Mortimer wasn’t sure where he was heading.
He never stops to think as he continues back across the bone-dry landscape. When he reaches Tucumcari station he boards the train heading North and doesn't leave his seat until the train reaches its last stop. In Denver he finds the same unpleasant sights and sounds of the city that had drove him out before. The streets are swarming with people. On the horizon of the city he can see tall mountains. They look peaceful and quiet in comparison. It's something that he wants, the only thing that he was certain of right now.
Mortimer looks in the newspapers and finds an advertisement for a cabin in the mountains. Since the collapse of the fur trade several years ago the area isn't very popular. The cabin is cheap. A few conversations later he puts down a deposit and one month's worth of rent.
Before leaving, he knows that he needs to make a few purchases. He buys proper warm clothing, various tools and food and water for the journey. He then takes his horse and continues further north.
Once he leaves the city, the landscape changes drastically.
The roads become increasingly small until they replaced by small winding paths that go up along the mountain. The bustling noise of the city fades into the distance, leaving only the tread of his horse and the rustling of the trees. Shades of yellow, orange and red litter across tree tops signalling the start of autumn. The air is crisp and fresh, opposite to the dry and sandy air in the south.
For his first night he camps outside, settling down next to a lake. He prepares a small campfire before the sunlight fades. Once his horse is well-fed he sits down in front of it, watching the sky transform from a spectacle of vibrant oranges and reds into the inky black of night. The temperature drops. Cold seeps through his fur coat, causing him to shiver. The clothing he's bought isn't enough and he can only stay so close to the fire without running the risk of his fur coat catching on fire. Just for tonight, he resorts to alcohol. Mortimer pulls out his canteen and drinks. The whiskey is strong, warming his body on the first few sips.
For the first time in weeks Mortimer feels alone with his thoughts. There had been plenty of time for him to reflect during his travels, but instead he'd been avoiding it. Stopping to think means facing the difficult question of what was next for him. It meant acknowledging the thought that resided in the dark recesses of his mind. The thought of ending it.
Mortimer feels sick as realisation dawns on him. Perhaps this was why he had come out here. It's a quiet spot, where he wouldn’t have to worry about anybody coming across him for months. Scenic and beautiful enough to provide him with a sense of calm.
None of his family are still alive and the friends that were had probably forgotten about him by now. The conditions were perfect.
“So that’s it, old man?”
Hundreds of miles apart weren't enough to keep the bounty hunter from his mind. Just like he had been avoiding the question of what was next he had also tried to blocking out the man. The look of disappointment on Manco’s face when he realised he wouldn’t be joining him he stuck with him. Part of him wanted to stay, to embark with Manco on a new adventure, but he knows that he wouldn’t be in the right state of mind. A darkness has been gnawing on him after putting a bullet in Indio.
With nothing else to lose, Mortimer indulges himself with acknowledging the voice in his head.
“I guess so.” He takes another sip. The whiskey stings as it flows down his throat.
“Listen, I know that you really wanted to stay, and I anit mad, I understand, you just needed a bit of alone time. Well, alone time is over now, so you can get yourself back down here.”
He sighs. “I’m not coming back, boy.”
“Yes you are.”
Mortimer hesitates. Even in his mind, Manco’s voice sounds so sure. It reminds him of time he had tried to bully him out of El Paso, forcing the innkeeper to walk away with his clothes. He can't help but smile at the memory.
“Do you think your sister would be happy with you doin’ this?”
Mortimer suddenly becomes aware of the twin pocket watches residing in his waistcoat. It was always his reaction whenever his sister was mentioned. Of course, Grace wouldn’t be happy. She had never been happy with the risks that he taken with his life, like when he had decided to join the military. It had taken months of reassurance to ease her from stopping him from joining.
But, Mortimer thinks, this isn’t about her happiness. Grace is gone and isn't here to stop him. If he could have the chance to talk with her he could even try to convince her that this was for the best for him. After achieving his quest for vengeance his life feels pointless. Violence had been the only thing keeping him together. It filled the void that Grace’s death had left. If he was allowed to have at least one truly selfish act in his life, then this was it.
