I remember the first time I encountered the violent energy of semi-automatic rifles.
The incident was sufficiently powerful as to create an indelible imprint on my memory.
It is 23 years before today. I am living in my barn loft on solar energy, without indoor plumbing, in a mountain valley above Boulder at 8,000 feet. My then-husband is out of town, and a good friend, Tara, is spending the night. Our five horses are stabled downstairs, tucked away from the cold and battering winds assaulting the valley off the Continental Divide.
On better days, they are out in the pasture, bodies herded together to create the protection of a windbreak. Tonight, of all nights, the weather is sufficiently extreme so as to shelter them inside. I’ve erected temporary stalls from farm panels; the horses are all tucked into areas large enough to contain their equestrian presence, yet not big enough to move about. I hadn’t planned on bringing them all in, but on a night such as this…
It is one o’clock in the morning. We’ve been asleep for an hour.
From three stories above, I wake with a start. I hear a sudden rattling below. Someone is trying to break into the barn! I shake my friend. “Tara, wake up!” From what I discern, they are rattling the 64-square-foot door on the west side of our barn. The rattling is violent enough to inform us that it’s not the wind.
Panic floods the darkness: the five horses nestled in the safety of the barn two floors below are trapped inside. We all are. There are no open doors inviting escape for any of the horses to flee. The mountain valley is dark, save for areas lit by the shine of the moon. There are windows only on the south and east side of our barn loft. The night landscape is devoid of movement to inform of the violence outside.
I whisper loudly to Tara, “Do you hear that? What should we do?” She is older than me, I reason. I rely on her knowledge like she’s the sister I never had.
The rattling persists. The horses are now whinnying, shifting, and slamming themselves into their makeshift stalls below. I don’t wait for her response.
I dial 9-1-1.
“Someone’s trying to break into my barn, and I’m upstairs,” I cry.
“Hold on, stay on the line with me,” the operator assures.
I wait. The rattling continues. I race downstairs to the second floor, ensuring the door is locked. The moments in between the first sound and the appearance of the sheriff’s deputy are lost in the fear and dread of worst-case scenarios. Images of my trapped horses below flash through my mind. Then, anger and confusion: what’s going on?
It takes 45 minutes for the deputy’s car to find us in the canyon. I watch from the safety of the kitchen window, three floors above, as flashing red and blue lights pull off the state highway bordering our valley. “The cops are here,” I turn and announce to Tara.
The rattling persists. Then, silence. The deputy’s car rolls down the driveway up to the parked car at the fork of our driveway, some 300 feet away. I glance out at the scene from the south side of my window as he approaches. Spotlights flood the valley darkness.
“The deputy’s here,” I inform the dispatch operator. “Can I go downstairs now?”
He responds, “Go carefully.”
I hang up. I tiptoe down the rough pine stairs with my friend Tara trailing closely behind to the second floor. We throw on boots and coats and open the handmade rough pine door. Five horses stand in the darkness. One nickers in greeting. For the moment, I avoid turning on the light, so as not to draw attention to the interior of the barn. I’ve no idea what awaits in the scene unfolding.
I listen for sounds. Just the great gray owl, hooting on the southern edge bordering our mountain valley, pierces the night.
Continuing down to the ground floor, I can see the deputy’s lights shining through the slats in the pine boards of our barn. Moving past the stalls, I hug the side of the barn wall, peering around the corner. Flashing blue lights decorate our valley like a Friday night disco. On nights like these, the valley is devoid of signs of human life until the break of dawn.
I can see forms in the headlights. There are people—several of them—all standing. Why aren’t they kneeling on the ground? I muse.
I hesitate. I want to go outside, see what the rattling was about. Were they trying to break in? Did they all run back to their cars when the deputy came? Peering into the darkness, I realize there’s a possibility that others could be lurking in the shadows. I don’t trust that the danger, seemingly contained, is limited to the view in front of me.
But we walk anyway—through our pasture to the fork in our driveway. Moonlight reveals the scene: the deputy is talking to six men.
Somehow, I feel safer. We approach with the naiveté of someone who’s never been involved in a violent crime.
“Stay back!” The sheriff’s deputy turns around, putting his hand up.
I stop suddenly, pulling on Tara’s arm to step back with me. We retreat to the safety of the shadows. The valley is quiet again. The only noise is the screaming frustration large in my mind.
What the Jesus is going on?
The great gray hoots again. Crackling from the deputy’s car radio interrupts the echo in the valley.
Then, in what feels a lifetime later, the deputy approaches us.
“Can you please tell me what’s happening? Who are these people? What’s going on?” I question.
He pulls me off to the side, instructs the pack of men to stay put. “They were target shooting,” he explains. “They say they’re very sorry. They didn’t know anyone lived in the barn. They came up from Aurora—to target shoot by the full moon.”
Target shooting. With semi-automatic rifles. The explanation rings in my ears.
I glance back at the barn filled with our five horses. I look at the two cars in our driveway—do they not suggest the presence of human habitation? I think of our sleeping duck presence upstairs, the 45 minutes lying in wait while all the rattling took place. I realize: it wasn’t the barn door shaking. It was men with semi-automatic rifles shooting at us.
I turn back to the deputy. He is standing some distance away from all of them, rifles in his arms.
“What are you going to do?” I want to know. I feel relieved no one was hurt. I feel angry at the sheer human stupidity, the presumption that people often drive around with in search of attractive places to unload their weapons. The innocence of the wild valley feels violated by the imposition of man’s idea of amusement and entertainment on this full moon evening.
Mostly, I feel fortunate to not have died behind those rough pine barn walls.
“I’m not going to take away their rifles, but I’m going to give them a ticket,” the deputy informs us.
I walk back to the barn after a lively exchange with the deputy. I want him to take away their semi-automatic rifles. I want him to arrest them.
But, I cannot force the resolution. It is up to him, and from his perspective, they pose no further danger to me or our valley.
He sends them on their way. They return to their home on the plains. Perhaps to find shooting ranges on other days or empty barns at which to target shoot under the light of the moon. I return to our own barn, to finger fresh new bullet holes in its side. I walk back inside, sliding my hands along the bodies of all five of our horses. They escaped injury—we all did that night.
The winds continue to blast off the Continental Divide. I bound upstairs with my friend Tara to resume sleep for the remainder of the full moon’s eve. It will be just a couple more hours before dawn brings a new day to us all.
Author: Denise Boehler
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina