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And you knew that before you saw me?

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All prairies seem the same to those who have never left their state. Douglas, like any bounty hunter, have been to many places and has learned to navigate the terrain even when the only reference point in sight is the fixed unreachable horizon line that might drive young travelers mad.
Neither his heart nor his soul want to see these spaces now. He wants to see San Antonio and a familiar silhouette. The horse feels good under him because he doesn't ride it fast, he would like to, but Matilda doesn't deserve to be treated like that. Obviously, Manco would have to wait another week for Douglas to get to del Rio, rest with Matilda, and then they would turn back to San Antonio.
"This is the first time I feel tired, Matilda."
Naturally, the horse doesn't respond, and he nods. He really doesn’t want to be alone, as it was too easy to get used to the good company.
"He likes to pet you at stops, so now I’ll have to do it, don’t I?"
Douglas strokes the horse's massive neck, which is now dirtier than usual.
"Well, I didn't realize it until the end..." he means that while Douglas washes clothes and Manco takes the horses to the ponds to bathe them." All this has become a natural daily matter. He frowns slightly, realizing that when they were seen by the residents of the neighboring reservoir, they were half-naked, first sitting on the river bank, and then as the lanky Manco lead the horses into the water, trying to provoke them into a kind of game. When Douglas remembers this, he recalls the golden body of the other, with light and barely noticeable freckles and moles on it, and how long the water did not cover his lower back, which is why he could clearly see the movement of his hips. His elegant hands sprayed water on the horses after those had come to terms with their situation, and again firmly grasped the reins. Matilda always reacted calmly, but Manco's Riddle had to be held tight, and sometimes Manco himself fell, causing the horse to neigh. Matilda stayed where she was at such times, trained to act as a grounding "island" if Douglas should fall into the water.
Sometimes it was difficult for Manco to get up if there was slippery mud at the bottom of the reservoir, then Douglas went to help him. For the last time when it happened, Douglas pushed Manco back into the water, obeying a childish desire to take a closer look at this long-legged misunderstanding put in an unexpected situation. He didn’t have to wait long for a righteous revenge.
"Matilda, you should have told us how we must have looked."
So, this is what it meant. Their behavior, clearly atypical for regular partners or members of the same gang, especially when one of them is older than the other.
So, this is what it was, when Douglas admired Manco without thinking too much about it and experienced joy by simply looking at him.
So, this is what it was, when Manco looked at his hands, marveling at the "muscles of the old man", and then did exercises with him to keep his looks "in the old age".
Douglas leans toward the horse's neck, pushing his hat back on his head. He's definitely going crazy. He blushes like a boy and knows what he wants when he meets Manco.
"Will he forgive me?"
Maybe if Douglas loses his hat and says he's overheated in the sun. He even willingly rides and looks at the sun, so that the skin on his face looks as if he is poor and unhappy, lost in a desert prairie full of dangers.
Douglas is ashamed of himself.
When had he last felt so free, happy, and scared at the same time?
"I have a problem. I have such a problem that Caroline would laugh at how right she was about me."

***

Del Rio greets it as all cities do. People at the streets pretend not to see him, but absolutely everyone looks around when he rides past them and memorizes all its features. Douglas himself sways slightly on Matilda, who now looks way more robust than he is.
He "lost" his hat before reaching the transfer point to look particularly authentically martyred.
Every day and every night, he thinks that he needs to see Manco. At certain times, Douglas wants to see his body.
Maybe, Douglass thinks, he'll get over it before he gets to San Antonio. Manco won't be here...
Except the golden boy hurries out of the bar, followed by a little girl, who is holding something in her one hand and is pointing at Douglas with the other.
Manco briefly pats the child's head, and for some reason this gesture has special importance to Douglas. Manco is usually quite gentle with those he trusts. Horses, Douglas, and obviously this proven child informant.
Matilda goes straight to Manco and knows exactly what to do when she sees their partner without any instructions from the owner. The horse knows she should go to his because Manco likes to study their horses’ external condition whenever they park them.
Douglas makes an involuntary gesture with his hand in a greeting attempt but forgets that he has no hat on him and throws his head back to see that the hat is not there.
He begins to feel dizzy, and even though he doesn't faint he slips off the horse, and Manco's arms catch him and wrap them around his sides.
"Jesus, old man, what's with you?"
"The sun," Douglas points at it with a slight gesture, "is the best bounty hunter of all.”
"You promised everything would be all right," Manco reproaches him and lets go of him but walks him step by step to the bar, leading Matilda by the reins.
Douglas might have told him that it would be strange to expect the promise to be kept when they parted their ways to lead their searched gang’s members in different directions to ambush them and hand in at the local sheriffs’ officers. But Douglas realizes that he will lie in the most terrible way, causing Manco to feel guilty for how he made his gang members follow him on the train, which, as Douglas had told him, would quietly travel to San Antonio, helping to transport criminals (which, in turn, meant getting even more money than for simple in person delivery).
"Sometimes I can't keep my promises, my boy.” Douglas says it with a smile that only shows that he is holding back his negative emotions. He reproaches himself for the way Manco is looking at him now.
Manco looks at him with a mixture of undisguised indignation, yet decides not to say anything in response, opening and closing his mouth. And then, he says quietly: "I didn't rent a room for two for nothing. Can you walk the steps to the second floor yourself?
“Is this a bar?” Douglas looks around at the buildings, then looks up again, feeling how weak his legs are.
"Stand still," Manco orders and looks at him as he ties up the horse, then says a few words to the workman, ordering him to feed it.
Manco throws the employee a coin, and Douglas looks at it, guessing that it would be tails. And tails it is when it ends up in the hands of the worker.

