“Seriously—” Paul stopped and pulled out a bandana. He wiped it across his forehead and around his neck before shoving it back in his pocket. “Does it have to be this hot?”
Ashley was too stressed to answer. They were trying to get the last of the hay bales stacked in the barn before the storms came. There had been rumblings over the horizon most of the morning, and meteorologists were predicting severe weather for later in the day.
The entire region was under a tornado watch, which unnerved the farming community. One direct hit from a severe storm could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to a farm. They all felt the pressure to get everything battened down and cleaned up to prepare for the worst.
“Lunch is ready, guys!” Ashley’s mom, Deanna called out to everyone still working with the hay.
“Give us… about twenty minutes, honey,” Ashley’s dad, Stan, called back. He and Ashley’s brothers, along with Paul, and Paul’s dad, Robert were all down at the south barn stacking the hay.
For the past week they’d had perfect harvesting weather. The machines had been out in full force cutting, turning, and baling the hay and every free hand from both the Davis and Hardman farms had loaded the bales off the wagons, up the elevator, and into the loft.
The work was hot, dusty, and tiring, but they’d gotten the baling done in one week, and had a good harvest. The animals would be well fed this winter.
Ashley stressed that Shelly and her other horses seemed jittery. She didn’t like the feel of the air any more than they did.
There wasn’t much they could do up on the Davis farm to prepare for the storm. The pigs would be protected in the swine building. The soybeans weren’t ready to be harvested, and the only thing that was going to save the corn was if the winds didn’t get too high. From what was being predicted, high winds were possible.
On the Hardman farm, it was different. The gate between the large and small pasture fields had been opened, allowing the cattle and horses to plan their own escape routes if necessary. As of yet, they were mainly staying in or close by the barns.
While the guys finished getting the wagons put away and the remaining hay swept up and the barn tidied, Ashley made one last pass through the horse barn before heading to lunch. She couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that something was bothering her animals. She walked past their stalls, which were all opened, and gave each one of them an encouraging pat on the neck and a few loving words.
Most of these horses didn’t even belong to her; they were boarded by the 4-H kids that her mom taught. But they were hers nonetheless. She fed them and cleaned their stalls and talked to them each day. And she knew when they were upset.
Paul followed her, but mostly hung back to let her fidget for a minute before they both headed up to the house. Ashley appreciated that he seemed to know she needed space.
Ashley’s mom had laid out a good spread of food for the guys who had been working on her farm all day. The men seemed jovial, knowing that the day’s work was mostly complete and they’d done a good job rushing to get everything settled.
They all planned to head over to the Davis’ house when lunch to have some down time while the rain passed. It was a routine for the two families whenever there was a stormy day.
The Davis’ had a back-up generator hooked to the house in case they lost power, and lots of toys for the little kids to play with to distract them from the thunder and lightning. They also had a huge finished basement with a pool table and foosball and big screen television and other fun things to do. The Hardman boys loved the excuse to go over and have some down time for a little while.
Half way through lunch, they all sort of stopped and the talking tapered off. The air had changed. It was heavy. The birds were quiet all of a sudden.
Ashley and her father both got up and walked to the window at the same time. Ashley was staring at her horse barn, and her dad was looking at the sky.
“I think it’s time to head over to your house, Robert.” Dad turned to Paul’s dad. “I don’t want to get caught out in the rain, and it looks like it’s just about here.”
“Grab your sandwiches on the way out, guys,” Deanna told them. “I’ll take care of the dishes when we get home later.”
They all got up and started for the door, but the radio scanner beeping made them stop and wait. The announcement was that a tornado had been spotted near the Village of Leslie heading north-east at about twenty-five miles per hour. That meant they only had a few minutes or they’d be caught out in the storm.
The sandwiches were forgotten as they all hurried out the door. It was a long walk from the Hardman’s house across the Davis property, and they were heading in the direction of the storm. That meant two things: they were cutting their time shorter with every step, and they were able to watch the storm as they walked.
When they were half way up the hill the clouds took on an eerie color. Robert pulled his cell phone from his pocket and called his wife to tell her to get the kids to the basement.
Ashley was in the back of the group and kept looking over in the direction of the horse barn. Paul hung back to be with her, but kept trying to get her to walk faster. He took her by the hand and whispered to her that the horses would be fine.
“Look!” Ashley’s brother Steve pointed ahead of them. “Those clouds. Over there, they’re heading to the right and over there they’re moving left.”
“Rotation,” Stan said. “Come on, we’ve got to hurry.”
They started running, but suddenly Ashley ripped her hand free from Paul’s and started running in the other direction, back toward her horses.
“Ashley!” Paul called from behind her. “What the hell are you doing!” When he caught up to her, he grabbed her from behind, almost pulling her off the ground and dragging her back toward his house.
“Get off me!” She cried. She struggled to get loose from his arms, and finally elbowed him in the ribs and ripped herself away from him. He gave up trying to stop her and ran with her. Paul reached the barn just ahead of Ashley and tore the barn door open just as the rain started.
They raced to their respective horses. The large back door to the barn was open in case the animals chose to flee for their own safety. Animals had a keen sense to run to where they would be safest, but Ashley hoped with all her heart they would all choose to stay inside with her.
She spoke softly to Shelly, who was tearing through her stall. Ashley got her calmed down a little, then went around to the other horses. Paul did the same.
When the wind picked up, Paul and Ashley crouched together in the corner of one of the empty interior stalls, and held each other. Paul said a quiet prayer over and over the entire time they huddled together. They could hear shingles being ripped from the roof, objects crashing into the barn, and a terrible roar of the wind that whipped through the open door.
It felt as if the whole building would come crashing down on them. The storm wasn’t directly over them; more off to the west a few hundred yards, tearing a path through the larger pasture in between the two farms.
It was the most terrifying ten minutes of their lives.
When the wind died and the storm was over, Paul and Ashley waited on the floor looking up into each other’s eyes in terror. They helped one another to their feet and went to check on the horses.
The horses were all fine. They were stressed, but unscathed.
There was debris strewn all over the barn, and Ashley knew they’d been very lucky not to have gotten hit by anything. They walked through to the other side of the barn where the hobby cows were still in their stalls, obviously shaken, but not hurt.
Paul and Ashley walked around to each of the cows and offered comforting words and soft pats on their necks.
Finally, Ashley took a deep breath and opened the front door to step outside. The air was still very heavy but the wind and rain were mostly gone. There was still rumbling thunder throughout the sky and lightning flashes, but otherwise the sky was starting to lighten.
What she saw in front of her was a scene of horror.