Thunder rocked the house while lightning danced across the sky. Stan Ellis, a slightly built fifteen year old, stood on the front porch, watching the show. Simultaneous bursts struck at a couple of trees on the nearby hills, sending puffs of smoke into the moist air. He wondered where his grandpa was. He hated to think of the old man out driving in this terrible weather.
Stan’s eyes followed the gravel drive from the front of the barn, through the wooden gate that enclosed their property, and out toward the state highway that went into Bozeman. No rusty red truck rumbling home.
A jagged bolt of lightning plunged into the field just beyond the horses’ corral. The impact sent small rocks flying and a dust cloud filled the air. The horses stabled in the barn screamed in fear. Stan knew he’d better check on the horses and make sure that all were safe in their stalls.
Pulling on his anorak, he ran down the steps and across the yard, hoping to beat the next bolt. Just as he pulled open the barn door, another hit, stronger than before. Stan held on to the door as the earth trembled, absurdly terrified that he might fall. Eyes huge, he saw a nearby fir tree burst into flame like a forgotten shish kebab on a grill.
Stan stepped into the cool semi-darkness of the barn and pulled the door closed. It slid easily on its well-greased track. After dropping the latch into place, he turned to examine the animals.
Dopey and Suzy-Mae stood in the back of their stall, brown eyes as large as platters. The stallion’s head draped over the mare’s shoulder, his nuzzle stroking her mane. Dopey snuffled in a whisper-like voice, trying to calm his frightened partner.
Big Joe’s hooves clattered against the sides of his stall, a staccato beat that seemed to match the pounding of Stan’s heart. The big horse’s snorts sounded like rifle shots, and Big Joe’s sides were covered in a foam-like lather. Stan knew he’d better wipe Big Joe down before he left the stables.
Betsy and her foal, Spotter, squealed when the ground shook from another blast. They stood at the back of their stall, with ears pulled back, seeming to be listening to the pounding rain.
At the back end of the barn, Lucifer, the most gentle of the bunch, snorted, neighed, screamed, and bucked when another round of thunder shook the barn. This would be Stan’s first target. Lucifer was his grandpa’s favorite, a horse that was bought for Stan’s mother to ride when she was young.
“Hey, boy. Lucifer boy. It’s OK, big boy,” he softly crooned as he approached the stall. Whistling the stallion’s favorite tune, “Edelweiss,” he stepped closer and closer, hands outstretched in a pleading fashion. When even with the stall door, Stan peered in over the edge. Lucifer plunged forward, crashing into the wood, nearly cracking it down the middle. “Calm down, Lucifer. Calm down, boy.”
Stan picked up a handful of sweet hay, the stallion’s favorite, and held it gingerly toward the horse’s mouth. Still whistling, the young man slithered forward at turtle speed. Lucifer’s eyes rolled, showing white even in the gloom of the stall. Foam dripped from the horse’s mouth, and his sides heaved and rattled. Stan moved closer, still offering the treat. “Come on, boy. Easy, boy.”
When thunder sounded again, Lucifer burst through his door, shattering the wood as easily as breaking toothpicks. Stan jumped out of the way of the flailing hooves just in time to avoid being struck a deadly blow to the head.
He cowered against the back of the barn as the terrified horse raced up and down the center. Stan trembled in fear, leaning tightly against the door to Knight’s stall. The giant horse suddenly stopped running and looked around the barn with terrified eyes. Taking advantage of the temporary calm, Stan took a step into the center aisle. “Here I am, boy. Come here, Lucifer. Come to me, boy.” His hands shook, but he kept his voice soft and calm.
After shaking his head up and down a few times, Lucifer allowed Stan to approach. Sides quivering, spittle flying from his gritted teeth, Lucifer was far from relaxed. “Let me touch you, boy,” Stan crooned. He resumed whistling and watched as the horse’s eyes focused on the hay and the hand. “That’s it, boy. That’s it.”
When Lucifer took the first tentative nibble, Stan grabbed his halter. After pulling the giant head toward his chest, Stan offered the last of the hay, and then began stroking the black muzzle. The stallion slowly calmed, thanks to the passing of the storm and the persistent cooing and petting of the young man.
Once the horse’s eyes narrowed to a more normal size, Stan urged him forward. They walked from one end of the barn to the next, stopping only to turn and change directions. In time, Lucifer’s breathing took on its changed cadence. “That’s the way, boy. That’s the way.” Stan wondered where to put Lucifer now that his stall door was shattered. Not in with Big Joe. They’d fight and get each other riled up. Not with Betsy, either. Lucifer hates Spotter. He decided to put him in Knight’s stall as it was empty. Grandpa had taken his Appaloosa into Dr. Steinway’s clinic for some kind of operation, and so the stall would be available for a few days.
Stan walked Lucifer to the stall and opened the door. Agitated about entering another horse’s place, the stallion reared in protest. Stan jumped out of the way of the hooves. “Hey, boy. No problem. Knight’s gone for a few days. He won’t mind.” Lucifer instantly calmed, as if he understood every word.
“Go on, now,” Stan said. “Step in. Step in, boy.” The stallion did as told, as meekly as the lamb he normally was. “Yeah, that’s it. You okay now?” Stan picked up a soft cloth and rubbed the horse’s sides and neck. When Lucifer was quiet, Stan checked the food and water, and then quietly stepped outside. He closed the door and dropped the latch into place.
Now that the stallion was calmer than before, Stan rechecked the other horses. He spoke to them and whistled each one’s special song. Within minutes, all were relaxed, and even Big Joe was wiped down.
