November 12, 2012
The flames had been gorging on the barn for forty-five minutes. Fire trucks from twelve different stations blocked the perimeter, sirens screaming, water cannons aiming thick shots at the thirty-foot flames rocketing up out of the roof. At least fifty firefighters surrounded the conflagration, outfitted as if they could land on Mars, with oxygen tanks and masks. A couple of frightened horses ran the perimeter. Some of the True Prospect grooms and riders, including his own, were in hysterics.
Boyd raced up the drive toward Dutton, who was standing, stunned, watching the old barn groan with the flames.
Lillian Heard, Martin’s head groom, who had been staying in the apartment upstairs for the weekend, had woken to the smell of smoke wafting through the floorboards. Silliman and her boyfriend, Ryan “Woodsy” Wood, a four-star Australian eventer who worked for Phillip Dutton, lived in the apartment full-time. They heard her call out.
The barn had only two exits, front and back. The stalls opened onto the breezeway, with no doors to the outside. Silliman, Heard, and Wood had raced down the breezeway, flinging doors open to allow the horses to bolt, but no one could be absolutely certain which horses had escaped before the flames grew too hot for man or beast. Woodsy Wood had badly scorched his hands and feet in his attempts to free the animals. Some might have galloped into the woods and hidden among the trees. No one could be sure.
Before Martin arrived, Dutton had gone back into the blackness but found everything open and only one animal, Catch a Rising Star, wandering the wrong way down the breezeway. Dutton had led her out.
Yet even as Martin and Dutton stood at the threshold of the burning barn, trying to figure out which animals were safe, a horse appeared in the aisleway. A horse on fire.
Boyd went directly to the fire chief. He begged him to send a few men back in to check that the barn was empty. The chief refused. The fire was too dangerous now to risk human life.
Martin couldn’t believe he was supposed to just stand there while animals he cared for, some for years, suffered the worst death imaginable. Maybe if he could see the stalls one last time, he would know he had done everything he could.
He asked the fire marshal if he could borrow equipment. Against that inferno, Martin’s flip-flops and T-shirt were nothing.
But the chief refused. Martin grabbed for the man’s oxygen mask. Unfortunately, the mask still clung to a tube connected to the tank on the fire chief’s back, and he was not ready to part with any of it. He tried to wrestle Martin back, but Martin threw a punch, and they began brawling, right there in the eerie light of the flames, pounding and scrapping and rolling.
At one point, Martin realized he actually had downed the guy. And not only had Martin won this brawl, but the two of them, in their heap, had rolled up to the barn’s threshold. Martin couldn’t very well put on a show like that—punch out a firefighter—and then just stand up, brush himself off, and go back to watching the fire. He had put himself in a position where he had to do something, and the only something to be done was through the doorway, into the swirl of black hay smoke and flames.
He tugged his T-shirt over his head, took the deepest breath he could manage, and barreled in.
Inside, the blackness was almost impenetrable. The straw storage above the first third of the barn had been consumed by fire, and dark brown hay smoke churned like factory effulgence blasting down the breezeway. Martin couldn’t see well, but he could certainly hear the roar of flames eating through the wood and hay, the beams creaking, people outside hollering, the sirens screaming.
He came upon a horse’s body in the breezeway, probably the poor animal they had seen on fire, but in the blackness, Martin couldn’t tell which horse it was.
Here and there, the roof started caving, dropping beams. Martin felt along the wall, reading his way. Soon he was touching the metal screen on the side of the tack room, then the wash stall. And then in the blind darkness, he came to the opening of the first stall. He could hear a gurgling inside. Walking closer, he realized the choking sound was coming from the far corner. A horse.
Martin inched his way forward. Then he had his hands on the horse’s shoulders. He ran his palms up the neck until his fingers brushed against the strap of a windsucking collar.
ELIZABETH MITCHELL is the author of the nonfiction books Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing and W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty (both from Hyperion). Her bestselling e-singles The Fearless Mrs. Goodwin and Lady with a Past: A Petulant French Sculptor, His Quest for Immortality, and The Real Story of the Statue of Liberty (both from Byliner) are reported historical narratives. Mitchell was executive editor of George magazine and features editor at Spin magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.