Chapter 1: The Journey
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.
A woman stands before him. Long braided hair falls across her fur coat. From what he can see, most of her clothes looks as if they were made from animal skin or fur. Over her shoulders hangs two dead rabbits. Across her back she carries a rifle similar to his. The wrinkles around her eyes tighten as she smiles.
Her accent is strange. A mix between a Wyoming accent and something else.
“Good afternoon ma'am.”
Her posture doesn't signal any danger but he still keeps his guard up.
“Sorry to bother you, but I’m the owner of this cabin and since I was in the area I’d thought I’d drop by to introduce myself.” A gloved hand extends towards him. “Dora Hart.”
He takes her hand and shakes it. A strong handshake for an older woman. “Douglas Mortimer.”
A few awkward seconds pass before he realises his impoliteness. “Would you like to come inside?” She nods and steps inside too quickly. Her dark eyes search around the cabin, looking for anything that is out of the ordinary. Dora makes no attempt at hiding her intentions. The invasion of his privacy should have bothered him, but it amuses him instead. Once she is satisfied, her eyes turn back onto him.
“So, how are you settling in?”
“Quite well, thank you.” He gestures towards the teapot. Dora nods, resting her rifle down before taking a seat next to the table. “I arrived here a week ago. I’ve managed to look around the area and stock up on some more firewood. Today I went hunting.”
“I can see that.” She runs a hand down the deer’s leg. “That’s a nice tidy shot you managed to pull off. You hunter or trapper?”
“Neither, I grew up near a forest and my father taught me how to hunt.” Technically he had been a bounty-hunter, but that was something Dora didn’t need to know.
“Interesting.” It was easy to see through her feigned interest, something else was on her mind.
A silence comes between them as Mortimer prepares them both a cup of coffee. The teapot is still warm from when he had last used it. Rather than engage in anymore conversation, he lets the silence dwell.
“The real reason I came here was to check whether you hadn’t blown your brains out.”
Where had that come from?
“For some reason this cabin has become a final resting ground for some folk.” Her gaze turns distant when she looks around the room. No longer searching, but reminiscing about what the cabin had looked like during a former time. “Call it bad luck but the last three men to rent out this cabin didn’t last longer than a week. All of them killed themselves.”
Mortimer lets the information settle in his mind as he offers her the mug of coffee.
“I don’t mean any offense, but they were older men who looked like they didn’t have much else going on in their lives. I thought you might have had the same intentions.”
“No offense taken. That’s very unfortunate that you’ve had to deal with that.”
That's why he shouldn’t have come here. Nobody would have to go through the horror of finding him and trying to clear up the mess. The men before him had probably been too desperate to think clearly. It was a mistake to come up here.
“Stop thinking like that, old man-”
“It’s okay. Those men were troubled, not thinking clearly.” Now that Dora has gotten the confession of his chest, she looks more relaxed. The tension around her face has left, making her look softer. “Anyway, are you from around here?”
“No, I’m from North Carolina.”
“Ah, tar heel state.” It's been awhile since he's heard the state's nickname. “Listen, there’s a few things you should probably know about the area.” She pauses, sipping the coffee. “This is a nice area that doesn’t have much trouble with the weather. There’s not much snowfall as the other places, but it gets very cold. The nearest town is Kirwin which is half a days ride away south east passed over the hill.” Pulling a hand away, she signals in front of her. “Now the reason why this place is so cheap isn’t because I want suicidal folk coming up here, but there’s a few native tribes nearby.”
If he had been thinking clearly he would have questioned why it had been so cheap before he had paid for it.
“Close to you is a Shoshone tribe, they live beyond the clearing to your west.”
“Are they friendly to strangers living near their land?”
Serving in the military meant he had encountered a fair share of tribes. Each tribe had reacted differently to meeting him. Some were hostile whilst others had been friendly and open to trade. He had never shared the same desire to wipe them out like some of his men had. Some men above him had built their careers out of body counts, collecting scalps for money and handouts from the government. The us and them mentality had never been something he’d agreed with.
“They are. I’ve lived out here for awhile and I know them very well. It’s custom to visit them and give them a gift since you’ll be hunting so closely to their grounds.”
“I don’t have much with me.”
“Oh you do, you just found something today.” She smirks and taps the deer. “This will do very nicely.”
The deer had been easy to get, if it meant not having any trouble with the Shoshone then he could always try again tomorrow.
