A vigilant mustang alerted us to a conflagration.
Black before moonrise, 8000’ up in the Colorado mountains. Feeding time at the horse barn, extra hay bags for the five-degree night ahead. All of us grateful that the hurricane-force winds had died, taking with them six inches of top-dressing snow. Leaving ice.
Cinch, an eight-year-old born in the wild mustang, wouldn’t come in to eat. I fed the rest of the herd then gave myself a minute to adjust to the dark, feeling my way by foot braille over the ice ruts and through the oak stumps toward the downhill paddock that was Cinch’s terrain. Talk about a dark shy community. A pitch-black dome, fuzzy streaked Milky Way, a million stars. Black. I could dimly discern the wary buckskin halfway down the hill. He was fixated on a light a mile away to the southwest, below us. To me, it had the shape of a candle or even the Christmas star.
Cinch would eat a cookie, a handful of hay but he would not leave his sentinel post. I left his dinner under his shelter. The rest of the herd munched contentedly. 18 degrees already. I gingerly stepped back down the slick barn drive, back to the house.
“Interesting light down on the river,” I commented to Jim. “Early for a Christmas party.” I picked up the wildlife binocs we kept near the porch door.
“Fire. Weird time to burn slash. Not even the solstice yet.” I kept looking. “I don’t see anyone dancing around a bonfire.”
“Jim! It’s growing! Look at this. Is that a house? Barn? Maybe a tree from the thundersnow last night? That was quite a lightning show. Maybe…”
The light below quickly erupted into an inferno, higher, wider. Flames licking upward toward the stars.
The phone rang.
Neighbors were calling 911. Neighbors were calling neighbors in the path of the wind who would be in the path of a fire. The closest neighbors to the fire had heard an explosion. But then, they were watching Armageddon on TV.
As the crow flies, we live two miles from the New Mexico state line. When we call 911 from our area, we get New Mexico dispatch. Their first response was, “I’ll send a deputy.” Did they think we were in the midst of wild debauchery? Neighbors again called 911 as the flames went higher. This time, the intensified pleas were interpreted. New Mexico called the nearest Colorado town. Fire trucks were on the way. Next time, we’ll call the combined dispatch in town. Of course, we are a good 45 minutes from that town. The fire burned brighter, a halo of brilliance in that ebony night.
Renters down the county road happened to be retired first responders. They approached the burning house and determined that not a creature was stirring — two or four-legged. Well, there might have been mice but they probably had a well-used exit strategy. A horse observed from a nearby pasture, not as concerned as my mustang statue on a hill a mile above.
Four fire engines, three water tenders, two chief vehicles, one fire marshal, two support vehicles, eleven paid and twelve volunteer firefighters, traffic control on the gravel, 4WD county road, and one ambulance responded. For four hours in the black of night.
Two weeks earlier, or even two days earlier, we could have been in the path of a devastating, destructive wildland fire, our escape route blocked, nowhere to run with four horses, two dogs, two cats, and us two old and slow people.
Must have been a lucky star up there.
As the light faded to smoke rings we went to bed. Some time in the night Cinch moved up to the barn and ate some hay, making a well-trod path in the ice of his paddock, apparently returning to his station off and on until dawn.