“The sharp metallic clang of a stall door bolt shooting open made her jump like an electric shock, and the slam of the door rolling back sent a jolt of adrenaline through her veins.”
The sound of hoofbeats was better than an alarm clock for waking Rachel up out of a dead sleep, and she sat bolt upright in the darkened bedroom. Her fiance Clark shifted in his sleep but didn’t wake. In one smooth movement, she slipped from the bed and dove to the window in time to see the dark shapes of her broodmare band trotting through the yard.
She swore and whirled to the dresser to grab clothing. “Clark,” she hissed. “CLARK! The mares are out.”
Clark turned over once before snapping awake himself and throwing back the covers. It was a crisp October night, the cold air enough to wake anyone immediately, and as Clark fumbled for clothes Rachel dashed down the stairs, jammed her feet into her muck boots and careened out into the night.
“Which one of you was it?” she growled out loud, running through the barn to grab halters and lead ropes, noting that every door in the barn was unlatched and slid back. “Which one of you she-demons figured out how to pick the lock and let out all the others?”
Fortunately, the mares were softies for grain, and by the time Clark caught up to her Rachel had managed to lure them all into an empty paddock, shaking a bucket.
“We must have left a door unlatched,” she murmured to Clark as she methodically haltered mares and handed him lead ropes. “All the doors were wide open. I dunno which one of these is the Houdini who can open all of the other doors, but I guess we just have to make sure we double check them all.”
With each of them leading two mares at a time, Rachel and Clark brought the four escapees back inside. The glare of the lights in the barn was shocking after the crisp, moonless night outside, and Rachel blinked hard a few times as she turned down the wide center aisle. She stopped short for a second, the two bays on either side of her sling-shotting around at her abrupt halt — for a moment, Rachel could have sworn she saw the shape of a person duck into her grain room, but the lights were on and as she started to walk again she could see clearly into the doorway that room was empty.
Rosewood Farm was a small operation — hence the fact that Rachel and Clark could do all the work themselves with just four mares, all in foal to the best stallions Rachel could afford from her savings. She had lucked into this small property within her price range, a subdivision of what had once been a larger farm in the Lexington suburbs, and cobbling together her savings and the income from Clark’s job downtown, they had put up the barns and fenced off the pastures. Rachel had quit her day job, a moment of terrifying free-fall as she realized there was no going back now, and dedicated herself to Rosewood fully.
It would take years for the investment to pay off, and even then she had no way of knowing if it would be enough to keep the dream afloat — the first foals would be born in the spring, and it would be another 18 months before the first yearlings would sell. Rachel tried hard not to think about all that too hard, and focus instead on her love for the sport, the science and the luck of breeding and of course, the horses.
With all the mares tucked back in their stalls, and the latches double-checked, Rachel flipped off the lights and she and Clark trudged back to the house.
Rachel felt as though she had just closed her eyes when they snapped open again. In her tired stupor, it took her a moment to place the sound that had awoken her, and as her eyes were closing again, she heard that distinct clip-clop of hooves of asphalt. She gave her husband a shake as she rolled out of bed. “Clark… horses are out.”
Fully awake now, Rachel scrambled out the door dressed, just in time to see the mares gathered in a darker-than-the-night clump by the gate. Thank goodness for the gates, she thought to herself as she headed to the mare barn for halters and ropes.
As she flipped on the lights she jumped and gasped, just barely choking down an involuntary shriek — in the first flash of light, for a split second, there had been a man standing in the center of the aisle, illuminated against the dark October night of the open doorway behind him. As quickly as she thought she saw him, he was gone. Had he actually been there? Or was she just seeing things, the stress of the finally-over weaning season behind her?
Clark’s voice behind her made her jump again. “Easy,” he said soothingly, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Got some halters?”
“Did we forget to latch a door?” Rachel said absently as they hustled down the driveway towards the mares, who were now drifting across the lawn of the house, headed for the flowerbeds. Her mind was still on the apparition of the man at the end of the aisle — should she have told Clark? Was there someone lurking around the property? But he had vanished just like that. It was the middle of the night, after all. Maybe she was seeing things.
“Right?” Clark said, and she realized she hadn’t been listening.
“I said, didn’t the same thing happen last fall?”
Rachel narrowed her eyes as they approached the mares — they were up to five now, with four weanlings in the other barn. Clark was right. The mares had all been out last fall, too.
“Thanks, Doc,” Rachel said wearily but with relief as the vet bade her good night and climbed back into her truck. One of the weanlings had been a little colicky all day, and the symptoms had only worsened into the evening. It had been a long night of walking and tubing and monitoring and worrying, but the little filly looked at last like the worst was behind her.
Rosewood had grown and finally made it through its first September yearling sale, and while it hadn’t been the massive windfall Rachel had secretly been hoping for, she was encouraged for a first-time breeder, and even more resolved to continue pouring her heart and soul into the farm. Clark was out of town for business, and it had been a long few days without him, but he would return this weekend, and Rachel was proud of herself for managing the place on her own, small as it was.
As the vet’s taillights disappeared down the drive, Rachel turned off the lights in the baby barn and started towards the house. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to night check the mares, though, she thought to herself. The weather in late October could fluctuate so wildly here in Kentucky that it wouldn’t be unusual to find another colic… though she hoped she wouldn’t have to jump on her phone and tell Doc to turn around.
She trudged up the little rise into the mare barn, stepped into the shadowy cavern of the central aisle and froze.