“If you’re short on food then don’t worry. I’ve brought these two gifts here for you.”
The two rabbits join the deer on the table.
It wasn’t a good idea for him to join somebody he barely knew in meeting a Native American tribe. Dora looked trustworthy, but if travelling around in the west had taught him anything, it was that looks could be deceiving.
Normally he wouldn’t have agreed, but the defences he had constructed over the years of tracking and killing had fallen. The danger doesn't faze him. Part of him welcomes it.
“She’s quite the character.”
He can picture Manco’s raised eyebrows and the slight tone of amusement to his voice.
Dora certainly is. He watches her as she signs. They are riding on their horses towards the tribes’ camp. The melody reminds him of late night campfire songs. A simple tune that spoke of a hunter’s journey into the wilderness, encountering beavers, deer and later a black bear. The song ends on the death of the hunter who had been unable to outrun the bear. Somewhere in the song there is a meaning. It could have been as simple as never to hunt too closely to the river or something more complex. Mortimer didn’t know.
At the end of the song he nudges his horse forwards, joining her side. “You wouldn’t happen to be from this tribe?” It was a shot in the dark, but not many Americans have hair like Dora’s. It's silky, long black hair with the odd strand of white. Her skin is also darker than his.
“My mother was, she was a gift to my father who was a trapper around here.”
“Did you grow up with them?”
“No, but I visit them regularly. The tribe is called the Boho’inee, they’ve lived around these parts for years now.”
Mortimer knows nothing about them.
“Are you nervous?” She asks, as if it only occurs to her that she is putting one of her tenants through an troublesome situation.
It was a lie, any normal person would be, but he doesn't want to give Dora any reason to question him. The numbness from the past few weeks still remains. There had been no hesitation when Dora had told him to leave his gun.
“Don’t be. I’ll do the talking.”
It takes them a short amount of time to reach the Boho’inee. Dora knew the quickest route, weaving through the trees on a path that only she could see. It was surprising he has never encountered somebody from the tribe yet, living so closely.
Leaving the forest, they stand on a hill which overlooks a glade. In the middle there are many teppes made from animals skins. With the autumn colours they blend in with the treetops. Scatterings of people hang around, going about their daily lives. A river runs nearby with canoes parked besides it.
As they draw closer a few people start to notice them. By the time they reach the border of the settlement more people appear, walking out from their tents to see the new visitors.
They look similar to Dora, long dark hair with braids. It surprises him to see that some of them are wearing American outfits; dresses, shirts, trousers and hats. On top of their clothes they still wear varying amounts of beaded jewellery and sashes. Most of them ignore Dora, focusing on him instead.
Out of the crowd two men walk forwards. An older man, who wears a crown of feathers and a red sash with a silver talisman holding it together. His hair is almost completely white, accept for the faded black tips. Mortimer doesn't have to know anything about their culture to know that he is the chief of their tribe.
He remains quiet, letting Dora speak. It's strange hearing her speak in another language. It sounds completely different to English. None of the words are familiar.
As she speaks the chief watches him, his face expressionless.
Long after Dora stops speaking, the chief remains quiet. He isn't the only one who feels the tension, the rest of the band look stiff, waiting for his judgement.
Dora turns back to Mortimer and motions behind him. The deer. Slowly, he lowers himself down from his horse and unties the straps that hold the deer in place. Kneeling down, he pulls her over his shoulders and carries her forwards. In front of the chief, he presents the deer.
No trace of emotion flickers across his face.
It is unnerving, but Mortimer had encountered people like him before. He had been in enough tense situations to know how to keep calm and collected. Any display of nervousness could be seen as a weakness.
After what seemed like an eternity the man finally smiles. “Your gift is acceptable.”
They are invited to join them inside the main tent. Before he has the chance to decline, Dora had stops him. “Stay for a bit. It would be rude to leave so early.” Staying for a chat hadn’t been part of their arrangement. He should have known that this would happen.
They sit around a fire on cushions and blankets with the chief and his council. The Chief’s name is Washakie and although his English is limited, he knows enough to get by basic conversation.
“This is my son, Cocoosh.” They share similar features. Whilst his father has warmed up to their presence considerably, Cocoosh still regards him cautiously. He nod in greeting, making no effort to speak.
Mortimer didn’t blame his distrust.
A woman appears, placing a teapot on top of the fire. Without asking she places a cup in his hand. The mixture is black but not dark as coffee. Leaves cling to the side of the pot. He looks up at Dora who is already drinking it. There is no telling what is inside the drink. Anybody with common sense would ask first, but the lines between what is considered offensive or acceptable are blurred.
