“Radio says there’s a good chance of a tornado. There’s warnings all over the place,” Toto said as he strode past her, arms laden with empty feed buckets. “I’m not puttin’ anybody out till this passes.”
Mel was in the process of carrying her saddle back to the tack room and her anxiety doubled at the sight of the normally calm barn manager rushing around. She’d been in Florida more than seven months and had learned that there was no such thing as being too cautious when it came to volatile weather. Having any kind of livestock compounded the problem. You couldn’t put a barn full of horses in the basement and hunker down, which usually meant that horse people were in barns and not suitable shelters when storms broke.
She stowed her tack and went back to ensure her boys had food and water. Neither were easily frightened, but both had wide eyes as the sky beyond the open barn doors became gray…and then charcoal.
Anger throbbed in the back of her mind when she reflected on the conversation she’d overheard the night before – these guys don’t want or need you, she reminded herself – but she’d spent all her life in barns that operated like sea faring vessels: in a crisis moment, it was all hands on deck.
“What can I do?” she asked as Toto exited the feed room.
“Not much,” he sighed. “Larry and Nora headed off to church. I’m just gonna -,” his cell phone came to life with a jarring scream and he dug it out of his pocket. “Yeah?” Mel watched his white-rimmed, dark eyes bug out of his head. “What? Shit.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair and then started toward the open doors, waving at her like he wanted her to follow. “Yeah. Headed that way now.”
“One of the mares. Ginger.” He tossed her a grim look over his shoulder. “We may need another set of hands.”
Eli straightened and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, spit into the grass one more time and cleared his throat. He was still ghost pale, but had at least stopped puking. “For now,” his voice – and legs – were shaky as he walked back toward the entrance to the shelter, eyes trained on the ground.
Weak-ass, Dan thought with disgust. As grisly as the sight was, it wasn’t worth losing breakfast over. At least, he didn’t think so. But he had no tolerance for weakness.
Ginger made another of those whistling groans and bobbed her head. The mare was unbelievably stoic, but the sound was a testament to the extreme pain she suffered.
From what Dan could gather, the gate – which was usually anchored by a heavy length of chain and a double-ended snap to a post out in front of the building – had come loose and slammed shut. He hadn’t gone to inspect the chain yet, but that part of the scenario bothered him: the thing shouldn’t have given way like this. The approaching storm had driven the mares to their shelter, and Ginger, lead mare, had tried to force her way inside, had bullied her way past the gate though its hinges had protested.
At least, she’d tried to work her way inside.
Instead, the rusted, crumbling metal tubing of the gate had broken at a weak spot and a long section had punctured the mare’s chest. A raw, bloody hunk of flesh hung loose between her front legs and the rusted pipe was still buried inside her.
Dan had no idea how she was still alive, much less standing, craning her neck around to look at them with wild, pleading eyes. Her little bay filly had wedged past her and appeared unharmed, though fretful as she sniffed at her mother’s gaping wound.
Thunder rumbled overhead, close and oppressive, as if the sound were somehow pushing on them. Ginger snorted and flicked her ears.
Dan had called their vet, but Doc Hadley was working a colic ten miles away and would be a while arriving. Dan assessed the situation again, cursed to himself, and then told Eli to get the Sawzall out of the truck’s toolbox.
The sky was a black-and-blue tumble of churning clouds veined with vivid, frequent white tongues of lightning. Mel felt the first cold, stinging drops of rain as she hopped out of the ranch dually and pushed her hair back off her face as the wind whipped it across her eyes. They’d driven out to the long, three-sided barn where the broodmares and their foals sought shelter during summer storms and she noted the cluster of horses waiting outside the building, restless and agitated.Dan stepped out of the doorway of the barn and waved them over – well, Mel figured he waved Toto over, but he didn’t scowl
at her, so she followed – and they approached.
“She’s stuck on the gate,” Dan told the barn manager.
Mel looked at the chestnut mare standing where gate met barn wall and, at first, she didn’t see anything wrong. “How?” she asked, crouching down, and then she inhaled in a sharp rush, pulse leaping to a gallop when she saw a loose flap of skin and bloody meat dangling between the horse’s front legs. Blood and clear fluid oozed down the insides of her legs and formed a wet, congealing puddle on the dirt floor of the shelter.
“The gate musta come apart when she pushed on it,” Eli said. “There’s a piece…a section that’s…sticking…in her.” He made a gagging sound.
“Oh my God.” Mel stood and stepped closer as the rain began to fall, the drops hammering the tin roof above. The mare – who no one was trying to console in any way – lifted her head at the sound and snorted. “You’re okay,” she told her, moving close enough to lay a hand on her heaving side. “You’re okay, baby.”
“Don’t touch her!” Dan snapped and she felt a hard curl around her elbow, his fingers digging into her skin as he tried to drag her away.
“You don’t touch me!” she wrenched away from him and shot a murderous look over her shoulder. She was not deterred by the dark expression on his face. If anything, after last night, after deciding she was ditching this place, she didn’t give a shit what he, or any of them thought of her. She was sick to death of being talked down to, of being treated like a child, of following orders from people who were clearly not superior to her. “She’s terrified!” Mel shouted at him over the wind. “And you’re standing around with your thumb up your ass doing nothing!”
Toto, his dark brows all the way up his tan forehead to his hairline, put a hand between them, drawing Dan’s attention. “We gotta get her moved, man. If we wait for the doc, it could be hours, and this storm’s about to get ugly.”
