Somehow, despite all the odds, Manco is standing before him.
The moonlight reveals enough of his figure, his recognisable hat and the glint of his revolver. One arm is tucked away, buried under fabric.
It doesn’t make any sense for him to be here. He stands and debates the logistics of how Manco could reach him within a month of leaving Agua Caliente. It would have been easy to track him down to Denver, but his trail would have turned cold afterwards. Only the newsagent knew where he was heading. At stretch, perhaps the shopkeeper who sold him tools for his journey here.
Not only can’t he understand how, but also why. It seems even more illogical. Why would Manco want to search for him? He had already made it clear that he didn’t want to continue their partnership and there was twenty-five thousand dollars for him to use. He ought to be hundreds of miles away, somewhere hot, dry and barren, finding something to spend his money on. Their encounter would be a fleeting memory.
His eyes narrow as he wills himself to take another look at the person before him. With each breath he takes the glow of his cigar burns, illuminating under his eyes. It makes him look like some kind of spirit, like he doesn’t belong to this world. Perhaps, Mortimer wonders, he is some kind of ghost, a figment of his imagination , running wild from the tea he had just drunk.
I’ve been hearing his voice ever since I came out here...
A cold realisation sweeps over him. He must have finally cracked, no longer satisfied with just the voice of the bounty hunter. It was the only answer that made sense.
Not knowing what to do, he waits, his breaths coming out in puffs of condensed air, drifting up into the cold night air.
Finally, after what feels like an eternity, he speaks.
"What are the chances?" It isn’t the same distant echo as the voice in his head had been. It’s clearer and louder, sounding just like Manco. A smirk pulls up on the edge of his lips. A gesture unique to him.
It’s not him, can’t be him. Just somebody his mind likes to toy him with.
His horse shifts, pulling his attention away from the specter. She’s impatient. It’s been a long day and she knows that a nice, warm stable is only a few metres away. He’s hesitant to move. He has the option to ignore what his mind is conjuring, but he had before with the voice in his head.
"That would be nice."
He doesn’t look at the other as he takes the reins of his horse and guides her forward. When he returns back from the stable Manco is no longer there. Before he has the time to process the loss, the sound of shuffling from inside the cabin catches his attention. Nudging the door open, he sees the apparition inside his house, coaxing a small flame in the fireplace. A warm, orange light fills the cabin, chasing away the darkness.
Bold shadows dance across his figure, mapping the contours of his face exactly how he remembers Manco’s face to look. Strong jawed and narrow eyes. He wears a thick winter coat over his poncho. His eyes stare intensely into the fire, looking as if he’s thinking something over. There are slight differences from what he can recall. His beard is slightly thicker and there’s a darkness under his eyes. Realising that he’s being foolish for staring, Mortimer looks away. He locks the door behind him and moves from the doorway.
Now that the fire is burning, he prepares a teapot. He tries not to question himself why he’s doing this. He walks over to place the pot over the fire, feeling the heat of Manco's stare following him, waiting for him to speak.
"I'm not interested in the bounty, if that's why you're here."
He knows he’s being abrupt and impolite, but this isn’t the real Manco he’s dealing with. Frustration for a long and tiring day are starting to set in, he’s not in the mood to be playing along with the games his mind is conjuring.
"No, that's not why I'm here." He stands back up, taking the seat he'd imagined him taking the previous night. He sits in it like he belongs in it. A leg thrown over his knee, with his head tilted back. Watching him with half lidded eyes. It makes his heart ache. Something that he’s not felt for a long time.
"Then, why?" Mortimer takes his pipe and sits in the seat opposite.
"I was in the area and thought I'd drop by." He smirks again, as if it’s all a joke to him.
"Somehow I struggle to believe that, boy."
His body shifts, half-shrugging. It doesn’t matter.
The teapot whistles, prompting Mortimer to move. Forgetting that he only has one mug, he makes a coffee just for Manco instead. He thanks him when he passes it over.
"Cosy space you got yourself here." The firelight reveals enough of the room to show off the room, the lack of furniture and usual homely essentials. Still, it's more comfortable sleeping on the desert floor. "You planning on staying up here for long?"
"Not sure." He lights his pipe, sucking in the air. The taste of tobacco calms him. "Just long enough to figure out what I want to do next." Even if next meant figuring out how or when to end it.
"Yeah... Well it's definitely quiet enough for you to do that."
He nods in agreement, staring into the fire. A silence dawns between them. He finds himself wondering again what Manco would be doing right now. It should startle him, about how much time he’s been spending thinking about the other. He had left people behind before, friends and family he had grown up around in throughout his childhood. They had only left a dull ache in his chest. As years past they became nothing more than a memory. He was a soldier, capable of packing his bags and leaving whenever he wanted without letting it affect him. So then why, was he so hung up about the bounty hunter?
When he looks away from the fire he half expects him to be gone, but he’s still there, watching him.
"I don't think you'd like it up here." He doesn't know if Manco had ever ventured north. Heck, he doesn't even know where he's from. "There's no bounties that need collecting, just chopping up firewood, staring at the landscape, getting old and dying." He feels reflective and there’s no harm having a conversation with himself. It’s what he’s been doing since he’s gotten up here.
"Something that you plan on doing here, then?"
He chews on the end of his pipe. It shouldn't matter if he lies, Manco isn't really sitting across from him.
"Like I said, I'm up here to do some thinking."
Manco's expression doesn't reveal whether he believes him or not.
