There were even fewer people out and the darkness was all consuming but for the gaslights and the cheerily lit stores. As it was nearly eight o’clock, it was well after dark and the temperature had plummeted. James almost wished he’d chosen his new wool coat to wear, but he wasn’t overly bothered by the cold just yet. Mortimer strolled beside him at a casual pace and seemed content to wander through the town without any set goal.
“Was that all we needed to get for the winter?” After ten minutes of near silence, James had the urge to speak and break it. He was also hoping Mortimer had some sort of goal in mind. It wasn’t that he wasn’t curious about the little mountain town, but it was getting cold and he found himself wishing he were back indoors somewhere.
“That should be everything we need, but I’ll check everything to make sure before we leave. I have stores of seeds and the like for planting in the spring, and I have all the tools we’ll need. The horses are set with feed and hay, so unless something springs to mind we have all that we need to make it through the winter.
James nodded as he tucked his hands into his coat pockets and hunched his shoulders slightly. He didn’t notice the concerned glance Mortimer gave him before the older man turned his attention back to the quaint town. That’s when it caught his eye.
James glanced around the little shop. Mortimer had practically dragged him into it when he saw it was lit; he was almost beside himself with glee.
“She’s hardly ever open in winter, especially now she’s older. She has the best selection of coffee beans, tea leaves, and other things Mark doesn’t always have. It’s well worth the price.”
Indeed, there was a multitude of canisters playing host to varieties of coffee beans, and there were stacks of tins of all kinds of tea leaves. The center tables held a variety of baked goods and stacks of strange crystals in a variety of colors James had never seen before.
“Henry! I didn’t think I’d see you till the spring. Leaving it a bit late this year, don’t you think?”
James turned as the tiniest old woman he’d ever seen stepped out of the back room. Her kindly face was heavily wrinkled, but her eyes sparkled with the same energy of a young child.
“It’s not quite time for the first snowfall, Martha,” Mortimer laughed as he hugged the little lady, “and James here needed to get settled in.”
“Ma’am.” James tipped his hat, suddenly feeling rather shy. He hadn’t missed how she used Mortimer’s middle, and preferred, name, and he felt he was intruding on them.
“None of that now. Any family of Mortimer’s is family of mine. I practically raised the boy with how often he and his sister would sneak over for treats and for quiet.” Now it was Mortimer’s turn to flush red.
Family. Why family and not friend? James had the distinct impression Martha could see right through them. She seemed to know something about them both that neither had yet come to realize. He turned his attention back to their conversation.
“-doing well then? How is the house?” Mortimer had bent a little as he spoke with her.
“Oh, everything is just fine, dear. Mark, Matthew, and Jim have all seen to my little place, and it’s as sound as ever. And as for me, well, I might be a little old lady, but I can handle myself just fine, don’t you fret. How about you? You do live so far into the mountains and from everyone. I do worry about you so in the winter, but I’m happy you have someone now. Does you good not to be so alone, ‘specially considering everything.” It was as plain as anything that the kindly woman absolutely doted on Mortimer, but her words were strange to James. Why “have someone” and not “have a friend” or something similar? He abruptly froze as it dawned on him. She thought he and Mortimer were like Mark and Matthew, but as he went to correct her he caught the expression on Mortimer’s face as he very slightly shook his head once.
James closed his mouth as they continued to talk, and he came to the conclusion that Mortimer didn’t seem overly bothered by Martha’s assumption and that it would be better to let her keep her assumption. He decided to keep his silence until they were alone and could discuss the matter properly.
“Now James, Henry tells me you’ve always lived out West, is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve lived out there my whole life. That’s not to say I haven’t traveled, but never this far East.”
“I’m happy you decided to make the journey our way, and I hope you’ll like it here. Our little town is nothing like what you saw out West, I’m sure, but maybe you won’t be too awfully bored when you visit. I hope Henry will keep you occupied as well.”
“After all I’ve seen, I could use some peace and quiet, ma’am.” The conversation among the three of them continued along that path for some time.
“My goodness, look at the time! We’ll be up all night. Here’s some of your usual tea and coffee, Henry. Has anything caught your eye, James?” Martha had changed the conversation when she realized they’d been speaking for nearly an hour without a thought for the time.
“I was wondering what those crystals on the table were?” James pointed to the small table in the center of the room which held all those colored crystals.
“You mean to tell me you haven’t had rock candy before? Some call it sugar candy as well. Lovely stuff; does a person right when you mix it with some warm whiskey. Knocks the cold right out of you. I’ve got all kinds of flavors. You won’t believe what you can find these days. I prefer the old pure white or brown sugar type myself.” As she spoke she put some of each flavor in small paper sacks.
