It wasn't easy. His eyes hurt and weren't focusing properly, he kept losing his balance, disoriented from a brain hemorrhage he knew nothing about, and as he reached the top of the ladder, the injury to his hand returned like a hot poker. The only saving grace was that he could see anything at all, the hayloft being high-ceilinged enough that the red, glowing smoke stayed above him.
He grabbed the ladder's upright with his good hand, fumbled for the first rung, and began his descent, hearing the tethered animals starting to get restless.
Halfway down, just clear of the inferno overhead, he stopped for a moment to adjust to the stable's contrasting gloom. There, hanging by one hand, praying for salvation, he watched in stunned disbelief as all around him one bright rope of fire, then two, then three, magically appeared on the walls from the ceiling and dropped like fiery snakes to the floor, shooting off in different directions and leaving lines of fire in their wakes, stimulating a loud, startled chorus of bellows from the frightened creatures below him.
The fire spread as if shot from a wand, in defiance of logic or comprehension, racing from one hay pile to another. Bobby watched, transfixed. The cows had panicked in mere seconds and were now, all sixty of them, struggling and stamping and heaving against their restraints, lowing and roaring as the encircling fire, progressing with supernatural speed, changed from a series of separate flames into the sheer embodiment of heat.
One by one, the animals broke loose. Stampeding without direction, corralled by fire, they began generating a stench of burning flesh in the smoky, scream-filled vortex of swirling, lung-searing air. A broiling wind built up as it passed by the dying boy, the trapdoor directly above him now transformed into a chimney flue. Bobby Cutts clung to his ladder as to the mast of a sinking ship, weeping openly, the fire overhead filling the square opening with the blinding, bloodred heat of a falling sun.
His hair smoking, all feeling gone from his burning body, he gazed between his feet into the twisting shroud of noise and flames and fog of char, no longer aware of the contorting bodies of the dying beasts slamming into his ladder, splintering it apart, and uncaring as he finally toppled into their midst, vanishing beneath a flurry of hooves.
Copyright © 2005 by Archer Mayor
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