He turns once again to the fire, by the time he looks back Manco has sunk further into the chair. His shoulders are slumped and although his eyes are wide and open, they look tired. The coffee in his hands has been completely forgotten.
He supposes that if Manco had actually travelled up here he would be exhausted.
"You should rest."
The easy look in his eyes has dimmed. Mortimer swears he looks almost disappointed, like the evening hasn’t panned out the way he’d wanted it too.
He stands up. It would be easy for him to turn in, skipping the formalities, but he finds himself hesitating. He picks up one of his blankets and offers it. Manco looks up. As he takes it, their hands brush together. They’re warm and solid, like they belong to a living body. Not icy cold or incorporeal like he expects them to be.
What if it is actually him?
Grey eyes study him, more alert than before. His lips purse, as if there is something he wants to say. Mortimer finds himself staring at them.
"Get some rest."
He'd be gone in the morning, Mortimer is sure of it.
Morning light reaches his eyes, causing him to stir. He focuses on the window and the curtain he’d forgotten to draw closed. As the fog of sleeping dispears, the memories of last night replace it. It had taken him awhile to fall asleep, too focused on watching the fire light between the cracks of the doorway slowly disappear. It would have been easy for him to give into his doubts, to walk into the main room and see whether Manco was still there, however the rational part of his mind kept stopping him. After the light had faded he'd continued to listen for any sounds. Anything that would have confirmed the other's presence. There had been none.
Several heavy fur blankets weigh down upon him. They had kept him warm throughout the night, but now they feel uncomfortable. He pushes them aside.
It’s difficult for him not to get changed too quickly. He forces the swell of anticipation down as he pulls on his usual white shirt and dark trousers. Rather than wearing his waist coat, he pulls on a jacket instead. When he finishes, he glances in the mirror, inspecting his face for the first time in weeks. His stubble has grown, making his moustache less distinguishable. He’s in desperate need of a shave, but it will have to wait until after breakfast.
As soon as he’s done, he leaves the bedroom.
The door opens, revealing an empty room. The blanket he’d handed over is in the same position it had been since he'd first arrived, hanging over the back of a chair. The cup of coffee he’d brewed is sitting on the table, empty and unused. There are no signs that anybody else has spent the night here.
Disappointment crawls its way up along his chest, leaving an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. He feels as if the last tether he had been hanging onto has been cut, leaving him to fall. How could he be so foolish enough to allow himself to become hopeful? Of course Manco had never been there. He never had been and never would be interested in finding him. After turning him down he couldn't blame him. The shame made his cheeks turn red. When had he become so infuriated with him?
It all clicks into place, the realization of his mistake of leaving Agua Caliente alone and how much his mind has lost its grip on reality. He can’t go on like this, going crazy with cabin fever and drinking tea with the Shosone. His sanity has reached breaking point. As much as it pains him to admit, he will have to let Dora down. At least he will have the foresight to make sure not to leave any trouble behind for her to take care of. The forest behind the cabin would be a nice spot, far enough for Dora not to find him for awhile and quiet enough for him to be alone.
Mortimer takes the colt from the table and shrugs on his boots. The only personal artefacts he wants with him reside in his pocket, the two watches. Without any more thoughts, he leaves the cabin.
The cold morning air greets him. It’s a clear, sunny day like yesterday.
In the stables Manco stands with a bucket full of oats. There are two horses. His own, a dark mare and another’s, a brown pinto stallion.
"I didn't know you had a stable last night so I took the liberty of bringing mine here." His horse rests her head on the other’s neck, grooming the back of his ears. "Think she quite likes the company."
He finds himself rooted in the same spot from last night. Mortimer doesn't know how to react, so instead he laughs. It starts out quiet at first, but grows it louder. By the end he feels exhausted, like a spent pistol.
"You slipped some jig juice into your coffee, old man?"
It really is him.
"No, but I wish I had." He runs a hand across his face. "Of course you can use the stable." He adds nearly forgetting about what he had originally said.
"Where you off too?"
"Looking for you."
If Manco notices the gun in his hands, he doesn’t say anything. He tucks it in the back of his trousers for now.
"Well you found me."
Indeed he has. The relief feels tremendous.
"Listen, I didn't mean to jump on you like that last night..." He pauses, unsure. "As soon as Riddle is fed I can leave." Unlike last night, his eyes are looking anywhere but him.
Mortimer feels the stab of disappointment for the second time this morning. It’s not as deep, but it still hurts. He's leaving.
"You didn't trouble me." He tries not to sound so desperate, but it’s hard when he feels so raw. If it’s as if he’s wearing his emotions on sleeve for everybody to see. He thinks back to last night, about how he'd been distant and rude. He’d been sending out the wrong message and no wonder Manco felt the urge to leave. "You... Caught me at a bad time. I didn't expect you to be here and I wasn't sure how to act last night."
Eventually, Manco looks at him. Some of the tension leaves his posture, looking more like his confident self. He feels compelled to cross the distance and touch him. To pull him against him and feel the solid form he thought that wasn’t real. However, he can’t, he knows that it would only startle him more than he already has and embracing isn't something that grown men did.
"Yeah, that's my bad. I arrived before sunset and didn't plan on jumping on you in the night.”
He rubs the back of his head awkwardly. He's relieved to see that the conversation isn't just making him feel uncomfortable. Mortimer straightens his shoulders, eager to move on and determined to give him a proper welcome.
"I'm going to cook breakfast. Stay at least until after.”
There's a pause before Manco nods.
"A homemade breakfast from the colonel, how could I refuse?"