In advance of the publication of Riders On The Storm on March 30, here is a short excerpt:
THEY HAD JUST entered the long and narrow draw past Sounding Creek when the storm hit. It had been threatening from the moment they left MacAllister’s, the sky filled with brooding clouds that seemed even more ominous in the last light of the day. Seeing them, they hurried to reach the valley, in the hopes that it would provide some cover for both them and the cattle they were trailing.
At the very least, Amos thought, as the rain began to spatter his duster, it would keep them from scattering everywhere once the winds and the rain truly hit. Nothing had gone as expected to this point though, and the encroaching darkness and the storm promised only more misery.
If he were a superstitious man, Amos might have thought the omens were against them from the start. Coming down to MacAllister’s from the north, where the three of them holed up for two days in Davenport’s old sod shack, getting in each others’ way and on each others’ nerves, they came across a dead cow lying abandoned in the scrub. The coyotes and crows had already been at it for at least a day, the smell of it so putrid the horses shied away. Amos stopped to study it for a moment, out of curiosity more than anything, while Wright and H.S. continued on. There was no evident signs as to the cause of the animal’s death, which was not out of ordinary in any way, but he still found it disconcerting for some reason.
The next problem came when they arrived at MacAllister’s ranch. The cattle were not around Gillespie’s Lake, as H.S. had said they would be, but spread out in the surrounding hills. It would take hours to round them up with just the three of them, though the hills would offer them some cover from anyone who happened to be passing by. H.S. had assured them that was extremely unlikely, with MacAllisters gone to Calgary and their hands all in Lethbridge for a day of drinking and whoring.
There was nothing else for it, other than abandoning the job entirely, but to set to work at rounding the herd up as best they could. They split up and went into the hills, thick with brush and trees. Both horses and men were soon in a lather as the cattle ran them across the countryside. Their swears echoed through the air, which might have been a concern, but they saw no sign of anyone.
It was well into the afternoon by the time they had the herd mostly together and heading out of hills toward the ranch. There they encountered their next challenge, for both the cattle and the horses wanted to stop at the lake to drink.
“Just let them,” Amos said as Wright whipped at the cattle, who ignored him, plunging their heads into the water. “They’ll go better if we just let them.”
Reluctantly the others agreed and they had lunch by the lake in full view of the ranch house and the shacks where the hands lived. It was disconcerting to say the least, and Amos found himself unable to look away from the yard, expecting at any moment to see someone coming toward them, rifle in tow.
“Ain’t nobody there man,” H.S. said, following his gaze. “I told you. They’re all off in town. Nothing to worry about.”
Amos nodded, though he did not feel reassured. Wouldn’t they leave somebody behind just to keep an eye on things? To stop the very thing they were attempting to do. Evidently not for, except for the cattle and birds circling and crying around the lake, the day was quiet and nothing stirred at the ranch.
When they were through with lunch they got back on their horses and got the cattle moving again, past the lake and south beyond the ranch. After their rest and water the animals moved easily, settling into a comfortable walk. The three riders all relaxed in their saddles, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun.
Amos, though, could not resist a final look back at the ranch. As he stared into the distance he was certain he saw movement beside the ranch house. There and then gone. He stopped his horse to watch for a moment, waiting to see if whatever he had seen would reappear. All was quiet and at a call from Wright he turned his horse around and returned to the herd.
WHAT REMAINED of the day passed without event, but because of the problems they had encountered in the morning they were well behind schedule if they wanted to be across the border before morning. That would be impossible now. Worse, the most difficult portion of their journey remained and they would have to complete it in darkness, for the sun was setting quickly now, the light going from the day even faster with the storm gathering overhead.
The draw was hard to navigate in daylight and with the added complications of trailing the cattle and the night, it would be even more perilous. Amos did not think about that now, pressing his hat down more firmly upon his head as the drops began to spatter on them. The wind began to gust as well, almost knocking the horses sideways as they picked their way down into the draw.
Amos felt the urge to hurry the horses and cattle ahead of them on into the draw where they might find a bit of shelter, but he knew it would foolish to go faster than they already were. A flash of lightning sparked to the south and west, illuminating the cattle in spectral colors, followed a short time later by the low rumble of the thunder. That seemed to be a signal of some sort, for the rain began to come in torrents only moments and the wind howled as though possessed by spirits.
The air itself felt charged and wild, as though the storm clouds above were about to spill below and engulf them. The animals were disconcerted by it, Amos’ horse jumping about as though there were rattlesnakes at his feet.
