Excerpt of St Albans Fire by Archer Mayor
(Page 4 of 5)
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He started walking toward the bales, feeling confident and restored, when he
froze abruptly, suddenly concentrating. Like most people brought up in a world
dependent on tools and machines, he had an ear for mechanisms in action and
often monitored this ancient and gigantic barn as much by ear as by sight.
There didn't seem to be anything amiss. Bobby could feel more than hear the
fans and pumps and motors throughout the building, as soft and delicate to him
as the inner workings of a living entity. But he could swear that he'd heard a
hissing of sortsclear and distinct. And, more important, all his instincts
were telling him that there was something distinctly wrong.
He stood absolutely still in the near total blackness, searching for some
form of confirmation. Slowly, as lethal as the message it carried, the smell of
smoke reached his nostrils.
A farmer's nightmares are full of fire, from a carelessly tossed match to a
spark from a worn electrical wire to a fluke bolt of lightning. Even the hay
itself, if put up too damp and packed too tightly, can spontaneously ignite and
bring about disaster. More than one farmer in Bobby's experience, Calvin Cutts
included, wrapped up every day by giving the barn a final fire check before bed.
To say that such vigilance smacked of paranoia was to miss the larger point:
Fire to a farmer was like a diagnosis of cancersurvivable perhaps, but only
following a long and crippling struggle, and only if you were lucky.
Bobby had two choices: to investigate and perhaps stifle the fire before it
got worse, or to run back to the house, raise the alarm, and get as many people
and as much equipment coming as possible.
Typically, but unsurprisingly, he yielded to a young man's faith in his own
abilities and set out to discover what was wrong.
Bobby's sense of smell led him away from the bales and toward the
sealed-off so-called fuel room that Calvin had built as far from any flammable
materials as possible. Here was kept the gas and oil and diesel for their
machines, locked behind a heavy wooden door.
He could hear more clearly now, as he approached that door, the hissing sound
that had drawn his attention. But as he unhooked the key from a nearby post and
freed the fire extinguisher hanging beneath it, he remained convinced of his
course of action. It was a closed room; whatever lay within it was contained and
could thus be controlled.
Which is when he heard a second sudden hissing behind him, accompanied by a
distinct snapsharp, harsh, like the bite of a rat trapfar across the loft.
He swung around, startledfrightened. He'd been wrong. The noise beyond
the door wasn't his only problem. And this second one, he realized with a
sickening feeling, was accompanied by a flickering glow. A second fire had
started near where he'd just been.
Bobby Cutts began to sweat.
Distracted now, not thinking clearly, he clung to his initial plan of action.
First things first. Ignoring the heat radiating from the lock as he slipped in
the key, he twisted back the dead bolt, readied the fire extinguisher, and threw
open the door.
The resulting explosion lifted him off his feet and tossed him away like a
discarded doll, landing him on the back of his head with a sickening thud. His
mouth was bleeding copiously from where the extinguisher had broken several
teeth as it flew from his hands.
Dazed and spitting blood, a huge, curling fireball lapping at his feet, Bobby
tried scrambling backward, screaming in pain as he put weight on a shattered
right hand. He rolled and crawled away as best he could, the smell of his own
burned hair and skin strong in his nostrils. In the distance, at the loft's
far end, he could see a second sheet of flame working its way up the face of the
stacked hay bales.
He got to his knees, staggered to his feet, and began stumbling back toward
the ladder, his remaining instincts telling him to return below and free as many
cows as possible before escaping himself.
Copyright © 2005 by Archer Mayor