***

Douglas almost falls as he sits down on the bed and looks at Manco, who closes the door.
"You should have taken care of yourself," Manco grumbles. Douglas doesn't know what circumstances the boy is picturing right now, but probably something along the line of him being beaten up by the gang members. Maybe that he couldn’t protect his health under such circumstances, the chance is 50/50. “You should have stayed in the city if you were weak.”
"And you were supposed to be in San Antonio," Douglas says calmly, without the slightest reproach, but the phrasing implies a question. Douglas takes the decanter from the bedside table and greedily brings it to his lips.
“And you should have demanded only a part of the money for the capture and return by train." Manco stands in front of him and lights a cigar.
"I trust you. If they said they would give you the full amount immediately upon arrival, then so be it.”
"It's not a question of trust," Manco says, trying to keep a calm expression on his face.
"It's all right, I got here," Douglas smiles and looks into the eyes of his partner. He's happy that the other has worried about him.
"And what should I do if you die?" It is only after this sentence that Douglas's mind begins to clear, and he fully understands that this is the real Manco, who has been worrying about his health all these days... not knowing whether Douglas was alive. So he came to del Rio to meet Douglas as soon as possible.
"I don't know.” Douglas answers honestly, also honestly not knowing what this might mean for Manco. Why would Manco even say something like that out loud?
“I need to know that you will enter the city alive and well.” Manco seems to be saying this as his ultimate condition for their cooperation, perhaps even meaning it as such, but he twists his lips in a kind of sad expression. Douglas can guess that Manco thinks this priority of his means little to Douglas himself.
"While I was riding half-dead," Douglas begins, “I thought I deserved it.”
“Why, are you crazy?" Manco even takes the cigarette out of his mouth and comes closer to him. “Did you do something behind my back to deserve it?" In his intonation, Douglas can clearly hear the doubt that this idea is something within the realm of real possibilities.
"You could say that.”
"What?"Manco now looks like a tense cat who does not understand why the owner is holding a slipper in his hands.
Douglas's voice rises, he doesn't try to lower it, and there isn't enough air in his lungs. Douglas can feel every muscle in his face, there is a pinching in his nose, and he is really afraid of what will happen after he says what he will say next.
"I love you."
Manco stares at him, trying to digest what he just heard and utters a logically consequent question: “Have you overheated in the sun?
"I'm more serious than ever.”
"And you knew that before you saw me? What wonders my absence does.”
"I -" Douglas closes his mouth. "I'm tired of running away from it."
Manco just throws his cigar on the floor and puts it out with his boot. He stares at the floor for a moment, not looking at Douglas.
"What do you mean by love, Colonel?"
"That I love you." Once, in his youth, Douglas easily explained to his then mistress exactly what he meant, but in this case the feeling is too overwhelming.
Manco looks at him with warmth and interest.
"Try to describe it so that I know what I can and can't do."
Douglas squints and says: "What do you mean?"
"You remember pushing me into the water, don't you?"
"And then you rolled me in it to get back at me," simply continues Douglas.
"And you remember how close your face was."
"And the way you rubbed your cheek against mine."
"I need to know that we want the same thing.”
"Then come here."