It was a cold winter weekend in December of 2014, and 15-year-old Lacey Daniels wanted nothing more than to read a book by the living room fire of her family's ranch just outside Laramie City, Wyoming. Allison, her best friend, however, was throwing a party that Lacey would be attending in a few hours. Lacey was a sophomore at the private school in Laramie City while Allison attended one of the public schools, so Lacey wasn't expecting to know many people at the party.
"I'll just throw on jeans and a top," Lacey thought "It's not like anyone is going to care what I look like."
When Lacey arrived at Allison’s sprawling home, Allison swooped in and dragged her over to the food. Allison had long dark curly hair and wide brown eyes that made her look as if she were constantly surprised.“Eat something while I get everyone’s attention,” Allison said right before stuffing a cookie in Lacey’s mouth.
“Everybody listen up!” shouted Allison. “We’re going to play zombie apocalypse. I’ll draw names for who the ‘zombies’ will be. They’ll get glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and everyone else gets five minutes to hide anywhere in the house.”
Lacey was glad she was not picked to be a zombie, so the second the timer started Lacey sprinted to the best hiding spot in the house: underneath the bar in the basement. The counter ledge jutted out just enough to cover a crouching person, and it cast a shadow over the spot, making it easier to camouflage. Also, she could easily escape over the counter and up the stairs to the left if anyone found her.
As she crouched and waited for the zombies to come downstairs, a person rolled out of the cabinet across from her.
“Ugh, spiders,” he said right before noticing her presence. “Sorry, I was going to hide in there until I saw a spider,” he explained. “I’m not their biggest fan.”
“It’s all good,” she whispered as he crawled across the exposed floor to a hiding spot next to her. While he crossed the floor, moonlight streaming in through the window highlighted his strong features and thick, close-cut hair.
“What’s the name?” he asked.
“Lacey Daniels,” she whispered back, trying to say as little as possible in order to stay discreet.
“Daniels? I know an Alex Daniels.”
“That’s my brother.”
“Nice to meet you little Daniels. I’m Ross Berkley.”
“Ross? I’ve heard Alex mention you."
“Yeah, I box with him."
"You're 18, right?"
"That's right, miss."
At that moment a group of zombies rushed into the basement causing Lacey to jump up and hop over the counter as Ross followed behind. As she ran up the stairs, she noticed some zombies coming down towards her. “No, no, no, no, no!” she exclaimed and tried to turn around. There was a dull thud as her jaw and Ross’ collarbone collided, causing both to fall to the ground. Zombies hurried over to tag them.
“You’ve got a bony chin kid,” Ross commented as he lifted her from her prone position.
“You ok?” Lacey asked.
“Other than being a ‘zombie’ I’m fine,” Ross laughed.
“I’d better go report for ‘duty’,” joked Lacey as she mimicked a salute.
Lacey stomped into her family’s stables as she dragged a shovel behind her. It was the summer after her senior year. She had just graduated from high school, and her brother Alex was home from college for the summer.
Her usually perfect dirty blonde hair stuck out in all directions, and sweat dripped off her nose forming a puddle on the floor.
“I can’t believe Jason quit,” said Lacey to her brother Alex who was intently focused on a door hinge. “I don’t know who’s going to oversee all the workers and the farm now.”
“Dad said he’s got an idea of where to go,” responded Alex pursing his lips in frustration at the hinge.
“I hope he’ll find one soon. My arms are getting sore from all this extra shoveling.”
Their dad strolled in, his shadow filling the doorframe. “Kids, since all the other hands are busy with the cows I’ve resorted to my best option,” he said as a rusted truck pulled into the driveway next to her dad’s sedan. “Meet Ross Berkley.”
“Dad no, not Ross,” protested Alex.
“Why not Ross?” Lacey asked with her hands on her hips. “You box with him anyways.”
“He’s just not the best fit,” Alex explained.
“I hired him to oversee the ranch,” said Mr. Daniels “He’s the only option I’ve got, and you’d be surprised how hard of a worker he is.”
“I met him once, and he seemed pretty nice,” said Lacey “I think you’re just upset because you’ve never beat him in the ring.”
“Fine whatever Lacey,” Alex admitted.
The three of them walked over to the truck where Ross was busy unloading what looked like bedding and an assortment of tools from his truck bed. “Thanks again Mr. Daniels for arranging for me to move into the loft,” Ross said.
