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Night hung black and heavy about the old barn. An iron gate creaked a short distance away and a few minutes later the short figure of a man slid alongside the barn. As he moved cautiously forward his fat, gloved hand felt the wood. The man stopped as he neared the door and his hand dug into his right coat pocket. Fumbling, he searched for something. Not finding it, he uttered an oath and reached awkwardly across to his left-hand pocket. He pulled the empty sleeve from the pocket and reached inside, withdrawing a long hypodermic needle. His dark-skinned face creased into folds of fatty tissue as he smiled. Moving forward once again, he did not bother to replace the empty coat sleeve and it hung limply at his side in the still air.
The prowler reached the door. Carefully he opened it and slid inside. His eyes, already accustomed to the darkness, made out the stalls on the other side of the barn. As he moved toward them, his thumb slipped to the back of the hypodermic needle.
The hard ring of a horse's hoofs against the floor came from one of the stalls. Then a long and slender neck that arched to a small, savagely beautiful head peered over the door. Thin-skinned nostrils quivered as black ears pitched forward. The prowler, halfway to the stall door, had stopped. The horse shook his long black mane and a powerful foreleg struck the door.
A board creaked as the man moved closer. Baring his teeth, the horse whistled the shrill, loud scream of a wild stallion. As the whistle resounded through the barn, the prowler moved forward. He would have to work fast. Mincing steps carried his round body to the stall door with amazing speed. He opened it, but fell back as the black stallion struck at him.
Gripping the hypodermic firmly, the prowler advanced again, more cautiously this time. He stopped and his fat face twitched nervously. The giant horse rose on his hind legs, mouth open and teeth bared. As he came down, the man lunged at him, but the horse's foreleg caught him in the groin. The attacker turned gray beneath his bronze skin. Staggering back, he attempted to close the stall door behind him. The stallion, halfway through the door, rose again on his hind legs as the man stumbled and fell to the floor. Thrashing hoofs pawed the air above him. The hypodermic dropped from his hand as the giant form began to descend. The man rolled fast, avoiding the stallion's hoofs by inches. Climbing to his feet, he ran frantically for the barn door.
Outside, he heard voices coming from the direction of the gate and, turning, stumbled off into the night, the empty coat sleeve waving slightly at his side.
A few minutes later a young boy, carrying a flashlight, ran up to the barn door. Following him was a bowlegged man who moved with jerky strides.
"Something must be wrong, Henry," the youth shouted. "The door's open!"
Henry grabbed the flashlight. "Yeah, I'll go in, Alec. Y'stay here, just in case . . ."
Impatiently, Alec waited while Henry entered the barn. A hand swept nervously across his pug nose as he pinched his nostrils. There was a worried expression on his freckled face. If anything had happened to the Black! Then he heard the short neigh and the sound of the stallion's hoofs against the floor. His tense body relaxed. Everything was probably all right. Looking around the yard, his gaze swept to the open field. It was getting light and already he could make out the high white fence at the north end. There was no one around. He tightened the belt holding up his corduroys and then pushed a hand through his red, tousled hair.
Turning on the lights, Henry appeared in the doorway. He beckoned Alec inside.
The Black was in his stall. He whistled softly when he saw Alec and shook his black mane, which mounted high, then fell low, like a crest.
"Find anything, Henry?"
"He was out of his stall. Someone's been here . . . there's been a fight of some kind. He's sweated." Henry ran a gnarled hand over the stallion's body as it glistened in the bright light.
The Black moved nervously around his stall and didn't quiet until Alec's hand rested on the thin-skinned nostrils. "He seems to be okay though, Henry."
"Yep." Henry was quiet. In his hand he studied a long glass object wrapped in his handkerchief.
"What is it?" Alec asked.
"You mean a hypodermic needle?" Alec asked incredulously. "You found it here?"
"Yep . . . on the floor."
"What's it mean, Henry?" Alec moved away from the Black to get a closer view of the glass tube.
"Looks as if someone intended to use it on the Black."
"Y'mean . . ." Alec's heart thumped hard. "Henry, are you sure it hasn't been used?"
"It's filled. We'll get the stuff analyzed today by the police and find out what it is. Maybe it'll give us a clue of some kind." He wrapped the needle in the handkerchief and said, "Also, there might be some fingerprints. . . ."
Alec moved over to the Black again. The stallion lowered his head and, rubbing it, Alec asked, "But why would anyone want to harm him, Henry?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, Alec." Then Henry added, ". . . perhaps better."
"What do you mean?"
Henry moved over to Alec and placed a long arm on the stall door. "Well, here's how I figure it out. The Black is a valuable horse since he beat out Sun Raider and Cyclone last June. There's no doubt that he's the fastest thing to set foot on any track here or abroad. Now to my way of thinkin' there's a good many reasons why somebody would want to steal the Black. He couldn't be raced but he could be used for stud . . . that horse could do much to improve the bloodline of the American thoroughbred. . . ."