The ranch house at the end of the road is a neat, pretty sight. Small, tucked in next to the acre or so of forest on the edge of the nowhere town with an ugly streak. Well-built chimney that’s still smoking from breakfast, the wood barely weather-beaten on the porch. It even has a chair to sit, for one, and an empty field where there ought to be cattle. Easily the nicest house in the whole damn town.
God, am I sick of looking at it.
Guess there might be other ways to die than by a bullet in the back. The boredom might just about take me out before I hit fifty.
It's only been ten months since the El Indio gang corpse load and two months since getting this place together. It took me a month to build the fence, range, and shed by hand.
Then the other month? I keep telling myself I’ll buy cattle tomorrow, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. So I keep busy. Whittling wood down to nothingness, riding Riddle about the area (haven’t kept the same horse this long in years), and of course, keeping my hand in with the draw.
Not that I should have any reason to keep that skill sharp. But it helps.
Today, on the other hand, nothing seems to be doing shit for that. And I’ve been thinking a lot about El Indio. Or, as always, the partner I took with me then.
Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Even his name is a wave of memories that I should’ve been able to bury by now. Fierce glances with a sharp sight behind the trigger, but of course there was more than that. Careful questions, and answers I willingly gave up.
Still not all that sure why. But I miss him like hell, far more than I expected or have a right to.
Maybe I ought to do something about that.
After trying my draw at the handmade range out back, I leave it and my thoughts behind, wandering to the front of the house. The grass sweetens with the smell of early summer. It's quiet. It's always quiet, here out of town, at least. On the road I feel the back of my neck prickle, my eyes following my gunsight as I turn where my instincts tell me, pulse jumping with excitement.
Right then. I’m either losing it or have been cooped up here doing all of nothing for too long. I give in and ride Riddle in to town after noon peaks. It’s a hot June and the town of Greygorge is looking as shitty as ever, beaten wood coated with dust blown up from the nearby desert. It's an empty bet. But I know where to head.
One of the reasons I picked this town was that the local busybody has looser lips than old man locomotive. She's friendly to me, at least, and her information is clearer, too. I slip into the General Store that features Penny Candy! on the dusty outside window.
“Hey, Sarah Jane.”
“Well, well if it isn't the man I've been missing. Manco,” her Southern drawl is more smoothed out than others who grew up as plantation slaves. That's what a little bit of teaching does for you. Well, that and razor-sharp wits and an impressive ambition.
“Can I do you for some jellybeans?” she already slides the newspaper towards me, knows what I'm here for.
“Sure,” I study the headline doubtfully, some panic - mongering about the increase of guns in Blake Valley. I pass her two penny when she serves me up a scoop full of the sweet, brightly-colored candies.
I chew on a few, while she smiles and busies about with the jars. I don't really like them much but I know enough to buy them when she offers. Keeping her sweet, is what I’d call it.
“Any news from town?”
“Someone shot by the North stables. Over a sackful of flour is the story I heard, but I ain't believing none of it.”
“Sheriff make any arrests?”
“The only place he took the man who did it was out for dinner,” she clicks her tongue and we share a dark look. The town doesn't have much of a law to it.
That's a little bit of why I picked it.
“Other than that, there's a dance in a few weeks and a few out of towners expected for that,” she nods and I make a noncommital noise, “You known you could join the rest of us, sometime. You got any cattle yet? Never mind, you and I both know that ain't anytime soon.”
I study the newspaper, sucking on one of the candies, “Got another question for you, if you don't mind.”
“I'm looking for a man by the name of Colonel Douglas Mortimer,” I'm lucky my lips don't trip around the name. She smiles like she expected the question. I sure as hell hope she didn't, “Any word of him round these parts?”
“Mortimer, huh. The colonel turned bounty hunter? No, last I heard of him was near Agua Caliente. Just under a year ago, I think.”
“Nothing from anyone since then?”
“No, not round these parts, and nowhere close neither. You know how I keep an eye on things.”
“Alright,” I pick out a few of the black jelly beans, finding them a bit better, “Thank you.”
