We finished the rest of the dishes in silence. When we were done, I made my excuses and locked myself in the guest room to read on my tablet before going to sleep. The sounds filling the house comforted me, letting me know it was occupied. It had been a long time since I'd stayed in a place inhabited by other people. I was a loner by nature, and even more so recently. I usually didn't sleep easily, but I must have fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep because I awoke with a start sometime later. My tablet lay on the bed next to me, the screen black. The night was well advanced, and my room was dark save for the slash of moonlight that cut through the gap in the curtains. I slipped out of bed and moved over to the window to peer out. A thin mist blanketed the night muting the silver light of the moon. I pushed the curtains aside, and opened the window to let in some fresh air.
Chill air stung my face, and the acrid smell of smoke assaulted my nose causing a sharp blade of panic to slice through my body. I struggled into my jeans, and jerked open the door to my room.
“Fire!” I hollered as I ran through the house. “Fire!”
I slammed out of the house with Trip at my heels, not bothering to stop and see if the Michaelsons had heard me or followed me. The ranch dogs erupted into a cacophony of barking behind me as I raced towards the barn. Trip bounded ahead and stopped short of the barn, yelping his warning of danger. Flames engulfed the top of the building, sending sparks shooting into the sky. Over the crackling and roaring of the flames, I could hear the horses screaming desperately, begging to be set free. I pulled a bandanna from my back pocket and plunged it into the water of a horse trough, then dunked my head and entire upper body. The cold of the water combined with the frosty air nearly froze the breath from my lungs, but I wrapped the bandanna around my nose and mouth, and ran towards the barn, thinking only of Promise. I wasn't cold for long as the heat inside the barn slammed tangibly against my shoulders. The smoke obscured my vision to near blindness. I coughed inside my bandanna as I ran down the corridor, unbolting doors as I went. The hayloft groaned above me, warning its inevitable collapse. If that happened the horses were as good as dead, and I knew only that I could not lose Promise. I'd lost her previous owner to death, and I wouldn't let the same thing happen to her. I yelled and waved my arms at the petrified horses, urging them to flee and save themselves, but they seemed glued to their stalls.
A hand landed on my elbow and I jumped, whirling around. In the glow of firelight stood old Criley, a shovel in one hand.
“Get out of here, boy!” he yelled as he headed for the first stall. “This whole place'll go any second!”
“The horses!” I yelled back. “I have to get to Promise!”
“Get out! I'll get them!”
Criley all but tossed me towards the barn door and disappeared into the first stall. A moment later the horse barreled out, nearly trampling me in its panic. A loud crack above announced the hayloft starting to give way. Flames rained down igniting the straw upon landing, causing a fresh wave of fear from the horses. Criley handed me a lead line.
“Take this one and go!” the old man yelled, and disappeared into the smoke.
I ran for the entrance, leading the frightened horse, and heard Trip howling and barking from outside. The horse behind me threw his head, screaming, and as soon as I cleared the barn, I released him, sending him into a gallop with a slap on the flank.
One by the one the horses thundered out of the building and galloped into the night. My heart leaped into my throat when Promise appeared in the doorway, prancing fearfully, her eyes rolling. She reared once before exploding away from the building, the fire behind her illuminating her escape. She raced past me, nearly mowing me down, and I dove out of her way, stumbling into the ground. I tore my jeans and scraped my arms, but I didn't care. All I cared about was that Promise was safe.
By then Mr. Michaelson was outside, his shirt unbuttoned, hair rumpled from sleep. He grabbed me as I stumbled towards him. I coughed from the smoke in my lungs. Blood welled from my scrapes and streaks of soot covered my arms.
“The fire department is on its way!” Mr. Michaelson said.
“I have to go back for Criley!” I said. I tried to struggle out of Mr. Michaelson's grip, but the man held me tightly.
“You can't go in there now! You'll be killed!”
I turned towards the barn, horrified as the building exploded in a fresh burst of flames. The contents of that barn were nothing but tinder. Everything was flammable, everything fed the fire that grew towards the night sky. The roar and crackling of burning wood and hay echoed around us, and somewhere in the distance the sound of sirens filled the air.
One final horse appeared in the doorway of the barn. The horse reared, magnificently silhouetted against the glare of firelight, a rider on her back. For a moment everything seemed to stand still, with only the roar of the fire pounding against my ears. Then Lady Guinevere leapt from the broiling building into a dead run, tearing past me and Mr. Michaelson.
“Criley!” Mr. Michaelson shouted as horse and rider galloped into the night and disappeared into the darkness.
The scene became one of complete chaos as the fire department arrived and began attending to the barn. There was no saving the building, and all that could be done at that point was to control the fire and keep it from spreading. The firefighters worked until morning when they finally got the inferno under control. Mr. Michaelson and I rounded up Promise and the other horses, securing them safely in one of the far pastures, safely away from the remains of the fire. Lady Guinevere, however, was nowhere to be found, and I never saw Old Criley come back either.
By the time the firefighters got control of the fire and it had burned itself out, the Michaelsons and I sprawled around the kitchen table in the ranch house, exhausted and blackened with smoke and soot.
We were sore and we'd lost the barn, but all the animals were safe, and none of us had been too badly hurt. I'd gotten the worst of it, and Suzanne scolded my foolishness gently as she tended to teh scrapes on my arms. The ranch was crawling with emergency vehicles, and the paramedics wanted to take me to the hospital for observation, thinking I possibly suffered from smoke inhalation. In my typical stubborn fashion, I refused. I felt fine other than bone-weary and worried about Old Criley.
I finally scraped up the nerve to ask Mr. Michaelson, “Where do you think Old Criley and Lady Guinevere got to? We all saw him ride her out of there before the building blew. Shouldn't they be back by now?”
Suzanne and her husband glanced at each other, then looked at me.
“Sam, we had to put Lady Guinevere down last year. She broke her leg in a show accident. Took a jump wrong. Anna was okay, but we couldn't save the horse."
I frowned, puzzled. That didn't make any sense. She was in the barn with the other horses the day before when I'd chatted with Old Criley.
“And as for Criley,” Mr. Michaelson continued. “Well, Suzanne checked his bunkhouse this morning after she got no answer from calling his cell. He was there.”
“Is he okay?” I asked.
Suzanne gently put a hand on my wrist. There were tears in her eyes. “Sam, Old Criley passed away in the night. The paramedics said he was probably gone before the fire even started. He had a heart attack.”
"But we all saw him ride a horse out of the barn during the fire," I said. "He helped get the horses out. They're alive because of him."
Mr. Michaelson nodded. "Your dad mentioned that there was something special about you, that you had some...interesting abilities."
I shook my head and sighed. Ghosts often kept me company and were nothing new to me, but at least Old Criley had managed to save Promise.
And at least Old Criley and Lady Guinevere were together again.
And at least Old Criley and Lady Guinevere were together again.