This piece of fiction is a response to the Weekly Writing Challenge ‘Cliffhanger’.
The two men came panting up the rise onto the plateau and stopped, hands-on-knees to catch their breath, before resting in an alcove that formed a natural belvedere out of the rock face. The one on the left, who was shorter and darker than his Aryan-looking friend, stared keenly to the lowlands and wondered exactly what he was doing here. As he gazed out over all the broad land they had passed, the sun set, and the light was imbued with a halcyon glow. The sky became a peach, a sphere weeping golden juices, an edible shimmer that touched everything not only superficially but blanketed it with its fragrance.
Nostalgia hit him. For his time down in that valley in his younger days when all had seemed right, and there was a promise of a future that had sat hand-in-hand with a promise of love, partnership, marriage, family. It was a sad, lovely, bitter, horrible nostalgia. He swallowed it down. There were no time for sentiments he did not want. It would be dark soon, then the cold would rime the rocks with hoarfrost. And he thought that he might be here to kill his climbing companion.
‘Let’s get moving,’ said the tall man curtly. ‘We can follow the pass to the next peak. There’s a cabin at the foot where we won’t freeze.’ He had pugnacious tendencies. The shorter man knew too well. He found no reason to argue with him this time. They picked their path spryly but carefully through the scree.
When had they become anathema to each other?
It had happened so naturally, so mutually it seemed as though it had always been. His earliest memory of it was the after-school athletics club. Although his legs were shorter he had excelled in long-distance, the big boy had outstripped him in the dashes. But the rivalry had been fierce. Watching the blond lout superciliously succeed was enough to drive him into a paroxysm of fury. He knew it wasn’t rational, but the other man felt the same way about him, worse it seemed. They had ended in blows and joint expulsion from the club.
He was somehow aware the feud had started somewhere dimly even before that episode – and who knew how it would end? They had both lost jobs and friends and future prospects because of their reciprocal animosity, and now – he rued acerbically – Elizabeth had moved to the city, telling him not to contact her. All on the basis of a canard. The blond man couldn’t also love her as he professed, that was solely a ruse to wreck the other’s life.
He will see me in penury, he thought, glowering at his muscular back.
Things had got that bad. Finally, one day, after the Elizabeth debacle – today, in fact – they had left the town diner, where they often had the displeasure of encountering each other, taken a silent walk together, climbed a mountain and… and here they were.
He was no murderer, he told himself. Away from the other he displayed nothing but generosity, gentleness, passion, charity. But then, what were they doing here? He admitted that it could be his tall friend who was considering a quick fate for him.
The light was closing down now and the wind began to whip along the fluvial rivets. Still the neighbouring peak was distant. He had estimated a fifteen minute hike to the cabin, but the crag’s sheer mass foreshortened it, and it had barely crept closer. The path was a devious huckster in the gloom, pedalling apparently steady tread spots that soon proved to be gravelly chutes, wobbly stones or precariously placed rocks. At other times the track thinned to an interstice between the wall and the abyss. The rock face around which they wound offered a paucity of handholds, and the dark-haired man’s hands were left chafed, frozen and raw as he gripped on for terror of his life.
At length – it seemed like hours – the path became broader and showed less signs of perfidy. He began to breathe a little easier. He had imagined at several points his companion returning, a grinning face appearing out of blackness, giving a little nudge as he clutched desperately at the nooks and then falling, falling and thwump! It hadn’t happened, but they were still up the mountain and now it was dark. The blond man may kill him, or the mountain may do the work itself.
The path had finally levelled out. He was leeward of his rival, so although he could hardly see the man any more, the musky sillage of sweat attacked his olfactory senses and turned his gut.
‘Come on,’ barked the blond one. ‘The cabin is just over here.’
When he stepped inside the small cabin it was almost entirely black, he could hear his cohort rummaging around nebulously, and the image of a knife out of the dark penetrating between his ribs arrested him and caused him to shudder. There were a couple of ethereal flicks accompanied by sparks and a paraffin lamp was lit and the wick adjusted via a metal wheel to bring the room into focus. It was grotty and unloved, layers of dust had swept in over the years with no one to sweep them out again, a heavy patina set on the wooden benches and cupboards, with no one to sand them down or varnish them. A couple of opened tins lay trashed in the corner. But at the very least it kept the chill out and it was away from the edge. Both of the men approved.
The blond one found a half-bottle of mead in a cupboard, a few nips still swilling round inside, sat across from the dark-haired man and took a snort. Then he impassively offered the other the bottle. The smaller chap thought for a second then took the gift, equally as stoically as it had been offered. He considered asking what now? but was afraid of what the answer might be.
At length they looted the cupboards and found some tins and jars of pickles. They managed to divide the food without argument, a serious precedent in their relations, and settled down to their own cold, private meals.
With shelter around, and food and mead in his stomach the shorter man found himself reminiscing over Elizabeth.
When he look up again he noticed that the big man wasn’t there, he heard a shuffling from down the corridor, what sounded like the hollow scrape of a small wooden draw, and the his companion returned, sat was again opposite him and regarded him with something that felt like disdain.
What had he been doing?
The shorter man’s mind wheeled with notions: poison, knives, artifice. More time passed.
‘The bathroom?’ he asked at last.
‘Just round the corner,’ came the reply.
He squeezed down the passageway, it was so thin he was forced to walk at an angle to fit at the end was the sole bedroom and around the corner a petite hallway. In front of the bathroom door was a slim chest of drawers, no more than waist-high. The dark-haired man sidled to it and delicately, deliberately, drew open the drawer.
Inside lay a revolver.
Anyone could see it had no business in that drawer. The tut below was covered in rock dust. A key degraded to verdigris, a notepad filled out with dirt, a piece of chalk that looked as though it had spent some time under the sea.
And a shiny, polished, silver six-shooter.
There could be no doubt that his companion had placed it there. He lifted it, felt its weight, and – after a moment’s deliberation – slid it into his jacket pocket.
When he returned the blond guy was over by the kitchenette. Appearing startled, he let something fall into the sink with a metallic clatter, then rapidly pocketed it.
‘That was quick,’ he said.
The dark-haired man knew then that the other had a knife.
A trek up a lonely mountain pass, guns and a knife! If I don’t do something soon…
There, he had thought it, and the more that he thought it, the more it seemed inevitable. Unless he killed this man, this man was going to kill him. And now he had the gun, the other only a knife. Inside his pocket his hand clasped firmly around the handle of the gun and his finger found the trigger. Resolution found him. He lifted the pocket.
‘Do you remember how our little enmity began?’ asked the Aryan.
The question was unexpected.
‘Funny, I was trying to think before,’ he found himself replying, against his better reasoning. ‘No I don’t.’ However it was, didn’t matter. In a matter of seconds he was going to shoot his life-long rival.
The tall man ambled to the bench and sat down with a sorry, torpid sigh. He sounded old and full of regret.
‘Well I do,’ he said.