“You know, I've been waiting for you to come in here asking after someone. Knew it was only a matter of time,” she raises an eyebrow, “Someone you're fond of, or someone you’re after?”
“That's my business."
“Everyone's business is my business, and don't tell me that's not why you come here, Manco.”
Mortimer would have called that question indiscreet . The thought sears a little, and I chew a little harder on the sickly - sweet candy.
“Why don't you figure it out then.”
“Oh sweetheart, I already have. I just wanted you to tell me with your eyes,” she tucks her hair into her shoulder, “Your poker face isn't as good as you think it is.”
Well shit, that's it. I fold the newspaper in half and head for the door, not bothering with goodbyes. That's the problem with getting information from people like her. They're always getting information on you.
“Now just you wait here. I got something else you need to know.”
I hesitate at the door, despite feeling pissed off and off-balance, “What?”
“There's a stranger in town at the inn, and he looks like he's bad business. A few lowlifes with him that I wouldn't give the time of day to, and I would guess could barely shoot straight neither,” she clicks her tongue. Sometimes I get the feeling Sarah Jane knows a lot more about life outside a general store than she lets on, “But the one they're with, the stranger, you'll know him when you see him. Dangerous. I don't like him in town, Manco. Not a bit.”
“Yeah, well. That ain't no business of mine. Good day Sarah Jane,” I slam the door a bit, just in case she couldn't already tell.
The rest of the day I ride Riddle up and down the edge of the forest, letting the whistle of the air past my ears chase off the heat on my cheeks. But still. No news for ten months? I grit my teeth and urge Riddle further, as if we might outrun the growing weight in my stomach.
He can’t be dead, I repeat to myself with the thump of hoofbeats.
But how the hell am I supposed to find him?
I pull on Riddle's reins, realizing what a stupid as hell thought that was. I did what Ma would have wanted. I’ve settled. I am going to get that damn cattle, to hell with what Sarah Jane said, and stay in this house until I’m dead.
God, that feels like a long time.
I wake the next day from a sleep worse than the cold desert floor, roll out of bed later than I ought to. The breakfast I throw together tastes sickly with some kind of worry, but I force it down. The rest of the day is spent pacing about, smoking, and whittling. I'm thinking if I leave the house there's a good chance I won't come back.
But I can't just do nothing. That's not in my blood.
I study the third branch I've reduced to a sharp shard and a pile of woodchips. I haven't quite bothered to get the hang of carving anything yet. Just the motion itself is enough, or too much.
By evening I've made up my mind. I slip on the clothes and vest I used to wear on the road, but leave my poncho folded in the bottom of the cedar chest. And I leave Riddle this time, take a walk into town.
Can't leave town without either of those. But I've got to start to do something to find out what happened to Mortimer. Otherwise I'm certain I’ll whittle my hand off.
The bar in town smells like sour tobacco spit and looks just as bad. But it feels like home, pushing open the creaky door to the blank stares. I pull up a seat at the countertop, nodding at the bartender ’s offer of whiskey.
“Well. Look who's finally popped out of his hidey-hole. What’s yer business here, rich man,”
“None of yours.” my fingers itch towards my gun, but I keep a cool head. Stare him down. His friends, local gunmen, shift uncomfortably, but he doesn't seem to catch on. God. I do not have the patience for this.
“Leave him, Jed. He’s the bounty hunter who took down El Indio’s gang. All of them.”
“Him? Alone?” This guy is stupider than a pile of rocks. I give in, slide out my pistol and shoot the hat straight off his head with barely more than a glance. So that’s still something I can do.
The gunpowder smell is searing in the air.
“Wasn't alone. Had a partner,” I take the rest of the whiskey in one go. The man gets up out of his seat, practically runs out the door. His hat tumbles to the floor a beat later. No one speaks.
It’s a nice silence to remember. I used to like keeping peace with such silences. I'm about to ask after what I'm looking for when the creak of the shutter slams.
“What's happening about here?” The moron of a sheriff swaggers in, “Any trouble?”
“It's not as if you've shown any concern for trouble before, sheriff,” I make a show of lighting a quirley.
“I don't believe I caught your name, sir.”