“God damn,” he said and spurred the horse up to join H.S. who was staring up into the rain at the clouds.
“I hope to hell there’s no hail in this,” H.S. said to him.
“You think we should stay here in the draw?” Amos said, turning his horse about so that he was looking back the way they had come. “Wait out the storm.”
H.S. shrugged, “Could be an idea. Cattle might be easier to handle if we keep them down here. Don’t know if we can though.”
Amos was about to reply when a bolt of lightning illuminated the sky around them. He waited a moment for the thunder that was to follow, so that he would not have to shout over it along with the rain and wind. As he did so, he glanced from H.S. up the trail to where they had entered the draw and was certain he could see the form of a man in amidst the shadows there. In the instant that he saw the form there was another lightning strike, blindingly bright and nearby, the thunder following atop it almost instantaneously. By the time he opened his eyes again, blinking furiously against the sting from the flash, nothing was visible but the coalescing shadows.
“What is it?” H.S. shouted at him.
Amos shook his head and slapped his horse on the haunch, starting back up the draw. The trail they were on was already a muddy, slippery mess and the horse had to pick its way carefully up the, now precarious, incline. The wind blew the rain directly into his face so that it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of the horse. When he arrived at the spot where he was certain he had seen the man standing there was no one there, nor was there anyone that he could see in amongst the shrub and trees that dotted the trail. He leaned down from the horse to inspect the ground and could make out a variety of hoof prints, no doubt from their own passage, but nothing else.
He shook his head and returned down the trail, muttering to himself under his breath.
“Seeing things?” H.S. shouted at him when he grew near.
“I guess so,” Amos said, telling himself it had just been the play of the shadows in the heavy dusk which, with the hour and the clouds swallowing the sky entire, had now turned to utter darkness. The black was leavened only by the flashes of lightning, which illuminated the valley for the briefest of instants as they flickered across the clouds or to the ground. He pushed it from his thoughts, dwelling now on the growing heaviness of his duster and the spreading damp he could feel beneath. It was going to be a long night after a hard day, but if they could get the cattle across the border it would be well worth it.
The cattle, he could see, had reached the bottom of the draw, where it opened up allowing them to spread out off the trail, which they did immediately, heading for the sparse groupings of trees that littered the valley floor. It was the only shelter available to them and they clung to it as the storm continued to intensify. The three cowboys hunched together under few nearby trees as well, though it only provided meager cover from the rain and wind. They leaned in close to each other so they could hear the others as they yelled over the rumble of the storm.
“I think we gotta keep pushing them on,” Wright said. “If not we could spend hours trying to get them out of these trees in the dark.”
“They won’t wanna go,”Amos said.
“They won’t wanna go no matter what in this weather. But if we don’t go now we might still be here come morning. Don’t want that.”
Reluctantly, both Amos and H.S. agreed and, after a few more stolen moments of respite beneath the trees, they split up and went to start the cattle out of the draw. Amos went to the eastern end of the valley, letting the horse pick his way around the buckbrush, as he headed to where a group of five cows with their calves was huddled against the slender trunks of the trees there. The animals were even more reluctant to stray from cover than he had been, so he nearly yelled himself hoarse by the time he had the group started south again.
He slowly picked his way back to the trail as he found where some of the other cows had gathered and forced them on their way. He could see Wright just to the west doing the same each time the storm lit up the sky, but H.S. was too far off into the darkness for the lightning to pierce. The storm was almost directly overhead, the thunder now announcing the lightning bursts, which were so close they felt as though they were scalding his eyes.
Wright stayed to trail the cattle they had started back along the path, while Amos went to help H.S. with those that remained. There had to be another twenty cows with calves left to gather and he had seen no sign of them or of H.S., which was strange, given how narrow the draw was and how bright it became with each blast of lightning. The cattle he found easily enough. They were all huddled together in the largest stand of trees to the west of the trail and they refused to move when he came at them with the horse. He tried yelling, clapping and waving his hands and snapping the reins of the horse, but all his sound and fury was easily drowned out by the surrounding storm.
Giving up at last he descended from his horse and plunged into the trees on foot, waving and slapping at the cattle, sending them out scattering to the south. He nearly lost his horse as the cattle leapt from his path, some combination of the storm, the darting cattle and his own flailing startling the nervous creature. When he had calmed it and climbed back on, he rode around the trees to ensure that there were no cattle left and then turned to see what had become of H.S.