“I’m sure there are other people too who won't be happy…me including.”
Mortimer felt like laughing. He didn’t really know how Manco would react to his destructive thoughts. He screws the cap back on the canteen. That was enough alcohol.
Looking across the campfire, he sees his gun that hanging out of his bag. The metal glints in the fire light, as if teasing him to come over. It promises a quick death, the same that he has delivered to countless others. After staring at it for awhile Mortimer hangs his head. He can't.
When he tucks himself into his blanket, he tells himself that the only reason he hadn’t was because of the alcohol and not the thought of Manco.
The journey up to the cabin takes another day. It shouldn’t have taken him that long, but the paths are difficult to navigate and the directions he’d been given were vague. By the time the sun is setting Mortimer catches a glimpse of it. It had been built to blend in with the landscape, a short wooden cabin that is covered in dry leaves and branches. It sits on top of a hill overlooking a patch of forest. A stone chimney rises just a half a metre from the roof. Mortimer hadn’t thought to ask about the cabin’s features, so it pleases him to see that there is some sort of heating system.
Around the side of the cabin there is a small stable room. He takes his horse there before inspecting the door to the cabin. As the man had told him there is a key tucked under a few planks of wood near the door. It's an easy lock to pick, but there isn't much of a risk of many people coming across the cabin.
The door opens up to the main room. The last rays of sunshine shine inside, illuminating the specks of dust that floating around. There are a few items that have been left behind, a teapot, few pieces of firewood and a table and two chairs. As he steps inside he has to mind hanging racks. Judging by the bloody stains that linger on wooden beams he assumes that they must have been used for drying out animal skins. The previous owner must have been a trapper.
He quickly puts the extra firewood and tinder to good use, making a fire for the night. Once the fire is burning he uses a pan to heat up a can of beans. It wasn’t much, but it satisfy his hunger for now.
Draping a few blankets over the wooden chair he sit besides the fire. He smokes whilst looking around the room. It's suitable enough to live in for awhile.
He can almost imagine Manco sitting across him in another chair. A cigar hanging from his lips and his eyes wandering around the room.
He wonders what Manco is doing right now. In the brief time they had spent together they hadn’t shared many details about their personal lives with each other.
Manco could have returned back to a wife or child for all he know or he could have been putting the bounty to good use, retiring and buying a house somewhere. For some reason none of the options seem to sit well with him, they don't match the man in his mind. The boy was a wanderer, a restless spirit who had somehow gotten into a business of killing. Part of him regretted for not having the opportunity to find out how. It had been his fault, setting the boundaries of their relationship early on.
By the time he puts away his belongings and inspects the rest of the cabin, he settles down for the night. The frame of the bed is made from thick tree branches with leather stretched over the bottom. With a few blankets over it, the bed is the comfiest space he's slept on for weeks.
After eating breakfast Mortimer sets out in search of firewood. The wood he has now won't last him very long and he needs to keep his mind occupied. He walks down the hill and towards the edge of a forest. Once he spots a suitable tree, he uses his axe to start hacking away at the trunk. It 's harder than he remembers. By the time he finishes cutting the trunk down his body is the warmest it's been since arriving here. He shrugs off his coat and takes a short break. Drinking a mug of coffee he admires the scenery. It's a pleasant change from the barren landscape of the desert.
He's camped out in the mountains before when he had been part of a scouting group in the military. In the summer it had been almost pleasant. It had been the first time that he had met Joe, a young and naive boy who had decided to join after they have put the call out for more recruits. Like many of the rookies, he had been overconfident, treating the experience as if it were a game. At first his brashness had annoyed Mortimer, but eventually he matured, the harshness of military shaping him into a respectable man. By the time he had approached him to ask for permission to marry his sister Mortimer had been convinced enough to allow him.
The skills he had been taught in the military and travelling around in the south were enough to get him by for now. He knows that the weather in the Rockies could never be underestimated, it would be more unpredictable and colder than the south. With winter approaching he will have to make sure he stocks up in supplies. That was, if he is still around to see it until then.
Mortimer shoves the thought away quicker than it comes.