“I don't believe I gave it to you,” in the two months I've been set up here he's never made a point to learn who I am. But I'd expect he's learned from those who know me as a former bounty hunter, never bothered further than that.
“There's no need to be rude. After all, was it your bullet that took off poor Jed's hat?”
This sheriff, so crooked he could swallow nails and spit out corkscrews, has a lot of nerve, “It was.”
He does falter a little under my glance, granted, but he's got friends here. And it's going to head for bloodshed if one of us doesn't back down. It should be me. He flinches a little at the stomp of boots, the chink of spurs on the wooden steps towards the inn.
A man steps down from the rooms upstairs that I almost strain my neck turning to look at. God. He's the spitting image of Mortimer. From a distance, my chest tightens. But when he gets to the bottom of the stairs, it's clear it's not the same man.
“It's alright. We’re fine here ,” the man gives the sheriff the kind of look I would have given, if I was way on the other side of the law. He raises an eyebrow at me. Sonofabitch.
Just as I'm expecting him to sit down next to me, demand something, he takes a seat at a table in the shadow of the staircase, takes out a pack of cards. Shuffles them. I don’t make shy staring, taking in his glass-cut cheekbones and his neatly trimmed mustache. Yeah, he’s nothing like Mortimer, really. The main difference is in the eyes.
That sonofabitch has murder in his eyes, and not just one neither.
I barely notice that the sheriff has sidled off, keeping my glance on the stranger. He deals for solitaire. I wait till he finishes, get my whiskey refilled. Guess I'm doing all the stupid shit tonight. Why not.
Then once he's all set up, I head over to his table, slip all the cards into a stack while keeping eye contact. I don't know who this man is, but he smiles like a snake, like I'm a rat he's about to swallow. Just try it.
“What's the game?” his voice is gravelled, amused but still threatening.
“You choose. I'll deal.”
The bar has gone more silent than when I shot Jed’s hat off, if that were possible. It's then I remember Sarah Jane’s warning. So this must be her stranger all right. His hands are tense on the tabletop, just like mine. I think he can tell I'm looking for a fight.
He smirks. I clench my fist and shuffle again. I can tell we’re not going to get through a game, and I'm thinking this will come to fists, not guns. Probably.
“Better deal for three.”
I think I forgot how to speak for a moment, and certainly how to keep my face impassive. Colonel Douglas Mortimer pulls up the third chair, giving the stranger a serious nod. Looking every bit like the ghost in my memories, haggard, but with the sharpshooter glance in his eyes.
My thoughts catch up in time to nod like I don’t know him to his glance. Hell. What the hell is going on.
“Poker?” his voice has more of a rasp to it than I remember. I nod slowly, start dealing hands.
“Penny ante?” Mortimer takes out his pipe and tobacco, flicking his eyes back and forth between me and the stranger.
“Two,” the stranger takes out a pipe, smiling almost suspiciously at Mortimer. I wish it had come to fists, even as I pick up my hand and study the cards. Nine and an ace, different suits. Could be worse, could be a whole lot better.
“Call,” I take a moment to glance at Mortimer, as if out of suspicion, when I lay down the flop. Ten, three, nine. He raises an eyebrow at me. I almost want to punch him, now. Almost. I stare at the stranger for a measure later, just to even the score.
“So what name do you take these days?” the stranger asks, the question meant to be a dig. So he's heard of me. And I think he knows I don’t have a damn clue who he is.
“Depends who’s asking.” I lay down another bet for the next card. Which is a Jack. Worth folding on. Which I do for now.
“I go by Angel Eyes,” he lays down his hand, takes the first pot. I glance sidelong at Mortimer, wondering if this guy is serious. Though his poker face is good, I would have to say Mortimer has the edge of worry in the way his lips tense around his pipe. I light my own quirley, remembering Sarah Jane’s quip about my poker face. Right.
“Manco,” I might as well keep the name that means nothing, the absence of a name.
“So the same, then,” he offers a hand, which I shake after a beat of glaring. Then he turns to Mortimer.
“And I don't believe we’ve met.”
“Yes, but you know who I am.”
“I certainly do, Colonel Mortimer. And you?”