He drinks the tea, much to the woman’s approval. Thankfully, the taste is familiar; black tea with extra spices. Nothing he will struggle to keep down.
Dora speaks for the most part, switching between their language and English. Some of the men look towards him, saying something to Dora that cause her to laugh or smile. Fortunately he doesn't have much of an ego to feel insulted. At some point a few extra people joined the tent, tapping on drums and singing. It becomes harder to track each conversation, even though none of it makes any sense.
“Do you have a wife, Mortimer?” Washakie asks.
His head feels light. It is either the heat of the fire or there's more than just regular spices in the tea.
“No, I never married.”
Washakie looks surprised. People always did whenever he told them
There had been women in his life that he had courted, but none of the relationships had flourished into anything more. During his younger years he had been too focused with his career, honing his skills as one of the best marksmen in Carolina. After Grace’s death his mission in life had changed. Finding marriage or love had faded into the back of his mind. In another life that wasn’t filled with murder and gunfire he can see himself settling down, but he has now long set out on a different path.
“That’s a bit of an indiscreet question…”
He feels a chuckle threaten to leave him. There's definitely been something in the tea.
“That’s a long story. Perhaps another time.”
Washakie nods accepting his need for distance.
“I have two daughters that might interest you.”
Mortimer tenses. He knows where this conversation is heading and Dora is too distracted to save him.
Leaving the heat of the tent, they say their farewells. The air is now cold and crisp, cooling his body and clearing some of the fog that's started to settle in his mind. By time they find their horses and leave, the sky has turned dark. Dora leads them back over the hill despite the lack of light.
Having drunk more tea than him she's in a chatty and giggly mood, mentioning each moment she had caught him stuck in a conversation with Washakie. She hadn’t been distracted at all.
Dora comes to a stop in the middle of the clearing. “My place is down there. If you want anything don’t hesitate to come, even if it’s just a chat… I know it can get lonely up here.” It sounds casual, but's a hint of concern in her voice. It doesn't seem as if she is totally convinced that he won't be like the rest of her tenants. How she can see through his facade, he doesn't know.
“I’ll drop by soon.”
He watches her disappear into the night, singing the same tune he heard on their way.
Maybe it had been a mistake to leave Agua Caliente. There's a reason why the bounty hunter's voice was haunting him. Perhaps it was his mind's way of telling him that he regrets passing up an opportunity to pursue their partnership. To continue on with somebody else who might have been able to understand or relate to the dark turn his life had taken. Somebody who has managed to make him envision a different future, that doesn't end with a bullet in his head.
"It doesn't have to end that way either. Still time to head back and start lookin'."
"No, I'm here now. There's no turning back."
His thoughts are swimming. The effects of the drink have reached their peak. It was similar to being drunk only he still feels in control of his body. His mind however is free to wander.
Mortimer nudges his horse, prompting her to go faster, now eager to return back. They cross the clearing and back towards the cabin. Without any torch it's difficult to know the way back. His eyes have adjusted to the night, perceiving different tones of blue and green he wouldn’t normally see. Up on the hill, behind a few trees, he can see the silhouette of the cabin. Dark and empty.
If he had looked away any sooner he would have missed a faint orange glow. It burns for a few seconds, before disappearing into the night.
Pulling the reins on his horse, he comes to a sudden stop. He rubs his eyes, wondering whether the drink has done something to his vision. The glow appears again, disappearing at the same speed. This time, the smell of tobacco drifts towards him.
Mortimer steps down from his saddle, weighing out his options. If he's quick enough he can use the darkness to his advantage, run and disappear into the forest, but if he wasn’t and the stranger had a gun, he can be dead within seconds.
Instead of running he remains still. His heartbeat is unusually calm. Panic doesn't set in. If this was it then it was a shame that he wouldn’t be able to see who would be pulling the trigger.
The glow becomes brighter until the person, steps out from the shadow of the cabin and stands closely enough for the moonlight to light their figure. Their face he instantly recognises.
It was Manco.
This chapter took awhile for me to write. I wanted to do some research on the location and the Shosone tribe. Alot of it has been ‘inspired’ by what I’ve learnt and is no way historically accurate.
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?"
Another chapter that took awhile to write, but hopefully worth it! Thanks for reading. Also, I'd like to thank my friend for giving this a read through.