After lunch, he spends the rest of the day exploring the area with his horse. Across the other side of the trees there's a large, open clearing. He takes a moment to watch a few deer in the distance nervously wander across it. Behind the cabin are more trees, with a stream running through them.
At the end of the day he finds himself distracted with new information. Whilst laying down in bed, he starts to map the area around the cabin in his head, piecing together the different landmarks that he has encountered and noting what resources could be useful.
A few days passes before he notices his tin cans are becoming small in number. He will have to start hunting for his meals.
Taking his rifle he returns back to the clearing that he found on his first day. He sits down besides a bush and waits. The morning air is crisper than the other times of day, to the point where it feels almost uncomfortable inside his lungs. He watches the rising sun paint the treetops with a golden stripe, before slowly covering them entirely.
Whilst he waits for the deer he reflects on the times he had spent hunting for rabbits with his father. At six years old he had been too small to hold a rifle properly, so his father had sat down behind him, resting the stock against his shoulder instead. He could only hold the trigger with two fingers, too difficult to squeeze with one.
“See him? Over the hill to the left.”
A rabbit bounces across the hill, completely oblivious to them. He grins, eager to pull the trigger.
“Don’t shoot just yet..” A large hand nudges his head further down, squashing his cheek against the side of the gun. “Make sure you have the sight just ahead of him before you shoot.” Shutting one eye, Mortimer focuses on lining up the sight. It is more difficult that shooting tin cans. The rabbit jumps up and down, each time weaving out from the gaze of the rifle. “Remember you can never hope to line it up perfectly, shoot just ahead Douglas.” His father waits for him. Even when the rabbit disappears, he patiently stays with him for the next to appear, guiding him through again without the hint of irritation. “The key is to only fire when you’re sure. The moment you do the animal will run away and the others will be alerted and you’ll lose your best chance.” Finally he manages to get a good aim on a rabbit who decides to sit down. His entire body tenses as he pulls the trigger, the recoil shoving him back into his father’s chest. The bullet hits the rabbit and it’s limb body bounces along the floor.
“Good job, Douglas.”
He trains his rifle on the movement in the bushes. A few long seconds passes before a deer’s face appears, peeking out from the leaves and checking its surroundings. The deer doesn't see him and walks out into the open plains. Slowly he raises his rifle, pressing the stock against his shoulder and lowering his face down to the sight. Another lesson his father had taught him was to always aim for the heart or lungs. It would make the process quicker and cleaner.
The deer takes long and languid movements, giving him plenty of time to aim. He fires and his bullet lands somewhere in the chest. Mortimer lowers his rifle and watches the deer. She chooses not to run, sitting down in shock instead.
The act of killing another animal used to bother him. Growing up next to a ranch he had spent some of his childhood visiting the farm animals. There had been cows, pigs and chickens. It wasn’t until he was a little older did he make the connection that they were the same as the pieces of meat on his plate. Since going hunting he had learnt to respect animals a lot more.
It takes a minute or so for the deer to fall limb. He walks over and brushes a hand down along her belly, inspecting the fatal shot. Judging by how quickly she died, Mortimer assumes the bullet has hit either a lung or heart. Even out here he can put his excellent marksmanship skills to good use. Shooting seems to follow him whether he goes.
He lifts the deer over his shoulders and starts the journey back. By the time he reaches the cabin his shoulders and knees ache. For such a delicate looking creature she weighs a lot. Lowering one shoulder, the deer falls down onto the table. Once the weight leaves his shoulders he rolls them back, in an attempt to relieve the strain.
Mortimer takes his hunting knife and stares back down to the deer. For a few minutes he stands still, trying to recall the process of skinning. Another memory resides in his mind of his father teaching him, but he can't remember the details. He had been too fixated on seeing an animal stripped of their skin for the first time.
A knock on the door draws him out of his thoughts.
Mortimer clenches the knife in his hand. Nobody is supposed to know where he is. His mind reels through the possibilities of who the person could be. He's already paid for the cabin and he hasn't spotted any other buildings nearby. It's unlikely anybody would follow him from Denver.
Tucking the knife behind him in his belt, he approaches the door. An unwelcome visitor out here could be a potential threat and he isn't going to take any chances.