“I've heard word of Angel Eyes,” he gives the man the full weight of his glance, “Do you have business here? “
“Nothing that would interest two ex-bounty hunters,” he regards us over his pipe, glancing up from his hand, “And ex-partners.”
“Surely not,” Mortimer leans back in his chair, “I know I'm here for the cards.”
“It's good company, isn't it,” Angel Eyes smirks.
“Could be worse,” he flicks an eyebrow at me, and though I can tell it's for show, it still pisses me off. Like I'm in the middle of some kind of contest, but I haven't figured out what the rules are. We play a few more hands in silence.
“You in town for a while?” I address it to Angel Eyes. Though really, the question isn't for him.
“Could be,” Angel Eyes puts a considerable bet down for that hand. Which turns out not to be a bluff. Damn.
“You’ve been here some time, haven't you?” he studies his next hand, making it unclear who the question is addressed to.
“I'm retired,” the word tastes ugly in my mouth.
“Yes. Though I did notice a distinct lack of cattle at your establishment. You're still a steady shot?
“What of it?”
“You should decide what you want to do about that,” and before I can deal us the next hand his spider-hands gather up the cards, “I should retire. Gentlemen.”
There’s an unspoken air of ‘you know where to find me' in that exit. I don't know what it is he wants, and I think he's looking to keep it that way. But never mind that bastard. Time to deal with the one still seated in the chair next to me.
“That wasn't very smart, boy.”
“Right,” I want to be angry at him, but relief is thick in my throat at seeing him again. Especially so soon after I thought he might be dead.
“Can we get out of here?” I barely phrase it as a question. Mortimer’s gaze softens a little.
We walk in silence towards my ranch house. I don't ask how he seems to know the way, seems to know I’ve walked here in the first place. Questions whirl through my mind, tinged with the frustration of the day, but to tell the truth I'm a bit nervous to start asking. The night hums with a warm breeze, the gentle hoots of distant owls. It would be pleasant if it weren’t so damn tense.
“Nice to know I can still surprise you,” he speaks when we reach the drive of my house, with that light, teasing tone he used to when we were partners on the road, nothing more.
Well, I took that when he left, and I damn well ain't gonna take it a second time.
“The hell are you doing here?”
He freezes, face falling for a moment, “I’m sorry, is this - -”
I grab for his arm, tugging him into a fierce hug. I realize after the slight gasp of breath in my ear that this is the first time I've had my hands on him, given that they were tied before. His arms tighten round my waist, the smell of him somehow earthier than I remember.
“No. Just. How? Why now?”
“I…” his hand grazes the scar on my neck, whether on purpose or by instinct, “Daniel, I.”
We both tense up when he says my name. First time since I told him. His fingers settle on my neck.
“Jesus, old man,” I whisper, the memories of Agua Caliente glittering in his tired eyes, “you gonna kiss me this time or what?”
It's slow and careful, but I feel something loosen inside me when his cracked lips touch mine. He has a precision when he kisses, something that I never noticed when I was taking as much as I could of him in Agua Caliente. His tongue still tastes of the sweet ash in his pipe, and I drag my teeth along it. I hadn’t realized the memory had stayed so sharp, faded so much.
By the time we break away, I'm more than out of breath. But I don't let go of him, keep hold of his arm and his gaze.
“Hell. Is that what you came back for?”
“Is that what you were looking for me for?”
My head is spinning so fast I don't bother to ask how he knows, just pull his lapels towards me and kiss him, drinking him in like those ten months have been years.
“Mmm,” he follows after me, face shadowed in the dim moon, but eyes still on me.
It's even darker inside, and I wonder after lighting a fire. I wonder after a lot of things, like the size of my bed in the small bedroom, or whether the water for the tub still has a bit of warmth in it. It's all a slightly overwhelming buzz in his presence.
“Not sure I expected you to make good on your word,” he studies the bare walls, the traces of woodchips on the floor, “how do you like the place?”
“It's been shit,” I say, because any other lie seems like too much effort. I flick the match to light the oil lamp, the glow alighting the main room. In the lamplight he looks like the road has lived on him, his cheeks slightly touched with raspy hair and his eyes slightly sunken in. Part of the tiredness in them makes me suddenly very glad he came, whatever the reason.