In that way that one can sense another’s presence before one can see them, Rachel could feel another person there in the aisle, even though it was so dark on this particular night she could barely see her hand in front of her face in the barn. The sharp metallic clang of a stall door bolt shooting open made her jump like an electric shock, and the slam of the door rolling back sent a jolt of adrenaline through her veins.
“Hey!” she screeched uselessly, leaping for the light switch. As the lights flashed on, Rachel focused on the surprised face of Healing Touch, one of her newer mares, blinking at her in the brightness, her door wide open. Rachel’s eyes widened as before her gaze the latch on the next stall shot back with a clatter and the door slid open, all of its own accord. Rooted to the spot in shock, she watched as all five doors opened before her eyes, the mares peering out into the aisle or scrambling to their feet, shrugging the straw from their coats.
Rachel couldn’t move. In the logical part of her brain, she knew she had to go close the doors, but that sense of another’s presence had her frozen to the ground, her hand still on the light switch. As she stood there planted, the mares swung their heads down the aisle, ears pricked as though listening to something, and together they moved forward, scrambling from their stalls and trotting right past Rachel out into the night.
She finally moved, lunging out into the darkness, her breath coming in great gasps. The mares looped across her yard and then regrouped in the driveway and turned, headed down towards their pasture, and Rachel cut across the lawn, fell against the gate, her shaking hands scrambling for the chain. Shoving the gate open, she clung to the post as the mares trotted in as a group, fanning out across the pasture. Rachel somehow managed to chain up the gate and stood there in the night, taking deep breaths, willing her heart rate to slow down, before she headed back to the house, not even turning her head to look at the barn where the lights were still on and the stall doors stood wide open.
“Long night last night?” Jeremiah the farrier said with a smirk as he looked up at a yawning Rachel.
“Sorry… yes,” Rachel said with a sigh, shifting her weight on her feet as she held one of the mares for her trim. “Horses were out. You know, they seem to get out almost every October.” She swallowed hard, remembering the creepiness of the prior evening: as she had hustled into the barn to grab halters, trying hard not to think about the previous year and what she had witnessed, she had felt a hand on her shoulder. Whirling around and preparing to see Clark, she instead saw no one at all… just the glimpse, out of the corner of her eye, of a man stepping into a stall which proved to be empty.
Rachel had never mentioned these moments to Clark, or to anyone. She didn’t really know why, just that she had a feeling that there were some things that were meant to be secret, and that this was one of them.
“Spooky,” Jeremiah said, jolting Rachel out of her reverie.
“Is it?” she said hastily. “Just seems like bad luck.”
“Every October, huh? Maybe the mares can sense the ghosts.”
Rachel scoffed out loud as her heart started to beat faster.
“You know about the Hill Farm fire, right?”
Rachel shook her head. “Never heard of it.”
Jeremiah chuckled. “You should check your history books, lady. That was a famous breeding tragedy, back in the sixties. Hill Farm was standing some of the best up-and-coming stallions of the day when the stallion barn caught fire in late October back in… ’68, I think it was? Burned the whole thing to the ground. Mice chewed up some wiring. The night groom ran from stall to stall, opening the doors, but he couldn’t get those stallions to step out. You know how horses are. They don’t want to leave where they think is safe, even when it’s the worst place for them. The poor guy died trying to get them out.”
The chill went right to Rachel’s very bones as she imagined the scene, the flames and smoke and screams of the stallions, and the night groom running from stall to stall. “Where was Hill Farm?” she asked, trying to sound casual, though she thought she already knew.
Jeremiah looked up from the hoof with a twisted smile. “Right here. We’re standing where the stallion barn used to be. You didn’t know that?”
Rachel shook her head wordlessly. “So the farm that was subdivided when we bought this section…”
“Hill Farm.” Jeremiah shook his head as he turned back to the mare’s hoof. “The owners had insurance on the whole place and the horses too, but their hearts were broken. They sold the broodmare band and let the place go derelict. When the old man finally passed, the whole place was left to his kids, and when they couldn’t find a buyer who wanted it, they split it up and sold off the sections.”
Rachel went silent.
“I was just teasing you,” Jeremiah said after a beat. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
Rachel’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She opened the text from Clark: “Everything ok? You coming to bed?”
“Soon,” she typed out and slid the phone back into her jacket. She felt a little foolish standing here in the dark barn this late at night, not to mention totally creeped out as Jeremiah’s story echoed in her head. She had done some research in the past year about Hill Farm, the fire and the night groom who had
She cleared her throat.
“Michael,” she said quietly, her voice almost squeaky. “Michael,” she said, louder, more confident. “I am so grateful for your service. You have taken such good care of the farm and the horses. I know you are protecting them as best as you can.”
The mares’ ears flicked towards her as she spoke, slowly walking down the aisle. She felt less foolish as she listened to the quiet sounds of the barn at night, the peaceful noise of horses eating hay.
“But you can rest now, Michael. The horses are safe. You can rest. There’s nothing left for you to do. You’ve done your job, and you’ve done it well.”
She paused at the end of the aisle, looking out the open doorway to the moonlit pasture stretching down the hill. A breeze with a sound like a sigh ruffled through the barn, and the creepy feeling Rachel had had since she had stepped into the place that evening was lifted.
“Thank you,” she said simply, turning back to walk back down the aisle, checking all the stall latches out of habit.
Half an hour later, Clark was shaking her awake.
“Mares are out again.”