there, and treacherous. One misplaced step and the laden mule would be dragged down. His horse shuffled a few unnecessary paces and Diego cursed. He cursed the horse, but he was angry with himself. Pride and the desire to show-off had made him use the stallion. It was neither wise nor necessary. On trips like this, when the light of a half-made moon barely slithered through winter clouds and his journey took him around the side of a mountain, an excitable young stallion was not the ideal mount. Thank heavens he’d only needed one mule. Common sense had decided that, at least. If the Guardia Civil did see him - or if he saw them first - he could slip the mule’s lead rein and send it home alone. Then he’d be just one lone rider returning from wherever on his horse and rather the worse for wear - certainly not capable of answering any questions clearly. He had his papers in his breast pocket: he’d wave them in the air and burble through the rest. The ruse had worked before.


“Shit!” Think of the devil - Diego slithered off his horse onto the narrow track, unclipped the mule’s rope and tried to manoeuvre the beast around in front of the stallion.

A stone slipped beneath his feet, he lost his balance. The horse shifted and jostled, nearly sending him to the bottom of the valley.

“Hey, you there!” Another voice rang out in the still night.

>Diego’s heart lurched against his rib cage. The tone told him it was someone in uniform, the Guardia. Where were they? If they were up ahead the mule wouldn’t get past them.

A ripple of grit and small stones arrived in a shower from above. They were higher up the mountain. Thank the Lord, and he’d go to Mass on Sunday.

Taking the horse’s reins firmly in his right hand, Diego shoved his body into the stallion’s wide chest then pulled on the mule’s headcollar with his left.

“Move you brute,” he hissed, “get round here or I’ll turn you to dog meat.”

He kicked the mule in the stomach then for a heart-stopping moment feared the brainless beast was going to turn back the other way, but no. There was a sound of men above and more dislodged stones. The old brute snorted, and to Diego’s delight, gave a cow-kick buck and took off in the direction of home. Small rocks cascaded into the empty valley as its unshod feet galloped down the track. And then there was silence again.

Diego ran a hand down the horse’s neck, trying to gather his wits and slow his breathing. He lit a cigarette then set off, walking with the horse just behind him. The horse neighed, afraid of being alone with only the man.

“Sshh,” said Diego. “Not far now.”

Not far’ meant a good seven or eight kilometres, but the old mule would find its way back to town and slip down through the narrow streets until it reached their finca.

“Hey!” called a different voice. “Stop. Stay where you are.”

“Oh, hell.” Diego stamped on his cigarette and tugged the horse to move faster. He needed to get off the narrow ledge onto safer ground.

A few paces took them to a turn where the track widened out to pass through olive terraces and down into Monda, before starting uphill again on the other side of the village towards Coín.

There were two of them. Guardia Civil.

As Diego and his horse reached a small clearing, they arrived, pistols and torches in hand, from a goat track above.

“Evening,” Diego touched the peak of his cap.

“Long way from home, aren’t you?” said one.

“Not really. Depends how you look at it.” Diego shrugged.

“Tricky path for a horse like that,” said the other.

Diego looked behind him. The track was barely visible in the midnight gloom, but he knew what they meant. And they were right. “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t think I’ll risk it again.”

“Where have you been?”



“Friend’s getting married. We were drinking to his future woes.”

“Nice horse,” said the smaller of the two Guardia.

“Too nice,” said the taller man. “Where’s the other one?”

“What other one?”

“We heard two horses.”

“Wasn’t me, I only ride one at time.” Diego caught himself before it was too late. It wouldn’t do to annoy them. “Just this one. Dancing about like he’s doing a jota, stupid beast. That’s why I got off. He wants to fall off the mountain he can, but he’s not taking me with him.”

The Guardia exchanged glances. “Papers,” said one.

Diego reached into his jacket pocket and removed his papers. The Guardia replaced their pistols in their holsters and one shone a torch over the official document.

“Diego Martín, of Coín,” he said.


“I’ve heard of you.”

“You probably have. You want to buy or sell a horse you’ll hear my name first.”

“This one,” said the smaller man indicating the young stallion.

“What? No!” Diego spoke before he thought.

“So you’re not a horse-dealer?” said the taller man.

“I am, but this one’s not for sale.”

“Name your price.”

“Oh, come on!” Diego threw a hand up and the horse jerked backwards. “Look at him. Pura raza español, black as a Guardia’s soul, entire and four years old: name a person in your uniform under the rank of general that can afford a beast like this.”

The two men exchanged looks again. The taller man said, “But you can.”

“Born and bred on my finca. I’ll show you his mother if you like. You can have her next colt – at a price.”

“But not this one?”

“No. Not this one. Look, have you got some particularly good reason for keeping an honest man from his bed on a winter night? I’m chilled to the bone and my wife’ll be waiting up.”

The two Guardia reluctantly stepped back.

Diego stuffed his papers into his jacket and leaped up into his saddle, then touching his cap for a second time, urged his fine horse into smart walk.

“We might as well use the main road now,” he said aloud to his horse when they were out of any official’s hearing, “reckon we’ve taken enough risks for one night.”