“No problem, these are my kids Alex and Lacey. I’m sure you’ve met them,” said Mr. Daniels.
“Hey Ross,” said Lacey.
Alex nodded at Ross then reached for a bag as Lacey walked through the garage door of their house and into the kitchen. Their home was surprisingly tasteful for its rough surroundings, but the lack of nearby foliage gave its stone walls and ivory pillars an imposing presence.
Lacey toted a tray bearing three iced teas to the stables and set it down in the tack room. Then she climbed up the ladder to the loft where Ross and Alex were just finishing up.
“Lacey could you give me a tour of the place?” Ross asked, “Alex is probably tired of me by now.”
“Sure,” said Lacey “Let’s grab some horses, so we don’t have to take your truck.”
Her father had purchased a foursome of jet-black Friesian horses for their family, but since her mother had left, the fourth one, Marius, became the overseer’s.
Lacey brought out her mare, Elsie. “You’ll have Marius from now on,” said Lacey “He’s pretty feisty, so good luck.”
As she and Ross rode out, Elsie noticed that her father’s horse wasn’t in the stables or in the surrounding horse pasture, but she figured he was probably checking on the other hands who were with the cows. They rode past several groups of ranch hands watching over the lowing cattle, and Lacey pointed out the scattered watering holes which were surrounded by small patches of vegetation. The sun was beginning to dip low in the sky when they arrived at the stream that ran down the middle of the Daniels’ property. The summer heat and rarity of rain had diminished the stream to a slow trickle. They dismounted and walked over to the water to let their horses drink. Ross noticed some suspiciously cat-like tracks in the sand and bent down to inspect them.
“Mountain lion,” Ross said “We need to get out of here. These are too fresh.”
Lacey’s thoughts jumped to her dad, and she froze in place.
“What if my dad’s out here with the mountain lion around?” Lacey asked frantically.
Ross put a finger to his lips and grabbed her wrist dragging her behind him. He pulled her down next to him under a willow tree on the riverbank and peered at their surroundings for a sign of another presence. They heard a low whinny nearby over the opposite bank, but neither of them could find its source.
Just then, a black blob that had looked like a boulder against the sun shifted, and they could see the silhouette of a horse with its head raised. They horse barely moved but stood attentively with its ears pricked. Lacey started to get up, but Ross was still gripping her wrist and kept her under the tree. “If there’s a mountain lion that horse is in danger but so are we,” he whispered.
“What about my dad and the horse?” Lacey protested.
“You stay here,” he whispered “I’ll go look.”
Ross handed Lacey a large branch for use as self defense then waded across the stream and crept up the bank. Lacey watched him make his way slowly towards the horse. The horse snorted at Ross angrily, but he continued to advance. It began to nervously prance in place, but it never budged from the same spot as if it were guarding something.
Once Ross was within a yard of the horse, it let out a warning squeal and pinned its ears back. Ross quickly retreated down the bank and waded back over to Lacey.
“You need to come look at this,” Ross whispered before pulling her back over towards the horse. This time Ross hung back and let Lacey approach the horse alone. It was Constantine, her dad’s Friesian, and he was standing over the body of a man lying face down. Constantine recognized Lacey and allowed her to come next to him and kneel down next to the body.
She turned the man over and gasped as she recognized her dad. He was still breathing, but what used to be his shirt had been reduced to shreds. His right forearm was bleeding profusely from a bite wound that Lacey guessed was from protecting his neck in the event of an attack.
“Ross!” Lacey yelled. “Help!”
Ross rushed over help her lift her dad upright, and his eyes fluttered open for a moment. Ross ripped two strips of cloth out of his shirt then wrapped the bleeding wound with one strip and formed a tourniquet above the bite with the other strip. Then the two of them propped Mr. Daniels up against a rock, and Ross busied himself rigging up a way to secure Mr. Daniels to Constantine. Lacey grabbed a canteen from Constantine’s saddle and used some of the water to clean the dirt from her dad’s face then helped him drink the rest.
Once they had secured Mr. Daniels to Constantine, Lacey began to lead Constantine over to her and Ross’ horses when Ross exclaimed, “Look!”
Ross pointed to another body lying nearby.
“I guess horses really do fight with lions,” Lacey whispered.