Stan left the barn and headed back to the house. His grandfather still was not home to prepare dinner, so he went into the kitchen to find something to eat. The refrigerator light did not come on when he opened the door. The clock on the microwave was dark, and when Stan flicked the switch for the ceiling lights, nothing happened.
He dug into the meat drawer and pulled out some sliced turkey, and then he got out the mayonnaise, some leaves of lettuce, and a slice of mozzarella cheese. He assembled a mammoth sandwich, tossed a handful of chips on his plate, and poured himself a tall glass of water. Stan carried his meal out to the front porch, sat in his usual chair, placed the glass on a nearby table, and balanced the plate on his lap. As he ate, he watched lightning bolts, far off in the distance, as they zigzagged across the darkening sky. The air had that fresh smell that always followed rain.
As night came on, Stan gave up his watch and went inside. The electricity was still out, so with nothing to do, he decided to go to bed early. He was worried about his Grandpa, wondering if he was safe, holed up somewhere in town, or stuck in mud out on the road. There was nothing he could do about it, so Stan pulled off his shoes, socks, jeans and shirt, and then climbed into bed. He stared at the dark ceiling, trying to recall if his grandfather had said anything about visiting Uncle Jack, or dropping in on his old friend, Zechariah.
In time Stan’s breathing slowed to a rhythmic cadence and his worried face relaxed.
Fire! The barn’s on fire! Got to save the horses. Lucifer will be in a panic. Got to get there before he kicks through the wall. Clothes. Jeans. Found them. Where’s my shoes? There they are. Do I need a shirt? Forget it. Run to the horses. Save the horses.
He flew down the stairs into the front room, across the braided rug and out the door. Panicked neighing filled the night with eerie sounds. Stan froze at the top of the stairs. He stared into the dark, searching for the outline of the barn.
I can’t see it! Where’s the barn? Horses. Got to get to the horses. My God! What’s making that noise? Is it a panther? Can’t be. No panthers near here. Mountain lion. A lion’s in the barn. Rifle. Where’s Grandpa’s rifle?
Stan stepped back inside the house and ran to the gun case. He snapped open the door so forcefully that the glass shook. Rifle. That one. Take that one. It’s loaded. Yeah. That’s the one Grandpa always keeps loaded.
Holding the rifle across his chest, Stan rushed out of the house, down the steps, and across the yard. The barn door was closed, the latch in place. No lion’s in there. What is it, then? What’s scaring the horses?
Another blood-curdling scream tore the night apart, sending shivers down Stan’s spine. Got to get in there. Got to see what it is. Open the door, and then jump aside. That’s what I’ll do.
Stan reached out with his free hand, grabbed the latch, and lifted it up. The door burst open, sending Stan flying backwards and onto the ground. Out of the barn exploded a fire-encased figure. An unearthly looking creature, with wide, gaping maw, screaming an ear-piercing sound as it rushed toward Stan. Eyes, dark as night, stared into Stan’s soul, while writhing fingers reached toward his face.
He raised the rifle and aimed where the heart should be. His finger started to squeeze the trigger, but then froze in place. No mater how hard he tried to move that finger, it refused. The creature moved closer and closer, until its searing breath brushed across his face.
“Stan, wake up, boy. You’re having a nightmare,” a familiar voice penetrated the haze that fogged Stan’s brain. A rough hand stroked his right cheek while another squeezed his left shoulder.
Stan fought back, trying to escape the demon that held him in a vise-like grip.
“Settle, boy. It’s me, Grandpa.”
Stan opened his eyes into the dark of his own bedroom. He made out the silhouette of his grandpa, leaning over him. “Grandpa? Is it really you?”
“Yes, it’s me. You’re safe now. You’re safe. Nothing’s going to hurt you,” he said as he removed his hands from his grandson’s shoulders, and then sat on the edge of the bed. “You were dreaming. It must have been one heck of a nightmare. I’ve never seen you so scared.”
“It was terrible. The barn was on fire and the horses were calling for help. I opened the door, thinking there was a lion in there, but this thing…this thing came after me. I’ve never seen anything like it. It…it tried to kill me. I had the rifle, but I couldn’t squeeze the trigger.” He stared into the darkened room, seeing the creature once again. “Grandpa, are the horses safe?”
“Yes, they’re fine. Everything’s fine. The power’s still out, but everything else is fine. How about you, boy?”
Fully awake now, Stan reached for his grandfather’s gnarly hand. Finding it, he gave it a firm squeeze of gratitude. “I’m glad you’re here. I couldn’t remember if you were coming home or not. That was a bad storm, Grandpa. It scared Lucifer.”
“Don’t worry about it, boy. I got hung up at Becker Creek. The darn thing overflowed its banks. And then lightning hit a tree right in front of me. It burst into flame like a torch. Next thing you know, the grass caught fire and surrounded the truck. I thought I was a goner. The gas, you know? But your grandmother must have been watching over me, like she always does. The flames moved away, silently creeping back into the woods as if blown by a ghost. Her spirit has saved my life more than once. I sure owe that woman.”
“Next time you see her, give her my thanks,” Stan whispered.
“I will, boy. I will.”
“Did you see anything in the flames? You know, like an animal?”
“I was too scared to pay attention,” Grandpa said. “Even if I had, I couldn’t have done anything but sit there and watch. You calm enough now to go back to sleep?”
“Yeah,” Stan answered as he settled back on his mattress. “Would you mind staying for a bit?”
“You want me to hold off that demon?”
“Yeah. That would be real nice.”
Silence fell, wrapping both men in a blanket of comfort. Soon snores echoed off the walls: Grandpa’s deep rumbles harmonized with Stan’s staccato tenor notes. They slept.