Mel watched Dan blink, then turn his attention to the other man. She turned her back on the both of them and put her hand on the mare’s trembling ribcage.
“Yeah,” she heard Dan say. “We gotta cut the piece that’s hooked in her. At least try and get the other horses in even if she’s a lost cause.”
Lost cause? She knew it was overkill, irrational, but in the moment, Melanie hated the man. She hated his macho bullshit, his lack of care for the poor animal who was in pain. Hated that there was even a rusty, completely unsafe gate in place that could have hurt Ginger. Hated the frightened look on the poor foal’s face as she nuzzled her mother. And hated that, as lightning cleaved the sky and painted the interior of the barn with its flash, Dan was in charge and was being cold and heartless about the whole thing.
“Eli, you got the saw?”
“Saw?” Mel whipped around, not believing what she was hearing.
“We gotta cut the gate,” Toto said, his face almost apologetic.
“You can’t try to pull that piece out of her,” she said and earned a black look from Dan. “She could start bleeding and -,”
“I know that,” he cut her off. “Just stay outta the way.”
She stepped back, arms folded over her chest as if that would protect her from the rain that seemed to soak instantly through her clothes. She turned her head away from the wind, the fat raindrops striking the back of her head, cool water sliding down into the neck of her t-shirt and giving her goose bumps, and she saw one of the farm Gators bouncing along through the grass, Slim behind the wheel. He parked beside the trucks and came toward them at a bow-legged jog.
“What’s goin’ on?” he shouted. “They’re sayin’ this storm’s gonna be brutal.”
Eli began filling him in and Mel returned her attention to Ginger, holding her now-wet hair off her face. The saw came to life with a mechanical whine and Ginger tensed, every vein popping beneath her skin, her muscles tightening beneath her silky coat.
“Wait!” she called the same moment Toto did.
Dan cut the power on the saw and lowered it to his side, scowling.
“She’s freaking,” Toto said. “She’s not gonna let you cut through all that.”
Mel stood back and watched as Slim joined them and the knot of men kept their backs to her. She saw their mouths moving, saw the waves and gestures, but couldn’t hear them above the rain and wind and crashes of thunder. A streak of lightning sent her jumping and one of the mares milling around behind her squealed. She glanced over her shoulder at the herd, worried the horses might at any moment decide to rush the gate and trample all of them.
When she turned, Toto was motioning her forward. Concern for the horse was the only thing that propelled her toward them.
He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned in when she was close enough. “We’re gonna cut just the section she’s stuck on. But we can’t do it from this side of the gate. And we don’t wanna risk climbing over in case it tugs on her.”
She scanned the gate and nodded, agreeing that, if their weight was to pull down on the gate, it might drive the section of metal tubing further into the horse’s chest cavity.
“We’re gonna lift you over,” he said and she turned wide, startled eyes toward him.
“Are you serious?”
“Can you use the saw?”
Mel considered the outcome in a moment that was filled with the howling, ruthless sounds of the storm around them. If she slipped, she could cut into the horse, a possibility that left her feeling faint. She had no idea if her arms would support the saw or if she’d have the strength to work the blade through the metal, but she nodded. “Yes.”
Slim picked her up in a fireman’s hold and swung her over the gate easily. She landed on her feet, staggered, but managed to stay upright. Ginger had watched the process with white-rimmed eyes and when Mel saw the mare struggle against the metal that held her, all her nerves melted away. When it came to situations like this, it didn’t matter if she had worries, or if a storm was raging – it was all about helping the animal.
“Easy, girl,” she murmured, holding out a palm for the mare to inspect. She stroked her damp, clammy neck and took a good look at the carnage.
The section of gate had entered the lowest part of the chest, punching through muscle and fat, but Mel was guessing that, if the pipe could be removed and if a secondary infection didn’t set up, this was not a lethal wound. Disturbing, yes, but deadly…maybe not.
Ginger’s filly nudged Mel’s side, obviously distressed.
“You’re okay too,” she assured, running a hand down the downy-soft mohawk of a baby mane that stood up on her neck.
“How’s it look?” Dan asked her in a hard, clipped tone that pulled her back to the task at hand.
“Bad,” she didn’t lie. “But we’ll see.”
He passed the Sawzall through the bars of the gate to her and propped his shoulder against Ginger’s neck, leaning over the gate. “Cut right at the joint where it meets the rest of the gate. The saw’ll do all the work, just hold it steady.”
Mel nodded, took a deep breath, weighed the heavy tool in her hands, crouched down, and then cut the power on.
Ginger started at the sound, but Dan, she noticed with relief, stood at the mare’s side, stroking her shoulder, talking to her. Slim and Toto wedged themselves in behind Dan, ready to pull the gate away. Mel tightened her damp palms and set the churning teeth of the saw against the metal.
The rusted metal cut like butter. Dan leaned over the gate, shouting to be heard, telling her to cut the rest of the bars, to take the whole end of the gate off so they could pull it past Ginger and out of the way without moving her. She did. The section of corroded metal panel fell to the ground, and then everything seemed to happen at once.
The guys pulled the gate free and a jagged bolt of lightning tore open the morning, turning the storm-blackened sky bright white. Thunder was right on its heels, a sharp, echoing explosion of sound. Their path now free, the rest of the broodmares charged into the shelter.
Mel flattened herself against the wall in front of Ginger, barely avoiding a black and white paint who entered the building at a dead gallop.
Dan wasn’t so lucky.