In the meantime, Mortimer had selected some more tea and coffee varieties on top of what Martha had given him. Between the two of them, they had quite the haul of teas, coffee, candy, and baked goods. As with Mark, Martha had given them some extra treats, but flat out refused any of the money Mortimer tried to give her.
“I won’t hear of it. I practically raised you and what family chargers their own for something! And don’t you even try to slip it on the counter or a table when you leave. You just remember to visit me more often come spring and that’ll be that. Now you two get on back to the end before you catch your death of cold out there. Y’all aren’t dressed nearly warm enough. Honestly, Henry, you should know better.” With that, she quickly, but politely, hurried them out the door with a final goodbye and orders to warm up after being out in the cold night air.
Once again James found himself looking at Mortimer with what must have been a familiar look of astonishment.
“She did practically raise me and Rosemary since we often ran to stay with her when he would start getting out of hand and I didn’t want her around him. She doesn’t care one whit about my age and treats me just as she did back then.” There was no need to explain who “he” was.
“I noticed she’s the only one I’ve heard call you ‘Henry’ rather than ‘Douglas’ or ‘Mortimer’.”
“She was the first to notice that I didn’t much like my given name as I apparently started to, as she phrased it, make some sort of “face” every time I was called ‘Douglas’ or, worse, ‘Doug’. She took to calling me by my middle name and that was that. Rosemary picked it up soon after, but it never spread beyond those two until now.”
“You could let them know what you’d rather be called, or is that not done around here. These people know you well.” Considering he hadn’t gone by his own name for almost his whole life, James didn’t see what all the fuss was about with a name.
“I could, but it doesn’t bother me enough to cause trouble about it, and-” He stopped speaking and flushed a bit.
“Never mind,” Mortimer said gruffly, picking up the pace and walking ahead of James. James shrugged and hurried after him.
“That has us set for the winter. She even gave us more flour and sugar. I’ll give the money to Mark or Jim in the morning before we leave and they’ll see she gets it or that it gets used for her. She rarely accepts any money from me for anything these days.” James let the matter of Mortimer’s name drop for the time being since he clearly didn’t want to discuss it anymore.
“Oh, there you are! We were getting worried you’d gotten lost or attacked. Go and put those away and come have some dinner before it gets cold.” Ruth welcomed them back to the inn and quickly closed the doors after them. James had the distinct impression all the women of the town treated Mortimer like their own child, or were of a general fussy sort with good intentions. He found he didn’t mind as much as he thought he ought. No doubt it came from not having much of a mother himself. Not that he’d have let on that it bothered him if it did.
The two men dutifully put their haul from Martha in their room and went back down for dinner.
“Now, are you two sure you have to leave in the morning? We would love it if you stayed around another day or two. You should really get a proper tour of the town too, James.”
“Thank you, Ruth, but it’s probably best we leave in the morning. It won’t be long before the first snowfall and I need to make sure the cabin and barn are all set for the winter.”
“You always say that, Douglas, but you’re right. It wouldn’t do to get caught without being prepared. Y’all can stay longer in the spring and summer.” The rest of their meal continued with amicable discussions about crops, two projects to expand the town, and the mines in the western part of the state.
“I reckon we’d better turn in before it gets much later. Thank you for the wonderful meal, Ruth and Phillip, and for putting us up for the night.”
“It’s an inn. Surely you wouldn’t expect anything else.” Phillip laughed.
With that, the proprietors and their guests bid one another goodnight and the former began to gather the dishes and plates as the latter made their way up the stairs.
James was warm and content as he readied for sleep, letting the quiet peace wash over him. Mortimer, too, seemed at ease.
“I’d forgot towns could be this peaceful.”
“Boone is a young town yet. I’m sure it’ll see its share of trouble at some point; especially with all the mines springing up. I can only hope I won’t be around to see it happen.”
“Can’t argue with that, old man. Goodnight.”
“See you in the morning, my boy.”
And with that, the two men turned in for the night. The younger musing on Martha’s words about family and wondering if it might apply to him and Mortimer in some way at some point. He had the rest of his life here to settle in and see if it might just happen. The older thinking that it wasn’t bad to maybe be part of a family again, if only he could be sure that James wouldn’t eventually head back West. Whether it was the coming spring or some years down the road, no matter what he said about wanting quiet after the chaos of the West, Henry felt sure that James would one day head back that way. And James was dead certain he’d live out the rest of his days in this little town and in Mortimer’s cozy cabin.