Riders in a Storm
Excerpt from: Black Mustang
The raging storm whipped sheets of rain through the crowns of the tall fir trees that flexed in its fury. Finger-thick streams of water flowed down the giant trunks to unite at their base first into small, then ever-growing runnels, becoming small creeks that, in countless cascades, jumped from rock ledge to rock ledge into the depth. From there the swollen river carried the waters down the narrow gorge. Night was about to fall. Minute after minute thunder rolled across the chasm. Yet despite the bright lightning flashes the rain fell so solidly that one could barely see five paces ahead.
The effects of the wild storm were felt most severely by the forest and the cliffs at the upper reaches of the valley. But its force did not quite penetrate into the narrow confines further down. That’s where the giant, immovable firs were standing in the darkness. By no means was it quiet though. The river rushed and tumbled so noisily that only someone with very keen auditory perception could have heard the two horsemen riding downstream; but he wouldn’t have been able to see them.
Had it been day, with its plentiful light, the two riders would certainly have attracted the gazes of everyone they encountered, and not just because of their clothing and equipment, but because both were of a frightening stature. One would have been hard pressed to find two people as long and thin as those two, even searching all the countries on the Earth for decades.
One of them was flaxen-haired; his head was ridiculously small for his size. Centred beneath two placid mouse eyes sat a tiny, upturned snub-nose that would have suited a four-year-old child much better. Those proportions were at odds with the enormously wide mouth. It stretched almost from one ear to the other. The man didn’t have a beard; it seemed to be a congenital defect because the womanly smooth face had certainly never felt a razor. He wore a doublet that hung from his narrow shoulders like a pleated short coat, tight-fitting leather pants that kept his stork legs snugly wrapped, half boots, and a straw hat with a sadly drooping brim that channelled the water down onto him in uninterrupted streams. On his back hung a double-barreled rifle with its barrel pointing downwards. The horse he was riding was a strong, big-boned nag that surely had fifteen summers on its back already, but seemed intent on experiencing another fifteen in a just-as-spritely manner.
The other rider had dark hair upon which sat an ancient fur cap, a very narrow, very long face, with equally narrow and long nose and mouth. His thread-like moustache had tips long enough to almost be tied together behind his ears. His more than two- metre frame was, contrary to his companion, clad tightly at the top and loose at the bottom, because while he wore very wide trousers with many pleats, the cuffs of which terminated inside rawhide boots, his upper body was encased in a long felt jacket that was as tight as if it had been moulded around his body. He also carried a double-barreled firearm. He was sitting on a reliable mustang with a birth date that would have repeated just as many times already as that of his companion’s horse. Of course, both also carried knife and revolver.
Neither the path they were taking nor the pouring rain bothered the two riders. They left the matter of finding and following the former to their horses, and basically had no objections to the latter because it couldn’t penetrate any deeper than their skin and was bound to run off at the bottom anyway.
Despite the unrelenting thunder and lightning, as well as the dangerously close vicinity of the river, which tore and dug at its banks, they conversed as uninhibited with each other as if they were riding across a prairie in bright sunshine. However, an attentive observer would have noticed that they scrutinized each other closely despite the gloomy light. They had met only an hour earlier, during the late afternoon, upriver, and just before the onset of the thunderstorm. Initial mistrust is well placed in the Wild West; but when they found out that both were headed for Firwood Camp, they considered that riding together, instead of separately, was only natural.
They hadn’t asked about each other’s names or circumstances and their conversation had thus far been of such general nature that they didn’t touch on personal matters. When lightning sent a series of blinding flashes through the narrow gorge, immediately followed by a succession of cracking thunder rolls, the blond rider with the snub nose said:
“Bless my soul! What a thunderstorm! Feels like home with Timpe’s heirs!”
The other reflexively stopped his horse when he heard the last remark and already opened his mouth to pose a hasty question, but thought better of it and said nothing; instead, he drove his horse on again. He remembered that one ought not be careless west of the Mississippi.
The conversation recommenced, though in a fairly monosyllabic fashion, as dictated by locality and situation. A quarter of an hour passed, and another. Then, unexpectedly, the river described a sharp bend across the riders’ path; the water had washed out and undercut the clay bank; the horse of the blond couldn’t turn fast enough, stepped onto the unsupported, loosened piece of ground and broke through, fortunately not very deeply; the rider pulled it up and around, used his spurs and, with one daring leap of the horse, was back on solid ground.
“Good God!” he exclaimed. “I’m already wet enough from the rain, why add such a bath? I could have drowned here! Reminds me of Timpe’s heirs!”