“Miss me that much, boy?”
I smirk a little, moving closer to look him in the eye, “Don't flatter yourself too much, old man. I've just been. Bored. But yeah, I missed you.”
His face flickers with surprise at my admission. Guess it's all in the open now. I cup his face with both of my hands, pulling his sharp cheekbones towards mine. The kiss is soft at first -- but turns ravenous when he pushes me towards the wall, and I don't even bother to push back, just focus on taking as much of his sly lips at teeth as I can.
He makes quick work of my buttons, frantic like we’ve got minutes instead of all night. I have to fight with my fingers to keep up, especially since he's still wearing that damn waistcoat all the time, though the tie is easier than I give it credit for.
I can feel his heartbeat thumping against my chest, his other hand pinning me to the wall. It's more than I expected, hell, closer to something in my fantasies. But something doesn't feel quite right.
Maybe it’s the shake of his fingertips, or the fact that I can’t see his eyes, or more tellingly, the fact that I can’t feel his erection in spite of the fact that I’m harder than I’ve been in a while, in spite of the fact that he’s acting like he can’t get enough.
Something’s not right.
“Mortimer. Mortimer,” he's mouthing my neck something desperate, but it's scaring me more than anything, “Douglas.”
A sharp breath tears out of him, his arms tightening around my bare shoulders almost painfully.
“I,” he shudders like a leaf, resting his head on my shoulder. I run my hands down his back nervously.
“Hey, hey. Just breathe.”
“I'm sorry I. It’s been a long time. I--”
“Just shut up, okay. You’re okay,” I run my fingers through his hair, squeezing at his scalp gently. He nods into my shoulder. Did something happen on the road? Or before? I don't ask now, but am suddenly painfully aware of how little we know of each other beyond some shared vengeance and an ex-profession. If you'd call it that.
Now doesn't seem like the time for indiscreet questions, anyhow. I feel a little off-balance myself, like he might slip away if I don't hold tight enough.
I really couldn't tell you how long we stood there.
“Think the water is still warm from the evening. If you want to take a bath,” I mumble into his ear after the shaking has subsided.
He lets out the smallest laugh, “You think I need one?”
“Well. You've been on the road for a while, yeah?” I brush my lips on the edge of his jaw, “It's. It can be nice.”
“Alright,” he peels himself off of me, shirt still open, averting my gaze, “I--”
“It's alright. Really, just. Don't go anywhere,” I pass him the oil lamp from the table.
He goes into the room I point to next to the bedroom, that has a small tub and somewhere to heat the water. I don’t follow. I don’t particularly trust myself right now. It’s all. A lot. At least I’m too on edge to be hard anymore, though I throw my shirt on the chair by the fireplace, not particularly feeling like having it on.
I build a fire small fire to keep my hands busy while he bathes, keep my mind off everything. As the flames start to pick away at the wood, I watch. Wondering if I should have asked different questions, or any questions at all really. When I hear him get out of the bath I get up instinctively, staring at the glow coming from the room.
“You can come in,” of course he knows when someone is watching, someone is waiting. Those instincts don’t really die.
When I enter the dimly lit room he’s dressed just in a loose fitting pair of boxers. I give him a bit of a once-over, just because he does look damn good, all things considered, then smile at him through the corner of my cheek. He smiles at me weakly, walks over slowly to tug me into a hug.
I just nod, squeezing him a moment before I pull back to study him in the lamplight, “You kind of look like hell.”
“Been a while since you slept?”
“Haven’t in a bed in a while.”
“Come on,” I let go of him reluctantly, let him follow me to my bedroom. The bed is big enough for two, if that's what he wants. Not sure if that’s an indiscreet question, at this point between us. It’s hard to say.
“This okay?” I motion for him to take a sit down on the bed. He tugs me with him.
“Don’t go anywhere.”
So that’s my answer, then.
It’s easy, for now, to put out the oil lamp, strip off my pants, and fold myself next to his warmth and the clean tobacco scent of his skin. For now, any other questions can wait till morning.